by Jennifer Lee Rossman
Man, it’s so loud in here.
I pull the earflaps of my hat down to block out the buzzing roar and amelodic clanking of the rows upon rows of washers, curling up with my tablet in the uncomfortable vinyl chair beside the soap dispenser. It’s moderately quieter since Mom installed the sun dryers out back, but still. What’s a girl gotta do to read some fanfic in peace?
My mother walks by, and I flick to the other tab so it looks like I’m doing homework. She’s too busy with the dry cleaning to notice that I’ve been on the same page for three hours.
It’s not that I don’t like reading (though my grades in that area would suggest otherwise), but the so-called “classic” literature they foist on us in school is so dry and boring. I can learn just as much about grammar and story structure from a juicy crossover fic where characters from two vastly different holo-films somehow find themselves on a roadtrip together.
Honestly. With all the inns he wrote about, Miguel Cervantes really missed an opportunity for the oops there’s only one bed in this hotel room! trope.
As soon as Mom’s out of sight, I flick back to my fanfic. It’s an AU high school fic of my favorite VR game, except everyone is also the living embodiment of an element from the periodic table.
My teacher says literature helps us uncover truths and see the world as it really is. Well, then fanfiction is the world as it should be: built and rebuilt by the people, discarding the bits that don’t please us and giving the spotlight to the minor characters that mainstream media ignores.
And gay. It’s usually pretty gay, which suits me just fine.
I like to think our recent technological developments were the result of fanfic. A bunch of people who grew up in the fic golden age of the early 2000s found themselves in positions of power (because if self-insert Pokemon quest fics taught them anything, it’s that anyone can achieve greatness if they try hard enough), and decided they didn’t like this grimdark reboot of the economy. So they found some old plot points about equality the canon creators had abandoned, and they shipped solar and wind power together, and they made a world of clean air where people of all colors and orientations and beliefs can have a part in making everyone say “more chapters plz.”
But my favorite part is how the sites list the pairings. You know going in who’s going to end up together, so every little smile becomes a flirtation, every twinkle of the eye foreshadows a future declaration of love.
If real life had that, it would be so much easier.
For everybody else, that is. I’ve already figured out the other half of my OTP. Her name is Dulcie, and we had a total meet-cute last year, right here at the laundromat. She smiles at me every time we see each other, so I think it’s pretty clear we’re at the beginning of our slowburn romance.
My tablet pings an alarm. Three-thirty on a Saturday; the time when Dulcie’s parent comes in for their clothes. She doesn’t always come with them, but I need to be ready. This might be the day she offhandedly mentions that she needs a nice girl to pretend date her (and we all know pretend dates lead to real kisses).
I straighten my crocheted Jayne Cobb hat and surreptitiously move to a chair closer to the door. Teresa, my mother’s employee, raises a knowing eyebrow as she folds clothes but says nothing.
“Better lighting by the window,” I lie. “Need to charge my tablet.”
“Mm. Wouldn’t want it to die before you get to page two.” She grins. “I had Mx. Ricote two years ago. Their choice of literature is a little dry, but that one is good once you get into it.”
I make a face. “Do Sancho and Don go from friends to lovers?”
Glancing out the window, I see the del Tobosos’ van pull into the parking lot. My heart dances, but Dulcie isn’t with her parent as they come down in the hydraulic wheelchair lift. Dangit.
I go back to my fic, dejected but trying not to let it show. I only half listen as Teresa makes polite conversation while ringing them up, but the mention of Dulcie’s name cuts through the ambient noise and I perk up.
“Oh, she has better things to do than come along on my errands,” her parent says with a roll of their eyes, and I realize Teresa has brought her up for my benefit. “She’s decided to spend her free time protesting the wind turbines they’re installing on the hills behind our building.”
I know the words individually, but they don’t want to go together. Who would want to protest turbines? They’re awesome. They look cool, they give wind a purpose other than just keeping kites up… Our society would still be relying on fossil fuels if not for the widespread use of wind turbines.
I need to investigate this.
I slide my tablet into my bag and head out.
“You have homework, missy!” Mom calls after me.
“No worries,” Teresa tells her, following me outside. “I’ll get her home before dinner and help her with her book report!”
Book report? Oh, shoot. I forgot about that part of the assignment.
“You’ll really help me?” I ask as we get on our solarbikes. Hers is a sleek teal and chrome affair that compliments her warm brown skin, where mine is the color of sadness and electrical tape.
She shrugs, flipping her curly chocolate hair over her shoulder as she straps on her helmet. “My shift is almost over, and it’ll be fun being your Sancho Panza.” At my blank look, she laughs and adds, “You really haven’t read the book, have you?”
I shake my head.
“I’ll give you the Cliffnotes version on the way,” she says with an easy smile.
“Hang on,” I say, syncing up my tablet to the speakers on our bikes. A roadtrip needs music. I scroll through my playlists. In my mind, Dulcie is a late-twentieth-century-alt-rock girl like me, so I pick They Might Be Giants to be blaring when we roll up to her.
