Joshy’s summer had been pretty good. He had gone camping, written his learners’ exam, and broken the sound barrier with nothing but a pair of apocalypse-powered jet shoes, a narrow-band frequency scatter-hedge, and a few lines of code.
A scatter-hedge deflects selected kinds of energy, allowing you to crank a pair of jet shoes up without liquifying the lower half of your body. That will get you close, but if you really want speed, you need to know when to crank them. The code does that. It analyzes the quasi-existent vibrations the multiverse is allegedly made of, and triggers the shoes during each phase dip, allowing you to skip along the surface-tension of your dimension, as long as you live in a fairly tight dimension. If you live in a baggy dimension like Earth’s you need an energy tenser, which Joshy had been awarded by a meta-terrestial princess for stopping a marauding army of trigger-happy planar fugitives named Nathan.
Yep, it had been a pretty good summer and fall was fading in beautifully, but that didn’t stop Joshy from being Joshy. He was in the garage attic, tearing through cardboard boxes and bins, muttering to himself, losing his mind. Losing it fully. His best friend, Doug, watched him fully lose it while eating ketchup chips. Every time Doug would find a place to sit, Joshy would need him to move so he could look there.
“Just tell me what’s wrong,” said Doug, between chips.
“It’s nothing,” said Joshy, trying to open a trunk that was still Doug’s chair.
“Just tell me,” said Doug.
“Just get up,” said Joshy.
Doug crunched a chip, and didn’t get up.
“Fine,” said Joshy. He sat down on a plastic bin, “I like this girl.”
“Gross,” said Doug.
“We’re fifteen, Doug.”
“Fine,” said Doug, “Who is she?”
“Who is she?”
“She’s really smart.”
“Is she hot? Who is she?”
“And super funny. And really smart.”
“A smart, funny, cool ghost with no physical existence or name. Got it.”
“Just tell me who it is and if she’s hot!”
“She’s cute, yes. She’s got black hair that kinda, you know, tumbles, out from under her crown and–“”
It was the princess from the energy tenser thing. Joshy had almost broken out in hives the first time he met her. She was on the back of a celestial mare, holding a battle sceptre. She had face freckles, shoulder freckles, and black hair that kinda, tumbled, out from under her crown. Smart, funny, cool. Joshy knew that other-worldly nobility was probably out of his league, but he really liked her.
“I really like her.”
“Well, she’s out of your league and you’re out of your mind.”
“Well, you like that girl from the bible college. She’s out of your league.”
“Fine. But at least the girl I like has length and width and depth,” said Doug, mouth full of chips.
“Rani has length and width and depth, too. And possibly something called whenth, but that’s one of the possibly-there things I really like about her!” said Joshy.
Doug stopped chewing. “Rani?”
“Yeah,” said Joshy, “That’s her name.” He looked down at the smooth cylindrical energy tenser hanging around his neck.
Doug looked at Joshy looking at the energy tenser, “Cool name.”
“Yeah,” said Joshy.
Doug got up off the trunk. Joshy opened it and started rummaging.
“So, are you gonna tell her you like her?” asked Doug.
“She’s coming over tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? To your house?”
“No like, over to our dimension. She wants to watch the planar eclipse and our meta-position allows for max-spectrum crystallization.”
Doug licked some ketchup dust from his thumb. “So, not to your house?”
“No,” said Joshy, “The park.”
“I don’t know,” Joshy mumbled, “The one by the road by the glass store.,”
“Make-Out Park?” asked Doug, with a max-spectrum grin.
“Sorry,” said Doug, “I meant Suicide Park.”
“Shut up, Doug!”
The park had an official name that none of the kids in town knew, and two nicknames that none of the adults in town knew. Neither of the nicknames was very good. But it was Rani’s favourite Earth-place.
“Why there?” asked Doug.
“It’s Rani’s favourite Earth-place.”
“Well, is she sure?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, does she know about the bugs?”
“I guess not.”
Mosquitoes and horseflies. The park was full of them. Fewer birds meant more bugs.
“Well, does she know about the bloodwhips?”
“I guess not, Doug!” Joshy yelled, his arms buried in a rubber bin full of electronics.
Level-four Abyssal Bloodwhips. That was Joshy’s fault. It had happened by accident when he was fighting all the Nathans. See, the Nathans were actually just thousands of alternate instances of one guy named Nathan, which had actualized when he overdosed on something called cauchy. Picture a deck of cards, and you’re the top card. The other cards are you too, just different potential versions of you. Normally, the deck is stacked, so that you can’t even see the other cards. But a cauchy overdose or a quantum frame-divider fans the cards all out. Presto chango, a whole lotta Nathans.
