Practical Witchcraft for Outcast Teens
Chapter 4: A Night on the Town

Michelle’s asked Daniel to come with her to a gay club. Specifically, she’s suggested the local gay bar’s sober night, which is open to anybody older than 14. They’re a little surprised that such an event exists in their hometown, and even more surprised that it’s a gay bar that provides it: most people seem to think non-straight sexualities spring into being fully-formed at the age of 18. Daniel’s not gay (at least not in the sense of liking boys) but they’re kind of pleased on Michelle’s behalf to know that a thing like this exists.

Michelle’s offer is ostensibly a reward for Daniel’s “sewing” prowess, but Daniel’s deeply ambivalent about clubs. They get the distinct impression that she’s just using the “reward” concept as a pretext for something she was going to suggest anyway, and if anyone else had asked — not that anyone would — they’d’ve said no without a second thought. But in this case they’ve got a number of reasons to accept. First of all, Michelle wants to go and probably wouldn’t go without their moral support, and they owe her big time for saving their skin from the bullies. (This has happened on several occasions.) Not only that, Daniel would sort of like to know what it feels like to be in a social situation where getting beat up is unlikely.

And if that weren’t enough, the crush they have on Michelle is beyond rational rebuttal.

So, at the appointed hour on the appointed day (8pm on the third Tuesday of the month, to be exact) Daniel and Michelle head into town wearing their best gladrags. For Daniel this just means their cleanest set of black clothes — boy’s clothes don’t interest them much and like fuck are they gonna wear girl’s clothes in public — while for Michelle it’s the half-smart half-casual look of dark green trousers and a black short-sleeved T-shirt. She wears it well.

The pair meet outside a small red brick industrial-looking building in the slightly run-down part of the town centre, the side of which is emblazoned with the letters “OZ” in glowing pink letters on a black background. It’s still light well into the evening this time of year, but tonight the sky’s pretty overcast and grey. The queue that stretches from the club entrance is delineated by temporary metal barriers that manage to be foreboding despite their inherent ephemerality; it consists mostly of mid-to-late teenagers of various breeds of outcast, the older crowd presumably having migrated in search of more alcoholic climes. A pair of hi-vis clad police officers are standing watch across the street, almost daring the club patrons to do something illegal so that they can step in.

“It’s a miracle they let this place exist,” murmurs Michelle as they join the queue.

Daniel follows her gaze to the cops across the street. They’re ostensibly there to make people feel safe, but they make Daniel feel rather on edge. They’re a little bit fucking intimidating.

“They hate gays that much?” Daniel asks her.

“I don’t think hate’s the right word,” she responds. “I mean, in theory they’re here to protect us. They just reckon that’d be an easier job if we all stayed home.” She sighs. “Because home’s always safe for us, right?”

Daniel can hear the heavy irony in Michelle’s voice. It’s rare that she gets quite so sarcastic: it really only happens when she’s masking anger.

“Yeah.” It’s kind of awkward, but they’ve not got a whole lot to add.

Daniel watches as the two cops walk up and down the street behind a row of parked black-cab-style taxis, making periodic reports on shoulder-mounted walkie-talkies. Blinking to focus on the metaphysical they see that the cops’ threads form a rigid superstructure of interconnected fractal layers. It reminds them of computer circuitry, like it’s some kind of ethereal machine; they’re connected to each other but also to many other entities both near and far. It makes sense: the cops’re probably so bound by structure and rank that it permeates their beings on every conceivable level. Daniel might find it sad if they weren’t so unnerved about them being there in the first place.

Between two of the taxis, Daniel spots a man somewhere in his late thirties or early forties wearing a dark leather jacket and jeans. He’s holding a small but fancy-looking camera with a much bigger lens — the mismatch is sort of comical — and he’s pointing it at the queue, trying to line up a good shot. It looks to Daniel like the man’s doing his best not to draw attention to himself, but his best isn’t very good.

“Shouldn’t they do something about him?” Daniel asks. They make their best attempt at a subtle gesture in the photographer’s direction, the question directed vaguely toward Michelle.

The response doesn’t come from Michelle. It comes from one of the other club-goers from ahead in the queue: a guy about their age (maybe a year older) with brown hair that’s a little long for a guy but would be very short for a girl. He’s wearing a grey hoodie that looks a couple of sizes too large, and there’s a medium-size backpack in assorted neon colours hanging from his right shoulder.

“Oh, they’re not worried about him,” he says, pulling his hood up around his face. His tone is grim and world-weary: he’s clearly seen this sort of thing before. “That guy’s press.”

“What?” Michelle asks, with a tone of incredulity and scandal. She’s clearly surprised to find out the press would take an interest in a place like this. Daniel’s less surprised: their parents read the Mail.

“Happens every couple’a months,” the club-goer explains. “They reckon if they find a few of the older-looking kids in shot, they get to cry ‘pedo’ or whatever. ‘Think of the children’.” He makes a vague noise of disgust. “Friend of mine got snapped last year. Her parents went ballistic, fucking nuclear, you know?” Despite his words, there’s no real anger in his tone; he seems too tired for that.

