Firstly – because this one must be first – the obvious way.
Picture the scene. The Pie Hole on a beautiful morning, sunlight fluttering through the shutters. Olive is serving a customer the day's special – cherry and lime; it's sweet and delicious-acidic, like roadside lemonade – and Emerson is drinking coffee with two sugars and contemplating a Fair Isle sweater. It's a complex pattern but he's cracking his knuckles, limbering up: he can do it. Chuck is in the kitchen, braiding a lattice with quick, deft fingers. She's just come down from the roof, so all the day's pastry is going to taste subtly of honey. And outside, the fire hydrant on the street corner has blown its top with impeccable comic timing, and the customers are smiling behind their hands at Ned, who's taking off his shoes as he comes back into the Pie Hole, squelching wet footprints into the flour.
And then Emerson, perhaps, tells a joke. Or perhaps he reads something out from the day's funny papers. Perhaps a customer slips on a discarded piece of fruit, awash in the floury blancmange Ned is tracking across the floor. Olive looks up, and Emerson smiles. And Ned, who is twenty-nine years, eleven months, four days and three hours old as he turns to that open door, with a laugh unfolding inside him and his feet bare and silent – doesn’t think. Chuck holds up her hands and drops the pie lattice, their fingers brush honey sweetness, and everyone sitting at those tables and barstools, even years from now, will remember this in their dreams: they will remember Ned's bitten-off cry, and then the crack, like the breaking of bones, as Chuck –
No. That's not right.
It's Emerson who looks up from the funny papers but Olive who laughs, bright as a bell, so Ned turns to look, slips barefoot on a discarded orange peel, and hits the ground fingertips first. There's a crack, as a bone breaks, but Emerson and Olive help him up and Ned's in pain but he's laughing: because Chuck is blowing him a kiss, and there's still the honey dripping, sticky and sweet, from her hands.
(Some of the ways they didn’t touch, but almost: kisses through plastic wrap, dancing on the roof in beekeeepers' suits, and stepping into each other's footprints in the frost.)
This one begins with Ned, rolling pin in hand, reaching out to flatten a perfect circle of dough, and then pausing for an odd moment, like the world is tipping beneath him or the universe has sneezed. When he opens his eyes Olive is peering down at him with great concern and Emerson is grumpily taking a rotten strawberry out of his hand. Ned guesses his fingers curled back around it. "What?"
"Doctor," Chuck says. She's kneeling beside him, carefully clasping her hands.
Ned says, "I don't… they might…"
"Please," Chuck says, and in her eyes Ned sees all the ways in which people can disappear. When he does go to see a doctor, Emerson, Chuck and Digby come along, and the soft-spoken woman with the stethoscope looks at the three of them standing there indomitably and merely says, "I presume this is your family?"
And after that Ned's a little less apprehensive, answering her questions and letting her conduct some tests, even if he can still feel his heart beating like it wants to escape through his skin. (When he was thirteen years old, Ned found a body with the heart shot out. He thinks he's allowed the occasional overwrought metaphor.)
"Edward," says the doctor when it's all over, looking down at her notes. She shakes her head, looking him in the eyes. "Sorry, it's Ned, isn't it. I suspect you may have" – and there's a long pause while none of them breathe – "a variety of seizure disorder."
"What?" Ned, Emerson and Chuck all say together; Digby whines.
"I'm getting the impression," the doctor says, setting down her clipboard, "you expected me to say something else."
"No," Ned says, quickly, "no, you didn't find anything, ah – no. Nothing else."
And it seems like that's it, there's really nothing else, until it's a few days later, they're in the morgue and the dead guy's just dead.
"Oh," Ned says, looking down at his hands, and then pulls the prescription from his coat pocket, crumpled and blurred from handling, and looks up at Emerson.
"I'm guessing," Emerson says, "you wanna go home right now. And, uh. Try out some things, if you catch my meaning."
"What if," Ned is saying, "what if it's not – I mean, we should test it, it might not be…" – but Emerson has put an arm around his shoulders and is steering him through the door and along the hall. The coroner looks up with only mild curiosity as they shuffle past.
"It’s what I do!" Ned says, as they leave his earshot. "I bake pies and wake the dead!"
"You still do one of those." Emerson hasn't stopped pushing him along. "You wanna do the other thing, well – you know what to do." Gently, he takes the prescription out of Ned's hands, folds it neatly and puts it in Ned's pocket. "If you do – I'll still be here."
"If I stop taking the pills," Ned points out, "then…"
"It's about what you want, Piemaker," Emerson says, seriously. "You want your cut, you come back for it."
