Playing Favorites – Chapter 11


Jacinda

I’ve been sitting on this stool for at least twenty fucking minutes. The network coverage is nonexistent in this entire bookstore, so my only distraction has been the magazines in my reach -of course the only available seat had to be in the magazine section. I don’t know which one has been the most boring: the fishing magazine (“Fly fishing in Alaska: what you absolutely need to know”), the trailer magazine (“9 tips on how to choose your first trailer”), or the male fashion magazine (“Goatees – yes, they’re in!”). There’s not even a single National Geographic or a Current Biology in sight.

Throwing back a vegan lifestyle magazine on the stand where I found it, I leave my seat in search of my twin sister. This bookshop is a real maze, with tall rows of bookshelves and very little space between them. On top of that, it has more books than places to put them in, meaning the small alleys are often cluttered with piles of books, one of which I accidentally knock over with my tail.

“Fuck.”

Putting it back together is a hassle. There are too many books, and they are too different in size. My first pile ends up going Pisa tower for a few seconds, before dropping down. The second lasts a little longer, but tumbles down anyway. After the third breaks down as I was still building it, I forget the whole thing and just make smaller piles. Goddammit. Whatever old grimoire Nova’s looking for had better be worth it.

I find her in a remote part of the store, holding a massive tome under her arm, and browsing for another. We’ve been here for about half an hour, and she’s not done? Wait. Something’s off, my nose tells me as I get close to her. There’s a new scent around my twin sister, which is neither hers, nor the books’.

“I’m almost done,” Nova says as she notices me in the corner of her eye.

“What did you find?”

Dictionary of Occult, Hermetic and Alchemical Sigils, by Fred Gettings. I’m looking to see if they also have his Dictionary of Demons.”

“Didn’t know you were into occultism.”

“I’m into lots of things.”

“I’ll say. Hey, Viv!” I call out.

A squeak comes out from behind a bookshelf, followed by the sound of a book being dropped on the floor. It was her scent I had picked up; sweet, and a little tart. I smirk at Nova, who keeps her cool.

“So this is why you wanted to come to this particular bookshop today, huh?”

“No, that’s actually just a happy coincidence. Turns out, she likes books too.”

“Right.”

She gives me a condescending smile. “Unlike you, I don’t shy away from those things. In case you forgot, I actually brought her home. I could have just done that again if I wanted to see her.”

“So why’s she hiding?” I ask.

“She’s a little shy,” Nova says with a small shrug. “Which I respect.”

Unlike me, she implies. Fine. I guess I am being a bit of an ass.

Nova retrieves another big book, looking to be a few decades old. She blows some dust off its cover, revealing it to be pretty faded and damaged. An appreciative smile on her face, she turns it over, looking for a price tag. I balk when I read it.

“120$?! For a fucking book?”

“For a rare book,” Nova says. “This one sells at three times that price online. If you can find it at all, that is.”

“Gods! For that kind of cash, it’d better contain an actual rite to summon the Devil. And you know you can just meet Demons in real life, right?”

“Not the same kind of Demons.”

Guess that’s true. Real-life Demons have nothing on their mythological counterparts. They don’t do magic, they won’t trade your soul for cool powers, and many of them don’t even have wings. Overall, they have less in common with Maharel, the big bad from Up Above And Down Below who tried to kickstart a war between Heaven and Hell for the heck of it, and more with your friendly neighborhood Joe Schmoe, but with horns. Boring as Hell, if you’ll pardon the pun. And from what I’ve been told, Angels are basically the same, but usually stuck-up and aloof on top of that.

As Nova browses the shelves one last time, Viv timidly comes out of hiding. She’s holding a purse so small I doubt it can hold anything other than her wallet.

“Hi,” she mumbles. Or at least, that’s what I think she mumbled.

My sister smiles at her, and holds out her paw. After a long moment of consideration, Viv places her hand in it, and laces her fingers between Nova’s claws. Viv’s eyes remain glued to the floor, her face so red it could be used to halt traffic, but a small smile stretches on her lips. Despite the second-hand awkwardness I’m feeling, this scene is kinda heartwarming to watch. It’s also pretty funny how mismatched they are, both height-wise and personality-wise. But maybe that’s the appeal?

