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Chapter 4

“How’d it go last night?” Mary asked over the phone. “You meet some locals?”

“Yeah, they seemed pretty cool. I take it you didn’t tell them anything about me?”

“I didn’t tell you anything about them either,” she said. “I wasn’t sure who’d actually show up, but I also think everyone should be allowed the chance to make their own first impression.”

“So how many locals are there?”

“Locals is kind of a broad term.”

“Sounds like it means something special,” he said.

“Not really. It’s pretty face value. Proximity based. Only, unlike humans, we look out for each other.”

“I see.” He flicked the cord of the wall phone. It wasn’t the same kitchen phone as before. That was cordless, and usually beeping somewhere with a low battery. “So, are all elementals really sexual?”

Mary laughed. “Was it Zep or Carmel who showed up?”


“We’re the same as humans in that regard,” she said. “I’m sure you’re just sensitive to it. You’ve been avoiding that kind of contact for a while, haven’t you?”

“I guess you’re right.”

“So I called to check up on you, but also to see if you’re doing anything today.”

The line crackled when he flicked the cord again. He should go shopping, buy some clothes, some food, replace the alcohol, start looking for a job. “I guess not.”

“Great, we’re going on a field trip. Take your time, I’ll be outside.”

“How long until you get here?”

“Oh. I’m sitting in your driveway.”

“Come on in, I’ll make some more coffee.”

“I’ll pass on the coffee, but sure.”

He hung up the phone and opened the door. She got out of her sleek black car, wearing white linen pants and a perfectly fitted T-shirt. She looked like the loungewear ad from some lingerie line. Relaxed, classy, beautiful. And he was a pig in jogging pants and his mother’s old event tee.

“Make yourself at home,” he said. Coffee sloshed into the table from his nervous pour, and he dumped too much sugar in. He splashed enough milk to cool it down and brought it upstairs with him to change.

He didn’t have time to shave, but he threw his wrinkled slacks and his own shirt on, combed his hair and brushed his teeth before going back down. He dumped the coffee down the drain after a few sips.

“You’ll want to bring a coat and hat if you’ve got one.” Mary studied the family pictures lining the hallway.

Colin went back up to his old room. Even if the closet wasn’t empty, he wouldn’t have fit any of his high school clothes anyway.

After waking up with his new friends, his parents’ room didn’t feel so sacred.

Not friends; locals. It had to mean more than Mary admitted.

He held the sleeve of his father’s favorite sweater. Worn, green, once upon a time it was actually thick and warm, but now it was threadbare in places from years of nighttime walks, weekend car washes, and being shared between the three of them. Colin pressed his face to the fabric and breathed in the smell of fabric softener. There wasn’t any life left in this sweater, either, washed and put away a long time ago.

He needed a drink. Or therapy. He imagined himself on a therapists couch, telling some stranger about the night he killed someone in the middle of a park, by electrocution, without a battery or outlet in sight. Then he imagined being hauled off to some Bedlam-style asylum. Maybe they’d subject him to some electroshock therapy.

Maybe it would work.

He grabbed a black and green coat he’d never seen and tried it on to check the fit. He splashed a little water on his face before he went back down to Mary.

“No hat, but this coat has a hood.”

Mary nodded at the coat. “That’ll work. Man, this place hasn’t changed since the last time I was here.”

“Yeah, I guess. So where are we going?”

She turned away from his sixth grade class picture. “You don’t like to talk about it, do you?”

He locked the back door and flipped the lights off. “Would you?”

“It’s your past. It happened. And it wasn’t all bad, was it?” She turned back to him. “You remember the party you had here, right?”

Of course. That’s where everything started. Callie, Mary, himself. They all suffered for it. “Yeah.”

“You made out with Callie forever that night, I didn’t even think you noticed me.”

“I did,” he said. “We weren’t exactly the same social class back then.”

“We were,” she said. “I just forced myself into all the places that really didn’t want me. I also made it hard to say no.”