"And if I decide I don't… will you still…"
"You bake a damn good pie," Emerson tells him, still not breaking step as he keeps on going, keeps on pushing Ned out towards the sunlight.
(They share cups of coffee; they drink from different sides of the same glass. Chuck's favourites are the strawberries, apricots and peaches that she eats in the morning, oozing juice and still warm from Ned's mouth.)
"Ready?" Chuck says, and Ned nods. They exchange small, shy smiles, and from a little distance away, it's possible Emerson is rolling his eyes. Ned and Chuck ignore him, looking at each other in wonderment; they ignore the rising steam, and the sound of the radiation alarms, poised on the cusp of something new.
This one is complicated. Emerson has this client – her name isn't important – and she has a job for Emerson, the details of which also aren't important.
(At the time, Emerson disagreed. "What're you running here? Three Mile Island?"
"Nothing of the sort!" the client said (her name was, and is, Amelia Peabody). "The Papen County Nuclear Power Generation Plant has a perfect track record when it comes to safety and prevention. You'll notice the sign."
The sign read: '556 days Since Last Acident', which didn't fill Emerson with confidence. "How long you folks been running this place?"
"About a year and a half." Dr Peabody shuddered. "That first week was rough. Listen, Mr Cod, our track record is exemplary, and the reason I need you…"
"Is to find out why you got a dead guy in your pool, I know." Emerson glared. "D'you ever think it might have something to do with the spent nuclear fuel rods you got in there?"
"That's just the thing," Dr Peabody said. "Underwater, you're safer from radiation than you are on the street, Mr Cod. It's only within a few inches of the fuel rods that the ambient radiation level even rises above normal. You see" – she gestured – "I think the person who put the body in our pool wasn't aware of that fact. I think someone" – her expression darkened, and her horn-rimmed spectacles flashed diamanté – "is trying to make it look as though this isn't a safe facility."
"Uh-huh," Emerson said, rather doubtfully, and Ned insisted on reading a number of peer-reviewed academic papers and then some sworn affidavits before he got anywhere near the water, and even then, they hit another… problem.
"It doesn't work."
"What?" Emerson snapped, as Ned emerged, warm water pouring off his hair.
"Watch," Ned said, and even through the ripples spreading over the surface, Emerson could make out the sequence of movements as Ned swam down to the small ledge and poked the dead guy in the shoulder. He did it twice, and nothing happened.
"I guess," Emerson said, "you dive back down and pull him out, and do your magic-finger thing out here on dry land like God intended" – while Ned stepped out of the water, sat dripping on the side and said, not listening to Emerson at all:
"Ready," Chuck says, this time for luck, and they've done their homework for this: they've practised this with wetsuits, they've done experiments with dead crickets from the pet store, they've sat through Emerson's lectures ("You hit the floor of that pool, you die, you hear?") which Ned only half-listened to, with some wild light in his eyes, while Chuck sat on the edge with her feet dangling and said, "Emerson, we touch, I die."
And they dive into the hot, glowing water. They’re falling through the bright Cherenkov-blue radiation, each molecule alight with some strange force equivalent and opposite to whatever it is that runs through Ned's veins, and they turn over, a full graceful somersault in each other's arms, and just for this small sequence of moments – for this one breath – everything is perfect.
(Noli me tangere, Chuck wrote once, on Ned's skin in crisp black ink. She thought it was hot, which it was, and funny, which it was a little; Ned shivered deliciously at the movement of the brush.)
“You can’t,” Ned is saying, waving his hands around, “you can’t, I mean they keep trying, I mean it always comes back, you can’t touch…”
He’s babbling. Chuck pushes down all the things she wants to say in response to this and glances around the room. White floor, white ceiling, white walls. Ned’s eyes bright against that unclean light. She pushes a lock of hair away from his face – she's wearing latex gauntlets she got from a kink supplies store in Coeur d’Coeurs – and Emerson grabs each of Ned’s hands in turn and puts ordinary wool gloves on him. They’re nice: Emerson knitted them himself, and Olive picked the colours.
"Ned," Chuck says, as he falls silent, "we're taking you home."
In the distance, dogs are howling and the sound of running footsteps is getting louder. Chuck gets Ned to standing, and they move quickly, Emerson tossing a grenade over his shoulder as they slip through doors closing in automatic succession. They run out to where the car is standing with its doors open and engine running, Ned twisting around in Emerson’s grip, almost falling but not quite, and then they're piling into the backseat, Emerson is pressing the pedal to the metal and Chuck is thinking that this might work out okay – not good, not now they’re carrying pieces of this place back with them, ground in the car tyres and behind Ned's eyes – but okay, maybe okay, and that's when Ned reaches out, swift as a cat, and yanks away her glove.
