Chapter 3 - Vices & Virtues
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Chapter 3 – Vices & Virtues


Ada locked the studio apartment door, put her bag on the table and dropped limply onto her bed. The commuter train had been more than twenty minutes late, and she really had no motivation to start cooking right away, especially since she had nothing interesting to eat. She really needed to find an alternative to her perpetually rotating rice-pasta-bean trio. The lack of variety in her menu was originally just a temporary measure until she had time to learn to cook something else, but she'd been working for a year already. Every day was the same, she always arrived home late, and the little free time she had left besides grocery shopping, transportation and administrative tasks was invested in a relative (but well-deserved) relaxation by surfing the internet. And it was already a year later. It had slipped through her fingers like cheap glitter.

"Time stood still, the way it did before, it's like I'm sleepwalking," Oli Sykes bellowed into her headphones, right on cue to mock her. She turned off the walkman, set it on her bedside table, rolled to get back on the bed, and turned her laptop on.

She scrolled down her Facebook wall. Ah, one of her old college buddies had gotten a job at a clothing store. It was reassuring, somehow - okay, she'd started out barely above minimum wage and could barely afford a shabby studio in the suburbs, but at least she'd found a job in the field she'd studied. Well, if she had to choose, she would have preferred something more glamorous than industrial laboratory technician - she had studied chemistry to create a better future, not to spend her days checking that lousy products met current safety standards - but that was the first step of the ladder, right? She was bound to find something better, or at least move up quickly.

A little further down, there was a series of photos of her parents' vacation at her maternal grandparents' house in the Alps. She had not been able to come because she had been forbidden to take time off her first year of work. The third photo showed her father standing in the snow, holding dead branches over his head to make antlers. They seemed to be having a good time. She added a like and gave them some news in the comments.

The other day, she had looked up the cost of the suburban apartment where she had spent a third of her childhood with her family, once her older brother had left home. It wasn't very big, only a three-room, and it wasn't in a particularly good location-but even if she imagined her career progression as meteoric, even in ten years, she would never be able to afford it. She'd had as much education as her father, but what had been a decent living in her parents' day was now close to social insecurity.

She saw several new posts from a group Leïla had created to serve as a Facebook front for the main Buds forum, but she scrolled quickly, as she intended to read the news directly on the site later in the evening. Her scrolling brought her to a post made by Cyril, which consisted of a photo of a pile of slightly burnt pancakes with a smiley face looking resignedly up at the sky. She stared at it for a while, but couldn't understand it. Just as she was about to put a question mark as a commentary, Cyril added "and on top of that, his cell phone is off the grid" just below. She dialed his number, wedged the phone between her cheek and her shoulder, and got up to start making herself something to eat during the call.

He picked up on the second ring. "Welcome to the depression hotline," he said, pinching his nose, "if you too are a depressed bitch, hang up, we don't give a-"

"Hey Cyril, what's going on with the pancakes?" she said as she opened a cupboard.

He sighed into the microphone. "Nothing. Just Astro getting on my nerves. Nothing new."

Her hand hesitated over the soup packets before going diagonally to the rice. "He disappeared again in the middle of the night?"

"Not only that, but instead of telling me where he was going, he left me a stack of pancakes with a note that just says 'sorry for being such a lame boyfriend, I made you pancakes.' The guy has time to make pancakes but not enough to tell me where the fuck he's going!" He was trying to sound ironic and distant, but there was real concern in his voice.

That concert from two years prior had accidentally formed a quartet of rather strange friends, with interactions just as chaotic as their respective characters. Astro and Cyril had been together for almost a year, but their relationship seemed to have some pretty dramatic ups and downs. Cyril was having trouble finding a steady job after college, and Astro had a habit of disappearing without explanation for days at a time, completely off the grid and unreachable. He was always very evasive about what he was doing during these absences, sometimes saying it was "for his work", sometimes to see mysterious "friends". More than once, Cyril had accused him of having a double life or cheating on him, and he would tie himself into knots about it.

She poured rice into a glass. "I hope you didn't hurt yourself because of him, because if you did, I'm gonna kill him."

A brief silence. "No. No. I… wanted to, but I did my felt-tip pen trick until it passed."

He was already doing that in high school. She felt a twinge of sadness. How had the years flown by so quickly?

"I don't know what to tell you," she admitted as she poured the rice into the pan. "He always comes back eventually, no reason for this time to be different. He likes to have his own secret garden, I guess."

