Home Sweet Bi’Ome. PAT MACEWEN

Pat MacEwen is a physical anthropologist by trade with more than a decade’ s worth of experience as a crime scene investigator. “My central field of research, however, is genocide,” she says. “I’ve also worked on war crimes investigations in the former Republic of Yugoslavia (now the independent nation of Kosovo) for the International Criminal Tribunal. I’m deeply interested in global warming, which I think is likely to spawn more genocides, and I’m something of a science geek.” She has published short fiction in several genres: fantasy, sf, horror, and mystery. A new sf novelet, “Taking the Low Road,” is out in 2012. Her forensic/urban-fantasy trilogy, Rough Magic, is forthcoming, with the first volume, The Fallen, out in 2012. Likewise, a YA series about a crippled boy who can’t talk to people but finds out he can talk to dragons. The first volume in that series, The Dragon’s Kiss, is also out in 2012.

“Home Sweet Bi’Ome” was published in F&SF. It is an amusing story about future allergies, biotech solutions, and more. MacEwen says in an interview, “as for the story itself, I dreamed it. A friend of mine has a daughter living in a stripped-down cabin on the slopes of Mt. Shasta because she has hyperallergic syndrome and can’t tolerate the synthetic side of modern life … my subconscious made hay with it.”

I woke up feeling itchy, and started to scratch my face before I’d quite gotten my eyes open.

Oh, no. As soon as I was conscious, I balled my hand up and made a fist. It’s a trained reflex, one I’ve acquired through long practice. You can’t scratch an itch with a fist. You can rub hard, but your knuckles don’t set off the histamine complexes, making them worse than they already are. You won’t tear open tender skin and start off all those nasty secondary infections.

I sat up and balled the other fist. I was itching, all right. All over. But I didn’t have a rash. Wonder of wonders, when I took a look at myself, my skin was a nice even pink everywhere. There were faint welts where I’d begun to scratch, but nothing more.

What on Earth?

As I examined myself, the itch intensified. It traveled. Into my mouth. My ears. My … well, never mind where. Let’s just say that all of my mucosal tissues were staging a riot, and for no apparent reason.

Not knowing what else to do, I got up. Tea, I told myself. Chamomile. Or white. White tea is soothing, and there’s nothing in it that sets me off. I get mine from a guy in Sri Lanka, who grows the stuff without pesticides. He packs the tea in plain old-fashioned wax paper, inside a tin. No plastics, no dyes or preservatives. No excess packaging, covered with ink and shellac and God knows what else.

I padded through the house, careful to keep my hands off my hide. Just walking, however, set off a fresh round of itching, this time on the balls of my feet. Couldn’t quite keep myself from doing a circular Sufi dance across the coarse black fur that serves as a carpet, letting the friction of skin against wiry hair turn the prickling heat into definite inflammation.

The cold enamel tooth-tiles on the kitchen floor calmed it down some but there was no denying the fact that I was having some kind of allergic reaction. To what? There was no nylon in the house. No plastic of any kind. No paint. No fragrance. No synthetic anything. That’s the whole point of a Bi’Ome. Everything is totally organic and completely familiar to me, or at least to my immune system.

Nervously, I checked my fingers. When I get the hives, it shows up first in my hands. I get ugly red blotches (what doctors call urticaria). Then my fingers swell up like stubby pink sausages. My lips, too. I start looking like a Ubangi, except there’s no clay saucer stretching my mouth out of shape. Just oedema. Good old Mother Nature. And when it gets bad, well, my throat closes up. Or I pass out. Then my throat closes up. Where had all my EpiPens gone?

I reached out, grabbed the edge of a pouch underneath the nearest kitchen counter, and felt my fingers slide across half a dozen small hard bumps. Like Braille, only bigger.

I looked down. The rash was an odd one, the bumps looking weirdly transparent and delicate rather than small, hard, and red. Whatever. It speckled half the cabinets, the walls, the ceiling, and most of the pouches I use for drawers.

I spat, “Son of a bug-eater!”

It wasn’t me that had the rash. It was my house.

It took them five hours to send me an EMT—three solid hours to find the clown and another two to get his sorry ass up the mountain. You know how long that is, when you’re fighting a desperate need to scratch where it itches?

Then, when he did show up, he didn’t even have a truck. What he had was all these piercings and implants and crap. He even had a LoJack locked into his skull right behind his left ear. Swear to God, the guy looked like a Borg who’d mated with a mess of fishing tackle. Worse than that, he had a uniform on, a polyester mix. I could tell as soon as the tech climbed off his freakin’ motorcycle. Worse than that, even. Aftershave.

Oh my God. One whiff and my throat closed up.

Not that he noticed. The goof came rambling up to my front door just like some demented encyclopedia salesman, all smiling, eyebrow-beringed, and happy-faced.

