Fandom: 28 Weeks Later/Sunshine (2007)
Rating: M, L/S
Word count: 19736
Disclaimer: I don’t own them. I make no profit.
A/N: This story started off as something else, but along the way it changed. I don’t know what happened. It doesn’t necessarily have a purpose and it was maybe supposed to mean something more, to be a metaphor for something greater, but I think I lost my way. Regardless, a quick note about the source material. I drew from two movies: Sunshine and 28 Weeks Later. If you haven’t seen them, prepare to be spoiled. Also, they technically don’t co-exist at the same time (there’s a 50 year span between them), but I ignored that. Just bump 28 back and push Sunshine forward and pretend that it doesn’t matter. It’s a crazily nonsensical crossover anyway, so I suppose you can suspend that bit of disbelief if you’re willing to read it. Also, to any UK readers, I apologize for your unfortunate and untimely demise.
America is the land of opportunity. The land of dreams. Or, it was, Tammy thinks, because even though she looks, she doesn’t see much opportunity. Then again, maybe that was all a lot of hype, or maybe it was the land of dreams way back when, when the world watched television in black and white and people didn’t talk about building a giant fence to keep out those seeking to improve their fortunes. People who apparently kept forgetting they were immigrants themselves, once, or at least that their ancestors were, she thinks, though she’s come to realize that America is a country with a very short memory – shorter, much shorter, than her very short (recognized) history.
Then again, her personal opportunity is a great big fat check from the US government, enough to pay the mortgage on a posh flat in Hell’s Kitchen and to make the notion of a job a whimsical one, so maybe she shouldn’t complain.
Guilt money. Hush money. A bribe.
She used to like to say that she’s already seen Hell’s Kitchen, that it was located in a suburb of London in a pizza parlor, but the joke was never really funny and no one else got it but her. Regardless, the irony that only she could see was enough to prompt her to sign on the dotted line and take possession of the keys, lurid tales of past misdeeds committed in her new flat’s general vicinity notwithstanding. She likes that it is a ‘neighborhood in transition’, likes the thought of always being in transition, though she eschews the other name people have for it.
Because really, were the gentry ever really good for anyone? Or, maybe that’s the point. And, maybe now she’s contributed to it.
Ah, irony everywhere.
The location is not particularly close but yet not particularly far from the secret research facility where her brother lives. It is the secret research facility where he will continue to live for the foreseeable future, and she thinks about that sometimes when the wind is brisk against her face and an iced coffee is dripping beads of condensation down over the back of her hand, little rivulets of cold desolation.
No, not desolation. They are a sign of things to come.
No. They’re all stupid. Stupid, empty phrases and stupid, empty feelings.
She’s been going to poetry slams. She’s got nothing to do with her life except live it, and she likes to watch the people with their near-to-boiling passion. She has no talent of her own, obviously – really, rivulets of cold desolation… this is what she produces when left to her own devices? – but she likes the way their eyes burn and their bodies strain as if they can’t keep the power of their words leashed.
When the government tells her they’re moving her brother, she knows that the foreseeable future has turned into the rest of his future and she almost thinks of staying where she is. She likes how her new city is always so busy. She likes being surrounded by people. She hates the look of defeat in her brother’s eyes when she goes to visit him.
“They’re never going to let me out,” he said the last time she saw him. She’s known this from the beginning and so has he. She thinks that maybe it has just been too horrible to contemplate, the prospect of a future with no future at all, and so he’s simply refused to believe it for as long as he can. He will never be free, never have children, never have sex, never pop down to the grocery on the whim of some beautiful girl who has him wrapped around her little finger. He will forever be surrounded by scientists and more scientists, by white coats and biohazard suits. He will live alone in his cell – because no matter how nicely they dress it up, it will always be a cell – until he dies.
How is she supposed to look at him with the knowledge of that in his eyes as well as hers?
She can’t abandon him. Most of the time she can’t even hug him, hold his hand, kiss him on the cheek, or offer any sort of comfort. The majority of their meetings are conducted through a plexiglas window that is two inches thick. On those occasions when she enters his cell, she gets one of her own for at least a week. They take her blood and put her in quarantine until they’re satisfied that she’s not carrying the virus herself, and she’s terrified that one day they’ll decide to just keep her regardless so she has stopped doing it. There would be no one to miss her, to complain about high-handed governments and conspiracies. She, like her brother, would just disappear.
So, she moves to Atlanta and Andy comes into the permanent care of the CDC. He lives in a BSL-4 laboratory built especially for him; government agencies, she has learned, have an overwhelming affinity for acronyms. His surroundings are nicer here, tucked away from the city’s center and, instead, installed in a small, tightly secured house on permanent lockdown on the grounds of a laboratory facility which, in other buildings, houses row upon row of little vials of death. She has already been through security clearance but finds herself going through it again, the process taking long months during which she’s only allowed to see her brother twice and both under the auspices of a stern, frowning administrator.
She can’t bear to give up her place in Hell’s Kitchen so she rents it out to an aspiring Broadway star who thinks she’s found a steal. Her new flat, though she isn’t entirely sure whether she lives in the Midtown or Virginia Highland district of Atlanta, is quite lovely, but she misses the irony.
Atlanta is not New York. It’s a busy town, a bustling town, a growing town, but it’s not New York. She isn’t sure whether that is good or bad, though she likes the way the people talk and the way things move just slightly slower than fast. She doesn’t like the lack of good public transportation and she doesn’t like the way it rains here. In New York, she had snow. In Atlanta, she is subjected to a freezing deluge of near flood-like rain on a semi-regular basis. Here trees, devoid of their leaves, aren’t then redressed with a light coating of snow. Instead, they loom overhead like nightmare illustrations from a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, naked and dead and menacing. It adds a hint of gothic mystery to the crooked, poorly planned streets wholly at odds with the cheery dispositions of the town’s residents.
Her neighbor has a dog, a little Jack Russell terrier named Rufus that she takes to the Piedmont Park dog park in the center of the city every Saturday, and one day, after a month of graciously extended invitations, Tammy goes with her. They park on a side street under the sketchy shade of an enormous oak tree whose leaves are brown and brittle under their feet.
It is mid-July in Georgia and 55 degrees.
They are on the opposite side of the park from the little fenced in dog park, but she doesn’t mind the walk. It’s early morning and so colder than it will be in a few hours, but the chill is bracing. It reminds her a little of home and of the fall and of her mother smiling brightly, standing over the stove and stirring a pot of cocoa she’s decided to make as a treat.
Tammy has forgotten her gloves and so, instead, tucks her hands into her pockets, shoulders hunched.
“I know you won’t believe me,” her neighbor confides, leaning close with a conspiratorial grin, “but I remember ten, fifteen years ago it’d be 90 degrees by breakfast.”
Tammy hasn’t completely mastered Fahrenheit, but she knows that’s hot.
She finds the dog park overwhelming. An overly friendly black lab puts his paws on her shoulders and licks the side of her face before she can protect herself from the onslaught, the admonishment of his owner doing nothing to wipe the grin of doggy glee from his face, and Tammy accepts the man’s apologies with a tight smile. A collie and a cocker spaniel are chasing each other’s tails in circles around her legs, creating something like a panic deep within her, and she excuses herself from the melee with a strained, clipped, “I’m going to explore the park.”
She is no longer comfortable in crowds.
Her neighbor nods apologetically, holding her hand up to the side of her head, thumb and little finger extended in the pantomime of a phone. “I’ll call you,” she mouths, digging a treat out of her pocket to offer to her own little bundle of canine energy, and Tammy slips through the fence and into the vast, brittle brown expanse of the park. She finds a water fountain and does her best to rinse her face, scrubbing particularly hard at the cheek which bore the brunt of the attack, then flicks the water from her fingers in agitation. Her cheek and fingers are numb now, the water like ice.
Maybe she hates Atlanta after all.
In the center of the park, people have arranged themselves in groups. Four friends are engaged in a vigorous game of Frisbee while another group kicks around a soccer ball behind them. One mother chases after a child, kite dragging along behind them before a sudden gust of wind catches it and catapults it into the sky. She sees, off to the left and in the very corner of her eye, what looks suspiciously like an incipient parade, though a second glance clarifies that it is only one lone girl with a baton.
And then her breath catches in her chest and her heart stops.
It’s not her. It’s not, can’t be her, because she’s dead. Tammy has been sure of it, has known it deep inside as a certainty since the day it happened.
Or, maybe she’s wrong. She’s watched the movies. Any American soldier who survives will be rescued. They’re almost pathological about it, the armed forces, with their philosophy of leaving no one behind no matter what the odds. And Major Ross was resourceful and brave. Of course she made it out alive, probably surviving on leaves and rats until she was rescued.
It’s true, then, the blind patriotism and unselfish bravery she’s always found cloying when watching it onscreen. It’s not simply for dramatic effect.
“Major Ross,” she calls out, her voice weaker than she’d intended. And then, more desperately, “Scarlet!”
The dark head doesn’t turn her way, though the Frisbee does drop to the ground as all four friends turn as one to look at her, their faces a mixture of confusion and hope that something amusingly crazy is about to happen.
She begins to run, heart now about to beat out of her chest as she eats up the ground between them, calling once again, “Scarlet!”
This time, the head does turn, and Tammy skids to a stop in front of where the woman is sitting, backpack to her side and book open in her lap. She drops her hands to her knees, chest heaving as she pants. “It’s you,” she says thickly, then falls to her knees and throws her arms around her one time savior.
It takes her a moment to realize that Major Ross isn’t hugging her back.
She pulls away in confusion, a tortured, “Why? Why did you leave us? Why did you not seek us out?” and “How? How did you survive?” on the tip of her tongue when she sees the blank stare of incomprehension on the woman’s face. And then she notices it, notices how young she is. Scarlet had been probably, at the least, 10 to 15 years older than her then.
This girl is maybe only a few years older than she is now.
She is so stunned, so completely and overwhelmingly disappointed, that she nearly collapses. Where she had been crouching before, balanced on her knees in the grass, she is now sitting heavily, a light coating of residual water from an earlier rain seeping into the fabric of her jeans.
“I’m sorry,” she stutters, tears immediately streaking down her face. She’s only had the snippet of hope for a second, but now that it’s gone, its loss is crushing. “I thought you were someone else.”
She expects the girl to gather up her books and run away, or at the very least to scoff, but instead she smiles kindly. “Obviously,” she says, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “But you were so excited to see me that it was almost like a pleasant surprise.”
This is when Tammy begins to cry in earnest. She doesn’t have the fortitude to try and hide it, so instead she drops her face into her hands and sobs.
“I’m so sorry.”
She’s said it maybe 50 times now and knows that she shouldn’t say it again but she can’t help herself. It’s the only thing she can think to say to this woman who isn’t Chief Medical Officer Major Scarlet Ross, this woman who wrapped her in a hug and patted her back as if they were old friends while Tammy cried until she ran out of tears.
Now her face is red. She sniffles every few seconds and her eyes are gritty and raw. There’s a dull ache behind them, intensified by the increasing wind, and Tammy knows that she has been more miserable but she can’t remember when.
The woman’s smile is gentle and soothing, qualities that extend to her voice as she says, “It isn’t every day that I reduce a girl to tears before I even really meet her.”
Tammy’s embarrassment knows no bounds. Her eyes are fixed on the dull brown of the grass between them, carefully examining each flattened blade. With her hair shoved back messily behind her ears and her cheeks still red, she looks as young as she was when she had last seen the woman whose memory prompted this whole mess. “I thought you were someone else,” she says, shame coloring the words. “I didn’t mean to fall apart on you.”
“I gathered that.”