To deal with them, Joshy had designed an envelope ray with a pretty standard causal switch attached to it. It shot a bubble of space around someone, and then switched them back, dimensionally-speaking. All he had to do was hit the original Nathan, flip the switch, and fold him back up. The original Nathan always shot first.
The problem was that the switch switched anything in the bubble. In this case, a stray bloodwhip. So he had one Nathan, but now a thousand bloodwhips. Joshy had tried to flip it back, but the original bloodwhip must have left the bubble, because all Joshy did was frame-divide two or three of the copy bloodwhips into two or three thousand and, long story short, Make-Out Park was now home to three thousand bloodwhip copy-copies, one thousand bloodwhip copies, and one original bloodwhip that Joshy couldn’t figure out how to find, even if his parents hadn’t told him to throw out the envelope ray, which they had.
Despite their cutesy names, abyssal bloodwhips are actually pretty gross. They’re like flying tape worms. They have a series of combination heart-stomachs, mate for life, and can scream, usually when frightened or about to fly in for a tasty marrow bore. Bloodwhips subsist primarily on marrow, and the bloodwhips in Make-Out Park had been subsisting primarily on bird marrow.
“Bloodwhips are actually pretty gross, Joshy.”
“I know, Doug.”
“They drink marrow, right?”
“So why are you taking her there?”
Joshy pulled a silver spool of scatter-hedge filament from the bottom of the bin. “Because I have a plan.”
“What’s your plan?”
Joshy didn’t answer. He was staring at the spool.
“What’s your plan, Joshy.”
Joshy stood up. “I’m gonna tell her I like her in the park. When the planar eclipse is cresting.”
“When it get’s romantic.”
“Well how long will that take?”
“I don’t know,” Joshy paced with the spool, “Llike, an hour and 23 minutes.”
“That long? Are you stupid? Just tell her you like her right away. At the beginning. So you can like each other the whole time.”
“I can’t. I need to do it when it’s romantic.”
“So she’ll like me, too.”
“If she likes you, she likes you already. She’s not the moron. You are, remember?”
“Doug, I just can’t, okay? It’s gotta be when the eclipse crests. It’s gotta be perfect.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure it’s gonna ruin the mood if either of you get your marrow bored.”
“Because bloodwhips aren’t romantic.”
“I know, Doug!” Joshy stopped pacing. “What are you doing tomorrow at four?”
“During your date? Throwing up probably.”
“Fine. What do you want me to do?”
It was the next day. Joshy was in the laundry room, pacing in his underwear, nervously twisting the clicky wheel on his wristwatch. The laundry room didn’t have a door, so every time he heard his mother’s footsteps near the top of the stairs, he ducked into his bedroom. Once there, he would bury his face in his pillow, say a swear, get up, check his email, swear into his pillow, go back out into the laundry room, open the dryer and feel inside. Then he’d slam the dyer door, turn it on, and fidget with his watch again. It had been this way for the last half hour.
Joshy phoned Doug.
“Did you find it?” said Joshy.
“Hi Joshy,” said Doug.
“Hi,” said Joshy, “Did you find the maser?”
“You have the maser?”
“It was where I said it would be?”
“Yep. In the shed.”
“Are you sure you have the right one? Are you sure you have the maser?”
“Because you once thought my pocket laser was a pez dispenser.”
“Well, your pocket laser is shaped like a pez, and your maser is shaped like a maser. I’m holding a maser-shaped maser, so relax. I still think you should have just gone with the bug spray.”
Joshy had spent all week trying make a bug spray, ever since Rani told him about the eclipse, ever since he remembered the bloodwhips. But chemistry wasn’t Joshy’s favourite subject, so everything he had made either smelled like fridge or de-atomized flesh. He fully lost it for five straight days, trying to think of something. Laser nets were too expensive, gravity spasms were still scientifically impossible, and he knew he couldn’t survive a plane haunt longer than ten seconds. That left plasma curtain and atmospheric mono-polaorization, which were both awful ideas, he just hadn’t been able to decide which awful idea was the least unromantic.
It was while looking in the attic with Doug that Joshy realized what he needed. A bugzapper. Well, a bug melter, really. And actually, Joshy had already built it last Christmas. It was a Maser. The M stood for microwave. It shot a steady cone of energy and cooked anything in the cone. The plan was simple. Doug would hide in the bushes and shoot invisible and hopefully romantic waves of microwave energy at him and Rani for an hour and twenty three minutes, cooking any bloodwhip that even got close to them or their marrow. He just needed to make a scatter hedge like his own for Rani to wear so the maser beams wouldn’t melt the skin off her skull, which Doug agreed would be even less romantic than a marrow bore. But what kind of scatter hedge? A shirt? No she’d have to put it on in front of him. A scarf? Was it too early for a scarf? When was lLabour dDay? Maybe a hat. But what kind of hat and what if she wore her crown.? Joshy ended up making a windbreaker.
