By Susan Palwick

Two women who have been friends since they were children—one a recovering alcoholic brought up by parents who believe they’re alien abductees, the other an orphan with an eating disorder—contend with a secret that might doom their friendship.

So here’s the thing. You’re scared shitless, because you know something heavy’s going down tonight, and you may be the only one who can stop it, but that will be dangerous in ways you can’t stand to think about. Your friend Vanessa—your best and oldest friend—is all about patterns, and today’s a doozy. It’s her twenty-eighth birthday, and also the tenth anniversary of her parents’ disappearence, and also her first anniversary of sobriety or anyway of not drinking, and also—not at all coincidentally—the day when, at midnight, her parole will end.

Vanessa plans to drink again no later than thirty seconds after twelve. You can see it in her scowl; you can smell it on her. You know that her AA sponsor, Minta, knows it too. Vanessa hasn’t said so, of course, but this isn’t Minta’s first rodeo with angry alkies, and it’s not your first rodeo with Vanessa.

So Minta, who has the kind of money you and Vanessa can only dream about, invites both of you out to dinner, her treat, to celebrate Vanessa’s birthday. She chooses a trendy vegan place on the Upper West Side that serves neither alcohol nor anything that Vanessa, who always calls herself the ultimate carnivore because her parents were exactly the opposite, would ever want to eat. You’re the vegan; animal products do very bad things to you. If Vanessa had her way, she’d be at a steakhouse tearing into a filet mignon. With scotch.

The restaurant’s all glass and chrome and blond wood, and the patrons are self-consciously beautiful: men with neatly trimmed beards and Birkenstocks, women with black pencil skirts and Tevas, everybody wearing that expression that says, I work out more than you do, and I’m more enlightened, and I have more money. A side salad costs half your weekly food budget.

“Vanessa, you want to drink right now, don’t you?” Minta swirls her fork to capture a clump of sprouts, as if they’re spaghetti. She has to shout to be heard, even across the tiny table, and you think this has to be some kind of breach of anonymity, but it’s doubtful anyone at the other tables can hear, or would care if they could. They’re probably all in twelve-step groups too.

“I always want to drink.” Vanessa pokes cautiously at her own dish, a tofu stir-fry with unidentifiable vegetables. You’re choking down one of those exorbitant salads, another in an endless series of meals that won’t satisfy you, that will give you only enough to keep going. As soon as you’ve absorbed what you need, you’ll lose the rest in the bathroom. “I know I’m supposed to be over it by now.”

“Some people never get over it. Dry drunk’s better than wet drunk, girl. Take what you can get. Anyway, a year is about when most people fall off the cloud-nine newly sober high.”

“Which I never had.”

Minta laughs. “Maybe you have something to look forward to, then. Vanessa, you have to admit that this is better than where you were a year ago.” You nod vigorously around one of the recalcitrant lettuce leaves.

A year ago, on her twenty-seventh birthday, Vanessa woke up in a jail cell with a bandaged head, the great-grandmother of all hangovers, and no memory of the night before. Her boyfriend was pressing assault charges because she’d thrown dishes at him. The judge gave her a year’s probation with mandatory AA meetings. “Flying saucers,” Vanessa says now, and you wince. “This is another anniversary, you know.”

Minta nods. “I know. But don’t use it as an excuse to drink.”

You swallow the lump of lettuce, wondering how long it will stay down. “How often have we talked about this?” you ask Vanessa. “It’s not like they were there for you even before they left.”

Vanessa’s nostrils flare, and her gaze goes steely. “I want dessert.” Alcohol converts to sugar in the bloodstream; for the past year, sugar has been Vanessa’s drug of choice. She’s put on seventeen pounds.

“Cake at the meeting.” Minta checks her watch. “In half an hour.”

Vanessa groans. “No. Please? Let me go home. Kat will keep me safe.”

“Meeting. I know that Kat is the world’s best roommate, but you need to be with your tribe right now. It’s not fair to dump all of this on Kat.”

You and Vanessa are each other’s tribe, or at least the closest either of you has ever found. You gnaw more lettuce. “Is it an open meeting? I’ll come, you want.”

Vanessa grimaces. “Why would you want to sit through one of those?” You’ve told her that you love meetings, all those stories of misery and rebirth—stories about how to be human—but Vanessa’s always and only bored. “Hell, Kat, why are you here? Why do you even put up with me?”

