As Isaac predicted, Colin couldn’t get up the next morning. His entire body hurt. Muscles he never existed were sore. It was a good feeling under the pain, the promise of improvement. Mary left for some meeting around noon and left Colin to walk on his own. He ate frozen burritos, failed at the potato clock, ate another burrito.
Colin was sore again the next day, but Mary drove him to the farm on Friday, even though his body still ached all over. They agreed on Wednesday through Friday for the next week and Colin tried to breathe again.
The next week, Mary had a lot of meetings and things that Colin wasn’t allowed to go to, but she did go with him to the grocery store so he could put bags in her car and she took him across town to buy some work boots.
She drove him to work, Wednesday through Friday. Every day he would work hard on the farm, practice breathing with Isaac, and then make love to Mary. If this was regular life, he was okay with it. He could feel his body getting stronger, and he could relax and focus more efficiently. Even watching the progress in the barn felt good, knowing he was part of it.
He practiced with the lightbulbs, and the vacuum cleaner, and he broke the microwave. He still couldn’t get the hang of the potato clock. He practiced sneaking little bits of flash paper into his palms and making it burn.
Mary had to go away for the weekend, but Andreus came around every couple of days to drink beer and pretend to watch TV.
Finally, Colin had to get to work without Mary. She’d said it would happen, but he still didn’t prepare. He briefly considered calling in sick, but they were counting on him to be there. Isaac barely stopped treating Colin like a lazy teenager, he couldn’t disappoint the old man now.
Colin opened the garage and looked at the two cars.
The ’Cuda, his mother’s pride and joy, glowed yellow like some sacred artifact from the distant past. It was exactly that, of course. His mother loved that car, loved the satisfaction she got from talking about it, knowing it inside and out. His dad was happy to let her have her car magazines and her car friends, but he always made sure to have the latest technology, the best gas mileage at the highest sticker price.
The idea of driving the fully electric car terrified Colin, but not any more than destroying his mother’s car did. He couldn’t live with himself if anything happened to it. Not yet, anyway.
He grabbed his dad’s keys and tried to just breathe, the way he practiced, sitting in the driver’s seat. It was just a car. The fact that it was electric didn’t make it any more or less susceptible to his ability than any other car.
At least this one was just a car, not a holy relic. He stared the car and opened the garage door. It slid open almost silently.
Wait. His mom’s car. His dad’s car. Both tucked safely away in the garage. They wouldn’t have been able to get either fixed from the hospital. What did they crash? Colin stared at the keys. Did it really matter? Knowing wouldn’t bring them back to life.
Something told him it did matter. But the thing that mattered now was that he was late for work. He backed out of the driveway and drove successfully up to the farm.
With the concrete dry, they started to put flooring down in the barn. Colin worked alongside the other employees of the farm- some full time, some temporary contractors. The days were long, but Isaac always had a few minutes to sit down with some of Katrina’s tea and a sandwich at the end of the day to watch the sunset with Colin and remind him to breathe.
Colin didn’t see anyone outside of the farm until he went to the store to pick up some new jeans and a pack of fresh razors. Mary didn’t answer her phone. Neither did Andreus. Kurada answered at CERT, and said that Mary was out on some assignment. So top secret, she didn’t give anyone details. Kurada acted surprised that Colin didn’t know, and offered to keep him company in the meantime. He politely declined and hung up.
Since he had nothing better to do, he agreed to go to the farm on Monday. Isaac finally asked to see his ability.
Colin slipped the flash paper from his pocket and sparked it, with the skill of a much better magician. Of course, he only had the one trick to practice.
“Cute trick,” Isaac said.
Colin squashed the bits of ash that remained. Did Mary tell Isaac already? Did he know? Isaac pointed the way to the barn. He didn’t give Colin direct orders anymore, some humans had taken over the conversion, Colin was just another regular guy putting in the hours and building something incredible.
Just as the sun set, Andreus- unsurprisingly nude, knocked on the sliding glass door.
“Whew,” he said when Colin let him in. “It is unseasonably cold out there. Where are my clothes?”
Colin pointed to the linen closet. Andreus dressed and extended his hand. Colin remembered the handshake.
“Hey, Colin, how’s working class life?”
“Pretty good, actually. How’s whatever we call your class?”
Andreus struck a heroic pose. “I like to think of myself as warrior class.”
“And how is your feudal lord?”
Colin grabbed some glasses and the last of a bottle of whiskey. “What is it you do, exactly?”
“I’m a soldier of sorts,” Andreus said. “I get thrown into conflict a lot and I do my best to stop it. Sometimes it’s like hostage negotiation and sometimes it’s more like destroying enough shit to shut everyone up. I call it ‘Negotiate of Devastate.’ But don’t tell anyone I call it that.”
