Warning: This poem features some intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes social anxiety, Calliope and Vagary being awkward together, trust issues, a housing project run by supervillains, reference to homelessness, food sharing issues, a store full of creepy things, an intimidating former-supervillain-now-security-head in a wheelchair, reference to nude modeling, transgender and transpecies issues, discussion of Vagary's past counseling experiences, differences between Calliope and Calvin, food deserts, public vs. private space, disabilities, dissonance between past and present observations, exuberant hugging, past abuse and running away from home, past prostitution with forced drug use which caused superpowers, reference to discrimination against soups with animal traits, vulgar language, Calliope has a panic attack over the similarity between how transfolk and soups with animal traits are treated, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"What Makes the Feast"
Vagary hadn't said much about
the party other than where it was
and what it was for, so Calliope
wasn't sure what to wear.
She settled on a floral skirt
with a royal blue top and shoes,
which looked nice but not too fancy.
She had exactly no idea what to get
for the girl who was moving out, so Calliope
just got a supermarket gift card and stuck it
in a handmade housewarming holder.
You couldn't go wrong with that.
Vagary arrived, smartly on time,
alongside the teleporter Kong Vault.
When not dodging tornadoes,
Kong's Vault's superpower felt
more like the dip-and-glide of
dancing than a hairpin turn.
"Welcome to Arcadia East,"
the teleporter said. "If you
don't mind, I am heading
downstairs for the food."
"Go on," Vagary said,
waving him off. "We'll
walk the retail floor first."
Calliope stared up at
the huge building with
its Greco-Roman columns
and ornate ironwork balconies.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"I get a tour and everything?"
"Yeah, but um ... it's actually
more about giving other folks
a look at you," Vagary said.
Calliope narrowed her eyes.
"Showing off your superhera?"
"No, no, it's just that the party
is downstairs," Vagary said.
"The retail floor is open to
the public, but the basement
is mostly for tenants. If we
walk around together, then folks
will see that you're with me, and
so they won't bother you."
"All right," Calliope said. "Part of
the point to this is for to show me
your world and your friends."
"Yeah," he said. "Just um, like we
agreed earlier ... don't take it out
on other folks for knowing me?"
"Party manners," Calliope said.
She could hardly blame him for
doubting her etiquette when they
didn't get along very well, and she
didn't really trust his manners either.
Vagary led the way into Arcadia East,
which had been America's first shopping mall
before the upper floors got converted into
microapartments as a housing project.
Calliope had to admit that Vagary's gang,
or whatever they were, had done a great job
with the place. The storefronts were elegant,
all the names lettered in the same style,
and the aisle bustled with people.
"Livi's Pockets, Middle Eastern food,"
Vagary said, pointing to the first door.
"They make falafel, if you want
something to eat as we walk."
"Sure," said Calliope, admiring
the delectable smells that spilled out.
Vagary bought them a six-pack
and said, "Take what you want,
and I'll eat whatever's left."
Calliope took half. "I know better
than to hog things," she said.
The outside was crispy,
the inside moist and fragrant.
There was just enough falafel
to take the edge off her appetite,
not spoil it for the party later.
"Genius Bar," Vagary said
of a blue-lit room full of computers.
"It's tech support and a geek hangout."
He waved to an older man wearing
a periwinkle shirt. "That's Hubert Ba,
who runs the Genius Bar. He's smart."
"I'll take your word for it," Calliope said.
"I confess that I'm not much of a geek."
"Well, Environs is a gift shop, and
they sell all kinds of --" Vagary said.
"What in the world is that?"
Calliope exclaimed, staring at
the creepy display in the window.
"Lovecraft Arts & Sciences is
a bookstore, tourist center, and
curiosity shop," Vagary said, grinning.
"You want to go in and check it out?"
"Hell yes," Calliope said. She never had
quite shaken Calvin's love of oddities.
Inside, the store held bookcases and
curio cabinets made of beautiful hardwood,
their shelves crammed with canned aliens
and peculiar sculptures. Calliope fell in love
with one that looked like a tentacled creature
trying to engulf a teapot and its cup.
"If you like it, why not get yourself
a souvenir?" Vagary suggested.
"Yes, I think I -- eek!" Calliope said,
backing away from the Medusa statue
that she had nearly bumped into.
"That thing is looking at me."
"Nah," Vagary said, plunking it on
the forehead with a hollow bong.
"It's still deactivated. Harmless, see?"
Calliope stared at him. "Deactivated?"
"Well yeah," he said, pointing to the card.
"It's a trophy from a cape fight, says so
right there on the proof of provenance.
This is just a shell, though, they took out
all the guts that actually made it run."
Calliope edged around the creepy relic
to get to the cash register and ask a clerk for
the still-creepy-but-much-cuter sculpture.
The souvenir was worth the scare, though.
"You can see the basement later, if you want,"
Vagary said as they left. "It's a gaming room
for board games and roleplaying and stuff."
