Crack, Drugs (530 words)
Astrid Farnsworth thought of herself as a moral person. She wasn't particularly religious, but she considered herself spiritual. She felt that she usually did what was right, even in difficult situations. Sometimes “right” just meant “more right than those other bad options,” but she prided herself on not spending too many nights wracked with guilt, even when it seemed her life was spent choosing the lesser of many different evils.
This job made it hard, though. Sometimes she had to call businesses, individuals, police stations, schools, and one time a Catholic diocese; most of the time she just explained who she was and what she needed. Sometimes, though, she had to lie. (She'd had to tell the nice young novice on the phone that she was considering taking vows, and hadn't been able to eat lunch that day, the novice had been so sweet and helpful. For about thirty seconds, looking around the lab, at Walter grinding cadaver flesh in the same food processor that he sometimes ground up nuts for his sundaes, Astrid half considered it.) She didn't like lying. She didn't even like harmless little white lies. She thought of herself as a moral person, but as the years wore on she started feeling like whatever morality she had was just a thin veneer, a couple coats of paint, and it was slowly being scraped away.
Today she was drawing the line, though. “Absolutely not, Walter.” He pouted, and then explained in his professorial voice, and then stomped off to buy a hot dog from the Union. He came back and tried to set some things up, but he didn't have the raw ingredients, and he needed her help, anyway.
“Astral, I was wondering if you could run a little errand for me.”
“Walter, I am not helping you make cocaine!”
“You've helped me make LSD.”
“For experiments, Walter. To help us solve cases. I can buy different chemicals and let you make all kinds of things. I am not going to find a drug dealer in Boston and buy you cocaine so you can fiddle around with it for no reason at all.”
“No reason? No reason? I have explained half a dozen times the many different reasons.”
“All of these reasons boil down to you eventually selling crack to students, secretly observing them, and bringing them in for other “experiments” under the guise of making notes of the side effects.” She waited for him to understand, but sometimes explaining things to Walter didn't ever make anything sink in. He continued to just look at her, nodding slightly, as though to say, And? She shook her head, and crossed her arms, and looked as serious as she possibly could. That did the trick; he slumped in his chair, and suddenly he looked...old. Astrid felt her throat go tight, and she walked over to take his hand. “Come on, Walter. How about I help you make some brownies?”
A twinkle in his eye, and half a grin. “Special brownies?”
Astrid thought of herself as a moral person. Today, that meant making pot brownies was the right thing to do.
I Want You, Squee, Your Choice (1050 words)
Olivia had seen a lot of things, and few of them ever worked on her. She'd been brought flowers. (A pain in the ass - she always ended up forgetting to change the water, and they died and spilled dried-up petals all over the place.) She'd been given jewelry. (There was no better way to spend a Saturday night than trying to clean blood out of a ring using a toothbrush.) Men cooked for her. (It seemed they never wanted to do the dishes afterward, though.) They gave her cards. (She remembered the cards her step-father had given her mom, treacly sentiments he didn't believe, because they didn't actually make cards that said “sorry I beat you up.”) They bought her chocolates. (Olivia had never really liked candy. If it didn't get stuck in her teeth, it turned her tongue colors or melted over something important.)
She knew Peter was going to do something tonight. She could tell. He was smiling at her too much, and making phone calls, and acting like Walter did when he thought he was being secretive but was being anything but. Exactly one week of sleeping together, and Olivia wanted things to stay just like that. Work at work, lots of good sex at home, and that was that. She didn't want chocolates and flowers and jewelry – she didn't want Peter to end up like all the rest.
They had agreed to spend the next three nights at her place. She had to drop a few things off at the Federal Building, and expected to open the door to find rose petals strewn here and there, or maybe lots of flickering candles and generic slow jazz. She opened the door to her own apartment, just as she'd left it two days ago. A light on in the kitchen, a blood-spattered shirt still soaking in the washing machine. That was it. Not only were there no flowers or chocolates or generic jazz, there was no Peter, either.
“Peter?” she called out. No response. Despite herself, a trickle of fear made its way down her spine. She locked the door behind her, made her way inside. The hair on the back of her neck stood up; she wasn't alone. Olivia set down her keys and slowly walked to her bedroom.
Peter was lounging in the middle of the bed in what were quite possibly the unsexiest clothes imaginable – old ratty sweat pants and a bleach-stained t-shirt. The sweats had been shrunk a few too many times, or he'd bought them when he was fifteen; the bottom cuffs hit him mid-calf. He was reading a book, and smiled when she leaned against the door jamb without ever actually looking at her. “You finally made it. I thought maybe you'd got lost,” he said.
Once she could tear her eyes away from him (And why was it that men always seemed to look...different once she slept with them? She was positive he hadn't been this handsome a week ago.), Olivia noticed the wrapped box beside him on the bed, and the bucket filled with ice on her bedside table. “What have you done?” she asked him, knowing she sounded whiny and awful.
