Her eyelids are heavy when the notification lights up her phone at almost 2 in the morning. She’s been texting all evening, and so reaches for it where it sits on the couch armrest with a sloppy groan.
“I thought you were in bed,” Holly mumbles, wondering why she isn’t in bed herself. The late-night infomercials are starting to crowd out the normal programming on TV and she’s running out of reasons to stay awake.
But it’s not a text from her old friend Daniel, it’s an email. And it’s not just an email, it’s a reply. From the suit operator.
Not quite awake enough to be reluctant, she opens it with a wary grimace, and blinking a few times with puffy eyes, begins to read. The first thing she notices is that the “address” is still a string of gibberish… but a different string of gibberish. It must be due to whatever system he’s emailing her from.
When she’s done, she gets that strange feeling that something about this doesn’t feel quite real. Holly tries remembering what his voice sounded like – the only thing about the encounter that she could use to confirm that she was, in fact, interacting with another human being – and finds it difficult. Mostly it was the delirium, and the drugs, and the chaos of getting airlifted, but… something about the voice is still hard to place. A low baritone, with a faint accent – Midwestern, if she had to call it. Maybe he’s from Michigan, she decides, only able to really start thinking about the contents of the email after establishing this.
Because in order for her to take his words seriously, she needs to be able to imagine a person behind that big, heavy machine. She needs to know that Galen’s more than just a jarhead – albeit a kind, soft-spoken jarhead that saved her ass twice – in a motion-capture suit and VR helmet. And even though she’s been given a glimpse of the human being behind the suit through his words, Holly knows all too well that words are cheap.
Still, her mouth curves upward in a little smile at the mention of being a bleeding heart; that’s the hint of a personality she was looking for.
Normally, this is where correspondence might’ve stopped. The gentle finality in his writing is obvious; the exchange of gratitude for compassionate reassurance is complete, the loose ends are, for all intents and purposes, tied up. And that would be for the better, being a black-ops military tech operator of quite possibly the world’s most advanced war machine ever created and all.
But there’s a postscript.
Holly chuckles at it, a little. It’s a very straightforward question, something that anyone who even has a passing familiarity with her might be expected to ask. Hell, she’s been fielding the question at least once a day as it is. But even in this state, mental faculties as dull as a popsicle stick from hours of late-night television, the intention is obvious. Like a conversation with a troubled stranger at a dive bar who doesn’t want to close his tab, it’s not so much an inquiry as it is a plea:
The smile slowly fades from the young woman’s face, though, and she finds her heart swelling with pity. A response is a given, now. But, still. Her mind’s drawing a blank on how to proceed.
The leg’s doing alright, she decides to start with.
Still pretty broken, but the pain’s letting up these days at least. I’ve still got another month or two before the cast comes off. I can’t wait for that to happen… these crutches are a nightmare lol.
Turns out that she may not need to have any kind of grand plan on what to say. These things are just spilling out on their own. Is it appropriate, though? Maybe, maybe not. But he asked, and she’s more than happy to oblige right now.
In another year, the hardware comes out. Hopefully, that’ll be something I can be more financially prepared for. Assuming that nothing else happens between now and then, at least. Right now though? I can barely get myself to the bathroom, let alone out to the car and the grocery store! So, I’m running on fumes over here too, but… I can deal. The upside is that I’ll be great at left-foot driving after all this.
Holly pauses here for a breather. What now?
How’s the job going? Haven’t seen your suit in any headlines lately… hopefully that means some downtime, yeah?
And because it feels wrong to say anything to you without giving my thanks (…again…), here it is: thank you!
She sends it, deliberately avoiding thinking twice about it – and her devil-may-care attitude towards certain things in life has gotten her into trouble before. Worse case scenario here is that he stops talking to her. Right? Right.
Tossing the phone at the far end of the couch, it lands with a faint fwup on the cushion, and she reaches for the crutches. It’s definitely time for bed. Holly hoists herself up onto her good leg, positioning the cutch pads under her now tender arms. She pivots and is about to head to the bathroom to wash up when she sees the phone light up again. Another email.
“The shit?” she mumbles to herself, maneuvering the glorified aluminum poles so that she can reach for the damn thing again, resigned to bringing it with her to bed. Holly glances at the recipient with eyes even heavier with fatigue than the first time. “Christ,“ she hisses. “Already? I sent that like, less than a minute ago!”
She shakes her head, having no idea if it’s even possible to type that damn fast. With a strained groan, the phone is stuck between her teeth – ow, this stupid thing is heavy – and quickly hobbles over to the bathroom. The toilet seat is cold, but it’s a place to sit (and do her business) as she reads the bizarrely hasty reply. Holly expects a couple of lines at best, but is surprised to find it as long-winded as any of the others he’s sent.
Glad it’s doing better already.
The rest sounds like a real pain, I’ll be honest. Why are the crutches so bad? I’ve never used them, so I wouldn’t exactly know. Television makes them seem pretty straightforward.
And jeez, you can “barely” get to the store? What doesthat mean, exactly? How are you getting food? And, uh… other things you need?
