She is drawn to the art before she notices the artist.
It's a stall on Venice Beach, at the end of a straggling line that includes scented candles, cut-glass pendants, and shirts and hoodies with printed jokes that are surely almost as tired and worn as the factory workers who pieced the shirts together. But, blunting the edge of that bitter thought, the paintings pull Caroline in, like a dream or a memory.
They're of various sizes, on simple canvas blocks. The colours are warm and airy greens and oranges; rich browns swirled around with red and yellow and grey; blues on backgrounds of pale pink or yellow. The first painting that catches Caroline's eye is a vista with abstract bushes and trees and flowers. At first, they seem to overlap, but on closer inspection, only shadows touch, or accented silhouettes: each bush or tree stands apart, and the landscape stretches out into a long distance. Confusing the perspective further, there's some kind of vine that twines between all of the other plants, its flow or fall down towards the bottom of the picture evoking streams almost more than stems. An animal's eyes, and nothing else of the animal, peer out from behind a leaf.
Another painting, much smaller, is stippled all over with short, narrow, vertical streaks that add a faint grey or yellow tone to everything they're painted across. Behind the stippling is a dark green hill with bare rock at the bottom - no, it's a wooded river bank, and when Caroline narrows her eyes again she decides that she's looking out at it through a waterfall. She focuses on the stippling again, reverse-engineering the drops without the trees and earth behind them, to get a curtain of pale grey-gold flames like the east side of a sunset sky.
The third painting she sees is a bird drawn like something in a colouring book - all sharp lines that embrace space. But the colours within the bird don't follow the lines, and as she studies them they resolve into flower petals and leaves and clouds. They don't quite stay within the bird, either, though the parts of the shapes that continue outside their cage use different shades.
"Bird, cage," Caroline hears herself say, and on the upswing of a nod, she catches the artist's eyes, clear and amused and wary. Her mouth falls a little open again. She feels, as though it's a weight on her tongue, the name that goes with the artist's wide, elegant face, and dark, straight hair, feels her tongue and teeth pull together to begin an s.
She stops. She's never met this woman before. "I love it," she says enthusiastically, waving her hand over the paintings. "Nothing's what it appears to be."
"How?" the artist asks her, sounding interested rather than challenging. And it's fair: how can you say that of a painting? Caroline works towards what she means.
"Everything's more than one thing," she amends.
The artist gives a polite, self-deprecating laugh, as though she, not what Caroline has said, is incongruous. "Isn't everything?"
"Everythings," Caroline parrots back at her. "Well, sure." She starts again - there's room for that in the way the woman's listening. "Recently, I've been getting my art fix from fancy office lobbies - it was my work - you know the kind I mean? Big and weird and impressive, but you don't know what it's meant to be unless someone tells you. It's like you're not meant to know. This is different: first it's one thing, and you can recognise it and it's real, and then it's something else, but the first thing doesn't go away. A foot in two places."
The artist is smiling but maybe that's just politeness. Caroline checks herself. "That's how it seems to me, anyway," she says. "Is that good?"
"Yeah," the artist says, nodding. "Sure. It's good that you can make a connection."
"What about you?" Caroline asks. "What I'm talking about, is that what you meant to put there?"
The artist shrugs. "Sometimes, I start with an idea and then my thoughts move on to something else when I'm working," she says. "I stop on one day and I start again on the next. So I don't know. I guess. They're not statements, they're not metaphors. But I guess they get that way when other people look at them."
"Because I'm adding my own ideas to them, right," Caroline says. "A layer over the top. Can't avoid using my own eyes."
"Sure," the artist says again.
It's a casual, offhand response, and it feels like a cue to stop talking, buy something, and move on, but the words - even the smile - don't match the woman's body language. Her shoulders are down, relaxed; her hands are open and loose; even when she glances to the side at the end of a sentence, a physical deflection that seems like a habit, she swings immediately back to Caroline's face. Maybe I don't know you, Caroline thinks, but that's not how it should be. I want to know you.
Also, the woman is gorgeous.
"I'm Caroline," Caroline says.
"Priya," the artist says, and the signature scrawled on her paintings resolves itself into letters.
No s. Caroline tells herself she isn't disappointed.
"How long will you be here today?" she asks Priya. "I want to come back. I have some things to do first."
Priya shrugs. "Four thirty, or four if it's slow."
"Cool. See you later." She half-waves, and wanders down the beach.
It probably won't be a slow day. It's a Friday, and though the temperature is LA's usual mockery of fall, at least the Santa Ana winds that were strong earlier in the week have died down. The haze has drawn away from the Santa Monica mountains. The idea of going for a walk among the stalls isn't a Caroline original: half of LA county will probably flock to the beach this weekend, a froth that rolls out from the land instead of in on a wave.
The directions that Caroline heads in owe more to the push and pull of breeze and water than they do to any impulse coming from inside her. She doesn't have much to do except think. She's not used to being at a loose end. She's not used to being anywhere with no real idea what she's here for.
