“Out,” Karessa said. “I’m allowed to be out.”
“You’re sixteen,” said the woman who gave birth to Karessa, who was seventeen. Her mom was sitting on their couch, reading a book with a half-dressed giant on the cover, and glowering. “And you live in my home.”
“I pay for the place,” Karessa did not say. “I was just with a friend,” Karessa said.
“Probably a boy,” her mother said. “Just as well. Sol knows school is getting you anywhere. Maybe you’ll get a nice husband at least, as soon as you stop dressing like a ghoul.”
“Okay,” Karessa said.
“Then you can leech off of him instead of your father and I for once. Hopefully he doesn’t mind that you’re failing out of school.”
“Hopefully not,” Karessa said.
“Speaking of your father, did you see him while he was out?”
“Yeah, I did. He’s in the market,” Karessa said. Nobody had seen her father in four years. Then with a sigh came the line she’d rehearsed more than any other. “You know how the Mish Mash is. You get all the best deals this time of day.”
“Well, hurry up and get ready for school. You’ll never get married if you can’t even get to school on time.”
“Okay,” Karessa said. “Love you, mom.”
Her mother went back to her book.
“…sweet woman of darkness, woman of light, the greatest thing that has blessed my sight. No matter if it’s wrong or right, I would do not a thing to change that night.”
“You wrote that just this morning?”
“I did,” Lawrence replied.
“It’s beautiful,” Karessa said.
The two were laying on their sides in Lawrence’s bed in his extravagant pink-and-white bedroom, where Karessa had intended to get some sleep before going to Luminous that day.
“And so is all of this!” she said, rolling onto her back and gesturing to his bedroom. “I can’t believe people actually live like this. It’s like a fairy tale.”
“It’s not so great.”
“Come by my place sometime and tell me this is not so great.”
Lawrence chuckled and kissed her cheek. “I do not deny that it has its comforts and conveniences,” he said, “only that there’s anything especially great about comfort and convenience. It’s all artifice. It doesn’t make people happy.”
“Maybe. But better off miserable in a mansion than miserable in a smelly apartment.”
“I won’t disagree there.” A pleasant silence passed. “Have you ever thought about leaving Skymoore?”
“A little. Nothing serious.”
“But would you?”
“Are you asking me to run away with you?”
“I…I’d think about it.”
“Think harder. We’d have a whole world to explore. And we’d be closer to Orso.”
“I suppose, but…” But my acting career is here. My mother is here. Apparently there are these things called the Void Lands that have made most of the world unlivable. “We have friends here.”
“Maybe they could come, too.”
Karessa kissed him, something which was useful for ending conversations and brightening the mood. Eventually, she slept.
Beneath the faint light of the setting sun, Karessa sat on a park bench beside Delia Findlesmith. They both wore the same sleek black dress, which was embarrassing, and the same white heels, which was also embarrassing. Delia was scanning a newspaper, something made difficult by the time of day, and Karessa was trying unsuccessfully to light a match.
“This isn’t working,” Karessa said.
“You’re just doing it wrong.” Delia took the matchbox from Karessa and tried unsuccessfully to strike one. “Cheap…things! Ugh. No!” The newspaper blew away in the wind.
“Well,” Karessa said. “Shit.”
Delia crossed her arms and looked up at the rising moon. She began to cry. “Mom’s right,” she said with a sniff. “What are we even doing? I’m not going anywhere. Neither of us is going anywhere. What if we do find the club? What if we do audition? In five months we’ll run out of money and run out of dreams and work a factory job to support our deadbeat boyfriends who think they still have a shot. What’s the sense of even trying?”
Karessa gaped at Delia, her face growing hot “Oh no. Um. Line?”
“Cut!” Gwendolyn Bottlehelm called, standing up from her seat. The cast and crew looked about nervously. “Line? Line? Are you serious, Ms. Plunderton? This is your big scene!”
“Sorry,” Karessa murmured. “I spaced.”
It’s okay, Karessa, Roland, a Far One, telepathically communicated from behind the stage. Everyone forgets lines.
