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Jay heard there were forgotten warehouses filled to the brim with arcade cabinets in varying states of functionality and outright disrepair. She thought they were something of an urban legend until back in March, seven cabinets from just such a warehouse were dropped off at her house.
This was, in the three years since Jay began repairing cabinets, her most involved project yet. Upright arcade cabinets littered her house for the last two months, sticky notes covering the marquees.
Needs new joysticks, buttons…everything basically, try to source a CRT
order dial, new side panel art, new RAM chips
PCB utterly fried; LCD conversion? can you even find a replacement bezel??????
general maintenance, LED marquee conversion
Only one had to be written off as a total loss given that the PCB was snapped in two. Deliberately, it seemed; Jay sometimes ran across a board with a chipped corner but never with such clear evidence of force having been applied to break a board. She salvaged a few chips and other parts from it to see if they could be used on some other cabinets.
The rest were now partially disassembled, parts spread out on small card tables next to each one, the bad chips tagged with stickers to be removed once replacements came in. That was, if she could ever get the money to order them.
She gathered up the hastily stapled together manuals and spec sheets that covered her desk chair and groaned as she lowered herself down into it. Perhaps the two hours of hunching over the side panels of a cabaret, removing the tattered vinyl wood grain with a heat gun, and sanding away the excess glue had been a bit much. Maybe her back would loosen up after a hot shower but there wouldn’t be time for that until later on.
Jay powered on the desktop and booted into the bare bones work partition that held only scans of manuals, invoices, and diagrams of cabinets and PCBs, and a dedicated email client. As it turned out, she didn’t even need to sign in. There were no new email notifications on the lock screen even after she waited a few moments to make sure the WI-fi connection was on. Of course. This was Aaron’s M.O.
Jay knew nothing about Aaron Walker, just that his bank transfers always cleared with no problems. Accepting the job was a week long process that involved cruising every repair forum she knew for news of any arcade cabinet theft, a search that had turned up nothing. The cabinets were his as far as Jay could verify.
What she couldn’t figure out was why he chose to go with a comparatively inexperienced solo cabinet repair-person when just on the other side of DTLA, there was a whole warehouse that did sales and repairs.
“They’re probably better equipped for this sort of thing than I am,” she’d said during her lone phone call with Aaron. “I’m just one person and this isn’t my day job.”
But he insisted, saying simply, “You’re closer and I’m in no hurry.”
“I can’t always fix a PCB,” she’d warned him.
“A PC…can you pay someone to do it if you can’t?”
“Then just get a quote and send it over. Actually, just do that with any parts you need. Problem solved.”
Since then, she hadn’t spoken directly to Aaron.
She always imagined working with one of those types who wasn’t a tightwad would be less of a pain (especially when it came time to deliver the bad news about how much side panel art cost) but it was slowing her down. On one hand, she didn’t have to take on any new projects for a solid six months. On the other, she had to keep dealing with Aaron.
What his problem was with responding to emails in a timely fashion, Jay could not figure out. A month ago, she emailed over her third tally of parts, one that should get a few cabinets more or less functional with only cosmetic fixes to take care of. But, she was still waiting for the money to be sent. She didn’t much mind the delay since she’d been paid up front for the labor but it did make troubleshooting a hassle. So much of a hassle, Jay took on a side job for P1 Arcade just to pass the time. She liked fixing things and Aaron got in the way of that.
P1’s owner, Nina, had a new restoration she wanted Jay to assess. “It’s interesting,” she’d promised. Only Jay had no idea what that meant nor did she ask as it didn’t matter. Jobs for P1 gave her a reason to get the hell out of the house and around people who weren’t old (like at her tech support job) or incompetent for longer than it took them to load up a machine on a pickup truck.
This early in the day, the 10 freeway’s traffic was smoother than usual and within half an hour, Jay was navigating into the alley behind P1. She sent a text and waited for the flickering of the light over the back door that let her know Nina was waiting on the other side.
“It’s barely noon,” Jay said. “Pretty sure I can wait by the door in broad daylight.”
“We’ve been through this,” Nina latched the back door. “There’s too many weirdos around here for you to jus’ be lurking in alleys.”
“I’ll be fine. How many people are still out on the floor?”
“Just that one old guy who hogs the cocktail,” Nina sighed. “Which brings me to what I called you here for,” she unlocked the storage room.
It wasn’t too different from what Jay’s living and dining room looked like, just with worse lighting, higher unfinished ceilings, and more machines and Jay groaned when she saw the newest addition.
“I thought you said it was interesting.”
How many Galaga cabinets had she put together? Cleaned surface grime off of? Picked caked on relish off of?
Jay tossed her jacket on one of the spare tables and took her time surveying the cabinet. It was an upright one, an original. The buttons were filthy and half of them stuck when pressed and she didn’t hear anything when she moved the joystick. This was going to be a messy job considering the side panels and bezel were covered in red stains that looked like they’d been there longer than Jay had been alive.
“Think it’s dried blood? Or ketchup?”
Nina tried to pick some of the caked on red substance off and Jay lightly poked her hand.
“And if it is blood?” she asked.
“Like we’ll ever know,” Nina shrugged. “That thing had like five owners before me. I just wanted it before one of those ‘collectors’ got to it and it sat rotting in somebody garage for another decade. Besides, I needed an actual Galaga. The multi-game cocktail is for people to play multiple games, not just Galaga.”
“Is it even safe to plug in?”
“Pretty sure it is,” Nina nodded. “The screen was on when I picked it up so that works at least but it wouldn’t boot.”
Jay waited for the self-boot test to run, all the while marveling at how a machine with chipped side panels, a cracked bezel, and a sticky film all over it still had a functional CRT. She snapped a picture of the failed tests to look at once the PCB was out.
She unplugged it while Nina got the tool bags to begin the tear-down process. A thick layer of dust and cobwebs covered everything in the cabinet, a sure sign it had never been opened.
“Go grab the vacuum from the maintenance room,” Nina tossed her a bundle of keys, each of them with a colorful rubber sleeve around the top. “It’s the–”
“Green key. I remember.”
P1’s maintenance room was near the front of the building, a long hallway that lightly echoed the beeping and explosions from the demo loops running in the main hall. It was calming, much different from the dead silence that engulfed her house when she was particularly engrossed in a project. She’d solved the problem with a radio on a timer, but it wasn’t remotely the same.
She brushed the dust off the vacuum and set about tugging it back down the hall, ignoring the lingering twinge in her back as she did so. Nina was on the phone when she got back so she sat, leaning against the vacuum handle.
“I’ll get back to you…by next week? That works. I’ll know for sure by then. Okay. Bye.”
Nina sat on one of the spare tables and stared at Jay. Her platinum blonde braids were tied back and she’d put on her glasses.
“You still haven’t gotten any brighter bulbs?” Jay pointed at the hanging lights, so yellow she was sure they hadn’t been changed since at least the 80s.
“It’s too dim back here still.” A poor attempt at changing the subject that Nina wouldn’t acknowledge, but she had to try before she had to decide whether or not to turn down some sort of outing her old therapist would have been thrilled to hear she’d gone on.
Silence. Jay went to set up the vacuum, an even clumsier attempt to not hear the offer but just as she plugged it in, Nina spoke.
“An old friend from GudeTime is running like, a history of gaming booth at E3 and wants to rent some cabinets.”
Nina was quiet for a moment before asking, “Would you help me keep ‘em up and running for the weekend? If it was just a few I wouldn’t ask but they want like twenty.”
Jay asked, “Are the passes free?”
“Yeah, we’ll be industry.”
This was, Jay supposed, progress. Two years ago she’d have simply said, “Hell no.” A year ago, she would have made sure to schedule a cabinet or two to be ready for pickup on the days of E3. This time, even though she’d still made futile attempts to avoid even being asked, she said, “Sure.”
Once all the dust was out of the cabinet and the PCB removed, Jay and Nina got a good look at the other innards. The power supply probably needed replacing, as did the speakers. No amount of scrubbing was going to get the red gunk off the panels which elicited a sigh from Nina.
“You’d think panel art would be cheaper given how many of these things are out there…”
“I’ll bring the heat gun next time,” Jay said. “And I might have a loose joystick around the house.”
A knock on the door drew the two away from the computer screen.
“Floor’s empty and the kitchen’s clean. You want me to empty the coin buckets?”
Since she’d been doing jobs for P1, Jay never managed to find out very much about Kishawn aside from the fact that he made the best chili fries east of Johnnie’s. In fact, he was more or less why P1 was known to the downtown lunch crowds as a restaurant and not an arcade.
“Yeah,” Nina said while Jay stifled a yawn. He got the burlap sack and cabinet keys and made his way back out to the floor.
“What’s his deal?”
“You should ask him. He’ll talk back if you talk to him but he’ll never talk first. I’ll be right back,” Nina took her phone and car keys. “I’ll take you home.”
Jay had the opportunity to put it to the test quicker than she anticipated when Kishawn came in with the bag of quarters to be rolled.
“Where’s Nina?” he asked, pouring the bag into the coin roller.
“Putting her car in the lot.”
“Mm.” Kishawn seemed content to just wait for the roller to finish, the clinking echoing against the stone walls of the storage room. Jay didn’t take it personally; she’d have done the same thing. But, there were going to be times at E3 when she wouldn’t be able to stick entirely to a script about classic games and she wouldn’t have the year it had taken her to warm up to Nina before she started sounding like a normal person again.
At the moment, her phone was already up to her face as it usually was when she got nervous, a bad habit she was going to have to break. She forced herself to put it in her pocket and glanced around the room, trying to subtly survey Kishawn. There had to be something to strike up some menial chatter about and-
“Where’d you get your tattoos done?” she asked. “I wanted some with some color but you know how people are. You darker than a paper bag and they act like they can’t do color. All Nina’s are just black so…” Jay let herself trail off, hoping she hadn’t blown this entire interaction. She’d done it before.
“Ah…place in Baldwin Hills. Ink Majors.” At least he didn’t seem totally put off. Even more surprising was when he held his arm out.
“I can…?” He nodded.
“It’s been a few years but I don’t think it’s fading too bad,” he said as Jay took a closer look.
Thick, swirling red lines wrapped around his right forearm, stopping near his elbow with the name “Mary-Ann” inside a heart with “1970” in smaller lettering underneath. It was far more delicate than most “Mom” tattoos she’d run across.
“This is so pretty. Did the artist come up with this design?”
“No. I did,” Nina said. She sounded slightly out of breath and Jay was going to ask if she was okay until Kishawn gently pulled his arm out of her hands.
“Sorry,” she said.
“It’s alright. I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”
Nina gave him a thumbs up before continuing to gather up her laptop and various chargers. She seemed to have calmed down as they locked up, to the point where Jay thought maybe nothing was wrong. Even still, before they pulled out of the alley, she lay a hand on Nina’s arm.
“You alright? You looked kinda shaken up when you came back.”
“I’m good.” Nina started the car and backed out before continuing, “I just felt like someone was watching me. But we both know I’m paranoid so it was prolly just a cat. Anyway, are you getting ready for E3 already?”
“Not very well,” Jay sighed. “If Kishawn quits tomorrow, I know how to use a deep fryer. Just get me some brick chili and I’ll do my best.”
“Shawn I’ll be back. He got this new shrimp thing he wants to add to the menu.”
Nina didn’t bother with the losing battle that would be attempting to convince Jay she hadn’t said anything strange and Jay didn’t blame her. Instead she turned the radio on to the trap channel where songs with the sorts of lyrics Jay’s mom would classify only as “bullshit” began to play. Jay found herself listening to it more often recently, one of the few ways she still understood how to cut loose.
She spent most of her time alone these days, all her high school friends having moved across the country, her college ones even further, and the ones from the industry even further still. If she could just get to Osaka or Berlin…until then, she was content with being able to nod off in the passenger’s seat of a car for the first time in years.
“What’s all this?”
Jay looked up from the sink, rinsing the dishes Nina had already washed. Nina had poked her head into the living room and Jay groaned.
“That’s all from that rich guy who never answers my damn emails.”
“…and he just had Pac-Land laying around? Who even bought Pac-Land?”
“I’m telling you, this dude weird as hell. He don’t know what some of these cabinets are worth,” she turned the water off and went near the Street Fighter II cabinet.
“Check out what was in some of the coin buckets,” Jay held up a handful of arcade tokens.
