A Way of Being
The voluminous space of the cylindrical room was filled with climate-controlled quiet and the muffled sounds of pages turning. Muted silver tables and chairs accommodated engrossed readers bathed in still pools of appropriate lighting. Strategically placed workstations offered touch screen monitors for quick reference. A polished chrome staircase wound itself along the inside curve of bare walls on either side of the study hall.
The woman scanned the information scrolling down the small screen of the handheld reader as she slowly climbed the stairs to the next level. Expecting another stair, she stumbled onto the landing instead. A little boy came running over to catch the falling reader. He smiled up at her and giggled, the tip of his tongue peeking through the space where two baby teeth had recently been. She couldn’t help but smile back; his snaggle-toothed grin was so charming.
“Thank you, little one, for saving my viewer. That would’ve been the third one I’d have broken this month.”
“My name’s Benny. Will you play with me?” Without waiting for a reply, the little boy took her hand and pulled her toward a low table covered with brightly colored translucent shapes. She sighed for a moment then tucked the viewer into a pocket and complied, thinking it would be a quick game. As they began the intricate game of acquisition, she quickly noted how advanced he must be to know such complex stratagem.
While he contemplated his next move, she looked around the room. It was a loft overlooking the large study hall below. The décor or lack thereof, was the same as the lower level, but slightly miniaturized for a children’s area. There were other games and activities, but the ones she recognized were all equally as complex. She had taken the wrong stairway, without thinking. This would cost her valuable research time, but she was enjoying the break from routine.
In one of the small chairs at the front of the spacious room sat a dark haired man looking over a viewer similar to hers, only the screen was larger and the images appeared to hover in the air above it, obviously a newer model. He cleared his throat and shifted slightly, recrossing his long legs. He seemed too absorbed in his own affairs to be connected in any way with little Benny, but she couldn’t imagine the little boy being here alone. The man stood abruptly, smoothed out his clothing and walked toward a discreetly located desk where a woman was keying in a lock sequence code on the enclosure for the children’s readers. He patiently waited for her to acknowledge him.
The woman pushed unruly brown hair from her face, catching the thick mass into a quick tail while she continued to close up the area for the day. The overhead lighting had already dimmed, letting the patrons know it was closing time. She busily straightened the chairs and tables, clearing any small debris that had been left by careless visitors. As she approached their table, Benny made his move and won the game. She smiled down at them.
“I won, Mama.” Benny beamed and reached to shake his opponent’s hand.
“Yes, I see that. Now what do you say?”
Benny looked very serious as he thanked the woman still studying the board for her error. She shook his little hand, and stood up. She had not seen that move at all. But her mistake was obvious now that he had beaten her. She was impressed. She smiled politely to excuse herself, when Benny asked her what her name was.
“I am Nedra. And I have kept your mother from closing long enough, I think. I do apologize for not noticing the time, Ma’am.” She nodded apologetically to the woman.
“No, not all. I have enjoyed watching the two of you play. Benny does not often find so worthy an adversary; he actually had to think this time.” As she spoke, her eyes seemed to glow slightly. Nedra felt an unexplained familiarity that quickly dissipated when the man cleared his throat again.
“Excuse me, but the building is closing. We must leave now, Je’Nea.” He walked over to them and pointed to the empty hall beyond the chrome railing.
“Yes, we must be quick. Punctuality is a virtue here.” The woman took Benny’s hand and led them all out of the building. Out on the sidewalk, she turned to speak to Nedra, but Benny interrupted.
“I want Nedra to come with us,” he demanded, taking his new playmate’s hand in his free hand.
The man spoke sternly, “Corben, we must not impose on this woman’s time any longer. I am sure she has other things to do.”
Feeling a little annoyed, Nedra surprised herself by saying, “Actually, I have the evening free.”
“Then it is settled. Nedra will walk with us in exchange for dinner and you, Mr. Orin, won’t have to worry about us getting safely home since she is a Security Agent.”
Je’Nea smiled sweetly as she excused him from his obligation. They watched as he sulked away. When he was out of view, Je’Nea chuckled to herself. “He takes things so seriously, but he means well. I, of course, do not expect you to watch over us. You are free to go. Thank you again for spending time with Benny.” She began to walk away. Little Corben glanced back sadly, but obediently walked beside his mother.
Nedra watched them leave, bewildered. She hurried to catch up with them, grasping Benny’s eager hand reaching for hers again. “Wait a minute. I have a duty to perform, remember. How did you know I am a Security Agent, anyway?” She glanced down quickly to make sure she wasn’t still in uniform or wearing any gear.
The woman smiled guiltily. “I just know, I mean I can just tell. You seem like the type.” She looked straight ahead and increased her pace. “You don’t have to walk us. We will be fine.”
Nedra felt uncertain. “Are you brushing me off? Have I done something to offend you?” She felt Benny’s hand leave hers. The empty space felt cold where his warm fingers had been.
The woman stopped walking, turned to face her. “I am very grateful to you for being nice to my son. I am also grateful that you were willing to escort us home. But we don’t need anyone to take care of us. That is all.”