I met him with a loaded crossbow.

Seeing that, he stopped dead. Both hands flew up, aerating armpits awash with some kind of deodorant. Fresh Scent, Extra Dry something or other. I started wheezing, fell to my knees, and found myself aiming at the point directly in front of me, which happened to be his crotch.

He definitely noticed that.

“Hey, take it easy.” He turned his hips sideways, acting like he didn’t know he’d just threatened my life.

“Don’t you come any closer,” I gasped.

“I won’t! But you … you called for a tech, right?”

I stared up at him over the length of the quarrel. “You’re it? Where’s Chen? Or Fredo? Or Saylah?”

I got a sheepish smile this time, along with a shrug. “All the regular guys are tied up. If you wanna wait—”

“No! I can’t!”

“Okay, then.” He gathered up some confidence and pulled out a business card, which I did not even think of accepting. After a moment’s embarrassment, he let his hand drop. He introduced himself. “I’m Rey Fox. R-E-Y. Short for Reynard. It’s kind of a joke. See, Moms was French.”

My crossbow wobbled a bit but I did my best to keep it centered on his private parts while I checked his company ID card. Reynard, indeed.

“ ‘Fox’ Fox?” I couldn’t help asking, though I didn’t have much air to spare.

The doofus nodded, his smile spreading out like my getting the stupid joke made everything okay between us.

“You see the signs?” I demanded. Hack. Wheeze.

“Uh … signs?”

I rolled my eyes, which were nearly as itchy as everything else. “The No Trespassing signs. I have them posted all over the place.”

“Oh. Um, I didn’t look. On the bike, I get kinda … well. …” He gave me that same silly shrug again. “Curvy mountain roads and me, I kind of get into it.”

Great. Just great.

“Well, what about your work order? Didn’t that say anything?”

“About what?”

Oh, Lord. I started coughing up a lung. I guess it sounded pretty bad. He peered at me, and in the process he took a step nearer.

I nearly shot him, right then and there.

“About hyperallergic syndrome!” I wheezed, as soon as the coughing jag eased up. Waving the point of the quarrel at three of the signs, I read them for him. “Do not approach if you are wearing any kind of perfume or fragrance. NO PLASTIC! NO NYLON!”

His dark eyes flicked back and forth.

“Why d’you think I live up here on the mountain?” I asked him. “Why do you think I bought a Bi’Ome? You idiot! I’m allergic. To practically everything.”

“But I—”

“You’re wearing plastic,” I told him. “If I let you into my house, if I touch your shirt, I could go into anaphylactic shock.” Pant. Wheeze. “I could die.”

His mouth fell open. His lower lip flapped in the breeze, amid a faint jangle of the six chromed rings looping around its middle reaches.

“All that stinkum on you—Good God, I’m that close to choking on that shit alone. From here. What on Earth were you thinking?”

He shook his head, the lower lip still flapping. “They, uh, they said it was an emergency.”

It is, you moron! Just look at my house!”

Only then did I let go of the crossbow with one hand and wave at the pink skin/wall behind me, the rosy expanse that would normally be turning golden green this time of year, as the sunshine of early spring spurred tanning as well as some serious photosynthetic power generation. Instead, the whole eastern side was covered with spots. I could barely restrain myself from reaching out to touch them, to rub them … to scratch.

Again, he took a step forward. I brought the crossbow back up to bear on his family jewels.

He raised a hand, Indian powwow style, but he didn’t say, “How.” Instead, he quietly told me, “Ma’am, I need a closer look.”

Ma’am. That made me feel older than shit, on top of everything else. But I was the one who’d yelled for help, wasn’t I? Sourly, congested and starting to wheeze again, I backed off and closed the door. Then I watched through the corneal window set into it while Reynard the Fox peered and poked at my wall. While he fetched a small med kit out of the bike’s saddlebags and took swabs off the affected surfaces. While he stuck a giant hypodermic into my siding. That gave me a twinge, so I turned away rather than watch him take his biopsy samples. When he was done, he knocked on the door and backed away a careful ten paces.

“How long will it take?” I demanded as soon as I’d opened the door, still on the defensive although I’d left the crossbow sitting on the kitchen table.

“I’m not done yet. I need to see what’s going on inside.”

“The hell you say!”

He won, of course. But he also went back to the bike and pulled on a cleansuit—a pure white cotton and silk blend with breathing apparatus, a full hood, gloves and booties, the outfit he should have been wearing before he came anywhere near me.

Grudgingly, still trying hard not to inhale when a breeze wafted past him, I let Fox enter.

By now, the whole living room, ceiling and walls and a patch of the floor, was adorned with the rash. The inflamed bit of flooring intrigued him the most. He stroked the wiry black hair with a gloved hand, and smiled when nearly half the room developed goose bumps in response. “Living carpet,” he said. “That’s so cool. But it’s not scalp hair, is it? Too dark.” He glanced up at my dirty-blond mane.

