The bell rang as the door opened.
A can of peas weighed eighteen oz, including the can itself. A glass jar of tomato puree weighed twenty-eight oz. Drop basket, take can in left hand. Shelves are old, top heavy, suffering years of strain. Push with right hand. As soon as center of balance is reached, kick shelf behind. First two targets slowed by minimum of thirty percent. Turn forty-five degrees, throw can. By size and movement, target three will be disabled. Continue turn, bending over to grab flour. Rip top, throw at target four. Most likely, target four stumbles back through door. Temporary blinding, sixty-three percent likelihood, depending on throw trajectory. Jump on topped shelving unit. High probability of broken bones in target two. Grab glass jar, throw through the narrow window. Grab second jar, prepare for reactionary movement. (Negligible chance within fifteen second time frame. If no opponent shows resistance, keep for weapon.) Wait five seconds. Proceed through broken window. Route three back to home. Activate defensive plan two.
David closed his eyes, taking a deep breath through his nose and holding it.
“Hey girl,” the new guy said cheerfully. David could both hear and feel him walking through the small general store towards the cashier. “Where’s the folks?”
“Getting the back reorganized,” she said cheerfully. “We’ve got a big one coming in.”
“Aw, nuts. I had some news.”
Slowly release the breath through the mouth.
“Oh really? Rumor, or real?”
The temperature was 64 degrees Fahrenheit, 17.4 Celsius. Outside still had some evening light, which made it feel warmer, though the breeze of 3 miles per hour (4.8 kph) offset the warmth of the sun. David’s shirt was loose against his skin except for his neck — he had a silk mock under his collar to help make it feel extra smooth. The largest scar running down the left side of his back hurt from how he’d been hunched over today. The cashier’s voice was high-pitched, but not unpleasantly so. The man’s voice had a slight rumble, no doubt from the faint whiff of cigarette smoke that wafted in as he entered.
“You know how that fella took over Fyrtorn? Well, apparently he’s sending them to their deaths — they say that he sent a bunch of them into St. Louis and came back with a bunch of wildlings.”
“Not surprised. Don’t you know who he is?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the wildest part. They say that the wildling attacks are going to go down.”
David tuned out the conversation. His heart rate was still approximately 130 BPM. Instead, he focused on his breathing, slow but steady.
He shouldn’t have come here today. He shouldn’t have come here period. Tony could have come. But he’d wanted to do this. To prove that he could. They said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but that was a lie. Having your arm chopped off might not kill you, but you won’t be stronger for it. Right now, he wanted to drop to the ground and cry.
A buildup of emotions. The brain was releasing too many chemicals, the names of which escaped him at the moment. Crying was a way to release those chemicals.
David opened his eyes at long last, only to find an old man staring at him oddly. He turned away, looking back down at the shopping list in his hand. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He was so fucking stupid. Nobody with an ounce of common sense would have let him come here on his own. It was a recipe for disaster! Why did he think for just one moment that he could do this without drawing attention?
That guy knew. He knew just what David had been thinking. He had to. Why else would he look at him like that? Knowing just how weak he was…
There was the heavy scent of flour, both corn and wheat, in the air. The general store sold some in a paper package, but there was plenty of self-serve as well. The woman’s parents probably worked the counter most of the time while she cleaned the perpetual dirt and dust that must have infused the store. She’d bitch and complain, but she secretly enjoyed it. It gave her a chance to talk to others.
Okay, so that was partially extrapolation from when he’d seen her working before, when he’d come with Tony. The two of them chatted, as Tony always did, taking longer to get out of there than David would have liked.
David ran through every grounding exercise that he knew as he slowly plodded through the store. Within five minutes, he had everything that he needed, but the two of them kept prattling on about wildlings and if the Relentless Legion were either good or bad. He couldn’t just interrupt them! That would be rude! Those other people, they had no problems doing that, but David just couldn’t! So for the next twelve minutes, he kept going back through the shelves, carefully scrutinizing any bottle, jar or bag that had more written on it than just the contents.
Finally, though, the two of them said their goodbyes and the guy started his way out. He hadn’t even made it to the door before David had his basket on the counter, focusing on it so that she wouldn’t think that he was staring at her breasts.
“Hey you,” the woman said, just as cheerful as ever. “I haven’t seen you here without your boyfriend before.”