You wonder that yourself, but you don’t feel like feeding Vanessa’s endless hunger for sympathy, and you need to lay the groundwork for what you may need to do later. Your backpack, with its secret weapon, hangs on the back of your chair. “I was abandoned too, Van, remember? And I’m not exactly easy to live with either.”

After everything fell apart a year ago—Vanessa’s boyfriend fleeing in a storm of fury and boxes—you packed up your tiny tenement apartment and moved your books and your ragged collection of all-black clothing into Vanessa’s minute condo. You even fork over a chunk of rent when you can, although the place is paid for from the sale of Vanessa’s old house; or, more properly, from the sale of the three-acre lot it sits on, which is as desirable now—to beautiful people with BMWs—as it was isolated and inconvenient when you and Vanessa were kids. For all her rage and self-pity and endless self-sabotage, Vanessa has never complained about your own oddities: the green shakes and protein powders crowding the fridge and counters, the fad-diet books piled everywhere next to stacks of anthropology and folklore, the hours you spend puking in the bathroom.

You know Minta thinks you have an eating disorder. She has no idea.

On Vanessa’s fourteenth birthday, she tells her parents she won’t go to AA meetings with them anymore. She won’t know anything about the First Step for another thirteen years: this AA stands for Alien Abductees. Vanessa’s parents are notably humor deprived, and this is about as close to a joke as they ever get. Anything normal people consider funny just makes them stare in bafflement. Their weirdness might be taken as evidence that they really have been kidnapped by aliens, but Vanessa thinks they’re just jerks. You aren’t so sure.

They bought their house, on its bucolic three acres, when Vanessa was seven, right after her father inherited a shitload of money from her grandfather, who’d invested in oil. Vanessa thinks it’s the worst thing that ever happened to them. That’s when they dragged her out of the suburbs, away from birthday parties and swimming pools and sleepovers. She tells you long, involved stories about these things, about cake and ice cream and balloons, diving boards and giggling in sleeping bags. She’s as nostalgic as the elderly people one of your former foster families made you visit in nursing homes.

Vanessa’s parents bought the house both because it was cheap and because this area is an epicenter of supernormal activity, a hotbed of chakras and auras, hippies and get-rich-quick gurus. Everybody’s got some secret to eternal life; the entire county’s awash in crystals, cleansing enemas, and detox diets. Vanessa’s back porch looks out over a meadow, facing away from town and any risk of light pollution. Every night, in all weather, her parents go outside to hold hands and stare up at the heavens with the other AAs, nearly as diverse and improbable a group as the one Vanessa will be court-ordered to join as an adult. Either people come to her parents’ house or her parents go to someone else’s. They don’t talk much. They all know each other’s stories, because it’s the same story: the searing light, the levitation, the anal probes. Denial and government coverups. Massive conspiracies. The only ideological differences revolve around whether the aliens are benevolent or evil, but this bunch believes that the abductions enlightened them, that even the anal probes are healing interventions.

You aren’t so sure about that, either.

Vanessa’s parents have always made her attend these gatherings, but this morning—after they sang “Happy Birthday” and gave her a hundred bucks, because they never ask her what she wants and don’t have a clue what she likes—she told them she’s had enough. If aliens come, let them walk upstairs and knock on her bedroom door while she’s doing homework. If they can fly across the universe, they can find their way into the house.

She tells you about this while you sit on your log in the woods, where you come to have important conversations. “They didn’t yell at me,” Vanessa says, and you laugh. Vanessa’s biggest complaint about her parents is that they never yell at her.

“Let me guess,” you say. “Your mom told you that everything you need to know is already inside you.” This is wisdom Vanessa’s mother claims to have gotten from the aliens, but it never helps. It just makes Vanessa feel crazier. You know how much she hates her mother’s hushed, reverent Abductee Voice, how much she hates not having chores or a curfew, like the kids at school. As far as either of you can tell, Vanessa has no special New Age knowledge of how to talk to boys or solve algebra problems or write English papers. Her parents have delegated their parental responsibilities to the aliens, who don’t seem to be coming.

