Full Cast List (slight spoiler)
Celeste Lancer — amnesiac grad student
Takeshi Ishiyama (not seen) — anti-emo grad student
Daniel Manson — indebted grad student, engaged to Talasi (not seen)
Xander "Odd" X (last name unknown) — teenage orphan
Potential Molester One — thug
Potential Molester Two — thug
Nolee "Narnia" Julian Eastman — successful artist grad student
Nurse — night nurse at the local hospital
A Little Bit Odd
Celeste frowned at her computer screen, drawing her finger underneath a line of text. "And then I died." Far too cliché. No matter how much it suited her purposes, it simply would not do. Deleting it, she leaned back in her chair and stared at the ceiling, trying to think.
"Then my life was gone." That was even worse! This was far too frustrating to be worth all the effort she was putting into it; maybe a cup of coffee would sooth her mind.
For the nth time, Celeste cursed her editor and his crazy deadlines. "Have it to me by next Monday," he'd said. That was just fine! Was it infuriatingly short notice? Absolutely it was, but he didn't care. "No less than 500,000 words," he'd said. That was nearly impossible. For that much writing, she needed, at the very least, a full month's notice. She had school and work and a social life, thank you very much.
Turning on the tap, she contemplated getting a new editor. That wasn't very likely…not many people were willing to give away a chance to get some great up-and-coming author in their roster to a twenty-something year old grad school student.
As she poured water into the coffeemaker, a small chunk of plaster fell on Celeste's head. Glancing up at the ceiling, she noticed that there was now—after nearly two months of flecks and chips dropping down onto her head and her floor—a clear hole above her. She could see through to her neighbor's ceiling and the gargantuan black filing cabinet sitting right on the floor's weak spot. Well, that explained that. It was unfortunate that Mr. Cooper hated her and would never rearrange his furniture at her request.
Celeste tapped her fingers idly on the countertop as she waited for the coffee to finish dripping into the pot. She could really use it soon, or bar that, a highly effective drug of some kind. Maybe she should go out for a smoke. Her black shirt had emerged from the wash with a large red stain on it; maybe she could turn it into a design of some kind, or her artsy friend Narnia could work a little magic. She had some statistics to work out for her Stat II class, and she should really finish that soon…anything to keep her off the computer and away from her novel. She couldn't think straight right then and anything she wrote would be stupid.
Sitting at what functioned as a dining room table—really two card tables stuck next to each other with an elegantly painted tarp thrown over them, courtesy of Narnia's refusal to let her best friend live in such a pigsty—Celeste slipped her mobile from the front pocket of her vest and dialed one Takeshi Ishiyama. If he would break from his studies for an hour or so and come over for a visit, she could weave that into an extension-worthy excuse for her editor.
She heard a soft trilling sound through the wires, indicative of a ring on the other end. Drumming her fingers again, she rolled her eyes skyward and tilted her chair back. Yeah, a cigarette would be perfect right about now…too bad she was all out.
"Hey, you've reached Ishiyama Takeshi. I'm not here right now, so leave a message and I'll get back to you soon."
Celeste closed her mobile and thought of who else to call. Narnia was in China somewhere on her semester overseas…Anisha was visiting her grandmother off in India…Takeshi wasn't picking up…and Daniel…
…was her last chance. Opening her mobile for a second time, she dialed Daniel's number and listened to the phones connect.
What would she do if he didn't pick up? She couldn't stand to go back to her writing, and statistics were far from her mind. She wouldn't be able to focus properly.
Could she go down to the corner to buy a pack of smokes? Oh, but she was all out of pocket change. Every dime in her savings needed to go towards paying the month's rent.
Daniel's phone never rang more than three times…she was out of luck, unless he picked up during the recording. Damn. What to do now?
"Yo, this is Daniel Manson. I'm not here or I'm not picking up, so leave a message and I'll get back to you."
Hanging up before the telltale "Beep," Celeste grabbed her keys from the stand near the door and walked out into the hall, locking up behind her. She would go for a walk. Maybe down to the bridge; water tended to clear her head. Yeah, that sounded all right.
Ringing for the elevator, Celeste wondered why she bothered to lock her house at all. There was nothing in there worth stealing; her computer was made in 2000, and beyond "out of date." The fridge had a motor that worked when it felt like working, hence the small amount of food stored in it. The cabinets were nearly bare except for a half-eaten box of cereal and some bananas that were close to overripe. Her schoolbooks would be worth nothing, or at least close to nothing at a pawn shop—too many ripped and dog-eared corners. All the furniture was too large to carry out easily, and besides that, it was musty and hard to clean.
Celeste stopped herself before her cataloguing became a rant about her social class. "You work hard," she reminded herself. "You try your best and who cares if the world doesn't appreciate any of it? Who cares if your "A" papers get Cs and your "F" papers get As? Who cares if no one bought your last book? Who cares if your editor's a prick and who cares if your landlord hits on you every chance he gets? Who cares that you've only got four friends in the world and they're all too busy with real life to talk to you at"—she checked her watch—"three in the morning? Who cares if you've got class tomorrow and you're talking to yourself in an elevator that hit the first floor a minute ago and you're going down to the bridge to procrastinate and your homework's not done and your rent is too high and your house is a pit and no one gives a damn? Huh? Who cares then?"
The wall was entirely unresponsive, and with a last bitter frown, Celeste walked out the front door and slammed it behind her. Some neighbor on the second floor yelled out his window at the noise and she shouted a mild expletive back at him, flipping him off as she rounded the corner.
Wind bit at her chest and legs, smacking her jeans against her thin calves. She folded her arms across her chest and ducked her head down as she ran up the block and away from the cold, only to run into another, this time wind-free chill. Her sweatshirt was little protection.
The river wasn't far, she knew. Only about two blocks west. She would be fine. Ignoring the "gangster" look it gave her against her already punk-ish clothes, Celeste pulled up her hood and yanked it down over her forehead, letting it obscure her vision. Maybe the "tough guy" image would keep the lowlife scum around her neighborhood from hitting on her too much.
Raising her eyes a little, Celeste saw the outline of the bridge lit up clearly, the bright yellow neon clawing at her senses. Below it, a dark shadow was thinly outlined on the banks.
"Perfect," she muttered bitterly. That was exactly what she didn't need: company.
"Oh well," she thought, putting on a genuinely false smile. "Mother always taught me to be polite, didn't she? Polite, formal, simpering, vapid, girly, stupid, and utterly fake."
Not that she was resentful, of course. Not at all. Maybe just a little touched.
Determined not to be the one to strike up conversation, Celeste merely vaulted herself over the small ridge above the river and sat on her favorite rock formation, a cluster of stones that remarkably resembled a swan. Maybe the other person, whoever it was (and she did sort of hope that she didn't know him or her or whoever), wouldn't even see her.
A few minutes passed in which she thought this mysterious "other person" actually hadn't seen her. "Dense," she thought with mock admiration.
Then out of the darkness, he said something so low she nearly missed it.
Celeste looked sharply out of the corner of her eye at the strange boy. "Who am I?" she asked scathingly. "The better question would be 'who are you?' "
The boy chuckled, deep in his throat and nearly silently. "When I figure that out," he said, "I'll let you know."
"Oh," Celeste said, rolling her eyes, "that's great. I've stumbled onto a kid who thinks he can wax poetic."
The boy smiled—at least, Celeste thought he was smiling, but in the dark, it was hard to tell—and sighed. A pause came before he laughed again, the sort of laugh one makes at a private joke. Celeste quirked an eyebrow at the kid's attitude and let her curiosity get the better of her.
"What's so funny?"
The boy laughed again and turned to look at Celeste. She glowered at his secrecy and he let the chuckles temper, but still smiled. It was a little eerie, she decided, and she definitely didn't like it. She didn't even know him, and already this kid was weird. The best way to get answers from him was probably hostility.
"You gonna tell me?" she asked, trying to sound threatening. He nodded, returning his gaze to the water, but still didn't speak. She tried to wait, but grew impatient quickly.
He looked at her again, this time sadly. "It's just that the reason I'm sitting out here is that I know I can't wax poetic, that's all." His smile was no longer bubbly or full of suppressed laughter, but morose and forlorn. "I thought it was kind of ironic."
Celeste couldn't hold back a tiny laugh of her own. "I guess it is. You got any friends, kid?"
The boy frowned. "Yeah, sure I've got friends, hasn't everyone?"
Grinning in a half wise, half depressed way, Celeste shook her head. "Man, kid, you are pathetic."
The boy frowned and drew his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them and laying his head down. He looked like he had leapt right out of some stupid emo comic book. "What, you haven't got any friends?"
"Not all the time." Celeste drew one of her legs up and folded it beneath her, letting the other hang down off the stone swan's neck. "You think everyone's lucky enough to have friends all the time?"
The boy seemed to ponder this for a moment before answering, but when he did, it was with a perplexed tone. "Well, sure. I mean, I've got at least one friend all the time, right? Probably more."
"Ah…you're lucky, then. You've got enough friends to have at least one of 'em all the time." Sighing forlornly, Celeste lay back, practically upside down on the stone swan, locking her legs around the joint of its neck and head. "Hey, kid, how old are you?"
"Probably older than you," the boy said snottily. Celeste let the comment slide and closed her eyes.
"Yeah? You living on your own yet, huh?"
