Last time we saw MARA… (click for recap)
While at her weekly check-in with her doctor, Mara considers telling him about her strange, waking, more-than-a-dream. But before she does, she has a more-than-a-dream of a woman screaming right before it happens, and she does not ask her doctor for help. After pondering her experiences, Mara realizes that these more-than-a-dreams might not be dreams at all, but visions of the future. If that’s so, she decides to do what she can to save the dying man she sees in these visions. She stops taking her medication. Now off the Calm, her emotions become more erratic and intense, and she knows that she will be taken in for Adjustment any day now, but she persists, trying to finish her dream to figure out who the dying man is so she can save him. While at the wages window with Zoe, her closest friend, Mara has another more-than-a-dream, but is interrupted by a woman causing a commotion at the wages window. As the scene dies down, something prickles the back of her neck, and Mara sees a man watching her. She’s sure she’ll be taken in for Adjustment any day now. Looks like her time is up…
Why were the bright ones, the pink and teal ones that smelled of orange and pineapple and sugar, the ones you least expected, always the strongest?
Mara’s lavender drink was too strong, and she kept wondering what made it purple. She sipped her drink with Zoe in their approved social club, but the purple-colored drink was starting to bother her. She kept waiting for its calm to kick in, but since she kept wondering what made it so purple, it didn’t have the expected effect But then again, not much had the expected effect for Mara recently. Not since she stopped taking her medication.
The music wasn’t loud enough, and the lights were too dim, but she had to check off her Social Obligation somehow. Why not with Zoe? Paul, Zoe’s more-than-a-friend, joined them tonight as well. Mara liked the way he held Zoe’s hand when they walked through a crowd. Of all the men Zoe could be with, Mara thoroughly approved of Paul.
Paul smiled at Zoe and leaned head on his fist, drink sloshing in his other hand. “We should go downtown more often,” he said to Zoe. “This is nice, but why don’t we go downtown more?”
“You know why,” Zoe said. She shifted and crossed her legs away from Paul.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Because I don’t like downtown.”
“What, this isn’t downtown enough?” Mara asked.
“He means downtown like downtown, like near the Eternals Palace. Real swanky, uptown kind of places. Money.”
“Why don’t you like downtown?” Mara took a long sip of her purple drink.
Zoe shrugged. “Too many people. I like this better.”
Paul burst out laughing, nearly spilling his drink. “Oh wait, I remember now. We did go downtown once, and it was a disaster.”
“Why, what happened?” Mara asked, looking from Zoe to Paul.
“Poor Zoe kept thinking everyone we met was an analyst.”
Zoe sat upright and smacked him on the arm. “Keep your voice down.”
“Anyway, we got talking to these two guys. They were definitely not supposed to be there, like us. Worked east side by the river by the look of them. Nobodies.”
“How could you tell?” Mara asked.
Paul pointed discretely to her feet. “The shoes. You can always tell by the shoes,” he whispered knowingly, but Mara didn’t understand why, and she wondered why he would whisper that. “Anyway, for some reason, Zoe freaked out. Thought they were observing her. Analyzing her. Going to take her away for Adjustment.”
“It’s not irrational to think that analysts might be downtown. That’s where they work.” Zoe hugged herself and sipped gingerly at her drink.
“Sure Zo, but we spent the whole evening listening to Zoe confess everything she’s ever done to complete strangers. They were mortified. I think they worked at the docks. Definitely not analysts.”
Maybe it was the too strong, purple drink, or maybe it was the idea of her friend confessing her sins to a couple of nobodies, but Mara started laughing.
“Shut up,” Zoe said, “It’s not funny.”
“What? It’s kind of funny. I’m pretty sure those guys never went downtown again,” Paul put up his hands in defense, but Zoe scowled.
“Oh, come on,” Mara said. “It’s kind of funny.” And it was funny. And it was nice to laugh. It had been a while since Mara had felt like laughing.
“Not really,” Zoe said and drained her drink. “I’m going to get another drink,” she said and started to rise, but Mara put a hand on her arm.
A shock of joy and laughter like sparks. Warmth and peace like sunshine.
Zoe blinked too. A smile twitched at the corners of her mouth.
“I… I just. We’ve all done stupid things like that.” Mara said and laughed. “It’s just… funny.”
This time, Zoe laughed too. It was just a chuckle and a smile at first, but then it grew.
“You’re right. It is kind of funny,” she said and laughed harder. The more Mara laughed, the more Zoe laughed until tears were running down her face.
This laughing Zoe was nice but strange. Zoe had too much pride to suddenly joke about embarrassing herself so badly. Why would she change? Was it the drinks? But Zoe’s laughter wasn’t stopping, it was getting louder. People were starting to stare. Mara released Zoe and looked around, and even as she did so, Zoe’s laughter faded and died.
