The duffle bag took her shoulder. Alice carried her backpack in her hand. It dangled by the little strap on the top, swinging as she walked. She got home late. Michael was on the couch again, the television on and mumbling in the background. She shut it off and woke him up.
He sucked in a a breath through his nose. His eyes opened. He noticed her as he stretched and cracked his back.
“I keep telling you to go to bed,” Alice said. She took his hands and pulled him off the couch. He was neither that old nor that tired, but accepted her help without comment. “I’m fine. You don’t need to worry.”
“I’m always gonna worry about you, kiddo. That’s not gonna change.”
“Don’t change. Just stop worrying.”
Michael laughed. He clunked up the stairs, remarking, “Wow you are your mother.”
Alice followed suit soon after, unloading her backpack and duffle bag in her room, by her folding table and half-tent. The pile of things was getting bigger.
Alice went down the stairs the following morning.
Michael was up, but not business-y. No suit, no tie. Still coffee, though. The french-press loomed beside the kitchen sink, gently wafting steam. Yesterday’s newspaper spread in his hands, crinkly and newspapery. “Morning.”
Alice opened the fridge for some reason. “Mornin’ pops.”
Their breakfast routine proceeded as usual. Only, he didn’t mention anything about school or work, and so Alice felt a compulsion to ask, “Uh, what day is it?”
Alice gasped loudly.
“Yeah that’s right – you’re free.”
As Alice took a seat and sagged back into her chair, mentally going over the sheer number of activities she could fit into that freshly vacated time-slot, Michael asked, hesitantly, “Did you have any plans?”
“Do you want to… Do something later?”
It had been a very long time since he had asked her that. “Yeah.”
He seemed very out of practice. “Do you want to… Um. See a movie, later? Maybe get lunch after?”
A halfhour later they piled into his truck and left. The radio was on, a little quiet, leaving room to talk. He didn’t know what the theater was showing. Alice didn’t even care at all. The conversation flickered, airy and casual.
They were at a red light when a sick filthy beat came on over the radio. Alice turned it up and started waggling her shoulders, shooting him a look. Recognition flashed in his eyes, and he started waggling his shoulder too. And now they were both waggling their shoulders, stonefaced.
“I don’t understand this music,” he said.
“Not s’posed to.”
They pulled up at the theater and bought tickets to the quirkiest sounding title. The movie was terrible. Just awful. The showing was nearly empty; just them and a smattering of singles, all evenly distributed across the lots of empty chairs. To make up for the poor showing he started making extra terrible dad jokes.
“We should have gotten popcorn,” he whispered, “I would just get corn. And it would be pop-corn.”
Alice laughed maybe a little harder than she should have.
“W – we should have gotten snacks,” Alice said, still cracking up, “But I – I would just – A – Alacks.”
He definitely laughed harder than merited.
The jokes descended in quality from there, somehow. They left before the showing finished, and went through a fast food drive-thru on the trip back. A bag of fries and burgers took the cupholder. The fries would not make it home.
“How’s school?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” Alice said.
“You missed a lot of time. Has everything been alright? You’re caught up?”
“Oh, no not at all. I have no idea what people are talking about.”
He laughed even though he probably shouldn’t have. “Well I’m not going to force you, but I – I would prefer you got a high school degree – or an equivalent. Just that, at least.”
Alice shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind. I’ve heard it’s a good idea from some other people too.”
“Have you looked into getting a G.E.D?”
Alice shook her head. She had been concerning herself with much more important things, such as cats and making little figurines duel for her amusement.
“I figured… Well, I have looked into it. It’s not hard. Supposedly it is the easiest test you will ever take. Register online, pick a place, show up with a pencil… We can… Set it up later?”
Alice nodded slowly, noticing something. “We can.”
He snuck a fry.
“Mom would probably be upset with me, I think,” Alice said.
“Oh would she ever.”
Alice snuck a fry. “She’d want me to go to college, right?”
“For sure. That was her thing.”
Alice looked at him, a fry poking out of her mouth. She kept looking at him until he understood, and the atmosphere of the car changed. The music was quieter, the engine louder. She heard him sigh.
“You’re different.” He was focused on driving, his eyes always on the road when they were moving, never looking away. Alice wouldn’t ask him to. “You’re happy, now. Happier than I’ve seen you in a long time. I don’t know why. I don’t care why. I wasn’t there for you, I know that. So I lost that right, to tell you what to do. I just want you to be happy. That’s all. So… Really, Anne would be mad at me, not you.”
