“Kendra. What’s that fucking thing in the middle of your living room?”
Kendra was in the kitchen with her back to Wyatt. But from context, he was likely referring to the seven-fingered poledancing tentacle in the middle of her living room.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Someone dumped it outside the trailer park, and I fell in love with it. So I cleaned it and took it home.” She looked past Wyatt to make what was meant to be eye contact with the centerpiece, and fanned her fingers out to mimic its suction-cup appendages. “Aaah! It’s so dope.”
“I guess so.” Wyatt’s default tone was that of a parent shaming their child for wanting attention.
The last time they had spoken in person was at Kendra’s birthday party, when Wyatt preemptively stormed out due to Mike making some minor slight against Jean Baudrillard. Most of their communication was over text; Kendra’s life had turned into a to-do list, from her bartending job to caring for Yuggoth, her dog—even finding time to write her horror poetry had become a chore—and she suspected Wyatt was doing the same. Regarding the to-do list. It would be odd if they both adopted a black Newfoundland at the same time. Inviting Wyatt over was her conscious attempt to strengthen the relationships from her past, which relationships were proverbially likened to gold in order to devalue one’s attempts at making new friends. It was an old piece of wisdom which, by its reasoning, outranked all current wisdom. Charlie (who’s missing) would be the next old-and-gold friend she’d contact. But really, inwardly, what she wanted was for someone to appreciate her contribution to Strangerville.
Wyatt was on a now decade-long campaign against pleasantries, and so hadn’t chosen the obvious topic: how’s Strangerville? She was waiting for him to. He could ask ‘can I pet your bear?’ (Yuggoth is the bear. She’s almost identical to one except she rolls around in her own piss instead of eating out of the garbage) and ‘what’s that fucking thing in the middle of your living room?’, but if she kept him going long enough, he would run out of things in the house and start asking about things outside of the house. The neighborhood it was in, for example, or maybe some odd feature she could use as a segue to her ultimate conversational goal.
“So,” she said, guiding the topic towards Wyatt’s activities out of anticipatory guilt for how hard she was about to answer ‘how’s Strangerville,’ “are you working on anything?”
“I just started a children’s book, actually.”
Kendra laughed. “What the hell?”
“It’s called ‘The Little Engine Who Couldn’t.’ It’s about this adorable train who like grew up hearing that he could do anything he put his mind to.” He wiped the grease off his nose. “So he starts climbing a hill that’s too high for him, totally not recommended for an engine of his size with his horsepower, and somewhere around the middle he realizes that he just can’t.”
“Like the original story, yeah.”
“But then he remembers all the encouraging words he heard growing up, and, I don’t know, overworks himself so hard he blows a gasket, I don’t know how trains work, and falls down the hill. So he learns that some things look possible that are actually impossible, or at least damaging to do, with the resources he has. But he’s like internalized the idea that he should be able to do anything he puts his mind to, and that kind of implies that if he fails, it’s his own fault for not working hard enough.”
“Then he decides that all of that positive stuff he heard from his train-friends and, if we’re going all the way with the central conceit here, train-parents, was just total bullshit. Because instead of being told everyone has to experience failure, or encounter something they just can’t do, they decided the best thing to do was arm him with blind optimism. To soften what happens in the real world. Like a positive and a negative number cancelling out.”
“Which is reasonable, because if he knew in advance there were some things he couldn’t do, he might not have tried hard enough on the things he could do, that were difficult.”
“Yeah, it may not have been intentional. But then he just swings in the opposite direction. Nihilism. Self-defeatist.”
“How are you gonna end it?”
“It just ends,” he said. “Like in real life, some people get over that and some don’t. I didn’t want to send a message that one or the other is right. This is a book about a train, not a fucking instruction manual for life.”
Kendra wanted to say that was kind of a cop-out but didn’t feel like posing an alternative or even wording it in a constructive manner. “Good choice.”
“It’s like a postmodern version of the classic children’s book.” Wyatt, how we’ve missed you.
A couple beats passed, giving Kendra the opportunity to slurp down her Salty Llama. “Wanna hear about my current project?”
“Uh, let me guess,” he asked, “does it have to do with the what-the-fuck strings of texts that read ‘ƗŦ ĆØΜ€Ş ŦĦŘØỮǤĦ ŦĦ€ βØŇ€Ş ΔŇĐ ǤØ€Ş ƗŇ ŦĦ€ ΜØỮŦĦ’ and other slightly cringey, trying-too-hard shit like that?”
“I stand by my earlier assertion of ‘wtf.'” He pronounced the syllables double-yew-tee-eff out loud. In his mind, he was differentiating between the kind of ‘wtf’ that required capitalization and the kind that didn’t.
“Ok so it’s kind of a long story,” she warned. “It has to do with Strangerville.”
“Oh, yeah,” Wyatt said. “How’s Strangerville?”
“I’ll get to that. So there I was on the first day of moving in, right?”
“And you know how on your first day, the neighbors usually drop in with a nasty-ass fruitcake? And it always has the same weird inedible red ribbon that gets little cake pieces on it when you try to take it off?”
