“Colin? Good, you’re awake.”
That voice. So familiar, so warm and kind. Who the fuck did he know with a voice like that? He didn’t open his eyes or try to move. He willed the room to stop spinning and the floor, bed, whatever he was on, to release him. It didn’t work. That voice. Shit. “Mary?”
“Yeah, it’s me. How are you feeling?”
Colin cracked an eyelid. Of course she was exquisite, seated on a steel table top in a knee length white skirt and white blazer. White high heeled shoes dangled from the tips of her toes at the ends of her long legs. A cream blouse completed the overly competent, too perfect look. He wondered if the cream was her “pop of color” or if she ever got really daring and went with a pastel yellow. She had the look of someone who always got shit done without lifting a finger.
She wiggled her shoes back onto her feet and clicked toward him.
“I feel like microwaved death.”
She chuckled. “I’ve never heard that one before. Can I get you anything? Water, coffee, something to eat?”
“No thanks, I’m good.” He lowered his head and raised a dismissive hand. “Where am I?”
He felt her staring. Why couldn’t his superpower be to burrow into the floor and hide from the feeling of pity and disgust she must have for him? “What happened.”
“You got into a little trouble and we helped you out of it. No harm done.”
They must have a strange definition of trouble if they thought they got him out of it. “We?”
“Some associates and myself.” She tapped him on the shoulder, hand extended to help him up.
He brushed her hand away. He might be a grimy asshole laying at the feet of all of her perfection, but the least he could do was stand with some dignity. Or get to a chair. Or at least not vomit on her perfect white shoes. The room buckled as he tried to stand, but Mary caught him with a rock solid grip. He staggered to a chair with her assistance.
“Where am I?” he repeated. The steel table reflected a distorted version of his face, streaked and smudged. Hell, it could have been a mirror image of his scraped face and hopeless hair. The cool surface felt good against his throbbing head.
“You know what?” Mary said. “Let’s get some coffee in here. Water, too. Think you could handle crackers or something?”
His head hardly moved when he tried to shake it without lifting it off the table. She seemed to get the message anyway. An empty room, save a metal table and a few chairs. A mirror on the wall, probably two-way, judging from the way Mary looked at it during the moments when his eyes were open to see her looking. He’d seen enough police procedural shows during his free lunches to recognize the room. Freak storm. Lightning strike. What was the penalty for causing death by act of god? The taste of stale cigarettes and old beer sat on his tongue. He didn’t smoke, not since he learned that carrying a lighter was a guarantee of pocket explosions. “Am I being interrogated?”
“No, I’m not interrogating you. I just want to talk to you.”
“Isn’t that what they always say at the start of an interrogation?”
“Coffee’s here.” A thin woman, almost skeletal, set two mugs of coffee and a pitcher of water on the table.
“Thanks Min,” Mary said. “You can head out, now.”
“Expecting trouble?” Min looked at Colin with the disgust-laced pity he knew well. Her sunken cheeks and protruding eyes evoked the same response from him. He’d know a thousand junkies who looked just like Min.
“Not at all,” Mary said. “Quite the opposite, actually. I’ll take it from here.”
The light flickered.
Min gave one last look before she slipped out of the room.
Colin’s head drooped toward the table.
Mary slid the coffee toward him. It was a real mug, not a cheap foam cup. She must have meant what she said about not expecting trouble. “Stay with me, Colin. I hate for it to go down like this, but I know you’re busy later, so I’ll cut to the chase. I know what you are and I want you on our side.”
Colin stiffened. “What I am? You mean a high school drop out? An alcoholic? A homeless, alcoholic, uneducated nothing? You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“You’re not nothing, Colin. You’re so much more than that. You were probably eight or nine when you noticed, am I right? Maybe the lights went out or turned on around you. Maybe you tried to use a phone or a computer and it would short out.”
Colin lifted his head. It swayed a little from its own weight, but he held it. “What are you saying?”
“It got worse when you hit puberty. You couldn’t understand it and you couldn’t control it. When you got sad, or angry, or happy or horny, things would happen. Bad things. Am I right so far?” She slipped her hand under his chin, propped it up with her long fingers, forcing him to face her.
Bad things happened. Callie in the park. Very bad things. He turned away. “What do you want?”
