The Profound Importance of Coasters by Alena Sullivan

Sometimes, when Molly gets home, she can hear the sound of a rainstorm coming from behind her roommate’s door– the low murmur of thunder, the patter of rain on leaves and earth, the soft rush of wind. Given modern technology, Molly supposes that it could be a sound file or a website or something, but it sounds strangely organic, and now and then, when Molly walks by on her way to the bathroom, a cool, damp breeze will sigh across her ankles from under the door and make her shiver.

Ava is nice, though, small and dark-eyed and, while her hair always looks a little damp and there’s almost always some paint smudged on her cheeks and fingers, she gives Molly her share of the rent several days before it’s due, so Molly does her best to ignore her growing and impossible certainty that there’s an actual rainstorm spending time in Ava’s room. For one thing, it would have spread to the living room by now, and for another, Molly refuses to believe anyone as nice as Ava would do anything as terrible as allow that much water damage to perfectly lovely hardwood.

That’s fine– it’s surprisingly easy, really, as soothing lies you tell yourself go– until the knights start showing up at the door.

#

“I’m sorry,” Ava says, ushering the latest one into the apartment and grimacing delicately at Molly. “I can’t help it, they’ve been sent on a quest.”

“A quest,” Molly repeats faintly, groping behind her for the couch and dropping heavily onto it. The knight is standing uncomfortably in the living room, shifting his weight from foot to foot, adjusting the hem of his tunic and occasionally clearing his throat awkwardly. Most importantly, he’s a knight, an honest-to-goodness one, with a sword and a shield and a helmet tucked under his arm and everything. Molly can hear what is almost definitely a horse nickering outside, and she tells herself, very firmly, not to look out the window. She doesn’t quite manage it, though, and squeezes her eyes shut against the sight of the enormous chestnut steed festooned in its own armor and livery, hitched to the railing of their steps and calmly munching on their hedge. She worries, rather obsessively, that the dirt the knight has tracked in from outside and all over her nicely swept floors is perhaps more than just dirt, and shudders a little at the chaos that is slowly consuming her perfectly orderly and sensible little corner of the world.

“Yes, well, I mean, it’s not like they’ve got a lot of other things to do these days,” Ava says over her shoulder from the kitchen, where she’s putting a kettle on to boil, as if the knight is just someone she’s invited over for tea. “Not a lot of dragons to slay or princesses to rescue, lately. Tea?”

The knight coughs into his fist, as though to say he’d quite like some tea, if it isn’t too much trouble, thank you, and Molly, her ingrained politeness getting the better of her, says, “Two cups, please.”

The knight nods his thanks and looks longingly at the squashy armchair in the corner.

“Uh,” Molly says, looking from him to Ava, who is clearly too busy making tea to be paying attention, “you can sit down, if you want.”

The knight shakes his head. “That is very kind of you, miss,” he says, ducking his head nervously. He’s really far too young to be a knight, Molly is pretty sure– seventeen or eighteen, maybe, which is just a ridiculous age for anyone to be handed a sword and put on a horse and sent on a quest. Not that that’s ever normal. But he’s still got acne, for god’s sake. “I couldn’t impose.”

“He’s just here for an artifact,” Ava says, rolling her eyes and handing a cup of tea each to the knight and to Molly, taking her own and perching on the arm of the couch. “He can’t have it, so he might as well get back on his horse and screw off.”

“An artifact?” Molly repeats, squinting at Ava. “Like…the holy grail?”

“No,” Ava and the knight say in unison, mouths pursed in distaste.

“Well, sorry,” Molly says, a little taken aback. “It’s not like I’m familiar with what is or isn’t gauche in terms of knightly quests and oh my god how is this a conversation I’m even having, Ava, seriously, why is there a knight in our living room?” She’s getting both irritated and self-conscious– she’s in house clothes, sweatpants and a baggy shirt with a worn-thin old cardigan over it, and her hair is basically a blonde bird’s nest; guests, however unwelcome they might be, really shouldn’t be seeing her like this, and she’s somehow being made to feel foolish for asking perfectly reasonable questions.

“Please, sorceress,” the knight says, setting his tea on the coffee table– on a coaster, which is more than Ava usually remembers to do, and Molly forgives him, just a little, for his sweaty, smelly, dirt-tracking-in presence in her home– “grant me your boon and I’ll be on my way.”