The boy snorted, a humorously undignified sound, and Celeste hid a small laugh that she knew was inappropriate. Snorting was unavoidable for some people, no matter how amusing. "'Course not," he said, sounding almost insulted by her audacity. "Kids don't live on their own, duh."
"Kid," Celeste said, steeling her tone as though to tell him something important, "if you're still saying 'duh' to every little thing, then I'm sorry to break it to you, but I am definitely older than you are."
"Oh, yeah?" he challenged, lifting his head to look down at her in what he probably thought was a menacing way. "Well, how old are you?"
Celeste tilted her head back to look up at the smog-filled sky, blotted out by the flashing lights and sickly pollution of the city. How old? Takeshi liked to say that one was only as old as he felt. As old as she felt, in this case. According to that logic, she was about sixty. But her birthday was in 1980-something, wasn't it? So she couldn't be older than 25. Funny the things she couldn't remember. Maybe if she stared at the gloom hard enough, she would see a number form in the smog and it would tell her of her age.
"Ch," she thought, "stupid…" The boy was getting impatient, she could tell.
"Twenty-something, and let's leave it at that," she said firmly. The boy looked at her suspiciously.
"What, do you not know?" he asked incredulously. "You've got to know how old you are. I mean, at least you've got to know your birthday, so you can figure it out."
She smiled at his disbelief. Such a child, to be so concerned with birthdays and things. The children were growing so slowly…society's fault, she surmised. Already she was saying hokey things like "I remember, back in the day, when pigeons were afraid of human beings…and snow days came around more than once every few years…"
"How old are you?" she asked, mostly to humor him. He smiled proudly and lifted his head up as far as it would go. He might topple over backwards if he picked it up any more.
"I'm 14," he said, deepening his voice about an octave. Celeste couldn't help but laugh.
"Very cute," she said, putting her hands flat on the ground and unwrapping her legs from the swan's neck. Pushing hard on the ground, she bent her waist down so her body formed an L-shape and turned over, landing in a crouch with her hands in between her knees and a rush of blood in her head. As she shook it off, the boy unfolded himself and crawled over to her.
"I'm not cute," he said, sounding stern and attempting to rearrange his face to look older. "You might've finished high school already, but I'm just getting there—started freshman year last week, as a matter of fact, and it's a bigger step than it used to be."
Celeste frowned. "Are you calling me old?"
The boy cocked his head and the maturity he had adopted fled his features, leaving him looking several years younger than he had started. "I don't think so. Why, do you think you're old?"
"Oh," she said flatly, "I know your type, then. What's your name, twit?"
"Are you calling me a twit?" he asked indignantly.
"I certainly am. What's your name?"
Sulking a little, the boy folded his arms over his chest and sat with his legs crossed. He was sort of scrunched up, his knees angled towards his body and his shoulders hunched. "Xander. But my friends call me Odd."
Celeste nodded slowly, the kind of nod that went with sarcastically simpering eyes and was used to say "You're a special person, aren't you?" Xander glared at her, waiting for some other reaction.
"As a name, I assume," she said. "Dare I ask why?"
Shrugging, Xander stared off into space, his eyes going in and out of focus with alarming frequency. "Depends if you're a daring person," he said distantly.
"Pretend I am."
Xander smiled and gave a soft hum of laughter. "I dunno," he said. "Just seemed like the thing to do."
"Well, are you an odd person?" Celeste asked. Did this nickname have any basis in reality at all?
"I…" Xander trailed off and his eyes lost focus again. His mouth opened in a small "o" and he looked positively dazed. "I guess I am," he said after a moment.
The pair shifted their respective positions so that they sat, side by side, each with his or her legs stretched out—Celeste in a kind of half split, Xander with his straight in front of him—and his or her torso supported by similar long arms, bent in lanky L shapes to support the rest of the body.
"Odd how?" she asked, trying to sound casual and offhand. Xander folded his hands on top of his chest and lay flat on his back, staring up at the clouded sky.
"I wonder," Xander said, "if the sky is really clear tonight. It looks awfully cloudy, but I suppose that's just because of industry, don't you think?"
Celeste rolled over onto her side and propped her head up on one hand. "Deep thinker, aren't you?" she asked passively. Xander smiled, though it distinctly lacked humor.
"You asked how I was odd," he said.
"Huh…guess I did."
The two settled into companionable silence, though they were not really companions, each looking at something separate: Xander at the sky, Celeste at Xander. She sighed forlornly and he looked over at her.
"Problem?" he asked bluntly.
"Just wondering," she replied. He waited for her to explain herself and looked at her expectantly until she did.
"Why you're here."
He grunted. "Probably the same reason you're here."
She laughed outright and rolled over onto her back, staring up at the smog. "Because your rent is too high and your editor is unfair and your friends can't stand by you and your schoolwork is overbearing and your house is a mess and there isn't enough time in the day? Is that why you're here?"
Xander shook his head and had the good graces to look abashed. "So I guess we're not here for the same reason."
Celeste narrowed her eyes for a moment and put her hands behind her head. Xander was a good enough kid—at least, he tried to be, which was more than she could say for a lot of the people she usually hung out with. The only thing wrong with him was probably a bombed test or a lost contest or something. She almost didn't want to hear it…but that would be rude, and if anything, Celeste was not rude. It had taken some work and a lot of research into the customs of various cultures, but Celeste was awfully polite when she wanted to be.
"Guess not," she said finally, trying to sound understanding. "What're you running from, huh?"
"Nothing," Xander said defensively. "I'm just taking a break, that's all. I'll get back to it."
Celeste smiled wanly; he sounded a little like she had when she was about thirteen. "So what's 'it,' then?"
Making a noise as if to begin speaking, Xander shut himself up quickly enough and decided to hold his information for awhile. He shrugged with an elaborate swing of his shoulders, a typical response from any adolescent who wasn't in the mood for sharing. Celeste closed her eyes and frowned, but didn't ask him again. She idly picked at the grass behind her head, tossing the blades into the air and imagining them floating down to the ground.
Xander made an uncomfortable sound. "Please don't do that."
"Hm? Don't do what?"
"Eh…please don't pick the grass like that," he elaborated, pointed towards her hands for emphasis. Celeste fingered the ground, but didn't pull up any more greenery. It was an odd request, but it had to have reason, didn't it?
Speaking of which…
Jerking his head back as though startled that he had been addressed, Xander promptly looked back to the river and half-lidded his eyes. He looked awfully depressed over something, Celeste thought. Pity he didn't want to explain.
"It's bad for the grass," he said softly, and she had to strain to hear him. "A lot of people think it's so plentiful, a little pulled up won't matter, but it's all important." Xander laughed hollowly and closed his eyes the rest of the way. "You need every wave to make an ocean."
"Every wave?" Celeste asked, rolling over again. It had been awhile since she had been so restless. And hadn't they just been talking about grass?
"Every wave, every tide, every drop of water," Xander said mournfully. "They're all part of the ocean, they're all part of the sea. They're all part of the big thing that gives us all life, right? Every one is important."
Celeste laughed a little under her breath. Xander might not be the most successful poet, from what she had heard of his complaints, but he certainly had a poet's soul.
"Sure thing," she said, suppressing her merriment. "So…really, what's the problem? I mean, what's got you all the way down here in this cold?"
Xander shrugged again. "I dunno. I wanted to get away from my family, I guess. They're too supportive."
Celeste nearly choked. "Too supportive?" she said. "I would give anything for my parents to be too supportive!"
"No," he said immediately, shaking his head, "no, you wouldn't."
He sounded awfully sad… Celeste crawled over to Xander and knelt beside him, her expression concerned and apologetic. "What's wrong?" she asked softly. "What do you mean, 'too supportive'?"
Xander sniffled and rubbed his nose, closing his eyes tightly. "They're so happy with everything!" he cried, his voice muffled by his shirtsleeve. "They never tell me I've done something wrong, or stupid, because I'm so creative and it's so great! Everything I do is perfect, everything I do should go on all my applications to everywhere because it's so—so original, so great! Even if I hate it, they pressure me to do it anyway 'cause I'm so different and so great!"
Hesitantly, Celeste put her arm around Xander's shoulders. "That sounds pretty annoying," she said, keeping her tone hushed. "I mean, I had supportive parents and all, but it was always 'Get the money on your own,' or 'Try something different if it doesn't work right the first time.' I really had to work hard to get a compliment, but I don't think I'd like to be where you are, either. I mean…I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that, but…d'you know what I mean?"
Xander sniffed again and nodded his head, his hair drooping over his forehead and shadowing his face. Celeste tried to tug him a little closer to her and he fell against her chest, lying with his knees still pulled to his chest and his arms clasped around one another.
The pair sat like that for some minutes, until Xander's crying trickled off into practically nothing. Celeste helped him sit up and ruffled his hair—he rewarded her with a dark glower and an awkward laugh, to which she smiled brightly and ruffled his hair some more. As he blinked rapidly, clearing away the last of his waterworks, she noticed his eyes—still sad, they reminded her of faded limes or pale grass. Awkwardly struggling for a way to breach conversation, Celeste wondered what time it was.
"You know," she said, glancing down at her wrist, "it's about five AM. Are your parents worried about you?"
Xander shrugged. "Maybe, if they're awake. I left at like, two thirty."
"Well, you should get going home anyway—do you live far off?"
Gesturing vaguely, Xander shook his head. "Nah. Seven or eight blocks that way, I dunno. I can find my house easy."
Celeste stood and looked down at him skeptically. "Sure?"