"That could be fun," Calliope agreed.
Then she spied the burly, tattooed man
sitting in a wheelchair. He glared at her,
crossing his muscled arms. "Who's he?
It looks like he doesn't like me very much."
"That's Boris the Brawn, head of security.
He looks at most people that way," Vagary said.
"I uh, might have mentioned you not long after
we got stuck with each other, though. I felt
like crap, so I came back here to crash with
friends -- the second-floor apartments have
a Murphy bed for spare sleeping space."
"Gee, thanks," Calliope said. She wasn't
sure she could handle Boris if he attacked her.
"I'll handle it," Vagary said. "Just wait here."
He left Calliope sitting in a wire chair outside
Lovecraft Arts & Sciences while he strolled over
to talk with the probably-another-supervillain.
Well that was nerve-wracking to watch.
Calliope wiped her hands on a napkin,
not wanting to wrinkle her nice skirt.
After a minute, though, Boris gave
a grudging nod and uncrossed his arms.
"Problem solved," Vagary said when he
came back to Calliope. "He still doesn't
like you, but he won't glower at you now."
"Thank you," Calliope said, and meant it.
"On with the show? What else is here?"
"There's Rogue Island, that's a bar which
also serves food," Vagary said. "They have
another basement game room, but it's more of
a tavern with darts and poker tables and stuff
like that. "It's a fun bit of history, though --
this used to be kind of a pirate island."
Calliope laughed. "I remember
reading about that in civics class.
My teacher said that it was how
we got the Bill of Rights, because
the pirates insisted on writing out
protections for individual freedoms!"
"True story," Vagary said with a nod.
"Nude?" Calliope said, reading
the sign over the next storefront.
"Yeah, that's partially a fashion store,
but primarily it's a fine art studio for
nude drawing and photography,"
Vagary said. "Clothes and prints
are up here. The actual studio is in
the basement, not right underneath
because that's the gym, but elsewhere."
"Whatever floats their boat, I guess,"
Calliope said, shaking her head.
"Impulse Hair Designs, they
do basic beauty stuff, and then
Luniac Glamour does premium care,"
Vagary said, giving her a sidelong glance.
"Luniac also covers special needs. It's
pretty popular with the trans crowd."
"Trans ... crowd?" Calliope said.
"Lower your voice," he warned.
"Not just transgender, but transpecific,
people who aren't entirely human anymore,
and some of them are sensitive about it."
"Okay," she said, not wanting to be rude.
She had heard a little about such things,
but not much, so she'd follow his lead.
She wondered, though, how many people
had to be in the "trans crowd" here in order
to have a business that catered to them --
and whether Vagary had accounted for
that in deciding to invite her to the party.
"We're at the end of the hall, except for
the shoe repair shop outside," Vagary said.
"The other three outer slots are different kinds
of quiet rooms. Ready for the other side?"
"How pretty!" Calliope exclaimed, veering
toward a window display across the hall,
which was full of trinkets. "What's this one?"
"Carmen & Ginger, they sell stuff salvaged
from thrift stores, and things that residents
have made or upcycled," Vagary said.
"It's usually a good place for bargains."
Regretfully, Calliope shook her head.
"I don't need a ton of knickknacks, and
I already bought one artsy thing today."
"Dash Bicycle, new and used stuff
upstairs and a repair shop downstairs,"
Vagary said. "Everyone comes here.
There's bike storage in the basement too."
"Oh, that's nice," said Calliope. "You're
right, it looks pretty busy in there."
"Yeah, they'll teach you how to ride
and maintain bikes," Vagary said.
"Most folks who live here don't have
a car, although those who do can get
a discount for the parking garage
just across the street from us."
"Moving out must have been
a huge change for you," she said.
"Yeah, it was," Vagary said.
"Speaking of change, here's
That Guy, a counseling center.
Most of their clients are men
with behavioral problems.
I used to come here a lot."
"Really?" Calliope said, taking
a closer look at the storefront.
It had a waiting room by the door,
with private spaces farther back.
"It looks a little small, though."
"Upstairs has one room each
for individual and family therapy,
plus another for consultations,"
Vagary said. "Downstairs has
the big room for group therapy."
"Did it help?" Calliope wondered
as she eyed him thoughtfully.
"Yeah, I used to do private sessions
and a bunch of the groups," said Vagary.
"Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families,
the Big Yellow Book Club, Step 9 1/2,
Rudy's Dudes, that sort of thing."
"No wonder you're all over
the group therapy options at
the Tranquility Center," she said.
"Yeah, I love group stuff, but theirs is
totally different than what I had here,"
Vagary said, waving at the door. " This
was mostly behavioral therapy. Tranquility
has a lot more touchy-feely, emotional stuff.
I don't know why I didn't try that sooner."
"You weren't ready for it before; you
needed to put the bottom rungs on
the ladder first," someone said. "Hello,
Vagary, it's good to see you back."
