your hair’s on fire
you must have lost your wits, yeah
-Foster The People - Pumped Up Kicks
“Girl, you’ve been fucking with those squares for like twenty minutes. Why don’t you come play with the other kids now?”
You startle and then turn to give Dave your most carelessly wide grin so he doesn’t notice. You don’t think that will work for very much longer; he keeps sneaking up on you when the two of you are working on Can Town. He is very quiet, which would be a quality most laudable in anyone else but is frankly obnoxious when it’s turned against you, and you get drawn so deeply into the colors that you don’t smell him.
Even now, your snout is full of thick licorice and the faintly sugary chalk taste of stomach settling tablets so that his red berry medley comes through like curls of fine smoke. He’s wispy and indistinct until you loll your tongue out at him.
“The squares are not straight, Dave. What sort of lawlessness are you encouraging? You may have a stunningly cool disregard for rules, but surely even you understand the importance of precise civic zoning!”
“That shit’s pretty straight there, TZ.”
They are not straight! That is the problem. You turn back and inhale deeply, washing the entire rest of the world away in a swirl of delicious chessboard zest. You don’t lick, because that will blur the lines into each other, when you need them crisp and precise.
They are not straight. There’s a thick bulge of licorice jutting impudently across the gritty white border, and there’s a chalky curlicue of white nearly cutting off one black corner. Here and there your lines waver, imperceptible to all but the keenest of noses.
“They’re not straight enough,” you say back. “They’re messy and stupid and I have to fix them so they’ll be good enough. We can’t let the Mayor down, after all.”
You arm yourself for battle, breathing a slow count in and out in still calm before the storm, and then you take your weapons in hand: white and black, rubbed down now to rounded nubs of their former glory. As slowly as you can, you reach out for that swooping black curve and draw over it in white in careful, even strokes. All you can smell is chalk dust and anise. All you can hear is the faint grit of your weapon against the floor.
Success! You allow yourself an appropriate span of time to bask in the glory of order and then turn your attention to that wandering line of white. The black chalk is leveled against it, tip dragged delicately along its length. You cover it.
You draw into the white square on top. You can’t stop yourself. It’s like someone else has grabbed ahold of your hand and sent it careening away from any logical path, right into the heart of that clean white block, and then when you try to pick it up and drag it back you smudge it all around. Horror rises in you, hot and sharp and acrid in the back of your throat.
Suddenly someone’s warm arms are curling around your shoulders and pulling you away. Someone’s fingers reach out and pluck the chalk from your hands. You slump against Dave’s chest and dazedly wonder why. Everything seems very slow and quiet and far away from you, right now.
You open your mouth to tell him, quite reasonably, to let go of you so you can fix your mistake. Instead, you sob and then choke on it when you try to breathe it back in. You hold your breath and count to ten. It shudders when it comes out and so do you, shaking nearly apart at the joints.
Dave pats at your shoulders and arms and head like he thinks maybe you have an off button. He paps you like he’s frisking you for contraband. He tries to do the shoosh whistle he’s heard Karkat make and sounds like a tea kettle, which draws a shaky gurgle of a laugh out of you. Finally, he gives up and just holds onto you, awkwardly rocking himself from side to side.
“Oh, fuck, no, come on. Please don’t cry. Everything’s alright, come on. Everything’s fine. It’s just some shitty drawings, it’s not like you can’t redo ‘em. Everything’s fine, TZ, right?” The helpless worry in his voice makes your throat ache.
“I did it wrong,” you manage to gasp out, words cut short and choppy by hyperventilation. It almost hurts to hold it back, but you are not going to cry in front of him over smudged chalk. Maybe you can’t keep your voice steady, but you will not cry. “I messed it up.”
“You can fix it, though, right? I mean, really, it’s just a chalk square. I could do it right now and make that shit good as new. It’s okay.”
“You don’t understand.” No one ever really understands, but some part of you expected him to, because - because he just should. Because you are so pale for him, you’re practically shitting diamonds, you have diamonds dripping out of your tear ducts, you have diamonds blocking your bile duct, every morning you wake up and dig them out of your ears, and when you’re pale for someone then they’re supposed to be pale for you and they’re supposed to understand you right down to all the little spaces between your atoms. That’s how it works.
