Colin woke up in his father’s tidy study. His body ached and creaked when he got up from the floor. Dried tears cracked under his eyes. He opened his hand and some old checklist in his father’s writing bloomed in his palm. It listed some mundane things his father intended to do during whatever week it was written. The damn list is what broke Colin. He cried, he remembered, he felt the pain of his parents’ loss. He felt like a piece of shit for assuming they’d always be there. And now they weren’t.
He closed the blinds against the sunrise and tossed the paper into a little round wastebasket. He fished it back out when he realized he’d be the one who’d have to empty it later. Six bedrooms was more than he’d ever need, even if he somehow managed to grow up and have a family.
How his parents managed to keep up with it was a mystery to him, especially with a teenage boy. There was so much stuff, and so much space. Compared to the backpack he’d lived out of for half his life, the house felt like punishment. They didn’t mean it to be, of course. It was supposed to be a gift, but he’d have to get rid of so many of their things.
Maybe it was a gift. Two years in too much house could help him integrate back into society. He already had friends. Locals, anyway. He’d be forced to pay bills, shop for groceries, and all of the other things normal people did. Mary, Andreus and the others could help.
But the thought of dusting all those picture frames sounded like hell.
He wandered through his house like a ghost, overwhelmed by memories, trying to make decisions about what would stay and what should go. And where it should go. He tried to think about what kind of job he could get and how long he could ride a million dollars before he started to starve.
If he stayed.
His stomach growled in the afternoon and he remembered that he didn’t have to starve. He could afford to go eat, or to go shopping, and he needed to. He’d run out of alcohol.
After what happened to Mary’s car, he couldn’t bear the thought of destroying his mother’s most prized possession. And the thought of driving the electric car terrified him.
He walked. He’d done it often enough as a teenager, and the same old liquor store was in the same old place. The grocery store had a new name, but it was still there, and the little Mexican food place and laundromat were the same. The arcade was long transformed into a pet store, and the bookstore took up half the space it used to, but it was still so familiar.
He opted for the grocery store. Even alcoholics need to eat, when they have the money. He walked the flower and chocolate covered aisles in a haze, at first copying the choices of a fit young woman. He put everything back when he remembered he’d be walking home with his haul and grabbed a couple bottles of whiskey and a bulk pack of frozen pizza. He grabbed a small bag of carrots and a few apples. There, healthy. He went down the hardware aisle and grabbed the biggest pack of lightbulbs they carried.
He started to feel self-conscious about his decisions until a woman unloaded her cart behind him. It looked like she was buying the entire meat section and a tub of ice cream. He deflated again when another woman joined her and they started planning the timing of their Valentine’s Day barbeque at the fire station.
Walking home was oddly calming. It had been a while since he could just exist out in the open, getting greeting nods and smiles instead of wary looks and sneers. The bags grew heavier the closer he got. Time to do those situps. And get a job. He should have looked for hiring signs while he was inspecting the strip mall.
He took some of the lightbulbs, a burrito and some lightbulbs upstairs when he got home. He tried to focus on keeping the light steady. He burned out all but two when he finally got the hang of it. With one in each hand, he watched the steady glow with a smile.
The phone rang, startling him out of his concentration.
“Colin?” The caller ID on the cordless said it was Mary’s number, or at least he thought it did before the low battery symbol replaced the number. This woman was very quiet, unlike Mary ever was.
“This is Colin,” he said. “Who’s this?”
“Are you okay? You don’t sound like yourself.”
“Um, yes and no. I mean, I’m okay, but Zep’s dead.” Her voice was low and sad, but she was still as blunt as ever.
She sniffled. “We think one of the Balancers found her this morning and attacked her unprovoked. This shit is getting so out of hand. She passed this afternoon.”
“Wow,” Colin breathed. What could he say? Why was she even telling him? “What can I do to help?”
“I don’t know… Can I come over? Everyone is kind of freaking out over here and I really… I need to get away to think for a while.”