She could hear Cyril breathing into the microphone, but his answer took a moment to arrive. "I just wish he'd invite me, sometimes, you know," he sighed at last.


Recent posts from the Midnight Pond scrolled across Ada's computer screen as she blew on a piece of slightly burnt fish sticks. "The Midnight Pond" was the largest international Buds forum, the nickname for the Midnight Blossom fan community. The name was an idea of the English fans, and had been accepted by everyone, even if the pun was untranslatable. They were few in number, but they made up for it with their enthusiasm: analyses of the songs and their references, reviews, fanart, personal compositions, moral support, everything went. There was even a topic where some people exchanged pictures of tattoos more or less related to the band and complimented each other.

In the recent news section, one topic had accumulated a hundred replies since the previous day: a scan of an article from an English newspaper. It was a warning about "cult-like tendencies" in online communities, and the Buds were mentioned in the first paragraph, under the pretext of an incident at a concert in Glasgow where a fan had apparently jumped off a roof. Many users laughed, others were furious. Some posted memes - the jaded old scientist with the phrase "I don't want to live on this planet anymore" came up several times.
One or two members were talking about the recurrence of this type of accusation throughout the contemporary era; every single slightly edgy musical genre had been going through this since the 1920s, and it wasn’t even the Scene’s first time - a certain "rhizom_riddler" had reposted the old Daily Mail article from six years prior that claimed that My Chemical Romance was the head of a suicide cult whose followers sought to "join the Black Parade" in the afterlife. Ada chuckled. She had managed to erase that from her memory, but it was still funny. She might have had trouble with metaphors, but this was beyond dense.

In a way, she was sad that she hadn't really experienced the big emo wave. The current mainstream music landscape had changed dramatically since the heyday of the Scene, which had already had one and a half feet in the grave when Midnight Blossom broke through around 2009. The great club music boom, immediately followed by an explosion of indie music, had the effect of a cleansing tidal wave on the radio. It was time for Daft Punk and Avicii, Stromae and Fun, and no one in the mainstream audience wanted anything to do with all those dramatic, grandiloquent guys in layers of makeup who talked about death and existentialism while screaming their lungs out anymore. My Chemical Romance had scattered to the four winds, Fall Out Boy was still vaguely able to make it since its return but only because their sound had drastically mutated, and Panic! At the Disco continued to lose members one after the other in what would seem like a hilarious countdown if it wasn't so tragic. That left only the smaller bands, who could still count on loyal fan communities - communities that were alive and well, judging by the Warped Tour's attendance, but which the end of the MySpace era had culturally forced underground. The Scene had folded in on itself like a hibernating animal, reducing its functions to the bare minimum.

In this almost post-apocalyptic music world, online communities were thriving, surviving on the emergence of "super-fans" who had considerable influence and whose status sometimes approached that of a guru. Some followed their favorite band so closely that they got news faster than the official publications; there were kinds of highly influential anti-fans whose platform was essentially used to savagely criticize the smallest changes the band made to its old sound or aesthetic, or, conversely, the fact that it didn't innovate fast enough; others were simply content producers who had such a steady output or distinctive style that they stood out from the crowd.

Leïla was part of this last category. She had become a rising figure on the French side of the Buds for a very simple reason: she was really good at staging her pictures, and she customized her outfits and her multiple piercings so much that she attracted a lot of attention at every concert she went to. Her photos were works of art in their own right.

In her most recent post, she was perched atop a wrought iron gate like a medieval gargoyle poised to leap off a roof, dressed in black and blue leather studded with spikes, with starry ribbons flowing out of her earrings and fluttering out of the frame. Ada lingered on the image for a very long minute. A source of off-camera turquoise light highlighted every fold of the leather, every metallic tip. Leila's head was turned in profile, all teeth out like a carnivore who would have just sniffed out a quality prey and was impatient to sink its fangs into it - a striped hair strand hid her eye, reinforcing this monstrous aura. Knowing her in real life and having already had a beer with her one day when she was wearing an old t-shirt with holes in it didn't change anything to her mesmerizing character. Even the way she stood on the gate seemed unlikely. She would have been almost believable as an alien with abnormal powers, capable of flying, or telepa-


Ada gasped and a bit of rice fell onto the keyboard. She had left the sound on loud and the noise of the Skype message had felt like a slap in the face.

Hi Leïla

That’s funny cause I was thinking about you just now

I know (●'◡'●)

Ada chuckled. Still flirting even though she'd told her dozens of times she wasn't interested, right?

