Then it hits me. An owl! Wow, I've never even heard of a chimera with owl genetics before! Her face is heart-shaped and unusually flat. She has a very thin, very small nose resting low between eyes twice the size they should be. She has incredibly faint, white feathers running above her brow bone and along her cheeks, but they're so small they look almost like fur. Her ears look a little off-kilter too, like somehow one is higher than the other.

"Staring at the chimera, are you?" she sneers.

"No," I try to swallow the lump in my throat, "but your feathers are real pretty." What the hell did I just say?! Backtrack, Stupid! "And my sister would kill for those pants."

The beautiful, terrifying chimera cocks her head to one side and examines me for a moment. Then she snorts.

"You've never seen someone like me before," she says, tracing a wicked-sharp fingernail very lightly across my cheek.

"No," I admit, "but I don't get out much."

After a moment, she laughs. I mean, really, truly laughs so hard she holds her sides. It's a girly sound to come from such a badass chick. Then something seems to sober her and her face wilts into a frown. She looks back at me and holds my chin in her hand the way Mom used to do. It makes my chest ache.

"Tell you what, kid," she sighs. "They don't serve my kind here anymore, but you'd better get a little more experience under your belt while you still can. You seem like you deserve better."

And again with the blushing.

She helps me to my feet and I try really hard not to overthink what she is and how easily she could kill me. Then she notices the box in my arms.

"Who's in there?" she asks. She can tell that it's human remains? "Don't ask, kid. I just know."

"Uh, my parents," I mumble.

"Parents? Plural?" she asks.

"Yeah," I shrug. "Lived, loved and died together and all that. Now all I have is a box."

"You're lucky," she says. "Don't forget that, okay? No matter what happens, you're already one of the lucky ones."

What the hell is that supposed to mean? She's already making her way out the door, so I'll never know. When I turn back around, Joe has stood back up behind the counter and is staring at me with wide eyes.

"Arthur? Arthur?!" He waves me close and talks under his breath. "Holy shit, your sister is worried sick about you, man! Where have you been?"

"I, uh... I decided to join up," I shrug. "Like you did."

"What?!" I'm surprised to see his eye twitch speed up until he pins it down with a finger. "Why?"

"I'm almost 20. I'm taking care of myself now."

"Is that why you joined up?" Joe points to the box and his expression is guarded.

I feel a weight settle on my shoulders as I set the burden on the counter.

"No," I admit, "but I'm glad it worked out."

"They just gave you the ashes?" Joe looks stunned as he rubs the back of his neck.

"Yeah," I shrug. "I said I needed them for closure... Can you get them to Gina? Don't tell her you got them from me though, okay? I don't want her knowing I joined."

"Arthur, you need to tell her," Joe scowls.

"You're such a hypocrite! I'm just doing what you did, man." Why do I feel like I have to defend myself? "You wouldn't have this job if you hadn't joined up."

"I know," Joe sighs.

It's not that I don't want to talk to Gina - just not yet. She needs to see that I can take care of myself first. Maybe I can take care of both of us. Gina can worry even worse than Mom used to.

"I'm doing great, Joe, I swear," I say. "Way better than back home. I just... I don't want to fight with her right now."

"But she's losing her mind, man," Joe says, rubbing at his eye. "You just up and disappeared."

"Fine," I say. "You can tell her you saw me. Just... say I needed to get away for awhile. Can you send her the ashes so somehow it looks like the Community sent them?"

"Alright, kid. Alright," Joe shrugs.

"I'm not a kid. I'm a customer." I smile and hold my hand out, ignoring the nerves twisting my guts.

"Really?" Joe asks, sticking his tongue in his cheek. "Let's see how much you got."

Joe scans my hand and the wetware connection now shows the balance of my small account on his countertop. It's just the allotment I got for joining.

"Yeah, this could get you a couple of services," he says, but he still looks unhappy.

"I'm going to talk to her once I'm settled in, I swear," I say. "Then I can take care of both of us, and Gina can still live off GRID if she wants. She'll see that we're safe."

"Just don't leave her hangin' too long, kid." Joe swallows hard. "Now. Go pick out a girl, and we'll get you a room. I won't tell your sister."


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