A/N: wow hello it is your author who keeps forgetting to mention she has mad OCD and therefore is sometimes delayed with getting chapters up. anyhow, here it is. shit may or may not begin to get real (you know, for a given value of real). did I cover all my bases?
Bad CP day. Wednesday, that is. I'm stuck in my power chair, embarrassingly limp and drooly, while Catherine hovers over me like a concerned praying mantis. (That'd be my aide, sorry. I am not mentally sharp today. I've been doped up on extra-strength Motrin.) For that matter, I know “stuck in my power chair” sounds almost as shameful as “wheelchair-bound”, but if you have variable mobility it's a sticky subject and I don't care give me some more Motrin please.
Around lunchtime, I convince Catherine to lurk fashionably out of sight. I'm parked in the fourth-floor hallway, waiting for Clara to exit AP Bio. If I convince Catherine that I have friends, I'm allowed to do things with them instead of under her direct supervision. So I figure, hey, potential 504-kid alliance. (Actually, I'm willing to strike up a conversation with Zellie or Mac, too. Anything to escape the Wrath of the Praying Mantis.)
Desperate? Me? Maybe.
They are very late. When they do emerge from the classroom, it's with a secretive air, and Zellie clutches her bookbag as though it contains precious gems. Mac's brow is knitted in confusion. Clara, wide-eyed, spots me first. “Lee!” she says, approaching me with purpose. “Hi. We've received further evidence.”
“About the Event?” I stutter. My keyboard sits on my lap, but I routinely avoid using it to talk. For Reasons.
“Yes,” Clara confirms. She turns back to Zellie, anxiously. “Zellie, we ought to give Lee a chance to observe the device. And the others – ”
“Yeah,” Zellie interrupts, hoisting her bag. “I gotta do homework, but, um – later? Like after school? I'm sorry, I really need to eat, I can't take my meds if I don't eat, and I have an essay to finish...”
She bites her fingernails, quite frazzled, then points at my face. “I'll text you.”
“Sure,” I say. I don't often text, but it won’t be a bother. Zellie smiles fleetingly and speeds away toward the stairs. Mac gives Clara and me a bemused look before slouching off.
Clara is still standing over me. This throws me for several loops. I expected her, of all people, to make an excuse and run. But she clears her throat and says, “Lee.” I swing my head upward.
Clara wears the navy blue hoodie she rarely takes off, and bright red track pants with silver stripes down the sides. Her one pair of sneakers are a very dirty purple. (Girl cannot match colors for her life.) She fiddles with her glasses, with the strings of her hoodie, with her own hands. Shoves them in and out of the hoodie's kangaroo pouch. “Um. Sorry, but. Can I borrow a dollar?”
Ah, jackpot. This is my ticket out from under Catherine's wing. “Sure, why?”
“Um. Coffee.” She forces a terrible, apologetic grin. “Sorry. I forgot to bring enough money, and if I don't have coffee I'll, like, die. I'll pay you back promptly, I assure you. Like, tomorrow. Is that okay?”
“Yeah, of course!” I've never heard Clara so slangy. I reach around to my bag, then it occurs to me. “Where are you getting coffee?”
“Um. Jin's? That's the only place where it's a dollar, I think.”
Jin's is the deli a couple blocks down and across from our school. It is heavily frequented by students. Mr. Jin, the proprietor, has a vast memory for regulars and will often wave it off if you're a nickel short.
I say, “Can I come with you?”
Clara blinks, evidently shocked. “Um, of course. I mean – can you get there?” She gestures at my chair. “What about curbs. Doorways?”
“Curbs are okay,” I say. “There’s mandated curb cuts around here. And if I need to stand up to get through the door, I can. I’ve got my crutches.”
“Okay!” says Clara. Her face is brightening. “Do we need to get that lady down the hall?” She points. “I mean, your, like. Assistant. I don’t know the word.”
I roll my head around to look at Catherine. She’s all the way over by the elevator, but I can feel her radiating judgment. It’s the same impulse that drove Mother, back in elementary school, to discourage me from socializing with the ‘retarded’ kids in my special ed classes. No, Liam, you're not like them: you're smart. She was so intent on marking me as physically disabled, even more intent on calling my condition mild. That girl Tara, who flopped in her chair all day with hardly any motor control and pushed colored buttons to speak – there but for the grace of God went I.
But Tara got to wear girl clothes, and I didn't. So even at age six I knew my mother’s logic was flawed.
“Well,” I say, “we have to take the elevator. But if you’re with me, she might not follow us. Act responsible.”
Clara blinks doubtfully, but she follows me down the hall. “We’re going to Jin’s,” I tell Catherine.
