Chapter Five: The Mayor Comes To Dinner
I threw the steaks on the hot pan and the flesh sizzled behind me while I mopped up the spilled milk, the majority of the pink milk already down the sink, drained into the freshly laid pipes of Tree Valley, and the bottle thrown on the floor with the rest of the recycling.
“Dinner is served,” I said in my best cheery waitress voice when I finally brought the steaks into the dining room, a full hour after we were originally supposed to eat.
I put the rarest steak down in front of a grimacing Harris. I figured he probably liked the taste of blood. I gave May the medium one, the nicest of the batch, and gave myself the burnt one that I’d forgotten to turn.
Harris inspected the knife I handed him and shook his head before he sliced it into the steak. Blood spilled out onto the plate and mixed with the mashed potatoes, turning pink when it hit the white mountains.
I stared at it. That was one way to turn blood pink, I supposed. I frowned and wondered if the woman at the beach had had some kind of medical issue that turned her blood pink.
But the blood at the beach hadn’t been a pale, anaemic colour like the shade of Harris’s potatoes. It had been hot, dark pink. Unmistakably bright, not pale and thin.
Harris dipped his fork into the potatoes and took a slow bite, staring at me the whole time.
I stared right back at him.
Just when had he arrived at my house, exactly?
I cut into my tough steak and struggled through a mouthful. “So, were you waiting here long?” I asked Harris.
He shook his head quickly and took a sip off water. “Not long at all...”
May frowned and interrupted him. “You told me that you were waiting for ages,” she said a little snappily, adding an awkward little laugh at the end to ease the tension while he stared icily at her. It seemed obvious that they’d had a little fight over the matter.
“Just a few minutes,” Harris said quickly before picking up his knife again.
“That’s not what you told me,” May said with a little shake of her head. She wasn’t drinking water, she was guzzling the red shiraz that she’d brought with her, and she took another giant swig from her glass.
“How’s the steak?” I asked her.
May nodded. “Surprisingly almost edible.”
We both laughed a little but Harris didn’t find it amusing. He shoved another piece of bloody meat into his mouth and stared at me. “Almost,” he said once he had swallowed.
“So no more food has fallen into a port hole in the back of your fridge?” May asked wryly, looking at me over her wine glass.
“Portal,” I corrected her. I was keen to get off that subject. I didn’t want to tell her what I had really found in the fridge. It was far scarier than a portal to another world.
Especially if her date had been the one to put it there.
“Had a busy day at the mayor’s office?” I asked Harris. He looked at me with surprise, probably because it was the most conversation I had ever made with him.
“Always,” he said flatly.
“Hear anything unusual, late morning? In the sky?” I asked him casually as I swirled my fork around my own, still white, pile of potatoes.
Harris shook his head, his lips pursed. “Nothing at all,” he said, his lips turning just a little at the corners to reveal the faintest trace of a smug smile. “Should I have? You didn’t hear -- or see -- anything, did you, Lana?”
We locked eyes for a moment while May switched her gaze between the two of us. “Is there something I should know about?”
I wondered how much May did actually know. She was the one who had told me not to go into town. Not Safe, Keep Out.
You can’t go suspecting your best friend, Lana. Your only human friend.
My phone made a violent buzzing noise and jumped around the table. “Sorry,” I said to May and Harris before I picked it up and checked it.
“I need to speak to you. Emergency.”
It was from an unknown number.
“I’m just turning it off,” I said to a disapproving May, but instead I shot a quick text back. “Who is this?”
The reply was almost immediate. We had a very good telephonic network in near-utopia Tree Valley. That was one of the benefits of being upgraded to a near-Utopia in future Australia. (Of course, we didn’t get the lightning fast speeds of the actual utopias...but that’s a whole other story.)
The reply was just one word. Or, rather, name. “Taj.”
You have got to be kidding me.
How did he even have my number?
How did he even have a phone?
He replied again before I even got a chance to ask him those questions. “I need to meet you right now.”
I quickly shot a text back under the table so that May wouldn’t see. “Fine. But I’m not coming back to the clay pit. You’ll have to come to town.”
“Fine. Do you still live in the same house?”