Nina nearly brushed them off as the sort of thing you’d get at a Chuck-E-Cheese (Jay had done the same thing at first, too) but frowned when she took a closer look at the name stamped on them.
“The Malibu Castle? That old arcade off the green line?”
“The very same.”
“They ever say what happened to that place?”
Jay shrugged. All she remembered about the place was that it was always hot with warm sodas and sticky buttons that made her lose a few rounds of Soul Calibur to eight year-olds. Next thing she knew, the mini-golf course was overgrown and the sign was gone, the building left to rot in the salty air and sun.
“He says what he’s gonna do with these when you’re done?”
“Nope. He just wanted them to look new.”
“Gimme his number later…I might want to buy some of these…” Nina circled the cabinets, the only person Jay would let around her half-finished projects.
“You got enough games already.”
“Please…my grandpa told me I could use that building so long as I can keep the lights on. I’m gon’ fill it to the brim. If I can’t make games anymore, I still wanna get them out there somehow.”
Jay nodded, glad for once someone understood why she spent all her spare time cleaning dirt out of machines that were older than she was.
Jay felt like she was drowning.
Maybe drowning was the wrong word because she liked the feeling of being swept away in the sea, the origin of which she didn’t care to identify and whose flow she didn’t want to stop.
She couldn’t call it her favorite dream because of what came after. First, her alarm. Then, the vomiting.
Jay felt around for the bucket she’d taken to keeping next to her bed and instead hit the leg of the coffee table. Why was she on the couch…? But the bucket was right next to it so she focused on that.
All that came up was bile. Again. She only had enough time to catch her breath and wipe the tears from her eyes before her stomach told her she’d have to finish off the job on the toilet. She picked up the bucket and shuffled over to the bathroom. She didn’t remember much about the previous night, just that she’d drank too much damn soda after weeks of not having any and that was guaranteed to upset her stomach. And yet, she’d done it anyway.
Jay stared down at her damp boxers and sweatpants when she was done, trying to remember why she’d slept in clothes at all. She kicked the pants away and peeled off her tank top, running the balled up fabric underneath her breasts before tossing it in the hamper.
She had the drowning dream and ones like it at least once a week until she quit working at DS Entertainment.
That was how she ended up in the repair business. It was games just…fixing them, not making them. Instead of professionally pressed Blu-ray discs and dual-layer DVDs and game cards, she delivered 800 pound upright arcade cabinets with less RAM than some watches. A happy medium. Or, at least it was.
She caught sight of a bra hanging across the shower curtain rod, only it wasn’t one of hers. For one, it wasn’t black.
Before she could even begin to figure out who left it there (Christine? But that was months ago and she wouldn’t even pee at Jay’s house.), there were a couple of light raps on the door.
Ideally, it was the owner of the bra but considering she couldn’t remember when or how she’d gotten home last night, she wasn’t too hopeful. What was the point of not drinking when stone cold sober she couldn’t remember anything after a nightmare?
Jay cleared her throat a few times before she could answer.
“Would you mind passing me my bra?”
Nina? Well, at least there was one question answered while a dozen more popped up. She quickly washed her hands and pulled on her bathrobe before grabbing the bra.
“Thank you.” Nina laid it across her shoulder, in no hurry to get dressed. “Um…are you okay?”
Jay swallowed. How was she supposed to respond to that?
“Why do you ask?” is what she settled on but Nina’s frown told her all she needed to know.
“Well I heard you stumbling in here and throwing up before I came in but…are you okay? Like, are you really okay?”
“I will be.” A lie Jay would have to deal with later, most likely alone.
“You don’t have to do the booth with me. I can manage it.”
Or maybe not alone. Maybe.
“I want to,” Jay said. “And I will. It’s just…I haven’t been to any kind of con since I quit.”
“How bad was the crunch?” Nina asked softly.
“Same as it was for you.”
“So sobbing in the bathroom at work?”
“A few times. I held on just to get the last game done but once it went gold…I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“Well, it’s my first E3 since I quit too. We’ll figure something out.”
The last person that had told Jay that was lying through their teeth and she’d known it. But with Nina, she believed there was a chance she could walk out of the convention center in one piece.
Another week passed with no word from Aaron and Jay was beginning to grow impatient. It wasn’t like she needed the space back; few people came over and there were other rooms in the house she could stretch out in. At this point, she just wanted Aaron out of her hair but he was determined to stay there, like unsoaked build-up after a few weeks of individuals.
Rather than stay in the house, Jay sat behind what would have been a prize counter in a shadier arcade. At P1 it was a small gift shop and cash booth off the side of the kitchen. On a Wednesday, they were leaning more into the restaurant side of things, with Jay rarely needing to sell a shirt or give change.
Every so often, she popped her head in the kitchen to see if Kishawn needed any help but somehow, he kept the whole thing running alone. She wanted to watch longer, just to marvel at how he could manage so many open flames at once when Jay sometimes got overwhelmed with just three skillets on the stove.
But With Nina out on a run for spare parts, there was no one around to convince Jay that asking to hang out in the kitchen wouldn’t have been weird. So she kept her quiet station at the counter, wishing more people remembered this was an arcade, not just a restaurant.
“Sorry, do you have change for a fifty?” She wasn’t the type they usually saw this time of day. No suit, no city badge, nor was her hair tucked into a bun of some sort.
Jay counted out three tens and a twenty and handed it to the woman.
She passed up the Ms. Pacman cabinet entirely, cementing that she wasn’t just here for a quick trip to her youth.
Jay watched the woman go up and down a couple of rows, playing only one round of each game, her hand lingering on the control panel before moving on to the next one. Jay did the same thing when she was finally able to stomach touching a video game made after the year 2000.
She stopped at the Galaga cabinet, where she spent the longest.
Thanks to Aaron, this was the first time she got to admire her own work in action in quite some time. The light presses of the joystick and gentle button presses made Jay smile; this woman appreciated a well maintained cabinet. Nina would be glad to hear it when she got back since there was nothing she hated more than “dirty ass control panels messing with people’s high scores”.
Soon though, she got a game over and made her way towards the front of P1 and Jay wondered if she’d end up a regular. So she described the woman to Nina when she finally made it back to P1. Nina always knew.
“Mm…fifty-fifty,” Nina said as she moved down the row, Jay trailing behind her with the burlap sack as she emptied the coin buckets. She didn’t need the help but preferred to have another set of eyes to give things a once-over.
“You sure you’re good for this weekend? You really don’t have to.”
Jay stopped to take a picture of a scratched control panel cover, mulling over Nina’s offer.
How much more was she going to pass up? How long would she keep avoiding one of the things she’d once loved so much she planned to spend her life doing it?
“I’ll be fine. We both will.”
GudeTime’s booth was done up to look like an old arcade, complete with the black light rugs and grimy coin exchange machines with the red “Out of Order” lights lit up.
“They really outdid themselves,” Nina said and Jay could see her excitement bubbling up. This part of cons was always fun, before the world finally got to see what the industry spent ages prepping.
“Only thing missing is the inexplicable sticky spots,” Jay mused, thinking of all the times she’d gone to clear a coin drop and found the mat she knelt on stuck to the floor.
She finished taping down the last of the power cords and rolled back the carpet before standing up to stretch. Her back would probably hold up through the day at least, provided she didn’t need to take anything apart. And she probably wouldn’t have to do that; almost all of P1’s cabinets managed to stay operational after the short drive to the convention center.
The PCB of a Millipede had slipped just a bit, an easy enough fix. It was back in place, secured, and the game was now up and running on the floor, though she placed the cabinet close to the info desk just so she could keep an eye on it.
The industry-only hours went smoothly, with not much traffic. She knew all the real deals and previews were happening in the private booths, the ones you couldn’t even get a glimpse inside of when you walked by. Before Jay quit DS, she’d just gotten to the point where on occasion, she was needed in some of those closed-door meetings but she’d long since forgotten what for. Maybe that was for the best.
Manning the GudeTime booth required enough of Jay’s attention that her mind didn’t wander which was welcome when it was Nina’s lunch break and Jay had to manage alone. People didn’t stay too long, most of them breezing through when the lines at the marquee booths got capped.
Most of her time was spent at the desk, refilling the stack of fliers for P1 and the full-color game timeline that went from Pong all the way up to the AAA titles with the garish displays and presentations. Occasionally someone would chat her up, but it rarely got more complex than explaining that changing out joysticks wasn’t as hard as it looked to horrified individuals who’d probably never even taken a can of compressed air to a desktop tower.
“Excuse me, I think there’s a problem over here,” a man pointed to the Millipede cabinet.
His face was familiar though the name on his badge, Hal Jameson, wasn’t in the slightest.
Jay followed him over to the Millipede cabinet and it only took a few minutes to pull the control panel down and get the trackball out. Salt crystals from one of those giant pretzels were trapped in the trackball’s housing. Nothing a shop towel and a bit of lube on the bearings couldn’t solve.
She was used to being watched while doing repairs, her trips to that arcade expo in the Bay Area typically resulting in impromptu repair sessions at least one of the two days. But this wasn’t like the teenagers trying to see what actually repairing a cabinet was like, or when she and Nina were setting up a new machine at P1 for the regulars.
Hal knew her; of that much Jay was certain. She just had no idea from where since of what happened after her first year at DS Ent was a blur. The press events and the office getting filmed and the times she got assigned to talk to the press, sports against other devs in the area…she could have seen him anywhere, really. And honestly? She didn’t want to figure out where. Coming to a con at all was enough for the moment.
“Should be up and running,” Jay said as quietly as the show floor would allow her to speak.
She retreated behind the desk, wishing more of those scrapbook types who wanted to document the entire weekend were coming by, that they’d chat her up about anything she could confidently talk about. Instead, the booth experienced a lull, only a few of the twenty cabinets actually being played.
“How’s it been going?”
Jay was startled by the sound of Nina’s voice, even if she ultimately was glad for it. At least now she was finally able to tear her eyes away from Hal’s back.
“Ah…fine. Had to fix a trackball but everything else been good so far.”
“Go,” Nina passed her a GudeTime branded badge with a QR code on it. “They’ll let you in the private lounge; there’s no meetings until after hours today.”
“Flights got delayed and we’re on the guest list. Just go, girl, you look awful.”
Jay only just had the wherewithal to navigate the bustling isle ways. One minute she was in the background of some cosplayer’s photo shoot, the next she had to duck out of a vlog but eventually, she made it to the lounge. While not soundproof, all the loudspeakers, interviewing, and vloggers were cut down significantly. She could think, which is what she ended up doing instead of just sleeping. And, for the first time, she started to think maybe it was still too soon.
She kicked her shoes off and set them next to the couch, wishing the Wi-fi wasn’t so awful. Data was too slow to do anything except send text messages.
I’ll come back if u need help, to which she only got a peace sign in response, something Nina only did if she was too busy to talk.
How are things?
That went to Kishawn, who was apparently handling a whole party at P1 by himself. He said it wasn’t big, but there were just enough children to warrant keeping a few machines running. A light gun cabinet here, an air hockey cabinet there, a multi-game cabinet for the older folks to go, “This was IT! This was high tech!” while playing Elevator Action. It was the sort of thing Jay would have probably had fun doing, now that she thought about it.
And yet, here she was, sprawled in a company lounge at E3 for the fourth time. She took her glasses off, the weak prescription only serving to make things a bit sharper in the dim light of the exhibit halls, and rubbed at her eyes.
Unsure how the rest of the day might go, she closed her eyes. Maybe a nap would help.
Except, it didn’t. Not five minutes later, Jay forced herself awake, glad that this was one of the times where she was aware she was dreaming. Today still had the potential to turn back around but not if she was dreaming of crying in the DS Ent bathroom.
A GudeTime branded water bottle came into her line of sight and rather than question it, she took it. After making sure the seal actually cracked, she had a few sips. She went to say “Thank you” until she saw who she would be thanking.
“You’re not in here by accident,” she told Hal.
“Here? No,” he held up an invite to a meeting set for later in the afternoon. “But here at the same time as you? That was luck.”
“Why was it luck?” she asked, now wholly focused on putting her shoes back on and getting the hell out. Some break. A perfect place to get a nap at a con and she had to give it up.
“You really don’t remember?”
“No, I really don’t and whatever you think you should remind me of, don’t.”
Jay glanced at her watch; still forty minutes until she needed to be back at the booth. Enough time to force down the memories she could feel trying to come back into focus.
“Then I won’t,” he shrugged. “But take this,” he gave Jay a business card.
