Miguel Montevista is a Mexican-American speculative fiction writer from California now living in New Jersey. His previous works include D&D Living Greyhawk adventures and works for the SCP Foundation that have been made into multiple YouTube videos and a video game, and leverages his bioengineering education in crafting realistic science fiction and horror. His musings can be found at @MiguelMontevist on Twitter.
kittypooka: I’m totally fake. Good thing nothing is real.
When it came to Instagram, Pedro had a ritual. He would see who the poster was, and if it was kittypooka, he’d cover up the picture before scrolling downward, and read her caption first. He’d take a moment to contemplate what she might mean with the photo, take a guess, then look.
He imagined she’d be dressed in some cosplay outfit, something like a black bikini with a couple of details suggesting some character from an anime he’d never seen, and her signature cat ears. She’d be in some weird location obviously green screened in. Lots of obvious Photoshop.
He moved his hand away from the screen and saw a full-body shot in a tall mirror. She wore a simple black leotard, and black and yellow striped tights that ended at the knee. Nothing unusual about her hair: in a ponytail, color a shade darker than mouse brown. Her face makeup was unique, but Pedro was familiar with it: a straight black bar, resembling a bandit’s mask, painted across her eyes. He took a moment to enjoy her Cupid’s bow lips, corners turning upward slightly as if she were smirking on both side of her mouth. She held her phone in her hand, clearly taking the photo herself.
Pedro checked to see what she had done with her right foot. Today, it was obscured behind another mirror she had propped up against her leg. In the mirror, there was another full body image of kittypooka, in the same outfit. Just another reflection? No, the pose was slightly different. And there was another mirror against her right leg, and another reflection inside it, another pose, another mirror. That was the Photoshop. A loop of herself in reflection, never the actual image.
He grinned. That’s why he followed her.
He stuck his phone back in his pocket and pulled the last bag of breaded chicken nuggets from the freezer. He fired up his hot plate, grabbed a wok, oil, and some premade sauce. The pandemic might have ended his job at Hunan Mansion, but at least Mr. Cao had been willing to give his laid off staff the remainder of the restaurant’s pantry at cost.
He sat on the windowsill with his homemade General Tso’s Chicken, next to his veladora of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Growing up, he remembered his parents regularly lighting these candles in their glass jars. His mother would regularly ask the Blessed Virgin to protect the family, keep them safe and healthy. Pedro never lit his. He just let the candle sit in the window and let the sunlight diffuse through the paraffin, figuring the glowing image of Mary would be sufficient blessing.
Undoubtably, his mother’s devotion hadn’t been worth much since it hadn’t kept his father from a fatal heart attack at 57, so there probably wasn’t much blessing lost, right? The Virgin asks for little, and apparently gives little. He shoved some chicken into his mouth, made a curt sign of the cross with a shrug, and went back to his phone.
He returned to kittypooka’s latest post and shook his head. He never wanted to think of himself as a simp. He had his job, and singing on open mic nights led him to occasional gig work. He was busy enough. He didn’t need to waste time pretending to have e-relationships with e-girls.
From the beginning of the epidemic, Hunan Mansion lost business. It was ridiculous; no one in Chinatown had just arrived from Wuhan. Heck, ironically, he recognized that Chinatown was the safest place in those early days, since no one went there. Then all the venues closed. No job, no gig, no place to go. Nothing to do except to doomscroll.
Hormones combined with incessant boredom propelled him to scroll through the various girls the algorithm recommended to a young strapping straight guy like himself. He waded through a candy-flavored sewer of pink hair, elf ears, maid outfits, and ahegao. He ignored the pulse in his trousers. Other guys focused on tail, but not him. He had self-discipline, didn’t he? He needed something special.
That something special was kittypooka. The first time he’d seen her, she sat on a kitchen counter, with her painted black eye-band. Leopard-print cat ears perched on her head. Her straight yet unkempt hair drooped in ragged sheets like Spanish moss. She stared at the floor. She wore another leotard, this time yellow with black tendrils. A few large white feathers stuck in her hair, some falling to the floor and countertop around her, some broken. They framed her dangling, naked legs. Her left leg made a long line toward the floor with pointed toes. Her right leg ended in a scarred stump about halfway down her calf, in a permanent asymmetry. He read the caption.
kittypooka: Have you ever felt like no matter what you do, you’re never enough? I feel it every day.