Frown, hover, flutter. “Liam, are you sure? There are some hills…”
I tune her out until she releases us with a warning to be careful. We go into the elevator. Clara says, “Is she a bad person?”
“Who, my aide? She’s… I don’t know. She’s just annoying.” I repeat an adage of Mother’s, despite myself. “Her heart is in the right place.”
Clara nods, her whole body rocking in time with her chin. “Does the wheelchair have a name?”
I’ve never been so delighted. Of course it has a name, but has anyone else thought to ask? No. “She’s Filene,” I reply. “That's what I called my first chair when I was little, and the name got passed down to each subsequent chair that replaced her. You know Filene’s Basement?” Clara shakes her head. “Well, that’s what I named her after. It was a department store on 79th and Broadway. We shopped there all the time.”
Mother got on my case at first for not giving the chairs a Torah name. I pointed out that she'd named me Liam, which is about as far from the Torah as you can get, but she would have none of it.
“Liam Thurston was your father's best friend. He saved your father's life! That is worthy of commemoration. What has Filene's Basement ever done for you, besides get you that ridiculous coat?”
Jin's is packed. Both Mr. Jin and his primary employee, known only to students as the Other Guy, are bustling around behind the counter. The Other Guy is a small Asian man with immaculately combed hair and a disfigured face. As deformities go, it’s mild: the left side of his face is calloused and bulbous, skin smoothed over the eye. It looks like a healed acid burn or similar. One could argue that I fall more squarely within the Uncanny Valley than he does. (I like to pretend we have a kinship, though. Us crips and uglies gotta stick together.)
Mr. Jin has Clara’s coffee and cream cheese bagel ready before we hit the front of the line. Impressive. Catherine packed me a lunch, and I’ll get scolded if I don’t eat it, but I purchase some candy for dessert. Clara handles the transactions, since I’m leaned precariously on crutches and keeping an eye on Filene outside. By the time we return to school and sit down in the cafeteria, it’s an immense relief to be free of the outside world.
Clara gulps coffee like it's keeping her alive. (Maybe it is, who am I to judge.) She says, “Do you want to know about the machine? The one Zellie got. That's the new evidence.”
She explains it to me: a square that projects a small replica of the Magpie, accompanied by garbled background noise. I should be afraid, but my heart beats faster with excitement. I've always found mystery preferable to banality – the more absurd the better. On screen! Captain, that thing's a giant hand.
“I hope we see more of her,” I say. I mean the Magpie.
“Me too,” says Clara. “I like her. She seems nice.” She pulls out her bagel and sniffs it. When she starts to unwrap its tinfoil, she says, “Hm.”
I say, “What?”
“There is a post-it here,” says Clara. She holds it up between her index and middle fingers, bagel forgotten in the other hand. Indeed: a regular yellow post-it, with a couple lines of scrawled writing.
“What does it say?” I ask, leaning forward to see. Another clue, perhaps.
Clara frowns down at the little piece of paper. “It says, don't touch the holo. Holo like a hologram? But there's two l's, not one.”
I reach for the paper and examine it myself. She's right:
DONT TOUCH THE HOLLO
thnaks – a friend
“Do you think it means the device?” says Clara, and then she stands straight up, scrambling over the cafeteria bench and almost knocking her coffee off the table. “But we did touch the device! Zellie and Mac and me. We did! We have to do something!”
She starts wringing her hands nervously and pokes me in the shoulder several times. “Lee, what if it means that. Lee, what do we do.”
I turn the post-it over a few times. “I don't know,” I reply. I think I recognize the handwriting, but it's nothing more than a familiar pinging in my head.
“We have to tell Adam,” says Clara with conviction. “He'll know. Adam will know what to do.”
I'm not convinced of that. The man is trustworthy, sure, but it's hard to tell at our age if someone's cut out for the command track. Does he have the leadership abilities? Only time will tell.
But right now we're short on options, and Adam is easy to locate, so I tell Clara okay. “I bet he's in the library. Just help me with my crutches?”
Clara readily complies. Her motor control is total shit, for a person whose impairments are supposedly mental. If you watch closely you'll see her body moves as funny as mine. We get the crutches secured in their pocket and my chair facing the exit.
“Thrusters on full,” I say to Filene. Clara opens her mouth and her hands start conducting a nonexistent orchestra. I've never seen her do this before. “All systems go!” she says. “Ready for takeoff.”
I'm surprised, but pleasantly so. High hopes for degenerate solidarity. Houston, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. First address the Post-It of Impending Doom.
