November 26, 2012 by Vee Villarreal
Boring. Quiet. Tedious. A stupefied-coma-inducing droll existence that continued endlessly in an uninterrupted stream of mind-numbingly and inconsequential happenings; she was quickly running out of ways to describe the new status quo of her life. What was the point in getting out of bed if the only thing waiting to greet her was more of the same monotonous tasks as the day before? Laying in her bed, sprawled carelessly over the surface, Miranda bored a hole into the ceiling with her dark eyes. Maybe if the whole house came crashing down on her it would put an end to this crippling depression that was beginning to set in. Nearly four months had passed and she longed to be back home, she tried for weeks to be positive and give the Pacific Sector a chance at winning her over, but it was clear that she didn’t belong here and it was as if everyone she met and every action she took fought to remind her of that. Even the very air disagreed with her lungs; she’d had a nagging cough that came and went for two weeks now. She missed her friends, her apartment, her students; she missed restaurants and shopping, the theater, nights spent dancing in deafening and dark clubs, and she missed sex. She could care less if that made her wanton, it was the truth. To her it seemed the whole Pacific Sector was full of prudes, and more often than not they were married prudes. How was a girl supposed to find any companionship when every halfway decent looking man was already taken? Of course, the ones who weren’t were awkward, shy, or just plain grouchy; case in point, the delectable, but foul-tempered, Kopi Gresham. Her first impression of him had been that he was tall, dark, and disgruntled; getting into a fight with her brother practically on sight. At least he made for gorgeous eye candy when he wasn’t glowering. Her days were filled with cleaning and organizing, and now the occasional class, though her class size left something to be desired, she had a total of seven students. Even teaching four subjects that was hardly enough to fill a work day and the kids, unaccustomed to traditional schooling, tired easily of sitting inside and listening to her ramble on. It felt like she had hours upon hours of daylight to fill and she looked everywhere for something to do. Oh right, ‘fucking dreary’, there’s another descriptive headline to go on the tourism brochure for Zone 17. Miranda sighed heavily, covering her face with one hand, praying that when she opened her eyes again it would all have been a horrible, long dream.
No such luck, she was still on her parent’s new estate in the middle of nowhere. She sat up, allowing the comforter to puddle around her hips, and gazed out the open window to her right. Below the ledge she saw her one new friend, Kai, leaning against the side of the garden shed talking to his brother. She couldn’t hear their conversation, but Kai seemed in good spirits, though that wasn’t unusual for him. Hoping to fill more of her schedule, she’d offered her services as a masseuse. After their first session she was glad she had, as calm and quiet as he was Kai was wound tight and his body suffered for it. He had more knots and hot spots than anybody his age, or older for that matter, she’d ever worked on and no matter how many sessions they had they all seemed to come back. She had to work hard not to laugh at his shyness, especially when it came to nudity. The residents of the Northern Sector were far from exhibitionists, but she was used to people at least understanding why nudity might be necessary in a medical or therapeutic setting, but Kai resisted her every time. The memory of their brief arguments before each session made her grin, each time he tried to convince her that he didn’t need to remove his clothes and each time she presented the same short rebuttal and won. Despite his shyness, they were developing a friendship and Miranda was thankful for that. She needed a friend badly; she could feel the draining effect that this place was having on her. As her thoughts drifted to the tan-skinned local she remembered that he’d promised to go to the market with her today. She might as well get out of bed and start the day, the sooner she did the sooner it would be over.
She pulled herself up and into the adjoining bathroom where she showered and dressed. In a little under an hour she was ready for the trip to the town square and she met Kai at the door just as he was making his way in. He looked startled to see her at first, but smiled despite himself. He had a beautiful smile, so warm it brightened his whole face. It was a shame about his leg, if the local bachelorettes weren’t so damned prejudice, he might have his pick of any of them. Of course, Kopi wasn’t exactly drowning in girls and he was her first choice between the two if she was being honest. Handsome, ornery devil that he was; she lost her surroundings for a moment as her mind’s eye drifted over his broad shoulders and rippling muscles flexing in the morning sun, lecherously taking in every memorized detail. A hand tapped her shoulder and suddenly she was confronted by Kai’s face in front of hers, one brow raised quizzically.