Pedro barely knew what to think. He had gotten used to heavily touched up photos of pretty girls with captions that might ask a question or give a sanitized version of their thoughts. But this? He wasn’t used to this kind of vulnerability.
The comments filled with offers of support, boys telling her how beautiful she was, people complaining about ableism. To those, she offered thanks.
He felt compelled to add his thoughts. He typed out his comment and hovered over the Send button. A sense of dignity latched on and pulled his finger back. Asking a stranger about something personal? What right did he have to do that? You certainly wouldn’t ask her if you met her on the street. In his hesitation, the phone dimmed and the screen went dark. His timid face peeked out from the black glass at him, questioning his motives. Still, she was sharing this. Calling it out. It had to be fine. He tapped on the screen to turn in on, and pressed Send, asking her how she lost her foot.
She never replied. It didn’t matter. He was hooked.
He got up from the windowsill and tossed his empty bowl into the sink. His phone buzzed. He picked it up. “You have a message from kittypooka.” What? Really? Couldn’t be. He selected the notification and took a careful look. There it was, a direct message, sent to him and him specifically, from someone with her account. Had to be some sort of ad or announcement of a merch store or something. Okay, he thought, what does she have to say to him?
It was a crocodile attack.
He squinted and examined the screen from different angles, as if the words would make more sense from another perspective. A crocodile? What’s that about? This couldn’t be an ad. He wrote back.
What was a crocodile attack?
How I lost my foot. My brothers and I needed to build a house in some swampy land and there was a crocodile that needed to be caught and removed first. I was bait.
Aha, so she was answering his question. But the answer barely made sense to him.
Bait??!! Who feeds their sister to a crocodile?
My brothers do, duh.
It’s okay though. I asked them to. I was a stupid kid. Wanted to show them how cool and manly I was.
Yeah, growing up my family wanted me to be a boy. Like, really badly. So, I did everything to show that I was.
You’re not a boy, though.
I think of myself more like a concept, you know? Not so much a boy or girl as much as a bunch of pictures that show up on your screen.
Pictures? What did she mean?
Huh? Like a bot?
No, not a bot. Just . . . don’t worry about it. This is just the first place in a long time that I feel appreciated. It feels good knowing there are guys like you that want to see what I show.
Pedro wiped his eyes. Poor girl.
Okay, yeah. I’m sorry about the bot question.
Umm, don’t mention the concept thing in public, though. Most of my followers want to see me as a girl through and through.
Why are you telling me all this?
Idk, you’re different. Everyone else was looking for social justice or just a simp. You wanted to hear my story. I kinda needed to tell someone.
Hope that’s okay
Of course, it’s cool, I just never figured you’d reach out to me like this. I’m kinda in shock.
So, this is all okay?
Yeah, I’m loving this.
In truth, he loved it like the painful throbbing that settled behind his eyes. Her family seemed super abusive, in bizarre, ridiculous ways. Has she really been pestered about being a boy to the point of feeding her foot to a crocodile? To build a house? As a kid? And she’s what, nonbinary? Or was she just saying that? And then that heart. That little text heart released a pulse of yearning within him. He caught the waxy stare of the Virgin for a second, but laughed. It was settled; he wanted more.
X X X
Pedro cut the rice in the pot in half. After two and a half months of isolation, it was finally running out. He wasn’t sure how he was going to pay for more food and the rent. He had heard that he couldn’t be evicted, and Sacred Heart was running a food program. He left home because he could take care of himself. He did not want this defeat.
The constant sirens of the ambulances had died down recently, but there were daily reminders that the coronavirus still stalked the streets like a horseman from the Apocalypse. The horsemen were recurring characters in his dreams, always led by Pestilence. In February, Pestilence rode forth, a knight with a sword on a white horse. No one ever seemed to notice.
