Of course, I've thought before on the fact that my Dave Strider is not a true Dave Strider. For one, he is Dave Lalonde and no one would ever think to question this—wouldn't it be more strange if I didn't share a name with my completely biological twin brother? Often times I wonder what Dirk's thoughts are on this whole matter, if he has any of course, and assuming that he ran off to do…whatever…not just on coincidence. I've often wondered how he and Roxy seem to have such insight without the benefit of seer powers to delay their drift into irrelevance, but perhaps their own aspects buffer them against total ignorance, even while cut off from the Game. At one point, I fancied a guess that any future/former player, when given enough age and wisdom, will eventually settle into the realization they are meant to be doing something special. However, the mere existence of my brother proves that theory to be a load of hokum.
But that's enough about Dave Lalonde. God knows there's already been an extensive amount of narrative thread unraveled to expound upon that.
So instead, we bring our attention to one John Egbert, once again asleep, beginning this story like a mid-nineties video game character. What is wrong with this John Egbert, I wonder? Nothing would be my initial guess, since to me he is perfectly himself, and he exists alongside me in a reality that was tailor fit. But there must be something that sets him apart, otherwise every flaw I notice in my brother is just me being a rude bitch.
So what is it then? Perhaps his failure to grow a mustache? John Crocker had a particularly luxurious one, as did his ectofather, so why does John only succeed in a scraggly little goatee that makes him look more like a bespectacled Robin Hood rather than a world famous comedian?
I have to admit it's a tenuous lead at best. I cease observing my sleeping friend's visage, and slide John of Loxley's glasses off his face so he doesn't get pressmarks in his temples. Delicately, I fold them and set them on the coffee table, which is really just a trunk full of pranking equipment that has been hauled into the middle of the living room in a desperate attempt at pizza elevation. I go visit my final quandary.
"Jade dear," I say with a little rap on her door. "We have a shopping date today."
After a moment's pause, I step inside to find her curled under her cloud-patterned comforter. Perhaps that's what makes this Jade odd: she spends far less time asleep, and enough of it awake that she can make it to her bed on time.
"Jade," I say, shaking her shoulder lightly. "The wedding planning is upon us."
Wedding planning is, perhaps, an exaggeration. I was a celebrated author once, and though I could never claim the obsession of the public eye that say a famous director demands, my engagement and subsequent marriage still required a certain standard of spectacle. There was the beautiful dress, the imported champagne, the cake that I cut open to reveal a dozen live doves. My wife loved it. My agent doubly loved it. So since the people who mattered most to me at that particular junction in my life were so enthralled, I found I too could enjoy myself a little.
Perhaps then anything would be considered a downgrade, but I think that heading to Party City the day of to pick up silverware might be considered trashy, even by non #1 New York Times Bestsellers.
My Madonna has taste, of that I can be sure. I can practically feel her looking down at me, shaking her head.
It brings comfort that she might be out there in some Olam Habah, some reunion yet to come. That once I die or maybe just figure out a purpose for my timeline, I'll be rewarded by meeting her and getting to ask what the fuck that was all about. But these are comforts that linger, best when not interrogated, (like when I learned that millions of fecal bacteria are released with every toilet flush and are most likely clinging to my toothbrush right now, and vowed never to think of it again.)
Perhaps she will guide us to a unified world, one that I've only seen in flashes of in years condensed down to slideshows. "Many cultures have a concept of a physical manifestation of death that is less akin to a Grim Reaper and more of a benevolent guide to the afterlife," I mention to Jade. "Think Charon, a simple merchant, performing a service for a nominal fee as he guides us to the place where our souls will reside for all eternity. Or perhaps less well known in western tradition is Yama, ruler of the departed, the first mortal to die and thus bestowed the glorious honor of making everyone else do it. These are benign or sometimes simply neutral beings, a perspective on death that is missing from Abrahamic religions. They are called psychopomps, soul guides, and despite their duty we do not assign them blame. Why, as humans, do we continually look death in the face and long for something recognizable to stare back? Why do we look for humanity in the very absence of it? There is nothing virtuous about death, no compassion, and yet we write our Book Theifs and our Hogfathers in a desperate attempt to claim that death is just the nature of things. Perhaps if we recognized that death is avoidable, removed the stigma that those who seek to reverse its effects are insane egomaniacs, then we could move to destroying it completely."
