He shouldered open the door after keying in the lock, pulling off his soaked coat and shirt almost immediately. He divested them in a pile on the ground, and the harnesses he hung. Alice suppressed a shudder as a cockroach scuttled across the wall to escape his hand.
“Whoa now,” he said softly, drawing his hand back. His voice was weighed with exhaustion.
She felt the hair on her arms prick when she spied Cat’s neck, where an old site for hardware integration sat between his vertebrae. The prongs pressed into his flesh were a tarnished, discolored metal; the surrounding skin a mottled red spiderweb of scars.
“You could at least be a gentleman and turn around,” he quipped as he caught her staring.
“This is going to be a stupid question, but did it hurt?”
“Falling from heaven? Only a little,” he reached into the hamper for a towel to dry off, hanging it limply around his neck. She chose to ignore the slight shake in his hands, following him into the kitchen.
He snapped on the AM broadcast receiver and the soft whisper of static and radio chatter settled into the room. Because of the time, most of the programming was still in Japanese. He turned to find them across from one another at the scratched counter, smiling disarmingly, something she wasn’t used to seeing his face do. The strip lights in the counter top settled a harsh shadow across Cat’s forearms, filling in the bumpy crevices of raised skin. She slid her hands across the table and curled her fingers around his arms. Gingerly, she turned the flat of his forearms towards her, keeping her eyes on his. Her breath slowed as she waited for him to bolt.
His smile dropped into a bemused curl, but he did not pull away from her.
She laid her eyes on the two, uneven-looking holes in his wrists. The port on each hand seemed to be dug into the skin like they’d done on his neck, except they’d done even more of a hack job on his arms. It was a miracle he could skillfully use his hands at all. “Cat, what were they calling you in the Elizabeth Mall?”
Just like that, he pulled his arms away, rubbing them against his jeans like he had an itch.
“Guàiyì,” he said nonchalantly as she blinked at him, “That’s what they call people like me around here. It means aberration. Bit dramatic, but what can you do?”
“I know what it means,” she said after a moment, trying to regain herself, “I took some Mandarin at school.” She couldn’t bring herself to ask the question that she really wanted to ask.
He laughed when he saw her face, “We were the Beta testers for hardware-to-human interfacing. Pretty much failed across the board, leaving all participants maimed. But–” he waved his finger at her, “We were the lucky ones. Alpha never made it through the first round, sorry bunch.”
“Most couldn’t handle the recovery after hardware was installed. Bodies spat up the ports, massive infections. Caught a nasty infection meself after the new additions,” he pointed to his neck. “But I still got these holes in me. Now I walk around like Christ on a bad day.”
Alice felt her knees give out from under her, Cat jumping to catch her arm before she brained herself on the counter. He strolled around, collecting her with a surprising lack of effort in the crook of his arms. He deposited her onto her makeshift bed in the living room. “Looks like the excitement finally caught up to you.”
“Just haven’t been sleeping lately,” she said, waving her hand.
He thumbed over the corner of her mouth, “Is this dry patch new?”
“Yeah, just last week,” she said.
“Stick out your tongue for me?”
“What is this, a check up?” She laughed.
“Just do it.”
Alice sighed and opened her mouth, sticking her tongue out.
“You haven’t been eating likely, either, by the looks of it.”
She pressed her mouth shut into a guilty line. “The food keeps getting me sick.”
Cat turned from her and walked to his room, audibly rummaging for something. He came back a moment later and tossed her a small brick wrapped in orange packaging. She couldn’t read most of the characters printed on the front, but she could pick out the words ‘meal’ and ‘military.’
“That won’t get you sick unless you eat it all at once. I suggest you nibble some now and tuck the rest under your pillow,” he put a finger to his lips.
“G’night,” he called, disappearing into his room.
She laughed, eyeing the pale shaft of sunlight creeping up from between the buildings. “Good morning.”