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Daffodils and Chamomile

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“Hiiiiiie guys! Pandaluv98 here, and welcome back to another episode of Panda Pretty, the 5K subscriber special! Now, a lot of you have requested that I show y---”

Wendy skipped the video ahead by another two minutes. 

“Now, some of you on my Patreon said that you preferred Starry Kiss, but for this particular look, I’ll be using Cherry Princess because---”

Wendy skipped to the end.

“I really don’t need to hear your life story, ‘pandaluv98.’ I promise,” she huffed under her breath. Just as pandaluvr98 was about to really go into how to blend four different colors of eyeshadow, a loud screech of a sedan could be heard from outside Wendy’s window. 

Wendy, with a flick of her head, beamed down at Jess’ car pulling into the driveway of the complex. Nicole and Petra were in the back seat bouncing to the music that blared from Jess’s cherry red car, singing and swaying over each other in their coordinated prom dresses.

“Well, can’t be helped now,” Wendy hummed to her reflection in her phone now shuttered off. She called out her window down to the revving engine below, “I’ll be down in a minute!”

“YOU DON’T WANT NO PROBLEMS, WANT NO PROBLEMS WITH ME, BIH!” screamed Nicole and Petra.

Hooooooooonk, declared Jess’s sedan impatiently.

“YOU DON’T WANT NO PROBLEMS, WANT NO PROBLEMS WITH ME!”

Ho-ho-hoooooooooooonk.

It didn’t matter how many times Wendy assured them that she was going to be out in a minute; Jess was going to lay on that horn with every second Wendy was still in that apartment.

Wendy looked in her vanity mirror at all the work she had left to do. She was swift about zipping up the back of her pink, silk dress, clipped her hoop earrings and her white shoe straps around her ankles. Didn’t have yellow, blue and purple shimmer to make a statement with, but her eyeliner and the pink she accented it with were both as precise as ever. Her hair was as big and curly and unkempt as always, as not even prom would be enough for her father to allow her to get it straightened. As Wendy bunched up and flipped around her hair before the mirror, she surmised that going to so much trouble wouldn’t be worth the time she didn’t have, anyway.

“I think your friends are here, Wendy.”

Wendy turned to the doorway to see her father pushing her beaded curtain out of the way. They clattered upon Roy’s breakthrough with little grace.

“I understand the stresses of your job just a little more each day,” Wendy laughed, finally leaving her hair alone.

“I’m lucky if I get twenty minutes to get ready before my number some nights, chickadee,” Roy looked down to see and, tragically, hear Nicole and Petra continue on with their Lil Wayne impressions. He whispered with a smirk as though Jess could hear them over her honking, “Aren’t they half an hour late?”

Wendy felt around her neck and glided around the room like an inconvenienced ghost. 

“Yeah, and I’m still not ready. I don’t know why I keep doing this to myself,” Wendy groaned and shook her head. She threw some clothes out of her hamper, fidgeted through her jewelry box, and emptied her vanity drawer before declaring, “I can’t find my---”

“These?”

The pearls dangled from Roy’s fingers, which still had bits of glue from his stick-ons the night before. Wendy beamed upon seeing them, with Roy whirling his index finger in the air and having Wendy turn around. She lifted her hair up for him to clip the hooks that could snap with a bend of his fingers. Each pearl was the size of a pea and once belonged to Wendy’s surrogate mother. Sixteen and unprepared, all that the mother ever requested of Roy after her daughter’s birth was for her to enjoy those pearls on a night like this one.

Wendy stepped back from her father. She brushed herself off and asked a final, “Do I look okay?”

“More than okay, I’d say,” Roy said, pointing at his eyes. “Like I said earlier: Your eyeliner’s really starting to tick me off.”

“I’m telling you, the internet will be your best friend if you let it,” Wendy grabbed her phone from her side table, her jacket from her bed, her wallet from her vanity, and whirled around to Roy and asked, “What else am I forgetting?”

“Your prom ticket?”

“Right!” Wendy exclaimed, “That!”

Wendy patted her jacket pockets and pulled out her ticket, which looked like a laminated one-dollar bill. Rather than George Washington staring at the spender stoically, he donned shutter shades and dabbed, with his extended arm holding out a sign saying, 

ADMIT ONE PATRIOT! 

FRIDAY NITE SPRING ON FLEEK 

#patriotprom2019

Wendy stuck the ticket back in her jacket pocket as Roy wrapped his arms around her, suffocating her as he did every time. A few of Wendy’s tight joints popped with Roy’s plea to, “Just don’t do anything your Aunt Dee would get caught doing if she was your age.”

There was never a curfew for Wendy, and tonight was no exception. Giving her a time she needed to be home by would have been purely hypocritical of Roy, as there had been nights where he’d come in at two or three in morning and had to take off his heels so as not to disturb Wendy. Tonight would be one of those nights, except now he more than likely wouldn’t have to do the sneaking.