Ava frowns at him. “Okay, first, the term is wizard, sorceress is sexist and archaic, thank you. Second, you can’t have it, I made it, it’s mine, and it’s staying mine.”

“Please, sor–er, wizardess?–”

“Wizard, dude, just wizard, I’m a wizard, I’m a lady, what are they even teaching you guys these days? My ovaries and sundry do not disqualify me from being a wizard. Do you think when titling us, they’re like, Nope, you there, with the fallopian tubes, your ability to turn my body inside out with the wave of your hand is secondary to your internalized genitalia! or something? Because they don’t. Wizard. Lady. Both.” She sets her tea on the coffee table for emphasis, completely coasterless, and Molly cringes.

“Er, right,” the knight says, scratching at the back of his head uncomfortably. “Well, lady wizard, this is the quest put to us by our king– if you send me on my way, more will follow, and they might not be as mild-mannered as I.” He eyes Molly a little, possibly to impress upon her the lack of mild manners in other knights, or possibly just because she’s beginning to twitch a little as she looks at the ring beginning to form under Ava’s teacup.

“Yes, yes,” Ava says, getting to her feet and making her way to the door. “That’s all well and good, I’ve gotten the memo, thank you. My artifact is art, it is incredible and deeply symbolic art, and it is not for sale or quest or anything else. So, you know, thanks, and everything, but go away.” She opens the door, letting it swing out and smack against the wall with a bang that makes Molly cringe at the thought of the dent it’s going to leave. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. ”

Art,” the knight says disparagingly, throwing up his hands and striding out the door. “Art!” he shouts again from the bottom of their front steps.

Ava shuts and locks the door behind him, flopping down onto the couch and throwing her arm across her face dramatically. “God, that was tedious.”

Molly nods hesitantly. “Right,” she says, voice a little higher pitched than it normally is, “sure, yeah, but can we, um. Can we go back to the part where you’re a wizard?” Wizard was not what Ava had listed on her roommate application, alright, and while Molly would hate for anyone to think she’s in any way discriminatory or anything, these are things that are simply polite to let a potential roommate know.

“I mean, okay, I’m not a proper wizard anymore,” Ava says, shrugging. “I’m mostly just an art student. It got boring, okay? All the other wizards are like, you know, stodgy and mature–” she pronounces it like mat-oor, “–and, I don’t know, I just think it’s disturbing to get that serious and complacent, no matter how old you are. So, you know… art student.”

Which, yes, is what she’d said she was when Molly interviewed her as her potential roommate– art student, working for a gallery on the side, volunteering occasionally at a children’s arts and crafts center. Very low profile. Endearing. Charming, even. “Right,” Molly says, waiting for her to go on. It takes a minute for Ava to get the hint.

“Oh! I mean, right. I used to be a big wizard, though, like, wow, majorly wizard. Battles of armies, advising kings, making magical artifacts, that sort of deal.”

“And then?” Molly says, suspending her disbelief in the pursuit of a proper explanation.

“Well, and then King Arthur fell, and Robin Hood after that, and once all the interesting people stopped doing interesting things, I got bored and started conceptual sculptures, and, I don’t know, I make other things now.” She shrugs again. “I make artifacts sometimes, but mostly they’re sculptures that I think really capture the essence, you know?” Her eyes are enormous, she’s so earnest, and she’s beaming at Molly like Molly is supposed to understand something.

“Er,” Molly says, feeling incredibly disappointing. “The essence of what?”

“The essence,” Ava says, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “You know, like–like of the universe, of the rivers of power that flow through us, of the transcendence of consciousness and the fleeting nature of being–“

“Okay, right, that essence,” Molly says, just so Ava will stop gesticulating so wildly. She could put an eye out. “So, um, the knights?”

Ava sits back against the arm of the couch, huffing exasperatedly and rolling her eyes. “Oh, them,” she says, waving a hand. She starts picking at a loose thread on the hem of her baggy sweater, a nervous tick if Molly’s ever seen one. That’s when the suspicion starts, creeping its way up Molly’s spine, and sure enough–

“Well, I might have made a really intense artifact after my anthropology professor started talking about the nature of power and structural inequality—have you taken an anthro class? No? Well, okay, the point is, I just got really, like, engaged and I started thinking about the interconnectivity between the powerful and the powerless, and I was working on this art project at the time, and I might have sort of imbued an artifact with the power to rule the world. You know. Like you do.”

