Saturday moans and whimpers in his sleep. The noise is one of the things keeping Abbie awake. As he tosses and kicks, soaking the sheets with sweat, she’s torn between stroking his long greasy hair to calm him, or grabbing him by the neck and choking the life out of him. If she dared. But she doesn’t do anything. Unless watching him in the dark, desolate hours when she should be unconscious counts as something.
During the day, he has moments when Abbie swears he’s his old self: funny and energetic. The guy who engages and upsells their customers. It melts her fucking heart, despite herself, despite everything. Despite the fact that he’s high. Those moments let her pretend she’s still charmed by him. Still in love, even.
But as he relaxes into a semblance of normal sleep, a cold numbness settles into Abbie’s chest and brain, and it doesn’t seem to matter anymore how she feels about him. She can’t decide if it’s a relief or the saddest thing in the world. She’s wide awake. Her latest notebook is on the bedside table, the one she writes her lists in. She doesn’t remember when it started, but she’s filled a few. She takes it, slips from their bed, picks up a hoodie from the floor that reeks of sweat, his sweat, and slides it over her head. She shuts the door behind her, taking care not to wake him. He has no idea she’s going to leave him.
She pads down the hallway to her lab and stands in the dark listening to the hum of the machinery. She loves her lab. It’s clean, organized, and unlike the rest of the apartment, which has gone from shabby chic to something more like genuine squalor, it makes her hopeful. But she’s leaving this too.
She switches on the light and goes to the glass tanks lining the back wall from floor to ceiling. She gazes in at the delicate creatures covering most of the surfaces inside, some slowly crawling, others half-buried in moist dirt. Shimmer beetles. But these Shimmers are squat, ugly things, dark and unadorned, glorified cockroaches if not for the secretions they ooze from the tiny glands on the backs of their legs and the tops of their feet. She moves down the rows of tanks to the biggest tank with the fewest insects. The Royals. She pulls one out and places it on her notebook atop the stainless steel table.
It’s still, except for the twitching of velvety antennae. It’s walnut-sized, has a delicately tapered, triangular head, and a shiny black carapace covered in silvery whorls of delicate hairs, arching and spiraling in complex patterns. She bends to look closer, and the whorls stir under her breath, and lo and behold, seem to shimmer.
“Hello, beautiful girl,” she whispers.
She’s tempted to set it on her arm or neck, to let it do its work, but truth be told, she’s afraid. She’s only let a Royal crawl along her arm for a few seconds at a time, and even that? Damn. It was too much for her. And she made them, working month after month splicing genes, chopping and pasting sections of DNA until they were as perfect as they could be. Saturday says it’s the best work she’s ever done. Abbie’s not so sure. It’s only a matter of time before he wants to try one out.
She picks up the Shimmer beetle, gingerly, and puts it back in its tank.
List of Things You Don’t Do Anymore
1. Play guitar.
3. Look at me.
5. Touch me.
7. Notice when I walk into the room.
9. Bathe every day.
13. Try to make me laugh.
15. Leave the house.
17. Build things.
19. Paint things.
21. Have friends.
25. Be kind.
Abbie wakes on the living room couch to Saturday shaking her arm. He’s gentle but it’s jarring, and she yanks her arm away and sits up, clutching her knees to her chest. Late morning sun sneaks through the gap between the two curtains, illuminating his pale, hairless chest. It’s covered in tattoos, tiny ones and zeros from neck to naval. Binary code. She used to ask him what it meant but he’d never say, acting cagy and mysterious. Now she suspects it doesn’t mean anything.
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He frowns, and hugs his arms tight into his chest, like he’s mimicking her posture. “Why are you sleeping out here?”
“I didn’t sleep out here.” Abbie knows she sounds defensive. “I couldn’t sleep so I went to mess around in the lab. I was going to come back to bed but I must have drifted off.”
He’s nodding, biting his lip. There are Shimmer tracks along his neck and arms, the older ones pale and dull, and last night’s, pink and shiny. In their own way, she has to admit, they’re sort of beautiful.
“Okay,” he says. He shows her his palm. There’s a message there, red letters shining through from the device imbedded beneath his skin. He smiles. “Jota wants them. A big order. Sight unseen.”
“Jota wants what?” She’s still a little fuzzy, still half in the land of sleep. Then she stiffens. “Wait. The Royals?”
“Yeah! Isn’t it great?”
“No! I told you they aren’t ready yet. I haven’t even given them a full test run.”
His hands go up like she’s pointing a gun. “I know, I know, Abbie. But he wasn’t offering much for the usual. He tried to knock off 20%, mentioned Caputo, going to see what he’s got for sale. I had to do something.”
“Really? Did you?” She’s on her feet now, glaring at him, trying not to melt down. Not again.
“Yeah, I did. Because you’ve been working on those things forever, and it’s taking up all your time, and all our money. Sales are slow. We need to make the Royals pay off.”
He moves toward her, and she can’t help herself, she backs up. He’s a full head taller, all sharp angles and long, pale limbs like old tree branches, skinny but gnarled with muscle. His dark eyes are big, unblinking, and his teeth are bared in the grimace he uses to intimidate difficult clients. The look that made her quit going to drops, the look that makes her wonder if she actually knows anything about Saturday. Then he stops. He sighs and crosses his arms again, shrinking back into himself. It’s a relief. And yet, she wants to reach out and pull him to her.
“I think we need to do this, Abbie, ready or not. Or we’ll lose our biggest customer.”
I don’t care, she wants to shout. I don’t care anymore. I’m leaving. But she stays silent.
“Besides, if we need to give the Royals a test run, I can try one out this afternoon.” He says this quiet and casual, but she hears his desperation. “Better me than you, right?”
Abbie keeps her eyes on the ones and zeros covering his chest, on the message flashing in his palm, on the shabby couch. Anything but his face. She can’t stand the look in his eyes, the burning need that has nothing to do with her.
List of People I Miss