Alice put her hand on his shoulder. “Oh, I think she’d be plenty mad at both of us.”
He sighed again, a shade thicker. “Oh, would she ever.”
The fries didn’t make it home. The burgers did.
It was eleven thirty. They lounged around the kitchen table and finished off the fast food. As Alice crumpled the burger-wrapper and tossed in the trash, their phone began to ring. She went still, as did Michael at the table. As one, she and Michael looked at the ringing phone, startled and suspicious.
Alice was already standing, so she volunteered. “I’ll get it.” Click. “Hello?”
The response was immediate. “Hello, this is Caliburn with the Baytown Guild. Is this the Kos residence?”
Alice’s mouth opened but no sounds came out. She looked at the receiver, but it was a phone receiver, so how would it help her. She looked at Michael, but he had not developed super-human hearing powers since the last time she looked at him, so also didn’t know what was going on. “This is Alice?”
“You spoke with a coll – a friend of mine. Yesterday, I believe? You expressed interest in exploring. I would like to extend you an offer to explore the Rig, contingent on a few tests in my workshop. Would you be interested in that?”
“Say again please?”
Caliburn repeated himself.
Alice made a dry, raspy sound. Michael had mentioned calls from the Guild in the past, but this seemed quite the escalation. “Yes. That sounds – awesome, and amazing.”
“Ah, excellent!” He sounded thrilled. Alice hopped a little. “Do you need a ride to the ferry station?”
Alice almost said ‘no’ but caught herself. Public transportation was fine and well in the same way nutrient paste was; and here she had a potentially delicious option. Or at least a not-bland one. “Yes please.”
“Alright, I will arrange a ride from your address to the ferry station. Would you prefer the rest via speedboat or helicopter?”
Alice’s face split into a smile. What a question. She mulled it over. “Boat, please. Sounds more fun.”
“Boat it is, then. When would be a good time?”
Her answer was immediate. “Right now?”
“You are still a minor, is your father… I believe Michael, avail-“
She turned to Michael, and extra little bounce in her movements. “Can I go to the Rig today?”
He replied without missing a beat. “Like the Guild Rig? Yeah, sure kiddo. Have fun.”
And so it was that Alice restlessly squirmed about their living room for the next twenty minutes. She didn’t know what she was waiting for, so every passing car and sudden sound perked her ears and had her running to the window to look. A woman walking a dog. A van speeding on past. One time it was literally nothing. She was maybe going insane.
And then a rumbling engine-sound approached and came to a stop. Alice just about teleported to the window. It was a sleek motorcycle with one passenger, an extra helmet strapped to the back. Alice watched as they dismounted the bike and pulled off their helmet. Black hair and olive skin.
Alice gasped her most loudest gasp yet. She was out the front door in an instant, offering a garbled Byedadseeyoulater as she slammed the door behind her. They approached each other in the driveway, Americana offering a wave and a smile as they drew close. She was out of costume. Her teeth were dazzling.
“Hello again, Alice.”
“Hey,” said Alice, quickly.
“Are you ready to head out, then?”
“There was the option of bringing one of the vans, but I believed you would appreciate this more?”
Alice nodded viciously.
Americana put her helmet back on. Alice put on the spare. They hopped on the bike, the engine rumbled to life. It was different than a car, Alice felt as they pulled away. So open to the road and the world. No plushy seat at her back, no headrest, no armrest. Just a set of footrests and a waist to hold on to. The aura of freedom rode with them. For a brief moment Alice wanted to tell Americana to take the long way. Get on the highway, crank the throttle, let’s go back in time.
But Americana was a cautious, careful driver, doubly so with a passenger to take responsibility for. Alice wouldn’t ask her to compromise that, even if she wanted to. Wow did she want to.
“What do I call you, by the way?” Alice asked at a light.
The light changed. Their feet went back on the footrests. The engine purred to life. Americana called back warmly, “Call me Hannah.”
The trip was relatively short and straightforward; a line through downtown to the midway ferry station. The bike rarely got above thirty miles an hour. No weaving through traffic, no engine revving. Still Alice could not keep the giggles down. I should get a bike, Alice thought.