I was already breathless and frozen in place by my own sudden onslaught of gooseflesh. But then, catching up with his question, I flushed a hot scarlet that would have put a full-blown case of strep A to shame. Wheezing, wide-eyed, I sputtered, “No! No, it’s, uh, pubic. It stands up better … to wear and tear.”

To my surprise, he did not bust a gut over that one. Just nodded at me, looking owlish. “Yeah, that makes sense. As long as your hair growth is dense enough.”

Density, I thought, just might be the problem here. But not with the carpet.

“Is that itching too?” he asked, pointing at a hair-free slightly swollen strip of bare floor that served as a threshold, a lip between the inner and outer surfaces of the house.

Just thinking about it set off a furious prickling in the corresponding reaches of my anatomy. “Yes!” I snapped, forbidding my hands to go anywhere near the relevant body part. “What is it? And why is it making me itch? I don’t have the freakin’ rash!”

“A sympathetic reaction. Your nervous system is picking up on the symptoms affecting your better half.”

“My what?”

“The house.”

I planted my fists on my hips. “I think you’d better explain yourself, mister. I’m not married to this house.”

He grinned. “Oh, no. Your relationship is way closer than that.” Then, as he took in my unhappy reaction, he sobered up. “Look, you do know that this house was grown from your own stem cells, right?”

I nodded.

“We had to tweak the growth and development genes pretty hard. But underneath all that … the house is your twin. The DNA is the same. The nervous system—all the same. So, yeah, there have been some cases where Bi’Omes and their, uh, sources, have turned out to be just a little too sympatico.”

That was not disclosed,” I told him. “Not when I bought mine.”

“Well, there’s still a big hairy argument. …” He broke off, flushing, trying real hard not to look at the carpet while his brain caught up with his mouth. “Uh, begging your pardon, ma’am, no pun intended—”

Impatience swept over me like a tidal wave. “Get on with it!” I nearly shouted. “What argument?!”

“Um, well, about whether the side effects are, ah, real, or, uh, psychosomatic.”

I glared at him, then barely managed to whisper the word, I was so stinking mad. “Psychosomatic?”

He nodded, bobbing his head up and down like a fifties-style hula girl off somebody’s dashboard.

“Are you aware that hyperallergic syndrome has, itself, been called psychosomatic?”

“Yeah, sure. I mean, after all, you people do have … a lot of … neuroses.”

It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion—him realizing what he was about to say, and yet not quite able to stop himself.

“ ‘You people,’ ” I repeated, feeling dangerous. “Neuroses?”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.

“Didn’t you? Listen, I think you’d better leave.”

He didn’t argue, just gathered up all his stuff and walked out the door. I slammed it behind him, threw the lock, and went to check on my supply of oatmeal soap. A soothing bath might calm my skin down enough to let me think.

I was lolling in the tub, enjoying some blessed relief from the itching while I used a deep-breathing exercise to try and get my lungs back under control. I was just getting into the zone when I heard a knock on the front door. For Christ’s sake. He’d only been gone half an hour, so now what?

Pulling a robe on, I padded out to the foyer to confront Fox. “Yes?” I inquired.

He just stood there, staring at me while his faceplate steamed up.

“What?”

“Uh. …”

Whoops. I hadn’t bothered to towel off all of the oatmeal. The robe was stuck to me here and there. I pulled it tighter, which was the wrong thing to do. Made his eyes bug out.

I snapped my fingers in front of his faceplate. “Hey! Fox! What … Do … You … Want?”

“Ma’am, if I tell you that … I’m afraid you’re gonna shoot me.”

Which is as close to a compliment as I’ve had in the last seven years, up here on the mountain. Yeah, so I glanced at the crossbow. I’ll admit that, but just for a second. Then I sighed. “I promise. I will not shoot you. Okay?”

Bozo nodded, but needed another half-minute or so to get back to the point. “Um, sorry to bother you.”

“Which you did because … ?”

“Oh. I, uh, I got a prelim diagnosis. On the house.”

“And?”

He had to yank his gaze upward to meet my eyes, but he managed it. “It’s … not an allergy.”

“Okay. What is it, then?”

“Well, um, listen. I took a look at the specs on this house. You may remember that Bi’Ome had to alter the house’s immune system.”

I nodded. “Yeah, so it wouldn’t react so strongly to all the things that make me sick.”

“That’s right. They, ah, we had to selectively cripple the antigen-recognition system, so that it wouldn’t react to … well, all sorts of things. Especially the man-made stuff—plastics and paints, and perfumes, insecticides—”

“Of course,” I said, getting a little impatient, I do admit. I mean, the man was standing there in a silk and cotton moonsuit, just so that he wouldn’t set me off.

