by Eugenie Mora
“You’re a beast, you’re an animal! Come on! Three more! You can do it!”
Fed up, I sliced my hand through the air horizontally. The generic Caucasian face froze mid-cheer.
I rolled to my back on the mat, sweat trickling down the bridge of my nose.
My workout regimen might have been a little too ambitious. I could feel the burn of effort in my thighs and shoulders. The band of fat around my stomach, which I was determined to burn off, jiggled as I propped myself up.
The problem, I decided, lay with the trainer.
She was too perky, too loud. And what was up with the stutter? Granted, the program was still in beta, but I felt mocked.
I grabbed my towel off the windowsill and dabbed at the beads of perspiration on my face. A faintly sour perfume seeped from the terrycloth into my nostrils. I grimaced. The cleaners’ must have switched detergent brands again.
Forget Scabies, use Spic and Span! Now with pine-fresh-lemon scent! The ad’s perversely zingy jingle echoed in my ears. I’d never seen a box of Spic and Span in the flesh, so to speak, but I knew what the antiseptic, anti-fungal, anti-whatever looked like from the commercials. I took another whiff of the towel. The only way that qualified as pine-y was if the trees had been doused in antiseptic before they were turned into detergent perfume—which, knowing the latest battery of statewide health ordinances, was probably the case.
Wincing, I pushed myself up from the mat and stalked through my trainer’s ridiculously arrested, attractively compact form. The hologram wavered.
Two taps of my index on the tablet’s shiny screen and she flickered out of sight.
Goodbye and good riddance, Trainer Sandy.
I scanned the other premades—Coach Raleigh had biceps the size of my thighs. Maybe he could bench-press me while I read.
An alert popped up at the corner of the glossy, A4 screen. My breakfast order had just been dispatched.
“Not a moment too soon,” I murmured, affecting the posh British accent I’d been imitating since my first glimpse at The Worthington Family Chronicles. Three seasons marathoned in two days and I felt I had it down pat.
I fired up the shower while I peeled out of my baggy shirt and form-fitting sweatsuit. The laundry chute sucked up the soiled clothes. It still annoyed me that I couldn’t program the apartment to be as quiet as I liked.
Still, it wasn’t as though the holo-realtor hadn’t warned me that there might be a few hitches here and there. It hoped that a point-three percent rebate in the asking price would make up for any inconvenience. The tropical rain showerhead in my self-cleaning sauna-and-hamam combo bath was the real compensation. There was no danger of pine-fresh abominations here. I had the blend of pH. neutral disinfectant and chamomile moisturiser perfectly balanced. Water streamed down at a precise hundred and four degrees, just the way I liked it. And when the shower cut off, the air temperature in the room crept up a few degrees to prevent any stray chills.
The musical chime of another alert pinged on my terminal.
I eyed the clock. Three minutes was a new record for the delivery drones at Lime Bananas.
I wrapped a towel around me and finger-combed my hair into some semblance of order as I padded, dripping, into the living room. My enthusiasm curled up and died a swift death. Between the home cinema wall and the windows that didn’t open, the sterile drone landing field lay empty. My view of the brownstone on the other side of the street was unimpeded.
Temporarily forgotten, the chime unleashed another volley through the apartment.
No new email. No one had tagged, reblogged or IM’d me. The sites I usually trawled didn’t seem to have installed any new pop-ups. I spent a brief, horrified instant concerned that my firewall had been breached, but were that the case the alert would’ve been much, much louder. Breaking and entering was serious business. I’d have the police VoIP’ing me in seconds.
A sudden rattle shook the front door.
I whirled around, nearly dropping my towel.
Someone was knocking. Someone was outside my door. Physically.
“Uh… Hello?” My voice cracked.
“It’s me!” echoed, muffled but recognizable, through the reinforced wood.
“Yeah, let me in!”
She might as well have been asking me to help her defraud the government. On pure instinct, I approached and peered through the Judas. Sure enough, Marlow stood in the hallway on the other side, only half of her face illuminated by the grey morning streaming from the far-end of the hall.
Maybe she’s lost her mind. Maybe this is a test.
I turned the key in the lock. The ancient, sterile tape around the frame unfastened with a sucking sound. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I finally eased the door open, but it wasn’t Marlow sauntering inside, a spring in her step.
