From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

The Code for Everything

Izzy hugged her knees to her chest, her stomach a tight ball of humiliation. She was out on the verandah, sinking into a saggy floral couch. The city was doing its ridiculous Melbourne-summer thing, where the night was hotter than the day, and heat radiated off the asphalt in waves. She’d left the party to “get some air,” which was code for “cry where no one can see you.” You had to know the code for everything, that was important.

Izzy had prepared for the party like a general preparing for battle. Strategies examined, analysed, selected. The Facebook invite said “starts at seven,” so she would arrive at eight. Not falling for that one again. She would compliment people on the right things: shoes, nail polish, haircuts. She would ask the right questions: What are you studying? What do you like best about it? She would make eye contact, or look at the spot between people’s eyebrows when eye contact got overwhelming.

But it had all fallen apart. Again. She wiped her eyes with the cuff of her borrowed flannel shirt.

A black cat jumped on the couch beside her. She reached out to pat it, and it reared back, looking affronted.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to touch people you’ve just met?” the cat said.

Izzy stared, processing frantically. But people think you’re weird if you talk about a different thing when they ask you a question. So she said: “Lots of times. Even if they’re wearing something fuzzy or shiny and you really want to. But I thought it was different for cats.”

The black cat’s ears flattened back on its head. “I don’t know why you’d think that. Have you seen Midnight anywhere around here?”

“I think it’s only ten.”

“Midnight the cat, not midnight the time. White fur. About my length. Fluffier tail.”

“I haven’t seen any other cats.”

The black cat gave a huff of annoyance. “She must have got lost. Every damn time, I swear. Now she’s late, and that means you’ll be late, which means offending faeries, which is never good.”

Izzy had no idea what to say to that, but for once in her life she was sure a regular person wouldn’t either. “How come you’re not called Midnight?” she tried.

The cat turned its yellow eyes towards Izzy. “Because my name’s Noonday. How come you’re not called Midnight?”

“Because . . . my name’s Izzy?”

“I was told Isobel, but close enough,” said Noonday. He eyed her smudged make-up, her red eyes. “Lord, look at the state of you. What’s got you so upset?”

When Izzy didn’t have a script for a social situation, she defaulted to being honest.

“There’s a . . . look people give you, when you’ve done something weird. Something that everyone else just magically knows you’re not supposed to do.”

“Probably not magically, but go on,” said Noonday, settling onto his bitumen-black forepaws.

“It’s like . . . confusion, and pity, and what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-you, all at once. Everyone was giving me that look before I’d even opened my mouth, so I knew something must be wrong with my outfit. But I didn’t know what was wrong. It’s all clothes I’ve seen other girls wear at parties. I thought I looked pretty. Then Annika got there, she’s in my geoscience course. She always goes out of her way to be nice to me.” Izzy pressed her fingertips into her brow bone, the pressure a comfort. “But she still gave me the Look when she saw me.”

“Oh, sweetheart. Here, come with me.” Annika grabbed Izzy’s hand and pulled her into one of the bedrooms.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to go in here,” Izzy said.

“We’ll just be quick. Did you bring a jacket?”

Izzy shook her head.

“No worries.” Annika took her flannel shirt off, leaving a black band t-shirt underneath. She passed the flannel to Izzy. “Put this on. You can wear a short skirt or a low-cut top, but both is too much. It’s just a dinner party.” Annika buttoned the shirt up to Izzy’s collarbone, then pulled it smooth. “There. You look great. You can give it back to me in class.” She gave Izzy a quick smile and led her out of the bedroom.

“I was trying to dress fancy, but it ended up slutty, I just . . .” Izzy’s face burned. “I keep thinking of everyone who saw me before Annika did, what they must have been thinking.”

“They were probably thinking about how you dressed wrong,” said Noonday.

Izzy looked at him sideways. She couldn’t tell if he was trying to be mean or helpful.