Because the house is so far from the nearest school district, your social life is each other. Getting to school means a forty-five minute bus ride each morning. It’s not a school bus—there aren’t enough other kids out here for the district to send one—but an ancient county commuter bus. You know Vanessa’s ashamed for other kids to meet her parents or see her house, which is full of star charts and posters about ley lines and magical pyramids. You—the girl who lives up the road with her seventh set of foster parents—are Vanessa’s only friend out here. She doesn’t have to be ashamed of her parents with you, although you know she’s ashamed of you at school, where the two of you ignore each other. Vanessa tries to ingratiate herself with the cool kids, which never works because they can smell her desperation. You hang out with the other geeks and nerds, the kids who are as fascinated as you are with those new personal computers none of you can afford. Your crowd talks about Commodores the way the cool kids talk about Corvettes.

You’ve only recently started going to school again, after years of homeschooling. You don’t do well with doctors, which means you don’t do well with immunizations. You’ve gone through six previous foster families because whenever they tried to take you to the doctor, you ran away. The current set is lenient about rules, willing to lie to CPS and the social workers. They’ve cooked up a deal with a local doctor who forges immunization records, and supplies pain pills to your foster mom, in return for a modest cut of what the state pays to people who take in particularly difficult foster children.

“Difficult?” Vanessa says when you tell her this. “You’re a total brainiac and goody-two-shoes. All the teachers love you. Anyway, maybe you should see a real doctor about that eating problem.”

“I hate doctors, Van. I’m scared of them.”

“That was when you were a baby. How can you even remember it? And they won’t give you shots if they think you’ve already had them.”

“I’m good,” you say.

You and Vanessa are both fourteen, but you look older—or, rather, look so odd that no one’s quite sure how old you are—and the latest foster dad just scored a fake driver’s license for you “because in the old days, kids were driving when they were twelve” and he doesn’t want to bother taking you places. The evening of Vanessa’s birthday, while her parents and the other AAs stare up into cloud cover, the two of you drive the twenty miles to the mall and split the birthday money. You buy a book of fairy tales and a pricy computer programming manual at Barnes & Noble. Vanessa, in her endless quest to get a rise out of her parents, buys makeup and sexy clothing and pigs out on burgers and fries and ice cream at the food court while you nibble a fruit salad. You get about halfway through it before you have to rush to the restroom.

The two of you stay at the mall, window browsing and people watching, until it closes at ten. On the way home, Vanessa asks you to stop at a 7-Eleven and buy some beer. “We still have money, and I’ve never had beer. Do you think my parents will notice if I come home drunk?”

“No.” This plan strikes you as fifty-eight kinds of terrible. “Don’t get drunk just to be rebellious, Van. That’s stupid. You already bought all that slutwear.”

Vanessa pouts. “That feels like playing dress-up. Beer’s real. And you’ve got the ID. I’ll drink while you drive, so we’ll be safe.”

“You’re not supposed to drink in the car. Open-bottle laws.” You swallow panic. You don’t think the police have any records from all those foster families, but who knows? “Vanessa, I really can’t afford trouble with cops.”

Vanessa scowls. “Do you have to take the fun out of everything?”

“I drove you out here, didn’t I?”

“Come on, Kat. It’s my birthday. All the kids at school drink.”

“Not the ones I know.”

“The ones you know are freaks.” She’s angry enough to be mean now. Then her voice softens into wheedling, and she says, “It’s, like, an initiation rite. You’re into those, right? Like all that folklore crap you read?”

She’s not going to let you talk her out of it. “Okay,” you say. If she can tell how miserable you are, she doesn’t care.

You go inside, and Vanessa picks out a sixpack. “You could buy a single bottle,” you say, and she pouts again.

“It’s my birthday.”

The guy behind the counter squints hard, but shrugs at your fake ID and lets you pay. Back out in the car, you check the road for cops, and then—coast clear—Vanessa uses her house key as a bottle opener and sips, narrating like this is some kind of nature documentary. “It’s fizzy. Kinda yeasty. It tastes okay, but I’m not feeling anything.” She finishes the first beer, too quickly, and reaches for another.

Halfway through the second bottle, she lets out a whoop. “Peace! Joy! All’s well with the world! Kat, you gotta try this.” Giggling, she props the bottle between her legs and reaches to hug you. “Best. Birthday. Ever.”

