They all denied pressing the Pub-erty button, but Joy had her suspicions: Fear or Disgust. Although on the surface, Fear seemed like the least likely candidate, she knew he hated uncertainty. He could have pressed the button just so that he could stop worrying about what might happen. And Disgust had been horrified that Riley was almost 14, and the other girls were wearing bras, talking about tampons and flirting with boys.
All Joy knew was that one day they'd woken up, ready to tackle another standard day, and the Pub-erty button was pressed in and glowing. Mysteriously, some buttons seemed to be in different places. Sometimes, pressing a button that should do one thing suddenly produced a completely different reaction. Like that time they tried to laugh at a funny cat video but instead ended up crying for absolutely no reason at all.
And Boy Band Island was gone, replaced by the much noisier and unpredictable Riot Grrrl Island, which Disgust thought was so last century. But Joy secretly thought it was a huge improvement over Boy Band Island, even though most of the songs were way too angry for her liking. Anger, of course, was delighted by all of the ingenious ways that curse words could be rhymed and shouted.
It was a rocky ride some days, but Joy looked on the positive side. The memories that rolled down the rails were more swirly in color, but she took pride in that fact that yellow was still the main color in the orbs. Pub-erty was a strong wind, but it hadn't blown them off course.
Joy was doing dream duty one night a few days after Riley's fourteenth birthday, absentmindedly counting blessings while a hockey highlight dream played on the screen. A small cough alerted her to the presence of Sadness.
“Joy, I didn't want to bother you, but I think we have a problem.” Sadness came in and stood next to her.
“There's no such thing as a problem, Sadness, just an opportunity to create a solution. Lay it on me.” Joy was ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work, even though she didn't have any sleeves.
“Well, you know how I've read every manual in the place, several times?” Sadness paused while Joy nodded to confirm. “I've noticed some thing about the drawings.”
“There's drawings in them? I mean, of course there's drawings. Picture's worth a thousand words. So what have you noticed?”
“It's weird, but in the drawings, all the emotions are either male or female. And we're, well, we're not all the same.” Sadness settled in a chair and looked at Joy with her big mournful eyes. “We're different. Riley's different.”
“Don't be silly. Riley's the same happy girl she's always been. And you don't know why the manuals are like that. Maybe the artist lacked imagination.”
“Think about it, Joy. You know that things don't add up. Ever since that Pub-erty button got pressed, things have been different around here. Riley's been different.”
Joy walked over to the manuals and started to leaf through them, determined to prove Sadness wrong. But page after page showed the same thing: neat rows of either all males or all females standing behind control boards in Headquarters.
“You're right. We're different, but I don't know that exactly means anything,” Joy finally conceded.
“We're different!” wailed Fear, who had snuck in quietly and been eavesdropping for goodness knew how long.
“Shhhh, you'll wake the others. And we're not different. I mean, well, we are different – you're male, I'm female. Sadness is, well.....whatever Sadness is. C'mon, that was a joke.” Joy could feel the situation slipping away from her.
“I knew it. We're different. This is horrible. Now I have to worry about even more things. What are people going to think? What are they going to say? How do we know who we really are, who Riley really is?” Fear pulled out a paper bag and started hyperventilating into it.
“What's going on here? A meeting in Headquarters and we weren't invited?” Anger stomped in, followed by a yawning Disgust.
“It's terrible,” said Fear. “We're different. We should all be the same, but we're different.”
“I knew it! It's all that stupid button's fault!” Anger set off for the control panel where he pounded on the Pub-erty button, but nothing happened. The same way nothing had happened the forty dozen other times he'd beaten it.
“I knew it too.” Disgust flopped down in her chair and curled her lip. “This probably isn't a total disaster. I can work with this, somehow.”
“There's nothing to work with!” Joy threw up her arms in exasperation. “We're the same as we've been every day for the last fourteen years of Riley's life. Nothing has changed.”
“Well, it kind of has, Joy. We thought we were normal. Now we know we're not,” said Sadness. Joy was annoyed by her perfectly ability to not only name the elephant in the room, but welcome it in and make it feel right at home.
