Kayla took her earphones out, and turned off her mp3 player’s radio. “Fairly local, boys, but nobody’s sure what took the power down yet. All they’ve got is that it’s a right mess, a lot of stuff failed all at once. No one’s expecting to have it back up tonight, but they’re working on it as fast as they can. They’re warning everyone to stay calm, keep cool, and just wait it out.” She coiled her earphones and laid the whole thing on the picnic table, and removed the plastic clip from her shoulder-length ash-brown hair so she could recoil it and re-clip it to capture the sweat-damp escaping tendrils. Of all weather to have a black-out in, did it have to happen when air conditioning felt like life support?
Well, okay, so in winter around here having heat really is life support. But who says I have to be reasonable when I’m hot and grouchy? And if my damned hair keeps escaping, I’ll take the scissors to it myself, I swear!
“Any civilization is only three meals from anarchy,” Max said. “Or something like that. In this heat, there is no earthly way our fridge or the fridge-freezer are going to keep anything safe until sunrise, let alone past that, even if the chest freezer downstairs maybe can. Barbecue and ice-cream party, anyone?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Theo laughed. “But let’s make it an actual party. How ’bout I call anyone close by and see if they want to join us? Anyone with anything that’s going to go bad can bring it, anyone who doesn’t have a way to have a decent meal tonight can share.”
“You,” Kayla said affectionately, “have to be the most generous person on the planet. Sounds good to me. Max?”
Max got up from his patio chair and paused to give Theo a kiss, one sepia-skinned hand cupping Theo’s cheek, sharp contrast against the light tan. “I second both points. You start calling, while Kay and I go assess the damage.”
Theo saluted playfully, and pulled out his phone. Kayla couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen it out of his reach, linking him always to the wide social network that was as necessary as oxygen for him to function. She wondered sometimes what he’d done before cellphones and mobile Internet access. More use of email and landline, probably, and more of the direct contact that he loved more than anything, but probably with fewer people.
Of course, that would’ve been before his Internet radio fan cub, too, so it could’ve worked. Maybe.
A number of phone calls later, guests began to show up—following Theo’s directions, they didn’t come to the front door, but came directly around to the backyard. Kayla knew lanky Des, who moved like his bones were only loosely connected, quite well, and had met some of the others a few times. The familiarity with Des had nothing to do with the fact that, in a small-ish town in southeastern Ontario, the population was overwhelmingly white with a sprinkling of Native, which made him and Max stand out visually; it had everything to do with his tech skills supporting their heavily computer-dependent household, and his being excellent company, someone all three enjoyed having around, and his very long history as one of Theo’s trusted friends.
“Did you actually plan this as a school reunion?” Des asked Theo jokingly, surveying the handful who had arrived before him.
Theo laughed. “Not exactly, and not everyone I called was interested, but I think this is a good combination, seven of us who know each other really well and a handful of SOs and whatever you want to call Kay, and JC’s friend Niko.”
“I know Niko. Who do you think set up the computer system in his bookstore for tracking inventory?”
“Shoulda figured that.”
“Jace asked me to. Not a problem. Niko paid me, Jace made one of those awesome meals for the three of us to celebrate—and being able to trust that a good meal I don’t have to cook truly won’t have invisible dairy in it is an awesome thing in itself. Checking out the books is good motivation for dropping by Niko’s place to do maintenance. Neat stuff in there.”
“Yeah, he is really good at finding books on odd subjects. Not terribly talkative most of the time but good god, he knows a lot if you can get him going. Getting twitchy without a computer yet?”
“The withdrawal effects shouldn’t be noticeable until morning when I can’t get online to check my email. I am absolutely dreading work when the power does come back up. Oh, the screaming there’ll be…”
“I don’t envy you. I mean, nobody is realistically going to expect me to keep an Internet radio station running with no power, so I can just pick up whenever and start from there. Everything okay at work for Emily?”
“Oh, sure. They’ve got their own backup emergency power, and the residents are mostly in bed by now so it’s mostly a matter of being available if someone buzzes for help overnight.”
Kayla was, personally, just as happy Emily was working. Something about that woman made her hackles rise, no matter how careful she was to be polite for Des’ sake. She knew better than to tell a friend in a relationship that their new partner gave her bad vibes—the exception being Max, who had known her a long time and trusted her instincts—but she was dead certain Emily was bad news.
Between donations and the contents of the household fridge, there was a mixture of burgers and varied other meats including fish, plus potatoes and salad, fruit and cold vegetables. Some of the vegetables came from Erica’s balcony and from one of the three community gardens she had helped to organize and continued to be involved in, and the contrast with the blander ones from the grocery store was marked and remarked-upon.
There was plenty to drink, much of it frozen juice mixes, and in a cooler that Suzi and her husband Levi had brought ice cream and popsicles of various kinds could wait a little while, at least.
Enough portable devices, with enough built-in or battery-powered speakers, meant that they even had music, not at a high volume, but a pleasant background nonetheless.
