“Take Dad for two weeks.”
“What? No, I mean, I can’t. What about school?” I sucked in air, floundering. First the memory care monster, and now this? I’d been sucker punched.
My sister Marlin waved a hand at the mess of tissues and the box of Sudafed. “Koi, I’ve been managing Dad all winter. My clients are booked solid through April and May.”
“You managed before.”
“Ha,” she said, “Managed.” The word turned into a dripping sarcasm ball. “Just two weeks, Koi, that’s all I’m asking.”
“I can’t do it.”
Marlin looked down at her manicured thumbnail, picking at an appliquéd flower. Loose hair fell forward, covering her face in a glossy curtain. “He doesn’t need me,” she said quietly.
A bigger monster entered the room. Mom’s reasons for leaving Dad, tangled up with the very careful way our family never, ever talked about the biggest thing I had inherited from him.
This was the closest we’d come to naming it since Mom died. A thin wisp of connection hovering in the air between us. I could reach out right now and take Marlin’s bare hand, let all those unspoken things spill out of me. A yearning to share this burden, to explain somehow, flickered for an instant. But talking about it with Marlin would ignite her caretaker instincts, and I couldn’t let her fix things for me anymore. I had to figure out my life on my own.
The moment dissipated. Marlin snuck a sideways peek at me through her hair. I reached out and stroked soft strands, careful not to brush the edge of her ear.
“And we’ll try to work out some more permanent solution in the meantime,” said Marlin, back to bossy little sister voice.
Permanent solution? “I was supposed to have spring off for my classes,” I said. She just stared back at me, waiting, sick, concerned, and stubborn as Mom.
I flexed my fingers, trying to calm the little bursts of unease running up and down my arms. I couldn’t fight this Marlin. She was deadly serious. “Okay. You can bring him by tonight.”
“Can you just pick him up at Salvation Army at the end of his day program?”
“I’ve got classes.” Even Marlin could push me only so far.
“Fine. I’ll bring him. Now, I’ve got some serious binging to do with Leverage on my DVR. If you want to stay and play ‘spot the downtown landmarks’, that’s fine. If not, you’re dismissed.” She fiddled with the remote. “And thanks for the Sudafed.”
She kept her eyes on the TV, but I blew an air kiss to her as I left anyway. She drove me crazy, but she was one of the only people in the world since Mom died that I could call mine.
My smothering, meddling bridge to humanity.
I let myself out the door, ran down her rickety staircase and whipped around the overgrown pink-budded rhododendrons back towards the sidewalk.
And barreled headlong into somebody.
Somebody with a hard midsection covered by an OHSU sweatshirt.
I looked up, flushing for a third time that morning. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
It was the guy from Rite-Aid. I hadn’t had a good look at him before, but now there was no convenient escape-path. He had very dark brown eyes, almost black. Under the lack of a pronounced eyelid, his eyes tilted up at the corners. Asian, or possibly, part-Asian. Medium-length dark hair, moussed up into tousled spikes at the top of his head.
He wore the sweatshirt like someone who didn’t care what they put on because they had the body to pull off any look.
I glanced at his hands. The box of condoms was no longer in sight.
“This is becoming a habit,” he said.
I bristled, but his mouth was curved into a relaxed grin, and he held one eyebrow arched up high in a way I’d wished I could emulate ever since I’d watched Spock on old Star Trek reruns.
“Sorry,” I repeated with great emphasis. I stepped off the path to go around him, but he held out a hand to stop me.
“I was hoping to talk to you,” he said.
“What?” I backed away, checking quickly to see if anyone else was nearby. The parking lot mothers had all gone inside. Not a soul was around. Unease prickled.
I’d touched him. Usually I only got fragments that lasted long enough to turn into dreams from people feeling strong emotion—like the clerk’s sadness. This guy didn’t have a drama aura, and I’d felt nothing at Rite-Aid but all of a sudden I wasn’t so sure he hadn’t given me a fragment. Were crazy stalker dreams going to haunt me tonight?
“I’m new to town,” he said, with a curious emphasis.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. Was that all I could say today? Just placate him, and then slip away. I was good at slipping away. “Do you need directions somewhere?”
“Directions?” he looked puzzled. “Nihongo wakarimasu ka?”
I shook my head, screwing up my face into a puzzled look. Crazy stalker who spoke Japanese? Why the hell did he ask me if I spoke Japanese, anyway?
It wasn’t like Dad’s heritage was stamped all over my face. There was only a slight lift around the corner of my eyes. Even my nose was the sharp monstrosity inherited from the Pierce side.
“Ah, dame ka,” he muttered. Those perfectly formed eyebrows fell, and his face changed. Not just the expression, but I swear his eyelashes got thicker and his mouth got wider, the lips more generous and the cheeks rounder. I blinked and looked again.
It was the same guy, but his expression now fairly screamed “attractive and amiable.” As if he were the ultimate life insurance salesman.
“Ah, I have to go…ah meet someone for coffee.” I gestured vaguely at the apartment complex. “I’m pretty sure all the apartments are labeled with names. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding anything.”
