Authors: Wasserman, Robin
“And what do you
with your time?” my father asked.
,” Zo muttered.
I kicked her under the table. She scooped a forkful of ziti into her mouth, catching my eye as she did, then glancing pointedly down at my empty plate. My mother always laid out a setting for me at these Thursday dinners. As if pretending I still had a stomach let her believe I still had a soul.
“What do your parents do?” my father pressed on.
“Dad!” I said sharply. He knew Riley was from the city. He knew what that meant.
“Dunno,” Riley mumbled, and though I couldn’t blame him, I also couldn’t help wishing he would drop the hulk act and
, even if it meant knocking over the table and shouting at my father to shut the hell up. But this was what he did when he was around people he didn’t trust—a group that included almost everyone on the planet: He kept his mouth shut. I knew my father well enough to see the wheels turning, and the giant
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
sign flashing in his head. Which only made his questions sharper and his frown deeper and guaranteed that Riley would never get why I wanted to be here or why I cared that he wanted me. All Riley saw was the jerk who wanted to
know what he intended on doing with his life without a high school diploma and did he even know how to read.
“How do you support yourself?”
“He doesn’t need to support himself,” Zo said, out loud this time. “He’s got Lia to do it for him. With your money.”
“Be polite to our guest, Zoie,” my mother said quietly.
“I think Dad’s got that covered,” she said, glaring at him.
Our father silenced her with a look, and she swallowed whatever she was going to say next. I was almost a little sorry. The obnoxious running commentary was oddly comforting, taking me back to all those other dinners when Walker and the boys before him had suffered the same fate, blistering under my father’s stare while Zo lobbed her missiles, dancing as close to the line as she could before finally stepping over it. She loved watching the boys squirm, but not as much as she hated it when our parents tried to shut her up.
Zo caught my eye—in the old days this was my cue to join her in battle. I was tempted. But it occurred to me that the last time a boyfriend of mine had been in this house, he’d spent the night in Zo’s bed. So I ignored her. She went back to her food, sulking in silence through the rest of the meal.
As soon as the last bite of food disappeared off the last plate, Riley leaped up to start clearing the table. My mother made that half-embarrassed, half-shaming gurgle in the depths of her throat that let you know, in no uncertain terms, you’d made a wrong move. “We have that taken care of,” she said. Riley dropped back into his chair as she slid a manicured hand across
the AI panel on the table. The servomechs skittered out from the kitchen and began to clear.
“That’s right, Mother,” Zo said. “What kind of idiot would think that just because we treat people like servants, they should act accordingly?”
“You think I’m too big an
to know you’re talking about me?” Riley snapped, finally speaking up loud and clear—at exactly the wrong moment. I realized he thought she was making fun of
—and I couldn’t correct him without making him feel even stupider.
“You will not speak to my daughter like that in my house,” my father said. He rose to his feet. “And I certainly hope you don’t speak to Lia like that,
Riley rose to meet him eye to eye. “I give your daughter the respect she deserves,” he said, then paused just long enough to give me hope … only to make it even worse. “Unlike some people.”
When my father got angry, he got quiet. His lips went pale and thin. You’d think he was retreating. But I knew better. “You had better not be implying—”
“Maybe we should skip dessert tonight,” my mother said quickly, in a fluttering voice. She patted an imaginary bulge in her belly. “I’m just back from a binge-purge, and trust me, it’s not an experience I want to repeat any time soon.” She threw in some obviously fake laughter when it became clear the rest of us wouldn’t oblige.
“No one wants to hear about your fat suctioning, Mother,”
Zo said. “Although I guess that explains why you’ve got that disgusting vat of fat juice in the fridge. Maybe we should skip dessert if that’s what you’re planning to—”
“Zo!” My mother’s cheeks reddened. “That’s tapioca pudding,” she assured us. “Not … I mean, obviously I wouldn’t serve …”
“I think the term you’re looking for is ‘medical waste,’” Zo said.