“Who said anything about getting caught?” Wendy asked after catching her breath. Roy took her hand just as Wendy was heading towards her door.

“Wait, wait,” he beckoned, “Before you leave…”

Roy pulled out a camera, gesturing Wendy to stand before her beads. Wendy’s hair took up half the frame, with her smile taking up half of her face and her jacket swallowing all of her body. There was no time to redo the picture without the jacket, and Roy knew this, even though there was no thought to redo the shot anyway.

“Be safe. Have fun. Don’t get caught,” Roy emphasized.

“Duly noted,” replied Wendy with a kiss on her father’s cheek, “I’ll call you afterwards.”

“I’m sure you will,” he kissed her forehead, not at all being truthful. 

Wendy shuffled out the door, barrelled down the stairs, and practically jumped head-first into Jess’s sedan. 

Roy smirked and shook his head as he watched the sedan drive off in the opposite direction of Washington High’s 68th Annual On Fleek Spring Senior Prom. 

 

***

Pandora’s Box was having their opening night tonight.

That was why it was all the more important for Bea Calypso to get every single word down. The past twelve times she had her earbuds in and rehearsed before the mirror, there wasn’t much of an issue for the performer, save for the couple of times where she accidentally ran into the mirror whilst prowlin’ in her heels. 

Blakeley, however, was still scrubbing down the Teavana floors. Luckily, it was the last thing to check off the list of closing duties Summer had left for him. As he worked, he rehearsed the lyrics under his breath: “Now I’ve got somethin’ and I will tell: three fine men…” Blakeley paused himself to scrape a persistent blueberry glob off one of the tiles. Once he finished, he continued: “Wanna ring my bell…”

Summer wouldn’t tell him what the password to the computer was so he could change the music over the speakers. Because of this, Blakeley was stuck listening to every known bluegrass cover of Purple Rain to exist until he managed to shutter it all up. Until then, he could only silently, peacefully fight against it with what was in his own head. 

Blakeley caught a glance of the clock and quivered. He had twenty minutes until Bea Calypso was to make her debut on the D.C. drag scene. He had her outfit planned out for her and everything. Bea was going to come out with a waist so cinched that she now needed an oxygen mask to breathe. She had sprinkled more of her identity over the production in the form of rainbow Perler beads and two rolls of glittery, silver duct tape, since Blakeley couldn’t find the cash for a tight corset.

“One has the money, and one’s on---” Blakeley always struggled with the mop wringer. There was a trick to make it so he wouldn’t have to press down so hard on the lever to squeeze all the water out, but he lost focus every time Summer showed him and was always too embarrassed to ask for a second demonstration. “P-Parole…”

Blakeley was left with a defunct wringer and a large pool of water on the floor, which he whirled around and around and around with his mop until it disappeared. Yes, he thought, no one in the District of Columbia would be ready for an act like tonight’s, which made Blakeley slam the mop into the bucket with gusto.

Blakeley could now see his angled face and crooked jaw in the polished tile. Too pressed to be late for Bea’s first gig, Blakeley had begun untying his apron and unbuttoning his work shirt to reveal the roll of duct tape he had already wrapped around his waist hours before so he wouldn’t have to bother with that and be even later for his number.

After locking up behind him, Blakeley transformed as he made his way to Bea Calypso’s infinite field of success.

 

***

 

It was blue.

Nicole knew it would be. Not, like, that blue, though. She was thinking as blue as Jess’s dress, not the-most-beautiful-sky-imaginable-smeared-across-the-pavement blue. She lurched over the toilet to add to her masterpiece, and as she watched the water and the whatever else swirl around in the bowl, Nicole swore that she saw stars.

“Whoa…” Nicole gaped in childlike wonder.

This slur devolved into a laugh when she watched her reflection get even more lost in there. Being in previous instances where she was this drunk at a place that cared about her true age this little before, she knew that she was supposed to feel much, much worse than what she was feeling right now. But as she leaned her head against the stall door, legs criss-crossed and stretching out her yellow dress now dotted with blue, she kept on giggling.

“Hey. Hey. Hey, Wendy,” Nicole looked up at the spinning light above her. “What color’s yours?”

“R-Red.”

Nicole slid under the door and burst through Wendy’s stall next door and gently pulled the heaving, white mass away from the bowl.
Wendy was right.

“Oh fuck. Okay. Okay, okay, okay, okay,” Nicole slowly hoisted Wendy up from the side of the toilet bowl and sprinted her out. “There’s nothing to worry about, girl. We’ll get you out of here.”

As Petra was doing a line behind the centerpiece of fake flowers, Jess leaned out from the other side of the table to see Nicole dragging Wendy towards them. Before Nicole could tell the two girls, “We need to go,” Jess leapt up with her purse and Wendy’s other arm and said, “We need to go. Right now.”