At the Leeds Festival in August there'll be a lot of good stuff

like Sleeping With Sirens, Paramore and Gerard Way

on top of Midnight Blossom I mean

And of course my incredible self (✷‿✷)

Where’s Leeds again?

England, you clown

I probably won’t be able to attend and I don’t have enough money anyway

You’re missing out (︶^︶)

I just saw your latest picture it’s very pretty

✪ ω ✪

Sometimes she wondered how Leila managed to type this kind of emoji so fast. Did she have shortcuts on her keyboard for that?

Who took the picture?

Someone you don't know 〜( ̄▽ ̄〜)

She felt oddly insulted.

When you’re part of the Flowers I will tell you ( ̄y▽, ̄)╭

The feeling of insult was now coupled with vague concern.

I've seen people in the fandom capitalize "flower" but I still don't know what it is

It’s a fun thing some of us are doing it’s a secret (* ̄3 ̄)╭

Some kind of club?

That’s the idea

You need an Access first ( ̄y▽, ̄)╭


It’s okay

If you want we can meet next Wednesday near Bastille and I can tell you all about it? (●'◡'●)

Her concern was growing. In addition to not liking metaphors, she really hated mystical stuff only accessible to insiders. And on top of that…

I have lab training next Wednesday and it's very far from there

Maybe another time?

Okay sweetie

See you later (ノ◕ヮ◕)ノ*:・゚✧

The slight discomfort persisted.

To take her mind off it, she decided to hang out on the forum thread dedicated to tattoo pictures and save the best ones in a folder.


"I'm starting to regret directing you to someone other than Pichca to do this thing."

"Drop it, Astro. Besides, it's supposed to stop bleeding in a few days," Ada sighed as she secured her bandage back against her left arm.

By dint of spending her time contemplating other people's tattoos on the forum, she had finally yielded, and had gotten one of those strange shifting color designs. The technique seemed to have spread to three Parisian tattoo artists via word of mouth, and none of them seemed completely legit - the place where she had hers done was in the backyard of a closed antique shop on the left bank of the Seine. The tattoo was already a few days old, but her skin really hadn't followed the program and was protesting energetically. Rather than something too specific and fashionable that she might regret in a few years, she had chosen the planet that Cyril and her had imagined together in high school: a sphere with a ring of asteroids with strange shapes and an atmosphere that swirled like a Van Gogh painting. Orange… red… purple… the cycle seemed to repeat itself endlessly - well, from what little she could see when she changed the bandage, anyway.

"I think it suits her," Cyril said, scratching, maybe due to a mirror effect, a tiny band-aid on his neck on which someone had scrawled a heart.

"Oh you and your shitty taste-"

Cyril pushed Astro backwards with both hands like a kid and his boyfriend almost fell on one of the beanbags in their living room. One of his feet went straight out in front of him in surprise and their pile of discarded Uno cards scattered all over the linoleum. Which was just as well, because Ada was currently losing the game and she didn't feel like drinking another shot. But she was glad things were better between them.

"We really need to find a way to see each other more often," she said, picking up the cards. "It's been what, five months?"

"Seven," Astro corrected, throwing a cushion at Cyril's head.

"Next time, you're both coming to the apartment. We'll order sushi and everything."

"All three of us in your studio? We're already cramped in here!" protested Cyril as he sat on the cushion, as a ceasefire. She only noticed now that he was wearing a T-shirt that was too big for him - purple with a snake that said "feminissssssst" on the front. Astro probably gave him one of his own while waiting for a wash. The one he was wearing tonight had some sort of wizard to it, drinking a can labeled "tears of my enemies" while reading a book. She was pretty sure the stars on the pointy hat were twinkling slightly.

"Or maybe we could all go to a concert together again? There's some great ones in Paris in June, like Front Line Assembly on the 18th."

Cyril and Astro looked at each other. There was a short, silent exchange with slight head movements. Ada suddenly felt like the only non-telepath in the room. "Maybe we'll have something else planned," Astro finally said.

"Oh. What is it?"

Cyril looked like he was dying to tell her, and straining to keep his mouth shut.

"I'm sorry, there's no polite way to say this: we can't tell you. We're not allowed to yet," Astro said, looking equally mortified.

The feeling of insult returned, even stronger than when Leïla had refused her explanations weeks before. She wanted to break her glass and stab the beanbag with it. Instead, she took a sip of her shot. "This has to do with Leïla's bullshit, right?"

