Through a haze of fever, pressure, and pain, James heard his name.
“James…” the voice sounded like Richard. “We called your parents. They’re here to see you.”
He opened his eyes, dread stirring painfully in his tortured insides.
“What?” he croaked. “No—”
His slow gaze found the door and he realized his parents were already standing in the open doorway. His father tall, and his mother serious.
Weakly, painfully, he gripped the covers and pulled them up over his head.
“James, please,” Richard said. “They’re worried about you.”
James’ breathing was disturbed, his eyes wide under the shelter of the blankets. They couldn’t see him like this.
“James,” his father spoke. “I know you don’t want to see us, but Brophy and his family are worried you’re not going to make it.”
James heard movement. They were coming closer.
“You need a hospital,” Allison said.
“I can’t,” James managed. “It’s not safe.”
“Don’t die for your pride,” Jonathan pleaded, fear masked in anger.
James set his jaw. Pain flared in his abdomen and he curled up into fetal position with an arm across his stomach and a hand to his mouth, staving off the urge to vomit.
“It’s not pride,” Richard explained quietly. “It’s—complicated…”
Jonathan sighed, the old, disapproving exasperation James knew. That sigh was branded into the back of his mind, always demanding, never satisfied. Richard had brought it into the house, into his sickroom.
“What could he have done that was so complicated you can’t tell us?” Jonathan said. “Obviously, he wants to keep it from us, but whatever it is is killing our son and don’t we have a right to know?”
“What are those black marks?” Allison said. “Tattoos? Did he join some kind of cult? Did they do something to him?”
James closed his eyes, tightly.
“James, may I tell them?” Richard asked.
“No,” James said.
“They think you joined a cult,” Richard emphasized, frustrated.
“Didn’t I?” James wheezed. It stung that his cerebral, academic parents’ first thought was that he’d joined a religious cult, but that was better than knowing he was a murderer too.
“At least let us see you,” Allison said, very quietly. “We were so worried when you disappeared.”
James thought it over. He was too tired to fight this anymore. If he just gave them what they wanted, maybe they’d leave. He would never be brave enough to tell them the truth.
Finally, he slowly brought the covers down, revealing his face. He painstakingly uncurled himself and settled in, his body throbbing and aching. He took a slow breath, staring up at the ceiling for a moment, before looking at his parents. Their expressions gave way to a kind of awed despair at the sight of him, and he couldn’t bear their pity.
He wearily observed his father, whose own face was ashen and haggard. He wore a knit hat as well, and now that James paid more attention, he realized Jonathan was bundled up a little more than usual. And he remembered what had begun all of this.
“How are you feeling, Dad?” James managed.
Jonathan hesitated, surprised. “Oh. Better.”
“I got your voicemail,” James said sluggishly. His energy was spent and he could feel his consciousness waning. “But I didn’t have a chance to call you back. My phone was taken. I’m sorry I missed it.”
Jonathan nodded, his lips tight.
Richard took a step toward the door. “I’ll give you three some privacy…”
When they were alone, no one knew what to say to each other, what to do. Finally, his parents pulled up a couple of spare chairs that had been folded against the wall and took a seat near his bed. James closed his eyes, trying to relax. This was okay, he told himself.
But every time he glanced at his father, he wanted to confess, to tell him about the machine he had built for him, the terrible things it had led to. But if he started talking, he wouldn’t stop, and before they knew it, they’d probably be yelling at each other. For the past, the present, and the future. His parents would dig their heels in, and then they would assert their dominance and call an ambulance, or the police, to take James to the hospital by force.
So he didn’t say anything, and his parents didn’t ask. They just sat there together in silence, wondering if maybe this would be the last time.
Heather sat with James all that night, holding his feverish hand as if that could keep him tethered to his body.
She hoped on some level he knew she was with him, though he stayed unconscious except for when he suddenly sat up, incoherently searching for somewhere to vomit. It was usually the black stuff that came up, bleeding from his nose at the same time. Trembling and gasping, he groped for the glass of water after, and Heather helped him wipe the bile off his face, and tried to get him to drink an electrolyte mix. He kept it down, which she took as a good omen.
