“Is this the place?”
Juliet was standing off to the side of a heavily windowed building, she and the others crowding near a Nickelodeon-slime monstrosity of a pipe. Light trickled from the bar’s floor-to-ceiling windows and was absorbed neatly by the gang’s comfortable clothes, or caught in firefly glints in their jewelry. The door was cut into sheet metal, the boundary of which—the sheet metal—Juliet recognized as concave down with a second derivative that had to be constant or at least pretty close. Particles she didn’t invite entered her sinuses. Chlorine, from the pool the pipe was unceremoniously springing out of. Nothing in the vicinity was warm enough to overpower the more subtle verdant smells of the flowers and freshly cut grass, or even the concrete of the sidewalk, or pollution from the nearby retail shops, cutting through her sinuses like fresh rain. There’d been something else in this lot before. She couldn’t remember what. Some sort of retail something-or-other if you decided CAS was too inconvenient.
Her observation was interrupted by Aries, who, unlike her, remembered that she asked a question. “Indeed it is.”
Juliet’s loose T-shirt had started to bunch above her belt, which rested on her true waist, as tight as it would go. As she pulled it down, she realized this would keep happening for the rest of the night. “Am I grunge enough?”
“Don’t worry about it! Grunge is about not caring. Just be comfortable and have a good time.”
Upon seeing Juliet’s expression, he realized he may as well have been talking about 1700s men’s fashion.
“Oh no—you don’t remember the nineties, do you?”
“I wasn’t alive in the nineties.” And then, in an attempt to placate Aries—whose confident demeanor had fallen into the abyss, practically—she added, “But I love classic rock, like Nirvana.”
Someone had to change the topic or Aries was going to lose it. The most suitable distraction was Neala, who had changed from her playful but professional daytime attire into a knit cap, T-shirt dress, and, strikingly, a black corset.
“Damn! Look at you, letting your hair down and suddenly you’re Miss Thang.”
Neala shifted her weight into her right hip and, with one hand on her popped hip and another on her chest, struck a pose that showed she understood camp. With her tendrils freed from the fluffy bun, it was clear she had the same tight curls as her sister. “What’d you think that coffee was for? Late-night filing sesh?”
“You texted me last night at 3 A.M. to say the paperwork was done,” River said.
She flipped her hair. “I know.”
“I see you were ready before any of us, River.” Rhiannon, in the Promenade’s dim light, almost blended into the background—as much as she could, given how many of Hot Topic’s finest metal fixings she was decorated with. Chains that didn’t look lovely to sit on and cleared the hurdle of ‘comfort’ as well as a roomba would. Like you could argue that this was a hacky interpretation of grunge, an ignorant mishmash of all things alternative, but this is a woman who thinks it’s no biggie to slap a stencil on her face for the comic-book-shading blush look, then repeat the whole thing on the other side, so who are we to say this isn’t her idea of comfort? Discouraging individual expression, no matter how imperfect, is also antithetic to grunge and you’re not supposed to do that.
River put both hands out like a waiter carrying two drink trays, and spun around. “Didn’t have to do much.” That’s the spirit.
While Neala had already been craning her head around to look for people, Aries had just now started counting. “There’s supposed to be eight of us. Right?”
Neala’s palm spanked her forehead. “Ah, we’re missing the Scaries.”
“One and two.” Not that Juliet thought this needed clarification; it had come out of her mouth while she scanned the lot for anything with bangs and a healthy disregard for social norms. She pointed to a tree at the edge of the lot. “There they are.”
Backlit by the street lamp opposite them and casting distorted shadows onto the pavement, the figures under the tree looked menacing indeed. From what the others could see, they weren’t facing each other; rather, they angled themselves toward the tree trunk, as if it were the third Scary. Nor were they using the convenient sidewalk either. From what Juliet understood of party culture, some rules were hard and fast and some were soft and slow, and she couldn’t figure out what twists/turns of conviviality would make one want to transfer dirt and worm shit from their combat boots to the dance floor.
“Ladies!” Aries created a megaphone using only his hands, in that the hands themselves were the material used to create it. “What are you doing all the way over there?”
