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sudden loss of air, impressions in despair

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“Junpei!”

“How was I supposed to know it was on?  Why would a store have a blender plugged in?  It’s not like people come in here to try them out.”

He took her hand and it sent shivers up her spine, for the umpteenth time.  The other customers were still staring at them, some chuckling with amusement, others frowning in disapproval at the ruckus they had created.  But Junpei was right – it didn’t make sense for Williams Sonoma to have blenders plugged in right on the display so people could turn them on.  He had been so startled by the noise that he fumbled in trying to press the off button and knocked it to the floor.  Luckily it didn’t seem broken, and nobody was demanding they cough up the $899.99 for the Vitamix Professional Series 1020 Blender.

“Do we really need any of this stuff, though?” he asked as they moved into specialty electronics.  Akane ran her fingers over the cool metal of a Zojirushi Rice Cooker – on sale for $449.99 – and it brought up a brief flash of memory.  Aoi said their mother never used rice cookers; always on the stove.  She thought she could recall watching her stir it, wooden spoon in a big red pot.

They had only ever used rice cookers in the institution they had lived in, after.  Good people, but too many abandoned and orphaned and lost children and not enough adults to provide for all their needs.  Even before Aoi had officially become her legal guardian, he had watched over her and kept her safe.  Made sure she got up for school, did her homework, ate healthily, and slept peacefully.

“You okay?”

She met his concerned eyes and nodded.  Junpei didn’t look convinced, but eventually shifted his gaze to the appliances just ahead.  “Four hundred dollars for a toaster?”

“Probably for people with big families or who entertain.”  She could imagine the two of them having friends over.  Their wedding rings clinking against the plates as they brought tempura out for dinner.  Sneaking secret smiles at each other as Light or Aoi or Sigma or Phi chattered on about their new lives, before they moved into the living room.  The house she and Aoi had rented when they were doing research in Washington had a fireplace, and she loved the idea of sitting with Junpei around the hearth.

There were times back in the institution when the space heaters would run out of kerosene, so Aoi would take her and their blankets down to the laundry room.  They would bundle up with the warm sheets until they went cool, then swap them out with hot ones fresh from the industrial-sized dryer, so they could get through the cold nights.

“I could buy four toasters for sixty bucks at the Family Dollar and I bet they work just as well,” he scoffed.  “I can’t ask our friends to buy something like that.  Besides, you and Aoi have a ton of money.”

Akane could feel her face morphing into a mirror of Junpei’s frown.  “We won’t list only expensive items.  But … this is about creating our own home.”

“They have a wine club?”

Although she had seen signs for it before, but couldn’t remember sommeliers ever being present in the store for wine tastings.  He sauntered over to where a smiling blonde was offering him some merlot.

“Should you really be drinking?”

He knocked back the wine and tossed the glass behind him.  “Of course I should be.  I need something to forget everything you’ve done to me.”

“J-J-Junpei?”

More wine, another glass.  This time, he glared at her as he threw it to the ground.  “You ruined my life, Kanny.  Why would I ever want to marry you?”

“This is a dream, isn’t it?”  

The lights dimmed until she could barely see his face.  He took her hand again, but without the gentleness of before.  “We’re both in the field.  I’ll remember this, too.  Another disapp-”

She woke, but kept her eyes closed; as she wasn’t entirely disengaged, she could still feel his phantom touch on her skin.  She could smell him, although his usual comforting scent was tinged with the stench of beer.

Aoi’s frustrated grunts and rapid key-tapping told her he was still awake and something was happening with the market.  The TSE, probably, at this time of night.  Unless she had slept for longer than she thought.

When she had shaken off the last bit of Junpei’s mind, Akane opened her eyes, letting them adjust to the darkness.  The only source of light was his laptop, which he had dimmed and angled away.  

That’s not our future, she assured herself.  That’s not his future.  I’m going to make sure of it.   



* * *



She might have been dislocating Clover’s shoulder, but better that than her being dead.  Alice yanked, roughly, ignoring the other woman’s screaming.  She would break her arm, rip it off, do whatever she had to do to get Clover back on this side of the cliff.  She knew her pants were ruined, that her knees would be bruised and bloody.

“I’m going to kill him,” Clover roared as she finally made it back up onto firm ground.

“Not if I get to him first.”  

Even once they were both safely away from the edge, Alice held on tight to Clover, ignoring the wind and the rain.  When they both started to shiver, she got them to their feet and headed north, keeping a firm grip on Clover’s hand.  They were easily a good mile from their car.  Clover’s gun was somewhere at the bottom of that ravine; Alice was out of bullets and had lost her spare clip.