“But not everyone forgets crucial monologues with less than two weeks before we open. The Sun Stage has the audacity to run their own production of Comings & Goings less than ninety days after our own, and I will not be shown up by them. I built this theater with my own two hands to defy everything they stand for, so Dusk has to be excellent. I took a chance on you, Karessa Plunderton, but you’re replaceable. Don’t forget that.”
The cast and crew still looked about nervously.
“Everyone take a lunch. We’ll be back at it in thirty.”
Delia Findlesmith put a hand on Karessa’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about her. You know how she is. And besides, Roland’s right. Everyone forgets lines.” Besides me, Karessa could hear her thinking. Pompous perfection was the underlying subtext of everything Delia ever said. “You were always so great as my understudy. I’m sure you’ll be great as my supporting actress, too.”
“Thanks,” Karessa said. “But Gwen’s right. I’m nothing special. I’m replaceable. Have Anthie do my part after the lunch. I’m going home.”
Delia crossed her arms. “If you do that, she really will replace you.”
“Guess I really don’t matter that much then, huh? Good luck with the rest of rehearsal. Bye, Roland.”
The Far One waved.
Karessa passed Linda on her way out the door. The minotaur, her boss at Odd & Ends, was dating Gwendolyn, her director at Luminous. When Karessa used to get high with Kelsie, sometimes she’d get paranoid and think that the world was conspiring to make her life weird and miserable. Things like that made her think High Karessa kind of had a point.
“Mornin’ Karessa,” Linda said.
“Hey. Watch out. Your girlfriend’s being a bitch today.”
Linda gave her a disapproving look. “Watch your manners. But you do the same. Donovan’s in a frenzy about something.”
Karessa sighed and told Linda to have a nice day and she’d see her at work tomorrow. But then she brightened: at the bottom of the hill atop which Luminous sat, Lawrence was waiting for her. With him were Teyla Eastwind, Grandolin the punk dwarf, and Tillen, an elf who made a dedicated effort to looking ghastly at all times, today with white and black makeup not unlike a skull.
She stood on her toes. Lawrence leaned down. They kissed. Tillen made a face.
“So,” the elf said, which was one more word than she said most days, “what’s the plan for today?”
“Well, I have to go work,” Karessa said. “So nobody gets to have any fun. It’s illegal.”
“In this city? You’re probably right,” Grandolin said.
“Ah, wage slavery,” Teyla said. “Can’t imagine what it’s like to be so bound by material goods.”
Karessa rolled her eyes. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in, what is it this week, a stolen carriage?”
“An art gallery, actually,” Teyla said. “More interesting than anything you’ve ever stolen. Furthermore, I’ve settled in there.”
“Oh good for you. An art gallery in the Mish Mash. Here’s a still life of poverty in action.”
“That wouldn’t be a still life, then, would it?”
“Look who’s suddenly an art expert,” said Lawrence. “I can’t wait for your grand opening.”
“Sorry we don’t all profit from a rigged economic system that values birthright more than actual value, Lawrence.”
“Hey, Lawrence is giving that all up,” Karessa said.
“Oh, really? Is he going to give all his money to the homeless and live among them, like Lord Elemere?”
Karessa shot Lawrence a questioning glance, but he waved her off. “I’m only joking,” he said. “Now let me walk my girlfriend the rest of the way in peace. I’ll meet you at Dew Park.”
Dew Park was a small, popular park where Karessa and friends liked to sit on tables and glower at people. It was named to honor the “death” of Mayor Dew, after an intern at the Skymoore Herald printed a premature obituary as part of a failed voodoo ritual. The intern was never heard from again, and Mayor Dew insisted the park retain its new name because hey, it has a nice ring to it.
“You didn’t tell them about the whole running away thing?” Karessa asked.
“I did, I did,” Lawrence assured her. “They just, they’re not interested. Assembly is a game to them. Orso is a game to them. They lack our conviction, they’re too tied to Skymoore, and to themselves. So I told them I wasn’t serious about it. I didn’t want them to try to stop me or convince us not to go.”
Karessa considered this information, and decided it added up. She always suspected Grandolin only ever went to Assembly for the free Cositium.
