Fiona knows how to talk to the police. Step one, of course, is to tell them she wasn’t in the room when it happened. Tell them she was upstairs in a room directly above her kitchen ceiling. Tell them she had no idea there was anything amiss until she walked downstairs to find her boyfriend on the kitchen floor, blood gushing out of his forehead and stretching out into long red lines between the metal tiles.
“So, you didn’t hear any noise?” the officer asks. “You didn’t hear anyone walk in or out the front door? No screams, no nothing?”
She shakes her head. She tells him she was in the upstairs bathroom, which has an overhead fan that must’ve drowned out any outside noise. Fiona almost says she was taking a shower, but she won’t get away with that. Her hair’s dry.
Step two — just as important — is to make it clear she doesn’t approve of any of this.
“I’m appalled that he would do such a thing,” Fiona says, when they ask if she knew he was planning to remove his chip. “It’s so… unpatriotic, you know? He must not have been thinking clearly. He must not’ve been…” She trails off, the suddenness of his death washing over her. Adam had been wide awake in the seconds before he died. Grimacing, but otherwise alright. He’d sat in the chair by the kitchen table, gripping the armrest tight as she cut into his temple. Fiona had used a surgical knife as well as an injected anesthetic beforehand, which didn’t help as much as it usually did.
“And you think he did this all by himself?” the officer asks. He’s not watching her face as he questions her; he’s looking at the app on his phone, the app that tells him what her own chip — registered Fiona Curad 481–51–6234 — picks up. If the chip notices any spikes in her heart rate, her blood pressure, what have you, it’ll give her away.
“I don’t know anyone else who could’ve helped him,” she says. “If he told me what he was planning, I would’ve turned him in.”
The officer looks up at her and nods. Her chip didn’t betray her, it seems.
“A couple more things,” he says. “Do you live alone?”
She gives a short, pained laugh. “I do now, I guess.”
“Are you affiliated with any political party?”
She gives the safest response. “No, I don’t really follow politics.”
“Alright. Do you think you have any idea as to what his motives were? Was it a typical suicide, or some sort of protest thing?”
“I have no idea. There were no signs or anything. His job was going fine, our relationship’s been going well, I thought. He just seemed completely normal. I’m sorry, I know that’s not helpful, but…”
She trails off again. Adam’s last words come back to her suddenly, hitting her hard, as if she’s hearing it again for the first time. He’d said, as her surgical knife dug deeper into his skin, “You’re lucky I’m a masochist.” Fiona had laughed at this, and when she laughed her hand trembled slightly, and apparently that was all it took. The metal of the knife hit the chip, and the chip went ahead and sent a thousand or so volts straight through his body.
She’d been wearing rubber gloves just in case this sort of thing happened. When the shock went through him, his head jerked forward, pushing the knife further in. She’d screamed at this point and let go of the handle, and could only watch as the convulsions sent him falling back with his chair, the knife sliding out of him and skidding across the floor. She only had a few moments to spare, so she opened up the door to the basement and threw her gloves down the stairs, then took all the other supplies and shoved them back into the cabinet below the sink. The police were at the door within a minute.
“One last question,” the officer says. “Are you aware that lying to the police about a matter such as this is, in and of itself, an offense punishable by up to five years in prison?”
Step three of talking to the police — and this one is the most important — is to stay polite. Never explicitly refuse them the benefit of the doubt.
“Of course,” Fiona says. She even smiles apologetically. “I’m sorry if I’m not speaking coherently right now, I’m still really shaken up, but I would never knowingly lie to an officer.”
“Good to know,” he says, and for the first time in the conversation, Fiona makes an effort to look at him, to really commit his appearance to memory. Officer Cohen. He’s younger than she thought he was a few seconds ago — looks only a few years out of high school. The way they keep lowering the prerequisites to be a cop, soon some of them will actually be high school students. He’s thin and has tired eyes, and he’s a good head taller than her. He scratches the stubble on his neck as he responds. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks,” she says, and that’s the end of it. Adam’s body is carried away, the mess of the floor is cleaned up, and that leaves Fiona alone in what is now only her house. She sits in the chair where Adam died and, finally alone, lets herself mourn.
Officer Sean Cohen doesn’t really feel like a police officer, and he’s still sort of amazed that people treat him like one. The worst part is giving tickets. When he was on highway patrol duty six months back, every time he had to fine people he kept expecting the driver to mouth off to him. If one of them had said ‘come on, man, you’re really going to give me a ticket?’ Sean probably would find himself apologizing and backing off.
But nobody did, of course, because everyone he fined knew exactly what they did and knew there was no lie they could say to exonerate themselves. If you drive over the speed limit, the chip records it. If you drive intoxicated, the chip records it. There’s little need for detectives anymore, because there’s nothing you can deduce that the chip won’t tell you.