"…Well, I like the napkins with Squiddles on them," Jade says.
I look down at the choice she has selected, the rainbow array of Squiddles beaming back at me. They are quite cute. "Yes, let's go with those."
I return to the Harlondebert home with several stacks of paper plates, plastic silverware, and a bunch of pink and green balloons Jade insisted on. If prom night is our aesthetic, by God are we winning this week's Bridezillas. I honk the horn, pick up John and the mysteriously reappeared Dave, and we're on our way.
The closest synagogue doesn't have a ballroom, but the study room in the basement turned out to be perfect for our purposes. A semi-ironic marriage to skirt immigration laws seems to fit nicely in a low ceilinged chamber surrounded by beanbag chairs.
Mr. Egbert is there, as if I was strapped for father figures. John doesn't leave his side much, and I know he worries about his father since the old man refuses to abandon the Egbert home, despite the fact that he's unable to make it up the stairs for six years. He wants to die in that house, though he won't say it as bluntly, and John's done his best to convert the first floor into everything a solitary gentleman would need. It unsettles me, for some reason. The idea that the rest of the suburban house will remain untouched, preserved just as it was when John left high school and abandoned the rooms full of clowns. Forever plastered in time by posters and the unused programming textbooks of an eighteen-year-old boy.
My own father sidles up to me. "I'm keeping an eye those Egberts," he says. "If John ever tricks his dad into a home, I know I'm next."
"I would never," I say, lightly sipping my pre-reception martini. "Mainly because I know trying to have you committed would be like trying to wrestle a cat into a suit."
Father wonks, and nudges me with a shoulder. I am trying to be nicer to him. He deserves a lot more than what I usually give.
"I'll remember this conversation Rose. Now! Where are you hiding my daughter-in-law?"
He spends the next thirty seconds cooing over the now summoned Jade, who's wearing her black dress with the green trimmings. She does look quite fetching, though still wearing her squiddlesneaks.
"Oh!" Roxy says suddenly, tapping Jade unnecessarily on the arm in frantic excitement. "I need to tell you! They can't make it until after the ceremony, their flight won't be in for another hour."
Jade's face alights. "That's fine! It's a sham wedding anyway."
"Who, might I ask, are our unexpected guests?" I interrupt as Jade double checks for anyone hiding in the potted plants with comically large surveillance equipment.
"It's a surprise!" Jade beams at me. "Just some people that Roxy-"
"Ssshhhhh Jaaaadeee," my father hushes. "Say anymore and she'll figure it out. I know when she does the-" My father mimes some strange zonked motion that reminds me passingly of Jack Sparrow. I am certain I've never done that in my life.
Jade raises her eyebrows in conspiratorial agreement, and zips her lips with a nod.
"Wedding crashers?" I feign mild distaste. "Here? In front of my foosball table?" Said table has already been taken over by the boys. With a shake of my head I warn, "none of them better be wearing white, otherwise it's your head, Harley."
"Not Harley for much longer!" she says, and Roxy whisks her off with a laugh.
We're not cramped in the basement, even with the other two guests. Mr. Egbert has brought a lovely cake and my father has provided a surprisingly edible platter of hors d'oeuvres, the later of which John and Dave have descended on with gusto now that Dave has been beaten at his third foosball game in a row. As they chow down, Dave convinces John to marry him.
"Think of it John," he says around a mouthful of honey-covered crackers. "Jade takes Rose's last name, I take mine, we become Gay Lalonde Power Couple^2. We go to our kids parent teacher conference and absolutely destroy them with the force of our four matching power suits. 'No sir, I'm sorry. Sir, for the last time, I don't know who Yamcha is'."
John groans. "No Dave! We're not doing a double ironic gay wedding!"
"But think how awkward the house is going to be if we don't," Dave points out. "We're going to be like a unicycle with an extra wheel."
"…Like a bike?" I offer, expertly sliding into the conversation and the shrimp bowl.
"No Rose," he tells me tersely. "Like a unicycle with an extra wheel."
"I can't marry you!" John waves his tiny tuna sandwich about. "If I do, our bachelor contract is broken. As soon as I marry you, I'm going to have to move out!"
