Alone | Chapter 17 of 36

Author: E.J. Noyes | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1397 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter Seven

She smells like me, my soap and shampoo, but at the same time she’s different. Kind of like when someone else wears your perfume and it somehow changes the scent. On our way past the computer room, I gesture at the closed door. “It’s really important that you don’t go into that room. There’s a camera in there,” I explain when she lifts a questioning eyebrow.

“Okay. Sure, I’ll stay away.”

“I’m sorry, I know it’s weird,” I fret.

“Celeste, don’t be sorry. This is your…house and considering the circumstances, you’re being very gracious and accommodating.” As we continue down the hall toward the kitchen, she leans more heavily on me, her obvious limp clearly painful if her sporadic sharp intake of breath is any indication. And with every one of her halting steps my guilt grows a little more.

“It’s the least I could do. After, you know…shooting you.” I toss her underwear down the stairs to join her pants and shirt in the laundry.

Her fingers tighten on my shoulder. “You’re going to have to let it go eventually and the sooner you do, the sooner we can move on.” She lets go of me to grab the back of a kitchen chair and settles herself at the table.

Move on. Move on to what exactly? I run my hand over the back of my neck, massaging tight muscle. “Why are you here, Olivia?”

“Because I can’t walk well enough to hike out,” she says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Which it is.

I shake my head. “No, why are you staying? You could have charged up your GPS, worked out where you are, forced me to give you the four-wheeler at gunpoint, and sped the hell out of here. But you didn’t. You haven’t done any of those things. You’re staying.”

“I’m not really the Shoot-’Em-Up-Tex type.” She smiles like she’s enjoying a private thought. “Honestly? Aside from my current physical limitation, that I could no more get on an ATV than fly, I’m curious about all this. Curious about you.”

This woman is the most confusing person I’ve ever met. I’ve never considered myself an expert at reading people, but usually I can make something from their behavior that gives me a sense of them. But I can’t make any sense of her. My right eyebrow dips unconsciously, and I realize it probably looks like an affectation to make me appear clever. I raise it back to its rightful place.

Now that someone is here, I’m hyper aware of everything I do, and I’m questioning everything I say. It’s exhausting. And rude because now I’m thinking about my discomfort and not responding. I rest my fingertips on the tabletop. “It’s not that interesting. I’m not that interesting.”

“How about we let me decide who and what I find interesting,” she says lightly. Olivia points at the abandoned Monopoly board still laid out on the kitchen table. “What’s that?”

“Oh, uh, just a game I’m playing.” My simple life of the past three-plus years is now a giant embarrassment. How can I explain to her what it’s like to be completely alone and what I have to do in order to hold on to pieces of myself? I’m trying to hold on now, but it feels like parts of me are leaking out. No, not leaking. Being pulled out by her.

She stares at the board then moves her focus to me. “But…”

“I’m all three players. Celeste One, Two and Three.” I straighten the hotels Two has on Boardwalk and Park Place. That bitch and her luck. When we’re adults, let’s buy a huge house and live together forever, Cel—stop. Finally, I glance back at Olivia. “I play a lot of games this way. Scrabble, poker, chess.”

The crease between her eyebrows deepens then disappears. “I see.”

My earlobes are hot. “It…passes the time.”

“Well, maybe we can play a game or two, and pass the time together.” She lifts her injured leg to rest flat on the seat beside her. Something I’ve always found amusing is that they gave me a full-sized table with six chairs. Did they think I was going to have five imaginary friends come over for dinner every night? I could barely even conjure up two imaginary people to play board games with me.

“Okay, I’d like that.” It’s a truthful answer but also true is that I can’t imagine playing games with someone else, not having each player aware of the other players’ intentions. I move into the kitchen to start another pot of coffee. “There’s no fresh milk, only powdered but I made a new jug this morning. I’m sorry, I ask nearly every month, hoping they’ll send me some fresh milk but they never do. They could put it in the dry ice and I could use it right away before it goes sour. But they don’t and I really don’t know why.”

Her smile is patient, almost like she’s humoring me while I ramble on about crap. Olivia leans forward with one arm resting on the table. “Powdered milk is totally fine. What else have you asked for but not received?”

“A dirt bike. I know it’s more dangerous and not actually useful like the ATV, but still, it’d be fun. A drone, but they probably thought I’d try to fly it somewhere to find a face to look at. Oh, a drum kit! I thought it’d be great for working out frustrations and maybe I could join a band when I get out. Not like there’s any neighbors to annoy with my drumming.” I smile inwardly.