“Making this a real party,” Thora said. As clear as her voice was, she was far enough away that the group had to really get in there to catch the outlines of her words. Against the black fabric of her shirt, Thora’s hand contrasted so much it looked disembodied, and so it was hard to look anywhere else as she reached into her waistband. Movies and TSA patdowns had taught Juliet that this was a mischievous place to hide something. At best. She pulled out the scandalous object using her index and uh-oh fingers, and as the object made its way into the harsh streetlight, it glinted: a rough glint, distinctive, the recognizable crumple of a plastic baggie.
Retreating into herself, Juliet leaned back, hands in a defensive position, before curiosity compelled her to open her eyes and process the object Thora was now holding up to the streetlight as if clearing a pilot for landing.
It was quite far and the suspended pellets of dust the streetlight kept catching were distracting, but the dull colors and the bulging gave it away. And the cranberries. Trail mix.
“Look,” Thora said.
When the group followed the direction of her extended finger into a tree at the edge of the lot, they leaned in close enough to see the cracked outline of a black hole, a little fluttering void, and when Thora’s point drew even closer to the source of the fluttering, they heard a distinctively corvine caw.
Chantel waved, not in the direction of the humans who knew the meaning of this gesture but at the bird who likely didn’t know what was going on. “Caw caw, motherfuckers!”
“Let’s see if we can get it to follow us with Trader Joe’s irresistible blend of almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, pecans, pistachios, and omega-fortified cranberries.” None of the components were under pressure. So when Thora broke the single-use plastic, exposing the treats to Magnolia Promenade’s consumerist air, the sound it made wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. “What’s its name?”
“He looks like an Andrej.”
“Look at those feathers framing his face! Andrej as fuck.”
“Hey Andrej! Get your ass down here! We got 500 milligrams of Omega-3s per serving!”
“Are you going to keep the trail mix in your hand? Gimme some.”
“On the floor, let’s get it on the floor. The floor’s less threatening than some weirdo’s hand. I wouldn’t want some creature forty times heavier than me with opposable thumbs grabbing at my gorgeous night-black plumage, either.”
“That’s the insight I’m talking about, Green Bitch, my man. There’ll be no rummaging through plumage on this beautiful night.”
Partly keeping his balance on the diagonal and partly amused at the pile of total crap happening straight ahead, Aries’s distracted mind failed to keep track of the people around him, and so he was caught off guard by a moist, breathy feeling far too close to his ear and the proclamation that came with it, appropriate for the decibel range given the party atmosphere but far too loud given its proximity to his eardrums.
What hadn’t struck Aries until this moment was the energy gap between him, a hands-on guy whose job was much more taxing than it sounded, involving more standing, tapping, moving fingers, and shouldering heavy weights for the past three hours; and Rhiannon, a public-image type who had to conserve her strength for moments like these.
“We, like—we, dammit, we have different dance amounts. Let me psych myself up a bit first.”
“Aries Crumplebottom! Stage!”
“Alright!” He’d gone for repetition, clearly, but the phrase’s second half was deferred by Rhiannon’s arms flailing like they were on a playground and Aries had taken her Magic: The Gathering card. “Alright! Cool your jets.”
“They’ll most certainly not cool! They’re on fire!” She’d said ‘fire’ in a non-rhotacized way that required a good deal of pitch drop between the syllables. I.e., how the hip youngins do it. And true to her word if said jets hadn’t been metaphorical, she was blasting toward the entrance at full speed.
Though when she reached the stairs, she stopped to reposition herself and ascended at a sane rate—safety first! Aries followed behind at stairs pace.
“There’s our cue.” Neala chopped her right hand toward the floor. Downbeat.
Though comfort was the mother of grunge, and acrylics got in the way occasionally, Juliet still felt the occasion should be marked with a manicure. She’d settled on silver and black, to match studded belts and Vans drawn on with stinky stinky acetone metallic markers and Neala’s corset and kind of the building itself by total accident, and the word that came to mind when she looked at them was ‘crispy.’ The way her face reflected in them, she looked like she’d been sucked into a pipe.
Still waving her nails for herself to admire, she sighed. “This is actually my first time in a club.”
Transcribing the noise Neala made next is too hard, so let’s call it a yelp. “You’re lucky Aries isn’t around to hear that. It’s—ah, don’t look down, don’t worry. I mean he’d just react loudly and scare Andrej over there. It’s not an issue. Going out is one of those things that’ll make more sense the more you do it.”