“Good,” Petra took a sip of her mai tai while looking around at all the other patrons’ reactions. She squinted at the stage and massaged her temple, moaning, “This queen looks busted. Her number hasn’t even started yet and she’s already giving me a---oh shit, what’s wrong with Wendy?”
No one answered her question. The three girls bounded out with Wendy’s fading consciousness. The rest of Pandora’s Box rang with laughter as if it were a live studio audience and the four girls were never part of it.

Jess began pulling her car out of the parking lot without looking behind her, Petra whirled around behind her to glare daggers into Nicole, Nicole stared straight ahead without blinking, and Wendy huddled into herself over Nicole’s lap.

“This is all your fault, dude,” Petra pointed one of her white nails at Nicole. “Wendy said that she didn’t want to drink, and you pushed one shot after another onto her. You just can’t take a ‘no’ from anybody, can you?”

They took off.

“All my fault?” Nicole held Wendy, who was shivering in her arms with all the color that was leaving her. Nicole barked over Wendy’s bones, “I’m sorry, but wasn’t it your idea to ditch prom and go to some sketchy gay bar instead?”

You’re the one who kept telling the table,” Petra held up her invisible Blue Hawaiian that she swirled with her invisible straw, droning while holding her nose with her invisible third hand, “‘Hey everyone try my drink I got come on try my drink it’s too sweet for me I won’t be able to finish it because I’m Nicole and I’m druh-uh-un---

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Nicole clutched her pearls. “I totally forgot how Blue Hawaiians kill more people in this country than your boyfriend’s coke does.”

“Do not bring Javier into this or I will throw you out the window right fucking now, Nic, I swear to---”

“ENOUGH!”

Jess braked hard at the upcoming stoplight, causing Petra to slam back into her seat and Nicole to nearly topple over Wendy. Wendy was fetal and still coughing, and when she turned her head just a little, Nicole looked down to see a spatter of red across yellow.

“I will not have you two argue over who did what to Wendy while I’m trying to drive. Unless y’all don’t want two more reasons for us to go to the hospital, I suggest that you take care of Wendy. And you,” Jess’ index finger, also white, flicked from Nicole to Petra, “Call Mr. Davenport and tell him what happened.”

“And…” Petra stared down at the phone. Roy Davenport’s number was keyed in, but not dialed, “What should I tell him?”

“That Wendy...got sick after a few drinks, we’re taking her to the hospital, and that,” Jess floored it. “Everything’s gonna be fine.”

The light turned green and Nicole’s dress got redder.

 

***

Russell wasn’t one to be serenaded to, but being a fish, he had no say in it.

“I know somethin’...and I won’t tell,” Blakeley slurred, making the fish hide in his treasure chest made of melted plastic by slamming his tequila bottle onto the table. “Three little bit”---hic---”got somethin’ to sell.”

That was such an easy first line, and Bea flubbed it after just eight seconds on stage. Eight. That was all it took. Once Bea tripped over her fake oxygen tank while watching those high school prom girls run out, it was all over. The owner of Pandora’s Box gave the disheartened queen a pity Jefferson on the way out, along with an invitation followed by stifled laughter to never perform in his establishment again. Blakeley had already spent that five, and the spoils were sitting next to his terrified goldfish.

“One can’t read...and one can’t dance…” Blakeley opened the window, tilting his head over the edge just in case he needed to vomit. He didn’t. He only continued to sing.

“And one can’t fuckinnnn’ perform to save a life…”

Blakeley stepped one foot onto the ledge, then the other. He wobbled like an inexperienced gargoyle on his windowsill until he pushed the rest of the window up with his hands. 

“She go down by the river for the hanky panky and her tits lookin’ like they been”---hic---”painted by Blakeley…”

Slowly, slowly, slowly, he stood upright with the hopes that he’d fall.

“It’s the fifth udda month, and the rent’s past duuuue…”

A snap of wind slammed against Blakeley’s face, making him look down at the rushing earth below. It swayed and swished around like a flushing toilet bowl. He feared the idea of getting lost in it forever. Exhaling the air that hit him, Blakeley saw a swirled reflection of Bea and all the other things he still had left to fix. These reflections became rushing traffic again, making Blakeley jump back inside and slam the window shut. He drew his studded curtains, turned away from the window, and felt a fear of himself manifest just by breathing in and out.

Blakeley looked at the goldfish bopping around some rainbow pebbles behind his treasure chest.

“Whazzat? Ya wanna castle, Russ?” Blakeley pulled out a bucket of beads from under the table and plugged in his iron. He plopped a plastic grid in front of him, swigged down the last of the bottle, and declared, “I can do that. Alright. Alright.”

He began to build a wall.

“Alright...”

 

***

 

“Are you alright, Wendy?”

Wendy had started chewing on her left thumb nail again. Normally, Roy would tell her to stop, but there wouldn’t be a scolding of any kind on this elevator ride. 

