Puberty is rough.
Sadness read the manuals, so she knew it would be. She tried to warn them, but everyone but Fear thought she was overreacting, and Fear was apprehensive about the button from the moment they saw it, before she said anything at all.
Joy's the first one to press it, but the manuals said it could have been any of them. There's not really any pattern to it. It's basically chaos. That's how it works.
Riley is thirteen, at a sleepover. They're at Alex’s house; Disgust still breathlessly refers to Alex as cool, and sometimes seems thrown off-balance by her attention, which they’ve had more and more of recently. But Sadness just thinks of her as Alex, infinity scarf and all. She remembers crying in class on the first day of school in San Francisco, and that Alex had looked over, concerned. She feels really comfortable with Alex.
But that was right before the disaster with the core memories, and she knows Disgust doesn't remember the same way.
Everyone is asleep except for Alex and Riley. Alex is sitting up in her sleeping bag and leaning back against the wall under the window; the streetlights outside wash out the moon, casting shadows across Alex’s face when she drops her eyes and reaches up to smooth her hair back. She reaches out to tug Riley toward her by the wrist, and Riley shuffles over so they’re shoulder to shoulder and can whisper in the darkness without waking the others.
“Adam kissed me,” Alex confesses, under her breath, looking at Riley out of the corner of her eye. “After choir practice, in the hallway by my locker.”
“What?” Riley asks. Disgust is still at the controls, and it's startling, still a little exhilarating, to be in Alex's confidence. Alex squeezes her wrist to keep her silent, but she's laughing softly. “Shhhh, don’t wake up the others.”
Riley giggles too. “Oh my God, why didn’t you tell us? What was it like?”
Alex ducks her head again. “It was sweet. He’s cute, right? I think I really like him.” She pauses for a moment, then, “What about you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What about Jordan? “ There’s a lilt to her voice on Jordan’s name.
"Oh no, don't ask about boys!" Fear says, from where he's hovering behind Disgust. He sinks to the floor with a moan, but Disgust is still at the controls, and boys are a topic she always has very strong feelings about.
“I don’t know, “ Riley says. “Maybe.” They’ve been friends for a couple of years, but she has been noticing him differently lately. She wants to be closer to him.
“I knew it!” Alex says. She puts her arm around Riley to pull her closer in so that they’re pressed up, side to side, and tips her head down against Riley’s. Sadness looks over at Joy, quiet this whole time and absorbed in the scene. She’s leaning intently over the console, eyes wide.
And then her hand slips and her elbow goes down hard on the puberty button and everything is in shambles.
By the time they get the alarm to stop blaring, it’s a couple of hours later, headquarters is in complete disarray, even Disgust is looking rumpled and shell-shocked, and Sadness is leaning against Joy, blinking the echo of the flashing red light out of her eyes and wondering what just happened.
Alex is asleep, and Riley is still leaning against the wall, fiddling with the best friend necklace around her neck, so when they take stock Disgust assures them that nothing to embarrassing happened in the midst of their chaos.
“Sorry,” Joy says, and she sounds more subdued than Sadness has ever heard her.
Sadness pats at her shoulder. “It’s okay. That was going to happen.”
The thing is, they don’t remember the same way. None of them do, even under the best of circumstances; they never have, and that’s the point. Sadness is used to that, but it’s always seemed more noticeable with Joy. One time, Riley went to a carnival with her parents. She saw her reflection in a funhouse mirror, stretched out, and from every angle. She could see her profile and the back of her head. Sometimes that’s how Sadness feels when she talks to Joy about memories; they're looking at the same thing, but so differently.
But it’s not surprising that later, when they talk about that night, Joy remembers the thrill of confessing her feelings about Jordan to Alex for the first time and all Sadness can think about is the way Alex ducked her eyes, nervous and confessional, when she talked about Adam.
That’s only the first time. They all take turns pushing the button, mostly accidentally, but for a couple of years there, it happens a lot.
Disgust pushes it most often. After the third or fourth time, Sadness takes to watching her warily, waiting for it. It doesn’t seem like she means to, but she isn’t careful either. She talks with her hands a lot, is easily upset, has opinions about everything, and seems to take up so much more space than she used to.
