Silence filled the spaces between times when Anna said only 'Hai' or 'Okay' to the caller on her phone. Everyone in the room stared at her and listened.
She finally said something else. "No. I have to come. Okay. I'll go to the office. I can't stay here. I just can't, that's why."
Anna stopped talking, as she seemed to be getting scolded by her caller. It was clear the caller knew Anna was on official PEP business, yet they were demanding she stay put and not leave. The more Anna came to agree with this, the more she seemed ready to cry. She sat motionless on Rio's footstool, with her shoes on her feet and all ready to go.
Two huge tears fell from her eyes as she looked down to remove her shoes. "Yes. Aika sent me," Anna confirmed. "I'm with Hank."
As soon as Hank's name left her lips, the person who had called spoke loud enough to be heard by all. Hank knew in an instant who it was.
"You stay there!" Sue Marie shouted. "Nobody knows how those people died, and he will keep you safe."
Anna held her hand to her mouth in horror and embarrassment. She struggled to speak clear. "But Fuji's okay?" She asked, blinking rapidly. "You have to tell me more. I can't live not knowing!"
"I can't," Anna lamented again. "No. I'm coming to the hospital. I have my shoes on," she lied. "I'm walking out the door."
The phone buzzed mightily as Sue Marie talked, but no one except Anna could hear what was said because she kept interrupting. After a while it seemed Sue Marie had won, and Anna sat in silence.
"Put Hank on the phone!" Sue Marie said, very loud. "Put him on right now!"
Hank came forward and held out his hand, as Anna's nearly all black eyes looked up and found his. Her anger over having to obey lay under a pool of tears she refused to cry.
"Give him the phone!" Sue Marie said, nearly screaming now, with Anna holding the phone only loosely in her lap.
Carefully, Hank took Anna's phone. No one in the room could breathe as she didn't offer resistance, her empty hand still cupped in her lap.
"Hello," Hank said to Sue Marie.
Rio inhaled audibly. Terror and hate and anger and rage welled up from deep inside her as everything grew so colorless, so empty aching black. It boiled her brain behind her glasses, clouding her vision as it seeped through the room.
We are going to die.
"Okay," Hank said to Sue Marie. "Okay," he said again after a moment had passed.
Hank's ingorance over how Reality worked, as well as his penchant for being so calm, was making Rio furious. "What's she saying?" she blurted out, unable to hold it in.
He held out a finger to make her shush. "And Fuji's okay? And you too? Really?" His face showed concern. "Are you sure? Well, Fuji is going to be okay at least. What about the policeman? You mean he might… he is still alive though, right?"
Now Leanne could take no more. "What? A policeman died?"
Anna began to answer, and Rio joined the ruckus until Hank waved his hand at them all, forcing them to be still. He gave Sue Marie strict instructions, using silken tones. "You call us right away as soon as you know more. Everything here is good. You call even if there's nothing. Okay?"
Hank went through the clutter on the dining table and found a pen and a pad of paper. He stared at the screen on Anna's phone and wrote down Sue Marie's number.
"I'll call you if you don't call first. Stay with Fuji at the emergency room and get more information. Has she got her phone? When she comes out you have her call me. Yes. Me, on my own phone. She has my number. That's right."
The ruckus in Rio's apartment returned.
"What emergency room?"
"Who's Fuji? Is she dead too?"
Hank demanded silence. "Sue Marie? Anna's fine. She's here with me and I'm looking right at her. You take care of yourself, and you take care of Fuji. No. She's not going anywhere. Call us when you know more."
Hank hung up Anna's phone and became the instant center of attention. Before allowing Rio and Leanne to bombard him with their questions, he stared straight at Anna, who seemed unable to rise from her seat on the stool by the door.