I was forced to admit that, yes, I did. “I’ll be there in half an hour.” So it was done. Taj Robinson was coming to my house. A visit from the Mayor, and a visit from Tree Valley’s top hobo in one night. Lucky me.
Now I just had to get May and the Mayor out of my house. Hey, I’ve never noticed they practically have the same name till right now.
As it turned out, kicking them out was far easier than I’d expected it to be.
Just as I’d been about to think up an excuse -- too tired, sick cat, a murderous maniac blew up a helicopter over my head and I’m still a little shaken up about it -- Harris started to make a gagging noise and leaned forward, spitting a chunk of steak out into his napkin.
I just sat there staring at him, like, are you kidding me?
“Sweetheart, are you okay?” May asked as she placed a hand on Harris’ shoulder in concern.
Harris glared at me. “Where did you get this steak from?” he asked.
“The supermarket,” I lied. There might have been slightly more to the story there. I might have gotten a good deal on some steaks that a restaurant beside the beach was about to throw out. Hey, I’m on a budget, remember? They smelt fine to me...
“Who serves off steak?” Harris spat at me.
“Who spits out their food at the table of their host?” I fired right back. “Not very good manners, Mr. Mayor.”
Harris shoved his plate violently aside. “I don’t know why May even associates with a street rat like you.” Nice Aladdin reference there, Harris.
I stood up, throwing my knife and fork on the table with a giant clang. “I think you should get out of my house.”
“Fine by me!” Harris shouted, grabbing his coat from the back of his chair. “I never wanted to come to this dump anyway.”
My statement was purely intended for Harris, but I saw the look of dismay in May’s eyes as she stood up and tried to put a hand on Harris’s shoulder, which he shrugged off.
“May, you don’t have to...” I started to say, knowing she would anyway. And feeling the tug in my stomach when I knew I needed her out of the house as much as I needed Harris gone before Taj arrived. She did have to go.
“It’s okay,” May said as she trailed Harris to the door. “We’ll talk tomorrow, Lana.” She shot me a sad look as she went. There wasn’t anger in her voice. There was only disappointment. I’d been late, served off steak, and thrown her boyfriend out of my house.
“May if you just knew the day I had...” But she was already heading back down the path, chasing after Harris. I leaned back against my front door and shut my eyes. This mystery was threatening to tear my relationship with May apart. And if the mystery didn’t, her relationship with the Mayor would.
I just couldn’t see how there was going to be room in May’s life for the both of us.
As the car sped away I noticed that Harris drove a silver BMW almost identical to Louis’. It didn’t surprise me: I supposed that was the car de jour of the Tree Valley upper class, and neither Harris nor Louis had much individuality about them.
“Lana?” a whispered voice called out from the bushes. How long had he been hiding there?
I hadn’t realized how many things I’d wanted to tell Taj until I saw him standing there in his green khakis and my chest leapt, spewing words like confetti all over him before he even got through the door. “Today was insane...” I didn’t even know which part to spew out first, I was just unbearably grateful to have someone there I could actually talk to about everything. The only one who would actually believe me.
“Are we alone?” Taj glanced around my now abandoned dining room.
I nodded. “Grace isn’t home. I guess there was an emergency down at the hospital.”
“Isn’t there always an emergency at the hospital?”
I shrugged. “There are certainly more dead bodies these days, that’s for sure.” I glanced down at my carpet, finding the silver trails from the snails rather hypnotic. “Though I don’t think any actual bodies were left behind today...only ash that fell into the water.”
The blue-green stained glass that I now thought I would never be able to swim in again. Not that I swim much. I probably wouldn’t even be able to look at that water again without remembering the way that the fiery debris fell into it, swallowing it whole and instant, making me question afterward if I had even seen it or only dreamed it, despite the terrible burning smell that still permeated the air.
“What are you talking about?” Taj asked gently.
I swallowed and only momentarily debated whether I should actually tell him before it all spilled out of me.
Taj just stared back at me, unmoved.
“You aren’t shocked by this?” I asked. “I’ve barely stopped shaking since,” I said, holding out my hand. Well, it was actually pretty steady by that point. But it was eight hours after the fact. “So to speak.”
