Nurse Maryam Kanaya held the baby and quietly shushed him as he reached out his arms and squalled, either from hunger or temperature or just because he could. He wasn’t very old, but he certainly was vocal.
“Doctor, what do you think about this?” she said, turning towards her friend and colleague Dr. Megan Aradya.
“I think he’s certainly lucky to be alive.”
“Certainly. But I was referring to his new inheritance.”
“It isn’t my place to say if that old woman did the right thing or not. But she didn’t have any other use for her money where she was going. And so that’s what I told her when she asked me.”
“Your bedside manner is impeccable as always,” remarked nurse Maryam.
Doctor Aradya smiled. “Was that sarcasm towards a superior, nurse Kanaya?”
“Of course not,” quipped the nurse over the sound of the newly-christened David Strider’s yowls.
“Oh, I am okay with it! Besides, doctor Roseanne will be so proud of you,” remarked the doctor cheekily. “I think your friendship with her was the first good thing to come out of the psych therapy department.”
“Doctor Roseanne does good work,” nurse Kanaya defended.
“Oh, I know she does! I said that your friendship was the first good thing to come out of the psych therapy department, not the last and certainly not the only.” Doctor Aradya shrugged. “In fact, the only bad thing to come out of it is that Pollux disagrees with me on that.”
Kanaya muttered under her breath, “We all know your med tech boyfriend only thinks that because he needs her help the most but is too proud to admit she can help him.” The doctor pretended not to hear her, but they both knew she had. Besides, doctor Aradya knew that this was true.
Still, she kept her attention on the baby boy. “I have a feeling that the young man in your arms might be seeing Doctor Roseanne Valonde as well, once he gets older. Surely when the Harleys tell him that he isn’t their actual son, he will need counseling.”
“And I have a feeling he’ll figure that out far before they have to tell him,” the nurse remarked. “His last name isn’t the same and he looks absolutely nothing like any of them, beyond the fact that they are all human beings. Then the similarities end, I am afraid.”
The doctor laughed. “Well said! But old Jade Harley-Egbert saw him in the hallway and named him the primary heir to her fortune on the spot. If that isn’t perfect timing on this little guy’s part,” she grinned at Dave, who had now fallen asleep, “I don’t know what is!”
Nurse Maryam nodded. “I hear her great granddaughter is also named Jade. I wonder if the name is passed down,” she wondered.
“Who knows! Mrs. Harley-Egbert certainly was an eccentric woman, and I believe she would have been whether she was a billionaire or not. But if the boy also marries a woman named Jade, then we will know destiny is involved.”
Doctor Aradya covered her mouth to hide her snickers. “This isn’t Twilight and he is definitely not going to grow up to be any kind of Taylor Lautner, Maryam. He’s more of an Edward type with that pale skin and those odd eyes. Like a piece of meat that crows pick at.”
Nurse Maryam’s chiseled eyebrows shot up to her hairline. “Normally I overlook your morbidity, but considering this preemie’s circumstances, I feel like you went too far.”
Little David was unaffected, though. He snoozed in nurse Maryam’s arms without a care in the world. He didn’t know that his teenaged mother, a victim of circumstance, had died penniless, alone, and in labor nor did he know that he had been born a month early. No, the fragile boy had been snatched up from the jaws of death by the insensitive Doctor Aradya and then again saved from the equally damning fate of social services by the dying Jade Harley-Egbert as she was making up her will. She insisted that her youngest son-in-law and daughter, his wife, a couple of about forty, file for adoption of the boy immediately and that tiny David inherit the largest portion of her inheritance.
Rather than being outraged, the entire family had been almost delighted. (Male nurse Travis Nightram, the aging Jade’s primary, had been absolutely astounded that the whole family had taken to the idea at all.)
David did not know how close to death and misery he had been, and he slept on, oblivious to the cruelty of the world, until he felt that the time was right.
Jade looked up from the travel brochure and shooed her dog away from the chewy paper. She knew he wanted it, but it was her favorite thing to look at and her parents weren’t going to get her another one any time soon- they had picked it up back before the plane crash of 9/11, when they thought they might want to go on a trip. Now they banished the idea entirely and all but browbeat Jade into staying home for the remainder of her days.
But she had all the time in the world to watch her life fade away and she didn’t want to waste it missing out on all the excitement. So she didn’t.
She saved up her money and moved out of her rural home the moment she turned eighteen and shared a city apartment with her best friend. The plan was they live there for as long as it took to save up money to travel across the world on an adventure.
Her parents had even helped her even though they were afraid of the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle. After all, Jade’s Aunt Jane had lost everything she owned when her studio apartment had been ransacked. Never would have happened had she not gone to the city.
But it was a wonderful new home, the little city apartment, even if her roommate had a clingy boyfriend and insisted that the walls be covered in pink and Sea World posters. Jade didn’t mind at all- the city was an adventure. She even liked staying there for a while with nothing but an utterly a normal routine.
She thought time was no object and that she could see the world whenever she wanted. There was no rush to leave this city that felt like home.
And it would have stayed that way had her flatmate’s boyfriend not had a nervous breakdown and killed his girlfriend in a fit of rage.
Her parents, who had been nervous about Jade living in the city from the beginning, were horrified and insisted both she and her brother, who had been living with his own city-raised girlfriend, moved back home. They kept their darling children close, where they couldn’t get away and be hurt.
They were especially protective of Jade after her brother suddenly eloped and disappeared into thin air.
Jade was now their only child. If she left, their hearts would break in two. And Jade loved her parents and would never want to hurt them, even if it meant compromising her own happiness, so she always lived nearby and visited them as often as she could.
The money she had saved for travelling the world was put away until it was eventually used to help pay for the extra care her aging parents needed.
The only thing left for her was to live the best she could in the space she was given.
The radio alarm had been sounding for about forty minutes and the repetitive baselines of 61.2 the SIGN were starting to make the neighbors pound on the wall between apartments in annoyance. Dave slammed his hand down on the “off” button and sighed.
Finally, he rolled out of bed and let himself lie face down on the floor. Dave knew full well that his shift started in ten minutes and that it took him about twenty and a half to get dressed and to work, and he also knew that his boss had warned him that if he were late again, he would fire him.
This was the fourth job he’d had in six months and he needed to keep it if he planned to pay his rent before his landlord kicked him out for not having it for the third time in a row.
But he didn’t show any of that with his actions as he groggily inched his supine body to the crumpled pile of his uniform pants he’d left on the floor and, with his body still quite decidedly in a sleeping position, pulled them over the underwear he’d slept in as to not exert any more effort than necessary to get dressed.
Unfortunately, he would have to actually stand up to retrieve his shirt-he’d left it on his desk chair and it was too high for him to reach up and grab.
He snorted and fixed the problem by pulling down the chair by its legs and snatching the shirt up as it fell. He was going to get up off the floor on his time and nobody else’s, and his time was whenever he damn well pleased.
It’s not his fault that the world didn’t follow his schedule, he figured.
(But it was his fault that he just wouldn’t get with the program and realized that the world would keep turning whether he was on it or not.)
On his way to work, he remembered that he hadn’t had breakfast and stopped at a nearby mom n’ pop bakery shop and blew the last of his cash on a couple of doughnuts he’d seen in the window that looked particularly appetizing. He cut off his lethargic conversation with the cashier when he remembered that he had a job that, logically, he should be trying to keep.
He moseyed over to the bus stop with all the urgency of a snail to a French restaurant that served escargot and waved at the bus he just narrowly missed, standing from about fifteen feet from the moving seat where his late ass should have been planted.
Then he plopped down on the empty, stationary bench to enjoy his breakfast, looking up just in time to see a little boy with black hair and glasses get pushed into the middle of the road by a girl with grey eyes and an unnervingly confident smirk.
Dave’s slothful slump ended with a crash of pastry on concrete as, quick as a flash, he snatched the boy from the oncoming traffic in a rolling tackle, narrowly missing a semi-truck as it sounded its horn in alarm.
Heheard the commotion from the bystanders around him and decided it was safe to open his eyes and examine the damage done to the boy currently sprawled on his chest.
The boy looked at him with eyes so blue that Dave swore that he was actually looking through holes in the boy’s eyes and into the sky above his head. He reached out and patted the child on the shoulder to make sure he hadn’t killed them both in the car crash and was left staring at some eyeless apparition. His hand was rewarded by the solid feeling of a live body beneath a cheap cotton shirt and he reached down to feel his own arms and chest.
“Oh, thank you so much! You’re really cool, mister!” The boy’s horrible teeth gleamed on his face.
“Whatever, kid, you just go home before your evil-eyed friend over there decides to make you play human Frogger again.”
“Oh, I love Frogger! I play it all the time.”
“Yeah, I used to--”Dave stopped. “How the hell are you old enough to know what Frogger is? That came out in, like, the eighties or something and it’s 2001. You’re, like, what, two?”
“He acts like it, but he’s really seven.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, spiderbreath. And what is wrong with you, pushing him into the road?”
“Ha ha, he called you spiderbreath!”
The girl flung her azure jacket out, revealing a blue shirt that matched her denim jeans. “Whatever, John. You still have to do whatever I say because I’m a year older. Derpass.”
“Look, smurfette. If what you say can be believed, you’re eight. You don’t get to call him “derpass”. You don’t even get to fucking say the word “ass” in any context except the Biblical one. And considering what a hellion you’re provin’ yourself to be, Biblical contexts ain’t gonna apply to you. Clean up your damn language.”
“Look at the shit that just came out of your mouth, assface.”
“The power of Christ compels you.”
Little John interrupted. “But Dad says neither me nor my friends should use bad words.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Like that matters. John boy, I’m gonna toughen you up so you can act like a grown-up and not talk like a little sissy.”
“So being eight years old makes you an authority on everything?”
“Eight is the best age, asshole! Way better than fifty, old man!”
“Whoa, you obviously can’t count more than your eight legs. I’m twenty four, spiderbitch.”
“And obviously you feel the need to get into fights with beautiful girls sixteen years younger than you. Or is this your way of flirting with me? Ewwwwwww, pedophile!”
“What’s a pedophile?” John asked.
“You know what, kid? John? That’s your name? Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about anything except for getting away from this girl as fast as the wind. Fly if you have to.”
“Should I take my sister with me?”
“How old is she?”
“Jade’s twenty three.”
Dave’s reply was totally unencumbered by her mention. If anything, it made his actions go faster and smoother, like he had been waiting for this moment his whole life to move forward and make time his to manage.
Still, the name didn’t even ring a bell.
“Yes. Yes. Even a grown woman needs to keep away from your troublemaker friend. Take her. She needs all the space she can get.”
“Jade’s not a grown-up. Jade’s my sister.”
“Sisters can be grownups, little man.”
John looked up with his shining blue eyes and Dave felt like he was living a lie. “But she’s not quiiiite as cool and heroic and… grown up as you! And she’s a whole year younger!”
Here he was, a screwup losing his latest job, and this boy was practically worshipping him. He was the scum of the earth.
He said a few words to the news crew that arrived on the scene (someone watching must have called in all of the excitement, he figured) and, as soon as little John and his blue friend were returned to their respective parents, excused himself as quickly as he could to face his boss. He might as well act the part of the grownup and take responsibility for his actions.
And he did.
But Dave wasn’t fired. In fact, because he was hailed as a hero by the news, his manager decided that Dave had “strong priorities” and had “grown up a lot” and so gave him a promotion.
How ironic. Bumming around and wasting time had earned him a gig that consisted of sitting in an air-conditioned office for $8.50 an hour, which was way better than fishing frogs out of commercial pools for minimum wage he’d have had if he had decided to be a halfway decent employee.
Dave tried harder from then on, as if John were still watching him. He eventually created his own company that designed and installed commercial sprinkler systems, with most of his clients coming from pumpkin farms and plant nurseries.
He lived a moderately successful life and married a wonderfully clever woman named Rose, who he’d met in a coffee shop. They stayed together for four years until she quietly informed him that she had been seeing another woman and the guilt of it was too much for her to bear.
Dave had suspected as much as early as the day Rose had met Kanaya. He just hadn’t wanted to cause a stir. He was angry, sure, but he knew lesbians weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and so he kept his mouth shut because he cared about her too much to let the wolves have her. He had actually been resolving the issue in his head for many years and the hurt had dulled, silently.
He demanded a divorce under a façade of outrage, but he really did it because he hated watching Rose suffer under her belief that she “needed to be punished for her actions instead of having her mistakes swept under the rug.” (In reality, Dave knew divorce actually liberated her. He often wondered- and wonders- if the whole charade was one of Rose’s head games designed to grant her the divorce and paint herself the victim rather than the criminal, but he dislikes thinking that she would be black hearted enough to such a thing intentionally. She was definitely crafty enough, though.)
They split up on surprisingly friendly terms, with Rose taking primary custody of their younger daughter and Dave acting as the primary guardian over his older son, who regarded his father’s mediocre existence with judgmental disdain. The teenaged boy made no secret of the fact that he thought his father’s heroic rescue of John Harley was the high point of his life and even that was a lucky result of being in the right place at the right time.
Sometimes, Dave wondered if he even got that much right.
Jade knocked on the office door. “Teresa, can I come in?”
The door creaked open with a whine. “Yup. I’ve just about gotten all of the files organized and there’s now open space for visitors to walk on in. If I want them to,” a singsongy voice replied.
“And do you want me to?” teased Jade.
“Nah. This dragon is content guarding its treasure without any more company.”
“Aww, But I was just going to give my favorite coworker her favorite Twizzler candy,” Jade whined, pulling the package from the bag on her arm and waving it in the air.
The door was open and Teresa was all but on top of Jade to get to the candy, papers flying everywhere. “You know better than to tease me when you’ve got red candy, especially red licorice,” the woman mock-scolded when she finally had it, red ropes sticking out of her mouth every which way like flames from a mythical beast’s mouth.
“I just wanted insurance to make sure I could get into my office to pick up my cousin,” Jade joked. “Otherwise you might never let him go and there’s no telling what you might do to him. You might decide to cook him and eat him like in Hansel and Gretel!”
Teresa grinned. “Of course I wouldn’t do that, my favorite and dearest co-worker! You keep me too well-fed to do that to our favorite scoundrel.” She gave Jade an over-exaggerated hug. “Besides, I love you too much to hurt you or your family.”
“Teresa, you’re crushing me!”
“See? I love you thiiiis much!”
“Hee hee hee!”
Dave stepped out of the office, a stack of paperwork in his hands. “TS, I know you are half-blind, so I’m going to go ahead and clue you into the fact that my cousin is turning blue. Y’know, that color that it isn’t healthy for a human being to be.”
Teresa let go of Jade and squinted up at her face. “She’s human? You mean she isn’t supposed to be blue? But I thought she was a smurf! And blue is the color of so many tasty things!” she joked.
“You’ve saved me yet again, Dave!” teased Jade, ruffling his hair. “What would I do without you?”
“Be crushed by overzealous taxidermists, obviously.”
Teresa elbowed Jade. “Me? Overzealous? Ha! It is only because I can appreciate the feeling of preserving things with my heightened senses- you could not understand, what with only what your eyes see!” Teresa’s facetious tone dropped. “Besides, I’m nothing compared to this one. She loves sewing and stuffing dead things more than either myself or Kitty do. Sometimes I think she goes hunting just so she can have something to preserve even when we don’t have clients.”
“I do not!” Protested Jade.
“And to make me something for me to add to my collection,” decided Dave. “Together, Jade and I are like the perfect morbid dead-shit congregators. In another life, we’d be an Adams-family style married couple, creepy and kooky in that we’re the ones dressing dead people for funerals and then digging up their coffins to keep them as living dolls. She’s like… Morticia the mortician and I’m her adoring assistant Gomez, trying to get her to put off her work and make love to me in the caskets.”
Jade stuck out her tongue. “Eww, I think you went too far on that one, Dave!”
Teresa’s ever-present smile dropped and she tilted her head to the side to look at Jade’s younger cousin. She closed her Twizzler bag, suddenly not hungry.
He just grinned. “Yeah, all the dead people and casket details are more than a little sick and wrong. My bad.”
Teresa’s grin returned as quickly as it left, like its absence had only been a trick of the light. “Jade, there’s something I want to talk to you about and it might take a while. Do you have time?”
Jade turned. “Yeah, I do. Is that okay with you, Dave? You’ll have to wait a little bit longer before we can get home,” she said. “But I already made dinner, so we can just serve it from the pan the minute we get there.”
Dave shrugged. “I guess I can suffer for a little longer,” he said. “I’ll just wait for you here, wasting away into nothing from hunger and thirst. They’ll tell stories about how I died waiting for you and that my ghost now haunts the taxidermy doll Kitty made from my remains.”
“Speaking of Kitty, that paperwork in your smartassy, grubby mitts is stuff she needs to deal with. Will you take it to her for me?” Teresa asked.
“You might actually prefer to go hang with Kitty while Teresa and I talk about boring stuff,” Jade added.
“That’s true. She’s a crazy gal,” Dave muttered, walking out of the office are and towards the workshop in the back. “Oh, Miss Leijon…!” his voice faded as he shut the door behind him.
Teresa walked into the office and started neatening stacks of paperwork. Jade followed and sat down in the comfortable swivel chair, turning it around and around in circles before finally stopping to face her friend. “So, what’s up?” she asked.
There was a clicking noise as Teresa closed the door to the office and slowly looked at Jade. Her grin was nowhere to be seen. “Have you ever thought about taking Dave to see a counselor or a therapist?”
“No. Why? Is something wrong?” Jade’s mind reeled. “Is it about the fact that my family adopted him? He’s never had and major life-crushing problems about that before, but he is getting to the age where--”
Terezi held up her hands. “No, no. Not about that. And not about the fact that your great aunt and uncle died two years ago, either.”
“I don’t understand. Is he not happy that he ended up living with me?” Jade fidgeted and her tone grew even more anxious. “I mean, I know we’re sort of close in age and I’m not the best parent figure, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the worst. I mean, we fight sometimes, but he’s never seemed to hate me or hold lasting resentment and he isn’t really having any problems at school or anything. He has friends and they come over and he’s in the photography club and--”
“Jade, stop babbling. It isn’t anything you are doing wrong, I don’t think. And it’s not any of that.”
“Do you think he’s gay? It’s completely okay if he is-”
Teresa cackled madly, but it didn’t hold any mirth. “No. Jade, this is not that kind of situation.”
“Well. Huh.” Jade slowly raised her eyes to her friend’s and presented her next words carefully. “I don’t mean to come off as rude or uncaring, but I don’t think he needs a counselor, Teresa. Why do you think he does?”
“If you would give me a second to try to explain myself, I’ll--”
“Well, start explaining! Geez!” Jade teased, grinning at her coworker to try and break the tension.
Teresa didn’t return the expression. Instead she pursed her full lips and held them against her fingers. Thoughtfully, she walked over to the stool across from Jade’s swivel chair and sat down on it. “I’m not sure how to phrase this,” she said. “And I’m not sure if I should, actually. It might make things worse.”
Jade rolled her eyes. “Well, ‘Resa, you’ve already opened this can of worms and made me curious. If you don’t just tell me, I’ll start acting like my little cousin and nagging you with entire soliloquies and novels made of nothing my own zany metaphors until you do.” Jade brightened. “Then, I might need a counselor, too! Is that what you want to talk to me about? Did he make one too many graphic verbal images?”
For whatever reason, that made Teresa blanch. “No, thank God. He didn’t… he didn’t do that. Not past the reeking one that he just waved in front of our noses.” She muttered under her breath. “Otherwise I’d need even more of what he calls “brain bleach”…”
“You are making me more and more worried and confused by the minute!”
“Jade,” Teresa began, “I have been a friend to both you and Dave since practically the day I met you both. You know that.” Jade nodded. “Please believe me when I say that if you have not figured out what I’ve figured out about your cousin, then it’s better that you never know. But.” She took off her red-rimmed glasses and cleaned them on her teal shirt, “I really think Dave needs to go see a counselor. I know a good one that would be ideal, and I know she is expensive, but I can lend you money if you need it. And I would be more than willing to, even if you never paid me back.”
“Teresa, of course I’d pay you back. It’s absurd that you would even--”
“I know you would. And you’d do it in creamsicles, lemon drops, and Twizzlers to show your gratitude. If you didn’t, I’d be miffed. Still. It’s the principle of me saying that you don’t have to pay me back that matters.” She grinned. “I might pay for it anyway just so I can expect snack food every day. Hee hee hee!”
Jade snorted but sobered quickly to address the issue once more. “How would I convince Dave to go to this… counseling thing? I don’t actually have a reason besides “Teresa told me to take you.” Not that your word isn’t valid.”
Teresa opened her mouth and then closed it. “That I do not know. Hmm!”
“I could just tell him that it’s my own paranoid need to give him a check-up for his brain, kind of like you have check-ups for your body.” Jade shrugged. “Now that you’ve told me all this, it’s kind of the truth!”
“Actually, that’s probably the best move.”
“Well. Um, okay. But are you sure you can’t just tell me what your suspicions are, Teresa?” Jade weakly smiled. “It would make this a lot easier.”
“Jade,” Teresa said replacing her coke-bottle glasses and looking long and hard at her friend, “it really wouldn’t.”
One single timeline has unseen influence on all other existing timelines. Nobody knew that better than Dave Strider, but it was still a thing that he hadn’t been able to fully take advantage of yet.
The Knight of Time knew his every thought and action could both create and destroy universes and he would have to pick and choose which timelines lived, succeeded, died, and failed. He lined them up and struck at them, letting each bubble of time scramble and collide like balls on a pool table of eternity, doing everything he could to sink them into safe pockets of timespace with as little influence from the cueball as he could, keeping both it and the ones he needed to fix, like the unlucky eight, trapped on the felt until the bitter end.
Even if they weren’t perfect, he could keep the timelines safe from scratching and that was worth the cost of tampering with them. Writing and rewriting. Cost and profit. Twist and isolate some for the good of all.
“So this guy named Dave came into the store and bought all of the records of that one band you really liked. It was kind of a bummer that you didn’t meet him. You’d have really liked him,” Dirk drummed his fingers on the counter and gave his best friend a glance.
“Are you saying that you didn’t?”
At that, he wrinkled his nose. “No, he was too standoffish for me. And I’m pretty sure he was straight.”
Jade laughed as she restocked the shelves of the store. “But you could still be friends, right?”
“I am feeling that that’s a negative.” He placed his hands on his hips before elaborating. “The dude didn’t say anything about it to me directly, but the way he shrugged his shoulders when he saw my Lucky Star lanyard pin was obviously a sign of disapproval of my person before he even got to know me. No bro candidate of mine would naysay my moe.”
“I think you are reading waaaay to far into this.”
Dirk pointed a finger at her. “Trust me, Harley. I know what I’m talking about. One day, you too will be inducted in the league of spotting passive-aggressive douchebaggery.”
“Will that happen before or after I’m taught the ways of the ancient irony masters?”
“After. But before any of that, I must introduce you to the vast nuances and niches of the great Otaku. Well, the otaku that lies beyond the cult classic Green Slime Ghost Monstaru! and that shitty Squiddles-spinoff show.”
“Don’t diss my Squiddles! That’s my childhood!”
Dirk held up his palms. “Just because something is shitty doesn’t make it worthless. Hell, I watch that Squiddles. Look who is reading too far into things now!” He teased.
Jade clicked her tongue and returned to her work, coyly deflecting all of his attempts to turn the conversation to getting her a boyfriend.
Sheesh. Dirk had been trying to get her out of her breakup funk from her alcoholic ex Rocky for months and so he’d been trying to set her up with practically everyone who came in. “Just as a fun date. Nothing serious,” he’d said. Usually she could get him to shut up when she commented on how Dirk was so secretive about things like that and “didn’t do dates” before Johnathan, but she knew he meant well.
And he could stand to be a little more selective about picking candidates.
What kind of lame name was Dave, anyway.
The young crow had been brought to him by a local who explained that he had tried to exterminate the murder of them that had been living by his cornfield, but his little daughter, the “pearl of his oyster, the apple of his eye, his little princess, his little mermaid-fairy darling”, Fifi, had found out about it and rushed out, insisting that he at least spare the surviving bird.
And Saul Captor was not a man to deny his daughter anything, so he drove two towns over to find the closest bird rehabilitator he could find. Apparently there was not a large demand for that kind of thing in his neck of the woods. And judging by the sophistication of Saul’s teeth, both missing and not, Dave figured that they didn’t follow hunting laws, either.
Still, the crow needed care. Dave usually dealt with larger birds like hawks and eagles, but a black menace with a few missing feathers and a bad attitude was well within his expertise, too, so he agreed to take the bird in exchange for a few jars of honey the farmer offered him.
“An’ if you kin release the bird far away from m’ cornfields and beekeepin’ land, I’d be especially grateful.” The man gave a sincere smile, his uneven, backwater teeth sticking out in all directions. “Damn pests. If it weren’t for them, I’d have twice the crop and twice the bees. M’ daughter just has to make me go an’ hate myself every time I go to do anything,” he griped.
Dave’s assistant, Jake, had been chatting amicably with Saul while Dave had been examining the bird. “Ah, a man of two sides. One for business and one for family.”
“It’s too damn bad that them two sides cain’t git along,” the farmer muttered, closing the back door of his double-wide truck
“Imagine if they did. Wouldn’t that be just as bad? You can’t mix business and personal life. Or, at least, you darned well shouldn’t.”
Saul grunted and handed the plucky Jake the honey. “I feel like if I could get my head on straight, I could program them fancy circuitry boards an’ screens all those NASA guys used to talk to the guys on the moon. Hell, I could go to the moon in my sleep if I weren’t such a fool.”
“Don’t talk so negatively, sir! I think you’ve done a smashing thing by bringing this bird to us- it might be in a new place, but it will get to live and your daughter will be happy. And if it matters, the crow probably will be, too,” Jake added as an afterthought.
Jake and Dave waved goodbye. “So what did you think?” Jake asked Dave.
“Come on, Zachary,” Jake teased. “You’re always coming up with something clever to say, even if you don’t act like it! And I know you were just dying to rip into that man with some smart-assed banter!”
“Don’t call me by that name,” Dave berated. “It’s like calling a black guy by a racial slur. Very uncalled for.”
Jake rolled his eyes and walked into the office. “Your last name has been Zachary since you were four. Honestly, I don’t see why you still hate being called by it, especially since you try your cracking damnedest to act just like the stepfather you got it from.”
“My mother chose to have all of our last names changed, not me. And I do not.” Dave quietly shifted by his assistant and sat down at his makeshift desk.
“Yes, you do!”
“Tell me in what way.”
Jake flung his hands up in the air. “Alright, perhaps not exactly like him. But you are always trying to win his approval and it’s so bloody obvious! Imagine, a grown man still trying to not feel alienated at his own family reunions! It’s absurd!”
Dave crossed his arms and challenged Jake with a twist of his head. “I am a lily-white boy with freckles and hair so fair it makes me look like I’m the most vanilla milkshake of all the milkshakes at Steak n’ Shake, and so is my sweet, alcoholic mommy. My stepfather is the color of your compression shorts,” Jake covered his black thigh-shorts with one hand and protested that he planned on biking home today, “and yet he still married my loving mother despite her own flaws and the fact that she had me tagging along at her side like some kind of white leech. I think I got his approval the moment Roxanne Strider and Equiano Zachary signed the marriage papers. There’s no need for me to act any differently than I would on my own.”
“You sit there with your arms crossed and your blasted inflection even like his is. Like a little boy trying to emulate his daddy.”
“Jake, you are younger than me and have no right to talk to me like this. Remember your place.”
Jake slapped his hands down on the table and grinned in Dave’s face. “See? There we are! A perfect mini-Equiano!”
“I am only acting in a way befitting of a superior.”
“Right. Yes. Quite.” Jake snorted. “Tell me, when you are aroused, do you feel the need to find a towel just like him, too? Is it in your priorities to buy out all the linens at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, just so you can be two peas in a pod?”
Dave’s annoyance grew stronger and his face turned red. “I should command your respect by presence alone. You acting like a red-reared baboon with its thumb in its crack isn’t exactly making me think about what a great assistant you are and how you deserve a raise. Stop this lewd talk and mind your damned manners.”
“Great Gadzooks! Equiano Junior cursed and said I had my thumb up my ass!” Jake thew his hands in the air in mock horror. “Someone, catch me! I’m swooning from shock!”
Dave’s mouth wrenched itself into a deeper frown, but his perturbed face faltered. “Did you just say, “great Gadzooks”?
Jake made a boyscout sign with his right hand. “Scouts honor, I sure diddly-dum did.”
Dave snickered, disarmed. Jake kept going. “And it was plum dandy of me to have such a rip-snocker of a word to pull out of the ol’ noodlelocker,” he said, pointing to his head. “Otherwise you might not have let me off the hat hanger with just a light persnickety on my…. docket-wocket.”
Dave covered his face with his hands to hide his laughter. “You are just making shit up now, you smartass. Get out of here and go feed the ostrich. Let it eat whatever bull that’s in your crazy “noodlelocker” so it stops leaking out all over the office like water from a busted toilet. The rotten, forgotten egg salad sandwich of your last brainchild is a bitch to clean up,” he said, getting up to playfully slap Jake on the back to shoo him towards the enclosures.
Grinning, Jake exited the room, but not before shouting, “That is absolutely bullsnoggingly, billabongingly, cocksnashingly disgusting!”
Dave rolled his eyes at Jake and looked at the glowering crow on his desk.
It looked so lost. When he had first brought it in, it had been pecking at his fingers and cawing up a storm, but now it had tired itself out and was staring at Dave with fear in its eyes.
This wasn’t his home and his family was gone or dead. Dave could empathize, in a strange way.
The crow had been lucky enough to live, but it wasn’t where it was meant to be now and it was fated to be lost and alone. Dave pitied it.
Suddenly, Jake’s head popped back into the office. “Say, David Zachary. Our gabbing about families reminds me- would you like to come over for dinner tonight? My cousin Jade is coming in for a visit and mum always makes prolific amounts of food. She said I could invite other guests and it would be bully of you to join us.”
Dave placed his hand on the front of the kennel Saul had trapped the crow in and it screeched and pecked at him. “Shit,” he muttered, pulling his hand away. “I’d love that more than a dingo loves to eat babies, Jake, but considering this guy’s temperament and species, he’s gonna be difficult to put in for the night.”
“Mmm. Crows aren’t chums with birds of prey. I forgot.”
“Yeah. And the spare cage we have is kind of crappy. I can handle making this guy at home, but it will take a while. And then I’ll need to put in all the other birds.”
“I can help, if you like. It would go faster.”
“Nah. Don’t be late for your family dinner, Jake. Just make sure you ask me again next time ‘cause your mom makes the best English-American-what-the-hell-ever mac n’ cheese and I’ll bet my right arm that she’s making it tonight.”
“You really like it that much?”
“I need a towel just thinking about it,” Dave deadpanned.
Jake grinned and threw a rag to Dave to wipe out the crow’s cage with. “Well, Mister Zachary. I will leave you alone with your fantasy.”
“Thanks. And after you finish your work in there, head on home. You’re biking and you’ll need to shower before you go meet that cousin of yours so you can do whatever weird English ritual you people do when you greet family. Slaughter a virgin and a sheep in her honor.”
“How pagan.” Jake said as he waltzed off. He stopped. “If things work out, please feel free to stop by.”
“Oh, I definitely will. I gotta give your cousin the customary American greeting that I’m sure she believes we give all foreigners. Y’know, ravish her in her sleep or whatever.”
“And you had the nerve to call me lewd!” Jake laughed, closing the door behind him.
Dave carried the lonely crow’s kennel to the other room of birds, which was empty except for a highly vain seagull that liked to follow Jake around. (Jake and Dave had unanimously decided to name it “Dirk” after the latter’s precocious stepbrother from his mother’s second marriage. Equiano was her third husband, and nobody was really sure if she was going to stay with him for good.)
Dave shared a long look with the panicked crow in its kennel. “You couldn’t have come at any other time, huh. Had to get me out of the only homecooked meal I’ve had in forever.” He sighed.
“Maybe some other time, English family,” Dave muttered.
An old woman sat in her chair, rocking back and forth as she breathed in the air and smiled at the neighbors as they passed by.
And her goodwill was sincere, but even the most unfamiliar visitor could see that she didn’t want to be on that porch. She had wanderlust in her eyes. This was not unusual- Jade hadn’t ever lived anywhere for very long, just like she could hardly stay at one house for more than a few days when she was little. Since she made friends easily, she had no shortage of places to go and slumber parties satisfied her need.
That’s what she convinced herself every time she shuffled from place to place, like a little paper card going hand-to-hand but never leaving the deck. She circulated in location while her arguments of complacency danced around in her mind like a dog chasing its tail until she finally left her hometown for good.
She had travelled the world because she thought she needed to go, to learn, to see. But today (had her life really gone by so fast? Time had always gone over her head, but she had never noticed how much she’d lost track of it. She figured it didn’t matter, though, because she always kept herself available to travel, letting the wind take her wherever it pleased.), she knew that she was running out of time to find the place she wanted to be, right until the bitter end.
She needed her space, but she didn’t know where that was. So instead, she kept rocking back and forth on her chair, dreaming, pretending it was a great white horse that could take her to the mysterious land of her heart’s desire.
That was it.
The reason he always felt alone, why nothing ever felt like it happened at the right time. The explanation came first and the question came after and he hadn’t realized it until it was too late.
That was it.
His timing was simply all wrong.
When Doctor Roseanne Valonde saw Dave’s name on her list, she was more than a little amused. This was the boy that had become somewhat of a legend in the hospital she affiliated with and his absurd story had not faded in the sixteen years since he had been born. She filed her initial impression of him away for later, even though she knew that she couldn’t share it with the other doctors who had witnessed the abrupt adoption of David Strider into the Harley-Egbert clan because it was tainted by the professionalism that mandated she keep what they talked about a secret.
Still. There are ways to get around such things.
“Mister David Strider,” Doctor Roseanne said as he entered, “do you mind if I share your appearance here and the impression I have immediately gotten from you with the general staff of this hospital? They would be quite eager to know that you have returned.”
Dave raised his eyebrows. “Hi, nice to meet you too, Doc “Shrink-Who-Didn’t-Introduce-Herself”. And telling the others about my appearance and first impression depends entirely upon what those two things are.”
“You want to know?”
“Do you want to be able to share them? That’s the real question.”
Doctor Roseanne took a sip of her tea and smiled. “I see a decently well-adjusted and very fair towheaded boy who walks around with a self-satisfied smugness and a hatred for socks and conventional manners.” She glanced at the bare ankle that stuck up out of his sneakers before disappearing into his denim pants leg. “But especially socks.”
“Socks are demons meant to eat off your feet and keep going until they reach your head, like tiny little Sarlac pits going for a Bedoowan snack. You bet I hate ‘em.” He adjusted his jeans so that his skin wasn’t showing anymore. “Add into your report that I’m charming and handsome as fuck and you’ve got yourself something you can talk about over the watercooler with the real doctors.”
Doctor Roseanne jotted something down on her clipboard and placed it and a pen in front of him. “If I could have you sign there at the bottom, please. We’ll get your guardian to sign it as well, later.”
Dave read over the doctor’s scrawl, a verbaim account of the conversation they’d just had. “Damn. You’re pretty good at covering your ass. Is this how you still have a job even though you’ve got a barely lucrative practice going on here?”
“Is showing your ass how you discourage people from making you do things you don’t want to do?”
“Yep. How’s it workin’?”
“Not very well. It eggs me on- I rather like the challenge. Please, have a seat. Would you like some tea?” The doctor gestured to the couch across from her.
Dave looked at where she was pointing but instead traipsed over to Doctor Roseanne’s couch and sat uncomfortably close to her. “Don’t mind if I do. And I’d love some tea.” He snatched hers off of the table and took a sip.”
Doctor Roseanne narrowed her eyes. “I find it pertinent that you realize that I have recently contracted herpes.”
Dave choked on the tea and tried to play cool. “What kind? The mouth kind or the genital kind?”
Quickly and quietly, Dave put down the teacup, got up, and marched to the couch on the opposite side of the table.
Doctor Roseanne quirked her head. “You know I was joking, don’t you?”
Dave nodded and clasped his hands between his knees. “I do. But you’ve just proven to me that this is going to be fun as hell rather than just a waste of time. I’ve gotta admit, Madame Quacks-a-lot, you play harder than I thought.”
“I am a seasoned veteran. I would expect so.” She nonchalantly dumped out her tea into the nearby trashcan and poured some into a fresh cup for herself and then for her client. “Still, I appreciate the compliment.”
“So what’s on the agenda for today, Doc?”
“Well, that all depends on you. But first, I would like to know why you decided to sit next to me in order to try to offend me.”
“Close contact makes people uncomfortable. Getting in someone’s personal space is like taking your old, moldy toilet brush and shoving it in the other guy’s mouth and then forcibly brushing their teeth with it so that, like, tiny E.coli colonies of loathing grow in their bodies and they just can’t stand you anymore to the point of physical illness. It’s like grinding the shit in there and adding insult to injury.”
Doctor Roseanne quirked an eyebrow. “Interesting comparison, to be sure. But let me be more specific. If violations of personal space are, according to you, a surefire way to offend or disgust someone, why didn’t you, say, sit on my lap? Wouldn’t that have been more effective?”
“Look, Doc, I don’t mean to offend you, but I really didn’t want to get that close to you. The contact thing works both ways. Sitting on your lap? That’d be like me taking the guy from the toiletbrush example and then making out with him. I’d have the E. coli, too. And nobody besides your intestines wants that shit. Pun intended.”
“But drinking my tea, which is closer to actually “making out” with me than is harmlessly sitting on my lap, is fine?”
Dave’s eyes narrowed. “It’s a step away. I understand the whole germ-spreading thing, but just believe me when I say it’s different.”
“What if I were someone you knew very well? How differently would that exchange have happened?”
“Depends. If we were buddies, I’d have just sat down like I am now. Maybe give you a high five and put my feet on the table or something.”
