Margaret nodded and sat down in front of her computer. Donald turned toward his office.
He looked back. She pointed to her head. “Your hair,” she hissed.
He patted his head and remembered the glimpse he’d caught earlier. He ran his fingers through hair matted down by the rain, and drops of water leapt off him like startled fleas. Margaret frowned and lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug. Donald gave up and pushed his office door open, expecting to find someone sitting in one of the chairs across from his desk.
Instead, he saw someone wiggling underneath it.
The door had bumped into something on the floor. Donald peeked around and saw a large box with a picture of a computer monitor on it. He glanced at the desk, saw the display was already set up.
The greeting was muffled by the hollow beneath his desk. Slender hips in a herringbone skirt wiggled back toward him. Donald knew who it was before her head emerged. He felt a flush of guilt, of anger at her being there unannounced.
“You know, you should have your cleaning lady dust under here once in a while.” Anna Thurman stood and smiled. She slapped her palms together, brushing them off before extending one his way. Donald shifted the folder and envelopes; he dropped a few of the latter as he fumbled to shake her hand.
“Yeah. Hey.” He bent to retrieve the mail, losing a few more pieces in the process. Rain dribbled down his cheek and neck, hiding any sudden flush of perspiration. “What’s going on?” He stood and dumped the mail on his desk, walked around it to create some space between them—some room so he could breathe. The monitor sat there looking at him innocently, a film of protective plastic blurring the screen.
“Dad thought you might need an extra one.” Anna tucked a loose clump of auburn hair behind her ear. She still possessed the same alluring and elfin quality when they poked out like that. “I volunteered,” she explained, shrugging.
“Oh.” He placed the folder on his desk and thought about the drawing of the building he had briefly suspected was from her. And now, here she was. Checking his reflection in the new monitor, he saw the mess he had made of his hair. He reached up and tried to smooth it.
“Another thing,” Anna said. “Your computer would be better off on your desk. I know it’s unsightly, but the dust is gonna choke that thing to death. Dust is murder on these guys.”
He sat down and realized he could no longer see the chair across from his desk. He slid the new monitor to one side while Anna walked around and stood beside him, her arms crossed, completely relaxed. As if they’d seen each other yesterday and all the days before.
“I think you’ll want one more.” She pointed to the other side of his original monitor. She wasn’t standing there to make him uncomfortable—she’d been surveying his workspace. “I can bring a splitter and set it up for you. Maybe untangle those wires while I’m at it.”
He halfway expected her to tousle his hair while she patronized him. He flinched at the thought. Just conjuring the image made it feel as though it were bound to happen—or already had. He rolled his chair away and made a show of adjusting the other monitor.
“So,” he said. “You’re in town.”
“Since last week. I was gonna stop by and see you and Helen on Saturday, but I’ve been so busy getting settled into my apartment. Unboxing things, you know?”
“Yeah.” He accidentally bumped the mouse, and the old monitor winked on. His computer was running. The terror of being in the same room with an ex subsided just enough for the timing of the day’s events to dawn on him.
“Wait.” He turned to Anna. “So you were over here installing this while your father was asking me if I was interested in his project?”
She raised an eyebrow. Donald realized it wasn’t something one learned—it was a talent her clan passed from parent to child.
“He practically gift-wrapped the election for you,” she said flatly.
Donald reached for the folder and riffed the pages like a deck of cards. “You know,” he said, “the illusion of free will would’ve been nice. That’s all.”
Anna laughed. She was about to tousle his hair, he could feel it. Dropping his hand from the folder and patting his jacket pocket, he felt for his phone. It was like Helen was there with him. He felt the urge to call her.
“Was Dad at least gentle with you?”
He looked up to see that she hadn’t moved. Her arms were still crossed, his hair untousled, nothing to panic about.
“What? Oh, yeah. Your father was fine. Like old times. In fact, it’s like he hasn’t aged a day.”
Smiling, she picked up something from his desk. A twist tie. From the monitor’s cord, perhaps. “He doesn’t really age, you know.” She crossed the room and picked up large molded pieces of foam and slid them noisily into the empty box. Donald found his eyes drifting toward her skirt and forced himself to look away.
“He takes nano treatments almost religiously. Started because of his knees. The military covered it for a while. Now he swears by them.”
“I didn’t know that,” Donald lied. He’d heard rumors, of course. It was “Botox for the whole body,” people said. Better than testosterone supplements. It cost a fortune, and you wouldn’t live forever, but you could sure as hell delay the pain of aging. He’d read a story recently about a guy who had died in the middle of a triathlon. A hundred-and-ten years old. His grandkids didn’t sound upset at all, said he was doing what he loved right up to the end.
Anna narrowed her eyes. “You don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, do you?”
“What? No. It’s fine, I guess. I just wouldn’t. Wait, why? Don’t tell me you’ve been—?”
Anna rested her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side. There was something oddly seductive about the defensive posture, something that whisked away the years since he’d last seen her.
“Do you think I would need to?” she asked him.
“No, no. It’s not that—” He waved his hands. “It’s just that I don’t think I ever would.”
A smirk thinned her lips. Maturity had hardened Anna’s good looks, had refined her lean frame, but the fierceness from her youth remained. “You say that now,” she said, “but wait until your joints start to ache and your back goes out from something as simple as turning your head too fast. Then you’ll see.”
“Okay. Well.” He clapped his hands together. “This has been quite the day for catching up on old times.” Peeking again at the shiny new monitor, he gave his hair another minor adjustment.
“Yes, it has. Now, what day works best for you?” Anna interlocked the flaps on the large box and slid it toward the door with her foot. She walked around the back of the desk and stood beside him, a hand on his chair, the other reaching for his mouse.