"Yes, mother," he drawled, standing as well. "What, do you want to walk me home?"
"I wouldn't be averse to it," Celeste admitted, folding her arms over her chest for warmth. "Want some company?"
Xander paused a moment, then smiled—small, but genuine—and nodded. Walking off, he seemed to expect Celeste to follow; the fact that she did was beyond the point. The walked slowly, hearing each step as it slapped the concrete and not really caring. They fell into step with one another easily and Celeste was glad that they made less noise that way.
"So," Xander said after a few steps, "you were out there 'cause of your rent and all that? Too overwhelming?"
Celeste grinned and shrugged. "Guess so. I was looking for a friend to talk to, but mine were all busy, so I just went for a walk by myself and ended up at the bridge." Not entirely true, but details were similar. It didn't matter too much.
Xander smiled sheepishly. "I'm not your friend?" he asked. "It's okay, I don't mind. I mean, we just met, and you're a lot older than I am. It's cool."
"Nah, you dork," she said, cuffing his shoulder. "You're my friend as of now. You weren't at three AM when I was calling around, though, were you? That'd be stalker creepy."
Xander laughed and cuffed Celeste right back, beginning a playful exchange of light punches. The two ended up ducking behind mailboxes and things in efforts to spring surprise attacks on the "enemy," each getting in about three more hits before Xander tripped and they called it quits.
"This is my house, anyway," he said, gesturing to the rather nice apartment they had paused in front of. Celeste whistled appreciatively and nodded a few times, offering her hand to help him up.
"Very nice," she said, throwing her arm around his shoulders and giving them a quick squeeze. "M'kay, buddy, maybe I'll see you around sometime."
"Yeah," Xander said. "Want my mobile number?"
"Eh?" Celeste took out her own mobile and nodded. "Sure thing—one sec…" Punching up the "New Entry" window in her address book, Celeste typed "Xander" and handed it to him, letting him write his own number. She didn't like to speak her own number out loud; why assume he wouldn't care? When Xander handed her mobile back, the number was logged, so it didn't really matter at all. Celeste still held out her hand for his mobile, which he fished from his pocket and handed to her.
"Call me sometime," Celeste said as she finished her number and handed it back. "You can brag to all your friends that you've got a grad student in your phone book."
"Oh, I will," Xander said with a nod. "Thanks a lot!"
As Celeste began to walk away, Xander remembered something that could be construed as important.
"Hey!" he called. "What's your name?"
Unable to hold it back, Celeste laughed at the simple, informative, altogether necessary question. "Celeste," she called back, "but it's in your address book!"
Xander flicked through the entries and saw her name; he grinned and waved. "Sure is! See you!"
Wandering down the street to her own home, Celeste smiled giddily and chuckled at her own cheesy happiness. So she had a new friend now—weird, but altogether good. He didn't seem to mind that she was "punk/emo/Goth," so he wouldn't complain about it the way Takeshi did. He had his own melodramatic, angst-y problems, so he would tell her to shut up about hers the way Anisha did. He was too young to imagine that she was exaggerating the workload of a grad student, so he wouldn't tell her to stop complaining the way Daniel did. He didn't know about her familial awkwardness, so he wouldn't suggest that she see a psychotherapist or a counselor or whoever it was that Narnia suggested she visit.
Life was all right. For the moment, anyway. Celeste checked her watch—4:36. Not bad, not bad.
Instantly, Celeste was on high alert. No one called her "kiddo" and got away with it. Perking her ears a little, she heard a soft footfall behind her. But the voice had come from in front of her—damn…there were two of them.
She could always fake insanity…that might work. She had only tried it once before, but the guy had left her alone. She was a pretty good actor, anyway.
"Are…are you talking to me?" she asked, putting on a stunned and excited tone. The guy in front of her stepped closer, and she could see his heavy muscles and thick leather jacket. Altogether a poser, but still dangerous.
"I don't see anyone else 'round here, do you?" he asked, clearly trying his best to sound seductive. So this bugger wasn't trying to steal from her; he was trying to hit on her, and probably more. Great. Celeste suppressed a violent shudder.
"I mean…you can see me? And everything?" she asked ecstatically. The guy looked a little perplexed, but advanced on her further. She heard another few steps taken behind her—that guy would probably try to pin her to the ground or something. She stepped forward to preempt his tackle. "Really?"
The guy looked thoroughly confused now, and she smiled widely. She was smiling at her apparent success, but he didn't need to know that. He flashed some kind of subtle signal at the guy behind her and the footsteps stopped.
"Why wouldn't I be able to see such a luscious babe as you, honey?" the guy said. Celeste nearly blew her cover and burst out laughing at the horrible pickup line, but twisted her humor into another brilliant smile. The guy behind her was stepping again…to the side this time? Curious. Out of the corner of her eye, Celeste saw the guy come up beside her, flashing a toothy grin and groping at the air around her.
"To be alive is a wonderful thing!" she cried exuberantly, clapping the guy in front of her on the shoulder and walking right past him. Risky, yeah, but she needed to get away fast. Something about that guy beside her was strange and kind of unnerving.
"Hey babe!" the guy called to her back. "I'll see ya later! Count on it!" Pretending not to hear him, Celeste twirled in a dizzy circle and stumbled a few feet forward before breaking into a sprint.
"I'm alive!" she shouted, completely giddy. A little ill at her disgustingly excitable behavior, she ran as fast as she could all the way back to her apartment. Opening the door, she darted into the foyer and slammed it closed behind her, sinking down against the wall. Had that been a little too close? Maybe. She needed to be more careful in these late hours.
Her mobile vibrated with a faint whirring sound. Unhooking it from her waistband, she looked at the call screen and saw a familiar name flashing across it: Ishiyama. Takeshi was calling her. At 4:41 AM, Takeshi was calling her and expecting her to answer. She frowned. Not likely.
After a moment, the vibration ceased and Celeste headed for the stairs. First floor, second floor…if Takeshi was calling her at such an ungodly hour, he must have been awake at 3:00 when she had called him. Third floor…there was no reason for her to answer when he had so blatantly ignored her. Fourth floor…had these stairs gotten shorter? She could have sworn she was only on the third floor by now, but no, there it was in faded and peeling gold letters: "5th Floor." Huh. Funny thing.
Sliding into the narrow hallway of the fifth floor, Celeste fished her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the front door of apartment 5C. But instead of falling open, the tumbler stuck in the lock and resisted movement. Weird…but whatever. Celeste pulled her keys from the lock and tried the door, which opened right away. Had she forgotten to lock up? No, she distinctly remembered locking the door before she had left. Then she had wondered why she bothered, which had started that whole rant against her life. Right, so what was going on? Too strange…there was nothing worth stealing in her shoddy living quarters…
On a whim, Celeste walked to the "kitchen" and looked up through the hole in her ceiling—only to find that there was no hole in her ceiling. But that couldn't be right. She distinctly remembered the plaster falling on her head before she left, as she had waited for her coffee to finish dripping, and come to think of it, she hadn't gotten around to drinking the coffee, so it should be cooling in the coffee pot which was suddenly not there.
What was going on?
Pulling out her mobile again, Celeste dialed Daniel's number and rapped her knuckles on the table as she waited for an answer. One ring…two…three…
"Daniel, hey, it's Celeste."
"…Celeste? Oh my God, Celeste Lancer?"
Celeste raised her eyebrows and cocked her head. She had seen Daniel only yesterday, in Developmental Psychology 203.
"Uh, yeah. Why? Something wrong?"
Daniel made some kind of odd gasping noise and seemed to stutter something like "No!" He cleared his throat and muttered again, "Oh my God…"
"Daniel, what's your problem? Someone die or something?"
"I thought you did!"
Daniel took a deep breath, presumably to steady his voice, and began again. "Celeste, are you telling me you don't remember, you know, almost dying?"
Celeste sat hard on her crappy old sofa, putting a hand to her head. Either this was some kind of warped practical joke, or something strange was going on and she was completely out of the loop. She opened her mouth a few times before finding her voice and speaking again.
"Oh my God, you don't remember…"
"No, no, Daniel, come over to my house right now. I seriously need to talk to you."
"Yeah. Yeah, of course, I'll be right there."
Turning off her mobile, Celeste lay on her side on the sofa and stared at the wall. What was going on? Why did Daniel sound so shocked to head from her? Why had he said he thought she had died? Where was the hole in her ceiling, and why wasn't there coffee in the pot?
As she closed her eyes tightly, she could feel a headache beginning around her temples. Exactly what she didn't need right then. Brilliant. As her head began to pulse, she rubbed her forehead in a circular motion and rolled over onto her stomach, burrowing into the pillows that smelled like mothballs and old tar.
All too soon, though she knew she had waited for it, the doorbell rang—a low, tinny sound reverberated through the cramped apartment and Celeste rolled off of the sofa, falling on the floor and getting up with a little awkwardness. She padded over to the front door and opened it, raking her hand through her hair in a vain effort to look at ease with the situation.
"Daniel, hey," she said mildly, opening the door wider. "Come on in. What's up?"
But Daniel didn't come in, nor did he respond to her question. Staring at her for two or three seconds, Daniel took a step back, then a step forward as he threw his arms around her neck in an effusive hug. Thrown off by this out-of-character act, Celeste merely stood unresponsive, letting herself be hugged until Daniel was satisfied. Eventually he was, and he slid off of her, walking right past her into the den area without even a passing glance.
Celeste followed with no argument, slightly bewildered at the recent turn of events.
