N.B.: This short story is a "lost" chapter of Infected: Prey, which takes place within that story's time frame, after the episode with Matt Skouris and his stalker (called by him "Rambo"), within the story Prey. So there's some warning - if you haven't read it or read that far, there's a very mild spoiler.
Gold For Bread
It was after Hipster Doofus's latest visit to the coffee shop that Matt realized he didn't want to be a barista anymore.
It wasn't the Hipster's fault. It was probably a revelation he'd had before and simply forgotten. He wanted to blame the history of drug abuse for his hummingbird attention, but the truth was he'd always had attention deficit disorder. He was diagnosed with it at six and started taking Ritalin, but as soon as his mom found out he was selling it on the playground to older kids instead of taking it, that was the end of that.
Once he had a lawyer come in, and after getting him double espresso with the chocolate syrup shot, the guy started telling him about this new ADD medication that worked wonders for him, apropos of nothing. Except he'd seen him talking to Aisha and brewing up his espresso and the vanilla chai latte of the person in front of him. Could you pick up on ADD just by watching someone? Was it hand gestures, the inability to stay still, his diarrhea of the mouth? It was a hell of a leap to take. Maybe he was just on diet pills or did a line in the bathroom on his break, or worse yet sucked espresso straight from the spigot.
Still, it made an impression. He asked his doctor mom about the medication, and she agreed to write him a prescription for it, as she'd heard it was pretty good for "attention difficulties". That was kind of her, but his mom, even when she was being a hard ass, was always being kind. Matt was sure his mom felt bad for him, her fucked up only son, who was so miserable having every advantage in the world he pissed it all down his leg and became a junkie coffee slinger in downtown Seattle, like every other person. In retrospect, it was awful he was such a disappointment to her, even though she'd never say that to him.
But, Hipster Doofus. So many hipsters came to the shop they had nickname qualifiers for all of them. Doofus was actually a real cutie, probably some recent college graduate with an agreeably handsome face, two sleepy blue eyes above an adorable button nose, and just enough of a hint of stubble to make him feel manlier, with a sort of half soul patch/half goatee to make a stab at retro ironic facial hair. (Which was apparently a thing amongst some straight guys. Who knew why. Did they think that would get them laid?) He always wore some ironic '80's hair band t-shirt (today, Poison), a beaten brown leather jacket that he probably wanted people to believe he picked up in some thrift store (except it was probably too expensive ), and usually jeans that went for a retro grunge look, although they were clearly skinny jeans that showed off his scrawny little legs. He, Aisha, and Brock had a running bet on where he had his tattoo (and you just knew he had a tattoo) - he bet it was on his calf, Aisha thought he had a tramp stamp, and Brock was sure he just had an arm one, and probably of something ironic, like a unicorn or a muppet.
The reason he got the Doofus tag was because they overheard him having a political discussion, trying to impress a waif like, phony Goth girl with his "nuanced" discussion of global warming, and he was a complete fucking idiot. Pretty to look at in a My Morning Jacket , neo-emo-folk kind of way, but a complete imbecile. Apparently, according to him, the ice caps were melting because of the way polycarbonites interacted with sunspots. He probably meant polycarbonates, but even with the word corrected, he was still wrong. Was there anything worse than a pretentious moron? There was also some debate on what he got a degree in. Matt was holding out hope that he got a B.A. in Advanced Place Setting, but no one had worked up the courage to ask him.
Doofus came in as he usually did on a Wednesday afternoon, now accompanied by a different girl, this time a bottle blonde with a figure so anorexically thin she could have been a Fox News commentator. (There was a pattern there: fat white men, and painfully thin blonde women. It was a custom made channel for pervy and rich old dudes.) As Matt got Doofus his half-calf Americano and his scarecrow companion a skinny latte with three Splendas, and idly listened to him trying to impress her with all the hip after hours parties he'd been to lately, Matt realized the urge to throw a coffee in his pretty but dumb face was almost overwhelming.