Someday, someone was going to catch him on a bad day and and accuse them of being a couple, and he’d stab them, and then he’d go to jail, and then he’d get shanked in the shower for not showing enough respect to the right people and then he’d die of exsanguination laying on the shower floor as his blood mixed with the water and went down the drain…
“He’s… He’s not my… We’re not…” David swallowed, fighting to find the best way to explain.
“Oh,” she said, sounding genuinely upset. Why would she be upset? “I’m sorry! You two don’t look like–”
“Different fathers,” he said, smiling apologetically as he continued to stare as she took the items from the basket.
“Of course” she said gently. “I don’t know why I jumped to that conclusion.”
Because two men living together who are comfortable with physical contact between each other would draw the immediate and obvious conclusion that they were a couple. He hated it, but he could perfectly understand why someone would jump to that conclusion.
And then came the silence. So fucking stupid. He’d gone and fucked everything up again. “Sorry,” he said weakly. “I’m not good at… at talking.”
“It’s alright,” she said soothingly. “I’d ask what you thought about the whole Relentless Legion thing, but–”
“Eighty-three percent chance that it falls apart within a decade,” he muttered. It wasn’t his calculation, but a Thinker’s that he’d found out about through Tony, but it sounded right. “As the religious elements are phased out over time, and without the charisma of their former leader, their cohesion will erode and infighting will start. Until then, however, it’s better to leave them be, allowing them to do what they can. Thinker analysis indicates that Relentless is genuine in his desire to improve global threat ratings.”
He glanced up to find her staring at him in surprise. “I’m, uh… I’m not a Thinker or anything. Not a para.”
“But you work for them, right?”
He nodded a little. The factory accounting job fell through, but the Wardens could always use another data analyst. David liked the numbers and comparing reports to each other. He didn’t like to think about the contents of the reports and the meanings behind the numbers, but he could compartmentalize. It was harder to accept that it was essentially busy work, a job to make sure that Tony would stay with them in case they needed him against another S-class threat.
The woman gave him a sympathetic smile. “You really aren’t comfortable, are you?”
No, he was just ready to run out of here so hard his skin got left behind because he left the flue open on the cat. But he couldn’t say things like that. It wasn’t right. Wasn’t polite. Instead, he just tried to smile again. “No. It’s not your fault. I… I’m not good with people. I’m sorry.”
She finished marking everything down with a sympathetic smile. “Eighty-three dollars and fifty three cents.”
A little over nine in New Brockton coin. Fifteen-sixty in Orphanage money. Six-hundred and fifty-two in… He blinked the thoughts aside, getting his wallet out and fishing out eighty-four dollars in local currency. “Keep… Keep the change. Pay it forward.” Make someone else’s day a little better.
That got a new smile out of her as she pulled his canvas bag out of the basket to fill for him. “Do you need any help getting this home? I can get Pa to cover the counter for me.”
She was one year older than him. Most likely feeling some degree of guilt. Thought that he was an invalid. Compared mental issues with physical. Trying to be nice. By previous observation, her father had a bad back. Pushed himself too hard in his youth, caused permanent damage, but nothing too debilitating. Preferred working the counter. Mother was the strong one.
David blinked again. “I’m fine, thank you.”
She offered him the bag. “You have a good day, sweety. And if you need anything…”
“Thank you.” He took the bag, being careful not to snatch it from her. He didn’t need her thinking any worse of him than she already did. “H… Have a nice day.”
As he made his way out of the store, he began silently cursing himself anew. He’d cocked it up, damn it. It was supposed to be a simple trip, and now everyone was going to think that he was crazy. Over twelve hundred people in this township, which made it decently sized, but not big enough. Word would spread about the weird guy who couldn’t look at anyone and spent almost an hour shopping for ten minutes worth of stuff. He shouldn’t have come, he shouldn’t have come, he shouldn’t have come.
David knew, logically, that there wasn’t any point in berating himself like that. His rational brain knew that he was ultimately doing more damage than good. Unfortunately, knowing something and feeling it, accepting it, or actualizing it were completely different things. What it did do, however, was give him something to focus on besides the people around him. It allowed him to focus his attention to the point that the world sped by in a blur, until he found himself in the apartment-like building that they called home.
