Recency Bias

Icicles made of venom dripped out of Gina’s voice. “You invited her.”

Jin reminded her, “She’s your best friend.”

“She has a new best friend now,” Gina replied. “One with an erect penis.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m right here!” moaned Susan from the other side of the booth.

“Given your perpetual state of attachment,” Gina said, “I’m surprised that Victor isn’t sitting beside you.”

“I left him in the truck,” Susan told her.

“Really.” Gina craned her neck to get a glance through the diner’s window of her rival’s trademark pickup, and what she saw made her bolt out of her seat and grab her purse. “That is … unexpected.”

Susan followed her the door. “Why the fuck are you being this way about me dating somebody?”

“I guess I’ll pay the bill then,” Jin called after them.

They came to a halt at the sight of a pair of preteen boys pounding on the side of Victor’s truck, shouting, “Let! Us! In!

“Are those the monsters we’re chasing?” Susan asked.

The monsters I’ve come to chase,” Gina corrected her.

“They don’t look like much,” she said and charged. She froze immediately when the children turned to face her. “Oh no,” she whispered, shaking her head. “Oh, no no no no no no …”

Even though she’d spent most of the afternoon on Jin’s phone, researching black-eyed children; even though she’d listened twice to the testimony of a near-victim; even though her presence in this town was due entirely to the study of this phenomenon, Gina never dreamed she’d actually have a chance to witness it.

Meters away, a perfect specimen of Midwestern ruggedness and functional muscle cowered away from two children. Closer still, a young woman who had grown up protecting her older brother from bullies and criminals, in the urban decay of the American Rust Belt sobbed an apology to her boyfriend, whom she couldn’t rescue from said children.

The researcher in Gina wished she could simply observe, but that wouldn’t do at all. She reached into her purse and took a step forward, halting when it occurred to her how much danger lay ahead. The only logical course of action would be to retrieve Susan, abandon Victor, and return to the diner. Then again, the threat was so great that it might make more sense to leave Susan behind as well. Gina wasn’t a hero; she was just a spoiled little girl who ran away from home because it was stagnant. And now she was throwing a temper tantrum because her new life wasn’t stagnant enough. Maybe it would be best if she just left.

Jin appeared at her side. “That’s them, isn’t it?”

“Jin,” Gina replied, “I believe we may be at an impasse.”

“Them?” he snorted. “I can handle them.”

“I find that unlikely,” she said.

“You’ve seen it yourself,” he told her. “I’m the phonomancer. All I need are some tunes, and we can talk our way through this like we always do.”

“I remain skeptical.”

He smirked. “I got this.”

He swooped over with a little fancy footwork, singing, “If you speak, you have my ear; just please step away from the truck. State your peace, depart from here; all I ask is—oh, fuck!” Under the scrutiny of those eyes, he began to pant uncontrollably. “Gina, we have to grab Susan and leave. Right. Now. We can hide in the diner—we’ll be safe there.”

She agreed with him wholeheartedly, but there was something that still bugged her. “Safe from what?”

“Susan!” he called out, “we have to go!”

“But Victor …” Susan replied.

“We’re no use to him if we can’t get away!” he told her.

Susan backed toward him, never taking her eyes off of her boyfriend’s pickup. “I’m so sorry …”

Jin grabbed Gina’s arm. “We have to get inside.”

“Why?” she asked. Why was it safe inside? What was it about doors that protected them from the black-eyed children? Doors, of course, housed endless metaphor, and many folkloric races were powerless against them; however, most could cross a doorway if invited. And frankly, who would invite those dreadful apparitions inside?

Actually, who wouldn’t? In every testimony she’d read, the children seemed benign, and their prey had been only moments from admitting them when the latter revealed the extent of their menace. There were no accounts of what happened if they were allowed inside. Why?

Exasperated, Jin pointed at the children, who continued to stare in their direction. “Them!”

He was right. No information existed about their potential fate, because no witnesses survived such an encounter. Their horrors were as dark and mysterious and dead as these predators’ black gaze. Everything about them existed to terrify—their eyes, their voices, the bodies of children they seemed to wear, as opposed to inhabit.

“We’re right here,” she muttered. “Why are they just standing there?”

“Do you really want to find out?” Jin begged.

No, no, no, no, absolutely not. Her curiosity, however, overrode her sense of self-preservation, as per usual. “Yes,” she forced herself to reply.

“Come on, you idiot!”

“Go,” she said.

“You heard the woman,” Jin told Susan as he bolted away.

Gina lashed out and clutched Susan’s wrist. “Not you.”

Susan said nothing, but her face spoke of fear, confusion, and a just a little bit of hope.

“We can save him,” Gina said.

“No,” she replied, “we can’t.”

“I just need to go over and speak to them.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Susan squeaked.

“I won’t be harmed.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Susan repeated.

It was a valid question. This was insane. Since childhood, Gina had been trained to identify and exploit loopholes within the laws of physics. She learned history from vampires, meditation from wraiths, and physical fitness from werewolves. No monster frightened her, except for these children. Instinctively, she understood that they would certainly be death of her.

Nine months ago, she would have abandoned this parking lot. However, she had one thing now she didn’t have before. “Correction:” Gina said; “I won’t be harmed if you are there to protect me.”

“Who’s going to protect me?”

“Why would you need protecting?” Gina asked. “You’re practically a goddess.”

Susan smiled through her tears. “All right, you got me.”

Their fingers laced together.