“You say I have conviction, but I’m still not sure, either,” she admitted. “It’s just…a lot to consider.”
“I know, dear,” Lawrence said, “but I have faith in you. I know you’ll make the right decision.” He kissed the back of her hand. “We’re going to have a beautiful new life together.”
Karessa looked up at him uncertainly. He smiled down at her confidently. He was always so confident in her. “I’ll think about it,” she promised.
“That’s all I ask,” he said. “We’ll talk after work.”
“But I want to talk now.”
“I can’t, Karessa,” Donovan said. They were in the back room of Odd & Ends. The shopkeep was leaning over a table examining their budget, making frazzled notes in a variety of colored inks. “I’m busy.”
“It’s about the autumn sale.”
“The autumn sale is being handled by Nestor, Linda, and myself. Your job is to sit at the register and help our guests. Which you’re not doing.”
“Nestor’s out there. He’s better with people anyway. Look, there’s this girl named Rebecca who does costumes at Luminous and she has these two kids who she brings along sometimes. They’re always playing with these tops, but they have kind of fins on the side that make a pattern when they’re spinning fast enough. I asked Rebecca about them and she said all the kids at her school used them, and my friend Grandolin said they’re even popular with people my age, and-”
“Right, so, I was thinking. Maybe we could sell them. For the sale. Nestor likes making toys, and he could enchant them so the pictures could move when they spin or something. Like a flipbook.”
“Karessa, not that this is your concern, but with these magical aura suppression bills I got hit with last week, we’re a little desperate here, so there’s no way we’re gonna start selling some fad toy I’ve never heard of.”
“I know things are bad, that’s why I’m suggesting-”
“Let the adults handle the adult stuff.”
“Who knew a legendary hero could get so beaten by, what, running a store with no competition?” Donovan glared at her. “We’re alone, so what?”
“Karessa, just get back to work.”
“I thought you were trying to be better. Maybe you could start with being nice.”
The petting zoo also sucked. Karessa didn’t dislike animals, necessarily, she just didn’t get the obsession. If she wanted to gawk at a bird, she knew where Teyla lived. Lawrence, on the other hand, used to talk about joining the druid circle just to be a translator druid.
“You didn’t miss much,” he was saying as he fed the core of an apple to a baby gryphon. The creature chirped and nuzzled his hand. “Good boy,” he cooed. “Unless you’ve a fondness for Teyla’s political rants or Grandolin’s obscenities.”
“Can’t say I do. Why are we friends with them again?”
He stopped at an enclosure where a mid-sized winged cat was licking its paws lazily. Karessa had never seen anything like it before, so when Lawrence asked her “isn’t that amazing,” she sort of supposed it was.
“Where’s this from?” Lawrence asked the attendant translator druid, a bored-looking dark-skinned woman with a blue pixie cut.
“Surface. But I guess that’s obvious. Along the south cost there’s this place called Windigar, where a constant air current keeps these natural stone bridges afloat, and people built a town around them. These cats are bred there, and keep birds away from their crops.”
“Sounds like an interesting place,” Lawrence said. “We’ll have to go there.”
“This little enclosure, it’s a just a fence,” Karessa said. “But it can fly, right? No way of keeping it in? So why’s he stay?”
“You’ve got it backward,” the druid said. “These enclosures don’t keep them in. They keep you out. Why would Kia here leave? Sure, he may find something interesting out there. A cozy fire, a particularly tasty mouse. But here he gets all the food and affection it could ever want. Out there it might be more exciting, but Kia knows who takes care of him.”
Lawrence put a hand on Karessa’s shoulder. “Makes sense,” she said.
The cat bit her when she tried to pet it. They walked home after that.
“So,” Lawrence said. “It’s later.”
“True,” Karessa said. “It is later.”
Karessa lied when she said she’d think about it. She didn’t. But now she did. They walked along the edge of Skymoore, and she looked down at the clouds below, obscuring a promising hint of the surface, and she thought about it. There would be no stressful play on the surface. No autumn sale. Just her, and Lawrence, and the world.
