Katie looked down at the address – it was local, it was a place she’d walked past a hundred times, so there’d been no need to sketch out instructions from her street directory in her mostly-unused car.
Her job had always been close enough to walk – there’d been no need to drive to the accountant’s office, so there was only the occasional grocery trip, or small overnight holiday.
It was unlikely that any new job was going to be as easy a commute; or as good a work environment.
Baker and Mills had employed her, even whilst she’d been in high school, taking her from a lowly-paid after school records officer, to their full-time office manager and all around maestro of everything she surveyed. Stationery, meetings, travel, HR – everything had been in her purview, so it had been a blow to find out that Milton Baker was following Alice Mills into retirement, and that the office was closing.
They had been sending clients to their associate offices for years, so it hadn’t been a surprise – and the younger accountants were all forming an office of their own down in Brisbane – and she hadn’t wanted the long commute each day.
Her severance package had been generous enough – she had at least another six weeks before things began to get tight, but there was the overriding feeling of uselessness when she wasn’t working.
She stopped, pausing to look at the cute puppies in the window of the pet shop, and to adjust her blouse at the same time. It was bright, with an interesting-if-work-appropriate pattern that hopefully drew eyes away from her face.
It was the antithesis in the “my eyes are up here” thinking, but there was something comforting about wearing a distracting blouse, so long as it kept people’s eyes away from her face – and delayed them from noticing her glass eye.
Comments were inevitable; stares were inevitable; and white people seemed to have no trouble doubling down on both.
She sighed, folded the piece of paper, tucked it into her purse and walked down to the next street, found the small door leading up to the first-floor office suite and entered through the smoked-glass door.
Afternoon interviews were either good – it gave a chance to impress after a day’s worth of mediocre candidates; or the worst – they’d already chosen a candidate at 12:45 and just hadn’t cancelled the remaining interviews.
‘Good afternoon!’ the receptionist chirped – she was a pretty, bright-eyed young woman – probably shortly out of high school. ‘How can I he-‘ her chipped demeanour faded as her eyes caught Katie’s face. ‘Eye- I mean- How can I help you?’
She kept the smiled on her face – the reaction was one she was used to. ‘Katie Stuart,’ she said, ‘here for an interview at four.’
The receptionist forced a smile. ‘Sure thing. Take a seat.’
The familiar pit in her stomach returned as the receptionist spoke in a hushed tone into an intercom. After a moment, the woman stood. ‘Someone will be with you shortly. Can I get you something? Tea? Coffee?’
She smiled. ‘No thanks, I’m fine.’
“Shortly” became fifteen minutes, then a tall, nearly skeletal, man emerged from a back office, and extended a hand to her. ‘Yohan,’ he said by way of introducing himself, ‘if you’ll follow me through.’
She shook his hand, and followed him through the modern-looking open-plan office to a small, glass-walled private office at the back. She sat in one of the plush leather chairs, and he sat behind his desk.
Yohan, for his part, didn’t mention her eye – or even seem to notice it – something that was a nice change of pace; even people who were polite enough not to mention it usually stared, unable to stop themselves from looking into what they seemed to feel was an empty, glassy abyss.
She kept her expression level – Baker and Mills had made her accustomed to not even thinking about her eye, interview after interview was making her more and more conscious of it; leaving her hollow filled with psychosomatic itching, and the uncontrollable urge just to hide away for a while; or try and find work by correspondence.
They reviewed her work history; her skills and strengths – all and all, a fairly ordinary interview.
He rose, and shook her hand, telling her that they’d call the successful candidate by Friday.
She walked back out to the office, and found the receptionist changing out the flowers on the counter.
Katie peeked at the desk as she walked past – there was a list – and her name had already been crossed from it. Tired, but familiar disappointment settled over her, and she left – and the receptionist didn’t even bother saying a word.
She walked down the stairs and from the building.
There was a park across the road – somewhere to sit and think for a while, before she headed home.
She walked through the length of the park, soaking in the rich colours as the sun went down. She found a table, sat, and pulled a small puzzle book from her purse – it was something her aunt had always done as a way to calm down after a bad day, and it was a habit she’d inherited from her.
