Bernard had given Kendra a booklet of 19th century cocktail recipes for her young-adult birthday. It was unassuming, the cover having been designed for practicality rather than charm and the binding yellowed except in white branches where the ink had cracked. She’d been that such a delicate item had been able to survive this long despite the damage. As Bernard explained it, Windenburg didn’t have a lot going on at the time, cocktail-wise, and so most of the recipes originated in Willow Creek or Oasis Springs, hence the less ornate design. He thought she might find it interesting regardless. From what she’d seen flipping through, the drinks it suggested were either classics every sim child knew or extinct, overly complicated libations with insane names: the Jolly Dead—which called for both fresh cilantro and cardamom—bemused Kendra each of the several times it popped into her head every day, and it had taken several weeks worth of trips to the bulk spice place and supermarket with the good produce until she remembered to collect every necessary ingredient. But it was the middle of the day, she was exhausted of writing for now, and her reward was getting to finally see what this batty thing tasted like.
She’d raised an eyebrow at muddling the cilantro. Of course the aromas it released were pleasantly grassy, but—really? Cardamom and cilantro in a curry, sure, and cardamom in a drink always pleased her, especially when paired with something fruity, but, again—really? As for the other flavors, she’d been double-checking when a knock came from the front door.
“Let yourself in,” she said, placing a fingernail at the next ingredient needed for a Jolly Dead. Homemade orange bitters. The person who’d let himself in was her younger brother.
“Wasn’t expecting you, bro. How’s school?”
Hector settled onto the bar stool morosely as she’d seen anyone do it. “I can’t take this anymore.”
Kendra found herself thrown off beat. “Whoa. Coming in strong.”
“Strong? She’s your mother too, and—never mind. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t be in that house. With him.” There was a drink at the other end of the bar that struck Hector as oddly brightly colored, and he pulled it closer to have something to focus his attention on. “Everything reminds me of her. And Dad is just—” He slammed his fist onto the bar.
“I told you, I can’t take it anymore. I wanna live with you.”
Kenny’s house was built more for aesthetics than to maximize available free space for emancipated relatives or to have sims avoid using the stupid stairs all the damn time. The option she could think of involved throwing her baby brother into what was basically a hole, then throwing a space heater after him. Dress it up in nice wallpaper, it’s still something she dug under the influence of mind-controlling spores with no regards to structural stability or building codes, stuffed full of contraband, and only entered to show to friends as a joke, the joke being that she did a high degree of stupid shit when the plants took her. “I guess I have room, but…”
Hector watched his sister’s lips scrunch to one side of her face. It didn’t seem like she was going to finish that sentence.
“Yeah, my bad. I’d just have to reorganize things.” In particular, it was questionable to Kendra how sentient the native vegetation was, given its ability to influence her behavior and even send texts in fancy font, for the love of everything. But she’d looked up ‘mind-controlling parasites’ several times, and scrolled one-handed through the colorful descriptions of ant body horror, with the other hand in a bag of chips, and concluded that it was possible for a critter to be itself dumber than a kitchen sponge and still have the capacity to hijack a more complex organism’s brain and make them peel apples while singing satanic metal backwards. Though she really had no way of knowing. It wasn’t possible for her in her default, conscious state to make judgement calls about where the plant wanted to be anyway. As in, if the plant also wanted a space heater and orange wallpaper and a nice bed and a desk to do its homework on and place its personal collectibles, that may have been out of its parasitic capacity to influence and she was left guessing, at best, how the plant’s ideal basement dwelling differed from her brother’s. Or if it could feel uprooting, or fear death, or remotely retribute any mistreatment by communicating with the spores in her head, like how bees do.
Hector rotated himself into her field of vision, not quite knocking over the tequila bottle with his hat. “I thought about it, and you’re the best option.”