In March, the rider blazed with alarming light from a halo of spike proteins, announced its presence and everyone sheltered in place in panic. Far off, in these dreams, he spotted another figure riding a gaunt, pale steed, bluish and translucent, emerging from the sun and settling on elder care facilities.
In April, panic gave way to terror, as the horseman rode through the halls of the apartment buildings, and down the streets, chopping down the occasional person. Behind him, another horseman skinned the victims and wrapped them around himself, staining both horse and rider in bloody crimson.
May saw everyone coming to terms with the terror. The numbers of dead started declining. Isolation was working. Pestilence wandered the streets, no longer striking with fury, but never leaving. A fourth rider, on a black horse, smirked as he picked his way through the carnage. He marked the anger and grievances of the survivors on a tablet. On his chest, a giant medallion, a dark obsidian disk, depicted shifting scenes of destruction, flags raised, flags torn down. Of all the riders, only the black rider ever directly approached Pedro. He stared down at him, and winked as he passed.
Pedro’s waking hours did little to dispel the dreams. Thanks to the spare supplies from the restaurant, he had not even ventured out. He received little news from the neighborhood other than what he could learn by looking through the window or by peeking cautiously out the front door into the hallway. The paramedics had rushed in to take Mrs. Bermudez, three doors down, to the hospital last month. Yesterday, her family cleared her apartment out. He remembered her cooking. She could cook an incredible mole poblano. Now, he only wondered what else might have been wafting over. Please, let six feet be enough.
And even though the paramedics retreated now, the police regularly flashed by. Yesterday, Pedro’s phone was alive with news on the death of George Floyd. That was out in Minneapolis, but the streets outside his window were abuzz already, and lights flashed through the window all night long, bathing the Virgin in blue and red, blue and red.
The phone vibrated. There was a new post from kittypooka. He checked immediately.
kittypooka: I can tell you your fortune. But why would you want that?
Why? What he needed was a sign, some windfall, a new job, the pandemic to disappear. All he got was less food, less money, disease still shutting everything down, and now everyone online and in the streets complaining that the police were cracking down harder on everyone. He stared at the veladora, at Our Lady of Guadalupe looking down, lovingly, at that stupid stain in the carpet that would have cost Pedro his deposit if he wasn’t already going to get kicked out for being behind in the rent.
Right, fortunes. Fortunes. Pedro hadn’t dared look from the phone while guessing what it could be. Would kittypooka be dressed up like some fortune teller, with a crystal ball? Eh, too simple. Some kind of gothic witch with a black chicken to sacrifice would be more her style.
He looked and gasped. She wore a feathered headdress, and some bikini-type skimpy thing that looked like leopard skins. Her gaze was fixed straight into the camera. The effect didn’t look like Carnival as much as… feral. She held up a handful of torn-up tarot cards. More card pieces were strewn before her on a black granite counter surface, along with a Magic 8-Ball, cracked in two, oozing turquoise liquid all over the cards and granite, with the inner piece sitting in the center like the yolk. He realized it resembled a 20-sided die. Guess it made sense.
Behind her, staring over her shoulder, hung a replica of the Aztec Sun Stone, larger than her headdress. The central face peered straight ahead with its tongue painted black and hanging out. The various motifs surrounding the central face looped around in red and white. Yet it looked marred, and on closer inspection it became clear: she had been using it as a dartboard.
He rubbed his face, tugging at the rat’s nest of a beard. He wanted to reach out, but he hadn’t heard back from kittypooka since her last heart. Didn’t want to jinx that. So that meant he should what? Just sit there and stew?
He fluffed his rice. For once he picked up his guitar, strummed it, winced at strings loosening out of tune from lack of use. He scooped rice into his bowl. He regarded the windowsill, the Virgin Mary, and next to it, the black rectangle of his phone, beckoning.
Cold rice was fine, he thought. Focus on what matters. He grabbed his phone, turned the candle away from himself, and typed out a direct message:
Can you tell me a fortune?
