AUTHOR: Julia K. Patt
NARRATOR: Logan Waterman
HOST: Tina Connolly
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about the author…
Julia K. Patt lives in Maryland with one very evil cat and one very frightened one, which never fails to make life interesting. Work-wise, she does a little of everything, because why try one thing when you can attempt six? Right now her favorite gig, after writing stories, is proofreading queer romance novels. (There’s something soothing about adding semi-colons to sex scenes in these uncertain times.) Her short fiction has previously appeared in such publications as Expanded Horizons, The Fiction Desk, and Phantom Drift, and she is at work on a novel. You can follow her on twitter (@chidorme) for more.
about the narrator…
Logan has a degree in Technical Theatre from California State University, and has worked in many theatres, large and small, professional and amateur. He has also worked for Apple computers, sold hot tubs and comic books, and prepared court documents. He has taught and performed sword-fighting for the stage, and run lights for a local band, until they broke up.
As of writing this bio, he has narrated for The Drabblecast and all five District of Wonders shows, Starship Sofa, Tales To Terrify, Far Fetched Fables, and the late lamented Protecting Project Pulp and Crime City Central, making him the District’s only “Ace” so far. He is thrilled to add Escape Pod to his CV and hopes to get more.
Logan currently lives in Northern California with Grendel, a huge black beast whose primary occupations are sleeping, stalking the fish in the aquarium, and keeping the house safe from the hordes of invisible monsters that come out after dark, and Morgana, a small fluffy Queen who rules her domain with an iron paw. The fish are unimpressed.
By Julia K. Patt
It is my 567th day inside. But I’m not really counting.
Outside, Leo and Maurizio sit by the front steps of the house playing 3D chess. Not far from them, Antonia tinkers with her latest project, which looks for all the world like a wheelchair with exhaust pipes. Our landlady, Miss Penny, hunkers on the stoop with a cigarette in one hand and her morning coffee in the other, trading talk with whoever passes by and calling out the morning news and crossword clues in a jumble. I’m not sure if the Prime Minister of New Slovakia is a headline or the answer to five across.
More than a year and a half ago, I passed a similar scene as I exited the cab with my duffle of possessions. The last time any of them saw my face, even though I have seen theirs most days since then. I have eyes and ears all over the city, but unlike most people, my neighbors know I’m watching.
“Mornin’, Eric,” Leo says. He doesn’t call it up to me; instead, he says it to Vash. On one of my monitors, I see Leo’s hand come down, gigantic, to pat the little robotic dog on the head. Vash is my only physical tracer; I’ve dreamed of building the others, the ones that can read whole cities, but they would be much larger, too big to fit through the door of my apartment.
“Good morning, Leo,” I say into my mic. I can hear the tinny echo up here on the fourth floor. “For the 1,394th time, there’s no need to pet Vash. He can’t feel it.”
The old man grins at me. The curvature of the camera makes his nose look even more bulbous. And there’s a piece of rye toast stuck to his left incisor that looks huge from this angle. He’s missed a bit of his chin shaving today, not an uncommon occurrence. He and Maurizio both live alone in the building. “Bah,” Leo says. “I know he likes it. See? He wags his tail. Good dog.”
I sigh. The program I wrote for Vash does have its eccentricities.
“Eh, Eric, you want next game? I am about to beat this old bastard,” Maurizio asks, as he does almost every morning.
“Lies.” Leo waves him off before I can answer. It’s a kindness of his. “I have you in three moves.”
I direct Vash to leave them to their bickering and the little dog bounds past Miss Penny and inside.
Morning 567, just like all the others. At 1100, I have my chai and oatmeal with honey and listen to my neighbors downstairs. I watch the city on my monitors; the traffic and security cameras are easy hacks and the predictable ebb and flow is almost soothing. Although I do not need them to hear what happens on the block, I leave my windows open. I like the fresh air. This part of town is planted mostly with ferns and other shade plants on the rooftops because we’re overshadowed by the bigger buildings; the plants give off a smell that reminds me of the deep woods where my grandfather kept his cabin. I went every summer as a child. It’s part of a preserve now, another article of the Urban Centralization Act, so I could see it if I wanted, but I never have.