It wasn’t particularly safe to be out alone at night, but it was barely early evening – too early to even to even begin to worry.
There was one more job interview tomorrow, then nothing – it would be time to photocopy her resume again, and invest in another roll of stamps – and perhaps spend Tuesday papering the places she hadn’t bothered with during her first run.
Her preference was to work in a small, professional office – an accountant, a lawyer or a doctor – her experience and talents suited her for that world. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, and she wanted to be employed well before her status became “beggar”.
The park began to darken, making puzzles impossible, so she packed her bag and started to walk down the path out of the park.
Someone hit her from behind, and she fell forward.
‘Sorry lady!’ a man called as a small group of men in runner’s gear jogged past.
‘Assholes,’ she muttered as she sat up, and began to brush her knees.
Wind touched her face, it was immediately apparent that something was very, very wrong – she could feel the breeze in her hollow, and feel where the wind was dipping into her face, instead of blowing over her eye.
She pushed her purse from her shoulder and went back to the ground, scrabbling around for her eye.
‘No!’ the word ripped itself as she saw it rolling towards the sewer grate. She threw herself forward, but it slipped between the bars before she could close her hand around it.
She crawled forward and looked down – hoping that it had caught on a piece of trash or something.
There was nothing to be seen. Her eye was gone.
She stood, and brushed down her hands and legs – an automatic action, not something she had invested a lot of thought in. She had to be clean, even if she didn’t have both eyes.
Tears were coming, and she didn’t bother to stop them.
She turned, saw a bench a few feet away, walked to and sat, digging through her purse for a tissue.
A small group of people walked by, and she turned away, then pressed her hand to her face; being called out as a freak was the last thing she needed.
After a moment, a man walked past – he heard his footsteps stop just past her, then the light scuff of his shoes as he turned to walk back to her.
‘You know how people say they weren’t born last week. Or apparently they say that. I’ve heard that. That they say that. I was. Born last week. But I still want to help.’
She looked up, hand still clamped to her face. He sounded drunk, or deranged. Hopefully drunk. Hopefully a friendly drunk. ‘What- What are you on about?’
‘I want to help,’ he said, ‘you’re the first person I’ve seen crying. I think it’s- I can help. With a lot of things. Please.’
She flicked over his features, cataloguing them like a stationery order, just in case she had to file a police report. White guy. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Nice suit, though it didn’t look on the expensive side of things. Someone she could easily take if things got violent.
She set her mouth into a thin line, then released her hand away from her face. If he wanted a
show, he could have a show. If he wanted to scream or rant drunkenly, then he couldn’t make her night much worse. ‘I dropped my eye,’ she said, watching as his gaze settled on her hollow socket. ‘Those guys who were running through jostled me, and it popped out.’ She put her hand back to her face. ‘So you really can’t help, so please, leave me alone.’
The man stared at her, then smiled. ‘I can help, if you’d like me to.’
She removed her hand again, and rested her fists in her lap. ‘Please leave me alone.’ She sniffed the air, but couldn’t smell even a trace of alcohol.
The man was suddenly ten feet away. ‘Is this away enough?’
Katie blinked, then slowly looked around for a weapon. She hadn’t seen him move. If he was that fast – then he could be dangerous, especially with- ‘You should try out for the Olympics,’ she said, trying to keep her voice casual. She rose from the bench and started to take a few slow steps away. If she ran, he would probably catch her – if she screamed, then-
She felt her body centring, preparing for a possible fight. She knew what to do, but there was always the imperative not to fight – to go in scrapping as a last possible resort – and the clothes she was wearing were the furthest thing from her regular martial arts gear.
He was suddenly in front of her again. ‘I really was,’ he said. ‘Born last week. Please, let me help.’
‘What-’ she asked. ‘The fuck are you? You’re just- Popping!’ she said, the word bursting from her. ‘Like Mister Scott is beaming you around!’
The man took a step back, and she suddenly saw a nervous look in his eyes. He suddenly didn’t look dangerous at all. He looked scared. He looked- Gentle.
