Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

Ashton, VA, February 2012

At first, visitors arrived or didn't arrive based on some set of parameters that nobody explained to her. Someone--probably Ramachandran--would make the call, and either let people in to see the monster or tell them, sorry, the exhibit's closed. She just ate a keeper, but we think she's still hungry.

Then they started asking her, did she want to see anyone today? She got pissy the first few times, which wasn't as good a cover for fear as she would have thought. She'd said, "I'm delusional and psychopathic, how should I know?"

She knew it was part of her treatment, her re-education. The Bug told her to refuse to cooperate. But if she did, she'd be turning down even that lousy scrap of self-determination.

Since then she'd gotten pretty good at checking her mental state for nasty surprises and saying yes or no to visitors based on what she found. She could tell a good day from a bad day, and a bad day she could wrestle into some sort of submission from one destined to kick her ass.

Ramachandran and the rest called it progress. Hafidha called it being hyper-aware of her own repulsive fail.

Today was a bad day, of the sort she thought she could wrestle. So when the orderly said Chaz was there asking for her, and did she want to see him, she tightened the straps on the Bug's straitjacket and pretended it was just what she wanted.

Chaz settled into her plastic chair as if he didn't want to wake it up. He carried a manila folder--not an official one, just the office-supply kind. He set it on his lap, squared off with his thigh bones, before he met her eyes and did The Face: eyebrows raised, eyes round, lips pressed together with the corners trying to reach his jaw hinges on either side. The not-smile, the one that said, "You okay?" and "I'm okay" and "This is so not okay," all at once.

Fuck, he's freaky-looking. He's not half as smart as he thinks he is, or he wouldn't do that.

Shut up, Bug. You don't know shit. For now, it listened to her.

He looked tired, and even less brown than usual for wintertime. She was pretty sure it was still winter. She decided not to ask the date; that was the sort of thing that made him hurt, and with the Bug kicked into its corner, she didn't have to hurt him.

"Hey," she said. "This is totally unexpected."

"Hey." Some actual smile, before he looked down. "There's...this idea. If you hate it, we'll think of something else. Nobody's feelings will be hurt or anything."

"Aww. Bummer."

Chaz looked into her eyes again, in that way that could sometimes make the Bug back down. My little brother has squashed worse than you under his shoe and not noticed, she told it. What kinds of things did the Bug whisper to Chaz when his life hit the low end of the waveform? Hell, maybe Chaz's nightmares were about running out of orange juice. Maybe he had it easy.

Once they would have talked about it. That was before she went and wrecked it all.

"Okay," she said. "Got the terms. What's the idea?"

"You could move in with me."

Her insides tumbled like rocks under a big wave. She could get out. She could take a handout. He was the only person who could get a collar and leash on the Bug. She'd be leashed, and he'd hold the other end. She trusted him. She hated him more than anybody, ever.

Privacy--well, she didn't have any here, either. More illusion of it, though.

In his damned speaking face, she saw how much of that he understood, which was all of it. Bastard.

She laughed. It sounded brittle and ugly, even to her. "What, and sleep on your couch? Your place is slightly bigger than a refrigerator box."

He opened the manila folder. One by one, he took out printouts of photos and laid them on the plastic desk. Living room, kitchen, dining area, bathroom, bedroom, second bedroom, second bathroom. No furniture, wood floors, creamy walls, windows windows windows. Tree branches just starting to show buds outside some of them. It was like showing a pony to a six-year-old. "What is this?"

"It's a condo. It's mine."

She looked from the last photo to his face. He looked tired, and bad-thin. Oh, Smarty-boy, she thought, while the Bug purred and licked up the tears that might otherwise have made it to her eyes. "Roulette?"

He nodded.

He hated roulette. Roulette was just physics, not like poker, which was a puzzle and a game. Roulette, he'd said once, was like robbing banks without the illegal.

"How long did it take?"

"Three days."

He must have slammed neurons in every casino in Vegas to make that much in three days. "Get yourself banned?"

He lifted his boney shoulders and let them fall. "If I stay away for a while, I think I'm okay. Like a year. Or two." His mouth wrinkled, a sour smile.

She swallowed down the ache in her throat that made the Bug happy. She found herself running scenarios, looking for the hitch, for the trap, for the way around the trap, for a way to use it against the trappers. Because she wanted to use this. She wanted this.

Wanting was a weakness. It was like love that way.

Chaz's hands twitched over his knees, lifted, flopped into his lap again. "It's not-- You won't be--"

She knew what he was trying not to say. "Free," she said as if the word weighed ten pounds. "What're we talking? Guards? Video surveillance? High-voltage doorknobs? Has Mr. Fantastic built me a force field?"

His face hardened. Oh, yes, her little brother could get pretty steely when he had to. If she wasn't going to play nice, he wasn't going to feel sorry for her. Good for him.

"You'll have to wear an ankle bracelet, or something like it. And yeah, you can probably hack one of those. If you do..." Somehow the tilt of his head encompassed her shiny cell, and suggested nobody would be in a hurry to dismantle it.

Her nails were short, but she pressed them as hard as she could into her palms to feel the sting. She counted seconds for her inhale and exhale, and made them even. "Can I think about it?"

She was crazy, not stupid. He knew what was in this contract. He'd signed it, figuratively speaking, or he'd never have offered it to her. She had to thread her way past the bad things in her head before she could tell if she could give him her word and have a chance of keeping it.

"Take your time. No expiration date on the coupon. Do you want the photos?"

God, like the stuffed rabbit at the dog track; pretty pictures to run after. She almost said no. But the dogs never got to catch the rabbit. The photos weren't bait; they were a promise. He was like that.

"Yes, please."

He tucked them back in the folder and settled it on the edge of the desk. Then he stood up and caught her guard's eye.

"You'll come back next week?" The plea in her voice made her gorge rise. A little self-respect, please, the Bug snarled.

"Anytime you want." He bookended the visit with The Face, as he always did.

When he was gone, the folder still lay on the white plastic desktop. It was proof that he'd really offered. Unless the photos weren't in there, had never been in there. Unless she'd imagined it all, because she wanted so, so much to-- Because she wanted, that was all.

She was afraid to open the folder, and she wasn't sure what scared her more: that the photos wouldn't be there, or that they would. The Buddha was a smart cookie with that non-attachment shit. A shame she was never going to master it.

Jesus, maybe if she agreed to this, Chaz would stop doing that freaky thing with his mouth.