“Well, that meant reducing the immunities that you’d already acquired to certain natural … biological hazards.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded. “Has my house been poisoned?”

“Technically, no!” Reynard answered.

“Then what the devil is wrong?”

“The house is infected.”

What? I stared at him. He mostly stared at the floor. Despite the faceplate, I could see how red he was. Like he was sick.

“Infected with … what?”

Reynard flicked a glance upward, then fled my gaze again. “At first, I thought it might be a herpes virus—”

“Herpes?!”

He jumped when I hit high C, but I just couldn’t help it. I screeched at the man. “Are you trying to tell me my house has a social disease? My house has never had sex!”

“I, uh, well, I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” answered Reynard, “but, um, that’s not exactly the virus I’m talking about.”

Huh? But … a thin shred of memory fled through my mind. What I’d thought was a dream. Erotic, sensual—surely that hadn’t been real?

Paralyzed by the sudden suspicion that my house might have more of a social life than I did, I glared at Reynard. I spoke softly, for fear of cutting my own throat with the razor’s edge of anger slicing at me from the inside out. “So what are you talking about?”

“Varicella zoster.”

Zoster? I’d heard that before. But I couldn’t quite make it click. “Vari-what?”

“It’s a childhood disease. Used to be. Hardly anyone gets it these days because most kids are immunized.”

“Most kids,” I repeated, arms akimbo. I found myself leaning forward. With reckless daring, I went right on leaning, ignoring the fact that my robe had flapped open. In fact, I took a giant step closer before I demanded, “What about houses?”

Reynard licked his lips. “We, uh, we didn’t think there would be any need. The odds against exposure, up here—”

Right. “Exposure—To—What?”

Then the Latin words clicked, somewhere deep down in my memory. Oh, no. I backed off again, staring at him. I threw wild glances at every wall. Every pale, red-speckled, minutely blistered wall.

“Dewdrop on a rose petal” … that’s how my mother’s medical books had described the rash. I rounded on Reynard. “My house has … chicken pox?”

He shrugged again. “There’s, um, a blood test we can run. To make sure.”

I shook my head, willing my hands to stay put on my hips, to remain fisted. I would not give in, not to the itchiness or to the need to slap the living shit out of this so-called tech aide. “Don’t bother. Just treat it.”

“Well, I, um …”

“Honest to God, I can’t take much more of this,” I told him, squirming. The oatmeal solution on my skin was drying up. My bathrobe was stuck to the stuff, so my every move tugged at it, making everything itch all the more. “Do something!” I pleaded.

“I can’t.”

“But—”

“The only treatment available is an antiviral—acyclovir, but it has to be started within the first twenty-four hours after exposure. Three or four days ago it might have done you some good. But it’s too late now.”

“Too … late?”

The white hood nodded. “The virus has already multiplied. It’s everywhere. All we can do now is—”

“Oh, God,” I whimpered and sat down, right there on the floor. The furry rug and my behind were both so inflamed, I began to rotate, pushing myself around in a circle with all four hands and feet. The wiry fur did a wonderful job of scrubbing my arse, but it didn’t help one bit overall. The resulting friction just made the house and me itch even more. I began to weep. “Go away, will you? Just go away.

Ever so quietly, he did.

When he was gone, I made myself get up again. I could hardly walk for the need to bend over and scratch the floor with my fingernails. But that would only make things worse, so I tottered toward the lavatory, randomly raking the walls as I went, intending to dive right back into my warm oatmeal bath.

Never made it, though.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!

The freaking house alarm went off. It scared me half to death. I fell over, then rolled around on the carpet as that set off more of my skin and I tried in vain to scratch everything at once. What with the frenzied boogaloo going on, I didn’t realize what had happened, not till I noticed the flashing lights. Oh, boy. The whole friggin’ wall screen had lit up, the background crimson, the space taken up by a single word:

QUARANTINE!

It was a notice from the Health Department, putting me and mine under full quarantine for ten days. As if I could leave.

I goggled. I crawled toward it. I slapped at buttons and entered the reset codes, and then sysop codes, and got nowhere. My house’s smartnet was no longer mine to command. The county had taken control of it, of everything. Swearing, I got up all over again and staggered toward the front door. “That little son of a bitch! The nerve!”

I flung the front door open, groping for my crossbow as whiffets of cold air threw last year’s leaves in my face. I peered through the fingers of one hand, trying to take aim, intending to plant one in his tiny heinie, but stopped when I saw even more flashing lights on my front gate. On his bike, too. His hazard lights were flashing, and so were his headlights. Likewise, something on his bike’s handlebars pulsed in lurid scarlet. Then his horn started beeping.