When Tammy dares a quick glance upward, she sees that the soft smile is still in place. She wonders again why the other woman hasn’t gathered her things and run away from her. It is clear that neither her initial action nor her subsequent reaction was normal, but instead of panic, the girl sitting in front of her radiates calm.
Of course, everyone had told her that Southerners were very polite. They’d also said other things, many of which weren’t nearly as complimentary, but of them all, Tammy has found this one to be the most true.
Perhaps this is a demonstration of the tenet.
“Do you want to tell me about her?”
Tammy looks up so swiftly that she almost gives herself whiplash, eyes wide and scared. The woman appears genuinely interested, dark eyes soft and kind, and for a moment, Tammy considers laying out the whole story.
But no. No one deserves to be burdened with tragedy unnecessarily.
So instead, she says again, “I’m so sorry.”
The chirping of her cell phone cuts off whatever the other woman is about to say, and Tammy latches on to the interruption. Her eyes cut to the corner of the park where the dog park is situated, and she sees her neighbor standing just outside the fence, cell phone to her ear and one hand shading her eyes as she scans the area looking for Tammy.
“My friend,” Tammy offers apologetically, flicking open her phone. A terse, “I’ll meet you,” later, and she’s steeling herself to look into the woman’s eyes once again.
“My name is Cassie.” The kind smile turns rueful for a moment. “You’ll catch my attention more quickly if you use it next time.”
Tammy knows that she’s joking, that she’s gently trying to diffuse any lingering tension. And so she gives the best smile she can muster in return, voice still a bit watery as she murmurs, “I’ll remember that.”
She doesn’t go back to the park for three weeks. She ducks her neighbor’s invitations, claiming errands and allergies. Her neighbor doesn’t ask the fourth week, and Tammy waits until she returns from her weekly trip before slipping out the door and onto her little green Vespa. She gets lost trying to find the park, ends up near the botanical gardens, and has to stop and ask for directions. By the time she turns around so that she is finally going in the correct direction, finds the park, and manages to wedge herself into a painfully small parking place, it is nearly midday.
This time, she has remembered to bring her gloves. She takes them off and tucks them into the pocket of her jacket, a sleek white racing affair with black accents that makes her feel a little like an imposter. After months of living in Atlanta, she has become only slightly more acclimated to both the weather and the culture. She consistently underestimates or overestimates and ends up either carrying a coat too thick for the mild day or freezing in a light anorak that is far from up to the task of breaking the driving wind. In New York, it was easier. It was always cold, the wind always brisk. Here, the weather is more capricious. In the span of a week, the temperature will fluctuate by 20 degrees or more.
People are once again scattered throughout the park. Boys leisurely toss around an American football, a loosely organized game soon to start. A few enterprising couples have packed picnic baskets and sought out shelter in the scant coverage offered by the few trees ringing the perimeter, and the laughter of children pierces the air.
Tammy’s mind flashes back to London, deserted and silent.
The memories come to her unexpectedly, and she feels a sob of rising hysteria crush her throat. Overwhelmed, she sinks down onto a nearby bench, hands lying uselessly in her lap. She doesn’t move for a very long time.
It isn’t until she rouses herself from dark thoughts that she spots the deceptively familiar dark head of the woman whose name is Cassie, not Scarlet. Her eyes stop their unconscious scan, snagging and holding, and she pushes up off of the bench without giving it conscious thought. She’s closed half of the distance between them before she realizes what she’s doing. Her foot hovers for a second, body urging her to turn back even though this is the reason why she came in the first place, but it is too late. Cassie has glanced up from her book.
She offers a short, tentative wave which Tammy reluctantly returns.
“I’m not psychotic today,” she offers as she approaches cautiously, though her voice is still the slightest bit strangled. “Tear and outburst free, I promise.”
She wants to drown in the muted kindness of Cassie’s smile.
“I didn’t think you were psychotic before,” the girl says, dark eyes flashing mischievously. The kind smile morphs into a grin. “Maybe just a touch emotional,” she allows.
Tammy sits beside Cassie without invitation though she can’t imagine that the girl who treated her with such compassion before will voice any objection.
They sit in silence for a moment, like old friends, before Cassie prods gently, “Are you hiding away from the dog park again?”
For a moment, Tammy is surprised that the girl has remembered this small detail of their last meeting. She thinks it should have gotten lost in the clutter of everything else, fading away into insignificance in the face of her histrionics.
“No,” she says, lips curling into a pleased smile, “I’m here by myself. I came to find you.”
There is a moment when the blankness of Cassie’s expression speaks volumes.
Tammy laughs at herself, at the words she’s just said. “And of course I sound crazy,” she scoffs, shaking her head.
Cassie’s smile is tinged with a hint of uneasiness. “I wouldn’t say that,” she says slowly, in those polite tones that let Tammy know that she might not say it herself but certainly wouldn’t disagree with it once said.
Tammy ignores that. Instead she forces a bright smile. “It’s cold out.”
“It’s always cold out. We’re in the middle of a solar winter.” Cassie has quirked a brow at her, a hint of sarcasm breaking through the pleasant façade. Its presence reassures Tammy. It makes her think that this girl has depths beyond her kind and calm exterior. She doesn’t see how anyone could remain so placid and understanding, no matter the circumstances.
So she takes a deep breath and tries to look as normal and non-threatening as possible when she says blithely, “Let me buy you a cup of coffee then. You must need warming up.”
The eyes that she has thought of as kind until now take on a hint of distance. She can see a swift, calculating appraisal in them, a cutting logic that she fears she will not withstand.
“Are you asking me out?” Cassie’s voice is flat, devoid of inflection. Tammy fights the urge to laugh the words away, to cross her arms over her chest and give a cutting reply that might shield her from the incipient rejection.
Instead, she nods slowly, trying, once more, to offer a reassuring smile.
Cassie’s assessing gaze grows improbably sharper. “You have to admit that your behavior doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.”
Tammy has survived moments much more harrowing than this one. Rejection from this girl who is a ghost hangs between them awkwardly, but it induces sadness, not fear. She can move past disappointment. Her smile turns rueful and she braces her palms on her thighs, tensing as she begins to rise, to apologize to this girl yet again, when the soft pressure of a hand on her forearm stops her.
She looks over to see Cassie smiling once again, but this time she detects the depth in the expression. There is a hint of amusement there, playing itself out at the corners of her mouth in a smirk. “The fact that you took that so well is somewhat reassuring,” she says, dark eyes twinkling. “Are you just offering coffee or do you think lunch would be too much of a stretch?”
Tammy gladly follows Cassie to a restaurant adjacent to the park. She hadn’t considered that, upon acceptance of her invitation, she wouldn’t know where to go. She is even more unfamiliar with this part of town than she is with her own and is grateful that Cassie seems to intuit the problem well enough to offer a solution before things become even more awkward.
They are dipping sweet potato chips into some sort of Gorgonzola spread, the combination much better than she’d anticipated, when Cassie looks up at her with an odd expression on her face. It looks as if she is torn between thoughtfulness and amusement, and Tammy is suddenly self-conscious. “What?” she asks, suddenly wary.
“Nothing.” Cassie blushes slightly, ducking her head as if embarrassed that she’s been caught. “It’s just… your accent. You don’t hear a British accent very often these days.”
Tammy can tell by the look on Cassie’s face that she regrets the words just as soon as she’s said them. She does not have to be psychic to know that there is an unhappy story waiting in the wings.
“Makes me exotic then,” Tammy tries to joke to lessen the sudden tension between them, though her voice is strained and flat. In her mind she sees her parents. She sees her very first teacher and the girls she had ballet with when she was 5. They wore ridiculous pink tutus, because little girls who want to be ballerinas want to wear ridiculous pink tutus, no matter if what they do looks more like absent-minded twirling across the stage than it does classical dance. She sees, oddly enough, the veterinarian who put their dog to sleep when she was 12, his eyes mostly unperturbed and efficient though there was a hint of pity there for the sniffling child holding an empty leash.
If America is a melting pot, then these days the land of her childhood is drippy, gooey fondue. There are precious few people to repatriate, even if the UK citizens who had been rescued or, like her, serendipitously out of the country when the first wave of infection hit, had wanted to return. Most didn’t. There is no allure in returning to your home to find you are the only person in the neighborhood to survive.
She will never forget the stillness of it.
Now people have settled from all over the globe, buying homes for a fraction of their cost. The money is being used to restart and reshape the infrastructure needed to support them. American troops still remain, in fewer numbers now than before, the world’s wary watchdog keeping an eye on the face of the new United Kingdom.
She is a relic of a slowly dying empire. In less than a year and at the hands of something too small to be seen by the naked eye, nearly 61 million people were winnowed down to little over 6 million. She found both sets of numbers to be incomprehensible. Even now, she cannot imagine what the totality of 6 million people must look like, much less expand that imagination to the scale needed to contemplate the 55 million graves needed for the rest of her countrymen and neighbors. There had been a moment of staggering hope, upon hearing the statistics that began to emerge in the months after the second wave of infection hit, in the knowledge that 6 million people still survived. They were still a grand civilization, she’d thought, until she’d realized that they were in the company of countries with billions. In fact, in a world with over 6 billion inhabitants, they now represent only one-tenth of one percent of all of people, a mere blip, an inconsequential notation on tables and graphs. The metropolitan area of Atlanta, her new home, boasts almost as many people as that.
Cassie shifts uncomfortably in her chair and Tammy realizes that she’s been lost in her thoughts. Her forearm is pressed against the side of the table, sweet potato chip still clutched in her fingers though it is now cold and greasy, and the dip she’d coated it with has slid down to drabble messily on the surface of the table. She looks like a curiosity frozen in a wax rendering.
“I’m sorry,” Cassie says haltingly, and now her eyes drip with the one thing Tammy hates most – pity. “You must have lost a lot.”
She places the chip on her plate slowly, wiping her fingers on her napkin with deliberate care. “Everyone lost a lot,” she says, trying to infuse her voice with a note of lightness, trying to brush away the dark thoughts crowding her mind. “At least I’m still alive and free.”
There is a moment of hesitation in which she can see the battle waging inside of Cassie. There is a tussle between restraint and curiosity, between good manners and the need to know. Finally, she asks quietly, “Did I remind you of someone you used to know?”
Tammy sits back against the hard back of her chair, arms crossed protectively over her chest. Her jaw tightens and, unbidden, something like hate flashes in her eyes.
It is answer enough.
Cassie withdraws, leaving the open wound festering between them. She remembers the news reports and footage that leaked after the first wave of infection hit, before the government placed a lock down on all images showing the infected, and she shudders at the thought of this girl, whoever she was, who looked like her but was one of them. The thought comes with a wave of hot, acid bile, and she turns away, no longer able to look at Tammy. She needs a respite, a brief one, from the awareness of that kind of horror.
Tammy sees the way Cassie looks away from her. She grows bitter with a quickness that surprises her, and when she speaks, her words aren’t soft and reverent but instead tinged with anger and hatred. “She saved my life.”
She isn’t sure whether she’s angry because this is true or because Cassie has forced her to confront a memory she prefers to avoid. She does know she’s angry that Cassie pushed for this knowledge and then turned away from it.
Cassie’s head snaps back around, eyes once again filled with pity.
“It’s my fault she’s dead,” Tammy continues, savagely. There are things she can’t tell Cassie, and not just because she doesn’t want to expose her own demons. She is bound by agreements with the government and complicity with her brother’s need to maintain some illusion that this is not their fault. He needs the protection of an outside, unpredictable force, but she knows that he knows the truth just as well as she does. Had they not snuck out past the borders of the cleared security zone, they never would have found their mother. It was the first step – or maybe the fiftieth given all of the little mistakes prior that allowed them to make this one, irrevocable one – in the orchestration of what would have been unspeakable devastation had it not paled in comparison to the first outbreak.
