Ethan had never borne any ill will to the dog groomer. In fact, he had never paid him much attention at all. As Stacy stormed out of the house with her whining, dripping dog in tow, however, he felt like stealing a dog, even just to wash it, was an offense that could not go without consequence. “Jordan, you’re fired.”
Jordan turned his head back from Princess with a bemused look on his face. “I don’t work for you, and that’s not my name.”
“I’ll tell my mother to fire you. What’s your name?”
“I’ve told you my name enough times already, Little Ethan.” The nameless groomer rolled his eyes and returned to Princess.
Ethan seethed. This was not how the help was supposed to behave. He didn’t even plan to apologize? Did Jordan come a different day? It didn’t matter. Ethan could easily take his father over and point at this disgusting fat dog-napping servant. He pulled out his phone.
Ethan: Dad, the groomer kidnapped Blas de Lezo and gave him a bath. Stacy was so mad she ran away. I want him fired.
A pause. Ethan winced at the pain in his wrists and wrung his hands.
Dad: No can do, Kiddo. Those were orders from the top. You’ll have to take it up with your mother.
Ethan snarled. Why are you so hell-bent on wrecking my relationships, Mom!?
Ethan: Mom, please don’t wash my girlfriend’s dog without asking first.
The indicator for “Mom” slid down to Ethan’s message, but nothing else happened. Evidently this was not worth an immediate reply. Ethan seldom was.
Ethan ran back upstairs and flopped onto his bed, playing the events out in his head again and again. Don’t bite me. Why would she think he was going to bite her? Where did an idea like that come from? Stacy was cautious about safety standards, yes, but could that explain such an extreme reaction? What does she know?
Ethan thought through the days leading up. Assuming she did know, who could have told her? Mom and Dad wouldn’t tell anyone; of course Ethan didn’t tell her. Doctors? Stacy mentioned her mother was a nurse, but that’s why he and Dad went far away on separate days. Certainly no one could have tracked them into Pory County. Rice University Hospital in Stoker was four hours away, and there was no limit to the cover stories they could give for the regular blood transfusions from Dad that helped keep his symptoms at bay.
That left only one person that would know and could have motive, and no one could dispute she had been acting weirder than normal.
Ethan: This puts you in as much danger as it does me, Julia.
Ethan could feel the schadenfreude grin on Julia’s vile lips from across the city.
Julia: I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about, sir.
Ethan: You said something to Stacy.
Julia: I say lots of things to Stacy. Did we agree that I wouldn’t talk at all? That I would be a deaf mute for the rest of my life? I don’t remember that.
Ethan: We agreed we wouldn’t talk about this.
Julia: Do you have any idea how easy it is to intercept a text message? The erosion of privacy these days is just appalling, don’t you think? You have to be very careful what you say on the web.
Ethan: Meet me in the parking lot behind the school in thirty minutes.
Julia: Are you asking me out, Ethan? You used to be so much more charming about it.
Ethan ignored this jab. Julia thrived on drama. She would be there.
Princess was still getting her hair blow-dried when Ethan came to take her away. She yelped as he grabbed her by the collar. The groomer shrugged his thick shoulders and called over Duke, who wobbled forward, all folds of skin.
Half-wet, Princess shivered in the passenger seat as Ethan drove to school. He turned on the heat to high to help her warm up as the streetlights swept over them. He couldn’t understand Julia. Why was she not able to just live her own life instead of getting mixed up with everyone else? It was like she couldn’t control her destructive urges and everyone else had to plan around her meddling.
Princess growled and looked around the car. Ethan reached out and she shied away from his hand. He didn’t ask her what was wrong. He needed to make another visit to Rice University Hospital as soon as possible, and right now he needed to calm down. It got worse if he was agitated. He tried to imagine a cool day and a thick blanket covering him. Nothing to worry about in the world.
When Ethan and Princess arrived at the parking lot behind the school, Julia was nowhere to be found. Ethan ground his teeth. Had he misjudged her addiction to conflict? Could she really have passed this up? No. He knew where she would be. He wondered if he should just let her sit there all night. It was tempting, but he couldn’t. He felt his temperature rise; she knew he couldn’t.
