RHIANNON AND ARIES
Generally Magnolia Promenade was the sort of neighborhood where no one locked their doors; not only because the area had no hooligans, but because it was so far from showing on the collective radar that even the doors’ owners forgot they were there. MagProm was off the grid before it was cool, so to speak. Theme nights at Patton’s were the most action this wasteland of a neighborhood had seen since 2004 when the metal grates on the Orange Julius came down for the last time. And unless the bar had a super-secret floating-island-type booth deal where the super rich could peer down their wine glasses at the mass below swarming like so many flannel-clad ants, it didn’t have the celebrity presence to warrant bouncers.
Correction. It did have the Aries presence to warrant one bouncer, but not a real one.
This was the case on any other night. Two figures stood out of range of the rotating spotlights curiously peeking around the dance floor, easily missable by anyone who allowed their eye to be lead in the way the club’s architects had intended.
Rhiannon, situated closer to the entrance, met Aries’s eye and nodded the all-clear. She didn’t much mind this role. The current song was as dance-pop as grunge got, and despite pretending for Juliet’s sake that there was a way to dance to this music that wasn’t awkward swaying, headbanging, or fist-pumping at the chorus, she couldn’t convince herself this wasn’t a teen-only event on a Canadian cruise. No guys in fur boots and crop tops and a shower curtain for a cape. No kilt-clad tambourine-orchestra hopefuls crowding around a minipig on a leash outside. Shaved pits. Guys who were scared of her. Normie eyeshadow. Not that she’d tell Aries any of this; it’s likely he already knew.
And it was to the relief of Patton’s management team that Aries, a man they were on first-name basis with for the wrong reasons, was keeping all ten little piggies on the floor. And at nearly the same y-coordinate as the stage’s security detail, within glaring range.
He caught Rhiannon’s signal and tried not to think about how tonight’s damage fee was going to be the lowest in the history of his relationship with Pattons like, ever. For once his mind skipped off with fantasies of owing zero dollars in intra-Patton’s broken furniture and emotional distress. The money he’d set aside for tonight could go to a women’s homeless shelter, or toward new cutoffs for Gorman.
But what was happening in the middle of the dance floor made him wonder if there was some hope after all for setting a record for fees owed. (At Patton’s, anyway.) He cat-clocked his eyes between Rhiannon’s and the scene before him, ensuring she’d see it as well.
The people he’d been eyeing were standing on the midpoint between him and Rhiannon. One man, one woman. The woman had this dead-eyed stare on that Aries knew Rhiannon could feel despite her being able to see pretty much only hair, the way the woman was facing. Now the man was also in a hair-only-no-face position, but unlike the impromptu security detail at the club’s edges, was dancing far too close, especially at the torso and below. She moved away. He stepped in and closed the distance.
Aries tried to catch the woman’s eye and point at the guy in a way that had yes/no-question implications, but she was frozen forward.
Instead, her widened eyes scanned the room for escape while her pursuer humped the air between them, diagonally between her and the real exits, and she, too petrified to turn back, decided forward was the only way to go. Even though it hadn’t worked so well last time. So here she was, again, inching away from the junk. The man had started repositioning himself when he felt something blocking his path.
At first all the man could see was a tartan calf and a boot that didn’t deserve to be stepped on. His eyes widened as he scanned the figure upwards, stripping it for parts and pausing at the good bits. A new body stood in front of him, and every part of it was screaming for attention. Tattoos, chains, collars, bright eyeshadow. Not like the dumpy and stuck-up one that escaped. No.
Rhiannon had entered Dance Mode.
Drawing inspiration from jackknives and seven-year-olds at weddings (that is, the kid is at a wedding but the knife might not necessarily be), she shot her elbows straight out, shoulders at 90 degrees like a shower curtain bar. Those elbows were to not come back in as long as she could manage. She moved side to side from the ribcage—as a dancing cactus or chain-restaurant mascot would—letting her hands become dead weights and the arms swing with the momentum of her swaying. None of it, mind you, was in time with the music.
“My therapist told me not to come here,” Rhiannon told the man. “Then she blocked me.”
Unperturbed, the man looked away long enough for ironic-jock-jacket lady to scurry away. He had a new ball to play with. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
Rhiannon turned her head toward him and pushed the fleshy part of her ear with her pointer finger. “What’s that?”
“Name.” Reassessing, he swung both hands over each other, palms open towards the ground. “Never mind. Uh. Are you a cooking skill book? Because I’m ready to spend all night grinding.”
Elbows up. “Are you a MySims figurine? Because I’d like to find you buried in my yard.”
“That can be arranged,” he said. “But I need your number first.”
“A—like, a phone number?”
“Oh.” Rhiannon retrieved her phone from its special place in her inventory and shook it like a bottle of pulpy orange juice until the accelerometer threw a tantrum. As in when the phone’s been jerked around so hard that it waking up is the technology equivalent to ‘do you mind?’ A video popped up as she unlocked it. She waved the phone. “I’ve seen this one already. The kid doesn’t make it.”
Unperturbed, the dude asked, “True crime fan, huh?”
