Project Super Nex – Chapter Fifteen – Rupture

I awaken to the opening notes of the Chameleons for Breakfast score, rippling with equal amounts of grandeur and tenderness. Lying on my side in bed, I wiggle my arm out from underneath the covers, stretch it out to snooze my phone. Time: seven-ten p.d. I roll onto my back, lace my fingers over my belly, relish these last few minutes where I can be left undisturbed before stepping out into the dicey wilderness of life.
I can remember a dream I had about Sidney just before waking up. We were on the rooftop playing reglintel, the waxing Memora overlooking us from the dusk-pink sky. I recall there being an irresistible floral aroma. The two of us were chatting and laughing with a distinct air of intimacy, as if we’re the oldest and closest of friends. Then I asked her if she’d like to see a photo of the most beautiful person in the world and she said sure, so I took my phone from my pocket, snapped a picture of her, showed it to her, and her cheeks flushed in response to my boldness.
The dream reminds me of yesterday’s concocted memory of me and my parents meeting Sidney and Penelope in Bassow Square. It felt so tangible, though. It clings to my head, pervades me with a dull sense of apprehension as I pee, brush my teeth, take a shower and scrub my skin so forcefully it turns pink, and wolf down breakfast with my parents, who apparently think my being a paladin is “bomb-hot” (Mom’s words, as if I invented a vaccine for a virulent disease). Don’t get me wrong—when I came home yesterday at five minutes to three in the afternoon, they acted like I was one of the few survivors to return from a bloody war. Warbearer notified them the day before yesterday that my absence was due to a “classified mission” (code for “crash-landing in Maskar Hills and all that Asulon birdshit”). My parents asked why I’d be on such a mission, and the revelation that I was a paladin only served to agitate them further. And I had to imply it was all under legal PSN guidelines, as though they’d actually select an Aoi teenage lab tech to be a paladin; I’m sparing them the unnecessary anxiety by leaving out that whole complicated mess about Sibrilich infecting me.
While eating my fried eggs and vegetables stir-fried in sweetened sichupod milk, my attention is on the TV, where an interview splits the screen between CMBN reporter Harold Mandos on one side and Belldon on the other. She must have changed her tune on keeping Asulon secret, because now she’s disclosing all its juicy details—a Quelevoze community in Maskar Hills that was going to exterminate all Grimhets from the forest, and was backed up by several S.P.A.C.E. Union officials including Sornis, and Overseers Majabrakta Marsden and Owen Foxer.
“It’s only because of our paladins that we suffered so few losses once Grimhets sieged the place,” she mentions matter-of-factly at one point.
“You had paladins in Asulon?” Mandos asks, perplexed.
“Of course. Back when we started, the Head Councilor agreed they needed to be part of our defenses in case of an attack.” Belldon holds up one hand, and blue light molds itself into a sphere in her palm, making Mandos’s eyebrows shoot up. “Things may have changed for us now, but we’ll continue fulfilling our duties as paladins.”
I glimpse Mom and Dad’s faces opening up into matching expressions of amazement. Even Dell’s eyes widen and she murmurs, “Well crap, everyone’s a paladin now.”
Following the interview is a segment on the Vermusk protests that, after beginning in Neuanfang five and a half months ago, are now slowly spreading throughout the rest of Lumin. But I don’t see much of the coverage before ordering a Mobular, pecking my parents on the cheek as a farewell, and heading out the door. Fortunately I get a street-savvy driver who threads a route through the city that bypasses the roads clogged with the raw energy of protesters. I still get glimpses of their marching, brandishing signs and inkbrands, hanging up posters. When I check Walnut, it’s streaming a live video feed of a protester holding up a long rod with an effigy of Sornis hanging off the end. It caricatures his bowl-cut and excessively sculpted face perfectly. The surrounding crowd hollers as a second protester raises a lighter, touches the tiny flame to the puppet’s foot, and fire quickly engulfs its body, which elicits more cheering.
At the Citadelle, getting assaulted by evil drones to the tune of Patty Ramondo’s synth-pop remains the most fun part of training under Sidney’s tutelage. During our warm-down, she mentions they’re preparing to send someone into the Welkin tonight. I ask her how such a mission will help with stopping Augen, and she swallows a chocolate before answering, “That’s above my pay grade, sad to say.”
