How To Remove Kerosene From A Polyester Dress
rating: +30+x

Graphic depictions of abuse ahead. Proceed with caution.


30 days to the march.

30 days, and plans that could be made in 5. How hard was it? Get a pass, pick a date, march a bunch of concerned woman down the road and scream for your liberation from Big Pharma. That easy.

Who was Theresa kidding?

That was without the red tape. Without the FBI breathing down their backs. Moreover, without the Kosher Nostra or Triads, and the money invested into the game. Without a sick cat to take care of. And pettiest of all, the keystone piece of the mob wall, without even permission to smoke indoors.

Theresa hadn't been paying attention to Caryn, anyways. Might as well step out for a smoke.

Caryn's townhouse had a second floor balcony. The view wasn't all that good, unless you liked overlooking the wall of perfect little psuedosuburbia that defined decent BackDoor residentials, but the fact that she had a view was reason enough to be jealous. All in all, the perfect place to light up her e-cig and lose herself in the sting.

What was she doing? Theresa had jobs to apply for. Grant listings to sift through. Would she even be attending the march? What good does a march do, without something to prop it up? This felt like a game, something to pass the time as she waited for the flies to pick her apart. There had to be something more to this, something—

"Is everything alright, Feather?" Theresa hadn't heard Hellen coming up behind her. "You seem troubled."

Theresa groaned. Hellen couldn't leave Theresa to herself for two minutes? "I'm alright, Hellen. I just need some air."

Hellen hummed. "You seemed troubled, is all."

There she went again with that babying voice. Like Theresa was some delicate little thing that hadn't carried moose spray since she was 9. But it felt too genuine to even yell at, even if it was perplexingly out of character.

Theresa swallowed, and took another hit off her e-cig "Don't worry about me, really. I can take care of my own."

Silence, for a while, before Hellen made some… sound. "Alright. Well, call me if you need to, alright?"

Never, then. Not that Theresa was about to say that out loud.


28 days to the march.

There were so many things Theresa should have been able to put on her resume in a just world. There was managing a radical feminist art collective; too bad it went against dominant narrative (and maybe a few vandalism laws). She took care of a terminally sick cat; but then, caregiving was an expectation for women. Theresa had created a home lab out of spare parts with which she synthesized and examined a variety of useful chemicals; even so, what money did that make anyone?

Finally, Theresa could go on a date with some rich schlub as a trojan horse to getting a real job in her chosen field, giggling at every stupid joke and ignorant remark, playing the part of the pretty face, ignoring every red flag that screamed against this low-value insect, and not immediately vomiting the moment he was out of her sight.

It was what you needed to succeed in the modern world, and none of it was what an employer wanted you to tell them.

No, it didn't pan out this time. It never did.


"It's 24 days to the march, and you're asking me now?"

Caryn whistled over the phone. "Sorry, gurl1. Just, this is once in a year stuff! And mom's getting up there in age, so I gotta make the most of it, yeah?" She sighed. "You'll do fine, you'll do fine. It's a public access talk show, you can't screw it up."

"Are you— why me? I don't… I don't do talk shows. I manage events, I bring in recruits—"

"We all do that, though."

"Yeah, but I don't do talk shows. What if I flub, what if I make the Sisters look like a crowd of close-minded hosers? You're giving the chimp a gun."

"Come ooooooon, you'll do fine."

"And I can't even do that day, I have—"

"Damnit, sorry, I have to go? They need me out back." click

Theresa blinked, but stayed perfectly still otherwise, and the nascent "an interview that day" disappeared back down her throat.


"Hi, it's Theresa Petrucci. We're supposed to interview in 23… no, 22 days. Unfortunately, something… family emergency came up. I apologize, but I'll need to reschedule, if that's alright. Thank you, and again, I apologize for the inconvenience."

Theresa swallowed, and hung up.

Who was she kidding? She'd "worked" as an artist for six years. If she couldn't even keep a Saturday interview date, what business did she have expecting a callback?

Something tugged at her leggings.

Sharon mewled, climbing onto her lap and pooling herself into a loaf. She was bleeding, again, but as metal as that was, the Line of Sisters didn't need to be seen as a bunch of crazy freebleeders. But that was assuming Theresa had the energy to care.