Aries appeared on the guy’s left, following Rhiannon’s lead of moving from the elbows. “Hi! I’m her friend! Megatron 2! My mom named me after her miscarriage.”
“There’s a crib in his room with nothing in it but stuffed animals and memories,” Rhiannon said while bouncing her chicken-wing arms.
“Be quiet.” Aries’s tone grew hushed. “Be quiet or he’ll hear you.”
“You didn’t get rid of him? I thought baby sage worked for baby ghosts.”
Using his head to gesture over his shoulder, Aries said, “Well, it didn’t this time.”
There were goldfish older than Aries’s friendship with Rhiannon, and yet they clicked into place like an airtight seal that kept the party in. He could easily read her expression under the pink liner. Unmistakable—he’d seen that look, he’d given it.
It said, holy shit, this guy’s down bad.
In his opinion it was either that or they’d made the routine too entertaining. Rhiannon’s plan was to be distracting enough for the woman to get away, then off-putting so Rhiannon herself wouldn’t become a target; but what they’d achieved, it was like watching a cult show play out in real life. Yeah, sure, she’d tried the unfamiliarity-with-basic-concepts-you’d-encounter-at-a-club bit and was airing out that one impressively curly circle of pit hair. That was engaging. The guy’s not gonna stop listening to this ghost drama. What Rhiannon’s look really told Aries is, it was time to go nuclear.
Before Aries could pull her aside, she slammed the red button. “Wanna know where we met?”
As is natural, the man responded positively to what was now the least insane statement to leave Rhiannon’s mouth.
“We met”—before Rhiannon continued, she looked toward Aries to take in his pleading expression—“on AO3.”
It was Aries who answered next. “Archive of Our Own. It’s a fanfiction site. We both write for this crossover rarepair between Judy Hopps and Roger Rabbit, because you do not mix the species. If you mix the species it ends with genetic abominations.”
“Plus, foxes eat rabbits. You dinguses.” Neither of them wanted to talk about the nuclear option so everything Rhiannon said was ad-libbed. “Everything’s safe for work, though. We keep it classy.”
Aries inhaled sharply. “I read a fic that addresses predation. So it starts with a modern-day bun hopping through a portal that takes it to Judy Hopps’s world, getting anthro-ed and everything, and the first thing it does is find other bunnies and get into this big, long speculative conversation about what the possibilities are, foodwise. Either, one, their society figured out some way to get nutrients into the predators without killing anyone, lab-grown meat for example; or two, the whole thing’s set up as one big lie keeping the prey animals in the dark as to where the meat’s really coming from.”
The longer Aries spoke, the less sure Rhiannon was that he was improvising.
“It doesn’t trust the wholesome, family option. It’s a bunny. If there’s one species that’s not going to ignore that the disparities exist because one class of animals kills and eats the other, it’s the humble bunny. So it goes off–hops off—and—“
“—The fuck would anyone want to know about your bullshit fanfic for?” Finally, the man was losing his cool.
“And another point on account of them standing upright like people and having access to people technology makes a lot of people think it’s set in a post-apocalyptic society where humans are extinct. We deserve it if the rest of the Zootopia fic I’ve seen is any indication.”
“Sure.” The melismatic quality she gave this word, and the look she shot at Aries, suggested either that he had just given her a Birkin bag or she was about to eat him. “The vast amounts of fanfiction we’ve both read and definitely don’t need to discuss later.”
Before Aries could respond, the man muttered something about wanting to keep his sanity, and took off running toward the exit.
Cupping her hands so the man could hear her over the music, Rhiannon yelled, “Careful on the stairs!”
Other than a flash of purple in her peripheral vision, slightly off her forehead, Neala didn’t register the man running past her. Her brain was being flooded by the dopamine rush caused by putting abstract objects together and watching them blow up into shinies.
She chuckled to herself as she matched another 3.
The club’s owner must have had some anxiety centered around public bathrooms: the bathrooms here were both single stall, but still gendered for some reason.
Which Neala hated.
Because the thing is, Glimmerbrook wishes it were a women’s restroom in a club. Lord of the Flies would’ve gone in a different direction had William Golding ever set foot in a women’s restroom in a club. While he was classifying human nature as brutish, Tommy wasn’t listening to grandma Hobbes tell the story of when she relieved herself during intermission at a play and one of Henry VIII’s now ex-wives (it escapes her right now) lent her a shawl to cover up a tear on her sleeve. Here’s a list of war crimes that have not happened in a women’s bathroom at a club. Genocide. All of them.
Anywhere else she’d be spending her free-to-play lives next to a woman with forgivable pit stains and a mouth full of bobby pins having one friend readjust her bra and another transfer bobby pins from her mouth to her hair; the whole time they’re chatting about life goals and what they were put in this world to do. Everyone drinking bathroom-sink water. Two friends in the corner trying to explode a can of hairspray. We don’t talk about them but we stop to watch every time they light a match. An unfortunate soul stuck in a stall asking for napkins and everyone in range checking their pockets at once. Someone wearing a headband as a tube top trying to apply lipstick on a mirror with names scratched into it like a war memorial. Now that one group is leaving to get more hairspray. Anyway. That’s what she missed. Which all serves to explain why Neala was out front on her phone about yea away from the ladies-room entrance.