“You ready to go?” He asked and probably not for the first time judging by his tone.
She shook her head slightly to erase the traces of her daydream before answering. “Y-yes. Sorry.”
They left for the market, taking one of the trucks so that Kai wouldn’t have to walk there on crutches. The yard was practically deserted now that only one squad of troops remained on the estate. Slowly her father had managed to get most of the company reassigned elsewhere. Even her brother, Sean, had left for another assignment as well, taking with him the last of his men. All that was left was a small security team of ten. Most of them were men she liked, a fair and quiet bunch for the most part. The locals were all noticeably more comfortable wandering the grounds now, so it had to be a relief for them too. Kai parked the truck on the outskirts of the square and it was just a short walk to the market. She was beginning to gain some rapport with the zone’s craftsmen, farmers, and fisherman that she saw weekly at intimate, little market held in the square every Wednesday. It helped that Kai accompanied her most weeks; his presence often seemed to be the difference between the best produce and day’s catch and the bottom of the barrel. Despite the fact that the Greshams were total shut-ins, Kai seemed to know everyone in the zone. He was greeted as if on cue by more than a dozen strange faces upon entering the square and was often pulled aside while she browsed to discuss some matter or another with another patron or one of the shopkeepers. She was never within earshot of their conversations so she wasn’t sure what it was that kept pulling him away, but his demeanor remained calm and pleasant throughout so she didn’t worry overmuch. Today, her mother had sent her to get the normal weeks’ worth of fish and produce, to supplement what they grew on the estate, and to pick up a parcel that had arrived from the Capitol on a trading vessel earlier that week. Kai waited patiently for her to finish her shopping, making polite small talk with an elderly woman sitting at one of the stands. Most of her head and neck was shielded from sight by a dark scarf, but Miranda saw the edge of some sort of blemish across her cheek that if it hadn’t been on the woman’s face, she would have sworn was moss. As they strolled toward the dock afterward Miranda inquired about the mark to Kai.
“Is that woman ill?”
“No, why do you ask?” Kai’s tone was composed, but there was something in his voice that made her tread carefully.
“Well, she kept her face covered, and she had some kind of skin condition.” She didn’t want to be rude, but she was curious and if the woman was sick she could suggest she see her mother for treatment.
“Oh, you saw that, huh? It’s nothing to worry about, just nature catching up to her.” He said it nonchalant, as though this was something she should already be familiar with.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s been a bad couple of seasons for the farmers here, and she’s had to supplement her crops. Unfortunately, it’s cost her, but people will do a lot to keep food on the table.” Kai’s gaze was on the horizon and though he answered her questions, albeit cryptically, she knew his mind was elsewhere.
“Couldn’t her children work the market for her?”
Kai turned to her then, his brows furrowed with puzzling question. “At six and eight, I think not.”
“Six and eight? You mean her children are six and eight? As in years old?” She did a double take then. “That woman had to be at least sixty, there’s no way she has two young children.” Miranda was flabbergasted, had her eyes deceived her that badly? No, the woman had had silver hair and though most of her face was covered, her hands had been as wrinkled and thin-skinned as crumpled tissue paper.
Kai laughed then, his voice deep and thick. “Miranda, she’s only maybe ten years older than me.” When her eyes widened at that he chuckled again and stopped her, placing his hand gently on her arm. “I know you’re not used to being around mutants, but you were the one who mentioned the energy price that day you saw me using my abilities in the garden.” When she responded with another baffled look he continued. “There’s a price to pay for using our gifts, use them too often or too much in one sitting and you’ll see it taken out on your body. Most mutants just age prematurely, but some of us experience other changes as well. The woman you saw in the market, her skin is breaking out in,” he paused thoughtfully, “well, her skin is greening.”