“Nah, you know I don’t get ruffled over basically anything. How about you try to tell me, though? We can go have a sexy space jam about it.” Now that you don’t seem so ready to burst into tears, he feels calmer too, looser, heart no longer hammering against your back.
You know he feels the same way about you. You do know that, even though sometimes he’s as absolutely hair-pullingly infuriating as Karkat about it. He’s just a human and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, exactly, but he feels the same and he tries. You know.
So you try to tell him. It’s always been very obvious to you from a very young age. Almost as soon as you were old enough to understand there was a different way for things to be, you’d known there was a right one. That was so self-evident, you’ve never really gotten how no one else understood it.
Your desk had to be in a certain place in the room, because that was the right place, and anywhere else made the space wrong. Your books had to go in the right way. Your drawings had to use as much of the available space as possible; you have always abhorred emptiness, found the waste of space abominable. Karkat used to try to tease you about being a neat freak, when you first told him about the rules, but that was never true. You admired the way the forest was set up, the long towering trees all in their proper places with the thick scrubby underbrush filling in all around their bases, growing right up into all the space they had. It made sense.
So you kept your room like that. You kept things where they were supposed to go. You typed the way you were supposed to type, with the Prophets’ numerals and the relaxing similarity of capital letters all lined perfectly up.
Everything had rules. Bathing went a certain way and at a certain time in your nightly routine, so you never forgot to. Clothes went on in the right order. You kept the same path cleared in your room for easy access, a footpath through the shrubs and leaf litter of your own forest floor.
Then you realized that your people had rules, too. Your society had rules. You realized that there was something governing how life went, how everything went, and you applied yourself to its study as fervently as any fresh novitiate into religious awakening, thrilled ecstatic with how neatly law made everything slot into place.
“Everything has its place, Dave,” you say. “Everything happens for a reason. Everything has rules. That’s how the world works. Even earth human coolkids with snazzy hoods have to follow the rules, you know.”
You applied yourself so diligently to all those rules. FLARP, law, talking to people - friends and enemies and quadrants, the hemospectrum, who you were above and below, who you could plot with and against, who you could be flippant to - everything. You followed the rules because they were there for a reason and they made sure life made sense. You got up and bathed in the evening to get the sopor off of you, and then you ate to keep from being hungry, and then you went to visit your mom because you loved her, who couldn’t hatch because then the world would end.
“The game had rules, too. Our session was very easy until your demon showed up, Dave.” This close, even with how stuffy your sinuses are, you can almost smell the tightening of his mouth. “I enjoyed being a Seer very much. Everything was all reason, all cause and effect. The only hard was how many paths there sometimes were, but it was very easy to figure them out, really, because you can only do so many things. Even if you think you can do anything, it’s not true. Just ask Vriska.” You blurt a rough cackle and immediately feel bad for it.
“What went down with Spidertroll, anyway?”
Sighing, you shift against him, wiggling to get more comfortable. “She thought she could break the rules. She always did. She always thought that she was above everything, and she could do whatever she wanted without any reason, and never realized why things always blew up in her stupid spidery face. I always knew she was hopeless, but I never really realized how little she could actually do until I had my powers. I don’t think she ever realized it.”
What she could do was nothing. Vriska fought against the rules and they snapped back at her. You tried to tell her so many times, but she would never listen, not even when it really counted.
“She thought she could tell her own story! She was very arrogant. I won’t say none of it was warranted, because she was very powerful and intelligent, but in the end she was too sure of her own talents to realize when she was outmatched.” There’s a part of you that feels good about how Vriska ended up, the satisfaction of holding a blade until it fetches up against your bones. She made you uneasy, sometimes, with the way she flaunted life’s rules. “So you see what happens when you break the rules. Everything needs to go how it should and you need to act properly, or you’ll end up like spidertroll.”
Dave is quiet for a long time. When he finally speaks, it’s slow and solemn, with none of his usual flippancy. He speaks like he’s still feeling his way around the thoughts. “I don’t think that’s quite right. I think maybe you’re, fuck, I don’t know, mixing shit up? It’s kind of like you have this string and you’re following it to the ball it came from, but it’s tangled up with a different color and you’re a crazy blind girl so you can’t tell, so you end up getting turned off the right way and you follow someone else’s string trail, and now you’re getting eaten by the minotaur instead of home free and celebrating with pederasty. You know?”
“I have no idea what you just said.”