Her suspicions were confirmed when two women approached the restroom together. They wore barrettes in roughly the same places on their respective heads—which Neala thought was adorable—yet, based on the space between them left for baby Jesus, this wasn’t a pee-buddy arrangement.
They were speaking at a volume that suggested the conversation was private, so Neala could hear nothing but their tones of voice: the one wearing a cardigan was pitching her voice to hell in back in an animated-but-skeptical way, the one in the tartan minidress responding in a low, evasive growl with flatter tones and shorter statements.
Neala put down her phone and addressed the woman in the minidress. “No! He doesn’t deserve you!”
“That’s what I’ve been saying!” The woman in the cardigan attributed equal stress to each word, and the overall effect brought Neala into a childhood memory: she and her sister were baking their favorite oatmeal cookies, and this was around third grade or so, when times tables were the thing to be doing in one’s free time with one’s free neurons, and so one of them—Neala—had the idea to double the spices; and so then Rhiannon, bouncing off the fresh idea, said she liked the texture of the oats so why not add more of those, and then they had to double the flour and emulsifying ingredients to ensure like some structural integrity and moisture in the finished product, then once everything’d been transferred from bowl to parchment paper (greasing the cookie sheet is for scrubs), exactly twice each constituent ingredient made exactly twice the number of cookies, albeit without the enhanced spice concentration as planned, yet no one was complaining. That’s what it reminded her of.
To Neala’s surprise, the woman yelled “I know!” And then, after incredulous muttering, “Wait, you don’t even know what’s going on. What are you doing, standing outside the bathroom?”
“It’s single stall.”
Both women vocalized their surprise and were quick to confirm that they were indeed not pee buddies.
“Anyway,” Neala started, “I’m thinking the last thing you need is someone else telling you what to do. So feel free to bounce off me, but only if you feel up to it.”
“Look, just—not a huge amount happened. He’s just trying to have me plan shit.”
“He decided it was his turn to host brunch for his family. And by his turn, he means he gets the credit, Chloe does the planning, Chloe cooks and arranges the food, Chloe handles his folks’s generational baggage, Chloe cleans up. Okay. That’s not entirely accurate. His mom and sister help walk the dishes from the dining room to the sink.” Boy howdy, the cardigan friend was ready for this. “While she’s here he’s like calling her from the grocery store to ask her where he can find this-and-that. You know, the grocery store he’s currently in but she’s not.”
Chloe spoke in a flat, pragmatic tone free of anger or contempt. “He’s just weaker when it comes to event coordination and advance planning. I already organize a once-a-week get-together where all the women at my workplace are invited. Like a ladies’ brunch. So if we’re working as a team, it’s less total work for me to handle everything.”
“Yeah, and for him to do nothing. ‘Cause that’s what he’s good for. And he’s like”—she put on a low voice that called to mind a Great Dane barking—“why isn’t there a bro brunch?” Reset to normal voice. “It’s because you’re putting all the responsibility for planning on Chloe, ya dingus.”
“I’ll take ‘why isn’t there a bro brunch’ over the shit tornado that was online dating.”
At the words ‘online dating,’ all three women’s heads tilted back, like their brains were melting into the back of their skulls. And their groans were universal and primal, so clear that any chimps nearby would think, oh shit, they’re talking about Simder again.
“Oh god, never.” The very words made Neala so angry, she had no eyes. Or at least her irises and pupils were barely visible during her impressive prolonged eyeroll. “I try to forget that exists.”
“My sanity cannot take any more online dating. Look, I don’t start a relationship if I know how it ends. It’s been this way since high school. Let me be clear, the stockbrokers and clairvoyants should be tripping over themselves to hire me. Do you know how many dates I went through before finding one who can pick his own socks up off the floor like a big boy? Tell ‘er, Jenna.”
“There was that dude who insisted on ordering for her. Not just that. No. He told her they’d be splitting 50/50 beforehand. And when she got up and left, he started complaining to her about gold diggers. I swear. To her.“
“One guy, I had the date all lined up at this nice Thai place. And then he says, you wanna see something? So I say back, no, in big capital letters. NO. And he informs me, c’mon, you’ll like it. Again, no, boy, don’t you dare. Then he protests again. Saying I don’t even know what it is he wants to show me. Bruh. Everyone I tell this to knows what it is. Instant block. Then I couldn’t order some stir-fried eggplant on my own in case this dingus is there still waiting to talk to me, and so I hid in the car with a magazine over my head while my male co-worker picked up the food.”
What Neala had to say didn’t fit the flow of conversation, but she was proud of it anyway. “Sounds like he was confused about what kind of eggplant you wanted.”
“Haha! I’m laughing because I have to pretend this is funny so I don’t fall to the floor and dead-fish right here.” She really did say ‘haha’ in lieu of honest laughter. “Then there’s the one who told me what to wear but I thought he was doing it ironically—he tried to play it off as a joke—and then when we got to the restaurant he tried ‘joking’ again if I really wanted to order that. I was like, fuck you, and ordered five plates of fries. And ate them all staring at him. Or at least one and a half plates, maybe closer to one and a third, because he stormed out.”
