Emma slouches back in the hard metal patio chair and hoists up her foot.
Dance, without comment, pulls off her shoe and starts rubbing her arches gently, pulling on her toes and making crackly noises come out of her bones. “Other one,” he says. “Please to step out of the stockings. No giving you rug burns.”
She does as he asks, then sits back down again and lets her head flop back over the top rail of the chair. “What happened to all the bee swarms?”
“Oh, Drin called old buddies he used to know. They came today.” He lifts one hand, makes a scoop of it. “Just shovel up bees into some wooden boxes, and that’s all kids. They told me pro guys don’t pick up swarms in this neighborhood, all those dead trees there, the bees got infected with some mite. They told me they would doctor these separate from their own hives. I don’t know what kind of mite.”
“Varoa mites, at a guess,” Emma says, staring into the distance. She blinks. “They carry some nasty bee viruses. You could have looked it up.”
“Got you,” Dance says, smiling, with her feet in his lap, working his hands up and down her calves and her shins. She just grunts.
“Your turn,” she says after awhile, making him turn in his chair. She doesn’t have the strength to pummel or squeeze or argue with the muscles in Dance’s shoulders. She just has a conversation with them, tries to persuade them that they can loosen up a bit. As he puts it, she lets them make their own decisions.
But they’re in the worst shape she’s ever encountered, tonight. Something is up. What is really odd is that he’s not talking. He’s buttoned up so tight. If it was work, he’d be furious, he’d be talking to her. He almost can’t help himself, if it’s work.
Usually if he was this tense, he’d be pacing the kitchen, waving his hands and banging the cutting board around, halfway shouting, and saying unpleasant things in Korean while he tries to explain to her–or to Drin–what’s driving him so crazy. He cares about things. He gets so frustrated. Or he’d be out on the street, running it off, trancing out on the movement, trying to let the anger unknot itself, trying to work out what to do. And it would be about work. There’s been nothing like this about Drin, not so far.
So buttoned up. “What are you not talking about, with Drin?” Emma says. “Have you talked to him?”
Dance is silent for quite a long time.
“It is about Drin, isn’t it?”
Dance gives a long, tired sigh. “Yes. I am… worried.”
Emma knows when to shut up. Just wait it out, said the sharp voice in her head, and it’s worried too.
“He dreams a lot,” Dance says. “Rough ones. But he– he says it’s better, now. My God, Emma, better.”
“I know. I hear him say it. I still can’t believe it.”
“He says it’s not so rough, over here. Better than before he came to stay with us.”
Emma sighs. She’d know about it whether or not they asked her to join them in Dance’s bedroom. When she gets up in the morning she finds coffee already made and Drin slumped at his computer, looking tired.
“Fighting… dreams about fighting… dreams about the boxes.”
“Yes,” says Emma. “Like mine. But in mine, the boxes have… those dead things in them.”
“I wake up and he’s having that, and I only woke up because I fight my own nightmare things. Crabs, lobsters, cyborgs with bug antenna, beetles with pincers–whatever those things are,” Dance says. His voice says he has no doubt they are totally and completely real. He just doesn’t want to find out where that place is.
Emma agrees it is a reasonable attitude. Some of the dead things in the boxes, in her nightmares, look exactly like what he’s described. They stink, in her dreams. Dreams aren’t supposed to have smells, but in their dreams, all three of them smell that reek of bug, and that’s how they know it’s going to be a really bad ride, every time.
She knows that because she’s sat up talking to Dance after some of his really bad ones, his first few months here in the States. He’s had some real doozies since Drin started staying over, too. It’s as if the other man’s sleep disturbances set off Dance.
They all learn a lot more when Drin is sitting there with both of them, asking questions, poking at it very gently, clearly looking for more information.
Oh, Drin knows exactly what it’s like to have a wobbly cellar door with horrors locked away under it. But it doesn’t stop him. Something that she’d never have got Dance to talk about a year ago, Drin can ease him into it, and then Emma can help. Dance can talk about more of it when both of them are there to talk him down from the terror in those dreams.
Part of this is that Drin is the sort of guy who wakes you up by touching your big toe, letting you thrash your way to consciousness without getting in your way.
Part of it is that he can get Dance to focus on one tiny part at a time, keep it from getting so bad. And such tiny watchmaker’s parts, indeed.
Dance is very precise, very careful, he makes measuring gestures when he tells you how these creatures, these things, are put together. He could draw pictures of them that would give other people nightmares.
It must be all horribly well-lit in his dreams. He calls them memories, though he can’t explain how. Most people could never describe, in such coolly precise detail, how the jointing on the little forehead antennae works, or how the short eyestalks have compound spider-like eyes on the ends. Or how there’s pointy knobs on the forward edge of the jointed arms, like the bumps on horseshoe crab carapaces, or sea-spider arms.