He’d never just reached out like that to kittypooka. A comment on a post, sure, but that was just in public. This was inviting yourself into someone’s room and saying hi. Would she think he was a creep? Was he a creep? He tore open a packet of hot mustard, squeezed it over the rice, and gulped it down. Maybe it burned, he couldn’t tell over the churning in his stomach.
The phone buzzed. A message from kittypooka.
Of course! But you’re not going to like it.
More covid and lockdowns
Also protests and police brutality
Hunan Mansion stays closed
How do you know about Hunan Mansion?
What do you mean? Best bean dumplings before everything hit.
I used to make those bean dumplings. I worked there.
How was this suddenly a coincidence?
Where do you live? Nearby?
Yeah, around here. HM is down the street from me.
Pedro’s hand chilled as it gripped his phone. The girl he’d been following, all this time, knew the place where he had worked? He was pretty sure he’d never seen a cute girl with only one foot at Hunan Mansion, but he worked back in the kitchen, the foot could be hidden with a prosthesis, and she wouldn’t be walking around with the black bar painted across her face.
Have we met before?
Duh. You’re talking to me now.
I mean before…before.
Before before doesn’t matter. Brand new world. World of suck. The old world is dead.
Yeah, can’t imagine how many places are going out of business.
It’s more than that. Remember the whole Maya calendar? December 21, 2012?
Oh, you mean like the calendar in your post?
Pffft that’s the Aztec Sun Stone, not the Maya calendar. Completely different cultures. But yeah, it’s related.
The Sun Stone shows the rise of the Five Suns. The world always needs a sun, and different gods took the role at different times.
Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, was first, but his brother Quetzalcoatl said that he didn’t do a good job, was too dim, and knocked him out of the sky.
Quetzalcoatl took over in his place, but he thought he could be this jolly softie. You know, no sacrifice, live and let live, offer wisdom and blessing from afar. What did that get him? Squat. His people stopped caring and kept turning into monkeys. So, he quit, lol.
Wow, you really know your Aztec mythology! I’m Mexican-American. I always wanted to learn more about it, but my parents didn’t want anything interfering with church. I recognize the names, but not much else.
That sucks. I grew up with it.
Wow, really? What’s it like? What else do you know?
Shut up and let me finish.
It’s been the Fifth Sun, but he was an old sick man who needed regular blood transfusions to keep going.
But like, you don’t do blood sacrifice anymore, so. Sun turns black.
The sun is still shining, though.
Yeah, but do you care?
Pedro put the phone down and swallowed. He paced back and forth across his apartment. That’s why kittypooka always gives him a headache, he thought. She always took some ridiculous position, but then hammered it home with an equally ridiculous point.
Not only was he in his cramped, artificially lit studio 24/7, but it no longer mattered when he woke up, when he slept, when he ate, when he perched over his phone, when he… that was pretty much it. That constant miasma of mild panic in the air robbed him of the desire to even play his guitar or try to write any new music, leaving him waiting for something, anything, to happen. The panic settled into his mind like tinnitus, a never-ending drum roll, promising a crescendo that never came. He imagined the Black Rider chuckling as he carefully tabulated all the fleeting moments forever denied him.
A week was a month was a day was a night, and the time and order things happened all blended together into a freakish now. These days, time was marked more by kittypooka’s posts than by dawn or dusk. Might as well turn off the sun, solve global warming once and for all.
Pedro reached out and grasped at air, pulled it in close, and bit at the space between his fists, imagining the taste of her snarky, taunting lips with that permanent rakish upturn. Silently chastising himself for unseen weakness, he snatched his phone and replied.
You’re right. I don’t care about the sun.
Right. Old sun, old world. Now you have a new sixth sun for your new world.
Not sure I believe that, but okay.
Whatever. It’s all way too much right now.
I hate the pandemic.
You know, families with sick kids they couldn’t take care of would give them to the priests of Tezcatlipoca. The priests would do what they could. The kids that survived were raised to become the next generation of priests.
They would have loved coronavirus.
Yeah, they would! Think about it. You get sick and abandoned by family. But if you survive that, you become the power behind the emperor’s throne. You had to lose everything to get everything.
