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March 5, 2019



Working the night shift sometimes made for odd hours. She'd gotten off of work at around 8 o'clock in the morning, but had went home for a nap before getting anything to eat. Well, a shower then a nap. Going to sleep smelling like dead bodies wasn't a preference. After days of having to overpower the apartment with air freshener after a few days where she'd crashed without doing so Keeley had begun forcing herself to get into the habit of washing then sleep.


Now, she was on her way to the nearest place for several hot cups of coffee and filling food. Wavy black hair hung loose down around her shoulders all the way to the middle of her back, and she had chosen a simple pair of faded blue jeans and rather ratty gray t-shirt for the days choice of wear along with her worn out sneakers. Comfort was preferred over everything else especially when she was having a late breakfast after a long, exhausting night of work.


Slipping into the booth inside her favorite diner, deep brown eyes perused the quiet coffee house with its few patrons at this hour. It was Saturday, and usually the place was more packed, but she figured that a lot of people were probably still waking up after a crazy Friday night. If only she'd spent hers out having fun instead of at crime scenes and in the morgue.


Picking up her menu, she began to choose what she was ordering and gave a smile of thanks to the waitress who sat down a large cup of steaming coffee. On the table, off to the inside of the booth, sat Keeley's purse along with a large planner, a notebook with several marked pages, and a couple pens. Leisure was intended to be had today as she hoped to do a little writing.

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He had been foregoing rest every other day for the past three months, or so he figured. Not that he kept track of time any better than he used to. The fever had caught hold of him, and, even when he wasn't working, all he was able to think about was the next leaf of metal to be added, the next section of the etching to be drawn, the curve of this line, the exact location for that dot. In his mind he was constantly holding and turning the box in his hands, letting his fingers tell him where the etched lines and dots used to be and how the layers of metal were structured.

He had first made the box for Mbuta as a gift, some months after he joined the team. He had settled on using several copper alloys as well as silver, arranging the layers depending on the shade of shiny gray they seemed to be and on the contrast each of them formed with the dimmer, whitish-gray of the silver. There was something about them that he couldn't see, unlike everyone else, he did know that and was more than a little uneasy, but, after spending night after night drawing sketches in this or that lighting, with shadows that varied in thickness and fell in diverse directions, hesitating, undecided, debating with himself whether he should do it or not, he had made the choice.

The design was simple in some ways, yet complex, grounded in a strict symmetry. The box was a cube with equilateral diamonds on the lid and on each of the four facets, positioned so that their angles divided the sides of each square into halves. The handle in the center of the lid was shaped like a truncated pyramid and consisted of three steps, each smaller than the previous one, and became slightly curved toward the sliced-off top. There was a pattern of slender lines filled with patina, which from a distance looked like a fine black web, including four stylized leaves that faced the angles of the innermost square on each facet and more leaves in clusters of two elsewhere.

Inside there was an egg-shaped object he made from matching materials using the same overlay technique. It was to rest on the surface of the scented powder for the sake of decoration, or perhaps to be used as a pounder or grinder.

He had no idea why he had decided on that particular gift. For his people, it was a traditional present to give to one‘ mate when she was expecting, either when it became certain that she’d conceived or when she was about to give birth. The egg stood for the new life concealed inside the mother’s body, for its mistery, while the leaf-like shapes represented life as a concept, the sum total of all the living creatures in the world and that which they had in common. The engravings were supposed to have a protective meaning for both the mother and the unborn baby, and the ultra-symmetrical design was to ensure that, once the child is born, his or her life would be well-balanced and harmonious, and that no harm would be done to them by external forces.

Mbuta had no children and didn't want to try; she‘d rather be alone, she said, when the Fadoshan came after her. Nevertheless, he knew that giving her the box was the right thing to do. Once the thought latched onto him, it wouldn't let go and the fever swept him up and carried him through the following months, dim and full of distractions jumping at him here and there. Once the box and the egg were complete, he realized that he had made the right choice again one night as he thought about how to best tell Mbuta. There was a subtle trembling inside he'd never felt before, and he found himself sinking into a soft glow that enveloped him like a coccoon; he could almost see it as a visible light. He couldn‘t explain the way the design, Mbuta and himself were connected in his mind, but sensed it in each cell of his being.

