The girl behind the customer service counter, Kelle, gave me a pack of American Spirits for free because it got mashed up. “If anyone finds out, I’ll hack off your cute little dick.”
I snorted. “Yeah? Gonna keep it on your nightstand?”
“Keep dreamin’, baby boy.”
Pain-in-the-ass job, but if you could handle a little sexual harassment, the people—apart from my suspicious motherfucker of a manager—turned out to be all right. Not the yuppies who lived in the rapidly reproducing high-rises around the mall and the old-money houses down Pershing, but the normal people like me.
I say like me, but they weren’t. I hadn’t pegged a single awakened person there, and it made me twitchy.
Richmond was easy. Richmond was home. Maybe I wouldn’t have missed it so much if I’d ever lived anywhere else; I mean, the place was a fucking shithole. Still, the one place I knew. The one place I couldn’t go.
You’d think the threat of being wiped out by a pissed-off awakened vigilante would make it less appealing. But in fact, it had the opposite effect.
Anyhow, Kelle was leaning over the counter and offering her unbuttoned green official HT shirt for my approval, and I’m not one to miss those opportunities at any time, let alone when I haven’t seen anything like it in forever. So I looked right down her shirt.
Then felt a freezing hand on my shoulder. I mean, unnaturally cold-type freezing. Awakened cold.
I stood up straight just like that, certain unavoidable associations springing into my brain. My fire curled up in my belly, almost came out my fingers without my permission.
“Thought that was you,” said a voice a little deeper and a lot less twangy than the one I was subconsciously expecting.
I turned, and there stood Theo. I stepped out of his grip and eyed him, still on high alert. He’d miraculously lost the jacket and wore short sleeves, so I could see a snake or maybe a dragon tattoo that started at his elbow and curled up his right arm, all blue and green and purple. Whatever it was, the head was hidden under the heather-gray T-shirt. He held both his hands up and whistled low. “Whoa, man. Jumpy much?”
“Valley girl much?” I mumbled.
He grinned. “Who’s your girlfriend?”
“Kelle,” I answered without thinking.
She said, “You wish. Who’s your boyfriend?”
Before I could answer, Theo elbowed past me and leaned on the counter toward her with one arm, holding out the other. “Theo McCracken. And I’m not his boyfriend. Unless you’re into that.”
I rolled my eyes. Way to propagate bi stereotypes, fuck-face.
She took his hand and squeezed it, making pretty pouty lips. “You put on a good show?”
“Uh-huh. I take instruction well too.”
She was about to say something else, but for some reason his joining in the daily “Kelle tells every man in the store what to do and gets off on it” thing was making me twitchy. I cut in with, “The fuck are you doing here?”
They both turned their faces slowly toward me. Like I’d interrupted someone.
Theo said, “Last time I checked, this is the closest grocery store to my shitty apartment. What are you doing here?” His gaze dropped to my official green polo, embroidered with the store name.
I mumbled, “Being mortified.”
“Please, I’m on a contract with VDOT. Road work on 66 is a clusterfuck. I mean, I’m not complaining, seeing as they’ll have my ass if I don’t work. Just saying.”
Kelle asked, “Who’s they
I grabbed Theo’s arm, making sure to keep my hand hot enough to tone down his cold. Hot enough that he’d get the point. “C’mere. I gotta show you something.”
“That’s what I’m talking about.” He waved to Kelle, who, when I looked back to check she wasn’t coming too, was grinning at our backs.
I yanked him into the deserted coffee, tea, and juice aisle. “Jesus, man. Blow my cover.”
He shrugged. “Pretty sure they have to tell everyone if a parolee’s working here.”
“Not everyone,” I said even though I had no fucking clue.
“Just be cool, okay?” I started toward the back to get to work.
This time he grabbed me. “Hey.”
I turned. “I gotta work. You know, so they don’t send me back to fucking prison.”
“You know the Old Flag Tavern?”
“Meet me there when you’re done. I’ll buy you a beer.”
I slipped out of his grip. “The fuck for?”
He raised his eyebrows. “’Cause you’re kind of uptight, and I figure you’ll be easier if I get you liquored up.”
“I ain’t allowed to get liquored up
“You know what I mean.”
I snorted. “You asking me on a date, or on a let’s talk about how awesome it is to be an ex-con field trip?”
