Midina’s interlude

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Eluisa goes on the hunt for her missing friend, Midina, who is in way over her head...

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Midina’s interlude

  1. 1. Midina’s Interlude:If it Makes You Happy<br />An Elven Heritage Legacy story<br />
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  5. 5. “Mmm…” Eluisa turned her face away from the morning sunlight shining through her eyelids, wondering why her pillow was so flat and hard. As she turned, her cheek came in contact with a hard, pointy thing. When she opened her eyes, her eyelashes brushed across the rough fabric cover of a book.<br />With a groan, she levered herself up onto her elbows, almost hitting the seat of the chair above her. She must have fallen asleep in the middle of her research the night before. Quickly, she checked the sheet of notes beneath her elbow, but the penciled in phrases were too smudged for her to read much.<br />As she sat up and faced the mid-morning sun, she heaved a great sigh. Still, no luck. She had spent a long time looking for Midina – longer than Viridia would ever know - through every avenue and device she could think of, but to no avail.<br />
  6. 6. She had tried going through ordinary channels at first, searching the internet for Midina’s name on property sales, employee lists, and even, when she got desperate enough, in people’s blogs. It made her cringe inside at first, to think that she was reading someone else’s diary, and that she was intruding into what they had to say about her friend, but she was determined to find Midina.<br />From the internet, she learned that Midina still owed the bills on the house that they had once shared, and that at least three of her former lovers had discovered that they weren’t the only object of her affection. In Midina’s place, maybe she would have considered running away from it all too.<br />“That doesn’t mean she couldn’t call to tell me she’s still alive,” Eluisa grumbled to herself as she sat in front of the computer, “If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t even be in Riverblossom. She would never have left Celion.”<br />
  7. 7. Eluisa had been looking for Midina since shortly after she had discovered that her friend was missing. Midi never had been one to return phone calls right away, so Eluisa hadn’t known until she went over to the house one day and let herself in, only to find it abandoned.<br />Since Achenar’s birthday party, however, finding Midina had mounted until it was almost an obsession: not only for Eluisa, but for her other two ex-housemates as well. Viridia and Chalimyra had children to take care of, and little time to wander scour the town with their friend, but they both trusted Eluisa to get the job done. After all, she had always come through for them in the past. <br />Eluisa wasn’t sure what was worse: her inability to find her friend or watching how blithely confident Viridia was that she could somehow work a miracle.<br />
  8. 8. Eventually, Eluisa had realized that no conventional method was going to allow her to find her wayward friend. For weeks, she had given up entirely, but then something Viridia had said to her caught in her mind.<br />“What about those powers you inherited from your wizard father? Just one look into a crystal ball and poof! Problem solved!”<br />Eluisa winced inwardly.“You should know by now that I can’t do that,” she began, “If ---”<br />“Have you tried?” Viridia asked.<br />
  9. 9. The ugly truth of the matter was, that no, she hadn’t. Despite her friends’ blithe confidence in her, Elusia hadn’t the foggiest idea of how magic was supposed to work – and apparently, neither did anyone else in Riverblossom Hills. <br />Every library, every used bookstore she could find downtown, carried very little in the way of real knowledge on the subject. The internet was even less forthcoming, describing card games, sleights of hand, and performing art. <br />As an elf – as a former resident of Elphemera, even – she knew better than that. Magic may have been a catch -all name for it, but the phenomenon was very real. She had seen it – smelled it – felt it in her bones. She had tried to locate the wizard who had cured Viridia, but she could no longer feel magic working in the area. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that the wizard had either retired, moved or died, and that since she couldn’t retrace her journey out into the mountains to find his house anyway, it was a moot point.<br />
  10. 10. But none of it could help her find Midina.<br />She dragged herself up into her chair and pressed her knuckles to her temples, surveying the mess spread out at her feet. Maps, notes, decaying old books in languages she would never understand, encyclopedias, pens, and even a screwdriver were strewn upon the bedroom floor of her little lakeside cottage. <br />How long had it been since she had left the house, other than to go to work? Not since she had last searched downtown… which had been right after Anariel’s birthday. She was lonely. Viridia had her children, and Chalimyra was working towards becoming the law besides raising her twins, and Eluisa wasn’t speaking much to them anymore anyways. She hated being the bearer of bad news. <br />“Why?” she asked the world in general, “Why couldn’t you have asked me for help, Midi? Where did this sudden pride come from? I could have helped you, you know.”<br />There was no reply from the silence surrounding her.<br />If only I knew…<br />
  11. 11. “Help! Anyone!”<br />It was cold and snowing when Midina felt the first contractions. No one answered her frantic cry: which was to be expected, because she lived alone. As the pain passed through her, she regretted that she had been too proud to accept Eluisa's offer to stay with her - at least then she wouldn't be alone.<br />
  12. 12. Nearly an hour later, Midina held a baby girl in her arms. Though the child's eyes were green like her mother's, what little hair she had was brown."Whew," Midina said to her newborn, "I'm glad we came through that all right."<br />As soon as she said it, she experienced a sickening lurch of fear. It was just the two of them here: It was up to her, and only her, to care for this baby - or to give her up.<br />"We'd better go inside," she told the child, "we wouldn't want you getting chilled.”<br />The baby reached out for her with tiny hands.<br />"You need a name, too," Midina continued, "a good name. You're lucky that your mother's got one ready for you, aren't you, little Lydia?"<br />
  13. 13. Brown hair. Midina sighed in resignation as she ran a finger over her baby’s fuzzy eyebrow. She hadn’t been sure of who the father was, but the brown hair was a dead giveaway.<br />If only it had been one of the townies. She shook her head. There was no use denying that Lydia was the daughter of Leod McGreggor. Midina had tactfully avoided her assorted lovers during the later stages of her pregnancy – after all, if they didn’t know they wouldn’t ask awkward questions – but she had not entirely been able to avoid Leod.<br />
  14. 14. Midina had always found herself drawn to men who acted as if they were in charge of the situation. Strong men made her feel safe… most of the time. She had thought that it would be a casual thing with Leod, that he was too obsessed with growing his business and accumulating wealth to notice if he wasn’t the only object of her affections.<br />So for months she had played along. <br />The problem came because Leod seemed to think that a little fun was as good as a promise to marry him. To move in with him and wash his laundry, cook his dinner, tend his orchard, have his kids while he worked nine to five.<br />He never seemed to understand that Midina wasn’t his possession. She wasn’t an item to be bought and paid for, and she was certainly no one’s servant. Or else why had she come to Riverblossom Hills in the first place?<br />
  15. 15. But she had to give him the chance, for Lydia’s sake. <br />“Hello, Leod,” she said, gathering her courage. He straightened up guiltily, and glanced quickly at his hand, but the newspaper had already disappeared. <br />“Yes?” he replied tersely.<br />“I… we… um… well, there’s something that you need to see,” Midina began, “You should come inside.”<br />“Listen, Sweetheart,” Leod snapped, “If this is how you’re going to be, after ignoring me for seven months and traipsing around town in the company of a bunch of dirty Townie romancers –”<br />Midina winced a little. “Please,” she replied, “I think this will explain things.”<br />
  16. 16. “I’m sorry I never called you, Leod,” Midina explained insincerely, “It’s only that being pregnant took up so much of my energy, even after I stopped working, that I didn’t feel like going out…”<br />“You were pregnant?” Leod asked with a scowl, his eyes traveling to the bare and distinctly not pregnant skin of Midina’s stomach. “And you had a baby out of wedlock?” he added in a disapproving growl.<br />Midina saw his eyes harden and decided it would be a good time to start on the damage control. “Her name is Lydia,” she replied, indicating where her daughter slept.<br />
  17. 17. "...And I think you're the father.”<br />"Think! What do you mean you think?!” He burst out venomously, and she paused, startled while he sneered, “Surely even a whore like you can keep track of how many men you’ve slept with! What makes you so certain that it’s my brat?”<br />"She has the same color hair as you...” Midina began, but flinched away reflexively as his left hand curled into a fist. <br />“You’re after my money, aren’t you?” he shouted, “Well, I have news for you – you and your brat won’t be getting a cent! I don’t care if it’s the Milkman’s son or the Mayor’s! You’re nothing but a two-timing harlot of a romancer, and you and your bastard can rot for all I care! That’s not my son!”<br />
  18. 18. “Daughter!” Midina snapped back, “She is a girl! And I don’t need a cent of yours, so if you ever want to know your daughter you should just shut up. You’re the one who was so anxious to have kids, I thought I’d do you a favor by letting you see the one you’ve got.”<br />Leod stepped back, unaccustomed to Midina’s rage. She’d always gone along with him, been a good little girl ready to do whatever he wanted – and now, suddenly, she was talking back to him. It must be the other men – all of Riverblossom Hills knew she’d been going downtown and hopping in photo booths with townies. Townies! His lip curled at the thought. And to think that he had once considered doing Midina the favor of marrying her – she could have been a proper, respectable playable, been provided for and allowed a place in the community.<br />
  19. 19. He grabbed her arm roughly and she jerked away. There was fear in her face, and he smiled when he saw it – she knew who was in charge. <br />“Never,” he snarled, “Talk back to me. I would have given you a place in this town, a position to be proud of, if you hadn’t slept with every man in the city. You’re a whore, and the whole town knows it, so don’t think you can pass that bastard off as mine. I will not have you ruining my career and stirring up scandal! You have no one to blame but yourself, and no one will care if you both starve to death on the streets. You’re lower than the townies, a disgusting, pointy-eared interloper, and you aren’t worth the scum that you eat.”<br />His low, venomous voice went on and on, but Midina had closed her eyes and her ears, his accusations narrowing to a wall of white noise. She braced herself for the inevitable blow, hearing all the years of insults heaped on her at once. <br />Whore, Harlot, Tramp, Strumpet, Minx, Slut – stupid girl! Do what you’re told! <br />The words rattled in her skull like the blows that had accompanied them. She had escaped from Celion, but the blow was still waiting to fall. Why was she standing there waiting for it?<br />