Sean sits in the passenger seat as his partner drives them back to the precinct, taking a look at Fiona’s chip data and wondering what to do with it.
If citizens knew just how advanced chip technology has gotten, they’d never try to lie to the police again. The chip doesn’t just monitor heart-rate — it analyzes brain activity, blood pressure, and makes its own conclusions on the cop’s behalf. It can’t tell you exactly what someone’s thinking, but it can tell you what they’re feeling with 95% accuracy. And when Fiona said she had no idea what happened, the app on Sean’s phone read ‘LYING’ in big red letters.
But Sean hadn’t said anything. His partner had been the one examining the body while he talked to Fiona, so Sean’s the only one in the world who’s seen the proof of the woman’s lie. Most likely scenario: she and her boyfriend were planning on fleeing the country, and the plan went horribly wrong.
“We can just keep this as a suicide,” Sean says to his partner. “No need to start an investigation.”
“Seems pretty suspicious to me,” the partner says, but doesn’t push it further. He smiles slightly and keeps his eyes on the road. It’s a poor neighborhood, but there’s no graffiti on the buildings, no broken windows or any excessive litter on the ground.
Sean thinks back to Fiona, who’d been fighting back real tears and real tremors throughout their conversation. The grief was real, that’s for sure, and if she’d been born a couple years earlier, her chip probably wouldn’t be advanced enough to give her complicity away. Sean would’ve dismissed her as nothing more interesting than a regular victim.
But he doesn’t want to think too much about Fiona anymore, with her dead boyfriend, and the sheer amount of confidence she must’ve had to lie to a cop’s face, to a cop’s phone. She should be handcuffed in the back of the car right now, not sitting in her house.
No matter. While his partner drones on about his wife, Sean takes out the chip tracker on his police-issued phone and puts in the name of the guy from the hook-up app: Joey. He doesn’t know Joey’s last name. He knows Joey’s face, his body type, and his age. A last name was never listed on his profile.
When not many results come up, Sean types in ‘Joseph’, and there he is: the third name down shows a driver’s license of a young man with a crew cut and a five o’clock shadow. He’s smiling in the picture, even though you’re not supposed to do that for ID photos. Just the sight of his face sends a nervous, excited tingle in Sean’s arms, in his legs.
Joseph Accuri, that was his full name. At nineteen he was a little younger than Sean, but from their conversation last night he seemed older, so much more comfortable in his own skin. Chatting through the app last night, Joey said he’d been with several other guys before, and Sean asked him if he was worried his parents would find out. “They stopped monitoring my chip when I turned eighteen,” he messaged back. “They’re old fashioned like that.”
“Lucky,” Sean responded. He turned twenty-two last month, and despite moving away from home last year, he’s never been able to shake the feeling that his parents are watching his every move.
The chip, after all, told them everything. As a kid it would tell them when he was sleeping and when he was pretending to be. It would tell them if he was really sick or if he was faking it to get out of school. The chips tracked his movements every day and his parents would be able to tell exactly where he was and what he was doing at any point. If he ever dared to do drugs, the chip would detect it. If he ever told a lie, the chip would detect it. He remembered the first time he’d masturbated when he was eleven years old and didn’t quite understand what was going to happen. A classmate told him that when your thing got hard you were supposed to stroke it up and down until white stuff came out, and that’s exactly what Sean did, alone in his bedroom when he was supposed to be studying. The classmate hadn’t said anything about his heart rate, though. Sean’s pants were still down around his ankles and he was just starting to clean himself off with a napkin when his father burst through the door, yelling at the top of his lungs. WE DO NOT DO THAT IN THIS FAMILY.
“Cohen.” His partner snaps his fingers at him. “Cohen, come on.”
The car has pulled into the precinct parking lot, and his partner stands with one foot still in the car, looking down at him with annoyed concern. Sean nods and opens the passenger door.
Back in Fiona’s fourth-grade health class, they explained it like this: kids used to go missing all the time. There were all sorts of creeps out there who would snatch up children, take advantage of them, kill them, and get away with it. When they told them this a kid in her class piped up, “Why couldn’t they just track these guys down?”
“They couldn’t,” the teacher said.
“Why couldn’t they?”
“Because they didn’t have chips.”
Turns out, back then if anything happened to you, that was it. You were gone forever. Maybe they’d find you, but odds were you’d be dead by the time they did.
“Things got really bad,” the teacher explained. It got to the point where parents were afraid to let their kids play outside. Parents and teachers would always have to keep an eye on them, and kids wouldn’t get to go out and explore and be kids like they used to.
