NOTES: This is technically not the final version of the story, but it's still the one I like the best. Most of my workshop's crits stemmed from the fact that they didn't understand the subculture that Sephu and her friends were into, and somehow I don't see that being an issue for an internet audience. The final draft did away with the entire second half which, while simplifying it and eventually getting it a better mark, kills a lot of my original vision. So for you, I present the penultimate version.
Anyone who's already in the know, fandom-wise, and wants to argue with my definitions, keep in mind I was trying to simplify things for an audience that potentially had no clue (aka my workshop).
Fandom Cereal Box
A Song for Sephu
Sing, O Muse, of an exodus of the beautiful, who looked for a different dome – a place of pleasure named Paradise in a dead country's language.
Sing first of a city called Prize that was once the last of its kind. I was born in a world in which over six billion people lived: people with salve and napalm in their throats, who could soothe with one breath and breathe flames with the next; people with barely enough breath for themselves. I watched and I was one of them for sixteen good (or, let's say so-so) years.
Then, when I was seventeen, a dome closed over Prize. It grew right up out of the fenced-off metal band that circled the city, and clapped shut overhead like a big Pac-man mouth. Before we lost communication with the world outside we saw it swallowed up by what looked like a global hurricane, TV news studios and radio stations giving over one-by-one to panic then static. I thought of a program I'd seen once, on the dust-storms that swept across the surface of Mars. We raised the dome against the storm, but God knows what it was originally there for. It was made of some thick, translucent material, pocked with rivets along the seams. The light that made its way down through what we came to call the Low Sky blotched and wavered and was coloured a sickly orange, whether from the dust outside or the dome itself.
When I was twenty-two the dome came down. Outside the oval it had stamped around the city the land was empty, scraped clean of towns and roads and even trees. The soil gathered into dunes and grew crew-cuts of stiff grass. Prize was equipped to support itself for up to ten years under-dome, then jump-start expansion and repopulation once we regained the outside world.
So, O Muse, what was I doing all this time? How did I build and better this, our Last City on Earth, with my youthful strength and, more importantly, youthful ovaries? I, Josephine Collins, Responsible Female and six vertical feet of dirty blonde awkward, suctioned my face to textbook pages. I'd entered the University of Prize during the five years of dome-time, before job opportunities outside the city were at a definite zero, and damned if I'd give it up to go till soil on the outskirts or cart goods up from the city's underground supply hoard. All I had to do was change my major to something they still offered, political science or agriculture, since no one wanted to chat with me in ancient Greek any more.
slashn. genre of fan-made works in which male characters who are not romantically involved with each other in the actual program/movie/book are paired with each other; v. to pair male characters in such a manner.
Between class and part-time work I'd bum around at the university's Red and Black Café, a cramped little place with brick walls plastered with posters for Broadway musicals. I and my girlfriends would parade in, paw at the glass over the case of pastries, flirt with the Unibrow Boy behind the counter, then settle on the rectangle of mismatched couches and trick one of our own into fetching all our drinks. We'd sip chicory and engage in the kind of pretentious and misinformed philosophizing students are so good at.
There we first conceived the thought of Paradise, the embryo of our escape plan.
If our brainchild had a mother it would be Mary. She, a flat-faced girl four years my junior, with a nose like a backslash and brown hair pulled into a thin, limp ponytail – she was coffee-wench that late-February day. After she brought back the last armful of cups she pulled my copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban out of her bag and handed it back to me. She also held out a sheaf of folded printer paper and asked if I'd written what was on it. I almost choked on my granola.
The rest of the girls – six of us in total that day – descended on me, cackling and jabbing at my sides until I gave up the papers. Three of them pinned me to the maroon corduroy cushions as Penelope straightened, patted the bleach-blonde spikes on the back of her head and cleared her throat with a smoker's gurgle.
"Seventh Year," she read. "Rating: PG. Harry/Draco SLASH, if you don't like don't read. All characters property of J.K. Rowling please don't sue XD."
Heat trickled up my neck and leaked into my cheeks. I wiggled my shoulders, but the girls restraining me just squeezed harder.
Penelope shook the paper and shifted the weight of her round, stocky body from foot to foot. "Harry Potter and the Year in Time, by DrAcOsGuRl16. Stark naked and backstage at a Duran Duran concert, Draco Malfoy had to wonder how—"
Mary reached over her shoulder and plucked the papers from her hand. The rest of the girls aww'd, but Mary just stared them down, and folded and tucked the papers into her jean skirt's pocket.
"Josefee reads slash?" asked the girl latched to my left arm.
"What the heck is slash?" asked the girl on my right.
Just then the owner of the Red and Black strolled up behind the couch and asked what all the squealing was about. I tilted my head back, ready to tell him we were just being dorks, Mr. Barrett, pay us no mind. Then I saw the purple smudge high on his right cheek, and the scabbed-over bald spot in his trim beard.