We head for the register, manned by the owner, a sweet old lady Orc who by the look of her tusks has to be in her eighties. Weirdly, I only saw Nova pick up two books, but she ends up with three in total. I can’t see what the third one is, because the owner bags it up real quick with the rest.

Nova and Viv exchange goodbyes. I play on my phone a few feet away, to give them some privacy. My sister surprises Viv with a kiss on the cheek, making her blush like a tomato. She scurries away, clutching her purse against her chest.

“Is that girl really twenty years old?” I say. “I swear she’s gonna pass out if you smooch her on the lips.”

“She’s precious, isn’t she?” Nova says with a giggle. Wait, did I hear that right? My sister giggled? She never giggles.

Nova’s love life is… pretty straightforward. Before her coming out, she had had exactly one relationship, with a boy who would eventually turn out to be gay too. Since then, she’s only had what she describes as a few flings, meaning she’s dated some girls for a short while before moving on. Or, as she also describes it: “lots of fun, nothing serious”. Some would describe it as “playing the field”, but she hates that expression. She’s not a fan of “fooling around” either. I know that because I use it a lot around her.

But damn if it doesn’t look like my sister has got a legit crush on Viv. If so, that might be the first time -well, the first that I know about. Can’t wait to tease her endlessly about it, if that’s true. Turnabout is fair play.

“So what’s really going on with the two of you?” I ask.

“For now, a mutual interest born of attraction, combined with the happy discovery of a few shared… hobbies between us.”

“Right. And if you were to explain it from the perspective of someone who isn’t a fucking smartass?”

“I like her.”

Like her like her?”

“Time will tell,” she says calmly.

Damn it. How am I meant to tease her if she’s so cool about this?

“Well… Good for you.”

“Thank you. Since we’re on the subject, how’s it going with you and the hot jerk?”

“Are you still calling him that?”

“Sure am. Why? You have another pet name for him, now?”

I roll my eyes.

“Seriously, how is he? I haven’t seen him since that weekend.”

Actually, I haven’t seen much of him either. The morning after the weekend he spent in our guestroom, Christopher went back to his usual dorm, and things went back to normal. We see each other during class, occasionally bump into each other in the hallways, and have once bought lunch at the same sandwich shop. We had a few brief chats, but nothing more.

Come to think of it, I’m not sure “normal” would be the best word to describe this. Chris has been behaving kinda oddly. On the few occasions where we traded more than greetings, he’s been… nice to me. No, not nice: polite. Cordial. Like we were mere classmates. He hasn’t even snarked at me. Seriously! Not even once. It’s gotten to the point where I’m about to suspect that pod people are infiltrating society, starting with him.

The whole thing has been pretty damn frustrating. I didn’t realize I would come to miss our little game of teasing and snarking so much. Good thing he didn’t take back his shirt before he left our house. That way, I still have his smell to fall asleep to, even though it has begun to fade. Come to think of it, he still has my bra, too.

Well, he can keep it. No doubt he’s already got some mileage out of it. I sure got some out of his shirt.

I talked to him a couple of times about this, of course. Well, I tried to. Every time, he told me that he was busy with his studies, his work, or baseball practice. Which is fair enough, I guess. Things have been getting pretty busy in college, what with all the exams we’ve been having. Our study group hasn’t even been able to make time for another session. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just some kind of excuse. But maybe that’s just me being a bit paranoid.

“He’s fine, I guess”, I tell Nova.

“You guess?”

“Things have been hectic. We, err, haven’t had much time together.”

We get back to my twin sister’s car. It used to be Dad’s, before he decided he no longer needed it since he mostly stays at home nowadays; he even has his groceries delivered. The inside smells of leather, chemical cleaning products, and French fries -the last one is my fault, I got really hungry on our way back from a food run. Nova puts on some lipstick, then connects her phone to the car’s computer. Some synthwave tune soon fills the air. I seriously don’t get my sister’s unconditional love for the genre; I’ve never been much for either synthesizer music or 1980’s nostalgia -I’m more of a 2000’s kinda gal. Nova, on the other hand, probably owns over a hundred albums in that genre alone. Her music collection is almost as big as her book collection -although thankfully it doesn’t take anywhere near as much space.

