"I'm her real girl-friend!" said Conchita.
"Not like them. She's just thrown together all the women she can think of, and I just bet she'll be spending the whole time wishing her best friend Charlene would come back from LA. Anyway, I'm pretty sure she doesn't really want me there – I'm too young for her."
"No, no, she'd love it if you wanted to go. I think she just figures it's not your kind of thing."
"I dunno, maybe... and she's right, if so. You'll all drink and talk about things I'm not interested in, like having full-time jobs and sex with men. Sorry."
"Oh, don't be sorry on my account. I'll see you some other time."
"You absolutely will," said Rose. "You'll be coming to Anna's Halloween party, for one thing."
Conchita laughed. "Oh, will I?" This was the first she'd heard of it.
"Of course you will. I need you there – you know I'm not really a party person. But she got an idea from a book she's reading by this slightly weird, really spiritual Irish woman, and now she's all excited to try it herself."
"It's supposed to be a kind of subversion of the costume thing, I think... although it is dressing up in costumes." Then a voice came through from the background, the words unclear but the tone clearly indignant, and Rose called to it, "Sorry, babe!" Then, to Conchita, "Apparently we're going as our 'true selves': what we feel like on the inside, like we're all secretly ghosts and goblins and demons and things who normally walk around disguised as humans, and for Halloween we take off our disguises and be who we really are. Right, babe?" she said more loudly.
"Right!" Anna's voice called back.
"I don't get it," Rose added, very quietly indeed.
"I'd get it if I felt different on the inside," said Conchita. "But I don't. I didn't know Anna did."
"I don't really think she does," said Rose, even more quietly. "Look, just pick something nice to wear. I don't guess she's gonna quiz everyone on how their outside represents their inside."
"What are you going as?"
"I have no idea."
"I'll help you think of something. Ooh, I know – let's go dress shopping!"
"I'll make up my mind real quick, I promise," Conchita said in wheedling tones. "And I'll find you something perfect, and then I'll buy you whatever you want for lunch."
"Okay, fine," said Rose, with an indulgent little laugh. "I'm still your favourite doll, aren't I?"
"Well, yes!" said Conchita. "I've grown out of all the other ones."
Marie Lupin, in the seat behind, smacked her none too gently on the shoulder and said, "You've changed since you had that baby."
Jessica twisted her neck to frown at her. "Excuse me! Since when is my son 'that baby'?"
"Are you going to have another one soon?" asked Conchita. She was also in the back; between her and Marie sat TJ Anderson, who had been assigned the middle seat by virtue of being the shortest.
Jessica laughed. "How long have you been wanting to ask that?"
"Not long," said Conchita. "Only since it hit me that Tom's turning one this month."
Eden had pulled into a parking space outside Jessica's chosen bar/restaurant. The five women filed out of the car while Jessica said, "I thought I'd suggest trying in the new year, since you asked."
"Oh, yay!" said Conchita, clapping her hands like an excited little girl.
Once inside, Jessica shepherded her friends towards a table and made them choose something to eat, then went to the bar to order it. When she came back with the first round of drinks, she resumed the conversation with, "Then after I have that baby, I'm getting my tubes tied."
The others, with the exception of the unflappable Marie, looked a little stunned. Then Conchita said, "Wow, really?"
"Sure, why not?" said Jessica.
"Because what if you decide you want to have another one?" said Conchita.
Jessica shook her head. "There's a real overpopulation problem on this planet. You know all about that, Chita – you're Generation Z."
"Well..." Conchita said, somewhat guiltily; that was the one conservation issue she tried not to think about.
"You can have the process reversed if you want to," said Eden.
"I won't want to," said Jessica.
From there, another of Rose's predictions about the night came true: Jessica's explanation of her decision very much revolved around sex with men, or rather a man.
"Just whenever, wherever," she surmised, after what Conchita considered to be a slight over-share, and Eden and TJ no doubt thought a very large one. "And no need to think about anything else."
"He'll like that," said Marie.
"So will I," said Jessica.
TJ rolled her eyes and said to the other two, "It didn't take them long, did it?"
"What do you mean 'them'?" said Marie. "No one's being excluded here. Hey, Edie, have you had sex with your hot doctor yet?"
"You don't have to answer that, Eden," TJ said quickly.
"Thank you, I know," said Eden.
"Okay," said Marie, with exaggerated patience. "So, how is it going with you and Edward?"
"It's going just fine, thank you," said Eden.
"Is it really?" said Conchita. "That's great! I'm so happy for you."
"And she means it, too," said Jessica. "How about you, Chita? Are you still seeing your cop?"
"Yes," said Conchita, "and before anyone asks, I haven't had sex with him."
Marie rested her chin on her hand and cocked an eyebrow at her. "Yet?"
