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...her mind revised its image to a place overrun by creatures, living in their own filth, shedding everywhere.
She turned, saw a furry head duck behind a three-foot-high Delft vase positioned near the kitchen door.
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by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The car stopped on the rain-soaked side street. Ancient oaks covered the road like a poorly maintained roof, making a dark day seem even darker. Gen checked the guidance system on her new Toyota. Everything seemed to be working properly. She peered through the water-streaked windshield and saw only twentieth-century farmhouses, lovingly restored and painted nice sedate colors—brown and tan and the occasional white. Not that the colors made much of a difference in this weather.

Sometimes it felt as if she were trapped in darkness, as if the gray netherworld of an Oregon winter would never end. Dr. Prichard wanted her to go to Hawaii or the southwest to soak up some light, but Gen felt as if she didn't deserve light—at least, not yet.

In her right hand, Gen still held the piece of paper Dr. Prichard had given her. The paper was crumpled now and the doctor's bold scrawl smeared. The paper hadn't been necessary. Dr. Prichard, at Gen's request, had had her computer send the address to Gen's car. But these days, Gen liked double and triple backups, especially those that could not be wiped out in an instant. Dr. Prichard said it was a reaction to the accident, a passing insecurity, brought on by Gen's heightened knowledge of the fragility of life.

She was shivering. The car had shut off, and the February chill was beginning to permeate the plush interior. The car's computer beeped. In another three minutes, it would beep again and then, in its polite androgynous voice, would ask if she wanted to leave the neighborhood. If she'd known when she bought the car that she had to inform it each time she just wanted to sit with all the systems off, she would have thought twice about buying it. But she hadn't discovered that feature until a week after the papers were signed. By then, it was too much hassle to take it back.

She glanced at the paper again. Part of the reason she was delaying was that she had expected a commercial neighborhood, or at least one that was part of a research park. She hadn't expected a residential street, not from Dr. Prichard's descriptions.

The other reason was harder to admit: She didn't want a companion, particularly not one that had been assigned to her. She had told Dr. Prichard that she would be perfectly fine living alone.

The car beeped a second time, but before the voice could make its request, Gen grabbed the door handle and let herself out.

The rain was cold. It came with a wind strong enough to make the drops slash her despite the canopy of trees. Her coat sealed at her wrists and waist, and a hood slipped over her head. She pushed the material back down. Not even her clothing allowed her to make her own choices any more.

The house at 2654 Rhododendron was a 1920s farmhouse like all the others, with a large front porch—now glassed in—and massive square columns on each side. The second story was smaller, and had vinyl windows from the last part of the previous century. The curtains were open. The net effect was to make the house look like a square face, with eyes that watched her.

She pushed a hand against her short, damp hair and stuck her hands in her pockets. Then she started up the old-fashioned concrete sidewalk, avoiding the cracks caused by age and weather.

The stairs groaned beneath her weight. When she reached the top, a voice asked her to state her name and her business.

"Gen O'Connell," she said, resisting the urge to turn and run back to her car. "I was sent by Dr. Prichard."

The house's computer system had to be an old one, because it took almost a minute to compare her waifish frame and delicate features to the identi-holo that Dr. Prichard had sent over. Then locks clicked back and the door swung open. Gen stepped into a porch that smelled faintly of cedar and dogs.

As the door closed behind her, the voice said, "You are wet. Hang your coat on the peg near the entry, and place your shoes on the grate. They will be dry when you return for them."

She did as she was told, even though her socks were damp too, and the polished hardwood floor was cold. Then the entry door opened, and she stepped into the heart of the house.

To her right, a staircase with real oak banisters wound its way to the second story. To her left, a large room filled with comfortable couches and easy chairs formed groupings that suggested intimacy. A gas fire burned in a far corner. The animal smell was stronger here, but not unpleasant. It mixed with the scent of fresh-baked bread and the strong, sweet scent of vanilla.

She saw no animals at all, and that surprised her. She expected them to be littering the place. When she had seen the house instead of the commercial building, her mind revised its image to a place overrun by creatures, living in their own filth, shedding everywhere. But this place was clean and well-tended.