Molly rubs a hand across her forehead. “The power to…rule the world?”

“Well,” Ava says, studying her fingers intently and determinedly not looking at Molly at all, “I mean, it’s not going to summon an army or anything, it just… gives you the ability to bend people and cultural infrastructures to your own design. It’s like– it’s like harnessing inherent societal privilege! But with magic. I was feeling kind of megalomaniacal and had the vague idea of going for world domination after graduation. But then I decided on a minor in cultural anthropology and maybe like, I don’t know, grad school so I can do a dissertation on visual culture and power, and I don’t know, I might have put something about the artifact on Facebook, and so now…” she spreads her hands in her lap– whether to illustrate the situation or her own supposed blamelessness, Molly has no idea, and either way, it seems woefully inadequate–“Knights.”

And, just like that, there’s another knock on the door.

“Oh, geez,” Ava says, just as Molly opens her mouth to start explaining that none of this is okay or makes any sense or, seriously, is at all acceptable—who puts that sort of thing on Facebook? “I’m going to be super late for work. Can you handle that?” And then she’s gone into the depths of her room—it’s been raining in there again, Molly can hear muted birdsong and the drip of water off leaves—and Molly is left to deal with the absolute cataclysmic disaster that is suddenly her life.

Molly eyes the trail of dirty footprints left by the last guest, and the ring under Ava’s cup on the coffee table, and, sighing loudly to herself, takes two coasters off the end table and slides them onto the coffee table– one under Ava’s cup, one just out there, waiting for the inevitable barging-in of the next knight.

Somehow, she didn’t think that this was the sort of thing she’d be having to deal with in college. Boys, yes. Flaky artistic roommate, sure. But the boys were not supposed to be sweaty, horse-smelling knights with swords, and the flaky artistic roommate definitely was not supposed to be a wizard. Molly has her own classes. She has a Fundamentals of Econ exam on Wednesday! She has a life, thank you very much. A nice, orderly, small but satisfying sort of life with a practical major and a tidy house, and yes, alright, perhaps she’d like to be a little thinner or a little taller or a bit more academically talented, but she’d been quite content.

The knight at the door doesn’t seem to especially care when she tells him all of this, and just stares at her blankly until she gives up and says, “Ava isn’t here, and neither is her artifact.” Ava chooses that exact moment to sneak loudly out the back door, and the knight levels a steady glare at Molly, which, really, is just uncalled for. “Well, she isn’t anymore,” Molly says defensively, and, having had quite enough of this nonsense for one day, shuts the door in the knight’s face and goes to look at pictures of soothingly adorable cats on the internet.

#

Molly thinks she’s kept a pretty good handle on this whole mess, really, and is busy congratulating herself on her remarkable poise in the face of adversity when she realizes that it’s almost midnight, and Ava still isn’t back from work. She’s never been this late.

Molly spends a half hour telling herself that it’s no big deal, that Ava has probably stopped for groceries at the all-night Kroger or something, but Molly knows it isn’t true. She’s not sure who to call in this sort of situation, though– until this whole wizard debacle, she would call jails and hospitals if her roommate went missing, but she’s getting the feeling that dungeons and towers are probably more likely. Molly is fairly certain that most of those aren’t in the phonebook, and, in fact, probably don’t even have phones, unless they’re the kind of dungeons that her Aunt Jo works in, and she’s pretty sure that questing knights didn’t take Ava to one of those.

Then again, stranger things have happened today.

Once two in the morning rolls around, Molly’s self-assurances about Ava’s probable safety wear themselves thinner than old socks, and Molly is left staring at the damp bottom of an empty teacup and wondering, what, exactly, she’s expected to do in the face of all this. Ava has an art history exam tomorrow, and rent is due the day after, and Molly would really prefer it if she could keep her life together just a tiny, little bit in the face of all this insanity.

A long, low roll of thunder murmurs from behind the door to Ava’s bedroom, as if in answer. A thin trickle of water seeps out across the hardwood, making its way towards Molly’s feet.