"I don't know, maybe." Conchita didn't want to say more than that. She and Dennis had kissed several times since their first date, for longer than three seconds and with more than lips only, and it had awoken something in her that was unfamiliar and almost frightening. Then, too, there was the way he looked at her, like he wanted her but not like she was some kind of indifferent pin-up, as others had looked at her. This also made her feel something new, and she wouldn't have wanted to share that now even if she had completely understood it.
"Well," said Marie, "do you want to or not?"
"Marie," said Jessica, "remember, not everyone's as open to personal questions as I am."
"I can ask," said Marie. "She doesn't have to answer."
"I really like him," said Conchita. "But normally if I sleep with them, they turn into dicks."
Marie sniggered. "They don't turn into those, honey – they've been there the whole time."
Jessica laughed and punched her on the arm. "That one's worthy of my husband." Then she looked at Conchita and said, in a completely different tone, "Oh, it's not fair, is it? Me and Edie with our unlooked-for Mr Rights... I mean, I used to think that was all bullshit."
"I hardly used to think about it at all," said Eden.
"And here's poor Chita," Jessica went on, "kissing frog after frog after frog, and they never turn into princes."
"Well, not yet," said TJ. "Honestly, Jessica! You don't have to rub it in."
Jessica smiled sheepishly at Conchita. "Sorry. It just suddenly struck me."
"Jess," said Conchita, as good-naturedly as ever, "remember when you said this girls' night was going to cheer me up?"
"Shit," said Jessica, and laughed.
"I'll cheer you up, Chita," said Marie, who had no idea that it was Conchita's professional rather than personal life that had got her down, more than two weeks ago now. "Don't think of them as frogs. Think of them as... oh... what's an animal you can have really great sex with and it doesn't matter if you're not in love with it?"
There was a moment's silence. Then TJ said, "There isn't an animal like that."
"I mean allegorically," said Marie. "Like the frogs. There must be one."
"Um." Eden seemed to think seriously about this for a moment. Then, "No, sorry."
"Never mind," said TJ. "I think you've made your point. So Chita, what's his name, this 'cop' of yours?" It sounded as though "cop" was not a word often used in British English.
"Dennis Wu," said Conchita, and found that she liked saying his name more than she had realised.
"Dennis Wu," Marie echoed. Then she let out a rock concert-style "Whooo!", and laughed.
"Well, she's pissed already," said TJ.
"No way," said Marie. "I've had one. Surely you've noticed I'm like this all the time."
"I think you may be worse on a night out," said TJ.
"Let's talk about something else," said Conchita. "Let's not be a bunch of women who can't talk about anything but men. Like, how's ghostbusting?"
Their food came, and while they ate, they discussed ghostbusting and counselling and Jessica's sudden urge to renovate another house before she had her second baby. This brought Marie back to the subject of sex, of course, and Conchita supposed she deserved credit for waiting that long.
"If you're trying to get pregnant," Marie said, "I guess you'll give up the hot tub thing for a while, won't you? I mean, you don't want it all getting washed away."
"Jesus," muttered TJ.
"Don't blaspheme on my account," said Jessica. "I don't mind telling you about that if you want to know, but I really don't think any of you does want to know."
"Tell Chita," said Marie, not at all seriously. "She can try it with her cop."
"I don't have a hot tub," said Conchita. "And I doubt he has one in his rented apartment."
"I'm sure Jess'll let you use hers," said Marie. "I just bet it'd put the 'Whooo!' in Dennis Wu."
"Hopefully that's already there," said Jessica. Then she looked at Conchita and added, "Not that you aren't welcome to use my hot tub if you want to. All of you." She looked around the table. "For relaxing or whatever – it doesn't have to be sexual."
"No?" said Marie. "There's not a rule about that in your house? You surprise me."
Jessica shook her head at the others. "She makes me sound worse than I am. She makes me sound as bad as her."
Marie was indignant. "I thought you were as bad as me!"
"Not quite," said Jessica. "What I like best about you is that you make my drive seem normal."
"Your drive is normal," said Marie. "If you've been comparing yourself to certain other people..."
"Marie," said Jessica, "how about you calm down and get the next round of drinks?"
Marie did not object at all. "You're the boss," she said, and stood up to go to the bar.
Jessica turned back to the others. "She's embarrassing you, isn't she? And making me do it too. I'm sorry – I didn't mean to sound like I was handing out pleasure rides in my hot tub."
"I think we've all been put off your hot tub completely now," said TJ.
"Okay, I get you," said Jessica. "I'll try to get her to stop."
"I'd like that," said Conchita. She was leaning her chin on one hand, staring into her salad bowl and twiddling one of the remaining leaves between her finger and thumb. "I can't talk to her about that because I don't get it."
"What do you mean?" said Jessica.
