The microwave beeped and Martin removed the two small plastic trays, grimacing as the fiery plastic blistered his fingertips. Emily didn't look up from the screen in the living room, where she had been sitting in silence for the past two hours watching a City Scenes marathon. Martin scooped the rice, chicken, and rubbery vegetables onto two plates and stuck a fork in the center of each salty, steaming pile.
While the plates cooled to an edible temperature, he cleared the mess of packaging away into the proper bins, staring for a moment at the ReadyMeal: Chicken Teriyaki label where it sat at the bottom of the bin.
The glossy photo of attractive people gathered around a heaping plate of food that in no way resembled what had just come out of the oven made him furious, the feeling as sharp and sudden as lightning. It was all a lie, all a ridiculous sham. Hungry as he was, he felt his appetite drained away by the leeching force of apathy that sapped his anger. What was the point?
Emily turned, elbow jabbing over the sofa's edge. "I'm hungry, Worm. What's taking so long?"
He didn't move. "I really wish you wouldn't call me that."
"You don't like my nickname?" Martin knew she was tired; she lacked the energy to make her voice as charmingly wheedling as it might have been. She could often flatter him into a better mood, but for right now…
"No," he said, flatly. "I don't."
"Okay," she said, turning away, "I won't say it anymore. But I'm still hungry."
Martin picked up both plates and carried them to the sofa. Emily was once again lazily absorbed by the TV; Martin glanced at it long enough to know he'd seen the episode before. The whole evening—boxed dinners, silent girlfriend, TV show and all—felt like a rerun.
The frustration of earlier returned; why was he reliving his nights like this when something so much better was waiting for him, stowed in his bag just a room away? If he were a better, braver man, the idea of losing this unloved and unloving creature next to him wouldn't fill him with fear.
Ella's words of two days ago surfaced in his mind. I was a coward.
So was he.
Emily took tiny bites of her meal, chewing three grains of rice and a limp pepper strip without looking away from the show. Martin saw the shine of sauce on her lip and watched the slow, repetitious motions of her jaw. Her makeup had started to fade; he could once again distinguish the slight uneven quality to the skin on her cheeks and her lipstick was rubbed off in patches. Tenderness mixed with his self-disgust.
Emily trusted him; she would never let another man see her this way. She could relax around him. Wouldn't it be unfair to betray the trust she had in him?
The show gave way to a commercial and Emily turned to him for the first time in a half hour. "Thanks," she said, gesturing with her fork towards the plate. "You know how I get when I'm hungry. The cafeteria didn't have anything today, did it?"
Though Martin's appetite had faded, his stomach remembered very well the stale slices of bread, over-steamed rice, and thin brown gravy that had been offered that afternoon.
"Tomorrow we'll get our meat and dairy rations," he said, "and I'll make beef stroganoff. You can take it to work for days and not have to bother with the cafeteria."
"You're a good guy," she burrowed into his shoulder and huffed a quiet sigh, "Daniel and India don't see it, but you're a good guy."
At the mention of their Superiors, Martin felt himself grow rigid under her winding arms. "Have they been talking about me?"
He felt her head shake, quick as a fluttering bird. "Daniel's concerned because of a case you have. Apparently he knew this woman when she was in Rainbow Acres; he was her caseworker with the Single Mothers Assistance Bureau when she started her divorce procedures two years ago. They never got along; he says she's one of those women who'll just nominally observe all the rules without appreciating why they're there. Hers was the last case he handled before transferring to PBLAS."
That squared with what he knew of Ella. He couldn't imagine her appreciating many rules when it came to her management of Sarah. He almost laughed when he thought of Sarah herself sitting passive and accepting a stranger's advice on how to behave.
"What does that have to do with me?"
"Well, you know Daniel," Emily sighed, "and he knows you. He knows that you're a bit soft. Don't let her take advantage of you, Martin," she said, turning up the volume as the show resumed, "Daniel's watching this case too closely."
Suspicion about her manner made him ask, "Are you saying that to save my career or manage your own?"
"I don't need any help managing my career, thank you," she didn't look at him, "I thought you might appreciate some friendly advice. He'll fire you if he even suspects you're taking it easy on her."
"Why do either of you think I'll do that?" he knew he was angrier than he should be, but he was thinking of the impulse that had almost made him offer to pay Ella's fine. "You haven't even met this woman."
"I've reviewed the file," she said, one eye darting him a sidelong glance, "She seems like your type."
"My type?" he laughed, "My type is you."
"Hmm," she tossed her head and returned to his shoulder, "We both know that's not quite true."
"Do we, now?" she must have felt his shoulder as it shook under her head, for she sat up again. He tried to laugh and pass it off. "What do you know about my type?"
"I'm not talking about your love life, idiot," Emily turned and threw her elbow over the sofa again. Her hand gestured sharply as she went on, "I mean she's a wounded bird. I know you; every time a crying case comes along, you're the one who will put in the extra hours and make sure everything goes right, that is, according to your version of right. It's one of the reasons why no one wants to give you the bigger cases; your allegiance isn't with PBLAS, it's with the client."
