As the grey clouds finished relieving themselves of extra weight, the roof of the Casbah Gallery burst forth in glittering splendor from the sunlit reflection of thousands of watery beads. Look closely and you’d notice each bead was caught in an internal battle between stasis, gravity, and surface tension, one that resolved within minutes depending on its size and distance from neighbors. Droplets turned to rivulets turned to tributaries, painting the roof in a mosaic of deconstructed venules and capillaries. These were the ones who lost to the forces of physics. They were damned if they went down without taking the rest with them. Of these, most fell off the eaves and waited to be vaporized back into the water cycle. The ones we’re concerned with, though, are the ones falling to the ground to be disturbed by a size 2Y black canvas slip-on.
The boy wearing the size 2Y black canvas slip-on, plus its twin, rotated his phone to make sure the little blue gradient stuck to his little blue you-are-here dot was pointing in the right direction. An elder sitting on a bench clear across the lot gestured to the lad during the fraction of the minute this action took and moaned to his wife about the current generation’s overuse of technology. If Jasper had heard him, he’d hardly be offended. This accusation was leveled at him so many times it counted as background noise.
Jasper had found in his father’s things a sticky note with Cruz Greenwood’s address among other Cruz Greenwood paraphernalia, and knew from idly listening to his father’s Cruz-Greenwood-themed rambling that Shu lived across the hall from the wonderful magical Cruz Greenwood, which was followed up with a detailed history of Cruz Greenwood’s high school extracurriculars and a couple extra Cruz Greenwood facts. He’d retraced his father’s steps out of the elevator to Cruz Greenwood’s floor, only to take a sharp left mere feet from the apartment that may or may not currently contain Cruz Greenwood.
Peeking through the windows, it was clear this was the place. Brightly colored furniture, wall murals, about eight guitars. Cool-people stuff. He knocked with caution on one of the parts that wasn’t glass. A kid who hadn’t grown up in a transparent house or basically any adult would question the decision for this particular door to have windows. Shu popped his head in from stage right, then recoiled gently, bewildered eyes wide. He opened the door.
“Jasi? What’s crackin’? Whatcha doing here?”
“Here come dat boi!” That’s the traditional Meme Appreciation Club greeting.
“Your mom’s gonna skin me with a Swiss peeler and put my glasses in a decorative bowl if I respond to that. You know that.” He squinted. “Does she know you’re here?”
“Yeah.” This claim held as much weight as a fly’s handbag. What he actually delivered to his mother was some line about being at a friend’s house, and Jo was too wrapped up in the idea of him riding the subway alone to ask for details about said friend. He instead left the apartment with a subway map (outdated—not as good as the app he’d downloaded to his phone last week), instructions to pick a spot on the ground and stare the hell out of it until the preacher/crackhead/candy-bar-basketball-team guy/etc. is gone (she didn’t actually say ‘hell’), and a tiny container of pepper spray that was blue to promote Bloaty Head awareness (just go nuts using it in an enclosed space). Not a prepaid card, though, which is the one thing he actually wanted.
“Yeah. Right. Uh-huh.” Shu punctuated his triple positive by spinning the phone he’d retrieved from his back pocket. A quick text would confirm it.
“Shu, can I ask you a question?”
“How come people think it’s weird to put a lime in the microwave?”
Shu’s brain short-circuited at the concept of cooking a citrus fruit whole, much less microwaving one. His phone went back into his pocket. “Uh. What?”
“Why can’t you put a lime in the microwave?”
“Uh, I mean, you can. But if you try to cook citrus fruit like that, it’s gonna get bitter and brown. So I’m guessing it’s gonna taste like”—he took a couple beats to come up with a Jasper-appropriate simile—“trash.”
“But why do people think it’s so gross? It’d make your microwave smell nice. It’s not like you’re microwaving an avocado or anything.”
“I guess. Want to go inside, buddy?” he said, waving his hand to usher Jasper in. The moment he was out of Jasper’s peripherals, he began dry heaving at the mental image of that last suggestion. Those are two words that should only appear in the same sentence if someone’s writing a three-word horror story, he thought. And that’s not even a sentence. By the time he made it through the door, he’d taken his phone out and started scrolling through his contacts. He was at ‘D’ when he collided with a soft blonde pillar.