They couldn’t have known the implications then and she’s not entirely sure she knows them now, but she’s had six long years to think about what happened. She doesn’t know how the infection spread but she does know that she brought the vector there, to the heart of their safe and supposedly secure city. She put into motion the course of events that caught the US military unaware. She incited the panic that left almost everyone dead. She killed her mother, her father, Doyle, Scarlet and countless others. She condemned her brother to a shell of a life, lived under lock and key and in such immeasurable isolation that the guilt of knowing that she is out here when he is in there blunts any joy she might take in remaining alive.
“Before you tell me that’s not true,” she says harshly, cutting off whatever Cassie is about to say, “let me assure you that it is.”
There is no reason to seek out the park, and Cassie, again. Lunch had ended abruptly and awkwardly, with each of them going their own separate ways. Tammy had retreated to her flat, closing the blinds and turning off all the lights. She took comfort in the solitude and wondered if her brother did the same. For a moment, she felt a certain sense of jealousy at his fate. After all, he hadn’t been left to try and navigate the world on his own with no real reason to put forth the effort.
It took her a week to realize that he had, but that his world was infinitely smaller than hers. The realization didn’t make her any less jealous.
Regardless, she finds herself at the park again. She is carrying a cup of coffee in each hand, the heat of the liquid seeping through the cardboard to burn her palms. When she finds Cassie, she offers one of them to her wordlessly but doesn’t sit beside her.
“Maybe I should change my routine,” the girl drawls sarcastically, accepting the peace offering after a moment’s hesitation.
Tammy’s smile is self-mocking. “I have a lot of time on my hands. I’d find you eventually.”
Cassie snorts in unexpected amusement. “You’re not really doing a good job at reassuring me that you aren’t crazy.”
The fact that she hasn’t directed Tammy to leave seems to be an ambiguous invitation to stay, and so Tammy settles down onto the bench alongside Cassie, setting her cup of coffee to the side. She doesn’t even like coffee, but at the time, she’d hoped that she would appear less strange if she brought with her two. Now, it is an inconsequential prop.
She doesn’t necessarily understand her compulsion to seek out and find this girl with whom she can’t even manage to interact. It makes her feel like one of those hapless goslings, trailing diligently along behind whatever it is they first see, searching endlessly for acceptance. And she seeks her acceptance here, fruitlessly and in vain, in this park and with this woman. She seeks other things, too, but they are more complicated; they make her feel ashamed and dirty. She tries not to think about those things too closely, but she wonders if Cassie sees them lurking in the shadows of her gaze.
She likes to think, somewhat poetically, that her gaze is full of so many shadows that Cassie wouldn’t even be able to notice them.
“Why do you come here?” Tammy asks, dropping into conversation as if they were old friends or at the very least close acquaintances.
There is silence for a moment before Cassie takes a sip of her coffee, the move heralding a tentative détente. “I spend my weeks in classrooms, labs, and cubicles. On the weekends, I like to take my books outdoors.”
Tammy looks at the text open in Cassie’s lap, one eyebrow arched, her question tacit.
“Aerospace engineering,” Cassie answers with a soft chuckle. “I’m working on my doctorate at Georgia Tech.”
“That sounds impressive. And hard.”
Cassie shrugs away any compliment hidden in the words. “I’m going to pilot a spacecraft one day,” she says with conviction, what should be a ridiculous sentence sounding like a certainty. “But before I do that, I’m going to know it inside and out.”
Cassie sounds so assured that Tammy does not doubt her.
“The sun is dying.” The pronouncement comes with rueful shake of the head, as if Cassie has contemplated the bleakness of just such a future and seen all it entails. “They sent a ship up there three and a half years ago with a bomb strapped to their backs. When they reach the sun, they’ll launch their payload into the heart of it and ignite a chain reaction that will bring it back to life.”
Tammy is vaguely aware of this. She knows that the earth has started a startling and rapid descent into a solar winter. She knows that the weather is unpredictable, that people are starving across the globe as a result of failed crops and that, here in the US, she is afforded a comfortable level of insulation from the horrors of famine. The news, when she watches it, is full of reports of genetically modified crops and pictures of giant greenhouses built in an attempt to shield their fragile contents from the capricious nature of the weather. There is irony, of the kind she has missed, in the thought that she has survived one purge only to enter into a much more protracted one.
“Is that what you want to do?” she asks, slightly startled by the ambitions of this woman. She doesn’t know what she had expected, but this wasn’t it.
Cassie smirks, then shakes her head. “No. The Icarus I has that job. It takes light eight minutes to travel from the sun to the earth. Any day now, we’ll feel the effects of their success.”
“Who takes a ship named Icarus to the sun?” Tammy scoffs, the words a mix of disdain and disbelief. It is an almost unconscionable courting of disaster, she thinks, an affront in its very hubris. She has learned the hard way the perils of tempting fate.
“An international crew of eight,” Cassie answers slyly, cutting her eyes at Tammy in amusement. “And, they’re not simply going to the sun. They are set to fly into it.”
“Then I think I might have referenced Helios instead,” Tammy retorts quickly, rolling her eyes in exasperation.
Cassie laughs, the sound light and pure in the crisp coolness of the morning air. “There’s tragedy there too,” she says, smiling at Tammy’s disgruntled expression. “We can’t forget about Helios’ son.”
The reference escapes Tammy, and she scowls. Cassie laughs again, leaning back so that one elbow is braced against the back of the bench as she turns to face her, eyes bright. The excitement in her voice is infectious as she leans closer, as if imparting a secret. “Helios’ son Phaeton tried to drive his father’s chariot, the one Helios used to tow the sun across the sky, but lost control of it and set the earth on fire. We don’t want that, do we, when we take our own chariot up to the sun?”
“Then maybe we should have just named it Sue,” Tammy snits, though she does so softly, not wanting to break the mood that is surrounding them. With Cassie turned toward her, she can trace the contours of her too familiar face, can follow the barely visible creases that appear at the corners of her eyes as she smiles widely.
She is overcome by a sudden urge that she follows blindly, darting forward to bring their lips together for a soft, quick kiss that is over nearly before it begins.
It is her first, something she realizes in the seconds following, when Cassie looks at her with a curious hesitancy. The knowledge that she has stumbled into this milestone, that she will not go to her grave with only the shy peck on the cheek she received from Brandon Bennigan when she was 13, breaks across her face with unexpected warmth.
“I’ve never done that before,” she confides, fighting back the urge to giggle uncontrollably.
“Kissed a near stranger?” Cassie asks, one brow arched in either affront or sarcasm.
Tammy is too overwhelmed by the significance of the moment to care which it is. “Kissed anyone at all,” she says breathlessly, her bright smile contagious.
Despite the fact that she may well be mentally unstable, Cassie acknowledges that Tammy is also undeniably beautiful. She has wide hazel eyes and thick, full lips and sandy brown hair that spills around her shoulders with a barely tamed wildness. The three things combine to create an ever-present air of sultry promise, and the fact that this girl has come this far only to have just now shared her first kiss provides Cassie with unexpected insight into the sheer loneliness that must comprise her life.
She consciously disregards any wariness she might be feeling as she reaches forward. Her hand slides around the back of Tammy’s neck, fingers digging into her hair. She scoots forward slightly, closing the distance between them, feeling something inside of her flame to life and grow at the way Tammy’s eyes widen and darken.
“We should do it right, then,” she murmurs, moving slowly, her book sliding off of her lap as she brings their lips together again.
The hesitancy with which Tammy’s lips meet hers underscores the girl’s earlier assertion. She is nervous and shy, her surging presses forward tinged with a hint of awkwardness and unfamiliarity. Cassie allows them for a moment, her own lips barely parted, until her fingers tighten unconsciously and she wrestles control away from Tammy in a gentle coup. Moments later, her other hand comes up to cup Tammy’s cheek. She is taken aback to realize that her tongue is tracing the soft contours of the girl’s lower lip, and she moans softly, caught off guard by the kiss’s mixture of sweetness and heat. The surprised and aroused gasp Tammy emits in response rattles straight down Cassie’s spine to join the growing heat in her belly.
When Cassie pulls back, stunned at the intensity of her response, Tammy is breathing heavily. Each hot exclamation of breath brushes against her lips, and she has to stop herself from leaning forward for another kiss.
There is wonder mixed with panic in Tammy’s eyes, and she searches Cassie’s face with a hint of desperation. She can think of no words to describe the way she is feeling.
“Come with me,” she stutters, the words quick and jittery with a mixture of fear, panic, and anticipation. “Come home with me. Now. Please.”
“Tammy,” Cassie’s voice is kind and placating even as she struggles to find the right words to say, “it was your first kiss. That’s all.”
“It’s not far,” Tammy presses onward, ignoring the way Cassie begins to withdraw slightly, “and you enjoyed that.”
“I did,” Cassie admits, “but what you’re proposing is something much more serious.”
“Don’t think about it,” Tammy implores, an edge to her words that is a hint sharp, panic that this opportunity will pass her by driving her to reach forward and wrap her arm tightly around Cassie’s forearm in a move that is just shy of desperation. “Just do it.”
There has not been anything normal about their association up to this point. Cassie acknowledges this alongside her desire to ignore the voice of reason and caution urging her to ignore the part of her that wants to take advantage of the offer before her. She feels an uncharacteristic and unexpected flare of primal pride; a foolish notion that she could be the first to stake her claim on flawless, virgin territory flits through her mind. It is ridiculous and completely at odds with her personality, but the most honest part of her psyche admits that she can’t ignore that it’s the truth. This beautiful, possibly crazy girl has remained untouched until now and is offering herself like the proverbial sacrifice and she tries to convince herself that there is a phylogenic rationalization for the primitive notions urging her to take a decidedly unadvised course of action. It is a trap, a pit that will suck her in, this false pride.
“Please,” Tammy says again, unashamedly. Her eyes are wide and clear, convinced of the rightness of what she is asking, and Cassie finds herself beginning to break just a little. She has never thought of herself as the kind of person who would be overly swayed by emotion or circumstances. She has worked toward a goal for all of her life, consciously blocking out any potential distractions. Unlike others, she has been only slightly touched by the normal things that derail people from the pursuit of their dreams. Dedication and self-denial are not abstract constructs to her. They are, instead, a way of life. That this girl might challenge, even briefly, that drive comes as a complete and utter shock to her.
Tammy’s stare is level and even as she says quietly, “Don’t make me beg.”
The apartment is startlingly bare. Against her better judgment, Cassie has ridden there on the back of a Vespa, winding her way through crooked streets with the wind stinging against her face in bone-chilling gusts that she imagines are nature’s way of condemning what she has tentatively agreed to do.
She has just slid the backpack from her shoulders when Tammy moves, pressing against her quickly and kissing her with feverish desperation. They stumble backward, Cassie’s hands automatically wrapping around Tammy’s waist as she tries to steady them, but they crash into the wall with an echoing thump nonetheless. Cassie grunts in pain as her back connects sharply with the unforgiving surface; her fingers dig into Tammy’s back with a sudden roughness that will leave behind bruises.
“Slow down,” she manages to gasp out, not sure when trepidation at this course of events turned into resignation. She has consigned her actions to a moral abyss, now certain that she is going to carry through with this idea, no matter its inadvisability. Her reasons for doing so are murky and unclear and she suspects they’re far from noble. For that reason, she chooses not to elucidate them, even to herself. Instead, she prefers to think that one day she’ll write this afternoon off as an anomaly, as a bizarre and momentary malfunction in her normally well organized and linear life. Everyone is entitled to their moments of insanity, and this girl, with her own insanity and her mystery and her sadness and her dark, pleading eyes will be the gatekeeper of hers.