Theresa sighed, gently petting Sharon's back. "What am I going to do with you, Sharon?"

Sharon yawned.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm sorry I'm not paying attention to you. It's," Theresa chuckled. "You try being a human. Running through hoops just to… just to feed you and the ones you love."

Sharon shifted onto her back, and Theresa tentatively rubbed her belly. "No, it's not fair to you. Feels like everything I do to get closer pulls me away. I promise I'll get the job soon, though. We'll be able to get you better medicine, more visits to the vet, more… more toys, I'm sorry I don't play with you enough… can you keep a secret, Sharon?"

Sharon purred through her tummy rubs.

"Thanks. I just…" Theresa swallowed. "You're better than all of them. Better than the Mafia, the academics… better than every dirty little TRA in this stupid city." Sharon kneaded Theresa's shirt. "Why'd they make you the sickly one?"

Rubbing became scritching. "They're the sick ones. Hide it under performance. Rotten. Rudderless. Scum. That's what living a lie does to you. But you're too stupid to lie to me. You're just a kitty. The sweetest little kitty in the world. You deserve to be healthy. They should be bleeding. They should be stumbling over dirty newspaper, crying and howling and sick, like they are on the inside.

"But that's it, right?" Sharon purred. "That's not how it works. They made it a game. One long monkey in the middle. Dance and dance and dance until you drop. Playing the longest-"

Sharon yelped, and scurried off of Theresa.


Theresa blinked, and look down to her hands to find a small spot of blood.

… this was going to bite into her savings.


"20 days." Theresa wobbled in placed. "20 days."

Nurse what's-her-face nodded, that disgusting sort of pseudo-sympathy, like she knew what Theresa was going through. "I know. It's not fair to you, and it's not fair to Sharon." She sighed, shuffling through her papers like she didn't know exactly what went wrong with Theresa's cat. "Hm. On the bright side, she's a little heavier than when you brought her in. Food going down?"

Theresa did something that was probably a nod. At the very least, Sharon hadn't been puking as much.

"Good, good. We'll need to do a few more treatments on Sharon, standard care. We'll call you when she's out, alright? I know the Jussila-Kahn across the street stocks some of the medicine. Shouldn't be too expensive, she's Masquerade-compliant."

The door behind the nurse was slightly ajar. There was so much medical equipment. Anyone would be envious.

But Theresa blinked, and left the examination room through the other door.


17 days to the Wombyn's March, and they had Theresa doing Scribe work.

It was boring and undignified. Sift through meeting notes, count attendance, do whatever bookkeeping was pawned off onto you by the treasurer. High School drama club, with more money at stake.

Theresa almost didn't notice that El had skipped the past two meetings.


"Hey El, it's Terry. Just checking in, see if everything's alright. You know, 16 days to the march and all. Feel free to call me if something's up."

Theresa hung up.


"Hey, uh, you doing alright? There's two weeks to the march and I haven't heard a thing. Here to talk if you need it."

Theresa hung up.


"…" What the hell was she doing? 12 days left and nothing but radio silence.

Theresa canceled the call.


10.


8.


6


5.


4.


Still 4.


Only 3.


3.


3.


3.


3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3—


"Heya, Terry! Look, I know it's 2 days before the march, but I still really need you to fill in for me on BackTalk With Toby Clark. Don't worry! Clark's sympathetic to the cause, and I've drafted a list of talking points for you to go over. They should be expecting you by 9 AM, and be sure to wear something nice. Thank you!"

… Theresa turned her phone off.


Tomorrow.

The march was tomorrow. All this chaos, all this running around and falling over.

And the march was tomorrow.

Maybe it was the pressure of knowing that. Perhaps it was the very real fear that Theresa could botch this appearance, killing the march before it began. It could even have been the stiff, awkward suit she'd stuffed herself into for the sake of the show. Regardless, what should have been PR fluff no longer felt like that.

Theresa very nearly wiped her brow with her free hand. As good as bareface was for optics, television required a modicum of makeup. You weren't presentable, otherwise, and even the tiniest slip before the show could set the tabloids against you. Certainly, it was why Theresa had chosen a back alley to vape.