Seeking approval from the other two adults, Juliet looked toward Gorman first—who nodded, because of course he did—then to River, who still appeared to be listening even after Juliet had stopped talking. It’d have been nice to experience the newness with someone else in the same awkward, confused place she was.
Turning to River, she acted concerned. “Is Jazz really okay being at home alone?”
Because her hands were free of delicious coffee, and only because of that, Neala could throw them in the air without ruining her white dress. “There you go. Jazz is the most responsible of any of us.”
“I did extend the invitation, but they seemed like they wanted to work,” River said.
While before, the live music had been leaking through the window, there was a pause in the action. It restarted and the crowd screamed as soon as they processed the instrumental introduction. So much for Juliet’s response. Though she found she didn’t need it anymore; she squealed and brought both hands up to her chest, bouncing as she spoke.
“I know this one! ‘Spoonman!'” The memory of happy sleepovers playing the sub-category of videogames that included Rock Band and Guitar Hero knocked Juliet out of her pre-club jitters, and the bouncing brought her partway to the entrance. Aided by gravity, she stopped mid-bounce. “I don’t know how to dance to this music.”
“There’s barely any dancing at all,” Neala said.
“You know how to headbang?” River demonstrated.
“And there’s fist pumping”—which Neala had joined River in performing.
“Okay,” Juliet said, bobbing her head along with the other two. “Okay.”
Still bobbing, she scooted backwards before turning around—again, still bobbing—once she reached the wretched stairs with their incline and their high chance of causing injury if used improperly.
The four of them approached the door, Chantel’s voice carrying in the background (“Dear To the Crow Known As Andrej, please get your feathery ass on the floor, right here, on the floor”). Gorman was the caboose.
The hallway passed too quickly for Juliet to notice, but she remembers stepping over the threshold because that’s when the smells changed. Vegetal tones of the natural world gave way to an atmosphere that wasn’t so much stagnant as layered: despite the perturbations from peoples’ pumped-up kicks and Timbs and combat boots from people who refused to wear anything other than combat boots, plus the occasional high heel, the air remained in a sort of striated equilibrium. Mustiness was one of the qualities that changed, increasing as the distance to the floor decreased; but there was another layer scented with drink particles and possibly some burps, another of blue jeans and wallets—some with chains—and a top layer that looked at the greener grass outside and tried its dol-dang darndest to be like that. Not a whole lot of involvement from the bathroom, which hid its odors, smartly, behind a plant.
Beyond the nostalgic perfume for a time Juliet couldn’t remember, and straight ahead, the bar display pulled sims in like a bug zapper with its drink-drink-and-also-drink-themed electric light show: real adults perched on the backless barstools or metal or glass chairs pulled up to tables bearing little flower centerpieces looking as industrial as flowers can; and then there were couches people could sprawl on if they wanted, and chairs in case someone took the couch and you were like, dammit. No one acted like anything was going on because they’d adjusted to this hullabaloo.
So this is it, she thought to herself before River could catch up and overhear. You know like, with River, it’s hard to forget they aren’t telepathic.
To Juliet’s right, all the real action was happening. There was indeed the stage Aries promised Rhiannon he’d help her jump. While the bar’d been placed to suggest it was the same idea as the entrance, bathroom, and other necessities, it was sectioned off from the dance area by a safety fence, suggesting the place closer to where the music was happening was a whole new deal. Visually, as well. She meant, the whole thing was corrugated, and but it was the lighting that helped cement the effect that these were two halves of a thing, both in location and color. Bluish on the wall versus pinkish on the floor. Ish. Primarily.
Also there was, indeed, a band onstage—that’s where “Spoonman” was coming from—performing for sims on and around a clear-bottomed dance floor. She tried leaning over to see if the dance floor was on top of a pool and confirm that if so, there were no fish in it: this was grunge night, not ’70s animal cruelty night. A part of the stage jutted out, and this is where the lead singer was situated. The shape, and the stage’s ominous bra-underline height, made Juliet feel like she was on the danger end of a Tetris board.
Not counting Jazz, and not counting Thora, Chantel, or Andrej, the band had fractured into four groups, each occupying a different quadrant of Patton’s. First was Juliet alone near the bar.
One person hadn’t made it far from the entrance: Gorman was vibing with the wall, it appeared, and Juliet chose to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume there was an interesting painting that caught his attention and it wasn’t just the wall.