In LA, two years ago, she got a job offer that felt right, working for a nonprofit organisation. The Rossiter Foundation investigated charities, large and small, and produced reports on where donations went and how effectively each charity worked towards its goals. They were books-sniffers, logistics analysts, auditors, nothing glamorous, but at least Caroline wasn't permanently stuck to an office chair. In the intervening time, the foundation moved its headquarters out of state, and, recently, wound up. Caroline's been living north of the Mason-Dixon line for the last year and a half and her roots in this city are withered. But it still feels right to come back here, for a vacation she never bothered to take while working for Rossiter, even if the only familiar face she expects to find is her own on the other side of a mirror. Well, familiar and friendly. She went to college not far from here, but she never spent much time in LA central. Anyway, college ended messily: all the bridges burned, and, if you're going by luck, all the mirrors broken.
In LA, two years ago, she screwed up. Then she got a second chance.
Her mentor at Rossiter, Ms Duhrer, believes that Rossiter succeeded in changing Caroline from someone with ideals to someone who can temper them; from someone who just has tactics to someone with strategy. Caroline isn't so sure. She played nice for two years and she made contacts in the sector, but even working for an outfit that did good things, that wasn't afraid to expose abuses and fraud, she got impatient with the compromises. For all those times Ms Duhrer made an enemy or refused to take a bribe... there were times she held back. Played too nice, in the name of future-proofing. Well, that hadn't been proof against anything.
Ms Duhrer's speech just three months ago could have been subtitled by the writing on the wall. Be proud: measure yourselves by the calibre of your enemies. Our funding sources are drying up because we speak truth to power, because we're inconvenient. It's our job to be inconvenient. I know all of you will carry forward the work we've done here. Because you know how much work remains to be done...
Ms Duhrer retired. Half of the admin team and Caroline's closest coworkers applied to work at other NGOs. Caroline came back to LA. It feels right - not like something comfortable and complete, but something necessary. Like waking up. Like paying back.
You can't ever come back to where, when, what you were; you have to move forward, and pay forward too. When Caroline thinks of the phrase I would take it all back, she wonders where exactly she'd land, were she to spin the dial, and land in her own past without the benefit of hindsight or foresight. Exactly how much would she erase?
Right feels like stepping off the edge of something. She's in freefall.
She wanders over to Muscle Beach, watches some hip-hop dancers and weight lifters, and then accepts a cute guy's offer to teach her how to climb a rope. She grins at him in triumph when the ascent comes easily to her, but the confidence is superficial - she's surprised. She hasn't worked out that much in the last few years. She didn't think it would be easy. Maybe it's just that she's skinny, and it's a function of relative weight.
To his credit, the guy smooths over any visible ego wounds and asks her if she wants to go get an ice cream. "No," she says, "thanks, but I have somewhere to be."
Before she heads back to Priya's stall, she picks up a couple of beers. The sand isn't even chilling between Caroline's toes, won't for hours, but Priya is beginning to pack her paintings away into plastic containers. "Thanks," she says, accepting the first beer.
The bird picture is gone. "Hey, you sold that one I liked," Caroline says. tapping the place where she saw it standing.
"It took flight," Priya says, smiling. "I had a feeling. Don't worry, I have more."
"If I asked you to paint me something just like it, would you?" Caroline asks.
Priya frowns. "Not likely," she says, hooking her hair behind her ear and glancing away. "I don't delilver to demand."
"Okay," Caroline says easily. "One of a kind artefacts and all that. Do I get to look until the beer runs out?"
"Of course," Priya says, and Caroline digs greedily into the things Priya has already packed. This time she just inspects them, doesn't make any comments or appreciative noises. Priya leans back in her plastic chair and looks out to sea.
"I'll back tomorrow," Priya points out eventually. She doesn't seem to mind that Caroline hasn't picked anything out. "Thanks for the beer. I have to get the table back to the lady who loaned it to me."
"Right, right," Caroline says. She puts the painting she's holding into one of the crates. "Hey, are you based around here?" Priya's accent is Australian.
"Sort of," Priya said. "I have a van... Just until November, then I'm flying out."
"Me too," Caroline says, "the November bit. I'm just passing through."
She sees in Priya a moment she's seen many other times, in other people: the moment when Priya trusts her. She doesn't yet know if Priya wants no attachments, or if she only wants to avoid people who become burdens, but the transient nature of any friendship they might strike up has just marked Caroline as safe. The only difference between the expression that Priya is wearing, and the expression Caroline has seen on dozens of other faces, is that Caroline doesn't understand why she's looking for it.
"It must get slow here, during the week," Caroline says. She gestures in a westerly direction. "I'm going to go hiking on Monday or Tuesday when everyone's back at their day jobs, tackle some easy trails. Is that your kind of thing?"
"Yeah. I'd like that," Priya says. "Tuesday's good."
