From the author: Wherein I Become Sassy
I was sprawled on the floor watching TV when someone knocked at my door. No one knocks at my door. My apartment was at the top of a narrow, steep, and weirdly slippery staircase that winds through a dilapidated house on a back street convenient to no one. I'd removed the door number and welcome matt in the hopes that, should anyone mistakenly find their way up here, they couldn't tell it was an apartment door.
And yet, knocking.
The door pushed open, stopping hard against its chain. "Hello? Marcy?" It was Jasmine from the apartment downstairs.
I didn't get up. “Is the tub leaking again? Talk to the landlady.”
“Oh no! It’s not that." She peered over my door-chain, letting the silence build.
Jasmine was one of those interchangeable blonde grad students from wherever they make those, unfairly thin and clean-complexioned, though with a roman nose and strong jaw that gave her a gaunt, Hapsburg ugliness. I liked that, and her inability to socialize. I usually saw her on the landing, that long thin nose in a book, poking her key at her lock until it found the hole on its own. What had interrupted her perfect record of not speaking to me? I gave her the death glare that stopped flirting bar patrons cold.
She was unaffected. "Couldja open the door? This is really awkward."
It seemed I was not going to get rid of her otherwise, so I got up and pushed the door shut on her to undo the latch.
"Thanks so much!" She immediately pushed the door open again. Her eyes were glittering, fever-bright. Bright red spots on her waxy cheeks. "It’s, well, I know this is crazy, and we don’t know each other very well, but would you be willing to be my sassy best friend?” She bounced in what might have been a curtsey.
I had nothing to say to that.
Jasmine twisted her hands together. “It’s just that I don’t really know anyone around here, and you’ve waved at me.”
“I’m pretty sure that was an accident.”
“See! I knew you’d be sassy. We should have coffee together or something.”
“I only drink tea,” I said, which was true, but also convenient for ending the conversation.
“That’s quirky. I like it. Can I come in and have some tea with you? Do you have any man troubles to complain about? I’m a good listener.”
“No.” I wanted to get back to watching the movie I’d downloaded–it had lots of explosions and a lead actor who forgot to put a shirt on for most scenes. Two of my favorite things in a movie.
“It’s no trouble!” Jasmine said, like this was her apartment and I’d asked for something. Before I could recover from my shock and block her, she walked right in. “What an adorable room! Oh! Here’s the kitchen. It looks like a doll’s house.”
The kitchen nook was indeed uncomfortably twee, with two tiny cupboards and a miniature counter, all white with red gingerbread trim. Worse, it was the most hospitable place in the attic apartment, with a dormer window providing standing room around the doll-like table and spindle-leg chairs. I'd paint it all black, but that would invalidate my lease.
I stayed at the door, holding it wide. Jasmine didn't get the hint. She started folding the clothes I’d piled on the kitchen chairs. “I’m working on my thesis,” she said. “Modern literature. I’ve been ABD for months.”
All But Dissertation. Grad students like saying they are 'all but dissertation' because it sounds like they've done the hard work and it's just a formality keeping them hanging around. I only made it through one year of graduate school before I realized I’d make more money serving drinks than as an adjunct professor, but even I sometimes fibbed myself up to ABD.
Since Jasmine was immune to hints, I closed the door and joined her in the nook. “Go away. I was doing something.”
She finished consolidating all my hoodies into a pile on the table and sat down. “Are you a student, also? I mean, I assume so. Practically everyone here is.”
Being a perpetual student is more impressive to people than being an actual wage-earing member of the community, so I adopted a don't ask and/or don't tell policy toward my academic career. She'd asked, but I didn't tell. "I'm not accepting friend applications at this time. Try next third Monday of never." Jasmine picked up my favorite mug. I took it and moved it as far from her as I could. “I’m also not making you tea.”
“That's fine. I'd hate to be a bother. It is 'Marcy', isn’t it?" She paused for confirmation I didn't give. Like our mail boxes weren't sticky-labels on a sorting tray from Office Depot. "Well, Marcy, my dissertation is on Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, and the undefined boundaries of commercial sub-genres. I’ve read, like, everything. Dozens of times. You should see my collection.”
This, I didn’t doubt. She usually had a paperback surgically attached to her face and another tucked under her arm. “Is this conversation going to have anything to do with me any time soon?” I shifted to hide the electric kettle with my body.
A solemn nod. “I realized, once I finish my thesis, well, what’s the point? Go teach English somewhere? What I really want to do with my life–who I want to be–is a heroine. I want to be a paranormal investigator.”
“Mm-hm… wait, what?” I'd been expecting her to ask me to fill out a survey or proof-read a manuscript.
Jasmine clasped her hands as if in prayer. “Which is why I need a sassy best friend! You’ll be moral support and a sounding board. A necessary source of ethnic diversity. Of course, you’ll also need to get yourself in trouble now and then so I can rescue you. Do you think you could do that?”
"Ethnic what? Now I'm offended. Get out."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Of course, that's not the only reason I'm picking you. There are more ethnically diverse people in the English department."
I wondered if her definition of 'more diverse' was 'darker brown' and considered whether the cops would believe me that the white girl had to go out the window. "How about you finish that thesis first and then talk to me?"
"It's better if the heroine has some small, mundane matter to worry about at first, like a thesis. I'll keep working on my paper between adventures, and that's another way a sassy best friend comes in. There may be unavoidable conflicts between my academic duties and saving the world. I'll need to be in two places at once. A female sidekick about my age is ideal. You are ideal. Specifically. I've been observing your habits, and you're very in tune with the non-academic community. I need someone immersed in the mundane who can provide commentary when the paranormal starts happening."
I don't know why, but "immersed in the mundane" sounded like an insult, but no one had ever singled me out as special for anything. I never had a solo birthday party, even, thanks to my brother D. “You know there’s no such thing as the paranormal, right? That shit’s just make-believe, like compassionate conservatives.”