Paint chipping and teeth gnashing, Wendy was ruining the coke nail that hardly ever was. Petra would have been more than disappointed in her, especially after how Wendy put out the girls’ blaze of glory last weekend. 

“I know this is a lot to take in all at once. Hell, it’s a lot for me to take in all at once. I can only...we’ll make it. We’ve been through rough patches before. This is nothing for us.”

Wendy couldn’t stop staring at the glowing buttons in front of her. There were eighteen floors in this hospital, and Wendy had only seen two of them. She only had to see two: the lobby and the eighth floor: Respiratory.

“Remember what Dr. Ford said?” Roy patted Wendy on the shoulder. “Seven out of ten patients go into remission after the first year of treatment when it’s caught at this stage. Numbers are on our side, chickadee.”

Wendy’s eyes did not stray from the glowing “3.” It was the only button out of the eighteen that had a working light, black encased in sunshine. She wondered where it went, where it would take her. Her answer was just a nail-tip away.

“...Are you hungry? Maybe you wanna get some hot cocoa? We could get a pizza. I’ll pick it up if you’ll call it in. Does that sound good, Wendy?”

Wendy’s stomach screamed as her lips met her thumb. Metal seeped through the crevice of her lips. Startled, she blinked, turning to her father’s face. His cheeks glistened with hope and tears.

“Yeah, dad, I’m fine,” she laughed, trying to swallow the nail down, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

She said that sushi sounded great like that was a suggestion.

She also said that she was completely fine being left alone at home while Roy worked, which, of course, the father was less inclined to believe. The drag queen, however, would now have more bills to pay, more numbers to perform, and more politicians she needed to impress. So, at the end of the day, Roy didn’t have a choice but to leave Wendy with the rest of their sushi, whatever episodes of Survivor they had on-demand, and her insistence that she was fine, she was fine, and she was fine.

But he wasn’t.

Roy liked his vanity mirror because it was the one closest to the corner fan. There was no place for any queen to get ready on his right, and the other queens at Fuzzy Navel were young, fun, and chittery enough to not want to set up on his left. 

“May I set up here?”

One look around the room and Roy knew that he was only given the illusion of choice.

“Sure,” Roy huffed while swiping on another layer of foundation, “Make yourself comfortable.”

As Blakeley beamed and began to lay out his palettes, Roy overheard one queen whisper to another something about how this new addition to Fuzzy Navel’s roster of queens was so horrendous that she made patrons fall ill just by her being on stage. Roy flitted his eyes over at Blakeley, but the young, fun, and bubbly performer was too wrapped up in his own bliss to pay mind.

“So, like, where are you from, Sara? That’s your name, right? Do you have any pets?” Blakeley was already beating his face with a contour two shades too dark. “I make stuff with Perler beads. You know, those ones you melt? Sometimes, when I’m bored, I make these little trinkets for my goldfish to make his bowl more bougie. Kinda weird, I know, but I guess Russell’s more my baby than my fish. If he can have a more comfortable life than me, then hey, ya know?”

Roy wasn’t listening. He wasn’t listening to the other queens spinning their virulent yarns behind them, either. 

All he could hear was the elevator clicking its way up and his daughter gnashing her nail down to nothing. It would be all he would hear as he got ready for the weeks to come.

 

***

 

Jess was warned before getting on the elevator of the hospice that this visit would be rougher than the storm outside.

“I couldn’t stay for longer than, like, ten minutes yesterday. Isn't that horrible?” Nicole asked Jess earlier over tea that morning. Before Jess could answer her, Nicole whimpered over the steam, “You don’t have to tell me. It is.”

If Jess had the chance to say anything, she would have told Nicole that at least she’s been taking the trips these past three months, unlike Petra. But that would have made them both more upset. Jess knew that she would get up from her seat and bellow for Petra to give an explanation for all the missed calls, all the messages left on read, all the pleadings for just a drop of her compassion and why not a morsel could be found of it, even if there was no one else to hear it.

Jess couldn’t scream a word of her pain. Instead, she had to sit there and watch Nicole weep over the chamomile brew, knowing that there wasn’t anything she could say that could stop her. There would be no point to, only to be cruel. That seemed to be enough for some.

Jess swallowed all of this down before the doors opened. She brushed the droplets off her blue rain jacket with her free hand. From her other nail-bitten hand dangled her laptop bag wrapped up by three more plastic bags. Years of swashbuckling on the internet for fine cinema was not about to be compromised by D.C.’s angered elements.

“Hey, queen. Love the hearts.”

Jess wanted to strangle herself for an introduction so graceless. Once Wendy gave her something that resembled a laugh, however, only part of this guilt was lifted. Jess only saw black dots under Wendy’s eyes before she could look away.

“Thank you, thank you,” Wendy murmured, “I just can’t do them like you can, though.”