She waves off Caroline's attempts to help her pack up, and Caroline lets herself be waved off. This is good, this will fill a couple of days. She's looking after someone's house in Torrance - never even met the couple, just picked up the keys - and it's far too quiet.
When anyone asks, Caroline says she's a people person, but she's not the platonic ideal. She likes conversation and company and gets a high off a good crowd, but she doesn't like it when people get too close. And then she gets so damn lonely she'll take a chance on anyone, all the while keeping escape routes up her sleeve. Priya seems like a good bet, someone who'll turn into a good acquaintance while feeling like a friend.
On Tuesday, when the morning rush hour begins to clear, Caroline drives over to the beach in her rental Toyota and waves Priya over. They spread Caroline's map out on the bottom of the empty trunk.
"I'm going to say eight miles is a hard limit," Caroline says. "Unless you can soften me up, then it's nine. Do you want to go up one of the trails with a view of the Hollywood sign?"
Priya shakes her head. "Nah," she says. "Real mountain views, no substitute."
"Okay," Caroline says. She traces lines on the map. "Zuma Canyon? Escondido? Sullivan Ridge? Goat Buttes. I need to be able to say I've been to Goat Buttes."
She scans the trail descriptions. Talepop Loop, Echo Cliffs, Hondo Canyon. She's always been competitive; she likes the idea of climbing to the highest point and having someone along with her who can say she did. "Sandstone Peak? We can definitely do Sandstone Peak."
Priya is narrowing her eyes at the description too. At first, Caroline thinks she's unenthused, but then Priya mutters "... three-thirty, okay," and Caroline realises she's just working out the trail elevation in metric measurements. "Okay," Priya says. "I'm keen."
They fall into a kind of dream on the drive over to the trailhead, neither talking much, just taking in the ridges that ripple out to either side of the road. Caroline can't remember the last silence that felt so comfortable. You think you have a problem being alone with yourself - maybe that's literal, she thinks, but it isn't a very convincing thought. She's just the kind of person who goes it alone, who takes the fight further and sticks it out longer than anyone else, and when you know that's how things'll end, it's hard not to let the inevitable colour the present moment. She's not a misanthrope - despite knowing better than some the kinds of terrible things supposedly-human beings are capable of. Caroline'll do a lot for her fellow (wo)man, but not with them.
They talk a little more on the trail, rambling upwards, stopping occasionally for Priya to sketch or for Caroline to point out a bird she knows. They still make good time. The ache that settles into Caroline's calves and lower back isn't a punishing one, but a friendly one. She can tell she's only going to be a little sore tomorrow. Like the rope ascent on Muscle Beach, that seems like some kind of freebie. She doesn't know what to credit it to - worn-in shoes? Her diet? She thinks about her most common eating habits: takeout for breakfast because she bought but forgot to eat it the night before, granola eaten in quick bursts from noon onwards for rapid, lazy re-fuelling. Maybe she can market it in SoCal as "the Chicago power diet" and make a buck.
She draws Priya out a little about her family. Their older sisters are a common point. Caroline's sister practically raised her. Then Jenna met the guy she married, and, well, Caroline’s never been good at getting along with people whose views are the opposite of hers, so when Jenna's opinions started shifting too... She misses the person Jenna used to be. She doesn't miss the stranger that Jenna is now. But she doesn't have to talk about that Jenna.
Priya calls her sister every month. Her sister gets all of Priya's mail. Priya has been travelling for a year - "on the smell of an oily rag - or paint and turps, that is" - stretching her resources as thin and as long as a piece of string. Caroline resolves to buy her a meal tonight and then is appalled at herself. She's not responsible for this woman.
Maybe a drink, though.
She turns up the charm she hasn't needed to use all day to get Priya to come out with her for the evening - sweetening the deal with a shower at her temporary house. "Oh my god," Priya says, "you'd better mean that. No take-backs. I'm going to wash my hair." She takes a full half-hour. In the aimless time Caroline spends waiting for Priya to be done, she also waits for the comfortable sense of the day to recede, for doubts and irritations to seep in, to feel less at ease and more alert, but she doesn't. Maybe it's the sound of the shower in the background of the apartment, acting like white noise for insomniacs to lull the skeptical part of her brain asleep. She does take a minute to hide her few valuable possessions. She only met Priya last week.
The sense of ... emotional lassitude, maybe? ... carries through the evening. Caroline breaks her earlier resolution, ordering tapas dishes and conniving to share them. She gets them a jug of sangria. They're seated outside, at a beachfront bar that's trying to be classy, but the next place down is more of a loud-and-family-friendly sort of place, and that place has colouring in sheets for kids. Caroline steals a blank A3 map of America that features the bird and flower of every state, and she and Priya draw their travels of the last year across the continent to see where the lines cross.
She orders a second jug of sangria at the bar, then heads to the restroom. Picking her way through tables, she sees someone else she knows. Someone she doesn't know.
The man is good-looking, but not eye-catching in any way she can explain. He's wearing a polo shirt and slacks. She bites back a Hey- and he looks up anyway. When he sees her, she feels a burst of interest, satisfaction, happiness.