  20. 20. She shoved him away as hard as she could and stood, trembling.<br />“Get out of my house,” she said, voice shaking, “I don’t have to listen to this, and my daughter shouldn’t have to either. Get out of my house or I will call the cops.”<br />Leod stood stock-still in shock. Then, his nostrils flared and a sneer formed on his upper lip, “You’ll regret it,” he hissed, “one day when you’re starving in the gutter, you’ll think of me and the life you could have had. No one in town will hire you now, and there’s no way you can provide for a baby downtown. You may think you’re brave now, but I’m the only option left for you, and one day you’ll realize it.<br />“I hope you die a slow and painful death, starving as the flies eat the wanton flesh from your bones.”<br />With that, he turned and left, slamming the door behind him.<br />Midina looked down and saw that her hands were shaking.<br />
  21. 21. She clamped them together to still them, and went to check on the baby. Little Lydia had slept through it all, with an angelic smile on her face.<br />"Oh Lydia," Midina sighed, turning her back on the crib where her week-old daughter lay, "What am I going to do with you?“<br />A quick search of the fridge and the glass jar beneath the bed where she kept her money came up with a withered head of lettuce, an overripe tomato, half a jar of mustard and $87.<br />"I need a new job," Midina muttered to herself.Half an hour later, she shook the Nanny's hand and set out on foot to buy groceries and look for a job.<br />
  22. 22. Unfortunately, $87 bought her very little in groceries, and the grocery store, the gas station, and the tiny little 50's diner on third street had no openings. <br />Neither did the department stores, the gym, the spa, or any of the downtown restaurants. According to one supervisor, a person needed a birth certificate to apply for a job in movie rentals.<br />"We don't need to give jobs away to gypsies and illegal immigrants," she had said, looking critically at Midina's dress and the tips of her ears poking out from under her hair.Finally, she walked up to the counter at a run down bar, thinking that even if she couldn't find a job, she could find a drink. Maybe she could earn some money at karaoke.<br />
  23. 23. "I'll have a job if you have one, a drink if you don't," she told the bartender as she flopped down on the stool, "whatever you have that's cheap and on ice.“<br />"Hey, Rex," piped up the redheaded man sitting next to her, "Lemme buy the lady a drink. You like juice, sweetheart?“<br />"Thank you," she said, relieved to have found one island of kindness out in the unforgiving city. She didn't notice how the man was looking her up and down.<br />"You're not from around here, are you?" he asked conversationally as the bartender blended her drink.<br />
  24. 24. "No, just... looking for work," she said.<br />"Yeah, It's tough all around," he replied. "My friends call me Chase."<br />
  25. 25. "So how come a sweet thing like yourself is out here alone, with no boyfriend?“<br />She shrugged: she didn't feel like going into any of it with a complete stranger.<br />"Tell you what, with a body like that you should be a dancer. I know of a place that's holding auditions.<br />"Really," she replied noncommittally. A fuzziness was starting to come over the whole scene - whatever was in the bar's 'juice' it must be pretty strong.<br />They talked a little while longer and he bought her another drink. She couldn't tell if she was on her third or fourth drink when he offered to show her the way to the dance studio which was auditioning.<br />"It's about four blocks away," he told her.<br />
  26. 26. "All right," she replied fuzzily, "the worst I can do is not get the job.”<br />He laughed, and helped her up.<br />"They're auditioning singers too," he told her as they stumbled out the door, "you should try out."<br />
  27. 27. There wasn't a soul around in the barren dance club where Chase led her, but their karaoke machine was up and running.<br />"Just try it out," Chase urged her.<br />Midina tried - he clapped and cheered.<br />"Ooh, *hic* you make me feel so yoooung!And I think to myself.... what a wonderfullwoooorld....<br />Chase, are you sure that this is working right?”<br />"Of course - you're doing just great,” he replied.<br />
  28. 28. "Hit me baby one more time.... uh... got lost in the game...”<br />"That's it! Shake it, honey!”<br />"I think it's done," she said, peering at the words on the screen. She didn't notice Chase approach her from the side.<br />
  29. 29. Until he grabbed her and began to kiss her ferociously. She was so tipsy, she barely remembered how to kiss him back.<br />
  30. 30. Midina may have been drunk, but she had received enough kisses over her short life to be able to discriminate between them even so. There was no doubt in her mind that Chase was an excellent, if slightly aggressive, kisser.<br />
  31. 31. After a while, she pulled away, dazed.<br />"I have to leave..." she slurred.<br />
  32. 32. "No you don't," he replied, grabbing her around the waist and pulling her back to him.<br />
  33. 33. He walked her up a dingy flight of stairs. Pushing her down on a decrepit old couch, he proceeded to kiss her again, pinning her down under the weight of his body. His kisses grew heavier and more aggressive.<br />
  34. 34. Though her mind was telling her dimly that she needed to go home, for some reason she couldn’t quite remember, Midina found herself kissing him back.<br />
  35. 35. Midina woke up in a green-tinged darkness, and scummy feeling sheets.<br />She shivered and stretched - her stomach and legs ached, but not more than her head, which felt as if it had been run over by a handful of cement trucks.<br />She then realized that she not only wasn't wearing her clothes, but that she couldn't see them anywhere.<br />
  36. 36. "Hey, baby," a red-headed man greeted her, leaning over towards her.<br />"Who are you and where are my clothes?" she demanded, shoving him away.<br />"Funny," he snapped. "You weren't such a cold fish last night, sweetheart.“<br />There was a sinking feeling in the pit of Midina's stomach.<br />"Last night...?"<br />
  37. 37. "Yeah, baby. Last night you decided to come home with me after you'd had a few drinks. You also decided to take off that bohemian dress of yours. And then you told me I was the best kisser you'd ever known..."<br />
  38. 38. He reached out and grabbed her butt, pulling her close.<br />"I'll make a deal with you," he grinned lewdly, "I'll tell you where your clothes are after I get these ones off.”<br />She shoved him off and darted out of the bedroom door.<br />
  39. 39. He stood in the doorway and laughed at her searching for her dress, reminding her of what a "wonderful night," they'd had, in far more detail that she wanted. Her aching head was beginning to sift out it's own memories.<br />She felt stupid, and dirty, and completely used. It was obvious now, in the glaring light of neon flamingos and a killer hangover, what she'd been too drunk to realize then. The only place Chase had been helping her to was his bed.<br />
  40. 40. She sprinted out the door, with him yelling after but either too drunk or too lazy to chase her. <br />She scrubbed at her face, trying to wipe away the memory of his skin, thankful that she couldn't remember everything.<br />
  41. 41. It wasn't until she reached the wall that she realized she was stuck on a second floor balcony in an unfamiliar, and very dingy-looking, part of town.<br />It was extremely cold out, and the moon had long since set. There were no stars for her to tell the time - the streetlights and the smoggy air hid them from view - but it had to be either very late at night or very early in the morning.<br />"Hello, miss."<br />
  42. 42. She let out a little shriek and spun around.“No!” she shouted, “I should have said it last -”<br />The face she encountered was definitely not Chase's. For one thing, it was a delicately patterned grey color, with eyes like solidified marbles of the evening sky. For another, the face backed up politely when he saw that she was a fraction away from freaking out.<br />“I'm sorry,” she apologized, “You startled me.”<br />“I seem to do that to people,” he replied ruefully, “I shouldn't have snuck up on you like that.”<br />“It's not your fault...”<br />
  43. 43. The headlights of a passing car swept over them, and she shivered.<br />"Do you have a coat?" he asked. <br />She shook her head. "I think I left it...”<br />"Come in then, and I'll call you a cab," he offered casually. She shrank away. <br />"No - I don't have any money," she blurted out.<br />"No problem. I wouldn't want you to freeze to death.”<br />"I can't just... I can't pay you back,” she argued, “I wouldn't want...”<br />"Did I not just say that I'll call you a cab?”<br />
  44. 44. “I can walk....”<br />“You can't walk around on these streets alone at this time of night, especially without a coat." He crossed his arms. "If you'd rather I didn't spend any money on you, I'll walk you home. What street do you live on? I'm not asking to be creepy, I just want to know what direction we're going.“<br />“Hillcrest,” she finally admitted.<br />“On the south side?”<br />“No - Riverblossom Hills.”<br />
  45. 45. He whistled. "Don't tell me you walked all the way here.”<br />"There's a bus to Jefferson Park.”<br />"And then you walked all the way out here into the projects." He shook his head, "I'm not sure if you're crazy or just plain stupid. Even in daylight, it's not safe here - especially wearing some crazy getup like that.“<br />Along with her headache and the scummy feeling in her gut, Midina was in no mood for insults, no matter how casually they were offered.<br />“Listen, Pal-” she began<br />
  46. 46. “The name's Makir Shadeson,” the grey man corrected her, “I may not be your pal, but I'm trying to do you a favor.”<br />“Actually, you're being an a-”<br />“I don't particularly care whether you trust me or not, or whether or not you're offended. I'm going inside now to get you a coat. You can either come in with me or wait out here.”He turned on his heel and left her.<br />
  47. 47. After a few moments, he came back with a tan trench coat in tow. It was patched, and probably too big for him – definitely too big for Midina.<br />"Here," he said, handing it to her, "The cab's coming in a minute, so put it on before you freeze. There's enough to pay the cabbie in the pocket. You can use the fire escape if you'd rather not come inside.“<br />She took it silently. It was ugly, but heavy and warm, and it smelled of paint and coffee. The smell, and the careful way it had been patched, made her suddenly suspect that it was his only coat. <br />
  48. 48. Midina's eyes filled with tears. She tried to turn and stumbled against him.<br />“Careful there,” Makir said, catching her before she could fall in earnest. They shared a brief and awkward hug before he settled the trench coat on her shoulders.<br />“Don't come wandering back here,” he warned her as she climbed down the fire escape.<br />“Thank you,” she whispered into the night.<br />
  49. 49. Eluisa sighed, watching the waves smash against the beach behind her cottage. If only she hadn’t moved out, if only she had ignored Midina’s desire to be left alone, if only she had never left Elphemerea …<br />The regrets chased their tails around her brain in a dizzying spiral as she turned and began the long walk to the bus station. The only thing left that she could do was to search the old-fashioned way.<br />
  50. 50. At any other time, Eluisa would have enjoyed her wanderings downtown. It was a bustling city, full of people of every description, with businesses and public parks everywhere that the eye could see.<br />Now, however, she was impatient. No matter where she went or who she asked, the answer was always the same: no one had seen or heard of a blonde woman with pointy ears and green eyes, and no one had heard her name. There was no sign of Midina anywhere.<br />
  51. 51. “For the last time, I haven’t seen her!” the young man selling coffee shouted, “If you playables can’t keep track of yourselves, then you can either buy a latte or leave!”<br />“You don’t have to make a scene about it,” Eluisa snapped back in disgust, but the barista had stuffed his fingers in his ears and continued to rant.<br />“Why every Riverblossom Hick that ever found their way downtown has to ask me to find someone I’ll never know. ‘Have you seen a blonde woman in a gypsy outfit?’ ‘What should I do to find a date?’ ‘Do you know this lady?’ ‘Help me, my daughter’s rolled romance!’ ‘Can you point me towards Crypt ‘o Night Club?’ Do I look like a framming private detective to you? Do I look like a Psychologist? No! I don’t need to hear your problems – I’m a barista, not a bartender!”<br />
