"We want the customers to think you're cute, Lizzie. And cute girls have to smile."
Alizz was ten years old. She stood in the studio dressing room, wearing an orange gingham dress frilly enough to make all her dolls jealous. Her father, dressed in a fine suit as always, pulled a yellow checked ribbon off the costume rack and affixed it in her hair. Taking a step back, he examined his daughter with a critical eye. He stroked his beard thoughtfully, squinting down at his showily dressed child. "Hmm. No." He yanked the ribbon out of her hair and replaced it with a beret. "No, no. That's even worse. We'll go with the bow. Where are the costume crew people when you need them? Anyway, as I was saying, you NEED to smile, dear."
"Dad, this is boring." Alizz said finally, scratching at her head. Her normally soft blonde hair felt hard and scratchy, thanks to the hairspray. "I don't want to do a photo shoot."
Her father sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He knelt down next to his daughter, tossing the beret aside and delicately tying the bow in her hair. "Darling…sweetheart…" He began, smiling entreatingly, "I need you to cooperate with me. We have to capture your cute face before you start getting pimples. Customers don't like pimply faced mascots."
"But…" Alizz insisted, "I don't want to be a mascot."
Her father laughed gently. "That's nonsense, honey. Of course you want to be a mascot. Daddy's gonna make you famous. And when you're famous, you'll make lots and lots of money." He patted her on the head. "Now show me your teeth. We have to make sure they're white enough."
Alizz dutifully showed her teeth. Her father leaned in, peering at them intensely. "They'll do for now." He concluded. "Wait here, princess. I'll go let the photographers know we're ready." He gave her another fond pat on the head before vanishing from the dressing room. Alizz turned to look at herself in the mirror. Alizz hadn't left the dressing room once this entire morning. Just two hours ago, makeup artists and hairstylists crowded the room, fretting over her hair and face. Then came the costume crew, laboriously picking out different dresses and accessories. Daddy watched the whole spectacle, beaming with pride. Finally, at long last, Alizz was alone in the cramped dressing room. There were no windows, just mirrors and bright, pineapple print wallpaper. Everywhere she looked, she saw herself reflected. They'd painted over her entire face – eyeliner to make her eyes look bigger, blush to make her look rosy-cheeked, lipstick. Her hair they twisted into perfect ringlet curls and then sprayed until it no longer moved. That's showbiz, Daddy said. There's no such thing as natural beauty. Daddy would know. The only thing he cared about more than his business was his face. And his daughter, of course.
Here was the plan. Daddy ran a snack empire – Fizzlebolt Confectionary Inc. Everyone on Kezan ate Fizzlebolt Poppers, even if they didn't admit it. It was the closest thing to having an explosion in your mouth (and that was the slogan – customers dig explosions, Dad said). Their newest product, though, would take the goblin nation by storm. Lil' Lizzie's Snack Cakes – made with love. Inspired by the founder's daughter, Lil' Lizzie's Snack Cakes would be the dose of kindness, sweetness, and innocence that so many city goblins found lacking in their lives. To sell such a saccharine product, though, one needed a cute mascot – a sweet face goblins could look to in such gloomy times. Since they were named for Alizz, she was the most obvious choice. It would have been perfect when she was five and still had baby chub, but she was ten and puberty was approaching like a freight train. They had to make her look tiny and innocent with visual tricks. That, or shell out money for an actual model (of course, that was a big no).
Her face was going to be famous. Curiously, Alizz touched her cheeks, wondering what she'd look like plastered all over billboards in Kezan. She hardly looked like herself. What if the customers didn't like her? What if she actually made Daddy LOSE money? Alizz shivered, curling up into a ball. Would Daddy hate her forever? Force her to wear a bag on her head so she wouldn't remind him of his failure? But no, he seemed so certain. She was going to be famous. Her face would be on the most popular snack in goblin history. Alizz was terrified. But telling him she didn't want to do it did nothing. Daddy was always like that – full steam ahead, don't look back.
A few minutes later, Daddy returned. Alizz saw him in the mirror as he entered. He smiled at her reflection, looking happier than Alizz had seen him in a long time. "You look exquisite, sweetheart. Everyone is going to love you!" He walked up beside her and offered her his hand. Tentatively, Alizz took it and followed him out into the hallway. Her sweaty palms slipped against her father's fine white gloves. Her lip trembled. She'd never done a photo shoot before. The idea of strangers watching her through their lens…and then thousands of goblins seeing the pictures through that lens…made her sick with nervousness.
Her father, noticing her palm slipping, glanced down at her. He patted her on the head, gently so he didn't ruin her hair. "Just remember to smile, Lizzie dear. The photographers will do the rest."