Olivia interlaces her fingers, studying me intently. “I see you as more of a bass player.”

“Noted. I’ll ask them for a bass but I don’t like my chances if they wouldn’t send drums. I’ve also asked for pet goldfish but I can see how that would be tricky. But they sent me pizza last month, real deep-dish pizza, not that frozen crap from a supermarket. It was incredible.” I frown. “Or maybe it was the month before.”

“That must have been a very nice treat for you.” It sounds genuine enough but at the same time I sense she doesn’t quite understand the importance of being given Lou’s pizza.

“Yes. It was.” My throat feels like it’s closing around the words. The coffeemaker dripping is the loudest thing I’ve ever heard as it marks seconds, then minutes for me. I look everywhere but at her when I ask how she takes her coffee.

“Black with half a sugar, thank you.”

I choose a dark blue mug with a white stripe ringing it and fill it with coffee. Half a sugar. Balanced on half the spoon, or half full up the sides of the spoon?

“Celeste? Would you like me to do it?” There’s amusement in her question. “You’ve been staring at that spoon for almost a minute.”

Relieved, I exhale. “Yes please. Then you know it’s made the way you like it.” I set the mug of coffee and the sugar in front of her. “Sorry, I’m not a very good host, making you fix your own coffee.”

“You’re a wonderful host.” Olivia scoops roughly half a teaspoon, balancing a pile of granules on the end of the spoon. Roughly, not exactly. I can do that, next time. The thought of next time makes me smile inside. Olivia sips and makes a small murmur of appreciation. “You make good coffee.”

“I used to be a barista,” I tell her shyly. As soon as I say it, that embarrassment rises up again. I clear my throat and gesture to the drip-filter coffeemaker. “Not that there’s any skill to dumping grounds and water into a machine and pressing the on button.” I slosh half milk, half coffee into a mug for myself.

She laughs, a low and genuine chuckle. “I’m sure I could screw even that up.”

I make a musing sound as I put the milk away and quickly scan the contents of the fridge. “What would you like for breakfast?”

“Whatever you usually have is fine. I’ve been living on dehydrated food and protein bars, so anything other than that is gourmet.” Her forehead wrinkles. “Actually, there’s a bit of food in my pack that I can eat.”

“Um, how long are you hiking for?”

“However long it takes really, until I feel like myself again. Maybe a month? I have plans to resupply every five or six days in towns along the way and I just picked up a new batch of stuff the day before yesterday.”

I want to ask why she’s out hiking alone in winter, why she doesn’t feel like herself, but it seems too forward and too personal a question for someone I just met. “Okay, well I have plenty to share and you’ll need that food when you leave.” My voice cracks on the last few words.

We stare at one another and I wonder if she truly knows what it means for her to be here. I’m still not sure I know myself, but I do know it’s wonderful and frightening and about a million other things I can’t describe.

“Okay then, if you’re sure.” Her focus on me is intense but not threatening. She stares like she’s really seeing me, almost looking through me, and I can’t decide if I like it or not.

I do know the scrutiny makes me squirm, and I break eye contact first. “I’ve eaten already but I have fresh eggs and bacon from yesterday’s supply drop. No bread. I don’t eat it,” I rush to explain. “But I can make some if you want. There’s a bread maker and boxes of bread mix. I’ll start a loaf if you want.” I’m word vomiting again, over-talking, trying to explain things that don’t need explaining. I close my eyes briefly then open them to her neutrally attentive face. “Look, I’m sorry, I swear I’m not this awkward and weird in real life.”

She grins. “You mean this isn’t real life?”

I can’t move, and along with the racing of my heart I have the sudden feeling I might pass out. The question comes out a choked whisper. “You’re real, aren’t you?”

Her mouth falls open and she hurriedly says, “Shit, I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think. After your being alone and everything for so long and all the…I…that was an incredibly poor attempt at humor.” Her expression is earnest. “I’m real, I promise I’m real. You’ve touched me, haven’t you?”

Slowly, I nod, gripping the counter hard to keep myself from tumbling backward. “Yes.” I have touched her. And I want to do it again and again.

“Okay, good. I’m sorry, Celeste,” she says again. Olivia draws in a slow breath and picks up the conversation. “So, you don’t eat bread, but you still have bread mix?”

“No, I don’t like bread but I, uh, just keep it in case…I’m forgotten. Then I could eat it if I had to.” Even the thought of eating bread makes my already nervous stomach churn so much that for a moment I fear I might puke.

“That makes sense. But like I said, anything is fine. Please don’t go to any trouble for me.”