“Oh, wow. Your place looks so much bigger in real life.” She turned to me, her marmoreal expression giving way to a wide, beaming grin. “And you’re way taller than you look on camera.”
“Thanks,” I murmured, suddenly tongue-tied.
My mind snagged on incomprehensible details—Marlow in my apartment. Marlow, in the flesh, in my apartment, peering at the trio of cat figurines I’d bought during the Crabby Kitten craze two years ago. A startled squeak tore out of my throat when she ran her fingers over my Folio Collector’s hardcovers.
Marlow heard. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m not gonna take ’em out or anything. I know how much you love old shit.” An apostrophe caught on the corner of her mouth.
“I know that.” Indignation forced the knee-jerk retort. With a screen between us, I would’ve come up with an incisive comeback before expertly steering the conversation toward what interested me. With a screen between us, I was a master conversationalist, at once charming and relatable. I made friends with a few clever—and painstakingly edited—quips.
In the flesh, I blurted out a limpid, “What are you doing here?”
“You went… outside?”
Stupid question—there was no other way of negotiating the six blocks between my apartment and hers. We might have greeted each other with ‘hello neighbor’ before we logged into work, but we’d never actually stood in the same room together.
“Duh.” She clucked her tongue. “Hey, you’ve been trying the MegaFit! Me, too! It’s good, right?” Her voice, without the interference of static or transmission delay, was gratingly crisp.
“I did six weeks on the Zen Capoeira course. I swear, my calves don’t know what hit ’em!”
“Did you try the Sixty Spices diet that goes with it? It’s really good. You don’t feel like eating anything and your whole house smells like a Chinese restaurant. Or what I imagine a Chinese restaurant must smell like. You ever wonder about stuff like that?”
“No. I mean, I haven’t…” Keeping up with Marlow’s scattered thoughts wasn’t helping the migraine pulsing between my ears.
“Are you going to close that door?” Marlow’s gaze ticked down my body. “You’ll catch cold.”
A flush splotched my skin from the chest up, spreading like wildfire. I closed the door with a bang and locked it.
When I turned, Marlow had draped herself over the couch, arms parallel to the backrest. Her heels drummed the floor. “You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here.”
That’s putting it mildly. I nodded, holding the towel tighter to myself.
Marlow didn’t take much prompting. “I woke up this morning and decided I’d go out for a walk. What’s the harm, right? I’m twenty-seven years old, I’ve had all my shots, I know my way around. And it’s not like I can get mugged these days, right?”
After the pandemics of the late twenty-first century, urban populations had dwindled to such an extent that crime became an afterthought. Only flyover folks ventured outside anymore. They had no choice: someone had to make sure crops were harvested and cows milked.
At least that was my understanding of the food sector. It had been a while since I’d studied sustainability cycles in school.
I shook off the thought. “But… why?”
Marlow hitched her skinny shoulders.
The chirp of the drone startled us both. Marlow jackknifed on the couch, saw the silver-and-white pod land in the glass cubbyhole, and let out a triumphant guffaw, a hand pressed to her ribcage.
Even her laugh was different in the real world.
“That’s breakfast,” I said, uselessly.
“Cool. What are we having?”
We? I didn’t recall inviting Marlow to join me, but turning people down in the flesh was harder than I thought.
I waited for the decontamination process to run its course, then raised the sash window of the glass compartment. Faintly humid residue clung to my fingertips as I liberated the drone’s payload. The fluorescent Lime Bananas logo winked at me from the Styrofoam lid.
“Kale pancakes,” I recited, “passion fruit-glazed bacon and rye bread.” Despite myself, I chanced a testing glance at Marlow.
“Reba’s healthy breakfast, huh?” She drummed her fingers on the coffee table.
My flush deepened. I had no editorial control over the contents of the breakfast delivery. I could post an enhanced picture of yesterday’s lemon grass oats online and wow my six hundred thousand followers with simple and delicious, home-cooked meals, but I couldn’t fool Marlow.
“I should… get dressed.”
Did I say it to draw Marlow’s eyes to other parts of me than my beet-red face?
“Probably best,” she answered, in between helping herself to a wedge of pancake with her bare, un-sanitized fingers. “Put a sweater on, though. It’s cold outside.”
“Oh. Sure.” I performed a double-take. “Wait, what?”
