When she wasn’t at the hotel, Ed sent a message. She went to the education centre, wondering if she’d misunderstood, and waited under the shelter of a tree. Soon she was hugging herself and stamping her feet, cursing stupid fashion choices. The least it could do is distract her from the lump of misgivings forming. Emma was never late. Emma didn’t make scheduling mistakes.
Ed hid when the class let out, embarrassed to be seen lurking. She waited until the lights in the cooking room turned off. Emma didn’t come out.
She messaged again and again. At first it was worry, then she moved on to all of the ugly, twisted thoughts that festered in silence. She hated herself for imagined slights, and Emma for being a bitch, for turning into a ghost, for finding someone else, for playing games, and pretending innocence.
They were petty thoughts. Nothing that hadn’t happened to her before, though, because people were shitty sometimes. But under it all was a bedrock of certainty that there was something wrong.
She went back to the education centre and waited until the baking instructor left, jogging to catch up to her. She was chirpily surprised, then explained that Emma had withdrawn.
“I thought that you had too, honestly. Unofficially.” She looked as though she meant to go on, but something in Ed’s expression stopped her. “Well, I hope that you come back. It’s upside down cakes next time!”
Finally she went to the quiet street outside Emma’s apartment, leaning against the wall just around the corner. She hated herself for it. The night was cold, a few ashy streaks of clouds barely visible below the upper city, and the faintest line of murky orange. It had been snowing off and on all day, drifting into corners. She tromped it down as she tried to keep her feet warm. Her eyes stuck to Emma’s window. It was dim compared to the burning yellow of the others, lit only by a small lamp, lonely and retiring.
Stupid. Anyway, what am I doing just standing here? She fucking owes me an explanation, at least.
When she appeared in the window Ed felt a jolt down to her bones. She watched Em reach out, fingers pressed against the window. Her fingers were ridiculously soft, and always a little cold. Ed liked to warm them between her hands, kissing her fingertips until her blush was dark. Then she’d gave in to the squirming embarrassment of it and kissing would lead to other things.
As she watched her Em jerked, as though startled, and vanished.
This is stupid. This is stalking. It’s creepy.
She jogged across the street, slipping into the lobby. There was a call box for messages and mail. The other apartments had all their occupants listed. Emma’s was the only one with a single name.
“Can I help you.”
An older man hovered in the doorway, just come in from the frosty night.
“Yeah, maybe. Do you know this person?”
He looked from the call box to her.
“My friend set us up on a blind date,” she said, forcing a laugh. “I don’t want it to be too blind, you know?”
“That’s Emma. I don’t know very much about her, I’m sorry. She keeps to herself.”
“She isn’t married or anything, is she? The last one was married with two kids.”
“Emma? No. Hard to imagine that. Quiet as a mouse.” He took in her clothes and hair. “Really, your friend might be off-base, you know.”
She smiled, genuinely. “Nah, that sounds pretty good. I like the mousy ones. Thanks.”
She went home, brooding in her room while snow streaked her window, grey with daylight behind it, white against the night, and back again.
“What’s up, kiddo?”
She sat up, giving Suzie room to sit. If she didn’t already know what the response would be she’d give in to the urge to spill it all. Unburden her soul.
“Don’t waste your time. She isn’t worth it.”
There it is.
Suzie rolled her eyes. “Come on, Ed. She cut you off, didn’t she? Your hair is pink. That’s sign one. And if you called it quits you’d be out at a club already.”
“You don’t know everything about me,” she said, half joking.
“Sure I do.” She leaned back against the wall. “It was weird seeing you two together.”
“You don’t like her.”
“That’s not accurate.”
“You like her.”
“Also…not entirely accurate. Look, I don’t dislike her. She’s fine. She’s just so different from anyone else you’ve dated.”
“God, Ed.” She laughed. “You’re so far gone.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
Suzie drummed her fingers idly. She had her nails done every two weeks at a salon. In a way she was as rigid as Em with her schedules. “Since you started working at the collective you’ve…lost your spark. You didn’t even put your work up at the art walk. You’ve been doing that since you were little.”
“And what did that get me?”
“There’s nothing wrong with it-”
“Being for fun, yeah. I heard you the first time, and also the hundredth time.”
Suzie prided herself on controlling her temper. She was always so sure that she was right that nothing really shook her. Sometimes it felt too good to beat against all that certainty. She knew it and felt bad and did it anyway.
“Right now you’re kind of…adrift. She’s someone you can take care of. I see you doing it. It’s nice that you want to. But that doesn’t make a healthy relationship. That’s a project.”
“I took as many psych classes as you.”
“I passed mine.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry. But don’t you think that there’s some of that going on?”
She was right a lot of the time. Enough to make her wonder. It wasn’t as though Ed had ever really been in love before. What did she know?
But neither had Suzie.
“You deserve better than waiting around for someone to reply.”
“I’m happy when we’re together. So is she. Why isn’t that good enough?”
“If she was, she’d be sending messages.”
Ed shook her head. “It isn’t like her to be rude. Not if she can help it.”
“How would you know?”
“She studied table manners before she came to dinner. She wanted to do the right things.”
“That’s just weird, Ed.”
“It was nice! God, Suzie, she wanted to make a good impression on you guys. Obviously she should have saved the effort.”
