It was only one line, a single sentence, but he knew what it meant.
Mac had come home from a long day at work, and then a raucous evening out with his opinionated, artistic friends. Anymore, a "raucous" night out involved complicated, fruity, organic drinks that kind of tasted like grass and vodka, but when they were buying round after round (protesting the cost of living and the horrors of processed food), one didn't complain. It was ungrateful. Being ungrateful would blow up the internet with manufactured ire, and he didn't want to hear another lecture, much less be the target of one. He'd worked hard to fill this niche, and it worked for him. It worked well.
Perhaps too well.
The cursor blinked on his white-and-silver screen in Times New Roman. Sans-Serif would have been too much to ask; the sender had never been terribly concerned about his defaults. Mac had a different default for every program, each one perfectly appropriate for different reasons - he'd done extensive research to choose each one correctly. His fans were demanding and opinionated, and he didn't take their criticism lightly. Even his desktop themes ran the gamut, from tasteful to something only appropriate at Mardi Gras. The kids loved blinking, flashing colors.
Mac glanced at the timestamp, and then the clock in the corner. Fuck. Over an hour ago. He didn't bother to grab a fresh shirt or run another dollop of gel through his artfully shaggy brown hair; he didn't even bother to call. If he did, he knew the door would be locked and bolted when he got there. Best if it was a surprise.
What a time to ride an electric scooter. Damned niche.
Mac held up his arm as he ran down the sidewalk, and he'd run nearly a city block before a cab pulled up to the curb. It was late, after all, and he probably looked like a maniac waving his arms and running in pressed cargo pants and $100+ chucks, a coral polo and no jacket in 50-degree weather at 2 am on a weeknight.
"Drive," he said, diving into the cab and slamming the door nearly on his own feet. "Go, go!" He gave him the address, and the cab pulled away from the curb.
"Hey," said the cabbie, looking in the rear-view mirror with a smirk of realization on his face, "aren't you--"
"Yeah, yeah. Look, man, this is an emergency. I'll give you a fifty if you get me there in fifteen minutes, okay?" Mac tried not to think about why the back of the seat was sticky, and what he might have just put his elbow in.
"Yeah yeah, sure sure," said the cabbie quickly, and swerved into the left-turn-only lane to get around a line of cars slowly lurching into motion as the light turned green. The ride was hairy and bumpy and Mac was pretty sure the guy was averaging three traffic violations per minute (he wasn't sure; math wasn't his strong point, but he could have made a kickass artistic interpretation of the ride with some important numbers thrown in there), but fifteen minutes later they screeched to a stop outside a plain, box-like building painted an overpowering beige-gray.
Mac tossed the money into the passenger-side seat and didn't answer the cabbie's question; he'd worry later about explaining why, in the middle of the night, he was rushing into a building with three huge blue letters on it.
Finding the right suite proved to be more difficult than he'd anticipated, even though he'd been here several times. They loved to change things, they were always renovating, and extra signage was their specialty. After realizing that the detour to the stairs that were out of order actually detoured him to an elevator on the other side of the building that only went to the fourth floor, he had to take some stairs with a wet paint sign (but weren't wet and weren't painted) with "coming soon" in very small print at the bottom, then ran up three flights of stairs and around two corners, through an open window in the middle of the hallway and past suites 702, 704, 404 (this nameplate was pasted on an exterior window) and 77778, he found the right one.
Mac had a key. By the time he'd opened the lock and the door, they were face to face.
"Jesus, PC," he breathed, his eyes widening. "What have you done?"
"Go away," PC said, but there was no force behind his words. He fled into the kitchenette area to hide, but there was no door. There wasn't even really a wall, not in the technical sense, but there was a thin paper room divider from a heavily-advertised department store set up where tile met industrial-gray carpet.
Mac could see PC through the screen. He was hunched over the sink and the tap ran with spitting, irregular bursts of water, likely spraying the wild colors on his hands all over the kitchen. "Don't do this," Mac warned, shoving the key back into his pocket and shutting the door behind him.
"Go away!" Tears threatened in his voice.
Mac pushed past the screen and stopped short. The walls, a plain painter's white over drywall, throbbed with color. A palette of primaries and secondaries lay on the table, and it was as if PC had poured water into them, dipped his hands in, and flailed at the walls. Violently. The result was somewhere between finger-painting and Pollack, only more disorienting. And also more smeared. "What....?" he began, turning around to take in the whole room, for no surface had been spared, not even the floor. "What....?" he tried again, then stopped. He couldn't even form a proper query.
