Some people keep cats or dogs. Some people keep goldfish. Moira keeps pet peeves.
Some people keep cats. Some people keep dogs. Some people keep goldfish.
Moira keeps pet peeves.
That’s what drew me to her in the first place, really. It catches both the eye and the imagination to see her walking around campus with one on her shoulder, another in the crook of her arm, a third peeking out of her book bag. I couldn’t figure out what they were, and might have gone wondering forever if we hadn’t both been waiting for takeout to arrive outside the school gate one night.
I was leaning half against the hinges, half against the edge of the stone wall, and she sat on one of the rocks on the other side of the driveway. Three of the fuzzy things clustered around her feet, quietly chirping until she leaned down to pet them. It was a nice night, warm despite the changing seasons. I was standing there observing with bemused curiosity, and the question suddenly popped out.
“What are those, anyway?”
Her eyes snapped towards me and she sat up a bit straighter, propping her elbows against her knees. I already felt my face reddening. “They’re my pet peeves,” she said, giving me a quizzical look. “What else would they be?”
“Um, I don’t know,” I mumbled, looking away. “Sorry.”
She regarded me calmly for a moment, then waved me over. “It’s all right. Come here.”
“Okay…” I approached hesitantly, perching on an uncomfortable edge of the rock As soon as I sat, she picked up one of her pet peeves and put it in my hands.
They’re a bit smaller, blunter, and flatter than a football, and more fluff than anything. At least two thirds of what I found myself holding was fur; against my palms I felt its four feet-like nubs as it shifted. There was a tiny whift of air near my wrists, and then it began to purr.
She grinned. “It likes you.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that she had more than just three. The pet peeve I’d held that night was named Noisy Neighbors, which I think liked me for my tendency to be quiet and shy. Secreted around in various corners of her room there was also Confusing Affect With Effect, Small Monotonous Noises, Show Tunes, Dirty Dishes Left In The Sink, Food Trash In The Paper Trash, Entering Without Knocking, Borrowing Without Asking, Unwrapping New CD Cases, and so on. Which ones she carried with her depended on the day, what kind of mood she was in. After a while I lost track.
This was when I still found them amusing. They reminded me of the Tribbles from the original Star Trek, in a nostalgically endearing way. I liked the way a peeve’s fur would tickle my neck when sitting on my shoulder, the way she carried them.
And if I were to say it wasn’t a relief to take refuge from my obnoxious roommates in Moira’s tidy single, I’d be lying more than a little.
“I don’t want to go home,” I groaned, kicking halfheartedly at my shoes from the edge of the bed. “They’ll be asleep already. Who the hell goes to sleep at eleven? I’ll be up another three hours, doing homework in the dark.”
“Then stay here,” Moira said reasonably. She was sat in her chair, petting Uncontrollable Giggling and watching me thoughtfully. “You think of your dorm room as home? Really?”
I abandoned my shoes again, leaning back against the pillows and the wall. “Well, yeah,” I said with a shrug. “I don’t think of where I used to live all that much. It’s like a whole other life. So why not call this home?”
We talked like that for hours, letting the conversation meander where it would. As time passed I slumped further and further down the wall until I simply lay on my side, sprawled over the mattress. At some point I pulled my feet up so I didn’t have to bend my legs awkwardly. A pet peeve – possibly Noisy Neighbors, but I never could tell them all apart very well – found its way to my hip and settled there, warming my skin through my clothes with a surprising amount of body heat.
I think I drifted off during a languid discussion of the overall entertainment value of poorly written porn on the Internet, but by then I was so sleepy that we could have been talking about anything. I woke up suddenly, probably only a few minutes later, and apologized.
“‘S all right.” Moira had moved to the bed and was curled up on the end of it. “You can stay if you want, just don’t hog all the pillows.” She reached over – there was about a foot of blank space between us – and nicked one of them.
The light was still on, but neither of us felt like getting up. My eyelids floated down again, and I fell asleep to the feeling of her pet peeves gathering around me like tiny tufts of heated blanket.
It’s funny, how when some things come up you don’t even notice. Maybe you do later, but never at the time.
For example: I knew that Moira carried around different peeves every day, but it never occurred to me to count them. Even when I was in her room I never really kept track. That night, I should have noticed that there were a lot more peeves huddling around me than I would have expected.
And really, that should tell you something about a person.
That night, when I fell asleep a second time on her bed, I dreamt that I was back in my parents’ house, but nothing looked familiar. I sat at the dinner table between two complete strangers. When I got up to leave they followed me, asking where I was going.
