The kitchen was quiet as everyone ate their breakfast with the exceptions of Medic and Soldier; Pyro was eating his breakfast in the solitude of the attic. Medic had set to work sewing up the gash in Soldier’s forehead, while Soldier winced and twitched under his touch as he held an ice pack to his crotch. “I don’t know wot it says about me that I can watch this an’ not even be put off me breakfast at all,” Sniper mused idly, shoveling in a forkful of scrambled eggs. “Carn’t be anyfin’ good.”
“Oh, hush,” Medic snapped, not even turning to look at Sniper. “Mind your own business.”
“You are kinda stitchin’ Soldier up right here in th’ kitchen with th’ rest of us,” said Engineer. “Only because I plan on finishing soon,” said Medic. “Vhat happened in zhere, anyvay?”
“Soldier’s brother was there waitin’ fer us,” said Engineer. “But I’m sure you could gather that from our injuries.”
“You are also injuried?” Medic turned to look back at the kitchen table, and his eyes met with Heavy’s. “Heavy, are you feeling all right?”
“Took some blows to head,” said Heavy. “Am fine.”
“You’re ‘fine?’” Medic echoed in disbelief. “I highly doubt zat! You could have a concussion.”
“With as thick a skull as ‘is?” Demoman asked with a laugh. “I dinnae think so, Doc.”
“Yes,” said Heavy, tapping at his temple with his forefinger. “Have very thick skull.”
“Zat vas an insult, Heavy,” said Medic. “Oh.” Heavy glared at Demoman. “Jes’ teasin’ ye,” said Demoman. “Dinnea take it personally, c’mon now.” He gave Heavy a playful push. “Regardless,” said Medic, snipping off the length of wire used to close Soldier’s forehead, “I zink it vould be wise if you had a dose of ze medigun vapors, just in case.”
“You still have th’ Medigun?” Engineer asked, perking up in concern. “You’re not ze only vone hoarding ze technology you developed for your own personal use,” said Medic with a smirk. “So, why aren’t you using your Medigun on me right now then?” Soldier snapped. “Because I enjoy causing you pain,” Medic hissed, and yanked on Soldier’s sutures. Soldier gave a short cry in pain, eliciting a wicked grin from the doctor. “But really, I don’t have ze near-unlimited quantities of ze vapors as I used to. I have to conserve vhat I have left.”
“How much d’you got left?” Sniper asked, craning his neck in curiosity. “Hopefully enough to last me ze rest of my lifetime,” said Medic, reaching inside his vest pocket. He pulled out what looked like an antique metal snuff box. He flipped it open and held it under Soldier’s nose. “Inhale, bitte.” Soldier gave Medic the hairy eyeball, but relented and obeyed, taking a deep whiff from the metal box. The red, odorless fumes of the Medigun wafted up to his face, and already he could feel the swelling in his face subside. “You von’t be feeling ze full effects, I’m afraid, but zat should help you recover faster,” said Medic. “You took quite ze beating zhere.”
“You should see my brother,” Soldier said with a snicker. Medic gave a resigned sigh, and walked over to Heavy with the snuff box in his fingers, and held it under Heavy’s nose. Heavy inhaled deeply, and the bruise on the side of his head faded away to its usual pigmentation. Medic placed a hand on Heavy’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Feeling better?”
“Da,” said Heavy nodding. “Tank you, Doktor.”
“You’re velcome, kuschelbär,” said Medic, giving Heavy a kiss where the bruise on his head had been. “You know,” said Ilse, taking a sip of coffee, “it’s so unusual for me to see you so affectionate, Schatzi.”
“You und I bozh know vhy zhat vas, Liebling,” Medic shot back, presenting the box to Engineer, who raised a hand to politely refuse. “’Ey now, luv,” said Demoman, giving his wife’s hand a gentle squeeze, “there’s no need fer any o’ this ole’ bickerin’. Ye haven’t been t’gether fer years, let sleepin’ dogs lie, eh?”
“I’m sorry, dear,” said Ilse, not even looking at Demoman as she said this, her eyes locked on her ex-husband. “I suppose zat vas petty of me. After all, it’s not like ve had been in a relationship for over twenty years…”
“Twenty years of misery und denial und bitterness,” said Medic. “Don’t act like ze only reason ve married vasn’t protection for ze bozh of us. You’re ze vone zat got ideas zat it might become somezing more zhan simply being pragmatic.”
“If I recall correctly, mein Täubchen, zat vas you zat zhought you might ‘cure’ yourself of your ‘obtrusive prurience for ozzah men,’ as you so eloquently put it.” Ilse smirked. “I zhought I might humor you. Silly me, I vas foolish enough to zhink it might vork.” Medic’s face turned red as the others in the kitchen were looking between him and his ex-wife. He didn’t say anything, and the hand on Heavy’s shoulder was now grabbing a fistful of Heavy’s shirt.
“I dinnae see ‘ow this all matters now, luv,” said Demoman with a nervous laugh. “Th’ both a’ ye are much happier now, right? So wot’s th’ point a’ dredgin’ all this unpleasant business up then, aye?”
“She started it,” said Medic, gesturing towards Ilse.
“I vas only making an observation, Hasi,” she said, still looking smug. “You’re ze vone who got defensive.”
“You und I bozh know zat vas not just an observation, Schneckchen,” Medic said, squinting at her.
“Vell, I’m terribly sorry zat I hurt your precious feelings zen,” she said. “You won’t hear anymore out of me about it… mein Geierchen.” Medic gave Ilse a look that was both taken off-guard and offended, but he said nothing more to her, and just gave a loud “hmph!” and crossed his arms. Sniper looked between Medic and his ex-wife with a bit of discomfort, and finished off his coffee. He then looked at Engineer, as if pleading with him silently to break the tension. Engineer was spared this, however, when the telephone rang.
“I’ll get that!” he said as he got up from the table, trying not to sound too eager about the change in conversation. He picked up the phone and answered in a cheery tone. “Hello, Conagher residence, Dell speaking.”
“There you are!” It was Scout. “What the hell, man, why’d ya hang up on me when I was callin’ you earlier?”
“I’m terribly sorry, Scout, but I wasn’t in when you called,” said Engineer. “Pyro musta been th’ one t’ hang up on you. I apologize on his behalf.”
“Pyro?” Scout asked. “You found ’em?”
“We did,” said Engineer. “He’s here with everybody right now.”
“Man, I have been callin’ just about everybody an’ if you’re all there, that’d explain why,” said Scout. “The hell is even goin’ on?”
“We were havin’ a bit of a crisis over here, Scout, but it’s all settled now,” said Engineer. “It’s nothin’ you need t’ worry about. Now, why were you tryin’ t’ get a hold a’ me, if I don’t mind askin’.”
“Oh yeah!” Scout’s voice was now filled with excitement. “I’m at the hospital right now! I’m a father! Again!”
“Well, congratulations, son!” said Engineer with a smile. He put a hand on the receiver and turned to his guests. “Scout’s wife just had her baby!” This announcement gave way to group congratulations and exclamations of excitement and joy, all mixed and swirled over each other.
“Is boy or girl?” Heavy asked over the babble, cupping a hand over his mouth to be heard.
“Scout, is it a boy or a girl?” Engineer asked.
“It’s a girl!” Scout declared with gusto. “I mean, y’know, I was really hopin’ for a boy, I hadn’t thought out any girl’s names before, but Bunny did.”
“Well, what’s her name then?” Engineer asked, making sure that the others could hear the pronoun he used.
“Jean,” Scout said proudly. “Jean Louise.”
“Jean Louise,” Engineer repeated out loud. The smile on his face gave way to an expression of confusion when he uttered that last syllable. “Wait, Jean Louise? Doesn’t that sound a bit like-” Scout cut him off. “I’m sorry, Engie, I gotta go,” he said. “I’ll call ya back later, all right?”
“Well, all right,” said Engineer. “You take care a’ little Jean, then.”
“Yeah, I will, thanks, bye.”
“Bye,” said Engineer as Scout hung up. He put the phone back on its hook, and turned back to his guests. “Well,” he said, “I think we might need ta drop by an’ see Scout for some celebratin’.”
“You should pick out cigars,” said Soldier. “That’s the proper way to celebrate for anything. Bring cigars. Hell, I could use one right now.”
“I don’t have any,” said Engineer. “I kinda promised Rosie I wouldn’t be smokin’ anythin’.”
“Seriously?” Soldier gave Engineer and incredulous look. “And you’re going to take orders from your teenage daughter?”
“It’s not ‘takin’ orders,’ it’s makin’ a promise,” said Engineer. “You know, there’s a lot a’ studies linkin’ tobacco use to cancer. I’m jus’ glad I never was a habitual smoker. Made it much easier t’ quit.”
“Bullshit,” said Soldier. “I’ve been smoking cigars since I was 16 years old, and I’m perfectly healthy.”
“Are you?” Medic asked, looking over at Soldier. “Or did ze effects of ze Medigun postpone ze effects of ze smoke a little longer?” Ilse rolled her eyes. “Oh, not zis again,” she muttered, picking up her purse and fishing through it. “Did you all forget vhen I dissected Spy’s lungs for you?” asked Medic. “I did zat for educational purposes and not just my own amusement, contrary to popular belief. Quite frankly I’m amazed ze man hasn’t keeled over and died already.”
“I’m going outside for a cigarette,” Ilse announced. “Anyvone care to join me?”
“I will,” said Sniper, sounding a little too eager to leave the kitchen as he stood up from his chair.
“Me too as well, luv,” said Demoman, getting up to join them. Soldier saw the three of them getting up to leave the kitchen and slowly rose to his feet, casting aside the ice bag to pull up his pants and join them. The four of them walked outside to the porch, and Soldier inadvertently slammed the screen door behind them. This left Engineer, Heavy and Medic alone in the kitchen, as Medic stared past the surface of the table, a look of consternation on his face as Heavy put a hand on Medic’s shoulder in an attempt to soothe him.
“Uh…” Engineer glanced out the kitchen window as Ilse pulled out a pack of cigarettes, offering them to the others. He then looked to Medic, who was now meeting his gaze, with that same agitated and disappointed glare. Engineer laughed it off, albeit uncomfortably. “Well, you know how folks are, Doc. They’re not gonna-”
“She did zat on purpose,” Medic interrupted. “She’s purposely antagonizing me.” Engineer wasn’t sure what to say to that. He was right; she did seem to be baiting him, she took pleasure in making him angry. It was a shame that their relationship had been reduced to pointless bickering over affairs long since made irrelevant, but there seemed to be little Engineer could do about it.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could offer with a sigh and a shake of his head.
“It’s not your fault, Engineer,” said Medic with obvious resignation. “It’s pretty much ze vay zings vork out zese days between us.” He patted Heavy’s hand, and then stood up from his chair. “Come, Heavy. Let’s go home.”
“Are ya sure I can’t get ya more coffee?” Engineer asked, raising his hand slightly, as though he were hesitating to reach out towards them as they moved towards the door to leave.
“Nein, it’s evening vhere ve are,” said Medic. “Zhank you so much for hosting us, und zhank you for going in after Heavy.” He looked up to Heavy and gave Heavy an affectionate pat on the chest, bringing a smile to Heavy’s face.
“If anyzing had happened to him…” Engineer nodded. “Wouldn’t let that happen, Doc.”
“I know you vouldn’t,” said Medic. “I tink it vas better Soldier vent instead of you,” said Heavy. “You vould have cut Soldier’s brother to itty bitty pieces.” A wicked grin formed on Medic’s face at the thought. “You don’t seem too terribly vorried about anyzing happening to me, Schatz.”
“Nyet,” said Heavy. “I know you better den dat. Vould have come prepared. Vould have slaughtered him like an animal.”
“Oh, you do say ze sweetest zings, Lieber,” Medic said, and he gave Heavy a quick peck on the cheek. “Yeah…” Engineer said, giving an uncomfortable chuckle. “Very… very sweet.”
“Zhank you again, Engineer,” said Medic as Heavy opened the screen door for him. “Hopefully, ve shall see you again soon.”
“No reason why ya couldn’t,” said Engineer. “And thank ya again for so graciously hosting Soldier. That was a mighty big help.”
“You’re velcome,” said Medic. “It vas… not nearly as unpleasant as I vas expecting.”
“Are you leaving already?” Ilse called out to Medic. She was leaning on the porch railing with a cigarette in her hand and a sardonic smirk on her face. “Yes, ve are,” said Medic, hands behind his back and his back straight. “Ze atmosphere here has gotten razzer stuffy.”
“I’m sure it will clear up once you’ve left,” said Ilse, and she blew smoke towards Medic’s face. Medic scowled at her, and Heavy took Medic by the shoulders and guided him down the porch steps. Heavy just gave Engineer a helpless look and a shrug, and put an arm around Medic’s shoulder as they made their way to the teleporter back to their home. Medic stepped on first, and as the teleporter started to spin to life, he squinted at Ilse, and his tongue darted out of his mouth. Before Ilse could even retaliate, he vanished. Demoman gave out a hoarse, loud laugh, and Ilse scrunched up her face as she gave her boyfriend a comical sneer. Heavy looked up to the window in the attic, and waved.
“GOOD-BYE, PYRO!” he shouted. Pyro poked his head out of the window and waved back as Heavy stepped onto the teleporter and was taken back to Italy.
Engineer gave a sigh and looked to Ilse, putting his hands on his hips. “Do you really hafta antagonize him so needlessly, Ilse?”
“Oh please,” she said. “I vas ze vone married to him for over twenty years. Let me have my fun.” She gave Engineer a cat-like smile. “Help me out here, Demo,” Engineer pleaded. “Sorry,” said Demoman, grinning like a loon. “Yer barkin’ up th’ wrong tree, Engie. She’s wearin’ th’ pants in this relationship. Me, I’m wearin’ th’ kilt!”
Johnny was in a hospital bed, surrounded by privacy curtains and a sanitized wall. His mind was still in a fog due to the medication, his arm was in a cast, there were stitches on his face, he had bruised and broken ribs and wires on his jaw. The police had wanted to question him but couldn’t due to the wires holding his jaw in place. He lay in bed, staring ahead at the curtains; just staring. He thought of his brother. He flexed his good arm, clenching his hand into a fist, and stared. Miriam had come into see him; she’d told the boys. His youngest son has just started his senior year at Yale, his oldest was in Chicago working for a firm. Neither of them had been able to make it to visit so far, and only Miriam had visited, averting her eyes from his and quietly sitting in the chair by his bedside. Occasionally, she would regard his body with a sort of detached curiosity, as though she could not comprehend that Johnny could have sustained such severe injuries… perhaps, that he was even capable of being injured so badly. He hated her for it. But he was unable to do anything, or to even say anything. So he just stared and clenched and unclenched his fist. He didn’t know what else he could do. The curtain separating him from the rest of the world was pulled back, and a nurse he didn’t recognize stepped inside, and closed the curtain behind her. She looked Johnny over, and shook her head, giving him a tut-tut. “My, my, mister Doe,” she said, giving him a playful grin. “What on earth did you get yourself into?” He squinted at her, and tried his best to give her a verbal response.
“Whourryoo?” The air around the nurse rippled as her bouncy blonde nurse facade gave way to a more familiar figure, a dark-haired man with a hawkish nose, glittering eyes, and a knowing smirk. Johnny’s eyes went wide with recognition.
“I told you,” Spy said, leaning against the wall and looking down on Johnny. “I told you zat one man could not fight so many people alone. Now look at you. And here I was trying to do you a favor.”
“Fukkyoo,” Johnny growled.
“No zhank you,” said Spy. “But I’m flattered, really.” He looked Johnny up and down, surveying his injuries. “So, who was it zat got to you? Heavy, perhaps?” Johnny gave a contemptuous snort. “Surely, it had to have been him,” said Spy. “Ze man has both ze strength and the capability for sheer brutality. Am I right?” There was no response from Johnny aside from a stare that suggested he wanted Spy to drop dead on the spot. “Or,” said Spy, making his way around the bed, “did Heavy have company?” Johnny’s eyes widened, and Spy leaned over him. “So who was it?” he asked. “He didn’t bring Medic along did he? No, of course not… you would not even be alive had Medic gotten a hold of you. You’d be in several different formaldehyde jars, lining his bookshelf and being pecked at by his pigeons.” Spy cringed at the thought. Seemingly out of thin air, Spy pulled out Johnny’s chart, and looked it over with pursed lips. “No lacerations, no burns, no gunshot wounds… I zhink we can eliminate Sniper, Demoman and Pyro zen. And I know for a fact Scout could not have been zhere… I am going to guess Soldier came back and did not take kindly to you intruding. Am I correct?” Johnny flinched. “But it wasn’t just him, was it?” Spy asked, setting the charts down on the bed. “Oh, no, you had to have touched somebody’s nerve… you had to have crossed a line zat no reasonable man would dare cross, and incur ze wrath of a man who you made ze mistake of zhinking was not a zhreat to you, because of his polite and friendly nature.” Spy reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a plastic bag, and in it was a photo of Engineer’s wife and daughter, still marked with a dried, clear substance. “I’m sure you remember zis,” he said, dangling it in front of Johnny’s face. Spy smirked as Johnny’s body went tense; even in his medicated state he was petrified, eyes wild and furious. “You’re a sick man, you know zat?” asked Spy, looking over the photo. “I shudder to zhink of what you were zhinking of, whacking off to a photo like zis. But I’m pretty sure I have a good idea.” He tucked the bag back into his jacket. Powerless, Johnny’s eyes were trained onto Spy. He was a captive audience to the Frenchman’s gloating, and this knowledge caused him to tremble with a fury so hard that the bed rattled. Spy, however, barely seemed to notice this. “I hope you feel better,” said Spy, “getting zat last hurrah out of your system. Are you satisfied now? Is your pride sufficiently sated? You couldn’t leave well enough alone, going against my good advice for what? A suicidal ego trip? What is you were hoping to accomplish?” He leaned on the bed rail, his chin in his hand, and looked at Johnny, as though he expected an answer. Johnny wanted to clench his teeth, but the rubber bands in his mouth prevented him from doing so. “Listen,” said Spy, “I wish to make you a generous offer. I still have zose negatives, zhough I should have released zem as soon as I found out about zis little fiasco of yours. But really, given ze beating you received, it would hardly be sporting to release zem, don’t you zhink?” His tone was sly and playful, but in a sinister way, like a fox that was playing with a field mouse it had caught before breaking its neck. Johnny gulped. Spy reached into his back pocket, pulling out some folded papers and a pen. He held them up in front of Johnny, and Johnny’s brow furrowed as he read them. “Transfer of custody,” explained Spy, though he already knew that Johnny had figured that out. “I’ve already arranged everyzing. I zhink you will find it is all completely legitimate, and very official. All I need from you,” he held out the pen in front of Johnny, “is to sign.”
“Can’t,” Johnny managed to say. “Arrbrroke.”
“Use your good one zen,” said Spy. Johnny moved his uninjured left arm and snatched the pen out of Spy’s fingers. Oh, how he could have grabbed Spy by the throat right there, choked him until he passed on the floor and could be collected by the cops. But somehow he didn’t think the cops could hold a guy like this, a man who’d been able to follow him, completely undetected, and document his own most secret excursions… not just documenting, but doing so in a way that there was no doubt it was him. So this is what it felt like to be helpless, he thought. He’d felt it underneath Engineer’s boots, of course, lying on the floor with his little brother looking down on him. Even in Iwo Jima he hadn’t felt like this. There’d always been a way to fight back, he could always grit through the pain, find a way to push forward… but there were no bullets here, nor bombs; only a Frenchman and a roll of negatives. With a firm grip on the pen, he sloppily signed each page that Spy presented to him, each signature chipping away at his sense of invincibility. Had it been invincibility he’d felt? What friends he did have always called him cocky, proud, a hardass… at least to his face. He suspected that they may have said less flattering things while his back was turned, but they’d never do so to his face. They feared him. But the Spy didn’t share that fear all, the Spy was the one with the power, the one with the upper hand. Was this how people felt towards him? He couldn’t say he cared much this feeling. Hated it, in fact. More than anything he wanted the power back, to make that smug French cocksucker cower in fear, to make him yell and scream and completely lose control of himself and throw himself to Johnny’s feet, begging for mercy. But as he signed the last page and Spy swiped the pen from his hand, he knew that such a thing would never happen. “Zhank you so much,” said Spy, tucking away the pen and papers. “Hopefully, we will never have to see each ozzer again. Not zat it hasn’t been a pleasure dealing wizh you. Just keep out of trouble, and you will be kept out of trouble.” As he spoke those last few words, his smile faded, giving way to a grim frown. They stared each other down, the atmosphere uneasy, like two gangsters that had stumbled across each other in some neutral territory and were caught in a stand-off. Spy took a few steps back, pressed a button on his watch, and turned back into the blonde bimbo nurse from before. “Now, if you don’t mind,” he said, adopting a feminine voice with an uncanny accuracy, “I have a dear friend to visit, her daughter-in-law just gave her a new granddaughter.” He gave a girlish titter as Johnny stared at him agog. But the smirk came back, and his eyes narrowed, and his expression turned into one that was completely and totally the Spy. “I’ll be seeing you,” he said coyly, his voice coming from the lips of this otherwise bubbly looking woman. He pulled the curtain aside, and strode out on clacking high heels, leaving Johnny on his own. And there was absolutely nothing that Johnny could do.
It had been about all of 20 minutes since Demoman, Ilse and Sniper had returned to Demo’s home, and already Sniper was gathering what few things he’d brought and bringing them out to his van.
“Leaving so soon?” Sniper turned to see Ilse standing just outside the front door, holding one of her dogs in her arms. He moved his arm to close the passenger-side door, but lingered. “Well, I mean… not much else fer me t’ do here, now is there?”
“I suppose not,” she said, scratching between the ears of the little black Scottie dog. “I don’t suppose you are going to leave vizzout saying goodbye, now are you?”
“Naw,” he said, closing the door. “I wouldn’t.”
“Good,” said Ilse. “I’ll go fetch Tavish.” She slipped back inside, still carrying the terrier in her arms, and the door was left slightly ajar. A familiar furry, black-and-white head poked out, and looked to Sniper. “Ya dinnit’ think I’d be settin’ off without you, didja, girl?” Sniper asked the dog, who perked her head up at being addressed. In her excitement, she rushed outside, letting the door open wide as she romped towards Sniper. He bent down to pat her on the head, and she leaned onto him, wagging her tail and panting happily. “Oi, Mundy!” Demoman stepped outside, with a goofy grin plastered on his face. “Ye headin’ out, lad?”
“Yeah,” said Sniper, straightening up. “I’ve been puttin’ this off fer far too long, ya know?”
“I un’erstand,” said Demoman. “Thank ye fer ev’rythin’.”
“Think nothin’ of it, mate,” said Sniper. “Really, though, I should be thankin’ you fer all you’ve done fer me.” He extended a hand to Demoman. Demoman clasped onto it, and pulled Sniper in for a hug. They gave each other two pats on the back. “Jes’ helpin’ out a friend in need,” said Demoman, as the pulled apart. “Good luck, lad. I hope ye ken sort this all out.”
“Yeah,” said Sniper, sounding more sullen. “Me too.” Demoman gave Sniper a friendly clap on the shoulder and a hopeful smile. Sniper tried his best to smile back, and managed a weak, timid upturning of the mouth, coaxing what could be considered a smile from his lips. “Ah, dinnae fret,” said Demoman. “It’ll all work out fine, jes’ you wait!”
“If you say so,” said Sniper. “That’s th’ spirit!” Demoman boomed. He’d been in a good mood for the past week, riding the crest of a wave of optimism and positive vibes. How long could he keep this up before he’d crash and burn, Sniper thought. Not like that hadn’t happened before. He realized that he was going to have to make this trip brief, before he’d come back to New Mexico to find Demoman wailing on the floor in a puddle of puke, booze and tears, with Ilse watching helplessly and insisting that he just “ride it out.” These things were cyclical, she’d say. They never lasted. Best not to think about that right now, Sniper decided. He opened up the passenger door to his van again, and whistled. Without a hint of hesitation Maddie hopped in and sat on the seat, her tail thumping on the leather as Sniper closed the door.
“G’bye, Tav,” he said, tipping his hat.
“G’bye, Mundy,” said Demoman. Sniper stepped backwards, and then turned to walk around the front of the van, climbing in the driver’s side and shutting the door behind him. Sticking his key into the ignition and bringing the van rumbling to life. He adjusted his mirrors, waved to Demoman and Ilse one last time, and drove out of the roundabout in front of Demoman’s mansion. As the house faded in the distance in his rearview mirrors, he thought about the drive to Utah. He estimated it’d be about a 12 hour drive, which was fine by him. He liked driving, especially when he was alone. It gave him time to think, and given the nature of his mission, he could use it. He turned on the radio, and heard the first few chords of “Do You Believe in Magic” start up. He shuddered in disgust and changed the station. He couldn’t say why, but that song gave him the creeps. He turned the knob on the radio, scanning the stations for something a little less saccharine. The needle moved further down the dial, until he landed on The Who. He tapped his fingertips on the steering wheel to “Won’t Be Fooled Again.” Maybe this could be a good omen, he though. He loved The Who. He’d gotten Demoman into them, almost ten years ago, while they were sitting around a fire getting drunk and swapping stories under the star-dusted sky of Goldrush. He drove off headed for the highway, and didn’t look back.
Pyro liked the attic very much. He liked going through the many dusty cardboard boxes in there, and discovering what was inside. It was like hunting for buried treasure, except that instead of gold doubloons or rare gems, there would just be a bunch of old clothes and books. Pyro didn’t mind though. He’d found a faded sunhat and was now wearing it upon his head. He liked the silk flowers fastened to it, and imagined that they were once a bright and vivid pink, instead of the sickly pale red they were now. He was rummaging through a box of children’s books when he came across a copy of The Wizard of Oz. He gave an excited squeak. The Wizard of Oz brought back memories. Not the bad ones, the ones at the place Pyro could only hazily remember, the place with the scary men with needles and straps and screaming and crying… No, this was before that, in a dark theater watching The Wizard of Oz on the big screen. He remembered how he had gasped in delight seeing the black and white world turn to glorious, vivid color, and he wanted to be in Oz. The colors were brighter, there was singing and dancing, and Dorothy was so pretty with her prim blue gingham dress and her glittering ruby slippers. Pyro wished he could be that pretty too, to skip along the yellow brick road, arm-in-arm with his best friends while a tiny little dog trotting at his heels. Tears welled up in his eyes at the thought, and lifted his goggles just enough to allow him to wipe away at them. In his mind, he had his own Oz. It’d been years since he was able to return, and he missed it. The only way to get there was to use fire as a portal to it; the more fire, the stronger it was. Fire meant freedom, fire meant liberation and joy, fire burned down the scary place with the needles and the screaming, consuming the scary men with it, melting them like the Wicked Witch of the West. Fire used to be so scary, when the scarecrows arm lit up with flame, but once he’d mastered it, why, it became beautiful! Fire was the most beautiful thing in the entire world! He could see through it, to the rainbows and sunshine and candy and flowers that lie behind it. He just had to look hard enough, believe hard enough. Clap if you believe in fairies, he thought. (Oh, Peter Pan… He liked Peter Pan very much too. He wondered if Engie might have a copy of that up here as well.) He set the book aside by the mattress. He would read it later, he thought. He wasn’t the best at reading in English. Children’s books were usually much easier, but the science fiction novels he so loved would often have bigger, more daunting words; the kind of words that Engineer and Medic and Spy liked to use. Maybe he could ask for help, now that he was living with Engineer. That’d be nice. Maybe he could even ask Engineer to read it to him, and make him do voices (not that he needed it, but oh, how fun that would be!) Outside, he heard a noise. He peered out the window to see a car pulling up outside the house, and Pyro tilted his head. It stopped moving, and the side door opened. Out stepped a girl with frizzy red hair tied back into a ponytail, and and from behind her jumped a very familiar German shepherd with one mechanical leg.
“GUURR DURRG!” Pyro shouted, scrambling for the attic hatch. He kicked it open and sent the ladder shooting down to the carpeted floor below. He scuttled down, and ran down the hall and into the kitchen. Soldier was at the kitchen table, hunched over a newspaper, and as Pyro bounded in his head snapped upright, and he looked around in alarm.
“What the hell’s going on?” Soldier demanded, as Guard Dog started barking just outside the door to be let in, scratching on the wooden doorframe. Pyro opened the door, and the dog ran inside, stopping his frolicking briefly to investigate the two newcomers in the kitchen. After shoving his nose straight into Soldier’s crotch and eliciting a startled and angry cry from the man, Guard Dog turned to the strange covered human who was murmuring his old name.
“Guurd durrg!” said Pyro, crouching down. “Ursh meeh!” Guard Dog approached Pyro, and after a rudimentary sniff, began to wag his tail and lick at Pyro’s goggles. The screen door opened again, and the girl walked in carrying a suitcase. The rhythm in her step was thrown off however when she saw Soldier and Pyro in the kitchen.
“Uh…” she looked at Soldier. “Hello, Sir.”
“Rosie,” Soldier acknowledged her curtly. He said nothing else, but looked at Rosie as though he were expecting something else from her. Not sure what else to say, her eyes wandered to Pyro, and Pyro returned her gaze.
He tilted his head in curiosity. “Hurr,” he said.
“Who is that?” Rosie asked, gesturing towards the man who was now sitting on the kitchen floor. “And… why are they wearin’ Mama’s hat?”
“That’s Pyro,” said Soldier. “He didn’t show up last week because he was homeless. And I have no idea.” Soldier looked back to his paper. “I assume it is because he is a fruit.”
“Oh…” Rosie looked Pyro up and down. “Are they… always covered up like that?”
“Yes,” said Soldier. “Always. Nobody’s ever seen his face.”
“If nobody’s seen his face, then how do you even know if he’s even a he?” asked Rosie. She set her suitcase down, crossed her arms and tossed her ponytail. “They’re wearin’ a ladies’ hat.”
“Because I would not tolerate any women in my unit,” snapped Soldier. “Therefore, ergo, vis-a-vis, Pyro is a man.” He looked to Pyro, who was rubbing guard Dog’s tummy. “Isn’t that right, Pyro?” Pyro nodded, not wanting to add fuel to this debate. Admittedly, it didn’t much matter to Pyro; he was perfectly content to be whatever anybody wanted him to be at the time, and his teammates called him “he” and “him,” so he was boy. It was quite simple, really. Rosie didn’t seem convinced. She looked to Pyro, and for the first time, addressed him.
“Well,” she asked, “are you really a boy? Or are you a girl?”
Truthfully, Pyro wanted to answer “girl” just to make her happy, but her happiness would incur Soldier’s anger, so he decided to stick with the pronoun he’d used for the last decade.
“Burr,” said Pyro.
“Told you,” said Soldier, not even looking up from the paper. “Well, fine then,” Rosie huffed. “Where’s Daddy?”
“Dead,” Soldier said. He looked up at Rosie to see her face twisted into a horrified grimace. “Oh, your dad. Pretty sure he’s out back.”
“Why in th’ heck would I ask you where your dad- you know what? Forget it,” she walked out of the kitchen and headed for the back door. “Forget it!” Soldier watched her leave, and gave a contemptuous snort. “Women,” he muttered, loud enough for Pyro to hear. “Good thing you’re not a woman, am I right?” Pyro adjusted the brim to the sunhat on his head, and nodded.
“Hey Daddy!” Engineer had been leaning on the fence at the edge of his property, and saw his daughter come towards him with open arms. “Pumpkin!” he said, and caught her as she ran into his arms, wrapping her in a tight hug. “How’s my baby girl?”
“Glad that yer okay,” she said. “Is everythin’ alright now?”
“Yeah,” said Engineer, patting Rosie on the back. “I don’t think we’ll ever have any trouble from that man again.”
“Who was it?” Rosie asked breaking the embrace and looking up at him, her eyebrows arched softly with concern. “It doesn’t much matter now, darlin’,” said Engineer. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it.”
“If it doesn’t matter now, then it wouldn’t hurt jus’ tellin’ me who it was,” Rosie insisted. “You… you didn’t kill this person, didja?”
“What? No!” Engineer said, perhaps coming off as just a little too defensive. “Of course not! I jus’ had to… reason with him, is all.” Rosie didn’t look convinced. She crossed her arms, and gave her father a discerning glare. “That ain’t a euphemism fer somethin’ nastier than that, is it?”
“Of course not!” Engineer sputtered. “Why would you think that?”
“I dunno,” said Rosie. “Maybe ‘cause I saw you with a gun jus’ the other day. I never even knew you had one. How long did you keep that a secret from me?”
“Honey, we’re from Texas,” said Engineer. “It is not unfeasible that I’d own a gun. Most folks would be surprised if I didn’t.”
“That ain’t th’ point an’ you know it!” Rosie said, balling her fists. “I’m sick of you lyin’ t’ me all th’ time, all right? Like you don’t think I can handle th’ truth! I’m sick of it! I’m not a little girl any more, daddy. Can’t you just tell me what’s goin’ on fer once?” She was pouting at him, her green eyes filled with a puppy dog sadness that Engineer knew all too well… she’d used it on him since she was a toddler, bending his will like Superman could bend steel, all just through softly arched brows and a tilt of her head. She was desperate.
He avoided her gaze and closed his eyes, bracing himself the way he’d brace himself when Medic wanted to try and remove a bullet without anesthetic. “It was Jane’s brother.”
“What?” Rosie asked. She hadn’t fully expected her father to say anything, and it showed on her face. “Jane’s… Soldier’s brother…” said Engineer, leaning back against the fence. “He’s th’ one that broke into th’ garage. He’s a very scary fella, Rosalie. Th’ whole reason Jane’s even movin’ in with us is so he can get away from his brother.” He stood up straight again. “But he’s not gonna bother us anymore. I made sure a’ that.”
“Is he dead?” asked Rosie. “ ‘Cause… ‘cause I heard… I heard that you…” A lump formed in Engineer’s throat that felt as big as a baseball. “Oh, no, sweetie,” he put his hands on her shoulders and gave them a squeeze. “Listen… he’s not dead. He tried t’ hurt me an’ Jane an’ Heavy an’ I had to fight him back… he’s not dead, but I beat him up pretty bad, but that was because I was afraid that…” He tried to swallow the lump, but it wouldn’t go down. “…I was afraid he’d try an’ hurt you.” Rosie didn’t respond. She trembled, like a china vase in an earthquake, fragile and on the verge of shattering. Engineer bit his lip. “You don’t gotta worry about him, Pumpkin,” he said. “It’s all over. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
“Is it?” Rosie asked with a deliberate solemnity. She just looked at her father, who seemed powerless to respond. “‘Cause sometimes I wonder if I even really know you.” She turned away, her ponytail swishing into Engineer’s face, causing him to recoil as she walked back to the house, her movements brisk and angry, as though her legs were scissors slicing across the fabric of the backyard. “Rosie!” Engineer scrambled for some kind of semblance of control over this situation. He remembered what Soldier had said to him about being a pushover, and he felt his face grow red. “Rosalie May Conagher! Don’t you dare walk away from me!”
“I don’t wanna talk to you right now!” she shouted, not even looking back at him. “Jus’ leave me alone!”
“I am your father!” Engineer shouted back, running to catch up with her. “Rosie! I said get back here!”
“GO AWAY!” she turned around and screamed.
“Not until you tell me why you’re upset!” said Engineer. “I already explained how everythin’ was fine, an’ here you are actin’ like… like an ungrateful little brat!” Oh, he thought, as Rosie flinched. He shouldn’t have said that. He covered his mouth, as if to try and take back those words. She hung her head, contemplating the grass beneath her shoes.
“I ain’t stupid, daddy,” she said. “You were killin’ people back when you were workin’ for RED, weren’t you?” Engineer was at a loss for words. His lips moved as though he were trying to force out words, any words at all.
“Same nine people over an’ over again,” he finally mumbled. Oh God, those were the wrong words.
“What?” Rosie looked at him, her lip curling in both confusion and disgust.
“Look,” he said, holding up his hands to try and soothe her, “I needed that job, Rosie, I only did what I had t’ do for your mother. You don’t understand how desperate I was, an’ I couldn’t have told you… you were so little, I didn’t want you… tainted with that. I’d lost my job, Rosie, my career was ruined all by one stupid, careless mistake… an’ I did what I had t’ do to provide fer you an’ t’ save your mother. I’da done anything for you two, an’ I did. All for you.” He spread his arms wide in invitation. “So, there you have it. All right? I built guns. Lots of guns. And we used them. We all did. Me, Jane, Pyro, Medic, Heavy, Spy, Scout, Demoman, Sniper…” (She winced at the mention of Sniper, though to be honest, she knew she shouldn’t have been too surprised… he was called “Sniper,” after all.) “We all did it! We all killed people! An’ we were goddamned good at it, too! The best, even! Hell, I might’ve even enjoyed it…” his voice faltered and he fought the lump in his throat again, “but that don’t even matter now. I took that job because I needed th’ money t’ treat your mother, t’ make sure you’d have an education… maybe even t’ make sure you wouldn’t ever have to end up takin’ a job like that. I did it because I love you. Are you happy now? Is that what you wanted t’ hear?” Engineer tried to catch his breath, his ribcage constricting his lungs. Not a heart attack, just anxiety, he thought. He’d never said any of this out loud. He’d never wanted to say it out loud… and technically, he was breaching contract by saying so. What the hell did that contract even matter anymore? He looked to Rosie, his eyes pleading, trying to assess her judgment of him from her blank expression. The anger in her eyes had flickered out, and was replaced with a kind of bovine dullness, the gaze of a person in shock. Her color drained, and, moving like a sleepwalker, she turned and began to walk away. “Rosie?” he called, the fire in his belly now extinguished. “Darlin’?”
“I need to be alone,” she said. She was operating on auto-pilot, drifting back to the house like detritus being carried away by ocean currents. “I’m sorry, Daddy.” Engineer watched helplessly as she moved in a waking sleepwalk, going back inside through the backdoor. He expected her to slam the screen door in her wake, but it shut on itself almost as an afterthought. Engineer stood in place, his hand over his mouth, until his hand curled over his lips and chin, sliding down his face. He should have said nothing. What did she think of him now? Why on earth did he admit to enjoying blasting away at sons of bitches with his giant automated machines of death? The lump in his throat was now fighting to escape, in the hopes that it might be coughed up, like a hairball. But really, it felt more like a tumor. That was a ridiculous thing to think, really, because he knew full well it was not a tumor, just his body’s reaction to anxiety and stress and anger and sadness all balled up together and coalescing in his esophagus. His face felt hot. Maybe if he gave her some time to cool down, he thought, she might be more reasonable. It had worked before. She was a teenager, prone to irrationality and melodrama. The image he’d worked so hard to carefully craft to her, the image of a polite and gentle man of intellect and reason, was now shattered. She couldn’t possibly understand, he thought. She was just too young and full of innocent naiveté and her mother’s instilled idealism. He needed to take his mind off this, he decided. He needed to work.
Pyro has still been sitting on the kitchen floor petting Guard Dog when Rosie came back inside. Soldier lowered his newspaper to observe her dour expression, and spoke up. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Don’t talk to me,” she said, not even looking at him as she walked into the kitchen to fetch her suitcase, and immediately turned to head back to her room. Pyro craned his neck to peer down the hall, watching her go into her bedroom and close the door behind her, barely making a sound. He leaned too far back, however, and rolled onto his back, sticking his feet in the air. Soldier gave a dismissive snort, and returned to his paper. “Teenagers,” he muttered. He looked to Pyro. “Can you believe it? We’re shacking up with a spoiled teenage girl. She just walks all over Engie and he doesn’t even do a goddamned thing about it! He’s a pushover! He’s afraid of giving her some proper discipline!”
