2017 Polaris, New York
I returned home that night and showered for a long while, letting the water take away the pains in my back and shoulders while the oven in my little kitchen preheated. What if a Daemon was occupying that hospital? A being with such an innate gift for magick could break this curse. Yet I couldn’t explain why a Daemon would choose not just Gaia, but the city I happened to live in as a base for their lurk-and-scare-locals operations. Just an urban legend. It had to be.
I didn’t bother dressing when I stepped out, preferring the white towel I’d purchased using the primitive tablet, which had become my only real companion. I’d acquired many common Gaian necessities using it and happily saw many of those things arrive the next day. I’d already amassed a library of digital and physical books, and despite loving books, I could not read them as fast as I purchased them.
As I stepped out of the bathroom, which is an odd name for a room with a shower and no bath, I spotted a neglected heap of clothing beside the washer. I had little use for bright or warm colors, and I never wore jeans as many in the kitchen did. Perhaps that made me seem too formal for all of them, but the subtle, small pattern of denim fabric reminded me of uncomfortable Elvish textiles I’d been forced to wear once as a child.
I needed to figure out a schedule for all that laundry. Later. For now, brownies, something Brida had once mentioned as being her favorite treat.
I brought my tablet to the kitchen. The recipe’s photographs made them appealing, and I’d come to enjoy chocolate very much. I’d just measured the flour when my phone beeped at me.
I rarely received calls—Victoria calling for an interview at the kitchen was probably the only one—and I probably should have known that Sam would give his own number an obnoxious ringtone, which consisted of very high-pitched beeps, interrupted by his voice repeating, “Pick up; it’s me.”
I dusted my floury hands on my damp towel and walked over to the phone. It beeped again. This time, I realized the beeps were also made by Sam’s voice. What a child.
“Grateful, aren’t we?” he said.
“I’m doing something.”
“So, put me on speakerphone.”
“Look at your phone,” he said.
“But then how will your primitive microphones capture my voice?”
“Just do it.”
“I can’t hear you if I look at the phone.”
He groaned. “When you look at your phone and make the screen pop up again, you can hit the Speakerphone button.”
I did so, and he must have heard the change in room tone because he asked, “Got it now?”
“Yes,” I said, heading back to the kitchen.
“It took me longer to explain speakerphone to you than it will for me to tell you what I need to tell you,” he said.
I washed and dried my hands, then returned to baking. “I take it you are not calling to ask me how I’ve been doing.”
“No, I am calling about that, but it sounds like you’re—did you just crack an egg?”
I set the shells aside as I cracked another. “Yes.”
“Are you making breakfast for dinner?”
“I’m making brownies.”
“This would be easier if—okay, stand up your phone and hit the camera-looking button.”
“I have egg on my hands.”
“Better than having egg on your face. Come on. I need evidence that you’re baking brownies.”
I grumbled. “I’m not letting you photograph me for your own amusement, Sam.”
The phone’s screen lit up, and Sam’s bemused face appeared. “Hey, where are you?”
I leaned over the phone. “Sam, knock it off.”
“Where’s your shirt?”
“I’m obviously not wearing one.”
“And your hair’s not straight.”
I walked away at that point, needing to wash my hands of raw egg. I hadn’t quite perfected the one-handed cracking technique I saw in the cooking shows yet. I started mixing. “Do get to the point, Sam. You’ve seen my hair curl before.”
“Point one is that you haven’t called me once, except that one time that I assume was a butt-dial.”
“A what? I didn’t call you.”
“Exactly. But you could’ve let me know you were using me as a reference for that job.”
“Sorry. Should I have used my father? I’m not sure he has reception on my planet.”
“Doubt he would’ve given you a glowing reference anyway, given the situation you’re in.”
“Maybe. Did you get the job?”
I groaned. “I presume there’s a point two.”
“There is. Point two is that he’s here.”
I stopped. “Who? My father?”
“I think so. He’s the one who came here to capture you the last time you were here, right?”
“Has anyone else ever come here for you?”
“I haven’t been here for five Gaian years, Sam. I hid elsewhere. I don’t know who’s come and gone to this planet while they hunted me.”
“So it’s probably him, then.”
“You don’t know? Where are you?”
“Well, not here, like with me. But here. Locally. Think he’s coming to see you?”
“He can’t find me.” I had no idea if that was true or not, but it must have been, considering his absence. Someone might’ve told him exactly where I was. I had no doubt that my father sent jailers in the shadows to spy on me.
“Well, he didn’t show up anywhere that makes any sense.”
Like an abandoned hospital? “Where then?”
“Some park on the other side of town.”
Oh. Not a hospital, then. Maybe I misunderstood how Sam had received this information. “How are you tracking him?”
“Tech and some other tricks. The same way I found you.”
I shook my head. “Forget this; just get to the point. What are you saying?”