“You don’t have to do this, Heather,” her mom had said before bedding down on the couch for the first watch. “Your dad and I can look after him.”
“I asked him to make a shield with the Q-13 at Empetrum,” Heather confessed, quiet and broken. “He pushed himself too far because of me.”
Sue hugged her. “None of this is your fault, sweetie. You each did what you had to do, and James made his choice.”
Heather stayed at his bedside anyway. She refused to give up hope, though it was a tiny, exhausted flame, holding vigil over her friend’s failing body. She couldn’t imagine facing the aftermath of Empetrum without him, but more and more she feared she would have to.
Sesame dropped by every couple of hours to check in. He watched the house at night, vigilant for trespassers and unafraid of the dark. They still didn’t know what Benson planned to do next, and of course no one was about to drive up to Empetrum to ask as the days dragged on without sight of their adversaries.
Heather had asked if Sesame knew how to channel electricity from his core, and he proudly showed her. He was happy to feel like part of the team, and it was a comfort to not be the only robot in the house.
She jerked suddenly awake. She hadn’t realized she’d fallen into hibernation, and her circuits lurched with desperate dread of what she might have missed. Whether James had slipped away.
Instead, she found his face startlingly close to hers in the modest morning light, his naked brow constricted in weary concentration as his stained fingers carefully pushed inward on the extension cord hooked to her chest, checking its connection. He glanced up, inquisitive and relieved to see her awake.
Heather stared at him, eyes wide and emotional as he checked the clamp holding it in place before he withdrew. She gently caught his hand, gazing into his lucid golden eyes. Her temperature sensor clicked on.
His fever had finally broken.
Erika fought to ignore the knot in her stomach as Richard drove down the long gravel lane. Pastureland spread out around them.
They passed the barn.
Richard stopped at a small yellow house. She was both relieved and terrified to see the family pickup truck sitting in the driveway. They knew she was coming today.
“Doing okay?” Richard asked.
Erika nodded and flashed an uncertain smile. “Thanks for taking me all the way out here. It really means a lot.”
Richard smiled back. “My pleasure.”
She had stuck around for a week, making sure everything was okay, and as soon as James’ condition started improving, with no sign of retrieval efforts by Empetrum, Heather encouraged her to go home, to reunite with her own family. There would be time to talk about Non-Comp’s progenitors later.
The Brophys were kind people, she thought. Siles was in good hands.
Erika drew a steadying breath and opened the door.
“Goodbye,” she said, smiling.
“Come back and visit anytime,” Richard said. “You’re always welcome.”
Erika nodded. “Thank you.” She maneuvered herself out of the car, carefully pulling her accessory arms after her. So much had changed.
Anxiously, she crept up the walkway to the front door and rang the bell. The baying of the family bloodhounds erupted from inside the house.
“Coming!” a voice called from within. Tristan. Her sister.
Erika’s throat tightened.
The door opened. Tristan’s expression gave way to raw shock. The dogs pushed past her legs, rushing out to greet the newcomer on their way to the grassy front yard.
Erika waited for something to happen, her face ablaze with shame and apprehension.
“Erika,” Tristan breathed, opening the door further. Her attention found her sister’s extra arms before she looked on, watching Richard’s car back up and turn around.
“I warned you it would be weird—” Erika began, but her voice cut off in surprise as her sister threw herself at her.
Tristan’s lean arms clamped around her. “I don’t care if it’s weird.” She whipped her face back. “Dad! It’s Erika!”
Her father’s feet slid on the floor in his haste to round the corner. His wide brown eyes brimmed with tears as he stepped forward to join the embrace. He didn’t even glance at the arms. “Erika.”
The scent of the farm still lingered on their clothing, mingling with their sweet, natural aromas. Erika’s composure shattered.
“I’m home,” she sobbed into her father’s shirt. She squeezed them both tighter. “I’m home.”
James ventured out into the hallway, rubbing his eyes. For the first time in what felt like forever, it didn’t hurt to be awake. His vision was steady, though his balance was fragile, and sudden movements stirred up the sticky fire in his joints.
