We are friends, Myka thinks. Friends.
That is what she is trying to think about everyone in her life right now. She and Claudia have always been fine; she and Steve are similarly okay. Artie, well, he’s still her boss, but that’s fine too. She and Pete… that’s a little more difficult, but they are better than they were right after they broke up. They could barely be in the same room then; at first there was some spite, some “why would you even, if it was going to turn out that you didn’t really want to,” and then everything was embarrassment and apology. Now Myka is heartened, a bit, by the fact that it hasn’t really been that long, and yet they can almost joke with each other about it. Almost. They are not quite partners again yet—and Artie has muttered over and over again about dynamics and consorting and if he had his way, no one would ever be allowed to speak to each other ever again about anything that wasn’t directly related to artifacts and their warehousing. But they are much closer to being friends. And that is a relief.
There is one thing, though, one thing about which everyone else is very enthusiastic, that cannot be called a relief, at least not for Myka: Helena is back. She had been asking to return for some time, and everyone in charge apparently got together and decided that she, the team, and the rest of the world were all finally ready for that. Artie had been, for once, thrilled to see her, because she could be sent out on retrievals with anyone. Any solution to “the tensions of the present moment,” as he has called the Pete-and-Myka situation, far outweighs any problems of the past. And Helena has seemed eager to fit in, going out of her way to be convivial with everyone. “Flexibility,” Artie sighs now, because he can. “It’s wonderful.”
Helena had taken care to tell both Pete and Myka, “I’m so sorry about your relationship. I have fared poorly in that arena lately myself, so you have my sympathy.”
It was nice of her to say. It was the kind of thing a friend would say. Most of what Helena says, now, is what a friend would say.
So now, about Helena: We are friends, Myka thinks very regularly and rigorously. Friends.
Artie has sent Myka and Helena on two retrievals together so far. The first was in Chicago—the fedora of a gangster from the 1920s causing public officials to become corrupt (“But it’s Chicago,” Claudia had informed them, “so it’s hard to tell exactly who’s been whammied”). They flew to Chicago in the morning, found and bagged the fedora, and flew home late that night. They talked about nothing in particular, other than gangsters and Chicago.
The second was in New Mexico. Someone had stolen, from the White Sands Missile Range Museum, a slide rule used by the scientists in the 1940s to calculate missile trajectories. It was apparently turning things around it into explosive projectiles. Myka and Helena finally discovered the thief perfecting his aim in and amongst the vast expanses of white gypsum dunes in White Sands National Monument. How he had discovered that the slide rule had such power, they didn’t ask; they merely bagged it and turned him over to the police.
They had to stay overnight in Alamogordo. Artie had originally booked them one hotel room; Myka had discreetly changed the reservation. We are friends, she thought. But not close friends.
They ate dinner together. They talked about slide rules, and on to calculators and computers. About sand, and on to deserts and beaches. “I like the ocean,” Myka had volunteered. “The beach.”
“I haven’t had much experience with beaches,” Helena said in response. “The ocean, certainly, although mostly to travel on. And now, to travel over. That’s a blessing. Voyages did always take far too long.”
As they were saying goodnight, in the hallway outside their rooms, Myka decided to take a small chance, but certainly one that friendship would allow. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said.
Helena smiled a little and shook her head. “You could have captured that fool alone.”
“You know what I mean. That you’re here, and that we can be… friendly,” Myka said, although that clarification, too, seemed risky.
This time Helena nodded. “I do. And… so am I.”
With Pete, Myka had made one of the biggest mistakes of her life. She did not want to make another. Helena had been gone for so long, and now she was back, and that had to be enough. That they could be friends, after everything that had happened, was a gift. We are friends. That had to be enough.
A later ping, when it comes, comes recognizably, at least according to Artie.
“It’s a prize,” he says with excitement, “this artifact. Hundreds of years ago, agents tried to snag it, but then they thought it was lost forever. It’s Botticelli’s scallop.”
“Of course,” Helena says. “Venus.”
“Birth of,” Myka says. “Interesting.”
“Somebody Italian made seafood and we care why?” Pete asks.
Steve and Claudia are off chasing something Houdini-related, so they won’t be involved. “All that guy did was create artifacts,” Claudia has complained every time she has Farnsworthed. “It’s like he was getting paid.”
Artie decides to send Myka and Helena after the scallop as a reward, of sorts, for knowing what it is. (“It’s a shell,” Artie tells Pete, “not the actual scallop you eat at Red Lobster.” And Pete says, “Yeah, okay, nothing I ever ate at Red Lobster makes people fall crazy in love. Except I do love their garlic rolls in a kinda crazy way.”) They are dispatched to the site of the ping: Sanibel Island, off the Gulf Coast of Florida. The Gulf’s currents, the configuration of the island’s beaches, the slope of its coastline: all combine such that vast quantities of the ocean’s contents are conveyed and collected there. “They get to go to the beach?” Pete had whined.
“They do not get to go to the beach,” Artie told him. “Not like you mean. They will be busy bagging a very important artifact that has a very powerful effect on people’s emotions.”