“Did someone forget where we were going?”
“No.” Shu tilted his head Jasper-ward. “Surprise visitor. I can’t plan these things.”
“Well, you did plan another thing. And that thing is happening in an hour. Can’t Gen deal with this?”
“Y’all, what are you dumping on me?” Gen said this loudly to ensure the sound waves bounced off her bowling avatar and reached the people it was intended for. Pausing would throw off her groove.
“Babe, his dad just went missing,” Shu appealed. “Think Cosette from Les Mis. Halfway to Batman. Disney main character.” They both looked at Jasper, who was inexplicably walking into Gen’s bedroom. “Disney main character plugged in to Know Your Meme.”
Chantel rolled her eyes. “Fine. Go play ‘father figure.'”
“Hey—hey, where’s the kid?” Gen asked, removing one hand from the controller to twist around in her seat. “Is he behind me?”
Shu gave a thumbs-sideways towards the bedroom. “No, he’s—“
“—FORTNITE!” Gen was cupping her hand to form a makeshift megaphone. “FORTNIIIITE!”
“What,” Jasper said, emerging from yonder to heed the call of his people, “where?” Seeing the colorful screen with its lineup of non-Fortnite characters, which waited with infinite patience for Gen to un-cup her hand and just roll the damn ball already, he plopped himself down on the other end of Gen’s loveseat to get the best vantage point for whatever this was. “Who are you?”
“I’m Gen. Shu’s better girlfriend.”
He turned to Shu. “You have two girlfriends?”
“I mean, I guess.” If one has six girlfriends, they also have two girlfriends. QED.
“That’s so cool. You’re like the coolest person ever.”
“I don’t know how you could say that when I’m sitting right here.” Gen handed a controller to the aspiring memelord. “Take it. We’re gonna listen to the same beep-boopy background music for two hours and we’re gonna have a great time.”
“What are we doing?”
“Yelling at the TV and pressing random buttons. JK, bowling. You aim with the D-pad and then press and release this one,” she indicated on his controller. “Get ready for it to not be bowling, because it’s like eight games. And could you give me a hand with something?”
“Tell Shu to stop sucking at Party Frenzy.”
“Shu, stop sucking at Party Frenzy.”
Shu didn’t dignify this with more than one apathetic head shake. He was seated under the window with one arm resting on a cushion behind the woman Gen would classify as his second-best girlfriend. “You know that joke where a guy asks a genie to build a bridge to Sulani, and the genie starts laying out all the steps he would need to take to do that, and how impossible it would be? And then the guy asks for something else, that’s leading to the punchline, and the genie’s like ‘Let’s look at that bridge again.'” Jasper shook his head to indicate a negative. “Well, that’s the joke, pretty much. It’s like that. It’s not gonna happen.”
“I’d ask the genie for a boyfriend who keeps his appointments,” muttered Chantel.
“Whoa, we haven’t missed anything. It’s in like an hour.” He gave a playful shrug. “You wanted the unpredictable guy, babe, you—I don’t think I can say something overplayed like ‘expect the unexpected’ right after claiming that—“
“—Get used to doing all the side quests,” Gen finished.
“Ok, she has a point. I’m bad at saying ‘no.'” Call it politeness or subservience, he’d picked up the habit from Xiyuan. It was a multi-generational weakness to requests that held regardless of who had what job or who banged which ghost. Though we do concede, at this point, that Shu had to deal with more of them. Requests. Not ghosts.
“Yeah, and I’m usually the one you’re not saying no to. We’re unpredictable together.”
“Oh, duh. Remember when—” He stopped short, remembering Jasper’s presence. The lull in conversation had caught the child’s attention. Normally, the time when adults stop talking is the best time to listen. “Remember when, uh. That time at the bluffs?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It wasn’t uniquely determined. “Remember last winter when we went around looking for boxes, in case there were any kittens in the box? But then there were just snow globes, so we tossed them off a bridge to see who could make the loudest splash.”
Shu rewound back a few weeks, which is a challenge for someone who ‘pees in the mouth of monotony,’ his words, to the night in question. “Oh, yeah!”