Sesame and Heather had set up camp in a blanket fort by the electrical socket in the kitchen, and Sue sat at the table with a book and a cup of coffee. James blinked in the sunlight streaming through the window. He had been free of fever for a day, but this was his first time venturing out into the open on his own.
Sue looked up, surprised. “Good morning, James.”
“Morning,” James said quietly, rubbing the side of his face, rough with patchy stubble. “What day is it?”
Sesame poked his head out of the fort. “It’s Sunday! You’ve been asleep for almost a whole week.”
Heather’s face appeared next to Sesame’s. She and James stared at each other in awkward silence for a few moments, unsure of what to do with each other now that he was livelier.
“Have a seat,” Sue said. “Are you hungry?”
“I think so.” The last five days had been a blur of darkness, bile, and pain, interrupted once by Heather arguing with her parents out in the kitchen and coming in to sit with him. He almost thought his own parents visiting had been a fever dream, but knew that had actually happened. Erika had come in the evening before to say goodbye, but she mentioned she’d be back soon. There was something she wanted to discuss, as soon as he was feeling better.
Sue stood up from the table. “Egg on toast okay?”
“Yes,” he managed reservedly. “Thank you.” He felt odd and useless sitting still while Heather’s mother served him. “W—would you like any help?”
“No, you’ve done enough, thank you,” Sue said.
James sank a little into the chair, rubbing the back of his neck and averting his gaze.
“Mom.” Heather climbed out of the fort, holding the wires in her chest. “Please be nice to him.”
“I’m sorry.” Sue turned her back, busying herself with putting bread in the toaster. She sighed. “It was just—easier when he was asleep.”
James studied the wood grain of the table.
Sesame hopped up into the chair beside him, a big paperback in his hands.
“What are you reading?” James asked, trying to change the subject.
“A book!” Sesame said, proudly showing him what looked to be a young adult novel. “Sue brought us back a whole bunch from the library.”
“That was nice of her.” He glanced at the stacks inside the blanket fort, wondering how Heather was holding up in the mountain of change she faced, whether she’d tell him if he asked.
Heather gingerly arranged herself and the cords at the table across from him. Most of the charring had been cleaned off her body, and she’d exchanged the tattered, burnt Empetrum garb for a pair of magenta running shorts. Her missing leg had been replaced. His gaze found the wires in her chest.
Heather followed his attention. “Dad’s working on a new battery in between other stuff at work. He hasn’t told the Bureau what happened.”
James wished he could have helped sooner. “I wonder if they already know,” he said, idly kneading his aching hands. “Unless Benson didn’t feel like admitting what he was doing.”
Heather shrugged. She considered his face, and her mechanical features adjusted into a soft smile. “You’re so alert today. That’s a relief.”
James offered a wan smile back, and jumped when Sue planted two tall glasses in front of him: one of water, the other of brightly colored sports drink.
“Drink both of those, please,” Sue said and curtly returned to the stove. “You need fluid and electrolytes.”
“Okay.” James fussed with the edge of the beanie on his head. He still wasn’t used to being bald, but a week had produced enough of a shadow to make him hopeful his hair was growing back. “Where’s Richard?”
“Taking Erika home,” Heather said. “He’ll be back soon.”
“And after breakfast,” Sue said. “You’re calling your parents.”
“Okay,” he said again, quietly, reaching for the glass of sports drink.
The idea of contacting his parents again filled him with dread. Now that he was no longer actively dying, the buffer would be gone. They’d demand a full explanation, and his being unprepared to divulge the whole humiliating story would never be good enough for them. The last few months had transformed him into the very antithesis of everything he had once emulated, and he didn’t know what to do with the flaming, inky mess he had become. It was unprofessional. His parents would disapprove.
“Is your dad feeling better?” Heather asked. “I’m surprised he was strong enough to visit.”
“He’s been on this new treatment that’s been helping—” James cut himself off, remembering all over again the horrible timing. It occurred to him this was the first Heather was hearing about it. His parents must not have lingered much to chat. He wondered if she and Sesame had made themselves scarce when his parents were there, or if they’d already heard some version of the story.
