The conductor shook her awake. “Fifteen minutes,” he said. She looked out the window. Turned out that she missed the sunrise, and the vast expanses of wetlands glistened with white sunlight. The cicadas of the land had already started their daytime screaming.
“Thought I couldn’t sleep on these chairs,” she said, muttering. “What time is it?”
“A little past six. It’s the solstice, you know.”
“Ah yeah. I’ll live to see another, probably.” She rubbed her bleary eyes, and shook the big, snoring dog on her lap so it could wake up too.
“We’re almost there,” she whispered to the sleepy hound. “Almost in Twinbrook. God help us.”
The train passed by a worn out Caution: Contaminated Area sign and screeched to a halt at the outskirts of the town. It stopped near the hills. Fog gathered at them.
“Welcome home,” the conductor said to her, laughing as he stepped back into the train.
“Yep, seems like a swell place,” she said. A cicada buzzed in the tree, and the first beads of sweat from the sticky heat formed on her back. Welcome home. You’re the one who bought the one-way ticket to Zone 3: TBK. Known on maps and to normal people as Twinbrook.
She needed a place to put down her bags, and also to think. Things could be weird for a woman like her. After all, sheer probability guaranteed that she would be the only person like herself. Of course they would see her pale, slate-shaded skin and elfish ears before her humanity. Even before her pointed nose and full lips, which seemed a lot more human. Could she even live there?
Nope, not her biggest concern. Of course she could live there in Twinbrook. Somehow, the town granted her the deed to a vacant lot, over the phone with her reciting just her state ID number. The numbers might have been legit in their system, but I still believe that her driver’s license was a forgery. But she had that lot because of it. Some clothes. A dog. And besides a few living supplies on back-order from various stores, not much else.
This tale of starting from nothing is the tale of Annette Waverly. It would be inspiring if I didn’t know any better.
Annette didn’t want to spend more time alone in Twinbrook than she needed to. And living in poverty? What a drag. Her scheming little mind came up with a plan that led her to some interesting research. In spite of her lack of artistic talent or interests, she read through a small pile of art history books before boarding the train to Zone 3. She zeroed in on one man, and poured over microfilm to see what else was recorded about him. Listening to some audio was a breath of fresh air. Annette could listen to him talk about his galleries for hours. That gravely baritone kept her attention and had the soothing powers of a lullaby.
Yes, she held some lofty ambitions for herself. That man, that artist was last known to live in Twinbrook as well. His sculptures in earthenware or basswood held a high appraised value, and her first thought was that he would be her best friend. More than that, Annette’s plan was to split the utilities with him. To me, it sounded like she was in over her head. And she was that deep into a pointless goal, as her dream artist came with a caveat.
The surviving photos dated back to years and years prior. Middle age had caught up with him by 1997, with little wrinkles starting to form over his fading facial scars. By 2002, he already looked so old. His craggy, gaunt face and salt-and-pepper hair gave away his age and then some. And when seen by Annette in the year of 2023, she had to do the math. Mixed Media: A Look at the Mixed Race Artists of Terrebonne, Yellowhammer, and Gwinnett listed him as a Black and Lebanese man born in February 1949. In June 2023, that made her hoping for the companionship of a 74 year-old artist.
Surely a man that age had better things to do than mingle with the young, impoverished Annette Waverly. Much better things than give up his riches to be her poor roommate. In fact, he must have known of her already. With such a successful body of work behind him, he must have been watching her from one of the nearby mansions, comfortable on a hot summer morning in the sweet embrace of immaculate white siding and air conditioning.
But that was a risk Annette was willing to take.
In spite of her doubts, she remained unshaken when she approached her dog about the matter. “C’mon, Sagebear,” she told the hound. “We’re going a-hunting for that sculptor.” She grabbed the remnants of her cash, plus a six-pack of Harpoon IPA she grabbed at the train stop in Middlesex (it was a long journey), and called a cab.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked, sneering as Sagebear climbed in with her muddy paws. “For the love of god, no pets. It’s even on the side.”
“Fuck you too. I’ll pay extra for her,” said Annette. “But you know a Clay?”
“What would you want to do with him?”
“Obviously get in on that sweet artist’s money. Why else would a pretty young woman seek out an old man like that?”
“Oh, you poor soul. I’ll let the dog slide,” said the cabbie, with a shit-eating grin.
“Hey, I’ll pay my respects if that’s the case. Nothin’ wrong with a dream, though.”
He drove her past downtown, where Annette got her first glance of City Hall and the quaint park at the center. It was also where the grocery store and her future source of beer lay. The taxi took a turn towards an island soon after that. Seven small lake houses, all with white siding and ample deck space, sat over the water. Instead of somewhere posh, the whole street looked downright modest.
“He’s at the end,” the cabbie said. “And 6.50, plus and extra three for the dog.” Annette shoved a ten into his hand and bolted out, her dog following behind with a wagging tail.