He watched while she changed some settings on his computer and the new monitor flashed to life. Donald could feel his pulse in his crotch, could smell a familiar perfume. The breeze she had caused by walking across the room seemed to stir all around him. Her body had pressed against air molecules that now pressed into him. This felt near enough to a caress, to a physical touch, that he wondered if he was cheating on Helen right at that very moment while Anna did little more than adjust sliders on his control panel.
“You know how to use this, right?” She slid the mouse from one screen to the other, dragging an old game of solitaire with it.
“Uh, yeah.” Donald squirmed in his seat. “Um...what do you mean about a day that works best for me?”
She let go of the mouse. It felt like she had taken her hand off his thigh. Stepping away from him, she peeled the plastic film off the monitor with a loud ripping sound and balled it up in her hands.
“Dad wants me to handle the mechanical spaces on the plans.” She gestured toward the folder as if she knew precisely what was inside. “I’m taking a sabbatical from the Institute until this Atlanta project is up and running. I thought we’d want to meet once a week to go over things.”
“Oh. Well. I’ll have to get back with you on that. My schedule here is crazy. It’s different every day.”
He imagined what Helen would say to he and Anna getting together once a week.
“We could, you know, set up a shared space in AutoCAD,” he suggested. “I can link you into my document—”
She nodded. “We could do that.”
“And email back and forth. Or video chat. You know?”
Anna frowned. Donald realized he was being too obvious. She scrunched the ball of plastic film in her hand, the material squeaking in complaint. “Yeah, let’s set up something like that,” she said.
There was a flash of disappointment on her face as she turned for the box, and Donald felt the urge to apologize, but doing so would spell out the problem in neon lights: I don’t trust myself around you. We’re not going to be friends. What the fuck are you doing here?
“You really need to do something about the dust.” She glanced back at his desk. “Seriously, your computer is going to choke on it.”
“Okay. I will.” He stood and hurried around his desk to walk her out. Anna stooped for the box.
“I can get that.”
“Don’t be silly.” She stood with the large box pinned between one arm and her hip. She smiled and tucked her hair behind her ear. She could’ve been leaving his dorm room in college. There was that same awkward moment of a morning goodbye in last night’s clothes.
“Okay, so you have my email?” he asked.
“You’re in the blue pages now,” she reminded him.
“You look great, by the way.” And before he could step back or defend himself, she was fixing his hair, a smile on her lips.
Donald froze. His brain shut down completely.
When it came back online some time later, Anna was gone, leaving him standing there alone, soaked in guilt.
2110 • Silo 1
Troy was going to be late. The first day of his first shift, already a blubbering mess, and he was going to be late. In his rush to get away from the cafeteria, to be alone, he had taken the non-express by accident. Now, as he tried to compose himself and stop his nose from running, the lift seemed intent on stopping at every floor on the way down to load and unload passengers.
He stood in the corner as the lift stopped again and checked to see how bloodshot his eyes were in the elevator’s silvery wall. A man wrestled a cart full of heavy boxes onto the lift. A gentleman with a load of green onions crowded behind him and stood close to Troy for a few stops. Nobody spoke. When the man with the onions got off, the smell remained. Troy shivered, one violent quake that traveled up his back and into his arms, but he thought nothing of it. He got off on thirty-four and tried to remember why he had been upset earlier.
The central elevator shaft emptied onto a narrow hallway, which funneled him toward a security station. The floor plan was vaguely familiar and yet somehow alien. It was unnerving to note the signs of wear in the carpet and the patch of dull steel in the middle of the turnstile where thighs had rubbed against it over the years. These were years that didn’t exist for Troy. This wear and tear had shown up as if by magic.
The lone guard on duty looked up from something he was reading and nodded in greeting. Troy placed his palm on a screen that had grown hazy from use. There was no chit-chat, no small talk, no expectation of forming a lasting relationship. The light above the console flashed green, the pedestal gave a loud click, and a little more sheen was rubbed off the revolving bar as Troy pushed through.
The guard smiled at him before returning his attention to his small tablet, probably some smut or a detective novel. At the end of the hallway, Troy paused and pulled his orders out of his breast pocket. There was a note on the back from the doctor. He flipped it over and turned the little map around to face the right direction, was pretty sure he knew the way, but everything was going in and out of focus.
The red dash marks on the map reminded him of fire safety plans he’d seen on walls somewhere else. Following the route took him past a string of small offices. Clacking keyboards, people talking, phones ringing—the sounds of everyday work made him feel suddenly tired. It also ignited a burn of insecurity, of having taken on something far larger than himself, a job he surely couldn’t perform.
He stopped and looked back at the man standing in the doorway he had just passed. A glance at his map and a twinge of recollection showed him he’d almost missed his office.
“Merriman.” The gentleman didn’t offer his hand. “You’re late. Step inside.”
Merriman turned and disappeared into the office. Troy followed, his legs sore from so much walking. He recognized the man, or thought he did. Couldn’t remember if it was from the orientation or somewhen else. The dreams faded with each moment he was awake. It was like those nightmares that washed away in the morning shower, spiraling down and out of reach.
“Sorry I’m late,” Troy started to explain. “I got on the wrong elevator—”
Merriman raised a hand. “That’s fine. Do you need a drink?”
“They fed me.”
“Of course.” Merriman grabbed a clear thermos off his desk, the contents a bright blue. Troy remembered the foul taste. His tongue flinched as if he were suffering the same swig that Merriman took. The older man smacked his lips and let out a breath as he lowered the thermos.