“You seem to at least be amused by me since you are humoring me in this. So why aren’t you exhibiting any of these behaviors, particularly the feet on the furniture?”
“Because I don’t know if that’s kosher, first of all, and second of all, I like you enough to have some respect for your stuff. I’m not some hillbilly who was raised in a barn. I’m not gonna track my mud all over the
place like that Pig Pen kid from Charlie Brown.”
“Alright. You treat your friends and acquaintances by a case-by-case basis.”
“Sounds about right.”
“And if you didn’t like me?”
“I’d try to offend you so you wouldn’t come after me when I proceeded to make like a tree and get the fuck away from your person. Kind of like I already tried, but worse. I’d probably fart in your face or something.”
“What if you didn’t feel either way about me? Pretend I am the blandest person you’ve ever met.”
“I have to pretend?”
“Very cute. But please answer the question.”
Dave clapped his hands together. “Hm. I guess I’d say “hey, ‘sup” and then do my own thing.”
Doctor Roseanne nodded slowly and scribbled something down on her clipboard. “And what if you really liked me?”
“Didn’t I already explain that?”
“Does the adjective “romantically” give more specificity?”
“Oh. Well. Hm.” Dave closed one eye and considered his answer. “I am a teenaged boy,” he said slowly. “Whatever bullshit I try to feed you, the truth is I’d be like everyone else my age- I’d try to be suave but then actually fail miserably at it and look like an ass. What am I supposed to say to that question?” He paused again. “Are you hitting on me, Doc?”
Doctor Roseanne didn’t even look up from her clipboard. “Dear boy, if I wanted a scrawny little cottonhead like you, your clothes would already be on the floor and you would be begging me to take you. No, I am not “hitting on” you.”
She finally glanced up at him hid her ghost of a smile behind her clipboard. His face was an even mix of bashfulness and outrage and his fair skin did nothing to hide the blood that had begun to rush to his face.
“But all of that aside, that was a surprisingly humble and generic answer to my question. Surely you can do better than that.”
“While I’m flattered that you want to figure out all my secrets when it comes to romancing, I’m pretty sure that’s as detailed as I feel like getting.” He shifted and crossed his arms into a more guarded position.
“I see,” the doctor said, writing something else down before discarding her clipboard. “Please tell me about your life at home, Dave.”
She gripped the hand of the only other person she knew on the boat and gave him an encouraging smile to try and make him dry up his tears before they drew out cries from his mouth. It wasn’t his fault that fate had placed him in such a scary and unfamiliar situation- that it had placed both of them in one- and Jade wanted to do everything she could to make the little child as comfortable as possible.
He had been born with no legs and the Third Reich decided that people like him were not fit for their Aryan Empire, even if he had an ideal background.
His parents, fearful that their imperfect child would reflect poorly on their own elite status and that of their other, healthy children, destroyed all traces of his existence and abandoned him in the woods.
That is where Jade and her Romani family found him. Jade had appealed to their elders to let the boy travel with them for he had no other family that would claim him. The others did not want the extra burden, but the legless, half-French, half-German Thomas, born with Alsace-Lorraine in his backyard, proved to be anything but a burden.
Guveno, she called him. The bull. He stubbornly plowed through his physical shortcomings to be as useful to his new family as possible and, even though he was timid and lame, he proved to be unusually strong and good with the animals the Romani carried with them. The name suited him, she had thought, and eventually Jade’s father saw the merit of Thomas’ tenacity and took to the name, too- he made his new son crutches inlaid with bull horn to get around on and soon everyone in the caravan knew him by his nickname.
When the little travelling band was captured by soldiers, only Jade and Guveno had been away, fetching water with the dogs and the sheep.
Jade had known that Europe was no place for her dying kind, especially then, and so she did what her people had done for centuries- she roamed. The sheep and her beloved white herding dog fetched a decent price, even from the biased German buyers, and she bought both herself and Guveno some food and tickets to a boat bound for America.
The irony of the situation was that, although she knew she was meant to act the part of a rolling stone, Jade had never wanted to leave Germany. It was dangerous, but whenever they were there, among the tall, dense thicket of the deep, dark forests, Jade felt like she was in the right place, like she would one day stumble into something wonderful, something that was waiting just for her. Dangerous and hateful though it
was, Deutschland felt right and she hated to leave it.
Still, she had Guveno’s future to think about, as well as her own. So she left.
Another boy about Guveno’s age shuffled around the corner of the boathouse and over to Jade, followed by a tall stranger overloaded with bags like a human caravan.
The young one walked with a careless air but immaculate posture, like some kind of carefree prince out of a fairy tale. His dark hair and skin were richer than Jade’s, so much so that they made his cream tunic look white in comparison. His violet eyes, surely nothing Jade had ever seen before, locked on Guveno like he was some kind of fascinating new discovery that this foreign boy must examine. He opened his full lips and out came a voice with an accent like a fiddle being plucked, string by string, in an almost mechanical sequence. It gave his speech a twanging sound that Jade, an experienced traveler, could not place and it unnerved her. “You are running from those Nazi operations, yes? I thought it strange that a brother with the sandy hair and pale face would run from his own people, but then I notice you have no legs. Were they lost in battle, or did a miracle of the gods take them from you and place you with this beautiful sister as your new slave to do your walking?”
The taller stranger, who peered out at the two Romani from within his wraps, growled and produced the same twanging speech as his companion, except grittier and with less variety in pitch. “Do not call these people your brothers or sisters, Rajah. They are not fit to lick the dung off of your sandal.”
The young, dark-skinned boy laughed. “Silly man. I have accepted you as my equal and besmirched my status. I am no longer Rajah Makara, I am simply Makara, brother to all by the miracle of being freed from my caste. I found you, the lowest of the low, to be my brother and I shall find these two to be the same, if they open their hearts and minds to the miracles of the gods all around them.”
“I, Karkata Vantas the Dalit Muslim, was not worthy to lay a hand on you. Now you have fallen from Kshatriya to lie in the mud with me. I am despicable.” He kneeled.
Jade and Guveno looked on in stunned silence as the tall stranger humbled himself to his young companion.
The young boy, Makara, smiled. “Please do not be so harsh on yourself. You were wasted at the bottom of the castes, and now we are free to travel and live as we please. And you are still my closest friend and guardian and attendant even now, after I am officially your equal even by the standards of society and freed you from all sense of obligation towards your treatment of me. It is a miracle. A true miracle. Without you, I would never have had the opportunity to see all of this. I would have been bound to stay and rule and act in accordance to rules I do not believe in.” He turned to face Jade and Guveno once again. “But why must we dwell on miracles our new friends know nothing of? Let us share this world and appreciate the miracles all around us!”
“Do you mean to use the pipe? At this very moment?”
“Of course, my brother!” Makara bowed low before Jade and placed a hand on Guveno’s and picked up his stumped body from his crutches in a bear hug before the other boy could even protest. “I see your tears, but do not weep in fear of me or of the future- weep for joy for we have found one another and that the miracle of a new journey has begun!” He spun Guveno in a circle and placed him on the thick blanket that his tall companion had spread upon the ground and situated himself on. Makara landed soon after with a plop.
Jade gave a distant smile when she noticed the sullen Karkata staring at her to sit down as well. “This pipe will be rancid, but the Rajah- I err, my apologies- Makara, insists upon it. It calms him and keeps him friendly like this. Otherwise he is like the raging winds of the Himalayas- cold, unforgiving, and insistent upon making your teeth chatter until your skull could be used as a child’s rattle.” He rummaged around in one of the many bags he had spread around him before pulling out the pieces to a water pipe.
Jade only nodded and looked out at the land she was leaving behind.
Karkata finished setting up Makara’s water pipe and left him to entertain Guveno, who had stopped crying to laugh at something his new friend had said. “Do you not speak, woman?”
Jade’s smile turned into a smirk as she snapped her attention back to her new Indian friend. “Would it be considered a miracle if I did?”
“My, aren’t you faithless.” She teased.
Karkata’s glare grew from sour to wrathful. “I believe in what I choose to believe. Makara can have his miracles and I can have mine, different though they may be. I handle the waste of my superiors and brethren, and so the world tells me that even the beliefs I do have are unclean, although I know that they are not. You do the same as the other nonbelievers. Do not speak of what you do not know!”
“I didn’t mean to offend you. I was unaware that you took so poorly to jokes.”
“Listen, girl!” Karkat hissed, “You women here dress like harlots and then shamelessly ridicule my faith and morality as if I am something to be put on display and laughed at, yet you cannot even understand your hypocrisy! I am the unclean, but still I feel ashamed for a wretch such as you who cannot even fasten her own garments correctly, who acts as less that I!” He snarled and walked to the back of the boat.
Bewildered, Jade watched him go.
Makara’s lazy smile, which surprised Jade when she noticed it, parted to impart wisdom. “Do not be so upset with him. He and I are strangers in a strange land and it has been harder for him to adjust and accept these new miracles of the world than it has been for I. We have been through many trials, including a recent encounter with a most abrasive German captain who defended us in a most unexpected way. My brother Karkata is only confused by his words and actions- and those of all of these brothers and sisters so foreign to him-and will surely be better soon.” Makara’s eyes, misted over by the pipe, managed a mischievous glint through their fog. “Especially the other sister we have just met.”
“What do you mean?” Jade asked.
“He is surely taking out the frustration that another of your people, a blind Romani fortune-seer, caused him. He is surely infatuated with her and is projecting onto you.”
“This is how he acts when he’s infatuated? Such a man of opposites! Tell me, when he hates someone, does he try to court them instead?”
“Oh, no. Do not let his grumpiness trick you into finding him evil. He responds to every miracle with varying degrees of aggressiveness, though usually not this much.” Makara tweaked his nose. “This is how I know how he is feeling. But he is my dearest brother in spirit and you are our sister,” Makara put a hand on Guveno’s shoulder, “as you are our brother as well. We are all connected and together we must do as brothers and sisters do and overcome our differences to enjoy those very miracles I keep speaking of. For now, I do believe that this pipe is the most miraculous thing in my eyes. Let us partake!”
Jade politely refused Makara’s offer and watched Karkata’s tall figure look out at the ocean. Jade did not understand this strange man and his companion’s ways, but she decided that she would learn to.
They could not be that different at heart, she decided. He had decided to shackle himself to his young charge, much like she had decided to dedicate her life to lifting Guveno from a fate of crawling in the gutters.
She heard laughter over her shoulder and turned to see another Romani girl shuffle up the rail to the boat, eyes closed and cane thrust forward. Makara snickered at her appearance and whispered something to
Guveno, who blushed. The strange Romani turned her head and came towards them, as if she could see them from behind her closed eyelids.
Jade would not be home- she would never be home- but she could make a new family if she opened her heart to these people and they did the same.
It would not be everything she wanted, but it still gave her hope.
He was an artist and his peers teased him because the faces of all of the girls he drew all resembled the same mysterious woman. Critics far in the future would theorize about his muse's identity, but they never thought she was an actual person- perhaps a combination of several models he liked.
In fact, only Dave himself seemed to think that she existed at all.
Jade Harley was supposed to go pick up her brother from his friend’s house. This put a huge kink in her schedule, as picking him up involved leaving her waitress job early to drive across town, grab him, retrace her path to get back to her house, drop John off, and then double back yet again to make it to night school. Maybe, maybe she would have enough time to grab a bite to eat on the way to class, but the odds were against her.
When she got a text from her parents saying “We are going to get john dont worry he is fine”, she had no idea that he had been in an almost fatal accident because his friend had pushed him out into the middle of the road. She just figured that her parents had decided to pick her little brother up to take a load off of her mind, so she went about her day with the intention of thanking them later.
Had she known that little John had almost died, or worse, if that guy hadn’t pushed him out of the way and he had actually perished, she would have dropped what she was doing and been there, no questions asked.
The countdown in his head was always wrong and it perturbed him- he woke up every morning with numbers slowly ticking down, waiting to hit the zero mark that would never come. Every time he got close, the numbers would stop cycling down and just hang there in limbo.
They would hang there and mock him before reversing, ticking back up to impossible amounts at impossible speeds and then agonizingly falling again.
They chipped away at themselves, second by second, but he knew they would never reach zero. His internal clock was broken and wouldn’t stop resetting, like whatever it was meant to herald had gone wrong and needed to begin again.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“I am going to tell you all a native joke. You are obviously not familiar with our ways, so feel special that I am being so friendly to you. Consider it a welcoming present from the Third Reich to you.” The man was tall and pale, with a shock of platinum hair combed over his forehead and a pair of round, tinted glasses to shield his eyes from the sun. Karkata hated him instantly.
“Once, there was a little boy who did not live up to his father’s expectations. The father killed him and used him for fertilizer besides the manure, lamenting that his child was only worth shit.”
The other soldiers behind him laughed uproariously. Their prisoners’ faces did not change.
“And you, my children,” the speaker, obviously the captain, “will be my manure, for you are worth just that. But rejoice! You will do the flowers a great service.”
Makara gave an absentminded giggle and the man walked over to him, dark lenses flashing in the light. “This one finds it humorous. Perhaps he is special shit.” He turned to his soldiers. “This one thinks he is hot shit!” they produced another laugh and their prisoners shrank within themselves as it hit them.
Except Karkata Vantas. He looked up at the German officer in front of him with unguarded disdain and let his teeth show on his face in a cruel frown. This man planned to kill him, Makara, and the strangers behind them for no other reason than that they were not born with fair hair, blue eyes, and a birth certificate from the Fatherland. But that wasn’t all-first, he planned on turning insult to injury by making a mockery of them. Karkata would not stand for it, especially if it involved making a mockery of the ex-prince Makara. These pigs were not worthy to treat even fallen royalty in such a way.
The captain glanced over to see Karkata’s glare. He disregarded Makara and singled his companion out instead by taking Karkata by the collar and dragging him up level to his tinted glasses. “Do you not find my joke funny? You should be like your friend and laugh.” He frowned as his example disobeyed him. “Laugh!” he shouted.
But Karkata did not laugh. Instead, he spat into the man’s glasses.
A collective, silent gasp sounded from all who watched, except young Makara. The ex-prince was completely calmed by his most recent smoke on his water pipe and simply kept giggling to himself, exhaling and inhaling in such a way that made him produce a weak honking sound.
The captain’s next words came slowly, and Karkata could practically feel the man’s eyes burning through his dark lenses and into his own. “Take the others. These two need a special lesson in both obedience and German humor and I would like to give it myself.”
Wordlessly, the German soldiers rounded up the other prisoners, mostly Romani wanderers they had stumbled across, and herded them away until only Makara, Karkata, and the captain were left.
“Now, you think you can come here and mock my hospitality. You should know that when a German says for you to laugh, you laugh. It is the right of a superior race to order you.”
“Lies! You are an evil and compassionless monster who would kill us in cold blood before offering us a pardon. You sin and blaspheme in such a way that it makes you lesser, like dogs rolling in their own urine. None of you can order either my companion or myself to be your fools,” hissed Karkata.
“Really.” The captain raised his voice to speak to Karkata’s companion, but his eyes did not leave the older man’s face. “Boy, come here and clean my glasses.”
Dazedly, Makara rose.
“Do not do it, young Rajah. This wicked one looks to humiliate you!”
Makara ignored Karkata’s command and reached up on his tiptoes to claim the captain’s glasses. He dragged them off of his face, revealing the German’s eyes, and wiped the lenses on his shirt.
The wad of spit Karkata had been saving to hurl onto the man’s unguarded face trickled down his throat.
Blue eyes did not wait behind the captain’s tinted lenses. He was not an Aryan.
No. His eyes were bright red.
The surprise on Karkat’s face was quickly replaced by confusion as the red-eyed man released his hold on his prisoner and pointed to a set of nearby shovels. “You will dig a hole half as deep as that shovel.” He returned Karkata’s bewildered stare with an even, enigmatic one of his own. Finally, after Karkata had sat still for too long, the man snatched his glasses from Makara and shouted, “Dig! We do not cleanse Germany by staring.”
Hesitantly, Karkata took a shovel and began a hole alongside Makara, shooting suspicious glances at his captor the whole time.
Makara, who was neither lucid nor accustomed to such manual labor, was more a hindrance than a help. Karkata silently cursed himself for dragging his young companion down such a terrible and lowly path and shot another look at the mysterious man behind them.
“I know I am beautiful, but staring does not help you DIG!” The man’s voice rose to a shout when he decided Karkata and Makara were going too slow.
Karkata said nothing and kept digging.
“We are finished,” he finally said.
“Good. Now fill the hole back up.”
Karkata opened his mouth to protest, but Makara’s hand on his arm told him otherwise. Begrudgingly, he did as he was told.
When they were about halfway finished, the captain stopped them. “That is plenty,” he said, “Small one. Put your shovel against the tree and then rejoin your companion. Grouchy one, shove yours into the remaining pile of dirt.”
They did as they were told and Karkat protectively stood in front of Makara. “What now,” Karkata snarled, “sir?”
Apparently, the captain was not amused by the Indian Dalit’s tone because he pulled his pistol out of its holser and leveled it at them both.
“You dirty rat!” Shouted Karkata. “My God will smite you for your insolence and--”
Makara smiled and tugged at his angry protector, his voice light and airy. “And my gods will bless him for this miracle and perhaps grant them unto him tenfold,” he whispered. “Thanks be unto you, brother.” He dreamily said to the captain.
Then, he surprised Karkata by pushing forward and bowing to the captain before turning and running the opposite direction.
Karkata turned to follow his young charge but froze along with his blood when the sound of the gun shot through him and he heard Makara yelp. He shouted the young boy’s name and turned to face the captain, fists clenched and blood boiling.
To his relief, the barrel was not pointed at Makara or himself, but rather at the heavens above. The smoke from the gun billowed around the red-eyed captain like a shroud and he roared from within it with a voice like thunder. “And now you must join your little friend, you filthy Indian scum!” He fired another bullet into the sky.
Karkata had already pieced together and began his retreat into the forest, but he stopped to watch the man through the brush as he put away his gun and reclaimed the shovel that Karkata had left in the dirt before using it to put the remaining dirt back into the hole.
“Those fools thought I was being merciful,” he mused aloud, “but I did not let them leave without first doing half of this work for me. Shitheads. They really did only amount to manure.” He laughed as he finished
his work and Karkat quietly slipped away to find the young ex-prince, head swimming from all that had just happened.
On his way back to camp, the captain saw a boy with no legs herding a cluster of small livestock to the river with the help of a dark-haired gypsy girl. He avoided them and made his men move their camp further
inland, citing the possibility of pesky animals sneaking around in search of the corpses of an Indian child and manservant as the reason.
The girl had had eyes as green as Hugo’s Esmeralda and hair twice as thick and long, done up in beautiful twists that she had adopted and modified from the native Germans.
Sometimes, when he was especially lonely, he thought about her and wondered if she made it out of Germany alive.
When Dave’s guardian, Jade Harley, knocked on the door and entered Doctor Roseanne’s office, they were talking about movies.
“Don’t be hating on Stiller ‘cause you don’t like that he’s doing that The Watch shit or whatever. The man is quality.”
“Yes, because Zoolander was so very intelligent.”
Jade poked her head in. “I hope I’m not interrupting,” she said.
“Oh, no, not at all. Dave and I were just discussing the less savory points of modern cinema.”
“He was talking about Ben Stiller movies, wasn’t he. Oh, geez.”
“Whatever. You both know he’s the best.” Dave gave Doctor Roseanne a sideways look. She nodded- her next appointment wasn’t for another two hours. “Come on in and have a seat over here, Jade. Say hi to the shrink.”
“Dave, you might try to be a liiiiiittle bit more polite to the doctor,” Jade chided, sitting on the spot next to Dave. She reached her hand out to Doctor Roseanne from across the table. “I’m Jade Harley. I’m Dave’s legal guardian,” she said.
Doctor Roseanne shook the young woman’s hand (a confident shake- she was clearly as well-adjusted as her charge) and exchanged the greeting before Dave continued his rant on Ben Stiller. Occasionally, she would take turns with Jade teasing him about something and being the victim of his elaborate jibes.
But what the doctor was really doing was analyzing Dave as he interacted with Jade to supplement what she had learned during their session.
She noticed the way his tone changed when he spoke to her and how his words weren’t as biting. Treats others on a case-by-case basis.
She noticed how he scooted closer to her on the couch when he sat down. Values own personal space in utmost and attributes closeness to comfort and trust among valued individuals.
She noticed how he made every excuse to look at and brush against her- pat her knee (“and that’s why I’m here to make sure you know better about movies”), nudge her shoulder (Hey, don’t get onto me for being rude to the doctor. Look, see there- she smiled. Doc Rose ain’t offended!), run his fingers through her hair (“Jade, this stuff is going to get in my mouth if you aren’t careful! You’re like Rapunzel and your witch mother is calling for you to let your hair down to her through my throat and she’s apparently really fucking impatient”), bury his head into her shoulder (“Augh, but you always overcook the meat when you leave it in the crock pot. It’s like you feel the need to drop a nuclear bomb on the beef lest it get up out of the kitchen and scuttle away”), grab and pat her hand (“look at us, two peas in a pod getting along like two old, shriveled-up wasabi pea-people rocking on the back porch. You’re reminding me to take care of myself while I’m actually taking care of you, serving you hand and foot like some geriatric foot servant.”)
Doctor Roseanne didn’t need a doctorate in psychology to figure out what all that meant from Dave.
His twenty-something-year-old guardian, however, was not reciprocating his feelings.
The doctor watched as Jade playfully and good-naturedly dealt with him like a loving big sister would to her little brother, completely unaware that each time she didn’t notice his advances, he only tried harder. (“Gee, I certainly am glad I have you to dominate the Pay-Per-View! What would I do if I couldn’t recount all the lines from the initial Night at the Museum? You have to go to bed at a decent hour tonight.” “Dave, just because Doctor Rose is dealing with your nonsense doesn’t mean you can liken her to Cruella Da Ville!” “I deal with you for at least a good solid eight hours a day even though you’re sixteen, silly. I think you’ll be okay if I turn my undivided attention away from you for the next couple of nanoseconds. And don’t’ eat my hair, goof!” “I put dinner in the crock pot and—no, you can’t fend for yourself! I’ll find you eating cheese fries and ice cream and nothing else. How’re you gonna grow if you don’t eat right? Pot roast tastes just fine!”)
Jade took her hand from his and patted him on the back before getting up. “It is true that you do all the ironing and laundry. Say, Doctor,” Jade turned to her, “is there any kind of… debriefing… or follow-up call or anything I should know about?”
Doctor Roseanne faked a pleasantly open expression. “Well, aside from the snippet of our session you both signed and agreed to allow me to share with the public, I don’t think I have anything to share with you just yet, especially since I prefer to keep doctor-patient confidentiality even among younger clients, if the issue is not urgently pressing and their parents allow it. But,” she uncrossed and recrossed her legs as she reached across the coffee table to retrieve the clipboard Jade had signed. “I would like to have at least three more months’ worth of sessions with Dave, twice a week.”
Jade winced as she thought about the financial strain this would cause and opened her mouth to decline.
“And considering that Dave was not only recommended by my dear friend Teresa Pyrope but somewhat of a… a special interest of my establishment and peers, I would be willing to do it for free, as well as a few meetings with you as well, Miss Harley.” Doctor Roseanne knew this meant that she’d be working overtime (and possibly jeopardizing her impartiality on all matters), but she was intrigued.
“Damn,” Dave said. “Aren’t we special.”
Jade left the place feeling more than a little confused as to what was going on. She knew all about her and Dave’s relation to the hospital, but she didn’t know why there was suddenly an interest in picking apart her adopted great cousin’s brain, or her own. He seemed fine and she was pretty sure that she was doing alright herself, besides the sudden confusion this whole episode had brought on.
And while Jade may not have known Roseanne Valonde very well, she knew she trusted her friend, co-worker, and mentor Teresa Pyrope and that anyone she trusted, Jade could also trust.
“Teresa’s a bro,” Dave agreed when she talked the issue over with him. “and Doc Rose seems pretty cool, too. ‘Sides, it’s free. And it’s not like she really tried to screw with my head- she asked me a whole bunch of questions about my life in general, and that was about it.”
Jade nodded and decided to humor them all a little longer, trusting that the future would not throw her any curveballs.
The Witch of Space wondered how many imperfect frogs it took to make one single perfect one. Sometimes she doubted it was even possible, but the scientist in her always reminded her that there was no such thing as "impossible", only "improbable".
“So when comes the part where you tell me I have an Oedipus complex or something? Or do I need to scratch out my eyes in order to get you to give a diagnosis so Jade stops worrying that I might be a psychokiller and we’re all keeping her out of the loop like the one lame horse the cowboys don’t even feel the need to round up?”
It was the thirteenth meeting Dave had had with Doctor Roseanne and she had noticed him slowly losing his patience since two sessions prior.
Honestly, the doctor was astounded that he had lasted this long before asking her to cut to the chase.
She put down her clipboard and traded it out for her teacup. “Actually, you don’t have a particularly strong Oedipus complex. Not in the strict sense, anyway.”
Dave leaned over and onto the coffee table, peering up into her eyes. “Cut the horseshit, Doc. I like to mess around with you and tell you otherwise, but I know there’s more than just air crammed under that quaffed hair of yours. You know why I’m here and I know you know why I’m here, so let’s stop doing this stupid little game of monkey-in-the-middle with what’s really going on in my head and just let that damned monkey out of its cage. It can fling all the shit it wants to and then we can shoot it in the head and be one step closer to being done with this business.”
“That is the most garbled metaphor set you have used in the entire time I’ve known you. It made even less sense than usual.”
“I’m giving you the abridged version. That’s how impatient I am.”
“I see,” Doctor Roseanne said, taking up her clipboard once more.
To her surprise, Dave caught the end of it with his hand and slammed it back onto the surface of the table, splattering tea in a miniature rainstorm all over the pristine white paper. The amber liquid oozed into it and left marks like leprosy, as if the paper itself were diseased and not fit to touch. “We both know you don’t actually need this thing.”
She regarded him carefully before answering him. “It matters not if I do or don’t. You’ve managed to ruin it so that I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” she replied evenly. “But before we delve into the deep, dark corners of your mind, tell me this- is your aggressiveness a result of you feeling more… imposing and adult since turning seventeen last week, because of Miss Harley’s growing concern, or because of something much more basic that drives aggression?”
“I’d say all three, except I’m not sure that we’re on the same wavelength about what the two double… is there even a plural form of entendre? Whatever, fuck it- entendres you’re implying for the first and third options are. So I’m gonna play it safe and just go with reason number two.”
“The number representative of monkey shit,” the doctor mused.
“Maybe all this Freudian hoo-hah is worth something,” Dave shot back. “It let you predict and steal my next joke.”
“If only your jokes were actually funny,” she wryly teased. “But what kind of professional would I be if I could not effectively understand the progression of scatological jokes and that the planet revolves around them? We simply must mention shit in order to truly preserve the art of conversation.”
Dave gave a tight smile and watched her. Doctor Roseanne stared right back at him.
“I wasn’t lying when I said you do not seem to have a major Oedipus complex, you know,” she finally said.
“No. An Oedipus complex involves a sexual attraction to the mother and a competitive disdain towards the father for her attentions. In our chats, you’ve never even given the slightest hint of attraction to either your deceased birthmother or the woman who acted as your mother- the woman who raised you until you were fifteen- nor do you hold any resentment towards her husband, Jakob. And furthermore, Mrs. Aranea Egbert resembled the rest of the family only in that they all had dark hair. If I remember her correctly, she was also, at best, only superficially similar to her great niece Jade Harley in terms of personality.”
“Are you gonna make your point before I have yet another birthday?” Dave asked.
“Your fondness for your primary guardian doesn’t spring from any mental disorder or complex or alluring obsession with any kind of incestual taboo. Incredible circumstance and age are practically the only things that make any of this wrong.”
“While we’re at it, can you speak English? Or have years of psychoanalysis fried your brains worse than the straightener does your hair?”
“My hair is naturally straight, thank you. And you can understand me just fine. Or, is there something in particular that you want to say to me yourself?”
Dave narrowed his eyes and the doctor cocked her head to the side.
“You acted like you were ready to discuss this issue with me openly, but now that I’ve started, you are retreating in a shroud of false cluelessness. You aren’t very good at playing dumb when it matters, Dave.”
The boy looked down and gripped the fabric on his knees, bunching it up beneath his fingers like a toddler would a security blanket.
“I lead patients to the truth, but I dislike having to hold their hands the whole way, figuratively or otherwise.” She crossed her arms, like a mother scolding her son. “Are you ready to come out and say what is giving you problems yourself, or are you going to keep trying to make me do it for you?”
“Don’t treat me like a child!” the boy shouted, eyes still on the floor.
The grandfather clock in the corner of the room watched the scene impassively, its quiet breathing the only noise breaking the silence that Dave had summoned. The steady ticking continued to dominate the conversation until the therapist decided it was safe to make the next move.
Quietly, so as to not provoke the beast, she shifted the tea set away from the table and Dave’s immediate reach. Anger was a natural and expected reaction from someone like him about something that cut so deep, but she didn’t want to risk letting her porcelain become a casualty- this was uncharted territory and she had spent the last month and a half trying to figure out the least invasive way to predict what she might find there before forging onwards.
She would have liked to have started this new stage last week, but she knew that Dave would need to pursue the topic himself. So she had waited. Now, as she fiddled with the tea cozy she’d made for her teapot, she wondered if she should have waited longer.
But it was too late to go back now.
“Are you sure that I am the one that you wish to be saying those words to?” the doctor finally began.
Dave looked up in outrage, his lips beginning to hurl some kind of insult, but she saw his anger break and his eyes weaken. He lowered his head once more and sank lower into the couch, towards the ground.
“Dave. What did you come here to talk about? What do you need to tell me?
The seconds ticked by.
Seconds turned to minutes.
His shoulders shook once, like the jerking of a clock’s gears to move the hour hand forward.
“I’m in love with a woman who thinks of me as her little brother and who is appointed by law to act as my legal guardian. I’m in love with a woman who, although she refers to me as her little cousin, is technically my adoptive great-niece, Jade Harley.”
The reverberation from the clock sounded throughout the room and sent ripples through the glassy surface of the tea as it quaked from both the patient’s confession and the hour’s announcement within its china container, like a great monster had arisen from its dark cavern and its footsteps had shaken the world to its very core.
Consider this temporary cliffhanger to be the intermission of Act One.
I thought this was going to include the ending installment, but I was wrong. This thing is still really long and I'm working on editing the final parts of it and finalizing a few minor details, specifically how sad and dark I'm going to make the main plot's conclusion (aside from the "extra ending" for optimism.) All possible endings are planned.
Also, I added a few extra parts to the end of last chapter. You may have already read them. You may have not.
So, end intermission of Act One and begin Act Two.
Thank you for reading.
Jade would always look forward to her family reunions, even though they seemed to happen often and at the most haphazard of times.
She had a big family full of friendly, vivacious people and it always felt like it was growing daily like an out-of-control vine in the desert of her life and coated over everything, dropping its seeds wherever it went and turning parched soil into beautiful flowerbeds.
Even nutty members like her great uncle Jakob, the crazy archaeologist, were kind and well-liked, while in normal families he would have been considered something like the black sheep.
But the true black sheep was not shunned, but rather treasured. And he was anything but black- the son that Jakob’s mother had vicariously adopted through him was a snowflake among the dark-haired, predominantly Romani- and Italian-blooded people that made up the Harley-Egbert clan.
Literally a snowflake, Jade had thought to herself when she had first laid eyes on him. He had been a ghost-white, rail-thin waif in a hospital blanket that had been whisked away by a beautiful nurse, a piece of paper whisked away by the wind before she could hardly blink.
But she knew, as did her grandmother, that she was inexplicably drawn to care for him from the moment that she saw him.
She would seek him out at family gatherings, the little lamb that talked out when he was around adults that would marvel and laugh at his precious nature but shrink back when he was surrounded by children who would stare at his odd eyes and gape at his pale skin.
He was something of a novelty and he knew it, so he would avoid the other children until they were safely seated by their parents for dinner. As an only child, he was accustomed to getting all the attention when he wanted it followed by long bouts of solitude. He had a talent for retreating into it and hiding away from unwanted company.
Jade always managed to find him, though.
“Come play with us,” she told him one summer day, as they were all having a barbecue at a local churchyard. “There’s a playground with swingsets and a slide and I think Jonah and Gammy are trying to start a game of King-of-the-Hill!”
He looked up from the book he had been reading. “I don’t like Gammy. He laughs at me like some kind of hyena does at a drowning goat even though he’s the one who looks funny.”
“He laughs all the time and at everyone! He isn’t trying to be mean,” she said. “I think you might really like him if you just talked to him.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I can entertain myself without going out to watch the clowns,” he said, turning his attention back to his book.
Jade put her hands on her hips and looked at him. She was a good bit older than he was, but she could still play the difficult child card.
Wordlessly, she plopped down next to him and craned her head over to see what he was reading.
He waited a few moments before acknowledging her. “What are you doing?” His annoyance rang clear in his voice.
“Can you stop?”
“Nope,” she grinned, “the story’s too good!”
“No it isn’t,” he said, obviously just trying to contradict her regardless of his own opinion.
“Oh, really? It’s too bad you don’t like it. I certainly do! Especially the pictures.”
“Well I don’t. And the pictures are the worst part,” he lied. “The boy looks stupid in that white dog suit. Anybody who wears dumb little pointy dog ears like that is stupider than the preschoolers that go to school
“Okay, then. But if that’s true, why are you reading it?”
Dave was stumped then and racked his young mind for a good fib, but couldn’t find one. “I’m not reading it,” he confessed.
“I said, I’m not reading it. I can’t read that well yet.”
“Really? But you are so smart- you sure can speak really, really well for your age!”
“Adults like to hear me talk, so I learned to talk like them. But kids don’t like to hear me talk. They just like to look at me and make fun of me because they know I’m smart. But I don’t need ‘em.”
“Oh. Kind of like how you are looking at these pictures and making fun of them?”
Dave grew very quiet. “Except I do like the pictures,” he muttered. “They look fun. Even the boy in the dog suit. I like his ears. They’re kind of cool.”
“But then why did you lie about that?”
“Because,” he insisted, like that one word alone could explain everything. “Because I just wanted to.”
“That’s a weird reason!” Jade laughed and turned to face him more. “But what if the reason the other kids like to look at you is because they are jealous and think you are cool, like you think these pictures are?”
“Because they don’t. Nobody does,” he glowered.
“I think you are cool! You’re kind of silly, too, since you lied, but still pretty cool!”
He looked at her, his face blank, and handed her the book. “This is my favorite book. And I’m not lying anymore.” He fidgeted. “You can borrow it if you want to.”
Jade smiled at her little relative. “Gosh, thank you! But I don’t want to take your book from you if you really like it that much!”
“It’s okay. I wouldn’t be able to read most of it anyway and if you like it so much, you should get to read it.”
Jade pursed her lips. “Hmm. You said you wouldn’t be able to read most of it. What do you say we read it together? You read the parts that you can and I’ll help you out with the harder stuff. How about that?”
“You won’t get mad that I can’t understand all of the words?”
“Of course not! There’s a lot of things I haven’t mastered yet, myself. Nobody can just immediately be able to do everything. Like I’m bad at tying shoes so that they look like little bows. Mine always look lopsided.”
She held out the book to him and he took it from her, flipping it over so that he could see the cover.
“I’ll tie your shoes for you if you want me to. I’m good at that,” he told her proudly before focusing in on the title of the book.
“I’d like that! I'll let you!”
He smiled a little and regarded the letters in front of him.“W-wuh- Where t-t-the Wild T-t-Things Are,” he began.
Doctor Roseanne placed her hands in her lap and took on a more personable tone of voice. “How long has this precocious crush of yours persisted?”
“It’s not--” he sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “I don’t know.” He let the clock take over the conversation until he couldn’t stand its persistent nattering any longer. “You ask me this like it’s some kind of thing that I marked on my calendar so I could celebrate the anniversary of its happening. Y’know, gather up all my friends together and say, “Hey, break out the booze! We’ve got hangovers to want to earn like a stripper wants ones!” “How bad of hangovers, Dude?” “Badder than that case of the mono you got from cheating on your ex, my sweet Bro!” “Oh, shit, Dude! But is it also worse than that burn I got from yo’ momma?” “You bet your ass, bro!” “Damn, son! Broseph, go get Broski and Bronathan and tell them that Dude’s about get us all a hangover so bad, Mother Teresa couldn’t even forgive it! He’s goin’ for it! He’s making this happen! It’s gonna be a bigger thing than… than December of 2013! Merry Apocalyptic Christmas season early, you dumb fucks!”” His voice broke down near the end of his rant and he put his hands back on his face.
“Are you done?”
The doctor gave him another moment.
“Have you told Jade about how you feel?”
Suddenly, his smoldering eyes appeared and some fire came back into his words like the popping of sparks as they flew off of waterlogged firewood. “Oh, what? Sure I did! I was all, “Hey, Jade, by the way, I love you and not in a familial way even though I’m significantly younger than you and jailbait and we’re related by all but actual flesh and blood and we should move to, oh I dunno, Alabama where they don’t give a flying fuck about marrying relatives and you would still get a lot of business for stuffing dead animals and putting them on display versus staying here and being put on display yourself? Oh, and while we’re at it, we could even get married there since I just need the consent of my legal guardian to get hitched before eighteen and- oh, hot damn! That’s you! How fucking handy! We could tie this knot right now, all neat and happy like a child’s damned shoelaces.”
“You’ve obviously put some thought into this.”
Dave sneered to retort but no snappy denial came out of his mouth.
Doctor Roseanne tried to lighten the mood. “But that’s a very negative and close-minded assumption you have about all of Alabama.”
“If I were born anywhere from Texas to Georgia, I’m sure I’d be a fucking pinnacle of an example of a redneck,” he half-joked, half-snarled.