“Don’t you know us? We’re your parents. What are you doing?”
I walked outside, and the sky was too bright. Every surface flashed white hot light up at me, as if I was taller than even the houses and looking down at an angle that hid their shadows. It was flat and unreal and completely alien, and my mind screamed at me that I had lived there for eighteen years.
My “parents” continued to follow me. Through some trick of perception they were taller than me, yet still shorter than the buildings. I couldn’t make out their faces, but knew they were angry. Adrenaline shot through me and I broke into a run.
I could barely move my legs, as if I were trying to propel them through pudding. My body already shook from exhaustion, though I hadn’t taken more than five steps.
Suddenly Moira fell into step beside me, a pet peeve clinging impossibly to her hair. “What’s up?” she asked cheerfully. She glanced back over her shoulder. “It’s going to catch up with you eventually, you know. Can’t outrun it. It’ll tear you to pieces.”
If I’d been able to catch my breath, I would have asked her what I was running from; I didn’t think it was just my parents anymore.
I tripped. My surroundings, which had remained out of focus as long as I’d kept moving, sharpened abruptly. All the flecks in the concrete stood out like Braille, scraping like sandpaper against my skin. Blades of grass shot out of the ground like green swords against the sky, which had turned dark blue. Now I was tiny, and all those things towered over me.
“Get up and run,” Moira called, sounding further and further away with each word. “If you run, it won’t catch you as quickly!”
I tried, but I couldn’t get up. My fingers scrambled against the sidewalk but my legs and arms felt pinned down. Something was getting closer, I could hear it, but there was nothing I could do to get away, I couldn’t even twist my head around to see what it was. Something grabbed my leg and I jerked—
—Jerked awake. My eyes flew open and a few panicked seconds passed before I realized where I was. Moira was still sleeping a short distance away, the light was still on, the pet peeves were still keeping me warm.
I shifted, carefully moving them, and sat up. Trying to catch my breath, I crossed my arms tightly over my stomach, pressed my back against the wall, and waited for my pulse to stop racing.
It was nothing, I told myself. I’d said something about home before and it had stuck in my mind, that’s all. The feeling of not being able to move was just a result of trying to move in my sleep and not being able to because I was lying down.
Still, my eyes hurt as if I was crying. My cheeks weren’t wet when I rubbed my hands over my face; I never cry.
A hand touched my knee, and I jumped.
“Are you all right?” Moira asked.
I jerked my hands away from my face. “I’m fine,” I said quickly, and cringed when I heard the waver in my voice.
Between us, one of her pets started to growl. She glanced at it as she sat up and stretched. “Not Wanting To Talk About Things That Are Obviously Upsetting,” she murmured. I stared at her, biting my tongue against the urge to ask how she could tell which one it was so quickly. It was a stupid question; they were her peeves, after all. “What happened?” she pressed. “Bad dream?”
For a moment, the only thing I could think of was how, in the dream, she had kept on running. I had to stop and remind myself that, while I knew she could be stubborn and impatient, she wasn’t the kind of person who would leave me lying helpless in the path of some unknown danger; I couldn’t resent her for something she’d done in a dream I’d had.
I shrugged, not looking at her. “Just a nightmare. They happen.” Not Wanting To Talk kept growling at me. I fidgeted, then started to slide off the bed. The last thing I wanted was to be interrogated. “It’s…” I checked my watch. “Three thirty. I should go.”
She swatted at the growling peeve, trying to quiet it. “It’s okay, you can stay if you want.”
“I have class tomorrow,” I said, trying to wrestle my feet back into my shoes without untying them. “Today.”
“It’s really cold outside, and your dorm is kind of far away.”
“I’ll be sure to walk really, really fast.”
Her hand wrapped around my wrist and tugged at it, drawing my attention away from my shoes. “Let me phrase this differently,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. “Stay.”
I was startled enough to let her pull me back onto the bed, close enough this time that we were touching. She did it as calmly as I’d seen her do most things. As if this was a natural progression of some sort.
It wasn’t very hard to relax into the hug she was offering. My mother had given that much to me when I’d had nightmares as a child. This was the same, only different.
Moira didn’t ask me what the dream had been about. She didn’t say anything at all, and that was probably the best thing. I debated whether or not to say thank you, but decided against it; talking would have meant moving, if only a tiny bit, and I was strangely comfortable. Instead, when we lay back down I let my head rest on her shoulder.
We fell asleep again, with the light still on.
We didn’t date. Or at least, we never really went on dates. We just continued doing the same things we’d always done with a different mindset.