Marlow licked crumbs off her thumb. “You didn’t think I came all the way here to explore your apartment, did you? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty little thing. You’ve got an eye for color. But come on. Aren’t you a little bit curious to see what your building looks like from the outside?”
“I know what it looks like.” There were street cameras I could check. Satellite imagery. Drone footage. I could view my apartment building like it had been a century before, windows frosted with ice.
Pedantry did nothing to sway Marlow. “You know what I mean.”
I did. I just didn’t understand.
“Chop, chop!” Marlow snapped her fingers. “Time’s a-wasting!”
Galvanized, my feet somehow resumed their progress toward the bedroom. I hesitated in the doorway. “Is… everything okay with you, Mar?”
She swallowed past a mouthful of crispy bacon, burped, and rolled her eyes. “Duh. Can’t a girl take her bestest neighbor out for a walk without answering a million questions?”
“No, of course—”
“Then get dressed.”
She made a shooing motion that I hadn’t noticed before. Did I even know this woman? Did I want to?
Outside was disease and destruction, dangers at every turn. But Marlow’s features were twisted into a mask of disbelief, as though she couldn’t fathom why I was taking so long. Give her five more seconds and she’d sneer, get off my couch. Leave to find some other bestest neighbor and drag them outside.
Ballast sinking into my gut, I went.
* * *
Was I a doormat for going along with Marlow? I flashed back to my third-grade self, proudly turning in an essay on Starry Night that argued it was not, in fact, a starry night.
I’d only done it because Penelope Prisca said school was about questioning authority and learning to think for yourself, but when my counsellor asked what I’d been thinking, I blamed it on that long-dead Belgian artist, Magritte.
I later found out that Penelope had picked up her maxims from a webby.
Needless to say, the educational program that graded my essay did not have a protocol for authority-defying grandstanding.
“You just going to stand there?” Marlow’s voice hauled me out of my reverie. “Oh, come on. It’s just concrete.” She looped a hand around my wrist, her fingers as white as the calamus of a feather.
I could dig my heels in or I could let her draw me into the sun. My cute ankle boots—six ninety-nine for a limited time!—scraped the pavement as I took my first step out of the safe, sterile haven of the building.
Marlow grinned. “And the sky doesn’t fall! Huzzah!”
Rather than release my hand, she hooked my arm through hers and squeezed the fragile bones of my wrist against her ribcage. Through the fabric of her cashmere jumper, I felt each dip and rise, the soft swell of flesh and the hard slat of bone underneath. As alien as it was, I struggled to resent our proximity.
“I’m planning on staying out ’till really, really late,” Marlow informed me. “I want to see the lights come on. Or at least the stars. Think we’ll have a full moon tonight? I hope we do. I’m kind of owed one, you know? My first twenty-four hours of freedom!” She shouted that, her shrill voice pinging off reinforced windows like a ricocheting bullet.
I shivered beneath my military-style coat. Marlow had warned me that it was cold out, but somehow I hadn’t wrapped my head around the fact that I couldn’t simply flip a dial and ratchet the air temperature to a more acceptable level.
Marlow chuckled when I told her as much. “It’s January. What do you expect?” Her exhales were a fast-fading mist and the tip of her nose blushed red.
I looked away. I knew it was January. In September, the first Halloween promos began. Then Thanksgiving rolled around and I had to suffer through uncomfortable VoIP calls with my family. The online sellers I patronized had only just taken down their sleighs and snowmen graphics. I’d packed up my virtual tree last week.
“Just a few more days and we start preparing for the First of Spring.” The note of cheer in my voice rang false, though I gave it my all. I’d been so witty every other time I spoke with Marlow, I didn’t want her to think it was all an act.
Her silence clawed at my insides. “Mar?”
“Hm? Oh—” She smiled. “Sorry, I was trying to figure out what kind of bird that is.”
I followed the jerk of her chin to a flash of movement, a thin beak pecking at the clump of overgrown weeds that protruded through cracked pavement. Years of drills and thousands of images featuring the ravages of avian flu stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Pigeon, maybe?” Marlow made a clucking sound with her mouth—her version of a pigeon’s coo.
The bird whipped up its head. It was black with a white belly and a long, inky tail.
I recalled that pigeons were usually grey—or white if they were doves—but before I could speak, the bird pushed up from the ground and took flight with brisk flaps of the wing. It was just as well. The next words out of my mouth were far more likely to be ‘what if it’s diseased, we should go back, abort, abort, abort,’ than ‘oh, that’s a magpie.’