“Mmmph,” Pyro said absentmindedly, admiring his feet as he flexed them in the air, watching the leather of his shoes distort with his movements.
“I tell you what, Pyro, if she was my kid, I’ve taken her right over my knee and spanked her!” He smacked the table for emphasis. “That’d teach her to shoot her mouth off! Good ole’ corporal punishment, that’s what works. Am I right, Pyro?” Pyro grabbed the tips of his toes, and rocked back and forth on his back. He felt anxious. Bored. He thought about matches and lighters. Soldier frowned. “Eh, what do you know?” he said, loudly adjusting his paper. He grumbled to himself, words indistinguishable. After a moment of silence between them, Soldier turned the page and spoke up again. “Teenagers, women… they’re the same, really. Neither of them will listen to reason. Teenage girls are the absolute worst, though. They’re a combination. And the worst part is they’ll grow up to be women! Feh! Am I right, Pyro?” Soldier lowered the newspaper to look to Pyro, only to see Engineer standing in the kitchen doorway, looking at Soldier with a furrowed brow. Soldier blinked. “How long have you been there?”
“Long enough,” said Engineer flatly, walking to the front door.
“Whurr yur gurrn, Errngee?” Pyro asked, sitting back upright.
“I’ll be in th’ garage if ya need me,” said Engineer, opening the screen door. “But I’d prefer t’ be alone fer a while.” The screen door shut behind him, and Pyro watched him walk down the porch through the screen. Pyro didn’t like it when other people were sad or upset, and it was obvious that Engineer and his daughter were upset. This, in turn, made Pyro sad, and Soldier’s irritation wasn’t helping things. Pyro flopped back onto the floor, lying spread eagle, as Guard Dog looked down at him and licked at his goggles.
“Hurr, Shurrljur,” said Pyro, sitting back up again. “Hurr.”
“What is it?” Soldier responded, crumpling up his newspaper. “Can’t you see I’m trying to read?”
“Shurreh,” said Pyro, bowing his head. Soldier tossed the now balled up newspaper over his shoulder, where it rebounded off of the wall and hit him in the back of the head. He growled at it, as though to put it in its place, and then looked back to Pyro. “Hey, uh… Pyro?”
“Yrrsh?” Pyro looked up at him though lenses smeared with dog slobber.
“This morning,” Soldier started, sounding more unsure of himself, “when uh, you called me about Heavy and Engie… you uh… I heard your voice.”
Pyro hunched over, bowing his head in shame. “Uh knurr,” said Pyro.
“You never did that before,” Soldier said, as though thinking out loud. He rubbed his chin. “I mean, I know why you did it, and I’m glad you did but… uh…” Soldier scooted his chair closer to Pyro, glancing around to make sure no one else was nearby to listen in. “You don’t think I could… talk to you without anything over your mouth, could you?”
“Crrn’t yur urrnnershternd mree jurrsht furn?” Pyro asked.
“Well, I mean… well enough, I guess,” said Soldier. He rubbed the back of his neck. “But that’s only because we’ve known each other so long. A man learns to decipher a bunch of mumbles and murmuring after two years together with someone, you know? I mean… have any of the others heard your voice?” Pyro shook his head. “So I’m the only one?” Soldier pointed to himself for confirmation. Pyro nodded. “You realize what this means, don’t you?” Soldier scooted his chair even closer to Pyro, his voice low with furtive intent. “Whuurt?” Pyro asked. “That means,” Soldier poked Pyro in the chest, “that I’m the person you’re closer to than anybody else. I am 99% sure that makes us best friends now.” Pyro couldn’t say he was expecting that turn. Best friends? Considering the last time Soldier had a best friend it ended with him yelling and screaming about how horrible the BLU Demoman was, he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. But they’d gotten into a fight, hadn’t they? Pyro didn’t like to get into fights if he could help it.
“Burrsh furrnds furevurr?” Pyro asked.
“Yeah, sure,” said Soldier. “Forever. Right. So… do you think you can trust me enough to talk to me without the scarves?”
“Wrry?” Pyro asked. Soldier fidgeted, crossing his arms and squirming in his seat. “No reason,” said Soldier. “Just seems like it’d be a good way to establish trust, right? We trust each other, don’t we?” Pyro tapped the scarf over his mouth in consideration. He let out a loud hum as he pondered, his head tilting upwards. “What, you’ve got to think about it? Some best friend you are!” Soldier stood up from his chair and shoved it back by the table. “What’s a man have to do to earn your trust? Dammit, don’t you trust me?” In his mind, a light bulb appeared over Pyro’s head, switching on. He giggled at the mental image.
Just like in a cartoon. “Urr gurrt urn urdeer.”
“What?” asked Soldier, arms akimbo. “Like a trust-building exercise?” Pyro nodded, hard enough that he could hear the cowbell playing in his head. “So… what would this involve, exactly?” Giddy, Pyro seemed to hop off the floor like a bunny, and scuttled towards the kitchen counter. There, he located a pad of paper and a pen, scribbled a short list, and shoved it in front of Soldier with all too much enthusiasm. Soldier gave Pyro an odd look and took the list, giving it a thorough read as he squinted his eyes. “Oh no,” he said, shaking his head. “I know what all this is for. I just got here, Pyro, and I am not planning on getting myself kicked out already.”
“Uh currn curntrrrl urt! Uh purmissh!” Pyro insisted, pressing the notepad into Soldier’s chest. “Urt’ll burr urtshide. Furr uhweey. Trursht meeh!”
“ Trust you?” Soldier asked. “Listen, trust is a two-way street, buddy. You didn’t want me to hear your voice again, why should I help you with this?”
“That means literally nothing to me, as I have no idea what you are talking about.” Soldier shoved the list back to Pyro. “Let me hear your voice again and I’ll help you. Deal?” Pyro sighed. Why did Soldier want to hear his voice so badly, he wondered. Was he going to try and guess Pyro’s identity from his voice alone? Pyro knew he really couldn’t if he tried, but still. He preferred to be muffled, distorted. It was more comfortable that way. As he pulled at the cloth covering his mouth, he felt as though he were stripping naked for Soldier. “Deal,” said Pyro. “Bring it to the back yard.” Pyro ran off before Soldier could say anything more. He’d kept his promise. Now Soldier had to help him open the gate back to Pyroland.
Soldier met Pyro on the far edge of Engineer’s yard. He was lugging over a metal trash can, which he set down in front of Pyro. “You’d better make this quick,” said Soldier. “I don’t think Engie noticed what I took out but he might get suspicious.” Pyro examined the contents of the trash can. He hadn’t required a whole lot; paper, tree branches and twigs, and most importantly a canister of kerosene on top of all of it. With the reverence of a priest handling the blood of Christ, he lifted the canister from its vessel, holding it above his head. “You can control this, right?” asked Soldier. “You know if we set Engineer’s yard on fire he’ll probably give us the boot.”
“Uh-huh,” Pyro said, unscrewing the cap on the canister. “What you’re going to show me better be impressive,” said Soldier. “Because all the time I saw you set shit on fire I didn’t see a goddamned thing except flames.” Pyro pulled down at his scarf again to speak. “You have to look hard into it.”
“If you say so,” said Soldier. “This gets too out of control though, I’m getting the hose. You hear me?” Soldier, this is a terrible idea, said Shovel Jr. You should tell Engineer. “Shush!” Soldier put a finger to his lips and twisted his body as he put a hand on the pink plastic spade in his back pocket. “I have this under control.”
“Who are you talking to?” asked Pyro.
“Nobody,” Soldier lied. “Go ahead and do it already before I change my mind.” Pyro slipped the scarf back over his mouth and splashed a generous amount of kerosene into the garbage can. This would burn well, he thought. He might even be able to get it up high enough to singe the heavens. He shuddered in anticipation. Satisfied with emptying the entire can onto the paper trash and wooden kindling, he tossed the empty can aside, and Soldier’s eyebrows arched in surprise. Pyro rummaged through his pockets, finding a box of matches. He was good at keeping his hands from shaking too hard when he did this; he’d had decades of practice. He only needed to strike the match once for it to catch, and he held it briefly in front of his face. His stomach went all flip-floppy, his toes curled and he felt his heart flood with joy as his pulse started to thrum in his ears. Soldier took a few steps back, and Pyro tossed in the match. There was a mighty “WOOSH!” as a tower of flame shot upward to the sky, causing Soldier to let out a strangled cry of “JESUS!” as he stumbled backwards. Pyro looked heavenward as the flames licked the sky, orange and yellow flickering in a manic dance like an ancient temple priestess in times long gone. Pyro’s heart felt like a bird released from a cage, soaring in circles over the tower of flame, and Pyro spread his arms wide as if he were going to embrace the towering flaming spire.
“HUDDAH HUDDAH!” he shouted. “HUDDAH HUDDAH!” In the center of the flame, he saw an opening, like an eye. He stared into it, and he could hear the music starting to play… beautiful, happy music, rising with his soul. He was looking beyond the fire now, and he could start to see it; rolling green pastel hills with giant lollipop trees that jutted from the ground at jaunty angles, fat floating puppies and kittens cavorting through the air and flying in braided patterned under a bright blue sky… he could see a yellow brick road, and he raised his hands slowly, summoning his dearest friend from Pyroland; the Balloonicorn. Soldier was still sprawled on the ground, looking at the flames with a slack-jawed awe. Christ, he thought, they might be 12 feet high! Maybe even 15, who could say for sure? He sat transfixed, however, and stared into the yellow center of the flame, trying to see what Pyro saw. He thought he saw something, a flicker of a face that looked like the Devil’s.
“PYRO?” he shouted. “PYRO!” Pyro could barely hear him. He saw the chubby, pink, vaguely equine body of his old familiar friend, peering at him now through the glittering rainbow tower. He waved at Pyro with a stubby, round hoof, his whole body bouncing with excitement. Pyro called the creature to him, raising his arms like antennae picking up on some divine cosmic frequency, trying to tune into God Himself.
“HUDDAH HUDDAH HUDDAH!” he shouted. “HUDDAH HUDDAH!” The Balloonicorn bounded out through the opening, flying upwards in a spiral around the psychedelic tower of color and light, whinnying and bucking like a prancing pony. Pyro started to laugh. “BURRUNICURN!” he shouted, falling to his knees as he beckoned him. “IRSH HURR!” Soldier blinked as he saw a fireball shoot out of the side of the flame, and some sort of… creature burst out of it. It was a horse, only it couldn’t possibly be a horse, because horses were not made of fire. It galloped out of the inferno, its hoofs scorching the air around it as it pushed its way out, as though born out of the fires of Hell itself. No, he wasn’t supposed to be seeing this, he thought, hands cupping his now color-drained face. This was where Shovel Jr. was supposed to tell him to take his medicine, but Shovel Jr. was silent. The beast looked at him, and he saw the sword jutting from the center of its blackened skull. It was a unicorn, or perhaps more accurately the black skeleton of a unicorn animated by hell fire, and it looked at him with molten white eyes that seemed to be liquefying in its sockets. It stared through Soldier, and Soldier felt his skin start to burn. He let out a shrieking scream, and Pyro laughed as the flame grew higher.
“WHAT IN THE HELL?” a familiar voice shouted. Soldier turned to see Engineer running towards them, wielding a fire extinguished as he approached them, his face bright red.
“WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO?” Soldier couldn’t respond, his face transfixed in open-mouthed horror. Engineer stopped about five feet in front of the burning refuse and fired a jet of foam at the mouth of the trash can, causing the tower to flicker and die. The Balloonicorn started to plummet into the white foam, giving out a sad whinny, and fell into the trash can. Pyro shrieked as Engineer sprayed that awful substance into the trash can, no, his altar, and the music in his head faded. Pyro stood frozen, aghast as the flames were extinguished before his very eyes. As the last of the flames were smothered, Pyro got to his feet and gripped the sides of the can, poking his head down it searching for his friend. The Balloonicorn was gone. Pyro gave a doleful look to Engineer, though Engineer couldn’t even see it due to the scarves and goggles covering his face. He let go of the can, slouching in dejection. Engineer watched Pyro and worked to catch his breath. His shoulders slumped with relief, and he bowed his head.
“Good night,” he muttered.
“Daddy?” Engineer turned to see his daughter on the back porch, looking out to her father. Guard Dog stood by her, looking confused. “Daddy, was there just a huge fire out here?”
“Yeah,” Engineer said. No use in hiding it from her. “It’s all taken care of now, Pumpkin. Go on back inside a minute. I need t’ have a word with these two.” Rosie, not wanting to stick around, backed away a few paces and retreated back inside. Guard Dog laid down on the porch, and panted, becoming a silent audience. “Engie,” Soldier stood to his feet, dusting off his pants. “Thank God you showed up. You won’t believe what I-”
“What you let Pyro get away with?” Engineer snapped. “Yes, I think I believe that well enough, Jane.” He stepped up in front of Jane, wagging his finger at the taller man. “What th’ hell were you thinkin’, lettin’ Pyro start a fire? What in God’s name is wrong with you?” Soldier opened his mouth to answer, but instead closed it, and looked down at the ground in shame. Engineer, unsure where to direct his anger, turned to Pyro. “And you! Why… Why on earth would you try an’ start a giant fire close enough t’ th’ stable? It couldv’e gone up in flames!” He pointed to the abandoned stale not ten feet away, and Pyro bowed his head in shame and twiddled his fingers.
“Urrm shurry,” Pyro said, his voice pathetic and soft.
“Yeah, well, you should be,” said Engineer. “You are darn lucky nobody got hurt an’ there wasn’t any damage done. If you’re gonna be staying here, I can’t have you lightin’ things on fire, especially if you’re unsupervised!”
“Shulljer wursh shuppervyshing,” Pyro protested.
“Soldier’s obviously not responsible enough t’ tell you when somethin’ is a terrible idea!” Engineer retorted. He spotted the empty kerosene canister lying in the grass, and picked it up, holding it for Soldier to see. “Is this what you snuck out of th’ garage while I was workin’? Hmm? Does this mean you actively encouraged this?” Soldier cleared his throat and held his head up.
“Pyro assured me he’d have everything under control,” said Soldier, attempting to hold onto some semblance of authority. “I took his word. We’re teammates, after all.” Engineer groaned and massaged the bridge of his nose. He stayed quiet for a while, Pyro and Soldier looking to him like defendants waiting for a ruling to be made. Engineer became pensive, looking Soldier and Pyro over before he spoke up again.
“Listen,” he said. “I think we gotta establish some rules here. I don’t wanna hafta worry about leaving th’ two a’ you alone an’ comin’ home t’ cinder where my house used t’ be. Th’ two of you… you’re not th’ best as making sound judgments. This is a problem that I cannot abide if you are to be living under my roof.”
“You’re not going to kick us out, are you?” Soldier asked, sounding a bit frightened. “Heck no,” said Engineer, although by his tone it certainly sounded as though he dearly wanted to. “I can’t. You two are my responsibility now. But you’re both… ill. Mentally. And like any sickness, you fellas are going to have to get it treated.” Soldier’s posture went stiff. More doctors, he thought. Even more pills, as though he needed even more. He took a deep breath and braced himself, and Pyro wrung his hands anxiously and whimpered. “Boys,” said Engineer, crossing his arms as he looked between them, “I think you’re going to have to be psycho-analyzed.”
On the second day of his journey, Sniper turned off of the highway and onto the exit that lead to Bountiful. So far he hadn’t seen much of the state outside of its highways, freeways and truck stops, and one diner he’d stopped at for lunch, but as he drove into Bountiful, he remembered what Moonchild… no, Samantha had said about her childhood home. She’d hated it. And as he drove around town he started to remember why. The giant Church of the Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ was hard to miss, a massive, virgin-white temple to some sort of cockamamie American offshoot of Christianity called Mormonism that Samantha had been raised under. Samantha said that the Church was the reason why she’d run away from home at 16 after refusing to marry some Mormon boy her mother pushed upon her, why she’d changed her name to Moonchild and started hitchhiking across the country with bands of flower children. She’d partied and done drugs and had sex with strangers to distance herself from her oppressive household, she’d explained to Sniper. At the time, he’d laughed and said he couldn’t really much blame her for that. Sniper was not at all a religious man, and any religion that would deny black people heaven and not allow its followers to imbibe alcohol or even caffeine was highly suspect. So why, he wondered, would she ever want to come back here, to this quaint little burg with shining, well-groomed white faces and picturesque landscapes that would look right at home in a painting in the house of an affluent old spinster? Was he really that bad that this was an acceptable alternative? What a depressing thought. He parked the van down the street from a phone booth, leaving the window open for Maddie. After a brief search in the yellow pages for her last name, he’d found that there were at least eight other Mayfields in Utah. Sniper had enough change to call all of them and then some, and he picked up the telephone receiver. He was probably going to be in this phone booth a while. The first person he’d called was a little old lady who’d seemed disappointed when she’d realized Sniper had the wrong number. The second was a man who’d shouted at him as soon as he’d picked up the phone, telling Carla that for the last time, he didn’t want to talk to her, so she should just stop calling already that stupid cunt. Sniper was stunned momentarily by the outburst, and simply said “wrong number,” and hung up. The third rang twenty-six times with no answer, but the forth seemed promising. A woman picked up, her voice as sweet as honey and high pitched as a bell, and answered him.
“Hello, Mayfield residence,” she chirped. “Uh, hello,” Sniper said, leaning on shelf where the phonebook was kept. “Is there a Samantha Mayfield living there, by any chance?” He was acutely aware how gruff he sounded in contrast. There was a pause.
“May I ask who’s calling, please?” Sniper took a deep breath. “Tell her it’s Bruce,” he said. “I need to talk with her, if that’s all right.” Another pregnant pause. Sniper shut his eyes in anticipation.
“Samantha’s not here,” she replied. “Don’t call back again.” And she hung up. Sniper pulled the phone away from his ear and regarded it as though he just discovered that it’d been a dead rat in disguise, and put it back in the cradle. He removed a pen from his vest pocket and circled the number of Mr. and Mrs. Mitch and Loretta Mayfield, and tore the page out of the phonebook. For a moment, he thought this might be one of the most heinous crimes committed in this sleepy little burg… before he remembered watching a news piece on some serial killer named Ted Bundy that’d kidnapped a high school girl from this very town not two years ago. Not helping matters was the fact that his own last name was about one letter away from that psychopath’s. He could only imagine what Samantha’s mother must have been thinking. Fuck it, he thought. He came this far already. Might as well just pay her a visit.
The nice thing about Bountiful was that despite Sniper’s rather scruffy appearance, people were more than willing to help him find Samantha’s place. A middle-aged cashier at a convenience store said her own daughter used to be friends with Samantha, and she’d driven to the house more than a few times. She gave him directions and a blessing of good luck, and Sniper thanked her as he paid for his pack of cigarettes by telling her to keep his change. With this knowledge, he set off for a neighborhood on the edge of town, a picket-fenced suburb that would have been perfect for Ozzy and Harriet. The lawns were all well tended, and Sniper drove slowly as children scurried out of the street for him to pass. The lawns were green and immaculate, the houses all nearly identical save for the colors, and in almost every driveway and garage there was a station wagon parked. Sedans seemed to be a rarity here, and Sniper’s camper van couldn’t have been any more conspicuous. As he rolled up in front of the house he’d been directed to, he noticed a small child with messy brown hair sitting in the front yard, back towards him, concentrating on playing with toy trucks. As he pulled in closer, the boy turned around, and his entire face lit up like a 100 watt bulb. Sniper parked the car, and the boy came running.
“DADDY!” he cried out, arms spread wide as he ran to Sniper, who stepped out of the van to catch the small child in his arms. Sniper lifted him off the ground and spun him, giving a groan of pretend exertion.
“Oh, you’ve gotten so big!” He said, and set the giggling boy back down on the ground. “You look like you’ve grown two feet while I was gone.”
“No, no, no,” said River, smiling until the dimples in his cheeks showed.
“You sure?” asked Sniper.
“Yeah,” he said bashfully. He turned to look at the dog poking her head out of the passenger window.
“Maddie!” The dog did an excited little dance as Sniper opened the door to let her out. She bounded to the child, and covered his face in slobbery dog-kisses as he giggled.
“What are you doing here?” Sniper looked up to see Moonchild… no, Samantha, standing in the front doorway, hands placed on her hips as she glared at him. He almost didn’t recognize her, with her plain, modest clothing replacing her previously more bohemian fashion sense, and her straight, long blond hair now cropped just above her shoulders, curling inwards at the edges to frame her face. Sniper straightened his posture, and removed the akubra from his head. “‘Ello, luv,” he said solemnly, holding his hat over his chest. All the confidence that he’d had coming over, all the will to assert himself seemed to melt like a puddle at his feet, dribbling off into the gutter as though it’d never existed. He cleared his throat. “I see you uh… got a haircut.”
“You didn’t answer my question,” she said, walking outside towards him. “Why are you here?”
“You told me not to call,” Sniper said with a shrug. “Dinnit’ say anythin’ about not comin’ t’ find you.”
“I’m pretty sure that implication was made very clear,” she said. The way she talked was different now, sharper, more deliberate. The lackadaisical sing-song tone she’d had years ago had long been phased out, but her delivery now seemed almost alarming in contrast. She approached him and poked him in the chest. “You shouldn’t be here. Go back home.”
“Can’t,” said Sniper. “I burned it down after you left.” He felt River’s wide eyes looking up at him in complete shock. “‘Ey, listen, maybe we should go inside…”
“Out here’s fine,” said Samantha. “River, honey, could you run inside with Grandma?”
“‘Kay,” said River with an exaggerated nod, and he took a hold of Maddie’s collar as he led the animal back indoors. The front door shut, and Sniper and Samantha stared each other down a while longer before he spoke up.
“ So, wos I that bad?” he asked.
“What?” Samantha asked, her upper lip curled up over her teeth in a sneer. “Well,” said Sniper, “you used t’ go on an’ on about how you hated living with yer parents. Now yer back here, lookin’ like a… a square, doin’ a complete one-eighty an’ shackin’ back up with them again. Th’ hell is goin’ on?”
“For your information, Bruce,” she said, crossing her arms, “this set-up isn’t permanent. I’m only staying here until I can get back on my own feet. I assure you, I have no intention of staying with my parents.”
“Is that right?” Sniper crossed his own arms, still holding onto the brim of his hat with his fingertips. “Yes, it is,” she answered. “So then wot’s with th’ clothes an’ th’ haircut?”
“Mother’s idea,” she said, unconsciously bringing a hand up to twirl a lock of hair between her fingers. “But you know what? I think it’s for the best. I’m making a transition. I’m not a child anymore. I’m an adult, and I should at least look the part.”
“Bein’ an adult ain’t synonymous with lookin’ like you should be on th’ Brady Bunch,” said Sniper. “Right, and you’re such a shining example of personal responsibility,” she shot back. Sniper scoffed at her. “And you are?”
“I’m going to be!” she said, sounding a little too defensive. “Like I said, I’m making a change. I’m distancing myself from you. You’ve been a bad influence on me from the start, and maybe if I hadn’t met you, I wouldn’t have been living like a hippie for so long.”
“Wot?” Sniper’s head reeled back slightly. “Are you kiddin’ me? You told me that’s how you wanted t’ live! So somehow it’s my fault that I obliged?”
“No it’s…” she stopped, her hands suspended in the air in front of her, as if ready to try and grab the right way to say this as it drifted in front of her like a lazy fly. “No. The problem isn’t what you did for me. Yes, you did everything I wanted. But what I wanted was wrong and it’s not what I want now. I’ve changed, Bruce. I think you knew I was changing, that I wasn’t happy.” Sniper couldn’t say anything to that. He felt the hole that’d been ripped in his chest open up again, just enough to hurt. He put his hand over his mouth to conceal the pained grimace on his lips. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I did it the way I did because… I wanted to make sure you weren’t going to try to win me back.” Don’t delude yourself, he thought. He took his hand away from his mouth as he noticed a next door neighbor peering at them through her window.
“Jesus, why didn’t we go inside?” he murmured.
“Because my mother’s inside and I didn’t think you’d appreciate her eavesdropping.”
“Yeah, it’s so much better if some random stickybeak listens in,” Sniper said, emphasizing his sarcasm. “An’ besides, I ain’t interested in ‘winning you back’ or wotever. If you wanna split, that’s fine with me. Ain’t like that’s not th’ first time this has happened t’ me, I’m used to it!”
“So then what’s the problem then?”
“Don’t play dumb,” said Sniper. His eyes darted towards the windows of Samantha’s parent’s house, noticing River was watching. “I think you know exactly what the problem is. It’s my son.”
“Your son?” Samantha asked, giving him an incredulous look. “What, so he’s yours now?”
“Our son,” Sniper corrected himself, trying to mask his growing agitation. “Ours. As in, both of ours. Not just yours. I don’t know how you could think you could just up an’ leave with our son an’ not expect me t’ be angry about it… An’ you left th’ dog there alone! What if I’d gotten held up?”
“I thought you’d want to keep her, and I knew you’d be back soon,” said Samantha. “Besides, she always liked you best.”
“That’s not true, she likes River best,” said Sniper. “But I didn’t come here t’ talk about th’ dog, I came t’ talk about River.”
Samantha pouted, and started playing with her hair again. “It took you more than a week to come up here,” she noted.
“I thought I’d give you some time t’ cool off,” said Sniper. “You left ‘cos you needed space, right? I gave it to you.”
“Really?” she asked. “Because somehow I doubt you were just sitting around with your thumb up your ass waiting for enough time to give me. Did Tavish try and cheer you up? Is that why you burnt down our home? Because I would bet a hundred dollars that was his idea.” Sniper winced. “It… yeah, it kind of wos.”
“I knew it!” she said, reveling in her tiny triumph. “And something tells me that whole week he was still ‘cheering you up,’ wasn’t he? I bet the two of you spent all that time just completely shitfaced, am I right again?”
“No, actually,” said Sniper. “I mean, I spent pretty much th’ whole time with Tav, but we went t’ New York t’ help out a mutual friend a’ ours.”
“You expect me to believe that?” she asked, jutting out her hip as she rested a hand on it.
“I don’t care if you believe me, honestly,” he said. “Me mate wos in a bad way, an’ I wos there for him. So, yer right, I wasn’t just sittin’ around me thumb up me arse. I wos helpin’ somebody. So there.” He crossed his arms again, and looked at her as though daring her to dismiss it.
“That took you an entire week?” she asked. “And you were helping this friend of yours the entire time?”
“I really don’t think it’s any of yer business wot else I might’ve been doin’,” Sniper retorted. He briefly thought back to that girl at the club. “Yer not me mum.”
“No, I’m sure you’d be a lot more open with her, wouldn’t you?” she asked.
“Wot th’ hell’s that supposed to mean?” Sniper gave her a bemused look.
“I talked with your parents for the first time,” she said, crossing her arms.
“I found out about what you did for a living before we met.” Sniper went rigid. “W-wot?” he sputtered. “When was this?”
“Shortly after I came back here,” she said. “You’re not the only one who can track down people, you know. Also you left their number by the bed.”
“Why were you callin’ me folks after you left me?” Sniper’s face was turning bright red. “Wot could you possibly hope t’ gain stickin’ yer nose in me parent’s business?”
“I wanted to find out what you’d did before we met,” she said. “So I did. And you know, after what your father told me, I don’t think I want you to be around River.”
The invisible hole in Snipers chest now felt worse than a sucking chest wound, the kind he’d endured more than once at that aforementioned job. “… Wot? No, please… Moon… Samantha, it’s not like that…”
“Then what is it like?” she hissed. “Because it sure sounds like you killed people for money. What was it your dad called you? A ‘crazed gunman’?”
“I wos an assassin,” said Sniper weakly, casting quick sideward glances. There wasn’t anybody on the street, the view across the street was blocked by his van, but that nosey neighbor lady was still catching quick glimpses of their argument. Sniper shot her a threatening glare, causing her to fumble with her curtains as she hid behind it. “But that’s not wot I do anymore, an’ you’d have t’ be out of yer bloody gourd t’ think I’d ever let River know anything about that.”
“Oh, I didn’t think you’d actually tell him,” she said. “But I don’t think I’m comfortable with the idea of his murderous father hanging around him. I don’t think I’m comfortable with knowing that I’d been in love with…” She brought a partially-closed fist to her mouth, trying to keep herself from choking our a sob, or perhaps throwing up. She didn’t finish, and just shook her head.
“I’m not a murderer, Sam,” he started.
“Don’t call me Sam,” she spat back at him.
“I’m not a murderer, Samantha,” he said, his voice low and vaguely threatening. “All right? None of th’ people I killed wos ever innocent. It wos a job, I wosn’t bloody well goin’ around an’ pickin’ off Sunday drivers on th’ freeway like some maniac. I had standards. I have standards. Me dad never understood that, so he’d go an’ embellish it t’ hell t’ make me look bad because he never loved me!” Sniper realized what he had just said, and tried to explain as Samantha looked at him with the expression of someone who just walked in on their best friend disposing of a corpse.
“Did it ever occur to you that maybe he didn’t need to embellish is because you were assassinating people?” she asked.
“That’s… that’s not..”
“Look!” Sniper raised his voice, causing Samantha to flinch. He sighed, and removed his aviators to pinch at the bridge of his nose. “He… me an’ me dad, we were never close. He wos always disappointed in me. Always critisizin’ me, always sayin’ how he wished I wosn’t his son… an’ when I took that job he used it against me. I just… I don’t want t’ be an absent father t’ River. I want t’ be there t’ support him an’ be th’ kind of dad t’ him that I never got t’ have. An’ if yer gonna make it so that I can’t see him… then I’ll have failed him. Don’t you see that? I want t’ be there for him so that maybe he won’t turn into a fuck up like…” he bowed his head. “Like me.” He looked up to assess Samantha’s reception of the baring of his soul, and received only an expression of barely suppressed horror and disgust, as though she were looking at a reanimated cadaver and not her ex-boyfriend.
“I… no,” she said, shaking her head. “Bruce… I can’t… I just can’t…” She turned away from him, still shaking her head. “Please don’t make this harder for me. Maybe… maybe if you don’t want River to end up like you, you should just… leave.” No backstab from a Spy could have been anywhere near as painful as that. Just leave. He took several deep breaths, and put his akubra and aviators back on.
“All right,” he said, nodding. “If that’s what you really want… I’ll go.” Samantha turned around to face him again, but couldn’t bear to keep eye contact. She said nothing. “Can you do me a favor, though?” he asked. “I… I’d like t’ talk with him. Y’know… before I…”
“Yeah, sure,” she said, her head bobbing up and down with the frantic energy of a bobblehead doll. “You can talk with him. I’ll send him out…” She turned and went back to the house, not even looking back. Sniper leaned against the camper van, clutching his shirt over his heart. He was almost amazed that it was still beating, still ticking away like a faithful pocketwatch. It felt as though it shouldn’t be.
“Daddy?” Sniper looked up to see River coming towards him, still clutching onto Maddie’s collar as the approached. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” said Sniper. He crouched down to meet his son at eye level. “Don’t you go worryin’ about me.”
“Mommy said you’re gonna go away,” said River. “Are you? Are you really going away?”
“Yeah,” he said, trying to keep a brave face. Stiff upper lip, his mother had told him when he was a boy. He tried to keep that mantra repeating in his head. “Yeah, I’m afraid so, kiddo.”
“Where are you gonna go?” River asked. “I don’t know yet,” said Sniper. “Will you come back?” Sniper hesitated. “I hope so,” he said. “Maybe someday. But probably not for a long time.”
“How long?” River asked. He hugged Maddie’s neck. “A month?”
“Probably a lot longer than that,” Sniper said dolefully. “But hopefully not forever. Yer mum doesn’t much like me anymore. She doesn’t want me around.”
“Did you do something bad?” Sniper gave a stiff nod. “Y-yeah,” he said. “I suppose you could say that.”
“What was it?”
“I might tell you when yer older,” he said. “I’m sorry, River.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “You should say sorry to Mommy. If you say sorry to someone when you did something bad, it makes it better.”
“… I’m afraid it’s not that simple, kiddo,” said Sniper, putting a hand on River’s shoulder. “I wish it were. I’d say sorry a million times if I could… but that’s not gonna be enough fer me.”
“Please don’t go.” River’s round brown eyes started to well up with tears. “I don’t want you to go away forever. Please.” His mouth curved into a tight frown, and his lip quivered as he tried to keep it closed.
“Oh, River,” Sniper took the boy into his arms and hugged him tight as the boy started to sob into Sniper’s shirt. Sniper recalled what Engineer had said regarding any possible kidnapping attempts, and right now the urge to just scoop River up off his feet and whisk him away was overwhelming. “I wish I didn’t have to.” He then remembered the scrap of that phonebook page he’d torn out, and got an idea. “Hey, River?”
“Yeah?” the boy answered, giving a wet sniffle. Sniper broke the hug to pull out the phonebook page from his vest pocket, along with his pen. He found a blank spot on the edge of the page, and wrote down a phone number. River peered at the paper curiously, and Sniper ripped the edge of the page off, giving River the number. “You can read that, right?”
“Yeah,” said River nodding. “Read it back t’ me,” said Sniper. The boy rattled off the numbers with no small amount of pride. “Clever boy,” he said. “That’s Uncle Tav’s number. Don’t let yer mum find it. When you move, you call Uncle Tav an’ tell ‘im yer address. I’ll write to you.”
“You will?” asked River. “Yeah,” he said. “We’ll try an’ figure out how I can call without yer mum knowin’… I’ll send you money for yer birthday an’ Christmas. Just promise me you won’t ferget about yer ole’ dad, okay?”
“I promise,” said River. He made an “X” over his chest. “Cross my heart an’ hope to die.”
“Good boy,” said Sniper. He removed his akubra from his head and placed it on River’s head. “Here. You can keep this. It’s yours now. This hat belonged t’ me dad an’ me granddad before him.”
“Really?” River’s eyes grew wide as he touched the brim.
“Really really,” said Sniper. “So, while I’m gone, you can have that hat an’ you can think of me, an’ you’ll know that I’ll be thinkin’ about you. Always.” River beamed bright enough to illuminate a room, and Sniper stood to his feet.
River’s smile wavered. “Are you gonna leave now?” he asked.
“I think so, yeah,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t stick around much longer.”
“Is Maddie going away with you?” River asked. Sniper looked down at the dog, who was now meeting his gaze with a tilted head and a cautious tail wag.
“Doesn’t seem right that a boy shouldn’t grow up with his dog,” he said. “What do you think, Maddie? You think you can keep an eye out for ‘im?” Maddie stood up and approached Sniper, her tail wagging. He bent down to pet her but she jumped up on him, licking his face. River gave a laugh as Sniper gave playful groans in disgust. She sat back down. “Good girl,” said Sniper, scratching behind her ears. “Stay.” He opened the van door, bringing out Maddie’s rarely used collar and leash, as well as her food bowl. “You can take good care of her, right?”
River nodded. “Yeah.”
“Good,” said Sniper, handing him Maddie’s things. The best thing to do would have just to have taken the dog with him, but somehow, it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. The dog belonged with the boy; a boy needs a best friend who won’t leave him. Maddie could be there for River in a way he couldn’t, as much as it pained him to get rid of that dog. “You’re gonna need her more than I will.”
“When will we see each other again?” River asked. Sniper pursed his lips, trying to think of an answer.
“I don’t know,” said Sniper. “I can’t say when it’ll be. But I promise we’ll see each other again. All right?”
“All right,” said River. He wrapped his short arms around Sniper’s legs, barely reaching his father’s waist. “I love you, daddy.”
Sniper lifted the boy from under his armpits, and picked him up to give him a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead. “I love you too,” he said. “You be good now.”
“I will,” the boy said solemnly. Sniper set him back down on the ground, and walked around his van, climbing in the passenger door and turning the ignition. The van rumbled to life, and Sniper waved one last time at his son. The boy hugged Maddie’s neck as he watched Sniper go. Sniper watched him grow smaller and smaller in his side mirror, until it became too painful to look at. He needed to get out of this town, go as far away as possible. He’d managed to get about five miles away from the suburb before the tears stinging at his eyes made it too hard to drive and he had to pull over and park. He crossed his arms and leaned on the wheel, his head bowed down so that no one could see him sobbing. Hot tears dribbled from his eyes and down his nose, dripping down onto his pants legs. His whole body was wracked with choked sobs and shudders. He’d never cried like this, not once in his life. He pounded a fist onto the dash board in some misplaced frustration, rattling the knick-knacks he’d had sitting on there for years, and then let out a hoarse cry as he gripped the steering will, throttling it as though it were the cars throat, uselessly trying to strangle it. This did nothing, and he went limp, staring at the ceiling. He wasn’t sure how long he sat in his car on the side of the road. It felt like an hour, though it was probably closer to 15 minutes. He wiped away at the half-dry tears with his arm, and sniffed. Finally, he was calm enough to start the van back up again and make his way back home, headed south, and as far away from this town as he could possibly go.
Engineer woke up when he heard somebody moving dishes around in the kitchen. He sat up, eyes half-lidded, and stepped into his slippers. It was probably Pyro, he thought. He shuffled out of his bedroom and down to the kitchen, just about ready to poke his head in and tell Pyro to keep it down when his eyes adjusted to the light in the kitchen and he saw Spy standing in front of his refrigerator, pondering its contents. “Spah?” Engineer asked, attempting to confirm whether or not this was actually Spy and not some sort of lucid dream.
Spy turned to look to Engineer, and smiled. “Oh, zhere you are,” he said, as though he were surprised to find Engineer in his own house. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
Engineer turned his head to look at the clock on the wall. “It’s two in th’ darn mornin’.”
“Désolé, Laborer,” said Spy, closing the fridge door, not able to find anything to his liking. “I am a very busy man, and needing to be many different places at once, it is… difficult for me to squeeze you into my schedule at a reasonable hour. So I opted for as soon as I possibly could.” Engineer blinked, and said nothing. “I heard about your little altercation wiz Soldier’s brother,” Spy started, turning his attention to the kitchen cabinets.
“Did you now?” Engineer asked, feeling far too groggy to object to Spy’s nosiness.
“Yes,” said Spy. “It seems you gave him quite ze rebuke.”
“He did mention that you’d visited him before,” said Engineer, pulling out a chair and sitting down. “He said you were tryin’ t’ blackmail ‘im.”
“I didn’t just ‘try,’ I succeeded,” said Spy. “He became desperate and he did somezing extraordinarily stupid. I am sorry if I caused you any trouble, Engineer. I was merely trying to help.”
“While I appreciate you tryin’ t’ help, I think you might a’ made it worse,” said Engineer. “Heavy an’ I were nearly killed by that kooky mother hubbard.”
“Worse?” Spy asked, striding over to the kitchen table. “Or better?” He pulled a stack of papers from his inner vest pocket and tossed them onto the table for Engineer to see.
Engineer picked up the stack of papers and squinted as he looked them over. “These are…”
“Congratulations, you are now Soldier’s official legal guardian,” said Spy. “You’re welcome.”
“How?” Engineer asked. “I don’t understand…”
“I paid our dear friend Jonathan a little visit in ze hospital,” said Spy. “Fortunately he still had one good arm to sign ze necessary paperwork. You don’t have to worry about him trying to bozzer you again.”
“I didn’t think he would, after the whuppin’ I gave him,” Engineer said with a dry chuckle. “Thanks, Spah. Sorry about what I’d said earlier…”
“It’s fine,” said Spy. “I’m glad I could help.” Engineer looked up to Spy, who was looking down at him as though he were expecting more. “I suppose yer wantin’ t’ know if I’ll accept that job you offered me, huh?”