When Vash comes back, I process the information he’s collected during the night. I do not need Vash to be in the apartment to do this, but I prefer for him to come home. One time some assholes got to him: pulled off his ears and one of his eyes, stomped on his back, and tied garbage to his tail. Took me a week to make repairs. Took me another week to get up the nerve to send him out again. I don’t like to think what would happen if he couldn’t come home. There are others, of course, the tracers that exist solely on the web, flying around the city from port to port, everything from the digital sensors at the gym down the street to the AI coffee machine in the executive office of Hartmann Corp. But they’re not Vash.
Vash hops up on my desk below the wall of monitors. He’s in good shape today; his eyes, disproportionately big compared to his small body, are clear, luminous. Despite myself, I also stroke that smooth metal skull. “Good dog,” I say. I pull a long cable from his neck and connect it to my machines. The download is instantaneous; every connected object Vash has encountered—and there are millions in the city now—and its IP address are in my database. The shape of the web is always changing with of all of these pieces to account for, but I can almost keep up with it thanks to the tracers. I’ll be in good shape for the hunt tomorrow.
It is and isn’t as ominous as it sounds. A kind of citywide scavenger hunt with each participant searching the sea of connected objects for a certain set, unlocking clue after clue until they find the big prize. Government sponsored. They do it every few years. In essence, it’s a kind of publicly conducted security check. The point is to be good—faster, more clever than the others—but not too good. The problem with most crackers, in my experience, is hubris. They go for the big targets, all but begging to disappear into an unmarked van somewhere.
Me, I fly under the radar. Pick up a freelancing project here and there. Give the guys in suits little reason to worry.
Day 567 is a Tuesday so Warley comes at lunchtime, which for me is around 1500. I hear the bell on his bike. I hear Leo call out, “My man, my man.” They have a handshake. It is elaborate.
I do not need to watch or listen to know Warley greets each of my neighbors in turn, but I do. He asks Antonia: “What’s this for, then?”
“It is for my nonna,” Antonia says. She bristles at his dubious tone. “She was a race car driver in the old Formula One. She likes to go fast.” Antonia lives with her sister’s family in the apartment below mine; the two of them argue often about what to do with nonna, who lives a few neighborhoods over and is pushing ninety and who raised Antonia up until recently.
“Sounds like quite a lady,” Warley says. He pauses, admiring the setup. “You’re going to put a seatbelt on it, right?”
Warley’s long legs take him up the stairs quick. It does not bother him that I live at the top of a building with no elevator; he comes anyway. He knocks, although he knows I have left the door unlocked (only on Tuesdays), and waits for me to tell him to come in. He pauses to assess the state of my home and of me. Everything is in its accustomed place: from the machines on and around my desk to the clothes in my closet to the books and movies on my shelves. I am wearing fresh jeans and a clean shirt and socks. My hair is freshly cut, the back buzzed short—a habit I can’t quite shake. I like my place and my person orderly. An almost imperceptible amount of tension goes out of Warley. He has brought lunch, takeout with a minimalist logo in green I don’t recognize. “Don’t make that face,” he tells me. “It’s salad. You need more vegetables.” He goes to my kitchen to unpack the cartons, retrieving plates and forks without direction.
Warley is lanky and at ease with it; some men of his height are awkward, always overtipping things with their elbows or barking their knees. He exists neatly in his own space; he is careful without seeming careful. His ‘fro adds several inches, but he has never seemed too tall, although he has a solid half a foot on me. (Although I have seen small children climb him like a tree.) He reclines on my sofa, one leg hitched up so the ankle rests on his thigh. I join him, accepting my salad and examining it dubiously.
He’s patient. “Just try it.”
I poke a small, unrecognizable blob of purple, somewhat obscured by dressing. “What’s that?”
“It’s an açogi berry.”
“One of those yuppy engineered hybrids?” I pick them out of the greens one by one. Thus safe from tiny abominations, I condescend to eat the rest. The dressing is tart with lemon and tarragon; the lettuce is crisp. Even the thinly shaved radishes aren’t bad. I crunch at it without further complaint.
Warley plucks the discarded fruit from my plate and eats it, not one to let anything go to waste. He smiles, lips slightly purpled, and there’s something about the gap between his front teeth that makes me want to kiss him more than usual. (I’ve done the math—it’s not worth the risk and I can’t stand the thought of his pity.) I fill my mouth with more salad instead, which he notes approvingly. It makes him happy when I try new things. “See?” he says. “All of your food does not have to come by way of drone.”
“What’s the point of takeout that doesn’t deliver?” I ask, as I always do.
He shakes his head; he is studying my wall of monitors. “Still at it, I see. You really going to do this search—or whatever it is—for them?”