Tammy appears to pay no attention to her command. She is kissing her with more enthusiasm than skill, with messy wet tongue and overly sharp teeth. Her hands have already found their way under the hem of Cassie’s sweater and are running along her sides in a path that traces up and down, the sides of Tammy’s thumbs brushing against the outside of her breasts with each pass; Cassie wraps her hands around Tammy’s biceps, intent on slowing her frantic motions, but instead she throws her head back and moans. At the break in contact, Tammy’s lips move over the line of her jaw to her ear and then her neck, sucking and biting indiscriminately. She is like something uncaged, and the appropriateness of the metaphor hits Cassie just as Tammy closes her teeth over the pulsing point of her jugular and bites down.
It is hard enough to wrench a cry of pained surprise from her throat, and Cassie disregards any notions she might have had about a slow and tender seduction. Instead, she twines her fingers through Tammy’s hair and pulls her head up roughly, bringing their lips together with a force that quickly leaves hers swollen and sore. One hand detaches itself to skate down to the base of Tammy’s spine, fingers digging roughly into flesh as she jerks the girl’s hips into hers. She ignores the frenzied push of Tammy’s hands at the lapels of her coat and instead kisses her with a singular intensity that soon prompts those fingers to still.
It is only when she feels Tammy melt into her that she pulls back slightly, shrugging her coat from her shoulders. “Slow down,” she says again, this time the words barely more than a growl. She pushes Tammy’s jacket from her shoulders indelicately, the material falling away with a hiss. “There’s no need to rush.”
When their lips meet again, the frenzy of before is moderately subdued. They stumble through the apartment, leaving a trail of messily discarded clothing in their wake, until they reach Tammy’s bedroom. There is precious little furniture and even fewer decorations, though a small grouping of photos stare out at them from the top of the dresser. The sheets are already mussed, the bed unmade from the night before, and when they fall to them, the cloth slides against Cassie’s skin like silk. She burrows down into the covers, pulling Tammy along with her, and thinks briefly that they’re so soft that she can barely tell Tammy’s bare skin from the folds of fabric.
This girl may not have many things, but the ones she does have are expensive and finely made.
Cassie rolls on top of Tammy, pressing her down into the bedding with ease. For all that Tammy clearly wants this desperately, Cassie is the one with the knowledge. She acknowledges Tammy’s impatient desire but ignores it, choosing instead to kiss her way across the girl’s torso with languid ease. She pays a great deal of attention to Tammy’s small breasts, using her lips and tongue to tease the girl’s nipples into hardness before biting down playfully with sharp teeth. When she runs her face across the plane of Tammy’s belly, she delights in the way the girl shivers and moans, the muscles of her abdomen contracting tightly even as her fingers dig uncompromisingly into Cassie’s hair.
When she finally reaches the apex of Tammy’s thighs, she pauses. Her plan has been simple, the meandering path of kisses she’s used to learn the contours of Tammy’s body a languid roadmap leading her to her inevitable destination, but she is reminded that all of this is something Tammy has never done before. After a moment’s hesitation, she presses a soft kiss to the girl’s sex before retracing her path, ending with her lips pressed lightly against Tammy’s as her fingers slip into the wetness between the girl’s thighs.
Tammy’s eyes widen as if in shock and she gasps, watching Cassie closely as if the other woman holds all of the answers to the questions her body suddenly knows. Her fingers tighten their grip, digging into the flesh along the curve of Cassie’s shoulder blades punishingly, and then, with a barely perceptible shiver, she whimpers helplessly. She looks impossibly young; Cassie realizes that she has no clue how old the girl is and wonders briefly if she should be concerned about this. Great tragedy tends to give a certain emotional weight to a person that makes them appear older than they really are, and she is assailed by the sudden fear that this girl is indeed a girl with all the various meanings the word entails.
“Don’t stop,” Tammy pleads, voice low and guttural, and Cassie realizes that she has been shocked into stillness by her thoughts. “Please.”
She wonders briefly if there is a point at which an act has reached an inescapable level of finality. If she asks this girl her age and receives an answer she’d rather not know, would she be able to reclaim some level of moral rightness by stopping now? Or has the sin already been committed, rendering any further actions inconsequential?
No, she can’t accept that. “How old are you?” she asks hoarsely, throat tight with fear.
Tammy blinks, body strung tightly and on the edge of a razor sharp precipice. The notion of answering the question seems alien and incomprehensible, a Herculean task for which she has no reserves of energy to spare. She searches her memory for a moment, reaching for a number that seems out of her reach, then offers a questioning, “Twenty-one?”
Cassie’s relief manifests itself immediately. She finds that she has pushed two fingers deep inside of Tammy even as her lips cut off the girl’s startled cry. The angle is awkward and puts an uncomfortable strain on her wrist, but she doesn’t care. Her thumb finds Tammy’s clit and she rocks into the girl, her entire body moving with each thrust, the motion set to the tune of the gentle creaking of bedsprings and the barely audible slap of the headboard against the wall. Her free arm rests under Tammy’s neck, fingers wrapped tightly in the sheets as she anchors herself, and soon the girl’s body is thrusting up artlessly to meet her. Tammy is watching her closely, lips parted around a series of pleading, desperate noises that speak to the primal self Cassie has tried all day to deny, an unbidden and unwanted homunculus running wild inside her skull beating its chest with unwarranted pride. The knowledge of that pride shames her; she has always considered herself more civilized than that.
Without warning, Cassie finds herself being pulled down roughly, Tammy’s hand on the back of her neck crushing her face into the curve of the girl’s shoulder as Tammy’s head snaps to the side and she gives out a keening cry. She feels the bite of sharp teeth digging into the flesh of her palm just below her thumb and she tightens her grip on the sheets reflexively. Tammy’s breath is hot and harsh against her skin, her teeth clamped down in a painful vise until moments later she jerks fitfully, sharp, choked cries of pleasure echoing through the room.
They sound eerily like sobs.
Cassie hisses as the girl relaxes her jaw, and she pulls her hand free without fanfare. Looking over the top of Tammy’s head, she sees a clearly delineated set of teeth marks, the edges mostly straight though some are canted slightly to the side, the hallmark of dentition corrected in childhood shifting ever so slightly back to where it started. The mark they leave is dark blue, already forming into a bruise, and she’s vaguely surprised to see that she’s not bleeding.
“Oh, God,” Tammy says weakly, chest heaving as she takes in great gulps of air. After a moment she stirs, turning slightly and snuggling into Cassie’s body, burying her face against the older woman’s shoulder. They are both slick with sweat.
“Did you think I was a minor?” Tammy asks now that she is able to think clearly again, her voice sharp and mocking. “A bit late for a crisis of conscience, don’t you think?”
Cassie stiffens, lips turning down in a scowl. She is about to move away when Tammy’s arm tightens around her midsection, holding her in place.
“I’m sorry,” the girl mutters, placing a soft kiss against the side of her neck. “Don’t go.”
Cassie assumed the guilt would come later, but it crashes over her in a wave so thick she can hardly breathe. “I shouldn’t have done this,” she says softly, the words bitter.
Tammy’s face presses harder against her shoulder, almost branding into her. “Don’t say that. Please.”
And she’s right. Now is not the time. Cassie can have her guilt later. “I didn’t mean it,” she says in penance, the words a feeble apology, “but I do have to go.”
“You can stay,” Tammy says silkily, quickly, the words a clear invitation. “I’d prefer it if you did.”
To punctuate her point, she slides a hand down Cassie’s belly and lets the tips of her fingers trace a path down along the wetness she finds between the other woman’s legs. “Stay,” she says again, tilting her head so that her lips ghost against Cassie’s neck. “At least for a little while.” She presses down harder and earns a hiss as she brushes against Cassie’s clit, her short nail scraping against the sensitive flesh. “We’ve come this far.”
They have, Cassie acknowledges silently. They’ve reached that inescapable level of finality. To try and turn back now would be senseless. “Just for a little while longer,” she murmurs, the words cut short by a gasp.
“Will you be at the park next Saturday?”
It is dark and the wind is bitingly cold. Cassie’s eyes water from the strength of it, and she opens the door to her car and steps inside the small shelter it offers. She tries not to think about Tammy’s clumsy touches, so full of innocence, or the way she raked her nails down the girl’s back when she came.
“I don’t know,” she says wearily, flexing her hand. It aches dully, the bite mark and the cold acting together to turn it into a constant reminder of what she has just done.
She jumps as Tammy reaches out and grabs her injured hand, pressing a scrap of paper into it. “My number,” she says breathlessly, offering a wide, nervous smile. “Call me. And if you don’t call me, then at least come to the park next Saturday. Promise me you will.”
It’s said so beguilingly that Cassie almost finds herself nodding.
“Maybe,” she hedges, closing her hand around the piece of paper. She shoves it into her pocket, head ducking down in embarrassment. “About today…”
Tammy’s hand covers her mouth before she can say anything more.
“Thank you,” she says, and her voice is sincere, “for today.”
After that, Cassie cannot bear to apologize.
“I met someone.”
Andy is sitting on the other side of the plexiglas wall. They’ve turned on the intercom linking the two rooms so they can speak freely, and she laughs gaily at his drawled and suggestive, “Really?”
She looks up at him shyly from under lowered lashes, lips curved up in a mischievous smile. “You’ll be surprised.”
He shrugs, leaning back in his chair and linking his fingers together behind his head. “I’m already surprised. I wasn’t sure you remembered there were other people around.”
“No,” Tammy scolds playfully, “I mean it. You’ll be surprised.”
“So don’t keep me in suspense any longer,” Andy retorts, exasperated. “I promise I’ll remain surprised.”
“Okay,” Tammy says, nervousness suddenly winding tightly in her belly. “I’ve met a girl.”
There is a moment of silence before Andy laughs, the sound a sharp crack through the intercom. “You were right,” he says, shaking his head in bemusement. “I am surprised. I had no idea.”
“I didn’t either,” Tammy corroborates with a nonchalant shrug. “It just happened.”
Andy rolls his eyes at the corny sentiment of the words. “How did it just happen? Where did you meet?”
“At the park.” Tammy is suddenly reticent, wincing as she imagines Andy’s response to what she is about to say. “She reminded me of someone.”
He perks up, sensing her agitation. “Who?”
“Do you remember the Medical Officer? The woman who saved us?”
“Major Ross,” Andy confirms, nodding. “Of course I do. Those aren’t the kind of people you forget.”
Tammy looks down, unable to meet his eyes as she says, “They could be twins.”
Andy’s affectionate amusement at the revelation is tempered by a sudden bolt of worry. “Oh, Tammy,” he says, the words soft with sympathy, “what have you gotten yourself into?”
“Maybe nothing,” Tammy admits, the words wistful. “I’m not sure she wants to see me again.” Looking up at him with a wry grin, she adds, “I think she thinks I’m crazy.”
“Then her main failure in this task is in merely thinking it and not knowing it,” Andy teases gently, and Tammy feels a deep pang of sadness at his soft grin. In days past, she would have ruffled his hair or punched his shoulder playfully or done any of the little things that expressed affection in a relationship between siblings not hampered by any sort of unnecessary rivalry. Now, all she can do is smile in return and roll her eyes in exaggerated exasperation.
She is surprised when his expression turns serious. “I don’t need to tell you to be careful,” he says, smile disappearing. “You can’t relive the past, Tam, and I don’t see why you’d want to try. And certainly don’t drag some innocent girl into it,” he adds kindly, pressing his palm against the glass. It’s a move he would scoff at normally, but the dejection outlined in his sister’s frame tears at him. “I can see how Major Ross could have made a lasting impression, and obviously she has, but don’t get the two of them mixed up in your head. You can’t recreate a person. And even if you try, it’s not fair to either of you.”