Heather stared at him in slack, painful disbelief. His gaze fell to the table, knowing the thoughts that must be washing over her: If he had only waited three months, none of this would have happened. They both knew he would never pick up the project again as long as he lived. Her neural transfer was all for nothing. A useless, life-destroying exercise.
The room grew extremely quiet.
“When did you find that out?” Heather said finally, the volume of her voice very low.
James forced himself to look her in the eyes. “The night of the transfer. While I was waiting for you to wake up afterwards…A guard played me a voicemail my dad had left on my cell phone after it had been confiscated.”
Her shoulders slumped in disbelief. She sat back and looked away.
“I’m so sorry, Heather.” James said. He bent forward and cradled his aching head in his hands. “I’m so sorry…”
“I know,” Heather said, quietly. “I hope your dad’s going to be okay.”
Sue was right. It had been easier when he was asleep.
“I—I can give you some space,” he said, carefully bracing his hands on the table to help himself stand. Every muscle in his body protested.
Heather’s face snapped up, surprised. “No. No, that’s okay. Stay. Please.”
James hesitated, but sat back down. Sesame went over to sit next to Heather. He leaned against her, and she flashed him an appreciative smile.
“How are you doing, Heather?” James ventured, uncertainly. “I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help with anything.” She had so much to adjust to, so many questions to which no one knew the answers. Maybe she wouldn’t have even wanted him around in the first days back home, to give her time to process with her family without him haunting their interactions. He thought maybe that was better.
At least she had Sesame to keep her company over the long nights. O.R.T-1 seemed to be helpful. James was still nervous around it, but the little robot was already starting to grow on him.
“You’re here now,” Heather said, trying to look reassuring. “It’s been okay.” She considered his face. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see you pulled through. We’ve been really worried.”
He nodded, uncomfortable. He didn’t want to think about what must have gone through everyone’s minds as his health took a dive, the possibility of having his corpse on their hands.
Sue gave him the egg on toast and he thanked her. He gingerly took a bite, chewing slowly. Even the muscles in his face were sore.
The house seemed peaceful now, but heartache soaked the air, suspended in a limbo between tragedy and forward motion. James had murdered his friend, yet she still lived, and they weren’t sure how to process the complexity of that loss. He didn’t know where he was supposed to fit in the aftermath, still surprised to have woken up that morning alive.
He finished his breakfast and then excused himself and headed for the bathroom.
As he was about to shut the door, he heard Sue speak, “Why do you defend him, Heather?”
James let the door close, but he lingered next to it as their voices filtered through.
“He’s not a bad person,” Heather said. “He’s trying.”
“That doesn’t give him a free pass,” Sue said. “It was his good intentions that got us here.”
“He’s aware of that too.”
“I don’t think you should be so gentle with him. As soon as he’s well enough, he’ll go right back to being a danger to our family.”
“He won’t, Mom.”
“You can’t know that for sure.”
There was a long pause. James sat down on the linoleum, his back against the door.
“I really thought you and Dad were on the same page about James,” Heather said finally, injured.
Her mother sighed. “I’m trying to be,” she said. “It’s just, I look at him, sitting there, and at you, having to deal with what associating with him has done to you. The way he looks at you makes me want to punch him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like he cares for you,” Sue said. “Well, he doesn’t get to. He doesn’t deserve—” She cut herself off, her voice wavering.
“Mom,” Heather said. James heard a chair scoot across the floor. “Mom, it’s okay…”
James closed his eyes and bowed his head.
The Brophy’s house was the safest place for him to be at the moment. He wasn’t strong enough to strike out on his own, his parents would immediately ship him off to the hospital, and if Benson showed up at the Brophy’s doorstep, James needed to be there to stand in the way, or to offer himself up in a deal to make him leave them alone once and for all.
With a slow, unsteady breath, he stood up and ventured to the bathtub, turning the faucet.
He didn’t know how long he hid in the shower. He wished the hot water could wash away the scars, the guilt, the pain. There was no way to undo everything he had done. All Benson had driven him to.