Molly decides that it’s probably for the best to pretend that this is some sort of divine assistance or implied permission and makes for Ava’s door–grabbing a dish towel on the way and mopping up the water as she goes. Best not to let it settle.

The door’s handle is innocuous, brassy and round, but it’s an unearthly cool under her palm when she touches it, and there’s a thin film of condensation on the metal. It’s completely soundless when she turns it, and she can’t quite stop herself from letting go of it uneasily as the door swings open into a rainstorm.

The floor of Ava’s bedroom–which Molly can personally attest was hardwood, just like the rest of the apartment, before Ava moved into it–is gone entirely, replaced with rich, dark brown earth and a smattering of leaves, presumably shed by the half-dozen trees making up Ava’s bizarre version of a bed. Or perhaps by the ones that have replaced three of the walls, towering up into a foggy infinity that makes Molly a bit dizzy to look at. The fourth wall is all bookshelves, somehow dry in spite of the pouring rain and dripping trees. Molly tries to ignore the fact that she’s absolutely never going to get her security deposit back.

“If I were an artifact,” Molly mutters, stepping gingerly into the room, cringing a little at the touch of cold, wet dirt on the soles of her feet, “where would I be?”

If the knights were after this thing that Ava made, maybe giving it to them will bring Ava back, or at least provide Molly some sort of bargaining power. Visions of herself as the capable heroine flash through her mind, just a bit–her finding a way to sort out all this chaos and diplomatically bringing an end to the sea of young knights sent to their door. Maybe even getting Ava to stop with this whole wizard thing entirely and put back the hardwood floor. In this vision, Ava also starts putting cups on coasters and washes the paint off her face and hands sometimes.

The bookshelves seem like the most logical place for something of import to be–they, after all, are dry. Maybe the rain is a magical rain, something that parts for things Ava feels are important.

Whether that’s the case or not, the rain utterly fails to part for Molly, and she is immediately soaked to the skin as she makes her way toward the shelves. Under this fall of water, everything feels unreal; her skin prickles constantly, the nape of her neck itching with the sense of almost-knowing something that usually only comes to her when there’s a word right on the tip of her tongue or she’s hit with a sense of déjà vu. This is neither of those, though, just the profound sensation that the entire world is not at all what she’s spent her whole life expecting it to be. Something flutters a little in her gut at that, the sort of fluttering thing that says that if all of this madness is possible, perhaps Molly herself could be something bigger, something greater and braver than the smallness and comfort of the life she’s built.

Molly shakes the dreams of grandeur from her head and ignores the fluttering in favor of perusing the bookshelves. As nice as her parents were and as supportive as her upbringing might have been, as good as Molly’s grades are, she just doesn’t have the genes for heroism or even whatever sort of haphazard majesty Ava has cultivated for herself.

The books are much less strange and wizardly than Molly would have expected if she’d taken the time to expect anything at all instead of just worrying about Ava and being entirely gobsmacked about this whole thing in general. There’s a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice, a clearly never-opened copy of The Scarlet Letter, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in what looks like Portuguese. There are a plethora of anthropology textbooks, coffee table art books, collections of poetry. On the bottom shelf of the furthest bookshelf to the left is a series of spectacularly tattered three-ring binders with college-ruled paper sticking out of them at strange angles, one of which reads Ava and Gawain 4ever in pink highlighter. Molly spares a moment to be exasperated at the fact that someone so old as Ava apparently is can be so utterly child-minded.

Focusing, Molly considers the things in front of the books–as it happens, the front bit of every single shelf is covered in stuff.

Little figurines of elephants, cats, badgers, Egyptian deities, seals. A tiny, archaic model of a globe. A series of crystals arranged in what looks like no particular order, but which Molly would hesitate to move, anyway. A few pairs of earrings, scattered higgledy-piggledy. A fake lavender plant in a pot with a crooked label reading Psychic; Handle With Care. A baffling array of teapots, both miniature and full-sized. Cups full of balding paintbrushes, pens, pencils, markers. Tubes of paint and cups full of water stained odd colors, paintbrushes sticking out of them haphazardly. A row of small cauldrons made of copper and cast iron, empty. An actual dead squirrel, stuffed and posed with a cartoonish wizard hat, on a stand inscribed: Smith V, Most Majestic of Squirrels. An inordinate number of things have chickens on them–shot glasses, coffee mugs, little chicken statuettes, erasers shaped like chickens, even a teapot in the shape of a chicken.