Her stab at the truth made him defensive. "Then why are you still with me? According to you, I'm nothing but the ballast keeping you from floating up to a Superior or Management position. So," his stomach felt cold and empty as he said, "why not cut me loose?"
"How is this about me?" she said, scoffing, "I'm just trying to give you some advice. Trust me," the etched frown lines around her mouth seemed deeper in the cold light from the TV, "if you were really holding me back, I'd let you go."
They were both silent in the reverberation of the truth.
She stood up, discarded plate listing to one side, viscous sauce sliding towards the sofa. Martin tracked its progress, preferring that to watching Emily gather her coat and bag. She turned back only once as she slid on her shoes at the door.
"I mean it, Martin," there was neither remorse nor anger in her voice, only a resigned frustration, "be careful."
"Is that an ultimatum?" the cold sick in his stomach lurched and he wished the words unsaid.
He felt her shrug. "If that's what you want," she said, and the door closed behind her.
Martin sat for a few moments, the dialogue of the actors on screen reaching him through a thick veil of numb shock. Slowly, he turned to face the screen. Two actresses smiled at each other over a table dressed with fine china and brilliant utensils, slowly eating from a tray of fresh fruit—strawberries, grapes, banana slices—such as he had not tasted in months. Their carefully painted faces and curled hair reminded him of Emily.
Frustration gripped him again, snatching him up in talons that tore at his heart. It was all a lie, all of it. From the advertisement on his microwaved dinner to the smiling women he watched without attention…to Emily's concern, which was nothing more than self-concern poorly disguised. All of it meant nothing, had as little bearing on him as the long-dead authors whose books he longed to read.
He left the dishes on the couch, noting with apathy the stain that spread from the sauce escaped from Emily's plate. The sofa—an overstuffed thing, covered in worn brown velour—had been his parents'. He remembered sitting sandwiched between them, hearing their voices going back and forth above his head, and being perfectly content. That sofa had also become one of the main reasons why Emily preferred spending evenings at his place rather than hers.
He looked at the stain. Who cared if it stank, if it was dirty? Without it, would Emily break up with him?
Probably, was his first thought. And I don't care, was his second.
It was late, the digital clock at the right hand corner of the screen reading 23:37. He needed to be up for work early the next day; there was a biweekly staff meeting in his section. If he overslept, it would be his job. The thought didn't bother him, though he knew he should be feeling horror at the idea. All his old concerns felt senseless, as though he'd obsessed over minutiae for the last twelve years of his life and had woken one day to finally see the worthlessness of his obsession.
Martin turned off the TV and wandered through the orange-tinted shadows of the emergency lights to his bedroom. It was as bare as a community dorm cell; bed, nightstand, and constantly slow digital clock. His clothes hung in a stand-alone armoire.
His shoes were jumbled together in a box underneath. Everything of value was concealed under the bed; his mother's three pieces of jewelry (he'd given two others to Emily), his father's leather satchel, which also contained his watch, and his twelve books.
The books. They had company that night. He went to his bag which hung off the edge of the armoire and took out The Old Man and the Sea and The Princess Bride. They represented nothing to him but stacks of wasted paper and spilled ink. There could be no words inside that could be worth the value of their raw materials. The government was right to gather them up and pulp them.
Even as he thought that, he knew his own cowardice. It wasn't the paper, or the ink, or the glue that had given Sarah that beautiful smile as she spoke. It wasn't the idea of an investment that made Ella preserve her library so fiercely. The words, the ideas, the stories…they were worth more than one hundred, one thousand, or even one million credits. But just like one million credits, books were a fortune he would never have. And it hurt to get tastes of them—snatched as from the jaws of a ravenous animal—and not be able to savor the words.
If he had Ella's library, it would be another matter. If he had the books…but she was just like the municipal libraries, doling him scraps and expecting him to be satisfied.
If he had the books…
It was an evil thought. But his hands grew tight; he heard the pages whisper as they slid against each other, and the spines groaned under the cruel pressure of his grip. He never had to let them go. Indeed, he had only to file a few forms alleging that Ella had attempted to bribe him with the books, and they—along with everything else in her shop—would be forfeit. If a few volumes, no more than twenty or thirty, went missing during the repossession process, who would know?
It was an evil thought. Martin threw them down on his bed and ran shaking hands through his close-cropped hair. In the darkness behind his closed eyes, stifled by the whirlwind of jealous, grasping feelings, an image of Sarah surfaced. He saw the toothy gap of her smile, the soft light in her eyes, and felt her standing close, trusting to his elbow.
Trust. She had trusted him, when her whole life she had known no reason to trust another man living. She had let him carry away her most precious treasure, with nothing more than a nod and an eloquent "Okay."
The remembrance of her drove some of the darkness away, but the thought did not disappear. Like a spirit of the dead, once summoned it could not be banished. It lurked about the corners of his mind, whispering a flow of honeyed words. He could take them. He could have them all.
Martin shook his head. He wouldn't. He wouldn't.