He even says, when they move, they are admirable to watch. They’re so incredible fast and graceful, they’re eerily beautiful in motion.
He says they used to be people. He says sometimes the bug-people remember that, and it hurts them. Sometimes they defy orders, refusing to do things that they wouldn’t have done when they were still human.
He says nobody asked them if they wanted to become monsters, before the faceless authorities in the helmets laid the screaming people down in those boxes.
In the bad ones, he says, nobody asked him, either.
What’s the odds of three strangers having conjoined nightmares of the same things– before they ever met?
Mostly her nightmares hit worst when she’s really tired and there hasn’t been time for the boys to massage any of the spasming out of her bloody stupid lower back. Or else it’s been too long since she got to sit with her boys. She needs it. Hugging Dance, warm, breathing, letting her lips form a smile, is the only way to dispel that one.
What’s the odds, she hears herself arguing angrily, of three strangers all having bizarrely atypical vital records, all having blank mental periods for one reason or another just before they took new jobs in the same new place, all having bad dreams that overlap to map the same ugly terrain, and all being wildly attracted to one another for no damn good reasons at all?
Look at him, the voice says, heavily reasonable. No good reason? C’mon. You’d take him to bed every chance you get, and love every minute of it. And let’s not get into Drin’s extremely persuasive charms. Last time I looked, neither of the boys lacked appreciation for being fucked senseless by a beautiful woman with a nice juicy bod who knows exactly what she wants, either. Not that you let them ask for it. Yet.
Which makes her mad. The sex is not the point, it’s a part of the syndrome.
What, says the voice without pity, you went lookin’ for love to fix what all’s broken in you? I don’t think so.
Emma feels her lips pressing tightly together into a line. Firmly, she tells the kvetcher in in her head, nobody was fucking like rabbits before Drin got here, either. What’s with that? He shows up and unlocks Dance’s chastity belt and huzzah?
The voice chuckles. Are you sure it was chastity belts you two were wearing, or just plain old fear?
Emma looks at Dance. No, she tells the stubborn old thing in her head. No, it wasn’t just fear.
Ha! says the skeptic, enjoying the argument. You know, Dance doesn’t have any memory gap. Just ask him!
Dance has gaps all over. He just doesn’t know it, she reminds the skeptic. He can’t see it.
But Drin certainly did see it. He asked, didn’t he, girl?
She pounces on it. You concede my point!
Your point? Drin made the point, and you couldn’t avoid it.
Oh yes, wasn’t that a horrible conversation, she and Drin standing there washing dishes, while Dance is getting dressed for some evening event.
“Have you talked to Dance about his box of pictures?” Drin asked her.
That nasty stab of fear in her gut, her eyes flashing up to meet his. Seeing the same fear, the very same fear, in the big man’s eyes.
If she had ever wondered about it, she knew then that Drin loves their musician as much as she does. That gave her the courage, somehow.
She nodded, and handed him a plate, and she told Drin, “He can’t wrap his head around it. You can tell him that man’s watch wasn’t sold after 1959, anywhere in the world, and he just laughs at what stick-in-the-muds his parents must have been, even back then, and he talks about how happy they look in the pictures. Not like real life. He remembers them arguing. His mom crying.”
She saw the flinch in Drin’s face. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, lots of arguing, I think. And the rest of the pictures?”
“You mean the ones that aren’t printed? The negatives?” she said, meeting his gaze as steadily as she could.
“The ones you left in there to keep them safe,” Drin said it quietly.
“Yes,” she agreed. “Those negatives. I didn’t add any of those in, you know. Those are all his, they came with him. The numbers are contiguous with his other negatives, if you check. He won’t look at the negatives. I’ve tried. He just blinks at them and sets them aside and goes back to talking about his music teacher. I don’t think he can see what’s in front of his nose. Not like we can.”
“I’ve noticed he goes back to talking about his teacher for anything about that era. It can be on TV, if they show pictures of people dressed like his family–you ask him, he talks about her.”
“I think she must have saved his sanity, whatever it was happened,” Emma told him.
Drin said the terrible thing, the thing she can’t bear. The thing she has never been able to think past.
Maybe, agrees the skeptic in her head, Dance’s music teacher, his Grandmother-teacher, never existed at all. She sounds a bit unreal, all right.
“Then who’s answering his emails?” Emma asked Drin, half-angry, all frightened.
And he told her. Scared her to death. “A secure server in a military node here on the West Coast. Heavy encryption, I’m not taking the time to hack something like that. Draws attention.”
Typical, says the voice in her head. Drop it on you like that, and then turn around as if nothing is wrong, kiss the kid for being so pretty in his new silk tux. And then kiss you, with a nice big cuddle and a hand on your fantastic ass.
That’s the most disconcerting part of that kvetcher–the distinctly masculine tone of the advisor who troubles her meetings with her co-workers, and disrupts her inner thoughts with rude remarks. She would not have described herself that way at all. She can’t think of herself that way. No woman on earth, after the conditioning of school and peers and relative’s cruel remarks and women’s magazines, would think of herself that way.
