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Living Beyond Your Means

By Willa Shakespeare
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he school calls, and I nearly panic. I grab Kerr and Benn and hustle them off to the neighbor's flat so quickly the boys are bewildered and start to cry. Lani's good with kids, though and she'll have them clapping hands and laughing before I make it to the transport stop.

Shena is out of town, on a field trip with her classmates to one of the few real museums we've got. Well, maybe museum is an exaggeration, but they've got sculpture and paintings, and Shena is really keen on all that now that she's found out she's really an artist.

I always thought she was, and I told her so, when she got the results from the multi-occupational scan. And I wasn't joking. Anyone who can see beauty down in the slums has to be an artist, or a dreamer, or else they take a lot of high-quality pharmaceuticals.

The scan wasn't cheap, but Sheena felt uncomfortable once I was making enough from security consulting that she didn't need to keep on with the punters. Not that she wanted to, but she'd paid her own way her whole life.

So we decided she'd find out what else she'd be good at, and art was it. One thing, she didn't have any problems with the male model classes. I did, a bit, just a little bit, at first. 's funny, I wasn't ever jealous of her work, because, well, she didn't care about any of them. But when I'd see her sketchbook, and the lovely sketches she'd done of all these nude men, I could see the affection in it. And that bothered me, until Shena told me she imagined each of them was me.

And maybe she did.

But... two more stops to go. I wish this transport was faster. Still, the school's good. They won't let Elli go until I can be there.

I wish Shena was here. Elli has warmed up to me, but something like this... well, a girl needs her mother. But Elli's all right. They said so.

One stop.

We're there. I can see the school from the transport's window and Elli's teacher is there, outside, waiting for me.

"Where's Elli? How is she? Is she all right?" I'm asking questions before the transport door shuts behind me.

"In the office. Elli is fine, Rastrick. She's just a bit upset. Nothing happened, really."

But I have to see for myself. I run ahead to the office, and there's Elli, sitting very stiff and still in a chair without any of her usual giggling or fidgeting. I drop to my knees and hold out my arms and for once she comes to me gladly, without holding back. I stroke her hair and hug her, and I feel her tremble. "It's all right, all right, Elli. We'll go home now."

Elli is quiet all the way home, but she brightens when we pick up the boys. After they've been put down for a nap, she opens her notebook and fiddles with it for a while, drawing ponies and daisies in the margins.

"I've been scared, Elli. Sometimes it helps to talk about it." And sometimes it doesn't, but there's no sense telling her that. She already knows. Elli is a lot tougher than I was at her age.

She puts down her pen and straightens. "There was this man. I've seen him before. He watches me from the windows of the building across the street when I'm out on the playground."

"What did he do?" My voice rises, and Elli flinches.

"He watches me. He's there, all the time, every day this week. At first I thought he was watching all of us, but today I knew it was me. It was creepy, and I screamed." She shrugs. "But teacher says I imagined it. I didn't, though."

"What did he look like?"

Elli looks relieved. "You believe me?"

"Of course, I do." I'm indignant that the school hadn't done anything. Of course, if the man wasn't on their property I suppose they couldn't do anything. But I could, and I would if I had to, to protect my children. "Tell me."

Elli concentrates. "He had dark hair, and really white skin. And sometimes he'd smile at me. It was a really spooky smile. I didn't like it."

My stomach goes cold. "I don't like it, either." Him. I'd searched and searched for him, worried about him, been sick with fear for him, and he was playing with me, stalking my children. Shena said she thought he was crazy. And he must be. He must have blamed me for everything. Or at least for escaping without him. Or for escaping from him.

I get up and tell Elli, "I'm going to ask Lani to come over until I can get back." I can tell how upset Elli still is, because she doesn't protest that she doesn't need a baby-sitter.

I get the gun that I keep locked away, safe from the kids. I hadn't thought to need one ever again, but after living with Avon that long, last terrible year, I didn't want not to have one, just in case. I check the charge and slip it into my trouser pocket. This isn't the sort of neighborhood where you can wave guns around without people complaining.

*******

Elli has her mother's artistic eye for details, and she'd told me which window of which building she'd seen him. Of course, he'd probably run when she raised the alarm. But he might not have if he'd planned it this way, making me come for him on his own territory. He always used to know what I'd do. But not this time. I'd still be the coward, Vila the drunk, the useless except when you wanted something opened, to him.

Only I wasn't that anymore, if I ever had been. I was Villim Rastrick, husband and father, businessman and respectible citizen. Maybe he'd given me the name, but I'd made the person behind it.

It's not too hard to figure out which flat belongs to the window and no one notices me going in the building and up to the proper floor, and then to the door. The floors are lettered instead of numbered, and the flats count in a clockwise circle around the central lift. His is the seventh one on the first stop on the lift. He's in B-7, which is a sick joke, but knowing Avon, he probably has a reason for it beyond laughing at poor, dead Blake. I suppose he thinks it will give him a psychological advantage.

He's wrong about that, too. Somehow it steadies me, thinking of Blake. Blake was never frightened of Avon. Not even when Avon killed him.