“Actually, I wanted to know if you had any booze, but I suppose zat would be lovely, too.” Spy gave a sardonic little smirk. “I’ve got some beer in th’ fridge,” said Engineer. Spy gave a dramatic sigh. “If I wanted zat, I would have taken it. Really, I should get you some better liquor so zat we might share it sometime.”
“You really shouldn’t be goin’ through my stuff like that,” said Engineer. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you any manners?”
“I cannot say she did,” said Spy. He went to the sink with his empty glass and turned on the faucet. “So, have you given my offer any zhought?” Engineer sighed. “Well… I suppose with more mouths t’ feed now an’ Rosie goin’ t’ college next year… I’m probably going to need some extra money. I mean… I also need t’ git Soldier an’ Pyro some treatment for their… y’know, mental problems. That sort a’ thing don’t come cheap.”
“We could offer you insurance to help pay for zat,” said Spy. “Flexible hours, your own workspace, ze opportunity to pioneer new technologies wiz an elite team RED has assembled zhemselves…” Spy’s glass was filled, and he gulped down the water with gusto, finishing it off and placing his empty glass back in the sink. “Your talent is being wasted just tinkering in your garage, my friend. You deserved better zen working as a mercenary for RED. Now you have ze opportunity to get ze respect you so richly deserve.” Engineer didn’t answer right away. It sounded far too good to be true. “If I do this,” he asked, “do you think… do you think you could somehow look into a way to help get rid of Pyro’s debts?”
“Pyro is indebted almost entirely to Mann Co.,” said Spy, coming back towards the table. “I am sure if I pulled ze right strings, we could work somezing out… perhaps a way to pay zem off wizzout interest? I’m not sure if we could get such debts completely forgiven.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine… I jus’ don’t wanna hafta worry about Pyro bein’ thrown in jail fer not bein’ able t’ pay it off,” said Engineer. “Anything you might be able t’ do would be great.”
“Zink nozzing of it,” said Spy waving a hand dismissively. “So, you are officially accepting my offer, zen?”
“Well,” said Engineer, “I think before I accept I wanna know where I’m gonna be, what I’m gonna be workin’ on, who I’m workin’ with… all a’ that. That wouldn’t be too much trouble, would it?”
“I can give you a brief tour of ze facility, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell you what you’d be working on until you have accepted our offer,” said Spy. “But if it would help seal ze deal, I would be more zen willing to show you around. When is good for you?”
“Well,” said Engineer, “I’m probably not as busy as you are.”
“Zat is true,” said Spy, who looked to the watch on his wrist, tapping a button a few times. “Hmmm… how does Wednesday sound for you?”
“I have an opening at zhree-zhirty,” said Spy. “Is zat acceptable?”
“That’s fine,” said Engineer. “Where is this place, where should I-”
“Don’t worry,” said Spy, “I’ll pick you up.” He pressed another button on his watch. “It’s been a pleasure, Laborer. You can go back to bed now.”
“Thanks…” Engineer said absentmindedly, watching as Spy walked out the front door. The screen door closed after Spy, and Engineer got up from the kitchen table and plodded to the front door. He peered out the screen door, past the cloud of moths fluttering against the mesh and looked for Spy, who disappeared into the darkness. Engineer heaved a sigh and shook his head, turning off the lights in the kitchen as he went back to bed.
It had been two days since Engineer had talked to Ilse about finding the right kind of doctor for both Soldier and Pyro when she’d called back to say she’d found someone. Apparently finding a potential psychiatrist that could be trusted was difficult; many of Ilse’s colleagues were all too eager to take on cases like Soldier’s and Pyro’s due to their extraordinary nature. Such sensationalism would not do, she’d said to Engineer over the phone, and she landed on someone who she trusted to handle the case with an appropriate level of professionalism and grace; someone who just happened to be in the Austin area. Ilse had taken the liberty of arranging an appointment to bring in both Soldier and Pyro. “Ze first visit won’t cost you anyzhing,” she’d said. “You just go in and see if she is to your liking. If not, I can find you somebody else.” Engineer had to admit he was a bit annoyed that Ilse had made this appointment for him, but she dismissed this concern by saying she was just being efficient. Admittedly, Engineer had no plans for that particular day anyway. He drove into Austin in his truck, Pyro sticking his head out of the side window like a dog and Soldier sitting in the bed of the truck, insisting on it because he “needed his space.” Engineer allowed Soldier to sit back there, not wanting to start an argument, but he still frequently checked his mirror to make sure Soldier hadn’t tumbled out somehow, and he drove with extra caution. Soldier banged on the rear window of the cab. “Jesus Christ, could you drive any slower, Engie?” he hollered. “You drive like my grandmother!” Engineer just sighed and said nothing. It wasn’t as though he were the only person driving around in this state with passengers in his truck bed, but Engineer took some small amount of pride in being a bit more shrewd than a few more of his less-sophisticated fellow Texans. The building itself wasn’t hard to find; it was a new structure, fresh and free of the decades old grime of other buildings only a block or two away. “We’re here!” Engineer announced, parking in front of a meter. Pyro hopped out the side door, and Soldier jumped over the wall of the truck bed, landing on his feet on the sidewalk. Engineer fished through his pockets for change to put in the meter, and lead his two companions inside. As Engineer checked a listing of all the offices in the building, Soldier looked around, squinting at the fluorescent lights and marble floors. “So, let me get this straight,” said Soldier, “you said if I don’t like this doctor, I can go see another one, right?”
“That’s right,” said Engineer. He’d found Dr. Marshall’s listing: office 301. “But I need to see one to stay.” Soldier watched as Pyro admired an abstract painting opposite of the elevators. “You’re ill, Soldier, it’d be darn irresponsible for you to not get treatment,” said Engineer, pressing the “up” button on the elevators. “Hopefully this doctor will treat you better than yer old ones. Ilse sure seems t’ think that Dr. Marshall is up t’ task. Just try’n keep an open mind, wouldja?” Soldier crossed his arms. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll do this. For you.”
“Don’t do it fer me,” said Engineer, as the elevator doors opened up. “Do it fer yourself.” He turned to Pyro. “C’mon, son,” he said, beckoning Pyro. Pyro turned around and waddled inside with Engineer and Soldier, and the elevator doors closed and took them upward. The doors opened again on the third floor, and the three of them wandered the hall looking for 301, which was located at the far end. Engineer was the one to open the door, and the three of them filed inside. The waiting room itself seemed decorated with what could have been a personal touch; the walls were covered in pale wallpaper marked by a zig-zag design running through horizontally through the middle of the wall, and there was a red clay vase sitting on a low table that had various magazines spread across it. A wooden-frame couch with bright teal cushions was up against the wall furthest to the door, and Engineer sat down upon it as he removed his ten-gallon hat. There was no secretary in sight. Soldier sat down beside Engineer, arms crossed, posture straight and alert like a prairie dog. Pyro sat on the floor by the table, picked up a copy of Modern Bride, and started to flip through its pages. Soldier drummed his fingers against his bicep and looked around the room. “You nervous?” Engineer asked. “What? No, of course not!” Soldier said. “Don’t be goddamned ridiculous.”
“Mister Conagher?” Engineer looked up to see a woman standing just inside the waiting area. He wasn’t sure what to expect this doctor to look like, but he hadn’t been expecting anyone like this… she was tall, and slight, with long legs dressed in flared pants and long, narrow feet covered with sandals. Her blouse was pale blue and opened just a bit towards the top, and around her neck she wore some silver jewelry with a bright teal stone as a contrast to her red-brown skin. She wore her black hair straight, and it fell past her shoulders. He wondered how Ilse had ever come into contact with this woman, this woman now looking down at him with eyes that seemed to pin him down like an insect specimen, and he didn’t even realize that a good few seconds had passed and he hadn’t answered her yet, just staring. “Uh, yes!” he spoke up, standing up far too quickly to make up for his delayed reaction. He stuck out a hand. “That is me, Dell Conagher. I, uh, presume you’re Dr. Marshall?”
“That I am,” she said, taking his hand. She accepted his hand with long fingers that might have belonged to a piano player, and shook it with a hearty grip. “I got a call from Dr. Wernheimer and she’d told me about your,” she looked around Engineer, “…your friends’ cases.”
“Well, yes,” said Engineer. He stepped aside and gestured towards Soldier and Pyro. “That gentleman over there is Jane Doe,” he gestured to Soldier, who was scrutinizing Dr. Marshall with a wary eye, “and that guy right there, well…” Pyro looked up at him through his goggles, as he held a page of Modern Bride precariously over a lighter that Engineer could have sworn he didn’t have a few seconds ago. Engineer swiped the light from Pyro’s hands, and gave a nervous laugh. “Well, uh… sorry about that. My friend here, actually, I can’t say that he’s ever told me his real name, but we jus’ call him ‘Pyro.’ I’m sure you’re uh, able to ascertain as to why that is.”
“You don’t know his real name?” Dr. Marshall asked. “Uh, no…” said Engineer. “He’s uh… very secretive. I don’t even know what he looks like under…” he made an all-encompassing sweep of his hand over Pyro, “all that.”
“That’s fascinating,” she kneeled down, so that she was more level with Pyro. “How exactly did you two meet?”
“We worked together,” said Engineer. “The uh, nature of our employment necessitated a certain amount of anonymity. It’s all very hush-hush.”
“Is that so?” She stood up again, giving Engineer a smirk. “I assure you, I keep everything told to me by my patients in confidence.” Engineer felt himself flush a bit at that smirk. Pretty women usually had this effect on him. Pull yourself together Dell, he thought. This woman is treating your friends and she’s way out of your league besides. He cleared his throat. “Well, uh, I don’t think it’d be my place to have you become privy t’ that kind of information, seein’ as how I’m not a patient.”
“Fair enough,” she said. “How did you want to do this?” Engineer blinked. “Beg pardon?”
“Did you all three want to step into my office, maybe discuss some of your concerns, and then you, Mr. Conagher, could leave while I talk with Jane and Pyro individually in private?” She looked among all three of them, trying to read a consensus. “Sure!” Engineer said. “That sounds fine by me. Whadda you fellas think?” He looked to Soldier and Pyro. “Sure,” said Soldier, his eyes darting back and forth between Dr. Marshall and Engineer’s bright red ears. “Mmmrph,” Pyro said with a nod. “Good,” she said. “Come into my office, then.” She turned and led them down a short hallway, leading to a brightly-lit room. She had a corner office, with two large windows on two intersecting walls. There was more pottery, including a large pot sitting next to a book shelf, and a multi-colored, zig-zag woven rug was spread across the floor. Pyro flopped down on a couch up against the wall, and laced his fingers over his chest, perfectly playing the role of any psychiatrist’s patient in a New Yorker cartoon. Engineer and Soldier just opted for the chairs opposite of Dr. Marshall’s desk. “So,” she asked, spinning a notepad across her desk in front of her and clicking her pen, “what can I help you with?” Engineer turned to Soldier, making a gesture with his hands to prod him into speaking, but Soldier just sat in the chair, his arms crossed, looking like some cigar store Indian. “Well,” said Engineer, “see, I recently volunteered to house two old friends of mine, both of whom have mental illnesses, on the condition that they seek treatment for it. Jane has had previous treatment but I don’t think it was particularly helpful, and I have no idea if Pyro’s ever had any treatment at all.”
“I see,” she said. “Were they previously living on their own?”
“Oh, well, sort of,” said Engineer. “Soldier was under custody of his older brother and living in an apartment under supervision, and Pyro was actually homeless in New York City.”
“Uh-huhh,” Pyro said with a nod. “Oh my. Do you know if Pyro has any medical records?” asked Dr. Marshall. “Any identification, birth certificate, Social Security number…?” Engineer shook his head. “No… no, I don’t think so… Pyro hasn’t exactly been very forthcoming with that information.” Pyro didn’t say anything. He looked down at his thumbs as he twiddled them on his stomach. “We’re going t’ make sure that he’s taken care of,” Engineer assured her. “I mean, I have a friend who worked with all a’ us who could probably find Pyro’s identity… but if not, then uh…” he scooted his chair forward and lowered his voice as Pyro turned his head, “perhaps you might be able to, uh, get through to him…” Pyro sat up from the couch and crossed his arms. He huffed, and turned up his head in indignation. “Or not,” said Engineer. “I mean, I think as long as I have him under my care, it’ll be all right, right? I’m not sure if Pyro could ever manage t’ live independently…”
“You’re certain of that?” Dr. Marshall looked up from jotting notes on her notepad to Pyro, who was still sulking. “Well, considering how badly his last attempt at it went…” Engineer rubbed the back of his head. “I mean, you’d gotten kicked outta yer apartment, didn’t you, little guy?” Pyro gave a shameful little nod. “I jus’ worry about him,” said Engineer. “He’s… he’s a timid soul. Very naïve. That’s jus’ th’ way he is, an’ I feel like th’ world doesn’t treat people like him very kindly.”
“You wish to protect him,” said Dr. Marshall. This was more an observation than an accusation, but Engineer still flinched. “I mean I don’t… I don’t wanna keep him completely sheltered, like keepin’ him inside all th’ time or something else equally deplorable,” he shook his head. “I would love for him t’ be sociable an’ not afraid t’ show his face, I’m jus’ not sure if that’s an achievable goal. I mean, I wanna see if I can achieve some kinda balance between sheltering him completely an’ jus’ letting him out into th’ world. I don’t wanna do either a’ those.”
“Is Pyro able to speak for himself?” she asked. “Well, yeah, he’s… he’s a bit shy,” said Engineer. “An’ when he does speak, he doesn’t remove any a’ those scarves you see over his mouth, so it comes out muffled. It took a while for us t’ be able t’ understand him at all. But we all became very fond a’ him, an’ I wouldn’t a’ let him in my house if I didn’t care about him at all.” He looked to Pyro. “Isn’t that right, buddy?”
“Uh-huurh,” said Pyro, giving an enthusiastic nod. Dr. Marshall seemed to consider this. “Pyro,” she asked, looking to him, “what would you like to be called?” Pyro stared back at her blankly, as though she’d just asked him to recite the capitals of all the countries in Europe. He tilted his head like a curious bird. “Is there a name you’d like to be called?” she clarified. “Purro’sh furrn,” he said. Dr. Marshall looked back to Engineer, who just shrugged. “Not like I hadn’t tried that sort a’ thing before, but I’m not th’ licensed professional here.”
“Of course,” she said. She waved a hand in dismissal. “It was worth a shot, I suppose. What symptoms does he have, if I might ask?”
“Well,” he said, “aside from th’ secrecy about his identity an’ his face, an’ his child-like behavior… well, it was th’ pyromania that prompted this… intervention, I suppose you could call this.”
“I suppose that would explain the lighter he was carrying and his moniker,” she said. She tapped the tip of her pen against her notepad. “Well, that was actually his job title,” said Engineer. “We all kind of called each other by our job titles, we were supposed t’ keep our uh, more civilian identities under wraps but it was never very strictly enforced. Even though all of us have kept in touch, a lot of us still call each other by our old names jus’ outta habit. An’ Pyro… well, we haven’t figured out his identity, so that’s all we have t’ call him by.”
“Did he cause any damage to your home, or…?”
“No, no,” Engineer shook his head. “Fortunately no. He started quite th’ trash can fire in my backyard, though. It could have spread to my property had I not heard Jane screaming about it. I’m not even exactly sure why he was, since apparently he’d helped Pyro start it.” He shot Soldier a disappointed glare, and Soldier’s scowl wavered and turned defensive. “It was… much bigger than I thought it would be,” said Soldier, hunching his shoulders. “I see,” she stopped writing and looked to Soldier. “Jane, may I ask how your name is spelled?” Soldier’s face twisted into one of confusion, as though she just asked him what color was the sky. “Exactly how it sounds, J-A-N-E. Jane.” She blinked, and pursed her lips and wrote on her pad. “And Doe is spelled D-O-E, right?”
“Yes,” Soldier was clearly agitated by this line of questioning, gripping at the cloth on his t-shirt sleeve. “Is there some sort of problem?”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first to tell you that you have a… highly unusual name, sir,” she said. “It sounds… more like an alias than an actual name, aside from being more feminine.”
“Why does everybody say that?” Soldier asked, looking around at everyone else in the room for an answer. “You think I would have picked something like Jane Goddamned Doe as an alias?”
“Actually,” said Engineer, “knowin’ you that does seem like somethin’ you’d do.”
“It does not!” Soldier retorted. He gave an irritated snort, and turned away from Engineer in his seat. “I see,” Dr. Marshall jotted down more notes. “Jane, are you currently taking any medications right now?”
“Uh…” Soldier uncrossed his arms and shoved his hand in his back pocket, and pulled out an orange plastic bottle, squinting as he read the contents. “Let’s see here…”
“That sure looks like a lotta different medications in th’ same bottle,” said Engineer, craning his neck to get a better look. “Do you jus’ shove all a’ them in there?”
“Well, I can’t carry every goddamned bottle on me at once, now can I?” Soldier snapped back at him. “You don’t even know what medications you’re taking?” Dr. Marshall arched her eyebrows. “I’m taking a lot of them,” Soldier admitted. “I can’t remember all of them… mostly a bunch of, uh… ‘anti-psychotics’ and ‘mood stabilizers,’ whatever that means.” He frowned. “I don’t like taking them, but they keep the voices quiet.”
“You hear voices,” She leaned forward with interest. “Are these hallucinations strictly auditory, or…?”
“Mostly,” Soldier said. “But like I said, I don’t hear them if I take my meds.”
“Well, if th’ only problem you had was that you had those hallucinations when you were off yer medication, I wouldn’t have brought you in here,” said Engineer. “I think you also have a lot of other deep-seated issues that you could use to discuss in a safe environment.” Soldier gave Engineer a wild-eyed look of shock. “Discuss what?” he asked.“I thought I’d be coming in here to do tests or whatever and get more drugs. What’s this about… ‘discussing my issues’?”
“That was what I was hopin’ we could accomplish, yes.”
“Well, nothing doing, bucko,” Soldier said. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. “Fine then,” said Engineer. “Should I send you back t’ Minnesota? You remember my terms.” Soldier cringed, and then slumped further in his chair. “I remember,” he grumbled. “I assure you, Jane, if it’s confidentiality you’re worried about, there’s no need for concern,” said Dr. Marshall. “I won’t tell anyone anything unless you ask me to.”
“If you say so,” Soldier said. He did not sound as though he believed her. “Are you uncomfortable talking about yourself, Jane?” she asked. “‘Uncomfortable talking about myself?’” Soldier echoed, sitting up straighter. “Hell no! I can talk about myself plenty! I’ll talk a goddamned storm! Is that what you want?”
“It’s less about what I want and more about how I might be able to help you,” she said. “If we can work together to find the root of any problems you might have, we can help you overcome them.”
“You sound like my old doctors,” said Soldier. “All they did was shove pills down my throat and keep me under surveillance.”
“Well, I can assure you I have no intention of doing that,” said Dr. Marshall, giving Soldier a friendly smile. “Mr. Conagher, how often do you think you’d like to come in?”
“Well, uh…” Engineer rubbed the back of his head as Dr. Marshall’s eyes fell upon him, “I mean, I’d need t’ work that out with my insurance… I don’t know, do you think it’d be a good idea t’ come in more often or…?”
“Well,” she said, “I’d like to be able to talk with Pyro and Jane one on one to better assess how we could make this work, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course,” Engineer stood up from his chair. “Who should I uh, let you talk to first?” Dr. Marshall looked between Pyro and Jane. “I think we’ll start with you, Jane,” she said. “Mr. Conagher, if you could wait in the other room with Pyro a moment…”
“Sure,” Engineer gestured to Pyro. “C’mon, lil’ fella,” he said. “Let’s give them some space.” Pyro hopped up off the couch and the two of them left the office, closing the door. Dr. Marshall stood from her desk and walked to one of shelves, upon which rested a radio. She switched it on, and classical music emanated from it, just loud enough to ensure that there would be no eavesdropping from the other side. “So,” she said. “Jane.”
“Yes, ma’am?” She approached her desk, and hopped up enough so that she was sitting on it. She twisted herself around to grab a tape recorder sitting on her desk, and pressed record and then leaned forward, chin resting on her elbow. “Is there anything in particular bothering you lately?”
“Uh…” Soldier leaned to the side and eyed the tape recorder. “That tape…”
“Will not be heard by anybody but me,” she said. “I like to record conversations. It helps me remember details better.”
“That a fact?”
“That’s a promise,” she said. “So… how are you?”
“Fine, I guess,” said Soldier, sounding a bit sheepish. “A lot better since I moved in with Engie… Dell, I mean. Since I moved in with Dell.”
“Engie?” she asked. “Another nickname?”
“Yeah,” said Soldier. “He’s an engineer.”
“I see,” she said. “And why are things better?” Soldier shifted in his seat. “I don’t have to worry about dealing with my son of a bitch brother anymore.”
“Oh?” she asked. “Would you like to talk about him?”
“Not particularly,” said Soldier. “But I suppose you’re going to make me talk about him anyway, aren’t you?”
“I can’t make you talk about anything you don’t want to talk about,” said Dr. Marshall. “Oh, fine, you’ve twisted my arm,” he threw up his hands. “My brother is a bastard. He’s a no-good, rotten-to-the-core scoundrel who controlled every aspect of my life ever since we were kids. I hate him and he hope he burns in hell!”
“But you’re safe from him now,” said Dr. Marshall. “Yes,” said Soldier. “Thanks to Engie and Heavy.”
“Heavy?” she asked. “Another former co-worker of yours?”
“Yes,” said Soldier. “Huge, monstrous Russian man. He’s got to be something like 6’8” and 350 lbs. He’s like a giant, shaved circus bear.”
“He’s not nearly as imposing once you actually get to know him,” said Soldier. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’d never want to get on his bad side, and he could punch a man to death easily, but he’s as queer as a three dollar bill.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s any less tough,” said Dr. Marshall. “I’ve met plenty of homosexual men who fit the macho bill very well.”
“Yeah well, making kissy-face with his precious ‘doktor’ does not exactly strike fear into the hearts of the enemy,” said Soldier. “He’s a complete sap for that guy.”
“His boyfriend is a doctor?”
“Yeah,” said Soldier. “Another guy we used to work with. Medic. Most everybody just called him ‘Doc’ though. Goddamned creepy German fellow with glasses. I was convinced for years that he’d been a Nazi but it turns out that he never was.”
“I think we might be getting off track here,” said Dr. Marshall. “What was it that Heavy and Mr. Conagher did that ensured that your brother wouldn’t bother you again.”
“They beat the shit out of him.” Dr. Marshall’s brow arched in surprise. “Did they now?”
“Yeah,” said Soldier. “I mean, neither of them would have done it if Johnny hadn’t ambushed them.”
“Johnny’s your brother, right?”
“That’s correct,” said Soldier. “You see, Heavy had gone to my apartment to get my things. I had been sent to stay with him and Medic to get away from Johnny, but I’d left my stuff at my apartment.”
“Where were you staying with them?”
“Venice?” Dr. Marshall asked with incredulity. “Venice… where?”
“Italy,” said Soldier. “Your apartment was in Minnesota and you were staying with your friends in Venice and you forgot your belongings,” Dr. Marshall said, hoping to get some clarification. “I know it sounds a bit out there, but it only took a few minutes for Heavy to get to my apartment,” said Soldier. “Dell set up teleporters at his house and gave everybody their own teleporters so that we’ve got a network going on.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Dr. Marshall held up a hand to slow down Soldier’s train of thought. “Teleporters?”
“Are you telling me that your friend Dell has the capability and the resources to develop teleportation technology?”
“Well… yeah,” said Soldier. “I mean, that was his job.”
“But teleportation technology doesn’t exist,” Dr. Marshall pointed out. “I mean, I’d heard that story like ten years ago or something about a government-funded teleportation experiment going wrong and killing somebody…”
“Yeah, well, it exists and I’ve used it,” said Soldier. “Engie’s mastered it. That’s how I was able to go from Minnesota to Venice and then here to Texas.” He paused. “You know, I really don’t think I should be telling you this.”
“My lips are sealed,” she said. She reached for the notepad and her pen, and quickly jotted something down. “So, you left your stuff in Minnesota and Heavy went to get it for you…”
“Right, right,” said Soldier. “He went to get my stuff for me and I was to stay back in Venice. Medic was going to come back from work soon and I wasn’t supposed to be leaving. Well, back in Minnesota, Heavy was trying to get my things, and my brother must’ve ambushed him. Engie goes in after him, and he’s armed, and then he somehow manages to get caught by my brother too.”
“Your brother must be a pretty intimidating figure, if he can manage to subdue a guy that’s 350 lbs.”
“He’s a sneak and a cheat,” said Soldier. “Pyro was the one to tell me what happened.”
“Did he teleport to you?”
“No, ma’am,” Soldier shook his head. “He called me.”
“And you were able to understand him?”
“Well, he actually removed those scarves, just enough that I could hear his voice.” He gave the door a surreptitious glance, and lowered his voice. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if Pyro is actually a ‘he.’”
“You think Pyro’s a woman?”
“Maybe, I don’t know,” said Soldier. “I think I’m going to investigate that further.”
“I don’t think Pyro would appreciate that, given how secretive they are,” she said. “They prefer to keep their identity private.”
“I know that,” said Soldier. “And I think the only reason Pyro let me hear his… her voice was because it was an emergency.”
“So, once, Pyro called you, then what happened?”
“I went over there and called Johnny out.” he said. “He had Engie and Heavy tied up and I told him I wasn’t going to stand for any more of his shit. And we fought.”
“I can see you still have some bruising,” Dr. Marshall gestured to Soldier’s face with the tip of her pen, and Soldier touched a fading purple blotch on his cheek. “Yeah,” he said. “Like I said, he’s a goddamned cheat and a sneak. If he’d fought fair, I could’ve beaten him. But Engie and Heavy managed to escape, and they sure as hell knocked some sense into him. I heard he’s in the hospital now.” Soldier gave a malicious chuckle at the thought. “Honestly, he deserves worse but… I think its better that he’s humiliated.”
“He must have been very cruel to you for you to feel that he deserved it,” Dr. Marshall noted. “‘Cruel’ doesn’t even begin to describe it!” he said. “That man’s sole mission in life was to make me as miserable as possible! He’d humiliate me, he sent me to the nuthouse, he controlled my money and he’d make sure I wouldn’t step out of line. That man was a monster!”
“Seems as though you had good reason to resent him,” said Dr. Marshall. “That sounds like it has most of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship.” Soldier shriveled back slightly. “I’m not some battered housewife, ma’am. I’m a full grown man! I killed Nazis in Poland! I am not some kind of victim here.”
“I never said you were,” she said. “You strike me as a very strong, proud man. You’re a survivor.” Those last three words caught Soldier off guard. Blinking, he tried to process them. You’re a survivor. Not only that, but he was strong. The side of his mouth twitched. “You… you really think so? You think I’m strong?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious just talking with you now,” she said. “Do you not believe that about yourself?”
“Of course I do!” Soldier huffed, and pounded his chest for emphasis. “I’m tough! I’m a goddamned warrior. I’ve got Viking and Indian blood running through these veins!”
“You would be surprised how many people I’ve met who say they have Indian blood in them.” Dr. Marshall gave a sardonic smirk. “Most of the time it’s not true.”
“Well I assure you, in my case, it is completely true!” said Soldier. “You’re an Indian, right? What tribe are you?” Dr. Marshall tilted her head, and gave a playful smirk. “Navajo.”
“Navajo?” Soldier echoed. “So, what, you’re from… Arizona?”
“No, New Mexico,” she said. “And what about you then? Cherokee, perhaps?”
“Blackfoot,” said Soldier. “1/64th, I think. Or maybe it’s 1/32nd.” Dr. Marshall covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing. “I see… that’s not a whole terrible lot.” Soldier seemed disappointed by this assessment, and crossed his arms. “Maybe not to you,” he grumbled. “No, it’s… its fine,” she waved it off. “The point is you’re strong. Nobody in their right mind would think you’re a wimp.” Soldier’s face broke out in a grin. “Heh. Yeah. You’re right.”
“Of course,” she said. “I think you’re like… like a castle.”
“A castle?” Soldier sounded confused, but he turned an ear towards her in interest. “Okay…”
“Think about it this way,” she explained. “You’ve dealt with your fair share of battles. Battles cause damage, cracking at your structure and foundation. Having survived those things still being mostly intact just shows how tough you are, but there are still things that can be repaired. The marks may still be visible, but with my help… you might be able to fix those cracks in your foundation.”
“Huh.” Soldier looked up in thought, considering this for a moment. “And what would that involve?”
“Just talking,” she said. “We can talk about whatever you like, so long as it’s working towards helping you cope.” Soldier went quiet. He rubbed his chin, and looking back up to Dr. Marshall, he gave a cautious nod. “All right,” he said. “I’ll give this a shot. I think I like you better than the other doctors, even if you do seem kind of like a hippie, but I’m going to assume that’s probably because you’re an Indian.”
“I’m flattered,” she said, not able to conceal her smirk. “Though, I actually prefer the term ‘Native American’ myself. I’m not from India.”
“I never said you were,” said Soldier. Dr. Marshall sighed. “I think I’m just about ready to wrap up here. You can go out into the waiting room and send in your friend Pyro. I look forward to seeing you again, Jane.” Soldier stood up from his chair and gave her a stiff salute, much to her surprise. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, and walked out of her office. A few moments later, Pyro waddled in, and sat down on the couch parallel to Dr. Marshall’s desk. He laced his gloved fingers together, and stared at her with expectation. “Well,” said Dr. Marshall, sliding off her desk, “how are we going to do this, Pyro?” Pyro tilted his head. “Would you like to talk with me?” she asked. “Are you comfortable with that?”
“Urrkey,” said Pyro with a shrug. “Are you going to leave those scarves on?” she asked. “It’s kind of hard to hear you with your mouth covered.” Pyro seemed to consider this for a moment, and covered the sides of his face with his hands. “Uh-uh,” he said, shaking his head. “Uh neerd thurm.”
“You need them?” Dr. Marshall repeated, as Pyro gave a nod in confirmation. “Why do you need them?” Pyro’s shoulder’s slumped, his whole body language becoming sullen. He gave a wheezy sigh. “Ur currnt shuurr muh furrsh.”
“Why can’t you show your face?” she asked. Pyro was now covering his goggles with his gloved hands, shaking all over. “Ur durn wurnnuh,” he said. “All right,” she said. “If you don’t want to show your face, you don’t have to. You don’t even have to talk about that right now. Is there anything you want to talk about?” After a good minute of Pyro imitating Rodin’s Thinker, he gave up, and shrugged again. “Urr durrnuh.” Dr. Marshall tapped her pen against her lips. She was having enough trouble understanding Pyro as it was, and odds were that Pyro’s muffles wouldn’t play back well on tape. She opened one of the drawers of her desk, and looked to Pyro. “Can I ask you something, Pyro?”
“Whuurt?” Pyro asked, swinging his legs over the edge of the couch. “Do you like art at all?” she asked. “I mean, do you like to draw?” Pyro nodded. “Would you like to draw some pictures for me?” she asked, and she pulled some blank sheets of paper and a pack of crayons. “Maybe use your pictures to answer any questions I have. Then we can talk about them. How does that sound?” Pyro let out an excited squeak, and eagerly took the crayons and paper. He sat on the floor, opening up the crayon box and looking up at Dr. Marshall, waiting for her prompting. “I wanted to hear from you about that fire you’d set in Dell’s backyard,” she said. “Do you think you might tell me why you did that, in your picture?”
“Uh-huh,” Pyro said, and immediately set to work. Dr. Marshall sat down on the couch behind him, watching him work. Pyro’s lines were not as sloppy as she thought they might be, showing great deliberation in his work. He did possess a modicum of skill, simple as his lines were. When he was finished, he turned around and proudly showed her his drawing, and she studied it. As clearly representational as Pyro’s work appeared to be, Dr. Marshall was not entirely sure what she was looking at. There was a figure in layers of clothes that was clearly supposed to be Pyro, and there was another figure with large biceps and a buzz-cut that looked like Jane. The drawing of Jane had arched, worried eyebrows, and Pyro’s figure was holding up their hands in joy. Between them was a green trash can, and coming out of it appeared to be some kind of twisty rainbow, and at the top was a chubby pink unicorn-like creature. “What is this?” she asked, keeping her tone cheery and genuinely inquisitive as she pointed at the rainbow colored mass. “Is that the fire?” Pyro tapped his fingers against the scarf over his mouth, contemplating his answer. “Surrt urf,” he said. “Sort of?” she asked. “Ursh murr thurn fyyurr,” said Pyro. “Ursh murrgick.”
“Magic?” she asked. “Uh-huh,” said Pyro. “Fyyurr meeksh murrgick. Urt gurrsh turr Puurolurnd.”
“It goes to… where?” Pyro picked up his crayons again, and quickly started sketching, this time more excitedly. When he was finished, he proudly presented the drawing to Dr. Marshall. “Hurr,” he said. “Puurolurnd.” The scene depicted in the drawing was one of bright green hills under a blue sky. There was a yellow road that a figure in a red suit with a black gasmask was skipping along, holding a device that looked like some sort of strange brass instrument blowing bubbles and rainbows. Upon the figures back was something that looked like a giant music box spool, and they were being followed by the chubby pink unicorn creature. The landscape was dotted with giant lollipops sticking out of the ground like trees, and round puppies and kittens floated through the air like fluffy zeppelins. Across the sky, written out in fluffy clouds, was one word: PYROLAND. “I shee thrush urn thur fyyurr,” said Pyro. “Thrr murrr fyyurr, thur murrr uh shee urt.” Dr. Marshall did her best to maintain a neutral expression as she looked the drawing over. “So, you start fires and you see this in them?”
“Thurssh whurrt uh sheerd,” said Pyro, sounding a little annoyed. “And is that you there?” She pointed to the figure in the gasmask. “Yersh.”
“I see,” she wasn’t sure how to respond and yet still maintain a friendly, professional demeanor. “About when did you find out about Pyroland?”
“Lurrng turm urguh,” said Pyro. He looked at his hands and counted on his fingers, but then gave up with a shrug of his shoulders. “Were you an adult when you saw Pyroland for the first time?” Pyro shook his head. “Nuhh,” he said. “Uh wursh lurrl.”
“How little?” she suppressed the dread in her voice as best she could. Pyro raised a hand to try and estimate his height at the time, and it hovered about 3 ½ feet off the ground. “Thursh lurrl.”
“Do you remember what might have happened that caused you to see Pyroland?” Dr. Marshall asked. All the childlike energy that was in Pyro drained, and he slumped like a mechanical toy that’s batteries had just died. He looked down at the floor, and reached for the crayons to draw again. Only this time, his strokes were less precise, any joy he might have gotten from drawing before was gone as he ground the colored wax into the paper. When he was finished, he stared at his drawing for a moment before lifting it up and handing it Dr. Marshall. It was a building on fire under a black night sky. There were no rainbows this time around, only red and orange and yellow flames spewing out of a black square that was surrounded by a tall wire fence, which itself was topped off by loop-de-loops of what might have been barbed wire. The ground was covered in snow, and there were a few black silhouetted figures on fire. In the corner of the picture, drawn with more detail, was a man wearing glasses. He had blood on his face, and he was carrying a bundle of blankets with a tiny red face poking out from it. As she stared at this drawing, Pyro had sat down on the couch beside her, and was looking at the drawing over her shoulder. She turned and gasped as she saw him, pressing a hand against her chest. “You snuck up on me,” she said. “Shurreh,” said Pyro. He was sounding more like he had before, and he scooted away from her to give her room. “Is this what caused you to see Pyroland?” she asked. “Did this happen to you when you were very young?”
“Urr thurnk shuur,” he said. “Uh durrnt rummemburr turr gurd.”
“Do you not want to talk about?” Pyro nodded. “That’s fine,” she said. “We can talk more next time you come in. Maybe you could draw more pictures for me.”
“Yuuh lurk thurm?” Pyro asked. “I like them very much,” she said. “I think you’re quite talented.” Pyro squished his cheeks together (presumably) and let out an excited squeal. Without any warning he wrapped his arms around the doctor’s waist and squeezed. Before she had any time to react, he let go, and hopped off the couch. “Are you done for now already?” she asked. She checked her watch. It had been almost a full hour. “Yeersh,” said Pyro. “All right,” she said. She turned off the tape recorder on her desk and walked Pyro to the door. Pyro walked out with a joyful gait, and Engineer looked up from a National Geographic to give him a smile. “Did it go well, Py?”
“Uh-huh,” said Pyro. “Well, that’s jus’ swell,” he said, closing the magazine as he stood up. “Mr. Conagher,” said Dr. Marshall, still planted inside her office, “could you come inside for a minute?” Engineer’s ears didn’t turn quite as red as they had earlier. He cleared his throat. “Of course,” he said, and joined Dr. Marshall in her office. She closed the door behind them. “You, uh, wanted to schedule another appointment, ma’am?” he asked as Dr. Marshall gathered a stack of papers and approached her desk. There was still a goofy looking smile on his face as he sat down in the chair across from her desk. “Well, yes,” she said, “but I also wanted to address some concerns.” The smile on Engineer’s face faded. “Oh?”
“Are you sure you want to allow Pyro to live with you?” she asked. “Because what little information I’ve gathered is pretty distressing, to say the least.”
“Is he that bad?” Engineer could feel his stomach sink. “He’s developmentally arrested and clearly delusional,” she said. “I have good reason to believe he suffered a severely traumatic event early in his childhood and has developed a very intricate imaginary world to cope with it. The pyromania is actually closely linked with these delusions. Fire seems to be what triggers them.”
“Delusions?” Engineer ran a hand over his scalp. “Are you sure?”
“My interaction with Pyro has indicated as much,” she said. “I’m telling you all this because you’ve decided to let him into your home. I think you may be getting more than what you’ve bargained for. Pyro’s psychosis has to be among the worst I’ve ever come across.” Engineer thought about this a moment, fingers laced over his lap. “I realize that keeping him in my home might be risky, Doc,” he said, “but I feel like its th’ right thing t’ do. I don’t think he’d do very well in a hospital environment. I want him t’ feel safe an’ I want him t’ have some amount of independence.”
“There’s always halfway houses,” Dr. Marshall suggested. “He would be sharing housing with other patients with mental illnesses or disabilities and learning to adjust to living on his own, all under supervision.”
“No,” Engineer shook his head. “I don’t think that’d work either. He doesn’t normally do well around people who don’t know him, I really don’t think him bein’ with a bunch of total strangers would help him any.” Dr. Marshall nodded. “I understand how you feel, Mr. Conagher. I just want to make sure you’re aware of all your options and that you’re making the right decision, both for you and for Pyro.”
“An’ I appreciate yer concern, but yes, I think this is th’ right thing t’ do.” He gave her an optimistic smile. “He seems t’ like you a lot, though. Even Jane seemed t’ be feeling better when he came back out again. I’d like for th’ both of ‘em to come by on a regular basis. You think we might be able to drop by next week?”
“Hold on,” she opened a desk drawer and pulled out a day planner, flipping through a few pages. “How does Thursday at 2 sound? I can see each of them for an hour.”
“That’s fine,” said Engineer. “I can wait two hours, I think.” He wouldn’t have even needed to drive Pyro and Soldier in for this appointment had they driven Soldier’s car down from Minnesota, but destroying the teleporter seemed to be the safer option at the time. Maybe he could find a way to get Soldier’s car back somehow. But in the meantime, he certainly didn’t mind coming in to talk with this mighty pretty lady. “Good,” she said, jotting down the appointment in her planner. “Thanks. I look forward to seeing all of you stop by again.” She flashed him a friendly smile, and Engineer felt his heart turn to butter on a skillet. “Me too, I mean… I’m sure they will too.” He stood up and cleared his throat, ready to head out the door. “Oh, Mister Conagher, before you go…”
“Yes?” He turned around to face her. She was now standing up as well, and she leaned against her desk. She didn’t speak right away, her eyes scanned over him and his face. Engineer felt himself put on the spot until she spoke. “You didn’t happen to teach at a university, did you?”