“Mr. Orin obviously thinks you do. And I suspect he would not like it one bit if he knew an Agent had abandoned her assignment. I could get in a lot of trouble.” She tried to hide her grin.
The woman became agitated. “I am not your assignment and I am certain that you will not get into any trouble on my account. I was wrong to imply it and I do not care for your company any longer.” The woman moved to walk away. Benny began to cry silently.
Nedra realized too late that her teasing had the wrong effect. She caught the woman’s arm to stop her but quickly yanked her hand away; it felt hot enough to burn. “Hey, I was just joking. Really. I don’t mind walking with you at all. I just wondered how you knew. I’m sorry I was so rude.” She knelt next to the little child. “Come on, little guy, it’s ok. Mommy’s just a little upset. You be strong and take care of her, ok?” Benny wiped his tears and shook his head yes. He took his mother’s hand again. Nedra stood, began to apologize again. She felt like an ass. Real smooth, upset a citizen and make a little child cry. Some agent she was. She was sure to get demerits for this report.
Je’Nea held up her hand to stop whatever Nedra was about to say. “Listen, I should be apologizing to you for this whole mess. I just did not want to deal with Mr. Orin today. I should not have used you as an excuse and gotten you involved. I knew you would take the wrong stairs and I should have stopped Benny but I didn’t. I am sorry.”
“What do you mean, you knew I would take the wrong stairs?” She had a feeling the woman had not meant to say that, but that it was true. How could that be? “Since I’m already with you, why don’t we continue as planned and you can explain.” Nedra took Benny’s other hand and they began to walk.
They were silent. Nedra could be patient. She observed the surroundings as they moved along. The evening was warm. A faint breeze shook the leaves of the young trees marching along the edge of the street. Everything was clean, tidy. The storefronts were neatly organized, unobtrusive. A sign announced the name and the type of store over each uniform doorway. Nothing was out of place. Everyone minded his or her own business. Safety was certainly not a concern here. Nor was it a concern in most of the city. This was one of the oldest metros on the planet. It was conceived in order and order remained its law.
Nedra’s duties as a Security Agent were easy. “Be present, be observant, be courteous.” Though it was not part of the motto, being anonymous was also expected. The lightweight helmets the agents wore ensured that. She still remembered the initial awkwardness she experienced while trying to adjust to the visual aids inside the visor. The augmentative listening devices were less disturbing than the constant bombardment of visuals and text occupying the corners of her peripheral view.
She ran a hand through the short crinkly hair curling at the nape of her neck. She thought about locking it again. She could keep it trimmed neat under the helmet. No one would even notice, certainly not the citizens; they never looked an agent in the face anyway. A tug on her arm brought her out of her trance.
Benny was jumping and swinging between the two women, using their arms as support. He bounced up the walkway to the front door. He smiled that crazy smile at Nedra then began to shimmy around in a circle singing “Getti, getti, I luv getti too.” She cast a puzzled glance at his mother.
Je’Nea entered the code for the door. She looked embarrassed. “We did promise you dinner. Tonight is spaghetti night. Benny’s favorite. I hope you don’t mind.”
Nedra laughed. “You don’t have to feed me. I just wanted to make sure you arrived safely home, like I said I would.” She patted Benny’s hand, but he held firm.
“Please, Benny would love if you stayed for dinner. I would too. Don’t worry. It’s not real meat. We’re vegetarians too.” She smiled reassuringly.
“I guess you just knew that too. I seem like the type, right? Ok, I’ll stay for some of Benny’s ‘getti’.” She followed them up the three flights of stairs to their living quarters.
The place was modest but homey. Indirect light gave it a glowing effect. The carefully blended colors shimmered from the art pieces on the walls. Nedra looked closer at one near her and realized they were composed of thermal sensitive panels instead of actual paint. Je’Nea offered her a seat in one of the memory form chairs. Benny disappeared down the hall.
“Did you make those on the walls? They are beautiful,” she said when the woman nodded yes. Nedra felt herself relaxing into the comfort of the chair. She could feel the tension draining right out of her body. She hadn’t felt that relaxed in months. She closed her eyes and let her head clear, feeling her body heat reflected back to her by the chair.
Je’Nea smiled, enjoying the opportunity to look fully at her visitor. She saw the creases around the young woman’s eyes melt away. Dark eyebrows arched over thick curly lashes. Her mouth relaxed, full lips slightly parted. The dark pink lips curled in a smile.
“Are you watching me?” Nedra opened her eyes to look at her host.
Je’Nea blushed. She was caught. She went into the eating cubicle to prepare the meal. Nedra followed her. She leaned on the counter and watched the woman rehydrate the pasta and shape the tiny protein nodules into little meatballs.
Nedra observed her hands. Long shapely fingers, nails neatly manicured with no hint of added color. Her skin was smooth and brown, a rich chocolate cream. She moved gracefully, as if everything she touched was delicate and beautiful. She was careful and efficient, no movement wasted. She washed her hands and dried them while looking at Nedra.