“Is this about your mother?” Lawrence asked. “I know you don’t like to talk about it, but word travels.”
Karessa did know this, of course. That some people knew of her mother’s mental state. Especially people at the Church of Sol, where the two of them once attended every week. But for Lawrence to know was mortifying.
“That’s very noble of you, really. But you don’t need to torture yourself over her, you’ll only hurt yourself in the end. My family made their name in serving the underprivileged, including the mentally unable. We have hospitals for people like her. We can help her.”
Karessa was aware of the Dufton’s facilities. She’d heard they were fine places. And yet…
“I’d feel like I’m abandoning her. She doesn’t even know she’s, y’know. Out of it.”
“It’s not abandoning, love. It’s helping. Besides, she’s your mother, I know, but I think that’s a role our society vastly overvalues. Bringing you into this world isn’t something you can repay, or that you should.”
“No, I know…” But what about teaching her to read? Singing her to sleep when she was frightened? Making scrambled eggs and pancakes with little faces made of chocolate chips? Didn’t Karessa owe her for all that? “I just. Need to think about it. Just a little bit more.”
“No worries, dear. Take all the time you need.”
“Thanks for being patient with me. You’re the best, Lawrence.”
“As are you, Karessa. We, collectively, are the best.”
They kissed a short, sweet kiss, and they parted.
“Mom, I’m allowed to go out.”
“Not without explaining why.”
Her mother was preparing a stew for the two of them. Karessa couldn’t remember the last time she’d cooked. It smelled of ginger and nostalgia.
“I’m basically eighteen. I’m an adult.”
“If you were a human, sure. You’ve got a few more years following my rules.”
“I thought we agreed. You sign my Maturity Verification Papers, I pitch in more for rent.”
“That’s what I said before you started failing out of school. I’m going to have that magic shop revoke your employment. And no more wasting time at that theater. I won’t have my daughter throwing her future away on some fanciful hobby and some spending money.”
“No. Mom, no. You can’t do this.”
“I can, actually. And I’m going to. I know you think it’s a waste of time, Karessa, but school is important. It’ll get us out of the Mish Mash. Or you, at the very least.”
“Mom. No. We’ll lose our house.”
Karessa’s mother crossed her arms. “While I appreciate your contributions to rent and groceries, your father and I will handle such things just fine.”
Suddenly the air smelled stale. The room was spinning. Karessa stood to her feet, but she nearly collapsed. “No, mom,” she said firmly, even as her heart ran in terror, “I pay all the rent.”
“What are you talking about? Karessa don’t play games with me. My decision is final. I already talked it over with your father.”
“No you didn’t.”
Her mother pointed a wooden spoon threateningly. “Karessa, I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but I’m sorry, you’ve lost. Until you prove you can be responsible-”
“You didn’t talk to dad! No one has! He’s been missing for four years, mom. Four. Years.”
Her mother looked at her like she was crazy. She was starting to feel a little crazy.
“He’s gone. No one knows where he went and he’s gone. He went fishing and he never came back. Your mind is going. I’m so sorry but it is. And I’ve been supporting you, and us, and trying to keep it together but you’re just so cruel to me and it hurts. And Gwendolyn, and Donovan, they’re cruel to me, too, and I’m just a child and I’m trying to keep it together and there’s almost nobody in the world who can help me and if you do this we’re ruined.”
Her mother just gaped, spoon held stiffly aloft. “And now I’ll have to ask one of the leeches that works in Dr. Wetlmore’s office to see if you’ve been using drugs.”
“You’re delirious, honey. Go lie down.”
“Mom, I’m telling you the truth.”
“Karessa, you’re scaring me. Go lie down.”
“Go to your room right now!”
Karessa took a step forward, she almost fell. “We need to talk about this.”
Broth and bits of carrot smeared the wall beside Karessa as the wooden spoon clattered to the floor. Steam drifted off the end, washing over Karessa’s ankles like a humid breeze.
“Go to your room,” she whispered.
With nothing left to say, Karessa did as she asked.
Later, she made a decision, and snuck out through her window.