“‘Hiring manager’…what is this?”
“A job offer.”
“Look, I don’t know where you know me from, but you can probably find someone else. Better yet, find someone who’s looking.”
“I’ve seen your highlight reel; I want you on this project.”
“…did I not delete them all…?” she asked herself, running through a list of all the cloud accounts she used to host work on. They should have all been private or otherwise totally deleted.
“Just think it over,” Hal said.
“I already have.”
She slipped her glasses back on and slipped her phone and the business card into her pocket before leaving.
A few booths down, there was a gameplay exhibition with some empty spaces left so she followed the line inside. Unlike Hal’s idea of luck, managing to slip into an RSVP-only showing of anything was always lucky. As she went to turn her phone off before entering, she saw a response from Kishawn-a picture of a cake he’d iced. Why on earth had she come here instead of looking after the arcade…?
She sat in the last row, idly rolling and unrolling the souvenir tote bag that had been laid on each seat of the makeshift theater. It gave her hands something to do that wasn’t holding Hal’s business card up so she could try to decipher his handwriting.
The play test was the standard fare; a quick cutscene, a bit of exploring, and then the characters were in an obvious arena. Less obvious than the ones she had grown accustomed to seeing, but still easily spotted by a trained eye.
Interns manned most of the stations in the theater, their shirts glowing under the black lights. It reminded her of when she’d been one, still bright-eyed and able to pull all-nighters without even downing much coffee. Somehow she lost that particular ability after only a year in the industry proper and everything had gone downhill from there.
The play test ended with a “Coming this holiday season” followed by applause from the audience, Jay joining in half-heartedly, knowing what happened to meet holiday deadlines, knowing nothing would ever be done to change it.
If there was one thing she hadn’t expected to find in her driveway the morning after E3, it was Aaron sleeping in his car.
She knocked on the window several times before he finally roused. He’d been there for a while judging by the empty coffee cup next to his phone, where the screen was flashing 100% charged.
“I gotta ask…what the hell are you doing at my house?”
His hands shook as he lifted the coffee mug and Jay knew she’d made the right call in inviting him in.
“Person who paid me to clear out that warehouse is looking for a specific cabinet.”
“Do they know what game?”
“No. All they know is it has some blood stains on it. Problem is you weren’t the only person I sold to.”
It was the Galaga cabinet for certain. If Aaron had the wherewithal to hunt down a proper repair-person, he probably found some people looking for cabinets to strip for conversions and parts too, hence how it wound up in Nina’s hands.
“It wasn’t in the lot you dropped off here but it sounds like one my friend got in a scrap sale a while back. But we already finished restoring it. Like, it’s out on the floor. No blood. Looks brand new.”
Aaron groaned and put his forehead on the table.
“Would you think it was strange if I said they wanted it with the stains on it?”
“Considering it’s you telling me this…no.”
“Feel like I should be slightly offended,” he said, his voice muffled by his jacket sleeve. “I’m not though,” he looked up at Jay and she almost winced when she saw how red his eyes were.
“Look, you wanna take a nap? Feels wrong to send you out driving looking like that.”
“Like you’ll fall asleep and cause an eight-car pile up somewhere.”
While Aaron dozed on the couch, Jay booted up her computer, this time into her old work partition. Had the password been anything aside from her birthday, she wouldn’t have been able to get in.
She took deep breaths while it finished booting up, the solid state drives outfitting the machine cutting the boot time down to nothing. In less than a minute, she was staring at her last desktop before quitting DS.
Messy, messy, messy…folders every which way, not even aligned on a grid in some areas, and it got worse when she started sifting through documents. Half finished design documents, tech projects, quick sketches she did when she had time to make it home…
But that wasn’t what she was here for. Maybe one day she might find a small project she could finish, maybe even publish, but most important was figuring out how one earth anyone in the industry even still knew of her. She opened the web browser and went through the start page’s bookmarks, each time looking for what remnants of her portfolios might have been left online.
YouTube was what got her into trouble. She left the videos unlisted, not private. One question answered. Who would have passed the links along to Hal…? No one from DS…and it wasn’t like she announced it on social media or anything like that…
She wasn’t going to get any answers from this partition. The smart thing to do would be to make the reels private before shutting the computer down.
Yet, she left them.
Jay fished the GudeTime business card out of her phone case and flipped it over, Hal’s barely legible scrawl listing out what to do when she called.
Leave your full name, say Hal sent you, ask about the ‘interview attire’; I’ll handle it from there
Simple. She always heard the best jobs came from meetings like that, those ones that seemed almost like a joke.
All she had to do was call.
While she was in the midst of lamenting why the hell phone apps on cellular phones had so many options aside from dialing, she heard the toilet flush. Great. Now she needed to send Aaron on his way.
“Tell them to come by P1 if they want to see it, even without the blood,” she said as they walked down the hall. He looked less like he would “And if you send me my next round for parts…”
“Tonight!” he said as he walked back out to his car. “I’ll have it to you tonight.”
And he did. Before he’d even left her driveway, she could start ordering the T molding and a few LED ballasts.
Instead, she called Nina; her parts list would be there post-crisis.
“I shouldn’t have kept that business card.”
“Probably not,” Nina agreed, “but you did.”
“Would you have?”
“I have kept them. A few times. Then I reread one of them articles that show ain’t shit changed since I quit.”
“Don’t sound like that’s enough to keep you away.”
“Course it ain’t. You see all the game shows and trailers and wanna jump back in. Then you remember what it took to make those demos and ask, ‘Do I wanna do that to myself again?’ And if you not stupid the answer is, ‘Hell no.’ But what you have to ask yourself is, ‘Am I stupid enough to act on the urge’?”
Nina’s question haunted Jay for a few weeks. Once she came close to throwing out the business card. Another time she checked the GudeTime website just to see if they were still hiring for the programming position Hal offered her. (They were.)
All that kept her from calling was that now, Aaron seemed to be responding to her part request emails with some degree of regularity. She finished off four of the cabinets since E3, and was just waiting for a PCB repair and monitor for the last two.
The repairs in conjunction with her day job meant today was the first time she had time to visit P1 in quite some time. She kept up with Nina and Kishawn in a small group chat in the meantime, but there was nothing like trying to figure out how ketchup got underneath a control panel’s plastic after hours.
Nina was at the shirt counter, frowning at her laptop.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when Nina almost banged her head against the counter.
“It’s the third time I saw somebody selling X-Men but they’re never in California…not even Nevada or Arizona…like…I’m never gon’ get that game…”
“Well, I know it’s not what you’re looking for but I did bring the extra buttons and joysticks.” Nina stuck her arm out for the bag, not looking up.
“You’ll find it one day. Let me see…” she pressed the bag handles into Nina’s hand before pulling up another bar stool.
She was about to start looking for another of Nina’s white rabbits to help ease the sting when–
“Excuse me. I heard you recently restored a cabinet…?”
Huh. So Aaron did pass on the message. He never lied to her but the whole way he did business left her a bit skeptical about his follow-through.
To Jay’s surprise, it was the woman she’d seen all those months ago, the one who didn’t end up a regular.
“Yeah,” Nina sat up, pointing towards Galaga, “that one there. Why?”
“It may sound weird but…was it covered in blood when you got it?”
“It was…” Jay knew at this point, she had to step in.
“Aaron told me someone might stop by. You know I think he full of shit on a good day so I didn’t tell you.”
“Well, she’s here now so let’s talk,” Nina shrugged.
“Did you still want to buy it?” Jay asked. “But Aaron said you wanted it…you know…with the blood on it.”
“Only way I could be sure it was the right one, you know?”
Nina showed her a ‘before’ photo and Deana zoomed in to the bloody handprint on the bezel and trail that went down the control panel.
“That was definitely the one. But no…I don’t want it. Not anymore.”
“How’d it end up like that?”
“My uncle owned an arcade. You know how it goes; booms and busts. He was doing well for a while after Phoenix ROMs hit the scene, but that only did so much. He ran the place almost by himself for a long time. Long past when he should have, really.
“He fell while changing out some of the lights one day. Gashed his head open on that cabinet. I was mostly upset ‘cause me and my brother were supposed to go help him that weekend…don’t worry; he lived,” she quickly added, and Jay was able to straighten out her face and Nina let out a sigh of relief.
“But he couldn’t run it anymore. So my dad closed up shop since no one else knew how to turn an arcade around nor would they help get the money to renovate. There was enough liquid cash at the end to keep a few dozen cabinets in storage, until my dad got tired of paying for ‘a room full of cobwebs and dirt’. I asked him to keep that one so I could fix it but…somehow it ended up here.”
“I mean, Galaga isn’t hard to find. We could-”
But Deana shook her head again.
“No. It’s better off here. All it would do is sit in my living room and collect dust.”
The way Deana’s hand lingered on the control panel reminded Jay of the way she had run her hands across her workstation on her last day at DS.
She hadn’t wanted to leave, but what would staying have gotten her? More ruined relationships? More trips to cry in the bathroom, trying to convince herself that this was the way she wanted to spend her life? More nights being stuck at the studio because she had to wait for another person that looked just as awful as she did to finish a piece of code before she could finish her work? But the time a small part of her, even as she turned in her badge, even as her hands shook from not having slept in four days, was convinced she was giving up too easily. And when Hal gave her the job offer, a chance to prove herself wrong once and for all fell into her lap.
But as she watched Deana let go of something irreplaceable because it had been changed from the inside out, she knew the same thing had happened to her.
She knew the part of her that could take the long hours and constant overhauling and poor direction was gone. And it wasn’t ever coming back. Maybe GudeTime was different but she’d just be chasing the feeling she got the first time she saw her name in the ending credits. It wouldn’t ever be the same though. She’d seen her name in enough credits afterwards to know it wasn’t.
Nina and Deana were engrossed in a conversation about the best way to avoid spills and Jay took the opportunity to slip into the kitchen. Kishawn had a lull in orders and was sitting on the counter, flipping through a recipe book.
“Can I use the stove? The one with the open flame,” she said. While he turned the flame on, she pulled the GudeTime card out of her phone case. She’d scoured their website; the number wasn’t on there anywhere. This was a direct line to someone who mattered.
“It’s ready. Are you?”
Jay ripped the card in two and dropped it on the open eye, watching it burn until there was only ash.
Getting two phone calls in such a short span of time was unusual for Amari, so strange she thought she was dreaming. The ringtone was from an old racing game and at first it bled into the dream. Then it dragged her to the very precipice of waking and there she stayed, not even a finger cooperating with her pleas to just move. Too often waking up was like this, and every time she had to remind herself: don’t open your eyes.
She’d read about what people saw when they opened their eyes in this state. Demons, ghosts, witches; all things she’d never gotten around to writing about and didn’t want to meet while she hovered on the edge of sanity. She kept pleading with herself to not open her eyes, unable to stop her body from trying to force them open. She lay there until the phone stopped ringing, at which point she slipped back down into sleep.
The peace didn’t last long; she sat up with a start, books and her glasses hitting the floor. She pressed a hand to her chest, glad no one was around to see her. Of all the things she wished she could have left in Tamaki, sleep paralysis was high on the list.
When her hands stopped shaking, she felt around for her glasses and phone. It had been ringing but the number was one she didn’t recognize. She sucked in a few deep breaths before she redialed, turned on the speaker phone, and set it on her chest. She stared at the ceiling while she waited for an answer, unblinking, not trusting herself to let her eyes slide shut again.
“Khadijah Wallace from Clear Isle Publishing speaking.”
Clear Isle? No one from there called unless she was overdue on something…was it already time to meet her new editor?
“Hello. Were you trying to reach Amari Brooks?” she asked, trying her hardest to keep her voice flat.
“I was. Is she…?”
“She’s speaking, yes.”
“Great! I’m your new editor and we need to talk about this manuscript—well, it’s really more of a draft at this point.”
“When do you want to meet?”
“When is good for you?”
She checked the time; six in the evening. The Last Bookstore was still open and she could walk there in a few minutes.
“Now, if that works,” she tried.
“Okay. Send me the address. I’ll be there in an hour if it’s close.”
Amari sent the address and let her head fall back against the chair. Going out was the last thing she wanted to do and she certainly didn’t want to think about the hot mess she’d submitted as a draft.
But if she wanted another book deal, she needed to churn out something that would sell and was good.