They arrived at the ferry station fifteen minutes later. Americana parked her bike in the public lots. A small boat waited for them at the station, a little off to the side at a private pier. It was a police-cruiser looking thing, the type of boat that gets made into bathtub-toys. The wheel at the helm under a sleek air shield, framed by screens and gizmos, a wide flat bed, the edges lined with booth seats, big enough to sit eight or ten.
It was still early in the day. Just past twelve, Alice would guess. The sun was up, the air was warm, the bay spread out in front of them, choppy and glittering. In the far distance the Rig waited for them, beckoning.
The captain waved them on and they hopped aboard. The boat took off at a fair pace. It felt different from a car as well – like she was on a motorcycle again, but this time there was only an expanse of road in every direction.
Take us out to sea, captain!, Alice really wanted to say, Let’s find the edge of the earth! But she had even less sway here, and so squashed those impulses down. She settled for leaning over the edge and sticking her hand in the water, casting up curtains of spray. It was delightfully cold, and the salt-smell hit her like a cooking dinner would; alluring and savory.
The Rig was getting bigger as they approached. It was a refitted oil rig. At the time of its construction it came in two parts: the first was this big, four-legged turtle looking thing. It seemed to stand atop the water, its main blockish body big enough to fit two 747 airplanes side-by-side with plenty of room to spare. A platform with a big crane sat beside it on legs of its own, the two of them attached by a thick bridge.
Now, many years later, the crane had been salvaged, turned into a communications tower; its top bristling with antennae and dishes instead of cables and hooks. The main platform had all the mining equipment salvaged as well, and the top built up higher; the internal rooms expanded into proper quarters and labs. It looked halfway between an oil rig and an futuristic apartment complex, all the more appealing for it.
Alice could see ladders and scaffolding coiling around the structure as they drew closer. She started to wiggle in her seat. “Caliburn said I could explore, right?”
“He did,” Hannah said. “He put in a request and got you a special access pass. Speaking of-“ she pulled a little ID card out of her pocket and handed it over.
Alice clipped it to her sweater. “How will that work?”
“Well, there will still be a few off-limits areas: the prison floors, personal quarters, unless invited in, and a few odds and ends that will no doubt warn you in advance. Other than that –“ Hannah cast an imperious look at her, “Lead on and I shall follow.”
The Rig was still getting bigger. It felt almost alien; the shape of it, the sheer size; the massive square legs jutting out of the bay, holding this Aircraft-hangar-large structure fifty feet over the water.
“I can go on those scaffolding looking things, right?”
“Oh they’re fixed structures – and yes.”
The boat finally pulled up alongside the Rig, turning and puttering between two of the legs. The main structure loomed above them, leaving them in its shadow. The captain called back from the helm – about eight feet away from them, “You want the elevator or the ladder?”
The elevator would come down where the drill would have, spitting them out inside the Rig, while the ladder would keep them on the scaffolding route, curling around the outside. The answer was obvious. “Ladder!”
“Okay good.” The rest was a stage whisper, “ I don’t trust that goddamn elevator.”
The boat pulled up near one of the legs, each side of the leg bigger than the boat was long. There was a ladder bolted against it, extending down into the water and up to the structure. The metal was splotchy with rust. The water chopped at the bottommost rungs. Alice hopped onto the side of the boat and started climbing. Hannah followed behind her.
They emerged onto a base platform, surrounding the whole fixture. Alice waited until they both were aboard before picking a direction and heading off. That direction: right. She took them across scaffolds, up ladders, turning here, turning there; more concerned with the ocean at her right than the walls and windows at her left.
“Where is everyone?” Alice asked.
“Inside,” Hanna said.
Alice stopped and shot her a glance. “Inside? Why? Working?”
“Well, yes. Also these are used as emergency routes. In case of power outages, fires… Not closed off, they just don’t see much foot traffic.”
Alice carried on. They were getting higher. There was a little observatory-looking tower at one corner of the Rig, and the scaffolding extended up to it like the emergency escape of an apartment building.
“Why were you so set on exploring, anyways?” Hannah asked. “Caliburn was set on getting you here, somehow. You could have asked for just about anything, you know? Not just… wandering around this place.”
“Is that a joke? I’ve wanted to see this place in person since I heard of it, however many years ago. Who gets that chance? Workers and… PRT staff, and… Guild supers, like you. No one, practically. I’ve been messing around with my power since I got it, I don’t need a lab for that, but at the same time I never had anything against it. So why wouldn’t I accept that trade?”