She sank back to the chair. ‘I get my eyes done custom,’ she said. ‘It’ll take a week to come in – at best! I’ve got a spare. But- I’ve got a job interview tomorrow and people tend to notice the spare more.’ She let out a long breath. ‘What are you?’ she asked again. ‘Was that- Like a magic trick or something?’
‘Some people-’ The man pointed to the seat. ‘Can I sit? I think it’s rude to stand. I think. Is it?’
‘Kind of?’ she said, her voice starting to waver. She shook her head. ‘No. I want to go home. I just want to- Go home.’
‘Can I walk with you? It’s- Statistically speaking-’
She stared at him for a moment, then stood, and looked at him. ‘You’re,’ she said slowly, as she started to believe it, ‘you’re not dangerous, are you?’
He gave her a confused looked. ‘I am,’ he said, the words plain and honest. ‘I’m an agent. I’ve got training in weapons and hand to hand and-’ He cut himself off. ‘Are you asking if I’m going to hurt you?’ he sounded almost…scared at the idea. A good – if confusing – sign.
She nodded, her head seeming to move too quickly. ‘That’s usually the implication of that question.’
He shook his head. ‘I wouldn’t hurt you. I wouldn’t hurt- I haven’t hurt anyone yet. Except sparring with people during my initial testing phase, and I’m not convinced that counts.’
‘You can walk me to the edge of the park,’ she said. It seemed…safe. It would at least get her back into a more public space. If he-
He didn’t seem like he wanted to try anything. He almost seemed…childlike.
‘I’m Darren,’ he said. ‘I didn’t say. Agent Darren. That’s my whole name. And- Rank. And what I am. I’m an agent. I can tell people my title. But we don’t usually tell people what we are. Even though it’s the same. And unless you know already, saying agent doesn’t make any sense. You don’t know what it means. I don’t think. You don’t seem fae. You might know a recruit. But there’s not a lot in the area. So. Maybe not.’
‘You’re rambling,’ she said gently, finally convinced that he wasn’t drunk. Whatever he was, it wasn’t addled by alcohol. ‘Hello Darren,’ she said. ‘I’m Katie.’
‘You said. And I’m running facial recognition. Stuart. Your last name is Stuart.’ She stiffened and stepped back. His face fell. ‘Sorry. Was that…impolite? It kind of happens automatically. And no one has told me what I’m supposed to say out loud and what I’m supposed to keep inside. I feel I may- Might be missing some key software. I also believe my training was inadequate.’
So far, they’d only moved ten feet closer to the edge of the park.
Confusion finally overcame fear, and she stopped trying to walk. ‘Please just tell me what you’re on about. Did you hit your head? Do you need help?’
‘I do,’ he said, that same naked honesty in his voice, ‘but I don’t think a human could give it to me. At least not a human who wasn’t an aide, or at least a normal recruit.’
His word choice hadn’t eluded her. ‘You keep saying human,’ she said, ‘like you’re not.’
‘I’m not,’ he said. ‘That’s one of the things I’m probably not supposed to say.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘But I don’t know what I’m doing. And it’s hard when you don’t know what you’re doing. And no one is available to help me. And- And I’m not supposed to need help.’ He smiled, the motion seeming ill-practiced. ‘I like walking at night. I come through here every night. Routine is supposed to help with acclimatisation.’
‘Acclimatising to what?’ she asked, looking for the one thread of the conversation that didn’t seem entirely out of this world.
‘Life,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Being alive. It’s not easy. It’s better than not. But- I’m not used to it yet.’
‘You…really aren’t messing around, are you?’
He walked a few paces forward, so that they were directly under one of the lamps. ‘I’m telling you the truth, so best as I know it.’ He looked at her – they were nearly the same height – and he tilted his head slightly. ‘I couldn’t see the colour of your eye, not properly. I can see it in the- But that was rude. Seeing it here is more real. And current.’
He lifted his left hand and held it between them, his hand in a loose fist. He smiled, the action still stiff, but the expression looked good on his face – it was a face that needed to smile more. He opened his hand, and held it palm up – and there was a container, holding a perfect glass eye, the colours matched exactly to her green-hazel right eye – even better than the custom ones that she ordered.