If our brainchild had a father, it would be Mr. Micah Barrett. He was a short man with dyed-orange hair and beard, and an inability to make eye contact for any extended period of time, except with his lanky behemoth of a husband, who'd stop by the café every other day. When I asked Mr. Barrett about the bruise and scrape he rubbed a hand across the unscathed side of his face and mumbled something into his palm. I shook the girls off my arms and stood up, towering a full foot over him. I pressed him again.
"Just some kids." He sat down on the arm of our burgundy cord couch.
Sure. Just some kids. Some punk with high, heavy boots, maybe, or a bulge-bellied princess, pregnancy and assault on little middle-aged men now endorsed by her parents. We had a great big world out there to fill with people, didn't we, and anyone taking full advantage of his or her own fertility sure wasn't part of the solution.
Later I left the café with Mary, holding the shop's glass door open as she shuffled through. We cut across the quad and wove our way through the grove of dead cherry trees kitty-corner to the Red and Black.
Mary absently buttoned and unbuttoned the top right knob on her jacket's double row. She pulled Harry Potter and the Year in Time out of her pocket and asked me again if I'd written it.
I rubbed at my arms. "No. I used to beta for Draco's Girl. I probably printed that one off to line-edit but, you know, dome-time, and Draco lived somewhere down in the States."
"I liked her Buffy and Angel stuff better," said Mary.
Comedic pause, like the penultimate panel of a comic strip. Then the stupid, shock-ate-my-tongue punchline, "Ohman you too?"
If anyone had walked past that stand of cherry tree corpses just then, they would've heard a shriek to rival any tickled grade-schooler, and the thump of jackets clapping together as I dragged Mary into a hug. They probably would have scuttled off somewhere quieter before our giggles billowed up through the branches like so much signal smoke.
fandomn. "fan domain"; a community that surrounds a particular television show/movie/ book/video game/etc.
University attendance being what it was – that is, a twentieth of what it had been before the Low Sky – we had room to be creative with the dorms. I myself had converted the entire sixth floor of Milton Hall into a ten-room penthouse for two. My roommate bailed on me just after the dome came down, so that afternoon after I dropped Mary off at Flagg Hall I came home to stacks of printer paper, textbooks and boxes for company.
I hauled out one of the boxes and burrowed into it in search of more story printouts. There, right down at the bottom: Harry Potter, Angel, SM Chaos, Final Fantasy, one misguided excursion into CSI. There was also Harry Potter and Final Fantasy fan art, mostly in the style of Japanese animation (all bulbous eyes and big hair and boys who looked like girls). And my precious, my baby: a Harry Potter doujinshithat is, a comic book drawn by Japanese fans, also in that big-eyed animation/comic style. The comic was plastic-wrapped; Sirius Black and Remus Lupin goggled up at me from the cover, arms twined around each other, a banner of nonsense squiggles arcing over their heads. Draco's Girl had ordered it for me as a thank-you, had it shipped all the way from Japan, back when there was a Japan, when there was an island full of people who could actually read those squiggles.
I brought an armful of this treasure to my "office" in 608 and punched the power button on my computer, Sephiroth. Once he'd booted up I pulled a CD-R out of the stack and dropped it onto Sephy's outstretched tray. On the disc, I found seven hundred megs of pay dirt: fiction, art, doujinshiscans, animations, costume pictures.
Face pasted to Sephiroth's screen now, instead of the poli-sci text I needed to read for the next morning, I rediscovered the ability to hold the same pose for three hours straight. Feet crossed and tucked under my chair, back humped, right arm propping up my head, left hand nudging the mouse around its patch of desk. To hell with three hours; when we still had the Internet and a world populace to use it, I held that pose for damn near four years. I call it "high school." On weekends I'd hole myself up in the rec room until dawn, a zombie moaning "updaaates" instead of "braaains." My feet turned to thick frozen fish from lack of circulation; my head felt full of helium, a decoy probably as my brain made a getaway.
That night after the incident at the Red and Black I only managed those three hours of pose, then fell asleep at my desk homeroom-nap style, head pillowed on my crossed arms. From that angle the keys on the keyboard were huge, the grooves between them chasms. I wanted to dream about building tiny bridges from A to S to D and all the way across, but the next morning I woke up with a blank behind me.
shounen-ain. "boys' love"; a comic book genre dedicated to stories of homosexual romance, usually between teenage boys; generally written by women, for women; tamer and more plot-oriented version of yaoi.
Penelope and one of the girls who had held me down showed up at the Red and Black the next day with their messenger bags stuffed with comics and discs. They dumped everything out on the giant-chessboard coffee table. Every item was plastered with that bulbous-eyed Japanese art style.
"Because you're one of us," said Penelope, as if I'd asked a question.
