Hint 23. There's Always Another Way
I catch my own gaze in the mirror, waiting patiently for The Lady to open her eyes. The three of us stand in an arch around the bathroom sink. The painkillers had worn off by the time she woke and so, rather than looking any better, The Lady is possibly worse off than before. Shark has an arm wrapped around the base of her ribs, propping her against his side, but she simply won’t take a look at the injury on her shoulder.
“Just do it already,” he says, “and then you can sit down.”
She shakes her head, eyes scrunched tight shut.
“It’s got to happen eventually,” I say.
I understand her reluctance. Her skin is rent in great tears, deep, terrifying slashes. No wonder she doesn’t want to look at it.
“Alright,” Shark says, “on the count of three, we open our eyes together. We’re not looking at your arm, we’re looking at someone else’s. It’s got nothing to do with you. It’s just clinical, no emotion attached to it, yeah?”
“OK.” She nods.
Shark looks at me and I diligently close my eyes, preparing to open them on his count.
“Three, two… one.”
I open my eyes. Anna curses, taking in a single deep breath to steady herself.
“OK. Fine. It’s not me,” she says. There’s a pause. “Fuck, Maya, what happened to your shoulder?” She asks, forcing a chuckle.
“Some bastard shot me,” I say.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “When I find him, I’ll kill him.”
“You do that,” I say, trying not to think about how likely it is that this might actually happen.
“What do we need to do, Anna?” Shark asks gently.
“It’s going to be fine,” she says. She lifts her left hand, slowly clenching and unclenching her fist. “Hurts like a bitch but no loss of movement. It needs cleaning and stitches but it’s going to be fine. Maya, I’m left-handed so I can’t do it. There’s thread in the first-aid kit in that cupboard just above your head, needles too.”
“I’m sorry?” I say as Shark finally lets her slip gratefully down onto the toilet seat, resting her head against the wall.
“Cris can’t do it,” she says. “He’s all thumbs. He can’t sew.”
“I thought you said he did your ribs that time.”
“Butterfly stitches, Maya. Different.”
“I can’t do it,” I say. “I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. I’d hurt you.”
Shark’s already reaching over me, pulling the familiar orange box out of the cupboard.
“No,” I say, putting my foot down. “Seriously. I can’t do this.” Just looking at her is making me feel queasy.
“We don’t have any other options,” Shark says.
I pause, thinking. There’s got to be a way. I don’t have it in me to pass a needle through her flesh.
“There is one option,” I say eventually. “Alex is trained in emergency aid, you know for earthquakes and terrorist acts, stuff like that. He could put stitches in.”
“No,” Shark replies immediately.
“We won’t tell him,” I say. “I’ll say there was an accident at The Facility while I was at my tests and that it’s confidential. He takes his job seriously. He won’t even ask. We can trust him, Shark, and he’ll do a much better job than I ever could.”
“Fine. Then you put them in because I can’t. I won’t.”
I fold my arms and Shark frowns. He puts out a hand, gently running it through Anna’s hair. She closes her eyes, resting her forehead on his thigh with a soft moan.
“What do you think?” He asks her.
“I don’t care,” she says. “Just do it.”
He waits just a second longer, thinking it through.
“Alright, fine,” he says, threading an arm around her back to pull her to her feet. I step forwards immediately, taking her from him. He strides around to my other side, taking my hand, but I shake him off.
“You’re not coming,” I say.
He opens his mouth to protest but I jump in before he can speak.
“I have three reasons,” I say. “Firstly, the more people I have to explain to Alex, the more suspicious it is. Secondly, I don’t trust you around him. I know you got him mugged that first time you arrived in my living room. And finally, you need to sleep. Go to bed.”
I expect him to argue but he must see the resolve in my mind because he just smiles wearily, ruffling my hair the same way he did The Lady’s just a moment before.
“Look after her.”
“I will,” I promise.
So as not to give Alex a heart attack, Anna allows me ten minutes to disguise myself. I steal one of her turtleneck jumpers and paste foundation across my face.
The living room is empty as we arrive. Anna seems slightly better now that she knows it’s not as bad as she had thought. Even though she slips immediately down onto my sofa, she peers around my flat with avid curiosity.
Three seconds later, Alex explodes into the room.
“Maya,” he wails, paying no attention to the woman behind me. “Where have you been? I needed you!”
I had forgotten about this morning, about his melancholy.
“Alex, I’m sorry, I…”
“Maya!” He interrupts, beside himself. He throws his arms in the air, dropping them back to his head, tugging desperately at his blonde hair. “Maya, I shot The Lady.”
My blood turns to ice.
Oh God, she’s going to kill him. It doesn’t matter that she’s wrapped up in a dressing gown and practically immobile. She’ll have a knife in there somewhere, she always does. She’s definitely going to kill him.
I’m too afraid to look back at her and Alex is so caught up in his own world he still doesn’t seem to have noticed her presence.
“She’s like this big,” he says holding one hand up above his head before he drops the gesture, smacking both palms into his face, covering his eyes. “And she was just coming for me, like, all teeth and claws and stuff. I didn’t have a choice. I think some of those military guys would have killed her, Maya, but I didn’t have it in me. I think I got her in the leg. Oh god, I shot someone. How could I shoot someone so pretty?”
