“Are you coming tonight?”
The words cut through the darkness of Jade’s room, illuminating her face as she reads them. She groans and looks out the window to the street below.
It’s from Claudia. Claudia has messaged her like this numerous times over the past month. Jade’s phone screen shows that it’s a very one-sided conversation but she’ll go anyway.
There is a chill in the air when she escapes her taxi. Her heels crunch the gravel to the entrance of Excentrique restaurant and bar. She’s on autopilot, her feet deftly weaving between the swarms of patrons to the place at the bar where Claudia always waits.
Her dark hair is in a braid down her back. It looks sloppy. The jewels on her dress glint in the cheap overhead lighting. It looks tacky. She doesn’t deserve her position. Claudia spins on her axis, her posture erect. Her red lips break into a grin.
Jade returns it instantly. “You look great.”
Claudia’s perfume envelopes Jade as she moves to hug her. It’s the new Chanel one. “Really? I tried something different.” She spins likes a small child on a sugar high.
“Me too.” She does not spin with her like she might have done before.
Claudia reaches for her head as she stops, her drink balanced in her hand the whole while. “Bad idea, oh, bad idea.”
There are plenty of drinks waiting on the bar top when they sit. Each one is a kaleidoscope of colours swirling into each other in crushed ice. These drinks are the pride of Excentrique. Drinking anyone of these drinks transports them to a new world. People have told stories of Candylands and Wonderlands. There have been lands that stretched as far as the eye could see, with lush green all around, soft under their feet. Where winds would sing them lullabies to sleep and wispy clouds of cotton would be their beds. Where the waters were blue—the bluest blue they had ever seen in their life—and the flowers—of colours that had no names on Earth—were sweet.
But there were also nightmares of worlds. People told stories of those too. Either way, the experience would last for a few hours, then they would return to this world.
Jade had never been to one of those worlds, the nightmare ones. Only the Candylands. She wished she could stay forever in them forever so she would not worry about expectations in this world. But there were rules attached to these drinks and breaking them could mean death and not the social suicide kind. At least that’s what Freddy, the owner, made sure to tell everyone.
Gabe, his real name, is a short, stout man, who looks like he has been in a slasher film. He claims he got his scars while travelling in one of those nightmare worlds and the wide-eyed look on everyone’s face when he tells them, makes it less a rumor and more an unconfirmed truth. No one really knows how Gabe created or found these drinks either. And since they don’t, his rules will be upheld.
“Alright, ladies.” He pops up from behind the counter like a magician. “Same rules as always. Absolutely no interfering—”
“Interfering in the worlds. Leave it as we found it. We know.” Jade reaches to the middle glass of purple and green.
Claudia catches her hand midway. “You just got here. Don’t you wanna have an actual drink first?” Her breath smells of cognac. She can afford that now.
She snatches her hand away. It lingers awkwardly between them before she rests it on her shoulder. “...No.”
“Do you wanna dance then?”
“Will you be like this the entire night?”
Jade lifts the middle glass swiftly, eyes locked with Claudia, and throws back the shot. It tastes like nothing.
Claudia only sighs and lifts a golden-hued glass. “Hope you find a good one.”
The paths to the worlds are always the same. On the outside, it seems like they have been swallowed by the atmosphere of the bar. On the inside, the journey to the new world leaves them free-falling into an abyss. It is a shift of consciousness that drives through space and time where they exit through a portal. If they were unlucky, they’d get travel sickness, but the beauty and serenity of the world once they arrived would cancel out all of that.
Jade lets the portal carry her away, eyes shut. It is a bumpy traverse, invisible forces fighting her the whole way. She suddenly body slams to the bottom of the pitch darkness, the only light coming in from the portal in front of her.
It has been raining in this world. Jade crab walks between precarious puddles and makeshift ravines that have formed. For a second, she is unsure what kind of world this is. The sky is blanketed with gray, but the trees are bare skeletons and the grass has matted into straw. It looks like it has not rained here in centuries, but it definitely has because Jade’s curiosity makes her lose balance. And these puddles have definitely not been imagined.
She lands face-first into the muck. “Ugh!” She sputters out the soil she swallowed. The mud coats her dress and legs and her heels get stuck. She is glad no one is around to see her.
“I know it sucks here, but we do still have running water,” a voice says, filled with laughter.
Jade whips around, her hair flinging water into her eyes. Both her hands shield her face from the girl in front of her. “Of all the worlds to go to.” She sighs and straightens her posture despite her position. “Where is this?”
The girl’s eyebrows, drawn in thick pencil, furrows. Then her expression brightens. “You’re one of them! The people who come every Cloudburst. We’ve been waiting years for another of you.”
“Cloudburst? Where am I?”
“Locide. Land of the Laudable. I’m Teiran, one of the Nobles.”
Jade scans over Teiran. Unless the word ‘noble’ has lost its meaning here, she is definitely not a noble. She is wearing clothes that Jade would have received as a Christmas present as a child. But the mismatched weather tells no lies.
