Abby’s electricity bill is outrageous this month, and she scowls at it before crumpling it and throwing it away from her. She’s in her underwear again, because it’s hard to keep Rex in a cage when he looks so miserable about it and he needs the heat to fly around. Outside, the temperatures are dropping towards freezing, but inside she sweats if she wears more than what basic decency requires. No wonder her bloody utility bills are so over the top.
“You’re lucky you’re worth it,” she tells Rex, who doesn’t respond because he’s too busy stalking a bit of lettuce that fell out of his bowl and has somehow scooted across the kitchen counter.
The apartment is full of heat lamps and glass cages, and she knows it’s not just Rex’s fault that the bills are so very terrible. For a long time, if there was a creature sick in the zoo’s herpetology collection it was Abby’s responsibility to bring it home and nurse it. That was how her whole home collection of aquariums had got started. At least then, however, the zoo had graciously funded her voracious electricity bills. It had also paid for the aquariums, the heat lamps, the substrate, the food, and the dozen or so power strips she has strewn about her place like plastic confetti. The ARC has no reason to pay for such things, primarily because they don’t really know that she’s keeping Rex here.
The other animals she has are creatures she likes to tell others she’s in the business of re-homing. She is not a crazy snake lady - she is simply struggling to find places for all of the rosy boas and corn snakes that she took in when various friends, acquaintances and desperate people she didn’t know on Craig’s list couldn’t find homes for them. She wouldn’t turn out a creature in need – that would be callous, not when she has the means to care for them.
Sighing, Abby goes to make some tea, turning off the power strip to three of the cages to avoid overloading the outlets. She has to turn off all of them if she wants to blow dry her hair. The frequent outages have taught her quite a lot about electricity and how to reset the fuse box and things like that, which she tries to pretend is an upside to living in a sauna and owning more fake logs than she does mugs.
“Well,” she tells Rex, a bit wistfully as she writes a cheque to pay the bills, “I suppose I didn’t really need those designer boots anyway.”
Nick is three fingers of whisky down when he begins to type up the classified ad. The whisky makes his blood run hot, which gives his fingers the freedom to run over the keyboard and type out his every last thought without pause or filtering. His first ad looks like this:
I need to get rid of this bloody piano. It reminds me too much of my wife, who as it turns out is not as dead as she’s let me think she was for a decade. Also, she was an unfaithful whore. It’s in good condition, though if you don’t pick it up in the next few days I’ll probably have taken a sledgehammer to it. £800.
He quickly deletes it, and tries again, his fingers hovering over the keys for a few seconds of trepidation before he tries something a bit less bitter. His second, third, and fourth ads look like this:
Redecorating, need to get rid of piano. £700. Barely played, in great condition, doesn’t fit here any more. Recently tuned.
You give me 600 quid, I’ll give you a brown baby grand piano. Deal expires Thursday. You have to move it yourself, and I don’t have a big door and don’t remember how I got it in here in the first place.
Helen, you fucking bitch, come and get your bloody piano before I break off the keys and start using them to level furniture. I swear to god I will do it. You have until Thursday, or your stupid talking piece piano gets it. I will carve a willy into it, I really will!
It’s the last one that seems the most appealing, and he almost posts it, the flutter of rage in his chest tempered with vindictive amusement. Helen would be furious if he carved anything into that damn piano, penis or initials with a bloody heart around them; she’d treasured the damn thing, had always kept it dust free and tuned, even when the dishes piled up in the sink and the two of them were covered in paper cuts from grant proposals and final exams.
Neither of them had known how to play the piano, but somehow – a combination of coercive words and sex, undoubtedly – she had convinced him they had to buy it if they were ever to properly entertain guests. Not that they had done that much, either, but sometimes, when they’d come back from an office party and still been drunk and laughing at some colleague’s awkward misfortune, they’d spent hours drunkenly banging out terribly inaccurate renditions of showtunes, laughing so hard they barely could sit on the stool. Those had been the days before everything had soured, before their returns from parties had been filled with silence or cutting words for each other instead of others.
But knowing that Helen was alive, knowing that she’d stopped loving him long before she’d left him and hadn’t cared enough to even let him know not to mourn… well, he’d always looked at this bloody piano and thought of those fond memories with a wistful sadness. Now, it just made him want to break something.