“That was the best! You were dying laughing.”
“You guys are really setting an example for the kid,” Gen interjected. “In a week he’s going to turn in his homework soaked and they’re going to close down the school because of a suspicious black Jansport filled with shards of glass and tiny little San Myshuno landmarks.”
“My bad,” said Shu. “Don’t throw snow globes off a bridge.”
“Then what are you supposed to do with snow globes, anyway?” Jasper was asking the real questions.
Gen shrugged. “Throw them off a bridge.”
“Why are we wasting time on this?” Chantel whispered to her boyfriend. “All you can talk about all week is getting me to the doctor, and now there’s forty-five minutes to go and you act like it’s not happening?”
“I don’t know what else to do. What do you want me to do?”
Jasper had a few cards to play that would bring the conversation back to an audible volume. “I got an ‘A’ in school. I also taught myself how to deep-fry a meme. If you want anything deep-fried, I can do it for you.”
“So, image filtering?” Gen asked. “I wish they taught me discrete cosine transforms in school.”
“It’s what gives JPEGs that fantastic blocky quality we love so much,” Gen explained. “There’s a bunch of jargon, but if you give me a piece of paper I can draw what’s going on. Don’t worry. You’ll probably understand it better than Shu.”
Shu shrugged. “Bleh.”
“Weak, Shu. Aren’t you like supposed to be super-talented at everything ever.”
“I love you too.”
“You could learn it as a bonding activity, ‘Daddy,'” Chantel said.
Shu leaned sideways to whisper in her ear. “For fuck’s sake don’t start with that reverse-gender Oedipal shit.”
“There’s a bunch of other things you have to do for deep-frying.” Jasper’s lesson on how to deep-fry a meme was well received only by Gen, and also ten minutes long.
“Look, this is scary,” Chantel whispered. Jasper was on his fifth false start of listing all the filters he knew. “No matter what they say, everything’s going to be alright. Right?”
“Don’t worry, we still have time. I’ll be there no matter what.”
Chantel sighed. “Never mind. I’ll be in the bathroom if you need me.”
“Oh!” Shu remembered this kid’s mom has no idea where he is. “I have to do something. Be back in a minute. Love ya both.”
“Hey Shu?” Jasper called.
“How come people call Kanye West Yeezy?”
“I have no idea,” Shu said, finally pressing send on a text to someone he knew for a fact wouldn’t want to hear from him.
“ARGH,” Gen yelled. “YOU FRICKIN’ FRICKS.” Jasper was bent over knees-to-torso in laughter.
“Did I miss something?” Shu’d sat down again, but it was clearly too late.
“Gen got run off the track by the computer.”
“Yeah, the AI decided it had road rage.”
“And then I passed her!”
“And then he passed me!”
“Wow, you’re beating Gen already? Does this mean I’m off the hook?”
“You were never on the hook, Shu. You beautiful, beautiful noob. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
“I’m pretty good at racing games,” Jasper explained. “My mom lets me play them when my friends come over!” This wasn’t news to Shu. Neither was the ‘A’ grade. Though he’d never admit it, he sometimes binged Jumping Jasper! when whoever was next to him was asleep. Jo wasn’t a fan of games but she loved documenting that her son had friends.
“That’s great!” Before Jasper could blurt out his next bit of intel, Shu interrupted himself. “I’m getting Chantel. She needs me right now.”
“Can you stay and watch me win the race? Pleeease?”
“You want me to watch Gen actually lose for once? Sure.” Gen gestured at him with her controller. Her pointer fingers were in the position her thumbs should have been. Then she turned back to the screen. A particularly sharp corner was coming up.
“Oh, no. I dropped my earring. Where’s that lil’ troublemaker?” Gen stopped to run her hand over the cushions mere feet from the finish line. Her avatar, that was. She stayed at a relatively constant distance from the screen throughout the whole conversation. Jasper, who wasn’t wearing earrings, whizzed past her.
“Yeah! First place!” He turned to see Shu’s reaction. Shu took this as a cue to stand up and mimic the frenzied state induced by watching a favored athlete score a goal on TV.