“You know, your biological mother was from--”
“Exactly!” he shouted, throwing his hands in the air. “That’s the solution, right there! Bring nature over nurture into this. Let’s just make this whole ordeal into a menagerie of unnecessarily complex, interwoven threads like some bogus sci-fi comic book, while we’re at it! Hell, let’s even add in some actual institutions, like a conspiracy from the Betty Crocker Corporation, to give this mess some kind of basis in the real world.” He sneered again. “They can’t be satisfied with the bread-and-butter of mythical universes? Fine. Give it a touch of ours. Let them eat cake.”
“Let me ask you a different question,” Doctor Roseanne finally said. “Do you generally like older women?”
“I’ve asked myself that one, too. But I’ve had crushes on girls my own age before. Recently. And besides world-renowned babes like Halle Berry and Beyonce Knowles or whatever her last name is now, no, not really. I’m not particularly partial to the cougar-hunting lifestyle. It's not that I can't make it my bitch- I don’t like to rough it in the wilderness that much. I’m too much of a domesticated guy.”
“Do you go on dates?”
“Tell me about your last one.”
“We went to a movie. She tried really hard to hold my hand and I took the hint.”
“Is that all?”
“She kissed me when I dropped her off at her house.”
“She kissed you?”
“Why didn’t you kiss her?”
“But that isn’t what you said.”
“She initiated the kiss. I was just kind of on the receiving end.”
“Are you going to see her again? On another date, I mean.”
“I didn’t like her as much.”
“As much as she liked me. As much as I wanted to like her.”
“Did you feel disgusted with yourself?”
“About not liking her as much as I wanted to?”
“About using her as a distraction.”
“Not really. It wasn’t that serious and she went into it knowing that.”
“Let me rephrase my query. Did you feel disgusted with yourself for kissing a girl who wasn’t Jade?”
It was out of his mouth before he could think. “Yes.” He recoiled a little, as if the word had bitten him.
Doctor Roseanne held her questions to give him time to digest what he’d just said.
“In my head,” he began weakly, “I… I think that I think I’m already with her. That’s why… that’s why I always try to help her around the house, too. And leave her surprises.”
“What do you mean?”
“I get her flowers, usually around Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day so that she doesn’t get too suspicious. But usually I just leave small trinkets or candy that I say I picked up when I went to go visit Erivan and Johnny at the bowling alley.”
“Valentine’s day gifts aren’t suspicious?”
“After Valentine’s Day, everything’s cheaper. I treat it like a gift of convenience rather than specific thought. It’s not rocket science, Doc.”
“You are completely torn on whether or not you want her to figure it out.”
He ignored her. “And I do laundry. You know that. We’ve mentioned it. And I cook dinner for her, sometimes, when she hasn’t already started one of her godawful meat roasts. And change out the sheets. But not like a kid doing chores for their parent. I…”
With a rustling of paper, the doctor retrieved another clipboard from beneath her couch and read off of it. “The expression you used when I first met you both was along the lines of, “serving you hand and foot like some geriatric foot servant”, I believe.”
“So you actually do use those things for more than just doodles and a prop. Huh. Looks like you’re actually doing real work sometimes.”
She winked. “That’s only what I want you to think.”
“And here you almost had me fooled. I knew you were a quack, Doc. I called it. I so totally did. I’m gonna call the cops now and tell ‘em about a case of wildfire fraud happening up in this joint, streamin’ out the windows of the second through fifth stories of this building. Mothers are screaming for their precious babies down below. Firefighters are on the way.” He allowed a small smile.
“Indeed. Now, I’m going to ask you some questions that you may not want to answer. I feel I can skip the part where I ask you to explain why you haven’t simply told Jade how you feel. You made a majority of your reasoning to that quite accessible, if not crystal-clear, earlier.”
With a twist of his head, he invited her to continue.
“The only real special qualification for a romantic relationship- or the desire for one- versus any other kind of interpersonal relationship is the romantic part.”
“I know that. I’m not stupid,” Dave crossed his arms.”
“Dave.” She lowered her voice. “How often do you think about her?”
Like a hiccup in time, the gears of the grandfather clock hitched again.
The words were loaded and Dave felt his very core quake in embarrassment, outrage, disgust, guilt, and so many other things he couldn’t identify. He felt and heard the blood rush into his head and he lost himself in the red whooshing that clouded his senses and just sat, glaring daggers at the world, at his own hands, at the floor.
The clock’s chimes echoed in his ears and he felt like his head was going to explode. He wished it would. He wished he was dead and that he could start a brand new life and reset this one so that he was not in this position, here, now.
Most of all, he wished he could have met Jade under different circumstances.
“You’re right. I don’t want to answer that.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed,” Doctor Roseanne soothed. “None of this makes you into a monster of any kind--”
“I’m not embarrassed about what you think!” He hissed. “I’m ashamed and disgusted in myself!” He raised a hand to his chest like he could stab through it if he pushed hard enough. “But to give you some information so you can tear it apart in your brain-bending machine and then declare me a candidate for shock therapy or a lobotomy like in Shutter Island,” He closed his palm in tandem with his eyes. “I… I want Jade. But I want her to go back to school and get her degree in science and still have a job and a good reputation and happy, not-fucked-up life and a… a good husband or boyfriend or whatever even if it means that I don’t get her. I want that the most.”
“So you are expressing that you need to move on beyond her for the good of both of you.”
“Yes.” He calmed himself and folded his hands into his lap. “I’m hoping to move out the minute I turn eighteen. And I have plans that will help me make that a reality. And friends. Just because I am sitting here enacting to you my half of the worst love yarn since Twilight doesn’t mean I do absolutely nothing with my life besides sit around and pine for my great niece like a crippled war hero getting drunk off his ass at a bar in those shitty old movies.”
“Of that I have no doubt.”
“Yeah, ‘cause you know so much because of inane observations like “you hate socks and make fun of a whole generation of teenaged girls’ book of choice”.”
Doctor Roseanne’s face remained constant, but her voice softened. “Dave, you are a wonderful young man with a terribly unfortunate problem born from circumstance rather than a fault with yourself. You have already taken steps to fix this on your own and I believe that you can overcome this with time, honesty, and preparation as well as a little help from your friends. The next step is that we figure out the best way to go about this business. And we will.” She stood and walked to the door. “But most of all, you need to learn that there are those in this world that absolutely treasure Stephanie Meyer’s Magnum Opus. I am best friends with one of her fans and if you do not respect the vampiric tomes, word will reach her ears and you may just wake up to find that you have been drained of blood and are doomed to enact The Twilight Saga verbatim instead of only alluding to it."
“Oh snap,” he said, following her. “I’ll have to watch my tongue. I’ll watch it so closely that it’ll be afraid to let loose a glob of saliva lest I feel the need to silence it for its unauthorized spitting. Best be off before your Team Edward and Team Jacob conglomerate hear me talkin’ and bust in here to take me down. They work faster than even you believe them to. Y’know. Vampire speed. They can flash-step and shit.”
“Well, then, here’s to hoping that a mythical creature does not bestow upon you the kiss of death.” She held the door open for him. “Do survive. I wish to see you next week, Dave.”
When she watched the children in the real world, the unreachable prize beyond the game, her robotic heart, a mechanical contraption that spun ‘round and ‘round just like the gears and notes of a musical round, was a little delighted to see that music boxes, her own little delights and demons, existed in a land so strange.
Not that she could identify such sentimentality with a metal trap pumping something more foreign than oil through her.
But it held her attention. There, in a tiny blonde creature’s lap, sat the most exquisite box a little girl could hope for. The black wood had cloisonné roses of red petals and green vines inlaid into it, wrapping around and into one another in spirals upon spirals, like a kaleidoscope of red, green, and black spilling over the top and all around the polished ebony sides.
“Roses for my Rose,” the tiny one in a velvet purple dress read from the card.
The lusus figure, the taller human, clasped her hands together in anticipation to see what her child thought of the gift.
The small child's perfect lips twitched as if they might quirk upwards on her pixie face, but whether in an expression of smug triumph or true joy, Aradia wouldn’t have known even if she weren’t still a mechanical time bomb. And it didn’t matter, as the toddling little one’s lips quickly regained their still, placid, unshakeable placement.
With a joy that one would normally expect to be on the face of the naïve babe instead of one her age, the caretaker, or “mother”, leaned forward and urged her child (a girl, Aradia had been told) to wind up a little golden knob protruding from the base of the box and open its lid.
A deliberate lethargy accompanied the girl’s movements as she cranked the little box and opened the lid, as if trying her best to make her mother into the wonderstruck child and herself into the jaded adult.
Two dancers, one dressed in a red suit and the other in a black dress, moved around on the inside of the box in tandem with the music in a waltz that seemed like it was meant to go on forever. Slowly, they spun in overlapping circles like the pattern of the Seventh Gate, like the dance had no beginning nor would ever end. They would only pause when the lid was closed and patiently wait for the moment when they were fortunate enough to have the light smile down at them, when they could continue orbiting in eternity like twin moons.
Red and black and black and red. They existed always and when the music was playing, they could dance together like a pack of cards in a player’s hands.
Happily, the mother gasped and spread her fingers wide, as if she were trying to make a baby smile through her enthusiasm alone.
But her baby, a girl of surely no more than two sweeps, only looked on at her porcelain waltz with an appeased stare, as if this wonderful gift were expected and she owed her mother no other indication of appreciation besides a passing mention.
“Thank you, mother. It is a very nice thing,” she said, and closed the lid on the two dancers. She set it aside next to a pile of books, including a black one that was rather daunting in size even for a girl three times her age, and gestured to a package sitting behind her guardian, propped up against the trunk of their voluminously decorated green tree. “Now it is your turn to open a present.”
Aradia watched over this little girl for some time, secretly hoping that she would open the music box again and let the dancers continue. But she never would- she preferred to keep them locked in there, forever waiting in a steadfast limbo where only a void awaited them.
The two of them were stuck in an enchanted sleep, doomed to wait forever until they could dance together again.
Somewhere, within the confines of her artificial heart, Aradia pitied them.
“Kitty, can I ask you something?” Jade turned to her friend. “Has Dave been acting strangely lately?”
Kitty Leijon, the youngest member of Witch’s Stitches Taxidermy, looked up from the wire form of the bobcat that she was making. “I dunno. He’s always been kind of silly. But why? Do you think he has been?”
“No,” Jade said, flicking the excess paint off of her brush, “Not really! He just seems like the same old Dave he ever was. Teresa just told me that I should go take him to see a therapist and even though she told me that whatever the big, mysterious thing that was up with Dave wasn’t a big deal, she sure was treating it like one!”
“Dave’s funny,” Kitty said. “So is Teresa. And they both like to keep secrets.”
“I guess.” Jade looked over at the workroom’s resident “dragon”, an unholy combination that Teresa and Dave had made out of a lizard, two snakes, a bat, and a platypus (“The platypus is just so unexpected,” Dave had said. “It’s fucking hysterical. Almost, like, ironic that the body for the beast that’s captivated practically the entire world’s collective imagination is something as stupidly squat and modest as the world’s most iconic, awkward, and un-majestic monotreme”) just because they were bored. How they both managed to get their hands on the animals, Jade would never know and she never wanted to know- although she was decently sure that the Iguana head and spines were ceramic sculptures that Dave had made and the bat and at least one of the snakes were the artificial replicas of Teresa’s own hand.
The platypus, whose head was on Dave’s (incidentally, also “ironically” amusing) Psyduck-from-Pokemon-in-real-life creation, which proudly clasped its prosthetic skull in an eternal migraine above its master’s bed, would forever remain a mystery.
Whenever that thing was brought up in conversation, Teresa would just grin madly and say, “Ah, yes. Mister Carroty Duckbill was met with a just fate” and then cackle, which, while hardly unusual for her, was incredibly unsettling.
Sometimes Jade seriously wondered if her friend was in any condition to have concerns for anyone else’s brainwaves.
“Maybe it’s all some big, elaborate joke,” Jade muttered. “And they’re just being mean and leading me on.”
Kitty’s eyes widened. “Oh, they wouldn’t do that, would they? That’s positively awful! And awful of you to say, too! I’m sure they wouldn’t be like that.”
Jade felt guilty and looked into her normally cheerful friend’s dewy eyes. “I’m sorry, Kittynip. That really was a terrible thing for me to say.”
Kitty smiled at the nickname and turned back to her work. “I’m not that angry. After all, I’m getting to work on my favorite thing today!”
“You really do know how to make cats look really lifelike,” Jade commented. “It’s no surprise that those are your favorite. Dave even likes your cats.”
“Really?” Kitty brightened. “He always just tells me that it’s creepy that my name is Kitty and my favorite animals are cats but the thing I like to do most is preserve dead ones.”
“He means it as a compliment, sort of. But he’s also kind of right.” Jade shrugged.
“But why? I don’t go out and hunt the cats myself, and I wouldn’t unless I really had to. Maybe if I was starving and all there was to eat was cats, I would!” She adjusted the hat on her head so that it wasn’t falling into her eyes. “Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a cat. Letting their cuteness go to waste is a shame and this way I can preserve them! And since they’re my favorite animals, why wouldn’t I like to work with them the best? They have the bestest poses and I like seeing that these big kitties look as good as they possibly can, even if they are dead!” She huffed. “Like you can imagine them in the wild, like they were for real and not just stuffed figures! Like why Teresa is always trying to make a really perfect dragon.”
“I guess you’ve got a point there. And he’s got no good reason to call you weird, when he’s the one that collects dead stuff and puts it all in his room like a crow hoarding its ill-gotten treasures.”
“But,” Kitty blushed a little. “It really makes me happy when Dave asks to keep some of my smaller cats. It’s nice to have somebody appreciate what I do,” she reached over and flexed her fingers on the nearby bobcat’s fur.
“It is,” Jade said. “Dave likes to act like a butt sometimes, but he is really a cool kid. And nice to have around.”
“What are you going to do when he moves away?”
“Oh. That’s not for a while. But… I haven’t really thought about it! When he first moved in, it was a little weird because it was so new and sudden and sad… but I got used to it so fast that it’s felt like he’s always been there.” She paused. “I’ll be really sad when he leaves the nest, but I’m sure he’ll come back sometimes. My family always tends to keep us all gathered up too frequently to let us drift apart.”
“I’m a little jealous,” Kitty confesses. “I don’t really have a big family like that. It’s just me and my mom.”
“But that’s good! She’s really nice and sweet and I know how close you two are.”
“Well, I’m a little jealous I don’t have another girl to talk with all the time. Sometimes, I wish Dave would get a girlfriend and bring her to meet me just so I’d have somebody to bond with over really girly stuff!”
“I like girly stuff sometimes, but I don’t do it a lot. Like put on makeup or wear cute clothes- I’m not very good at that kind of thing, but I like looking at them. I guess I’m maybe a little bit of a tomboy,” she said.
“Well, maybe that’s because nobody ever taught you or played dress-up with you.”
“Mom plays with my hair and puts it up in pretty ways. But I’m scared to wear it like that all day. I might mess it up.”
“I think you’d do fine, Kitty Nep-nip.”
Katy- or Kitty, as she was called- Leijon had always been a sheltered and unusual girl. She was chipper and cheerful, but she suffered the unfortunate fate of being brushed aside like an insect by most of her peers for her eccentricities and overzealous eagerness to make friends. She had begun working at Witch’s Stitches when she was sixteen and it was where she spent most of her time even before she graduated high school, with the majority of her income either being put away for an apartment or to supplement her mother’s earnings and pay the loan on their house off. Teresa often speculated that Kitty was using her mother’s debt to keep the pressure of moving away at bay, although her mother did not seem to mind her daughter continuing to live at home in the slightest and probably would have let her stay even if Kitty wasn’t contributing to the payments.
Hey, Jade?” The girl finally said, “I’m sorry I asked about something as sad as Dave moving away from you. I’m just nervous, I think.”
“I know my mom has friends at the post office, but I’m scared of leaving her all on her own. She’s really quiet and I’m scared she’ll be lonely.” She tightened her grip on the bobcat fur. “And I know I will be. I’m not good at making friends. Dave’s right. I am weird.”
Jade stopped working and looked at her friend. “Aw, Kitty, but we still like you! In fact, we like you because you are weird! I’m your friend, and so are Teresa and Dave! Going out of your comfort zone can be scary,
but you might like it when you try it! Changes like that are only hard at first, but they can be wonderful, too. Like having an epiphany that you never had before.”
“Maybe.” She kneaded the soft fur between her fingers and smiled a little. “I remember how scared I was of Dave when he first came here.”
“You were scared? Of Dave?”
Jade couldn’t stifle her laughter. “Why? He’s just a silly kid that likes to talk about a lot of even sillier things!”
“I dunno. When he came here, I was scared that everything was going to change. I had just started working here a month before and I really liked it and liked you and Teresa and I thought he was going to come in here and tease me and be mean to me because of my hobby and that you and Teresa would like him better and make fun of me, too.”
“We would never do that!” Her bright eyes flashed.
“I know that now.”
“Okay. But to be fair, he does tease you,” Jade, convinced that Kitty was okay, continued adding some more of her signature color to the fake fish’s scales.
“But it isn’t mean,” insisted Kitty. “It took me a little while to get used to, but it’s just like you said- it’s all silly! And he is funny.” She adjusted the fur onto the wire frame she made. “You’re lucky that he came to live with you. He likes you a lot.”
Jade grinned. “He likes to act like he doesn’t, sometimes, but I think you are right!” She put down her brush and dabbed a little more silver onto her sculpture’s underbelly with a sponge. “When I’m mad at him or just feeling sad, he likes to leave candy out on the counter and pretend that he was being a lazy teenager and “didn’t feel like putting it away, what is this, the residence of Mr. Clean and his hunk of furniture-polish chocolate love, the Pine Sol lady? Do we have to keep this place immaculate all the time? Button down the hatches, don’t leave anything out for more than five minutes or the clean police are gonna come by and take all our shit. They have a warrant and everything!”” She crossed her arms and sat in a lethargic pose, deepening her voice and exaggerating her exasperation in an amusing caricature of her housemate.
Kitty’s giggles rewarded her efforts. “You’re really good at that!”
Jade’s triumphant smirk vanished when she looked down at her arms. “And really messy. Look!”
She stood and turned towards her friend, displaying the splotches of paint she had smeared onto herself and her clothes.
“Oh,” was all the cat-lover said.
“I guess Dave’s not going to be too happy with me. He washed this shirt yesterday.”
“I think it’s funny he does all the chores.”
“Not all of them,” Jade corrected. “But he does a lot of them. And it’s nice. He gets perturbed when the living room and kitchen are trashed. It’s like he’s afraid that if we let anything stay in there that doesn’t belong, it’ll accumulate and take over the room. He gets especially testy about me taking up a lot of refrigerator space.”
“He says it’s because his gigantic BJ’s economy-sized bottles of apple juice won’t fit in there otherwise, but maybe he’s scared there won’t be any room for food? He made some crazy story up about how, if I kept putting things in there, an avalanche of stuff would fall out and impale him somehow. I don’t know! But he keeps his bedroom an absolute mess. A clean mess, I guess. He washes his sheets a lot, at least. And he moves stuff around so that it’s never very dusty. Still, it’s so cluttered!” Slowly, she turned and gave Kitty a conspiratorial glance. “I think he’s really embarrassed about the sheets thing and that’s part of why they’re always strewn about everywhere ‘cause he knows he’ll just have to wash ‘em again. I feel kind of bad, but I don’t want to offer to do them and embarrass him more.”
Clueless, Kitty blinked. “Why would he be embarrassed about you washing his sheets? He washes yours.”
Jade blinked back. “Well, no, see, he’s a teenaged boy and he thinks he can let me be oblivious and while he keeps his secret and I--” Bright green eyes went in and out of focus as she regarded Kitty’s background and remembered that she was too innocent to catch on to what Jade was getting at.
Suddenly, Kitty gasped and held both of her hands up to her mouth. “Does he still wet the bed?” Her face turned pink and her eyebrows knit together. “Oh, poor Dave. That is embarrassing!”
“…Ummmmm, Kitty, that’s not what I mean. But don’t you worry about it! It was not something I should have mentioned! My fault!”
“But now I’m curious! What did you mean? Does this have to do with why you were asking me if I thought he was acting strange?”
Oh, noooooooooo. Jade mentally kicked herself for letting this out of the bag and started thinking of all the possibilities of rambling explanations her adopted relative would have to say about this whole situation if he found out. “Maybe we should just say that he was wetting the bed and then not ever bring this up to anybody. Curiosity killed the cat, after all.”
Looking a little hurt from having her question ignored, Kitty returned to her work and gave a small nod. “Okay.”
Jade sighed. Now she felt guilty. After all, Kitty had only meant well and Jade hadn’t intended to push her away, especially now- Kitty needed to have people care about her and be her friends.
“Kitty?” Jade asked. “Would you like to come over for dinner tomorrow night?”
“Hey, do you wanna watch a movie?”
“Mmmmwhat?” Dave had been on the verge of falling asleep on the couch and he clumsily sat up to look at his housemate.
“Oh, were you sleeping? I’m sorry. I was gonna see if you wanted to watch a movie with me but if you were in the middle of a nap, that’s totally okay! Go back to sleep! Night-night!
Sloppily, he pushed his hair out of his face and clambered to his feet. “Nah, it’s okay. I don’t really need to sleep anymore. I was more or less doin’ it ‘cause I was bored. Take a seat and I’ll get the Netflix ready.”
“Yeah. ‘Sides, if I need to sleep I can just sleep during the movie.”
“Awesome,” she said. “I’ll get the popcorn!” A few footsteps and the rustling of plastic popcorn packaging could be heard in the other room.
Dave stopped what he was doing and made a beeline for the kitchen. “Nope,” he snatched the microwaveable package away from her and replaced it with the remote. “It’s a better idea for you to set up the TV. If I cook this popcorn, there is a one-hundred-percent chance of it not burning whereas if you do it, it’s like ninety-nine percent going the other way. We can’t risk that.”
Jade lowered her eyelids at him and smacked him with her purse. “I microwaved the plastic with it once. And that was because I wasn’t paying attention and Gammy hit the start button.”
“And the moral of the story is, “don’t let clowns in your kitchen”. I’ve got this. You go techno-master the TV.”
She sauntered out of the room with a wink and a salute. He pretended that he didn’t find the subtle tilt of her hips and face extremely attractive. “Aye aye, captain taskmaster,” she said.
“Like Captain Ahab. I’m gonna go spear me this whale of a bag of popcorn. Gonna haunt me for years if I don’t. It’s a personal grudge that you wouldn’t understand. Lost my leg in a hot butter vat. Then got popcorn salt rubbed into the wound. Sometimes I have nightmares about various stages of corn.”
“We’re watching Doctor Who,” she announces. “I already decided!”
Dave hit the start button on the microwave and got out a bowl. “Righto, chap!”
It really didn’t matter to him what they watched and he actually kind of liked Doctor Who. Sure, the effects were absolute cheese and the plotline clinically insane, but there was always something familiar about the show that drew both he and Jade in, even if he would never outright admit it. But he would never hesitate to point out that a bunch of the Doctor’s sidekicks were hot.
He tore open the heated popcorn package, dumped it in a bowl, grabbed some sodas, and headed into the apartment living room.
Jade was already seated with a blanket wrapped around her, humming along with the title theme and tapping her feet against the surface of the coffee table. Dave set the popcorn into her hands and placed the sodas on the table before flopping down and leaning against the armrest on the opposite end of the couch.
“The End of Time,” he read. “Totally trying to tone it down on the dramatics, aren’t they?”
Jade wrinkled her nose as if it alone could shrug. “It’s an artistic choice. They don’t want to give anything away too soon.” She popped a piece of buttery corn into her mouth and passed the bowl to Dave.
The Doctor’s story was a compelling one and Jade loved every second of it, particularly the idea of being able to have a device that took not only time into consideration, but space. Travelling the world would be a dream for her and being able to also alleviate the poor Doctor’s loneliness and go on crazy adventures sounded like a dream come true.
“But I hate all these goodbyes,” she would say.
Dave was personally of the opinion that the eccentric forms of the Doctor were all more or less forced to be “kind of giant dicks” for leaving trails of broken hearts in their wakes and that it was “kind of a buzzkill” even though it kept the show open to new characters and adventures.
They sat side by side and watched the show, with Dave occasionally making some snide remark about something being “really fucking British” or how Jackie Tyler was some “better off and less trashy cockney, therefore infinitely cooler even though she is kind of a bitch, version of [his] biological mother” (Jade would frown at this and Dave would shut up) or about how Jack Harkness probably used his time ship, back when he had one, to go visit and relive orgies. (Jade said that he probably broke all of the rules and had orgies with himself.)
Honestly, Dave had always had a soft spot for Harkness. His inability to die, however handy, seemed like an awful curse. It made him feel a tiny feather of upset flutter around in his stomach, like a baby bird had fallen down there and been forgotten and was crying out in the hopes of being remembered. He shifted slightly in his seat and just stopped focusing on it.
But the Master was not a character he could just ignore.
The sound of drums.
The Master was a tool of a greater power called to be a champion of war by an eternal rhythm, like a glorified clock counting down to the moment of his summoning. He lost his mind to the steady drilling because someone else had decided to pit his sanity against the vast image of time and space, all that was and is, in the hopes that he would
and shatter its bonds on his callers, the drummers, in return.
Dave felt himself ball his fists and his heartbeat sped up. It was absurd, letting a little British Television show get to him, but something about it made him feel uncomfortable.
He could hear the ticking of a clock in the back of his mind counting down and then decaying and warping into an uneven rhythm of drums, steady but still so wrong.
It bothered him and he didn’t know why. It just bothered him. That’s all.
Jade didn’t say a word as she scooted closer to him and wrapped the blanket around both of them. Gently, she wrapped an arm around him and put her head and other hand on his chest, rubbing small circles with her fingers.
“Are you falling asleep there? Weren’t you the one who wanted to watch this?”
“Yeah,” she said, to neither question in particular. “Do you want to turn it off?”
The hesitation in his voice was barely evident, but it was there. “Nah.”
“You sure? We can save it and watch it later, if you’re bored. Or I can watch it alone. Doesn’t matter.”
“What kind of… what kind of movieviewer would I be if I couldn’t even sit through one installment of Doctor Who with you? A damn shitty one, that’s what. We’re going whole hog on this British pig. BBC. British Bacon Company.”
She giggled. “What are you even talking about?”
He shifted so that she was laying against his chest and he was using the armrest as a pillow for his upper back, one shoed foot hanging off the couch to rest on the ground. He rested his hand on her back and used the other one to hold the popcorn bowl where she could reach it. Eventually, she slid her own hand from his shoulder blades and used it to brush against his neck and cheek. He liked that.
They stayed like that until after the show was over and Dave had turned the screens off with the remote, empty popcorn bowl filled with equally empty soda bottles and forgotten on the ground. Jade had fallen asleep and he dared not move her.
Instead, he brushed a hand through her long, dark hair, tucking it behind her ear and stroking her earlobe. He looked down at her face when he felt cold metal- her glasses hung half-off and crooked as they pressed against her face and his chest and he gingerly took them off the rest of the way and set them on the table.
The red marks the frames had left looked painful and he gently rubbed at them. Still asleep, she rolled away from the touch and onto her side, landing on Dave’s shoulder and bringing the blanket with her to expose both of their upper torsos. She lethargically grabbed at him for warmth and pulled herself closer when she found his waist.
He sighed as he felt her breath and nose on his neck and moved his hand up her arm, letting his fingers graze her skin, to drag the blanket out from between her back and the couch cushions and over them both.
When he got to her shoulder, he paused. He watched her body rise and fall in a deliberate, steady pattern as she breathed. Carefully, he caressed her face again and smiled as he admired her thick lashes and round cheeks, tracing them both with his fingertips before continuing the path down to her throat and to her collarbone. And then he hesitated, letting his fingers sweep inside the hollow notch at the base of her neck and then back over her collar like a feather pendulum dragging over her over and over again.
He closed his eyes, finally letting his hand wander downwards, over her left breast and to the center. The bottom of his palm grazed a place it wasn’t supposed to go and he felt an electric shock of embarrassment and exhilaration move through him. She moved her head in drowsing surprise and muttered something against his neck, making his breath hitch as he felt her lips move against him, half-heartedly closing around his skin before opening again to murmur out sleep-babble. He wanted to touch her more.
He wanted to touch her so much more.
But he didn’t. He innocently rested his hand in the middle of her chest and felt her heartbeat thrum against it in a rhythmic pulse.
Slowly, the sound of drums and clocks faded out of his head and a new beat took its place.
Finally, he drew his hand away and replaced the blanket over them both and held her close, burying his nose into her hair until he fell asleep, too.
Karkat Vantas, Knight of Blood, wanted to create a Utopia.
He wanted to make a world that would be free from the kind of struggles he faced every day, free from the fear of having his blood spilt just because the ensuing stain would be the color of the only true sin he’d committed- the sin of being born with a candied cancer to his race flowing through him, keeping him down, defining his every move so that his even his own personality was a mask.
In his world, the creatures would have red blood, like him. It would be more than the color of anger and fire and aggression. It would be the color of cherries, of strawberries, of energy, warmth, passion…
Yes. The word was still foreign to him, but he knew the feeling- It was too great to simply be pity. And he would bestow it unto the world. Karkat’s utopia would take his curse and transform it into a blessing.
Red. Still rare, but now precious instead of despicable.
There would be caring guardians for confused children and they would never have to leave their planet if they didn’t want to, regardless of age. And loving someone- that flushed, red gift that Karkat wished to infect a universe with- came from its own reasons and its own pace, not the pressures of a drone.
There would be wind and light and rain and time for growth and it would be wonderful.
And, cliché of clichés, Karkat would let there be the existence of soulmates. His precious quadrant system was a wonder, but if he could change it and have it so that there was a someone who existed for everyone that was everything wrapped into one, that would be perfect. It was his destiny to lead his people to this hallowed ground. It was his duty as a knight. As the descendant of The Sufferer.
A Utopia. Sburb would be the tool for him to create a Utopia.
He could live there with his friends and they could all learn to live in happiness and love. And there would be other inhabitants, new friends, to be their examples.
People so nice and true that it was impossible to truly hate them or make them hate you, even when you both were playing tricks. Spades would lose its hurt.
People so clever and loyal that they could figure out everything about you and make you laugh and feel okay even when they were dealing with your darkest, innermost secrets because you knew you would always be friends. A perfect auspistice for everything.
And there would be a few people, snowflakes like him, that acted one way but were another and deep down inside loved you the most and put you first even when it was hard for them. They could be examples of how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, whether the cover be prickly and closed shut or red-eyed and stoic.
And there would be a somebody for that person who was open when they were closed and kind when they were cold and made them smile and loosen the cover to let who they were at heart come through, not so much opposite as they were their complement in every way.
He knew what he wanted and he rushed to get it done, cutting some corners here and there to make it happen faster, to make it appear now so he could live there and everyone could be happy.
But it is never a good idea to rush perfection and his dream was sliced to ribbons before his very eyes, the door to his imperfect Utopia forever out of reach.
He was left looking at the innocent faces of the creatures he had brought to be and hated them with a jealousy he had not known he was capable of.
Little John Egbert and his friends slept quietly in the eyes of an angry, red-eyed god who thought his dream had been shattered in two.
Erivan slammed his head down onto the desk. “Dave,” he whined, “Why can’t this get any easier?”
God. This again already. “Watch it, dude, that’s my iPod you almost smashed right there. I need that to keep from having to listen to that mainstream One Direction shit. I gotta keep real quality blastin’ up in my ears. Like Friday.” He moved the shiny black device into the pocket of his hoodie, popped one of his earbuds out, and crossed his arms. “Okay, the doctor is IN. Gimme a nickel and I’ll see what I can do for you.”
“It’s about Fifer.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
“I just… I don’t know how to tell her that I like her and I’m not sure I should, you know? She’s my best friend and what he have is great. I don’t want to push her away from me.”
“Okay.” Dave reached his arms over onto the desk Erivan had taken and splayed his fingers to get his attention. “How many times have we been on this issue?”
“A whole gummin’ lot.”
“Right. And, remind me, how many times have I given you the same answer?”
Erivan opened his mouth to say something, but Dave kept talking over him. “That’s what I thought. More than “a whole gummin’ lot”. A whole gumball machinin’ worth, I would think. Now, given that information,
here’s the million gum-dollar question- What do you think that my answer is going to be this time?”
With a whine, Erivan slid his chin on the smooth surface of the desk top so that he was face down on the plastic. “If I keep it in, it’ll only get worse. I should be honest about how I feel. If she accepts me, awesome, but if she rejects me, we should still be able to work through it and stay friends if we are as close as we think we are. It will be that much easier to get over if I come clean with my feelings.”
Across the desks, Dave was twiddling his fingers to Erivan’s recital like a conductor’s baton and mouthing the words in tandem with his friend, replacing the “I”s and “me”s and “my”s with “you”s and “your”s. “And look! Rote memorization does wonders yet again. Thank you, strategies of learning in public school systems. You might pass this year, Mister Erivan Amphora.”
“But look, man,” Erivan began, raising his head up off of the desk. “I know what you’re sayin’ is right, but you just don’t realize how hard it is to actually do. There is so gummin’ much at stake here that it’s ridiculous!”
“There’s a lot at stake, you’re right. There’s so much up on that goddamn stake that the Salem Witch Trials can’t even compare with the volume of shit on wooden spikes you’ve got goin’ on. And Joan of Arc can’t even begin to touch you in historical significance--”
You just don’t understand!” Erivan glowered. “You and I have been friends for years and I know you aren’t heartless, but you can’t begin to understand how crushing pressure like this can be. It feels like no matter what you do, you’re riskin’ everything! It could all go wrong on you and then you’d be out to sea without a paddle!”
Dave sighed. “I know, I know. It’s like being 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea for you. I get it. Really, I do. I’m on this shit like white on rice. Like the Olsens on crack. But believe me when I say that this is not as bad as it could be.”
With a flash of light from the reflection of his horn-rimmed glasses, Erivan’s dark eyes were trained on Dave’s in an exchange of annoyance and commiseration. “How would you know? I mean, I know you care about me as a friend and that you aren’t an entire man-bitch, just mostly one--”
“--But you don’t value girls the way I do Fifer. You go through girls like a child goes through prize goldfish at the fair. You get your hands on them, decide you don’t want them, and then shake and agitate them until they go belly-up from neglect so you don’t have to deal with them! Then, you just show off your fancy tricks and win another one and do the same thing! You giving a gummin’ shit about preserving a friendly relationship past the short term is nil.”
Dave crossed his arms and faked a subtle, angry expression. “Dammit, Erivan, I was gonna use that fair goldfish analogy-thing for a sexual innuendo. Cheeky fucker.” Then he looked into his friend’s downtrodden face and his own brows relaxed and eyes softened a bit in empathy before he realized it. “Look, believe it or not, I kind of know a lot about the type of situation you’re in and I know that you are making way too big of a deal out of yours.”
Erivan squinted his eyes and slithered up to sit straighter in his seat, eel-like in every subtle motion. Dave was either being an inconceivably good liar or he was being sincere. Either way, Erivan was curious. “Explain.”
The other boy’s distinctive eyes widened and he caught his tongue before it said any more.
For a moment- just a moment- Dave had felt like it might be alright to tell someone else about his own personal problem and see if they could offer him a solution, like maybe he could bring them into his circle of trust completely so he wouldn’t be so very alone.
But that was stupid. Only Doctor Valonde was allowed to know and that was because she was his shrink. Nothing more.
Or maybe talking to her was loosening his handle on keeping everything closed in. She certainly was provoking the floodwaters in her sessions. Perhaps she was weakening the dam, too.
He ground his back teeth and made a mental note to get onto her case about this. In the meantime, he had to keep from spilling his guts to the only person he knew who could potentially single-handedly ruin everything.
Erivan was not a bad guy, but he was a loose cannon and if Dave told him anything, there was the possibility of Erivan trying to bring the school counselor into this. Or worse, try to do something about it himself.
And Erivan, bless him, would do absolutely anything in his power if he thought he were helping a friend- even if that involved hurting the friend in the process.
“Obviously I was the one being crushed on rather than crushing, but,” he did his best to keep a deadpan expression for the punchline, “you and I are still friend even after Johnny spoke for both of us and told you that we weren’t homosexuals,” Dave teased. “We tried really hard not to utterly decimate your middle school dreams of being a misunderstood try-sexual.”
Erivan spluttered. “Oh, of course, you asshole! The minute you try and be serious about something, you back off and bring up memories of me showing my ass to cover yours!” He kept his eyes narrowed and pushed his face closer to Dave’s. “Now you listen here, coolkid. I may be moody and a gummin’ sucker for dramatics sometimes,”
“And sometimes a shameless poser goth,”
“Fuck you, I’m hipster. Goth’s too mainstream.”
Dave would have rolled his eyes if it weren’t for the impromptu staring contest of dominance that Erivan had brought on. “Not as hipster as I am,” he joked.
Erivan actually rolled his eyes. “Listening to weird music and being in the photography club does not a hipster make. You don’t even wear skinny jeans.”
“That’s because skinny jeans are whack. They slowly castrate you and try to squeeze the life out of your feet all at the same time like the Giant slowly crushing Jack’s bones to make his bread. I’m so hipster that you can’t even tell I’m a hipster.”
“Whatever, stop trying to distract from the fact that you were almost gonna tell me a secret--”
Dave kept talking over him. “I’m the special-est snowflake.”
“If you don’t tell me—"
“The other hipsters can’t even know the depths of my depth.”
“--I’m going to gummin’ do something drastic.”
“That’s how hipster I am.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“No, I’m full of individuality.”
With an energy that hadn’t been present before, Erivan all but got on top of the desk and grabbed Dave by his collar, bringing the other boy just inches from his face. “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to do something you aren’t going to like. This is your first warning--”
“I’m more than a hipster. I’m a meta-hipster.”
“I mean it,” Erivan threatened, pulling Dave closer.
“The other hipsters are faithless, artsy assholes that don’t realize that they should stop grooming their stupid beards and mustaches and bow down and worship me instead. This obsession with being all not-conforming and thereby conforming is like the Jews worshipping the golden calf.”