“Uh,” he hesitated in his answer. “I… I did. Long time ago. Haven’t been in th’ teachin’ business for a while.”
“Right,” she nodded. “I wasn’t sure. I just thought I might have recognized your name.”
“Oh,” said Engineer. “Well… maybe. I wasn’t teachin’ anybody in the psychology department, that’s fer sure.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Probably not,” she said. “Take care, ma’am,” he said. He walked out of the office, and Dr. Marshall waved good-bye to all three of them as they left. Once they’d gotten back to the car, Engineer decided to ask them about their visit. “So… how did it go, fellas? You like her?”
“Mmph!” Pyro said with an overeager nod. “Better than my other doctors,” said Soldier, speaking through the cab’s back window. “I don’t think I like her as much as you do, though.”
“I, uh…” Engineer felt his face flush. “I don’t know what yer talkin’ about, sir.”
“Whatever.” Soldier didn’t acknowledge Engineer’s denial further and just crossed his arms as he leaned against the truck’s cab. Now thoroughly embarrassed, Engineer kept his head down and started the truck, looking back up only when the vehicle set into motion, and they headed back home.
Chapter Nineteen There was a knock at Rosie’s bedroom door, and she looked up from her homework to the source of the noise, waiting for her visitor to announce himself. “Rosie?” her father asked from the other side of the door. “Can I talk to you a second?” She felt tempted to say that no, she was busy, just as she had the previous two nights he’d tried to come in. She honestly didn’t feel like talking to him lately. Nevertheless, she sighed, deciding she might as well get it over with. “What is it, Daddy?” The door opened, and Engineer poked his head in. Upon seeing his daughter lying on her bed, stomach down and her legs in the air with a pencil in hand, he hesitated. “I, uh, I hope I’m not interruptin’ anything…”
“It’s fine, daddy,” she said. This was dragging on far too long already. Engineer slid inside her room and closed the door quietly behind him. “Uh…” he was stalling. She knew this technique all too well, but somehow it felt strange knowing what she did about her father now. He rubbed the back of his neck and gave her a nervous smile as he looked up from gazing at his shoes. “How’s school been?”
“Fine,” she said. “You didn’t miss too much work, didja?”
“I barely missed anythin’, Daddy,” she insisted. “Oh,” he said. “That’s good.” She stared at him, trying her best to hide her impatience with him as she tapped the end of her pencil against the notebook in front of her. “Listen,” he said. “I’ve uh, been avoiding this for a while now…”
“I wanted to apologize,” he said. “You know, for th’ other day, when I blew up at ya like that. That was probably th’ worst way I coulda’ told you about what I was doin’ fer RED all those years ago…” He wrung his hands. “I’m sorry about that, Rosie. I’d always been afraid t’ tell you about all that ‘cause… well, I didn’t think you’d take it all too well… an’ I can certainly understand why.” That last part was tacked on hastily to the end, before Rosie could object. “An’ well, I’m sure you probably don’t think too highly of me anymore, but given the circumstances at th’ time… I was prepared t’ do anything t’ save yer mother’s life an’ t’ make sure you’d be all right. I love you so very, very much…”
“Yes?” Her father’s eyes looked dewy. She sat up, pulling her legs into a pretzel and holding onto her ankles. “Did Mama know?” Engineer nodded. “Yeah… she knew.”
“What did she say about it?”
“Well,” said Engineer, putting a finger to his chin, “she wasn’t exactly thrilled at first… I told her about, uh, the mechanisms in place that kept me an’ everybody else from expirin’, an’ she seemed t’ understand, or at the very least she tried to. Given how I’d lost my previous job, I suppose it didn’t seem so bad.”
“Your last job?” Rosie asked. “You’re too young t’ remember,” he said. “But that’s… that’s a whole ‘nother story for some other time. I don’t know if you might have… heard anything about that already but… that ain’t what I came here t’ discuss with you. Th’ point is… Rosie, I jus’ wanted t’ tell you that I love you, I’d do anythin’ for you, an’ jus’… please understand why I did what I did. I wish I could somehow do it all over again but I can’t an’…” He trailed off, unable to find the most suitable words from his expansive vocabulary that wouldn’t come off as trite or repetitive. He put a clenched fist over his mouth, covering it as he shook his head. Rosie felt a pang of guilt over all the grief this was clearly causing him, and she got up off the bed and approached her father, wrapping her arms around his chest and holding onto him. “It’s okay, daddy,” she said. “It’s okay.” Instantly, all the tension coiled up in Engineer’s body faded, and he reached around to pat her on the back. They hugged for what could have been half a minute before they parted. “So you don’t hate yer old man then?” he asked, in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood. “Of course I don’t,” she said. “I just… need some time t’ think about all this…”
“That’s all right,” said Engineer. “I can imagine th’ shock of this sort of revelation is a bit difficult t’ deal with…” She nodded, though telling him it was a complete understatement might not make him feel much better. In all honesty, she really wasn’t sure what to make of all this. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she had heard things on the playground about how he lost that last job, and they were used as insults against her in those years her father had been away. Professor Combustor, Dr. Kablooie, Mad Scientist… probably the nicest one was The Absentminded Professor, but the worst ones she didn’t care to remember. Asking her mother about it she’d just been assured they were lies, but even back then she knew better. Now wasn’t the time to dredge all that up, though. Her father was actually starting to feel better. He was now standing before her, looking around her room contemplating if there was anything else to even say. “Oh, uh…” he started rubbing the back of his neck, “I thought I should tell you, but I think I’m finally gonna start workin’ again.”
“Oh?” she asked. Her father had managed to make enough money working for RED that he hadn’t needed to work in years. But the money he’d saved couldn’t last forever, and with new people in the house he was probably going to need to earn more. (Could Jane or Pyro even work? She wondered.) “What are you gonna do?”
“Probably jus’ research an’ development,” he said. “We’ll hafta work out my hours. I’m not sure if I can afford t’ leave Pyro an’ Jane alone at home unsupervised yet.”
“What… you mean…?” Oh no, she thought. “I’m not sayin’ you have to keep an eye on ‘em, but if you could at least make sure they stay outta trouble…”
“Dad, I am not babysittin’ your friends.” She balled her hands into fists and placed them on her hips. “I’m not askin’ you t’ babysit ‘em, I jus’-” he rubbed his forehead, giving out a frustrated sigh. “I’m sorry, listen, we can work this out later, I jus’ don’t want them left to their own devices…” Rosie let out the longest, most exasperated groan she could muster, and rolled her eyes with an almost theatrical flair. “I’m jus’ sayin’ it would be a big help if you could keep an eye on ‘em, is all,” said Engineer. “If you happen t’ be home an’ I’m out, if that’s not too much to ask.”
“Fine,” Rosie said with a sigh. “But I don’t think Jane is even gonna listen t’ me. I know he doesn’t like me.”
“That’s not true, he jus’ doesn’t know you very well,” Engineer said. “Don’t pay him any mind. He’s jus’ tryin’ t’ get a reaction. He’s naturally abrasive, is all. We’re gonna try an’ work on that with his new doctor.”
“Oh,” said Rosie. “You decided yer stickin’ with this one?”
“Yeah,” said Engineer. “I like her a lot… I mean, we like her a lot. She’s very pretty, I mean, pretty good!” Engineer’s ears turned scarlet, and he turned away from Rosie, hoping she wouldn’t notice. He cleared his throat. “She’s pretty good at what she does, is what I mean. Yeah…” Rosie’s disposition completely changed, her entire face breaking out in a sly grin. “Daddy…”
“W-what?” Engineer was blushing harder now, and failing to keep a straight face. “You gotta a crush on this doctor lady, doncha?” She asked, leaning in towards him with her hands behind her back. “Now you listen here,” Engineer said, wagging a finger at her as he tried to cling to what little authority he had left, “I do not have a crush on her. An’, even if I did, A) it would be a bad idea t’ get myself mixed up with th’ doctor treatin’ my friends, an’ B) nobody would ever wanna date me anyway.”
“Oh, stop it,” Rosie gave him a playful shove. “Mama dated you.”
“I’m pretty sure that was a fluke,” said Engineer. “An’ besides, I’m too old an’ I’m outta shape an’ she’s taller than me an’-”
“Shut up, you ain’t that old,” she said. “An’ you’re th’ smartest person I know, even if ya act dumb sometimes. Like right now.” Engineer cleared his throat. He was still trying to adjust to Rosie’s turnaround. “As I was sayin’,” he said, “it’s outta th’ question t’ date somebody who has a strictly professional relationship with two people I’m letting live in my home. It’d needlessly complicate things an’ I really don’t need that.”
“I guess not,” Rosie relented. “But she’s got you all blushin’ like a beet. Is she pretty?”
“Uh,” Engineer pressed the tips of his index fingers together. “Yeah, I suppose she is.”
“You ‘suppose’?” Rosie gave a little laugh. She fell back onto the bed onto her bottom, her hair poofing out on impact. “Aw, c’mon, tell me. She got a name?”
“Her name is Dr. Marshall, I don’t rightly recall her first name…” Engineer shook his head hard enough to whip himself back to his own senses. “Why am I even discussin’ this with you? Do yer homework.”
“Fine, I will,” said Rosie. “An’ I’ll even help keep an’ eye on Jane an’ Pyro. But you gotta promise me you’ll find out this lady doctor’s first name.”
“I don’t hafta promise any such thing,” said Engineer, opening the door. “Yer downright incorrigible.” Rosie laughed, and Engineer shut the door on her rampant giggling. He breathed a sigh of relief, now that the tension over his position at RED had subsided. As he turned his head to the hall, he was met directly with the twin bulging blue eyeballs set inside the skull of one Jane Doe. Engineer let out a startled cry, and flattened himself against the door as he put a hand over his fluttering heart. “Good lord, Jane, ya nearly scared th’ livin’ daylights outta me,” he said. “Sorry,” said Soldier, pulling himself fully upright. Engineer felt his heart settle, and pushed himself away from the door. “Were you eavesdroppin’ on us?”
“Who? Me?” Soldier cast a sideward glance at Engineer. “Yes, you,” said Engineer, jabbing a finger at Soldier. “Why else would you be standin’ in front a’ her door like that?” Soldier crossed his arms. “Maybe I was,” he said. “Maybe I wanted to make sure you were actually asserting yourself instead of letting your child walk all over you, but I see that hasn’t really changed at all.”
“Yeah, well maybe you should mind yer own darn business,” snapped Engineer. “That conversation didn’t concern you, so butt out.” He turned on his heel and walked down the hall, away from Soldier. Soldier watched as Engineer made his way into the kitchen. Unsure of what to do, he headed down the opposite end, towards the hatch to the attic. Though the hatch was closed, Soldier could hear some of that weirdo hippie music that Pyro was so fond of muffled through the ceiling. He took the broom handle he’d placed there for the specific purpose of contacting Pyro, and knocked up at the ceiling three times. The sound of footsteps moved over Soldier’s head, and the hatch opened, as Pyro poked his head out towards Soldier. “Yrrrsh?”
“Hey,” said Soldier. “You busy?” Pyro shook his head. “Nurrh. Wurrnuh curm urp?”
“No,” said Soldier. “I was hoping you’d come down.”
“Urn durr whurrt?” Pyro asked. Soldier crossed his arms and looked to the ground. He hadn’t actually had any plans, he just wanted to have Pyro as company and not be up in that crammed attic with all the junk Pyro had gotten back from New York. An entire truckload of useless crap, many of it hats, had been dropped off at the house that morning, and Pyro somehow managed to squirrel most of it away up there. Not to mention there was also that god-awful music that Pyro liked to play, the stuff that he could hear quite clearly now. “Never mind,” said Soldier. “What is that crap you’re listening to?”
“Currpturn Burrfhurt,” said Pyro. “Urn urrsh nurrt crrrurp. Ursh brurrlint!”
“Says you,” said Soldier. “Enjoy your Crumpet Beefcake, I guess. I’ll be fine.”
“Yurr shurrr?” Pyro asked, tilting his head. “I said I’m fine,” said Soldier. “Go back to… doing whatever you do up there, I guess.” Pyro watched Soldier go into the guest room and lock the door behind him. Pyro scratched at his woolen cap, and then gave a shrug to no one in particular. He closed the hatch, and retreated back to his books and his hats and his records, perfectly content in his own little bubble.
“Feck ‘er, ye know? She wos a cunt anyway.” Demoman gave Sniper a pat on the back, as Sniper hung his head and draped a hand over the nape of his neck. His other hand gripped the now-empty Red Shed bottle. Demoman carefully plucked the bottle from Sniper’s hand, and gestured to the bar tender for another. Another bottle was placed by Sniper on the bar, and Sniper lifted his head long enough to take a long swig. He slammed the bottle back down on the bar, and shook his head. “Y’alright, lad?” Demoman asked. “Not really,” Sniper muttered. “Well, then, ye do wot I do, an’ ye drink until ye are.” Demoman finished off his own bottle, and barked out a delayed laugh at his own wit. He looked back at Sniper with a pitiful looking frown. “Cripes, lad, yer face kinnae afford tae git any longer. Ye’ll turn inta a bloody horse!”
“Not now, mate,” said Sniper. “I’m not in th’ mood.” Demoman’s grin faded, until his face was now matching Sniper’s in its gloominess. He looked to his own bottle, and put it too his lips only to realize he’d finished it. The bar tender had already popped him open another one and placed it in front of him, and Demoman drank deeply from it. “I’m so sorry, lad,” he said. “It’s no’ fair. I wish I could do somethin’ for ye…”
“Ya don’t have to,” said Sniper. “It’s not like it’s yer fault or anythin’.” Demoman nodded. “Aye… aye. I jes’ hate t’ see ye like this. Ye dinnae deserve it.”
“Thanks,” Sniper mumbled. “I mean it,” he said. “That’s why I’m sayin’ ye should drink now, ‘ave a good time, an’ ye’ll feel better.”
“I doubt that,” said Sniper. He took a drink anyway. “Stop bein’ so feckin’ morose already,” Demoman said, pounding his drink on the bar for emphasis and sending a splash of beer out the spout and onto the bar. “It’s bloody depressin’. An’ if you’re gettin’ depressed then it could rub off on me an’ I’m in no mood fer bein’ depressed, ye hear?”
“Then maybe you should leave me alone,” Sniper muttered. “I’m not feelin’ much fun t’ be around.”
“Th’ hell I am!” Demoman said. “I’m not leavin’ me mate on ‘is own stewin’ in ‘is own misery! Ye never did tha’ tae me, an’ I sure as hell wouldn’t do tha’ tae you.” He clasped a hand on Sniper’s shoulder. “Ye dinnae leave me on me own when me dear, sweet mother died…”
“S’true!” said Demo, now leaning against Sniper. “I wos at th’ end a’ me bloody rope, an’ who wos there at th’ other end, pullin’ me outta th’ pit a’ me own despair? It wos you! Me best mate in th’ whole, dark, cruel world.” His voice was choked with sobs, and he wiped at his face with his sleeve. “Ye’ve had too many bad hands dealt t’ ye, lad. How kin ye expect me tae jes’ leave ye like this when ye’ve been there fer me?” Sniper wanted to say that it was because he didn’t deal with being sad the same way Demoman did, that he’d only come along after he’d told Demoman what had happened because he’d insisted on it, and if he had his way he would be just be in his van, alone, not causing Demoman all this distress. But saying that now would only make things worse. Instead, he took another drink and clasped a hand on Demoman’s shoulder. “S’alright, mate,” he said. “Thanks. Fer everythin’.” Demoman gave a weak, twitchy smile and then fell into Sniper’s chest, weeping. Sniper looked around the bar at the other patrons, some of whom were regarding the two of them with a mix of curiosity and slight revulsion. Sniper reached around and gave Demoman an awkward pat on the back. “Ah’m so sorreh this ‘appened tae ye, Mundy,” Demoman slurred into Sniper’s shirt. “Ye dinnae deserve it, ye dinnae deserve it…”
“Stop cryin’ over me, ya bastard, everyone’s givin’ us weird looks,” Sniper said in a low voice. “Feck ‘em!” Demoman waved his arm around, reeling back away from Sniper. “Feck ‘em tae hell. Ah’m no’ hear tae make friends, ah’m here tae get feckin’ shitfaced! Now, c’mon, drink up, wouldja?” Sniper knocked back the rest of his drink that’d he’d been mulling over, and Demoman bought him another. And after that, another. By this time he was feeling pretty buzzed, and Demoman had demolished twice as many as Sniper had. By now Demoman had staggered off the bar stool and was tottering to the bathroom, babbling to himself and leaving Sniper alone at the bar. Sniper, now with nobody to yak his ear off to distract him, reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his wallet. He opened it, and looked to the photograph he had of him and River. A slip of paper fell from his wallet onto the bar. He picked it up between his forefinger and thumb, and stared at it. It was a phone number, and above it was a hastily written name: Angela. “Ah.” Sniper remembered the significance of this little tiny slip of paper. The girl at that party, the one that he’d danced with and got drunk with and fucked… he wondered if he should have told Samantha just to make her angry. Probably not a good idea, really, she’d been angry enough. He stared at the strip of paper, almost as though he were attempting to look through it through the sheer force of his own will. Was he actually contemplating calling her? That’d be ridiculous. She lived in New York. He was on the other side of the country. And even then, it’d just been a brief hook-up. She might not have even remembered it. Why would she? But the alcohol in his system was goading him to calling her. What was the worst that could happen? She’d hang up on him, he supposed. He couldn’t say he’d much blame her if she did. Still, maybe it’d be a good idea to… follow up, maybe. At least make sure she hadn’t gotten pregnant or anything. It’d only been a little over a week, but given the downturn his life had taken recently it would figure. He held the slip of paper and made his way to a more secluded part of the bar, where a payphone was mounted on the wall. Beside it were the numbers of a few cab services, and a hand-written note politely asking patrons not to make calls to any exes lest they wish to make an ass of themselves. Sniper fished through his pocket for change, picked up the receiver and put in the change. Yes, he would accept the charges for a long-distance call. Fuck it. The phone rang once. Twice. By the third time Sniper was seriously reconsidering. This was an awful idea. Why was he subjecting himself to this humiliation? Was he some kind of idiot, or just a glutton for punishment? The phone rang a fourth time, and he was just about ready to give it up when he heard the click of the phone being picked up. “Hello?” The voice was female, and fairly young sounding. He couldn’t remember her voice as well as he wanted to, but it sounded enough like her. Sniper froze for a moment. Oh Jesus, she actually answered. “Uh, hello,” he managed to say. “Is… is this Angela?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s Bruce,” said Sniper. “I don’t know if you remember me at all, but, uh, we met at that party ‘bout a week back.” He reached a hand for the hat he normally would have been wearing to tilt over his brow, but felt only the top of his head. “Oh!” The tone of the voice on the opposite end completely changed. “Oh, yeah, I remember you. I remember you well, Bruce.” She’d adopted a more personal and somewhat sensual tone. “How are you doin’?”
“I s’pose I could be worse,” Sniper mumbled. He struggled to think of something else to say. “So… how are you?” She laughed. “I’m good, I’m good… but I don’t think you’re callin’ just to ask me how I’m doin’, right?”
“Well,” said Sniper. “I mean, I thought… I guess I wanted t’ make sure ya weren’t… y’know…”
“I wasn’t what?” Sniper hunched over, and mumbled into the receiver. “… Pregnant, or anythin’…” Sniper recoiled at the sound of high-pitched, loud laughter on the other end of the phone, pulling the phone away from his ear. “Oh, no, no, no, honey, no,” she said, giggling. “You don’t gotta worry about that. I’m on the pill.” Breathing a sigh of relief, all the tension in Sniper’s body melted away. “That’s… that’s good…” he said. “That’s wonderful, ‘cos th’ last thing I need right now is t’ worry about anythin’ like that.”
“Is that all you wanted?” she asked. “You didn’t just call me up just t’ make sure you didn’t knock me up, did you?” Sniper just winced. “Well, uh…” he bowed his head again. “… I might be just a little bit drunk.”
“Oh no.” Angela laughed a bit. “You sound like you’re in a bar or somethin’. Where are you? Maybe we could meet up again?”
“Uh… yeah, I’m in a bar,” Sniper bowed his head. “… in New Mexico.”
“What th’ heck are you doin’ in New Mexico?”
“I live down ‘ere,” said Sniper. “I mean… well, I guess I still do. Kinda livin’ outta me van at th’ moment.”
“That’s rough,” she said. “You got a job at least?”
“Haven’t needed one in years,” said Sniper. “Got enough money saved up t’ last me th’ rest a’ me life.”
“Well, aren’t you lucky,” she said. “What’d you do?”
“Private contracting work,” said Sniper, trying not to make it sound too much like he was delicately picking his words, and failing. “Wot about you?”
“Oh,” she sighed. “I work as a waitress, but I’m tryin’ to become an actress. I’ve done some stuff in the theater, just bit parts, but what I really wanna do is film, you know?”
“Really?” Sniper smirked. “You know, buddy a’ mine works in film, done pyrotechnic stuff in some movies. ‘E blows stuff up an’ ‘e loves it.”
“Might I have seen any of these movies he’s worked on?”
“I dunno,” Sniper said. “Ya ever see Kung Fu Sisters of Cell Block E?”
“What?” Angela gave a confused laugh. “It’s a pretty good picture,” said Sniper. “Me mate Tavish rigged th’ explosion at th’ end, where th’ whole women’s prison gets blown up.” She laughed again. “That sounds ridiculous.”
“Well, I s’pose a lot of movies are, when ya sit an’ think about ‘em,” said Sniper. “But I mean, ya know… if yer ever wantin’ some help getting’ inta th’ business… I got connections.”
“I’ll think about followin’ you up on that, sugar,” she said. “Shame you’re all the way over in New Mexico, though.”
“I don’t hafta stay that way,” said Sniper before he had a chance to realize what he was saying. “Well, I mean… you know…”
“Mm-hmmm…” There was a sound from the men’s restroom, an agonized, drunken wail that Sniper could hear all the way from the other side of the bar. “I gotta go,” he said. “I’m sorry, it’s me mate.”
“All right,” she said. “But if you’re ever in New York again, an’ you stop by the Bronx…”
“Oh… of course!” Sniper gave a soft little laugh. “Sure, sure… sorry about callin’ you up like this… g’bye.”
“Bye,” she said, and Sniper hung up the phone. He stumbled his way around other patrons to the restroom, and opened the door, freezing in his tracks at the scene laid out before him. Demoman was crying into a urinal coated with his own vomit. He would have been completely horizontal on the ground had his head not been propped up by the bowl, and thick, chunky spew dribbled past his head and onto the tile below. He was blubbering to himself in indecipherable half-words, hot tears drooling from his one good eye and sick still covering his lip and chin. Sniper heaved a sigh and approached Demoman. “C’mon, mate,” he said, trying to lift up Demoman from under his armpits. “Let’s get ya cleaned up.”
“No, no,” Demoman groaned. “Leave me. Leave me ‘ere tae die wallowin’ in me own misery.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Said Sniper. “Wot d’you got t’ be sad about? I’m th’ one whose girlfriend took me kid away, remember?” Demoman gave another long, agonized bellow, and slipped from Sniper’s grip, his head hitting the floor tile. He curled up in a fetal position, and gave a high-pitched howl as he clutched his head. “Stop it,” said Sniper. “Yer makin’ a fool of yourself.”
“Ah donnae care!” Demoman warbled. “Serves me right, ‘m an awful friend.”
“Ah betrayed me ole’ bestie fer a bunch a’ bloodeh weapons!” Demoman said, looking up at Sniper pitifully. “Oh Jesus, don’t git inta this again…” Sniper dragged a hand down the side of his face. “S’true!” said Demoman. “Ah kinnae even look a’ Soldier anymore without rememberin’. Ah feel like ah jes’ been usin’ you tae fergit ever’thin’… ah’m horrible.” Sniper rolled his eyes and sighed as Demoman covered his face with his hands and wept. He stooped down so that he was now crouching beside Demoman, and gave him a gentle pat on the back. Demoman let out a high-pitched whine, but otherwise made no objection to it. “Yer not horrible, yer jus’ drunk,” said Sniper. “An’ yer havin’ one a yer moods again.”
“Ah deserve it,” said Demoman. “Ah deserve tae be miserable, ah deserve tae hate meself…”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Sniper. “Th’ whole thing with BLU Soldier wasn’t yer fault.”
“Ye always say that.” Demoman gave a wet sniff, pulling back a wad of snot from oozing from his nostrils. “An’ it hasn’t stopped bein’ true,” said Sniper. “Yer me best mate, after all.”
“Why’d ye wanna goan’ be best mates wi’ a lush like me?” Demoman asked. “‘Cos I always liked ya,” said Sniper. “You’ve done a lot fer me, ya been good t’ me, yer fun t’ be around… seems like a pretty good basis fer friendship t’ me.” Demoman stopped crying, and just stared across the floor, his head lying on its side against the tiles. “We should get you cleaned up,” said Sniper. “Call a cab an’ get ya back to th’ house. How’s that sound?”
“Ilse’s gonna be disappointed in me again,” Demoman lamented. “She always is… ah dunnae why she e’en puts up wi’ me.”
“‘Cos she loves ya, ya stupid git,” said Sniper. “People will put up with a lot fer someone they love.” He tried to lift Demoman up by tugging on his arm, but Demoman still put up all the resistance of a sack of wet cement. “Do ye love me?”
“Wot?” Sniper’s eyebrows arched in confusion. “I dinnae mean like how Ilse loves me…” Demoman said. “Ah mean, like a best friend, ye know? Like a brother. Ye love me, right?” He looked up to Sniper with one dewy eye, looking as pathetic as a saddened puppy… a saddened puppy with one eye and vomit all down his front. “Sure,” said Sniper. “Sure I do mate.”
“Say it, then,” said Demoman. “Say wot?”
“Say ye love me.”
“Tav…” Sniper groaned. “I jus’ bloody did, ya bastard.”
“Nah…” Demoman shook his head. “Say th’ words.” Sniper rolled his eyes. “I love ya, Tavish.” Demoman sniffled back a wad of mucus and wiped at his eye. “Thanks, laddie.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Sniper pulled Demoman to his feet and lead him toward the sink. “Let’s get ya cleaned up then, eh?”
“Sure…” Demoman tottered and wobbled, until he leaned onto Sniper, almost pushing him into the wall. By the time they actually made it to the sink, Demoman had passed out, drooling into Sniper’s shirt. Sniper washed the puke off of Demoman’s own shirt and his face, and with Demoman’s arm draped over his shoulder, lugged him from the bar bathroom and asked the bartender to call them a cab. Demoman remained unconscious during the entire cab ride home, head leaning on Sniper’s shoulder and mouth hanging open like a booze-baited flytrap.
Engineer fussed with his bowtie in front of the full-length mirror. It felt strange dressing up in these clothes again; he hadn’t actually worn this tweed jacket or this vest since he’d worked at the university. They didn’t fit quite like they used to, as his waistline had gotten bigger since then. He sucked in his gut as he looked at himself from the side, puffing out his chest. He couldn’t hold it, however, and his stomach ballooned outward again, pushing against his belt. He frowned. This was as good as it was going to get. He stepped out of his bedroom, and past the living room, where Soldier was sitting, intently focused on watching an ad about chewing gum. “Hey, Jane.” Soldier looked up, caught by surprise, and looked Engineer up and down. “Why the hell are you dressed like a goddamned English professor?”
“I’m seeing Spy in about five minutes about a new job at RED,” said Engineer. “An’ I’m not dressed like an English professor.”
“Bullshit,” said Soldier. “You’re a pair of elbow patches away from lecturing a bunch of stoned college hippies on Ulysses.”
“Yeah, well, I was never an English professor, thank you very much,” Engineer smoothed out a wrinkle on his slacks. “An’ what would you even know about Ulysses?”
“Only that it’s a waste of goddamned time and only poindexters who think they’re smart like it enough to give it the time of day,” asserted Soldier. “I tried reading it once. It was boring crap.”
“Well, you never struck me as somebody who had much of an appreciation for literature,” said Engineer. “Anyway, I’m not sure how long I’m gonna be gone… Rosie should be on her way home soon, so jus’ keep an eye on Pyro until she gets back.”
“Yeah, sure.” Soldier fell back against the couch cushions, his attention turned back to the television. There was a knock at the front door. “I’m comin’!” Engineer announced, and walked into the kitchen to the front door, opening it to find Spy standing there. “Wow,” said Engineer. “You actually knocked.”
“I can hardly believe it myself,” said Spy. His eyes wandered to Engineer’s outfit. “Who on earzh dressed you?” Engineer’s brow furrowed. “Whaddya mean, ‘who dressed me?’ I dressed myself!”
“Oh, I can tell,” Spy shook his head. “Goodness, who told you zat you could get away wizh wearing a bowtie?”
“I like bowties,” said Engineer, his voice faltering. “Honestly, I was afraid you’d go and dress yourself like some kind of country bumpkin,” said Spy. “Zhis might actually be worse.”
“I like it,” Engineer mumbled, bowing his head. “Whatever,” Spy waved it off. “I’m sure you’ll probably blend in wiz ze ozzers in R&D. Now, come.” He turned, and Engineer followed him down the porch and into the front yard. “There’s somethin’ I’ve been meanin’ t’ ask you, Spah,” said Engineer as Spy scanned the road running by the property. “Oh?” ask Spy. He turned his head slightly and looked to Engineer out of the corner of his eye. “I highly suspect that you’ve been usin’ teleporter technology,” said Engineer, sidling up along Spy, “haven’t you?”
“How observant of you,” said Spy. “That’s what I thought,” said Engineer. “But my main question is, since yer not usin’ th’ old teleporters we used t’ use… how are you usin’ it, then?” Spy looked down to his watch, and fiddled with it. “Hold onto me, would you, Laborer?”
“I beg yer pardon?”
“You wouldn’t want to be left behind, would you?” asked Spy. “Hold onto me now.” Engineer shuffled closer to Spy, and awkwardly gripped Spy’s arm. He was taken by surprise when Spy pulled him in closer, so that they were standing chest-to-chest. Spy pressed one last button on his watch, and suddenly the air around them wavered, and a bright orange and yellow light emitted from the face of the watch, glowing so brightly it blinded Engineer. When he opened his eyes again, he blinked, finding himself no longer in his front yard but in a large, brightly lit facility, crawling with men in white coats carrying clipboards, as well as men wearing uniforms similar to Engineer’s old one. There were large computers the size of buses towering over these people, as well as smaller ones at desks that were in rows. The facility itself was lit up by large, glass windows that arched along the ceiling, and the sunlight fell upon a hulking heap of metal at the far end of the room, dangling from supports as its many wires snaked their way to the computer towers. “Monsieur Conagher,” said Spy, clasping a hand onto Engineer’s shoulder. “Welcome to the new Reliable Excavation and Demolition.”
“This is incredible,” said Engineer, having thoroughly examined the cockpit of the vehicle. It was a strange, exotic thing, looking like a half-finished mechanical stork perched upon twin legs. “How does she handle?” Spy relayed Engineer’s question to the man behind him, a young Japanese man about Engineer’s height who was brimming with a nervous, self-conscious energy. Engineer tried to pick up any possible hints that he could from the man’s inflection and tone, but could read into nothing. “Zhere are still bugs to work out,” said Spy. “We were hoping you might look into it yourself. We have word zat BLU is developing similar technology and we wish to beat zem at zheir own game.”
“BLU?” Engineer asked. “I thought RED wasn’t fightin’ with them no more… not after…”
“Ze robot war, yes, don’t remind me,” Spy rolled his eyes. “No, technically, zhere’s no armed conflict between RED and BLU… not anymore. But zat doesn’t mean zat zhere has not been any competition.” He leaned against the machine Engineer was sitting inside, propping an elbow on the open cockpit. “We’re in an arms race, Engineer. Rumor has it zat BLU is developing somezing big, somezing zat could turn ze tides in zis Cold War. We want to ensure zat whatever technology zhey’re developing doesn’t find its way to ze Russians… or at least, not unless we’re sure zat ze West has its own, more superior version.”
“How do you know that they’re workin’ for th’ Russians?” Engineer asked, his voice tinged with caution. “We don’t,” said Spy with a shrug. “But zey could be. Prolonging ze conflict between ze U.S. and ze USSR would be in ze company’s best interest.”
“Wouldn’t it also be in RED’s best interest?” Engineer asked. “I mean, they’re developin’ th’ same kinds a’ technology…”
“RED is countering BLU’s efforts,” Spy said in a clipped voice. “Rumor has it zat BLU was taken over by someone who is… a bit unstable; someone whose ambition blinds him to all else.” He stared at Engineer, making the shorter man squirm in his seat. “I see,” Engineer nodded. “Any idea who this fella is?”
“We’re not sure yet,” said Spy. “But even if we were, we would not be authorized to tell you. No offense, but zat would not be in your department.”
“Uh-huh.” Engineer scratched his chin and looked over the controls for the vehicle. “Well, uh, say there, you don’t think it’d be at all possible t’ see a demonstration for how this thing works, could I?” Spy turned to the mechanical engineer behind him, and translated Engineer’s question. The young man smiled, and shook his head bashfully. “It’s not ready for zhat quite yet, apparently,” said Spy. The man spoke up again, and Spy listened and nodded. “Ze team was hoping zat you might be able to offer some input once you decide to accept my offer.”
“Well,” Engineer stood up, and crouched under the open hood of the cockpit as he stepped out onto the elevated platform, “I think I’ve just about made up my mind. Between this an’ th’ strides these fellas have made in teleportation technology an’ those reworked robots… gosh, it’s all so exciting, I’d be a fool not to accept!” With a sly smirk, Spy presented Engineer with his hand, and Engineer shook it heartily. The engineer standing behind them broke out in an elated grin, shaking with excitement. Engineer turned to him, and offered his hand. “Guess we’ll be workin’ together from now on, huh, Mister Saito?” Excited and flustered, Saito gave a bow at first, and Engineer, realizing his presumptuousness, bowed as well, but bumped his head against the other mans, and they both reeled backwards, clutching their sore foreheads. Saito flushed with embarrassment, and Engineer found himself laughing. “Oh geez… sorry about that, fella…”
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, this time in heavily accented English. He bowed again. “So sorry…”
“Naw, naw… you don’t gotta… that’s all right…” Engineer looked to Spy. “Tell him it’s fine, wouldja?” Spy cleared his throat, and spoke to Mr. Saito, who responded with some visible relief. Mr. Saito then stiffly offered a hand to Engineer, and shook it, and they both gave each other slight bows. Spy gave a frustrated sigh. “If you’re just about finished, we should move somewhere more private to discuss your contract…”
“Oh right, of course,” said Engineer. He turned back to Saito. “It was… nice meeting you,” he said, trying to keep his language simple. “Good bye, sir.”
“Good bye, Conaguru-san,” Saito said, waving as Spy lead Engineer down the metal stairs. “Boy, he seems like a nice fella,” said Engineer. “Are most a’ th’ fellas I’m gonna be workin’ with Japanese? I’ve noticed that there seem to be quite a few of ‘em around here…”
“A good number are Japanese, yes,” said Spy. “Japan’s economy is booming and ze have made great technological strides in recent years, and RED is interested in hiring ze best scientists and engineers in ze world. It is of little surprise zat we’ve added many Japanese employees to our little crew.”
“I suppose not,” said Engineer. “I mean, I was just askin’, just ‘cause of th’ obvious language barrier an’ all…”
“Of course,” said Spy. “Well, I assure you zat you will be working wiz plenty of people who speak fluent English and would be happy to work as go-betweens and ozzer employees. It’s not just Japanese we have here… zhere are Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Canadians, Turks, Australians… we even have a few Israelis.” Spy stopped in front of a rather plain looking door, and opened it for Engineer. “But many of ze people in your division, we brought in from Japan.”
“That right?” Engineer asked. “He sure seemed excited t’ talk t’ me, though, dinnit he?”
“You may be disgraced in ze world outside of RED, Mr. Conagher, but you are well-respected here,” said Spy. “You never did get ze credit you deserved for pioneering teleportation technology, but here, you will finally have ze reverence you so greatly deserve.”
“Well, don’t that beat all?” Engineer could help but smile and blush a bit at the thought. Engineer stepped inside the room, which was mostly bare. There was a projector towards the back of the room, a few chairs, and a screen on the opposite end that was pulled down. There was also a filing cabinet sitting up against the wall, and Spy opened one of the drawers and pulled out a rather hefty stack of papers. Engineer sat down in one of the chairs and dumped the papers onto Engineer’s lap. “Zis is your contract,” said Spy. “Just sign off on all ze dotted lines, please.”
“Uh…” Engineer flipped through the contract, brow knitted in concern. “Should… should I have a lawyer present here, or…?”
“It’s all fairly standard,” said Spy. “I myself am under similar contract, and it’s not terribly different from ze one you signed when you first signed up for RED.” Engineer sighed. “Well, all right…” he said, shaking his head. “You got a pen?” Spy plucked a fountain pen from his front pocket, and presented it to Engineer. “Thanks,” said Engineer, and he took the pen from Spy’s fingers and went to work at signing every couple of pages, making sure to quickly scan over them for any language that might stand out. With each signature his handwriting became a little bit sloppier, until he scrawled out the last John Hancock and handed the stack back to Spy. Spy took the stack from Engineer’s hand and flipped through, giving a satisfied nod. “Very good,” said Spy. “Allow me to officially welcome you back to RED wiz zis introductory film.”
“Film?” Engineer’s body twisted around as Spy walked over to the light switch. The room went dark, and Spy turned on the film projector, which whirred to life. The film blinked and beeped through its countdown, and Spy took a seat beside Engineer. On the screen, the image of Saxton Hale graced the screen. He was standing in a brightly-lit office, surrounded by an assortment of hunting trophies. He’d changed since the 1960’s… his old trademark outfit of cut-off shorts, hiking boots and crocodile tooth-lined slouch hat were traded out for something far more incongruous. He was wearing a polyester suit jacket with ripped-off sleeves, and the suit pants were cut off into shorts. He would have been wearing a turtleneck sweater underneath his jacket, but the sweater was missing save for the fabric that went around Saxton’s neck like some absurd collar. He was still as ripped as he ever was, and the hair on his chest still took on the shape of his native Australia, but now he wore sideburns along his rugged face, and his mustache was bushier than ever. He grinned at the viewer, and began.