Jess only took two steps forward from the door, still not looking directly at Wendy. Jess’s rain boots, drenched and caked with outside, were inaudible against the tile. Once at the television stand, Jess began hooking up her laptop to the television with an HDMI cable.

 “Ready for the 2020 Davenport-Springfield Film Festival?” Jess asked with more vigor than the question bargained for.

Wendy said nothing in response, only wheezed.

Jess opened her laptop, too busy loading up the screen to watch Wendy’s face sink. 

“Now showing: John Wick: Chapter 3,” the marquee sign Jess’s hands made advertised from left to right. Jess clacked away on her keyboard with, “I sinned and saw, like, the first hour without you, but I had to make sure it didn’t suck first. It was a bitch finding it online without the audio being super slowed down, but I found a rip on Drive as long as you don’t mind the Mandarin subtitles.”

“Jess---”

“Of course, if this doesn’t work out, the festival committee can fall back on...ooh, I still have Oldboy. Speaking of, I tried getting my hands on Train to Busan, but Korea’s pirate bay’s been running real dry these days.”

“JJ, I---”

“Why do I still have Petra’s copy of Dream Girls on here? Whatever, okay, would you rather watch Oldboy or Baby Driver after---”

 A cough paused Jess amidst her mania. She had no choice but to look at Wendy now, dead-on, without anywhere else for her gaze to point to and hide.

“I’m sorry, JJ. I’m just…” Wendy let out a sigh so deep that Jess saw part of her soul leave with her breath. Wendy fell back further into her pillow. Jess took two steps back without realizing it. “I’m so tired. I...I think I just want to sleep if that’s okay.”

“Oh,” Jess closed her laptop and scooped everything into her bag without looking away from Wendy’s bed. “Yeah, for sure.”

“Are you sure?” Wendy asked. “I feel horrible.”

Jess took two steps forward with her packed bag and questioned, bewildered, “Why do you feel horrible?”

“You came all this way only for me to turn around and go back to sleep,” Wendy wagged her head from side to side. She weakly laughed, then wheezed again, “I’m horrible.”

“You’re not horrible. You’re just tired,” Jess said.

“Yeah.”

“I get it,” Jess said, believing she was being truthful. She wasn’t.

“Thank you. I knew you would,” Wendy lied.

Jess found herself at Wendy’s bedside tucking her in. It gave her a chance to really smell her sickness again. Over Jess’s hands, Wendy weighed the same as nothing. She weighed more like nothing with every night Jess had come to visit her. Wendy outstretched her paper hand, extending her fingers out to life.

“Good night, fair lady,” Wendy smiled like in every other photograph ever taken of her. It was a smile like she was letting the viewer in on something, but it was something only she would ever know about. It was a smile that took up half of her being.

Jess bent over and kissed Wendy’s hand, tasting death. It was all she could taste.

“Good night, my dear princess,” Jess bowed her head and walked out of the room, turning off the light on her way out and gently closing the door behind her.

Jess began walking down a random hall of rooms away from the elevator. She found herself at a bench down the hall across from Wendy’s room. She sat there and didn’t leave, and didn’t leave, and continued not to leave, only staring across all dimensions straight down the hall at Wendy’s closed door.

“Jess?” 

Jess blinked. 

“It’s two in the morning. What are you still doing here this late?”

Roy stood before Jess sopping wet. He had his heels and equally sopping wig in the same hand, with his other shaking Jess’s shoulder. 

“How long have I been sitting here?” Jess asked to no one in particular.

“That’s what I’m asking you, kiddo,” Roy chuckled. He reached out his fake nails to Jess, who promptly took the off-the-clock drag queen’s hand. “Do you have a ride home? I know you’re not planning on walking.”

“Oh, yeah. I called an Uber. He should be here, like,” Jess turned on her phone like she was checking on when her driver would arrive. “Any minute now. Just didn’t want to wait out in the rain, you know?”

Roy nodded. All he could do was pat Jess on the shoulder with whatever love he hadn’t already reserved for his daughter. Then, he turned the corner to knock on Wendy’s door, only to get assurance from Nurse Cathy that she was only sleeping and that he, more than anyone, knew how she could get.

Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Jess heaved in and out until it got exhausting to do so. Hours after Roy had fallen asleep in his daughter’s room, Cathy tucked a blanket around Jess’s body shivering on the bench.

 

***

 

Just a few days later, Wendy told Cathy and her father that she wanted to open her door to anyone who wanted to stop by the hospice and say hi to her, even if she had never met them before. After three months of sitting in bed and waiting for tomorrow to feel a little worse, Wendy said to them both that sharing her seconds with anyone who would take them would make her feel a little better about losing them all for good. By law, they both had to oblige to her wish. By obligation, Roy advertised Wendy’s visiting hours from his vanity mirror to any queen who would listen.

