by Barbara A. Barnett
There would be no snatching my laptop back from Diya. She slapped my hand every time I reached across the café table for it. I had been a keystroke away from deleting the amateur-hour comic panels cluttering up my hard drive–months of wasted effort that Diya was now inexplicably determined to keep reading. Her gaze remained glued to the screen as she shoveled forkfuls of salad from bowl to mouth.
“Tam, these are awesome,” she said, voice pitched at a chirpy, bird-like frequency. “It’s like George Romero meets Dostoyevsky meets Thelma and Louise meets an alien invasion flick.”
I shrugged. As much as I wanted to believe I had enough talent to create a successful webcomic, it was hard to take Diya’s encouragement seriously. I had seen her get equally excited over blueberry pancakes, after all.
“They’re nothing special,” I said, ninja-seizing my laptop before she could dribble dressing all over the keyboard. “Just drafts, really.”
Diya responded with a chiding wave of her fork. “You need to publish this shit,” she said–at least that’s what it sounded like through her mouthful of salad. Another bite, and she erupted into a violent coughing fit that sent bits of lettuce and tomato spraying across the table.
“Are you all right?” I asked, half standing. “Do I need to Heimlich you or something?”
Diya grabbed her water bottle and chugged. “I’m fine,” she said between gulps. “I just wasn’t expecting that.”
“Expecting what?” I studied her meal for possible culprits, only to end up with a case of lunch-buyer’s remorse instead. The scent of mango vinaigrette made me wish I hadn’t opted for the same chicken noodle soup I always bought. “Is there something wrong with your salad?”
“No, the salad’s great. But the guy who made it? Total scumbag. We’re talking shoots-stray-cats-with-a-BB-gun levels of scumbaggery.”
Out-of-the-blue segues like that were why I loved hanging out with Diya. She was random. Unpredictable. One of those people who seemed to walk on fairy dust with her big flowered hats and the sparkly nose ring that set off her brown skin. The one time I tried dressing like Diya, people looked at me like I was a Christmas tree on display in July. So I accepted my lot in life: I was doomed to remain boring old Tamsin, trailing one step behind in Diya’s glittery wake.
Diya stared toward the café counter, neck craned. “I should find out where this guy lives and report him.”
“How do you know he shoots cats?”
Diya’s eyes went wide, like a sparkly deer caught in headlights. “Oh crap, I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just that the cat thing caught me off guard and–“
“What are you talking about?”
Diya cringed. “If I tell you something, you have to promise not to make fun of me.”
Diya self-conscious? That was a first worth hearing more about. “I promise.”
“It was the salad. The romaine didn’t show me much–bad pickup lines at the bar, jerking off at the movies, that kind of crap.” With her fork, Diya pointed from one tomato to another, as if their positioning spelled out a secret code. “The really twisted stuff is in the tomatoes.”
She had to be messing with me. I had only known Diya for a couple months; we both belonged to the army of underemployed twenty-somethings slinging lattes down the street at the Bean There, Drank That Café. But it had been long enough for me to know that psychic salad visions were over the top, even for Diya.
“You know he shoots cats because of the tomatoes?” I said.
“I’m afraid to even touch the artichokes.” Diya downed more water. “Anyway, so I was telling my brother about that awesome ginger beer you made and–“
“Whoa, back up, I’m still on the salad and the cat shooting.”
Diya let out a dramatic sigh. “I see things about people, okay?”
“When you eat food?”
“Not just any food. Salad. Salad the person made.”
Definitely messing with me. But I decided to play along and see how far she was willing to take this new addition to her manic pixie dream girl routine. “So you knew seeing something awful about this guy was a risk, yet you ordered salad anyway?”
“He was hot. I wanted to find out if he was a decent guy.”
“Isn’t that kind of creepy stalker territory?”
Diya started to object, but snapped her mouth shut. Her face took on that pinched, tight-lipped look she got in the rare moments when someone got the upper hand on her. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s creepy. Lesson learned. But he’s a psycho, so in this case, I think it all evens out.”
I could have dropped the whole salad thing at that point; I had just scored a Diya concession, after all. How often did that happen? But no, I wasn’t going to let her off the hook that easily. “And you developed this power how? Exposure to a radioactive crouton?”
Diya shook her head in annoyance. “It’s a family thing, okay? Some people inherit blue eyes or curly hair. I got the psychic crap.”
“So does this family gift of yours work with pasta salad? Fruit salad? Or is this strictly a lettuce-based thing?”
“Great,” Diya snapped. “First I get the psycho cat-shooter salad, and now you’re making fun of me after promising not to. Thanks, Tam. Way to be a friend.”