He held up both hands in that gesture of surrender. “Whatever you want.”
“There’s no way this is why you came here.”
“Uh, dude. I had no idea you worked here. I gotta eat too.”
I flushed. My fire coiled tight in my stomach. “Whatever. Fine.”
“Fine as in yes?”
I mean, obviously I was going to say yes. The place he’d suggested was decent enough that it wouldn’t send up any red flags with Vasquez if she heard about me hanging out there, so long as I wasn’t drunk or too late. And I didn’t give a shit if he wanted to flirt. I had sort of a rule about dating, but I sincerely doubted he was looking for more than a beer and a convenient blowjob, seeing as our situations were similar enough.
I wouldn’t have minded either or both, honestly.
He asked, “So, are you expecting a date, or—?”
“I’ll drink your beer if you’ll just go the fuck away.”
“I’ll drink your beer.
Please tell me that’s a euphemism.”
I snorted. “I liked you better when you were busy keeping your mouth shut at group.”
“We have that sort of in common. I decided I liked your mouth at group too.”
By this time, the fire was burning superhot inside me. I kept picturing him making that obscene gesture with his tongue in his cheek and his hand around an imaginary cock. Which hadn’t really done it for me at the time, but combined with the way he was looking at me right then and the fact I hadn’t had any real play in years, I was burning down.
No way he’d acted like this in the joint. Not if he’d come out with a smile like that. He must be even more desperate than me.
“Thanks, I guess.”
He asked, “What time?”
“What time should I meet you there?”
“Happy hour. Good. I’ll buy you two. I’m off like a dirty shirt.” He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, one of which peeked through a threadbare patch, and wandered back down the aisle.
I dropped my gaze and was kind of surprised.
He was decent from the front, but he was fucking hot from the back.
* * * *
First thing he said to me after we got our beers was, “What the fuck are you so scared of? I mean, the hard part is over, man.”
I should’ve walked away, but you can’t when someone says that. That’d just make him think he was right. Plus, new beer. “What the fuck are you scared of? That everyone doesn’t want to be your best friend? Fuck off.”
Theo laughed. “Okay, so tell me what you did to get exiled to Con Hell.”
“Aggravated robbery.” I shrugged. “You never said what yours was.”
I watched him for the usual signs of fake remorse. Nothing. I said, “Not gonna tell me it was an accident?”
“Definitely voluntary. But I’m not gonna tell you it’s a badge of honor either, so don’t worry.”
“Ever kill someone?”
I made a face. “So we end up talking because we’re the only two fuckers in the place who don’t want to dump our issues on everyone else, and this is the first thing we do?”
He laughed again. “What the fuck else should we talk about? It’s not the same; you don’t think it’s the same.”
“Don’t tell me what I think.” But I mostly mumbled it.
“Christ. You act like you went through a real federal supermax.” He flexed his rough, tanned hands on either side of his mug, and frost crept out from under them.
I flexed my hands too, just kind of warming the air around me, wrapping myself up in it, feeling it burn in the pit of my belly. Every muscle in my body relaxed a little, and I slumped down into the chair.
“The reason I asked,” he went on after a second, “is that I think it’s kind of funny when people talk about it in the group. You gotta pretend it’s a badge of honor, or you’re forced to admit it’s the most fucking awful thing any human can do. Which makes you a fucking awful human. Some of them still seem sort of caught in the middle.”
“Are you a fucking awful human?”
He shrugged. “Not sure I’m human at all.”
He had a point there. I think all awakened feel that way. We just don’t admit to it because we’re supposed to be all covert and shit, which means a certain amount of kowtowing to norms that aren’t ours, but it’s a fact. We’re not like sleepers. We have extra organs, for Christ’s sake. I saw this paper once that got passed around from family to family from the Hamiltonian Center—all the sleepers think they’re quacks, which is how they get away with that audacious shit, but they’re goddamn geniuses. It’s not just the electrogenerative organ. There are power lines running all through us, coiling around with our veins.
We’re not like them. We’re fucking not.
So I thought about all that shit while we drank for a few, and then I asked, “You proud of not feeling human?”
I said, “That what you tell yourself so you’re not forced to admit you’re a fucking freak?”
Another laugh, knife-sharp. “You’re a dick, Malory.”
But he said it like a compliment.