“Come,” Gina declared, “let us descend upon them as badasses.”

Dread, she told herself with each step, is the fiction of the timid. After an eternity, they stood face to face with the children. Looking them in the eye was the single most difficult thing Gina had ever done in her life, but the situation called for it. “Go home.”

“Can you give us a ride then?” the taller of the creatures asked.

“No.”

“But we need a ride!”

She was wrong. This would never work. They needed to retreat.

“I’m here,” whispered Susan.

Gina gritted her teeth. “The boy in the vehicle is frightened of you. The woman behind me is frightened of you. I am terrified of you. This is a bountiful harvest. You should be pleased.”

Take us with you!”

“You’ve feasted enough,” Gina told them. “Go. Home.”

The creatures relaxed, and the speaker patted its partner’s shoulder. “This is lame,” it muttered. “Let’s get out of here.”

Gina exhaled and collapsed against the closest fender. She turned to her friend to celebrate with a mutual grin of victory, but Susan wasn’t there. She had torn open the pickup, yanked her boyfriend outside, and kissed him desperately.

Gina closed her eyes. The status quo, she told herself, is the fiction of the timid.

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“If You Have Come Here to Help Me, You Are Wasting our Time”

“I don’t know why–I just felt like I had to let them in. But there was something really weird about it. I mean, it’s the twenty-first century; why didn’t they have cell phones?

“I guess I took too long to make up my mind, because the older one started shouting, ‘Just let us in! Let! Us! In!’ And that’s when I saw their eyes for the first time.” The recording went quiet.

After a long, patient moment, Gina started to ask, “Is that–?”

Her answer came from the electronic voice continuing, “And then they screamed. I can’t…” The person speaking sniffled and gulped. “Oh, my God. So I slammed the door in their faces.

“About an hour or two later, I looked out my bedroom window, and there they were, still on the porch, and they both turned and looked right at me, with those eyes.

“I haven’t slept since then. I called in sick to work yesterday, and I spent all last night hiding in the bathroom–there’s no windows there. I just… I left the house today, but I’m still so scared. They’re out there, with those eyes. I don’t know what to do.”

“I know someone who can help,” said Jin’s voice. “Just keep your blinds shut and don’t open the door until I call tomorrow and tell you I’m outside. Capisce?”

There was a pause, which Gina assumed came from a non-verbal response.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Jin’s voice added. “Trust me. My friend is a rock star at this kind of thing.”

The real-life Jin turned off the playback on his phone and said to Gina, “Well?”

She drummed her fingers against her thigh and considered carefully what she’d just heard. “Why would this man share this with you?”

“He’s a friend of a friend of a friend,” Jin told her. “Word got out about the exorcism you and I did.”

“You’re referring, of course, to the exorcism performed by you and me…” Subtly she gritted her teeth. “… and Susan.”

“I thought we could help.”

“I see.” She asked, “Have you verified his story?”

“Two kids knocked on a single guy’s door and made him lose his shit,” Jin replied. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to verify that.”

“Are you sure he didn’t make this up?”

“Why would he make that up?”

“Are you sure you didn’t make this up?”

“Why would I make that up?”

“Maybe you felt I needed a distraction.” she replied.

“You do need a distraction, Gina.”

“I need no such thing,” she snorted.

“You’re driving your roommate batshit,” Jin told her. “She says you only leave your dorm room when it’s time for class.”

“My primary social contact is otherwise occupied,” she explained. “You are my secondary social contact, and your attention is divided between your studies and your musical interests. My tertiary social contact is also consumed by his studies. And so I have no reason to venture outside.”

“Your tertiary social contact told me you’re welcome to come over whenever and use any of his gaming consoles, and you know it.”

“I’ve already mastered them all,” she said.

Jin shook his head. “Gerard told me you’d say that, and he also told me you’re lying. He routinely kicks your ass on every two-player game, and you are way too competitive to let that go.”

“Perhaps I’ve learned to accept my limitations.”

“Or perhaps your tertiary social contact is the big brother of your primary social contact, and you’re avoiding her.”

“There is no need to avoid Susan,” Gina growled. She has been fucking her new boyfriend nonstop for six days and nine hours, and has therefore been unavailable to avoid.”

“Did you just use the word fucking?” Jin chuckled.

“Is that not an appropriate euphemism for copulation?”

“Why didn’t you just say copulation like you normally would?”

“Because they’re fucking!” she snapped. “Continuously. I’m willing to wager that he even accompanies her to classes and performs cunnilingus under the desk while she takes notes.”

“Look,” he said, fighting back a guffaw that built up in his lungs with the power of a potential sneeze, “I get that you’re jealous–“

“I’m not jealous!”

And that’s all it took for the laughter to burst through Jin’s defenses and consume him.

While he got it out of his system, Gin took a deep breath, smoothed out her hair, and composed herself. “I am, in fact, very happy for her success.” She added, “At fucking.”

He grinned and rolled his eyes. “It’s easy to forget that you’re a teenager.”

“I may be eighteen,” she said, “but I am not behaving–nor do I ever behave–in the adolescent fashion to which you allude.”

“Really.”

She glared at him. “Yes.”

“Then get your mature ass in my car, and we can go help this dude. He only lives a half-hour from here. We can be back in time for dinner.”

“How am I supposed to help this…” The upcoming word left a bad taste in her mouth, but she said it anyway. “… dude… of whom you speak?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, “but there’s only one person I’ve ever met who would have any experience with Black-Eyed Kids, so you’ve got a leg up on the rest of us.”