Diya sank back in her chair. Instead of commanding the room with that larger-than-life way of hers, she looked deflated, her traffic-cone-orange jacket suddenly two sizes too big, her polka dotted scarf two feet too long. A sulky, Diya-style overreaction, sure, but she was right: I had broken my promise.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But most people would have prefaced this whole salad thing with something like, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but…'”
Diya sniffed, shifted in her chair, glanced at everything but me. The café chatter became deafening in her silence, conversations about workplace drama and the latest episode of some hot new sitcom amplified beyond tolerance. But as I listened to those conversations–those normal conversations–my pity for Diya turned to annoyance. How did she expect me to react when everything she said and did was as outrageously kooky as possible? And this salad thing–play along with it, and I’d end up the butt of the joke, silly Tamsin blushing furiously as Diya burst into a fit of giggles. But call Diya on her bullshit, and she’d assault me with those wide, watery eyes, like she was a child and I had just taken her favorite toy away.
“Bring on the eyes,” I said.
Diya cocked her head to one side, on the receiving end of confusion for once. “What?”
“That puppy-dog eye thing you do. You’ll pout and give me that face until I say I believe you, and then you’ll be the one laughing at me.” I hated how harsh my tone sounded, yet the words kept spilling out. “I love you, Diya, but there’s only so much randomness you get to drop on a person before you lose the right to get snippy when they don’t believe you. I’m tired of playing the boring, gullible sidekick to your Princess Whimsy Pants.”
Diya straightened in her chair, mouth agape. “Princess Whimsy Pants?”
“Salad, for Christ’s sake. You’re making me mad at you over salad.”
Diya gathered up her vintage purse and the duck-shaped notebook she doodled in when she was bored. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to make you mad. But if you feel boring next to me? That’s not my fault. That one’s on you.”
Diya stood and strode from the café.
This isn’t about me, I wanted to shout after her. You don’t get to be the righteous angry one! But then my gaze fell on my plain old soup sitting next to her half-eaten, cat-torture salad. The drab vs. the colorful. The perfect metaphor for our friendship.
Yet I still ordered the soup. Every. Damn. Time.
“Crap,” I said, burying my head in my hands. Coolest person I knew, and I had just driven her away with my own snarky insecurity. How the hell do I fix this?
When I showed up at her apartment the next morning, Diya promptly slammed the door in my face.
“That went well,” I muttered, then set to knocking again, another monotonous round of knuckles-to-wood.
“Please, Diya, just hear me out.”
More nothing. I pressed my ear against the door. Not a breath, not a rustle. Just lots and lots of nothing. Time for Phase 2.
I reached into my oversized messenger bag, pulled out a covered bowl, and held it up to the door’s peephole. I just had to hope Diya was still on the other side and not climbing out the fire escape–it wouldn’t be the first time she had avoided an unwanted visitor that way.
“I brought you a peace offering,” I said.
Still no response. Just a long, uncomfortable stretch of non-reaction that had me peering under the door for signs of movement, then looking up and down the hall out of fear that a neighbor would emerge and think me some kind of creepazoid stalker. Which I was kind of starting to feel like.
I could tell them about my cat-shooting habit and my BB gun named Diya. Yeah, that would smooth things over real nice.
Finally, the door opened. Diya regarded the bowl in my hands with narrowed eyes. “It’s salad, isn’t it?”
“I made it. Because I’m sorry I upset you, and I’m willing to believe you about the salad thing, but you have to cut me some slack and prove it.”
“Been there, done that. No one ever likes what they hear.”
“Well, there is absolutely nothing scandalous or even remotely interesting about my life to see, so bon appétit, girlfriend.”
Diya waved me inside, where I immediately felt like a dark splotch of normalcy intruding upon her magical world of pink beanbag chairs and cinnamon-scented incense. But that was my problem; Diya had been right about that. The only thing stopping me from wearing nose rings and sparkly feathered boas was my own self-consciousness.
I peeled the lid off the salad and handed the bowl to Diya. She didn’t bother getting a fork. Just grabbed a clump of lettuce and popped it into her mouth.
“You didn’t make this,” she said, chewing.
Diya barely finished swallowing before following up the lettuce with a slice of cucumber. “Yeah, this is from the deli on the corner. The chick with the bird tattoo made it. I just really wish she had washed her hands first.”
“Eeew,” I said, though a jolt of anticipatory excitement overshadowed the gross factor. I couldn’t verify the lack of hand washing, but the girl at the deli did have a mean-looking blue jay stamped on her right bicep. Still, Diya could have seen me in the deli earlier. Or it could have been a lucky guess.