Her smile doesn’t touch her eyes, which are subdued and reticent. A look I’d expect from someone who’s hiding a secret. I drop the subject, and she walks me to Lab C-16 on the thirty-first level. My shift is all right too, aside from Penelope darting looks at me with her bloodshot eyes, taking Salycidol every couple hours, and growling at me to eat my smelly balls when I ask her if she’s picked up more jobs on BountyWhale.
During my lunch break I fill my stomach with spaghetti, then visit Lab F-19 up on the thirty-fourth floor; Sidney told me the Thistles have stayed on as assistants to Dr. Seris Taython. When I peek through the glass from the corridor outside, I can see Corbin punching inputs into a tablet and projecting formulas onto a giant screen on one side of the lab, and Seris hunching over a station less than ten feet away with Gene taking notes on his own tablet, his maycewood propped nearby. I wonder if the Thistles saw their mom on CMBN.
Corbin’s the one to warmly greet me after I knock on the door. Seris gives me half a wave as I enter, then returns her attention to whatever’s on the monitor of her station. Corbin tells me about the great strides they’re making in their work. “It’s been a long time since any significant nephus research has been done—two decades, I believe,” she claims.
“Correct, it was a Dodd Industries project,” Gene chimes in, pausing his note-taking so he can corkscrew a ringlet around his thumb. “With a nephus they obtained after years of fruitless searching, they hoped to make outstanding engineering advancements by entering the Welkin and shifting the fabric of reality through object augmentation—strengthening the armor in a military exo-suit so it can sustain the devastation of a bomb, adjusting a sword so you can swing it with enough force to shatter walls, and so on and so forth.”
Seeing me furrow my brow like I’m about to ask what went wrong (which is true), Seris volunteers, “Two Dodd researchers partnered together to destroy the nephus, believing we’d corrupt its technology—perhaps to exterminate entire civilizations and erase their cultures, just to toss out an example. They were arrested afterwards and charged with robbery and destruction of company property, but their lawyers managed to get them off with two-year probation, three hundred hours of community service, and a fifty thousand unit fine.”
She turns back to the tablet that’s been attached to a stand on her station’s worktop, and that’s when I see the nephus next to it, inside a round case of glass and metal. The lab’s recessed lighting reflects off it, making its pink surface glimmer more brightly than usual.
“Wait, so if it—” I take a moment to rake my hand over my hair, form my thoughts, because it’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to consider the extent of the nephus’s power, and now the implications are coming back to me. “What’s the most you could do with it, practically?”
Seris swivels away from her tablet, her long braid sweeping around, her nose stud the sole star among her red freckles, and she looks at me with deep frustration in her massive eyes, as if the answer to my question upsets her. “Theoretically, enough to weave and unweave the strings of reality to your heart’s content. ‘Theoretically’ being the operative word, considering the unimaginable difficulty of such a task, not to mention the ethics of whether it should be done in the first place.” She fingers the blunt horns encircling her wrists. “But that hasn’t stopped researchers and business magnates of both the naively bright-eyed and the ruthlessly unscrupulous kinds from spinning off countless papers and theories on how to crack this cute little cipher.”
I glimpse the huge screen that’s covered in Corbin’s notes. Her writing is so tiny and squeezed together that I can’t read much of it, except for some figures and equations that make no sense to me.
When I ask if it’s true that someone’s going into the Welkin tonight, Gene sniffs proudly, “Yes, a test of sorts. I volunteered myself for it.” He sounds like he’s announcing he won a sweepstakes for tickets to a premiere screening of the next movie in the Archkeep Cinematic Universe.
My eyebrows lift. “Really?”
His grin broadens. “Would you like to know the minutiae of my assignment?”
“Sure.”
“Well, I’m prohibited from divulging such sensitive intelligence.”
Corbin pipes up, “He’s going to plant surveyor nodes in the Welkin so we can begin mapping it out.”
Gene looks at her for a moment. “If you weren’t my dear framana, I would report you for your flippant disregard for confidentiality.”
Corbin ignores him. “It’s a complex learning process in which we’re engaging. Think, for example, of a supercomputer with enough data-crunching heft to construct comprehensive weather maps for every world in a star system for the next five years. An instrument like that may be revolutionary, but it’s no use if you can’t figure out how to boot it up, view the weather patterns for a specific world, or translate the information into empirical results. The nephus is no different. We can’t do much, aside from roaming around a mysterious inter-dimensional realm—”
“Which in itself is pretty nice,” interjects Seris.