They clinked glasses.
“Hm, what’s with the wires?” Andreus picked up the potato clock. “Hey! I did one of these with my grandma once when I was like six. Aren’t you supposed to plug it into fruit or something?”
“It’s a potato clock.” Colin nodded. “I’m the potato.”
“Huh. Where do you put these then?” Andreus held up the probe tips.
“In my hands.” Colin rolled his eyes. “So what brings you here?”
“Oh, shit, are you busy? I just came by to say hi.”
“No, it’s fine,” Colin said. “I was just wondering if something was happening.”
“Something is always happening. Haven’t you heard? We’ve got a war on.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I get a lot of calls to defuse a lot of situations. Some are more charged than others.”
“Was that a pun?”
“Not intentionally.” Andreus smiled, but his eyes still looked troubled.
“I take it you had one of those today.”
Andreus nodded and took another drink. “I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Guess we’ll have to drink about it instead.” Colin refilled their drinks.
“No rules against that.” Andreus stared at Colin.
Colin froze. “What about her?”
“I just wanted to see your face when I said her name. How are things going between you two?”
Colin shrugged. “She’s been busy a lot lately.”
“Have you been getting it on?”
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘getting along’?”
“Are you fucking?”
Colin set the bottle down and felt the hairs on his neck prickle. “Is it any of your business?”
“Only in the sense that I think of you as a friend. Do you use protection?”
Not the turn Colin expected the conversation to take. “Why, Dad, should we?”
“That’s a joke, right? You’re joking. You’re not joking.”
“Does she have something?” Colin thought back to high school. Of course, there were the years in between, too. “Fuck, I never even thought about that.”
“First of all, you didn’t talk about it before you did it? And secondly, that’s not the only risk. Are you ready to be the dad of some elemental superbeast?”
“Have you guys talked about what would happen if she got pregnant?”
“Shit just got real,” Colin slumped into the couch. “I kind of assumed she’d just rock up or whatever and it wouldn’t happen.”
“That sounds as stupid to you as it does to me, right?” Andreus asked.
Colin nodded. Now that he said it out loud, it sounded very stupid. “Yup. Why the sudden interest?”
“Look, this comes from Kurada, so take it with a grain of salt, but she suspects Mary is trying to get pregnant. As an experiment, more than anything else.”
Shit. “Isn’t Kurada a spy? Like, her job is information?”
“Yeah, but she’s also a crazy bitch.”
“Does she have a reason to lie to you about this?”
Andreus took a sip.
“Did you fuck her? Is she mad at you for something?”
Andreus sputtered. “What? No! That’s my cousin!”
“Yes, seriously, can you not see the resemblance? Most people think we’re brother and sister.”
They did both have light skin and dark hair, but so did a lot of people. Kurada was more tanned, her hair a bit lighter, her cheeks constantly tinged pink and an aggressive sexual glitter in her deep blue eyes. He felt hot thinking about her. Then again, Colin only saw them together once, and they were all very drunk and preoccupied. “I guess I never really thought about. Do elementals run in families?”
“No, it’s pretty rare. But we’re also different. Our moms are twins and we have the same birthday, only I’m older by a year. Sometimes we tell people we’re twins.”
“Do you get away with it?”
“Usually.” Andreus smirked. There was a resemblance, all right. “You weren’t thinking of getting with her, were you? I’m pretty I just ruined that for you.”
Colin snorted. “You think so?”
Andreus snickered. “I’m the only male in a big family of women. They are all insane and there’s no limit to what they will do, and there’s no predicting what they’re capable of.”
Colin watched the sparkle go out of his friend’s eyes for a moment. “Is that why you don’t ‘romp’?”
Andreus smiled, but the lightness was still gone. “I don’t fuck just anyone, and I sure as hell don’t do it without protection. You shouldn’t either, especially if you don’t get attached.”
“You get attached?”
“I do, and I’m okay with that. I think it’s good to appreciate, if not actually love, the person you’re plowing.”
Colin took a thoughtful sip, staring at the last bit of whiskey, glowing amber in the bottom of the bottle, glittering in the edges of decorative cuts in the glass. He loved Mary. Didn’t he? He trusted her. Or was he attached? Was there a difference?
“Speaking of plowing,” Andreus said brightly. “How’s the farm?”
They made small talk about the conversion, the other people who worked there, and the owners.
“Has he made you show off yet?” Andreus asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t know if he bought it.” Colin raised his hands and wiggled his fingers before producing a sheet of flash paper and sparking it.