“Come on, you were a star,” he said. “Student body, athlete, academics.”

“And then I left. Do you know why?”

“I don’t.” He stopped with his hand on the front door. He didn’t want to know.

“But the other kids he ideas, didn’t they? What did they say about me?”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Why not? It didn’t even happen to you. It’s my story and I want to talk about it. What did they say about me?”

“Imagine what they said about me, only worse.” He released the door knob, an arc of lightning connecting him to it for a moment longer.

“Tell me.”

“Half of the school said you were attacked by a stranger. Half said it was a classmate, and half said you just regretted having sex with some guy.”

“Three halves?” Mary opened the door. She didn’t seem like she really wanted to talk about it. Colin didn’t. And yet, here they were.

“Some were undecided. Some were talking out of their asses. Teenagers do that.”

People do that,” she corrected, just before getting into the car. She backed out of the driveway before continuing. “What about after I left school?”

“There was a supposed abortion, or you had to go to a special school. Or you’d killed yourself.” He picked at a loose stitch in the leather seat. “Do you really want to talk about this?”

“All of those are a little true. I don’t know if I was pregnant or not. I told a few people what happened and they all rallied for a few days before they turned on me. I never called it rape, but they did. Then they started calling me a liar, because smiling at someone is obviously an invitation to sex. And a long pink dress sealed the deal.”

He couldn’t say anything. He wasn’t there. He couldn’t make it better. He couldn’t apologize.

“I’m not telling you this because I want you to feel bad for me. Or anything at all. It’s a timeline. And I want you to know. Don’t get out here.” She stopped the car along a curb.

A park. The park. Colin’s heart raced.

“Elementals can throw a tantrum like you wouldn’t believe. I figured that if I found a place to be, a place to become, my troubles would be over. I wouldn’t have a body to support a pregnancy. I wouldn’t have to face anyone at school. It was almost as good as killing myself. I wouldn’t have to live with the shame and the pain. No one else would have to live with the disappointment.”

Sweat broke out on Colin’s forehead. The hairs on his arms lifted. “So you just turned into a rock somewhere?”

“Oh no, nothing that simple. Elementals can really throw a tantrum. Especially if they’re also a teenage girl. I turned into dirt. I turned myself into a million tiny pieces and I spread out all over the grass. In this park.”

No. The blood drained from Colin and the sweat on his body went cold. An electrical tingle sent shockwaves through his bones.

“That spot right over there is where I hid out. I was there that night.”

His saliva went wherever his blood had gone. He couldn’t open his mouth to speak.

“I noticed that you weren’t at school when I got back because I knew what happened. I only went back to look for you. Then I stayed and waited for you.”

Colin squeezed his eyes and his fists shut. Not exactly mature looking, but it was his last ditch attempt to keep his “talent” from showing. Mary put her hand on his shoulder. The touch grounded him, not necessarily in the electrical sense, but it helped him to calm down and begin to regain his composure.

“After I went back, I looked for you all the time. I never stopped, honestly. That’s why I couldn’t let you go once I found you. I’ve known for a while that I wasn’t alone in my abilities. After that night, I knew there was a bigger purpose. That’s why I started CERT. That night, I planned to take her body into the earth, to bury her for you. No one would have to deal with the pain of knowing. But when I opened the ground up to try, something else happened. Are you going to be okay? You’re messing with my dash.”

Colin opened his eyes to see all of the indicator lights blinking like sides of a pinball game. He nodded. “I’ll be okay. Everything you’re saying already happened. I can’t change it.”

She started the engine. “When I opened up the earth, I opened it the wrong way. Things can get jumbled when you’re fully elemental. Up and down and every other human sense you have gets all mixed up. So I must have opened down. Or they did. Either way, I ended up in the place I’m taking you. It’s a little bit of a hike, but I hope it helps you to understand.”

“Understand what?”

“Why CERT needs you. Why I need you.”

“What is CERT?”