Work can be slow; this is all I do right now, and sometimes it’s weeks in between missions. It’s not hard to get cabin fever around here. The base, that is. I’m online and on-call 24/7, minus a few hours here and there for sleep. Between you and me, it can get boring.
But it’s an honest living – that’s a lot more than some folks can say.
And please, no need to keep thanking me. Really!
So, her initial impression was right.
Holly’s not at all unfamiliar with it. Before she started really hitting trails and exploring the bush, she was in the… party scene, some might call it; that was where she really learned to navigate landscapes of people. Specifically young people, people who drank and fucked their worries away. People who were skeptical that they had a future doing anything, anywhere.
And it was seductive. For a while.
But the music was too loud, the use of condoms and dental dams too intermittent, and buzzes got harder to chase, so Holly fell out of it in favor of a different high.
It’s funny how much she’s beginning to recognize Galen’s tone. If she suspends her disbelief for a moment – which is relatively easy to do at this time of night – she feels like she could be talking with someone nursing a drink at one of those parties as he sits in a corner and frowns, watching a couple of people with pot on their breath grope at each other across the room. Where every word out of his mouth is just the tip of an iceberg of something that she’ll never see.
Yeah, she knows that guy. She’s met him a dozen times before.
The last part bothers her, though. And she knows thatthat is probably the biggest iceberg of them all. She’s suddenly reminded who she’s talking to: not exactly a sharp-eyed wallflower in a crowded apartment or haunted drunk at a dim saloon. The man’s still a drone jockey, after all.
Holly brushes her teeth and washes her face, then heads to the small bedroom with the phone in her mouth again. The bed creaks as she collapses onto it, injured leg hoisted to the top of a mountain of pillows at the foot of the bed. The cottage-cheese ceiling above her is heavy with dust and cobwebs, and for a brief moment she wonders if that stuff is possible to clean. The young woman yawns, long and deep, eyes wet when she’s done.
With a groggy voice she cedes to the faint nagging excitement in the back of her mind, though: “Fine, one more reply.” With that she reaches for the phone.
Well, your armpits weren’t exactly designed to be load-bearing. Stuff in there’s pretty tender, and the padding on these guys suck anyways, so every time I use em it’s like having a metal bar smashed up against a bruise. I’ve sorta figured them out though so that it’s not THE worst thing ever.
I don’t really have anyone here to help me out, so if I need groceries, I gotta go get them myself. Cast, crutches, and all. I’ve only done it once so far, but… I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to haul groceries while you’re using even just one crutch. People did a lot of staring, and I did a lot of cursing. It wasn’t fun, lol.
I was only able to get a few day’s worth in and out of the car too, which is sorta bad. I’m not really in any shape to be running errands twice a week right now. But we’ll see… I’ve probably been in worse situations?
Holly pauses here to sigh – she hasn’t, actually, because she’s always had a cousin or a friend to call for help before. The last bit was thrown in there to reassure him more than her. She knows exactly how difficult getting through the next month is going to be, but Galen might be the worrying type, and she doesn’t want to give the impression that she wants him to solve her problems. She’s just another stranger at the bar with her own plea, not quite ready to close her tab either: Keep listening.
Honestly? It feels good to yak at someone like this. Cathartic.
So she keeps going; she wants to finish this email before her eyelids get any heavier.
I gotta say, the work you guys do down there is amazing stuff. I have nothing but the utmost respect for you, and I did even before… well, before my own accident. (I did obviously gain a new appreciation after that, though.) But that sounds boring as shit, no lie.
Why the hell are you on-call all day, every day? Couldn’t they wait for someone to go missing and THEN rig you up? I mean, so you have an opportunity to have like, a life? Sounds like some bullcrap to me. And you don’t have to answer if it’s classified or whatever, I totally understand, but… did you volunteer to do this? Did you know what you were getting into?
And ok, but only coz you say so…
And with that, she calls it a night.
When the phone flashes with a notification barely two minutes later, though, she’s already sound asleep.
Holly’s woken up, actually, by the sound of someone knocking on her front door at a little before 10 the next morning.
The flops over… sort of. The cast makes doing much of anything but laying on her back more trouble than its worth, and with a faint growl from getting caught up in the sheets, she gives a bellow as she works on righting herself.
“Hold on, hold on, I’m coming!”
Her hair, a long quiff with short-cropped sides, is splayed out across her eyes without the hairband, so she smooths the deep brown locks back and reaches for the crutches.
“Coming, coming…” Holly mumbles as she approaches the door. She opens it, and standing outside is a neighbor. A middle-aged woman that she’s seen around before, with purse and keys in hand. “Uh, g’morning?”
“I was on my way out, and I saw… this in front of your door, and wasn’t sure if you knew about it?” She gestures with a ostentatiously-manicured finger to the ground between their feet.
Holly squints in the morning light being refracted right into her face from the other half of the white building across the courtyard. She’s confused for a second, but looks down to what the woman is pointing at and…
“What the hell?” Holly mutters, screwing up her face even more at the sight.