A knock came at the bathroom door as he stood in front of the mirror, a towel wrapped around his gaunt waist, dismally examining the black markings and the golden color of his irises. He had lost weight in the week he had spent unconscious, his angles sharper, his face hollow and drawn, as if the Q-13 sapped his very life force, drove his metabolism to burn itself up.
When he opened the door, he found a pile of folded clothes on the floor. He picked it up, wincing.
“Thank you—” he called furtively down the hallway.
“You’re welcome,” came Sue’s voice from the kitchen. “Shaving supplies are in the bottom left drawer.”
James closed himself inside the bathroom again. He leaned against the door with an unsteady sigh, hugging the bundle loosely against his chest.
Richard returned in the afternoon. By then, James had been coaxed into joining the fort with Heather and Sesame. They didn’t have to press him much, and he had even fallen asleep among the blankets and pillows for a while.
A part of him thought it was pathetic to allow himself to accept their invitation. But as hard as James had tried to pattern his life after individualistic practicality, as much as he felt like he no longer deserved any good thing that came to him, he was a wreck.
And he didn’t rightly care about saving face anymore. He had almost died, for pity’s sake. Heather had almost died too, and Sesame had played a key part in bringing them home. James didn’t deserve their companionship, but if they wanted him in the fort with them, he wouldn’t deny them.
He wouldn’t deny them anything.
His chat with his parents had gone about as he had expected. He still wasn’t ready to tell them what had happened, so it had ended up a short phone call.
Heather had been very quiet all day, and continued to brush off attempts to inquire about her feelings, so he stayed close as long as she asked. It was all he could do.
“Hello.” Richard smiled, bending down a little to see the inhabitants of the fort.
James felt like he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to, but Sesame had found his way into his lap, so he couldn’t escape.
“James, glad to see you awake and cleaned up,” Richard said, before turning his smile to Heather. “You inducted a new member into your fort.”
Heather smiled back.
“Hey, so starting next week, I’ll be able to devote a lot more time to fixing you up,” Richard told her. “You’ll be able to get rid of those wires in a couple of days.”
“I’ll help,” James said.
Richard paused. “Everything’s at Larkspur…”
“I know.” He cringed to think of facing his old colleagues, but the reunion was necessary, inevitable. “It would give me the opportunity to tie some ends there.”
“You’re resigning, then,” Richard said. “Of your own accord.”
James blinked, confused.
“I received your letter of resignation,” Richard said. “But I figured it was Benson, not you. Even though you appeared to have signed it.”
“Oh.” James’ gaze fell. “Yeah, that was Benson, but I assumed it was binding. I had better, anyway. To save you the trouble of firing me. You don’t need my kind at Larkspur.”
“You know,” James paused, searching for words. “The mad scientist kind. Narcissistic, naive, prone to obsession…”
“James,” Heather tried.
“You’ll find someone better to replace me,” James said. “Someone more stable.” He lifted a jet black hand, managing a melancholy smile. “Not as weaponized.”
He was trying to crack a joke, but Richard just looked concerned. “What will you do, then?”
“I don’t know,” James said. “But I should be out of the way as soon as I can.”
“Take your time to rest and recover,” Richard said, gently. “Stay here as long as you need, okay?”
Heather was nodding in agreement.
“Would you possibly be willing to take me to run some errands?” James asked. He tugged on the collar of the sweatshirt he was wearing. “You probably don’t want me to keep borrowing your clothes.”
“To get your stuff from Empetrum?” Richard asked, uneasy.
“No, that’s definitely off the table,” James said. “Too dangerous.”
Richard nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He was mainly frustrated about his computer, and all the legal documents he’d have to get replaced. But he had been prepared to leave everything behind on the first escape attempt. “I’ll just start from scratch.”
Richard smiled softly, that fatherly expression James felt unworthy to have trained on him. “Well, let me know when you’re feeling up to errands elsewhere.”
James felt his face redden. “Thank you. Maybe tomorrow after you get back from Larkspur?”