“Care for a drink?” He lifted the bottle chilling – she expected champagne. That's what men bought when they wanted to woo and beguile. But Peter wasn't holding a champagne bottle; he held a bottle of scotch. Old scotch. Good scotch. Beads of perspiration dripped off the bottle onto his sweats, darkening the fabric there, and Olivia found herself licking her lips – because of the promise of drinking some nice cold scotch, or because of the dark spots on Peter's pants, she didn't know.
“You've done well,” she purred, and he grinned at her. She listened to him make up the drinks while she stripped out of her work clothes and into her own ratty house clothes. Olivia had no doubt the clothes would be coming off later; that was half the fun, after all. Maybe she bounded onto the bed a little more enthusiastically than was necessary, and maybe he spilled a bit of scotch down his arm, and maybe she licked it clean for him. “To what?” she asked, holding her glass up.
“To having a quiet night in.” She clicked her glass against his; after the past few years, and the past few months especially, a quiet night in was most definitely reason enough to drink. The scotch burned delightfully down to her belly, and she relished that first harsh sting against her tongue. A moment to look at him, to show him that she appreciated this and needed nothing more...and then she pounced on the present.
“What is it?” It was heavy, much heavier than she would have guessed. An exploratory shake revealed nothing.
“Guess,” Peter grinned. She wasn't fond of guessing, so she ripped at the paper. “Olivia, guess!”
“A gold ingot. What on Earth did you buy that is so heavy?” But it wasn't a gold ingot; it was better. “Oh, Peter. Peter.”
“So you like it?” Olivia opened the box and pulled out the gun inside, running a reverent finger along the barrel.
“Is this a Luger?” she whispered. But she knew, and he obviously knew that she knew and didn't answer. She could feel him watching her as she looked the gun over top to bottom; it had been well-maintained, but there were still a few scratches and dings here and there, which was just as it should be. “Where did you get this?”
“My grandfather brought it home from the war. It's been sitting in our attic for two years, and in one of Walter's many storage lockers for decades before that. I found it when I was looking for his old oscilloscope, of all things.”
Men had bought her all kinds of trinkets that had left her cold. She had been given earrings, roses, fine wines, and had lost the earrings, thrown out the roses, and given away the wine. Peter gave her some good hard liquor and an old Nazi pistol – she carefully put the Luger on her bedside table, knocked back the rest of her scotch, and tackled him to the mattress.
Music, Out of Character, I Love the Bad Guy, Fight (1030 words)
In her first week at the Academy, Olivia broke two noses, caused three black eyes, and sprained one wrist, none of which were her own, of course. The wrist and one of the black eyes came in a sanctioned sparring session, and she and the other novice laughed the injuries off. The two other black eyes went with the two broken noses, and they came one after another, wham! Bam! Ten minutes in a seedy club just on the outskirts of Quantico, and she felt like a piece of candy dipped in honey then tossed on the top of an anthill. The first man had stuck his hand up her skirt not ten seconds after she'd started dancing with him. She turned and popped him one without even stopping her dance. He howled and glared at her, but he'd left, and that was just fine.
The second man looked as though he might have finished graduating high school, though it was touch and go. He was nice at first, buying her a drink (a strawberry martini, horrible, but she drank it with a smile – hell, it was free) and complimenting her on her hair, which was pretty lame but better than being groped any day. Olivia danced with him, letting him put his hands where he wanted to, trying to decide if she'd take him home or not. On the one hand, he was very good looking; on the other hand, she didn't really want to deal with the aftermath. She didn't want to have to deal with the phone call dance, and a strange man in her room the next day, or worse, her in a strange man's room. She just wanted a little sex, and that was it. But he was looking at her, a look she knew, a look that said, I want to get to know you better. I want you to let me in. Let me in, Olivia, tell me all your secrets. Olivia told her secrets to no one, and she wanted to keep it that way.
“So what's your name?” he yelled into her ear, spoiling the mood. She just shook her head. “I'm Chris.” She ignored him, closing her eyes and letting the deep thump of the bass sink into her bones. “Why don't you come back to my place?” Olivia sighed; it was such a fine line she required her potential suitors to walk. She wanted them to be nice, courteous, clean; she didn't want them to actually care about her, because then they'd want her to give them things; secrets, for one.
“Thanks for the drink,” she told him, and pushed her way through the throng of dancers. It took her a second to realize Chris had followed her; then his hand was grabbing her upper arm. She could feel the bite of his fingernails, and knew there'd be a bruise there in the morning. She jerked away, but he held on.
“That's it?” he demanded.