“Option like real adult? Option like people who’re gonna keep you away from dad? I’m not a real adult.” She gestured to her fridge as if inviting Hector to examine its contents. Whether by noting the energy drinks in the crisper, the array of takeout containers that a middle-school Global History teacher would assign full credit as a special project—for diversity in both age and country of origin—the highly processed and shelf-stable crunchy things that didn’t belong in either the fridge or a sim body anyway, or the rancid puddle of sputum coughed up by a cucumber no one seemed to be able to find, Hector, whose main priority upon waking up was preparing fresh tortillas, could come to his own conclusions. “Like, if I were you, I’d ask the Shallot-Lius first. No way Dad’s going within 500 feet of Bernard after that epic shit that went down at the funeral.”
Hearing her talk like that, so candidly, felt odd. She didn’t used to swear in front of him at all as far as Hector could remember. Not that they spoke much to begin with. “Uh. Yeah. That was awesome.” He sipped his drink. “But I don’t know the Lius as well as you do. Any of them. Look. Aileen’s right next to our house, the Shallot-Lius are way too intense for someone who’s not close to them, and Shu is—uh—“
“—I wasn’t counting Shu as an option. I said real adult. Guy’s my best friend but I wouldn’t live with him if someone had a gun to my head.”
“Yeah. I mean—yeah. Glad we’re on the same page.”
“And now that I think about it, Shu couldn’t handle living with Xiyuan and Bernard. Shu. He had to move out. Let that sink in.” Though Shu, to his credit, had spent more time trying to locate the phantom cucumber than anyone else. It has a mind of its own, he’d said, after about the fifth time he’d wiped up the rotting liquid and it had reinstated itself while no one was looking, especially not Kendra, who’d been on her phone watching videos of cookies being iced. “What about Jo? You’re getting on fine with Jo.”
“Yeah, we’re doing the family costume thing for your party.”
Her early autumn costume party. “Right, right.”
“Look, Jo’s nice, and we’re doing the costume thing, and I’d love to spend more time with Jasper, and I’m sure they need help with the disappearance, but they really don’t have space.”
“And you have to be really confident about your body to live in that house. I don’t think I could do it.”
“Solid.” Hector’s tone had softened, and Kendra saw a remnant of the glow he used to have. “I’ll smile. But I don’t feel like laughing right now.”
And now he was staring at his drink again, as if raising the glass would take more energy than he had. There’d been times where Kendra excused herself from the room because he was laughing too loud or having the kind of cloyingly upbeat conversation with Mom that Kendra could never bring herself to tolerate, but this was worse. No contest. What was it Aileen said at the funeral? She had to be there for him, more than anyone else. “I guess it’s on me, then,” she said to herself.
“Well shit, welcome to the house.” Kendra emptied her cocktail shaker into a tumbler and closed one eye to examine the bumps of cilantro still at the bottom. Weird. Weird, weird. “But we’ve still got a lot of stuff to figure out. What were you planning on telling Dad?”
The tips of Hector’s fingers turned white as he squeezed his glass. “I don’t want to tell him anything.”
“Uh, aren’t you worried about how he’s going to react? He might think you’re missing and start asking around, and he might get angry and come after you if he realizes you’re here.”
“I don’t want to think about it right now.” The glass could break if he kept gripping it like that.
“Fine.” Kendra regretted the word choice immediately upon saying it. It was sharper than she’d intended. “Okay, I’ll talk to Dad.”
“Thanks.” He allowed his hand to fall toward the counter. What a relief.
Kendra flipped to the next page of the old-school cocktail book. Escape from Hell. Just the one she wanted to try after the Jolly Dead. “But that’s not the only thing we need to figure out. You should know I have a tendency to get myself fucked up and run around at 1 A.M. Hm? Why are you looking at me like that? It’s my house and I’m going to keep swearing.”
