Missing persons Willow Creek Missing persons hotline Willow Creek Dr. Jeong-Espinosa news News missing persons Missing persons search party organization Missing spouse help
No matter how she permuted it, each of Jo’s search terms took her back to the same horrifically dry government website, http://www.wcpd.sim/missing-persons, on it a curated set of names and pictures, captioned with descriptions of where they were last seen and what they were wearing. Dry and informative. Not even a reassurance that the WCPD was taking this very seriously and doing everything they can to make sure these people get home safe. Just pure information asking for more, partitioned by a generous amount of negative space, overseen by an authoritative-blue WCPD banner, all framing the reason for Jo’s dread, a professional portrait of Dr. Jeong-Espinosa, missing Spring 17, black hair, brown eyes, muscular build, last seen wearing an orange T-shirt, sneakers, and khaki pants; last spotted at Bargain Bend, Willow Creek; plays basketball and fishes. If seen, call immediately because lately the hospital’s been fucked.
The first traces of sunlight had begun to wash over the J.-E.’s well-ventilated study. Beyond the claustrophilic glow of her screen, Jo could now see the aftermath of her weeklong binge. The police report. The newspaper clippings. The last reminder he scrawled. The last glass he sipped from. The last papers he read. The medical degree above her claimed the office like a family crest, a continual reminder of Jo’s only motivation since she’d been recast as the hero of a detective story.
She’d been glued to her latest Jumping Jasper! post about Charlie’s disappearance in case it got moving and popular enough to encircle the globe and reach the people who were physically closest to her, but might not be sign-readers themselves, and who prefer their content in electronic form. Jo herself had walked past the same Missing Cat sign every time she went to the gym and never looked for that damn cat. But Charlie kind of stands out being, y’know, huge and everything. She did also cover Willow Creek in Charlie’s image, just for good measure. Some jackass at Magnolia Park fixed it with demon eyes and a mustache. Even so, the blog post was worth a shot:
It is with great sadness that I inform you that there is still no information regarding my husband’s disappearance.
Many of you already know my husband Charlie. He may have nursed you back to health with a smile at his job as Chief of Staff, or given you a down-to-earth smile as you pass by the fishing pond. If you’ve been reading “Jumping Jasper!” for a while, you’ll know that he was a great husband and father who truly cherished his family. Jasper misses his father dearly and I know I do too.
The day before he went missing, Charlie took me on a wonderful hike for Love Day, where he surprised me with a picnic lunch. We spent that night gazing at the stars. It pains me to think that may be the last time I gaze into his eyes. He has black hair, kind and deep brown eyes, and a smile that melts your heart. He was last seen wearing an orange shirt with a power line and khaki pants.
If you have any information about Charlie, please let us know as soon as possible. Jasper and I are deeply grateful for your support in this trying time. Whether it’s a groundbreaking clue or simply a kind thought, we appreciate any positive vibes you can send from your family to ours.
This was getting a lot of traffic, most likely because Jo’s friends posted a direct link on the local news. The comment section, a collection of thoughts and prayers from Willow Creek’s most active well-wishers, was an order of magnitude larger than that of her second-most popular post. She’d hit mainstream. She hit it with a post only the most empathically detached trolls would dare target, but it’d be wrong to enjoy it.
Jo paused to transition her dry eyes away from the screen. Her life may lay scattered at her feet, quite literally, but her job wasn’t to find Charlie. That was a side gig. Her job was to be a mom. Moms know kids can smell fear. She made her best attempt to divert blood away from her eyes, to hide that they’d been battered with glowing pixels for 22 straight hours, but her efforts didn’t amount to much physiologically. “Yes, sweetie?”
“I’m hungry,” Jasper moaned, picking gunk out of his eye with his pinky finger. His pajamas were black. He’d entered the black phase at the age of six.
Jo sprang up—she realized moving quickly would both prevent Jasper from staring at her face for prolonged amounts of time and give the impression of having energy. Like gosh, look at me moving around all chipper like I’ve been asleep all night. “There are empanadas in the fridge.”
“I just had empanadas for dinner. And lunch. And last breakfast.”
It was at times like this Jo had to remember what her favorite bloggers would do. “Alright hun, let me make you something.”
High on adrenaline, Jo scampered to the kitchen. She reached for a box of sugar cereal when her mind started reciting, from old research, every ingredient that appeared at least once over several brands of sugar cereal. Sugar. High fructose corn syrup. Corn flour. Hydrogenated palm oil, harvested unsustainably. Then a bunch of things with names like calcium carbonate and trisodium phosphate and butylated hydroxyanisole and several primary colors followed by a single-digit number. It was conceivable that not every piece of cereal contained every color, but that didn’t matter.
Jo realized she’d been short-circuiting pretty hard in front of the cereal drawer. “Everything’s fine, sweetie. Mommy’s just making you some eggs.”
“Alright, mom.” He paused. “Wait. Why isn’t Dad making them? When’s Dad coming back?”
So this was it—the talk she’d been dreading. If anything, she was grateful that her back was to Jasper when he asked. A single tear fell down her face, moisturizing her inflamed eyes and salting her son’s breakfast.
“Mom? Hey, Mom?”
She inverted the pan’s contents onto the plate. Taking a serving of eggs in each hand, she walked slowly over to Jasper and set the plate down in front of him.
“Jasper. Your father’s been gone for a very long time.”
“I know. But don’t worry, Mom, he always comes back.” He used his fingers to help the scrambled egg bits onto his fork. “I made a picture you can look at if you miss him.”
“Thank you for the picture, hon.” Jo wanted to say it had been over a week, and even if he came back, she wouldn’t know what to say to him. What’s left to say to a man who sneaks to do fuck-knows-what in the middle of the night, sending his former family into a tragedy spiral out of nowhere? No. If he were found, it would be by the police. Them, or a 40-year-old cyclist couple who loves hiking and catching murderers.
“Mom, guess what kind of juice I want.”
“The only juice we have is orange juice.”
“No mom, guess.”
“I don’t have to guess. We only have orange juice.”
“No, mom,” Jasper said, gesticulating with the cup, “I want bone-hurting juice.” He pretended to take a sip. “Ow oof owie ouch my bones. Do you get it?”
She didn’t. “Jasper, I was being serious earlier. Your father may not be coming back. We’re—” Jo felt the air being knocked out of her as she learned she could actually feel worse. Maybe, before, she’d understood intellectually that her husband was missing. Now it was more of a hollowness deep in her gut, a shock of finality. “we’re never going to see him again.” As she said those words, she realized those feelings she had before, of being a bottomless pit or empty husk—those feelings were wrong. A bottomless pit would feel nothing except the woosh of wretched truth as it passes through. In quick succession, she remembered she could accept, could grieve and fear. But not in front of the kid. She focused her energy on following the brown lines on the kitchen tiles, hoping to run herself dry before the conversation ended.
“Mom, guess what I’m doing.” Jasper repeatedly smashed his pointer finger on the table.
“I don’t know.” Not a lot of the brown lines connected across tiles. Man, this was hard.
“Mom. I’m pressing ‘F’ to pay respects.”
“That’s nice,” she mumbled, tracing over the same tile for the fifth time. “Uh. What?”
“I’m pressing ‘F.’ Mom, he’s not really gone. We just have to wait. Bye!”
Maybe it was better to leave him like this. Jo watched her son turn into a black speck vanishing into the spreading daylight before dropping from her stool and curling up into a fetal position.
“Pierce! Here come dat boi!”
“O shit waddup!” In the library’s southeast corner, an older woman with reading glasses turned away from Plumbbook to grimace at Pierce for his response. Stupid kids, not being how kids are supposed to be.
“Ready?” asked Jasper.
“Yeah!” yelled Pierce. “Meme Appreciation Club handshake!”
“Wow, the memes Wow, wow, such memes Wow, the memes Wow, wow, such memes!
“Cupcake dog and grumpy cat Ain’t no-one got time for that! Took an arrow to the knee Spoopy doot, bone apple tea!
“Thanos, Thor and Batman Plumbbook, Reddit, 4chan Hotdog legs, my body’s ready Copypasta, Mom’s spaghetti!
“Wow, the memes Wow, wow, such memes Wow, the memes Wow, wow, such memes!
“Numa, numa, yayyyyy!”
Jasi waved his hands in the air. “Meme Appreciation Club, gather!”
Five children did as he asked. Pierce lagged behind blond duo Marc and Andre, who were ignoring Dexter, the club’s self-appointed edgelord. Lori was spacing out behind them. She thought she saw a cool bird or something of that nature.
“Ok everyone, club is o-fficially starting,” Jasper said. “We gotta catch up on pop culture. Does everyone remember their decade?” Unenthused nodding. Unenthused because clearly Jasper should know that they did, not that the topic wasn’t interesting. Rather, poring over pop cultural context was of utmost importance to the amateur meme historians. “And then let’s go look at memes.”
“The meme club discussing memes?” Dexter drew out. “I am totally surprised Pikachu.”
“Ok, sure. Who wants to go first?”
“Oh, me, me,” said Andre, pointing to Marc. “We kind of did ours together.”
Pierce held up a finger. To clarify, this was the ‘hold up’ finger, not the ‘shut it, douche’ finger. Come to think of it, the ring finger is the only one that, when held up, has no special meaning. “Wait. What decade did you guys have again?”
“’70s,” Marc clarified. He turned to Andre. Andre was known to speak for both of them, although he certainly didn’t talk enough for two people. That was Dexter. So, the total number of words spoken per gathering was still at about six times the national average for meme clubs.
“Aughts. So we stayed up all night and watched the first six Star Wars.”
This was met with impressed gasps and a couple whispered ‘wow’s. “Star Wars is super important! There’s so many memes,” Jasper said with slightly jealous awe.
“Yeah! There’s so many, we couldn’t do them all. So we took some notes. Here.” Andre took out of his inventory a collection of crayon drawings featuring timeless scenes like Han Solo knowing that Leia loved him and Anakin killing not just the men, but the women and children too. They also did a fair amount of light saber practice. Andre neglected to mention it so that in case Earth was ever caught in the crosshairs of intergalactic mutiny, he and Marc would be the ones to hack through the bad guys and save everyone with the Force and it would be really cool.
“Actually,” Marc felt he had to clarify, “The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are ’80s. But it was worth it. Sorry, Pierce.”
“You’re fine. I just ended up watching an aerobics video on loop.” Pierce was not being a very good advocate for the ’80s. “I didn’t really do anything else. Jasper, you’re ’90s, you should go next.”
“But Lori is everything before 1970,” Jasper said, gesturing towards her. She was still deep in la-la land. “Lori? Lori?”
“What?” Lori asked. “Oh, it’s my turn?” The rest of the group nodded. “I found some funny paintings by a guy named,” she squinted at her notes, “Joseph Decrux.”
“Cool story, bro,” said Dexter. Andre elbowed him. Counting the handshake, we’re really running the gamut of body part gestures today.
“Hey, that was mean,” she continued. “But let’s see if you make fun of me after this.” Lori shoved in Dexter’s face a binder full of printed out fake history tweets between the founding fathers, complete with full written explanations of the jokes and citations to the Hamilton song she learned the context from. “And I know all the words to ‘My Shot.'”
“Lori, can I get a copy of that? I need it for History,” Andre said.
“Sure. You all totally need to watch Hamilton. It’s really good.”
“Thanks, Lori,” said Jasper. “I guess it’s my turn now. I found all these ’90s toy commercials. They’re hilarious. They have all these hilarious songs.”
“—No.” Pierce had Jasper in a headlock and was covering his mouth. Though, ironically, he would have appreciated a pair of Sock’em Boppers at the moment.
“Fine. Jeez, Pierce.” Jasper walked backwards in a semicircle to worm his way out from his friend’s arm. “I guess I’m done. Alright, Dexter. Take it away.”
“My mom got me a bunch of new Fortnite skins! Sick!” Dexter stopped mid-floss and hung his head. “But I still don’t know what ‘cuck’ means.”
“Can’t you just look it up?” asked Lori.
“I did, but I still don’t get it.” He produced a printout of the top three Urban Dictionary definitions, which the meme club swarmed around, ready to have fun with learning. Jasper noticed the librarian menacing in their direction.
“Wrap it up, wrap it up,” Jasper yelled while clapping his hands. The hubbub subsided before this particular search for knowledge could come to a resolution. “Alright! Good job, everyone! Let’s get on the computers. Yell if you see anything good.”
Late Monday morning, Jo took advantage of Jasper’s absence to de-disaster the study. Hiding the evidence. Cleaning bored her mind so thoroughly, and today, her thoughts kept coming back to the future of Jumping Jasper!. No matter what happened, she’d keep her last name because it fits with her branding. The ‘J’ thing. Plus also the next post was critical. It seemed like cereal facts and essential oils weren’t going to cut it for her new readership; she needed to go all out, but she was out of ideas. She needed to pull out all the stops, but something was stopping her. She needed to bet the farm, but she didn’t have a farm.
As she compulsively shelved the last stray book in the house, Jo watched her friend Moira enter the study and start knocking on the door. Jo rolled her eyes and invited her friend in.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Jo asked, fluffing up the pillows.
“Nah. I just wanted to see how you were holding up.” She brushed off the living room chair and sat down.
“It’s been a week and no sign of him.”