“It’s not the point. The point is that she would hate being rude. If she was going to break it off, she’d look up how to do it politely.” She shook her head. “I think there’s something wrong.”
Suzie sighed. “Fine! Then go and talk to her. Have it out. Don’t let her play with you.”
“You’re right. I have to go see.” She sat up and reached for a sweater.
“Wait, right now? Ed, it’s snowing.”
“I know. It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”
It was barely snowing at all actually: small, charmless flakes that landed on the old drifts and added nothing, only to be swept up by the sharp wind, to swirl and pry at her clothes. She skidded on the way to her bike, still pulling on her backpack.
“Ed, be careful, okay?”
She waved to Suzie and took off. Emma would be at home. She’d bet on it. Even if she wasn’t, she’d be home soon. She had to, didn’t she? That fucking alarm chased her around.
Amber lights streaked by. She kicked the speed up, weaving through slower vehicles. Traffic thickened, sending up clouds of snow. She cleared her mask and swore, pulling out around a heavy hauler. There was a flash of lights coming close along behind her, coming fast. Her bike bucked and skidded, washing out when she wrenched it to the side of the road.
Just by her boot was a steep ditch, pretending to be mild, as it was full of snow, but it had to be twenty feet deep.
Stupid. Panicky. Fuck, what was wrong with her?
Count, she thought, remembering how Emma’s voice grew steadier as she’d counted out the tiles. Something had made her so scared of being late that she spent a half an hour trying to get her mind back to good. Then suddenly she wasn’t answering messages. That wasn’t a coincidence.
She started off again, calmer this time, and slowing even more once she got to the narrow streets around Em’s apartment. The winter day was already vanishing in a blue-grey blur, and it was getting harder to see if there were people ready to cross. At her lurking corner she parked. If Emma wasn’t there to answer the bell she’d soak up the heat in the lobby. She pulled her mask off, gasping at the cold air suddenly filling her lungs. She covered her mouth with her hand to ease it and strode around the corner.
A black van was idling on the street in front of the building, swirling the snow gently beneath it. She slowed, gaze absorbed by its blunt and featureless form. Its windows were dark. Pointedly anonymous. There wasn’t even a licence showing. The only mark on it was in the bottom left corner, where a vaguely familiar logo stood out in dull gold.
The security light in Em’s lobby clicked on. She stopped.
Listen to yourself.
Her dad’s voice echoed in her head, reminding his kids to be safe. Feeling foolish, she ducked behind a stone railing, peering out. Two large men in suits appeared on Emma’s stairs, no more identifiable than slabs of meat. The sight of them made her skin crawl, for no reason she could tell. They were followed by two more, their hands clenched around Emma’s arms.
She was struggling, crying, feet kicking and skidding on the smooth floor. She was wearing her dress, but no shoes or coat. The doors opened. Ed heard her begging, promising, breaking down into sobs. One of the slab men watched the street, while the other opened the van’s door. He turned her way and she ducked back, heart pounding. She closed her eyes, took a steadying breath, and leaned out again. They were lifting Em off her feet and pushing her into the van. The doors slammed. Ed could hear the pounding of fists on the solid metal, and screams.
She bit back her cry. All four slabs got into the van. She watched them lift up. It made no sound, not like the vehicles she knew that wheezed with sharp ascents. It ignored traffic limits, heading directly to the upper city instead of an exchange.
The doors opened again. A handsome man in an expensive coat came out, looking after the van. He was putting Emma’s tablet in his fancy bag.
She covered her mouth, light-headed, the idea forming so quickly that she didn’t have time to think about the stupidity of it.
Snow crunched beneath her boots. She put her head down and barrelled into him at full speed.
It was more jarring than she thought. He was a solid guy under his nice clothes. She heard him scramble to keep his feet on the ice and kicked out. He grunted, hitting the ground hard.
“Oh god. I’m sorry!” She grabbed for the tablet, shoving it under her coat.
“I think I was done in by the weather.” He smiled and accepted her hand. “Are you all right?”
“I’m good. Sorry. I’m in a bit of a hurry.” She thrust his bag at him.
“I hope you make it on time.” She nodded her thanks, backing away. She had no air in her lungs to speak.
“Love the hair!”
She hit the corner and bolted, barely keeping her feet. She made a wide circle back to her bike. By then he was gone, and there was no sign that anything had happened. No sign that a woman was dragged screaming out of her own home.
The back of her neck prickled. She was suddenly sure that she was being watched. Someone was coming for her. She stowed Em’s tablet and rode, blindly, weaving through the streets until she thought there couldn’t be anyone following her. That was good. As long as she concentrated on that she could bottle up the gibbering fear that hovered in the back of her mind.
Under a tree on a quiet street she stopped. Her hands were shaking. She pressed them against her face.
What the fuck just happened? What did I do?
She took out the tablet. It was an old model, kept in perfect condition, as Em would. It was powered down. Her fingers hovered. Maybe they’d know if she turned it on. A tracking beacon or something.
She hugged it to herself, fighting back tears. The terror and panic in Emma’s voice flooded back. They took her away like a criminal. Those anonymous slab men. Were they even police? Or one of the security forces? People with the clearance to skip the exchange and go straight up there, to the upper city.
Who are they, Emma? Who are you? Where have you gone?