"I mean," said Conchita, "I don't understand what all the fuss is about."
"Oh!" said Jessica.
There followed a moment's silence, which TJ then hastily filled with, "Well, that's all right."
"It's all right with me," said Conchita, looking up at last, and seeing that even Jessica didn't look completely horrified. "But it wouldn't be all right with Marie. She'd feel sorry for me and stuff... probably start giving me all kinds of weird advice."
"I feel sorry for you," said Jessica.
"I thought you would," said Conchita, "but it's okay because you're not making a big deal out of it."
"It's not a big deal," said Jessica. "It happens. It makes me think even worse of your exes, though."
"Well," said Conchita, "it's not all down to them."
"Hey, don't be nice about them," said Jessica. "I'll bet they didn't even try, did they?"
Conchita didn't know what to say to that. She looked over at the bar to check on Marie and saw that she was talking to an attractive barman, perhaps giving him their drinks order, perhaps not.
"Anyway," said Jessica, "it shouldn't be all right with you. All women deserve to feel as good as I know they can, with whoever they want or by themselves or whatever. I really believe that."
"There's an evolutionary theory about that," Eden piped up suddenly.
"God, what?" said Jessica, dropping her serious tone to laugh indulgently.
"Mate selection," said Eden. "Whether... you know... it happens or not is an indicator of how caring a potential partner is. That's why it can happen, even though it's not biologically necessary, but it's not that easy."
"Jeez, Spengs," said Jessica, still laughing. "The important thing is that it happens; who the hell cares why it happens?"
"Scientists," Eden said earnestly. "It is only a theory, mind you."
"It makes sense, though," said TJ.
"True," said Jessica. "Actually, Chita, I was thinking something along those lines myself: I was thinking that when you find someone who actually deserves you, he'll make it happen."
"Or at least, he'll try," added TJ, as Marie reappeared with the drinks.
"Who? What? What'd I miss?" she demanded.
"Oh, nothing," said Jessica. "Very boring for you. We were just saying how much effort the boys are gonna have to put in if they want to deserve our girls." (Very clever avoidance of a direct lie, Conchita thought; she wouldn't have known what to say!)
"Right!" said Marie, resuming her seat and looking first at Eden, then at Conchita. "You be sure and listen to her, you two. Don't let those guys think they can have it all their own way just because they happen to be Dr Edward Sanders and Officer Dennis Wu. Whooo!"
"Marie," said TJ, rather sternly. "Are you absolutely sure that's not racist?"
Marie looked at her. "Of course I'm sure, TJ – I'm half Asian."
"That doesn't sound right," said Eden, with a pensive frown. "You're half Japanese, and the Japanese don't have that kind of surname."
"Right," said Jessica, elbowing Marie so hard that she almost fell off her seat. "At best, you're not qualified to judge; at worst, you're one of those people who are like, 'Oh, it's all the same'."
"Okay," said Marie, "so you're ganging up on me. Fine. I'll be that person, if somebody has to be ganged up on. I'm not as sensitive as the rest of you."
"We'd noticed," said Jessica, giving Conchita a confiding smile across the table, and she smiled gratefully back.
"You'll break something if you're not careful," Rose said eventually. "And those look expensive."
"They're on sale," said Conchita. "There has to be a bargain in here somewhere. Ooh, look at this one! What do you think, Rosy – do I feel like a mermaid on the inside?"
She had pulled out a silver dress of the kind that has no visible means of support on the upper body, and seems to stay up by sheer faith. Rose looked at it and said doubfully, "Mermaid?"
"Aha," said Conchita. "Strapless, sort of shimmery, fishtail skirt..."
Rose's gaze dropped to the bottom of the dress. "Fishtail."
"Okay," said Conchita, "we're at the stage of one-word responses. I'll get this one and then we'll find something for you really quick. Then lunch."
"Only get it if you like it," said Rose, suddenly putting in a great effort to sound interested. "I'm sorry – I just don't know as much about clothes as you do."
"I do like it," said Conchita. "And it'll go with Dad's pendant."
"Okay, yeah, I can see it now." Rose had stepped back to give the dress more than just a cursory look. "Y'know, considering the theme, this'd be a good costume idea for Max; he's the water baby."
Conchita cocked an eyebrow. "You think Max would look good in this?"
Rose smiled. "Okay, maybe not. But you are going to look ridiculously hot in it."
"I'd better try it on. You come with me – I want your opinion."
Rose's opinion did not change: she thought her sister looked ridiculously hot in the dress, and said so. Then she added, "If you can walk in it, that is."
Conchita tried. The whole garment was tight down to the knees, where the skirt fanned out into the elegant "fishtail" style. She thought she looked good in it: that the shape flattered her long limbs, and the silver contrasted well with her autumnal colouring. She imagined showing herself to Dennis like that, and liked the idea, especially when it turned out she could move around just fine.