Calliope looked at the handsome man
in the neat gray suit. "And you are?"
"Hi, Mr. Giraudo!" Vagary said eagerly.
"I brought my friend Calliope to the party.
Calliope, this is Mr. Giraudo, who was
my favorite therapist when I came here."
"Hello," Calliope said. Mr. Giraudo
seemed respectable enough, but
his sharp gaze made her twitchy.
"How are you doing?" he asked
as he turned toward Vagary.
Vagary looked away. "I'm trying,
but I keep messing up everything."
"What's the rule?" said Mr. Giraudo.
"Find new mistakes, and make
all of them, once," Vagary recited.
"So are you sticking with the rule,
or are you repeating yourself?"
Mr. Giraudo pressed.
Vagary looked at Calliope.
"Some things you do once,
study up, and stop," she said.
"Other things you keep doing,
no matter what, and it's annoying."
"Then it sounds like you're making
good progress," Mr. Giraudo said.
"Calliope, thank you for being patient
with him. Vagary, feel free to drop by
if you ever need to brush up on basics."
"Thanks, Mr. Giraudo, I'll keep
that in mind," Vagary replied.
After they left, Calliope said, "It was
nice of you not to contradict him
when he called me patient."
"Mr. Giraudo doesn't tend to make
mistakes about people," Vagary said.
"You haven't hit me or yelled at me
in a while now, so yeah, patient."
Calliope wasn't sure how she felt
about that, so she said nothing.
"Southwest Passages, travel agency
and souvenir shop," Vagary said
"I already get more travel than I
know what to do with," Calliope said.
Chasing storms over several states
kept her busy much of the time.
They walked onward, and came
to the rich aroma spilling out of
New Harvest Coffee & Spirits.
"It's mostly coffee, tea, and cocoa
with spirits for additional flavoring,"
Vagary said. "They also stock a lot
of bitters and other digestive liquors.
It's not really the kind of bar where folks
go to get drunk -- that's Rogue Island."
"It smells delicious," Calliope said,
taking a deep, appreciative sniff.
"Yeah, they run coffee clubs so
people can get a monthly subscription,
either to brew at home or pick up at
the storefront," Vagary said.
"Mmm, what kinds?" Calliope said.
The club idea sounded interesting.
"Random, dark roast, eco-friendly,
all kinds of stuff," said Vagary. "I like
the Relaxing Decaf Club myself."
Calliope wrinkled her nose.
"You drink decaf? Why bother?"
"Because the Kaleidoscope Club
made me even more wired than I
already am, and I do not need
more anxiety in my life," he said.
"Good point," she conceded.
She hesitated, then added, "Calvin
likes darker roasts than I do. I like
mine lighter and sweeter than
he does for some reason."
"That's interesting," Vagary said.
"I didn't know your tastes changed
so much between forms. Sometimes
you sound like two different people,
but other times like only one."
"One person, but two bodies
and totally different professions,"
Calliope said. "It's challenging, but ...
I'm not sure I'd want to change it."
"Hey, do what works for you,"
Vagary said with a shrug.
"I'm still figuring out what that is,"
Calliope admitted. "My gender coach
helps a lot, though, so it's coming along."
"Okay, this is one I know you'll like --
Goddess Closet sells mostly clothes
and some Pagan stuff," Vagary said.
"They focus on feminine people but
they're flexible about body types."
"Could be interesting," Calliope said.
The sidewalk sale rack didn't grab her,
but the window display looked gorgeous
with a black robe edged in gold embroidery.
"Back when I first moved in, this used to be
an antique shop, but Chamonix moved out,
and then we got Goddess Closet," Vagary said.
"We get a fair amount of turnover here, because
the most successful stores outgrow this place."
Inside, Calliope eagerly explored racks of clothes
and glass cases of jewelry. There was a corner
full of candles, crystals, and many-armed icons.
The store smelled of handmade soap and
every flavor of incense under the sun.
"Hi, Aconite," Vagary said, waving at
a girl with blue-and-black hair. "This is
my friend Calliope. What's today's button?"
Aconite shifted her black krevel jacket
to show a button with a smiley face
which read, Safe and Nontoxic.
"I'm huggable today," she said.
"Always check the button," Vagary said,
"because Aconite's superpower makes
her body fluids toxic the more she uses it."
"That sounds incredibly frustrating,"
Calliope said. "How do you deal with that?"
"I have another button that reads, Toxic,"
said Aconite. "As long as I don't practice
too much on weekends, the poison wears off
in time for me to work during the week.
So, can I help you find anything?"
"It all looks wonderful," Calliope said,
turning to admire the colorful displays.
"Okay, so casual stuff is toward the front,
classy in the middle, and fancier things
are in the back. T-shirts are near
the Pagan corner," Aconite said.
As the girl shifted position, Calliope
could see that her black t-shirt read,
God is busy. Can I help you?