“Okay,” I tell Teresa. “Let’s ride.”
The turbines rise up from the hillside like spindly white legs, stark against a sky dark with the promise of rain. They have no blades yet but the wind whipping at my hair would set them spinning quite nicely, like the ones far on the horizon.
A group of people stand around the construction site, some already in raincoats, suggesting that they’re here for the long haul. Their signs, painted in rainbow LEDs on sheets of electropaper, accuse the construction company of being greedy and not caring about the environment.
“That makes no sense,” Teresa mutters. “The turbines reduce the cost of electricity, and pollution is down worldwide since the switch to sustainable. Blue Canary is supposed to be the good guys.”
She raises her phone to snap the QR code on one of the signs showing Blue Canary’s logo standing over another bird with X’s in its eyes.
“No, wait,” I say, putting my hand on her arm. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from fanfiction, it’s that there will only ever be one room with one bed left in the entire hotel. But if there’s two things I’ve learned, it’s the bed thing and that you never do something the easy way when there’s another option that involves talking to the love interest.
Sure, we could look up the information in two seconds, but we could also get lost in a crowd while following Dulcie, only catching glimpses of her distinctive red raincoat between people only to realize everyone is wearing a red raincoat and–
And Teresa has already snapped the code. Okay, sure. Let’s do it her way.
“It seems they’re concerned about the amount of birds killed when they fly into the turbines,” Teresa reports.
That’s hardly news. Sad as it is, birds have been hitting turbines for decades. Companies have begun installing supersonic speakers to drive birds away, which greatly reduces the casualties. It still happens on occasion, but not often enough that I thought people would actually protest.
“Why here? Why now?” I point to the vast stretches of wind farms in the distance. “No one fought Blue Canary when they built those, or the thousands of other farms across the country.”
Teresa keeps scrolling. “Aha!”
I lean over to read along with her, our arms brushing each other’s.
“This is the breeding ground of an endangered owl,” I read aloud, my heart going all gooey at a picture of a floofy, big-eyed owlet. I vaguely recall hearing something about this, but hadn’t made the connection between it and the turbines. “No wonder everyone is protesting. The death of any animal is sad, but losing one of these guys could be catastrophic for the species.”
Teresa nods silently, biting her lip. A sheen of unshed tears gives her eyes a sparkly quality. I love that she cares this deeply.
“Here’s Blue Canary’s official stance,” she says. “They’re sympathetic, but believe the revenue from this project will be able to fund breeding programs for owls in other locations and actually save more than this pair and their descendants could ever hatch. Well that’s…” She looks up, frustrated. “There’s a certain logic to it, but it doesn’t mean a thing in real life because these owls deserve to live, too. And the species can’t afford to have an even more limited gene pool.”
Teresa stamps her foot, and that about sums up my feelings, too. Blue Canary does good things for our world — all renewable energy companies do — but there’s no denying that this is wrong. But they’re a multinational corporation, just like all the ones who ruined our world to begin with.
They won’t care about a few owls.
As if I couldn’t feel any more hopeless, I catch sight of Dulcie in the crowd, holding hands with another girl. The sight of their intertwined fingers sends a bolt of despair through me.
Teresa puts a hand on my shoulder. “Do you want to go home? I’ll help with your book report.”
I do, but I can’t. “I want to stay and protest.”
She watches Dulcie and the other girl, her head tilted in thought. “Do you want me to pretend to be your girlfriend to make her jealous?” she says with a sly smile.
I have never wanted anything more.
I keep trying to catch Dulcie’s eye, see if she’s noticed Teresa’s arm around me, but the chaos of the chanting and rhythmic sign shaking makes it difficult. Oh yes, there’s chanting now. It’s very catchy. I’ll be muttering “Blue Canary’s foul; we support the owl!” for days.
Having a pretend girlfriend is nice, though. Teresa’s body heat keeps away the wind’s chilly bite, makes me feel all warm inside.
Maybe someone will see us together and word will get to Dulcie that I’m dating an older woman. Two whole years older, which in teenager years is practically a scandal. She’ll have to hear about us, right?
I wish the protest against Blue Canary was as easy as high school rumormongering. Construction has stopped for the moment, the workers taking refuge under a tarp now that the first raindrops have begun to fall, but they show no indication that we’re having any effect on them.
These turbines are going up whether we like it or not, and I fear not even a viral hashtag is going to stop them.
I need to do something.
“Come on,” I say, pulling Teresa away from the crowd, back to where we parked our bikes.
“Probably a good idea,” she says reluctantly. “Dulcie’s cute and all, but she seems pretty into that other girl.”
“What? No. I’m not giving up. Not on her or the owls, which are a thing I’ve decided I care very deeply about.” I get on my bike; the now-pouring rain has softened the adhesive tape holding my decrepit seat on, but it’s served me well and I trust it.
“Then what are we doing?” She doesn’t sound skeptical or reluctant in the slightest; just curious.
