I study his face, steam rising between us as he lowers the cup. I notice a couple dozen braids woven in amongst the dark-red curls, two thicker ones at the front are pulled back in a band, presumably to keep it all out of his face. Red hair plus blue eyes. Double-recessive, my father had once told me. The rarest type. Still, I bet he didn’t get as many stares as a half-Chinese woman with light green eyes (which had somehow to do with a bunch of lost Roman soldiers, though I forget the particulars).

“So you cook, you bathe, and you’re not afraid of flesh-eaters,” I observe.  

“Didn’t say I wasn’t afraid of them.”

He slips his hand behind my head, lifting it. The pressure and warmth of his fingers soothes my aching skull. He holds the cup to my lips and I slurp at the steaming broth. It’s calories and salt and I don’t care that it burns my tongue. That it hurts my chest to swallow. I drain the cup and he refills it, sinking beside me to drink his portion.

“I owe you my life,” I say. Might as well get it out in the open. Find out what this is about. There are two sets of folk you can’t trust post-FOM: flesh-eaters, and men. It’s something about the XYs. When you cut off their ability to spread their seed, it seriously twists up the wiring in some of their heads. He doesn’t feel like one of those, but they can be crafty assholes.

It’s probably my last surviving vulnerability—a man forcing a woman. I’ll go out of my way to put him down, even if a pack of flesh-eaters is bearing down on us all. In fact all the better because then I don’t have to finish him off myself.

Until today I’d had two vulnerabilities.  

“You’re Christian Cheung’s daughter," he says. "Mila.”

My mouth falls open. I stare at him. Caution goes up in flame, burned by my desperate need to know. “Is my father alive?”

Red holds my gaze. He shakes his head slowly. “I don’t know. But I doubt it.”

Mila. No one has spoken that name in three years. It goes with a different person. A softer person who misses her parents and brother. Her family’s beautiful home near Seattle’s Volunteer Park. Post-FOM, I’m just Mei. 

“Did you know him?” My voice breaks. I don’t want to feel this, but I keep asking questions. I can’t stop myself.

Another nod.

“You’re a scientist?”

A shake this time. “Research subject.”

My father was a geneticist who needed special clearance to do his job. He never discussed it with us. For all I know “research subject” could mean my father had stuck needles and scalpels into this beautiful specimen. Though if so, he’d obviously weathered it okay.

Remembering how he’d answered the first question I’d asked him, when I first heard him moving in the shadows, I asked, “Were you looking for me?”

He drained the mug and set it aside, and as he did the sleeve of his shirt lifted, revealing a tattoo that looked like Chinese characters. Half Chinese though I was, it might as well have been Greek. My father had tried to send me to a special school where I’d learn the things he didn’t have the time to teach me, and I’d flat out refused. I didn’t want to communicate with Chinese people. I didn’t want to communicate with any people. I just wanted to draw.  

“I had no need to look for you,” Red replied. “I’ve been following you for four years.”

I’m so shocked this time that my jaw can’t even drop. Petrificus totalus. I watch, helpless, as he bends over me and covers my eyes with a hand nearly the size of my face. Then the lights inside my head go out too. 

#

RED: Love in the Time of Flesh-eatersRead this story for FREE!