Sometimes that mindset led to making out. That surprised me every time it happened, because I’ve never quite understood how it works. I still don’t. But by now I’ve at least learned how to follow the other person’s lead.
“Ow— Could you— Your elbow is jabbing—Stop for a minute!”
She pulled back and gave me an impatient scowl. “What?”
I shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position. Actually comfortable would have been on the bed, but this was happening on the desk chair with Moira balancing precariously on the corner of it I wasn’t occupying.
Below the chair, one of her pet peeves started growling at me. It was probably Being Interrupted. I did what I had learned was best to do when that happened: ignore it.
“For one thing,” I began, “your elbow was digging into my liver. It’s uncomfortable.” I hesitated. “Does this seem to be moving kind of fast to you?”
Her expression softened immediately, even though I could still hear Being Interrupted growling quietly under the chair. “You think we should slow down?”
What I really wanted to slow down was my heart. It was pounding in my chest and I didn’t know enough to be sure if that was good or bad. Shaking my head, I stood up and started pacing, letting her have the entire chair to herself. My limbs, like my heart, were so jittery I wasn’t sure what else to do with them.
It was only the second time we’d kissed. The first was over hours before these kinds of feelings caught up with me; until then I’d felt great.
“I don’t know,” I muttered. My eyes darted to the growling peeve under the chair. Moira saw and reached under to pet it, trying to sooth it back into silence. The rest of them were out of sight – under the bed, in the dresser drawers and the bottom of her closet with her shoes.
I’d started to learn all their names, and was getting close to realizing that I couldn’t.
“It’s okay,” Moira said after a moment, when the room was quiet. “We can slow down if you want.” She stood up and put her arms around me, slouching a bit to rest her chin on my shoulder. I hugged her back and felt myself calm down. That was exactly where I wanted to be.
The thing is, we never really talked about the things we did. They just happened. It was startling in some ways, but very comfortable in others.
I still have the spare key she gave me, on one of those days when the weather was unexpectedly nice. On days like that, the tables on the porch behind the campus café are empty because most people plan on staying in. I used to spend a lot of time studying out there, in the natural light, surrounded by the scent of the plants nearby.
I don’t go there very much anymore.
“Here,” she’d said, and dropped a key onto my open textbook.
I stared at it, set my pencil down on my notebook, and looked up at her quizzically. “Thank you?”
“It’s a key to my room.” She sat down across from me and leaned on the table. “I told Facilities that I lost mine so I could get an extra.”
“Oh.” I picked it up and turned it over in the sunlight, still slightly puzzled. “Don’t you have to pay a fine for that?”
She shrugged, and the peeve clinging to her shoulder tumbled down onto the tabletop with a squeak. “Just ten dollars. Anyway, now you can come over whenever you want.”
“I’m in your room as often as you are,” I pointed out, patting the little ball of fluff absently. It nuzzled up against my palm like an oddly shaped kitten.
“Yeah, but I have classes sometimes. You can use the Internet or nap or study… It’s better than your room or the library, isn’t it?”
“Oh.” I blinked, starting to get the idea. “Wow, okay. My roommates aren’t going to remember who I am by the time the year’s over, are they?” My fingers tightened around the key and I leaned forward to press my lips briefly against hers, blushing even though we were alone.
I pulled back and grinned when she beamed at me. The peeve sat between us on my book, on the crevice where the two pages met, purring.
The key was a mistake. I only used it once when she wasn’t with me, a while after she gave it to me. Turns out that giving people the ability to move freely in and out of your life can reveal more than anyone bargained for.
Moira always left her door unlocked when she was home, even if she wasn’t actually in the room. I knew that her class was only just letting out, and I rattled the doorknob once to check before unlocking it. She would be there soon, so it wasn’t a big deal.
As the door swung open I heard growling, and realized I’d forgotten to knock. I stepped inside and a pet peeve with a single black streak in its brown fur was in the center of the floor, trembling with the force of its objection.
“Come on, it’s all right,” I said. “I don’t need to knock. Moira said I could let myself in.”
That only seemed to make it angrier. Remembering what she always did to quiet them, I reached down to run my fingers over its soft fur – but it darted forward and latched its clingy feet around my ankle with a sharp noise that was almost a bark. From underneath the bed another peeve crept forward. Another followed it, and another, and another. There was a thumping sound on the other side of the room and the closet doors were nudged aside by tufts of fuzz. The dresser drawers began to rattle and shift open. Within seconds the room was filled with the shuffling of tiny bodies moving against the carpet and each other. They weren’t angry, just moving.