Theo being Theo, Kayla thought, he never stopped moving, always making sure all six of his ex-classmates and two spouses, one boyfriend, and one friend were all okay, that no one ever felt left out or out of place. Suzi and Levi’s dogs, a mismatched pair of friendly and easy-going border collie crosses, sprawled contentedly in the middle, clearly enjoying the activity around them.
And his ex-classmates were certainly an oddly-assorted bunch. She highly doubted they’d all been friends in school though she could see some possible individual connections.
It would’ve surprised her not at all if Theo had had a close personal relationship with each right from the day they started kindergarten, though.
Erica, whom Kayla had heard joke a couple of times in the past that she’d be just the right weight if she had a few extra inches to give her a more average height, had brought a shopping bag full of paperbacks, and gangly self-professed “gamer geek” JC his backpack full of the same, and Des a sturdy cardboard file box with handles; Kayla watched in amusement while they dumped all of them on a blanket and looked through each other’s, sorting them into three new piles. There was considerable discussion about some, especially if two had read it and the third hadn’t yet. Niko was appealed to for another opinion a few times. Judging by the number of utterly unfamiliar names she was hearing, some personal and some obviously of places or large groups to judge by context, it must be at least mostly fantasy or science fiction or both.
One book caught Theo’s eye, and though he was told unanimously to take it, he dashed back into the house and returned with one to trade for it.
A bit later, Kayla overheard Theo and Suzi while they were at the cooler getting drinks.
“I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you about lunch,” Suzi said apologetically. “We had a problem dog to foster that needed some pretty intensive time to sort out, to say nothing of his family who had no clue about dogs that are bred to be busy, and we only just recently got him back with them and they’ve decided agility’s kind of fun. Plus it seems like more and more people are asking for therapy dog visits and we’re still working on building the local group to a decent size.” She sighed. “Reverend Fiona asked us to do a presentation on all three side-projects, agility and therapy and surrender alternatives, she knows that’s outside the training classes we’re actually getting paid for and she’s worried about us over-extending. There are people in our church who want to help even if they don’t have dogs, or have dogs who wouldn’t be suitable for various reasons, but we’re trying to figure out a practical way they can help. Between that and agility for Jazz and Bijou and regular classes, it’s been pretty crazy.”
“Well, as soon as the power’s back, email me and we’ll get you on the air to tell a more general audience what you’re doing,” Theo said. “Enough of my audience is local that it helped with ‘Rica’s gardens, and we’re doing one about the street dance coming up for raising money for equipment for the after-school thing Zach and his crew do. And, y’know, Des’ periodic appeals for computer parts he can recycle into systems for kids who can’t afford one always get him lots. And Ali with this run and that awareness campaign.” He laughed. “Between the bunch of you all being so community-minded, it’s a wonder I have time for shows on anything else.”
“People love your shows for a reason,” Suzi said, echoing the laugh. “You aren’t afraid of anything, are you?”
“I’m scared of a lot of things. Ignorance and intolerance are big ones. C’mon. Find a few stats if you can, but think of a few stories about people that therapy animals have made all the difference for. Preferably your own experiences. And think about all the reasons it’s great for you and your dogs and the people you visit. Maybe a few people will hear and think, ‘hey, my dog could do that,’ and sign up. There’s a certification thing to do, right? But you and Levi are qualified to do it?”
By that time, they were out of range.
Kayla barely heard the quiet voice from the gate over the animated conversation a short distance away, but glanced in its direction to see what the source was.
An elderly woman hesitated there; she was no more than five feet tall, if that, and so tiny under her long skirt and long-sleeved blouse that it seemed a wonder she could stand up even with the wooden cane in her hand, her long silver-and-white hair in a braid lying over her shoulder but definitely coming loose.
Kayla closed the barbecue and approached the gate. With less distance between them, she noticed that the edges of skirt and blouse were frayed and there were a few neatly-repaired rips here and there, and the old woman’s canvas shoes were much the worse for wear.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
“It’s so hot, and I’m still a few blocks from home. Could I trouble you for a glass of water?”
“Sure,” Kayla said gently. “Why don’t you sit down for a few minutes and rest, and you can have as much to drink as you like?”
“Oh, I couldn’t, dear…”
“Of course you could,” seconded Zach’s wife Heather, who looked drastically unlike her daytime high-powered consultant self while in cut-off denim shorts and a tank-top, her blonde hair in a messy sweat-damp tail. “You look exhausted. If you’d rather stay here by the gate, I’ll go get you a chair, or you can come over by the table.”
By the time Heather had urged the woman to the vicinity of the picnic table, Theo had brought his own chair for her to sink heavily into. There were a few glances from others, curious or sympathetic or both, but little other reaction—except that Suzi’s highly sociable rescued border collie crosses made absolutely no motion to greet her, and Niko, though his expression was neutral, shifted his position to an angle that let him keep her in sight.