He knew full well she intended to leave. "Anna, you're staying with me. You see this?" He held out her phone. "You see where it's going?" He put her phone in his front pants pocket. "This is where it stays." He pointed first to Leanne and then Rio. "She's staying here with us until this thing gets figured out. Her friend Fuji is in the hospital and Sue Marie is with her, and everything is fine until we hear from them again. Fuji's not hurt bad and she isn't going to die, but a policeman is dead…" Hank waved his hands and shook his head, flustered and upset. "No, the cop is like, maybe he might be dead. He is hurt very bad, and another woman Sue Marie knows is really dead for sure."
Hank again looked at Anna, telling her something she already knew. "Your upstairs neighbor killed herself, and maybe an entire family."
"A whole family?" Leanne asked, unwilling to believe.
Hank stuttered a bit, not wanting to misspeak again. "She… um, Anna's friend Sue Marie thinks it's a whole family. The people who live next door to an old lady who lives upstairs, who then jumped from her balcony and died."
Leanne gasped, putting both hands to her mouth. "A family with kids?"
Anna, still on the stool, writhed as if she were bawling. No sound came out, for she held fast to a veneer of professionalism. Her gaze was cast steeply downward, glued to her purse on the floor, open to where her cell phone had been before she'd answered it.
She summoned the will to speak, but couldn't form full sentences. "The Canimentos. Mom and dad, three kids. Two boys and a girl."
Quick fat tears squeezed out her eyes, against her hard fought wishes. She raised her head to speak more clearly to Hank's understanding face. "Oh my God! A little girl! Only three or four! Their throats were tied with wire. Just moved in. That damn bitch! Warugi!"
"With her?" Leanne asked. "The family lived with Warugi?"
Anna shook her head, violently struggling with words. "The penthouse next door… she's dead too. I mean Warugi. She lived next door. No one killed her. She murdered them and jumped. She tried to kill my Fuji!"
"Sue Marie didn't say that," Hank said softly. "No one knows what happened."
"I do!" Anna screamed. "I know perfectly well! I told Sue Marie when she asked me to move in that we should live somewhere else, because Miss Warugi is nuts. She's angry at the whole world." Anna blinked back monster tears. "She was angry anyway, until she went on her final rampage."
"She's done this before?" Leanne asked with concern.
Anna stared straight up at the ceiling, sniffling on snot. "Uh-huh. All the time."
"No way!" Leanne said in shock.
"When Fuji lived with someone else, before Sue Marie moved in, the landlord split the Warugi penthouse into separate units. This is the second time someone living next door to the bitch was found dead by the cops."
Hank clarified for Leanne, whose eyes grew wide with terror. "Sue Marie says the lady jumped, and it seems perhaps on purpose, to try to land on Fuji. But at the last second a policeman Fuji was talking to about the Canimentos shoved her out of the way. Fuji got hurt when she fell on the ground and got a very bad cut. But she's going to be all right."
"And the policeman?" Leanne asked.
Hank slowly shook his head as Anna's whole body trembled. She answered before he could. "The bitch missed Fuji and landed on him. A… a piece of metal from his uniform, or…" she sucked hard on air to keep from crying, "maybe a piece of Warugi flew off and hit Fuji in the leg. It cut her bad enough for her to have to go to the hospital."
Anna now sobbed and cried like the teenager she was. She mixed her words with gibberish, and sometimes Japanese, but none of it made sense until Hank crouched before her and held her hands. Leanne approached as well, standing behind Hank. Not knowing Anna well, she placed an understanding hand on Hank's shoulder instead.
This helped Anna speak. "Sue Marie also said the PEP Center shut down. Everyone's been sent home."
"Why?" Leanne asked with care.
"I don't know!" Anna bawled. "Something about it maybe being a terror plot."
With speed, Rio moved towards Leanne. Using a gentle smile, she got her to step away from Hank.
"Stay with her," Rio whispered into Leanne's ear before grabbing Hank by an elbow. She pinched it in such a way to show that great pain would occur if he didn't surrender control. She used it to steer him through the kitchen towards the privacy of the laundry room.
"This is what I warn about," she whispered, even though she wanted to yell. "They look for us. For me and now you." She jerked a thumb towards Anna. "Through her."
Hank leaned in close. "Bad guys?" he asked, once he was certain what the answer would be.