"Daniel?" she asked softly. "Can you tell me what's going on? I mean, I almost died, and I don't even know it?"
Daniel nodded, sinking onto the sofa and looking blankly at the wall. The paint was shiny and white—odd…Celeste could have sworn it was chipped, not to mention dirty. Shrugging off that abnormality, she sat beside her friend and looked at him with concern in her eyes. He still didn't return the favor, looking pointedly anywhere but at her.
They waited silently for nearly half an hour before Daniel finally spoke.
"Celeste, you were in a coma for about a year. We all thought you were dead—dying, at least, and probably going to die before you woke up. It was really scary. I mean, none of us had ever had a friend die before, and we had no idea what to do, or think, or prepare for, or do, or anything…"
Celeste smiled wryly. "You said 'do' twice."
"I mean, God, we were so confused…" Daniel went on, ignoring Celeste's comment or not hearing it at all, "and no one knew what happened to you, I mean, until right now. Suddenly one day, Narnia and I went to the hospital and you weren't there anymore. No one seemed to know anything about anything, and we assumed—I mean, we naturally—you know, we thought…well, we thought the worst, right off. We thought you were dead. I don't think she had any idea you were back here, and I know I definitely didn't."
Celeste leaned into the cushions and nodded blankly, having stopped absorbing or hearing anything Daniel said beyond "you weren't there anymore." Her eyes dim and unfocused, she turned towards Daniel without really seeing him.
"How old am I?"
Starting slightly, Daniel looked over at her with a curious expression and tilted his head slightly away, towards the wall. Celeste blinked her gaze back into focus and had the good graces to blush slightly, though it disappeared as quickly as it had come.
"Sorry," she said, "but I don't remember."
Seeming to do some calculation in his head, Daniel turned in his seat to face her fully and squinted his eyes. "I guess," he said slowly, "you'd be about 28 by now. Why, how old did you think you were?"
Celeste shrugged. "I dunno, 25 or something…"
Silence reigned again, but this time it was not broken by Celeste's questions, nor Daniel's pointless explanations. No, this time, the pair of them laughed softly.
Daniels's small chuckle bubbled up in his throat and became a quiet but hearty laugh. Celeste's delicate giggle became a smooth, wonderfully entertained sound. The pair joined in their amusement at a woefully depressed situation and turned to one another as the emotion died off in a pair of sighs.
"We're really sad people, aren't we?" Celeste asked with a grin. Daniel nodded and smiled as well.
"We are…oh, hey! I completely forgot. Do you remember, on one of the nights right before you went into the coma, you met a boy named Xander?"
Celeste put a finger to her chin. "How did you know about that?"
"What do you mean? You told us about him, remember? You said he was sweet, but kind of misguided."
Shaking her head, Celeste once again turned to the walls. "No…I only just met him tonight, a few hours ago. He's sweet, sure, but I don't know much about him."
"He's really poor," Daniel mentioned. "An orphan, if I'm not mistaken."
Celeste giggled a bit and shook her head again. "No, he's got parents, he told me so. He lives in a nice enough house about eight blocks from here. I think he has a brother or something, too."
Now Daniel simply looked confused. "But don't you remember the night right before your coma? You met up with him on the street, don't you remember?"
"Yeah, sure," Daniel pressed. "You saw him coming out of the orphanage uptown and asked him if he'd been doing volunteer work or something, and he told you that he was working part time for pocket change. You went in, don't you remember, and asked what his job was? The clerk kind of laughed at you, I think you said, and told you he was an orphan who lived there. You guys haven't spoken since, obviously—I bet he thinks you hate him."
Celeste turned again, sitting cross-legged and facing Daniel full on. "No, no!" she insisted. "No, I just met him down by the bridge. We talked about why we were down there and I gave him my mobile number, and he put his in my address book. Then I left and ran into those two muggers or whatever, so I did like Anisha suggested and pretended I was insane."
Shaking his head profusely, Daniel leaned forward and wrapped Celeste in another fierce hug. She returned this one reluctantly, patting him weakly on the back in a falsely comforting manner.
"I…I still have his number in my mobile," she said finally. "I'm going to call him."
Pulling back, Daniel looked at her with wet eyes and nodded. "All right," he said, "but keep in mind, he's about 17 now."
Unable to imagine how that would make much of a difference, Celeste took out her mobile and opened the address book, finding Xander's number with ease. It was listed as "Odd," but she clearly remembered his nickname and felt the slightest bit honored that he would enter it into her book. Trying to suppress feelings that she didn't deserve to call him that anymore, she pressed "Send."
The mobile vibrated slightly as it rang, and she put it to her ear. Ring…ring…
Celeste paused for a moment. She hadn't actually expected Xander to answer his phone! Didn't he have anything better to do? It was 5:00 AM, after all…normal people were still asleep. This day just got weirder and weirder.
"Hello?" Xander asked again, sounding annoyed.
"Um, Xander, hi. It's Celeste. Remember me? We met underneath that bridge, by the river, just the—I, I mean…awhile ago. A few years?" She looked questioningly at Daniel for confirmation, though Xander assumed she was asking if he remembered.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone as Xander presumably collected his thoughts. Celeste felt several small butterflies in her stomach, though she wasn't entirely sure why. She liked Xander well enough, but they had known each other for a painfully short time and she had no real interest vested in his liking her or not.
"Celeste…" The dull sound of papers being shuffled met her ears. "Celeste…Lancer. Yeah," Xander said flippantly, "yeah, I remember meeting you. Average height, yeah?"
Celeste twisted her face into a curious sneer. "Five-foot-five," she said plainly.
"Right," Xander said with dawning comprehension. "Dark hair, streaked red, isn't it?"
"Blue, actually," Celeste said. "Streaked blue."
"Oh yeah, yeah, right. Umm…blue eyes."
"Uh…sorry, you know, I haven't seen you in like, three years."
Celeste frowned. This conversation was not at all how she had imagined it would be—Xander was not the sweet, slightly awkward boy she remembered. Maybe there was something to be said for the difference in age, but still, he had changed an awful lot. Had something happened at the orphanage? Speaking of which, she thought bitterly, why had he lied to her about living with overprotective parents in a decent house eight blocks from the bridge?
"Wanna get together or something?" he asked, sounding completely offhanded. Celeste closed her eyes and put a finger to her temple.
"Why don't I swing by the orphanage?" she asked bluntly. Xander stuttered and she imagined him shaking his head profusely.
"No that's okay I'll come to you," he said in a rush. Celeste's frown became a small smirk, but she didn't open her eyes.
"You know where I live?" she asked.
"Uh, no. I don't stalk you or anything."
Celeste chuckled. "Right. 71st, between Black and Fox Wood."
"That's right near my place," Xander said approvingly. "See you in a few."
Closing the mobile's cover, Celeste turned to Daniel and smiled widely. "You think he's very different?"
"Do I? I've never met the guy," Daniel said. "I dunno, was he nice when you met him?"
Celeste shrugged and her smile shrank considerably. "Nice enough, I guess. As I say, awkward, kind of attention starved. Looked pretty thin, now that I think of it." Pondering this thought, Celeste put a finger to her chin. "Actually, he almost looked malnourished."
"That's not cool."
"Right, I know…"
They each fell victim to their own thoughts for awhile as Daniel watched Celeste and she stared off into space, waiting for the bell to ring.
"Bin-bon," she said idly, her gaze still unfocused. Daniel raised his eyebrows and edged closer, waving his hand before her face.
"You all right in there?"
"You looked kinda spacey," Daniel informed her. "Like you were thinking about something too much, not paying attention to things."
"Yeah, that's what 'spacey' tends to mean," Celeste replied smartly. "Funny thing."
Daniel made a noncommittal grunt and his mouth slanted in a sort of half frown. He shrugged it off and leaned into the smelly couch cushions, seeming to take no notice of anything Celeste found odd. But it was all wrong—the coffee, the ceiling, the paint, the smell of the sofa, all of it. And Xander, 17 years old…herself, 28 years old? When had that happened?
Finally, the bell rang, and Celeste leapt from the cushions to tend to it.
"Hey," she said before she had even gotten it halfway open, "come—"
Xander. No longer the cute, shy, poetic boy she had met, but taller, firmer, tougher, more assured of himself. His eyes were no longer the color of faded limes, but a piercing, hardened emerald. He intimidated her, that was for sure, but it seemed entirely unintentional.
"—on in," she finished weakly, stepping back to make room. "I know it's a real dump, but it's all I can afford. Probably not as nice as what you're used to, given that swank apartment building you live in down the street."
Xander looked at her oddly, almost offended. "Excuse me?" he said. Daniel had pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes and was shaking his head, blushing his embarrassment underneath the hair that had fallen over his face.
"Um…" Celeste faltered, clearly remembering the house he had taken her to only a few years before…yet hadn't Daniel mentioned something about the orphanage? Xander worked there, didn't he? Except, no…that wasn't right. Daniel had said she thought he worked there, but at the receptionist's desk, she had learned that things were quite different: he lived there. That was it…he had lied to her about his apartment and now he thought she knew where he lived.
Celeste had the good sense to blush darkly, the blood rushing to her head and making her the littlest bit dizzy.
"I'm really, really sorry," she said quietly in something of a mumble. Xander scrutinized her closely and shook his head.
"That's nice," he said, "but I would've thought someone your age would have the sense not to make fun of me like that. It's very rude of you."