He bent over, staring at some kind of screen on the bike, oblivious to me and my outrage. Then, ripping his cleansuit’s helmet off, he flung it down. He swore at the bike, ran three steps forward, and kicked the helmet a full forty yards down the driveway.

Bad Idea. As the helmet sailed past the gate, more flashing lights appeared. “Warning!” the house cried. “Perimeter armed! Do not pass posted limits! This house is now under quarantine!”

As if to underline the point, a red laser beam hit the helmet. It flew ten more feet down the drive and sat there staring back at us, a smoking hole dead-center in the faceplate.

“What the … ?” Fox started toward it, but stopped when I yelled at him.

“Don’t! It’ll shoot you too!”

He turned, glared at me in disbelief, looked at the hole again, and demanded, “What kind of burglar alarm is that?!”

Excessive, of course, because that’s what I had to have.

“Look, I’m all alone up here,” I tried to explain. “And people … they don’t read the signs. Or they think it’s a Gingerbread House and they try to cut chunks off.”

I’d caught some picnickers back in October, attempting to barbecue one of my red window shutters. For lunch, the fucking cannibals.

“Well, shut it off!”

“I can’t.”

His face darkened, matching the lowering sky behind him. “Look, lady, I’ve gotta get the fuck out of here! I’ve got a date tonight!”

“You think this was my idea?”

Rather than answer me, he slung his leg over the bike and attempted to start it up. When the ignition key failed him, he used his boot to flip out a bar on one side of the motor. He tried to kick-start the machine. My God, did he think a crotch rocket could outrun a laser?

No go, in any case.

I heard a voice. Not his. From his bike, from the console. Don’t know what it told him, but he began swearing all over again, only louder this time. Then he jumped off the bike, kicked the front tire, and snarled as the bike shuddered once and the kickstand gave way. Ever so slowly, it fell over onto its side.

Oh, boy. Had to weigh, what? Five hundred pounds?

Apparently, he’d run out of cuss words. He fell silent. His shoulders sagged. Eventually, he turned to face me. “They say they disabled the bike. I’m fucking stuck here.”

Which would have pissed me off even more if he weren’t quite so hangdog about it. I stared at him, not even itching for one blessed moment. “What?”

He gazed at the ground. He licked his lip rings. “They, uh, they said they don’t know yet if this is the same strain as regular chicken pox, so they’re worried I’m going to catch it. Or give it to somebody else. So I’ve been quarantined too.”

I rolled my eyes toward the swiftly darkening sky. “Well, shit oh dear. I’m so friggin’ sorry to hear that. Best of luck, Fox.” I turned back toward the house.

“Hey!”

I stopped.

“What am I s’posed to do now?”

“How should I know?” I demanded. “Go put up a pup tent or something.”

“Lady!? I don’t have a freakin’ tent. I don’t have any camping gear. And look at that sky. There’s an effing snow storm blowing in. I’ll freeze to death out here.”

“If I let you bring all that inside,” I made a squiggly hand gesture meant to encompass the whole of his sartorial splendor, “I’ll die. You can’t come back inside unless you’re wearing a clean suit.”

We both cast a glance at his ruined helmet, now well beyond our reach even if it had still been intact.

In the end, we compromised.

Well, that’s my word for it. He has another one I won’t mention here.

I did let him in, but first I made him shuck the clean suit altogether. Then all his clothes and his jewelry. Then all his implants. When he was done, he stood there, using his hands to cover up the empty jacks instead of his groin. Apparently he felt more naked without the machinery than he did without his clothes.

I was firm, however, refusing to turn my back on him until he’d bundled it all up and stashed it in one of his bike’s saddlebags.

He made even more noise when I threw a bar of soap his way and made him scrub down with it on the spot, twice, me squirting him with the hose.

Well, it was pretty cold, I suppose, but what was I gonna do? Let him walk right in wearing hair gel and aftershave? The bodywash? Antiperspirant? And whatever the doofus had used to turn his pubic hair pink and purple?!

If I could, I’d have made him take off the tattoos as well. He had two of the new interactive type, with glowing colors that swirled when he touched them. The one on his chest, a mandala, spun with his every breath. Since it was sealed in by his epidermis, however, I’d have to flay him to get it off.

A tempting thought, I admit. Or maybe I could get him to skin me. Anything to stop the itching!

While I fought for self-control, he dove through the front door. I followed, having to fight the wind just to close the door again. There really was quite a storm blowing in.

Once inside, Fox didn’t seem to know what to do.

That made two of us. I edged my way past him, tossed him a couple of all-cotton towels, then dug out an old shirt and pants made of unbleached madras, the stretchy stuff. He was only an inch or two taller than me, and slender too, so I thought they’d fit well enough for the moment. The house, thank God, was running a slight fever anyway, giving us both a good chance to warm up.

