Jessica took a deep, centring breath and approached the house. She took out the shiny business card Morag had given her. It had a picture of an alien on one side and simply the address on the back. Like it was some edgy, highly secretive society she was joining and not the local oddballs. She double-checked the card in her hand against the number on the door.
From her time with the WBPD, she knew this street and she knew this house belonged to a fairly sensible man in his late-adulthood. She’d have never associated that unassuming man with running the so-called head-quarters of the Glimmerbrook Truth Society’s Forgotten Hollow Investigation Branch, but maybe that was the idea.
And it was definitely the right place. She could see the three society members seated within, their headgear glistening in the light of the room.
Jessica wondered if she’d be leaving here tonight with her own tin-foil hat. Whether they had a tin-foil hat supplier or if they made them by themselves. Whether there was a base hat, what was inside that ball on the end, whether the foil was new or recycled from turkey leftovers—
“Jessica!” someone called. She was standing inside the house now; how did that happen? Had she just wandered in? “You’re early! The cookies aren’t ready yet!”
“Cookies?” Jessica repeated, feeling her stomach rumble. Oh, goodness. When had she last eaten?
“Oh. My. God. Jessica,” Morag said quietly. The three of them had risen from their seats and were surrounding her, like technicolour flies. “Your… your outfit.”
Ah. Jessica looked down at her poodle skirt and wellington boots and hastily compared it to the attire of her companions. In her head she looked the part but… oh no. What if they thought she was mocking them? What if she was too colour co-ordinated? What if, by some cruel twist of fate, she was too wacky-looking? You could have heard a pin drop. Jessica’s heart pounded, the palms of her hands were inexplicably slick and wiping them on this polyester monstrosity of a skirt was only making it worse. There was only one thing to do.
She swept her arms dramatically and cocked her hip. “You like?”
If enthusiasm had tangible force, Jessica would’ve been knocked outside by the power of it as all three girls began squealing at the same time.
“OMG, are those llama earrings?”
She was ushered to the sofa in this flurry of excitable conversation and praise for an outfit that had literally made her barf. Yibbo placed a glass of water before her and the GliTS took seats around her, thrumming with joy and looking to her expectantly.
“So,” Jessica began, subtly sniffing her water. “Do I get my hat now, or…?”
“Hat?” Morag asked. She scratched her head and seemed to suddenly register the crinkly metallic cap she was adorned with. “Oh! This? Oh no, only initiated members get these.”
“Oh, is that what this is? An initiation?”
“No… Oh, oh frick!” Pixie exclaimed, non-too-convincingly. “How embarrassing! Jessica, I think there’s been a misunderstanding. You can’t just join us. We are an elite, highly-educated and respected society with hierarchy and rank and procedures—”
“Just kidding! You’re in, Jessica!” Morag gushed.
“Morag! For Gnome’s sake, not again! We had a whole to-and-fro and suspenseful build-up practiced!” Yibbo sighed.
“I can’t help it. I’m too excited. Will you join us, Jess? Will you?”
Jessica looked between the three who were grinning like maniacs.
Do you really want to be part of this? She asked herself, not for the first time that day. Heck, not for the first time that hour.
Did she have a choice?
“Of course I will! I have dreamed of this moment!” Not a complete lie; she had once had a weird dream where she had gained membership to a group of It girls, who dressed in monochrome and drank bubble tea, so this was… somewhat similar. “So, what happens now? Do I get to learn all about witches and vampires?”
“And ghosts,” Pixie murmured.
“And ghosts. Do I get a hat?”
“You do. You receive all that and more when you’re a fully-fledged member.” Morag smiled; a blush washed over her cheeks as she caught Jessica’s eye and hastily turned away.
“And all you have to do to become a fully-fledged member,” Pixie said. “Is survive one night alone in the Forgotten Hollow Forest. Does Wednesday work for you?”
Seth gazed out of the oversized window, over the tangled mass of concrete and blinking lights that he just could not find appeal in, up at the rapidly darkening sky. After three centuries of guiding his existence by the changing light, he knew it was about two hours later than they had agreed to leave.
It brought to mind a question that men had been asking since time immemorial; why did women always take so long to get ready?
He’d spent the majority of the day perusing the stores, and minds, of assistants who would never recall him, obtaining everything he and his mutable miscreation desired. At first reticent to accept his offerings, she’d quickly shrugged off her sham empathy for those from which he would take, caring only about her own dreams. Without her friends, without their worried glances and hesitations that she’d mimicked to fit into a society she loathed, Faith’s true colours readily bled to the surface.