I was sitting on the traffic median a block or so from school, eating my recent purchases from Jin's deli. Greasy BLT, cherry Coke and a pack of Zebra Cakes. Shut up, you know in your heart they're delicious. It was lunchtime Wednesday, warm enough to eat outside, so I sat in the sun and pretended the world was still normal. Not 24 hours ago, a group of people had encouraged me to remember an event I'd never experienced. That kind of thing can be stressful. So, as usual, I dealt with my turmoil constructively: I zoned the fuck out and enjoyed some empty calories. (Suck on that, Mom. You're only so skinny because you chain-smoke.)
I'm basically on Earth to provide a lazy and ugly contrast to my mother, who's lithe and bubbly and ridiculously tattooed.
Speaking of my mother, I had just received a text from her. It read as follows: “susan babe! working on a new painting. just received check from ur dad. he is taking his photos in thailand!! so amazing. must be beautiful. remember that u go to the best public school in nyc and there are leftovers 4 dinner in the fridge. xx mom.” My parents are divorced and my dad is a photojournalist in constant motion. I haven't seen him since I was four. Too bad, so sad. From what I hear though he rivals my mom in craziness and Artist Angst, so I figure our lack of contact works out in my favor. My classmates might vehemently disagree, but there are times when I'd kill to have the stereotypical Asian parents. Just so it would make sense when I swapped parental stories in the locker hallway, and so there’d be a system to break. As it is, if I say I'm going out, my mother responds with “Oh, good! Have fun.” And then turns back to her latest canvas. If she cared about my grades I might, but so far I've got no motivation to stop making easy B's.
Or stop eating Zebra Cakes, for that matter.
So, one minute I was sitting there – eating, angsting, being seventeen – and the next minute I was doubled over, clutching my right leg and gasping in pain.
I scrambled backwards on the grimy concrete, onto the grass where they've planted trees on the median. I was breathing so hard that my ribs hurt. Come to think of it, my entire body hurt.
Oh god, not the the fucking Event. What if this was because I couldn't remember. Were some shadowy holograms punishing me because I didn't remember?
The pain began to abate. It faded to a dull ache, and I wondered if I'd imagined the initial burst. Maybe I was going crazy, after all. I had finally cracked and inherited my mother's free-spirited demeanor. Time to spend the rest of my life slapping paint on a canvas and slowly getting lung cancer.
My breathing slowed, and I forced my eyes to refocus on the far sidewalk. New Yorkers slid past each other like very angry fish in a stream. A short man hurried up the hill from Jin's, carrying a stack of deli coffee cups. You know, the kind that say WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU in a faux-Greek font. I squinted and realized it had to be that employee of Mr. Jin's, the Other Guy. (The Other Guy as in, not Mr. Jin. Creative, I know.) He disappeared into one of the fancy Park Avenue apartment buildings that line the streets this side of school.
Fuck, Adam said we shouldn't specify the location. Whatever, dude, you're not my mom. Park Avenue goes halfway down the island.
Wait a sec. Why was the Other Guy carrying deli cups into an apartment building populated by rich people? I always thought places like Jin's were beneath them. Maybe the cups were for a coffee service in the lobby. Hah, or maybe Jin's was stealthily using the building's recycling system. It's a time-honored tradition to put stuff you don't want in other people's trash.
I gazed idly at the building's awning for the next fifteen minutes, but the Other Guy never reappeared.
My food had lost its taste. I decided to go to the library for the remainder of lunch. Adam would be there; I could grill him about the details of the Event and drop hints regarding my leg pain. Maybe some of the others had got it, too.
I had barely situated myself in the armchair next to Adam's – he was reading, annoyingly studious, and nodded absently at me – when Clara and Lee burst in, disrupting the quiet, and skidded up to us. Clara had a cup of coffee gripped tight in one hand and seemed to be vibrating.
“Adam!” she said in a stage whisper. “Quick, we need to talk to you. It's about the Event. This is of utmost importance.”
I said, “You're not supposed to bring food in the library.”
Clara looked down at her coffee, dismayed, as though it had just materialized. “Oh. I know. I wasn't thinking.”
There was a rustle of clothing against crutches and then Lee was there, too, standing almost directly behind Clara. “Everybody breaks that rule,” he said, with great authority, and plopped himself in the chair next to mine. “Don't tell Catherine I'm in here. I made Officer Milton watch Filene.”
Lee's cheeks were comically pink from exertion or cold. He's very pale, so the contrast was stark, and his eyes are this intense light blue. He looked like a fucking anime character.
Oh, and Filene is his wheelchair. Don't ask me why.
Clara sat down on the low table in front of us, setting her coffee beside her. “You need to hear about the new evidence,” she said. She described the mini-Magpie device, which I guess Zellie had found. I still didn't know who this Magpie woman was. To make matters worse, every few sentences Lee would interrupt Clara to provide a wild theory. He seemed thrilled by this entire situation.
