IX: Walking & Talking
Since it seems like neither of the Boogeymen’s victims are going to regain consciousness anytime soon, we drag them both outside and carefully pile them into the back seat of Mr. Tanner’s car so that Shepherd can take them to the nearest emergency room. He says that the authorities will handle it from that point forward. Looking at the two of them, it becomes easily apparent that Daff probably isn’t quite as altruistic as Bump is. I can already see the beginnings of bruises forming in random places across her opponent’s body. As calm as she may have seemed up until now, I make it a point to remember that her fuse may actually be just as short as Tasha’s is.
Once the old sedan has driven off, the rest of us are just left standing behind the gym, with its lockpicked doors and shattered light bulbs. Two people, two spirits, nobody saying a word. I’m not sure what to say. I still don’t know whether anything has changed between me and Tasha, or if our relationship is still as contentious as the last few days seem to have suggested.
“We should get out of here,” Tasha says, breaking the awkward silence. “Somebody probably called the cops about those lights exploding. They’ll be here soon.”
A realization dawns on me. “Wait a minute, won’t we be on the security footage?” I ask as I collect my bike from the place where I’d locked it up.
“Nah,” Tasha answers. “I had Daff scout ahead and disconnect all the cameras before we even got close to the place.”
“You had her, ‘scout ahead’?” I ask. It probably isn’t the best idea to mock her. I get the feeling that you only get so many strikes with Tasha Emerson, and that I had already been skating on thin ice before I ever even met her.
“Habit,” she says simply. “Spend a few months fighting someone else’s war, and sometimes you forget you’re not actually a soldier.”
“You could fool me. If you’re not a soldier, then what are you?” I ask.
“I used to be a ballerina,” she replies.
“Yeah,” I sigh. “You’re not anymore. I think I’ve pretty much got that part down.”
That strange pseudo-blush returns to her face. “Yeah, sorry about that,” she says. “I wasn’t exactly too thrilled about being here.” She starts walking away from the gym, and I match her pace.
“Because I was a giant waste of time, right?” passive aggressive isn’t usually my thing, but so far tonight has been all about accepting new things. Why break the trend?
“Maybe not a giant one,” she shrugs.
“You’re capable of humor?” I ask, surprised.
“You’re capable of recognizing humor?” she shoots back.
“Survival skill,” I admit. “Believe it or not, you’re not the first person to ever crack a robot joke at me.”
“I have absolutely no trouble believing that,” she says. She executes a dramatic eye roll to perfection, but there’s a wry smirk spread across her lips. She’s being friendly to me. This is just weird.
“What is this?” I ask. “A few minutes ago, you were practically ready to feed me to the Boogeymen. Now, you’re acting almost civil. I thought that we weren’t friends—your words.”
She exhales heavily. “Whether I like it or not, we kind of have to be, now. Our lives kind of depend on it.”
“So, it’s as easy as that? It’s just like, a switch with you?”
“Maybe,” she says. “If you want, I can flip it back and we can test it out.”
“I think we’re okay,” I say. As strange as this new dynamic is, it’s better than the way that things were between us before.
For the first time, I notice that Bump and Daff are nowhere to be seen. “Where’d the Ghost Twins go?” I ask.
“Who knows,” Tasha says airily. “They just disappear sometimes. They’re ghosts, but they’re teenage ghosts. Either they just need some alone time, or they just need some ‘together time,’ you know?”
“Wait,” I stop in my tracks for a moment, “you mean, Bump and Daff are a thing?”
“They’ve never said that they were,” she shrugs. “They’ve never said that they weren’t either. Best explanation I can think of, anyway.”
“What about you?” I ask her.
“What, you mean, ‘do I have a boyfriend’? No. I don’t have a girlfriend either, in case that was your next question. I’m not really into social attachments. They just get in the way.”
“As interesting as that is, it wasn’t what I meant,” I say. “I was talking about your little catchphrase. Why, ‘used to’? Why, ‘not anymore’? Bump told me about how Friend possession works. You transform into the thing that made you feel safest when you were young. You turned into a dancer. So why did you stop?”
“You turned into a knight,” Tasha answers simply. “From what Bump has told me, you stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago. Why a knight, then?”
“This isn’t about me,” I say. The truth is that I’m honestly not sure how to answer. “Come on, you know way more about me than I do about you. I’m just evening the playing field.”
“Sometimes, you just have to grow up,” she says. As she says it though, she isn’t looking at me. She’s staring off into space as though she’s looking back on some long-lost memory, transfixed by it.
“I don’t believe that,” I say. “I mean, I do believe it, but I don’t think that you believe it. You gave me that whole speech back there, about giving up on my childhood too soon; about adults just doing whatever they have to do to cope.”
