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Thought Balloons and Cotton Swabs

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It shouldn’t have been easy to feel so alone around other people. Especially not people as wonderful as your girlfriends were. But if anyone could manage, it’d be you.

Venus found you first, probably. Never easy to hide from a girl with an eye for every sight. But it was Jupiter who reached you. A hand on yours, a gentle touch, empty past the wrist. You’re tempted to shake it off, because the proximity burns at you, because the feeling of clean skin makes you so fucking aware of your dirtiness. Of every ounce of filth and corruption and stain that has woven itself into your soul.

The touch was like a warning, like the softest alarm in the universe. “We’re on our way,” it says. You don’t move. You just lift the glass to your lips and take a long sip.

Footsteps in the water that you’d flooded the floor of the bar with. “Whiskey?” Jupiter asks.

You shake your head. “Ginger ale. No booze.” You wish you could drink again. But you know what alcohol does to you, what it turns you into. And even you’re not stupid enough to go chasing that person anymore. At least the ginger still burns your throat, at least it warms your cold gut for a meager instant of a second.

She hops onto the barside stool next to yours. “You’re not twenty-one yet. So, I guess that’s good?”

You gesture towards the empty bar with a hand dripping black ichor into the shallow wake. “Do you see anyone around here to card me?”

“Nope,” she laughs. And then she’s quiet. “Is, for us?”

You just shrug. “Where’s Venus?”

“Trying to find somewhere to park.” Jupiter gives you a look. One of her puppy-dog looks with the pleading eyes, the ones that make you want to wilt back into yourself until you implode like the world’s gayest black hole. “Are you leaving? Please don’t...” She gestures at nothing with an echo of hands. “I want to know. If you’re going, if this is it for us, just tell me. Please.”

You delay your response behind another sip. “I forgot about this place. Forgot this is where she said she lived.” You chuckle, and watch her eyes widen out of the corner of your vision. You’ve told Jupiter about her. You’ve told both of them. They know who she is, what she means. What she did to you. “We’ve all had our moments, right? Venus in her old hometown. You after a couple days into the trip.”

“And this is yours,” she finishes. Jupiter purses her lips, running hollow fingers through her hair, adjusting and fiddling. “ pulled me out of it. Back then. And we both helped ease Venus through hers.” A hand, reaching out. A hundred hands, a thousand fingers. They don't reach you. She doesn’t reach you.

It’s been almost a year since you set out. Since that day when you woke up to Jupiter staring off into nothing, a storm of swirling hands around her, the center of her own personal cyclone. Venus was panicking, too desperate to do anything. So you just walked right in and wrapped your arms around your girlfriend. You remember it vividly, the feeling of your lover’s nails digging into your arms, fingers like teeth, like a mouth closing down on you. And you kept hugging her, kept holding her through it. Until those touches softened, until her sharper edges dulled against you. Venus was easier than that, when she had her own nervous breakdown a few months later. She didn’t even lash out, just crumpled at your touch and clung to you, making herself as small as possible until Jupiter could get the RV a few dozen miles out.

“You were both scared.” You chuckle, dark water flowing up into your throat like so much bile. “I’m not.”

“What are you?” she asks.

“Angry.” You laugh again. “I’m so fucking angry, Jupes.”

She frowns. Another ebb, another flow, a wave of touch flowing across the distance.

“If you touch me, you’ll probably die,” you warn. Not a threat. It’s as empty a warning as they come. She still touches you. Hands on your cheek, on your shoulder, on your arm, fingers tangling into yours, brushing through your unkempt hair.

“You look really pretty,” Jupiter says. “Without the glamor, I mean. When you look like a devil. You’re...really, really gorgeous.”

“Thanks,” you say. You glance up towards the wall of booze bottles that you systematically shattered earlier. There’s a mirror there, for some unearthly fucking reason. And you take a nice long look at your own face. Your hair is wild. Your eyes are two empty pits. Blobs of pitch drip down your skin. You look like you just took a bath in a tar pit after staying up for three days straight. “I don’t know if she lives here anymore. Maybe she never lived here, maybe that was just a fucking lie too.” You shrug. “No one here remembers her. Maybe she’s dead. Maybe she gave me a fake name. Maybe they’re hiding her. Don’t know.”

Jupiter just nods. “There’s nothing here for you,” she says, quietly.

“Yeah,” you agree. “I still feel like drowning this place. Like just...killing it. The whole fucking town.” You chuckle, and you feel it. You’ve felt it for a while, since before they found you. You’ve felt it since the moment you brought the flood into this town, the moment you reached with tendrils of water like grasping fingers into every home, every business, every inch of this stupid fucking stain on that land that didn’t belong to them. You can taste the blood beneath the concrete and it makes you want to scream. “But you’re both too good to get caught up in that.”

There’s a sadness in her touch. A melancholy you try your best to look away from. “Is that why you left? Is that why you didn’t talk to us?”

You nod. “If Venus started looking, she might find her. And if she finds her, she finds all that shit I never want either of you to see. And if you start grabbing onto me, you might get swept away too.” You lift your glass, its rim covered in ichor, stained through from even those brief encounters with your lips. “Or you might grab onto something worse than you deserve.”

“I...” She looks away, massaging her wrist with one hand. “I really hate it. When you say stuff like that.” Jupiter brushes a bit of hair out of her face, tucking it behind one ear. You try not to look too hard. Not that it matters. You fell for her ages ago, there’s no point pretending like you’re not infatuated with every little motion. The way her hair frames her face, the way she tests the waters with every touch, the way she smiles with her whole body.

“Because you love me,” you say.