“I see,” Nova says. “Have you agreed on a second date yet?”

A second date. Shit. I didn’t even think about that after the first one. Probably on account of my brain being turned to puree by Chris’ damn fine job at getting me off with his fingers. He didn’t think of it either. Hah. His date with Hayley was nothing to write home about -at least that’s what I inferred from what he told me-, but he still remembered to ask her out again. Meanwhile, our date had an actual happy ending, and neither of us had the presence of mind to ensure there’d be a repeat. The goddamn irony is not lost on me.

“Guess not,” Nova answers her own question.

“We’ve been busy,” I say lamely.

“Too busy for a single phone call? A text? An email? Or even just to have another makeout session in the hallway?”

I wrinkle my nose.

“Unless you’re not so big on PDAs? The library stuff was pretty risqué already.”

“Yeah,” I blurt. “PDAs. Not my thing. At all.”

Okay, even if she didn’t know me, she would still have called me on this one. I seriously need to learn to speak more calmly and make proper sentences when I lie, instead of rushing a bunch of words out of my mouth.

“Wait a minute.” She smiles. “You told me all you did on your date was kiss.”

“I didn’t say that was all we did.”

“Oh, do tell.” Nova activates the self-driving mode, and lowers the music.

“No way.”

“Come on! How far did you go? First, second, third base? Did he go for the home run?”

“Baseball metaphor. How very clever and at the same time so original.”

“Why, thank you. Don’t stall: what else did you do?”

“Nothing,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Hey, you told me you went to the aquarium,” she says, her eyebrows shooting up. “You didn’t have sex there, did you? There are kids around!”

“We didn’t have sex, period! I mean, not regular sex.”

Now why the fuck would I add that? There’s a time and a place for precision, and it sure ain’t this conversation.

“Good, we’re moving on,” Nova says smugly. “So what kind of sex was it? Oral?”

Better I just ignore her. Maybe she’ll leave it alone. And maybe pigs will start flying, too.

“Jass, even if he was just eating you out, that’s still not something you should be doing in front of an audience! That’s the kind of thing that can get you banned. Or even arrested.”

“There was no audience! Or eating out!”

“What then? Hand stuff? Was it just groping or something more?”

Unbelievable. Even with my head turned away from her, Nova can still read me like one of her many books. Ah, Hell, I’ll tell her. No point holding back, apparently.

“I… gave him a handjob.”

“Ah.”

“We were out of view! I’m not stupid.”

“No, just reckless.”

Yeah, that’s fair. “I didn’t finish him, though. He got all riled up about it.”

“Yes, I imagine he would be. Anything else?”

I take a deep breath, then come clean about the rest. In for an inch, and all that crap. The Musée Mécanique, the foosball challenge, his victory, and… the trip back home.

“He figured two of your erogenous zones on date number one.” Nova whistles. “Not bad, for a guy.”

“Well, in all fairness, he had found out about the tail before.”

“Ah, right,” she laughs. “I forgot that part about the library fling. But, wait, are you telling me he gave you an orgasm after you denied him one?”

I blink. “I… Shit. Now I feel like an ass.”

“Bad girl, Jass,” Nova tuts. “I see another spanking in your near future.”

“If so, I’ll be the one giving it this time. He owes me a favor, now, not the other way around.”

“Did you think about how you’re going to use it?”

Think? Hell yeah, I thought about it. I thought about it a lot. I think about it every night when my head lies on his shirt wrapped around my pillow, as his scent carries me to sleep. I think about it when I shower in the morning. Mom caught me the other day when I was thinking about it on the living room’s couch with my headphones on. Rookie mistake. Thank the gods Mom was merciful.

“Not really…” I mutter.

Nova’s condescending smirk makes me want to slap her.

“Okay,” she says. “So, what’s next for you two lovebirds?”

“Hell if I know.”

“Frustrated? Maybe you should make things move along.”

Better than sitting on my ass sucking on my fangs. I grab my phone and text Chris.

 

Jacinda: Wanna do something Friday night?