Sadness tries her best to stay as far away from the button as she can, but she still manages to trip over her own feet one day backing up from Anger, who is mumbling under his breath because Alex and Beth went shopping and didn’t invite Riley. Sadness catches herself on the console, realizing she pressed the button only when the alarm kicks in. Riley spends the rest of the afternoon crying to her mom about her grade on a math test that Sadness didn’t even remember being upset about until right that minute.
That’s the other thing – everything happens so fast. It was like that before too, when Riley was small. Everything was immediate and intense then, but it was close to the surface too; there was clarity to what Riley wanted and needed. Now everything is all tangled up. It’s exhausting.
The day of Riley’s first official date with Jordan, Fear accidentally pushes the button before Riley is even out the door. Disgust gets irritated with him, which means she’s distracted from Riley’s outfit. Joy takes over, and Riley ends up in the same pair of worn, comfortable jeans she’s worn to hang out with Jordan a thousand times . They have a great time at the movies, but Disgust spends the entire afternoon complaining about how inappropriate the jeans are for a first date.
The first time Jordan kisses Riley, Joy squeals and spins around, hugging Sadness to her. They lose their balance and go over in a heap right next to the console. When the blaring starts, it takes Sadness a moment to place it and realize one of them must have hit the button.
“Sorry,” Joy murmurs close to Sadness’s ear, still kind of laughing and breathless. She apologies so much more than she used to. Sadness isn't sure she ever heard Joy say sorry, before the first time she hit the puberty button.
“It’s fine,” Sadness says, still a little stunned. Joy sits up, pulling Sadness to her feet, eyes still on the screen and all of her attention on Riley and Jordan.
When the new core memory drops out of the shoot , Joy rushes to grab it, tugging Sadness behind her. Joy lets go of her hand only to scoop up the memory, cradling it in her arms. She holds it out and asks, “Do you want to see?” Sadness reaches one hand to skim her palm over it, and a faint blue spiral tinges in with the gold.
That’s how Romance Island is born.
A lot of the memories are more obviously multi-colored now. That’s part of growing up. Or that’s what the manuals says.
When Riley is fourteen and in her first year of high school, she and Jordan go on a double date to homecoming with Alex and Adam. Disgust pronounces the dress, hair and shoes perfect. Joy is giddy as Alex and Riley are getting ready, as they take pictures with Adam and Jordan. Fear has a list of things that can go wrong. At the top of the list is Riley tripping over her own feet in the ridiculous shoes Alex suggested and breaking her ankle. It doesn't seem as farfetched as his crisis scenarios can get, but they still manage to keep him mostly quiet most of the night.
Sadness watches Mom and Dad throughout the evening. She makes sure Riley smiles at Mom when Mom tears up taking pictures, and when Dad hugs Riley, she makes sure Riley hugs him back just as tight, but overall she doesn’t have that much to do. Riley is really happy. Joy is really happy, in that way she gets, overflowing with effervescent energy that makes Sadness feel like she can never keep up.
Two hours into the dance, Alex and Riley are whispering by the punch bowl. Alex keeps reaching out to smooth Riley's hair or touch her arm to get her attention. Joy is wound up, dancing around the controls, with Disgust standing behind her judging other people's outfits. Adam comes over and catches Alex around the waist, pulling her away to the dance floor. Sadness sees Joy furrow her brow as Riley turns to look for Jordan.
Then Anger pushes the button. Deliberately. The alarm starts to scream, Sadness looks over at Joy, who looks back at her, stunned. None of them know why. Not even Anger himself. When they ask him later, he just says, “We don’t like Adam.”
Which is apparently true, though that was the first time any of them noticed.
Puberty is rough.
And puberty stays pretty rough over the next few years. They learn - it doesn’t matter if they try not to hit the button, that’s not how it works. When they least expect it, Anger will trip over Fear, who is lying on the floor or Disgust will throw up her hands in exasperation and knock Joy straight into the console. It just happens.
The manuals warned about that too. She tries to explain that to them as well, but Joy thinks she sounds defeatist. Joy thinks puberty is a great thing, the adventure leading to adulthood. That’s all fine, but Sadness knows Joy doesn't like the alarm either. No one likes the alarm.
