2 – Erica, Alison, Theo

Erica leaned back in her canvas chair, bracing her feet up on the rim of one of the heavy ceramic planters that filled her balcony. There was barely enough room for two chairs among the greenery, but that was the way she liked it. For just her, it was perfect, actually: she didn’t need much space for stretching her legs when her height had never quite made it to five feet.

Around people, she’d learned to ignore looks and behind-her-back comments about her lack of height and substantial weight. The other secretaries and the techs in the office where she worked respected her skills in organization and computers and dealing with even difficult people, learned in part from JC and Des and Theo respectively over the years, and her memory and ability to put pieces together, which was all her own. And here, with her plants, it didn’t matter how she looked. She gave them her love, and they thrived in her care.

When her big brother Adam had moved out of town a few years back following a messy divorce, and bought an established greenhouse, he’d asked her repeatedly to come with him—and not just because she was the only one to support him through the divorce. She could use both her office skills and her affinity for green things, and she could do it with one trusted partner rather than a boss. He still reminded her periodically that the offer remained open.

Sometimes, at moments like this, she wondered why she kept telling him no.

Part of it was that her current job was reliable and paid well, with full benefits.

Part of it, she was sure, was that the idea of moving away from here made her feel deeply uneasy. They’d both been born in the hospital here, had gone to school here right from kindergarten on like her friends. Unlike some, she’d never left even briefly for higher education, and had no interest in travelling on vacation. This was her native soil; even a couple of hours’ drive away would put her on alien ground. It was irrational, she knew, but she had never been able to shake the feeling that any attempt at transplanting herself would be about as successful as a clumsy attempt to move a northern plant to a tropical setting or vice versa.

It was late, must be approaching midnight. This would be a silly time to go for a walk. All the more so with those heavy clouds looming low overhead, growling with thunder intermittently.

The breeze, though, was cool and inviting, if a bit strong and promising to get stronger. If it rained, well, so what? She wouldn’t melt like the Wicked Witch just from a bit of water. A rainy summer night sounded rather pleasant, actually, and she was less likely to run into trouble in a downpour.

Decision made, she stood up and went back inside. Her current ragged shorts and dirt-streaked t-shirt would be fine for a walk, but she did want to pin her elbow-length medium-brown hair up more securely and find her sandals.

A few minutes later, scooping up her keys, she glanced around her living room at the shelves of potted plants and terrariums, smiled to herself, and left.

* * *

Alison sighed, let herself flop onto her back on the yoga mat. Meditation wasn’t working. Yoga wasn’t working. She just couldn’t seem to sit still tonight.

Maybe if Wade were home, it wouldn’t be so bad. Tossing him in bed for an energetic bout of sex would feel good and might be enough to relax her so she could go to sleep.

But he was a sleep-clinic tech, and he was working tonight, which left her here to stare at the walls alone.

I could take the girls from yoga class up on that invitation to have a drink or two and dance. The DJ in the bar they went to sucks, though. I bet I could talk them into going to hear Theo, this is Friday so he’s DJing. Sure, it’s the gay bar, but who cares, as long as they’ve got awesome music to dance to? Less getting hit on anyway.

That, though, would involve dressing up, though in her case that generally wasn’t even close to the effort most women put into primping and preening to put themselves on display in a bar. It would involve socializing, which she usually enjoyed but just didn’t feel up to right now.

Screw it. I’m going for a run. Let any asshole who dares try to keep up with me.

If anyone did, they’d regret it anyway. She’d started getting involved in various women’s issues in high school. Though she’d since rejected some aspects of feminism as shallow and unrealistic, a few as downright toxic, she still helped a local female judo teacher with women’s self-defence workshops periodically, among other things.

But first they’d have to catch her.

Although, she reflected briefly as she got up to change to running clothes, even before that they’d have to realize she was female. A lifetime of running, a couple of decades of yoga, a diet low in meat though not strictly vegetarian, all combined with the genes from her father’s side to give her a lean spare build with minimal body fat. Proud as she was of being in excellent physical condition, she did wish sometimes she at least had a little more curve to her hips and larger breasts. Something to make her look more feminine, more like the women on her mother’s side. As it was, her shorts and tank-top bared scars on her tanned legs and arms from challenging the boys at their own games in school, and generally managing to hold her own—though she didn’t really have the height for basketball.