“That’s awesome! I didn’t see it. But if you did the little ‘woo’ thing, no wonder he didn’t buy it.” Andreus mimicked Colin’s finger wiggle. “Did you put on a cape and top hat, too?”
Colin stood up and took a flourishing bow. His empty glass rolled under the couch. “Shit, I’ll get it.”
His hand brushed something that didn’t belong. He shuddered.
“What’s up?” Andreus asked.
Colin tried to smile. “Nothing, it’s just way back there.”
“I’ll do it,” Andreus said. “Curse of having long arms.”
He didn’t wait for Colin to answer. He had the glass, and the other thing, before Colin could object. “What’s this?”
“Nothing.” Colin snatched the folded paper and tossed it toward the trash can. It bounced off the closed lid, hit the floor, and stayed there. Colin watched it like it might try to get up and bite him.
“Hey,” Andreus said. “You know that control you’ve been working on? Now’s a good time to use it.”
Colin looked at the sparks rolling on his own arms, leaping from hair to hair. He tried to breathe. He couldn’t.
“I’m going to leave my number,” Andreus said. “Call me if you need anything.”
“I’m okay,” Colin said.
“Dude, you are clearly not okay. Whatever that paper is set you off. If you want to talk about it, I’ll stay. But if you want to pretend you’re fine, I need to go before I get dead.”
Colin shook his head. He could still see the aged pencil marks, rubbed almost completely away on the outside. How many times had that note been folded and unfolded? A hundred? A thousand? A hundred thousand? Always with sheer exhilaration and excitement. All with the pretense still in his mind that he was normal. “That’s the reason I left town in the first place.”
“What does it say?”
“It says that Callie wanted to meet me in the park. It says that we liked each other, and that we wanted to… you know.”
“Callie’s the girl?”
Colin nodded. “She’s the girls I killed. It was an accident. A horrible accident, but I killed her. If I didn’t agree to this, if I demanded we wait…”
Andreus hesitated near the sliding glass door. “That was your first time, right?”
Colin nodded. “And my last. Until Mary.”
Colin scoffed. “Yeah. And Mary told me she was there that night, too.”
“Shit,” Andreus repeated.
“I haven’t really told anyone other than Mary.”
“And she told you she already knew.”
“I thought I was a fucking monster. For sixteen years I’ve been trying to figure out how to just be a fucking human.”
“But you’re not a human.”
“My parents were. Everyone I knew was. How the hell could I not be? I can’t think of myself as anything but human. Sometimes I hate Mary for what I am. Sometimes I love her for it. But it has nothing to do with her. She didn’t make me what I am.”
“I get it,” Andreus said.
“Now, suddenly, I have money and job and a…” He poured another drink, pulled lint off of the glass. “I have Mary. And people I can talk to. Suddenly I’m a person, and it’s all only because I’m not human?”
“What were you before?”
“A scumbag, mostly. An alcoholic. A drifter. I mean, I’m not an alcoholic anymore, either, right? I can just go buy whatever I want. Even if I lost my job, I don’t need it.”
“Which life do you like better?” Andreus went back to the living room, sat in one of the armchairs, in position for a quick escape, but relaxed.
“What?” Colin picked up the potato clock face. None of it felt real anymore.
“What do you prefer? Being the drifter or being the guy with friends and money?”
“Is that even a real question?”
“Yeah, it is. Some people don’t want to be chained to a house, or to the same group of people. Some people would rather be nameless world explorers than carpool dad.”
Colin downed his drink and offered the last of the bottle to Andreus.
Andreus took it.
“I think I like this better,” Colin said. “I like being able to sleep indoors every night. And I like not worrying that I’ll be stabbed, or that I’ll electrocute someone. Not as much, anyway. But now I’m just here with all these memories all the time.”
“Have you thought of trying to seek closure? For Callie?”
“Closure?” Colin eyed the bottle in Andreus’ hand. He wasn’t even drinking it.
“Talk to someone. Tell them you were there that night, or you were supposed to be.”
“You mean confess?”
Andreus shook his head. “No one will believe you if try to say you did it. I mean, let someone know you feel responsible.”
“And take my punishment like a man, you mean?”
“I mean your life has been built around the idea that you could have done something to save her.”
“I could have.”
“No, you couldn’t,” Andreus stood. “She wanted to be there. You wanted to be there. You didn’t know what could happen. It’s not your fault.”
The lights flickered. But it was. It was his fault.
“I’m going to go now. But think about it. You may never put this behind you, but you can’t keep sitting on it. It’s going to kill you or someone else close to you if you do that.”