She shrieks. Emerson jerks as though burned and the car swerves to the right, bouncing over the hard ruts in the road. "Ned!" Chuck yells, and she's yelling – she’s yelling, she's breathing, she’s alive, as Ned grips on to her wrist with his bare hands and Emerson swears loudly and they almost hit a tree.
“Shit!” Emerson says again, and drives faster, so they all slam up against the windows and Chuck gives up, grabs Ned and holds him tight and still all the long way home. In the Pie Hole, the lights are low but the kitchen smells of baking; Olive is tipping three kinds of berry into a pastry shell as the bell rings on the door, and then Ned won't go any further. Chuck sits him on the edge of a table and gets down on her knees in front of him, and it takes her a moment to screw her courage to the sticking-place, but she takes off her other glove and starts to trace the lines of his face, carefully, with one outstretched fingertip. Her hands thread into his hair, cover the nape of his neck, then keep moving down.
"Ned," Emerson says, and Chuck notes how unusual it is for Emerson to use Ned's given name, "you want to say, y'all leave me be, you just tap, okay?" He puts a wooden spoon into Ned's hand and mimes tapping the table with it; Ned hasn't spoken since they got him out of that place. Chuck is tracing the line of his throat, the warmth of the carotid vivid beneath her fingers. Ned doesn't pull back.
"Chuck," Olive says, coming in from the kitchen, "don't, uh, take this the wrong way, but..."
"Why am I not dead?" Chuck shakes her head. "I don't know."
"Is it gone?" Olive asks, and Ned moves suddenly, his eyes flicking to the clock on the wall, then back.
"No," he says, tight and sharp. "Drained."
"What" – Emerson gestures – "drains that?"
Ned's eyes land on him. "Death."
"Oh," Emerson says. "Well, shit."
"You mean," Olive says, "it's gonna come back." She walks around the tables as she talks, waving her hands around. "Ned, what did they make you…"
"No," Emerson says, "we don't ask that question." With infinite kindness, he adds: "You two should take some alone time. While you can."
"Wait," Olive says, and holds up a forkful of pie for Ned to bite into. It doesn't turn into ashes in his mouth, and when Chuck licks it off his lips a minute later, it tastes a little like sugar, and a little like love.
(And they could have had their miracle – Ned was nine years old when something lit in his blood and it might have been time-limited, burning out when he was twenty-nine, on some quiet spring day that began with a death and ended with him on his knees in the middle of the kitchen holding onto Chuck like they could clamber inside each other's skin – but they didn't. Theirs were one-minute miracles: single strawberries, and slices of pie.)
This one also begins with Ned with rolling pin in hand, reaching out to flatten a perfect circle of dough, and then pausing for an odd moment while the world tips beneath him. He stumbles, but keeps his footing, carries on rolling out the dough. Step back to where the light is better, and notice that Ned is a little older, this time, with some grey shot through his hair, and a ring on the fourth finger of his left hand.
"I saw that," Chuck says, softly, from the back of the kitchen, next to the room where they keep the rotten fruit. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," Ned says, "for now" – and it might be then that they make a decision, not knowing when exactly it will have its consequences, but that it will have them: that for most things there is an equal and opposite reaction; and that nearly every length of time can be thought of in multiples of sixty seconds.
"You see," Chuck tells Ned, a little later, on a bright springlike day when there are flowers blooming outside the windows, and somewhere someone is baking a pie, so the scent of it is drifting in, "you'll always – I mean. You'll always be a part of me. Like if they ever discover anyone else who can do what you can do, I'll be able to tell them, come study me, he touched me."
"Maybe," Ned says with difficulty, "phrase it a little differently?"
She holds both his hands and kisses him, and she can feel the power nascent and still in his skin, like a banked flame. "You," she says, again.
"Don't let go," Ned says, which is, Chuck thinks, an improvement over don't touch me. He's staring down at their joined hands. "If you let go, then…"
"I know," she says, very gently. "Sleep now."
His eyes close, and Chuck will let go, eventually. She will let go, and then Charlotte Charles, lonely tourist, will have to set out and see the world on her own, and it'll be hard to begin with, as all new lives are, but perhaps in the end it will be all right: she's alive, with something of Ned still singing in her blood; she's alive, and she has been loved, which is the same thing after all.