“—until we can learn the abstruse details of rewriting reality.”
Corbin is gazing at me assuredly, as if wanting to convince me Augen can do no harm with her nephus because she lacks the ability to learn those abstruse details. However, if the Thistles are this versed about these annoying donuts and the Welkin, they must’ve passed some of that on to their pobel aunt.
I wait a breath to say, “At the end of all this, you’re capturing Augen and recovering her nephus.” I purposely end the statement with a period instead of a question mark.
“What else would you expect us to do—stream Dabbly until she enacts her next evil plan?” Seris remarks. And then she asks, “That colleague of yours, Penelope—is she single?”
****
Over the next few days I find myself growing jealous of the Thistles and Seris. They keep visiting the Welkin and I don’t even know what they’re doing exactly because they’re refusing to give me details whenever I drop by the lab. When I ask half-jokingly if I can join them sometime, Seris gives a firm no, which only deepens my desire to return there. I should be averse to the Welkin after the trip Sidney took me on, but no, I’d like to go back there, at least one more time.
Meanwhile, from what I’ve seen online and on the news, Belldon’s supporters have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the revelation that she and a number of her Quelevoze associates are paladin, and they’re being driven to sustain their citywide protests. Not surprisingly, the anti-Vermusk crowd is getting the starpins *StopTheUnrest and *SilenceBelldon trending again, and they’re accusing Belldon of “running a wicked cult in Asulon” and “spurring on her sycophants to destroy Lumin with Green anarchy,” as KRS’s Dane Binder so eloquently put it.
Sornis doesn’t even try to hide his racism when Binder interviews him, and asks him what he thinks about the “lawlessness and disorder” being stirred by up the protests.
“When I was a kid, my father had this gorgeous cabin up on Armtrough Lake. My parents took me and my brothers up there every summer, and every trip was so fun, but the only thing I didn’t care for were the snakes. So many snakes everywhere, some of them snuck into our cabin, and my father took it upon himself to smash every single one with a cudgel he reserved for that special purpose, because they were invaders of our home, and violating our family. That’s how we need to treat these beasts. They’re invading our beautiful city, and we need to quell them.”
So yeah, that interview inspires plenty of material for Dolores Youqu and other late-night hosts. It’s hard to miss how coincidental it is that he praises his father’s sadistic attitude toward snakes, when the Quelevoze crest is a serpent slithering up to a crescent moon.
I’d go to the protests, but Sornis ends up outlawing paladins from doing just that, under the reasoning that we “must remain impartial in these alarming times and stand for the people as symbols of peace, not chaos.” On top of that, if we “attend the riots or supply the anarchists with constructs, you’ll be officially relieved of your duties as paladins.”
So we paladins, even Belldon and her friends, have to suck it up and follow orders, though a part of me can’t help but feel like a coward for doing so.
It isn’t as if my days are wanting in lighthearted moments. Sidney’s a fountain of delightfully awful puns, like that late afternoon when bullets are raining down on the city and she quips, “This sort of menacing precipitation is what I call a rain of terror.”
Walnut never lacks in trivial seeds to distract me, such as the minute-long video Everest Lowrion posts of Marsden reading Secrets of An Orbiformer to Rowan, their three-year-old son, and their dog, a black shaggy Horskland with tons of energy to match her enormous frame named Ebba. It’s funny watching Marsden’s audience of two listen to her with the rapt attention of a congregation enthralled by a cleric’s religious parlance.
At home I pass the time by flipping through several photo albums. Baby Wyatt gawking at a giant pile of Elder’s Feast presents wrapped in shimmery paper (nobody should ever spoil a baby to that degree). Mom on the tennis court. Dad carrying me in his arms in the Elephant Zone of Gollinger Park Zoo. Mom feeding me baby food. Baby Wyatt rolling around on the floor and getting wrapped up burrito-style in a snowflake-print blanket, or wearing a paper crown marked with a W and getting loaded with too many gifts once again for my second birthday. It gives me a sense of reassurance to see these snatches of life frozen in time. Verification of a world where I didn’t have to be on pins and needles over the darkness swallowing up my family . . .
I also make progress on my latest Arka model: the Glory Piano from Chameleons for Breakfast, its handsome honey-brown body decorated with a pattern of elaborate black waves. The building process is incredibly relaxing. Every time I click on a piece, a shard of tension breaks off inside me and vanishes into the void.