Getting dressed didn’t take long given she only had a few outfits that still fit decently. She pulled her belt to the last notch and sighed. Her pants weren’t hanging off of her yet but they would be soon if she didn’t do something. Her hair was still passable, not too many loose strands sticking out of her braids. After dropping a small notebook and pen in her pocket, she grabbed an umbrella and was about to head out when she felt a twinge in her left ankle. She sat back down and rifled through the nightstand for her ankle brace. The pressure from the brace felt nice, the wind not biting through it like it did her jacket and thermal shirt for the entire walk to The Last Bookstore.
Walking around the bookstore was a routine that had long since worn thin and the opportunities to people-watch seemed to be more scarce than usual. Their no-bag policy left Amari with nothing to do except fiddle with her phone or keep wandering the shelves and she chose the latter. A set of photographers, the third since she went in the store, was hanging around the arch of books. Precariously perched, the book arch was held together with nothing but clever placement and gravity and had a crowd even on slow days. Amari ducked out of the way once the flashes began, and went down to the old bank vault that held the horror novels.
Amari didn’t often dabble in the genre but when she did, she only liked the sorts of books that belonged in a vault, the kind that felt alive. Only the pressure from the newer, thicker paperbacks seemed to be holding the tattered volumes on the shelves. Her own work didn’t need to be contained that way; maybe it never would.
For the briefest moment as she faced the back wall, she feared the vault door would slam shut. She’d be trapped in this place she didn’t belong, that she couldn’t ever make herself belong. Amari’s paranoia wasn’t unfounded. More than once had she found herself locked in a stuffy room with–
Before she got dragged down that path, she worked her way around the vault, eyes on the door the entire time until finally she was back out in the rows of shelves and could lean on the balcony railing. That room in that decrepit flat was long behind her and so was every bad choice she made while she lived in it.
Going back downstairs was a slower process that Amari would have liked but eventually, she found herself in the rare books room, the only place she’d yet to comb through on this particular visit.
Most of the books weren’t too strange and the mystique was ruined by large handwritten price tags next to each one. They were expensive than she typically spent on books, but they made for nice display pieces.
As she approached the last case and was about to say “excuse me”, she saw the badge on the person’s sleeve.
“Khadijah Wallace from Clear Isle?”
When she straightened up, they were eye to eye and Amari had to force herself to stay still and not start adjusting her clothes. The slacks were some of the only pants she had that fit the way they were supposed to, as was the jacket. She hoped she looked mostly presentable, like she hadn’t spent the day and half the night before tossing and turning in a bootleg La-Z-Boy. But Khadijah would be able to see through the farce; why Amari felt that way, she didn’t know.
Khadijah frowned for a moment before reaching for her badge.
“Amari Brooks,” she held out a hand, glad she’d kept her hands in her pockets until the last possible second. Khadijah wouldn’t have to pretend her hands weren’t shockingly cold.
“One of the studios is empty; I booked it for us. This way.”
Amari led her upstairs, opting to go in front so Khadijah couldn’t see pain flit across her face the closer they were to the top.
The studio was dusty, only a few built in shelves and a wooden table and chairs. Amari slid one to Khadijah before pulling one to the opposite side of the table. She slouched a bit, trying not to look so stiff while Khadijah set up the tablet.
“So? What’s wrong with it?” Amari kept her voice as full of life as she could and tried not to let on that if he was nudged wrong she would crumble. But Khadijah seemed to nudge the other way, intentionally or not.
“There’s too much going on. Too many point-of-view shifts, too many threads that lead nowhere. If this came across my desk when I was slush reading, I’d have just rejected it.”
“Ouch,” she held a hand over her heart, letting a half smile cross her face. She knew the draft would get lambasted but deadlines were looming and something to edit was better than nothing.
“But,” Khadijah continued, “there’s substance somewhere in there. And I think it can be good eventually. There’s time for two or three overhauls before we need to get ready for printing.”
“Mm…let’s aim for two.”
“That’s all up to you, Amari.”
“You never read anything I wrote, have you?” she asked, her curiosity piqued.
“No. My backlog is around fifty books and you about…number forty-seven.”
“Gotta wonder who’s below me…”
“It’s chronological. Nothing against you unless you make me read some mess like this again.”
“Try anything before ‘Half A Spindle’,” Amari said after careful consideration.
“Why stop there?”
“You said don’t make you read no mess,” she shrugged. “Now, lemme see what has to go.”
Khadijah slid the tablet across the table and Amari almost winced when she saw how much had been stricken out and underlined. A few pages were almost entirely crossed out and Amari jotted down what was left in her tiny black notebook.
Get rid of—
Long lists of things fell under the heading. Scenes, characters. She only questioned Khadijah’s judgment once, when the scant few pages she felt were good had met the editing pen.
“…you sure it don’t work?”
“Positive,” Khadijah nodded. “Hold on to it for something else though.”
Given how much was gone, it didn’t take long for her to reach the end which was no longer an ending, but the midpoint of section two.
Did this book even have sections…?
“Looks like I need another half a book,” was Amari’s final assessment.
“Yep. So…let’s meet again in two weeks. Gimme a few thousand new words and fix some of what’s left. I want a new intro at least.”
Amari nodded, not quite able to make eye contact with her new editor. It had been years since her writing got torn to shreds and Khadijah was easily the nicest critic she’d ever had, the hand-drawn emoticons taking away the sting of the “What are you trying to say here?” that was littered throughout the draft.
“Send me a calendar invite for whatever day works for you,” Amari said as she stood, pausing to roll her left ankle.
“Door’ll lock behind you when you leave if you want to stay longer. Have a good one,” she waved.
“Good night,” Khadijah said.
I won’t be having one, Amari thought.
After only half a year in Tamaki, Amari had grown sick of rain. It once inspired hope the wildfires wouldn’t burn out of control and rain down ash over half of California, hope the drought that had been on her entire life would finally end. If nothing else, rain broke up the monotony of months on end of “okay” and “too hot”. It was different. Fun, even. Social media feeds were alight with videos, as though water falling from the sky was brand new, and exaggerated elation, as though everyone was seeing it for the first time when really only a year had passed since the last storm. During the few days the sky threatened to burst open, most often just enough water came down to cause chaos on the roads, maybe catch a few people off guard and clear up by afternoon.
Not so today; Amari could smell rain underneath the smog and smoke and piss of downtown, and it finally let loose when she was only a few blocks from home. Wind picked up the moment she reached Olive and at that point Amari just closed her umbrella and pushed on up the hill, jogging home.
Amari knew she should have taken off her wet clothes right away but instead, she sat behind the front door, trying to catch her breath and figure out how long she could stay indoors. Nobody in Los Angeles knew how to drive and rain made it worse so she was going to stay in if she could. Granted, that wouldn’t be much different from usual. If it wasn’t groceries or the bank, what did Amari go out for anymore?
She ignored the blinking answering machine, turned on the heat, and went to the bathroom, wishing she hadn’t gone out in so many layers. Most of her clothes were off before she plopped down on the toilet. Her ankle throbbed; of course the first time in months she needed the brace was the day she had to run home. The sound of Velcro coming undone echoed in the room as she pulled off the brace and flexed her left ankle. She’d need to take it easy for a few days.
Amari finished stripping and turned on the shower, shifting her weight while she waited for steam to fill the room. She didn’t turn on any music; it was only three in the afternoon but she just wanted a quick shower to warm up and then sleep.
What was left to do…bills were paid, she’d met with Khadijah. Her last tutoring session before winter break was in a few days. When she could stand to stare at a screen, she’d see if there was anything else she was missing.
She took her time getting out of the shower, still careful of her ankle though it did feel a bit better. Shaving could wait but she did grease her hair, the only bit of vanity she still held on to.
The house was warm by the time she left the bathroom, her damp clothes under her arm. She spread them on the drying rack in her room before laying across the bed in only a towel and pulling up a blanket.
How many more days would pass this way? Amari didn’t know. Maybe they’d never end.
Being startled awake was among Amari’s least favorite ways to be woken up. Not five seconds later a flash of lightning turned her black curtains dark gray, and she braced herself for more thunder, soon confirming the noise was what had woken her. She stood and stretched, glancing at the window where the trees outside were whipping in the wind and branches slapping against the glass.
Fear she couldn’t quite place was a common occurrence and trying to assuage it never worked. Dark curtains might prevent eerie silhouettes from being cast on the windows, but not the scraping noises that made her second-guess herself.
Her hands shook while she looked through the dresser for underwear, thinking, “I know that’s a tree, not a person,” much in the same way she once thought, “I’m just over thinking it.” Except she hadn’t been over thinking back then and if she’d just—
Enough, she scolded herself. Just..enough.
After draping a towel on her head to catch the last of the dampness, she turned on the TV and the PlayStation. As usual, her slew of cousins were on some form of football or basketball game and she was glad she signed on invisibly by default. The jeering and heckling and countering racial slurs that she would be expected to partake in during online matches just wasn’t appealing at the moment.
One of those ancient fighting games, that kind that had been ported to everything they could run on? That caught her attention. Those sorts of games never changed. Always made sense. Provided a few minutes of clarity when barring a few hours, most of her days blurred together.
But…was this really it? Going out, looking like she had it together, sometimes not even remembering how she got from place to place, then coming home and seeking distraction after distraction? And it seemed after only an hour, she needed a new one. She shook her hands and flexed them, ineffective against the way her fingers were already beginning to stiffen.
Bad ankle, weak hands…sooner or later, she would be alone with her own thoughts and no reprieve.
She set the controller aside after turning on a movie and cracked open her laptop, and started going through emails. She would respond when she could manage typing but a bit of tapping could work for the moment.
Nothing interesting. A few essay drafts from her tutoring clients, a lengthy note from Mrs. Maynard about McKayla’s upcoming…high school entrance exams? Where was she sending the poor girl? That email was marked unread and she kept scrolling. Maybe later she’d write to people she’d been putting off, mostly other writers and old classmates she always meant to hit up, but when she typed the letter “H”, the drop down menu of suggestions came up. Before Reeve Hastings, who she’d been meaning to talk to for several months, was them. After closing the tab, she slammed the laptop closed and tried to breathe. Later she could go clean her contacts, steel herself for that brief brush with a line of direct contact. Until then, she set the computer aside and curled up on the bed.
It’s that kind of day, huh?
She was too old for this, too old for a mere phantom to be causing this much distress.
Yet here I am, alone in the rain. Just like back then.
Hail pounded against the windows and roof for most of the night and Amari was awake through it all. There hadn’t been a storm like this since she was in elementary school. She lived in a house then, at least a century old yet there’d never been one leak. Her mother’s father (whom she’d never met) had fixed the roof not long after buying the house. The storm took place some ten years after he’d passed, longer still since he actually patched the leaky roof, and his work needed no changes or altering. Amari had yet to craft anything that solid, not with her hands nor her words.
She was eight or nine that winter but she hadn’t been scared, at least not once she’d hugged her mom when she finally got in from work, not even giving her a chance to set down her umbrella. Then Amari could take turns kneeling on the couch with whichever cousin had been staying with them at the time, staring out at the storm and catching the occasional flash of lightning. Her mom and aunt took turns standing on the porch, watching the palm tree in the front yard sway back and forth, leaning far more than it usually did.
It wasn’t one of the pencil thin ones that covered the beaches and would go almost parallel to the ground in high winds, but rather an astonishingly stout tree that almost brushed the power lines. In the summer months, it provided much needed shade. In winter, it loomed over the house, swaying, but always begging the question of where it could fall. Out into the street, like the one it had spawned from had done years before? Take out a power line, or even cause a fire? Or-
“It’s not gon’ fall on the house, is it?” her mom and aunt asked each other in hushed whispers, as far away from the children as they could get in a house that small.
At just over nine hundred square feet and only two bedrooms, it was tiny, often overcrowded with family that was dealing with something or another. She liked it though, drafty autumn days, hot summer nights, and precarious palm tree aside. Said tree survived the storm, though not long after it was finally cut down, and Amari had to admit, she rested easier afterwards.
It took months for all the ice that fell that evening to melt, and sometimes Amari would dig in the brush underneath the clothesline to see how much was left until one day, there was none, not even mud.
More than a day of not having to deal with people face to face and Amari forgot it all, how not to come off…strange. But then again, maybe she always came off that way and no one had the decency to tell her.
Amari knew better than to sit around in silence and try to figure out why they never told her about any problems until it was too late. She reached around for the game controller and pressed buttons until she heard a beep and the TV cut back on. She put in the lock code (why did she still have one on when he lived alone?) and nearly threw the controller when she realized what she’d done. Again.