Two weeks before Riley turns 16, Jordan tells her he has a crush on Beth. He says Riley has been distant and hasn’t been spending any time with him. She's slow to respond to text messages. She’s distracted by hockey. She’s willing to go to choir concerts for Alex, but not hang out at his band practices. He says Beth’s just been around more . She’s there for him. He’s sorry she’s Riley’s friend, but she's his friend too.
Sadness feels what she has to do. She walks over to the console, pushes the button and takes control of the console in the ensuing chaos. She doesn’t let anyone else but Anger near it for a solid two weeks. It's the longest she’s ever been in primary control.
By the night of Riley’s 16th birthday, she's exhausted. Alex comes over before the party, perching on the corner of Riley’s bed and telling her how much better off she is without Jordan - how they don’t need boys anyway. It makes Joy perk up and ease her way over to the console, so that finally Sadness relents and gives her back control.
The party goes okay. They do karaoke on the Xbox and eat ice cream and cake until they're sick. Beth doesn't show, but even without her love of experimental makeup, it still ends with the girls all giving each other makeovers, which was never Riley’s thing. It’s not even a thing Riley understands, really, but Alex loves it, and Riley likes doing things Alex loves. She lets Alex give her smokey eyes and glittery pink lipstick, which makes Joy ecstatic.
Disgust has dream duty that night. Sadness is just falling asleep when Joy knocks on her door, creaking it open when Sadness is slow to respond.
“Hey,” Joy says making her way into the room and hovering until Sadness finally responds with a mumbled “hi”.
“Are you okay?” Joy asks.
Sadness just shrugs, pushing herself up in bed. That’s not really a question she knows how to answer. She is or she will be, but Joy will probably think she isn’t. They don’t feel things the same way either.
Joy makes her way over to the bed, and sits down next to Sadness. Sadness moves over against the wall making room for Joy to lean in, and put her hand on Sadness’ shoulder.
“These last few weeks were hard,” Sadness says.
“Jordan doesn’t love us.”
“He does, I think,” Joy says.
“I don’t think so.”
Joy shrugs. “You heard what Alex said, though. Maybe Riley’s better off. You know Jason has a crush on her; she liked him a lot too when they were chemistry partners.”
Sadness bites her lip and then says, “We don’t like Jason.”
“Of course we do.”
“We don’t want to date Jason.”
Joy looks down. “I know. But Alex said...”
Sadness takes a deep breath. “Alex doesn’t love us either.”
She hears the startled intake of breath from Joy. “I don’t...what? Of course she does.”
“Not like we want her to.” And that’s so true, suddenly. Of course Joy wants her to. Of course Sadness wants her to, and it’s just...so awful that she doesn’t. It’s not something she’d really thought about in those terms before, but that’s happened a lot over the last few years. She has to articulate the feeling to understand what it is. “Do you think that’s why she was pointing out all of the other boys to Riley?”
When Sadness looks up, Joy is just staring at her. “I don’t...think so. I...oh.”
“Sorry,” Sadness says. She feels bad when Joy reacts like that. She's always so quick with responses and solutions. When she doesn't have one or doesn't know how to react to what Sadness feels or remembers, Sadness feels lost, like she’s bringing Riley down.
“No, it’s okay,”Joy says. Instead of standing up to go to her own room, she lies down next to Sadness, on her back staring up at the ceiling, so that their shoulders are touching. She says, “Riley’s 16. She’s older and we can deal with this. We still love our girl, right? What could happen?” She sounds less sure than before, a lilt on the end of the sentence that makes it a legitimate question, as though she’s asking Sadness.
Sadness reaches down, resting her hand on top of Joy's, and they lie there in the dark until they fall asleep.
Sadness feels weird in the morning. Melancholy and off and like she should be at the controls, even though she was trying to let the others back in.
Joy asks the others about Alex, and they all respond the same way, as though it’s something they knew, but couldn’t name. Disgust sits back in the chair in front of the console, and pulls her knees up to her chest, looking up at them all through her heavy lashes.
“Riley dreamed about Alex last night.”
“Riley has dreams with Alex in them all the time,” says Joy.
Disgust shrugs. “Not like this. Alex kissed her.”