The best reward for him was to see her smile as she held the egg out against the light of the old white table-lamp (he had scrubbed and scrubbed it but couldn't get the dirt out of the gray scratches on the surface) - serene, contemplative, inward-focussed, as if she was listening to every small stirring that came from inside. He could have watched her for hours.

Given that Mbuta was gone and he would never see her, even if he did find his way back to his dimensijon some night, replicating the box was twice, thrice, ten times as important. Now that Mbuta was no more, the box was her - an extension, a precious part of her that lived on to this night.

All the more so that Mbuta was already fading from his memory. Her face was a blur and the little details were starting to elude him - the sound of her voice, the scratches at the bottom of her medicine-box, the leather satchels that used to dangle on her sash, the exact shape of her earrings. Taken together, these little bits made her who she had been and still was, and if he didn't remember her, he didn't know who would. Initran and Sunim, too, were dead, and by now, so could be Seshaewin and the others.

Mbuta had said that about the wounded member of the Fadoshan-Dambarra clan she tended to in the shelled building before she was brought to Initran. There wasn't a single intact spot on him, not the size of a coin, she had said, if it hadn't been me, who else would have been there for him?

Now the egg was nearly finished and he was impatient to see the final result, but he knew he had to take a break. Just before dawn, he had showered, rubbed his skin and hair with a mixture of argan and patchouli oil guaranteed to kill the odor and polished his military-style boots. Afterward he returned to his work and didn't raise his head until he had layered on the final leaf. All he had to do was highlight the spaces between the layers with patina.

With an effort, he forced himself to leave the egg alone. He would return to it when he was back, if he had the strength not to collapse. For now, he would go to his favorite diner, just fifty yards from his shelter, which he visited on days like these, and have some roasted meat. He picked the egg up once more, examined the surface for the possible imperfections he might have missed, and set it aside.

He slowly took out his street clothes from the cupboard and unfolded them. His dressing habits hadn't changed much. He missed his robe and thought about having one custom-made for him, but other than that, the more modern styles he saw in the street were almost the same, so that finding clothes similar to those he used to wear was not a problem. For a while now these have been a plain black shirt and loose boot-cut black jeans, which he tucked into his tall, thick-soled boots. The buckle on the black belt looked a little like his former sigil badge, and he liked that. On top he wore a long woolen overcoat, also in black, a habit that had stayed with him since the time when he had to keep warm while wearing robes.

Underneath he wore a pair of jersey sweatpants and a jersey undersweater, and it wasn't just for the warmth. Denim scraped against his bare skin like sandpaper and jeans were out of the question unless there was an additional layer. Not all jersey was suitable either; some varieties were so prickly and coarse he couldn't stand them for more than a minute. The thick workout clothes made from modern synthetic fabrics he had seen looked durable and could be great for retaining heat, but he didn't trust them. Holding them was like touching an ugly creature from one of the dimensions Initran used to refer to collectively as "darkness and lightning"; he had sniffed one such shirt at a thrift store and the revolting stench made him sick, so much he hissed and spat in people’s plain sight, and the thought alone of having that against his body sent shivers down his back. No thanks.

He wound the black scarf around his head, adjusted the band with the miniature silver box at the forehead and ran his fingers over the back, feeling and straightening each of the folds. Against the sun he wore dark goggles with a mirrored surface that hugged his face and fastened with a thick elastic strip and clasp at the back. They weren't much use because the light still seared his eyes and made them water, but at least he could tolerate it for several minutes and was able to walk across the road without going blind. The goggles doubled for his work when he had to use sulphuric acid to apply patina.

Once outside, he threw on the hood, bowed his head and stuck his hands deeper into his pockets. The street swam underfoot. The sunlight was as thick as treacle, and he was walking - no, crawling through, one labored step at a time, stuck in the same everlasting moment. There was no chance of being burned, but when the light fell on him, even through the fabric, the weakness became much more stark. The sun was like a weight on his shoulders, bending him down to, and into the ground where he belonged - the only place he belonged, last time he had checked - and threatened to crush him. Soon the blinding white began to fade to black and he felt faint. If he stayed out there much longer he would lose consciousness.

There was that door at long last. So far, so good; at least, he had made it there.