"Hey, check this out," Vagary said,
beckoning Calliope toward the dresses.
"Some of these look like your colors."
They were more elaborate than anything
she had seen outside of a wedding, but
with far more colors than the usual white --
crimson and emerald and aubergine,
hot pink and turquoise, even black.
The one that snatched her breath away
was primarily pink and blue, accented
with purple and yellow. The fabric was
densely embroidered with gold thread
holding sequins, rhinestones, and
even tiny mirrors that caught the light.
Calliope coveted it with a sudden intensity
that reminded her of sneaking into
her mother's closet as a boy.
"Would you like to try it on?"
asked a low, warm voice.
Calliope spun around to find
a fellow transwoman who had
strong features and auburn hair.
"I am Noor, the shopkeeper,"
she continued. "If there is
anything I can help you with,
please don't hesitate to ask me."
"Um, I don't know," Calliope said.
"I'm not sure how to get into this."
The beautiful dress had some kind
of shawl or drape that went with it.
"It's simpler than it looks," Noor said,
showing her how it worked, "as opposed
to a sari, which looks simple but is not."
Dress in hand, Calliope headed for
the changing room. The bathroom sign
made her smile, though. It read,
Lou or Lulu? Any loo will do.
Goddess loves everyone.
To Calliope's delight,
the dress fit her perfectly.
She twirled in front of
the mirror, indulging in
a moment of girlish glee.
She didn't have anywhere
to wear something so fancy,
but for this dress, she would
find an occasion to wear it.
Calliope stepped out to show
Vagary, only to hear Aconite exclaim,
"Wow! You look amazing in that."
"You really do," Vagary said.
"So what does the budget say?"
"It'll stretch this far, barely, if I don't
have to buy dinner," Calliope said.
"It's a moving out party, dear,
the building has a fund for those,"
Noor said. "Pizzazz Pizza downstairs
is putting out food for everyone."
"Then yes," Calliope said, grinning
as Aconite rang up the sale.
"I'm glad you found something
so exciting," Vagary said. "I hoped
that you'd enjoy the shops here."
"Yes, they're lovely," Calliope said,
looking at a window full of fruit baskets.
"Is that actually a grocery store?"
"That is Amy's Apples," said Vagary.
"They sell mostly fresh produce and
other base ingredients so people can
cook their own food. We don't have
big kitchens here, but enough to start."
"That's good," Calliope said. "Sometimes
people in housing projects have a hard time
finding healthy food even if they want it."
"Food deserts suck, but it's not just about
having access to food, you have to know
what to do with it once you do," Vagary said.
"That's what home economics is for,"
Calliope said absently as they went on.
"Nice class if you can get it, but I couldn't,"
Vagary said. "I didn't even know how to make
salad when I moved in. At least here, we've
got Livi teaching folks how to make wraps, and
the Blue Room downstairs has a full-size kitchen
for the various cooking classes that Amy runs."
"That sounds productive," Calliope said.
"It's good for people to help each other."
"Coming up is Arch Angels," said Vagary.
"They do eyebrow shaping and makeup,
but only appointments, not walk-ins."
"Not my thing," Calliope said.
"I like my face the way it is now."
That was a luxury to be cherished.
"Yeah, I can see that," Vagary said
with a fond smile. "I'm glad you do.
It's a nice face. I think it fits you."
That was not at all the usual kind of
compliment she got, but oddly sweet.
"Thanks," said Calliope. "It helps
when people back me up like that."
Vagary had been rather less annoying
than usual today. Maybe they should
try doing things like this more often.
If nothing else, it kept the bond fed.
"Here's Bountiful Books," Vagary said.
It had similar hardwood shelves
to Lovecraft Arts & Sciences.
"New or used?" Calliope asked.
"Both, and a Book Crossing Zone,"
Vagary said. "They have good stuff."
Calliope gave a wistful sigh. "If I went
in there, I'd probably lose an hour."
"It happens," Vagary said with a chuckle.
"So, party next?" Calliope said. "Are you
sure it's okay for me to go downstairs?
You said that was for residents."
"Well, it's basically our amenities floor --
the laundromat and living rooms are
down there, and the green spaces for
folks who can't go outside," Vagary said,
"but some of the businesses like Nude
and Gymcrack sell memberships, so
we get a little bit of outside traffic too.
Besides, you're with me, it's fine."
"All right, lead the way," Calliope said.
"Quickest from here is to duck outside
and use the stairs," Vagary said as he
trotted ahead of her. "We have elevators
in the middle, and some of the shops have
private stairs to the basement as well."
As soon as they got downstairs,
Calliope could smell the pizza.
Instantly her mouth watered.
Her eyes, however, were captivated
by the huge waterfall feature surrounded
with a veritable jungle of tropical plants.
Vines crawled up a wall, and small trees
reached above the display, illuminated
by powerful daylight panels overhead.
"Wow," she said. "This looks like
a pocket park, only underground."
