Main One Last Stop
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down load other version!! this one turns to Red White and Royal Blue in chapter 3!! ?
04 June 2021 (20:48)
This link does not include the whole book.
28 June 2021 (05:28)
I think I got the entire book, I just scanned through it after I downloaded it after I saw those two comments (accidentally) and I think I have the actual book..?
21 July 2021 (14:49)
I downloaded this and it was complete.?
28 July 2021 (15:15)
Same here I got the full book, Casey is an amazing author I loved both this and Red white and blue with my whole heart
30 July 2021 (20:25)
am new to z-libraly which other books would you recommend me to read.
am new to z-libraly which other books would you recommend me to read.
21 February 2022 (21:45)
Hi, Keza. If you haven't read it yet, you should consider The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I didn't want to put down that book once I started and it has been a favorite of mine since. Happy reading!
10 March 2022 (17:27)
Just finished it was worth every second of not sleeping yeah was so good and the end was ?
12 March 2022 (00:30)
Im still ‘reading’ the paperback version, I just can’t get through it. It takes wayyyy too long to read. 2/10 not recommended
28 June 2022 (18:13)
Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page Thank you for buying this St. Martin’s Press ebook. To receive special offers, bonus content, and info on new releases and other great reads, sign up for our newsletters. Or visit us online at us.macmillan.com/newslettersignup For email updates on the author, click here. The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. For queer communities past, present, and future And for Lee & Essie, whose love cannot possibly fit on a dedication page 1 Taped to a trash can inside the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen at the corner of Parkside and Flatbush Avenues. SEEKING YOUNG SINGLE ROOMMATE FOR 3BR APARTMENT UPSTAIRS, 6TH FLOOR. $700/MO. MUST BE QUEER & TRANS FRIENDLY. MUST NOT BE AFRAID OF FIRE OR DOGS. NO LIBRAS, WE ALREADY HAVE ONE. CALL NIKO. “Can I touch you?” That’s the first thing the guy with the tattoos says when August settles onto the rubbed-off center cushion of the brown leather couch—a flaking hand-medown number that’s been a recurring character the past four and a half years of college. The type you crash on, bury under textbooks, or sit on while sipping flat Coke and speaking to no one at a party. The quintessential early twenties trash couch. Most of the furniture is as trash as the trash couch, mismatched and thrifted and hauled in off the street. But when Tattoo Boy—Niko, the flyer said his name was Niko—sits across from her, it’s in a startlingly high-end Eames chair. The place is like that: a mix of familiar and very much not familiar. Small and cramped, offensive shades of green and yellow on the walls. Plants dangling off almost every surface, spindly arms reaching across shelves, a faint smell of soil. The windows are the same painte; d-shut frames of old apartments in New Orleans, but these are half covered with pages of drawings, afternoon light filtering through, muted and waxy. There’s a five-foot-tall sculpture of Judy Garland made from bicycle parts and marshmallow Peeps in the corner. It’s not recognizable as Judy, except for the sign that says: HELLO MY NAME IS JUDY GARLAND. Niko looks at August, hand held out, blurry in the steam from his tea. He’s got this black-on-black greaser thing going on, a dark undercut against light brown skin and a confident jaw, a single crystal dangling from one ear. Tattoos spill down both his arms and lick up his throat from beneath his buttoned-up collar. His voice is a little croaky, like the back end of a cold, and he’s got a toothpick in one corner of his mouth. Okay, Danny Zuko, calm down. “Sorry, uh.” August stares, stuck on his question. “What?” “Not in a weird way,” he says. The tattoo on the back of his hand is a Ouija planchette. His knuckles say FULL MOON. Good lord. “Just want to get your vibe. Sometimes physical contact helps.” “What, are you a—?” “A psychic, yeah,” he says matter-of-factly. The toothpick rolls down the white line of his teeth when he grins, wide and disarming. “Or that’s one word for it. Clairvoyant, gifted, spiritist, whatever.” Jesus. Of course. There was no way a $700-a-month room in Brooklyn was going to come without a catch, and the catch is marshmallow Judy Garland and this refurbished Springsteen who’s probably about to tell her she’s got her aura on inside out and backward like Dollar Tree pantyhose. But she’s got nowhere to go, and there’s a Popeyes on the first floor of the building. August Landry does not trust people, but she trusts fried chicken. She lets Niko touch her hand. “Cool,” he says tonelessly, like he’s stuck his head out the window to check the weather. He taps two fingers on the back of her knuckles and sits back. “Oh. Oh wow, okay. That’s interesting.” August blinks. “What?” He takes the toothpick out of his mouth and sets it on the steamer trunk between them, next to a bowl of gumballs. He’s got a constipated look on his face. “You like lilies?” he says. “Yeah, I’ll get some lilies for your move-in day. Does Thursday work for you? Myla’s gonna need some time to clear her stuff out. She has a lot of bones.” “I—what, like, in her body?” “No, frog bones. Really tiny. Hard to pick up. Gotta use tweezers.” He must notice the look on August’s face. “Oh, she’s a sculptor. It’s for a piece. It’s her room you’re taking. Don’t worry, I’ll sage it.” “Uh, I wasn’t worried about … frog ghosts?” Should she be worried about frog ghosts? Maybe this Myla person is a ritualistic frog murderer. “Niko, stop telling people about frog ghosts,” says a voice down the hall. A pretty Black girl with a friendly, round face and eyelashes for miles is leaning out of a doorway, a pair of goggles shoved up into her dark curls. She smiles when she sees August. “Hi, I’m Myla.” “August.” “We found our girl,” Niko says. “She likes lilies.” August hates when people like him do things like that. Lucky guesses. She does like lilies. She can pull up a whole Wikipedia page in her head: lilium candidum. Grows two to six feet tall. Studied diligently from the window of her mom’s two-bedroom apartment. There’s no way Niko should know—no way he does. Just like she does with palm readers under beach umbrellas back home in Jackson Square, she holds her breath and brushes straight past. “So that’s it?” she says. “I got the room? You, uh, you didn’t even ask me any questions.” He leans his head on his hand. “What time were you born?” “I … don’t know?” Remembering the flyer, she adds, “I think I’m a Virgo, if that helps.” “Oh, yeah, definitely a Virgo.” She manages to keep her face impartial. “Are you … a professional psychic? Like people pay you?” “He’s part-time,” Myla says. She floats into the room, graceful for someone with a blowtorch in one hand, and drops into the chair next to his. The wad of pink bubblegum she’s chewing explains the bowl of gumballs. “And part-time very terrible bartender.” “I’m not that bad.” “Sure you’re not,” she says, planting a kiss on his cheek. She stage-whispers to August, “He thought a paloma was a kind of tumor.” While they’re bickering about Niko’s bartending skills, August sneaks a gumball out of the bowl and drops it to test a theory about the floor. As suspected, it rolls off through the kitchen and into the hallway. She clears her throat. “So y’all are—?” “Together, yeah,” Myla says. “Four years. It was nice to have our own rooms, but none of us are doing so hot financially, so I’m moving into his.” “And the third roommate is?” “Wes. That’s his room at the end of the hall,” she says. “He’s mostly nocturnal.” “Those are his,” Niko says, pointing at the drawings in the windows. “He’s a tattoo artist.” “Okay,” August says. “So it’s $2,800 total? $700 each?” “Yep.” “And the flyer said something about … fire?” Myla gives her blowtorch a friendly squeeze. “Controlled fire.” “And dogs?” “Wes has one,” Niko puts in. “A little poodle named Noodles.” “Noodles the poodle?” “He’s on Wes’s sleep schedule, though. So, a ghost in the night.” “Anything else I should know?” Myla and Niko exchange a look. “Like three times a day the fridge makes this noise like a skeleton trying to eat a bag of quarters, but we’re pretty sure it’s fine,” Niko says. “One of the laminate tiles in the kitchen isn’t really stuck down anymore, so we all just kind of kick it around the room,” Myla adds. “The guy across the hall is a drag queen, and sometimes he practices his numbers in the middle of the night, so if you hear Patti LaBelle, that’s why.” “The hot water takes twenty minutes to get going, but ten if you’re nice.” “It’s not haunted, but it’s like, not not haunted.” Myla smacks her gum. “That’s it.” August swallows. “Okay.” She weighs her options, watching Niko slip his fingers into the pocket of Myla’s paint-stained overalls, and wonders what Niko saw when he touched the back of her hand, or thought he saw. Pretended to see. And does she want to live with a couple? A couple that is one half fake psychic who looks like he fronts an Arctic Monkeys cover band and one half firestarter with a room full of dead frogs? No. But Brooklyn College’s spring semester starts in a week, and she can’t deal with trying to find a place and a job once classes pick up. Turns out, for a girl who carries a knife because she’d rather be anything but unprepared, August did not plan her move to New York very well. “Okay?” Myla says. “Okay what?” “Okay,” August repeats. “I’m in.” In the end, August was always going to say yes to this apartment, because she grew up in one smaller and uglier and filled with even weirder things. “It looks nice!” her mom says over FaceTime, propped on the windowsill. “You’re only saying that because this one has wood floors and not that nightmare carpet from the Idlewild place.” “That place wasn’t so bad!” she says, buried in a box of files. Her buggy glasses slide down her nose, and she pushes them up with the business end of a highlighter, leaving a yellow streak. “It gave us nine great years. And carpet can hide a multitude of sins.” August rolls her eyes, pushing a box across the room. The Idlewild apartment was a two-bedroom shithole half an hour outside of New Orleans, the kind of suburban built-in-the-’70s dump that doesn’t even have the charm or character of being in the city. She can still picture the carpet in the tiny gaps of the obstacle course of towering piles of old magazines and teetering file boxes. Double Dare 2000: Single Mom Edition. It was an unforgivable shade of grimy beige, just like the walls, in the spaces that weren’t plastered with maps and bulletin boards and ripped-out phonebook pages, and— Yeah, this place isn’t so bad. “Did you talk to Detective Primeaux today?” August asks. It’s the first Friday of the month, so she knows the answer. “Yeah, nothing new,” she says. “He doesn’t even try to act like he’s gonna open the case back up anymore. Goddamn shame.” August pushes another box into a different corner, this one near the radiator puffing warmth into the January freeze. Closer to the windowsill, she can see her mom better, their shared mousy-brown hair frizzing into her face. Under it, the same round face and big green bush baby eyes as August’s, the same angular hands as she thumbs through papers. Her mom looks exhausted. She always looks exhausted. “Well,” August says. “He’s a shit.” “He’s a shit,” her mom agrees, nodding gravely. “How ’bout the new roommates?” “Fine. I mean, kind of weird. One of them claims to be a psychic. But I don’t think they’re, like, serial killers.” She hums, only half-listening. “Remember the rules. Number one—” “Us versus everyone.” “And number two—” “If they’re gonna kill you, get their DNA under your fingernails.” “Thatta girl,” she says. “Listen, I gotta go, I just opened this shipment of public records, and it’s gonna take me all weekend. Be safe, okay? And call me tomorrow.” The moment they hang up, the room is unbearably quiet. If August’s life were a movie, the soundtrack would be the low sounds of her mom, the clickity-clacking of her keyboard, or quiet mumbling as she searches for a document. Even when August quit helping with the case, when she moved out and mostly heard it over the phone, it was constant. A couple of thousand miles away, it’s like someone finally cut the score. There’s a lot they have in common—maxed-out library cards, perpetual singlehood, affinity for Crystal Hot Sauce, encyclopedic knowledge of NOPD missing persons protocol. But the big difference between August and her mother? Suzette Landry hoards like nuclear winter is coming, and August very intentionally owns almost nothing. She has five boxes. Five entire cardboard boxes to show for her life at