“Anyways, I don’t know how long it’s been here,” the neighbor shrugs. “But I thought I’d let you know.”
“No problem. Have a good day.”
What it is is a pile of food.
Deposited straight onto her doormat; no bags, no note, no receipt, nothing.
The first thing that she recognizes is a flat – a whole flat – peaches, each in it’s own little plastic cubby-hole. But there’s more than that: a head of cabbage, two loaves of bread, what looks like a 4-pound chuck roast, and a small, shrink-wrapped block of gourmet cheddar.
“Who in the everloving fuck?”
With the crutches, she tries maneuvering some of the stuff out of the walkway and into her apartment, but it’s really to no avail at all. So she growls, and tosses the things aside, grabs the doorframe for balance, and bends over to shovel the stuff over the threshold with her other hand. Her face is locked up in a fierce glower when she’s finally got the door closed and is sitting on the floor to look the goods over.
The peaches are in pristine condition – beautiful orange globes, about ready to explode with their own sugary juice. The cabbage and bread are in good condition too. The bread bags are little steamy, though, from sitting outside in the warm air. The meat… she’d probably have to toss the meat, as much as she loves what her mother could do with even the worst cut of beef. The cheese is probably fine, though. So long as she gets it into the fridge…
“Wait minute…” Holly mutters, reaching up to brush her hair out of her face again.
You’re not seriously considering keeping this, are you?
It has been years since she’s had a peach, though, and these… holy shit, these are even organic!
She stares at the small, mis-matched feast, and her shoulders slump. “Organic doesn’t mean shit if it’s dusted with anthrax or something.”
No. No, it all has to go. Holly has no idea who or where it all came from – except for the meat, thanks to the weight label – and she’d had it hammered into her head to never take food from a stranger. As tempting as it is, this is ringing too many alarm bells.
Using the doorknob for leverage, she hoists herself up, grabs her crutches and heads for the other room to grab her phone. She’ll take a picture, post it to something, and if she’s lucky, a friend will fess up to the good-natured prank so she can move on with her life. That way she’ll be able to give ’em shit for wasting a perfectly good cut of meat, too.
Holly storms past the lock screen, ignoring the morning’s notifications as she heads straight for Instagram. But something about the thing is needling her in the back of her mind, and after a pause, she goes back to look over the list of them.
Of course, there’s an email.
Truth be told, she doesn’t know what she expects to find there. What she definitely doesn’t expect, though, is this:
Holly, I’m going to see if I can do another favor for you. Don’t worry, part of me just wants to see if I can even pull it off. Blame it on that cabin fever.
Advance apologies if this winds up coming across as rude, though…
Holly stares at the screen, feeling her eyes doing that thing that her mother’s do when she’s thinking or feeling too hard. Her mouth suddenly feels a little dry, head a little achey, heart beating a bit fast… and she gets the feeling that she’s being watched.
The young woman hobbles silently over to the couch, settling down, and stares out the window with a pensive scowl. Strands of black-brown hair creep closer to her eyes again.
The main question on her mind is how?
How did he know where she lived? How did he get here so fast?
After a few more minutes of jumbled thinking, she can at least conjure up a possible answer for the former: it was obviously in the police report, and there’s a good chance that everyone on the search and rescue team had read it. Including, she supposes, him.
This makes her feel a little bit better.
The other question, though, she can’t even begin to start answering. Did he send someone to do this? Did he get here himself? Is he… nearby?
Holly looks back over to the food on the floor, still wondering if any of it is safe to eat.
“What is going on?” she whispers. “What am I doing?”
Suddenly, she’s not sure that she knows who this Galen guy is at all. Or maybe she’s catching a glimpse at one of those icebergs, and they go way down. But what else did she expect?
The man’s still a drone jockey.
Holly is almost beside herself with temptations of all sorts. To keep the food, to wade a little deeper into the strange water that she’s dipped her toes into… to see what this is all about.
Because one of the things she hasn’t told him – hell, hasn’t told anybody, for that matter – is that just a couple days ago, she found out that she has no job to go back to when she can walk again. “You can reapply when you’re ready to come back,” the manager told her, as though he were actually throwing her a bone. “You’d get priority.” How she’s going to pay July rent, let alone what it’s going to cost her to get the cast off, is something she’s yet to figure out.
Those peaches are starting to look pretty delicious after all.
Something in her mind clicks, or shifts, maybe – and suddenly the random food items on the floor seem different somehow. Holly considers the suit operator behind it; the man that she’s decided is from Michigan, who, if recruited to pilot drone suit #006 at the tender age of 18, would be in his mid-thirties by now according to the accounts she’s read.
They treat me like equipment, he’d said to her.
What, him? Or the suit? Or has it been so long that they’re practically one and the same now? Maybe that, there on the floor, is what makes sense to a guy who wants to reach out and has all but forgotten how because at some point he started believing them when they said that he was just a means to an end.
The young woman squares her jaw, grabbing the phone, and begins to type.
ok, time to cut the crap: who ARE you?