He threw the hood back onto his shoulders, took off the goggles and looked around. The electric lights were too bright and the music too loud, but not so as to be unbearable. Thankfully, the hall was almost empty, except for two or three clients in opposite corners.

He caught a casual glimpse of the woman in the one of the booths. Her wavy black hair was scattered over her shoulders and there was an organizer file on the table in front of her, but what he noted was her t-shirt, or tracksuit top, whatever that could be - gray, shabby and so stretched it could have been a sack. He felt a smidge of disgust. Such clothes weren't meant for being out of doors; the one good use for them was sleeping on his bed of dirt in the storage room, but they weren't to be shown to others. Apart from being ugly, they looked sloppy and lax, and, what was worse, they caused one to become that way on the inside.

He walked over to the booth nearby, sat down at the table and pulled out a graphite pencil and a carefully folded sketch of the box from his shirt pocket. Once he unfolded the sheet, he forgot about the woman, or, for that matter, anything else.

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New York had always been full of oddities. People, places, things. . . she'd heard the stories and seen the media even before moving here. It was one of those places where you could find the most interesting aspects of life depending on the part of town. That hadn't changed since the Resonance. If anything it'd made the oddities increased. This was why besides a cursory glance and an amused smirk, Keeley didn't think twice about the goggle-and-hoodie-clad man. He was just another odd duck in a world of odd ducks.


She did, of course, notice the judgmental look he passed her way. One brow raised as she met his gaze unblinkingly; daring him to say something. She worked hard day-in and day-out, and she rarely had time that allowed for her to relax. If she wanted to dress in leisure clothes? She would damn well do it and anybody that didn't like it could keep their looks, thoughts, and comments to themselves. This man like others knew nothing about her; the circle she kept was small after all that she'd been through, and working in a morgue didn't allow for much socializing. Nobody who actually knew Keeley would think her sloppy for wearing a ratty t-shirt. If they knew where she'd gotten that t-shirt that'd be the last thing they'd even dare to think.


Placing down the menu, she took a long and appreciative drink of her coffee then signaled the gesture with a casual motion of her hand. A subtle movement that was only noticed by the waitress as she knew her well.


[keeley]Your Big Breakfast platter. Extra bacon and fried potatoes.[/keeley] She paused, considering something then added, [keeley]A plate of whatever fruit you got available too.[/keeley]


Once the waitress was off with her order, Keeley placed the planner and notebook in front of her. A pen clicked in her hand as she flipped to the first page of the planner and started making notes. After a moment she switched to the tablet; flipping straight to a section marked by a red tab and began to write. The movement of her hand was quick as pen flew across lined paper. She had a few things to write for her blog, #MorgueStories, but that would wait until she was done with the rough draft of this story — as she planned to read it to her son during her next visit. Every so often she'd pause to take a drink of coffee.


The man at the table near her booth was forgotten, and the only noise she made was the occasional hum of excitement as an idea struck her.

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Without thinking, he began to draw Mbuta's face superimposed upon the box. His hand laid light, uncertain lines for what may have been the outline for her face. What came out clear and bold was the eyes: dark and sedate, they had a deep, subtle glimmer, not the hard shine that made him think of inserted mirror discs. Between the eyes, over the bridge of the nose, he drew the cruciform mark, a large circle overlaid with four shapes that might have been spearheads or leaves. When she wasn't working, the slit in the middle couldn't be seen unless he ran his finger across the skin or gently pulled it in opposite directions. On her chin, there were the three round dots, one just under the lower lip, in the center, and two more below, arranged in an upward-pointed triangle.

He thought of the night the two of them had spent in that horrible cluttered room. He had switched off the electric light, which was making him sick, as was the sizzling of the dust-coated and flyblown bulb that dangled overhead on a single cord. In a further corder, he had found a bundle of firewood and five-ounce bottle of lamp oil and started the fire in the hearth. Once the room was bathed in a softer glow and the shadows were shifting and flowing on the walls and ceiling, they sat down cross-legged in front of the grate. Though languid and thoughtful, Mbuta was more talkative than she‘d been before. As she smoked her long wooden pipe and warmed her hands by the fire, she told him how her wenxa-dyem was taken and how one night she, too, barely managed to escape with her life. An unseen barrier seemed to have melted; her cautious, guarded bearing was gone and there was nothing left but a deep calm. Once or twice, he had turned to find her gazing straight at him with a strange look on her face, earnest and watchful.

