Vriska's mother was a corpulent woman with a wafer-thin soul, the former from genes and the latter her own, and both served her well in concert. She drew her income exclusively from others, at their cost, if necessary. Vriska never understood why it so often seemed to be necessary, at least at first. When her momma was generous, she made exchanges, more in favours than goods. She was good with favours, being faster and stronger than she looked (and she looked very strong), and smart as anyone living on less adventurous means. Vriska knew that many of the happy faces in her kitchen owed her mama favours. Vriska also knew the neutral faces had slipped, until favours had turned to money. When necessary, her mother knew ways to make them slide, and when she did not know the way, she sold those things she sold, just high enough. The angry faces came when her mother was less generous. They were men, and women, and lawyers. Her mother loved the lawyers most of all. She was smarter than all of them, and Vriska knew her mama never let them get angry until it was too late to learn that her compassion barely reached the nearest leaf on the family tree, and no further.
Vriska still saw more of her mama's feigned concern than the genuine. The genuine was only ever showed in hints and nudges. Vriska had Coats' disease, and her mama made it clear the disease was going to be paying them slapdash through Vriska's middle school years. Vriska knew that. She wasn't stupid. She knew to look tough and sniffle until the hospital bled money from its legal arm. Vriska hated it all the same. It was a boy's disease, for starters, and she hinged on that. Worse, she had to have her eye patch off when she talked to the adults. The eye patch was just for fun, even if she had convinced her teachers it wasn't, and she liked it. No eye patch, having to talk about it, with the right mix of looking tough and sniffling... all of that made her focus on her eye, and that made her see things funny. The doctors still said it might be treatable, maybe, please: there still might be a chance to treat her. Vriska knew mama knew that. But they didn't have the money until the hospital caved, and that was the only fact of it. Vriska would have to wait.
It was times like this that Vriksa didn't like her mama, so much. She wasn't even sure she was her mama. Vriska had told her so, the other day. Her skin was darker than her mama's, and what kind of name was "Vriska," anyways. She thought it was a Hindi name, she had checked the internet and that was close and it still didn't even make sense. She had been sent to her room, where she lay in bed in tears until she fell asleep. Vriska didn't think she had ever seen her mama so upset.
"So, so, okay. So this guy wakes up and he's in this old electric chair, with a plastic cage over his arms." Someone had shown Tessa an R-rated horror sequel and she had not shut up about it since they had met outside school that morning. "But his left hand – he's right handed – is only part-way into the tunnel… cuff… thing, right? So he could go deeper."
"Why would he want to go deeper?" Vriska asked. Tessa just grinned. She always just grinned.
"Because… okay, because, at the back, there's a key past five little plastic doors that swing both ways, all right? And at the front, where he already is, is a lock."
"Uh-huh." Vriska was lying on her back, at the very top level of the old playground climber. Tessa was just over a plastic wall, hanging upside-down from the swings. She wasn't supposed to be there, but no one was really watching the yard, probably because they were the only ones there at lunch. The big kids normally hung out inside, except for the two of them. All the littler kids had run scared from the two big fifth graders.
"So he puts his hand through the first door and feels this metal settle over his right pinky finger. So he panics, and he pulls back through the door, but when the door swings back, snap!, his finger's cut right off!"
"Ugggh!" Vriska reeled. Her reaction was genuine at least as long as it took Tessa to start laughing at it, and she had to laugh back.
"So, okay, okay," Tessa was saying.
"So he does the rest of them," Vriska cut in.
"You don't know that!"
Vriska insisted. "Of course he does! Otherwise it wouldn't be gross and you wouldn't be talking about it!" Tessa just laughed. "Well does he, or not?"
"He shoves his hand in, and he grabs the key…"
Tessa continued: "And he yanks it out all at once! And the plastic on the other side goes all red like splrrrt."
"Ugh, grooooss!" Vriska squealed and kicked her feet against the metal until it was hard to breathe.
Tessa pulled herself up with an impressive display of upper-body strength, but had to reach for Vriska until she was balanced. Her hair was mussed, and teal. Someone had told them that everyone in middle school dyed their hair, boys and girls: they had split a cheap bottle of blue and it had reacted funny to Tessa's dirty-blonde. Vriska's hair was so dark the blue hardly showed, but that was okay, since it had already grown out for both of them, leaving them with obvious roots. Balanced, Tessa held up her hands, left fingers splayed, right folded. "He got one hand free… by throwing out the other!"
"You're weird," Vriska said. "It's not real."
"You like it."
Tessa strung an elastic band to her hand and she snapped it at Vriska pistol-style before she could react. Tessa was gold with elastics, paperclips, and string. She was constantly fiddling with them in class, making bracelets, necklaces, nooses and chains. She liked to make things out of other things, in general. Vriska's pockets were full of rocks and coins and dice she found lying around, that clacked against each other when she walked. She just liked to have things, simple as that.