She lifted her coffee mug and took a sip before answering. “You have a very rare talent. A birthright. Something that separates you from humans. We want to help you control it.”
“Even if you weren’t talking crazy, which you are, why would you want to help me with anything?” He sipped his own coffee, adding burnt coffee to the flavors of the night in his mouth.
“Because we’ve all been where you are right now. Because you’re rarer than any of us. And because you could be immensely valuable to us if you can control it.”
“What exactly are we talking about here?”
“You’re an elemental, like me. Like Min, like everyone else in this building. Only your element isn’t like all of ours. Yours is practically mythical. If I opened this door and told everyone out there that we have an electric elemental with us, most of them would probably laugh.”
“I bet they would.” Water splashed onto the table when he tried to pour water into a cheap plastic cup. It tasted like it came from a cooler that needed cleaning.
“Look, we don’t have time for the game where you pretend I’m talking crazy and we go back and forth until you admit it. I’m an earth elemental. You see this rock?”
Mary slipped a pebble out of her jacket pocket before hanging her jacket over the back of a chair.
Colin watched as the pebble sank into Mary’s palm and her whole hand turned the same pale gray as the rock. The change in color spread, until her entire body took on the appearance of stone. She held out her hand for him to touch.
“What the fuck?” Her skin turned hard, textured with the tiniest crystals. She was like a statue, one that moved. “What the fuck?”
“You’re more eloquent than most,” she smiled. She turned her hand over and Colin watched the center turn to a dark handful of soil. A tiny seedling sprouted and grew, like a time-lapse video, toward the flickering lights. She set the back of her hand on the table, and left it there- seedling, stone fingers and all. Colin shook his head in disbelief and backed away when a new hand grew back in its place.
One of the lights burned out.
“Look, if you know what you say you know about me, then you know that freaking me out like this isn’t a good idea.”
She transformed again, back into skin and bone without any of the appearance of stone. “I know. I’m actually surprised you haven’t done more than blow out a few lights.”
“I won’t apologize for not killing you.” A hangover like this one should have suppressed it fully, but Colin’s spine tingled the way it usually did before something bad happened. It would travel through his bones, to his fingertips and toes and the ends of every hair. And something bad would happen.
“This is a safe place,” she said. “You can express yourself however you need to here. Every elemental we bring in manages to do some damage. We’ve got an entire budget dedicated to repairing this room.”
“Many, over the last ten years or so. Earth elementals tend to throw stones, as it were. Water elementals are like cocker spaniel puppies. They get excited and wet everything. We usually have to remove the furniture with air elementals. And of course fire elementals have ways of ruining things, too.”
“I really want to believe you, but you are talking crazy.”
“I know. I just wanted to let you know that we exist and we can help. Join us and we can help you grow stronger and get control over this amazing gift.”
“What does this membership include?”
“A place to call home, wherever you are. People who understand what you’ve been through. Think of it as all the friends you haven’t met yet. And if nothing else, a dating pool.”
“None of the elementals we bring in here have thriving love lives. I can’t imagine you’re doing much better. Not to mention thing can get tricky if we get too excited.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about elemental-human relations usually don’t go well unless the elemental has had very specific practice.”
Colin’s cheeks burned. “You mean to tell me that I’m not human?”
“Admit it. You’ve never really fit in, never belonged anywhere.” Mary took a casual sip of coffee.
“I always thought that was just called puberty. Or life.”
She set the cup down quietly. “It doesn’t have to be. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“Okay, so you’re trying to sell me with this very specific practice thing.”
She shrugged. “Is it working?”
“You’re offering to teach me how to have sex.”
“Not me, necessarily. But an earth elemental like me, as strong or stronger wouldn’t hurt. Fire, even. Someone who can handle you and your lightning rod.”
“It’s not little.” His face burned brighter, shame at his own outburst crept to his ears.
“No one ever thinks they are. And those who do think that are almost always right. Anyway, you know what I’m saying.”
“I know what it sounds like. It sounds like you’re offering some virgin sacrifices if I join your club. I don’t know if most elementals who come through here find that enticing, but it sounds very creepy to me.”
She sighed. “No one said anything about virgins. Or sacrifices. I’m only saying that you could meet someone and not have to worry that they’ll wake up dead.”
The lights dimmed for a moment and started to hum loudly.
Mary put her hands on Colin’s shoulders and he almost felt the calm flow into him. The lights quieted, but remained dim.