What are you doing tomorrow?
What I’m always doing. Nothing. Nothing to do.
There’s the BLM rally.
I’ve never gone to a protest. Kinda scared of the cops.
You should go! It’s not like anyone can really stop you from anything. You can’t even get a job anyway right now. There will be too many people to just stop things.
I mean, what they did was wrong and all, but what’s shouting and walking around going to do?
It’s going to get you out of your room and around other people for the first time in months.
I’ll be there. It’ll be cool to see you.
Pedro hesitated, trying to control his breathing.
Okay, yeah, I’ll go.
Yes! Do it do it do it! It’ll be so much fun seeing you there!
You know, you’re adorable when you’re excited.
Aww, you’re sweet.
He shook his head. A voice in the back of his head screamed quietly that this made no sense, no way this cute girl who knew nothing about him cared about him like this. But he couldn’t stop. Not now. He almost lost her.
Do you need to know how to find me? Should we exchange numbers?
Yeah! Here you go. What’s your name?
Pedro. Pedro Fisher. You?
Ask for Tess. You can’t miss me. <3
Wait, I really have your number now?
Mhm! It’s not a problem, is it? Your girlfriend won’t mind?
I don’t have a girlfriend.
You do now. <3 See you tomorrow!
Pedro stared in shock at his phone’s screen, at kittypooka’s last message, until it went black. He caught his reflection in the black glass, mouth agape, eyes quivering.
Late next morning, he rose from his bed. His phone greeted his gaze before he saw the bowl of rice mixed with mustard he had completely forgotten to finish yesterday. He scowled at the waste, considered tossing it, then stuck it back in the fridge. He’d figure out if it was still good later.
He shaved, showered, dressed, and looked at himself. Getting rid of the scraggly beard of apathy was welcome, he supposed, but his hair remained a thick black wavy mop. Would she like the haven’t-seen-a-barber-in-months look? And did his jeans always slip slowly off his waist and crumple into thick scratchy folds against his thighs like that? It was the first time in months he’d worn them instead of sweats. He considered a button-down shirt, but everyone just wears black T-shirts to these things, right? So, black T-shirt, jeans, shoes (they seemed heavy), and a blue paper mask.
He had barely stuck his head out the front door in the last few months. He had hoped he could just survive on his stockpile, but he knew he would have to leave at some point—even with rationing, the bag of rice was nearly empty.
He walked down the hall and outside. The buildings blocked most of the direct sunlight, but otherwise, everything looked much like it had back in March. Cars still lined the curb. The street trees had more leaves, and the sound of a thousand people shouting bounced off the walls.
He wrinkled his nose as the ground level scents of burnt gasoline and rotting garbage reached his nostrils. He could still smell the city over his own breath caught in the mask chafing his lips. Was that supposed to happen? He checked his ear loops and walked on.
He followed the shouts. The streets were an unfamiliar combination of abandoned and busy. The normal traffic, a throng of vehicles trying to twist past each other in a way metal cannot, was absent, but in its place were walkers, young masked and hooded men and women. He scanned the passersby for a young woman with a prosthetic leg.
Despite the surreal reintroduction to areas he had not traversed in months, the way remained familiar. He used to go this way to work daily. Sure enough, he quickly arrived at Hunan Mansion. The place was boarded up but he didn’t’ know whether it was in preparation for the protest, or it had been this way since it shut down back in March. The dark outline of a neon dragon hung from the side of the building, bearing witness to the rally like a ghost from long ago.
Across the street from the restaurant, a small park marked the edge of Chinatown. As a natural central hub, the crowds congregated there, waved signs, and chanted as directed chaotically by individuals with megaphones. Black Lives Matter. Defund the Police. He noted that the very police they called against had blocked off the local streets to traffic and stood nearby, watching, more menacingly than the dragon.
But kittypooka, but Tess, was nowhere to be seen. Pedro pulled out his phone and texted, where are you? No answer. He checked her account. No activity. He watched the gathering, the increasing energy in the park as the crowd swelled and packed tighter, watched the cops organize along the perimeter, patiently waiting for a critical mass. Tess could be anywhere.