Taj glanced at the half eaten steaks on the table. “Anything else unusual happen today?”
I nodded. “Get a load of this,” I said and told him about the milk disappearing that morning.
“The milk disappeared?” Taj looked around the house cautiously. “Well, they do say that this place is haunted.” He kicked at the snail trails on the carpet. “Could do with a little spruce up,” he said, trying to hide the smile on his lips.
“Come on, this is like a castle compared to your place.”
“We’re not so different, Lana.”
I gulped. I still couldn’t accept that was true. Taj lived on the fringe, I only visited there occasionally.
“I haven’t told you the worst part of it...” I said, wandering into the kitchen, wishing I hadn’t washed the evidence down the sink. There were still some remnants in the empty carton I picked up off the floor. “I found this when I got home,” I said quietly.
“So it disappeared...”
“And returned pink,” I finished the sentence for him.
We locked eyes again, both of us with a hand on the milk carton. I pulled the carton away and withdrew my gaze. “What did you need to see me so urgently for?” I asked Taj. “Must have been important if you were going to risk coming into town.”
“Who was here, before me?” Taj asked.
I opened my mouth to answer and then closed it. But why did I care so much if Taj knew May had been here? It wasn’t as though I was trying to impress him or stay on his good side. I didn’t care about Taj Robinson at all.
“Just some friends. Taj, you’re stalling.”
He let out a heavy sigh and sat down on one of the stools. “It’s not so easy to say now that I’m actually here.” He glanced down at his hands which were gloved by fingerless gloves. It wasn’t a particularly cold night out.
I gave him time to answer, knowing that if you let silence sit for long enough the other person eventually becomes uncomfortable enough that they race to fill it. Personally, I am quite content with silence and never feel the need to fill it.
Maybe Taj was more normal than me because it only took about thirty seconds of air so dead you could bury it before he finally spilled.
“I know the girl who was killed.”
My heart started beating fast.
“I didn’t think you knew anyone,” was the first thing that came out of my mouth. “Sorry...” I quickly added but Taj had already taken offence. “You know what I mean...” I was the only person he knew.
Taj looked back down at his fingerless gloves. “Lana...this girl...I’m not sure she would want you to investigate her death.” He hesitated for a moment. “I mean, I’m still trying to figure that one out.”
It had never occurred to me before that a corpse would not want her death investigated. But now it struck me as kind of absurd that we investigate murders at all -- after all, the dead don’t care, do they?
But the living do.
Unless they don’t.
“And what about you, Taj? Do you want me to investigate her death?”
Maybe Taj had put the milk in the fridge himself.
He kept staring at his hands, pulling the material of the gloves till there was no more give and the material snapped back. “No,” he finally said quietly and looked up at me. “But only because I’m worried that something is going to happen to you if you do, Lana.”
Why was he being so gosh darn cryptic?
I shifted from one foot to the other. An exploding helicopter wasn’t going to put me off, and pink milk in the fridge wasn’t going to make me give up -- so any pleading from Taj Robinson certainly wasn’t going to.
“You don’t need to worry about me, Taj. Is that why you’re here? To try and protect me?”
Taj let out a long sigh. “I know you think you don’t need help Lana, but believe me...this is not the sort of stuff you want to go messing with.” His voice was less gentle now, more stern. There was a faraway look in his eyes that would have been enough to scare me if I was capable of feeling that emotion.
“Who was the girl?” I asked, staring back at him.
Taj climbed off the stool and walked straight up to me, so quickly that I didn’t even have a chance to back away.
He stared into my eyes and whispered. “Lana if I told you that you wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
Somehow, without me even noticing it had happened, Taj had picked up my hands and was holding them in his. The only flesh I could feel was the end of his fingers.
“I can handle anything,” I whispered back firmly.
His grip around my hands tightened.
“Lana. It was you.”
I don’t know how long we held hands for.
“I should go,” Taj finally said.
“It’s late. It’s cold out.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe you shouldn’t be alone right now,” Taj whispered back.
“You can stay the night,” I said, pulling away at last. “But you’ll have to take the couch.”
“Even in the Future the Story Begins with Once Upon a Time.”
― Marissa Meyer, Cinder