“‘I Can’t Stop.'”
“You’re wondering out loud what song is playing. ‘I Can’t Stop’ by Kazaky. I picked it.”
“Oh. I did not realize anyone was listening. I am Alice, by the way.” Alice hadn’t made a mistake in her assumption; the music obscured her own voice to where the only confirmation she was speaking out loud she had was the vibration of the aspirated consonants through her skull, and it would have been inaudible to others had a bartender not been paying close attention to her lips.
“That is the coolest name. I swear, every little girl goes through a phase of wanting that name. It’s sometime between burning voodoo dolls and when black goes from a color to an identity.” It was immediately clear to Alice that her conversational partner was still in both phases.
“Because of that book.”
“Because of that book! And other media offshoots inspired by the aesthetic of the book.”
“Five minutes, Kendra,” muttered the elder behind the bar.
“Right; this is Brenda,” Kendra gestured behind her back. “She’s very kind to hold down the fort while her coworker sits down a quarter-hour every four to talk to strange women. She’s also introducing me, which is efficient considering I’ve only got five minutes.”
“I can do five minutes,” purred Alice. “How about the basics? Where are you from?”
“Originally Newcrest, but nowadays you can find me in Strangerville,” she said, flailing her right arm behind her to indicate the totality of the building they were in, “and obviously I also work here in Windenburg.” Alice understood that the flailing wasn’t directed at one thing in particular but her eyes followed Kendra’s gesture anyway.
“Ah, a stranger in Strangerville! I just moved there myself.”
“Sweet. It’s the best, right?”
“Not quite. Something is wrong in that town! And I am the only one who can stop it!”
Which took all the pressure off of Kendra. “Oh, man, I wouldn’t have pegged you as a transplant. You sound just like the locals.” She pulled a tiny black notebook out of her breast pocket, a habit she’d picked up from her brother. The edges had to be trimmed to fit her smaller pockets. Reaching between her shoulder blades, she unhooked a mechanical pencil from her necklace and used it to scribble in her resized notebook. “So what are you doing about it?”
“I joined the military to steal their secrets.”
“Ooh, how mysterious!” Though Kendra was more intrigued by the military job than the secrets. Military probably meant uniforms and uniforms were catnip to the Espinosa bloodline; they were partly to blame for Claudia’s high tolerance of Mike’s shit. Red flags mean something different on a uniform.
“It is an adventure on its own, but we are running out of time. Have you noticed the sickness is getting worse?”
“I don’t know, I thought the old twist on the wacky neighbors was part of its charm. ‘Keep Strangerville Weird’ and all that.” Alice had seen the unattended street signs and breaker boxes plastered with stickers reading ‘Keep Strangerville Weird,’ but she didn’t know it was solely Kendra’s doing. No one else said that. “But you have my attention. So on a scale of 1 to 10, how bad are these secrets?”
“I cannot say. You have to keep it quiet, alright? They are always listening.”
“Then we’ll give them something to listen to.” Kendra swooshed her pencil around as she pretended not to notice Alice hiding her intrigue, then ripped the page from her notebook and slid it, almost lobbed it, across the counter. “My break’s almost over. Let’s keep in contact, okay?”
Alice grabbed for the scrap of paper, which, due to its light weight, hadn’t landed directly in front of her like it does in the cartoons but was at least within her wingspan by a few inches. It bore a ten-digit number written diagonally above an unnecessarily florid underline that reminded Alice of crawling ivy. She flipped it with her pointer and middle fingers. On the back was a doodle of an almost three-sided little girl, complete with hair bow, leading a slithering mass of tentacles on a leash. “Oh! You’re also an artist!”
“And a poet,” added a voice from the bar Kendra thought she remembered being empty.
“Mother—” Kendra shrieked instinctively before remembering to shut down the less work-safe second half of the phrase. Turning around brought her face-to-face with the woman who, she was sure, would have been the mage in the triad of people who could tolerate Shu long enough to live with him. “You scared the crap out of me. How the hell did you sneak up in those boots? Did you line the soles with cork or something?”