One of the organizers, a lanky man wearing a powder blue toque and mask under a black hoodie, walked by Hunan Mansion, and Pedro asked if he had seen Tess. Blue Toque shrugged and resumed chanting through his megaphone. Pedro pulled out his phone and showed kittypooka’s account to him, but he rolled his eyes, snorted, and shrugged again.
Behind Blue Toque, in the middle of the street, a passing woman coughed. Pedro’s brain rang every alarm at the sound. What was he doing? He had worked so hard to stay in quarantine, stay safe. He accepted that he couldn’t make ends meet this way, but at least he had his health. And now here he was, exposing himself to the disease, out with a group getting the side-eye from the police, and all because of a girl. A girl who had stood him up. Just a fake relationship that he built up in his head. With a growl, he kicked at the boards of his former employer. Blue Toque turned away to get some distance.
But was he really stood up? Maybe Tess was deep in the crowd, somewhere entangled in the mass of humanity, probably the center of attention.
Pedro considered everything he had done to get here. His conscience clamored for reason. This was not like him. He should just run back home, take a deep shower, and forget everything. That was safe. That was sane. This being out here, chasing after a woman who couldn’t possibly care for him as much as she said, this would get him in trouble. This would get him sick. This would kill him.
But no. He had already risked himself. He had to know where she was. He bolted for Blue Toque and wrested the megaphone from him. Blue Toque threw his hands in the air as he staggered back from Pedro’s shoulder. Bullhorn in hand, Pedro launched into the middle of the street, calling out for Tess, calling out for kittypooka, whoever she was, hellbent to charge in and find her in the crowd, figure out why she made him do all this. Figure out why he let himself fall for all this.
A baton hooked Pedro’s arm and yanked him to the ground. Asphalt gravel scratched his cheek. He could taste tire rubber and stale motor oil, even through his mask. His arms were bent behind him and cuffed. As he was pulled up standing again, he watched Blue Toque jog off, leaving the speaker behind. A couple of women pulled away from the back of the throng to scream at the police, while the officer on his elbow read him his rights and placed him in a van.
The arrest had happened so fast, he barely processed what had transpired. He sat there, cuffed, for hours. In the quiet the confusion dissipated into the depths of his mind, and the seed of panic sprouted. He was arrested. He would be charged. He would have a criminal record. Getting a new job, when jobs became possible, was going to be that much harder. His family was sure to be upset. They weren’t going to be able to bail him out. Probably not even willing. Why should they? He had just ruined his life. Everything was going to end, become impossible. And for what? Some fake girl who just pretended to like him? Did he seriously just throw his life away?
Or was his life already in the trash before he even came? He couldn’t move, couldn’t leave, but what was he supposed to do? Stay just as trapped and useless at home? Arrested or not, he’d still be unemployed. Does this even matter? Won’t his life be the same?
He vacillated between panic and defiance until the sun set. His mask grew moist and rubbed the backs of his ears. The sound of pops, like firecrackers, bounced against the van’s metal walls. Minutes later, the van doors opened and a number of protestors, hands zip-tied behind them, were loaded in with him. To be crowded first in the van, then released into a holding cell, held overnight then carefully and slowly arraigned one by one, filled him with dread. Being herded like cattle was bad enough. He hoped that the one coughing woman had been affected by the acrid tear gas smell clinging to clothes, and not.
X X X
Pedro opened the door to his room. Nothing had changed. His guitar sat unused, as if he had never left. Our Lady of Guadalupe held court to an empty nave, serenely standing at attention. The stain on the carpet had not budged. The view out his window was of the same alleyway, the same fire escape.
He tossed his brand-new court summons on the kitchen table. He tore off his clothes and took a long shower. He remembered when he would shower every day, remove the stain of the city each evening. He felt the stain remain, unseen, no matter how hard he scrubbed. He checked his phone for any sign that anyone might be reaching out to him, that kittypooka had done anything… nothing. There were tweets about the protests; 25 arrested, tear gas, kettle operations. His mother had phoned, wanted to make sure he was okay. But nothing from kittypooka. No messages, no posts. Nothing important. He landed in bed, abandoned.