Eventually, Mbuta trailed into silence. He had forgotten how exhausted she was, that she hadn't had any rest in the past three nights, until he felt the back of her head lean against his chest. He was surprised that her face hadn't changed - he'd heard all those rumors about the Aska Bere being "special", but hadn't had the chance to see for himself - but her teeth had come out, her eyes were a dark wool-gray and he could swear he saw them shimmer with a soft light of their own. She touched cheeks with him and rubbed, squinting at him through the corner of her eye, and he responded, pressing closer against her cheek and nudging at her nose with his.

In what may have equally been two minutes or two hours her head had rolled, her body slumped and went limp. When he gathered her into his arms, she was already in the day-sleep. He put a couple of pillows under her head and back, covered her with the ragged old quilt and tucked her in to save more of the warmth and prolong that delightful sleep as much as he could. When she grew cold to the touch, he carried her over to the opposite wall, where a quantity of soil had been spread on the floor. He sat by her side until daybreak, weaving a shade for the bulb from some strips of bark (even without the dim unnatural light and the thick fluid shadows it threw onto the bags scattered on the floor, or the buzzing and flickering, and even after cleaning it with a cloth, he still couldn‘t stand the sight of it) and watched her as she slept. There was a blissful smile on her face. The warmth was everywhere, inside him and outside, surrounding him and swelling in great waves like an ocean.

He lifted his head and looked at the sheet. Mbuta's face was like a light shadow cast over the box. He had drawn the thing in the middle of her forehead as open and she was staring at him from the sheet, all of her three eyes fixed on him in reproach and dismay. He shuddered.

He failed her. He let her slip through his fingers, as he'd done with so many others. That he had had no choice wasn't an excuse because those who wanted to have a choice always ended up with one. He simply hadn't tried hard enough.


Now he was forgetting her and had nothing to hold onto. The Fadda Bidya excelled at severing the links that connected the dead to the living.


That night, he had been surprised to see the concrete block lying slantwise across the road and the dark silhouettes, surrounded in silver against the solid whitish wall of rain. A roadblock in that area was strange to say the least, because there wasn’t a whole lot to monitor. As he drove closer, the indistinct shapes turned into gray figures in wide-sleeved coats down to the knee and double harnesses over their tactical vests. The slightly curved tips of the massive single-sided swords  that hung under their left arms almost trailed along the ground. He could see the badges, the white emblem strips sewn into the uniforms, the odd glimpse of a nose clip in the shadow under a hood. Fadoshan. As many as four of them, though even one would have been trouble enough. This had to be the welcome party they had had in store for him, he thought, the one he’d been anticipating all along.

Two others stepped out of the darkness at the further end of the barricade. They were in full riot armor, with straight black face-guards and shields made of the same shiny black material. No, he corrected himself - make that an honorable welcome party for very important persons. Or for non-persons.

One of the lower-ranking Fadoshan walked over to the cabin and signaled for them to get out. His face, shaded by the watertight hood, was ashen, without the most distant hint of the dark flush. The rectangular reading-lenses in his glasses turned his eyes into swimming, out-of-focus black blobs. The tips of his thumb and forefinger were smeared in black, and there was black under his nails from the type of ink that wouldn't wash out for weeks. On his upper arm there was the obligatory band - green, or so Ibrahim had been told, but to himself, a dingy and nondescript gray, much like the man's own skin.


The two councilors stood a few yards away and waited. The redundant armor made him think of overgrown grotesque insects, and the revulsion that rose in his stomach was much the same – he wanted to squash and stomp on the vile thing just to be sure it was no more, as if he’d seen a giant black scorpion scamper from under a rock, pincers raised and tail poised to strike.

The folk by-name was spot on, except they were showing no signs of going down alongside those they had stung and drowned as they rode on their backs across the stream.

What happened then? As soon as he had opened the door and stepped out of the cabin, he was grabbed, pulled down and shocked with a stun gun. His jacket was yanked off. Then he was sprawled flat on his face in the cold muck in the downpour with his hands duct-taped behind his back and the cold hard nozzle of a machine gun pressed against the nape of his head. He was patted down from head to toe, his pockets were turned out, his boots pulled off.