Nothing, however, that looks at all like an artifact that would bestow the holder with the potential power to rule the world.

Despite the distinct lack of a lead, Molly continues examining everything in the hopes of finding a way to get her roommate back.

“Dude,” Ava’s voice says, strangely distant, from the direction of the door. “Snooping, much?” She’s standing there, perfectly intact, arms crossed, clearly not kidnapped by knights and tortured for the whereabouts of her magical items. The doorway is much further away than it was before—the forest of Ava’s bedroom seems to be an actual forest in her presence, which is decidedly unsettling.

“I–“ Molly is somewhere between aghast and relieved. “I wasn’t snooping. I was, well, you know– I thought you’d been kidnapped.”

Ava snorts. “And, what, you thought you were going to rescue me–me— with my collection of chicken memorabilia and Fuzzy the Psychic Plant?”

“Of course not,” Molly retorts, a little wounded despite her embarrassment. “I was going to use your artifact as a bargaining chip to get you back from the knights.”

Ava rolls her eyes enormously, her distain actually palpable. “You’re kind of an idiot. Even if I had been kidnapped, I would’ve gotten free eventually. I am a wizard, you know.”

“You have an art history exam tomorrow,” Molly mutters defensively. “I was only thinking of you.” The idea that Ava could think she’s an idiot, let alone the sort of person who snoops for the purpose of snooping– it’s hurtful. That, and, well, she feels a bit guilty for the thoughts of heroism she’d entertained, however briefly. She’s not meant to be the rescuing type– the most heroic Molly is likely to be is loaning Kelly from Literature 102 her notes on Paradise Lost, and even then, her notes aren’t particularly impressive.

Ava huffs and crosses the room–forest– to the bookshelves and Molly. Molly is a little appeased when Ava, too, is immediately soaked by the rain. Apparently being a wizard doesn’t exempt her from weather, even when that weather is magical.

“Of course you were,” Ava says, patting Molly’s arm in a way that might be meant to be soothing, but is actually a little condescending. “That’s how you’re made. Polite. An unthreatening, white, skinny, upper middle-class, educated American girl. Properly socialized to be dainty and unassuming while still clever enough to be interesting, but not too clever, not too interesting. The sort of person that people will listen to, will want to protect and comfort and make smile.”

Molly thinks that’s sort of oddly specific, and rather inappropriately blunt, but she’s mostly glad that Ava is back. She wishes she were skinny, or dainty, or, really, more than any of that, clever. There’s been a feeling something akin jealousy forming in her stomach since all of this began, since paint-covered Ava, odd and wildly impolite as she was, turned out to be this great and impressive thing. “Sure,” she says, mustering up a polite smile. “You’re soaked, Ava. Should I make us some tea?”

Ava smiles back, shrugging a shoulder. “If you want.” She loops an arm through Molly’s, leading the way to the distant doorway. The rain is no gentler this time, pounding furiously against them as they make for the other side of the room, and Molly wonders if maybe Ava makes it that way on purpose, if something about the wildness of the weather makes her feel quieter on the inside. It’s doing the opposite to Molly; she feels like someone has stirred her up and left her whirling.

“Where were you, anyways?” Molly asks, belatedly, when they’ve made their way down the hallway and into the kitchen. She strips off her wet cardigan and hangs it over a chair to dry, leaving her soaked sweats and shirt as-is for the moment– she doesn’t really want to stop to change entirely until she’s got the kettle on, and she’s going to have to mop the floors after all this anyways. She fills it methodically, clicking the whistling lid shut and settling it on the stovetop. She turns the handle, lets it click and light, a minute roar of blue flame billowing up under the kettle’s metal belly. She puts two bags of Barry’s Gold in the teapot on the counter– this one is hers, not one of Ava’s strange ones, and it’s covered in patterns of clover and flowers; it’s tidy, pretty.