"Shit," Dave says. "I hadn't thought of that. For real?"
"It depends," I offer. "Upon verbal agreement of this contract, did you stipulate a post-completion timeframe? Was the language so that you would commit to the deal if you were single at the designated date of John's fortieth birthday, or as long as you were single?"
"See?" John motions to me. "We can't know for certain. I won't risk our bromance on a maybe, dude."
It would be so easy for me, to glance back to the exact day the two made their pact, to rectify the details that the human mind so easily looses track of. But I won't. Nothing I See can surprise me anymore, I've looked upon all the ins and outs this world has to offer. It is unsatisfying to me, beneath me, and if things were fair Dave could just go do it himself. Pop back in time for a bit of extra-chronological spying. He could be so much and isn't, and it may yet kill me that I don't know why. He had one of the very dimensions of reality at his fingertips, Jade could bend the other like no player was meant to, and John…
Well John was powerful in ways that nothing to do with his aspect. Incredible for different reasons entirely, and I will never find the words to make any of them see.
The ceremony is short and sweet. A ketubah is signed, the officiate says a few words, and I kiss Jade to seal the deal. It reminds me of kissing John, though maybe that's to be expected. I could tell her, but she'd never find it as funny as I do as I try to make the comparison to the brother she doesn't have.
I drink lots during the reception. The dual Best Men make speeches—John is mine Dave is Jade's—before I tuck into the casserole we brought from home and have heated up in the basement's microwave. John stands and says, "today! Was really important. Two of my best friends are just got married, deciding to live in the same house and share daily chores and never ever get divorced, so a total change in how they're living now. And if anybody from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services is listening, they're totally in love in a non-platonic way." This gets a small whoo! from somewhere. Most likely Jade. "But uh, if we're being serious for a moment. Thank I everyone for coming today. I guys really are my best friends, and it actually means a lot to see us coming a little closer together. Thanks."
He stumbles over his last words and sits down, his face a bit red. I appreciate it a lot actually.
Dave stands up and says, "rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub."
When John and Jade are done booing him, we all tuck in. I'm the only one drinking, as my father has convinced John's to try some of his "good stuff" (which I most certainly want to get in on), and Jade has challenged John to beer pong. It appears to be going well, since a half an hour later, Dave stands on his chair and haul's John's hand up into the air. It has a pop-tab on one finger, and Dave dutifully informs the room, "he said yes!" Everyone drunkenly claps.
Maybe it's the inebriation, but I wind up kissing Jade a lot over the course of the evening. Once I am even so wild as to plant one on John's cheek.
"Whoa Mrs. Lalonde," he says in faux scandalization. "Such a thing cannot be done! You are a married woman, and I am most recently betrothed to the greatest knight in all the land."
"That is what makes our love so wondrous, dear Sir Egbert. The younger," I add, with respect to present company. "Our love is now forbidden. Taboo. Star-"
I cut myself off, as my stomach has chosen this moment to revolt and suddenly I don't feel so well. Everything tonight has been such empty fluff and the stars hold everything I was meant to have. The stars are the problem. I should never have crossed them in the first place.
If I was not feeling well before, I feel even less when the pair of surprises walk through the basement door. Because it only takes one introduction to realize Jade is very aware she has a brother, just not the one I was thinking of.
"Dr. Claire," the sharply dressed woman says as she shakes my hand. "I suppose that makes us sisters then?"
"In a sense, yes," I say faintly.
Dr. Claire's companion has an armful of Jade, and Jude doesn't seem too motivated to get her off him. Her mouth doesn't stop, saying how excited she's been to meet them and she just didn't think it was possible. Father's speaking to me, but his words are taking their sweet time to reach me.
"How…again?" I ask him.
"I used to babysit for little Joey and Jude here," he explains, grabbing Dr. Claire around the shoulders in a tight side-hug. She's nearly a foot taller than him. "When I heard the name Harley, I though, huh. It was a long shot, but I know, stranger things have happened."
Dr. Claire looks at him fondly, shyly keeping her gaze averted from mine. I mutter, "stranger things indeed."
"And whatta ya know!" he finishes. "It all checks out. Turns out Jade had some family here all along."
"Dave! John!" Jade hollers, her hands still clasped in Jude's. "Get your stupid butts over here!"