Hannah seemed slightly taken aback. Alice carried on.
Slightly rusted ladder rungs. Resonating, clanging scaffolding. Railing with just a hint of give. All this old metal coiled around new beep-boop things, it charmed her. Finally, they arrived at the highest peak of that part of the rig, and Alice took a seat there, her legs over the side of the scaffold, straddling a strut of the railing. Hannah took a seat beside her.
They faced the wide, endless ocean. The sun was still high in the sky, the breeze strong and cold, carrying with it the smell of salt. That strange field that the Rig projected kept the seagulls from settling on it, and so they fluttered in packs around some invisible boundary, their calls muted and their shapes small in the distance. Alice and Hannah were in some other place, separate from the normal world. The isolation made it feel new. Alice pressed her cheek to the cool strut of the railing and drew a breath through her nose.
“Do you ever come up here?” Alice asked.
There was a brief pause, and Alice grinned at it. It was the casual pause of contemplation. “No, not really… Mostly just… Inside, and about.”
“Mm? Why’s that? I think I’d be out here every chance.”
“When I was first stationed here, I was out here, semi-frequently. But. Well, I have a very good memory. The appeal doesn’t quite last if you know it like the back of your hand, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Alice said.
“Still… I never did climb all the way up here.”
“Oh that’s fine. I just… If I ever happen across a ladder, I get this urge to climb it. Even if it’s just poking into the ceiling of a grocery store.”
Hannah chuckled. “I understand.”
“Thank you for the ride, by the way. It was fun… Like, a pretty lot of fun.”
Alice took another long breath through her nose. “What a view, huh?”
“No kidding… “
A brief silence stretched between them.
“I never really asked, how long do I have to wander around?”
“A few hours, at the very least. Your pass lasts the whole day, technically, but Caliburn would prefer to see you as soon as he can.”
They didn’t stay up there much longer. Alice burned the sight into her brain, filing it under Do Not Forget. They headed back down, Hannah leading the way this time. She led Alice inside the Rig.
They walked through hallways with cameras and swiveling nozzles, and came upon a big room full of tables, benches, and a line of glass sneeze guards. There were a few people there, men and woman in PRT gear, minus the helmets. A few of the staff muddled about behind the sneeze-guards. “Cafeteria,” Hannah said. “Hungry?”
Alice had the sneaking suspicion that she would be eating later. “I’m good.”
Down more hallways, framed with closed door after closed door. “The Rig isn’t particularly tour-friendly,” Hanna said. “Living quarters, cafeteria, labs, a few storage rooms…” Prison quarters… Missile silos… “You’ve seen the most interesting parts by now.”
Hannah wasn’t wrong. Things were usually pretty mundane once the veneer peeled back, and the Rig was no exception. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t amazing. Alice could see the bay outside the windows they passed, the day still bright and beautiful. It was a shame none of the windows had sliders, but that would probably defeat the purpose of bulletproof glass. “Do you live here?”
“I have a room here. And a room at the PRT building downtown. So I kind of live at both?”
“Which is your favorite?”
“Oh here, definitely. Bigger, quieter, a good view.”
Hannah could have justified her opinion with ‘Because it’s awesome,’ and Alice would have accepted her reasoning without question. “Where am I supposed to meet Caliburn?”
“His lab. If you’re ready I can take you there. It’s a bit out of the way.”
Alice was ready. Hannah lead her down more halls and turns, and eventually they were at Caliburn’s lab. As Hannah rang a buzzer, Alice observed that his lab shared more in common with a bank vault than a lab. The door was big and solid, a hand scanner and other biometric checks spread where the doorknob would have been.
The door hissed like an an airlock and opened, and a man emerged from behind it. He was in casual wear, just his blue helmet and well-groomed beard left to brand him Caliburn. There was a stripe of grease on his cheek. His looked at Hannah first, noticing her lack of bandana.
“I trust her,” Hannah said.
He nodded. “Alright. Thank you, by the way.”
Hannah smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Now Caliburn looked at Alice. “Alice! Welcome.” He offered his hand. “It’s good to meet you.”
Alice took his hand absently, her head in the clouds. “Grease to meet you too.”
Neither of them noticed the mixup. “Ah – let’s get on with it, shall we? Come in, come in.”
He stepped back. The door swung open.