Daniel looks over at Michelle. Her hands are balled into tight fists and she’s hyperventilating massively: by their guess she’s about five inches from freakout.

Think fast:

  • Observe: There’s a photographer, probably a journalist, snapping photos of the queue.
  • Orient: Michelle’s parents don’t know she’s gay. How they’d react to the news is an unknown quantity, but it’d probably be bad.
  • Decide: Therefore they mustn’t find out. Therefore Daniel has to do something. Best course of action: block the photographer’s view.
  • Act: Daniel moves to Michelle’s side, positioning themself directly in the photographer’s line of sight.

“Look at the wall,” they say, but Michelle’s frozen. More gently, they explain: “That way he won’t get a good shot of your face.”

Understanding flashes across Michelle’s eyes and she turns to face the red-brick wall of the building, eyes intently studying the flaws in the cement that’s holding it all together. After about a minute of this her breathing calms to a shaky variant of the norm and her fists relax, the colour returning to her knuckles. She’s still got a bit of deer-in-headlights going on, but on the whole she looks more relaxed. At the very least, she’s no longer ready to bolt, and the pair reach the front of the queue without further incident.

After each paying their entry fee, Daniel and Michelle head into the club. It costs eight pounds, which strikes Daniel as pretty extortionate, but they suppose it’s probably an attempt to recoup the cost of running without selling any alcohol. After payment’s made, the two teens make their way through a passageway and down a flight of stairs to get to the club proper. Just as Daniel reaches the bottom of the staircase they spot the guy from the queue, the one they spoke to outside: he’s scurrying off in the direction of the toilets with backpack in hand. Weird.

The club itself is a single big room with plastic decorations in various shades of pink and purple, though it’s hard to make out the exact colours amid the strobing lights. The centre of the room is a dance floor flanked by two rows of plastic tables and leatherette benches; behind this is a DJ’s booth equipped with turntables (that Daniel suspects are mainly for show) and a laptop (likely the real source of music). Off to one side there’s a bar where yellow police tape has been used to cover up the alcoholic beverages in what’s presumably a poor attempt at a joke. A sign by the bar reads: “Coat Check Here”.

With a wry smile, Daniel asks: “What d’you think they’ll check your coat for?” It’s not very funny, but they hope it’ll break the ice that formed in the incident with the photographer.

“They mean you can leave it with them for safekeeping,” Michelle responds, sounding a little distant. The joke goes either ignored or unnoticed; so much for that plan, Daniel thinks.

As Michelle and Daniel make their way to the bar, the music fades gradually from a forgettable early 90s track to something equally forgettable from the 80s. It’s a transition that smight have almost worked if it were in the hands of a skilled DJ. Daniel’s not been to clubs much (well, at all) but they’ve downloaded enough mixes to tell when someone knows what they’re doing, and this guy clearly doesn’t.

After they’ve deposited their coats, each in exchange for what looks suspiciously like a raffle ticket, Daniel orders a cola. It’s theoretically a Pepsi, but they couldn’t really care less about brand: they mainly just want a source of caffeine that tastes better than an energy drink. Michelle gets herself something to drink as well, but Daniel’s not paying enough attention to notice what. They both go to stand against a wall near the bar, taking a moment to observe the rest of the club. Daniel recognises a few of the people on the dance floor. They wouldn’t be able to put a name to a face, though; they probably just remember some of them from the queue.

“To us?” suggests Michelle, smiling slightly as she taps her cup against Daniel’s. It’s a silly gesture, but probably a sign that she’s doing okay, or at least better than before, so Daniel takes it as good. And even though it’s not the kind of “us” they’d like there to be, they can’t help but smile in return.

The two teens stay at the bar for a while sipping at their respective drinks until Michelle, presumably getting bored, decides to head over to the dance floor. At this point the club’s not exactly heaving, but it’s significantly more full than it was when they came in. Daniel follows after a moment, but rather than stepping onto the floor itself they take up residence on one of the leatherette seats. Dancing’s not exactly their thing; they’re far more content to watch.

Sipping at their cola, Daniel watches Michelle’s moves as she jumps and shifts to the rhythm. She’s definitely in time to the music, but the movements are pretty random and the overall effect is kind of strange. It’s not remotely cool but it is sincere, which is probably more the point: Michelle can shed her inhibitions with an ease most people would probably need drugs for.

Daniel assumes this is why people take drugs, at least. They have no direct experience in the matter.

About four songs later (give or take a few bars) Michelle’s gesturing enthusiastically for Daniel to come and join her. They’ve finished their drink and with it their excuse for sitting out, so they reluctantly step onto the dance floor as the music shifts to a track they think they might actually like, feet moving to the beat despite themself. By the time the song hits its first chorus they’re dancing in earnest, shifting their weight from foot to foot and waving their arms like they’re signalling to passing aircraft.

Michelle smiles enthusiastically and says something that’s presumably encouraging. Daniel can’t hear any of her actual words over the music, but it doesn’t really matter; they feel truly relaxed for the first time in ages. Dancing’s a lot easier than weaving magic and meeting aliens, after all.

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