PC hunched in on himself, as if he wanted to crawl down the drain. "I just wanted to help. I only ever wanted to help. I thought...I thought it would...be different!" He burst into tears, shoulders tight to his ears, elbows trying to burrow into his sides, his front covered in paint from his knees to his receding hairline.
Mac didn't know what to say. He stood helplessly for a few minutes, only PC's harsh sobs punctuating the silence. The tap spat water petulantly, and colored water splattered the wet backsplash, turning it into a soggy rainbow.
PC's plain white undershirt was soaked, as if he'd tried to clean himself off but the paint had already fixed to the cotton fibers. The hem dripped into dark wet spots on his gray gym shorts, and his socks had been white once, but would now be more comfortable in the background of an animated Beatles music video. "I'm tired of being the bad guy! I'm tired of being the geek! I hate it - I hate it - and I thought...I thought maybe if I went public...but it's worse now, it's worse than worse!" He shook - or perhaps shivered - and held his head in his hands.
Mac slowly moved toward him, vaguely aware of a weird quivering in his stomach. He hesitated. Slowly, awkwardly, he encircled PC with his arms and pressed up against him, hunched as he was, and squeezed.
PC stiffened, natural color flooding underneath the nursery-room yellow and click-me-blue, his tears almost forgotten.
The water was cold as it sprayed over his hands, and the t-shirt soaked into his coral polo rapidly with cold. Underneath PC's saturated skin the heat of his body lurked, a glazing of ice on an untended furnace. Mac pressed his cheek to the back of PC's neck, and the short brown hairs prickled where the barber had cut it close with the electric clippers.
PC wrenched himself free and twisted around, his face flushed, tear tracks through the paint on his cheeks. "Don't you get all hippie on me - don't you try to make me feel better! This is your fault!" His finger jabbed a muddy purple into Mac's chest once, twice, three times. "You talked all that smooth double-speak, all promises and pixels, and next thing I know I'm the laughing-stock of...of everybody!"
"Uh, no." Mac's hands flew up, palms out, and he stepped back. " You were the one who approached me. You wanted to show how superior you were in every way. It's not my fault things didn't turn out how you expected, man."
"You said--you--they told me that--shut up! You got the camera people on your side!"
"I was just talking to them. I didn't get anyone on anyone's side."
"Oh, and you just happen to know Japanese, huh? No conspiracies, huh?"
"Consp--are you serious? Dude. Are you on something?"
"I can do art. See? I'm artistic. I'm full of artistic woe and angst. I cry. I bleed." He hesitated, glancing at the floor. "Well. I haven't proven that empirically, but....but that's not the point. And anyway, my feelings can be hurt just as much as anybody's, okay? I just...I just like spreadsheets. Why is that so wrong? Why is that deserving of so much disdain? Hate mail? Death threats?" He stepped forward, his sock squelching in a glob of banner-blink-red, and put his face in Mac's in a posture that was supposed to be aggressive. It worked better when one wasn't pudgy and wearing soggy underthings. "Do you get hate mail? Do you get people calling you wanting to rip out your innards?"
"Yeah. Mostly people like you, actually."
PC blinked owlishly, his finger already up to wag in Mac's face, his mouth already open to shout another point. His mouth closed with a glop . He froze there for a few moments, the gears in his head whirring almost audibly. "Oh."
"You can't let that get to you. What you do is important." He pushed PC's accusing finger to the side as if it were loaded. "Don't ever let anyone make you feel differently. It's very important." He put a warm, careful hand on his shoulder
"Hah," snorted PC after a moment of chewing that information. "Important for you, maybe. People are converting to your side in droves. And why? Because I'm a sad excuse for a spokesman, that's why." He shrugged off Mac's hand and went into the hallway. "I suck. Anyone else would do a better job. Anyone."
Feet shuffled outside the door. Mac's eyes flitted to the light filtering in under the rather large gap under the door, and shadows moved across the opening. A package shot into the hallway, and the shadows hovered toward one side of the door, waiting. It was a clumsy attempt, and the giggles and whispers gave them away.
"Wow," said Mac dryly, "I wonder what that is."
"It's just the Hippostratoses next door. They do this at the same time every day." PC picked up the package and untied the string.
"Wait, you don't know what that is!"
"It's a pie," said PC sadly. He opened the box to show Mac, and steam rose temptingly off the flaky puff-pastry crust. He sighed, looking down at it.
Mac frowned. "...is that...is that a spinach pie?"
"...and they do this every day?"
"...and you don't wonder what's in it?"
"I know what's in it. I just never eat it."