“Your room.” My father didn’t have to shout—and he didn’t have to say it twice. She was already halfway up the stairs by the time he spat out, “Now.”
I stood up and took Riley’s hand. “I think that’s our cue. Thanks for dinner.”
“Yeah.” Riley gave my mother a quick, awkward nod. “Thanks.”
I couldn’t believe I’d wasted time worrying about what Riley would think of the house, as opposed to the freaks who lived there.
“A moment, Lia?” my father said, blocking our path to the door. It wasn’t a request.
I squeezed Riley’s hand. “Wait for me in the car?”
He was out the door before I finished the question. Leaving me and my father alone in the marbled entry hall. Even as the door shut, the tiles were scrubbing themselves clear of any tracked-in mud and dirt, real or imaginary. My mother had trained the house to be even more compulsive than she was.
“This boy …” My father let the words dangle between us.
“What about him?”
“How much do you know about him?”
And how much do
know about him?
I thought, but didn’t ask, because I already knew the answer. My father always did his due diligence.
“Where he comes from …” It wasn’t like my father to drag things out like this. Usually his proclamations were more like bullets, hitting their target almost before you realized the gun had gone off. “He’s not like us.”
“Not good enough for us, you mean. I know you’re thinking it, so you might as well say it.”
At least he still cares,
At least he still thinks I deserve the best.
“I say what I mean.” He pressed his fingertips together, brushing the base of his chin. A shadow of beard was growing in gray. “And I mean: Be careful.”
“Riley would never hurt me.” It had been too good to be true, I thought, this silent truce between us. If he ordered me to stop seeing Riley, I would have to choose. I would have to choose Riley. “If you would give him a chance …”
“You mean well,” he said, “but you’re naive, with limited experience of the world—”
“Limited experience?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or throw something. “In the last year I’ve been kidnapped, blackmailed, and arrested, not to mention
.” He winced, and I averted my eyes. He wouldn’t want me to see the moment of weakness.
didn’t want me to see it. “I think I’ve got experience covered.”
“That’s not the kind of experience I mean,” he said. I was looking down, so I didn’t see him reach for me. But I felt his hand on my shoulder, its steady weight. “You’re young. You don’t understand that there’s such a thing as too much difference. Things can be … difficult.” Then he sighed. “But I suppose you’ve earned the right to figure that out for yourself.”
I looked up and met his gaze, surprised.
“What were you expecting me to say?” he asked, with a hint of a smile.
“Nothing. I was—Nothing.” Suddenly, I wanted to hug him. Not in gratitude or relief, or anything like that. But because I remembered how it used to feel, when I was five years old, when I was ten, to be walled off inside his arms, hidden and safe. “I’ll probably be home late.”
“As long as you come home.”
“You don’t need to say that every time I leave.”
He hesitated. Also unlike him.
“It’s good. Being back home,” I said, since he wasn’t going to.
“Well, whatever happens, I hope you’ll remember that.”
I tapped the side of my head. “Computer brain, remember? We never forget.” It wasn’t true—mech brains were no more reliable than orgs’. But as a lame joke to leaven the mood, I figured it would do.
He didn’t laugh.
I wanted to go back to Riley’s place, somewhere we could be alone, with walls separating us from the rest of the world. But
he didn’t want to, and I didn’t press. You could fit twenty of his apartments into the Kahn house, and he could do that math as easily as I could.
So we drove into one of the Sanctuaries, a wooded space guaranteed to be empty at this time of night given the late autumn chill, the rain, and the smog so thick you could barely see the trees. The patrols wouldn’t even bother hunting for trespassers; this wasn’t a night for orgs.
Riley had a blanket in his trunk, and he laid it down in the dirt, as if our mech bodies were too delicate to sit in the damp, rocky soil. But I appreciated the effort, and I appreciated his body curling around mine, his face hidden by smog and night but still
. I pressed the back of my hand to his cheek. Solid. Real. All I wanted was to sit there with him and not talk, not act, for the first time in two weeks. I wanted everything to
“Sorry about my father,” I said. “He’s … you know.”