“Heroes don’t defeat the villain by standing around and waving signs. They defeat them by going on quests, and teaming up with an unlikely compatriot with whom they share unresolved romantic tension, and wielding a special weapon that only a Mary Sue OC Chosen One with a special birthmark and different colored eyes can wield.”
She motions for more information, and I dramatically point to the tallest building in the skyline.
“Heroes defeat the villain by riding up to Blue Canary regional headquarters and demanding to see the boss.”
Teresa takes a moment to absorb this information. “So you’re going to go fight the windmills,” she says flatly.
“On a ‘horse–‘” She uses finger quotes as she indicates my bike. “–that is well past its prime, with a Spanish sidekick who works for your family.”
Where is she going with this? “Yes.”
“Because you read a lot about heroes and romance and want to prove your worth to a pretty girl who doesn’t know you exist.”
“Yes,” I say, practically bouncing from anticipation. Can we just get going already?
“And you claim you haven’t read Don Quixote.”
“I mean, I’ve read an AU Sanxote fic where they were stormchasers. Basically the same thing.”
“It… really isn’t. What’s Sanxote?”
“It’s the shipping name for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Why?”
She grins. “No reason. Let’s go, Don Queerxote.”
I don’t know what I expected to happen when we marched into Blue Canary, but it didn’t involve standing on a rug while our hair and clothing drips, waiting half an hour until someone comes to talk to us.
People must edit out this part of the big denouement when they write fanfiction. Having to take a number and wait in the Elite Four lobby for seven chapters is hardly “beg the author to write faster” material.
But we huddle for warmth as the rain pounds against the windows and spins mini waterwheels that fuel the building, and eventually a Mr. Polk comes out of his office to see us.
By the look on his face, we aren’t what he expected, either. “You’re children.”
“We’re teenagers,” Teresa corrects.
“The prime age for taking down oppressive rulers,” I add, though maybe that’s just because so many teens are writing fic and they don’t know how to write a proper adult character. I guess it’s a little more likely that Hyrule would be saved by a trained swordsman, and not the tween who was raised in the Dark World, chasing chickens and breaking pots, never knowing she was secretly the daughter of Zelda and Ganon.
Mr. Polk is visibly taken aback. “What? Us? We’re not oppressive rulers. We’re an energy company.”
“Tell that to Flansburgh’s lesser spotted owls,” I retort. Like a badass.
He furrows his brow, concern etching deep lines in his forehead. “I have to agree with you there, miss…?”
“I would like nothing more than to halt construction, build the turbines somewhere far away from the breeding grounds.” He spreads his arms in a helpless gesture. “It isn’t my decision to make, unfortunately. The orders come from above my paygrade.”
There’s a finality in his voice that steals all hope from my body. That’s it. The turbines will be built, the owls put in danger. At this point, I can barely muster the energy to care how this will affect my chances with Dulcie. I just want to believe that we can fight the faceless enemy and win.
“No,” Teresa says. “That’s not good enough. Your industry was created by people who defied what people above them said. They didn’t take fossil fuel as an answer, and they didn’t accept that old rich white men had all the best ideas. They fought for renewable energy for everyone, and they changed the world. The least you can do is protect a few owls.”
Mr. Polk looks uncomfortable, but he nods slowly. “I think I need to make a call.”
It isn’t a victory, not yet, but construction is halted pending the results of another, less biased, ecological impact survey. Our joyous triumph follows us down the elevator, our steps light and our voices full of laughter. Once outside, though, we discover that my bike has not fared well in the downpour. Its tape has finally come loose, the seat dangling limply.
Aw. I was really hoping to go back to the hill and celebrate with everyone, but if there’s only one bike–
Wait a second.
There’s only one bike.
We’re going to have to ride together, with all the inadvertent touching that comes with such a situation.
All of a sudden, the pieces start falling together.
I whip my head around to look at Teresa. Beautiful Teresa, her hair dark and straight from the pouring rain. Teresa, my pretend girlfriend, my unlikely compatriot with whom I share unresolved romantic tension.
It was never Dulcie. Which may be a good thing, now that I think about it. The One True Love trope is so overdone. The best fics are Friends-to-Lovers.
“Can I kiss you?” I whisper, because I’ve just realized life doesn’t come with tags that tell you who ends up together, and I’ve decided to ship Me x Teresa.
She nods, and I press my lips against hers before I chicken out. It might last a second, it might be an eon. I don’t know. Time loses all meaning. When we break apart, I say breathlessly, “Is this what happens between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? In the book, I mean? Not in fanfiction?”
Teresa just smiles. “You’ll have to read the book to find out.”
Jennifer Lee Rossman (she/they) has never read Don Quixote, but she has seen the episode of Quantum Leap where Sam is in the musical version of it, so she’s basically an expert. She is the author of Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow, and one of the editors of Space Opera Libretti. Find more of her work (most of it gay, disabled, and autistic like her) on her website http://jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @JenLRossman.