Chapter 27: Shopping
Luther didn’t really know what to do with the devastated girl crying on his chest. He could feel the wetness of her tears soaking through his shirt.
Just wait it out. He held her gently.
There had been days, after his parent’s disappearance, when he had curled up into a ball, unable to put into words the way his spirit had been crushed. It wasn’t something to fix, it was just something to be survived.
He stopped himself from making too great a comparison between them. Losing your parents was catastrophic, but he had no idea what she was going through.
It was too easy to make light of other people’s hurt.
After she had calmed down a bit, he asked, “Can you stand?”
She nodded. He carefully extricated himself from her arms and lifted her to her feet. For a few seconds, she stood, but then she wavered.
“Here, I’ll steady you.”
“Sorry. I’m so weak.”
He supported her with his arm around her, and she was surprisingly light. At the car, he helped her in.
Under the dome light, he looked her over.
“Deena, for once, you are definitely too thin.”
She nodded, “They left me.”
He checked her pulse, and her breathing. Other than exhaustion, she appeared to be okay.
“Next stop, food.”
She agreed. He drove on south, looking for a restaurant. In spite of her protests, with a comb through her lengthened blonde hair and a touch-up around her eyes, she looked presentable enough to go inside the pancake place.
He had to steady her, but her appetite was strong. They ordered heavy.
Deena poured on more syrup. “Why did they leave me like that?”
Luther shrugged. “Maybe this was the ‘south’ they steered you towards. You were in a trance when they drained out of you. Do you remember anything about it?”
She chewed and closed her eyes.
“Maybe.” She looked at him. “I think, right at the last, they were changing. There were different kinds. They weren’t all ‘assemblers’. The radio ones were all taken apart and converted into something new. They had their orders and they didn’t need to talk to the grove anymore.”
Luther finished off his omelet. “Do you have any idea what they converted into?”
She shook her head. “I’m not even sure of what I just told you. It’s not magical knowledge anymore. It’s just plain old defective human memory.”
“What’s eleven factorial?”
She blinked. “You asked me that before, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and you calculated it instantly.”
“Well, not this time. I don’t know.”
She frowned at her plate.
“Do you have a pocket knife?”
“Hand it over.”
The red Swiss Army knife was scarred from years of use, but it was well cared for. Deena pulled out a blade.
“Is this sharp?”
“It should be. Be careful.”
Nodding, she pulled it against her hand by her thumb.
“Ouch!” Blood started welling up from the shallow cut.
“Hey, don’t do that,” he complained, taking the knife back.
“I had to know.” She watched as a drop of blood dripped to the table.
“Take this.” He handed over his clean napkin. She pressed it against the cut. The blood clotted soon enough.
She sighed. Tears formed in pools under her eyes.
He put his hand on hers. “It’s okay.”
“I know. It’s just that...I’m ordinary again.”
“Hey, look on the bright side. You’ve had a weight-loss program that people would have paid thousands of dollars for. You’ve got blonde hair, for a while.
“And you’ve had an adventure like no one else.”
She nodded. “It also means I’ll have to start watching what I eat, or I’ll blimp up to my old size. The blonde hair will grow out my old brown and I’ll probably get stretch marks in my skin as I grow fat too fast.”
He paid the check and Deena insisted she walk without help. Arms held out for balance, she walked with more confidence each step.
“I think my muscles are okay. Maybe they just drained my energy reserves.”
At the car by the streetlights, she looked at herself in the window’s reflection.
“They used me. They made me into a walking factory, turned off my brain and steered me here. All for the transportation.”
Luther stared back down the road. “Do you have any idea what the new version nanobots were designed to do? I worry that we may have been part of something sinister.”
She shook her head. “It’s been confusing.”
There was something missing, some piece that he should be seeing.
But maybe they should get on down the road.
Out of the corner of Luther’s eye, he kept watch on her. She looked stern, staring ahead as they drove along the fault line lakes.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to get back to the 101.”
Should I bring up my second thoughts about Malibu?
Deena had insisted she come, because she had special abilities. Well, those were gone now. By rights, he should drop her off here, and leave her a few coins to buy her way back to Crescent City.
He could do a better job of hunting for Katy if he did it alone.
They approached a shopping center. He looked for a coin shop.