I couldn’t blame him for thinking it. “He doesn’t mean it.”
“Let’s just forget about it,” I said, sliding my hand down his chest. “I’ll never drag you back there. Promise.”
He stiffened and pushed my hand away. “That’s how you want to play it?”
“Like you’re doing me some kind of favor?”
“It is a favor,” I pointed out. “You hated tonight, didn’t you?”
He didn’t answer.
“So why would you want to go through that again?”
“That works out pretty good for you,” he said.
I’d gotten much better at reading Riley, but I couldn’t read this. “What’s your problem?”
am,” he said. “I embarrass you.”
“You do not!”
“Took you months to introduce me to your family—”
“—and now you want to make sure it never happens again.”
“Because I hate how he treated you.” I leaned against him, hoping the pressure of my body on his would snap him out of this.
“You can’t hate it that much,” he said. “
“I don’t care what he thinks of me,” Riley said. “But he treats you like crap.”
“You keep making excuses. Why are you so scared of him?”
“Right. You do whatever he says because you
to.” Riley looked disgusted. I imagined how much deeper the disgust would run if he realized that it was true. If he knew how much I still cared what my father thought of me, he’d think I was pathetic. Maybe he already did.
“Come on, he’s my father.”
So what did that mean to Riley, who’d never had one and, according to him, had never noticed the difference? Who
couldn’t go back home because home was a cement tower with broken windows and puddles of urine and old allies who’d found it to their advantage to ally with someone else? “So can we not talk about this anymore?”
I should have told him what I’d said to my father before we left, that I’d stood up for Riley, that we were on the same team. But I couldn’t get the words out. Defending Riley to my father, defending my father to Riley, always the wrong words to the wrong person—always defending someone and still somehow always looking like a traitor.
I wasn’t going to let myself get sucked into this fight when I knew what Riley was really angry about. And who. It would be easy to pretend this was about my father, because then we could both pretend he was the problem and I’d done nothing wrong. The easy way out, my favorite exit.
“Are we going to talk about it?” I said.
“You just said you don’t want to anymore.”
“Not my father. The vidlife. Jude.”
“What does Jude have to do with the vidlife?” Riley said, too eager. “Did he message you?”
He didn’t know.
“What did you think of it?” I asked cautiously. “The vidlife.”
Riley shrugged. “I didn’t watch.”
“None of it?”
“You told me I wouldn’t like it,” he reminded me. “The stuff they’d make you do.”
“Oh.” I should have been relieved. “So you didn’t watch at all?
me to? You said—”
“I know what I said.”
“So now you’re pissed?” He sounded half bemused, half annoyed. “What, you want me to dig an archive, watch it right now? Because I will.” He reached for his ViM, and—even though it was likely a bluff—I grabbed his arm.
“No, you’re right. It’s not like I’m some kind of famewhore trolling for fans. I just figured you’d be … curious.”
And maybe a little jealous.
Not that I
him to be jealous.
I definitely wouldn’t have wanted him to see me kissing Caleb or tearing out Pria’s hair. And I wouldn’t have wanted him to see me with Jude.
But I couldn’t believe he hadn’t even looked, not once.
“It would’ve felt like spying on you,” he said quietly. “I wasn’t going to do that.”
I hated myself for questioning him. “I wouldn’t have been able to resist,” I said. “If it was you.”
Sometimes I loved that he knew me so well.
Sometimes I didn’t.
Something crackled in the bushes. I jerked around, but there was nothing there. No eyes peering out of the darkness. Just the patter of the rain.
“Can we go back to your apartment?” I said, suddenly feeling
exposed. If we were going to talk about Jude, we were going to do it where no one could overhear us.
He’s not following me,
I thought. But that was the thing about Jude—I had no idea what he was doing, or why.
“I told you; it’s a mess.”