Her breath caught in her throat. ‘Wh-what?’ she asked, trying to step back.
‘We call ourselves agents,’ he said. ‘That’s what we are, but like I said, it’s word that doesn’t mean anything unless it means something. The fae call us angels. We used to be that. A long time ago. That word might make more sense. I’m not assuming your religion, just your knowledge of general culture and-‘
She stared at him, and – much to her embarrassment – started to swoon, her head going light.
She stumbled past him, and grabbed for the lamp post, resting her forehead against cool metal, blurry graffiti right in front of her eyes helping bring her back to something far more relatable.
‘We’re supposed to call civilians by their surname. Ms Stuart. But you called yourself Katie. Can I call you that?’
She wrapped her arms around the lamp post, unwilling to acknowledge him.
It was too much, and it was too weird, and he was-
And he had an eye that would get her through the job interview. Even for the three seconds she’d looked at it, it looked perfect – even better than the one she’d dropped, and a million times better than the backup eye that was just a basic blue – the only thing she liked about the blue eye was that it made her feel vaguely like David Bowie. But Bowie wasn’t the right attitude for the corporate world.
‘Katie?’ he said. ‘Sorry. I think I’m supposed to be sorry.’
She closed her eyes for a moment, well aware of the strange, hollow sensation left by the loss of her glass eye, then turned and looked up at him. ‘Do you promise you’re not trying to hurt me? Or do anything weird?’
He looked down at her – he was even more lost than she was. ‘I don’t know what weird is in this context, but…I don’t think so?’
She reached out, and placed her hand on his arm. ‘I’ve had a really bad day,’ she said. ‘And I think you have too.’ His face had frozen. ‘What?’ she asked, tiny tingles of fear raising up her neck again.
‘I’ve never been touched by a human,’ he said. ‘I’ve-‘ he laughed, and it seemed as nascent as his smile. ‘I’ve never actually been touched on that arm before.’ He smiled again. ‘I think my behaviour is odd. At least compared to what you would define as normal. I- Thank you. For continuing this conversation. It’s- Helping. Even if you aren’t an agent.’
Her hand stayed still on his arm – she had the option to run. To flee. To get away from the- He was talking about humans and fae and angels like it was completely normal. He wasn’t someone she should trust. He wasn’t someone who-
He looked like a lost puppy.
Katie curled her hand around his arm, linking her arm with his. ‘I have no idea what to think about you,’ she said, taking a step, and urging him towards the edge of the park. ‘But I think you’re genuine when you say you’re not going to hurt me. I wouldn’t be touching you if I thought you were going to hurt me.’
‘I like it,’ he said, almost tripping over his words. ‘It’s warm.’
They fell into silence.
They reached the edge of the park, and she slipped her arm away from his. ‘This is far as-’
He lifted the container holding the eye.
‘I don’t have any money on me,’ she said – something told her that money wasn’t the way to pay for it, but it was the only thing she had to offer. ‘Is it like- Is it going to disappear at midnight like I’m Cinderella.’ She gave a sudden, bitter laugh. ‘I know it’s morbid, but I’ll still take a glass eye over a glass slipper any day. Those must have been the most uncomfortable shoes imaginable.’
There was a completely blank look on his face, like his mind had suddenly gone out to lunch.
She took a half step back. ‘Darren?’
He blinked, and the gentle look returned to his face. ‘Cinderella,’ he said. ‘I’d never heard of it. I was just absorbing the text to understand your reference. The shoes do sound uncomfortable. But there seems to be some disagreement if they were glass or fur.’
‘Perrault added the glass slipper, I think, from what I remember from reading up on it.’ The response was almost automatic. A snippet of normal conversation amongst the madness of the last little while. ‘No fairy tales?’
Darren – almost nervously – crooked his arm towards her again. ‘I know who I am. Who I serve. What my tasks and duties are; and the area that I am to protect. I am aware of how to perform my function. I know I like walking alone.’ He paused – his gait breaking for a moment. ‘And now I know that I don’t just like walking alone. This is- This is the sum of me. Cogito ergo sum. I think, I am, but I am not much.’