He drops down onto the coffee table, holding his head in his hands.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t really think he’s expecting anything from me. Alex just likes to talk when he’s upset.
As he sits, his shoulders stiffen and he straightens slowly, peeking through his fingers. Finally he has noticed the woman on our couch.
“Who’s this?” He asks.
I gain the courage to look at her myself. Instead of the rage I expected, she’s looking at him strangely, head cocked to one side.
“Alex,” I say, not without caution, “this is my friend Anna.”
“Hi Anna,” he says, eyes narrowing. He looks up at me. He looks back at her. “Obviously this is confidential information,” he says.
She shuffles awkwardly, using her right hand to mime zipping her lips shut.
“I never met anyone fast enough to have shot The Lady before,” she says.
He just shrugs.
“It’s not that impressive,” he says, “she was like a metre away. And anyway, it’s not something to be proud of. I wish I hadn’t shot her.” He pauses. “Why are you in my house in a dressing gown, Anna?”
“Alex,” I say, “I need you to do me a favour and I need you to do it no questions asked. There was an incident at The Facility while I was on my tests.”
“OK,” he says, drawing out the word hesitantly. Anna closes her eyes, slipping further down onto the sofa. “Is she alright?”
“No,” I say. “Not really.”
“Just show him,” she says.
Anna opens her eyes as I help her to sit up, pulling the dressing gown away from her shoulder.
“Shit, Maya,” Alex hisses, pulling himself to his feet for a better look. “You know bandages are meant to be white. When was the last time you changed these?”
Alex doesn’t wait for my answer, confident fingers unravelling the saturated gauze.
“You need to take her to the hospital,” he says.
“She can’t go to the hospital, she’s Sapient+.”
“Then you need to take her to The Facility’s infirmary.”
“I can’t. There was an…”
“An incident, yeah, sure.” Alex doesn’t really seem to care, concentration battling fiercely with the naturally jovial features of his face.
“Fuck,” he breathes as the bandages fall away.
“Think of it as karmic retribution,” Anna smiles. “You shot The Lady but now you get to sew me back together. One bullet hole for one.”
“Who did this?” He asks. “You know I already told you my confidential information, so you owe me.”
“It’s a secret,” she says with a wink.
Alex pulls back slightly, surprised by her answer. He grins. I don’t like what’s happening here.
“Can you fix it?” I ask.
Alex runs his fingers lightly over the raised skin of her arm and she stiffens, forcing herself not to flinch away from his touch.
“Sure,” he says and I know him well enough to know he’s underplaying it to keep her calm. “No problem.”
Alex disappears into his bedroom, returning a minute later with the medical kit they gave him after he finished his course. He clicks it open and I can’t help but notice everything inside is still sealed in polythene, untouched.
“Alright,” he says, taking control with ease. He’s a policeman, it comes so naturally to him. “Maya, clear the dining room table. I’m going to need a needle and thread. Get me some matches too, while you’re at it. We’ve got to sterilise stuff and I’m not wasting alcohol like they do in the movies.” He looks down at The Lady with a smile, giving her a wink. “Whilst you are lovely and I really do admire your taste in sleepwear, we have to have some integrity here. Alcohol is for drinking.”
“Alex takes his booze seriously,” I say, sweeping an armful of paper off the table and onto the floor.
“Yes,” he says, “also Maya and I need to drink ourselves into oblivion tonight so I can try and forget what a horrendous human being I am.” He turns to me. “I’m not even sure I deserve pepperoni on my pizza,” he says.
“I’m not even sure you deserve pizza at all,” I reply.
“I know we’re just joking,” he says, “but what if she’s not OK?”
“I’m not OK,” Anna says and I want to throttle her for dropping hints about her identity. This is my life she’s messing with.
Alex doesn’t get the double meaning, obviously, and his face softens immediately. He drops to her side.
“There’s no reason to be afraid,” he says and it seems so strange to me, the concept that such a terrifying creature might actually need his reassurance. Alex always knows when not to be too serious, though, and he continues with a smirk. “It may surprise you, due to my rugged manly handsomeness, but I learnt how to cross stitch when I was just eight years old. I’m a pro. What do you want me to give you?” He asks, hands hovering over the tears in her skin. “I could give you a rose, just here, or a little heart, right there.”
“I’m more of the daggers and snakes kind of girl.”
“Oh, dangerous,” he says, “I guess I should have worked that out already, what with the fact that someone shot you. Well, never fear, little Alex was a daggers and snakes kinda guy too - I’ve had plenty of practice. I can do a good skull too, right there.” He brushes his fingers down her front, parallel to the split skin, over her collarbone, until his thumb rests just above her breastbone. “And because it’s my artwork,” he says, “I get to sign my name just here.”
“You know what?” I say, forcing myself in between them. “How about we just stick with simple backstitch? Let’s not get carried away.”
“Alright,” Alex smirks, throwing her a wink when he thinks I’m not looking.