“Oh it’s not any trouble at all.” I need to keep talking to push away the awkwardness. “Or there’s cereal and fresh fruit, or uh, I could make oatmeal too. Or if you’d prefer, I could make a non-breakfast meal. There’s a lot of food because of the supply drop.”

“Celeste.” She smiles, her eyes softening at the edges. “Really, anything is fine. Food is food and I’m incredibly grateful that you’re sharing. Especially if there’s only enough for you.”

“It’s okay. Like I said, there’s more than enough to share. This whole time, I’ve been keeping some extra stuff aside each month. I mean, I could probably live here for a while without the supply drops. I’d have to figure out how to eat wild meat and what to do about the waste system, but other than that I’d survive.”

“Why don’t you just take some supplies and hike out?”

The question surprises me. “Honestly, I’ve never considered it. I’m here because I signed up for this and I have to see it through.” I pull out eggs and fruit and set them on the countertop. “But even if I wanted to, I can’t leave. Physically, I mean.”

She raises an eyebrow. Silently, I walk around the counter toward the table, pulling off my hoodie as I move. Olivia’s eyes widen and she straightens up in the chair. Maybe she thinks I’m about to strip for her. Her stunned expression makes me smile, and eases some of that upset feeling in my stomach.

I find the insertion scar in my left bicep and press my thumb and forefinger either side of it. “Because of this,” I explain. When I spread my fingers, pushing into the muscle, the outline of the cylinder three-quarters of an inch long and a little thinner than a pencil is visible.

She leans forward to study my arm. “Is that an implant?”

“Mhmm. If I move past a certain point in the compound, it drops me.” I snap my fingers. “Just like that. You know like those zapping invisible dog fence collars?” Perhaps a little more extreme than that, but a close enough description.

Olivia looks like she’s having a lightbulb moment. “Ah! So, that was what happened when you were running to me? I wondered why you looked like someone had lassoed your feet and yanked them from under you.”

“Mhmm. It’s not particularly pleasant.” Understatement of the year.

“Why not cut that thing out? Then you could leave.”

I trace my fingers over the table, following the wood grain. “Cut it out? Well…for starters, I don’t have the stomach for it. Plus I couldn’t, really. It’d probably ruin their experiment. Though, I think this might have.” I gesture between us. I don’t think it has ruined it, I’m sure it has. Yet I still haven’t told them…

Olivia smiles. “And your payment?”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess.” Her question makes me realize that aside from my initial freak-out, I’ve been more worried about screwing up their data than I have been about not being paid. I rest my hip against the chair opposite her and lean down to tidy Three’s stash of Monopoly money. She’s so messy. “I feel really guilty about you being here. But at the same time, I really like it.”

“It’s not your fault, Celeste. Even I can see you didn’t do it intentionally.”

“Logically, I know that. They’re supposed to make sure I’m secluded, but I still need to tell them.”

“What will happen? Will you be in trouble? Could I vouch for you somehow? Tell them that it was an accident.”

“I don’t know.”

Her caramel eyes find mine. “I don’t want you to have issues because of me.”

I think it’s too late. I’m already having issues. Personal ones. The way she’s looking at me warms me, relaxes me, arouses me, soothes me. I want to grind my molars together, to hear the obnoxious squeak of tooth on tooth, just to have something uncomfortable to clear the thoughts and feelings I shouldn’t be having. “I think…I think maybe it’ll be okay. I’m past the minimum threshold, so technically they have enough data. That’s all I am to them, really.”

“Data,” she says. The word is flat, and without warning the moment becomes unexpectedly charged with some unknown emotion.

I feel like it’s all my emotion, filling this space and threatening to smother us. Ruining the moment again. Desperate for some breathing room, I try to make a joke. “At any rate, I guess you being here means I can’t walk around naked anymore.”

My attempt at levity seems to work, and her eyes make a leisurely trek over my body. “I wouldn’t be worried if I saw you naked.” The heat rises to my cheeks before I can stop it. She grins, seeming pleased by my reaction, then moves on as though she hadn’t said anything suggestive. “Is there anything else I should know, aside from not going near the room with the camera?”

I flail for something to tell her so we can move past the innuendo. “Only drink from the faucets that have the green band around them.”

“Why is that?”

“Those are water from the well and have been treated.”

“Okay, I’ll be sure to do that,” she says. “Does it ever run out?”

“Drinking water? It hasn’t yet but if it does I can treat the rainwater collected in all the cisterns to make it safe for drinking, and there’s another thousand gallons of emergency water stored underground.”