“No, Jo,” Moira said, leaning forward, “I was asking about you. Forget about Charlie for a moment and tell me how you’re doing.”
No, of course it wasn’t. Moira decided to change tactics, get at it indirectly. “The search is taking a while,” she offered.
“I know!” Jo threw up her hands. “It makes no sense. How many lots in Willow Creek do the police have to check?”
“So it makes no sense that they haven’t found him by now.”
“Aren’t his parents in Newcrest? Did they check Newcrest?”
“You know what, Moira? You know what?” Moira nodded; go ahead. “I’m beginning to suspect he’s not in either world. I’m beginning to suspect we can’t find him because he’s not in the world at all.”
“I mean, think about it,” Jo said. “You see this?” She pointed at the kitchen window. “This rocket in the backyard?”
“Yeah, but if he were lost in space, wouldn’t his rocket be missing?”
“That’s not it. Seriously. The aliens know him, his dad is an astronaut, the aliens know his dad. Think about it. It’s them. They abducted him and they’re not giving him back.”
“So that would certainly explain why no one is able to find him.” Jo started tearing up. “It kills me that he’s out there alone. He’s probably terrified.”
“There, there.” Moira finally had an answer to her question. “Tell me about it.”
It took Jo a solid four hours of friendship to collect herself and get to the gym. Still, all she could think about was Charlie alone on Sixam. How hard he must be fighting to get back to the family he missed so dearly. Their reunion would be moving; when he finally appeared at the door, the music would swell as Jo jumped into his arms with Jasper running after her, and it would all come to an end when he smiled at how much his little boy had grown.
And yet Jo realized the ending wasn’t going to come soon. She had no option but to leave him to fend for himself; she couldn’t so much as replace a silicone gasket on that steampunk monstrosity in the backyard. All for an avoidable problem. Why him? What did the heartless bastards need him for, anyway? She was going at the punching bag with such fury, the other gym patrons cast hesitant glances at each other as they discovered they had things to do elsewhere.
Jo caught herself in the mirror. This wasn’t who she was. Josephine J.-E. was a sweet woman, nurturing and caring and maternal. The embodiment of the white picket fence. And this woman knocking the punching bag off its hinges, that had to be someone else. She walked toward her reflection. Deep breaths. Remember the blue, that was really working for her. There; that was Jo, that was Jo’s calm, cool, collected smile, if not slightly highlighted by a green glow on the left side. It clued her in to how blind to her surroundings she’d been.
Jo forcefully shut her eyes, pretending that the blue man and his green glow weren’t there. But she couldn’t shut out his horrid metallic-sounding voice. Laughing. Like he didn’t know what his species does to our species. Jo started flinching with each otherworldly chuckle; even though the conversation was primarily office clichés, she knew they were laughing at Charlie, helpless and afraid. She ran out of the gym, still holding her eyes shut, nearly making Gen the next victim of pedestrian road rage. She kept running and didn’t stop until she was home. (Side note: to clarify, she did open her eyes once she put a few yards between herself and the gym.)
Jasper had come home from school and was now running around outside with the excited fervor of a kid who has the opposite hobbies. “Mom!” he greeted her. “Dexter and I are playing MySims Racing and I won!” He dropped to the ground to do sit-ups.
Jo caught her breath. “It’s nice that you have friends over, but finish your homework, okay?”
“Okay.” He ran back inside. Not only did he have a rematch to attend to, his schedule called for cartoon bingeing in two hours and he was way behind.
Jo stormed into the living room, reminded Dexter to be home by seven and shut herself in the study. She had her something big: the future of her friends, her family, her readers and her world. Real stuff. She had influence, so she could enact change.
If Jumping Jasper! was notable for two things, the first was the fervor with which Jo researched every topic, and the second was her refusal to pare it down. Jo was proud of both: rather than telling people what to believe, she simply presented the evidence and asked them to think for themselves. Hence, this meant objectively representing every possible viewpoint. The post about eggs, for example, ping-ponged from cholesterol content to factory farming, etc. If someone definitively proved some of her information was wrong, she’d take it down. But is anyone capable of truly proving anything wrong? Experts have been wrong, studies have been wrong, maybe Jo herself is wrong once in a while. And by her quality standards, she couldn’t trust anything unless she did it herself. Tonight’s post would look no different. Her audience would be asked to consider the facts for themselves, like always. As usual. They didn’t have to know her agenda.
Jasper erupted into laughter as his avatar ran his friend’s avatar off the tracks. The sound of children playing carried her to a simpler time, her girlhood, hazy childhood memories framed in a lavender halo, the taste of a strawberry milkshake polished in her mind like a river-washed stone, so smooth she could feel it going down her throat even now, even if she couldn’t express or even remember what made it so good. But Jasper could; he could still find this ephemeral joy in the face of tragedy. She’d make sure it stayed that way. If anyone thought Jo had limits for what she’d do to protect her son, they’d be damn wrong.
“Kendra. What’s that fucking thing in the middle of your living room?”
Kendra was in the kitchen with her back to Wyatt. But from context, he was likely referring to the seven-fingered poledancing tentacle in the middle of her living room.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Someone dumped it outside the trailer park, and I fell in love with it. So I cleaned it and took it home.” She looked past Wyatt to make what was meant to be eye contact with the centerpiece, and fanned her fingers out to mimic its suction-cup appendages. “Aaah! It’s so dope.”
“I guess so.” Wyatt’s default tone was that of a parent shaming their child for wanting attention.
The last time they had spoken in person was at Kendra’s birthday party, when Wyatt preemptively stormed out due to Mike making some minor slight against Jean Baudrillard. Most of their communication was over text; Kendra’s life had turned into a to-do list, from her bartending job to caring for Yuggoth, her dog—even finding time to write her horror poetry had become a chore—and she suspected Wyatt was doing the same. Regarding the to-do list. It would be odd if they both adopted a black Newfoundland at the same time. Inviting Wyatt over was her conscious attempt to strengthen the relationships from her past, which relationships were proverbially likened to gold in order to devalue one’s attempts at making new friends. It was an old piece of wisdom which, by its reasoning, outranked all current wisdom. Charlie (who’s missing) would be the next old-and-gold friend she’d contact. But really, inwardly, what she wanted was for someone to appreciate her contribution to Strangerville.
Wyatt was on a now decade-long campaign against pleasantries, and so hadn’t chosen the obvious topic: how’s Strangerville? She was waiting for him to. He could ask ‘can I pet your bear?’ (Yuggoth is the bear. She’s almost identical to one except she rolls around in her own piss instead of eating out of the garbage) and ‘what’s that fucking thing in the middle of your living room?’, but if she kept him going long enough, he would run out of things in the house and start asking about things outside of the house. The neighborhood it was in, for example, or maybe some odd feature she could use as a segue to her ultimate conversational goal.
“So,” she said, guiding the topic towards Wyatt’s activities out of anticipatory guilt for how hard she was about to answer ‘how’s Strangerville,’ “are you working on anything?”
“I just started a children’s book, actually.”
Kendra laughed. “What the hell?”
“It’s called ‘The Little Engine Who Couldn’t.’ It’s about this adorable train who like grew up hearing that he could do anything he put his mind to.” He wiped the grease off his nose. “So he starts climbing a hill that’s too high for him, totally not recommended for an engine of his size with his horsepower, and somewhere around the middle he realizes that he just can’t.”
“Like the original story, yeah.”
“But then he remembers all the encouraging words he heard growing up, and, I don’t know, overworks himself so hard he blows a gasket, I don’t know how trains work, and falls down the hill. So he learns that some things look possible that are actually impossible, or at least damaging to do, with the resources he has. But he’s like internalized the idea that he should be able to do anything he puts his mind to, and that kind of implies that if he fails, it’s his own fault for not working hard enough.”
“Then he decides that all of that positive stuff he heard from his train-friends and, if we’re going all the way with the central conceit here, train-parents, was just total bullshit. Because instead of being told everyone has to experience failure, or encounter something they just can’t do, they decided the best thing to do was arm him with blind optimism. To soften what happens in the real world. Like a positive and a negative number cancelling out.”
“Which is reasonable, because if he knew in advance there were some things he couldn’t do, he might not have tried hard enough on the things he could do, that were difficult.”
“Yeah, it may not have been intentional. But then he just swings in the opposite direction. Nihilism. Self-defeatist.”
“How are you gonna end it?”
“It just ends,” he said. “Like in real life, some people get over that and some don’t. I didn’t want to send a message that one or the other is right. This is a book about a train, not a fucking instruction manual for life.”
Kendra wanted to say that was kind of a cop-out but didn’t feel like posing an alternative or even wording it in a constructive manner. “Good choice.”
“It’s like a postmodern version of the classic children’s book.” Wyatt, how we’ve missed you.
A couple beats passed, giving Kendra the opportunity to slurp down her Salty Llama. “Wanna hear about my current project?”
“Uh, let me guess,” he asked, “does it have to do with the what-the-fuck strings of texts that read ‘ƗŦ ĆØΜ€Ş ŦĦŘØỮǤĦ ŦĦ€ βØŇ€Ş ΔŇĐ ǤØ€Ş ƗŇ ŦĦ€ ΜØỮŦĦ’ and other slightly cringey, trying-too-hard shit like that?”
“I stand by my earlier assertion of ‘wtf.'” He pronounced the syllables double-yew-tee-eff out loud. In his mind, he was differentiating between the kind of ‘wtf’ that required capitalization and the kind that didn’t.
“Ok so it’s kind of a long story,” she warned. “It has to do with Strangerville.”
“Oh, yeah,” Wyatt said. “How’s Strangerville?”
“I’ll get to that. So there I was on the first day of moving in, right?”
“And you know how on your first day, the neighbors usually drop in with a nasty-ass fruitcake? And it always has the same weird inedible red ribbon that gets little cake pieces on it when you try to take it off?”
“So this was the best possible fucking version of that,” she continued, while mixing herself another Salty Llama. “I opened the door, and there was a guy with a red mohawk, a woman who would probably be friends with Jo—“
“—so like, super bougie?”
“She broke the bougie scale. And then there was one other older guy, he seemed like he was trying to bring the cowboy look back. Respect.” She leaned forward for emphasis. “But the best part is, they were moving around like, jerky, and they had these completely dead stares the entire time. Like so wide-eyed their eyes could pop out of their heads, with smiles so broad the corners of their mouths could pop off their faces. Like this.” She mimicked the face.
“Oh my god, that’s creepier than if they crawled into your house and started vomiting spiders.”
“It was so great! I tried to talk to them, and everything they had to say was along the lines of ‘Ŵ€ŁĆØΜ€ ŦØ ĦỮΜΔŇ ŞŦŘΔŇǤ€ŘVƗŁŁ€, ŇØŘΜΔŁ ĦỮΜΔŇ.’ And when they’re not like that, they’re talking like they’re in a Nancy Drew book or some shit. Like, ‘ZOINKS, IT WAS OLD MAN McJURBEN UNDER THE MASK THE WHOLE TIME! AND HE’S GIVING THE KIDS POT!!!'” I.e., for Kendra, the slang refers to handing out bubble solution.
“Ok, both of those are pretty fucking great,” Wyatt agreed.
“And then I came home from work—this is after they left and I went to work—I came home to a note saying the government confiscated my fridge because they detected trace amounts of controlled substances. There were controlled substances in the fruitcake! Fucking epic!”
“So.” Wyatt brought his empty glass to the sink, where it vanished immediately. “You’re saying the texts have something to do with how the neighbors are acting?”
“I don’t actually know,” Kendra admitted, “but it’s likely. What I did afterward was wander around the town. The bar is pretty small, but good if you want to meet new people, and there’s an information center. It’s usually as crowded as the bar, if not more. And did you see there’s like a trailer park behind my house? It has all these fairy lights strung up, and everything?”
“No. I approached the house from your front door. As one does.”
“Ok, so there’s a trailer park behind my house. And then right next to the trailer park—there’s some fairy lights connecting that, too—there’s one of those stalls, like the food ones in San Myshuno or the little farmer’s market stalls.”
“Those farmers market stalls always have the best fruit.”
“They always have the best fruit,” she confirmed. “This one also has an assortment of Strangerville-themed curios, which as you can tell by the name are—“
“—centered around its eponymous quality.”
“Sure. Anyway they only had one type of local fruit. It’s this red glowy ball. It was throwing all kinds of don’t-eat-me signals, but generally if a fruit is red, it’s evolved to be appealing to animals. Plus growfruit glows and it’s okay, right? So I ate it.”
Wyatt nodded. “Solid.”
“And then I’m unsure what happened next, could have been the fruit, but I suddenly started to feel sick.”
“Yeah, so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to eat the fruit after all.” Thanks. She’ll keep that in mind.
“No, I’m not done. Then I started to feel even worse.
“And then—let me take a minute. It’s hard to describe.
“Wyatt. You know that feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s this strange humming, and you can’t move your arms and legs, and you try to scream but nothing comes out, and you just know you’re dying, this is the last thing you’ll see, and it feels like you’re above your body, watching yourself struggle, when in reality there’s no movement?”
“Well, it felt like that, but instead of waiting for the Reaper, something inside took over and used me as a giant mech.”
“Wait, so you’re envisioning yourself being larger than the thing? What if it’s a giant pair of invisible mechanical hands posing you like some doll?”