“Wait, is this that thing where you’re like—“
“No, I can’t explain it. Let me get my phone out.” There was a particular text he wanted to start with, and it took him a couple beats of scrolling to reach it. He placed his phone on the counter and rotated it for Kendra to read. The text said, ‘ŞØØŇ ΜØŦĦ€Ř ŴƗŁŁ ĆŁ€ΔŇŞ€ ỮŞ ΔŇĐ €ŇĐ ŦĦ€ ƤΔƗŇ.’
“Yes. It’s the thing where I’m like that.”
Hector put on a growl to read the next text aloud. “Ŵ€ ΔŁŁ ₣€€Ł ŦĦ€ ƤỮŁŁ Ø₣ ŦĦ€ ΜØØŇ βỮŦ ₣ØŘ ŞØΜ€, ƗŦ ƗŞ Δ ĆΔŁŁƗŇǤ.”
“Ɨ ĦΔV€ Ş€€Ň ŦĦ€ €ĐǤ€ Ø₣ ŦĦ€ €ΔŘŦĦ ΔŇĐ ƗŦ ƗŞ ŦĦ€Ř€ Ŵ€ ŞĦΔŁŁ ŞƤƗŁŁ ØV€Ř ΔŇĐ ĆΔŞŦ ΔŴΔ¥ ØỮŘ ₣ΔŁŞ€ Ş€ŁV€Ş.”
“Yep, yep, that thing. It’s related to that.”
He shrugged. “Oh, yeah, that’s not gonna bother me. I’ll be asleep.”
“And the costume party’s gonna be fine—you’re invited and it’s kind of a family thing as well—but I’m gonna have other parties. And I don’t want to bother you with that. Especially on a school night.”
“I’m sorry, I’m a teen boy whose cool adult sister throws parties and you think that’s a problem?”
“Guess we’ll work around it.” Escaping Hell involved more mint than Kendra felt like handling today, but she got that if someone wanted to bypass the flames with just a drink, it’d have to be a pretty damn cold one. “Did you see this little book Bernard got me? The recipes are either simple or nuts ’cause it’s from a time when people were still figuring things out, but the names are rad. You gotta see these.” She put down the shaker and handed Hector the book.
Although he did glance at the cover, Hector made no move to take the book from her, instead studying her face for anything other than feigned excitement over drink titles. She’d been quiet at the funeral, too. It occurred to Hector that there was a reason he hadn’t had any emotionally charged conversations with his sister; he remembered asking her one time if she thought there was anything weird about Mom and Dad’s relationship and she said maybe but did you see the dancing parrot video I sent you. It fell to him to keep the conversation on track. “So you said you have room for me. Where?”
“Ah, uh, it’s a bit of a walk.”
Hector raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Here, follow me, I’ll show you ’round.” Kendra made a large gesture, abandoned her station, and, to Hector’s bafflement, turned left and kept walking.
“You’re leaving through the front door? Wait, how far?”
He sucked the remainder of his drink into his cheek, like a hamster, and darted after her. She was turning around the side of the house when he caught up.
Right off the dirt path there was a bathtub with curtains sketchily placed on both long sides, and in front was a—what was it connected to, a propane tank? Nothing Hector was capable of figuring out at his current Handiness level. But wherever Kendra was leading him involved leaving the house, an orange dirt path, rocky obstructions, and, when he’d gotten past the obstructions, a shitload of barbed wire even though the wall tricked out with said wire had a huge, obvious opening that anyone could pass through without having to scale the fence. A large bush obscured the opening so he couldn’t quite see what was inside. “Here’s my basement. Social Services is gonna love it.”
Hector nodded toward the tub. “Looks like it comes with a private bath.”
“I don’t use it. I swear it’s for Yuggoth.”
“I don’t believe you.” By scooting past the lantern, Hector could get a relatively leafless view. Nothing above-ground stood out to him, true to Kendra’s claim, and the staircase leading below ground was too dark for Hector to see beyond the first couple steps. The steps he could see were the same shade of orange as the dirt path—not intentional as far as he could tell—and had visible nails at the edges at all angles, and not the same number on both sides. “What’s in there now?”