“Seems they thought of everything,” she says, glancing around the living room.

“Pretty much. The whole compound is one hundred percent eco-friendly and energy-sustainable.” I laugh. “Or so the manual tells me.”

She swallows another mouthful of coffee. “Is there anything you’d like to know about things that have happened in the outside world over the past few years?”

I bite my lower lip. “Yes. I want to know everything. But please don’t tell me. No, wait. Is that awful boy band One Direction still around?”

Her forehead furrows. “Yes? Oh, no…I think they split up? Or someone left? Sorry, I’m not big on that kind of music.”

“You just scored a point with me for not liking that shit.”

She laughs. Pleasure flits through me. I walk back behind the counter and crack eggs into a bowl.

* * *

After she’s eaten, I leave her on the couch with another coffee and head down to the basement to start a load of laundry. I wring her clothes from the bucket where they’ve been soaking. The water is tinged the faintest pink. Her blood is on my hands again. Diluted this time but it feels the same, like I have the essence of her with me. What a stupid thing to think. When did I start having such deep, existential thoughts?

I stuff things in the washer and pick up her bra and underwear from where I tossed them at the base of the stairs earlier. Her panties are in my hands and I can’t help rubbing the fabric between my fingertips. The thought flashes through my head before I can redirect it, and I almost raise her underwear to my nose. My throat tightens when I think about the scent of another woman.

“Pervert,” Mother hisses.

Heather laughs. “I bet she smells delicious. Bet she tastes even better…”

“Go away,” I tell them both.

I do up the bra, my fingers playing over the fabric, remembering how it feels to remove another woman’s bra. To slowly unfasten one hook at a time and carefully lower straps over smooth arms. To wrench the hooks free and yank fabric aside to expose breasts. I close my eyes, imagine standing behind Olivia as I undo the clasp, my lips on her neck as I drag those straps down her arms and—

“Stop it,” I whisper to myself.

I toss Olivia’s underthings into the machine with everything else and start it up. Sitting on the stairs, I watch clothes tumbling around the washer and listen as a button or zipper clinks against the glass door on each revolution. It’s not a regular sound. I can’t find any comfort in a rhythm.

My knee cracks when I stand and continues clicking on my way up the stairs, through the hallway and to the lounge. “I’m just going out for a couple of minutes. Are you okay where you are?”

“I’ll be fine.” Olivia slings an arm over the back of the couch and smiles at me. When she smiles, her whole face joins in. She’s not a fake, mouth-only smiler. Or maybe she is but not for me. For me, she smiles like she means it. Even if you don’t feel like it, Celeste, a smile can make you feel bett—stop.

I pull on my coat and boots, and push outside, hoping some fresh air will clear my head. It’s suddenly imperative that I clean the solar panels again. And walk the perimeter. And gather some fresh food. Anything to be away from her, from my confusion.

As I tidy things in the greenhouse and gather vegetables, I think some more about my houseguest. Nearly every waking moment since she arrived has been spent thinking about her. The Controllers need to be told. Despite my desperation to have someone here, the feeling of doing the wrong thing is overwhelming. I can’t handle it, I have to do the right thing. Tomorrow, I’ll tell them tomorrow. She’s still recovering, sleeping a lot through the day. Giving her another day to let her rest after being shot doesn’t seem so wrong.

The realization of Olivia not being here anymore sends a sudden sharp pain through my chest. Am I having a heart attack? Relax. Calm down. You can’t be having a heart attack. You’re young and healthy. It’s just panic. So stop panicking. My hands are fists by my side. I leave the greenhouse and rush down to Hug Tree where I wrap my arms around the trunk, forcing myself to breathe deep and slow.

After a while, the pain in my chest abates enough that I can ease my arms from around the tree and walk back to the greenhouse. I’m so frustrated with myself. This person isn’t me. I don’t despair when people leave me, I don’t worry about being left alone. I never have, and I’ve been left a lot. Yet here I am, losing my shit after barely two days with her. A small voice in the back of my mind—thankfully it’s mine this time—tells me that not latching on to her after so much time by myself would be even weirder. I gather the bucket of vegetables and make my way back to the house.

Olivia has moved back to the table, staring at my abandoned game of Monopoly, and she says nothing about my extended absence. No “Honey, you’re home” moment. I transfer food from bucket to sink and rinse the greens. I have to remind myself to turn around, to walk closer and speak up so she can hear me because she’s a real person and not a thing in my head.

