I’m in Schuster’s bedroom, staring at the tangled sheets, sonic-aged bourbon in hand, trying to decide how feel about Salinas.
I’m not squeamish about sexuality. Were I, my choice of profession would be terribly difficult to handle. Of course, it’s not as if I grew up dreaming of being the co-owner of a manikin house. Were I to meet my teenaged self on the street, there’s a sixty/forty split on whether young Talbot would have run the other way or invited me to church, with more likely side depending on whether older me is drunk in this imagined moment. I was raised in one of the last denominations to publicly condemn virtually anything outside of church sanctioned heterosexual monogamy. I fell away from their teachings by the time I was sixteen, less as a means of justifying my own behavior — I’m creeping up on fifty and have less sexual experience than the statistical majority of teenagers — I simply couldn’t reconcile the church’s teachings on sex with their veneration of polyamorous patriarchs. For that matter, I recall as I savor the burn of alcohol slipping down my throat, I never understood how a religion founded by a man who could turn water into wine could be so insistent on abstaining from alcohol.
All that to say that if Schuster wants to host an orgy, that’s fine with me. I’ll even work security for the event and call in a dozen of Tamar’s manikins if the price is right. I just don’t want to touch the sheets afterward.
I retreat to the living room, trying to banish images of Schuster and Salinas from my mind. That I’m unable to completely do so may be a good thing. A sign, perhaps, that I’m beginning to put Seth behind me. Not to forget him, but to accept that allowing somebody else into my life isn’t a betrayal of his memory.
There’s an Art Deco book shelf beside the sofa, stocked with actual paper books. A rarity for my generation and practically unheard of for anyone Schuster’s age, but unsurprising in her home. I step closer and examine the weathered spines. Most of the titles are familiar to me, even though I’m not much for reading fiction. I’m more of a technical manuals kind of guy, and I had presumed that Schuster might be as well, but it seems that she collects vintage paperbacks of science fiction novels. After a few minutes perusing them I realize that I know these titles because every one that I recognize has been adapted into a movie. Some, in fact, are novelizations or released screenplays of original movies.
A glance at my handy tells me that the storm is picking up again and meteorological models are predicting that the back half of the storm will be stronger and last longer than the front. There is no fresh word from Darby, for which I am frankly grateful, and from her statuses I get the sense that Tamar is not only well, but doing a booming trade in streaming shows for all of the customers who are trapped in their homes and looking for a quick fix.
Lacking anything else to pass the time, I pull a novel from the shelf. Not exactly at random, the looming presence of the hurricane draws my hand towards the title of a longish novel by David Mitchell. The daemon emerges then, whispering that the atomic orange sofa cousins might be as contaminated as the bed. My jaw tightens, but I push back the fear. Lounging on Schuster’s sofa cannot be any worse than sitting on my favorite bar stool at Tamar’s. And how could it be any worse than Ethie’s mushroom spore sofa?
I awake several hours later to the touch of a hand on my cheek.
I start, fingers reflexively seeking the hilt of the ceramic blade in my boot. It isn’t there. For that matter, neither is my boot. A surprised shout reminds me of where I am and I open my eyes to see Schuster standing beside the minimalist metal and glass Koffee table, thumbs hooked in her pockets and the echoes of a sad smile darting across her lips. My boots are beneath the table, lined up precisely in the center between the legs, as is right.
“You were sleeping,” she says.
Such a simple and obvious statement, but I can sense the weight behind it. She’s been imagining a moment like this for months, perhaps years.
“I’m sorry I startled you.”
I shake my head, as much to clear my mind as in apology, and cast about for the novel I had been reading. I find it closed neatly on the Koffee table, my handy aligned beside it. I thought I had dozed off while reading, so perhaps it was Schuster who so perfectly aligned everything before waking me. If so, that’s another point in her favor, in this frustrating game we play.
“Were you enjoying the novel?” she asks.
I pry myself out of the corners of the cushions and sit upright, groggily. “I’m still not sure how I got from a tall ship in the Pacific to a detective thriller in California, but the prose was enjoyable. A difference from my usual fare.“
“The plot is a bit unusual.” Schuster hesitates, then steps closer and settles onto the far end of the sofa. She moves slowly, cautiously, as if we are magnets and she is skirting the edge of my field so she is not pulled in. “But I enjoy the concepts.”
“Isn’t it always like that in science fiction? Thin characters. Heavy ideas.”
She laughs. “A common perception. Less true than you might expect. If you look closely, you can often find hidden depths. The best of the writers use the outlandish plots as a means of experimenting with ideas about the human condition.”
There’s a moment of silence that stretches on longer than either of us would like. I slide over and lean against the side of the sofa, pulling my feet up and crossing my arms over my knees. I think back to that moment in the entryway, wondering if there is any way in which I could make myself love Schuster the way she so clearly wants me to.
“I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry,” I say, eventually.
She cocks her head to one side, her dark hair a tangled mass over the colorful bursts of abstracted flowers on her blouse. “You never have to apologize for anything, Tal.”
“I do. For everything, really.”
“You’re exactly who I want you to be. I mean, for your sake I wish your brain worked a little better, but I couldn’t ask for anyone better, broken bits and all.”
“What about the sharp bits? You know what I do.”
“And I make the sharp bits for you. Nothing more romantic than a woman who makes weapons for her man, I say.”
The smile she gives me then is so genuine, so plaintive, and so beautiful that it almost repairs my shattered heart. I smile back and, hesitant, beckon for her to move closer.
“What time is it?” I ask, after she has leaned her body against my legs, her cheek resting on my left knee.
“After midnight. You must have been reading for a long while to get so far into the book.”
“Just since Salinas left,” I say.
As soon as the words leave my lips I wonder if I have ruined everything. Will she take this as an accusation? My daemon immediately begins whispering about all of the terrible outcomes of my gaffe. Clearly our friendship is shot. She may never even be willing to help me again. I’ll have to find somebody else to manufacture my weapons. Some other hacker collective to tap into the networks for me. I’ll be ejected from the bunker and spend the remainder of this hurricane hunkered beneath the puny roof of the decorative well at the top of the hill. Maybe I’ll drown there, huddled at the bottom of a three foot deep well.
“Ah, you met Salinas,” she replies. “Good. They do some nice work with interactive volumetric projection. I’ve been sponsoring them for almost a year now. I do worry that they’re planning to leave once they finish their project.”
“And that would make you sad?”
“A bit. I don’t share a deep connection with them, but they’re a brilliant artist and not half bad in bed.”
She hesitates a moment, then squeezes my ankle and turns her eyes to meet mine. “You’re wondering if I’m angry at you for mentioning them? Or if their presence jeopardizes your position?”
“I don’t exactly have a position,” I say.
She gives me that sad smile again and lays her cheek back on my knee. “You’ll always have a position here, Tal. Several, if you’re willing.”
“Even if I can never give you what you want? What you need. You might find somebody else who can give you more.”
“You let me worry about what I want from who. For now, I’m happy with what you give me. Just this is almost enough.”
She heaves a sigh, which segues into a laugh. “Sometimes I don’t know if you’re joking or being serious when you say things like that.”
“I think I was being serious.”
“In that case… this.” She pats my leg and nestles closer to me. “And that lovely puzzle I left upstairs. I tell you, Tal, you really know how to give a girl what she wants.”
“A bundle of wires caked with gore?” I ask.
“Yep. Better than flowers any day.”