“Wooo! That’s what it feels like, Gen! That’s what it feels like to be me!” He slapped his thighs. “Aight. I’ll find Chantel, but I’mma do the dishes first.”
“Like hell you are. It’s my turn to do the dishes.”
Behind the closed bathroom door, Chantel tried to hide her annoyance at the muffled laughter. It’s rude to laugh when someone else was feeling down, right? It’s not just her.
“There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing will change.” She exhaled deeply. “You’re almost there, girl. You got this.”
From outside, she could hear the knob of the other sink twist open, followed by the sound of running water. “You better keep your hands off those fricking dishes,” Gen’s voice carried through the concrete walls, “I swear to god.”
“That was a waste of time.”
“You didn’t learn anything?”
“They were trying to slap a stupid label on me. Personality disorder! We talked like once! But I did what you wanted, and now we can move on. Right?”
“Chantel, the point was figuring out how to move on.”
“This doesn’t change anything. I’m still the same person.”
“And there are still massive problems with the way you see this relationship.”
“Which you already knew before you dragged me into this.”
“I mean, I hoped you’d listen to the doctor. You weren’t listening to me.”
“I was listening. You said I had to do this before we could move on. I did. I listened to all the horrible things she had to say, and her ‘plan.’ I took the Simpedia printouts that basically say she thinks I’m hopeless. But nothing changed.”
“You’re not hopeless, you—“
“All I did was tell her my feelings. Of course I’m distressed! Anyone waiting two-thirds of their life for a damn proposal would be distressed!”
“Like I said, I—“
“You don’t get it. You don’t get what you put me through. But now you have the chance to fix! Everything!”
“It’s not going to—“
“You’re the only one who can drag me out of this living hell. And you’re not! Day after day after day. You just watch me suffer. Just plan something for once in your life and pull the damn ring out. Just put it behind us so we can move on.”
“I don’t think we have the same idea of what ‘moving on’ means.”
“…What are you saying?”
“I’m saying we should take some time apart. You have some stuff to work out.”
“You need to focus on yourself.”
“No! Focusing on themselves is what selfish people do.”
“I mean, in excess? Sure. But what’s the alternative? Pushing the work onto other people?”
“But I don’t need to. I have you. You’re the only good thing in my life.”
“Look, it’s statements like that that make me worry about you.”
“And now you’re throwing me away over something some doctor said?”
“I’ve known this had to happen for a long time. I just—I didn’t want to go through with it, either.”
“So you made me humiliate myself and go through with this bullshit, even though you already made up your mind?”
“It’s the only way—“
“You’re acting like you know the future. You don’t know what’s best for me.”
“—to go forward—“
“It’s clearly not! There’s a solution staring you right in the face that’ll make us both happy! Take it!”
“—It wasn’t for me, you had to hear—“
“—No. Stop! You know what? I always knew this was going to happen. I just didn’t think it would be in my hour of need.”
“Please, don’t storm off. I need you to know that I—“
“I’ll be at my parents’. Don’t come back if you change your mind.”
“I knew you wouldn’t end up with that deadbeat loser,” Angela said. The Lucas family apartment had been spacious when Chantel was born, but was running out of extra rooms as she changed relationship status and accumulated siblings. Her room was behind the stairs. Her younger sister Jolene was eyeing that room for after the new baby aged up into a toddler—violating the properties of matter for the first of arguably between three and six times—but Chantel’s arrival meant crushing her dreams, too. She dreamed of being closer to the kitchen: it was a weird shade of orange but you could hide things in the cupboards since Colten and Angela rarely cooked. Shortly after Chantel moved out, they’d hired an interior decorator to change the place from “offensively unpleasant to pleasingly inoffensive,” as Colten put it. It wasn’t bad before. He was just proud of the phrase.
“I just can’t believe I wasted so much time!” Chantel wasn’t referring to her two-hour rant, rather the relationship in general. “Mom, you wouldn’t believe. He only thinks about himself.”
“He’s selfish,” Angela corrected. Why she felt this needed to be corrected is anyone’s guess.
Colten nodded. “He doesn’t care about your needs.”
“He clearly has commitment issues.”
“Real piece of work.”