“It didn’t feel like that. It felt like it was coming from within me, like the gag in cartoons where one character gets in another’s head and there’s a little control box with a lever. And they’re not great with the controls.” She widened her eyes to about 85% Strangerville face. “But you know what the worst part is? I was conscious the entire time. So I was running around town like a complete idiot and couldn’t control anything I was doing.”
“I don’t like how giddy you are when you’re saying this.”
“But no, it actually is great! It’s because,” she gestured upstairs, towards her bookshelf, “you know how the best horror reflects what the author, or society, is most scared of at the time?”
“So if you’re trying to find an overarching thing, one that’s timeless or at least passes the bar to become a classic, you go towards the big ones. Death, right?” Wyatt nodded. “But not necessarily.”
“You’re saying because death is overdone?”
“Yeah, if you’re not switching it up, it gets old fast. But I’m talking more like the fact that there are people, like Bernard, who can cheat death. Who came back as ghosts, and were then revived.”
“So your question is—“
“—what would scare a ghost? And that’s when I figured it out.”
“Eating fruit from weird stalls next to trailer parks.”
“Losing control of your own body.”
“Ah,” Wyatt realized, “and so such a topic will be easier for you to handle because you have first-hand experience?”
“Yes! Exactly!” Others may find Wyatt abrasive, but he got it. He always got it. “And so this is where we get to the texts.”
“Don’t tell me the texts are the culmination of all this research.”
“No, it’s more like a side effect. What I forgot to tell you was, that wasn’t the only time. It kept happening.”
“So there’s a chance you could wig out in the middle of this conversation?”
“I kind of want to see that.”
“You might. But back to the texts. I tried to write, and in the moment it felt like what I was writing made sense, but I snapped out of it and looked back and it was all ŴΔŦ€Ř ƗŞ ŴĦΔŦ βƗŇĐŞ ỮŞ ΔŇĐ ŞØØŇ ƗŦ ŴƗŁŁ β€ ƤỮŘ€. I don’t even know where I found that font.”
“Oof. But you’re saying you can’t control it, so aren’t you worried about like, sending these to your family or your boss?”
“It’s happened.” She opened her phone to a conversation between her and her mom, where Claudia had replied to ‘ƗŦ Đ€VØỮŘŞ, ƗŦ ΔƤƤŘØΔĆĦ€Ş’ with ‘Do you need me to cook something? Sending love xoxo.’ “They think it’s normal Kendra shit.”
“Right, I’m also going to concede here, I thought it was normal Kendra shit.”
“And there’s something else I forgot to mention. When I come down, it feels fucking amazing afterwards. I haven’t had to sleep in days.”
“You mean you haven’t slept in days.”
“That’s just semantics.”
Wyatt—who unflinchingly sat through all the gory monster drawings Kendra showed him in elementary school, and in high school, and last week—winced. “You know, Kendra,” he started, trying to sound as non-condescending as possible, “I’m saying this as your best friend, but if it’s affecting your sleep, this isn’t healthy. This actually sounds pretty serious.”
“You know how to fix it?” She didn’t look up from examining her nails.
“Then I’m just going to have to deal with it for now, aren’t I?”
“I guess. But there’s something else bothering me,” he said. “If it really is the fruit that made you sick, and the government confiscated the fruitcake because they could sense contamination from inside your fridge, isn’t it possible the fruit itself is the controlled substance?” Kendra rolled her eyes and nodded. “So why didn’t the government just confiscate the fruit?”
“I don’t know,” Kendra conceded. She was twisting her midi rings. “If they’re not concerned about the fruit I still have, maybe they’re not concerned about the fruit at all.”
“The fruit you still have.” Every word was dripping with well-meaning judgement.
“Oh shit, that reminds me! Come, let me show you.”
Wyatt followed Kendra across the back porch to the left side of her house. She led him around a barbed-wire privacy fence, tucked away in an area that wasn’t visible from the street, that they had to squeeze past a bush to enter.
“Is that an outdoor shower with no curtains on the side facing the street?”
“Shut up.” Only Yuggoth ever used the bathtub, but she let Wyatt think otherwise for the sake of the image.
Behind the privacy fencing was a staircase leading into a small, unfinished basement, the floor a thin layer of soil and the walls hastily constructed from corrugated metal scraps, possibly by Kendra herself. But what caught Wyatt’s attention were the vines coating the inexpert construction in unnatural shades of purple and fuchsia, with odd salmon-colored offshoots resembling the feet of a tropical frog. He twisted his head toward Kendra, comically slowly, with a look of abject horror. She gestured toward the opposing wall. Under the industrial-grade sprinklers, three oversized buds bioluminesced in an unsatisfyingly dissimilar shade of purple to the vines. The plant’s sepals were lined with pokey hot-pink spikes and embellished with diamonds; to Wyatt representing either danger or wealth, though if the numbering were to be trusted, danger was more likely.
“Is that where the fruit comes from?”
“That’s where the fruit comes from.” Kendra made a digging motion with her hands. “When I’m under, I can make these appear without actually planting anything.”
“—Growing controlled substances in a secret basement! Awesome, right?”
Wyatt had to admit to himself that it was indeed awesome. “I’m kind of glad a fruit is the thing causing all this weirdness,” he said. “It seems like these days people are freaking out thinking the government is doing something weird, or scientists are doing something weird, and it’s been sowing these conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism and distrust. Like fuck we need people thinking Dr. Jeremy is in there making top-secret bioweapons instead of looking at temperature measurements from the last century or watching a slime mold solve a maze. I’m glad it’s nature fighting back for once.”
“Spot-on.” Kendra had noticed this while trying to figure out which conspiracy theorist to date. The words GOVERNMENT and SCIENCE LAB garnished nearly every conversation, but INVASIVE SPECIES and HOST-PLANT RESISTANCE were shockingly absent. “If I had a secret science lab I didn’t want people to go into, I wouldn’t put it in a crater next to a town full of huge gossips that also coincidentally happens to be named ‘Strangerville.'”
“Yeah, no shit,” he agreed. “But like, still,” he wondered aloud, “isn’t it cool that there’s this mystery no one understands? Don’t you want to try and figure out what’s happening?”
Kendra picked a dead leaf from one of the vines. “Nah.” She crushed the leaf in her left hand, repeating the gesture to break it into progressively smaller pieces.
“The locals want to play detective?” She opened her hand, letting the pieces of leaf drift in the air filter current toward the ominous fauna. “They can figure it out.”
(Synopsis: We go hard on a holiday special centered around Jasper’s first Winterfest. Shu antagonizes Jo by crashing the J.E. festivities. Charlie talks about BPD and ants. Set some time aside for this one; I promise it’s worth the read.)
“Jasper! Look over here!”
The youngest Jeong-Espinosa had already made plans to taste the arm of the wooden chair when he was done with his own hand, but decided to humor his mother this time.
“Jasper,” she said, holding her cellphone at a length where the camera minimally distorted his facial features while still being close enough to evoke feelings of intimate connection in the viewer, “do you want to tell Mommy about Winterfest?”
Well, he did, in fact, the problem being it was impossible to properly communicate the depth of his Winterfest knowledge with his limited command of Simlish. And by the same token, he hadn’t noticed most of this knowledge was secondhand from the requester herself. So the prompt may not have been in good faith, itself probably intended to showcase how poor Jasper’s command of Simlish actually was, but in a way that was endearing to its target audience. But he didn’t know that.
“It has, a treeeeeee.” That’s what he did know. Not being able to stop a terminal vowel once it had started was still an issue. The proper separation of clauses in conversational Simlish, he understood, for certain very short clauses, but was forced to insert his own as his mind ping-ponged around for whatever noun best represented what he was trying to convey.
“And what goes on the tree?”
That was just an unfair question in general, given that Jasper’s vocabulary was heavily biased in favor of frequently used words, and of those, the ones restricted to six letters max. ‘Winterfest’ being a notable exception. Here’s one that fit the bill. “A star!”
“And what else?”
As much as he would have liked to help his mother out, this particular query fell outside his realm of expertise. He reverted instead to his original course of action, getting his impermanent-toothed mouth close enough to the chair arm’s terminus to bash his tastebuds against the sweet sweet wood grains.
Jo made an appeal back to something she’d said fifteen minutes ago. “Or…”
Or what? Asked and answered, Mom.
“Ormanents!” Sic. Back to the chair, which would shortly gain some markings longer-lasting than the teeth that created them.
“Do you want to help put them on the tree?”
“Yesssss!” If only to find out what they were.
“Alright, honey, let’s go.” Jo pressed ‘record’ on her camera app, a gesture that did the opposite of what its name suggested, pleased with the real-stinking-cute candid moment she’d set up.
The conifer, handpicked by mother and son (Dr. J.E.’s off chasing flu patients, but he sends his blessings), made it as far as the front arch before Jo realized her house was too compact for it to actually fit anywhere. A couple hours after banishing Jasper to the bedroom, moving most of the furniture from the family room to the limitless void of the family inventory, placing the tree, unbanishing and filming Jasper as he decorated the bottom two feet of the tree (and maybe halfway at best, since the ornaments all seemed to be clustered in one area), redoing his work while he wasn’t looking, and taking the presents out from under the bed, she was done. It was presentable, if not elegant, or functional as a living room. It was at least what the situation called for.
Charlie came home around sevenish. He hadn’t been informed that the living room was now gone.
“What’s going on in here?”
“I cast a Winterfest spell and, poof!” Jo opened her hands in a whimsical manner. “The furniture turned into a tree. Right, Jasper?”
“Yessss!” And there was his revenge for the flashcard dishonesty earlier.
“Well, it looks great. It looks like Father Winter himself came down from the North Pole and did it.” The North Pole is slightly higher than the other worlds on the selection menu, offscreen.
“No, me and Mommy did it.” Sic. Give the kid a break.
“That’s right, we did! Do you know about Father Winter?”
“He comes in the, the, fire place, and.”
“And what does he bring?”
“Presents!” Two houses over, a flock of birds took off from a tree. There were already some gifts where the partially spit-covered chair had been, but more couldn’t hurt. He chose one and used the palm of his hand to slide a decorative ribbon back and forth over the outer edge.
“Not until tomorrow, buddy.” Charlie was either unaware of the ribbon-sliding loophole or being paranoid.
“Here, let’s all get a picture in front of the tree.” Jo set a tripod up at the front arch, setting the timer just long enough for her to whisk Jasper onto her lap and snuggle up to her husband. This was going on the e-cards.
From his omniscient post, Father Winter watched Jasper wake his parents up just shy of 3 in the morning to inform them it was Winterfest Eve. Or the day before, if you’d prefer having Eve apply only after sundown. Winterfest minus one. Again, his excitement about Winterfest dwarfed his ability to inform other Sims of this verbally, so he was stuck at the basal level of screaming and waving his limbs.
Jo sat down to pen what Charlie’s sister’s acquaintance would later refer to when he asked about ‘that bougie shit on the fridge.’ (It was a testament to sibling love that she had it up there at all.) The finished product, paired with a matching-sweaters type photo and copied 22 times, was snail-mailed out to everyone Jo thought could use the holiday cheer. There were 23 prints of the photo as well; a one-to-one thing, you get it. Her letter read:
How lucky we are as a family this Winterfest season! Yesterday Jasper and I set up the holiday decorations, and it ended up all being so much that we had to clear out almost the entire living room. Charlie came home and he didn’t know what to do!We were laughing so hard!
Jasper is so excited for his first Winterfest. He has been doing wonderfully with his flashcards and can even use the potty. He continues to warm all of our hearts and will almost certainly receive a present from Father Winter. We are so proud of him!
In case no one has told you already, Charlie recently got promoted to Chief of Staff at the hospital where he works. Go Charlie! I also started a venture of my own, and our website Jumping Jasper! is now live. If this letter tickles your curiosity, you can go there to find out what those Jeong-Espinosas are up to this time.
Today is Jasper’s birthday. I’m so excited to find out what the future has in store for this wonderful boy! We are all wishing you and your families a fantastic Winterfest with the ones who are closest to your heart.
Sending lots of love from my family to yours, Josephine, Charles and Jasper Jeong-Espinosa
So yeah: Jasper’d been dealt a crap hand, birth-timing-wise, and has one of those awful winter solstice birthdays that means he only gets one round of presents. But it’s split into two parts, and he hadn’t yet spent a whole spring/summer/fall present desert waiting around for the days to shorten, so he was grateful at the moment. It meant getting to celebrate a day early.
He occupied himself by chasing the dry ingredients around with a spoon in the medium-sized plastic bowl Jo had given to him. When he lost interest in that task, or Jo was done taking a power mixer to the cake’s fluid components, plus sugar, whichever came first, he was to poke Jo’s tablet at regular intervals to keep the recipe visible, and scroll 4/5 of the way down the post to the recipe if he happened to mis-poke and the browser reset to the top of the page. A couple minutes of quality stirring time passed before his mother reclaimed the bowl. From below, he watched her slow the mixer down to where changes in the glutinous structure of the batter could be tracked by eye, smacking the bowl to release the mostly-flour in small portions the rotating beater could deal with. It was one of those standalone mixers. She fetishized the thing. Jasper had already been pitched to multiple times about how easy it was to make whipped cream and soufflés and other foodstuffs with air as a major ingredient.
