Teasers & Deleted Scenes
Arlington, VA, February 2012
The crumbs of potting soil trailed from the patio door through the living room, up the carpeted stairs, and down the hall to the back bedroom. The door was open, but inside it was more dark than light, from the closed curtains.
"Hafs?" Chaz called. "Can I come in?"
His heart rate jumped and sweat prickled under his arms. But not because It might be lying in wait for him. He strained his ears for breathing, for movement. He wanted to use the mirror, but he'd made a promise. Even now, he wouldn't use it on her without cause, without telling her.
Finally he heard Hafidha whisper, "Yeah."
She was sitting on her bed, hands between her knees, head bent, her feet together on the floor. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom the colors of the walls and fabrics rose out of it like koi surfacing in a pond: cranberry, gold, violet blue.
He sat down beside her. He smelled thyme, rosemary, basil, tarragon, mint over the lingering plastic-y odor of paint.
"I'm sorry." Her voice was so low it was barely more than her lips moving. "I tried."
Her arms were striped with long welts, oozing blood in spots. She'd tried.
Chaz wasn't scared because It might get him. He was scared because It might get her, sometime when he wasn't there to help.
He swallowed hard and touched her near arm lightly. "Save this for when you really need it. It's just plants. I'll have a whole new batch in by tomorrow."
She made a wet strangled sound in her throat and held out her cupped hands, raised her head. "I saved one."
Cuban oregano. Plectranthus amboinicus. The one he'd grown in his old apartment, the same plant his upstairs neighbor had given him five years ago, transplanted to his new life. A little the worse for wear, but still with roots and soil around them.
"Chili verde," she said. "You wrote about it on LiveJournal. I remembered." She swallowed, sounding so tight it hurt Chaz's throat, too. "It helped."
He took the drooping bit of leaf and dirt from her and nodded. "Good save." He was pretty sure trying to say more would be a mistake.
The tears ran steadily down her face as if they might empty out the entire seventy-eight percent of her that was water. The Thing inside her loved that. He wasn't going to give It any of his tears as well. That was part of how he helped; if he didn't show hurt in front of her, It couldn't control her through him.
"I'm so... It wanted them. The fucking Bug was just... Oh, god, it made me sick, the whole time..." Her soil-crusted fingers scrabbled at the thighs of her jeans.
"It's okay. Honest. Renewable resource. You throw me over the balcony, it might be different."
"Don't say that. Don't let it--" She clenched her hands on her knees.
He was pretty sure It had already thought about the possibility. He never worried about giving It ideas. It was always going to be better than him at that sort of thing.
"I'm the reason we can't have a cat," she said bitterly.
"No, we can't have a cat for the same reason as always: we don't know when we'll have to leave town." No. They couldn't have a cat because Chaz was terrified of what she might do to protect it from herself.
Her shoulders lurched and she hunched forward again, coughing on tears. Cautiously he touched her cropped hair, brushed his fingertips everywhere except over the scar on her scalp. The implant couldn't hold off the Bug by itself; they both knew that. Chaz tried not to be angry at the thing for letting the anomaly get to her. Just as he tried not to blame himself because he hadn't been here.
She leaned into him, and he put his arm around her, cupping the little plant in his other hand. She'd saved one. She'd saved the one she knew would mean the most to him, and she'd done it without help. She was getting better.