Caliburn’s lab was about the size of two classrooms. There were tables everywhere. Wall-hooks bristled with servos, wires and tools; heavy machinery lined the walls like arcade cabinets; lathes and presses and other things Alice had no names for. Caliburn’s trademark armor was on a display rack, the left leg gutted, wires and blinking things drooling out. “Pardon the mess,” he said, rummaging about in a series of drawers, “I was working on something.”
Alice slowly followed him in, dazed. “Coooooool.”
“Do you mind if I stick around?” Hannah asked, poking her head in around Alice.
Caliburn and Alice responded at the same time.
“By all means,” he said.
“Cooool,” Alice said.
Hannah took a seat on one of the many stools littering the floor. She pulled up her legs and spun around, further cementing her place in Alice’s heart as most bestest Guild hero ever.
“I had a few planned experiments – well, no, not quite experiments,” Caliburn still rummaged about through drawers of who-knew-what, retrieving things and tossing them onto a nearby table. “That material you gave me? In short, it is the most efficient insulator I have ever seen. Quite ridiculous. Wyvern called it… Oh what was the word she used….”
He trailed off in thought, chuckling in realization moments later. “Offensive. And so…” He walked to a mostly empty table and plopped a few things down, beckoning Alice over. Alice pulled up a stool and took a seat. “There were just a few things… I won’t waste your time.”
Alice wondered how such a thing would even be possible, but decided not to comment on it. She clapped her hands on the table. “Okay. What’s up?”
“Here, take this.” Caliburn handed her a black rock, reminisce of a little piece of coal. “I would like to see if you can turn that into a liquid – But! Before you do anything…” He stood and arranged a series of blast shields, cordoning Alice off into the corner and leaving him, Hannah, and the rest of his lab behind it. He flipped as switch. The ventilation system kicked on with a low thrum. “Okay, ready.”
Alice decided not to worry about it. The lump softened and collapsed, and she made it a ball in her hand. “Oh wow-!“ It was dazzlingly bright. Hard to look at, almost. The ventilation system kicked up a notch; air tousled her hair.
“Oh wow…” Caliburn said to himself, looking on intently through the clear part of the blast shield. “Could you make that into a sheet, like you did with the other material?”
Alice popped it into her mouth and chewed. It didn’t taste very good. Kind of bad, even; like the bitter of dark chocolate but without any of the sweetness. She made a sheet and made it solid. Caliburn disassembled the blast shields and accepted the sheet from her.
He took it to a weird machine, looking at wavy lines and graphs on the display. “Oh, I probably should have explained first, shouldn’t I?”
“Yes,” Hannah said, flatly, while Alice shrugged. He saw neither of them.
“That was about two dollars’ worth of graphite – or, carbon. Typically, carbon sublimes – that is, turns to a gas at its melting point. Liquid carbon can only exist under significant pressure… And yet, there it was; liquid carbon in your hand… Under no pressure.”
“Sorry,” Alice said.
He laughed. “Oh, and, carbon sublimes at around 3,900 Kelvin. For reference, water boils at 370 K, and the surface of the sun is 5,800 K.”
Alice made an appreciative sound. “Neat.”
“That is neat,” Caliburn agreed, his eyes narrowed on the screen, a shade too intensely. “That’s very neat…”
A long stretch of silence followed. “So… What’s the news?” Alice asked, “Am I a wizard?”
“More or less.” He detached the sheet from the machine, sounding almost resigned. “I gave you two dollars of drawing-grade graphite, and you gave me five-thousand dollars of layered graphene.”
Alice eyebrows perked at the mention of the large sum of money, but before she could ask further Caliburn turned and said, “One more thing I wanted to test, if you wouldn’t mind?”
“Uh, no. Not at all.”
He asked her to chew together another piece of graphite and a brittle, blue-gray metallic metal. She made the sheet. He took it to his machine. “Oh my…” He let out a breath and rubbed his mouth. When he spoke again his voice quiet, almost wavering. “You made a semi-conductor.”
“Sounds semi-good, eh?” Alice chuckled. “I’m pretty funny.”
That marked the end of the investigation.
Caliburn – or, Brian, as he removed his visor and introduced himself – saw her off, informing her that she would receive a check in the mail for her work, and that he would be getting in contact with her again very soon. He also asked her not to tell anyone about the results.