Ava hums a little, shrugging one shoulder again. It’s less of a gesture of nonchalance, somehow, and more of a suggestion that she isn’t really sure. “Out,” she says easily. “Around. Doing stuff. Things.”

Molly is fairly certain that that doesn’t actually constitute an answer, but she doesn’t feel like she’s meant to pry, either. Ava has her own way of doing things, and she doesn’t like when Molly pushes. That is, after all, why there are condensation rings all over Molly’s antique coffee table– Ava’s way doesn’t involve coasters. Molly might be slightly bitter about that. Only a little bitter. Possibly intensely bitter. She has the sensation, sometimes, that, if everyone would just stop being irritating and infringing on her basic sense of order, she might actually get something interesting or meaningful to come out of her life. In lieu of that, though, she would really just be happy if people could start engaging in basic sorts of courtesy. People being, in particular, Ava.

The kettle whistles, and Molly loses herself in the simple ritual of making tea.

Ava watches, strangely alert, and Molly pretends to ignore it.

#

There’s a knock on the door after Molly and Ava’s second pot of tea has brewed, just as Molly is pouring it into their teacups. Ava’s is more of a mug, really, too big to be properly called a teacup, but Molly’s is a delicate china thing that matches the teapot, all scrawled over with frail depictions of flora. The knock is loud enough that her cup rattles a bit in its saucer.

“I’ll get it,” Ava says, covering her mouth to hide a yawn as she stretches and stands up. Her sweater is only half-dry at this point, and it smells like wet wool and something electric, not entirely unpleasant. Molly wonders if that’s the smell of magic and then rolls her eyes at herself.

Ava pads to the front door in damp sock feet, leaving little wet smudges across the hardwood that Molly will have to mop up later. She sets her mug down on the coffee table as she goes, completely missing all five coasters, and Molly cringes inwardly at the thought of yet another ring on the antique wood.

This time, when Ava swings the door open, the knight behind it crashes through without waiting for an invitation. He barrels into Ava, knocking her over, and makes straight for Molly.

Given that she’s never been attacked by a chainmail-clad man in her kitchen before, Molly is frozen for too long, entirely at a loss for what to do, and by the time she’s made up her mind to get up and have a very stern word with this man from a safe distance, the knight has flung the kitchen table aside, snatching Molly out of her chair and holding her in front of him like a shield. She watches with a removed sort of dismay as her teacup smashes into the hardwood floor and shatters. Less mild-mannered, indeed, she thinks numbly.

“Give me your artifact, sorceress!” the knight demands imperiously.

Ava is standing up, brushing herself off, looking for all the world like an annoyed cat. “There’s no call to be so rude about it, god. My women’s studies professor was totally right, men these days feel so entitled.” She scrunches up her nose. “It’s all about the patriarchy with you lot, isn’t it?”

“Um,” Molly says as the knight’s grip on her tightens quite uncomfortable. “If you could not make him angry, Ava, please–“

“Give me the artifact!” the knight roars, flinging Molly roughly in the direction of the smashed table and drawing his sword in one motion. Molly lands on the sad remains of her cup, a piece of porcelain slicing through the sleeve of her shirt and biting into her shoulder. It’s almost numb from the cold remains of the rain, but not as numb as Molly would like, really.

Ava huffs. “Well, see, you just had it, and then you went and chucked it away like a completely stupid teacup.” She waves her hand in his direction, presumably indicating his having thrown Molly, which is ridiculous, because Molly doesn’t have the artifact, all snooping aside.

“Teacup?” the knight repeats, momentarily stymied, brow furrowed, clearly trying to work out how a teacup might be defined as stupid.

“Teacup,” Ava repeats, waving her hand again. This time, the smell of wet wool is decidedly overpowered by the smell of electricity, and in the space of a blink, there is a teacup sitting on the floor where the knight had stood.

“Woah,” Molly says, completely without permission from her brain.

“Right?” Ava says, picking up the teacup– patterned, not with flowers, but with elegant little shields and silhouettes of horses– and holding it out for Molly. “I thought you might need a new one,” she says, more gently than she usually speaks.

Molly smiles and reaches out to take it, wincing as she jostles the cut on her shoulder.

Ava waves her hand over the cut and it knits itself together, pushing the chip of porcelain out painlessly as it goes. “Not too much damage,” she says, looking at the freshly made line of new, pink skin.