The piece that had splintered off before the others, the stagehopping crew of Aries and Rhiannon, had made it past the guard railing—the easy way—and while not dancing or moshing proper, what have you, themselves, were close enough to the sonic action that their excited whispering had to be done in outside voices. She inferred they hadn’t made it onstage yet and the stunt required some advance planning.
Above them, Neala and River rounded out the group, having chosen the guard railing as an observational point—real Pride Rock shit—that still allowed them to hear each other. ‘Course those two are spending a night out watching rather than doing things, Juliet’s brain stated without permission.
Back at the base, River thumbed the connecting parts of the guardrail that were roughly tennis-ball sized.
“I’d been wondering what about Patton’s stage made breaching it a two-person operation,” Neala said.
“There’re railings on the sides,” she continued, “so if the method they’re using requires climbing with no aids, they’d have to make it through the dance floor first.”
“Doesn’t seem ideal. You’d have to be able to do a pull-up,” River said.
“Ah, but look in the corner. I mean the left one.”
“Stairs! Hard to see against the pink, but there they are. Oh, and they’re blocked by a security guy. Smart move on the club’s part.”
“And the way the contrast is, both are hard to see from the dance floor, since they blend into the back walls. You really have to be looking or have seen the stage from a higher vantage point. Higher than we are.”
“Hate to state the obvious, but they can’t make it up the stairs with the guard blocking them.”
“So at least one of them needs to be able to find an alternate route up the stage. Do you know if Aries can do a pull-up? No, I’m deducing he can.”
“Up! There he goes.”
“Ah, but!” Neala’s eyes widened in recognitory glee. “He’s using himself as bait to attract the security guard’s attention—“
“—Leaving the stairs open,” River said. “‘Kay, that was a come-hither gesture. He’s dancing, but that was still a gesture.”
“Check out Rhiannon in the back. Up until now she’s been stalking the mosh pit in a totally unnecessary way.”
“‘Totally unnecessary’ is apt; makes me wanna ask if she’s catching an antelope for dinner.”
“Well, now she’s running up past the moshers to the hidden staircase. Slow down, Sis! (Safety! First!) And she’s up!”
River hadn’t been expecting to laugh this hard. “The happy bouncing! She really made it! Bounce bounce bounce.”
“Oh! And look. Aries moved all the way to the other side of the stage, triangulating the guard.”
“Poor guy’s stuck in the middle. Haha. The band’s not even reacting: another day, another Aries is on his bullshit again.”
“I’m not sure they thought this through.” Neala crossed her bare arms, tapping her left bicep with her right hand. “Dancing people making it onstage is one thing, but members-of-slash-public-relations-people-for a band that could play at this venue? Seems like encouraging randos to stage-jump is a thing they should not, I say definitely not, be doing.”
“You thinking of stopping them?”
“Ugh, so, they’ve coordinated this whole thing tightly enough that the first question is how to stop them.”
“Well, if you’re up for stealing their triangulation strategy, there are just enough of us to make that happen in the counter-jumping direction.”
“Took the words right outta my head. So here’s what we do—“
In the foreground, Juliet came to terms with the sheer number of juice bottles she was looking at: stout, tall, red, blue, green, yellow, full-ish, empty-ish, sealed with wax, whoops that wax seal is fake, hipster label, fancy label, clear label, this one looked like nectar, this one’s squarish, this one’s what’s that shaped called anyway; none of it meaningful.
She had no clue what she wanted to drink: just like, a drink. Any drink. But not one she wouldn’t like. The bar had those little table triangles that listed bar specialties as opposed to standard classics whose recipes were in the name. For Juliet, whose knowledge base didn’t include details beyond Juice and Other Juice, the §13-and-up drinks on the triangle were the only options. Luckily they came with glamour shots; i.e. shots as in the photo kind and not the ingestible ones. But like they were chosen for novelty, and so none of the pictures Juliet was staring at could be called Normal Fucking Drink and most stuff was either blue like the quarter water her parents wouldn’t let her have or had a bunch of shit piled on it so influencers could take a pic and then throw it out. One drink, Juliet forgot the name of but could be described as Pink Thing with an Eighth of a Lime; that’s what pointed to when she had the bartender’s attention.