“And he got you to a restaurant. What’s your name? Neala? Okay. Neala, I saw the god damn messages she was getting, and maybe a cool 95% of those guys don’t make it to that point.”
“She’s right. My boyfriend’s the only one who paid for the whole date, could carry a real conversation, kept deodorant on his pits and his pickle in the jar. Jenna, you’re lucky you never had to deal with this. Kado is a doll.”
Jenna moved her head like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. “I mean, he has weird shit with his ex but at least he told me about it. But it’s fine. Who doesn’t have weird shit with their ex?”
“Everybody has their baggage.” Up to this point Chloe had been rock solid. Now her voice softened. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s rough.” At this point Neala’s intuition drew her to what got her out of her own darkest times: the first thing she thought about in the morning, the last thing she pictured at night. What pulled her out of every despair pit, taught her to believe again, trickled into her dreams. She gripped her phone. But Chloe hadn’t asked for advice: if she was already at peace in her own company without needing the thing at the end of a level where it turns all your remaining moves into bomb gems and everything explodes all at once, she could still save herself from crippling Match-3 addiction. So Neala went against her own judgment. “What’s important is that you trust yourself to make the right call.”
“Which I do.” That checked out, even for Neala, who’d met the woman not 5 minutes ago and already couldn’t imagine her without both feet on the ground. “I want to talk with him first. See what’s going on. He’s been willing to listen on other issues, and I get the sense he’s just bad at following directions.”
Neither Neala nor Jenna had anything to add to that, but they nodded their heads in support. There wasn’t that much difference in their movement from the people in the dance pit bopping along to the grunge.
“Glad you’re standing up for yourself in a way that make sense to you.” Neala patted her T-shirt corset. “Can I get you anything else? Fruit? Shower-in-a-can? Bubble jar, Spice-Fest style? Uh”—she recalled the part of her inventory consisting of rabbit gifts—“flower, any three sizes of cross-stitch hoop, children’s book—damn the size of this list slows everything down—“
“—Oh, my gosh, you’ve done way more than enough.” One of Chloe’s palms rested on her heart and the other gestured toward Neala. “Thank you, bathroom mom!”
“We love you, bathroom angel!” Jenna said. They headed toward the back entrance. Seems like neither of them actually needed to use the restroom the conventional way.
“Love you both, too!” To Neala’s left, another woman entered the club. “I love your dress! You look like a goddess!”
She turned back to her phone. Still on duty.
As Thora had disclosed to Chantel earlier, she had a certain fondness for grocery stores.
They’d spent the conversation figuring out why, or trying to, and ended up with no hard answers and a list of possibilities. It’s retail therapy but with less anti-consumerist shame because you have to buy food or else; the way a massive black boot looks against faded, monochrome linoleum; the colors sprouting every which way lined in neat rows; the naughty thrill of looking into other people’s carts and refusing to admit you’re judging them, pretending you’re invisible even though you’re black and green all over and do stand out if you’re being honest; the feeling of getting your 5 a day by just being in the produce section.
Thora was into cool-toned plants right now. Anything natural but born to be kooky. Rainbow carrots. Purple cauliflower. Purple potatoes. Purple kale. Red cabbage. Red onions. Kiwi berries. Blue corn and blue masa flour. Cotton candy grapes because what the fuck they’re good. Kalamata olive tapenade and pesto on her sandwiches. Tomatillo salsa from a high-end blender because promotional Shrek ketchup is no longer available. All beautiful to her.
And so naturally she liked to get blue tortilla chips because they were blue. If only Patton’s were on the same page; she figured their snack selection was stuck in the ’90s to match the music. The blue ones hadn’t been a staple chip back then.
It drove her to sing.
Are you hungry people ready for the blue chips Sit down and admit the salsa's never coming These aren't the blue chips Sit down and admit Did I get them (No!) Did I want them (Yes!) These aren't the blue chips Sit down and admit
The backing track audible to no one but herself, she realized the fancy-ass Friends couch was totally free, and it was decided that where she was going to sit down and really dig into these chips. She took hold of one and the music in her head abruptly stopped. Someone was talking to her.
“Your shirt. I wonder if you know what it means?”
This was such a stupid fucking question that Thora’s business hand froze and her mouth hung open before the chip could reach it. She had a catalog of epithets in her RAM for exactly this situation, but was experiencing a type of choice paralysis—like when the store has too many jars of jam—and ran through her list rather than blurting one out. ‘Neckbeard’ wasn’t strong enough for what she was seeing. ‘Wheat ass’ she’d just learned but due to both temporal and spatial proximity it didn’t seem like the right time to deploy it.
Taking her livid silence as confirmation of his pre-existing biases, the man continued. “I hate it when girls wear band shirts and they’ve never even heard of the band.”
Right after ‘I hate it when,’ Thora had heard a tiny screech, barely audible, and when she checked the sound’s direction, she saw a man in a sweater catching his balance. He turned, looked between Thora and the man addressing her. Then, to Thora’s surprise, he interrupted.