“Well, Dave, If that’s how you’re gonna be. I hope you don’t mind me making out with you in lieu of Fifer for the time being to get out my frustration.” He opened his mouth and leaned in.
But Dave’s hand intercepted him and Erivan felt himself get roughly shoved back into his desk chair so hard that the front legs of it lifted off the ground for a moment.
“No, chickenshit, I’m just better at playing chicken than you. And I don’t even care if you want to hurl insults saying that I’m just gay for you,” he snapped, straightening his hair back with his hands. “Say what you like about me, but I’m the one more comfortable with my sexuality than you are.”
“You mean you aren’t truly, deep down inside, beyond this Fifer phase, like it’s just one of many thin and flimsy layers and layers and layers of an onion, smitten with me and only me? Erivan, baby, I’m heartbroken. I know I just shoved you off, but it was just my rough way of flirting,” Dave mocked. “I know you really dig it when someone plays hard-to-get and doesn’t like you back, romantically speaking.”
There was much more sting in the last sentence than he had intended and Dave regretted every word as he watched the hurt form in one of his closest friend’s eyes.
After a moment of shocked silence, Erivan scoffed. “Thanks, Strider. I just came here to have someone talk to me. It’s good to know that my friend just wants to give me hell in my time of need, even when I offer to try to help them through their problems instead of my own.” He stood and swooped up his bag in one swift motion and turned to head for the classroom door.
Dave was on his feet and in his friend’s way in an instant.
“Erivan, stop, I’m sorry.” He put his hands on the other boy’s shoulders and then replaced them and held fast when they were shrugged off. “I didn’t mean it. Any of that last part. And I do want to help you with this Fifer shit.”
“You’re a gummin’ dick.”
“Yes I am,” Dave said. “And you’re a guy so smitten with a lady that you’ve taken to adopting her signature expletive. You need some gummin’ bro time to help you get ready for some gummin’ ‘ho time.”
Erivan gave a crooked grin, like a crack spreading on ice. “You’re gummin’ straight I do,” he said, grin thawing as it spread.
So all sins were forgiven. “You wanna come over and eat food with me and Jade?” Dave asked.
“Is she making a pot roast?”
“Not if I can have a fuckin’ say in it. She shouldn’t have stopped by the house yet today to start one ‘cause it’s Tuesday and she goes straight from her parents’ to work on Tuesdays. And even if she did manage to start one, fuck it. We can just freeze it. Or put a wig on it and let you practice whatever speech you plan to deliver to Fifer with it.”
“Or we could just ask your hot niece/cousin/guardian for advice,” Erivan stated, nodding slowly and looking up at the ceiling. “She’s a girl. She’s good with that shit.”
Dave’s face remained impassive when Erivan referred to Jade as “hot”. “Yeah. Maybe.” He took his hands off of Erivan and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they lumbered out of the classroom.
“So I’m guessing we need to somehow find a ride to the grocery store and then your house.”
“Yes,” Dave told him. “And I think I know just where to find one.”
She was fourteen and nerdy and hadn’t grown into herself, the unfortunate middle-schooler that went to bed wearing children’s sized pajamas one night and practically waking up the next morning needing a women’s medium. Her overbite was minor and her glasses major and her feet too big to look right on her peg legs.
But she carried herself with her head held high and a smile on her face. She was hard to hate or tease because she charmed everyone by looking in their eyes and making them feel good just by smiling when she spoke. Jade always seemed to walk through life absolutely clueless to the fact that, at her age, she was supposed to be awkward, overly sensitive, hate herself, unable to keep friends, and be disrespectful her parents.
Jade had never gotten those memos and just was.
Did she know she had big feet? Yes. Did she know she was fat? Yes. Did she know she had poor vision and needed dental work? Yes. She absolutely did, and even though she wasn’t particularly thrilled about any of those things, she had never seen them as the end of the world.
Her younger relatives idolized her and her older relatives prized her. Although her family did not strictly adhere to most of their cultural traditions, they did keep the members of it close both emotionally and physically, not only because of the wishes of Jade’s great grandmother, the deceased family matriarch, but because they themselves relished the togetherness. So for Jade, her family’s opinion and love was basically all she needed to stand above the terrible tragedy of teenagerdom.
And her family spanned more than just her bloodline- Jade’s “family” was actually a set of four unrelated families that had banded together after immigrating from Europe in the thirties.
The Harley-Egberts and their affiliates were a loving and social group and used any excuse to throw a picnic. The food was extravagant and illogically chosen, as if every feast was a sampling of several different cultures all in one place.
When great grandmother Jade, who the family called Baba, and her closest friends, the immigrants that had accepted her to be their New World “family”, had been alive, they used to tell stories of their lives, particularly how they met. Baba and great grandmother Pirop, called Yaga after her favorite fairy tale, were especially fond of telling stories that embarrassed Yaga’s crotchety husband, and all the children would laugh as he wheezed out an outraged string of elaborate curses in a mix of his native language and English.
Eventually, Yaga’s husband, called Daa-daa-jee, was the only one of the original eight left and he would sit, silent, within the throng of relatives he had amassed over the years, watching with a stern face but kind eyes and a lap open for any great grand-children who wanted to sit there. A serene river gently lapping against the shoreline beneath a pleasant fall backdrop.
But sometimes he could be unexpectedly scary, with a voice that roared like whitewater crashing amongst jagged rocks, drowning out everything around him and upsetting everyone in his wake.
Gammy liked to provoke him the most, as he spent the most time with the old man outside of family gatherings and thus knew how to press his buttons the best. Jade would giggle as she watched her lazy, laid-back cousin work the old man into a froth, waving his cane everywhere in an immense struggle to get on his feet while throwing a tantrum, and then be calmed by gently being pushed back down and receiving a few pats on the hand.
“I’m just kiddin’, Daa-daa-jee,” he would chuckle. “You know that.”
Daa-daa-jee would get that disgruntled wrinkle in his lower lip and then shake his head, releasing his lips from his frown. “You are just like my most foolish friend,” he would say. “Allah rest his soul.”
Jade and the other children would laugh and beg Daa-daa-jee to tell them stories of this “foolish friend”, their Babaloo, the eccentric and childish exiled prince who could not stay out of trouble, and his hapless companion, their final great-grandfather Opa, the animal trainer with no legs but a big heart.
Daa-daa-jee would make a big show of discouraging them from asking for the story, “Oh, you do not want stories of that fool. Surely you children are much too big and old to be interested in the time your Oma and Opa’s goat broke into the house and Babaloo dressed it in his clothing to hide it from the police. Surely this would not amuse you!”
To which the children would reply, “Please, Daa-daa-jee? Tell it!”
“Oh, no. Why would you make me explain something so long and dull?”
“Do you really want me to?”
At this point, the other adults, who would have been quietly chatting amongst themselves and drinking wine, would turn their heads and join their children in a thunderous chorus spanning generations. “Tell it! Tell it right now, you old buffoon!”
“I AM NOT A BUFFOON, YOU INGRATES!”, he would say
The storytelling would go on for hours, frequently with some of the original eight’s own children, the true grandparents, stepping in and adding a few details and telling a few tales of their own.
In fact, the setup of the entire Harley-Egbert-Vantas- Bakri clan was like something out of a fairytale, where normal clichés did not apply.
The imperfect teenaged girl was happy.
The Muslim, the Roman Catholic, the Jewish, and Hindu families sat together and ate the same meals.
They called each other family and their scruples were few and far between.
The boy who belonged to nobody’s Opa or Babaloo or Daa-daa-jee or Nonno, the bit of white ash among the charcoal, always felt like there was something odd about him being here among these wonderful people, like he knew he didn’t belong.
But not because he was adopted- basically every member of this family was adopted at some point and it was not a cause of alienation. The deep feeling in his gut didn’t have the sting of “you don’t belong”, but rather, it was a tiny, nagging, inexplicable feeling that he did belong, but not in this way. Something was wrong.
Sometimes he felt like the puzzling surprise in the room- everyone was glad to have him there, but they were never sure what to do with him. He was a favorite book but they had no bookshelf for him.
Dave never spent a lot of time around the eldest generation one-on-one, much like he disliked being around the youngest generation (minus Jade) when he was barely not a baby anymore. There was something about the way that Babaloo, when he had been alive, and Daa-daa-jee would watch him that always made him feel uncomfortable, like he was missing some big secret that just the two of them had been keeping.
“Boy,” Daa-daa-jee said to him one day as the children were filing out to go get ready for bed, “Why do you never come to talk to me?”
Dave turned around. Jade, who had been next to him, stopped and turned as well, rubbing her eyes as she did.
“I talk to you,” said Dave plainly. “I don’t play you like a bad-tempered fiddle like Gammy does, but I talk to you.”
Daa-daa-jee’s face kept its hardened look, like leather that had been left in the sun so long that it held its shape and stayed in motionless ripples and rolls in his face and jaw, frozen in time so gravity couldn’t touch them and smooth them out. “You always have the most absurd things to say,” the old man said. “That was all nonsense.”
“Y’know, it could just not make sense to you because you’re old and foreign and need to clear the wax out of your ears and remember that you’re in America now.”
“How dare you give me such wanton disrespect!” He raised a fist into the air.
Jade stepped in front of her younger relative and pushed Daa-daa-jee’s hand down. “You old coot! It’s late and you are both tired. And so am I! Daa-daa-jee, stop trying to start a fight for attention because you are lonely now that the others are no longer here to listen to you.”
“Me, start a fight! Absurd! I only wanted to have a man-to-man talk with him. And I am not lonely.”
“You are a chatty old man who hates being ignored, silly goose! And how do you call shouting at Dave having a man-to-man talk?”
“…He provoked me.”
“You’re the disrespectful one, Daa-daa-jee!”
“It is not your place to scold me, little one,” he griped.
Jade tossed her head back. “I may not be as old as she was, but I am scolding you in the name of my Baba. That’s why they named me after her. I have to make sure to keep you in line!”
Childishly, the old man’s lower lip quibbled a bit and he thrust it forward in a pout that looked utterly ridiculous on his wizened face. “What a horrible girl,” he teased, patting her on the head. “So awful to such an old man.” He turned his head to the side and raised his eyebrows, reversing the gravity on his aged leather face to make the permanently wrinkled fabric travel up through space instead of down to the ground. “In my day, you would have been punished.” He shook his head and tutted. “Some traditions still stand from then.” He patted her head. “Little Jade, for the sake of your name and my pride, I must command you go to bed.” He dropped the folds of flesh on his face and ruffled her hair again before looking at Dave, who had taken a few steps away from them both. “I promise that I am not trying to start a fight with him. And I promise to send him to bed in one piece before the sun rises.”
“It’s really okay,” Dave told her. “You can leave me alone with the vicious man-eating surly great grandfather, family, genus, and species Old-us Man-us Defenseless-us . I realize there have not been many people that have encountered one in the wild and lived to tell the tale, but I think I stand a fair chance.”
“Goof,” Jade told him. “You need to play nice, too.”
“It’s all in the name of science,” he told her. “I’ll play nice right up to the moment he brandishes his pincers and charges. Besides, I’ll be defending you while you sleep so he can’t come after you in the night.”
“You are absolutely absurd,” Daa-daa-jee told the boy.
Jade kissed her Daa-daa-jee on the cheek and gave Dave a peck on the head. “Wow, I feel sooo much safer,” she joked. “Good night.”
The two males watched her disappear through the doorway and up the stairs to where the rest of her family was getting ready to sleep.
“You know,” Daa-daa-jee started, “the disrespectfulness that I was talking about earlier was that you never took the time to talk to your elders.” He patted the spot next to him on the couch.
“You never took the time to call me over and tell me what you and Babaloo were always whispering about,” he shot back.
“So you noticed?”
“What a troublesome boy,” he said. “It is no wonder what my dear friend and sister saw in you. She willed you to live among us and give this old man hell, much like she advised me to live with Opa’s family after my wife died.”
“And named Jade.”
“Your Baba did not truly name your niece. The suggestion to always have a member of the family carry that name was a joke. It was only Jade’s own mother who took it seriously.”
“Is Jade a lot like Baba was?”
Daa-daa-jee looked at the ceiling and frowned deeper, but in thought. “Yes. In some ways.”
The old man snorted. “Both were stubborn, clever, loving, and have this infuriating talent for keeping me from embarrassing myself to the point of mortification with my words.”
“Hm,” was all Dave replied.
Daa-daa-jee slapped the cushion of the couch again. “Don’t just stand there, boy. Sit.”
Dave edged onto the corner of the couch like a bird perched on the end of a branch.
“Come here,” Daa-daa-jee commanded, getting impatient.
“Do you bite?” Dave asked.
“I am about to if you do not sit next to me where I can see you better,” he grouched, voice rising a little.
Dave scooted a little closer, but still far away enough that, had they been sitting on a public park bench, passersby would believe that they were two independent parties rather than a doting great-grandfather
figure and his adopted kin.
Daa-daa-jee became visibly angered and the two furnaces beneath his drooping brows came alight. “You know that in my home country I was regarded as an untouchable and that feeling of others looking at me like I was something filthy pervaded even after I came to this country because I was different.” He put down his cane and gathered himself up like a creature ready to strike. “I refuse to have someone in my own family treat me this way, even if it is unintentional, and especially if it is by some pale little ghost-boy with a sass mouth!” With a speed and strength that contrasted with his age, Daa-daa-jee grabbed Dave by his waist and pulled him closer.
The boy gasped and his hands went out to push Daa-daa-jee away while his eyes closed and he tucked in his chin like he thought he could shrink away into himself.
After a few seconds, he felt the old man’s hands loosen and release him and the soft fabric of his robes disappear from his palms. Slowly, he dropped his own arms and opened his eyes.
Daa-daa-jee’s face was set in a thin line and his eyes were wide and watery. “You do not accept me. I call you my great-grandson, I let you stay with my children and call them cousin and aunt and uncle and mother and father, I let you stay under my roof, I let you eat my food, I let you have the power to hurt me but you still do not accept me.” His tightened lips quivered at their sides. “And you use it all against me like the pale, dead eyed demon you are!” His face changed like a flash of lightning struck it and rearranged his features into the definitive ridges of anger, but his mouth still shook and water began to run from his big, deep-set eyes and over his cheeks like a tiny brook trickling over a dry riverbed. “Hateful, ungrateful child!”
Before Dave knew it, his own face had morphed into the opposite of Daa-daa-jee’s, but he had the same look in his eyes as his elder. “Please don’t cry,” he said, “You’ll wake everybody up and then we will have to deal with a grumpy Jade. She can be like an angry bear in the mornings. You don’t wanna deal with that.” At a loss, he leaned over and put his hands on the old man’s shoulders again, this time pulling him closer. “See? I don’t think you are untouchable. It was a misunderstanding. I thought you were going to…” his voice trailed off. “I don’t like it when people surprise me like that.”
“You say this, but I see you sit next to my Jade and let her put an arm around you. I see you and my Gammy whisper mischievous words in each other’s ears. I see that you accept them, but you do not accept me because of what I am.”
Dave’s eyes searched Daa-daa-jee’s. “Because of what you are? Because you’re my great-grandfather? That’s stupid, Daa-daa-jee!” His cheeks inflated as he inhaled and panicked. “It’s not that I don’t accept you! I do! I just don’t know what you want from me! I don’t know you!”
“You never tried to,” the aging man said.
Suddenly the lump Dave had felt forming in his throat dissolved and his widened eyes darkened. “You never did, either. Just because I’m younger than you are doesn’t mean that you can just pin all the blame onto me like you’re using me to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with fake reasons. I know I’m being awful and disrespecting my elder, but you can’t make this whole thing just about you.”
His old Daa-daa-jee looked like he had just been slapped. “You spoiled brat,” he said. “YOU DAMNED SPOILED BRAT!” He raised his hand into the air, palm flat, and Dave shut his eyes, ducked his head, and braced himself for the blow.
But it never came.
Instead he felt Daa-daa-jee’s arms wrap around his back and pull him into an embrace.
Finally, the older man spoke. “You keep closing your eyes whenever I do anything. But it is true that the way I have been acting gives you no reason to trust me. My wife and your Baba would always yell at me about that. And I was, and perhaps still am, a very angry man, to be sure.”
Furtively, Dave opened one eye and peeked up at his great-grandfather, who was looking down at him.
“There are a lot of you grubby children around, you know,” he said. “Makara- that is, Babaloo, and I would spend hours discussing you. He would say each one was a miracle. I would tell him he was full of it and too old and far gone to even remember what he was talking about. But I would secretly agree.”
Dave tightened his grip on his great-grandfather’s robes.
“Let me see your face, boy.”
Dave slowly released himself from the hug and looked Daa-daa-jee in the eyes. His intense gaze made the child nervous, but he didn’t look away.
“I once met a man with eyes like that.”
“You’ve never told us.”
“I joke and go on about how all of my stories should not be told, but this one I truly do not want to tell to the family.”
“I apologize. My face alone must offend you somehow.”
“Shut up,” snapped Daa-daa-jee. “Your mouth is the only offensive thing.”
“The man I met with unusual eyes looked at me with the exact same expression on his face that you had barely a few moments ago.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you are trying to tell me here.”
Daa-daa-jee looked at him, his eyes turning glassy as he looked not at Dave, but at events that had happened before in his own lifetime. “Your Babaloo and I were prisoners to be shot. A man with red eyes saved our lives. His words were unkind, his actions angelic, and the consequences from them were near-damning to my sense of self. I was an angry man because I could never understand how a world so strange and full of contradiction could really be born of a perfect God. For a long time, I cursed that man for allowing me to survive and struggle and think such blasphemy. For within his eyes, the eyes of the man I thought to be a demon, eyes so similar to mine,” Daa-daa-jee tapped his brow, “I could not help but despise the feeling of being at the mercy of a creature like him.”
Dave frowned a little.
“I think we all had crises of faith at some point on our journey to America and that is perhaps why we were all blessed with each other in the end. Because of that, it was suddenly possible for me to move on from my own disgraces and journey into a new stage of my life with those most important to me, be they of my blood or race or circumstance. It is very strange,” he said. “But now is not the time to speak with you about theology. All I want to tell you is that you remind me of the fecal wagon scum who saved my life.”
He winked and Dave snickered at Daa-daa-jee’s language.
“And somehow, after I met you in the hospital for the first time and found myself accepting you as my own, I feel like I am ready to now tell that man that I owe him my undying gratitude.” Daa-daa-jee gave a sneaky smile. “And perhaps kick him in the shins, too.”
Dave raised his eyebrows and tucked his legs under himself, which earned him a laugh from Daa-daa-jee.
“Not you, silly child!” he said, and reached over and tickled Dave beneath his armpits. “I would never do that to you, no matter how I might rove and rage! This is much more effective, anyhow!”
Dave found himself with his back on the cushion and his body convulsing in giggles.
When the old man finally tired, he leaned back and exhaled deeply. “I am getting much too old for this,” he said. “When Jade was much smaller and Gammy not yet born, I could let the children take turns being tickled.
“Does Jade like being tickled?” Dave asked.
“Do not “nothin’” me! I just poured out my heart to you and you can only tell me “nothin’” in return! What a disrespectful urchin!”
“It’s really stupid.”
“Then tell me so I can have a good laugh.”
Dave sat up. “Can you keep a secret? Or do you tell all of the secrets you know to sleepy relatives like a soup kitchen does soup to poor people?”
Daa-daa-jee’s face puffed in outrage a bit and he slugged his young relative in the shoulder just hard enough to hurt, but not to bruise.
“I have changed my mind. Next time, it will be your shins,” he teased.
Dave looked at his great grandfather. “I wanna marry Jade,” he said.
And Karkata Vantas, the Daa-daa-jee to so many children, who normally would only have laughed and brushed this off as childishness, who always had something to say in every situation, could only look at the boy's so, so serious face and say, "I see."
This chapter in particular was inspired by dellaluce, although I'm crediting her with the idea for the whole story. :)
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Historically, women under the instruction of extraordinary command and circumstance have had the privilege to rise high above those around them and then look on as everything they have worked so hard to protect through possession is suddenly ripped away.
Joan of Arc led armies in the name of the voice that called out to her, for example, and was burned at the stake from her trouble. It is true that her judges sympathized with the English and were terribly biased, of course, but the point still stands that she burned. Presumably for heresy and witchcraft.
It must be terrible, watching all you fight to protect fade away from behind a wall of flames. I wouldn’t know firsthand, but it is within in our bounds to surmise, my near omniscience notwithstanding.
I am not fibbing. Even a being such as myself has the ability to assume, although it is very rarely done by my person, if you consider a sentient cue ball a person.
But even if you do not believe me, you can imagine, I am sure, that as the hapless witch burned at the stake-as Joan, the war heroine, the female leader, the vassal of a higher power sent to end the war of her world, she who held her head above the flames- it looked, if only for a moment, as if the world was consumed by hellfire and she alone was being saved from the blaspheming tongues of flame rather than that the punishment was of the opposite intention.
For just an instant, it is possible that Joan felt like an angry god herself- and perhaps she enjoyed watching the world burn.
It could be presumed. But then again, it could not be.
But tell me, my dear. How does it feel?
How does it feel to know that the voice that you’ve trusted all of your life has lead you into this dreadful situation?
Dreadful is indeed a word one could use describe it. I won’t try to tell you otherwise.
You and all of your friends are playing a game doomed to be unbeatable from the start. You are playing because of a mysterious voice you have heard since childhood and the mysterious white writing that has accompanied it.
Very mysterious indeed. Much like divine inspiration. And that inspiration nurtured your own desires so that you wanted to play this game.
As well as bring your friends with you.
Your friends are playing this game because you wanted them to. Yes, my dear. You thought it would be good and fun and wonderful for them, too, but at the heart of the matter you wanted them to play for your own reasons, benevolence cast aside. Your intentions do indeed seem benevolent for the most part, even when examined in the harshest light.
Please don’t call me a liar. It offends me and you know the accusation to be a lie in and of itself. I can see through lies. I am nearly omniscient, after all.
This does not, however, mean that I enjoy enduring the falsehoods and denials you tell me. So please, be honest. And not only with me, but with yourself.
SBURB was an answer for all of you, you must have thought. The windy one can be the hero of his story. The clever one can see her beloved dead pet and speak with him. You can allow your dreams to come true.
But what about him?
The boy in red with his glasses.
What can he gain from this?
Fame? Fortune? A family?
He called the SBURB currency “worthless”. The last of the aforementioned trio of motivations he had before this game took it from him. And he would have, had his life continued outside of the game, gained fame, the remaining prize, if he had not entered a session at all.
He would have gained it in time.
In time. I suppose he would find that ironic, wouldn’t you agree?
Since an opinion is neither fact nor fallacy, it is within my bounds to tell you that I think he is a rather amusing boy. I can see why you like him.
But my opinion hardly matters in the grand scheme of things and I am asking for yours. So tell me, why did he play this game?
Any ideas, my dear girl?
Pity. Perhaps I should point you in the right direction, so to speak. I’m not going to actually point you in any direction as of yet. It is only a figure of speech.
I’ve already had you deduce that your little group of four played because you wanted to play, so given that deduction and its merit, a different question is now raised.
Why did you want him to play, my dear?
What a good friend, the knight of time. He was always there when you needed him. Always a shoulder to cry on or lean on, and always there to play the fool card for you.
And I mean this both in terms of comical intention and in terms of the boy being the simple pawn you all exploited at his expense. Whether or not he actually played the fool card for you in a game of Tarot, I cannot divine at this point in time.
Oh, my. You dear little Witch and your friend, the sweet little Seer. Of all those I have contacted, only you two would appreciate that figure of speech to its full extent. There are so many parallels one could draw between the roles one plays in life and the Major Arcana of the Tarot game. Of course, the game was designed that way.
But little Witch, can you read the fates written in the cards you draw? Can you divine them better than I?
Have you drawn the right cards?
Have you drawn the cards you wanted?
Is he the card you wanted?
I mean this in a figurative sense. I mean most of this conversation in a figurative sense. Perhaps I should stop clarifying that fact unless you ask me to. It has been stated now for all to see and my continual reveals of metaphor are quite annoying to most, I can assume.
But really, my dear. Why, if indeed he only played because you wanted him to play, did you want the knight to play?
Is it hard for you to admit to me? You should have no fear about my reaction- as another of my contacts would say, “I know all of the reasons. All of them.” Haa haa. Hee hee. Hoo hoo.
Well. Even if you do not say anything to me, I will still speak with you.
The Knight, that silly boy in the dark glasses, played not only for you and your other friend, the Heir, but for your Seer as well. He entered the game to save her from a fire and then continued playing to protect you all, it would seem.
If it gives you any solace, you all can find comfort in the fact that the Knight of Time served his purpose and played for nearly no other reason besides the fact that he loved you.
Did you want him to save you from the fire and the monsters and your own decisions too, little Witch? Did you want him to be your own personal Knight? Is that presumably why you had him play?
You still can’t say? Or you still won't say?
Even after he came to play in your frozen garden?
Armida and Rinaldo. Have you ever read that story? No?
There are many versions of it, but they mostly all go a little something like the following:
Rinaldo was the finest Christian knight in the land. Armida was a Saracen sorceress who fell in love with the Knight even though she had been told to kill him. Instead of killing the knight as had been planned, the lovely- at least, the original writer intended for Armida to be lovely but whether she was or not is a matter of opinion- witch spirited Rinaldo away in his sleep and they lived together, quite happily, in Armida’s enchanted garden and forgot all about their troubles and roles in the outside world.
Quite a lovely tale, if history’s reception of it is anything to go by. But also very tragic by the same standard.
As soon as the Knight sees his reflection in a magic mirror supplied by his fellow Christian compatriots who have broken into the garden, he remembers his purpose and leaves Armida, who is left to pine for him.
What do you think of that story? Did you like it?
You won’t give me an opinion? Still? I’ve told you so many things and you tell me practically nothing I don’t already know.
But alas. You do not wish to tell me why you wanted Dave Strider to play and you will also tell me nothing of how you felt about my little lesson in Italian literature. But since you do not wish to speak of the Knight as he is nowhere to be seen among the flames of dangerous events drawing ever closer to you, will you answer me a different question?
Witch of Space, little Jade Harley, you did your best to lead those you care for- your people- to victory. And while I realize you must have grown weary of my announcements of what is possibly figurative language, I must ask something with that aforementioned ambiguity just to sate my own desire to have you tell me your opinions directly.
How does it feel, dear Witch, to watch this chaos turn your plans to ruin, as you stay with your head held high, unaided and alone as your defender lays slain far away in a grave marked after he has served his purpose? I cannot ask Joan of Arc this, so I must defer the question to you since no hero on a white horse is here to bring you down from the precarious place you have found yourself in.
Please, tell me with finality.
How does it feel to watch your city burn?
End of Act Two. Begin Intermission Two.
Thank you for reading thus far and to everyone who has given Kudos. Any feedback would be appreciated as well.
End Intermission Two, begin Act Three.
Dave had, much to Erivan’s surprise, walked right up to Zacharias Equius and not only invited him to dinner, but asked if he could give them a ride to and from the grocery store.
And it was an even greater surprise to Erivan when Zacharias said yes. But then again, Erivan was always surprised every time this happened and he wondered if it would ever cease to astound him.
Zacharias Equius was one of the main linebackers for the school football team and also a serious wrestling star hailing from the high-profile athletic department of the East High Broncos (although Erivan was almost ninety-nine percent positive that Zacharias agreed to be part of the school’s athletic program because the mascot was a horse whereas Dave’s percentage on the matter averaged out to one-hundred) and the guy looked like a threatening beast.
And he was indeed quite intimidating, but if you actually spoke with him he would answer in the softest voice imaginable, only turning scary if he were spooked by a sudden jab at his intelligence or asserted his inferiority, implied or otherwise.
Zacharias didn’t have that broad of a sense of humor.
In fact, he would fit the stereotype of big, dumb jock if it weren’t for the fact that he was adept at both computers and classical literature, particularly poetry. Sonnets practically covered the insides of his notebook and fantastical stories, often featuring the battles between the Centaurs and the Amazons, covered his lockers and sometimes he would recite them at random. Dave would often beatbox to them for extra hilarity, frequently in a way that was like the sound of hoofbeats remixed. Johnny, their other friend, would throw in a few whinnies to add to the mix.
All of them (except Zacharias himself, who kept his reasons to himself) often wondered how in the world their stocky friend hadn’t torn their heads off for mocking him. But that was just one of many unsolved mysteries that accompany odd friendships.
But Erivan, theatre kid through and through, was secretly waiting for the day that his drama instructor would decide to attempt Equus and Zacharias be cast as the main role because of how hard and fast he would literally and figuratively be breathing down the teacher’s neck in his excitement. He’d probably want it so badly that he’d start sweating like he did after every one of his athletic endeavors.
The thought made Erivan laugh to himself and having to touch the bag containing the plethora of Zacharias’ smelly sports clothing so he could get in and out of the car became that much more bearable.
Truthfully, Erivan actually identified with Zacharias a lot- both of them had been extreme outcasts in middle school for severely different reasons (Zacharias was intimidating- an awkward, eccentric, and shy guy with a child’s mind in a silverback gorrilla’s body- whereas Erivan was annoying, self-centered, clingy, and struggling to find himself like most every moody wannabe artist tween- and teenager in America. One sat in the middle of the throng and people tip-toed around him and the other chased off company in hot pursuit in an attempt to be accepted) and both were inherently eccentric and had a strange sort of understanding even though Erivan could tell by the frequently bulging veins in the bigger boy’s temple and neck that he often managed to annoy the hell out of him.
But nobody’s perfect. Zacharias spouted disturbing, borderline-erotic poetry and sweated like a horse, for example. Erivan wrinkled a nostril as he nudged the gym bag next to him.
He kept his mouth shut about it, though. Besides the smell and the knowledge of what the contents of the bag were, it was not all that bad- another one of Zacharias’ quirks was that he kept everything immaculately clean and organized whenever possible, so all of the filth was contained.
This was especially so in the case of his gym bag because the bag frequented his car, and his car was like his baby. Possibly his wife, since Erivan had seen him kiss it and whisper to it before. (And possibly fondle the undercarriage, but that may have been his own rude imagination adding drama.)
Sometimes it even acted like a woman, stalling like it wanted his attention and sporadically spiting him by locking and unlocking at will, like there was a ghost trapped in the wires. But it was a good car, overall, and Erivan definitely felt stylish whenever he was in it. (Any bigger, though, and the vehicle might’ve been pushing the line from “sweet ride” to “small penis truck”. Erivan always had to remind himself to not let that slip lest Zacharias get mad.)
For his part, Dave often said that his friend’s trusty blue truck would last so long that it could conceivably become the steed for one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Zacharias, horse-lover extraordinaire, would smile behind his sunglasses and take it as a compliment. And it sort of was.
They got into the car and exhaust spewed from the tailpipe to curl around the license plate, a metal sheet with the impression of a horse and the car ID “MEDIG0”, before being left behind as the truck and its passengers made their way to the grocery store.
Dave had taken shotgun without even asking and Erivan had shot him a dirty look, to which Dave had winked and Zacharias ignored.
This was also hardly a surprise. Not only was Dave somewhat pivotal in the creation of the threesome’s friendship and therefore all but entitled to riding shotgun, he enjoyed being an asshole to Erivan sometimes just because he could be. And honestly, it was a good distraction for Erivan and sometimes he wondered if Dave cherry picked his moments of prickishness to achieve the best end result. They fiddled and fought over the radio station (Zacharias got final say because it was his car) for a while until one of them decided to start a conversation.
“So Erivan is still really worked up about that Fifer chick,” Dave began unceremoniously.
“Ah. She is a very lovely girl,” agreed Zacharias.
“Da-aaave,” Erivan whined, “Stop making fun of me and showing off my problem to others like some gummin’ badge of honor and tell me what to do about it!”
“That word, “gumming”. It is her slang, is it not?” Zacharias all but whispered.
“Yep. Dude’s got it so bad that he’s letting his words come out of his mouth all bubble-gummin’ pink, like if his brain was an ocean, it’d be full of Pepto-Bismol and garglin’ out airheaded orbs with nothin’ in ‘em.
Like literally they’re just full of hot air.”
“Why did I agree to let you reserve my time for the rest of the day?”
“We’ve been over this, Erivan. Because you’re fucking in love with me and Fifer’s just your cover story. I’m the real meat and potatoes of the sleazy teenage gossip rag that is your life. Fuckin’ Tiger Beat or Cosmo. That’s all you.”
“Ew, I’m not Tiger Beat. I’m more like Vogue,” he snidely shot back.
“That’s pretty insecure middleschool poser, up and claiming you’re classy. Settles it. You’re Tiger Beat.”
“You’ve got Justin Beiber’s purple all over you. Totally Tiger Beat.”
“Don’t compare me to that castrati. Purple is a color, nothing more. Besides, this is violet, assface.”
“That’s pretty gay, Tiger Beat.”
“Actually,” Zacharias interrupted, “I believe that Zoobooks is, ah, a much stronger fit.”
The other boys deadpanned. “What.”
“I have heard Erivan speak lasciviously of the ladies-and the men- and while I do not wholeheartedly approve of his lewd and disrespectful attitude towards those he is attracted to, nor do I wish to belittle the animals by comparing Erivan to them, Zoobooks are the strongest fit because it seems to me,” he cleared his throat, “that Erivan simply wants to do as one of the songs he likes says, ah, what is the song line? Oh yes- “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.”
And he said it with a straight face and that immaculate diction. Dave lost it. “Oh my shit,” he laughed, “All my shit. All my oh-my-shits.” He laughed a little longer (Erivan was too stunned to react) and then opened the car door as Zacharias pulled up to the store. “And on that note I gotta go get my suburban housewife on and get all the stuff for tonight’s dinner and then dress up in my pearls and heels and make it for you. Y’all can wait here or something while I go get the stuff for dinner.” He shut the door and sauntered off.
“I do indeed hope he was not serious about the pearls and heels,” Zacharias said. “It would be most unflattering on him and undignified for the sake of his masculinity.”
Erivan craned his head after Dave’s retreating form. “ As someone who has seen quite a few very well-done drag queens, I’m going to ignore all of the gender role issues I could bring up. So, which part would be unflattering? The pearls or the heels?”
“Listen to you, demeaning our friend. Have you no shame?”
“Tell me. I’m not asking. I’m commanding.”
Zacharias , at first compelled to talk about the sacredness of being a man, swallowed his words once he remembered that it would be pointless, considering who he was speaking to. And Erivan’s commanding tone of voice certainly helped. He tilted his chin down and looked at Dave from above his shades. “Honestly I think he is, ah, one of those who would clutch at his pearls more often than prance about in the stiletto heels no matter how much of a harlot he pretends to be,” he said.
“It’s fuckin’ gummin’ weird listening to you talk about him that way.”
“You are the one who asked,” Zacharias said evenly. “So please have some decorum and remove your own shoed foot from the, ah, hole in your posterior.”
Erivan balked. “I cannot believe you just said that. I cannot gummin’ believe it.” He shook his head. “You’ve been hanging around Dave way too gummin’ much.”
“Yes, well.” He gripped the steering wheel. “I believe we’ve been having this conversation about our friend as a woman for far too long.”
“I agree.” Erivan leaned back in his seat. “Especially since you’re attracted, to, like, every gummin’ thing that could possibly go in a sexual direction,” he muttered to himself.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly, changing the subject. “So, since we’re around the subject sort of, do you know if our dear friend in the grocery store has his eye on someone special at the moment?”
“It is not proper to speak of someone behind their backs.”
Erivan waved that away. “Horseshit. This is how history begins, my friend. With good old-fashioned gummin’ gossip.” He crossed his arms. “Besides, this is for his own good.”
“I will not commit treason and speak behind his back.”
“Is it treason if it is for the good of the man himself? This deed I am asking of you is in the name of the preservation of hope, Zacharias!”
“With, ah, all respect, hope was the final evil kept in Pandora’s Box.”
Erivan grated his back teeth. “You know something, I know it!”
“And you are childishly trying to exploit another’s secrets to make yourself feel better!” That vein in Zacharias’ neck made its appearance and his voice grew a little harsher and louder.
“I COMMAND YOU TELL ME!” snarled Erivan.
The two of them had gotten into one another’s faces but the smaller one, armed with his shrill demands, won the battle. Zacharias felt embarrassingly dominated and guilt washed through him in tandem with the pleasure of watching Erivan keep some backbone. And Erivan knew it.
“…What did Dave say to make you think he is, ah,” Zacharias’ face heated up and the vein in his forehead came out of his skin, “sweet on another?”
“He implied that he was in a similar-but-worse situation than I am in with Fifer. So spill it. Anything you know.”
“You should not tell me what to do,” Zacharias said, fiddling awkwardly with the steering wheel of his car.
“Yeah? Well I gummin’ am. Are you gonna obey or what?”
He squeezed and unsqueezed the rubber grips. “He has, ah, said nothing to me and none of the females- or males, before you begin on that- at school seem to capture his attention in any, ah, especially unique
or unusual way.”
“C’mon, Zach. My intentions are pure here. I just want to help my bro out. Tell me what you know. Now.”
“I wish, ah, you would not call me Zach.”
“Zacharias, tell me.”
“Dave has a penchant for being especially cryptic and not showing his true emotions except in small spurts and to, ah, special people. If you need some kind of sign, check for that.”
“That tells me nothing I don’t already gummin’ know!” seethed Erivan. “I swear I will beat you until you obey me and tell me what I want to know!” He knew what words to use and how to use them- if anything, Erivan’s greatest talent was his ability to play the part of whatever he needed to be.
“………………I think… I, ah, I need a towel. Can you fetch me one from my gym bag?” Zacharias was sweating bullets. He couldn’t take it.
Slowly, Erivan looked over at the duffel. Eugh, disgusting. It was like divine punishment- this is what Erivan got for playing with the fire. The hot, sweaty stallion of a fire.
“I’m not gettin’ you a gummin’ fuckin’ towel until you tell me what I want to know.”
Zacharias groaned and thanked his lucky stars when Dave’s familiar figure came out of the grocery store with several bags stashed under his arms.