Marlow blew out a breath, her ribcage deflating against my upper arm. “Aw, I think I scared it off.”
We walked on, over cracked pavement, across the next fork in the road. Through the windows of apartment buildings on either side of the street, I saw figures going about their business in the sanitized safety of their homes. Usually it was just one person, male or female, the ages as varied as the colour of their skin, but occasionally I glimpsed a couple sat at the same table, or arguing in front of a window they knew no one would be peering through.
There was something of the nudie-cams in what I was doing. I stopped and foisted my gaze on the architecture that surrounded us.
Most of the city had survived the turn of the century. Where old builds became too hazardous for tenants, the government had preserved only the façades and stripped away the interior. Old windows didn’t always align with the new and improved floor plans, and some of the preserved frontage was in a bad state of disrepair, but I found myself enjoying the manifestly ancient designs.
“We could probably walk on the street,” said Marlow. “Not like there are any cars…”
She was right, of course, but my mind rebelled at the suggestion. I’d studied the traffic code while playing Road Wars. All those pedestrians I mowed down had instilled in me a pervasive fear of cars and sidewalks.
Yet I had allowed Marlow to tow me out of the apartment. I wasn’t going to draw the line at jaywalking.
Our footsteps rang dully, a discordant echo scored by the whirr of delivery drones overhead. I’d seen the little robots fly before, naturally, but never from this angle. I tipped my head back, red curls whipping around my face.
“They look like spiders,” was Marlow’s conclusion.
“You look like a spider,” I countered, hunting for my usual levity. That was what she liked about me; she’d said it more than once.
Marlow flashed me a tepid smile. She probably saw right through me.
I felt myself deflate. At the end of the street, the houses abruptly became small and stooped, plainly uninhabited. We strolled down the vacant lane, arm in arm and quiet as we’d never been in each other’s company. Shopfronts long abandoned reflected our proximity. My frizzy hair stood out like a flare. Marlow, a head shorter than I was, seemed skinny and fragile, her cashmere sweater drowning her.
“So you should probably know,” she started, just as I said, “are you—”
We shared a little laugh, an uncomfortable smile. Awkward.
“You first,” Marlow prompted.
I bit my lip. “Are you sure we’re not breaking any laws?”
“Oh.” She blinked. “Yeah, pretty sure. I wouldn’t go knocking our neighbors’ doors before I decontaminate, but… there’s been no new alert. That I know of.”
It was no guarantee. Sometimes state ordinances referenced epidemics we didn’t know about until they were over. Our elected leaders had admitted to keeping news from the public in the past to avoid mass panic. No one wanted a return to the looting of the last century.
“What were you going to say?” I wondered. “Something I should know?”
“Eh, we can talk about it later.”
The urge to stomp my foot shot through me, lightning bolt-style. “Mar—”
She pinched my arm through the woolen sleeve in retribution. “Oh my God, look! An actual restaurant!” It was as though she’d spotted the Holy Grail. “We have to go inside.”
“We don’t,” have to, I meant, but with Marlow’s claws in my flesh and her curiosity tugging me along, I had little choice in the matter.
Judging by the layer of dust on glass frontage, the restaurant had closed its doors some decades ago. The grille had been forced open, though, and it only took a little bend, a little kick, to make our way inside. Marlow took the lead, of course, brave as an explorer on strange shores.
Heedless of rust-borne tetanus and viruses that survived years and years in the wild, she held up the grille for me with bare hands.
“It’s so dark,” I murmured and folded my sleeves over my fingers like Snow White’s Dopey.
“Use your phone,” Marlow shot back over her shoulder.
In the bright gleam of my handheld, her hair was the lustrous black of an oil spill. I stayed close to entrance and shone my beam over and ahead of her, skin prickling. It was impossible after so much time, but I could swear the smell of freshly cooked dishes still permeated the air like a not particularly friendly ghost hanging over us.
On a whim, I directed the phone’s flashlight to the vaulted ceiling. Not that I believed in ghosts.
“Whoa…” Marlow’s voice reverberated around the still restaurant. “That’s pretty. Must have been a fancy joint.”