Of course, it would probably just interfere with running, so she was better off as she was. If she really wanted to look feminine, she could let her short-cropped dirty-blonde hair grow longer and get it styled, and ask Suzi or Zach’s wife Heather for some idea how to do makeup, and rethink her practical wardrobe that was chosen primarily because it left her free to move.

And none of those were going to happen.

Besides, Wade liked her the way she was, and had told her so repeatedly. Just maybe, this time, she’d made the right choice in men.

She perched on a chair to lace up her running shoes, and paused briefly to listen. Was that thunder? Or just a particularly loud truck nearby? No, that was definitely thunder, she decided.

Being out in a thunderstorm wasn’t the brightest idea. On the other hand, she was willing to bet the odds of being hit by a car were higher than her odds of mishap by lightning.

She’d chosen pale-coloured clothes that should stand out, and she had not only reflectors on her shoes and LED wristbands, but also her LED safety ‘vest,’ really just a reflective webbing belt with a pair of fibreoptic loops, one for each shoulder—anything more substantial either felt annoyingly bulky and awkward, or it sat uncomfortably over even her small breasts, proving yet again that anything ‘unisex’ was designed for male bodies. Any driver who failed to see her in time would be just as much of a danger in full daylight, but those existed, and made her grateful for her excellent peripheral vision.

She did a few slow careful stretches, frowning as her left knee protested. After doing yoga, that shouldn’t be happening, although more and more often, it was. That made her nervous, since it was the same knee she’d injured badly a few years before, requiring a frustratingly long period of limited activity. Pain meds and a cannabis-based cream made by one of her yoga students, plus judicious use of the lightest knee support from after her injury, kept her from having to find the nerve to see a doctor about it yet. Maybe it would heal up, if she kept it loose but didn’t push it.

Probably best not to have music on at this hour, but she tucked a small bottle of water into a fanny pack, along with her phone and ID for emergencies. Once she’d locked the door, she added her keys and zipped it closed, settling it in place. Thunder growled as she went down the steps to the driveway; she cast a cautious eye on the dark clouds above. The greenish cast suggested rain, and that thunder had a weirdly unfriendly sound to it. Treetops swayed back and forth in the wind, setting the leaves to whispering and rustling and rattling.

Maybe she’d be better off staying home after all. Slippery pavement could mean a fall, and that could be bad.

She was certain she’d go crazy, if she tried to sit still any longer. There was no way she was going to sleep, and being unable to concentrate on anything was going to make it just maddening being indoors.

A short run, not going too far from home so if it started to storm she’d be able to get back to shelter quickly, that should be all right.

Decision made, she jogged down the driveway of the subdivided house that held her apartment and out to the street.

Sometimes, when she started running, she hated to come home, wanted to just keep running forever. All restless and unsettled as she was right now, it was going to be very easy to go farther than she intended. She was going to have to be mindful of where she was, and not get distracted in the sheer joy of motion.

* * *

Theo blinked, and realized that the next song coming up on the playlist had been on no more than half a dozen tracks back. Biting his lower lip, he hastily removed it, just before the current track ended, so it could skip to a new one.

What was wrong with him tonight, anyway? He had, as usual, put considerable thought into creating the base playlist for the night, though he always allowed for requests and sometimes the mood of the club led to basically rewriting the playlist on the fly.

Getting people feeling good and having fun was what he did; he’d been doing this job since long before his Internet radio station. He’d been DJing occasionally at this very club back when he and Max had finally gotten together. A few years of periodically running into each other at various events, Theo doing freelance interviews and reporting, Max doing freelance photography, and sometimes exchanging tips on possible job leads, had been only that, with one or the other in a relationship at every encounter.

Then they’d met up when both were single, decided to try going on a date, which had ended right here with someone else DJing, and everything just clicked.