She waved this off. “Paranormal things pass by unnoticed until you have an investigator to seek them out, or a cocktail waitress with psychic powers. My own power hasn't awakened yet, but the psychic reader on Oak Street told me I’m a ‘sensitive’.”
A psychic told my older brother he was sensitive and he couldn’t guess what flavor a brown donut was.
Which reminded me I had donuts. I fished the box out of the cabinet. It'd been a while since I felt this entertained without Michael Bay being involved. Jasmine was a train wreck waiting to happen.
Jasmine's eyes tracked my hand as I ate. Don't know why. They were powdered sugar. I'd finished off the chocolate.
Jasmine refocused and counted on her fingers. “I have a possible psychic talent, a sassy best friend, a pure heart and a naïve sense of justice." She pouted as I put the donut box back in the cupboard. "It's all you need to start out as a paranormal investigator. Well, first you need the mysterious man to come into town, and he hasn’t yet, but I figure we can go forth and have some adventures anyway, warm up for when the handsome, paranormal love interests start showing up.” She pulled folded slips of paper from her pockets. “Here, I cut some clippings from the newspaper."
"You found an actual newspaper?" They didn't look like newsprint, but if she took scissors to the public library that train wreck was coming faster than I expected.
She looked at me like I was the weird one. "They're printed off the web. But they are real unsolved crimes. There are, like, thousands! I don’t know where to start.” She spread the clippings on the table. “These are all right here in Hulver. Most of them are pretty boring. Missing items. Vandalism. Oh! This one’s arson. That could turn out to be a handsome, financially secure but untrained fire-starter losing control of his nascent powers.” She turned the paper toward me and smoothed it.
This clueless lamb was going to toddle into active police investigations. That could be hilarious... but only from a safe distance. I wiped powdered sugar off my mouth with my forearm. “Do you need me to go investigate with you, or could I stay here? I could maintain a... secret refuge for you to come and, uh, unburden yourself when you have to choose between the werewolf and the vampire or something?”
Jasmine bit her lip. Her fingers played over her news articles. “I suppose whichever you want. There are different types of sassy best friends.”
“Cool. I’m in. Now get out.”
Jasmine blinked at me.
“You need to get going on your fire-starter thing." It wasn't working. She was sitting there like a stump. "Go... look for clues. I’ll… do research on lore for you.” I hated myself a little for using the word "lore." Desperate times.
“Oh. Okay!" She hopped to her feet. "When should we meet again?”
“How about you leave me a message when you’ve found a clue. Something concrete.” That should be somewhere around never.
"We should have a system. I could slip a note under your door? Do you know the Caesar cipher or we could just use Atbash? You'll have to destroy the notes after reading them so no one has a chance to decrypt them."
She scowled. "Sure which one?"
"Whatever you want." Pushing Jasmine out the door, I felt compelled to say, “By the way–werewolf. Duh.”
“You know,” Jasmine snapped her fingers, “You’re right.”
“I usually am,” I said, and felt quite sassy as I put the chain-lock back on.
I expected her to leave me alone a week at least since there weren't likely to be any actual clues in the world. You'd think I'd know better. My younger brother was finding clues all the time that aliens built the pyramids.
So there I was the next afternoon, carrying groceries up the back stairs. Jasmine jumped out at me on the landing. “I found something!”
Packets slid out of my bag when I flinched back. “Jesus. Wear a bell or something.” I set down the bag and gathered up my ramen. (I said being a bartender paid better than being an adjunct, I didn’t say it paid good.)
“I investigated the arson site, like you suggested. It’s a storage shed on a farm just outside of town. Typically, if a fire-starter is involved, there will be charred handprints or footprints, or there will be evidence of much higher temperatures than expected, like molten rock and things? It didn't have any of that.”
She said this like I’d been championing the idea of a fire-starter and she had to let me down gently. “Some undergrads torched it for fun. Cross it off your list and investigate something else.” I looked pointedly past her, at the stairs up to my apartment.
“But you won't believe what I found! There were chewing marks on the trees nearby.” Jasmine spread her hands in front of me, slowly, like revealing an imaginary title card. “Like a giant beaver!”
I blinked. “Sounds like a beaver.” I tried to squeeze past her.
She stuck on me like glue up the stairs, which I may have mentioned are narrow, steep, and painted in a high-gloss finish that can send you flying.
I concentrated on my footing while she lectured. “This isn’t the right area for beavers. It’s a full three miles from the nearest stream and beavers don’t leave their aquatic habitat save in winter, when some will forage for new ground.”
We were at my landing. I shoved at her with my grocery bag to back up so I could reach the doorknob. “That’s not evidence. Come back when you have a thing, you know? A thing you can pick up?”
“Well, there was a bottle of something called ‘Johnny Walker Black’. I don’t know what that is. It could be relevant, though.”
I stopped with my key in my lock. “Was it full?”
“No, only half.”
That made it exactly half as interesting. However, I spend most of my working days surrounded by top-shelf liquor and hardly ever get to drink any. “That could be important evidence. Let's see it.”
"I don't have it with me."
And so dies many a beautiful dream. I opened my door as narrowly as possible and tried to slide in with room for my groceries but without room for her to follow. "Oh well, bring it next time."
"But you should see it in situ! All the best clues rely on their position in the environment."
I had the door closed between us and I was putting the chain lock in when I heard her muffled voice add, "I was hoping you'd be able to help me identify the other bottles."
I considered that the evening I had planned was the same as the evening before and the evening before that, only with new ramen flavors. I considered that someone who left behind a half bottle of Johnny Walker Black could have left other expensive liquor. I slid the chain back out of the lock. "You know what? That sounds worth investigating."