Three: Blues

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When the boy was gone, the anemic whine of his electric motor swallowed by the February wind, Vera Zhao padded over to her ensuite bathroom and smeared a thick band of kohl around each eye. She lifted her head to the mirror in darting breaths, like a swimmer breaching in butterfly, encouraging the black to feather and run with dabs of her ring fingers.

There was a shorn, amputated quality to the clothes she squeezed, zipped, and snapped herself into. Their initial modes might've trended toward modesty, until neglect and attention riddled them with holes. Age had made them needy, and she was anything but wasteful. The turtleneck was a children's medium that barely skimmed her ribcage. The skirt she'd winnowed with a razor blade to save it from a rot of infantile lace. Nothing too precious. Nothing too new.

Vera tiptoed from her bedroom down the long passage abutting the back yard, its outside wall paned entirely in glass. Her home was a single sprawling story, a modern modular maze of which her bedroom felt like a time capsule holding out on the edge of oblivion; old things were something of an anathema to her parents' self-renewing, self-paring sensibility. Still, austerity had its uses. People had a lot to say about glass houses and privacy, but in Vera's experience, what hers lacked in opacity it made up for in silence. With no wood to creak underfoot, no hinges to squeak or curtains to rustle, she was free as a shadow passing over the lawn toward the dark stand of spruces lining the road.

"Fuck!"

The pool, every time. Her parents kept it heated throughout the winter, though none of them had taken a dip in months. Vera skirted the edge just in time, white steam rolling off its smooth black surface. She paused, overcome by the feeling of having forgotten something. She took a step back toward the house. A car horn bleated from the other side of the spruce.

"Really? You trying to wake up the whole neighborhood?" Vera snapped, sliding into the back seat where Harper and Shay lounged, laughing at something on their phones.

"You were taking for-ehhh-vurrr," Libby drawled from behind the wheel. Aiko was too absorbed in her compact to turn around.

"So," Shay said as they streaked past sleek compounds and broad-chested mansions on their way out of suburban Inverasdale. "New notch in your bedpost?"

Vera patted her pockets. Phone, ID, a hair tie, chapstick...

"More of a charity case, actually."

The others laughed, showing teeth. Their eyes flashed under the streetlights, chatoyant in the dark den of the car. Someone handed Vera a bedazzled flask, and she threw it back.

It was a townie club on the outskirts of Portage Park, a windowless black cube sandwiched between a Vietnamese nail salon and a birthing clinic where poor people who couldn't afford a proper lab-grown baby went to extricate their randomized return on investment. Libby double-parked a few blocks down on a city college street where all the student tenants were too caught up in Saturday night carousal to care.

Still patting her pockets, Vera lagged behind her friends as they skittered down the icy sidewalk. She slowed to peer in the dark display window of a secondhand store, charmed by a set of novelty spoons with handles shaped like Disney characters.

"Don't even think about it, hoarder," Aiko called over her shoulder. The others laughed. Vera's friends found her predilection for antiques—"addiction to cheap shit"—endearingly senile. They didn't understand it, not that she wanted them to; Vera scarcely understood it herself. The urge. The itch. She glanced back at the car. She patted her pockets.

They squeezed past a line of men trailing outside the club's entrance. Hours: 9-5, M-F, read the birthing clinic's window in chipped paint. A Sorry, We Are CLOSED sign dangled from the door. Vera wondered what people did when their baby decided to arrive outside of regular business hours. Hold it, probably. Could they do that? She wasn't sure.

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