The unexpected addition of Max’s high school best friend Kayla had turned out to be only a bonus, although he could have wished for better circumstances, since she’d been in complete emotional collapse with nowhere to live and no other support of any kind. Together, they had a house, Max and Theo in the master upstairs and Kayla with most of the basement as combined bedroom and workroom. Max had his own boudoir-and-bridal photography studio in what had been a separated single-car garage; Theo had his radio station based in what had been the dining room; Kayla turned what most people considered trash into unique jewellery and clothing and small furniture.

Those who claimed neither Max nor Theo was truly pansexual because they were monogamous, or conversely that they’d be unable to remain monogamous, could be dismissed as ignorant. They could’ve gotten legally married any time, Canada being more reasonable on the subject than many parts of the world, and the idea had come up, but had yet to involve a real resolution in either direction; it didn’t matter. Max had bought a pair of matching rings, three strands of gold, white and yellow and rose, twisted into an endless rope, and both considered them wedding rings, as did virtually anyone who knew them. Their shared household was stable and secure and had so far, for eight years and counting, been able to weather life’s curve balls.

And Theo now DJed here every Friday night, but for some reason tonight he just couldn’t seem to get into the groove. If he wasn’t into it, how was he going to do what he always did, and use voice and music choices to project his own high energy?

Especially when he was making stupid mistakes with the lineup and with software that he knew backwards and forwards and had set up to offer what he needed as efficiently as possible?

One of the regulars bounced over to the bottom of the handful of steps up to his perch; he obligingly took off his headphones and came down to meet her. She typically fixated on a song she liked, and for a month or two would ask for it every week; he figured he knew what she’d request.

What she asked for wasn’t what he’d expected.

Stupid. That was the last one. She’s been on this one for the past two weeks. You know better. That isn’t the kind of detail you normally forget!

Although, come to think of it, he couldn’t remember her name either, and he never forgot names. They were an essential part of who someone was. He caught his lower lip between his teeth again while he wracked his brain, feeling heat in his cheeks, though it wouldn’t show in this lighting.

She studied him, her carefully-painted face creasing with concern and confusion. “You okay? You seem a bit out of it tonight.” She smiled. “Had an extra drink or two?”

“I don’t drink when I’m working.” And never enough to be unable to remember. What was the point of having fun if you couldn’t recall what you’d done? And he loathed the idea of being too fuzzy-headed to be able to think about the consequences his actions could have on others. “Nah, might be coming down with something. Just sorta foggy.”

“Happens to the best of us,” she said cheerfully. “Look after yourself!” She sauntered back out to the dance floor.

That must be it, I’m coming down with something.

But if that’s the case, why am I feeling so twitchy? Shouldn’t I be feeling tired, instead of not being able to sit still?

He got her request into the playlist, but it took two tries—the first time, he actually added the one he’d been expecting her to ask for, and it took him a moment to remember what she’d actually wanted.

Oh, I give up. This is freakin’ insane. I’m no use to anybody like this.

He watched for an opening to grab one of the bar staff that he knew well.

“Cin, I’m losing it totally, I can’t think straight and I’m making mistakes. It’s almost midnight. If I leave my laptop here with enough music lined up to do until closing, can you keep an eye on it and make sure it’s safe? I’ll come get it tomorrow or Sunday.”

Cindy looked him over, head to foot. Not that there was much to see; he knew he wasn’t terribly striking in any way physically, average of height and build, short brown hair with hints of red, silver-framed glasses over grey-blue eyes—though in playful photo sessions, Max had showed him a whole new way to look at and appreciate himself. Warm as the dance-floor was, his well-ventilated jeans and somewhat altered bar staff T-shirt were enough to keep him from overheating.

“You look a bit pale,” she pronounced finally. “And I don’t think it’s the lights. Go home. Gary and I’ll cover and we’ll look after your laptop. Maybe you should call home and get Max or Kayla to come pick you up. People are starting to come in mentioning the weather, I guess there’s a storm coming in.”

“It’s not that far, and the walk might help clear my head a bit. Thanks, Cin. If I don’t see you when I get my laptop, see you next Friday.”

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