The phone gave a final beep and died.
“Shit!” Colin ran downstairs to the kitchen phone to call her back.
She gave a sad chuckle when she answered. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“The battery died. It must have stopped charging when the power went out or something,” he said. She couldn’t possibly think that he was turned on by the death of her friend. Someone he’d met. Could she? Then again, the prospect of her coming over, seeing the cracks in her armor, was another story. “Yes, you can come over.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m really sorry for dragging you into this.”
She hung up without saying goodbye.
Colin ran to the bathroom to comb his hair and brush his teeth, and clean up the broken glass and burrito. The other burritos were still out on the counter, thawing. He put them into the freezer with the whiskey, pulled it back out and took a swig. He tossed the apples and carrots into the fridge.
Someday he’d drink less. Maybe go to meetings. Someday when he didn’t shoot lightning from his fingertips when things got hard. Or when he did. Scumbag. Alcoholic scumbag.
He offered Mary a drink when she arrived. She accepted.
“I have orange juice,” he said. “And whiskey.”
“Whiskey sounds great,” she said. “On the rocks.”
He opened the freezer. “When you say ‘on the rocks’, you do mean ice, right?”
Mary smiled. “Yes, I mean ice. What happened here?”
He looked at the empty pack of lightbulbs. “Oh, that. I’ve been practicing. I got pretty good at the lightbulb thing.”
“Really?” She took a sip and winced. “Can you show me?”
“Actually,” he took an embarrassed sip. “I blew out the last two when you called.”
“Sorry about that.”
“No, I’m glad you called. I mean, I’m not glad that something bad happened, but I’m glad you felt you could call me.”
Mary slumped on the couch. “They shot her.”
“She was doing yoga on the beach with her dog and they fucking shot her.”
It was too easy to imagine the waify blonde doing some complicated pose, hair tossed around by the breeze, with a little fluffy dog at her side. “How?”
“A water elemental was hiding in the ocean. They shot her first, then dragged her in to finish the job. She used her ability to fight as long as she could, but she lost.” A tear rolled down Mary’s cheek.
Colin bit the inside of his lip. It was too fucked up to admit that he felt lightning rise inside him. He didn’t know if it was shared sadness, anger at losing his new friend, or if he was actually getting a little turned on. He retrieved a box of tissues from the bathroom and set them on the coffee table.
“Thanks,” she sniffed. “It’s just… we couldn’t even care for her properly. We’ve got so many wounded and dying, we can’t keep up. We really thought she was strong enough to do it on her own. I thought she was strong enough. I made the call and it was wrong and she’s dead now. This is all my fault.”
“Hey, it’s not your fault,” Colin said. “If there’s anything I can do to help; I’ll be happy to do it. You could bring some of the wounded here to recover. Isn’t that what all the rich old ladies used to do during wartime anyway? Turn their homes into hospitals?”
She laughed through her tears. “You’re not exactly an old rich lady. Also, what era so you live in?”
“Hey, it’s just a suggestion.”
She shook her head. “I appreciate it. The problem isn’t just space, we don’t have enough understanding of their weapons or tactics to even begin to face them. We’re trying, but we don’t have the numbers for this shit. Right now, you’re basically the only thing we have going for us.”
“How do you mean?”
“They have a stronger infrastructure; they have spies everywhere. We’re the freaking underdogs here because we want equality and they don’t.” She gulped the rest of whiskey and smacked the cup down on the table. “It’s just… fuck… it’s not fair.”
Colin brought the bottle to the coffee table. “I’ll do whatever I can to help out.”
“I appreciate it, but at this point it’s too risky to even tell our own people what you are. At least until you get control and we see what the extent of your power is. Until then it would just be a huge liability and put you at too big a risk.” She sipped from her refreshed glass.
“I can take care of myself,” he said.
“I don’t doubt that, but I don’t even know what the best use for your talent will be until you get a hang of it. I can’t just throw our people at them and hope something sticks. We aren’t only losing numbers to the Balancers or to murder.”