  52. 52. Most of those Eluisa met were more polite.<br />“I know a great many blondes, Mademoiselle, as well as a great number of other people. Perhaps I can help – if you first tell me precisely why you are searching for her.”<br />Eluisa grinned ruefully. “She’s my best friend,” she admitted, “She used to live in Riverblossom Hills, but…” for a moment she hesitated, unsure of how to explain, “She got into some trouble and left before I could help her.”<br />Gilbert raised a sympathetic and all too knowledgeable eyebrow. “It is hard for many people to live where their decisions are judged by their neighbors,” he observed. “Sometimes, people leave without realizing that their true friends don’t care if they are … untraditional or not.”<br />Despite herself, Eluisa smiled. If Midina had met this man, then he would have understood.<br />
  53. 53. “Do you have any idea of where she would have gone?” he asked her, “If she’s been to Bluewater Villiage, chances are that she’s been in or near my pastry shop, J’Adore. Or Malcolm’s stores: Malcolm meets everyone eventually.”<br />“She always loved downtown,” Eluisa replied, “Especially the parks – there was very little like them where she used to live, before we moved to Riverblossom Hills, I mean. I know she used to go downtown all the time without me, but I never heard her mention Bluewater Villiage.”<br />“That’s all right,” he said with a laugh, “The villiage is pretty much a tourist attraction, and an even smaller community than Riverblossom.”<br />
  54. 54. Eluisa couldn’t imagine a community smaller than Riverblossom Hills, but she was happy to find someone willing to help.<br />“If you can’t find her by checking her favorite places, I suggest that you try and retrace what she would have had to do to get a home and a job here.” He suggested, taking out a business card and handing it to her “I’ll keep my eyes open for her, and you can call me to check if I’ve found anything out. Sooner or later I hear about everything that happens in Bluewater, and I’ll tell some of my regulars to keep an eye and an ear out for any news too.”<br />
  55. 55. Eluisa remembered that Midina had raved about the dancing at Crypt o’ Night Club, which she gathered was an extremely popular night spot. However, the moment she arrived on the lot a cranky old woman with a heavy-looking black purse began to hassle her.<br />“Who do you think you are, you young hussy?” she screeched, “Parading about the streets in those gypsy clothes like some sort of Vagabond! In my day, girls wore the clothes we were given in the catalogue, not any of this newfangled custom content!”<br />
  56. 56. Midina ran inside to the deserted dance floor to avoid the crone’s heckling, then gritted her teeth and glared up at the ceiling.<br />“Stupid old bat,” she growled, “What did I ever do to her? She can keep her nasty, narrow minded judgments to herself – her and everyone else like her! If these self-righteous idiots minded their own business, Midina would still be at home in Riverblossom Hills!”<br />Eventually, she calmed herself and asked around as people slowly filtered in to the dance floor. But no one besides the red-headed bartender could remember ever seeing Midina, and that had been a long time ago. Eluisa left.<br />
  57. 57. The list of places that Eluisa remembered – or thought she remembered – Midina visiting was a short one, and it eventually dwindled down to just one. The De Jahvu art museum didn’t strike her as the type of place Midina would have frequented, especially when she was on a date, but perhaps she had visited it more recently. As far as Eluisa could see, it had two main points in its favor: it contained a large garden, and the museum itself was free.<br />
  58. 58. A quick check of the deserted display floor told her that there was a reason admission was free. No one, it seemed, wanted to pay to view the meager collection of art on display.<br />She found herself staring curiously at a large canvas covered in blobs and streaks of paint, trying to see if they resembled tree branches or the interior of a seashell, or something else entirely. As she squinted and turned her head, she found herself longing for the painted murals and woven tapestries of Elphemerea. Eventually she gave up, suspecting that she would never understand modern art.<br />
  59. 59. As she descended the stairs, a familiar face stopped her short. The elf’s red hair was bleached to orange in the tinted glare of the fluorescent lights, and she stood very straight, scanning the crowd. Her eyes searched, but her expression was lost and miserably unhappy.<br />Eluisa hesitated behind the pillar, wondering if she had been seen, and if she should just quietly leave. What could she say? She hadn’t seen her friend in person since their argument at Anariel’s birthday party. But she couldn’t just walk away, not after she had seen Viridia look like that.<br />“Viri?” she asked in astonishment as she emerged from behind the pillar, “What are you doing here?”<br />
  60. 60. Instantly, Viridia’s mouth compressed to a thin line. She folded her arms.<br />“The same thing you’re doing,” she replied stiffly, not looking at Eluisa. “I am allowed to look for Midi, aren’t I?”<br />Eluisa was too tired and too disappointed by now to be angry. She was also frustrated enough to clearly see that the prickliness in Viridia’s words was little more than a thin shell over her sadness. It would take very little for that shell to crack and the tears to flow.<br />“Yes, you are,” Eluisa replied heavily, “And I hope you’re having better luck than me. I was just surprised, because you hardly ever go downtown.”<br />
  61. 61. Viri uncrossed her arms and bit her lip. “I’ve been coming on the way back, every time after I give a lecture at Sim State – you know I got promoted right before Ana’s birthday – and I’ve been looking. I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t have a plan… I just have this feeling. Like I’ll open some door, turn some corner and she’ll just appear.”<br />Eluisa nodded. She knew the feeling all too well. Every step she had taken that day seemed to echo behind her with the possibility that she had been just a moment too early, or a moment too late.<br />
  62. 62. “Let’s go inside and get some coffee,” Eluisa replied after a long moment of silence stretched itself out between them, “I’ll tell you about what I’ve learned so far.”<br />Viridia nodded and followed her as Eluisa began to explain.<br />
  63. 63. “Look,” Eluisa said to Viridia as they entered, “There’s a playable. I’ll ask her if she knows anything.”<br />“Why a playable?” Viridia asked from behind her.<br />“So far, the only people I’ve met who have known anything, or been willing to help, are playables,” she explained. “You can ask the rest of the townies if you like, but I don’t know if they’ll be any help.”<br />
  64. 64. “Excuse me,” Eluisa began as she approached the unfamiliar woman, “But I’m looking for someone and -”<br />“You’re one of those elves, aren’t you?” the stranger interrupted.<br />Eluisa blinked, “Yes, but I don’t see how that -”<br />
  65. 65. “I don’t want to hear about it! You Elves are giving all of us honest playables a bad name!”<br />“Hold it, I’ve never even met you before, so how can you -”<br />“I’ve had enough! Not only am I left to rot on a tiny lot with seven screaming children, I’m expected to listen to your problems!”<br />“If you’d shut up for a second –”<br />“Go back where you came from!”<br />
  66. 66. Both elves quickly retreated from the coffee shop.<br />“No luck?” Eluisa asked her friend.<br />Viridia shook her head. “I heard,” she said simply, and Eluisa winced. “They really do hate us, don’t they?”<br />“Not all of them,” Eluisa hastened to assure her, “There aren’t actually many townies that care one way or another – all strangers are alike until you get to know them – but there are a few playables who resent us.”<br />“Is it because of the legacy?” Viridia asked in a small voice.<br />“Is it because of anything?” Eluisa countered, “If it’s not us, it’s playables turning up their noses at townies, townies making life miserable for NPCs, or someone going out of their way to be nasty to plantsims or the ailien born. There’s always going to be people who feel like they aren’t worth anything unless they make someone else worthless, Viri. Don’t let them bother you.”<br />
  67. 67. Nonetheless, after Viridia headed home, Eluisa walked off into the night disenheartened. Despite it’s outward beauty, the city kept stirring up ugly moments, like muck from the bottom of a stream. The bright skyline that had enticed Midina downtown could only be seen from the distance: this close, the lights of the skyscrapers blotted out the stars.<br />Eluisa now knew where she had to look, but the knowledge gave her no relief. Somewhere in the dark, grimy underbelly of the city, she had to find Midina: and help her if she could.<br />
  68. 68. Graffiti covered the outer walls of the trailer, but the structure itself seemed fairly solid, resting on its four pillars of bricks. Midina just hoped that there were no termites… or roaches.<br />It seemed like a long time ago that she had shared a house with Viridia, Eluisa and Chalimyra. Almost like those happy days had been a dream, and she had come straight from the dank, reeking stones of the city in Celion to the dirty, rusted trailer in the downtown of Sim City.<br />She had to keep reminding herself that anything was better than where she’d been.<br />
  69. 69. “See, Lydia?” she asked the silent baby in her arms, “I told you we could find a house. It even has some pretty hydrangea in the front, and there’s a fence in the back. Maybe someday when you’re old enough you can play in the yard…”<br />She began to choke on her own sorrows and fears as she suddenly imagined Lydia as a child running about in the scraggly yard before her, a bedraggled little waif in secondhand clothes, lying about her age to get the first job she could find, always trying to scrape ahead – NO. It would be better than that. She would make Lydia’s life better than that, no matter what she had to do to achieve it.<br />
  70. 70. The trailer’s interior was almost as bad as she feared. There was only one unbroken chair, and the walls were peeling away, especially around the refrigerator and microwave.<br />Midina looked around in dismay, noting the cracked glass in the windows, the missing corners of the linoleum tiles, and the unidentifiable stains in the carpet. She didn’t even want to look at the mattress. Lydia stared up at her with enormous eyes, and the sink dripped loudly in the silence.<br />
  71. 71. Midina made a perfunctory inspection of the kitchen, including the dripping sink and the encrustment of what she could only assume was macaroni which had taken over the microwave and glued the rotating plate in place. With a shudder, she opened the refrigerator.<br />It wasn’t as bad as she expected. While most of the food didn’t look fit to eat (did ketchup and mustard spoil?) the appliance itself was reasonably clean.<br />Thank the Green Ones that powdered baby formula doesn’t go bad.<br />
  72. 72. Lydia squirmed and kicked. Her tiny elbows jammed into Midina’s belly and made her feel queasy. It was evident to the infant’s mother that her baby girl didn’t like their new home any better than she did.<br />“I’m sorry, Liddie,” she said softly, “but for now, this is what we’ve got to work with. And if I don’t find a job, we won’t have even this.”<br />The baby screwed up her eyes and began to wail.<br />“I know, I know,” she replied distractedly as she mixed the formula, “I need a job. You’re going to have to be good for the nanny when I go looking. We have enough to pay the nanny to watch you for a few hours, at least.”<br />