“G’day, mates!” he started, “An’ welcome to th’ new Reliable Excavation an’ Demolition, now a subsidy a’ Mann Co. since 1969! That’s roight, Mann Co.: we make products an’ get in foights!” Saxton gave a wide grin and winked at the camera, and Engineer cast a sideward glance towards Spy, who had absolutely no reaction at all. “Roight. Bidwell!” Saxton turned his head and looked off camera. “Which introduction video is this?” There was some muffled speech off camera, and Saxton’s face lit up in realization. “Th’ Research an’ Development division? Those overpaid eggheads?” More muffled speech off screen. “Roight! Okay! We’re going to edit this out later, yeah? Brilliant!” There was an awkward cut, and now Saxton Hale was facing the viewer again. “Welcome t’ RED’s Research an’ Development division, where RED an’ Mann Co. ah paving th’ way for new technologies an’ wotever you science-y types are into. Not like I’d know! I’m fah too busy swimming down th’ piranha-infested waters a’ th’ Amazon River an’ bravin’ the treacherous candiru nippin’ at me urethra! An’ let me tell you, there ain’t anythin’ quite as painful as havin’ a bloodsuckin’ fish removed from th’ ole’ Jarate chute.” Engineer winced at the thought. Spy just rolled his eyes. “But enough about me own darin’ an’ dangerous exploits, let’s take a look at RED’s Research an’ Development facility, where you’ll be hahd at work buildin’ me a giant-” there was a hasty cut “-makin’ new technologies fer th’ betterment of mankind!” There was a scene transition involving RED’s logo, and now Saxton Hale was inside the same facility Engineer now found himself, as engineers and scientists made themselves look busy. “Now this right ‘ere is where th’ magic happens! Or should I say, where th’ science happens! ‘Cos it’s not like RED has a secret underground magic division or anythin’!” He gave an unconvincing laugh, and then looked off camera. “Bidwell, can we cut tha-” There was yet another odd cut, and Saxton continued over some footage of scientists and engineers at work on various machines and devices. “After multiple lawsuits over the past few years, RED is now required by law to offer our Research an’ Development teams th’ finest in safety equipment an’ health care, so that you can be a more happy, more productive, an’ less crushed-under-th’-weight-of-a-50-ton-piece-a’-machinery.” He threw back his head and laughed for an uncomfortably long period of time, and then cleared his throat and resumed his pitch. “RED has employed th’ finest thinkers an’ innovators from all over th’ globe, workin’ together t’ build an’ develop new technology an’ products t’ usher in a new decade… or make bank. That too. I mean, I’m not gonna lie to ya, things ain’t been th’ same since th’ 60’s, wot with all these new rules an’ regulations an’ this Environmental Protection Agency. But, you know how it is. Ya just gotta keep… keep pushing forward, even if ya have ta put up with a bunch a’ whiny hippies you woulda previous beaten th’ livin’ daylights out of jus’ a few years ago…” Saxton’s smile started to waver and there was a twitch in his eye, but he was still trying to maintain his winning, pearly-white grin. With another quick cut, the camera hovered in front of a solid oak door, and muffled crying could be heard. A hand slipped into frame, and pushed the door open slightly, catching a glimpse of a shirtless, disheveled Hale at a desk, weeping like a child and nursing a bottle of whiskey. “Oh, I’m a sham!” he cried out, pounding the desk so hard that it splintered under his fist. “I can’t do this! Not on me own!” He threw back his head and moaned. “Oh… HELEN! HELEN, WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME? WHERE DID YOU G-”
The film stopped abruptly, and Engineer turned his head to see Spy has switched off the projector.
“Zat was not ze reel you were supposed to see,” said Spy. “I… uh… I had a feelin’,” said Engineer. “Why didn’t you switch it out earlier?”
“To make a point,” said Spy, rolling the film back. “What Monsieur Hale said is true; RED has not been nearly as successful as it was during ze Gravel Wars. We are still making profit, perhaps despite zat drunken buffoon zat is acting as Company President, but unless we can keep up wiz BLU’s soaring profits, we are useless.”
“I see,” Engineer said quietly. “So you’ve been buggin’ me t’ join for… what? Yer bottom line?”
“I admit zat is partially it,” said Spy, leaning over Engineer, “you and many of ze scientists we’ve hired have been hand-picked by myself and a small group of ozzers. But zis isn’t just about our profit margin, Engineer. If our projections are correct, ze fate of Western civilization as we know it could be in jeopardy.” He looked down at Engineer, who was still seated, and his gaze pinned him down like an insect under glass. Engineer hunched his shoulders and nodded. “A-all righty then,” he said. “I understand.”
“Excellent!” said Spy, the intensity that had been etched on his face now gone in an instant. “Now, let’s discuss your hours, shall we?” Engineer got up from his chair and took a deep, resigned breath. “All right,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
By the time Spy’s schedule was empty for the evening, it was midnight on the east coast. He entered in the precise coordinates for his destination on the miraculous, multipurpose gadget on his wrist, and teleported in front of a quiet house in the suburbs. The door would be locked, but Spy knew that there would be a key waiting for him underneath the welcome mat. Perhaps not the best place to avoid it being found by any thief with half a brain, but Spy still appreciated the gesture. He smirked, and unlocked the door as quietly as he could. The house was dark, of course. Everyone else was asleep, and with good reason. Spy shut the door behind him, and crept into the kitchen. Once inside, he turned on the light. It flickered to life, washing the room in a harsh, sanitized glow. Satisfied with this beacon, Spy made his way to the refrigerator and opened it, rummaging through it just loud enough to draw the attention of just one person. “Spy?” Spy turned around, and there she was, standing there in a sheer negligee and curlers in her hair, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “Bonjour, ma petite,” said Spy, keeping his tone casual. “Did I wake you?”
“Ya certainly did,” Scout’s mother huffed, sashaying into the kitchen. She moved past Spy and shut the fridge, and Spy did not object. “Sometimes I wish you’d drop by durin’ th’ day like a normal human bein’.”
“We bozh know why I cannot do zat.” Spy touched her cheek tenderly, brushing back a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “You look tired, my pet.”
“You’d be tired too if you were helpin’ take care a’ toddler an’ a little itty bitty baby all day,” she said. “Jesus, don’t you ever sleep?”
“Sometimes,” said Spy with a sly smile. “But I prefer it wizh you.” He leaned in and kissed her on her lips, a feather-light touch that caused a smile to tug at her lips. “Aw, Spy, stop it,” she said, giving him a gentle push back. “You’re terrible.”
“And you love me anyway.” Spy grinned. “Yeah, I know, there must be somethin’ wrong with me,” she said, trying not to giggle too loudly. “But really, Spy, I do need th’ sleep, an’ my boy would hit th’ roof if he found out you were sneakin’ around his house…”
“Or zat his charming mother put a spare key for me under ze mat?” Spy asked, waggling his eyebrows. “I’m serious,” she said, pressing herself up against him. “We’ve gotten lucky he hasn’t caught you yet, you know how he feels about you…”
“I don’t really know why who his mother sees is any of his business,” said Spy. “It is if it’s in his house an’ he don’t want you around me,” she said. She wrapped his arms around him, and looked up into his eyes. “He’s protective of me. I think it’s kinda cute.”
“Yes,” said Spy. “An Oedipus complex is just so endearing.”
“Oh geez!” Scout’s mother let go of Spy and rolled her eyes as she turned away from him. “You’re disgustin’.”
“And you baby him far too much,” said Spy. “He’s thirty and you still treat him like a child.”
“He’s my youngest an’ you’d baby yer kids too if ya had one in jail, one gone missin’, two on th’ other side a’ the country an’ two buried in th’ ground.” Scout’s mother plucked the strand of hair that Spy had brushed aside and pulled it forward, twirling it in her fingers. “He’s a good boy. I know you two don’t get along th’ greatest, but he’s my son, Spy. I just wish the two a’ you would get along.” Spy bowed his head, and held his hands behind his back as he tried to look somber. “I am sorry, petite.” Scout’s mother sighed. “Fergit it,” she said, turning her back to Spy. “It’s fine. Whatever. I just think it’d be nice if the man I fell in love with could get along with my kid, is all.” A pair of gentle gloved hands rested on her bare shoulders, and a pair of lips grazed past her ear, causing her to shudder slightly. “Ma petite chou-fleur…”
“Spy, please…” she wanted to brush him off, but he pressed his lips to her neck, his hot breath causing her to gasp. Of course he’d play dirty. He always did; he was a spy, after all. Her hand reached up to cup over his on her shoulder, and she leaned her head back as his lips moved upwards, to her jaw, her cheek, and finally her lips. His mouth covered hers, and they stood there in the kitchen with their lips locked in passion, tasting each other, hands exploring one another, completely lost in the heat of each other’s needful bodies. No sooner had Spy’s hands moved to cup her ass than the shrill cry of an infant could be heard coming from upstairs, and a light switched on. The two of them stood frozen in place for a moment, and Scout’s mother let go of Spy. The two of them looked to the stairs, and two sets of footfalls could be heard; one moving towards the nursery, and the other coming towards the stairway. Spy slunk to a hidden corner of the kitchen, pressing a button on his watch and completely vanishing against the wallpaper. Scout’s mother whirled around and opened the refrigerator, pretending to look inside as Scout descended the staircase and shuffled into the kitchen. “Ma, what’re you doin’ up?” he asked with a yawn. “It’s like one in th’ mornin’.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said, pulling out a carton of milk. “I’m fine, don’t you worry about me, sweetie.”
“I thought I heard somethin’ down here…” Scout said, turning his head to scan the rest of the kitchen. “Oh, it was prolly just th’ wind, honey,” his mother said. “Why don’t you get back ta bed. Or help Bunny with th’ baby or somethin’.” Scout didn’t seem convinced. He looked to the corner that Spy was in, and sniffed the air. Spy sucked in his breath and held it. “Sweetie?” Scout’s mother touched her son’s shoulder. “Is somethin’ wrong?”
“Nah, it’s nothin’,” said Scout, shaking his head. “You had a cigarette down here? I can smell smoke.”
“I had one earlier,” she said. “You get back ta bed. You need some rest with th’ baby an’ all.” Scout gave another long yawn. “Yer right,” he said, and idly scratched at his ass. “Your mother’s always right,” she said, and kissed her son on the cheek. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be back t’ bed in a minute.”
“‘Kay, ma,” said Scout, and he went back upstairs. Spy stood perfectly still, listening for the sound of the closing bedroom door before deactivating his cloak. “That was close,” Scout’s mother said softly, with a little bit of a grin. “I should probably take my leave,” said Spy. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you.” Scout’s mother closed in on Spy, pushing herself against him and craning her neck up to kiss him on the lips. “You can disturb me anytime you want, honey.”
“Are you sure you wish to go wiz zat choice of words?” Spy smirked as his hands rested on her waist. “It’s late an’ I’m not exactly Emily Dickinson over heah,” she said. “You get on home. You work too much.” Spy leaned forward to kiss her, and they held each other for a moment before Spy let her go, and stepped back. “Good night, ma cheri, “ Spy said. “I hope to see you again soon.”
“Of course,” Scout’s mother replied. “Hopefully next time it’ll be when I’m back at my own place.” With a wry smile, Spy gave her a nod and looked to his watch. He pressed a few buttons and the watch’s face started to glow so bright that Scout mother had to avert her eyes. The light vanished as quickly as it came, and as Scout’s mother lowered the hand to shield her eyes, she looked to the corner Spy had been standing in to see nothing at all. She placed a hand over her chest and sighed. It was late, after all, and she wasn’t getting any younger. She noticed she almost left the milk carton she’d pulled out to throw off Scout on the counter, and she picked it up and placed it back in the refrigerator. And with that, she turned off the kitchen light and went back to her bed, perhaps to dream of the Frenchman that had so swept her off her feet so many years ago.
[The following are excerpts from the psychiatric notes, journals, and recordings of Dr. Rebecca Marshall. They are presented in chronological order.]
October 2nd, 1976
File: Doe, Jane
Known history: Records from previous doctors state that Doe has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals since 1941 after being rejected from every branch of the military. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia upon discovery that Mr. Doe was experiencing auditory hallucinations and crippling paranoia. Possible history of physical and emotional abuse. In 1943 escaped psychiatric hospital and was not heard from again until 1949 after having been captured in Warsaw, Poland. Claimed to have come to Europe to fight Nazi soldiers despite the fact the war had ended four years prior. Last hospitalization lasted from 4/10/69 to 5/22/71 after physically assaulting his older brother, John Doe Jr. over a verbal altercation concerning their mother’s funeral. Prescribed alarmingly long list of “minor tranquilizers,” including typical anti-psychotics and anxiety medications. Only surviving family is older brother, who until recently had custody of Mr. Doe, but has since signed it over to Delmond Conagher.
First impressions: Jane Doe first arrived at my office on September 29th. He is a white male, 54 years old, 5’9” and about 208 lbs. Muscular build. Prominent jaw, high forehead and very striking, almost startling blue eyes hidden underneath a cap. Body language is rigid, stiff, alert. Voice is gruff, talks with an almost perpetual sneer. Crosses arms a lot, puffs out chest. Defensive, guarded, but also totally unafraid of speaking his mind when he sees fit. Exudes hyper-masculinity as much as possible. Note: Next meeting on the 7th should be productive, given how previous meeting ended. I think I can get through to him despite stubborn, gruff exterior. No suggestions for changes in medication yet.
File: Pyro, ?????
Known history: Mostly unknown. Previously employed with same company as Jane Doe and Delmond Conagher. Lived in New York, NY for period of several years while homeless. First impressions: Pyro arrived at my office on September 29th accompanied by Delmond Conagher. Dresses in multiple layers of clothing so that skin is completely covered. Age, gender, race and ethnicity are all unknown, but likely to be between the ages of 30-50 years old. Height is roughly about 5’7”. Does not object to use of male pronouns (“he,” “him”). Shows signs of severe arrested development, likely caused by early childhood trauma, as well as intricate delusions closely linked to their pyromania. Despite my concerns, Mr. Conagher insists on not having Pyro treated in a hospital or half-way home; I suspect Mr. Doe’s resentment towards his previous doctors may have influenced this decision, but Mr. Conagher has admitted he is protective of Pyro. Given Pyro’s naiveté, I can see why. Note: I need to determine if Pyro is a danger to himself or others. Their tendency to start fires is an obvious concern. I intend to investigate further. October 7th, 1976
[The following are audio transcripts from Dr. Rebecca Marshall’s session recordings with Mr. Jane Doe.]
Dr. Marshall: Okay, there we go.
Mr. Doe: [indistinguishable]
(M)arshall: Did you have anything you wanted to discuss today?
(D)oe: Not really, no.
M: No? Nothing at all?
D: Don’t have much to talk about.
M: Well, we have an hour. How have you been adjusting to living with Dell?
D: Fine, I guess.
M: … You sound like something’s bothering you. Would you like to talk about it?
D: It’s nothing.
M: You know you’re allowed to speak freely here. Nothing you say will leave this room.
D: Well… it’s how he treats his daughter.
M: This is the first time I’ve heard of him having a daughter. Does he not treat her well?
D: He spoils her! She just walks all over him like a goddamned doormat! It’s disgraceful!
M: And this bothers you?
D: Of course it does! She lacks discipline! She talks back to her father! You know last week she had a bunch of boys come over to the house?
M: Did she?
D: Yeah. They were all in the kitchen, this group of snot-nosed, long-haired, pencil-neck twerps that were her “friends.” And they were playing this game… I heard it was some kind of Satanist game, but quite frankly it looked too stupid to be Satanist.
M: What game was this?
D: Dragons and Dungeons or something.
M: I see. Were they doing anything particularly objectionable?
D: Well… no, they couldn’t. Engie sat in the living room where he could see them, just listening in. Apparently that’s the deal he’s struck up with his daughter; their little games are always at his house and he has to be close by so that he can listen in on what’s going on. Any funny business and he kicks them out.
M: That seems reasonable enough.
D: Yeah… “reasonable.”
M: You disagree?
D: I wouldn’t let my kid play a stupid game like that. It’s weird. The kids she plays this game with are weird. Engie should be having her do something useful. She’s going to make an awful wife.
M: What makes you say that?
D: She’s not obedient. She reads and she paints pictures of dragons and I’ve never seen her wear a skirt or try to look pretty. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her once clean the house without being asked. She rarely ever cooks. Pyro’s been doing that but two nights ago he started a small fire and we’ve been eating take-out. It’s ridiculous! [Long pause]
D: Why are you looking at me like that?
M: I’m sorry, it’s just that you have some very… traditional views on gender roles.
D: You’re not one of those “liberated women,” are you?
M: And what if I was?
D: You look like one. Are you married?
M: I don’t think that’s relevant to this discussion.
D: That sounds like a “no” to me. No ring on your finger, either.
M: That’s pretty observant of you.
D: Thank you. [Pause] So, were you ever married?
M: [Frustrated sigh] I was.
M: Divorced. I don’t care to talk about it. I think we should shift gears here…
D: To what?
M: Last time you mentioned you didn’t get along at all with your older brother. Would you like to talk about him?
D: I don’t see why. I’m never going to see that bastard again.
M: Well, you sounded as though you had a lot of resentment towards him. Perhaps discussing those feelings and your experiences with him might help you feel some closure.
D: I already got closure after Engie beat the snot out of him.
M: You had mentioned that before, yes. [Pause]
D: You know, I think Johnny must have found that teleporter. Engie already told you about when Pyro started that fire in the backyard.
D: Well, Pyro had convinced me to get some kerosene from the garage… and while I was in there I noticed the tires on his truck were shredded and he was in the middle of sanding his work desk. Engie keeps the teleporters in his garage, and he gave me one to put in my apartment to see him whenever. I think Johnny found it and slashed his truck tires. Probably carved something threatening onto Engie’s desk. Whatever he wrote, it sure as hell pissed Engie off. I’d never seen him so furious.
M: Is he known for having a bad temper?
D: Not to anybody on his team, no. If he likes you, he’s the nicest son of a bitch you could ever meet, and he’d do just about anything for you with a big, shit-eating grin on his face. But if you piss him off he can get mean. He punched me in the face a few weeks ago because I’d touched a nerve about his late wife.
M: Is that so?
D: Yeah. I was trying to see if I could get a rise out of him. He can be too goddamned complacent. I think I went too far.
M: I suppose you must have. He struck you.
D: Yeah. I wanted him to.
D: Haven’t gotten in a fight in years. Felt good to get punched again.
M: You enjoy getting hurt?
D: I enjoy war. There’s no feeling in the goddamned world that can compare to the rush you get on the battlefield. I live for it!
M: I see.
D: But when you’re not in war, it’s different… you have to compromise. You have to think about feelings and whatnot. I tried to get the rest of the old team angry enough at their own faults to change their ways, and when I told Engie to get over his wife’s death seven years after the fact, he socked me right in the jaw, right in front of everybody.
M: I can see why that would upset him.
D: Yeah, he explained that to me afterwards. I had to apologize for upsetting everybody else. As mad as he was then, it wasn’t anywhere near as mad as he’d gotten with Johnny.
M: He beat him up, then?
D: Well, me, Heavy and Engie did, but Engie was the angriest. He doesn’t swear a whole lot either, usually, but he was swearing like hell then. I mean, for him, anyway.
M: I can imagine this threat rattled him pretty badly.
D: Bad enough to break the son of a bitch’s jaw. He was just about ready to kill him before I stopped him, and then all the fight just kind of… went out of him. I almost wanted to let him go ahead, but then Johnny wouldn’t have known how it feels to be completely beaten. I’d never seen him like that before, it was… [Long pause]
D: … It was so strange.
M: You’ve indicated before that your brother was a very controlling, domineering sort of person.
D: Hell yes, he was.
M: Was he always like that?
D: Far as I’ve known him. And I’ve known him my entire life.
M: That is the case in many families, yes.
D: But anyway, I said I didn’t want to talk about him.
M: Are you sure? You are free to express any of your concerns here in confidence…
D: I know that. I’m not stupid. I just don’t want to.
M: All right. So long as you’re comfortable. What did you want to talk about, then?
D: Well… there is something that’s been bothering me lately.
M: And what is that?
D: [pause] You see, there’s this goddamned coyote on Engie’s property-
[Transcript ends here as the rest of the session became a long-winded tirade/conspiracy theory concerning a wild animal.]
Notes: Keeping Mr. Doe on topic is difficult. When given a place to speak freely, he seems far more comfortable lining out his elaborate hallucinations and delusions than he does commenting on actual events. There is no doubt that John Doe Jr. is the source of much emotional trauma for Mr. Doe, but goading him into discussing his brother in more detail seems to be an uphill battle. This being our first hour-long session, however, I am confident that this can be turned around.
[File on Pyro, October 7th, 1976]
Note: Though Pyro’s gender is unknown, for now I will use he/his/him, for simplicity’s sake. Much like last time, very little of Pyro’s session was spent talking; instead, the patient was encouraged to express himself through art. A few new things could be gleaned from this meeting:
-Pyro and Mr. Doe’s team consisted of nine individuals, all of them men and almost all of them proficient with weaponry, but no real uniforms to speak. Mercenary work? Certainly not stationed in Vietnam. Where were they, who were they working for, and for what purpose?
-Pyro considers this team his family, as he drew this team when prompted to draw their family. When asked about any family before meeting this team, he simply wrote, “GONE,” on a piece of paper with a frowning face and refused to elaborate.
-Asking Pyro to draw “home” prompted a few different drawings, all including members from his old team, one of which depicted Mr. Doe and Mr. Conagher with Conagher’s daughter and a dog in front of a house. Absolutely nothing depicting birth parents or Pyro as a child.
-Asking Pyro to draw something from his childhood specifically got a drawing of a small child with a bag over his head, with a crowd of other children pointing and laughing and throwing rocks, while the bag-headed child cried giant tears. Digging further into this, with Pyro responding by writing on paper, it turns out Pyro had been in an orphanage for a greater part of his youth, with no friends to speak of. He became extremely self-conscious of their physical appearance due to constant teasing and tormenting. Pyro would not elaborate on his appearance beyond saying that he was “ugly.” I suspect there may be more to Pyro’s scopophobia? (Dishabiliophobia? Ophthalmophobia? Possible Eisoptrophobia or nudophobia?) than he has indicated. Will have to work more with him in future sessions. Notes: Pyro is obviously not ready to share their experiences from early childhood with me quite yet, though the drawing from our very first meeting of what appears to be a prison on fire indicates that Pyro may be a refugee from a prison camp. Probably foreign-born. Will have to look into it further.
October 14th, 1976
[Excerpt from meeting transcript with Doe, Jane]
M: -was wondering if you might be willing to discuss something else besides Jimmy Carter being the Anti-Christ.
D: Like what? Isn’t that important?
M: Quite frankly I want to hear more about you. Perhaps your childhood?
D: What about it?
M: Well, how would you describe it?
D: [pause] You’re going to make me talk about it, aren’t you?
M: I can’t make you talk about anything you’re not comfortable with.
D: Goddammit, stop saying that! It’s too wishy-washy! If you want something from somebody, you should be demanding it!
M: Wait, you want me to demand you to tell me things to help you? Is that it?
D: I’m saying you need to take charge here, missy. You think you’re going to get anywhere in life politely asking people for what you want? No, ma’am! You have to give orders!
M: I’m not sure if you’re grasping how therapy is supposed to work…
D: I’m not sure you’re grasping how life is supposed to work! Now I order you to order me around!
M: Fine. Jane, tell me about your childhood. That is an order.
D: … Where should I start?
M: I don’t know. Tell me about your parents.
D: Fine. My father was a veteran of the Great War and my mother was a drunken hussy who left my father to run off with some shifty-looking drifter off to Tijuana.
M: Did you ever know your mother?
D: Yes. Unfortunately.
M: And how old were you when she left?
D: I was 12.
M: That must have been very upsetting.
D: It was even more upsetting when we came home to find the goddamned house was on fire.
M: She burned the house down?
D: Nearly. My father and my brother and me, we had to move after that. I didn’t miss her, though. I hated her.
M: And why is that?
D: Because she was a goddamned drunk and a floozy! She hated me, too, just because I wasn’t born a girl.
M: Is that why your name is Jane?
D: [pause] … Yes.
M: And your father agreed to this?
D: He thought me being a boy with a girl’s name would make me tougher. Good thing he turned out to be right.
M: Kind of a “Boy Named Sue” sort of deal, then?
D: I suppose you could say that. I can relate to that song.
M: I’m curious; how did that affect you growing up, having a feminine name?
D: Kids made fun of me. Called me a freak. Dresses didn’t help.
M: I’m sorry, dresses?
D: … Yes. Mother made me wear them.
M: Did your father know about this?
D: Yeah, he knew. She tried to hide it at first, but he knew. He didn’t do anything about it, though. He wasn’t… he was shell-shocked, from the war. He’d get depressed a lot. Wouldn’t care about anything, just sit in the living room listening to the radio and staring at the wall. I was just a kid; I assumed he was sad because he only had one leg.
M: I assume he lost it in the war?
D: Yeah. People said he lost his mind back there, too. I don’t know. He was proud of having fought for his country, though. He told me and my brother some stories from the war, and he’d sounded so brave. I knew then I was destined to become a soldier.
M: But you never did become a soldier.
D: Not officially, no. I had to get creative. Do things my way.
M: I read about that in your records from your previous doctors. It was both impressive and deeply disturbing.
D: I’ll take that as a compliment.
M: Anyway, we’re getting a bit off-topic again. About your mother…
D: My ginned-up tart of a mother, yes.
M: You obviously have a lot of resentment towards her, for being an alcoholic and dressing you in girl’s clothes. Was this something she’d do often?
D: What, being drunk?
M: No, putting you in dresses.
D: Yeah. She dressed me up like that every day. After a while, I started sneaking my brother’s old clothes in a satchel and changing on the way to school. She still wouldn’t let me cut my hair, though.
M: And was that also styled like a young girl’s hair?
D: Yeah. She pretty much was so mad at me for not being born a girl that she was going to try and go through with raising a girl anyway, whether I liked it or not.
M: Do you remember a point where you realized this was unusual or wrong, or did you always feel that way?
D: Lady, one of my earliest memories was screaming and trying to rip off a goddamned dress! My brother probably gave me more crap for it than any of the kids I went to school with. He’d pull my hair and he’d punch me in the stomach and call me a circus freak.
M: And your parents did nothing to stop it?
D: They never caught him. Never believed me, anyway. I was always a nuisance.
M: How often did this happen?
D: Pretty much constantly. He’s enjoyed making me miserable as long as I can remember.
M: Did you ever fight back?
D: Tried. He’s always been bigger and stronger than I am. And even after the point where that didn’t even matter, he still always beat me by fighting dirty… he just knew… [Long pause]
M: Are you all right?
D: I don’t want to talk about this anymore.
M: That’s fine. We can talk about this some other time, then.
[Transcript ends here, unrelated anecdotes about formerly rooming with a “wizard” follows.]
Notes: Some of the abuse Mr. Doe has endured is finally coming to light. It’s clear that his entire immediate family failed to provide any kind of real support or comfort for him, with an abusive mother and brother and a neglectful, emotionally distant father. Despite this, Mr. Doe looks up to his father as a heroic figure for his service in WWI and will rationalize his father’s behavior, while openly demonizing his mother and brother. Understandable, since his father’s coldness would, in his mind, be preferable to his mother forcing Mr. Doe into a gender role he tried to reject, or his brother’s verbal and physical harassment.
[File on Pyro from October 14th, 1976] Again, Pyro did very little talking and drew for me. Curious about Pyro’s concept of identity, I asked Pyro to draw himself. The drawing I got was one of Pyro with a gasmask and red suit, which he had previously drawn when showing himself during the period he worked with Mr. Doe and Mr. Conagher. Asking Pyro to draw himself before that time resulted in drawings of Pyro wearing masks, bags and scarves to cover their face. Asking Pyro to draw just his face yielded a drawing of Pyro’s head covered in a gas mask. I noted that Pyro never drew himself without any kind of facial covering, and Pyro acknowledged this. I asked, if it was at all possible, that Pyro draw himself with no mask or covering. I asked Pyro to draw what he sees if he looked into the mirror without anything covering their face. The drawing I got back depicted a mirror, from Pyro’s point of view. The reflection showed what I assume is a depiction of a severe burn victim, but it looked more like a monster with a bright red face, bloodshot eyes and a nasty sneer. Pyro’s hair came through in scraggly patches, and teeth were missing from his mouth. I asked if this was why Pyro never showed his face, and he nodded. I tried to reassure Pyro that people’s looks shouldn’t matter to other people over the content of their character, but Pyro shook his head and drew up a rendition of what appeared to be the climax of Phantom of the Opera, complete with unmasked Lon Chaney. As grim as this looks, I think it may be possible to cure Pyro of his phobia of showing his face, if perhaps only in tightly controlled environments or in private.
October 21st, 1976
[Excerpt from meeting transcript with Doe, Jane]
M: -something I’ve been meaning to ask you.
M: Well, I was curious about that little shovel you carry around.
D: What about it?
M: I’ve noticed that you usually take it out and fiddle with it when you become stressed or nervous, or you’re reliving some bad memories.
D: Yeah. So?
M: I was wondering what the significance of that shovel might be. It seems to be a source of comfort to you.
D: Oh… right. Yeah he… it kind of is.
D: It’s hard to explain.
M: Would you mind explaining it to me?
D: [sigh] Fine. Dr. Marshall, this is Shovel Jr. Shovel Jr., Dr. Marshall.
M: … Pleased to uh, meet you?
D: [pause] Shovel Jr. says “hi.”
M: Shovel Jr. talks to you, then?
D: Yeah. Not a lot though. He’s pretty quiet. Mostly he just tries to keep me from getting in trouble and he reminds me to take my meds.
M: Is that all he does?
D: He also helps calm me down when I have the night terrors. He’s a good kid.
M: You have night terrors?
D: Not as often as I used to. But yeah. Shovel Jr. has kind of taken that job since Shovel got taken away.
M: All right, one thing at a time. Who is Shovel, and why were they taken away?
D: It’s hard to explain… Medic and my doctors always said that Shovel was a “hallucination,” a voice in my head that was “projected onto an inanimate object that would reinforce my paranoia” or some over-complicated crap like that.
M: And Shovel was a shovel, I take it?
D: An entrenching tool. But I always called him Shovel.
M: About when did Shovel start speaking to you? Do you remember?
D: Shortly after I was first issued him. I got him during basic training in the army, and not long after I got him I started hearing him talking to me.
M: How old were you at the time?
D: Eighteen, ma’am.
M: Had you heard any voices before then?
D: No, I hadn’t. But shortly after I’d gotten to boot camp, that’s when I started hearing them, everywhere. I’d be lying awake at night and I’d hear voices all over the place, gibbering in tongues or screaming about nonsense. It got so bad I couldn’t sleep.
M: Do you remember anything specific they said?
D: Well… one of them came from this moth that would fly into the window, and it would keep telling me that I was the Chosen One, and that I had to uh, “baptize myself with the blood of the sinners until the streets turned into a crimson river.”
M: Oh dear.
D: I hated that moth. It gave me the creeps. I had to learn how to function on as little sleep as possible. My drill sergeant noticed that I could barely stay awake. He sent me to peel potatoes for screwing up in training and I would just sleep in there. The potatoes were quieter.
D: Colonel Taters kept an eye out for me while slept. He’d wake me up when somebody came in.
M: I see.
D: I was considering telling somebody that I felt like I was going crazy, and that’s when Shovel first spoke to me… Shovel… Shovel’s voice was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. It was beautiful. I mean… I don’t know what an angel would sound like but I think Shovel’s voice was the next best thing. He explained to me that I couldn’t tell anybody what was happening to me, because they’d kick me out. And if I got kicked out of the army, I wouldn’t be able to bash in some Nazi skulls and make my old man proud.
M: That doesn’t sound like good advice.
D: Well, at the time, I’d brought up that I couldn’t sleep because I was hearing all those voices. But he promised he would make sure that they wouldn’t bother me, so long as I slept while holding onto him. He’d scare them off, he said.
M: Did that work?
D: Like a charm. I got the best night’s sleep I’d had since I’d started hearing things talk to me.
M: But you did get sent home before you could get shipped out.
D: Yeah… about that…
M: What happened?
D: Well, Shovel was always kind of… protective of me. Shovel could hear the things people were saying about me behind my back, and he’d tell me what other people were saying, and well, there was this one guy, named Schwartz or something like that, who’d constantly talk about how I was a nutcase. Shovel thought he might have been a German spy, but I didn’t do anything until he called me a dickless cocksucker.
M: What did you do then?
D: I clobbered him over the head with Shovel.
M: You didn’t kill him, did you?
D: No, I didn’t. He lived, but I just about bust his head open. I had to do another psyche evaluation and I got a Section 8. They gave me the boot.
M: That must have been devastating for you.
D: It was. I managed to sneak Shovel out with me, though.
M: How’d you manage that?
D: Snuck him out in my pack, of course.
M: … I see. What happened then?
D: After that, I tried to get into any other branch of the military that would have me. But every single one found out about what happened back in basic training and kicked me out. By the time I got to the National Guard, they called up the white coats and had me committed.
M: That must have been pretty traumatic for you.
D: Traumatic, nothing. I’d put up with worse as a kid. I saw it as a challenge, and less than two years later I’d managed to break out of the place, find Shovel, and find my own way to Europe. By God, if Uncle Sam wasn’t going to let me fight, I’d have to find my own way over there!
M: How did you manage that?
D: Bought a plane ticket.
M: In the middle of World War II?
D: I found somebody willing to fly me over.
M: And you stayed in Europe all the way until… 1949.
D: Yes ma’am. To be fair, I hadn’t known it was over. I spent a lot of time in the woods living by myself with only Shovel as company.
M: You didn’t have any other human contact?
D: When I first got over there, lady, I only had one thing in min
D: killing Nazis. And that’s what I did. And I was good at it.
M: So you killed everyone you came across?
D: No, ma’am. Only Nazis.
M: That’s interesting, because apparently the Polish government claimed otherwise.
D: I was framed!
M: If you say so.
D: I do say so! Anybody I killed that wasn’t in a uniform was a Nazi spy.
M: And how exactly did you know this?
D: Shovel told me.
M: I’m curious; did you ever, at any point, think that Shovel’s claims might not be entirely factual?
D: … Not while we were together, no.
D: I mean… since he’s been gone, I don’t feel the same way I used to about some people I thought I hated… Heavy and Medic, for instance. Shovel had told me Medic was a Nazi who was going to drug me into complacency, and that Heavy was a communist and the both of them were conspiring to turn me and the rest of the team into homosexuals.
M: But you don’t think that now.
D: No. No, I don’t. Like I said, Doc was a Nazi killer and Heavy, well… turns out his father was a counter-revolutionary. And as for their relationship… it’s still disgusting, but…
D: I don’t know. Engie says they can’t help it, that they’re just born that way.
M: Well, homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental disorder, and I’m inclined to agree with that.
D: Do you know what causes it?
M: I can’t say that we know yet, no.
D: Because, I mean, I’d heard some things…
M: There’s always been a lot of misinformation about the causes of homosexuality. I wouldn’t read much into anything that hasn’t come out in just the past few years.
D: Yeah. Yeah, okay.
M: You seem to be a bit pre-occupied with the sexuality of your former co-workers.
D: What? What makes you say that?
M: You seem to bring it up whenever you discuss your friends Heavy and Medic.
D: … What of it?
M: I’m merely making an observation. I was hoping you might enlighten me as to why that is.
D: Oh, no. This is one of those psyche games, isn’t it? You’re trying to get me to say something like the reason why I mention it about them is because I’m afraid of becoming one, is that it?
M: Well, are you?
D: Am I what?
M: Are you afraid that you might be a homosexual? [Long pause]
D: Of… of course not. Because I’m not one! Just the thought of… you know, two men like that… it sickens me.
M: Do you think about that sort of thing often?
D: I try not to.
M: I see.
D: It was hard, though, when I was living on base with Medic and Heavy; after everyone else found out what they were doing… they stopped hiding it. They knew I didn’t like it, and if I was chewing them out because I thought they were Nazis or commie pinkos or whatnot, they’d kiss in front of me to rub it in my face and… I couldn’t stand it. Shovel knew how much I hated it.
M: But you don’t hate them anymore.
D: I did. I stopped. They were good at their jobs and they saved my hide more than a few times. But… I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with them… you know…
M: Why do you think your mind goes to homosexual sex when presented with a same sex couple?
D: Hell, I don’t know. But it’s not because I’m queer. Because I’m not.
M: You seem pretty adamant about that.
M: Have you ever felt any kind of attraction to men at all?
D: No. Never.
M: What about women? [Long pause]
M: Are you attracted to women?
D: … I guess so.
M: You guess so?
D: I’ve slept with women before.
M: That… wasn’t the question.
D: Isn’t it?
M: You can have a sexual encounter with someone and not be attracted to them.
D: You can?
M: Sure. Plenty of homosexuals end up married to people they’re not attracted to so they can hide their real sexuality.
D: I’m not a homosexual, though.
M: Well, it’s possible that you could just not be attracted to anyone.
D: … Is that a thing?
M: In some people, yes, for various reasons. [Long pause]
M: Have you ever considered that you might not feel any sexual attraction at all?
D: I don’t know. I guess that makes sense, though. I mean… I’ve always preferred fighting over it, really. I guess… I don’t know. I don’t really enjoy it most of the time…
M: Most of the time? [Sound of timer going off]
M: Whoops! Looks like our hour’s up. I think we had a very productive meeting today, Jane. We can pick this topic up again over our next session.
D: Yeah. Yeah, all right.
Notes: This meeting shed a great deal of light on Mr. Doe’s past, his state of mind, his world view and his own sexuality. Even though he’s been more forthcoming than he has been in previous sessions, I still get the feeling he’s hiding something, possibly several things. What I am able to conclude for sure is that Mr. Doe is a very damaged individual, but healing these old wounds is a definite possibility.
[File on Pyro from October 21st, 1976]
Today’s session was different. Instead of having Pyro draw things for me, I thought I might try and help him overcome his phobia. The steps I took were small, and Pyro only cooperated so much before he became too afraid to continue. It started with asking Pyro to perhaps remove one small item of clothing, like a glove or his goggles or his cap. Pyro was reluctant, at first, but then removed one glove, only to show that there was yet another glove underneath. I asked if Pyro was willing to show any skin at all, and Pyro refused, shaking his head. I then asked if Pyro would be willing to take off his gloves if I had my eyes closed. Again, Pyro balked at this suggestion, but I offered to use a blindfold. Pyro accepted, and I blindfolded myself and repeated my request for Pyro to take off their glove. Pyro complied, and I asked if I could touch his hand. After some hesitation, Pyro agreed. The first thing I noticed was that Pyro’s hand was sweaty, no doubt from being under two gloves at all times. The second thing I noticed was the texture. Pyro’s hand was badly scarred; burn scars covered both the back of the hand and palm. Nails felt rough and not well-maintained. Hand size was fairly large, more masculine than feminine. I then asked if I may take off my blindfold and see for myself. Pyro agreed, but when I took off my blindfold, I only was able to look at his hand for about two seconds before Pyro stuffed it in his jacket and said I’d seen enough. I asked about how Pyro got those scars, and Pyro sulked. I asked if he was willing to draw for me, and Pyro again shook his head. Using my note pad, he replied that he already drew that for me. I asked if it was from that building that was on fire, and Pyro nodded. From what I can gather, Pyro’s memories of that place are hazy, with Pyro only describing it as the “Bad Place,” and that he escaped using fire. I asked if Pyro was responsible for causing the fire that burned the Bad Place down, and Pyro confirmed that he was. I asked where the Bad Place was, and Pyro wrote “across the ocean,” but could come up with nothing else. Finding myself coming to a dead end, I switched the course of conversation to more mundane topics, such as Pyro’s life with Mr. Conagher and Mr. Doe. Pyro indicated that he tends to keep more to himself and generally stays in the attic, where he is sleeping, and that he prefers to spend a lot of time alone. At the end of our session, I decided to give Pyro an assignment to complete before our next meeting. I asked if he would be willing to unmask themselves in private in front of a mirror, as a step towards accepting their appearance. Pyro was initially reluctant, but agreed nonetheless. Notes: I have more reason to suspect that Pyro was a survivor of WWII, possibly in a concentration camp or gulag, which crosses out the American internment camps for Japanese Americans. Will have to do research on any prison camp fires.
“Thanks again for coming,” said Dr. Marshall as Soldier and Pyro headed for the door. “See you next week.”
“Buurh!” Pyro waved to her, and she waved back with a small smile.
“Hey, why don’t you fellas go on ahead,” Engineer said. “I’ll meet you outside in a sec.”