“That was fast,” Erivan commented grumpily. “You really know your way around a gummin’ grocery store, huh?”
“Toldja I was gettin’ my housewife on.” He put the bags in Erivan’s lap (which Erivan did not appreciate, especially since something frozen was pressed against his crotch) and hopped into his own seat. “Damn. It
smells like a gym locker in here after refried bean day in the cafeteria. Erivan, why the hell can’t you get our driver a towel?”
Erivan muttered a quick “Fuck you,” as he fetched the towel and then got over it in favor of whining about his Fifer problem. Zacharias was not sure if he was glad about this development or not, but his feelings didn’t matter because they couldn’t change what Erivan was thinking.
It was hard to control someone like his unpredictable friend and it was basically useless to try. So he gripped the wheel of his beloved car and kept driving.
Whatever will be, will be.
“You shouldn’t tease the crow like that, you know,” Jake said, crisp accent lilting his words like a gentle song.
“I’m only trying to help it. It needs to figure out that it can’t rely on people for everything. What happens when you let it go and it still wants to depend on humans because they fed it and nursed it back to health?”
“Dirk, I’m the one who rehabilitates birds as a career, not you.” Jake sighs as his boss’s little stepbrother continues to dangle the meat in front of the wounded crow’s ebony face, its beak reaching forth like a miniature jet black scythe that splits itself open in quick snips until it finally releases sharp caws that bite more than the thing’s mouth probably would have if they clamped down around its tormentor’s fingers. “You hear it cursing you? The poor thing’s not only bloody scared, but now has to deal with your bullfuckery.”
“Please. It isn’t cursing me. It’s sitting there with a cast on its leg and wing and thinks that if it annoys me enough I’ll give it something to eat. The feathery dude is practically begging like a dog.”
Jake finally had enough and snatched the raw meat from Dirk’s hand. “If that’s the case, you’ll damned well train it to interact with humans, and also hate us.”
“Well, Jake, fine. Rob me of what I was doing. You’re just gobbling up the meat with your fingers as if they were the crow. Is that it? Do you sympathize with the crow, what with your crow hands?” With a slight inclination of his head, Dirk’s softly spiked hair swayed and fell neatly back into place as if he were the one with feathers growing out of him, albeit a much lighter variety than the broken crow in the cage’s were.
Frustrated, Jake opened a nearby window in the little office and tossed the wad of raw meat out of it and over into the netting over the enclosure just outside, where several of the larger birds of prey were preening and flying around for light exercise. Upon seeing the meat land above them, they went for it and a small tussle was created as they all gunned for the overhead netting, each raptor snapping their beaks at the one lonely piece of red carrion that balanced half-on and half-off the black string like a tightrope walker trying to escape the gobbling mouths of the horrible, terrible monsters screeching up at it to come to them.
Dave, who had been monitoring the birds as they flitted about outside, jumped and covered his head when the disruption caused them to head pell-mell for the ceiling and, realizing what it was, directed his rage at the office window. “What the hell, Jake?”
“Sorry!” The English boy told him. “Your stepbrother is being a dastardly dick!”
“That’s what he was almost named for!” Dave replied, as if it were obvious. “Still, both of you, don’t fuckin’ excite them and make ‘em claw at the top like a bunch of high homeless dudes trying to claw the faces off of each other! Not fuckin’ called for!” He shot before turning back to the birds.
“So instead of being a tease about feeding him, you are just going to let him go hungry? Nice, man,” Dirk muttered. “And you went and disturbed the beast out back.”
Jake ignored him and shut the window and the little crow gave a faint noise from its place in its kennel. “Now to find the poor chap something he might actually want to fill his belly with.”
“What, carrion isn’t good enough for the carrion crow?”
“Crows eat more than carrion,” Jake told him, aggravation rising in his otherwise pleasant voice. “Some of them actually have preferences for foods that aren’t exactly what your anime-addled noggin’ would peg as crow fodder. But red meat is good for them, yes.”
“It’s a bird. It will eat what I give it and I will give it what it needs when it needs it. And if you say red meat is good, then that is what it will have.” He gracefully slipped around Jake and headed for the refrigerator where the perishable food for the avian residence was kept, hoping to fetch another piece of meat to taunt the crow with. Jake grabbed his wrists and stopped him.
“Don’t. Leave the crow alone.”
Silently, Dirk looked at where Jake’s tanned hands were wrapped around his arms. He didn’t say anything and didn’t make eye contact, even though Jake’s own stare was beating down on him.
When he finally did look up, though, Jake had to will himself to hold Dirk’s eye. The glint that they carried was unnerving and the tiny change in his inflection was too friendly for Jake’s comfort.
“I’m helping it, Jake. It’s a bird and doesn’t know how to deal with these changes. So, I’m doing my damned duty and teaching it. Think of it as tough love.”
“Just because it isn’t human doesn’t mean you have the authority to demean the poor fella and degrade him. It’s not right, Dirk.”
“And keeping your purported “poor fella”,” it was strange, hearing Dirk implement Jake’s accent for those two words into his normal near-deadpan, “in a fucking cage and wrapped up like a mummy on display is right? I might dare to call you a hypocrite.”
“It’s quite different. What we’re doing is necessary. What you are doing is cruel.”
“If we want the crow to live, yes.”
“No, about me being cruel. Is it cruel for me to act in our mangy little blackbird’s best interest? It needs to eat, so I’ll feed it. But it also needs to not cling to me like some fucking baby koala trying to curl up in the pouch and live there, so I’ll make it want to keep its distance. Keep it on edge, like this is prep for being released back into the wild.” He arched his body so his face was a little closer to Jake’s and gave a ghost of a tiny, humored smirk. “That’s hardly one step away from parasitism, by the way. The way marsupials work.”
Jake English liked girls. And even if he didn’t, he could not see himself falling in love with Dirk. Not the way things were now. He felt the muscles in his left cheek spasm and fought to keep a straight face.
“The bird can figure out how to be a wild crow on its dad-gummed own. Believe me, it’s already on edge enough as it is and you have no reason to continue on with this asinine malarkey about how you can groom it to endure a stay here in complete malaise from misery.”
“I’ve lived my whole life with things I want dangled in front of me while I was kept in the sty of a broken home as a lonely child. I worked harder to snatch my rightful prizes up from the hands of my literal and figurative tormentors and it’s made me a stronger person. I’m sure a crow’s naturally inclined to do the same thing. I’m just helping it.”
Jake gave him a long look. “That’s horseshit and you know it. Look at you, thinking you can control and anticipate this creature’s every thought. First of all, it isn’t ball-blisteringly bitter,” he spat the word as if it were filthy, “like you. And secondly, it isn’t so chuffed to think it has the authority to lord over another who happens to be in a more vulnerable position.”
“How do you know.” Dirk challenged. “Crows are very intelligent. Or did that get lost in translation, mister foreigner English tosser? “
“You’re the tosser, wanker,” Jake muttered. “But you do realize that it is going to associate you with food even more strongly now? Because it will also hate you?”
“It might be upset at me, but it can’t really hate me. After all, I’m still taking care of it, aren’t I? Besides, it’s a crow. It can’t really hate me.”
Dirk Zachary was a boy born of solitude and bred in solitude and, in his solitude, he fixated on the ideas of companionship and what it meant to be loved.
He and Dave both lived in circumstances where the only person loyal to them had been their mother and even she had occasionally gone against their wishes and brought in another man that both boys knew to be trouble and then she proceeded to make them accept him and treat him as their real father.
Dave would try (and oftentimes fail) for the good of the family.
Dirk would not because he felt that just arbitrarily giving away the title of “father” to the male head of the household would not bring about the kind of love and loyalty it was meant to. Words were cheap. But there was more to it than just that- the bitter child had a deeper hatred for submitting to the authority another in any way, shape, or form.
He hated being put next in line to anyone and as the youngest child of a relatively wealthy woman who was too busy trying to sate her appetite for male companionship to try and deal with her ornery oldest son, let alone her introverted and frigid youngest, he was used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted it (or more specifically, the means to get what he wanted- for example, he wouldn’t ask for a bicycle, but the parts and tools to make one- a better one, a custom one, the best one, because it was a challenge.) It irked him that leadership and control was denied him every time his mother had a new beau and he used almost everything he could as an outlet to let him feel that power.
Dave had once said that he wasn’t so different when he was younger- they both had a desire to control fate because the ones they had been given weren’t ideal and they felt cheated. But whereas Dave knew that trying to control everything around you made you feared and detested that type of action, Dirk did not.
He wanted to be the man in control, a prince to his beloved subjects, with them being completely subservient to him and doing everything he asked and adoring him for the kindnesses he bestowed upon them, almost like they were his pets and he their master. That was love, and fear was just one step away. Fear was also much more realistic.
As paradoxical as it was, Dirk, the boy who had created and pursued an idealized, formulated kind of love in his mind, had decided that it was better to be feared than loved. But the real kind of love that he wasn’t old enough to understand yet was the thing he actually craved.
Jake knew this better than most and more completely than he wanted to.
In fact, he almost agreed with his friend Terra Pyroni and wondered if Dirk’s attraction to men came from the absence and subconscious craving for a stable male figure in his life, or if perhaps- just perhaps- their mutual friend and his neighbor Rosy Strilond was right and Dave’s acceptance of his younger stepbrother and attempts at kindness, while seemingly rebuffed, had been a bit more effective than they realized.
Perhaps he was simply hanging out with them a bit too much.
Still, he was trying to be sympathetic towards him. He was just a lonely boy, after all. “Just because it can’t communicate with us in extrapolated theories and ideas does not mean that it cannot hate, Dirk. That’s abso-bloody-lutely bonkers. That’s like saying a young child doesn’t have the ability to hate. And certainly you know how untrue that is, my most embittered bloke.”
“I’m not bitter,” Dirk’s tone grew indignant and Jake gave a half-hearted smile.
“Forgive me. I meant you are well-versed in the emotional conundrums of this world. It is as if you are like Will Smith in Hitch, except you are the master of all the emotions, not just the more lascivious and romantic kind.”
“Yes. If emotions were goddamned Rubix cubes, I would be the envy of all of Asia because of how thoroughly I have cracked their secrets. I have cracked them like the most secure bank in all of Switzerland. Anonymity is nothing to me.”
Honestly, Dirk was lots of fun when he wasn’t being forward and Jake enjoyed comparing the figurative language Dirk made to that of his brother, often wondering whose penchant for verbosity beget whose. “And am I to understand that trust holders- meaning those who trust and understand the pulchritude of your mind and brilliance and ability, of course, not of the original bank itself- are valued customers allowed to take glances at the amazing feat of you solving the world’s Rubix cubes?
“Indeed.” His mouth made such a quick jump from semi-straight to a smile that Jake swore Dirk’s full lips had never been folded into any other shape than a V for the entire conversation. Jake felt the tension in the air settle back down upon his shoulders like a blanket trying to smother the life out of him. “And it’s nice to know that someone else understands that. But it’s difficult, finding someone to understand you.” He gave a furtive glance down to where Jake’s fingers were still gripped around his thin wrists and the pinpricks of light reflected from the fluorescent fixtures above grew from their own intrinsic lamps and his face was brightening from the warm glow as well, as if a lightbulb had been turned on inside of him.
Jake felt his stomach drop and released Dirk. He’d forgotten that he had been holding him there to keep him from tormenting the crow. “I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I’ve been more blessed than you are in that my family and I have a decent understanding of one another.”
“And I’m glad for that,” Dirk added, stepping a little closer to lean against the desk Jake had been sitting at moments before. “It’s only right that a fucking goober- a charming goober, but still a goober- like yourself has all the keys the kingdom has to offer. If this kingdom was comprised of house after house after house with forgetful owners who can’t remember how to fuckin’ tie their shoes, much less not drop their keys, it’d be fine. You’d be the only locksmith needed,” he said, voice growing softer and face inching closer.
Jake’s voice had turned icy, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. “My girlfriend seems to understand me just fine, too.
Dirk’s smile, which had split his lips apart and exposed his small, pearly teeth, began to fade as if it were nothing more than frost melting away off a heated windowpane. “Well.” The tiny quiver of unsettlement in his voice was barely noticeable. “That is always a fine thing to have, too.”
“The finest,” Jake finalized. “And since we are on the topic, I need to go meet my girlfriend for a date in an hour and I would like to freshen up a bit before I pick her up. I don’t want to be late- see, trust is a thing that you can have while dating, and then when you break up- if you break up,” he added, the light from his glasses hiding his cutting glance toward Dirk’s person, “the other person can possibly still trust you but know not to come running back to you at any time. Much better than a bungled brouhaha of a decisive argument and a row causing a schism between you, If I do say so myself. And that is what we are going for with the crow. So please, Dirk, your brother and I would very much appreciate it if you kept your finicky fingers from fucking with the poor bloke in the cage. It’s depressing enough as it is without you adding petty mind games to the mix.” He turned his back on the other boy and walked out of the office, stopping only to inform his boss that he was leaving.
From his place behind the window, Dirk sighed and regarded the figure of his half-brother with envy. Jake was always so open with him even though the man was not only his occupational superior but also so very…
Dirk could only think of the word “weak” to describe Dave and his emotional insecurities, even though it was blaringly obvious to an outside viewer that Dirk’s own were just as bad, if not worse.
He talked big, he faked stupidity and pigheadedness as cheap shields to guard his emotions (unsophisticated and clumsy defenses, indeed. Dirk had more style, more prowess) and still managed to let his own shortcomings keep him at the mercy of the people keeping him in the cage he tried so hard to fortify, the cage his own family built.
Dave was whatever Equiano wanted him to be and whatever their mother needed him to be. And he had tried being open and- at worst-aggressively affectionate towards Dirk like a real brother with his gentle teasing and Dirk had retaliated with his aloof nature, thinking he could test Dave to find if he could delve deeper and be in his younger half-brother’s circle of trust. He wanted to keep Dave in his own personal cage and groom him as he wished versus how the others did, but he justified it in his mind by repeating, over and over again, that it was better for everyone if they did things his way.
Dave was a lot like this crow, actually. He only needed training.
But ultimately, it didn’t go as the younger boy had hoped. Dirk wasn’t sure if Dave was stupid, uncaring, or simply unwilling to go the extra mile, but the older man never did exactly what his half-sibling wanted and so he found him annoying- annoying because the efforts Dave did make weren’t the right ones, annoying because Dirk felt he had lost his edge in being able to keep him guessing as to what his challenges would be, and even more annoying because Dave had eventually refused to play the mind games by the parameters Dirk wanted set, but still too deep into them to resist being uninvolved completely.
(Dave just thought his little stepbrother wanted to be left alone and didn’t like an onslaught of friendly-but-sometimes-rough teasing, so he was actually trying to respect his space. He still frequently invited Dirk to come to his office in an effort to show he did actually care.)
Dirk wanted control and thought he knew what was best. It would only take experience and several failures to make him realize that he was not infallible. Even a prince can fall from his throne.
And it is a long way down from such an exalted precipice.
Worse still, though, is that Dirk never stopped to think about how much trouble his precious underlings- his subjects, his inner circle of trust, the knights of his round table, his birds with clipped wings- would be in if one day their leader were thrown, headless or with a blade through the heart, to the dogs. They would be helpless, unsure of whether to mourn their Machiavellian leader or to damn him for stripping them of any potential they might have had before he had institutionalized them.
But Dirk had never considered those possibilities.He retrieved the meat from the refrigerator and returned to the crow. It needed to follow the will of the leader and he was going to show it how.
Sometimes she could see his face in the clouds on Prospit, devoid of his shades and smiling. His body was covered in shadows but his face was kind and gentle and he reached a hand out for her to take.
She knew she would give anything just to meet this person- to meet any of the three wonderful people dancing in the cumulus clusters above her, really- but he always came to mind first with his comforting expression and encouraging support. Sometimes, she would even try to reach out and take his hand through the clouds.
But that was just silly. She had to be patient and wait until he appeared and looked at her like that.
She would meet him all in good time, though she had no idea where or when.
She had met him when he was seventeen and she was substantially older- maybe three or four years. He had walked into the office- he needed to use the restroom but was too cheap to buy anything from anywhere.
“Hey there. I really need to use the little buffalo’s room. Can I do that or will you flash-freeze me and preserve my dead body so you can turn me into one of your lifelike creations? Is this place like some kind of Auschwitz except instead of gassing Jews you freeze unsuspecting dudes?”
“If you keep taking so long to ask a question you’ll wet yourself before you get there,” Teresa told him. “But I’m not telling you any of our trade secrets. You’ll have to risk using the toilet by yourself, big boy.” She gave that devilish grin and then turned back to the miniature dragon she had been sculpting, using the paperwork as a shield between her creation and the desk.
“Oh, so I get what’s happening here. You lull me into a false sense of security so you make me think you ain’t gonna skin me and eat me and then I’m not expecting it when the sprinklers above start spraying liquid nitrogen or some shit.”
“Do you have any idea how expensive liquid nitrogen is? We don’t use that, anyway. You and your male excretions are safe. We’re stuck in the past, with older methods.”
He ignored the sexual slam against his person. “So you’re saying that this place is, like, Germany in the 1930’s when racial discrimination was evident but not fully deadly. Your Auschwitz ain’t operational.”
“Pretty much, mister smooth talker coolkid. But use the bathroom here one too many times in the near future and pretty soon your posterity will be looking at photo strips of concentration camp prisoners trying to pick you out.”
“I can hear them now,” he had muttered. “Dave, is this you? What about this one? Or this one? Is this you? Is it?”” he had raised his voice’s pitch so it sounded remarkably like Teresa and then dropped it back to normal. “Okay but it was cool talking to you but now I actually do gotta go numero uno.”
“Happy trails,” Teresa waved at him as he made his way to the facilities. “And please make sure those trails all stay in the toilet, Mister Coolkid Dave.”
He closed the door just as Jade walked out of the workshop through the back. “Hey Teresa,” she said. “You can go back and do that sculpture in there if you want and I’ll do all the paperwork you don’t wanna do,” she said.
In her excitement, Teresa forgot to mention the boy who was currently in their restroom. She scooped up her art project from the paint-covered (but still readable) documents and scurried through the door Jade held propped open with her arm, cackling the whole way. As soon as she was safely seated, Jade sighed and released the door before plopping down into the wheeled office chair and spinning in a few circles before hunkering down to do some of the massive amounts of work before her.
Tongue out, glasses slipping off her nose, arms spread wide over the table and bent at the elbows like two spikes warding off any intruding eyes or distractions- this was her “serious business” pose and had been since middle school. It worked great for AP exams, SATs, College tests, and really any heavy paperwork.
It also ensured that she was planted firmly in her own little world and looked absolutely ridiculous.
She stayed that way for a good ten minutes before her glasses fell off the end of her nose and she sat back to adjust them.
“So that was some really intense deskwork, huh?” a voice interrupted.
Jade shrieked and fell butt-first off of her chair and onto the floor.
“Hopy shit, are you okay?” It was the same voice, but now with a small amount of concern. “I didn’t want you to literally bust your ass- especially not after you were doing it in other ways with all that small business filing.” The boy leaning over the counter- she could see his face- had craned over the counter’s ledge in an effort to make sure she was alright. She could tell his eyes were widened even from behind his sunglasses. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d jump so much from the sound of my voice.” He made a move to walk around the counter and help her up. “I mean, I know I’ve got, like, tones comin’ offa my vocal cords that’re so angelic they could split open the heavens and ascend me on the spot, but I figured since the toilet didn’t distract you, you could tune me out, too.”
She hopped up before he could reach her, “I’m okay!” she said, holding up her hands. “It’s all good!”
“Well, thank goodness for that,” he said, coming to face her and bending down to pick up the papers she’d dropped, “These papers obviously aren’t, though. That other chick bathed these suckers in red paint or something, like she had been massacring them.”
“Oh, um, yeah, Teresa’s got a flair for dramatics. She likes to make everything look like a crime scene. I kinda like to think it’s not creepy because it’s a way for her to retrace her steps when she forgets stuff. She has bad vision so tracing back a trail of… of red breadcrumbs back to her desk might be helpful in locating her keys and stuff.” Jade smiled at the papers he placed on top of the ones she had managed to gather herself. “Thanks.”
“So Teresa’s the dragon lady you had guarding the front door a few minutes ago. Okay. Now I can bother her on a first-name basis.” He smirked.
Jade placed her stack of paper back on the desk and turned to face him. “Well, Teresa is a funny lady.” She paused and silence fell over them both as he tilted his head to the side ever so slightly, sunglasses making it impossible to tell what this stranger was thinking. “Oh, um, my name is Jade, by the way. And, uh,” the little smile on his face was incredibly distracting and she felt herself flush in embarrassment, “Um…”
He kept watching her until her embarrassment turned to a light defensiveness and she regained her sense of place. “I do taxidermy here! Can I help you with anything? If not, I’ll stuff you instead for standing there so rudely! You’ll see what you get for knocking me down from my chair and then making me feel like an idiot!”
“Jesus, that’s some serious customer service you’ve got goin’ on there,” he began, at first dropping the smirk and shrinking into himself but later letting a real grin form on his face- but just for a second- and then letting a small smile play there. “I didn’t think you were ever gonna look up. Thought you were in it for the long haul- doin’ an Olympic event in pencilpushing.”
Jade’s discomfort faded and she smiled back. “This is my small business and I will give customer service as I see fit. And who says I’m a pencilpusher? I pull the pencil when I write, thank you!”
“Feisty and particular.”
“Yeah-huh. And at this moment in time, I’m particularly interested in who you are and why you’ve decided to come camp out behind my desk,” Jade said, crossing her arms.
“Oh, uh,” the confident façade dropped from his face and she could tell that he was young- young enough to still be bashful when he forgot his more basic manners. “I’m Dave.”
“Okay. That’s one of two questions answered.”
His attitude came back with a vengeance. “What is this, the Spanish Inquisition? Eric Idle in on this with you? Or are you him? You secretly an old British dude in drag? Tryin’ ‘ta get me when I least expect it?”
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” Jade affirmed.
“Well, see, here’s the thing- thanks to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, now I do. I’ve memorized my commandments just in case. And I keep them written on my forearm as a cheat sheet if all else fails. Mulan taught me well the ways of acing pop quizzes.” He leaned over a little to get into her face. “But what about you? Can you pass the Inquisition, or do I need to burn you for heresy?”
She raised her hands to her face in mock surprise. “Not the Spanish Inquisition!”
Laughing lightly, he sauntered over to the other side of the counter and lazily slapped his palms on it like he owned it, leaning over to get into her face. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” he repeated, playing out the gag. “Nobody,” he added, folding his arms beneath him and leaning on them. “But I guess I’ll need to stick around and inquire a bit to make sure you aren’t a witch.”
The silly boy stood there and kept Jade from her work, chatting all the while, until the clock read 4:40 and she announced that it was almost closing time and he had successfully distracted her from her work.
“I’m a really good distraction, though. You gotta admit I’m simply the best there is.”
“So that’s your special skill? Distracting taxidermists?”
“Actually, no. I am really good at frickin’ everything, just about. See, I’ve got real talent. Real skill. Those myths about Pandora all pale in comparison to me- I’m the one who was gifted by all the gods individually, except I wasn’t dumb enough to open the damned box like I wasn’t supposed to.”
“Yuuup. I can see the whole picture now. I suuure am jealous of all those wicked mad skills!”
“Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one. They’ve got jealousy support groups for people in your same predicament. Like the AA for jealous people. People’re in there standing up, all like, “Hi there, I’m Jade Harley and I’m wicked jealous of this one awesome cool guy that graced me with his distracting charms and now I’m obsessed with him. I’m a Striderholic.””, he changed his role from the girl in front of him to the audience, clapping and giving a few mockingly supportive nods to the real Jade, pretending that she had been the one speaking and not him. “Hi, Jade.” He dropped the gag after he got a few giggles from her. “And besides, admitting your problem is the first step to solving it.”
“I’m glad I’ve got you to support me! My life just wasn’t complete until you came along,” she teased.
He just smiled at her for a few seconds before his gaze drifted to the clock. “Anyway, it was nice to meet you and miss creeper detective-dragon-sculpture-lady Teresa and all, but I gotta make like a tree and get the hell out of here. I need to go pick up my little sister from school.” He took a few steps towards the door and turned around when his hand met the doorknob, mouth opened slightly like he wanted to say something.
“Yes?” Asked Jade.
“I’ll see you around. I’ll be back to see if your customer service improves any. I’m gonna give you another chance before I go searching for a new taxidermy go-to area,” he joked. “Because we all know there’s like a million taxidermists in this city.”
“’Cause we gotta stuff all the bears and tigers cool dudes like you bring to us once you strangle them with your bare hands.”
“Yep. That’s me. Keepin’ you in business,” he said, walking out the door. “You can thank me later, when the group therapy helps you work out those jealousy issues. See you.”
He had known from the moment Dave had said her name at the middle school lunch table on the day that he had magically walked into Zacharias’ life and extended the hand of friendship in the form of half a bologna sandwich and a carton of 2 percent milk when the stocky boy had forgotten his lunch.
Dave had appeared as if some witch had cast a cloak of imperviousness on him because he was one of the few people who seemed completely unafraid of his frighteningly huge peer. He was bewitched with some kind of aura.
“Nobody in the house can cook, so I made it myself. I like it with a lot of mustard’s why I’m sayin’- it looks kind of like Barney’s friend BJ was run over and placed in a coffin of two pieces of white bread to find his eternal rest, and you may not like that.”
“That is very morbid. Do you have a younger sibling that loves Barney? If so, it is deplorable that you would say such a thing around them,” Equiano had told him, eyeing the sandwich.
“Nah. I ain’t got no siblings. Nor a mom or dad.” His voice grew quiet and the bigger boy felt guilty because he had remembered too late that the gossip surrounding this boy, the new student who had changed schools in the middle of the academic year, was that his family was killed in a horrible accident. Had Equiano had a little more social interaction in his life, he would have known instantly and not brought up the topic. He ducked his head and made a move to apologize, but Dave gave a strange smile and just put the sandwich into his hands. “It’s sad and I can’t say I’m too pleased with it, but saying that that’s what happened is not a big thing. I’m not going to burst into tears talking about it. That’d be fucking stupid.” He looked away and narrowed his eyes so he didn’t look so forlorn.
“What a lewd thing to say,” Zacharias began before he could stop himself.
“I’m a lewd guy.” He regained eye contact and waggled his eyebrows in a sloppy, deliberately practiced failure of synchronization and Zacharias felt himself chuckle at how poorly executed the motion of his thick eyebrows was.
“If this is the case,” Zacharias swallowed once and willed himself to ask, just to keep the conversation going, “Who takes care of you?”
“I’m not sure what to call her officially because I was adopted and my family tree is all twisted and gnarly like the lovechild between a pretzel and the most intense waves a surfer can pray to his flotsam gods to on the west coast, but she’s basically my cousin. Her name’s Jade.”
Normally Zacharias would not accept the pity of another student nor would he want to deny another of their lunch, but something about the flippant way Dave just gave it to him and the attitude he had about the whole thing intrigued Zacharias. The boy was under a spell.
He was under a spell and her name was what caused it.
All caution gone, he took a bite of his sandwich and listened to Dave prattle on about the weather, the teachers, the hallway, anything.
It was not unlike what he was doing now with Erivan, the two of them watching Dave boil the noodles for spaghetti and joke about spiking the parmesan cheese with crack cocaine or something else silly and nonsensical and yet still so intelligent once all of its layers were taken off.
But Zacharias felt a stone of alarm settle in the pit of his stomach when he noticed that, even though Johnny had shown up as an unexpected distraction and Jade had brought a very nice and engaging friend to dinner that added a whole new layer of activity, Erivan managed to figure Dave’s secret out, too.
Zacharias tried to not be bothered by it and distracted himself by keeping a constant conversation between Jade’s friend Kitty and Jade herself, finding that the cheerful newcomer was very kind and engaging. She even invited him to come and see her work at Jade’s shop and Zacharias found that he really wanted to.
But still, the dawning realization that had blossomed on Erivan’s face for a fleeting second before he expertly concealed it hung over Zacharias like a red dawn foreshadowing a storm and for once he was sweating because he was unnerved.
Or perhaps he was afraid for both his friend and the girl who put a spell on him.
She could dream that she lived in a fairytale and that she would meet someone who she could love without making him feel alienated or neglected.
He always said that she could have a boyfriend and he’d just “deal”, but it always felt wrong in her mind to put him second in any way.
She really did love him and she gave up almost everything for him since he had been left with no parents and nowhere else he’d rather be. She couldn’t deny him if she tried, so she made her sacrifices and kept her own pining and loneliness bottled up.
She could still dream that the situations were different, after all. There was always that.
He came by almost every day after school. Jade would often find him bantering with Teresa or just sitting in the lobby area making fun of the magazine selection aloud, as if he knew when someone was listening.
He had been on the older end of seventeen when she had first laid eyes on him and at eighteen he looked barely older than that.
But she was pretty sure that she had fallen for him anyway, ever since the first day she’d met him and he’d startled her away from her paperwork and out of her chair.
Still, his jokes about taking her out became more frequent once he had that extra year to tack on.
At about eighteen-and-a-fourth, when she asked him if he knew anything about speakers, he ended up in her house, tweaking the settings on her electric bass guitar and going with her to dinner. She insisted she pay for herself but was not all that surprised when the next morning, she found a small wad of cash and change tucked neatly in the back pocket of her purse worth the exact amount she had spent.
Dave started a pattern after that- every twelve days- or twelve date jokes, whichever happened first- he would find some excuse to either leave her some silly gift of a plush doll or something small that she might like. (“My little sister was getting rid of this old Squiddles doll and I thought you might want it? I dunno, she thinks I’m like her own personal slave or something. Or butler. Yeah- she thinks our house is like butler island and we all just live to serve her. Thing is, she’s half-right.” “Hey I got you this poster so the walls of y’all’s witchy workshop doesn’t look so doom and despair. The bright colors’ll help break up the monotony of blood spatters and mounted, skinned corpses. You can, like, think of me every time the hilarity of Flash Gordon, Savior of the Universe cuts through your sphere of witchery and stitchery, like a fucking blade made of steaming hot irony cutting through runny, macabre butter as you spread it on the flesh bread rolls of carcasses for your customer’s walls to snatch up and let hang out of their mouths like a dog with a prized bone. “Mmm, tastes like veal,” or I guess maybe bear or zebra or some shit”) or show up at her apartment- though she helped him with the latter sometimes. (“Hey, Dave, since you’ve got all those crazy skills, would you happen to be any good with keeping my neighbors from using my wireless internet? I mean, if it isn’t too lowly a job for a prince of cool like yourself- I don’t, um, want to make you dirty your hands for a job fit for a peon.”)
At eighteen-and-a-half, he and Teresa started hanging out outside of their chats in the office. She would excuse herself whenever Jade and Dave were in the same room for more than ten minutes at a time, especially after Jade conveniently made the mistake of telling her friend how, when Teresa asked her, “Why don’t you just go to one of those things with him?”, that the truth was that she wanted to- every time, she really wanted to- but she was scared. She was scared that, if she said yes too early, he’d be bored with her and the lack of challenge. She was scared that his parents might not be too happy about him going out with a girl two years his senior.
But most of all, she was scared of wanting to let it go farther and Dave not feeling the same way.
She was scared of losing him even though she really didn’t have him at all.
At eighteen-and-three-fourths, his solicitations to take her out, usually to either dinner or a movie (“or both if I’ve got the funds and my little sis doesn’t need to go into school early the next day for Student Council or her cooking club or whatever”) became not only more blatant, but peppered with invitations to go see some weird indie band that was rolling through town or be in one of his amateur photo shoots.
He frequently invited Teresa to things like that, too, but they all knew that he was asking Teresa as a friend whereas his attraction to Jade was no real secret.
He wouldn’t even try to be that smooth about bringing it up anymore and his silly made-up anecdotes and six-degrees-of-separation yarns became shorter and shorter, like Occam’s razor had come in and was trying to help him freshen up his act.
At eighteen-and-eleven-twelfths, he brought his little sister to meet Jade. The young girl invited her to go eat with them. She couldn’t say no to her lively eyes and idolizing look and pretended not to notice the
victorious smirk on Dave’s face as she and the young girl dominated the conversation and he, for once, was almost silent.
And she couldn’t say no when the girl asked Jade to go to the movies with them.
And she couldn’t say no when she asked if Jade would help her pick out a gift for her brother for his nineteenth birthday.
She didn’t have the heart to tell the girl that she wouldn’t be going to Dave’s party to give him her own present that she had picked out for him.
And when Dave asked her, after the little party she had attended- the family party that was a separate and more private event than the regular birthday party- if she wanted to go listen to the band that featured in the albums his sister had given him (that Jade had helped pick out, of course), she felt like turning him down would be in bad taste.
The movies and movie days with them both lounging on her couch watching pay-per-view were just fun anyway.
And she saw no reason to refuse going to see his sister’s play with him and Teresa, and then again the next night but with just him.
It was only polite that she go with him to one of the parties his friends, who she’d met before by coincidence independently of Dave, was throwing. Or the group picnic his other friend planned.
And it was only in good taste that she invite him to one of her family’s gatherings, and then the next after Daa-daa-jee decided (after a long and abrasive argument between the two males) decided that he wanted her to “bring that fecal-mouthed urchin back so I can slap his putrid trap shut before he feels the need to let it spew out such obnoxious drivel again and drive the world to mass suicide because it cannot stand the stench of his atrocities” and the next after that as the family enjoyed watching he and Dave go at it and then smile stupidly at one another, especially after they’d each had a few drinks too many under familial supervision.
Jade also did not see anything wrong with letting him kiss her when the reunions were over and most everyone had either gone home or to bed and he was still a little intoxicated.
And he didn’t have a problem with her making him go bowling with her or grocery shopping or even when she asked him to go to the pool with her and then stopping by after his college classes to pick her up and let her use his shower the one hellacious month that both her car and her hot water heater had gone kaput simultaneously.
Of course, the car was kind of his and Teresa’s fault because some prank (that neither will mention) they were playing on her had gone terribly awry and caused some weird domino effect that resulted in her alternator and timing chain being ruined. Dave’s father, Dirk, was on the case and recommended her to a mechanic that gave her a huge discount (and made his son pay for most of it on account of him being “a fucking irresponsible little shit.”)
But she returned the favor by helping him get gifts for his little sister and letting him stay at her apartment for the spurts of time when he decided that he did not want to go home for whatever reason and his other friends were out of town.
And when she was twenty-two and he was almost twenty, she forgot about any reservations she’d had about Dave and didn’t find anything surprising about finding herself lying beneath him on her bed, with her hands in his hair and his on her hips and her lips on his own.
I'm trying to get these out as fast as I can before school starts for me. Please notify me of typos or formatting issues.
Also, if you have not read dellaluce's As Her City Burns, I suggest you do as it inspires the initial break.
Her family had not been in-the-slums poor, but their economic situation was not exactly ideal in that it acted just like the economy and fluctuated wildly. They had a lot of mouths to feed and gifts to give and heads to put a roof over but only so many of the household could actually provide.
It was the same downside that any Catholic family has encountered all throughout history- too many kids and not enough parents.
And even though they were well into the 21st century (and most of them weren’t Catholic anymore), Jade’s enormous family still operated like people who had never heard of birth control or turning away strays, both in terms of people or animals. This would have been fine, as the fortune that the family’s original Jade, the immigrant from Germany, had amassed (which was quite a story in and of itself) was intended to allow for the treasured family life philosophy of “the more, the merrier” to hold true for generations.
But unfortunately, the money left the family a little more hastily than intended on account of the double-edged sword of the Harley-Egbert-Vantas- Bakri family’s greatest common strength and their greatest common weakness.
The young Jade’s uncle had been the primary heir for his grandmother, the family matriarch, and he squandered most of it in bumbling attempts to woo and keep the girl of his dreams- the beautiful and charismatic daughter of a naval officer, also a world traveler, and also master at pool- and then lost the rest of it in the inevitable divorce from her following about three years after their marriage.
That woman was the only person that the family had ever looked down upon and it was the common opinion that she had been nothing but a cutthroat, bloodsucking spider at heart and Jade’s uncle had been her unlucky prey, chosen because he had so much life and love that he would simply give her even if she hadn’t stolen his heart.
Jade knew there was a bit more to the situation, but she also knew from personal observation that, for the most part, this familial truth was not too terribly far off the mark.
She had really admired her ex-aunt, the wily Verissa Sekret, though. And she hated that her favorite uncle was now too ashamed of himself to show his face at most family gatherings, even though they had all forgiven him.
But she had become a little more guarded, especially in matters of the heart, as a result. And maybe that was a positive, at least.
When her uncle did appear at the family’s events, she would sit by him as he forced smiles and twiddled with his drink before hurriedly downing it and reaching for another while nobody was looking. He would discourage other company when he felt they had said enough to him and would change the subject or listlessly look out onto the sunset until they got bored and left.
And while he often stayed silent when she was near him, it was never a cold silence.
“You know we don’t blame you, right?”
“For what? For falling in love with somebody and making a really human mistake, or for being such a… a… I dunno, a huge dummy and sitting here, being some of the worst company ever and drinking all of Nonno’s favorite wine?”
“Even now, I’m still freeloading, aren’t I?” he said dejectedly into his glass. “Gosh.”
“You’re part of the family to us. The wine belongs to you, as well. And even if you want to be a big silly stupid stupid dumb dumb and not think of it that way, then consider yourself our beloved guest. And we all know that hospitality demands that it’s rude for a guest to turn down what the host is offering!”
“In some cultures. In others, it’s not.”
“Look around you,” she said, “and tell me what part of this, uh, culture makes what I just said untrue.”
“We do kinda act like some weird alien-hybrid utopia thingamajigger, huh?” He gave a small laugh and swirled the wine around in his glass.
They sat and watched the others, like reality was trapped in its own little bubble and they were on the outside looking in.
“…You know you are the only reason I come to these things anymore,” he said, flatly.
“There are people here who would say that you were their reason. Or at least a really big one.”
“Oh yeah? Like who.”