The last stranger who would ever stop by the hospice and say hi came along with the sun.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Do…” Blakeley asked, “Do you remember me?”

Wendy squinted over her mountain of sheets and shook her head. 

“Didn’t think you would. Maybe,” Blakeley looked around the room to find an oxygen mask, hovered one over his face once he found it, and asked, “This jogs your memory?”

Wendy murmured with eyes widened, “Oh...oh shit. You’re that queen. You work with my dad now, don’t you?”

Blakeley nodded as he stepped into the room and put a vase of daffodils in a free space amongst the other plushies, balloons, and other flowers next to Wendy’s television. 

“Are these okay where they are?” he asked, his green nails hovering around the petals. The offering was already indistinguishable from the rest of them.

“They’re beautiful. Thank you. I’m…” Wendy went off-script and chuckled in spite of herself. As she shook her head, she said, “I’m sorry. It’s just that I ruined your night however long ago and now you’re here bringing me flowers. It’s…”

Wendy coughed, which made Blakeley sprint to her side. When Wendy’s watery eyes opened again, the tips of her fingers met warm Styrofoam.

“Roy mentioned while we were getting ready the other night that you liked all kinds of tea. And, well, I work at a tea place when I’m not...you know,” Blakeley shrugged, “Falling over myself.”

“I don’t think we stayed for that,” Wendy said.

“Oh. Well, in that case,” Blakeley unzipped his rhinestoned rain jacket and leaned his rhinestoned umbrella against the door frame. He shrugged while adding, “I didn’t fall over myself.”

“I’m sure you were just fine,” Wendy said with a smile, “Dad says that you really are a good perf---”

She hacked again, Blakeley gently patting Wendy on the back in response. It helped little. 

“T-Thank you. That really helps,” Wendy took a sip of her tea to clear her throat. She waved at the space between them. “Now all we’re missing are scones.”

“I don’t get a discount on those.”

Wendy laughed and, after a few seconds of dead air, she asked, “Well, now what do we talk about?”

“Whatever you want to.” Blakeley answered, shrugging again.

Wendy thought for a moment. After a long, long gulp of tea, Wendy asked, “I might know the answer to this already, but...are you a religious person?”

Blakeley took a sip of his tea and looked up at the ceiling. He squinted, hoping to find a simple answer in the lights, but he couldn’t.

“Well, no. I mean, I was,” Blakeley put his tea on the side table. He explained, “My parents ran the Jesus school gambit. I went to Baptist school for a few years, then they decided that that wasn’t making me straight enough fast enough, so they put me in one of those Catholic schools. You know, with the nuns and the rulers,” Blakeley mimicked Sister Agnes breaking a ruler over a fifteen-year-old boy’s wrist. “But I...I don’t know. I believe in some parts of it, not others, I guess. Funny. I’m usually too bothered with other things to think about it this hard.”

“I’m not religious either,” Wendy said after more tea, “But my death counselor here said that spiritual exercise like prayer gives some people closure...or...something like that.”
“Well, does it?”

“I’ll admit, I haven’t really tried it yet. I guess I’ve been putting it off because I don’t know what I should be praying for.”

Blakeley sat on Wendy’s bedside as he shrugged and said, “I think you can pray for whatever you want, right? I mean, like I said, I’m not religious, but I still ask the universe for good vibes or for my least favorite person on Survivor to get voted off the island even if the episodes were filmed years ago. It’s like having a say in it all.”

“I guess so. Maybe that’s what he meant. I don’t know,” Wendy leaned further back into her pillow and stared up at the lights. As if her last question was a pest, she waved her hand in the air and sighed, “Look, I’m sorry. I know this is a weird conversation for us to be having. I’m just---”

Blakeley took Wendy’s hands, taking care to not let Wendy’s tubes wrap around his arms.  

“It’s okay,” Blakeley said, “I promise it is.”

“Then…” Wendy’s eyes seared into Blakeley’s. “Would you mind starting one?”

Blakeley repeated, “Starting what? A prayer?”

Wendy’s head was already bowed, eyes closed, hands gripped around Blakeley’s. Once more, Blakeley squinted at the lights for something from his school days. After nothing came to mind, he slowly sewed something together while subconsciously counting all the dots in his vision.

“Okay. Um, dear God, uh...hiiiiiie. It’s, um, Blakeley here with...with Wendy. Roy’s daughter. You probably already knew that...this. Anyway, uh,” Blakeley’s eyes flitted away from the ceiling to Wendy as he rasped, “I’m so sorry. I’m floundering here.”

“You’re doing great,” Wendy whispered back, head still bowed and eyes still closed. “Keep it going.”

Blakeley looked back up.

“Anyway, uh...I know it’s been a while. Sorry about that. But we thought we’d, you know, check in. And maybe you’d check in with us. I know you’re busy, but we could really use your help. And, uh, now Wendy wants to talk to you.”

