The night sky was increasingly hidden behind the pillars and foundations of buildings above. I walked with my hands in my coat pockets, down the inclined, disrepair streets. I’d thrown on a long jacket after finding it on the side of the road. It was torn and dirty, but it gave me something to do with my hands.
The structures on either side of the road were compressed, flattened under the weight overhead. Lights were more frequently out and the atmosphere grew darker.
But I didn’t need to go any further. I’d found my destination.
Through the plywood door and into the old Police station, I navigated around a pillar piercing the building, and into the offices. In the light of a trashcan fire, the others stood. Odessa, ghostly and thin, her auburn hair now pale. Ash, looking exactly the same, but in clothes now he’d found off the street. Jeans ripped shirt, and leather trenchcoat, red hair swept aside.
Anna didn’t acknowledge me as I came in. She was wrapped in blankets trying to get warm, wearing only a long shirt and shorts since her suit had deteriorated. Her scar, it’d progressed across her head and chest. Her hair was gone.
I leaned back against one of the desks around the fire. “Porter’s reliable,” I reassured them. “He’ll alert the council.”
“They won’t do anything,” Anna said. “They’re not going to initiate a full planet evacuation. They’ll launch an inquest.”
“That’ll do well enough. I’m counting on them pulling in Kendall.”
Anna didn’t say anything.
“Because,” I continued, “he’ll be the first person Christopher turns to. If he’s off the board we can breath easier.”
“So Kendall is pursuing us.”
“Almost certainly,” I confirmed. “He’ll be trying to avoid inquiry over his craft. Which is some nasty stuff.”
Ash snorted. “Gee, maybe drinking demons wasn’t a smart idea.”
“He’ll be supplementing his binding with human essence. My guess is he’ll be using blood,” I added.
“That doesn’t change the plan?” Anna asked.
The machination is eternal a voice in my head spoke.
Sshhh, I hushed it, shaking my head.The blade was there, watching.
“No,” I said. “The plan is the same.” I pushed off and started towards the back of the building. “Follow me.”
Into the back, there was a small locked room. I knocked twice on the door and its hinges slipped, falling in. Anna, just behind me, cast a flame in her open hand, offering light.
“Marvelous,” Ash cooed.
The back of the gun cage hadn’t been emptied. The city had been so rapidly built over by machines that it’d been overlooked. Late twenty-first-century ballistic weaponry. Bullets.
I picked up a rifle and tossed it to Ash. He deftly handled it, checking the chamber and magazine, making it ready. He laughed maniacally.
Anna and Odessa turned them down. I took two automatic pistols and a vest to hold them under my jacket.
Ash took three more guns, storing them out of sight on his person. Similar to what he did with his knives, I didn’t know where he put them.
“That’s it, then.” I took a few extra mags and that was all for me. “The sun will be up soon. We’ll go at night tomorrow. If there’s anything you want to do in the city, not Ash, then now is the time to do it.”
Anna took that cue and turned to leave.
“But be back before dark. Don’t break my shroud!” I cautioned.
She didn’t reply.
Liabilities, the blade whispered.
“Shut it,” I hissed.
Odessa leaned heavily on her sword but took a moment to stare questioningly.
“It’s-… don’t worry about it.”
She walked away.
Hadn’t spoken in months. I worried she was fading.
Ash was still riffling in the guns. I would go rest, I decided.
Anna was walking the same road she should have traveled home years ago. The way that, if she had just been allowed to, she would’ve returned home by. It was raining lightly, wetting her clothes and the blanket she wore wrapped around her shoulders. The wet road’s asphalt stained her bare soles black.
She found her eyes damp as she made the long walk. It was thirty minutes before she saw it, the front of her house. The apartment the courts had given her, far away below the city. Down where her face couldn’t disturb children who’d never seen a scar in their life. Where the disabled were hidden.
She stepped beneath the eave of her porch, brushing a hand over her rocking chair.
Into the house, she found in the dark the light switches she knew by memory still. Over the sink, in the livingroom, in her bedroom. Nothing had been stolen or removed. But it wasn’t where it had been.
The house had been cleaned.
There came a creak behind her.
She knew who it was. Looking at him, though, her eyes widened. An illusion had been lifted. Staring at Elroy, she stumbled back and lowered herself to the floor. For all that time he’d lived across the street from her when she was supposed to have been secluded. For all that time, she’d never recognized him.
Her voice was barely audible as she asked, “…Dad?”
He slowly came in to stoop in front of her. He wouldn’t come close, his eyes showed his horror. She was ugly, she knew. But it wasn’t just that. It was horror at himself as well.
You did this, she thought. She wanted to say it.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. He rubbed at his face. “I’m so, so sorry, Anna.” He went to his knees. “It’s me, Anna. I did it.”
“Why?” was all she could speak.
Instead of answering her, he grabbed her, pulling her in. Tightly, he hugged Anna. She could hear him burning against her skin, but he didn’t let go. She took hold of his shoulders and held on.
She couldn’t explain how much she wanted him to hurt. But she could never do that. As he held her, she could never hate him more than he did himself.
She felt okay, for the first time. And that was enough to make her break down. She cried into his shoulder and he held his face away as his cheek began to blister.
He had to break away, soon. Anna dried her eyes.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he told her. “I’m so sorry.”
“What did you do to me?”
“I freed your soul. You were supposed to be capable of anything, Anna. But you must have been dealing with stress, I didn’t know. Your outward form became reflective of your inner and… I didn’t account… for you being unhappy.”
She knew what he meant. He’d been happy. Mom had never been around, and when she had? It’d been apathy. Or at worst, disdain. She’d never wanted a child. Anna had felt that for years. And she hadn’t spoken to him about her anxiety. He’d always been so content. With everything. She never brought herself to bring him down. To worry him.
She wanted again to explain, to speak, but she couldn’t.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you ask?” she demanded.
“You’d talked so much about wanting to learn the craft and seeing the Omniverse. I was so sure of myself. I even consulted a Magi, they strongly assured me. And I thought, truly, that if you didn’t know, that the transformation would go easier. With how much you desired freedom, I never imagined-”
“That I’d hold myself back,” Anna cut him off.
He rubbed at his face again and nodded.
“I-…” Anna stood up, over him. “I don’t think I can forgive you.”
He put his head in his hands.
She continued, “but I still love you, Dad. I’m… really happy to see you.” She lent him a hand in standing. He was too heavy for her to truly help, but he appreciated it.
“Thank you,” he said, not meeting her eyes. “Come on, you can use my shower. You’re filthy.”