twenty-three. Living like she’s on the run from the fucking FBI. Normal stuff. She slides the last one into an empty corner, so they’re not cluttered together. At the bottom of her purse, past her wallet and notepads and spare phone battery, is her pocketknife. The handle’s shaped like a fish, with a faded pink sticker in the shape of a heart, stuck on when she was seven—around the time she learned how to use it. Once she’s slashed the boxes open, her things settle into neat little stacks. By the radiator: two pairs of boots, three pairs of socks. Six shirts, two sweaters, three pairs of jeans, two skirts. One pair of white Vans—those are special, a reward she bought herself last year, buzzed off adrenaline and mozzarella sticks from the Applebee’s where she came out to her mom. By the wall with the crack down the middle: the one physical book she owns —a vintage crime novel—beside her tablet containing her hundreds of other books. Maybe thousands. She’s not sure. It stresses her out to think about having that many of anything. In the corner that smells of sage and maybe, faintly, a hundred frogs she’s been assured died of natural causes: one framed photo of an old washateria on Chartres, one Bic lighter, and an accompanying candle. She folds her knife up, sets it down, and places a sign that says PERSONAL EFFECTS over it in her head. She’s shaking out her air mattress when she hears someone unsticking the front door from the jamb, a violent skittering following like somebody’s bowled an enormous furry spider down the hallway. It crashes into a wall, and then what can only be described as a soot sprite from Spirited Away comes shooting into August’s room. “Noodles!” calls Niko, and then he’s in the doorway. There’s a leash hanging from his hand and an apologetic expression from his angular features. “I thought you said he was a ghost in the night,” August says. Noodles is snuffling through her socks, tail a blur, until he realizes there’s a new person and launches himself at her. “He is,” Niko says with a wince. “I mean, kind of. Sometimes, I feel bad and take him to work with me at the shop during the day. I guess we didn’t mention his, uh—” Noodles takes this moment to place both paws on August’s shoulders and try to force his tongue into her mouth. “Personality.” Myla appears behind Niko, a skateboard under one arm. “Oh, you met Noodles!” “Oh yeah,” August says. “Intimately.” “You need help with the rest of your stuff?” She blinks. “This is it.” “That’s … that’s it?” Myla says. “That’s everything?” “Yeah.” “You don’t, uh.” Myla’s giving her this look, like she’s realizing she didn’t actually know anything about August before agreeing to let her store her veggies alongside theirs in the crisper. It’s a look August gives herself in the mirror a lot. “You don’t have any furniture.” “I’m kind of a minimalist,” August tells her. If she tried, August could get her five boxes down to four. Maybe something to do over the weekend. “Oh, I wish I could be more like you. Niko’s gonna start throwing my yarn out the window while I’m sleeping.” Myla smiles, reassured that August is not, in fact, in the Witness Protection Program. “Anyway, we’re gonna go get dinner pancakes. You in?” August would rather let Niko throw her out the window than split shortstacks with people she barely knows. “I can’t really afford to eat out,” she says. “I don’t have a job yet.” “I got you. Call it a welcome home dinner,” Myla says. “Oh,” August says. That’s … generous. A warning light flashes somewhere in August’s brain. Her mental field guide to making friends is a two-page pamphlet that just says: DON’T. “Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes,” Myla says. “It’s a Flatbush institution.” “Open since 1976,” Niko chimes in. August arches a brow. “Forty-four years and nobody wanted to take another run at that name?” “It’s part of the charm,” Myla says. “It’s like, our place. You’re from the South, right? You’ll like it. Very unpretentious.” They hover there, staring at one another. A pancake standoff. August wants to stay in the safety of her crappy bedroom with the comfortable misery of a Pop-Tarts dinner and a silent truce with her brain. But she looks at Niko and realizes, even if he was faking it when he touched her, he saw something in her. And that’s more than anyone’s done in a long time. Ugh. “Okay,” she says, clambering to her feet, and Myla’s smile bursts across her face like starlight. Ten minutes later, August is tucked into a corner booth of Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes, where every waiter seems to know Niko and Myla by name. The server is a man with a beard, a broad smile, and a faded name tag that says WINFIELD pinned to his red Pancake Billy’s T-shirt. He doesn’t even ask Niko or Myla’s order—just sets down a mug of coffee and a pink lemonade. She can see what they meant about Pancake Billy’s legendary status. It has a particular type of New Yorkness to it, something she’s seen in an Edward Hopper painting or the diner from Seinfeld, but with a lot more seasoning. It’s a corner unit, big windows facing the street on both sides, dinged-up Formica tables and red vinyl seats slowly being rotated out of the busiest sections as they crack. There’s a soda shop bar down the length of one wall, old photos and Mets front pages from floor to ceiling. And it’s got a potency of smell, a straight-up unadulterated olfactory turpitude that August can feel sinking into her being. “Anyway, Wes’s dad gave them to him,” Myla says, explaining how a set of leather Eames chairs wound up in their apartment. “A ‘good job fulfilling familial expectations’ gift when he started architecture school at Pratt.” “I thought he was a tattoo artist?” “He is,” Niko says. “He dropped out after one semester. Bit of a … well, a mental breakdown.” “He sat on a fire escape in his underwear for fourteen hours, and they had to call the fire department,” Myla adds. “Only because of the arson,” Niko tacks on. “Jesus,” August says. “How did y’all meet him?” Myla pushes one of Niko’s sleeves up past his elbow, showing off the weirdly hot Virgin Mary wrapped around his forearm. “He did this. Half-price, since he was apprenticing back then.” “Wow.” August’s fingers fidget on the sticky menu, itching to write it all down. Her least charming instinct when meeting new people: take field notes. “Architecture to tattoos. Hell of a leap.” “He decorated cakes for a minute in between, if you can believe it,” Myla says. “Sometimes, when he’s having a good day, you come home and the whole place smells like vanilla, and he’ll have just left a dozen cupcakes on the counter and dipped.” “That little twink contains multitudes,” Niko observes. Myla laughs and turns back to August. “So, what brought you to New York?” August hates this question. It’s too big. What could possess someone like August, a suburban girl with a swimming pool of student loan debt and the social skills of a Pringles can, to move to New York with no friends and no plan? Truth is, when you spend your whole life alone, it’s incredibly appealing to move somewhere big enough to get lost in, where being alone looks like a choice. “Always wanted to try it,” August says instead. “New York, it’s … I don’t know, I tried a couple of cities. I went to UNO in New Orleans, then U of M in Memphis, and they all felt … too small, I guess. I wanted somewhere bigger. So I transferred to BC.” Niko’s looking at her serenely, swilling his coffee. She thinks he’s mostly harmless, but she doesn’t like the way he looks at her like he knows things. “They weren’t enough of a challenge,” he says. Another gentle observation. “You wanted a better puzzle.” August folds her arms. “That’s … not completely wrong.” Winfield appears with their food, and Myla asks him, “Hey, where’s Marty? He’s always on this shift.” “Quit,” Winfield says, depositing a syrup dispenser on the table. “No.” “Moved back to Nebraska.” “Bleak.” “Yep.” “So that means,” Myla says, leaning over her plate, “you’re hiring.” “Yeah, why? You know somebody?” “Have you met August?” She gestures dramatically to August like she’s a vowel on Wheel of Fortune. Winfield turns his attention to August, and she freezes, bottle in her hand still dribbling hot sauce onto her hashbrowns. “You waited tables before?” “I—” “Tons,” Myla cuts in. “Born in an apron.” Winfield squints at August, looking doubtful. “You’d have to apply. It’ll be up to Lucie.” He jerks his chin toward the bar, where a severe-looking young white woman with unnaturally red hair and heavy eyeliner is glaring at the cash register. If she’s the one August has to scam, it looks like she’s more likely to get an acrylic nail to the jugular. “Lucie loves me,” Myla says. “She really doesn’t.” “She loves me as much as she loves anyone else.” “Not the bar you want to clear.” “Tell her I can vouch for August.” “Actually, I—” August attempts, but Myla stomps on her foot. She’s wearing combat boots—it’s hard to miss. The thing is, August gets the sense that this isn’t exactly a normal diner. There’s something shiny and bright about it that curls, warm and inviting, around the sagging booths and waiters spinning table to table. A busboy brushes past with a tub of dishes and a mug topples from the pile. Winfield reaches blindly behind himself and catches it midair. It’s something adjacent to magic. August doesn’t do magic. “Come on, Win,” Myla says as Winfield smoothly deposits the mug back in the tub. “We’ve been your Thursday nighters for how long? Three years? I wouldn’t bring you someone who couldn’t cut it.” He rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. “I’ll get an app.” “I’ve never waited a table in my life,” August says, when they’re walking back to the apartment. “You’ll be fine,” Myla says. “Niko, tell her she’ll be fine.” “I’m not a psychic reading ATM.” “Oh, but you were last week when I wanted Thai, but you were sensing that basil had bad energy for us.…” August listens to the sound of their voices playing off each other and three sets of footsteps on the sidewalk. The city is darkening, a flat brownish orange almost like a New Orleans night, and familiar enough to make her think that maybe … maybe she’s got a chance. At the top of the stairs, Myla unlocks the door, and they kick off their shoes into one pile. Niko gestures toward the kitchen sink and says, “Welcome home.” And August notices for the first time, beside the faucet: lilies, fresh, stuck in a jar. Home. Well. It’s their home, not hers. Those are their childhood photos on the fridge, their smells of paint and soot and lavender threaded through the patchy rugs, their pancake dinner routine, all of it settled years before August even got to New York. But it’s nice to look at. A comforting still life to be enjoyed from across the room. August has lived in a dozen rooms without ever knowing how to make a space into a home, how to expand to fill it like Niko or Myla or even Wes with his drawings in the windows. She doesn’t know, really, what it would take at this point. It’s been twenty-three years of passing through, touching brick after brick, never once feeling a permanent tug. It feels stupid to say it, but maybe. Maybe it could be this. Maybe a new major. Maybe a new job. Maybe a place that could want her to belong in it. Maybe a person, she guesses. She can’t imagine who. August smells like pancakes. It just doesn’t come off, no matter how many showers or quarters wasted at the twenty-four-hour laundromat. She’s only been working at Billy’s for a week, and greasy hashbrowns have bonded with her on a molecular level. It’s definitely not coming off today, not after a graveyard shift with barely enough time to haul herself up the stairs, shrug on a clean shirt, cram the tails into a skirt, and throw herself back down them again. Even her coat smells like bacon. She’s a walking wet dream for three a.m. stoners and long-haul truckers, a pancake-and-sausage combo adrift on the wind. At least she managed to steal a jumbo coffee. First day of classes. First day of a new school. First day of a new major. It’s not English (her first major), or history (her second). It’s kind of psychology (third minor), but mostly it’s the same as everything else for the past four and a half years: another maybe this one, because she’s scraped together just enough course credits and loans, because she’s not sure what to do if she’s not living blue book to blue book until she dies. Sociology it is. Monday morning classes start at eight thirty, and she’s already memorized her commute. Down the street to the Parkside Ave. Station, Q toward Coney Island, off at Avenue H, walk two blocks. She can see the bubbles of train letters in her head. She’s hopeless with people, but she will force this city to be her goddamn friend. August is so focused on the subway lines unfolding in her brain that she doesn’t notice the patch of