“You do realize,” said Adam patiently, “that the technology you're describing is well within the limits of what we have on Earth. As in, right here. Right now. I don't mean to kill your buzz, but that basically sounds like a little 3D projector plus a radio.”
Lee and Clara both looked dismayed at that. It's rare that I agree with Adam Walcott, but this time he was on point.
“But also!” Clara said. “Even if it's normal, it might be dangerous.” She held out a crumpled post-it to Adam. “Look what this says. I found it in the paper bag from Jin's. It was stuck to my bagel.”
Adam smoothed it out. “Don't touch the hollo,” he read aloud. “Um. Okay.” He rubbed his forehead. “So, you're assuming that 'hollo' means the hologram, the miniature Magpie, and you're also assuming that this ended up with your bagel on purpose and was not just a post-it that was lying around Jin's for no reason. It's not exactly the cleanest establishment.”
Boom. I was glad he was providing reason, because no way can I put words together that well.
Adam looked up at Lee and Clara's eager, worried faces. “That's a lot of logical leaps,” he said.
“But what if,” Lee pressed dramatically.
“Catch you on the flip side,” I said, and stood up. Honestly, sometimes Lee gets on my nerves even more than Adam does. They've both watched too much Star Trek, but at least Adam can tell it from reality. If you're fervently wishing for weird events to be alien and magical – no offense, but I don't wanna talk to you.
But I went in the bathroom and rolled up my jeans and stared at my right leg for a while. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with it. Forget it, Susan, you're paranoid as hell.
Picture this: you fall asleep in the locker hallway, leaned against the bottom row of lockers. Cross-legged, chin dropped on chest, one arm draped protectively over your backpack. When you wake up, your hands are bleeding.
Now think very carefully about my life, and change that last sentence just a little: When you wake up, your hands are bleeding and it hurts to move them.
I nearly screamed like a fucking banshee.
I've had friends reassure me, time and again, that my regular voice is passably low, reasonably masculine. I can hear some lower frequencies and I believe they're telling the truth. But I don't scream like a normal person. My little sister laughs at me. It's apparently an unearthly sound and sort of witchy. I keep my mouth shut if I can help it. It's lucky I don't have arachnophobia or anything.
They weren't strictly bleeding. My palms were covered in these tiny bubbles of blood, from wrist to fingertip, like a miniature landscape of pomegranate seeds. They hurt like fuck. Some of the bubbles had burst in my sleep and smeared my backpack and my T-shirt, which was white. I looked like I'd killed another person.
Blood-red fingernail woman. This was her fucking fault. I knew it. She painted her nails with the sickened blood of her victims, then put the extra color in her hair.
I couldn't sign. I couldn't sign. I couldn't sign.
The next time I looked up – there may have been tears in my eyes, shut the fuck up – there were two girls standing over me. That doesn't happen very often.
Okay, so one of the girls was Clara Delgado and I'm not sure she even counts as a girl. The other was Zellie. Whose face was petrified.
“I'm really – I apologize,” she said, her mouth wavering. “I didn't mean – oh, shit.”
She dropped her backpack on the floor with a thump and crouched down next to me. “Is it the same thing? Oh, shit, shit, shit.”
Her face was consistently at an angle I could lipread. I was glad she'd instinctively learned to do this. She held up her hands, very close to my face, and I shrank back against the lockers. They were coated in bloody pustules, identical to mine.
“I think it's the fucking Magpie on ice,” she said – no, that couldn't be right. Her entire face was kind of shaking. Possibly her entire body. I would have hugged her, if we hadn't both been suffering from an unidentified ailment.
Meanwhile Clara was still standing, her gaze fixed blankly on the top row of lockers. Her lips moved in what I figured was Spanish. But it might as well have been nonsense to me. She was swaying faintly side to side, her arms bent at the elbows and hands limp in front of her. If I angled my head just right I could see the same jeweled red on her palms. Holy mother of fuck. I thought maybe I should start praying, or something equally tailored to an unstoppable pandemic, but I am only Muslim in the most perfunctory way. I don't even keep halal outside my apartment. Besides, none of the words or signs in my mind were religious. They were mostly like blood red fuck shit motherfucker fuck fuck.
“Mac,” said Zellie – she was nudging my knee with her foot. “I think it has to be the device, right? Because only us three... ” Gibberish. Her mouth was moving, but the words were too fast, and whatever part of my brain I used to lipread was hopelessly sluggish.
“I don't understand,” I said. Slower than a snail. I felt like I'd been dipped in molasses.