She took her time putting in the code again, making sure to put in her birthday, all while ignoring her stomach growling.
At some point, Amari knew she would have to eat something, mostly since she couldn’t remember the last time she had. These days it didn’t much matter if she did or didn’t. No one was around to comment on her lack of appetite like they had and she didn’t feel particularly compelled to fix it.
There was no good reason to avoid kitchens anymore. She was out of that hellish flat, where eventually she was glad she never shook her habit of drinking unfiltered tap water. Just like at the house she’d grown up in, where she often eschewed going back in the house for water on summer days, she would make use of the tap in the laundry room behind the flat to fill her water bottles. The water tasted okay enough, not as good as what she’d grown up with, but the most important thing was how far away from the kitchen it was.
Everyone seemed to congregate there and she didn’t want to make small talk or regale her local classmates with faux shock and surprise at the professors they all knew to avoid while she was trying to make lunch, but she didn’t like being rude. So, she just quit going in there altogether. If Amari had to be miserable, she didn’t want to hear all the tipsy whooping and hollering from people who weren’t. Or, if they were, they could fake it better than she could and that made her sick.
Most things did back then, and if she thought about them for too long, they still did. Like now.
Sometimes, when Amari felt more like a person and less like a ghastly impersonator, she thought about the sorts of kisses she would have liked to experience. Maybe they’d be sitting on a rock on the Malibu coast, just far enough from the water that the spray barely reached their shoes, watching the sunrise. Or they’d be just inside the door to her apartment, sorting out how far things would go before clothes started coming off, breathless. But just as often as she dreamed of the kisses that would leave her light-headed in a good way, she dreamed of teeth and tongue, and sore lips and slobber.
Her flat was barely half the size of her room at home but she expected nothing more from a dorm. It was there, however, that she found herself alone with them. The meetings (she couldn’t describe them as “hanging out”; that required fully having enjoyed herself) were…strange. Not one foot away yet she couldn’t tell if they even wanted to be there. Then one day, not long after they’d first kissed, she found her back pinned to the wall, their weight holding her in place.
Neither of them were quite sure what to do with their limbs, but she supposed it was just a part of how kissing went until you knew what you were doing. Her mind often wandered and that she knew for sure wasn’t quite right. There hadn’t been time to think about it though, because not a minute after she tried to lead with gentle touches, tongue was being forced into her mouth.
It was rough and unpleasant but Amari didn’t know how to simply ask what the hell they were doing. Then the teeth joined in and she regretted ever asking to kiss them that first time. With saliva slightly dripping from the corner of her mouth (…whose was it?) she wondered exactly what she was supposed to be getting out of the experience. But she was certain she wasn’t supposed to feel so…used in a way she hadn’t been before or since. Why had she let herself be…used? What had she gained beyond a check mark or two on her mental checklist of “firsts”, where all she wanted to do now was uncheck them? Nothing, as far as she could tell.
Amari lay in bed a while longer, taking deep breaths until the nausea subsided enough that she could go to the kitchen. She walked out with a cola and half a roll of Oreos. For whatever reason, she could keep those down and since she didn’t have to go out for a while, she didn’t have to force down anything more substantial. What luck.
A different window caught her attention, the one in the hallway. The building’s exterior lights were on and water rattled the roof drains, one of which was just outside. If it was too dark for the hour, she couldn’t say; to know something like that, she’d have to know what time it was. An alarm was set to go off when it was time to go back outside; right now she didn’t need to know boring shit like the current hour. Even still, she tried not to linger too long, but not before she caught sight of her reflection in the window and let out an ugly laugh.
Twenty six, alone, Oreo crumbs around her mouth, and absolutely no timeline for getting out of this particular rut.
Is there any way out of it at all, she wondered.
Amari wiped her mouth with the tail of her shirt. She hated how loose all her clothes had gotten; she couldn’t keep any weight on and everyday was glad she’d moved across town a few times. She didn’t want to run into anyone who’d tell her they’d never realized how fine she was back in school because of course they hadn’t realized. They wouldn’t be interested in knowing no, she hadn’t taken up a sport or lost the last of her baby fat.
No, they wouldn’t want to hear the truth. They never did.
Amari liked her job most days. It kept her out of the desert cities. Kept her in an area where she could move somewhat inconspicuously provided she didn’t venture too far into Skid Row. People left her alone for the most part. That also meant she was left alone with her drafts and works-in-progress, the sole arbiter of whether or not they ever saw the light of day. And the draft Khadijah had torn apart? Never should have left her hard drive.
She wasn’t sure what she was going for with this book. It had no title and was shorter than her first one by a rather wide margin though not for lack of trying. She jotted notes on her phone, had a few ‘Idea’ files on the computer, and even a page or two in a notebook; they reached a few hundred words before the ideas just escaped her. A select few would make it to a thousand, a few to two, maybe even three thousand. There would always be a base for something decent but the means to finish the story always seemed to be just beyond her grasp.
This book started by combining several of her longest notes and as such the styles fluctuated in ways she’d found unpleasant as she tried to tie them together. Jessie probably hated it but Amari knew she would before dropping off the manuscript in the dead of night, when she was out of her office.
Every section seemed to be doing something different but Khadijah had managed to find the one unifying thread underneath the superfluous prose. And it turned out she needed even more than half a book. She’d crossed out the first pages, only a note to “start here” at the beginning of the sixth. Amari didn’t need detailed notes on that one; the pages before six had too much exposition, too few characters, too little to draw in anyone whose job wasn’t looking for the faint sparks of creativity in what was otherwise junk.
With her first book, Amari managed to get all the good ideas to the forefront, unencumbered by the messy prose. Back then, all her spare time was spent on writing and rewriting, trying to finish…something. The something turned out to be the first draft of her first book. It was rough as all drafts were but she liked it enough to hassle professors and the people he came across in writing classes to give it a read. The overall feedback was good, even if she still had to do some massive overhauls.
Writing could work. But it had to go on the backburner while she finished up a bunch of the boring requisites whose actual content she’d never use. For a while she wrote nothing, just plucked away at half finished short stories. Nothing serious. She certainly didn’t have time to look over the five or six marked up drafts of her novel.
But when she found a break in her schedule, a string of classes that could be done anywhere they taught in English, she thought of maybe going out of the country for a while. There was no reason not to; it wasn’t like she had anything better to do. She hadn’t joined a sorority nor had she tried out for any sports, joined any clubs. She was wholly unattached.
Going to the info session was a whim so she ended up going alone while Malik, her best friend, worked one of his campus jobs. The theater was tucked in a far off corner, in one of the old liberal arts buildings that was last in line for renovations. They had bad coffee, barely sweetened hot cocoa, and stale pastries, the same as every other campus event. Amari chewed on a dry croissant as she made her way to the front row of the theater, wishing she didn’t have to expose herself so much just for some leg room.
Amari had drifted into in the cluster of black students that sometimes formed without words, unintentionally, but was always welcome. When the presentations were done, she was wandering around gathering info packets about the various schools she could choose. That was where she noticed them, as they’d not had any classes together in a few sessions.
“Where are you thinking of going?” they asked.
“Oh, I’m not sure yet,” Amari said, not noticing she’d dampened her accent and speech to the inoffensive southern California ones, the ones that kept assumptions down and questions to a minimum. She’d always done that with them, even back in high school.
They texted for most of the semester and all through the summer, not often meeting as their commutes took them in opposite directions. Amari hadn’t questioned why they rarely arranged to meet up, even when they were only a quarter mile walk away on campus, why there was always something going on that kept them apart. It would be different in Tamaki, when all the messy parts of their lives were thousands of miles away; how couldn’t it?
Amari flushed the toilet, wishing she’d brought her phone because she still wasn’t done. She was supposed to be editing, revising, rewriting! Not stuck on a toilet, trying to piece together where her life fell apart. On top of that, she was wondering what the hell she even had to shit out when she’d only managed half a bag of pre-hulled sunflower seeds and a few swigs of red grapefruit juice in the last two days.
Granted it was no different than when she found herself in the bathroom at the flat that was little more than a converted shed that shared a wall with her room, her stomach griping for no apparent reason. The shed-bathroom had proven to be one of the least annoying places in the entire flat, maybe even her favorite. No one disturbed her, she only had to take a few steps outside, and she didn’t have to risk an encounter with a flatmate. There was just her, her phone, the toilet, and the spiders that often made the pipes under the sink their home.
She refused to coexist with spiders now, mostly because her nerves were shot. They were weak after months of trying set dates, waiting for responses that seemed to come slower when she and they were in the same place with less obstacles between them, and wondering exactly how long she’d have to wait, how much their already limited time would be cut down. Amari wondered if she would be stood up more than once, left alone in Britomart. She stuck out even more so than at home, and while she knew it was a transit center and no one gave a damn who was there or for how long, when fifteen minutes passed into twenty and that into thirty, she began to wonder. Try to sit still. Not look around anxiously, fidgeting until they finally decided to show.
She was never sure how to greet them, why the terms of endearment never fell from her lips with any ease. Even the hugs felt stranger than they had back home, like there wasn’t a show to put on anymore. Who the show was for was something Amari had never figured out. Just like she never figured out why they always felt like a stranger.
Because they always were a stranger.
There was no wonder she spent most evenings after a “date” in the shed-bathroom clutching her stomach and trying to keep her legs from falling asleep on the toilet. Unease permeated her entire being, unsure if dinner or the person she had it with was the problem. Surely it was just something odd she’d eaten like the beets on the burgers, she convinced herself.
I won’t do that anymore, she thought as she finally washed her hands, making sure to dry them well; she hated messing up the paper while she was editing.
No more lies.
“I know you in there. Your ass don’t go outside.”
Amari set the manuscript and laptop aside, having only gotten through a few pages anyway, and let Malik in her apartment. Better to let him in before he used his key.
“What?” Amari asked, ready to be grilled over what she’d done and if she’d eaten since their last video call. Malik wouldn’t like either of her answers, but she’d give them. Instead Malik went past her to open the curtains to let some light in.
“…I don’t care if it start raining, we going outside. Put some pants on.”
“I was working,” Amari pointed to the coffee table where her manuscript lay in a few piles.
“Is that the last book you had me read?”
Amari winced at the way Malik’s nose scrunched up, but nodded.
“Yeah. I got a new editor and she don’t play.”
Malik leafed through a few pages, red pen in hand but he didn’t need to add to Khadijah’s hack job.
“Oh, she really don’t play,” he set the stack back down with a laugh. “I told you it’d be aight…eventually. But still get dressed; that book not going nowhere.”
Finding something decent to wear was no easy task; all her nice clothes had been purchased back when she was promoting her first book and had to look decent. Now the only things that didn’t hang off her were basics and the slacks she’d worn to her meeting with Khadijah. But Malik didn’t drag her to the nearest mall when she came out of the bedroom so she must have looked okay.
“So what we doing?” Amari asked while she lotioned up.
“Now I ain’t go to them in school; what make you think–” Amari sighed. That was a joke. When would she stop missing those? “Okay where we really going?”
“Tony’s. Ricky and his lil’ jazz band playing at the bar.”
“It’s already nine; we gon’ make it?”
“They got the late set. Let’s go.”
She left home barehanded, only a pack of tissues, tube of lip balm, and her wallet tucked in her jacket pocket. Nothing to look for if she needed to make a quick exit.
“I’ll drive,” Amari offered as she locked the door.
“You still dry?”
“I’d be fucked up off one beer. It’s cool.”
There wasn’t even room to take out a phone without bumping elbows in the antique elevator once she rolled the gate shut. No escape route either, Amari noted dimly and for a moment, she thought Malik might let her off easy.
“You look better,” Malik said, breaking the silence. “I’m glad you out the house, but–“
“But today we about to go act like these saxophone solos slap,” she patted Malik’s arm as she exited the elevator and started down the hall to the parking lot, confused yet relieved.
Malik had hesitated for some reason, only speaking when they were one floor from the garage. It wasn’t like him to miss an opportunity to pry when Amari couldn’t run. They would have to broach the subject. Just…later.
“Won’t need to act,” Malik loosened back up and Amari hoped she could keep him that way.
Amari kept a hand on Malik’s shoulder as they walked down the path to the boardwalk, her glasses in her other hand. This close to the water nothing would keep them from fogging up every five steps but without them in the dark? Everything was uncomfortably fuzzy.