ice. The heel of her boot skids, and she hits the ground knees first, tights ripping open, one hand catching the concrete and the other crushing her coffee into her chest. The lid pops off, and coffee explodes across the front of her shirt. “Christ on a fucking bike,” she swears as her backpack spills across the pavement. She watches helplessly as a woman in a parka kicks her phone into the gutter. And, well. August does not cry. She didn’t cry when she left Belle Chasse or New Orleans or Memphis. She doesn’t cry when she gets in fights with her mom, and she doesn’t cry when she misses her, and she doesn’t cry when she doesn’t miss her at all. She hasn’t cried once since she got to New York. But she’s bleeding and covered in hot coffee, and she hasn’t slept in two days, and she can’t think of a single person within a thousand miles who gives a shit, and her throat burns sharply enough to make her think, God, please, not in front of all these people. She could skip. Drag herself back up six flights, curl up on her twin-size air mattress, try again tomorrow. She could do that. But she didn’t move across the country to let a skinned knee and a coffee-soaked bra kick her ass. As her mom would say, Don’t be a little bitch about it. So she swallows it down. Scoops up her things. Checks her phone for new cracks. Shoulders her bag. Tugs her coat around her. She’s gonna catch her stupid train. The Parkside Ave. Station is above ground—big red columns, mosaic tiles, ivy creeping up the brick backs of the apartment buildings that shade the tracks —and it takes August four swipes to get through the turnstile. She finds her platform right as the Q pulls up, and she’s shouldered and elbowed onto a car with a few mercifully empty seats. She slides into one. Okay. For the next ten minutes, she knows exactly where she is and where she’s going. All she has to do is sit and let herself get there. She hisses out a breath. Back in slowly through her nose. God, this train reeks. She’s not going to cry—she’s not going to cry—but then there’s a shadow blocking the fluorescent lights, the staticky warmth of someone standing over her, bracketing her with their body and attention. The last thing she needs is to be harassed by some pervert. Maybe if she does start crying, a full-scale Wes-dropping-out-of-Pratt level meltdown, they’ll leave her alone. She palms her pocketknife through her coat. She looks up, expecting some scraggly man to match the long legs and ripped jeans in front of her, but instead— Instead. Long Legs is … a girl. August’s age, maybe older, all devastating cheekbones and jawline and golden-brown skin. Her black hair is short and swoopy and pushed back from her forehead, and she’s quirking an eyebrow at August. There’s a white T-shirt tucked into the ripped jeans and a well-loved black leather jacket settled on her shoulders like she was born in it. The set of her smirk looks like the beginning of a very long story August would tell over drinks if she had any friends. “Yikes,” she says, gesturing at August’s shirt, where the coffee stain has soaked in and spread, which is the last possible reason August wants this girl to be looking at her boobs. The hottest girl August has ever seen just took one look at her and said, “Yikes.” Before she can think of anything to say, the girl swings her backpack around, and August watches dumbly as she unfurls a red scarf, shoving down a pack of gum and some vintage-looking headphones. August can’t believe she thought this motorcycle jacket model was a subway pervert. She can’t believe a tall butch subway angel saw her crying into her coffee tits. “Here,” the girl says, handing the scarf over. “You seem like you’re going somewhere important, so.” She gestures vaguely at her neck. “Keep it.” August blinks up at her, standing there looking like the guitarist of an all-girl punk rock band called Time to Give August an Aneurysm. “You—oh my God, I can’t take your scarf.” The girl shrugs. “I’ll get another one.” “But it’s cold.” “Yeah,” she says, and her smirk tugs into something unreadable, a dimple popping out on one side of her mouth. August wants to die in that dimple. “But I don’t go outside much.” August stares. “Look,” the subway angel says. “You can take it, or I can leave it on the seat next to you, and it can get absorbed into the subway ecosystem forever.” Her eyes are bright and teasing and warm, warm forever-and-ever brown, and August doesn’t know how she could possibly do anything but whatever this girl says. The knit of the scarf is loose and soft, and when August’s fingertips brush against it, there’s a pop of static electricity. She jumps, and the girl laughs under her breath. “Anybody ever tell you that you smell like pancakes?” The train plunges into a tunnel, shuddering on the tracks, and the girl makes a soft “whoa” sound and reaches for the handrail above August’s head. The last thing August catches is the slightly crooked cut of her jaw and a flash of skin where her shirt pulls loose before the fluorescents flicker out. It’s only a second or two of darkness, but when the lights come back on, the girl is gone. 2 What’s Wrong with the Q? By Andrew Gould and Natasha Brown December 29, 2019 New Yorkers know better than to expect perfection or promptness from our subway system. But this week, there’s a new factor to the Q train’s spotty service: electrical surges have blown out lights, glitched announcement boards, and caused numerous stalled trains. On Monday, the Manhattan Transit Authority alerted commuters to expect an hour delay on the Q train in both directions as they investigated the cause of the electrical malfunctions. Service resumed its normal schedule that afternoon, but reports of sudden stops have persisted. [Photo depicts commuters on a Brooklyn-bound Q train on the Manhattan Bridge. In the foreground is a mid-twenties Chinese American woman with short hair and a leather jacket, frowning up at a flickering light fixture.] Brooklyn resident Jane Su takes the Q to Manhattan and back every day. Tyler Martin for the New York Times “I’ve decided to dunk Detective Primeaux’s balls in peanut butter and push him in the Pontchartrain,” August’s mom says. “Let the fish castrate him for me.” “That’s a new one,” August notes, crouching behind a cart of dirty dishes, the only spot inside Billy’s where her phone gets more than one anemic bar. Her face is two inches from someone’s half-eaten Denver omelet. Life in New York is deeply glamorous. “What’d he do this time?” “He told the receptionist to screen my calls.” “They told you that?” “I mean,” she says, “she didn’t have to. I can tell.” August chews on the inside of her cheek. “Well. He’s a shit.” “Yeah,” she agrees. August can hear her fussing with the five locks on her door as she gets home from work. “Anyway, how was your first day of class?” “Same as always. A bunch of people who already know one another, and me, the extra in a college movie.” “Well, they’re probably all shits.” “Probably.” August can picture her mom shrugging. “Do you remember when you stole that tape of Say Anything from our neighbors?” she asks. Despite herself, August laughs. “You were so mad at me.” “And you made a copy. Seven years old, and you figured out how to pirate a movie. How many times did I catch you watching it in the middle of the night?” “Like a million.” “You were always crying your eyes out to that Peter Gabriel song. You got a soft heart, kid. I used to worry that’d get you hurt. But you surprised me. You grew out of it. You’re like me—you don’t need anyone. Remember that.” “Yeah.” For half an embarrassing second, August’s mind flits back to the subway and the girl with the leather jacket. She swallows. “Yeah, you’re right. It’ll be fine.” She pulls her phone away from her face to check the time. Shit. Break’s almost over. She’s lucky she got the job at all, but not lucky enough to be good at it. She was maybe too convincing when Lucie the manager called her fake reference number and got August’s burner phone. The result: straight onto the floor, no training, picking things up as she goes. “Side of bacon?” the guy at table nineteen asks August when she drops off his plate. He’s one of the regulars Winfield pointed out on her first day—a retired firefighter who’s come in for breakfast every day for the last twenty years. At least he likes Billy’s enough not to care about terrible service. “Shit, I’m sorry.” August cringes. “Sorry for saying ‘shit.’” “Forgot this,” says a voice behind her, thick with a Czech accent. Lucie swoops in with a side of bacon out of nowhere and snatches August by the arm toward the kitchen. “Thank you,” August says, wincing at the nails digging into her elbow. “How’d you know?” “I know everything,” Lucie says, bright red ponytail bobbing under the grimy lights. She releases August at the bar and returns to her fried egg sandwich and a draft of next week’s schedule. “You should remember that.” “Sorry,” August says. “You’re a lifesaver. My pork product savior.” Lucie pulls a face that makes her look like a bird of prey in liquid eyeliner. “You like jokes. I don’t.” “Sorry.” “Don’t like apologies either.” August bites down another sorry and turns back to the register, trying to remember how to put in a rush order. She definitely forgot the side of hashbrowns for table seventeen and— “Jerry!” Lucie shouts through the kitchen window. “Side of hashbrowns, on the fly!” “Fuck you, Lucie!” She yells something back in Czech. “You know I don’t know what that means!” “Behind,” Winfield warns as he brushes past with a full stack in each hand, blueberry on the left, butter pecan on the right. He inclines his head toward the kitchen, braids swinging, and says, “She called you an ugly cock, Jerry.” Jerry, the world’s oldest fry cook, bellows out a laugh and throws some hashbrowns on the grill. Lucie, August has discovered, has superhuman eyesight and a habit of checking her employees’ work at the register from across the bar. It’d be annoying, except she’s saved August’s ass twice in five minutes. “You are always forgetting,” she says, clicking her acrylics against her clipboard. “You eat?” August thinks back over the last six hours of her shift. Did she spill half a plate of pancakes on herself? Yes. Did she eat any? “Uh … no.” “That’s why you forget. You don’t eat.” She frowns at August like a disappointed mother, even though she can’t be older than twenty-nine. “Jerry!” Lucie yells. “What!” “Su Special!” “I already made you one!” “For August!” “Who?” “New girl!” “Ah,” he says, and he cracks two eggs onto the grill. “Fine.” August twists the edge of her apron between her fingers, biting back a thank you before Lucie throttles her. “What’s a Su Special?” “Trust me,” Lucie says impatiently. “Can you work a double Friday?” The Su Special, it turns out, is an off-menu item—bacon, maple syrup, hot sauce, and a runny fried egg sandwiched between two pieces of Texas toast. And maybe it’s Jerry, his walrus mustache suggesting unknowable wisdom and his Brooklyn accent confirming seven decades of setting his internal clock by the light at Atlantic and Fourth, or Lucie, the first person at this job to remember August’s name and care if she’s living or dying, or because Billy’s is magic— but it’s the best sandwich August has ever eaten. It’s nearly one in the morning when August clocks out and heads home, streets teeming and alive in muddy orange-brown. She trades a crumpled dollar from her tips for an orange at the bodega on the corner—she’s pretty sure she’s on a collision course with scurvy these days. She digs her nail into the rind and starts peeling as her brain helpfully supplies the data: adult humans need sixty-five to ninety milligrams of vitamin C a day. One orange contains fifty-one. Not quite staving off the scurvy, but a start. She thinks about this morning’s lecture and trying to find a cheap writing desk, about what Lucie’s story must be. About the cute girl from the Q train yesterday. Again. August is wearing the red scarf tonight, bundled warm and soft like a promise around her neck. It’s not that she’s thought a lot about Subway Girl; it’s just that she’d work five doubles in a row if it meant she got to see Subway Girl again. She’s passing through the pink glow of a neon sign when she realizes where she is—on Flatbush, across from the check-cashing place. This is where Niko said his psychic shop is. It’s sandwiched between a pawn shop and a hair salon, peeling letters on the door that say MISS IVY. Niko says the owner is a chain-smoking, menopausal Argentinian woman named Ivy. The shop isn’t much, just a scuffed-up, greasestained, gray industrial door attached to a nondescript storefront, the type you’d use for a Law & Order shooting location. The only hint to what’s inside is the single window bearing a neon PSYCHIC READINGS sign surrounded by hanging bundles of herbs and some—oh—those