There was convenience store open across the street. ‘I- I need something to drink,’ she said. ‘I’m dizzy, and-’
‘I can make a drink. Require. Like I did for the eye. I can require almost anything. The things I can’t. I don’t think you’d want. Are you interested in bioweapons or nuclear armaments?’
She laughed, but stopped when she realised he was serious.
‘No-’ she said haltingly. ‘I just want- I just want to buy it. Something normal. Please. I’m- I’m not ready to run away from you just yet. But I need-’
‘There’s a break in traffic,’ he observed.
She smirked. ‘There isn’t any traffic at all.’
They crossed the street, and she let go of his arm as they walked into the store. She turned her back on him – half-expecting him to disappear as soon as she lost her line of sight on him, and headed to the fridges at the back of the store.
She found some chocolate milk, and a tall bottle of water. Both were overpriced, but both would come in handy – the sugar to help her mind going at the required million miles an hour; the water to clear away the stress.
The clerk blinked at her as she placed the bottles on the counter, and she quickly turned away, her cheeks burning – he’d seen her hollow. Thankfully, he hadn’t screamed, or called for a mob and pitchforks, but the combination of judgment and pity cut deeply.
She paid, and looked around for the…for Darren. Adding an appellation to him was going to take some convincing. He stood near the front of the store, seemingly mesmerised by a rack of chocolate bars.
‘Did you want something?’ she asked.
‘I’ve never had chocolate before,’ he commented mildly. He looked up, and smiled – the motion seeming natural for the first time that night, and proceeded to fill his arms with one of each time.
‘I’m not buying-’ she started as he dumped the plethora of sugar onto the counter.
‘I am,’ he responded brightly, and pulled a slim leather wallet from an inner pocket of his jacket. He retrieved a very, very new-looking credit card from it, and paid for the whole transaction – including her drinks.
She looked at the wallet, and saw just the corner of an ID inside. ‘Can I see that?’
Without hesitation, he handed it over as he clerk handed him the bags. She followed him out, stopping under a street light to look at the ID.
It was plain enough to almost make her ask if it was fake. It identified him as Agent Darren – that much had been true. There was a plain grey circle as a logo in the background, and a faint holographic pattern, presumably to provide security.
There was nothing else in the wallet – except for the credit card that he still held in his hand. There were none of the usual debris that tended to collect – even in men’s wallets. No receipts, no ticket stubs, no dirt, lint, or bus tickets. A brand new wallet.
She looked back at him. A brand new wallet for a brand new person.
He caught her eye, and she handed the wallet back – he had the shopping bags easily hanging from one arm. He looked at the credit card. ‘First time I’ve used this,’ he commented. ‘But not the first time I’ve signed my name. There is a surprisingly large amount of paperwork involved in a new life.’
Katie reached for the bag, and extracted the water – she’d drink the chocolate milk if they stopped somewhere…safe. Somewhere public enough that felt safe enough to relax.
Darren jostled the bag and looked down at the chocolate. ‘My agency isn’t far,’ he said. ‘I could provide a glass. And somewhere to sit.’
‘I don’t want to go into any locked buildings with you, not just yet.’
‘Then…the parking lot? I could put a table there. It’s well-lit. If it’s not to your standards. I could improve the lighting.’
She took his arm again, and watched as he stiffened again – as though he truly weren’t used to touch – but felt herself smile in return as a smile settled onto his face. It was going to be – with practice – an expression that looked good on him.
‘I’m going to need some proof of what you’re saying,’ she said. ‘And I’m going to need you to say it again. Because I’m not sure I’ve caught it all.’
‘I can provide whatever explanations and proofs you require,’ he said. ‘I can add veracity to any of my claims. I don’t wish- I don’t want you to think that I’m lying.’
After a couple of hundred metres, he urged her to the left – across a small garden bed, and into the parking lot of an extremely nondescript building – one she’d walked past hundreds of times without taking a second look of it. She’d always assumed it was offices of some kind, or storage for a larger company, or with secretive tenants who didn’t want or need signage.
The last possibility was beginning to gain some traction.