“Don’t you ever run off like that again.”  Because of the weather, she had to yell back at Clover to make sure she was heard.

“He was getting away.”

“He got away regardless!”

“But you said he might have information on your father.  I couldn’t let him get away!”

That got Alice to stop in her march back to the car.  She thought Clover had gone after Bozeman to get revenge for him kicking her in the face.  A raindrop splashed into her eye and when she wiped it away, she felt the false lashes come off.

“You don’t do something like that again, you understand?!”  There was a volume and an edge to her voice that had nothing to do with being heard over the pounding rain.  Clover didn’t respond, or more accurately, probably grumbled something under her breath that Alice couldn’t make out.  

After what felt like a million years, they made it back to the car.  She had to dry off both the sensor and her thumb twice before the door would unlock.  The leather seats felt horrible against her soaked clothing and skin.  As soon as Alice hit the ignition, Clover pressed the radio presets in the order that would turn off the internal camera – activated automatically by weight in the seats – and surprised her by grabbing her head and kissing her, hard.  Their cold and trembling lips slid against each other for only a moment before Alice pulled away.

“What did I say?  Not in the field.”

“Nobody can see us.”  How Clover could manage to look like she was pouting and glaring at the same time, she’d never know.  She gestured angrily at the rain slanting heavily against the windshield, obscuring the outside world.  “And you saw me shut down the camera.”

Not at work.  We agreed.”  

Alice’s hands shook as she set the heat as high as it would go.  Clover grabbed the first aid kit from under her seat and then slumped back against the lumbar support.  She treated her scrapes as Alice drove as quickly as she dared.

“We have to be careful,” Alice said finally, when she felt her voice wouldn’t waver.

“I know.”

“They would split us up if they knew.  We could even get fired.  Fraternization is forbidden.”

“I know.”

“I can’t lose … my chance to find who killed my father.”

Although she could feel Clover staring at her, she stayed focused on the road.  The rhythmic swishing of the wipers was the only sound for the longest time.

“I know.”  Softer, this time.  “I understand.”

Not everything had to be spelled out explicitly.



* * *



“It’s just me!” she called out as she stepped inside, swiftly moving to the alarm keypad.  Diana’s car had been in the garage, so Rebecca knew she was here, but when she didn’t get an immediate response, she started to worry.  Diana’s purse and keys were still on the table in the hall – right next to pepper spray and a panic button – and she could smell the chicken fettuccine in the slow cooker.

“Diana?”

No response from upstairs.  Down the hall, the back door was open, but she tried not to jump to conclusions.  And sure enough, Diana was safe and sound, kneeling in the dirt, tending to the poor, neglected flowers there.  Gardening was one of those skills that Rebecca wanted to have, but didn’t seem capable of learning.  Even talking to the plants – as Diana had suggested, as she was doing to them right now – only seemed to encourage them to commit suicide.

“You’re home early,” she said when she glanced up to see Rebecca.

“The meeting didn’t take quite as long as we thought.  Simmons didn’t try to fight it.  Turned in his keys and cleaned out his locker in silence.”

“Oh, good.”  Diana gave her an almost-smile.  She missed seeing the real ones, the bright, beautiful, beaming ones brought on by an adorable puppy or a happy child or a patient making it safely through their trip to the ER.  The ones that started to appear less frequently after their marriage and had mostly disappeared, nowadays.

“Are these new?”  There were bright purple flowers in her garden, leaning over as if they planned to eat her.  The bottom part of it even looked like a tongue on the inside.

“They’re called ‘fairy slippers’.  It’s uncommon that they’d be blooming this early.  Or at least, that’s what the woman at the nursery told me.”  Diana ran a finger over one of the one of the petals.

“You’ll have to stop by more often to make sure I don’t kill it.”

The almost-smile faded completely away and Rebecca felt like someone had injected ice water in her veins.  It was silly, stupid.  She was the one who saw the ad.  She was the one who brought it to Diana’s attention.  She was the one who kept asking her to consider it.  She wanted Diana to do it.

“You’ve decided, then?”

Diana nodded, stood up and dusted the dirt off her pants.  She tossed the gardening gloves in the bucket and headed towards the house, her hand brushing Rebecca’s as she passed by.

It was the best decision for Diana to make.  She knew that.  The money would give her the freedom to go anywhere.  Get away from him.  No more threats left on her voicemail, no more nasty messages keyed into her car.  No more making sure every new security guard they hired could recognize her ex-husband on sight.