When Wendy looked up, a small clump of hair fell from her shoulder. Blakeley tilted his head down to cue Wendy’s start.

“Um...hey, God,” Wendy slowly began, “We never talked except for that one time Petra’s family took me to church after a sleepover when we were, like, ten. But yeah. Now that I’m here and Blakeley’s set us all up with introductions, I...I still don’t know what to ask for. I guess just make sure my friends are okay when I’m gone? Make sure Petra’s still doing good with that guy. I know Nicole and Jess will be okay even if they don’t feel like they will be. And, um…”

There was a pause. Blakeley looked up when he felt his own palms shaking around Wendy’s, who didn’t make her crying and grimacing subtle to God.

“God fucking damn it, I don’t want to die,” Wendy pulled her hands away from Blakeley to hide her running eye makeup. “I’m supposed to be graduating, not sitting here waiting until my life ends. Why did I go to high school just to get some ‘honorary’ degree in the mail? What’s with a whole lifetime of sports only to sit in this stupid bed waiting to die? What was the point of anything at all if this was how I was going to turn out? I’m in the worst pain I’ve ever been in in my fucking life, I’m too tired to sit through a two hour film, and all I can do is grin and bear it. I'm pissed. I'm beyond spent. I have to---”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Blakeley offered softly, making Wendy look up from her hands. Wendy shook her head violently like she was shaking every vermin that ever plagued her away. “This is unfair and you have a right to not be okay with it.”

“Has your father ever cried over you because he knew you were dying soon and there was nothing he could do to stop it? Have you ever had to just pretend you’re sleeping and let it happen even though you wanted so badly to cry yourself but you couldn’t because that helps no one?”

“No.”

“That’s what the counselor said,” Wendy sniffled. “That prayer would help with everything I can’t understand.”

“It...it looks like it is.”

Wendy’s laugh collapsed into more weeping. 

“I’d really,” Wendy sniffled, “Really like to know how this is helping.”

Blakeley never said anything in response because he didn’t have to. All he had to do was hold her.

Wendy hadn’t sobbed so hard in years. She was taught throughout her life that crying solved nothing, did nothing, and helped no one, so she never partook in it. It was hard for her to remember if or not she had ever sobbed at all. 

“You know,” Blakeley whispered into what remained of Wendy’s hair, “A very, very smart drag queen once told me that just breathing is the best way to show that you’re still alive because you’re doing it for yourself.”

Wendy sniffled and pulled away to dot out her tears. 

“I just want everything to be okay when I’m gone,” Wendy fell over her words, “But I’m not okay with any of this.”

“And again: You don’t have to be.”

Wendy slowly sank back into her bed, signalling for Blakeley to start making his exit.

“Please don’t tell him that you saw me like this,” Wendy begged softly.

“Saw you like what?” Blakeley turned off the light and, even though it was barely noon, Blakeley bidded Wendy, “Good night.”

Blakeley only turned the light off to let in the sunshine. Wendy rolled over on her side to let her frontal body welcome in the beams.

There was nothing else to be done. Knowing this, she truly rested.

 

***

 

Petra couldn’t find it in her to have a good time.

She’d do anything for Javi, which was why she was digging into herself even harder to find some serotonin to tap into. Sera Tonin would make for a killer drag name, she thought. If she were a drag queen, that would be her name. No, that would be Wendy’s name since she was always so---

“What the hell’s gotten into you, Petra?”

Petra looked up from the Blue Hawaiian Javier got for her, smiled, shrugged, and said, “What do you mean, babe? I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’ve been zoning in and out for, like, hours now,” Javier, nine years Petra’s senior, took on the role as her legal guardian while they were out, especially when they were with his friends. Even though there was not a single person in this club with a sexual interest in Petra, Javier coiled around her space just to be safe. With one hand on her thigh and the other on his drink, Javier asked, “Do you even know where you are right now?”

Petra turned to her left to see Warren and Nate bitching over the music. They bitched about everything: the weather, student loans, their jobs at the mall, the “fairy” who had no idea how to close the Teavana if you showed him, and most importantly, whatever music that played over them that they had no control over.

“Bro, these guys are noise. I don’t get how anyone can listen to this.”

“Heard. Why do they call themselves, ‘100 gecs’? Not like there’s a hundred of ‘em.”

“Yeah, like, the fuck is a ‘gec,’ anyway? Doesn’t matter if Rico Nasty’s on this track. It blows.”

“Dude. It’s dick.”

“Heard.”

There were several moshing people who seemed to disagree with two of the only straight patrons of Club Gecko. Not like the four of them ever went to this bar for the entertainment value and not the $1 Screwball Saturdays, anyway. 

“Speaking of, remember when fuckin’ Blakeley was here and he forgot all the words to his own song?” Nate sneered.