He unhooked his arms from hers, and walked forward, raising one hand slightly. Light flooded the area, making it as lit as any outdoor café – it no longer felt unsafe or like the perfect dark area to beat her or rob her.
‘I know you may again think it is a magic trick, but I invite you to watch.’
He lifted his hand again, and a picnic table and benches appeared in one of the brighter circles of light.
Katie stepped forward, and touched the table – it was solid enough, and it was seemingly less and less likely that it was a magic trick of some kind – magic, on the other hand, was steadily becoming a possibility.
‘Sit. Please. I’ll try to explain in a concise manner.’
She sat, and wrapped her hands around the water bottle – it would help steady her, centre her, and keep her from reacting if he started to sound…crazy.
Darren straightened himself, and pressed a hand to his tie, as if to ensure that his clothes were tidy. ‘I am Agent Darren. I am an agent. I work for the Agency. The Agency does protects humanity from fae – to define: fairies and the like. I am not human. I would ask you not to judge me for this.’ He stepped forward. ‘I will offer proof now. I would appreciate if you didn’t scream.’
‘That phrasing is worrying,’ she said.
‘I won’t hurt you,’ he said. ‘I promise.’
He laced his fingers together, and dropped his hands. She focussed on them, and watched as the colour slowly drained from his skin – something that could have been a trick of light, slowly becoming something that couldn’t have been her eye playing tricks on her.
His skin disappeared, leaving him with glowing blue hands. She looked up, and watched the process repeat to his face. ‘This isn’t a magic trick,’ he said, his voice still gentle. ‘It’s magic, and it’s science, but it’s not a trick. It’s not a deception.’
Her thoughts started to grind to a halt.
He was telling the truth. He was really telling the truth.
Katie grabbed her water bottle, stood, and grabbed his hand, and poured water over it – if there was any paint, or electronics, or anything, it would show.
There were faint impressions in the blue skin, but nothing more.
She dropped the water bottle, but kept hold of his hand. ‘Oh,’ she said, the word a tiny exhalation. She blinked a few times, and watched his skin go back to normal, even as she held onto his hand – a faint feeling of static under her fingers. ‘I think I’d like to sit down now.’
Darren nodded, sat on the opposite bench seat, and tipped the bag of chocolate on the smooth, blue-painted wood.
‘You’re not human,’ she said slowly, as her fingers traced the wood grain.
‘I am not,’ he said, and carefully tore open a Mars bar. He carefully tore broke it in two, and stared at the interior of the chocolate. ‘I expected it to be red,’ he said. ‘Like the planet.’
‘Taste it,’ she said, watching him slowly – probably without even noticing it – bringing his hand closer and closer to his mouth.
He nodded solemnly, and bit into the bar. He chewed on the sensibly-sized bite, and then swallowed. ‘I like it,’ he said. ‘I want to try more.’
She watched him try a few more chocolates, and after a little while, she joined him on his bench, but sat facing outwards, her head tilted up to the sky. ‘Do you star gaze?’ she asked. ‘You said you like walking at night.’
‘The light pollution makes it hard,’ he said. ‘I’d like to observe the sky from a more remote location, but I haven’t given myself the opportunity as yet.’
The silence resumed, and after a little while longer, he turned, and joined her in looking at the stars.
‘I really have to go,’ she said. ‘I have a job interview tomorrow. I need to get some beauty sleep, otherwise I’ll look trashed.’
‘Is that part of the REM cycle?’ he asked.
‘It’s an expression,’ she chided. ‘This was…one of the more interesting nights of my life.’ She stood. ‘Keep the chocolate milk. It’s chocolate in a whole new matter state.’
‘Can we meet again?’ he asked, the phrase coming out awkwardly. ‘I liked this.’
This was her opportunity to get out, to escape, and to not deal with this insanity any more.
‘There’s a coffee shop about half a dozen streets down,’ she said with a point. ‘Pink and white striped signage. I’ll see you there at one o’clock?’
He nodded, and stood as she did. ‘I could shift you home,’ he said. ‘It would save you the walk.’
‘I’d prefer to walk,’ she said. ‘It’s not far, and I’d like to clear my head.’ She reached for his hand and squeezed it for a brief moment. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’