I even ask a question like a real host. “Any requests for lunch and dinner? I’m afraid the variety isn’t great.”

Cont A: How are you finding the food?

SE9311: Not bad. A little boring, but I’ll manage.

Cont A: I’ll try to get some more variety to you. Any requests?

SE9311: Real milk, more fresh fruit and some dark chocolate, please.

Cont A: Dark chocolate. Good choice. I’ll see what I can do.

“As I said earlier, anything is fine.” Olivia turns one of the dice over and over. Six. Four. One. “Perhaps you’ll let me help you make a meal sometime?”

“She thinks you’re a shit cook,” Mother supplies helpfully.

I rub the back of my neck, pushing the voice out of my head. “If you want. You don’t need to, though.”

“I’d like to. And besides, what kind of Italian would I be if I didn’t offer to cook for you? My mamma would kill me,” she teases.

Italian, of course that’s it. “How long have you been here?” As soon as I say it, I grimace. “I’m sorry, that’s a really rude question but…you’ve got a slight accent.” It’s not overwhelming, but it’s there and it’s lovely.

Olivia smiles, shifting on the seat. “It’s not rude. My parents and I emigrated when I was eighteen. A little over sixteen years ago.” She offers something else, something I didn’t ask for. “I didn’t want to leave and threw tantrum after tantrum, especially because my sister was twenty-one and already at university, so she got to stay. She’s still in Italy, managing a large hotel.”

I rush through the math. She’s thirty-four or thirty-five. She has an older sister. I add those facts to the short list of things I know about her. “Then I accept your cooking offer. When you’re feeling up to it that is.”

Because I said I would, I make bread for Olivia, fighting with the machine because I’ve never used it. As the smell of baking bread fills the house, we start a game of Scrabble. She’s good, but not as good as Two. I’m up by eighty-four points when the bread maker beeps to tell me it’s done.

The bread looks decent and I feel an odd sense of pride that my first attempt wasn’t a complete disaster. Maybe I should be a baker. A butcher. A candlestick maker. Olivia’s talking. I turn away from my creation. “Sorry. Pardon?”

“Could I have a slice from the end, please? While it’s still hot.”

“Sure.” Even though I use a dishtowel, the metal insert around the loaf burns my fingertips. I suppress a grimace, tap the loaf from its tin and slice a half-inch slab from the end.

Despite my effort, there’s obviously something in my expression that’s given away my disgust. Her smile starts slow and turns teasing. “Hot fresh bread with butter, Celeste.” The words sound surprisingly seductive. “It’s fantastic. You really don’t know what you’re missing out on.”

I do. I know very well. I’ve eaten nothing but a few slices of days-old bread with cheap spread at every meal for months and months at a time.

“So fuckin’ fussy.” Mother sounds angrier than usual. “Should have let you go hungry.”

Cringing, I draw my shoulders up to my ears. Every time I react to the voices, I see Olivia’s expression change. She knows something is weird, that I’m weird and possibly unstable. I inhale. Chill out, Celeste. “No, thank you. And I don’t have butter or margarine, sorry. There’s no point when I don’t eat bread.” I set the slice of bread on a plate for her.

She picks up the conversation without mentioning my odd reaction. “What about olive oil?”

“Yes, I have that.” I fetch the bottle of extra virgin for her, then watch as she makes a small puddle on the plate. Pieces of bread are broken and lightly dipped in oil. The thought of eating that is loathsome. But I sit at the table and watch her anyway, simultaneously fascinated and repulsed.

She chews her snack and watches me watching her. Her upper lip glistens until she wipes her tongue over it to clean the trace of oil away, and I’m surprised by the sudden overreaction of my body to her unconscious action. I’m wet. I cross my legs and try to ignore it. With Olivia here, I can’t do anything about my arousal.

“Slut.” Mother laughs.

I cross my arms and try to ignore her too. “I need to tell the Controllers you’re here. I don’t want to.”

The bread pauses halfway to her mouth. “I can imagine it’s a difficult decision for you.”

I shrug, trying desperately to seem like it doesn’t matter. Like she doesn’t matter. “The longer I leave it, the harder it’s going to be. I feel like I’m hiding weed in my bedroom or something.”

She hastily swallows so she can laugh. “Thanks for the comparison.” Olivia rubs her fingers together over the plate. “When will you tell them?”

I look at her fingertips. There are still some tiny crumbs on them. I hate bread, but I’d put those fingers in my mouth and suck every trace of bread and oil from them. “Tomorrow. I’ll tell them tomorrow.”

It’s only a day aw— Stop.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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