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Six Degrees of Ed

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1. Away From Her

Charlie's tears seep hot and angry through Ed's t-shirt. They bleed into his skin. "He said— Grant, he said." She's rigid. "God, I hate this! I'm so lame! He—" She gulps and hiccups, and burrows her dripping nose into Ed's shoulder.

"Hey," he says, awkwardly. He rests his hand on her feathery ash-blonde hair, tucks loose strands behind her pixie ear. "Who's Grant?"

Their parents have only been married a couple of years. It's weird having siblings after two and a half decades of being an only child. Ricky's at school in Calgary and Ed only sees him at holidays, hardly knows him. But Charlie's still living with the folks. Most weeks Ed comes home for Sunday dinner, and sometimes he and Charlie go out afterwards, shoot some pool and have a few beers. It's easy, no pressure. She's smart, got a wicked sense of humour, and she's studying English and Psych — always has some new theory about people, poetry or politics. They have a good time. It's nice to have a girl around who doesn't expect anything from him.

But this is new. Charlie turned up on his doorstep a few seconds ago, red-eyed and straggly haired with an assignment crumpled in her hand. Ed's roommate let her in, met Ed's gaze with wry horror and sympathy, and immediately grabbed his coat and mumbled something about going out for coffee.

The second the door snicked shut behind him, Charlie crumpled in on herself. A new sensation, spring green and tendril-fine, uncurled in Ed's chest as he closed his arms around her shoulders.

Charlie raises her head, cheeks blotchy, and glares at the paper still clutched in her fist. "He gave me a fucking A," she wails. "It was a piece of shit, and he still—" She dashes the back of her hand across her cheeks. "God, I can't go back—"

"Maybe you deserved an A." Ed can't think why a good grade is so bad.

"That's not the point." Charlie's eyes go hard, shutting him out. "He can't— If he still wanted to see me, he wouldn't have — have risked it." She grits her teeth together, fighting it, but her eyes well up again.

Ed tenses from toes to scalp, and the green tendrils bleach out. It's the first time he's ever felt this white-hot lethal anger. His hands are weapons. "He's an asshole," Ed tells her. That's one thing he is sure of, and "There's a reason professors aren't allowed to get involved with students."

"He said he lo—" She bites her lip, too embarrassed to say it, but Ed knows. "I mean—" She hangs her head. "—I knew all along he was married. I knew, I just didn't think."

"It's not your fault," Ed tells her, and hugs her close, shielding her.


2. Hard Core

There's a wall of sound blaring, pulsing, shifting major to minor key, and Ed's on his fourth beer, bouncing on the balls of his toes, loose and furious and fucked up. Two hours ago he got a call from his stepmother, Josie, Charlie's mum, saying his Dad had packed up his truck and moved out. Just like that.

Another failure, another loss. Ed's going to hang on tight to Josie and Charlie, though, no question, despite his Dad. Fuck his Dad for doing this — giving him a family and then trying to tear it away again. Fuck everything.

Ed drains his beer and elbows through the seething, sweating crowd to buy another, yells over the noise, the song, kids shrieking and a bunch of guys with long hair and battered biker jackets singing along. They know all the words.

The glass is cool like sanity in his hand, condensation drips through his fingers, his head swims. He turns back to the stage.

Under the lights, the guitarist is lean and hollow-cheeked, his hair curled with sweat. The corded muscles in his arms flex as he ekes magic from the piece of wood hanging around his neck. Ed moves in time and it's like they're dancing, almost like they're alone. Impossibly, their eyes meet, and Ed sees his own shock and fury mirrored.

Then the guitarist reels away, yelling more than singing into the lead singer's mike, and Ed throws himself into the current and drifts.

Washes up outside the club at two or three, and he's shocked again when the guitarist seeks him out. "What's your name?" careful like he's been bitten before.

"Eddy," says Ed, and he doesn't often swing this way, but tonight there's nothing to lose so he might as well, right? When the offer's staring him in the face with intent chill-blue eyes.

"Billy," says the guitarist. His gaze rakes Ed up and down, and his lips twist into a grin. "Come on." And the next thing Ed knows, he's pushed up against the side of a gritty bus, steel cold at his back, shadows everywhere, and he's drowning, and Billy tastes of sweat and loss and anger. Ed knows this song.


3. Cat Food

There's a dead body strewn in the snow, lit blue by the patrol cars. Static crackles on the radio. "What's the situation with the suspect?"

Ed's feet are numb. "He's turning himself in voluntarily, sir," he says into the handpiece.

"It was an accident," repeats the guy over and over, while Julie cuffs him and reads him his rights.

The guy seems genuinely upset, but Ed can't tell if that's because he killed someone or because he's being arrested. Fortunes drift like snowflakes and life is precarious. Ed knows that. All it takes is a twitch against the trigger, the clean arc of a plastic shopping bag full of cat food. All it takes is to turn left instead of right, say yes instead of no.

"It was an accident."

Ed gets into the car and starts the engine. "It always is," he tells the perp in the backseat.

Ed feels tired, his arms are heavy. He backs the car past the ambulance, the body on the stretcher. Looks like a vagrant, another nameless soul taken down.


4. Baby's Breath

All it takes is a baby's breath. But that's classified; they won't know that for a couple of days yet. For now, they've got the quarantine station locked down tight: no one comes in or out without security clearance.

Fifty-seven people are dead. Ed hasn't been home in 38 hours.

Kevin Wordsworth comes over, radio hanging from his hip. "Lane," he says. "How're you holding up?"

Ed glances down at the security coordination plan on his clipboard, blinks a couple of times. He and Wordy have barely spoken since Wordy transferred to the SRU. "We've got it under control."

Wordy looks around with a grimace. "It's like War of the fucking Worlds." He turns back, meets Ed's gaze. "Parker asked me to pass on a message. There's a space on the team."


