“Hey, Baby-Cakes!” Callie Baros cooed as she peeked into the bathroom of her student apartment that she shared with three other sophomores where Cake Flores was doing their hair. “Can you please not use so many electric appliances at once? Thank you~”
“Hey, Callie~” Cake said in an imitation of Callie’s voice, “Can you not call me Baby-Cakes? It’s not my name, Cake is.”
“Sure thing, BC. And remember to unplug.” She winked, then left.
Cake rolled their eyes, then plugged in an extra hair dryer and turned it on just to spite Callie—bringing the total amount of running electrics to five in one outlet. The hair dryer wasn’t even theirs. It was Malvin’s. But they were just so sick of Callie trying to control everyone and everything in their apartment. They all paid rent in four equal ways, so they have equal say.
Besides, what was the worst that could happen from a few appliances being used at the same time?
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Malvin Miles and Chen Jui-en weren’t having any luck getting along either. In one hand, Malvin held a blunt, in the other was a huge packed up tent. “Jui-en, don’t put your stuff in my room.”
He shoved the camp gear at Jui-en. Jui-en pushed back. “I already told you, it’s not mine. It belonged to the previous tenants.” He coughed. “And stop smoking. That stuff irritates my lungs.”
Malvin took a puff and blew it out. “You just need to get a taste for the finer things in life, Jui-en. Let me teach you.”
Malvin grunted. “Fine. Just take your stuff and stop making so much noise at night with your wood splicing things.”
“I already work two jobs, the night is the only time I can make my wooden sculptures for class—”
“Hey hey hey,” Callie cheered as she walked in upon hearing the sounds of conflict. “What’s going on here?” Her eyes gazed over the crusted dishes beside the sink. “Hey hey hey. Who didn’t put their dishes away?” Callie eyed Malvin.
“What? It wasn’t me.”
“Mal, you’re the only one in this apartment who puts chocolate sauce on pasta and eats it? When was the last time you had a vegetable?”
With a sigh, Callie pulled out a notebook out of her bag and flipped to a color coded calendar. “Again, I offer a rotating cooking schedule that we contribute to with pre-agreed upon healthy meals to ensure—”
“No,” Everyone in the apartment said in sync. Even Cake from the bathroom—who couldn’t hear her—felt it in their gut and called it out.
Frowning, Callie pushed the notebook back into her bag. Her nose crinkled at an unfamiliar smell in the air. What was that? It smelled like something was burning... “Baby-Cakes,” she exclaimed as she dashed towards the bathroom.
Locked in eye contact with their reflection while applying a blend of yellow, white, purple, and black eyeshadow, Cake didn’t notice Callie or the smoking outlet. “Baby-Cakes, the outle—”
Sparks flew as Callie tackled Cake to the ground to protect them. The apartment’s power blew out, but worse: Cake’s eyeshadow was smudged.
“What the hell, Callie?” Cake demanded as they shoved Callie off them. “What happened to the lights?”
In between short, rapid breathes, Callie tried to explain. “The appliances… the outlet… the lights… the fuses… the fuses…”
With a calmer voice, Cake said, “Just take deep breaths.”
The boys’ footsteps thudded up to the bathroom’s door. “What happened?”
“I like I blew a fuse or something,” Cake said.
Jui-en pulled out his phone and walked to a quieter space. “I’ll call the landlord. See how it’ll take to get fixed.”
Malvin started puffing his shirt rapidly. “Does it feel hot in here? What’s going on with the AC? Does it feel hot in here?”
Popping back in, Jui-en said, “The landlord said he’s calling a handyman now, but it’s gonna be a few hours. Might even take the whole night. The power’s out for the whole building. Local hotels are all booked too. Most kids are going to stay with their local family or their friends’ local family. Things are gonna get pretty hot tonight.”
“Man, I don’t have anyone I can stay with near here,” Malvin whined, the weed amping up his usually calm nerves. “I’ve gonna get baked in this apartment like an oven.”
“You’re already baked,” Cake said.
“Oh, haha yeah.”
They rolled their eyes.
“What about all the camping gear the previous tenants left? It’ll be cooler outside. This building is designed to keep heat in.”
