a stranger in a strange land
Hollis recognized Indrid Cold like a traveler might recognize another from their home country. Indrid was studying the display of new nonfiction in the Kepler Community Library, arms folded across his chest. He was wearing jeans and a white tank-top.
Hollis moved confidently, black combat boots on gray library carpet. Indrid looked up a moment before they reached his side, and nodded to acknowledge them.
Hollis looked into their own face, reflected in his red sunglasses. Those sunglasses were familiar. They’d met someone, a few years back, when coolness was something they aspired to rather than claimed as easily as the double-black-diamond ski jumps, who wore sunglasses with a third lens in the center of their forehead. Indrid’s were mundane by comparison.
“Hey, I’m Hollis. They/them.”
Indrid waited a beat after they’d finished to start speaking. “Indrid. He/him. Pleasure to meet you.”
“You, uh, new in town?”
“One might say.”
Hollis laughed. “C’mon, man, not exactly a riddle.”
“Yeah, I am new in town.”
“Well, if you wanna meet people. There’s a bar called the Little Dipper. Cool spot.”
Indrid nodded. “Thank you for the recommendation.”
They didn’t see each other again until after the end of the world.
Indrid was sitting on the curb outside of the all-night diner. Mosquitos buzzed around his bare shoulders but did not bite. He’d been walking home along the dark highway, and the blend of neon and fluorescent lights leaking out of the big windows had been irresistible.
He heard the roar of a motorcycle before the headlight appeared around the bend. Someone in a yellow leather jacket and torn-up black jeans. They pulled into the parking lot of the diner and came to a stop right in front of Indrid. He saw his own face - sallow cheeks, round sunglasses - reflected in the opaque visor of their helmet, and wondered idly whether this was how other people felt looking at him.
Hollis pulled off their helmet and ran a hand through their hair, arranging it into their preferred state of dishevelment.
“Hello, Hollis,” said Indrid. Two futures stretched in front of him. Hollis might want to talk, or they might not.
“Long time no see.”
Indrid waited a beat before replying. It was still a conscious effort not to finish people’s sentences for them. “Yeah.”
During the apocalypse, Hollis was always the point of a V of motorcycles, but tonight they were alone.
“Where’s your…” Indrid could say gang, and Hollis would look sharply at him. Indrid could also say friends, and Hollis would laugh and say we’re a gang, old man. “Where are the rest of the Hornets?”
“Keith’s grandparents are in town, so he’s at home.” Hollis shrugged. “I don’t need an escort. You coming in, or what?”
Indrid pushed himself to his feet and followed Hollis into the brightly lit diner. The waitress sat them at a table near the window. The darkness beyond the dim parking lot was complete. It was like Indrid was a passenger on an ocean liner looking out into the Pacific at night, or rather that a bioluminescent sea had nothing on the darkness of thick pines.
Indrid flipped straight to the drinks section of the laminated menu and ordered an iced tea. Hollis seemed to know the waitress, joked with her, and there were a few futures where she flirted back, but it didn’t happen. Hollis asked for bacon and eggs and French toast and Mountain Dew.
They each had a paper napkin wrapped around a fork and knife and secured with a paper band. Hollis unwrapped theirs and laid the fork on the left side of their place setting, the knife on their right. The knife was thick and blunt, barely serrated, the kind of thing that could cut through eggs and pancakes but not anything sturdier without a fight.
Indrid’s compound eyes twitched. There were many possible futures, most of them benign, but in one Hollis gripped that knife white-knuckle hard and lunged across the table.
“Are you upset with me because I’m from Silvaine?” said Indrid quietly.
“What? No..” Hollis edged their hand away from the blunt dinner knife. “Why do you think I’m upset with you?”
“You’re thinking about attacking me.”
The waitress arrived with their drinks. Indrid dumped four sugar packets into his iced tea and stirred, watching the sugar swirl like flakes of snow. The futures shuffled.
Now he saw Hollis slashing at their own wrists, now holding the knife straight-up on the table and bringing their head down, forcing the metal through their own eye. The kind of violence Indrid hadn’t seen since the abominations.
“You can read my mind!?” said Hollis, angry but still speaking quietly enough that the waitress wouldn’t hear.
“No. I can see the future, or rather, all the possible futures, which means I can see what courses of actions you’re considering.”
“Considering is a strong word. I don’t want to do anything to you. It just… occurred to me that I could.”
Indrid sucked on his straw. Sugar crunched between his teeth. Now, teeth, that was something it’d taken him a long time to get used to.
“My therapist calls them intrusive thoughts,” Hollis continued. “I hate it.”
Indrid nodded. “Good to know you don’t want to kill me. It’d take more than a dinner knife, anyway.”
Hollis pressed their hands palm-down on the table, fingers splayed. “Am I going to hurt someone?”
“Well, just because I can see the possibility doesn’t mean it’ll ever become reality. The choice is always yours.”
The waitress came back with Hollis’ food. “Are you sure I can’t get you anything to eat?” she said to Indrid. “More iced tea?”
“More tea, please,” he said, and passed her his glass, which was now empty except for ice and undissolved sugar.
“So you’re telling me,” said Hollis, loading their fork with egg, “that you can see the future, and you’re still living in Kepler, West Virginia? You could be in a penthouse in Vegas, drinking iced tea out of a crystal wine glass. You could be absolutely drowning in pussy. Or dick. Whatever.”
“I won my Winnebago playing poker.”
“And you didn’t aim higher?”
“Nobody in Kepler will play me anymore.” Now Indrid was getting irritated. Who was Hollis to chastise him for lack of ambition? He'd moved all the way to another planet. He was the red light between the trees, the sound of wingbeats in the summer night, the silhouette on the trembling bridge. “Why are you still here?”
Hollis waved their hand dismissively. “I’ve been to New York, and I think I’m more suited to the big fish in a small pond lifestyle. I’m not interested in not being the best-looking, coolest person in town.”
“I have to exert conscious effort every second of every day not to be unacceptably strange. I can’t take my sunglasses off in public, ever, and my bedroom walls have dents from times they’ve fallen off when I’m asleep. I cannot afford to attract human attention.”
“Have you ever been to a big casino?”
“What if you had a spotter? I could go with you, or Keith and I, or whoever you’re comfortable with. You wouldn’t have to do all the talking, and we could split the profits.”
Indrid saw plush carpet and hotel Jacuzzis big enough for his other body, bartenders serving Shirley Temples twenty-four hours a day. “Get me a Hornets jacket and I’m in.”