She could still make out a few things, like how the souvenir stands were still in full effect. Light up balloons and inflatable animals went for twice what you could get them for downtown and parents were letting out exasperated sighs as they handed over crisp twenties from the nearby ATMs. All the restaurants served fresh seafood, most of them having their own overcrowded tanks with their wares on display. She couldn’t read the signs right then but knew they were pointed towards the submarine and whale watching rides on the far side of the boardwalk.
Amari had thoughts of bringing them here before it all went to hell, showing them all the simple things she liked about it, from the section of pier where you could see fish poking their heads out of the water to the decrepit papier-mâché witch in the Fun Factory. All the small parts had their own charm and added up to a place that was suspended in time, where the newest gadgets were credit card readers and Time Crisis II.
“…and I lost her.”
“What?” Amari looked around and saw that she’d fallen behind Malik quite a ways.
“Sorry,” she caught up and tried to focus on the now, on showing her boy Ricky some love, maybe finding some fruity, nonalcoholic blended drink to sip on while he zoned out.
Ricky was waiting outside Tony’s for the call to set up their equipment. They kept it simple; a guitar, a bass, a sax, and a keyboard. It’d be better than most live dinner bands she’d ever had the misfortune of sitting through, that was for sure.
“What’s good, stranger?” Ricky embraced her briefly and the near curtness of it stung but it was in line with what she expected. Malik was an outlier; most people could only take so many declined invitations and the caginess when she did go out and Ricky was one of them.
“Nothing much,” Amari shrugged, “Y’all doing music full time?”
“Nah, still a weekend thing. Might leave it that way. Less pressure.”
Before Ricky could say anything else, one of the waiters called them upstairs.
“See y’all in ten.” The band filed up the narrow staircase and Amari tried to not to look too relieved. She had to start going out more.
“Now that wasn’t too bad, right?” Malik asked in the same tone of voice doctors used when giving shots.
Feeling alone in a room full of people, even with her best friend by her side was a new one for Amari. When she’d had to travel by herself for work, it wasn’t fine per say, but doable. Half a year in a depressing hellhole where the only person she knew treated her like a burden left Amari preferring her own company. She knew how to exist on her own.
Long stretches of Malik being the only person she spoke to for longer than it took to get takeout left her out of practice. She stopped hearing Ricky’s band, couldn’t describe what they had been playing. No one was looking at her, either focused on their drinks or the music. But she couldn’t shake the feeling she was doing everything all wrong. She knew she wasn’t because there was nothing to do wrong; how could you mess up standing and listening to music? But if anyone could bungle such a simple task, Amari knew she could. The only option now was to try and save face at the first break in the set.
“Watch my drink,” she passed her glass to Malik, ignoring the “Where you going?” that followed, and went down the stairs as quickly as her ankle would allow.
Amari took the long way around the pier, the one with a view of the pitch black horizon, only broken up by buoys and the occasional boat. She sat on one of the concrete picnic tables, a chill making its way through her pants.
This “being a person”—she wasn’t ready for it. She just wasn’t. Maybe she could go back to–
“I thought that was you in there.”
Khadijah. Why her, why now?
Malik knew how to deal with this: they’d meet back at the car. Amari would sleep it off while Malik crashed on the couch and then made her breakfast the next morning. Maybe they’d talk, maybe not.
On her own, Amari was lost.
“…is now not a good time?”
“No.” She’d done it again, slipped back into the one-word answers, the ones that kept people at bay whether she meant for them to or not. But she had to speak for herself; no one else would.
“Here then,” Khadijah held out a single-use hand warmer. Amari kept at least two on her most days, as she often couldn’t sleep without holding on to one when she was in Tamaki and had never dropped the habit. Except for today. And her hands were already ice cold.
Amari ripped off the plastic and waited for it to heat up. If her hands weren’t cold, maybe she would feel just a smidgen less miserable.
Khadijah sat on the table, several inches away but still close enough that Amari couldn’t feel alone.
“I lived in another town by the ocean for a while,” she said, just loud enough to hear over the waves.
“Don’t even know if there were places like this…I was cooped up in what passed for a city almost the entire time. The one time I did go by the water, it was beautiful. Clean sand; even the jagged rocks looked nicer, like even the water wanted them to look good. You could see another island off in the distance. Real picturesque.
“It was missing something though. There were people there, and I was there with somebody, but it was still…empty.”
Amari squeezed the hand warmer, waiting for Khadijah to finish speaking. She didn’t know where this was going.
“There was no…life,” she finished. “At least, not one that would make me happy. Not one worth living. You look like…you know how that feel.”
Amari didn’t know how to respond, mostly because she was right. What parts of her were even left at this point? Which ones and how much, she couldn’t say.
But the least she could do was pull herself together in front of Khadijah as thanks for giving her something outside of herself to think about, something she almost felt she could reach out and touch.
“Somebody looking for you,” she said, pointing towards the figure moving slowly up the pier. “I’mma head out; you get home safe.”
She left so abruptly Amari couldn’t get out any thanks.
Her gaze was fixed on Khadijah and she didn’t even flip Malik off when it finally registered what she said.
“I ain’t seen you with nobody in…” Malik let out a half laugh, “a few years, at least.”
“That’s not just anybody; that’s my new editor.”
“And you didn’t run her off for hitting you up outside work?”
“Don’t give me none of that one word bullshit,” came Malik’s response, a sudden edge to his voice. Amari knew that edge; Malik had missed his chance in the elevator but he wasn’t going to let another slip by.
Amari sighed and shook her head.
“I don’t know. That’s why I stay my ass in the house.”
“I’m ‘bout to take my ass back in the house.”
How much longer Amari had before Malik stopped letting her off the hook, she couldn’t say. They were back at Amari’s apartment, their outer clothes changed. Something was playing on the living room TV and though she was looking right at it, Amari couldn’t say what.
“You know Ricky noticed you left. The bar ain’t that big.”
She glanced at the clock; not quite two in the morning. Two hours was all Malik was giving up this evening.
“I know. What’d you tell him?”
“We got dinner and something didn’t agree with you.”
A realistic lie if nothing else, but Malik shouldn’t have had to.
“Mari, what happened while you were gone?”
“Nah, you about to tell me something. You been messed up since you got back and you wasn’t even gone that long. Why?”
Amari let her head fall against the back of the couch and she stared up at the ceiling. What was she supposed to say?
“Would you believe me if I said I don’t know?” she tried.
So she sat, wracking her brain for something she could say, something that wouldn’t give away how bad it had gotten. Difficult, given that after a while she just wanted to sleep until it was time to board the plane home and that point had come far sooner than she expected. But one of the few episodes that didn’t make her ill to think about came to mind.
“’member my birthday?” Amari started, aware of the light waver to her voice. Malik noticed it too and his response was far more gentle.
“I had a test that morning. It wasn’t hard just…pointless. Didn’t help me get better at anything. And then I had cramps. Not bad enough for painkillers, just uncomfortable. Shit way to start the day. And it got worse when–” Amari caught herself. No names. Names meant you knew someone and she hadn’t actually known them the entire time she knew them. She certainly didn’t years after the fact.
“They baked me this cake. Vanilla, even though they knew I like chocolate more. It was dry, flavorless, and had this nasty ass frosting just tasted like salted butter with some sugar in it. Couldn’t spend any time with me but they left me with that.”
She laughed, a short, acerbic, and ugly sound that she usually tried to hold at bay. But sometimes, it slipped out.
“That’s what every day felt like after a while. My birthday.”
Sound from the TV seemed to engulf the room while she waited for Malik to say something.
“Why you didn’t tell me what was wrong when I asked?”
Amari thought back to the video calls, where she kept everything brief since she could only play at being a person in short bursts but Malik always knew. He didn’t push, but he knew.
“Because you couldn’t know. Not back then.”
“I don’t have to be ‘fine’ all the time.”
Sleep refused to find Amari. Three, four, five in the morning all passed. She didn’t dream but every time she opened her eyes, for a moment she wasn’t sure where she was. Who she was, where she has, who was on the other side of her L-shaped couch all came to her quickly though. She was Amari, she was at home, Malik was on the couch.
She didn’t try to go back to sleep that last time, though it was because she felt sick. Heat had enveloped herand taking off all her clothes sans her boxers and bra didn’t seem to help. She lay on her side, holding her stomach; that was where the heat seemed to be centered and she just wanted it to stop. Pain soon followed, at which point Amari knew she had to get to the bathroom. She banged her ankle against the coffee table as she struggled to get on her feet. Then there were hands on her.
When the feverish haze cleared Amari was hunched over the toilet, face to face with a bowl stained by red dye number 40 that still vaguely smelled of fruit punch and acidic bile, her throat burning, not sure how her got there. Her glasses were neatly folded on the counter and her braids tied back, not one loose.
“Is that all of it?” Malik. Shit.
“I think–” the second she tried to push herself up, her stomach seized and the last of the nothing that was in there forced its way out. How long she sat there spitting up bile and saliva, she didn’t know. When her breaths evened, Malik spoke.
“Here,” Malik passed her two glasses, one of warm water and the other of mouthwash and she rinsed her mouth out with them both. Then came a cold towel that she dragged down her face a few times.
“I’m fine, Malik,” she cut her friend off, knowing she had to keep this from going any further. Not tonight, at least.
“…I thought you didn’t have to always be ‘fine’.”
Amari let out a hoarse laugh, rubbing at her throat afterwards.
“Well this time I am. For real. This ain’t nothing new.”
She pretended not to see the anger flit across Malik’s face.
“Go back to bed. I’ll be fine.”
The only person Amari could lie to reliably was herself. But sometimes, she couldn’t even manage that.
Amari knew there was no way to avoid looking haggard before her tutoring session with McKayla Maynard and she was dreading it. The actual tutoring would be fine. She’d go over some essays, comment on them, and give McKayla a chance to start on revisions before directing her through the rest.
Sometimes that meant half an hour or more wherein one of the Maynards would drag a conversation out of her. But worse than the talking, they noticed everything. All of them, and she could never decide who was the worst.
It wasn’t McKayla, who regarded her with the same trepidation all teenagers seemed to regard adults with, especially the ones just old enough to no longer ‘get it’. She was nearly fourteen, her birthday falling in late December. The novelty of being the oldest in her class had worn off after a few days and she was ready for something new.
“Is high school any better?” she’d asked the last time they met.
“Hm…” Amari had paused to cross a few words out of the essay she was marking while she thought. “I’ve done worse things,” she settled on saying.
“But you gotta go to the DMV and file taxes. Most of what you do is prolly worse.”
“You not wrong,” she agreed, “but it won’t be that bad. Your mom told me where she tryna send you. I’d have loved to go somewhere like that.”
“Are the people gon’ be weird…?”
“You about to be what, fourteen? Most people you meet gon’ be weird. But don’t let that stop you from talking to folks.” Sound advice and when Amari had said it, it sounded believable, like she was speaking from experience and not like she wanted to tell the girl to spend months vetting people before even sharing phone numbers.
There was also Mrs. Maynard and the way she wouldn’t rush McKayla’s friends out when Amari arrived. Though Mrs. Maynard had given up trying to feed her, she would pull Amari aside to take in a shirt or jacket before she set about working, never prying, just knowing. All older people just seemed to take one look at her and know. And it was even worse when Mrs. Maynard would call her over to the sewing table to put the finishing touches on a fitting. Tailors were easy; they didn’t know her, didn’t send her greeting cards she had to figure out how to respond to in kind, didn’t force her to reconcile the fact that people she met might actually grow to care about her.
But no, Mr. Maynard unnerved her the most. Amari hated being alone with him. Not because he was particularly intimidating or stony faced or mean. But much like his wife, he just…knew.
How the questioning would play out today, Amari didn’t know. She’d given McKayla forty-five minutes to dig up some existential suffering she’d experienced in her brief time alive to prove how interesting she was to her prospective high school. Meanwhile, Amari sat at the kitchen table making a few minute edits to her book. And it was when she’d nearly banged her head on the table in frustration that Richard Maynard finally made his presence known. The hell could a man that big be so quiet?
“You alright, honey? Because I have–”
“No, no. I’m fine,” she said quietly, not wanting to disturb McKayla. She rubbed at her eyes though it wouldn’t help. Nothing but two straight days of sleep would be enough to help her bounce back from last night but she still had to do rewrites and meet Khadijah again and–
“Is it a boy?” Mr. Maynard asked.