“Actually, I was going to ask you for directions to the nearest café,” he said, his smile was genuine, but a hint of a smirk crinkled beneath his eyes.
Seriously? I rubbed my hands on the sides of my sweats. This guy was weird, but he hadn’t given off scary vibes when I bumped into him those two times. If only Marlin were here to give me a clue about how to handle this. Was it more normal to blow my rape whistle or walk with him to Stumptown?
He was patiently waiting, smiling in that way that made me feel included in a secret joke.
Okay, Stumptown it was. Once we got there I’d order first and then slip out while he was waiting for his.
“Follow me,” I said, moving forward so he had to fall into step beside me. My head barely reached the bottom of his chin. Walking side by side meant I didn’t have to meet his gaze.
“Do you live in one of these condos?” he said.
I stumbled a bit over a non-existent sidewalk crack
He coughed. “Ah, that’s not a comfortable question, is it? Let me try again. Okay, how about, do you know a cheap but nice apartment complex around here?”
I considered my scant knowledge of the neighborhood where I’d been living for most of my post-high school life. Nope. Not a clue.
Best cold buckwheat noodles in Portland? Grocery stores that delivered? Back stairwells on PCC’s campus? Navigating databases and academic search engines? I was your girl. Knowledge of the real world? Not so much.
“Can’t help you. But there’s some great apartment-finder websites for Portland. There might even be some of those real estate booklets at Stumptown.”
We stopped at the intersection and I waited, looking at him expectantly. He grinned back, but made no move to push the crosswalk button even though he was closer. Sighing, I reached past him to hit the button with an open palm. Instead of backing away when I invaded his personal space, the guy leaned in, flaring his nostrils like he was…smelling.
I pulled back abruptly.
His brows knit together in puzzlement. “You…you aren’t only human. Why don’t you-“
The light turned red, and I strode away from him across the intersection.
Okay. Line officially crossed into whacko-ness. Only human? What? Even Marlin wouldn’t tell me I needed to be polite to Mr. Sniffer-Stalker now.
Stumptown and relative safety was at the end of the street, the bright yellow rooster-bedecked sign visible from here. He could find his own damn way.
My back prickled again, but I refused to turn around and look. No acknowledgement, no encouragement was the best policy. I reached Stumptown and stepped around a bicycle trailer, banging my knee against the protruding handle of a kiddie scooter. Stupid inanimate objects, always getting in my way in a social crisis.
Inside the calm, blonde wood interior, I stood sideways in line to make other customers less likely to crowd up behind me. And to keep one eye out for Mr. Sniffer-Stalker.
“You’re next,” said the lady in line behind me. I looked up to see the puzzled faces of Greg-ever-chipper and Sai-can’t-be-bothered peering at me from behind the glass case of pastries.
“What can I get started for you?” said Greg, in a forced version of his chipper voice that indicated he was repeating something for an embarrassing-teenth time.
“Large latte,” I said. I whipped out my debit card to hand to Sai.
Ever since I passed her in a PCC hallway three weeks ago, I’d been working my way up to chit chat with Sai. I needed to say something normal. Something interesting and witty.
“How are classes?”
“You know, pretty easy so far,” said Sai. Her smile seemed genuine. I glanced around the displays, looking for something to ask about.
My eyes came to rest on a man at one of the little tables. He was familiar in a way I couldn’t place. A professor, for sure, decked out in a plaid jacket with suede elbows and an armful of coffee-stained papers in loose folders. Probably I knew him from walking the halls at PCC. A little shiver ran down my spine.
Why did the sight of him make me uneasy? Nothing in the way his gray-speckled hair curled over his collar told me anything.
I walked to the corner to wait for Greg to finish my latte.
“Ah yeah, I guess your classes must be okay, too then,” Sai called after me. A thin undercurrent of sarcasm laced her voice. Oops, preoccupied with studying the back of the professor’s head, I must have missed Sai’s continuance of our chit chat .
Not even a quick flash of the patented chipper grin as Greg put my latte on the bar. Maybe they’d chalk up my spaciness to caffeine deficiency. I could always hope.
When my hand touched the warm cardboard of the latte, the aroma of cinnamon suddenly intensified. The strange, horrible fragment that had been giving me nightmares bubbled up from the depths of my mind. I froze.
The bright red of the espresso machine bled into the brown walls and counters, streaks of watery smudge blurring everything.
Oat bran and molasses on my tongue. A hint of exotic spice…cardamom? Brown and red seeped into the brown-on-black shadows of a darkened hallway. My hand gripped the cold metal handle of a giant jagged-edged knife, like the kind in old Rambo movies. Blood dripped from the blade onto the pale, motionless body of a woman with long, black hair and a prominent, hooked nose.
Scalding milk spilled down my arm and I yelped. The lid of my latte had popped off. Someone pressed a towel to my arm. I murmured apologies and closed my eyes hard until the dead woman’s glassy eyes faded into black ink.
Ki, yama, tsuki; the firm strokes of my old Saturday school teacher’s ink-tipped calligraphy brush painted kanji on the fuzzy light leaking behind my eyelids. That horrible fragment was haunting my waking moments now? How had I gotten such a strong one without realizing? This had never happened before. A whole week’s dreaming hadn’t lessened any of the visceral details.