Rio struggled with acting normal. "I see things. Right? I told you? I see strings of Reality."
"Okay. And yours look black to me."
"No you shut up," Hank said plainly, stupefying Rio. "I see things, too, you know. I mean, I didn't just fall off a turnip truck. Here's a friend who needs my help, and whose best friend asked me to please take care of her."
"Ooh! I wanna punch you in the face!"
Rio blinked and relented. "It's not coincidence, how bad guys work. They find a way, an angle, and coordinate attack. There will be lots more."
Hank glared at Rio in silence. She grew serene as his ascension towards authority bolstered her confidence. Her honey skin and shiny dark eyes caught him by surprise.
Sweet heaven, you're pretty, he thought, scarcely realizing he'd done it.
"Thanks," she said with a smile. "Now use Anna's phone and call Sue Marie."
"No. What for?"
"Oh sweet heaven yourself. Do you want to help or not? Sue Marie will answer thinking it is Anna, and when you say it's you and Anna is upset she'll give more information."
"That is so deceitful. I'm not gonna lie."
"This is not a lie. It is an honest truth."
"I never lie to anyone."
"God damn you, damn Hank-sama. I am not from turnips either." He grinned at her mashed metaphor. "I see threads from Anna, and she's tied mostly to three people. One is Sue Marie."
"You can see all that?"
Rio smiled again, in a way she knew would melt his heart. "Baka-aho. You'd see too if you tried."
Hank was pretty sure Rio hadn't called him something nice. "Yeah, I love you too," he said with sarcasm, giving her a heartwarming smile of his own.
"Hello, Sue Marie," Hank said on Anna's phone. "Is there anything new to tell?"
Sue Marie sounded exhausted. "Oh. It's you. Hi Hank. No, not really. I'm still just sitting here, reading stupid old Cosmos and Fashion Fair magazines."
"Ah…" Hank hesitated, feeling dishonest. "There seems to be confusion."
"Tell me about it!"
"Ask why Anna can't go home," Rio whispered.
Hank swung at Rio as if to smack her. "Uh, we want to know what's wrong. Why can't Anna go home?"
"No! Don't let her go. No one knows what happened, and the place is crawling with cops. I called some neighbors who are friends of mine and they said no one is being let in. The police are going door to door, asking questions about the Canimentos and Warugi."
"Okay. So then what?"
"She's dead, you know. Warugi." Sue Marie paused for breath, showing fatigue. "People here are talking like all the Canimentos are dead, too."
"And are they, then? I mean, do you think they are?"
"Yeah, I'm really sure. Miss Warugi was furious over having to share the penthouse, even though she couldn't afford to rent the whole thing on her own. She hated anyone living there. And she especially hated children, so from the moment they moved in, and they… oh gosh, Hank, they were sweet kids. I really liked them a lot. I think… I think they made her jealous!"
"Ask about the PEP Center," Rio whispered next. This time Hank did smack her, firmly but with love.
"So if I may, Sue-san. What about the PEP Center? What's wrong over there?"
Sue Marie let out great air. "I think it's a conspiracy. Like with this Asian lady. She tried to land on Fuji, and Fuji had just been sent home from her job at the PEP Center that very moment."
"They're in a lockdown, or something. It's like a terror thing."
"Terrorists? You think it's some sort of plot?"
"Uh-huh. I think a lot of people are hurt. Around here, at the hospital, they're getting prepared. Like something big is happening."
"And you think it has something to do with the PEP Center?"
"It has something to do with the Personal Enhancement Program, for sure. Some people don't like it, you know. They say it's bad for people."
Hank fell silent, and so did Sue Marie. With no further instructions from Rio, he had no idea what to say.
Sue Marie seemed distracted. "You should turn on the news," she said after a moment. "They're talking about it right now."
"The national news?"
"Uh-huh. Not talking, but there's a trailer." She spoke slowly in monotone, as if reading words off a screen. "All Personal Enhancement Program Centers and Testing Facilities are closed until further notice."