I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out another container. “This one I really did make.”
“You sneaky little . . .”
I’m sure Diya was aiming for mad with the look she gave me, but there was no hiding the half-smile that snuck onto her lips. Perhaps I could salvage this friendship, after all.
Diya traded me the bowl for the new container. Apprehension quickly sent my brief moment of hope packing. If she wasn’t faking the psychic thing, then forget about whatever embarrassing slips of hygiene she might see. My dread stemmed from the vast amounts of boring restraint that had been my life to date. One leaf of lettuce might prove coma-inducing.
Diya frowned at the container’s contents. “No dressing?”
“Dry salad seemed about right to sum me up.”
Diya rolled her eyes. She plucked a cherry tomato from the salad and studied it as if it were a crystal ball. “Oooooo,” she intoned.
“Oh, would you just eat it already?”
Diya snickered, then slipped the tomato into her mouth. Instead of chewing, she pushed it from side to side with her tongue, making each cheek puff out in turn.
I glared; she smirked.
At last, Diya started to eat. First the tomato, then a sliver of carrot, next a clump of avocado. My stomach engaged in a series of somersaults as more and more bits of salad passed between Diya’s lips. Cucumbers, onions, olives, croutons. Her jaw moved up and down with careful, excruciating slowness, as if mastication were a sacred rite that had to be performed ever just so. Diya could have been dragging it out just to screw with me, yet with each swallow, I grew more certain and fearful that she simply hadn’t found anything of interest in her visions, for her expression remained an unchanging, blank-eyed look of veggie-inspired ennui.
“For the record,” Diya said, “it’s kind of insulting that you think I’d have spent all this time hanging out with a boring person. Granted, your social comfort zone is this teeny-tiny microscopic little thing that could use expanding, but boring people don’t teach themselves how to brew their own beer out of every random ingredient under the sun. They certainly don’t create comics about a badass lesbian couple fighting alien zombies in Russia.”
A slight smile found its way onto my lips. I didn’t sound nearly so dull when she put it like that. “So is that what you got from the salad?” I asked. “That I’m cool but insecure?”
“Screw the salad; this is me talking. I love you, Tam, and I don’t want you to be anyone but you. But sometimes I get the feeling that you won’t let you be you. Like you think you have to be me or something.”
Bam. Salad visions or not, Diya had nailed it. My obsessive coveting of her flashy style had sucked away every last bit of confidence I had in my own. But I didn’t need to wear sparkly clothes to be interesting. Hell, I didn’t even like sparkly clothes. What I did like was the would-be webcomic wasting away on my computer. I had the domain and the hosting secured, the site designed, at least six months’ worth of strips ready to publish–all I had to do was launch the damn site. But nope, I kept chickening out, convinced no one would be interested.
Diya chomped on a withered shred of iceberg lettuce. Her eyes widened and she squealed, pointing at the salad as if it held the cure for cancer. “Oh my god, this is exactly what I’m talking about!”
“Your comic! You’ve had the whole site ready to go for like months now. And Siberian Genome? You told me you didn’t even have a decent title, you liar. What the hell are you waiting for?”
“Whoa.” I gaped at Diya. I hadn’t shared those details with anyone, making me suddenly certain of two things: my friend really did have psychic salad powers, and I didn’t have a damn thing to lose. Because seriously, psychic salad powers? That was kind of mind blowing. That was the kind of thing that spends hours sinking in before the full impact of it slugs you like a brick-loaded boxing glove in the middle of the night. So if I could hold the interest of a person who received salad-based visions, then I sure as hell could get some eyeballs on my comic on a regular basis.
“What the hell am I waiting for?” With a little squeal of my own, I plopped onto a beanbag chair and whipped out my laptop. “Let’s get this puppy online already.”
“About damn time, girlfriend.” Diya squeezed onto the beanbag with me. “One suggestion, though?”
“I’m all ears.”
“Sparklier background on the web page. As in, it currently has no sparkles. Just purpleness.”
“You’re the sparkly one, salad girl.” I knocked Diya off the beanbag with a playful shove. “This is gonna be my thing, and my thing doesn’t include sparkles.”
About the Author
Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, coffee addict, wine lover, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. Barbara lurks about the Philadelphia area, where she lives with her husband and a pantsless stuffed monkey named Super Great. You can follow her online or on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Jen Albert is an entomologist, writer, editor, narrator, game-player, cosplayer, streamer, reader of All The Things, and haver of far too many hobbies. Jen somehow became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction magazine and podcast; she now wonders if she’s still allowed to call it her favorite. She lives in Toronto with her husband and her very large, very hairy German Shepherd. Follow her online and on Twitter.