Her watch said 9:13. Thirty-seven minutes left to get a grip.

Traitorous anxiety. Everyone at the studio had already been so nice, and Toby Clark wasn't one of those wretched "deplatform" fanatics. And what did a moderate know about radical feminism? Theresa would steamroll this.

So why did she feel so damn nervous?

Maybe… maybe she could weaponize this? She's a dissident. Against the Kosher Nostra and Triads, those criminal monsters who killed each other in the streets, smashed storefronts, kidnapped, mutilated, and poisoned children. Theresa wasn't the monster in the situation, right? So… so loathe as she was to be the weak one, this could serve her. Right?

Damn it. Theresa had always been a fighter, a rebel, someone who took charge of destiny. Playing to the victim would be just as much improvising as finding a way not to look like a bulldog feminist.

No matter, she'll just have to go with the flow.

Extinguishing her e-cig and putting it back into her coat pocket, Theresa put on her best smile and strode back into the studio.

Any normal person would have been immediately placated by the stupid smiles of the personnel there. Weren't they here to help? Did the secretaries not wish for everything to go smoothly? Did the crew not want engaging, guest-friendly television? This wasn't Springer.

So Theresa nodded back, parried small talk with small talk, answered the crewmates' questions, let everything just glide over her as she plotted her next course of action. Sure, she hadn't seen head or tail of Toby Clark, but maybe it took a while to get ready. She had seventeen minutes to plant her feet and load her guns; by all logic, she'd be f—

And Theresa found herself stopping in the middle of a back-stage hall, caught in the glare of someone she did not recognize.

To her left, leaning against the wall and staring daggers into Theresa, was a woman, black, about Theresa's age from the looks of it. The woman worse a dress Theresa might have expected to see at a Sunday brunch, rather than a TV studio. It was hard to tell if she was actually short or just shorter than Theresa; maybe Theresa was thinking too hard about the distinction.

Theresa blinked, turning to face the woman. "… is something wrong?"

The woman opened her mouth, only to spit at Theresa's feet.

Ah.

Theresa looked over the "woman" again, just to confirm her suspicions. The face wasn't right; neither was the frame. Not even getting into the gaudiness of the dress: looks like someone didn't know how to dress himself properly.

Another man lashing out unprovoked. The talking points wrote themselves.

Theresa hummed, suppressing the first genuine smile of the day. "Male aggression gets you nowhere, steer."

And Theresa walked away.

***

Theresa almost didn't notice that she hadn't seen Clark at all this morning. Certainly, she didn't care.

If everything before the encounter had been a haze, everything since was a breeze. Already, Theresa had blocked out the talking points, taking care to build up to the inevitable sob story over the intern. She'd be a bastion of bravery, vulnerable enough to confide her troubles but strong enough to overcome them. That Clark would most likely kick that intern to the curb was icing on the cake.

All she had to do now was sit around the green room and wait to be called on. Clark would do his monologue, Theresa would look for something to attach to, and then, at the flick of a light, Theresa would make her entrance to the stage and show the world exactly who the Line of Sisters were.

That stupid intern had no idea what he'd done. Theresa almost wanted to thank him! Who would have thought some brutish pervert would save the Wombyn's March?

Theresa checked her watch, and counted down every joyous second to apotheosis.

The green room's television flicked on, to some outdated 3D graphic Theresa couldn't have been happier to see. Next came some generic MIDI jingle, echoed distantly from the studio. Theresa had never been so excited for the inevitable and obligatory announcement.

"Coming live from the BackDoor,"

She could taste it.

"it's BackTalk with Toby Clark!

Something was going right.

"Here to back-talk with our honored guest, Theresa Petrucci,"

It all came down to this.

"your host,"

How delicious.

"Katrina Edris!"

… what?

The crowd cheered like the announcer hadn't made a mistake, a raucous applause that nearly drowned its own broadcast out. Then, from behind the curtain came—

No. Absolutely not.

That was the intern.