Once the drink was in hand, she took a sip, twisting the lime part of the rim sideways so it wouldn’t hit her schnoz. The lime hit first and the pink it tasted like was a different kind of pink than the candies she was used to. Possibly like fast food versus fine dining: she knew grill cooks didn’t give an f about your waistline and kept piling in as much flavor as they could without overwhelming the senses, so you could get something that had a boatload of sugar but also sparkly bubbles or hot chips to round it out; while fine dining chefs made sure you tasted every damn thing they put in. And she could—taste everything she watched the bartender put in—but not on its own.
Look, she thought, directed to her bandmates, I have a drink like in the movies. She got to raise her finger and order it and everything. Sad that they were all the way over there and missed the moment, if she was forced to opine.
A voice came from behind her. “The outfit looks good. But it would look better if the stripes on your shirt and leggings were the same thickness.”
The man addressing Juliet wasn’t anyone she recognized, and with his grey hair, he had to be somewhat older than her. At least 28. His shirt had eye spots, so if he shrank down to moth size and had to scare off an owl, he was golden. Props to his grunge game in that none of the articles of clothing he was wearing matched any of the others. No socks, also—that was commitment, that was grunge of another level.
The stranger continued. “That isn’t your real hair, is it?”
“Uh.” Again, Juliet glanced toward her friends, who were still captivated by whatever was going on on the raised platform. Facing away from her. She hesitated, wanting to call out, before realizing how bothersome it would be to the other patrons to hear a girl make a loud noise to get her friends’ attention.
The way anxiety dreams would have us believe life works, the man would explode in anger, laying into Juliet in a telepathic way using whatever dirt her subconscious could call up, and the next moment Juliet would find herself in her bra in a miasma of incoherent—but disapproving—whispers and open the bar door to a replica of her aunt’s house where she was to collect and rescue iridescent butterflies. But rather than being put off, the guy seemed—‘tickled’ is the only word that came to mind for Juliet. Possibly ‘chuffed,’ also, maybe.
“I didn’t mean for that to be a hard question.”
This was a social place; people were supposed to talk to each other. “I guess?”
“How old are you?”
Juliet’s grandmother made her go to a yoga class once where she was instructed to ‘breathe into her feet,’ and she’d had no clue what that meant. Now she felt the only apt way to describe what was happening to her was that her gut had dropped all the way to her feet, feeling the tingle of cold, sticky metal flooring, and was weighing her down, preventing any movement or escape attempts. But her mind took over. Her strong mind and strong will were things Juliet was proud for developing.
And what her rational mind said was if she told the guy the truth he’d leave her alone; what a balding at-least-28-year-old would want to do with a recent high school grad, she had no clue. If he wanted someone to click with on back pain or ’80s leggings, she ain’t it. Thinking took time, however, and the guy was still smirking at her, waiting for a response as she pieced together her options.
“I just graduated high school and aged up.”
“What a shame.” He leaned back, closing his eyes and chuckling to himself. “Take it from me, high school will be the best years of your life.”
She forced a sound out of her throat that may count as a laugh. “Sure.”
“Does this stripey snake have a name?”
“What a coincidence! My name is Romeo!”
Having read the books a couple years ago for English, it wasn’t lost on Juliet—the real person—that Juliet—the character—was 13, while Romeo was around the age of Juliet the person. Even putting aside the obvious nature of the story. Another laugh-adjacent sound escaped as Juliet scanned the area for band members: the closest was Gorman, who was vibing the hell out with a painting over the couch, certainly not perturbed by Juliet’s situation. It wasn’t lost on her that the man was standing between her and the door.
“You know, if a snake has red and black stripes, that means it’s venomous. Are you venomous?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s red, yellow, and black. And it’s not true that all snakes with those stripe colors are venomous; some are harmless snakes that evolved to look like the dangerous ones. It’s a classic example of Batesian mimicry.” This information had appeared on Juliet’s evolutionary biology final. Big butts and smiles had not.
A moment too late, Juliet realized what she’d done. She’d put the man in green—she wasn’t about to call him Romeo—on the spot. And she had no idea how he’d respond. He purposefully seemed to be making himself hard to read, she guessed: the smirk he’d had etched on his face since he approached her hadn’t fallen, nor had he broken eye contact for longer than it took to blink.
“Oh, that’s a very difficult concept. Not many girls understand science.”
Science. All of it. The whole thing.