Tammy blinks away tears, but her voice is husky when she says, “How did you get to be so wise?”
Andy leans back in his chair, arms spread in an expansive gesture. “I’ve got loads of time on my hands and you wouldn’t believe how many self-help programmes there are on American telly.”
“So you’re an armchair therapist?”
“Seriously, Tam,” he says, face suddenly somber again, the change in demeanor almost jarring, “you’re the lucky one. You’ve got to take advantage of your life. We could be dead. You could be in here.” He pauses, arms crossed across his chest, a shadow flitting across his face. “You owe it to me to be happy, Tam. You’re the only one of us left, really.”
“No, I mean it.” He interrupts her gently, ignoring the tear streaking down her cheek. “Unlike you, I’m never going to leave here. My best friends are the people who come in to poke and prod me with needles and I can’t even hug my own sister when she comes to me with girl problems. At gatherings, I’m the only one of us not in a Hazmat suit. They even wear it when they come to cut my hair. If your life can’t be better than mine, if it can’t have more meaning than mine, then why are we still here? Otherwise, we’d be better off dead like Mom and Dad.”
“You don’t mean that, Andy.”
A strained silence falls between them, full of guilt and anguish. Andy hates it when he gets maudlin, when he gives voice to the depressing thoughts running through his head, but some days it’s harder to keep them inside than others. He wonders if this is why Tammy doesn’t visit more often.
“Why don’t you bring her around,” he says finally, his voice deliberately light. “I can ask about her intentions and then threaten to bite her if she doesn’t treat you with the respect I think you deserve.”
Despite herself, Tammy laughs. “You actually think I could get security clearance for her? The odds are slim to nonexistent.”
“Webcam, then,” Andy counters. “Win her over, Tam, if you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you’re really related to me, then I assume you can be at least moderately charming.”
“I’ve been charming enough so far,” Tammy shoots back, then blushes a deep and total red.
“No you haven’t,” Andy blurts out in surprise, his palms hitting the counter on his side of the plexiglas with a slap. “Have you really?”
Sometimes, Tammy wishes they weren’t so close. Andy shouldn’t be able to read her this well. It’s mortifying.
“You have,” he says, slightly shocked. “Hussy,” he teases, both thrilled and scared for her. Tammy had virtually removed herself from society ever since the day they landed on French soil and were immediately taken into custody and quarantined. He’d been convinced that she had forgotten how to interact with any person other than him and, after time, assumed that she’d never really regain her interest in returning to anything approximating a normal life. He wasn’t intimately familiar with her day-to-day activities, of course, but he’d been able to tell that she had withdrawn almost completely into herself. Sometimes, he’d wondered if her prison felt as restrictive as his and had wished away the barrier between them, wanting nothing more than to shake some sense into her. The knowledge that she’d dabbled with normality – finally, after all of this time – via something so drastic was almost too outrageous to comprehend. “Now I really have to meet her.”
“If she ever even talks to me again,” Tammy cautions, shaking her head furiously. “Like I said, I think she thinks I’m crazy.” She pauses, looking at him suspiciously. “But not for the reasons you’re thinking.”
Andy blinks innocently, hands spread wide. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Then that’s a first,” Tammy shoots back, happy to fall back into the easy camaraderie of banter.
Cassie doesn’t call, but she’s on her bench come Saturday, book open in her lap.
She’s wearing a tight fitting toboggan, the pattern a muted camouflage in tan, blue, and green, and her long hair spills out from under it, wild around her shoulders. Tammy is struck by how young she looks, like a fresh-faced college freshman. It is oddly disconcerting. Normally, with her hair gathered up in a bun or loose ponytail, Cassie looks serious and subdued, like she’s on the verge of tottering into middle-age despite her obvious youth.
Tammy approaches with caution, stopping to stand a few feet away, hands clasped in front of her and fingers twining together nervously. “I talked to my brother about you,” she says, aware that she should have started with something different. Something simpler, obviously, like ‘hello’ or ‘I’m glad you’re here’.
Cassie is clearly taken aback at the mention of a brother. She has assumed that Tammy was the sole survivor of whatever had happened before and to find out that she is not undermines all of the assumptions about her she’s made.
Tammy has thought long and hard about what she is about to do. It’s something she isn’t supposed to do, something she’s expressly forbidden from doing, actually, but she wants to explain. She wants to offer some context, something to explain her erratic and contradictory behavior. “I’m going to tell you something but you have to swear to me you won’t tell another soul.”
Cassie is looking at her warily, as if her assumptions of insanity have just been verified.
“Do you promise?” Tammy demands, moving so that she is sitting beside Cassie, reaching out to place a hand on the other girl’s thigh. Her fingers tighten absently, prompting answer, even as she leans closer.
Cassie nods shortly. Her eyes are dark and hooded, shielding any emotion aside from reticence from view. “I promise.”
“My brother is in quarantine. He’s infected.”
After she says it, Tammy unconsciously holds her breath. The words came out in a rush, like the ripping off of a bandage, and she suddenly feels a gaping void in her chest. It is as if she has given a part of herself away, and the anticipation of Cassie’s response rolls through her body in a wave of nausea.
Cassie’s gasp is immediate. Her eyes widen and she remembers, once again, the newsfeeds and pictures. She imagines Tammy’s brother, now a senseless, rage-filled monster, and shrinks back against the bench in confusion.
“He’s a carrier,” Tammy continues, then adds slowly, “we’re carriers. We can be infected, but if it happens, we’re asymptomatic. Do you know what that means?”
Cassie’s sudden fear is palpable. It expresses itself in anger. “Of course I know what it means,” she snaps, jerking away from Tammy’s touch.
“I’m not infected,” Tammy rushes to reassure, reminding herself to stay calm. Her hand is now resting against the cold wood of the bench’s seat, and she aches to place it against warm flesh again. “You don’t have to worry. After we escaped, I was in quarantine for nearly a year.” She shudders, remembering the tiny, cramped room she was given and the never-ending litany of tests. Each day brought with it a new needle and a new expert or government official to peer over her as if she was no more than a clinical specimen. “I’m perfectly safe. They wouldn’t have let me out and about if I weren’t. And besides, you’d already be dead and most of the US along with you if I were infected.”
The thought makes Cassie want to retch. “You’re sure.”
She has no reason to doubt that Tammy is telling the truth. She sees no motivation in lying about something like this, and the girl’s eyes radiate both fear and sincerity.
“I’m sure.” Tammy’s eyes dart away for a second and her chin dips down. “You can’t tell anyone else I’ve told you. I could get in a lot of trouble if anyone found out you knew.”
“With the government,” Tammy affirms. “I signed… a lot of things, really. Probably signed away my life in there somewhere.”
Her attempt at a joke goes unnoticed. After another moment of silence, she continues, “So, yes. I could get in a lot of trouble. At the very least, they could probably take away all of my money. My compensation.”
She says the word bitterly, the inflection matching the way she feels about the government’s heavy handed incentive to keep her quiet. She profits while her brother rots away, and there’s no joy to be taken in that.
“Your brother, where is he?”
Tammy looks off in the distance, gaze focused in the direction that she imagines the lab to be. “Here in Atlanta in a secret research facility.” She pauses for a moment, then continues slowly, “He’s not like what you’ve seen. He’s normal. Mostly.”
She pictures Andy’s bloodshot eyes, the only visible marker of his infection.
“When I told him I’d met you, he reminded me how lucky I am. To be out here, free. To still be alive.” Tammy’s lips curl up in an affectionate smile. Andy is wise beyond his years, a product of his isolation and their shared experiences. “And he’s right. I shouldn’t waste my life. I shouldn’t let you dismiss me as crazy. I shouldn’t let you dismiss me at all.”
Cassie’s gaze is once again wary. “We don’t even really know one another. Don’t make this into more than it is.”
“And why not?” Tammy challenges, her smile softening the sentiment behind the words. “Come on, Cassie,” she cajoles, feeling playful for the first time in a very long time. “I have a feeling you’ve already acted quite uncharacteristically. At the very least, you can give lunch another try. If it’s horrid and awkward then we can reassess.”
Because Cassie is not the kind of person to act as she has been acting, she knows immediately that she will allow this girl to talk her into one more date. It will make her feel better about what happened the week previously, as if they had been stumbling through the beginning stages of a relationship instead of hurtling headfirst into a reckless and meaningless assignation. Because Cassie doesn’t want it to be meaningless. She doesn’t necessarily want to entangle her life with Tammy’s further, but she doesn’t want to be ashamed of what she’s done.
“Lunch,” she agrees coolly, eyeing Tammy appraisingly. “And then we’ll see.”
By the time lunch is over, Tammy knows a great deal more about Cassie. She knows that she is 29, older than Tammy had first assumed, and that she is not only working on her doctoral degree in aerospace engineering but that she also has a bachelor’s in it as well. She knows that Cassie graduated from college at 21 and immediately joined the Air Force. After 6 years in the service, she retired with thousands of hours in the cockpit and experience as a test pilot. She anticipates finishing her PhD by the end of the calendar year and has already filled out her application for training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“They interview candidates every two years,” she is saying, dark eyes glinting with excitement. She is leaning forward, elbows propped on the table, and Tammy finds herself nearly overwhelmed by her enthusiasm. “They’ll be recruiting for their next class starting in April.”
April is nine months away, both a lifetime and no time.
The knowledge that Cassie has served time in the armed forces hits Tammy straight in the gut. She sees Scarlet, in her camouflage pants and drab tee-shirt, with her combat boots and her dog tags. She sits beside Cassie like a ghost, smiling benevolently, and Tammy begins to think that she really is as crazy as Cassie suspects she is.
And then, one memory spilling into more, she sees other things, things that make her close her eyes and swallow hard. She sees Doyle, on fire and writhing in agony. She sees people falling on either side of her, hitting the ground with dull thumps that contrast with the sharp crack of bullets cutting through the screaming and the pulsing pound of her heartbeat. Her fingers have clenched tightly around her fork, and she doesn’t realize that she is taking in long, calming breaths through her nose until she feels the warmth of Cassie’s hand against hers.
“Tammy?” There is a note of genuine concern in Cassie’s voice, and Tammy knows that she absolutely does not want to know what she looks like in that moment.
“I’m sorry,” she says haltingly, unable to keep the strain from her voice, already apologizing. “It’s nothing. It’s not you. It was just a… bad memory.”
And then, without warning, she finds that she can’t keep anything to herself. She starts the story in the middle, at the place where it has lived inside of her for years.
“It was our fault, the second wave of infection. Andy and I snuck out of the secure zone. He wanted a picture of our mother. He was afraid he was going to forget what she looked like.” She is glad that the restaurant is nearly deserted. They are in an isolated booth, and when the server appears tableside, Cassie’s sharp look is enough to tell her that she has come at a bad time.
Now that the words have started, they won’t stop, tumbling one after another with ruthless precision. This is a story that does not need embellishment. “We found our mother,” she says mirthlessly, remembering the feeling of absolute terror that raced through her when she heard Andy’s scream. “Father had told us that she’d died, that they’d been attacked and that he hadn’t been able to save her, but she’d obviously gotten away somehow. She’d come back, to our house, was hiding out in the attic, half starved and half crazy. And then the soldiers showed up and took us all back to the safe zone.”
“Tammy, you don’t have to…”
“No, please.” She finds she wants to talk about it, wants the promise of cathartic release that sharing offers. “I don’t know how it happened, but our mother was the only infected in the safe zone so it must have started with her, and she wouldn’t have been there if wasn’t for us.”
