As the stimulant from the nutri-vial kicked in, Avril’s senses sharpened, and he looked around. Other than the rest stop, there were no other buildings or vehicles in sight. He couldn’t see anybody in the faint blue light of the road-shield or out in the darkness of the desert, but there were boulders and rock formations that people could hide behind. He looked back at the woman holding the melting ice cream, and he dismissed the sense of recognition he’d experienced moments ago as a consequence of the sedative.
With his mind clearer, a sudden sense of concern settled into the place his shock and confusion had occupied, and he asked, “Are you alone?”
“No,” she said, her expression turning serious.
Avril glanced left and right, but there was nobody else there.
“You’re here too, silly, don’t forget about you.”
Avril shook his head. “I didn’t forget.”
Her smile came back. “Good. You had me worried for a second. Some people get so lonely they stop believing in their own existence.”
“Yes. I’m glad I found you before things got that bad.”
“I wasn’t,” Avril stopped and asked, “You were looking for me?”
She sighed and let her hands fall to the tabletop. “For such a long time.”
She shook her head and sighed again.
The memories that had led him to sit down with her stirred like a forgotten dream, and he wondered, Have I met her before? What is this? Is she crazy or am I?
“There were times I wondered if you’re real,” she told him. Her big eyes narrowed, and she said, “That’s your fault for questioning your own existence. How can I be sure, if you’re not?”
“Why were you looking for me?” Avril asked, ignoring her strange question.
With her right elbow on the tabletop, she put her right hand to her forehead and leaned into it. She closed her eyes and looked so tired Avril had to stifle a yawn.
“What’s your name?” he asked and had a sense he already knew the answer.
Her head snapped up, and those big eyes locked on to him. “Zin.”
Recognition flared in Avril’s mind. Did I already know that?
“Avril,” she said in a rush, and Avril wondered if she’d said his name at the same time as him or just so soon after that it felt like the same time. After, she said it after. She must have.
She looked up at the starry sky for an instant, pursed her lips and twitched them from left to right, then looked straight at him with a broad smile.
A reciprocal smile crept across Avril’s lips.
“Got it. You’re Avril Ethanson,” she said.
Avril studied the young woman sitting with her hands splayed out in front of her on the surface of the ancient plastic table.
“Who sent you?” he asked.
Her smile slid down, and her frown returned. Avril experienced an inexplicable sense of guilt for the loss of joy on her face.
What is this? he wondered.
“Who are you working for? Did that cadre send you? Look, just tell them I had nothing to do…” Avril trailed off, knowing she wasn’t working with the cadre, but not knowing how he knew.
Is she a salvager? he wondered, but he didn’t think so.
In a low offended tone, as if she’d read his mind, she said, “I’m not trying to steal your gadgets.”
“What gadgets?” Avril asked. Is this her talent? Does she convince people she’s familiar, friendly, and safe so she can rip them off?
Many people kept their talents hidden, and Avril had met people who could alter other people’s perception, but he didn’t think that was it, but even if it was, if she were any good at it, there was no way he’d know.
Zin rolled her eyes at him.
Avril tried again. “How do you even know I have gadgets?”
Zin scowled, then pointed one finger at the road. “We’re like them.”
Avril looked, but there was nobody there. Remembering the vehicles that had sped past, he pointed further along the road and asked, “Did those cars see you? If they’re transmitting, somebody might have seen you.”
Zin’s smile returned. “No, I turned to dust so they wouldn’t.”
“You’re a traveler?” Avril asked.
Travelers could move across vast distances in an instant, but even though he asked, he didn’t think that was her talent or what she meant.
“You know I’m not, silly,” Zin said.
Avril sat back down at the table opposite her. If he’d still been traveling with Ethan, the older man would have left this strange woman by now, and Avril was surprised by his own patience for her erratic statements. He didn’t owe her anything or have any responsibility for her, but he didn’t think it was a good idea to leave her there.
Zin leaned forward. “I’m a wizard.”
Avril let that sink in and decided to humor her. “Don’t you mean a witch?”
She leaned back. “No. I mean wizard. Girls can be anything boys can be, even stupid, stupid.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Okay, maybe it is,” Avril admitted and wondered where he should take her. She was too naïve, too vulnerable, to leave out here in the wastelands, and the trader posts he stopped at were no place for a pretty, naïve woman.
To give himself time to think, he asked, “Why are you looking for me?”
Zin frowned like a child who’d been denied a treat. She tilted her head and looked off into the dark, then yawned and shook her head. When she turned back to him, her expression softened, and she admitted, “I thought you might tell me.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. How could I know why you’re looking for me? Until today we’ve never even met,” Avril said.
Zin groaned. “You might know if you weren’t busy thinking so much.”