They continued to press him into the mud until he was submerged, holding him down with such force that he was sure he was going to walk away with broken bones, if at all. Had he needed to breathe, he’d have suffocated. He was too cold to shiver, but the touch of the soil was soothing and he was beginning to drift off. There was a mild, pleasant weakness and a distinctive sensation in his skin, similar to being rubbed with cotton wool. He was floating inside a soft cloud, weightless, beginning to melt. Sounds grew duller, although he could discern distant thudding and jangling coming through the loud rustle of the rain.

No, he told himself, this wasn't the time to sleep. They hadn't buried him just yet.

The tape that bound his hands was cut through and in a moment the weight was gone from his shoulders and legs. He rose on one arm, wiping the mud from his face. One of the councilors was stretching out a hand to him; with the other hand, he had started to lift the face-guard, so Ibrahim could see his blanched chin.

Ibrahim had bared his teeth and hissed at him as he staggered to his feet, tore off the remainder of the tape from his wrists and began to put his boots back on.

Fuck you, he had thought. No, I don't want to see your sick-looking mug. Show it to your underlings.

There must have been other words, too, he was sure of that, though he, on his part, had nothing to tell them.

Back inside the truck, he had watched the wipers drive the torrents of water back and forth. There were no sounds save for the deafening roar of the rain. If it weren’t for the lining of the seats being cut open, and the dirt, and each of them being soaked and caked in half-dried mud, one could well think it’d been a bad waking dream.

He had wondered whether it'd been their dose of mindfuck for that night, which the Fadda Bidya, for reasons known only to themselves, had decided to double. Perhaps they wanted to remind him who was running the show and have him lie face down in the dirt while they combed his truck and clothes simply because they could, just so he didn’t forget his place. But his inside was dark and muddled, and he knew it went beyond the usual frustration at their status games; he wanted to reach home sooner.

What came next? They must have gotten stuck in yet another pit along the way. The roads in those quarters often were more impassable than the open countryside, especially during periods of heavier rainfall, when they turned into a mire. He had climbed out and leaned against the back of the truck, almost knee-deep in the sticky, slippery clay, as he thought to himself: Was the councilor the one who murdered her? Did he watch her die?

No, he could never be their friend, or engage in an ongoing collaboration effort that entailed civilized communication, whatever they chose to call it. What was he to do, shake that councilor’s hand and be glad he’d shown his face?

After he had hoisted up the truck, he became aware of a sharp stabbing pain in his side. The dull ache must have been there ever since they let go of him, but the effort brought it out. Broken ribs – two, or three or four, he’d never have bothered to count in that state. His mind was growing more and more clouded with a hunger that in itself was painful. He climbed out, let Initran take over the wheel and walked home alone, making his way more by the faint hints of scent than by sight or hearing.

What then? The ear-shattering sound of the water smashing down onto him in streams. The cold that seeped through his skin and beneath, into the marrow of his bones. Falling to his knees, scrambling back up, falling again. Sharp burning pain in his side. Pain from the spasms in his stomach. Flushes of heat, frequent because of having to wade through the muck, but not even breaking the surface of the cold. Darkness.

Mbuta didn't have the chance to see who her murderer was.

He must have killed something because Sunim told him that he was covered in blood as well as dirt and reeked of forest beasts. By then, the hunger had diminished enough to be ignored, and the pain in his chest had begun to fade. She said he seemed to have just come back from the dead or some such, and he felt like telling her that no, he had already been back twice, first when Atyam took him and then when he had said his first words in that bricked-up basement. Third time around, nothing could get him.

He had gone down the steps to find a room he didn’t recognize. The drawers in the cupboard had been pulled out, the contents scattered all over the floor – there were clothes, instruments, drawings, paper, stock sheets of metal piled on top of each other. The low table had been knocked over. The rugs had been ripped away from the walls and floor and some were still dangling with the sharp backs of the tacks visible. There were muddy prints and lumps of clay everywhere. The thick door to the side room where he slept had been taken off the hinges and stood wide open.

His head was hollow and his tongue wouldn't move, as if he'd lost his speech again. He walked to the cupboard, already knowing what he was going to find. Never mind being incapacitated, humiliated and dunked into the mud with extreme prejudice - it hadn’t been about him.

All of Mbuta's belongings were gone. Even the shoulder bags, which had seen better nights, and, before that, days, and the satchels and torn hand-wraps.

