Inside the crowded café, Mauricio peered around for a vacant table. With any luck, he could get through his emails and the morning news before his check-in meeting with Charlie. When he sat down, he scanned his text messages. A smile curled his lips as he read a text message from Isabel.
“Dad, I still can’t believe you got me and Halle VIP passes to the Misfit Girls Festival! Halle texted me this morning and was like ‘why is your dad so fucking awesome?’ I’m like ‘it’s a Candela trait’.” She finished the message with three hearts and a smiley face.
He reread the message at least three times, smiling all the while and realizing nothing brought him more joy than making his family happy. He responded with three heart emojis and “Love you birthday girl.”
After taking a sip of coffee and biting into the croissant, he opened his email. Eve Cooper hadn’t responded. It’s only been a day, not even twenty-four hours. Relax.
He scrolled to a message from Charlie and stared at the two hyperlinks, the only lines in the message. Inhaling, he clicked one link and it brought up a headline that felt like a punch to the gut. “Senator Abbott Calls for Halt to H2F Purchase Agreement Amid Safety Concerns.” With every paragraph, he sank farther into his chair. He visualized Charlie yelling at Senator Abbott right now and pacing in his office. Perhaps it was best to avoid the office today. In fact, he could probably get a lot of work done from this café, Mauricio thought, glancing around.
Sereno’s was his favorite café in the center of the city, and he’d made it a routine stop there on Tuesdays en route to the office. The owner, a small old woman that reminded him of his mother, had grown accustomed to his frequent visits and begun giving him complimentary pastries. But Mrs. Sereno was out today, away visiting her family in southern Portugal. He missed her presence, as she always had a way of dispensing some unsolicited wisdom to put him at ease. More than anything, he needed her wisdom today.
When a woman sat at the vacant table across the aisle, Mauricio did a double take. The woman, a rich brown color with a shaved head, wore a white tank top, faded jeans, and bright red sneakers. “AJ Taylor?”
She turned to him, her eyes wide. She seemed to be on the verge of smiling for a moment. “Mauricio?”
“The likelihood of running into you here!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing in London? You still live in Chicago, don’t you?”
“I’m visiting my girlfriend,” she answered, staring at him.
He couldn’t stop himself from laughing. “I thought you were still dating the nurse from Minneapolis,” he said, referring to AJ’s relationship in the reality show she’d landed several months ago. Isabel and Elisa had introduced him to it, and he’d been shocked to see a familiar face as the star.
Fading with AJ Taylor followed her life after Eve’s viral video exposed SPI. The show gave viewers a window into how AJ, one of the faders featured in the viral video, had begun adapting to life in a new world where everyone knows about faders. It became an instant hit and, last he’d read, she was being considered for film roles.
“I’m not really a one-woman woman,” said AJ, cracking a half-smile.
He chuckled. “I see.”
“But I’m not just here for pleasure. My agent lined up an audition—”
“I heard you were being considered for the role of Storm.”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes. “These fucking pricks think it’s funny or something to have me play a mutant. It’s all gimmicks in showbiz.”
“Well, it would be kind of legendary if you played Storm, though,” he replied, finishing his croissant.
“Yeah, that’s what Eve said. Whatever, I’m not doing it. These fucks already don’t see us as human. Why give them fuel?” she said, leaning back.
At these words, an idea occurred to him and filled him with such excitement that he almost choked on the last pieces of the croissant.
“Anyway, my audition here is for some heist flick, I think.” AJ glanced at her phone and typed something into it that made her smile. She held the phone up, snapped a selfie, and typed something else into it before slipping it inside the front pocket of her jeans. “Just updating social media, always have to let fans know what I’m up to.”
“That must get exhausting, though?”
“Not really,” she said, shrugging. “I don’t put much energy into it. Anyway, enough about me. What are you doing here? Nobody hears a word from you, then we see you quoted in a few articles…”
“We—? Are you still in touch with the others besides Eve? Are they…you know…how are they?”
She glared at him. “You mean how are they after you fucked us all over?”
Her raised voice turned a few heads, and Mauricio felt a sudden urge to fade but resisted. Instead, he looked at the crumbs on his plate. “I wish an apology was enough to make up for what I did, AJ.”
“Until one of us faders has the ability to alter time, there’s nothing you can do about it. What’s done is done,” she said, pausing to look around the cafe. Nobody was watching them anymore. “Everybody’s doing all right. Eve, Zoey, and Gabe are inseparable—crazy lovebirds. They got a big ass house up in the far Northside of Chicago. All the press tours and consulting is paying well for Eve. Niles and Samuel moved in with them a couple of months ago. They’re one big queer family up there. But, me, I needed my own space, as a bachelor and all.”
As they talked more, he felt transported back to those days of being in cramped hotel rooms with Eve and AJ while they were on the run from SPI. Despite how much he’d missed his family during those days, the only time in his life he’d felt normal was when he was in the company of others like him. Other faders. Although Elisa and the girls accepted his uniqueness—he’d never hid it from them—they couldn’t understand the feeling of being something people feared or fetishized. Of course he was happy they’d never have to experience what he’d gone through for most of his life.
But his otherness left him feeling alienated, even from his family. Maybe I should join that fader support group Elisa found.
“I’m getting a deja vu feeling. You’re about to ask me to do you a favor, aren’t you? Considering your track record, I’m surprised you’d even have the balls to ask me for help.”
Trying not to look desperate, he nodded and took a swallow of his coffee.
“Oh boy,” she sighed. “It must be serious.”
“You’re familiar with H2F, right?” he asked. When she nodded, he took a deep breath, mentally counted to three, and proceeded to lay out the problem for her. He watched her expression go from wary to intrigued to uncertain. “If you need to know more before making a decision, I can set up a meeting at the laboratory and provide a tour. I’m sure Charlie and Orson would be happy to meet with you to discuss compensation.”
She raised her hand to stop him. “Mauricio, some of the stories I’ve seen about the side effects—”
“Again, those side effects are extremely rare.”
“Just give me your phone number. I’ll reach out in the next few days after I’ve had some time to consider and discuss it with my manager.”
His shoulders dropped a bit, but he tried to appear grateful. Maybe she’d decide to help him and he’d get an excited call from her tomorrow. Or perhaps she’d come to the rational conclusion that it was too big of a risk and he’d never hear from her again. Part of him preferred the latter response because what if she helped him and got hurt? He didn’t want that on his conscience. He’d caused enough pain to her and others.
So he gave her his number, not sure whether he was betraying her again or finally righting his wrongs.