Nothing in Juliet’s past had prepared her to respond to that. Uncles, aunts, and other assorted old people at family reunions often said these things, but her parents had always been there to perform the requisite awkward recovery where they pretended it was a compliment. In her mind, she chanted the other band members’ locations. Rhiannon and Aries are in the mosh pit. Neala and River are watching. Gorman’s over there. Under the guise of musical chairs, she slid into a seat and closer to the door, leaving whatever-his-name-was-presumably-not-really-Romeo off to the side.
He leaned on to the bar, pushing weight into his elbow as far as his spine would allow. “So, Miss Blondie in Black, I don’t see a boyfriend around here.”
“You don’t know what happened to her last boyfriend.”
Anyone who frequented underground clubs, the dark corners of Spotify, metal and prog-rock festivals, or concerned-parent blogs would recognize that voice as belonging to the woman now stepping one shit-kicker in between Juliet and he-who-we-can’t-name-yet. They’d recognize her provided they could divorce the voice from context, meaning, when no guitars were playing. Juliet certainly did.
Before the man could lecture them, Juliet was behind a wall. A scary, scary wall.
Chantel started the barrage. “She started out-earning him, and he threw such a huge tantrum in the middle of the street, he got hit by a bus.”
“Right by a bus,” Thora continued, “Failed Frogger.”
“Didn’t even cop to loving her five-ever.”
“Can you handle that?”
“You two are very rude. Didn’t your parents teach you not to butt into other peoples’ conversations?”
“No, they were getting to it and that’s when the leopard got both of ’em,” Thora said. “I was like, ‘finish that thought, what? Mom? Don’t butt into other people’s what?!'”
Chantel scoffed. “Your mom ruined all other women for me.”
By this time Thora and Chantel’s rapid-fire banter had attracted all sorts of attention, not least of all the two bandmates who needed some other distraction now that the stage-hopping had run its course. Let us appreciate two of Neala’s qualities that served her well. Any good babysitter needs reflexes like the animal Thora said killed her parents—in jest, in jest, they’re in Mt. K chilling, in all senses—and a maximum velocity like they’re in a special-relativity word problem. So Juliet wasn’t fazed by Neala parkouring through the club at the first sign of trouble with River eating her dust.
Neala stopped mid-burst, just short of crashing into Juliet. “What’s going on?”
Before answering, Juliet looked over Neala’s shoulder. River’s skills as an essayist and logician extended to nearly everything, possibly including the scene unfolding before them—so why were they not only wordless but heaving like the air, striated scents and all, was drained from the room? And the twitching as they looked downward, holding their abdomen, prevented Juliet from getting their attention: through the shaking, Juliet thought she recognized the pattern their lips moved in.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
“Seriously,” Neala said, commanding Juliet’s attention back in front of her. “Is this douche bugging you?” She turned to Thora and Chantel. “Is this douche bugging her?”
“I’m still here,” said the random old dude.
“While we’re talking about irrelevant shit”—Chantel was facing away from mister charming when she said this—“‘opus’ is the singular form of ‘opera.’ just like the plural of ‘genus’ is ‘genera.'”
Rhiannon ran toward her bandmates, flushed pink but not quite the artificial shade her pants achieved.
“Guys! Did you see me? I was on the stage! I was elevated slightly above the ground!”
“Higher and higher, ladies!” Aries called out from behind her.
“It was like—” What stopped Rhiannon wasn’t context necessarily, although she could have pieced it together from the irate man’s presence, but rather her sister’s expression. Twin code for ‘not the time to start with this shit.’ “Wait—what happened?”
“Creep got to Juliet,” Thora said, in the same tone one would use to inform a partner there was puppy urine on the couch again.
“Really?” The way Aries said it, the second syllable was pitched higher, and louder, than the second one. “We were gone for all of ten minutes!”
“When you put it that way, I’m not that surprised.” Such a jaded veneer would be expected for a festival veteran. And ‘veneer’ was the appropriate description, since it felt to Juliet that she’d tried to marinate herself in Thora’s dead-inside-and-outside smoky vibes, but they had only permeated the surface. It was something in the voice. Flatness, like a cue card.
“Nothing happened, we were just talking.” As far as she knew, which, by her own admission, wasn’t much. She cupped both hands over her mouth, hoping it hid her shame. “Did I do something wrong?”
The result was less than musical as every band member told Juliet, in their own words, that she didn’t.