“It’s the Center for Elemental Rehabilitation and Training. We help elementals like our younger selves to understand what they are, to harness it. We give a home to the homeless, food to the hungry, and we even help with school and job searching. We’re in a few cities now, and we’ve helped hundreds who will help hundreds more.”

“Sounds idyllic.”

“It’s challenging,” she said. “But it’s rewarding. We call them ‘certified’ after they’ve completed a couple of tests and we’re confident about their loyalty.”

“Loyalty?” With the focus off of Callie, he started to relax a little.

“There are other groups, Balancers, Terraformers and a dozen others who want to either hide in the shadows or wipe out the humans, or some other extreme measures. So far most of these groups have operated quietly and caused little trouble, but it might not always be this way. Bring your coat.”

They got out of the car at a trail head. Colin looked down the path. “It’s a little warm, don’t you think?”

“Up here, yes. Trust me, you’ll want your coat.”

“What do you mean up here?”

“Shh,” she nodded at a pair of hikers headed down the trail.

“Morning,” said one of the hikers.

Mary and Colin returned the greeting before starting up the trail in near silence. Colin resolved to do situps and start running. Maybe throw some pushups in for good measure. His physical condition was shameful compared to all the elementals he’d met so far. Except maybe the really skinny one.

“This way. Lie down.” Mary took a sharp turn into some dry grass that scratched at Colin’s new pants and scraped his exposed hands and wrists. She stopped at a completely nondescript spot behind a tree.


“Lie down.”

“Right here?” Colin pointed to the ground, dotted with spiky plants.

“That is what I meant, yes.” She sighed. “Trust me, okay? You don’t want to do this from standing.”

Some dry shrub bit into his palm while he tried to sit down. “What are we doing? Ow, something just bit my ankle, too.”

“Just trust me, okay? And be quiet. We don’t want to be noticed. Just sit down like that if you don’t want to lie down.”

He sat on the ground with his legs bent up in front of him. His new pants bore holes and a colony of ants seemed to be making dinner out of his left leg. All the awareness of all of the things happening vanished when Mary straddled his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him firmly. Her braids brushed his shoulders, tickled his arms, and the scents of lavender and leather filled his lungs. She pressed his face into the warm, soft place between her breasts.

A spark rose and he fought to suppress it. He tried to pull away.

Her soft skin turned to stone and they fell. Rocks and dirt pummeled them from every side as they dropped through the earth. Colin couldn’t see beyond the stone chest in front of him, but he squeezed his eyes shut to keep the dirt out. After what felt like a long ride, they landed hard. Mary released him slowly.

She was right about the cold. Colin zipped his coat and pulled his hood up as a buffer from the deafening roar of water.

Mary looked at him, flushed with excitement. “What a rush, right?”

“Where are we?” he shouted back. He slapped a few hitchhikers from his pant leg. “Some kind of cave?”

“Wow, you’re observant! Come on, there’s someone you need to meet!”

She led him down a path beside a river, fully underground and up some stone steps. He couldn’t figure out where the dim light came from. “Who?”

She didn’t respond.

They stopped in a huge, open cavern with steps on two sides and water rushing down beside each set of stairs.

“Why isn’t this flooded?” He strained his voice to be heard.


“How is this not flooded?” His head spun in the sudden silence. The water froze like someone hit the pause button on the twin waterfalls. The ground shifted. A cave wasn’t a good place to be during an earthquake. Colin moved closer to Mary.

She smiled.

Colin forced himself to keep calm. If she wasn’t worried, he shouldn’tt be either. Then again, how well did he know her? They’d hung out a couple times incidentally in high school and suddenly she was his only friend, telling him he wasn’t even human. Still, there was no way out.

A jagged rock jutted up from the lowest point of the cave, rose and kept rising until a throne formed from the rock. A huge stone body rose after it, a massive golem. Boulders made up the body, connected by impossible joints that moved like a human’s might. There was nothing else human about the creature. Even the face, or what Colin assumed was the face, was only an approximation of a face. Two indents for eyes and a long crack in the stone for a mouth.