The intern washed himself into the applause, bathed in it like a narcissistic baby bird, exulted in the glory of a grave mistake. What right did he have? How could they let this happen? What happened to Toby Clark? He must have done something, that little weasel, and—

"Welcome! Apologies to those of you expecting Mr. Clark, little Wulan's recital had to be rescheduled."

… that was a woman?

Theresa had to steady herself. That was… men didn't have voices like that. You could always tell. You could always tell. But you… you could always tell! Why did she let herself trip up like that? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Katrina flashed a smile to the camera, like the barrel of a gun before a hostage. "How are we doing today? Maybe I spent too much time in the sound stage, but I'm seeing a lot of new faces in the audience."

Raucous cheering. What was happening?

Katrina went on with her monologue, but it was rain on the roof of a car. Flippant, do-nothing talk show jibes, to be bounced off the elephant in the room. Theresa had to improvise.

What was she going to do? The crux of her old piece was gone, dust in the wind of optics. She had to think, crawl through the talking points, the talking points, the talking points! All about the talking points! Confined to a beach and made to build a wall, bravo Caryn! Hope you have fun at the Wombyn's Gaggle, you inebriated louse!

A knock on the door. The green light was on. There was no time.

The walk to the edge of the stage passed in thoughtless eternity, an overwhelming fog that swallowed all sensation. And then, from the edge, Theresa saw Katrina, and burning clarity infested her once more.

"My next guest, funnily enough, is also an understudy." Was she grinning? Was she sneering? The tunnel vision wasn't enough. "Personally, I wouldn't have invited even the intended guest. But so go the laws of broadcasting."

The audience jeered at Katrina.

No. No, not at.

With.

"So," Theresa didn't need to see her grin; she could hear it. "Without further ado, lets give a warm, generous welcome to the "line of sisters"'s own Theresa Arianna Petrucci!"

The audience screamed. There was no way but forward.

This was going to hurt.

Theresa gulped, putting her best foot forward, forward, forward. The carpet felt shaky under her boots; her seat looked so far away. She shouldn't have turned to look at the audience.

Crowding the seats like peasants at a hanging was an audience Theresa had never seen, not in what little she watched of BackTalk. Where once were smug libfems and aging retirees teemed a gallery of threatening faces: bearded Hasidics with inflamed arteries; hooded women with eyes aflame; street robots with all-too-stiff skinpaint; red-clad figures that seemed to literally simmer; alt-rockers whose muscles imagined invisible bottles; clusters and clusters and clusters of the patriarchy's footsoldiers, here to rip Theresa's tongue from her dissident mouth.

And… and there was El. Sitting in the front. Eyeing Theresa like…

Theresa stumbled over her unseen seat, barely keeping herself off the floor while Katrina leered, daring her flee. For the sake of the march, that wouldn't be an option.

Theresa hoped and pleaded that the alternative was any better.

Katrina smiled. Sitting at her desk, she towered over Theresa. "Welcome, Ms. Petrucci. How are you doing?"

They're intimidating her into silence.

Theresa nodded. "Fine, fine. I don't… appreciate whatever was done to the regular audience, but I'm doing fine."

Katrina tilted her head. "And what was done to the audience?"

Theresa hoped she hadn't just licked her lips. "I mean… the audience isn't usually, uh…" She gestured to the audience, like one might at a snake rearing to bite. "… filled with the mafia."

"What an odd observation. What specifically makes you think they're mafia?"

"The… fact that… there's so many… just so many robots."

Booing.

Katrina sighed. It was the most honest thing she'd done all day. "Audience tickets are first come, first serve, and they can't be bought in bulk. If you're seeing 'so many robots', it's probably because 'so many robots' wanted to see the show. Really, Ms. Petrucci, you're fine."

Theresa shot another glance back at the audience. She didn't feel fine.

"Now," and Katrina made a show of straightening her papers out. "You're part of the "line of sisters", correct?"

That's Line of Sisters, capitalized and without quotation marks. "Yes, yes I am. We were—"

"Why did he platform you?"

Theresa blinked. "… what do you mean?"

Katrina chuckled darkly, shaking her head like Theresa had chewed up the curtains. "Maybe I'm digressing, but I can't understand why Clark would invite a hate group onto his show."