“So this was the best possible fucking version of that,” she continued, while mixing herself another Salty Llama. “I opened the door, and there was a guy with a red mohawk, a woman who would probably be friends with Jo—“
“—so like, super bougie?”
“She broke the bougie scale. And then there was one other older guy, he seemed like he was trying to bring the cowboy look back. Respect.” She leaned forward for emphasis. “But the best part is, they were moving around like, jerky, and they had these completely dead stares the entire time. Like so wide-eyed their eyes could pop out of their heads, with smiles so broad the corners of their mouths could pop off their faces. Like this.” She mimicked the face.
“Oh my god, that’s creepier than if they crawled into your house and started vomiting spiders.”
“It was so great! I tried to talk to them, and everything they had to say was along the lines of ‘Ŵ€ŁĆØΜ€ ŦØ ĦỮΜΔŇ ŞŦŘΔŇǤ€ŘVƗŁŁ€, ŇØŘΜΔŁ ĦỮΜΔŇ.’ And when they’re not like that, they’re talking like they’re in a Nancy Drew book or some shit. Like, ‘ZOINKS, IT WAS OLD MAN McJURBEN UNDER THE MASK THE WHOLE TIME! AND HE’S GIVING THE KIDS POT!!!'” I.e. for Kendra the slang refers to handing out bubble solution.
“Ok, both of those are pretty fucking great,” Wyatt agreed.
“And then I came home from work—this is after they left and I went to work—I came home to a note saying the government confiscated my fridge because they detected trace amounts of controlled substances. There were controlled substances in the fruitcake! Fucking epic!”
“So.” Wyatt brought his empty glass to the sink, where it vanished immediately. “You’re saying the texts have something to do with how the neighbors are acting?”
“I don’t actually know,” Kendra admitted, “but it’s likely. What I did afterward was wander around the town. The bar is pretty small, but good if you want to meet new people, and there’s an information center. It’s usually as crowded as the bar, if not more. And did you see there’s like a trailer park behind my house? It has all these fairy lights strung up, and everything?”
“No. I approached the house from your front door. As one does.”
“Ok, so there’s a trailer park behind my house. And then right next to the trailer park—there’s some fairy lights connecting that, too—there’s one of those stalls, like the food ones in San Myshuno or the little farmer’s market stalls.”
“Those farmers market stalls always have the best fruit.”
“They always have the best fruit,” she confirmed. “This one also has an assortment of Strangerville-themed curios, which as you can tell by the name are—“
“—centered around its eponymous quality.”
“Sure. Anyway they only had one type of local fruit. It’s this red glowy ball. It was throwing all kinds of don’t-eat-me signals, but generally if a fruit is red, it’s evolved to be appealing to animals. Plus growfruit glows and it’s okay, right? So I ate it.”
Wyatt nodded. “Solid.”
“And then I’m unsure what happened next, could have been the fruit, but I suddenly started to feel sick.”
“Yeah, so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to eat the fruit after all.” Thanks. She’ll keep that in mind.
“No, I’m not done. Then I started to feel even worse.
“And then—let me take a minute. It’s hard to describe.
“Wyatt. You know that feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s this strange humming, and you can’t move your arms and legs, and you try to scream but nothing comes out, and you just know you’re dying, this is the last thing you’ll see, and it feels like you’re above your body, watching yourself struggle, when in reality there’s no movement?”
“Well, it felt like that, but instead of waiting for the Reaper, something inside took over and used me as a giant mech.”
“Wait, so you’re envisioning yourself being larger than the thing? What if it’s a giant pair of invisible mechanical hands posing you like some doll?”
“It didn’t feel like that. It felt like it was coming from within me, like the gag in cartoons where one character gets in another’s head and there’s a little control box with a lever. And they’re not great with the controls.” She widened her eyes to about 85% Strangerville face. “But you know what the worst part is? I was conscious the entire time. So I was running around town like a complete idiot and couldn’t control anything I was doing.”
“I don’t like how giddy you are when you’re saying this.”
“But no, it actually is great! It’s because,” she gestured upstairs, towards her bookshelf, “you know how the best horror reflects what the author, or society, is most scared of at the time?”
“So if you’re trying to find an overarching thing, one that’s timeless or at least passes the bar to become a classic, you go towards the big ones. Death, right?” Wyatt nodded. “But not necessarily.”
“You’re saying because death is overdone?”
“Yeah, if you’re not switching it up, it gets old fast. But I’m talking more like the fact that there are people, like Bernard, who can cheat death. Who came back as ghosts, and were then revived.”
“So your question is—“
“—what would scare a ghost? And that’s when I figured it out.”
“Eating fruit from weird stalls next to trailer parks.”
“Losing control of your own body.”
“Ah,” Wyatt realized, “and so such a topic will be easier for you to handle because you have first-hand experience?”
“Yes! Exactly!” Others may find Wyatt abrasive, but he got it. He always got it. “And so this is where we get to the texts.”
“Don’t tell me the texts are the culmination of all this research.”
“No, it’s more like a side effect. What I forgot to tell you was, that wasn’t the only time. It kept happening.”