"How can you look so natural in crap like that?" said Rose.
"Maybe I'm just a freak," said Conchita, as she reached behind her to unhook the back. "I'll take it, and I'll find you something with a nice, flowing skirt that you can just glide around in. Ooh, I know – we'll dress you as a little forest pixie. A rose fairy! You could wear your pendant too."
"That would mean finding wings."
"No, not today. I'll bet you or one of your artsy friends can make wings out of hangers or something. Really sophisticated-looking ones – no kids' stuff."
"That reminds me of the book that started this whole thing," said Rose. "Anna gave it to me to read when she was done; the protagonist goes as a fairy with sophisticated, grown-up wings like you're talking about. I still don't get it... I mean, she's kind of earthy and stuff, but I don't see why she's a fairy any more than, like, a dryad or some kind of animal or something."
Conchita gave her the silver dress to hold and began putting her everyday clothes back on. "Anna would like it if your costume was directly inspired by the book. It would mean you're really buying into her idea."
"Would it? Or would it mean I was being lazy and unoriginal?"
"Well... let's see what we can find and then decide!"
Soon enough, Conchita had found a comfortable and versatile olive green dress that Rose thought she could perhaps turn into something woodsy. She'd had more than enough of looking at clothes, Conchita knew, and so she made good on her promise to buy lunch wherever Rose wanted.
"Thank you for coming with me," Conchita said across the table, as they waited to be brought a large pizza to share. "I know it's not really your thing."
"I don't mind," said Rose. "Anyway, I want you at the party. I know you'd have come anyway, before you say it, but I thought it'd be nice if I did something in return."
"And Max is going to be there, right?"
"Good," said Conchita. "I haven't seen him as recently as I should. How's he doing?"
"Fine," said Rose. "Same as ever."
"You won't be relying on just me, then?"
"I wouldn't have anyway."
"Can I bring someone?"
Rose, who had been examining her fingernails with no particular interest, looked up. "Who?"
"Just this guy I've been seeing," Conchita said nonchalantly.
Rose laughed. "Oh, is that all? Of course you can bring him. You must. I'll be very upset with you if you don't."
"I'll ask him. He might be working or something – I don't know."
"Is it a secret? I mean, should I not mention him to Mom and Dad?"
Conchita considered this for a moment, then said, "You can tell them I've been on a few dates with someone. That's all it is right now." In fact it would be quite handy, she thought but did not say, if her sister laid the groundwork there.
He was indeed there, dressed as a sort of young and friendly Poseidon, perhaps on Rose's suggestion following that shopping trip. Rose herself had evidently come up with no better idea than to go as a flower fairy; someone (or perhaps two or three someones) had supplied her with stylish, clip-on wings and a rose wreath for her hair, and customised the olive green dress by giving it a raggedy, Tinkerbell-style hem. Conchita was glad to see that the rose pendant also formed part of the costume.
"Rosy, you look so cute!" she said, stooping to give her ever-little sister a hug, and accidentally bashing her in the midriff with the bag that was swinging from her shoulder.
"Cute, huh?" said Rose. "Thank you. We both know how you look!"
Conchita was wearing her coat, and had a vague idea that she would take it off at an opportune moment and see how far Dennis's jaw dropped. She didn't know when that would be, but during the introductions didn't seem like the right time, so for the time being she just stood there feeling a little overdressed in terms of volume, and underdressed in terms of style.
"This is Dennis," she said, as she stepped back from Rose. "Dennis, this is my sister, Rose. And her friend Max... well, our friend... mostly her friend."
"I'm everybody's friend," said Max, shaking hands heartily with Dennis.
"Great!" said Dennis, clearly warming to Max straight away, as people often did.
"Hi." Rose shook his hand as well, and treated him to a small smile. "It's nice to meet you. I'll introduce you to my girlfriend when she gets back from buying chips and stuff."
"By herself?" said Dennis, looking anxiously towards the doorway as though he expected the hostess of the party to lurch through it covered in blood at any moment.
"Oh, Dennis!" said Conchita. "It's still light."
"Not for long," said Dennis. "Anyway, things can happen in daylight."
"If anyone's thinking about attacking her," said Max, "I think they'd be scared off by her make-up."
Rose smiled at that. "Just wait – she looks killer!"
"You won't know what she really looks like," Max said to Dennis. "You'll have to see her some other time if you want to find out."
"I think that's probably a good idea," said Dennis. "I don't exactly look like myself either."
Rose cocked an eyebrow. "But you look like you feel on the inside, right?"
"I kind of do," said Dennis. He was also wearing his coat, and now began to unzip it. "No one feels the same way all the time, do they? But I've tried to represent a part of myself... that's how I interpreted the theme, anyway."