“What are you talking about? You mean defectors?”
She nodded and tipped the whiskey into her mouth. Colin moved the bottle. She was already emotional and stressed out. Drinking heavily wasn’t going to do her any favors, especially if she didn’t do it often. “Fucking traitors. We scraped them up off the street and gave them skills and hope and what do they do with it? They fucking run off and start killing us.”
“I’m learning fast,” he said. “I think. I don’t really know what the learning curve on this kind of thing is.”
“It’s pretty much lifelong. And you are, Colin. You’re great.” She held one of his hands in both of her own. He swallowed.
“You have really soft hands.”
She laughed. “I fucking better. As much as I spend on skincare my hands and a baby’s ass should be pretty much indistinguishable.”
He smiled. She drank the rest of his whiskey.
“You should slow down,” he said. “I’m all for drinking the pain away, but it doesn’t work. It just builds up for later.”
She stroked his cheeks, followed the stubble from his face down his neck, to the collar of his shirt. Electricity crackled over skin, arced from his chest to her fingertips. She slid her hands down his chest, over the stiff, sticky screenprinting on his shirt, to the hem.
“Mary.” His voice came out barely above a whisper. He swallowed. His heart fluttered and his skin tingled.
“Hm?” Her fingertips brushed his skin above the waistband.
“You know I can’t do this.”
“Do what?” Her teeth flashed white before she kissed his neck.
He stood up. He really couldn’t do this.
She stood, too, held onto his waist band and stroked his side.
“This. I can’t do this. Me, us, whatever is happening right now.” He drew a sharp breath and closed his eyes when her fingertip ticked the hollow spot where pelvic bone meets abdomen. Electricity already joined them, thin lines that crackled and evaporated. “It can’t happen.”
She pushed her hand down past his waistband. “I think it can. Part of you is very ready for this.”
“That’s the part that shouldn’t be trusted with these decisions.” He held her wrist.
“I think I can handle you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
She was handling him pretty well so far. “Even if you can, this house can’t. I can’t. And you said yourself you’re not sure. I could have killed you.”
“You were fighting for your life,” she said. “You were up against an army. This is just you and me. Hit me with your best shot. I’ll be fine. Promise.”
He remembered her scream in the cave. The walls and water and all the dying mermaids screamed, but he heard her above all the others. Because she was special. She didn’t want to hurt her.
She squeezed, pulling him back into the present. “Thought I was going to lose you there for a second.”
“No, you’ve got me.” And after he stopped fighting in that cave, she smiled. She was exhilarated by it. She was excited by it.
“Good. Then do it. Hit me.”
He held her with both hands and kissed her. Her mouth was warm and human and inviting, even as her lips hardened into stone.
Colin’s skin sparked and sizzled, and so did hers. She hardened into something between flesh and stone, ready to defend, ready to test him.
“Do it,” she whispered.
He had to. She wanted it, demanded it. He couldn’t.
She pushed him away, threw her jacket onto a chair and lifted his shirt. She kissed him again and he clumsily pulled his shirt over his head. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“You get those scars in the fighting pits, or what?” she asked.
“Something like that.”
She pulled her own shirt off, stone skin stretching over bone and muscle. Underneath, she wore blood red trimmed with black lace.
“I can’t,” he whispered. “I can’t.”
“Do it,” she growled.
“No. Not here, not now, not like this.” He reached for his shirt.
She stormed away. When the bathroom lock clicked, he poured himself another drink. He’d never wanted to blow something up so badly. Instead, he pulled his shirt on, had another drink, and waited.
“Funeral’s at eight,” said Mary when she emerged. “If you want to go, I’ll pick you up. Expect weather. And earthquakes.”
“Okay.” Apparently she didn’t want to talk about it. Fine by him; neither did he.
He walked her to the door.
Just before she went through it, she turned to him. “I’m sorry for that. I do like you, and I would like to, but you’re right. Not here and now.”