“Yeah, but after that they get to go to the beach.”
“Only if they can get it bagged in less than three days.”
“Three days? They get three days in Florida?”
“Much cheaper airfare if they stay over a Monday,” Artie says.
Myka is listening to this only a little. She is once again surreptitiously changing the hotel reservation to two rooms rather than one. (She is going to go bankrupt eventually, so she will have to bring the matter up with Artie at some point… but he will want an explanation, and she would really rather not be the one to add even more tension to “the tensions of the present moment.”) Besides, Myka knows she will need to focus on the task at hand, and that would be next to impossible if she had to work out how to negotiate living in a ten-foot-by-ten-foot space with Helena for three days. Helena has not done anything to suggest that she would do anything untoward; she is even respecting Myka’s personal space these days. But Myka does not want to put herself in a position to make another mistake. She knows she has more self-control than most people, yet she has lately felt something precarious about her defenses, and she very nearly suggests that Artie send Pete with Helena…. but no, she and Helena are friends.
She decides it will be best to stick to the facts of the case, anyway. “Artie thinks the scallop was traveling the Atlantic this whole time,” she says to Helena on the plane.
“Lost at sea?” Helena muses. “The sea from whence it came?”
“I guess fish can’t use artifacts,” Myka says.
“Or fall in love,” Helena says, and her voice is almost as low as the airplane’s humming engines.
We are friends, Myka thinks.
Myka also thinks, as their plane fights through violent turbulence in order to land—and as the airport closes to further traffic the minute they touch down—that Pete has somehow put a curse on them.
“This state is meant to have sunshine, is it not?” Helena asks. Now they are driving, under lowering, threatening clouds, across a bridge to reach the island. “Is that not in fact part of its nickname?”
“Blame Pete,” Myka says. “I know I am.”
They arrive at the beach where, Artie has assured them, they will find the scallop shell they seek. “All kinds of pinging there,” he said. “And it’s getting quite the reputation as a spot for romance.”
“A beach as a spot for romance,” Helena had said. “Imagine that.”
Artie had given her a look, then said, “Just pack your bags.”
Now, Myka and Helena stand and look out over that beach. It seems to be made entirely—entirely—of shells.
“Allow me to explain to anyone who will listen,” Helena says, “and even to you, my dear Myka, that I refuse to investigate all the seashells in this location.”
“There’s a thing they call the Sanibel stoop. I read about it online.”
“Sounds like an architectural feature. Or is it a posture?”
“Right. The posture where you lean over and look down for shells.”
“No,” Helena says. “I refuse.”
Myka sighs. “Fine. Can you see anybody who seems to be using the thing? If anybody’s actually using it on purpose, that is.”
But beachcombers—fewer than there would be if the sun were out—are picking up shells, putting them down; a few children are throwing them at each other. No one seems to be doing anything remotely artifact-related… and then the wind begins to pick up.
Helena is wearing a short-sleeved shirt made of something silky, and Myka sees her shiver. She feels—and fights—a sudden, intense stab of impulse that says “put your arm around her.”
The crowd thins further. And then the rain comes, with only a brief warning fanfare before dousing them in earnest, and the rest of the tourists head for their cars, hotels, shelters of any kind. Myka and Helena, too, decamp to their car.
“Weather gods,” Helena says. “O weather gods, depositing me here in the middle of a hurricane? Not at all sporting of you. In no way sporting.”
“Depositing you here? I think there are two of us.” Myka is not looking at Helena’s damp shirt. She is consulting her phone about the weather. “And it is not a hurricane. It is not even a tropical storm. It is a tropical depression, so will you please calm down.”
“Calm down? I am freezing to death in a driving rain in Florida. Something is very wrong with this scenario.”
“We could buy you a sweatshirt,” Myka suggests. She is still not looking. “If you’re that cold. There are tons and tons of souvenir places.”
“If their wares are anything like what we saw at the airport? Thank you, but I would rather turn blue. Besides, I have plenty of actual clothing in my suitcase.”
Now Myka does look, and Helena is so adorably indignant that she can’t help but smile. “Your choice. But you’re right about one thing.”
“One thing? And what is that?”
“We can’t bag every shell on this beach. Nobody’s even out there anymore anyway. So I say we find our hotel, have dinner, and figure out some kind of strategy.”
Helena sniffs. “For distinguishing, in a supposedly tropical paradise, people who are legitimately in love from those whose ardor has been induced by an artifact? Three days seems quite insufficient.”
Myka thinks that listening to Helena talk about love for three days is going to be quite sufficient.
They are finishing their meal in the hotel restaurant when “some kind of strategy” is foist upon them: Artie squawks through the Farnsworth, “The scallop is being used this very minute, practically on top of your signal! It must be right in front of your eyes!”
“Maybe it’s on your plate!” Pete says in the background.
Myka looks around. She does have some sense, some feeling, that something is happening, that if she could just fight her way through this increasing fog of wanting to do nothing more than look at Helena, she’d understand…
Helena touches her on the elbow, and Myka yanks her arm away. “Are you all right?” Helena asks.
“I’m fine,” Myka lies. “What is it?”