“Yes, she’s an Earth Elemental. She uses her abilities to help her crops grow so she has something to sell at market, but as you saw it’s aged her a lot. She looks a lot older than her mid-thirties and instead of skin; she has leaves or a sort of vegetation growing in patches. That probably sounds ridiculous to you doesn’t it?” They continued walking again at a leisurely pace.
“Not really, I thought I saw a green rash on her cheek. I guess that’s what you meant.” Miranda was stunned, she’d heard her parents talking about the side effects of mutations, but that poor woman was suffering from more than a mere side effect. “Will she die sooner too, or just look older?”
“It ages everything, so I suppose she will probably die before her time.” Kai was melancholy, but matter-of-fact about the statement.
“That’s terrible.” Miranda watched him as he stared ahead of them. “Will you-I mean, could that happen to you?”
“Perhaps.” She was startled by the casualness with which he accepted the fate, but she couldn’t think of anything more to say on the matter so they continued to the harbor in silence. There she picked up the package for her mother, just a small, paper-wrapped box. She slipped it into her basket alongside the vegetables and waved for Kai to join her in returning to the truck. They didn’t say a word to each other on the ride back to the estate and Miranda fidgeted nervously in her seat beside him. After he parked the truck she waited before getting out.
“Ready for our session today?” She tried to sound as normal as possible, even with all the awkwardness between them.
“Uh,” he paused with his hand on the door, “I don’t think I can today, Miranda. I have to go somewhere with Kopi.”
“Oh right, it’s Wednesday. I forgot you guys have your big, mysterious afternoon plans.” She mocked him playfully, but Kai’s face wilted at her harmless ribbing.
“It’s not mysterious, we just have plans. That’s all.”
“Kai, I was just teasing you. I mean it is kinda weird that you guys disappear every Wednesday afternoon and neither of you will say what it is you’re up to, but it’s really none of my business.”
“You’re right, it’s not.” She blushed hearing his cold words. Embarrassed at her prying she looked away and reached for the door handle to let herself out.
“Sorry I said anything about it.” She mumbled before pulling at the handle, the door creaked open; before she could exit Kai stopped her, grabbing her arm firmly, but letting go quickly as she turned to face him again.
“That was rude, I’m sorry. If you still want to I think I have enough time for a session before I have to leave.” The same kind brown eyes stared back at her now, no trace of the icy detachment that had been there a moment before. Maybe both of the brothers were temperamental and Kai just hid it better, either way keeping up with their mood swings was exhausting. She sighed and did her best to reply pleasantly.
“Sure. Let’s get ready.”
They went inside and Miranda left Kai to undress in the room while she set down her purchases in the kitchen and gathered her supplies. Surprisingly, Kai didn’t fight her about the nudity issue this time, though he was looking a little sullen after their tiff in the truck that was probably the reason he held off. When she returned he was sitting on the edge of the bed wrapped in a towel. She prepped the bed and he laid down on his stomach waiting for her to begin.
“I didn’t mean to upset you earlier.” She tried to lighten the mood as she worked at the knots in his back.
“It’s fine. I shouldn’t have gotten short with you. You are one of the bosses after all.” The last part stung her more than she cared to admit.
“I hope you don’t just think of me as your boss, Kai.”
“How else should I think of you?” He grunted as she plied a little too hard into a tight spot under his shoulder blade.
“I think of you as a friend.” She sat down on the edge of the bed as she worked and felt the hitch in his breath as she did. Her chest tightened; maybe she had been hasty in assuming that their relationship was really deeper than it was.
“I suppose I think of you as a friend too. But, you’re also my employers’ daughter.”
“True.” She let out a heavy breath and her attention fell to the small tattoo on his left shoulder. She’d seen it before, but she’d been too shy to ask about it. She probably shouldn’t have asked today, considering that they’d already had an uncomfortable morning, but how much harm could it do? She traced the neat line of black type with her finger before tentatively probing Kai about it.