Celeste felt her shoulders beginning to quiver as she suppressed an awkward combination of self-deprecating laughter and miserably sad tears. She had no idea what was going on! No idea! Absolutely none…
In some tiny, insignificant way, it was freeing to her mind. She was not expected to know anything, nor remember anyone, nor hold any responsibility. Nothing about her life was real or reasonable. She was completely free from the real world.
In a much, much larger way, it was horribly restrictive. She knew nothing of this odd world, three years in the future. Who she knew, what she knew, all was different and strange. She had to rely on others to guide her, even when they did not know she needed guidance—which, of course, made things all the worse. "Help me," she wanted to scream at them, "can't you see I don't know where I am?" Yet at the same time, she wanted to shove them all away, yelling for her own freedom, that she could do what she wanted and that was that. She was 28, for crying out loud!
Sinking to the ground, Celeste put her arms over her head and repressed her tears with a vigor. She could imagine Xander and Daniel looking down at her with curiosity and sorrow; Daniel was probably deciding whether he should comfort her, and Xander was probably thinking, or at least trying to think that she had gotten hers. She wished neither of them was at her house right then.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice gargling unpleasantly with the backed-up clog of unshed tears. "Daniel, I'm sorry. Xander, I…Xander, talk to Daniel. Would you talk to Daniel?"
"Sure thing," Daniel said instantly, keeping his voice soft. He settled for patting Celeste on the shoulder and moving to guide Xander into the den, though the younger boy would not be so easily sated.
"I want to hear things from you," he said harshly. Celeste shook her head, keeping her gaze towards the floor.
"I—can't," she said with a small hiccough, closing her eyes tightly. "I'm really sorry, but—but Daniel will tell you everything he knows—right Daniel?"
"Yeah, yeah," Daniel said sincerely. "C'mon, Xander, let's sit over there and I'll tell you everything I told Celeste just then."
With a disgruntled noise, Xander followed his elder to the smelly sofa and listened with divided attention, still keeping an eye on Celeste as she cried in the little space before the front door. She hadn't moved other than the occasional quiver, which was often accompanied by a soft or tormented sob.
She listened to them talk—Xander got the occasional word in edgewise, asking repeatedly why she had to be such a snot. Daniel and his unending patience trod on steadily, but Xander was getting angry, she could tell. She wanted to explain, tell them everything, tell him everything, but she couldn't. She wouldn't. She wasn't prepared to take on a lie that big.
"I don't know…I don't know, I don't know anything… Take me away…"
With another wrenched sob, Celeste fumbled behind her back for the doorknob and turned it, only to find the tumbler locked into place—Xander or Daniel had locked it after the younger boy's arrival. She might have suspected such a thing… Swearing internally, she tried to pull herself to her feet and managed to make it to the long block of wood protruding from the wall which substituted for a kitchen counter before collapsing against it. Her hand felt as though it might have been bruised, but the pain was somehow detached from her, as though she knew of its existence but only observed it lingering in space. A sensation with no body to inflict. Morbidly ironic.
Daniel's voice from somewhere far away. Where was she? It was somewhere strange, somewhere disconcerting where little made sense…oh, right, the Gobi. How could she have forgotten? Heat made the air thick—it must be distorting the sound waves, slowing them down.
"Daniel?" she called, though her voice was muffled.
She heard Xander's voice—"Why's she so loud?" he was asking. She wanted to explain, wanted to reason with him, wanted to know why it wasn't obvious, but her voice was constricted in her throat and she couldn't make a sound. She wasn't choking, exactly, but something close. Not dangerous, no, just…almost.
"Celeste," Daniel said again, more firmly this time, and she felt his hand around her arms, holding her up. He had come over awfully fast…and considering the heat, he must have run faster than she had ever seen him go…
"Are you okay?" he asked. She looked blearily over his shoulder and saw Xander, who even looked a little concerned. Turning her gaze back to Daniel, she smiled weakly and nodded.
"All things considered," she choked out around the block in her throat, "I think I'm doing fine. Awfully hot, isn't it, though?"
Awfully hot, she could feel the pressure building around her, crushing her, pushing her down, but she was so cold…so cold…
Xander frowned, his eyebrows knitting together as he stepped closer and put his hand on her shoulder. "It's nearly 45 degrees outside," he said nervously. She shook her head, clearly perplexed.
"Can't be," she said, trying to sound firm. "It's never that cold in the desert."
Daniel and Xander exchanged a look, both now afraid for her and Xander a little afraid of her. Daniel picked her up and carried her over to the sofa, laying her down and smoothing the hair back from her forehead. She almost laughed at the absurdity of it all—a sofa in the Gobi, and one that smelled exactly the same as hers did at home. The home with walls that weren't cracked right, plaster that wasn't broken right, and coffee that wasn't made right. On the right street and in the right apartment, but at the same time, all wrong. Every single bit was wrong.
"Wrong," she said in an eerily maddened voice. "Wrong, wrong!"
"What's wrong?" Xander asked, sitting by her legs. Daniel stopped petting her hair and went to get something from the kitchen sink. She could hear the water running.
"No, you're doing it wrong," she said matter-of-factly. "There's no water in the desert, see, unless you crack open a cactus. You can't get it from the river, it's all dried up."
"I think she's hallucinating," Xander said, leaning over the back of the sofa to speak to Daniel. The older boy scoffed and the water stopped.
"You think?" he said, laying a wet cloth over her forehead. "She's really hot, probably got a fever."
Xander nodded. "Got it. Should we call a doctor or something?"
Daniel looked at him sharply, his eyes narrow. "Can you afford that kind of luxury?"
"Eh. Guess not, then." Xander smiled, kind of sadly, and gave a quiet chuckle. "It sucks being poor."
"You're preaching to the choir," Daniel said distractedly, holding out the now damp cloth. "Wet this for me, would you? Cold water."
Muttering incoherently, Xander brought the cloth to the sink and took his time wetting it. He could be heard wringing it out and rewetting it several times before he was satisfied and brought it back to Daniel's dark frown.
"She's sick," he said firmly. "Don't make her wait just 'cause of your—I don't know, your personal vendetta or whatever your problem is."
"Che, don't worry," Xander said sourly, trying to sound "cool" and coming out sulky. "I won't."
Trying to sop Celeste's forehead and speak articulately at the same time, Daniel glanced out of the corner of his eye at Xander and made sure to look displeased. "You know," he said impatiently, "it's not her fault she insulted you."
"Oh?" Xander snapped. "How do you figure? Sure sounded like her to my ears, don't you think?"
"I don't know what it sounded like to your ears," Daniel retorted. "I can't hear out of them. All I know is that Celeste has got something weird going on in her life and she needs her friends to help her figure out what it is. If you don't want to be a part of that, then you can leave now and I won't care. I'm sure she won't."
"Yeah, I'm sure." Xander stalked towards the door, his arms folded across his chest. "When she wakes up, tell her I'm gone."
"Don't worry," Daniel said distractedly, wringing out some of the water remaining in the cloth so that it dripped down Celeste's brow. "I'm sure she'll notice."
Xander grunted noncommittally. "I appreciate your sarcasm, thanks," he muttered.
"I'm sure you do. 'Bye now."
With another grunt, Xander slammed the door. Unbeknownst to Daniel, he did not proceed to leave, but sat on the mat outside of Celeste's door and leaned up against it, determined not to leave until he heard one of the apartment's occupants doing so. He wanted to make amends with Celeste, really he did, but it was for the wrong reasons, and he didn't know her well, anyway.
Resting his head in his hands, Xander idly thought up some new lyrics and tunes for his guitar and traced patterns on the cold tile floor.
On the sofa, Celeste continued to hallucinate that she was wandering in the Gobi. Daniel had resorted to sitting beside a plastic trash can full of water, periodically wetting the cloth and sometimes simply sloshing water onto her head with his cupped hands. She was beginning to make him nervous. She was not asleep, or unconscious even; her eyes were wide open and she blinked sparingly, which was worse. She couldn't have a concussion; she hadn't banged her head. Sleep would be a good thing for her. Sleep was a good thing for fevers.
Besides, her wide grey eyes were creeping him out.
"Celeste," he said in his best paternal voice, "do you think you could try to get some sleep now, honey?"
"Honey," he thought angrily. Why had he said "honey"? Sounding like a father, it had been natural. But he had a girlfriend, for crying out loud! A fiancé, even! Talasi would kill him if she thought he was hitting on another girl. Luckily, Celeste was completely out of it, and if her amnesia—for he had decided, that was what it was—was as bad as it seemed, she probably didn't even know who Talasi was. They had only met twice. Talasi wouldn't have to know, and he would never tell her, that was for sure.
"Sleep?" she asked wearily, clearly needing it. "Can't sleep now, I'll die of heat stroke. Stupid…"
Frowning at the name calling—stupid, he wasn't stupid—Daniel dripped more water onto Celeste's face and patted her arm in what he thought was a soothing manner. Should he call Narnia or Anisha? Takeshi was in Korea or something, or maybe Thailand, so that was no good. Anisha would be working, knowing her—she was having trouble making ends meet and had taken on another job. Despite her parents' wealth, she had little money, as it all went to her older sister. Little did their parents know it was mostly being spent on angel dust and crack. "Huh," he thought with a grin. "We're all just a screwy band of losers, aren't we?"