“Huh? No sir. It was just the kind of night a shower couldn’t wash off.” A shower may have gotten rid of the sweat but it hadn’t changed the fact that she still had to talk to Malik. Didn’t do anything about the book she had to fix either. She wasn’t musty though. There was that at least.
“You gotta be careful with those,” Mr. Maynard said. “Catch too many nights like that and you’ll never be clean. But…you already feel that way, don’t you?”
Amari wanted to bolt, would have had McKayla not come from the living room.
“Daddy, leave her alone. I’m done.” She slid over a few sheets of paper, and Amari had to concentrate on keeping her hands still as she picked them up. She wondered when she’d regained the ability to decipher the barely legible penmanship of school-aged children; at least something had changed for the better.
“How’d it go?” Amari asked, her voice as steady as she could keep it with Mr. Maynard still at the table. He was thumbing through a ledger of some sort, not at all concerned with the way he’d left Amari feeling exposed.
She looked at the sheets. Every other word was crossed out and there were several short paragraphs on each page, none of which had any connection to each other. Still brainstorming it seemed.
Looks like my story drafts. That was something she could work with.
The lone scar Amari had, she’d gotten when she wrecked her ankle. She was rushing to a date that evening and was even skipping the lone concert she’d found to go to. Concerts weren’t her first choice of live event anyway and there would be plenty of time for mundane things like concerts back home. In the rush to get down to Park Road, she stepped on the edge of the sidewalk where the concrete met the grass. Her ankle burned as she righted herself but she could still walk and that was all that mattered.
While she was sitting on a bench on Queen Street, making sure not to put her bare sock on the ground as she slipped on the ankle brace she grabbed out of Stirling Sports, she began to have doubts. Going back to her flat never occurred to her; she HAD to be on time. But…why?
Was any of this worth it? Uprooting her life to do…what, exactly for half a year?
Would they have done this for me?
But like she always did, she pushed the doubts down and slipped on the hideous boots (the only thing she could find when her Converse finally gave out) and went on to the bus stop, dutifully letting them know where she was, despite rarely receiving the same courtesy in return when they were running late.
These days, she didn’t think of the bench on Queen Street, but rather how long she’d need to ignore the throbbing and make an effort to hide the limp. Malik had never seen the brace, mostly because Amari didn’t want him to know there were any other remnants of that period. That she couldn’t drink, couldn’t dress the way she liked, couldn’t eat, sleep…Amari could hide those things and she could hide mild pain too.
The question was whether or not she could hide from Khadijah. She wanted to write, not bare her soul to a stranger. But sometimes she wondered if it was even possible to do one and not the other.
As she walked to Grand Central Library, her phone’s GPS giving instructions in one earbud, she began running down what Khadijah might have to say about her latest revisions. She’d emailed a copy two days prior and refused to look at it any longer. Would the substance Khadijah swore was in there be closer to the surface? Or would it still be buried underneath her stream of consciousness?
However the piece had actually turned out, Amari only had a few more moments to herself. She liked this better, she thought, arriving rather than waiting. She’d done her fair share of waiting, when they finally agreed to see him, she always worried she’d be left alone. But Khadijah was already at the meeting room she’d booked.
“Bit big for just two people,” she’d noted after their greetings.
“Only size they got. Plus I wanna spread out.
A few minutes later, for the second time in as many weeks, Amari saw her book spread into piles with red marks covering the pages.
“Now I’m liking what you’ve added so far. Way more direction. But there’s still too much distance from the reader. Look here,” she said, pointing out a passage Amari spent hours on and still hated.
“I don’t get this guy. Why’s he killing people in the first place? Now you don’t need to spell it out, but I can tell that you don’t know. He’s just…doing ugly things, but they don’t feel ugly.”
Amari scribbled that down-make it feel ugly. How would she do that? Hopefully before she next met with Khadijah, she’d answer that question. The next twenty minutes were more of the same and it all culminated with Khadijah telling her, “Sell me on it.”
“Dial it back or turn it up, but sell me on it.” And Amari wrote that down too.
She slumped into her chair, trying not to close herself off. She hadn’t had this much trouble writing in years. She hated her last book, sure, the collection of short stories being the low point of her fledgling career. But it had been easy to write.
This one made her think. And a lot of how she’d been getting by was avoiding foolish things like thinking. Not about herself, at least. That was the problem with digging through her old notes for story ideas. Every so often, moments she’d spent many nights trying to forget would slip through; she’d make them solid and real for a few hundred words. And in such small bites, she could handle those moments. Turn them into fantastical story nuggets, things she would never touch again. And yet here she was, handling them roughly, breaking them down, trying to make it all make sense to people that weren’t in her head. Maybe…maybe it wasn’t worth the effort.
“What if…” she tried to find the right words? Scrap it? Rewrite it again?
“What if you showed your face here?” Khadijah slid her tablet across where there was an email from Jessie pulled up.
“I’m not doing that,” Amari said the moment she saw the name Reeve Hastings.
“He sent that invite for you.”
“Who said I have to accept?”
“Let’s be real, Amari. Jessie scrambled to push those short stories and we’re lucky your third book wasn’t canceled. You need to start gearing up to push this book. I know it’s a year off at least but you need practice. Just talking to me isn’t going to get you there.”
“That’s…I know. I know. But is there nothing else?”
“Nothing soon enough.”
“Does it have to be him?”
“What’s wrong with Reeve Hastings? It’s not like you haven’t name dropped him before. And Jessie told me you don’t like nobody so you must actually like his books.”
Some things Amari planned to take to the urn. Malik was never supposed to know how bad things had gotten in Tamaki and with each passing day, she could see the truth coming closer to the surface. Her mom wasn’t supposed to know why she’d really moved out when she came home and so far, that was still looking possible. But no one was supposed to know about her fling with Reeve.
“…how far off is it again?”
“Two months. And it’s not advertised, but they want him to hype up a couple of Clear Isle authors, one of which he chose to be you.”
He’s messing with me, but even as Amari thought it, she didn’t believe it. She hadn’t told Reeve anything, not about them or Tamaki or anything beyond taking safety measures. It was a few nights over a few weeks, nothing more, nothing less. And it was exactly the sort of thing she swore she’d never do, not after how she wished he could take back everything with them.
“Did something foul go down between y’all? If that’s it, I won’t ask what but-”
“No, no. It’s nothing like that. I’m the problem. Just…say yes.”
“Wanna be my plus one?”
“Ion know yet. It’s a book release so…”
“Who book is it?”
“Ah…Reeve Hastings,” Amari hoped that rolled off her tongue naturally, that she didn’t–
“I haven’t seen him around in a while. What he up to?”
“Releasing a book.”
It was then that Malik turned his camera on, his expression flat. “Oh you think you funny.”
“I know you like his books. You wanna come or nah?”
“Aight. I’ll be there. That all?”
There Malik went again and Amari felt a pang of guilt. She wouldn’t be lying per say, but she didn’t like splitting hairs like that, not with Malik. Mostly because when her friend had both the time and patience to needle, none of her omissions ever stayed hidden.
“Yeah, that’s all. I might hop online later.”
“We’ll see,” Malik snorted.
“You right. I’ll see you.”
Amari hung up and turned back towards the new piles her novel was split into and her open laptop.
None of what she’d written was ugly. She didn’t even think she knew what that meant but she knew Khadijah was right. She wasn’t uncomfortable when she wrote, wasn’t digging deep enough. Sometimes the light pieces she penned came out well. Not everything needed to be so dark and moody and leave her so raw she couldn’t stand to look at her own work. But writing in that light, distant way was how she’d ended up with that shoddy short story collection.
She couldn’t do that again. So she sat there, digging. It didn’t work too well, which wasn’t surprising. She wanted to get down something that sounded less…depressing. But that was the thing-it was. She did feel awful back then. Maybe she was able to function now but had she ever stopped to sit and think?
The closest she’d come was the thing with Reeve, where for once she’d at least acknowledged to herself that she wanted to feel better. Maybe long-term it didn’t fix anything, but she had felt better for a while. Not…broken.
If Amari was going to attempt to go to the book release, she needed something decent to wear. After taking her measurements and spending a solid two hours on every site she could think of, she ended up calling Mrs. Maynard. She wanted to feel comfortable for once.
“Look through these,” Mrs. Maynard spread a stack of patterns in front of her. Jackets and pants mostly; she could get by with a white t-shirt but the rest needed to be–
“Business casual,” she muttered while she sifted through the patterns. She settled on pants that could be made with a thicker fabric; maybe then she wouldn’t need to layer so heavily since the venue was outdoors. The jacket was a loose fitting one that had a removable liner. Both would look fine with Air Forces.
“These ones,” she passed her selections to Mrs. Maynard, missing when she didn’t have to worry about whether or not she’d freeze if she wore one layer too few. She originally thought the problem was the constant wind and rain in Tamaki but didn’t change when she went home.
“What’s the occasion?”
“A book release. Not mine, or you know y’all would have an invite. But I don’t get out too much. I wanna try to look good. Maybe I’ll feel good too.”
Amari froze. Where had that come from? She didn’t have to dwell on it because suddenly there were fabric samples in front of her, sets for both the pants and jacket. She went for the thickest things that were in black.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Mrs. Maynard smiled.
She let Amari go not long after, at which point she had to find something new to do to occupy her mind. Something that would keep her out of the, “I know Khadijah is right but that doesn’t mean I ever planned on confronting jack shit” spiral she’d been in since the moment she looked at the email invite.
She could write. Or go see Malik. Neither was all that appealing since both required that she think and that was the last thing she wanted to do.
Instead, she went to the arcade, where she planned to stay until her fingers hurt. P1 was a short walk from home and in the summer, she would walk there. In winter, her fingers would be too stiff to play much of anything so she drove there with the heater cranked up. She spent the drive from the Maynard’s plotting out what games she would play; it was easier to think about than…anything else.
The black light carpet was welcoming, as was the hug from Nina, P1’s sole proprietor.
“Where have you been?”
“Typing, scribbling. Trying not to wear my hands out.”
“Well, you have fun. I got some repairs to make,” she motioned toward the far corner where an arcade cabinet was open and the repair tech was hunched over it.
Her evening turned out to be somewhat relaxing as she made her way around the rows of fighting games, only playing through arcade mode once on each game. She always liked the adjustment period between games, remembering if she needed to press a button to block or just stand there, making minute spacing adjustments, and finding her fingers still remembered her favorite combos. Why couldn’t writing work that way? Where every so often it would all just…click. She was by no means a pro so she rarely won the same way. There was no combo she’d ever found to win every match, no guarantee she would win more often than not.
Writing was the same way. No two pieces were ever the same, they never came together the same way either. Problem was, winning games was easier when she didn’t care but not caring made her writing distant.
Amari reached into her pocket for more quarters and found it empty. She stood and stretched but stopped when she felt a bit lightheaded, hoping she played it off well. Drinking soda probably wasn’t the best response but it’d make her feel better. She went to the food counter where the lunch rush had just died down.
Kishawn, the cook and busboy, came to take her order.
“Medium RC, light ice?”
“You got it.”
Amari leaned against the counter, gazing over the mostly empty arcade floor. P1 had to be a vanity project and Amari wished she could afford to run one of her own. But she instead had to use her words to make a living.
“You need quarters?” The repair tech was back at the end of the counter that gave out change and prizes.
“I do, actually.” She passed her a ten dollar bill and got a fresh roll of quarters in return.
“Do you draw?”
“No,” was all she said at first, trying to mask her confusion. Most days she was so concerned with making sure she looked presentable at a glance that she didn’t fret over the small details. More than once she’d gone out in a Malik-approved outfit only for strangers to ask about a show or band she’d not seen in years. And she’d fumble most of the time. This time, she quickly followed up with, “What made you ask?”
“Your hands. I worked with a lot of artists at my last job; they could never get all the ink off.”
“Ah…I write, actually. My favorite brand of pens didn’t quite get the ‘quick-dry’ thing right.”
“What do you write?”
“Little of everything. Last one was a thriller though.”
This was good. She was talking, sounding almost like a normal person, almost like she used to. Sure, a mostly empty arcade was nothing like a book release for her old fling that would be filled with other writers she knew and drinking and who even knew what else. But natural sounding words sounded natural anywhere you said them. At least she hoped they did.
“Order up. Medium RC.”
Amari thanked Kishawn and took a few sips, pretending not to see the wordless conversation he was having with the repair tech. She was about to offer up the name of her book when she felt small arms latch around her waist with an accompanying, “’Mari!” She turned around to find Malik’s sister, Cleo, beaming up at her.