"You should apply." Wordy leans against the side of a jeep. "It's a good gig. You've got the skills."

Ed shakes his head, but it's not a no. "I'll think about it."

"Don't think too much." Wordy nods, and the radio on his belt beeps to life. He turns away to answer it, raises a hand as he hurries back into the hubbub.

"I'm here to see my father." There's a girl at Ed's elbow, short dark hair, body taut like a wire. Her face is hard, eyes huge.

Ed frowns. "This is a quarantine station. You shouldn't be here."

"I know that," she says scornfully. "Caroline Morrison from NorBAC gave me, uh, clearance. My father's been infected. Exposed to the virus."

Shit. "Sorry." Ed nearly goes to hug her, but she's not looking for sympathy. "What's your name?"

"Lilith Sandstrom."

He consults the schedule. She's not on the list. "I'll call my sergeant."

"My father's in there. He might be dying." She shoves her fist in her jeans pocket.

"I know." Ed searches in vain for a sympathetic smile, presses his lips together instead. He flashes back to Charlie all those years ago, snotty-faced and crying her broken heart out on his shoulder. This girl's younger, looks like she doesn't even know how to cry. "Just hold on a minute. Get yourself a cup of coffee." He waves her towards the makeshift canteen in the corner, hoping something warm in her stomach will help with the fear. "I'll sort it out and come find you."

She opens her mouth to argue, then catches herself, looks around the hangar at the cops and the military, everyone serious and in a hurry.

Ed follows her gaze, sees it through her eyes: the machine that ate her Dad. "They've got Chocolate Hob-Nobs."

Her lips tremble for a moment, then her face firms again. She nods and hitches her rucksack on her shoulder. "Thanks."

Ed watches her walk away, reaches for his radio.


5. Wilby Okay

Ed's at a newsstand, looking for — something. He's not sure what. The magazines are shiny and unappealing, and he's not in the mood for candy.

"Got a light?" A Korean woman with a Canadian accent touches his shoulder. She's about his age. Her cigarette's already poised.

Ed shakes his head, glances involuntarily at the rack of novelty lighters and expensive Zippos, but she doesn't seem to notice.

"My mother-in-law has cancer," she blurts. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't— My husband just called." She holds up her cellphone. "She's got less than a year."

"I'm sorry." Ed steps back. He can't do this right now.

She follows him, though, apparently unable to break the connection. "Carol French." She holds out her hand in a jerky gesture. "In town for the Gold Standard Introduction to Real Estate conference."

Ed shakes her hand quickly, lets go. He half turns away and selects a Time magazine and Handguns Weekly from the stand, goes to pay the guy.

Carol trails after him. "I don't even like her. Well, she hates me, so—" She buys a pink throwaway lighter and holds the flame to her cigarette. Breathes smoke at the sky. "She gave me a necklace for my birthday last year. It's the ugliest thing I've ever owned. Buddy won't let me get rid of it."

Ed rolls up the magazines in his hands, shifts his weight. "My father was in a car crash," he says without meaning to. "A week ago, in Edmonton."

"Jesus!" Carol snaps out of her monologue. "Is he all right?"

It's a moment before Ed can get the words out. "ICU. They don't know if he'll make it."

"I'm so sorry." Carol's eyes focus like she's seeing him for the first time. Now she's stopped babbling, he stops backing away from her. She looks nice.

Ed almost asks her if she wants to get a cup of coffee, but a car alarm starts up down the street and snaps him back to reality. He looks away. "Your husband must be pretty upset."


6. Slings, Arrows, Fingers

Years earlier, when Ed and Sophie had only just started dating, they made the trek out to New Burbage with Charlie and her then-boyfriend, Max the drama major. It was the opening night of Hamlet and Max's tutor knew someone who knew someone who had tickets they couldn't use.

The seats were plush and faded, the auditorium bustling and ripe with anticipation. The elderly couple sitting in front of them looked like royalty.

Once the lights went down, Sophie rested her hand on Ed's forearm, and he spent the first act barely aware of anything else. There was Shakespeare playing out on the stage, lines of iambic pentameter twisting deceptively, but the real story was in the light pressure of Sophie's fingertips through his suit jacket, the way her gold bracelet draped on her wrist, just above the elegant knob of her wrist bone. It took everything he had to sit still, not touch her, pretend to watch the show.

His pulse didn't calm until the start of Act Two, and then Ophelia entered — Alas, my lord, I have been so affrighted — and Ed sat up, attention drawn forward. Ophelia was slim, her long, pale gold hair emphasising her youth, and Ed itched to step in and save her. Polonius was counselling her, oblivious to his own fate.

After the show, they stayed for Opening Night drinks, and despite Sophie, her charm and her warmth, Ed's gaze kept drifting across the room to the bar, where the young actress — Ellen Fanshaw, according to the programme — and her Hamlet glowed like triumphant beacons.

The director came over to them and poured them each a drink, and they laughed loudly, bright as fire.

"That was an incredible performance," said Sophie to Charlie and Max. "Couldn't you just feel it? I was on the edge of my seat, and it's not like I didn't know how it ends, you know?" She laughed, her eyes clear.

Ed turned his back on the actors. All the drama he needed was right here with Sophie. No one dying, no one losing their mind. Just desire and trust, and the entwining of two lives.

"It was amazing," he agreed, smiling at her. The smooth angle of her neck invited his touch. He rested his hand on her back instead, warm through her silk dress.

A suited businessman tapped on a microphone, cleared his throat.

"Come on," Ed added quickly, "Let's go, eh? It's a hell of a long drive home."

Charlie winked at him, grinned up at Max and drained her glass, and the four of them quietly threaded their way through the crowd to the exit.