Deena was looking too.
“Luther, do you have some cash?”
He blinked. “Well, yes, some. Why?”
She pointed to the stores. “I want to do some shopping.”
“Yes. Right now! I’ve got Bryony’s figure. I’ve got Bryony’s hair. I’ve even got her giggle if I practice.
“Soon enough that will all go away. My hair will grow back brown. I don’t have the eating habits appropriate for this size, so I’ll be fighting weight.
“What I don’t have is Bryony’s clothes.”
She ran her fingers down the red plaid shirt. “This may look great on you, but for once, just once, I want to look like her!”
Deena looked him in the eye. “I don’t deserve it. I can’t pay you back. And probably, I’ll only get to wear them a few times before I gain too much weight.
“But please,” she asked, in a timid little voice, “buy me a couple of nice outfits, like Bryony always wore?”
He pulled into the parking lot.
“I’ll do it, but only if you agree to let me go on to Malibu alone. It’s too dangerous, and you no longer heal fast.”
Deena shook her head. “No.” As weak as she was, bruised mentally, her voice was firm.
“I’m only concerned for your safety.”
“We already made this decision.”
“Things have changed.”
“Not that much.”
He sighed, giving in. “Okay, but you have to let me drive all night, if necessary, to get to Malibu. We’ve had too many delays already.”
He escorted her inside. The food, and the excitement of shopping had really perked her up. Casually, he read the price tags on the things she was looking at.
Obviously, she had forgotten how limited his cash was.
But he had handled this problem before. Leaving Deena to her shopping, he walked over to the Food Court. Scanning the dozens of teens inhabiting the place, he decided on his proxy.
The guy in baggy pants was leaning up beside a video game.
“Hello. I have a business proposition for you.”
Eyes looked over silvered sunglasses. “And what would that be?”
Luther pulled out a Golden Eagle. “One ounce of gold coin.” The teen’s eyes locked onto it. He leaned away from the wall.
“I want you to walk over to that shop.” He pointed over to the gold and coin store. “Ask them what this is worth. They should say something like nine hundred dollars or better. Come back and I’ll sell you five of them for half price, in cash.”
The dude was fast with the math, “Where would I come up with that much cash?”
Luther shrugged. “You have friends. If not, I’ll make the deal with someone else.”
Cautiously, the guy took the coin and felt its weight. Then he said, “Let me see the others.”
Luther fished the other four out of his pocket and fanned them out in his palm. The guy exchanged the one Luther had offered for one of the others, grinned, and jogged over to the coin shop.
Deena waited patiently with her purchases at the counter.
Luther wouldn’t have skipped out on me.
She practiced her smile in the mirror. Bryony could melt any boy with a flash of her smile. Mine looks too serious.
There was something missing. Maybe when she changed clothes it would help. She still looked like a shrunken lumberjack in Luther’s shirt.
She spun around. Luther was leaning against a pillar, watching her.
“Ah, hi. I’m just waiting to check out.”
“Need some cash?”
Luther handed her a fat wad of bills and she purchased the clothes, the makeup and the overnight bag. As soon as the clerk removed the anti-theft tags, she packed the bag and headed for the restroom.
A shopping center restroom was hardly her first choice for a place to clean up, but it was all she had.
All the little bugs are gone. It’s just me now. I’ve got to do the best with what I’ve got.
If she had known that she would be grieving over the loss of invading aliens a few weeks ago, she would have known that she was going insane.
But they made me special. They re-made me.
And with Luther’s cash, the makeover was nearly complete.
She applied the eyeliner, trying to keep it subtle. With the new hair and with the new clothes, she really had no need for the distraction of too much makeup.
I could use a professional cut. Luther was a bit uneven with the scissors.
Finally, it was done. Matching gold shorts and blouse showed off her legs and face nicely. In the mirror, she could see nothing wrong—for once in her life.
But I don’t feel as special as I did, running at top speed, energized by the nanobots.
She collected her comb and makeup and put everything back in the bag. A few coins, change from Luther’s cash, caught her attention. She touched each one, but there was no instant recognition of the elements.
She picked up the penny, then scraped it against the stone wall. A few silvery scratches showed. Zinc.
No tingle of anticipation. She sighed, then stuck it in her waistband next to her skin. Just for luck.