"Then you interpreted it better than me," said Rose. "No part of me is a fairy."
"Sure it is." Max looked genuinely surprised. "I mean, you're not like one of those cutesy, wish-granting fairies with a little star-shaped wand and stuff. You look super spiritual and otherworldly – I thought that was the whole idea."
"Yeah?" said Rose. "Well, hopefully that's what Anna thinks, too."
Conchita thought that, beneath the air of nonchalance, Rose sounded quite pleased with this assessment. Then she thought no more of it; she was more interested in Dennis's costume, and the part of himself it represented. When she looked at him, she saw something quite different from the straight-backed and professional cop, the fun and easy-going date, and the constantly worried son, brother and boyfriend that she had come to know. He was elegantly draped in wild green tendrils that afforded her some very pleasing glimpses of his body; he had also produced from his coat pocket a headpiece that framed his eyes in leaves and made the costume instantly recognisable.
"The Green Man," said Conchita, smiling. This did indeed ring true as a part of him, or even two: the part that called itself "an animal person", and the part that looked at her and held her and kissed her with such passion.
She followed him over to the coat hooks by the door. He returned her smile briefly over his shoulder, saying, "I thought you'd recognise it. You're a kindred spirit... you love nature."
"I sure do." Conchita hung up her bag and began unbuttoning her own coat. The moment had arrived. She slipped the heavy garment over her bare shoulders and arms, hung it up and then subtly made sure her chest was as secure as possible inside the strapless bodice. When she turned back towards Dennis, he was looking at her very much as she had hoped he would: clearly enamoured, but not actually drooling.
"Wow," he said quietly.
She smiled, and he smiled back. It was a sweet, exciting and rather erotic moment that lasted until Rose cut into it by saying, "How you're expected to go to the bathroom in that thing..."
Dennis laughed at that, while Conchita turned a mock-reproachful look onto her sister. "It's okay, I practised at home," she said.
"Now, there's an image," said Rose. Then, "Ooh, Anna's back!" as a pair of motley tights and clownish boots under a pile of grocery bags appeared in the doorway.
"Jeez, Anna, you think we have enough now?" Max went to relieve her of some of her burden.
"I couldn't enjoy myself unless I knew we had too much," said Anna. Then, "Thanks, hi, who are you?" as Dennis gallantly took the remainder of the bags from her.
"I'm Dennis Wu," said Dennis.
"Ah, my date-in-law," said Anna. "Welcome. Enjoy the party."
"Oh my God!" said Conchita, reeling back a little in alarm as she caught sight of Anna's make-up. Then she laughed. "Well, Rose said you looked killer."
As well as dressing in the most bizarrely-patterned and brightly-coloured clothes imaginable, Anna had painted her face to look like a Cubist portrait. It genuinely seemed – from a distance, at least – as though her nose were stuck on sideways.
"Babe," said Rose, "how does it reflect your inner self, exactly?" (Conchita suspected that she felt comfortable asking that since Max had provided her with an answer to the same question.)
"You know the principles of Cubism, honey," said Anna.
"So," said Rose, "you feel like... you're fragmented into your most stark and obvious shapes?"
"Something like that," Anna said airily. "Hey, Chita, you look too beautiful to be allowed."
"Hey!" said Rose, with mock indignation. "That's my sister!"
"Until I look at you, hon," said Anna, crossing the room to put her arms around Rose. "Obviously."
Rose returned her embrace, and they stayed that way for a time while Max and Dennis arranged the snack table. Conchita went over to help them, and Max said to her, "You're probably sick of hearing it, but you do look incredible."
"Thanks," said Conchita. "So do you. We all do."
"In our own way," said Max. "I think maybe Anna's costume is gonna give me nightmares."
They all laughed together about this, and Conchita realised that Dennis was passing a test by not seeming in the least suspicious or jealous of her interaction with Max. When the snacks had all been arranged, and the three twenty year olds were standing around the speaker system with their phones out to discuss playlists, he said, "That's such a nice kid. Is he an art student too?"
"No," said Conchita, "he's an athlete. He works in a gym. And he runs, like you."
"Oh, great," said Dennis. "I'll look for him if I start to feel out of my depth with all the artists."
"Anna might have other friends who aren't art students – I'm not really sure."
"I hope none of them are walking home by themselves. If they don't live really close, they should share cabs – I wonder if anybody's thought of that. There really is always a crime spike on Halloween night, you know, because of so many people being out and all the masks and stuff."
"Well," said Conchita, "I can see this is going to be loads of fun."
"Sorry," said Dennis.
"Ah, they've chosen the music at last." She took his hand and led him onto the dance floor. "Let's get this party started."