“Baby whispers, actually. I go around looking for mothers with new babies and put my feet up to the bassinet and collect their whispers. Takes a while because it’s not something they usually do.”
Kendra tried to make her eyes and mouth look completely horizontal as she flung her open palms at the chair where Alice was sitting only seconds ago, then at the door Alice had just finished exiting.
“Oh, let that sweet little angel fly. You peaked.”
She continued indicating the two aforementioned objects in disbelief before thrusting her chin, chest, and palms towards the heavens, which to Gen was too reminiscent of checking whether that one droplet you felt was actually rain or charging an attack in Dragon Ball Z to really be effective as a sign of frustration. “Can this wait? My break is almost over.”
“Actually, it’s a bit of an emergency and I could use your help.”
“What emergency could you possibly have that I could fix.” Charlie was the doctor in the house, she swallowed. Identifying the fears of her generation or garnishing craftables with a sparkle of unease, the things Kendra was capable of, were hardly ever urgent.
“You see Shu over there?” She did. “It’s hard to tell from here, but he’s not in a good way. He just went through a particularly nasty breakup.”
“Your emergency is that Shu broke up with someone.”
“Not ‘someone.’ Chantel.”
“Oh. Oh dang.”
“Yeah, ‘oh dang.’ You see how he’s smiling? That’s mostly juice and I-don’t-want-to-know-what-else. What I’m saying is, it’s locked in deep. Even I can’t get it out of him! But you might be able to use the power of friendship—and you’re the only one here with a 0% chance of letting him distract you into that closet, and that’s including me. He can be a manipulative little shit when he wants.”
“—I know. You know how I know? I work right next to his office.” Kendra’s break had less than a minute remaining. “And if you think I could handle something his girlfriends can’t, you might have been oversold on my Shu-wrangling abilities. Have you really tried everything?”
“Anything I could think of. I already pulled out the big guns. Look over my shoulder.”
“No. Don’t tell me—“
“Don’t tell me you’re roommates.”
Gen scrunched her face to the left side and nodded yes. “I’m no longer free-a’ the Bheeda.” (‘Bheeda’ and ‘libido’ would be an excellent internal rhyme, Kendra noted.)
“Ok, back up.” The seated woman brought both hands up in a gesture not unlike a mime indicating a wall between themself and the viewer. She didn’t actually physically back up. “Why the hell would living with Shannon the Cannon help?”
Shannon Bheeda was quite the hothead. Hence the rhyme. She also would have been the thief in the hypothetical triad because while she wasn’t quite at the level of diabolically protecting infants from excess sugar intake, the packets of gum she offered you most likely didn’t undergo the usual chain of events a packet of gum usually underwent to end up in one’s pocket. Moving out of the Spice District to the Arts District meant she wasn’t banned from every bodega near her house anymore.
“I don’t know,” said Gen, “I thought having her around might cheer him up. Or she’s technically number 1 in the leaderboard now so I was hoping I could maybe convince her to get through to him. And so guess what? Shock of shocks, she basically just makes snide remarks to both of us all day.”
“But you tease him all the time?”
“Oh, my teasing is cutesy flirty teasing. But you know Shu—he laughs off anything from ‘git gud noob’ to ‘I’ll piss on your grave.’ Just don’t say his stepfather’s grave, or call his dad—“
“—She actually said that?”
“No, that was just an example. It’s just her usual death-by-pinpricks shit where she’s like ‘you’re wearing that?’ But can we talk about this later? He’s getting worse the longer we stay here and going home’s not going to change anything. He needs a friend right now.”
Kendra sighed in resignation. “Brenda, can I get ten more minutes? I’ll cover you later. Shu just broke up with someone.”
Brenda refused to look up from the cup she was washing. She scoffed. “Shu broke up with me last week. He broke up with someone an hour ago.” Shu, halfway across the room, was open-mouth kissing The Cannon.
The younger woman stretched herself across the bar, lowering her voice to barely above a whisper. “It’s Chantel.” Brenda shrugged and kept rubbing at the stained glass. “Free People Barbie,” Kendra corrected. Brenda raised her eyebrows and drew out the alphabet’s fourth vowel in a display of recognition.