But it meant once this Mars simulation was over, there was a chance the last time Rebecca would see Diana was when she came back to pack up her stuff and move far, far away.  And if that happened, all she would want to do is pack up her own life and follow her, even if that ended up being actually to Mars.

“It does something called ‘pollination by deception.’”  Diana was paused in the doorway and Rebecca realized she had been staring at the new flowers.

“Hmm?”

“It pretends it has nectar, to get bees to come in and pick up the pollen.  The bees visit but get nothing in return.  So they learn to stop visiting.  Or at least, the smart bees do.”

“Diana…”

A sad smile, this time.  “I know.  I’m not … I’m not.  I’m going to check on dinner.”

Rebecca tried to swallow the lump in her throat as she wiped away an escaped tear.  As much as she didn’t want to lose her best friend, Diana couldn’t go on living like this.  The money would give her freedom and security.

And no matter how much special fertilizer or garden tools she had to buy, no matter how many YouTube tutorials she had to watch or special classes she had to attend, she would make sure Diana’s fairy slippers thrived.

* * *



“Are you seriously saying you think Matiyasevich was wrong?”

Aureline paused, halfway through removing Phi’s shirt.  “Uh, you want to argue about this now?”

“The theorem has been around for fifty-eight years, and you’re saying there’s a flaw in the logic?”

“Right now, I’m saying fuck Diophantine equations.”  She resumed her task and chucked Phi’s tank top behind her before pushing her back on the couch.

Phi seemed to let herself get lost at first when Aureline kissed a path down from her nose to her collarbone.  This fantasy had played out in her mind more than once since she had noticed the cute girl with the platinum hair in the back row in Mathematical Methods in Nanophotonics.  Now they were here, after dinner and a Nonlinear Optics lecture, on Phi’s couch, half-naked and –

“But all Diophantine sets are effectively enumerable –”

– she couldn’t stop talking about an off-handed comment Aureline had made on the way back to the apartment.

“I’m not saying the conclusion is wrong,” she replied, sliding her hands up Phi’s legs, underneath the turquoise and black skirt.  “I’m saying the way he got there has errors.”

“So you think you’re smarter than … than …”  

Pushing aside her underwear and slipping a finger into Phi seemed to be pretty effective at derailing her train of thought.  Aureline planted sloppy kisses on her knees, her thighs, until the unmistakable sound of a crash outside startled her into raising her head.

“Oh god, that sounds bad,” she said as she hopped up and went to the window.  Not caring about her bare chest or who might see, she pushed aside the blackout curtains.  It looked like an SUV had plowed into three parked cars.

“What happened?” Phi asked.  She had put back on her tank tops before joining her to survey the scene.

“Shit.  I think someone hit my Mazda.”  Aureline bolted for the door, stopping only when she remembered she was naked from the waist up.  The first garment she snatched up was Phi’s sleeveless, pale blue jacket, and she tossed it aside in frustration, accidentally hitting the other woman in the face.

“Hey!”

“I’m sorry, I just … fuck!  I have to get down there before he drives off.”  Finally locating her shirt, she pulled it over her head, realizing that it was inside out and backwards but not having the patience to fix it.

“Even if he does, there are cameras covering the outside of the building and the parking lot,” Phi assured her as straightened her necklace and grabbed her boots.  “But go, I’ll be down as soon as I get these on.”

For some reason, Aureline glanced back into the apartment before she shut the door.  The black flower in Phi’s hair had come loose and she was pinning it back up.

-

It wasn’t until after she had exchanged insurance information with the driver – a Japanese exchange student who wasn’t drunk, but had apparently had a seizure – and surveyed the not-as-bad-as-she-thought damage to her car that Aureline realized Phi had never come down.  She should have been almost right behind her; all she had to do was throw on those ridiculously tall boots of hers.

Confused and a little angry, she skipped the elevator and dashed up three flights of stairs to apartment #306.  The door was cracked, even though she was sure she had pulled it closed.  When she pushed it open, white smoke escaped and she stepped back, expecting to see a fire.  But it didn’t smell like something was burning – more chemical, like a hospital.

She tugged her sleeve over her hand and covered her nose and mouth, but it was too late; she could feel herself start go get woozy.  Time felt like it slowed as she tipped forward and hit the floor.

A black figure moved past her and she tried to reach out and grab its leg before succumbing to darkness.

(fin.)