Doofus - whose name was Chad, which seemed fitting - was probably from the same more or less privileged background he was from, only he didn't pee it down his leg with pointless acts of rebellion and extreme drug use. He was a good boy who went to the college his parents chose for him and showed his rebellion in knee jerk embracing of liberal values he didn't fully understand, mainly because he didn't care to actually learn. He was used to people making decisions for him, which was why as soon as he got married and settled down, he'd adopt conservative values closer to his parents and not blink an eye, as it would be done with the same lack of thought as he'd done everything in his life. Doofus was milk, and he took on the flavor of whatever was around him. He was the perfect little consumer.
The irony here was his parents were probably proud of him. Sure, he was an idiot, but he was an idiot who did as he was told. All you had to do was live the life you were supposed to live, and your life would be gravy. Supposedly.
Matt wondered if that's where he went wrong. He had no idea the life he was supposed to live. His mother was still too much of a hippie at heart to tell him, and while his father would happily tell him what life he was supposed to be living, he'd wanted nothing to do with his little mistake since he found out he was such an embarrassing fag. Which left him a barista in a coffee shop that was trying (and failing) to hold its own against the Starbucks monopoly and the Seattle's Best Coffee in silver medal position, with a murdered best friend and no earthly idea how he was going to pay both his rent and his light bill this month. At least he was alive enough to worry about bills, which was more than he could say for Ashley.
After giving Doofus and his current girl their drinks, he took a break. It was a slow day anyways, so Aisha didn't protest. Matt wanted to leave - and Christ, he would have killed someone for some speed right now - but he sat at a window table with a strong, Turkish style espresso, which was almost as good as speed, and took one of the brownies that was getting too stale to keep on the shelf.
It had been a weird last couple of weeks. Not just the tragedy of Ashley ending up dead, murdered by some stupid, bigoted fuck, but Rambo making his return to his life. At least he did have the good fortune of meeting the gay action hero.
Not that he got why his mother would have named him Roan. What kind of name was that? A Google search revealed it to be an obscure color, reddish brown, mostly applied to horses. Why would a mother name her kid a horse color? Technically it wasn't even correct; Roan's hair color wasn't roan. It was too red and too weird for that. But who could argue with her, since she was dead, and Roan had never known her anyways. Did he even know her name? Matt wondered if there was any polite way he could ask.
Matt stared at the street outside, looking at but not seeing the traffic clogging the road and the people walking by, mostly hunched up against the rain pelting down from the slate sky. What a weird turn his life had taken. Two weeks ago, he'd just been living his life, which was kind of empty and kind of depressing. His life was still kind of depressing and kind of empty, but now he'd had a glimpse of a shining city down the street. How was he to know he'd finally meet the hottie from Panic, and he would attached to another hottie? The one he couldn't quite forget about, even though he should.
At first he thought he liked Roan because he was strangely exotic for a redheaded guy, plus an honest to God private detective. And gay too! So awesome.
Okay, the infected thing was kind of a downer, but it added to his exotic appeal. Maybe it was just his macho attitude, but there was something irresistible about him. Then, there was that whole thing with Rambo …
Roan was different from most guys, which was pretty damn obvious. But even Matt hadn't expected how different, not even after that whole shooting thing. Being a cop may have made him jaded about being shot, and may have given him those kind of kick ass reflexes. But that didn't explain what happened when he fought Rambo. Okay, Sam, but he would always be Rambo to him no matter what his name actually was. If the insane juicer tag fit, you had to wear it.
The cops on the scene looked a little freaked, and Matt couldn't blame them, 'cause at first he was kind of freaked too. Roan roared like a fucking lion, like something on a PBS nature show or at the start of those old MGM movies. And his face kind of … well, even remembering it he couldn't get it straight in his head. Of course it was dark and he was terrified, so he supposed he could be excused for not having a perfect memory. But there was a change there, something in his eyes didn't look quite right. And not in the Rambo 'I'm a psycho whose fried all his brain cells on meth' sort of way, but in the 'I'm an animal and I'm going to fucking eat you' sort of way. It was like, if you looked close enough and had the capacity to rewind, you could nail the exact moment the human left and the cat stepped forward.
Which didn't make sense. Not that Ashley talked a lot about being infected, she was always ashamed and embarrassed about it (like it was her fault she got infected! Her ex sounded like a real prick …) but he still got the sense that that wasn't what happened. When you were a cat you were a cat, and when you were a Human you were the Human, and the paths never really crossed. Sort of like that movie Ladyhawke, only in one person, and with cats instead of wolves or hawks. And there were no eclipses or evil curses or thwarted love stories. So yeah, not like that movie at all.