In the end, the ad he posts is simple and to the point:
Baby grand piano. Free if you can get it out of here by Thursday.
Wanking has become a clandestine activity since moving in with Abby, in a way that it hasn’t been since Connor was still living at home. He sleeps on the couch, and Abby drinks tea before bed so is frequently up and going to the bathroom, leaving him terrified of touching himself lest she walks in on him doing it. The bathroom isn’t good, either; he and Abby are on the same work schedule, and if he lingers for more than the requisite five minutes it takes to wash his hair in the morning she starts banging on the door and shouting about being late. Connor may have spent years (he has charts!) perfecting the fine art of touching himself, but even he can’t wank, shampoo his hair, shave his chin and dry himself off in the amount of time Abby allots him.
He’s thought about touching himself at work, but the image of Lester bursting in on him is so horrifying that any erection he could possibly have got while at the ARC fades away almost immediately. In a way, that’s a huge relief; Abby is still at work, after all, and prancing around with guns and a faint air of competence, so it’s nice to have something to keep him from tenting all the time.
So he has to settle for sneaking about and doing it only when she’s not home, which is an occurence that’s rarer than he was expecting. Somehow, he always pictured Abby as being a bit of a social butterfly. She’s pretty, charming and funny, so the fact that she spends most nights at home is both boggling to his mind and very frustrating to his libido. He tries to come up with reasons, sometimes, for her to leave the house – “Oh Abby, we need more milk!” or “I think you left your earrings in the car.” His attempts are almost always countered with resounding arguments such as, “I’m lactose intolerant, get your own milk you prick,” and “My earrings are where they belong, in my ears, why are you being so shifty and weird today? Have you spilt something on the couch again, Connor? For god’s sake, just clean it up!”
When he thought about it, Connor always imagined living with a pretty girl as being a wonderful romp of sex and snuggling. Living with Abby, however, has essentially reduced him to priest-like celibacy, with a similar level of guilt when he does finally give in and slip a hand down his pants. Really, if he didn’t love her quite so much, and also had a place to stay, and/or could afford said place to stay, Connor is sure he’d be moving out. As it is, he just spends a lot of time thinking sadly intimidating thoughts about Lester and wishing that Abby would get some out-of-the-house hobbies.
Stephen stared at the white ceiling and tried not to wonder what the fuck was wrong with him.
There was a restlessness building beneath his skin, had been for days. He could feel it buzzing along his bones, and no amount of running or drinking could chase it away. He felt off-kilter and twitchy, and his prayers for an anomaly with something he could shoot were not answered. Helen’s words were beating down his brain, chewing at his mind like a dog at a pig’s ear, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her and the team and-
He huffed out an irritated breath. He’d promised himself he’d stop thinking about it. It wasn’t working out quite that way yet, though, and he was beginning to feel like a teenage girl.
Sighing, Stephen forced himself up and out of the bed, stalking to the kitchen to make some tea. He drummed his fingers on the countertop as he waited for the kettle to boil, the endless tap tap tap-ing providing a beat that drove into his brain. “Fuck,” he said, then tried again louder like the curse would clear his mind, “Fuck!”
His upstairs neighbour banged on the ceiling, accompanying the retort with some muffled commentary. Stephen scowled and flipped off his ceiling, but the shouting hadn’t actually made him feel better either.
The kettle huffed steam tiredly at him and he unplugged it without making any tea. The caffeine wouldn’t be good for him at this point. Maybe another run? No, he’d already gone 12 miles that morning; if he went out again, he’d probably cripple himself with soreness. Some pull-ups, then.
There was a bar hanging over his door and he toed his socks off and began working out, not sure what he was trying to prove but damn well ready to prove it. It felt good, at least, to tighten and struggle against something physical, and as the soreness began to burn he started to feel better.
Then the plaster of the doorframe gave away and the bar slipped. He crashed to the floor, his foot knocking a painting off the wall in his desperate flailing descent, and the bar smacked him soundly across the face.
He lay there, stunned, pain blossoming across his cheekbones and ringing along the back of his head, then got up with a mumbled curse and looked at the damage. There were bits of plaster all over the floor, scattered across the laminate floor like snowflakes. The big blue painting he’d had hung in the hallway wasn’t exactly on the wall any more, and a quick reveal showed that the frame was broken.
