What was I thinking, bringing him here? I know little about him, other than he’s new to the city, not one of the locals, and he’s got a bio-mechanical hand that doesn’t work.
“So, do you have a name, or should I just call you woman who stole my pack?”
Yeah, that. I brush his question off, not quite ready to share more than I already have. “I did not steal it. You abandoned it.”
I will admit our first meeting went a little rough. I did grab his bag when he left it unattended, and he gave chase. The raiders came, and I decided he was the lesser of two evils. And here we are, standing in my home, tucked inside my compound; the very one I’ve somehow managed to keep a secret until now.
“You stole it.” This stranger I know next to nothing about stands across from me. He tips his head slightly while he stares. A phantom chill chases across my skin. I reach up and rub my arms. Something about my action speaks to him, because he turns away, focusing on my space instead.
“I gave it back,” I say, but he gives no indication he hears. I’m risking a lot bringing him to my compound. Outside of a few questions, he’s said little to me since we stepped inside my living area, nor has he given me any reason to trust him.
Actually, I have every reason not to. Yet here we are.
He stops looking and starts exploring, walking around the room, running his hand along the walls and furniture, then stopping in front of a gilded mirror. Reaching out, he touches the glass where dark spots from the corroded silver mar the surface. I can still view my reflection in the silver, but my image is not as clear as it would’ve been when first made. He turns around, taking in the rest of my space.
It seems so irresponsible, allowing someone I don’t know into my home. Yet, I’m not uncomfortable with his perusal of my space, as long as his attention remains there and not on me. I keep my home spotless. It always has been, along with my workspace. My mind will not function in disorganization. I’m not a fan of dirt, and my home proves it.
The tile floor, a terra cotta, has a couple of cracked sections, but they’re covered with a large rug I found in a majestic home within the quarantine area. It looks as though it’s never been used, still bright, with delicate, hand-woven details. Little animals and flowers sit within geometric designs of a balanced and repeating pattern. The exactness is a mathematical orgasm to my calculating mind.
The paintings on the walls also came from the same home. Bright contrasting colors vibrate off one another, the images insinuating buildings and people but falling short of enough detail to call them nothing more than a hint of a busy street captured on canvas. Unlike the rug, there’s no method to their design. I’ve stared at them for hours, guessing where the artist painted them and what subject he’d chosen to render on their surface. They are the most chaotic thing in my home, and perhaps that’s why I put them on my walls. Nothing in my world is perfect anymore. Perfection is an illusion.
“I like your home.”
“Thank you,” I say and glance around. Piece by piece, I’ve put my home together, all for comfort, because outside my walls, there isn’t any. Here, there is sanctuary. But the stranger in my space changes it.
He returns to studying me, as though my home isn’t as interesting. “So, are you going to tell me your name?”
“Why is it so important to you?” I take in his expression, doing my best to read his intentions and failing. It’s been months since I’ve had any kind of conversation. For reasons I can’t explain, I want to open up to him, tell him about everything. I finally have someone to listen, and it’s intoxicating and oh so tempting. However, I’ve already been burned for trusting someone, and I’m in my current situation because of it. “Does it matter?”
“Yes, it does. A name is a gift.”
“Right. A name is something your parents put on your birth certificate.”
“No, it’s more than that. It’s an identity. It says that you belong somewhere, to a family. My name is Axel.” He holds my gaze. “And your name?”
“Iia Danner.” It comes out easier than I expect. What I give him is my true birth name, though I doubt he’d know I have gone by another or that Danner holds some significance in another place. I cross my arms over my chest, not sure what to do with them. I’ve never felt so on display. He’s examining me as intently as my home, and I’ve no idea the information he’s gaining from it, just that he’s learning something.
“It’s nice to meet you, Iia Danner.”
“Do you have a last name, Axel?”
He reaches up and touches the chip in his face, and then drops his gaze to a pile of books on the floor.
For a second, I panic. It’s as though he’s opened my underwear drawer. I was going through them when I heard the ships and left them there to sort through after investigating. I didn’t know I would have a guest, or I’d have put them away. I stare at the pile, as though it has flashing signs all over it: Look here. See inside her head. Know her secrets. My brain twitches, not liking the violation of my personal space.
“No, I don’t have a last name,” he says, snapping me out of the beginning of a panic attack.
He shrugs but doesn’t take his eyes from my mess on the floor. “Until a few years ago, I didn’t even have a first name.” Then the man I only know as Axel stoops down and picks up one of my romance novels. A smile creeps onto his face, and he moves for my chair in the corner, sitting down and propping his feet up on my workbench. He opens the book and starts to read.
He dismisses me. Just like that.
“Excuse me?” Irritation prickles at my scalp. My space. My book. I’ve never had to share, didn’t plan on starting now, not in my home, most certainly not my sanctuary. “What are you doing?”