  73. 73. The nausea kicked in just as she was attempting to leave the lot. It was odd, she felt, that she could be both nauseous and extremely hungry at the same time. Though the hunger was sharp and demanding, the nausea was climbing it’s tight and slimy way up from the pit of her stomach, using her ribs as a ladder.<br />As soon as she was sure she wasn’t going to puke right there on the sidewalk, she headed on down the street. As if on cue, Lydia cried in the trailer behind her.<br />For a second only, she paused. But despite her hesitation, she knew what her only option was. <br />
  74. 74. After a long, footsore afternoon, Midina had only one advertisement that she hadn’t crossed off of the newspaper’s help wanted ads. The diner was halfway across town from the trailer park, but she didn’t have the money for a cab.<br />She had to admit that the outside of the diner didn’t look promising, with it’s empty crates stacked next to the trashcan. Someone, in a misguided attempt at decorating, had used a section of broken concrete culvert to plant a few scraggly stands of blue flowers. <br />As dingy as the outside was, she could see through the windows that the interior was warm, well lit, and reasonably clean. <br />
  75. 75. “Hello dear, what can I getcha?” The woman who Midina sincerely hoped was the manager descended on her the moment she walked in the door. It was no wonder that she jumped at a new customer – the tables were deserted except for a few men that Midina supposed must be regulars. It didn’t look like there was much business here, but they had advertised.<br />“Actually, I’m here to fill out a job application,” she replied. “Are you the manager?”<br />
  76. 76. “Owner, actually,” the woman replied, looking Midina over critically. “So you’d like to work in the restaurant business.”<br />Midina nodded. “Yes,” adding silently, yes, I’d like to work. <br />“Ever worked in a restaurant before?”<br />“Not in the city,” Midina replied truthfully. She’d worked in a tavern in Elphemerea before she came to Riverblossom Hills, but it didn’t seem the time for her to explain all that. Besides, how different could it be?<br />“Can you cook? Have you ever been a bartender?”<br />Now that, Midi could answer. “Yes, I’ve been a bartender before several times. I have five cooking points, but I’ve been a waitress too.”<br />
  77. 77. “Perfect.” The owner began to smile again. “We need a day waitress, because my other’s in school until three, and a night bartender. Yelena’s not old enough to tend bar.”<br />“I can do that,” Midina replied.<br />“Speaking of which,” the owner added without seeming to glance at the teen juggling plastic tumblers behind the counter, “Yelena, get away from the bar.”<br />“Aaaw,” she said, but she racked up the cups anyway.<br />“So you think you can serve drinks and keep the teen waitress out of the bar?” The owner asked with a smile.<br />“I can at least try,” Midina replied.<br />“Good, then. I’m Riana, and don’t bother trying to call me by my last name.”<br />“Midina Fairmaiden.”<br />“Can you start tomorrow?”<br />
  78. 78. Three o’ clock in the afternoon found Eluisa in a seedy bar in the very shadiest part of town she could find. It was a real hole in the wall: back in Elphemerea, she would have expected to find bandits and professional catburglars leaning on the counter. As it was, she expected pickpockets and a generally tough crowd.<br />Of course, since it was three in the afternoon on a Monday – weeks after she had first began to search the city’s dark and grimy underbelly – the bar was for the most part deserted, except for a false redhead in a tank top, who straightened up from wiping the bar down with a sponge and gave her an odd look.<br />
  79. 79. It’s the dress, she realized as she walked up to him.She sighed. For once, was it too much to ask that no one make a comment about her appearance?<br />“Hi,” she said, pasting on a smile that she didn’t really feel, “I know it’s a strange question to ask, but I’m looking for someone who I think came to your bar recently. You didn’t happen to notice a blonde woman with elf ears in a gypsy outfit lately, did you?”<br />
  80. 80. “Listen, I know you’re not from around here,” the redhead explained, “but at my bar we don’t ask any questions – and we don’t tell just anyone who comes looking who we have and haven’t seen, or where they went. It’s not always nice people who are looking for my customers.”<br />“She’s my best friend!” Eluisa protested.<br />“At least you’re a better liar than most – you aren’t going to try and pass as her sister.”<br />“But it’s true!”<br />
  81. 81. “Listen honey. Sometimes you’ve gotta let people go. Everyone has to live their lives, and make their own mistakes. People who come here want to leave something behind, and I honor their wishes.” <br />“But she was here,” Eluisa replied, “or you wouldn’t be telling me not to ask. You would have just said you hadn’t seen her.”<br />He froze for a moment, sputtering, “No, I -”<br />“That’s all right,” Eluisa said cheerily, with a real smile this time, “You haven’t done any harm. I’m someone that’s helped her to leave things behind before.”<br />
  82. 82. A warm glow that had nothing to do with the dingy bar spread over her heart as she turned away from the scowling bartender.<br />She was here. Suddenly, everywhere she looked seemed full of her friend’s presence. Eluisa could see Midina sitting at every barstool, standing in every corner, playing pool with the black-haired elf at the second table…<br />She shook her head. Sure enough, though the man was wearing modern clothes, he was an elf for sure. Without stopping to wonder why she was so certain that he was an elf – his shaggy hair covered the tips of his ears just enough that she shouldn’t have been able to notice them at a glance – she approached him.<br />
  83. 83. “What’s the news in Celion?” she asked. He dropped his pool cue and turned around, hands on his hips.<br />“If you’re so anxious to know, why don’t you go back?” he shot back.<br />She stopped in her tracks for a moment. “Okay, buddy,” she replied, “I’ve been taking a lot of crap from a lot of townies this week, and I don’t need any more from a fellow elf.”<br />
  84. 84. He rolled his eyes, “In case you haven’t noticed, being an elf isn’t the world’s best thing downtown. And besides, the news from any part of Elphemerea is pretty bad – or was about eight months ago.”<br />“More or less what it was when I left,” she replied, “I’ll play a game of pool with you if you’ll tell me what’s been going on there the past few years.”<br />He shrugged. “Fair enough. But I warn you, it’s gone from bad to worse.” <br />
  85. 85. As they played pool, he told her that while the wars in Elphemerea had come to an uneasy truce for the time, allowing more of the elves to escape through the Ellipsis, the very same gate between worlds that Eluisa, Midina, Chalimyra and Viridia had used to leave Celion all those years ago, it seemed that there was a new enemy rising. No one knew precisely what the new danger was, but the forces of darkness were gathering for an organized attack. The borderland raiders were growing bolder as the discord between the elves, the humans and the Melali grew greater, and the demonic Gozmur had been sighted with increasing frequency.<br />In addition to this, mages of all races and descriptions had been vanishing mysteriously, from the most common of magicians to the great scholars of the magical isle of Amanta. The great council was unable to discover the reason – indeed, one of their own members was missing. <br />
  86. 86. At that information, Eluisa raised her eyebrows. Growing up in the mountain country of Antediluvia, she had always assumed that the Great Council, a collection of Mages, Nobles and Sages from all of the known lands, was invincible… when it’s members could be persuaded to agree on a course of action.<br />“Things are worse there than when I left,” she stated gravely.<br />Her dark-haired companion looked up from where he was lining up his shot. “Glad you got out when you did?” he asked mildly. Over the past half hour he had lost much of his prickliness, and in fact seemed glad of her company.<br />“You could say that,” she replied. “But how did you get here? No new elves have arrived in Riverblossom Hills in years.”<br />
  87. 87. “That’s because the Elipsis no longer opens on Riverblossom Hills,” he explained, “It opens right up into Downtown, and has for a few years now. Since there’s no longer any orderly immigration list on the other side, most of us had to sneak across.”<br />Eluisa remembered very well the night when she herself had escaped through the gate. “That’s nothing new,” she replied, “We all had to sneak across in the beginning, and no one expected an immigration list to last for long.”<br />“Don’t expect the gate to last very long, either,” he replied, “I came through when I did because the word was that the gate was going to dissappear in a few years’ time. Meanwhile, it would be there one day and gone the next – or gone for months.”<br />
  88. 88. “Do you mean…”<br />“That’s right,” he said, “very soon, we will be disconnected forever from Elphemerea.”<br />There was a long moment of silence. Eluisa thanked the elf as he left the bar, and stood there, thinking. It wasn’t so much that she missed Elphemerea – certainly not after the almost thirteen years that had passed since she arrived in Riverblossom Hills – but she got the nagging feeling that the news was important. There was discord between Elphemerea’s inhabitants, and there was animosity present throughout the City and Riverblossom Hills.<br />For a second she thought she’d discovered something, but then the moment was lost.<br />
  89. 89. “Hey! Yeah, you with the blue dress. Rex is grumbling that you came in here asking about a blonde with elf ears.” <br />Eluisa jumped as the other woman approached her. Her moment of insight fled, but she had more pressing concerns now. “Yes, do you know her?” she asked, barely daring to hope.<br />“You’re sure you’re not looking for a redhead?” The other woman asked.<br />“No…” Eluisa frowned as she realized that the question seemed incomplete. “Why…”<br />“Oh, don’t mind my little joke,” the woman laughed, “A sense of humor does wonders around here, but I doubt you’ll be staying that long. Anyhow, you’ve got Rex all worked up about how he’s not an address book or a private detective, and that a bartender shouldn’t reveal people’s troubles just because someone asked him. Anyhow, I happen to have no such reservations – no reservations at all, really – and I’ll tell you everything I know.” She paused.<br />
  90. 90. “Well?” Eluisa prompted after the pause stretched to a hiatus. “Aren’t you going to tell me?”<br />“Me?” the redhead replied in mock surprise, “Why dear, I have only two words of advice to give you: never do for free what you can get someone to pay you for, and always learn what something is worth to someone before you sell it to them.”<br />“That has absolutely nothing to do with… and why are you giving me free advice then?”<br />The redhead waved her finger at Eluisa, “Slow down, you might hurt yourself,” she scolded lightly, “Let me explain this to you step by step: you give me money. I tell you what I know about your ‘friend.’”<br />
  91. 91. Eluisa quickly fished some money out of her pocket.<br />“Oh my! Forty-two!” the redhead exclaimed in faked gratitude, “Thank you so much for paying me less than I could have won in one round of poker!”<br />“If I decide your information was worth even that, I might pay you more.” Eluisa replied through gritted teeth, “No guarantees, though.”<br />The redhead nodded and leaned in close. “Your friend,” she whispered, “Was at this bar.”<br />“Funnily enough, I’d already figured that out,” Eluisa replied sarcastically, “If that’s all -”<br />“Oh no,” the redhead said quickly, “She was at this bar alone. Well, she came alone, but a few drinks later, she left with this redheaded guy.”<br />Eluisa’s head instantly turned towards the bartender, who was scowling and polishing a glass so hard that it seemed about to break.<br />