“I have no such experience,” she admitted. “In fact, I had always assumed they were merely an Internet-based urban legend, as is the case with the Slender Man.”

“Then shouldn’t you be jumping at the chance to meet one?”

Gina chewed her lip in thought.

“Don’t think about it for too long,” Jin told her. “The bus leaves in ten minutes.”

Gina frowned. “I thought you said we were driving.”

“Does that mean yes?”

She grunted.

Yes, And

As a child, Regina de Costa had never been allowed to socialize with anyone whose wealth, culture, education, or breeding fell significantly below her own. At the age of seventeen, she decided this wouldn’t do at all, and so she fled.

The United States had been her home all of her life, but the America she found outside confused, frightened, and brought her more joy and satisfaction than she ever could have anticipated.

Even now, eight months after she’d enrolled herself in a small, private college, she found something every day that begged to be sampled to the fullest. Case in point: less than a hundred meters from where she stood at this moment, a blond, lean, and glistening-in-sweat example of this slammed shut the hood of an old pickup truck and grinned in her direction. She felt safe in assuming that, whatever this boy lacked in sensual precision and tenderness, he would more than make up in youthful enthusiasm. Perhaps it was time to test her theory.

But before she could, her loyal friend and closest confidant declared, “Dibs.”

“That’s hardly necessary,” Gina told Susan.

“Why?”

“There’s no reason we can’t share.”

“Look,” Susan stuttered, “I like you and all, but…”

“Don’t worry,” she assured her. “I highly doubt either of us would be comfortable with that kind of experimentation.”

Susan exhaled. “Oh, thank God.”

“I merely meant that we could take turns.”

“I don’t feel comfortable with that either,” Susan said. “I’m a one-boy-girl.”

Gina rolled her eyes. “I understand the concept of monogamy, and I respect its legal function as a means of recording and distributing property and progeny, but the idea of limiting sexual contact to one individual strikes me as dreary.”

“You don’t strike me as the getting-around type.”

“In the short time you’ve known me,” Gina told her, “I’ve had eleven separate sexual partners.”

Susan blinked. “Wow. How?”

“Aside my wardrobe and appearance,” she explained, “a direct proposal is often the most effective method.”

“That’s it?” Susan asked. “No wining and dining?”

“That’s not particularly efficient, is it?”

“I don’t get you,” Susan told her.

“And yet, here you are.”

“Tell you what,” she said. “Why don’t you hold off on jumping him right away and let me show you how flirting done right is sexy as fuck. If I’m wrong, he’s all yours. Deal?”

Gina considered it and concluded, “I find your terms acceptable.”

They strolled over to the young man in question, and Susan nodded her head at his truck. “That a 1984?”

“Eighty-seven,” he replied, a little startled. His eyes squinted like someone who’d spent almost two decades hiding them from the sun. Gina still couldn’t quite make out the color.

“Close enough,” Susan conceded. “The mid-eighties were a golden age for American pickups.”

He shrugged. “There are some who might beg to differ.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You one of them?”

“What do you think?”

“I think,” she told him, “that this truck right here is solid, and its engine’s more piston than computerized bullshit, and it still runs.”

“That’s debatable,” he muttered.

“Besides,” she added, “it’s not one of those gigantic-ass ones that makes you have to wonder about the size of the driver’s dick.”

Gina flinched.

He took a glance at his truck, and then at the crotch of his pants, and then returned his attention to Susan. “I ain’t touching that.”

“Your call.”

He laughed. “This conversation’s getting kind of personal, don’t you think?”

“If that’s the case, then maybe I should introduce myself.” She held out her hand. “Susan.”

He shook it. “Victor.”

A cocktail of irritation and awe splashed all over Gina when it finally occurred to her that this boy had not looked once in her direction. She forced herself to accept that she would probably never have the opportunity to explore what flexed beneath that denim.

“What brings you here, Vic?” Susan asked.

“I prefer Victor.”

“I don’t.”

He shook his head and laughed again. “School,” he replied.

“Never noticed you before.”

“Been here all semester,” he told her. “Where’ve you been?”

“Around,” she said.

“And what is it you do here, Susan?”

“At the moment,” she replied, “catching leprechauns.”

Gina squeaked.

“Is that right?” he chuckled. “They show you their pot of gold?”

“Yes, they did.”

“And what, pray tell, do you plan on doing with all that treasure?”

“Something…” She smirked. “Something decadent.”

The eager confusion on Victor’s face and the smugness on hers settled over Gina, covering her with goose bumps and warmth. “Susan,” she breathed, “I have to leave.”

He finally noticed her. “I’m sorry,” he stammered, blushing. “I didn’t even see you there. I’m Victor.”

“Regina,” she coughed. His handshake was firm, but restrained. The possibilities of this kind of controlled strength rose her temperature even more. She tried to say something else, but couldn’t.

Susan leaned over and whispered in her ear, “His eyes are up there.”

She stopped staring at his chest and followed her directions. They were dark green. She forced herself to calculate the genetic pairings needed to manufacture such a hue, and this redirection of her thoughts rebooted her brain and allowed her to wrest back control over her legs.

Susan took her hand and dragged her away. “See you around, Vic?” she called out.

He patted the fender of his pickup. “You know where to find me.”

As they fled, Susan giggled, “That went well.”

“Indeed,” Gina said, more congratulatory than jealous; though, to be fair, there was plenty of the latter.