“I always suspected,” said Disgust, rolling her eyes. “But I don't see what the drama is about. At least we're figuring this out here and not in Minnesota.”
“Do not start trash-talking Minnesota again,” warned Joy as Sadness grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
“Why don't we take a day or two and watch what Riley's doing and how she's doing before we get all upset about this?” suggested Sadness. “Ever since that button got pressed, things have been kind of overwhelming around here. We might have missed something.”
Reluctantly, the other emotions nodded and settled into their places.
When her alarm went off, Riley woke with a yawn and a stretch. She vaguely remembered a dream about a hockey match that had devolved into some weird kind of meeting where she had to look through a pile of huge books, each page a neat drawing of five elves in suits or five elves in frilly dresses. She shook her head and rubbed her eyes, the dream vanishing in a small puff of color.
Riley got dressed quickly in the dark then brushed her hair. She took a quick look in the mirror to make sure she looked presentable, but she didn't linger. She ate a quick breakfast and tried to get out of the house with just a wave to her parents, but they insisted on hugs. She pretended to be annoyed and kept the hugs quick, then grabbed her bag and dashed out the door.
Riley found herself walking up the hill a bit faster. Ever since she'd started high school several weeks earlier, she'd enjoyed the walk to school. Usually, she walked alone although sometimes she met up with Autumn, a super-cool tenth grader who had the best Doc Martens that Riley had ever seen. Autumn thought it was cool that Riley played hockey and was encouraging her to be the first girl to try out for the high school team, but Riley's parents thought she should just continue on her club team.
Riley got to the top of the hill, then crouched down to tie her shoe, drawing out the simple task long enough so that Autumn would catch up with her.
“Hey Riley, I'm wrecked. I've got a killer chemistry test today. All night, I dreamed about compounds and a missing oxygen molecule. It was not restful at all,” said Autumn with a yawn.
“Doesn't sound like it,” said Riley.
“I'm afraid I won't be much fun this morning. I'm like a zombie.”
Riley shrugged and nodded. She was happy to be quiet. Lately, she'd had so many weird thoughts and feelings, she barely knew how to carry on a conversation anymore. They walked together, and Riley could tell that Autumn was almost sleep-walking.
When they got to last big intersection before the school, the Walk sign turned green and Autumn automatically stepped forward into the crosswalk as a Volvo accelerated through the intersection against the light. Riley instinctively shot a hand out, grabbed Autumn's hand and dragged her back to the sidewalk.
“What the fuck! She had a red light.” Amber's cheeks flushed.
“Rich bitches in Volvos piss me off,” said Riley.
“Hey! I didn't know you liked Fabulous Disaster! The more I learn about you, the cooler you seem. And now you've saved my life.” Her tone was joking, but Riley felt her cheeks flush.
“They're probably my favorite. Definitely top-three.”
“It sucks that all the good bands broke up before we were even in elementary school. It's like we were born at the wrong time.”
“I read in Louder than War that they're working on a reunion album and have a rehearsal space somewhere in the Tenderloin.” Riley looked down and realized with a tingle that she was still holding Autumn's hand. She dropped it in what she hoped was a casual way and immediately missed the warmth of it.
“Shut up! We have to go. My brother knows some people who know some people – I'll find out where they're practicing. I can't wait for the album. Promise you'll go find them with me?”
“That would be awesome.” Riley hoped her grin didn't look too silly. They spent the rest of the walk talking about their favorite songs, and Riley wondered why they hadn't talked about music before. She also wondered what else they had in common but didn't know yet.
A few days later, the meeting in Headquarters took place while Riley slept. Each emotion had a clipboard and a stack of notes. Joy looked around the table. Fear looked slightly ill. Disgust looked bored. Anger looked like he might punch someone. Sadness looked calm and resigned.
Joy took a deep breath. “So, what do you all think? Has anyone noticed anything?”
“Autumn's pretty cool,” said Anger. “I can't believe she loves Fabulous Disaster too.”