His eyes narrow too, bright but confused. She can't place him. He can't seem to place her. She smiles and shrugs to convey, Sorry, I guess I don't know you after all, he shrugs back, and she continues through the bar, rattled. What is this, some kind of nesting instinct? She's collecting people. Maybe LA isn't good for her. It's too full of personal ghosts. An unexpected sharp pain stabs through her temples and leaves throbbing in its wake. When she reaches for the handle of the restroom door, it's a lurch for something to hold on to.
When she gets back to her and Priya's table, the man is sitting there with Priya.
She comes through the door, double-takes, and steps aside behind part of the decor, a piece of ironwork draped with succulent plants. She watches them for half a minute, trying to figure out if they are treating each other like friends or like strangers. The latter, maybe. It's the way they keep leaning a little in and then adjusting back, aware of the precise distance between them, the way they're intent on each other's signals. Priya's smiling. The man is smiling a lot.
Surely this is not coincidence. Except: she picked the bar. Priya doesn't even have a cellphone with her - she said she didn't, and also, that sundress would hide nothing. The only thing that's wigging Caroline out is that she felt a spark of connection with Priya and felt a spark of connection with this man. This is the set-up to some kind of country song, not a conspiracy.
She trusts her instincts, except her instincts are also telling her that her current unease is paranoia. Ugh.
She takes a deep breath, shrugs the tension out of her shoulders and neck, and approaches the table.
The man's name is Anthony - "call me Tony", which Caroline does and Priya doesn't. He's a war vet. He pretty clearly doesn't want to talk about that, though, which is good, because Caroline has been a regular at anti-war protests at least as long as this guy had active duty, and she loves ripping shreds out of guys who use war stories to get laid. He's in LA to meet up with a distant cousin whose branch of the family has been estranged from Tony's for a couple of generations. Tony says he's not sure why the family fell out, and then he spins out a couple of guesses into outrageous stories. He's genuinely funny.
And it's not Caroline he's making eyes at. He's treating her like part of the conversation, sure, but it's Priya he glances at to see if a joke lands. Since she isn't the target of his charm, Caroline can admit that Tony is actually charming. Maybe he's smarter than she gives him credit for. She finishes her next drink slowly. Against all prior experience, it's making the headache go away.
The conversation gets briefly heated over pop music preferences, and then they declare a truce in bewailing the price of beachfront bar sangria. Tony makes a casual suggestion about mixing their own - he has all the ingredients back at his suite - and then glances at Caroline and excuses himself briefly.
Caroline leans back in her chair. "You should go with him," she says. "You look like you want to."
"He wasn't just asking me," Priya says. Caroline gives her a look.
"I'm not saying I'm a third wheel here," she says, "but okay, maybe I am a little bit saying I'm a third wheel. It's fine. Go have fun."
Priya laughs in a fluttery way. "I'm asking you..."
Caroline says, "I'm flattered, but I'm going to be clear. When I said third wheel, I didn't mean like in a tricycle. I don't do threesomes."
Priya's laugh is a lot more spontaneous this time. "That was very very clear," she says. "I did not mean that. I meant, come, play poker or whatever you feel like, leave when you want. This way I'm not ditching you after an hour and you know what address I was last seen at. Win/win."
"Two birds, one stone, I see," Caroline says.
"I'm just saying, the night isn't over yet," Priya says.
"Okay," Caroline says.
And, to her surprise, when Priya suggests they all go back to Tony's apartment, Tony's expression is neither lewd nor disappointed, only mildly surprised and pleased. They share a taxi over. The address is Manhattan Beach. It's very Manhattan Beach.
Tony even sounds a little embarrassed about how swanky it is. He called it a hotel suite but there's only a discreet placard that names the complex Elfleda Court; Caroline spots the door to the on-duty staff office, but only because she's looking for it. They walk through a corridor of unremarkable steel and concrete, of remarkable cleanliness, and take an elevator up to the third floor. Caroline takes note of the doors that need an access pass. It's a habit. Tony sees her taking note. Let him.
The apartment is a huge open-plan split-level thing - bedroom, probably bedrooms, above, kitchenette and lounge below. Tony wasn't kidding - the bar is fully stocked. "Yeah," Tony says drily to Caroline, seeing her take everything in, "it was a real struggle to make myself leave the apartment. What can the outside world offer, hm?"
"I have no idea," she says drily. Then realises that sounds like she never wants to leave.
She diverts them into a trivia game: one person offers an outrageous and obscure fact, and the others question or guess until they've decided whether or not it's real. It's fun to over-play being baffled and surprised at Priya's claims about Australia. It's fun to pretend to eat up Tony's fake facts about America, returning Priya's suspicious look with wide, innocent eyes.
The thought hits her - like the floor nearly does, because she's doubled over laughing and just a little uncoordinated. It feels so right to be in Priya and Tony's company. She has to remind herself... Remind herself what?