“First, I’m saying that I want to see you make these brownies, so lean your phone against—”
“Second, I’m saying that this could be your chance.”
“Chance to do what?”
“I doubt I’d make it home in this pathetic Gaian body.”
“It looks like your body. Not that I’ve seen it before today.”
“It is my body, but it’s cursed to act Gaian.”
“Cursed? It’s a legit spell doing this to you—?”
I’d said enough. “Phone, disconnect.”
“That one doesn’t have voice commands set up.”
“Then I will set them up later.”
“Have fun with that.”
I peered over the phone just enough to glare at him. “Do not tell him where I am.”
“Your face and your words don’t match, Curly Sue.”
“What’s a Curly Sue?”
“A movie. Never mind.” He looked ready to disconnect, muttering, “Am I the only one out of the dark ages?” He sighed and returned to our conversation. “Don’t underestimate humanity. We can get shit done when we need to.” The call disconnected then, and I shrugged and put my brownies in the oven.
The people at Our Lady of Sorrows never tasted those brownies. For that matter, neither did I. All I could taste was the horrifying carbon that the brownie bottom had transformed into. I blamed the tablet, which had provided thin information on this Curly Sue. I browsed site after site but needed to do laundry. Then I had a bathroom break, and apparently the timer for the oven went off at the same time as the washer. The oven beeped at me again, but I needed a few more minutes to figure out what drink went best with brownies. Several sites agreed on milk. Not good enough. As I scrunched my nose in disgust at the prospect of blending chocolate and milk, I smelled what that damned primitive tablet had made me do. The brownies emerged from the oven after a dramatic procession of thick, gray smoke.
Brida laughed when I told her about my incident with the brownies, confirming that milk was the beverage of choice unless one was vegan. I did not understand what Vega had to do with anything. Then she corrected me and told me that some Gaians believed consuming other species to be a form of cruelty. I researched the topic on my untrustworthy tablet, only to go down a tunnel of information on social activism and food privilege.
A fond but unwanted memory invaded my mind. A conversation with someone I hadn’t seen in some time, someone I could not think about right now because it would complicate my exile further. Someone who held similar ideals to the Gaians I read about.
I respected that Gaians embraced more and more the progressive ideals found in the Federation but lacking in Drakon. Our history has been bent and used as a shield for the ignorant in our society. Drakons must responsibly reproduce to preserve our gifted blood from the Last Dragons and honor our promise to protect it. Any marriage not made with responsible reproduction in mind is a marriage not recognized unless, of course, the marriage occurs outside of Drakon borders in Federation territory. Drakons would’ve approved of my bubbly exchanges with cisgender women like Brida, less so my exchanges with some former lovers.
But my dragon DNA was only one facet of me. The only one Drakons wanted. The rest of me was disposable.
On top of spoiling the brownies this week, Jemier never turned up. Although initially averse to seeing him, I waited for him. I wanted to show him that I had kept the promise I had made to Karrdil, to him. That I would find redemption even in this cursed state of being. I kept information and pamphlets I had regarding the work at Our Lady of Sorrows visible. I made sure I had enough food to entertain him should he visit and be hungry. I had even purchased some clothing that I hoped would fit him, knowing that his Cydrithennan clothing and armor would be suspicious.
More selfishly, I did not want him to compromise me in any way. The more normal he appeared, the better. I wanted to do penance for my crimes, not pay for them in a manner that my enemies at the Alliance and elsewhere would have approved of, which would have been annihilation. Then who would do my work at Our Lady of Sorrows? Certainly not an Alliance agent. Certainly not the marketplace, which I patronized rather frequently despite my disdain for their stance on charity.
I counted the days since Sam’s call about Jemier. I washed and straightened my bedclothes. I even purchased an additional pillow and blanket for Jemier to use should he wish to lodge with me. All of that was tucked away, clean and waiting, because Jemier could not know that I missed him.
Night after night, I waited, lazily listening to a somewhat reliable foreign news network while I used my tablet. I continued learning about Gaia and its culture. I stayed away from irrelevant links, especially after seeing the damage they could do to a batch of brownies.
The wait plagued me. I struggled to get out of bed. I dragged myself to work. I often lost my appetite and thus the will to continue my cooking lessons. Some nights I came dangerously close to becoming ill, and one night I did for no reason other than the suffering caused by my curse and my past. Other times, my anger surged so intensely that I broke anything I could, including the section of wall above the clothes washer, which had a fist-sized hole in it until I learned how to repair it. My hand, unfortunately, did not repair as easily. I hadn’t expected the wall to be so formidable.
For the umpteenth day in a row, I stared at the screen of my tablet. Dwelling on Jemier had stolen too much time from me. I glanced outside as though the buildings across the street held some glimmer of Cydrithenna. The sky had darkened since I’d last looked. My midday surge of energy waned. Misery returned uninvited. I picked up my phone, resolving to do something about this dreadful state of being and research the abandoned hospital.