She poured the finished batter into a cake pan. “See how easy that was?” Jasper was already sucking on the batter-coated beater.
With the collaborative portion being done and Jasper figuring out how to fit the whole beater into his fun-sized mouth, Jo searched for decorated cakes on her Simstagram feed, particularly fondant-free ones she can replicate. This one seemed elegant, doable, and appropriate. On the blog it goes.
It remained lit until snuffed out by Jasper, surrounded by his parents, his Grandpa, his three blood uncles, two of his non-blood uncles, and the dead ex-spouse of his uncle’s husband. The boy found himself being lifted up by rainbow sparkle magic. By the time he came down, he had a new body. He wiggled his fingers in admiration.
Jo’s brother Maxwell turns to Charlie as Jasper shares his feelings about the aging ritual with other guests. “So, Charlie. What’s your favorite word?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie claimed instinctually before realizing his mistake. “Wait, I actually do have some. But it’s better if you see them written out.”
Charlie pulls a miniature black notebook out of his lab coat pocket, then makes a second excursion into the same pocket to locate a pencil. He flips through several pages of what looks to Maxwell like multiple layers of scribbles. Finding one with no scribbles, he flattens the notebook on the half-wall, clicks the mechanical pencil twice, checks that the lead extrudes at least a couple millimeters from its plastic casing, and ruins the infinite potential of his once-blank medium in two words.
“These,” Charlie said, presenting Maxwell with the notebook. “These are cool because they mean the same thing, but they’re both almost impossible to pronounce unless you’re already familiar with the roots.”
Maxwell read the words ‘haplodiploidy’ and ‘arrhenotoky,’ although Charlie’s handwriting had deteriorated enough during his career advancement to make them look like ‘mploolplady’ and ‘nmhenatoly.’
“How do you pronounce them?”
“‘Haplodiploidy’ and ”arrhenotoky.”
“Uh-huh,” Maxwell hesitated. “And what do they mean?”
“So, in Sims, the father and mother each have two sets of chromosomes, and when the baby is born, it has one set of chromosomes from each parent, right?” Maxwell nods. “That’s ‘diploidy’: two sets of chromosomes. And ‘haploidy’ is when it has one set of chromosomes.” Maxwell nods again. “So ‘haplodiploidy’ suggests an organism can have either one or two sets of chromosomes.”
“How does that work?”
“Well, it determines the sex in some species. Like in bees and ants. In bees and ants, males are haploid because they develop from unfertilized eggs, and females are diploid because they develop from fertilized eggs.”
“And where does the other word come from?”
“It’s a shorter version of ‘arrhenotokous parthenogenesis.’ It refers to—“
“Ok, buddy, you lost me,” explained Maxwell. He turns to Jasper. “And what’s your favorite word?”
Maxwell shoots Jasper with a single finger gun. “Kid’s got a point.”
Winterfest morning, the post-birthday boy avoids waking his parents up too soon in the A.M. by scrolling through picture-based subreddits on his favorite birthday gift, a smartphone. He began to suspect he’d been shorted in toddlerhood now that his picture books seemed so flat and unimaginative compared to the real world. The stunts, more impressive; the dialogue, less wooden; the messages, truer; the cats, cattier; the villains, also cattier. And the top comments, always so clever! Jasper fantasized himself being insightful enough to write a top comment, and having it become one of the most upvoted comments on the site, and coming up with another perfect riff on the next post, etc. Or better yet, becoming one of those instantly recognizable posters known for churning out quality OC at a preposterous rate.
But the main obstacle to Jasper’s ambition (aside from lack of ideas) was his ignorance of pop culture: the world was designed for and run by people several decades ahead of himself, an effect everyone seemed to have forgotten by the time their fine motor skills kicked in and their height enabled them to reach the cabinet where Mom was hiding chocolate truffles and the customs of their predecessors were replaced, or at least expanded upon, by the top minds of their own generation. The anonymous posters Jasper looked up to all had the experience of knowing the state of the world before something existed, and when it did, of watching it progress from conception to novelty to ubiquity. Everything they talked about was already in the final state by the time he entered the scene. The solution being, despite falling outside the hotly contested birth year range of the 90’s kid, he could get the resources to mimic the 90’s kid experience, inferring from the references what was important to Sims his age at the time. I’m saying he’s going to watch a bunch of cartoons.
First he’s going to sneak downstairs on Winterfest morning, through a home gym lit by the now-frosted panes of glass that are functionally more wall than window, into the living room/lobby/foyer again notable for its relative lack of walls, this time in a manner suggesting his parents would be constantly dealing with wet terra cotta if the arches didn’t count as impenetrable boundaries. No physical changes had occurred overnight, but Jasper’s heightened senses felt in the room a feeling of divine energy. Today was going to be special.
Jasper didn’t realize how long ago he’d eaten until the shock of the general solstice-festive aura wore off enough for him to notice the smell of bacon and eggs. He looked past the five inches of non-arch wall to find his father was already awake, hadn’t gotten dressed yet, and was using a plastic spatula to push something around in a skillet. He snuck closer.
“Hi Dad,” Jasper said.
“Hmm? Oh, good morning, buddy. You’re up early.”
“When are you gonna be done cooking?” Charlie’s buddy asked. He was dangling off the half-wall with both hands, pushing just enough into his palms to rotate back and forth around its corner.
“One sec,” he said, inverting the contents of the skillet onto a large platter, a motion that organized said contents in a self-sorting and aesthetically pleasing manner. “Now. Your mom will be up soon, but I’m sure she’ll be alright if we start without her.”
Both took a serving, one after removing himself from the wall first. Jasper had gotten as far as selecting the oiliest piece of bacon and opening his mouth before he was interrupted.
“What do we say?”
“Thank you for breakfast, Daaaaaad,” Jasper drew out, less from a sense of entitlement than because he thought the gratitude was obvious, and didn’t realize it wasn’t. Only then was he allowed to take the first bite. The winter-festivity magic applied to food as well; he milked the first-bite experience by savoring one forkful of each food type, swaying in approval of each new flavor. He sorted the foods in order from least to most favorite and vowed to stick to that order for the whole meal. So did the older J.E., who would have normally eaten in order of decreasing healthiness, given the body’s tendency to absorb nutrients more efficiently on an empty stomach, but was taking the holiday off.
“You excited for Winterfest?” Charlie asked at about the point where he’d finished his eggs and Jasper had eaten maybe half of his mushrooms and was now doing some twirling with one he had impaled in the divot of its stem with a fork tine.
Charlie realized it was up to him to produce enough momentum to keep the conversation going. “What are you most excited about?”
“I wanna meet Father Winter!”
“You think you earned a spot on the nice list?”
“Yeah!” Jasper said with confidence. He’d spent his toddlerhood learning the maximum possible amount of information, and, credit to Jo, knew four times as many words as necessary. Half of that was really more symbolic than anything else given that he’d already surpassed Charlie’s understanding of the non-Simlish languages associated with his ancestry. Also he didn’t punch anyone. Hence, nice list.
“How about going to see Grandpa and Abuela?”
Jasper paused to focus on procrastinatory fungus-twirling before declaring “I don’t know.” Tough luck, it was mandatory. He gave up on the mushrooms and the ordering went downhill from there.
“How about the presents?” Ahead, Jo dragged her half-conscious body into the bathroom, sans obeisance.
Charlie dropped his act of coming up with more stuff to talk about. They weren’t expecting anyone to drop by this early, or at all, so he was perplexed as to why his oldest friend would be walking through the front arch and heading towards the study. He decided to make an appeal from the kitchen instead of getting up. “Shu. Shu. Dude. You can come in. You don’t—” The study door closed. A round of virtuosic knocking echoed through its panels, threatening to continue until a resident came around to reopen it. Charlie tried to hide his annoyance while he navigated the redecorated family room, with its presents, thematic flora, and lack of furniture, until he reached the study door having collected at least a half-dozen pine needles with his slippers. He opened the door. “Yeah, get in here.”
“Cha-cha-charles!” said the visitor, greeting his friend with a brief hug. “Happy Winterfest! And happy Winterfest to you, too, Jasper! Ho ho ho!”
“Dad, who’s this?” He’d apparently been too overstimulated at his birthday party to keep track of the adults, memorable or otherwise.
“You don’t remember me? Oof!” He feigned being knocked back at the offense. “I knew you when you were just this small,” demonstrated by holding the palms of his hands a chestnut-sized distance apart. “This small.”
“No you didn’t. That’s too small.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It was more of a this-small type of deal,” he corrected, moving his hands to baby-or-keyboard distance. “But look at you now, you’re like,” he thrust his hands apart with some explosion sound effects that became increasingly unconvincing as they drew out, culminating in a gagging noise. That got a laugh out of Jasper.
“Jasper, this is my friend Shu,” Charlie answered, glad his extravert was here to drive things forward so he could resume jumping in occasionally with relevant information.
“Hey Jasi, we’re gonna turn this Winterfest out.” They fistbumped across the counter.
Jo emerged from the bathroom to find an obstacle between her and the food. She made eye contact with her husband across the hallway, hard to do with all the talking the obstruction’s hands were doing, and gave him a look that suggested Jasper would spend his second Winterfest contemplating the anniversary of his father’s death. For this degenerate to be here on a day meant for family—but why wasn’t he with his own family? The circumstances had to be dire if he was showing up on a family friend’s doorstep, and since he was already inside, it would go against the Winterfest spirit to send him back alone. She’d let Charlie deal with this. First she had to lay down the rules.
Jo tapped Shu on the back to get his attention, taking a deep inhale before delivering her prepared message. “I don’t know what you’re doing here,” she told him, “and this is going to be very hard for you, but I have to ask you to please refrain from using any form of profanity around my child. He is very impressionable and I don’t want him being exposed to that kind of language this early in his development. And stay out of the photos.”
“‘Kay. Hold on, Chantel sent me like eight texts.” Averaging almost one per hour today, impressive given the circumstances.
Jasper had already learned the seven dirty words (plus others. He’s also restricting himself to Simlish here) by getting past the parental controls 30 minutes after he aged up. For someone who was just beginning to develop his own system of ethics, the concept of certain words being powerful enough to send his mother et al. into a fit of disproportionate rage was the most compelling idea he’d been exposed to in his 20 hours of childhood. That those seven words had such emotional gravitas compared to, say, Mom’s suggestions of cat/gato/猫/고양이 or dog/perro/狗/개, e.g., elevated them to the position of highest importance in his growing mind. And now, from overhearing her warning, he knew to correctly view Shu as a modern-day Shakespeare in that his written work singlehandedly extended the vulgar lexicon by several increasingly elaborate and obscene turns of phrase. Jasper at last felt his thirst for knowledge outweigh his desire for material goods; the universe had sent his guru in the mountains, his Brahmachari. There would be rumors a century later that Jasi received his side-splitting neologisms from on high, Moses-style, but you can’t see the evidence because one of his acolytes let it get, I don’t know, eaten by ants or something.
If Jo had trusted Shu’s intuition on what is child-appropriate, or further clarified that Jasper lacked the context to grasp the vast majority of Shu’s œuvre (something she couldn’t do without exposing him to said context at a point NooBoo Corner agreed was five point nine years too early), her son might have ignored the man in favor of catching up on Fortnite dances. Instead her tiebreaker had deflected to the opposite camp regarding Shu’s presence at this or any other event.
She pulled Charlie into the corner by the card table, considerable bulk and all. “What do you think you’re doing,” she whispered. “This is a family holiday.“
“Yeah, and it didn’t occur to you that he might have a reason for not wanting to be with his family today?”
“Of course that occurred to me,” she hissed.
The intruder, the one with a negligible no-no square, stepped outside to make a call. “Hi babe. Yeah, since I couldn’t be there, I left a surprise in your purse.” Jasper was listening through the invisible arch walls while pretending to be on his phone.
Jo continued. “But that doesn’t mean you should put me in this situation where I have to tell him he’s not staying. “
“Jo, I’m sorry. Shu’s basically family, so I didn’t even realize.”
“You found it? Yaaaay. Yay. Yay. I love you too.”
“We’re not even visiting your actual family until later. This is supposed to be time for us and our son.”
“So let’s not waste time arguing about it. Look, Jasper’s alone over there.”
“<I don’t know.> Wear one of your other tailcoats.” Presumably he was speaking to someone else now.
“That’s not fair. You’re trying to end the conversation early so you don’t have to deal with this.”
“Could you please give him a chance? He’s good with Jasper, and he’s behaving himself. Please? This is very important to me.”
“<Yeah.> … <Yeah.> Bye, Dad.”
The three adults reconvened in the family room. “Okay Jasper, come over here. We’re going to sing some songs,” his mom said, ushering the others around the tree.
They settle in for a round of Fwingle Zibbs, etc., Shu occasionally breaking his harmony with Charlie to improvise a descant, Jasper overpowering everyone else as he hunts for the right notes. Damned if he wasn’t going for it with conviction. Note also that Jo isn’t taking her camcorder out.
Charlie checked the time. “Oh, it’s about time to head to my parents’.”
“Why?” asked Jasper.
“You have to visit the grandparents on Winterfest. It’s in the social contract.”
“My existence. Your existence. Their existence.” Charlie felt his phone buzz and checked his messages. “Gosh darn it, Kendra’s not coming.”