She turned her big green eyes to gaze at the face that resembled her own so much. “…It’s a Sekret.”
“I don’t understand what that has to do with anything. And I don’t believe you about the other thing.”
“Yes you do. To all of it. All the topics. All of it!”
“Stop it. I was too stupid to figure things out then and I’m too much of an idiot to do it now. Read the writing on the wall, Jade. I’m worthless.”
“But you just said the writing on the wall says you are stupid, not worthless! Those words mean two different things, mister! And I think it’s all lies anyway.”
“Look at me. I thought I could be the hero and sweep her off her feet and--” he drank his wine. “Blugh. This stuff is nasty.”
“Maybe you were more in love with the fantasy of the adventure and the situation that made you into a hero than you were with Verissa herself?”
“…How do you think you know so much about this, little missy? You don’t even have a boyfriend! That’s pretty presumptuous of you, miss presumptuous-pants. Presumpy-pants.”
“Well I was just thinking! I mean, if you aren’t going to then I guess I’ll have to do all the presuming for the both of us! I’m wearing the pants in this presumptuous relationship!”
“Jade, you are not fooling anyone.” He looked down at the capris on her legs, taking special care to note the large gap between the cuff and her ankle. “Those are more like presumable shorts, which are different.”
“Well, I think they still count as pants!”
“I guess.” He let the silence fall over them again and watched the action happening in front of him.
“And also, I think the only thing you should try to be is the hero of your own story. Not hers.”
He didn’t say anything after that and Jade could only hope that her words reached him and didn’t fall through the gaping wound in his heart instead. He had suffered a very bad break.
But she had to try.
She wasn’t sure if she could make him completely the same as he was before, but she knew that, as it was with any other broken thing, it was possible to gather up the pieces and hold them together, with glue or hands or words or tape or stitches and string.
Perhaps it was her job to stay in control and fix and rearrange broken things. Maybe she could stay whole and help those she cared about keep it together.
Stay open and honest with your feelings- never lie, no, never- but don’t leave them in a way that others can easily twist to make you into their puppet. Instead, make them yours. Do not hurt them or force them, but love them until they willingly hand you their strings so that- if you need to, if you have to, for the good of everyone- you can manipulate them. Control is true power and if they give it to you, then that in and of itself is an affirmation that you are in the right for both parties. That is what her time with her uncle taught her.
Sometimes, she wondered if that logic was similar to the one Verissa had lived by and justified her breakage of her ex-husband. But it was a philosophy that Jade had adopted and it has not harmed anyone yet, so she saw nothing wrong with it on its own and surmised that Verissa simply hadn’t had the right intentions.
(The irony was that her wisdom made her so, so very naïve, not too much unlike a certain prince given too much power over his knight. A few steps further into the darkness, and she would be a veritable terror to behold.)
She frowned at the thought of leaving Dave in a similar situation to her uncle if she were wrong and fell into the same traps as the spider her family wanted so badly to crush. She did not want to think about that.
He was sleeping peacefully, the low light from the window illuminating his pale, bare body with a dull glow.
She grinned a little when she realized that she had childishly rolled in her sleep and stolen all of the blankets in her subconscious search for warmth- search for his body heat, actually- and unwittingly left him exposed and fragile.
And he hadn’t even complained because she had left him so exhausted. Her smile tinted her cheeks with a small blush to match the color of her lips.
Slowly, his chest rose and fell and she followed it with her eyes. He was so young. And he looked even more so without his glasses or clothes or any airs he liked to put on when he was awake and they were in public.
It was kind of sweet, how he tried so hard to be like an invincible knight in all of his shining armor when he was really just a boy made of nothing but tender, innocent flesh and brittle bird bones underneath.
Of course, most knights did only differ from the damsels they saved in that they had the security blanket of metal and a horse to lift them up and further boost their courage, so perhaps it wasn’t as strange as she thought it was that he depended on her for so many things rather than the other way around.
Not that she carried him completely, and not that she did not rely on him sometimes, herself. It was not black and white.
Just a darker tint of grey.
She wrapped the blankets around her a little tighter and reached over to lightly rub his chest, feeling it rise and fall instead of just watching the slow, easy motion. Her other hand smoothed down his hair and stroked his forehead for a moment before easing its way down his arm. Slowly, she drew the hand on his chest right beneath his other arm and then let her fingers tickle his sides as their tips gently skated down to his hip.
He sleepily moved his arm closer as if to subconsciously stop her, but otherwise did not stir.
Peeking into his face, she traced his thumb and squeezed his hand to make sure he was still asleep. Then she gingerly gripped his wrist and slid her cupped hand up his forearm and around his shoulder just to play with his eyebrows and double-check that his eyelids didn’t move.
He was still quite out of it and an ill-fitting snore erupted from him, like it was caught between a yawn and a cough. Jade snickered and let her palms use the contours of his neck and Adam’s apple as a path back to his torso.
Certainly, he did not have the build of the knights and great romancers on the covers of all the Harlequin romances that Jade’s mother and other aunts liked to read and titter about, but he was someone that would act just as sappy and romantic if she asked him to (but in private she was quite positive that he would want to anyway, when the moment was right. She would tease him and say, “There’s a time and place for everything, huh? You’ve got it down on some fancy schmancy know-it-all emotional bus route schedule taped on the back of those glasses. But how would you do without such a handy guide? A guy as cool as you doesn’t need them, I’ll bet!” He would start mouthing off a compliment about her schedule idea and phrasing, using his usual talent of being shy by acting bold, but he’d be left speechless and even more obviously bashful as she snatched away his glasses and cornered him with her attention and affection so he couldn’t escape. Not that he wanted to.)
Her left hand made the journey to his left nipple and softly circled and tweaked it a few times, the only landmark of color on his chest and stomach. Her right hand mimicked its partner and slowly caressed his other side while her left dragged down his stomach and paused at the bottom of his pelvis.
Guys were funny about their manhood, treating it like it was some extremely masculine (and it was extremely masculine, by nature, to be sure) and durable point of pride, or like it was its own person.
Which Jade did not understand whatsoever. Not the separate entity part and definitely, definitely not the implied durability. People look different because of how they were made, but she knew that the fragile veins that she could just barely make out from beneath the milky-clear, thin skin in a sliver of an almost-new moon at the very base of Dave’s torso were not only connected to the most sensitive part of his body, but, after a long series, to his heart and his brain and his lungs and the other visible veins in his hands and forearms when he tensed, which were all parts of Dave himself- and they were about the same in every other man even if they weren’t always so close to the surface.
Softly, she brushed her fingers against them. They were like wires- right now, right here, he was like a machine with its casing undone and it would be so easy for her to rip out the things that made him work, made him tick- he would be so easy to take apart and she could do it if she wanted to. His neck, his chest, down here…he was sound asleep and trusting her to not obliterate him, wire by wire, bit by bit.
The knight didn’t have any armor on and she quietly traced his body and toyed with all of his seams. She knew where day-to-day battles rubbed and chafed or where he had no protection. The choice was hers-she could either let him be injured and broken and let her coldness cut him like a knife or nurse him better and soothe his aches and pains. She knew the best ways to disarm him, for better or worse, both inside and out, and the power made her a little giddy.
And a little scared.
She turned her eyes over to his face again and was relieved to see that his soft eyelashes still hit his cheeks on either side of his nose and his lips were open slightly, in an unknowing and undisturbed cycle of inhaling and exhaling.
He sighed a little as she touched him and turned his head towards her on his pillow.
He was adorable.
He was adorable and she had fallen in love with him from the start, and she knew it.
She had bent her own rule- the one thing Verissa had given rather than taken in her wake- because she had a feeling that, if she were the one lying there asleep and Dave were in her place, he would be thinking her breakable and trusting and he would be the one coiling back up the strings that she had allowed him to see unraveled and he would be the one with the option of control.
And she would still trust him not to tear her apart.
The little smile on her face grew a little mischievous again as she lovingly caressed the skin in the bend of his thigh and torso from the outside in and he made a small noise.
Are you having a good dream? She wondered. What does your mind think is happening right now?
She drew some small circles on the inside of his leg and played with the hair on his calves when he grew used to the circles and he stopped making noises.
Soon, she grew tired of that, too, and laid down against him, pushing the blankets off and behind her so she could still see him and let her fingers retrace their path again. It was fun, exploring him like he was some kind of unknown tundra.
She realized that tomorrow she would absolutely have to tell him that she compared him to the Arctic tundra. That’s how cool you are.
And, as she put her thigh over his and bent her knee so their feet touched, she imagined him replying back. Naw, I’m the fuckin’ taiga. She mentally prepared a few ways to intercept the then-inevitable furry jokes and puns that would spring forth if she let him keep going.
For the average person, games exude an innocent attitude; they are pastimes that entertain and nothing more. But games- especially twisted games- leave distinct marks on the psyche of the young because they determine what is and is not acceptable. If something is “just a game”, ending it is not a crime. Ending a life, if permitted in the rules, is therefore not wrong, either- it is simply part of how the game is played.
Particularly if you grew up believing that “game” was a euphemism for “war”.
(She lived on an island all alone and the lessons she learned there were as unpredictable as the flora and fauna itself. Given time and conditions, they changed. They could grow harsher or gentler if only one single detail were changed. And this jungle was just dark enough to twist her and twist everything else that came after, and perhaps some things that came before. This is where the cracks in the story began because she had been taught to break, not fix, and break is what she did.)
Playing games was the Art of War and Jade excelled at it. Just a little taste of creating armies and setting up strategies let her know- feel- just how much she loved it, loved the feeling of winning, of training soldiers and watching her best-laid plans and quiet designs fall into place, one after another, like dominoes that she could gather and set up in a different location- a different world- and watch them conquer the ground with their intricate spreads all over again.
War and games were one and the same and she loved them so much.
And she loved her little play-toys, too- her precious machines with gears and moving parts that could be understood and tinkered with and taken apart like game for dinner; while metal was not meat, she relished consuming the secrets therein as if it was. Brain food, she’d think, laughingly. Easy access to them had made her into a glutton, happily tearing into everything she could get her hands on.
More and more, though, she learned that she liked her real-toy soldiers the best. Her game pieces. Although they were so much harder to have and hold, the feeling of knowing that she had them in her hands, her obedient little pets, was intoxicating. She would frequent the greenhouse in her tower, lay her chess set between herself and her dog, and admire how the two sides took each other down.
Jade had an insatiable appetite for power through knowledge of all kinds and her darling little gadgets and friends –what’s the difference, really?- were constant suppliers, mindless in her hands like vegetables and even more reliable in harvest than real crops ever could be, yes, reliable and ever-present, waiting for her right where she left them, waiting for her to pluck them from the checkered table and suck the enlightening marrow from their bones to nourish her campaign, waiting to again be cast down and lie at her mercy.
She had watched them, picked them out to be the best for her because she thought she knew what was best for them if she had control- she sedated them and tricked them into thinking she wanted nothing as she wrapped them up like a spider does a fly. They were treats to be drained slowly, while they didn’t notice- this necessary breakdown was the first step of a process she had mastered, the first piston in a well-oiled machine she had constructed in her sleep, the step-by-step process of how to wage her war, play her game, coming clear to her as she opened her eyes and awoke to all the things she had read and dreamed about as they mobilized and took form.
The knowledge from her dreams and Grandfather’s treasured book, The Art Of War, once put into practice, produced a beautiful, cyclical pattern like the seasons of the year- draw them in, break them apart, cast them away, make them come lie at her feet; if it was necessary she’d put them back together into something new, better, more useful, make them hers, and then do it again when she got bored or needed something else.
Make the music box play faster, make the lovely weaver tie herself in new knots. Jade could make it happen so easily.
This manipulation was another thing she loved just as much as the Game- what a wonderful thing it was when she was the mastermind behind it! The same force that made her drowsy, set her circadian rhythms to follow a schedule like a proper creature of order had imbued her with this hunger to use her grandfather’s wisdom, so who was she to suppress it? Prophetic Prospit wasn’t the only thing floating through her head- there had always been a much quieter presence there that came to her whenever she felt tired, like a ruthless mentor teaching her how to manipulate by example; Jade was a willing host for this intrusion because she could gain so much from watching this mind-stranger work. Jade wasn’t above using herself for her experiments. The arrogant, self-assured psychic presence (later given the name Vriska Serket) would switch off Jade’s waking self and root about in her head (or try to- Jade never let her get too far), unaware that the dregs of Jade’s consciousness was tailing the intruder like a ghost.
(This is where the cracks in the story began because she, the Witch of Space, overseer to fixing a broken universal code in the form of frogs, had been taught to break, not fix, and break is what she did.)
As a smaller, weaker child, Jade dreamed in her waking hours, too- about the day when she rose above the confines of her little island (once, that was the world. Now it sat in her hands like a marble, another little toy) and could possess and comprehend and change whatever psychic being lie in wait above if she so pleased (there was something, HAD to be something- it was finite and conquerable, she was sure- every puzzle had rules and a system and a clear answer, even if the puzzle was something as misunderstood as the universe. An omnipotent, omnipresent God was too abstract and intangible for her to accept) but for now, why cross the mysterious ally in her schemes?
If you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one battle and lose one battle.
If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.
And Jade was determined to win them all, so she had done the same thing that lead her in systematic circles that ensured her conquests. She watched and waited and learned. And learned.
“How would you say your relationship with your adopted uncle- er, or should I use the word “cousin” since that is what you are used to using- is?” Doctor Roseanne cast an impartial but friendly glance in Jade’s direction.
She had finally coaxed the talkative girl to take a seat on the couch and, one backstory on Roseanne Valonde’s outfit and two cups of tea later, the doctor was finally able to get in a few questions of her own.
“Well, fine, I think. I thought! But then Teresa told me that Dave and I needed to see you, so maybe not?” Jade’s bright eyes peeked over her thick frames and looked at the doctor as if she could somehow magically look into her mind and find out about all of what happened during Dave’s sessions.
“I assure you that if anything truly pressing were to come up, I would tell you.”
Jade’s snicker interrupted her slow intake of tea and her laugh and came out a snort. “Because you kind of threw normal, professional rules out the window when you started seeing us for free!” It wasn’t a criticism, but an amused statement of fact.
“Perhaps. But we don’t have to tell Mister Strider that.”
Jade’s face popped up from her teacup and she hastily put it down and lightly slapped her hands onto her knees with a grin. “Does he actually think he’s being psychoanalyzed?”
Doctor Roseanne crossed her arms and looked almost offended. “I assure you that you are being psychoanalyzed quite thoroughly. Just in a very unconventional and semi-illegal manner.”
None of this was anything Jade did not already know. In fact, Doctor Roseanne had a talk with her about it on her first visit, but the girl had taken just as much of a shine to the woman as her charge had and agreed to keep going to see her just because.
In fact, both women were quite sure that they had taken the line between “having a conversation in a professional environment” and “just hanging out in an office”, chalked it up, and played a weekly game of hopscotch on it. Neither cared. “Oh, my! We have a rule breaker! Quick- somebody come over here and take away her psych degree- thingy!”
“Certificate.” The doctor’s lips quirked up. “In order to practice, one must have a certificate.”
“Oops.” Jade laughed and stuck out her tongue. “Guess I don’t get my certificate on “Differentiating Degrees of Authorization 101: Pun Intended”!” She laughed some more. “But as for Dave and me, we get along fine. Whaddaya want to know?”
Doctor Roseanne shrugged. “Whatever you’ll tell me.”
“Is there a problem?”
“No, it’s just I didn’t expect you to give me so much freedom in my answer. I mean, I dunno how to psychoanalyze someone, but I figured you’d just get right to what part of it you wanted to know!”
“Different practitioners, ahem, practice differently. As for me, I think of this kind of thing like a puzzle, or perhaps a maze,” Doctor Roseanne put down her clipboard and began to gesture sparingly with her hands. “The most interesting and challenging thing is where the client allows me to begin in relation to where the problem lies. Sometimes, it takes weeks of winding through mental passages and synapses of memory to get to the dysfunctional destination. Occasionally the entrance is flush to the center of contention, but they take me on an arduous journey in a convoluted runaround before backtracking and telling me what they- and I, at that point, probably- already surmised. I have encountered a few that are a straight line but they guard the nucleus of their nervousness like Dobermans around a rubbish heap.” She looked at Jade and gave a wry smile. “Personal issues are not called “complexes” for nothing.”
“See? I told you this class had the subtitle “Pun Intended”!” Jade laughed. “But wow, Doctor, you should be a writer! That was really… fuckin’ cool, bro!” She dropped her voice so it adopted a timbre reminiscent of Dave’s.
“Thank you. I appreciate that. And I do write.” With a flourish, Doctor Roseanne picked up her clipboard and flipped it around so Jade could see it. “I write the most when your charge is around. His tangents, I find, frequently vary from damningly droll to quotably absurd. I either spin yarns of my own creation,” she glanced at her tea cozy and winked at Jade, “pun intended, to tune him out or I write what he unwittingly dictates for future generations to read and mock for all of time.”
“He would’ve only heard “quotably” and then bragged about it for days,” Jade giggled.
“Then we best not tell him. We would never be able to get a word in edgewise if we did.”
“I won’t if you won’t.” The two shared another conspiratorial look before Jade got back down to business. “But really, Dave and I get along fine. He’s more like the housewife and he does all the chores, and complains about my cooking, and gets mad at me when I stay out later than, like, midnight and don’t tell him beforehand. But I get mad at him for the midnight thing, too, and what he does and doesn’t eat and sometimes his one friend Erivan who can be really obnoxious. And also when he starts trying to develop film in my bathroom. I get really pissed at him for that, but then he cleans it up so there’s no real harm done, I guess.”
“Alright. You mention friends as a point of contention. Can you tell me more?”
“Oh, mostly I like his friends. I let him bring anyone he wants home- I figure that if he deems them safe, they probably won’t try to trash our house or stab us in our sleep or anything! And even the Erivan guy isn’t bad- he was a lot of fun when he came over for dinner the other night. He just likes to flirt, and I think it’s mostly for fun, because he and Dave’s other friend tag-team joke flirt just to make Dave mad, but Erivan takes it a little too far sometimes. Also, he’s moody. But not a bad guy! There’s also Zacharias, and he’s a little… hmm, he’s definitely a horse of a different color, but he is actually kind of cool in a weird way.”
“You say the flirting makes Dave mad?”
“Yep. I think that’s a sign that we get along well because he’s a little protective of me. And he only really gets mad when they it all gets out of hand… and it’s pretty funny to watch, sometimes. I mean, Eri and Johnny are his friends so his “defense” of me is stuff like stealing Johnny’s glasses and shoving cake in his face or,” she chuckled, “putting spaghetti down Erivan’s shirt and pants with Zacharias’ help. And I think he also put some pasta in Erivan’s shoes, but I’m not sure.”
“They must be quite a bunch.”
“Oh, you bet! Erivan is dramatic artsy and Zacharias is silent-artsy and Johnny and Dave are foils for one another. It’s like watching four guys play out some sitcom version of, um, what’s that thing Dave’s gamer-friend watches? Oh, yeah, Red VS Blue except the teams can change at any time and usually become a team of… three against one. Erivan and Dave usually end up as the team of one, but I’ve seen Johnny be ganged up on before, too. Or it can be a free-for-all, I guess!”
“Does Dave have any other friends that you know of?”
“A few, yes. And I’ve met them. There’s a nice girl named Piper and that gamer-friend, he’s a big guy, Bruce… Hedgemon? I don’t remember his last name. But he’s on the computer a lot. And Roxi Strilonde, she likes games too- she watches Red VS Blue. And there’s that other girl Veronica Surkit but she isn’t his friend. He doesn’t like her that much at all, actually. Oh, and then there’s my other cousins that he’s friends with, like Gammy.”
Doctor Roseanne nodded. “Why doesn’t he bring them over?”
“Oh, he does sometimes. But not that much. I wish he’d have Roxi and Piper over more, though. I wanna be their friend, too! And it’s nice to have another girl around. In fact, I think he went on a date with Roxi at one point but they decided it wasn’t gonna work. What a shame,” she sighed.
“Why doesn’t he bring the girls around? And why is it a shame that he isn’t with Roxi?”
Grinning, Jade leaned back on the couch so that her head was on the armrest and her legs dangled off the other one so she looked more like a traditional patient in a shrink’s office. Doctor Valonde had to laugh a little at her antics. “Well, I don’t think he’s quite as close with the girls as he is with the guys. Well, he’s nice to Teresa and Kitty, the girls I work with, but we’re all mutual friends so it’s a little different. In fact, he might become better friends with Kitty through Zacharias because they’re now friends, too, which is good because Kitty really needs friends. She is so sweet and talented…” She shook her head. “Sorry, I’m getting off-topic! Roxi just really liked him and she is a really rockin’ girl! I’d have liked to have her around more for me!”
“Why isn’t he as close with the girls?”
“I dunno! Maybe he’s scared it’ll make me nervous and start hovering over him so he won’t lose his v-card? That’s silly. I trust him.” She blinked a few times. “Oh my gosh, I’ve actually never even thought about that! Oh man, but he is a teenager.” She sat up suddenly. “What if he already has and just hasn’t told me?? Ohhhh nooo, is that what this counseling thing is about??? Wait, that’s not enough to warrant counseling! What if he did and got gonorrhea or genital herpes or…. Oh!!!!” Scrambling to face the front, Jade swung her legs forward and slammed her palms on the table. “DOCTOR, DID DAVE CONTRACT HIV? IS THAT WHAT THIS IS ABOUT????”
Doctor Roseanne could only blink and find amusement in the fact that she had talked about sexually transmitted diseases to both Jade and her adopted relative. She leaned forward and grabbed her friend by the shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “No. Calm down, Jade. It is nothing like that. Dave is quite free from all of that.” Doctor Roseanne let go of Jade and added a note on her clipboard reminding her to ask if Dave did indeed have any STDs. “But may I tell him the next time that I see him that you thought he did?”
Jade, who had been muttering worrisome scenarios to herself, was brought back to reality by the doctor’s words. “Oh, good. Phew! You had me really scared! But um,” she bit her lips and scrunched her nose. “Sure, you can tell him that’s what I thought. But I’ll probably tell him myself, too, just because.” Her grin turned downright devilish before receding to a neutral face. “And since we are on the subject of Dave’s, uh, how do I say this… Dave’s, um, y’know, being a guy with needs, can I ask you something?”
“You can ask me anything you like, but that does not mean I will answer your query.”
Jade giggled. “You’re a smartass. That’s why you and Dave get along so well, I’ll bet! But anyways,” she frowned again. “It might be better to ask a medical doctor about this, but Dave um, he washes the sheets. A lot. Like, not every day, but a whole lot. I dunno if it’s healthy for a boy to, uh, yeah.”
The doctor didn’t even flinch. “Are you sure that you have the right reason as to why he’s washing his sheets? He might just be abnormally clean.”
“He gets super mad when I offer to wash them for him. Since I know him, I know it’s his way of being defensive. Especially since he mentions he’s gonna do laundry and then I offer and he tries to play it off like it isn’t a big deal before getting downright livid when I press him. Soooo cool,” she mocked. “But I’m pretty sure, and I try to give him his privacy. But I think it’s a bigger issue when he’s asleep because he normally doesn’t do laundry in the afternoons and also that would just be stupid to always use his sheets. It’s the mornings he washes stuff, or after he naps. And I’m not a guy so I’m not sure, but is that normal? That’s… a lot.”
“Does he give you privacy?”
Jade shrugged. “He doesn’t bother me or rifle through my stuff. But it’s not that big of an issue anyway.”
“What about your friends? Is he as open with you bringing them over as you are with him doing the same?”
“Oh, yeah! In fact, I had Kitty over the other night without even telling him beforehand. And some of my friends come visit occasionally, but they all live far away now and it isn’t as frequent. But he doesn’t seem to mind.”
“What about boyfriends?” Doctor Roseanne asked, nonchalant. “Is he of the opinion that you are regarding the idea of significant others being around?”
“I’m not… I’m not sure.”
“Can you elaborate?”
“I never really had a boyfriend since he came to live with me, with the exception of this one guy who would come over and study with me. But even he wasn’t really a boyfriend. Just a guy I was friends with.”
“Are you still friendly with this boy?”
“Yeah, I’m polite to him, but he knows better than to try and get too friendly. He was actually, really and truly, kind of a self-absorbed dick. He would start talking and just neeeeever stop! And he didn’t mean to be insensitive but he just was, and he was always trying to push his opinion on to you. Kind of a socially inept nerd.”
“So you had a falling-out?”
“Well. Hmm. This is going to take some backstory. Is that okay?”
Doctor Roseanne put down her clipboard and leaned forward. “I love backstory.”
At that, Jade could only laugh. “Okie dokey!! Just remember that you let me get into this!”
The best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities... It is best to win without fighting.
Upon entering the game, Jade was met with quite a few surprises, but she deftly piggybacked off of the experiences of another fallen army and regained her footing by conquering them without them even knowing it.
A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.
Karkat Vantas was the leader on the other side of the board and he used his heart as much as his head. At first she had acted friendly, then clueless, and finally almost submissive until the moment came for her to rule over him- his past and future selves were the front and back cover of an instruction manual and between them she knew just where and how to tear, to pull, and unfasten his armor and leave him open to her pokes and prods.
And even though he was a sad copy of the thing she already had (the originals were so much more loyal and dependable) She’d thought she could use another knight, especially one that came with troops. She could handle the growing ranks.
Management of many is the same as management of few. It is a matter of organization.
Alas, she quickly found that many of his troops were already gone and the rest were disloyal, parts and pieces from a checkerboard set into a game they weren’t made to play. But that was alright. This Karkat and his kind- she could spill their guts and gears if she wanted to because she had the only pieces that mattered in her army already.
What little legwork Tavros Nitram did do led him straight into her hands and she analyzed him quickly and disposed of him doubly so. There was no rigidity, no stability, lots of power but none worth trying to use- he was damaged goods. Besides, Jade already had a Hero of Breath. Why fool with a lesser one? So when he came too close to her, Jade wound Tavros up, sweetly telling him that he should start over from the beginning, and waved as he marched back to his owner on mechanical legs to defend her (her, the foreign stranger girl who had just rejected him) and her honor, Jade’s own loyal and defective bullfighter even until death.
Tavros’ original and spurned master was the spider- the spider, the very one that had put Jade to sleep and laid eggs of cunning in her mind as she wandered therein. Vriska Serket might have posed a little bit of a challenge had she not foolishly left a trail through everything she meddled with; Jade had almost been excited to meet her when she had learned of the girl’s clever prowess, but Vriska’s spindles had wrapped silken loops around something much too big for her to handle and the taskmaster had been tangled in her own web. It was a shame that such a lovely mechanical loom had broken down, but there was nothing to be done about that.
Jade’s mysterious and spidery dreamweaver had been slain by the other Seer, Terezi Pyrope, and although she was fierce, she was hardly a threat. Loyalty was her strongest weakness and the dragon-girl was totally subservient to the knights. And both of the knights belonged to her, Jade the witch. So Jade herself stayed out of the beast’s path in the same way she had fooled Rose into submission- she hid in plain sight and the red-eyed girl never noticed that Jade branded her with all the irons she found already hidden in the fire. Terezi was ready to be sent off and sold for slaughter, like livestock.
She wasn’t safe to have around Jade’s most precious knight for too long.
Feferi the princess and Aradia the maid were pretty dolls. Jade could play with them and make the stupid boys fixate on them because they were so perfect and it was fun for a while as they served their purposes and played their parts. Girls just wanted to have fun and so long as they let Jade befriend them, they could play damsel and archaeologist/maid all they wanted- they would just do it according to her rules. The gears in their pretty little heads were simple enough to learn and take advantage of and in the end, Jade was just at a sleepover full of dreambubble playtime. New toys for her game- and what was the harm in Jade playing a game?
Equius, Eridan, and Sollux were bland accessories to her dolls and were dead or halfway there, much like Nepeta. And Gamzee and Kanaya were only useful to Karkat.
Useless. Useless, useless, useless.
Indeed, she had developed a taste for ruthlessness and it suited her like the black gown she wore- it contradicted her appearance but accentuated her understated inner desires. Even her faithful dog, Becquerel, had been overtaken in her unassuming rampage and her soldiers (her housebroken lovebirds) had failed to see what she had done. But her inspiration had been born out of love, rather, what she understood of it, so how could it be so wrong?
The game was consumed by fire and she was a god among gods, smiling as she sent Karkat and his army into the abyss of the fenestrated wall- the scratch would lead the Lord, the one that was already there, after them, too, and she would neatly seal up the cracks behind them. It would be disposed of and nobody but she would be the wiser.
But that was absolutely foolish of her to think, and so she had damned them all because she’d fancied herself clever enough to revive a dying session with just four pieces.
There are some cracks she could not seal and she did not noticed that everything she worked for leaking away and everything she did not want percolating through.
Both of them stayed in their caskets like two still statues, meshing with the rose petals that lined the boxes so that they looked like plaster statues molded to make one solid whole, like they never had life of their own. It was almost as if they had begun existence as corpses and were meant to stay there, stiffly posed, with a stone face to greet the world and wish it an unfeeling goodbye all in the same unmoving expression until they crumbled back into earth beneath the ground. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Dave was silent as they were buried and did everything he could not to cry in front of everyone else. This was a remembrance of his parent’s lives, not a pity party thrown just for him.
But he was weak and he cried in front of her. He screamed and shouted and cursed, too, and when he was finished she sat next to him in the church playground where they used to read books and tie shoes and held him against her side until he was empty.
He went to live with her parents in the country, with a nice school and kind people with good, old-fashioned values. She would come and visit every Tuesday. In truth, he only stayed at the country house for about three weeks.
And for one of those weeks, he stayed with Jade in the city because one of them had a stroke.
It became apparent that his sweet and wonderful aunt and uncle (although really his cousins) were too old and frail to take care of a boy like Dave, a boy too young to drive or fend for himself or get a job and much too emotionally overloaded to even try and deal with the stress of any of it, the family scratched their heads over what to do until she suddenly interjected her own thoughts.
“Let Dave live with me,” she said to her other aunts and uncles.
“Let me stay with Jade,” he had quietly asked Daa-daa-jee.
And Daa-daa-jee, being lucid enough to remain the head of the family, allowed what his little ones asked.
(“This is very dangerous,” he had told Dave in private. “Not just because you are both young, but because of in here,” he said as he pointed to Dave’s heart. “Do not cut her on your broken edges or you will deal with my wrath. She is the only Jade I have left, you know, and I do not intend to lose her because some fool was careless with the pieces of themselves and left them all scattered about the floor.”
“Jade won’t get cut.”
“She will slice her fingers like pigs for slaughter trying to put you back together, and when her hands stop working, she will use her feet. Then her knees. Anything she has available.”
“She isn’t that stupid.”
“Love makes people do stupid things. And for you, living with her is a stupid thing. But you do a lot of stupid things, like cut yourself on yourself like a masochistic child running naked through the house with scissors and falling down never-ending stairs with the blade pointed up. Perhaps you are just stupid. This whole idea is stupid.”
“You’re the stupid one. You can’t see the brilliance behind my actions. They look retarded sometimes but they are actually genius and you’re just too stupid to get it.”
“Why do I even bother with you, you stupid.”
“You're stupid. You don't call someone a stupid, stupid. That's just stupid."
"You are just stupider, stupid one."
"Not as stupid as you, stupid scissor-stair-stupidpants."
"That's the stupidest thing that got said today. And… I won’t let her act that stupid.”
“Ha. Heaven help you if you think you can stop her from doing anything.”
“I’d be willing to have something not as, uh, pristine and wholesome help me, too, actually.”
“…Am I the proverbial Devil, then?”
“Do you want me to sign away my heart and soul on paper for you? Make this official serious business?
“You stupid idiot. I already own those.”
“No you don’t, stupid geezer.”
“What do you mean?”
“…Just… this is stupid. Forget it.”)
Five seconds or less.
From ten feet away, without flash-stepping, without using time tricks, it took him five seconds to disarm and kill someone with armor or with their guard up.
An unsuspecting, inexperienced, or otherwise unprepared person had much less time before death came for them by way of his sword.
He would swoop down and slice his targets to ribbons and then reap the spoils, his sword the scythe and his enemies the fields for harvest.
He was, in a lot of ways, eerily reminiscent of the Grim Reaper, though his sister liked to think herself grimmer. And in some ways, she was.
But in most ways, she wasn’t. And perhaps, in those areas that Rose fell short, Dave overshot.
Perhaps he was a bit too grim to be the reaper.
But in five seconds or less and with a purely offensive outlook, he reaped.
But offense is only half of the battle and while Dave- and all his iterations- excelled at it, he fell short in the defensive department- his solution was to make himself the shield and take all the damage because he figured he was expendable and could take it, that he could just control the battle and bend the rules so that his side could deal all of the damage of war but suffer almost none of the losses.
He feared death but feared the death of his loved ones more, so he feared and loved and ran and died in a vicious cycle that kept his greatest fear at bay and perpetuated his lesser demon until the tear of its talons and bite of its beak became familiar.
Still hated, but familiar. And since fear of the unknown is the one true fear, acquainting himself with death was, in a way, a strategy to soften the blow.
(The lack of defensive strategy was a strategy, too. And knights, staples of battle, know all about strategies.)
Dave was not stupid. He had his own irons in the fire, placed in such a way that they supported everyone else’s and kept them safe from completely melting in the flames that lapped up at them from the proverbial forge, nearly unnoticed and inconsequential.
In fact, his tireless devotion was one of the things that kept the fire fed, for both better and worse. So he burned himself frequently. No big deal.
(Some could argue that his strategy was the coward’s way out, the selfish and his self-extermination to save himself the pain of losing others was well-deserved and just. Some could argue that it was selfless and heroic.
The pendulum swings side to side and nobody can tell where it will fall.)
But to either outcome- or to no outcome at all- there are repercussions. If he survives, he has to remember all the things he did and accept the ball and chain he made for himself as time’s eternal servant. He will have to live knowing that he perpetuated and caused the agony of all the other Daves, the ones he knows still fear death more than he does, the ones that thought they might be lucky enough to survive.
If he dies, the wake from the loss will devastate all the people he loved and leave them with the pain that he was too weak to even consider trying to bear.
He is gambling whenever he approaches to kill- he does not know if he is about to meet his match, he does not know if he won’t, and he does not know if he will ever get to see the end of the game.
For five seconds, everything is an unknown.
And in the five seconds or less it takes him to challenge fate, he is comforted in that the impossible decision is out of his hands and whatever will be, will be.
But then it comes back to the other side like a weight on a string and the uncertainty makes him insane.
In those five seconds or less, he is the most afraid.
“Jade told me about how you were not crazy for Mister Van Kankarri,” The doctor told Dave.
“Actually I liked having him shoot his mouth off about stupid shit like politics but then he decided to discuss things like childcare and the negative effects that being adopted can have and, like, how Jade was, like, totally propelling forward the notion that animal slaughterage is cool and that her job was gonna cause issues because it stirred up trouble amongst the animal-loving masses. Also he started talking about how Jade was gonna get viewed as a weak female single parent or something and get victimized because of society’s labels. Dude really didn’t mean to start up issues, he just wanted to talk a whole fucking lot. But we weren’t in a good way to hear him talk about the stuff he was talkin’ about and then have him pass it off as something he could talk about so long as he warned us about the shit that we’d get pissed about before he mentioned it.”
“So then Jade told him what kinda equated to “go suck a big giant bag of dicks” and he got all offended. It was kind of sad. He wasn’t a bad guy and it really was a nuclear bomb of bitch-slap-to-douche-face wakeup call for him to hear her just take him down like that.”
“Jade said she thought he had a crush on her,” Doctor Roseanne said.
“You wanna know if it made me mad.”
“Of course not.”
He wasn’t even listening. “Fuck yes it made me livid. There I was, fifteen whole years old, seriously considering decking a college dude in the nuts even though he didn’t actively try to do a goddamn thing to hurt me. In fact, I’ll bet the fucker was so wrapped up in his own little world that he didn’t even realize that I was sitting there hating him into a goddamned pulp, like he was an enormous tomato of asshat what with that fucking sweater and I was the premier Italian chef hungering to turn him into gourmet Ragu.”
“Jade mentioned you cooked spaghetti recently.”
“Well, fuck, now you know the secret to my turns of phrase. Consider yourself in the innermost rings of my circle of trust, like you’re the innermost shell of electrons and I’m the nucleus.”
“You certainly are bursting with positivity.”
“…It’s a damned good thing I have Jade to make me learn my sciences or I would be completely uninterested in this wickedshit banter right here. But no, I’m a shitty atom. I’m pretty fucking dense.”
“And how many electrons do you have?”
“The same amount of protons that I’ve got, duh.”
Doctor Roseanne only nodded and Dave grinned.
“So you definitely did not go to school for atomic studies,” he chuckled. “Let me break this down for you. Stable atoms have neutral charges, pretty much. And so if you are my one electron, and--”
“Jade gave me a crash course on the subject, thank you, and she was much more charming about it than you. Mostly because my teapot suddenly became a weapon of mass destruction rather than a lovely piece of house ware by the time she was finished explaining.”
“Okay, well, fine. Just shit all over my attempts to try and actually let you get a leg up about knowing real world knowledge instead of the make-believe theoretical knowledge you spout like a really pretentious and smarmy kettle. Keep your cozy on, Jesus.”
Doctor Roseanne adjusted her own sweater. “You mentioned Mister Van Kankarri wore a sweater. Is mine making you nervous?”
“Nah. It’s not big and red and obnoxious like him. After a while, his mere presence was akin to a matador’s flag in front of a bull. I was the bull, by the way.”
“You certainly are full of the shit of one.”
“And you’re the one shoving your nose into it like the queen of all brownnosers, so you’d know better than me about that, I guess. But yeah, it was just him and his sweaters that pissed me off.”
“So the sweater was red. You seem to associate a lot of negativity with that color even though you wear it frequently.”
Quietly, Dave looked up at her with his big eyes staring almost right through her and his eyebrows set in grim and enigmatic lines. He let the clock converse for them for a few moments before he opened his mouth and took over. “It’s hard to escape something you see every day.”