As soon as the door closed, he was screaming all the way to the kitchen. “Mother fucking bugger load fuckstick dipshit poopie cock shitlord cumstain! So! Fucking! Stupid!”
He slammed the bag down on the counter and began to kick the counter, tears welling in his eyes. He was never going to be well, he was never going to be worth more than a brain in a jar to anyone. When was he going to learn? Besides, you couldn’t hurt a brain in a jar. Brains didn’t feel pain, and he wouldn’t be nearly so much of a burden on anyone. It would be better for everyone if he’d just find someone to do it to him. Then he wouldn’t be holding Tony back.
In through the nose. Hold it. Let it out slow.
The emotions were getting to him. He had to think rationally. Logically, and not let the emotions dictate his thoughts. People would need to maintain the life support. A Tinker would have to maintain life support, which would take both materials and time that could be better spent on other things. Being a head in a jar would only make things worse.
David sighed and started putting everything away in its cupboards. The place was a bit on the smaller side, which suited him just fine. He didn’t like open spaces — the need to hide was too strong, the desire to rearrange too great. Everything had its place, either for maximum efficiency or somewhere to duck behind. Tony occasionally moved stuff around, which was frustrating, but he kept reminding himself that he had to be considerate of the wants and needs of others, no matter how those wants and needs interfered with his own life.
He didn’t want to be a selfish asshole. He wanted everyone around him to be considerate, and understood that it was a two-way street. Nobody would be considerate if he wasn’t, they’d just angrily put up with him. But it was really, really hard sometimes. Most people didn’t think if they were being considerate or not most of the time, which was annoying. Just another layer of stress when dealing with people.
The fact that he automatically assumed that people were going to hurt him didn’t help matters any. Logical thought didn’t always help with that, though.
What would help would be tea. The city had a very, very limited infrastructure, focusing mostly on basic necessities. They had indoor plumbing powered by two mechanical windmills as compared to electrical ones. He’d been able to identify that the moment that he’d seen them. Mechanical turbines had a lot of blades in order to produce more torque, allowing them to perform mechanical labor more efficiently. Electrical turbines needed fewer blades for speed, not requiring torque. Early electrical experiments with wind power hadn’t known this, resulting in massive wind farms of eight-bladed windmills that could be easily replaced with just a couple.
The lack of electricity, or a wood gas infrastructure, meant that the wood stove would be necessary in every household. He opened the windows and got to work. A nest of dried grass with a fireplug made of roughed up grass formed into a ball and dipped in wax would work for a tinder bundle. He wasn’t sure what kind of wax it was — he once could identify every single type with a touch, but the Orphanage had spoiled him.
He carefully stacked the twigs, and then the small pieces of wood on top. Then came the hard part.
Starting a fire with flint and steel was always an option. Char cloth was easy to make, being little different from charcoal, but with infinitely more surface area to accept a spark. However, that method was hard, requiring time and labor to make sure that a fire started. Matches were a far easier option — while not a guarantee that a fire would start, it made the entire process far, far faster. He honestly couldn’t imagine trying to use one of the harder methods while sick.
The downside was that there was no lead up to the flame to get himself comfortable with it. He struck the match, and immediately froze in place, the small flame dancing on the wooden stick. Fire. House. Shotgun going off. Screaming.
David tossed the match on the bundle of kindling, forcing himself to watch as the wax and grasses took the flame readily. He could control it. He could control the fire, keep it in place. He was the master, he told himself.
Even still, he placed the back of his wrists against his forehead as he stood up, squeezing his eyes shut. Stupid, so fucking stupid. He should have known better. Should have waited until Tony got home and had him do it. He’d had enough stress, he knew better. He should have known better. So fucking worthless. Couldn’t even make a fire. Pathetic. Tea was too good for him. Should have stuck with just water.
David’s eyes went wide. Darkness, controlled breathing. Yelling, screaming. Thirty feet away. Animal trails all around, made for good running. Instead, curled up in a tree hollow in a tight ball. Screaming. Epitaths. Never find him. The sickly crunch of ribs, the loud snaps of limbs. Pained breathing and pained breathing. Anger and anger. And then gurgling. And then nothing but frustrated breathing. Called her a bitch. Ants and millipedes and spiders crawling over skin. Moving down a trail. Wait half an hour. Listening. Nothing. Quietly crawl out, every movement so loud. Head the opposite way into town. Pass by the blood on the ground, all that remained of Mother. Keep moving. Keep moving away.