"Oh, good. For a minute there I thought maybe--"
"What, that I don't know history? Or ancient literature? I read Wickerpedialyte, Mac! I know these things just as well as you do!" His eyes hardened into something mean and determined. "I know what they say about Greeks bearing pies."
"Uh, that's...that's 'gifts'. Greeks bearing gifts."
"Whatever," PC snapped, marching back into the kitchen. "The point is, I'm not stupid." He yanked open a drawer and pulled out a fork.
"You're gonna throw that away, right?"
PC didn't turn around. "Not this time," he said quietly, around a mouthful of pie.
Mac leaped forward instantly. "No! No, PC, it's full of - give me that!" He and PC turned in circles, and PC jabbed him in the arm with his fork before Mac was able to wrestle it out of his hand. PC staggered backward, then scooped a handful of spinach out of the tin and shoved it in his mouth. Mac slapped the box out of his arms and threw his arms around PC's middle, trying frantically to remember what he'd learned in the first aid class. He wished like hell he'd paid attention instead of passing flirty notes under the table to the hot Russian chick next to him. Mac figured he found the right spot, sort of, and tried to perform the Heimlich.
PC struggled, wheezing every time Mac pulled, and flailed his arms wildly and ineffectually. "Put me down!" He slapped at Mac's shoulder. "Leggo!"
Mac panted with the effort, but got only a few bruises for his effort. "This isn't working," he said aloud, mostly to himself, and let go.
"I'm not choking!" snapped PC, drawing his forearm across his face and smearing spinach and paint together.
"Not yet you're not, but we have to get that stuff out of you - do you have an epi-pen?" Mac fumbled with his pretty cellphone, tiny and shiny and slick and fucking impossible to dial with sweaty fingers when you're panicked.
"Of course not. I won't make it now. You might as well call the coroner." PC was oddly calm, especially for a person his current situation.
"Shut up, you stupid--stupid idiot!" shouted Mac, willing his fingers to dial 9-1-1 and not any of the other ones around them. "You stupid--I should just let you--idiot!"
"I'm doing the world a favor. They'll find somebody else. Somebody slick and handsome, with more hair and less..." He poked his belly scornfully. "Less that. Less me. Somebody who doesn't screw everything up." PC wandered into the other room, leaving the water running and Mac swearing and pounding on his slick phone that kept sliding out of wet hands. "It'll be better this way. Maybe they'll find somebody like you, and it'll be a level playing field for once."
Mac gave up on 911 and hit his speed dial. "Nort! Nort, man, emergency! You gotta get over here to PC's place - he opened a package from an untrustworthy source, and--yeah, no, I know...yeah he did...you are? Okay, good, hurry!" He shut the phone, which beeped angrily and showed a sad face, then fumbled to put it in his pants pocket and missed. He didn't notice.
"I called a guy, and he's on his way over right now. He'll take care of you, okay? PC, how are you feeling, are you okay?" Mac pushed the room divider aside and it bent irreparably, the faux bronze frame actually something far more flimsy.
PC half-sat, half-slumped on the dingy gray futon, looking like he'd just eaten a clown. His ears were bright red, and it began to spread down his cheeks and neck and into his hair. Mac dropped down beside him and felt the side of his head. "You're all red already. You know you're allergic to almonds. You know that all spinach has been recalled. Why?"
He shrugged, staring at the far wall where a 3-D picture of Minesweeper hung by a shelf of awards from the early 80's. "I'm old. I'm making room for the new guy. They were going to do it, but a lot slower, and...and I'm tired." His stomach twisted and his face echoed the pain.
Mac felt the other side of PC's head with the back of his fingers, and thought the heat of the red patches would burn his skin. "What new guy? There's no new guy. You're PC. You're the PC. Who else are they gonna find who can do what you do?"
"Anybody," grunted PC, but he didn't jerk away. Mac's hands were cool on his flaming face.
"Think about it," Mac stalled, already wondering where Nort could be. Hadn't it been an hour? He couldn't tell anymore. "Not everyone in the world wants what I have to offer. Not everybody needs three art programs and picture viewers and the sleek package. A lot of people need down-to-earth, sensible, good performance at a reasonable price. I...I can't think of who, at the moment..."
"Haha," PC snickered, "you said 'package.'" His eyelids were growing puffy, and his tongue felt too big for his mouth. His face itched like crazy, and if Mac hadn't slapped his hands away, he would be scratching feverishly.
"Okay, you're checking out...great....talking to myself, here..." Mac looked around for something cool and wet to put on PC's face, but he didn't want to leave him there for even a second. PC was already trying to claw himself, and his fingers had hangnails and ragged edges, and who knew when he'd cleaned under them last. Mac pulled his shirt over his head, still wet in the front, and pressed it against his face.