She was very surprised to read a complete lack of understanding on their faces. Absurdly, the stars on the wizard's pointy hat went out all at once on Astro's shirt. "No, no, nothing to do with her," said Cyril. He seemed to weigh his next words very carefully, a rare occurrence for him, especially when he was half-drunk. "Astro is going to show me where he's going when…" He glanced briefly in his direction. "…when… when, uh, we don't know where he's going."

All her anger evaporated at once. "Oh. Can I come with you, some other time?"

Astro's face still looked a little anxious, but a sincere smile appeared. "I already had to negotiate quite a bit for Cyril, but yeah, we'll try later with you, no worries. But nah, nothing to do with the Flowers. I'll get us some juice and stuff before we end up as stoned as them, by the way," he said as he confiscated the bottle of Manzana and stumbled towards the kitchen area of the two-roomed flat.

Ada took advantage of the distant sound of the cupboards and refrigerator to whisper to Cyril, "Can you really not tell me anything? Please tell me it's nothing serious or dangerous."

His eyes twinkled: "We're going to a cool top secret place. We'll show you. It can't really be described with words, but-"

"I CAN STILL HEAR YOU!" shouted Astro between the sounds of chip bags.


A bad jokes contest had followed Uno, then riddles followed bad jokes, and now they were talking about anything and everything at three in the morning while packing up all the mess they'd made in the apartment, so they'd have room to unfold the sofa bed for Ada. Luckily, it was Sunday the next day. Or rather: luckily, it was already Sunday.

First there had been a debate about +2 card stacks in Uno and what the rules said about it, then Ada had told them about a stupid incident at her job about people not following the rules; they'd drifted briefly into morbid humor before talking about the breakup of My Chemical Romance (opinions were unanimously sad), then Bring Me The Horizon's Sempiternal (opinions were more divided), and finally the latest Midnight Blossom album, Extinction Event. The band's sound had continued to evolve and currently sounded a bit more pop, which displeased some fans, Ada included. Others, like Astro, praised the Foxes' ever-improving songwriting talent - this one was a concept album about the place of death in the evolution of species and a form of transcendence achieved by all those who died out. Ada's favorite song was the second single Ghost Lineage, Cyril defended the incredible melody of And Another Eon, and Astro loved the lyrics of Lazarus Taxa. All three were big fans of the concept of Falling Forward, which compared human bipedalism, technically a perpetual fall, to fallen angels condemned to hell.

One thing led to another and the conversation eventually returned to the Buds, then to the Flowers. Ada was relieved to find that she wasn't the only one worried about Leïla and her clique. She'd finally learned from rumors from the Midnight Pond that the Flowers were a subgroup of hardcore fans who were into delusional over-interpretations of the band's songs, where they thought they were deciphering codes for the meaning of life or stellar messages or whatnot. Apparently, you could only be a member of the Flowers if you had the same weird piercings as Leila - they had a specific forum with locked access unless you showed a picture of said piercing, which they aptly dubbed an "Access", and…

"…And it's really, really shady, this stuff," Astro said as he finished packing the trash bag. "I mean, I love weird stuff-" Cyril snorted. "No, wait… I'm not talking about you- I mean… oh, what the hell, you know what I meant. Anyway. These things are unstable as fuck."

"I wanted to get one," Cyril added while helping Ada put the guest comforter in a cover, "but it was too expensive for me at the time, so it's better that way."

Ada wedged the cover under her left foot and pulled. "Stuff would fall out of it sometimes when we went out for drinks with Leïla. Some kind of glitter. I picked some up once to check, and under the microscope it looks like bits of mica."

"It's sand," said Astro.

She stopped short. "How could it be sand?"

"Listen. Things pass through these piercings. I've seen people put their finger through one of these things as a joke, and it doesn't go all the way through, okay? Like, the finger disappears before it comes out the other side. Sometimes you can hear noises coming from it if you listen closely, like music or wind blowing. A guy in Issy had one done in his nose and I heard that water poured through it while he was sleeping and he almost drowned."


"Call me crazy all you want, I don't give a shit. They're not normal holes, okay? There's something else on the other side. And nobody really knows where they lead."

There was a pause as they finished setting up the bed. Ada mentally reviewed all the times she had wondered about the source of the light filtering through Leila's earlobes, and she had never found a satisfactory explanation.

"Maybe it's harmless," Astro concluded, "but personally, as long as we don't know exactly where these holes go, I'd rather keep a reasonable distance from them and not, like, carve one into my face, you know?"