The solution was simple. People didn’t like it at first, but ‘progress is never recognized as progress at the time.’ At first the tracking chips were voluntary, and then it became national policy to insert them into babies’ heads at birth. This way there was no pain involved — no pain you’d remember, anyway — and the kids would be safe for the rest of their lives. Some people didn’t like this — ‘there’s always someone who doesn’t like something’ — but by the time Fiona was born, nobody thought twice.
In the beginning these chips had been big and clunky, about a penny long and half-a-penny wide. Now the chips are the size of a tiny little bead. If you hold one in your hand it can easily slip between your fingers. God forbid it lands in a carpet, it’ll be gone forever.
After the cops leave and her house is empty, Fiona takes the chair Adam died in and drags it by the cabinet under the sink. She steps on the seat and reaches all the way to the back of the top shelf to pick up the burner phone. The phone knows who she needs to call when she turns it on.
Carrie answers almost immediately. “How’d it go?”
“Bad,” she says. She almost laughs at her simplicity. “The chip electrocuted him. I had to hide everything. Cops think it was a suicide though; they don’t suspect me. Well, they didn’t arrest me or anything.”
“Oh, Fiona, I’m so sorry,” she says. After the socially appropriate pause, she continues: “Are you sure they don’t suspect you, though? The cops in this neighborhood aren’t exactly trustworthy.”
“I’m certain,” she says. “Don’t worry about it.”
Her relationship with Carrie goes like this: somebody needs to go off the grid, so they contact her, who contacts Fiona, who helps them remove the chip from their head. Usually it’s simple: she cuts it out quickly, and within two seconds she places the chip inside one of the black-market cube-sized containers — they call them hosts. These hosts can imitate the conditions of the human body, tricking the chip into thinking it’s still in the original person’s head. At the police station, where they monitor the chips, this procedure comes across as a standard blip in the system, something that apparently happens all the time. It took decades for the underground resistance to develop this technology.
The caveat is that the host can only imitate the conditions of the body at rest. To try to mimic the blood pressure and heart-rate changes that occur throughout the day is too advanced for them to handle yet. Which means that the moment the chip is taken out of someone, it’s time for them to get the hell out of the country as soon as possible. Either that or accept that their life here will be entirely underground. Hospitals, airports, trains, buses — you can’t get in them if you’re a citizen without a chip. You have to have a chip if you value your freedom.
After the phone call with Carrie, Fiona picks up her standard personal phone, and pauses. Now would be the time to notify Adam’s family of what happened. She’ll have to call his parents first — his mother will probably pick up the phone — and explain that their son killed himself trying to get his chip out.
They won’t believe her. They’ll start asking questions, and soon it’ll get to the point where they’ll wonder just how the hell this managed to happen without her knowing. How could she not be a willing accomplice? And of course, all the other fights they’ve had will come back to haunt her. Adam talked to his parents about everything, after all; they must know how often they’ve fought in the past few years. They must have an idea of why there hadn’t been a proposal yet, how Fiona wanted children and Adam didn’t, how Fiona would drink a little bit too much too early in the night and Adam would make some snide comment — ‘yeah you shouldn’t be a mom’ — and Fiona would snap at him, try to make him explain just what exactly he fucking meant by that, but Adam would close down and not want to talk about it. He never wanted to talk about anything.
She needs to make the phone call though. If she wants to seem innocent, she has to do what an innocent person would do and start calling the friends and family of the deceased.
She holds the phone in her hand but nothing happens. The phone doesn’t know who she wants to call.
Sean’s roommate and his friends are on VR in the living room when he gets home from work. He walks past them into the kitchen, grabs a six pack of beer from the fridge and heads to his room. As he plugs in his phone for an insta-charge, he downs one can. As he turns on the hook-up app, he starts sipping on another.
Joey is already online. “How are you?” he sends, almost immediately.
“Feeling good,” he messages back. It feels wrong once he sends it, but there’s nothing he can do about that.
Joey’s response is nearly immediate, no hesitation. “Still good for tonight?”
“Yeah, I can be there at nine.”
“Nice,” Joey says, and sends him his address. It’s the same address from the police files, just two blocks away. You can never trust people online — Sean keeps expecting he’ll walk into Joey’s apartment to find his own parents sitting on the couch, waiting for him with their arms crossed. But at the very least, he knows Joey’s telling the truth about his apartment. He lives where he says he lives. He feels comfortable giving away his address, whereas Sean would never dare give him his. Not yet, at least.
Sean checks the time, double-checks it. He’s got an hour before he’s expected to leave. He finishes his second beer and starts taking off his uniform. Before taking a shower he spends a few minutes pacing around his room in his underwear, sipping through the third can. He rubs his hands through his hair and mutters reassurances to himself.