A woman emerged from the archway beside the fireplace. She was stout but muscular, of an indeterminate age. Her hair was silver but her face unlined. Her eyes were a clear dark blue, her skin a soft coffee color. When she smiled, it warmed her already friendly features.

"So you're Gen O'Connell."

Gen threaded her fingers together. "Yes."

"I enjoyed your work. I saw you dance here before you left for New York."

The bright glare of the spotlight; the way it warmed her, made her feel beautiful and powerful. She would forget she was on stage, tilting her head back, letting her arms flow.…

Gen winced. It was an involuntary reaction that she could no more prevent than the tears that lined her eyes. She made herself smile, though, and say, "Thank you."

"You were the most beautiful thing," the woman said, apparently oblivious to the distress her words caused. "I never believed humans could fly until I saw you."

"I don't fly any longer," Gen said.

The woman nodded. "Dance is such a cruel discipline, even with the modern enhancements. No matter how our technologies improve, our bodies still have limits."

"I never believed that," Gen said.

The woman looked at her measuringly. Gen swallowed. The tears threatened to spill. She shook her head slightly as if the movement could force the tears back into her tear ducts. Then she clutched her hands together, feeling the thin, fragile bones. "I'm sorry. I think Dr. Prichard was wrong. I'm not ready for this."

"You don't know until you try." The woman came closer. She smelled faintly of cinnamon and apples. She took Gen's twisting hands into her own. They were big and warm and soothing. "I'm Anna Capstik. Welcome to my home."

Gen closed her eyes. How long had it been since anyone had touched her? Since the accident, she'd turned away from hugs, stepped back from a friendly arm around her shoulder, and pretended not to notice an outstretched hand. But she didn't pull away from Anna.

Gen made her eyes open and nodded once. "Thank you," she said again.

"Come into the kitchen," Anna said. "Most of the animals will come out then."

"You don't have them somewhere else?"

Anna laughed. "You sound as if I can control them. They're as unruly as children." She squeezed Gen's hands and let go. "I do have some in isolation. They're so traumatized when they come here. The ones who have the run of the house are the ones that I'll adopt out."

Gen took a deep breath. "I'm still not sure—"

"Dr. Prichard is, though," Anna said. "Trust her. She makes wise decisions."

Gen nodded. She had had to trust all of her doctors after the accident. They had made a thousand decisions for her when she was unconscious: rebuilding her legs in ways that would still allow her to teach dance; growing her a new liver, new kidneys, and injecting stem cells into her heart. She always thought it ironic that they felt her heart needed repair, but they didn't grow her a new one. Perhaps if they had done that, she wouldn't have needed the counseling, wouldn't have had the nightmares, wouldn't have locked herself—

"Gen?" Anna was looking at her. "Are you all right?"

Gen nodded. "Nervous. The last time I cared for something…"

She didn't finish the sentence, but Anna knew. Everyone knew. Gen had been a celebrity who, when she retired from the stage, had come home to Portland. Her classes were world-renowned. Parents sent their little darlings to her to learn the finer points of ballet. Until nine months ago, she had gone on media interviews all over the world, had guest-instructed everywhere from New York to Beijing, and all the time she had used her influence to bring money and prestige to her own favorite city.

So the city was trying to give back now. Only it couldn't. No one could. Dar was dead.

She shuddered. She still couldn't see her son as anything except a crushed pile of bones, flesh, and blood, his skull shattered, his eye—

"Gen?" Anna asked again.

"I'm coming," Gen said.

Anna led her through a formal dining room with a picture window overlooking an enclosed yard. Someone had planted a flowering cherry tree outside so that it was perfectly centered with the window. Tulips and daffodils bloomed beneath the cherry tree, a reminder that spring always came early in Oregon.

A movement caught Gen's eye. She turned, saw a furry head duck behind a three-foot-high Delft vase positioned near the kitchen door.

"Move that, Cedric," Anna said, "and you'll be in trouble again."

There was no answering response from the hiding creature. Anna gave Gen a tiny smile and pushed open the swinging door.

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© 2000 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and SCIFI.COM.