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[Sooted Star, Part 1] Dimension 5 — The party in the grassy plains

20:12. Seven hours before the disappearance.

The college students and Kiri trailing behind them trekked out to the bonfire pit about a 20-minute walk out of Goldtown and in the thick of the grassy plains. The sky had become deep scarlet and purple. Nevertheless, the heat didn’t let up. Several students used flashlights to guide their way along a predetermined path of flattened grass, probably used by groups of other partygoers over the years.

The pit they arrived at lay as a large metallic circle within an even larger circle of dirt and rocks. Around the pit were leftover wooden logs and stumps covered in lichen. Beer bottles and plastic pieces from previous parties littered the area. There was even a portable toilet standing at the edge of the vicinity, which stuck out like a sore thumb against the bluish-black hills of the nighttime plains. Kiri wondered which poor worker had to come out and clear it, if at all. She would bet real money that that toilet was overflowing with puke and feces.

People lay down their backpacks. Threw down bags of food and burning logs. Some began to pitch tents. Kiri looked around hesitantly as she held the bag of donuts close to her. Began to walk gingerly toward the fire pit where Gabe was talking with some of the girls from class. Kiri lightly tapped his shoulder. “Um…”

He turned to her with his usual grin plastered to his face. “Yeah?”

“Do you think people will eat these crushed donuts? I feel kinda bad—”

“Nah, you’re all good! You should put ‘em with the other food.” He gave her a thumbs-up before turning back to the group to continue their conversation.

Kiri nodded slowly and averted her eyes. “Ah—right.” The two of them hadn’t spoken since leaving the Portal Festival. It made sense, though. He had so many other friends to talk to, and she wasn’t a priority.

As the evening progressed, she skimmed the crowd of people, going around to different clusters and attempting to make small talk. People were friendly to her and seemed to become even friendlier as the alcohol migrated around. She almost felt a part of it. Almost. Nevertheless, she mostly found herself on the sidelines just listening to the conversations, no different from how the evening had started. Eventually, she figured hanging out by the food would be the best course of action. If she wasn’t talking, at least she was doing something, even if it was just eating.

When the night had long fallen and the fire had grown large, she severely needed to pee. She had hoped to completely avoid that smelly portable toilet by any means necessary. She had even avoided drinking water despite how dehydrated she was. Her mistake was drinking that one small can of beer just 15 minutes earlier.

Like she thought, the toilet was filled to the brim and she strained her legs as she squatted trying to avoid touching the toilet seat. To make matters worse, her bowels were rumbling like a thunderstorm and she feared she would be occupying the stall for quite some time. She would’ve been better off squatting in the grass.

She was just about to exit the toilet and finish in the grass, but then she heard a familiar set of voices. It was Alicia, Blond Jock, and Miss Outspoken.

“Bro, it’s occupied,” Blond Jock said with that posturing tough-guy tone.

“Bro you. I’m going in there first. I need to pee sooo bad,” Miss Outspoken replied snarkily.

“Hell no. I’m the one who mentioned going to the bathroom first and you two followed. I get to go first and you two can cry about it.” Alicia said with her distinguishably sarcastic tone, although it sounded angrier than usual.

“Why are you so mad, hmm?” Blond Jock taunted. “Jealous that Gabe was flirting with Kiri?”

“What? Fuck no,” Alicia said.

Or… that she might have a crush on Day-day?” Miss Outspoken teased. Kiri could imagine her nudging Alicia annoyingly.

“Tch. Why would I be upset about that? As if she’d even have the slightest chance with him,” Alicia chided. She sighed. “Besides, what the fuck was that about? She ‘doesn’t like people like him,’ as if he’s some fucking monolith? Who does she think she is?”

Someone attempted to shove open the door of the toilet and the whole unit shook. Kiri flinched. They heard that, she thought. She began to tremble. They heard everything she talked about with Gabe back at the Portal Festival. A cold sweat ran down her neck and she could feel her eyes brimming with tears for the third time today. The pain in her bowels was like someone was pinching her insides and they rumbled loudly. She was pretty sure someone outside heard it. Her legs shook from the strain of squatting over the toilet once again.

Miss Outspoken continued the conversation. “Honestly? I don’t get why Gabe invited her in the first place. I knew he was always kinda curious about her, but I didn’t think he’d actually make a move.”

“Dude, it’s Gabe. He’ll invite anyone,” Blond Jock replied. “And no offense, but after he breaks up, he literally has no standards.”