Soldier gave Engineer a strange look, but he shook his head. “Sure,” he said. “C’mon, Pyro.” The two of them left the office, and Dr. Marshall tilted her head slightly as she looked to Engineer.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Conagher?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“Well, uh, no, actually.” Engineer rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at his shoes. “I, uh, wanted t’ thank you, actually, for what you’re doin’ for Jane an’ Pyro. I mean, when they come back from these sessions, they seem like there’s been some weight taken off their shoulders…”
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Dr. Marshall. She brushed a lock of long black hair aside. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress in just the short time we’ve been working together.”
“That’s great!” Engineer spoke too loudly, and he shrunk back after he uttered that sentence. “I mean… that’s jus’ swell, ma’am. Really, I am very grateful, I truly am.”
“Really, it’s nothing,” she said, and shrugged. “Just doing my job.” There were a few moments of silence between them, and Engineer cleared his throat. “Was that all you wanted to say?” Dr. Marshall asked. “Oh, uh… no, actually,” Engineer fiddled with the brim of his hat, which he was holding against his chest. “I, uh… this might seem a bit odd, but… your first name is Rebecca, right?”
“That’s right,” she said. “Well, I mean, I felt I should have asked you, you know, when I first met, ‘cause that would a’ been polite, but I noticed that th’ listing downstairs has everyone’s full names on it.”
“Is this going somewhere, Mr. Conagher?” A smirk spread across her lips as she watched Engineer flounder. “What?” Engineer’s ears were bright red, and his fingers clenched the brim of his hat. “Oh! Well, I jus’ wanted to ask you if, uh… maybe you wanted to go out an’ get some coffee or lunch sometime?” His voice nearly cracked at that last syllable, and instantly his face turned to one of shame. He turned around, and cleared his throat, as Dr. Marshall stared at him. “I’m sorry,” said Engineer. “That was stupid. I should… I should just leave. Jus’… forget that ever happened. I’m terribly sorry, ma’am-”
“I’d like that, actually.”
“What?” Engineer turned around, all the fidgety energy that had overtaken him now gone in an instant as he was rooted to the spot in disbelief. “I said I wouldn’t mind getting some coffee with you,” she said, resting her cheek upon her hand. “Or maybe dinner, if you like.”
“Dinner?” Engineer tried to straighten his posture. “Uh, sure! I mean, you don’t… you don’t have to-”
“I’d like to,” she said. “You’re the first guy to ask me out in two years.”
“Really?” Engineer asked. “I find that a little hard t’ believe.” Dr. Marshall laughed. “Well, I guess that’s not completely true. You’re the first guy to ask me out in two years who hasn’t come off like a creepy sex predator.”
“Nice t’ know th’ bar’s been set so low,” Engineer said out the side of his mouth, causing Dr. Marshall to laugh even louder. Engineer chuckled along with her, albeit nervously. “But, sure,” she said, waving her hand through the air as though to dispel the drafts of her own giggles, “why not? When’s good for you?”
“Well, if it’s dinner yer wantin’, I think I’m free Friday evening.” Engineer’s rigid posture slackened a bit, becoming much more relaxed. “Did you, uh, have any place in mind?”
“How’s Romero’s sound?”
“Romero’s?” Engineer echoed. “That’s, uh, a pretty nice place…”
“Not too fancy, I hope,” she said. “I’ve wanted an excuse to go there anyway.”
“No, no, it’s fine,” said Engineer, waving to dismiss any concern. “That would be just dandy.”
“How’s seven o’clock sound?”
“S-sure!” Engineer said. “You want me t’ pick you up, or…?”
“No, that’s fine,” Dr. Marshall said. “I’ll meet you there.”
“All right,” said Engineer. “Friday night. Seven o’clock. Romero’s. I guess that’s a date then.”
“I suppose it is.” Dr. Marshall smiled. “I’ll see you then.”
“Yeah…” said Engineer in a dreamy voice. “Yeah. I’ll see you then.”
“You’d better get going, I think,” she said. “I have another patient due in soon and you don’t want to keep your friends waiting.”
“Oh! Right!” Engineer jolted and put his hat on. “Yes, I should get going. Thank you kindly, ma’am.”
“Please,” she said gently. “You can call me Becky.”
“Becky,” Dell said wistfully, letting the nickname roll off his tongue. “You can call me Dell, then.” Dr. Marshall nodded. “Good bye then, Dell.”
“‘Bye,” Dell, said, waving as he backed into the door with a clatter. He straightened his hat and cleared his throat, trying to cover up his own clumsiness, and opened the door. “See you then,” he said as he went through. “See you,” she said, smiling as he closed the door.
During the drive back to the house, Engineer’s demeanor seemed particularly chipper as he whistled along to the radio and drummed on the steering wheel with his fingertips. He was still whistling after he’d parked the truck in the garage, his gait as jaunty as a lead in a musical. Soldier watched Engineer with a disapproving sneer. “The hell are you so happy about?” he barked. “Oh, nothin’,” Engineer said, coming off a bit sing-songy. “It’s just such a lovely day out, is all. Don’cha think?” Soldier tilted his head up and squinted at the overcast sky. “Looks like rain.”
“Well, we could use a little rain, given how dry it was over th’ summer,” Engineer said, looking up at the sky with a dopey smile and a dreamy swivel in his step. “Little rain never hurt nobody!” Had he turned around, he might have seen Soldier’s scowl deepen, but he did not, and strolled through the front door, swinging it open. Rosie looked up from the pumpkin sitting on the table in front of her. “Hi, daddy,” she said. “How’d everything go?”
“Swell, jus’ swell!” he said. He leaned on the table and looked down at the pumpkin on the table. “Hey, pumpkin, what’s with the… well, the pumpkin?”
“Halloween’s comin’ up soon, I thought maybe I’d try carvin’ some Jack-O’-Lanterns,” she explained. She turned the pumpkin around and showed her father the front of the pumpkin. On it, she had drawn an intricately rendered monster face. “I’ve never tried anythin’ this hard before, but I think I can make this work.”
“That’s wonderful, darlin’,” Engineer said, as Pyro and Soldier came through the door. “Though I don’t reckon we’ll be getting’ many Trick-or-Treaters out here.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “But there was a place on my way home sellin’ pumpkins pretty cheap an’ I felt like I should have somethin’ around here that’s Halloween-ish.”
“You probably shouldn’t,” Soldier said bluntly. “Nothing good ever happens on Halloween.”
“That ain’t true, Jane, don’t ruin her fun,” Engineer said, making some feeble attempt at sounding stern. “Yes it is,” said Soldier, heading for the refrigerator. “You remember the ghost? Or the Horseless Headless Horseman? Or that giant goddamned haunted eyeball?”
“I’m sure there are reasonable explanations for all a’ that,” said Engineer, his voice faltering. “I’m pretty sure those were some kind a’ gas-induced mass hallucinations…”
“Bullshit, I know a hallucination when I see one.” Soldier opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of Blue Streak. “Actually, you don’t an’ that’s why you’re takin’ medicine,” said Engineer, crossing his arms. “But I really don’t feel like discussin’ this any further.” Pyro peered underneath the table, and saw Guard Dog hard at work licking the surface of another pumpkin and curling up beside two more. Pyro giggled, and Guard Dog looked up at him with his tongue poking out of his mouth. “How many of those did you pick up, anyway?” asked Engineer, all too eager to change the subject. “Oh, uh, four,” Rosie said, as Pyro emerged from under the table holding a pumpkin covered in a thin film of dog saliva. “Well, that’s perfect!” Engineer said. “Four pumpkins an’ four of us. We could all carve one. What do you think, boys?” He looked to Pyro and Soldier. Pyro gave an enthusiastic nod and a thumbs-up, but Soldier eyed the pumpkins with some disdain. “Aw, c’mon, Jane,” Engineer pleaded, “it’ll be fun. Stop bein’ such a grumpy Gus an’ do somethin’ with us fer once, wouldja?” Soldier looked back to the pumpkins for a moment, and back again to Engineer and Rosie. “All right,” he said, and sat down at the table. “So, how are we doing this?”
“You’ve never carved a pumpkin before?” Rosie asked. “Of course I have!” Soldier retorted. “What do you take me for? I just haven’t done this in a few years…”
“Well, it ain’t that hard,” said Engineer. “Hey, Pyro, fetch me one of those pumpkins an’ I’ll show ya how it’s done…”
“And so, there we were, surrounded at all sides by merciless, soulless robots,” said Soldier, as he loomed over his pumpkin, knife in hand. “They were coming at us with a bomb, in unending waves. We were trapped, doomed to die at the hands of the metal menace!”
“Urr nuhh,” said Pyro, clutching his half-carved Jack-O-Lantern. “Whurt hurrpened?”
“You were there, Pyro, you don’t remember?” Soldier asked. Pyro tilted his head up and to the side in thought, drumming his fingers on the lid of the lantern. He then shrugged. “You’re a strange kid,” said Soldier, shaking his head. “Well, what did happen?” Rosie asked, sounding genuinely curious as she looked up from carving her pumpkin. Soldier perked up at her expression of interest, and tightened his grip on his knife. “Well,” he said, “I was just about ready to sacrifice myself to save the rest of the team, when this wily sonuvabitch” he gestured to Engineer, “sprung his trap! BAM!” He stabbed the pumpkin. “A whole mess of sentries, hidden just out of sight of the robots, just started firing at them! POW! POW! POW!” He punctuated his onomatopoeia with more stabs, and Pyro mimed a dramatic gasp. “Really, I’d just managed t’ rebuild everythin’ after that last sentry buster wrecked everythin’,” Engineer said modestly, having already completed his Jack-O’-Lantern. “T’weren’t no real thing.”
“Says you!” said Soldier, sawing through his gourd. “You helped turn the tide! We would have been goners if it hadn’t been for you!”
“If I correctly recall, I’da been a goner myself when that second sentry buster came runnin’ over,” said Engineer, “but you bombarded th’ darn thing with enough rockets t’ destroy it jus’ in th’ nick of time.” Soldier smirked. “Just doing my duty as a soldier and a teammate. That was my job, and by God, I loved every minute of it!”
“I know ya did, buddy,” said Engineer. “I miss it more than anything,” Soldier lamented, frowning a bit. “But I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Nobody ever is,” Engineer agreed with a chuckle. “Can I ask you something, Sir?” Rosie piped up, leaning on her Jack-O’-Lantern. “Huh?” Soldier looked up at Engineer’s daughter as he finished cutting the lid of his pumpkin. “Sure, what is it?”
“You ever get scared fightin’ all them robots an’ whatnot?” she asked. “Scared?” Soldier asked, wrinkling his nose. “Kid, trust me, it takes a lot more than a walking bucket of nuts and bolts to scare this soldier, that’s for damn sure!” He pulled off the lid to the pumpkin, and grabbed a handful of seeds and pulp. “And that goes for ghosts and Horseless Headless Horsemen and werewolves and Draculas and giant floating eyeballs and especially wizards.” He pulled out a fistful of pumpkin goo and shook it in a threatening manner. “But none a’ those things are real,” Rosie said. “You just keep telling yourself that, sweetheart,” said Soldier, wiping the pulp off his hands and into the trashcan. Engineer cleared his throat. “Erm, right,” he said. “What’re you thinkin’ for your Jack-O’-Lantern there, Jane?”
“This?” Soldier looked down at the vegetable. “I don’t know.” He turned it around, stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth in concentration, and then started brutally stabbing at it. Engineer, Rosie and Pyro all watched with varying levels of concern, until Soldier ceased his assault on the pumpkin, cocked his head in thought, gave it a few more stabs and then nodded in silent affirmation. “There, that looks about right,” he said, and turned the pumpkin around. “How’s this?” His Jack-O’-Lantern’s face resembled that of a facial reconstruction surgery done during the Great War. Its mutilated facial features were lopsided, as though they were sloughing off of its face. Soldier beamed with pride, looking to the others for their approval. Rosie cringed upon looking at the sloppy carving job before her. “It looks aw-”
“Wonderful, Jane,” Engineer interrupted, putting a firm hand on Rosie’s shoulder. “Soon as Pyro’s finished, what say we put ‘em all out on th’ front porch, yeah?” Soldier grinned. “Sounds good,” he said. He looked to Pyro. “Quit lollygagging and finish that Jack-O’-Lantern, Private!” Pyro nodded and got back to work, and once he’d finished carving his cutesy cat face on his pumpkin, Engineer got out the candles and the lanterns were placed outside. The candles inside of them were lit, and their hollow faces cast a warm orange glow out onto the front yard as the sky began to darken. Dinner was made and eaten, and afterwards everyone gathered in the living room and watched television. Pyro turned the dial to the Monster Movie Marathon running on a local channel, hosted by some vaguely familiar wizard in a dress by the name of Merasmus. “I knew that bastard,” said Soldier. “He was my roommate. He’s a real wizard, you know.”
“Sure he was,” said Rosie, rolling her eyes. Engineer and Pyro said nothing but Engineer gave Pyro an uneasy look. Pyro didn’t have any visible reaction, and just settled down sitting Indian-style in front of the television. One viewing of The Curse of Frankenstein later, Engineer stood up from his armchair and stretched. “Getting’ tired,” he announced. “Think I’m gonna turn in.”
“Already?” Rosie asked, looking up at her father from the couch. “But it’s only nine o’clock.”
“Yeah, well, I have an early shift at work tomorrow,” Engineer explained, “an’ you got school tomorrow, so you shouldn’t be stayin’ up too late.”
“Don’t worry, Daddy, I won’t,” said Rosie. “I’ll make sure of that,” said Soldier, turning his head and looking to the other side of the couch, to Rosie. “Don’t you worry, Engie. I’ve got my eye on this one.” Engineer gave a soft chuckle. “Don’t be too hard on her, Sarge,” he said, and headed down the hallway. “Good night, everybody.” There was a chorus of “good nights” as Engineer made his way to his bedroom. He shut the door behind him, and smiled. He hadn’t gotten a chance to really be alone with his thoughts since he left Dr. Marshall’s office. Good lord, she accepted! She actually accepted it… and now he’d be having dinner with her on Friday. He leaned back against the door and placed his hand over his heart in an attempt to steady its beat. He could feel the blood rush to his ears just thinking about her… her dark, bewitching eyes, her long and graceful face, her hair, her hands, her legs… it had been a long, long time since he’d met somebody who made him feel this way. It had been even longer since he’d actually gotten up the courage to talk to a lady, and as he remembered that, fear started to cloud his mind. Oh God, what if she didn’t actually like him? What if she found him boring, or ugly, or fat, or what if she was only agreeing to this because she felt pity for him? He looked down at himself, grabbing hold of his love handles. Who was he kidding? Why on earth would such a gorgeous and intelligent creature even give a short, flabby, bald little troll like him the time of day? Memories of his senior prom started to flood into his mind, and he could feel himself reliving the humiliation all over again as he sank to the floor. Get a hold of yourself, Dell, he told himself. That was high school; it was practically ancient history. But he was young, younger than all of his classmates due to the multiple grades he’d skipped, and he’d been a shy, sensitive kid back then… the events that had transpired that night had left an indelible impression on a young Dell Conagher, one that made him so dreadfully nervous and perhaps a bit paranoid when it came to approaching the fairer sex with any kind of romantic intent. It had taken him weeks to gather up the nerve to ask Dr. Marshall out, and here he was, sitting on the bedroom floor and wallowing in self pity. Even worse, what if this was a bad idea? Would going on a date with a woman who was treating two people he was housing be unprofessional? Could she get fired for this? How would Soldier and Pyro react to the news that Dell had gone out with their psychiatrist? Soldier might not be too happy, if there was any fear that she might tell Dell things that Soldier didn’t want him to know… it wouldn’t even matter if she did, really, but that fear would be enough to potentially cause Soldier to react with his usual violent disregard for his surroundings and other people around him. He shuddered. Well, Soldier didn’t have to know about it. Besides, realistically, he couldn’t see much coming out of this anyway. Just dinner and conversation with a nice lady, that was all. It felt foolhardy to expect anything more to come out of it than perhaps just a kiss on the cheek. That didn’t make him pine for it any less, however. It had been more than seven years since the last time he had sex. Seven years of sleeping in a queen-size bed alone, seven years of yearning for the intimate touch of a woman, seven years of shameful masturbation just to keep his basic urges at bay… yes, he got lonely. Yes, he’d wanted to be with somebody again, and yes, he wanted to bed that beautiful doctor and know her carnally. He wondered what she must look like under her clothes, to run his hands down her smooth, sun-darkened skin and cup her breasts, to kiss her and taste her lips, her flesh, her most intimate parts. His fantasizing jerked him back to reality when he felt his cock stir, and suddenly the shame washed over him anew. Those were not appropriate thoughts to be thinking about a lady, but trying to suppress them just made it worse. There was only one way to fight these bothersome fantasies. He stood up, and headed for the closet, opening the door and getting on his knees to pull out a plain-looking cardboard box hidden behind his suits. He opened the lid, and sucked in his breath. After his wife had died, one of his cousins assured him that he would help Engineer get through his grief the only way he knew how: by mailing him a package filled to the brim with pornographic magazines. At the time, Engineer wanted to throw them out, but instead just decided to shove them in the back of his closet, presumably to never look at them again. But months later, on nights were he felt that familiar ache for sexual contact, those magazines tempted him and he was driven over the brink, resorting to them as a masturbation aid. He felt dirty and perhaps even a bit juvenile, not having resorted to pleasuring himself over naughty pictures since he’d been a young man in college. But over the years, he’d never met another woman, and time and time again he’d return to his box of smut, even occasionally adding new issues to his modest collection. It wasn’t as though he didn’t already have secrets beforehand, but there was a different kind of shame about the stash. It didn’t feel becoming of someone who considered himself a gentleman, and the father of a young girl on top of that. One time Rosie had nearly stumbled upon it looking for hidden Christmas presents when she was 12, and he prayed the mortified expression on his face when he found her didn’t give him away. And now, he was staring at a magazine with a woman lying on her back with her crossed legs in the air and a coy finger at her lip, her bedroom eyes burning through Engineer as he took a deep breath. It was better that this blonde bombshell looked nothing like Dr. Marshall, he thought. How could he meet her eyes knowing that he had pleasured himself to her before they’d even gone a date? Best just to get this over with quickly, he thought, and he stood up to walk to the door. It locked with a quiet click. The last thing he needed was to be interrupted.
Friday could not come soon enough, and at the same time, it felt that it was approaching too quickly. Engineer felt like a ball of nerves at work, chewing on the end of pencils while working out calculations and drumming his fingers on his desk. Many of his coworkers didn’t speak English, so he didn’t have many friends among his new colleagues, and even if he had, it wouldn’t be polite to burden any of them with his personal troubles. If he’d still been working as a mercenary, he might have been able to discuss it with one of the members of his team… most likely Spy, given that he was fairly well-adjusted compared to the rest of the team and seemed to have pretty good luck with the ladies. He hadn’t seen Spy since he accepted the job offer back at RED, and just assumed he was busy doing spy stuff, and it wasn’t like he could ever convince Spy to see him on his own terms. The man was like a cat; he went and came as he pleased and there wasn’t a darn thing anybody could do about it. It was no use dwelling on hypothetically asking the womanizing Frenchman for advice on wooing ladies, really, so Engineer did the best he could to try and shove his anxiety deep down inside and just throw himself into his work. For a while, it worked, but by the time Friday rolled around he’d chewed off the ends of just about every pencil he had and the fellow at the desk beside him slid his own tin of pencils away from him, giving Engineer a scrutinizing look. Once his shift had ended he found himself fumbling with his RED-issued teleporter watch to get back home. It was a very handy device, and it was very much like Spy’s but the major downside was that it could only be used for commuting to and from the facility; only those in espionage work and the higher ups had clearance for free-range teleportation. Given enough free time, he could probably configure the device to get rid of that particular restriction and save himself quite a bit of gas, but right now the only thing he could think about was getting his twitchy fingers to work the darn thing. After a few failed attempts, he managed to press the right button, and found himself swept back into his garage, where a very startled Guard Dog started barking at his sudden appearance. “S’alright, boy, it’s just me,” he said, raising his hands to try and calm the animal so he could slide past him. Guard Dog continued to bark, not in anger, but in surprise and confusion, and Engineer heaved a sigh, presenting his hand to the dog. Guard Dog gave it a thorough inspection with his nose, snorted, and was satisfied, wagging his tail and panting. Engineer scratched the dog’s head. “Feel better?” Guard Dog gave a single bark of affirmation. “Good dog,” he said, and gave Guard Dog a pat on the head before moving past him, out the garage and towards the house. As he opened the door, he found Soldier at the kitchen table, intensely studying a map of Europe which he had scrawled upon with a red marker. Soldier lifted up his head to look to Engineer, and Engineer stood just inside the kitchen, his eyes moving from Soldier’s face to the map. “Good afternoon, Engie,” Soldier said with as casual a tone as he could muster. “Afternoon, Jane,” said Engineer. “Am I interruptin’ somethin’?”
“Of course not,” said Soldier, drawing a large circle around Stalingrad. “Nothing you need to worry about.” Engineer sighed. “Well, all right,” he said, “long as yer not plottin’ anythin’ illegal.” He gave a dry chuckle, and Soldier stared at him for a moment before looking back to his map. “Fine,” said Soldier, and he scribbled over his plans, and then crumpled up the map. Engineer gave a nervous smile, not sure whether this was humorous or just a close call. “Well then,” said Engineer, and he cleared his throat and rapped at his chest with his fist, “listen, I’ve got plans fer tonight, so you’ll be mannin’ th’ fort with Rosie and Pyro.”
“Is that so?” Soldier asked. “Where to?”
“Just out,” Engineer said quickly. “Meetin’ some people from work. Havin’ dinner. Nothin’ fancy, really.”
“Oh,” said Soldier. “You’ve made friends there?”
“One or two, yeah,” said Engineer. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I see.” Soldier seemed to ponder this for a minute. “Yeah,” said Engineer. “You’ll be fine here, right?” Soldier sniffed. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “Good,” said Engineer, and began to walk to the hall before Soldier spoke up again. “Think maybe I could come along with you sometime?” Engineer stopped just shy of the kitchen entrance, and turned to look back to Soldier. He gave him an anxious smile. “Well, sure,” he said. “I’m sure we can work somethin’ out.”
“Okay,” Soldier said, nodding. “Because, I mean, I’ve been living here a while now and I guess we don’t really hang out all that much, you and me, you know? I feel like I should buy you some drinks or something, I don’t know. I guess…” he paused, grasping at nothing as though trying to snatch the right words from the air. “I guess I feel like I don’t thank you enough. You know, for all that you’ve done for me.”
“O-oh,” Engineer stammered. “Well, uh, listen Jane, you don’t gotta worry about thankin’ me, so long as you’re safe an’ away from your brother an’ you’re doin’ well, I’m happy.”
“I mean it, Engie,” said Soldier. “We should do something together. You and me. And maybe Pyro too, I guess, if you want. Go fishing, go to a weapons expo, a ball game… you know, guy stuff.”
“I’d love t’ do somethin’ like that,” said Engineer. “Sure thing, buddy. Listen, when I get back tonight, we’ll talk about it, all right?”
“Affirmative!” Soldier saluted Engineer with a grin. “Looking forward to it, Engie.” Engineer gave Soldier a smile. “So am I, partner,” he said, and slipped off down the hall and to his bedroom.
It had taken Engineer over an hour just to decide on what to wear. A good 15 minutes was spent looking between a bow tie and a necktie, keeping in mind how Spy had scoffed his choice of tie when he picked him up for his tour of RED headquarters. Irene had found his preference for bowties charming, saying he looked so professorial with them. But this wasn’t 1955 anymore, it was 1976. Nobody wore bowties much anymore, he reasoned. Reluctantly, he placed the red bowtie back in the closet, and went for the lightly used necktie his sister in law had gotten him for Christmas several years back. It was a muted blue, with subtle, swirling fractals sewn into it, only noticeable once examined closely. The fractals were why she’d picked it out, her explanation being that fractals “were a math thing, and you like math, don’cha Dell?” Once he’d affixed the tie around his neck, he looked at himself in the mirror. He looked strange, somehow, wearing that tie. He straightened it, fiddled with it, but it still looked off somehow. He gave a sigh of resignation, and picked out a grey jacket and grey slacks. Brown and polyester were the fashion, yes, but perhaps he could try to look a bit more sophisticated, at least just this once, and not come off like the other aging men he saw with gold medallions and hair plugs and turtleneck sweaters. A good suit was always in style, and it still managed to fit him if he sucked in his gut a bit. But now he was in his truck, his very conspicuous, monstrous truck, driving to a very nice little place in Austin about to meet with a woman who made his heart thump like a jackrabbit and his palms get slick with sweat; as he got closer he could feel the moisture on the steering wheel already start to collect. He tried to wick away the sweat from the wheel with the back of his hand, but did little aside from smearing it. Get a hold of yourself, Dell, he thought. You’re forty-one years old, you’re not some blushing teenager going to the prom. As he parked the truck, he let out a deep breath, and checked himself in the rear view mirror. His eyes looked from his face to his torso as he tilted the mirror, and he then put it back in place. He took the keys out of the ignition and stepped out of the car, concentrating his breathing as he approached the restaurant. Romero’s was a small establishment, and not too fancy, but certainly not some hole-in-the-wall with fly paper strips hanging visibly inside the kitchen. The lights overhead hung from brass chandeliers with electric bulbs shaped like flames, and the walls were wood-paneling save for a long mirror on one side, making the restaurant appear twice its size. The restaurant was fairly busy, the air filled with idle chatter and laughter mingling together in a tangled mess of sound. There, sitting in the back in a booth opposite of the mirrored wall, was Dr. Marshall. She looked up from her menu and saw him, raising her hand to wave her fingers to him. The host, leaning on his podium, noticed this and gave Engineer a nod to go ahead, and he made his way towards the back. “Uh, hey,” he said, scooting into his seat. “You came here kinda early.”
“I didn’t feel like waiting at home,” she said, lowering her menu. She was wearing a sleeveless dress, with the neckline cutting deep past her collarbone, and any cleavage being covered by a large polished oval of turquoise hanging from a silver necklace. “I just got antsy, I guess.”
“That’s all right,” said Engineer, catching his gaze wandering down that neckline and pulling his eyes back up to hers. “How have you been?” Internally, he was kicking himself over just how inane he sounded. “I’ve been all right,” she said. “Working, writing, raising a kid, trying to get through every day.” She shrugged. “Boring stuff.”
“You have a kid?” Engineer asked. “Yeah,” she said. “A son. He’s 12. He’s staying at a friend’s for the night.”
“I see,” said Engineer, making a mental note of that last tidbit of information. “What’s his name?”
“Thomas,” she said. “He’s very smart. He says he wants to work at NASA when he grows up.”
“Well, don’t that beat all,” Engineer said with a smile. “I don’t recall if I’ve told you this, but I’m an engineer myself.”
“Oh, I know,” Dr. Marshall said. “Jane mentioned it.”
“Did he now?” Engineer asked. “Well, I guess I suppose that might a’ come up at one point…”
“He’d mentioned you were a single parent too,” she said. “You have a teenage daughter?”
“Why, yes.” Engineer squared his shoulders back slightly. “Rosalie. She’ll be 17 in December. She’s in her Junior year in high school right now.”
“Any plans for college?”
“She’s been looking into art schools,” said Engineer. “She wants to become an illustrator. She’s very talented, very creative. I think she could go pretty far.”
“An artist,” said Dr. Marshall, looking thoughtful. “I believe Jane mentioned that too.” Engineer gave a slightly nervous chuckle. “It would seem that I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, as far as introductory conversation is concerned, seein’ as how Jane’s apparently told you most of th’ basics.”
“So it would seem.” Dr. Marshall gave a wry smirk. “An’ how much do you even know about me, if you don’t mind me askin’?”
“Well,” said Dr. Marshall, laying her menu flat upon the table, “I know you’re working for a private company, I know you used to work with Jane, I know you lost your wife several years ago and I know Jane thinks quite highly of you.” Engineer cracked a smile. “That right?”
“Does he not show it much?”
“Well,” said Engineer, “he’s always cared about his friends, but sometimes… he’s got trouble showin’ it, is all. He used t’ show it too much, but he’s… he’s changed a lot.” Engineer looked off into space wistfully, before he shook his head. “I’m sorry, we, uh, probably shouldn’t be discussin’ him so much, should we?”
“I suppose you’re right,” she said, and looked up as a waiter approached their table. “Good evening, sir,” he said, presenting Engineer with a menu. He was a tall, skinny young man with long, curly hair that would have looked right at home upon the heads of those Led Zepplin fellows. “How are you tonight?”
“I’m just fine, thanks,” said Engineer, taking the menu and opening it up. “Excuse me,” Dr. Marshall spoke up, “do you think we might be able to get a bottle of the Corvina?”
“All right,” he said. “Any particular year? We’ve got quite a few…”
“Just bring us something good while my friend here decides what to order,” she said, and looked to Engineer. “You’re up for sharing a bottle of wine, aren’t you?”
“Uh, sure,” he said. “That’d be swell.”
“Very well ma’am,” the waiter said, and made his way between tables. Dr. Marshall rested her elbows on the table and her chin on the back of her hand, turning her attention back to Engineer. “So, where were we?”
“I believe we’d been discussin’ Jane,” said Engineer. “An’, well, t’ be completely honest, that vein of discussion has put me in a bit of a predicament.”
“Oh?” Dr. Marshall tilted her head. “Well, I mean, are we allowed t’ be doin’ this?” Engineer asked. “Datin’, I mean, considerin’ your professional relationship with Jane an’ all…”
“You certainly didn’t seem terribly concerned about that when you invited me here,” Dr. Marshall stated plainly. “Yeah,” said Engineer, glancing at his menu. “I’m aware of that. I didn’t think about it before…” He stopped himself. “Are you having doubts?” Dr. Marshall asked. “Aw, heck, I don’t know,” Engineer said. “I mean, I really do want t’ get to know you better, you seem like such an intelligent woman, an’ you seem so kind, I just…” He could feel his ears turning red, and he shrunk back in his seat. “Oh, I don’t even know. Maybe this was a bad idea.”
“Hey.” Dell lowered the menu he was cringing behind and looked across the table, to see Dr. Marshall looking to him, with one arm resting on the table, reaching across towards him. “It’s alright,” she said. “Just relax. We can just see how this goes. Alright?” She reached for his hand, and rubbed the back of it. The tension in Engineer faded, and he took a deep breath. “Yeah, alright,” he said. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m nervous. I haven’t done this sort of thing in a long, long time…” He watched as Dr. Marshall retracted her hand, and clasped her hands together. “Goin’ on a date, I mean.”
“Is that so?” She asked. “Yeah, well…” he sighed. “I haven’t been seein’ anybody since my wife passed. Part of it was just wantin’ to focus on raisin’ my daughter, an’ feelin’ like tryin’ to replace her mother would just be wrong, but another part is… well, honestly, I haven’t really had th’ nerve t’ ask a lady out. I guess I just worked it up with you ‘cause I see you often enough…”
“Do you feel intimidated by women at all?”
“Intimidated?” Engineer echoed. “I… well… I don’t know… I just get nervous an’ I guess I fear bein’ rejected ever since high school…” He stopped, and sat up straight. “What are you doin’ exactly?”
“What do you mean?” asked Dr. Marshall, barely suppressing a smile. “You’re reading me, aren’t you?” said Engineer. He could start to feel his confidence budding. “Getting’ a readin’ on me an’ asking me these questions so you can try an’ profile me…”
“I was only making conversation,” she said, trying to sound as innocent as possible. “Is it a crime to get to know someone better?”
“I’ve noticed that you’ve been askin’ a lot about me, though,” he said. “You already came into this knowin’ more about me than I know about you, an’ you’ve barely talked about yourself.” She shrugged. “I guess I like to hear other people talk about themselves more than I like to talk about myself. That’s why I got into this profession.”
“Seems like it,” said Engineer. “You said you wrote earlier, didn’t you?” Dr. Marshall’s eyes turned upwards in recollection. “I believe so.”
“What do you like to write then?”
“Well,” she said, “I write a lot of notes on my patients, but in my spare time I like to write poetry.” Engineer perked up. “Is that right?”
“I was never good enough to make any kind of real money off of it, though,” she said. “Few are. I’ve had a few pieces published in some magazines and collections, but that’s about it.”
“Well, I’ll be darned,” said Engineer, leaning back. “That’s wonderful. My late wife, she was a writer herself, but she was never able to get published.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Not your fault,” said Engineer. “She didn’t really do poetry, though. She wrote science fiction stories. She ended up hangin’ around me when we met in college ‘cause I was majoring in Physics at th’ time, an’ she’d ask me all these questions about hypothetical things like goin’ to space an’ whatnot. Turned out she was usin’ me as a reference for her stories.” He gave a wistful laugh at the memory. “What kinds of poems do you write, if you don’t mind me askin’?”
“Oh, the subjects vary,” she said. “Nature seems to come up a bit. Womanhood, motherhood. I wrote a poem about a cockroach that had been living under my refrigerator for three months.”
“Really?” Engineer chuckled. “Yeah,” she said. “That poem ended up being published. Little guy was good for something after all.”
“I’d love to read your work sometime,” said Engineer dreamily. “I’d love for you to be able to read it,” she said, as the waiter came back with a bottle of Corvina and two wine glasses. He placed the glasses on the table, uncorked the bottle and started to pour. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome ma’am,” said the waiter. “Are you just about ready to order?”
“I am,” said Dr. Marshall. “How about you, Dell?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I’m just about ready…”
“So then Aunt Gertie said ‘Oh God! That wasn’t plaster of paris!” Dr. Marshall threw back her head and laughed, nearly spilling her wine in the process. Engineer, too, was laughing, and he’d just about finished the glass he’d started over the course of their dinner; certainly not enough to get him drunk, but enough to loosen him up. “Oh, God,” Dr. Marshall said, catching her breath. “Your family… certainly is interesting.” She started giggling again. “Don’t I know it,” said Engineer. “They all think I’m the odd duck, too.”
“I suppose in a family full of strange people, you might come off as more normal,” said Dr. Marshall. Engineer smiled. “That seems t’ be th’ story of my life… bein’ surrounded by strange folks who make me look almost normal by comparison.” He looked into his glass and swirled the remaining liquid around. “I don’t mind that much, I suppose. I’ve gotten kind of used to it.”
“It sounds a bit like my years in college,” said Dr. Marshall. “I was studying for my degree during most of the last decade, and being on a college campus then, well…” she smirked. “It certainly was never boring.”
“Oh, I have some idea,” said Engineer. “I was a college professor for a while up until 1965, so I saw my share of craziness, that’s for darn sure.”
“Any good stories?” asked Dr. Marshall. “Not a whole terrible lot aside from the usual beats an’ hippies I guess,” Engineer admitted. “I mostly dealt with Engineering students, an’ they’re not quite th’ sit-in types th’ way the Liberal Arts or Political Science majors were.” Dr. Marshall gave him a comical frown, so Engineer’s eyes scanned the table as he tried to think of something. “But there was one time a few of my students constructed a pressurized beer cannon.”
“Really?” Dr. Marshall’s eyes went wide with interest. “Yep,” he said. “Completely destroyed one of th’ windows at their frat house. Gave another kid a concussion.” He shook his head. “What’s worse is that I found out later that they’d asked me for help workin’ on th’ darn thing an’ I didn’t even realize what it was they were even making!”
“Oh, geez,” Dr. Marshall was grinning now, putting a finger over her lips as though to try and contain it. “That’s…” she found herself at a loss for words for a moment, “that’s incredible.” She started giggling again. “Are you just about finished?” Engineer and Dr. Marshall both looked up to see their waiter by their table. “Oh, yeah,” said Engineer, handing off his cleared plate. “Everything was delicious, thank you kindly.”
“Yes,” Dr. Marshall said, pushing her plate towards the waiter. “We’ll have to come back again sometime.”
“Alright, thank you both.” The waiter took both of their plates. “Were either of you interested in dessert at all?” Engineer and Dr. Marshall looked to each other. “What do you say, anythin’?” Engineer asked. “I think I’ll be fine,” said Dr. Marshall. “Although, I would like to know if we could possibly take this bottle home with us.” She picked up the bottle of wine on their table. “Yeah, sure,” said the waiter. “I’ll just add that to your bill.”
“That’s fine,” said Dr. Marshall. “I’ll pay for it.”
“Nonsense,” said Engineer. “I invited you out, an’ a lovely lady such as yourself should be treated.” Dr. Marshall’s mouth scrunched up as though she’d taken a bite out of a lemon. “I don’t really like being treated. Makes me feel like I owe that person something.”
“You owe me nothin’,” said Engineer. “Consider it me payin’ you back for th’ pleasant conversation an’ company.” She hesitated a moment, before finally answering, “Tell you what. We’ll split the cost, since I picked this place out. Go Dutch, for the whole meal. How’s that sound?” Engineer shrugged. “If that’s what you want t’ do, then that’s alright by me. But if you change yer mind…”
“Thank you,” she said, “but you don’t have to do that for me.”
“Oh,” said Engineer, now crestfallen. Internally, he felt a sense of mild panic. Had he said something wrong? Had he offended her? Offering to pay for a ladies’ meal when you invited them out on a date was just common courtesy. That was what his Ma had taught him, anyway. Don’t fret, Dell, he thought to himself. Everything had been going so well before this, maybe there was still a chance for another date sometime. Maybe… maybe she had a bad experience with some other man. Don’t press the issue. This internal dialog lasted less than a few seconds before Dell straightened himself back up. “I suppose that’s only fair after all anyway.”
“Yes,” said Dr. Marshall. “I couldn’t ask you to pay for all of this on a first date.” The heat rushed back up to Engineer’s face again. First date? Was that an implication that there would be another? He took a few deep breaths. “Of course,” he said. “Yeah. Sure.” Dr. Marshall glanced at the watch on her wrist. “It’s starting to getting late,” she remarked. Engineer looked to his own watch. It was about a quarter to ten. “Looks like it.”
“You about ready to leave?”
“I reckon so,” he said. He noticed the waiter coming back up to the table, and realized that he hadn’t even noticed that the man had left. They received their check, and they left a tip on the table and paid for their meal. As they left the restaurant, Engineer looked to her, trying to get a reading on where to go from here. “You, uh, need a lift home?” he asked. “Oh, no, I drove,” she said. “I don’t live very far from here, actually.”
“Ah,” said Engineer, nodding. “Well… all right, then. I suppose… I guess I should get goin’, then. Thank you for the lovely evening, ma’am.” He was about to turn away to walk back to his truck when she answered back. “You’re going home already?” Engineer looked back around to her, and he saw her smiling at him, a kind of wry, knowing smile that made his insides feel all loopy. “Well, I mean…” he rubbed the back of his head. “I don’t… I don’t want to impose… an’ I told everyone I’d be back this evenin’.”
“You can still be back by tonight,” she said. “I just wanted to know if you’d like to drop by my place for a while, maybe share some more of this wine with me.” She held up the bottle in her hand and shook it playfully. “I’ve gotta drive home afterwards, though,” he said, the words spilling out of his head while he silently cursed himself for even saying them. “I could make you a cup of coffee, then,” she said. “Come on. I didn’t put you off that much, did I?”
“N-no ma’am!” said Engineer, tensing up. “Of course not!”
“Then follow me back home,” she said. “It’ll be fine. Trust me.” At this point, Engineer felt that he would have to be a complete and total idiot to refuse. He nodded, and drummed up all the confidence he could. “All right,” he said. “Then I’d love to, ma’am.”
“You don’t have to call me ‘ma’am’ all the time,” she said. “Just call me Becky.”