I lifted a DVD from the pile. Wolf's Rain, said the cover, Volume 1: Leader of the Pack. The three men on the box weren't actually all that big-eyed, though the girl with them more than made up for it. I told Penelope I'd never actually watched Japanese cartoons (anime, said the girl with her).
"No shit?" Penelope popped a lump of homemade gum in her mouth. "Well, you'll like it. Trust me."
She rooted through the books and DVDs, sent some of them clattering to the floor, and finally held up a book about the size of a short novel. Its cover sported a pink-haired, round-faced boy with a microphone, and the title Gravitation. She handed it to me.
"'S Coraline's," she said, nodding toward the busty, black-curled girl who had provided half of the pile, "so don't crease the spine, or she'll tear out your ovaries. Through your nose."
"Wasn't using them anyway," I muttered.
I took the book and settled onto the corduroy couch's middle cushion. The girls gathered 'round, on and behind the sofa, and peered at the pages as I flipped through. Gravitation was a Japanese comic (mangasaid Penelope) about a spastic boy band front man and the angst-ridden novelist love-of-his-life. Or something. The point was that it had boys kissing boys. I handed the manga off to Mary and poked through the rest of Coraline and Penelope's stash, and realized that was pretty much the point of everything they'd brought us. All across the coffee table: willowy, effeminate men, either draped across and wrapped around each other, or just holding these unlikely, jutted hip poses, like their pelvises were a good three steps ahead of the rest of their bodies. I pretended to wipe stray lipstick from the corner of my mouth.
"Drool check!" Penelope cackled. "I saw that, Josephee."
We all finished off our drinks and marched to Penelope and Coraline's floor of Flagg Hall to watch the DVDs. We started with Wolf's Rain, which didn't actually have any kissing, but for girls who had been excavating homoerotic potential from children's books, it didn't take much of a mental leap to put boy and boy together. Especially since it turns out the "breasts" on that "girl" on the box were, in fact, just misleadingly-placed shirt pockets.
We fell asleep on the floor with hatching-lines of light drawn across our faces, a collaborative effort of the pre-dawn glow and Venetian blinds. Somewhere along the line I'd rolled onto my front and slung my arm across Mary's stomach. From its corner, the TV blared the bubbling syllables of a dead country's language.
"Rakuen," said one of the Wolf's Rain boys, miles above the crevasse of half-sleep my brain had fallen into.
Rakuenmeans paradise. It's what the pretty boys look for after the world ends.
shoujo mangan. "girls' comics"; comics intended for younger female audience; plots tend to focus on romantic and other relationships; often melodramatic, similar to North American soap operas.
A month later I was failing both my classes – 44 in poli-sci, 28 in American history, 0 in giving a crap. By mid-March the girls weren't holding all-night brainwashings anymore, but I had plenty to keep me from my studies: mangastacks to make dents in, terms and subculture history to absorb. Mostly, though, I had my Mary. For Harry Potter movie marathons at my place, for entire Buffy season DVDs at hers, for after-work walks across campus and midnight bike rides to the outskirts. Mary, O my Mary. I couldn't hold pose at Sephiroth's screen for nights on end any more, but if she'd shaken her charcoal and sketchbook at me and pointed to a pedestal, I would have stood still forever.
One night near the end of March I brought a bottle of cheap wine down to the basement of Milton Hall. I had a Spot, in the triangle of space underneath the stairs, maybe six metres by two and tall enough to stand up in at one end. I usually went there after failed tests or bad shifts at Greenidge Market, but that evening there were bigger injustices to rage against. Rage quietly against. Alone, in a basement.
The point is that Mr. Barrett's husband Kinnith had gone to the police about those just-some-kids back in February. Since then he'd played phone-tag with half the damn department and gained nothing but a twitch in his left eye. There were riots to deal with, they said, and drug rings and suicide cults, and they'd get back to him later if that was quite okay. The last officer flat-out told him they had higher priorities than Mr. Barrett's bumps and scrapes, and that the case (or non-case, since they'd done dick all about it) was too old to be worth pursuing. Kinnith took that call behind the counter at the Red and Black, and ended it with bugged eyes and teeth-grinding so loud Penelope swore she could hear it from the bathroom.
So, in protest I sat in my Spot with my back to the bone-coloured paint, sipped my Kalona and thanked God the city had thought to store so much booze. A door whooshed and clicked above me, followed by the thap-thap of wet sneakers on the stairs. I looked up to Mary's flat, freckled face peering over the banister.
I raised my glass to her. "I hate this town."
She said, "Daniel doesn't like my pants."
She came down, sat beside me and wrapped her arms around her knees. I topped up the glass of wine and handed it to her.
"He asked me what ever happened to the pretty girl he fell in love with." She scrunched her face up and imitated his voice, "'You dress like a guy now. It's like I'm dating another guy.'"