"We're not very good pirates today," Tessa said. That had been the game. She was supposed to be Mary Read. Vriska was Anne Bonny. She liked them both, but she was always Anne Bonny, when they were pirates. She liked Anne more than others, more than all the other people they read about.
"That's because nobody'll come near us any more," Vriska said. She kicked the metal frame another time. The playground had been their fortress for years (today, their sloop), and was serving one last month: hard-won, until the year ended and they were off to middle school. Things were going to be harder then, their teachers insisted. It was going to get them ready for high school, so there would be harder work, and no one would put up with "your nonsense" or Tessa's "shenanigans." Vriska was hardly sure who they were talking to. Might as well be everyone, as far as she was concerned.
"Hold on. Hold on!" Tessa was at least looking up. Vriska had to right herself, turn over and squint with her one good eye. There was a little kid coming home from lunch early. "…Is this one good?"
Vriska didn't like it when Tessa had to ask. She certainly didn't know. When Tessa had to ask, Vriska had to lie, and she was always worried that one day Tessa would follow up. Today however, Vriska was fine with lying. Maybe it was the fight with her mother. Maybe it was just because she was so bored.
"Yeah, I think I saw him jaywalking the other day. Tuesday," she clarified. She had never understood Tessa's hang-ups, but she figured it was best that the fake crime be recent.
"Awesome," Tessa said, and slid off the beam to the ground. Not to be outdone, Vriska vaulted the edge. Her bones jarred at the landing. "Fly the French flag," Vriska muttered to Tessa as they went. That was their code to play friendly, based on their admittedly poor understanding of English privateering and piracy in general.
"Hey there!" Tessa called, friendly enough. The kid immediately shied away, clutching his backpack closer. Vriska did not know whether to be discouraged or proud that everyone in the school already seemed to know them. She went with plan B and pretended to lose interest, walking off toward the basketball hoops. "Are you in Miss Queen's class?" Tessa asked, recognizing the distraction. The kid nodded, not looking forward. As he did, Vriska dropped some marbles and D20s from her pocket carefully in front of the boy's path, on the pavement. He slipped on them, his backpack and Tessa catching most of the weight until Tessa dropped him flat. He had tears in his eyes and Vriska's boot on his stomach in under a second. She smiled down at him and prodded him with a ruler she had plucked from her back earlier in the lunch break. But that was just force and decoration. With her patched eye, Vriska did not need any help. Everyone was afraid of her. Tessa stood back, knowing she was no longer needed. Not those days.
"I don't have any money!" the kid squealed. Yup, he'd heard of them.
"Miss Queen's class is first grade," Vriska said, more to Tessa than not. "End-of-year trip?"
"Could be worth twenty bucks," Tessa admitted.
"Bag," Vriska ordered, and lifted her foot just enough. The kid looked like he was going to fight back for only a moment, so she shook her head. "Hey, if you have to learn what's a good idea, you must be in first grade." He listened, and handed it over. Vriska began to rifle through, and he made a break for it.
"Whoa there," said a voice from behind. Vriska smiled. She had noticed that Tessa had not made a move to stop the kid. Now she knew why.
The kid did not, and quickly turned into a tattletale. "They're trying to take my trip money!"
"Oh yeah?" said the new arrival. Vriska liked his tone. All the kid had done was confirm the money was there. "How much?"
"Fifteen!" Vriska said with triumph, and held up the money to Erik. He snapped it up, to her protests.
"Nice," he said, and then, "beat it kid, we're done here."
Tessa kicked him his bag and the first grader made quick tracks. Erik ignored Vriska's tugging and jabs until he had thoroughly investigated their two-bill prize and then passed back the five. Vriska rolled her eyes at him and passed Tessa two dollar bills from her own pocket. Tessa would have been cool with nothing, for some reason, but Vriska didn't like debts, even if she did always round down.
Erik snapped his gum, and brushed back the ridiculous sprig of purple-dyed hair that stuck straight up from his forehead. "Grad party at Car's," he said, in his weird accent. Vriska wasn't sure where he was from, and did not plan to ask. She preferred him as a bit of a mystery, and would never admit to Tessa that she was still nursing her fourth-grade a crush on the weirdo. That was why she had first called herself Anne Bonny. After all, whenever he joined in, Erik was Calico Jack. But he never noticed. Vriska found that boys were stupid like that. Vriska liked Anne too much to change now.
"You're coming?" Vriska asked, trying to hide all her emotions behind her.
"Hell yeah!" Erik said. He took out his gum and then fiddled in his pockets, pulling out one of the cigarettes he had bummed off of one of his "older friends." Tessa snapped it up at once and crushed it under her foot. Erik glared at her. "Fuck, I forgot, all right?" Tessa sniffed in dismissal. "What's a guy gotta do?"