But then, Blake loved Avon. And Avon had loved Blake. I would have sworn it. Avon hadn't loved me. Not much. Just sometimes, when he and Blake quarrelled. And me, well, I take what's offered, don't I? If there's a bit of sweet after all the sour, you'd be a fool not to.

And Avon could be sweet, when he'd a mind to...but I wasn't going to let pictures of Avon in bed, smiling that cat-lazy grin of his after we'd done everything he wanted, and a few of the things I liked, well, I wasn't going to let thinking about that stop me from doing what I had to, to protect my family.

The gun is heavy in my pocket. There's no one in the corridor at the moment, and I hear quiet noises in Avon's flat, like someone moving around. They're not very big flats, and I can tell the walls are thin. And the floors creak, but not when you know how to walk along the edges, where there's more support. Which is what I did, of course. I don't want Avon to see it coming.

Even if we weren't really lovers, we'd been friends once. Maybe it wasn't his fault he'd gone crazy. So I'd just slip into his flat, and use my little, silent gun on him without frightening him. Let him die easy, not the way Blake did, betrayed by... well, a friend, at least.

The door lock is a joke. It's open and I'm in the room beyond, with the door shut again behind me, in less than three seconds. It's not quiet, though. The hinges screech like the damned.

And the damned hears, and turns to face me. I hadn't wanted it this way, but maybe it's better. Although I can't see how. I had the gun out before I closed the door, aimed at his back, and when he turns, it's his heart I'm imagining blasted by the energy-pulse of my weapon.

If he still has a heart, after what he'd done to Blake.

"Vila?" Avon starts forward, as if he hasn't a thing to fear from me.

"No. Stay back." And I swallow, because even though the words aren't the same, I hear Avon warning Blake.

Avon staggers to a halt, and goes even whiter. Elli is right, he is white, paler than I've ever seen him. His hands tremble, too. I wonder if he is sick. And then I wonder why it matters. I'm going to cure all his ills. "You frightened my daughter," I say, feeling the need to explain to him. It's not just me. I can put up with almost anything, but not my kids.

Avon shakes his head, but it's not a no, more of a twitch, like an animal that's been bitten by a bug and knows it hurts, but doesn't know what to do about it. "You don't understand."

This is bad. Now I'm replaying that whole horror. "I can't let you hurt my kids, Avon." I lift the gun a bit, trying to remember which is the spot Soolin once told me about, where you can kill a man before he feels any pain.

I have to kill him, but I still don't want to hurt him.

Avon says quickly, "I didn't. I was just watching her."

My finger tightens.

Avon adds, "I needed to know..." Then he closes his mouth and he smiles. "Yes, I see. You are a good father, Vila. I suspected you would be."

"Praise from the great Kerr Avon." I try to make it a sneer, but I'm too busy not being sick.

"The gun is silent?" Avon nods as if I'd answered him. "Good, good. After... well, after, look in the other room."

"Why? Booby-trapped, is it?" I ask suspiciously, although it doesn't feel like the right answer.

"No. I swear, on my word, what's in that room is harmless. And quite possibly as valuable to you as to me."

"Orac? Who'd want that scabby little box," I say and this time I nearly do make it a sneer.

"Just promise you'll look."

It doesn't make sense, but I figure a dying man's entitled to one request, and even crazy, I don't think Avon would break his word. Besides, I could always turn Orac into a drinks dispenser. Or a box to hold used nappies. "I promise," I say, and I steady the gun.

Avon looks at me, and his eyes clear, and for a moment something in the curve of his mouth... well, I couldn't do it. I lower the gun, and shake my head. "I can't. Avon, just make it quick, and leave my kids alone. They never did anything to you." I shut my eyes and wait. Avon wouldn't hurt the kids, would he? Everybody has a line they won't cross, and I was sure that was Avon's. Not that we'd seen too many kids, but I'd seen him with Meegat and Veron. He couldn't fight innocence, couldn't hurt the helpless, couldn't even seem to understand it, but then I guess he'd been one of those odd children who aren't ever quite like the others. Never invited to play with them, or to learn how to fight without meaning to kill. I suppose he'd never properly been a child.

I hear the floor creak, and my shoulders tense so hard it hurts. Then I feel warmth, and I'm surprised because you never do think of Avon and warmth together. And this is Avon. His hand closes around mine and he takes the gun.

I'm about to wet my pants, and I hope he'll just get it over with quickly.

Then warm lips press on mine. My eyes fly open. Avon looks at me from two inches away, and he gives me one of his wry smiles. "I can't count on you for anything. I'll have to do it myself." And he turns the gun on himself.

I'm not thinking about anything except that Avon has just confused the hell out of me and I want answers to questions that I haven't even thought up yet. I knock the gun out of his hand.

And Avon gets mad. Really, seriously, furiously mad, screaming profanities I didn't think he knew, mad. He looks like he's actually having some sort of seizure. I slap him across the face, which somehow feels even braver than giving him my gun.

I hear a creak behind me, and I fling myself sideways towards the gun, all my old reflexes coming back from the bad old days. I almost have it when Avon lands on me. He looks like he'd lost weight, but he certainly didn't feel like it.