I shrug. “Of course. Not good at much else. At least it’s legal.” And yeah, much as I would like to quit government work, that’s most of what there is, at least for people of my expertise. Most vets end up as contractors, one way or another. At least this is minimal harm, linking and checking the infrastructure. In case of emergency, any publicly connected access point will have evacuation information. More than that, each will be able to monitor the situation and provide updates to personnel. Plus the work allows businesses and the state to determine their weak spots.
How many there are.
For someone like me, with my experience, it should be the proverbial cake. Still, Warley eyes me, worried. “You don’t think it’s potentially triggering?”
I hate that word. I hate more that he knows it applies to me. But how could he not, when he first met me at the VA hospital right after I shipped home, a quaking mess of a human being. He was the unlucky volunteer assigned to my room; between me and the guy in the other bed, Stevens, who was recovering from extreme chemical burns, we were a real party. Warley, of course, doesn’t quit on anybody and he didn’t on the two of us, even though every inch of Stevens’ body hurt and every fold of my brain did. Cyber warfare is a bastard that way and worse that I was good at it, toppling infrastructure like it was nothing, never seeing the aftermath in person, but knowing somewhere deep what it means to disable a hospital. And if Warley didn’t know what it did to me then, he surely did three weeks after my discharge when he found my place trashed and me in the corner rocking back and forth like a child, whimpering about life support.
And five weeks later. And seven weeks after that. And six after that. And so on.
It’s been 43 days since our last incident.
I swallow, not quite up to meeting his gaze. “I’m not plugging in.” I am never plugging in again. It may be faster to link direct. But I have the tracers. And I do minimal extracurricular work most days, just enough to keep me solvent. The trick is to only take a little from those who would never miss it. Sometimes I do some redistributing, if I’m in a Robin Hood sort of mood.
Warley nods. He’s still looking at the monitor, thoughtful. This is the city he loves in fifty frames, the city he pours his heart into daily, whether it’s bringing me salad or teaching kids to play soccer or helping guys like Stevens learn to walk again or tending the community gardens. (He still writes to Stevens and his wife even though they moved across the country.) I’ve never known anyone with so many causes and so little money. He won’t accept any, though. The one time I’ve seen him angry is when I deposited some appropriated funds in his bank account.
It scared me—I wasn’t sure if he was going to come back after that. He did, but he made me promise never to tinker with his situation again. I swore off, although it’s tough not to watch. Not to fix things, even ever so slightly. Although if anonymous donations end up in some Warley-adjacent organizations instead—well, he doesn’t need to know about that.
He seems like he’s about to say something else when an image catches his eye. “Who’s that?” he says, pointing towards the lower corner. I know which one he means without looking.
It’s a woman. The image is grainy, but she’s alone in an apartment. The view is from a shelf or other tall piece of furniture. I’m not sure what the source is; I think it must be one of those old-fashioned hidden camera numbers with an uplink to your phone. I don’t know if she knew what it was when she got it, maybe a jewelry box or a teddy bear. Maybe it was gift. I do know someone is watching her with it, someone other than me, I mean. Whatever it is, it surveys the room, a loft not so different from mine, a bit less shabby maybe. I don’t point out the medal hung on her wall to Warley although, knowing him, it caught his eye first. (I have the same one in a shoebox at the bottom of my closet.) Like me, she has a pile of tech on her desk. Unlike me, she’s plugged in, a thin cable snaking out from under her short hair. Right now, she’s working, sitting in one of those extra ergonomic chairs. Not unattractive, although I’m not much of a judge of women. But alone. I don’t tell Warley that I’ve never seen her leave, not since I stumbled onto the feed 19 days ago. Less would I tell him that I’ve seen her hands shaking in a way that’s all too familiar. Or that there’s another set of eyes in her tech, I believe a very official set. Instead, I punch a few keys and all the screens go dark.
“Wanna play video games?” I ask.
We play racing games for a while—I hated shoot ’em ups even before I enlisted—until I cause too many pileups. “You are a terrible driver,” Warley says as he stands to go.
“I think you mispronounced awesome,” I reply, walking him to the door. He brightens at my joke, even though it was lame. Something in my chest tightens. I am glad to see him every week and I know I’m lucky to have a friend, but it is hard to be a charity case, especially when I feel about him the way I do. Stupid.