“Would you like lemonade, instead of water?” Kayla asked her. “Or iced tea, or… what else is over there, Theo?”
“Lemonade would be lovely,” the old woman said wistfully.
“Have you eaten?” Theo asked. Kayla couldn’t imagine him missing the same details she’d noted herself.
“Oh, I’m sure I have something at home for a bite of supper.”
Kayla squatted beside her, while Heather went to fill a glass with lemonade. “Listen, all the food we’ve got here, it’s going to go to waste if it isn’t eaten tonight. There’s lots, really. If you’d like something to eat, we’d be glad to share. We have just about anything you might like.”
Des laid a hand on Kayla’s shoulder. “Hey, go on back to the barbecue, eh? I’ll put together a plate of… hm, chicken?”
“I couldn’t possibly chew chicken, dear.”
Kayla left Theo and Des and Heather to take care of the old woman, and returned to the barbecue to flip the current batch. A few minutes later, Theo came to collect fish to add to a plate along with a baked potato.
“Poor woman,” Theo said, low enough for only Kayla to hear. “I have serious doubts she’s actually eaten all day. I think maybe after she eats I’ll offer to drive her home, wherever that is. I wonder if someone’s looking for her, or if she’s surviving on her own.” He glanced over his shoulder in the old woman’s direction, lower lip caught between his teeth and brows drawn downwards.
“Maybe put together a little extra stuff she can take with her?” Kayla suggested. “Bananas are easy to chew, the rolls JC brought are really fresh, the potatoes won’t go dangerously bad as quick as most things, a bottle of juice? God knows, we aren’t going to go hungry, and there’s just something wrong about someone that old not having food. Doesn’t look like anyone particularly objects to sharing.”
“They wouldn’t. I mean, JC’s been in and out of jobs and missed a few meals himself, he’s always happy to share anything he has when he’s doing okay, and you’ve heard me get the others on the radio before. There are at least four of our ex-classmates living in the area that I did not call, y’know. Just the ones I’m willing to share a planet with.”
Kayla laughed, and deposited a flaky fish fillet on the plate. “Well, you have good taste.” They were an uncommonly socially-minded bunch, she had to admit that. She wished they were sharing the planet with more people like that, actually.
The old woman ate with an enthusiasm that suggested to Kayla that Theo was right, and she emptied her glass of lemonade almost as rapidly as Des could fill it for her. Kayla saw Alison and JC, with a plastic shopping bag and a box of zipper freezer bags, going methodically through the table’s contents—presumably choosing things that would still be safe to eat tomorrow.
Having finished, their unexpected guest declined Theo’s suggestion that he drive her the rest of the way to wherever she was going, but patted him on the arm.
“Thank you. You’re good children, the lot of you. The world could use more like you. Goodness, what’s this?”
“Something to eat later,” JC said, handing her the shopping bag. “Just in case, since there’s no way to know when the power will be back on.”
The old woman gave him an oddly piercing look, then swept it over the rest of the group. Kayla shivered, then wondered why.
“Be who and what you truly are,” their guest said, her voice soft, but somehow it carried more power than Kayla would have believed that frail body possessed.
A heartbeat later, she was again nothing but an old woman in well-worn clothing, clutching a wooden cane in one hand, a plastic shopping bag in the other, and making her way towards the gate.
“If an NPC said that in one of Jace’s games,” Des said, carefully quietly even after the woman had left, “I’d be fearing for the future right about now. What on earth does ‘be who and what you truly are’ mean?”
“It would be a terrifying thing if half the people I know were to do that,” JC said wryly. “A blessing from some specific cultural tradition, maybe? Equivalent to, fare thee well, peace be upon you, live long and prosper? I don’t know, but you’re right, if I used it in a game, there’d probably be something dire coming.”
“Good thing life isn’t a game, then,” Kayla said. “I think a power outage is sufficiently dire for the time being, don’t you? Yo! Anybody want to take over so I can eat too?”
* * *
She thinks she blessed them, but she probably hasn’t been in the human world for decades, if not centuries. And that was never the blessing they think it is, not when it’s tossed around carelessly.
You batshit-crazy old bitch. You just threw a time-bomb in the middle of this gathering and they don’t even know it. Seven lives and those of their loved ones basically destroyed, unless someone keeps that from happening. I’m going to have to figure out how to minimize the damage. Protect them from the people who’d have far too much of the wrong kind of interest in them. Protect their loved ones from them. Protect them from themselves.
How in hell am I going to do that? I can’t explain it or they’ll think I’m crazy. I don’t have nearly the power and resources for this, I dabble and this is major-league. If I was stronger, I might’ve had a chance of stopping her. Of course, if I was stronger, it would be because I was too single-minded to care anyway.
I’m going to have to find someone to bargain with. Someone with a reasonable chance of sticking to their side of it. And I don’t have much time.
I don’t know whether you’ll ever forgive me for it. But at least you’ll be safe.