  92. 92. The redhead laughed. “No, not him,” she explained in a patronizing voice, “Rex over there has an overdeveloped sense of chivalry. She left with another guy. His name is Chase.”<br />She stopped, expectantly.<br />“The name’s not worth anything to me unless I know whether or not she’s still with him,” Eluisa snapped, “Tell me everything you know and then I might pay you. If you can convince me that you’re not making it all up.”<br />The redhead pouted. “All right,” she grumbled, “She’s not with Chase – well, Chase isn’t ever with anyone, he just picks up girls. And all of us know better than to get picked up by him, so he took home your dumb blonde. And on account of the fact that I don’t go within a hundred yards of him without a full can of pepper spray, I don’t know anything further about him.”<br />
  93. 93. The redhead paused, and Eluisa turned away as if to leave. <br />“But I do know what happened to her!” the redhead blurted out.<br />Eluisa turned around and raised an eybrow. “Oh?”<br />“There’s a little diner by the trailer park,” the redhead explained, “Half the time the owner kicks me out for distracting her patrons, but she’s not above hiring a pretty waitress to bring in the men. Your blonde friend got a job there busing tables.”<br />“What’s the address?” Eluisa asked, trying not to sound excited.<br />“How much is the address?” The redhead replied.<br />“Five.”<br />“Fifteen.”<br />“Five or nothing – phonebooks are free.”<br />
  94. 94. “Seven twenty-eight South Bend,” the redhead replied after pretending to think about it. “Owner’s name is Riana, and for that you owe me another buck.”<br />“I’ll think about it.”<br />“Plus the forty for the valuable information.”<br />“We never agreed on a price,” Eluisa replied tightly.<br />“Think of this as a discount. I should have made you pay sixty, but hey, this is a noble cause. And if you don’t pay, the one piece of information that you really need to know is just going to walk away with me.”<br />“How do I know you’re not lying?” Eluisa said through gritted teeth, “For all I know, I’ll just spend three hours looking for South Bend, only to find that there’s never been a street named South Bend in the city.”<br />“Ask anyone you like how to get to South Bend,” the redhead replied, “I’ll wait.”<br />
  95. 95. Eluisa stalked over to the bar and it’s scowling bartender, ignoring the redhead who proceeded to set up a game of pool. <br />“Look – Rex – I’m not going to ask about a person, but could you give me directions to South Bend road? Specifically, Seven twenty-eight South Bend.”<br />The bartender snorted. “Walk out the front doors and turn left,” he said, “keep going south until you hit the water tower. Turn left again and you should be there.”<br />“Thank you.” She turned and left. <br />
  96. 96. “Here’s twenty-five,” Eluisa told the redhead, “And before you say a word about it, remember that I know you’ve been trying to rip me off this whole time. Have you never heard of a good deed?”<br />The redhead’s nostrils flared. “It isn’t a good deed to me unless I get something out of it. And for that, I won’t say a word more, not if you pay me a hundred.”<br />“Good,” Eluisa replied, “Then you can start now.” She turned and left.<br />The redhead stood, feigning indignation for a moment. As soon as Eluisa slammed the door behind her, she smiled. <br />“Sucker.”<br />
  97. 97. Three weeks after getting the job, Midina began to feel as if she were slowly getting back on her feet. Waitressing didn’t pay much, but she soon discovered that it was easy to get substantial tips from the restaurant’s male patrons, especially when she tended the bar.<br />Not too long ago, she would have spent those tips immediately on the next thing that caught her eye, but now she saved them meticulously. After all, she had Lydia to think of now. She needed all her money for diapers, baby formula, and to pay the babysitter. There was very little left over from selling the furniture at the house, but she thought it would see them though the next few weeks’ exorbitant rent on their tiny trailer. <br />
  98. 98. Midina had discovered that she could save a few dollars a day by walking twelve blocks from the trailer to the bus stop in Sim Center North, passing through Downtown’s park district on the way. The bus she now caught didn’t take her as close to the restaurant either, but what was another thirteen blocks if she only had to pay for one bus instead of two?<br />She didn’t mind walking: she had always walked everywhere back in Celion, and was still a little afraid of cars and other large machines. It still allowed her to see the beauty of downtown, the places that she had loved before she moved and discovered the city’s dark, grimy underbelly.<br />
  99. 99. As she returned home from her shift, Midina wasn’t really watching her surroundings until she caught sight of a somewhat familiar figure. Thinking that it might be one of her old lovers, she stopped and looked more closely. The man’s skin appeared to be grey.<br />She felt her stomach squirm as she remembered the last place she’d seen him. Should she walk on by as if she hadn’t noticed? Should she stop and say hello?<br />
  100. 100. No. She should just keep walking. She continued on past the fountain, then made the mistake of glancing at him again, remembering the smell of paint and coffee. It probably had been his only coat.<br />Midina rushed forward and did the stupidest thing that she could imagine, given the circumstances. <br />“Hi – I… um… I have your coat.” She could have kicked herself. He probably didn’t even remember her. Did she really want him to remember her? The things he must think about her from the way that they met…<br />
  101. 101. For a few seconds, his face was a mask of confusion. His dark blue eyes stared up at her, and he wore a slight frown. It was obvious that she’d startled him, and that he didn’t recognize her.<br />Midina’s own mind was whirling. She had never, in all the years since she arrived in Riverblossom Heights, seen another sim with grey skin. Humans only came in a range of peach and brown, as did the elves. So who was he, and where did he come from?<br />
  102. 102. “Wait,” he said suddenly, his face clearing, “Aren’t you the girl I met on the balcony that night…?”<br />“Yeah,” Midina replied, quickly, embarassed. There was an awkward silence between them for a moment until she added, “I don’t actually have your coat with me, so…”<br />“But you just can’t wait to return it?” he asked, smiling.<br />
  103. 103. “It’s just that I don’t want… Well, I assumed it was a loan,” she replied sheepishly.<br />“You needed it more than I did,” Makir replied seriously.<br />She bit her lip, and then decided that she ought to say something.“Thank you.”<br />He smiled. “Sit down.”<br />
  104. 104. “Oh… um, no, thanks,” she replied, quickly, “I was coming home from work, the nanny will wonder why I’m not there to pick up my daughter.” She shut her mouth with a snap. What did this man need to know about her personal life, about Lydia?<br />But he was smiling again, and she didn’t think anyone with those eyes would condemn her for being a single mother, or for living week by week in order to feed her child.For that matter, she didn’t think he was about to judge her at all.<br />
  105. 105. “It’s a long way to Riverblossom Hills,” he replied quietly.<br />“We moved,” was all Midina could think of to say.<br />“In that case, welcome to Downtown,” he paused for a moment, and she stupidly butted in. <br />“See, there’s jobs here, and none in Riverblossom, and so…”<br />“Since you mentioned that you have one, congratulations,” he said, “I hope it’s the one you wanted.”<br />That surprised a snorting laugh out of her, “I never wanted to work in a bar again, but it’s pretty surprising what a person will do when they have two mouths to feed.”<br />
  106. 106. Instantly, she cringed. Of all the stupid things – tell him more about yourself, why don’t you?<br />“Oh,” she stammered, suddenly afraid again to look at him, ashamed, “I… well, thank you again… I didn’t mean…. look, I’ve got to go.”<br />He looked up at her with deep eyes as she fought to form a coherent sentence, and if she’d been paying attention she would have noticed that he looked neither amused nor judgmental.<br />“You’ve done nothing wrong,” he told her softly.<br />
  107. 107. “H-how do you know that?” she demanded, curling her hands up into fists, “For all you know, I could be a thief, a murderer, a – a – a…”<br />By now she was sobbing so hard that she couldn’t form a sentence. She didn’t know why she was crying, or why she was standing in the middle of the park with all the townies staring at her, and she couldn’t stand it anymore, being watched, so she turned and tried to leave.<br />
  108. 108. “Wait,” he said behind her, and despite herself she turned around.<br />“Why do you insist on thinking the best of me, when you’ve only ever met me once?” she demanded. She was pleased to hear her sobs had shrank to a slight quaver in her voice. Distantly, she knew she was being irrational, but was it rational for her to trust him at all? She should have gone straight home, pretended that she hadn’t seen him…<br />“Maybe I believe in Karma,” he replied gravely.<br />“That doing nice things for others causes them to be nice to you?” she asked with a shaky laugh, “You really are the optimist, aren’t you?”<br />
  109. 109. “No, that doing what is right is its own inevitable reward,” he replied, “It’s not so much about changing people as it is about making sure that you never hurt them, intentionally or not.”<br />“Strange definition of Karma. You should go into philosophy, be one of those great men of peace or something like that,” she said, recovering her composure as she backed further away from him. He didn’t try to follow. “Except, in practice, you can’t give everything away – you can’t live dependent on people’s charity, and you’d better believe that there’s always going to be those people who don’t have anything. In this case you’ve lost a cab fare, and you’ll only get your jacket back if you can meet me here tomorrow, so I don’t see your philosophy doing you any good.” She tried a smile, and found that it didn’t seem to fit on her face. “Nice meeting you and all, and I hope your moral crusade or whatever it is goes well, so goodbye.”<br />And she left – no, she ran – out of the park.<br />
  110. 110. Out of sight, she heaved a huge sigh.<br />Stupid, stupid, stupid… why? You could have walked away…<br />It seemed as if lately, no matter what she did, she made the wrong choice. Over and over again, she’d made everything worse – If she hadn’t had a drink in that seedy bar, if she hadn’t moved from Riverblossom Hills, if only she’d saved some money before she got pregnant with Lydia, and had been able to pay the bills… Only someone who didn’t understand real life could look at the past few days and try to tell her she’d done nothing wrong... No matter how much she wanted to believe it, wanting it didn’t make it true.<br />
  111. 111. “I hope that you grow up smarter than your Mom,” she told Lydia once the Nanny had left, “She doesn’t know what she should do anymore.”<br />The baby waved her hands.<br />“I mean, I made a lot of dumb mistakes. Probably the first one was quitting my job entirely, instead of taking maternity leave when you were born. And telling your father about you was probably the worst mistake of all, though going into that bar comes pretty close.”<br />Lydia just looked at her with wide green eyes.<br />“Not that you understand any of this yet,” Midina continued with a rueful laugh, “But I think that I’ve just arranged to meet a very nice man and give him his coat back.”<br />
  112. 112. He was waiting for her when she passed through the park the next day.<br />“So,” he said as she walked up to the chess table where he was sitting, “This time, do you actually have my coat?”<br />She shook her finger at him. “I wouldn’t have asked you to meet me here if I didn’t have it.”<br />“With you?”<br />“Well, yes, that was the point…” there was a long moment of silence before she handed it to him. “It probably smells like the diner,” she apologized, “It was hanging in the kitchen all day, and it’s not as if we don’t fry everything that will hold still long enough… I washed it before that, anyway, so it’s clean. And you had a tube of paint in the inner pocket, so I put it back in afterwards. Do you paint or something? Not that it’s any of my business,” she added quickly.<br />