“Well,” Zoe said, brushing tears from her cheeks. “Maybe it’s funny, sort of, but not that funny.” And all at once, the proud and regal Zoe returned.
“You all right?” Paul asked. He stared at her with a crinkle in his forehead.
“Yeah… I just… I don’t know,” she said and went for another drink.
Mara kept her eyes down to her drink. They were supposed to be calm here, not laughing too much, not joking around. Zoe knew that, they all knew that, so why was she being so strange?
“Who’s that?” Zoe asked as she sat down with another drink. She nudged Mara in the ribs and looked at her with a glint in her eye as she chewed at a nail.
Mara looked over her shoulder towards the bar—the man she had seen at the wages window and in her visions.
The man with the thick braid like a vine.
The man with the knife.
She went cold. “I don’t know,” Mara said and turned her attention back to her drink. His eyes made her anxious, and she tried to keep her heart rate slow. In her visions, he was definitely trying to kill someone. She wondered who and why it was so important, but cowardice put a hand on her shoulder and kept her questions down.
“Why don’t you go introduce yourself?” Zoe whispered, finally taking her index finger out of her mouth and examining her mangled nail.
“What’s going on?” Paul asked, leaning in, his eyes on Zoe’s face. Mara closed her mouth and tried to slow her speeding heart.
“Mara caught someone’s eye.”
“Back there,” Zoe nodded towards the bar. “The one looking at her. What’s he doing?” she asked Paul, keeping her eyes on Mara.
“He’s… he’s coming over,” Paul said and shifted a bit closer to Zoe, wrapping an arm over her shoulders.
Mara kept her head down and swirled her drink around in her glass.
“Hello,” an unfamiliar voice said. Mara did not look up.
“Hi there,” Zoe said and kicked Mara gently.
“I saw you at the wages window yesterday,” the man said.
“Oh, yeah? I’m Zoe, this is Paul, and this is Mara.” She still did not look up. Zoe grabbed her shoulder and shook her playfully. “She’s shy.”
Having no other choice, Mara looked up and met the stranger’s eyes. He was a small man with a pale face and hazy gray eyes like he’d been staring too long at nothing, and now his unfocused eyes saw everything and nothing. And he was very thin. His limbs were like spider legs, small and delicate, yet she could tell they were strong. He stood very still. That stillness though, was not empty, not inactive, or stagnant, but it was a coiled, spring stillness.
He observed her thoughtfully and completely, and Mara tried to keep the strange feeling in the back of her throat down—a feeling that she had come to know intimately. Fear.
“Hello,” Mara said and looked back down at her drink, gripping the cold glass like it could pull her away from there. The too-soft music slowed and shifted to something like a love song, at least, that’s what Mara always thought of it as. The words weren’t about romance, but something in the notes made her think it must be about love.
“This is my favorite song,” Zoe said, putting a hand on Paul’s knee. “We’ll be back,” she said and stood pulling Paul to his feet with her. She hauled him out to the dance floor, leaving Mara alone with the spider-limbed stranger.
“May I?” Jason asked, motioning to the seat Zoe had just vacated.
Mara froze. He sat next to her, crossing his legs. “So. Where is your Work Obligation?” he asked.
“Office of Accounting and Mathematics.”
“Oh, very nice.” He paused. She knew that he was waiting for her to ask where he worked. She didn’t. She just stared at his shoe.
“My Work Obligation is for the Office of Transportation,” he finally said. He rubbed at his ear, and Mara knew that he was lying. Why would she know that? How could she? She nodded, and they sat quietly, letting the soft and lilting music fill the space between them.
“Where is your Volunteer Obligation?” he asked.
“Office of Childhood Development and Education. A Rearing Center,” Mara said, hoping he was done with questions, but his unfocused eyes focused on her suddenly.
“That is… noble work,” he said, and his eyes shifted back to unfocused and all-seeing. “I volunteer with the Office of Agriculture.”
Mara nodded, and they sat silently. He made her stomach go cold. He haunted her visions like an unanswered question. Yet, he and his victim must be important if she was seeing his face in her dreams. She knew he brought violence, but she didn’t understand how or why or who it was directed at. So what was he? A warning or a hope?
Her hand went to her flower pendant, and she thought about the day she found it. The light had poured into the little shop, and the pendant had shown in the sunshine. She closed her eyes and remembered the warmth of the sun, the coolness of the shadows, the sound of Zoe laughing and flirting with Paul. The smell of his coffee. Remembrance smiled at her and filled the memory with hope.
She was so lost in the memory that she barely noticed Jason’s arm creep around her shoulder and rest behind her neck until his arm touched her neck, skin on skin.
A burst of joy, sunshine in the shop. The flower pendant, cool in her hand, a rush of peace.