"Like I said, some of us can't
really go out," Vagary said quietly.
"This meets some of the same needs.
Over there, the Green Room is like
a living room that residents can reserve.
Across from that is the movie room."
"That sounds like a lot of amenities
for a housing project," said Calliope.
"You folks are lucky to have so much."
"Yeah, we know," Vagary said.
"About half of them are businesses,
though, which keeps the cost down."
They passed a few more doors before
he pointed out the game room belonging
to Lovecraft Arts & Sciences, with people
out front playing board games on tables.
Vagary indicated a man wearing
a blue t-shirt that read, Roll Model.
"That's Murray Brathwaite. He has
cerebral palsy, so his dexterity sucks."
He gave Calliope a nervous look. "Be
gentle with him, okay? Murray's one of
my peer counselors, and I like him."
"Sure, I'll be careful," Calliope said.
She watched, curious, as Murray
gave his smartphone a shake.
It made a sound like dice rattling,
and several of the players groaned.
While they were busy handling the fallout,
Vagary took advantage of the pause to say,
"Hi, Murray, I wanted you to meet Calliope."
"Hello, Calliope, I'm glad you could make it
here today. Vagary was hopeful," said Murray.
His handshake was warm, if a bit wobbly. "You
got lucky catching him -- he's a great gamer,
flexible and patient, never minds helping me
handle the miniatures or anything else."
Calliope wasn't used to hearing
anyone praise Vagary like that.
"Thanks for the input," she said.
"So, is there any pizza left?"
Murray laughed. "Plenty,"
he said. "They cooked with
us in mind. We won't run out!"
Vagary was grinning as they
headed across the hall, making
Calliope wonder what the joke was.
Then he sobered and said, "Uh listen ...
most days they make personal pizzas
along with the bigger ones, but today it's
all tabletops. I know you're not a fan
of sharing food. I hope it's okay."
"I'm sure it will be fine," she said.
"It certainly smells delicious!"
The Pizzazz Pizza Parlor had
a simulated courtyard in front of it,
complete with elegant wire tables and
chairs. Cheerful flowers bloomed
under more daylight panels.
The tabletop pizzas turned out
to be, in fact, the size of the tables.
"Here, try the Farm Fresh Pizza,
it's really good," Vagary suggested.
Calliope tried it. It was really good.
The thick whole wheat crust held up
a dense layer of onions, bell peppers,
black olives, and spicy Italian sausage
topped with homemade mozzarella.
"You were right," Calliope said.
"This is fantastic pizza."
"Vagary, you came, yay!"
squealed a girl with hair
so pink it was nearly neon.
She jumped on him, wrapping
her legs around his waist, and
Vagary hugged her back.
"Party girl?" Calliope asked,
raising an eyebrow at them.
"No, this is Folly," Vagary said,
shaking his head. "I believe
Lucy is inside somewhere."
"Yeah, she's in back," said Folly.
"Manami is helping her sort out
all the housewarming gifts."
"They do add up, don't they?"
Vagary said, then turned to Calliope.
"Folly and I were neighbors for a while,
until I moved out. Sometimes she
uses her powers to help me out."
"Would you like for me to grease
the wheels a bit?" Folly asked.
"Not right now," Vagary said.
"I think I need to stay sober today,
even if that's a little more challenging."
"Grease the wheels?" Calliope said.
"Folly can lower inhibitions," he replied.
"It's like being tipsy, or maybe stoned,
only without the hangover in the morning."
"That must make you very popular
at certain parties," Calliope said.
"Sometimes," Folly said as she
put her feet back down on the floor.
She didn't let go of Vagary, though.
"Other times, it's more trouble than
it's worth." She looked sad.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to bring up
a touchy topic," Calliope said.
She should probably remember that
the people living here were here for reasons,
most of which would be unpleasant.
"It's okay, I can cope," Folly said.
"Why don't you two go say hi to Lucy?"
"Great idea," Vagary said as he
hugged Folly one last time.
He was surprisingly demonstrative
with his friends. It wasn't what Calliope
expected of a supervillain. The people
here seemed to like him, too. Well,
there was no accounting for taste.
Or maybe she had misjudged him.
Or maybe he was just playing her,
because she still remembered him
shooting her with his Confusticator
and drugging her and kidnapping her.
Calliope shrugged off her worries,
took another slice of delicious pizza,
and followed Vagary into the restaurant.
Inside, the pizza parlor was full of booths,
some smaller and other ones larger.
They sidled between the tables
and the people, angling toward
the back in search of Lucy.
Vagary pointed out Manami first,
a beautiful black woman with coils
of natural hair spilling down her back,
surrounded by a small pile of presents.
Two children, slightly lighter in coloring,
tugged on her sleeves to get attention.
"That is Hubert's family. Manami
is his wife, who runs Arcadia East.
Their daughter is Awa and their son
is Hamlin," Vagary explained. "They
have the only three-bedroom apartment."