"Yeah," she admitted. "That said, water, light, sand… could be worse, right?"

"Yeah. Well. As long as nobody gets a piercing that something really nasty can get through. Like a creature, or a weapon."

"Imagine, you're there talking with your buddy on the couch, and a hand with a gun comes out of his ear and points it at you," Cyril said in such a casual tone as he walked to the bedroom that Ada nearly choked trying to avoid waking up the neighbors with laughter.

"I know you’re joking," Astro said, "but… like… a buddy of mine lives in Bordeaux and apparently they have a place where there's a gloryhole that literally goes into another dimension. Like Russian roulette, but much more trashy. I would have checked it out, but he couldn't tell me if it was in a club or a restaurant or a public bathroom or what."

"The great thing about you is that I never know when you're bullshitting or not," Ada sighed as she sat down on the sofa bed.

He took on a falsely shocked look and his slightly high-pitched voice became exaggeratedly haughty, stating: "Everything that comes out of my mouth is the pure truth, heretic."

"Speaking of heretics, if I hear you two doing anything weird in your room, I swear to god, I'll never come to your flat again."

"Oh don't worry about that: not a chance."

The light went out. She almost felt like staying up just to spend more time with them before she had to return to her daily routine.


This weekend was fun


We should do that more often

I had invited Leïla but she had other plans with her club thing

Still a quarter of an hour before the end of her break. The centrifuge machine in the next room was making a terrible noise, but if she went to the break room, she would be forced to talk to all the coworkers who were only interested in the weather, politics or their health problems. No, thanks.

I'm glad you made up with Astro

Me too

It was complicated but it's getting better

Because of the secret stuff?

Yeah but also uhh

The next message was slow to arrive. She wrote herself a post-it note about the centrifuge machine to report the noise to the techs while she waited, and played with a led light keyring she'd been given the day before.

I'm not too sure what I am and Astro is ace



Her thumb hovered above the virtual keyboard. The three little dots reappeared.

No comment needed

She smiled.

My family doesn't agree at all about any of that but eh what can I do


Originally I wanted to send you this

The link led to a Reddit page where someone had linked screenshots commenting, "I don't know what's happening with French Midnight Blossom fans but holy fucking shit the cringe has reached terminal velocity." She clicked. The four screenshots were clearly from a powerpoint, overloaded with stylized floral designs, that someone must have spent quite a bit of time on. Her heart quickened as she read the title.

A Guide to Discovering the True Self: Five Steps by Passiflora Major

This had been Leïla's username for years on the Midnight Pond.

If you have received this document, it is because you are wondering how to stop being a Bud and become a Flower. It is up to you to blossom.

She snorted and moved on to the next screenshot. There was a picture of a concert.

You are most probably, like me and all the Buds, a fan of Midnight Blossom. You love their music, you know the songs by heart, you look for all the references in their lyrics, and that would be enough to bring us all together, right? But deep down, you know we are connected by something deeper, darker. If you've ever been to one of their shows, you've probably felt it.

Ada had been to several other shows after that first one, and she had to admit that the band's concerts had a somewhat unique atmosphere.

I'll tell you a secret: the thing that brings us all together is that a lot of people who are attracted to this kind of music are self-destructive.

She paused for a moment. That was an exaggeration, right? The whole fandom had been laughing at people who made that kind of caricature for years.

The next screenshot had only text on a black background.

Oh, maybe you're thinking that's not your case. You've never tried to slit your wrists or throw yourself off a bridge, so you must be an exception, right? And yet, subtly, without realizing it, you are hurting yourself. A lot. To manifest the psychic pain you feel, you starve yourself on purpose. You do reckless things just to put yourself in danger, because if an accident were to happen, it wouldn't be entirely your fault. You sabotage your relationships over and over again because you think you don't deserve to be loved. You avoid any opportunity to confront your problems and find your place in society because you passively punish yourself. You vent your compulsive need to suffer by transferring it to external sources, which you destroy instead of destroying yourself.

This time, she stopped altogether. A phantom sensation radiated up her right arm like an acid trail, and she felt the impact of an aluminum chair against a varnished wall.

No, she was doing stuff like that because she was angry, not because she wanted to hurt herself. She wasn't like -

Like what? Like who? Like all the rest of her more or less unbalanced friends?

The next screenshot had colorful floral patterns again.

The truth is that you know, deep down, that this is not the best method. That this is only destroying you instead of building you up. But the Flowers are here to help you find another way. Thanks to us, you will learn to convert all this negativity into positive energy, and discover the real You, the one that will make you a better human being.