“C’mon. She doesn’t need your permission to wear a shirt.”
“The blessed hell I don’t!”
She scrutinized the second interrupter of her chip time. Something about him stole her attention, and not necessarily in a romantic way, just something she couldn’t place immediately. The eyebrow piercing. thick-rimmed glasses, man bun, and full beard said one thing, but the tips of his practical shoes bore several colors of mud, the rips on his pants were patched too messily to be the work of a designer, and the edges of his sweater had that telltale tuck-in like a human bound them off. His expression read serious but his body language was shy.
Thora’s response didn’t betray her unease. Though the man’s entrance saved her from having to pick a rejoinder, she was aware that one, the bar was so damn low it counted as a plus if a guy didn’t hang around middle schools asking kids for quarters, and so being less shitty than a red-goatee’d gatekeeper wouldn’t guarantee the guy wasn’t shitty; and two, she’d heard crazier stories than one guy sending his friend in to act like an idiot in order to swoop in and break the ice.
When the man in the sweater saw her looking at him, he shrunk and looked away. “Oh, gosh, sorry if I overstepped. I just know it’s annoying to have to call someone out when put on the spot like that. I’ll just go”—pointing with one thumb at nothing in particular, his gaze followed his thumb to figure out what he was pointing at, and upon discovering he wasn’t indicating anything, looked back at Thora—“I’ll just, uh, go, over there.”
“Hold on.” At Thora’s insistence, the man turned around to face her. “Do you know this guy?”
“I don’t. I just happened to overhear and thought it would be easier for someone else to jump in.” He tugged at the ribbing on his sweater: collar, cuffs, waist, anywhere there was ribbing it got played with.
“Fair enough. At least you didn’t bring an asshole here. I have a cat named Lemmy, for the sake of fuck.” The guy’s still standing right there, if it matters. The red one with the hat. Other guy was tilting his head further and further left, waiting for her to clarify the reference. “The legendary Motörhead lead singer and bassist.”
“She’s lying,” was the latest noise coming out of hatband guy’s mouth.
“Gotta admit, that went over my head. I prefer more relaxing genres myself.” So by this point, his eyes were looking in every direction but anyone’s face, and the restless and enthusiastic way he rubbed his neck hinted that this conversation topic would turn into rambling. “But the aesthetic is great. I use metal album covers as inspiration for chicken sweaters.”
Those words tickled Thora’s ears like a double bass drumline. “Chicken sweaters like with a chicken on them, or a sweater that you put on and it makes you look like a chicken, or is the sweater for a chicken—like for the chicken to put on and wear?”
“For a chicken. Her name is Hen-y Lamarr.”
She winced. “Do you use her for eggs?”
“Goodness no! She’s a rescue chicken and a friend! One of a few! My entire house is even chicken-proofed for them!”
Upon seeing his genuine horror, Thora brought her shoulders down from her ears. A friend chicken indeed. It seemed more and more likely that this man truly did want to leave her—Thora’s—eggs alone.
“Wanna see some photos? I love to show them off.” He’d taken out his phone before waiting for a response. and wiggled it, rotating between his middle finger and thumb, for emphasis. It should go without saying that the phone had chicken stickers directly on it. Fancy kinds, like the ones with avian afros covering their eyes, or the black-and-white optical illusion ones with half-bowl feather crowns on their head resting the wrong way. Such is what man has done to nature.
Thora stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the bearer of chicken pics. He flicked the screen with his pointer finger, and even though the image was dark, it spoke of what true beauty was.
“This logo is partly embroidered. Small gauge. Hard but the other Slipknot logo’s to circle-y for this art form. Took forever to complete, but at least she’s not wiggly about clothes so it didn’t take a second forever to get the thing on.”
“Black sweater on a black chicken. Daring. It suits her.”
“You know how it is to take pictures of black pets. In dim light, they look like a hole on the floor. A fluffy, feathery hole. But still, a very cute hole with precious feathers and dinosaur feet. Look at her little comb. My name’s Todd, by the way.”
As he scrolled, he sounded more and more like a teakettle going off. Behind the two invited parties, the man in the red shirt started to push his way in, which Thora knew because the air around her had gotten moister. Made her think of the alligator parts of Florida. Still, she was not without empathy, and his intrusion was forgivable in this instance. I mean it’s chicken pictures for the love of. So she just did a little sideways shuffle to create her own air pocket, which the man took as an invitation to squeeze in to where Thora was in his armpit and Todd’s elbow kept poking into his gut.
It was unclear to Thora whether Todd hadn’t noticed the intrusion or was in damage-control mode, as in oh-shit-that-crackhead-saw-me mode, and his instinct was to keep his head down and hope something on the sidewalk was really, distractingly shiny, more so than him. “Okay, so here she is from another angle. Gojira, whale with planet, something a bit lighter so you can see her wings and where the ribbing stops. I felt like this design looks better on a flat surface so it’s replicated on both sides rather than across the back. And here! Look! She’s bending down to get the chicken feed and it looks like the whale on her back is getting some with her. Short video of her scratching the ground with the little head bob. Super, super adorable. And now this is a new sweater—here’s where it starts to get thorny—I tried to stylize this from a real photo into stitchy V-like pixel art. Does it work? Can you still recognize it?”