 

I wait about five minutes before getting an answer.

 

Chris: Sorry, busy that day.

 

Somehow, I expected that.

 

Jacinda: How about Saturday?

Chris: I’m hanging out with Manny.

 

Frustration makes me blow air out of my nose. Before I can respond, he sends another message:

 

Chris: I’ll let you know when I have some time.

Chris: Might be a while. Sorry.

 

Ugh.

“Mind taking your claws off your seat?” Nova asks.

Indeed, my paw is encroaching on the seat, my claws threatening to pierce through the leather that covers it. I force it open, and put it on my knee.

“I take it date number two is going to have to wait?” she says.

“Apparently, he’s busy,” I say. I sound skeptical. I don’t care that I sound skeptical.

“You think he’s avoiding you?”

“No… I mean, why would he? If he just needed space or something, he would just tell me that. Right?”

“I suppose. You know him better than I do.”

But do I, though? I sigh, then we both sit in silence for a while.

“Well?” I say.

“Sorry?” she says.

“You’re not gonna lecture me on what I should do?”

“You want me to do that, now?”

“No.”

“Okay, then.”

She sniffs, and scratches her nose. After a moment, she raises the volume of her music again.

“Oh, come on,” I say, my left ear flicking with impatience.

“What?”

“Just get it out of your system already, before you get an aneurysm or something.”

“So you do want the lecture, then?”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake… Yes. Yeah, okay? I want your damn lecture.”

And there she goes again with the self-satisfied smirk. She’s my sister and I love her. She’s my sister and I love her. She’s my sister and I fucking love her.

“Just wait this one out.”

“What? That’s even less helpful than your last advice.”

“My last advice worked. Or have you forgotten?”

No… But I was hoping she had. “So, wait this one out. As opposed to what?”

“As opposed to what you usually do,” Nova says. “Rush in, and try to force things.”

“What? When have I ever done that?”

In lieu of an answer, she cocks her head and shoots me a “please” look. I cross my arms and lean back on my seat. Nova doesn’t insist.

We make it home in time for the afternoon snack. Through the kitchen’s open window, I smell Russian tea, crumpets with raisins, and thyme honey. I also pick up a person’s scent; it’s very familiar, but it’s too faint and I can’t quite place it. It’s masculine, without a doubt. Uncle Ray? No, that’s a Human scent. Nova and I walk in.

Mom and Dad are sitting on the couch. On the coffee table is a tea kettle; the big one, the one we use when we’re having guests over. Around it are several plates of crumpets, still warm from the oven. And sitting in the armchair cornering the couch…

“Uncle Gordy!”

Our dad’s old friend stands up to greet me and my twin sister. He hasn’t changed much since the last time we saw him: he still shaves his hair -he won’t admit it, but we’re pretty sure he’s balding-, still wears sleeveless shirts, and still uses the same cologne. His arms have lost some muscle, however, and there are more wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes.

“Jesus!” he says as he kisses me and Nova on both cheeks. “And I thought your mum was tall! Are you done growing up, at least?”

“Not if I can help it,” Nova says.

It’s true that with his five feet eight, Uncle Gordy looks kinda small in comparison to the two of us. He sits back in the armchair, in his usual slouched manner, with one leg over the armrest.

“And you’re looking more gorgeous than ever!” he says. “How’s school treating you lasses?”

I pour myself a cup, smiling at the fact that, after over twenty years of living in America, Uncle Gordy’s Northern English accent is still so strong. Although I’m pretty sure he’s forcing it a little.

“School’s going great, actually”, Nova says.

“Good. Don’t want to end up a dropout like your uncle.”

“I didn’t know you were in town,” I say.

“Got me a contract in Frisco,” he explains. “Some freight company on the docks that’s worried they’re vulnerable to social engineering.”

“So you’re gonna make them hack-proof?” Mom says.

“Well…” He rolls his eyes. “More like, I’m going to tell their managers what to do to not get conned in silly ways, they’re going to nod along politely, then forget about it the next minute.”

“Seriously?” I say.