“Told you so.”

“Indeed.”

“You mad, baby?” Susan asked.

“I do loathe defeat,” Gina admitted, “but my disappointment in this case is tempered by how much I love watching you win.”

“You really are the best.”

Gina sighed.

The very instant they found themselves out of sight of Victor, Susan collapsed against the closest wall and fanned herself. “Holy shit,” she moaned. “Did you see that fucking smile?”

“Yes.”

“I need a cold shower,” Susan told her, “so bad.”

“As do I,” Gina agreed. “But I intend to masturbate first.”

No True Scotsman

Gina clapped delicately, displaying the maximum amount of enthusiasm her upbringing would allow. Her friend, recognizing this, curtsied awkwardly, displaying the maximum amount of grace her own upbringing would allow.

Susan,” she said, “that was exemplary!”

“Thanks,” she replied, “but you know they’ll never cast a black Mac-Scottish-Play.” She shrugged. “I’m still going to kill this audition, though. Make them feel bad about it.”

Gina shook her head and gazed out the window of her dorm room. “I, of all people, understand the value of curses, but you’ll find within the statistics no basis for the superstitions attached to…” She blinked. “Susan, I believe I’m looking at a leprechaun.”

Susan frowned. “Nobody told me it was Opposite Day,” she replied.

“I don’t understand.”

“Opposite day is when–“

“I already deduced the concept of Opposite Day,” Gina snapped. “What puzzles me is how you came to this conclusion.”

“Because if you said, ‘Susan, I don’t believe I’m looking at a leprechaun,’ I’d believe you, because not seeing a leprechaun is something that happens in real life.”

“This semester,” Gina reminded her patiently, “you channeled the ghost of your friend, whose body, in turn, was channeling the ghost of his deceased, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend.”

“Yeah, but that was a ghost. Ghosts make sense.”

Gina held her index finger a half inch from her thumb and whispered, “Dan&#231a para mim, chama bebê,” A small flame jumped out of nowhere between them. She said, “Also, I can do this.”

“All right, I’ll give you that one.”

“Has your trust for me ever been misguided?”

“Leprechauns,” Susan moaned. “Fuck me.” She joined her at the window and let out a disappointed grunt. “That ain’t no leprechaun.”

“I already informed you,” Gina repeated, “it’s not Opposite Day.”

“I get that they’re probably not walking around in green suits and top hats and shit,” Susan asked, “but aren’t they supposed to be… smaller?”

Gina returned her attention to the abnormally average man on the other side of the glass. “You’re referring to the term Wee Folk,” she said. “That’s a linguistic misunderstanding, like cockroach or Dutch. In reality, they don’t even resemble humans. What you’re seeing is a combination of our limited perception and some glamour work.”

Susan laughed, “Baby, you’re the best.”

Gina blushed.

“So what now?” Susan asked.

“I’m going to detain him,” she replied.

“How?”

“I’m going to ask my closest friend and confidant, whose tuition is paid entirely by an athletic scholarship, to pursue and subdue him.”

“Fuck me,” Susan moaned again. “And what is your friend going to do once she catches…” She giggled. “You seriously want me to run down a fucking leprechaun.”

Gina nodded eagerly.

“Then what?”

“Demand his pot of gold,” she replied. “Naturally.”

With a grin, Susan slipped out the door, repeating, “The best.”

Gina stood, smoothed out her dress, and followed. By the time she exited the dormitory and strode across the lawn, Susan already had the man in a chokehold, his arm pinned behind his back.

What the hell are you doing?” the man shouted.

“According to basic biology,” Gina replied, “your species is instinctually driven to free itself from forced captivity by divulging the location of your treasure.”

What?” he yelped.

“Pot o’ gold, Lucky,” Susan clarified. “Cough it up.”

“You people are insane!”

She tightened her grip. “Did you just ‘you people’ me?”

Gina cleared her throat. “Enough with the subterfuge. I’m Regina de Costa, daughter of Lucio Marcos de Costa and Helena Torres, both board members of the corporation.”

“Is that supposed to…” The man’s shoulders fell. “I’m in America, aren’t I?”

“Indeed.”

“Bugger me,” he groaned.

“What corporation?” Susan asked.

The man ignored her. “Now what?”

“Tradition dictates that you lead us to your gold.”

“I don’t have any gold to lead you to,” he told them.

“I thought you were a real, live leprechaun,” Susan said.

“I am,” he replied.

“Bullshit,” she snorted. “Because a real, live leprechaun would have a real, live pot of gold.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Gina admitted. “His kind are physically incapable of lying.”

“You wouldn’t want it anyway,” he said.

Susan replied, “Yes, we would.”

“It’s not like you can just walk into a mall and spend it, and you can’t use it to shop online,” he explained. “And if you want to convert it to cash, you have to find a reputable buyer, and then you run into a lot of questions, not to mention taxes.”

Panic crossed Gina’s face for less than half a second as she said the words, “I don’t understand. Every Folk Zoology 101 textbook spells it out with no ambiguity. If you capture Wee Folk, they must give you gold.”

“Don’t you get it?” he sighed. “Gold to you represents the most valuable currency. Where I come from, the most valuable currency desire.”

“I believe I understand now,” Gina said with a nod. “And so what desire would you fulfill in exchange for your release?”

With his free hand, he pointed to a nearby parking lot.

“Oh,” Gina replied.

Without meaning to, Susan let the leprechaun go, and he took the opportunity to flee.