He pauses, as he sometimes does, before leaving, as if he might hug me but is holding himself back because he knows I don’t like to be touched. Instead, he asks, “Mind if I come check on you tomorrow?”
I hesitate. This would be irregular for both of us, creatures of habit. The deviation needles me; I know it’s that he’s worried about tomorrow; I know he means well, but he also thinks I’m going to hurt myself, even just inadvertently. I stamp down on the irritation the wells up immediately, the desire to tell him to leave me alone for once. He’s come every Tuesday through eighteen months. He’s picked me up off the floor countless times. But more than that, he’s stuck around on the good days, too: watching black and white sci-fi on my couch, bringing me books and food and stories from outside, playing the same eight video games over and over. Anyone else would have moved on by now, but he’s become a friend and he doesn’t force the issue, ever. Even now he’s patient, not pushing me for a response. And fuck if I wouldn’t be glad to see him, if I’m not always glad to see him. Eventually I shake my head. “No, I guess that would be okay.”
When he has gone, I look out into the hallway for a moment. It’s dusty save for Warley and Vash’s footprints; the other unit up here is unoccupied. Miss Penny says because people would rather live in the big, planned complexes downtown because they have elevators and in-house gyms and juice bars. Only weirdos, poors, and olds in Osterborough. I close the door and turn the deadbolt. I know where I fit in.
Back at my desk, I switch my monitors to their usual feeds. The woman in the corner is eating cereal alone on her couch. A dark gray tabby jumps up next to her, and she strokes it absently. On a whim, I whistle for Vash and he trots over, almost as graceful as the cat. I give him the feed’s IP address. I have a general sense it is somewhere near the city center, but Vash can narrow it down to a block or two at least. I don’t know why I want an exact location any more than I know why I’ve kept the woman’s feed. In reality, I should be concentrating on tomorrow. The first clue will go live at six a.m.
It is my 567th day inside.
The scavenger hunt is almost too easy. The first location is a smart keg in Boh’s Brewery by the harbor; the code is for the local favorite golden ale. From there, the digital assistant librarian post at Enoch Pratt, which provides the line from a nursery rhyme, “Der Deitcher’s Dog.” Tracing St. Mary’s Children’s in the hospital complex gives me some pause and my left hand starts to quiver in that way it has, but the information there is, innocuously, just their events schedule for the month of April. Vash comes in as usual around 1100 and I absently plug him into the system. He has, I’m surprised to note, recorded the woman’s address down to the unit: 18B. Rebecca Truman is the name on the lease. I didn’t ask him for anything so specific, but the tracers do that sometimes when given general commands. He’s also brought me a second feed from her apartment, this one internal, probably from one of her machines. Way more than I requested.
Today, though, I’m more interested in the users he’s identified across the city. More wannabe crackers and hackers than I’ve ever seen, and I come to recognize the footprints of some as I move from location to location. Some are with me, none are ahead.
Rebecca isn’t one of them by the looks of things. Usually someone that plugged in is in the family, but it’s possible she works security or is a legitimate freelancer. More likely, she’s even further beneath the radar than I am, which might explain the eyes on her. Even I find bugs in my apartment from time to time after all. (They’re easy enough to reroute.) They’ve buried this feed pretty well or she would have found it. Or maybe she’s been distracted; she logs more hours than I do. Like most days, today she’s sitting motionless at her desk, oblivious to her surroundings as only the plugged in are.
I glance at my competition. I’m a few clues ahead—time enough for a break if I want one. Her personnel files are mostly redacted; there are several classified documents I won’t tamper with either. Different campaigns from mine by the looks of it. Maybe Korea, maybe the Quanzhou incident, although the details of that are sealed for three generations. The same medal of distinction I earned, but a dishonorable discharge. She’s been arrested once since then. I tap into the feed Vash brought me. It’s an older machine, which is why he could access it. Her primaries are almost certainly armed to the teeth. I gently rifle through her backups, mostly legitimate projects like mine. Infrastructure work. Defense work. Preventing the very horrors we committed overseas, keeping hospitals and military bases safe from interference.
Like me, she uses every web-linked node and object, constructing an interconnected network of information that can be used in the event of any emergency: natural disaster, outside attack, internal unrest.
Unlike me, she’s been leaving something behind. A kill switch of sorts, a way to undo the grid piece by piece. Activated en masse, they would strip every access point, every view into people’s lives, every breach of privacy. They would return the web to its deliberately connected servers and machines, set everything ten years back. For how long, I can’t quite tell, but long enough, I suppose.