PC made a noise and closed his eyes; they were too heavy to keep open anyway. Mac pulled his glasses off carefully, and the terrible pressure on his temples eased. The cool fabric helped, but it was abrasive on the swollen tissues. He made another noise, and slumped further into the futon.
Mac swore and grabbed his upper arm, pulling him upright so that he didn't hit his head on the wooden arm. "Stay with me, buddy," he muttered, twisting so that he could kneel on the futon at the right angle to continue applying the cold compress. "If you get through this I am going to kick your ass."
PC giggled drowsily. "I'll hit your ass," he slurred.
The doorknob turned loudly, and before Mac had a chance to react to that little Freudian slip, a short, wiry fellow with a big mustache and an even bigger tool belt let himself into the apartment. "Nort! Jesus, where the hell have you been?"
"I pretty much live here these days, although getting around can be a pain in the ol' tuchus. What have we got here?" He ambled over to the futon, adjusted his thick glasses, and squinted at them. "You boys rough-housing, here? Get a little carried away?" He made a gesture that might have been obscene about thirty years ago.
Mac looked down, and realized all at once how they appeared; PC slowly passing out, in soaked undergarments and covered in paints, Mac kneeling over him with no shirt on, flushed with worry and damp with sweat. "Whoa, uh, no, this...this isn't what it looks like."
Nort nodded shrewdly. "Ah. Uh-huh. Okay, I can play that game too. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone about you boys. I keep secrets. It's what I do." He hooked a rough thumb in his tool belt, choosing to ignore Mac's stammering protests. "Now. You got his contract?"
"Contract. Saying I can work on him. I know he signed one with me, just like everyone else, but I want to see it first."
"Are you serious?"
"And then I need to verify his identity. And after that, I want to look him over, make sure he doesn't have anything else wrong with him. You know, treat everything at the same time."
"THERE IS NO TIME," shouted Mac, dropping PC's head and standing up to his full 5'10" height, which was about 7 inches more than Nort could boast. "He's having an allergic reaction and he just ate a bunch of infected ....stuff!"
"I'll fix him, I'll fix him, but...oh darn it all, I lost my place. Okay, let me start over. I need to look at the contract he signed...."
"Hurry," Mac urged, backing away. "I'll find the legal stuff, just hurry."
Nort picked through his tool belt, holding up tools, eyeing his patient, and putting them back one after another.
Mac had no trouble finding PC's legal documents, mainly because they were on his desktop in a bright yellow folder, labeled "LEGAL" in great big letters. "That's secure," he muttered under his breath, searching through it for the correct document. Nort's official scrawl caught his eye, though the document itself wasn't in any format he'd ever seen and the print was way too tiny for him to read without magnification, and he tossed the folder back onto the desk and waved it at Nort impatiently. "There," he said breathlessly, "there's your damned contract. Happy?"
Nort adjusted his glasses and took the paper, beginning to read. "Aha....uh-huh....uh-huh...yeah...uh-huh....ok, looks official enough." He handed the paper back to Mac and clapped his gnarled hands together, rubbing them vigorously. "Let's see what we can do, here."
Mac waited while Nort scanned PC's hunched figure, hands on his hips impatiently. "Is there anything I can do? Can I help? What can I do?"
"You can shut up for one," grumbled Nort, prodding PC's throat. He already rasped with every breath, his throat swelling rapidly, and each impression stopped his breath altogether. "If you have to do something, hold him up so he can breathe better."
Mac propped up PC carefully, holding him from behind with his arms underneath PC's, letting his head fall back on his shoulder so that his airway opened up. He watched Nort poke PC some more, prod him in places, and refer to the small notebook he kept writing things in.
"All right," said Nort at last, "first things first. Let's get that swelling down." He pulled out a syringe full of clear fluid, tapped it experimentally, then swabbed PC's arm. "This should take care of it. It's not cheap, though; good thing your friend here has a top-notch contract. They'd use it in the hospitals, but most insura--"
"JUST DO IT," shouted Mac in exasperation, his nerves shredding with each strangled breath PC drew, his cheek pressed against his temple.
Nort scowled and pinched his lips together, and injected the contents of the syringe into PC. He didn't explain much after that, pinching the puncture mark shut and dabbing it with some sort of epoxy. Then he made motions for Mac to flip PC over, pulled out a much larger swab, and went to work on the fleshy part of PC's hip. Flourishing a much larger needle full of some milky substance, all he said was, "Hold him. This one hurts like hell."