Neither she, nor Gina, cared. They were too busy being hypnotized by a pair of tight jeans hugging a magnificently sculpted ass, which bent over the grill of a pickup truck. The man who belonged to the jeans pulled his torso out from under the hood, his back muscles testing the limits of his white T-shirt. Sweat from a hot spring day and even hotter engine worked together with the threadbare condition of the cotton to make it nearly transparent. He pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket–once again drawing attention to the work of art down there–and wiped his hands.

When he turned around, Gina stared, unblinking, at his chest, until curiosity drive her to his face to make sure it was as glorious as the rest of him. She couldn’t tell for sure until he brushed his thick, sandy hair out of his green eyes. He squinted at her and Susan and grinned.

Even more glorious…

Her fingers tingled, and her mouth went dry.

“Dibs,” said Susan.

In Another Castle

“Is he going to keep doing that?” asked Brad, referring to the way Jin wandered through his apartment, humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

From the loveseat, Susan shrugged. “Just let him do his thing.

Jin paid extra attention to the boxes half full of bras, blouses, and dresses, but something about the canvas bag full of textbooks made him wince just a little. He left the bedroom and continued on.

Brad paced. “I didn’t ask you to come here to listen to him doing his thing.”

Jin lost his place in the song as soon as he entered the bathroom. Decorating the shower was a wall of bottles, including three shampoos, four conditioners, two lotions, and two body washes, along with a crusted can of shaving cream for sensitive skin and a loofah. More lotion, hand cream, and nail-polish remover lined the sink. There were two toothbrushes, one slightly damp, and one very dry. He took a deep breath and resumed whistling, this time a mournful song of his own.

“I asked you to bring that weird person you hang with who’s into all the spooky shit,” Brad continued.

“Yo,” Susan growled, “you want to be talking about my girl Gina, you best be addressing her like she’s in the room.”

“Susan,” Regina said calmly from beside her, “I’m willing to accept a certain amount of rudeness, given the amount of grief and confusion Brad must be feeling, given the circumstances.”

“That’s not Brad,” Jin told them as he reentered the living room.

With the grin of a child receiving a present, Regina sprang to her feet. “Is that right?”

Susan turned to him. “What do you mean, that’s not Brad?”

“I mean,” Jin clarified, “whoever is talking to you doesn’t quite fit into that body.”

“That’s why I called you, Susan,” said whatever was speaking with Brad’s voice. “I need to get out of here.”

Regina grabbed Brad’s face in her hands and examined his eyes. “To whom do I speak?”

“Jennifer,” Brad’s voice replied.

Susan sat up straight. “Jennifer Jennifer? For reals?”

“I’m new at this.” Jin shrugged. “I just see a sparkly blob that doesn’t quite belong.”

Regina blew on Brad’s lips. “O vento dos meus pulmões demandas somente a verdade. Am I truly addressing Jennifer?”

Jennifer nodded Brad’s head.

“That spell is 77 percent effective,” Regina assured the room, “so I’m confident this is indeed Jennifer.”

“Damn,” Susan muttered, “this is some spooky shit.”

“If we continue this friendship,” Regina told her, “such ‘spooky shit’ will become quite mundane.”

Susan relaxed to enjoy the show. “I hope not.”

Regina said to Jennifer, “A human vessel can only be occupied if it’s empty, and a ghost such as yourself–especially one so recently deceased–lacks the strength to force another out. A cursory glance at your belongings reveals no magical proclivity, thus leading to the only logical conclusion: you’ve been invited in. I’m curious as to why.”

“I wasn’t invited,” Jennifer told her.

Regina frowned. “Then you have me at a loss.”

“There’s a first time for everything,” Susan whispered to Jin, who shushed her.

“This is going to sound crazy,” Jennifer sighed.

“This is making me crazy,” Regina said.

“Brad sneezed,” Jennifer told her.

Regina smacked her head. “Of course!”

“Oh my God,” Susan squealed, “are you shitting me?”

“There is some truth to the old wives tale about the soul temporarily evacuating the body during a sneeze,” Regina admitted.

“Yo,” Susan asked Jin, “is she shitting me?”

“I saw it once when I was in marching band,” Jin told her. “It’s… bizarre. Kind of awesome.”

Regina turned her attention to the matter at hand. “Possession doesn’t occur by accident, Jennifer.”

Jennifer sat Brad’s body next to Susan, who scooted away slightly. “The night that I drowned, I’d been planning on telling Brad something very important. I can’t seem to leave unless I do, so I jumped in here so I could, like, write a note or make a video or something. But it didn’t work.”

“Have you tried addressing him directly?” Regina asked.

“I don’t even know if here’s here in the room or not,” she replied.

Regina turned to Jin. “Is he?”

“Bradley, Bradley, where have you gone?” he crooned; “The love of your life, she wants to move on.”

“That was weird,” Jennifer whispered.

“It gets all mundane and shit after a while,” Susan whispered back.

“There’s a sparkly blob that kind of… fits… Brad’s body,” Jin said. “That’s all I can tell you.”

“That’s all I need to be told.” Regina asked, “Jennifer, would an actual conversation with Brad satisfy you?”

“I think so.”

“Susan,” Regina said, “I require your assistance.”

Susan sat up again. “Hold up, sister. I’m here as an audience, and that’s all.”

“You don’t even know what I’m about to ask.”

“You’re going to ask me to let Brad take over my body.”