“What you doing here?”
“I begged Malik to bring me before break is over.”
She looked around and saw Malik sauntering over to the prize counter. He looked tired, but there was no way he’d let on when Cleo was looking at him.
“Just got done grading so it was time to hang with baby sis.”
Once Cleo’s vice grip on Amari loosened, she got her own roll of quarters and immediately dragged Malik and Amari to the air hockey tables.
“Watch me win!”
She found a bar stool to perch on while Cleo tried her best to end Malik’s winning streak. After a few failed attempts and with only two points before Malik’s next win, she pulled Amari to the table to take her place.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she patted her head.
“You look a lil’ better,” Malik said, keeping his words light and even airy.
“That could change,” she sank the puck into Malik’s goal, to Cleo’s delight.
“Do coming here help?”
“Some days. Today’s one of them.”
“Good.” The lights around Amari’s half of the board lit up in a panicked flashing pattern, letting her know that one more goal and she was through.
“You still doing the book release?”
Amari fumbled then, losing hold of her pusher after a swift goal defense but quickly grabbed it again.
“Yeah. It’ll be fine.” She managed to land another goal, finally up five to Malik’s six.
“Fine? You read the book yet?”
“Nah. Waiting for my ARC. I’m sure it’ll be alright though.”
The rest of the match went along with the more usual trash talk and Cleo’s cheering and Malik capturing the win.
“Well, he won fair and square, Cleo. What do we do now?” Amari feigned sadness.
“How about you get me a lemonade?” Malik passed her a card and she went off to the food counter.
P1 was never especially full and today was no exception; with Cleo across the building, only the rumblings of demos coming from the game cabinets, she and Malik were almost alone. And that was exactly where Amari didn’t want to be.
Malik had never gotten on with them and Amari had quickly learned not to press the issue. Things between her two friends started deteriorating even back in high school, with Malik opting to keep his distance from them. It was strange, trying to figure out why two people who by all means had enough in common for a superficial friendship never liked each other in the slightest. Animosity rarely flared but when it did, Amari never knew how to diffuse the situation. Malik would pry, in that ever so subtle way that made them think he might hate them. They knew he did though. Always had.
And Malik, these days he always seemed to know when they were the root cause of a problem. The few minutes he had while Cleo was off on her own didn’t feel like enough time to pry but Malik would make it work. So Amari struck first.
“You ‘on look too hot. You good?” Malik narrowed his eyes, the light bags under there looking a bit more pronounced than usual. But he bit out a firm, “I’m fine.”
“Then what?” Amari asked, confused.
“I saw them on the RSVP email list. It wasn’t a blind CC.”
Amari supposed she could consider it progress that she hadn’t simply gone to the bathroom and began dry-heaving; for a while, that had been her first response to mentions of them. But this presented a new problem-how was she supposed to manage everyone she didn’t want to ever be in the same place…being in the same place?
“You still going?” Malik asked again.
“What do that mean?”
“It means I been in the house too much. Might as well start there.”
“What are you doing?” exasperation slipping into his question.
“’Mari!” Cleo came over with a tray of drinks and with an unspoken agreement, the two agreed to drop it. The rest of the visit went like old times, like Amari wasn’t intruding on things, like her presence was wanted until dinnertime, when Cleo finally started to tire out.
“Lemme drop her off at home. Come by my place in like an hour. If I’m not there yet, you got a key,” Malik said. He gathered up Cleo and she waved tiredly as they walked towards the door.
Amari knew she finally would have to give Malik more than vague platitudes to work with.
Malik’s house was what Amari wished hers was like. Warm. Inviting. Not lined in books she’d only read once and some she barely marked up, with game and movie cases strewn about. Malik’s books were worn and well-loved, the leather chair next to his bookcases faded and nearly cracked.
Somewhere like this is where I want to be.
Amari plopped down into the hair and dropped her chin to her chest, exhaustion suddenly setting in. She was tired of getting tired when she hadn’t done much of anything. A fitting and a few hours at an arcade? Putting on a put together facade for a 10 year old who didn’t need to know that she wasn’t well?
No. It wasn’t just Cleo she was putting on a show for. But even though Amari knew she wasn’t hiding much of anything from Malik, she still felt compelled to try. Maybe she’d tried too hard.
She dozed for a while, jumping when the door opened.
Amari tried to pull herself together while Malik cleaned himself up and took off his outdoor clothes. I need to leave some new clothes here, Amari grimaced, wishing she could do the same.
When Malik came out of his room, he sank into the couch, exhaustion rolling off him.
“…you’re not okay, Malik.”
“No, Amari, I’m not.”
“Why you hiding it from me?”
“You’re asking me that?”
She didn’t like how that sounded, but it wasn’t like Malik was wrong.
“I am. And I’m all ears. So tell me…when was the last time you slept?”
“Few days ago.”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s been a few months.”
“I’ve done it all. Exercise, nasty ass Valerian root, sleep aids…nothing works.”
“The last time you weren’t sleeping you passed out in my kitchen.”
“I know. But you have enough-”
“Malik, this is not about me and my lil’ bullshit I got goin’ on.”
“Bit more than a lil’ bullshit, I thought.”
“This ain’t funny, Malik. Why’d you call me here? To make jokes?”
“I didn’t wanna be alone, Amari. That’s all. You can’t fix this and I’m not asking you to. I just…don’t want to be alone. Just for a little while. And I felt like I could ask for that today.”
Amari didn’t like the way Malik had phrased that, not one bit. But she went to the other side of the couch, sitting closer than she had in a long time.
“I’m here,” she said. “Now what?”
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead. You know how it be.”
“That I do.”
Most of Amari’s time in Tamaki, she spent alone. She’d never had a huge passel of friends but it was enough to make her feel like she belonged. Once upon a time, they made her feel that way too.
That was why it never made any sense to her that when it was just the two of them, it just didn’t work. They never seemed to want anything to do with Amari. Not at school where they barely came to the one class they had scheduled together even though part of the fun was supposed to be doing things together where typically they couldn’t. And certainly not outside, where Amari reached a point where even asking to see them just made her feel guilty. There was always something they had to do and who was she to question whether or not it was more important than spending time together?
It wasn’t until months after it was all said and done that Amari realized none of that was right. On her worst days, she felt she had been on the receiving end of a bait and switch. When she was less in the mood for self-loathing, all she could ever think was,
Malik was right about them. Always has been.
And now, all Amari wondered was how long had she been putting her best friend in the same unpleasant situation she’d found herself in for so long, where her feelings had to be pushed aside because they always had it worse. That wasn’t the sort of friend she wanted to be.
“Last time you came over,” Amari asked quietly, “after we left the pier, what’d you actually do?”
“Listen to the rain.”
“Then what’d it say, smartass?”
“To stay with you. You know I hate driving in the rain.”
“…I’m sorry, Malik.”
“I know. But earlier, when I mentioned the guest list…”
“I can’t…I have more important things to worry about.” She quickly added, “Like you.”
It was true, especially after tonight where her best friend finally cracked. Nowhere near as badly as Amari had at any of her lowest lows but it was enough. Worse, even, since she had only just noticed it.
“I don’t need that much.”
“You need more than I been giving up and don’t lie and say you don’t.”
“Sometimes, you take what you can get.”
Now that, hearing the same words she’d told herself over and over and over again until she felt too sick to eat, too messed up to even make eye contact with people some days, and so fragile the first time anyone showed her any kindness while she was gone…
“Don’t say shit like that Malik. Promise me you won’t.”
Amari let out a breath and took a few more while she listened to Malik readjust himself at the other end of the couch. Then a cushion was on one of her thighs and Malik’s head came right after. They hadn’t sat like this since they were kids, passing game controllers back and forth while one of their moms made dinner.
Malik looked up at her, his eyes still tired, stubble already growing in.
“What do you think it is?”
Amari nodded slowly and then Malik’s eyes drifted shut. He wouldn’t sleep, probably wouldn’t even manage to doze. But Amari knew firsthand, sometimes quiet was all you needed.
There were some days that Amari wanted to quit writing. Today was one of them. She needed to meet Khadijah soon and she had little new to show. But “soon” was in a few hours and that wasn’t enough time to write anything worth sharing. The bit of progress Amari had made was good, but it was a few thousand words shy of ten.
The two story bookstore at Del Amo was more quiet than one might think given it shared a lot with a shopping mall. If Amari had ideas, she could have gotten something done. Instead she sat in the U-shaped row of chairs and flipped through her notebook. She’d decided to write by hand for a while, but most of what she ended up doing was scratching things out.
She looked up, not intending to drop the scowl she’d been directing at the latest barely comprehensible block of her handwriting, but then she had to.
Never wanting to draw attention to herself for being American, Amari tried her hardest to go with even the smallest of customs, one of which was not putting eggs in the refrigerator. She didn’t get it, but rather than risk questions after she could barely stand to be caught in the kitchen, she left them in her assigned cabinet. Then, when she went to boil a few, they all floated to the top.
It was no surprise; she remembered neither when she bought them nor the last time she’d braved cooking. When she felt herself in legitimate danger of not being able to stay awake, most of her meals came from St. Pierre’s or the Subway around the corner. They’d get her through the day if nothing else, even if exhaustion was always lingering just behind her eyes.
“You wanna go grab dinner?”
Amari was certain she’d introduced herself to her before; there was no way she wouldn’t have talked to the one other black person in the flat. But her name? Amari drew a blank. Even still, she said, “Sure. Just lemme throw this out and lock my room.”
Her throat felt dry and her voice had come out a lot rougher than she meant it to but she’d not spoken much in a solid week. At her room, she grabbed a jacket and quickly checked the weather for rain; zero percent chance. She could leave with no umbrella for once.
The girl was waiting on the front porch for Amari, taking advantage of the house sitting on a platform, swinging her legs back and forth.
“I grew up in a house,” she said softly. “Living in one is about the best part of this place.”
She stood up stiffly and dusted off before turning to Amari and she knew better than to comment on how haggard she looked. She knew the feeling.
“Anywhere you wanna go?” she asked Amari.
“Ah…I usually end up at St. Pierre’s.”
The steep downward slope on Carlton Gore Road didn’t seem to slow her down any; she clearly spent more time outside than Amari. She walked behind her down the narrow sidewalk on Seafield View Road, noticing how she also had to duck under trees and turn sideways to stay on some especially narrow segments of sidewalk.
A number 70 bus went by as they walked up Park Road and Amari wondered if it was one she should have been on; the days had long since started to blur together and actually making it to class was a special occasion. Barring the reminders on her phone for tests and finals, she generally had no idea where she was supposed to be.
As she walked into St. Pierre’s she was greeted by one of the cashiers reciting her usual order. Out of habit, she just said, “Yes, please. Thank you.”
“Oh, so you a regular.”
Right. She wasn’t alone. But the girl’s tone wasn’t mocking; rather it was the sort of light teasing she hadn’t experienced outside of her increasingly sparse video calls with Malik.
“Yeah. You know that kitchen always dirty. This is safer.”
“You right,” she laughed softly before going up to place her order.
As Amari perched on one of the tall stools, it hit her how little laughter was in her life. She could never tell if they were laughing with or at her and it made her draw into herself even more. Malik would have known, always a buffer of sorts between Amari and whatever they really meant.
“You homesick yet?” she sat across from Amari, the closest she’d been to another person in a good two weeks.
“Have been since the day class started.” Why she was honest with this stranger whose name she couldn’t remember, whose only connection to her was some days that was the only black person she saw, she didn’t know. But she was glad she said it to someone who wouldn’t push.
“It took me a lil’ longer than that but I finally miss the sun,” she smiled.
“I ain’t think I’d ever miss that but it’s only so many times you can get soaked at the bus stop,” Amari sighed. “Finally did make it to the beach on a dry day though. I barely go at home.”
That was how dinner went after they’d picked up their orders; comparing notes on what they’d done so far in spite of not having cars or being able to afford rentals. It was…normal, discounting that Amari sometimes missed normal breaks to ask things. She didn’t even know where the girl was from aside from probably the west coast.
When they got back to the flat and said their goodbyes, the girl went upstairs while Amari went to her corner room next to the shed-bathroom, trying to figure out why her eyes welled up with tears when she saw they, after three weeks, finally reached out with a message.
I don’t know when exactly I’ll come back to this piece. There’s more I may clean up and add but overall, it’s unfinished and will probably stay that way for quite some time.