When at last I find my voice, I release all my fear and frustration and weariness.
“HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW HER? HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO READ YOUR MIND? YOU TOLD ME TO GO BE STREET AND I DID!”
Cindi takes a step back on the landing. She locks her line of sight on my face. Then she grins widely and throws herself forward in a shocking embrace that marries my back to the cinderblock wall.
“What are you doing?” I push her off me. “Are you high?”
Cindi, still grinning, bounces on the balls of her feet.
“You misinterpreted my intent,” she says in a mild, sort of nonchalant way. “I’m very glad you found this group. And, though I expected you to handle the situation with a bit more…sophistication, you got where we need you to be anyway.”
“I’m confused,” I say after opening and closing my mouth with dead words.
Cindi looks up and down the stairwells again and invites me to sit on the third step up from the landing. “E gave me the impression that you were knowledgeable on viral media. I assumed you’d recognize some of the country’s biggest viral victims.”
“I never said I was an expert,” I say with mounting defensiveness.
“No, I guess not. But you hit the jackpot anyway.”
I sigh and focus my eyes on a spot high above my head. Then, with carefully measured evenness, “Please either tell me what’s going on or let me go sleep.”
“Stipple is not easily controlled. I knew I couldn’t do anything to mash you two into the same circle, but I hoped you’d meet eventually. I thought it’d be at my place, but a happy accident intervened. You must have really impressed him to be allowed his protection.”
“Is he a- a viral victim, too?”
“Oh, no! He’s a trust fund baby. I’ve known him since college.”
“You aren’t serious.”
“Let me see,” she said dreamily, “you’ve been squatting in a vacant warehouse that has not once been approached by others, yes?” She’s not asking, truly, because she knows the answers. “Just before anyone gets desperate enough to steal, food magically arrives, right? And then, let’s see, oh! I know, he interrogated you to see if you were someone there to drag him back to his mansion, didn’t he?”
“He told you all that?”
Her laughs echoes off the close walls.
“Stipple used to be the handsome guy in the pictures in my apartment. Remember? He looked less severe and his skin was considerably lighter.”
“You and he? You’re- what, exactly?”
“We are partners, I suppose, if I must put a title on it. He comes from money. So do I, by way of adoption. In college, we dreamed of working in the public sector. I could keep my identity, as my family’s wealth isn’t in the same stratosphere as his. He had to devolve, or maybe evolve, depending how you look at it. We built the shelter. He still funds it.”
“And his parents are just okay with that?”
“His parents died when Stipple was fourteen. He is, as his father often told him, the last in their family line. If life were like the movies, of course, he would have become either a spy, a superhero, or a villain. Being too mundane for those options, his life offered business mogul, playboy, or philanthropist, which are still more than most ever dream.”
“So, what you’re saying is that I’ve still not been homeless?”
“I mean, yeah,” she says. “But that’s not the most vital or interesting bit.”
“Okay. What is?”
“Stipple and I have brought June-Bug into the circle. E agreed, obviously.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“Stipple, June-Bug, E, and I are all a part of the team now. They know who you really are.”
I place my overly heavy head in my hands and breathe methodically. After a while, a man in scrubs jostles down the stairs and vaults over us, apparently used to finding people in stairwells.
“We should go back in,” Cindi says.
I don’t move but I do say the first thing that comes to mind: “So Stipple’s can’t be 22, right?”
Cindi wraps her arms around my hunched body. “Well, technically, Stipple is 22. But Lucas, he’s 27. And if that’s the biggest concern you have, I guess this worked out pretty well!”
“No,” I say, “it’s not my biggest concern. It was just that one piece of truth my mind scrabbled to find, you know. What happens now?”
“Now we’re going back in and you will ask for a moment alone with June-Bug. When everyone reenters, you will announce that June-Bug’s decided to go home and that you support that decision. Stipple will throw an almighty fit and yell at you for interfering in things that you don’t understand. Even as he’s yelling, June-Bug will pick up the phone and call her father. Stipple will order everyone to say goodbye and then shepherd you all out of the hospital. Tonight, I’ll arrange for you and Stipple to meet in my apartment so we can talk strategy.”
“What about you? Where will you be in this?”
“I’ll stay with her until someone picks her up. And I’ll likely spearhead any media releases the family desires.”
Straightening to a stand, I stretch and inhale a lungful of stale, antiseptic air. My path is marked, I need only follow.
“Let’s do this, then.”