“What do you mean?”
Dave closed his eyes and crossed his legs. “So this big party my friend is having is soon,” he began. “Think I can find someone to go with me? I mean, think of all the terrible shit they say if you’re the guy who had nobody to take to a New Year’s party except your mom or something. It’s like you are livin’ out a bad eighties movie and the only real difference is your sense of fashion’d’ve been cutting-edge had you actually been in an eighties movie ‘cause you’re just outdated enough from today to still be considered “hip” back then. I’d just be so devastated if I were fated to be that uncool kid.”
“Dave, please stop dodging the question.”
“Dave, listen to me. You are self-aware enough to know what all of your problems are and I am only here to help you as you face them. You have made it clear that you know what it is you need to do to and are willfully not doing any of it.”
His only answer was a long, drawn-out ellipse that the grandfather clock wrote out with each turn of the gears.
“Don’t be this way.”
Narrowing his eyes, he looked away. It made her feel belittled and insignificant and Doctor Roseanne was astounded that she had grown so fond of this boy that even his basic avoidance tactics could get under her skin this much.
“At the very least, have the courtesy to entertain me with what you are thinking rather than rudely making me sit here after my workday has officially ended. There are places I could be and more emotionally stable company I could be speaking with.”
He began with a sudden heaviness in his voice that left the doctor off-guard. “I know all about you and the guy in the dorky blue hounds-tooth jacket. The one with the derpy bowtie and square glasses.”
Doctor Roseanne blanched, but it was barely noticeable in her naturally pale complexion. “I’m sorry?”
“He used to be one of your patients, and you fell in love with him. I’m not wrong, so don’t even give me that clueless bullshit.”
She opened her mouth in a frown, but he ignored her and kept going.
“And I’m not going to tell anyone about that, so don’t get your panties in a bunch about blackmail. I’m making a point here, like I’m sharpening a giant-ass pencil so that you can actually take some decent notes.” He frowned. “You hated being able to be so close to him and so damned close to having everything be perfect but always being just a hair’s breadth away from what you wanted most. You hated it so much that you just decided to not deal with the bullshit and decided that you’d just through yourself off that ethical plank and if you were fortunate, your career wouldn’t die when you hit the bottom and the naysayers in your profession wouldn’t rip you apart like sharks lying in wait in the ocean below. And even if they did, you could know that you had tried and wouldn’t have to endure the torture of all this false hope tugging at you all the fuckin’ time. Hopes need to be dashed sometimes,” he said. “And you know what? It all worked out fine for you in the end. And as for me, I’m so close that I can practically taste what I want. And even the ghost of a taste,” he inhaled and bit his lip, “it tastes really good. I know I’ve got to leave the proverbial apple in the Eden I’m in right now alone, but fuck you there’s a serpent whispering into my ear and you can bet it’s born from my own desires. And the angel on my other shoulder has some majorly clipped wings and the snake is about to swallow it whole.”
“And why would that be?”
“You made me think about my problem seriously and unfortunately, I fuckin’ decided to have a fantasy about it working and you know what else, oh brilliant doctor? I realized that it wouldn’t be too different than what’s going on in our lives right now, except better. And I would be abso-fuckin’-lutely okay with my whole life just being that one stable and monotonous existence, like a goddamn clock in how predictable it is. And if she wanted something more exciting? Hell, I’d just follow her as she shot for new heights, and that would be fine, too. I’d even take her to some, myself. Be her own personal ship to the moon and then her personal prince of it if she wanted to rule it once she got there. We don’t have to get married or anything- we’re too young for that, really- but I could actually be honest with my feelings and honest with her and she deserves that.”
“…I see,” Doctor Roseanne finally mustered up. “And that may be the best way to solve the problem. Just tell her, Dave. Whatever happens from there will be what needs to happen.”
“And what do I do if it works out and it shoots her social standing in the face? What do I do if I feel too guilty about it to enjoy it?”
“So you have that much faith that she will return your feelings?”
He rocked back and forth on the plush purple couch, trying to find the best way to answer her. “…It worked for you, didn’t it?”
Doctor Roseanne did not answer him. “If you think you will feel that guilty about it, then you probably are not as desperate for her as you think,” she said. “Either way, I assume you plan on telling her in a mature and didactic manner so that she knows what cards are in your hands but does not feel obligated to play them, so to speak, but rather work with you to find a solution?”
“…Yeah,” he said.
“And furthermore, are you using my example as the basis for your dreams coming true, or is there something else? Because I can tell you that every situation is different and one is not always a good measure for another.”
He leaned back and his voice grew softer. “I’m sure you can tell. I’m sure she’s probably told you, because she trusts you to not tell me, but it doesn’t matter because I know, too. And I think it’s just an open secret, like a 24-hour Wal-Mart hidden away in some fairyland secret grotto that Disney’s fucking salivating to get its hands on to make part of their Magic Kingdom, ‘cause nothing says “Where Dreams Come True” like super-sized commercialism.” He chuckled humorlessly and hugged himself as he looked at the embroidered curtains that fell over the window. It was as if he could see through them and out at the sun as it slowly set and turned the entire horizon white-hot, separating the green earth from the reddened sky. “She’s lonely. She’s given up on seeing people while I’m living with her because she doesn’t ever want me to feel like she would rather me not be there or that I was being replaced. Like, you know how I kind of have a knack for displacement. She didn’t want me to internalize all of that, so she gave up her own place in other people’s lives. But here’s the thing,” he said, turning to face Doctor Roseanne, “she doesn’t have to be lonely if I take the place of all the things she’s given up.”
“So there is a vacancy at the Jade Harley Love Hotel that you are hoping to fill? The penthouse suite, because apparently the place she’s given you just isn’t good enough,” the doctor quipped.
“It’s not like that. It’s really more than I deserve, but--”
“But you’re going to trample all over that by justifying what you are doing through false hope and reasons you’ve purchased at the enchanted Wal-Mart to make this into a dramatic fantasy wherein you assume the persona of a knight in shining armor saving a damsel trapped in a tower?”
“Okay, you’re playing the tune of Devil’s fuckin’ advocate and this jam ain’t fly,” he said, trying to retreat back into the secure stronghold of his false flippancy. “You just said I should tell her and now you’re making me look like--”
“The monster that is keeping her in the position she is in?” She sat up and tried to keep her perfectly playful façade from falling and revealing her own vicious monster born from concern. But it slipped around her eyes. “You aren’t, not at the moment. But if you keep this up and give up your plans to move on with your life or keep perpetuating these fanciful hopes, you will get in her way and she will have to slay the monster, so to speak. And if she does not and you both go through with this, what will you do if one day you realize that you’ve both trapped each other in a situation neither of you wish to be in? You are both still young and have your lives to live and things about yourself to discover. It is impossible for either of you to do that if you never let one another leave to go on your own life journeys.”
“You are supposed to stay professional, Doc.”
“And you are supposed to be able to think rationally,” she said evenly.
“Shut up.” His voice had an edge. She had gotten to him.
“Alright. If that is what you wish, you can have an enthralling conversation with my clock.”
He couldn’t stand it. “I don’t want to discover myself because I’m afraid that I might find myself without her.”
“Please. You are speaking like an emotionally dependent fool. Surely to God you aren’t one of those romantics who delude themselves into believing that they can’t exist without their projected significant other. How self-destructive,” she lamented, trying to intimidate him. “Here I thought you might actually be more than just a fresh face.”
He looked at her and the expression he wore was nothing short of venomous. “Look, Doctor Mcbitchenstein. Just because somebody can function without another person motivating them all the time does not mean that they are successful in their lives and just because they aren’t fucking miserable while they live the dramatic life of solitude, full of wonderful distractions or whatever, does not mean that they aren’t still lonely as fuck. See, I’ll find myself and I’ll realize the same fucking thing that I realized back when Jade’s parents had their stroke issue and I got launched out into outer space yet again- she is the only person who can actually make me feel like I wasn’t just dropped here to be a loner in my own little cubicle of existence, producing for society and always looking for some kind of distraction as well as actually be able to deal with my insecure ass without crippling me or keeping me in our proverbial little tower.”
“So you are the damsel in distress?”
“Fuck you, I’m a frog prince at worst. I still have my masculinity.”
“Right. Amphibians are much less demeaning than being a girl.”
“That isn’t what I meant and stop derailing this train. It was chuggin’ along and hauling some serious ass off the ass farms- which had an unusual healthy crop of ass poppin’ up out of the fields, bee tee dubs- until you plopped a big ol’ pile of horseshit obfuscated with false sexism overtones. We don’t want your riots here. This is my Tianmen Square and I’m about to open fire on you for daring talking shit about how I do my orating.”
“That allusion is very incriminating to your sexism and oppressing the opinions of the persecuted by keeping the truth from being allowed to see the light of day.”
“Damn it, you’re right. But that isn’t even the fucking point and I have nothing against girls. The point is that I can actually see a relationship with Jade working, even though I know we’ll kind of fuck stuff up in the process.”
“What about all of the issues surrounding the quasi-Oedipus complex and the social implications therein?”
“I’ll admit I’m still working on that. Not so much in my own head, but how I’m gonna present that to the public. Press is waiting, you know.”
“And they would have gone to town with that pile of horseshit slathered on the front grill of your train.”
Doctor Roseanne was, for once, completely unsure about how to convince him not to be so reckless. She could only hope that Jade would shoot him down and make him see how unwise and childish it all was.
Even more so since she could see that the uncertainty of the situation was draining him, bit by bit, until he couldn’t take it anymore.
The chances of anyone winning in this situation were slim.
We are getting very close to the end! About one more part, I think!!! But any feedback is greatly appreciated so that I can make the ending the best it can be! Thank you for reading and commenting/giving kudos, everyone!
Also, I intentionally broke a rule of good storytelling here. Can you tell what it is????? XD
It was burning around her.
Tendrils of green flame gripped at her icy woods like angry hands trying to steal the color from the red flowers scattered among the trees and replace it with their own verdant shade. They were greedy and malicious and cared not for strategies and carefully tested theories; they were sheer chaos born unto the universe by the one power that time and space themselves feared and they and the one who started them was coming to get her just like they had come for her knitting Seer and her wind-up windy boy.
Although from her understanding, he was already there.
John had come to her planet after he had given Rose the tumor and scratched the disk in the time player’s realm and, after she had died and ascended and let the trolls enter the fenestrated wall she’d left for them along with detailed instructions on how to get to it, closing the path behind them and wishing them all the best, had stupidly thrown himself in front of Echidna as she furiously sprang forth from her sanctuary to curse Jade for breaking the deal she had made with her.
Her dependable John Egbert had died a hero and she avenged him by imprisoning her denizen in a tiny little bubble bent by her own space abilities- the very ones she was supposed to use to send Echidna to a reset and hopeful session now kept the beast trapped in the one she had wished to escape.
It would be foolish to kill Echidna when she still might know something useful about the game. Jade needed to keep all the leads she could, especially now that her Seer was gone, too.
Rose had been slain by the Draconian Dignitary. There was nobody in the nearby dreambubbles for her to call out to help her. The green sun was still created, though, as the Dersite moon had travelled on autopilot towards its destination and ultimately exploded.
She was alone here now and her pieces were gone. She was a lonely queen on the playing field and she wasn’t even sure if she should even try to play anymore- her king had been a chance at winning the game, and she felt in her heart of hearts that this was no longer a possibility. This was checkmate.
She could feel Lord English coming closer and closer- not so much a physical entity, but a surreal one that percolated through her scope of existence like the ghost of water through a field or the phantom pulsations from Noir’s red miles throughout the universe. This was new, and she tried to distract herself by uncovering why it was that she could feel his wake now, when she couldn’t before. Perhaps it was because she was now one with Becquerel, the first guardian and Lord English’s most direct tie to her Earth. Or perhaps it was simply because he was that potent in presence. Whatever the reason, it did not matter. Jade could feel him closing in and no matter how much she tried to run her mind in circles to distract herself (like a dog chasing its tail, she thought with bitter amusement), the reminder of her failure could not be ignored.
She thought that, with Noir out of the way, this session would still be functional because there was not an agent of destruction with the Universal Lord’s guardian powers and she would have all the time she needed to create and keep a universe of her choosing for she and her friends to live in together, free from the interference of the trolls. She hadn’t broken them, and therefore they could not be trusted to follow her plans.
But now she was stuck here without a reset and Lord English was still on his way and she knew not which direction he’d come at her.
(Subtle and insubstantial, the expert leaves no trace; divinely mysterious, he is inaudible. Thus he is master of his enemy's fate.
Lord English left no trace, trapping them all in an unseen web, while she and her army had traipsed about like a circus parade, practically announcing their idiocy by trumpet and kazoo.)
Although she wasn’t a destruction-worshipping Dersite, she was the first guardian now, technically, and that was all the game needed. Wherever she went, Lord English would follow.
She didn’t have the time to stop him, and she knew it.
What a fool she had been, thinking that she could tamper with such power- power beyond even a god- and win. No matter what she had learned or how well she had tailored her strategies, there were some things that she simply could not win.
She was a failure, and now she was alone. She brought John’s body to where Dave’s bullet-riddled one (that was another thing she had not predicted. Becquerel was so well-trained that even when distorted, he would still fetch. Perhaps there was such a thing as training something too well…) lay on the snow and sat between them both.
It was only fitting that she sit defeated and emotionally broken with the other things she had torn apart in an effort to make better. If nothing else, she could find false company in her misery.
As she wept, she bitterly thought of all the ways that she could stall or spite the destructive Lord English, or if she could find a way to salvage something, perhaps strike some kind of proverbial deal with the devil (how redundant- she was her own devil, now truly part-devilbeast, and she had made a hellish deal for everyone) instead of just roll over and die.
She may have been part dog, but she refused to roll over or call anyone “master”.
But her brainstorming fell short of her hopes and she just sat, covered in blood and snow, until a tiny voice cut through the harsh wind and icy silence of her land.
The tiniest angel, smaller than even a snowflake, landed on the bridge of her nose in an orange-yellow glow and flurry of tiny feathers and lifted her glasses off of her face.
How he did that with his small size and lacking strength, Jade wasn’t sure, but she returned her sprite friend to his normal size and he glided around her as he grew, his languid tail draping around her so the frigid air adopted a warm, sunny glow and blocked out the view of the dead around her.
He opened his mouth and his sunglasses did nothing to hide the defined lines on his face or the frown that would have delivered his words had Jade not thrown her arms around him and pulled him in.
He was a broken piece, too, but interestingly enough Jade was learning that he was the most useful to her in this moment, even though he could do absolutely nothing besides hold her in return.
He felt her and moaned at how much he liked the contact before he realized that he was awake now and she was within earshot. It took him a few more seconds to remember where he was and how he’d gotten there (he couldn’t even remember what he had been dreaming about when he had been asleep, to be honest, and dredging up his waking self’s itinerary was almost as impossible for his tired brain), and in the interim between his waking and his recall he had let out a garbled, “What are you doing?” and been rewarded with a barrage of kisses and soft petting.
“Noooo, go back to sleep. It’s just me,” Jade’s sweetly hushed voice cut through his mental fog. “C’mon, it was fun when you were my sleepy doll!” She kept up her soft handiwork and Dave was almost lulled back into sleep before his latent thought process registered what she’d said and what had happened.
“I’m a doll?” he questioned. “What th’ hell does that mean? Seriously, what were you doing?”
“Just playing with you, geez! Nothing prankstery.”
His eyebrows quirked up and his irises down to where Jade’s hand was absentmindedly strumming his lower stomach like it was a guitar. He did not know if he was upset because he apparently hadn’t been enough when he was awake and she was compensating or if he was just plain embarrassed that she had been doing that without his knowing. Either way, blood rose to his head in tandem with his temper and his mind reeled- it tried to make itself up and decide if it should make its master shout defensively at her or turn away in shame.
She derailed it with a roll of her eyes. “Not like that, Dave!”
Most of him needed no more convincing. Most of him. “Then like what.”
She shrugged, her pretty eyes widening and her full lips pulling themselves to the side in a goofy, carefree expression of uncertainty. “I dunno. Just touching you. Loving on you. ‘Cause I like you.”
His doubt had now completely changed to curiosity. “Your phrasing is still entirely incriminating,” he quipped. “I know you have this huge hankering for me, but you gotta realize that even someone as godly as me needs to sleep, and I sleep at the rightful, God-given time, unlike you, nocturnal devil woman,” he joked. “And it’s not polite to keep me from that just because you want me so badly.”
“Oh no, I’ve been found out.” She inclined her face closer and began to kiss up his neck to his ear, whispering all the way. “Yup, I’m a succubus and I have to seduce you a whole lot so I can drain you of your life energy, that’s me!” She felt his face grow warmer and she bit his ear for good measure, which made him shiver.
He tried not to sound as bashful and excited as he felt. “I guess you’ve got a bunch more times to go, then, if you’re going to drain me dry. Like a dog’s water bowl. I am refilled by the all-powerful and mysterious hand of the guy who brought you home from the pet store.”
She pulled back and looked into his eyes. “I think I’ll be sticking around for awhile and I’ll let you live, too. I don’t want you dead. ‘Cause if I did eat you, then I’d be lonely! And only female spiders are mean enough to kill and eat the people they love!”
“…You are the single suckiest succubus I’ve ever come across.”
“A Suck-ubus?” Jade tried.
“Fuck, I set myself up for that.” He lowered his eyelids, but she knew he thought it was funny. “You are so sucky that the vacuum cleaners just sit there in envy and think, “damn, if only I had the suction power of that devilbeast right there. Then I’d be home free for another six years before the family decides to junk me. June Cleaver taught my owners how to clean house good and it shot me to shit. And we’re not even gonna get in to the carpet’s issues.””
“That’s a really sad story! I feel bad for the vacuum cleaners.”
“It’s the saddest. You might be a suck-ubus, but I’m the raconteur of the saddest stories. It’s me.” He gave a cheeky grin. “But seriously, what were you doing?”
Pleasantly agitated, Jade thrust her hand into the air and then brought it back down on Dave’s stomach with a light, painless smacking sound. “I told you! Basically the same thing I’m doing right now, except without the emotional strain of listening to sad stories about vacuum cleaners.”
He knew that she knew (that he knew that she knew) that he was still too shy to start with the oral sex jokes even though he was dancing right at the cusp of making one, what with all the suction and vacuum cleaner references. He appreciated her not saying anything about it. (Had he not actually been in this stage of their relationship, though, or if they were a little further along, he would have had no hesitation because he liked to watch her laugh in embarrassment. It made her blush and then she became even prettier.)
“Okay, look. Why don’t you just show me while you explain and then we can stop going in circles upon circles upon circles here. I feel like that one poor normal guy who has walked into a classroom full of savants that excel at the one thing he flunked out of in college and has to sit there and just not understand a damn word being said in there, spinning ‘round in the rolling chair and wondering if he’s the true retard and the others aren’t.”
“Okay,” Jade said, sitting up. “But you’re about to feel even stupider when you realize that I was doing exactly what I said I was doing!”
He watched her face in the faded light as she let her fingers roam over him again and retraced her steps. Her eyes weren’t covered by her glasses anymore and they seemed to shine in the darkness like they were their own light sources, twin globes of comforting light set into her face. And even he had to smile a little as he watched her lips part as she got lost in the simple act of what she was doing, her teeth sitting on the inside edge of her bottom lip like she still had as bad of an overbite as she had in the pictures her family had shown him from her youth. While she looked the most distracted, he began to reach out to touch her hair- he loved her hair even though he always made fun of it- and see if she would say anything. He only needed to raise his hand a few inches to play with the tips of it and he brushed his fingers through the ends that had fallen from behind her shoulder and ended at her waist, winding some of it around his hands and using it to tickle her stomach.
Her lips closed and she smiled at the gesture. “I’m exploring you like you’re a mysterious, unexplored wilderness of a cool guy, like unknown tundra,” she said.
“I know you’re gonna say that that’s how cool I am, but naw, Jade, I’m more like a--”
“Taiga?” She offered, grinning widely. “No, you’re more like Arctic tundra with your coloring! And because,” she kept smiling and skipped ahead to where she reached his groin and hips, “A taiga is south of that tundra. And it’s like a big wintery forest.” She made sure to tickle him a little more than she had before, “so below this is more like taiga and I didn’t really go down there.”
He stiffened, anticipating. She laughed at him lightly. “I said I didn’t really go down there, you silly. I stopped here. But I guess your legs count as taiga, too.” Sneakily, her hands drifted over to the crook of his leg and hip and then down the inside. “And I went here.”
Anything he might have said had died in his throat and he realized that his heart had been beating much faster than it had been a few moments ago and wondered if Jade could feel it through her other hand as it travelled over his chest.
When she stopped moving over him he knew that she could at least sense his nerves, if not feel them. She gave him a moment to calm down, letting one palm sit on his shoulder and the other safely on his kneecap. “Do you get what I meant now?”
“Yeah.” He frowned a little as she pulled her hands away. “It felt good,” he said simply. “And I really…” the way he let his head slightly roll from side to side on his pillow was a good representation of how he was going back and forth about the best way to say what he felt. “I’m not mad you touched me, um, anywhere while I was asleep. I’d rather be awake if you,” he let the hand he had been using to rub Jade let go of her hair and trace down to her leg, “decided to do other things, but I wouldn’t be mad. Not that mad, probably. I kind of trust your judgment. I kind of trust you.”
“Just kind of?”
Even though his meaning had been clear, he was perturbed with himself for not just outright saying what he meant. (The coolkid way, while cool, was the coward’s way out.)
She felt bad when his eyes wilted a little even though it was obvious that she had been kidding. Her remedy for the situation was to straddle and kiss him anyway. “I trust you, too. And the touching thing applies to me, just the same as you said it!”
He propped himself up against the headboard, moving her with him, and ran a hand through her hair and rested it on her face. She kissed him again, longer this time, and smiled at him when she drew away.
“I don’t deserve it,” he blurted.
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
His big, tired eyes searched her face. “You. This.” He pressed his lips to hers and let their tongues touch. “That.”
“How do you figure?”
Hesitantly, he looked down and pursed his lips in thought. “You’re… beautiful and talented. And clever. And kind. You can go somewhere and just… belong there and I’ll just hold you back.”
She rolled her eyes. “Dave, you are being really stupid right now! How the hell have you held me back at all?” She pressed her forehead into his and kissed him again to make him be quiet.
Indulging himself as much as her, he returned it and they stayed like that for a few minutes, stopping only to take short breaths as they needed them.
“And that’s me being more selfish than I really should be. Like a fucking pariah to you,” he said, moving her away from him by her shoulders but gingerly rubbing them with his thumbs, like he didn’t actually want to push her away.
She quelched the urge to slap him and scold him for being unpleasantly self-depreciating and ruining what was supposed to be a really wonderful night- there was something he wanted to say but she needed to give him a little time before he could close the space between them and let his thoughts out.
Slowly, she removed herself from her place on top of him and sat next to him instead, smiling a little despite herself as he reached behind her and retrieved the blanket. He wrapped it back around her before he leaned back against the bed, keeping a soft grip on her hair with one hand and sliding his digits through it as his arm returned to his side.
She intercepted and caught his palm with her own and pulled it into her lap, rubbing the back of it in the same manner that he had been doing to her upper arms a moment ago.
“My mom was a party girl. She still kind of is- you’ve met her and you know that she likes booze so much that she could drink a whole bar full of heavyweights twice her size beneath the table,” he began.
“She’s always kind of been like that, but it was actually worse when she was younger. And she wants others to drink with her- she hates being alone and that’s most of the reason why she drinks. Loneliness. She had me be her drinking buddy starting at age seven with apple juice as my poison, and then at about twelve good ol’ AJ just became my chaser, on occasion. But that’s not the point.”
He shook his head and Jade scooted a little closer, sending her other hand back over his chest and body like earlier. He didn’t stop her.
“Mom went to a lot of parties as a kid and got completely shitfaced. Like, diarrhea-grade shitfaced. It was a wonder she never got raped or had a willing drunk hook up and got pregnant like that. Or even if she wasn’t so fucking plastered- she’s a charming lady all on her own, with a charming mask to put on during days when she isn’t feeling all that chipper.”
Again, Jade remained silent, but attentive.
“But I guess that’s where my father comes in.”
He says the word “father” like it isn’t the right word to convey what he feels for the man, but it’s the only one he has to use. Jade has never failed to notice this.
“Dirk was- and is- her best friend. And he was always the one that made sure she made it home safely. Which was sweet, I guess, and kept her from being knocked up any earlier than she was. But.” He grips Jade’s hand a little more tightly. One day, my mother was so lonely that her usually charismatic alcoholic-mask fits turned moody- or maybe for once she was actually sober and acting like it, I don’t know all the particulars and I don’t really fuckin’ want to- and, since she was around Dirk, one of the few people she could actually be herself around, openly suicidal. Apparently.”
Jade gripped his hand back and massaged his side.
“I don’t actually think she really would have offed herself, personally, ‘cause she’s better than that and had lots of close friends and hobbies and worked at charities and shit, but I think it freaked Dirk the hell out and made him feel extremely guilty because feeling emotionally isolated was the key to pretty much everything negative Mom feels. He and his protectiveness as her… as her best friend perpetuated her loneliness, see. And she liked him, but he didn’t… have feelings like that for her. But he loved her enough in a different way- enough that he would do anything for her if she needed him to.” Dave looked away. “Do you see what I’m getting at here? I was conceived as a pity baby between an emotionally vulnerable eighteen-year-old girl and her gay best friend.”
Comfortingly, Jade rubbed his hip, letting the pads of her fingers slide over the bones protruding there.
“And it’s true that she and Dirk, my father, the man she married, are still best friends and still love each other. But not like a husband and wife. They were both so goddamned lonely in their own ways- Mom expressed hers by drinking and talking it out- but since Dirk stayed in the closet, she couldn’t really tell anybody else what the real problem was, until she let it slip to me. And then, bam! I suddenly was put on the junior track to ruining my liver before I was even of legal drinking age, like I told you. And when she and Dirk were fighting- which was often, and usually over sexual frustration even though the thing they were talking about was something stupid, like, I dunno, the brand of spaghetti sauce Dirk had picked up for her for the store wasn’t the right one or something completely unrelated- I got to take his place as her confidante. In a lot of ways I was more her husband than Dirk was, and although I know- I know- he meant well and most of it really wasn’t his fault, I hold a lot of resentment towards him on behalf of my Mom, and then a little bit on account of just me. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.”
He took a deep breath and looked back at Jade, smiling a little and rubbing her hand as she steered her touch over his abdomen and then hiding the smile away. “But then things started to get better for them. Suddenly. It all started when Dirk met someone. Mom was actually really happy for him- and at the time, he was only seeing this dude as a friend, but Dirk had this inexplicable conviction that he had a chance. And you’ve seen the guy- when Dirk thinks he’s right, he fuckin’ thinks he’s right. Hell, he’ll change history around to make himself right. And that’s great. But then Mom started to feel a little jealous and she told Dirk that. And then he decided that it would be a good idea for her to meet this other guy? I dunno. It turned out to be the right answer in the long run? Who fucking knows what was going on in his head- sometimes I swear he can just pop it off his body and send it into some fuckin’ impossible dimension as if it’s a long lost Russian satellite complete with some foreign-grade weird-ass AI submerged in his eyeballs so it can gather all the insane ideas it does. Secrets of Sputnik revealed, right there.”
Jade allowed a chuckle to show that she was listening.
“Anyways. Mom met this guy and she fell for him too and became even more jealous of Dirk than she originally was, and then life was real shitty at the Strider household. But then,” he widened his eyes, “It maaaaagically got better. The at-the-time full collection of Harry Potter paraphernalia appeared at our house and cast some kind of happiness-spell on our proverbial cupboard under the stairs and we started acting like an actual family. Dirk got a brand-new toolbox that replaced the one I’d given him for Father’s Day and also worked to make our house a home in non-magical bullfuckery ways- he fixed up the cars, the plumbing, the lighting- he’s a real handyman, I’ll give him that- Mom was even pregnant again. And it was all thanks to them both meeting that one guy.”
Another little smile graced his face, but it was genuine and Jade suspected it had nothing to do with her hand on the crease of his leg. “My little sister was born. And Dirk and Mom both adored her. So did I. So do I, actually. The three of us towheads all fawning over this little baby girl with hair like dark chocolate.” His fond expression faded. “That man has dark hair.
That man. He is Jane’s father, not Dirk. But he is also seeing Dirk. So Dirk views Jane as a lovechild between himself and his boyfriend, even though Mom was the one who carried and had her- and I think he’s a little happy that his wife was in on it, but also not entirely? I’m not sure. He’s a man of many sides with many little splintered bits of himself fighting to all exist at once.”
With a deep exhalation, the admission of, “a lot like me,” floats through the room without ever being delved into. He doesn’t want to stay on that topic, so he doesn’t. Jade won’t make him.
“And Mom- she definitely sees her as a link between all three of them, like they all had her. It’s fucked up. It’s so fucked up. It works, I guess, but it’s still…”
His eyebrows furrow together and he loosens his grip on Jade’s hand, deep in thought, before he comes back to her like a submarine returning from the waters of his thoughts.
“Jane knows nothing. Yet. She’s met this guy- Mister English is what she and I call him, and he’s un-fucking hateable. You look at him and you think he isn’t real because he’s so genuine and interesting and kind even when he pulls total shit moves like bang your father and then turn right around and bang your Mom and be her baby daddy. And Jane- she’s turning twelve soon- I see the way she watches Mister English, and I know it’s just her precocious crush, just like I know that Dirk isn’t a terrible person, but it still makes me sick- that she’s enamored with the fucker, too. All of ‘em- they have a thing for this one dude and he’s serviced us all in some way- even me, ‘cause his mere existence fucks with my mind. But I don’t really hate him- I just can’t fully wrap my head around the situation. This is that kind of thing you see on reality TV where you say to yourself, “this is absolutely too fucked up to be anything less than real”, but it’s just so unreal that you have to just wonder about reality and how it works because an abomination like that situation actually happened in your living room, except in my case it isn’t filtered through glass screen. It actually happened and is happening in my actual fucking living room. God, I don’t like thinking about that.”
Jade didn’t know what to say, and it was just as well because Dave wasn’t finished.
“And like I said, Jane doesn’t know yet. But she isn’t stupid and she knows that she is completely unrelated to someone in our family and to some unknown dark-haired guy- a guy who she happens to have a thing for. You know part of the reason she was so excited to meet you?”
He looked at Jade and his adoring eyes are tempered by bitterness and they look a little redder than usual.
“Dark hair. She has been raised around all of us blondes and has some kind of mental block in her head that her dark hair is ugly because it makes her so different. You’re this amazing role model- sorry, she saw you, now you’re stuck with the label- and you look nothing like the rest of us. She used to want to be “pretty like Mommy” or “have straight, stylish light hair like Dad” and now she’s finally thinking that she can be beautiful just the way she is. Some kinda big new discovery, like the elusive Holy-damned-Grail, or some secret kept from her all these years. What a fucking joke- I’m the one who has always told her how much I love her dark hair and I tried to encourage her to not cut it short- but now that she’s older I may try to get her to keep it short because it’ll attract boys otherwise- not that I’m in love with my sister,” he shakes his head, “I just don’t want some asshole to be mean to her and try to take advantage of her. I’m the only guy allowed to be a douche to my little sis, and even then I shouldn’t be. But I’m not in this clusterfuck of a love triangle gone quasi-incestual- I’m not redefining the limits of love geometry. Fuck math and fuck that.
But I was the child that doesn’t belong. Mom loves me because I think she saw me as the silver lining to the initial situation- that I was someone who loved her and could talk to her and remind her that someone else had loved and wanted her enough to have a kid with her, but I was and am still a mistake. And I am pretty sure Dirk also views me as a mistake he’s simultaneously ashamed to have had made and also a wonderful experiment or something, like in a fuckin’ Dr. Frankenstein-finds-his-imperfect-attempt-at-re-animation-cool-but-a-disappointment way, and he doesn’t know how to treat me. So. Now pretend we’re doing those shitty guided reading questions out of a lit workbook and compare and contrast both of those attitudes with the ones they’ve got for Jane- Jane is, like, circumstantially perfect and addresses all the things that I just plain can’t and never will be able to for both Mom and Dirk.”
His chest heaves a few times- he’s worked up about this and letting it out creates anger as a byproduct- and Jade splays her fingers over his rapidly warming skin until his wrathful fever breaks and he cools down enough to keep going.
“And I don’t know what to do when the day comes when she starts asking about who her real parents are. You remember that cake we had at my birthday? I told you Jane made that and most of the food there- and I don’t mean she helped my Mom. Jane actually fucking did all that herself and she didn’t let me help her that day because she wanted it to be another present to me. I swear, she works as the female head of the house more than Mom now. Basically always has. And while Dirk dotes on her, he’s never really around to do things like pick her up from school or help with homework or take her to get clothes or a haircut or see a movie or whatever. And Mom absolutely loves doing those things with her, but she sometimes doesn’t always get to, either, because of her work- she and I mostly split the peanut-butter-Janey time between the two of us. And I feel sure when she starts wondering about parents, she’s going to eventually confront me ‘cause she knows the topic might hurt Mom and Dirk.”
He moves the hand that isn’t attached to hers and casts it over half of his face, like the blackness in his palm holds the answer to all his problems.
“I’m trouble,” he finally says. “I’m trouble because I don’t fucking belong anywhere. And it’s not right of me to displace you. Just not fair.”
So many thoughts are rushing through her head but she knows better than to voice any of them quite yet and they quiet down as she watches the muscles in his chest and neck clench and unclench, betraying the storm he’s trying to hide in his eyes. She gives him a few minutes, noticing how his hand hasn’t left hers even though he’s stopped gripping it as if to let her go. She stays.
“Life isn’t fair,” she says, leaning over him and moving his hands, and puts him in place with her body.
On New Years’ Eve, he stopped into the apartment between his visits to his friends’ various parties. Piper had asked that he bring his camera to take pictures of the festivities with and he had forgotten it but remembered it right after he had left Tulip Pyron’s house with Erivan in tow.
The two boys stepped in the doorway and Jade looked up from the couch. “Hey,” she said, turning down the volume on the New Year’s coverage that was playing on the television. “I thought you weren’t gonna be home until reeeeeaaaally late tonight- or early in the morning, I guess,” she said.
“And I thought you were going to Teresa’s, young lady. What do you think you are doing staying in like a good girl and not partying? You should be ashamed of yourself!” Dave mocked, ducking into his room and rifling around for his camera.
Erivan nodded at her and smiled. “We’re about to go to a different party,” he said. “Just stoppin’ in for a moment.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. The way her smile faded around the edges also applied to her voice and Dave noticed while Erivan kept his own expression pleasant and cheerful, like some kind of gleeful poker face. “Teresa couldn’t come tonight. So it’s just me, livin’ it up with all of NYC vicariously in my living room!”
Dave found his camera and ambled into the room as he kept up an air of nonchalance whilst checking that it had batteries and then some extras stuffed in the case. “Wow. That’s so amazing. Like, you’ve just outranked me in terms of cool. I’ll bet my friends would be so psyched if you and your totally rad ways came and partied with us instead.”
Amused, she leaned on the back of the couch with her arms draped over it so they broke up the dated pattern of flowers and greenery like twin patches of unseasonable snow. “As much as I am flattered by the invitation, I don’t think I’m going to go. But tell Piper and Roxi I said “hi” if you see them. And if you stop by to see Zacharias, tell him and Kitty I said “hi”, too!”
“Why don’t you come and tell them yourself?”
She rolled her eyes. “Dave, I’m considerably older than you and even though I like all of your friends, I don’t think that they’d be too thrilled to have an “adult” enter their New Year’s party space. Also,” she gestured to the table in front of her, which neither Dave nor Erivan could clearly see, “I’m kind of set right here.” She held up a bottle of alcohol for clarification and took a sip. “See? I couldn’t drive if I wanted to.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll be the DD,” Dave said. “Dave the DD.”
“Triple D’s,” Erivan nodded.
Jade snickered. “Like AAA, except for alcohol?”
“That’s very nice of both of you, but I’m fine. You guys get going- you’ve only got two hours to party before the New Year starts!” She turned her attention back to the television and turned the volume back up.
Expectantly, Erivan turned to Dave, who had pulled his mouth into a distinct line of displeasure along with his eyebrows as he kept his eyes on the back of the couch as if he could see through it to Jade’s supine form. He handed Erivan the keys to the car and the camera and shooed him out the door.
It was too bad- he had dressed up to go to Piper’s party (“ironically”, since the party was casual dress) and visiting the dry cleaner’s was not exactly something he enjoyed doing; now he was voluntarily staying at home and had blown his cash to look nice in a suit for no good reason.
He wordlessly sat down on the couch next to Jade’s curled-up body on the couch. She looked over at him. “I thought you were going with Erivan to Piper’s.”
“Changed my mind.”
“Dave, you don’t have to stay with me. I’ll be fine! I’m a big girl and I can stay at home by myself.”
“Get out of here and go to your party.”
“Don’t want to.”
“What could possibly be here that would entice you to stay and not hang out with your friends? And don’t give me any bullshit about “I don’t want you to be alone on New Year’s” because I told you, I WILL BE FINE!!!”
Furtively, he glanced at her and muttered “It’s not bullshit” before he snatched the package of Twizzlers (intended for Teresa, he was sure) from the couch pillow propped in front of and under Jade’s chest and started to munch on them. “I stayed for the food. Piper doesn’t have gourmet cuisine like this, no siree.”
“Dave,” she growled, staring at him.
She narrowed her eyes.
“No, see, you’re supposed to say my name again. So then I can say “what” like a call-and-reply. That’s how this game works.”
“There we go! You’re gettin’ it! Now it’s my turn,” He noshed on the red licorice. “What?”
“I don’t need you to feel sorry for me!” She shouted, sitting up.
“And I don’t need you shouting over this class-A entertainment comin’ at us live from the Big Apple. I stayed here because I wanted to, okay? And Erivan already left to go to Piper’s and he took the car, so you are stuck with me.”