They're accusing her of rank bigotry.

Theresa grimaced. "We're not a hate group. We fight for the rights of all women."

"Interesting." Katrina leaned forward, resting her chin on her hand with an almost practiced ease. "You know, I've done quite a bit of digging leading up to now. In lieu of reading out your group's… sordid funding record, I'd like to give you a hypothetical. Consider it the formal opening question."

This was going bad.

Katrina straightened up, clearing her throat. "Recently, the Barnacle conducted a survey of LGBT Americans. Approximately .3 of respondants identified as some form of transgender or genderqueer; that's about 920,000 in total. Your organization's brands 920,000 people in America alone 'deluded perverts', and actively fights for their effective disenfranchisement. Is that—"

"If you're going to lie about the Line of Sisters, do it to someone else." It took all of Theresa's effort not to raise her voice. "The official position of the Line of Sisters, straight from a Big Sister herself, is that they're victims. They and every one of their defenders have been brainwashed by Big Pharma and billionaire elites into thinking that all their problems can be solved by, by self-mutiliation, poisoning, whatever. And, and they'll never get what they want, that's the tragedy, they'll just cut and—"

The audience screamed with palpable rage; possibly literally, how Theresa's body shook.

Again, Katrina cleared her throat. "As I was going to say, the Barnacle is an above-Veil news outlet. When Trip Through the Backdoor conducted the same survey, with the same methodology, across various American Free Ports, that number jumped to 10.7 percent. In the BackDoor alone, that number was 26.8 percent."

Theresa grit her teeth, steadying herself in her chair. "Impossible. I've walked these streets. I've seen the people. You can always tell."

Katrina blinked, then smiled. "Interesting you say that after calling me a 'steer' in the pre-show."

If not for the cameras, Theresa might have spat at Katrina's feet.

"Regardless," Katrina set her papers down. "It's generally thought that the BackDoor's demographics were influenced by its heavy Nälkän population, and particularly the Weilstedt."

"You're actually bringing up the mafia."

"Always a conspiracy with you. Have you considered you might just be wrong?" Katrina reached for something under her desk, and one of the floodlights descended from the rafters. "When I say 'Weilstedt', I mean the Judeo-Nälkän ethnic group, not any kind of syndicate."

So she was in their pocket.

Katrina continued. "Now, an important part of Weilstedt culture, and indeed, most Nälkän cultures, is the rejection of the gender binary. As I understand it, the first evidence of the male/female binary can be found in Daevite legal codes; as an aside, I understand the empire wasn't kind towards Judaism, either."

"Can't you be murdered for having anal sex in Judaism?"

Why was Katrina still smiling like that? "Now, many of the "line of sisters"'s art pieces target the Weilstedt specifically. Interestingly enough, despite their significant gender variance, most pieces portray them as a cabal of men. Men with… pretty particular appearances. So,"

Katrina turned to look directly into a camera. "What you are about to see is not endorsed or condoned by BackTalk with Toby Clark, nor BackDoor Public Access. It is presented purely as evidence of the Line of Sister's attitude towards vulnerable communities."

There was a click, and the floodlight began projecting something onto the curtain behind Theresa. The crowd was silent.

A violent chill blew through Theresa. She almost didn't turn around.

Projected onto the curtain was an art piece by Robin. It depicted a group of Weilstedt mobsters, overlain by a background of shadow, menacing a group of children in the foreground. It made sense at the time, to make the children blonde, and the Weilstedt…

They're making her out to be a Nazi.

"Now, what does this—"

"Are you serious?!"

Theresa nearly toppled the chair standing up as fast as she did, but the projector's glare nor the shadows off-stage could scare her into submission right now.

"This is a sham!" Theresa growled, turning back to the intern's desk. "Where's Toby Clark?! Where's your integrity?! Where in the broadcast code are you allowed to slander me and my organization?!"

That slimeball intern blinked, like she didn't know what she'd just done. "Ms. Petrucci, are you alr—"

A sudden thud cut her off as Theresa's fist found the surface of her desk. "Don't act like you don't know! First these, this sheer disrespect you've shown for me, your guest! Is this how you treat a guest? Is this that famous Toby Clark hospitality?"