By the time he peels off me, he's got the gun, and I've got a stomach-ache from his elbow landing in my gut with all his weight behind it. I'm staring at Avon, too mad to feel frightened, and then something touches me from behind, and I do the two-meter sitting high jump.

When I land on my feet, I see what touched me. Who. It wasn't Avon. This person is midway in age between Benn and Elli. I think it's a boy, but I'm not certain, because of the dark blonde curls that cascade down his or her shoulders. The eyes... oh gods...huge dark hazel eyes that have no expression I've ever seen on a child. I look up from the child, and Avon is smiling at me, grimly.

"Yes. I found him. Orac did, actually." Avon gave a humorless laugh. "I'd forgotten to cancel the instruction to find Roj Blake."

The child is unnaturally silent and far too thin. I look at Avon, then back at the boy. I can see both his parents now, but it's not as if he's a copy. He's a person in his own right. And someone, somewhere, has not treated him well. He's thin, and there is a scar across his cheek. He's clean, though, almost painfully so, and his clothes are a better quality than the common jumpsuit Avon is wearing.

"Jenna was with Blake. Orac found out that she'd faked her death, and then he found out why. She apparently did not wish the child to be endangered by association with Blake. Orac didn't tell me until asked directly, of course. Orac found her private computer log, which also served as her diary. She named the boy after his father, but had intended to tell him his true name only when he was old enough to keep the secret."

I look at the silent boy, and then at Avon, who still seems more than a bit mad. The child isn't frightened of him, though, and goes to Avon and tugs on his pants' leg. Avon sighs and leads the boy to a table. "Unfortunately, not long after she placed the child in a care facility under the name Jan Smit while she found employment, she was killed. Some sort of pointless shipboard accident." While he talks, Avon opens packets and prepares a meal for the child, who seems totally unmoved by Avon's story, and keeps his eyes on the food as if he was afraid it might not be given to him if he relaxes his vigilance for an instant.

"Um. Avon, you could tell me later." I look at the boy, at Roj.

Avon follows my gaze. "He never knew her, so why should it bother him to hear of her death? With no money left for his care, he was moved to a place which served more as a warehouse than anything else. I found him and I bought him."

"Bought?" The implications are sickening.

Avon nods. "Fortunately, no one had wanted a child so unsocialized he could neither walk nor talk."

"He can walk."

"That much I was able to teach him." Avon shrugs. "I believe, in time, with a sufficiently supportive and nurturing environment, he might achieve normal development. But I..." Avon looks helpless. "I can not provide it." Avon looks down at his hands, which are shaking. "And I do not wish to risk him being left alone again. Please, Vila. Take him. I can have Orac supplement your income to pay for his keep. No," he lifts his hand as I was about to protest, "I know you don't want payment, but I should like to be certain that he would not lack anything he might need. I'll go now."

I shake my head, but Avon is right. The child needs help and Avon can barely help himself.

Avon goes into the other room, returning with a small cloth bag, and Orac. He places the bag at my feet. "His belongings, and what little medical records and history he has, are in there." Avon hoists Orac to a more comfortable position and heads for the door.

I watch, and try not to cry. I shouldn't cry for Kerr Avon, after all he's done. But then, maybe it's people like him you should cry for the most, because they'll never do it for themselves.

There is a clatter. I hadn't noticed, but the spoon-scraping noises had stopped a few minutes ago. I look at Roj. He's almost as white as Avon, and his eyes are even bigger than they were before, which I would have sworn was impossible. His lower lip trembles.

"You could say goodbye to him, Avon," I say, just as Avon is at the door.

Avon stops. His back is still towards me. "Why should I?"

"Well..." And I can't really think of a reason that would make sense to Avon.

But Roj can. The child scrambles down from his adult-size chair, and runs to Avon. He puts his arms around Avon's leg, and begins making this truly unbelievable sound.

Avon doesn't flinch or blink, but acts as if this is all quite normal. He braces himself, and puts Orac down, then he turns to the child. "Vila will take care of you. He is a good man, one of the best I've ever known." Avon's eyes go distant. "I'm no good for you. I... I shout at you, and lose my patience. You'll like Vila. He can play games." Avon was speaking quite loudly and bit by bit, Roj stopped his wailing. "You'll never be lonely again. He has three children."

Avon did smile then and I wondered if he knew about Kerr. Stupid of me, really. He had my name, and he had Orac. Kerr had his baby shots which went into the public health files- on computer. Avon knew.

"Goodbye, Roj." Avon peels the child off, and picks up Orac.

Roj stands there, silent again, not trying to hold Avon, but the tears are streaming down his face. His mouth works and he sobs, half-choking on the tears.

I go to him, but he turns away from me. He reaches his arms out to Avon, who shakes his head. "No."

Roj opens his mouth, and screams, "NO!"

Avon drops Orac, which I hope hurt the little plastic bastard, and gathers Roj into his arms.

*******

It's a good thing Avon didn't damage Orac.

After all, how else would have been able to pay for a house big enough for all of us?

And it's not so bad being married to both Shena and Avon.

But I still get embarrassed when she shows her statues of us in the public gallery.

At least she could put on a fig leaf or two. Mine would be bigger, of course.


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Willa Shakespeare

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