“That looks terrible and no she can’t,” hat man interjected.
“British Steel. Judas Priest. 1980. Do you gotta be here? And Todd, man, I get you. Most late eighties/early nineties thrash metal album covers are like someone tried to fit a slasher movie in one image.”
“Don’t I know it.” It’s true; it’s one thing to make a sweater for a man Todd’s size using a dozen skeins and a couple pieces—he hadn’t gone with raglan sleeves or knitting in the round and so there was more sewing involved than there could have been—but for a mood-potion-induced tentacle-and-ghost mess the back bit would start to look like the world’s worst-maintained server. But anyway, back to the chicken sweaters.
“I know what you’re thinking for the next one and sadly, KISS makeup looks too oily and uncomfortable to put on someone with a face full of feathers. Ah, and this one’s kind of a mess. I thought bouclé would give the grassy bit some zhuzh, but like, kids, always do a gauge swatch. Moving on. This one’s from a more obscure artist. I found her on a forum for this kinda stuff and really liked the art.”
Thora was intimately familiar with this album cover. Off-center photo, black vignette, cranked-up yellow filter—weird dumb fucking baby doll lamp at a thrift store shelf. Some of the more sensible people making these things would rip off the head and stick the lightbulb in there, for the radioactive blood-of-Satan look and bonus peeling black eyes, but whatever discarded soul made this chose to go an even more wrong direction and had the lightbulb in the body with the stubbornly scrunched cord coming out of where the baby’s junk would be. Said discarded soul then presumably thought to themselves it wasn’t bad but it needed something else, and was already on the way to the craft store, so there were artificial feathers of all sorts of mismatched gem tones sprouting from the baby’s triceps and brachioradialis. (Roughly.) And each feather’s quill ended in an obscenely plastic oversized teardrop gem. Yes, these were also jewel-toned; no, they were not the same color as the quills they were attached to. And the whole thing was off. Fucking. Center. Thora was impressed to see that not only had Todd worked the thrift store’s dead flies onto the sweater’s hem, they had black pony beads for bodies flanked diagonally by two sequins for wings, which was adorable.
What Thora hadn’t realized yet was that she’d gone and done it, and looked not only excited in front of hat man, but truly happy. This was unacceptable. Hat man liked it better when people were in the same mood as hat man. Unacceptable feelings were to be hissed at and crushed in a hydraulic press.
“It’s ugly. And you don’t even know whose album that is.”
Thora was going to savor her response. In the back of her throat she imagined the fumes of fresh butterfly pea tree tea: the apex of blue foods, the flowers that dyed the water a shade as saturated as any festive toilet bowl cleaner, but deeper and purer—and tastier—the substance that turned serious San Myshuno fashion types into children with their faces pressed against the glass, fascinated by what they understood science to be back then, putting cool-looking fluids into beakers and adding science chemicals to make the color change. Acid for purple. More acid for pink. Hibiscus for red.
This was the butterfly pea tree flower of moments. This shit was magic.
As low-key as she could manage, she replied, “It’s mine.”
Thora knew mister Townie-Jewelry wouldn’t believe it any more than she did. But Todd, it seemed, was looking at her for the first time.
“Are you Thora Shinigami?”
“I sure the fuck am.” Chips in hand, she struck the same pose as the baby doll lamp. It made sense to her at the time.
Both of them knew the red-shirted interloper would have a take he wanted to share, and so Thora and Todd decided simultaneously to stare him down, imploring him to get it the heck over with. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.
“For the love of hell, just look it up. I’ve got a large body of work so it shouldn’t be hard to find photos. Or a wiki.”
“Well, let’s look it up then.” He drew out each word, implying he thought the concept of looking something up was a novel one that required explanation.
He pulled a phone from the pocket in his basketball shorts. And wiggled it, as if in an informercial. Mm-hmm. That’s the thing. That’s what he’s going to look something up on. He made a show of typing with one finger before getting to Thora’s last name, asking her to spell it at least three times; she lost track. A pause. Thora tried to time it so she was stuffing the last of the chips in her face when he looked up to compare her with the reference photo. His face fell. He looked back at his phone, back at Thora. She got more aggressive with her chewing. Then he put down the phone and walked away.
Some people might have waited for the guy to be at a safe distance before diving into the villain cackle. Not Thora. “What the literal, figurative, and metaphorical fuck was that?”
“—Pssh. Todd. Look. You don’t have to apologize for him. Just keep the chicken pictures coming.”
Todd was cool with that. “But wasn’t there something earlier about a black cat? It’s not every day you get to see the toe beans of a famous bassist.”
“The void is here among us and the beans are fresh. And yeah, he’s half my photos.” Another eighth was cool-toned vegetables—a relatively recent thing—then contenders for the tackiest tchotchke contest she held privately to an audience of one, a quail she was really excited to see after spending years in SM, etc. “But I won’t give up pictures of my baby doing stuff until I’ve scrutinized every last chicken sweater. These are epic, and I hate that word.”