"Grow up," Tessa sniffed in dismissal. Vriska grinned. The legality kick strikes again.
"Whatever," Erik said, going back to his gum. "If you're going to be like that, don't come, all right?"
"Don't be a jerk, Erik," Vriska ordered. He shrugged, and Tessa looked annoyed just to hear Vriska act like she needed defending.
"Well if you're going to be like that, then maybe I won't bother coming!" Tessa declared. Vriska just rolled her eyes, and Erik turned to her next.
"Yes," Vriska said at once. "You bringing your girlfriend?"
"She's not my fuckin' girlfriend!" Erik snapped. "And no, she's busy." He flashed the ten. "So you had better be there or I'm gonna be up to my ears with G' rambling about whatever crap he's listening to these days, you know? Later."
"Yeah, later." Vriska was not going to tell him that she was hardly going to spend the entire evening with him, and he'd be stuck with G' either way. She had a life, after all, new classmates to meet, and if dumping him was all that stood between her and being a creepy loner cyclops, she was prepared to pay that price. That was the plan, anyway. Erik wandered off, and Tessa fired an elastic at the back of his head.
"…You going to go anyway?" Vriska asked Tessa.
Tessa laughed. "Yeah. Carl invited me already."
Vriska did not believe it. She thought Carl had been avoiding her and Tessa after the incident. "Why?"
"His dad thinks I make everyone behave," Tessa said with a glint in her eye. It was technically true. She stuffed her two dollars into her pocket. "Man, I'm gonna miss this," she said, gesturing to the playground. "What are we gonna do without little criminals?"
"Beat up big ones," Vriska said at once. That was planned out, too.
Tessa gasped. "You're kidding!"
"Noooooooo!" Vriska shook her head. "I don't kid."
After school, Tessa dragged Vriska over to the convenience store to grab some snacks. Vriska had wanted to head straight home and put off doing the last homework assignment of little school as long as possible, but her friend was insistent. Tessa liked having money. Like her fiddly crafts, money could be turned into other things, very easily. When Vriska paid for her chocolate bar with two of the stolen one-dollar bills, she tucked the other deeper into her pocket, along with the change. For later.
The store owner had all the neighbourhood children trained to leave the store at once after purchasing, but he could not do a thing about them loitering on his front step. Tessa tried to stop, but Vriska was not in the mood, and her friend quickly saw why. Erik was there, with his girlfriend's arms around his neck and a ten-dollar bill in her hand. Tessa watched them, inquisitively, but Vriska pushed on. Neither of them knew the girl. Whatever her name was, she had nice clothes a lot of energy, and was certainly one of their upcoming middle-school classmates, considering her pink hair. Vriska alone knew why Erik kept sneaking her money, after she had squeezed it from him in February. Her mom needed insulin, sob story, charity case. Probably genuine, and maybe Erik was too, but either way, Calico Jack had gone to being just putty in her hands. Pft. Vriska would have knocked him about it but the girl was right there. Worse, she had seen Vriska, and gave this knowing nod that Vriska returned. The girl knew where the money was coming from, and was willing to keep taking it. Vriska could respect that, but she didn't want to watch them celebrating.
"Think we'll meet anyone interesting at the party?" Vriska asked, unconsciously.
"Not if you plan on beating up all the older kids," Tessa said with a laugh. "Seriously, what's up with that? You'll probably meet some poor little kid and scare him into a corner or something and call it a night."
"Hey, only if he deserves it," Vriska replied.
"No, of course not. You've got a 'plaaaaaaaan.'" Tessa laughed. "You're not gonna make any friends that way. Just victims."
"Victims are fine," Vriska muttered. Tessa caught on her downcast expression and touched at her arm. "Look, you said it. You're gonna miss little school. Well, gotta make a new ship, you know? Can't let ourselves get lost with nowhere to go."
"How do you mean?"
"I just… I don't recommend it." They stopped just outside of Vriska's apartment block, where they eyed the new car in the guest lot. "Anyone you know?" Vriska asked. Tessa shook her head. "…Darn it."
Vriska grudgingly removed her eye patch and quickly disposed of her candy wrapper. The world around her split double when she opened her bad eye to the light. "How's it look?"
Tessa had backed off a step. "Worse."
"Good," she said, and said goodbye. Vriska took the stairs up one at a time, blinking furiously to clear her vision as best as possible. She did not know if her mother was entertaining a guest or a "guest," but if she was going to do the latter it was going to be now, when her daughter was coming home from school as naturally as possible. Vriska knew her part, and she'd pay it. She had plans too, and she knew how they worked. She knew she didn't have to like it.