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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The Goth Squad

"About half of teenage goths have deliberately harmed themselves or attempted suicide, a new study suggests. But joining the modern subculture—which grew out of the 1980s gothic rock scene—may actually protect vulnerable children, researchers say."

—"Goth subculture may protect vulnerable children,"
New Scientist, 14 April 2006.

SO A BUNCH of us were just coming out of the Hot Topic store at the Edgar Allan Poe Mall when we bumped into those creepy new kids, Tanith, Poppy, and Storm.

Now, I don't care how many times you get held back in junior high, there's no way you're going to look as old as these three, even when you're a senior. All the white face makeup and eyeshadow and black lipstick in the world—and these "girls" wore at least half of that amount—couldn't conceal the fact that they were all at least as old as my Mom. Poppy seemed to be the youngest, followed by Storm, then Tanith. But even Poppy was at least in her twenties.

Yet the principal had introduced them a week ago in a special assembly as "transfer students."

Dressed totally Goth, like three leather-strapped and metal-studded ravens, they were as fake as Michael Jackson's nose. But none of us could figure out why they had been sent to our school. They didn't try to nark any students out or entrap us in Columbine-type schemes. All they'd done so far was set up MySpace pages where they raved about Marilyn Manson and begged us to be their friends. Weird. So we mostly just ignored them.

But now, here, away from the halls of Ligeia High School, it was gonna be kinda hard to pretend they didn't exist.

Especially when Tanith called out to me like we were best buds.

"Drew! It's so spectacularly tragic to see you! Are you checking out the Goth stuff in this store? It's the best! Have you seen those Demonia Metal Plate boots? Aren't they so gruesome?"

Lacey, Courtney and Britney clumped protectively up behind me like a wall I could rely on for support. I looked down my nose at Tanith. "I'm sorry, I don't go for that kind of fashion. I was looking for a new Green Day hoodie."

Tanith made a face. "Those guys are okay, I guess. But wouldn't you rather have one of those Slipknot or Ed Gein or Edward Scissorhands tops?"

"Eeeyeuw! Gross! How can you guys like that morbid stuff?"

Poppy said, "It's not morbid—not if you look at it right. Death is a part of life. Pain and suffering can be beautiful too."

"Not that you actually have to indulge in such things," Storm kicked in. "But it doesn't hurt to look at what scares you."

"That's how you gain power over it," Tanith added.

I rolled my eyes. "What-ever!"

Lacey, Courtney, and Britney took a few steps away, and I started to follow.

"Where are you girls going?" asked Tanith.

"To the food court."

"Can we come too?"

I shrugged. "It's a free mall."

After we got our food—pizza and tacos and fries—me and my friends took up one table while Tanith, Poppy, and Storm sat down next to us at another. The old Goths made a point of eating black licorice and black jelly beans and drinking green stuff they called "absinthe" out of a hip flask, like that was supposed to tempt us away from our deliciously greasy treats. The four of us tore into boys and music and TV shows, while the three ravens hovered on the edges of our conversation, looking for a way in.

Lacey was talking about a Weezer concert she had gone to when the Goths found an opening.

"So I was in line for T-shirts and this bitch cuts right in front of me—"

Poppy leaned across the aisle like she was diving for the last french fry. "Do you girls ever cut yourself?"

We all stared at the Goths like they still thought Uggs were hip this season. After a while I said, "What can you possibly be talking about?"

Storm said, "You know, using a razor blade or even your fingernails on your own skin, so the pain covers up your bad feelings."

"There's no shame in doing it," said Tanith. "But we can show you how you don't even have to."

"Listen," I said, "when I feel crappy I just eat a whole pint of Cherry Garcia—"

But the Goths weren't listening to me or my friends at all. Instead, they plowed ahead into this mammoth discussion of all things Goth. There was no chance for us to break away, and we missed out on hooking up with tons of cute guys passing by, who avoided the Goths like the plague.

For the next hour we had to sit and listen to what amounted to a history of Goth literature and music and fashion, how great the whole lifestyle was. Laurell Hamilton, Trent Reznor, Tim Burton—you'd think they were God's gift to teenagers. Goths were a community, a philosophy, a refuge from the uncaring modern society. When you were a Goth, you were never alone. Goths had the answer to everything.

The whole one-sided discussion was more boring than Ms. Tanner's physics class. I felt myself nodding off several times. But at last the three women ran out of canned talk. They all looked at us hopefully.

"So," Tanith said, "do you girls think you might join us?"

"As Goths?"

"Sure."

"Not," I said, "if being a Goth meant that I would never have another zit or gain another unwanted pound or have to take another test. Not if being a Goth meant I would get into the college of my choice totally free. Not if being a Goth meant I would win American Idol without having to open my mouth."

"Uh-huh." "Me too." "What she said."

The Goths collapsed like balloons that had lost all their air.

"That does it," said Storm. "This is useless. I'm turning in my corset."

"Right behind you, girl," said Poppy.

"No, you can't give up now—" Tanith begged her partners.

Now that they weren't pretending anymore, I decided to ask the Goths outright what they were doing.

Tanith looked at me with a glimmer of hope. "As you might've guessed, we're not really students—"

"Well, duh!"

"We're part of a new government outreach program. It's been scientifically determined that the Goth subculture can serve as a protective support structure for teens at risk. So we've been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to go undercover and recruit young adults into it. But it's not as easy as I first imagined it would be."

"Of course not! By the time a kid starts the ninth grade, they're already totally set on their future path. Jock, stoner, punk, granola, brainiac—You're locked in tight. You're not gonna have any luck with conversions at our age."

The Goths put their heads together then and began whispering. Me and my friends got up and redid our lipstick and got ready to go.

"One minute," Tanith called out. "We need your advice."

"Sure. What's the question?"

"Would you have joined the Girl Scouts when you were younger if the uniforms were all black?"

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