“This tastes funny,” Joshua said in a drowsy monotone, tossing his burger on the bed next to him. “I can’t eat it.”
He’d finally come to in the backseat of the car, mumbling and groggy, and spent the rest of the trip back to the condo staring out the window. Dodge insisted they stop for food, and Blair argued, claiming she had plenty of instameals in her bag back in the room, but he didn’t want flavored soy. He wanted actual food.
Joshua hadn’t budged as they ordered a bag of drive-thru burgers, and when they arrived back at the room, he plodded into the room and sat back down on his spot on the bed, facing the TV, as if he’d never left.
Dodge leaned over, his first burger already gone and a second more than half finished, picked up Klaxon’s sandwich and sniffed. It smelt artificial, but no different from the hundreds of other burgers he’d eaten from that restaurant.
“Smells fine to me.”
“There’s something wrong with it. It’s spoiled.”
Dodge took a small bite, expecting to be disgusted. It tasted exactly like the one he was holding in his other hand. He dropped it back down on the wrapper beside Joshua. “That’s the way they’re supposed to taste.”
Joshua refused to pick it up. “It’s rotten.”
Blair, who had turned her nose up at the burgers and was finishing an instameal, spoke up from her seat on the couch, “I told you you wouldn’t like it. Eat one of these.” She fished a rectangular package from the duffel bag and tossed it to him.
“But I used to like these,” Joshua said, eyeing the burger as though it were about to lash out and bite him. “At least I think I did.”
He tore the instameal package open, pulled the tab and set it down beside the abandoned burger as it warmed.
No one mentioned Joshua’s breakdown at the club. It had all been a little too familiar to Dodge, and besides, he was still riding the high of his fast-talking accomplishment and didn’t want anything to ruin it.
Blair remained detached, not initiating anything. It was almost like she was sulking, which somehow made him feel a little better. She wasn’t infallible after all.
He chewed his burger, relishing the mealy texture. The sweet mixture of ketchup and pennies reminded him of childhood special occasions, when the family would all go out for fast food, and the worst thing he had to deal with was school the next day.
Finally, with his hunger sated, his thoughts returned to Joshua and Blair. Dodge knew all too well about mental disorders, but even if he hadn’t, it was obvious that Joshua wasn’t well. He should have been under a doctor’s care, not a fugitive on the run. Even if Entropy did manage to get him back, their superstar wasn’t in any condition to be a religious figurehead.
Joshua devoured his instameal, not complaining about the taste of the brown mush. When the food was gone, Blair rose, pointedly collected the trash and threw it in the wastebasket. She brushed Joshua’s unresponsive cheek with the back of her hand and walked out of the room, the basket clenched to her chest.
Dodge got up and followed her. The hotel room hadn’t cooled at all since they’d been gone and the air outside, while fetid, was still less stifling.
Blair tramped towards the dumpster at the opposite edge of the parking lot. At the sound of the door closing she spun about, arm cocked, ready to hurl the plastic wastebasket, but stopped herself.
“You’re leaving him alone again?” she asked, using cutting sarcasm instead of violence.
“Jesus, he’s right in the room. We can both see the door. What’s he going to do, wriggle his way down the shower drain?”
Blair didn’t respond, just turned and resumed walking. Dodge jogged a few paces and caught up with her. “I’m sorry, all right? I’m sorry I let Joshua get away.”
Blair got to the dumpster and upended the wastebasket. Its contents spilled out, spurring a cloud of insects to take flight from the depths of the bin.
“But you have to admit, I did get us out of that mess in the office, huh?” He couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Joshua could have been hurt.”
The basket empty, Blair marched back to the room.
Dodge ran again to catch her. “Get some perspective. He’s fine now. You act like you’re in love with him.” A smile spread across his face. Of course. “That’s it isn’t it? That’s why you’re doing all this for him. Why Jennifer wasn’t good enough for him.”
Blair stopped, put her face inches from his, and jabbed his chest. “I am not in love with him and I am not having this conversation.”
“Shit, you are in love with him. I was only kidding.”
“No, I’m not,” Blair sighed and stepped back. “Not anymore, anyway.”
“It’s obvious you have more than a professional relationship.”
“Once, perhaps,” she said, scratching her chest absentmindedly. “But people change. I’m not doing this out of misplaced affection, believe me, Mr. Dodgson. Anything Joshua and I felt for each other is long gone. I’m only doing this because Entropy can’t be allowed to get away with their plan to deify Klaxon and squeeze their disciples dry. Religion is not supposed to be for-profit. And because I do care for Joshua, about what happens to him.”
“Ok, I believe you.”
Maybe they were getting somewhere. Dodge tried to keep the conversation flowing, but didn’t know what to say.
“So, um, your name’s Arella?”
“Does it mean something?”
She rolled her eyes. “Does yours? Look, Mr. Dod—Dodge. I’m not interested in sharing my personal life with you. It’s bad enough we have to spend time together. While I’m sure you’re a perfectly lovely person, in your own way, once someone gets to know you, this isn’t a vacation for me. If I didn’t feel somewhat responsible for your safety, I’d snap your neck and leave your corpse in that dumpster.”
Dodge glanced at the bin, then turned back to Blair. He had no doubt she was capable of it. “Fine, I get it. But we are going to be together for a little while longer, right? Can we at least attempt to be civil.”
Blair unclenched her jaw. “Civil. But that’s the best I can do.”
“That’s all I ask,” Dodge said. He wanted to keep her talking, maybe he could find out more about her. “So what does Arella mean?”
Blair answered the question though clenched teeth, but she answered. “Arella is Hebrew. It means Angel. My father named me.”
“Your father’s from Israel?”
“No, my mother. My father was an American stationed there.”
“But that’s where you’re from?”
“Lived there for most of my life.”
“And your parents?”
Blair’s musculature tensed under her clothing. And he had been doing so well.
“No.” Her face hardened. “I’m going to check on Joshua.”
She stepped around Dodge and let herself into the room. Light washed the parking lot for a moment, then the night was dark again.
Dodge glanced up, searching the heavens. Blair definitely wasn’t that kind of angel. He could only make out three shining objects through the light pollution, and none of them were about to confer divine wisdom upon him. Two he thought were stars, and the third was probably one of the orbital resorts arcing past.
Dodge took a deep breath, enjoying the solitude, the cool lake air in his lungs, and exhaled slowly. He took four more breaths then returned to the room.