“Yeah… People really don’t care about computer safety. Never have. They prefer doing things the easy way rather than the safe way. No wonder crooks like me still prosper in this day and age. Ah well. I suppose I shouldn’t care that they don’t care, so long as I get paid. What happens after that is their responsibility, not mine.”

He underlines that comment with a shrug and a sip of his tea.

I hear a flushing sound from the toilet, and seconds later, Rin walks in the living room. That Lizardwoman’s full name is Rin R. Roth (I don’t know what the R stands for. Rita? Regina? Ronald? Reuel?). She’s some kind of big wig at InstaDreams and Mom’s direct supervisor. I’m not really clear on what she does, but according to my mom it has to do with research, specifically in physics. Despite her oddities (especially her obsession with scientific experimentation), she’s a good person; wicked smart, too. Apparently, she and Gordy were an item years ago, but they have since split up amicably. That’s what Dad tells me, at least. Looking at the two of them, I just don’t see it.

“So how long are you staying?” Dad asks Gordy.

“A couple of months, at least. Hopefully a bit more.”

“You missed San Francisco, huh?” Mom says.

“Eh… Not really, but it beats most of the other places I’ve been in. Especially Memphis.”

His mouth curls in an expression of contempt.

“Sweet tea my arse. It’s just a lot of sugar in water with some fruit for the taste.”

“Language, Gordy,” Dad says.

“Right. You didn’t hear that, girls,” Gordy says, winking at us. “But seriously, I hope I never have to go back to the South. Why you Yanks went to war to keep it in your Union, I’ll never know.”

“Brain implants? You’re kidding.”

It seems like my mom and Rin are engaged in an entirely different conversation. Rin is pointing at something in the air in front of her; given the blue spark in her and Mom’s eyes, they are using their AR lenses, and probably watching some kind of projected image. Mom whistles, clearly impressed by what she’s seeing.

“No, no joke,” Rin says. “Provided my pitch goes through next month, you’re looking at InstaDream’s next big project.”

“Maou’s t- err, parts. This is basically science-fiction.”

“Brain implants have been around for almost thirty years now,” Rin pointed out.

“Yeah, but not the kind that can do… you know, that sort of thing.”

“Indeed not. But our field is ready for this idea. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our competitors start working on it soon.”

“What does it do?” I interject, my curiosity peaked. After all, why would a physicist get involved with brain implants?

“Sorry, honey bunny,” Mom says. “That’s work stuff. You know I can’t tell you about it.”

“Doesn’t stop you from discussing it outloud,” I say, crossing my arms.

“She has a point,” Rin says. Her AR lenses power down, and her eyes regain their natural yellow hue. “We’ll discuss it more at the Friday meeting.”

“For the first time in my life, I’m actually looking forward to a work meeting,” Mom says.

“I’m not sure I’m looking forward to cybernetically-enhanced Hellhounds,” Dad says. “Seems a wee bit overkill.”

“You wouldn’t like me with some chrome, darling?”

“Oh, love, you know I prefer you au naturel.”

“Yeah, that’s my cue to jump out of this conversation,” I say.

I finish my cup in one gulp and dart back to my room. Feeling relaxed after that tea break, I’m now ready to start cramming for my physics exam next week. And fuuuuuck… Looking at it, I’m gonna need more than one evening of work to be ready for it.

Physics has always been difficult for me. In fact, all hard sciences feel out of my league. As soon as I have all of my science requirements, I’m planning on dropping them. Biosciences are a different story, however. While I still don’t know what I want to do, I already know I want some biology in it. Zoology, too, since I’ve found out that my university offers courses in it.

As I realize that I’ve been reading the same page for fifteen minutes, I come to the conclusion that this is going to be even harder than I thought. It doesn’t help that I’m distracted. Because of Christopher, of course, but it’s not just him. I’m having another issue which fucks with my concentration.

It has been a few days since my date with Chris, and our “moment” in the car. Between the cramming and everything, I haven’t had much time for, err, self-love. And the few times I did have the time, it didn’t give me much of a release. I should have seen it coming; it’s the library thing all over again. In Christopher’s own words: now I’ve had a taste of paprika, I don’t care for mayonnaise anymore. Yay.