I feel another set of eyes, then, maybe the same set watching her, maybe her own security recognizing an intruder. Either way, I disconnect fast. Enough distractions for one day.
Back to the hunt.
Two dozen clues in, I hit a snag. The next piece should be in the vicinity of the arts district, but neither the Walters nor the Visionary Art museum are at those coordinates. I shift from my most expansive tracer to the next one down; sometimes you need finesse over power.
There is a user searching the same area as me; I can see the tangle of their code expressed beneath my own. They’re trying to slow me down, I realize. I send a watchdog program after them, and they back off just in time for me to find the clue. It’s an installation exhibit, a conglomeration of suspended drones in the middle of Reed Park, which form and reform in various shapes: sometimes a map of the country, sometimes an explosion, sometimes the flag. Subtle. Whoever designed this particular search had a sense of humor at least. Rare in government work. The exhibit’s sensors pick up the faces and reactions of the passerby; this information I seize and move on.
I’m getting close to the end now. The last clues should put me in the vicinity of Hartmann Corp. This is a test all in itself; some dumb kids will no doubt go after classified information at Hartmann, a major defense contractor, and identify themselves as persons of interest. The trick will be to find the correct information without tripping any booby traps and move on without arousing suspicion.
Outside, Maurizio and Leo are needling Antonia about the wheelchair again. Without activating the mics downstairs, I don’t quite understand what she’s saying, but it sounds heated. Miss Penny is telling them to leave her alone. “Y’old farts,” she says.
This is why I look away, if only for a moment, if only to laugh a little. This is why I see her in the corner screen. Rebecca Truman is still hunched over her keyboard. It’s almost as though she has fallen asleep. Something else has happened, though, because the view is hazier than usual. Smoke. Her apartment is on fire. Upon inspection, the smart-detector is mute, disconnected.
An accident? Or—?
Someone found her; they must have.
Of course. They found her through me earlier.
For a moment, I am paralyzed, my hands suspended above the keyboard. A sick feeling rolls over me. An electrical fire. It must be. I gag, thinking of the smell of melting plastic. The few times we came under fire, that’s what it always smelled like. I can almost taste it. My own lungs feel like they’re seizing up, not getting any oxygen. I start to curl into a ball, to wheeze, to shake.
Then a breeze comes in the open window, carrying with it the smell of ferns and a memory of playing in the woods. I drag in a long breath, falling back in my chair.
I log into emergency services, fire and rescue. I give them the building number and the unit. She is alone on her floor, but my tracer indicates there are at least sixteen other tenants in the building. Collateral damage, what we would have called them. Or maybe their detectors will go off in time. Her, just another shut-in loner, won’t be a surprise. Now notified, the fire department will be there in ten minutes. I study the image on the monitor, the woman’s prone form splayed over her desk. The cat is nowhere to be seen. I imagine watching her burn to death here. I remember disabling the insurgent hospital’s power, circuit by circuit. Below, I hear the chime of Warley’s bicycle bell.
It’s been 568 days. Before that, 182 days in the hospital. Before that, 1433 days of my deployment, most of it spent in a dark room in front of a glowing screen.
I emerge from the building to five identical expressions of shock. Leo freezes, mid-move, his queen dangling loosely from his fingers. Maurizio’s hair is whiter than I remember in the direct sunlight. Antonia sinks back into the souped up wheelchair for her nonna. Miss Penny’s coffee cup rolls down the steps, sloshing dark liquid over the concrete. Only Warley finds his voice. “Eric, is everything—”
“How quickly can we get to downtown on that thing?” I interrupt him, pointing at the bike.
“Thirty minutes or so in this traffic,” he says. He looks like he wants to ask why, but something about my expression stops him.
I clench my hands in my hair. Pace on the sidewalk. “No good, no good.”
“You wanna go somewhere quick?” Antonia asks. She is a scrawny fourteen-year-old in greasy coveralls with a pair of goggles shoved up on her forehead. Her hair splays out everywhere. The wrench in her hand is longer than her forearm. She’s grinning.
“Leftleftleft!” Warley is yelling.
Balanced on the back of the wheelchair, I tilt my weight and we careen around another corner, paper and debris flying out behind us. We are farewelled with a cacophony of angry horns. I am trying to keep us to the shoulder and the bike lane, but more than once we hop the curb, both of us hollering, “Lookoutlookoutlookout!” I will feel more remorse about that hotdog cart when I am sure of the locations of all of my organs.