Richard scoffed. “Tomorrow? You just graduated from bedridden to blanket fort. Are you sure you’re going to be strong enough?”
“I’ll be fine,” James said. “I’ll make as many phone calls as I can today to streamline the process about getting my various ID’s replaced too.” He felt Heather’s disapproving gaze on him.
“Okay,” Richard’s voice lilted skeptically. “Just, please don’t push yourself too hard.”
“Heather, are you hibernating?”
Heather opened her eyes to the ceiling of blanket fort above her. The kitchen was dark, but a nightlight glowed across the room. Sesame sat perched crosslegged on a pillow nearby, the light of his facial panel turned low so that it was visible but not blinding in the dark.
“I guess,” she said.
“Do you go dormant at night because you’re used to sleeping?”
“Yeah,” Heather said, folding her hand across her middle, careful not to get it tangled in the wires. She looked forward to being free of them soon. “I don’t know what to do with all this time.”
“I do,” Sesame said, standing up with an eager smile. He ducked out of the fort. “Come on.”
Heather sat up, not really in the mood. It was hard enough to be conscious for sixteen hours a day, much less spending any time awake during the night when it was as dark and still as her artificial body. She couldn’t stand how empty it made her feel.
But she followed him. When she emerged from the blankets and pillows, Sesame was pulling open the sliding glass door to the back yard.
“I can’t go far,” Heather said.
“I know.” Sesame waited for her to step outside. The night was mostly clear for now, but clouds were moving in quickly. Leaves were starting to fall from the trees, and a breeze stirred. It occurred to her an organic person might have considered it cold. She, however, felt nothing.
Sesame took a few steps out onto the patio, surveying the yard with his hands on his hips.
Heather ventured up beside him. “Is this what you do all night?”
“Sometimes,” Sesame said. “It looks different at night. It’s like the world is upside down.”
Heather looked off into the darkness of the backyard, and the shadowy trees beyond. It was kind of creepy. “I guess.” After a long period of silence, she said, “Do you like how you are now, Sesame?”
“I do,” Sesame said. He looked down, touching his mechanical chest. He was wearing a oversized purple sweatshirt he had found in Heather’s closet. “This body gives me way more than I ever had as a mouse. I’m happy with it.”
Heather’s gaze fell. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel like you do about this. About James’ machine.”
“That’s okay,” Sesame said.
“Do you remember your transfer?”
Sesame nodded. “It was scary, but I’m grateful for it now.”
Heather nodded too, slowly. Even though Benson might otherwise have killed her for seeing something she shouldn’t have, she would never be grateful for it. None of this should have ever happened in the first place. “Now that you’re humanoid, you can change your name, if you want. I won’t mind.”
“Why would I want to change my name?”
Heather shrugged. “I didn’t know if you felt it still suited you. You know, after the upgrade…”
Sesame shook his head. “I like my name. You gave it to me. I want to keep it.”
“Oh.” Heather flashed a wan, reserved smile.
“Maybe the one James gave me could be my second name,” Sesame said.
“Maybe,” she said, hesitating. After another long silence, she said, “What do you think of him? Of James?”
“You want to know if I think he’s still dangerous?” he offered. “Like your parents do?”
Heather nodded, embarrassed that Sesame was paying attention to the nagging question plaguing her and her family, of what to do with James. Most of the time it seemed to her that Sesame was just along for the ride.
“I think he would do anything for you,” Sesame said.
Heather groaned and sat down crosslegged on the patio. “That’s the problem. He feels so guilty, he won’t tell me what he actually wants.” She buzzed a sigh, pensive.
“What do you want?” Sesame asked.
“Right now?” Heather looked at the wires in her chest. Her eyes narrowed sadly. “The impossible.”
“Can you get another organic body?” Sesame asked.
Heather shook her head. “It doesn’t work that way. Even if we could make a clone or something, I don’t think there’s a way to download memories to an organic brain. Even if there were, it would just make another copy. I don’t know if the real me even exists anymore.” She shook her head again and stood up. She didn’t want to think about this. Organorobotic transference was a one way trip and there was no way to get her old life back. The sooner she accepted that, she thought bitterly, the better. “I should check on James. Thanks for showing me this, Sesame. I appreciate it.” Even though she didn’t really get it.