In a hushed tone, Miss Outspoken said, “Speak of the devil.”

There was a short pause, then one more familiar voice greeted them. “What’s up, guys? Is the real party around here now?”

It was Gabe. Kiri could hear the smile in his voice. She winced with pain as her bowels began to pinch again.

Miss Outspoken didn’t waste a second before she asked flirtatiously, “Hey Gabe~ so why did you invite Kiri to this party? That’s not like you.”

“Huh? Where’d that come from?” he asked and laughed awkwardly.

Kiri could hear Alicia’s eyes rolling. She said, “What she’s asking is why you invited Kiri even though you’ve known her for years and never talked to her. It’s weird.”

“Weird?” Gabe asked. There was another pause, and then he said, “Well, not gonna lie, I guess I felt kinda bad for her? Not a big deal, really.” He laughed nonchalantly. Carefree. No, careless.

Alicia clapped slowly. “Oooh, so you’re playing the good samaritan, now. So, basically, you pity her. What a very kind heart you have, don’t you?” Her sarcastic voice sliced through the door of the portable toilet and straight for Kiri’s bowels. The loose, watery contents began to flood into the toilet in a massive rumbling that echoed throughout the unit and made its way outside.

She heard the four of them cackle in response despite their trying to be quiet about it. But she didn’t mind that embarrassment. It didn’t suffocate her nearly as much as Gabe’s words.

So it was all just pity? In class, when he liked her joke answer about wanting to become a dragon? When he gave her the party invitation? When he seemed to genuinely want to get to know her as a friend?

Her eyes could no longer hold back her tears. Those disgusting, self-important tears began to stream out just like her disgusting watery feces.

Outside, Miss Outspoken yelled out in frustration. “Ugh! Fuck this, I’m going to pee in the grass.”

“Same, I’m coming with,” Alicia said.

“You ladies have fun, I don’t really need to pee that bad, sooo I’m just gonna go back to the fire pit,” Blond Jock said, and Gabe agreed to go back with him.

Kiri could hear the crunch of grass under their feet grow distant as the four of them walked separate ways. She was now sitting on the slimy toilet seat, defeated. It didn’t matter anymore. Shit would meet the pot in the end, and she supposed that was her only fate.

* * *

Kiri returned to the bonfire pit after she cleaned up as much as she possibly could with the four squares of toilet paper she had in stock after her bout with her bowels. She sat on one of the empty stumps surrounding the pit, feeling the empty pit of her stomach growing like an expanding black hole. Even though her hands were clean at a glance and she had used bottled water and hand sanitizer to wash them, they still felt dirty and she didn’t want to touch anything around her. Never in her life had she wanted more to curl up in a hole and die.

Her uncle was right. Running away really was the best option. And yet, she recalled how disappointed he looked when she told him the news of her latest rejection. She recalled how she had lost her temper in front of him. How could she possibly run back home now?

A voice cut into her thoughts. Another familiar voice that wasn’t Gabe’s or his three friends’. This time it was Dadrien’s voice. He passionately called out, “Hey, everyone! We’re gonna do Truth or Dare around the bonfire!” And then in his fake British accent, “Come hither if you wish to explore your deepest desires and share your deepest truths!”

Most of the college students flocked to him like moths around a lightbulb. They sat on the stumps. Instinctively, Kiri stood up, letting someone else take her seat. She wasn’t keen on joining, anyway. But just as she was about to return to her comfort spot by the food, she felt a hand grab her shoulder lightly. Once again, she almost jumped out of her skin. She wouldn’t get used to this.

It was Gabe. He stood above her, smiling as usual, but now she knew it was a lie. “Hey, let’s go Truth or Dare!” he said.

Kiri stared blankly at his chest. Nodded with no thought. “Sure,” she answered.

He grinned and took her wrist. She let herself be pulled back to the fire pit. It wasn’t like it mattered anyway. Whatever happened, happened. This was always how she lived her life, and this time was no different. She just had to get through it.

When everyone who wanted to play Truth or Dare was seated, Dadrien started on his mysterious wizardy acting scheme. “Now, today is a special day. I’ve decided to come up with special dares for only the bravest of souls. However, I’ll add the caveat that I will be picking the newest people first.”

“Like who?!” someone yelled from the sidelines.