It sat on the throne.

A gush of water surged forward, beside the stone throne and somehow formed itself into something like a man. The water swirled and spread, even as a rough face formed like some horror movie wraith.

Colin stood frozen in place. Nowhere to run.

Mary bent on one knee. “My lords.”

Colin copied her posture.

“Colin, these are two of the Purest. The original elementals.”

The stone head turned with the scraping rumble of huge stones shifting. Dirt fell from the mouth as it moved. “Welcome, Colin.”

The water mouth moved, just out of time with the hissing, splashing voice. “Colin.”

“Hello,” Colin said weakly.

Mary stood. “I brought Colin to you to show him that he can trust us, his own kind. He doesn’t feel purpose in his life. He’s spent most of it running away.”

He silently cursed her for saying it out loud. Such a brief summary of the years of pain he’s endured. He silently cursed her for knowing it. And he cursed himself for living it.

“Colin,” the voices said together.

It was unsettling, but also incredible. These two impossible beings, like gods towering over him, addressing him. Tiny, less than insignificant, Colin.

The stone one spoke. “There is a war on, Colin. We need you to aid us.”

“Aid us,” the water one hissed.

“Our own kind, are killing us.”

“Humans are getting involved.”

“There is an imbalance of power.” The stone seemed to gasp and struggle with speaking.

“Must tip the scales.” The way water moved had an unsettling similarity to someone trying to keep their pants up.

“What do you mean?” Colin asked.

“Exterminate enemies.” Water said.

“Exterminate?” Colin looked at Mary, who just stared at the titans. He didn’t have enemies, and he wasn’t about to exterminate anyone. Except maybe the ants who’d left an itchy reminder of hoe fleshy his own body was. He scratched it with his other foot.

“Here,” water lapped toward his legs. “Let us help with that.”

The water surrounded him, splashed gently to calm the itching burn. Earth raised a boulder fist high before it fell to the cave floor. Dark green moss sprouted where it landed.

“Sit,” Earth said.

Colin obeyed. Something snaked toward him, a vine with dark red and green leaves. It wrapped around his leg gently. It recoiled when Colin shocked it, then came back and left a sticky trail on his ankle. The itching stopped.


“Our kind must always feel strong, supported,” said Earth.

“Never alone, never afraid,” said Water.

“Who is the enemy?” Colin asked. Mary stood over him, watching with the interest of someone who’d seen this happen a thousand times, waiting for someone to do something new.

“There are many,” said Water. “Many who would try to keep us down, keep all of you locked away as we are now.”

Colin wanted to press, but who? How could pure elementals be locked away? What could possibly keep them from leaving the cave?

“The humans have weapons,” said Earth.

“And the others who still believe themselves human,” said Water. “Responsible for the balances of nature.”


Mary put a hand on Colin’s shoulder. “The Balancers. They think they’re responsible for helping to keep nature and man in balance. They think that part of that balance means keeping the Purest locked away, and killing those who can’t pass for human or who can’t maintain control.”

“Like me,” Colin said.

“Like us,” Earth, Water, and Mary echoed.

Mary didn’t seem to have any kind of control issues, and she passed for human just fine.

Human. Was he already excluding himself from that group?

“I didn’t bring you here to force your hand,” Mary said. “I brought you here to show you that we trust you. You aren’t the only one in danger. And if you were hesitant to join us, it might help to know that our reasons for wanting to protect you aren’t entirely selfless. It was only a matter of time before you started to wonder. And I didn’t want to lose you over it.”

He couldn’t tell if she chose her words carelessly, or if she felt something for him. Or was he really going to be that valuable to them? Doing what? Free, renewable energy to keep CERT running? What if he ran out? He didn’t know how to recharge, and if his kind was practically a myth, they didn’t know either. But they were the best chance he had at finding out.

“Now,” said Earth.