“Go ahead and try to fix that if you think you can. I don’t want to get involved in whatever you kids are doing.” This was as close a blessing as Kendra was going to get from Brenda.
“Thanks. I’ll stay late, I promise.” As luck would have it, Kendra finished her pledge just as her mark wrenched himself from The Cannon to follow #2 to a different section of the bar entirely, only to have Gen wiped from his attention in a split second as he noticed his childhood friend sitting in an unexpected place. His gait sped up.
Gen waited until Shu had his back to her fully before turning around, cupping her hands to her heart, and mouthing ‘pew-pew’ while drawing her hands towards and away from said heart like a magician pulling a train of knotted handkerchiefs from their sleeve. Or bra, Kendra thought; that would also make sense. She replied by extending her neck in a barely perceptible nod.
“Kenny! ¡Nena! They’re letting you sit down? It’s your sit-down time?”
His face bore no signs of fatigue, his eyes no redness. In contrast to the week following the divorce, when he was a child violin prodigy with zero access to any of his current vices, any bystander could be fooled into thinking he was his perfectly dance-mechanical self. But Kendra could identify an odd bounce to his usually precise movements: what looked like the speed of a normal Sim was for Shu a sign of deep ennui, and what passed for congeniality was really a career extravert going through the motions. He wouldn’t drop the facade in front of an audience—especially the Narwhal Arms regulars, she guessed.
“Hey buddy, I heard what happened. Can we take this outside for a minute?”
“Outside?” Shu said loudly enough for the Sims on the dance floor to take notice. “How many hours are we talking?”
“It’s not like that!” Kendra yelled after him. “He’s an old family friend!”
“So just the usual then?” By this point any patrons looking in Shu’s direction would have seen, in the background, Brenda pretending to sneeze while laughing into her elbow. Kendra, growling, took hold of the incubus’ forearm and dragged him through the front door’s threshold as he screamed “You want me to do WHAT?! Kenny—” She slammed the door. The old rotting wood could only partly muffle the giggling from inside.
Kendra flung him past the fountain. “You’re a jackass.”
Now that she could focus, the softer light of the streetlamp only served to highlight the glossiness of his eyes, and without the hectic background provided by the Narwhal Arms, there was a noticeable sway in his hips and shoulders.
“You’re a jackass and also pretty out of it. And you know that’s me saying that, right?”
His retort, “Kennnnyyyyyy…,” proved Kendra’s point for her.
“Shu, you’re not acting normal. What’s going on?” Tellingly, he avoided her gaze. Not once else had she seen him appear distracted during a conversation.
She watched him for a beat. This was the time for her to listen, not to talk, she reminded herself. He was letting his head fall back as far as it would go before jerking himself back up. Kendra wasn’t sure if he remembered the question.
“Shu, spit it out.” She resisted the urge to use the same intonation she would with Yuggoth.
“You already know what happened,” he mumbled. “You said.”
“Yeah, but look at the way you’re acting. Can you just tell me what you’re feeling right now?” No, apparently not, from his body language; he was doing the drinky-drinky bird from the neck up again. She sighed. “If you can’t even talk about it, I’m going to assume it’s bad enough to call the Sadness Hotline and tell them—“
“There he is.”
“Kenny, it’s really not that bad.”
“That’s not what Gen told me.”
“I get why Gen was concerned but she wasn’t there,” he said. “She didn’t see—look, Chantel had it way worse than me, you know her—it wasn’t like that.”
“Then what was it like?”
“Chantel, she—you should have seen the look on her face.” He sighed so deeply that Kendra swore she could hear his heart rate slowing. “You should have seen the look on her face. It was like the world crumbled beneath her.” You are my world, she used to say. And every time he replied nah, I just live in it, hoping the repetition would sink in, she only held him closer. “I just can’t believe—how hurt she is, and it’s all my fault.”
“I think you did what you had to. It’s a tough situation.”