Her eyes snapped open, and in a panic, she looked at Jason. He sat completely still, his eyes closed, a deep crease in his pale forehead like a valley carved by time and wind. But his stillness this time was not tense like coiled spring, but real, peaceful stillness. He opened his eyes and looked at her, startled.
“Are you all right?” she asked, but she barely heard her own voice at all.
“What did you do…” he stammered.
But she didn’t know. That feeling, the peace she had experienced that day in the antique’s shop, had filled her so completely that she had felt like she was back there. Ever since she had stopped taking her Calm, her emotions had been heightened, vivid, powerful, but this was something different. This felt like something tangible that she could pass from her hands to his. He had reacted to her like he had felt what she had felt. Like her peace had stilled him.
Mara set her glass down and rose to leave, terrified that her biometrics were all over the place and screaming for an Adjustment, but he reached to touch her wrist. She snapped her hand back, surprised by her own sudden movement and afraid of what might happen if he touched her again.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry. Just don’t leave, please. Please stay,” he said with his hands held out to her like a prayer.
“No, I don’t think… I should go,” Mara said.
“Please. Please stay, I….” He stared down to the floor beneath his feet as if he couldn’t think of the right word but might find it on the floorboards if he looked hard enough.
His confusion startled her. Sadness, a gray woman, wrapped in silk with deep lines around her mouth, appeared behind him. Mara recognized her with surprise. Sadness is a thin woman in fine clothes with pearls at her neck. She draped herself over Jason and sighed.
He looked up at her with focused eyes. Maybe it was pity, maybe it was cowardice, but a hand settled on Mara’s shoulder, and she sat back down.
She nodded at him and leaned back against the couch. As she did so, he looked at her, and sadness, the silk-sheathed woman, vanished, swallowed by something dangerous and sleek and red. In that moment, she knew that she and Jason were connected somehow, not just through her visions, but through something she did not yet understand. And she needed to understand.
A pain in Mara’s hand startled her. She looked down and realized that she had been clutching her necklace. The little petals had sliced into her hand, and a red bead formed over the cut. With a smile at Jason, she picked up her empty glass and the napkin under it and handed him the glass, keeping the napkin.
He nodded and smiled, and the red thing at his shoulder disappeared. “Let me get you another drink.”
As he made his way to the bar, Anda tried to calm her racing heart and pressed the napkin to her bleeding palm.
Despite that moment of sincerity and weakness she had seen, Jason still scared her and sent fear skittering around inside of her. The Jason she saw in her visions continued to haunt and confuse her. Despite her uneasiness about him, Zoe thought he was nice—secure, level, and steady.
“He doesn’t really work for the Office of Transportation though,” Zoe said one day while they walked to the train station.
Mara’s pulse quickened. “Why do you say that?” She asked. She had known he was lying when he told her where he worked, but she didn’t know how or why she knew that.
“His shoes are too nice.” Zoe studied a nail.
His shoes weren’t something Mara had remembered noticing. “What about his shoes?”
Zoe bit at a nail and talked around the finger in her mouth. “He wears really nice shoes, but the Office of Transportation doesn’t pay that well. I know someone who works there. I wonder what he really does. Whatever it is, he makes quite a bit of money. Is that why you don’t like him?” Zoe asked, wiping her gnawed finger on her jacket, her eyes narrowing at Mara.
Mara had no answer for her. She couldn’t possibly make Zoe understand this uneasiness she felt without giving herself away. She couldn’t say it was because he had lied about his job. Secrets were just a way of life here. She couldn’t say it was because she had a bad feeling about him. With their calming and serene effect, the pills countered those feelings entirely, so she couldn’t admit to having them. To admit that she felt anything other than mild apprehension would be to admit that she had stopped taking her pills, and she could never do that. She trusted Zoe, but this was too dangerous.
“Oh, no. I mean, I do like him. He’s just not… I just don’t like his nose,” she finally said. “It’s too big.”
Zoe gave her a funny look but nodded.
So Jason joined them during their Social Obligations, clinging to their little group and wrapping an arm around Mara’s neck whenever he got a chance. He was always trying to touch her. A hand on her knee, an elbow, a shoulder. She did her best to avoid him, but she couldn’t always slip away or sit far enough from him. And sometimes when he touched her, his pale hand against her skin, her emotions burst.
It was like a million flowers all exploding into bloom in a moment, each an emotion, each a starburst of feeling and sparking energy.
But they weren’t always good emotions. As his hand touched hers, anxiety, sorrow, and apprehension burst to sparking light in her mind. Distilled, and potent. Mara could avoid his touch as much as possible, but she couldn’t always dodge him. When he touched her, and her emotions exploded in bursts of color and sparks, she could do nothing but sit with a blank expression like she hadn’t a care in the world. And that red and sleek thing in Jason reared its head and looked at her.