The next day, he grabbed and checked his phone before rising. Nothing. He browsed, stared at his screen without reading, without seeing. He texted her again, and again messaged her Instagram account, asking what happened, and waited. He drifted off, indifferent to the time, indifferent to his stomach, indifferent to the world that ignored him so completely.
No response. Hours passed. Maybe days, as if that made a difference.
He woke in the middle of the night. A police van had parked at the end of the street, its lights slowly strobing through the apartment. His head throbbed with the feeling that something had cauterized the back of his throat and lungs. He rolled out into the darkened room of changing police colors and stumbled to make a pot of tea. He had no idea what kind of tea it was; something in bags from Hunan Mansion written in Chinese, but he didn’t care. He needed something soothing for this sudden malaise.
The water boiled. The tea seeped into the cup, and he drank deeply. It was insipid, little more than hot water. He swallowed it down, and doubled back with a deep cough. His hand trembled, a chill striking his shoulders and pouring down his back like an ice bucket challenge. Panic poured into imagined crevices in his spine opened by the chill. As the light in the room alternated blue and red, he listened intently to any sound in the dead night. The room filled with a subtle wheeze.
He reached out for assurance in something, anything. His phone, cool, slender, and familiar, fit in his hand, promising comfort. Yet still nothing from kittypooka. Should he call a doctor? It was the middle of the night. 911? No, he was still conscious, no emergency. There was only one person who could help.
Why did you stand me up?
He didn’t know what to expect. Would she even respond? And why now, in the middle of the night? She’d probably ghosted him;, he would probably never hear from her again. This is why you don’t start relationships online, he thought. Being lonely and frustrated was easier than this.
I was there. I saw you and we marched for BLM and it was so much fun!
She responded! His heart leapt into his throat and suddenly crashed straight back down into his stomach when he read her message.
I didn’t see you. No one knew of any Tess out there. I don’t believe you. I got arrested. I probably have corona! I might die and you just think it’s FUN???!!!
You’re young, you won’t die.
I just posted the photo of me at the protest~ <3
Pedro’s head swam between breaths. What was her game? Was this all just some sick ploy to ruin his life? Nevertheless, he opened kittypooka’s post. He covered it up and a pang of guilt shot through his spine as he instantly returned to his ritual with her. He read the caption:
kittypooka: LOL I’m gonna lose so many followers for this. But hey, who wants this really?
He attempted a snort but doubled over in a coughing fit. Don’t bother trying to guess. Don’t waste time on that. Stop following through with the ritual, she’s not punching a cop, probably.
He took his hand away to look. It was the protest. People were marching past. She threw two fingers up in greeting to the photographer. Was she marching or posing? She wore her cat ears and black band makeup. She was masked with a form-fitting face covering in leopard print with a cute smiling kitty mouth and whiskers. Her right foot was resplendent in a mirror-shiny silver prosthesis, some custom designed job that looked like a cat’s leg. She wore a tight crop-top T-shirt and short-shorts, all in black. Emblazoned across the T-shirt, in bold white lettering, was a twisted slogan: NO LIVES MATTER.
She was there. Making a mockery of the protest. Yet no one was stopping her. Why would they let her get away with that? He scanned the background of the photo. Maybe she was somewhere else. But right over her left shoulder was the defunct neon sign of Hunan Mansion. Just down the street. In the far back on the left side was a figure in a powder blue toque and mask under a black hoodie, throwing his hands in the air. On the right side, a policeman strode forth, baton in hand.
With a virus-induced rattle, Pedro’s throat protested against a sudden realization. She wasn’t only there, but she was photographed exactly where he had been, calling out for her, seconds before his arrest.
WTF is going on? How did you take this pic? Did you just erase me and stick yourself in the shot?
LOL Of course not, silly! I was right there with you the entire time. >^w^<
You weren’t with me and I’m not in this post. No. This is weird.