The phone chirped its text alert.
We’d exchanged numbers earlier this week for work purposes, yet neither of us were scheduled today. Something must be wrong.
how’s it goin
i’m okay. what r u up to? burning more brownies? ☺
I will never commit such an atrocity against baked goods again.
it’s okay, i can be ur guinea pig if u want. i’ve never turned down a brownie before. even burned.
i can eat around the bad parts. ☺
I had lied to her about how I was.
Could she ignore the bad parts of me as well? Our flirtations had grown in number lately, but I couldn’t pursue anything romantic or sexual with her. I would be bound by my own quest for redemption to tell her the truth at some point, and she would feel violated if she knew she had loved a killer. If I could even be loved.
I shall give you nothing less than perfection.
Upon rereading, I realized I probably did not put the stop on our flirtation as hoped.
u awake enough to chat for real? can i call u?
I lied again. Jemier’s absence twisted my stomach, and I needed to keep the phone free in case Sam detected him again. Maybe Jemier hadn’t been the one who’d walked through that portal. Regardless, I kept mistaking the distant thunder from the coming storm as someone walking through the hall outside. I desired to see a familiar face that would make me feel at home.
The phone lit up with her call. I answered, and she sounded far less happy than the small pictographs in her texts had suggested.
“I didn’t get it,” she said.
The position at the other kitchen. She’d confided in me a few days ago. Something had upset her after all. “You had all the qualifications. They are fools if they could not see that.”
“I fucked up the interview. He asked me if I’d be able to memorize the menu, and I said I could, and that I’d been a server before and was working in the kitchen now.”
“That doesn’t sound like you screwed it up.”
“But did I come off as too forceful?”
“No. It sounds like he put you on the defensive, accused you of not being able to do it.”
“That was kinda how it felt…I don’t know.”
“I am sorry.” She had a bright mind, and the fact that whoever had interviewed her could not see that baffled and angered me. I got the sense from her tone that it baffled her as well, and we both seemed to understand what was really at play here.
“It’s fine, it’s just…” Her words shook. I could do nothing for her, and harming the man who’d harmed her hardly seemed like a step on the path toward redemption. “I might have to leave the kitchen if I can’t find something soon. Maybe I could find a paying kitchen or something like that. I think the one on Lambert Street is paid. Not much but paid. They need administrators to do office stuff.”
I did not want her to leave Our Lady of Sorrows. “Do you live close to Lambert?”
“No, but I could take two buses. I looked at the route earlier today.”
I sighed, and she sighed.
“I don’t really want to leave everyone at the kitchen though,” she said.
Thunder rumbled. I glanced at the windows, missing thunderstorms on Cydrithenna. I used to watch them from the balcony that opened from my bedchamber. “It can be difficult going to a new place all alone.”
She sniffled. “I know. I don’t want to start over.”
“I don’t know where Lambert is,” I said absentmindedly. I could not leave Our Lady of Sorrows. We were a busy kitchen, and we truly did need all the help we could get. I did not know if Lambert needed more, but I knew that if I began weighing the kitchens against each other, I would be weighing lives against one another, and it didn’t sit well in my already-tumultuous stomach.
“It’s far. I just don’t know what to do anymore. Maybe I should just go back to school and forget this whole nonprofit thing. I’m sick of having a gazillion part-time jobs. Oh god, I might have to get a roommate.”
Knock. I stood up from the sofa and headed for the door. “That should help you with some of the costs,” I said, opening the door. I poked my head out in the most discreet way I could and found my neighbor down the hall. Not a threat, but also not Jemier. I gave them a wave and retreated to my apartment.
“Am I bugging you? Are you going somewhere?”
“No, I’m a shut-in.”
“So am I. We should just, you know, go out and do something and get out of the house and forget everything.”
“It’s pouring,” I said. Plus, Jemier could arrive at any moment.
“So what? That’s what umbrellas are—”
The phone beeped in my ear. “Hold on, someone is on the other line.” I’d learned why the lingo meant what it meant only the week before.
“Okay, I’ll be here.”
“I’ll come back,” I promised, and I hit the button to converse with Sam. “What.”
“Just go out with her already. He already left a few days ago.”
In true Gaian form, I rolled my eyes and said, “Fuck off.” I returned to Brida.
“I don’t own an umbrella,” I said, giving a furious look at the tablet and its software for not having suggested this purchase.
“I do. I’ll come get you. We can walk to the café near the kitchen.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“Really? It’s nice. Text me your address.”
My address. Tell another Gaian where I lived. I glanced at the clothing I’d purchased for Jemier. “All right. See you soon.”