“So there’s a chance you could wig out in the middle of this conversation?”
“I kind of want to see that.”
“You might. But back to the texts. I tried to write, and in the moment it felt like what I was writing made sense, but I snapped out of it and looked back and it was all ŴΔŦ€Ř ƗŞ ŴĦΔŦ βƗŇĐŞ ỮŞ ΔŇĐ ŞØØŇ ƗŦ ŴƗŁŁ β€ ƤỮŘ€. I don’t even know where I found that font.”
“Oof. But you’re saying you can’t control it, so aren’t you worried about like, sending these to your family or your boss?”
“It’s happened.” She opened her phone to a conversation between her and her mom, where Claudia had replied to ‘ƗŦ Đ€VØỮŘŞ, ƗŦ ΔƤƤŘØΔĆĦ€Ş’ with ‘Do you need me to cook something? Sending love xoxo.’ “They think it’s normal Kendra shit.”
“Right, I’m also going to concede here, I thought it was normal Kendra shit.”
“And there’s something else I forgot to mention. When I come down, it feels fucking amazing afterwards. I haven’t had to sleep in days.”
“You mean you haven’t slept in days.”
“That’s just semantics.”
Wyatt—who unflinchingly sat through all the gory monster drawings Kendra showed him in elementary school, and in high school, and last week—winced. “You know, Kendra,” he started, trying to sound as non-condescending as possible, “I’m saying this as your best friend, but if it’s affecting your sleep, this isn’t healthy. This actually sounds pretty serious.”
“You know how to fix it?” She didn’t look up from examining her nails.
“Then I’m just going to have to deal with it for now, aren’t I?”
“I guess. But there’s something else bothering me,” he said. “If it really is the fruit that made you sick, and the government confiscated the fruitcake because they could sense contamination from inside your fridge, isn’t it possible the fruit itself is the controlled substance?” Kendra rolled her eyes and nodded. “So why didn’t the government just confiscate the fruit?”
“I don’t know,” Kendra conceded. She was twisting her midi rings. “If they’re not concerned about the fruit I still have, maybe they’re not concerned about the fruit at all.”
“The fruit you still have.” Every word was dripping with well-meaning judgement.
“Oh shit, that reminds me! Come, let me show you.”
Wyatt followed Kendra across the back porch to the left side of her house. She led him around a barbed-wire privacy fence, tucked away in an area that wasn’t visible from the street, that they had to squeeze past a bush to enter.
“Is that an outdoor shower with no curtains on the side facing the street?”
“Shut up.” Only Yuggoth ever used the bathtub, but she let Wyatt think otherwise for the sake of the image.
Behind the privacy fencing was a staircase leading into a small, unfinished basement, the floor a thin layer of soil and the walls hastily constructed from corrugated metal scraps, possibly by Kendra herself. But what caught Wyatt’s attention were the vines coating the inexpert construction in unnatural shades of purple and fuchsia, with odd salmon-colored offshoots resembling the feet of a tropical frog. He twisted his head toward Kendra, comically slowly, with a look of abject horror. She gestured toward the opposing wall. Under the industrial-grade sprinklers, three oversized buds bioluminesced in an unsatisfyingly dissimilar shade of purple to the vines. The plant’s sepals were lined with pokey hot-pink spikes and embellished with diamonds; to Wyatt representing either danger or wealth, though if the numbering were to be trusted, danger was more likely.
“Is that where the fruit comes from?”
“That’s where the fruit comes from.” Kendra made a digging motion with her hands. “When I’m under, I can make these appear without actually planting anything.”
“—Growing controlled substances in a secret basement! Awesome, right?”
Wyatt had to admit to himself that it was indeed awesome. “I’m kind of glad a fruit is the thing causing all this weirdness,” he said. “It seems like these days people are freaking out thinking the government is doing something weird, or scientists are doing something weird, and it’s been sowing these conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism and distrust. Like fuck we need people thinking Dr. Jeremy is in there making top-secret bioweapons instead of looking at temperature measurements from the last century or watching a slime mold solve a maze. I’m glad it’s nature fighting back for once.”
“Spot-on.” Kendra had noticed this while trying to figure out which conspiracy theorist to date. The words GOVERNMENT and SCIENCE LAB garnished nearly every conversation, but INVASIVE SPECIES and HOST-PLANT RESISTANCE were shockingly absent. “If I had a secret science lab I didn’t want people to go into, I wouldn’t put it in a crater next to a town full of huge gossips that also coincidentally happens to be named ‘Strangerville.'”
“Yeah, no shit,” he agreed. “But like, still,” he wondered aloud, “isn’t it cool that there’s this mystery no one understands? Don’t you want to try and figure out what’s happening?”
Kendra picked a dead leaf from one of the vines. “Nah.” She crushed the leaf in her left hand, repeating the gesture to break it into progressively smaller pieces.
“The locals want to play detective?” She opened her hand, letting the pieces of leaf drift in the air filter current toward the ominous fauna. “They can figure it out.”
Kendra’s house is “Little Witch House” by Larifari2009.