“Show us,” said Water.

“What you can do.” Earth raised its stone arms.

Mary trotted to a distant wall and became a statue as water spread out on the cave floor.

“To be safe,” she said, before hardening into a thing that wasn’t living anymore.

“I can’t control it,” Colin said. “It just happens.”

A small wave licked at his face, a freezing cold slap.

“If you’re trying to piss me off it won’t work.”

“Very well,” the voices boomed.

Both bodies crashed down and the chamber started to flood. Water rose to Colin’s knees, his waist, soaking his clothes and weighing his coat down. Shapes moved in the water, huge tails flicking in and out. He looked to Mary, but she didn’t exist. Only some statue that represented the woman who once stood there remained. He jumped away from something that brushed his leg in nightmare slow motion. A hand reached toward him, pale orange, fake tanner orange. A beautiful, smiling face followed it out of the water.

A mermaid. Not one, dozens. Dozens of half-women swam around him, brushing his submerged legs with their delicate hands.

He backed toward the stone steps. Mermaids stroked his skin under his shirt and coat. Hands tipped with long claws tore at his clothes. Someone patted his shoulder. A beautiful woman with rich soil skin, almost the color Mary’s should have been if she wasn’t white stone. The soil woman held a welcoming hand out to him. She was naked of course, with a tuft of dark green moss where pubic hair would have been. Weeping willow branches formed a curtain of hair from her head. She held her hand out urgently, beckoning him to take it and save himself.

He backed away from her, back into the water, where mermaids made ribbons of his pants. One of them lunged out of the water to wrap her slender arms around his neck. Slippery fish tails slid past his legs. The mermaid smiled, a catalogue smile, selling the clothes she wasn’t wearing before arching her neck to kiss him.

He couldn’t help but kiss her back. The water, something in it clouded his mind. Her wet brown hair wrapped around his face as he let himself escape in her kiss. She balanced on her arms on her shoulders, ran her hands through his hair while her tongue explored his mouth, and his explored hers.

Slippery hands explored his body, sending chills over his skin, sparking his desire. When the mermaid released him and slid down his body back into the water, the soil woman turned away.

The hands that stroked and scratched him started to pull him down into the water. He couldn’t fight them all off. He didn’t want to. He fell to his knees, his head barely above water. The mermaid who kissed him before did so again, and pulled him under.

He held his breath, delighted and dimly afraid at the turn the day had taken. Forget the threesome with crazy elemental chicks, He was about to have an orgy with mermaids.

The elemental chicks… What were their names?

The mermaid filled his lungs with air when she kissed him. He sent a stream of bubbles up with his exhale. She kept breathing for him while one of the others did away with his clothes and yet another took hold of his painfully hard—

Lightning rod.


What the fuck was happening?

Colin fought the fog and looked to where Mary’s legs should have been. He couldn’t see them. The mermaids brought him back when one scratched his back and another took him into her warm mouth.


The mermaids stopped him from reaching out, their hands all over him, mouths all over him, crowding him and drowning him.

The sparks that surrounded him drowned quickly. He could almost see the fog closing in on him. The mermaid who kissed him stopped bringing him air.

Whoever they were, he couldn’t be responsible for their deaths.

Lightning flashed through the water when one of the mermaids bit him. He panicked, sending more and more electricity into the water. When he was free enough to stand and gasp for air, he saw lightning dance on the surface of the water like convulsions, timed with his heaving breaths.

The mermaids were gone. His clothes were intact.

“Impressive,” Water hissed.

“Most,” Earth agreed.

“What the fuck?” Colin screamed. Anger, confusion, pain rose and exploded out from him. He couldn’t see in the flash of light, couldn’t feel in the thrumming awareness that he wanted to kill these walls.

Someone screamed.


Colin tried to stop but it was like stopping a train, slow and painful. He screamed with the effort, the walls and the water screamed.


She coughed, flickering between flesh and stone. When she stopped, fully flesh again, she smiled. “Holy shit, Colin.”