He looked tired. There were big bags under his eyes. And he was pale. Clammy, almost. Physically he looked good: fit and strong, fed and groomed, and yet somehow he managed to look unhealthy. Alice couldn’t imagine how he’d kept the technical conversation going in such a state, but she didn’t comment, and neither did Hannah.
They got on a boat headed back to the ferry station. It was late in the day now, five or six. The light was a shade darker, more saturated. The bay still gleamed though, no less beautiful. The pilot took the trip slow at Alice’s request.
“He looked tired,” Alice said to Hannah.
“He probably was.”
It was a strange sensation, finding out your heroes were people with problems just like everyone else. But it didn’t make them any less inspiring. “Does that happen a lot?”
“Mm.” Hannah spread her arms over the back of her bench, relishing the sea air. “He doesn’t get much sleep. He’s a… a coffee person.”
“Tell him to sleep more.”
Hannah cracked a grin. “I do tell him.”
“Well then tell him to get out of his lab, too. Just for a bit.” Hannah raised a brow at her and Alice hedged, “Take him up to that awesome scaffold spot. I think he’d appreciate the break.”
Hannah shot her a mock-sullen look. “I make no promises.”
The boat ride ended. They hopped on Hannah’s bike and zipped off to Alice’s house. Alice waved as Hannah sped away, and the sound of her bike slowly faded into the distance.
Michael was on the couch, lounging in sweats, looking glad for the break. Alice took the other end, sprawling along the remaining space.
“How was your day?” He asked
Alice doubted that there were words in the English language that could describe how she’d felt on the boat ride there and back, or on that fairly dangerous highest-point scaffolding. She settled for, “Amazing.” It would have to suffice. “Oh um… Also, we might be getting a check for like, five thousand dollars or something, in the mail…”
They both stared vacantly at the television. He started to laugh.
. . . . .
It was still the weekend the next morning; some strange alien day called Sunday. A call came during breakfast. Alice was poking around in the cupboard, busy picking up cups and then putting them right back down, completely caught up in planning out her day, so Michael answered.
“This is Michael… Hm? Oh, yes. Just a sec.” He turned to her. “It’s for you. Someone called Lara?”
Alice gasped and took the phone from him. “Hello?”
Lara’s voice answered. “Hey Alice, how’s it going?”
Alice leaned against the wall, twiddling the cord. “Good. Great. How are you?” I was just going to call you, Alice didn’t say.
“Oh I’m good too. Um… Alright, look. I’m inviting you over for dinner. Is that… Are you game?”
Alice gasped again. Gasping was fun, people should gasp more. “Yes, totally. I’ll bring snacks.”
“Don’t bring snacks. Wait, you mean – yeah, brings snacks. I’ll pick you up at six?”
Alice smiled goofily. “Yeah.”
“Okay. I’ll see you at six, then. Bye.”
Alice made no move to hang up. She heard Lara huff a laugh through her noise and the line went dead. She put the phone back on the receiver.
“What’s up?” Michael asked.
“I’m having dinner with Lara tonight.”
“Mm. I like her a lot.”
“You need a ride?”
That was the end of that discussion, for the moment. The whole day was ahead of her still. The microwave told her the time was 8:17. That meant Alice had nine whole hours and forty three whole minutes left to have fun before she had to be ready to do even more fun things. What a conundrum.
She caught a bus to her secret lair, bringing along her new duffle bag full of mystery and wonder, and like five pounds of sand. Her lair needed something. She liked the stairs, and the veranda, but it really needed more color and windchimes. With her duffle bag full of mystery metals, Alice set about fixing this.
Alice made glass bubbles and swirls, and hung them on wires from the roof of her veranda. They came in blues and greens, and finally also in reds. Brilliant, fiery reds; they made her warm just looking at them. She passed the bulk of her remaining time there on her veranda, turning bits of metal into hollow tubes, clanging them together and finding the ones that sounded the best. It couldn’t be too loud or too resonating, because then when they were all going it would just be this racket, like a bunch of gongs going at once. It had to ring sweet and short.
The chimes were done. She hung them on the corner of her veranda, on the side facing the bay. The breeze nudged them and they rang out, clunky. Alice headed home.
. . . . .
Alice got home early, at least half an hour before she needed to be ready to – eat, she guessed. She searched her dresser for her most fanciest clothes, realizing five minutes into the search that she was already wearing them. “Oh well.”