“Benny and I did the walls ourselves. It was the first thing we did when we moved here. He did his room all by himself. He’ll probably show you one day. He’s very proud of it.” She handed Nedra the utensils to place on the table. She busied herself with gathering everything they would need. When the places were set, she called Benny in to join them. They sat around the little table and held hands while Benny said a short but sincere grace.
After they had eaten their fill, Benny went to take his bath and read before bed. Je’Nea placed the dirty dishes in the particle sterilizer and switched off the lighting in the cubicle. She joined Nedra in the central area.
“Thank you for a wonderful dinner. I see why Benny sings about your ‘getti’; it’s so good.” Nedra’s compliment was answered with a slight blush and smile. She liked making this woman smile. She also liked that she couldn’t figure her out easily. “Alright, now will you answer my questions? You must admit I have been patient.”
Je’Nea shook her head. “I thought you were being so attentive because you were enjoying yourself. Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I am enjoying myself here. I haven’t done very much socializing since I was stationed here. I suppose I’ve become a dull girl. All work, you know.”
“I don’t find you dull at all. You do work too much, though.”
“Excuse me. We just met, remember? You are assuming too much.”
“Don’t get upset. Besides, you just met me today; I’ve known you a little longer.”
“Oh, have you? And just what do you think you know about me?”
“Well, I know you often take extra patrol shifts because you prefer to be working than sitting around your compartment. I know you come to the research facility every day after your shift ends. I know you prefer the feel of printed material to the impersonal hardness of the digital readers. I also know you like vintage 20th century Earth music and that you have a beautiful singing voice.”
Nedra sat quietly listening to this woman, this stranger, tell her intimate details of her life. She should be suspicious and uneasy but she felt completely at ease with this woman. She felt something unexpected too; a familiar tingle at the base of her spine, steadily spreading through her body. She was attracted to this woman. She wasn’t sure if she liked that or not.
“Relax. I don’t work for any covert operation. I’ve seen you in the facility. You always sit in the same general area, near a window preferably. You like to stare out as you contemplate what you’ve just read. You look like you are praying when you tug your bottom lip, like you are doing now.” Nedra’s hands dropped to her lap, then furrowed into her pockets. “When you’ve had a good day, you sing to yourself. When you’ve had a bad day, you hum. Either way, you always have a song in mind. You are particularly fond of Cole Porter and Ella Fitzgerald. The songs are so pretty I looked them up.”
“Ok, stop. How can you possibly know all this? What do you do, spy on me? I don’t think I like it either.”
“Yes, you do. You are sitting there thinking you shouldn’t like it, but you do. It’s ok to be flattered. I can only be honest with you. I have watched you. I have extraordinarily sensitive ears; I hear what most people can’t. The first time I heard you sing, I looked over the balcony and saw you sitting below in the study hall. You were sitting just as I described you, your lips barely moving. I even remember the song, “Do It Again” by George Gershwin; I looked it up. That’s a very provocative song. I’ve often wondered what or who could have put you in that frame of mind. I wished it had been me.” She blushed again and looked away.
Nedra didn’t know what to say to this. It was all pretty impossible. Most people have no idea who any of these old musicians were. And she certainly was not used to women coming on to her so strongly. She was getting flustered and began to think of a way to graciously excuse herself, when Je’Nea placed her hand on her shoulder.
“Listen, I didn’t say those things to make you uncomfortable. I just wanted to be honest. I guess I should temper some of the things I say.”
Nedra suddenly felt herself relax again, though the attraction was steadily getting stronger. “No, not at all. You just surprised me is all.” She felt an overwhelming desire to kiss this woman. Calm down, girl. “Ok, what about the Agent thing. I’m dying to know how you knew about that? I never wear my uniform off duty.”
“Oh, you’ve patrolled this area occasionally. I can feel your presence. Like you are feeling mine now.”
“What? Don’t be silly. Now you’re talking like an Empath.” Nedra laughed.
“Why do you think you feel so comfortable with me? Would you normally have dinner with someone you just met? Would you be sitting in the home of a total stranger? You know me, sort of. You feel it, don’t you?” As she spoke, her voice became softer almost a whisper and she moved closer. Their lips met in a gentle kiss. Nedra felt herself drifting in a warm place unknown but familiar. She heard the faint sound of a child’s giggles; saw shimmering images of a little girl playing with her mother and father. Then she saw a group of children playing a game. She recognized herself, a small awkward child running toward home base, being caught by the opponent just before she reached it. She could see the caretakers’ silhouettes up on the hill. She opened her eyes as she jerked away.
Je’Nea blushed again. “You didn’t like it?”
Anger swept over Nedra like a sudden storm. “What the hell are you doing? You are an Empath, aren’t you? That’s why you know so much. Well, you can’t just play with normal people’s heads. You’d better watch yourself.” Nedra stormed out the door.
Je’Nea crumpled on the seat, resisting the urge to cry. She knew better, but she thought this woman would somehow be different. She wouldn’t be as closed minded as the others, wouldn’t let prejudice and unfounded fear blind her. Surely she would see her as a normal person like everyone else. She was wrong and it hurt more than she could bear. She cried herself to sleep.