She pauses for a moment, bile rising in her throat as she thinks of the horror that followed. “Everyone panicked. The soldiers were trying to shepherd us into shelters, to isolate us from the infected, but it all went wrong. Scarlet – Major Ross – was with us, trying to get Andy and I to safety. Our mother was a carrier, was somehow immune to the virus, and she thought we might be, too, that we might be the key to finding a cure. But there were so many people, everyone pushing against us, and we lost Andy.”
She dares a quick glance up at Cassie’s face, reassured by the soft acceptance she sees there. It reminds her of that first day, when she dropped to her knees in front of this woman and sobbed. It reminds her that there was a time when Cassie didn’t watch her with wary trepidation. “At first the soldiers were just shooting the infected, but it was night and it all happens so fast, you know. You get attacked and seconds later you’re one of them. So they started shooting everyone. Scarlet and I made it to safety but we knew it wasn’t going to last. The people there had been through it before. They knew. They knew it was only a matter of time. You don’t survive Armageddon twice.”
She thinks, briefly, that you don’t even survive it once, even if you do. “Luckily Andy found us, but then… Then he said he’d saw him, our father. That he was one of them. One of the infected.”
Cassie’s soft gasp breaks into her recitation. She looks up, making eye contact and not relinquishing it this time. “There was another soldier, a sniper. Doyle. He and Scarlet tried to save us. It was awful, people dead everywhere and infected tearing bodies to pieces in the streets. The army fire bombed the whole city and then there was the gas...” She trails off, a shiver running down her spine. “Doyle saved us. They, the soldiers… they set him on fire.”
For a moment, she finds that she has no words. She will never forget the fear of that moment, trapped in that small car, Doyle’s body burning and flailing behind them as they sped away. She will never forget the one immediately before it, when the helicopter pilot who refused to fly them to safety massacred the incoming horde of infected, body parts flying through the air like bits in a blender, but she can’t bring herself to tell Cassie about that.
She will never forget any of it.
“We made it to the Underground. The army hadn’t started clean-up there yet. There were bodies everywhere from the first wave of infection, and it was pitch dark, like night. We got separated… and Scarlet…”
She pauses, swallows hard. “Anyway, we were being chased. The next thing I see is Father and he’s got Andy. He’s bitten him.”
She trails off once more, eyes vacant as she sees the past in front of her. Her father, face messy and smeared with a mixture of blood and saliva, eyes cunning and intense like the predator he has become. She can see the way his lips curl back in anticipation of the taste of her flesh, the way his small, wiry body nearly vibrates with the thrill and excitement of the hunt. He wants to tear her apart. Her rudimentary knowledge of the rage virus tells her this. All of the things he felt about their mother and all of the emotions they, Andy and Tammy, generated within him in response – grief and frustration and shame –have been channeled into rage.
“I had to shoot him,” she says urgently, suddenly, looking at Cassie as if seeking absolution. “I had to. He would have killed Andy. He would have killed me. He’d already killed Scarlet. I know it.”
Cassie’s fingers crush hers in a tight vise, her face blank from the shock of the revelation.
Tammy’s eyes drop to the tabletop, voice soft as she finishes her story. “We made it to Wembley. The helicopter pilot took us to France. They put us in quarantine immediately. Andy was like Mother, infected, but not really, but I was fine and so they kept him but not me. A little while later, they brought him to New York, and then, here.”
There is nothing Cassie can say. There are no words up to the task of comforting Tammy and so she doesn’t even try. She keeps her tight grip instead, and tries to bank the pity she knows is evident in her gaze.
After a moment of silence, Tammy fidgets nervously. Her eyes are dry, remarkably, but her throat is raw as if the very telling of the story has scarred it. “So now you know. That’s the truth of it. It was our fault. All of it.”
“Hardly,” Cassie says harshly, and she means it. “No one person is ever solely at fault in any tragedy, and you and your brother certainly can’t be blamed for this one. You’re not a virus, or a sniper, or an Army commander who loses control of a situation. We all make mistakes and we have to take accountability for them, but you can’t blame yourself for this. You can’t.”
Tammy wants desperately to believe her.
“What happened was the result of human error and hubris. Humans forget how fallible they are. We forget that we’re just the tick of a second in the history of time. We think we know better than nature. We take the blame for things we could never have influenced and deny the blame for those things we have.”
Cassie shakes her head, willing the fire and brimstone out of her voice. “You’ve got to grieve. Maybe you’ll always grieve. After all, you’ve lost a lot. You’ve seen a lot. You’ve seen more than I have. You know more about the capriciousness of nature and death than I probably ever will, but your brother’s right, Tammy. You’re still alive. You need to remember that.”
They sit for a long time, ignoring the impatient stare of the server, hands clasped together on the table.
Tammy is not sure that they will be able to move on from that, but somehow they do. She knows that she comes with a lot of baggage, perhaps a prohibitive amount, and they have not gotten started on the right note. There is a great deal of awkwardness; she learns how to navigate the world again and Cassie begins to separate herself from her initial impressions and fears. They are not always a good match. Cassie is quietly appalled that Tammy never finished school and Tammy is sometimes lonely, silently jealous of all the time Cassie spends with her books and her experiments. She doesn’t say anything. She knows Cassie could be easily spooked into leaving the fledgling relationship and it’s still too early for her to claim provenance over the other girl’s time, so she makes the best of the time she’s given and spends the rest of it floating though life just as she did before. No, that’s a lie. She doesn’t float. Instead she finds herself obsessed with thoughts of Cassie, with doubts and insecurities and the certainty that one day Cassie will look at her in confusion and leave, wondering all the while why she stayed for so long to begin with. But, she doesn’t want to be one of those girlfriends, the kind constantly in need of reassurance. She wants to show Cassie that she’s strong and independent, wants to overshadow those things about herself that make Cassie wary with all of the things that keep her intrigued. It’s hard, though, because for the first time in years, she has someone other than Andy. For the first time in years, she wants to have someone other than Andy.
Cassie, aside from her complete lack of understanding as to how Tammy can be so laissez-faire about her own education (or lack thereof), is also a little appalled with herself. She’s never thought of herself as the kind of person to get sucked in by a pretty girl, yet she has given Tammy a first chance, a second, and then a third. Despite the objective knowledge that she should separate herself from this girl and this situation, she finds that she cannot. For a while, she is trapped in an apathetic haze, equally drawn and repulsed, and somewhere in the midst of all of this inertia, she manages to get even more deeply mired. She begins to find things in common with Tammy and, in those cases when they have nothing in common at all, she finds, surprisingly, that Tammy is interesting enough on her own, separate from her history and her eccentricities, to maintain her attention.
Tammy, it seems, has been trapped in a haze of her own from which she is just now emerging.
It shouldn’t work, but they move slowly forward nonetheless.
It doesn’t hurt that the sex is exceptional. Cassie finds this shocking, given Tammy’s lack of experience and her own history of awkwardness when it comes to intimacy. In most things in life, she is more than competent. She is expert. And so, it probably helps that Tammy has long been stripped of idealistic and romantic notions. She likes the way Cassie makes her feel, and when it comes to mechanics, Cassie is well past proficient. Tammy’s naiveté makes up for her shortcomings with the rest. This has proven to be a good thing; on those occasions when they find that they are too alien for one another, Tammy is never shy about eschewing conversation for sex. Initially, Cassie finds it irritating that she allows this to happen, but now she is just as culpable as Tammy.
Cassie has always told herself that she has been single more often than not because there is no room for much in her life that is not directly related to her dream. She is aware that this is not entirely true. Though generally friendly and approachable, there are long stretches of time when she pulls into herself, when she is difficult to communicate with and blindly selfish. To do what she wants to do, there is no other way to be.
As such, she is still unnerved by the affection she sees in Tammy’s eyes when the girl looks at her. She keeps waiting for it to wear off, though she doesn’t exactly know what it is – newness, novelty, the shine that covers up the tarnish underneath until the dirtiness grows too pronounced to ignore.
It takes months for her to stop thinking about how wrong they are for one another.
“I want you to meet my brother,” Tammy says one day, and Cassie looks up from the article she is reading, a theoretical exploration of various combinations of heat, gravity, and malfunction and their effect on the materials used to build spacecraft. She has been spending a lot of time at school, in the lab, and really only left it because Tammy threatened and cajoled and promised to cook her dinner. She cannot manage to divorce herself from the endeavor entirely, though, and has draped herself across the couch. The sounds of cooking have provided a muted soundtrack to her studies, varying arhythmically and interspersed with the occasional exclamation or curse, though Tammy’s proclamation breaks her concentration entirely.
This is an invitation that has not been extended before. Cassie assumed that it never would be, for reasons either personal or political, and has not been overly disturbed by the lack of it. “Your brother?” Her brows furrow in confusion, as if the notion is alien to her. “Can I? I thought it wasn’t allowed.”
They are at Tammy’s apartment – flat – and the girl in question is standing, or more like slouching, in the doorway to the kitchen. She is propped against the doorframe, arms crossed defensively across her chest, and her eyes remind Cassie of a hawk scouting prey.
“Not in person,” Tammy clarifies, straightening slightly and nodding toward her small office. “On the webcam.”
Cassie is so startled by the request that, for a moment, she is silent. “Of course,” she says, blinking, the words coming automatically. “I’d love to meet him.”
Tammy’s confirming nod is pleased. “After we eat,” she says shortly, though there is a smile on her face. “It’s ready, by the way, in case you can manage to tear yourself away from whatever that is.”
Normally, the person who says something like that to her does so with a hint of resentment in their voice, but Tammy seems unconcerned. Cassie is frankly surprised that the girl isn’t more possessive or needy. As far as she can tell, aside from Andy, she is the only person of consequence in Tammy’s life. Of course, Tammy lived in self-enforced isolation for so many years that it makes sense that she doesn’t mind the silence. She assumes that it has been so long since Tammy made demands of life that she rarely thinks to make them of Cassie.
Perhaps, Cassie thinks, they are better suited than she’d thought.
She finds, unexpectedly, that she is nervous. Cassie has not sought the approval of anyone unrelated to her goal for so long that the fact that she wants it from Andy comes as a complete and utter surprise. She barely tastes the pasta dish Tammy has made for them which is unfortunate. Tammy is a good cook.
“Don’t let on that you know where he is,” Tammy cautions. “I don’t know if these things are monitored, but you’re not supposed to know about Andy’s situation. Just pretend that I’ve told you that he lives far away.”
Cassie nods and swallows, her throat suddenly tight. It hits her that the twisting in her belly is a sign of something larger. She realizes, nausea sweeping through her, that she would not be so worried about meeting Andy if she didn’t genuinely care for Tammy; she’s spent so much time mentally compiling the reasons why they are wrong for one another that she is caught off-guard by the realization that they are not. They are in a relationship, one which has lasted longer than it should have by anyone’s account. Given that, there is no reason to think that it will not continue to work.
She is almost overwhelmed by the sudden and irrefutable logic of it.
“Tam.” The name is said in a voice that is deeper than she’d expected. It is full of affection, and the sudden presence of this being who cares deeply for Tammy is unsettling. “Is that a guest I see with you?”
The face staring back at her from the computer screen is boyishly handsome. Andy has a broad forehead and deep, twin dimples. His hair is a shade darker than Tammy’s, a sandy blonde just as stylishly mussed as hers, and eyes that twinkle with intelligence. The resemblance is clear, there in the impish arch of his brows and the muted slyness of his smile, and Cassie is hit with a sudden wave of sadness.
“Andy, meet Cassie,” Tammy is saying, and Cassie can hear a note of pride in her voice. It is both disconcerting and satisfying.
“Finally,” Andy gripes playfully, and Cassie finds it hard to absorb the easy banter between the siblings. “I thought you were never going to bring her around.”