Well, that the point was not to get in the way of Tony and Priya's hook-up.
She glances at the door. Priya and Tony both look at her, and she feels oddly guilty, oddly defiant. Why shouldn't she stay. But if they're going to be weird about it...
She diverts them towards the entertainment system instead. It's an easy script to follow. They can all watch a few minutes of glurge, then either the other two can excuse themselves upstairs or she can just go, really this time.
She grabs a couch throw and wraps it around herself. It's not cold, but it sets the stage for her to be bundled up a little apart, for Priya and Tony to be huddled close in. Tony and Priya's heads lean together. Hers falls back. She begins to blink-and-miss parts of the movie.
When she blinks alert again, the TV's still on, just quieter, and she's alone in the room. It's easiest to turn and kick her shoes off and reach for a conveniently placed blanket. It's easy to just stay.
She wakes a couple of times during the night. At once point, she gets up, finds a clean glass, rinses her mouth out, and washes her face - a little chapped from the wind and sun on the hike. It's just the little noises that keep rousing her - cars on the road, wind in the palms. Everything seems okay. Priya's shoes are still stacked one atop the other by Caroline's divan. She goes back to sleep.
It's full morning when she wakes up properly.
"Hi," she hears from Priya, somewhere behind her in the kitchen, as she turns over and the cushion she was using for a pillow falls to the floor. Swirls of a dream disappear: there's no moment of where am I; instead she wonders why she didn't bother to go upstairs to a real bed.
"Hi," she says, opening her eyes and sitting up to face Priya. "How're you?"
Priya just smiles, and Caroline pauses a moment to take the smile in.
It's one of those moments when everything feels exactly right: bliss, safety, oxytocin. She takes a breath and holds it, then lets it out with exquisite care, as though she can hold on to perfection that way. The next thing either of them says won't ruin this, but will set her floating feelings back on the ground. There are thoughts trying to form themselves in the back of her head to ask why - what about this is so right, what long-promised conclusion has been delivered - and she shuts them out, watching Priya direct her smile down at the bagel she is spreading with jam, watching the way a beam of sunlight that has pierced the Venetian blinds now strikes off the kitchen taps.
"Anthony left an hour ago," Priya says, and, reluctantly, Caroline takes an ordinary breath again. "The cousin. He'll be out all day."
"Plenty of time for me to make off with the sandwich press, I suppose," Caroline says lightly, because it makes no difference to her. Staying the night is one thing, but she has her own life to get back to. (She doesn't, really but the polite thing is to act like she does.)
"Hm," Priya says. "Are you in a rush to go? Because if you aren't..."
Apparently, there's no spare access pass to the place: they can leave, but they can't go out and come back. So Caroline lets her arm be twisted into staying at Tony's place for a couple of hours in order to buzz Priya through when she comes back with her things. She takes a bubble bath. She finds a cable channel that guides her through a short-form version of t'ai chi. She plays with the fancy espresso machine.
When Priya reappears, she is wrestling an easel rather than a suitcase through the elevator doors.
"Oh," Caroline says, and forgets about the house in Torrance and updating her resume. "Can I stay? Can I watch you work?"
Priya glances up in surprise, and then when her eyes refocus on Caroline's face, her expression smooths over. "Yeah. Go for it," she says.
While Priya carries up all the rest of her gear, Caroline makes herself a nest on the mezzanine balcony so that she can watch Priya without catching her eye.
Priya starts with pencils and thin, off-white paper, sketching out objects and patterns vaguely in relation to each other. The shapes are particularly confusing to Caroline until she realises that Priya is simply ignoring parts of what is already on the page, somehow selectively erasing it in her mind's eye rather than in front of her. She fills up one page and puts it aside, then lays out another.
Priya works more slowly on the second sheet, and then, when that is full, she puts it aside, rummages through a sports bag, and retrieves a block of canvas already painted with a pale green. This time she draws much more precisely. From her body movements alone, Caroline can see that Priya is drawing on the canvas the shapes that she just drew on paper, but she rarely looks at the paper, as though the feeling of having drawn what she wanted once is guiding her far more surely than the visual aid can. Her movements with the pencil are lighter now as well as slower; Caroline can't see their effect except as an occasional glint of graphite. She stops trying to see the lines Priya is drawing. She watches Priya, and the way the work absorbs her, draws her out. It's like watching something happen at the atomic level, seeing Priya's eyes narrow and widen and shift focus, and it feels not just as though she's seeing something skilful but as though she's seeing something unusually real: the spirit of the world spiralling up to its surface. This is who Priya is.
She doesn't get bored, but, after a while, she gets restless. She gets up and stretches and goes down the stairs. She exchanges a few words with Priya and goes out. No need for goodbye when it's not goodbye; no need for see you later when they both know she hasn't had her fill of watching Priya sketch and paint. She goes to the house she's supposed to be looking after and checks the mail and waters the plants and adjusts the angle of the blinds. She drives her Toyota over to Elfleda Court and Priya lets her in.