“Riley remembers,” Sadness says, identifying her melancholy need. She gets up to check the memories; Riley doesn’t remember her dreams most of the time, but sometimes when she does, they'll be there.
While they’re all distracted, Fear gets to the controls. He keeps them for the rest of the day, and Riley’s mom has to call in sick to school for her.
Riley definitely remembers.
It’s kind of weird after that, the knowledge of it. They’re all so aware of Alex, and it’s just like Jordan, in the beginning - this friend, who they’re so used to, who they suddenly find themselves reacting to differently, and so much more intensely.
They have a couple bad months with the puberty button.
Alex pulls Riley aside and whispers, “Can we talk?” Fear starts shaking and backs into the console.
Alex breaks up with Adam, and Joy gets overexcited.
Alex goes out with a new boy. Anger takes the controls for the rest of the night and pushes the button as he’s elbowing the others out of the way.
Alex wants to talk about hottest member of One Direction, and Riley kind of does too, but Disgust guides the subject over to Little Mix, just to see what happens. Alex thinks that despite everything Perrie Edwards is the prettiest. Riley thinks Jade Thirwall’s the prettiest. The conversation is not really that different from talking about One Direction, and it leaves Riley with a warm and happy feeling bubbling up in her chest. Disgust sighs and puts her elbow down on the console...right onto the puberty button.
Sadness pushes it one night on accident when she has dream duty, right after the others leave and Riley drifts off. She’s sleepy herself, and she's not really watching what she’s doing at the controls.
Yeah. That’s a weird night.
Alex and Riley are at Riley’s house, lying on Riley’s bed, shoulder to shoulder in the dark, whispering about their lives - their parents, their school work, their future, but not a word about crushes. Alex reaches down, turning Riley's hand palm up, and threads their fingers together. Sadness can feel the rush of adrenaline, the quick staccato of Riley’s heart, her sudden intake of breath. There’s stillness in Headquarters and Sadness realizes she’s almost waiting for it, the quick blare of the puberty alarm. It doesn't come, though. Instead, she feels Joy’s fingers circling her wrist.
“Look,” Joy breathes, and when Sadness turns her head to follow Joy’s gaze out the window behind them, Romance Island is lit up and glittering.
The school year ends, and the summer after Riley’s sophomore year is cool and bright. Riley’s parents, always laid back, have relaxed her curfew even more, allowing her to venture further out into the city on her own or with her friends - and Riley's falling in love with swirl of the energy around her. They all are.
She’s been reading these books; she’s been reading the Internet. She has words now, maybe.
She’s been looking at Alex. Even Sadness and Fear have started to think that maybe, just maybe, Alex is looking back.
Alex appears one morning in early June. She has glitter on her eyes and in her hair, and three horizontal lines painted in pink, purple and blue vibrant across her right cheek. She’s standing in Riley’s entry way smiling almost shyly (like Jordan before their first date), but her voice comes out determined and daring (like Alex always). “Mom and Dad said I could go to the Pride parade? Do you want to come?”
Of course Riley does.
Later, standing in the park under a shower of rainbow confetti, it’s Riley’s turn to brave. She turns to Alex, pulling her by the wrist until they're face-to-face and then brushing a thumb over her cheek, smearing the bi pride colors. She presses their lips together, quick and dry before pulling away. Her palms are sweating. Fear starts a monologue of what they should do if Alex rejects them, but Joy hushes him, her eyes shining at the screen.
Headquarters is quiet enough that they can hear the drop of the new core memory, and track its slow roll to the center of the room. And that’s how Queer Island is born.
Alex pulls away, smiling bright, and Riley ducks her head down against Alex's neck. Joy sighs happily, reaching out and slipping her arm around Sadness' shoulders.
Sadness’ mind spins - she's still thinking about Jordan, a little bit. She's thinking about the college student they spoke to earlier in the day, whose parents don't talk to him. She's thinking about everything they've read, and Riley's parents and grandparents, and meaning beyond this moment. But that all feels so distant compared to how Joy is so happy she’s nearly radiating.
They don't remember the same way, but that's okay. They remember together. And they love their girl.
"This could happen," Sadness says, and Joy hugs her tighter.