The chandelier above us was girdled by dead-eyed cherubs painted onto a vaulted ceiling. I didn’t know if the place qualified as fancy, but it was definitely kitsch and a little creepy. I lowered the beam. “Reminds me of Friday Funhouse.”
Marlow whirled around, swinging her arms wide. “I know, right? All we need is a few zombies.”
We shared a laugh that was two parts nerves—and I was responsible for most of the panicked tremor.
“Seriously…” I closed my fingers around the phone. The shadow of my thumb flicked across Marlow’s pale cheek. Her features were so angular that darkness only accentuated her hard edges. “Uh, you want to keep going?”
Marlow nodded. She held out her hand.
I’d come too far not to slide my palm into hers and let her drag me between tables festooned with white tablecloths and bedecked with napkins folded into complicated shapes. I would have needed a third limb to touch the dusty silverware. It was probably crawling with bacteria; they didn’t use proper disinfectants in the olden days, hence all the pandemics that had decimated the population.
My stomach roiled at the thought. I would do well to keep my hands to myself.
Marlow squeezed my fingers and I promptly recalled that she hadn’t been half so careful.
“Kitchens must be this way,” she supplied, spurring her steps.
Two desiccated potted plants flanked a pair of swinging doors.
“I don’t like this,” I started to say. “Maybe we should—”
But intrepid, curious Marlow had already pressed a hand to the wood. Her fingertips disturbed the compact, powdery dust. I tore my gaze from the imprint in time to spot something small and black scurry across the floor.
I flinched back, the phone all but slipping from my hands. “Oh God, what was that?”
Marlow had recoiled, too, her breaths hitching audibly, but now she laughed. “Just a rat. Probably. Don’t be such a girl, Reba.”
It was a bridge too far. I tugged on her hand. “Do you know how many diseases rats carry? They brought the plague!”
“That was, like, a thousand years ago!”
“I don’t think they’ve forgotten how to be vectors!” I shot back. “This is a terrible idea. We can walk outside, alright? Let’s just go—”
“No.” Marlow wrenched free of my hold. “I want to see the rest. And then I want to check out the back alleys and all the places in this fucking town that I’ve never seen with my own eyes!” Her accent slipped, surrendered like a coat that didn’t fit quite right. Her voice quaked.
In my fright, I’d angled my handheld toward the ground. Its whitish glow didn’t show Marlow in the best light. I barely recognized her as the friend I talked to for hours on end while we marathoned shows, each of us safely ensconced between the four walls of our apartments.
“Why are you like this?”
She glanced away with a huff of breath. “Maybe I’m sick of hearing about what’s out there. Maybe I want to see for myself. What’s so wrong with that, you know?”
“You don’t have to come,” she told me. “I’ll be fine on my own.” Something in her big, shadowed eyes told me otherwise.
I sighed. “Don’t be such a girl.”
* * *
The dulled metal slabs and rust-bitten crockery in the kitchens gave way to a rank alley pocked with weeds and mushrooms. An ancient dumpster of the sort I’d seen in films leaned drunkenly against a brick wall where someone—I imagined gangsters—had painted a stylized pig wielding a machete and a M16. Pink flesh showed beneath its bulletproof vest.
Both graffiti and this part of town were relics of a time when police had to protect themselves against citizens and citizens against each other. I saw many lowered grilles once we emerged again into the street. Some hung low, undisturbed, their metal slats threaded with ivy. Others had been forced open, the windows and doors they protected shattered by looters.
Marlow’s hand in mine provided a constant pull. I couldn’t slow down and gawk if I wanted to.
She dragged me along, through streets I didn’t recognize but was pleased to see had been built along a grid. I had only to keep track of the number of right or left turns and I’d be able to find my way back. My analytic mind served me well in my daily work—which reminded me.
“I have to log in soon,” I told Marlow.
She was undaunted. “Just a few more minutes. I want to show you something.”
Revelation followed in a matter of seconds rather than hours or minutes. Our winding exploration aborted on a shelf of concrete, at the edge of the island.
Marlow spun around like a magician inviting me to give vent to my astonishment, though the blue ribbon of the river behind her was no sleight of hand and she wasn’t its creator.
“That’s the Hudson,” I said, politely.
“I know, chicken. Look.”
I did. The road dipped into the shimmering waters like a tongue timidly reaching out for a taste. The asphalt was darker at the edge. Tide swell, I thought. Once, the riverbank had been girdled with stone and mortar, the island securely buttressed against the ravages of nature. I’d seen the pictures. I’d studied the data.