“Because I love you,” she agrees. “Because I never wanna hear anyone say something like that about my girlfriend. Even if it’s her who’s saying it.”

The door swings open, sending a burst of ripples across the ground. Footsteps in the shallow wake. And someone grabs you by the back of your shirt, pulling you off the stool. You don’t expect it, so you topple, nearly faceplanting, catching yourself on your assailant. On Venus.

“Come on,” she grumbles, yanking you a few stumbling steps. Her wings are shimmering through her veil, light piercing holes through an unkempt glamor. You can see a dozen faint eyes on a dozen fainter feathers, all of them fixated on you. And they look angry. Angrier than you have ever seen her.

You stand your ground. This is your territory. Venus can drag your ass across the heavens as much as she likes, but down here in the brack and brine? This is your world. And you won’t budge. “So that’s it, huh?” you say. And your voice should be angry and dark and devilish, but you just sound empty. “You’re making my choice for me? I don’t get a say in this? I don’t get to leave?”

“Then leave!” she shouts back. “Then...leave, if you hate yourself so much.” A wing swipes across her face, so many eyes blinking something away you cannot dare to name. “If you don’t trust us, then go.” She doesn’t release you. Her hands are still gripping like vices to your arm. “But I’m not letting you go somewhere like this.” She’s pleading with you. Every look is a wish. Every glance is a hope. “Don’t ask me to leave you somewhere you want to die in!”

Her voice echoes across the water. It ricochets through your silent ribcage. It chills you to every bone.

You’re not good at healing. Not yourself, not others. A stain can’t ever wash anything else out. Corruption is a zero sum game like that. You’re only good at covering bad things up with something worse.

But being bad at something doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

And you return the flood.

The water sweeps itself away. Through the entrance of the bar. Through the streets. Up a dozen basement stairs. Under every door. Down every porch. Back towards that lake fifteen miles east where it came from. Back to the sea beyond that lake. Gone. You can’t feel it anymore. You can’t feel the weight of this place threatening to give your soul the bends. You just feel numb, and tired. And guilty, but that’s not even close to new.

Venus’s eyes spin in her feathers. Trained in every direction, taking in what you just did. What you just undid. And she lets go of your arm. “Thank you,” she says, so quiet, so small.

“Do you really think I want to leave you?” you ask. Not just her, you make sure Jupiter knows too, throwing a glance over your shoulder at her.

She’s slipped down off her stool, a few feet away from you both. Hands twisting in the air, holding each other, tensing at nothing. “I don’t know. I don’t want to think that. But it feels...dumb to assume that...I’m what you need. Or that I can be, I guess. Maybe that either of us are, but that’s...I can’t speak for Venus.”

Venus nods. “Yeah. You try really hard to be with us. But it’s not easy for you.” That’s just like her, to pull the blunt truth out of the corners of yourself that you didn’t want to look at. To make your heart swell even when you feel like wincing. “I want it to be. We both do, of course we do. But you don’t ask us for help.” She seems to wilt, her light fading. Maybe it’s just her weaving her glamor back together, but you doubt it. “You ask And it’s hard to hear, sometimes. When the only thing your girlfriend is comfortable asking you is to be left alone.”

Jupiter frowns at the phrasing, almost physically leaning away from it. But she doesn’t refute it.

You don’t know what to say. There’s too much to say. “You’re both way too nice,” you settle on, finally. Venus glares at you with something like fifty eyes. “I know, I know, it’s not about your flaws, it’s about mine. But you are. You’re both...” You gesture at nothing. You’re still dripping with ichor. Not that it ever goes away, even with the glamor. But sometimes you really don’t like the sight. “I’m stubborn, and I’m a bitch, and none of that is like...okay, or good, or an excuse. But sometimes I really do just need someone to pull my head out of my own ass.” You give Venus a probably disgusting-looking smile. But it’s as genuine as you can manage. “Thanks for that.” And as gross as you might look, she still smiles back.

“What now?” Jupiter asks. “Are you...” You know what she’s going to ask. Or, one of the dozen questions she probably has for you, at least.

“I...” A little chuckle bubbles up from you like a freshwater spring. “I don’t want anything to do with her. I really don’t.” You can’t quite see both of your girlfriends at the same time, so you shift back, brush your hair out of your face. “She’s not a part of my life anymore. You are. And honestly, I’d rather just fucking forget she ever existed. But I can’t. Not yet.” You shrug. “Maybe killing her will make me forget faster. But she could have died months ago and I wouldn’t have any way of knowing. So what does it matter?” Jupiter’s careful gaze. Venus’s patient hands. There’s nothing in this whole town that you want. Not a damn thing. Nothing but them. And they’re not going to be here any longer than they have to.

“Come back with us?” Venus asks.

“Yeah,” you say. “I think...I’d really just like to lay down for a couple days, if that’s okay. And...” You feel like an idiot for having to spell this out. And pathetic, for needing it at all. “If one of you could be there with me, that’d be really nice.” You rub the back of your neck. “’s not easy being around anyone. But I like being around you. I In a way that I’m still not sure I deserve.” You don’t trust yourself. But they trust you. Maybe...maybe that’s good enough.

“I think worthiness might be overrated,” Jupiter says. She steps closer, linking her arm into yours. “Safe is a good feeling. And I like giving you good things. So...uh, vis-à-vis?” She tilts her head, curling her nose up at her own misquoted French.

You let yourself snort, the laughter pouring out and out and out like so many tears you haven’t let yourself shed. It’s hard for you to let yourself cry. Even around the girls you love, even around the people you trust with things far heavier than your life. But at least, with them, it’s gotten a whole lot easier to laugh.