A gush of water pushed them off their feet through a tunnel like a waterslide and ejected them into a pond.

Colin dragged himself through the muddy edge of the water and peeled his jacket off. “Now where are we?”

Mary sprawled beside him. “Not far from where we parked.”

“What the hell was all that? With the mermaids and the dirt woman and all of it?”

Mary laughed. “Mermaids? The Purest have abilities we can only dream of.”

“Do they have names? Do they have bodies?”

“We call Earth ‘Mother Earth’ and Water ‘Old Man River.’ Otherwise we just call them Earth and Water. There’s rarely any confusion over who we mean. As for bodies, no. They can’t pass for human. That’s part of what makes it so sad, them being stuck down there. They’re prisoners just because they were made differently. That’s wrong, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Colin said. Of course it was wrong. Then again, a plague of fucked up mermaids would be wrong, too. Three days ago, he was a regular guy, and now they were treating him like some of superhero to the elemental race. No. He wasn’t a regular guy. He was still cursed, afflicted with his emotional sparks and his panic lightning. “This is all happening so fast. I don’t know what to think.”

“What do you mean you don’t know what to think? They’re trapped down there because they’re different. It could be you. You’ve been running away for that exact reason.” Her dark eyes burned into him.

“I don’t mean that,” he said. “I mean I don’t know anything. What happened in there was so fucked up. What if I killed you? I don’t even know how much of that was in my head or outside of it and I don’t know what ratio is the most fucked up.”

“I’ve seen people go through that and not come out for a long time. I can’t tell you how much of that was real. I can’t see the same way when I statue up like that. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you, but I’m also glad I didn’t take any chances. How did you get out?”

He forced himself up. “Something you said once.”

“Really? What was it?”

He extended a hand to help her up. No makeup, hair tied back with a muddy string, her body nearly exposed in her wet, white clothes, smudged with mud. She was so beautiful. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“What did I ever say to you that was that bad?” The lace edges of her white bra showed through the wet shirt. She smiled. “Wait, I think I know what it was.”

“Lightning rod, okay? Lightning rod.”

“When did I say that?” Her eyes grew wide and round.

“Don’t play coy,” he said.

She laughed. “What made you think of that?”

He shook out his coat and muttered, “Fucking mermaids.”

Mary threw some towels over her seats and wrapped Colin’s coat in a reusable plastic grocery bag in the trunk.

White lace showed through her wet linen pants.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“I think I need a minute.”

“Was it really all that bad?” she asked.

He looked away.

“You need to get control over that, Colin. You’re no good to anyone if you can’t walk down the street without shutting down the grid every time a short skirt walks by.”

She was right, in a way. But she was wrong if she thought that anyone could evoke a response like that in him. “I’ll be sure to bring that up in therapy.”

“You, in therapy? What’s that like?”

“Do I behave like a man who’s in therapy? I did not get this good at suppressing my feelings by talking through them.”

He joined her in the car.

“What are we going to do about you, Colin?” she asked.

“We? I planned on doing the same old thing. Avoid human contact, but seek just enough to avoid becoming Howard Hughes’ final days.”

“And always have a big electric elephant in the room ready to trample someone?”

“Sounds like my life, yeah.”

“Sounds unacceptable. You deserve more than that, and you know it.”

“Feel free to offer up a cure.” She hadn’t exactly been subtle about what she thought he needed.

“Clearly we need to get you laid.”

He clenched his jaw. Did she always have to be so blunt, or did she just like watching him squirm? “But not by you, right?”

She shrugged. “Why not? You’re a good looking guy, and I like to live a little dangerously.”

The lights in the car went out for a moment.

“Yeah, see?” she said. “This stuff is just not okay. Next time we could be killed.”

“Could we?”