are teeth. August has hated places like this as long as she can remember. Well, almost. There was one time, back in the days of bootleg Say Anything. August tugged her mom into a tiny psychic shop in the Quarter, one with shawls over every lamp so light spilled across the room like twilight. She remembers laying her hand-me-down pocketknife down between the candles, watching in awe as the person across the table read her mother’s cards. She went to Catholic school for most of her life, but that was the first and last time she really believed in something. “You’ve lost someone very important to you,” the psychic said to her mother, but that’s easy to tell. Then they said he was dead, and Suzette Landry decided they weren’t seeing any more psychics in the city, because psychics were full of shit. And then the storm came, and for a long time, there were no psychics in the city to see. So August stopped believing. Stuck to hard evidence. The only skeptic in a city full of ghosts. It suited her fine. She shakes her head and pulls away, rounding the corner into the home stretch. Orange: done. Scurvy: at bay, for now. On flight three of her building, she’s thinking it’s ironic—almost poetic— that she lives with a psychic. A quote-unquote psychic. A particularly observant guy with confident, strange charm and a suspicious number of candles. She wonders what Myla thinks, if she believes. Based on her Netflix watchlist and her collection of Dune merch, Myla’s a huge sci-fi nerd. Maybe she’s into it. It’s not until she reaches into her purse at the door that she realizes her keys aren’t there. “Shit.” She attempts a knock—nothing. She could text to see if anyone’s awake … if her phone hadn’t died before her shift ended. Guess she’s doing this, then. She grabs her knife, flicks the blade out, and squares up, wedging it into the lock. She hasn’t done this since she was fifteen and locked out of the apartment because her mom lost track of time at the library again, but some shit you don’t forget. Tongue tucked between her teeth, she jiggles the knife until the lock clicks and gives. Someone’s home after all, puttering around the hallway with earbuds in and a toolbag at their feet. There’s a bundle of sage burning on the kitchen counter. August hangs up her jacket and apron by the door and considers putting it out— they’ve already had one fire this week—when the person in the hall looks up and lets out a small yelp. “Oh,” August says as the guy pulls an earbud out. He’s definitely not Niko or Myla, so—“You must be Wes. I’m August. I, uh, live here now?” Wes is short and compact, a skinny, swarthy guy with bony wrists and ankles sticking out of gray sweats and a gigantic flannel cuffed five times. His features are strangely angelic despite the scowl they relax into. Like August, he’s got glasses perched on his nose, and he’s squinting at her through them. “Hi,” he says. “Good to finally meet you,” she tells him. He looks like he wants to bolt. Relatable. “Yeah.” “Night off?” “Uh-huh.” August has never met someone worse at first impressions than her, until now. “Okay, well,” August says. “I’m going to bed.” She glances at the herbs smoldering on the counter. “Should I put that out?” Wes returns to what he was doing—fiddling with the hinge on August’s bedroom door, apparently. “I had my ex over. Niko said the place was full of ‘frat energy.’ It’ll go out on its own. Niko’s stuff always does.” “Of course,” she says. “Um, what are you … doing?” He doesn’t say anything, just turns the knob and wiggles the door. Silence. It was creaky when August moved in. He fixed the hinge for her. Wes scoops Noodles up in one arm and his toolbag in the other and vanishes down the hall. “Thanks,” August calls after him. His shoulders scrunch up to his ears, as if nothing could displease him more than being thanked for an act of kindness. “Cool knife,” he grunts as he shuts his bedroom door behind him. Friday morning finds August shivering, one hand in the shower, begging it to warm up. It’s twenty-eight degrees outside. If she has to get in a cold shower, her soul will vacate the premises. She checks her phone—twenty-five minutes before she has to be on the platform to catch her train for class. No time to reply to her mom’s texts about annoying library coworkers. She punches out some sympathetic emojis instead. What did Myla say? Twenty minutes to get the hot water going, but ten if you’re nice? It’s been twelve. “Please,” August says to the shower. “I am very cold and very tired, and I smell like the mayor of Hashbrown Town.” The shower appears unmoved. Fuck it. She shuts off the faucet and resigns herself to another all-day aromatic experience. Out in the hallway, Myla and Wes are on their hands and knees, sticking lines of masking tape down on the floor. “Do I even want to ask?” August says as she steps over them. “It’s for Rolly Bangs,” Myla calls over her shoulder. August pulls on a sweater and sticks her head back out of her door. “Do you realize you just say words in any random order like they’re supposed to mean something?” “Pointing this out has never stopped her,” says Wes, who looks and sounds like he stumbled in from a night shift. August wonders what Myla bribed him with to get his help before he retreated to his cave. “Rolly Bangs is a game we invented.” “You start by the door in a rolling chair, and someone pushes you down the incline of the kitchen floor,” Myla explains. Of course she’s figured out a way to use a building code violation for entertainment. “That’s the Rolly part.” “I’m scared to find out what the Bangs are,” August says. “The Bang is when you hit that threshold right there,” Wes says. He points to the wooden lip where the hallway meets the kitchen. “Basically catapults you out of the chair.” “The lines,” Myla says, ripping off the last piece of tape, “are to measure how far you fly before you hit the floor.” August steps over them again, heading toward the door. Noodles circles her ankles, snuffling excitedly. “I can’t decide if I’m impressed or horrified.” “My favorite emotional place,” Myla says. “That’s where horny lives.” “I’m going to bed.” Wes throws his tape at Myla. “Good night.” “Good morning.” August is shrugging into her backpack when Myla meets her at the door with Noodles’s leash. “Which way you walking?” she asks as Noodles flops around, tongue and ears flapping. He’s so cute, August can’t even be mad that she was definitely misled about how much this dog is going to be a part of her life. “Parkside Avenue.” “Ooh, I’m taking him to the park. Mind if I walk with you?” The thing about Myla, August is learning, is that she doesn’t plant a seed of friendship and tend to it with gentle watering and sunlight. She drops into your life, fully formed, and just is. A friend in completion. Weird. “Sure,” August says, and she pulls the door open. There’s no ice to slip on, but Noodles is nearly as determined to make August eat shit on the walk to the station. “He’s Wes’s, but we all kind of share him. We’re suckers like that,” Myla says as Noodles tugs her along. “Man, I used to get off at Parkside all the time when I lived in Manhattan.” “Oh yeah?” “Yeah, I went to Columbia.” August sidesteps Noodles as he stops to sniff the world’s most fascinating takeout container. “Oh, do they have a good art school?” Myla laughs. “Everybody always thinks I went to art school,” she says, smacking her gum. “I have a degree in electrical engineering.” “You—sorry, I assumed—” “I know, right?” she says. “The science is super interesting, and I’m good at it. Like, really good. But engineering as a career kind of murders your soul, and my job pays me enough. I like doing art more for right now.” “That’s…” August’s worst nightmare, she thinks. Finishing school and not doing anything with it. She can’t believe Myla isn’t paralyzed at the thought every minute of every day. “Kind of amazing.” “Thanks, I think so,” Myla says happily. At the station, Myla waves goodbye, and August swipes through the turnstile and returns to the comfortable, smelly arms of the Q. Nobody who’s lived in New York for more than a few months understands why a girl would actually like the subway. They don’t get the novelty of walking underground and popping back up across the city, the comfort of knowing that, even if you hit an hour delay or an indecent exposure, you solved the city’s biggest logic puzzle. Belonging in the rush, locking eyes with another horrified passenger when a mariachi band steps on. On the subway, she’s actually a New Yorker. It is, of course, still terrible. She’s almost sat in two different mysterious puddles. The rats are almost definitely unionizing. And once, during a thirtyminute delay, a pigeon pooped in her bag. Not on it. In it. But here she is, hating everything but the singular, blissful misery of the MTA. It’s stupid, maybe—no, definitely. It’s definitely stupid that part of it is that girl. The girl on the subway. Subway Girl. Subway Girl is a smile lost along the tracks. She showed up, saved the day, and blinked out of existence. They’ll never see each other again. But every time August thinks of the subway, she thinks about brown eyes and a leather jacket and jeans ripped all the way up the thighs. Two stops into her ride, August looks up from the Pop-Tart she’s been eating, and— Subway Girl. There’s no motorcycle jacket, only the sleeves of her white T-shirt cuffed below her shoulders. She’s leaning back, one arm slung over the back of an empty seat, and she … she’s got tattoos. Half a sleeve. A red bird curling down from her shoulder, Chinese characters above her elbow. An honest-to-God oldtimey anchor on her bicep. August cannot believe her fucking luck. The jacket’s still there, draped over the backpack at her feet, and August is staring at her high-top Converse, the faded red of the canvas, when Subway Girl opens her eyes. Her mouth forms a soft little “oh” of surprise. “Coffee Girl.” She smiles. One of her front teeth is crooked at the slightest, most liferuining angle. August feels every intelligent thought exit her skull. “Subway Girl,” she manages. Subway Girl’s smile spreads. “Morning.” August’s brain tries “hi” and her mouth goes for “morning” and what comes out is, “Horny.” Maybe it’s not too late to crawl under the seat with the rat poop. “I mean, sure, sometimes,” Subway Girl replies smoothly, still smiling, and August wonders if there’s enough rat poop in the world for this. “Sorry, I’m—morning brain. It’s too early.” “Is it?” Subway Girl asks with what sounds like genuine interest. She’s wearing the headphones August saw the other day, ’80s-era ones with bright orange foam over the speaker boxes. She digs through her backpack and pulls out a cassette player to pause her music. A whole cassette player. Subway Girl is … a Brooklyn hipster? Is that a point against her? But when she turns back to August with her tattoos and her slightly crooked front tooth and her undivided attention, August knows: this girl could be hauling a gramophone through the subway every day, and August would still lie down in the middle of Fifth Avenue for her. “Yeah, um,” August chokes out. “I had a late night.” Subway Girl’s eyebrows do something inscrutable. “Doing what?” “Oh, uh, I had a night shift. I wait tables at Pancake Billy’s, and it’s twentyfour hours, so—” “Pancake Billy’s?” Subway Girl asks. “That’s … on Church, right?” She rests her elbows on her knees, perching her chin on her hands. Her eyes are so bright, and her knuckles are square and sturdy, like she knows how to knead bread or what the insides of a car look like. August absolutely, definitely, is not picturing Subway Girl just as delighted and fond across the table on a third date. And she’s certainly not the type of person to sit on a train with someone whose name she doesn’t even know and imagine her assembling an Ikea bed frame. Everything is completely under control. She clears her throat. “Yeah. You know it?” Subway Girl bites down on her lip, which is. Fine. “Oh … oh man, I used to wait tables there too,” she says. “Jerry still in the kitchen?” August laughs. Lucky again. “Yeah, he’s been there forever. I can’t imagine him ever not being there. Every day when I clock in it’s all—” “‘Mornin’, buttercup,’” she says in a pitch-perfect imitation of Jerry’s heavy Brooklyn accent. “He’s such a babe, right?” “A babe, oh my God.” August cracks up, and Subway Girl snorts, and fuck if that sound isn’t an absolute revelation. The doors open and close at a stop and they’re still laughing, and maybe there’s … maybe there’s something happening here. August has not ruled out the possibility. “That Su Special, though,” August says. The spark in Subway Girl’s eyes ignites so brilliantly that August half expects her to jump out of her seat. “Wait, that’s my sandwich! I invented it!” “What, really?” “Yeah, that’s my last name! Su!” she explains. “I had