Tony returns, and the look on his face when Priya asks about his cousin is a little similar to the look on his face when he was talking about his service record. "I don't really know what to think of him," he says, and then, "I just want to think about it a little, okay?" Caroline's shoes are on, she's disassembled her nest on the mezzanine, and she comes to talk to him with her bag swinging from her arm, a clear don't worry, I'm not staying symbol - but although she's trying to thank him and excuse herself, although she's going back to Torrance for the night, by the end of the conversation they're making plans for the following day.
The next day she makes a box out of all the groceries that'll go off soonest and puts them in her car and drives back to Tony's suite-apartment-retreat-whatever. It's not a large box and Tony's fridge isn't very full. She can put her box on one shelf and take it away again if she's got things wrong.
But instead, they use up the groceries. It's almost a week like that. Tony arranges a pair of extra access cards. They go to an outdoor movie, and a corn maze. Priya teaches Tony and Caroline how to stretch canvas. Caroline and Tony arm-wrestle and then run a foot-race late at night at a high school field, under the suspicious eyes of a group of teens smoking in the bleachers. Tony wins, but not by much. When he thuds past the line to where Priya is standing waiting, he reaches in for a kiss and pulls her with him a few laughing steps; Caroline lifts her head and slows, too, to watch them, crosses the finish line absently, the game having already changed.
On the sixth day after Caroline first woke up in Tony's apartment, the telephone rings.
Priya and Tony are upstairs together. The phone rings five times and stops. Maybe it's one of the apartment staff, maybe it's Tony's cousin. They should have his cellphone too, or they can leave a message.
The phone rings again, and stops again. And rings again.
Maybe voicemail isn't set up on this phone. Maybe they don't have another contact number. Maybe it's urgent.
She has the phone in her hand while her brain is still idly weighing up whether to answer or not. "Hello?" she asks.
"Hi," a male voice says briskly. "Who is this? Is this Caroline?"
She says, "Uh..." He doesn't repeat the question - instead, she hears a burst of electronic noise that seems to overwhelm every other sense. For a moment she can't see - even the warmth of the sunlight on her arm seems to go away. She's dizzy.
She's sitting on the floor, which is soft with fibre. Carpet. There's an object dangling on a string beside her. it's not entirely unfamiliar, but she can't remember its name. It's beeping. She doesn't think it's meant to be beeping and she doesn't like the noise. As she looks at it, she can see how it matches the shape of another object that's on the surface where the cord ends. Table. She fits the two objects together. The beeping stops. That's good, but she doesn't know what to do next. She doesn't know where she is.
She thinks she might have fallen asleep. But she was sitting, not lying down. Usually she lies down to go to sleep. But sometimes people fall asleep without lying down. Don't they? She doesn't know how to reach a conclusion about this. What she needs is another person to answer her question.
There are open doors to several other rooms on this level, but there are no people in them. She goes to the stairs, and hesitates. She has a feeling she's not supposed to go up the stairs without being told to, but there is no one there to tell her, so she has to tell herself. She likes this thought. She goes up the stairs.
There is no one behind the first door. When she approaches the second one, she hears laughter. There are people here, then. But she remembers that she isn't supposed to open closed doors with people behind them. Is she supposed to knock? She can't remember. She decides to wait for the people to come out. She remembers someone asking her: are you in pain? Are you tired? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Do you need to use the bathroom? She answers for herself again: she isn't in pain, she just woke up. She's a little thirsty. Everything else is fine. She goes back down the stairs, and gets herself a glass of water. She sits on the divan. It's more comfortable than the floor. If she wants to go to sleep again she will go to sleep here.
The sky gets darker. This is a surprise, but it doesn't make her feel afraid. She watches to see how dark it will get.
At the top of the stairs, a light goes on. She was right to wait for people. She looks up.
"Oh! Hey! Caroline, were the lights off for a reason?"
Her name isn't Caroline. It's Sierra at the top of the stairs. She doesn't know why Sierra is calling her Caroline.
"Caroline, are you okay?"
Her name is Echo.
"I'm all right," Echo tells her. "But I'm not Caroline."
That upsets Sierra. Echo can't tell why; she knows Sierra and Sierra knows her. Is it a game? Victor comes out to stand by Sierra. "Hello," she says.
He sounds upset too. "Caroline, did you take something?"
"No," she says. "I didn't go anywhere."
She doesn't get to ask her questions: they have too many questions of their own. They ask her what she knows about them. She tells them that they are Victor and Sierra, and that Victor likes swimming almost as much as she does, and that Sierra sometimes gets scared in the middle of the night. They don't like those answers. They tell her they're Tony and Priya. She tells them that she doesn't understand.
It's all right, though. It's okay that she doesn't understand, and that Victor and Sierra don't have the answers. Someone else will come and explain things. Someone else always does. All they have to do is be their best. She tries to reassure them, but it doesn't work. She feels bad for them. She thought she was the confused one, but they're even more confused than she is.