Sesame smiled at her. “Anytime.”
Heather maneuvered the extension cord back into the house with her, carefully making her way down the hallway to where the door to the guest bedroom remained open a crack. She thought James would have started closing it, now that he was feeling better, but maybe he was aware it would give off the impression he was hiding from them. She would have wanted to hide a lot more than she already did if she were in his position.
Heather slowly pushed the door open a little more to peek in, to make sure he was okay and sleeping.
He moved, and Heather froze. His face turned and she saw the slight glow of his Q-13 infected irises as he sat up a little, confused.
“Heather?” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Are you okay?”
She hesitated, debating escaping back down the hallway and pretending she hadn’t just been caught. “Yeah. Sorry—I didn’t mean to wake you.”
He sat up further with a soft grunt. “It’s okay. I was already awake.”
Heather ventured into the room, approaching the bed. “Nightmare?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. He tried to smile, though his eyes were haunted. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“May I sit down?”
James repositioned himself, moving his legs over to give her more room as she took a seat on the edge of the bed.
Earlier that evening, he had only barely managed to make it through errands with Richard, promising to pay him back as soon as he had regained access to his bank accounts. Richard had made him use a motorized grocery cart despite his stubborn and unfounded insistence that he was fine to walk by himself. Along with a modest set of basics from a sporting goods store, Richard bought him a cane. James came back exhausted and upset, bitterly lamenting his imprisonment in his weak, poisoned body, and refused to be comforted.
“I can’t do anything!” he had cried. “It’s like I’m dead.”
He had left the cane propped by the front door. He couldn’t stand to look at it.
They were going to finish Heather’s new power core and install it the next day. James was determined to come help even if it killed him.
“Heather,” James said, hesitating as he broke the silence. “I’ve been thinking a lot about building you an organic-passing body…”
Heather stared at the beige carpet off the edge of the bed, unmoving. His words were uttered neutrally, and she hadn’t expected them to scare her. Under all his shattered countenance, the eerie physiological effects and immense fatigue from the Q-13, he was still there: the James that never stopped, that pushed too hard, that couldn’t live if he couldn’t be useful. An ambitious, restless soul that still couldn’t leave things well enough alone, because nothing he did would ever be enough for him. So soon after more than one very near brush with death, he already stumbled after the urge to keep his dangerous mind busy, and she wanted to say something, but couldn’t bring herself to reply.
“Did I say something wrong?” James asked softly.
Heather shook her head. “I guess I just wasn’t ready to hear that yet, from you.”
James hugged his knees, troubled. “I’m sorry.”
A long silence sat between them.
“And I’m wondering,” Heather added. “If you were to act on that, where would you get that kind of money? Who else would you have to sell your soul to?”
James shrugged, looking away.
Heather studied him for a moment, his arms folded on his knees, disquieted, ashamed, and she didn’t know what to do. She felt such a strong attachment to him, but she couldn’t tell if it was safe or productive, something that should be allowed to continue. Her mom, justifiably, felt it wasn’t. Her dad wouldn’t give her a straight answer. Let’s take it one day at a time, he kept saying when she asked. One day at a time.
Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe she was holding onto James because she was too afraid of what would happen if she let him go—whether he would unhinge in the face of his trauma, and what she would become without him.
Her loved ones asked how she was and she wanted so much for things to be okay that she couldn’t bring herself to be honest with them. They could relate to her situation in their own ways, but she still felt incredibly alone trying to pick up the shattered pieces of her life. However, James deeply understood what Empetrum had done to both of them. She didn’t have to shield him or try to explain the pain of it to him. He already knew.
But the question remained. As she tried to figure out how to move forward, was he a hand to hold or another accident waiting to happen?
“What did Erika want to talk about?” James asked quietly.
“The other kids,” Heather said. “The ones still trapped in the system.”
James stared at the end of the bed. “Oh.”
“Is there a way to help them?” Heather ventured.
“I hope so.”