The best possible version of Yourself.

The screenshots ended there.

The highest rated comment said "God help us. Is there any more?". The original poster had replied, "Everytime I try to upload the rest, the images just get corrupted."

Ada felt like she was balancing on the edge of a cliff.

Leïla really needed to see a shrink.


The bar only served beer and two types of juice, because obviously that was all they served at such a small venue. Ada's order came in a colorful plastic cup, and it wasn't overpriced, but definitely not far off.

As it turned out, none of her other contacts had managed to make time to come see Front Line Assembly on June 18 either. Going to a concert alone lost a lot of its charm, and most importantly, you had no one to talk to while you waited for the show to start. It used to be so easy to organize outings with friends. Where had her teenage years gone? Had she wasted her youth? Strangely, an old French class on Rimbaud came back to her memory, and she recited inwardly "By delicacy, I wasted my life".

She shook her head. No brooding today. She was doing well, thank you very much, and she decided to observe the microcosm around her to keep loneliness at bay.

She wondered what a band as old as Front Line Assembly must think of its current audience. The electro-industrial concerts of late attracted much the same kind of fauna as those of the bands previously favored by the now-defunct Scene - a horde of people in jeans and band logo shirts, youths in heavy make-up, punks of various breeds, a few goths, a row or two of hardcore fans - her gaze lingered on two weirdos in vaguely SS-looking fake uniforms chatting near the entrance. Musical genres with brutal, dehumanized sounds like industrial had a curious tendency to appeal to fascists even when the bands themselves were fiercely left-wing. She made a note to herself to stay as far away as possible from where these guys would be watching the concert.

She turned back to the bartender, who was busy watching two other guys camped out in front of the bathroom. He was red-haired, skinny, wore fluorescent blue piercings and nail polish, and his arms were covered with tattoos. She had barely begun to study what they represented when he realized he was being watched and turned his head in her direction. For the first time, the right side of his face was in full view, and she gasped; he had a gigantic scar that stretched from his forehead to the back of his ear, covered in craters like the surface of the moon, so much so that in some places his hair wasn't even growing anymore. She looked away and mumbled an apology.

The barman smiled. He was missing a tooth, which he had replaced with a kind of luminous prosthesis of the same neon blue as his piercings. His voice was a little hoarse. "Don't worry, I'm used to being looked at strangely. It's alarming, it can't be helped, I don't blame you."

"Sorry again."

"No harm done, I tell you."

"If it's not too rude, how did it happen to you? Uh, you don't have to answer."

An indefinable expression passed over the bartender's face. Incongruously, he glanced nervously toward the exit. "I've only told the truth to two people so far, and I don't think either of them believed me. If you don't mind, I'll continue to cultivate that mystery."

"Isn't it hard to work in such a noisy place?"

A guy with a head full of hairspray came out of the bathroom reattaching his belt, and the other two who were camped there accompanied him to where the group was selling t-shirts. The bartender seemed relieved and, with no other customers or shady guys to watch, he turned his attention back to Ada. "The noisier the better," he said, rearranging a stack of cups.


"Seriously. Without all the noise, I feel super empty. You know that feeling when the bass vibrates so low you can feel it all the way to the back of your ribs? That's when I feel really alive."

He smiled again with all his teeth, the fluorescent prosthesis serving as the final point of his sentence. Funny guy, she said to herself, waving him goodbye and going toward the stage while sipping her beer.


The concert ended later than expected because of two encores. It was always a surprise to discover live a band that you didn't know well, and to realize that you liked them more than you thought. Ada lingered a little longer than she should have at the merchandising stand just before it was packed up, to find out which album had Ghosts on it, a song she had really liked. She had to be gently invited to leave the venue so that the staff could close up and put everything away, and she paid in a hurry.

Once outside, after having walked about fifty meters and once the exhilaration of the concert had subsided, she realized she had forgotten her card in the machine. She ran back, but the main entrance was now closed. Her heart rose in her throat in panic. She turned toward the stage door by the dumpsters, hoping to find an understanding employee before she was forced to block her card. Fortunately, there were still people on that side of the venue. She pounded on the door while pulling out her cell phone to contact her bank in case her attempt failed.

"Let me see that?" said a voice to her left. Her stress level went up another notch and she stuffed the cell phone into her jeans pocket by reflex.