“I wish I could believe that. But I don’t anymore. Not after seeing her face.”
“It sounds like you had to let her go.” Had to let her go. There’s a superficially relevant saying that likens one’s romantic partner to, say, a lizard or particularly resilient balloon, but it didn’t apply here, at least Kendra felt. Chantel was one balloon that had to fly away before her string wrapped around his neck. Regardless, the image of a child screaming because they accidentally let go too fast and had to watch their precious bag of helium rise into the stratosphere was common for a reason. “Listen to me. You did the right thing. I can see you’re hurt now, but give yourself some time and it’ll get better.” Where she rises so high you can’t see her anymore, Kendra completed to herself.
“Yeah. It’s only an issue right now. So like I said, it’s really not that big a deal. I’ll be fine.”
“Saying you’re fine when you’re clearly not is what worries me.”
“But I don’t want you to worry, nena. You’re not part of this.” Kendra expected him to apologize for dragging her into whatever drama he was causing, as he frequently did—both apologize and drag her into things—when her train of thought was cut short by his next statement. “Besides, it’s only temporary.”
“Wait—temporary how? Temporary as in you’ll get over it, or temporary as in—“
“—Yeah. We’re getting back together as soon as she figures her shit out.”
And at that, Kendra knew she was at a crossroads. She could alter the course of her friend’s life and all she had to do was say the right thing. The exact right thing: succinct, respectful, airtight, and rhetorically sound. Gen couldn’t do this because Gen wasn’t a poet. Yet Kendra wasn’t confident she could come up with the perfect argument, either, given how difficult it was to make words sound natural even when they were picked months in advance. What she could do was adopt a strategy that allowed her to say as little as possible. Let him do the talking. Don’t tell him what to do. This is why she finally settled on the succinct, respectful, airtight, and rhetorically sound “Uh. What?”
“C’mon. You didn’t really think we’d stay apart forever, did you?”
“Neither of us can predict the future. I just want to make sure you’re okay whether or not that happens.” Nice.
“I don’t care if it’s not going to happen. Let me believe in her.” His voice softened. “Let me have something to look forward to.”
Kendra paused to think of what the least offensive phrasing of her next question would be. It wasn’t often that she used the power of friendship to quash hope. “So what makes you so sure Chantel is able to stop obsessing over you?”
“It’s not that. It has never been that. It’s more like, she doesn’t know who she is outside of the relationship.”
“And that’s somehow better?”
“No, but you’re asking why I know she can stop. And it’s because I know who she is, even if she doesn’t. Kenny, she has an identity already. She’s just choosing to push it aside for some reason.”
Kendra stared him down, stoic and unmoving like a guru on the mountain. Or better yet, the mountain the guru was on.
“She’s intense, and passionate, and goddamn fun. She doesn’t keep up with me. She walks ahead of me.” He received a nod of resignation. “Imagine you’re in a stark white room—not even shadow, just stark white—with nothing to do, and your thoughts can’t even slow down enough for it to be relaxing. That’s what the life my dad wanted me to have feels like. Now imagine you’re staring into the whiteness, and someone opens a door, brings you to the other side, full of color and shit. That was Chantel. She—” he was beginning to choke down sobs, “she—“
Whatever had been allowing Shu to hold himself back collapsed under the final sob. He had nearly fallen to the floor, whimpering and gasping. Kendra hadn’t counted on herself to actually successfully help him release the catharsis she was asked to help him release, and so her silence was becoming less a strategic choice and more a side effect of being flung into a situation she wasn’t prepared for.
“Kenny, you just,” he said between dry gasps, “you don’t understand. You don’t get how bored I am. How suffocating everything is. I don’t know how the hell you don’t go crazy, feeling like you have to follow a formula all the time.”
“Well, it doesn’t feel like I’m following a formula. It feels like I’m making progress, especially because I don’t have to spend all that time agonizing over what I’m going to do next. You get a kick out of chasing novelty. That, I accept.” At this, Shu started to rise back to his feet, removing his glasses from his face and a microfiber cloth from his pocket. “But if you do something different every day, doesn’t it seem like you’re not really getting anywhere?”