“Yeah, that's it.” She stared at him, catching only glimpses of his face in the flashing lights. In one flash, he looked as though he were a sad, lost little boy. She felt his fingers relax. Then in the next flash there was something in his eyes she'd seen before, hadn't seen in years, had never forgotten. It was the look of the lion, hungry and spoiling for a fight. Suddenly her heart was pounding, and a cold trickle of sweat ran down her back. She curled her fingers into a tight fist and punched Chris in the face as hard as she could, which was pretty damned hard. The punch landed at the instant's pause between one song and the next, and the crunch of his nose breaking was so loud she thought people would hear it outside. No one else seemed to hear it, though. They did hear Chris's scream.
“Jesus Christ! What is wrong with you, you bitch?” he shouted, blood spilled between the fingers he cupped around his nose and mouth. The words tumbled through her mind before she had the chance to think, a half-second to travel fifteen years into the past. I'm sorry, Daddy, I'm sorry. Please don't hit me. Then there was just raw, coppery triumph, singing along through her veins.
“My name's Olivia,” she told him. The knuckles on her hand were sore, and she'd split at least one of them. She smiled, feeling like she could fly. “No, I don't want to go back to your place tonight. Fuck off.” Not a smile, a grin, and she threw it at him same as she'd thrown the punch. She turned away, back to the dance floor, losing herself in the music. She danced and danced, until they closed the club, and when she drove back to her dorm she sang along with the radio at the top of her lungs.
The next day, she was sitting in Intro to Criminology when she saw a handsome man find a desk on the other side of the room. He noticed her just as she noticed him. Chris, with a bandage over his nose and one hell of a shiner. She wiggled her fingers at him, and smiled, and when the girl next to her asked for a piece of paper she laughed like they were old friends. She didn't see Chris next time, and never again for that matter; maybe he'd switched lectures; maybe he'd dropped out. Olivia didn't much care.
A few weeks later her birthday card came in the mail. Olivia brushed her fingers over the pretty picture of flowers and balloons on the front. She wondered if an Olivia who didn't get these cards every year would be at Quantico, would feel completely comfortable walking to Taco Bell at three in the morning alone, would have punched not one but two jerks in the face and continued to have a good night.
Olivia hung the card up over her desk, and looked at it any time the work seemed too much, the classes too difficult, her classmates too nosy, the days too long and the nights too short. She looked at it, and it made her strong.
Red, Food, Family (860 words)
When Astrid figured it out, it was like a choir of angels singing. Maybe the sun bursting out from behind a bank of clouds. A baby being born. Trumpets! When she figured it out, suddenly half the problems in her life seemed to go away.
Walter liked Red Vines; he didn't like black licorice. He would drink any milkshake, sure, but he preferred strawberry. He would slurp down a plate of fettuccine alfredo, but would wax rhapsodically about spaghetti with marinara. He always told her his favorite soda was ginger ale, but one day there was only a little left in the bottle, so she mixed in some Hawaiian Punch, and she thought Walter might actually curl up and die right there, he was so happy.
She'd left him working, some Surrealistic Pillow playing on the record player, and trekked across campus. She bought three grilled brats; one she left plain, for herself, and the other two she covered with an even layer of ketchup. It was a wonderful day outside, cool and sunny, a light breeze; honeysuckle was blooming here and there, making the air fragrant. Astrid took her time walking back to the lab, eating her lunch, letting her mind drift into a pleasant blank. When she returned, Walter was nowhere to be found; not a huge surprise. She let ten minutes go by and was getting ready to start looking for him when he wandered back, an absent and beatific smile on his face.
“My dear, did you know there's a snow cone cart in the front?”
“I do now,” she answered. Walter grinned at her, his tongue and teeth bright red. If she'd seen the cart she would have bought him one, but she always left through the back of the building. It was better this way – he handed her a lime green cone, and he was so obviously tickled to be the one to get her a treat for a change that she wouldn't have changed it for the world. She waited till he was done with his dessert before she gave him his meal, and he did a little dance right there in the lab.
Astrid tried to remember what he'd been like, in those first few weeks after they'd signed him out of the mental institution, when he'd first started working. Euphoric moments like this, yes, but he'd also been so angry so much of the time. The tiniest thing could set him off – he'd thrown a beaker at her once, in those early days. Looking at him now, dancing a little jig as he took his first bite of red-smeared bratwurst, she felt that she was looking at a different man.
Her cell phone rang. Walter was hunkering back down over his table, brat in one hand and scalpel in the other. Astrid answered the call. “Hey, cutie!” came the wine-dark voice through the line. Astrid felt a smile pop onto her face; she'd never been able to resist Louise's voice. “How're you holding up?”
“Doing okay,” Astrid said, tidying up a bit. That was a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.
“I know it's been over a year since I told you about the position, but we finally got rid of the jackass. The job's yours if you want it.” Astrid stopped, closed her eyes. SAIC jobs didn't come along every day, especially not ones in cities as nice as Philadelphia. No stinky old Omaha field office, or sweltering Albuquerque gig – this was a plum assignment. “Astrid?” Louise asked, and Astrid realized she'd just been standing there, thinking, for God knew how long.