Near the front of Romero High was a multi-story nautical center where students could practice in an olympic-size swimming pool with high-dive boards. To support the water theme and to discourage voyeurs, the glass windows were tinted green, and on nights when the swim club practiced, the harsh fluorescent would filter through and cast eerie wobbling emerald rectangles on the ground that would make any light shade of skin look green. In this light, Julia sat on a bench, her wolfhound Jack beside her. Her face was cast in shadow, but Ethan could see the way its green-rimmed silhouette changed when a smile curled her lips, as it did when his Tesla rolled to a stop.
Ethan stood outside his car and shouted. “Julia, what are you doing?”
Julia’s shadowy form put a hand up to one ear and shook her head. Ethan cursed under his breath and came to the edge of the green light. Julia’s green hands lay in her prim green lap on top of green legs where her green shorts ended. “Ethan,” she said. “Come closer. Don’t be afraid.”
“We can talk here.”
“Don’t be a child, Ethan. I want to see your face.”
Ethan felt as if he could feel bad smells leaking from his pores as Julia pushed his buttons. He thought again of the blanket. Soothing comfort against the cold. Green light couldn’t hurt him. No one saw somebody standing in these rectangles and called Safety Control. He stepped inside, and Julia’s silhouette smiled again.
“This is your true face, Ethan. I told Stacy the minimum to keep her safe. Stacy -“
Ethan couldn’t believe this. He wasn’t a monster that people needed protection from. Julia was the monster. He stepped forward and strained to whisper, “You want to keep people safe from me? Who was there to keep me safe from you?”
Julia’s smile vanished, and the two stared at each other for a long time. Finally, Julia whispered back. Ethan had to step forward to hear her. “No one, Ethan. I wish someone had. I was selfish and stupid, but even if I was too late, I told you the truth. Even if it wrecked things between us. It was the right thing to do. Stacy deserves that much. If you don’t trust me, ask Mr. Gobi. It took him months to convince me, but he’s right. The people you love deserve the truth.”
Ethan felt green tears forming at the corners of his eyes, and Princess whined and pressed against him. He put a hand on her coat as he struggled to keep from shouting. “You have no right to tell me anything. I trusted you once and you bit me. You took my future away from me. You are not the hero here.”
“Ethan,” Julia’s voice cracked now. Her glowing green dog began to moan his usual nonsense, and she pulled him close to her own legs. “This has nothing to do with me.”
“You’re damn right it has nothing to do with you. I want nothing to do with you.”
“That’s fine, Ethan.”
“No. I don’t want to see you again. Go away. Transfer to another school.”
Julia sat up straight. “Excuse me?”
“I’ll tell Stacy. I’ll tell everyone what you did to me.”
Julia shook her head. “They’ll test us both. You know what will happen.”
Ethan felt like he was on fire as he stared at the slack silhouette that was now Julia’s expression. At least he got rid of that fucking grin. “Maybe we’ll go join a colony in the woods. Different colonies, of course. Maybe I’ll turn myself in. You and I both could get very nice quarantine hotels until we degrade to the point that they can declare us fully zombie.”
“And kill us…” Julia shook with the words.
Ethan laughed a long, irregular cross between a mirthless chuckle and a mad cackle. “Legally speaking, they’ll just be disposing of our animated corpses.”
“Look at you, paying attention in Safety class, but why wait for us to degrade? There’s not much investigation when you’re disposing of an animated corpse. It’s not like we can show we’re still people after they’ve shot us in the head.” Julia turned to the side to look at her dog, and Ethan saw her green-outlined profile. “Besides, I can’t go to a hotel because they’d take Jack away.”
Ethan thought that was odd. It wasn’t like a zombie dog would do well in a colony, either. He was done talking anyway. “I don’t give a shit. Just get out of here.”
Julia shook her head. “Do whatever you want to me. Just don’t hurt anyone else. You’ll never forgive yourself. Goodbye, Ethan.”
Ethan stared at this perplexing figure bathed in green light. He wanted to scream at it, like by defeating Julia in debate he could bring everything back to normal. He could be the bright young star that everyone thought he was, his whole life ahead of him. He could just be a boy instead of wondering whether he needed to tell his girlfriend he was secretly a monster. You’re the monster, Julia. I’m not a monster. The thought played in his head again and again as he returned to his car and opened the windows so Princess wouldn’t growl at him. I’m not a monster, Princess.
He tried again to imagine the heavy blanket that covered his whole body. His face, his eyes, all hidden from the cold, cruel world outside. “You’re not a monster” said the blanket, but it felt thin, and the world was just getting colder.
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