“Why?” It was Jo’s turn to ask.
“She’s going to a Winter Solstice celebration with one of my girlfriends.” Shu displayed a text from Kendra stating just that, sandwiched between two illustrations of Krampus in different stages of problematic child discipline (the discipline is problematic, i.e., not the child).
Charlie stopped himself from asking if he remembered which one. “Everybody, do me a favor and don’t remind Mom. She’s probably not too happy about that.” He got a couple understanding nods. The family headed in different directions to pick up their jackets.
Shu waited until the others were out of earshot to make one last call. “Hi! So, I know you told me not to come over today. I’m gonna be right across the street with the J.E.s. … But it’s right across the street. … You’re sure? Okay bye Mom, love you.”
“Well, well, well.” Mike had moved a swivel chair from the office to the entrance for the sole purpose of swiveling one hundred eighty degrees to address Charlie and co. “It looks like the doctor is in.”
“My darlings! Come say hi, I’m in the kitchen,” Claudia said, surprisingly clearly given that she was competing with the radio, the oven timer, the exhaust hood, the aromatics sizzling in at least two saucepans, and Mona and Perry barking slightly out of phase at the four interlopers. Charlie glanced toward his mother; she wasn’t even facing in the right direction to project her voice like that. The dogs skipped back into the kitchen to answer the pressing questions of what those smells were, and whether any sources of those smells were going to be dropped on the floor.
“Hey Claudia, Shu’s here too,” said Mike.
“Hi Shuuuu!” Claudia always welcomed his presence because there was no limit to how long she could draw out his name. This instance lasted at least a couple seconds.
“We don’t need stockings when we’ve got a Shu!” Good lord, Mike’s also a fan of the name. He turned to Charlie’s wife, placing his hands on his midsection à la Father Winter. “Jo Jo Jo!”
The unique instance of laughter came from Hector. He’d previously been multitasking, staring at them while eating a piece of cake.
Jasper felt a nudge from his mom. “Hello Grandpa. Hello Abuela. Hello Uncle Hector.” He received polite murmurs in return, except it was more of a polite yell in Claudia’s case. Then he got right to the meat of it. “Can we open presents?”
“One. Then wait four hours before opening the next one,” said Jo, speeding up the final words as her son was already darting toward the gift pile. Mike voiced his approval of the bluntness and claimed it had a genetic component for which he was responsible.
“Hector, could you please help me with the roast?” was the request heard from the kitchen. He went running to comply.
Shreds of the paper that had once concealed Jasper’s first gift lay on the floor. Mona had one in her mouth. “An airplane! Cool!” It was thrust in the air as high as his hands could reach. “Nyyyeeeeeeooooown!”
The airplane did a few laps around the living room before Jasper decided to test its ability to fly unassisted. He lobbed the thing right into the kitchen, hitting the stool from which his mother was spectating the head and sous chefs.
“Jasper, be nice to your toys,” Jo warned. “Remember what happened to the mean kid in Toy Story?”
“Sorry, Mom. Sorry, plane.” It didn’t have a name yet. Its owner performed a brief inspection and tune-up before resuming its cross-living-room schedule. Jo turned back to Claudia.
“Jo, I loved the beautiful letter you sent us.” This was sincere. Mike woke up that morning to find Claudia snoozing at the dining room table over a tear-stained summary of her son’s family’s life, the photo safely out of range. Kind of odd how something like that could set her off. “I felt like I was right there with you. It was the best gift I could have received, hearing about your family.”
“That’s sweet, Claudia. I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” Jo said.
“No, really, it means a lot. You have to come by more often.”
Jo’s fridge held enough empanadas from her last visit for them to eat three meals a day and still have leftovers for Jasper’s kids. Empanada overload. Empanada central. “Why don’t we go out to eat instead?”
“Nnnnneeeeyyyooowwwnn!” J.E. Airlines’ only vessel had returned for its regular stop at the kitchen counter. It picked up a cookie, which cargo had to be manually held on top of the aircraft’s body, much like how a Winterfest tree would be transported on top of an SUV, but without the security provided by bungee cords. They’d break the cookie.
Its destination, Charlie, had moved further down the hallway, taking with him the elephant in the room. Shu, that is. Not anyone’s internal conflict. “Thanks, buddy,” he said to the plane. The uneaten cookie was transferred to his jacket pocket as soon as the pilot had turned around. “So,” he addressed his childhood friend, “is everything okay? Why aren’t you with your family?”
He shrugged. “I celebrated with my dads a couple days ago, and Mom said she wants to be alone, so I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.” He gestured towards Jasper, still running around like a beheaded chicken. “Plus it’s this one’s first Winterfest. Cuuuute.”
“What about Chantel, or one of your other girlfriends?”
“Ah, not that again. I show up at the Lucases’ place, they’re gonna expect me to pull out a ring by the end of the day. Other than that, there’s Shannon’s parents, her dad hates me, and I don’t know any of my other girlfriends’ families.” He paused in thought. “Unless—“
“—No, no. Nope.” Charlie punctuated his triple combo by repeatedly crossing his open hands over one another in a gesture clearly conveying he didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. But given the tone of the conversation, he figured it was safe to ask more personal questions. “Come to think of it, haven’t you and Chantel been promised to each other since before Jo and I even met?” Shu’s left eye twitched. “It’s been a couple weeks. What are you waiting for?”
“I’m planning on doing it sometime, I just get the sense that,” he shook his head, “she doesn’t know who she is yet. Apart from me.” He broke eye contact to fidget with the highest toggle on his sweater. “It’s not healthy. I guess I’m trying to help her get to where the proposal is just a nice thing that happens and not something she’s focused on day in and day out.”
Underdeveloped sense of self, Charlie translated. “Wasn’t she, like, stalking you in high school?” Idealization. Clear pattern of obsession in close relationships.
“Yeah, she’s intense, but I’m also kind of a lot to handle. What with my line of work and all. I actually like that about her. It keeps things interesting.”
“And she’s just waiting patiently?”
“Oh, she’s pissed. She’s also accusing me of wanting to leave and stuff like that. But clearly it’s been a while and I’m not going anywhere.”
“And you have to—“
“Keep reminding her of that constantly, yeah. Also how talented she is. That’s what I’m trying to do, keep her focused on her music so she can develop her own voice. But she’s so upset about making mistakes, she breaks down crying almost every time.” Basically their song is “Issues” by Julia Michaels. “I have to keep telling her it’s going to be okay.”
Charlie winced at the final datum. “I hope I’m wrong about this, but if what you’re saying is true, you might want to read up on Borderline Personality Disorder.” His DSM-5 retained the classification system of its extra-worldly counterpart, but offered little insight on treatment beyond sadness hotlines and basketball. He wasn’t about to recommend Chantel drink some fucking OJ, either.
“Meaning there’s a chance things are going to get worse before they get better. There’s a chance,” he took a moment to decide if this were something he really wanted to say, “there’s a chance she’s always going to be like this.” Another beat. “Look, I’m only bringing this up because it might be the safest course of action, but have you considered calling the whole thing off?”
“Charlie. What. No. It’s Chantel.”
“I don’t know what that means,” he said. “I don’t understand why you want to stay with her if things are so difficult.”
Shu had been facing away from his conversational partner, but now directed at him a glare that had started fights in less festive settings. “Does everything have to have a reason with you? Do you think love is something that can be broken down to a formula? Do you really think that if the girl of my dreams just fell from the sky one day, I would just throw away everything Chantel and I have, like that?” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the word ‘that,’ and, while we’re on the subject, had earlier raised his open hands toward the sky and climactically arced them downward in an approximation of the dream girl’s trajectory. “I feel closer to her than anyone else in the world, and I always have, and I always will, and I’m not gonna try to explain why so you can argue with it.”
“Look, I never said you didn’t love her. But that kind of love-conquers-all attitude isn’t going to fix everything. I’m being dead serious here, Shu. If it’s really this hard for you, there’s no way to solve this that doesn’t involve you removing yourself as the source of her obviously destructive obsession. By staying, you’re slowing everything down, running the risk of becoming codependent, or worse.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t even talked to her enough to make a real diagnosis.” Which Charlie knew, but was hoping his warning would catalyze the couple’s efforts to seek a second opinion. “Even with one, she could still get over it enough for us to be together.”
“Or not, given your history. You can’t predict the future either.”
He clenched his fists in an attempt to redirect his building tension to the sensation of nails digging into his palm.
“What are you going to do if she doesn’t?”
Father Winter burst through the chimney in a puff of good cheer and combustion byproducts, the former being more hazardous to the house’s inhabitants in that it could provoke one into becoming Hysterical, while carcinogens are a nonissue for these guys. All but the duo in the kitchen looked toward the fireplace. Jo pressed record on her offspring-directed camcorder.
“Father Winter!” Jasper screamed with an intensity that set off both dogs.
“Fuck,” said Shu.
The purported-mythical figure rose to his feet with an air suggesting a personality cozier than his Fair Isle mittens. A statement coat with a heroic amount of white fur trim, given how visibly it would be ruined after a single round of his preferred hammy method of entry, expanded on the effect of general snugness he was going for. (Ask if that’s real fur, Jo thought to herself.) Later, the emotions Jasper felt in that moment would be portrayed pretty accurately by the slow-mo Ken Burns effect Mom planned on applying to her footage.
Father Winter announced his presence. “Ho ho ho!” Jo put down her camera to admonish the fourth one for swearing, only to find he’d escaped by self-defenestration.
The embodiment of Winterfest spirit himself made a big show of shading his eyes with his right hand, looking high and low for something. “I heard from a little bird that in this house, there’s a little boy who just had his birthday.”
“Me! That’s me!” said boy clarified, jumping and waving his arms a couple yards from Father Winter’s avoidant face in case the message wasn’t clear enough. It landed; the patriarch finally searched the area directly in front of him and reeled back in astonishment.
“Oh! Oh, ho ho ho! There’s the fella!” Jasper was vibrating almost audibly with anticipation. “Why don’t we sit down here and have a chat? Is that something you would like?” Jasper nodded so enthusiastically, Jo’s most recently searched term became ‘whiplash,’ displacing ‘those hoodies everyone has what are they called.’
The pair sat down on Grandpa & Abuela’s caramel-colored leather couch, a pre-Jasper and even pre-Kendra piece of furniture whose aroma only became more complex with the passage of time. Father Winter started the seated portion of the conversation with his most anticipated question. “Have you been good all year?”
“Do you listen to your mommy and daddy?”
“Have you been doing your homework?”
Panic set in. “I just grew up yesterday,” Jasper explained. “They didn’t give me any homework.”
“Well, I’m looking at your grades, young mister, and you know what they say?” Jasper may have grown up yesterday, but even he could tell that the folksiness was thinly masking what was in fact extreme condescension. “It says right here on this piece of paper that someone doesn’t like to do his homework.”
“You know, son,” he said, placing his arm around Jasper’s shoulders to comfort the lad, “things might not always turn out how you want, but good boys and girls are good at accepting things the way they are. You want to be a good boy, right?” Jasper nodded in an attempt to end the first of many lectures he would sit through where the lecturer grossly underestimates his competence based on his demographics, in this case his age. “You have to let this go and do better next year. Life is complicated that way. Someday you’ll be old enough to understand.”
Leaving the family’s youngest with an encouraging pat and wise smile, cherry nose and all, Father Winter removed himself from the couch with some difficulty and headed eastward. Jasper waited until he was out of earshot to tear up.
Cut to the J.E. master bedroom half a second into Jasper’s first wail of the day, where his father decided to check out the exercise equipment to help relieve the stress headache he got from being surrounded by loved ones.
“Dr. Charles Jeong-Espinosa,” Father Winter drew out in an entrance that mostly served to annoy the sentence’s subject, “now that’s a name I know well. You’re near the very top of my list! Ho ho ho!” He actually grabbed his belly when he laughed. Charlie thought the gesture of bringing both hands to the gut during a Father-Winter-inspired belly laugh might have been to suggest excess adiposity, but no, he actually did that. “Let me tell you what it says here. A straight-A student, lover of the earth, dedicated pursuer of knowledge, selfless healer, devoted husband and father, and, oh! Stay away from that one,” he said, following the last statement with a wink that would have been appropriately lecherous had he been literally anyone else. “I saved something special for you.”
He placed a VR set on the ground and followed up with his best Vanna White impression. The recipient acted out an appropriate display of surprise and gratitude, though he was left wondering where on that list it was suggested that he played videogames with any regularity, and where in his house the list recommended clearing space to put that shit.
“Now where’s that mother of yours?” Could be like two places. Three if you count the other bar.
Charlie waited until Father W. was heading in the direction of potential cookies to sneak a peek at the list he was holding. It was blank.
“It’s alright, honey. There’s always next year,” Jo consoled her son as they approached her house’s front arch, the mixture of tears and snot beginning to freeze slightly on the boy’s face. Hearing an echo of Father Winter’s words only set him off more, enough to leave his mom with the tail end of yet another squeal and run off towards his second-story room, careening around six corners on the way. “Don’t slip!” she yelled.
Charlie put an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “I don’t know where we went wrong,” she admitted.
“No, Jo, there was nothing we could have done. You were great today.” He tried to come up with something that would cheer her up. “Someday we’re going to be able to look back on this and laugh.” He hoped.
