Patricia stifled the urge to sigh, and kept up that sweet smile she had practiced for years. It was the same spiel, every Sunday. Not the same words, but the same message. What was the point? She was sure she could go up there and finish the latest one, and nobody would know the difference if they weren't watching. She could even do it in his voice. It was important, but was that importance really served by droning on one night a week, forever? She stared, unblinking, as things eventually came to their usual fire-and-brimstone conclusion. Everything depended on their virtue, their vigilance, their secrecy. If outsiders discovered their true nature before the great work was completed, it would be a disaster. All the careful, subtle plotting would be for naught, and blood would have to spill. Finally came the inevitable hissed Including some of ours, complete with the hand sweeping out to address the whole room of unassuming people, still smiling calmly in the face of dire proclamations. Then, with a silent nod from every chair in the dining room, another meeting of The Responsible Citizens' Club came to the same end as always.
Patricia wondered how many of the others felt the same way she did, that the whole thing was pointlessly repetitive. She really had no idea; her fellow "citizens" were very hard to read. After enough solemn silence had passed to let the gravity of their situation sink in, every face relaxed at once. People dropped into casual conversations, some got up out of their seats, a couple started filtering out of the dining room. The man in front sat down, back to being just the coroner. Patricia smiled warmly to the pair of old ladies who sat in front of her, and asked how the Historical Society was doing. While they answered, she glanced towards the table. The secretary was fastidiously typing up a fake transcript for the second half of the meeting's minutes, as ever. A member of the local Homeowner's Association tapped her on the shoulder, and asked how the school year was going. Patricia beamed, voice full of pride as she gushed about how impressive this year's standardized test performances were, across the board.
After half an hour of acting, Patricia excused herself. It was a school night, after all, and she needed to get home soon. She stepped out of the two-story house, and made her way to her car, parked on the side of Dawn Street.
Once in the privacy of her car, Pat finally let out that sigh. Making that buzz of drudgery that any sensible human would expect from something like the RCC was an understandable precaution, but probably also unnecessary. They owned every house that bordered the meeting place (though most of those neighbors attended either the church club meetings or the Parlor Game Lovers' Weekly Do for their updates), and what kind of monster would willingly listen in on such a dull group like theirs? Besides, an easier way to avoid suspicion would be to just meet less often. But she wasn't going to be the one to suggest that idea, so there wasn't any real point in dwelling on it.
Pat drove back to her house, and let herself sit in the driveway for a bit. She wanted to press her forehead against the rubber of her steering wheel, but didn't. Patricia Lewis, the young and peppy third grade teacher, would not dejectedly rest her face on a steering wheel. So she made herself get out of the car, and only when finally in the privacy of her nice, neat, one-story house did she let herself deflate. She didn't know what was wrong. It used to be so easy. It wasn't actually getting harder to remain in character; no, that was easy as ever, second nature. But it was crushingly difficult to want to. It used to be so nice to pretend to be a happy, friendly lover of children with such a pure, naïve aspiration to teach. And she genuinely liked being a teacher; if she had to choose how she would help the plan, molding the human children into proper shape would be it. But it was all just growing so... hollow.
She missed college. She missed high school. Hell, she missed elementary school. Back then, she didn't have to play such a perfect role. But that wasn't really it. No, what she really missed was simpler than that. She missed having personal contact. The meetings didn't count, as aside from the lecture, it wasn't really contact with her own kind. Simulated discussion and chit-chat between their acts. It would be a few years before she was assigned a mate, unless plans changed, and even that might not have many moments of real contact. It also wasn't what she wanted, not really. Her close contacts had never really been with her own kind, after all.
What she missed was real interaction with a human. Well, a facsimile of real, anyway. Something where they trusted her, where she played the part of trusting them. Where she could make Patricia open up, and let slip just a little bit of her actual self with it. But there wasn't room for that in the plan, not anymore. Dealing with the kids wasn't the same, too much authority, and now that she wasn't nine, the closeness of a nine-year-old just wouldn't be the same. She was friendly with people at work, not every teacher was one of their own, but that was all professional. She played a naive, friendly, conciliatory sort, so she was even left out of the office politics, mostly. And her 'personal friends' were others, a way of passing messages and news between the subsets if need be. She wasn't friendly with the actual cohorts, just their acts.