Jolene took her chance to sneak away from the firing squad, having retrieved from the pantry a set of novelty panda-shaped erasers. She wasn’t allowed to have them. Her dad thought they were stupid.
“One moment. Jolene,” Colten barked, “why aren’t you doing your homework?”
“I was going to—“
“Go do your homework.”
“—get a pencil so I can do my—“
“Don’t talk back to me. You sit down at that table and do your homework right now.”
“He made me go to the hospital, like there was something wrong with me and it was my fault, when clearly he’s the one who has some issues to work out. And then he just left me! Like that!”
“Did he give you a reason?” Whatever it was, Colten was confident in his ability to rationalize it away. He just had to know what it was first.
“No. Reason. Whatsoever.” Chantel accentuated the first syllable of each word by slapping her thigh. “It just came out of nowhere. He strung me along for weeks and used me up. And then he left me.”
“That’s what men do,” Angela said. Colten wanted to blurt out a common three three-letter-word phrase to warn them against attributing behaviors to gender when such behavior arises from other causes, and which gave away how he perceived his conduct in particular, but decided gender issues could wait for another conversation. “At least we won’t have to worry about this with Jolene.” She and Colten snickered. Jolene was right there. Seriously, right there. Ten feet away.
“Can we not bring Jolene into this? This is literally the worst day of my life.”
“Huh?” Colten said, shooting his wife and then daughter a bemused look. “We never said anything about Jolene.”
His statement was lost on Chantel, who was reliving bits and snippets of the fateful conversation. Shu’s face, full of fake pity. He probably couldn’t wait to get rid of her. She sprang up at this realization, growling, digging her fingertips into her palm in renewed rage. “I just can’t deal with this right now. I’ll be in my room.”
“Whatever you need honey, just tell—“
Chantel slammed the door on her mother’s statement. She was too distracted by the pain of grinding her teeth together, which was the intention. Physical pain was easier for her to deal with than emotional pain. Physical pain had a clear cause and a clear solution. She pitched herself onto the bed. She knew there’d be no sleep that night, but the measurable and peer-reviewed softness of the GoodSleep™ mattress that could, quote, “carry [her] away to dreamland” was also ideal for absorbing blows; the free pillows that came with it could dispel any nightmare or allow one to scream about ex-boyfriends without alerting neighbors or parents. She told the pillow everything she should have said in that fateful moment. She ran out of words. She screamed pure emptiness.
She held the pillow to her face tightly enough that the pressure caused visions of black-and-grey tunnels to project onto her eyelids. This was something she’d started to do as a child. If she followed the tunnels for long enough, she’d go through them and they’d spit her out into a magical land where the streets were made of candy and everyone loved her. Clearly she didn’t accept this as truth—neither child Chantel nor adult Chantel was that naïve—but the tunnels were cool, and comfortable, and slowed her down. It meant she was closer.
The uncomfortable heat baked by her own breath into the pillow’s fibers brought her back into her body. Carefully, she recentered herself in her old room, scanning her surroundings with awe as the greyness was replaced with reality. Most everything was beige-floral or shades of beige. The interior designer had gotten to Chantel’s room after her decision to look like an organic nude lipstick collection. To the right, she’d added some new decorations. A large framed selfie beckoned her eye.
“I just can’t get rid of you, can I?” she asked it. “No matter what, you were going to be with me forever.”
“You made the biggest mistake of your life, you know? You can’t replace me. I’m irreplaceable.”
“It’s not just me,” she said. She was backing up toward her keyboard. “I’m not the only one who feels like this. And I don’t have to tell you. Just the world. Just everyone in existence. Is that what you want?”
“You know what? You’re going to regret this,” she told the photo. “Every time you turn on the radio. Every time you walk into one of your stupid clubs on one of your stupid dates.”
“It’ll play for ages. It’ll hit the top of the damn charts and stay there forever. And if it doesn’t? I’ll write another. And another. I’ll keep going until the world can only ask one question: who did this to Chantel Lucas? Then I’ll tell them.”
“Xishu Liu. You’re going to be famous.”
Her fingers performed their chaotic dance across the keys. A pattern was beginning to emerge.