“I can’t believe you convinced me to make the love of my life a windbreaker.” Joshy was fully losing it on the phone to Doug.
“Girls love windbreakers.”
“Windbreakers are awesome.” Doug owned several windbreakers.
“Okay whatever. I’m meeting Rani in like fifteen minutes, and then we’re walking down to the park. Just make sure you’re there and hit us with it right away, as soon as you see us, but only if she’s wearing the windbreaker.
“You should just take her to get a slurpee,” said Doug.
“No. It has to be perfect,” said Joshy, “I gotta go, this windbreaker smells like fridge.”
Joshy checked the dryer again. This morning he had asked his mom about the fridge smell and she had put the windbreaker in the wash, along with the jeans he was planning on wearing that afternoon. His good jeans. When Joshy pulled them out that afternoon and they were still soaked he realized the scatter hedge had been turned on the whole time, casually deflecting an hour and half worth of dryer heat away from his jeans, away from the windbreaker. Joshy switched off the scatter hedge, threw everything back in the dryer, and had spent the next thirty minutes fully losing it. It was almost four, they still weren’t dry, and Joshy was getting a headache.
He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and ran upstairs.
His mom was making homemade cheese. Cheesecloth bags hung from the cupboards.
“You hungry Joshy?” said Joshy’s mom.
“I have a headache,” said Joshy, and he put his head under the tap.
“Oh shucks. Want an ibuprofuen?”
Joshy pulled his head from the sink. “Huh?”
“Do you want an ibuprofen?” She had the medicine cupboard open.
“Sure, thanks. My jeans are taking forever.”
“Here, take a vitamin C, too. Chewable.”
“I've been waiting for an hour. Sure, thanks.”
“Is it set on auto or timed? Timed is hotter. B12 complex?”
“It's on timed. Yes, please.”
“Good for stress. Are you going out?”
“Yah, I'll be back for supper. Why are you making so much cheese?”
“One or two?”
“Good for stress.”
“I know. Why are you making so much cheese?”
“It's easiest to make a big batch.”
“Oh.” He looked at his watch and groaned, “I'm so late.”
“I'll give some to the neighbours. What's wrong with what you're wearing?”
“I'm wearing forest green sweatpants, Mom.”
“You look good in anything. Fish oil?”
“No thanks. I'm fine. I just need to check my jeans.”
He was downstairs before his mom had a chance to say something about antioxidants. He pulled his jeans and the windbreaker out. The pockets were still damp, but he was out of time. He put his jeans on, grabbed the windbreaker, ran upstairs, ran back down and grabbed his goggles, ran back up into the porch.
“Okay, see you later, Mom.”
He unplugged his sneakers and mashed his feet inside, ignoring the laces.
His mom looked into the porch, “Do you want corn or peas?”
Josh turned around, trying to tie his goggles around his head, “I don't know, it doesn't matter. Whatever you like.”
“What would you like?”
“I don't care. Really.”
“Here let me help you.”
“I got it, it's just hard to tie on backwards.”
“Is that tight enough or do you like it looser?”
“Uh, kinda tight, I need a minimal light bleed otherwise it’s hard to see. That's good. Thanks.” He turned around and looked at her. She glowed.
“I'm so proud of you.”
“Thanks, Mom. I'm proud of you, too.”
“My little scientist.”
“Thanks, mom. I gotta go.”
“I'll pray for you.”
“Thanks, Mom. See you later.”
“Peas or carrots?”
He was meeting Rani at three-forty-five. Doug should be at the park by four. Doug, with the maser that Joshy told him to pick up, earlier. Doug with the maser he said he knew about and would get without any problem, earlier. Doug, ready to shoot him and Rani with hopefully romantic maser beams for an hour and twenty-three minutes while they watched the planar eclipse and Joshy worked up the nerve to tell Rani he liked her. While the scatter hedge woven into his shoes and her new hopefully awesome and not still damp windbreaker casually deflected the maser beams away from their vital organs, the maser beams that would hopefully melt the delicate tubular bodies of every single bloodwhip before they got close enough to make anything unromantic. And hopefully the maser beams wouldn’t kill all the grass. And hopefully the bloodwhips wouldn’t just swarm Doug. And hopefully Rani wore the windbreaker. And hopefully she liked him.
When Joshy got to the end of the block, Rani was already there, looking up at the sky, not wearing a crown. Instead, she wore jet shoes, particleal-bond tights, and a forest green archon-cut sundress that matched her scarf nicely.