Then there’s Penelope’s dating life, which has become the focal point of every one of our conversations, as it always does when she’s got a woman. Seris asked her out soon after checking with me on her relationship status (moves fast), and for their first date they go to that most romantic of spots: a Naldem’s department store in the Fawngold neighborhood of uptown Lumin. Apparently Feather Week, its most popular scene taking place in a Naldem, is Seris’s favorite romcom. Second date, they play VR arcades and go bowling at a Zenith Hub three blocks away from Alphacos. Third date, they take a sunset stroll along Lu Beach, which I haven’t been to in years. Between those dates Penelope comes to me as a sounding board for her texts (“What exactly does it mean when Seris said ‘c u soon’?” “Does my response sound casual enough?” “Should I send a wink or a blow-kiss face?”).
“Seris is the first trans girl I’ve gone out with, she transitioned five years ago,” Penelope informs me on Merto 10, five days after our return from Asulon. We’re at work, taking our lunch break together, and we were just talking about how great it is that a transgender male Starsapien has been cast in the role of a trans man on an upcoming Dabbly series.
“You never met one on Jibe?” I query.
“Fuck no, the trans crowd stays away from that app. Too many TFLs there.”
TFL stands for transphobic feminist liberal, someone whose generally progressive views clash with their denouncement of the trans community.
“Screw Jibe,” I say, toasting Penelope with my cup of thin-tasting instant aurium. “You’re pretty happy now, right?”
“Thanks for that, now the universe is gonna shit all over me,” but she toasts me back with her salamandrine-spiked coffee. “If we’re being honest here,” she says, taking a suddenly earnest turn, “things really seem to be clicking between us, and if . . .” She shrugs. “I don’t know. I’d just fucking love it if something could work out for once.” She suddenly narrows her gray eyes at me and something shifts in the air. “Sidney talks about you a lot.”
I lower my chin in an I-see gesture. This is the first time she’s commented on me and Sidney, though I think she’s known for a while.
I keep thinking again and again about this acute sense of closeness that exists between Sidney and me, even though the only time we have together is inside the Citadelle; we haven’t gone out on an official date yet, probably because our work exhausts the both of us at the end of the day. But that’s irrelevant, because I appreciate every moment where I’m in the presence of her sly smile, the bright glint in her deep eyes, the warmth and sincerity constantly emanating off her. And I haven’t had any delusions since that night in Asulon, thank gods. I don’t know why it even happened in the first place.
“You’re a good kid,” Penelope goes on. “Dorky, but good.” She moves a little in her seat, tugs at the collar of her button-up blouse. “Sidney likes you. So you better treat her well. Otherwise I’ll rip off your balls, throw them in a pot of gannoa sauce, and then stuff them up your ass.”
I look at Penelope for a long time, quietly drumming my fork on the rim of my bowl of pasta. “Okay.”
****
“Cursed Cosmotic, I’m allergic to Sage Epping.”
“I know what you mean, he has such a punchable face,” Sidney agrees.
“No, like I’m actually allergic to him, on a literal and physical scale.”
I’m itching the back of my knee through my jeans as a trailer for an action comedy flick starring the unbearable Epping fills the TV monitor. “It’s always this particular spot,” I gripe, continuing to go at my knee with the grim determination of one scrubbing a layer of scum off the floor.
Sidney is leaning back on the lavender sofa, stretching her legs, resting her feet on the edge of the chrome gold coffee table, the partial wing etching on her jagged pendant gleaming darkly. I’m sitting beside her in my dark-wash jeans, blue long-sleeved shirt, and black socks, and we’re eating out of a bowl of chocolate-glazed popcorn in her lap. She’s cute in her drawstring sweatpants and loose t-shirt printed with a cartoonish design of an eagle soaring out of a bank with overflowing sacks of cash gripped in its talons and police officers racing after it, and the phrase THAT’S ILL-EAGLE! Her socks are mismatched—one’s purple with black diamonds, the other’s white and printed with violet and blue spiders.
“He used to be a very appealing guy,” she states between mouthfuls of popcorn. “I don’t know where all that charm’s gone now.”
“I’ll tell you where—he depleted it in The Child in the Den.”
“I actually kind of liked him in that.”
I turn to her with a grave frown. “If you don’t take that back, the universe will collapse.”
Shoving three kernels in her mouth, she flits her eyes around her living room for five seconds; with slightly bulging cheeks she flashes me a smirk that’s so mischievous it’s adorable. “I think there’s a ninety-nine percent chance the universe will slide by. But in any case, he really has been slepping down a slippery slope, and I don’t know if he’ll ever climb back up to the top.”