"Where'd you get that, anyway?" she asked drunkenly, gestured vaguely to the cloth now resting atop her head. "It's not like we're in—in a city or somethin', 'cause if we were, you'd have to call the National Guard. Tell them we found the lost ruins of Quetzalcoatl."
Daniel couldn't help but chuckle, though it was weak and sounded forced. "Quetzalcoatl was a god, not a city," he said fondly. "Get some sleep, Celeste."
She yawned exaggeratedly, stretching her arms above her head and squeezing her eyes shut. Clearly she was exhausted, though Daniel could only assume and guess why—was it the mental stress of the last few hours? Had she done something she no longer remembered which had drained her physically? Was he brain shutting down to process all this information? To heal? To block them all out? Or was it something else entirely? Did he even have any business knowing?
Whatever the reason, she seemed to have finally dropped off, which meant he needed to make her comfortable and leave as soon as possible to get help. Professional help…not so much. Funds were tight for them both, as well as for Anisha, but Narnia might be able to give them a hand. She always seemed to have spare cash somehow, which was odd, now that he thought of it—her parents weren't especially loaded, from what he knew.
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," he reminded himself; though he thought the phrase was stupid, it did get the point across.
Standing, he began to search the house for a thick blanket as he turned on his mobile and dialed Narnia. She picked up on the first ring.
Daniel looked at his watch: 6:02. Narnia usually woke early, anyway, so it wasn't too much of a surprise, though she did sound groggy, as though she had only just gotten out of bed.
"Hey Narnia," he said jovially. "Guess who called me this morning?"
"Umm…" Narnia fumbled for an answer for a moment and decided she would never guess correctly. "The Power Rangers want you to join them in their latest escapade."
Daniel rolled his eyes. "Close but no. Promise me you won't panic or anything."
"Well, now I'm bound to panic or something," she argued reasonably. Trust Narnia to remind him of the logic in any given situation.
Celeste made a soft grunting noise. "Okay, Daniel, I'll try," she said in a patronizing tone which he found most disagreeable.
"I don't appreciate that, but anyway. So—Celeste called me, if you can believe it."
"Celeste?" Narnia exclaimed immediately with the effect of one who had just had a bucket of cold water dumped on her face. "Celeste Lancer?"
"Yeah," he said, trying to sound passive to balance her excitement. "Go figure, right?"
"Oh my God, Daniel, I thought—I mean, wasn't she—I…are—are you sure?"
Trying not to take offence at her faith in his ability to recognize his friends, Daniel shrugged, even though he knew Narnia couldn't see it. "Yeah, that's basically what I said when she called me. I'm positive, I've just spent a little more than the last hour or so at her house."
"And you didn't call me why?" she asked, sounding more than a bit offended. Daniel nearly smacked himself in the head—of course Narnia would have wanted to be called right away…he shouldn't have mentioned how low he had been there. There was nothing to do about it now, but he could remember that bit of information for the next time a situation like this one arose.
…yeah. Right. Like that would ever happen.
"I didn't think," he said truthfully. "Besides, it was really early in the morning, like 4:45, so I figured you'd be asleep."
"Well I would have been, but I would've woken myself up for her! She's been dead for the last three years, Daniel, this strikes me as breaking news!"
"I know, I know, I'm an idiot and I'm sorry," he said. If she had been present, he likely would have been proffering himself on the floor, begging for forgiveness. "Get over here now, would you, though? She's got a fever in a bad way."
"I'll be there right away," Narnia promised. Daniel nearly missed the last words as she was already hanging up her own mobile. Turning his off, he paced around the kitchen and fetched himself a glass of water, splashing some on his face before he turned the tap off.
He stared at the back of the sofa and leaned against the counter. He felt sort of bad for Celeste, not because her fever was his fault in any way—at least, he didn't see how it could be—but because she was in such a bad way already, and then to go and get sick all of a sudden for no apparent reason was just too much.
"This is why I'm atheist," he said loudly to the ceiling, which sort of posed an argument for his declaration, but made him feel better anyway. Suddenly he hoped his voice hadn't woken Celeste—he needed to learn to control himself better… He was nearly 28, he should have learned already. Pondering why he hadn't, or rather, what had prevented him from it, he nearly missed a soft rapping on the door. Narnia never liked doorbells, for some odd reason. Something about fingerprints, if he remembered correctly.
Walking over softly—one thing he had learned was that tiptoeing was not necessarily the best way to walk silently, but walking flatfoot could do just as well if one was careful about how he stepped—Daniel opened the door and prepared to invite Narnia inside. Unexpectedly, he found not only Narnia on the other side of the door, but Xander, who was making a valiant effort to escape into the elevator. Unfortunately for him, it had gone back down to one just as Narnia had gotten off, so he was left standing awkwardly in the hall under Daniel's critical eye.
"Sorry," he muttered. "As soon as the elevator gets back, I'll be going."
"Who's he?" Narnia asked Daniel in a hushed tone. He shook his head wearily and invited her inside, remaining in the doorway to talk to Xander.
"Come on in, then," he said impatiently, gesturing to the apartment. Xander shook his head, obviously embarrassed, and pressed the button to ring the elevator again.
"Oh—" Daniel stepped into the hall and grabbed Xander's arm, pulling him back inside. The boy came with some small resistance, the kind that said "I do really want to come in but I'm being a stubborn prick so I'll resist when you ask me to."
Leaving no room for argument or small discussion, Daniel shoved Xander inside and closed the door firmly, locking it with a small "click." Narnia stood with her arms crossed and her hip thrown out, obviously impatient and, Xander thought from the combination of posture and attire, probably from money. Her hair, dyed deep, rich red was shining under the faint lights, adorned with a thin barrette to keep it out of her hair, but Xander's detail-oriented vision picked up on the intricate design drawn with a painfully thin brush in paint that exactly matched her hair color. She must have paid a bit for it; on top of the painstaking detail of the design, the barrette itself seemed to be made of crystal or heavy glass.
"I like you barrette," he said idly. Narnia looked at him curiously and nodded once.
"Thanks. Would someone tell me who you are?"
Daniel sighed loudly. "Narnia, Xander. Xander, Narnia. Narnia, Celeste," he finished, pointing to the sofa where their friend lay, presumably still asleep.
"Wait a second," Xander interrupted. "Your name is Narnia? Like the books?"
Narnia raised her eyebrows and looked at Xander as though he had just insulted her. "Sort of," she said slowly. "It's not my given name, if that's what you mean. It's an artist's pseudonym, like a writer's penname. My brother, he calls himself Grey. I would too if my parents named me Harry."
Rolling her eyes, Narnia crept over to the sofa as though she was about to discover a secret treasure. Leaning over the back, she peered at the cushions and the girl lying atop them. Sure enough, it was her old friend Celeste Lancer, and sure enough, she was fast asleep.
Turning, Narnia glared once more and Daniel for good measure and then padded into the kitchen area, hoisting herself up to sit on the counter. She leaned herself forward slightly, apparently in anticipation, and waited for a further explanation of this odd boy's presence at her long lost friend's house.
Daniel seemed used to such subtle nuances and requests as that, for he closed his eyes and tipped his head back, giving himself a moment to sooth his thoughts before speaking. Xander watched the two with some interest as he leaned against the refrigerator.
"Remember that sweet little boy Celeste was telling us about?" Daniel asked, the timeframe he was referring to obvious, even to Xander. "Misguided, she said. Kind of poetic? She met him under the bridge that one night, remember?"
"Yeah…" she said slowly, her eyes shifting to Xander's surprisingly tensed form. "You're saying that's him?"
Daniel nodded and Narnia sat up straighter.
"Hi," she said, trying to be friendly and succeeding well enough. "I'm Narnia."
Xander repressed the urge to say something snappish like "I know," but inclined his head in a small bow and gave a small smile. If she noticed how utterly forced it was, she chose not to comment.
"So…" she began, "what do we do about Celeste? Come to think of it, Daniel—" she turned to him accusatorily "—why did you call me and not Anisha?"
Daniel blinked owlishly, then let his eyes flicker to the side and back before turning his head down, looking at the floor. He angled his body just slightly away from her and fidgeted a bit.
Narnia understood at once. "Money," she said dully. Daniel looked at her and smiled sheepishly.
"Well you know Anisha's in a tight spot, and I'm pretty sure Takeshi's saving to pay off some debt or other, and you always seem to have loads of pocket change, so…I…you know. I figured I'd best call you."
"But what is the money for?" she asked plaintively. "I'm not about to hand over five hundred dollars for your personal amusement."
"Not at all!" Daniel said, waving his hands in front of his face. "No, no, for Celeste. We want to get her back to the hospital, to make sure she's all right and getting treatment for her problems if she's not. You know, because she just disappeared and all that?"
"So what's your real name?" Xander asked suddenly, looking at Narnia. "Is it something really bad?"
"None of your business," she said dismissively. "So Daniel, you want to go back to that hospital and find out what happened? I mean, I don't think patients just get up and walk out without some kind of signature or something.
Daniel nodded and walked back to the sofa, checking to see if Celeste had woken yet. Her eyelids were flickering, as though she was coming out of sleep, but she had not quite yet gotten there.
"Celeste," he said softly. "Celeste…c'mon, we have to go."
She let her eyes open slightly and then closed them again, pressing her palms to her face. "Nng," she muttered incoherently. Daniel smiled at her, even though she wasn't looking.
"Let's go, Celeste," Narnia said, coming over as well. "Come on, we've got somewhere we have to be."