Shu finished wiping and repositioning his glasses. When he looked back up at Kendra, his gaze was dead intense—not dangerous, but, combined with the tears across his otherwise impeccably groomed face and the dancer’s posture he regained, towering and unhinged. He stared through her as he spoke. “Not if you keep moving.”
“The Red Shoes,” Kendra muttered to herself. A pair of shoes that, once put on, force the wearer to dance themselves to death. “I might be starting to get it.”
Kendra couldn’t help but feel relieved as he broke his gaze to roll his eyes. “Don’t bother. No one does except Chantel. No offense—you either kinda sit on the computer all day rhyming stuff or march around on funny fruit.”
“I can come up with shit to do if it would help.”
“Uh,” Kendra racked her brain, “you could go on a camping trip? Or pick trash up off the beach of some remote island.”
“Come on, you know that’s—” your-brother shit, he stopped himself from saying. Behind Kendra stood the table where Charlie would go to cool down and do homework, a table that haunted him with its emptiness. Too soon. “—not my thing.”
“Ok, well, you don’t just drop that you’re bored with everything and then shoot down every suggestion of something you haven’t done.” Kendra placed her palm to her forehead as if she could use it to physically pull out the list she was trying to create. “It’s like when you ask what someone wants to eat and they’re like ‘I don’t know,’ and then you say ‘how about pizza?’ and they’re like ‘no, not that,’ repeat about nine times but replace pizza with other foods. Or other pizza joints; I don’t know what Shannon eats.” Shu wouldn’t discover this until 2 hours in the future, but Kendra’s nephew had just sent him a text reading ‘can pets be transgender?’
“It’s not as simple as that. Try to name it any way you want. It’d limit it. There’s too much structure.” He shrugged. “I’ve tried, but I can’t find the word for it.”
“You mean besides ‘ennui’?”
“It’s more like—it’s more like, aside from talking to people, I can’t feel like I’ve really done anything if it’s not new. It’s not fulfilling.”
“So you’re saying that once the novelty wears off, so does the joy; then you’re just grinding your gears to avoid boredom.”
“I mean, I don’t like hearing it put that way, but maybe?” He took a step closer towards Kendra, and she repressed the urge to step back. “Look Kenny, I appreciate you listening to me. But do me a favor and stop trying to find a solution.” He started to walk past Kendra toward the welcoming glow of Narwhal Arms. “I don’t think there is one.”
Kendra watched him re-enter her workplace, more upright and less composed than before. She’d done alright, she thought. She did what Gen asked. And yet it didn’t feel like a success; she could have done more; she could have said something, done something to help him out of this mess, convinced him to detangle himself from a relationship that was predictable as the weather.
Why do you keep doing the same shit if it’s not working, she thought.
By now he was probably tongue-deep in one of two girlfriends, or a fourth party, she envisioned, though not without jealousy. It kind of astounded her how he reacted to losing Chantel when he could find another girlfriend-roommate in she same hour. Feeling that way about anyone was something she couldn’t imagine. And then again it didn’t matter whether half her bed was empty (or rather the whole bed—recall that a parasitic plant does the sleeping for her): Kendra’s vision of her future was unshakeable. Kendra the poet. Kendra who puts the pieces together. Kendra the voice that would capture and transcend death. The situation reminded her of a verse she wrote in high school:
Wanderers have no direction
Dreamers may have no connection…
Pick any direction and you can guarantee there’s an obstacle. Connect yourself to anything and it may as well be a tether.
Either one who seeks perfection…
No solution. Huh.
Can’t rely on introspection.
Of herself and Shu, who is the dreamer, and who is the wanderer? It didn’t matter. She couldn’t save herself any more than he could.
In the meantime she’d be waiting for Alice to call.
BONUS: Kymber of booomcha.com (that’s 3 o’s discounting the one in ‘com’) was sweet enough to feature me in an interview, which I then wrote instead of finishing this chapter on time! In the very improbable case that you’re following me but not her (and if so you should start following her), here’s the link.