It never ceased to bemuse Seth, the murky depths of human nature. How low the average person could sink – with very little persuasion – if they were even slightly detached from the ones suffering. How they could all justify the most heinous acts committed in their stead by simply turning a blind eye—
Not all of us.
“What if I wring his neck; will that ease your conscience?”
“No, Seth. That will make it worse.”
Seth faltered; this sudden memory of Angeline fluttering, unsettled, inside him. For a man previously so in control, so stringent and strict with his thoughts, these new, impromptu snippets were both bothersome and disconcerting.
She would hate what you’d become.
“She’s dead,” he muttered.
“I prefer undead.” The click of her heels on the slate tile had announced Faith’s presence before her words did. “You look good.”
Ah, an inadvertent invitation, asking him to reciprocate this comment. Because of course she wouldn’t ask him directly to turn around and tell her how she looked. She feared it; his judgement. She still could not believe that she was allowed to be herself; that someone seemed willing to accept her for the complicated calamity that she was.
Maybe because she knew it was a farce. Maybe she could see right through him.
Seth steeled himself against the urge to face her, to reassure her as he sensed her unease growing with every second of his silence. He had to keep her at a simmer, always fretting, always unsure, but always interested enough to stay. However, since his little episode the other night, doing so was exponentially harder than before. Hurting her to get what he needed was pricking a conscience long buried.
This nineteen-year-old, clueless new vampire – who was slowly messing up everything in his carefully constructed existence with her grey eyes, potty mouth and the dangerous unknown of her power – was breathing life into parts of him that he thought had died with Lilith. He was developing a fondness and it had to be quashed.
Or you could try embracing it?
Oh, yes, because that had gone so bloody well in the past.
“Aren’t you going to—“
“I look like every ‘bad bloke’ in SimLit,” he snarled, cutting off her question. “I look ridiculous.”
Faith hummed as if she was agreeing. “Only from the waist up. Your ass looks amazing.”
A smile began to creep on to his face and of its own volition, his body began to turn to her, like a flower seeking the sun. “If these jeans were any tighter, my bollocks would be permanent residents in my— oh.”
“Oh?” she whispered, as he finally looked at her. Or, perhaps a more apt description, as he drank in every divine feature of her. Had she always been this… striking?
“Oh,” he repeated. At a loss for words. He opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again.
Misinterpreting this, no doubt from her previous experience of watching him try to form a lie, she wilted and damn him – it felt like a punch in the gut.
“Oh,” she said again, her eyes glassy in the corners. She threw her head up, defiantly, but it was fooling no-one. “You hate it. Well, fuck you, what do you know about fashion? Clearly nothing. It’s supposed to be three colours. I was trying for an ombre look but do you have any idea how fucking hard it is to do stuff when you have no reflection? And I never usually wear red, I know, but it felt vampy. And these nails; the left hand looks great, but the right is a little wonky. I suppose.” Her spirit left under his gaze and her lip began to tremble. “I look like shit, don’t I?”
“No,” he replied, not even trying to dodge the question. “You look… different.”
Different. He could’ve strangled himself.
“Different,” she repeated. “Right. Six fucking hours this took and I look ‘different’?”
She screeched, flipping from melancholy to mania in the way that only she could. “Thanks for nothing, you complete arsehole. Fuck it! Fuck you!”
She carried on raging and he let her. If she was angry at him she’d likely not go and instead spend the night stewing, regretting her outburst and what it had cost her. He could head out to the village, retrace a few more steps, just as he’d planned to anyway, and he’d probably arrive back to her apologising to him, to boot.
But for reasons he didn’t want to acknowledge, that felt… unacceptable. Against his better judgement, he took her hand, pulling her to him the mortal way and causing her to pause.
“Beautiful,” he said quietly. “You look beautiful, Faith.”
“Beautiful. Really,” she huffed, not believing him. “If that’s true then why all the—?” she impersonated his earlier goldfish actions.
“Because you…” he hesitated, rolling the words around his tongue, trying not to answer, but like a broken tap, his response gushed out anyway. “You took my breath away, all right?”
She squinted at him suspiciously, chewed her lip, analysed him until she was satisfied. “Pfft, some compliment. You don’t have any breath. And we both know who actually took it away,” she mumbled with irritation, but it was followed by a shy little smile that made her even more captivating, if that was possible.
Damn. What was happening here?