And it’s not always right, either. Most of the time, yes. Helpful as hell at warning her that the complicated sports-team competition logic in some group dynamic doesn’t match her natural instincts for a damn, and she better watch her step. Good guessing, maybe. But right? Not all the time. This is certainly not the voice of God telling her to siddown and shuddup. It’s much more like some raspy rude old boss who used to know what the hell he was doing, not that she’s run into many of those lately.
Much more likely you’re just borrowing bits of bad shit from each other, telling each other frilly stories. It’s so handy when your subconscious needs a spare part to make a point, says the skeptic in her head.
Dance is twisted around, looking at her with those alarmingly big, unblinking eyes, just waiting. Watching her think. Watching her battle down that unyielding inner crapmeister, so she can try her best to be civil. He knows about that too, God knows she’s let that one out to air often enough when she was careless. He speaks to it very politely. He says things like, “What’s your name? Can I talk to Emma now?” and smile.
“God, we are a collection, aren’t we?” Emma says.
“He says– he thinks– he knows where to find out why.” Dance is taking such shallow, squeezed breaths that he can’t even get out a whole sentence.
Emma checks several conflicting impulses, and she speaks quietly. She says, “Where is that?”
“Drin said something about his next trip, having to go check on some property he owns part of, I think it is a horse farm or something,” Dance says, turning away, and putting his chin back down on his chest, stretching his neck.
Emma waits him out. Her fingers resume moving on his shoulders, approaching the knots and retreating gently. His shoulders don’t get like this for no reason.
“I am afraid–” Dance draws in a deep breath.
Emma says, as briskly as puncturing a road-blister that happens to be at an awkward angle for him, “You’re afraid he won’t come back?”
“Yes. Or he won’t come back the same,” Dance says, in a rush.
“Why do you think that?” Emma asks, neutrally.
“He doesn’t want to go. It makes him afraid,” Dance says. “Some part is fighting what the other parts say to do.”
She leans her head in and rests her forehead on the nape of his neck. Dance knows what he’s talking about, stuff like that.
“I asked– I asked if I could go, too,” Dance says.
Emma lifts her head, blinking in surprise. Most of the time, Drin is the one thinking up crazy trips and places to visit. He’ll call them from some business trip, asking them to fly in and see something with him, and ride back with him after. He loves to have them come along, whenever they can. He’s always the first to invite them. Dance never asks things like that. He has never needed to.
“He said no,” Dance says, turning toward her in the chair. “He said he wants me here, with you, so both of us are safe.”
“Did you tell him that just makes you very afraid?”
Dance looks away.
“Oh my dear, you didn’t,” Emma says. “You started to cry? You big brave guy, you’ll stand up and do solos in front of heads of state, but when your partner says no, you can’t come–”
Dance’s eyes flash. “My fiancee,” he says then, with his head coming up stiffly. “Even if I’m such a– a–weeping willow boy.”
No wonder, if his neck has been as stiff as this–as stiff as it’s been all afternoon, Emma realizes. She gives a rough laugh. “My dear, he values your skills very highly indeed. He’s wanting to make sure he doesn’t leave either of us alone for too long. I feel horribly guilty that I’m keeping you here. It’s my fault, my dear. He asked me, you know, if we could all go together.”
Dance blinks, and looks at her.
She shrugs. “It’s the end of inventory that week, I simply can’t. I’m so sorry, Dance. He did ask about my schedule three weeks ago.”
The shoulders ease considerably under her touch.
“But what is he afraid of?” Emma asks then.
“He doesn’t know,” Dance says, staring past her shoulder. “I asked, ‘Why go? Why do this, if you have so much fear?’ He doesn’t know.”
He lifts one hand and scrubs his face with his knuckles, until she reaches down and pulls a tissue from her purse for him.
“He started to cry too. He said he loves willow trees. I said they have horrible invasive roots that crush plumbing. He said he’s not surprised, and he made me laugh. He always makes me laugh.”
“Oh my dear,” Emma says. “Oh, that big damnable lummox of a man, anyway.”
“Now I’ve made you cry too,” Dance says.
Emma manages a crooked smile. More tissues, dammit. “What did he say?”
“He said if there is that much fear, he has to find out why, before it–” Dance draws in a deeper breath, “–before it comes down and bites us all on the ass.”
Emma gives a choked noise, it isn’t really a laugh.
Famous last words, says the sardonic voice in her head, but she doesn’t say it.
Dance doesn’t need to hear it. Whatever fears are choking off his breath like that, he doesn’t need help at making it worse.
What Dance needs, Emma tells the sarcastic observer in her head, is reassurance.
And a damn good therapist, says the voice.
She ignores it in favor of wrapping her arms around her musician and kissing him very hard.