Regina smiled a little. “Have I ever told you how exceptionally clever you are?”

“You have,” Susan replied, “but buttering my ass don’t work.”

“I thought you’d want to help your friends.”

“Let Jin help my friends.”

“Jin’s musicianship is necessary to the success of this endeavor,” she told her, “and I’m the only person in the room qualified for what we’re about to do. I’ve had over five years of experience with this.”

“Five years ago, you were, like, what, thirteen?”

“I was.”

“Come on,” Susan begged, “it’s one thing to watch.”

Regina crouched in front of her and looked deep into her eyes. “Susan, I need you.”

“Gina, I’m scared.”

She stroked Susan’s cheek. “I swear on my honor that you will be safe. Please trust me.”

Susan gritted her teeth. “Okay.”

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Essência da Susan Young, sono.”

Susan went limp.

“Jin,” Regina said quickly, “invite Brad in, right now!”

“Bradley, Bradley, don’t be weak,” Jin sang; “Stand up, sit down, it’s time to speak.”

Susan’s eyes closed, and Brad’s opened. “Holy shit!” Susan’s voice yelped.

“Baby?” Jennifer asked, “is it really you?”

A tear scurried down Susan’s face. “Jen? It’s really you! Oh, God, Honey, I’ve missed you so much!”

“Baby,” Jennifer whispered, “I need to tell you something.”

Regina bit her lip and tapped her feet.

“I never thought I’d talk to you again!” Brad cried. “There’s so much I need to say!”

Regina began to drum her fingers on her thigh.

“Baby,” Jennifer sighed, “we’ve been together for a long time, and I’ve needed to say this, but I didn’t know how, and it was the last thing on my mind, and I couldn’t move on until–”

“Hurry this along, please!” Regina snapped.

Jennifer cleared Brad’s throat. “Look, Baby, it’s not you, it’s me…”

“What?” Brad gasped.

“Oh, come on,” Jin groaned. “Are you serious?”

Regina leaned toward him. “I’m not sure I grasp the significance of that phrase.”

Jin asked her, “Are you serious?

Intersubjectivity

Previously…

Having crossed the length of her college campus with a sedated sorority girl draped over her shoulder, Regina felt her strength and compassion waning. Julie’s posture resembled that of a fifty-kilo sack of sand, making the trip to this dormitory and up its staircases an exceptional challenge. Somehow she persevered and knocked on the door she sought.

A gangly man answered, looking exactly like the picture she’d seen in the school’s database. He even wore the same arrogant sneer.

“Are you Gerard Young?” she asked.

Through bulky glasses, the twenty-year-old boy who had been violated by puberty glared at the woman who’d been dearly caressed by it. With surprising nonchalance, he replied, “What do you want?”

“I seek your assistance.”

“What?” he asked. “Why?”

“According to the records I reviewed this evening–utilizing means of questionable legality, I confess–you’re the most capable pre-med student on campus.”

“True.” Self-satisfaction inflated his voice as he held the door open. “Set her down on the lower bunk. I’ll see what I can do.”

Regina smiled. “Thank you.”

“What do you know about her condition?”

She passed the prescription bottle to him. “My family never had much use for medicine, so I don’t understand what this is.”

He shook his head again. “Lucky you. This is Rohypnol.”

“That word had no meaning to me.”

“Roofies?” he clarified.

She still didn’t understand.

“It’s a date-rape drug.”

“Are you telling me that a pharmaceutical company manufactures a medicine for the purpose of violating someone?”

“That’s not its only purpose,” he told her. “It was originally invented as a sort-of tranquilizer for the treatment of severe insomnia. It’s illegal in the US, probably because of the rape thing, but the frat rats always seem to get it from somewhere.”

“Is there an antidote?”

“A good night’s sleep,” he replied. “And a lot of aspirin.”

She closed her eyes and sat beside Julie, exhausted. “Was this subterfuge necessary?”

“All those guys ever think about is getting laid.”

She deduced quickly that getting laid was one of many euphemisms for engaging in intercourse. “Why could they not just ask?”

“Beats me.” He shrugged. “I guess they think they get anything they want anyway, so they shouldn’t have to ask.”

“Are women in this society merely warm objects?”

“Don’t you watch TV?” he snorted.

“No,” she replied.

“If anyone ever did something like that to my sister, I’d…” His shoulders fell. “I wouldn’t do anything. I’m kind of pathetic. She’d end them, though. Don’t tell her I said so, but she’s kind of awesome.”

Regina asked, “Has no one ever advised them that equality only enhances the experience?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never done it.”

“You should,” she told him. “It’s delightful.”

He let loose a shrill guffaw. “You are weird!”

Judging by what she had seen so far of what passed for normal, she found this to be complimentary. “Thank you.”

“So,” Gerard asked after an awkward pause, “she your roommate?”

“No.”

“Friend?”

“No.”

“Then why did you help her if you don’t know her?”

“Well,” she replied, “you don’t know me, and yet you helped.”

“You asked for help. I gave it. That’s what people are supposed to do.”

“You answered your own question.”

He grinned. “I guess I did.”

Relieved to see humanity in the soul of at least one person, she hoisted Julie onto her shoulder.

Gerard scrambled to his feet to give her a hand. This wasn’t particularly useful, as Regina’s physical condition was more pristine than his. “What are you going to do?” he panted.

“I’m going to return her to her dorm room, and then I am going to my own bed to sleep for eight hours.”

“Need help?”