“Then maybe I was just coping,” she says, now looking at the ground. The way in which she carries herself has changed. Usually, she seems sure-footed and confident. Now, her shoulders are slouched, and her feet are dragging against the pavement.
“With what,” I ask her.
“Anybody ever told you that you ask a lot of questions?” she asks in return.
I smile a little bit, thinking back to my childhood. “My parents always told me that if you never ask, then you’ll never know,” I say. “I guess I took that to heart.
“You’re lucky,” she says.
“I’m not that lucky,” I reply. “My parents died when I was five, remember?” The words weigh heavy on me. Even after all this time, they still hurt to say.
“At least you met them,” she says. Suddenly, she stops walking. “I never got that chance. I grew up in the foster system.”
I stop and look back at her. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to bring back any bad memories.”
“I’m not looking for your sympathy, McArthur,” she says. “I’m answering your question.”
All I can manage to do is give her this quizzical sort of look that I’m sure comes off as ridiculous. I’m not sure what I can say without offending her, and I don’t want to go back down that road. Instead, I just wait for her to continue.
“My father was a cop,” she says. “he died on the job before I was born. My mother passed away during childbirth. Either neither of them had any immediate family, or any immediate family that they did have just didn’t want me. So, I’ve spent my whole life in the system.
“I spent most of the early years bouncing around from place-to-place. Most foster situations are just temporary. At the time, I wasn’t old enough to know any better, so it was what it was. It was still pretty damned lonely, though. That’s probably around the time that Daff was linked to me.”
“You mean, Lady Daffodil,” I interject.
“I can tell the story, or I can punch you in the face,” she says, “it’s entirely your choice.”
Even though it’s a threat, this feels way more normal than the rest of this conversation has, so I smile a little bit even though I don’t mean to. I immediately feel bad about it though, and wipe it from my face as I nod for her to keep going.
“When I was about three or four,” she continues, “I was assigned to Dave and Dana. They were great. They spent time with me, took me out places—even paid for dance lessons. It was the happiest I’d ever been. When Daff disappeared, I probably didn’t even notice.” She stops momentarily, breathing in heavily. I can immediately tell that things are about to take a bad turn.
“A couple months after my sixth birthday,” she says, “Dana got a job offer out of state. I thought for sure that they were going to adopt me and take me with them, but things didn’t play out that way. They moved, and I ended up back in the system. I kept taking dance lessons until was fourteen. I paid with whatever scraps my fosters cold manage between me being bounced around, and as I got older, with whatever I could make on my own.
“It was tough. My original instructor was willing to take lower payments, because she had a soft spot for me. Then, she moved too. The new lady wasn’t as kind as she was. She wanted full payments, and I couldn’t afford them. I had to quit. Suddenly, the one place that had never rejected me had done just that. Nowhere was home anymore.
“I didn’t learn until recently that Dave and Dana actually did try to adopt me. A few months ago, I saw my old dance instructor at a coffee shop. She was in town, visiting family, and she told me everything.
“The state wouldn’t let them, though.
“Turns out, being a gay couple in the Bible Belt doesn’t necessarily win you a lot of friends with the government officials around there. They like to paint it up all nice and pretty behind layers and layers of red tape and bureaucracy, but the truth is what it is. The only reason they were even able to foster me in the first place was because Dave filled out the paperwork alone.
“My old instructor told me that the real reason I had been allowed to continue taking dance lessons all those years was because Dave and Dana had been footing whatever the remainder was. They didn’t want me to know, because they thought that it might be confusing for me. The new instructor was a bigot, though. She refused to take their money.
“After Eva told me that story, I realized that somebody had believed in me this whole time. I paid them back by not doing the same for myself. So yeah, I guess I’m just coping.”
There’s a long silence. I feel as though I now truly understand Tasha Emerson.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t realize that this story was going to be so personal.”
“It’s fine,” she says. She tries to cover up wiping away a tear by acting as though she’s scratching an itch on her face. “I know all your secrets, and now you know some of mine. Fair is fair.”
“You don’t know all my secrets,” I say. “That’s an exaggeration.”
“You sure about that?” she asks. “Bump was watching over you for all those years—invisible.”
“You’re bluffing,” I say, more hopeful than sure.
“Maybe,” she says. “Maybe not.”
I notice that it’s past 3 a.m. and we’ve been lingering here for several minutes now.
“It’s late,” I say. “We should get home. Where do you live?”
“Are you offering to walk me home?” Tasha snorts. “What is this, the 1930’s? I already told you, McArthur, I’m not interested.”
“That’s not what I meant!” I yell.
“That’s what it sounded like you meant,” she laughs. “Tell you what, you can make it up to me by letting me walk you home.”
“Fine,” I grumble as I begin to walk away toward home so that she doesn’t see me blushing. “Just keep up.”
“Oh,” she says, “and if you tell anybody any of that story I just told you, I promise to end you slowly.”