“Show me around.”
There are plenty of buildings in Locide, but so far the only inhabitants seem to be Teiran. All of the buildings in the town are painted white except one. The largest circular building in the center of the town square is painted green. Music seeps out of its open windows. Teiran tells Jade that it’s the Nobles’ building, but she entertains none of her other questions.
Is there anyone else in this world?
Who do you think I am?
Why did you say it sucks here?
Why do the ‘Nobles’ dress so poorly?
Teiran stops abruptly upon hearing that. “You don’t have many friends, huh?”
Jade shrinks away from her. “I have plenty of friends.”
“You’re quite bossy,” she explains anyway, pushing Jade into one of the smaller white buildings. It smells faintly of burnt wood. “And pretty annoying.”
The better dressed of the two girls scoffs. “Why did you bring me here? And where is everyone?”
“You haven’t even told me your name.”
“Are you really a Noble?”
Teiran chuckles and moves to turn on a light. The room is like Jade’s apartment: tiny with nothing in it. She moves to sit on the dirt floor and urges Jade to do the same. Jade picks at the caked mud on her arm, nose upturned, and doesn’t sit. Sketches and writings form a mosaic on the walls. She can’t understand any of the burnt writings except ‘Cloudburst’. The beeping of a strange device in Teiran’s hand grabs her attention.
“What are your friends’ names?”
Jade looks puzzled.
“You won’t tell me yours. And you said you had plenty, so what are their names?”
“One isn’t plenty.”
She just runs her hand over the burnt ridges.
“My sister wouldn’t like you touching those.”
“Your sister lives here even though you’re a Noble?”
Teiran sighs. “I’m not actually a Noble.”
Jade looks at her, laughing. “You’d be the world’s most unenviable noble.” She stops at once. “Why are you pretending to be one?”
The device in Teiran’s hand beeps again, echoing in the empty space. It looks like a cellphone but it’s three times thicker. She glances at it then locks gazes with Jade.
“What’s Claudia like?”
Unsure how much time has passed or how much longer she has in this world, Jade finally slides down the wall of the room, onto the dirt. She has had quite enough of this world with its strange happenings. She drinks those magical drinks to leave her own world for a while, not bring it with her to this new one. Jade has no idea how to answer that question. Claudia is the best and the worst thing to happen to her in three years.
They had met when Claudia joined the fashion company where Jade worked. Jade was not one to make friends easily, especially not work friends, but the two had clicked. They were opposites though: Claudia thought it was acceptable to wear bell-bottoms and costume jewellery. It’s not.
Then, their acquaintance spilled outside of their work-life, where it was acceptable to tell each other their dreams. Dreams made possible by years of hard work to erase a family curse. Only to be usurped by a newcomer, whom Jade was supposed to be happy for. And she was.
Claudia is Jade’s light, with her positive—too positive—energy. Her encouragement. Her guide.
Her wrecking ball. A traitor. A viper.
But Claudia was well within her rights to be all that because when it had counted most, Jade had not been good enough, again.
So she tells Teiran all of that.
“Wow. It feels good to say that.” She exhales and laughs. She freezes, startled by the sound. Then, she starts again, the hearty sound filling the room.
Teiran has not said a word. She fidgets in the dirt, refusing to look at Jade.
A chill fills the room as the air splits into a portal. Both girls stand and stare into the darkness that stretches on and on.
“Already?” Teiran says, still not looking Jade’s way. She punches the buttons on the device hurriedly.
She stops, finally meeting Jade’s gaze. She drops the device. “I’m really sorry.”
Jade scraps her left side as Teiran pushes her to the ground. She steps into the darkness, which consumes her, and disappears as quickly as it was formed.
“No. No-no-no!” Jade’s chants make her a hyperventilating mess as she cradles her bleeding arm.
The creaking of the door interrupts her heavy breathing. “Teiran!”
An older girl appears, the spitting image of the one who had just disappeared. Only she has no eyebrows: they’ve been shaved off. She has an identical device in her hand. Jade gives her a full-body scan as she fully enters the room. Her clothes are homely, like Teiran’s, and covered in dyes and paints.
“She left me.” She sinks into the dirt, finally noticing Jade. “And she tricked you.”
“It’s Cloudburst today. One of you always comes then and we were supposed to leave together.”
“Why would you want to leave so badly?”
She points to her face, where her eyebrows should be. “I’m one of the Replacements. When one of the Nobles’ workers die, I take my place in society.”
Jade just stares at the girl, unsure of how to reply.
“It was my idea to trick one of you, too.” She scoffs. “I can’t believe this.”
Jade knew how she felt, sort of. The people that they told all of their secrets betrayed them. She would never see her friend again, neither would Teiran her sister. The two girls were so different but so similar. The true reality of her situation would hit Jade later on but right now, maybe they could sulk together.