It had been a gift, like most of the things in his apartment; Allison had been big on modern artwork, and over a few years of Christmases and birthdays her tastes had taken over the walls. They hadn’t been together for almost two years now, and while the pictures of them had left with her (in a box she’d carried out with teary eyes and stiff shoulders) the paintings she had left behind.
Stephen looked around, and suddenly realised he lived in a stranger’s house.
From there, it was easy. The fire that had burned under his skin took over and he found himself snatching things off the wall and tossing them messily into the bin. He wrenched nails out with his fingers, and the clink as he tossed them away was terribly cathartic and soothing to his soul. When the walls were clear, his madness took him to the kitchen where he found the fancy espresso machine his mother had given him (he hated instant), and the doilies and cutsie tea mugs and ridiculous collection of shit given to him by people who didn’t know him well but didn’t want to leave him out of secret santa exchanges. Crockery smashed and he actually threw the coffee machine in twice because it hadn’t broken the first time and that couldn’t be tolerated. There were books and CDs that he hated on the shelves, and those went into the bin too.
Ten minutes after he’d first fallen from the doorframe, his flat was empty and white and his rubbish bin was overflowing. It was startling to see the expanses of plaster, empty and clinical, and he remembered why Allison had insisted on hanging things in the first place. The cupboard doors were still open, revealing only a few plates and cups that had escaped his wrath.
It was bare. His whole flat was devoid of any personal touches, of the influence of other people on his life, and he actually found himself shaking for a moment, stunned by how little in this place was actually his.
Then he remembered the box under the bed, and he tripped a little in his sudden need to pull it out.
There were three framed pictures in it, on top of a pile of posters. One picture was of himself and Cutter, both dirty and sweaty and from their first trip to the Amazon. He’d given Cutter a copy too, but he doubted the man still had it.
Another was of his mother and father, smiling serenely at the photographer who had blurred the photo excessively around the corners, the blue background ostentatious and hilariously typical of the nineties. It brought a smile to his face, an expression that barely felt familiar at this point. He’d stolen this photo when he’d been home a few Christmases ago, with the sole intention of keeping it to mock his parents about next time he’d seen them, but hadn’t had a place to hang it and had shoved it under the bed instead.
The last photo was of him, Abby, and Connor. It had been a present from Abby, though Connor had jumped in on it too having obviously not known it was his birthday. They were standing in front of the Thames, arms linked. He thought that Cutter had taken the photo, but he wasn’t really sure. The three of them looked happy, and Connor was leaning into Abby so obviously Stephen was sort of surprised that the boy had still been upright.
Beneath the pictures were posters of bands he’d liked as a kid, and one ridiculous genealogy of sauropod dinosaurs that he’d inherited when Connor had been kicked out of his apartment (as Abby had refused to let him hang it anywhere in hers). Most of the posters were a little torn from where they’d been pulled from the walls of his childhood home, and wrinkled from several moves over the course of the decades, but they made him grin to see. It was an easy thing to pull the nails back out of the bin and begin suspending them at odd, ridiculously uneven angles all over the apartment. He didn’t have quite enough to cover the walls entirely, but the gaps of white that shone through when he was done weren’t enough to dismay him as thoroughly as they had been.
The pictures he saved for the bedroom, hanging them with more precision and spending a lot of time making sure they were in just the right spots.
Finished, he pulled back and dusted off his hands. The apartment looked like his teenage self had run away from home, but at least there was some semblance of himself there at all. Granted, most of the posters were from bands and movies he no longer cared about, but once upon a time he had. That was a start, at least.
Matt has been in the past for two weeks when Gideon finally gets fed up and informs him he needs to get his own flat and stop sleeping on his couch. Matt protests at first, the very idea of leaving his father alone causing his spine to straighten and his face to slip expressionless, but Gideon is insistent and soon Matt finds himself with a brand new bank account and a section of the classifieds. Pretending he knows what he’s doing is harder than he expected, but by dropping in his fictional military background early enough in a conversation he manages to change any estate agent’s expression from concerned to understanding whenever he flinches at the sound of a car door slamming.