Mary licked her thumb and rubbed at the mud splattered on her jeans. Wideleg men's jeans. The collar of a men's work shirt sprouted up from between her jacket lapels. Now that I thought about it, she hadn't worn a skirt since the afternoon she was coffee-wench. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen her in women's pants, even. Though giving Daniel any kind of credit made the back of my head prickle, I had to admit he had a point.
"He also found out about this." She unbuttoned her jacket, then the top two buttons of her work shirt. Beneath the green fabric a six-inch wide Ace bandage flattened her breasts to her body. "Said it weirded him out."
She said she'd been wearing it for weeks. How in God's name had I missed that?
"If he doesn't break it off I think I might have to." She handed back the wine glass. Her face was already pink between the freckles. "The only time I'm really… into him is when I can forget I'm a girl. Then it's like living slash."
I stared at her, bit at the inside of my cheek. Crackles of bloodshot veins still lurked in the corners of her eyes. That evening I was wearing men's sweatpants and a sweatshirt huge and lumpy enough to hide my own chest. I shuffled closer to my Mary. She, a thin and wide-eyed one, knees together so the lower legs formed a pigeon-toed A. The perfect pose for an uke, forthe submissive in a boys' love pair, all blush-faced, soft-spoken, mewling stop o stop without a lick of conviction to his loverboy on top. She(he?) was my ukeif anyone was, my Mary (Marius?).
This is shoujo manga at its best: not two women guzzling wine, but two smooth-faced boys intoxicated and alone. The setup only ever leads in one direction. Strapping broad-shouldered semedives in for a kiss, closed-mouth for the first, and the background explodes in sparkles and hovering bubbles of light. Uke's eyes widen, tear up if we're going all-out. His dainty, pouty lips part and he says,
Sephu! I… I didn't realize…
("Josephee? How much have you had to drink?")
Semebends down again, blonde hair awhirl around his head and his love's (where is that wind coming from?).
Shh. It's okay. It felt good didn't it?
("Few glasses, I suppose.")
Close up on their mouths so we can see shiny, chubby tongues prodding past their lips. Or pull back and watch the uke's eyes slip closed, spine curve as he presses the length of his body to his love's (weren't we sitting down?). Semepulls back again, splays a huge hand on the uke's cheek and jaw. Smiles down at him with low-lidded, watery eyes and lips a single, thin brushstroke.
I like you, Marius.
I like you too, but… but we can't! It's wrong like this. The city said so.
Then we'll leave. Will you come with me?
O yes Sephu. I would follow you to the ends of the Earth.
What do you do at the end of the world? You drink crap wine until you see sparkles and bubbles; you slobber all over a pretty girl until she drags you back upstairs and puts you to bed.
Mary sat on the floor beside my bed while I babbled through the last of my consciousness. From my pillow I could just see her drawn-up knees over the top of her head. They were pressed together like they had been in the basement, still that perfect ukepose. Across the room Sephiroth's monitor loomed over his keyboard and its inter-key chasms, still bridgeless. If I could dream of climbing up on Mary's knee I wouldn't need a bridge at all – I could just sort of hop across.
bishounenn. "pretty/beautiful boy"; usually tall, thin and effeminate, only distinguishable as male by lack of breasts and presence of male sexual organs.
We did leave and, if you count the Last City as the ends of the Earth, my Mary followed me right on past them.
The city started its own colonization program in May, and I think that was the last straw; shipping out was now a viable option. I worked it into our conversations at the Red and Black. The idea at first was that we'd sign up for one of the city-sponsored colonies and hope we didn't get stuck with too many idiots. Penelope pointed out that, accounting for rotation and friends-of-friends, there were at least twenty girls in or connected to our group at the Red and Black – enough for a small camp or colony, and united by at least one common interest. Which was?
"Boysex," said Penelope.
Like Mary and I, she and Coraline had both switched to boy-pants based wardrobes; their t-shirts rippled around the chest, moulding to the folds of the bandage underneath. Coraline had an arm around Penelope's shoulders and a hand on her thigh. Mary and I mirrored their pose on the couch across from them, right down to the mugs cradled in Mary and Penelope's hands. Here at the Red and Black, where this brainchild was conceived, the four of us ended its three-month gestation.
"We should call it Xanadu." Mary thumbed the curve of her mug's handle. "'A stately pleasure dome decree.'"
Penelope stuck her tongue out. "Beh. I'm sick of domes. Call it Rakuenhow about."
Two weeks later, we rode our bikes South out of Prize, makeshift carts of tents and food trailing behind. We left as Sephu and Marius, Loki and Kyo, four at the head of a hoard of pretty boys. We founded our Paradise at the foot of the hills, behind a slight rise, a lump of land that blocked our view of the Last City on Earth.