  113. 113. “Actually, I do,” he replied, getting up. “When I’m not lending cab fare to people who don’t believe in Karma, that is.”<br />She winced, “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to be such a witch. Just things started coming out of my mouth that I never…” she trailed off as she saw that he was smiling, and blushed furiously. “Oh. That was a joke,” she said lamely.<br />“If you intended to apologize, I’ll accept,” he replied, except this time she could tell from his tone that he was still joking.<br />“Well, it was pretty nasty of me to say,” she continued, contritely, “But if you’re willing to let it go…”<br />
  114. 114. “You’re unusually cheerful today,” Yelena said the next day as she slumped against the bar.<br />Midina thought about it, and realized that yes, she was happy. It felt good to have done something, no matter how small, to repay someone who had helped her. And it seemed as if she had nowhere to go but up: after all, she had a home, however small, and a job.<br />“I guess it’s been a good day,” Midina replied after a moment, “I got some good tips, and yesterday I returned a loan to a friend.<br />“What kind of friend?” Yelena asked, “A regular friend or a special friend?”<br />Though she was used to Yelena’s teasing by now, Midina blushed.<br />
  115. 115. “Well, you’re unusually cheerless today,” Midina replied, “School can’t have been that bad.” <br />Yelena shrugged, “It was just one of those days. You know high school: all of the drama just had to happen on the same day.”<br />Midina nodded sagely, though she did not, in fact, know high school at all.<br />“Anyhow, I got stuck giving advice to a friend today,” Yelena continued, “There’s this guy she likes, but they’re just friends right now. Actually, they’re really good friends, and she doesn’t want to risk that by telling him she has a crush on him. So I told her she has really only two choices: she can tell him and take either the awkwardness or the dating, or she can keep it inside and slowly pull away from him anyhow. I don’t know what she should do, really, but he’s a great guy, and she doesn’t realize how lucky she is to have him in her life either way. There aren’t a lot of them.”<br />
  116. 116. She’s lucky to have him in her life, either way. Midina smiled sadly to herself as she rocked Lydia. She had gotten home so late the night before that she’d only had the energy to feed the baby a bottle and pay the Nanny. Was she lucky too? Well, maybe not now. But she was lucky to be here, lucky to have had friends like Eluisa and Chalimyra, and lucky that she’d decided to keep Lydia. She couldn’t imagine life without her now.<br />There was another reason why she was lucky, she realized with a start. There had been one great guy in her life that she didn’t have to feel guilty near. Makir Shadeson had helped her out when she needed it most, and then quietly disappeared. Was he a friend? She didn’t know – she hadn’t known him for long – yet there was something…<br />
  117. 117. As she approached the park the next day, Midina’s anxiety mounted. She still couldn’t believe she was doing this… In any case, what were the chances that he was going to be there? He didn’t have any reason to be, at least that she knew of. It was just chance that she’d met him before, and going through the park didn’t mean that she was actually looking for him. She was allowed to pass through the park, wasn’t she? Because he probably wasn’t there, and she could walk on past…<br />Too late.<br />“Oh, uh… What are you doing here?” she blurted out as she came face to face with him. Stupid, she chided herself, why don’t you just ask if he comes here often? Then you’ll get all of the pointless starting lines out of the way.<br />
  118. 118. “Well, I was playing chess,” he replied, “I do that most days when I come here.”<br />“You mean when you’re not being accosted by strangers who want to return your coat?” She asked. He laughed. <br />“Believe it or not, I don’t give just everyone the coat off of my back,” he answered with a straight face, “There’s karma, and then there’s having the necessities of life yourself.”<br />“Life as an artist doesn’t pay too well, huh?”<br />“I’ve saved enough to move out of the projects, if that’s what you’re asking,” he replied. “Admittedly, North bank isn’t Hillcrest, but it’s still much better than I’m used to. But no, painting doesn’t pay the bills. That’s why I have a day job.”<br />“Really? I have a day and sometimes night job at the diner. What’s yours?”<br />
  119. 119. “Actually, I have a whole string of day jobs,” he admitted, “I’m a gas station attendant in the evenings, a golf caddy on weekends, and sometimes a waiter in between.”<br />“So what you really have is a pair of sometimes jobs and a night job. Don’t you get tired?”<br />He shrugged, “Before I moved to the city, day and night didn’t matter much to me,” he replied, “I get tired, sure, but when you’ve lived underground, the position of the sun doesn’t determine when you feel like sleeping.”<br />
  120. 120. Midina nodded. Then she yawned. Her lack of sleep the night before was catching up to her.<br />“Sorry,” she excused herself, “Lydia – that’s my daughter – woke up at three o’clock this morning after I worked the late shift yesterday. She’s got a pretty bad case of diaper rash too, so I had to take care of that… Well, you get the picture.”<br />He nodded, and she didn’t detect the slight frown that formed on his face.<br />“Well,” he said stiffly after a moment, “I’m sure she’s a lovely baby.”<br />“Oh, she is,” Midina hastened to assure him, “She was so good when we moved, I hardly ever heard a peep out of her. Even the Nanny says she’s no trouble, and she’s been clicking her tongue over me often enough. It’s just hard when they’re sick and there’s no one but you to take care of them.”<br />He nodded. “If that’s the case, you should get home,” he told her quietly.<br />
  121. 121. “Yeah, you’re right,” she replied, “but first… well, I wanted to thank you again for the coat. For the loan of your coat, I mean. And for not thinking I was crazy when you ran into me again – not that you should have, or anything, but I wasn’t sure if you’d recognize me, considering the circumstances. Are you coming here tomorrow?”<br />“I – I hadn’t even begun to think about it,” he hesitated.<br />She clasped her hands together, and made an effort to slow down. “What I meant was that I have to go for now,” she clarified, “before we start discussing Karma again. Maybe we could continue the discussion tomorrow?” she finished, trying not to sound too eager.<br />He nodded. “I’d like that,” he said simply.<br />
  122. 122. They never did reach a conclusion about Karma. But over the next few weeks, their stolen minutes and sometimes hours of conversation became the brightest part of Midina’s day. They talked very little of the past, but had a lot in common in the present, such as a love of the city parks, and an ability to keep up an easy banter the whole time. Makir, she discovered, was a great observer of people, especially the golfers he caddied for, and his tales of their rivalries, half-baked strategies, and improbable blunders left her giggling so hard she could barely catch her breath. He was also the only person she felt entirely comfortable talking about her life at home with – her frustration when Lydia caught a cold or the nanny left a metal fork in the microwave again, how cold it could still get at night, and the way the paint on the walls peeled away to the baseboards when she tried to scrub away the grime.<br />For his part, Makir just listened without offering any comments, unless she asked him about something. He never asked about Lydia’s father, or Midina’s past. It was an escape that she found refreshing.<br />A month later, she worked up the nerve to bring him to see her trailer.<br />
  123. 123. “Hello, Lydia,” Makir picked up the infant carefully, listening to Midina’s hunt through the fridge as she tried to find something for them to eat. He saw immediately that the baby had her mother’s green eyes, though it was too early to tell where she might have gotten the rest of her features. She was very quiet in his hands, and he realized that she must be used to strange people, like the Nanny, picking her up.<br />“She’s beautiful,” he said. Without turning around, he could feel Midina’s look of pride.<br />“She’s a handful,” the single mother warned.<br />
  124. 124. “Just how much trouble can she be?” he asked.<br />“You don’t know the half of it,” she replied, even as she began to make silly faces, “When she’s hungry or tired or needs her diaper changed… but of course she’s a perfect angel for you.”<br />He laughed, “What can I say? I have a way with people.”<br />“Babies, maybe. People? No.”<br />“I finally got you to bring me here to see her,” he replied, only half joking, “It only took me a month, so I must have a way with you, too.”<br />“You keep telling yourself that.”<br />
  125. 125. Over their late lunch, which Midina insisted on calling “sandwiches,” even though they hadn’t had enough bread to make a full sandwich for each of them, both of them talked about the past. For Midina, it was the far past, her life in Celion. For Makir, though he too had come from Elphemerea, the near past was an easier topic.<br />“You should have seen it – the magicians made fire with a snap of their fingers,” Midina reminisced, “I was only a little girl when they came through the town, but I remember it so clearly that I could paint it – well, if I could paint at all.” She grinned suddenly, “I hear you’re thinking of making a sale.”<br />He laughed. “It’s only copy work that I’m doing now, Midi,” he reminded her, “the basic paintings that people buy for their front halls are all the same, and I haven’t ever been able to sell a painting of anything else. Maybe someday.”<br />“I’m sure you will – and that the painting will be like magic.”<br />“You should come to my apartment and see them,” he said immediately, then hesitated. “If you wanted to, of course - maybe later -”<br />“If I didn’t trust you yet, would I have brought you home to see my baby?” she interrupted, “We’re friends now, Makir, and even though it’s sweet that you’re concerned, I really hope I don’t seem that cautious.”<br />
  126. 126. They didn’t say another word about it until he left.<br />“You know you’re coming back soon, right?” Midina asked playfully as she gave him a hug, “If only because Lydia is so good when you’re here.<br />He laughed. “Then very soon, because I wouldn’t want to miss her growing up.”<br />“She won’t be a toddler for at least six months,” Midina replied, “You have plenty of time. But you’re welcome to come as often as you like to make sure.”<br />
  127. 127. What she didn’t tell him was how tired she’d been feeling, all of the time. What was the point? It would only worry him, and she was sure it was just the stress of working and caring for a baby all of the time. The nausea she’d been having was all but gone now, and she’d worked enough nights and weekends to save up a few weeks’ grocery payments and rent, just in case. She didn’t have to eat much, and baby formula was cheap, so by the time Lydia became a toddler she could save enough to get her some nice clothes. And one toy, at least. She didn’t want Lydia to be behind in her skills when she started school.<br />
  128. 128. Just as she was contemplating all of this, she felt suddenly dizzy. Placing Lydia on the floor so she wouldn’t drop her, she felt a familiar sensation of nausea and lightheadedness. Her belly throbbed.<br />Straightening up nearly sent her over backwards, and that was when she knew. Her stomach was only slightly swollen when she touched it, but she knew nonetheless. She hadn’t been eating enough for anyone to be able to tell, but she wasn’t stupid. After having Lydia, she knew that nothing else felt quite the same.<br />
  129. 129. Midina gathered all of her courage when she went back for her night shift. “Riana, I think I have a slight problem,”<br />“Don’t tell me you can’t work the night shift on Friday,” Riana replied, “We have a whole group coming in! That’s almost eleven people, and I don’t have another available bartender.”<br />Midina swallowed, “No, Friday should be good. It’s just that in a few months’ time, I’m going to have to take some time off. I’m pregnant.”<br />“Oh, I so did not need to hear that,” Riana groaned, “How long?”<br />“About three months,” she replied quietly before the onslaught began.<br />