That echoed what he found online though, even about virus children, who were mostly brain damaged and some kind of weird DNA goulash thing that usually died within the first three years of life. If they lived beyond that, they mainly spent the rest of their stunted, miserable lives in special hospitals or institutions. It was rumored in China and some of those other less enlightened countries they just killed virus children outright, but who knew? No one really liked talking about virus children, because they were just so sad.
Except Roan. Somehow, in a basket full of short straws, he drew the long one. Which was awesome of course, but also probably a drag, 'cause that made him in most people's mind a true freak. On the one hand, being the only one of something would be cool, but on the other hand, probably not. Matt could imagine trying to turn it into endorsement deals and a reality show, except … would anyone want that? It was easy to think that today, yeah, there was so little you could do to shock people, and infection was the last great shocking thing. Someone might bite on a reality show, but probably not a reputable network. And would you want to put yourself on display, like a geek in a circus sideshow? Matt figured he might, 'cause he could be an attention whore sometimes, but Roan didn't seem the type for it. He had a kind of dignity about him, even when his eyes and teeth went all funny. Hell, that may have even added to the dignity, although he wasn't sure how.
"This seat taken?"
Matt looked up, and was surprised to find Paris standing there with a steaming paper cup full of coffee, looking amazingly dry. Matt wondered if he was so hot the rain just evaporated before touching him, then realized he was wearing a hoodie, he just had his hood thrown back now. "Um, no."
As he took a seat, Matt shoved a piece of brownie in his mouth and hoped he wasn't blushing. This was just more of how weird life had been recently. He used to lust over the hottie from a distance at Panic, and now he kind of knew him. And kind of lusted after his boyfriend instead, even though Paris was hotter. Not that Roan wasn't hot, but it was different. Paris was like a supernova of hotness, almost a little too overwhelming for mere mortals. You stared at him too long and your eyeballs started to melt.
Matt looked at Paris's reflection in the window rather than at him as he sat down, mainly because staring was creepy. But it was hard not to stare at him. He was like a genetic gift from the universe. From the smell alone, Matt instantly knew his order: mocha latte with a shot of caramel syrup. He got quite a bit of foam on top too. (He could see that in the reflection.)
"You okay?" Paris wondered. He'd noticed him looking away - of course he had. Did he think he was a complete idiot?
Matt looked at him with a weak smile, hoping he didn't look as pathetic as he felt. "Yeah, fine, just tired."
"I bet. You couldn't get a day off work?"
Matt shrugged, wondering how he was supposed to talk to him. It was always hard to talk to hot guys, a situation made infinitely worse by the fact that he was seriously lusting after his boyfriend. "Maybe, dunno. I got bills to pay, you know? There's no exemption for psycho stalker attacks, although there oughta be."
Paris nodded genially, his blue eyes bright and caffeinated. "It'd make life easier, yeah." He paused to take a sip of his coffee, and in the background, Matt saw Brock wave from behind the counter and give him an exaggerated thumb's up, possibly thinking Paris was Matt's date. As if. In what bizarro universe would that happen? "You look pretty depressed, though. Wanna talk about it?"
Wow. Had hell frozen over? What was going on here? Paris wanted to talk to him? "Um, uh …"
This made Paris smile. It was a grin that was absolutely frightening in its warmth. It was almost depressing how hot and yet how nice he was. Hot guys should be smarmy and mean, if his dating history was anything to go by. "I don't bite. Well, in certain circumstances, but these aren't those. So spill."
Was he trying to kill him? He was; the bastard was trying to make him die. His brain cells were having a hard enough time coping, he didn't need this. "I, um …" Was Brock getting his camera? It was because he was at a loss for words, wasn't it? Matt had to admit to himself that rarely happened. Hell, half the time he didn't know what fell out of his mouth. He hated seemingly like such an idiot, so he had to say something. "I just … I'm not sure what I'm doin' with my life, y'know? I mean, I like bein' a barista, but I can't do this all my life. But what can I do? I don't have a lot of talents beyond dancing all night and giving blowjobs, and I don't think that's gonna - holy shit, did I say that last part out loud?"