Jo’s eyes widened in an expression of shock not unlike that of someone who realized they forgot to turn the stove off before leaving the house. “Charlie, that’s it! My footage!” She turned towards her husband, placing her hand on his chest. “We can take the footage, cut out all the parts with Father Winter, and show Jasper how much fun he was having!” Heck, maybe she’d leave Shu in some shots.
“Sounds good, dear.” He was paying enough attention to nod each time she asked him whether it was a good idea.
Above the gym, Jasper’s pillow was alternating between being a punching bag and a tissue. Jo slowly poked her head over the staircase railing so as to not startle him. Her son, not the pillow.
“What if I made you some burgers for dinner?” she offered. “Would that make it better?”
He nodded so she would go downstairs. It wasn’t going to work. Fuck the self-fellating old coot.
Jo found her husband sitting cross-legged in the garden, picking up handfuls of powdery snow and opening his palm to let the wind carry it away. “Hey, Charlie. If I made burgers, would you eat some?”
“I mean, if you’re going to make them, sure,” he muttered, watching the powder slip over the webbing between his fingers.
She sighed almost inaudibly. If he was going to be in one of those moods, it was best not to engage. It was best to focus on the task at hand and give him some space to play with the snow or whatever. But to the outsider, it looks like she’s too preoccupied with applying her personal spice mix to see her husband being carried away in a beam of light.
Jo turned around fifteen minutes later with a plate of burgers that bunned themselves.
There’s nothing to her right but the marks he made in the snow. Maybe he went inside. She checked the kitchen.
He’s not in the bedroom, living room, gym, bathroom, or study, either. It figures he’d left without telling her again. She picked up a hamburger and stormed off towards her son’s room.
Winterfest ended an hour ago and Charlie’s side of the bed was still empty. Jo decided this would be the part she would want to edit out of her mind, lying down on her side and staring at the indentation left in his pillow, not knowing whether he was five or a million miles away. He wasn’t answering his phone, either. She moved to his side so she at least wouldn’t have to look at it. The night sky was visible overhead. Maybe I should try it, she thought, telling her thoughts to some tiny speck of light in the distance instead of the person next to her. And after sending her doubts upward and watching them dissipate in the air like so many flecks of powdery snow, she finally closed her eyes.
She slept through the beam of light that appeared outside her window and gently lowered her husband back to earth. The beam grew dimmer. Charlie dropped to his knees. He felt his forehead with the back of his hand. The mental fog that had bothered him so much during his first abduction was now undetectable, blending in with all the other buzzing and tightness in his head he was feeling constantly.
And the worst part was he didn’t know why he was doing any of these things that made his head buzz. And that’s what he had to show for it, this list of achievements. Five, maybe six concrete items that identified who he was as a person. He was left to wonder what the difference was between Charlie Jeong-Espinosa and another man with an identical list. Just like, he could see another hypothetical person being happy with what he has: the job, grades, etc. So if it distinguishes him from the other guy, the one who accepts his responsibilities wholesale and can carry them out indefinitely in kind of a proud-complacent manner, then Charlie Jeong-Espinosa is an ungrateful bastard with no real goddamn purpose other than to not question why he was checking off items on some imaginary list before it took over his life.
The stupid oversized VR thing was a reminder of the praise he was getting for not letting his doubts get in the way of success. He found a spot where it couldn’t taunt him, a spot next to his sleeping son. The son Father Winter had tacked onto that list of achievements like yet another goal. Putting it here at least made sense. Tomorrow Jo would get to tell him Father Winter changed his mind.
Charlie managed to get under the covers without waking up his wife. He crossed his forearms over his head and adjusted the alignment of his neck into the most comfortable position for stargazing. He imagined a small green dot, like a laser, swooshing along the Big Dipper, gaining enough momentum from the net downward action of the first four edges to break from the bowl of the constellation and shoot off towards the North Star. Your holiday’s over, buddy, he informed it, on the off-chance it understood its role in Winterfest lore, could read his thoughts, and wasn’t currently too busy with something else to do so.
Power couple Char-Jo just got news they’re harboring an unplanned, but wanted, Sim fetus.
Josephine left the workforce when Charlie became Chief, s.t. her priorities are now coming up with baby names that accurately reflect her priorities/the geography/modern naming trends, etc., finding a place in the stone-susceptible house for the lil’ scamp, moving her eucalyptus neck pillow between the microwave and freezer pretty much constantly, and distracting herself from the pain by speculating whether Inez will end up with dashing Rodrigo or his secret identical (hence equally dashing) twin, Emilio. She starts researching her temporary disability online. The blogs she finds are positive and supportive, in contrast to the exclusionary jargon of Charlie’s medical textbooks. And the authors—so knowledgable! In a couple days, Jo has notebooks full of facts on symptoms for common problems, a learned instinct for when to track her baby’s breathing, and digital copies of unborn-accessible Mandarin, Spanish, and Korean speech recordings. (Substitute the Sim equivalents thereof.)
Charlie matches her degree of all-consuming focus—but not for baby preparations, because he’s not over that bizarre obsession with his childhood friend Cruz. Mr. Greenwood lives in the apartment adjacent to Shu, a realization that puts Dr. J.-E. in full derp.
Cruz was (in theory) intensely dislikable even before he aged into Hot-Headed. This doesn’t stop Charlie from seeing him as some superhuman role model, having known him as the kid who could talk to anybody and do anything. To lose that faith would destroy his childhood. As such, their relationship neatly mirrors that of Ms. Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and Mr. Way (no relation) in many respects. But who’s this hurting? A bit of fanboyish glee is just what Charlie needs sometimes.
Charlie returns from his Cruz high to find Jo in the kitchen, single-fisting servings of tajine while the other fist holds a speaker to her rectus abdominis. “Cat, gato. Dog, perro. Big, grande. Little, pequeño,” the solenoid informs her torso. (Her other half bites his tongue at the lack of explanation of gendered words & the decision to make all aforementioned words masculine.) She shows him the echinacea and chickweed balm she made while foraging. It’s great for wound healing! Charlie nods his head at the list of benefits for each plant, slightly bothered that the list is just that, and contains no details of the physiological mechanisms by which each remedy works. In his excitement to have a two-sided conversation about one of his favorite topics, so he presses the issue slightly. Toxins? Which toxins? Is it urea? Because if something makes you sweat or pee, it does remove toxins.
Thirteen unique mentions of the word “toxins” later, Charlie staves off semantic satiation by offering to determine the pre-rugrat’s gender.
Can Charlie deliver his own child? God, he hopes so.
The Outside house is still a hotspot on weekends. Saturday brings all of Jo’s crew. Her best friend, Morgan, reads a book in the airy comfort of a room with walls on three sides. Her brother, Gavin, entertains himself by walking in and out of the studio, because it is the entrance he understands best in this house, and is pleased with himself for doing so.
Her unborn son presses against her cervix. Jo enters the data into her contraction timer app. He’s coming! Put down the damn cards!
Charlie is finally witnessing his job from the other side of the reception desk. He would perform the delivery himself, but labor laws require him to not perform surgery while off-duty. Lawsuits and stuff like that. He finds himself going into a deeper state of panic, manically pleading his co-workers to check his wife in. Dr. Rosa’s pipetting goes from unsettling to downright cruel as she refuses to pause her Sisyphean task of infinity-tuple-checking her blood work even as Joey’s belabored screams echo across the empty walls.
Over two hours later, Nurse Lothario realizes there is someone at the hospital who needs medical attention, and starts administering treatment he’s not technically qualified to administer.
Thanks to some dude in a basketball uniform screaming backseat surgery advice, both mother and baby survive. Don stops himself from chatting Jo up before leaving the room.
Here’s Jasper Jeong-Espinosa!
Jasper has some extended family who are all very excited to meet him—ah, speak of the devil, he’s letting himself in again.
Neither Gavin nor Moira is blessed with situational instincts, so the fact that the current residents left for several hours and returned with a third resident flies right over their heads. Jo leaves the youngin with his grandfather and the grandfather with instructions to restrict his cooing to a language other than Simlish. Jasper’s aging up with all the phonemes if it kills her.
The new mother’s strategy is to schmooze with the guests just enough for them to catch on to the baby situation, then care for her nooboo as soon as possible. But now a fourth guest, Ana Abrahmacharya, is begging to be let back into the living room.
Charlie has some degree of social awareness, even if it is induced by meddling, so he understands fielding the latest visitor is his job. He grabs Ana by the shoulder and pulls her in for a kiss.
Yes, in front of his wife who just had a baby.
Charlie curses his inability to involve his idiot brain in matters of the heart. He’s supposed to be a genius. What about these women makes his thinking part turn off? A quick glance at Jo suggests she’s too engrossed in conversation with her brother to notice his misstep; he mumbles something unintelligible, focuses on counting the grey tiles as he power-walks toward the bedroom, and ducks behind the door, twisting the handle so as to make as little sound as possible. Turns out he’s not alone, not even here.
He lies awake even as the ombre of the sky shifts to navy and the constellations reveal themselves above his translucent roof. Sagittarius. Fitting.
Several hours later, the grandparents are invited for a private baby viewing. Charlie supports Jasper’s head as Claudia responds the same gushing way she would to a particularly well-done garnish, or a stranger at the airport ordering the same drink. Hard to tell with this one. Her husband has already seen the baby, and heads for the guitar before his son calls him over for a more formal introduction.
Jo’s almost-sixteen hours of experience left her with several questions for a three-time mother like Claudia, along with “help, my areolas are on fire,” which isn’t a question but deserves addressing anyway. How many fractions of a centimeter of cranial growth can we expect per day? Can she make any sense of these 80 conflicting comments on a Daily Mail article about pacifiers? The J.E. matriarch dodges these questions like 1999 Keanu Reeves (i.e., in 1999, not 1999 of him, in case the plural of Keanu Reeves is also Keanu Reeves), depriving Joey of the hyperspecific information she craves with each “oh, I’m sure it will be fine, don’t worry, darling.”
Yeah, Claudia, that’s what someone says in a horror movie right before they get an ax through the skull. The idea that everything will be fine is easier to stomach when you’ve already had three healthy children survive to between 13 and 28. Jo didn’t have that luxury; she was faced with a future where a thousand factors could determine whether her child lives a life of tragedy. Some were avoidable. But the causes and solutions were starting to span multiple notebooks, and Jo couldn’t devote all her time to research, not with all these handmade cloth diapers to wash. She excused herself to fire off a quick question to four different forums.
When she returned, she discovered Charlie had extended the private viewing to include Cruz and, to her horror, Shu. Charlie’s too captivated by Cruz’s story about the rude woman who served him at the DMV to realize his wife is now stuck keeping the trollop busy. Here. Bundle of joy.
Jo tries to avoid all eye contact and give curt, noncommittal reactions to Shu’s hypothetical inquiries re. the owner of these chubby baby legs. Please stop body-shaming the baby! It gets worse when he starts asking the questions she expected from Claudia, and worse still when he actually listens to her responses. You’re really interested in this stuff, Jo. Maybe you should have your own blog.
Maybe she should.
Jo subscribes to every social media platform she can think of under her online handle, JumpingJoey; she registers her domain, snaps a couple Anne-Geddes-worthy pictures of Jasper (in a somewhat post-apocalyptic nightmare twist, it looks like he’s growing in the garden with the watermelons), sets the best one as her site banner, and gets to framing her hundreds of hours of research in the confident folksy way she found so endearing. She looks through her notebooks and decides to present all the information she’s learned as subjectively as possible. If some new mother, somewhere, looked at everything Jo consolidated and was able to come to an informed decision about her choices, the whole effort would be worth it.
She poses a couple medical questions to Charlie for her third post. He’s confused; what do you mean by “prevent autism”? There are hundreds of genetic and epigenetic factors that can influence the development of autism, which, by the way, isn’t the worst thing in the world. He sends her eight review papers and a list of celebrities on the spectrum.
A two-year-old NooBoo Corner post by bo_bo_beans81 says rubbing the baby’s feet with milk thistle will halt the development of autism. Jo shrugs and writes “Milk thistle (Bo_bo_beans81, 2016)” under the eight PubMed links to peer-reviewed articles. Better safe than sorry. Modern medicine doesn’t know everything yet, nor does Charlie, who also has no experience being a mom.
As Jo’s readership reaches the hundreds, Jasper passes the requisite three days of neurological development and materializes a dope hat out of the aether.
The race to getting a toddler to all full skills in one week. Hooray.
Jasper has the most well-documented progress of any Jeong-Espinosa toddler, which gets posted on Jumping Jasper! next to frequent reassurance that just because your tyke cries because you put the plate of chicken nuggets facing the wrong direction, it doesn’t mean things won’t get better. Also, you shouldn’t be feeding them chicken nuggets. Have you tried harvestables instead? Eating a full meal gets in the way of skilling.
Internally, though, as Jo reads through her positive feedback from blog owners whose posts she left positive feedback on, and one from a guy who wants new readers on his weblog about color-sorted ties, she will take any opportunity to talk to an adult in person for one goddamn minute. Like dragging a passing Xiyuan into the house during Jasper’s 2 PM – 4:30 PM nap for an unsatisfying game of cards.