A four-door sedan emerged from the shallows. Algae clung to the flaked green paint. I spied movement behind its rear window. Fish, most likely. Crocodiles didn’t venture this far north anymore.
“You ever wonder what’s on the other side?” Marlow asked, her voice tinged with wistfulness.
I cocked a brow. “No.”
I had a world at my fingertips and no desire to disturb my quiet little nest, yet suddenly, this made me feel ashamed. It might’ve had something to do with Marlow’s sigh. I certainly blamed her for it.
“Why would I? You’ve seen the footage. It’s just… poverty and destruction.”
The vestiges of the last uprising had been allowed to persist. There was no money to clear away the damaged caused by the waves and waves of refugees that hit our shores. There was even less political will.
Public interest had dwindled since the last Ebola-Denge outbreak, attributed to the influx of foreigners. That the super-virus had been cooked up in a lab in San Antonio didn’t seem to matter much. Conspiracy theories abounded. Every vlog and aggregate news service peddled its own explanation, even two decades after the fact.
Marlow stuck her tongue into a corner of her mouth and made a popping sound. “I’ve been wondering for a while.”
She shrugged. “Only way off this island, right?”
Immigrants were subjected to strenuous testing and long waiting periods. Even then, no guarantee was ever offered of a job in the Midwest. Most of the wretches that made it to the archipelago were put on hovercrafts and sent back to wherever they came from. Europe, mostly.
I itched to ask Marlow why she’d ever want to leave a place so many were trying to reach, but the words stuck in my throat.
“What else do you wonder about?” I had the odd sense that I was addressing her for the first time, the two of us juggling a virtual card game, watching a news bulletin and exchanging ideas all at the same time.
Except there was silence around us this time. Except the steadily lapping waves were oddly soothing.
“Kissing.” Marlow’s mouth slanted to the west. “Don’t worry, I won’t jump you. I know you’re a germophobe.”
My pulse skipped. I was sure Marlow could feel it through her sweater, my arm still linked through hers.
“I’m not,” I protested.
“Prove it, then.” She rounded on me with flushed cheeks and a sniffle. Something inside me recoiled even as I marveled at this new rosy sheen on her delicate, porcelain-pale skin.
“What are you, twelve?” I demurred.
“You know exactly how old I am.”
The blaze in my chest spread outward. Yes, I knew. I knew everything there was to know about Marlow, from her blood type to her star sign, her Road Wars all-time best score and her infatuation with Korean pop.
“Fine.” If Marlow was the lever then I was the counterweight that kept her even. I licked my lips.
The corner of her mouth tugged down. She thought I wasn’t going to do it. She was pretty sure. She wasn’t sure at all.
I stood only three inches above average height but I towered over Marlow. She had to tip up her chin as I bridged the gap between us. Our breaths intermingled. I scented passion fruit bacon on her breath.
“This is not a secure area. Please return to your homes.”
The tinny, metallic voice raced down my spine like the point of an ice-pick. I whirled around, air turning to soup in my lungs.
Six drones not unlike the one that had delivered my breakfast hovered in midair.
Any desire to prove that I wasn’t a coward curdled in my gut.
“I—I thought there were no restrictions on free movement on the island.” I had the city code memorized, along with certain state ordinances. I’d researched them often enough to better shore up my arguments when I tangled with trolls.
“There aren’t,” Marlow sneered.
“Please return to your homes,” repeated the tinny robo-call.
The voice was recorded, but its activation would have required human input. I shuddered. Someone knew I was outside. Perhaps someone important. My face would be flashing on screens even now, links made between my adolescent rebellious streak and this thoughtless outing.
Rumors of state-sanctioned abductions and murder were a dime a dozen online. Until now, I hadn’t considered myself a potential target.
“Are you sure?” I rounded on Marlow.
“Please return to your homes. This is not a secure area.“
Marlow flipped off the machine.
I caught her wrist. If we were being recorded, I wanted ample evidence that I did not condone Marlow’s anarchism. I was a good, law-abiding citizen. Even when there were no laws to abide.
“We’ll go home. Come on.”
“Who sent you?” Marlow pitched over my attempts to lead her away. “And what the fuck took you so long, huh?”