Paris laughed. "Don't worry about it, I had a talent for that in college myself." Matt barely had time to process that and the mental images that conjured up before Paris asked, "What do you really want to do?"
"I dunno. I mean, something else, but … I'm not sure what. Being a detective seems like a fun job. Is it hard?"
For some reason, that seemed to startle a laugh out of Paris. Once he'd taken a moment to recover, he said, "If Roan was here, he'd probably advise you to sell your organs on the black market before becoming a detective. It's actually a pretty tedious job, shot through with moments of sheer terror."
"So, like life?"
"Exactly. And if you think you hate yours now, become a detective. You'll hate it even worse."
Matt wondered how much of that was true. He could see Roan bashing his job, that was his personality, but he wasn't sure Paris shared that opinion. And how bad could it be, working with either Paris or Roan all day? He didn't see much of a downside.
Paris must have seen his doubt, because he asked, "What do you like to do? Besides dancing and blow jobs."
Matt smirked at that, and remembered the days when he'd have been dying to do either with Paris. He was still open to that, but he really wanted Roan. Could you love a guy you barely knew? "I dunno. I mean, I guess I like working with people … most of the time. Not getting' 'em coffee, though, that's gettin' kinda old."
"Good. That opens up a lot of possibilities."
"Yeah. Time is short, Matt. No one knows that better than me. So if this job is making you miserable, by all means don't stay in it. Find something you want to do and do it."
"You make it sound so simple."
"Okay, yeah, I know nothing's ever that easy. But things change so fast, and before you know it your life could be over, and your last thought would be about your miserable job. Who wants that? Find out what makes you happy and go for it, Matt. Don't wait until tomorrow, because there might not be one. It's your life, enjoy it while you can." Paris gave him a lopsided grimace that was both endearing and lust inducing. (Although, what did he do that wasn't lust inducing? Maybe filing taxes, but he couldn't think of much beyond that.) "I know, cliché city, but it's true. No one knows that better than me."
Matt didn't doubt that was true. He'd never met a tiger strain before; in fact, he was half-convinced they were myth. So as much of a freak as Roan, although perhaps a little less so, because you could probably point to a few surviving tiger strains. Virus children able to hold conversations and older than twenty were probably as impossible as hitting the lottery on your first try.
Suddenly an electronic song started playing, something bouncy and kind of trance, and Paris pulled his phone out of his pocket. He glanced at the screen and looked very briefly concerned before flashing Matt a winning smile and grabbing his coffee cup. "Sorry, gotta take this. You'll think about what I said, yeah?"
Matt nodded so eagerly he felt like an idiot. "Yeah, sure." Although he wistfully watched him walk away - what a lovely view - he realized it was a good thing Paris left when he did, because he was probably about five minutes away from blabbing, "So I want your boyfriend. How do I make that happen?"
He actually had the feeling Paris would take that with good humor. But he meant it. There was no fucking way he could compete with a guy like Paris and he knew it, but he still wanted to try. Hotness aside - although that was a big aside - there was also the problem that Roan seemed to like butch-er guys, and Matt knew he didn't qualify there. He was about as rugged as your average interior decorator, although probably even more of a baby about paper cuts.
He didn't have to be, though, did he? Yeah, he was trying to make his own fucked up way in the world, but Matt knew his mom would help him out if he asked. Maybe he could clean the slate and start over. Find another job he could do, a job he wanted to do, and hadn't he wanted to join a gym anyways? He'd been clean for a while, but lately he'd really been wanting to get high, like, so bad. Sometimes he thought he might just rip his own skin off, and finding distractions was getting harder and harder. The one-two punch of Ashley dying and Rambo coming back had just about done him in. In a way, that was why he hadn't wanted to do the ADD drug, 'cause he was afraid he'd end up abusing that too.
Yeah, it was time to stop. Roan was pretty fearless, wasn't he? It was time for him to stop being afraid. He didn't even have as many things to be afraid about! No wonder Roan probably saw him as little more than a kid.
For now, but things could change. Matt sat back in his chair and sipped his espresso, feeling better than he had in a while. He was going to change his habits and change his life.
And maybe, eventually, he'd change Roan's mind.