“At this point he should—” I pause in abrupt realization, mentally repeat the pun myself, and a thin smile inches onto my lips. “You’re audacious, Appleton.”
Today’s Merto 12—a week since Asulon and the first time I’ve been back in Sidney’s place since the day she saved me from Brone (whom she says is being interrogated in a classified Warbearer facility—apparently he hasn’t given up anything on the Asulon job). The prisms hanging from the ceiling, all fourteen of them, disperse rainbow shafts and stars across its misty yellow surface like trees scattering their bountiful seeds across an open field. The glass-topped table beneath the bay window continues to be a riot of Toppa figures, trinkets carved from metal and stone, even the Kasma in its coin state. I’ve got my own Kasma as a twenty-sided die in my messenger bag, which is currently slouching over on the footstool.
We were able to get off work early today, but we thought it’d be more relaxing to stay in rather than go out somewhere (“I’m in an inside mood today,” I told Sidney). So far we’ve played reglintel, which she won by destroying my army with the Horovomon Attack (Penelope would’ve loved to have seen that); I watched her play a video game where her avatar was traversing a post-apocalyptic landscape being fought over by competing sects of political and religious extremists; and now we’re scrolling through the Trailers section of Dabbly in search of something good to stream.
Sidney smiles back at me, fiddling at her Choro-Cuffs. Then she lifts her hand and pinches the air, a gesture that closes out the trailer on the TV, returns it to the Dabbly homepage. She  must sense my staring at her, because her eyes dart sideways at me, she bites the inside of her cheek as if restraining a laugh, and within moments she’s straddling me and we’re crushing our lips together and inhaling each other’s breath and her chocolates and hot iron are flooding my head.
She stretches me out beneath her on the sofa, the firm muscle of her lean body pressing against me. My tongue glides through her open lips and explores her mouth, she sneaks her hand under the hem of my shirt and wriggles her hungry fingers up my stomach and my chest and my skin’s tingling with gooseflesh, she releases a moan when I lick behind her earlobe, her other hand’s creeping between my legs and an animal heat is growing inside me—
What’s happening? Dull smears of color are dancing across my vision, fogging up my head, and now I’m looking down on myself, me and Sidney, in my bedroom, nothing but skin tangled together—
“Wy, what’s wrong?”
At the worry in her voice I open my eyes and her brow is wrinkled, her lips are parted an inch. She’s stopping because I flinched beneath her like some small pain shot through me, but I’m frozen now, my arms wrapped around her back in a snug embrace. I swallow down my heart as it thrashes against my throat, calm down by focusing on her eyes, their infinite capacity for compassion.
“I’m sorry,” I croak, taking deep breaths. “I was . . .” I shut my mouth after a beat, pinch my eyes closed next as if to pause time and alter its inner workings to excise the previous minute out of reality.
“I’ll get you some water,” she murmurs. My breath catches when her lips brush my temple in a featherlight kiss. I open my eyes as she climbs off me, then says, “Or, no, would you rather have aurium?”
I mumble that it’d be great and she disappears into the kitchen to start rummaging the cupboards for a teakettle. I sit up on the sofa and collect my thoughts for a minute. The TV’s still on Dabbly. The light catches my ring, its coppery wires winking as I drum my fingers on my knee. I gaze out the window at the yellow and white and pink flames undulating throughout the sky, glinting off the sleek towers of glass and metal in the skyline. My eyes drift over to the shelves with their graphic novels and books, and their glass jars of powders and gummy liquids and herbs, and above them on the wall are those paintings—one of the androgynous Starsapien in the luxurious robe, the other of Gollinger Park with the family picnicking under Aso-willows on the bank of a small lake.
For a second it’s like I’m stumbling through a dark room and blindly groping for the light switch. It’s just out of reach, I’m searching for . . .
I feel myself getting up on my feet, taking one step, another step, a third one, as though my body has been separated from my foggy mind and is moving of its own volition. I stop in front of one of the shelves, its lower half consisting of six drawers in two columns. I stoop a bit to reach the top-right drawer, curl my fingers around its handle, pull it out.
For one moment my heart stops completely.
The last time I was here—when I woke up, she was holding a picture frame. Smiling at it. Putting it away in this exact same drawer. Where there are three photos in clean white steel frames. No, not photos—digigraphs. I pick one up out of the drawer and I realize my hand’s trembling.