I spent the next two hours yelling at people, and getting nowhere. The county would not bend an inch, and the company barely responded at all. Even when their man Fox called them, they didn’t have time to chat. They were up to their corporate necks in what was clearly an epidemic. Unless I needed acute care, meaning hospitalization, they weren’t letting either of us out of there.

By the time I gave up, I was hoarse from shouting, and coughing again. I didn’t hear the whop whop outside right away.

Fox did. “What’s that?” he asked.

A helicopter—it hovered about forty feet off the ground, whipping snowflakes into my eyes as I tried to get them to land. They weren’t having it. Instead, in silence except for the noise of the chopper’s engines and rotors, they lowered a cargo net full of five gallon buckets. Then they simply released the net, winched up the cable, and left again.

“What the … where are they going?” I yelled at Fox.

He shrugged, and shivered. The wind had a real bite to it by then, so we grabbed a bucket and lugged it indoors.

The canister was metal, and a bitch to pry open. When we did, I shared a puzzled look with my uninvited guest. Pepto-Bismol? Then the odor reached out to me. I backed away, beginning to panic before I recognized the smell. Not Pepto. Calamine lotion.

The net, when we looked, had some all-organic paintbrushes, rollers, trays, and extension handles stuffed into the meshwork too. We hauled it all inside, and got busy.

The calamine lotion worked wonders. I can’t really use it myself because I react somewhat to one of the chemicals in it, but the house didn’t mind. Anyway, I was careful to wear gloves and slippers. I let Fox paint the ceiling, too, not wanting the stuff to drip into my hair or my face. It was still quite a job. The house has four major rooms, a laundry, and a bathroom, and we had to paint it all, everything but the tilework.

You have any idea how much calamine lotion that takes?

By the time we were done, it was late. I was wiped. I guess Fox was, too.

“So, ah … where do I sleep?” he inquired.

The couch was more of a love seat, and not long enough to accommodate him. Besides, we’d been forced to paint that too, and both of the armchairs, since they’d all developed a rash. I wasn’t about to suggest he try sleeping on the floor either. Nestled in my pubic hair? I don’t think so! But if we were going to be stuck here together for several days, then I’d have to do something. All things considered, it was sure to be something well outside my comfort zone.

Get over it, I told myself. That didn’t make it easy.

“Well, uh, there’s m … my room,” I stammered. “You can come … take a look.”

Given my behavior earlier with the crossbow, I guess he had a right to look askance at me, to wonder about my hesitation. So I bit my lip and led him toward the one room I’d painted all by myself. As we went, I reminded him, “As you’ve seen, the furniture is all part of the house. So pretty much everything in here is … me.”

He nodded as he glanced through the arching doorway. Then he froze, and frankly gaped.

I knew what he was looking at. The beds. A pair of rounded mounds, each had a single dark brown cushion at one end that rose about six inches higher than everything else if you stroked them a little. Softly wrinkled, the pillowy masses were circled by smooth brown areolas and there was simply no mistaking what part of the body they’d been derived from.

To give him credit for having some sense, he didn’t comment on that. Instead, he inquired, “No blankets?”

“I’ve never needed them,” I said. Which was true. The beds were as warm as my own skin. They were my own skin. Normally, I didn’t bother with PJs either. Tonight, I decided, was different. I’d sleep in my clothes. I dug out a comforter for him, and we both more or less collapsed.

I woke in the dark, still exhausted, not quite certain what had roused me. Then I heard it—a slurping sound of mumbled contentment.

Sitting up, I peered at my unwanted roommate.

He was sleeping peacefully, sprawled on the other bed. His head had slipped off the cushion, however, and he’d wrapped an arm around it. In his sleep, he nuzzled it. As I watched, the nippillow grew firmer, rising, and so did its counterparts, on my own bed, on my chest. It’s hard to describe the sensation. Electric yet ghostly, unlike anything I’d felt before. I found myself stretching out, reaching out, longing for something I couldn’t name.

But even that much movement set off my skin. I wasn’t used to wearing clothes at night. They clung to me, the wrinkles leaving welts, rasping at my neck and my shoulders and hips, and I couldn’t help wrapping my arms around myself and digging in. Pretty soon, I was a ball of misery, tears rolling down my face. Every part of me that I could reach lay next to a piece that I couldn’t. I was so freakin’ miserable, I didn’t even know I was whimpering. I never heard him get up either. He was just suddenly there, beside me.

I sobbed. “I can’t stand it!” I dug in again, but he stopped me.

“Easy, now,” he murmured and called up the room lights. He slowly forced my hands down into my lap. He lifted my face, frowning as he caught sight of the multiple tracheotomy scars on my throat. He rubbed one thumb across them. Then he got behind me and began rubbing my back. My shoulders. My hips. And when the cloth got in his way, he eased the shirt off me and worked on my bare skin. It wasn’t the kind of massage you’d get at the spa, like I was a loaf of bread being kneaded. This was more like being stroked, over and over again. He did it just hard enough to move blood through my skin but without any hard edges. Slowly, the itching subsided, becoming a layer of heat, as if the whole outermost inch of me was slowly combusting.