Jerry make it special for me so many times, everybody started getting them. I can’t believe he still makes them.” “He does, and they’re fucking delicious,” August says. “Definitely brought me back from the dead more than once, so, thank you.” “No problem,” Subway Girl says. She’s got this far-off look in her eyes, like reminiscing about cranky customers sending back shortstacks is the best thing that’s happened to her all week. “God, I miss that place.” “Yeah. You ever notice that it’s kind of—” “Magic,” Subway Girl finishes. “It’s magic.” August bites her lip. She doesn’t do magic. But the first time they met, August thought she’d do anything this girl said, and alarmingly, that doesn’t seem to be changing. “I’m surprised they haven’t fired me yet,” August says. “I dumped a pie on a five-year-old yesterday. We had to give him a free T-shirt.” Subway Girl laughs. “You’ll get the hang of it,” she says confidently. “Small fuckin’ world, huh?” “Yeah,” August agrees. “Small fucking world.” They linger there, smiling and smiling at each other, and Subway Girl adds, “Nice scarf, by the way.” August looks down—she forgot she was wearing it. She scrambles to take it off, but the girl holds up a hand. “I told you to keep it. Besides”—she reaches into her bag and produces a plaid one with tassels—“it’s been replaced.” August can feel her face glowing red to match the scarf, like a giant, stammering, bisexual chameleon. An evolutionary mistake. “I, yeah—thank you again, so much. I wanted—I mean, it was my first day of class, and I really didn’t want to walk in looking like, like that—” “I mean, it’s not that you looked bad,” Subway Girl counters, and August knows her complexion has tipped past blushing and into Memorial Day sunburn. “You just … looked like you needed something to go right that morning. So.” She offers a mild salute. The announcer comes over the intercom, more garbled than usual, but August can’t tell if it’s the shitty MTA speakers or blood rushing in her ears. Subway Girl points to the board. “Brooklyn College, right?” she says. “Avenue H?” August glances up— Oh, she’s right. It’s her stop. She realizes as she throws her bag over her shoulder: she might never get this lucky again. Over eight and a half million people in New York and only one Subway Girl, lost as easily as she’s found. “I’m working breakfast tomorrow. At Billy’s,” August blurts. “If you wanna stop by, I can sneak you a sandwich. To pay you back.” Subway Girl looks at her with an expression so strange and unreadable that August wonders how she’s screwed this up already, but it clears, and she says, “Oh, man. I would love that.” “Okay,” August says, walking backward toward the door. “Okay. Great. Cool. Okay.” She’s going to stop saying words at some point. She really is. Subway Girl watches her go, hair falling into her eyes, looking amused. “What’s your name?” she asks. August trips over the train threshold, barely missing the gap. Someone collides with her shoulder. Her name? Suddenly she doesn’t know. All she can hear is the whisper of her brain cells flying out the emergency exit. “Uh, it’s—August. I’m August.” Subway Girl’s smile softens, like somehow she already knew. “August,” she repeats. “I’m Jane.” “Jane. Hi, Jane.” “The scarf looks better on you anyway.” Jane winks, and the doors shut in August’s face. Jane doesn’t come to Billy’s. August hovers outside the kitchen all morning, watching the door and waiting for Jane to sweep through like Brendan Fraser in The Mummy, rakish and windswept with her perfectly swoopy hair. But she doesn’t. Of course she doesn’t. August refills the ketchup bottles and wonders what demon jumped up inside her and made her invite a hot stranger to tolerate her terrible service on a Saturday morning in a place where she used to work. Just what every public transit flirtation needs: old coworkers and a sweaty idiot dumping syrup on the table. What an extremely sexy proposition. Really out here smashing pussy, Landry. “It’s fine,” Winfield says once he pries the source of her anxious pacing out of her. He’s only barely paying attention, scribbling on a piece of sheet music tucked into his guest check pad. He has a penchant for handing out cards for his one-man piano and saxophone band to customers. “We get about a hundred hot lesbians through here a week. You’ll find another one.” “Yeah, it’s fine,” August agrees tightly. It’s fine. It’s no big deal. Only carrying on her proud family tradition of dying alone. But then Monday comes. Monday comes, and somehow, in an insane coincidence Niko would call fate, August steps onto her train, and Jane is there. “Coffee Girl,” Jane says. “Subway Girl,” August says back. Jane tips her head back and laughs, and August doesn’t believe in most things, but it’s hard to argue that Jane wasn’t put on the Q to fuck up her whole life. August sees her again that afternoon, riding home, and they laugh, and she realizes—they have the exact same commute. If she times it right, she can catch a train with Jane every single day. And so, in her first month in the apartment on the corner of Flatbush and Parkside above the Popeyes, August learns that the Q is a time, a place, and a person. There’s something about having a stop that’s hers when she spends most days slumping through a long stream of nothing. There was once an August Landry who would dissect this city into something she could understand, who’d scrape away at every scary thing pushing on her bedroom walls and pick apart the streets like veins. She’s been trying to leave that life behind. It’s hard to figure out New York without it. But there’s a train that comes by around 8:05 at the Parkside Ave. Station, and August has never once missed it since she decided it was hers. And it’s also Jane’s, and Jane is always exactly on time, so August is too. And so, the Q is a time. Maybe August hasn’t figured out how she fits into any of the spaces she occupies here yet, but the Q is where she hunches over her bag to eat a sandwich stolen from work. It’s where she catches up on The Atlantic, a subscription she can only afford because she steals sandwiches from work. It smells like pennies and sometimes hot garbage, and it’s always, always there for her, even when it’s late. And so, the Q is a place. It sways down the line, and it ticks down the stops. It rattles and hums, and it brings August where she needs to be. And somehow, always, without fail, it brings her too. Subway Girl. Jane. So maybe, sometimes, August doesn’t get on until she catches a glimpse of black hair and blacker leather through the window. Maybe it’s not just a coincidence. Monday through Friday, Jane makes friends with every person who passes through. August has seen her offer a stick of gum to a rabbi. She’s watched her kneel on the dirty floor to soften up scrappy schoolgirls with jokes. She’s held her breath while Jane broke up a fight with a few quiet words and a smile. Always a smile. Always one dimple to the side of her mouth. Always the leather jacket, always a pair of broken-in Chuck Taylors, always dark-haired and ruinous and there, morning and afternoon, until the sound of her low voice becomes another comforting note in the white noise of her commute. August has stopped wearing headphones. She wants to hear. Sometimes, August is the one she hands a stick of gum to. Sometimes Jane breaks off from whichever Chinese uncle she’s charming to help August with her armload of library books. August has never had the nerve to slide into the seat next to her, but sometimes Jane drops down at August’s side and asks what she’s reading or what the gang is up to at Billy’s. “You—” Jane says one morning, blinking when August steps on the train. She has this expression she does on occasion, like she’s trying to figure something out. August thinks she probably looks at Jane the same way, but it definitely doesn’t come off cool and mysterious. “Your lipstick.” “What?” She brushes a hand over her lips. She doesn’t usually wear it, but something had to counterbalance the circles under her eyes this morning. “Is it on my teeth?” “No, it’s just…” One corner of Jane’s mouth turns up. “Very red.” “Um.” She doesn’t know if that’s good or bad. “Thanks?” Jane never volunteers anything about her life, so August has started guessing at the blanks. She pictures bare feet on hardwood floors in a SoHo loft, sunglasses on the front steps of a brownstone, a confident and quick order at the dumpling counter, a cat that curls up under the bed. She wonders about the tattoos and what they mean. There’s something about Jane that’s … unknowable. A shiny, locked file drawer, the kind August once learned to crack. Irresistible. Jane talks to everyone, but she never misses August, always a few sly words or a quick joke. And August wonders if maybe, somehow, Jane thinks about it as much as August, if she gets off at her stop and dreams about what August is up to. Some days, when she’s working long hours or locked up in her room for too long, Jane is the only person who’s kind to her all day. And so, the Q is a person. 3 Location & Hours MTA Lost and Found 34th St. and 8th Ave. This service was NOT able to locate my lost items! I lost a very expensive hand-knitted red vicuña scarf on the Q train while visiting a friend in the city. I called the 511 number and told them exactly where I last saw the scarf, and they told me they didn’t have any items matching its description and wouldn’t even check the trains for it, even AFTER I told them how much the scarf was worth! The only helpful person I encountered in this EXTREMELY disappointing experience was a friendly passenger named Jane who helped me look for the scarf on the train. I can only assume it’s lost forever. The envelope is waiting on the kitchen counter when August steps inside Friday afternoon, finally free from class and work until Sunday. All she’s thought about the whole walk home is mainlining YouTube eyebrow tutorials and passing out next to a personal pizza. “You got something in the mail today,” Myla says before August has even taken off her shoes in observance of Myla and Niko’s strict No Shoes Indoors policy. Myla’s head pops up from behind the pile of mousetraps she’s been disassembling for the last three days. Unclear if this is for the same sculpture as the frog bones. Her art is maybe beyond August’s scope of appreciation. “Oh, thanks,” August says. “I thought you had work?” “Yeah, we closed early.” By “we” she means Rewind, the thrift store responsible for her share of the rent. From what August has heard, it’s extremely musty and extremely expensive and has the best selection of vintage electronics in Brooklyn. They let Myla take whatever doesn’t sell home for parts. There’s half a Nixon-era TV next to the microwave. “Fuck a dick,” Myla swears as one of the traps snaps on her finger. “Anyway, yeah, you got some huge envelope. From your mom, I think?” She points at a thick plastic mailer next to the toaster. Return address: Suzette Landry, Belle Chasse, LA. August picks it up, wondering what the hell her mom could have sent this time. Last week, it was half a dozen pecan pralines and a key chain mace. “Yeah, for a second, I thought my mom sent some stuff for Lunar New Year?” Myla goes on. “I told you my mom is Chinese, right? Anyway, she’s an art teacher and this year she got her kids to make Lunar New Year cards, and she was gonna send me one with some fah sung tong from this place—Whoa, what’s that?” It’s not pralines, or self-defense paraphernalia, or a festive little Lunar New Year treat made by second graders. She doesn’t have to open the manila folder to know it’s full of archival documents, like the millions back home in August’s mother’s apartment, stuffed with public records and classified ads and phonebook entries. There’s a note paperclipped to the front. I know you’re busy, but I found this friend of Augie’s who may have ended up in New York, her untidy scrawl says. Thought you might be able to look into it. “God, seriously?” August grumbles at the folder. The tattered edges peer back at her around the sides, impartial. “Uh-oh,” says Myla. “Bad news? You look like Wes when his dad sent the thing about cutting off his trust fund.” August blinks dumbly at her. “Wes has a trust fund?” “Had,” Myla says. “But, you…?” “I’m fine,” August says, trying to shrug her off. “It’s nothing.” “No offense, but it doesn’t look like nothing.” “It’s not. I mean, it is. Nothing.