It’s the way she says damage that reminds Molly. “I don’t have the artifact, you know.”

“Of course you don’t,” Ava says, rolling her eyes as she helps Molly to her feet and brushes her off. “You are the artifact.”

Molly looks at Ava for a long moment, that statement echoing ominously a little bit before it sinks into Molly’s brain properly. “What?” she asks numbly. “What does that even mean?”

Ava pulls the thoroughly battered remnants of the kitchen table up into a standing position and flicks her fingers at them until they settle into a table-shape again and merge. The sight of more magic is distracting enough that it takes Molly a few extra seconds to digest it when Ava says, “It means I made you.”

When it does settle in, Molly shouts– actually shouts, which is almost unthinkable, and she’s embarrassed almost as soon as she’s done it– “You made me?” Ava didn’t make her, she has parents, and a childhood, and you don’t just make people, even if you are a wizard– unless, Molly supposes, it’s in the usual sort of nine-months-taking way, and even then, Ava is definitely not Molly’s mother, Molly’s biological mother was a teenage failure, and her adoptive mother was blonde, and dignified, and, yes, okay, a little aloof and distracted, but decidedly normal.

Ava looks honestly taken aback by Molly’s indignation, as though it had never crossed her mind that what she’d done was really, unbelievably terrible. “No, okay, see, it’s flattering, it’s not a bad thing,” Ava says, hands fluttering. “It’s like– it’s like you’re this totally perfect work of art. You’re this symbol–“

“I’m not a symbol, Ava, my god, I’m a person.”

Ava waves that off. “Sure. Well–okay, only kind of, but self-identity is a really important part of personal narrative and socialization, so I mean, I guess you can be a person if you want to?” She shrugs it off, as though Molly’s verisimilitude to personhood is of absolutely no consequence to her. “But, like, way more importantly, okay, you’re a symbol, a symbol of the cultural values in Western society at this exact point in time. It’s so much better than painting, right? Like, I made something that means something, I made this artifact that perfectly embodies the values of contemporary culture, which means it’s the perfect tool to be able to rule the world, you know? If you–“

Molly loses the rest of what Ava is saying as she thinks about what that means and why it can’t be true at all. She’s not thin enough, not smart enough, not rich or elegant or funny enough to be anyone’s idea of perfect, let alone someone capable of ruling the world. It’s ludicrous, and she says so.

“Well, okay, no,” Ava says, waving that off, too. “Part of being a symbol of Western culture is that you have to have the nuances of our society, like always thinking you’re too fat or your boobs aren’t big enough or something, you know? If you were content with who you were, you wouldn’t, like– you wouldn’t aspire to be anything more than what you are, which completely just shoots capitalist culture in the butt and would defeat the entire purpose altogether.”

Molly would really like to demand what the entire purpose could possibly be, but she doesn’t like this, doesn’t like conflict or uncertainty. She’s spent her entire life organizing her entire life– her books are alphabetized, her teas are in neatly labeled tins, her cups always go on coasters, damn it.

That’s what sets her off. It’s the coasters.

“Why?” she demands of Ava, pushing at her roommate’s shoulder in a depressingly futile sort of gesture. “Why on earth would you make me care about coasters? Why would you make something so small bother me so enormously? It makes me crazy,” she snaps, shoving again. “If I’m all these things that you say I am– and I’m not, it’s ridiculous, I have parents and I had a childhood, Ava, it’s not true, but if I were– wouldn’t I be trying to rule the world and everything, not looking at water rings and getting nauseous about them? Why would you ever do that to someone?”

Ava beams at her, entirely unabashed, proud of herself, even. “I didn’t,” she says simply. “Also, come on, you know you’re adopted. That paperwork isn’t exactly hard to magic up, you know?”

“What?” Molly asks, blinking owlishly at her, stumped for the moment. Not about being adopted– of course she knew she was adopted, her biological mother was a teenager who wasn’t prepared to be a mother and was failing out of high school as it was, which has always sort of contributed to Molly’s sense of innate inadequacy, but is beginning to make a new kind of (incredibly annoying) sense.