“Kai, what’s the story behind your tattoo?”
“What tattoo?” He sat up on his elbows to look at her. He was genuinely surprised at her question, as though he’d forgotten about the inked print on his back.
“These letters and numbers on your shoulder.” From left to right they read in an obscure sequence, ‘P17-17-We/Fe/EeEm-M’; the lettering no taller than the width of a pencil. Kai’s body tensed beneath her hands. “What’s wrong?”
Kai didn’t respond at first; looking at the wall and laying frighteningly still, he kept her waiting. When he finally did speak his voice was distant and soft. “It was a long time ago; I don’t want to talk about it.” With that he laid back down against the pillow, his face turned away from her.
She should have left it at that; ending their therapy session or finishing on a quiet note, but she couldn’t put it down, she had to know what was up. Something about his split personality was raking her nerves and she was seething with a growing irritation. “What is wrong with you?” The words burst from her lips and he jumped, rolling away from where she was perched on the bed. His features were contorted in astonishment at her sudden outburst, but under the disbelief there was an edge of anger warning her that she should steer clear. For some reason the sight just enflamed her further.
“Well? Explain yourself. One minute your this sweet and gentle guy and the next your cold and shutting yourself down. I don’t understand you. I thought after all these weeks we were becoming friends, but now I don’t know, I can barely have a conversation with you without you freaking out.” She was nearly shouting at him and in his surprise he failed to cover himself as properly as he probably would have liked, but he hadn’t noticed yet. Her eyes fell upon the second mark, a strange faded blue cross over one of his ribs just below his heart. Tentatively, she reached out to stroke the design and he caught her hand with jarring force.
“There are things I just can’t talk to you about, Miranda.”
“Like what? Everybody’s got a few secrets, but you and Kopi are like giant walking safes. Nobody’s that private.”
“We are!” He tried to fight her back, his eyes wide with panic and his calloused fingers still clutching her hand.
She sighed. “Why can’t you tell me?”
“Why do you want to know?” Noticing a draft or just overwhelmed from their argument he finally released her hand to reach down and readjust the towel, pulling it tightly around his hips before turning to sit on the edge of the bed opposite her.
Facing his back now she tried to think of a suitable response. “Because friends tell each other that kind of stuff. We can’t be friends if you keep everything a secret or get mad anytime I ask you something a little bit personal.” He leaned forward, his back rounding into himself showing off the curve of his spine.
“Fine.” He shuddered slightly as he let out a long, shaky breath. “I don’t know why, but despite myself I want to trust you. So, I guess I should tell you some things about me. You really want to know about the tattoo?” He looked over his shoulder at her, his face forlorn and cloaked in a foreboding seriousness.
“Yes, among other things.”
“It’s an identification code, we all have them.” His arm was wrapped over his chest and his fingers stretched to reach the offending mark.
“Everyone who was in one of the compounds.” His forehead was deeply creased and his eyes were distant again, he was speaking to her, but his thoughts were tracing back to another place.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Kai.” She moved toward him, but he flinched at her closeness, so she refrained from comforting him.
“I can’t explain all of that to you right now. Just know that the mark was put there against my will and it’s meant to identify me as a mutant.”
“I’m so sorry, Kai. I feel like I have more questions than answers now, but I won’t bother you anymore. You can tell me if and when you’re ready.” She felt mildly sick thinking about what kind of person would permanently mark someone like that, like branding cattle, especially when you could look up any mutant in the government registry. Why in the world would you need to tattoo them?
Kai stood and pulled on his clothes hastily, not even pausing to ask her to leave the room, though she wasn’t interested in peeking at him.
“I have to go now.” He didn’t stop to look at her or say anything else, he just left then; the sound of his footsteps echoed in the hall. It was then that she realized how easily he’d managed to leave, he’d stood up, dressed and left the house in under two minutes. When she looked up at the doorway she saw his crutches leaning against the wall where he’d placed them earlier. Confused didn’t even seem to scratch the surface of what she was feeling right now.