“Of course, of course,” he said. “I apologize, Becky. I’m jus’ used t’ bein’ polite, is all.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You just hop on in your car, and I’ll be in that little BMW over there,” she pointed to her car, which was sitting by a parking meter across the street. “Got it,” said Engineer, locking his eyes onto that green little car. “I’ll see you there, then.”
“See you,” she said, and she crossed the street. Engineer felt a surge of excitement well up inside of his chest, and his face beamed. He was grinning like an idiot as he made his way to his truck, and soon he was following that little green BMW down the street. His heart was thumping again. Honestly, he could not say that he’d anticipated this, nor did he think he would get this far. She really seemed to like him, at least enough to invite him back to her place, with possibly impure intentions; on the first date, no less. He took a few more deep breaths as they pulled up to her house, inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth. Just relax he thought, trying to consciously loosen the tense muscles in his back and arms. He then shut off the ignition and stepped out the car. She was already standing by the front door to her house, a tiny, one-story house in a cozy neighborhood made up of other tiny houses, all nearly identical save for the colors they were painted. Somewhere in a nearby yard a dog barked. Engineer approached the front door as she unlocked it, and she opened it and held the door open for him to come inside. As Engineer stepped inside the dark house, Dr. Marshall closed the door behind her and flicked on the hall light. To his left, there was her living room, marked by a couch and an armchair covered in intricately woven, multicolored blankets. To his right was nothing but a wall, perhaps to one of the bedrooms. “Have a seat,” she offered. “You’re lucky. Usually it’s much more of a mess in here.”
“It’s all right, I know how that is,” said Engineer, and he sat upon the moss-green couch. “You still wanted coffee?” she asked, hanging just by the entrance to the kitchen. “That offer for wine is still good.”
“I’m good for now,” he said. “Coffee’s fine.”
“All right,” she said, and slipped into the kitchen. He could hear her moving around in the kitchen, opening a drawer, pulling out a coffee can, scooping it out. Engineer sat back, hands in his lap, looking around the living room. The wall the couch was up against was wood paneled, with the other ones covered in fading, yellow, floral wallpaper. There was a bookshelf up against the opposite wall, crammed with books, the grand majority of those books on clinical psychology. On the front windowsill were a row of potted plants, most of them short round cacti. The smell of brewing coffee wafted into the living room, and he could hear Dr. Marshall… no, Becky, humming to herself under her breath. “How do you like your coffee?” she called out, snapping him back to attention. “Oh!” he cried out. “Uh, cream an’ sugar’s fine, thanks.” In a few minutes time she was stepping out of the kitchen, holding two mugs of hot coffee, offering one to Engineer. He accepted it graciously. He had been expecting her to take a seat in the armchair across from him, but instead she sat down beside him, and already he could feel his face start to flush again. He took a tentative sip from his steaming mug. “S’good,” he said. “Thanks,” she said, still stirring hers. Engineer drummed his fingers against his mug a moment, searching around the room for anything that might spark conversation. “Nice place you got here,” he said. “It’s all right,” she said. “It suits us just fine, really.” She blew on her own coffee before taking a sip. Her thigh was brushing up against his. He was acutely aware of this, and trying to think of anything else was nearly impossible. Surely, he had to be just about the only man in the world who was this much of a ninny, this awkward and bashful around ladies to the point of being rendered to all but a babbling, brain-dead moron around them. Well, probably not, but at this moment he sure as hell felt like that was the case. “Is something wrong, Dell?” Engineer looked up at her. “What?” he asked. “Oh, no, nothing’s wrong… I’m just fine, I just…” He fidgeted in his seat, running his index finger back and forth along the rim of his mug. “You’re still nervous.” She smiled at him. “You don’t have to be. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” He barked out a nervous laugh. “Yeah, I know…” he said. “I mean… in th’ rational part of my mind, I know that. I’m jus’…”
“Just what?” She looked at him, with her big brown eyes, and he felt pinned underneath her gaze. “I jus’… I don’t… I don’t know. You’re jus’ so charming an’ smart and you’re kind an’ you’ve put up with me bein’ such a… I dunno, a dweeb, maybe? I jus’ don’t feel like I-” She put a finger to his lips and shushed him, and he felt every muscle in his body go rigid. He looked to her, paralyzed, like a terrified animal, and she withdrew her hand. “It’s all right,” she said. “I like you, Dell.” The first thing to move on Engineer’s face was the corner of his mouth, which twitched upwards, as though testing the waters of what his ears had just heard. Slowly, his whole face broke out into a goofy and rather undignified grin, and his ears were redder than they had been. “You do?” he asked. “Would I have invited you over if I didn’t?” she asked back. “I… I suppose not, no,” he admitted. “I just… gosh. I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” she said, and placed a gentle hand on his knee, and gave it a squeeze. Engineer’s brain, normally a well-oiled machine capable of solving complex problems and equations and dreaming up machinery and theories previously relegated only to the realms of science fiction, was now sputtering like an old car engine, clogged up by a combination of adoration and lust. Somewhere, there was one small part of his mind desperately screaming at him to stop stammering like an idiot an make a move, you dummy, she’s clearly interested. Instead he felt almost like he was watching himself reeling back in disbelief that he’d actually found himself in this situation, at his age. It felt unreal. How could she possibly find him interesting, find him attractive, how could she like him in any way beyond anything purely platonic? Becky leaned in closer to him. “I imagine that you’ve been very lonely, haven’t you, Dell?” Some primitive response triggered inside of him, pulling some strings so that he could nod his head up and down. “Uh… uh-huh…” She was smiling. Becky was clearly enjoying this predicament, this power she had over him, reducing him to a blithering fool at a single touch. She set her coffee aside on the scuffed-up coffee table in front of him, and as Engineer thought to do the same she put a hand on his shoulder and was now just inches away from his face. “So have I,” she said. Her hand glided from his shoulder, up along his neck and onto his flushing cheek. Finally grasping some kind of semblance of control over himself, Engineer was finally able to sputter out a half-way articulate response. “Are you… are you propositioning me?” She laughed. “I thought that was obvious.”
“Yeah, well… I’m still havin’ trouble believin’ this is actually happening,” Engineer admitted. Becky said nothing. She gave a mischievous little smile, and drew in closer to him, gently using her hand to guide him until their lips met. It was at that moment when they kissed that something sparked inside of Engineer, and he moved his arms to embrace her, almost feeling as though he were operating outside of himself and pulling levers; left hand on back of the head, right arm around waist, don’t stop kissing her you idiot, she’s pressing up against you, good Lord. He was pushed onto his back, her kisses were deeper now, more desperate, and already he could feel the first twinges of arousal in his gut and his groin, the latter of which was very close to Becky’s rear as her legs straddled him. Her hand reached for that tie, making short work of the knot Engineer had fiddled with for so long and looping it around the back of his neck to pull him back up for another opened mouth kiss. They broke their kiss for a moment, panting and catching their breath. “Shall we?” she asked. “Where?” he asked. “Here?”
“Do you want to?” He tried to cast some kind of rational thought through the fog in his mind. “Bedroom,” he said. “That’d be better. Won’t smell like sex in here.” She pushed herself upright from him, and dismounted him. Engineer found himself being yanked upright by his arm, and was led into the hall and to her bedroom. She led him inside, and shut the door behind them before pushing him back onto the bed.
About 45 minutes later, they were lying in her bed together, still both completely naked. All the nervousness in Engineer had left him now, as he rested his head in Becky’s lap, one arm wrapped around her hips. She was sitting upright, smoking a cigarette and petting Engineer’s shaved head. “Feeling better?” she asked. “Much,” Engineer said, nuzzling against her. “Lot of stamina for a guy who hasn’t had sex for a couple of years,” she observed wryly. Engineer felt himself blushing again. “Well, I, uh, I’m haven’t been exactly, uh, ignoring those particular needs, Becky.”
“You masturbate,” she said plainly, and he shifted his head in an attempt to hide his bashful blush. “You don’t need t’ put it in such blunt terms,” he mumbled. “Why not?” she asked. “We’re both adults here. We just fucked, Dell. There’s no shame in it. It’s perfectly normal human behavior. In your situation, it’s quite understandable.”
“I suppose,” said Engineer, still sounding a little sullen. Becky smiled, and leaned over to give Engineer a kiss on the brow. “Maybe next time you do it you could think of me,” she said. “I could do the same with you.”
“I was actually hopin’ we might do this again sometime so I wouldn’t have to,” he said, looking up at her. “I’d like that,” she said. There was a moment’s silence between them as Becky took another drag on the cigarette between her fingers, and Dell just relished the feeling of her soft thigh against his cheek, just breathing and taking in the warmth and the scent of her skin. It was bliss, lying against her. He wanted to spend the rest of the night lying next to her, holding her in his arms. His eyes opened, and he shifted against her. “I just remembered,” he said, “I told Jane I’d be back later this evening. What time is it?” Becky glanced at the alarm clock on her night stand. “It’s 12:30,” she said. “Are you leaving?” Engineer sighed. “I don’t want to,” he admitted. “Maybe… maybe I could spend th’ night, leave in th’ morning. Tell Jane I got too drunk t’ drive home, I guess.”
“You didn’t tell him you were seeing me, were you?” Becky asked, though the question came off as more rhetorical than anything else. “Of course not,” said Engineer. “What was I supposed t’ do? Tell him I was takin’ his psychiatrist out on a date?” He sighed. “I think we’re gonna hafta keep this secret. I don’t know if it’s against your protocol t’ sleep with friends of your patients or not, but… I don’t know. Jane might not be too happy about it.”
“You don’t talk about Pyro that much,” Becky noted. “Well, Pyro mostly keeps to himself, I don’t think he cares about much th’ way Jane does,” said Engineer. “I can’t even imagine what he’d think, but I’m not particularly fixin’ t’ announce that I’d had carnal knowledge of you t’ him, either.” Becky gave a sage nod. She took one last drag on her cigarette and crushed the butt into the ashtray on her nightstand. “I’m sure we’ll figure somethin’ out,” said Engineer, as Becky turned off the lamp by their bedside and slid down to lie next to him. “Right?”
“Of course we will,” she said, and gave him a peck on his lips.“Get some sleep. We’ll worry about it later.”
“Right,” said Dell, as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and her head against his chest. “I suppose we will.”
Engineer’s eyes cracked open, slowly, as the smell of coffee wafted into the bedroom. He sat up in the bed, blinking away the sleep in his eye, and turned to where Becky had been lying beside him, only to see empty, rumpled-up sheets. He groaned as he stretched his arms and his shoulders, and cracked his back. He gave a cursory glance around the room, as though to confirm the events of the previous night had not been the product of a wishful dream and had in fact taken place. Admittedly, he was still groggy, but he felt better waking up this morning than he had for so many years on so many mornings before this one. He got up from the bed, and bent down to pick up the clothes he’d left strewn on the floor. First he stepped into his briefs, and then he shook out the slacks that lay on the floor so he could pull them on. He noticed his shirt didn’t appear to be among the rest of his clothes, and knelt down to look under the bed, seeing nothing underneath but a tabby cat with wide yellow eyes staring at him. “Oh,” said Engineer, cracking a smile as the cat tucked its paws underneath its body. “Pardon me, pussy cat.” The cat, of course, said nothing, its eyes fixed on the stranger invading its space. “You haven’t seen my shirt around, have you, kitty?” The cat hunkered down, its pupils going wide and round. Engineer chuckled, and stood up. The bedroom door was slightly ajar, and Engineer nudged it further open, and walked down the hall towards the kitchen. Soon after he stepped in, he found his shirt. There, in front of the kitchen counter and pouring coffee into a mug, was Becky, and on her back was the white shirt that Engineer had been wearing the night before. The sleeves were too short on her lithe arms, and the bottom of the shirt failed to completely conceal the pink panties on her hips. He felt a tinge of heat go to his ears and his cheeks, and tried to not stare at her, only for her to turn around just as he pulled his eyes away. “Oh, good, you’re already up,” she said, a wry smile on her lips. “I thought I was going to have to come in and wake you.” Engineer beamed. “No need for that,” he said. “I appreciate you not kickin’ me out.”
“You never gave me any reason to,” she said. “You want breakfast before you go back home?”
“Yeah, I…” Engineer’s smile slackened as he remembered. “Aw, darn it, what time is it?”
“About a quarter past eight,” said Becky. “Why, you don’t think you’ll be able to stay for a bit?”
“I suppose if we make it quick,” said Engineer. “I’m sorry, I knew I shouldn’t ‘ve stayed th’ night-”
“I’m glad you did, though,” said Becky. She presented Engineer with a mug of coffee, the steam slowing rising upwards and vanishing into the air. “Hope you don’t mind that I wore your shirt.”
“N-no, not at all,” said Engineer, accepting the mug with a dopey smile on his face. “Looks better on you than it does on me, anyway.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “I have to admit, I haven’t really done this before. Wearing a guy’s shirt the morning after, I mean.”
“Well, I mean, a lot of my exes didn’t really smell nice enough for me to want to wear their shirts,” she said with a chuckle. “How do you like your eggs?”
“Scrambled’s fine,” said Engineer. “Nice t’ know I smell nice, at least. Got that goin’ for me.”
“Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself,” said Becky, moving towards the fridge. “If you’re hoping to get together with me again, a little self confidence wouldn’t hurt, Dell.”
“Right, right,” Engineer said, bowing his head and looking into his reflection in his cup of coffee. “You’re right, I jus’… I dunno, I’m still reeling from last night, I guess. I almost can’t believe that happened.”
“Are you questioning my judgment?” Becky asked with a smirk, folding a handful of eggs in one hand. “No! Of course not!” He was blushing again. “No, I just… I’m sorry, you must think I’m a ninny.”
“A little,” said Becky, smiling. “Lucky for you you’re an intelligent, charming and very sweet ninny.” She glided from the fridge to the stove, igniting the stove with her free hand to heat the skillet on top. “Nice change of pace for me, really.”
“I reckon you haven’t had much of a good track record as far as old flames are concerned, huh?” Engineer asked, and he took a seat at the kitchen table. “Not really, no,” said Becky. “If Jane and Pyro hadn’t vouched for you like they did, I probably would have turned you down just based on my track record.”
“Is that so?” Engineer’s smile faltered a bit, and he hunched over to blow some of the steam off his coffee before taking a tentative sip. “Let’s just say I have a history of picking out some real winners,” she said with a sardonic smirk, and she cracked an egg on the edge of the skillet. “Apparently my ability to read people ends as soon as I become romantically involved with somebody.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Engineer, now feeling a bit uneasy. Surely, she wasn’t having second thoughts already? “Not your fault,” she said, looking up from the sizzling yolk. “It’s in the past anyway. Long time ago.” Engineer gave out a soft, thoughtful hum, and leaned over the kitchen table. Not sure of how to continue the conversation, he decided to just watch her. Even in the early morning with her hair mussed up, the light came through the window over the sink and made her skin glow, and she was beautiful. He felt his heart flutter in a way that it hadn’t since he’d started dating Irene, and that realization grounded him slightly. Just a few weeks back he’d been telling Soldier he wasn’t even interested in seeing anyone for a while, and now he found himself in the kitchen the morning after giving into desire with a woman he admittedly hardly knew. In the back of his mind, he almost felt as though this were some kind of affair; a ridiculous thought, really. Irene had been dead for over seven years now, and a man has needs. Perhaps it was the childish romantic notion that had lingered since adolescence, the idea of One True Love above all other love, that wheedled away at him. He was a grown man, however, and a man of science and reason to boot. There was no need for such silliness. When she came to the table with two plates of eggs, bacon and toast, he thanked her, and eagerly dug in. “S’good,” he said between mouthfuls. “I should hope so,” she said, and she took a sip of her coffee. “Hard to screw up eggs and bacon.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Engineer, and took a bite from his toast. “Sounds like you have more stories about that,” she said. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “I got a few.”
“You don’t have to tell me now.” She blew the steam off of her coffee, and sipped. There was a feeling that she wanted to say something else, but she didn’t, and continued to eat in silence. Engineer did as well, trying not to think too much of the lull in conversation. Instead, his mind wandered as did his eyes, becoming fixated on a wren perched on the windowsill. “So, now what?” Engineer said aloud. His eyes drifted back to Becky, who looked up from her breakfast. “Now what… what?” Becky asked. “Well, you… you wanted t’ meet up again, right?” said Engineer. “So, should we… plan on another date, or should I call you, or you could call me, or…?” She smiled. “We’ll discuss it next time you bring Jane and Pyro in. With them not in the room, obviously.”
“Right… of course,” he said. “That’d be smarter. I go out too often, they might… get suspicious.” Becky raised her eyebrows. “Last thing I need is for them t’ figure out I’m seein’ a lady an’ start askin’ me who it is,” said Engineer, finishing off his breakfast. “Of course,” she said. They both knew that, but Engineer felt as though he were more saying it to remind himself than anything else. He finished his coffee, letting out a satisfied sigh, and stood up from his chair. “Gonna need my shirt back, darlin’, sad as it is t’ say.” She smirked, and started unbuttoning the shirt right there, opening it up to reveal her bare breasts. Engineer felt his face flush as she handed it to him across the table, and he took it, clearing his throat. “Something wrong?” she asked wryly. “S’nothin’,” he said, trying his hardest not to sound too bashful. “You sure aren’t a shy one, are ya?”
“You’ve already seen it before,” she said, in a very matter-of-fact tone. She then stood up to lean in closer to him, with a vulpine smile.“And I plan on you seeing more of it in the future.” Engineer’s ears were now burning, and he let out an idiotic chortle despite himself, before clearing his throat and wiping the stupid grin off his face. “Right… of course. Thank you, Becky.” For a moment, their eyes were locked onto each other, and Engineer was filled with a feeling of syrupy, warm sweetness inside of his chest, as though his insides had just turned to caramel or honey. She was the first to move, hovering in closer to him, and then he towards her, until their lips met, and he swore he could feel a blissful tingle shoot up his spine and to the back of his head. Oh, it’d been far too long since he’d had a kiss like that, one that made him wish he could pull her into himself so hard that they’d fuse into the same being. He settled for bringing a hand to her head and petting her long, black hair, which he still had his hand on as she broke the kiss. “My dear, you are downright intoxicating,” Engineer said with a wistful exhale. “First time I’ve ever heard that one,” she said. “An’ there’ll be a lot more a’ those where that came from, darlin’,” he said. It took a great amount of effort for Engineer to actually get up from his chair, finish getting dressed, and leave that cozy little house, not wanting to tear his eyeballs away from Becky for too long. He felt as though he were walking on a fluffy pink cloud every time he met those dark almond eyes, and as he settled into his seat, he adjusted his rearview mirror so he could catch one last glimpse of her. She stood in the doorway, now clothed, and leaned against the doorframe with her head tilted coyly as though she were daring him to come back. He sighed, and readjusted his mirror as he made his way back home.
Quietly as he could, Engineer opened the front door and stepped inside the kitchen. Guard Dog was sprawled out on the kitchen floor, and he lifted his head as he saw Engineer, his tail thumping against the linoleum. “Hey, boy,” said Engineer, in a hushed voice. He put a finger to his lips, and Guard Dog closed his smiling mouth and tilted his head. Engineer crept past his dog, and began to walk past the living room, which was still dark. He stepped gingerly towards his bedroom, trying to make as little noise as possible. “You’re late.” Engineer let out a cry as he jumped back in surprise, pressing himself against the wall and clutching his chest. He peered into the living room and saw Soldier sitting on the couch, arms crossed and back straight, looking at Engineer with a disappointed glare. He was gripping Shovel Jr. tight in one hand, tapping it against his bicep impatiently. “Oh, good Lord,” sighed Engineer, “you nearly scared th’ bejeezus outta me.” Soldier grimaced. “Sorry,” he said gritting his teeth as he did. “Where were you? I’ve been waiting all night.”
“O-oh…” said Engineer, sweeping a hand over his scalp. “I’m awful sorry, Jane, I ended up not bein’ able t’ drive back last night.” He tried to sound as casual as he possibly could, but could feel his insides squirm under Soldier’s scrutinizing gaze. “I ended up passin’ out at one a’ th’ fella’s places. I would’a called, but I wasn’t quite in th’ right frame a’ mind. Sorry about that.”
“They couldn’t call you a cab?” Soldier looked Engineer up and down, like a machine scanning for inconsistencies. “Couldn’t tell ‘em where t’ go,” said Engineer with a shrug. “I didn’t mean t’ make ya worry, Jane. I apologize. I should’a been more responsible.” Soldier appeared to mull this over a moment, before he finally nodded. “That’s all right, Engie,” he said. “I was concerned, that’s all. You said you’d be back last night and I’ve been here waiting.”
“You didn’t hafta do all that,” said Engineer. “Were you… awake th’ whole time?”
“Affirmative,” said Soldier. “Everybody else went to bed. Your daughter is sleeping in, as usual, and Pyro… I have no idea what Pyro’s doing up there. Probably sleeping. He doesn’t like to be disturbed.”
“Aren’t you tired?” Engineer asked. “I’m fine,” Soldier insisted. “I’ve gone more than 48 hours without sleep before, when I was in Poland! A man learns to function without sleep, Engie, and I assure you that I can do it again, too. Why, this is hardly anythi-” Soldier’s head fell forward, and his body slumped forward. Engineer rushed to him in alarm, just about to shake him to when Soldier let out a soft snore. “Well, don’t that beat all,” Engineer said to himself softly. As gently as he could, he laid Soldier down on the couch, and took one the blanket that had been draped over the back of the couch (the one his mother had knitted for him shortly before Rosie had been born, he remembered), and draped it over Soldier. He stood over the other man, watching as Soldier started to drool on the arm of the couch. Engineer shook his head and sighed. “G’night, Jane,” he said, and walked to his bedroom to get showered.
Demoman cracked open his eye, and squeezed it shut again when the sunlight stung his optic nerves. He lifted his head, which felt as heavy as a wrecking ball on his neck, and sat up. He covered his eye with the heel of his palm, rubbing the sleep glue out of it and groaning. Hungover again, just as he had been the past few weeks. He blinked his eye open again and turned his head to see Sniper lying on the couch perpendicular to his, splayed out with a hat covering his face and a west highland terrier lying atop his chest, his arm and legs hanging off the edges as he snored. Honestly, Demoman was surprised that Sniper had stuck around this long. Why Sniper had stuck around, Demoman couldn’t rightly say, but he appreciated the company. If he was going on a bender for this long, then at the very least he wouldn’t be doing it alone. He stood up, and lurched towards the kitchen, groaning as his temples throbbed with each pump of blood to his brain. When he arrived at his destination, he saw Ilse sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea and reading a book, stroking the Scottie lying across her lap. She gave Demoman a quick glance as he staggered in. “Good afternoon, Tavish.”
“Afternoon? S’that late already?” Demoman gave her an innocent smile as he made his way to the cabinet. “It’s half past two,” said Ilse. “Well, at least it’s still daylight then, right luv?” Demoman grabbed a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass, and made his way to the table, planting a kiss on Ilse’s cheek. “Yes, it is,” she said, and patted the side of Demoman’s face. “Hair of the dog zat bit you, again?”
“Stick with th’ cure that works,” said Demoman, sitting down and twisting the bottle open. He poured the whiskey into his shot glass and knocked it back. He slumped back in his chair and tilted his head back. “How’re you doin’, luv?”
“I’m well,” she said. “Feeling better?”
“Give it a bit,” Demoman groaned, his eye closed. “You want ze ice pack, Schatz?” she asked. “Yeah, sure,” he said, waving towards the fridge. Isle scooted her chair back and lifted the dog off her lap, placing it on the floor. She walked to the fridge and pulled out an ice pack, and handed it to Demoman, who placed it over his brow. Ilse sat back down and picked up her book, saying nothing more as her eyes roved over the page. “Whatcha readin’, luv?” Demoman asked. Isle gave out a little “hmph”, not even looking up from her book. “Some pop psychology garbage vone of my patients had told me about,” she said. “It’s about some young girl who claims to have multiple personalities in her head. Zhey made a movie about it.”
“Tha’s fascinatin’,” groaned Demoman. “You seen tha’ movie?”
“I have no interest,” Ilse said flatly. “I’ve no time for human spectacles.”
“I dunno abou’ that,” said Demoman, cracking a smile. “Ye put up with me well enough.”
“Oh, hush,” Ilse said, and Demoman gave out a weak chuckle. There was a moment’s silence between them, Demoman still nursing his hangover and Ilse glued to her book. Without warning, she clapped it closed, which caused Demoman to flinch in pain. She looked to him, her expression cool, until Demoman tilted his head forward and opened his eye to meet her gaze. “Can I ask you something, dearest?”
“Aye?” Demoman leaned forward, still keeping his ice pack in place. Ilse was quiet for a moment, studying Demoman a while before she spoke. “Do you ever fantasize about ozher women when ve are making love?” Demoman blinked. “Why are ye askin’ me that, now?”
“Answer ze question.” Ilse’s expression was unchanged, still poker faced as usual. “No, a’ course not!” Demoman sat up straighter in his chair, and squared his shoulders. “Wot’d give ye that idea?”
“Nozzing gave me ze idea, love, I was simply asking you a question.”
“Ye don’ jes’ ask a question like tha’ outta th’ blue,” said Demoman. “Wot’s got inta ye?”
“Curiosity,” said Ilse. “I was just wondering, if perhaps you have had erotic fantasies about women other zhen myself.”
“A’ course I don’t!” declared Demoman. “An’ quite frankly I’m a bit insulted that’d ye think that.”
“It is not meant as an insult, Tavish,” said Ilse, putting a gentle hand over Demoman’s. “I mean, why would I anyway?” asked Demoman. “I’ve got you, haven’t I? You think any a’ them could compare tae you? Sure, other women might be as pretty, or they might be as smart, or as lovely, but not a’ one a’ them could ever mean as much tae me as you.” He moved his other hand to put it over top of Ilse’s, but nearly dropped the ice pack in the process, catching it awkwardly and slapping it over his head again. “Ye know that, don’chye?”
“Zis is not about love, Tavish, just lust,” she said. “Ze two are not mutually inclusive.”
“They are tae me,” said Demoman. “Erry girl I’d ever been with, I wos madly in love with her beforehand. I dinnae much see th’ point a’ sex without love. I know other men are fine an’ content with it, but that’s jes’ not how I’ve been. It wouldn’t feel right unless yer head o’er heel for ‘em… it’d jes’ be empty.” Ilse’s eyebrows arched in surprise, and she stroked Demoman’s hand before withdrawing her own. “I see,” she said, her eyes drifting to the floor. “Is this ‘cos I been away or with Mundy so much?” asked Demoman. “I mean, I know ye probably don’t like him hangin’ around so much, an’ I know ye don’t like it when I leave ye for jobs… listen, if ye want me tae kick Sniper out fer a bit an’ jes’ stick around, me an’ you, some quality time together… I’ll do it. Jes’ say th’ word, an’ I’ll do it for ye, luv.” He reached out his hand over the table, towards hers, and took hold of it, giving it a tender squeeze as he offered her a smile. “Zat is not necessary,” she said. “Besides, we bozh know he has been coming here more for you zen for himself.” She scooted her chair back and stood up, collecting her book and looking down at a somewhat bewildered Demoman. “I should get going to zhe office.” Demoman looked up at the clock above the door. According to the odd little clock shaped like a begging Scottish terrier that Ilse had picked up some years ago, it was almost three o’clock. Later than she would go but… what day was it again? “Isn’t it Saturday, love?”
“I have some zhings to take care of,” she said. “I trust you’ll be fine on your own, yes?”
“I’ll live,” he said. “Ye sure ye don’ wanna stick around an’… talk?”
“Perhaps later,” she said, tucking her book under her arm. She leaned over to give Demoman a kiss on his cheek. “I’ll see you zhis evening, dearest.”
“Alright,” said Demoman, trying to mask his insecurity. Either Ilse failed to notice it or flat out ignored it as she left the kitchen looking satisfied, and could be heard picking up her keys and opening and closing the door. Demoman slumped over the table, removing the ice pack from his head. The worst of it was gone, but the ache was still there, felt like a pulse muffled through cotton. He got up from his chair, and lumbered to the cabinets, pulling out a bag of flour and a canister of salt. He noticed there were no dishes in the sink, meaning either Ilse had already eaten and did her own dishes, which Demoman found unlikely, or she had skipped breakfast all together, which was out of character for her. Something was going on, he knew it. It wasn’t unlike her to be a bit standoffish and distant at times, he was used to that from a woman who had been through as much as she had in her life. It wasn’t even that odd of her to bring up strange questions out of nowhere… but this was different. Something was off. Was she suspecting him of cheating on her? He hadn’t of course, but those questions, and that reaction… why on earth would she act such a way, if she hadn’t suspected him of being unfaithful? Unless… No, she was looking to fuck somebody, and you can’t do that when you’re away for so long on all those film shoots, now can you? Soldier’s words from the reunion not three months ago rang in his head. “Bah,” he said aloud, slamming the cabinet door shut. He turned to move to the fridge only to see his little black dog looking up at him, cautiously wagging his tail in expectation of a treat. Demoman smiled. “Least one of us is in a good mood then, eh, Siegfried?” Siegfried let out a low woof, licking his snout and playfully backing away a few paces. “That’s a good boy,” said Demoman. “How about a bit a’ breakfast then?”
“Well, how did it go?” Pyro tilted his head. “Whurrt gurrh?”
“Your exercise,” Dr. Marshall clarified. “With the mirror. Were you able to try it?” Pyro bowed his head, and averted his gaze from the doctor’s. “It’s all right,” she said. “You don’t have to push yourself.”
“Urh trrrid,” Pyro mumbled. “You did?” Dr. Marshall perked up; she was getting better at deciphering Pyro’s muffled speech now. “How did it go?”
“Nurrt gurrd,” said Pyro sheepishly. “What happened?” Dr. Marshall asked. “Do you need your crayons? Could you show me?” He turned over his hand on his lap, and with great hesitation, removed his glove and revealed bloodstained bandages hastily and sloppily wrapped around his fingers. Dr. Marshall stifled a gasp, tearing her eyes away to open up a drawer in her desk, pulling out a red tin first aid kit. Pyro squirmed uncomfortably as Dr. Marshall kneeled before him, taking his hand into hers. Without a word, she opened the kit and unwrapped his sticky dressings, revealing several deep cuts slashed across Pyro’s knuckles and palms. She picked out a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a few cotton balls, soaked the tufts of cotton, and dabbed at Pyro’s wounds, her movements delicate and gentle. Pyro hissed and winced, but otherwise allowed her to treat him, fixated on her as she wrapped his hand with clean bandages. Once she had finished, Pyro examined his hands, flexing his fingers as much as the bandages would allow him, and looked back to Dr. Marshall. “Thurnk yuur,” said Pyro, tucking his hand inside his jacket. “No need to thank me,” said Dr. Marshall. “I feel partially responsible for this. I may have pushed you a bit too far too early.”
“Issh nurt yurr furrlt.”
“Thank you, Pyro. That’s sweet of you to say.” She gave him a soft smile. “Did you tell Dell about this?” Pyro shook his head. “And he didn’t notice?”
“Nuur,” said Pyro. “Uh hurrd urt.”
“Is there a reason you didn’t tell him?” she asked. She spoke slowly, as though she was trying to compensate somehow for her own difficulty understanding Pyro’s speech. “I thrrrt huuh murrt gurt muuuhd,” Pyro admitted sheepishly, tugging at his sleeve with his good hand. “Huuh murrt yurrl ut muuh.”
“Oh, Pyro,” she sighed. “I don’t think he would be mad at you. He might be scared, but he wouldn’t punish you or hurt you for it.” He said nothing, and just hung his head in shame. “Do you want to tell him?” Pyro shook his head violently, in a manner that recalled a horse performing a trick on command. “If you want, I could tell him for you,” she suggested, leaning forward and craning her neck to look Pyro in the eye. “I’m only asking because I’m afraid you might need to see a doctor. There’s a good chance you might need to get stitch-”
“UH KNUUR UH DURRKTUR!” Pyro shouted, causing Dr. Marshall to jolt upright. Immediately, Pyro turned sheepish and shrunk back again. “Uh’ll shee Murrdick.”
“Medic?” Her eyes looked up, recalling the man Soldier had mentioned in previous sessions. “Are you able to just see him whenever?”
“Shurr,” said Pyro. “Uh currn duh thurrt.”
“Can you at least promise to see him for me then?” Dr. Marshall caught Pyro’s eye, her eyes and tone imploring. “Please?” Pyro didn’t respond right away, shifting on the couch and looking down at his feet. He then lifted his head and gave a weak nod. “Uh prumish,” he said, and made a cross over his chest. “Shwurr.” Dr. Marshall breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m glad to hear that.” Pyro squared his shoulders and sat up straighter, giving a tight, affirmative nod. His gaze was, presumably, locked onto her with expectation. Initiating the discussion in these sessions was something Pyro was never actually inclined to do, and he depended entirely on the doctor to give him an activity in their sessions. But she wasn’t moving for the crayons and paper now. She sat on the edge of her desk, and sighed. “Well,” she said, “with your hand the way it is now, I don’t think it would be a good idea to have you drawing any pictures.” Pyro slumped in disappointment. “However,” she said, “I did want to ask if you might be willing to undergo some testing so that I might be able to help you better.”
“Tsshting?” There was a clear panic in Pyro’s tone, his posture now rigid. “Now, now, it’s all right, it’s nothing scary,” she assured him, lifting her hands in a calming gesture. “There won’t be any kind of wires or needles or anything like that. It’s more along the lines of a test you might do in school.” This seemed to assuage Pyro’s initial anxiety, and now he just tilted his head in curiosity. “It would mostly just be a series of simple aptitude tests,” explained Dr. Marshall. “Reading, mathematics, problem solving, reaction time, coordination… things like that. Nothing invasive. No pressure. The results from the tests will help me better help you. Would that be all right with you?” Pyro put his chin in his good hand, and hummed in thought. “You need some time to mull it over?” Dr. Marshall asked. “Mmmph!” Pyro gave a vigorous nod. “All right,” she said. “Is there anything you wanted to discuss today then?” Pyro tilted his head back, and looked to the ceiling as he kicked his legs back and forth. After a few seconds of this, he shook his head. “Nurrr rrrulluh,” he said with a shrug. “Well, all right,” said Dr. Marshall. She stood up and leaned over her desk, and flipped through the rolodex on her desk. Her fingers criss-crossed like scissors between index cards until she found the precise one, and slid her legal pad across her desk in front of her, jotting the name and number down. “Pyro, would you mind calling Dell in for a moment?” Eagerly, Pyro went to the door, poking his head out and giving a muffled call to Engineer. Within moments, Engineer was inside the office, removing his hat from his head and bringing in with him a heady musk that smelled like a combination of old leather and rubbing alcohol. He gave Dr. Marshall a polite nod. “You wanted to speak with me, ma’am?” Dr. Marshall handed Engineer the sheet of paper. “I would like you to arrange an appointment with Dr. Montoya,” she said, her tone dry and clinical. “Pyro has agreed to do some diagnostic tests. Nothing invasive, just a series of basic aptitude tests, mostly. They might take a few hours to complete, so make sure Pyro is well-rested and has breakfast beforehand.” Engineer looked over the sheet of paper. “Alrighty then, I’ll guess I’ll give th’ doc a call soon as we get home.” He looked to Pyro, who was looking over his shoulder curiously. “So, uh, should I step back outside an’ wait for you two t’ finish up, or…?”
“Not necessary,” said Dr. Marshall. “Pyro and I are wrapping up early today. You won’t be billed for this session.”
“Well, that’s awfully considerate of you, ma’am,” said Engineer. “Is there anythin’ else you needed to discuss?” There was the slightest lilt of eagerness in his voice. “If I could have a few minutes to discuss some things in private, I would appreciate it,” said Dr. Marshall. Her tone was professional and polite, her face and posture betraying no ulterior motives. “Very well,” said Engineer, and he cleared his throat. “Pyro, would you mind takin’ you an’ Jane t’ wait out in th’ car? I’ll only be a minute.”
“Keesh,” Pyro demanded, and presented an open palm to Engineer, making a grabby gesture with his fingers. “Here,” said Engineer, fishing his keys out of his pocket and handing them off to Pyro. “I won’t be long, so don’t you an’ Jane be gettin’ any bright ideas.” No sooner had he placed the keys in Pyro’s palm than Pyro dashed out the office, hollering for Soldier to join him. Engineer let out a relieved chuckle, and lowered his arms to his sides. He tapped his hat against his thigh, and gave Dr. Marshall a polite nod. “Hello, Becky.”
“Dell,” said Becky, stepping in closer to him and giving him a comely smile. She closed the space in between them, and came to a halt as she put her hands on his chest. “What on earth are you wearing?”
“Do I look that bad?” he asked. “No, not your clothes, that cologne,” she said. She took a few whiffs and shook her head. “Maybe next time you shouldn’t wear something so…overpowering.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” he said apologetically, hunching over under her gaze. “I just, I had this stuff forever, an’ this is my first time seein’ you since our date an’ all, I thought, I dunno, I guess I thought ladies liked that sort of thing-” He was stopped when he looked back up at her and she put a finger to his lips, and shushed him. “Please,” she said, “I appreciate the thought, but I don’t want you raising any suspicion from Pyro or Jane.” Engineer’s face fell, and he groaned. “Oh, hell,” he muttered. “You’re right. I wasn’t… I wasn’t thinkin’ straight. Here I am all butterflies in my stomach an’ twitterpated like a schoolboy with a crush an’ I… I just ain’t ever done this before… doin’ a… a secret relationship, I mean.”
“I can tell,” said Dr. Marshall, a wry smile forming on her lips. She rested her forehead against his, looking down at his face and watching his thought process as his eyes drifted and brow kneaded. He looked back up at her, his eyes meeting hers. “Where do we go from here?” he asked in earnest. She sighed. “I think it would be best if we not overthink this too much,” she said. “Just keep meeting up once a week or so, talk, have some coffee… keep things casual.”
“Casual,” Engineer repeated. “Does… does that mean we’re not going to… y’know…?”
“Not going to what?” Dr. Marshall asked. She was still close to him, her hips just scant inches away from his, her arms now draped over his shoulders. In his mind he felt as though he were in a car and he’d made a wrong turn, and was now backing up to try and right himself. “… Exactly what is the nature of our relationship, Dr. Marshall?” he asked, his tone much more restrained. “What did you think it was?” she asked. “I’m not entirely sure,” he admitted. “I’d come to you with romantic intentions but it seems these feelings aren’t entirely reciprocal.”
“Dell,” she said, straightening up and holding Engineer at arm’s length, “I’m really not looking for a long-term romantic relationship with a client’s caretaker. You realize that’s extremely risky.”
“Oh…” Engineer’s shoulders slumped a little. “I… I see…”
“But,” she said, “I do like you, Dell. I like you a lot. You’re charming, you’re extremely intelligent, you’re funny and you’re cute on top of that. I want to keep seeing you. If circumstances were different I’d be more than happy to officially date you. I really shouldn’t have accepted that date invitation, and I certainly should not have had sex with you.” Engineer’s head was lowered by now. Thin fingers lifted his chin until his eyes met hers again, and she tilted her head and closed in on him until their lips met. His heart started hammering again as her hands framed his face, and the kiss went deeper, and his head swam and went tingly as he put his hands on her hips and drew her closer. Nearly a full minute passed before they parted, exhaling hot breath as they gazed into each other’s eyes and she smiled at him. “I don’t regret it, though,” she said, and stroked his cheek. “Good,” he said. “Neither do I.”
“Come by my place Friday night, sometime after eight,” she said. “I want to see you again.” He smiled. “Yes, ma’am. Will do.”
“And next time,” she said, her lips going to his ear, “forget the cologne. You don’t need it.”