"My stupid butt has entered a loving and committed relationship with this chair," Dave calls from a beanbag, positively hammered.
"Coming!" John shouts.
"John," Jade says he makes his way over. "This is Jude and Joey. They're my brother and sister! Isn't that great! Turns out my grandpa had kids in America and he never told me any of it."
"Whoa!" John gawks, and how he can't tell he's looking into a mirror I don't know. "That's like…the plot of like half the movies I own!"
"It is. Strange," Jude admits. "A very, odd string of coincidences. But I am happy to finally. Meet Jade."
He smiles, but it is not his mannerisms I am watching, but Dr. Claire's. She has that sleek, businesswoman look I always admired about nineteen-eighties lesbians, and she's watching the family reunion with an air of sadness and I don't know how to deal with. It feels as though this is some sort of practical joke. How can they be real? How can two whole people suddenly exist where they didn't before? I turn away.
"Something the matter, hon?" my father calls as I make my way up the stairs.
"Just need some fresh air," I mutter over my shoulder. I'm not sure if he hears.
The winter air is fresh and dark but it doesn't lift the splitting headache. Have Jude and Joey always been here? On this planet? They must since my father knows them, and even if he didn't, the only illusions the Game deals in are people so patterned with agency and history that they might as well be real. In all my adolescent glances across fortune—before I swore off the habit—how did I not see them? And if they exist here, on this Earth, why have I not met the other children of Jake Harley?
It mixes with the ill-advised champagne in my stomach and I lean over a bike rack so I don't lose my cake.
Is this a product of arrogance? Certainly I've fallen to that pitfall before. But it seems if this is an attempt to teach me a lesson, the joyful reunion of long-lost family members is a bit of a weaker punchline than turning into a grey tentacle monster. But here I am again, out amongst the stars. They give no comfort, cold and distant as they are; I search for a nonexistent Virgo among the gnarled constellations. Tears are wet on my cheeks.
I hear the crash bar to the parking lot swing out toward me, and as much as I love him, I don't want to see my father right now. I can't bear his questions that I can't answer, I can't look at Dave without the fear that the next time I show him the weak point between my eyes he'll throw the cautious extension back into my face. My family who I love but can't face.
However, it's neither of their footsteps that scuffle across the asphalt to where I'm still keeled over and breathing out my mouth. It could be Jade. Jade wouldn't be so bad. I love her, but despite the wedding and green balloons it's a different kind of love, and she knows that and I know that but how do I even begin to explain-
"Rose?" John asks, circling until he's beside me but not putting a hand on my shoulder. "Are you alright? You left the party really fast. Was it the shrimp?"
"No, our guests' arrival and the shrimp were merely temporally similar," I say, waving him away as I straighten my spine.
His brow furrows. "Was Jade's family rude to you or something?"
"They are not just Jade's family," I say, and oh, I don't feel so good. Usually I wouldn't be so frivolous with my Insight unless it's wrapped in several layers of philosophy, but the churning in my stomach is making me testy. Maybe John's right about the shrimp.
"What does that mean?" he says, because he's paying too close attention to dismiss what I say. Damn him and his concern.
"Damn you and your concern," I snap, and his furrowed brow melts into a frown.
"I get that it's your wedding and you're allowed to freak out and stuff, but you're being a real jerk Rose." He points back into the synagogue. "You ran away from your new in-laws as soon as they showed up, Jade looks like she's about to cry, and you ripped your dress and didn't even notice." John reaches into his back pocket and fumbles with a piece of orange fabric. He grimaces when he hands it to me. "Roxy's really worried about you."
"Is that why I'm out here John? Purely at the behest of my father?"
"No!" he looks like he the fabric in my face, instead balling it into a fist when I don't take it. "That's not what I'm saying! It just feels like whenever you get like this, all…huffy, we all just are supposed to leave you alone because that's Rose you know. But I'm so tired of it! Getting to meet her family is really important to Jade and I just want you to acknowledge that when you run away it hurts the rest of us too."
I freeze, staring at him under a wrong sky while the Pacific breeze draws goose bumps on my bare shoulders. "Do I…do this often?"
"As long as I've known you, yeah." There's a glare behind his moonlit glasses. "You just get all…cryptic, and when I ask what's wrong you say we wouldn't understand."