This is what I want. He’s going to have sex with another guy, and it’s going to be totally fine, natural even, nothing he should be ashamed of. No one from work will know, his parents will never find out, and even if they do who cares?
More than anything he just needs someone to touch him. Nobody’s ever caressed his face or kissed him on the forehead or rested their head on his shoulder. When he sent a face pic of himself last night, Joey called him cute. When was the last time anyone said something like that to him?
When he goes to take a shower, he brings the fourth beer into the bathroom with him.
The sky outside is dark now, and Fiona still hasn’t called anyone. She places the phone down on the table and rests her head in her hands. She still sits in the chair where she killed Adam — how can she call her family and tell them she had nothing to do with it?
She considers her next-door neighbors, and whether the police will ever question them. They must’ve heard her and Adam fighting at times, and Fiona still remembers the mortifying moment when one of her neighbors, a small old lady who’d been born in pre-chip days, knocked on their front door in the middle of an argument and asked with genuine concern, “Is everything okay?”
Eventually someone’ll piece together Fiona’s place in this, and soon after they’ll wonder if the slip in the knife was truly an accident. Maybe Carrie will even question the same thing too. After all, Fiona performs these surgeries once or twice a week and has never once messed up until now, when she had a knife on the temple of a man she both loved and hated, who constantly belittled her role within the resistance but could still always make her laugh, who took his frustrations with his work out on her but always made up for it later. It was impossible to be mad at him for more than a day or two, and this morning she didn’t think she was mad at him.
Granted, he was leaving her forever, but she wasn’t mad. They’d both agreed it was the right thing to do. Adam was losing his job — it hadn’t been explicitly stated, but he’d seen the writing on the wall and knew he only had a month or so left before layoffs hit him. And they both knew this relationship was coming to an end. Fiona wanted kids and he didn’t. Adam wanted to leave this country and she didn’t. And after months of ridiculing her role as the resistance’s on-call underpaid surgeon — “they’re just using you, they’ll probably throw you under the bus the moment they find someone more qualified” — she couldn’t help but resent how he now wanted her to do the procedure on him. Fiona called Carrie and asked her to provide Adam safe passage out of the country, and Carrie had reluctantly agreed.
Fiona keeps staring at the phone on the table. She tells herself it’s understandable for someone in her position to not call straight away, for her to be too distraught to start planning for a funeral the night of her boyfriend’s death. Sure, he wasn’t technically her boyfriend at the time of his death — their relationship had been all but over the moment he decided he wanted to leave the country — but nobody needs to know that.
Sean drinks the rest of the beer before leaving, and as he makes the walk over to Joey’s apartment he resents how little the beer affects him. He expects to feel tipsy, at least a little buzzed if nothing else, but when he gets to the building to find Joey waiting by the entrance, as agreed, he still feels sober.
“Hey,” Joey says when Sean gets within talking distance. He looks exactly like his profile pic, except smaller somehow, less intimidating. He’s wearing a hoodie and sweatpants and he’s slouching a little bit, but otherwise there’s no deception here that Sean can pick up. Every question Sean asked him, every pic Joey sent, seems to have been honest.
“Hey,” Sean says. They don’t shake hands, that would be too formal for what this is. They don’t do anything, really; Joey smiles and then walks to the entrance to the apartment lobby, lets the scanner detect and identify his chip, and opens the door.
They don’t talk on the elevator ride up. Sean almost says something a couple of times, but stops himself. There’s no small talk he can make that won’t sound fake, forced. The only thing he wants to ask is what they’re going to do together, what is expected of Sean. He understands the basics, of course, but he wants a rundown of what exactly is going to happen. But he can’t talk about that, so they spend the elevator ride and the walk to Joey’s door in complete silence. Sean accidentally shoulders the elevator wall as he’s walking out, but doesn’t acknowledge it.
He follows Joey into his apartment, past a living area where two other guys are watching TV. Nobody says hi to Sean, nobody seems to notice him, but surely they still see him going into Joey’s room and Joey closing the door behind him.
“Those your roommates?” he asks as the door behind them.
“They know you’re gay?”
“Probably,” he says. “I mean if they haven’t figured it out by now…” He smiles at the floor and takes off his hoodie, revealing a plain white t-shirt underneath. Sean can make out the shape of his nipples showing through the fabric.
Sean takes off his own jacket, the zipper feeling unusually stiff as he pulls it down. The sleeves try to cling to his arms as he pulls the jacket off completely.
Joey takes a seat on his bed, the blankets and sheets all shoved up against the wall, and gestures for him to sit down next to him. Quietly, Sean does. And then they sit there, their knees touching, and Joey looks at him nervously, expectantly, so for the first time in his life Sean leans in for the kiss.