“Okay, so. You see all these albums?” When Todd flicked the screen, the little scroll-bar pill was so short, it was nearly circular, and it careened toward the bottom of the screen, skydiving down a shitload of farm animal portraits. “Sorted by chicken and music genre.”
Thora settled in. Life was good. “Oh, hell yes. Hit me.”
Where Jazz had nature walks, Chantel had abandoned warehouses. The kind it looked like you would get superpowers from if you hung around too long. It was easiest for her to focus somewhere cold and hard, complete with perches her mom warned her not to sit on a thousand times, floors that reverberated basically on their own and snapped her back to reality, chucks strung over a traffic light visible through the filthy windows, peeling billboards that said this was a peanut factory in the 1920s or some other weird shit. The corner near the back entrance was the closest Patton’s had to an abandoned-warehouse section, and so she’d marked it as her territory. She closed her eyes, letting the vibrations from the club music tingle the tips of her nostrils and wiggle the barstool legs against her calves. Her mind wandered. A mixologist stomped on the sheet-metal flooring so hard it growled, bringing her back into the moment. Must’ve grown up in a house having never heard of the concept of inside feet.
Chantel knew the word she was listening for would pop up eventually. Until she heard it, she was staying right here.
Gripping the back of her stool with one skate shoe, she rolled her head back, open-mouthed, fluttering her epiglottis to make a repetitive clicking noise. She moved from her mid-spine until her head was almost completely not the direction it should be. Forgot she had a beanie on. She felt it fall, then reversed her spine to neutral and had gotten one toe on the ground toward picking it up.
And then. The word happened. There it was, exposed and dripping with the venom she’d come to associate it with.
The first appearance she’d caught all night and it was feet away from her barstool. There’s not really anywhere for her to blend into the shadows and eavesdrop under cover of spookiness, but there was no need to. It was the noise she hid in. Of course this was the moment the mixologist had to make what sounded like a really complicated drink with ingredients at all different ends of the bar (roll through the heel! Roll through!!).
She pretended to be looking over her shoulder for a friend who wasn’t there yet. The conversation was between three people, one of whom Chantel recognized. Though not from direct interaction. The one lady with pigtails and the outfit that screamed DESERT DESERT DESERT had appeared on Kendra’s phone screen a week ago, and she knew this because Kendra’d yelled that she got a text and began waving the phone around, and when Chantel, lacking context, asked for some, she got it in the form of “it’s Alice.” Then when she gave the natural response, that being “who’s Alice,” Kendra said Alice was a woman she’d met, which was phrased as to be helpful but didn’t provide any new information.
The other two, Chantel didn’t recognize: there was a woman whose face she couldn’t see and who was wearing a plain-looking black T-shirt, and the third person, a man wearing a brown button-up with a daring statement pocket, was speaking nonstop about something or other while the two women managed to get in one syllable at a time before being interrupted, which sounded not unlike a pair of quiet and well-mannered pterodactyls. Didn’t look like he was keeping candy in the pocket either.
Later, Chantel would learn that the women in the black shirt was named Lenore Jacobson. It was she who managed to trudge out of the word vomit. “When i said ‘crypto,’ it was short for ‘cryptography.'”
“Wrong.” He got his pointer finger as close to her face as the centerpiece would let him. “If your circle isn’t talking about cryptocurrency, you’re falling behind in personal finance.”
“We know what the damn blockchain is,” said the lady from Kendra’s texts. “The government is paying for my Masters in cryptography while I work for them, and Lenore’s a postdoc in my program.”
The guy’d been going psh at the word ‘government’ and it wasn’t clear if he processed the statement she made. “Oh, so you’re with the bad guys. Tracking us with fiat dollars. You see, everything is recorded in the blockchain. It has all the information about where it’s been. And that’s what makes bitcoin better than conventional money, which can be stolen.”
He was cut short by a fist slamming between him and the table’s last remaining empty chair. Less of a violent gesture and more of a greeting: that there was a fist here, and a person—a crazed woman with pin-straight blonde hair—was attached to it. Chantel let the shock linger before addressing the whole table.
“Wanna talk about crypto? I’ll talk about crypto.”
The group eyeroll this prompted couldn’t have been more in sync if it’d been choreographed. For one person, this was an expression of relief, possibly disdain, and he responded, “Finally, a woman with some sense.”
“Clearly you just disagree because it hasn’t been explained to you enough times. That’s the only reason anyone would think cryptocurrency is a terrible investment and an MLM for wannabe tech bros who don’t actually understand anything and can’t admit they’re wrong. Maybe if you hear the same thing a fifth time the Logic and Reason will finally sink in.” Open-mouthed and running her tongue across her teeth, Chantel slowly pulled herself upward while checking the reactions of the other three sims. Black tee caught on fast. At “enough times” her face had gone from ‘the audacity of this bitch’ to wide-eyed amusement, and a poorly hidden grin that pulled her chin up, giving the complicated muscles inside a scrunched raisin-like quality. Alice looked to black tee for guidance—also expected, since Kendra’s type was slightly awkward people in fancy uniforms. They had some impressive side-eye going on.