“Camp gear…” Callie echoed. “Camp gear!” She snapped back to reality with a new fire in her eyes. “Yes yes yes, that’s a great idea, Ju-Ju.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Callie continued. “There’s a little forest behind the apartment complex. We can all go camping together like a family.”
“Okay,” Callie wiped the sweat from her forehead and took a step back to admire her work—a half-standing four-person tent at the edge of the forest. “I think I did it. Thank the Youtube Gods.”
Cake gave it a light poke and the entire thing came crashing down. “Nice work.”
Her expression dropped into a frown. “Why would you do that?”
“‘It was either going to collapse now or later with us inside. I choose now.” They checked their watch.
As Callie struggled to untangle her mess of a tent, she asked, “Why do you keep checking your watch?”
“I made some mocha-pecan ice cream bonbons and according to the internet, they’ll melt in a couple of hours. A fridge without power can only keep them cold for so long.”
“Ooh ooh ooh! Sounds tasty. Who are they for?”
Cake struggled. “Just myself I guess.” They shot Callie a glare. “But definitely not you and your stupid nicknames.”
As they walked away, Malvin came running from the forest with a huge pile of sticks and a look on his face that sent a bad feeling directly to Callie’s stomach. “Ah, Mal? What are you doing?”
“I’m gonna make a huge bonfire.”
“Are—Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Callie’s knees wobbled under the weight of the tent. “I thought you were too hot earlier? Plus, we need a permit for a bonfire and I really don’t want to get kicked out of this ap—”
He waved her off. “Psst. It’ll be fine.”
Before Callie could counter, she buckled and the tent buried her alive.
Callie’s blood boiled. The only question was: was it from being under a super hot tent or from the incredibly frustrating evening?
One person took mercy on Ms. Control Queen and Jui-en pulled her out from under the tent after finding her flailing under it five minutes later. She gulped in the cooler-by-comparison-only air. “Thanks, Ju-Ju.”
“You can thank me by not calling me that.”
Instead of replying, Callie’s entire attention span was taken up by Malvin’s huge, on-the-verge of out of control bonfire. Her eye twitches and her gut worried for her security deposit. Before she marched over there, Callie took a few calming breaths and put on her happy smile.
“Hey hey hey, guys,” she cheered as she walked over. “I don’t think we’re allowed to have this bonfire.”
“It’s cool.” Malvin dipped a fresh blunt in the fire and lit it. “I gave the landlord a few ounces and he’s chill with it.”
Her smile unnaturally stretched further across her cheeks like she was trying to sub out irritation for smiles. “Great. That’s just great.”
Malvin patted the ground beside him. “Take a seat.”
Reluctantly, Callie took a seat beside him. Cake was already sitting around the bonfire and Jui-en soon followed.
Callie’s smile softened a little. “Hey hey hey, look at us. All here together like we’re at summer camp.” She clapped her hands. “We should play a game together.”
“...ah…” Cake began, but Malvin cut her off.
“Truth or dare.”
“Truth or dare it is,” Callie said. “Umm… Malvin, truth or dare?”
“Oh oh oh, I dare you to talk in a British accent for the rest of the game.”
“Alright, guv’nor,” he said in a British Accent. “Cake, truth or dare.”
“Take a puff.” Malvin handed them his blunt.
Callie piped up, “I’m not sure that’s a go—”
Before she could finish, Cake gave the idea a careless shrug and took a puff. “Ugh, that tastes like a weird, smoky fruit.”
“I know, right?”
Cake rubbed their hands together. “Callie,” they said with a devious smirk, “Truth or dare.”
“Dare,” Callie said eagerly.
“I dare you to never any of those terrible nicknames ever again.”
Her face fell. “...what?”
“Oh yeah,” Jui-en jumped in, “They’re just awful. We tell you we hate them—”
“I don’t mind,” Malvin added.
“This isn’t about you, Malvin,” Jui-en said, “Cake and I don’t like ours. Why do you insist on calling us them?”
Callie shifted uncomfortably. “Well… you see… the thing is…”
“Just spit it out already,” Cake said.
