Emma stirred, lifted her head up with a wince. Her neck was stiff, her lower back throbbed unhappily. She pushed away from her desk, blinked down at pages spread across the tabletop. One word stood out, embossed in red on every page: rejected.
The previous day’s events returned in a rush. A choked cry escaped her as time gave her back the last few hours, the blood and screams, the pained look of concentration on Lilith’s face as she clung to the werewolf’s fur.
She spun around in the office chair, startled. Lilith’s mother was stood in the doorway, hair undone, suit jacket misplaced, white shirt rumpled. She was shoeless, her legs clad in sheer black tights.
Emma stood up slowly. “How’s mom?”
“Sleeping. She finally drifted off around three.”
“Thank you,” Emma said, a little stiffly. “For taking care of her, I mean. You didn’t have to.”
Ms Gray smiled, but the expression did not reach her eyes. “Your mother is a friend, Emma.”
Right. And there was no secondary motive to her generosity. Emma only nodded, tidied the scattered forms on her desk. It was times like this she felt sorry for Lilith, stuck with parents more concerned by their careers than their family. There was little worth in a life of privileges, if those privileges came only in the absence of love.
“I’ll make tea,” Ms Gray said. “I’ll be in the kitchen when you’re ready.” She left without another word.
Emma dug her toes into the synthetic mauve rug, fought down the surge of irritation at Ms Gray’s presumptuous. She pushed away the emotion and walked over to the mirror, wiped away the sleep in her eyes. There were dark circles under her eyes, the faint red imprint of her desk still pressed onto her cheek.
“Computer,” she said to the monitor at her desk, watching the screen power up through the mirror. “What time is it?”
“It is 10:27 am,” the computer replied, flashing up a digital clock.
“Forty-two unread emails. No priority messages.”
Emma frowned, deciding to read them later. She freshened up in the bathroom, put on clean clothes. Then she shoved her feet into her threadbare fluffy slippers and padded downstairs.
Ms Gray was sitting at the kitchen table that, like the matching in-built bench, was carved directly out of the wall. A steaming mug of tea was in the very centre of the table. Emma sat down, took a sip. Milk first, one sugar—just the way she liked it. That Ms Gray somehow knew this detail was unsettling.
She took another sip, then wondered—suddenly, irrationally—if the tea was poisoned. The mug clunked down onto the table.
“Ms Gray,” Emma began, since it the woman seemed to be waiting for her to speak, “I do appreciate what you’ve done for my mother, but . . . ” There was no polite way to say it: “Maybe we need some time to ourselves. Just the family.”
“That is up to your mother to decide, not you, and as it happens, she has asked me to stay.” Ms Gray leaned forward, steepled her fingers. “I promise to stay out of your hair, as long as you answer my questions.”
“I can try,” Emma replied cautiously. If Ms Gray knew about the DEI, about Liam . . . She’d promised not to mention him, but how else could she explain her escape?
“Good. First things first: where is Lilith?”
Emma stared. Could it be possible that Ms Gray didn’t know? That her governmental ties had failed her?
“I know you were with her,” Ms Gray added, a trace impatient. “She said she was sleeping over at yours. So where is she?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” Alive, hopefully, lost somewhere in the wilderness above ground. She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
Ms Gray closed her eyes, rubbed her temples. When she reopened her eyes, the pupils had paled to a cold green, all warmth leached out of them. “You are not cooperating, Emma. Tell me what you know.”
Emma hesitated. Lilith’s mother had a narrow, sharp beauty, like the shining of a new blade. There wasn’t even the slightest ounce of motherly affection in her eyes, but she was all Lilith had, and surely something was better than nothing.
“I don’t know where Lilith is,” Emma said slowly, “but she’s in danger.”
Ms Gray nodded, as if her fears were confirmed. “Computer, turn on the local news,” she said. A small image projected onto the kitchen wall of a bright-eyed man in his late twenties, with uncombed dark hair and thick nose that looked like it had been broken.
“—majority of attendees unaccounted for, with dozens of others under quarantine or in hospital.” The image behind the reporter was chillingly familiar: the theatre, as it had looked earlier that day. “Lower Hall safety measures were deployed mere instants after the attack began, and a police investigation is already underway to understand the truth behind the massacre, which—”
“Computer, mute,” Ms Gray said. Her eyes never left Emma’s.
Emma chewed on a thumbnail. Ms Gray deserved the truth, but she couldn’t tell her everything. She would have to tread carefully.
“Where is Lilith?” Ms Gray asked.
The cold silence that followed made Emma wish she could take the words back. She wrapped her hands around her mug, although its warmth had faded. “Lilith and I were at the theatre,” she explained.
“Her name was blacklisted; how did she get tickets?”
“I bought them.”
“You bought them.” This fact tipped Ms Gray over the edge. Her eyes flashed. “You were supposed to be a calming influence,” she snapped. “I didn’t think you’d follow her into danger.”
Emma stilled. “Supposed to?”
“Lilith is headstrong, foolish, attention-seeking. You’re a straight-A student with next to no friends. Of course I encouraged the friendship,” she said flatly. “I arranged the study sessions, and your being on the same running team. You two wouldn’t have been friends otherwise.”
“No,” Emma said, quiet but firm. “I will not let you cheapen our friendship.” But the words had already taken hold in her heart, digging at the one insecurity she’d tried so desperately to bury.
“I told her to befriend you,” Ms Gray said, her smile thin, triumphant.
The sound of the doorbell was a relief. Emma hurried out of the kitchen, slippers scuffing against the concrete floor. In the monitor was a thin man wearing a black hat and dark glasses.
Emma touched the screen to unmute it. “Hello?”
“Hey there. Is Emma in?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“It’s Mike. I run a blog called Down the Chute. Can I speak to you for a few minutes?”
Emma frowned. She’d never heard of the site. He was probably yet another indie journalist desperate for attention. “Sorry, now’s not a good time.”
Her finger was almost on the mute button when he looked up, straight into the camera, and said, “It’s about the theatre.”