“I’m saying that the world’s not really like that. Sometimes shit just happens, TZ. Sometimes people do stuff and it doesn’t work out like it should, and sometimes they do the wrong thing and things come out fine. Sometimes sweet little Christian girls get shot up at school even though they say yes and shiftless douchebags win the lottery and buy all their friends sports cars and then get arrested. Stuff happens and it isn’t always because of some random-ass rules some chick in a treehouse made up.”
You are shaking your head before he finished. “No, you’re wrong. Things need to be done the right way. How else are you supposed to do them?”
“I mean, do ‘em the right way, I’m just saying there’s not really only one right way to even do ‘em. I’m saying that even if people don’t do it your way, or you don’t arrange your shoes just right or whatever, stuff is still gonna happen.” He pats at the unhappy hill of your shoulder. “Nothing bad is going to happen if you don’t draw your squares perfect.”
“But it is, because that’s not right.”
“What’s gonna happen?”
You open your mouth. You shut it. You open it again.
You feel suddenly gutted. You’re the creaking, soot-greasy timber shell left after a flash fire scours a house clean. If you can't answer, you will fall.
It seems so clear, but you can’t say it. If you follow the rules, things go right. The rules exist because things have to be done right, and things have to be done right in order to follow the rules. Perfectly, beautifully circular.
You eat to get energy. You sleep to recuperate. You cannot steal because property belongs to others and it’s unfair to take what you have not rightfully earned. You had to kill Vriska because she was trying to do the wrong thing. Your mom never hatched because it would end the world.
Checks and balances. Everything is a trade-off. It’s so obvious, but you can’t say it, and in your own silence you feel it slipping away from you. You grasp and reach and grab, claw and bite and cling, but it falls away and away into some inner blankness you can’t penetrate.
What will happen?
“I don’t know,” you whisper, and then you’re crying, knotted around yourself in panic. You don’t know but you know it’s terrible and monstrous and you don’t ever want it to happen. It’s an awful empty whiteness with a spider mouth, grasping and endlessly hungry, just waiting for the slightest slip down into it. It’s a paused timer, it’s the end of everything, it’s calamity on a scale you, who watched thirteen worlds die, cannot even begin to comprehend. “But I - I don’t - I need - it’s - I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I want to keep everyone safe, I tried to keep everyone safe.”
You imposed order. You shepherded them along the right paths to victory and safety. You made things make sense and set the rules in place. You. And now you can break them and make things go even worse. All you want is to keep things going smoothly. All you want is to draw a fucking square the right way.
Dave doesn’t shush you this time, not until you’ve wound yourself down to miserable sniffling hiccups. Then he does it, that low breathy susurrus of it the humans do, which sounds a whole lot like the leaves rustling against your windows and makes you relax better than any proper shooshing ever has. He rubs your arm, shushing harder when you jump at the brief loss of contact; you can’t smell him anymore, can’t see anything, can only feel his solid warmth and the cool hardness of the lab floor underneath you.
“Nothing’s gonna be wrong because you drew some shit wrong, okay? No one’s gonna get hurt because of that. I promise.” He sounds so very sure of himself. He does not often sound sure of himself, offline and without his cool cherry words to hide behind, but he does now. “You did a great fucking job keeping shit straight around here and you’re still doing it. Who else is going to? Karkat?”
Your laugh is clotted with snot. “Karkat can’t keep anything straight, he just shouts until it stops slouching while he’s in the room.”
“Right, exactly. And Rose and Kanaya are too busy spooning up reading each other Troll Stephenie Meyer’s In Which A Dog And A Sparkling Homosexual In A Volvo Fight Over A Literal Cardboard Cutout While Housewives Across The Nation Masturbate Furiously, Resulting In An Unprecedented Chafing Epidemic, and what’s our other option, Bozo the Amazing Disappearing Juggalo?” He gives your shoulder a very encouraging shake.
“Haha, that’s right. I have this shit on the most stringent of lockdowns.” Your head swirls and tingles. Your nose is dripping and you can’t see anything and you are going to have the worst headache later. But you feel relieved, in a watery kind of way, like perhaps disaster isn’t on the very edge of the horizon. “I am the Mayor’s loyal servant, and I’ve just deputized you, coolkid. Your first command is to go restore order in our allotted land. We can’t have disputes breaking out over unfair dispersal.”
He doesn’t even say anything when you flop your tongue out to taste him moving.