  130. 130. “Three months! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”<br />“I didn’t know.”<br />Riana let out a deep groan, “Whether you knew or not, It’s illegal for you to work during your second and third trimesters in the city. You shouldn’t even be here right now, you could start showing any second.”<br />“But I… I can’t not work!” Midina cried out in distress, “You don’t understand, I…”<br />“Like it or not, it’s the law, honey,” Riana replied, “If I break it, they’ll close me down for improper employee safety, especially since you’re working the bar. If you’re absolutely certain you won’t pop tonight, I’ll let you finish out your shift. But I can’t pay you for the time you have off, because I have to hire a new bartender.”<br />“I… I have to leave?”<br />“You can have your job back as soon as you pop the kid out, I promise.” There was sympathy in her employer’s voice, but no sign of her changing her mind, “I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do for you right now.”<br />
  131. 131. The best I can do for you right now… The words echoed in Midina’s mind even after Riana had shown her the door. It was down to just her, now, and she didn’t know what she could do. She tried not to think about what would be next. <br />With that knowledge to weight her feet and spirits, she began the long walk home.<br />
  132. 132. Eluisa double-checked the address. The dingy diner in the shadow of the industrial buildings on the south side of town didn’t appear to be very busy. In fact, she would have said that it was closed for the evening if the lights hadn’t been on. It didn’t look like the kind of place for outsiders.<br />She glanced around at the dark and deserted street. She had made it this far, hadn’t she? Why should she be afraid of entering a little, local greasy spoon?<br />Because she finally had hope, that was why. Midina could literally be around the corner from her, a question away. But if the redhead had been lying…<br />
  133. 133. She didn’t bother with formalities, choosing instead to walk right in and get behind the counter. The bartender, a woman with multiple piercings and a slight frown, turned to her immediately.<br />“Customers on the other side of the counter, unless you’re applying for a job,” she said immediately.<br />“No, I’m looking for someone,” Eluisa replied firmly.<br />The bartender raised her eyebrow, causing the gold ring in it to wobble. “And you picked this place?” she asked in disbelief.<br />“Someone who works here,” Eluisa clarified. <br />
  134. 134. “Well, there’s me, Yelena and Porcelain,” the bartender replied. “I’m the owner, but call me Riana. You look to old to know Yelena, and I’ve never seen you before, so it must be Porcelain.”<br />“No, the person I’m looking for must be on another shift.”<br />“We don’t have anyone who’s not here now,” Riana replied, “As you’ve probably guessed since I tend my own bar, we’re a little shorthanded, so the three of us are it.”<br />Eluisa’s face fell. “You’re absolutely sure there isn’t a blonde elf on your staff?” she asked.<br />“Elf? I wouldn’t know about that. But there was a blonde who worked here, unusual taste in clothes, kind of like yours.”<br />“Really? What was her name?”<br />
  135. 135. “Midina. You a friend of hers?” Riana asked suddenly.<br />“Yes, why?”<br />“Well then, someone should have told her that it’s against downtown law to work while pregnant. I hear she came from some backwater called River Hills or something like that, so they probably do it different there, but she should have checked the laws out before she decided to get pregnant. I’m just a small business here, and the law wouldn’t have any qualms about shutting me down if I didn’t follow proper business practice.”<br />Eluisa blinked. “Wait, she’s on maternity leave now?”<br />Riana snorted, “Leave? She left all right. I haven’t heard from her since she told me.”<br />
  136. 136. “Do you know where she lives?” Eluisa asked eagerly.<br />Riana’s eyes narrowed, “I thought you said you were a friend of hers,” she began condescendingly, “shouldn’t you have a better way of finding that out? You aren’t the law – and I’ve done nothing wrong anyway, because I haven’t let her work – and since you aren’t, I don’t have to answer any questions about my employees, now do I?”<br />“But if you’ll just -”<br />“And I’m not going to answer if I think you’re being suspiciously nosy,” Riana continued, “So no, I don’t know where she lives, and no, I won’t tell you.”<br />“Look, I’m just –”<br />
  137. 137. “No,” Riana replied firmly, “The poor girl has enough to deal with without me adding you to the mix. So you can either buy yourself dinner, get a drink, or leave.”<br />And with that, she turned back to the bar, clearly ignoring Eluisa. The elf stood there a moment in shock, still formulating a response. Eventually, the loud clink of glasses and the teen waitress’ curious looks roused her, and she went out.<br />
  138. 138. Once outside, she let out a groan of frustration. So close, so close… and yet she couldn’t reach her friend. If only the downtown residents weren’t so suspicious… well, she assumed that their suspicion was probably due to where they lived. She hadn’t seen darker or dirtier streets since she arrived in Riverblossom Hills, but she remembered the people who had lived on the poor sides of the cities of Celion. It was funny that she hadn’t thought there would be any such streets downtown – everything in the city center was so shiny and new, and the poorer districts so far removed from the beaten path…<br />
  139. 139. “Hey! Wait!” a childish voice called out, and Eluisa turned around to find the waitress slipping through the door, her blonde dreadlocks bouncing behind her. “What’s your name?” the girl asked as soon as she’d reached the elf.<br />“Eluisa,” the elf replied, nonplussed.<br />“Okay, good. Then you really are her friend,” the waitress continued. Then, seeing Eluisa’s look of confusion, she decided to clarify. “She mentioned you to me, and… well, if you really are her friend, at least you should have the chance too see her again. Here.”<br />She passed a slip of paper to the elf, who took it carefully. “I got her address out of the employee register,” the girl explained, “Riana’d be mad if she knew, so I’ve gotta make this quick before she comes out of the back. It’s in the trailer park on Sturdevant, but I don’t know anything else. Good luck.”<br />Without waiting for a reply, she turned and went back inside.<br />
  140. 140. After her long walk through the dark streets of the city, she felt the first baby bump the moment that she got home. She also felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck, prickling along her spine in the darkness. Someone was behind her, and she had a sneaking, sinking suspicion of who it might be before she even turned around. <br />Just what today needs.<br />
  141. 141. All the same, her mouth dropped open when the familiar face loomed out of the twilight.<br />“I’ve come for my heir,” Leod announced before she could speak. He glanced coldly at her swollen body and his lip curled in disgust. “I see you’ve managed to get knocked up with another bastard brat. You can raise that one in poverty if you like, but I’m taking the other child with me.”<br />
  142. 142. “She’s not yours,” Midina snarled, “you said so yourself.”<br />“I don’t give a damn whether the brat’s mine or not,” he replied, “But you took it away from me, Midina, made me a laughingstock in my own town! You made me look like a fool, and now you’re going to pay for that, and I’ll start by taking the child that you claim is mine.”<br />“You have no right to her! You can’t take a baby away from her mother, and you couldn’t care for a child to begin with!” Midina shot back, “You’re a sick, vengeful man and she’s not your daughter!”<br />
  143. 143. “And when you wanted my money, you were so certain that she was. You’re living in the slums, and I’m a respectable businessman. A good provider and an upstanding citizen. I can call the department of social work and have your bastard taken away. If it’s mine, fine, if not, the state orphanage. Face it, I’d be doing you a favor. You wouldn’t have to feed the brat anymore, so you could concentrate on shacking up with all of your romance sim Don Juans.”<br />“Get it into your stupid, jealous skull,” Midina hissed, “That I never wanted your money! I never wanted to marry you or become some demure little housewife, I just wanted you to spend the night, because I thought you were a nice man!”<br />“Nice? Don’t come crying to me because I’m not nice!” he bellowed back, “You were the one who slept with half of downtown behind my back -”<br />
  144. 144. “Behind your back?”<br />“Knowing full well that you would ruin my reputation, make me into a figure of scorn and ridicule -”<br />“Your reputation? If they’re laughing at you back in the country, then you brought it on yourself by telling every living soul in Riverblossom Hills that I was a skank and you were too stupid to realize that we weren’t even in a relationship, much less betrothed. You knew that I didn’t want any commitment, and somehow that couldn’t make you keep your hands off of me!” Her arms were shaking, so she crossed them and clenched her fists. “We were over eight months before my daughter was born, so whatever I did after that is not truly your concern. I thought I’d do you a favor and let you meet your only biological daughter, and you decided you didn’t want her. You don’t get a second chance.”<br />
  145. 145. “I’ve told you once already not to talk back to me,” he snapped, his hands curling into fists. But Midina didn’t flinch. She’d had enough of this, more than enough.<br />“And another thing, mister ‘upstanding citizen,’” she spat, “In this day and age there’s such a thing as a restraining order. That means that I march inside and call the cops right now, tell them that they were threatening to kidnap my daughter, and you won’t have to deal with being smirked at in the town square ever again – You’ll be doing chin-ups in the Sim state penitentiary. So shut up and march right back where you came from, because I’m calling them right now.”<br />She saw his lip curl as he stepped closer to her, blocking her way up the stairs, and suddenly she grew cold.<br />
  146. 146. “You live in the projects.” He hissed, pointing his finger at her, “No one will care if you scream. You take one step towards that door, slut, and I will stop you. Scream as loud as you want, no one will come and save you.”<br />“You don’t know that,” she replied in a low voice, “my neighbor happens to be a retired policeman, and my boyfriend’s a military trainee,” she lied quickly.<br />He laughed once, harshly. “You always were one to delude yourself. Your neighbors are a drinker and a deaf old man, and your ‘boyfriend’ knocked you up and left you here to rot. No one can help you. I’m going to walk home now, and if you make any slanderous claims that I was plotting to kidnap your baby, I will file a request to have you declared incompetent. Who are they going to believe – a two dollar tramp or a respected businessman? The state asylum isn’t nearly so nice as the penitentiary.”<br />With that, he turned and left.<br />
  147. 147. She made it inside before dissolving into terrified tears. Some five minutes later, she started when she heard a click from the door behind her.<br />“Midina, what’s wrong?” Makir asked immediately, “The door was unlocked and I heard you crying…”<br />Slowly, she turned to face him, sniffling. “Well, today I found out that I’m pregnant,” she said, still trying to keep the tears within her eyes. “And I lost my job. And then Lydia’s biological father showed up to kidnap her and have me declared mentally incompetent, which sounds like something from a really bad soap opera –”<br />
  148. 148. Makir shook his head in disbelief. “What a nut,” he said, brushing the tears off her cheek, “Something tells me you’re better off without him.”<br />She cracked a watery smile, and placed her hand lightly on his forearm. But her frown remained, and the tears trembled in the corners of her eyes. “He’s absolutely insane, Makir,” she whispered, “he’s gone now, but he’s just going to keep coming back, and he says…”<br />