“Do you need my answer now?”
A moment of silence, and she could hear Louise breathing. “What's there to think about? You told me that they've got you doing diaper duty on some crazy old coot. Is that what you want your career to turn into? You could be a professor somewhere, you could be a real Special Agent, running your own investigations. Hell, Astrid, in ten years you could be a deputy director! You're that smart, you're that focused, and you're rotting away in that basement lab. It's ridiculous. No, it's obscene.”
Astrid looked up from the pile of owl bones she'd cleaned earlier that day, for an experiment she thought Walter had already forgotten about. He had half a brat sticking out his mouth and was staring out the window. A cat was sitting there, sunning itself in the mulch. Walter stared, and cocked his head, and then went back to his work as though looking at a cat for ten seconds had made everything work itself out in his brain.
“Astrid?” her old friend asked, a hint of impatience in her voice. Just then, Walter looked up at her.
“Astroglide, maybe when I'm done dissecting Mr. Franklin's gonads we can play a game of Parcheesi!”
Astrid smiled at him. “You're right,” she said to Louise. “I don't need to think about it. I'm happy right where I am. Thanks for the offer, Louise. Next time you're up this way, stop by the lab and say hi.”
Work, Blue, FBI (820 words)
He missed it. Every day he missed it, until the day he knew longer knew what a day was, when they'd bled one into the other for so long that the sun meant nothing, the moon meant nothing, the stars were just pinpricks of light he never looked at. He missed the lab, and his house, and her apartment, and the Federal Building, and even Massive Dynamic, until the day he realized he didn't. What was a house, a lab, an office? Arbitrary divisions of the same space, walls that outlined a chunk of air and said, this, this place can only be used for these purposes, this place has a name and that name identifies it to the exclusion of all else. Then, after that day of realization, he found himself looking at those places and wondering why the humans who used them cared for them so much. They took pride in their homes, their work establishments, their vehicles – why take pride in a chunk of air?
But he still missed things, now and then, and it surprised him. He would be watching someone, and they would open a beverage, and suddenly the taste of it would fill his mouth. Once he had purchased a beverage of his own, after his assignment was complete. He drank it, but only the echo of something distant and already long-forgotten passed along his tongue, whatever memory of taste there was gone before he'd even finished swallowing. A song playing on a vehicle as it passed sent a surge of something rushing through his mind, and for a split-second he would be home, wherever home had been, and he would feel emotions that he no longer felt. Happiness, anger, joy, despair, contentment, grief – they would flood his limbs and turn whatever stood in front of him to glassy ash, and for a heartbeat he was who he had once been. A heartbeat, but that was all. Those moments came less and less, until the day he was certain they would never come again.
Today he was watching a woman. She had a slender body and yellow hair, and at first her hair was all he saw. It was braided, from the top of her head to the base of her neck, a rope that made him think of ships, of salt-bleached planks of wood. He followed her, as she traveled in her vehicle from this place to that, as she asked strangers questions and wrote down their answers in a little book. He had a little book of his own, and made his own notations. He never saw her face, always remaining behind her – it would not do for her to watch him herself.
Sometimes, before he remembered, before he missed something, he would feel it. An instant of electricity streaking behind his eyes, a buzz felt but not heard. It only lasted an instant, in the space between breaths, in the moment after one heartbeat and before the next; but today, watching this woman, he was living in the instant. Heaviness inside his head, a burden he was carrying with his synapses. The symbols in his notebook swam before his eyes; he put a finger to his temple, wondering if perhaps something were faulty. Bad wiring, as the humans might say.
Then he looked up, and the yellow-haired woman was standing only a few feet away. She looked at him, a raincloud on her face and a question in her eyes. He stood, and walked away. She followed him. “Do I know you?” he heard her ask, and her voice was like music. A split-second of home, and home was an apartment, a small collection of rooms and what was inside them didn't matter, except for her. Home was the circle of her arms around him, home was her breath warm on the back of his neck, home was that yellow hair tickling his cheek. He waited for the tide to recede, for the cold waters of memory to return to their banks and leave him dry, but they didn't. Spiders crawling up and down his spine; tingles in his fingertips. Sensation threatened to grab him by the ankles and drag him down below, the world winking out into darkness as the cold water overwhelmed him.
She caught up with him, grabbing his shoulder and spinning him around. Moisture on her cheeks. He reached out and touched the liquid, wondering what it was. Her voice was shaky and choked. “Peter?” she asked. Give something a name to identify it to the exclusion of all else; he had been Peter until the day he wasn't anymore. He shook his head and left her, walking until day turned into night and back into day, walking until the tingles fled and his mind grew clear again, walking until he no longer missed the feel of her yellow hair between his fingers.