Pedro caught his breath just enough to double over in a coughing fit. The police moved on, and his apartment returned to the dim shadows of the night’s city lights, leaving his phone as the brightest source of illumination.
That cough sounds bad. You should take some lemongrass.
His head and lungs felt like he was crawling through mud. The messages from kittypooka were all he could see. These bizarre, intimate messages that couldn’t be possible yet made so much sense when there’s nothing to understand.
How did you know about the cough? Did you hack my phone or something? Seriously, what’s going on? I’ve ruined myself chasing after you.
Transformed yourself. Before last week, you were planning to just hide forever like a mouse. Now you ran outside, you attacked someone, you exposed yourself to the virus, you got caught, and you did it all for me! I need you, Pedro. I need you to go through this. You think you don’t understand what’s going on, but you do. <3
I’ve got a raging fever, and I don’t even notice because you’re giving me an even bigger headache.
Everything’s over. The people stopped caring. Disease was allowed to spread. Now you can’t get a job. You can’t meet people. You can’t take care of yourself. You can’t trust the government. You can’t trust the police. All you’ve got left is me. You want to know why?
The world’s ended.
What, like this is hell?
Hell’s a bunch of bullshit my brother came up with when he was overseas. The world gets soft, no more blood sacrifice, the world slowly stops caring. No more sacrifice, no reason to watch out for each other. Funny, that, the same happened to him back in the Second Sun. But on December 21, 2012, that’s when it became all too much. That’s when the world ended.
You’ve said that before, but we’re still here.
Your sun isn’t. Where is your sun now?
It’s nighttime. If you live herehere, you know that.
You’re awake now, though. Why? Who are you awake for?
Pedro wasn’t sure he liked where this was going.
Me. Not the sun. Me.
That date was when everyone finally got phones for Christmas. What was outside stopped mattering. What matters is what appears in your pocket Black Smoking Mirror.
I’m the Smoking Mirror, Pedro. I’m all that matters anymore. I show you what you’re looking for. I guide your desires. Wherever you are, you take me with you. My light is what you want. The Fifth Sun finally died from corona. I am the Sixth Sun. And you’re going to be my new High Priest.
This is all just a dream. I’m going to wake up in the morning, this won’t have happened, and I’ll
He’ll what? Sit around some more? Go to court? Pay fines with money he doesn’t have and can’t earn? Be reminded day in and day out just how little he’s thought of by the world? He just pressed send, hoping to fill in the sentence a moment later.
You don’t want it to be a dream. >^w^<
. . . Yeah, I don’t.
Do I ever get to see you?
You will. You’re still my boyfriend. <3
Just do one thing for me. Nothing bad.
Yeet that fucking candle out the window.
Pedro snorted a laugh that reduced him to another struggling coughing fit. He was convinced he’d never see kittypooka for real. Wasn’t even sure if she was real. But why bother? He’s spent his entire lockdown imagining that kittypooka was not only what she appeared to be, but also what he wanted in his life. And that fact brought him more comfort than the veladora ever did. It didn’t matter how fake she was, he thought. He grabbed the candle and tossed the Virgin Mary out. It flew into the alleyway, catching the first golden rays of dawn before shattering against the ground.
His phone buzzed with a new kittypooka post. He read the caption.
kittypooka: Good morning! The day is over. See you tonight. <3
There was no point in guessing. He just looked. The photo was dark. Her face was lit by dawn’s sunbeam narrowed to a vertical slit from the corners of the alleyway. The rest of her body was hard to make out, shrouded in darkness. No, not darkness, a horse. She was riding a black horse. She leaned into the horse’s neck. It was impossible to tell what she wore. Maybe she wasn’t wearing anything. Her right leg was naked, no prosthetic. Her right hand held his shattered veladora, raised high, presenting the broken Virgin like a hunting trophy. She was winking.
Pedro rushed to look out the window into the alley. It was empty. Even the candle had disappeared. Nothing to see in the spreading morning light. Nothing to make sense of anything. Time to go back to sleep, he thought. Was he now high priest, or was that just fake, too? It brought him comfort, so who cares? Nothing else was real, either.