And that bitch had the nerve to furrow her brow. "I… didn't invite you on? From the start, I'd been petitioning the network to drop—"

"But it's not enough for you to insult me, right? I have to be a Nazi!" Theresa spat upon Katrina's desk. "Is everyone who disagrees with you a Nazi?! Sure, my feminist philosophy goes perfectly with National Socialism! They loved women!"

Typical, ignoring Theresa's question in favor of wiping down her desk. "I mean, I didn't call you a nazi, but between that drawing and—"

"There it is again!" She couldn't face that lying rat anymore. Theresa stormed over to the front of the stage, and hoped every single mob-bankrolled goon caught her death glare. "Shame on you. All of you! Everyone roped into this, this hit piece! Every one of you spits on actual Holocaust survivors with your lies!"

The crowd booed. Let them boo.

"You think can silence me like that?! Who's intimidating the lone voice of dissent? Who's the real Nazi?" Theresa spat over the stage. "All of you make me sick. Every last one of you is an enabler, and if there were any justice in the world you'd all be—"

And that's when it hit her.

Theresa stopped. Covering her was something thick, wet, viscous. Paste-like. Seeping down her skin, into her clothes. Dripping from an errant piece of burst red rubber. Red. It caked her front, her right. Splattered like a spilt drink. Theresa sniffed.

Tomato paste.

Theresa barely noticed the grey blur in her tomato-stained peripheral, climbing onto the stage. Barely processed that feminine "Thanks for nothing, Anita Bryant!". Hardly took note of the security-shaped blurs that tackled it to the ground.

The crowd was screaming again, less in scorn, more in the manner of a wrathful storm. Jumping in their seats, frothing at the mouth, calling for a reckoning. It was just so far away.

El. There she was, getting out of her seat and making her way to the exits.

It'd been so long since she talked to El.

Theresa stumbled off of the stage, to reunite with El. She had to talk to El. Nothing else mattered. El was her student. El was her friend. El was a worthless traitor who couldn't cut back on the chocolate without the help of a memetic hazard. El was everything.

Something grabbed her arm, repeated its "oh no"s, cried condolence in a Hellen-like intonation. That didn't matter. Theresa yanked her arm away and continued forward; she had to talk to El.

El looked back, and hurried her egress. She had so much to learn.

The two of them emerged from the studio. El really thought she could get away with such stubby legs. Silly, silly, El.

Theresa took hold of El's arm. "Hi, El." She tilted her head. "Did you enjoy the show? I'm sorry it wasn't Caryn. She had business to attend to."

El said nothing; whimpered, maybe. She had much to learn.

"Are you hungry, El? Am I making you hungry?" Theresa gaze drifted down to El's canvas bag. "You should eat. A growing girl like you needs every calorie she can get. My car's nearby; I can take you anywhere in the city that would have me. Wouldn't that be nice?"

Theresa didn't wait for an answer, dragging El along the street, as far as possible into that tomato-covered mist. When did BackDoor SoHo get so claustrophobic? Were its residents always as considerate as they were now, stepping out of Theresa's way? Was the artificial sun always so hot?

There. A sit-down pizzeria. Perfect.

Theresa threw the door open, made her way to the front desk. "Table for two, please."

Why did the receptionist look at her like that? "M-ma'am, are you—"

"I'm fine. Table for two, please."

The receptionist gulped, passed her two menus, cringed when Theresa smiled back. No matter. Theresa took the menus and found a nice, comfortable table. El would love it. Theresa's treat.

Theresa settled into her booth; after some encouragement, El did the same. She looked so nervous. Tried to hide her canvas bag.

Theresa tilted her head. "Did you enjoy the show? I'm sorry it wasn't Caryn. She had business to attend to."

El scratched at her head. "It was fine, I guess." A pause. "I'm sorry, Terry, I—"

"What do you have to apologize for? You stuck with me against the mob. Cheered me on when no one else would. Abandoned me for a month. Came to support me on live television." Theresa reached into her coat pocket for her e-cig, twirling it in her fingers. "What more could I ask of my favorite student?"