And mister statement-pocket man had already cut off the end of Chantel’s statement with “no, really,” and was slowly running the three others through a Frankenstinian explanation of the blockchain he’d cobbled together from various Reddit posts. Monologue omitted.
Which gave Chantel what she needed. Three for three. She’d confirmed who heard what they wanted to hear, and who was really listening. She slowly reached out her hand as if to cover pocket bro’s mouth. When he stopped, confused, she spoke.
“How much you got in Bitcoin?”
“§10k.” He beamed in all directions in case someone on the dance floor or adjacent tables was listening in. They weren’t. There’s too much grunge involved.
Chantel tossed her elbow around the guy’s opposite shoulder, and while he was being thrown off by the touch of another sim, she scanned the room with narrowed eyes. Finding what she sought, she tapped the man’s chest and pointed.
“See that dude?”
His eyes followed Chantel’s finger to a man whose boatlike jawline made him look several inches taller even though all male sims are the same height. When he turned his head so he was in relative profile to their table, it was if his chin were pulling him forward. Attached to the face was a neck so thick this man’d have thumb-head syndrome if not for the gloriously square noggin he was lugging around, and a body built by and for recreational lifting.
She kept pointing. Really, she was pointing at his man tits to amuse herself. Building mass was one thing, but how’d they get so round? Anyway.
“That guy has §20k in bitcoin.”
While pocket man was still deciding how to react, Chantel lowered her head, letting her bangs shade her brow, glaring straight forward. It made her feel like a wolf poster. Lenore’s mouth was practically at the top half of her face by now; poor woman was going to break any moment. She smacked her lips, pretending to think.
“I don’t know, seems like 20k is bigger.” She sung this while holding her palms out like the trays of a scale and dancing from left to right unlike a scale would, but rather leading from the neck. “Maybe we should be taking pointers from him instead.”
When her mentor started playing along, Alice cut the brakes and so her delight came out at full momentum, manifesting as shrieking from a slightly more extra pterodactyl. “Yes! You need to buy 100% more crypto, stat!” The man couldn’t interrupt her to confidently proclaim 20k is not 100% more than 10k. “Definitely, definitely listen to the guy with 2 million Twitter followers who has the most to gain from you driving up the price! It’s not a pyramid scheme!”
“Duh it’s not a pyramid scheme.” Chantel gestured with her thumb to the muscle bro. “He told me it wasn’t.”
Lenore’s turn. “I heard he bought so much bitcoin, he woke up on a cloud with a giant on it.”
“Wait, is that Martin Hellman? I heard he wrote his own cryptocurrency trading app,” said Alice.
Dr. Jacobson fought not to acknowledge the man’s non-reaction to the intentional severely wrong name drop. Severely wrong. Ballsy. But she knew Alice’s classes had just covered Diffie-Hellman key exchange. If ever there were a time for the man to interrupt, this be it. And yet his face was still scrunched like an improperly stored linen fitted sheet. Might as well keep Alice’s thing moving, she decided.
“And the app itself—“
“—is on the blockchain!” By this point Alice was far past her breaking point, and was trying not to giggle so hard she choked on her own tongue.
“Why are you laughing at me?” asked the table’s unwanted third party, who may have been beginning to catch on.
Her lower lip contorting to let a puff of air escape and catch her bangs, Chantel craned her neck toward the guy at an angle. The concept of ‘brattitude’ came to mind. “How have you not heard of Martin Hellman?”
“Of course I know who he is. Everybody knows that.”
“I hear Musk’s looking to buy his startup,” Lenore said.
Alice was laughing too hard, but presumably she said, “What is it?”
“Lacroix for cats.”
Now even people at neighboring tables feared for the safety of Alice’s head. The pigtails were cute but they weren’t going to do much against the metal bar separating the seating area from the dance floor.
“Why are you laughing?” Dude. “That could actually work. People love sparkling water and their pets. You can’t just dismiss ideas because they’re new.”
“Then invest in it,” said Lenore.
“With crypto!” Alice yelled. “Buy more Bitcoin!”
This time it was the man who barely had a chance to open his mouth before Lenore spoke. “Or just buy more Bitcoin! And never sell it! Hodl! Hodl!”
Chantel regarded the scene before her with pride. Lenore pointed to the sky and yelled at the moon, Alice was trying her darndest to chant ‘Bitcoin!’ between choking squeals of laughter and—the dude was not getting out his fucking phone. Oh god, they got the dude to get out his phone.
This table no longer needed her. She could return to her post.
Except not; the job was done and payment was getting to rifle through Neala’s inventory while she played phone games.
She checked whether the Friends couch was occupied and was pleased that Juliet and River had claimed it. And having a rather intense conversation, by the speed at which Juliet spoke. Good for them. Yet as much as Chantel wanted to see Juliet enjoying her night after having to deal with some salt-and-pepper sicko, she felt it was a shame they hadn’t gotten to Neala’s bag first.
They were going to miss all the good stuff.