A douchy, brown-haired woman peeled herself achily off the ground. Her delicate hands bit into bits of gravel; her face came glistening off a damp patch of grass, thin lines of blades pressed into the skin of her cheek. A chill sun greeted her as she blinked once then twice and looked around.
The woman, dressed in a plain gray button-down shirt and cotton pants, steadied herself as she got to her feet. She was surrounded by houses. Perfect, lined houses. Brown, green, some blue, some yellow, one even red – all in perfect little rows with perfect little lanes extending from their front doors down to the idyllic trees in front of them.
The woman lifted one manicured hand up and massaged her temples, where she noticed a dull, throbbing pain. She tried to remember anything that came before this moment. But there was only quiet, and calm, in place of answers.
The streets were empty. The woman looked around for a face, a body, another human being. Out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed a child in a window. It was a boy. He stared out at her from the window of his home, one tiny hand clutching the raised corner of a lavender lace curtain, the other hand propping up his rusty-haired head above a plump, white couch. He didn't smile; he simply watched her.
She waved uncomfortably. The boy waved back in return, then let the curtain fall. Through the lace, she could still see him watching her.
She turned in place and started walking in the other direction, acutely aware of the crunch of gravel beneath her heeled feet. She reached down and took them off. There were goosebumps on her thighs. She realized she was sweating. She rubbed her palms together and then rubbed them against the skin of her legs. It was a cold morning. Probably too early for anyone to be out.
She coughed cold air into her balled-up hand. When she pulled her fist away, she saw a smear of red against it. She pressed her lips firmly into her hand, and looked again. She was wearing lipstick.
The woman walked for eight miles before reaching a town center. There were three or four shops, all wood-shingled and shuttered, with cobwebs in the windows and toppled mannequins in the displays. The mannequins had rich, black paint for hair, bright blue eyes, and ruby red lips.
As she walked along the displays, she felt her fingers drawn towards the glass. Something deep in her wanted to reach out and touch them. Something deep in her found them deeply unsettling, deeply irregular, yet at the same time, familiar. She couldn't say why. As she walked, distracted, she nearly collided with a bright yellow stand. Next to it stood a bright red one. Within the red casing, there was a clear plastic pane, and through it, she could see a newspaper.
"THE CHRISTIAN HERALD" it read across the top. A small intake of air, but she couldn't say why. Something in it rang true to her. She slipped her thin nails between the pane and the casing and pulled the door down. A small stack of newspapers sat patiently waiting, neatly pressed and folded. She grabbed one off the stack and let the stand door swing shut. She turned and angled the newspaper into the now midday sun.
The first headline caught her attention, and her reaction was immediate. "EDITOR-IN-CHIEF HAROLD BALDSMITH SLAIN IN HOME" Her mouth went dry, though, of course, she couldn't say why. Captioned below it was a small photo of a woman and three boys. The photo struck a nerve with her – it was all so familiar. Was it because of the boy? The youngest one looked exactly like… yes, the boy in the window. She let the paper flip down onto her thighs as she took a moment to process.
When she lifted the paper up again, she read the whole article, all at once it seemed. The editor-in-chief, Harold Baldsmith had been murdered in his own home by a roaming pack of sneers. Their race, unknown. Mr. Baldsmith was survived by his wife and three sons. The legacy and future of the newspaper was unknown. The Outside Man was called upon to return. The job posting, for editor, needed immediate filling. There was an address. If she'd had a pen, she would've circled it. Instead, she took the paper in her hands and carefully tore the section out. She looked down – yes, her shirt had a pocket. For some reason she'd expected it. As she stuffed the torn address into it, her fingers brushed against something that was already there. Another piece of paper.
The woman reached in and pulled the slip out between her two fingers. There was a messy scrawl. It read:
this one's on me.
- mr. margory
The words meant nothing to her.
"Heads up!" a woman called out from a big truck barreling by. A rolled-up sheaf of papers, held together by twine, dropped a few feet from where she stood.
Paltron walked over to the bundle and daintily untied it. She picked one of the rolls up in her hands. She could only make out the word DIGGER emblazoned across the top, seemingly by hand. She lightly bat the roll against her hand as she continued on in the same direction. She wasn't sure who she'd encounter along the way, but she had places to be – one place in particular. She reached a hand up to her heart where the torn address sat protected, and she smiled.
Davis hopped onto her two-speeder. The engine was old, but by Pure standards, it was fast. She revved the engine and gladly felt the purr of it under her. As she peeled away from Herald headquarters, she felt light. Airy. Her resignation as Outside Man was in. It was anonymous still, of course – she'd simply had to enter the code given to her by Baldsmith when she'd first been assigned. Clocking in, and clocking out. She wondered who the next cross-side reporter would be, how long they would've lived in Pureside, and where, before realizing that they needed something more. Like she had.
She thought of Paltron. After her confession, Davis had let her go, and of course, Paltron had gone straight to Mr. Margory to purge the memory and be able to claim plausible deniability before the Moderators. Davis shook her head. Then Mr. Margory had had his vengeance. It was only by Davis's good graces that she'd managed to deliver Paltron to Pureside ahead of any forum. The people would've been outraged, sure, but it was MAN Davis was afraid of. She still grappled with the full range of Collinsworth's power – she still didn't know who he was working with or how disposably he viewed Paltron since her betrayal. Davis grimaced. Hell, if he really did love her, maybe he'd even try to restore her. She pushed her foot down on the gas. No, best to let Jean start over, a blank slate entirely. Free to reinvent herself and perhaps find a new name, a better expression of herself in the world. Who knew what she would do and become then.
Davis veered onto a main road. She had a long way to travel before she'd reach her destination – the home of some Lily Armistad. Adams had comm'd her the address before she'd crossed the Line. She had a Monitor to save – one of her best and brightest. And if she had things her way, he would be her charge, her successor.
But first, she had one more stop to make.