“And then there was the jam,” she went on. “The invite said ‘bring something to eat.’ I wasn’t sure what to bring, but I love apricot jam, so I brought a jar. Everyone likes jam, right?”

Noonday gave a non-committal mew.

“The jam was wrong. I knew it as soon as I saw Simon’s face. He said thanks, but in that way that trails off at the end. Then he looked around, like he was trying to figure out what to do with it. Later I saw he’d opened the jar and put it out on the table with the crackers and the hummus and the chunks of salami on toothpicks. No one had touched it. Every time I came over to get food, someone would say, ‘who brought jam?’ and I had to act like I had no idea, like, how embarrassing for that person.”

“You should have brought baby birds,” said Noonday confidently.

“Or sardines,” suggested a white cat with a fluffy tail, approaching out of the darkness like the rising moon. She jumped up beside Izzy. With a white cat on one side of her, and a black cat on the other, Izzy felt sort of mythic. Like a figure on a tarot card.

“Time to go,” said Noonday.

An arc of electricity leapt between the two cats, forming a crescent over Izzy’s head. The world flashed white.

• • • •

Noise smashed into Izzy like a wave: clattering metal, sizzling oil, and shouting layered over more shouting. She looked around. The stainless steel benches, the rows of gas burners and sinks, the rubber matting on the floor. She was in a restaurant kitchen, she’d seen them in TV shows. A flame flared up a metre into the air, and the smell of burning sugar hit her nose.

She was sitting on an upturned milk crate, the hard plastic digging into her butt. The cats sat on either side. A woman with a messy ponytail and forearms striped with old burns was yelling at Noonday. “It’s well past ten, how is she supposed to learn everything in time? Your reckless attitude—”

“How is shouting at me helping?” Noonday interrupted.

The woman paused. “Right, right. You’re right.” She raised a menacing finger. “Later, though.”

She turned to face Izzy.

“Izzy, yes? Don’t answer that, I know it’s Izzy. There’s no time for pretending we don’t know things out of politeness. My name’s Dominica, you’re in Faerieland, faeries are real, huge news, process it later. It’s the Summer Feast, and we’re short on waiters. That’s why you’re here. The pay is good, but strange.”

“I’m not a waiter though!” Izzy squeaked. “I don’t know how to be a waiter!”

“You can carry a plate, right? You’ll be fine, just bring out the meals we tell you to. The tricky part is etiquette. Faeries are super-easy to offend, and have almost no impulse control. This is life or death stuff, I’m not kidding.”

“For example, you must never say the word ‘iron’ in their presence,” said Midnight.

“That’s not so hard,” said Izzy.

“If a faerie arrives late,” said Dominica, “—that’s anyone who arrives from now on—complain about it loudly. Otherwise they’ll be offended you didn’t notice they were missing.”

A bell rang. “Listen, I have to get the first course out.” Dominica shoved a long scroll at Izzy. “Just—memorise as much as you can. Midnight will fetch your uniform.” She strode off.

The scroll was written by half a dozen different hands, from elegant calligraphy to all-caps biro. Rule 1: Fairies dressed in silver get served before anyone else. All the way at the bottom, she saw Rule 276: If a faerie asks how long you’ve been in Faerieland, they don’t want a real answer. Give the traditional reply: “seven years and seven days.”

“And this is all of them?” she asked Noonday. “This is every single rule I need to know?”

“What, you want more? Yes, that’s all of them.”

She kept reading. The list covered every possible dimension of behaviour—what to say, what not to say, how far away to stand, what different hairstyles signified. It was quite possibly the most beautiful piece of writing she’d ever seen in her life.

A chef clapped Izzy on the shoulder as he walked past. “Poor sod.”

Nah, she thought, grinning. Beneath her feet, the ground felt solid as anything.

McKinley Valentine

McKinley Valentine is a neurodivergent writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the creator of cult-hit newsletter The Whippet – a curated selection of science, history, weirdness, and unsolicited advice. Check it out at thewhippet.org or follow her on twitter at @mckinleaf.