They become agitated. She tries to be patient with them; it's upsetting to be confused.
"Is this a joke?" Victor asks her. "Because it's not funny."
"No," she agrees with him, calmly.
"It's like she thinks this is how crazy people act," Victor says to Sierra.
"I don't think that," Echo says. She doesn't know what Victor means by crazy people. But if she doesn't know what he means, then, logically, she can't think that she's acting like that.
"Your name is Caroline," Sierra tells her. She wants to agree with Sierra, since Sierra seems to want this very much, but she knows that this is not true. Sierra is her friend. However confused Sierra is, Echo trusts that Sierra will understand.
She doesn't understand a lot of what they say. She understands the words, but she doesn't understand the context and she can't stop to puzzle out each sentence as it goes by. She sits and waits for them to calm down.
"We should take her to a doctor," Victor says.
"Doctor Saunders is nice," Echo says. She can imagine Doctor Saunders now. She goes to Doctor Saunders when she's in pain, but not always. Doctor Saunders could tell Sierra and Victor that they're all okay. But Doctor Saunders isn't here.
"Is there someone you see in the area?" Sierra asks her. "For any conditions? Is there someone you talk to?"
She doesn't understand. "I talk to you," she says. "And Tango, sometimes, and Mike and November."
"What's with the code names," Victor mutters. She doesn't know what he means, so she just looks at him. He can say it again in a way that she can understand, or they can try something else.
Eventually she realises that by taking her to a doctor, they don't mean Doctor Saunders. They mean going to a stranger and a strange place and leaving her there. "No," she says firmly. "I'm okay. We're all okay."
"No, you're not," Sierra says with an angry edge to her voice. Echo hates making Sierra upset.
"We're going to be okay." Echo amends. It worries her that she has to look after Sierra and Victor, because even if she's not scared, she knows she doesn't entirely understand what's going on. But they're the ones getting upset and she's the one who's still calm.
Eventually, being calm wins out. The others are uneasy around her but they seem to have come to a better understanding. They speak to her either with an edge of anger in their voices, or as though they're not sure she can hear them. They act as though she's going to hurt herself. She asks if she can go and swim - she can see the pool through the window - and they tell her she can't, that she might get in trouble. She doesn't understand why they're so worried about her, but eventually she decides that they will stop worrying if they feel they don't have to keep an eye on her. She tells them that she is going to have a shower and then lie down to have a nap. They look at each other unhappily, but agree to this.
They are more unhappy when she is still Echo the next day. Echo thinks this is a strange thing to be disappointed by - they are still Sierra and Victor, even if they are not the Sierra and Victor she knows. But they are all coming to accept this.
Sierra says, "Okay. I'm trying. Who is Echo?" Echo tries to tell her, but there isn't much to tell. She tells Sierra about how she likes massages and drawing and how she likes the feeling when she's tired from running or swimming but she isn't in pain for it.
"But what do you remember, Echo?" Sierra asks, and when Echo's answer doesn't satisfy her, "What do you think about when you go to sleep?"
Echo's head hurts, and it's a bit like she's hit her head on something, and a bit like the pain in her muscles when she's trying to be her best. She remembers something. She remembers running on a platform, and stopping, and telling the woman beside her that it feels bad. She remembers the woman saying, "It feels bad because you aren't used to it, Echo. Once you get used to it, it will feel better. You can stop now, but tomorrow, you need to run for longer." Maybe the pain in her head is that kind of pain.
"I'm trying," she tells Sierra. She's realised that sometimes, if she answers with half of her sentences unsaid, Sierra finds it more reassuring. Sometimes when she does this, Sierra seems to continue the conversation as if Echo finished the sentence a particular way, as if instead of trailing off, Echo said what Sierra expected to hear. It works now. Sierra nods, reluctantly shrugs.
Echo says, "Can I watch you paint?"
Sierra says, "Okay. Sure."
Echo settles in to watch Sierra. It's soothing, and she likes seeing the shapes appear. It's nothing she recognises, but that seems to be how things are lately. Maybe Sierra will tell her, later, what she's meant to see.
She thinks as hard as she can about Sierra's questions. She thinks about what she thinks about when she goes to sleep. And then she remembers something: words on the glass. She gets up and goes to the window, but it's the wrong kind of glass and there are no words there.
"Are you okay?" Sierra asks her.
"Yes," Echo says. Her head hurts but she's decided it's okay that it hurts in this way.
She doesn't need glass to draw words. "Can I use a pencil?" she asks. They always ask, when drawing together, if the other person will share. That's another memory.
"Yes. Use one of these pieces of paper," Sierra says.
"Thank you." She goes to the coffee table and spreads the paper out. She remembers using a stone to scratch words into glass - but what were the words? She tries to see them; closes her eyes to try to feel the shapes as well as see them behind her eyes.
