Like the rest of it, he remembers. All of it. Every second. Every color. Every sound. The voices. The silence.
He tries not to. With so much at stake, his attention is better served elsewhere. Details to be analyzed. Paths to be taken.
But paths have inevitable endings, and then there is no escaping the images that bombard his senses. Where before he dreamed of dying, of the rescue that proved both trap and triumph, now he relives that house, the hours within its walls with humans he thought could never understand. The banality of their lives before his splashdown into the middle of it haunts him at every turn. School pictures in the foyer for every newcomer to see. Scuff marks on the skirting boards, from shoes colliding, furniture scraping, collisions nobody ever notices until they do. Did they?
Because she is there, always, silent until she’s not, watching him until she’s watching elsewhere but that hardly seems to happen unless he leaves the room. Once, when he returned from the bathroom, he saw her sitting at the window, staring outside though her reflection made it seem that she was intent on herself. He had almost three whole seconds to do the same to her, to measure the angle of her head as it rested on her hand, absorb the colors of her life and the lack thereof in the garments she chose to wear. Odd to find comfort in the browns and blues she wrapped herself in when she blazed in yellows and reds in the memories of her that filled his thoughts.
Leo wishes the dreams would stop. They serve no purpose like the nightmares before finding Mia again, and he wakes with a restlessness that leaves him irritable for hours. Nobody complains, though Niska likely would if she were still with them. Mattie would, too, and it’s that certainty that compels her back to the foreground, that has him reliving both her kindnesses and frustrations. The latter he can manage. He learned those lessons long ago.
Kindnesses are harder. Not from synths. He understands them. Expects them. Even from Niska who equates it to subservience. But humans are not kind. They are selfish and short-sighted. They see the world for what it can do for them, how it affects the corners they inhabit and nowhere else. No one else. Mattie was like that, too, in the beginning. Until she wasn’t.
More than once, he debates reaching out to her online. How’s school? Is her family safe? How is she?
He doesn’t. Anybody could be watching. He can’t put his family in any more danger than they already are by satisfying an unnecessary whim.
How is she?
He shouldn’t care. He doesn’t want to care. Every human he’s ever cared for has betrayed him.
He does anyway.
“It’s all right to miss her.”
The night is devoid of stars, and he’s spent the last hour staring up through the hole in the roof of the abandoned cabin they are currently calling home. There’s little definition between the two. Dark. Darker. It should get fixed, but like so many of the other shoulds he battles these days, it doesn’t.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mia shifts as close as her charging cable will allow. “Don’t lie to me,” she chastises him softly.
Leo shuts his eyes. It didn’t work when he was a child, and it doesn’t work now. “I’m just worried about them.”
“Have you tried contacting her?”
“It’s too dangerous.”
“You should try, anyway.”
Another should. He sighs.
“They’re watching,” Leo says. “It’s not fair to anyone if I reach out.”
“Mattie would disagree.”
“Yeah, well, Mattie’s not here, now is she? Besides, if she really wanted to hear from me, she could reach out, too.” It had always been Mattie who did the reaching. Their first meeting. Their second. Third. All the rest. Perhaps it was his turn, after all.
“We’re always moving. I imagine that makes it harder for her to find you.”
“She knows how to use her computer.”
“But didn’t you say they’re being watched?”
And if he knows anything about Mattie Hawkins, it’s that she’ll do whatever she can to help them. Even sacrifice her own desires.
Just like he does.
“Perhaps there’s another way.”
* * *
She misses the emotions. Before Anita—Mia, she corrects, though she makes that mistake rarely now—she sought the rush in stolen moments with Harun, in picked fights with her parents, in the righteous indignation for the bullied that she’d polished like armor. After Mia, she only feels tension, an unbreakable thread woven through every choice she and the rest of her family makes. One wrong step, and it can snap, sending everyone to their doom, and if that isn’t an apt mindset in a world where only black and white exist, nothing is.
That was the world before. Now, she sees the colors, the grays and the greens and the blues, and she doesn’t want a single mistake to ruin what chance it has to blossom.
Harun tries to distract her, but she has no patience for him anymore. The way he used to follow along with her plans and ideas without too much arguing, all in the hope for more from her, now leaves her frustrated and angry.
“What do you think?” she shouts at him more than once.
The best answer she ever gets from him is a shrug.
She drops him. He’s dumb anyway, and he can’t hold a decent conversation to save his life.
It’s Leo’s fault, actually. Yeah, she can blame him and not feel too guilty about it, mostly because he’s not around to glare at her with his angry eyes or remind her with his hunched shoulders the burdens he’s had to bear in his short life.
If she’d never met Leo, she never would’ve realized what was out there, beyond the four walls that had shaped the entirety of her existence. She would never have seen just how small she really was, how much love had been in her life even when she’d thought it tainted.
She never would’ve truly believed in herself, not the way he espoused in the hours before they were torn apart for good. She knows she’s hardly stupid, but nobody before Leo had ever made her feel like what she did mattered. How many times had he corrected her when she complained she couldn’t do it? It seems like she should have that number etched into her skin somewhere.
Then she could never forget.
“Something came for you in the post.”
She hasn’t even dropped her backpack to the floor before Laura is telling her this, but something about Laura’s careful enunciation, the overly casual set of her shoulders, holds Mattie back from a snide comment.
“Where is it?”
“I put it on your bed.”
Mattie walks to her room though it feels like running. She can’t breathe by the time she spies the battered box on her pillow, and her fingers tremble as she picks it up. The handwriting is barely legible, a scrawl more than anything else. There’s only her name and address on the label.
Inside, there’s more.
Since I can’t trust they aren’t monitoring you on the computer, I decided to try a method of communication they might not expect. We should be good like this unless Royal Mail buggers it up.
Mattie smiles and sinks onto the edge of the bed to finish reading. It takes a while because his script truly is appalling, but it’s worth it to hear everyone is doing well, even if they’re still on the run.
The only thing that’s bad about the post is that we don’t have an address for you to send anything to. I don’t know if you even want to write back, but in case you do, I thought of another way. It’s in the box.
It wasn’t, because she’d already taken it out, but she picks up the burner phone now and powers it. As soon as there’s signal, her fingers fly over the keys.
The response comes within a minute.
You got it.
Just texting or is this for calls, too?
Can arrange calls. If you want.
Is it safe now?
Her heart pounds as she waits for a response. She nearly jumps out of her skin when the phone rings.
“Hey,” he says when she answers.
All her nerves subside at the sound of his rough voice. She’d been wrong before, about missing the emotions.
She missed him.