“I didn’t mean to strike a nerve,” she said. “Sex is a really small thing when it’s an option, but it’s important to most people. Trust me, I can’t always control myself either. I’ve gone full on stone cooch, Gobi Desert vag, you name any ridiculous earth related vagina pun and it probably literally happened to me.”
“If I wasn’t so hungover I’d think of some for you.” Colin smiled.
“At least another elemental understands,” she said. “I mean, we’re not talking premature ejaculation. We’re talking lightning rod, am I right?”
“Close enough.” Her hands slipped off of his shoulders when he pushed his chair back. Lightning storm, lightning rod, close enough. She was right. It was a small thing that sent him running away from her, away from everyone and everything. “So what does this membership cost?”
She smiled. “Just the odd job here and there. Whatever we can use you for, once you get a handle on your talent.”
“I see.” Odd jobs. That could mean anything.
“You’ll be late if I keep you much longer. Here’s my card. If you need anything, anything at all, I’m only a text or a call away. There’s a shower out there if you need and someone can rustle you up some clothes if you need it. Just make sure you lock the door. And do me a favor; if anyone asks what your element is, tell them to fuck off. Don’t worry about hurting any feelings. It’s code.” Mary winked.
“Code for what?”
“For fuck off. Bye, Colin.”
He went through the door, apparently unlocked this whole time, and started through what could have been a police station once. Or an office building. Or anything. There were desks and doors and people hustling and bustling until they turned to look at him.
“Hey, who are you?” A woman with dark curls and big, round, dark blue eyes asked. “You’re new here. What’s your talent?”
Colin licked his dry lips. “Um, fuck off?”
She laughed and nodded, silky curls rippling down to her waist. “I see, you’re not ready to commit, don’t want to expose your weaknesses or whatever. I get it. Were you planning to use the shower? I just put some fresh towels in there, so you’re good to go.”
He looked past her to the generic round clock on the wall. If he was going to make this meeting, he’d need to shower and take Mary up on the offer of clothes.
“Yeah, I’d better shower now, thanks. I’m Colin, by the way.”
“Kurada.” She took his hand without hesitation, didn’t recoil at his bruised face or his sweaty palms. She just smiled with perfect pink lips and sparkling deep blue eyes and nodded. A spark jumped between them when they released the handshake. “Nice to meet you. Shower’s through that door there.”
Colin followed Mary’s orders and locked the door before turning on the single curtained shower. He set his clothes carefully on a stool. He avoided looking at himself in the mirror, but couldn’t avoid a split second view of his bruised face and chest. Someone had put a couple of tiny bandages above his eyebrow, but it didn’t do anything to disguise the scrapes and bruises on the rest of his face. What the hell happened to his chest?
He closed his eyes under the running water, let it run through his hair and sting his face. The warmth crept over his body like fingers, caressing the sides of his face and neck, his stomach, his…
He opened his eyes. Damn Mary for putting that term in his head.
The water lingered there, moved in ways water wasn’t supposed to move. “What the fuck?”
A face appeared, like a clear mask under running water, a perfect heart shaped mouth turned up at the corners into a leer.
“What the fuck?” Colin staggered back into the curtain and grabbed a towel, knocking the others from the rack.
Kurada formed in the shower, stepped toward him naked, one hand clutched to her chest, the other held out like he was a wild animal. “Oh, no. No, no, no. I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
“You didn’t think… what the fuck are you?”
“Oh, what did I do. I’m sorry! You just, I thought you were interested, okay?”
“And that’s how you respond to that? I don’t even know what to call that. Is it rape if it’s water?”
“Hey, you need to watch yourself,” she warned. “It was a simple misunderstanding. No harm, no foul. Don’t tell Mary.”
“Yes, harm! Yes, foul! You can’t try to calm me down and threaten me in the same tone!” He juggled the towel and his pants, trying to fit back into them.
“I said I was sorry.”
“I don’t accept!” He wrestled the zipper shut and grabbed his shirt.
“Jesus, you don’t need to be such a drama queen about it.”
The lights flickered. “Drama queen?”
She shrugged. “Most men wouldn’t mind, I got the one who does. I’m sorry, you’re dramatic. Let’s get on with our lives.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” He grabbed his shirt and pulled it on over his head while trying to avoid the stares that followed him. He ran through the door with a glowing red EXIT sign and emerged in the middle of a busy shopping center.