"Sounds like a tight fit," Calliope said.
"It's not too bad," Vagary said. "The adults
share a room, and the kids have their own.
Besides, we have lots of common space."
"True. Someone did a brilliant job of
designing this place," Calliope said.
"Why thank you," Manami said.
"I've worked very hard on it."
Calliope blushed. She hadn't
realized that Manami had done
more than just managerial work.
"I just came here because Vagary
invited me to the party, but I found
a couple of great souvenirs, too."
"I'm happy to hear that," said Manami.
"Lucy is right back there in the corner.
She'll be thrilled to see you and Vagary."
Vagary led the way, with Calliope
close behind him. When they reached
the corner booth, he said, "Hey, Lucy.
Congratulations on your new apartment."
When she turned around, she said,
"Thanks, Vagary. I hoped you'd make it
here today. So this must be Calliope?"
Meanwhile Calliope was staring at her.
Lucy had a sweet face with a moist pink nose
framed by white whiskers. Her smile showed
big buck teeth. Enormous lop ears poked through
her short brown hair, drooping to her shoulders.
Calliope shook herself and said, "Oh. Yes. I am.
Happy housewarming." She handed Lucy
the holder with the gift card inside.
"Eee!" Lucy said. "Thank you so much!
I'm saving up for new sheets, because
my current bed is a twin but the next one
will be full-size. Another ten bucks and
I'll be able to buy new sheets instead of
just taking what I can find at a thrift store."
Without hesitation, Vagary took out his wallet
and handed her a ten-dollar bill. "Here and
here," he said, following it with a tiny box.
"You are the best friend ever," Lucy said
as she hugged him. Then she opened
the box. "Ooo, this is so pretty!"
She held up something that caught
the light and splintered it into colors.
A beaded line held a red jasper rabbit
above a glistening leaf-shaped crystal.
"I thought you could use something
to brighten up your new place, but I
didn't want to add clutter," Vagary said.
"That will hang in the window, out of
the way, and throw rainbows around."
He was surprisingly good at picking gifts.
Or maybe this was the real Vagary, and
Calliope had only seen his supervillain side.
"So how is your business going?" Vagary said
as he slipped into the booth across from
Lucy, pulling Calliope along with him.
"Great, it's why I'm moving," Lucy replied.
"I need more work space for my crafts, so I
picked out a nice two-bedroom apartment.
I actually have two characters now."
"Really?" said Vagary. "What did you do,
find makeup to look like a puppy or something?"
"No, they're both still rabbits," Lucy said.
"I do Lucy Lop for the preschoolers and
Bonnie the Bunny Queen for grade school."
"You know you're asking for trouble with
those names," Vagary warned. "They'll
call you Bom Bom Bonnie, or worse."
"It's okay, they're just kids," Lucy said.
"I really don't mind helping them practice
what's nice to say and what's not. They
need safe places to make mistakes,
and a party is pretty good for that."
"As long as you're smooth with it,
that's all that matters," Vagary said.
"What do you do?" Calliope wondered.
"Are you a show soup, or something else?"
"I'm a party performer," Lucy said. "I dress up
and go to children's parties, for birthdays or
other celebrations. I make all kinds of
stuffed bunnies that I can personalize.
Would you like to see some pictures?"
"Sure," Calliope said. "I've never
heard of anything like that."
Lucy used her smartphone to show
a photo of several soft, floppy bunnies
that looked like blankets with heads,
each in a different pastel color.
"These are for babies," she said.
"They're warm and fuzzy, and
all the details are embroidered."
"They look nice for baby showers,"
Calliope said, wishing that she had
known about this back when she
was shopping for Jackie's baby.
"This is another style for babies,
good for a first stuffie," Lucy said.
"Why in the world don't the pieces
match properly?" Calliope exclaimed,
staring at the white velveteen rabbit
with one ear and one leg made out of
orange calico cloth. "Did you just
run out of the original fabric?"
"No, he had organ transplants,"
Lucy said in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I make a whole line of bunnies
with different disabilities, so kids
can have a toy that looks like them.
It's one of my most popular requests."
"Oh," Calliope said. "I would have
liked -- yes. That's a brilliant idea."
"Thank you," said Lucy. "Here are
my superbunnies. You can see where
I embroidered a name on the cape."
The blue bunny in a yellow costume
faced the camera, while the white one
in black had turned his back on it.
"Superhero and supervillain?"
Calliope guessed, looking at them.
"Yeah, they think they hate each other,
but they really wish they could be friends,"
Lucy said, nodding. "I based this pair on
a couple of kids I knew in school."
That hit a little too close to home
for Calliope. "What else do you have?"
Lucy swiped to a new picture. "Here,
these are a little fancier," she said.
"Preschoolers love them. I make up
the bodies all the same, just with
different colors of bunny ear hats,
and I can customize the dresses."
"They're adorable," Calliope said.
"How long does it take to do that?"