With a bit of insistence, and a lot of sugar, I manage to go through with my cramming. Rereading the chapter, I’m confident I can make it through the exam without embarrassing myself. The rest of the day goes by pretty quickly. I have a videochat with Judith after dinner. She’s doing a lot better since her last wreckage of a date, but still doesn’t feel like putting herself out there again.

“Maybe I should just start adopting cats already,” she sighs, her auburn bangs dropping in front of her eyes as she shakes her head.

“I never understood why crazy ladies have to be cat ladies,” I say. “Surely there’s gotta be more than a fair share of crazy dog ladies.”

“Gotta be. And some crazy chicken ladies in the Midwest. Pretty sure that’s where my mom’s headed.”

Judith is originally from Wisconsin, specifically from a place she describes as “so small it probably doesn’t even have a name”. She was actually raised on a farm, and has taken a vow to never work in one for the rest of her life. Something about having shoveled enough horseshit for a lifetime, I think.

“I want to be a crazy tiger lady,” I say. “Nobody messes with a crazy tiger lady.”

“How about a crazy kangaroo lady? I always wanted to retire in Australia. No, wait! A crazy emu lady. Yeah, let’s see them make fun of me when me and my flock of emus come riding into town.”

We both laugh. This is why we became friends in high school. One of us can get started on some weird subject, and the other will happily join in. It’s how we met, actually: we were in English class, and the teacher was talking about some old novel (I think it was Pride and Prejudice, but it could have been Sense and Sensibility). Out of nowhere, this girl seated on my right -Judith- asks me why there aren’t any romance novels where it’s the female protagonist that’s a hugh jerk, and the male protagonist who swoons over her for it. Somehow, this eventually led to a whole conversation about how sadomasochism should be part of every wedding’s vows.

Yeah, when I say it like that, it sounds nuts. But in context… Well, it’s still nuts, actually. 

That’s our dynamic in a nutshell. Damn shame she couldn’t go to the same college as me -she went to SFAI to study cinematography. We still call and videochat often, and hang out from time to time, but I’m sometimes afraid we may be drifting apart.

“Seriously, do I have the worst judgment in men?” Judith says. “Or is it something about me that attracts assholes?”

“You’re asking me? If you recall, I haven’t had the best luck with guys either.”

“I guess not. By the way, have you met any cute guys in Berkeley?”

I lick my upper lip. Do I tell her about Jackson? It’s kind of a strange story, even by Judith’s standards, and I’m not even sure where to begin.

The thing is, Judith and I are friends, but I wouldn’t say we’re close friends. Even when we were in high school together, we never really got to the point where we trusted each other with the most private details of our personal lives. For one thing, she still doesn’t know about the Hellhound thing. As for me, I don’t feel like I know much about her beyond school; I know she’s a huge movie buff, that she loves running -I don’t actually know if she still runs-, and that she has an aunt in Seattle whom she goes to visit about once a month.

“Nah, not really,” I eventually answer.

“That’s a shame.”

“Uh-uh.”

She starts talking about her classes after that. Turns out digital editing is not as interesting as she thought it would be; too much theory, not enough practice. Then, we go on to wonder whether the NSA or some other kind of spy agency would hire her on campus to edit videos of politicians, to blackmail them. And then, on how much she should charge for that kind of “service”. Like I tell her: it’s the federal government, charge’em through the nose!

I manage to mostly keep the Chris thing out of my head over the next few days. And a damn good thing, too: turns out the physics exam was just as hard as I feared. Any distraction would have been lethal for my GPA. True to form, Chris finishes early and bolts out of the classroom. I decide to take my time, and make full use of the two hours we’re given. If this doesn’t get me an A, I might break stuff.

After the bell rings, I leave the class. Chris is long gone, of course. No doubt Mom would have managed to pick up his scent among the dozens of students roaming the hallways, but I just don’t have the practice. I send him a text, asking if he wants to meet. Predictably, he tells me he’s busy. For fuck’s sake.

Maybe Nova’s right. Maybe I should just wait. He might actually be busy, or need time, or something. Patience is a good foundation for a relationship. Maybe I should take a step back, and let things unfold on their own.

Right. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. Just wait. Not rush in and force things.

Just. Wait.

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