“O-okay.” His ears went pink right away, and they pulled apart from each other. Dr. Marshall resumed her professional demeanor, acting as though none of what had just transpired even happened at all, while Engineer still felt Eros’ arrow sticking into his chest. “Another appointment same time next week as well?” she asked. “Of course,” said Engineer dreamily. “Definitely.”
“Great,” she said. “I’ll put you down then.”
“Thank you,” he said, trying to will away the smile on his cheeks and the blush in his face and ears. “I’ll be seein’ you Friday, then.”
“I look forward to it,” said Becky. He could hide the smile no more, and under her gaze he felt a swell of confidence surge from his chest. With a deft flick of his wrist his hat was back on his head, and he tilted the brim down slightly as he hooked his thumb into one of his belt loops. “Take care, little lady,” he said, tipping his hat, and he spun around and swaggered out the door like a gunslinger in a western leaving a saloon. It was everything Becky could do to hold in her giggling fit until he was long gone.
“KINDA BUSY RIGHT NOW, SWEETHEART!” Engineer shouted from underneath his truck. “DADDY, IT’S THE PHONE,” Rosie shouted back. “IT’S FOR YOU.” Engineer rolled out from underneath his truck, covered in sweat and grease and oil. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and propped twisted his head towards the open garage door. “WHO IS IT?”
“IT’S SCOUT,” she said. “YOU WANT ME T’ TELL ‘IM T’ CALL BACK?”
“I’M COMIN’!” Engineer hollered back, and stood to his feet. As he walked out of the garage he reached for the rag in his back jean pocket, and wiped his hands. He climbed the stairs to the porch with a grunt, and strode into the kitchen, where Rosie was waiting, holding the phone receiver out to him. He took the receiver from her hand, and set it on his shoulder, leaning his head against it as he wiped off one last spot of grease. “Hello?”
“Engie!” said Scout. “How you doin’ man? Haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“I’m doin’ just fine, buddy, just fine,” said Engineer, now holding the phone in his hand as he leaned on the kitchen counter. “I’m workin’ again, things have settled down since you last called… how’s the new baby?”
“Just fantastic, just swell!” Scout said. “Actually, funny that you bring her up, y’know, ‘cause I was callin’ ‘cause me an’ Bunny wanted to show off the new family addition in person. She’s gotten a little bigger an’, you know, I thought maybe you an’ Soldier an’ Pyro might wanna come over.”
“Well, sure,” said Engineer. “I’d love to, Scout, that sounds wonderful!”
“Good, good!” said Scout. “I mean, I was thinkin’, I ain’t seen Pyro since he came back anyways, an’ I wanted t’ see him again, so I figured, ‘why not,’ right?”
“Sounds like a good enough excuse to me,” said Engineer. “You want me t’ bring anything? Y’know, food or baby clothes or anythin’?”
“‘Naw, Ma’s gonna be cookin’ an’ we already had a baby shower, y’know, so ya don’t have ta bring anythin’, unless you really want to I guess… or you can make some kinda diaper-changin’ machine…”
“Funny you should bring that up,” said Engineer, “I think I might have some parts for a prototype I made back when Rosie was just a baby…”
“Hey, hey, whoa, Hardhat, I was just jokin’,” Scout chuckled. “Ah,” said Engineer. “Just as well. Never could get th’ darn thing fine-tuned enough to work on a live infant. Darn shame.” His eyes tilted upwards, and his brow kneaded in thought. “… But maybe if I had adjusted the equilibrium on th’ rotary apparatus-”
“Hey, Engie, I mean it, don’t break my friggin’ kid,” Scout said flatly. “She’s still brand new an’ I ain’t exactly got a warranty on her-OW!”
“You all right, Scout?”
“I’m fine just… Bunny friggin’ hit me! Jeez, I told him not to, what the hell’s yer problem?” There was some muffled yelling in the background of the call, followed by arguing. Then a dull smack, and another cry of pain from Scout. “Ow, Jesus! You hearin’ this? You hear this abuse I gotta put up with?” Engineer chuckled. “She sounds downright vicious.”
“Yeah, yeah…” said Scout. “I suppose she should be,” said Engineer. “If she’s gotta keep you and two kids in line she’s gotta be made of some tough stuff.”
“You know it,” said Scout. “Hey, uh, the other thing I was thinkin’, I was gonna invite Doc an’ Heavy an’ Sniper an’ Demo, too. Maybe Demo could bring his girl, you know, I mean, if you think she an’ Doc can be in the same room without killin’ each other…”
“I think you might wanna clear that with Doc an’ Demo first,” Engineer suggested. “I’ve seen th’ Doc an’ his ex-wife in a room together, an’ they’re not exactly on th’ best of terms.”
“What, they have a screamin’ match in front a’ you or somethin’?”
“Hardly,” said Engineer. “It was a tad more, uh, passive-aggressive than that.”
“Oh, wow,” Scout laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“So, when exactly is this house party a’ yours?” Engineer asked. “Well, y’know, I was thinkin’ now that everybody’s got those teleporters, we could probably do this thing on Saturday?”
“This Saturday?” Engineer thought back to Dr. Marshall’s office. “Sure, I can manage this Saturday. About what time would you want us over, keepin’ in mind th’ time difference here an’ all?”
“Whenever you can make it is fine,” said Scout. “I mean, it’d be nice if you could be here around, I dunno, two or three? I just don’t want you showin’ up too late.”
“Fine by me,” said Engineer. “I can work with that. Fine.”
“Great!” said Scout. “I’ll get ta callin’ everybody else then. I’ll talk to ya later, pally.”
“Take care, Scout,” Engineer said. “Good bye.” And with that, he hung up. “What was that all about?” Engineer turned to Rosie, who was sitting at the kitchen table, her hand in a bag of potato chips. He walked over towards the table and picked up the bag. “Hey!” Rosie exclaimed, her freckled face scrunching up in frustration. “I was eatin’ those!”
“You’re gonna spoil your dinner,” said Engineer, rolling the bag closed, the foil crinkling loud enough to draw Guard Dog out from under the kitchen table. “And that was about a get-together Scout’s plannin’. He wants us t’ meet th’ new baby.” Instantly, Rosie’s scowl faded. “Oh, did Bunny finally have it?”
“Yeah, she did, ‘bout two months back,” said Engineer. “I could’a sworn I’d told you that.”
“I don’t remember hearin’ anythin’.” Rosie crossed her arms and leaned onto the table. “Was it a boy or a girl?”
“A little girl,” said Engineer. “Jean Louise.”
“Aww,” Rosie cooed, and pulled up her hands to support her chin. “Is she cute?”
“I would assume so,” said Engineer. He opened the cupboard and shoved the chip bag back inside. “Haven’t gotten to see her yet.”
“I wanna see her!” Rosie perked up in her chair. “I mean, I’m invited, right?”
“Of course,” said Engineer. He pulled out the chair opposite of Rosie. “I mean, you’ll be fine with all th’ fellas bein’ there, won’t you?”
“All of them?” Rosie asked. “I imagine so,” said Engineer. “Why, none a’ them are botherin’ you too much, are they?”
“You mean asides from th’ ones livin’ with us?” Rosie asked, lowering her voice. “Rosalie, please,” Engineer said, lowering his voice to a stage whisper to match his daughter’s. “Now is not the time t’ bring this up.”
“I was jus’ making a joke, jeez.” Rosie crossed her arms. “I know it’s takin’ time for you to adjust t’ Jane an’ Pyro, but they’re tryin’ their best,” said Engineer. “Just be patient with them, all right?” Rosie sighed. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, I’m just… I hear Pyro pacin’ around up there an’ I hear Jane runnin’ around hollerin’ like he does, I just-” Engineer took his daughter’s hand in his, and patted it gently. “Hey. It’s all right,” he said. He gave her a soft smile. “All you gotta do is speak up an’ tell me if they’re causin’ you any trouble, an’ yer ole’ dad’ll take care of it. All right?” Before Rosie could respond, the door to the back porch swung open, and Soldier walked in. His arms and face were covered in thin, red slashes across his skin. His shirt was ripped, his knuckles were bloody, and he lumbered through the living room and into the kitchen without paying any heed to the stares of Engineer, Rosie and Guard Dog. Soldier sniffed back a trickle of blood from his nose, and opened the refrigerator, pulling out a can of Blue Streak, popping the tab, and knocking it back. “Jane?” Soldier stopped drinking, and looked to Engineer. “Are you all right, buddy?” Engineer asked. “Fine!” said Soldier, flashing Engineer a toothy grin. “Fine, absolutely fine. Took care of your coyote problem.”
“That so?” Engineer looked Soldier up and down, and glanced at Rosie, whose eyes turned down to her own hands. “Wasn’t aware we had a coyote problem.”
“Not anymore you don’t.” Soldier puffed out his chest with no small amount of pride. Rosie looked to her father, shaking her head and narrowing her eyes in disapproval. Engineer gave her a pleading shrug, and sighed. Guard Dog sniffed and licked Soldier’s wounds with curiosity and concern. “Do you, uh, need any kind of medical attention or anything?” Engineer started to get up from his chair. “No need, Tex,” said Soldier, “I’ve done my own field dressing. And I’ve had my rabies shots.” Engineer opened his mouth to respond, but closed it and sat back down. He sighed and shook his head. “Would it be too much to ask you not to assault any wild animals, at least for the time being? Scout has taken th’ liberty of inviting us to his home on Saturday, and I would appreciate it if you don’t show up looking like you got in a fight with a sticker bush.”
“You didn’t kill that coyote, did you?” Rosie asked. Soldier ignored Engineer’s statement entirely, and turned to Rosie with a furrowed brow. “Negatory,” he said. “Bastard retreated. For now, anyway. Pyro and I will be regrouping to strategize.” He tilted his head back and shouted up at the ceiling. “ISN’T THAT RIGHT, PYRO?” There were three knocks on the ceiling above their heads, and Soldier smirked. “Just tell me I can count on you not makin’ a scene at this get-together, would ya?” Engineer asked. “I wanna make sure you’re not actin’ out in front a’ Scout’s brand new baby…”
“Baby?” Soldier looked pensive for a moment. “Oh, yeah. His wife did have that baby, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did,” said Engineer. “You were here when we found out, remember?”
“Yeah, I remember,” said Soldier. “Baby, right. Roger. Gotcha.” At the end of the hallway on the other end of the house, the sound of the attic hatch opening could be heard, and Soldier cleared his throat. “I should be going,” said Soldier, shifting his weight from his heels to the balls of his feet, and back again. “Important matters to discuss.”
“If it’s not too much trouble, wouldja mind passin’ the news along to Pyro?” Engineer asked. “Pretty sure he already knows by now,” said Soldier. He looked up at the ceiling and sniffed. “He’s not totally isolated up there, Engie. He knows what’s going on. He’s always listening…” Soldier trailed off as his eyes trailed over the plaster above them. Engineer looked to his daughter only to see her looking back at him, her face twisted in a grimace of disgust. Soldier saw this, and before he could be noticed by either of them, he started to step backwards towards the hallway, until he disappeared behind the frame of the kitchen entrance. Engineer turned his head back to where Soldier had been, only to see the space no empty, and hear the sound of Soldier running down the hall. “Daddy,” said Rosie, “I take back what I said about that just bein’ a joke.”
“So what now?” Becky cracked open the bedroom window. “What do you mean?”
“I mean where do we go from here?” Engineer asked. He was sprawled out atop slightly rumpled sheets, naked and post-coital. “I believe we already had that discussion the other day.” Becky walked back over to the bed, sitting on the edge. She opened the nightstand drawer and pulled out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. “Briefly,” said Engineer, rolling over onto his side towards Becky. He propped himself up on his elbow. “But, you know, I’m just wondering if we’re just going to keep meeting up like this?”
“I’m fine with it if you are,” said Becky, pulling out a cigarette. She put it between her lips, and offered the carton to Engineer. He waved his hand. “Don’t smoke, thank you,” he said. “You’re probably better off,” she said, putting the carton down on the nightstand. She flicked open her lighter, and when the flint caught the tinder, she put the flame to the end of the cigarette, and inhaled deeply, then exhaled, letting out a stream of smoke. Putting the lighter aside, she swung her legs onto the bed, and scooted closer to Engineer, settling to lie beside him. “Nasty habit, really. Seems like every day I hear about some new study linking these things to cancer.”
“You considered quitting?” Engineer asked. “Considered it,” she said with a sigh. “But I keep putting it off. Keep telling myself I don’t need the additional stress right now. Rationalizing it.” She smirked. “I’m not exempt from having my own problems to solve.” Engineer got a far-away look in his eye, looking past the curve of Becky’s hip. “Guess solvin’ problems is somethin’ we have in common, huh?” Becky adjusted herself on the bed, and snuggled up against Engineer, wrapping an arm around him. “Is that so?”
“Well, I mean,” he tilted his head back, “I’m an engineer, after all. I’ve always said my job is about solvin’ practical problems. Hell, I feel like a lot of my life is just findin’ problems an’ figurin’ out ways to solve them.”
“Is that why you took in Jane and Pyro?” she asked. This gave Engineer pause, squinting as he pondered her question. He ran his hand down her side, and rested it on her hip. “Never thought about it that way,” he finally admitted. “I just wanted to help them because I care about them, really. They’re like family to me. I couldn’t just leave ‘em to fend for themselves, given how bad they had it.”
“You’re very generous,” Becky noted. “I can’t think of a lot of people willing to do that sort of thing.”
“Yeah, well, I suppose not a whole lotta people went through what we went through together,” said Engineer. He found himself drawing little spirals on her skin with the tip of his forefinger. “It was a… unique situation, I suppose.”
“I get that impression,” said Becky, though her statement sounded oddly incomplete, as though she was going to add on more but thought better of it. “Jane tell you about that much?” Engineer asked. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” said Becky. “Doctor/patient confidentiality.” She took another drag on her cigarette exhaled. “I understand you must be curious but I’ve broken enough rules with you already.”
“Sorry,” Engineer rolled over onto his back, taking his hand off her hip and let it flop onto the mattress. “I just, well, I worry about him an’ Pyro, you know?”
“Mmm-hmm,” she hummed, and rested her hand on his head, gently rubbing his scalp. Any remaining tension left in Engineer’s body had completely melted away at that touch. He was limp as a rag doll against her, his eyes closed as he reveled in the sensation like a happy dog being petted. “Must be nice, having somebody to talk to in confidence like that,” he said, his voice slurring just a bit.“Even if you don’t have problems quite that big… just bein’ able to have somebody listen and help you sort things out… it must be nice.”
“Most people can benefit greatly from therapy,” said Becky, “not just people suffering from mental illness. I think it’s normal to want to confide in another person, really.”
“That right?” the happy smile on Engineer’s face faded, but his eyes remained closed. “Something wrong?” He opened his eyes. “Mmm, no, it’s nothing.” He willed himself to sit up, grunting as he did so. “I should get going. I’ve an obligation tomorrow and if I’m out all night again, that might not go over too well.”
“I understand.” She ran her hand down his back, and he moved away from her, off of the bed and to the chair where his clothes had been tossed. She puffed on her cigarette before putting it out on the ashtray sitting on the nightstand. Engineer got dressed, though reluctantly, and shuffled into his pants and shirt. He draped the tie he’d worn around his neck, the blue fractal tie he’d worn on their first date, and then found himself struggling with actually tying it. “Need some help there?” Becky asked. “I got this, I’m fine,” Engineer muttered, trying to figure out the correct way to loop his tie before Becky got up off the bed and a pair of feminine hands came into his vision, deftly fixing the mess Engineer had made and tightening the tie around him in a firm Windsor knot. A part of him wanted to grumble about how he did have it, but as soon as he lifted his head to look up at her, he knew she would not have bought it for a second. “Thanks,” he said. “You’re very welcome,” she said, still maintaining a grip on his tie, pulling him in closer to plant a kiss on his lips. Engineer felt the blood rush to his face all over again, and he let out an embarrassing sounding chortle. Immediately, he cleared his throat and squared his shoulders in a feeble attempt to cover it up. Becky chuckled. “God, you’re a goofy little man, aren’t you?”
“‘Goofy?’” Engineer echoed, indignantly smoothing down his tie. “I’m not goofy.”
“Shut up, you are too,” she said, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, “and that’s fine. I prefer you that way. It feels more genuine than the usual macho posturing I’ve had to put up with.”
“More genuine, huh?” He found his hands wandering to her hips, but soon after he rested them on her, he let them slide down back to his sides. Genuine, he thought, almost spitefully, turning over the word in his head as it might apply to him in disgust. “I… well, I’m flattered you think that. I’m not sure if I’m bein’ quite as genuine with you as you think I am.” Becky gave this pause, and held Engineer back at arms’ length. He averted her direct gaze, looking to her from the corners of his eyes, and she tilted her head to fight his sudden evasion. “And why’s that?” she asked. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, forget I said that, I’m just…” he looked down to his chest, and put a hand over the tie. “I don’t really wear ties like this, you know? I figured if I showed up wearing a bowtie, you’d think I was some kinda hopeless geek.” Smooth, Dell, he thought. It was a true statement, of course, but she wasn’t going to swallow that, surely. Her quiet giggling seemed to confirm this train of thought. “Well, you kind of are a hopeless geek,” she then said, completely derailing it. “I don’t need your confirmation, thank you very much.” He puffed up in mock indignation, and she laughed. Her arms slid off his shoulders, and she stepped back to let him gather his jacket and shoes. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching him, as though she were studying him. She probably was, he thought. He would have to be a complete idiot to think that she didn’t read into his slipping up. The last thing he needed was her finding about what, exactly, he had been doing with Soldier those years they’d worked together. Did she already know? Did she not care? Interrogating Soldier on what he said to her would be an invasion of privacy and a bright, suspicious, red flag that even Soldier couldn’t ignore, and asking her outright probably wouldn’t work either. How on earth could he possibly rationalize murdering people for a living to this woman? He wasn’t even sure he was able to do so with his own daughter. As he put his boots on, he thought about Rosie. On the surface, their relationship seemed to be fine, but there were signs that his confession to her, in addition to the added presence of Pyro and Jane, were putting on some strain. She stayed in her room more than usual. There were times when he’d be in the living room with Pyro or Jane and she’d walk by and take a step back out of view. These were little things, but they certainly didn’t escape Engineer’s notice. He hadn’t even gotten into his experimentation with the Gunslinger with her; the thought of her own father chopping off his hand to slap on some metal monstrosity would have been too much for the poor, delicate thing. How could he have even begun to explain that? Oh no, honey, it was fine! I could just ask Doc to sew it right back on! “Are you all right, Dell?”
“Huh?” Engineer jerked up his head to look at Becky. She had pulled up her knees to her chest, and was regarding him curiously. “Oh, uh… I’m fine. Just lost myself in thought, is all.” Becky nodded. “I understand,” she said. “Your thinking face just makes you look upset, is all. I thought something might be bothering you.” Damn that woman’s power of perception, he thought. He forced a chuckle and shook his head. “I’m just fine, Becky. Just fine. Besides…” he looked to her, meeting those sweet, almond-shaped eyes, “I can’t rightly be bogged down by my troubles around someone as wonderful as you.” Becky’s cheeks puffed out, and she tried and failed to stifle a fit of laughter, falling back onto the bed. Engineer let out a sigh, half out of frustration, but also out of relief. “Yeah, you keep laughin’,” he said. “You’re lucky you’re so pretty, otherwise I’d have half a mind to put my foot down over this kind of ridicule.”
“Oh, Dell, no, I’m sorry.” Becky was now able to stifle her giggles. “I just… I’m comfortable with you, Dell.”
“Yeah?” He felt a warm, woolly sensation in his chest, as though his insides had slipped inside a warm, hand-knit sweater, quelling any remaining turmoil in his chest. “Yeah,” said Becky. There was a moment of silence between the two of them, and Engineer caught himself staring into her eyes, and cleared his throat. “I’d best get goin’,” he said, finally putting on his jacket. “I’ll see you again next week,” she said. He chuckled. “You can count on it.”
It was sometime around noon when the residents of the Conagher household were alerted to the first use of the teleporters by loud, frenzied barking. “I’ll get it!” Soldier announced to anyone within earshot, and headed outside. He had been ready to leave hours ago, but Engineer had come back home late (again), and was currently in the bathroom shaving. He hadn’t mentioned where he’d been all night, and seemed to dodge the question when Soldier asked. Soldier felt that he didn’t need to press further; a man should be entitled to his privacy, after all. Last thing he wanted was to come off like a nagging housewife. Soldier stepped outside and marched towards the garage, where Guard Dog had been heard barking. He still was, but his vocalizations were friendlier now, and as soon as Soldier managed to catch a glimpse inside, it became obvious as to why that was. “Soldier!” Heavy shouted, extending an arm to his former teammate. He and Medic were fresh off their teleporter, and Heavy was currently petting between Guard Dog’s ears as the dog rested its massive paws on his chest. “Is good to see you again, comrade!”
“I told you not to call me that,” said Soldier. “Sorry,” said Heavy, flashing Soldier an apologetic smile. “Is habit.”
“Mein Gott, Liebechen, your shirt!” Medic shooed Guard Dog away from Heavy, and then inspected the front of Heavy’s dress shirt. “Ach, you’ve already gone and gotten it filzhy.” Soldier had not even noticed the bottle that Medic had been carrying until Medic set it down on Engineer’s workbench, out of Guard Dog’s reach. As Medic licked his thumb and applied it to the dusty paw prints on Heavy’s shirt, Soldier sidled up to bench and inspected the bottle. “Pee-knot Grig-eeyo,” he read aloud. “Zat’s ‘Pinot Grigrio,’” Medic corrected. “Heavy and I visited a vineyard in Milan last year und picked up a few bottles.”
“You didn’t bring any over here for the reunion,” Soldier noted. “Yes, vell… zat vas an oversight, on our part,” admitted Medic bashfully, wiping away the remaining dust. “I could go back and get another bottle,” suggested Heavy. “Ve vill never drink all ve got anyvay. Doktor vas drunk vhen he bought the crate.”
“I vas not drunk,” said Medic, putting his hands on his hips in indignation, “I just had a tiny bit too much to drink, is all.”
“Is called being drunk, Doktor,” said Heavy flatly. “No, it vas ‘tipsy!’ Zhere is a distinction zhere zhat if you did not have ze alcohol tolerance of a little old lady you might be able to recognize it!”
“I do not have… low alcohol tolerance, like you say,” Heavy snapped back. “Ha!” Medic barked a harsh laugh. “I find zat hard to believe, coming from ze man who goes from sober to passed-out intoxication after, vhat, two, zhree beers?”
“I’m sleepy drunk,” Heavy said, avoiding Medic’s gaze. “Besides, at least I am not sniffling, weepy drunk like you are!”
“Hey!” Soldier shouted over them. “Are you two ladies gonna carry on like this all day? Because I certainly didn’t sign up to have my afternoon taken up by having to listen to some stupid catfight!” Medic and Heavy immediately ceased their arguing, as Heavy hung his head shamefully and Medic adjusted his tie. “Sorry,” said Heavy. “My apologies,” said Medic. “I’m afraid ve may have gotten a tad carried away.”
“You got carried away,” Heavy muttered under his breath. Medic shot him a quick glare, stopping any further arguments before they could start. “So,” Medic clasped his hands together and gave the garage a cursory glance, “vhere are Engineer and Pyro?”
“They’re still getting ready,” said Soldier. “Engie got up late this morning and I have no idea what Pyro is even doing.”
“Vill Rosie be joining,” Heavy asked. “Yeah, she’s coming,” said Soldier, as his gaze drifted up to the sky. “Soon as she found out Sniper was going to show up, she suddenly became interested.” Heavy laughed. “She has crush, doesn’t she?” Soldier just shrugged. “Ach, I don’t understand vhy,” Medic said in disgust. “He’s such a scruffy, gangly, unkempt lout, and somehow he gets all zhese younger women clamoring all over him.”
“He has, eh, raw animal magnetics,” said Heavy. “Many women like dat, especially younger women. More sophisticated man like you, perhaps maybe not understand.”
“Firstly, it’s ‘animal magnetism,’ not ‘magnetics,’” Medic corrected. “Und secondly,” he jabbed a finger into Heavy’s chest, “if you are trying to suggest zhat Sniper, of all people, is some kind of… sexual honeypot or somezing, I vould have to object.”
“Yes, but you have a type,” Heavy argued. “Sniper is not your type, so he does not appeal to you.”
“Oh, and he appeals to you?” Heavy put a finger to his lips and knitted his brow. “I can see vhy someone vould find him attractive,” he admitted. “Really?” Medic’s voice turned shrill. “Really. Sniper? You zhink Sniper is attractive?”
“Vhat?” Heavy asked. “I don’t tink he is honeypot like you say, but he has a certain… eh, air about him?”
“Vhat is zhat supposed to mean?”
“HEAVY, DON’T YOU HAVE A BOTTLE OF PEANUT GRINGO TO BE BRINGING HERE?” Soldier interrupted, his face now bright red with a tumultuous mix of anger and embarrassment. Heavy and Medic both recoiled at the sound of Soldier’s voice, and they became like shamed dogs both. “You have nothing to be jealous of,” Heavy muttered as he turned back towards the teleporter. “Who said I vas jealous?” Medic snapped back, sounding far more defensive than he would have preferred. Heavy just groaned and stepped on the teleporter that they’d come from, turning around as it powered up to look at Medic with a look of resigned exasperation. He then disappeared in a flash of bright light, and Medic shook his head. “I’m sorry you had to see zat, Soldier,” said Medic. “He’s been so argumentative lately, I don’t know vhat has gotten into him.”
“Uh huh,” Soldier said flatly. “Well, hey there!” Soldier and Medic turned to see Engineer walking towards the garage, with Pyro and Rosie trailing behind him. “Wasn’t expecting you to be here already, Doc,” Engineer said, giving Medic a one-armed, chummy embrace as Pyro waddled towards the workbench and picked up the wine bottle still resting upon it. “Where’s Heavy?” The teleporter Heavy had taken started to power up again, and in a flash, Heavy was back in the garage, holding another bottle of Pinot Grigrio. Pyro held up the bottle he’d been looking over and pointed to it. “Shurm burrle!”
“Yes,” said Heavy, “same bottle, that Doktor and I did not forget to give Engineer last time.” Engineer chuckled. “Right, of course,” he said, as Heavy made his way over and handed him the bottle. “I was thinkin’ we might wait for Demoman an’ Sniper before we head to Scout’s. Thank you, Heavy.”
“Is nothing,” said Heavy. “Brought bottle for Scout and his lady, too.”
“I’m sure they’ll find their way just fine,” clipped Medic. “We should get going.”
“Well, hang on a minute,” said Engineer, “you sure you don’t want a cup of coffee or somethin’ first? I gotta put this away-”
“Oh, of course, of course,” said Medic, “Ve can meet you zhere, it’s only a teleporter ride avay after all. Now,” he looked around at the other teleporters, “vhich vone is it?”
“That one in th’ corner,” Engineer replied, pointing it out. “Danke, Engineer,” said Medic, and stepped onto it. “Heavy, are you coming?”
“Right after you, Doktor,” said Heavy. He shot Engineer a puzzled look, and walked over towards the teleporter held his hand up to shield his eyes as his Doktor flashed over. “What’s up with Doc?” Engineer asked. Heavy shrugged. “I could not tell you, I do not know.”
“Well, all right then,” said Engineer. “Guess I’ll meet you on over.”
“We’re not waitin’ for your other friends t’ come on over?” Rosie asked. “They’ll make it over just fine,” Engineer insisted. “Jane, would you mind taking that chalk off my desk and marking th’ teleporter t’ Scout’s with it?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Soldier, and he started looking over the bench. Heavy stepped on the teleporter, as Pyro stuck by closely, watching him get whisked away more than halfway across the country. “You know,” said Rosie, “I was thinking somebody might stay behind an’ wait for Demo an’ Sniper, so they don’t just show up to an empty garage.” Engineer gave pause, and nodded. “You’re probably right,” he said. “Tell ya what, you go on ahead with Jane an’ Pyro, an’ I’ll meet up with you. How’s that sound?” Rosie tried her best to mask her disappointment. “Uh… sure, okay,” she said. “That’s fine.” Her father looked at her quizzically, and shrugged. “All righy then,” he said, and headed back to the house.Rosie crossed her arms and sighed, and looked down at Soldier, who was on his knees, writing on the concrete in front of the teleporter to Scout’s house. “You know ‘house’ doesn’t have a ‘w’ in it, right?” she asked. “I know that!” Soldier snapped, and he frantically rubbed out the “w” in “howse.”
“I’m not stupid, you know!”
“Well, you sure ain’t a very good speller,” she snapped at him. “Hey!” Soldier straightened up, still on his knees and jabbing his piece of chalk at her. “You watch it, young lady, or somebody might let it slip that you’re hot-to-trot for that smelly Australian hippie.”
“He’s not smelly! And I’m not ‘hot to trot’ for him neither!” She stamped her foot to emphasize this point. “Of course you aren’t,” said Soldier sarcastically, bending back down to scribble a few arrows around the teleporter. “You only ask your father about him all the time and get all ga-ga around him.”
“I do not!” Rosie protested. Soldier stood up, and as soon as he did, Pyro waddled onto the teleporter behind him. “Look, missy,” he said, “I don’t care if you like him or not. I just want to be spoken to with the respect I deserve, all right? You speak to me with some respect, and I won’t go blabbing about your stupid teenage girl crushes. We clear?” Rosie groaned. “Fine,” she said. “But it wouldn’t hurt you either to show me some respect as well. I’m tired a’ you always talkin’ down at me like I’m just some kid.” The teleporter behind Soldier flashed, and Pyro was gone. Soldier blinked as he tried to process this, his jaw set. Finally, he extended his hand to Rosie. “It’s a truce then,” he said. “Deal?” She hesitated a moment before finally taking Soldier’s hand and giving it a firm shake. “Deal.” They broke their handshake, and Soldier stepped aside, gesturing to the teleporter. “After you, then.” Rosie examined the teleporter a moment, her movements fraught with apprehension. “You sure this thing is safe?” she asked. “Of course it is!” Soldier barked. “I’ve used it a thousand times! It’s perfectly safe. Just give it a whirl!”
“All right,” said Rosie, and she stepped onto the platform. Her eyes widened as the bar beneath her feet started to spin faster and faster, gaining momentum until the whole room turned bright, and she scrunched her eyes shut reflexively. When she opened them again, she found herself in a strange basement, and Pyro was standing there waving at her. “Whoa,” she said as she stepped off. “Far out.” Pyro mumbled excitedly and took Rosie by the hand, leading her upstairs.
By the time Engineer had emerged from the basement, there was already a sizable crowd in Scout’s house, and the realization hit him that there was a sizable number of strangers there inside of Scout’s kitchen. Every single new face was female, all flocked around Scout’s wife Bunny, and every one of them seemed to be competing for the most eye-searing-ly pink wardrobe they could muster. Among them was Heavy, looking like a bear who had wandered amongst a flock of pink flamingos. One of these women, a redhead with lime green cat’s eye glasses that were a decade out of style, looked up from the baby she was holding and noticed Engineer. “Oh my goodness, it’s another one!” she cried out. “C’mon over hon, you’re here to see the baby, right?” Engineer forced a polite smile, trying not to consider the possibility of even more people knowing about his use of the teleporters. “Yes, I am, Ma’am.” The others in the semicircle had now noticed them, and the redhead handed off the baby back to Bunny, as though following some unspoken signal that the baby’s mother was the one who was to show off the infant. Bunny approached Engineer, baby in arm, and gave him a one-armed hug. “Engie! It’s so good ta see you again, hon,” she said. “Good to see you too,” said Engineer. He peered down at the baby she was holding, and the smile on his face became genuine. “And I suppose this is little Jean Louise?”
“Yes, she is,” she said, beaming down at the tiny infant, who looked between them both with saucer-like blue eyes. “Say hi, baby!” Jean said nothing, but made a puzzled noise, and waggled a tiny fist. “Oh, she’s a darlin’,” said Engineer. “May I?”
“Oh sure, sure,” said Bunny, and gently passed her to Engineer. Immediately Engineer’s muscle memory took over as he cradled the baby in both arms. The baby’s wobbled head teetered around with an almost permanent look of wonder. Engineer smiled. “Well, hey they, sweetheart.”
“Engie! Ya made it!” Engineer looked up and saw Scout walking into the kitchen, as a toddler who looked like a much younger version of him followed him like a shadow. “Enja made it!” said the little boy, mirroring Scouts gestures. “Well, hey, Scout,” said Engineer, giving Scout a small wave with the hand on top of the baby. He craned his neck to look down at the young boy now clinging to Scout’s leg. “This must be Ray then?”
“Yep!” Scout lifted the boy up and held him so that their faces were next to each other. “Handsome little fella, ain’t he?” Ray shrieked with laughter, and Scout winced. “Easy on the eardrums kid, you’ll rupture them,” said Scout. “Say ‘hi’ to yer uncle Engie.”
“YOU’RE BALD!” said Ray, and burst into a fit of giggles. The flock of women watching this laughed along with him, and Heavy chuckled and shook his head looking to a very befuddled looking Engineer. “He said same ting to me.”
“I swear, I was not the one who taught him that,” said Bunny to her friends. “Aw, c’mon, be nice, Ray-Ray,” said Scout, “Say ‘hi,’ like a decent human being, why don’cha?”
“You’re bawld,” Ray emphasized, and giggled again. “Hon, lemme have him,” said Bunny, “I think somebody needs a nap.”
“No!” Ray squealed, and started to kick in squirm in Scout’s arms. Scout held out the toddler at arm’s length, passing him off to his wife, who seemed totally indifferent to the boy’s struggling as he punched at the air with tiny fists. “No no no!”
“I’ll be back down in a minute!” Bunny announced as she headed for the stairs, maintaining a tenuous grip on the shrieking toddler. Heavy laughed. “Takes after you in every way, Scout.”
“Yeah, laugh it up, big guy,” said Scout. The women in the room had now migrated around Engineer, and the redhead spoke up. “So, you’re called Engie, huh?”
“Huh?” he looked up from the baby in his arms. “Oh, yeah. We’re, uh, used to callin’ each other by nicknames…”
“Oh, so are we!” said another one of the women, a dark-skinned tiny little thing with glasses that made her wide eyes seem even wider. “I mean, most’ve the time. I’m Bambi, but most everybody calls me Bam-Bams.”
“And I’m Candy, short for Candice” said the red-head. “Well, I mean, it’s not shorter, really, it’s th’ same number a’ syllables, but it’s two letters shorter, so that’s close enough, right?”
“I suppose so,” said Engineer. “And that shy one back there,” said Candy, pointing to the chubby woman hanging back behind her with hair so blonde and big it put Bunny’s to shame, “is Kitty.”
“Hello,” said Kitty, her voice so tiny it sounded like a toy piano that could talk. “We got a Bunny an’ a Kitty,” explained Bambi. “Add me in an’ the four of us are a regular pettin’ zoo.”
“Think you’re comin’ on strong enough there, Bam-Bams?” Candy asked sarcastically. “Beg pardon?” asked Engineer. “Aw, gimme a break, Candy, he’s like the only cute, available guy who’s walked in here,” said Bambi. “Whatcha expect, that I should go for drill sergeant or that… other little guy?”
“Speaking of… pardon me, ladies,” Engineer looked up at Heavy. “Where are Jane an’ Pyro an’ Rosie, anyway?”
“They are are in other room vit Medic and Scout’s mother,” said Heavy. Engineer peered over and into the living room to see Scout standing over the living room couch, where his mother was sitting between Medic and Rosie with what appeared to be a photo album in her lap. Standing off on the other end of the couch was Soldier, who was chuckling to himself as Scout was groaning and complaining as he looked down at his mother. Pyro was sitting Indian style in the middle of the floor, watching these proceedings with keen interest. Engineer walked in, squirmy baby still in his arms, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else in the room. “You’re doin’ this on purpose, aren’t you?” Scout groaned. “Bringin’ out my baby pictures to get at me like this. Nobody really wants to see ‘em anyway!”
“Speak for yourself,” said Medic, flashing Scout a gleefully evil grin. “Don’t get so full a’ yourself,” said Scout’s mother. “There’s seven other babies in here. You’re not the only one I got a picture of covered in birthday cake on a highchair.”
“Ooh, where’s that one?” asked Rosie. “Aw, geez!” Scout groaned, as Bunny descended down the stairs. “Bun, can you tell Ma to put away the freakin’ baby pictures already?”
“Why, did she get to the one of you in the pink bunny suit?” asked Bunny. “That one’s my favorite. You look so pwecious!”
“Oh, I must see zat vone,” said Medic, wriggling in his seat in giddy anticipation. “Aw, no ya don’t!” Scout said, reaching for the album and attempting to yank it from his mother’s hands. Her grip held, however, and she yanked it back with even greater force, causing Scout to tumble forward onto Medic’s lap. Engineer became suddenly aware that Heavy and Bunny’s friends had followed close behind him, and they burst into laughter, along with everyone else save for Medic and Scout. Scout was now rigid on Medic’s lap, paralyzed by this humiliation, not unlike a possum playing dead. Medic nudged Scout off of his lap until Scout rolled onto the floor, and he shook his head. “Such a disrespectful boy,” he tut-tutted. “Aw, he’s not so bad,” said Scout’s mother. “He just needs a reminder of who brought him into this world every once in a while, is all.” Scout stood up and brushed himself off, his pride having been grievously wounded. Bunny rushed to his side, and helped smooth out his shirt and slacks, fussing over him until the bruises on his fragile ego had been sufficiently healed. “Thanks, Bun,” he said. “No problem, sweetie,” said Bunny, and kissed him on the cheek. “Is this normally how things go down in your house, Scout, or are y’all playin’ it up on account of havin’ guests?” Engineer asked. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, Engie,” said Scout. “Oh, is that yer Engineer friend?” Scout’s mother closed the photo album in her lap and handed it off to Medic as she stood up. “Oh, I’ve heard so much about you!”
“Have you now?” asked Engineer. “Oh, sure, tons! Here, lemme take her off your hands, doll,” she lifted the baby from Engineer’s arms, and held against her chest so that the baby was peeking over her shoulder. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, miss…?” Engineer extended a hand to Scout’s mother. “Please, just call me ‘Ma,’ everybody does,” she said, and shook his hand while still supporting the baby. “Are you sure?” asked Engineer, “’cause, well, I don’t think you’re probably that much older than I am-”
“Oh, well that’s sweet of you to say,” said Scout’s mother. She turned her head and looked behind her, confirming that the other guests were now talking amongst themselves. “Spy did tell me you were such a gentleman.”
“Spy that that?” Engineer asked, not sure if they were discussing the same person. “Said you were handsome, too,” said Scout’s mother with a sly wink. “I think I agree.”
“I, uh… well I don’t…” Engineer found himself both strangely flattered and completely flummoxed, and when the door to the basement opened and Sniper emerged, he tried not to look too relieved as he waved him over. “Hey, Slim!” he called out. “Good ta see you made it! C’mon over.” On the couch, Rosie immediately perked up, but caught herself as Medic looked over to her from a particularly goofy looking grade school photo of Scout. As Sniper walked in, quickly swarmed by guests and introduced to new faces, Medic snuck a glance of the young lady next to him, peering at Sniper with great interest. Rosie’s eyes met his own briefly before she leaned back again, looking up at the ceiling innocently. Medic kept his gaze on her a few moments more, before he turned back to the living room entrance, and turned stone-faced. There, coming into the living room, her arm in Demoman’s, was Ilse, who had spotted him first. Though she was being introduced to Bunny’s friends, she was able to look away for a moment, and cast Medic a wry smirk. “Scheiße,” he muttered.