Breathe. Paint a black line. Defining spaces of white contained within black helped banish the hallway, the scent, the terrible pale skin.
After a moment, I opened my eyes. Greg stared at me, dripping towel in one hand.
“Should we call Ben?” he whispered sideways to Sai.
Any progress I’d made in the past month at Stumptown was just completely obliterated. Time to beat a strategic retreat. Give people time to forget the weirdness.
I spun around clutching my half-full, soggy latte.
The professor guy was also staring at me, and I suddenly knew where I’d seen him before.
He did teach at PCC. I’d bumped into him outside my Japanese lit professor’s office last week. He’d just barreled through the door, flustered and flushed. Before I could dodge, he’d patted my bare arm in apology. For once, the mishap hadn’t been my fault.
I’d first tasted that disturbing fragment in my dream that week, the molasses-oat, and the jarring figure of the dead woman.
It was his fragment, this professor with the suede elbows. But it had to be a nightmare, right? Not a memory-flavored dream like Marlin and Taizo Kovach on prom night. I mean, PCC professors didn’t actually murder people.
The professor stood up, gathering his things. He was handsome in an older-guy, tousled curls kind of way. I imagined rows of blonde undergrads staring up at him, drinking in his every word. The image was replaced by those same undergrads sprawled across a blood-streaked floor.
Morbidness issues much lately?
To cover my confusion, I brought the latte to my lips.
Yuck. It was tepid, and the cup’s rim was so saturated with milk it threatened to break off in pieces on my tongue.
If there was any kind of fairness in the world, I could retreat back to the safe haven of my apartment, but I had a class. Time to find some of that strength Mom talked about when she gave me this sweatshirt, now streaked with latte.
I navigated the towers of burlap-sacked beans without brushing against any waiting customers. Almost home free, I thought, just as I noticed the front glass windows reflecting a shadow right behind me. A strange tingly sensation, like I’d had with Mr. Sniffer-Stalker, swept me from shoulder blades to scalp. The professor, following me?
I stepped out the door. There had been ample time for the professor to leave already. Why would he be waiting around?
Not only was I morbid, but paranoid too. There should be a new entry on Wikipedia for me. “Morbanoid.”
I turned a corner. The strange tinglies get stronger. Was someone actually behind me? I slowed down, slipping my sopping drink sleeve off so I could fumble it into the garbage can and allow whoever it was behind me to pass.
The person halted in front of the garbage can.
“Don’t I know you from campus?” the professor said. I recoiled and stepped back, my messenger bag thumping me in the thigh. He turned up the wattage on his smile, extending his hand. “You were in Kaneko-sensei’s office, right?”
He meant to be friendly, but the idea that this man remembered me, noticed me in a chance encounter gave me the willies. I left his hand hanging in midair. No way was I touching him.
“Ah, yes, um…” I said, searching for some way to “I…uh…”
“Ah, there you are!” said a voice behind me. I turned around to see Mr. Sniffer-Stalker giving me a dazzling grin. “Time to go.”
He gave a little wave to the professor. “Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve come to whisk her away.” He cupped my clothed elbow with his palm and warmth spread from his touch up my arm to my rapidly beating heart.
The professor frowned slightly. A whiff of cardamom. That pale, too-still body. Mr. Sniffer-Stalker was whacko, but he felt infinitely safer than the professor.
“Yes, I have to go,” I mumbled. The professor tensed, as if to protest. Instead, he flashed me a polite smile, and gave Mr. Sniffer-Stalker a curiously formal nod before turning back to the parking lot.
Panic receded. An escape…but from what? From an awkward conversation with Kaneko-sensei’s colleague? When fragments impacted the waking world this much, that’s when I knew I had to force myself into some kind of interaction other than Marlin or emailing Todd, my Java freelance job headhunter.
Stick with reality. Ignore the fuzzy-edged stuff.
I shook my head, wishing I could cast all this off of me like Mom’s black lab, Sukey, shaking water after a dip in the Willamette. This wasn’t my normal morbanoid self. Other people’s fragments didn’t do this to me—it was something particular to the professor.
A hand squeezed my shoulder and pulled me back onto the sidewalk. I went with Mr. Sniffer-Stalker, trying not to slosh more latte foam.
His hand was on me. Bare skin touching bare skin where my sweatshirt gaped open.
Where was the panic? The instinctual recoil? Only Dad could touch me like this and not force feed me fragments. But Mr. Sniffer’s hand didn’t feel awkward. It felt heavy. Warm. No tingles. No scents. No fuzzy static swimming across my vision.
“Why did you do that?” I blurted.
He blinked at me. “You didn’t want to talk to that man.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes!” I jerked my arm away.
This guy was just so…coolly rumpled looking. Like Marlin’s lacrosse-playing boyfriends. Those dark-on-dark eyes pulling me in, making me feel guilty for being so abrupt.
Why should I feel guilty? He was the weird stalker, not me. But the truth was, I wasn’t afraid.