Mac did, wincing with horror as the huge needle bit into PC's gluteal muscle. Whatever the stuff was, it was thick, and took a long time to push through. PC whimpered and tried to move, but Mac tightened his embrace and held him as still as he could, PC's face burning into Mac's bare chest. He held him tight until Nort slid the needle out slowly and applied pressure, and hardly heard himself murmuring "take it easy" over and over.
"That'll hurt for a couple of days, but he can sit on it. Should kill the bacteria, but he'll still need to purge that crap out of his stomach. Throat's too swollen to give him an emetic, but in a few hours he probably won't need one." Nort clipped the needles in a small orange box on his belt and stashed the syringes in another. "Hope you got buckets handy."
Mac blinked at him. "What, that's it? Don't you have to get the stuff out of him so he doesn't have an other reaction? Don't you have to--"
"You wanted me to shut up, I shut up. Won't bother you with the damned details. Let him sit overnight, recharge so to speak. If you can't wake him in the morning, call me." Nort made another notation in his book and tucked it into the pocket of his faded red coveralls, pulled the brim of his pageboy cap down, and let himself out without another word.
Mac sat there for some time with PC in his arms, until his legs started to go to sleep and he got a cramp somewhere between his ribs from the awkward pose. "Well, fuck."
The next four hours were nightmarish for both of them. PC's swelling went down, and he seemed to appreciate the cold cloths on his face and neck, but just as that started to get under control, his stomach decided it needed to purge itself of everything. Immediately. They camped out by the toilet, and more than once Mac nearly left him there with his head in the bowl. It went everywhere; and by the time PC seemed to be empty, Mac's pants and shoes and socks were spattered. He cleaned him off as well as he could, guiding his half-conscious arms and legs out of his fouled clothes, and half-carried him to the futon, which he pulled out into a bed. Mac got him to drink some water and settled him in with a bucket nearby just in case, then cleaned up the bathroom, more or less. He threw all the towels and clothes into the washer, including his own, and turned it on. None of PC's clothes fit him, so he went into the other room in just his boxer briefs and pulled a sheet around himself, settling down on the other side of the futon to wait for the washer to finish where he could keep an eye on PC. Before he knew it, he was asleep.
* * *
PC became vaguely aware that he was warm, and that there was a very bright light hurting his eyes. His head felt swollen still, and pounded with each heartbeat, but he could breathe. He sat up stiffly, his whole body sore. There was a glass of water on the TV tray that he used as a side table, and he drank it all. He swung his legs over the side of the futon, and the wooden frame creaked. Slowly he stood, went to the windows, and shut the blinds. When he turned around, he saw Mac sprawled on the futon, still very asleep. His razor-cut shag was tousled around his face, and there were dark circles under his eyes. A fair bit of stubble darkened his chin, and his cheek puffed out a little where it was smashed against the cushion. He lay on his stomach, one leg hanging over the edge and out of the blankets, one arm out straight behind him, the other curled up tight against his chest with a fistful of blanket held tight to his chin.
PC tilted his head to the side, everything slightly blurry without his glasses. He could see Mac's leg was bare, and his arms and back were smooth and just a little bit tan. He himself wasn't wearing anything but yesterday's underwear, and standing in the middle of the room was very cold. He got back into bed, his throat and head throbbing, his stomach still unsettled. PC arranged the blankets better so that he wasn't hogging them all, and lay on his side facing Mac. He watched him for a little while, eyes growing heavy, bits and pieces of the previous evening coming back to him. Mac looked cold; PC spread some of his blankets on him.
It woke Mac a little, enough to pull more blankets onto himself and roll over onto his side, rubbing his face against the cushion and drawing a deep breath, then folding up his arm under his head and settling again with his back to PC.
PC waited until his breathing evened out again as he fell back to sleep, then inched forward by little bits. He curled up against Mac and draped an arm over him, his heart and head pounding in synch, his stomach warmer than Mac's back. PC pressed his forehead to the back of Mac's neck, and drew a deep, calming breath. It didn't take long for him to join him in sleep.
The next time he woke, it was because he'd heard the snap of the outer door. The air conditioning whirred in the background, accompanied by the rhythmic thunk of the dryer. PC fumbled for the clock; it was nearly one. The space beside him was still warm, but empty. Blankets had been tossed aside carelessly, and the glass on the side table was full again. There was no note, no voice- or e-mail of explanation. Not that he expected one. He lay there for a very long time, just listening to the empty apartment. It sounded different now; PC closed his eyes.
It sounded alone.