As the evening progressed, they spent a lot of time on the dance floor, a little at the snack table and some cornering lone partygoers in order to quiz them about how they were getting home. Dennis earnestly entreated all of them to walk short distances in groups, or to share taxis if they had further to go, and after a while Conchita found herself rummaging around in her bag for a notebook in which to list groups of five.
"Y'know," said Rose, catching her with notebook and pen in hand, "when I said you could bring your boyfriend, I didn't know you'd both be such grown-ups."
A little of Anna's garish make-up had rubbed off on Rose's lips and cheek, Conchita noticed, and she smiled. She knew that her sister was very much in love, and was delighted. She said, "He's right, you know: it wouldn't be safe for them to walk home alone."
"Most of them live right across the street," said Rose.
"You only need one street to commit a violent crime in."
"God, he'll turn you into an agoraphobic."
"He will not!" Conchita said indignantly. "I finally found a good one... I think."
"I hope so," said Rose. "I really do. You wouldn't want to waste that knock-out dress on a pig."
"No way," said Conchita, laughing and looking up from her notebook at last. As she did so, something caught her eye, and she said, "Who's that girl with Max?"
"What girl?" said Rose, looking vaguely around, so Conchita pointed to where Max was talking and laughing animatedly with a Celtic warrior princess. "Oh, that girl. That's Clodagh MacAuley. She's the one who recommended the book that inspired this whole thing in the first place."
"Is she a slightly weird, really spiritual Irish woman too?" asked Conchita, remembering Rose's description of that book's author. "Or am I being really shallow and judging by appearances?"
"No, you're fine – that's exactly what she is." Rose watched Max and Clodagh for a few moments, then began to look pensive. "Now, why didn't I think of that?"
"Because you don't match-make."
"Oh yeah. Well then, I'm glad they met on their own. It's kinda funny, because Anna wanted her first, and Max wanted me first... they're definitely better for each other. And I don't mean because they're both straight."
"Don't get ahead of yourself," said Conchita. "They just met."
"It's perfect," Rose insisted. "And if they don't realise it, I'll be very disappointed."
She gave her sister a look that suggested she was half joking, half in deadly earnest, then spotted Anna among her guests and went to dance with her. Dennis was approaching; Conchita dropped her notebook and pen onto a chair, then held her arms out to him. He took hold of her waist and she put her hands on his shoulders.
"Sorry, babe," he said, backing them towards the dance floor. "I think we've made sure everybody's safe now."
"So you can stop worrying," said Conchita, and kissed him as they swayed to the music. They spent much of the remainder of the evening like this, until Conchita thought the time had come when it would not be rude to leave. She pulled out of the tight embrace they had got into, and said, "I guess you and I are going by cab."
"Yes, I think so," said Dennis, probably having nightmare visions of the subway at that time.
"To your place?" she said, and put on a seductive smile.
Dennis looked at her for a moment, unreadable. Then he said, "Yours is closer."
"But I'll bet you didn't bring a change of clothes, like I did."
"Just in case," she added, intensifying her seductive look.
He kissed her again, in that way he had which was full of both desire and respect for her, and made her feel just the same towards him. Then he managed to say, though it sounded like a struggle, "I'll go outside and try to get that cab."
"Oh," she said, a little crestfallen, making no move to follow him out of bed. "Okay, Mom."
He laughed and said, "I refuse to make you late for work." Still, he stooped to kiss her naked back and shoulders, murmuring, "I wish you could stay, though."
"Mmm... me too."
"But you can't." He withdrew from her again. "People need you."
"Yeah... you're right." Conchita got up, almost went to the bathroom, then grabbed him around the shoulders and said breathily, "You are so hot."
They kissed, of course, but resisted the temptation to take it any further. Even so, he held onto her waist with his hands and her lower lip with his teeth for some seconds before stepping back from her, with a little growl of regret, and heading for the kitchenette. She made her way to the bathroom, feeling light-headed and dazed and insanely desirable.
After her shower, Conchita found that Dennis had prepared a buffet of orange juice, muesli, fried eggs and toast, which they had together at the breakfast bar. She was wrapped in a towel and her skin was glistening with moisture; she noticed that he tried not to look at her too much, and smiled to think that he was finding her that irresistible.
"Are you still getting off work at nine?" she asked.
"Yeah," said Dennis.
"Come to my place after, okay?"
"Better than okay, babe. It's Saturday tomorrow – that'll be better."
"Oh, well... not necessarily," she said apologetically. "It's the Day of the Dead; I go to the festival with my family every year."
"That's nice," said Dennis. "What'll happen – will your parents pick you up and find a strange man in your apartment?"
"I wouldn't call you that strange," said Conchita, and he smiled. "No, seriously, we all make our own way as far as the Staten Island Ferry. Via busy streets in broad daylight."