I’m really starting to regret my idea to bring her here.
I pass Alex the needle and he lights a match, tongue poking out in concentration as he runs the flame along the metal. I bend down, helping Anna to her feet. She pulls herself up slightly but doesn’t make it the whole way before she falters, dropping back down.
“Sorry,” she murmurs, “dizzy.”
Alex shoves the needle into my clumsy hands and strides over to her side.
“May I?” He asks and she nods.
He helps her remove the dressing gown so that she’s just in her pyjama shorts and camisole top before sliding one hand gently underneath her knees. He wraps his other arm around her tiny waist and straightens, cupping her to his chest.
“You alright?” He asks and she just nods, going pale. He lets her curl her fists up in the material of his shirt as he walks over to the table, carefully laying her out on the wood. That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Alex. He talks with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer but when it comes down to it, he’s surprisingly gentle.
He bends over, studying every inch of her torn skin with close scrutiny. I thread the needle, holding it out for him to take but he purses his lips, shaking his head.
“One more thing,” he says, disappearing from the room.
A second later, he’s back, a bottle of Jack Daniels tucked beneath his arm. Opening the bottle with a flourish, he helps her take a swig. “One for you and one for me,” he says, bringing the bottle to his lips. “Dutch courage.”
“Where’s my dutch courage?” I ask. “Or do I just not exist anymore?”
Alex turns to face me, furrowing his brow in over exaggerated confusion.
“Maya?” He says. “When did you get here?”
“You’re such a dick,” I say as Anna laughs.
Alex grins. He takes the needle between his thumb and index finger but as he leans over the table, Anna’s whole body stiffens. She scrunches her eyes closed and I think something about her discomfort distresses him. He pauses, face dropping into a thoughtful frown. When the expected pain doesn’t come, Anna opens a single eye, peering up at him suspiciously.
“You know,” Alex says, pulling up a chair and sitting down at her side. He leans his elbows next to her arm, pretending like he has to sort the thread out just to give her a little extra time to prepare herself. “I used to be Sapient+ too.”
The statement gets the desired effect. Her eyes dart wide in disbelief and he slips the needle into her arm. She hisses, that familiar fury of hers flashing across her features for just second before she realises she’s not in her mask now and she can’t afford to be a violent killer.
“What?” She asks, questioning eyes flickering over to me briefly.
I shrug. I can’t believe that this, of all stories, is the one he decides is appropriate now.
“Sure,” he says, concentrating on the needle as he speaks. “I signed up maybe six months after Maya did.” He smiles to himself, working quickly with the needle. “I wasn’t really that bothered either way but she sold it to me. We’ve been friends since we were, like, ten and she was all ‘Alex, we’re going to be superheroes’.” He puts on a high-pitched mockery of a voice as he pretends to be me, snickering whilst he works. “I’ll give you three guesses as to what I could do.”
“I don’t know. You could fly.”
“Nope,” he says, grinning. “I didn’t get one of the common ones, I got one of the super cool rare ones. They called it Precognition… but that basically just meant I could see the future.” He pauses, looking at the needle in his hand. “Hmmm,” he says after a second of hesitance. “Yes.”
“But you’re not Sapient+ anymore?” She asks, openly curious.
Alex looks up, pulled out of his reverie, and grins, shaking his head.
“With great power came great responsibility,” he says.
“What?” She asks.
“He’d fixed three horse races, one football match and the lottery before they caught him,” I say.
“I didn’t fix them, Maya. I just saw the outcome in advance.”
“And you cashed in.”
“And I cashed in. I didn’t see you complaining about the PlayStation you got for Christmas.”
“In no universe was that PlayStation bought with my pleasure in mind.”
Anna looks up at him, confused. “They took your powers away, just for that?”
I fold my arms, watching him as he works. When we’re at the pub, this is the part where Alex rapidly changes the conversation and the story stops. After just a second of thought, though, he tilts his head, voicing something that I’ve probably only heard out loud once or twice before.
“I knew my time was limited,” he says. “I couldn’t control it. The premonitions would just come and go as they pleased. I couldn’t force them. I couldn’t direct them. I was useless to a place like The Facility. No, I was worse than that. As far as they were concerned, I was a liability. One day I might just wake up in the morning with one of their top secret secrets in my head and they would have no way of preventing it.” He pauses. “I decided to give them an excuse to get rid of it before they had to make up a reason themselves. I wanted to be in control.” He pauses, grinning. “And I wanted a PlayStation.”
“Do you miss it, being Sapient+?”
“Obviously. But it wasn’t a waste. At the very least, we’ve all learned something from it today, haven’t we?”
“We have?” Her brow pinches together in confusion and Alex nods.
“Sure we have,” he says. “We’ve learnt that a good story, when told in just the right way, can be an awfully powerful distraction.” He leans over her, snapping the thread with his teeth. “Halfway done,” he says, “and you hardly even noticed.”
She’s too busy looking incredulously over her own body that I’m the only one paying enough attention to hear Alex murmur to himself. “And if I hadn’t already known for a long time that you would come here today, I’d have never decided to learn how to sew stitches in the first place.”