"Only about ten minutes each, at
the party. I have a handheld machine
for the sewing on location," Lucy said.
"Setting up the blank bunny forms
at home takes longer, of course."
"That's impressive," Calliope said.
"I can do multicolor ones too," Lucy said,
flicking the screen. "This is one of
my trans-genderqueer bunnies."
He was mostly blue, but he had
accents of pink and yellow on
his ears and feet, and he wore
a pink bow around his neck.
Calliope had to swallow hard
around the lump in her throat
before she could say, "Wow."
"Then for the older children, I have
the dress-up bunnies," said Lucy.
She showed off a photograph of
a tan bunny with several outfits and
a colorful birthday cupcake, then
one of several different bunnies
wearing fancy Easter clothes.
"They're cute," Calliope said.
"Lots of options to pick from, too."
"If you choose the right things, like
lace-up shoes and button shirts,
then you can basically design
a learn-to-dress-yourself doll
out of these," said Vagary.
"That helps a lot, because I can
put individual prices on the clothes,
and they're quicker to make than
complete bunnies," said Lucy.
"So why do the whole party thing,
instead of just selling the bunnies?"
Calliope asked. "They're beautiful."
"Because I can't turn a profit if I
sell them like regular toys," Lucy said.
"I don't go fast enough that way, so I
can't compete with the cheap stuff."
"I guess that makes sense,"
Calliope said. "A lot of toymaking
has been automated by now."
"Yeah, I was about to give up, but
Murray told me to think outside the box
and find a way to make them profitable,"
Lucy said. "So I came up with the party plan
as a value-added business model, and now
the kids love feeling special when I make
their bunnies right in front of them."
"Can I see your new outfits?" Vagary said.
"I assume you redesigned them so that
they'll look different from each other."
"Sure," Lucy said, switching to
a different file. The first photo had
a fuzzy brown jumpsuit with a pink belly
and a tail hole in back. "This is Lucy Lop."
"It matches your fur," Vagary said.
"That's the idea," Lucy agreed.
"Here's Bonnie the Bunny Queen."
That one was a frilly princess dress
in layers of pink tutu netting, with
a pink-and-gold bodice on top.
Vagary laughed. "You look
like a cake topper in that."
"I know," Lucy said, giggling.
"Little girls love it, though. I'm
just glad that I don't have to wear
the slutty costume anymore. It
always attracted creeps."
"Slutty costume?" Calliope said,
raising her eyebrows. That didn't
seem to fit with the rest of this stuff.
Vagary kicked her ankle, rather hard.
"You don't have to say anything,"
he told Lucy. "It's in the past."
"I know, but my therapist says that
talking about it helps, and I think
she's right," Lucy said. "Besides,
when nobody talks about it, people
don't know what's going on."
"I'm listening," Calliope said.
Vagary glared at her in a way which
implied that he was entirely prepared
to tackle her through the nearest wall if
she upset his friend, but he didn't interfere.
"As a child, I was abused by several of
my relatives," Lucy said. "At fourteen,
I ran away from home to escape it."
"That's awful," Calliope said. She
recalled that people living in a place
like this tended to have a hard past.
"Yeah, it was, but I survived," Lucy said.
"I wound up working for a pimp who liked
to dress me up in slutty bunny costumes."
She displayed a snapshot of herself wearing
a fluffy pink dress with white fishnet stockings
and a headband with bunny ears on top.
It made her look young and vulnerable.
"At first, it was all fake, but then
All-Star Stamm shot me up with
this street drug called Hopp-R,"
said Lucy. "It was just supposed
to make me horny all the time, but ..."
She stroked one furry brown ear.
"Instead, it made me like this."
"What a horrible thing to do!"
Calliope exclaimed. "Zetetic drugs
are insanely dangerous. They kill people."
"So do the regular drugs," Lucy said with
a shrug. "Anyway, my new superpowers
helped me to escape from All-Star Stamm.
I'm faster now, and my senses are sharper.
I didn't have any legal way to make a living,
though, so I just kept on turning tricks."
"What finally got you out for real?"
Calliope asked, groping in search of
a happy ending, or at least less awful.
"I met some people," Lucy said. "They
brought me here and helped me find
a good therapist, got me on my feet.
Otherwise I'd probably be dead by now."
Calliope shuddered. "I'm glad that
you found someone to help you."
"Yeah, it's really hard on the streets
for primal soups," said Lucy. "I know
that I'm one of the lucky ones."
"What do you mean?" Calliope said.
"Everybody wants to bang the bunny,
but nobody sees her as a person,"
Vagary snarled. "To them, she's
nothing but a hole to stick it in."
"It's not just me," Lucy said.
"Anyone with animal traits has
the same problem to some degree,
although it seems worst with bunny
and cat girls. We're just fucktoys.
But that's not what I want to be."
"Couldn't you call SPOON?"
asked Calliope. "Not at first,
but after your transformation?"