Politeness kicks in, driving Cassie to murmur an overly formal, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“That’s what you think now,” Tammy teases, and Cassie gives a weak smile. “Give him a little time and you might find that you regret it.”
“Don’t listen to her,” Andy scolds, dimples deepening as his smile widens. “She’s just jealous I got the looks, the brains, and the charm.”
Tammy scowls, though the energy practically radiating off of her is positive. “I can switch you off, you know.”
“You won’t let her do that, will you Cassie?” Andy is smiling winsomely, and Tammy cannot help but return the expression. “I already know I can trust you.”
“Don’t be fooled by what he considers his charming mode,” Tammy murmurs, loudly enough for Andy to hear as well. “Besides, he’s not the one you want to keep happy. Remember that.”
Andy’s grin, impossibly, grows even wider. “Cassie, did Tammy ever tell you about the time she…”
By the time they sign off two hours later, Cassie is exhausted. She has been locked in a state of entertainment mingled with horror for the entire time, comparing the vacuum of Andy’s life to the vacuum of Tammy’s. As ostensibly happy as they seemed to be, she feels the inexplicable urge to cry for both of them.
“His eyes,” Cassie says, a hint of speculation in her tone, and Tammy tenses, waiting for Cassie’s condemnation of his only visible sign of infection. “They’re different colors.”
She is so relieved by the innocuous comment that she laughs, the sound overly bright.
Cassie smiles faintly and then shakes her head. “He must be lonely, trapped in there all alone.” It is the first thing she thinks but the second thing she says and Tammy stiffens immediately. Cassie grimaces, already regretting the words. Tammy does not need to be told that he must be lonely. She knows it all too well.
Tammy’s guilt and fear combine, creating a perfect storm in the span of a second. She ignores the way Cassie sinks back, clearly contrite, instead gripping Cassie’s shoulders tightly as a burst of irrational panic rushes through her. “He is alone because he is infected. He’s alone because contact with him would mean that you would cease to be you. One wrong step, the tiniest of accidents, and you would become a monster, a killer. You would… you would…” She trails off, eyes vacant as she sees the past in front of her. She can see the ghost images of infected ripping into bodies with their teeth, on their hands and knees like packs of wild hyenas savaging their prey. The thought of her beautiful and brilliant Cassie reduced to that makes her feel sick. “You would be gone,” she finishes, her voice a choked whisper. “Gone forever.”
“Hey,” Cassie says soothingly, compassion overwhelming her as she folds Tammy into her arms. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“You can’t promise that,” Tammy accuses bitterly, stiffening in the embrace even as she melts into it. “You don’t even mean it. You’ve spent your entire life preparing to leave.”
“But not forever,” Cassie contradicts quietly, not sure why it is suddenly so important to reassure Tammy. “Just for a little while. Just long enough to see space.” She pulls back, smiling softly. “I’d take you with me, but I don’t think you’re allowed a carry-on.”
It’s not even that funny, but Cassie laughs anyway. She feels comforted by the calm steadiness of Cassie’s eyes, by the firm pressure of the girl’s hands on her arms. She feels grounded, like she has finally found something to which she belongs. The possibility that she loves this girl springs into her mind, but she doesn’t say the words.
She doesn’t know why she hesitates.
A month later, they have dinner with Cassie’s mentor, and Tammy can tell by the way they are overly polite and the way the stare, watching her mouth closely as she speaks as if listening to a living piece of history, that Cassie has told them that she is a survivor of the second outbreak. She knows that they have been coached to studiously avoid all mention, and she is both frustrated and grateful.
When they return back to her flat, Tammy barely lets Cassie close the door behind her before she is pressing her back into it, one hand pulling the other girl’s skirt up to bunch around her waist while the other winds into her hair. Cassie lets out a startled yelp, stumbling slightly before she lands against the door with a soft oomph. She is wearing tights in deference to the cold, but they don’t really help when Tammy’s cold fingers find their way inside. She hasn’t had time to get wet but the pressure of those cold fingertips against her clit feels good nonetheless, and soon Cassie is gasping , fingers grappling against the suddenly slick fabric of Tammy’s coat as she searches for something to anchor her. Tammy’s face is buried against her neck, and she has gone from cold to unbearably hot in minutes. She is still fully clothed, including her own coat, and the layers of clothing are stifling. She begins to sweat inside of them, her body radiating heat.
The helpless sounds she makes when she comes bring a blush to her cheeks.
“What was that?” she asks, but Tammy is already shoving her coat off of her shoulders and moving quickly to the buttons on the shirt underneath. “Tammy, what…”
Tammy has no explanation to give, so instead she sinks her teeth into the curve of Cassie’s shoulder. Cassie’s questions die on an exclamation of shock mixed with arousal.
She doesn’t ask them again.
It has been nearly nine months since their first fateful meeting in the park when Tammy breaks the news to Andy.
“It’ll be for a few years,” she says hesitantly, shoulders tensed as if waiting for an explosion.
Andy, strangely, is the one to comfort her. “Families live apart all the time. We’ve got phone and internet. I won’t wither away.”
Tammy feels immensely guilty despite his assurances.
“I’ll move back,” she promises desperately. “I won’t be gone forever.”
Andy watches her for a moment, his lips curled in a half-smile. “We’ve talked about this before, Tam. You’ve got to live your life. It’s the best possible thing you can do for me.”
She is on the verge of tears when she says, “But you’ll be all alone, Andy.”
“Do you think you’ll forget about me when you move away?”
“No,” she swears, leaning forward so that her face is almost pressed to the plexiglas. “Of course I won’t. How could you even think such a thing?”
“I’m not the one thinking it,” he points out gently, the words tempered by a soft shake of the head. “It’s okay, Tam. You have my blessing. You have my congratulations. I know you’re not abandoning me.”
“It feels like it,” she replies starkly. She taps her chest with two fingers. “In here, it feels like it.”
Andy sits silently for a moment. He can feel the vast emptiness of his living quarters behind him. They are filled with things, books and trinkets and keepsakes. All of the things that make a home a home, and after years of rattling around inside the borders that make up what is, in essence, his entire world, he has come to a certain peace with his life. He supposes it has something to do with the fact that his future has already been written. There is no room for wrenching choices and no room for quandaries or dilemmas. Sometimes he thinks that he has a better time of it than Tammy, at least in that regard. He will forever be the one left behind and she will forever have to be the one who does the leaving. There is guilt on both sides, but he imagines that hers is weightier.
“Don’t make me push you away,” he says quietly, his eyes sad. He would never do it, of course, never do anything to break the connection between himself and Tammy. She knows that as well as he does, which is why the look that she gives him is wry. “Besides,” he adds, smiling, wishing the intensity of the moment away, “we both already know you’re going to go. You’re besotted with Cassie, that much is obvious. You couldn’t let her go without you. You’d be a basketcase in weeks, and then what good would you be to me?”
“It doesn’t mean I can’t hate the fact that I have to leave you to do it.”
“I’d hate it more if you stayed out of some misguided sense of loyalty to me,” he replies gravely, though his mood lightens in an instant as he shoots her a mischievous grin. “Anyway, the fact that the two of you are still together has restored my faith in miracles. Don’t strip me of that last little bit of hope.”
“You’re awful,” she says primly, though there is a hint of laughter in her eyes. “Absolutely awful.”
“And lethal,” Andy reminds her, glad that they have moved past the weightier emotions. Though it is undoubtedly a coping mechanism destined to one day fail, he prefers to pretend that his life, and everything in it, is light and airy, not heavy and depressing. “Let’s not forget my most outstanding attribute.”
Tammy is not convinced that she likes Houston. She likes it even less when Cassie comes home after they’ve been there only 4 months, cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling so brightly she looks crazed. “I’m on the shortlist,” she says, wrapping her arms around Tammy and spinning them in a circle. It is a rare show of exuberance for her, and Tammy cannot help but be infused with her excitement.
“Shortlist?” she asks breathlessly, fingers sneaking beneath the waistband of Cassie’s jeans. She has yet to tire of the other girl’s flesh and still sneaks clandestine touches whenever she can. Today, all of Cassie is chilled in direct counterpoint to the near blinding warmth of her smile.
Cassie nods, biting her lower lip in excitement, looking, endearingly, like a small child with a secret she can’t hold any longer. “As pilot for the Icarus II.”
Tammy’s world grinds to a complete stop in the span of a second, the movement so jarring it makes her ribs ache. This is not what she had expected. “No, Cassie, no.” She moans the demurral, already feeling the other woman’s loss. Cassie has never wanted anything she didn’t get.
Cassie scatters light kisses across her cheekbones and nose, the touches doing little to placate the growing sense of helplessness and despondency growing in the pit of Tammy’s belly. “Don’t be angry,” she cajoles, finally leaning in to brush her lips against Tammy’s. The kiss stays soft and sweet and Tammy can’t help but return it. “It’s my chance to save the world, Tammy. It’s my chance to make things right… for you, for me, for all of us. How can I not take it?”
“You said you would only be gone long enough to see space,” Tammy says hoarsely, gut already clenching at the thought of being left alone. “You promised.”
“I know.” Cassie’s hands are on either side of Tammy’s face, thumbs stroking gently, calmingly, but she has only been home for a few minutes and so they are still like ice. “But this is different. I didn’t know then…”
She trails off. The look in Tammy’s eyes is that of utter misery. It is too painful for her to see, and so she drops her gaze to the side, focusing blindly on the floor.
“The sun isn’t dying. Not in the way that you think.” Cassie struggles for a way to explain what is happening in a way that Tammy, uninitiated as she is to the higher level concepts involved, will understand. She struggles for a way to make her understand the significance of the mission. She knows that if only Tammy can see why this is so vitally important, then she will understand why it is Cassie’s imperative to be a part of it. “Imagine the sun has a tumor interfering with the way it works, making it weak and sluggish. It’s not going to implode, not in the way we usually think of the sun dying. It’s still going to be there for billions of years, but it won’t matter anymore. It won’t be able to function, and if it isn’t able to function, its usefulness to us will cease to exist. For as long as humanity can manage to struggle on, it will be there in the sky, taunting us while we all slowly freeze to death.”
Tammy stares at her dully, not interested in a science lesson. Numbly, she thinks that she doesn’t care if the whole world dies, just so long as she isn’t left alone. It is selfish and she doesn’t care. There are other pilots, after all, who could fly this inevitably doomed ship into the sun. She’s told Cassie before, there is no way fate won’t punish such hubris. And look at the Icarus I, lost somewhere up there on their way to the sun, its crew dead in some way probably too horrifying to contemplate, her prophecy fulfilled.
Now she is the one who is chilled.
After a tense and protracted silence, Cassie looks up at her and sighs, carrying on with her point though the futility of it begins to press against her like a weight. “The tumor has to be eradicated, so if I am selected, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to fly a bomb into the sun. We’re going to blow up the tumor so that the sun can function healthily again.”
“Into the sun?” Tammy asks bitterly, head turning to the side. Now she is the one unable to look at Cassie, so full of enthusiasm over this suicidal mission. “Why? So you can fry to a crisp?”
“It’s not that dangerous,” Cassie answers patiently, reaching down to wind her fingers through Tammy’s. “It’s… it’s complicated, but I promise you, we won’t fry.”
“It’s true,” Cassie protests. “The sun isn’t as hot as you think it is. And the ship, its integrity… it’s all about the dispersal of heat,” she flounders helplessly, exasperated. She doesn’t want to get into the specifics, nor does she know how. She could explain this to Tammy in equations, but it’s a language the other girl doesn’t speak. “You can’t stay in the sun forever, but with the right materials and the right amount of padding, you can stay there long enough for this to work.”