“Oh, go to hell!” Her shout reverberated, a gauntlet thrown. She tore out of my hold and said, in a voice that could strip paint from walls, “Now you get it?”
“Yes,” I said. I was so desperate to end this standoff before more drones arrived—before whoever summoned them upped the ante and authorized the use of force—that I would have agreed to anything.
Marlow’s gaze didn’t soften one bit. I could tell she didn’t believe me. Rather than argue, she made the judicious choice and, stuffing her hands into her pockets, stalked back inland.
The drones parted for her like the Red Sea. I jogged to catch up, my yoga-battered thighs protesting the sprint.
“I’ll walk you home,” she muttered, speaking to me but addressing the fissured pavement.
“Thanks.” I wanted to be a good friend and say you don’t have to, but I didn’t want to be on my own. What if the drones came back? I understood, suddenly, the animal instinct of banding together. Strength in numbers.
Her manic energy spent, Marlow marched in silence. There was nothing of her earlier urge to explore the concrete jungle in her gait. She led us down the most direct path, through streets I didn’t know but found vaguely familiar. Before I knew it, we were two hundred meters from my apartment building.
I chanced a look behind me. The drones had dissipated. We were alone.
“About that thing you said I should know…”
Marlow slowed her steps. “Oh. It’s nothing.”
Though the instinct didn’t come naturally to me, I curled my fingers around her cashmere sleeve. Tell me.
“My transplant was rejected.” She said it bluntly. No cheery, but I’ll be fine, to soften the blow. No lachrymose show of despair.
No commitment to keep fighting the good fight.
“How many times does that make?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Six.” Marlow squinted at the crenelated rooftops above us, a nimbus of black hair curling over her brow. “You know what it means.”
Health was our duty to our employers. It cut a direct path to our ability to work. Untreated illness was a breach of contract.
It didn’t matter how many class action suits went before the courts; our survival as a species depended on healthy workers. If we neglected our well-being, we were liable. And, more often than not, we were terminated.
“I’m sorry.” I wished I had something more inspiring, or comforting to say, but I couldn’t open a tab unseen and browse for alternatives.
Mar nodded. “You should head up. Don’t want to make you late for work.”
I wanted to hug her. Or press her hand. I wanted to put into words how heartbroken I felt. Instead, I stood there dumbly and watched Marlow cross the empty boulevard.
“I’ll see you later?” I called after her.
She plucked a hand out of her pocket and waved it in a lackadaisical motion over her head. And, because her wellspring of hope was apparently bottomless, she yelled back, “Hey, maybe I’ll see another pigeon!” She didn’t turn, but there was no catch in her voice. Clearly, she wasn’t that distraught.
“Magpie,” I whispered.
The apartment door stuck. As I entered, a whiff of antiseptic powder ill-disguised by chemical perfumes pricked my nose. I couldn’t remember smelling it before. Proportional surprise struck me when I took in my bland living room, its sterile walls and unvarnished but heated floors. The streets outside were thick with weeds and rust-red leaves. Birds perched on gables and windowsills.
My apartment was perfectly still, a cage awaiting its prisoner.
Clumsily, I toed off my boots and peeled off my coat. They would need to be bagged and sent to the cleaners’ before I could place them back into my wardrobe. It was imperative I shower off the city grime straightaway.
I didn’t hurry for the bathroom.
My transplant was denied.
I touched a germ-infested finger to the wall-mounted touch screen. The rectangle lit up with a colorful flare. I tapped the VoIP icon. Marlow had just left me, but she would be home soon. Better to find a missed call from me than total silence. She would be so alone now. Bonds of friendship frayed in times like these. Ours wouldn’t.
Marlow could come live with me. I made more than enough to support us both and she was good company. We’d see how best to accommodate her adventurous streak without running afoul of the law.
I hovered my thumb over the screen.
My knees threatened to buckle.
I wanted to rush into the street, to chase after Marlow, but I knew I wouldn’t find her. The screen told me all I needed to know. Where her avatar should have been, a blank square remained.
One bestest neighbor, gone.
Eugenie Mora is a writer of fanciful, occasionally creepy, sometimes sweet stories. Hates walks on the beach. Thinks birds are cool but weird. Unapologetic TV junkie. Music ninja. Professional reader. Passionate troublemaker. Food aficionado. Wine practitioner. She can be found online here.