  149. 149. “He says that he doesn’t even have to kidnap her, he can have her taken away legally, if there’s a reason to suspect I can’t provide for her, and he’s just going to dump her in the state orphanage, I’ll never see her again, and one of these days when he comes back he’ll – I don’t know what he’ll do, but if I call the cops he can take me to court, and…”<br />“Shhh,” Makir whispered into the nape of her neck as he reached out and drew her up against his chest. “We’ll figure something out.”<br />
  150. 150. For a long time, he held her while she cried, rocking her back and forth as she covered her face with her hands so that she wouldn’t wake Lydia. Eventually her sobs faded away to hiccups, following the rhythm of his own breath. She was so close and yet so far away: the warm, slowly calming weight that leaned against his chest to cry her eyes out was beyond his reach, made sacrosanct by her suffering. What he had come to say could not be said, not now. If only he could think of some way to help her…<br />As he pondered, he rubbed her back in slow, small circles until the hiccupping stopped. Then he slowly eased her away from his numb shoulder.<br />
  151. 151. “Don’t worry,” he promised, laying a hand on her swollen belly, “you and your daughters will be just fine.”<br />A tiny, wavering smile widened as she let his statement sink in. “What makes you so sure it’s a girl?” she asked. <br />Her attempt to lighten the conversation wrenched at Makir’s heart, but somewhere he found the strength to say, lightly, “It’s just that you have such a beautiful daughter already.”<br />She bit her lip, and Makir watched her, afraid to say any more.<br />
  152. 152. She turned away from him and sat down on the mattress, staring out into space.<br />“Yeah, I just… I don’t know what to do,” she admitted, “this whole thing is screwed up, and regardless of what happens, we’re going to get evicted. I have to go on maternity leave for the next five or six months or so, and we don’t even have a month’s rent. Not to mention groceries.” She grimaced, “I don’t know how this baby’s been growing at all, I’ve barely been eating for one, let alone two.”<br />He sat down on the bed next to her and watched her as she ran her fingertips over her swollen belly again and again. And then…<br />
  153. 153. “I’ve got an idea,” he said suddenly, and she looked up. “You need to disappear – I don’t know how this guy is finding you, but you can’t just try and find a cheaper trailer. Instead of wasting all of your money on rent when you’re going to be evicted sooner or later anyway, you should leave as soon as possible. You can stay at my apartment until the baby’s born and you can get your job back… If you want to, I mean.”<br />Her face lit up. “Really?”<br />“Really,” he confirmed, slipping an arm around her shoulders.<br />She frowned, “I can’t pay you back for this,” she began, “I’ll probably never be able to…”<br />“Do you really think you have to?” he asked, shaking his head, “Midi, you’ll be doing me a favor, really. I can’t cook to save my life. Not even sandwiches.”<br />
  154. 154. “You don’t actually cook sandwiches,” she retorted, starting to smile again.<br />“Maybe that’s the problem.”<br />She leaned closer to him. “Funny as it sounds, I’m glad you’re here,” she said, “I wish… well, it doesn’t matter anymore.”<br />He nodded, as she settled heavily back into his shoulder. “We can leave in the morning, if you’d like.”<br />“How early?” she wanted to know.<br />“Whenever you’re ready.”<br />“You’ll have to stay here then.” Feeling him shift position behind her, she added, “How else do you think I’ll be able to find this apartment of yours?”<br />
  155. 155. In the end, he was sufficiently convinced.<br />The two of them fell asleep to the sound of the train’s horn blaring through the night to the south and the swoosh of cars racing down the Sturdevant turnpike to the east.<br />
  156. 156. The very next morning after her trip to the diner, Eluisa walked down the street, staring at the weather-beaten structures on either side, and clutching the slip of paper with the address on it tightly.<br />Most of the trailers were in various stages of disrepair, with illegible graffiti decorating their corrugated metal sides, and cracked glass in their windows. It was still early enough that no one was out on the streets, but the only birds singing were fat, greasy pigeons, who waddled along, flapping halfheartedly to get out of the way.<br />Eluisa walked with a heavy heart towards the especially broken down trailer before her. Unless the dreadlocked waitress had been wrong, this sagging, rusty unit, smaller than the kitchen in Eluisa’s cottage, was her friend’s new home.<br />
  157. 157. She gasped as she came around the front. A set of muddy footprints led up the crumbling stairs to the broken-down door.<br />Inside, the trailer was trashed. From the amount of garbage and graffiti it contained, she guessed that it had been uninhabited for a long time. Maybe months.<br />She stopped at the door to survey the destruction within: cracked windows, soggy carpet, peeling linoleum, and assorted debris stacked in the corners. But the footprints were still visible, and she followed them within.<br />
  158. 158.
  159. 159. The bare, white walls of Makir’s apartment seemed like a palace after the trailer. Makir worked odd hours, so sometimes during the day he’d be at home, either painting or playing with Lydia, and sometimes he would be gone until long after sunset. <br />In between looking after Lydia, who thankfully continued to be a very healthy and happy baby, Midina did what she could, increasing her skills in cooking, cleaning and mechanical. It wasn’t only that Makir would have had a ham and cheese sandwich for three meals a day, seven days a week if she hadn’t stepped in and taken over the cooking, or that half the time he was distracted trying to paint one of his unsold masterpieces. It certainly didn’t mean that she was trying to play house. She figured that even if she was doing her best to repay Makir for taking them in, she would need the skills to take care of Lydia and the new baby.<br />She also began to scour the paper’s help-wanted ads, watching with approval as the economy grew and more job openings blossomed like crocus in the spring. When she went back to work, she certainly didn’t want to be bartender in a tiny diner. She’d had enough of bars and taverns for two lifetimes.<br />What did she really want? She wasn’t sure yet. As a very young girl, she had once dreamed that she would be famous for her beauty, but she had never had the time since then for any less childish dreams. If she could just find a decent job when the baby was born, she could find her own place. No renting this time: she’d have to stay with Makir for a few months after the baby was born, but if it meant she could someday repay him...<br />
  160. 160. Of course, none of this prepared her for the day that the baby did arrive. She quickly put Lydia down on the floor when she felt the contractions, yelling for Makir to come quick, from wherever he was painting or trimming the lawn.<br />“This does not,” she panted, “Get any easier the second time. A little help here?” Makir just blinked in shock, unsure of what to do. “Well, don’t just stand there,” she told him, “I – Oooow!”<br />
  161. 161. The baby had blonde hair and dark grey eyes. Makir and Midina spent a long time just staring at him, mesmerized.<br />“What are you going to name him?” Makir asked, breaking the silence.<br />Midina looked at her new son and considered the question. “Orion,” she replied. “His name is Orion.”<br />
  162. 162. Shortly thereafter, Midina discovered yet another reason that she was glad she had moved in with Makir. He adored both her children, and could always be found playing with either Lydia or Orion.<br />Still, the days of discount diapers and baby formula had to end sooner or later. It was almost time for Lydia to become a toddler. <br />
  163. 163. In fact, every day was full of surprises. The day of Lydia’s birthday, Makir whipped out a wrapped box with a flourish and presented it to her.<br />“Makir, you really shouldn’t have… What is it, anyway?” Midina asked, trying to conceal the fact that she was fighting the urge to giggle. She was only partially successful: a huge grin spread across her face. <br />Makir laughed. “If I wanted to tell you what it was, I wouldn’t have wrapped it, would I? And yes, I should have. Just keep it upright –” <br />As Midina began to tear at the paper, a faint smell of chocolate reached her. She stopped.<br />“You didn’t,” she gasped. He only nodded.<br />
  164. 164. Midina couldn’t wipe the grin from her face throughout the party. Though it was just the two of them, since Orion was sleeping in the bedroom, it was perfect. <br />Just because they were poor didn’t mean that she and Makir couldn’t provide Lydia and Orion with the things that mattered most, such as a proper birthday celebration. <br />She hadn’t wanted to bring up the subject of cake, though she had worried that Lydia would have to grow up without a celebration if they couldn’t get one. But money had been tight – she still hadn’t gotten a decent job – and she hadn’t wanted to impose anything on Makir. Somehow he’d figured it out.<br />Watching him wave his cheap noisemaker and cheer his heart out made her chest tight with something warm, as if the happiness were swelling up inside of her. She wanted to stay like this forever, but she knew that it was time to blow out the candles.<br />
  165. 165. Lydia grew up laughing in a shower of confetti.<br />Midina smiled. Later, she would see that the secondhand striped jumpsuit was already about to tear at the elbow, that Lydia’s shoes were too small, and that she was going to have to buy her a potty training toilet. But the happiness was spreading inside of her, and her daughter was laughing up into her face, kicking her chubby legs.<br />Makir gazed at the mother and daughter with a fond and wistful smile.<br />*Lydia Fairmaiden: Leo, 3/10/7/6/5<br />
  166. 166. With a toddler and a very sleepy baby down for their naps on their blankets, Midina and Makir had a late dinner.<br />“I was going to wait and surprise you tomorrow,” Makir began, “but I don’t have that kind of self control. So what do you say to going down to the museum tomorrow night? It’s free, and they have a new exhibit.”<br />Midina chewed her lip. “I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t like to leave Lydia and Orion alone, and I really should be filling out job applications…”<br />“One night can’t hurt,” he objected, “You have to get out of the house sometime, after all. And returning job applications doesn’t count.”<br />She had to laugh at that. “All right, you win,” she said, “It’s a date.”<br />
  167. 167. The next afternoon they found themselves sitting on a bench outside of the art museum, having already gone through the meager supply of new ‘modern’ art which had been assembled in the west wing. <br />“So,” Makir said into the silence, “what did you think of the one made of recycled soda cans?”<br />Midina smiled, “Well, if you ever decide to go into sculpture, at least we know there’s a market for things we can fish out of our recycling bin,” she joked, “Maybe you should make a tower of diapers, and submit it: you could make a fortune.”<br />“I’ll think about it,” he replied lightly, “now that Lydia’s a toddler we’re going to need the money.”<br />
  168. 168. “We?” she asked, curiously.<br />“You didn’t think I’d really make you leave, did you?” Before she could answer, he continued, “You can stay as long as you like, you know.”<br />“But if I get the factory job that I applied for last week, I won’t have to live with you anymore,” she protested, “And I’ll find a way to pay you back, I promise.”<br />“It’s not about whether you need to stay with me,” Makir replied, before taking a deep breath and explaining, “You can stay as long as you want to, Midina. If you’d rather… well, I understand if you want to find your own place, but I…” he

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