Zellie glanced around wildly, searching for some other way to communicate. Finally she dug one hand into her pocket, wincing, and pulled out her phone. She tapped out a text with two fingernails and held the phone up to my face.
only us 3 touched the device. ran into susan and adam earlier. they were unaffected. havent seen lee since lunch tho.
“Okay,” I said. It was so difficult to get the words out. “So we check Lee.”
Zellie nodded and picked up the phone again, biting her lip in pain.
right. if hes not sick, the device def caused it. but if he is, maybe sickness is function of original event, w/ variable incubation period.
She was really fucking articulate for someone in the throes of alien illness. I could barely move. I was too hazy to process that I should be worried about death. Hey, I'm dying! How about that.
Of course I really wasn't. But that's what I thought and then I thought “der Mond ist bludesch” which we learned in Music, the moon is bloody, and then I started laughing. My head rolled to one side and I fell onto my backpack just cracking up like crazy. I think Clara knelt down then, beside Zellie, but both girls had turned to moving blurs of color. It occurred to me that the hallway was empty, except for us: how long had I slept? It must be after ninth period, after the library closed. I was going to get in trouble for abandoning Parveen. I wondered where she was. Then I collapsed, smashing my backpack, too sleepy to care.
I promise, I have nothing against Clara Delgado as a person, but the girl is useless in a high-stress situation.
I guess I should be too, but then I'm medicated and adrenaline is weirdly beneficial for me. Like, once it kicks in, I wholly understand that the situation is dire and that I need to be at my mentally sharpest or I might die. Instead of fight-or-flight, I get a work response. This is how I once drove a thief out of our house. It's also how I write my essays.
But she started by twisting her hands and then realized that hurt and then just broke the fuck down and hurled herself into a wall. Luckily it was past eighth period and the school was emptying out. I wanted to calm her down but had no experience to draw upon. So I just watched her run around banging into things until a security guard came upstairs and I was like, Oh she's just autistic, and he was like, Oh right it's her. I'm not a fan of the NYPD, or police forces in general, but our security guards are tolerable. They make a point to be familiar with the school crazies. They give random students their leftover doughnuts.
It took about half an hour for Clara to slow down. Once she was steadily pacing in circles around the hallway, I nudged her and said, “We have to go find Mac. He touched the device, too, remember?” She nodded and mumbled in Spanish. Which I actually know, to an extent, but there's a wide gap between high-school classroom Spanish and the kind spoken by a freaked-out Clara. I could not interpret her for my life.
Then we found Mac who'd apparently been asleep for hours and that shit went down and then we were both kneeling in the empty senior locker hallway next to a conked-out teenage boy covered in contagious blood. Excuse my distrust of the medical establishment, but calling an ambulance struck me as the least logical solution. It was an unknown pathogen, I didn't know what kind of insurance Mac or Clara had, and I did not want to put my city in a state of emergency. Our first task ought to be finding Lee, and thereby determining the origin of the illness.
“Clara,” I said. “I know you're scared, but do you know Lee Feldman's phone number by any chance?”
She shook her head side to side, flopping against the lockers beside Mac. “No, but my backpack has the school directory.”
It was mad creepy of her to carry the directory around but I didn't question it. I opened her backpack gingerly, with the very tips of my fingers; it hurt nonetheless and I left traces of blood on the zipper pull. The directory was mercifully visible. I located Lee's information and mentally repeated his home number until it stuck. Now was the difficult part. I can hardly make phone calls in optimal states, and here I was charged with the task of calling a complete stranger, asking to speak to their son, and not fainting due to extended painful contact between the phone and my hand. Shit.
I steeled myself for the unavoidable prospect of leaving blood on everything. Extract cellphone, dial number. I've never been able to anchor a phone between my head and shoulder. I don't know why: my musculature simply isn't designed that way. So, grip the phone using only fingernails, which I thankfully hadn't clipped in a while. Listen to the rings.
The voice was female, heavily New-York-accented. The kind of accent you rarely hear these days. “This is the Feldman residence, Miriam speaking.”
“Um – hello,” I said. The words were too quiet, too tremulous. No matter. “Um, this is a classmate of Lee's. My name is Zellie Maddox. Could I please speak to him about some of our homework?”
I was already close to throwing up and I knew it was anxiety, not this stupid illness. I can always tell the difference.
“Lee!” the woman yelled, the sound reverberating and crackling on the other end. “It's a friend of yours from school! Can you pick up the line in your room?”
I silently judged them for having two home phone lines in this day and age. Was I wrong in assuming the world had switched over to cellphones?
There was a rustle and Lee's mother said, “Okay, that'll be him,” and two clicks and then Lee's familiar, blurred speech. “Hello, who is this?”
“It's Zellie,” I said. “Are you ill in any way?”