The group laughed. It was true—there was basically no one “new” in this group of Goldtown Community College students. But Dadrien, nevertheless, scanned the circle around the bonfire. He scanned carefully.

Kiri remembered how he’d stared at her back at the Portal Festival. But it seemed like it had all been a fluke. She prayed that it was. Even if it was far-fetched, she hoped that he’d simply been possessed by the ghost of some old man and that was the only reason he looked at her.

Just before Dadrien’s eyes almost met Kiri’s, he stopped. Pointed at a particular someone in the crowd. “Perhaps you? Although you have already been to a few of our parties despite moving here senior year of high school…”

Alicia pointed to herself, stunned. “Me? Uhhh, I don’t know if I want to be dared by you. Your dares are scary.” She laughed hesitantly.

“Guess that means you’re the willing volunteer,” Gabe said and laughed.

Alicia clicked her tongue sassily. “As if.”

Dadrien ignored this interaction and continued to scan around the circle. Then his eyes landed on one more person. “I know!” he blurted. “I dare our newest recruit! I saw you at the Portal Fest, but never at a party before. Perfect.”

Kiri’s eyes widened. So he did recognize her. She shrank back as people’s gazes pinned onto her.

“Looks like you’re on, Kiri,” Gabe said with a smirk.

Kiri hesitated. Looked as though she wanted to say something but the words got caught in her throat. Her eyes darted around the circle. She spotted Alicia who looked at her with disdain. Blond Jock and Miss Outspoken weren’t much friendlier. Everyone else in the circle regarded her with neutrality. It wasn’t much better than simply not being wanted here at all.

Dadrien grinned. “Alright, Kiri. You ready for this?”

Kiri swallowed. “Um, I guess…” She looked last at Gabe, but she looked away quickly before she could begin to feel the pangs of tears. Then she locked eyes with Dadrien. She looked at him like he was a deity that would determine her fate from now on. It didn’t matter what he had her do as long as it all passed soon. His decision was all she needed.

He smiled mischievously and said, “Okay, then here goes: I dare you to travel straight east for a while and see if you can find the carriage. If you do, bring back a piece of it.”

Everyone around the fire pit fell into a shocked silence. It fell so silent that one could hear the night bugs chirping from a mile away. One could hear the faintest breeze brush over the grass. The partygoers glanced between Kiri and Dadrien.

After a while, someone spoke up. “Wait, you didn’t even give her the option for a truth. Also, that’s a bit much even for a dare, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Dadrien shrugged. “But you have your phone, right?”

Another student chimed in, “Uh, you remember what happened last time when that group from Solomon’s class went out into the plains, right?”

“They got a helicopter called for them, big deal! But that’s not even gonna happen, the phone towers were just jenky that day, that’s all.”

Despite the skepticism in the crowd, they ultimately didn’t seem to care.

Dadrien conceded, however, “I agree, though. If Kiri really doesn’t want to do it, she’s seriously not obligated to. I’m just super curious to know what’s out there. And like, I don’t expect you to go for more than 20 feet, sooo…”

The crowd loosened. They didn’t take this seriously anymore. The conversations and alcoholic laughing started back up. But Kiri stared at the fire before her, deep in thought. Ultimately, no one around here cared whether she was here or not. It was probably why Dadrien had suggested she leave and travel east in the first place. Even though nobody was watching her now, she stood up from the stump. “I’ll go,” she whispered.

The only one who noticed her leave was Gabe. He stood up, too. Pranced after her as she headed towards the outer edge of the party vicinity. “Wait!” he called out. “You’re not actually doing the dare, are you?!” There seemed to be genuine concern in his voice, but Kiri didn’t pay attention to it.

She turned around halfway, enough that she could only see Gabe from the corner of her eye. “It’s fine. It’s something to do.”

“Dude, wait, do you want me to go with you? It sounds like a fun adventure, like—”

Kiri stopped him with the palm of her hand. “Don’t worry, I’m only going a half mile at most, anyway. Just a short walk to cool off.” She didn’t glance at him to see his concerned expression, but she could sense it. She almost felt relieved by it, but the fact he only pitied her just canceled it out. She turned away from him and the rest of the party. She didn’t look back as she began to walk.

Soon after Kiri had disappeared into the night, the college students had gone back to having fun as if she had never been there in the first place.

I guess I’m taking uncle’s advice after all, she thought. But this time, she had no plans to go home. She was going East.

Concept art from this chapter.

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