He scanned her outfit – it would have cost him hundreds had he procured it all legally, which of course, he hadn’t – for a distraction. “Are those Megan’s jeans?”
“Well, the fit is good and they smell good, no point them going to waste… OK, fine. I admit it, I like the jeans.” Faith shrugged and tucked her hands into the pockets, pulling out a folded piece of paper that she proceeded to open. “A receipt for bubble-gum. Why would anyone keep that?” she scoffed, discarding it on the floor. “So, how are we getting to the gig?”
“How do you think?” he replied.
“Ugh, fine. I thought you’d have arranged a car or something. Never mind. I’d better arrive with all ten nails intact, Seth, or I’ll kick your ass.”
“Not if I lose your legs along the way, you won’t.”
“Fuck off,” she uttered, but she smiled, fully this time, and allowed him to pull her closer.
Bluebell Balls, or ‘Blu’ as she was more commonly known these days, had performed many a gig in her thirty years. The Kaz Traitors’ frontwoman had started by singing to a handful of regulars in her dad’s pub. He would pay her a tenner for her harmonic covers of classic rock songs, and dock her half every time she threw in ‘any of them screamy sounds’.
She’d met Carlos ‘Caustic’ Evans during her time at university, a whole other life ago when singing for a living was just a dream and she was studying to be a vet. Caustic was in no way, shape or form an academic; he cleaned toilets at SacFondles and on the day they’d met, he had broken into – and was trashing – the lab for ‘shits and giggles’.
He was so impressed that she could yell at him for two minutes without taking a breath, that he’d invited her to join his band and hounded her until she’d agreed. There, he’d encouraged her to growl, grunt, scream and wail her own lyrics all she’d liked, while he and his cousin, Floppy Funbags – her actual name – thrashed about on their guitars, breaking limbs and furniture.
Success hadn’t come overnight. It took many gruelling years and many line-up changes before Blu first stepped out on stage in front of thousands of writhing bodies, who sang her words back at her, each taking different meanings, but all with every bit of emotion she’d written into them.
She was so accustomed to the crowds, to the adoration, that she’d almost forgotten how it felt to perform to an empty room, to doubt herself. Those days when she’d wonder if she should go to back university or if success would come faster if she lost twenty pounds and put out a pop album.
This was definitely fate’s way of keeping her grounded.
“Are you ready for more?!” she called to the solitary fan; her words ten times amplified in the empty space.
“I think he’s ready,” Nani laughed from behind her.
“What is going on?” Blu asked, subtly switching her mic off. “I know this is a bit last-minute and all, but did Mandeep really only sell one ticket? What was she doing all day?”
“I dunno, but whatever she was doing, she’s still off doing it,” Nani replied.
“She probably hacked up a lung and is dying in a ditch somewhere,” Floppy said casually, her expression taking on that dazed, faraway look that it did when exposed to extremely gruesome thoughts. “Shall I send one of the other roadies to go look for her?”
“Nah, she’ll be all right. Maybe no one can find this place?” Caustic suggested. “We are three storeys underground. Or maybe this guy here is the only fan in this shithole town.”
“No… he can’t be. Can he?”
“Nope,” Nani nodded towards the door, diverting Blu’s attention. “We’ve got two more! Shit, they are gorgeous!”
Blu watched the young couple, who had appeared as if from nowhere, make their way towards the stage. They were gorgeous but there was something else about them too. A chill that entered the room when they did, something almost otherworldly.
The girl was definitely a fan; if the crazed glee on her face didn’t give it away, her proudly displayed tattoo did. But the guy? He looked like he’d rather be squatting in hell, sticking hot pins under his eyelids. He was definitely only here for his girl; his glum expression immediately changed the second she faced him.
“Thank you so much!” she squealed, throwing her arms around him. “Oh my god! I can’t believe I’m here and she’s there! Are we late? I hope we haven’t missed Childhood.”
One of Kaz Traitors’ earliest songs. It had been thoroughly shitted on by the critics, but remained the anthem of their hardcore fanbase. The guy rolled his eyes, as the girl pivoted back towards the stage but his groan of despair was drowned out by her fangirling cries of ‘I love you, Blu!’
Blu had been about to call it a night and go hit the bar, but not now. She might’ve only had one real fan in this ‘crowd’, but dammit, that fan was gonna have her night made.
She slid back into her sultry stage persona. “Hey, you,” she purred, trying not to grin as the girl’s eyes shot open, amazed at being addressed directly. “Got any requests?”