He looks up, peering at me over the top edge of the novel. “Reading.”
No, no, no. My stomach has about a million knots tightening all at once. I’m not used to people being around, especially those I can have a conversation with. I don’t want him to stay, but I don’t want him to leave either. Until I know he won’t bring an army back here to dismantle my compound, I can’t let him go. I programmed my bees upon entering to prevent him from leaving, but I haven’t told him so. He’s my prisoner.
A too damn comfortable one. Who’s the warden here?
“Are you going to stare, or sit?” He turns a page, and I shift from foot to foot. I’ve been alone for so long I’m not certain I can carry on a comprehensible conversation with anyone but myself. Nor do I have a clue what to say to him. I’d asked him his last name, and the conversation went silent from there. Now he’s sitting in my chair, reading my favorite book, using my workbench as a footstool and looking at home in my space. I don’t like it a bit.
I turn and walk to the other side of the room and pace back to where he sits. “That’s my book.”
He doesn’t bother to look up this time. “Kind of figured it was.” Using his thumb, he flips to another page.
“I mean that’s my book.”
He sets it down. “Are you trying to tell me you don’t want me to read it?”
“No.” I bite my lip. “Yes.” I feel intimate with the people in the story. I know their habits, how they think, what they like and don’t. They are more real to me than the man sitting across the room. I just don’t know how to interact anymore, and by touching my book, it’s almost like he’s touching me, digging in my head, dissecting my thoughts. The people in the book are all I have. How can I explain my lame existence—my equally lame fictional relationship with people who don’t exist, who never have?
“Do you, or do you not?”
“Want me to read it, or put it down?”
“Why would you want to read that particular book anyway?”
He shrugs. “A friend of mine taught me to read with these. I guess they kind of grew on me. It gave me a chance to live a life I could only dream of at the time—through words. I know it sounds kind of weird, but when you are a slave from the moment you take your first breath, even a fictional world provides an escape.”
I sink to the floor beside him, forgetting the book for the moment. “How were you a slave?”
“I’m a clone.”
If he’d hit me with a sledgehammer, I wouldn’t have been more surprised. I move away from him. A clone? I’ve known of rumors that the states experimented with cloning before the war, but I hadn’t believed it. The only thing I’m familiar with that was created artificially, like a clone, is a bio-mech. I shudder and look down at his hand.
Nothing without a soul can be trusted.
“Why are you retreating?”
“Are you alive—human?”
“I am. Except for this.” He holds up his bio-mech limb. “I love. I hate. I hurt. I bleed.”
“Who is she?”
He looks away. “It’s not important. She’s with another now.”
I scoot toward him and wait until he makes eye contact. “What is it like—to love someone?”
“You’ve never loved?”
“I’ve only had one experience with it, and I don’t know if it was real. It was complicated.”
He watches me, his eyes not missing anything. I get the feeling he’s figuring out what my drives are, why I did what I did. I can tell him I’m not that complex, but from the way he looks at me, I know he won’t believe me. “This man, is he here?”
“No, he’s dead, but he was never really with me, at least his heart wasn’t.”
“The rejection hurts, doesn’t it? How do you get over it?”
Someone rejected him? Why? “I don’t know. I wish I did.”
He nods. “May I read your book to you?”
“Read it to me?”
“Yes, it relaxes me.”
I move closer until my hip is pressed against his ankle. “Okay, but skip chapter twelve.”
“What’s in chapter twelve?”
“Sex.” My cheeks heat.
He grins. “Is that why the cover is so worn?”
My face grows hotter. “No, I’ve barely read it.” Liar. I likely can recite it line for line, but I won’t admit it.
“The sex scenes are my favorite part,” he says.
I laugh. “Duh, because you’re male.”
“No, that’s not it. Relationships have always drawn me. For most of my life, I watched people interact, never really understanding what drove human emotions. The sex scenes are nothing but emotion, intimacy, something I’d never had or experienced for a very long while. These scenes gave me that, a chance to feel what it could be like to have someone care about you. What it was to love and be loved. And then when I was—loved, I finally got the book, understood what the author wrote.”
I frown. “Just what kind of childhood did you have?”
“That’s just it, I didn’t have one, or a family, or anyone until I met her.”
“The one you love?”
“I’m sorry, but that is super depressing. And I thought I had it bad.”
“Tell me about it. How you found yourself here.”
“It’s a long story.”
“We have time. It will be a while before the raiders give up their search.” He places the book on a small table beside the chair and leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “What brought you to this place, Iia Danner?”
A peace settles over me. I can’t explain why I want to tell him, I just do. He makes me feel safe, and the more I talk to him, the more I like him. He isn’t demanding anything from me. He asks, and then he waits. I know if I say no, he will drop it. But I don’t want to. “Where should I start?”