Your hands are clenched on the wheel, and your stomach’s threatening to empty again even though there’s nothing left in it. “Vanessa, don’t do that when I’m driving!”

Vanessa frowns. You never snap at her. But she’s drunk and magnanimous. “Aw, poor Kat. You feel left out. You gotta have some beer too! Three of these are for you.”

“I’m driving.” You stare straight ahead, your entire body aching with anger and hunger and loneliness.

“Well, when we get home. We’ll sit on the log.”

She sips her third beer all the way home. You see her eyeing the other three and know she’s trying to save some for you. At her parents’ house, you turn off the headlights and cut the engine to coast to a gentle stop—although Vanessa’s parents probably aren’t here, and wouldn’t pay attention if they were—and then you grab the flashlight from the glove box, and Vanessa grabs the remaining beer, and you make your way into the woods. Vanessa has to lean on you even though it’s a clear path; you walk it a lot, and so do deer and stray dogs and the raccoons who raid the trash.

The log’s in a glade, eerie in moonlight. You hear owls, wind rustling in the trees. Vanessa thumps down on the log, and you fold yourself cross-legged on the damp ground. Vanessa laughs. “Man, you look skinny. You look like a stick insect with huge eyes. Why do you look so sad, Kat?”

“I’m just tired. Okay. Give me that.”

Vanessa opens the fourth bottle for herself. “You’ll only need two, because you’re so skinny.” You doubt you’ll get that far. She gives you the fifth bottle and sighs at the sixth, alone in its cardboard case. “Gotta get more.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” You carefully remove the top, sniff at the opening, and take the tiniest of sips. “Ugh.”

Vanessa laughs. “Drink more! Drink enough for it to work!”

Anger surges in you. You’re tired of being bossed around, tired of being used, tired of being careful. You make a face, hold your nose, and chug down the entire bottle. Vanessa blinks. “Damn! How’d you do that? I want to be able to do that.”

And then she stares at you. You watch your hand, resting on your knee, turn green and mottled, feel your limbs assuming strange, painful shapes. Your vision has changed, which means your eyes probably have too. You’re acutely aware of every small rustle in the woods, every heartbeat, the warm smell of Vanessa’s flesh a few feet away. Hunger grips your entire body. It’s hard to think clearly.

But you do. You force yourself to. You shove your green, serrated fingers down your throat and turn to vomit the beer into the darkness of the woods. Your hands resume their old shape; your vision’s normal again. You shove the bottle back at Vanessa, although it’s almost empty, and tell her, “I don’t want any more.”

The AA meeting’s a blur, permeated with the smell of coffee combined with church-basement mildew that Vanessa always says should be packaged as AA Air Freshener. Hang one in your car and voila, instant meeting. The first speaker’s a dreary drunkalogue, listing every bar he ever went to. Vanessa, who’s heaped a paper plate with cookies and cake—sheet cake slathered with frosting, so sweet that you wonder how even she can eat the stuff—keeps her head bent over her food. The second speaker’s a sarcastic marketing exec who wears chunky silver jewelry and curses every other word. She gets the room roaring; you laugh so hard your face hurts. You whisper to Vanessa, “This is better than cable. I should come to meetings with you more often.”

Vanessa scowls. You wonder if she’s heard a word the woman’s said. “This is fucking field research for you, isn’t it?”

You took courses from the Electronic University Network, paid for with your programming and graphic-arts skills. You couldn’t go to a real college, because you’d have needed immunizations there, too, and the crooked doctor was in prison by then. You took every class you could afford in computer science and anthropology. You aced all of them, and Vanessa—who never went to college at all, who may have gotten through high school only because she was having a very suspect relationship with her math teacher—resents the hell out of it.

But she’s right. This is field research.

The advertising exec is telling a hilarious story about one of her blackouts. That’s one of the AA staples, like vomiting and DTs. All alkies worth their salt have blackouts, periods of amnesia from which they emerge to discover that they’ve done horrible things. Vanessa’s had a ton herself. Identify, don’t compare, people always say at meetings, and on this point, you know that Vanessa’s happy to comply. She hates blackouts. She hates not knowing what she’s done.

The morning after Vanessa’s fourteenth birthday, you wake up with a pounding headache and stabbing dread. You changed; you barely kept yourself from doing more. Vanessa will never talk to you again. She must hate you now.

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