“Fabulous Disaster is the best band name ever,” agreed Sadness, her lips curling up into as close as a smile as she ever got.
“But I think Riley still kind of likes Jordan,” said Fear. “And you know, liking Jordan is probably safer.”
“Puh-lease. Jordan needs to learn what a hairbrush is for. And contrary to popular opinion, it's not for singing into in front of a mirror,” said Disgust as she filed her nails. “Jordan is okay, but he's really just a friend. A good friend, slightly cute, but when Riley looks at him? No butterflies.”
“And when Riley looks at Autumn?” asked Joy.
“Butterflies, dragonflies, super-flies, all your basic fly groups are covered,” said Anger.
“I'm not sure about this,” said Fear. “We don't know that Autumn likes us. And we definitely know that Jordan likes us. He's the much safer option. I like safer. Helmets, seatbelts, and Jordan are all good with me.”
“Okay, we can all agree that Riley has good friends and likes a boy and a girl. That's cool, right? If that's what makes her happy. And if the girl makes her slightly happier right now, that's not a problem, is it?” Joy wanted to get up and bounce on her feet because it helped her think, but she knew she had to stay seated and calm.
“But this isn't the real reason we were having this meeting,” said Sadness, sitting up a little straighter. “We're supposed to be talking about whether there's something different about us. Whether we're normal.”
“I don't think normal is the right word. Or the kind of word we should be using. I mean, who really decides what's normal anyway,” said Joy with a nervous chuckle.
“We're different,” said Sadness. “Riley's not happy with the way her body is changing. It's confusing.”
“We're finally catching up with the other girls and Riley's not happy?” asked Disgust, disbelief and annoyance in her tone.
“Oh my god. There is something wrong with us. I googled this earlier today,” said Fear, reaching under the table to produce a two-foot high stack of computer printouts. “Gender dysphoria. Body dysmorphic disorder. Multiple personality disorder. Brain tumor. It's all here. We could have any of this. We could have all of this.”
“We don't have multiple personalities or a brain tumor, or any of that dysmorphic stuff," said Anger. “You should not be allowed near Google. Ever.”
“I did some googling of my own. And maybe Riley isn't binary. And that's okay,” said Sadness.
“Not binary? What does that mean? We're a little from Column A, a little from Column B?” asked Disgust.
Sadness shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe Riley's just figuring things out. Maybe we're all just figuring things out.”
“But wait a minute,” said Joy. “Riley's never felt like a boy trapped in a girl's body. She's just a tomboy, that's all. A jock. Why do we have to go labeling everything?”
“It's not always as dramatic as all that,” said Sadness, in that infuriatingly rational way of hers. "And it's not always simple either. Joy, when are you going to learn that life is just a series of shades of grey?”
“There you go again, Sadness, being a bit of a downer. I thought we'd talked about this.” Joy stood up and paced. She needed to think and moving around helped.
“What does Dad always say?” asked Joy finally.
“Rome wasn't figured out in a day,” the other emotions chorused in a bored tone.
“Exactly! So we don't have to decide anything right this minute. Let's just enjoy the adventure for a while and see where things end up.”
“That sounds fine to me, as long as you keep him away from the computer,” said Anger, jabbing a finger in Fear's direction.
“I'll try my best, but I'll make no promises. Someone has to keep Riley alive,” said Fear.
Disgust shrugged and rolled her eyes, which Joy took as agreement. Joy looked over at Sadness.
“Hey yeah, oh yeah, Let's go, the Next Big Joyride!'” sang Sadness about three tempos slower than the Fabulous Disaster song.
“But our girl is not headed for a breakdown, we're all agreed on that, right?” said Joy, looking around the table. This time she saw immediate resolve and agreement. Joy exhaled a long slow breath and sank back into her chair. Riley was meeting Autumn for coffee after school tomorrow to hatch their plan to sneak into Fabulous Disaster's rehearsal space. It seemed, indeed, that they were in for one big exciting ride. She couldn't wait to see where they ended up.