“Oh my God, that was terrible,” Warren snorted over his fourth emptied shot glass in an hour. “Just look at that one flailing around up there now.”

Warren and Nate watched the queen up there trying and failing at her Britney Spears impersonation. Because this queen could only afford a stuffed snake, a drunk patron had ripped it from the queen’s hands just seconds after her number began just so she could whack the other members of her bachelorette party with it. As Warren and Nate continued to gawk and Javier continued to glare at Petra, Petra only had one thing to say to the napkin holder in front of her: “I need to step outside.”

So, she did.

“I swear, ever since that girl died…” was all she heard from the table as she walked away. Petra figured that Javier would probably come out in a few minutes regardless of if or not she told him that she’d be back. She always came back. 

A few minutes was all she needed, anyway. No, what Petra really needed was a cigarette. Across the street, a queen was standing outside of Fuzzy Navel lighting one around her talons. Petra quickly trotted across the street without an eye on traffic and stood before the queen. She grew breathless and wordless in spite of herself.

“M-Mr. Daven---”

“It’s Sara while I’m on the clock, Miss Patel,” Sara held out the open carton of cigarettes to Petra, adding, “It’s been a minute.”

With hesitation, Petra took a cigarette from the box and lit it with the yellow lighter in her pocket. She had repossessed it from Javier long ago, but he had since failed to notice. Finally, after seconds of silence, Petra said, “I’m sorry.”

Sara, without looking at Petra, replied with a simple, “I know you are.” 

They watched cars hydroplane for a while.

“I don’t think your friends know how sorry you are.” Sara took a drag of her cigarette.

“Oh, they won’t talk to me. I thought about reaching out to them after the funeral, but I highly doubt it would do any good now. Not like they’d talk to me, anyway,” Petra took a drag herself, letting the smoke leave through her nose on its own. “Not like I’d blame them.”

Sara said nothing, only watching Petra.

 I…” Petra continued, staring at the flickering lounge lizard with a mai tai above Club Gecko’s entrance. “I think I lost sight of what’s important, I guess? And now it’s too late to fix any of it. I’ve done nothing to help anyone. I’ve really fucked all this up for myself.”

Sara put out her cigarette with the bottom of her pump.

“I wouldn’t say that,” she remarked. “Too late’s too definite.”

Petra raised her eyebrows as she watched a crimson sedan nearly slam into a fire hydrant. 

“Very wise, Miss Dippity. I mean that,” Petra nodded with sincerity while still being unsure of how to apply any of the words. The sedan backed up and veered off like imminent death wasn’t just on its horizon.

“Jess and Nicole have been coming by here every Saturday,” Roy explained, “They’ve been doing this film festival thing where they’ll pick out a movie for us all to watch back at the apartment after I get off. I order pizza for us if I don’t pass out first. It’s more their thing and I just let it happen.”

Once Petra understood what this meant, her eyes widened. She threw her cigarette out into the road and bolted inside just as a seasoned Britney impersonator was pulling out her live boa constrictor. The yellow snake coiled from the nape of her neck to the center of the stage, watching Petra as she fumbled around animal-printed upholstery in the dark to “Toxic.”

Finally, Petra found herself before the corner booth of Fuzzy Navel, her purple clutch quaking in her grip behind her back. Nicole and Jess’s chittering was paused once they turned to see Petra. Once she had their attention, Petra melted before them, pumped her months of self-hatred over the table, assured that she’d do so much better if given the chance, wept over her weakness, and finally gripped around the end of the table with clammy hands and a, “I don’t know what else to say.”

Petra’s purple clutch fell to the floor. Jess and Nicole sat in silence, with Jess picking up the clutch and Nicole scooting over to leave space on her left.

“You never had to say anything,” said Nicole.

So, she didn’t.

 

***

 

Another night, another opportunity for Blakeley to watch Russell make his rounds around the bowl.

“Russell,” Jeff Probst announced from Blakeley’s laptop, “The tribe has spoken.”

Blakeley glugged down some water and pointed at the screen with his chopsticks.

“Oop, there you go, Russell,” Blakeley said as Russell trudged away from his tribe, “The universe wasn’t down with us tonight. What year was this episode, anyway?”

Blakeley boxed up the last of his takeout he had bought with the night’s tips. After taxes and a generous tip to the hostess, he still had a five dollar bill left over. His most profitable night yet. So profitable, so magical of a finale without a single word missed. No one bought the queen flowers for it, so she bought some herself.

Blakeley put his vase of daffodils under the running tap.

“Let me tell you, I am disgusted with my tribe,” Russell lamented to Blakeley from the living room, “This game was in my hands, and they destroyed it for me. Completely.”

Russell the goldfish glubbed up a few bubbles as Blakeley put the vase down next to him. The vase held an infinite field within it as far as either of them were concerned.

“You’re right, Russell,” Blakeley shrugged down at the bowl. “It can’t be helped now.”

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