"I'm… Terry, I just… I'm sorry." Theresa stuck the e-cig in her mouth. "I had… there was college. And my broth— my sister. There just wasn't time. And I was afraid I'd… disappoint you, so—"

Theresa spat the e-cig in El's face, and El yelped. There was little more to say.

The waiter that approached their table looked just as much like a kicked puppy as everyone else. "Hello. Welcome to… welcome to Spicy Crust Pizza. Just a note, we don't allow—"

"I'll have a salad. Have you met my friend, El?" Theresa gestured to her friend, El. "It's her birthday. I'm sorry you had to catch her smoking, she's just very excited. I hope you can forgive her."

The waiter paused, mouth slightly agape, licking his lips before he next responded. "Th-thank you for not smoking. Will-"

"What's the meatiest pizza you have?"

"P-pardon?"

"What's the meatiest pizza you have?"

The waiter gulped. "That's, uh… if you mean the most meat? I… that'd be the D-dinosaur's Delight. Will you be—"

"El will have the Dinosaur's Delight, in the largest size available. She'll also have a chocolate shake, again in the largest size available." Theresa looked back to El, practically buried in the plush of her booth. "El's been starving herself for this meal. She should be proud to have earned a cheat day."

Theresa smiled, and El cringed further into her seat. "Don't be so uptight, El. It's your birthday. You deserve a day to yourself, where you get to eat whatever you want no matter what that stupid fucking magazine said about you."

"It's… it's not my—"

"You're lying to me again, El." Theresa steepled her fingers, elbows on the table. "You're lying to me again. Why? You can tell me anything, El. You can tell me why you haven't been to a single Line of Sisters meeting since last month. You can tell me why you haven't returned a single call. You can tell me why, when I ordered you to throw that magazine away, you not only lied to me, not only cut your favorite mentor out of your life, but kept it with you. Carried it around like a good luck charm. Like it'd ward me away.

"But," and Theresa reached over to pinch El's cheek. "I forgive you. I really do." El winced, but Theresa kept pinching. "And despite everything you put me through, I'll always be with you, El. We're all. We. Have!"

El yelped, swatting Theresa's fingers from her now bleeding cheek. She looked like she was about to cry, but what reason did she have to cry?

"Everything I do, El?" Theresa leaned in. "I do it for you. Not me, not Caryn, not anyone in the world but you, El. So if you've any compassion in your big, beautiful heart? You'll show me exactly what's been keeping us apart."

El paused, like she actually had to think about what to do next. Then, slowly, steadily, Ella "El" Romero reached into her bag, retrieving something unseen, and slowly, steadily passed it to Theresa under the table.

Just Girly Things Magazine.

This month's edition.

Theresa smiled, pulled out her wallet, left $50 on the table, and left the pizzeria. Then she made her way back to her car, powered on her GPS, set a course for Williamsport, and drove.

When Theresa looked in the rearview mirror, she saw the propane cannister in the backseat, and laughed until she could barely breathe.


Theresa knocked the door open with the propane cannister.

Everything had to go. The furniture had to be crushed. The wires had to be cut. The nightlights had to be smashed open. The electronics had to be destroyed. The mannequins had to be killed. KeeLee and Mrs. Schaeffer had to be taught a lesson.

Theresa picked up a dainty chair, smashing it against the wall until it was little more than torn wood. One of the back supports, a column of sturdy pastel wood, was reasonably intact. It'd have to do.

Picking up the support, Theresa swung for the nearest nightlight. The plastic bulb folded inward, but didn't shatter; but that was no matter. This house had far more important things in need of breaking.

The speakers clicked on, a dissonant drone like microphone feedback.

Theresa dropped to her knees, taking hold of the wires snaking the floor and pulling as hard as possible. Some of the speakers went silent; others droned on, on and on and on. Even so, if that was the best JGT could do then it wasn't enough.

The dining room. Theresa knocked the mannequin over and stomped on its face until it no longer looked like a face. It creaked and hummed and groaned, until it didn't.