"Youwouldn't understand," I say. He raises an eyebrow. "…I see. I suppose that would get…frustrating to hear."
Here I thought I'd been so careful, so subtle, the all-seeing oracle as she watches the blind stumble about before her. It occurs to me now that if I encountered someone like that, I'd want to shove her down some stairs.
"Yeah well," he shrugs. "I think we've all gotten used to it."
That doesn't make me feel much better. I pinch the bridge of my nose, still trying to massage away the piercing headache. Discreetly, I attempt to open my mind, to learn more about my new guests, but there is an aching blockade in the way, even when I try to see them as they are at present. It could be because they're with my father—I've always found it difficult to see through the Void surrounding him—but it may simply be that I'm out of practice.
"…I apologize John," I say faintly. "I have been a bit…thoughtless."
I hear a long exhale. Finally, he slides closer to me, which I can tell he's been wanting to for a while now. He puts a hand on my shoulder. "It's okay, we get it. I just wish…" He stops, chewing on his lip the way he does when he's reconsidering. "If you have something to talk to us about, you can, and we'll listen. We know you've gone through a lot the past year, but we can't help until you talk to us. Whenever that is!" He puts his hands up in the universal no pressure! motion.
I think on that. I have been selfish, have been cowardly. There were three other players to this game after all. Maybe it's time I attempted to tell them the rules, and damn myself in the process.
"Thank you John," I say honestly. "I believe I needed that."
"…Someone to come talk to you?"
"I would say, to borrow a turn of phrase from Jade, a not insignificant kick to the rear."
John laughs, and I'm reminded—because only I in my tower of isolation could possibly forget—how much I love him. I owe it to them, all of them, because they mean just as much to me as this planet I've found myself on. I'll get the courage, I think, perhaps after I've had a few more glasses.
I tell John this, and he says, "I think maybe you should have a nap first…"
"Hm. Perhaps. Those beanbag chairs did seem to be calling me. I might yet convince them and Dave's butt to get a divorce."
He nods, returns my scrap of dress, and walks me back into the building.
I do tell them all, in the fullness of time. I stand in my kitchen of the (now) Lalonde household while John and Dave exchange their vows over a partially eaten box of greasy pizza. Dave crushes a red solo cup beneath his heel. The trend seems to be that Lalonde weddings degrade with every successive iteration, so if my father ever gets remarried, it's going to be in a cave in the middle of the woods in upstate New York.
When the apple juice is drunk and the pizza is devoured, my self-control frays and I blurt what has been wrestling inside me for months. If I am honest with myself—and let's face it, I often am not—then I would admit that this constantly warring uroboros has been swirling inside for longer than the past year. Maybe my whole life.
They stare at me at first. That's all they do, but I keep on talking and they keep on staring, and at one point Dave looks like he's about say something very Dave, but his new husband gives him a sharp elbow in the ribs. As the words spill over my lips, an unending torrent bubbling past black lipstick that's left a mark on my red plastic cup because I've been to nervous to remember to seal, a sob somehow sneaks past and escapes into the unmoving kitchen. I don't know where it came from; my eyes are dry, and I do not feel pained, at least no more than I have for the past forty-one years. It is that I am simply…overwhelmed. While I continue, Jade slides closer, and locks her fingers in mine over the kitchen table.
When I am done, I have no final flourish, no closing statement to convince them of my sanity. The words simply stop, and I am left staring at my only friends in the world.
The silence hangs, for a second, and then Jade refuses to let anything fill up the hollow place inside I where the words once sat because she wastes no time in saying, "I believe you Rose."
I do not sob again. I simply look at her, opened mouthed, taking in the unabashed honesty on her face. "You do?"
"Sure!" She's glowing as she looks at me, smile taking up her whole face, early onset crow's feet wrinkling. "I always knew something was weird. Something about me, and then when I met Dave, something about him. And then something about us! When we first starting all talking it felt…really really right. And I thought maybe that was just because I'd never had a group of friends before, but hearing you say all that stuff about Space and battleships…it feels like I already knew?"
Jade. Of course, how could I have ever discounted Jade? Jade was always more than just her aspect in the same way that John was, our guiding light, our team psychopomp. She read the clouds long before I wrote my first GameFAQ.