He was shaking like a dog shitting razor blades as his eyes darted towards the source of the voice. He wasn’t so tall as he remembered, but still just as powerful. Still just as terrifying.
“Hello father,” he said weakly, but even that took every ounce of strength that he had.
Where were his plans? Those carefully constructed plans that he’d spent so long working on? All the possible attack vectors, escape routes, ways to kill the man standing just ten feet away. None of it came to his mind. How had Father made it so close? How had he gotten inside?
The man smiled, and looked so close to tears. His bushy beard was just as fearsome as he remembered. Scary. That’s why Blackbeard was scary, a big beard and wild hair and he’d weave hemp in and make it smolder so that smoke came out. How was Blackbeard here?
David’s entire body twitched, what tiny bit was in his bladder releasing. “How c-could I forget?”
The barrel chested demon of a man nodded, not quite taking the step closer, but by the tiny ways that his body swayed, he wanted to. “I’m sorry that I didn’t come sooner. I had to find you after you left.”
Father would have made a good detective. “O… Orphanage. Letter.”
Time. He hadn’t looked at a clock in a while. What was the time?
Father’s smile dampened. “You got it? Oh, I’m so sorry. I… I was going to come and take you away, but… Education is important. After I sent the letter, I decided that… Oh, Dave. I wanted to see you so badly, but I couldn’t just take you away. You were getting a real education, and they say that the Orphanage is one of the best out there, so I… I decided to wait. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have sent the letter.”
He shouldn’t have. Made everything worse. Everything. Everything.
Speak. Talk. Force the words out. “What…” Focus. Focus! “What have you been up to?”
“I… It doesn’t really matter, does it?” Father sighed, and David forced himself not to wince. How was he rooted in plac so hard? “I’m here now. We’re a family again. Do… Do you have a job yet?”
“Yes.” Take a deep breath, ignore that eyes are so wide open that they hurt. “Factory. Accountant.”
Father’s smile came back, showing all his teeth. Worse than before. Teeth were bad. “An accountant? Do you have your CPA?”
CPA. Certified Public Accountant. Old world term when standardization was more common. Head swimmy. Hard to focus. Grasping. “Basically. Took classes. Numbers easy. People hard.”
“People aren’t so hard when you get to know them. It’s so easy… Don’t worry, I’ll show you how.” Please don’t. “But I’m glad that you’re good with numbers. I never was.”
Of course. Monsters not good with numbers.
“Fashion,” David made out. Keep talking. “I like… Designing clothes. Might do that. Eventually.”
The smile dampened a little, but Father nodded, thinking it over. “There’s good money in that, isn’t there? I mean, I know that there used to be, but…”
Lie. “Yes. Big shows. Lots of money.” Door opening. Keep talking. “Where have you been?”
“Here and there. I had to keep moving around a lot. There’s still people looking for me, I think.” Motion, ninja. “I took whatever work I could find, and times have been hard. But it doesn’t matter now. I’m here to stay. I’m not going to go anywhere.”
“You’re wrong,” Tony said quietly.
David’s heart froze in his chest. “No!” Father could trap people in an extradimensional space, whole or ground up into meaty bits. Drippy, meaty, fleshy, bleedy bits.
Father didn’t even get to see who spoke before Father exploded, turning into strands of flesh. Those same strands flew to Tony, briefly coalescing around his body before moving to his hand.
His friend looked dangerous. Angry. Mean. He made a fist with his new human hand, then released it slowly. He took a breath, then looked at David. The anger melted away, replaced with concern. “Are you okay?”
David fell to the ground, his feet spastically kicking, pushing him towards the wall. The corner. The corner. The corner.
The corner. And the world spiraled. Father was dead. He was free.
Things wouldn’t get better. Ghosts and echoes and demons and memories. Twisting up in his head. Twisting. Twisting. The smile. Father’s smile. Family. Hand. Father in hand. Father in hand. Father was here. Here and now and forever and now and hand.
As the city sheriff entered the kitchen, pistol drawn, the world fell away from David, and he screamed.