Pat sighed again. She ran a hand through her hair, tugged at the skin under her eyes. They were good fakes. She liked the way Patricia looked. Probably better than the way she actually did, if she could be honest about that. If she had anyone to be honest about that to. "Ugh." There had to be something she could do, some way out of the funk. She pulled her phone out of her pocket. One of Patricia's little vices was checking the thing too much, but Pat didn't really care for the notifications or news. Not the ones Patricia did, anyways. No, instead she opened up the contacts.
Her heart started to beat a little faster. This was definitely not in the plan. But... Well, who would notice? And even if they did, her fellows would just assume it was what she should be doing, surely. So how else could it get back to the ones in charge? And really, it was for the best. Nipping the funk in the bud before her feelings led to an actual issue was simply prudent. Yes.
Patricia dialed the number of an old friend, and then stared at it. Hopefully it hadn't changed. She took a deep breath, and then—
Pat called her friend.
Her phone started blaring Entry of the Gladiators, despite the best efforts of a pile of blankets to muffle it. Penny nearly jumped out of her skin, then scrambled to get her hands out of her rubber yellow dishwashing gloves without getting her fingers touchscreen-incompatibly wet. Failing in that noble struggle, as ever, she tried to dry her hands on the apron, which didn't work on account of the waterproofing—sort of the whole point—and settled for the back of her shirt. This was it, the big call, it had to be— and she wasn't going to keep that waiting, oh no no no. She hurried from the sink straight over to her bed, and fished her phone out from beneath her nest of blankets mercifully quickly. She yanked that stupid little phone circle thing up a little overdramatically, then yanked the phone up to her ear and rushed out a greeting—
Penny's heart went from racing a little more than was reasonably justifiable in the circumstances to plummeting into her stomach with what felt like even greater velocity. Far from Penny Presto's big call, not even a call for Penelope Pleasant. Here she had thought she was done dealing with this shit. She wasn't even sure how she used to handle it, anymore; she was sure she hadn't actually forgotten it, but it wasn't springing readily to her lips.
"Ah, um, sorry. I think there might be a mistake. Can I ask why you're calling?
The person on the other end apologized briskly, and was pretty clearly about to hang up. But while that would on some level be a relief, it was probably worth delving into. Just in case it was important and not just trying to canvas or run a poll or whatever else ran off of outdated voter registration records.
"No no, please, it's no trouble. I might be able to help, depending on why you're calling. Obviously you don't have to tell me, not trying to pry or anything, but..."
Penny blinked. She fell silent for a solid minute. She didn't have an answer ready for that.
Pat waited another torturous moment for a response, and then finally hung up the phone. Of course it was the wrong number. It couldn't be that common to keep your first cell phone number, all the way from high school. Probably weirder of her to have brought the saved contact along to every new phone, despite no calls in years. But did the lady on the phone really have to have the discourtesy of not just saying it was the wrong number? Or at least hanging up?
Pat took in a deep breath, and let it out slowly, letting all her emotions roll off of her. She was calm, and Patricia was back to normal. No more funk, no more stupid flights of plan-twisting fancy. No more weakness. She would simply deal with it, as she almost always had before.
Then the phone in her hand buzzed, and it was that number calling back. Her heart swelled with excitement, before she prudently subdued it. She didn't know this was the phone being handed back to her old friend, now calling her back. And when she answered "Oh, hello,", the same woman's voice revealed it wasn't. But that was fine. For the best, really. She would just clean up this little mess and get back to normal.
"I'm very sorry for hanging up. I thought you had, that was my mistake. Oh, you're right, I hadn't introduced myself. I'm Patricia Lewis. Like I said, I was just calling to try and reach a friend, so since I have the wrong number—"
Penny was almost speechless. Almost; she wasn't going to get hung up on again.
"Wait, Patricia? Pattie? What are you doing calling me now of all times?"
How many years had it been? She was being called by a friend who she had hardly been in touch with during high school, much less after it, looking to get back in touch? It was a ridiculous surprise. But a very sweet one. Almost certainly about to go very sour and all, but she'd take a sweet start.
"Oh, uh, sorry. That must have been weird. But it's... I am your friend. From high school, elementary really. I changed my name, and... Well, you can probably guess. My name is Penelope, you can call me Penny. And, uh, while I'm dumping major life developments on you, may as well share I'm also a professional clown now!"