She spotted her target instantly. He bent over to get the Sunday paper. Indeed, he had aged 21 years since that photo. His hair gave in and turned silver. A few liver spots added to the aged look of his face. And he shaved off the full beard he had in his younger days, leaving grey stubble in its place. While he kept the gaunt face, most of his scars had faded with time. But between those big green eyes, the shaggy hair, and that mischievous smile, Annette knew she had the right man. Harwood Clay: once one of the great sculptors in the nation. Now a weathered old man who, judging by that small house, lost his fortune.
“Hey, you old bastard!” Annette yelled, as she approached him on the deck. “Forget about your paper, and greet me instead.” He gave her a death glare for that.
“No, I’m not joining your religion,” he said, in the same soothing baritone she heard in the radio interview.
“What, you think I’m some sort of cultist?” Annette asked, quirking up a brow. “‘Cause of my skin? I didn’t choose to be born looking like this. I’m new, I need friends, and I might have a job for you.” He smiled a bit at the last one, and extended out his hand.
“Harwood Clay,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Annette Waverly. Come on, lemme see what’s inside that studio,” she said. She stepped inside, to a floor dusted with a light veneer of white clay. Wall-length windows let in the little bits of sunshine Twinbrook had to offer that day.
Harwood followed her inside, albeit at a slow pace. He shuffled a bit when he walked.
“So what leads someone like you here?” he asked her.
“Yeah, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Are you even human?”
“I’m an earthling but one of my parents probably wasn’t, I’ll say that. Look, I dunno where my mum squatted and birthed me. All I know is that I feel human.” She smiled, baring her shiny white fangs.
“I’ve seen a lot of weird things in these swamps,” Harwood said. “But you take the cake, Annette. The weirdest thing I’ve seen here. So what’s the job?”
She started with buttering him up. “Well, I have a big one, and only an artist of your magnitude could do it!”
“I’m all for it. Retiring was a bad idea,” Harwood said.
“So how does lifelong servitude sound?” Annette asked, trying to keep her tone cheerful. Harwood laughed at it.
“Jesus, I’m not that old,” he said, still mid-laugh. “In fact, I feel great for 74.”
“That’s good, Mr. Clay. But while I’m not selling you on religion, I’m selling you on your longest job.”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Whoever sold me on this mission was. You see, um, it’s hard to explain. I come from a line of demons, and thanks to being half-human, my one way back into the flames of Hell is enduring this wet misery over here. And maybe raising a few immortal agents of Lucifer himself,” Annette said. “You know what gets on Lucifer’s good side? Art.”
He tried to keep a straight face, but Annette could tell that he had trouble buying it. “I bet you’re a nice demoness, but you might want to find a younger man for your job.”
“Fine, be that way,” she muttered. She picked up the six-pack she left on the floor. “Not even for these?”
“I have to be sober for tonight. Sorry. But..look, I do try to be nice to the new people in town. I’ll make a pot of coffee for us.” He headed towards his other front door, which Annette beat him to as well. She felt bad for whatever sore joints slowed him down, and even more for what he’d have to endure for Plan B.
He got a metal percolator filled with coffee started on the stove. “Hope you like it this way,” he said.
“Just like my dad used to make it,” Annette said. “Puts hair on your chest, ya know?” She hung around his desk instead, which was out in the open. He left plenty of things out in the open on that desk. Beautiful pens and stationery. The tall bookshelf in back had some boring books, and bronze giraffe statues. But those didn’t hold her attention. A jewelry box hid behind his obsolete landline phone. Annette almost drooled over such a small, expensive prize.
“Now what’s so interesting about my desk?” Harwood asked, looking back at her.
“You haven’t joined the digital age yet?” she asked, pointing to his phone and pretending to ignore the box.
“Oh, even I have.” He took out a smartphone for proof. “I am a little used to that old relic, though.”
“Keep at it, old man,” she muttered, eying that box once his back was turned. He kept it open, revealing a chunky gold ring with an amethyst gemstone in the center. Either he prized it for himself, or he prized it for someone he loved. Either way, it had all the trappings of a perfect bargaining piece. Annette was all set to snatch it, until her host seemed to approach her.
She looked over. Sagebear started to whimper at Harwood’s feet, and he got down to scratch the hound under her chin. “I noticed her following you,” he said. “So she’s yours?”
“Yup. That’s my Sagebear,” said Annette, noticing how he had his eyes on her dog, and not on his desk. “You can’t be sure of these things with strays, but the vet said she’s a Catahoula, probably purebred.”
“Aww, I love those dogs. My neighbors had one growing up. I begged my mum for one all the time.”
If Annette was successful, at least both of them took a liking to Harwood, and he liked at least one of them. Although her heart melted upon seeing her dog so happy, Annette had a job to do.
She rubbed her hands and snatched the ring box. In a split-second, it was off his desk and tucked under her bra strap.