He looked up from his breakfast to give her a stink-eye. "That's no joking matter."
"Sorry." She returned the look with wide, blinking eyes and a sweet smile, raising her shower-spattered shoulders a little. He looked away again, and she said more seriously, "I'd like you to meet my parents some other time, though."
"Great," said Dennis. "I'd like you to meet mine. And my sister."
"Me too," said Conchita. "You get right on that. I'll float the idea to my mom and dad tomorrow."
"Who exactly are they, anyway?" asked Dennis. "I mean, like, what do they do? I think that's about the one thing you haven't told me about your family."
"Yeah... that was kind of deliberate, me not volunteering it, but I'd have told you any time you asked. It's just that once or twice when I told people before, they laughed at me."
"Jeez, really? What jerks."
"They work for the Ghostbusters," said Conchita. "My dad trains recruits and my mom works at the research facility."
"You're kidding," said Dennis. Then, before she could think about being offended by this, he went on, "That's something I left out of my parents' meeting story, way back on our first date... for reasons just like yours. There was supposed to be some kind of demon mixed up in it all, and the Ghostbusters got involved."
Conchita raised her eyebrows. "Supposed to be? Don't you believe it?"
"Absolutely," said Dennis, "in principle. It's just hard to completely understand something like that without seeing it for yourself, you know?"
"I don't know," Conchita said good-naturedly. "I've been seeing it my whole life." Then it occurred to her that she did know, in another context: from the word of her sister and certain of her friends, she had accepted in theory but not at all understood the female body's capacity for pleasure, until the previous night. She didn't say so to Dennis, but went on, "Tell you what: I'll introduce you to a friend of mine. Then you'll be completely sold."
"You have a friend who's a ghost?" He sounded wary.
"He's adorable," said Conchita. "Like a friendly puppy. A green, flying, talking, slimy puppy."
"Oh," said Dennis. "Well, he sounds, um..."
"He has a very sweet nature," said Conchita. "You'll like him. But hey, listen, when was this? Your parents meeting the Ghostbusters, I mean."
"I don't know exactly. Some time in the nineties."
"Late nineties or early nineties?"
"I thought it was around the middle," said Dennis.
Conchita shook her head. "They weren't in business in the mid-nineties. It wasn't as early as 'ninety-one, was it?"
"No way. It was more like 'ninety-six, 'ninety seven...?"
"Oh my God! Then they met my mom and dad!"
"Really?" said Dennis, clearly surprised, though it wasn't that surprising. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, definitely!" She heard her voice rise to an unnecessarily excited squeal, and rapidly calmed herself before going on, "And I think they've told me that story before – it sounded kind of familiar. But, y'know, they have a lot of stories so I wasn't sure."
"I guess they would have," said Dennis. "So, I'll mention that to my parents, then."
"What are their names?" Conchita asked eagerly.
"Jodi and Michael."
"I'm not gonna tell my mom and dad that. I'll make them figure it out."
"What are their names?"
"Kylie and Eduardo."
"I don't think I'll make my parents guess," said Dennis. "Well, there's no point – they only met so-many Ghostbusters. I'll call them after you leave."
"You seem very keen to get rid of me," Conchita said playfully.
Dennis shook his head. "Just the opposite, babe. Really. I'm sitting here going crazy... and sort of wishing you'd do me a favour and get dressed, since you can't stay."
Yet again, she was struck by how sexy and how special he made her feel. She finished her breakfast and then did get dressed, but countermanded the effect on Dennis by kissing him passionately before she left.
"I can't believe how lucky I am," he said, gazing awestruck into her eyes. "And not just because you're so beautiful. I'm really starting to... I mean... you're very special, Chita. I never met anybody so kind and selfless."
Conchita smiled. "Just yourself."
"I'm not – not like you."
"Sure you are."
"I've been thinking a lot about myself lately," said Dennis. "In relation to you."
"I've been doing the exact same thing," said Conchita, and kissed him again, briefly. "I'll expect you around ten, sweetie."
He exhaled heavily. "I'll be counting down the minutes."
"No, I didn't," said Rose.
Conchita stared at her across the table. "What do you mean, no you didn't?"
"That was Anna," said Rose. "Nothing to do with me."
"Oh yeah." Conchita laughed. "Do you have a picture of her in costume? Show Mom and Dad."
Rose took out her phone, found a picture of the Picasso-esque Anna and showed it to her parents, who greeted it with the expected mix of horror and mirth. She then scrolled through a few more photos, saying things like, "You don't know them... that's Anna and Max and some people... ah, here's Chita, looking 'too beautiful to be allowed', as Anna put it."
"Oh, sweetie, you look like a princess!" said Kylie, gazing at the picture with a look of disbelief.