Jasper’s crepuscularity also gives Jo an opportunity to work out. She discovers the punching bag has a special Flirty interaction. Unfortunately, this discovery isn’t thematic enough for her social media empire.
According to Jo’s Simstagram feed, Jasper is finished with four out of five skills. Jo thanks the stars that at least this part of childhood development is well-documented—she doesn’t know what she’d do without knowing the exact amount 1 hour of xylophone practice expands a toddler’s imagination. But her husband’s taking a looser conflict-averse approach. Check it.
Charlie: “What number is this?”
Charlie: “Yes!! Good job!”
You fucking liar.
We’ll give Jo some extra time to saturate everyone’s feed with pictures of Jasper in various hats, and come back to quantify the effects of flashcard dishonesty on childhood development.
Some men cascade with emotion like water over a cliff. Charlie isn’t one of them.
Post an adolescence-long conversation with the night sky and people’s shoes, an early career spent touching his patients too lightly to the point where the lack of contact became kind of creepy, and a spiritually questionable (for her) hookup with the local ascetic, the search performed on the soul of the eldest second-gen J.E. still lacked the breadth and depth to make any conclusive statement about whether he actually wanted to be in a relationship. He wasn’t sure what drove him more nuts: the ambiguity itself or his inability to fix it. He cringed at himself for leaving this mental civil war unresolved even as he woke snuggling with another Sim. And then, for being unable to choose between the three as a source of frustration, ad infinitum, inductively.
But if there were anyone capable of opening Charlie’s mind to collapse these options into one (Charlie liked to picture the cat-box in Schrödinger’s thought experiment whenever external involvement was needed to make his ideas click), it would be sweet Jo. He had no issues with physical vulnerability, even enjoyed being affectionate, he’d learned; but to let her into his head? That clusterfuck? Even he didn’t want to be there. Besides the disorganization and the excessive involvement of Cruz Greenwood, she likely wouldn’t appreciate the amount of time he devoted to questioning their relationship. In fact, he decided, negate the earlier statement; she was the worst possible person to share this with.
It could still be Charlie and Josephine forever, but forever hasn’t started yet. They still have time. A couple more weeks and—
—and Jo might as well be a firefighter, because she just saved the cat.
Climbing, running, fishing—many of Charlie’s favorite hobbies required him to turn his brain off and operate on pure intuition. Love might be the same way, he figured. Clear everything, quiet your natural approach, just enough to listen to the gut.
His gut says the same thing it always does when he understands how to not disappoint someone else. He says yes.
His doubt washes away in a wave of relief. He no longer has a choice to make. In fact, Jo can make the decisions for both of them from now on.
Charlie’s future brothers-in-law Gavin Guy (married to Abram Guy) and Maxwell Liu find him at the Spice Festival to express their excitement about the proposal. Neither of them joke about ending him if he harms a hair on their sister’s head/breaks her heart/etc., which could be a sign of trust or just a side effect of Charlie being enormous. He repeats some of his dad’s old standup stories. He’s not paying enough attention to notice any hesitant sideways glances, but they laugh anyway, of course. It would be impolite not to.
Drained from the social interaction, Charlie tries to retreat back to his and Jo’s mostly-outside, mostly-UVB/UVC-proof house, which is unfortunately a favorite neighborhood hangout spot for no
So that’s the context for Charlie introducing Jo to all his friends and family: he hopes leaving the house will finally get him some privacy.
Joey comes in with a plan to help Charlie’s bespectacled childhood friend figure out eye contact, which is shattered when Shu shoots her a gaze with enough force to make his head recoil. She honestly thought her fiancé was describing this guy’s D&D character. But no, now she could see where Charlie got the words “high charisma” and “bard.” Something about the manicured womanizer before her seemed hopelessly dislikable: the way he leaned back in his chair was too cocky, as was the excessive amount of jewelry; she didn’t like that brief pause between when she asked what he did for work and when he claimed to be a musician. Confident people could make you believe anything they wanted you to, she reminded herself. That’s why she liked Charlie. He had nothing to hide, and even if he did, he couldn’t. Her open book.
She found her opportunity to leave the conversation when Casanova pulled out a guitar and started strumming on top of the karaoke. Infuriating. Were people not paying enough attention to you, or what?
While Joey Jo-Jo lacked the context to mitigate Shu’s intensity, Charlie’s memories of a prepubescent Shu give him too clear a picture, one that weights the past more heavily than the present.
Charlie was bombarded with questions that night, which he did his best to answer. Their parents were friends. They were born in the same house. He spends a lot of time playing instruments. He does have a girlfriend, Chantel. Probably also Gen. I don’t know, maybe twelve? That’s just how he operates. Just don’t talk to him, then.
Charlie goes for a sunrise jog to the hospital, mentally prepping himself for another day where he’s the only one doing any work. The receptionist sits and plays on the computer while lines of patients form in front of them, Don Lothario chats up young female patients even as Charlie tries desperately to work around him, and there’s one other co-worker who tries to talk to him while he’s, y’know, actually working.
Today might be different. There’s a new doctor.
Charlie sneaks a glance as he runs from the patient rooms to test a sample. She’s pipetting! He closes his eyes in a moment of pure joy. He won’t be running the hospital alone anymore.
He records the sample results, diagnoses the patient, prescribes a vaccination (Sim doctors are a tad unclear on how inoculation works, but it does, so whatever), signs them out, ushers the next person to a bed, asks questions, takes a saliva sample, runs back to the lab. She’s still pipetting. He looks at the label. It’s the same damn sample. Repeat two or three more times; she’s still doing it. Tying up a machine. Damn it.
An emergency call preserves Charlie’s sanity. Three people may have just simultaneously collapsed at a bar, but at least he can be outside for a couple brief minutes.
He shakes the first Sim awake to administer treatment. He can count on what’s happening next more than he can on his coworkers: upon regaining consciousness, the patient’s knee-jerk reaction is always to spring up and start running as far away from the doctor as possible.
One patient manages to get two blocks away from the bar before Dr. Swole delivers his pills with a flying tackle. As much as he used to enjoy his morning jogs, it’s part of the job now.
He runs over his schedule for the rest of the day: after catching infectious vagabonds, he has to clean the beds, maybe rush to cure a couple more people before the end of his shift—nope, he’s interrupted by a promotion. The final one.
Charlie is breathless as he processes his emotions. He’s elated, he tells himself, because he’s supposed to be. The same reason he’s grateful. This is supposed to be a reward, he reminds himself, grabbing folders of budget reports to take home. This job would solve a lot of problems for many Sims. The new Chief of Staff—he feels nothing about the title, nothing, not achievement or pride or prestige—takes out his phone to text his parents the news, stopping short to wonder if they would even care. Everyone knew he would become Chief of Staff eventually. Now what?
Tuesday night, Jo gets a message from Ana asking if she can hang out. They chat until Charlie comes home. He greets her with a quick “sul sul,” to which she responds by slyly pointing out how good he looks in his lab coat. He winces and gestures his head back/slightly to the left.
Right before falling asleep, the realization hit him: Ana didn’t know he was engaged. She dropped in for a booty call and probably didn’t expect his fiancée to be answering the door. He was a bit embarrassed on her behalf, but wasn’t sure how he felt about that otherwise.
The Saturday of Jo and Charlie’s wedding is sunny, with not much aerial pollen. Save the tissues for the ceremony.
Myshuno Meadows has the largest amount of outside to accommodate the happy couple. In their tux and traditional dress, they greet their maximum eight loved ones, some of which forgot to change out of their Xiyuan/Bernard wedding uniform, one whose only formalwear is a tailcoat they “borrowed” from their dad’s tailcoat closet (he has other grey ones. Plural! He won’t notice), one wearing a warm-toned blush which is definitely not white, one pouting because her sibling outshone her bold fashion choices by correctly wearing a fedora.
Having already spent too much time between their first meeting and nuptials, the efficient couple starts their vows before the guests can reach their seats.
As Charlie kisses Josephine Jeong-Espinosa for the first time, he reflects on the hundreds of decisions leading to this moment. His gut brought him here, into the arms of a woman whose presence nourished him in body and soul even as his mind lagged behind.
He had no definition of love before. He considered it might be what he was feeling at this moment, but felt it was a bit pessimistic to assume the sensation you’d spent a lifetime chasing was so fleeting—or so easily displaced by excitement over, say, cake.
Him and Josephine would have the rest of their lives to figure it out. They couldn’t predict change, but they could face it together.
The overthinking was giving Charlie a headache—wait, is it overthinking if you’re ruminating on snap decisions? Is there an optimal degree of overthinking and if so, is it just called thinking? Does the degree—ack, his headache got worse. Good thing he always carries aspirin.
Remember how Elsa earned her title of ice queen with a text congratulating her then-boyfriend, Shu, on his new “friend”? Well, here’s an absolutely venomous text from Charlie’s ex, to his new wife, during the wedding.
There’s a partial explanation for this: Asteya is one of Jo’s closest female friends, and probably would have been maid of honor if Char-Jo could invite more than eight people to the wedding.
Charlie is too swirly to process what’s going on. Doctors are supposed to be less susceptible to infectious disease, which should prevent such situations as getting Starry Eyes at your own wedding, but a combination of stressors (planning & existential, here) can blow right through special traits.
We also learn that while yogurt parfait is customary for birthdays, French toast is à la mode for weddings.
A sufficiently toasted Josie and Charlie take the afterparty to the Romance Festival. Here, romance permeates the lungs of non-newlywed (i.e., non-newlywed and unmarried) Sims; the groom’s sister and teenage namesake, to name a couple. Charlie Feng may be starting to show interest in Kendra.
Back at home, the most recently appointed Jeong-Espinosa acclimates to married life. Charlie’s noticed she has the tendency to make these bizarre yelping sounds daily. Did she do that before and he just didn’t notice? Whatever. They’re certain they can face their first major challenge as a team, even with half the team howling like a horny pterodactyl.
The nature of this first challenge? It’s pretty routine.
Upcoming: we learn more about Jo, who becomes the second-newest member of the family.
Kendra ripped her train ticket into quarters, wondering how many of her foremothers actually wanted to give birth.
Her right hand ran out of ticket to destroy and moved to clasp a small wooden box in her pocket. The trip, the box, the morose thoughts; everything began two weeks ago, at Casbah Gallery. All other details had been lost in the ongoing consumption of her psyche, during which she could barely gather the mental energy to press buttons on the ticket machine and get shuttled from San Myshuno to her parents’ home in Newcrest.
Kendra had gone to support her friend, who had contributed a found-art piece to an exhibition on the origin stories of local artists. His battle cry for sustainability was just okay. The honor of finally breaking Kendra’s mind, however, belonged to the piece across the hall. There stood a sculpture by an adopted artist of a birth mother she never knew: a cold, imposing, faceless figure overseeing the room in stark contrast to the subject’s absence in the creator’s life. Kendra was drawn towards this idol as a couple gushed in the background about how sad it was the sculptor never met her mother.
In that polished surface where the woman’s features should have been, Kendra saw not the pain of its polisher (who appreciated Kendra’s take on her work, by the way), but that of every mother in history whose story was lost. Since that moment, she could think of nothing but the existence of this vital but nameless legion.
It wasn’t the lack of genealogy that bothered her. It was the lack of answers. What was each woman like? How did she die? What was she passionate about? Did she want to raise children? Did it suit her? Did anyone learn her story while she was alive? Kendra multiplied her questions by the number of anonymous female ancestors, a number too big to comprehend, and found her storytelling mind lost in powers of millions of possibilities.
It was that motherhood had been the default role for women, regardless of what they wanted. Some still think the purpose of life is to have children. So? People remembered Shelley for Frankenstein, not for producing offspring. Kendra saw no reason she couldn’t do the same.
It was fear of the unknown. Yes; Kendra’s latest horror poem was yet another attempt by yet another artist to put into words yet another gruesome phobia that couldn’t be explained using words. She had frightened herself, not only by imagining billions of forgotten births—most without epidurals—but also by realizing she herself could sacrifice control and risk death to create life, maybe by necessity if she were born a bit earlier or somewhere else in the world. The personal accounts she’d spent the past fortnight inhaling didn’t help; they made her loins reflexively tense in dreadful anticipation of the thing. But by definition, no sources existed to identify the choir whose belabored howls echoed across her brain in unison.
It was not being able to pin down the juxtaposition she wanted. Gore without violence. Ubiquity (shucks, each person in her way at the train station was born) hidden by silence. The notion that every woman weighs unspeakable pain against the benefits of motherhood—no, the concept of unspeakable pain vs. the concept of motherhood—before having experienced either. How can you possibly know it’s right for you, then?
It was that really, Kendra herself had lost this connection. She couldn’t remember her grandmother’s face. For all she knew, she was descended from a line of ovate-void-faced women like the one imagined by the adopted sculptor.
Kendra watched her boots propagate ripples in every puddle between the station and her childhood home, wondering how to atone for ignoring the one female Espinosa predecessor whose face she knew. Claudia. She hadn’t spoken to Claudia since she moved out. All these years watching her mother double-fisting cocktails after work every night, honoring her heritage through food, cooing with excitement over every drawing she or her brothers made, and she never thought to ask why.