“I don’t know what your reaction or your defenses would be in a crash. Depending on the crash, if I statued up, I could die pretty easily. I’d have to un-statue eventually, so if I tried to do that under a semi, it wouldn’t work out. Or if it happened and I shattered somewhere without loose enough soil to pull from. And if you turned the car into one of those lightning balls and I didn’t statue up, I’d be dead, too.”

“You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you? Clearly I’m not the only one in the car with issues.”

“I thought that was pretty obvious.” She flashed a wicked smile.

He invited her in when they got back to his house. She’d already parked in the driveway. “I’ve got clean towels and a laundry room if you want to wash or dry your clothes. And showers. I have two of those.”

She licked her lips, nervously. “Do you want me to?”

He nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “No promises. But I really want to get out of these wet clothes before everyone at CERT sees me.”

He tried to get out of the car before his body responded to the image of her, peeling the wet fabric off, revealing the matching lace set underneath.

The car shut off. She turned the key. Nothing happened. “I already said I’d come in.”

“I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to do that.”

“Don’t be sorry. I saw today that it could have been so much worse. You could have killed me today, if you didn’t get out of it when you did.” The smile stayed on her lips, but her eyes were nervous.

“Would they have let that happen?”

She got out of the car. “I don’t think so. I’m the only one who fights for the, I mean, we all do, but I’m the only one who goes down there. Hey, whenever you do decide to try to get all this pent up energy out of your system, do it in one of the Deep Rooms at CERT. It’ll be safer that way.”

He didn’t bother asking what a Deep Room was. Her subtle offer was now subtly off the table.

“I’ll call Phoenix about the car. Maybe I should wait out here.”

“Please come in,” Colin said. “I’ve spent my entire life controlling myself. I’m not going to lose it today. Not for anything less than a mermaid harem.”

“You’ve been through a lot today,” she said. “And you don’t seem ready to try to really get it under control. I couldn’t even blame you if you lost it.”

“Now you’re just insulting me,” he said. “You’re not the first beautiful woman I’ve been in proximity to and I’m sure you won’t be the last. Somehow I always manage to not rape or electrocute them. If you’re that uncomfortable, I’ll stay in my own room until Phoenix gets here. I don’t want you to feel like you have to sit in my driveway to be safe from me.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “I can be an insensitive jackass sometimes. I just, I know what it’s like to be barely holding on. And then add surprised and tired… It wears you down. You’re so much stronger than I am in that way. And you’re more powerful. I’ve never seen an elemental with that kind of power. I think you actually hurt the Purest. I didn’t know they could feel. And I know it can wear you down when someone else doesn’t appreciate that you need to hold on. So, I’m sorry. And I will wait inside. And I’d be much obliged if you could loan me some clothes while I throw mine in your dryer.”

“Okay,” he said. Was she ever not completely blunt and open? “I’m going to shower and change. Probably into a bathrobe since all of my clothed are either missing or horribly filthy. It might take all your resolve to keep your hands off me when you see me that way, but you’ll have to try.”

She grinned. “I’ll do my best, but if there’s a shower cap involved, all bets are off.”

Joking seemed to dispel a little of the tension. It felt safer to bring the mood up that way.

Colin started for the kitchen, a drink or twelve would numb himself to his thoughts, to her attractiveness, to everything. He thought better of it. It would betray how out of control he really was. Besides, she would be gone soon enough and he’d have the chance to drink himself into oblivion then.

He pointed her to his mother’s clothes, grabbed a robe and threw his own clothes in the washer.

The shower could have been soothing, comforting, if it didn’t bring up memories of Kurada and Old Man River.

The shower didn’t spawn a face or any mermaids, so he stayed a while in the hot water. The chemical freesia and musk scents were comforting after being swallowed and pit out by the earth.

He should eat something. Cheap donuts, or a fast food burger and fries. Something that distinctly tied him back to humanity. Strip joint nachos. He chuckled. Maybe not that, but movie theater nachos would work. And popcorn. And some human movie about humans doing human things. Or mall court junk food.

He spent a long time in the shower, far longer than he needed. When he finally got out, Mary was gone.

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