Numli kicked in the screen door with his foot. It slammed loudly against the inside wall, causing the whole house to tremble. His father sat at the kitchen table, absently stirring a cold cup of coffee. He wore his work overalls, stained and wrinkled as they were, and there were still dark rings around his eyes where he wore his goggles. He glanced up as Numli entered. Seeing his son, he forced a smile. "Hey, kiddo. Where ya been?" He asked, blinking slowly. Numli could see the bags under his eyes.
Numli didn't respond. He sidled into the small, dirty kitchen, clutching his right arm. Blood seeped through his fingers and dripped on the floor. His father watched him with a curious detachment, not getting up to help him. Numli dug through the kitchen cabinets until he found a roll of medical tape. Still not speaking to his father, he sat down at the table and began wrapping the cut on his arm. "Did you get into another fight?" His father asked finally once the wound was wrapped. "I wish you wouldn't fight. Hospital bills are expensive and…"
"I can take care of myself." Numli replied quietly. His father stared back down into his coffee, silent.
Another few moments passed. "Do you know where your mother is?" His father spoke again, quietly, head down. He scratched the wood grain on the table. Numli regarded him coldly. A big purple bruise shadowed his father's jaw. The bridge of his hooked nose was slightly crooked, as though it had been broken and healed wrong. A cut near his right eye was just beginning to scab over. "I…I took another shift, just like she asked. I came home to tell her."
Numli pushed his chair back with a squeak. He stood up. "She went out." He replied coolly. "Some guys came by earlier and she left with them."
His father blushed a deep green and stared darkly into his coffee. "Oh. All right." He looked back up at his son. The older goblin's eyes were bloodshot and dark. The bags under them seemed more pronounced than usual. Numli's father was only in his forties, but there were already deep wrinkles creasing his forehead and cheeks. The eleven year old goblin couldn't stand the sight of his father. "Do you…do you have money for dinner? In case she doesn't come home in time?"
"I'll be fine." Numli replied. "Later." With a half hearted wave, Numli turned and shouldered the screen door open. The smell of the slums hit him full in the face, but he was used to it by now. Garbage, the reek of rotten food, and the sour tang of gasoline. Even the sand here was black, soaked thoroughly by the oil dripping from the pipes overheard. Numli wiped his nose on his sleeve and stepped off the front porch. Soda cans blown by the wind were accumulating in the corner where the porch met the stairs. Numli kicked one as he walked along. Billboards glowed tantalizingly far above, some of them spray painted over with gang tags. Posters and advertisements cluttered every available wall. In the distance, Numli could faintly hear the sounds of yelling and gunshots. Between the billboards and pipelines, one could faintly make out the villas of the rich, all aglow with colored lights.
A newspaper kiosk stood on the side of the road. An old goblin in a fedora sat behind a wall of bullet-proof glass, casually flipping through a copy of the Kezan Times. He looked up as Numli approached. His eyes, much like Numli's fathers, were bloodshot. "Whatcha want, kid?"
"Copy of the Times."
"What's a kid like you want with the Times? We got comic books."
"Gimme the Times."
The old goblin shrugged. "Two macaroons." He pushed a copy of the Kezan Times through a small slot over the counter. Numli handed him two macaroons and took the paper. As he slipped the money through, the array of snacks behind the old goblin caught his eye.
"What are those?" He asked, pointing to a line of colorfully wrapped cupcakes just over the kiosk owner's head.
The old goblin took one of them down. The wrapper was bright pink with swirly, delicate print on its logo. "New snack cakes. Got a shipment of 'em the other day. They're not bad if ya like sweets, which I don't. But whatever. Ya want one, kid?"
The kiosk owner slipped the snack cake through the slot. Numli paid him and walked off, paper under his arm and cake in his hand. There was a girl about his age on the wrapper, dressed in a silly frilly dress and posing cutely next to the logo. Tearing the wrapper, he tossed it aside without another thought.
The photographers clicked their cameras. Alizz squinted in the flashing lights, finding it hard to smile so perfectly with people watching her. Taking photographs in a studio was one thing, but public appearances? Father had lost his mind. He stood by her, a hand on her shoulder, beaming perfectly – the picture of fatherly pride. Of course, everything father did was picture-perfect. His smile, his hair, his neatly trimmed beard. Alizz felt shame standing next to him. If she wavered, frowned for even a minute, the paparazzi would catch it and she'd shame him.
Alizz wasn't gloomy. Not by a long shot. Smiling was easy most of the time. It was like going to the bathroom, though. Easy in private, but how could you go to the bathroom while people were watching?
"We at Fizzlebolt Confectionary wish to promote KINDNESS and LOVE for our fellow goblins." Daddy said in his booming, friendly voice. With his free arm, he gestured grandly to the slums around them. "Even to the poor. After all, the poor buy things too!" The crowd of photographers and reporters laughed. Alizz looked around. The slums were even worse than she had imagined. The stink was enough to make her stomach turn. The ground itself was black and smelly. Alizz quickly understood why she and her father were standing on a plastic tarp. Just stepping on that black filth the slummers called ground would ruin your shoes forever.