He thought making out would be intuitive, but it isn’t. He tries to move his lips the way people do in movies, but it feels clumsy and dry, embarrassing. He stops for a moment, blushes. “I’m sorry,” he says. The implications of this, the fact that even something as simple as this will always be weird and awkward, starts to dawn on him. “I’ve never done this before…”
But Joey doesn’t laugh at him or get annoyed. He’s still smiling, looking at Sean with kind, knowing eyes. This was a big part of why Sean chose him out of all the other profiles to talk to — not because he was good looking or his particular type — just because he seemed nice.
Joey kisses him back this time and after another few seconds Sean gets the hang of it. A rhythm’s established and things feel a little better. He could feel Joey’s tongue in his mouth, and that’s fine. The stubble around Joey’s mouth starts to chafe his lips a little, and that’s fine too.
This goes on for probably two or three minutes, but it feels longer. At no point does anyone burst through the door. After a while Sean’s aware of what he should do: lean him forward so that Joey’s with his back on the bed and Sean’s on top of him. This doesn’t happen though, because it feels like way too bold a move. Sean’s comfortable here, and if Joey wants to lean him back he’ll go along with it.
After a certain point Joey pulls away. “Should we… take off our shirts?”
When fantasizing about this moment Sean’s always assumed that no one would have to ask this question, that they’d be going at it furiously and they’d be taking each other’s clothes off without even having to speak. Instead, Joey has to suggest it out loud, and in utter silence they both take off their shirts and look at each other.
Joey’s clean-shaven under his shirt, and he’s got a little bit of that lower stomach fat that Sean himself is trying to lose. Below Joey’s belly button, his penis is stiff and pressing up under his sweatpants.
Sean’s own penis is soft, dormant. Again in his fantasies he’s always assumed he’d have a boner in an instant, that by the time they had their clothes off he’d have to concentrate to avoid coming prematurely. But no: even as they go back to making out, even as he feels up Joey and Joey feels him, he doesn’t grow an inch.
Joey starts kissing his neck, his shoulder. Sean considers doing the same to him but again it feels too bold of a move, even though he knows it isn’t. He starts thinking about what his dad would say if he could see him now. By this point, his dad probably wouldn’t even yell at him or guilt him; he’d probably just laugh, or sigh and shake his head at how pathetic this is. Not only are you a pervert; you’re a pervert with a limp dick. He can’t even sin correctly.
Joey pulls away and asks him with a shy, excited voice, “What do you want to do now?”
Sean can’t answer. Again, this isn’t how he’s pictured this. By this point he should be so heated up that he wouldn’t even have to explain what he wants and what he doesn’t want. They should be taking off each other’s clothes in a passionate frenzy, not quietly taking their own shirts off. There are a lot of things Sean thought he’d want to do, but right now asking for it — saying it out loud — seems impossible. An erection seems impossible for him right now, and they’re both painfully aware of it.
Sean looks away from Joey and, for the first time that night, takes a real look around the room. There’s a desk near the corner with a bunch of books and papers on it. What type of books, Sean can’t tell. What was on the papers, Sean can’t tell. The wall is covered with posters of movies Sean has never seen, of bands Sean isn’t familiar with.
Sean tries to answer Joey’s question with something assertive, but all he manages to say when he turns back around to Joey is, “Can we just… try again? Some other time?” Sean’s still got his pants and his shoes on, but feels completely naked as he asks.
For a moment he thinks Joey’s going to snap at him for wasting his time, (‘Seriously? Are you fucking kidding me?’) but he never does. He nods and says, “Yeah, no problem,” without a hint of anger, as if he doesn’t feel inconvenienced, or led on, or disappointed.
They put their shirts and jackets back on and Joey leads him out of the apartment. They make some small talk on the way out, none of which Sean can recall by the time he makes it to the elevator.
They say goodbye as the doors close and Sean, alone in the elevator, leans his head against the wall and grips the railing. He somehow makes it out of the building without bumping into anything.
The burner phone rings. It’s Carrie.
Fiona exhales when she recognizes the number. She still hasn’t called anyone about Adam’s death and now, for at least a minute or two, she won’t have to.
“Hello?” says Fiona.
“Hey,” says Carrie, and just from the tone Fiona knows this isn’t good. “We’ve got some bad news.”
Fiona waits for her to continue, rubbing her free hand against the edge of her table. Something with the cops, it has to be. The officers have picked up on her lying. Maybe they’ve left a bug in the home. Somehow they picked up on Fiona’s connection to Carrie and now everyone’ll be going to jail.
“We’re going to have to let you go,” Carrie says. “From our organization, I mean. We’ve found another surgeon — he’s an actual, licensed surgeon — so it’s not necessary for you to risk your life for us anymore.”