“Here,” Jason said one day. They had just stepped out of the train station, and Mara had turned for home, but Jason put a hand out for her wrist, reaching for her skin. She pulled her jacket down quickly, and he only touched the slippery-soft raincoat. “I have something for you,” he said.
Mara bit the inside of her cheek and smiled. “Oh?”
Jason had been twisting his hands and tapping his fingernails against the table all night. No one else noticed, but Mara had. She wondered what he wanted. Jason gave Zoe a sideways glance, and she stepped aside, pretending to be engrossed in a poster from the Health Department.
“Here,” he said again and held out a key. A tag with an address dangled from it.
Mara blinked at it.
“A key to my apartment, just in case. Everyone’s supposed to give a spare to someone they trust,” he said, extending the key to her again.
“Of course. Zoe has my key,” Mara said, not taking the offered key.
“I trust you,” Jason said. His eyes were more hollowed and darker than usual. Sleepy purple and blue shadows circled his lids.
Mara hesitated under his gaze and looked discretely at Zoe, who smiled and nodded in encouragement. Mara hesitated but reached for the key.
Their fingers touched.
A burst of terror like a bright red flower.
Jason took a deep breath and shut his eyes, still holding the key tightly. Mara panicked. He wouldn’t let go of the key. With a quick motion, she pulled the key from his fist and slipped it into her pocket, fighting the urge to reach for her flower pendant.
“Thank you for your trust,” was all Mara could manage to say. She snuck a glance at Zoe to make sure she hadn’t seen the interaction. Thankfully Zoe had gone back to pretending to be engrossed in the Health Center poster.
“Thank you for your trust,” Jason said. He exhaled, like he had been holding his breath, and breathed deeply. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” he asked and opened his eyes.
Mara nodded, turned, and walked swiftly away, leaving him under the concrete archway leading to the train station. Zoe jogged to catch up, calling good-bye’s to Jason over her shoulder.
Mara exited the train station and headed home. It had been a week since Jason had given her his key, and she still broke out into a cold sweat whenever she thought about it. Her head throbbed. It had been a long day of Obligations, and trying to keep her emotions serene proved more difficult than usual. It had rained all day, and that didn’t help. The skyline, drenched from the constant rain, glistened with flashing city lights in yellow and magenta and electric blue. Looking down the street was like looking into a gem, color, and light refracting everywhere.
As she stared at the flickering lights, shining and blinking and flaring red and blue and green in the rain, the raindrops slid down the buildings like blood. Blood. She thought about the dying man and the black blood from her more-than-a-dream. The dream had been coming every night now, but she was no closer to figuring out who he was or how to save him. Why was she dreaming about him? Who was he? Why was his blood black? But the world tinged green and gold and gray, and Mara’s eyelids fluttered.
She tripped on the edge of the sidewalk and fell, scraping her hands and knees. Trembling, she scooted back and sat on the wet curb in the rain and examined her cuts in the glimmering city lights. They weren’t deep, but the gravel had dug into her flesh, and she winced as she picked out the little stones.
“Hey… hey. Hey you.”
Mara turned. “Me?”
A lanky man, no older than herself, with scruff down his chin and neck, leaned against the door frame of the bakery with a broom in his hand. She had seen him before. He worked at the bakery and had sold her cookies.
“Yeah, you,” he said with a nod. “You all right?”
“You seem… tense.”
“What?” Mara blinked at him.
“I seen you around here. You come in the shop,” he said with a nod to the door behind him.
“I… I like the cookies here. They have honey bees on them.”
“Huh,” he chuckled and tapped the bristles of the broom to the sidewalk.
“Yeah, they got honey bees all right.”
She looked down at her palms. The red and the wet brought tears to her eyes.
“Ah, shit. Don’t cry. Hey… you need some honey?”
“What?” She turned and looked up at him.
“Honey? You need some honey?” He pulled a vial of golden liquid out of his pocket for a moment. The gold liquid glinted in the streetlights. He pushed it back into his pocket and glanced around.
Mara swallowed. She recognized that shining liquid. The Burn serum.
“How did you—”
The world snapped into color from it’s green and gray shadows, and she tripped on the edge of the sidewalk and fell, scraping her hands and knees. Trembling, she scooted back and sat on the wet curb in the rain and examined her cuts in the glimmering city lights. She sat, examining her hands, waiting for the man to address her. But he didn’t.
She turned. Behind her, the lanky man with scruff on his chin and neck looked at her. Then he kept sweeping. The broom made a shushing sound against the sidewalk as he swept puddles and dirt from the front of the store. The man kept his head down, staring down at the dirt and water that swirled around his feet.
When her heart rate had slowed, Mara stood and continued home. She had seen him offer her a Burn. But it hadn’t happened. She saw it, but why didn’t it happen?