While Kendra didn’t exactly move to block him from the entrance, she did step forward. “You really can’t see it until I’ve cleaned the place up.”
“I feel so comfy now. That’s the opposite of unsettling. That’s so settling.”
“Well you could be settling in.”
“I’m not living in your homemade murder basement.”
“Wanna live with Jo?”
“Let’s see the murder basement, then.”
“Seriously can’t. I seriously have to clean up in there.”
He considered making a break for the small space between the bush and the opening and thought better of it. This was a place Kendra didn’t want him to enter, after all. Kendra. The sister who once tried to lull him, a toddler, to sleep by reading a passage she defended as ‘upbeat’ about burn victims receiving skin grafts. “Right…”
Hector looked back up at Kendra and noticed she was lost in thought. Her eyes popped open. “Okay, hold up. Follow me. I think there’s another option.” Instead of pushing past him to re-enter the house, as Hector expected, she turned around and used the fence pole to swing herself into a sharp turn.
“Wait, and now we’re going around to the back of the house?” Hector scurried after her, taking smaller taps across the slippery moss until he reached the stone path. “Am I still not gonna be allowed in the basement?”
“If you decide to move in, I’m cleaning up anyway.” Unless she wanted to come home to a glow-in-the-dark fruit salsa, she’d have to let Hector in on Strangerville’s deal at some point, though not immediately. Her back doors swung inward as she approached. While they stayed open for Hector, she turned sideways and maneuvered herself through an archway that the right door was mostly blocking. Hector stepped aside and waited for the doors to close before passing through the same arch into the claustrophobic storage room of a shipwreck. Seriously. If not for the open doorway, he’d be convinced by the lighting that he needed full scuba gear to enter.
“Here we are.” Despite being in her own house, Kendra was swiveling to look around just as much as Hector was. “Sorry about that. I forgot about this room ’cause I don’t use it much.”
“I can see that.” He stepped backward and his heel made contact with something spongy. It happened to be a woven rug, luckily, rather than an unidentified spill that the blue hid. Maybe the rug served dual function as a paper towel. “What’s even going on here? You got a woodworking table, a laundry hamper—“
“—a, is that a milk jug?”
“Yeah. That’s my floor milk jug.”
“A couple—what are those, trays?—of random crap.”
“Yep. My floor random-crap trays. They gotta be stacked.”
“Where’d you even get a giant Omiscan skull mural that makes the room look even smaller?”
“Wall skull. Made Simsmapolitan’s must-haves list this summer. All the rage.”
“And what’s with the lighting?”
“Yeah, so what I’m getting at is I see that it’s blue, but why?”
“I don’t know. I never use this room. How many times a day do you think I woodwork while drinking milk and doing my skull laundry?” Her arm flopped toward the lack of a door. “And you also get the little chamber where the carrot watches my trash.”
It was visible through the archway if Hector leaned at the right angle. A hint of orange. “This room is so bad, I can feel the blood in my nose.”
Now, Kendra was looking directly at him. “You like it or not?”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling for the second time today. “Yeah, this’ll do.”
Even with the sweet time Kendra took searching her house for free space, there were still a few minutes before Mike’s shift ended. And Hector, having spent the past day staring at the things he wanted to liberate, wasted no time on retracing his steps.
The Omniscan artifacts, the macaroni drawings, the precious tortilladora, the hundreds of servings of food. All of it, the whole lifetime, transferred to his inventory. He’d thought he’d have more of a reaction to seeing the empty space where his treasures used to be, but with the act of picking them up, they felt so heavy in his hands—so tangible the memories were—that he didn’t need to look back.
He saved the living room for last. Keeping a brisk pace past the dining room table, he evaded the dogs circling his feet and reached his mother’s urn.
When he turned away, he left an empty slot on the fireplace.
“I’m finally getting you out of here.”