Mauricio sat at a table near where he’d spoken to AJ days ago. He saw her still sitting there. Her lively face, the Goku tattoo on her left bicep, the stunned look in her eyes when she noticed him. He tried to convince himself she would be fine. Eve hadn’t sent him any updates in the last hour, so that probably meant nothing worse had happened.
But he also knew that even if she lived, she wouldn’t be fine. How could she…? He’d hurt her again. After all, would any of this have happened if that kid had never taken H2F?
The phone vibrated on the table, and he looked at the locked home screen. Taking a deep breath, he opened the message from Eve. “She’s out of ICU.”
That was it. Just those four words. Tears of relief pooled in his eyes, and he smiled.
He closed the message and opened his email. He read and reread the letter he’d drafted months ago, right after news of the second adverse reaction had made headlines. In that case, a middle-aged widow in South Korea had taken H2F to develop fader abilities. The mother of an adult fader daughter, she chose to take H2F with the hope that it might help her better connect with her daughter. She and the daughter did a round of interviews with local and international media about the woman’s positive experience, how she had developed the ability to fade after only a couple of months of taking H2F.
But problems arose when she decided to stop the daily dosage, against usage directions, and instead take it once every few days. Her reason? The drug gave her indigestion, and she wanted to mitigate those effects. The banality of it all wouldn’t have been newsworthy were it not for what happened afterward.
Within a day of not taking her dosage, she showed signs of paranoia. She claimed her television, her cell phone, and her own daughter were all spying on her. She believed they all had been trying to control her. When the daughter tried to get her to take another dose after two days, the woman convinced herself H2F itself was part of an attempt to control her.
Not one week later, the daughter found her mother in bed, an empty bottle of painkillers on the nightstand.
As luck would have it, the woman survived the attempted suicide because of the daughter’s snap decision to rush her to the hospital. She safely resumed daily use of H2F under close supervision and experienced no more problems. But H2F’s reputation took a serious blow. Despite the woman’s recovery, the news of the incident shocked the public.
Mauricio knew H2F had the potential to be a game-changer, a real force for good in the world, but he knew what made people tick as well. Shocking headlines. The truth couldn’t compete with those headlines. He agreed with Charlie and the aims of the Harmony Project…a future where being a fader is not abnormal. But, unlike Charlie, he worried the cost of that future might be too high for most people.
He’d drafted this resignation email after the South Korea incident, fearing the day would come when the cost was too high for him. The massacre in Chicago, the anti-fader riots the massacre sparked, and now AJ in the hospital after a hate attack…had the day arrived? He knew the answer as he looked at the email.
“Hey, Mauricio,” came a soft voice.
He looked at his wife’s face. Only Elisa had the ability to calm him just by her presence and voice. He got up, threw his arms around her, and kissed her cheek. Cradling her face between his palms, he gazed into her eyes. His answer lay in that moment, in her eyes. This, not the Harmony Project, is my second chance.
“Mauricio, is everything all right?”
He pressed “send” on the email and gestured for her to sit down.
“What’s going on? You scared the shit out of me with that message. And the look on your face…what are you about to tell me? Should I be worried?” She stared at him for a moment until a smile curled her lips. “Wait a minute. You quit, didn’t you?”
He nodded, reaching for her hand lying on the table.
“This is fantastic news!” she exclaimed but realized how loud she was and blushed. “I’m so happy, Mauricio.”
“You’re not disappointed or worried about money?”
“I didn’t want to say it, but that job was doing something to you,” said Elisa, her smile fading a little. “I started seeing some of the old you, the you that left us before, and I was—”
“Worried I would leave you and the girls again,” he finished, remembering the dream he’d had several nights ago.
She squeezed his hand and wiped her cheek with her free hand.
He lifted her hand and kissed it. “Let’s move back home. I have money saved, and I think the girls would prefer to be back home with some of their old friends. Let’s just live a normal life again, yeah?”
She sniffled but smiled. “Maybe you can take over your family’s janitor business. I bet he’d hand the company over to you in a heartbeat.”
“Damn. I forgot,” he mumbled.
“Isabel would have to leave her girlfriend behind,” he said, sighing. “I wouldn’t want to do that to her. You see how happy she looks nowadays? And the girls have made a lot of friends here already.”
“Maybe your brother can help you open a branch here? Make your family’s business international.”
He pictured himself putting on a uniform, cleaning toilets, cleaning offices. For the first time in his life, the simplicity of it sounded like heaven. “As long as I can come home to you and the girls with some peace of mind,” he said, squeezing her hand.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw Mrs. Sereno at the checkout counter and she waved at him. As he returned his attention to Elisa, he wasn’t sure what he was feeling. Peace? Happiness? Hope?
“You believed in that work, didn’t you? You said you wanted to fix your wrongs, but that wasn’t the only reason. You wanted it to work so there would be more people like you. So you’d be less alone,” said Elisa.
Every day it amazed him that she understood him in a way he failed to understand himself. “I’m not alone,” said Mauricio, with a kiss to her hand. Not anymore.