Laying me down, he continued his work, down each arm and leg and back up again.

“You have such beautiful skin,” he said, breathing the words at my bare shoulder. “Beautiful. …”

“Yeah, sure. As long as I stay clear of plastic,” I whispered. Last time I wore rayon, I looked like a leper for most of a week, and Rick … well, Rick seemed to think he might catch it. When I reacted to his aftershave as well … I shuddered, trying to shake off the memory. “History,” I told myself.

Fox didn’t notice. He was too busy caressing the sensitive skin at the base of my spine, where tiny hairs had begun to tremble.

So long, I thought, since anyone touched me.

I sat up, turning to face him. He smiled. He’d taken off his borrowed shirt somewhere along the way. His mandala glowed, gently spinning. His hands kept on moving, caressing my thighs.

I looked down at the tent in his borrowed trousers. “Rub me all over,” I insisted.

The next time I woke, it was nearly dawn. I felt … human. I lay on my side and the warmth at my back wasn’t welts. It was Fox, his body spooned around mine. He was snoring, each breath ever so faintly stirring the hair on the nape of my neck.

I marveled, refusing to move. I wanted that moment to last. It might have to, the way things were going. My desensitization treatments had all failed. Unless and until something new came through, I’d be living like this the rest of my life.

At least I wasn’t allergic to him.

I smiled. With Rey, it was like bedding a virgin. I guess he was so used to having the piercings, the implants and such … well, for one thing, he had to be careful. Those things can tear skin off. But when he had to do without them, it seemed to throw him off his rhythm. His tentative moves were incredibly gentle, however, and I couldn’t help but respond in kind. His attitude, too, was so sweet. He was almost childlike about his discoveries. Lying there, I started feeling vaguely guilty about the whole thing, as if somehow I were taking advantage of him and his innocence.

A disturbing thought. It was interrupted by a tickle, then a sneeze. Then another. Monster sneezes. I wound up on the floor, with Rey’s arm around me as I convulsed again and again. As my Mexican yaya would say, “?Que romantico!”

“What is it? You need something? Cortisone? Huh? Do you have an inhaler?” He was in full panic mode, ready to start mouth to mouth. “Is it … is it me?”

I shook my head. “No.” I was wheezing a bit, but it wasn’t because of congestion, which it would be if this were a chemical thing. It was more of a physical prickling, way up inside my nose somewhere. I blew my nose, hard, and got no relief at all. That’s when I remembered my skin itching so badly, all on account of the Bi’Ome’s infection.

What was happening this time? And where?

We found a good eighteen inches of snow on the ground when we tumbled out the front door. No fair. The snow should have been rain, this late in the season.

The drifts had nearly buried Rey’s bike, though the sky above us was perfectly clear by then. In the east, I could see dawn’s light edging the Sierra Nevada with an ethereal white lacework of fresh powder. Beautiful—almost beyond words.

Until, that is, something fluttered right into my face, grabbing at me with tiny claws. I flailed at it, knocking the thing off my nose. Then another one came at me.

What were they, owls? Bugs?

I snatched up Rey’s discarded, now frozen, towels and swung them at the pesky creatures, trying to keep them at bay. Not so, Rey. He climbed up on the porch railing, peering at the roofline as more of them fluttered around the house.

“What are they?” I whispered, half-afraid I’d draw them my way again if I spoke any louder. I could hear faint squeaking as it was, like tiny fingernails on a blackboard.

“Stay there,” answered Rey.

What?

He swung off the porch and climbed up the access ladder built into the siding. That took him up to a vent near the roof, a triangle opening into the attic space. Like so much of the house, the vent resembled its organ of origin—my nose. While I watched, the small fluttering forms flew at it. They folded up into smaller shapes as they reached its nostrils. Then they vanished altogether.

Scritch scritch … Achoo!!

I sneezed so hard, I blew one of the little airborn devils backward by nearly a yard. That finally scared the buggers off! They veered away from me and joined their fellows upstairs.

Rey climbed back down again. He was grinning.

I demanded, aloud this time, “What?”

He laughed, not exactly at me, but I still didn’t take it well. “Love,” he said, “you’ve got bats in your belfry. Your sinuses, anyway!”

I didn’t buy it at first, but when daylight arrived, Rey went back up the ladder and opened the vent’s screen. He reached inside and plucked one of them off its roost. When he brought it back down, I was startled to see just how small it was, bodily. With the wings all folded up, it was mouse-size. A baby mouse.