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Okay,” Myla says. “But if you want to talk—” “Fine, okay, it’s my stupid dead uncle.” August clamps a hand over her mouth. “Sorry, that—sounded fucked up. I just, uh, it’s kind of a sore subject.” Myla’s face has gone from curious to gentle and concerned, and it’s almost enough to make August laugh. She has no idea. “I didn’t realize, August. I’m so sorry. Were you close?” “No, I’m not, like, sad about it,” August tells her, and a look of faint alarm crosses Myla’s face. God, she’s bad at explaining this. That’s why she never tries. “I mean, it is sad, but he didn’t die, like, recently. I never met him. I mean, I don’t even technically know if he’s dead?” Myla sets the mousetrap she’s been toying with down. “Okay…” So, August guesses now is when she finally figures out how to tell someone what the first eighteen years of her life were like. This is where the whole charming single-mom-and-daughter, best-friends-forever, us-against-the-world bit breaks down. It’s the thing that started August’s cynicism, and she doesn’t like to admit it. But she likes Myla. Myla is surprising and funny and generous, and August likes her enough to care what she thinks. Enough to want to explain herself. So she groans and opens her mouth and tells Myla the thing that’s governed most of her life: “My mom’s older brother went missing in 1973, and she’s spent almost her whole life—my whole life—trying to find him.” Myla leans heavily against the refrigerator, nudging some photos out of place. “Holy shit. Okay. And so she sent you—?” “A fuckload of information on some random person who might have known him and might have been in this area. I don’t know. I told her I don’t do this anymore.” “‘Do this’ as in,” she says slowly, “look for a missing family member?” When you put it that way, August guesses she does sound like a dick. She doesn’t know how to make anyone understand what it’s like, how much she was hardwired to do this, to be this. She still memorizes faces and shirt colors, still wants to check the dust on every windowsill for handprints. Five years out, and her instincts still pull her back to this bootleg Veronica Mars act, and she hates it. She wants to be normal. “It’s—” She trips on her words and starts over. “Okay, it’s like—one time, when I was in sixth grade, we had our end-of-the-year party at a skating rink. My mom was supposed to pick me up, and she forgot. Because she was at a library two parishes over looking up police records from 1978. I sat on the curb for hours, and nobody offered me a ride home because Catholic schoolgirls are really shitty to the poor latchkey kid with a weird hoarder conspiracy theorist mom. So I spent the first week of summer vacation with the worst sunburn of my life from sitting in the parking lot until seven o’clock. And that was just … life. All the time.” August puts the file back in the envelope, shoving it on top of the fridge between a case of LaCroix and a Catan box. “I used to help her—take the bus by myself to the courthouse to file public records requests, do shady shit for information after school. It wasn’t like I had friends to hang out with. But then I realized why I didn’t have friends. I told her when I left for college that I was out. I don’t want to be her. I have to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing with my life and not, like, solving cold cases that can’t be solved. And she can’t accept it.” There’s an extremely long pause before Myla says, “Whoa,” and, “that’s what it is.” August frowns. “That’s what what is?” “Your deal,” Myla says, waving her screwdriver. “Like, what’s going on with you. I’ve been wondering since you moved in. You’re, like, a reformed girl detective.” A muscle in August’s jaw twitches. “That’s … one way to put it.” “You’re like this hotshot film noir private eye, but you retired, and she’s your old boss trying to get you back in the game.” “I feel like you’re missing the point.” “Sorry, like, it’s your life and all, but do you not hear how badass that sounds?” And it is August’s life. But Myla is looking at her like she doesn’t care—not in the way people have for most of August’s life—but like how she looks at Niko when he recites Neruda to his plants, or Wes when he stubbornly spends hours disassembling and rebuilding a piece of Ikea furniture someone put together wrong. Like it’s another inconsequential quirk of someone she loves. The whole story does sound kind of ridiculous. One of Myla’s traps snaps shut and flips itself off the counter, skidding across the kitchen floor. It stops at the toe of August’s sock, and she has to laugh. “Anyway,” Myla says, turning to open the freezer. “That sucks. I’m your mom now. The rules are, no Tarantino movies and bedtime is never.” She wrenches a tub of cotton candy ice cream from one of the overstuffed shelves and plunks it on the counter by the sink, then opens a drawer and throws down two spoons. “You wanna hear about my mom’s second graders?” she says. “They’re nightmares. She had to get one off the roof the other day.” August picks up a spoon and follows her lead. The ice cream is a radioactive shade of blue and horribly sugary, and August loves it. Myla talks and talks about her adoptive mom, about her clumsy but well-intentioned attempts at cooking waakye for Myla growing up so she could feel connected to her birth heritage, about her dad’s woodworking projects (he’s making a guitar) and her brother back in Hoboken (he’s making his way through residency) and how their main family bonding activity is marathoning old episodes of Star Trek. August finds it soothing to let it wash over her. A family. It sounds nice. “So … all these mousetraps…” August nudges the one on the floor with her foot. “What exactly are you making?” Myla hums thoughtfully. “The short answer? No idea. It was the same with the frog bones, dude. I keep trying to figure out what the piece is for me, you know? The point-of-view piece. The thing that sums up everything I’m trying to say as an artist.” August glances across the room at marshmallow Judy. “Yeah,” Myla says. “I have no idea what the point of view of that thing is.” “Um,” August attempts. “It’s, uh. A commentary on … refined sugars and addiction.” Myla whistles through her teeth. “A generous interpretation.” “I’m a scholar.” “You’re a bullshitter.” “That’s … true.” “Here,” she says, “I’ll show you what I’m working on.” She turns on her heel, hair swishing after her like the cartoon smoke of a fast getaway. Myla and Niko’s room is like August’s—long and narrow, a single window at the end. Like her, they haven’t bothered with a bedframe, only a double-sized pallet on the floor beneath the window, a mess of linens and shabby throw pillows shot through with late afternoon sunlight. Myla belly flops onto it and reaches for a crate overflowing with records. As she digs around, August waffles at the door, eyeing the desk covered in paint tubes and epoxy cans, the round table loaded with crystals and dripping candles. “Oh, you can come in,” Myla says over her shoulder. “Sorry it’s such a mess.” It is, admittedly, a mess, and the clutter makes August’s skin prick with memories of magazine stacks and file boxes. But the walls are covered only sparingly with sketches and Polaroids, and August only has to step around one abandoned sweater and a tin of charcoals to get through the door. On a dropcloth in the center of the floor, there’s a sculpture slowly coming together. It looks almost like the bottom half of a person, nearly life-sized, and made up of crushed glass and computer parts and a million other fragments. Wires overflow between the cracks like vines eating it from the inside. “I have absolutely no idea what this is going to be,” Myla says as August circles it slowly. Up close, she can see the bits of embedded bone, painted gold. “I’m trying to wire it to move and light up, but, like, what does it mean? Fuck if I know.” “The detail is incredible,” August says. This close she can see all its tiny parts, but from across the room, it looked like an elaborate, shimmering work of delicate beading. “It’s more than the sum of its parts.” Myla squints at it. “I guess so. You wanna listen to something?” Most of her records look secondhand and well-loved with no discernible organization. It’s a level of comfortable chaos that has Myla written all over it. “The collection,” she says, “used to belong to my parents—they KonMari’d all their vinyl a few years ago, but I saved them.” “I have, like, the most boring taste in music,” August tells her. “All I listen to are podcasts about murder. I don’t know who half these people are.” “We can change that,” Myla says. “What’re you in the mood for? Funk? Punk? Post-punk? Pop punk? Pop? Old-school pop? New-school pop? Newschool old-school—” August thinks about yesterday, about Jane sliding into the subway seat next to her, talking breathlessly about the Clash and holding out her headphones. She’d seemed so disappointed when August awkwardly confessed she didn’t know the band. “Do you have any ’70s punk?” “Ooh, yes,” Myla says. She whips a record out and rolls onto her back like a lizard sunning itself. “This is an easy one. You probably already know it.” She flashes the cover, black and covered in jagged, thin white lines. August thinks she recognizes it from a T-shirt but can’t place it. “Come on,” Myla says. “Joy Division? Everyone who’s ever been within sniffing distance of a clove cigarette knows Joy Division.” “I told you,” August says. “You’re gonna have to remediate me.” “Okay, well.” Myla sets the record on the turntable in the corner. “We’ll start here. Come on.” She fluffs a pillow beside her. August stares. She’s adjusting to having friends like Winfield adjusts to days when he has to pick up a breakfast shift: cranky and bewildered. But she sinks down onto the bed anyway. They stay there for hours, flipping the record over and over as Myla explains how Joy Division is technically not punk but post-punk, and what the difference between the two is, and how it’s possible for there to have been post-punk in the ’70s when there was also punk in the ’80s and ’90s. Myla pulls up the Wikipedia page on her phone and starts reading it out loud, which is new to August: someone else doing the research for her. She listens to the bass lines spilling over one another, and it starts to make sense. The music, and why it might mean so much to someone. She can picture Jane somewhere in the city, kicked back in her bed, listening to this too. Maybe she puts on “She’s Lost Control” while she drifts around the kitchen making dinner, doing the easy waltz of routine, touching pans and knives she’s moved from one apartment to another, a whole life full of things. August bets she has way more than five boxes. She’s probably fully realized. She’s probably got a daisy chain of past loves, and kisses aren’t a big deal to her anymore because she’s got socks from an old girlfriend mixed up in her laundry and another one’s earring lost beneath her dresser. Crazy how August can imagine a whole life for this girl she doesn’t even know, but she can’t begin to picture what her own is supposed to look like. At some point, Myla rolls over and looks at her as the music plays on. “We’ll figure it out, right?” she says. August snorts. “Why are you asking me?” “Because you have, like, the energy of someone who knows things.” “You’re thinking of your boyfriend.” “Nah,” she says. “You know stuff.” “I don’t even know how to, like, make human connections.” “That’s not true. Niko and I love you.” August blinks up at the ceiling, trying to absorb her words. “That’s—that’s nice and all, but you two are … you know. Different.” “Different how?” “Like, you’re both your own planets. You have gravitational fields. You pull people into them and that’s it. It’s, like, inevitable. I’m not half as warm or hospitable. No support for life.” Myla groans. “Jesus, I didn’t know you could be so fucking dire.” August scowls and Myla laughs. “Do you ever hear yourself talk, though? You’re cool. You’re smart. Maybe people at your stupid Catholic school were just dicks, man. You’ve got a brighter glow than you realize.” “I—I mean, I guess. That’s nice of you to say.” “It’s not nice, it’s true.” They’re both quiet, the record spinning on. “You do too,” August says to the ceiling at last. It’s hard for her to say stuff like this straight-on. “Glow.” “Oh, I know.” Classes exit the drop period, and it’s August and her packs of scantrons and lecture after lecture five days a week. This lands her with the latest shifts, and she finds herself audience to the weirdest characters and most bizarre events that descend upon Billy’s under the cloak of night. Her first week, she spent twenty minutes explaining to a drunk man why he couldn’t order a bratwurst and, failing that, why he couldn’t do pelvic floor exercises on top of the bar. Part of being a Brooklyn institution, August has learned, is collecting all the New York strangeness at the end of the night like a pool filter full of june bugs. Tonight, it’s a table of men in leather dusters loudly discussing the social scandals of the local vampire fetish community. They sent back their first order of pancakes with a demand for more chocolate chips and did not take kindly to the Count Chocula joke