As Warrick pulled into one of the pick-up spaces outside the Grocery Beast supermarket, it occurred to him that he’d never ordered groceries for pick-up before. Back in New York, he didn’t even know where their local place, General Store Grocers was located or even if they had a physical store and not just a warehouse.
Anything that didn’t need to be picked out in person was ordered online and in about an hour there would be a surly high-schooler in a blue and tan hoodie featuring a cartoon image of the army helmeted and be-monocled General Store mascot, bearing milk crate full of whatever you ordered. For everything else, there was Old Man Blackman’s fruit stand, Mrs. Kendall that ran a butcher shop, the farmer’s market that took over the parking lot between the Episcopal church and the movie theater during the day on Fridays, or the JiffyMart on the corner.
But he had picked up food before, so he figured things were similar.
He turned off the engine and heard the familiar grinding noise as something in the right front tire’s motor powered down. In no way was he a car guy, but he suspected that was something he should get checked out. Tink would probably know what was wrong, but Cambridge didn’t cancel classes for American holidays and so she wouldn’t even be stateside until the weekend. Between her family and his, they might manage to squeeze in a couple hours together at most and he’d be damned if he wasted them on his car.
Besides, as soon as that was fixed, it would be something else. There was no lying to himself about it anymore: the car was a piece of junk and had been the day he bought it. The only thing keeping him for putting it up online as ‘free or best offer’ was sentimentality. Not only was it his first car, but it was one he’d bought with his own money.
Custom ‘forged’ armor and weapons paid well at the cost of looting garbage cans and dumpsters for cans and foil though. True, college was eating up a lot of that money, but he could afford a car. If he took a couple weeks off of patrolling, he could afford a nice car, the kind of thing that would turn people’s heads.
His daydreams of rolling down the street in something sleek and far too overpowered for city driving were cut off by someone knocking on his window.
It was a middle-aged woman wearing one of those orange safety vests they made the people who gathered carts in parking lots wear, holding two nylon bags with the Grocery Beast logo on the side. Their logo wasn’t as interesting as General Store Grocery’s: just the silhouette of some vaguely Bigfoot-esque thing pushing a shopping cart.
Warrick stared at her dumbly for a moment before remembering what he was there for. After fumbling to find the controls, he rolled down the window. An unholy screech accompanied the descending glass, followed by a burst of chill November air. “Uh… those are for Kaine?”
“Yup.” The woman drawled, passing the bags to him through the window. As soon as her hands were free, she checked a small, cheap computer with a flexible screen that came out of her vest pocket. “You already put the charge on your card, you want to include a tip?”
“It wasn’t included?” Warrick tried to remember what the site said. There was a fifteen dollar ‘service charge’, but now that he thought of it, that money probably wouldn’t find its way down to the people actually providing the service. After all, the CEO of Grocery Beast’s parent company had mistresses to feed caviar and sugar-coated diamonds to. “Right, let me…”
He patted his coat until he found his palmtop and connected to the store’s payment system, earmarking twenty dollars as a tip for the woman who bought the goods out to him.
Evidently, the device in her hand verified this, because the woman’s mildly dour expression lightened. “Thanks, hun.” She started to turn away, but then stopped and gave him a look he knew well. It was the ‘I’m going to take pity on this poor, dumb kid’ look that people who lived and worked at the college often got when they realized he wasn’t being an irresponsible or drunken jackass and just needed a bit of guidance on something.
“This your first Thanksgiving on your own?” He started to answer, but she was already in teaching mode. “Well next time, try an’ get your shoppin’ done way earlier, or wait til around midnight when we get our restock. As it is, you only just got everything on your order. Sad ta say, the boy they got fillin’ the internet orders had to give you some dented cans.”
A nervous laugh bubbled out of him. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
She smiled, good deed done for the day. “Ya’ll have a good night then, hun. Drive safe.”
“Thank you, you too.” Warrick started the engine as his mind randomly ran back over the last words he’d said. Was ‘you too’ the correct response there? She wasn’t driving at the moment and might not even be driving home in any case. He probably should have said ‘good night’.
Pulling out of the parking lot, he took a deep breath to refocus. A wandering mind was just his way of avoiding thinking of what he was doing. The whole thing just came to him during lunch at campus dining hall.
He usually didn’t eat there because Totally Taco was just mere steps from the science building where the plurality of his classes were held. Recently, however, Meghan Rockwell had seen him there and now when he had lunch there, it usually turned into lunch with Meghan and her boyfriend, Hank.
Not that he didn’t like hanging out with them—they were fun and interesting—but He often got the sense that Hank didn’t like hanging out with him; at least not while he was hanging out with Meghan. If it wasn’t impossible, Warrick might have thought Hank had seen the alternate future where Warrick and Meghan were man and wife. The idea that he might be the cause of them breaking up, which might somehow end in him getting together with Meghan and not Tink inspired him to cut down on his taco consumption to just two or three times a week.