She turned and realised several things through the haze of panic: first, that "the people on that side of the venue" were the three guys the bartender had been watching near the restroom, as well as a very small guy; second, that one of the three, with a large birthmark on his bald head, was holding the Very Small Guy by the collar and picking his pockets; and third, that the guy with the pierced ears who'd just been talking to her was holding a pocket knife. "I said: let me see your cell phone," said the latter. A strange purple smoke was oozing through his left piercing with an indefinable noise.

Ada's brain decided to get back to work and chose to flee, shoving the guy and running off down the alley. Shady Piercing caught up with her and pulled her back by her jacket sleeve.

Where was her anger? Why couldn't she fight back? What was she supposed to do? The haze of panic was turning into an opaque fog and obscuring all her mental navigation tools. She tried to force her neurons to reconnect in an attempt to get the guy to let her go - which was made a little more complicated by the fact that her usually relatively intelligent inner voice was now just screaming at her "WHO SHOULD I HIT? WHAT DO I DO? RAGE AGAINST WHOM?".

She had never felt so abandoned in her life. What a stupid idea to go out without her friends. She shouldn't have even been there.

The bartender's slightly hoarse but mostly very weary voice was suddenly heard somewhere near the exit door, which had just slammed shut without her realizing it. "Not cool, guys. Really not cool. Go play somewhere else, please."

Sticky Hair rolled his eyes. "Or else what, Bluetooth? You call the cops?" There was some snickering. Ada's inner voice was now screaming at her, "yes, fuck yes, exactly, call the cops, please" but to her amazement, the argument hit home, because the bartender seemed genuinely embarrassed. Why was he hesitating? Had he had a bad experience with the police?

Emboldened by his lack of reaction, Birthmark shook the Very Small Guy a bit, as if to better demonstrate the lack of consequences all this would have for the three of them, yelling "YEAH, THAT'S WHAT I THOUGHT, GO FUCK YOURSELF, BLUETOOTH!"

"GO CLEAN YOUR FUCKING COUNTER, FAGGOT!" snapped Shady Piercing. He still hadn't let go of Ada's jacket. She was beginning to evaluate her remaining options and her brain was now working at full speed - kicking him in the balls, too risky if she missed; fingers in the eyes, if the guy lost one, she'd be the one sued; haggling over her cell phone, no way, she needed it for her job; taking off her jacket at full speed and running away, sounded like the best plan - why the hell wasn't her destructive anger flaring up at such a moment?

She was at that point of her strategy when the bartender, without saying anything, grabbed the plastic dumpster that was next to the exit, and lifted it as easily as if it were a lawn chair.

There was a moment's hesitation, during which he began to move closer, still carrying the dumpster at arm's length. As if they were waking up from a nightmare, the three idiots ran away in the direction of the boulevard. The Very Small Guy, clearly shaken, fled at full speed through an adjacent alley.

The bartender quietly put the dumpster back in its place. Ada had just noticed that it was full. Despite the fact that he had just saved her life, this guy was starting to scare her.

He looked at his hands as if they didn't belong to him and stuffed them into his pockets a little too quickly for it to be natural. She heard fabric ripping.

"Shit shit SHIT I'm so SICK of this BULLSHIT-" he began before his voice went too high and choked. He dropped to the pavement next to the dumpster and, to Ada's dismay, he began to sob. She still had no idea how to react to what had just happened, and now she was even more at a loss. On closer inspection, he looked barely older than her, rather frail, harmless, and… she couldn't figure out how her brain was perceiving this, but something must have been bugging her mental chemistry, because he seemed to be a little too there. All her distrust left her at once, and she approached the bartender, who was now starting to hiccup. She briefly wanted to put her hands on his shoulders to try to calm him down, but she didn’t want to make the situation worse, and preferred to sit down next to him.

"I don't know how you did it, but you scared the hell out of them. Thank you," she said as she readjusted her jacket. The spring of stress and fear was slowly loosening in her chest, and since the adrenaline was going down at the same time, she felt exhausted.

"I'm crying and I don't even know why," sobbed the bartender, still strangely too there next to her. Absurdly, she thought of the drawings Cyril used to scribble with a pen in high school, and the times the tip would go through the page - when the universe had drawn this guy, it had left a raised trace on the reverse side of the heavenly paper of existence. It wasn't a pretty drawing, either. From this angle and without the colored lights of the concert hall, the disfigured side of his face was even more gruesome, wrinkled with folds surrounding craters of scar tissue. Perhaps some people left an imprint on the world in full, and others, like him, in hollow.