While she was alive, he couldn't stand to see those wraps, but now he would have given a lot to have them. They, too, contained something of her - a wisp of warmth in the grazed and darkened suede, in the white threads that stuck out where the stitches had come undone. Her scent had been thick on them, and if he closed his eyes, he could sense her at his side.

But no, they had to continue to obliterate her even after she was dead.

The letter came last - machine-typed, unsigned, but stamped with the Fadoshan sigil, sealed in a neat envelope. Sunim and Initran read it out to him so many times he memorized the gist and most of the phrasing by rote.

We regret leaving your belongings in such disarray, which must have taken considerable time and effort on your part to remedy. Be assured that no harm was meant to you or to your more, should one say, vulnerable associates - as you understand, we merely had to be certain there were no lingering traces of the blight, seeing how the descendants of Ofwo contaminate all things with their touch. We hope that no more bad dreams shall haunt you now that your shelter has been cleansed, and, with the taint gone and our duty fulfilled, we shall consider the events of the recent years, or the misguided decisions behind them, as a mere matter of miscommunication.

The writing was stilted and indigestible. Every thought had to be untwisted and turned downside-up again to make sense and the long words were like boulders that both obscured the view and blocked the way. Not surprising, given that no-one could have swallowed that message if it lay on the surface.

He was being spoken to, and had been for a while. Judging by the woman's raised and persistent tone, she wanted him to respond and he stared at her, unable to understand what she wanted. Some time had to pass before he realized she was the waitress. He had come there to eat, hadn't he?

For once he was thankful for the sunlit time of day. The daze subdued him and made him watch his surroundings from a distance, without full involvement, which was safer for him and for others. At night, an interruption like this could have triggered a much more extreme reaction.

He opened the menu and poked a finger into the pictures of the rare steak and the fruit plate – his favorite foods there, and the only he’d ever ordered - and told the waitress what he wanted to have. She said something again, he couldn't quite understand what because the words blurred together into one continuous noise, and he repeated his request.

She asked him whether he wanted the usual, and this time he understood.

He nodded and she scribbled something down in her notebook and left him alone at last.

He looked around and noticed once again the woman in the nearby booth. She was writing something and seemed oblivious to the rest of the world, much as he'd been. She bore a distinct resemblance to someone he knew and this bothered him more than he was willing to admit to himself, but faces and names wouldn't break through the haze. Trying to recall them was like counting the pebbles at the bottom of a muddy lake. He stared at her for a while and wondered.

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Familiar faces from the past were something that couldn't always be avoided. Sometimes it actually was someone from the past, and other times it wasn't anyone known at all. There were times when Keeley could've swore that she'd seen someone from her youth. Then it would turn out that wasn't them at all. Part of it was the mind playing tricks, but mostly it was a deep yearning for a familiar face. She didn't know that many people in New York. Everyone she knew had been left behind — or had died. What remained of her family lived far away except for Micah. And her son spent a majority of his time in a coma which continued to break her heart day after day. She occasionally spoke to Stefan when he wasn't off on Bakkhos business or wrote to her family — though mail was even slower these days — but otherwise the only people she knew here were new connections to her life. Nobody that had known her in the days before she'd come to New York.


It was a hard pill to swallow most days.


Her pen was flying along the lined paper until she felt the sensation of staring. The pen paused then fell flat against the paper with a slight thunk.


Her first experience in learning to acknowledge when being watched was in her youth; the bullies were prone to looking at her with their intent clear in their eyes. The other experiences came post-Resonance. However, the one that made her truly skilled in recognizing that sensation was a bittersweet memory: her son. Being a parent meant a lot of being stared at on a daily basis. Micah had always been an observant child. He'd watched her as she moved around the house to clean while he was in his play pen or bouncy chair or swing or walker. Those big eyes taking in every little move she made with the most adorable expressions playing across his face.


Swallowing at the memory of his smiles and giggles when she'd catch him looking, and talk to him, Keeley forced herself to leave the past behind for now. It hurt too much.


Instead she turned in her booth to see a man watching her.


[keeley]Can I help you?[/keeley]


There was a little bit of a bite to her words as she thought it rude to stare, but it was still kind as she considered that he might need something from her table like sugar.

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