He sounded puzzled. “No, um, I don't think so. I mean, all my joints hurt but that's a frequent occurrence and I went home early because of it. Otherwise I seem to be fine.”
Okay, it seemed our affliction was a result of the device in my bag. I comforted myself with this small bit of knowledge. “Okay, Lee, thanks. I hope your joints feel better soon.”
“It's no problem,” he said. “I'm more concerned about the warning note.”
I thought I'd misheard him. Or maybe he was on pain meds that rendered him loopy. “You what?”
“The post-it on the bagel. Warning from a friend.” He spoke dreamily, languidly. “Didn't Adam tell you? I believe we are subject to cosmic punishment. Do you interpret symbols?”
“I don't know what you mean,” I said. The panic was beginning to seep into my voice. I needed to hang up or I would vomit. “I have to go, Lee. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” he said. I slammed the phone shut, wincing at the strain on my hand, and turned around to see that Mac was awake and that his eyes were shot through with fine streaks of violet. It was like they were bloodshot, but the veins had been injected with a purple substance, instead of blood. He blinked sleepily at me. “Have you ever considered becoming a doctor?” he asked. His mouth moved slowly, the words endowed with a peculiar thickness quite distinct from his usual deaf accent. “You have a very comforting presence.”
Nobody thinks it will happen to them.
Renata Acevedo certainly didn't. For heavens' sake, she's a good student! This is the best secondary school in near-Earth space! Everything within a few light-years has been scrubbed and sterilized into oblivion. Exaggerations, yes – but despite the tiny dangers that bombard her daily, she assumed she was safe in the big ways.
Until she wasn't.
You and the others have relocated to the AP Bio room, because it's still unlocked and Zellie decided Mac would be more comfortable lying on a table. His backpack functions as a cushion for his head. He's floppy and mostly asleep, but doesn't make noise as you expected a sick person to do. His eyes are half-open and stained purple. You wonder if he would sign in his sleep, on a regular night.
You're stuck in sheer terror and it's humiliating. Your funny Clara Delgado body has no doubt escaped your control. You'd ask her what she did, but she's gone temporarily mute. Renata's back in charge and picking up the wreckage. It's a good thing Zellie has a handle on the crisis.
You're mumbling and rocking in the corner of the bio room when a gash of pain tears through your hands, and the bubbles start receding, quickly as they grew. You watch mutely as your palms sear themselves back to normalcy. The pustules shrink into thick pale scar tissue, which subsequently falls off. In a few minutes your hands are as smooth as they were at noon. The entire affliction lasted – well, your mind scrambles time, but it wasn't long. Not near long enough for you to process the idea of death.
You creep forward and check on Mac. His hands are also clean.
Zellie stumbles out of her chair and into your line of sight. “Fuck,” she says, drawing out the F. Her hands slice downward through the air. “That was the stupidest alien virus I've ever met. I'm getting a fucking M.D. so I can nip these things in the bud before they disappear. That was bullshit, man.”
She's glaring into the middle distance and looks a bit crazed. You can relate.
Mac peels himself off the table, into a sitting position, and follows Zellie's motions curiously with his eyes. His hair is sticking up in all directions. In fact, you're all rather disheveled – it's nice to feel equal with the normals in this way, for once.
“The stupidest alien virus?” Renata echoes. You straighten your glasses.
“It just fucking irks me,” Zellie continues. She paces around the room, weaving a drunken path between the tables. Hand motions annotate her words: one part emphatic air-slicing, one part a few disjointed signs that are unlikely to help Mac. “See, it was visible for what, an hour? So what does that mean? It had an incubation period of – of, um. Over twelve hours for me, actually, since I touched the device last night. But it worked far more quickly on you two. So is this it, like, it's already gone? Or you think it'll return at the same time tomorrow? Is it regulated by the light, somehow, the position of the fucking moon? I just want to know and it won't let me know!”
“Did you say you were going to be a doctor?” Mac asks. The purple is gone from his eyes. He looks befuddled.
“I don't know,” Zellie replies. “I don't know. Probably not, I'm not good enough. I just know that I wanted to understand it, and then it was gone.”
You blink a few times and pretend your mouth isn't loosely open. She's stated a Precept of the Renata Universe. New understanding is the highest priority. These are the voyages... What I'm trying to say is, Renata gets you, babe.
While you're stunned out of speech, Zellie walks up to Mac and grabs him by the shoulders and starts to shake him. This is new. She yells in his face, “It's gone! Why is it gone? Why did it go away?”
Beats me, kid.