River continued, “But let me ask. Did you want to talk?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who started the conversation?”
By now, a small army had formed around the previously unaccompanied teen, most of whom were female, all of whom were ignoring her silver-haired suitor. “Crazy bitches freaking out over nothing. It’s not like I was going to rape her or anything.”
For the first time since she’d interrupted, Thora acknowledged the man’s existence. “That’s not where the bar is, dipshit.”
“What did he say?” Rhiannon asked, turning to Juliet.
“Guys, nothing happened. He just asked how old I was and—“
“He what?! Hey, Mothman.”
He’d done it. He’d broken Gorman’s vibe with the painting.
“So let’s go over this so far. You found the youngest-looking girl in the place—I mean, she just aged up! This is her first time in the club!—and waited until she was alone to corner her. You’re pissed when her friends come up—what, are you disappointed there are people who know she’s here? Do you have any idea how scary that shit is? Have you been alive in the world? This is how so many goddamn murders—“
And so on and so forth. Gorman’s beatdown-as-list rant continued while his bandmates reacted to hearing him string more than one word together: Chantel and Thora, downright delighted, open-mouthed and beaming at each other and Gorman, in turn; Rhiannon and Neala also seemingly coaching each other on how to react, with less certain results; Aries, whose experiences with his brother had prepared him to hear actual words come out of that beard, but not the ones suggesting this was Juliet’s premier visit to a juice-serving establishment, which made him feel old. River, meanwhile, took Juliet aside while everyone else’s attention was diverted.
“I’m sorry about earlier.” River was much calmer now, no doubt having done some breathing or self-grounding exercises while Juliet wasn’t watching.
“Oh no, you’re fine.”
“But anyway. Seems like you’re not sure you wanted to have a conversation, but want to believe you did.”
“It’s what you’re supposed to do, though, right?” But River’s expression when Juliet said that suggested it wasn’t what you’re supposed to do, though. Maybe her statement needed clarification and context. “That’s what they told me at school.”
River really made Juliet wait for the follow-up. In the foreground, the eyespots proved ineffective in scaring off Gorman: rather, the two had resorted to playground insults of the basest maturity level.
“I mean, I’m not stupid. I know ‘stranger danger’ carries over to adulthood. But they told us that if we feel threatened by anyone, we should do whatever they say because they might attack us otherwise.”
“So you’re taught to not fight back under any circumstances.”
“Yes. Because awful things might happen us if we don’t do what they want.”
“Hoo boy.” Too much; too much to unpack in the club.
“Why? What would you have told me to do?”
“Well, I mean.” They looked away, as they often did when collecting their thoughts. “Every situation is different, but what manipulators excel at is directing your attention. You can train yourself to fight it by figuring out where they want you to look, and then looking in the opposite direction.”
Gorman called the guy ‘wheat ass’ and no one knew what that meant.
“What do you mean?” Juliet said, directed to River, the person more likely to have a real answer at the moment.
“The core has to do with what you can criticize and what you can’t. Once someone does something, that’s out there. They may have achieved what they wanted to, they might not. The fact remains: their actions are observable by others, and others are free to form their own opinions about their choices.
“But if someone tells you how they’re feeling, it’s not like you can argue with them there. They’re the only person who knows. So you can’t contradict someone over what you can’t confirm for yourself.
“And so the trick manipulators use is to direct your attention toward your actions and their feelings, making it so you’re the only one who can be criticized if you stay in that spotlight. The trick is to fill in the missing pieces. Your feelings and their actions. Only then can you see the bigger picture.”
Juliet took a beat to process this information.
“Hold on—hold on, I think I got it. So the story he wants me to see is, he walked up to me wanting to talk, and because he wanted to, the socially acceptable thing for me to do is humor him. But he’s the one who approached me first, and said some weird shit about my hair”—River did some garbled groaning here—“and I didn’t want to talk at all.”
“But how can I tell if someone’s dangerous?”
Dear lord, did Juliet have a campfire to sit around and a flameproof notepad? River truncated it to, “It’s easier to tell if someone’s not dangerous. Dude minding his own business on the sidewalk? Not a murderer. At least not a you-murderer. Dude trying to get your attention or following you around the grocery store? Could be a fucking murderer or maybe you dropped something.” Mentally doubling back, they added, “We’ll talk about this later.”