Lucy looked away. "They don't
really want anything to do with us,"
she said quietly. "I think that we
make them uncomfortable, and
few of us want to be superheroes,
so ... SPOON isn't meant for us."
Calliope rubbed a hand over
her face. "SPOON is supposed
to be for all soups," she said.
"Yeah, right," Vagary said
with a snort. "That just means
that you don't know them as well
as you like to think you do."
"I didn't realize that SPOON
was so ... limited," Calliope said.
"They've helped me a lot."
"That's because you're doing
what they want," Vagary said.
"You're their target audience."
"Most people don't notice us,"
Lucy said. "Soups with animal traits
are among the most common, but it's not
always safe for us to go out in public,
so we tend to hide. I think that just
makes the problem worse, though.
So I want people to see me."
That description made
Calliope wince in sympathy.
It all sounded far too close
to what often happened to
transgender teens, from
the initial abuse to fleeing
to being homeless hookers
for lack of better options.
She couldn't help wondering
if the anthropomorphic soups
had similarly high levels of
murder and suicide.
Calliope was having trouble
drawing a deep breath.
"Shit," Vagary muttered, then
jostled her shoulder. "You look
like you've seen a ghost. Why
don't you hit the bathroom and
splash some water on your face?"
"Do they even have a dottie
in here?" Calliope asked. She
could and did use women's rooms,
but as much as she loved the option,
they still made her faintly uneasy.
"Right between the men's and
women's rooms," Vagary said,
pointing to the row of doors.
So Calliope excused herself.
She used the toilet, sat and
shook for a while, and then
spent way too long washing
her hands and her face.
She felt a bit better, though.
When she came back, she saw
that someone had brought more pizza
and a pitcher of root beer. Lucy was
serving herself from a huge bowl of
salad made from romaine lettuce
and topped with colorful vegetables.
"Pesto on salad?" Calliope said,
frowning at the greenish dressing.
Lucy laughed. "This isn't pesto,
it's what Italian vinaigrette looks like
when you make it with fresh herbs
instead of with the dried kind that
storebought dressing has."
"Huh," Calliope said. "It sounds
interesting, although I've never
had anything quite like that."
"Try some if you want," Lucy said.
"We got a big bowl, because I prefer
raw food, so this is perfect for me.
I was hoping to share, though."
Indeed, there were more salad plates
waiting on the end of the table.
So Calliope scooped up some of
the salad and tried it. The flavor
was bright and sharp, sweet with
basil, utterly unlike what she was
used to grabbing at Salad Palace.
"Thank you," she said, then took
another piece of pizza as well.
"This is delicious. It's not just
a party, it's a -- a feast!"
"You're welcome," Lucy said.
"The cooks outdid themselves."
"Having lots of food makes
people feel more comfortable,"
Vagary said quietly. "So we
put out plenty for our parties."
"It is not the quantity of the meat,
but the cheerfulness of the guests,
which makes the feast," said Lucy.
Calliope sighed. "I'm sorry that I
didn't realize how hard things are
for soups with animal traits," she said.
"I didn't mean to bring down the mood."
"It's okay," Lucy said. "It's difficult
to know what's going on when you
rarely if ever have a chance to see it."
"Yes, but I promised someone to be
on my best behavior," Calliope said.
"You're doing fine," Vagary said.
"All I asked was that you be nice to
my friends, not ignore it if something
pulled the rug out from under you."
Calliope uncurled her empathy
just a little bit, loosening the shields
that she had put up to deal with
being around so many strangers.
She could feel Vagary's sincerity,
laced with a thread of concern.
"Okay," she said. "I guess ...
I'll just try to pay more attention
to anthropomorphic soups in
the future. I don't like feeling
that I missed something."
"If you want to be supportive,
don't call us zoo soups or zoops,"
Lucy said. "Those are really mean."
Calliope shuddered. Those words
sounded even worse than tranny.
"What do you prefer instead?"
"I like primal," Lucy said, "but
not everyone feels the same."
"That's okay," Calliope said.
"It'll work out eventually."
They chatted for a while longer,
the conversation rambling
around different topics.
People came and went,
including Kong Vault with
a giant slice of pizza in hand.
Lucy seemed popular, and so
everyone wanted to wish her well.
Eventually Vagary and Calliope
left the corner to make room
for more partygoers who
wanted to visit Lucy.
"So what did you think?"
Vagary asked as they
walked to the stairs.
Calliope thought about
the gorgeous building full of
quirky little shops, and the people
she'd met who were a bit battered
but still more welcoming than
she'd found in many places.
She thought about her souvenirs,
the tentacle statue and the dress.
She thought about how much warmer
Vagary seemed in this place, smiling
and laughing with his old friends.
"I think," she said, "I'm glad I came."
* * *
This poem has long notes, so they will appear elsewhere. Meet the characters. Visit the setting, Arcadia East. Read the topical footnotes.