Three

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". . . So there's me, halfway up this hill in the middle of bloody nowhere, trying to wrangle this ancient wheezing ox we've got, pulling this enormous wagon."

Strike one: It wasn't an ox.

"And you can see what comes next, right?" Lain's voice, floating over the cubicle partition. "Shitty little gravel path, overburdened cart—"

"Oh, no." That was Divya, leaning against Sigmund's desk, listening to Lain's stories.

"Oh, yes," Lain said. "And my brother and his mate, charging ahead on their scooters"—strike two: They were not on scooters—"and taunting me all, like, 'Lain, Lain. Glaciers move faster. We'll be dead before we get there.' " Strike three: They hadn't called him Lain. "And finally I'm, like, 'Right. Screw you guys.' "

"Uh-oh . . ."

If nothing else, Lain knew how to play an audience, Divya rocking back and forth in her anticipation for the tale. Sigmund wouldn't mind but for the fact that she bumped his desk on every oscillation.

Divya was nice, really. In small doses. At a distance. Which made Sigmund feel like the world's biggest jerk, because it wasn't Divya's fault she had a voice like a banshee and was followed by miasma of cheap shampoo strong enough to cause complaints from two states away. She tried hard, and was nice.

And irritating. Really, really irritating. And Lain was new, and Divya was talkative, and so she came over and Lain told her stories that were mostly lies and scratched the inside of Sigmund's head, and Divya shrieked laughter like a fire alarm and the whole thing just made Sigmund want to scream.

"So I lean forward, and slap this ox, right on the rump—"

"No, you didn't! Poor thing!"

"Whack! Hard enough to be heard in Norway. And the ox, which has been half asleep the entire bloody time, just flips its shit."

"That serves you right! You shouldn't hit animals."

"Well, it gets its revenge, right? Because the cart, it's, like—the ox starts to buck, rodeo style, and the cart's just, like"—some action Sigmund couldn't see, which had Divya make a sound loud enough to evacuate the building—"and I'm, like, 'Ffffuuuu—!' And then there's this horrible crack of snapping wood, and the next thing I know, I'm rolling head over heels, dodging broken cart, all the way down the hill."

Divya gasped, a whole body motion that sent Sigmund's desk slamming against the window. "Oh, oh no! Were you okay?"

"Nothing broken," Lain said, which was strike four. "But the barrels on the cart smash, and by the time my brother and Homer"—five: Not the friend's name any more than Lain's was Lain—"find me down at the bottom, I'm bleeding and groaning in a pile of wood and rocks and wine."

"That's terrible!"

"No, the earful I got from my brother was terrible, for smashing all the barrels. And the fact we're all still stuck on this damn hill, with this ox we have to get to the next town. Except the cart's gone, so we end up with me walking the rest of the way, dragging the thing behind us on a rope."

Sigmund scowled. "They didn't let you ride on the, uh. To ride?" he asked.

Lain's head appeared over the partition, as if surprised that Sigmund had been listening. Surprised, but not displeased, judging from his expression. "Nah," he said. "My brother said it was 'punishment' "—Lain made air quotes—"for the wine. Hell of a thing, though. I mean, ox hair plus full-body gravel rash? Infection. Central. I swear I was oozing pus for weeks."

"Oh, gross. That's so awful," Divya said.

Sigmund thought that was an understatement. He scowled at his keyboard, picking old crumbs from between the keys and reminding himself Lain's unnamed brother—whomever he had been—was dead.

There was comfort in that thought, something dark and vicious Sigmund wasn't used to. So much resentment against a guy he'd never known. A guy whose name he didn't even know. Because this wasn't the first story Lain had told about his brother: It was only Wednesday, but Sigmund must've heard half a dozen by now, always by eavesdropping over the partition while Lain narrated to someone else.

They were all the same, the stories. Lain and his brother in some ridiculous situation, Lain doing something foolish, then being punished by the universe for his act.

Then getting the same again from his brother.

They would've been funny, if not for the latter part. And maybe Lain was right, and he did bring things on himself, and maybe there were a million other stories he didn't tell that ended happily ever after. Maybe. Sigmund liked to think so, if only because it made the odd black ball of hate sit lighter in his gut.

Divya hung around for a while after Lain was done talking, too-loud voice grating through Sigmund's mind. He tried to tune it out, head down and headphones on, working through an email archive recovery. Mindless stuff, watching blue bars fill while deep below in the depths of some cold, dark server room, tape drives spun up and down.

A week passed, more or less. As far as cubicle mates went, Lain turned out to be not the worst Sigmund had ever had. He was funny when he spoke and unobtrusive when he didn't, and, according to initial tests, was not a raging douchebag. A bit of a magnet for the women on the floor, which meant Sigmund's corner got a lot more visitors than usual.

"It won't last," Lain confessed to Sigmund on Thursday. "They're just here for the enormous hands"—he wiggled his fingers in demonstration, and, yeah, they were pretty big, now that he mentioned it—"and cheekbones like razor blades. They'll move on in a few weeks. When they realize what an asshole lives beneath."

That sounded like another story—like a lifetime of stories, maybe—so Sigmund decided not to ask. Lain was nice enough, but there was that whole thing about the dead brother and the jail time and maybe Sigmund didn't want to push too hard.

The brother and the jail and the fact that "Lain" was an absolute, utter, pathological liar. Scare quotes not optional because, go figure, Lain wasn't Lain's actual name. He used it, and he answered to it, but he hadn't been born with it.

People asked him about the name all the time. Because it sounded foreign, Sigmund supposed, and not in the usually identifiable ways. Lain said it was Icelandic, except that was a lie, too, even if Lain really had been to Iceland. He hadn't been born there, though, and neither had his parents. Nor had he gone to school . . . anywhere, as far as Sigmund could tell. Lain was pretty good at tailoring his life history to his audience, but listening to it still left Sigmund with a head full of itching.

Lain's alleged IT credentials were, in Sigmund's opinion, also suspect. Lain had a story for it, of course: how everything at TAFE had been based on the wrong architecture, in the wrong areas, thirty years behind current corporate practice. Except that was a lie, too, and not just because Lain had never actually been to TAFE. He was wicked smart, and didn't need telling twice, but he did need telling once, even for things he maybe should have needed telling nonce at all.

Still. He was an okay guy, despite everything. Sigmund figured there were worse things.

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