"That is…" Incredible. More than I could have ever hoped. I thought because there was no Game to see, that somehow it went unwitnessed. "Thank you. Jade."
She throws her arms around me, and now there is moisture under my eyes, and it is either the sentimentality finally coming to me in my old age or Jade is actually squeezing the life out of me. "No!" she says, "thank you! It's starting to like…finally make sense!"
And I finally look up through my misted vision to see that John and Dave are looking on in awe. John shifts, rubbing the back of his neck, and with the feeling of Jade around my neck I could almost convince myself that what he says doesn't matter as long as I have her. Almost. For a few minutes, if I tried.
"Um," he says, and blows a raspberry. He meets my gaze. "I guess I believe you too. I'm not gunna pretend I got Jade's thing of 'I totally knew it all along' but… I guess I figured something spooky was up with you. I think I thought that ever since we were thirteen and you started that witchcraft stuff."
"Wicca," I correct faintly, hardly daring myself to hear what else he's saying.
"And something spooky 's up with you too, mister!" Jade chimes in, releasing me. She gets up and pokes him in the chest. "You got to Groundhog's Day, windy boy!"
"Haha. Guess I did." He rubs the spot over his heart. I sympathize. Jade has very hard pokes. When he manages to look me in the eye, he says, "I don't know if I would have believed you if you told me thirty years ago but…I dunno. Life's been pretty weird. I guess it's easier to imagine a world where it was even weirder."
And for the first time I realize Jade isn't the only person I've stolen a character arc from. I can still see a sad young man in my mind's eye, one who stopped answering my pesters, and who I eventually stopped hearing from at all, so wrapped up in my own life was I. Maybe, possibly, I have judged this timeline too harshly. Because I don't know if John has ever been happier, don't think any Jade has ever made it off that island in time to not be scarred. Maybe the lesson I can take is that power is not the only currency for relevance, and even if the world does not contain her, it is still worth it.
On that last thought, my eyes land on Dave. My brother still has his hands in his pockets, that grim little coolguy frown on his face. I don't know how to ask him, but thankfully John saves me the hassle.
"So you've been weird and quiet," he says, and Dave…scoffs.
"Typical," he says, shaking his head. "Day of my wedding and somehow we've tuned into the Rose show."
"Dave!" Jade says, but I am not outraged. It has taken a long time, and I may yet never understand the full extent of my brother's psyche, but sometimes, I do know when he's bullshitting.
"I'm sorry brother," I say simply. "But you know I just can't abide the thought of you being the center of attention."
John is quite a bit more upset than me. "Dave! I told you we needed to be supportive!"
"Don't be a dick Dave," Jade agrees, crossing her arms.
He looks around the kitchen. "Well I guess I'm outvoted," he shrugs. "Guess we can democratically change reality to the one where we were superhero space god children."
"Dave," I say, and the force in my voice surprises even me. All three sets of eyes turn to me. "It's honestly fine. You don't have to believe me. I just thought you should know."
The only thing I want from him is to not pull away.
Because that's what I was always afraid of, wasn't it? Why I asked for separate rooms before he could beat me to the punch, why when he left the country I put him out of my mind entirely. I've always been worried that he'd do to me what I've always done to him.
He's staring at me, and for once I feel like we do share one twin-linked mind.
"Yeah, yeah, it's fine," he says, like it means nothing. "So I got a crazy sister, what else is new?"
Jade glares at him on the word crazy, but I tap her foot with my toe.
After the moment stretches with no one saying anything, Dave looks around at all of us and says, "I'm not. Trying to be a dick or anything. I just…I guys are treating me like I'm the weird one. Usually we at least gang up on John or something."
No one has a rebuttal to that. We are left standing in a very silent and very awkward kitchen.
"So," I say, "since I so rudely interrupted your wedding brother dear, might I make it up to I by lifting I and my groom onto some chairs?"
With no hesitation, he says, "You're damn right you can."
John and Jade exchange a look as I follow Dave into the living room, but I don't offer an explanation. It would take an entire memoir to elucidate my relationship with my brother, and I don't have that kind of time. Instead, I am simply happy to find myself surround by friends, and that the prospect of staying on this planet until my natural death no longer feels so horrible.