He went into the first place with clothes in the window and quickly explained what he needed the clothes for. His sad story seemed to make up for his appearance. That or his cash did. Either way, he changed in the quiet dressing room and dropped his old clothes into a trash bag, tied up in a plastic bag like dog shit off the lawn. Colin waited in a chair near the door for the cab the manager graciously called for him. He buried his face in his hands.
Worlds like Mary’s didn’t exist in real life. Not even in his life, where everything she said about street lights and puberty was accurate. Not in his life, where lights reacted to his mood and sometimes when he needed to plug something in, he’d get such a shock that he probably should have died a hundred times.
No. Fucking Porn Narnia wasn’t real. Showers don’t turn into beautiful women and beautiful women don’t turn into statues and trees.
Something soft brushed his neck and he jumped.
“Sorry,” the cashier said. “I wanted to give you something comforting. A cashmere scarf is the best I can do.”
“I can’t afford this,” Colin said.
The cashier smiled sweetly. “That’s the point of giving.”
“I know what it’s like to lose someone. A lot of someone’s actually. Taxi’s here.”
“Thanks,” Colin said. He smiled back at the cashier, whose name he didn’t even know, before getting into the waiting car.
He pulled the lawyer’s card from his wallet, in wonder that he managed to hold onto the damn thing. Funny how he never could hold onto five bucks for a whole night when he was poor, but now that he had money, it somehow stuck to him. Then again, he might not have it for much longer. He handed the card to the driver.
His heart fluttered at the thought. What kind of a piece of shit skips his parents’ funeral and then thanks the lord that he can still make it to the reading of the will? The Colin kind, of course.
Then again, money did make things easier. Even the cab ride. He’d been unable to pay a cab driver once. It didn’t end well for either of them, though they both just managed to walk away. He almost smiled thinking about that time. For some reason, a couple thought that Colin was just the homeless adult to watch over their precious little darling. The neighbors seemed as surprised as Colin was when he got the job. He thought they were looking for a dog-sitter. Turned out, Romeo was actually a human child. Colin made friends with the neighbors, with Romeo’s friends’ parents,even with Romeo’s parents over the course of three months. It wasn’t anything close to a living wage, but it was fun to be a kid again, going to the park and coloring, even the homework. Colin didn’t particularly want or even like children, but that sense of community and familiarity, knowing he had to be at school at a certain time, and he had to make a snack, that he was needed, made him happy. Having friends made him happy back then. Even without money. Even when the money he made barely fed and clothed him, and he still had to claim his sleeping spot every night. Apparently having Colin sleep in the house wasn’t an option, even though leaving him with the boy and the car all the time was.
After a few months, he noticed a car following him, almost all the time. It parked down the street from the house during the day and parked near his spot at night. He pretended not to notice the car, but he started having anxiety whenever he saw it. They could change the license plate and bumper stickers, and even the air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror, but he knew it was the same car. There was never anyone in it, either. After a few days of that, Colin ran away again. He missed it.
Now what did he have? Money. Enough to drink himself into a stupor every night until he drank himself to death. Enough money to buy a new outfit on a whim, even though the pants were uncomfortable without anything underneath, and jump in a cab. His parents wouldn’t leave him with nothing. Not even after he spent half his life running away from them. They loved him too much.
He wiped hot tears from his eyes.
He didn’t need to worry about estranged cousins or murder mysteries. The lawyer told him simply that he would inherit a cool million and everything in the house, but only if he stayed in the house for two years. Until then, he’d have enough to survive for a while and he’d have both cars.
Colin’s jaw dropped when the lawyer told him the amount. “A million dollars?”
“We’re not talking rutabagas.”
Colin received the car keys, house keys, a ton of paperwork and two envelopes, to be opened whenever he saw fit. The lawyer made sure to repeat the terms- two years in it or no house.
“I can think about it, though, right?” Colin asked, just before leaving.
“As long as you do the thinking in the house, there’s no problem. You’ve got a couple of weeks leeway and some time to get moved in, but staying anywhere for a month or more will forfeit the house and all other assets to the charities listed in that packet. It was good meeting you, Colin. Call me if you have any questions, and I wish you the best of luck.”
“Thank you, sir.”