"Oh, I just had a lucky find with that dress," Conchita said dismissively, not feeling quite comfortable with her parents looking at a photograph of her in seduction mode. "Hey, Rosy, did anything happen with Max and Clodagh?"
"Who's Clodagh?" asked Eduardo.
"Just another art student," said Rose. "And since you asked, Chita, they're going out tonight."
"Great!" said Conchita. Then, to her parents, "Rose thinks they're perfect for each other."
Rose furrowed her brow. "Did I really say that?" She was apparently seeing things differently in the cold light of day. "I think it's a good idea for now, but... she came all the way from Ireland."
Eduardo made a dismissive noise. "Ireland's closer than England, and that's no obstacle."
"Actually," said Conchita, deciding that the time had come, "I've been seeing someone."
Kylie turned to her with a smile. "We'd heard a rumour about that. So, who is he?"
"He's a cop," said Conchita. Then she added hastily, "But not the kind of cop Dad doesn't like."
"Really?" said Eduardo, sounding only half serious. "He doesn't call a bunch of people 'sir' and obey their orders because they're his 'superiors'?"
She gave him a look. "I mean he's not on a power trip. He genuinely wants to protect all the good people from all the bad people."
"Well, you do get cops like that," Eduardo conceded. "Every now and then."
"What's his name, sweetie?" asked Kylie.
"Dennis." Conchita deliberately omitted his surname, having warmed very much to the idea of her guessing game. "You met his parents once. Both of you. On a case."
Rose looked surprised. "Wow, really? You didn't tell me that."
"I only found out yesterday," said Conchita.
"When was this?" asked Kylie.
"Right near the start," said Conchita. "Guess who!"
"Um..." Kylie and Eduardo exchanged helpless looks. Then Eduardo asked, "Were they together at the time?"
"No," said Conchita, enjoying herself. "They'd just met."
"How near the start?" asked Kylie.
"Very," said Conchita. "Like... a month in?"
"So around February 'ninety-seven," said Eduardo. "Man, I'm bad with dates... I can't imagine those two FBI agents with the plane fell in love with each other..."
"Oh! FBI!" said Kylie, giving an excited little jump in her seat. "I know: Jodi and Michael Wu!"
"Right," said Conchita, a little disappointed. "I didn't think you'd get it that fast."
"Sorry, sweetie," said Kylie. "But it was Chinese New Year, of course, and I remember them because we were at their wedding."
"You were?" said Conchita. "You never told me that."
"I'd almost forgotten about that," said Eduardo. "The bone demon thing is a way better story."
"We never heard they'd had any kids, though," said Kylie. "I guess they'd lost interest in us by then. How old is your Dennis?"
"Twenty-four," said Conchita. "And, um... about three quarters now, I guess. His sister's a couple of months younger than me."
"Okay," said Eduardo, "so, not a shotgun wedding, then."
"Why should it have been?" asked Conchita.
"It just seemed a little quick," said Eduardo. "They'd only known each other about a year. But that's good, if they actually wanted to get married."
"Of course they did!" said Kylie, kicking him lightly under the table. "Well, that's... that's very interesting! I'd like to see them again some time."
"I'm sure you will," said Conchita. "I want you to meet Dennis, anyway."
"Here's a picture of him," Rose said suddenly, thrusting her phone under her mother's nose. "He was at the party."
"It's not very illuminating, is it?" said Kylie. "He's wearing a mask." But she had a good look anyway, then handed the phone to Eduardo.
"Why is he talking to all those girls?" he asked.
"Trust you to notice that," Conchita said good-naturedly. "He's persuading them to walk home in a group, or take a cab together." That's a good answer, she thought.
Eduardo was horrified. "Weren't they going to anyway? Don't they know what can happen?"
"The guy's kinda paranoid," said Rose. "You'll get along great with him, Dad."
"I hope so," Eduardo said airily. "I hope he deserves my Conchita."
Conchita thought, He deserves me by Jessica's definition, anyway, and bent her head over her Mediteranean salad wrap in case the thought was written on her face.
"He's also real nice," said Rose. "I think this one might be okay."
"Thank you, Rosy," said Conchita.
"I can't wait to meet him," said Kylie. "Jodi and Michael's son. Well, I'll be darned. Jodi and Michael's police officer son Dennis Wu."
In her mind, Conchita heard Marie Lupin's cry of "Whooo!", and she smiled.
Extreme Ghostbusters Created by Fil Barlow
Ghostbusters 202X Created by Fritz Baugh and OgreBBQ
Marie Lupin created by OgreBBQ
Edward Sanders (Eden's "hot doctor") created by Ghostdiva
Eden Spengler and TJ Anderson created by Fritz Baugh
Charlene Zeddemore created by OgreBBQ and Fritz Baugh. Some development by EGBFan and Jason Knetge.