Activity #18: Hairstyling
It was around the time her mother's hair was falling out in clumps while Penelope helped her wash and dry it that she took an antique sword from the library and, in one savage sweep, chopped off her hair. It was dark brown, wavy, and so long that she typically bundled it up into a bun to keep it from getting stuck in banjo strings, which she was, at that point, plucking her fingers to the point of bleeding on.
Penelope had read books about supporting people being treated with chemotherapy. Most of them were about cancer, of course, which was apparently easier to understand than what Penelope's mother had, but she was just as sick and in pain as if she did have cancer, and wanted Penelope by her side, sucking comfort from her as if there were limited reserves of it in the world and she needed her daughter's last drops. Loved ones of chemotherapy patients sometimes cut off their hair in solidarity. It was a lovely story of a daughter supporting her fading mother.
Penelope hated dumb stories like that. It was a narrative defined by other people.
And she wasn't going to be Rapunzel, locked up her whole life with a mother keeping her from the world while she waited for the evil mother to die and a handsome man to climb her hair into her lonely tower and set her free.
One day, she'd walk out the door, all by herself.
So she chopped off all her damn hair, and let it stick up around her face in patchy tufts.
Activity #36: Have a Sleepover Party with Games and Crafts
Penelope had never had a friend before. Not that she could remember, not since before the allergen tests and her subsequent sequestering.
Ying Ling was pretty and mysterious and when Penelope looked sideways at her and then pointedly back at the snacks of the sandwich stand in the train, Ying Ling tied her scarf around her face like a bandit and they scooped crisps and chocolate into their hats and ran, without another word. Ying Ling smiled like she knew everyone's secrets; Penelope had never had anyone to have secrets about.
But Bang Bang, though. Bang Bang was amazing.
Bang Bang knew about plastic explosives, forming the clay like that time Penelope had taken up making pottery, but so much more useful. You couldn't blow things up with a vase, after all. She smoked constantly, like she was daring the universe to let a stray spark blow her up, knowing that it never would. (Her continual smoking fascinated Penelope, who had been a allergen-free, sealed house full of medical equipment since the age of five, and had never had the opportunity to believe it a dirty habit. She wanted to try it herself, perhaps with a long cigarette holder like a glamorous old movie star.)
At night, if she wasn’t in Bloom’s bed, she could crawl into Bang Bang’s bed, underneath the blankets, and clasp hands, and whisper in Japanese about photography, and hats, and making mutant Barbies with nitroglycerin packed into their empty doll heads. It wasn’t that Bang Bang couldn’t speak English; she spoke it flawlessly, and with more than a generous peppering of invective. She just didn’t think most people were very interesting, and she wanted even fewer people to ask her things. She’d rather sit back and watch the chaos of the world around her, particularly if she’d created it herself.
If Penelope made her life a story she thought worth telling, Bang Bang just remade her world into a place she’d want to live in. If she didn’t like her life, she’d blow it up and walk away.
Penelope could maybe, one day, tell herself the story of a girl who met some smugglers and decided to be one herself, and just left her life and everything else behind in a heap of cinders.
Activity #79: Origami
When Bang Bang had mastered pinhole cameras, she wanted to know how to juggle. After Penelope taught her that, she wanted to try origami. It felt like Bang Bang looked at her as an odd curiosity, but Penelope didn’t mind; she’d never really had anyone to share all her built up passion with, and having Bloom and Bang Bang and even Stephen around, she felt like she was exhaling one giant breath that she had been holding for a really long time. She had stored up so many good things in herself during the times when she was lonely and hating her mother, and she was delighted that nothing but beauty came out when she finally stopped holding herself together so tightly.
“I feel weird teaching you how to fold paper cranes, since you’re Japanese and I’m not and it’s cultural appropriation but I really do like it, and I made a thousand of them in less than a week once, and then I kept going, which I think is supposed to mean I have good luck. But I don’t know, I think you make your own luck by choosing things and then taking the opportunities you find when you end up wherever you’ve ended up. What do you think?” Penelope asked, folding the final crease.
Bang Bang shrugged elaborately, and pointed out that just because she was Japanese didn’t mean she learned how to fold origami cranes, or make good luck. Penelope reached over, and demonstrated how the next fold went.
A few minutes later, Bang Bang had made an undersized flock of cranes, to match Penelope’s pile of them. She studiously selected one of her cranes, and handed it to Penelope, motioning for her to pull it apart.
When Penelope did, she found a phone number inside.
“My cell,” said Bang Bang, and looked a little sad. “For when we make some good luck together.”
She quickly leaned over and kissed Penelope, a dry peck on the lips, and then stood, pulling on her white furry coat that looked sort of like an albino yak had died for it. Penelope watched her as she walked across the beach, throwing a bright ember of a cigarette butt out into the waves before walking towards the beach house.
Penelope didn’t know why Stephen would say that Mexico was such a terrible place. She was a little freaked out about the deal happening the next day, but overall, it wasn’t so bad.
Activity #101: Write to Penpals
After Russia, Penelope and Bloom returned to Montenegro. After that was Ljubljana, then Hong Kong, Concepción, Dakar, and after that they simply took to throwing darts at a globe to determine where to go next. Penelope didn’t do plans and Bloom had only ever done Stephen’s plans, so they were rudderless, letting the wind take them where it would.
It was everything Penelope had dreamed the world could be, and more. Was a different name, a different reason for being in every port an act or their purest reality, Bloom wondered; both, and neither, and does it matter? Penelope would always answer, because all stories are real when you believe in them, and all reality means nothing without interpretation. And why be so existential when today you could be throwing the best party in Paris, and tomorrow be itinerant folk musicians traveling across Eastern Europe?
They were in Budapest when she climbed the hill overlooking the city and summoned up all her determination to call Bang Bang’s cell phone number, knowing that Bang Bang would likely not be on the other side. She let it ring twenty-five times before she ended the call, and let her face fall into her hands. Maybe Bang Bang hadn’t blown up in a car bomb explosion, but she was gone all the same.
Her phone buzzed. Penelope looked down, and saw a text message appear. BEHIND U, it said.
Penelope turned, and there was Bang Bang, a striking black figure against the white stones of Fisherman’s Bastion, blowing smoke elegantly into the breeze from perfectly red, pursed lips as Penelope approached her.
“Hi,” Penelope said, and grinned.
Bang Bang smiled her own peculiar, secretive smile, and linked her arm with Penelope’s. “Hi,” she said.