As Theresa made her way into the kitchen, the droning increased, became a kind of electronic screech, like the house itself was screaming in pain. Let it scream, try to drown out the sound of Theresa smashing every bit of glassware she could find. She'd leave the house just as broken as it tried to leave her.

The fridge, she barred shut.

Theresa's head buzzed as she made her way into the living room. The speakers were getting too loud. When did it get so dark? When did it get so hot?

Theresa groped for wires, cables, anything that could have plugged or plugged into a speaker. They were loud. All-encompassing. Too loud. Stuck on the precipice between inhuman and uncomfortably human. So, so loud. How did they get this loud?

She almost didn't hear that squeaking, like plastic on plastic.

Theresa turned around. Every mannequin that had previously lounged around the furniture now stood up, twitching like old washing machines. She barely had time to dodge the first's lunge, and not enough time to dodge the second.

Theresa elbowed the mannequin in the stomach, but it didn't move. She kicked at the shins of the approaching third, but it got up again. Tried to get her fingers in the eyes of the fourth, but all she found was smooth plastic. Screamed for them to let her go, but she couldn't talk down a mannequin.

And besides, the speakers screamed back louder than Theresa ever could.

The mannequins forced her into kneeling, folding her torso over her shins, keeping her chin to the floor. Two hands attended to her eyelids, made her face the upended TV.

And then the TV turned on.

Pink. Waves of pink and pink, squares of pink and pink, innumerable patterns of pink on pink on pink. If the speakers screamed, such was their face, an ever-shifting collage of pink, a mosaic of color and light that hated Theresa on an impossibly personal level.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

"You think can silence me like that?!", screamed a Theresa that wasn't Theresa. It glared at the camera — at Theresa — with a face borne of melted paint and uncompromising hatred. "you make me sick." "you" "are" "an enabler, and if" "this" "is" "how" "a Big Sister" treat" "s" "me" "as" "a guest?" "the Line of Sisters" "'ll never get what" "it" "want" "s"

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

Melty-faced monstrosities attended every sub-Veil news network Theresa could think of, and then some. Each screamed in indignation or fury or mirth or condescension or disappointment or disgust; beside them, windows, to Theresa, to the intern, to Robin's cartoon, back to Theresa.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

The audience from BackTalk looked back at Theresa. Their eyes were censored; cycling through the bars were lines from Theresa's resume.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

An apartment, so similar to the one Theresa lived in, sat in the distance. The door was open.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

Dogs, men, and infections mauled cats that looked like Sharon.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

The walls were pink now.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

So much pink.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

It's too loud.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

Make it stop.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

Make it stop.

The speakers screeched, and a burst of static changed the scene.

Make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop make it stop please make it stop make it stop—

Theresa hadn't noticed that the screeching had stopped until she was too hoarse to keep screaming, hadn't realized her teary eyes had been allowed to close until she opened them again.

On the television screen, standing in that familiar pastel bedroom, was Mrs. Schaeffer. She looked… Theresa didn't know what she thought Mrs. Schaeffer looked at her like. All she knew was that Mrs. Schaeffer was looking at her.

Mrs. Schaeffer sighed. "My apologies, Theresa. If I had known it would have come to this," She shook her head.

Theresa tried to reply, but all that came out was a weak sob.

"You deserve better, Theresa. Better than what Ms. Edris gave you. Better than the field you've been forced into. Better than what KeeLee deemed your punishment."

Slowly, gently, the mannequins pulled Theresa to her feet, leading her down the hall and towards the stairwell. At its base were two more mannequins, trailing thin wires from the second floor. Each took her into a gentle, two-person bridal carry, hoisting her up the stairs, down a hall, into a darkened bedroom.

The empty picture frames lit up with the image of Mrs. Schaeffer. "When I look at you, Theresa, I see a woman denied her potential by the ungrateful fools that surround her. Tomorrow, it would be my greatest pleasure to lend you whatever assistance you wish in the pursuit of your perfect self."

The mannequins laid Theresa into an impossibly comfortable bed, and laid beside her. Then, two more. Two more. More, and more, and more, until Theresa could do naught but lie still in bed.

"But for now, get some rest, Theresa."

And Theresa slept.

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