“…You let Erivan take my car?”
“He’ll bring it back. I promise. He always does, and he usually fills it with gas, too.”
“YOU’VE DONE THIS BEFORE?”
“YOU—MY CAR--!” her hair visibly bristled and Dave eyed her menacingly cupped hands with a smug face until she found that she really couldn’t be all that mad at him. “Irresponsible dipshit,” she said.
“But I’m cleaning up my act,” he told her, gesturing at her with the carmine candy. “I’m being a good boy and staying in rather than partying with scary things like alcohol and loud music and that horror of horrors, that ultimate vice, people my own age.”
“You’re not funny.”
“Oh, I think you are mistaken, miss,” he replied.
She sighed and leaned back on the couch as she took another sip of her beer. “Ugh, you’re right,” she said with a giggle. “I hate it when you do that.”
“Really? Guess I’ll have to do it more often.”
He laughed quietly and alternated his attention in frequent intervals from the television to her as she downed more and more liquor as the night went on. She offered him some, but he had a feeling that at least one of them needed to be able to get up in the morning and make coffee for the other, so he didn’t have very much.
“Hey Dave?” she suddenly said during a particularly scantily-clad pop singer’s act.
“Yeah?” he said, squelching any jokes he had been cooking up regarding elongated nipples and icicles and the silicon from artificial breasts.
“Thank you for staying with me,” she said. “You really didn’t have to.”
“I wanted to,” he said, propping his feet on the table. “It was no problem.”
As a girl from England, Jade hadn’t really ever experienced anything like the humid, all-consuming and constant summer heat of the American South, especially since it carried over through most of the fall. Her cousin Jake was much more acclimatized and he liked to laugh at her whenever she marveled at the warm sunshine and long days when he took her on rides using his bicycle, with her on the handlebars like the land-bound and enchanting siren on the prow of a Viking’s ship.
She and Jake had twin smiles as they rode beneath the fall leaves and the specks of sunlight sparkled down at them like the sky was a great canopy of red and yellow and fading green dusted in thick patches with whitish-golden glitter.
One day, Jake decided to take her to his work and show her the birds he took care of. Jade loved animals- she had a dog back home and often volunteered to work with animals there, so he saw no reason to keep her from his feathered friends.
She gasped in awe at the hawks and the one eagle they’d acquired, and she fell in love with Gamzy, their resident pet “clownfish” (actually just a goldfish- it was a present from Jake to Dave that spouted from an inside joke). The astounded face she made at the ostrich was infectious and Jake even let her feed him because they were both so calm around one another.
Still grinning, Jake had to coax her back into the office so they could get home before dinner.
“What’s in the back?” she said, pointing at the little room where the crow was kept.
“Ah. Yes. I suppose I should show you them, too.” Jake took his keys and shimmied around his cousin and the cramped desk before he turned the lock and opened the door. “One of them’s a tad bit, erm, cagey, so he may not be so jolly jippered to see you.”
“You come up with the funniest words, Jake!”
“I take that as a compliment. One has to have a cracking mind to be able to coin words and phrases, you know.”
She chuckled and he held the door open for her.
First she waved at Dirk the seagull and laughed as he tilted his head to and fro at her before she moved on to the second occupied cage.
Quietly, she knelt down in front of the cage and peered in. “Hello,” she said, and it glowered back at her.
“He’s the last survivor from his murder- his flock, y’see, a group of crows is called a murder- and we actually just got him the day you flew in.”
“So you don’t trust anyone here yet, huh?” she said to it.
“Not a dad-gum bit.” His thoughts turned to Dirk and his earlier mood wavered. “And since he’s quite wild, I’m not sure he ever will, to be honest.”
“That might be a good thing, actually,” she said. “But you are the bird expert, so I’m sure you will do whatever is right.”
“Actually, Dave is normally the one to deal with him. Take him for bird-walkies and what have you, so he’d probably be the better one to ask about this bloke’s personality and needs.”
“Oh, yes, my boss. I suppose he is technically my boss, although I don’t think of him as such.”
“Oh, him! Right, you told me about Mister Zachary.”
“You make right sure you don’t call him by that, though.”
“Is he trying to make himself out to be younger?”
“Oh, no, not really. He’s not much older than us, to be quite honest. It’s the “Zachary” part that’ll make him want to tell you to sod off.” Jake grinned. “I call him that because I like to watch him get his knickers all a-tangle. Perhaps you should call him “Zachary”, on second thought. He shan’t be as rude to you, being my cousin and all, and I will get to watch him bristle and bitch on the inside for sport!”
“Jake! I don’t want to make him miffed.”
“Oh, but it’s great fun, Jade. Not that it matters, as I doubt you’ll see him.”
“Ah.” She watched the crow some more before she stood up and turned to go.
Suddenly, she stopped and inclined her head towards the window that looked out upon the enclosure where the raptors flew. “Jake, is that him?”
Jake turned to look. “Hm?”
The shock of blonde hair stuck out from the rest of the green-yellow scenery and the fallen carpet of dead, brown leaves at his feet and stuck to his jeans.
“Why, yes, it is. I wonder why he is here now?”
But as soon as Jake got a better look at him, he knew exactly why. Dave stood parallel to the window and with his eyes firmly planted on the trees and sky above him, examining the patterns in the giant patchwork quilt of multicolored leaves that hung there. Jake knew from his expression that his thoughts were actually far beyond the atmosphere in his line of sight- slightly parted lips, melancholic air, unguarded sadness in his eyes- he could get like this sometimes, stuck in a waking dream that he either wasn’t ready to wake up from or wasn’t able to wake up from. Jake wasn’t sure which it was and Dave never liked to talk all that much when he was in one of his moods, despite the fact that he loved to talk at any other time. But the sanctuary was the place he went when he wanted to escape, so Jake had frequently seen him hanging around when he wasn’t necessarily needed.
Jake had always found it ironic that when Dave felt most trapped by the world around him, he retreated into a cage as an escape.
Beside him, Jade was watching Dave with her own face a mirror of his pensive one. “I didn’t expect him to be so gloomy,” she finally uttered.
Gloomy- he'd never thought of it like that, but it was true. Dave could smile and laugh and joke and be angry- he was a giant burning ball of emotion sometimes- but when it came right down to it, Dave could simply be gloomy.
Jake shrugged. “He doesn’t act such a downer, usually. But really, when it happens, I never expect it, either.
“So I think,” she began, “that he is well-suited to care for this bird.”
“Because they already seem so similar, from what I can tell.”
Jake considered it with some surprise. “Indeed,” he finally said, astounded.
Then he turned back to watch her watch him through the window, like it were an unbreakable wall between them all when in truth it was only his own oppressive air that was keeping them all separated.
Dave had a pattern, Jade had noticed. But he had many patterns- distinct ones- for just about everything he did, like his circadian rhythm controlled more than just his sleep cycle and instead kept his internal clocks going to command his whole existence.
She frequently joked about it and called it his “man-period”, to which he would act suitably offended, but they both knew that their lighthearted treatment of his moods made them all the more manageable and not something he needed to make a big secret of. It was better that way.
When he was happy, he would walk in like he owned the place and give affection freely, sometimes playfully persistently, frequently without any kind of warning. His personal public display of affection rules became a little more flexible and he would hold her hand or sneak kisses as they were out and Jade could plan on not getting much work done on those days because he would either be bothering her while she tried to or convincing her to stay home that day through various forms of persuasion- breakfast, a fun daytrip, movies, and somewhere in there would always be his advances. Those were his biggest tells. When he felt like he was on top of the world, he liked to make her stop what she was doing and rain down kisses and caresses on her. On those days she felt like a spoiled princess.
Next, anger usually came because something had come up despite his mood’s scheduled swings and disturbed his cheerful scope of existence- this almost always happened every second Tuesday, when Mister English came to visit, or when his sister was upset over something, if a teacher had pissed him off, or when his father was around him for more than four hours at a time and the two of them were both awake. That happened every Saturday and Sunday that Dave did not spend the weekend at Jade’s or out with his friends, Teresa, his sister, or his Mom. He would come in, ornery air about him, and sulk on the couch or some other unoccupied space and rudely reply to anything anyone said or did. Eventually, he would reach his boiling point and spill his thoughts as well as an apology, at which point Jade would either sympathize with him or initiate contact- this was very important, that she let him know everything was forgiven- and usually be on the receiving end of a very aggressive kiss and a shove against a wall or table or couch- which was fun, sometimes, and she humored him- until she turned it around on him and dispelled his tension.
From there, he would settle down into sadness. That was his reset. It didn’t always last very long and it wasn’t always very much, but when he was truly upset he drowned in it quietly- he didn’t know how to actively call for help so she always had to watch and make sure he didn’t let his head go under.
Affection, she knew, made him feel like he was worth someone else’s time, so she poured it on him then and gave him all that she could- fresh water to wash away the stinging salt.
Affection and attention were the things he really wanted, after all, so she always tried to give him all she could when he most needed it. He was at his weakest then and that was her opportunity to either make or break him.
And when she was also feeling blue, she would hear her ex-aunt Verissa laughing quietly in the back of her mind, her past reaching her from the cobwebs of her mind, asking her, “It isn’t easy, being so strong, is it?”
Jade would hold him tighter then and he would return the favor, keeping her even closer and whispering into her ear and being a shoulder to lean on when she didn’t have it in her to give him everything she wanted to.
Although just the fact that she was there at all was more than enough, and so he didn’t mind that much.
He liked the feeling of simply being wanted and needed, so it all worked out in the end, she figured.
“My other self will find you. He has a dreamself alive, still. He can fix this if you help him.”
“What about you?”
She can feel his heart breaking as she buries her face into his chest. “If I can help you guys un-fuck up, it’ll be fine,” he says.
She cannot tell if he is completely lying, but she does know that he will be martyred somehow and win nothing in their final campaign. It’s almost stupid how much she took from him- no, that isn’t right- how much he has allowed her to take from him.
Suddenly, she sees them looking out at her from a paper card, Davesprite upside-down like the Tarot’s hanged man and Dave above him and oriented upright like a king’s bust. The sword in her fallen angel’s midsection relocated to his head and his human counterpart’s mirrored it like a macabre salute.
Hearts, a class ruled by emotion. This was the weakness that she had exploited, and this was the action she regretted most. Likewise, he would bleed the most.
It was admittedly pitiful to watch.
She had to admire him, how he feared and cried and was sent to his knees but never surrendered even when his precious masks were stripped from him and he was left cowering and defenseless at the hands of his worst nightmares and his most beloved friends alike.
When she sees him next, the sight breaks her heart.
Dave had long since taken off his suit jacket and loosened his tie so that it was easier for him to lounge about on the couch with Jade, but as the night wore on he was finding it harder and harder to get comfortable. It was simple- he just wanted to tell her that he loved her and then have them both go to bed and act like it had never happened.
Well, he wanted something a little different from that, but he was taking that to be the worst case scenario and he still considered it to be a pretty good scenario, overall.
And although her intoxication would make the probability of her remembering Dave nonchalantly telling her something potentially appalling decrease dramatically, he was still a little concerned as to why she was being so reckless. Jade was not a heavy drinker- she simply wasn’t.
She liked being able to just endlessly and quickly think and analyze everything, and the feeling of being in a consumable depressant’s haze wasn’t something she particularly enjoyed.
“So what’s with all the booze here, anyway?”
“Oh…” she said, taking another sip, “It was for me n’ Teresa to play a drinking game with every time th’ announcers announced th’ year, but Teresa isn’t here, so it’s all for you n’ me now, I guess!”
“Wow. That’s, like, a completely guaranteed way to get one-hundred-and-Fitty per-Cent wasted.”
“Mmmyep. But I figure it’s New Years and I can do that in my own house if I damned well please! ‘Mnot hurtin’ anything.”
“Yeah, except your fuckin’ organs or mental capacities. There’s like a horror film goin’ down in your insides, Night of the Pickled Liver, and it’s gonna be a total fake-out at the end where you think the black guy’s gonna live but –hup! No, damn, everything suddenly became a comment on racism and he gets shot by the white guy.”
“I didn’t follow any of that ‘cept the part about livers and maybe zombies? Is that what this is?”
“Impressively close for a chick who’s about to live up to the reputation of that one song by Ke$ha.”
She laughed. “No’m not.”
They sat and watched the time tick down before the ball dropped in silence for a while.
After a moment, she turned down the television volume so that the roar of the crowd was background noise. “I’m drinkin’ b’cause th’ other day Doctor Valonde and I discussed how you’d prob’ly be movin’ out.”
The mention of the doctor’s name drudged up an image of her in Dave’s mind and her warning looks bore into him through the little bubble with his memory and she reminded him that his aim was to tell Jade and then work past it, not work with it.
Let her know, then let go. That became a mantra.
“I’m not exactly helpless without’cha, but it’s just a sad thing to think about,” she said. “I got used to you, ‘n I don’t really have a big support group of people who’re always around anymore, you know? College happened and then my parents’ issues happened and then it was me n’ Kankarri, n’ the shop. An’ when you showed up, I was real nervous but real happy, too, because I like you an’ you’re you- the special you that gave me his favorite book.” She leaned on his shoulder. “I know you going is a loooooong way off, but I just felt really sad and figured that just this once, I could try ‘ta forget all that so I don’t bring it into the New Year! It’s kinda fun, actually, but I know I’ll prob’ly regret it in the morning. Heh heh!”
The crowd began to grow louder through the television.
Jade sat up to face him and ran a hand through his hair. “I love you, ‘n I’ll be sad when you’re gone.”
He saw her sad smile and the world around him began to cover over Doctor Valonde’s words.
“Are you okay?”
Doctor Valonde’s stern look and wise words were getting hazier and hazier, like the memory of a memory that could just glide away with a slight breeze.
Time felt like it was getting slower and he could feel her breath blowing softly onto his face.
It dragged on like an exhausted runner trying to sprint underwater, like they were drowning in an unseen sea.
TH R E E !
T W O !
O N E !
Erivan hadn’t even waited when he had gotten to the car. He had been expecting this, actually, because he had planned on it.
Kitty was painfully shy and now she was having her own little party with Zacharias and her mother and Erivan, ever clever, had gotten tickets from his older sister Porram to a special New Year’s Eve performance by a group Teresa really liked.
And then he had his sometimes-friend Miss Veronica Serket, who was attending the same concert, call someone to tow Teresa’s car.
She wouldn’t have to pay for the car, of course. Erivan had given Veronica not only her own tickets to the shindig, but an incentive on top of the money to be used for towing.
He’d paid her for her favor. She’d do it.
From his perspective, he’d gotten Kitty and Zacharias a fun New Year’s, let Teresa go to a concert she really wanted to go to for free, and ensured that Dave had some time with the person he’d fallen in love with.
And having them both off of his case so he could talk with Piper was an added bonus.
He kissed her twice before reality came back and time finally felt like it was ticking away again.
H A P P Y N E W Y E AR!!!!!!
The roaring crowd, although soft, came back to his ears along with the fanfare that rang in the culmination of the celebration. He realized what was happening and left her on the couch and went into his room before anything else happened.
He had kissed her twice, and it took him a few minutes to fully register what he had just done. He closed the door.
He had kissed her twice and told her he loved her. Shakily, he walked over to his bed and sank down onto it.
The first one had been the real folly. She had smiled and opened her mouth to wish him a Happy New Year and moved in to kiss him on the cheek, but he had put his hands around her waist and moved in before she could, using those blasted words as his opening and gently invading- she had been too surprised for there to be a need for anything else.
Then he had pulled away, taken a breath, and kissed her again on just her lips- no tongue, no teeth, just a press of the lips, said, “I love you,” and then been spooked by the sounds of reality.
He decided that the best thing for him to do was to just go to sleep and not think about it right now.
Outside, Jade heard the thud of his shoes as he threw them against his closed door.
This is the end.
Thank you so much, all of you who read this all the way to the end.
There will be a slightly more optimistic extra for those of you who suddenly decide that you hate how the ending is.
Again, thank you so, so much for reading.
She appeared as an apparition in the already darkened doorway, wearing the shadows like a hood. He could feel her eyes on him but he couldn’t read her expression and as desperate as he was to unmask the mystery of her unseen face, her shrouded stare transfixed him and the lamp on the bedside table was naught but a stranger worlds away.
Ebony darkness crept closer in an off-balanced march, an embodiment of uncertainty.
He wanted to scream and run and hide, hide in her arms, push her away, pull her to him, let her tell him that she hated him, that she loved him, that she never wanted to see him again, that she always wanted him there with her no matter what, tell him to move out, move with him to his bed, leave, stay, say that this was all wrong, say that this was all right and smile, kiss him, slap him, touch him--
He was afraid- always had been afraid- of the unknown.
He wanted to not be afraid anymore and that was the only thing he was certain of.
An icy silence fell over him as he watched the shadows move.
He wondered if the unknown could be afraid, too.
A young boy floated down through the ocean of stars, dodging the flotsam and jetsam of planets and asteroids as he made his way along the blackened cosmos and wove around the red tendrils that coursed through it in a hateful fisherman’s net hell-bent on ensnaring him.
He was small and quick as a dreamer, much like he was when he was awake and aware. Except instead of being a pampered caged bird, he was a loose and elusive creature on a mission like a tired blackbird desperately searching for his ark.
There wasn’t anywhere else he could very well go.
Finally, he saw it on the horizon that encompassed everything- at first, it was a tiny white speck that reflected and refracted the glow of the miles of red on and around it, giving it an ominous and bloody halo like a red ring of death. (He had to force a smile at that- SBURB was a video game, after all, so it only made sense that at the end of the universe a bright red ring marked their doom as they burned. They were insignificant dust and they had ruined their own system, and now they were going to crash it.) It grew bigger and brighter as he drew nearer and the sense of dread in his stomach followed suit.
He encroached upon the border between sea-space and ice-land felt himself crashing when the gravity claimed him- apparently a dreamself can tire until it can’t stay afloat in the air anymore- and he landed in a pile of sunglasses and snow and child and Derse purple before he shakily got to his feet.
(And still, how ironic it was that everything was burning.)
The Land of Frost and Frogs and Fucking Freezing Farenheits was disturbingly green rather than red like its outer glow. The tendrils of the miles Dave had dodged earlier and the tongues of lime and neon flame he found on the ice fought with and for one another as if the two were the top and lower teeth set in the uneven jaws of a monster’s maw as it greedily tried to devour everything.
It was poetic and odd, but most of all it was a distraction that he had to cast away. There was someone he had to find and he had to find her as soon as possible. Tiredly, he half-levitated and half-walked across the alabaster terrain.
He knew all too well about his time constraints, even if he could only feel them rather than know them absolutely and by number. And for Dave, that was just as well- time was all relative, anyway- a thing he could feel now and measure later if he must. It was something he could hold in his hands and wield as if it were physical, as if it were something that he could control.
Oh, yes. Time was a controllable entity and he needed that control. It was power- and not just anyone’s power- it was his bailiwick and he was drunk on the authorities it gave him. This was the escape of a creature who had been kept under someone's thumb and never allowed to do as he pleased. He had been, after all, a puppet molded and strung up by his brother, kept in a tower and monitored all of his life. Without power, he became terrified by his own uselessness and inadequacy, terrified that one day he would be abandoned and forgotten with nothing to live for.
He needed the security of having something to reign over and use as he wished. (Lesser men would reach for things they couldn’t fully grasp, wildly trying to crush everything around them to try and support themselves. Dave was unusual in that he had internalized the consequences of what it meant to be beaten into submission and thus recognized the world around him- the big, great, mysterious, terrifying world- as outside of his dominion. He could only manipulate the things he wasn’t afraid of, the things he could understand, so that he too was protected from the things he couldn’t control. It was unusual, how he sought his power and security, because Dave instinctively knew not only time but the human heart; he used it to make others use him- the thing he called love his guardian would have called ruthless strategy had the elder been aware of what his charge was capable of. Dave needed to be controlled just as much as he needed control and he knew it. Indeed, security and power were nearly the same thing to him even if he did not actively realize it.)
Dreams were frightening, too- Derse showed him little glimpses of disaster with no real beginning or end, just the certainty that he would die and the future was bleak.
But like a sudden sunburst, Jade had entered his life and told him that this was not so. She had praised him and put some faith in him- given him some power to choose, and made unknowns seem like an adventure made up of good with only spots of bad speckled over it the way a pen splatters its ink when writing script.
He would follow her forever, even if the demon of hope she’d released into his heart was his undoing. He would do it because he needed the illusion that he might have the power to save her, a fabrication Jade herself had made.
But perhaps it wasn’t an illusion. Dave would have liked to think so- that maybe he actually had some independent worth. (The broken bird had a small self-confidence, like a tiny and weak candle that he guarded under a bushel because he was too afraid to let it shine in fear of it being blown out. But he had it and she had lit it, and that was something.)
Once, he’d had a vision on Derse many years ago of a girl covered in blood and dirt looking up at him with a bruised face and hopeless eyes like she couldn’t fully comprehend that he was there and that he had come after her. His memory was known to be spotty, but he could recall that image in an instant because it broke his heart- of all the things that Jade had made him optimistic about possibly avoiding (time could be changed, he knew), that forlorn face was among the first things that sprang to mind. He thought he could do that.
And when he found Jade, covered in her friend’s blood and broken and battered and looking at him like she didn’t believe he could exist here or at all, puzzling out apologies and tears and lamentations and just unable to find the words to express how much she has lost in return for unforgiving, hateful, bitter, and destructively useless knowledge that he had been shown in lieu of a dreamtime story all of his life-things he could have told her had he not been so damned hopeful, he felt it shatter as a big black hole in his insides opened up.
Gently, he leaned over and held out a hand. He felt soft words escape his lips.
She just stared at him with that stunned and hurt expression until he couldn’t take it anymore.
When he finally kneeled down and pulled her into his arms, it was for him as much as for her, as were the words that continued to eke out past his lips- he whispered anything and everything that he thought sounded comforting into her ear, a great scheme of pretend designed to keep her from watching him struggle to keep his shattered mask upon his face. She was a fortress in the barren landscape, in the barren session, and he clung to her.
And to think, he so stupidly thought he might actually be able to protect her.
“What is it, you mouthy child? Can you not see that I have had a hard day already, conversing with that idiotic boll of cotton fluff? I could swear that the stuff on his head is naught but the stuff within his head spilling out and flying away with the wind because even something so inconsequential felt much too important to be so insulted as to stay within the thick prison of his skull!”
“Daa-daa-jee, I only wanted to know what convinced you to think it was a good idea to let Dave stay with me.”
“Are you having doubts, child?”
She looked down at her hands, puzzled, and then at her elder’s wrinkled leather face. “No, actually. And that is what’s so weird.”
“Well, whatever. It is your own matter and you seemed confident. That was good enough for me and I thought it would get the rest of the family to stop flapping their lips and making the raspberry noise your baby cousins make before they spray spittle and half-eaten baby food everywhere.”
“Augh, I see that I am in for another headache. Alright, so be it, I consented because he asked me to.”
“Must I repeat myself? He came to me, told me that he wanted to be with you, and was so persistent and set on it that I threw my better judgment to the wind to follow my long-lost sanity and consented.” He arched a wiry white brow and pointed a thick, gnarled finger. “I am not so stupid as to pretend that he would not have followed you anyway, no matter what I said. I am much too old to even try to be the sole voice of reason in this family anymore, so I refrained.”
“Are you saying that you don’t think I can take care of him?”
“No. I know full well that you will have his best interests at heart.”
“I don’t think I understand, Daa-daa-jee.”
The old man’s palm met his face and he uttered a few curses in his mother tongue. “I will never fathom how innocence and obliviousness is seen as charming when it is so damned infuriating. If you cannot figure it out on your own, my explaining it to you will be as successful as an army of Kshatriyas attempting to stave off barbarians using only women’s undergarments.”
“This entire conversation is amounting to something totally useless and mean!”
Daa-daa-jee’s tensed posture slumped into his armchair and he moved his cane from his leg to rest on the side of the upholstery before gathering himself forward to speak with his great granddaughter in a softer voice. “My Jade. My beautiful and clever Jade. It is wrong of me to speak with you so harshly simply because I am worried and you are as uninhibited as a dove in the air on the plains. But know this- I am old and I have seen many unusual and impossible things.” He reached out to take her hand. “Most of all, I am old enough to worry. I was born old enough to worry whereas my brethren grew into it over time, and of all of the things I have ever had to worry about, you were never so burdensome. But now, in this new chapter of your life, I feel I must fret over both you, my most obstinate jewel, and him, my most obstinate idiot. I love you dearly, truly, and I will love both of you no matter what. You must never forget that.”
“I know, Daa-daa-jee.”
“And I am glad for that. I am only sorry that I am so abrasive when I fret. I do not know what the future will hold for the two of you, but I have enough optimism within my embittered old shell to hope for happiness.”
She smiled and rubbed his hand. “Oh, Daa-daa-jee, I’m sorry I got mad at you, too. You really are worried- you make it sound like you are giving me away or something!”
Sudenly, old Karkata Vantas’ weathered face crumbled. “Oh, Jade,” he cried. “I am so afraid for you!”
Quickly, the girl put her arms around him as if he were a baby instead of a grown man over four times her age. “We’ll be fine,” she shushed him. “And if we need any help, I’m sure the rest of the family will look out for us. So don’t worry so much, okay? We can do this!” She squeezed him tighter as he sniffed. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
The old man had so many things he wanted to say, but he could only sob into his child’s arms.
Marriage. What a thing for her to mention now!
When Karkata was her age, matches were not made out of love. Girls and boys were paired according to social standing and dowries and the bride was sent away to live with the groom’s family, which traditionalists argued was much better than letting young, naïve children traipse into the clutches of disaster and immature mistakes.
In truth, he wished that he could take their destinies into his own hands and mold his two darling children into perfectly and assuredly happy lives, free from the trouble they were unknowingly wandering into.
But he knew that his forced interaction might make them miserable.
And he also knew (or at least felt, in more ways than he could explain) that somehow his influence had lead both of them to this path, that he had somehow led Dave to Jade.
It was time he let his children be without him.
She stood next to him and he could feel her eyes boring into his with a choir of accusing voices barely contained within.
“I-I’m sorry,” he choked. “I’m so sorry.”
Her presence was oppressive and kept him rooted to the spot. Her stare was all of gravity hitting him all at once, and his body felt heavy but his head felt like a balloon.
“How long?” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he reiterated, stuck on repeat.
“Dave.” The back of her throat made his name rough. “How long. Tell me.”
Cowardice winning, he covered his face in his hands. “I’m so sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
“You all thought I would figure it out. But I didn’t want to, so I didn’t and this is what I get for it. How long?”
Her voice was a hiss. “How long?”
Dave took a deep breath and moved his hands to his hair, but still kept his face down.
Jade grabbed his wrist, the static from the contact emphasizing her mood. “Answer me.”
They should not be talking about this now. He was not ready and she was in no state to.
But the voice of reason shrank in the back of his chest as slivers of acid green peered at him through the shadows, her glasses forgotten on the coffee table by the champagne and vodka and Coke.
“You stupid boy. Just tell me. It doesn’t matter anymore.” She took another uneven step closer, her gait being the only obvious tell besides the scent on her breath that she was drunk. She’d reached the point of abnormally clear articulation.
“I’m sorry,” he panicked, reaching out to grab her shoulder to ensure that she wouldn’t fall.
She snatched his supporting hand away from her and leaned on his bed, effectively forcing herself into his space. “Is that all you can say anymore?!”
He frowned, a mix between a grimace and a mournful countenance.
“Was it--” she halted in her speech as her uneven breath caught back up, “--was it when you stopped flirting with Roxi?”
His face did not change.
“Was it when you started High School?”
He clenched his hostage fists.
“Was it when you first moved in with me for good? Tell me, Dave!”
Still, he said nothing.
“God dammit, Dave, stop acting like this!” Her voice rose and she shook his arms in anger.
His silence was cut short by her invading his personal space.
She forced him down onto the bed, hands by his head and wrists still clamped by her fingers. “Tell me,” she threatened. “Because believe me, it’s crueler that you have boxed me in all these years and never said anything while I did my best to look out for you, worry about you, and let you feel at home than it is for me to, I dunno, confront you about some issues instead of being a fucking coward!” She was much stronger now that she was shouting and rooted on his mattress rather than ambling on unsteady legs.
“Jade, I never wanted to--”
“SHUT UP!” she screeched. “Just tell me how long I was left to be fucking oblivious. Then tell me how long you planned on letting me whittle away my time looking after you because I thought you were either gay or scared or mentally troubled or terminally ill or some combination! But NO! Your big issue was that apparently you think you are in love with me! Oh, poor Dave,” she mocked, her voice intentionally growing deeper in caricature, “I’m a stupid teenaged boy with hormones and I can make Jade go back and forth and juggle absurd amounts of fear and stress and leave her in the dark while she still tries to act positively all because I’m too motherfuckin’ chicken to let her know that I’m feelin’ some sexual tension like the tautness in the Terminator’s ass muscles even though I know GOOD and WELL that I could have just TOLD HER and worked through it together and made EVERYTHING SO MUCH EASIER on EVERYONE!!”
Heartbrokenly, he watched her shoulders shake. He couldn’t force words out past the lump in his throat.
“So you don’t even trust me enough to just tell me something so simple. I’ve given up a lot for you, you know. Was it not enough? Did I do something to make you not trust me?” She inhaled shakily. “But that’s fine. It’s just fine.” Her hands relaxed their grip on him and rested there weakly.
Dave watched her as she cried and felt powerless. The only person he had to hate in this equation was himself.
“I’ll bet Doctor Valonde and Teresa only wanted to protect your privacy and help you tell me yourself. I’m sorry. Whatever it was I did to make you so intimidated, I’m so sorry. This is surely all my fault and here I am, yelling at you.”
“None of this is your fault,” he managed, pitifully.
“Stop. You don’t need to try and make me feel better.” She leaned back and let go of him, opting instead to wipe at her eyes.
“Dave, it’s fine.” Clumsily, she shifted off the bed and her legs gave way. He caught her before she hit the ground and settled her back on the bed. “Dammit,” she muttered.
Carefully, he laid her down and put his arms around her.
She turned to face him and moved closer.
He had such kind eyes.
His sunglasses had been lost somewhere between Derse and her- he had come a very long way, after all, and he was noticeably exhausted- and when he had first seen her, she watched as the words died in his throat and his face softened from the battle-weary, half- dead-tired, haggard look and into the one she had seen so long ago on Prospit.
It had been the one thing she had been looking forward to most, and here it was, her one reward for her miserable actions.
She wondered if she had knowingly let everything fall into ruin just for this one result, like she knew what she must do somewhere behind her veil of cognizance and conscience, both in-dream and awake.
How selfish had she been, really? Even she did not know.
Subdued, she slowly lifted her hand to take his, but he rushed to her instead and his arms were around her and he was shaking.
“We cannot win,” she finally told him after an eternity. “But we can make it possible for others to fix our mistakes.”
“…How?” he croaked.
“Universes. We make them, one within another, a billion resets, each one influencing another. We set them up to create one desirable result, a good future, a victorious session. That’s all it takes to stop Lord English.”
“Do we have time?”
“That’s a stupid question if I ever heard one,” Davesprite scoffed from the trees above them.
His human self, a distant relative from a distant timeline, looked up at him.
“You’re the Knight of Time now, idiot. Just because you are a dreamself doesn’t negate your abilities. Sprites are different.”
“What will happen to you?”
The sprite floated down to meet them. “I’ll be you again. But I’ll always be programmed in the game, too, since what you guys are about to do is use me to recode how all of the realities work together. Striders are a universal constant and I’ll show up somehow- maybe just my memories or Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. Maybe as my own person. Maybe not.”
“We have to be strong now,” Jade said, standing up. “We have over a thousand lifetimes to live through things gone wrong. We need to focus on the one where it happens the right way now.”
She took both boys by the hands and led them out of the fires.
“A billion universes that either fail or scratch perpetually until a favorable result happens. That’s what we are making now.”
“What will happen to us in all those extra universes? The ones that aren’t the alpha?” The boy gripped her hand nearly imperceptibly tighter.
Davesprite turned and looked at Dave. “Did you just conveniently have amnesia on the way here? Was I really this much of a dumbass at one point?” The broken bird-and-boy wisped past them and into the air without another word.
“Everyone dies,” Dave whispered with a shiver. “But that isn’t the point. You don’t have to be so fucking smug about it!” he shouted. “I know you take some pleasure in knowing that I’ll have to suffer through everything gone wrong just like you did, no matter how much you really want to help us!”
Jade put her arms around him until he stopped cursing and gesticulating at the sky, instead slumping into her.
After what seemed like hours, Dave composed himself enough to stop hiding his face. “…These are gonna be all screwup lifetimes, right? Shitty no matter what bells and whistles and absolute bizarre parlor tricks we put in there, like M. Night Shyamalan movies? So let’s make a universe where he gets to be fully human and I have to be stuck as an alienated fucking crow instead,” he said, and started walking again.
“And let’s have one where Rose is actually a legit therapist. Or maybe the new Dr. Phil. Whatever.”
“That would be fun.”
“John can have a whole bunch of ridiculous adventures like whatever big exciting adventure-B-movie-flick-of-the-week hero he idolizes does. And he can have some crazy adventurer bitch as his squeeze, like a less intense James Bond flick so he doesn’t get killed trying to be a spy.”
“We can do that.”
“Karkat can be a crotchety old man.”
“That isn’t too much of a stretch from what he is now. But let’s only do that if we get to watch him shout at small children firsthand.”
“Deal. Hey, can we have one where I’m a mediocre guy at a mediocre job?”
“Um, okay. Sounds… mediocre, though.”
“That’s the point.”
“Well. I want to be an eccentric old lady with lots of stories to tell. Lots of crazy life experience! Maybe I was a gypsy at one point!”
“You wanna start out that way, or…?”
“No, silly, I meant at the end of my lifetime.”
“Oh okay. Just checkin’.”
Their conversations went like this until all of their preparations were made.
When Dave woke up, Jade was not by his side. He frowned and noticed that her clothes were not on the floor anymore. He pulled on the dress shirt and boxers that were strewn, lonely and cold, on the ground before he set out to look for her in the apartment.
She wasn’t there. She didn’t come back for three days.
He moved out a week later.
Jade named her baby after her dearest Daa-daa-jee, who passed away two months afterwards despite Dave and Gammy’s careful attentions.
Upon the tiny Karkata’s birth, the elders of the family non-confrontationally alienated Dave. He took the hint and alternated living with Zacharias, Erivan, and Johnny until he graduated High School.
Eventually he went to live with Roseanne Valonde.
Dave held Jade’s hand as Davesprite dragged Echidna’s quill across the Beat Mesa. It made a slow scream on the vinyl, like a cry from all the poor souls who had played this game before them- and after them- who had fallen victim to it.
Jade ignored it and expanded the fenestrated plane she’d brought with her and sent all of the frogs they had made through the hole Dave had made in it with his sword.
“This is really stupid, taken out of context.”
“A little,” she admitted, trying not to be shaken by the image of Karkat and his players screaming in tandem with the scratch.
“Are you ready?” He asked her.
“It doesn’t really matter if I am or not,” she told him. “But I hope so.”
“Yeah,” Dave said.
As the world-and worlds- around them spun in tandem with the Mesa and the light started at their toes and moved into their very fibers of existence, they willingly forgot to acknowledge that they would never see anyone again- it would be another Dave and another Jade meeting in another universe, not them.
But then again, an eternal parting was what they had believed death to be anyway, before they had understood the game.
Perhaps none of this was as unbelievable as they wanted to think.
Nothing was truly that unbelievable, not even the idea that the whole of the cosmos was nothing more than an amalgamation of awful photographs, glimpses of life, stuffed in a god’s scrapbook until someone tore them up and spilled them out onto the floor to make a bigger, more wonderful picture.
That’s all they were. Little, insignificant people seen through a bunch of shattered little windows.
Nobody gives a damn if they were happy or not.
This is the "silver lining", the more optimistic ending.
Three years later, Dave knocked on the door to the old apartment. Jade had been too proud to live with her family members and kept the place where she and Dave had lived despite all of the memories.
"You," she said, surprised upon answering the door.
He didn't give her any coy bullshit. "I'm sorry for everything and I know I have no right to show my face around you for, like, virtually forever, but I have a job that pays now and I've been saving my money. I don't care if you hate me or what, but I'm at least paying for... for my kid."
She stared at him very hard and intently.
Then she slapped him.
Then she grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him inside. 'You idiot," she said. "I have been waiting for you to visit me for four years now. You're already the world's shittiest father."
"Well, three, since the first year was me sorting out my emotions and dealing with a newborn by myself."
Chuckling, she kissed his cheek. "No you're not. Not yet." She laughed and picked up Karkata from the crib in the living room before depositing him into Dave's arms.
"This is really fucked up," Dave said, slowly letting a smile creep onto his face.
"You say that like it's not something I don't already know."
"Holy shit, this is not what I was expecting," he said, beginning to tear up from the shock of it all.
"Holy shit," she agreed. "This was the point, actually. Pretty effective, huh?"
"I... oh my God."
She laughed. "Your room is now the baby's room so you can sleep on the couch if you want. If you're good, though, it'll be with me."
"I'll let you come to your own conclusions about that. It's the punishment, remember?"
"No. I'm really not." Her smiling face turned serious. "The catch is that you have to stay now. Whether you like it or not, you are stuck with us. You have to own up to your actions and take responsibility for 'em. It's really not nice to take advantage of lonely drunk girls. Even if you're miserable, I'm not going to let you just leave again!"
He looked down at Karkata. "I think I can deal with that," he said.
"You are just as impulsive as always, Dave."
"...This whole thing was a trap."
"And you fell for it. Not that it would have mattered if you had or not." She shrugged. But you came back, so that's something, even if the family frowns on it."
"The family hates me."
"No they don't. They-we- hate that you were an idiot. And that you left."
And Dave stared like he was looking through at some kind of magic spell, like he was in an enchanted garden that shouldn't exist in reality.
Jade just cackled.