There's another memory: a different memory. She's talking to Sierra but they're both angry. Sierra is all in black and she looks like she's going to hurt someone. Another memory: she's looking at a painting. And then she's looking at glass again, she's drilling a hole through it, and Sierra' s voice is in her ear.
"Are you okay? ...Echo?" Sierra asks. She's curled over, her head resting on the paper.
"No," she says, without meaning to, and then she goes tense with fear because she remembers that she mustn't let them know... But Sierra hugs her and it helps. She cycles through memories of people who want to be hugged and who don't want to be hugged and it helps keep them apart.
There are two kinds of memories, and Caroline is a memory of the kind that she slides into like a glove. The kind that she locks away in a box when she's not using. Caroline is the kind of memory that she doesn't trust.
She says, "I need to lie down again," and lets Sierra - Priya? - help her up the stairs.
She stays in bed until the evening, putting back together again her Humpty-Dumpty head. She tries to figure out what to tell Priya and Tony. They're not Priya and Tony, really, just as she isn't Caroline. Somehow Topher has figured out how to give her an edited version of herself, one that doesn't remember Rossum, doesn't remember meeting DeWitt.
One reason she's not sure what to tell Priya and Tony is that she's not sure how real this is meant to be. Someone reached out to her to re-set her. Alpha? He's done that kind of thing before, and it was a more powerful wipe than she's ever come back from in the past. But it wasn't Alpha who set them up, Victor and Sierra and Echo together, dolls happily playing house.
Were they meant to forget about the Dollhouse and go back to ordinary lives? She's always wondered about that part - what really happens when the contract is up. But if so, why allow them to meet? No: give paranoia full sway here. Why did DeWitt arrange for them to meet in these personas?
It had to have been DeWitt. No one else is so obsessed with artificial happiness.
Anyway: until she convinces Priya and Tony she's compos mentis, they won't let her out of this suspiciously comfortable apartment, and she doesn't want to upset them by sneaking out or confronting them otherwise. So she has to tell them something.
She gets to the landing when the telephone rings. "No," she says, but it's too late. Sierra answers it. Echo watches her face go slack and calm and then somehow more familiar. She feels a little guilty for the surge of warmth: that's her friend in there, the part of Priya who has earned the care Echo feels for her.
She spends twenty minutes reassuring Sierra, and it turns out that it's twenty minutes she doesn't have, because Tony comes back. He's justifiably suspicious - and here I thought they'd dialled up the trust settings on all of us, Echo thinks - and then the TV switches itself on again, and down they go.
This time, when Echo pulls her mind around her again, only two hours have passed since the wipe, and she remember the way the wipe felt. Sierra and Victor are calm, huddled around each other. They go around the apartment unplugging and turning off everything electronic.
This time, the signal is broadcast from the balcony.
This time, Victor and Sierra are barely affected by the wipe. She wakes up to them holding her and cries on Victor's shirt because her head hurts. Sierra brings her a glass of water and some tissues. Victor brings her the paper she was drawing on. She comes back to herself a second time.
The message is clear: try to interfere with what's going on, and you'll get wiped again.
She wonders what will happen if she recovers too fast. It grates to act helpless, but she realises she should pretend each wipe lasts a lot longer than it does.
The next thing she tries is to walk out the apartment door. They let her. Nothing stops her getting into her car and turning the keys. (She has a parking ticket. It's absurdly reassuring.)
When she pulls away from the kerb, another car pulls out behind her.
One impulse is to call on five imprints' specialised driving skills and make a run for it - but the tank is less than half full, and then, there's Sierra and Victor back at the apartment. She searches her memories. None of them know any locations of any Dollhouses. Her memories of Rossum owe nothing to Caroline and everything to her time as a doll. Topher has done too good a job on Caroline 1.1 to give her an in.
She acts as innocently as she can. She goes to the Walgreens and gets earbuds. She gets food supplies.
When she uses the earbuds on herself, the signal changes Victor and Sierra into automatons who hold her down and pull them out of her ears until a signal can get to her again. When she uses them on all three of them, men from the Dollhouse open the door.
Even when she surprises one of their guards, ties him up, and questions him, she doesn't get anything out of him, except that she and Victor and Sierra are meant to stay there. That's all. So this is the long game - or, as long a game as she can bear to playing, knowing that the situation could change at any time, and she won't know when.
She waits. She learns. She makes Sierra and Victor strawberry pancakes and watches them hold each other, kiss each other. Tries as subtly as possible, with instructions as careful as possible, to slow things down beyond kissing. They go swimming and they watch incomprehensible T.V. together and they're safe, for a while, in this space more fragile than an eggshell, more ephemeral than a bubble, that will last until they act.
And then they make their move.
They're five states over when they get caught, and Echo fights as hard as she can, but she loses. They bring them in.
"You just wanted an excuse," she spits at DeWitt, who is finally sending her broken dolls to the Attic.
"Of course I did," DeWitt says, in that glittery, ironic way she has. "I just wanted to give you something to hold on to, first."
And she hates her for it, but when Echo is in the Attic, that's exactly what she does.