It’s me and Sidney. We’re visible from the waist up, standing close together with our arms over our shoulders, the skyline glittering behind us under a sky of darkest blues. The digigraph starts with me tilting my head toward Sidney and whispering in her ear, and whatever I say makes her throw back her head and open her mouth in a noiseless laugh of great joy, and she pulls me in for a long and tender kiss. Then the digigraph loops back to the beginning and I’m whispering—
“What are you doing?”
I start and whirl around as if I’ve been snooping through her private possessions, which is precisely what I’m doing. She’s taken two steps out of the kitchen, watching me with wide eyes, her face heavy with an indescribable emotion. The teakettle is faintly growling behind her.
Instead of answering her, I lift the other two digigraphs out of the drawer in one hand, keeping the first one in my other. A beat later I’m sitting on the sofa again and spreading out the endlessly looping photos in a row on the coffee table. The one of me and Sidney is on the left. The one in the middle has me, Sidney, and Penelope side-by-side on a couch, grinning happily, jostling each other in a playful competition for territory, and then Penelope reaches over to tousle my hair.
As for the digigraph on the right, Sidney and I are enjoying a picnic in a park. Gollinger Park. We look younger, I must be thirteen or fourteen there, and I’m lying on my side on a big purple blanket, propped up on one elbow, a half-eaten sandwich in one hand. She’s sitting cross-legged, chomping a bite out of a peach, and droplets of juice bound into the air and I jerk back and she chortles and holds out the fruit to me. I hesitate, then take my own bite from it, and Sidney uses a napkin to dab the juice off my mouth.
“Wy?”
I (not the “I” in the digigraph, but the “I” in reality) massage the tips of my first two fingers into my brow. The strings are untwining. Fraying.
“Wyatt?”
I shut my eyes. I don’t feel quite right. A roaring in my ears, but I hear her as the weight shifts on the sofa cushions, she’s sitting beside me now.
“Just let me explain—”
“Stop.” My voice is surprisingly, terrifyingly steady. My eyes open and she’s intently watching the digigraphs as though she has a million thoughts running through her mind.
“I don’t understand,” I say after a minute. “What do these . . .”
“I miss those days,” she says, leaning over to pick up the one of us in Gollinger. It gives me edea pryn to see her cradle it in that protective, pensive manner of hers.
She strokes her finger over my face in the looping photo. When she meets my eyes, hers are wistful, almost pleading. “I miss you,” she says in a whisper of agony.
I begin to open my mouth but close it right away. What I’m seeing here can’t be real. She’s lying to me. Why, though?
You’re unraveling, a voice whispers, the exhalation of a chasm that’s ruptured inside me.
No. Stop it. She can’t fuck with me like this—
You really are unraveling, disconnecting.
Spikes of sharp anguish are slicing through my nerves, overwhelming me with a dizzy sensation, and then I’m at the door with my bag slung over my shoulder and I’m slipping my feet into my shoes. She follows me, begs me to stay. I spin back and study the gruesome torment pulling at her face, twisting her dark scar.
“Don’t go,” she pleads, clutching her pendant in her hand, as if this action will stop me from leaving.
The hand that isn’t on her pendant slowly reaches for my hand, brushes my skin, but I snatch it away before she can entwine her fingers with mine. I want to say something, but it can’t get past the sour lump in my throat, and seconds later I’m out of her apartment and walking down the corridor in such a calm fashion that it’s close to robotic. As I take the elevator one floor down, I stand up so straight it’s like my spine’s been lined with steel. But I can’t ignore the strands of fear, regret, and anger trailing down my back and settling in my gut and snarling up into a knot of dark, nauseous feelings. I can’t stop those images from violently flickering past my vision as I return home, feign a cheerful attitude for Dell as she asks me how things went with Sidney and tells me Mom and Dad are coming home soon and I plop my bag on the entry table and duck into the bathroom and switch on the lights and lean over the toilet and empty my stomach into the bowl.
“Wyatt?” Dell says anxiously from outside the closed door.
“I’m all right,” I respond loudly, as if to compensate for the sickening emotions still lurking inside me. I stand upright, wipe the bile off my lips with the back of my hand, examine myself in the mirror. I watch the muscles in my face relax, watch my mouth stretch itself into a rigid smile.
Shields are back up, I assure myself.

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