“Over there,” Helena says. She points to the middle of the dining room, to a table where a teenage girl and teenage boy are sitting. Between them, propped up against a salt shaker, is a scallop shell. Myka knows that a lot of scallop shells look like the one in the Botticelli painting, so it could be coincidence that this one resembles that so closely… Myka knows also that teenagers in love gaze into each other’s eyes much as this teenage girl and teenage boy are doing, so it could also be coincidence that they are doing so in the presence of a scallop shell…
“Distract them,” Myka says. “I’ll grab it.”
Helena casually rises, walks to the teenagers’ table. “I beg your pardon,” she says, and the accent seems to get their attention, “I found a piece of electronic equipment at Bowman’s Beach earlier today, and I believe I saw you two there as well. Would either of you happen to have lost something?”
Myka zips to the other side of the table and grabs the shell. She and Helena arrive back at their own table at the same time. “They lost nothing today,” Helena reports.
Myka says, “That’s good, because you didn’t find anything.” Under the table, she drops the shell into a static bag.
After a spark or two, the teenage boy is looking around, disoriented. “What just happened?” he asks. “Was I drunk? I didn’t… I didn’t do anything, did I? Liz, you’re okay, right?”
“I’m fine,” the teenage girl says. “You were acting a little… I don’t know, more than usual, but it’s okay.”
And they go back to gazing at each other. Apparently, they didn’t need the scallop at all.
Helena looks at Myka and smiles. “Young love,” she says. “Touching, in its way, although of course also brainless.”
Myka looks away. “Not a lot of brains involved in love. Or what we mistake for it.”
“It’s a bit on the nose,” Helena says.
That makes Myka look up again. “Is it?”
“The artifact, I mean. The birth of Venus… birth of love…”
Myka does not want to talk about love anymore. “Figures it would be a teenage girl who decided to take it home.”
“Better it should be her than it be some…”
“I was going to say, predator.”
“Teenage girls can be predatory,” Myka says. She is wondering if there is any way she can afford whatever astronomical amount of money it would cost to change their plane tickets so they can leave tomorrow. Assuming the damn depression has moved on by then and the airport can open, because two full days here will be torture, because Myka just knows that she will somehow contrive a way to make that mistake that is looming in front of her, or Helena will just see, but that’s going to happen anyway, although if Myka could somehow put off that day of reckoning for long enough, she is sure she’ll be able to figure out how to get over it, or get around it, so she can avoid playing this whole game from before all over again, because she is not going to let herself think that there is any kind of possibility here—
Helena blurts, “I want to use it.” She slaps her hand over her mouth.
Myka thinks she might not have heard correctly. “You want to use it? You mean the scallop?”
Helena drops her hand. “Yes.”
“What do you mean, what for? For what it does. For its effect.”
“But why? Who do you…” and then the thought hits Myka like a brick to the head, just as it did in Wisconsin, the exact same gutting thought: it isn’t me; after all this time, after all these catastrophes, we’ve come to this place, and it isn’t even me, and it won’t ever be me. She had begun to forget that realization, forget the force of it. That forgetting had been… obviously, that had been shortsighted, because she has clearly been letting herself think all those thoughts that she was just thinking she was not going to let herself think anymore.
“You have to ask me who? It’s you, of course. I want to use it on you.” But Helena doesn’t look happy about the idea. She looks frustrated, and Myka has no way of understanding that.
She starts to ask, “Why would you ever—”
“We have two days. I just want… it’s wrong, I know it’s wrong, but I want to use it, and I want to have two days with you. I want two days of you being in love with me, as you once were, just two days, and then I promise, I will neutralize it and we’ll go back to normal. Whatever normal is now, we’ll go back to that. To this. And I know it’s wrong, and I should not be asking, but I am asking, I am begging.” Her voice is low and intense, but also almost mournful.
Myka can’t believe what she’s hearing. An artifact? For this? As if Myka isn’t already… “I don’t understand. Why are you asking? Why would you need to?”
“I would never subject you to an artifact’s effects without your permission! Of course I need to ask!” Helena takes one of Myka’s hands in hers.
Myka would chalk her sudden dizziness up to jet lag, or the wildly fluctuating barometer reading, or anything else at all, but this has been going on too long. She is tired of misunderstandings and bad timing and missed connections and simply getting things wrong because neither of them ever says all the words out loud. She needs to start telling Helena the truth. “No,” she says.
She means that word as a prelude, but—of course—Helena takes it as an answer.
“All right,” Helena says quickly. She blinks, shakes her head. She takes her hands away from Myka’s and stands up. “I think I need just a moment. Or several.” And before Myka can say another word, she has darted away from the table, out of the restaurant.
Myka is holding Botticelli’s scallop, which Artie says is legendarily one of the most powerful love artifacts ever created, in a static bag in her lap. She sets the bag on the table and shakes her head at it. “Venus,” she says out loud, “you have a lot to answer for.”
And now she has to find Helena. She has to find Helena and sit her down and say as clearly as she can, “We cannot be friends.” And then she will have to show her, also as clearly as she can, why that is true.