The television in the little corner he’d been eating in had been on the news and the news had been talking about human interest stories; how not everyone was going to have a feast for Thanksgiving.
Part of him wanted to take what he’d just bought over to the nearest homeless shelter. Dollars to donuts, the people there both needed it more and would actually appreciate it.
Another part of him though wondered if this gesture would be better for everyone in the long run. A few months ago, another one of those odds and ends he remembered from his glimpse of the future had fallen into place. Something that made no sense to him before was clear now. Or as clear as the future could be.
While he didn’t want to end up married to Meghan, there were parts of that future he liked. He just hoped that he was taking the first step on that path with what was probably an incredibly goofy act of kindness.
Melissa decided that she liked the unique combination of smells the art store had to offer. Clay and paper, paint and charcoal—it all came together into something unnameable and at the same time, pleasant. The clays was winning out that night: her mother was teaching a pottery class in the back room while Melissa cleaned up the store.
It was a surprise to her that she liked helping out in the store. Between stocking, cleaning up and helping people find what they wanted, she’d discovered a simple joy in the organization aspect of the whole thing. Even running the register, which necessarily involved communicating with the public, wasn’t as bad as she’d been expecting now that her powers were under control.
The experience was enough that she was seriously considering changing her major from English to Business.
Or maybe it had to do with the company…
She glanced up from her sweeping to see Tim perched on the stool at the counter, drawing something on a sketchpad. While he was supposed to be helping her clean up, she couldn’t find it in herself to scold him over it: he was a kid and she didn’t want to be the one that cut into his ‘being a kid’ time. If he developed powers like hers, it might be shorter than he expected.
Instead, she made her way over to him. The floor was swept daily anyway and her missing a few places wasn’t going to make much of a difference.
“What are you drawing.” She tried to sound casual and had no idea if she was succeeding.
Talking to Tim had never been easy for her. He’d been born and grew up while she was in stasis. After being freed from Project Tome and finally being pushed into reuniting with her family by Laurel, she arrived in their new home of Angel’s Camp to find out that there was a ten year-old stranger there who also happened to be her brother. And as much as she was over that now, she soon found that there was very little a young woman in college had with a preteen boy.
But at least their poor communication was for normal reasons now.
“A float.” said Tim absently. After a beat, he added, “For the parade.”
Melissa leaned over to see said float and wasn’t all the surprised that what she saw on the page was incomprehensible. Not the Tim was a bad artist; he was better than she was, though there wasn’t a career in portraits in his future either. In fact, he was good enough that she could tell that his ‘float’ was a tank that was also a shark with ninjas standing on it.
Through the eyes of a little boy, it probably made perfect sense.
“Um… it’s very nice.” She said for lack of anything else to say. “I… like how that one guy’s using the shark’s fin to swing around and kick that other guy.”
“It’s a dolphin.”
She looked again. The guy being kicked looked like any other ninja to her. “What’s a dolphin?”
“It’s a dolphin, not a shark. I was watching this show about dolphins and dolphins are way meaner than sharks. Sharks just want to eat stuff, but dolphins kill things for fun. There’s even this big, round fish that they grab and throw like a frisbee!”
A broad grin spread across his face at the brutality of marine mammals and he laughed boyishly. “Dolphins are awesome. They’re sea-ninjas.”
“Ninjas throw people like frisbees?”
“If they feel like it.” said Tim with a lazy shrug. “Sometimes they throw them like… um, this long things from the Olympics.”
Melissa stifled a small laugh. The previous summer Olympics in Seoul had been the first one where he was old enough to notice it. As it turned out, he had their father’s love of track and field. There had been no end to the comedic tension, she remembered, over the fact that Tim took offense at their father, Eddie, rooting for America because the games were hosted by Korea and he thought rooting against them was rude.
When Melissa arrived for Thanksgiving, she’d bought Tim a United Sovereignty of Korea flag for his room. At the very least, his fandom of the country made him a lot more interested in geography and world history.
After she got a hold of herself, she offered, “You mean javelins?”
“Yeah. A javelin. I saw it in Unstoppable Assassin Force: this ninja wrapped this guy up in his chain and then totally threw him at his friends! Whoom!” He mimicked the throw. “If they had arms, dolphins would totally do that.”
This time, Melissa didn’t hide her laughter. It felt good, made her feel lighter. She laughed so hard that she didn’t notice that the pottery class had ended until her mother came into the store proper, wiping her hands on a rag.
“What’s so funny?” She asked with a bright smile. It wasn’t often that she caught Melissa laughing at all, even after her return.
Wiping away a single tear, Melissa shook her head. “Not a lot, Mom. Just about dolphins and ninjas… I don’t think we got to the tank—that is a tank, right Tim?”
“It’s a tank and a submarine.” Tim declared with pride. “Because of the dolphin. And a parade float. The guns shoot candy and the ninjas are pinatas.”
Gwen Forrester couldn’t help but chuckle herself at this. “You know, I wouldn’t mind seeing that in real life myself.”
