Columns of ash had fallen into Alice's lap unnoticed. The corner of her hand had rubbed some of it into her dress as she stared at me, unblinking.
Ma773w had retreated to his corner, knees to chest, swaying back and forth, humming.
Iwan rounded on Alice and waved an accusatory finger. "What state was he in when he arrived?" he said. "This is not the Ma773w who visited me yesterday at The Factory. What did you do to him?"
Arms crossed, I moved toward her. "And if he didn't want anyone to know he's out, why the hell are all these drifters here?"
The front door slammed and in strode Oliver carrying two leather bags.
"Hi, guys," he said, smiling.
Iwan and I didn't pay him any attention.
"Ollie," said Alice, "come sit by me, dear."
She patted the cushion next to her and finally dropped her dead cigarette in an overflowing ashtray on the floor.
"What's going on?" he asked.
"We were wondering the same thing," said Iwan. He moved to my side and brushed his fingers against my leg. "We should just take him with us and leave," he whispered.
"I'm not sure he'll come."
Oliver dropped the bags on the floor and sat beside Alice.
"You guys wanna dream?" he asked.
I'm not gonna lie to you, I was tempted.
"Not now, Oliver," said Iwan, still staring at Alice.
I was glad he spoke first. It would have been inappropriate given the circumstances, but we hadn't dreamt yet today and I was itching for it.
"We want to know how Ma773w's been."
"You can ask him that, yourself," said Oliver. "He's just behind you."
I tore my gaze from Alice's brown eyes and gave him a disgusted look. "What are you playing at?"
He just smiled.
I wanted to smack his lips right off his face and then crush them with my boot.
"Look," said Iwan, "all we want to know is how he looked when he came here. How was he?"
Alice leaned back and rested her head on the arm of the couch. Sprawling out like a cat, she draped her legs over Oliver's and sighed.
"What's with the hostility? You both need to relax," she said. "First you come over uninvited, then you start screaming at my guests and kick them out of the room, and now it sounds like you're accusing us of animal abuse."
"Ma773w is not an animal!" I said.
"He sure looks like one." She sniffed. "And smells like one too."
I took a step forward, fists clenched, but Iwan took my arm and pulled me back.
"I'm sure what Alice is trying to say," said Oliver, "is that he's been acting strangely since he arrived."
He lifted Alice's legs from his lap and stood up. Still smiling, he bent down and opened one of the bags on the floor.
"That's ridiculous," said Iwan. "He wasn't missing patches of hair when I saw him yesterday and he wasn't so out of it."
"I'll admit it," said Alice. "I tried to brush his hair but as you can see it's just so…" Her nose crinkled. "Anyway, he did have bald patches, you just couldn't see them because it was so out of control. My Holy, I'm surprised no one introduced him to a brush sooner."
She picked a half cigarette out of the ashtray and lit it.
"I tried my best to make him presentable but you know what he's like. He's been underground for too long. Forgot how to take care of himself."
Oliver pulled two bright green apples out of the bag and held one out to me.
"Where did you get those?"
"Ran into Whendee earlier and she was low on H2. She had some produce left over from the last exchange so I traded." He waved it in front of me. "Here, have one."
Green apples were my favourite. We had run out of them weeks ago and I was hoping we'd run into a trader in Ward so I could get more. Oliver knew all this.
"No, thanks." The offer felt unsafe.
Iwan walked over to Ma773w and extended my hand. "Come with us," he said. "If you don't want to stay at our place, we can bring you somewhere else. Somewhere with less people."
I backed away from the apple and turned to Ma773w. "We'll take care of you, just come with us."
It felt like forever before he tore his eyes from the floor and looked at us, first Oliver and then me, and shook his head.
There were very few people I was attached to, and was surprised when I realized Ma773w was one of them.
"Are you sure?" I said, heart pinched.
I could have sworn I saw a flash of lucidity in his eyes. It was just a second, there and gone again, but it was a look that hadn't been there before and was enough to convince me to arm-up in Ward. Something big was going down and it looked like I wasn't gonna get answers here.
"Come, Iwan. We should go see Corin, we're already behind schedule."
He gave me a side glance before nodding and pulling back from Ma773w. He hesitated, nose crinkling as he thought twice and turned back to Ma773w. He dropped to his knees, whispered something in his ear, then straightened and held my hand.
I brushed my thumb over the back of his hand and finally looked at Oliver again, who was now chomping away at an apple. Juice foamed from the side of his mouth and I felt my stomach turn green.
"I'm assuming that since you had enough to trade with Whendee earlier," said Iwan, "you guys don't need to pick up today."
"So, we're gonna head out and finish our run." He smiled and led me out of the den.
"You have a bunch of ash all over your dress," I said over my shoulder. "Catch you later."
After what we had seen today, the look of disappointment and embarrassment on Alice's face as we left almost made up for it all. Almost.