“I didn’t make you care about coasters,” Ava explains, not unkindly. “I made you focused, I made you organized, detail-oriented, but I didn’t– I didn’t have to make you care about coasters. You have this really, like, advanced sense of import. You think, hey, this thing is beautiful and it’s valuable and it’s mine, and if it has rings on it, it will be less beautiful to me, and less valuable to other people if I decide it’s not going to be mine anymore and want to sell it. And okay, I made you able to recognize value and determine logical courses of action and stuff, but like–“ she stops, putting her hands on Molly’s shoulders and squeezing a little in her excitement, and her eyes look old, and possibly a little wise as well as their usual manic. “But I didn’t do anything to determine what you thought was beautiful. Or what you want to do– the point wasn’t having you rule the world, okay, the point was that you could. You’re the one who decides what’s important to you, what’s yours.”

Molly thinks about her antique coffee tables, her walnut kitchen table, her lace curtains, her embroidered cushions, and thinks, a little more fiercely than she’s proud of, Mine.

Ava is grinning, and it’s part mad-scientist– which she sort of is, really, whatever she wants to call this whole wizard thing– but it’s also part proud parent. That doesn’t make Molly as angry as it should. She wonders if her passivity is another thing Ava made in her, or if it’s something, like her tables and her curtains, that’s just hers.

“What am I supposed to do now?” Molly asks, spreading her hands to illustrate the helplessness of the entire situation.

“Well, I mean, that’s– that’s kind of the point of the piece,” Ava says. Molly doesn’t even bother to point out that she isn’t a piece of art; Ava’s artistic mania is beyond reason, really. She’s clearly insane, but if this is all true, then there’s probably no helping it at this point. “Like, we’re all fashioned by our society’s values and the way we’re socialized by our parents and our friends and like, the public education system and the stuff we see in the media. I mean, yeah, I made you, but I didn’t really, like make you. We’re all made by our culture, man.” Her manic smile falters a little, just a little hitch, and Molly wonders, for a moment, what pressed on Ava so much that she needs to express this so badly, that she needed to manifest something that literally explained her feelings about the state of the world, even at the expense of ethics.

“What are you getting at?” Molly asks. She’s just tired now– she can’t help but think of the things that must have happened in all the years Ava has seen if she’s been around as long as she says she has, all the things she’s made and lost and hoped for, and how all of that somehow led to her being an incredibly immature art student and a megalomaniac and also someone that, despite all of that, Molly sort of likes, is sort of glad exists in her world.

“I’m getting at the fact that we’re all stuck with that,” Ava says, smile turning wry. “We’re all made by other people and their ideas of what we’re supposed to be and like, the collective presence of our society shaping us. We all know we have the potential to be brilliant artists or musicians or scientists or, say, take over the world, if we’d just get our shit together and get out from in front of the computer or the TV or stop worrying about what size pants we wear or whatever.” She uses her hold on Molly’s shoulder to tug on her a little, and Molly, despite her simmering irritation, goes with it, lets Ava pull her into a hug. It’s a little too tight, but Molly is sort of okay with it anyway. “I made you, but you aren’t any different. You have the same free will as anybody else in this culture does– you’re the same. You do what you want.”

Molly’s throat catches on a sob, a raw, visceral sound of relief, and she buries her head in Ava’s shoulder. The idea that maybe she’s more clever than she thinks she is, the idea that she could be something– not something that rules the world, that’s still unfathomably insane, but something that impresses people, impresses herself, moreover– it’s bigger and more consuming than the absurdity or the anger. She thinks, distractedly, that she’s going to change her major from business to something wildly impractical that people will frown on, like history or Russian literature or something.

“I mean, that was sort of the point, you know?” Ava adds, completely ruining the moment. “It’s awesome, it’s basically photorealism.”

Molly kicks Ava in the shin without pulling out of the embrace. “Shut up, you’re an idiot,” she mutters into Ava’s shoulder, voice thick with tears. She’d be embarrassed about all the snot she’s getting on Ava’s sweater, but, well, Ava apparently made Molly and her snot in the first place, so she can just reap what she’s sown as far as Molly is concerned. “You’re an idiot, and you’re going to start using coasters from now on. Idiot.”

“I am not,” Ava says, hugging Molly a little tighter, despite the petulance of her tone. “I’m totally a wizard.”

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