It never failed to cause a smile to twitch against Zoe McNamara’s normally stoic facade when she saw the little icon on her computer screen that said Mr. Voice wanted to start a voice chat with her.
Voice, or rather, Stephan Arceneaux, was the sole person in the world that she truly considered her friend. Her friend. The real her. There were plenty of staff members at the Liedecker Institute that counted themselves as one of Stephanie Carroll’s friends. However, Stephanie Carroll wasn’t real. She was a grudging act she put on to make people think she was somewhat normal if a little cold.
But Stephan her, as much as anyone knew her (including herself). No matter what terrible things she’d done, he never turned away from her. Even after the night she kissed him, swore she’d kill him, then ordered him to find someone else. There would never be romance there, but there was a kind of love, a love she could only attribute to the deepest of friendships.
That was why she never initiated contact if she could help it: she was giving him a chance to simply not call. He could break ties anytime he wanted. Thus far, he never seemed to want to.
She tapped the ‘Start Dialogue’ tab on her screen and watched the voice program come up. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long, Voice.” Even though he couldn’t see her, she still hid the partial smile on her face by taking a drink from her store-bought milkshake.
“Only a few minutes.” said Stephan after a short pause. “I couldn’t sleep, decided to click around on the internet and then a little icon on Quintilian reminded me that you Americans have a holiday tomorrow. So I decided to call and wish you a happy giving of thanks.”
Zoe huffed, which might have been mistaken for a laugh. “You mean Thanksgiving?”
“It that what it translates into? It seems slightly awkward to say.” He wasn’t hiding the smile in his voice and that was the only thing that tipped her off that he hadn’t misread anything.
“Playing the fool doesn’t suit you, Voice.” She chided.
He laughed, “I would play the handsome male lead, but we never video chat. Being merely a literal voice limits me greatly.”
She refused to laugh openly. It wasn’t what she was about, no matter how much he tried. “How are the kids?”
Stephan ran a home for troubled youths who also happened to be descendants, providing an alternative to France’s military detention for descendants who broke the law. It was a strong influence on the Braylocke laws showing up in various states in the US.
A heavy sigh told Zoe all she needed to know. Though he might not be able to make her laugh, she had no difficulty bringing down his mood, even if she didn’t mean to. She could just picture him pinching the bridge of his nose, normally proud shoulders slumping. “There are twenty-seven kids here now, Alice.”
Alice. As in ‘Alice in Wonderland. It was his little play on her moniker, Vorpal, and an allusion to her status as a little girl lost in so many ways. It was also meant to be a placeholder as, until recently, she thought he didn’t know her real name. He knew better than to call her ‘Zoe’ even now though. Any camaraderie and love that was between them would be strained and might even break if he did.
He didn’t miss a beat in using the name only he used for her though, even when talking about a dire situation. “Most of these new kids… they aren’t troubled. They’re in trouble for pranks escalated too far, shoplifting, very minor drug charges—they don’t belong in the same place as former gang members, addicts and completely out of control kids go.
“But their parents, they insist. They have all heard stories in the news of some kid who broke a window or stole a bicycle and then they were sent to the military. No one wants that for their children, especially not when they are thirteen/fourteen… and so they panic and beg me to petition the court to receive them instead. I worry about them being here with the kids that truly need to be here for counseling and treatment. There may be serious injuries in the future and then… then I might not be allowed to stay open.”
Zoe tried to keep her teeth from grinding. “Someone needs to do something about the system over there.”
“It seems that someone needs to do something about your system there as well.” Stephan pointed out. “There was a time that it was the rest of the world that stole terrible ideas from America. Now, you steal ours. I hear the Canada is currently free of this madness—and many of them speak a proper language too.”
The recovery from his melancholy was much faster than she expected. Stephan had something of a talent for turning the tide of a conversation, especially whenever she managed to get him to unburden himself to her instead of the other way around.
Once he was sure she had no reply to that, he asked, “How is Annette?”
“Well enough.” said Zoe. “She complained, but she hardly breaks things anymore. The current complaints are about how all of her friends are going to expensive places while she has to stay at the Institute over the break.”
“You aren’t going to invite her to celebrate the holiday with you?”
Zoe wanted to roll her eyes, but he couldn’t see her. “You say that as if I’m celebrating the holiday.”
“Well,” Stephan said, zeroing in on the core of the discussion, “Why aren’t you?”
There was silence for a long, lingering moment, then Zoe spoke hastily. “Voice, I think I hear someone knocking. Can I call you back in a moment. It shouldn’t be long, probably someone collecting for charity.”
A wry chuckle came through the speakers. “As if you would answer it any other time. But no, go and see how you can help the sick, homeless or otherwise in need. I believe it would be good for you.”
She didn’t reply to that, simply ended the program. Stephan wasn’t wrong; at any other time, she would ignore someone knocking at her door. Now though, she would take any extra time she could to formulate an answer for him.
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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