“Crap. Um, it’s all right, really. Look, she’ll be here in a few minutes, I was just…”
They were coming from the dresser, the closet, under the bed. Pet peeves wiggled out from under the pillows, out of hiding places behind the desk and corners I couldn’t even see from where I was standing. It was astonishing just to see how many of them there were, and all of them were coming towards me.
I realized that without Moira there to control them there was nothing I could do, and nervously started backing towards the door. It was hard because they were so thick on the floor that I could barely set my foot down without stepping on one of them. They attached themselves to me the way water clings to the edge of a glass, each wave reaching a little bit higher. I was halfway to the door when they reached my knees.
The last three feet to the threshold were terrible; moving my legs was almost impossible. I kept looking around wildly, trying to figure out where they were all coming from. Hundreds of them! I’d only seen a few at a time before, and they were supposed to be soft and cuddly. They reached my waist and I was sobbing, wondering what would happen to me if I couldn’t get out. My legs hurt from the way they pressed against me. I could imagine that same pressure against my belly, crushing my chest, fur pressing against my face until I couldn’t breathe—
I tripped over the door frame, choking on air and my own panic. We spilled out into the hallway.
Suddenly held in a much shallower grip, I scrambled back, found my feet, and ran. I ran even after I made it outside. I ran right into Moira on her way home from class and couldn’t hide the fact that I was crying.
There are still times when I wake up thinking I’m this close to being smothered. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s enough that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget the feeling. I’ve tried to explain it more times than I can count, but I don’t think people understand. Moira didn’t, when I tried to tell her what had happened. She was concerned, of course, and helped me through the tail end of my panic, but either she didn’t understand or had gotten used to it a long time ago, and expected me to do the same.
Needless to say, I no longer find her pets amusing.
My hands were wrapped around my upper arms, rubbing furiously, and I couldn’t stop pacing the dirty tile floor of my room, which was thankfully free of my roommates. Moira was sitting on my half-lofted bed, resigned to my unwillingness to be comforted anymore. I wasn’t looking at her, just at the floor in front of my feet.
For once she didn’t have any of her pets with her. I had insisted.
“How can you have so many pet peeves?” I demanded. It came out angry; I was trying to hide the fact that my hands were still shaking. “You can’t possibly pick at everything everybody does and still be a… a tolerable person… But you do, you really do!”
She stirred restlessly. “I don’t pick at everything—”
I turned and found myself glaring at her. “You have pet peeves for People Who Pick Their Noses In Public But Try To Be Subtle About It and People Who Hang Prints Of Starry Night In Their Dorm Rooms Even Though They Barely Know Who Vincent van Gogh Is. You have pet peeves for ridiculous things that no one should care about. You have pet peeves that contradict each other, like Being Around People and Having To Deal With Cynicism. You carry them around all the time and they are part of absolutely everything you do! It’s impossible to escape!” I realized that I was short of breath and snapped my mouth shut. My feet continued to move on their own, but after a moment I forced them to stop. “Look,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm, “it was terrifying in there. There were so many of them, and they were… I didn’t know if I would be able to get out. I could barely move.”
“You knew they were there,” she replied defensively.
“You usually hid most of them!”
Something flashed in her eyes. “You’d prefer I paraded them around all at once?”
I looked away and started pacing again. “No, I just didn’t know there were so many.”
She climbed down from the bed and took a few steps towards me. “What do you want me to do?” she snapped, sounding frustrated. “They’re there, I can’t just get rid of them. They’re my pets!”
There was a very uncomfortable pause.
“They almost smothered me,” I said softly, finally standing still. We were facing each other, but not making eye contact. “It’s too much.”
“So, what?” she asked. “You’re just going to…?”
I shrugged. “They’re your pets. You weren’t there. They attacked me. Is that… not a problem for you? Because if you’re not going to do anything about it other than tell me to be more careful next time… I don’t think I can handle this.”
When I finally looked up at her, her entire body was stiff. It made something sink a little inside of me. If it hadn’t been for the peeves, I wouldn’t have said anything to her the night we’d met, just taken my small cheese pizza and gone straight back to my dorm room. She might not have pressed so hard about my nightmare, and I might not have known that she was pressing because she understood that I was shaken. Or, that second time we made out, I wouldn’t have known exactly how long she stayed annoyed with me.
“Yeah,” she said flatly. “Okay.”
We haven’t talked much since that. There was some kind of choice buried somewhere in that conversation, and once it was made there wasn’t much else to say. She kept her pet peeves. I kept a little brass key and some memories.
A/N: I need to go back and work on some things in this... Any suggestions? Any thoughts on the title? Or anything else?