August attempted. They’re not leaving a tip. At the bar, there’s a drag queen fresh from a gig, sipping a milkshake, all skintight catsuit and heels, her press-on nails arranged in two neat rows of five on the counter. She watches August at the register, smoothing the ends of her pink lace front. There’s something familiar about her that August can’t seem to pin down. “Can I get you anything else?” August asks. The queen laughs. “A frontal lobotomy to forget the night I had?” August cringes, commiserative. “Rough one?” “Walked in on one of the girls experiencing the very graphic aftermath of a vegan tuna melt in the dressing room. That’s why I’m—” She gestures widely to herself. “Usually I de-drag before I take the subway, but it was fucked up in there.” “Yikes,” August says. “I thought I had it bad with the Lost Boys over there.” The queen glances at the leather-clad disciples of darkness, who are patiently passing around the butter pecan syrup from one gloved hand to the next. “Never thought I’d see a vampire I absolutely didn’t want to fuck.” August laughs and leans into the bar. This close, she can catch the stickysweet smell of hairspray and body glitter. It smells like Mardi Gras—amazing. “Hold up, I know you,” the queen says. “You live above the Popeyes, right? Parkside and Flatbush?” August blinks, observing the way her gold highlight gleams on top of her dark brown cheekbone. “Yeah?” “I’ve seen you around a couple of times. I live there too. Sixth floor.” “Oh,” August says. “Oh! You must be the drag queen who lives across the hall!” “I’m an accountant,” she deadpans. “Nah, I’m playing with you. I mean, that is my day job. But yeah, that’s me, Annie.” She makes an expansive gesture to mimic a marquee, milkshake in one hand. “Annie Depressant. Pride of Brooklyn.” She thinks about it for a second. “Or at least Flatbush. Northeast Flatbush. Kind of.” She shrugs and returns the straw to her mouth. “Anyway, I’m very prolific.” “I’m August,” August says, pointing to her nametag. “I’m, uh, not famous, by Flatbush standards, or any at all.” “That’s cool,” Annie says. “Welcome to the building. Amenities include luxurious World War II–era plumbing and a vegetarian drag queen who can do your taxes.” “Thanks,” August says. Her building must have the highest concentration of aggressively friendly people per square foot in the entire city. “Yeah, I kind of … like it?” “Oh, it’s the best,” Annie says readily. “You moved in across the hall? So you live with Wes?” “Yeah, you know him?” Annie takes a noisy slurp from her shake and says, “I’ve been in love with Wes for, like, five hundred years.” August nearly drops the rag she’s been using to wipe down the bar. “What? Are y’all … a thing?” “Oh, no,” Annie says. “I’m just in love with him.” August opens and closes her mouth a couple of times. “Does he know?” “Oh, yeah, I’ve told him,” Annie says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “We’ve kissed, like, three times, but he has that thing where he’s terrified of being loved and refuses to believe he deserves it. It’s so tedious.” She sees the look on August’s face and laughs. “I’m joking. I mean, that is his deal. But I’ve never found that boy tedious.” Annie’s signing her bill when she clocks out, and August finds herself walking back to their building with a drag queen towering a foot over her, the clacking of her six-inch platforms cutting the soft thumps of August’s sneakers. In the orange glow of the Popeyes, August reaches to unlock the door to the shabby little entrance of their building, but Annie heads for the Popeyes. “Are you actually taking the stairs?” Annie asks her. “Are you … not?” Annie laughs and heads inside, and August’s curiosity wins out. She follows. The guy at the register takes a furtive look around before sliding into the hallway that leads to the bathrooms, where he unlocks a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. Annie gives him a kiss on the cheek as she passes, and August waves awkwardly, buoyed along by the current of Annie’s energy. They take a left and there, behind Popeyes boxes and jugs of soybean oil, is something August never imagined she’d find in this wonderful shithole of a building: an elevator. “Service elevator,” Annie explains as she jams the button with her thumb. “Nobody uses it anymore, but the busted old bitch works.” On the ride up, August unties her apron, and Annie starts pulling off all six pairs of her false eyelashes, depositing them in a retainer case alongside her nails. She’s got a confident meticulousness to her chaos, a perfectly contained party with champagne. August can picture her sitting in her apartment in the middle of the night, all the spare shitty bedrooms an accountant’s salary can buy, humming along to Patti LaBelle as she diligently returns each nail and lash to their places in her vanity. The elevator dings six floors up, and the doors slide open. “Everybody says New Yorkers are so unfriendly, but you just have to know how to win them over,” Annie says as she steps out. She’s holding her heels, leading the way down the hall on fishnet-covered feet, yet she seems like she could go all night. “Me and that guy go way back, ever since I broke up a fight between some drunk assholes over a chicken tender meal.” “Over chicken that doesn’t even have the bones?” Annie hums in agreement. “Right? I haven’t even eaten meat in nine years, but fuck.” They reach their doors—August’s, 6F, Annie’s, 6E. “Come to a show sometime,” Annie says. “And if you see me around and I’m a boy, you can call me Isaiah.” “Isaiah. Okay.” August reaches into her purse and fishes her keys out. “Thank you for the elevator thing.” “It’s all good,” Annie says. In the soft light of the hallway, August sees the way her face transforms, Annie and Isaiah blurring together. “Tell Wes hi for me. And that he still owes me a slice of pizza and thirty bucks.” August nods, and then. Well. She’s not sure what makes her ask. Maybe it’s that she’s starting to feel like an extra in an extremely low-budget Love Actually, surrounded by people loving and being loved in all their messy, unpredictable ways, and she doesn’t trust or understand it. Or maybe it’s that she wants to. “Does it ever, like … I don’t know. Make you lonely? To love somebody who can’t meet you there?” She regrets it immediately, but Annie laughs. “Sometimes. But, you know, that feeling? When you wake up in the morning and you have somebody to think about? Somewhere for hope to go? It’s good. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.” And August—well, August finds herself without a single damn thing to say to that. There are two things coiled in August’s chest these days. The first is her usual: anxiety meets full-on dread. The part of her that says, trust nobody, even and especially anyone that pushes softly into the chambers of your heart. Do not engage. Carry a knife. Don’t stab them, but also, maybe stab them if you have to. The other, though, is the one that really freaks her out. It’s hope. August finished her final semester at U of M last fall in a haze of final exams and half-packed cardboard boxes. Her Craigslist roommate was always at her boyfriend’s, so August spent most days alone, to campus and back in her shitty secondhand Corolla, rolling past Catfish Cabin and people spilling out of juke joints, wondering what everyone else got that she didn’t. Memphis was warm, its humid afternoons and the way its people treated one another. Except August. For two years, August was a cactus in a field of Tennessee irises. She’d moved to get some space—some healthy space—from her mom and the case and all the New Orleans ghosts she doesn’t believe in. But Memphis wasn’t her place either, so she filed the transfer papers. She picked New York because she thought it would be every bit as cynical as her, just as comfortable killing time. She thought, honestly, she’d finally land somewhere that felt like her. And it does, a lot of the time. The gray streets, people with their shoulders braced against the weight of another day, all sharp elbows and tired eyes. August can get into that. But, dangerously, there are people like Niko and Myla and Wes, and like Lucie and Winfield and Jerry. There’s a kindness she doesn’t understand and evidence of things she convinced herself weren’t real. And worst of all, for the first time since she was a kid, she wants to trust in something. And, there’s Jane. Her mom can tell something’s up. “You sound all dreamy,” she says on one of their nightly calls. “Um, yeah,” August stammers. “Just thinking about a pizza.” Her mom hums approvingly. “You’re really my kid, huh?” August has had crushes before. Girls who sat two seats over in freshman geometry, boys who touched the back of her hand at hazy UNO parties, people who passed through her classes and part-time jobs. The older she’s gotten, the more she prefers thinking of love as a hobby for other people, like rock climbing or knitting. Fine, enviable even, but she doesn’t feel like investing in the equipment. But Jane is different. A girl who gets on the train at some blurry point and off at an unknown destination, who totes around a backpack full of useful items like a cheerful video game protagonist, whose nose scrunches hard when she laughs, like, really laughs. She’s a beam of warmth on cold mornings, and August wants to curl up in her the way Noodles curls up in patches of sunlight that haunt the apartment. It’s like touching a hot stove and laying her hand on the burner instead of icing it. It’s insane. It’s irrational. It’s the antithesis of every wary, thousandyard distance she’s ever kept. August believes in nothing except caution and a pocketknife. But Jane’s there, on the train and in her head, pacing the floorboards of August’s room in her red sneakers, reciting Annie’s words back to her, Even when it’s bad, it’s good. And August has to admit, it’s good. Wednesday morning, she steps onto the train with dangerous optimism. It’s a pretty typical crowd—a half-dozen teenage boys huddled around someone’s phone, a professional-looking couple toting briefcases, an enormously pregnant woman and her daughter hunched over a picture book, tourists buried in Google Maps. And Jane. Jane’s leaning against a pole, leather jacket shrugged down to her elbows and backpack slouching off one shoulder, headphones on, black hair falling in her eyes as she nods to the beat. And it’s just … hope. August looks at her, and hope blooms like crepe myrtle blossoms between her ribs. Like fucking flowers. How absolutely mortifying. Jane looks up and says, “Hey, Coffee Girl.” “Hey, Subway Girl,” August says, grabbing the pole and pulling herself up to all her five feet four inches. Jane’s still taller. “Listening to anything good?” She pushes one headphone back. “New York Dolls.” August huffs out a laugh. “Do you ever listen to anything released later than ’75?” Jane laughs too, and there it goes again, desperate and cloying hope in August’s chest. It’s gross. It’s new. August wants to study it under a microscope and also never think about it for the rest of her idiot life. “Why would I?” Jane asks. “Well, you’re missing out on Joy Division,” August says, referring to the talking points she may or may not have written down after Myla’s punk lesson. “Though they do owe a lot to the Clash.” She quirks an eyebrow. “Joy Division?” “Yeah, I know they’re technically post-punk and all, but. You know.” “I don’t think I’ve heard of them. Are they new?” Jane’s fucking with her. August puts on her sarcastic voice and tries to be smooth. “Yeah, brand-new. I’ll make you a mixtape.” “Maybe,” Jane says. “Or maybe if you’re nice, I’ll let you go through my collection.” The light shifts as they pass into a tunnel, and there’s a jerk in the train’s momentum. August, who has been subconsciously leaning into Jane’s space like one of Niko’s most desperate houseplants reaching for the sun, loses her balance and stumbles right into her chest. Jane catches her easily, one hand on August’s shoulder, the other at her waist, and August can’t stop the gasp that escapes at her touch. It’s lost in the grind of the train against the tracks when it shudders to a halt. The lights black out. There’s a low murmur, a few swears from the group of boys. “Shit,” August says into the darkness. She can feel the palm of Jane’s hand burning into her waist. “Stay still,” Jane says, and she’s so close that August can feel her breath ruffling her hair in the dark. She smells like leather and sugar. Her hand slides from August’s waist to the small of her back, sturdy, holding her in place. “I got you.” Physically, August doesn’t react, but spiritually, she’s fully on fire. “The emergency lights are gonna come on…” Jane says confidently. “Now.” The emergency lights flick on, washing the whole car in sickly yellow light, and August blinks at Jane suddenly right there, a