She played the waiting game in the living room; wise to its alluring wiles by now, and so she tricked herself into calmly lying on the couch and waiting for the doorbell. This calm lasted right up until a car pulled a little into their driveway behind Michael’s truck.
Alice peered out the blinds. Lara stood from the driver’s side of a brown sedan.
Michael was somewhere in the house. But Alice didn’t know exactly where, so she settled for shouting, “Bye dad!” and then perking her ears. A moment later she picked up his distant reply, Bye Alice! She was out the door in an instant, her bag over her shoulder.
“Hey,” Lara said, thankfully dressed to Alice’s level of casual. “You ready to go?”
“Alright, hop in.”
The piled in her car. Lara backed out of the driveway and they puttered off. It was six-fifteen, the dashboard said. The sun was at their left, gold and warm. It spilled across Lara’s shoulders and into Alice’s lap. She rolled down her window and let the air in. “I didn’t know you had a car.”
“Mm. Well, yeah, I do.” Lara’s tone was like she’d admitted something shameful. “Just prefer not the drive when I can avoid it.”
“Nah, just. One less thing to worry about, you know?”
Alice didn’t know personally, but could empathize.
They arrived at Lara’s house not long after. It was a little two-bedroom flat in one of the better parts of town. Lara unlocked the front door and showed her in. “How do you feel about twice baked potatoes?”
“I feel good about that,” Alice said.
Lara snorted. “I’ll get things started. Feel free to look around, anywhere you want.”
Alice took her up on that offer.
It was a house. Just a normal house.
The kitchen with the old electric stove, the silver sink, cabinets and drawers, a big countertop. Lara fiddled about with the oven-half of the stove, the potatoes on an oven sheet, all prepped and ready.
The living room, with a couch, and a little stand with an old television on top. No cable-box, just a connector for a laptop and an Ethernet cable.
The bathroom. It was a bathroom.
Alice found Lara’s bedroom. The door was open, still she felt the urge to cling to the doorway and lean in, hesitant to actually set foot inside. It smelled nice, faintly flowery. The bed was by the window. Alice saw the bird she’d sold Lara hanging in that window, slowly spinning on a string. Alice smiled. Birds belonged in the air, after all. He probably glowed in the morning, and only a fool of a bandit would dare enter Lara’s house with him guarding her at night.
Alice found the other bedroom. It was the only room with a closed door. For a moment Alice stood on the boundary, her hand hovering over the doorknob. As she was about to turn and join Lara in the kitchen, she heard Lara say, “Go ahead, it’s not locked.”
Alice opened the door. It was dark. She flipped on the lights.
The room was Lara’s work office. A few tables stole the floor, cluttered with electronic equipment and folders. A laptop, printers, a police scanner? Speakers and a microphone, and an expensive looking camera. A few big corkboards hogged the wallspace, all cluttered with pinned-down pictures and maps and articles. Chaos, of sorts. But there was a deliberate quality to the mess.
“Welcome to the crime room.”
Alice turned her head, and there was Lara just behind her, leaning against the doorframe with a pensive look on her face.
“Mm… So, what do you think?”
“It’s…” Alice looked the room over again. There were no personal effects. No framed photos, no knick-knacks. Even the paint was plain. That besides, it was missing some red string, tying those pinned up pictures and articles into a nonsensical web. “It’s detective-y. I like it. I think it needs a little more color, though.” Lara didn’t reply. When Alice turned she found Lara smiling at her. “What?”
Lara nodded toward the kitchen. “Help me with dinner?”
Alice headed to the kitchen. Lara shut her office door and followed.
Dinner was salmon, spinach and baked potatoes. The potatoes would take a while. They decided not to wait for them. Lara fried the salmon. Alice clumsily cooked the spinach.
“It’s not going to burn or anything,” Lara said.
Alice poked the spinach with her spatula, as though to question it. “Are you sure?”
Lara flipped the salmon. Alice flipped each individual leaf.
“Just stop – here.” Lara playfully shoved her over.
“Alright, you do that, I’ll stare at the salmon.”
Alice stared at it until Lara told her to flip it.
The greens went in a bowl. The salmon went on a plate. They took the food to the living room. Lara grabbed a laptop from her bedroom and hooked it up, streaming an old movie. The couch was big enough to comfortably fit two, and they each took an end.
Alice gasped once the actual movie started playing. But her mouth was full, so she choked a little, and then she coughed and something shot out her nose. “Ack!”