Her hand again found the box containing a pair of crochet earrings. She had made them with goldenrod thread, Claudia’s favorite color. Mom would be thrilled. Still, Kendra felt it was an understatement. What gift says, hey Mom, sorry for taking your bravery and sacrifice for granted, I’m ready to understand you? What can you possibly do for the woman who fought your greatest fear—three times—and gave you life?
Kendra stopped at the curb, feeling embarrassed by her trinket, for facing her own mother like a stranger.
In anxious stillness, she retrieved her notebook and drafted the prologue of “La Madre Sin Rostro.”
Las olvidadas no pueden ser amadas. The forgotten cannot be loved.
The last we saw of Charlie, he was chipping away at the remnants of the metaphorical umbilical cord, only to discover it was the belay keeping him from freefalling into polite society. Polite society is dreadful. You have to talk to people you’re not related to, and who aren’t Cruz, in polite society. You have to meet certain expectations in polite society. You’re not sure whether they’re more or less restrictive than parental expectations, because you don’t know what exactly they are.
Charlie moved to the neighborhood with the big park, which is Willow Creek or something like that. Some mashup of a tree and a body of water or some other nature thing. It suits him.
Charlie wakes up each morning to the sun on his face through UVB/C-protective-coated glass. Can’t be too careful with melanoma, you see. He then waves goodbye to his fishies, walks into his earthy open-air living room, and has a breakfast of whichever fishy died most recently while staring at a Day of the Dead statue. Charlie can’t get any privacy or throw any stones in this house, but it’s very him.
Each of Charlie’s family members gave him a parting gift before he left. Mike gave him the signed guitar Charlie kept noodling with as a teenager. Hector gave him a picture of fish and a picture of outside, because Charlie likes both of those things. Kendra gave him a nice painting she made. Claudia made him enough seafood meals to last an entire month and—what’s that? Oh yeah, also a hundred thousand dollars from orchid farming. Gracias madre indeed.
The other residents of Aspen Lake are confused, both by Charlie’s arrival and the layout of his house. To welcome him, they walk through his front arch, enter the studio, and knock on the studio door to be let back into the living room.
Charlie’s neighbors include police lady (nice), ponytail man (asshole), lady who skips arm day (self-explanatory), and Summer Holiday (very intrigued).
Unfortunately for her, Summer Holiday is a Bad Name.
Greeting your neighbors is something one is supposed to do in polite society. Mr. J.-E. recalls a time when Kendra couldn’t get a laugh out of him, so she pushed the corners of his mouth upward with her pointer fingers. That’s what he’s trying to emulate here. Do people smile at the same time they talk? He’s watching his guests to figure it out. He remembers from his one successful conversation with Elsa that most people don’t want to talk about organelles or space, and settles instead on one of the most vanilla topics: cupcakes.
During the exhausting social effort, Charlie goes outside to decompress by shooting some hoops or catching some fish.
The heavy users of the fishing spot behind Charlie’s house are Charlie himself and Chantel’s mom Angela, who drives from San Myshuno to fish behind Charlie’s house at least twice a week. Angela and Charlie don’t interact aside from a slight head nod or non-mutual eye contact.
In case Charlie’s presence wasn’t interesting enough to the single women of Willow Creek (Aileen’s Theorem), he is now gainfully employed.
Doesn’t this job require a Bachelors? Naaaaah. He’ll be fine! It’s not as if medical staff require special training or nights spent cramming with a bloodstream full of legal stimulants to make the points go higher, just a pinch of gung-ho and a go-getter attitude. Male Elle Woods here skips the experience of being a pre-med sophomore who blames failing grades on his Ochem professor for not personally showing up on his doorstep to tell him exactly what would be on the test, then grabbing his hand and taking the entire exam for him, Ghost-style. Compare with the Science career, a preposterous amalgamation of like eight different fields, plus ALIENS, where the first job level does not require locking oneself in a windowless basement for five years to write a 130-page document no one will read. Maybe your advisor if you’re lucky. You also never have to be the aforementioned unfair Ochem professor. You’re just Jimmy fucking Neutron, and then when you meet a real-life scientist, you have to hide your disappointment as they describe locking themselves in a windowless basement for months writing grant proposals.
Throwing a fresh high school grad into a fast-paced career comes with consequences. For example, dealing with stress caused by wrapping one’s head around open questions in the field of medicine.
Alien and human physiology are similar enough for the two species (?) to interbreed, but Charlie is having trouble keeping track of the literature. Genes have different names in humans, mice, C. elegans, Drosophila, Chinese hamsters, and zebrafish, and now he has to memorize another set for aliens? Did the clinical trials for this medication include alien participants in both the control and experimental groups? Was there a statistically significant difference between alien and human responses? How about side effects? These are questions Charlie shoves behind his perma-etched awkward work smile, lest he be accused of discrimination based on skin tone/planetary origin.
Enabling societal alien-erasure is just one of the areas where Charlie’s bedside manner needs work. He avoids eye contact, he mumbles, his handwriting is legible, he interrupts conversations to do sit-ups, and he has, on more than one occasion, been observed doing a heel-turn in the middle of the hallway to run for the treadmill. But he has a preternatural ability to diagnose patients based on symptoms displayed when he was in another room, so his performance skyrockets.
Plus, no one can focus on what he’s saying anyway with that gun show. Woof!
Charlie spends most of his time diagnosing the same 3 hypochondriacs and 5 people who are close enough to toddlers to get their mouth sneezed into on a daily basis. One such hypochondriac is Aileen’s best girlfriend, Layla Beam, a mixologist who is pretty sure she got some crud at the bar last night. It’s different from last week, ok? It’s a different one. Charlie tries to diagnose her infectious illness by collecting samples, taking X-rays, running her on the treadmill, and asking about the last five things she ate, but not even the joy of symmetrical tiny cacti can distract him from the grim reality of the job: sometimes nothing you do works out, and he’s split between two diagnoses after running all possible tests. More than once he’s had to gamble Layla’s health on a coin toss, and the coin seems to be landing on the wrong side every time.
Later that week, Charlie gets asked whether he plays videogames. He does? Good. The godlike effect videogames have on hand-eye coordination—it says so right here, on this gaming website—makes him ideal for the next career level: surgeon. Here’s your scalpel. Remember your R.E.F.U.G.E. training, but try to apply it in a context where you’re not supposed to kill anyone.
All the stress of habitually misdiagnosing Layla has been forcing Charlie out of the house. Not only has dealing with patients has improved Charlie’s social skills by orders of magnitude, it’s motivated him to interact with other Sims beyond “have you been abducted lately?” or “could you repeat what you did with the pencil one more time?” or “here, let me inoculate you against the disease you already have.” A natural starting point for Dr. Basketball here is his home base. The Sim who finally teaches him to love is somewhere out there, sweating through her sports bra on the treadmill while she tips her REI metal bottle upside down to catch the last few drops of lukewarm gym-fountain water.
Or is she meditating in the woods?
Meanwhile, Summer Holiday is steaming some hams, and definitely not focusing on her workout.
In the 15 minutes Summer spends fixing her fishtail braid in the bathroom, she mentally chants her plan: start leaving, look downright surprised to see her neighbor in the same gym, fire off an “oh hello, Charlie, I didn’t see you there,” and casually mention either calcium channels or black holes, the two topics she landed on after a multi-day social media stalking binge. But as Charlie interrupts his conversation with the personal trainer to enthuse about action potentials, Summer realizes her lack of a fifth step. Maybe something like, haha, I didn’t know that about the lipid bilayer, want to discuss it over coffee sometime? She deliberates on what exact word choices would make her segue seem perfectly natural. Meanwhile, Charlie has already run off to make Ana smell worse.
Charlie approaches his confusion about adult relationships the same way he’s been taught to approach concepts in school: research. Simpedia returns no answers for the query “is there anyone out there for me,” but it does teach Charlie the concept of a meet-cute, which seems as good an experiment design as any.
According to Simpedia’s “List of Romantic Comedies,” 43% of meet-cutes happen in cafés. Of those 43%, 76% of those are in cafés which serve brunch. The closest brunch-serving café, a train ride to Windenburg away, is deserted on Charlie’s day off—so much so that the barista leaves his post to keep Charlie company.
According to Scrubs, which Charlie keeps hearing is the most realistic depiction of his job, he should be dating gorgeous actress number four by now. Yet the only people who show up to his promotion celebrations are either elderly, married, or Don Lothario, who is impeded by neither of those things.
According to Charlie’s mom, he’ll find someone, darling, don’t woooorrry, don’t rush it. How did she know the exact combination of words to make him even more impatient? With a sigh, he picks up the phone and texts his last resort. Not five minutes pass before his phone vibrates and a message from Shu appears, confidently stating THE CLUB DUMBASS.
Charlie ignores Shu’s twelve-text follow-up manifesto advising him to show his forearms, check to see who watches when he applies lip balm, and keep his expectations low so as not to seem desperate, and pulls the classiest thing he has out of his closet. What follows is a confusing night of not talking to anyone in particular. In the bright lights and loud noises, Charlie can’t even keep track of his own mood: is he confident about discovering aliens, or angry? Is he refreshed from the nap he took downstairs on the sofa, away from the pounding bass, or still exhausted? At least the vegetables he took from his mom’s garden were tasty.
It took a few terrifying days for Charlie to realize that, ultimately, he lives at the gym. There’s only one other person who lives at the gym.
Of course! Crushed by the pressure to overachieve, Charlie had always been fascinated with (and a little jealous of) Ana’s ability to drop everything and run around barefoot in the woods. She was an enthralling conversational partner, perhaps the only person who experienced that sudden loss of breath, that weightless feeling when he stood alone in nature—and he realized that maybe, over time, this fascination had turned into a crush.
(Ana’s totally okay with this. Her high sex drive makes it difficult for her to detach from the physical world.)
There was something calming in the familiarity of her smell—earthy, probably from actual dirt—and Charlie realizes he didn’t have to try to connect with her at all.
Ana helps herself to the comfort of a real bed, UVB/C protection, and Claudia’s cooking before humming a mantra and vanishing into the trees.
But as alluring as Ana is, she’d never give up her principles for him. She prefers passively lurking in tall grass, leaving only to offer spiritual guidance when the opportunity presents itself, to traditional life milestones like marrying a doctor or living in a house.
So Charlie tries to distract himself by slipping into the monotony of treating the same 3 hypochondriacs and 5 people who let toddlers eat sand and cough on their faces.
Over time, Charlie realizes he is beginning to internalize the intersection of his mom’s and Shu’s advice: stop trying to force things and just be. He just needed a nonzero amount of experience with dating to understood what that meant.
This is the context in which he finds himself at the karaoke bar in front of this uncomfortably-close-standing maiden.
She introduces herself as Josephine Liu (no relation. There are other families with the last name Liu, y’know), advice columnist, but her real passion is gardening—she just loves feeling the wind in her hair—and spends most of her down time jogging around various parks. Charlie can’t believe his luck; he arrives home satisfied from going out for once, heart still pounding.
He floats through the next day of treating the same eight people, seizing the next randomly generated party at his uncle’s husband’s former house as an opportunity to invite Josephine out again. Are they too similar? Who cares!
Jo returns Charlie’s interest, asking him out the next day on a date to Myshuno Meadows. The feeling to see each other again as soon as possible was apparently mutual, since both of them are enjoying the date, but complaining about how late it is, and keep going for the coffee. Charlie’s completely lost: he has feelings about Jo that he never had with Ana, and he’s known Jo for less than a week.
Years of hiking alone, fishing alone, crafting alone, social anxiety, doubts about his romantic future, whether a romantic future is truly what he wants: ignored. Overwritten.
Are they moving too fast? Who cares! Jo’s his girlfriend now, and she’s moving in!
Joey is a sweet, easygoing lady with infinite levels of chill. It’s easy to make her laugh, and easy to keep her entertained; though she does have the habit of yelping at odd times, which is off-putting at best. She has two brothers, one of whom is married to a man, and the other is likely possibly also married to a man. Charlie expands the garden for her, but doesn’t change much else: she’s already down with easy-to-clean ceramic tile and falling asleep under the stars. She even stares at the same Day of the Dead statue during meals. Charlie’s overjoyed to finally have someone around, and showers her with affection at every opportunity.
Charlie travels to his temporary lover’s gym-home to break the news about adorable Josephine. Ana’s good at living in the moment, so she should be able to take it lightly.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s phone keeps blowing up with people who sound downright surprised he’s living with an actual Sim woman with whom he shares no relation.
Such a miracle warrants a visit from The Patriarch. Mike walks into his son’s house with no greeting, no advance warning, not even a knock on the inside of the study door. Usually there’s a preamble before these sorts of things happen—but not for Mike, who shows up and has the rest of the world rearrange itself around him.
He vets out his oldest child’s date over a symbolic game of chess. Jo takes this as a casual game and keeps giggling when she loses pieces, while Mike is matching the intensity of a pseudo-intellectual using chess as a metaphor for how strategically ahead he is of every mindless sheep in existence. Everything looks easy when you can only perceive things in your favor. Mike, having based a non-negligible portion of his self-worth on being good at chess, wins handily, and likes her more for it. Success! Aside from the undertones of weirdass droit du seigneur garbage, you did good.
Does this have to go catastrophically wrong in one of at least three different ways? Perhaps not yet. Charlie and Jo can stay in their honeymoon phase for now. Whatever happens when it ends, that’s anyone’s guess.