A swirly-haired man cut into the discrete, but amused, sorta-circle that had formed around Gorman and the bar’s only potential Juliet-murderer. (Still rolling with the epithets due to his ambiguous introduction; he’d most recently been called ‘poo vein in a shrimp,’ by Gorman, more of an epithet in the other sense.) “What’s going on? Yancey?”
“These people are nuts. I was just talking and then these two bitches”—he motioned to Chantel and Thora, who were both puffing up their feathers—“started insulting me for no reason.”
Even if, far enough away, the man’s groan was inaudible with “Tubthumping” playing, his annoyance could be felt as vibrations through the metal floor. “Sorry about that, ladies. Yancey, let’s get back to our table.”
With the co-worker now leading his reins, Yancey tried to swagger-walk away, grumbling something no one cared to listen for. Rhiannon waved him off behind his back—in contrast with Thora, who made damn sure Yancey was watching when she did it. And he didn’t dare respond under the glare of a man he respected. Once Yancey’d seated himself at the table, rather than following, his co-worker addressed the band.
“Again, ladies, I am so sorry about that. I swear, we’re not friends, we just know him from work, I swear, we’re not going to invite him back out but we’re also sorta afraid of what’ll happen if we leave him alone?”
Juliet waved her hands as if clearing away smoke. “It’s fine. I had a bunch of people to back me up, and I was a bit uncomfortable but nothing happened, really.”
A woman in a tight ponytail and loose jumpsuit had left the table the moment Yancey was back, and had now caught up with her annoyed drinking buddy. “Oh, shitfuckballs. is Yancey up to some bullshit?”
Not bothering to look behind him, swirly co-worker nodded.
“God, fuck, that was a trial run! Shit!” Despite her words, her voice was best described as melodious, and the melismatic twist she put on everything was delightful. “Fuck!”
“Ugh. We’re sorry.”
“So fuck-cracking sorry.”
About two minutes of atonement passed before the two walked off, still grumbling about Yancey’s involvement. Jumpsuit lady was saying, uh, was saying some words there.
“Thank you!” Aries called out. Behind him, his brother showed no signs of anger-induced age regression and was boring his zen gaze into presumably a different painting. “Gorman? You deflated there, buddy?”
Rhiannon fawned over Juliet like Patton’s was a Renaissance painting and Juliet was dying. “Do you want to leave?”
“No. If anyone should leave, it’s him. I’m not letting this ruin my night.”
Aries clapped his hands once. “Yes! If you’ll pardon my use of the term, that’s some queen shit! River, if it’s okay to say that here.”
“I’ll allow it. Queen shit. Kinda sucks, though, Juliet, and you’re allowed to have feelings about it.”
Juliet told River it was fine for what she felt was the hundredth time that night. And then, “No, really. You guys had my back.”
“Huh—you know, you’re the youngest-looking person here, but I wonder if that could be said for everyone.” Rhiannon had paused her fawning to share these thoughts. “Like, who has someone looking out for them. It’s way easier for someone who isn’t in the middle of it to step in.”
Thora elbowed Chantel right in the OBEY. “Actually not a bad idea. What’s that we always say, Chantel?”
“The bougier the bedsheet company, the more likely they are to sneak bare feet into their photoshoots?”
“I was thinking more, ‘let’s see if other people in Patton’s need backup.'”
“Backup as in the sort—ah. Ah, that’s evil.” Chantel yelled over the bar. It wasn’t evident to anyone why she was on the staff side of the bar in the first place. “Hey Jule, guess who else needs bad-bitch lessons?”
Despite Juliet having been addressed, the band’s attention wasn’t on her; everyone had been exchanging glances until they caught on, for an average of three glances per person before it clicked and a grin crept onto their face in anticipation of total havoc. Juliet was lost in the circle’s center—until she noted Thora’s and Chantel’s looks of malevolent glee, emphasis on male, connecting the aura now to their earlier intervention. She got it. And she gave her answer.
The night air outside remained unchanged, and the passers-by were more concerned with those who decided to use the pool like a pool than what might’ve been going on inside. Water displaced by bodies in swimwear made a brief escape before being re-captured by the grates or absorbed into the earth. The succulents growing out of cracks in the patio had no opinions on anything in particular.
Not every man at Patton’s was going to have a hard time tonight.
But the ones who felt the need to point that out?
They definitely were.