I have never loved Warley more than I do right now, hanging on for dear life, his knees up around his chin, the safety strap Antonia installed at his suggestion buckled around him and Vash in his lap. Vash showing us where to go, his eyes like small headlights on the front of the chair.
As for me, if I were going slowly, I would be blinking at the sunlight, shrinking back from the press of people, suffocating beneath the skyscrapers. But Antonia’s contraption moves too fast for any of that and all I can do is clutch, white-knuckled, the handles on the back of the chair, tears streaming down my cheeks from the wind.
We almost overturn the whole thing to come to a screeching stop in front of the woman’s building. Warley clutches Vash to keep the dog from flying out of his arms; he plants his feet as hard as he can on the brakes; his body snaps against the seatbelt, which, thankfully, holds. I’m flung almost over the top of the chair and into his lap, but I manage to slow my momentum just enough so I only get a face full of ‘fro. It takes a full minute for me to get my hands to disengage; only the thought of Rebecca alone inside convinces me to let go of the wheelchair.
Ambulances and fire trucks clutter the street around us and I can see, several stories up, dark smoke billowing from an upper floor window. Several tenants stand around wrapped in bright orange blankets; more than one wears an oxygen mask, their faces streaked with soot and sweat. None of them are her.
I get halfway to the doors of the building before Warley catches me, wrapping his long arms around me and dragging me back. “Eric, wait,” he insists when I start to struggle. I almost punch him before another group of firefighters stumbles out of the lobby, the brawniest of them cradling her in his arms, the second brawniest holding the tabby, only slightly singed.
I shake off Warley and approach them, demanding, “Is she alive? Will she be alright?”
An EMT, a woman who looks like she could break me in half with one hand, holds me at arm’s length. “We need some room, sir. She’s breathing. Inhaled a lot of smoke, both of them, but they should be fine. Lucky we knew where to look. You her friend?”
I stare at the heart-shaped face, waxy pale beneath the black, pale in the same way I am. Never-see-the-sun pale. “Yes,” I say finally. “Practically family.”
The firefighter nods. “Injured are going to St. Mark’s. You can see her there,” she tells me, not unkindly. The idea of going to a hospital makes me sick, but I nod and mumble a thank you. At least I know where she will be.
But will she be safe there? It is impossible to say. I can help with that, though. Where they have eyes, I do, too. For now, I watch the firefighters deposit her in an ambulance. Warley stands quietly next to me.
“The woman from your feed,” he says eventually.
I look at him. His hair is wild; his cheeks are still wet. As usual, he looks concerned. “Yes. Rebecca.” It is strange to say her name aloud.
I could say something lame about it being the right thing, but we both know it wouldn’t be true. I’ve seen crime before on my feeds. When I can, I intervene remotely; when I can’t, I don’t. In either case, I never leave my apartment. I squint. It’s so sunny, so bright. I have been outside for twenty-three minutes and already I feel the urge to retreat. I forgot how exposed it feels to stand under the sky. “She and I, we…” I try. I make a helpless gesture.
But Warley gets it. I can see the sadness in his epiphany. We’re the same. I had to save her—she was so alone. He pulls me in for a hug, tucks his chin over my head, and sighs. “You scared me a little,” he says into my hair.
I would be fine staying here more or less permanently, feeling the rise and fall of his chest, the low thud of his heart, about as safe as I’ve ever been. But, conscientious as always, he lets me go much too soon, saying, “Sorry, sorry. I know you hate that.” Before he can pull away entirely, I lean up to kiss him, awkwardly getting a bit of tooth, hitting more the corner of his mouth than dead on. He makes a startled sound, but instead of disengaging, he leans down, arranges things properly, and winds his arms around me again.
It’s my turn to be surprised, but Warley settles me, calming even in his caresses. Whatever fears I have die unuttered, at least for the moment. It’s impossible not to feel wanted, the way he kisses. There’s no pity in this. The hum of what if and likeliest probability and insideinsideinside will be back in a minute, but for now, right now, it’s quiet.
When he pulls back, Warley raises his eyebrows and asks not at all romantically: “Eric. Where are your shoes?”
I look down at my feet on the pavement. Vash is winding between our legs. My socks stick out from my jeans and I’m aware that my toes are cold and my soles are just starting to feel bruised. “Oh,” I say. “I don’t think I have any.”