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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Page 25

I took her by the arm. “Enough.”

“It’s good for someone to bring him down a notch or two, Steve-O,” she said. “Can’t have pieces of your brain getting too uppity, can we?”

“What about you?”

“I’m different,” she said.

“Oh? And you’d be fine if I just stopped imagining you?”

“You don’t know how to do that,” she said, uncomfortably.

“I’m pretty sure that if J.C. did shoot you, my mind would follow through accordingly. You’d die, Audrey. So be careful what you ask for.”

She glanced to the side, then shuffled from one foot to the other. “So . . . uh . . . what did you want?”

“You’re the closest thing I’ve got to a data analyst right now,” I said. “The information that Yol gave us. Think about the emails, forum posts, and personal information from Panos’s computer. I need to know what he isn’t saying.”

“What he isn’t saying?”

“What’s hidden, Audrey. Inconsistencies. Clues. I need to know what he was really working on—his secret projects. There’s a good chance he hinted at this online somewhere.”

“Okay . . . I’ll think about it.” She’d gone from a niche expertise—handwriting analysis—to something broader. Hopefully this was the start of a trend. I was running out of space for aspects; it was getting harder and harder to contain them, manage them, imagine them all at once. I suspected that was why Audrey had insisted on coming on this mission—deep down, part of me knew that I needed my aspects to begin doubling up on skills.

She looked at me, eyes focusing. “Actually, as I consider it, I might have something for you right now. Viruses.”

“What about them?

“Panos spent a lot of time on immunology forums, talking about disease, getting into very technical discussions with people who study bacteria and viruses. None of what he said is revelatory, but when you look at the whole . . .”

“His history was in microbial gene splicing,” I said. “Makes sense for him to be there.”

“But Garvas said they’d abandoned viruses as a method of data delivery,” Audrey said. “However, Panos’s forum posts on these subjects increased once I3 abandoned that part of the project.” She looked at me, then grinned. “I figured that out!”

“Nice.”

“Well, I mean, I guess you figured that out.” She folded her arms. “Being an imaginary person makes it difficult to feel any real sense of accomplishment.”

“Just imagine your sense of accomplishment,” I said. “You’re imaginary, so imaginary accomplishment should work for you.”

“But if I’m imaginary, and I imagine something, it’s doubly unreal. Like using a copy machine to copy something that’s just been copied.”

“Actually,” Tobias said, strolling up, “theoretically the imaginary sense of accomplishment would have to be imagined by the primary imaginer, so it wouldn’t be an iteration as you suggest.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Audrey said. “Trust me, I’m the expert on being imaginary.”

“But . . . If we are all aspects . . .”

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“Yeah, but I’m more imaginary than you,” she said. “Or, well, less. Since I know all about it.” She grinned at him, triumphant as he rubbed his chin, trying to sort through that.

“You’re crazy,” I said softly, looking at Audrey.

“Huh?”

It had just struck me. Audrey was insane.

Each of my aspects were. I barely noticed Tobias’s schizophrenia anymore, let alone Ivy’s trypophobia. But the madness was there, lurking. Each aspect had one, whether it be fear of germs, technophobia, or megalomania. I’d never realized what Audrey’s was until now.

“You think you’re imaginary,” I told her.

“Duh.”

“But it’s not because you’re actually imaginary. It’s because you have a psychosis that makes you think you’re imaginary. You’d think this even if you happened to be real.”

It was hard to see. Many of the aspects accepted their lot, but few confronted it. Even Ivy did that with difficulty. But Audrey flaunted it; she reveled in it. That was because, in her brain, she was a real person who was crazy and therefore thought she wasn’t real. I’d assumed she was self-aware, but that wasn’t it at all. She was as crazy as the others. Her insanity just happened to align with reality.

She glanced at me, then shrugged, and immediately tried to deflect the conversation by asking Tobias about the weather. He, of course, referenced his delusion who lived in the satellite far above. I shook my head, then turned.

And found Dion standing in the doorway, a distinctly uncomfortable look on his face. How much had he watched? He gave me a look like one might give an unfamiliar dog that had just been barking frantically but now seemed calm. Through that whole exchange, I’d been a crazy man, stalking around and talking to himself.

No. I’m not crazy. I have it under control.

Maybe that was my only real madness. Thinking I could handle all of this.

“You found your mother?” I asked.

“In the backyard,” Dion said, thumbing over his shoulder.

“Let’s go talk to her,” I said, brushing past him.

15

I found Ivy and J.C. outside, sitting on the steps. She was rubbing his back as he sat with hands hanging before him, gun in one of them, staring at a beetle crossing the ground. Ivy gave me a glance and shook her head. Not a good time to talk to him.

I headed across the well-tended lawn with Audrey and Tobias in tow. Mrs. Maheras had finished pruning and was now inspecting her tomato plants, pulling off bugs, pulling weeds.

She didn’t look up as I approached. “Stephen Leeds,” she said. Her voice bore a distinct Greek accent. “You’re famous, I hear.”

“Only among people who like gossip,” I said, kneeling down. “The tomatoes look nice. Growing well.”

“I started them inside,” she said, lifting one of the plump, green fruits. “Tomatoes do better after the late frosts are past, but I can’t help wanting to get an early start.”

I waited for Ivy to give me a prompt on what to say, but she was still on the steps. Idiot, I thought at myself. “So . . . you like to garden a lot?”

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