Tammy can see, from the feverish desire in Cassie’s eyes, that she wants this. She wants it more than she wants to stay safe, more than she wants to stay with Tammy. She can cry, can throw things and trash their comfortable little flat. She can beg and plead and fuck Cassie in an effort to make her reconsider, but the gestures will be useless. She’ll only lose Cassie sooner.
“This will never work,” she says brokenly, then detaches herself from Cassie’s grasp and leaves.
Tammy looks sullen, even through the slightly pixilated feed of the webcam. “She’s got 26 months of training left before they leave.”
“She’s still planning on going?” Andy scoffs.
Tammy thinks back to the night after Cassie had told her she’d been shortlisted. Tammy had disappeared for hours, walking aimlessly. She’d been freezing, her thin clothes doing nothing to protect her from the biting cold of the Houston winter. The snow on the ground had been thick, quickly seeping through the soles of her shoes and threatening to dismantle them, and so she’d ducked into a small, brightly lit coffee shop. She had only a little money on her, left carelessly wadded up in her pocket after a purchase earlier in the day, so she’d bought a small cup of their house roast and settled into a chair just inside the window.
She hated coffee.
As it grew darker it grew colder, and she watched as the fierce wind whipped swirls of snow into small cyclones. She could feel the bitterness of it through the glass, cold enough to the touch that it made the pads of her fingers burn.
They’d been about to close when Tammy had asked to borrow the phone. She’d left her own at the flat, tucked in the pocket of the coat she desperately needed. Cassie’s voice was frantic, worried, and anxious all at the same time, and when she’d shown up minutes later to bundle Tammy into the car, she’d grabbed hold of her fingers and refused to let go.
She hadn’t said the words but Tammy had seen the fear in her eyes – fear that Tammy had meant that they were the ones who couldn’t work. Tammy had wanted to laugh at the irony of it, that Cassie would be so worried about her leaving when she was more than happy to eject herself from the earth’s very atmosphere for almost seven long years. But, she hadn’t said anything. She’d allowed Cassie to pull her into the flat, to undress her slowly and with care, and to pull the covers up over them. She’d allowed Cassie to wrap her in a tight embrace, her face resting against the curve of the other girl’s shoulder and Cassie’s chin buried in her hair.
“It’s for you, too,” she’d whispered. “You’ve already lost everything once. I’m not going to let you lose it again.”
So now, with Andy, Tammy nods tightly and repeats to him Cassie’s foolish notion. “She says I’ve almost lost my world once. She won’t let me lose it again.”
“Then she’s a fool. She is your world. Her going defeats the purpose.” He shakes his head in disbelief and crosses his arms over his chest. He supposes that great things are never accomplished without sacrifice, but he doesn’t quite understand why he and his sister always have to be the ones to make them.
“It’s her dream,” Tammy says miserably, head slumping forward slightly. She tries to hide it from Cassie, how deeply she is affected by her now confirmed departure, but with her brother, she feels no need. “How can I argue with that?”
Once Cassie is confirmed as pilot for the Icarus II, time slips by at twice its normal speed.
“It’s strange,” Cassie says, cheek pressed into the pillow. Her eyes are dark and hooded and a strand of hair falls over them lazily, highlighting the cream of her skin. “Knowing that I’m going to be away from you for so long.”
Tammy feels a longing for violence wash through her. She wants to slap Cassie, to shake her into awareness. Instead she reaches forward, pushing the strand of hair back, fingers lingering against Cassie’s skin.
Her next words come as a surprise to her. She hasn’t been thinking about it, or at least she isn’t aware that she’s been thinking about it, but some part of her must have been because she says it as calmly, as a demand, as if she’s been preparing for this moment. “Marry me.”
Cassie’s eyes widen. Tammy can’t decide if she is merely shocked or, instead, horrified.
“If you don’t want to be married, then you can divorce me when you get back,” she says quickly, feeling like she did in the beginning of their liaison. She’s always had to reach desperately for what she wants with Cassie and hope that her actions don’t scare the other girl away. “Just… don’t leave me with nothing, Cassie. At least give me this.”
And like always, Cassie finds herself agreeing without really knowing why.
It’s a small ceremony. Tammy has no friends and the only ones Cassie has are somehow involved with the mission. They don’t invite any of them. Cassie senses that Tammy wouldn’t appreciate it, though she does float the idea. The stony glare she receives in reply convinces her, instead, to offer to fly her college mentor and his wife out to Houston. Her own parents come in from their home in the Midwest and Andy patches in over the webcam.
It is, on the whole, a rather restrained affair.
They do, however, shove cake at one another and drink champagne, and Tammy decides that it might just be the happiest day of her life. Later that night, she stands in the doorway of their bedroom, staring hungrily at Cassie, before announcing in a way that is only marginally playful, “I intend to assert my marital rights fully and often.”
Nonetheless, Cassie laughs delightedly as Tammy launches herself onto the bed. She has been given three days away from her training program to get married and celebrate and when she returns, she blushes at the catcalls and whistles that greet her. She, uncharacteristically, wears her flight suit for the next few days, keeping it zipped firmly to the top. Mace, the ship’s engineer, leers at her and gives the thumbs-up every time she sees him until the flight suit retires to be replaced by her usual garb. Most of the bruising has faded but is still visible in swirls of yellow and green, and Tammy, true to her word, has spent a great deal of time dedicated to adding to the collage. Corazon sees the collection and snorts, offering Cassie a wry smile, and she tries to be embarrassed but finds that she isn’t, really.
It is oddly powerful to be loved so freely and openly, and she knows that that is what Tammy is doing. They’ve never been particularly facile with words, but each tight clench of fingers and sharp nip of teeth is a fervent declaration.
“So when are we going to meet the blushing bride?” Corazon asks one day. They have just completed a submersion drill, the experience exhausting both mentally and physically.
Despite this, Mace is the first to crack a joke. “You mean the other one?”
“Hey,” Cassie chides playfully. She is about to reply further, to offer some sort of scathing commentary in reply, when she freezes. As much as Tammy wants nothing to do with the mission, Cassie desperately wants her to meet these people. She wants to bring the two halves of her life together. She wants Tammy to accept and support what she is going to do and she wants the rest of the crew to see what she is leaving behind. They are all making sacrifices of various levels, but she can’t help but think that they will all take more care with one another if the sacrifice is more concrete than abstract. She also needs to find some sort of peaceful middle ground, some reconciliation between the two sides pulling at her.
Besides, she thinks it will help bring a stop to the covert glances Capa keeps sending her way.
Corazon prods her carefully, voice full of concern.
“No, I was just thinking,” Cassie says immediately, denying an accusation that was never made. “Why don’t we all have a gathering? All of us. All of our families, or at least the parts of it that are able to come.”
Tammy passively fights the idea until the day of the gathering comes. She can’t bring herself to disappoint Cassie, who watches her with hesitant pleading in her eyes, and so she finds herself milling around the room they’ve reserved at a local restaurant, making small talk with the other crewmembers. She meets them all, shaking their hands with a strained smile on her face, and pretends that it is a lesson in social graces.
Despite herself, she immediately likes Kaneda. The captain has a way about him that radiates authority while also putting her at ease. She is unaccountably drawn by the clipped, British undertones in his accent, suggesting that he learned a formalized version of British English first before it could be corrupted by the laziness of the American drawl. It has been so long since she’s heard any trace of it in anyone other than Andy that she is almost overwhelmed by nostalgia. Nostalgia quickly turns into remembrance, however, and she excuses herself to him with a strained smile.
“Are you okay?”
It is Corazon who finds her, hiding in the corner and staring blankly at the potted fichus blocking her from view. Tammy looks up at her blankly, trying to blink away the images of gore and death she has running through her head.
“Yes, thank you,” she says stiffly, offering the best approximation of a smile she can manage. “I’m fine.”
Corazon nods, her dark eyes unnervingly perceptive. “Perhaps I will sit with you for a bit,” she says, easing down onto the loveseat beside Tammy. “I often find these types of things very tiring.”
The lie is said so beautifully and naturally that Tammy feels a rush of appreciation. The woman beside her radiates calmness and peace, her very presence seeming to imbue Tammy with them as well, and she finds herself asking, despite her unspoken desire to pretend that this mission will never happen, “What is it you’ll do?”
Corazon’s smile is not directed at her. Instead, it is the smile of someone truly pleased with something, heartened by the very thought of her job. “I’m the ship’s biologist,” she says, turning slightly so that her face is in profile. “I’ll take care of the ship’s oxygen garden. It is my responsibility to see that we all have enough air to make it there and back.”
Tammy is horrified by the thought that immediately comes to mind. “Could you run out of oxygen?” she blurts. It is something she hasn’t considered before, stuck, instead, on the thousands of other ways Cassie can die.
“No,” Corazon says serenely, reaching out to place a calming hand on Tammy’s forearm. “It will not happen. We will return to earth with oxygen to spare after spending the entire trip building reserves I doubt we will need.”
Her reassurance is oddly not at all reassuring. “How are you not frightened?” Tammy asks, unable to harness the question before it escapes.
Corazon is not insulted by the question, as Tammy immediately fears she might be. “There is fear to be had everywhere,” she says philosophically. “You have seen it yourself, I think.” She pauses for a moment, offering Tammy an acknowledging smile. “But, too, there are times when you must trust that what you plan to do is so great that no other force would dare to interfere. You must trust the people who have prepared you for this task, and you must trust the people who undertake it with you. It is true that we can never know the future, but we cannot sit passively and wait for its resolution either. So, I will fly into the sun. I will tend my oxygen garden and make sure that we are able to breathe all the way there and all the way back. Cassie will pilot our ship. She will take us to our destination and return us home safely. These are things that you must trust.”
“I find trust very difficult,” Tammy mutters bitterly. “Courageous people, well-meaning people… they die all the time in service of so-called greater things, and then when they do, we’re the ones left alone to try and pick up the pieces.”
Corazon’s soft sigh is infused with sympathy and sadness. “In a situation such as this, there is nothing you can do but trust.”
Tammy trusted her mother. She trusted her father, Doyle, and Scarlet.
“I think you’d all be better served without my trust.”
The day that Cassie leaves, Tammy clutches her tightly. They have spent the last few months moving carefully around one another. Cassie cannot bear to see Tammy’s agony and Tammy cannot bear to see Cassie’s guilt.
“You will come back to me,” Tammy says fiercely, her grip so tight that Cassie cannot breathe. “There is no other option.”
“I will,” she chokes out, unaware that her grip is just as tight. “I promise. I love you.”
“I’ll put my trust in you,” Tammy says, the words almost a curse. “You’d better not break it.”
Cassie’s eyes are heartbreakingly sad. “This is my last message. We hit the dead zone a week earlier than expected, so I won’t be able to send anything to you and you won’t be able to send anything to me until we’re on our way back home. It’s been 18 months since I left, and it’s going to be a long, long time before I get back, but you already know that. When we finish this mission, it’s going to be worth it – I know it is – but right now, I can’t think about anything other than how much I miss you. I should have been there for you more. I should have told you more, shared more things with you. I should have just been with you, no books, no excuses, no training, and no stupid mission between us.” She pauses, takes in a deep breath. Her next words are wistful and full of regret. “I love you. I never should have left you. I’m coming home to you, baby. Wait for me. It’ll be a year before you hear from me again. Don’t give up on us. Don’t give up on me.”
There is a long moment of silence. Cassie looks into the camera; her eyes are dark and melancholy, her sadness, regret, and pain palpable. “This is it, then. I have to say good-bye. I…” she pauses, reaching forward, hand hovering over the button that will stop the recording. “I’m sorry.”
The screen blinks into darkness, the feed narrowing out in a thin horizontal line before disappearing with a hiss.