She shook her head. “I require no assistance to sleep.”

“I meant with her.”

She considered this. “That won’t be necessary. I thank you for the offer, but I feel you’ve done enough.”

After he opened the door and she stumbled out, he blurted out, “I don’t even know your name.”

“Regina De Costa.”

“Can I call you Gina?”

She smiled with unexpected affection. “I’ll allow it.”

After Regina awoke the next morning, she showered, cleaned her teeth, brushed her hair, dressed, and proceeded to the student union for a protein-rich breakfast to increase her alertness. The presentation of her meal left much to be desired. The fragrance left even more.

The sudden guffaw that punctured her disgust was easily recognizable, so she followed it and made out three distinct voices. The first belonged to Gerard Young. “I swear to you, it’s true!”

“Nobody’s that weird!” said the second voice.

The third said, “Maybe she’s from another planet!”

“Not this one, for sure!” Gerard laughed, but he stopped as soon as he realized that all three of his friends were staring directly behind him with terror.

“Good morning, Gerard,” Regina said when he turned around. “I trust you slept well.”

He recoiled. “What are you doing here?”

“Is it not customary to dine while engaging in light conversation?”

“Fine.” He pointed to one of the empty chairs beside him.

“Who the hell is this?” asked the owner of the first voice.

Regina replied, “Someone who doesn’t appreciate being referred to in the third person.”

“Fellas,” Gerard announced, “this is Regina De Costa. She prefers Gina.”

“I assure you, I do not.”

Gerard pointed to one of the silent ones and said, “Alex.” Then he pointed to the young man beside him. “This is his roommate, Alex.” Finally, he indicated the rude one. “And this is my roommate, Glen.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you all,” Regina said.

Glen snickered. “You talk like an elf.”

“Glen…” Gerard warned.

“That is the most absurd thing I have heard lately,” Regina replied. “Even if an elf were inclined to speak aloud, it wouldn’t deign to speak English. They find it far too vulgar.”

Glen snorted. “Shows what you know.”

Gerard’s tone became more of a growl. “Glen…”

After taking a huge bite of food, Glen continued to talk while chewing, “Have you ever played the game Swords of Sorcery?”

“I’m not familiar with it,” she replied.

“Then maybe you shouldn’t talk about something you don’t know anything about.”

“Don’t be an ass, Glen,” murmured Gerard.

Regina asked, “Have you ever met an elf?”

Glen swallowed. “No?”

“Then perhaps you should not profess knowledge of subjects of which you know little.”

Glen stammered, “There’s no such thing as elves!”

Regina was surprised by this admission. “If this is your belief, how can you proclaim your expertise?”

Glen didn’t respond. He just shoveled more food into his mouth.

Alex and Alex looked at each other, impressed.

Gerard laughed too hard to say anything.

Regina took a dainty bite of her meal.

Gerard stopped laughing when his eyes focused on something behind her. “Don’t you have other friends to sit with?” he asked.

Regina turned to the person to whom he spoke with such impatience. She shared the height and build of Gerard, as well his facial features and the dark shade of his skin. There were several differences, gender being the most obvious. Her own lankiness could be attributed more to athleticism than malnourishment. As a result of this, her posture was straighter, while being more relaxed and self-assured.

She tossed a half-full tray of food into the empty space on the table next to Regina and swung herself into the seat. She told her brother, “Yeah, but I’m more interested in the fact that a supermodel is sitting with you.”

Regina frowned.

Glen cupped his palms around his mouth and stage-whispered, “She hates it when you talk about her in the third person.”

The new visitor held out her hand. “You are?”

When Regina shook it, she was startled by the most masculine of grips. She said, “Regina.”

The young woman smirked. “Susan.”

And that’s how Gina met her best friend.

The Bystander Effect

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess named Regina, who lived in a castle far, far away from the people her mother watched over. She slept and dined and dressed lavishly, but this wasn’t enough. She wished to live in the world, not just observe it.

That is why, after much planning, she fled the castle.

Fully believing in her ability to master any task she put her mind to, she’d set out, bracing herself for the hard work that lay ahead. It turned out to be harder work than she could have possibly imagined. The language spoken by her peers was coarse, simplistic, and confusing. The music they enjoyed was discordant, and their food was flavorless. Education itself was merely rudimentary; she’d read most of the books on her syllabi before she had turned thirteen. After a week, she was beginning to wonder if her confidence in herself had been misplaced.

But she possessed enough tenacity to keep going. As a child, she’d acclimated to the customs of at least a dozen cultures–surely she could do so in the country in which she was born. Thus she accepted an invitation to a party taking place on fraternity row.

Upon entering the pertinent building, she wondered what the maximum occupancy for such a residence might be. This party most certainly exceeded it. With a sigh, she plunged into the throng, weaving through it with expert precision. Not a single reveler seemed to notice her, until a slight figure blocked her path, looked her up and down, and squealed, “Oh my gawd!”

The young woman’s hair had been bleached poorly; Regina didn’t have enough fingers to count the clumps of mousy brown roots. Yet her purse and shoes were Italian, her belt and watch were Swiss, and her skirt was French, so Regina approved of her.

“Oh my gawd you are so hot! And seriously, that dress! So hot!” She pointed at herself and announced, “Julie!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Julie.”

“Are you rushing?” she asked. “Seriously, you should rush!”

“I’m moving quickly,” Regina replied, “but I’m in no hurry.”

“Seriously, you’re, like, so funny! And so hot! You would literally make an awesome Alpha Theta Beta!”