Bringing that up really hadn't been the best idea by any measure, but she had been scrambling for anything to paper over the awkwardness of having to come out again. Forget the calls for the wrong name, she had really expected she was already done with doing that by now.
"No, uh, ironically enough I am not kidding you. I really am a clown. And a magician, but my heart's really more into performing for children, y'know?"
Pat was not prepared for really any of that response, at all. She didn't know what to say to it. But thankfully, Patricia wouldn't either, so it wasn't a real slip.
"Wow, that is... a lot. But I'm happy for you. Honestly, that's impressive. It sounds like you've put together the life you've wanted, ah, Penny. And that's wonderful to hear."
That brought a sigh of relief from the other side of the phone. That was like her old friend, at least, never very good at disguising emotions. And the voice was sort of familiar, now that she thought about it, she could at least imagine her friends' having grown into it. Not that that said much, since her memory of said voice probably wasn't the best to begin with. But what was the point in doubting? Either this was a very audacious impostor, taking the most impossibly circuitous means of angling to glean her secrets, having somehow known she had secrets, and working from a sudden opportunity that would have been all but entirely impossible to predict—
Or her oldest and frankly only ever friend was a woman. And a clown. And still remembering her as Pattie.
"Oh, me? I'm still in our hometown. I managed to get into teaching after all. Yes, it's honestly a dream come true. I'm one of the teachers for the third grade."
Getting her hopes up and then resignedly dashing them once already was too many times. The surprise was ebbing away, but she could tell her melancholy was going with it. She wasn't going to give this up, not now. One single private indiscretion, surely that was her due. It wasn't a threat to the plans, how could it be, but she'd be prudent and secretive and not let it slip. If there was one thing she had been taught to do, it was keep a secret. And how hard would it be to keep a phone friend secret, anyways?
"That's so great!"
It was honestly a little surprising to hear Pattie really had just gone and pulled off her childhood dream. It wasn't that Penny had doubted her or anything, and she of all people saw the worth of a career with children. It was just striking. Maybe because her own life plan had decidedly not gone to plan, maybe just because the whole exchange was a pleasant surprise. She hadn't really thought she'd ever meet Pattie again, or that if she did it would go very poorly, but...
"Oh, uh, no it wasn't weird at all honestly. Okay maybe a little but that wasn't your fault. Honestly I'm touched you would want to reconnect, I'd like to too. I would offer to meet you somewhere, but well my car isn't really in working order and..."
Penny glanced around her home. As a clown she was not, particularly, one to feel shame. But the thought of inviting her old friend, who apparently had her life together, over to her cluttered little trailer in the 'mobile estates' just outside the main suburb wasn't exactly a tempting prospect. There was no actually defensible reason for that shame, but that knowledge did little to change her feelings. She'd get over it, but she didn't need to get over it fast enough to rush into inviting over a friend she hadn't seen in years.
"Oh, yeah. We can stick to calls for now, meet up some better time later. Huh? Yeah, probably a week or so. My car sorta got crushed? That's what I want to know! Nobody's got any explanation what happened to it. Well, it was an act of God if you ask the insurance people, but that doesn't sound quite right to me. Oh, here, let me send you some pictures. I'm telling you, it's wilder than whatever you're imagining. I was doing a party for this sweet little kid, he was maybe like seven, and when I was done it just wasn't in the driveway anymore. It's like it drove itself away, then got flattened on the side of the road somewhere. Hahah, okay, that was my whole crazy story, I'll cut back on the blabbing now."
That story did sound crazy. But, she was really quite confident none of her kind were going around smashing random cars, so it must have been a freak accident. Or someone with a guilty pleasure much more troubling than hers, at the very least. In any case, not her problem.
"Wow, yeah. No, that was interesting. Hopefully there aren't any other bizarre bolts from the blue you have to deal with. Well, aside from I suppose me, hahah."
Patricia laughed the same fake laugh she ever did. But hearing the same thing back from Penny let Pat genuinely smile, just a little. Yes, this was unquestionably the right decision. Talking to a friend helped quite a lot, and somehow, despite all the time and changes, it felt like they were still friends. No rekindling required.
Pat decided on a second little indulgence. When the time finally came, she would go out of her way to keep Penny safe.