Harwood seemed oblivious to that as they shared a coffee. He made it bitter enough to corrode metal, which was how Annette liked it, but with some cream. Her host drank it black and looked relaxed. “It could be a worse Sunday morning, spending it with some hellspawn who wants my talent.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty sweet. But, sober tonight, huh?” Annette asked. “What’s the occasion? Proposing to someone?”
“Oh, I wish,” Harwood said, with a longing stare in his eyes. He didn’t seem to notice her mentioning the ring, though. “It’s just an opening event at the art museum. They wanted me to be the keynote speaker, and as I said, the jobs aren’t pouring in. I’m taking what I can get for this one.”
“I can’t say that I’m an artsy type myself. But I wish you luck. Don’t freeze up at the podium.” She just needed to wait. A keynote speaker needed to dress sharp and accessorize, to make a good impression. Perhaps with an amethyst ring. “So, about my offer?”
He slouched back in his chair. “Come on, Annette. I’m fine with being your friend, if you need this old man for that, but I like my freedom too.”
“Well, I’m honored to have you as my crusty old friend. Hope you like drinking. It’s the only fun I know how to have.”
When she left, Annette and Sagebear took a casual jog to the center of town, back to the park. She adopted the hound to be of use, which could be for kisses and sleeping at her feet, but also was for sheer work. It turned out that even the amethyst ring could be of use too. She got the piece out of its box and up to Sagebear’s nose.
“Go find me more of that,” Annette commanded, pointing for the dog to go…elsewhere. Sagebear instead found a stray tennis ball.
“Well, we can try for round two,” said Annette, after patting her dog on the head.
Sagebear, being a hound and natural hunter by heritage, took to hunting after a few more tries. All she dug up at first were rocks with flecks of mica on the surface, but Annette considered it a start. She let Sagebear roam free as she checked out the town’s stores.
Unable to afford anything, Annette found a different way to shop.
Although she had the smarts to snatch jewelry from unsuspecting old men, Annette turned towards a legal grey area instead. She dug through unpleasant garbage, only to find the ultimate catch: a half-eaten breakfast burrito. It lay dangerously close to a dirty diaper, but Annette spent all her money on beer and supplies, with nothing left for real food. It still sounded like a better deal than eating Sagebear’s kibble.
After eating a tainted burrito before she could have second thoughts, Annette leaped in again. She swore that she saw an old ottoman towards the bottom of the trash heap. But alas, she had an interruption behind her.
“You…I honestly can’t believe you.” She wasn’t going to forget that voice so soon.
She got her head out of the garbage to find Harwood standing near her, angry and with crossed arms. “Oh, hey there Mr. Clay. Glad to see you haven’t gone senile.” She wriggled out of the dumpster’s smelly grasp to face the old man.
For the sake of the both of them, they attacked each other with words and nothing else. Annette could rip his jugular out with those fangs, and maybe he hid a chisel in his suit coat.
“You thief! I want my ring back,” he snarled.
“Not until you take up my offer,” said Annette, with her arms akimbo. “I didn’t steal it for giggles, did I? I knew you’d run after me.”
“I don’t care, Annette. That’s a horrible thing and I’m not siding with you because of it.”
“You don’t need to. But consider this!” Annette pointed a finger in his face for effect. “No one wants you any more. Your star has shone, and after this stupid speech, no one’s gonna hire you. No one but me. And you might have a lifetime of living with me, but guess what? At least I have real estate on the nicest lawn in town.”
He stood there fuming for a minute. “I have to get to the museum,” he said, in a flat voice. “And I want my ring back.” She threw the box at him.
“Amethysts are nice, you old man, but a tiberium ring would keep you afloat once your retirement savings run out,” Annette said, walking away from the scene. “I’m off to get plastered.”
So she walked away, to hail a taxi home and drink the lukewarm beer that Harwood refused. However, she did have to tear Sagebear away from sniffing some fat, middle-aged man standing near the bookstore’s entrance. After that, it was time for some alone time for Annette. Just her, the open lawn, and all six Harpoon IPAs.
In a stroke of luck, Annette got a bunch of shipping boxes filled with supplies she ordered. She might have been a little richer had she ordered nothing, but why be miserable when she could have an open fire and a cozy sleeping bag? Not to mention a cooler for those beers.
After drinking two of them, Annette took a seat by the fire pit, with Sagebear curled up near her. Tired and languid, she petted the dog’s fur a little bit but without much passion. Things could be nice if she tried hard. All her rules asked her to do was to be successful and to live forever…somehow. But Annette could figure those out.
Would she do it alone? With each car that passed by the lawn, she hoped that wouldn’t be the case.
A/N: Please don’t ask how I count the passage of time in this story. It’s…bullshitted. I do imagine The Sims, their general universe, being set vaguely in the future. Technology is a little better, and the world’s a little more socially progressive. Can’t say that I handle ages well at all, but Harwood’s at least has a source: he starts the game at 74 days old, assuming you’re using the unaltered normal lifespan.
Annette is estimated to be in her early 20’s, specifically 23 on the first day of summer in 2023. Now that was arbitrary!