"Hang up the phone," Rio whispered.
"Sue Marie? Thank you. Don't worry about Anna, not one single bit. She's with me and we're with friends."
"Dōmo, Hank-sama. You're the greatest. Just… don't let her leave. Okay?"
"Yes. I'll take care of her. Let me give you my number."
"Call me if there's news."
"You take care of Fuji."
Upon returning to the living area, Hank and Rio found Leanne consoling Anna as they sat facing each other on the sofa. Knowing comfort wasn't her forte, Rio left them alone. She sat in Leanne's big armchair, and Hank sat on the loveseat. Neither one said much as Leanne had eyes and ears only to serve Anna. She worked her charm like magic, proving her value as a consultant. The day wore on with tea and coffee, and cookies after lunch, until Hank's phone buzzed in his pocket. He sought privacy in Rio's bedroom, with her following him.
"Which testing facility was it?" Hank asked Sue Marie, now on his phone as Rio watched.
"The one at the University," Sue Marie said. "More people are coming in. I saw someone no one cared much about. I think they might be dead. And three others they cared more for." Commotion could be heard on Sue Marie's end of the call. "Here comes another! Everybody's panicking! He… oh God, Hank. He must be dying, too!"
Rio knew the answer to her question without having to hear Sue Marie say anything. "The testing facility you went to last week," she whispered at his open ear. "And Fuji, the consultant you met two days ago."
Rio moved to tug on the lapel of Hank's plush shirt to get him to look down at her, but he grabbed her by the wrist before she got a hold of him. She continued whispering, hissing on her words. "And here's this Anna-chan, sitting in my apartment, making the world look black. They look for you, Hank-sama, just like they look for me."
"Who's that?" Sue Marie asked, not hearing exactly what Rio was saying due to the commotion in the hospial.
Rio had to check whose Reality she was in, as Hank seemed to grow angry. His lips drew tight, his jaw set strong and breath steamed from his nostrils. Then slowly, he calmed down.
"Sue Marie? I'll call you back. Take care and relax. Everything here is good."
Once rid of his caller, Hank's anger returned. "Rio, I don't need your dreams stuck in my head to see why you're so scared, but I am through with being chicken." She opened her mouth to speak, but he jumped down her throat. "No! I mean it! I've been shy and miserable and quiet my entire life, and over the stupidest things! Now in just one week I've met the most wonderful, the most beautiful people I have ever seen. And I'm not letting some goons I don't know tell me this isn't real."
Rio became submissive. She tried to interrupt. "Hank-sama… It's not like that. I didn't say this wasn't real."
"No you didn't. But you've been trying your darn hardest since the very first second I met you to make me think that, ooh! Right around the corner! A bunch of crazy freaks are gonna chop me into pieces!"
Rio had nothing to offer, so she hung her head in shame as Hank carried on. "I know you've been, what—running your whole life? But I am not you, Rio-chan. Yeah, I might walk away from things, but it's not because I'm scared."
Hank let silence reign, his face showing so much anger for one so often kind.
"I'm sorry," Rio said after an eternity had passed.
He hugged her hard, until she hugged back. "Don't be afraid anymore," he said, pouring his love into her.
"Even if what you say is true, stop being a chicken about it."
Rio wriggled as if laughing. "Kokko-kokko," she said in a funny voice.
Hank thought for a moment. "Is that supposed to be a chicken?"
"Huh. How about a lion?"
"Gaou!" she roared.
"Well, we are gonna gaou like lions and not kokko like chickens. Wakatta, Rio-chan?"
She hugged him so hard he thought sure he'd pop.
"Wakatta. Gaou, Hank-sama. Gaou."
- Upright. In the Den.
- Sci-Fi Action Adventure, propelled by a little Romance.
"Arise!" The star-studded empress of night
Gave me the keys to her city.
Bathed me in breath, told me of plight,
Force-fed my conscious with pity.
Pointed toward East, down past the yard
Through revolving doors of her courthouse.
Megaphones cry. "A guinea a head!
"Everything's fun at the Circus!"