The moment I hung up, I scrambled for the obnoxious wallet that held my manufactured identification, longing for the technology of home. I needed my zip code, didn’t I? I held the button on my phone, attempting to dictate the contents of my address into a message to Brida, but it couldn’t understand my accent or really anything else. I grumbled and texted her the address, zip code free. While waiting for her to arrive, I messaged Sam.
you told me to keep an eye on you and this is the only way i know how
tell me what you want
Tell me when certain people leave.
fine. that all?
No, but I’m busy. We’ll talk about this later.
okay, but you’re the one who texted me
I grumbled and shoved my phone into my pocket.
Brida found my apartment easily.
“Cute place,” she said, leaning a little on her closed umbrella and peeking inside. “Ready?”
I held the umbrella on our walk, given our height difference. It was a darling thing, a ladybug of bright red with large black polka dots. It suited her, this umbrella that existed in a sea of drab charcoals and navy blues. It resisted the gray of the rain much like she unknowingly helped me do. She saw the city, even in the fade of the day, through different lenses than most.
A future memory flickered while we walked. Me beside her, grazing the peaks of her knuckles. Her beside me, slipping her hand into mine. Us walking this road every night to this café. Her lips on mine.
“What is it?” she said in the middle of our conversation about the dog in the raincoat that just passed us.
I smiled at her. “Nothing.”
She smiled back.
We entered through a wet entryway into a café of heavenly scents and long lines. I stared at the chalkboard signage hanging all over the walls, attempting to decipher the menu and make an informed choice about my future purchase.
The register attendee was sent on break by her reliever, offering me several additional seconds of browsing.
“May I help you?” said the brown-skinned barista once he settled in. Armand, according to his nametag. Handsome, according to me.
“Can I have a large vanilla triple-shot, please?” said Brida. “And a suspended coffee.”
I had no idea what any of that was. The barista did. He smiled an infectious smile, and I noticed the shape of his ears and the many earrings in both.
Everything seemed to have milk in it. “What do you have instead of milk?”
“Do you like coconut?”
I had no idea. “Yes.”
“We have coconut milk.”
Right, from the cooking shows on TV. “Yes, that please. The frothy way.”
“A latte? What size?”
This was getting more complicated than one of my illusions. “Large.”
He thanked us and gave us our total.
“This one’s on me,” I said to Brida.
“Not gonna turn that down,” she said, putting her wallet away. “Thanks, Jon.”
We picked up our drinks and found a seat near the windows. We watched the rain and the people caught in it. As I sat in that cozy café with Brida, sipping my hot latte, I understood yet another joy of being Gaian. Something about the quiet white noise of the baristas at work, the typing and conversing patrons, and the smashing of cold rain outside while we were warm within gave me peace. I glanced for Jemier outside anytime someone entered with his posture, hair color, or height, but I did not feel as homesick and distraught as I had earlier.
“So, what do you think?” she said.
“It’s nice,” I said of the drink. The frothy texture was perfect. The flavor, more than acceptable. Armand had made a perfect latte.
“I meant this place.”
“It’s also nice,” I said. Her fingers tapped the edge of her paper cup. “What did you order back there? A suspended coffee? Where is it?”
“It’s waiting for someone in need,” she said. “So they can just walk in and get it.”
“Oh.” I had much to learn about charity on Gaia. “Would you excuse me for a moment?”
She grinned. “Going up to buy a suspended coffee?”
I reentered the line and found myself faced with Armand again.
“How’s the latte?” he asked.
“Perfection,” I said.
“I strive to serve nothing less.” He flashed me another smile. “What else can I get you?”
“A suspended coffee.”
He rang it in. “Anything else?”
“Actually, add two more to that.”
He nodded. “That’s very kind of you.”
I read the chalkboard. “I don’t see these on your menu.”
“It’s kind of this secret thing people do.”
“Maybe it could be less secret.”
Armand curled his lip, then nodded, a subtle grin forming on his face. “I’ll pass it along.”
I paid and returned to Brida, who shook her cup with disappointment. “Damn. Empty.”
“Would you like another?”
“No thanks,” she said. “I should probably get going. This was nice, Jon.”
I nodded. “It was.”
“Can I walk you home?”
“How about I walk you home?”
“I have the umbrella.”
“That you do.”
Brida walked me home, the rain still pounding hard, the streetlamps making pools of fire in the puddles that surrounded us. We parted with gentle waves and smiles, but I did not ask to kiss her, and I did not invite her in.
The latte kept me alert and made my heart pound harder than normal, according to a doctor on the information network. I discovered that decaffeinated beverages would prevent that from occurring. Good. I enjoyed lattes and the way Armand had crafted mine. But despite the energy thumping in my chest, the contentment I’d found in the the café, Brida, and the latte slipped away, stolen by the rain and the loneliness of my empty living space.
Jemier had not arrived. He agreed with the king and wanted nothing to do with me. I would be stuck in this human curse forever. I watched Good Eats on my tablet while the news played on the television and fell asleep with both still on.