Lara choked on a bite of spinach. She covered her mouth as she giggled. “What’s that about?”
Alice cleaned herself up with a napkin, pointing at the screen. “Nightmare Before Christmas!”
“I love this movie!”
The mood was set. The movie played in the background.
“I remember from a little behind-the-scenes I saw,” Alice said, “They showed the town, and it was super tiny, all the characters were like six inches tall, and the director had this little shelf of Jack heads, like thirty of them, one for each expression, and he was complaining about how many heads they went through. I wanted one so bad.”
“Oh yeah? I believe it. How old were you?”
“Oh this was like four months ago.”
The movie reached the middle.
The food was gone. The plates took the coffee-table. They were each spread out a little more; Lara’s feet up on the couch, Alice sinking a little more down into the cushions.
“I remember reading this article,” Lara said, “Claimed that Oogie-Boogie was an allegory for fascism, and Jack was this strong-arm of the west type character, bumbling and dangerous even as he tries to be helpful.”
Alice pursed her lips. On screen, Oogie-Boogie made worm-faces at Santa Claus. “I could see it. What’s the Mayor in that allegory? The guy with the spinny-head and two faces?”
“Oh, he’s just a Mayor.”
The movie neared the end.
The plates were by the kitchen sink, the baked potatoes in the fridge, wrapped in saran wrap. They each took an arm of the couch, resting their heads on their respective arms, their feet mingling in the middle.
“I feel bad for Oogie,” Alice said.
Lara made a noise. “Well… He got a pretty raw deal, sure. Being a… worm. In a sack of other bugs… Or is he all the bugs? What a confusing existence.”
“He was so talented, too. Made all those machines, and the nut-cracker guys with the pop-up guns… And he knew how to work them all, and…”
“Truly their world is less with him gone.”
Alice breathed a sigh through her nose, bidding farewell to old Oogie-Boogie.
Lara started snickering.
“What?” Alice asked.
Alice poked Lara’s foot with hers. “Nooo. It’s sad. He even like, literally died in a fire. Like an actual pit of fire. That’s so awful.”
“And all he wanted to do was – kill Jack and wreak terror on the human world. Poor Oogie.”
“Well I mean, there’s an amount of flamboyance that comes with the territory of a fantasy setting, especially when it’s aimed at young children, but I think if you get rid of the cartoon-villain goals and motivations and substitute in more internally-driven, complex replacements, and like, look at the setting as-“
Lara laughed at her.
Alice tried not to laugh too. She poked Lara with her feet. “Noooo – because, because we’re only ever given this one unflattering epoch of Oogie-Boogie’s life, and-“
Lara laughed harder.
The laughing, feet-poking fit came to an end around the time the credits started. Alice didn’t want to call it a night. Lara must have caught on, or, hopefully, didn’t want to call it quits either. She put on another movie; a silly rom-com about nothing. They took their ends of the couch, watching in comfortable silence.
“Thanks for having me over,” Alice said, not lifting her head from the couch.
Lara poked her with her foot. “Glad to have you.”
The movie ended. It was late, then. Late by people-who-needed-to-sleep’s standards, at least. They put their shoes back on and headed out, Alice’s duffle slung over her shoulder, neither of them really acknowledging the end of the night. It was just a car ride, and tomorrow was another day. It wasn’t goodbye. Just goodbye for now.
Just before Lara locked the front door behind them, Alice stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Oh, wait. Um – hold on.” She brushed past Lara, mentioning, “Forgot something, I’ll just be a sec.”
Lara waited patiently. Two minutes later Alice came out again. “Okay.”
They hopped in her car. Lara drove her home.
The trip took twenty minutes, and they were in no hurry. Lara pulled up at Alice’s driveway, walked her to the door and wrapped her up in a hug.
Alice squeezed her. “G’night.”
Lara didn’t pull away. Neither did Alice.
“Thank you,” Lara said.
“For eating your food?”
Lara squeezed her. “No, you goof.”
The hug lasted a little longer.
“I needed something,” Lara said. “And you, you’re just… Sweet.”
Then Lara was off to her car, and Alice was waving goodbye, watching her taillights fade off into the night.
. . . . .
Lara pulled into her driveway and let herself in. She went to her office, to one of her corkboards. There was a new addition; a little Jack Skellington head on a wire, made of emerald green glass, that goofy curlicue grin pointed at her.