Mac twists his head toward you and raises his eyebrows, like, What is she doing. There's a funny sensation in your stomach. People never give you that look; they give other people that look, in reference to you. It says, Why is she acting like that? I know you're a normal person who would never act like that. But now Mac's eyebrows are raised at you and Renata starts giggling because Zellie has stated aloud her most treasured modus operandi, that Learning Is Key. And now they think Renata's normal. Mac also begins to laugh, in a confused fashion, and Zellie collapses on his shoulder and she’s crying. He pats her back awkwardly.
There is a small phone bleep. Zellie detaches herself from Mac and stands up straight. “Oh my god, I have a text,” she says. Her face is tearstained and her glasses askew. She withdraws her phone from her pocket and checks it. “It's Susan,” she says, displaying the screen to Mac. “It's in all capital letters. She says I NEED ALL OF YOUR HELP.”
“All of you?” says Mac.
“It's also sent to Lee and Adam. I'm guessing she remembered the hallucination. It's about time.” Zellie adjusts her glasses, shakes out her hair and sniffs. She is quite capable of a professional demeanor when she tries.
Renata envies that. “We need to explain,” she puts in lamely. Forces out the words. “We need to tell, um, tell Adam. Tell about the illness. Explain it to the others.”
Zellie whirls and points at you, and you twitch. “Good idea,” she says. “Adam's a smart cookie. I will text him. Communication is the first step to a solution.”
Well, you don't know about that, but everybody's got their own mantras.
She sends the text while you and Mac peer over her shoulders. The scents of different humans mix together, dizzying. To your surprise, Zellie's phone bleeps within a couple minutes. Adam's texted back: I'll be there in a few. I'm working at the public library on [location redacted]. See you.
You're under oath not to tell where school is.
The door bangs open about ten minutes later. “You're lucky I'm still in the area,” says Adam grumpily. He runs a hand through his hair and rubs his eyes, as if he's just woken up. “So. Details.”
Zellie gives him details. Mac is quiet and tired, and Renata stays silent. Renata is going to be home late; it's rush hour on the A. We're just lucky to be alive, she tells herself, but the words don't stick.
I knocked out my history paper that night as planned. Well, except that sentence sounds studious and I wasn't. I had too much on my mind. I had a nutritious dinner of two buttered bagels, coffee, and several packages of Pop-Tarts; typed up four pages of well-researched bullshit; and, when at 11 PM my mother was still at work and the paper was two-thirds done, decided to go for a walk.
Alien viruses may come and go, but homework stops for no man. (What, did you expect me to ignore that plot point entirely? I'm not quite that callous. But for the moment, everyone was asymptomatic, and I had a reputation to uphold.)
My neighborhood would still be hopping at this time. (I know, I know, it's not the twenties. If you've got a better word than “hopping”, by all means tell me.) I was running the risk that my mother would return home before I did, but to be honest, I didn't really care. I had an inconvenient amount of nervous energy, I'd decided to forgo alcohol on this particular night (a decision I was currently regretting), and – well, fuck, I don't have to justify my reasons for taking a late-night stroll. I could walk wherever I damn well pleased.
So basically I wandered around without conscious direction and got a sandwich from a deli that was still open and stood in front of Juilliard for no reason. There was a large contingent of fancy people entering and leaving performances. My mother goes to the opera sometimes, and I've been twice. More often to classical concerts. I dropped the obligatory “here, we can afford it, play an instrument” violin lessons as soon as I was permitted, though. Fuck, my parents reared a monster, didn't they. Give him the requisite advantages and he responds with cynicism and barely-repressed rage. Well, maybe I'll be grateful once I turn thirty, or something.
I might have wandered farther than initially planned.
I'd tossed my sandwich wrapper and was moseying down an alleyway when it happened. Footsteps sounded behind me; I barely had time to react before a heavy body tackled me and shoved me through an open doorway into a musty basement room. The light turned on, then dimmed to a dull glow. The door slammed shut behind us.
In the split second when the light flickered, I caught a glimpse of my assailant. It was a woman, a white woman, with a shock of blond hair so pale it shone silver. She was about an inch taller than me.
My first thought was plainclothes cop, shit shit shit, fuck the NYPD so hard – she thought I had drugs, she thought I had a knife, who the fuck knows God damn it.
Then she released me, I stumbled back against the far wall, and my second thought was How the hell is this woman taller than me.
The woman eyed me critically from a few feet away. It wasn't a very coplike look. She wore jeans and a dark windbreaker; her hands were now shoved in her pockets. “Adam Walcott?” she asked. Her voice was low and sharp, roughened as though she hadn't used it in a while.
I tried desperately to remember my rights. They couldn't question you unless something something something. Do you have a warrant. Was that the right question? My brain was too foggy. I had no idea whether to give her my name.