“Hi,” said Joshy, playing it cool as he tripped on a branch.
“Nice goggles,” said Rani.
“Thanks,” said Joshy, “Nice pants.” Joshy took a second to mind-punch his own face.
“My tights?” asked Rani, “Thanks.”
Joshy looked at Rani looking at the windbreaker.
“What’s that?” asked Rani.
“Oh. Here.” Joshy handed her the windbreaker. “It’s kinda damp.”
“This is awesome,” Rani said.
“It’s kinda damp.”
“Did you make this?”
“I mean feel free to try it on.”
Rani was looking for a tag, “You made this! What’s it do?”
“It’s like a… force field… thing” Joshy said. Rani was pretty.
“You mean like a plasma curtain? Or a scatter hedge? What frequency?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I forget. I mean, feel free to try it on.”
“It’s kinda damp,” said Rani.
Joshy tripped on that branch.
“I’ll just let it air dry for a bit,” said Rani.
They walked to the park, letting the windbreaker air dry. Rani talked about the first time she had watched a planar eclipse. About standing breathless in a crystal orchard as the heavens collided and overlapped around her. About watching Joshy’s dimension crest over a demi-plane whirlpool and about how beautiful it had looked. About how Joshy’s home became her favourite place in the multiverse. Joshy talked about his rock tumbler.
Rani’s little finger brushed against his hand. Joshy brain-smiled, then brain-pumped his mind-fist. Then realized Rani still wasn’t wearing the windbreaker, and they were at the park.
Rani looked into the sky. “I think it’s starting.”
Joshy was looking for Doug.
“Can you see it?” Rani asked.
“Totally,.” sSaid Joshy, looking in the wrong direction.
“Are your goggles working?” asked Rani.
Joshy was looking for bloodwhips.
“Joshy, are your goggles working?” asked Rani.
“Yep. Super. They’re working super. Super duper. ” Joshy was fully losing it.
“It’s such a nice afternoon.” said Rani.
“It’s pretty nice. A little chilly out though,” said Joshy, looking at the windbreaker.
“No, I think it’s gorgeous. I can’t believe nobody else is here.” Rani sat down at a picnic table.
Joshy watched two or three thousand bloodwhips on the far side of the park lazily peel themselves off of playground equipment, casually forming into swarmy marrow sponge. “Yep. Just us,” said Joshy, and sat down beside her, beside the windbreaker. “You sure it isn’t a little chilly out?”
“Oh, sorry, are you cold? You wanna wear the windbreaker?” offered Rani.
“No,” said Joshy, “I mean, no thanks.” Joshy rubbed his eyebrow. “I mean, I was just worried it was chilly out.”
“No,” said Rani, “It’s perfect.”
“I…” Joshy was a bit distracted by three thousand things.
“Everything’s perfect,” she repeated.
Joshy looked back at Rani. She was staring at his eyeballs. Into his eyeballs. Into his eyes. She was looking into his eyes! Joshy looked down at her lips, realized what he was doing and looked back to her eyes, got scared and looked behind her eyes and lips and face and head to where Doug was cocking the generator of ray gun. The isolated field generator of a ray gun. The isolated field generator of the envelope ray and causal switch Joshy had been told to throw away but didn't and now Doug with his brain problem had picked the wrong gun and Joshy and his girlfriend well not his girlfriend-girlfriend just a friend who's a girl who he kind of hoped would become his girlfriend were about to get their actualities fanned out. Not to mention their completely unprotected bones chewed through by any of the thousands of bloodwhips bloodwhippin' around them in the park.
Rani looked at Joshy’s lips and leaned forward slightly.
Joshy broke out in hives.
One of the bloodwhips meandered by to check out the marrow.
Joshy heard Doug flip the switch. He looked back at Rani, and they kissed. Even though he was about to have his marrow bored, even though his mouth was dry.
While they kissed, thousands of bloodwhips folded back into a single actuality and thousands of Joshys kissed thousands of Ranis in a thousand slightly different ways in a thousand spots in park. On the swings, by the slide, on the grass, by the tree, sitting on the picnic table. Each one different, each one their first kiss, none of them perfect, but kind of.
The Joshys and Ranis pulled away, looked at each other and smiled. Doug said whoops and flipped the switch again, but not before one of the Joshys who knew what was going on fried the original bloodwhip with his pocket laser.
And as the envelope ray steamed, and as Doug went to throw up, and as the planar eclipse collided around them, one Joshy and one Rani held-hands in a bloodwhip-free park, not quite sure what to talk about.
"Bugzapper" was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of On Spec Magazine.