Fiona processes the news, and the way that Carrie says it so it sounds like this is a good thing, as if she’s lifting a weight off Fiona’s shoulders. “I don’t mind risking my life for this,” she says. “And if this surgeon is ever sick or unavailable, I’m willing to fill in for him. In fact, maybe I can train with him, y’know? He could help me so I don’t make this kind of mistake again, and then you won’t have to rely on just one person.”
Carrie sighs, and Fiona feels a grim sort of satisfaction at the sound. Carrie knows she won’t be able to lie to her now.
“I’m sorry, Fiona. There was a vote, and they’ve decided you’re too big of a liability. I mean, you killed a person. I know it was an accident and I don’t blame you, but it was in your house, and the cops have definitive proof you were in your home when it happened.”
“I told you, the cops don’t suspect me. If they did they wouldn’t have let me go.”
“There are plenty of reasons why they wouldn’t arrest you on the spot,” she says, and Fiona knows she’s right. “They’ve probably put you on a watchlist. There’s probably a guy at the station tracking your every move in real time. They’re waiting for you to feel a false sense of security, to think you’re safe enough to go back to whatever criminal activity they suspect you of doing.”
As she talks Fiona keeps opening her mouth and closing it when she can’t find anything to say. It doesn’t matter that it was a freak accident, it doesn’t matter what the cops did or that Adam is dead. The fact is that it happened, and now Fiona is contaminated. None of Carrie’s people could ever be around her again without smelling that cop odor all over her.
Carrie continues, “We’re not abandoning you, y’know. The deal stays open.”
“What deal?” Fiona says, because she needs to say something. She already knows what the deal is.
“We can still take your chip out and take you out of the country. We’re still willing to do that.”
“I don’t want that.”
Carrie snaps at her. “Why not? You’ve helped so many people get out to a better place, why wouldn’t you want to follow them? Do you enjoy living the way you do, where everything you do and feel can be observed by some undertrained asshole with a badge? You can start a new life. Go to someplace better. As long as you stay here you will never have any real freedom. Get out while you can.”
Fiona shakes her head as if Carrie can see her. She’s afraid if she tries to talk, she’ll cry, but she talks anyway and manages to get the words out. “Can you give me time to think it over?”
“You shouldn’t have to think this over.”
Her voice breaks completely: “Can you give me time?”
She sighs again, and as Fiona struggles to regain her composure, Carrie says with an exhausted tone: “If you decide to do it, call me by tomorrow at noon. Otherwise, throw that phone away and don’t call me again.”
Sean wanders through the city. He doesn’t know where he’s going; he just goes.
He wonders what Joey is thinking right now. Hopefully, Joey’s shrugged the whole encounter off and doesn’t take it personally. Surely Sean isn’t the first person to bail from a hook-up like this, but it must’ve stung a little to see him suddenly take off.
Maybe Joey’s seen his type, though. Guys who wuss out and leave. It’s honestly a little comforting to think he’s a type, one of the many guys in the world who don’t know what they want and are too afraid to find out. Was Sean even gay? He’s spent the past few years slowly accepting that he is, and in one night that sense of gradually encroaching certainty has vanished completely.
He walks past a group of drunk, careless twenty-somethings, talking aimlessly to each other with a familiarity Sean’s never had. He tries to imagine himself having sex with any of them and can’t. Even as they pass by each other they’re all too far away.
He ends up at a bus stop bench in a quiet part of town. There are no apartments here, only tiny houses all squeezed close together. Most of the lights are off, and the street itself is completely empty. The only sound is the crickets, the wind, and the car engines from the main road, far away.
Sean sits down and thinks back to what he’s just been through. He edits the scene in his mind, inserting little changes in places where he should’ve done something differently. In his head he doesn’t mess up the first kiss and he knows exactly what to do with his hands. He’d expected this night to be some kind of turning point, as if hooking up with some random guy on an app would give him clarity. Instead he’s out in the cold a long walk from home, and he has no idea who he is.
Fiona still hasn’t called Adam’s friends and family. Depending on the choice she makes, after all, she might not have to. All she has to do is leave the country. Throw her job, her friends and her home away in order to achieve some wonderful concept of freedom in some place she’s never been.
She realizes with a sudden clarity that she’s been sitting at her kitchen table for several hours now. The antique analog clock on the wall’s been ticking the whole time and she hasn’t registered the sound in hours. She hasn’t eaten or gone to the bathroom since two or three in the afternoon, and now the world outside the windows is cold and dark.
When she stands up it feels miraculous, like she hasn’t realized she could leave the chair until just now. She goes to the bathroom, then when she comes out she pours herself a glass of water. Somehow she isn’t hungry yet.