She stepped closer, tilted her head at me. “You have the Feldman,” she said. “The Jew?”
Whoa. That was different. I realized her features were super Aryan, and my brain speed-concocted an alternate theory: Klan member, neo-Nazi, some kind of white power extremist. Far-fetched maybe, but these people still exist, and Lee and I were pretty damn expendable to the eugenics-minded.
“No,” I said warily.
She sighed. Crossed her arms, uncrossed them, and backed away again. Quietly stomped the dirt off of her work boots. “How about we start over,” she said. “I am sincerely sorry if I startled you, Mr. Walcott. I've gone to great lengths to find you, and my own life is presently in jeopardy. Secrecy is of the utmost importance. We do not – rrgghh!” She interrupted herself with a wordless noise of frustration. “We don't have much time.”
Her eyes searched my face for a response. Their color wasn’t clear in the dim light; hazel or green, or maybe blue. But her gaze pierced me to the bone. It was like being caught in a staring contest with a hawk.
I didn't make a decision. My mouth opened of its own accord. “Okay, go,” I said.
Her shoulders relaxed. I saw them drop about two inches. “Thank you,” she said. “Now, if I'm correct, you've been visited by the Magpie?”
“Yes.” My fear was slowly fading to bewilderment.
“Good. And today in the afternoon, a number of your friends were stricken by a mysterious illness?”
It was like she was reciting a checklist. Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party? I fought the urge to laugh. The situation was too bizarre. “Uh, yes.”
She nodded grimly. “It's just as I figured. If you’re willing, I can help you. But we need the Feldman in order to cure them. The Jew. We require him for the antidote.”
The way she kept referring to Lee disturbed me. “It's inappropriate to call someone 'the Jew',” I said, with an orneriness that was probably inadvisable. “If you want to be respectful, you should just say he's Jewish.” I figured bringing up Lee's actual gender would be pushing my luck.
The woman looked annoyed. “All right,” she said. “I'll make a note of that. It wasn't on our list of offenses, but then what do I know. They don't exactly have a policy of transparency.” The last sentence was laced with bitterness.
Theory number three: CIA, FBI, subset of the above so elite I wouldn't know its name. Or perhaps the foreign equivalent. She had the vestige of an accent, but I couldn't place it.
(Then again, what would the CIA want with Lee?)
The woman reached into her windbreaker pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Directions,” she said. “Two days. Friday, noon. It’s best if you all show up at once. That way the transport will be easier.”
I took the paper. It felt grubby and thick in my hand. “We've got school,” I said.
She gave me this you're crazy look. “You prioritize school – your lives – do you know this illness is deadly? We lost half a colony to it.” She shook her head and muttered under her breath, “Terrans. Think they live forever.”
A weird spike of excitement went through me. Terrans, she'd said. She appeared completely human, but – okay, part of me has never moved beyond the six-year-old Oh Wow Space Aliens phase, and I couldn't quite tamp it down now.
“Okay,” I said. “Show up where? Is it within the city, because otherwise – ”
She nodded. “It’s within a reasonable radius. I’ll be supervising, and the Magpie will accompany us, so you’ll all see a familiar face. We’ve got to act quickly, otherwise you’ll be subject to quarantine, understand?”
“Okay,” I repeated. My tongue felt heavy in my mouth. “I mean, yes, I understand.” I made deliberate eye contact with her: those funny raptor eyes. “Look, do you mind if I ask – who are you? What should we call you, anyway?”
The woman chuckled, low in her throat. She stepped close and indicated the small silver name badge on her jacket collar. MOSELY, it said. No other identifying details.
“Just Mosely,” I said. “Is that your given name or surname?” In retrospect, wow, what a dumb question.
“Surname.” Mosely glanced around her suddenly, shoulders twitching. “Damn. Punks on the rubber side. I’m afraid this meeting is adjourned, Adam Walcott.”
I stared mutely. She backed away, spun around as if disoriented, and stopped in front of the door through which we'd entered. “Oh,” she said. “I almost forgot. Nice to meet you.”
Then she was out the door, leaving a blast of cold air in her wake, and I was alone in the basement of a random building.
Numbly, I went out to the sidewalk. It was freezing and blustery – somehow the temperature had dropped in the past fifteen minutes. Across the street, a small man hurried against the wind, toting a huge stack of paper cups. They seemed to be the short kind most delis use for coffee: eight ounces. As I watched, the man began to run, his dark hair bouncing. Several cups flew off the top of the stack, but he didn't bother to retrieve them. One cup was blown all the way over to my feet. WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU, it proclaimed – a comfortable New York cliché, a constant in my life from my earliest memories. I picked it up and turned it over, reading and re-reading the words like they could give me the answers to everything.