“That doesn’t actually spell anything,” Regina said, flinching from the verbal assault.

“It spells the hottest Greeks on campus!” Julie informed her.

“Perhaps these Greeks should take an anti-inflammatory,” Regina advised.

“Like. So. Funny!” Julie hugged her. Suddenly, her ears perked up and she swiveled her head, shouting, “Mackenzie! Don’t touch that one! I heard he gave Rochelle crabs!” She scurried off without a further word.

The exchange confused her, yet gave her hope. Perhaps forging a bond with these people would not be as difficult as she had imagined.

A deeper voice shouted over the music, “Hey! How’s it going!”

The first thing she saw was a threadbare T-shirt stretched over the torso of a tanned god. She stared, fighting to retain her dignity while every muscle in her body threatened to override it. Somehow, she curtailed her carnal instinct and set her gaze on his face. This didn’t help, either. His lips seduced her with their softness, and her fingers ached to twirl around his wavy hair. The tingle she felt would have been exciting had it not been so intrusive. “Very well,” she replied with a dry mouth, “and yourself?”

His eyes broke the spell of his pectorals by drifting down to her bust line. He pointed at himself. “Tad.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tad. My name is Regina.”

“How’s it going, Gina?”

“Regina.”

“Cool,” he said as he bobbed his head to the thick beat.

It didn’t take long for this to bore her, so she wandered away. After a few minutes, she found herself in the kitchen, where her acquaintance Julie danced awkwardly between two young white men who both wore khaki shorts, pastel polo shirts, and denim baseball caps. All three balanced a red plastic cup in his and her hands.

When Julie’s glazed attention settled on Regina, she let loose a weak squeal and hugged her again. “Gina!”

Something about her posture made her question Julie’s condition; she appeared to be more than merely intoxicated. “Are you well?”

“Why wouldn’t she be?” one of the men asked.

“How’s it going, Gina,” said the other.

“Regina.”

He pointed at himself. “Gavin.”

The other one chimed in. “Seth.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Regina replied, despite the fact that it wasn’t.

“Not feel good,” Julie told them, balancing herself on the nearest counter.

“Need someplace to lie down?” Seth asked.

She nodded almost imperceptibly.

Seth wrapped his arms around her waist. “I’ll take care of you.”

“My hero…”

Seth winked at Gavin. “Get Gina something to drink.”

Gavin grinned. “Cool.”

He followed Seth and returned a moment later with a fresh cup. She took it and studied his expression. It told her that the contents of her beverage would, in his mind, guarantee him something he could never earn with sheer charm.

She looked him in the eye and said, “Permitir que esses poucos momentos para passar sem você.”

He froze just long enough for her to exchange their drinks. When he resumed moving, he said, “Bottom’s up!”

She took a sip. This was not the first time she’d consumed alcohol, but it was her first American beer, and she was not impressed. It was simultaneously rancid and bland.

Gavin downed his in one gulp. She waited a few moments, and sure enough, an extra bit of intoxication consumed him. “Whoa,” he said.

“Do you need to lie down?” she asked him.

“I think so?” he replied.

“Splendid.” She turned and walked away, stifling a grin at the muffled thud of his unsteady body hitting linoleum. This could be considered only a partial triumph.

After plucking a brittle hair off of her blouse, she whispered, “Voltar ao corpo de onde você veio,” before blowing on it. Buoyed by the sexual energy of the crowd, it floated upstairs, leading her to a closed door. She didn’t bother knocking.

Her expectation was that she’d find Seth lying next to an unconscious Julie, groping her, at the very least. Her expectation, unfortunately, was met.

When Seth spotted Regina, he frowned. “Yo, where’s Gavin?”

“On the kitchen floor,” she told him. “What did you put in our beverages?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” he snarled, bolting to his feet.

“I beg to differ,” she replied coolly. “Two words from me, and you will defecate where you stand.”

“That’s a load of shit.”

“Technically,” she agreed, “it is.”

He stormed over to her. “Nobody–“

Entranhas, agravar-se,” she interrupted.

Something in his bowels rumbled, and he doubled over. “The fuck?”

“A warning,” she told him. Her eyes swept the room and landed on an orange prescription bottle resting on a nearby dresser. “Is this it?”

“Fuck you!”

She examined it and read the label. “Flunitrazepam? I don’t know what this is.”

“Why don’t you take some and find out?”

She rolled her eyes and sighed, “Entranhas, agravar-se.”

He leaned on the desk, once again struck by awkward discomfort.

“Leave,” she told him.

“I don’t think so.”

“Do you want me to repeat myself?”

He closed his eyes, weighed his options, and headed for the door. Opening it, he muttered, “Freak.”

She shook her head. “Why do I bother to interact with these people?” It was too late to correct that error, but it wasn’t too late to correct another. She stuck her head in the hallway and shouted, “Seth?”

He stopped walking.

“On second thought,” she told him, “Entranhas, esvaziar-se.”

His eyes widened in terror, and in moments, feces began to flow out of his shorts and over his bare knees.

Regina closed the door. “Julie?”

She stirred and mumbled.

“I’m relieved to have found you in time.”

Julie moved her head just a little. Regina took this to mean she agreed.

“I’m going to sit you up. Do you think you can assist me?”

Julie raised herself a few inches off before flopping backward, bouncing on the bed, and rolling onto the floor. “No,” she mumbled.

“Clearly.”

To be continued…