She finishes the glass of water and looks at her reflection in the window above the sink. The woman has bags under her eyes and her hair is a frazzled mess, but she still looks kind of good. Fiona’s favorite part about herself is the fact that she’s always looked young; this was a hassle in her early twenties when she was constantly mistaken for a minor, but nowadays it’s nice to look in the mirror and see a young woman’s face looking back at her. She’s always felt older than she looked, but right now her face is a good fit.
Something catches Fiona’s eye, something in the window.
She squints, looking past her own reflection, and sees a man sitting at the bus stop across the street. There won’t be a bus coming on that route until four in the morning.
She almost leans forward but stops herself — with the kitchen light on, the only way she’d be able to see him clearly is if she pressed her whole face against the window, and then, of course, she’ll have given herself away.
She turns off all the lights on the main floor and walks upstairs. She turns on the hallway light and her bedroom light, then walks back downstairs. She creeps through the dark, quiet kitchen and leans up against the window. She can see clearly into the street outside.
The cop from today. Officer Cohen.
He’s just sitting there outside her house in normal civilian clothes, all alone. Fiona stares at him for a long time, the analog clock ticking loudly above her. She expects him to have his phone out, to be studying her heart rate and observing her location, but instead he doesn’t seem to be looking at anything. Sometimes his mouth moves like he’s talking to someone, but there’s no one else there.
Officer Cohen’s dressed in regular jeans and a light jacket, the type of outfit you’d expect from someone hoping to stay unnoticed. Fiona keeps expecting him to look at her house, to maybe look up at her lit-up bedroom window for signs of movement, but he never does. He isn’t looking at anything, really. Now he’s staring at the ground, completely still.
It’s dark, but under the streetlights she feels like she can read his whole face, and he does not look like someone spying on another person. After a certain point he shakes his head, mutters something, looks down the road to his left and says something else, then goes back to looking at the ground.
Fiona doesn’t know how much time passes, but after a certain point when Officer Cohen still hasn’t moved, she goes to put on some sneakers and find herself a jacket. She opens her front door with the full understanding that this can be a trap; after all, she’s heard plenty of stories of the policemen going beyond the law, stories of sadistic officers electrocuting civilians from miles away. Apparently somewhere in the police precinct there’s a database that can connect to anyone’s chip and, in the case of terrorism or suspected terrorism, there’s an option to kill a civilian with the click of a button. So there was that one cop who got revenge on his ex-wife by electrocuting her while she was driving on the highway, hoping that the following car crash would misdirect any investigators. There was one officer who just went nuts and, after locking himself alone in the room somehow, just started electrocuting as many people as he could before people barged in. He’d gone by alphabetical order, and in five minutes nearly two hundred people had dropped dead like Adam had, randomly across the country, all with surnames starting with ‘A’. The deaths were so spread out that it was hard for anyone to find the connection at first.
Those are just rumors, though, that Carrie told her about. They’ve never been reported on any of the news channels Fiona watches. And besides, there’s nothing suspicious or illegal about her, a concerned citizen, checking in on a man who’s been sitting outside her house for god knows how long. If this is some sort of police trick, it’ll be good to get him to see her as more than just a suspect.
She steps outside and, hands in her jacket pockets, quietly approaches the distracted officer. “Are you alright?”
The man — although he’s barely a man, age-wise — startles at the sound of her, and for a moment he looks so panicked and confused that Fiona feels like the aggressor. He recognizes her face, then he looks at her house and frowns.
“Oh,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t realize this was… I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t scare you or anything.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She tries out a comforting smile, and after an awkward pause she gestures to the bus sign. “There’s not gonna be another bus here for like five hours, y’know.”
Cohen laughs shakily. “I know. I was just thinking.”
Fiona nods, analyzing his voice for any signs of dishonesty. The story itself sounds ridiculous — the idea that he’s just so happened to wander to the bus stop across from her house and sit there for a long time — but there’s no malice in his voice. Against her better judgement she says, “Want to go inside? I could you make some coffee or… something. You’ve got to be getting cold by now.”
“It’s fine,” he says. “The cold’s actually kind of nice.”
Fiona considers this, taking a look around the neighborhood as if she can see the cold in the air. It is kind of nice, honestly. The little pricks of pain from the wind on her face remind her that she’s wide awake, that this may very well be her last night standing outside in this neighborhood.
Cohen speaks up. “Can I ask you something?” When Fiona nods, he continues hesitantly, “Growing up, how strict were your parents? About your chip, I mean. How often did they check it?”