Ada suddenly became aware that she was sitting on the pavement in a Paris alleyway in the middle of the night, between two dumpsters, next to a complete stranger in tears, that she had almost at best been robbed, that she had no mean to go back home… and that the rest of the world didn't give a damn. If something happened to her, it wouldn't even make a line in the local paper, and her parents would assume she had left to start over somewhere else. After all her years of calling herself a punk and trying not to give a shit about anything, the cosmos had decided to give her as much importance as an old piece of gum stuck to the sidewalk.

Maybe she was going to leave an imprint too when the universe's maintenance department washed the sidewalk down. Maybe she wouldn't even leave an imprint at all.

The bartender sniffled and leaned against the filthy wall. He had calmed down a bit, but his eyes were still red. "I think I'm just very tired. That's nervous. Sorry." He reached into his torn pocket and, to her astonishment, handed her the credit card she had forgotten inside. "I believe this is yours. I'm sorry. I'm ridiculous. You must have been way more scared than I was. Are you okay?"

The spring of stress loosened altogether, and it was as if the floodgates of a dam had just opened. She put the card away, felt the tears rise faster than she had anticipated, and they drowned out the "yeah, I'm fine" that was about to come out. "No, I’m not okay, damn it. I’m not okay," she said, leaning against the wall and starting to cry in turn. "I’m not okay, okay? I'm sick of… of all this… I don't even know what I'm sick of, okay?"

A neon sign blinked a little further away. Cars could be heard driving down the boulevard. As he wasn’t answering and she was still crying, in an attempt to give herself some composure, she took out her cell phone and looked at the time. Even if she ran to the station, she would never catch the last commuter train. She texted Cyril, sniffling, hoping he would come pick her up with his car.

The bartender flinched. "Who are you calling?"

"Uh, I’m, uh texting a friend?" she replied, wiping her tears away, taken aback. "Not calling the cops, if that's the real question." This clarification reassured him a little. Her curiosity pushed her to ask: "Why?"

He stared at the ground as if he could have disappeared through it by sheer force of will, carefully considering what he was going to say next. After a good five seconds, he declared, "My former employers have contacts at the police department and I don't want them to find me." She was expecting anything but that. He continued: "I have to moonlight and do odd jobs and change hotels all the time, and now I've just cracked the fucking pockets of the only good pair of jeans I had left to work in, okay? And since these three assholes are regulars here I'm probably gonna get fired and - and I'm tired. That’s it."

"Shit. You’re homeless?"

"It happens more easily than you'd think. Well I guess it wasn’t that easy in my case, but yeah," he said, fiddling with one of the fluorescent piercings in his ears. The sentence was oddly cryptic, but she decided not to ask any more questions.

They were an real pair of losers. Two clueless, broken idiots, two defective products that definitely belonged between those dumpsters. She wanted to stay there, in that alleyway, improvising a therapy session with this guy whose life looked ten times worse than hers, and wait for the rest of the world to explode around them. Maybe if they waited long enough, it would happen eventually.

She looked at the neon sign, which was still blinking too randomly to be programmed. Broken things had a certain charm.

"Sometimes I want to drop everything in life," the bartender said, apropos of nothing. "Don’t want to die, okay," he added, realising she was looking at him with concern. He rubbed his tattooed arms, and she was only just noticing notes and sheet music amidst the abstract black interlacing patterns. "Just… want to pull the plug. Pause the game. Restart my entire program and wait for an update. Do you understand?"

She understood.

The half-open door at the back of a club, farther away, was spilling a river of neon blue, yellow and fuchsia colors onto the grayish, cigarette butts-strewn pavement. In the distance, toward the boulevard, they could hear the laughter of some revelers, interspersed with the passage of cars. The neon kept blinking.
They had both stopped crying. The world continued to ignore them.

"Sometimes I want to walk," Ada said, also apropos of nothing, fiddling with the location of her own tattoo through her denim sleeve. "To take a random direction, and walk, without stopping, in a straight line. Especially at night." He looked at her with an indefinable expression, his fluorescent tooth just visible. She added, "Maybe if I walked long enough, I could disappear over the horizon, and then nothing would matter anymore. Do you understand?"

He understood.

The indifference of the world seemed to gradually become silent acceptance. Crying was good, actually. She felt better, as if all the poison had been purged from her body. It was oddly easy to be so vulnerable to a stranger.

Maybe that last point needed to be rectified.

"What's your name?"

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