“See that chipmunk stripe down its back?” Rey said. “That’s not a natural species. It’s a nu-bat. They’re gene-gineered, like the house. They’ve had some human alleles added so they’re resistant to white-nose fungus, and rabies too. Replacements for what’s gone extinct.”

“But … but … what is it doing here?”

He grinned. “My guess is, they found a nice, warm, comfy cave in the attic that literally smells like them, like home. You have a whole colony of them,” Rey told me. “It’s easy to fix, though. All you need is screens with a smaller mesh size.”

I nodded, thinking dire thoughts about bat guano. No wonder my sinuses felt congested so much of the time, in spite of my living way up here.

Then revelation dawned.

“How ‘human’ are they?” I asked Rey. “Could they catch other viruses? Like, say, chicken pox?”

The company rep tried to pooh-pooh the notion, but Rey sent in bat samples, using a sterilized trap/container they lowered to us the same way as the calamine lotion. A couple days later, there was no doubt. My bats had the chicken pox, all right. And nu-bats were clearly the vector that had spread it throughout almost all of the Bi’Omes in northern California. That led to the mass eviction of nu-bats by means of a saline sinus wash and some speedy replacement of natural filters with metal jobs, at least until they could tweak the Bi’Omes’ phenotypes. The nu-bats’ too, for all I know.

In another week’s time, the rash faded away, healing almost as rapidly as it had bloomed. I reveled in my relief from both itching and sinus congestion. My major concern by then was the fast-approaching end of our quarantine.

Rey couldn’t wait for a chance at a steak dinner. I couldn’t quite make myself say farewell. When the day came, though, he seemed reluctant to go.

“It’s been … interesting,” he told me. “I never imagined …,” he started to say, but then stopped, blushing so furiously, his mandala’s colors began to fade in comparison.

“Haven’t you ever done it au naturel?” I asked gently.

He frowned. Slowly, thoughtfully, he said, “I got my first piercing when I was twelve. My first implant. …” He shut himself off, then said, simply, “No.”

So I gave him a rueful smile. “You know those things were only meant to help people when they have problems. Or when they want to synchronize things exactly. For a treat? But two normal, wholly organic and natural people don’t need enhancement. They don’t really need anything but each other, and. …”

My petite sermon was cut short by Rey’s lips attaching themselves to my earlobe. When we came back up for air, an hour later, he told me, “You shouldn’t be so alone up here.”

All I could do was shrug.

“What about online support groups?” Rey asked.

I shrugged again. “Who needs ’em? What? Do they make it all better? Make everything go away? Make things like they were before?”

“No, but—”

“Whining about it is useless,” I blurted, unable to shut off the tap once the seal was cracked. “I’ve dealt with it, okay? I’ve got my Bi’Ome. I’ve rebuilt my life. Now I’ve got to get on with it. I’ve just got to go on. …”

I fell silent, but not from exhaustion. I was suddenly, acutely aware of how empty my Bi’Ome was. There were no bowling trophies, no Niagara Falls souvenirs, no clutter of toys. No family photos hung from my soft pink walls. Well, why look at what you can’t have? I demanded, but Self wasn’t fooled for a moment. The walls, and the rooms, and the shelves were all empty of everything I’d walked away from.

To save yourself, I told me sharply.

Yeah, right, Self answered. You’re saving yourself … for what?

Rey stroked my hair. “Do you … d’you think you’d mind a visitor? Y’know, prob’ly just on weekends or holidays. I couldn’t—”

I answered him with a kiss. By the time all new business was concluded, I’d offered to build him a bath house, outside the Bi’Ome, with heaters and hot water, towels and slippers, and pure cotton clothes he could wear in the house. If he wanted to wear anything at all.

He laughed. “I think I’d better take this one step at a time.”

I couldn’t agree more, though I didn’t say so. All choked up, I simply clung to him. Finally, though, we sealed the deal with one last lingering smooch. Then I had to let him go. It should have been a simple matter of opening my front door. But it wasn’t. The doorknob fought back.

So I tried again. No go.

I took a step backward, and finally noticed the bright salmon-pink flush adorning the wall. An odd distortion on either side of the door jamb made the whole wall panel curve outward. Bulge, in fact.

Cautiously, I reached out and traced the curve on the right side with my fingertips. Hot. Fever-hot. Sore, too. I could feel it, an unpleasant ache/tickle on either side of my own throat.

Oh, no.

I turned and stared at Reynard.

He queried the smartnet. Didn’t take long. A good thing, since I’d just about quit breathing under the onslaught of sympathy symptoms.

He shook his head, and gave me this sad, sheepish sort of a smile. “I, uh … I can’t be sure, but it looks like the house might—”

“What?” I demanded. “What is it this time?”

Rey waved at the swollen door glands. He shrugged helplessly. “Mumps.”

Oh my god!

Contents

Обращение к пользователям