“I don’t know,” she says, although those are just filler words. She’s still trying to figure out if this is some sort of trick, if maybe he already knows the correct answer to the question and is waiting to see if she’ll lie to him. She decides to take the risk: “I don’t think they were that strict. Like when I was in high school and I stayed over a friend’s house for the night, they claimed they would check in on my chip to make sure I wouldn’t go someplace I wasn’t supposed to. But I don’t think they did. Like, sometimes we would be drinking beer, and I know that the chips can detect alcohol so they’d know I’d been drinking, but they never gave me any shit for that. I guess they figure I needed a little bit of freedom in my life, some space to do stupid things like all teenagers do. I guess as long as I got home in one piece they knew I could take care of myself…”
She stops at this point when she realizes he’s crying. Halfway through her answer he’d been swallowing a lot, and then he looked away from her, grimacing, and by the time she trails off he’s letting out little half-suppressed sobs. He covers his eyes with a hand and breaks down completely, as Fiona tries to figure out what to do.
“What did I say?” she says, but he’s in no state to answer. It looks like he’s trying so hard to compose himself but he can’t quite do it. Fiona sits down next to him and, taking a moment to appreciate the absurdity of the situation, puts a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, now,” she says, softly. She lets him rest his head on her shoulder and they sit there for a while as she caresses his hair, saying “it’s okay,” over and over again. She’s saying it to herself as much as to him.
Sean stops crying eventually, and lifts her head off Fiona’s shoulder, wiping his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says. He doesn’t know what came over him.
“It’s okay,” she says, and somehow she seems to mean it. They sit there on the bench for a while in silence, until Sean recovers to the point where he can talk to her normally.
“You don’t have to worry about anyone investigating you,” he says. Before she can respond he explains, “I made sure they put his death as a suicide, a clear-cut case.”
Fiona watches him as he talks, and takes a moment looking at her hands before answering. “That’s good.”
There’s not a lot of innocence in the way she says this. Sean almost leaves the topic alone, but something in her tone makes her think she wants more details, so he gives her some. “I knew you were lying. The chip gave you away immediately. But it definitely seemed like an accident and you looked like you were really upset, so I decided to let it slide. And again, I swear I didn’t realize this was your house.”
But Sean himself isn’t sure about that last part. On some level he must’ve known, right? The whole process of leaving Joey’s apartment felt like sleepwalking, so maybe he was acting on some subconscious desire to see Fiona again, to see this woman who seemed so uniquely sure of herself when he’d met her that morning.
Fiona doesn’t seem to care about that, though. “So, there’s no chance that the case might ever be reopened again, right?”
He almost tries to assure her there’s none, but he hesitates. “Well, it’s possible someone else might open it. My partner thought it warranted investigation, but I told him to let it go. He could re-open it if he wants to, but he probably won’t.” After another moment’s pause he adds: “And I suppose if any of your boyfriend’s family members find the event suspicious, they could request to have it investigated. Do you think there’s a chance that might happen?”
Fiona shook her head, grimacing. “It’s a possibility someone might suspect something, but I don’t think they’ll go that far. After all, if it’s not a suicide, what’s the most likely other outcome? He tried to flee the country. And for his family, there’s no greater shame than that.”
“Same in mine,” Sean says. He smiles at the idea of his parents finding out their son had fled, at the embarrassment they’d feel at having to explain themselves to their friends and family. A nice little stain on their records as parents for all the world to see.
They sit there a little longer. Some cars drive by, and somebody’s cat walks across the other sidewalk, but there are still no pedestrians. The lights in the other houses start going out, one at a time.
“Hypothetically speaking,” Fiona says, after a long bout of comfortable silence, “If you had the opportunity to leave here for good, would you?” She doesn’t have to specify what ‘here’ means.
It’s a dangerous question. Sean tries to imagine a life outside of this place, one where he’s not a cop, where he doesn’t have a guaranteed job waiting for him. And despite it all, his job isn’t bad. People give him respect when he walks past them, and in a crisis they always assume he knows what he’s doing. When he’s in a uniform he doesn’t look or feel like a lost child. And besides, he might want to see Joey again, once he figures out exactly how he feels about him.
“Probably not,” he says. “I don’t even know what I’d do someplace else.”
Fiona seems to consider his words, gazing at her house across the street. After another moment, Sean asks, “What about you? You think you’ll ever try to leave?”
Fiona doesn’t answer right away. They watch as a young woman jogs down the sidewalk across the street. The jogger’s short, barely five feet tall, and she’s running by herself with her headphones on in the middle of the night on a dark street that, apart from her and Sean, is completely empty. A long time ago, she wouldn’t be doing that. Back then it’d be too dangerous for a young woman to go jogging alone in the middle of the night, especially in a badly lit neighborhood like this. She could’ve been attacked or kidnapped or killed, and the perpetrator probably would’ve gotten away with it. But this woman jogs down the sidewalk and turns a corner without any trouble. She doesn’t seem scared at all.
“No,” Fiona says, sadly. “I’m not going anywhere.”