“I always say friends and family calling each other nicknames on TV and I thought if I called you guys nicknames we could like start our own family…” Her voice softened to an embarrassed whisper at the end. “I’ve just never really had a family, okay? I’ve just been surfacing from foster family to foster family until they aged me out of the system. I thought this could be my chance… I’m sorry.”
“I pick truth,” Cake said, taking the attention off Callie as her eyes became puffy. As much as they and Callie didn’t see eye to eye, Cake still didn’t like seeing the girl on the verge of tears anymore while everyone stared at her slack-jawed by her sudden burst of honesty.
“No one asked you—” Malvin began, confused.
Cake ignored him. “What’s the biggest lie I tell myself, you ask? That my parents kicked me out for being ace and nonbinary when in reality I came out as ace a long time before coming out as nonbinary, but they never excepted it as a ‘real thing’. Only after they found out I was nonbinary did they decide they hated me and kicked me to the curb.” They gestured their hands to the fire. “And now it’s all out there. Let the flames consume it and burn that stupid past to the ground. Honestly, I’m over not being over it.”
“Truth,” Jui-en said. “My parents didn’t approve of me majoring in art so they cut me off. I work two jobs just to survive on top of my increasing college debt.” He threw a stick in the fire. “Let it burn.”
After finally catching on to what the others were doing, Malvin joined in. “My parents were the strictest growing up and they always fought. I switched coasts just to get away from them and get a taste of freedom. I’m never going back.” Without thinking, he tossed the joint in. “Burn.”
All four of them stared at the flames as it gently crackled, letting the weight of each others’ words set in. The reasons why they agreed to camp together even though they didn’t always get along. They didn’t have a choice.
“So…” Callie said slowly as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “We’re all on our own, huh? Without a family?”
“You could say that.”
“And, we’ve been bad roommates to each other, too, even though we’ve been struggling with the same thing,” Callie said.
“‘You could say that.”
“You know what that means?” Cake asked.
They picked up a log and chucked it into the bonfire. “We get to fucking burn things out of suppressed teenage angst!”
Malvin leapt up from his spot. “I’ll get beers!” And sprinted back into the apartment complex.
The course of the next four hours looked a little something like this…
“DRINK! DRINK! DRINK! DRINK! DRINK!”
Slurs, “Do you think the fire will hurt if I touch it?”
Five seconds past…
“Ow. Haha, yeah it does!”
Callie slowly caressed Cake’s face. “Your eyeshadow is just so pretty. Your parents are idiots.”
“No, you’re pretty and your parents are idiots.”
“They’re not idiots, they’re just dead.”
“Ooh yeah.” They glanced over at Malvin stacking a pyramid of beer bottles. “Hey Malvin, you’re pretty too!”
“Your eyelashes are so long and luscious!”
“I got the mocha-pec… ahhh, what were they called again?” Cake asked. “Never mind. I got the ice cream balls.”
“ICE CREAM BALLS!” The rest screamed.
Jui-en stretched his arms over the other three. “I love you guys so much~”
“We love you too!”
“Hey hey hey.” Callie pointed at their lit-up apartment building. “The power’s back on. Should we go inside?”
“Nah, my guy.”
“Let’s drink ‘til dawn.”
The next morning, they woke up to the biggest hangover of their lives in their heads and the biggest smiles of their lives on their faces. “Oh, issa you…” Callie whispered as she smooshed Cake’s make-up smeared face with her hand.
“And issa you.” Cake put their hand on Callie’s face and they both laughed.
It took the entire day for their hangovers to recover enough for Jui-en to use his wood-carving machines without everyone protesting out of pain. When he did, he went right to work on carving a new place to put on the apartment’s door. Once it was done, the four roommates gathered outside the front door to hang it. The plaque read: The Baros-Flores-Miles-Chen Family’s Apartment.
“So I can keep calling you the nicknames?”
“No, Ju-Ju’s gotta go-go.”
“The same with Baby-Cakes.”
“Mal’s cool though.”
They worked for that plaque as their new bonds grew. As they rented a new storage space for the camping gear. As Malvin finally did his dishes and smoked outside only. As Jui-en sound-proofed his room. As Cake learned to limit their running electric appliances. And as Callie finally learned to be less controlling.
Before they knew it, they had earned that plaque on their front door. And without a doubt, that night, was the start of their found family.