He finds a flat almost straight away, a tiny thing with so few windows that nearly all the light comes from the shitty fixtures that flicker whenever someone drives too fast on the nearby road. Stepping into it makes him breathe a sigh of relief, of comfort, and he’s almost finished with the requisite paperwork when he realises why and his pen stops mid-signature.
“Is something the matter?” the woman asks with faux kindness, clearly worried he’s going to back out.
“No,” he says automatically, then, “yes. I’m sorry, I can’t take this flat. This – my apologies.” He backs out the door of the letting agency’s office in a way that is most assuredly not a run, and calls somewhere else about a place on the top floor near an industrial district. The gentleman is surprised at Matt’s vehemence but impressed by his bank account, and that is how Matt finds himself the proud new tenant of a 14th floor flat with a view of the sunset over a waste disposal plant.
The first day he moves in he spends three hours leaning against the railing on the balcony. His entire childhood was wasted locked away in subterranean apartments and cupboards, praying that the monsters wouldn’t sneak down and eat him. Now he has a view of the city, whole and free of anomalies and the ratcheting calls of future predators, and he can breathe in as much clean air as his lungs will allow him.
It’s worth it, to not be able to afford new clothing or good food. His apartment won’t have any furnishings for a long time, but he likes sleeping on the carpet in front of the window, waking when the sun rises and heats up his skin, and he doesn’t have anyone he’d like to invite over anyway. It’s worth the cost, every bit of it, for the daily reminder of what he is fighting for: the ability for his children to sleep in lofts rather than bunkers, and to see their skin illuminated by sunshine instead of fluorescent bulbs.
The shitty flat he almost rented would have made him feel safe in a way that his floor to ceiling wall of windows never will, but this way, at least, he won’t ever forget why he’s here.
Jess knows what her files say, because if she’s going to break in to read other people’s she’s obviously going to also read her own. It’s not hard, really, and it doesn’t tell her anything she doesn’t know about herself: brilliant, graduated from university at age 18 because she got her A-level mathematics early. Hacked into a government security website when she was 15 and got the evil eye disguised as a lot of paperwork and lawyers over the following few months. Ran away from her parents when she was 14, and she convinced the authorities to let her be fostered privately until she was 16 instead of sending her home. The reasons why are sealed, though, and she’s made certain that they can’t ever be opened. Lives on her own in a high-rise flat in a nice section of the city, and if someone hacked her credit card bills they’d see that she eats a combination of take-out and cereal, because nobody ever taught her how to cook.
The files show she and her foster mother sued her father’s company, and she was given an enormous settlement in exchange for some incriminating video footage. Careful editing by the company has kept exactly what the footage was out of any and all records; she’d hack it, but she finds that at this point, she doesn’t really want anyone else to know.
The files show that shopping is still the only form of therapy she’s ever tried to pursue after, well, everything.
Records and reading between the lines could tell someone a lot about Jess, but what they can’t tell anybody is that though she’s been living on her own here since she was 16, it has never felt like home. It, at times, felt safe, and comforting, and completely freeing, but that doesn’t make it into a home. The ridiculous phone she stole from her bedroom (and that, and her collection of hard drives, was all she took from there) and the paintings she’s chosen to hang on her walls don’t make it better. All they do is hide the scarily adult walls that she’s never, ever going to be used to.
Then one day she invites some new friends (acquaintances, really, but she rounds up with that sort of thing or she’d have no friends at all) to come and live with her. She bustles them into the kitchen and doesn’t remember to tell them to take off their shoes, and sits down on the couch and suddenly everything clicks into place. The walls don’t feel vast and echoing, and the stupid little cutsie touches she’d hung everywhere actually seem to work, make everything seem less forced.
“Make yourselves at home!” she chirps, wondering what they must think of the place. She babbles something stupid about their colleagues, but is surprised to find it’s just an excuse now. She doesn’t care if they tell her anything about Becker. Well, that’s not strictly true, because she soaks up anything about him like an eager sponge and is glad for it, because she hasn’t had a crush this bad since school and it feels like something normal is finally coming back to her. But they don’t have to tell her anything, not really. This lightness she feels right now is more than enough.
“New roomies!” she says, wrapping her arms around their shoulders and brightening so hard at the idea that she wonders why it never occurred to her before. “Brilliant!”