Xander hung back, unsure whether he would be welcomed into the fray. "Yeah, Celeste," he said from the doorway. "Let's go, come on. It'll be fun."
Narnia looked back at him, apparently irate, but nodded anyway. "Yeah," she said as she turned back to Celeste, "it'll be lots of fun. Let's go, up and at 'em."
"M'kay," she said softly, rolling over and dragging herself up on all fours. "Let's go."
Daniel helped her to sit back and then stand, and Narnia hovered protectively as he guided her to the door. Xander opened it, trying to be cordial, and they all walked out.
"Wait a second," Celeste slurred, trying to turn back to the door. "I need to lock up or someone's gonna come rob my house!"
Daniel and Narnia exchanged a knowing look and Xander felt completely in the dark. Taking pity on the younger boy, Narnia explained, "Celeste rarely bothers to lock her door. She doesn't think there's anything in there worth taking, but sometimes she'll do it as a matter of reflex. She wouldn't be making this much of a fuss over it."
Daniel guided Celeste into the elevator and Xander pushed the button for "1" as Narnia tried to talk some sense into her friend.
"Do you know where you are?" she tried. Celeste looked at her blearily and shook her head.
"'Fraid not," Daniel said softly as the elevator came to the first floor. Hoisting her up on his back, he carried her out the front door with his two companions on his heels and, per Narnia's instructions, headed towards the hospital Celeste had been staying in at the time of her peculiar disappearance.
As Narnia wondered why Celeste had been released from the hospital with no notice, she began to think that that hadn't been what had happened at all. Come to think of it, none of the doctors or clerks seemed to know anything about Celeste's release, much less when it had occurred. But wouldn't she have needed a signature or two? Or three? Certainly the doctor supervising her would need to give a certificate or something, and another doctor would probably have needed to corroborate the fact.
Had Celeste simply woken up one day, decided she felt fine, and left? Narnia frowned. They didn't even know what had gotten her into that coma in the first place. What had gotten her out of it? And maybe more importantly, why had it lasted for an entire year? Narnia had never gone to medical school, but she had heard Anisha and Takeshi go on and on about enough soap operas to know that a year was a long time. So many questions, she thought grimly, and no one to provide any answers.
Daniel looked over at his friend and saw her thinking hard about something, her fingers splayed across her mouth and her eyes narrowed at the ground. The wind had begun to pick up and was blowing her hair in her face, though she seemed to take no notice.
"Narnia," he tried again, shifting Celeste on his back. Carrying her hadn't been hard, but standing still with her weighing him down was beginning to get difficult. Still, Narnia paid him no attention.
Finally, Daniel sighed in frustration and glared at her. When she didn't even move, he decided to use his "last and most drastic resort," as she had dubbed it on a much prior occasion.
Narnia looked up in alarm, her eyes widened and her mouth hanging open just a bit. Xander cocked his head at this development—he thought Nolee was a rather pretty name—and took a few small steps towards the hospital doors.
"'Scuse me?" she said icily. Daniel shrugged apologetically and jerked his head towards the gates.
"We're here. Thought you ought to know."
"…oh," she said with a delicate blush. "Oh. Okay, let's go on in, then, see if we can't find someone to tell us what happened."
As Narnia drew closer, Xander slowed his pace to fall in step beside her. "Nolee?" he asked, wondering if he was pushing his luck. "That's your real name, then?"
Narnia glared at him out of the corner of her eye. "Nolee Julian Eastman," she said thinly. "Yeah. Why?"
Xander jostled his shoulder in a half shrug. "I dunno, I think it's a pretty name. Why'd you change it?"
"Why, does it seem stupid to you?"
"No," he said passively. "I just don't know why anyone would bother to change their name. I mean, it's a piece of identity, isn't it? I'd want to hold onto any identity I could get. That's why I write songs and things, to put my identity in its place."
"I thought you were a poet," Narnia said, looking at him fully as they passed through the hospital doors and followed Daniel to the front desk.
Xander gave a small laugh. "When I was younger, yeah, I tried to be. No more, though. Now I play guitar and—and…you know, play the stuff I write."
"That's impressive," Narnia said mildly, in a tone which expressed no impression at all. Xander felt the corners of his mouth tug down in the first hints of a frown, but made no other reaction as they reached the nurse sitting at the front desk.
"Yes, sir?" she was saying sweetly to Daniel as he put Celeste down on her feet and let her lean on his shoulder.
"Yes, hi," he said with simpering politeness. "My friend here was a patient at this hospital about three years ago and then released, and we want to know why no one was informed."
The nurse had plastered on a clearly routine smile and began typing something into her computer. "All right, sir," she said in her suddenly exhausted voice, "on what date was your friend here released?"
"We don't know," Narnia said, sidling into the conversation. "That's part of why we're here. We don't know what happened, or why she was released at all. At the time, no one seemed to know where she had gone or who had let her go."
"Well, what's her name?" the nurse asked. "Sweetie, what's your name?"
Celeste narrowed her eyes at the title, but smiled, creating a distinctly creepy expression. "Celeste Lancer," she said, "but you might also look under 'unidentified comatose.' Depending on who brought me in here, see."
Daniel nodded, not to the nurse, but to his lovely little friend with the black and blue hair and the grey eyes that shone with something delightfully malicious, promising of practical jokes and wily ploys. Celeste was determined to make up for the three years she had lost and determined to rectify her mistakes, whatever they might have been. This difficult nurse wouldn't get in her way, that was for sure.
The nurse, meanwhile, was typing rapidly and pausing from time to time, reading the screen and then typing some more. Daniel leaned on the counter, waiting impatiently. Narnia wandered from one side of the hall to the other, Xander trailing after her.
"Seriously, Nolee," he said as he caught up to her. "If Narnia is your artist's pseudonym, why do you use it all the time?"
Narnia glowered alternately at him and at the wall. "How preppy is 'Nolee'?" Narnia asked sourly. "My parents were all in my face, 'get rich, be better than we've been, succeed where we've failed, make yourself loads of money.' I mean, I'm not trying to pretend my parents named me 'Narnia,' but it's better than nothing."
Xander stepped in front of her, but rather than stop, as he clearly wanted her to, she walked around him and kept pacing. " 'Nolee' isn't nothing," he said loudly, following her. "It's who you are and who you'll always be."
"What if I want to change who I am, huh?" Narnia asked, turning on her heel to face him. "What if I don't like who I started off as? What if I don't like where—what I came from? What then?"
Xander backed up a step, startled at her sudden fury. "Then you change who Nolee is," he said simply. "You take Nolee and you make her better, you don't cover her up with fantasy or with Narnia the artist."
Narnia threw up her hands and Xander had the impression that she was about to start some long rant, but she only put one hand to her head and closed her eyes, folding the other across her chest and hugging herself.
"It's not that easy," she said tiredly. "I…I can't do that. I don't know how. I've been Narnia for too long to give it up now, I can't do it!"
"Yeah," Xander said derisively, "I'll bet. That's it. Go off and sit in the corner and be Narnia, and you can put up a front all your life to try and pretend Nolee never existed. But you know—of course you don't, but I—anyway, I don't know if my real name is Xander? That's why my friends call me Odd. Not 'cause I'm weird or anything like that. I mean, yeah, some of them were dropped on the orphanage's front stoop and named once they were taken in, but at least they know what their names are and always have been. They know where they came from and none of them like it, but they all put up with it and they do something about it."
"Easy for you to say!" Narnia said roughly. "You're orphans. You haven't got anything else. You haven't got the pressure following you all over, you haven't got your parents hovering and reminding you all the time to go out, be rich, do something phenomenal."
Xander gaped for a moment, trying to accept that Narnia had just said what he thought she had just said. Affirming in his mind that she had, he shook his head slowly, keeping his eyes fixed on her as he did so.
"You think you're the only one under pressure?" he said in a quiet voice that rung of an underlying threat. "You think that because your parents tell you to go out and make something of yourself, you're the only one who's got anything to feel burdened by?" He laughed derisively, a short, harsh noise like a bark. "No pressure to get adopted," he went on, gaining volume. "No pressure to go out and put the orphanage behind you. No pressure to make something of yourself even though you didn't have a real family, even though you were abandoned!"
He was screaming by now, and Narnia was losing ground fast. She sank into one of the hard plastic seats in the waiting area and shook her head from side to side, dark red hair flying in her face and whipping her ears. She muttered a soft mantra—"No, no, no, no, no, it's not like that"—and Xander sat beside her, smacking his hand down on the flimsy arm rest.
"Then what is it like?" he asked harshly. "Huh? What's it like for you? What makes you so special?"
"Nothing!" she shrilled furiously, turning on him. The nurse, still flipping through her computer files (much to Daniel's and Celeste's annoyance) didn't seem to care about the noise they were making. She glanced over at them once or twice, but said nothing, and they didn't even notice her.
"Don't you see it?" Narnia went on. "You don't, do you? You've got your problems and I've got mine, but we don't have each other's, and so we don't know what it's like to live that life. I don't know being an orphan, and you don't know the parental pressure to get rich quick, so we can't compare but we think we can! Why don't you get it?"
Xander looked at her critically for a minute or so. She made a good point—an excellent point, if he was being honest with himself, not that he would every admit it out loud. She was right, of course, completely, but he didn't have to like it. His point had been perfectly valid. She couldn't cover up the past, only move beyond it.
"Okay," he said softly, regressing from the fight but not forfeiting it. "Okay, fine. I admit we've both got problems that can't be compared properly, but you ought to admit that fixing the future is better than covering up the past."