Even the people looked different. Aside from the photographers and reporters, who were generally well dressed, the slum goblins wore filthy, oil-stained rags and sometimes went without shoes. They all looked old, even the children. Although the photographers flocked around Alizz and her father, none of the slum goblins seemed at all interested. They ambled along, going about their business, pausing only to glance in her direction before moving on. A group of boys about her age sat around the base of a nearby pipe, watching idly out of the corners of their eyes as they talked amongst themselves.
Daddy snapped his fingers in front of her. "Lizzie, love, pay attention." Alizz jumped and blushed deeply, embarrassed. The crowd laughed again. "As you can see for yourselves, even dear little Lizzie is concerned for the plight of poor goblins. The kindness in her young heart is unmatched!" Alizz smiled dutifully, making a big show of looking concerned. In truth, she couldn't wait to get out. The slums stank. The slum goblins had tattoos and carried knives. Bits of trash rolled around in the street, blown by a great stinking wind. The whole place turned Alizz's stomach. She wanted nothing more than to leave and go back to their pretty villa overlooking the coast. "That's why, to show our solidarity with the poor, we've decided to make a charitable donation to be put toward fighting gang violence in low-income neighborhoods. Every purchase you make from Fizzlebolt Confectionary will help stop the horrid, goblin against goblin violence."
The reporters clapped politely and snapped photos. None of them cared a lick about gang violence in the slums. If poor goblins didn't like the mob in their neighborhood, well, they should just get rich and move out. But poor goblins were some of the biggest buyers of junk food, mostly because it was cheap. Making a big show of "caring", even when they didn't, would bring in more customers. The bottom line was the most important thing, after all. What had father said to her before they came? 'Just hold your breath and don't look any of them in the eye. Don't worry, darling, we won't have to hang around those unsavory types for long'. Alizz did as Daddy told her.
"Now, gentlemen, if you'll follow me, I'll show you just what good Fizzlebolt Confectionary can do…" Beckoning the reporters, Daddy followed the tarp path away from the slums. The crowd followed him, circling him like buzzards. Alizz trailed after, but a sudden shout stopped her.
"Hey! You! In the skirt!"
The group of boys by the pipe was beckoning her. Alizz stared at them, glancing between them and her rapidly disappearing father. "C'mon, toots! Get over her! Let's have a look at ya!" The boys called. Alizz hovered uncertainly. Tentatively, she stepped off the tarp and wandered toward the group of boys. The leader was probably not older than thirteen, but he was tall for a goblin and very muscular. He had a dagger tattooed on his right bicep and a nude goblin woman with big tits on his left. The other boys, all between nine and twelve, already looked like hardened criminals. They were adults. Not like her. They leered nastily at her as she approached. Alizz already wished she hadn't walked over to them. "You're the girl from the billboards, right?" The oldest boy pointed at a billboard advertising 'Lil' Lizzie's Snack Cakes' looming overhead. Alizz blushed and nodded.
"Those things taste like crap."
"She's kinda cute up close, isn't she?"
"Why don't you sit down and hang out with us, toots?"
Alizz wrung her hands nervously, unsure of what to do. Had Daddy noticed she was missing yet? Was he too busy talking about how lovely and grand his company was for caring about the poor, even if he really didn't? Alizz nervously glanced around, trying to find someone, anyone, who looked clean and familiar.
"You mooks leave her alone."
Alizz looked up hopefully to see the face of her rescuer. He was a boy, not much older than she was, with a shock of vibrant teal hair and the bluest eyes Alizz had ever seen. His clothes were ripped and dirty and a length of bloody medical tape was tied around his right arm, possibly where he'd been stabbed. The longer Alizz looked at him, the scrappier he appeared. Bruises, no shoes, white calluses on his hands and feet. Still, there was a difference between him and the boys sitting at the base of the pipe. Alizz couldn't say what. He looked directly at Alizz for a moment then back at the tall leader of the boys. "She ain't from the slums. She's not 'ere for you to mess around with. So just let 'er go."
The older boy with the tattoos raised a slim red eyebrow. "Not like you to stand up for a rich girl, Numli." He shrugged. "She ain't that cute anyway." He waved Alizz off with a flick of his wrist. Alizz took a few hurried steps backward. She glanced at the teal-haired boy before she left. He wasn't looking at her, instead staring steadily at the older boy. His blue eyes were hard, challenging. I dare you to touch her. They said. I dare you.
"Th-thank you." Alizz whispered, quickly darting off. Even as she ran away, the boy didn't look at her. A part of her sorely wished he had.