breath’s space between their faces. She can feel the soft juts of Jane’s hip bones against her, see the buzzed hairs on the nape of her neck and the soft amusement tugging at one side of her mouth. August has never wanted to be kissed so badly in her life. A garbled voice crackles over the intercom for thirty indecipherable seconds. “Anybody catch that?” says the guy in the business suit. “We’re delayed on account of electrical problems,” Jane says. Her hand is still settled on the small of August’s back. “Indefinitely.” A collective groan goes up. Jane offers a commiserative smile. “You speak MTA?” August says. “I’ve been taking this train for a long-ass time,” Jane says. She removes her hand and strides to an empty seat, slumping into it. She looks at August and nods next to her. “Might as well make yourself comfortable.” So, there they are. The two of them and a train full of strangers, trapped. August shuffles over and takes her spot, and Jane smoothly stretches an arm across the back of the seat, behind her shoulders. She has this way of moving through the world like she owns every place she walks into, like she’s never once been told she can’t do something. She carries it well, because she probably has been told what she can’t do—plenty of times—and doesn’t care. A sideways glance: Jane in profile, chin tilted up to the emergency lights. Her nose is rounded at the tip, kissable. August cannot keep thinking about kissing if she wants to make it out of this alive. “So, you’ve never mentioned where you’re from,” Jane says toward the ceiling. She’s still got her head back, like she’s sunbathing in the dark. “New Orleans, originally,” August tells her. “Well, right outside it. What about you?” “New Orleans, huh?” she says. She lowers her eyes finally, and when she cuts them over, August forgets she ever asked a question. Or what questions are. Or the entire process of speech. “What brought you here?” “Um, school,” August says. The lighting is already unflattering, so it can’t be helping the shade of red she turns when confronted with significant eye contact from butch girls in leather jackets. “I transferred. I’ve tried a few schools in different cities, but I’ve never really fallen in love with any of them.” “You’re hoping you fall in love here?” “Um—” “Hey, maybe you will,” Jane says, and she honest-to-God winks. August is going to take out a full-page ad in the Times to scream about it. The city needs to know. “Maybe so.” Jane laughs. “How’s Billy’s?” “It’s all right. I’m starting to get the hang of it. I kind of scammed them on my references, so I had to fake it until I figured out what I was doing.” She raises her eyebrows. “I hadn’t pegged you for a scammer.” “Well,” August says. “Maybe you’re underestimating me.” It surprises a laugh out of her, a good laugh, deep in her chest. Jane nudges her shoulder and leans in, close enough that the creases of her leather sleeve brush August’s arm. “So, what do you think’s their story?” She jerks her chin toward the professional-looking pair a few seats down. He’s in a razor-sharp suit and she’s in a deep blue dress, her heels practical and pointed at the toe, and he’s laughing at whatever story she’s telling him. “Those two?” August examines them. “Well, I’ve never seen them before, so maybe they don’t usually take our train. They’re both wearing wedding bands, and she’s got their bags under her feet, so I’m guessing they’re married. They commute together, so maybe they work at the same place. Maybe they met there.” She squints through the low light. “Oh, the cuffs of his shirtsleeves are damp—someone forgot to put the laundry in the dryer last night. That’s why they’re not on their usual train; they’re running late.” Jane lets out a low whistle. “Damn. That was … detailed.” August cringes. She did the thing—the stupid detective thing—without even realizing. “Sorry, bad habit. I grew up on true crime so I, like … notice stuff.” She twists her hands in her lap. “I know, it’s creepy.” “I think it’s cool,” Jane says. August turns to check her expression, but she’s watching the couple. “I was imagining them as Soviet spies in deep cover.” August bites the inside of her cheek. “Oh. Yeah, okay, I can see that.” “Okay, Nancy Drew. What about that kid over there? The one in the red jacket.” And August, who was pretty convinced this was the most unattractive side of her, sits back and lets Jane have it. “Taller than his friends, more facial hair. Had to repeat a grade, but it made everyone think he’s cooler because he’s older—look how they’re all facing him, he’s the gravitational center of the group.” “Interesting. I think he’s Spider-Man.” “Yeah?” “Yeah, he’s got the build for it.” August snorts. “He does look aerodynamic.” Jane laughs, which is rocketing straight up August’s list of favorite sounds in the universe. She’s gonna trap it in a shell like a sea witch. It’s fine. “Okay,” August says. “The pregnant lady. What’s her story?” “Not pregnant. Smuggling a big bag of pierogies.” “A bold suggestion.” “Yep. She reminds me of this Polish lady in my building who makes the worst pierogies ever.” August laughs, and Jane pulls a face like she’s tasting them all over again. “I mean it! Oh man, they’re so bad! But she’s nice so I eat them anyway.” “Well, I think she’s a seamstress.” “How could you possibly know that?” “Magnifying glasses sticking out of her purse,” August points out. “Way too young to need those unless she does fine detail work. And look, the bottom of her right shoe is more worn off than the left. Sewing machine pedal.” “Holy shit,” Jane says, sounding genuinely impressed. “Okay. A seamstress and a pierogi smuggler.” “Every woman a universe.” She hums under her breath, letting a comfortable lull swell between them, until she turns to August and says, “What about me?” August blinks at her. “What about you?” “Come on, what’s your guess? If you have one for them, you must have one for me.” And of course August has a mental file on her. August has spent weeks ticking off a list of clues about Jane, trying to parse the buttons on her jacket and the patches on her backpack to figure out how she’d kiss August if she got her alone. But Jane doesn’t need to know that part. “Um,” August says. “You—you have a super regular commute—every morning, every afternoon, but you’re not a student, because you don’t get off with me at the BC stop. Almost the same outfit every day, so you know exactly who you are and what you’re about, and you don’t work anywhere formal. Past of working in food service. And everyone you meet seems to love you, so—um, so. You work the breakfast-to-lunch shift at a restaurant off this line, and you’re good at it. You make good tips because people like you. And you’re probably only doing it to fund some kind of passion project, which is what you really want to do.” Jane looks at her like she’s assessing everything about August too. August can’t tell if that’s good or bad. She just knows Jane’s cheekbones look really nice from this angle. “Hm. That’s a good guess.” August raises her eyebrows. “Close?” “You got the job part wrong.” “Then what do you do?” She sucks her teeth, shaking her head. “Uh-uh. Where’s the fun in that? You gotta guess.” “That’s not fair! You’re being mysterious on purpose.” “I’m mysterious by nature, August.” August rolls her eyes. “Fuck off.” “It’s the truth!” She chuckles, nudging her elbow into August’s side. “You gotta put in a little more work to crack this egg, baby.” Baby. It’s just the way Jane talks—she probably calls everyone baby—but it still goes down like sweet tea. “Fine,” August says. “Give me some more clues.” Jane thinks, and says, “All right, how ’bout this?” She scoots down one seat, unzips her backpack, and upends it in the space between them. On top of her scarf and cassette player and orange headphones are a dozen cassette tapes, a paperback with the cover torn off, and a battered hardback. Two packs of gum, one almost empty, from a brand August doesn’t recognize. A few Band-Aids, a Swiss army knife, a GREETINGS FROM CALIFORNIA postcard, a jar of Tiger Balm, a set of keys, a lighter, a tube of Lip Smackers chapstick August hasn’t seen since she was a kid, three notebooks, five pencils, a sharpener. She must keep her phone in her jacket, because it’s not in the mix. “They’re kind of just whatever I’ve found,” Jane says as August starts picking through the cassettes. “They can be hard to come across, so I take what I can get, mostly. Sometimes if I sweet-talk someone who has a lot, I get lucky and find something I want.” They’re from different eras—first editions from the ’70s, a mixed bag of ’80s and ’90s. There’s a Diana Ross, a Michael Bolton, a Jackson Five, a New York Dolls. Each one well-loved, kept safe from scuffs and cracks. It looks like she treats them like the most valuable things she owns. Since most have to be out of production, August imagines that might be true. “Why cassettes?” Jane shrugs. “It’s like vinyl, but portable.” August picks up the boxy player, turning it in her hands. “I haven’t seen one of these in forever. Where’d you even get it?” It takes Jane a second to answer, carefully reeling in a cassette’s tape with her fingertip. “I don’t remember. Between you and me, I have no idea how this thing works.” “Me neither,” August says. “It looks ancient.” “This one,” Jane says, pulling a cassette from the bottom of the pile, “is one of my favorites.” Its case is a photo washed out in blue, the words RAISING HELL in lime green letters. “Run-DMC. You know ’em?” “Yeah,” August says. “‘It’s Tricky,’ right?” Jane takes the player and pops open the compartment. “You know … I have this theory that Run-DMC can start a party anywhere.” She snaps the tape into place and unplugs her headphones. August’s stomach drops. “Oh God, you’re not—” “Oh, but I am,” she says, rising to her feet. “Don’t you think these nice stranded commuters deserve some entertainment?” “Oh no, no no no, please don’t—” “Watch this,” she says, and to August’s extreme distress, starts to undo her belt. August’s brain cues up a Magic Mike number set to Run-DMC in terrifying and erotic detail, before Jane threads her belt through the handle of the player and fastens it back up. Oh. Oh no. “I’m gonna kill you,” August says. “Too late,” Jane says, and she punches the play button. The cymbals start up short and sharp, and when the first line hits, August watches in muted horror as Jane grabs a pole and swings herself out, toward the rest of the train, her mouth lining up with the words about how this speech is her recital. And, God, that tiny, ancient speaker has got pipes. It’s loud enough to cut through the car, but it’s New York, so barely anyone looks up. Unswayed by the lack of response, Jane jumps onto a seat, sneakers squeaking on the plastic, and August buries her face in her hands as Jane shouts the lyrics. And, against all odds, Spider-Man kid shouts down the car, “It’s tricky!” “Jesus lord,” August mutters. And the thing is, in New York, everyone ends up worn down by the MTA and tourists and rent prices. Everybody’s seen it all. But that also means, sometimes, everyone is the smallest nudge away from delirium—from being trapped on the subway on a Wednesday morning and turning it into a ’90s hiphop dance party. Because the bass line comes in, and Jane lunges down the aisle, and the high school boys start whooping at the tops of their lungs, and that’s it. It is well and truly on. It’s possible, August thinks, that it’s not only New York catastrophe delirium making this happen. It’s possible it’s Jane, irresistible and blazing, her shoulders narrow but sturdy under her leather jacket, cassette player swinging from her belt as she rocks her hips. Even the emergency lights seem to glow brighter. Jane is lightning on long legs—the dark never stood a chance. Suddenly the song tumbles out of the first chorus, and Jane is in front of her. She throws one foot up on August’s seat, leaning in on her knee, the rips in her jeans spreading open, and her expression absolutely wicked. “I met this little girly.” She reaches out to skim a hand past August’s jaw, tucking her hair behind her ear. The pad of her thumb grazes August’s earlobe. August feels like she’s astral projecting. “Her hair was kinda curly.” Jane winks, gone as fast as she came, stomping down the aisle, instigating the riot, leaving August’s mouth hanging open. As the song pounds on, the couple across the way starts getting into it, her hitting the smoothest Milly Rock August has ever seen, him holding onto the pole in front of her to shake his ass. The woman throws her head back and cackles when he drops it down to the subway floor, and the kid in the red jacket and his friends scream with laughter. Even Pierogi Mom is chuckling. The next song is “My Adidas,” and then “Walk This Way,” and Jane manages to keep the party going for the entire side of th