Narnia rested her chin in her palms and looked at Xander out of the corner of her eye. "Fine," she conceded bitterly. "Fine. Do you want to be the first one to start calling me Nolee?"
Xander shrugged. "Do you want to be the…the seventh one to start calling me Odd?"
"Che." She offered a tiny smile. "Fine." She sighed and sat up again, leaning back to look at the ugly tiled ceiling. "I don't forgive you, you know. I don't even know how much I really like you."
"The feeling is mutual, I assure you."
"Great." Standing, Nolee walked over to the front desk to check in on Daniel's progress with the nurse. Xander remained in his seat, watching with his hawk eyes. Celeste was seated on the floor by Daniel's feet, leaning against the counter.
Daniel glanced at Nolee as she approached. "Nolee?" he asked with some surprise. She jostled her shoulders awkwardly in an uncertain gesture.
"Yeah, sure," she said passively. "I don't really care. I'm trying to phase out 'Narnia' from the real world."
"All of a sudden, eh?"
Nolee grinned at him. "I had an enlightening conversation. You might've heard some of it?"
Daniel laughed. "Kind of hard to miss."
Celeste stirred, then pulled herself up—courtesy of Daniel's pant leg. Leaning on the counter, she narrowed her eyes at the nurse who was paying her no mind. "How long is this going to take?" she asked, enunciating clearly. The nurse looked up at her, obviously bored.
Celeste growled threateningly, but the nurse only closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Daniel guessed that she got crazy people making weird noises at her all the time. He put a hand on Celeste's shoulder to calm her, but it seemed to have little effect if any at all.
"So," said Nolee conversationally, "you've got the information in there, yeah?"
"Yeah," the nurse said suspiciously. "You wanna see it?"
"No, I was just thinking that it can't really take that long to look through one year of patients for one name. I thought you could do that quickly, you know?"
"In movies, maybe," the nurse said as Nolee leaned over the counter to peek at her computer screen.
"No, I'm sure of it," Nolee went on. "There's the search bar, right there."
The nurse glowered at her. "Celeste Lancer, was it?" she asked, still looking at Nolee as she spoke.
"Yes," Celeste said coolly, "and I'm over here."
"Of course," she said, looking back at Celeste with that annoying smile again. "Spell that, please?"
Celeste frowned and cocked her head. "It's exactly as it sounds," she said, "but it's C-E-L-E-S-T-E, L-A-N-C-E-R."
"Of course. One moment, please."
Celeste leaned over to whisper in Daniel's ear. "Is it just me," she muttered, "or did that sound prerecorded?"
Daniel nodded, a serious expression on his face, and then grinned.
"Maybe she's a robot."
Celeste smiled weakly. "Maybe."
Xander walked over and stood on her other side. "Celeste," he said firmly. Daniel looked over at him warningly, but he took no notice. Celeste looked at him curiously, as though meeting him for the first time.
"Celeste, how angry were you when you found out I didn't live in that apartment I showed you when we walked back from the bridge?"
Celeste pondered this for a moment, looking down at the floor and squinting slightly. She made a soft humming noise as she thought and Xander couldn't help but be a little nervous. If she didn't like him, he would never have a hope of getting into her group of friends… They all seemed so close—at least, the three he had met certainly did, and he assumed the other two were similar. If Celeste turned him away, Daniel and Nolee certainly would, and he would be left with his "friends" from the orphanage, who were all moving on and losing contact with him as it was.
"Not very," she said finally. "I was wondering why you lied at all, but I wasn't angry for long. Maybe a day? Day and a half?"
Xander looked over her shoulder, trying to stare at the wall and ending up losing focus on Nolee. "Oh," he said. "And then you didn't call me because of your coma, I guess?"
She nodded. "Kind of hard to keep in touch when I'm, you know, unconscious. Don't you think?"
"Found you!" the nurse said finally. Celeste checked her watch out of habit: 8:35 exactly. The hospital had begun to fill up, she noticed suddenly. No emergencies had occurred to draw her attention, but there were a few idle patients and visitors and a boy with what looked like a broken arm.
"Celeste," the nurse read, "last name unknown. Yes, we have here that you were checked in for nearly a year and then on May 17th, you were checked out. But this is a little odd—no one seems to have signed off on it."
"So the hospital just wrote her off as a discharged patient with no evidence of that fact?" Nolee asked, sounding outraged. The nurse shrugged.
"I suppose so. I've been working here for just over two years, so I wasn't around at the time you were here"—she gestured to Celeste—"but that sounds like what must have happened."
"Well then get us some free fever medication and let's get out of here," Daniel said loudly. Nolee nodded and Celeste divided her weight between leaning on Daniel and leaning on the desk.
"I feel really bad, guys," she said weakly. "Can I sit down or something?"
Daniel nodded sympathetically. "We're just going now," he said soothingly. "Nolee," he said to her, "hang around and get the medication? I'm going to carry Celeste back to her house."
Nolee nodded. "Sure thing. I'll see you guys soon, then."
"Right. Xander, coming?"
The boy looked at Daniel curiously. "I am?"
Daniel shrugged. "Do you want to? I don't really care, but you seem to be a friend of Celeste's, sort of, so if you want to, you can."
"Sure—I mean, yeah, okay. Thanks."
"No problem," Daniel said, nodding. He lifted Celeste onto his back and began walking towards the door. "See you, Nolee," he called back to her. She waved distractedly, preoccupied with the nurse, who seemed to be refusing her the medicine.
Xander caught up to Daniel as he was leaving. "So," he said, trying to sound at least marginally cheerful, despite the circumstances, "are you going to another hospital? You know, for her amnesia and hallucinations and things?"
Daniel looked down at him with a small bit of quickly erased disdain. "Later," he said, "but now she needs some rest. We can give her Advil or something to calm her for a little while."
"A little while, yeah."
The two walked on a little ways before Xander quickened his pace and Daniel, for no reason other than instinct, quickened his as well to catch up.
"What was that for?" he asked, hoisting Celeste higher on his back.
"No reason," Xander said lightly. "Hey, would you mind calling me Odd instead of Xander?"
"…odd," Xander finished for him, grinning lopsidedly. "I know. But, just as a favor to me, would you mind?"
Daniel shrugged, which dropped Celeste down a little and forced him to lift her back up. "Yeah, it is. I guess I could…what're you trying to sound like you leapt out of some Japanese cartoon or something?"
"French, actually," Xander said with a small wink, "but close enough."
"…yeah. Sure, then. Well, we're here."
Xander looked up at Celeste's door. "So we are," he said, clearly biding for time. "I, um, I guess I'll see you around, then?"
"I guess," Daniel replied distractedly, setting Celeste down and opening the door. "See you, then."
"Uh—oh, right. See you!"
Daniel didn't bother to respond that time, but helped Celeste inside and rang the elevator as Xander walked away slowly. Nolee was on her way back by then, he figured, and as much as he was interested in becoming her friend, he didn't want to run into her just then and be snubbed again.
Sure enough, practically the moment Xander rounded the corner of Fox Wood, Nolee came within viewing range of the apartment, clutching a paper bag full of fever medication. She jogged the rest of the way down the block and up to the apartment, stumbling into the first floor just as the elevator hit "2." With a huffed sigh, she took the stairs two at a time and reached the fifth floor just as Daniel and Celeste were getting off.
"Got it, finally," she said, breathing heavily. "We'll have to go to another hospital to get her amnesia checked out, though. I don't trust those guys."
Daniel nodded. "Me neither. One of us can stay here for the night and see how she's doing in the morning."
"Yeah…hey," Nolee said suddenly, "did she have a fever when you got here?"
"I don't think so," Daniel said, thinking back. "Probably stress induced."
"Yeah, but still, we ought to mention it."
The pair walked silently into Celeste's apartment and Daniel helped her lie back on the sofa. Nolee brought over the fever medication and offered a glass of water, then sat on the floor by Celeste's head. The other girl smiled and downed her medicine, closing her eyes at once.
"Sleep well," Daniel said. "I've got to go home and explain my most interesting night to Talasi, but Nolee, will you stay here tonight? Er, today?"
"Sure thing," she said confidently, ignoring his slip. "All right, Celeste?"
Celeste nodded weakly. "Oh, yeah. I'll be fine. Have fun, then."
Nolee smiled fondly. Celeste was already drifting off, which was definitely a good thing. Tomorrow they would go to a different hospital and her amnesia would be tended to—maybe they could even do some work to find out what had caused that coma three years ago. Who knew, anyway, what miracles doctors could work, given the right patient?
Daniel was gone and Nolee grinned. Maybe she would call Odd later. Celeste needed to get as much sleep as possible before the next day; hopefully she would sleep through the rest of that day as well as the night. Nolee needed to keep herself busy, that was for sure.
Wandering idly into the kitchen, Nolee saw a black shirt lying on the counter. "Weird," she thought. "I could've sworn the landlord took all Celeste's stuff out when she disappeared after the hospital…incident…"
Picking up the shirt to observe the cut, Nolee noticed a large red stain across the lower right quarter. A note was pinned to the blotch: "ask Narnia to fix."
Nolee grinned. She could do that. Fishing around the only kitchen drawer for some scissors and sewing materials, she found herself thinking about Odd and his argument with her over Narnia and Nolee.
"You can't always win," she thought deviously. Looked like Narnia was about to make a comeback.