Not really fanfic, so it's not going on AO3. I could make an argument that it is essentially RPF, but I don't think I'm famous enough to count. Anyway, here's my nano 2014 story.

Invincible Summer

Author’s Note: Title from an Albert Camus quote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer.” Written for NaNoWriMo 2014.

“Trick or treat was last night.”

The words didn’t appear to have any impact on the child standing at her door. She was dressed all in pink, with sparkly wings hooked over her shoulders and bumblebee striped bobbers on her headband. As an outfit, it was — eye catching. There actually was some leftover Halloween candy still in the kitchen, but it was November; the obligation to share was pretty much over till Thanksgiving.

“I like your door mat,” the girl finally said.

“Thank you.” Since there didn’t seem to be a request for candy forthcoming, she tried again. “Is that why you knocked?” Maybe the kid just liked dressing up? And knocking on random doors?

But the girl shook her head. “I thought I lived here, because this is the door I always see. But I already knocked before I realized it was wrong and then it was polite to say hi. Hi.” She gave a little wave.

“Hi.” In a more perfect world, an adult would have showed up at that point to lay claim to the kid and resolve the situation. No adult appeared, even after they spent a few awkward seconds staring at each other. It had been a while since she’d been around kids enough to guesstimate their ages with any accuracy. Maybe eight? Ten? Was that old enough to be out on their own?

It wasn’t old enough for her to feel good about shutting the door and letting the girl fend for herself, even in the hallway of an apartment building she presumably lived in. “Do you know which door is the right one now?” she asked instead. She ran through a mental checklist. Her keys were on the hook, and the stove was off — she had plenty of time to walk the kid somewhere if she knew where she was supposed to be.

(On the other hand, it maybe wasn’t a good sign that she’d never seen the kid before. They weren’t the most social of buildings, but the kids tended to draw attention due to sheer volume any time they were outside. And sometimes when they were inside, but the sound insulation was pretty decent.)

But the kid just nodded, and pointed across the hall. Okay. Well, that was easy. She looked at the door, then back at the kid, who still hadn’t moved off the door mat. “Is anyone home?”

“My cousin. Sort of.”

Which left it up to interpretation whether the person in question was ‘sort of’ the girl’s cousin, or ‘sort of’ home. “Do you maybe want to knock, and make sure?” The girl’s headband antennae were surprisingly adorable, still bobbing gently from the movement of her nod.

“Okay.” It finally got her moving off the door mat and over to the other door, where she knocked, waited a few seconds, and then rattled the doorknob and knocked again.

The door opened quickly, and a woman came into view wearing - yup, those were definitely flannel pajamas. “I’m coming, see? I thought you were going to text. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” the girl said. “She told me to.” And then she slipped under the woman’s arm and disappeared into the apartment, which was quite a trick given the width of her wings.

The cousin — who looked vaguely familiar, probably thanks to her neighbor status — looked across the hall suspiciously. Explanation time. “She knocked on my door first, and I wasn’t sure if she was lost or not.” Still definitely a suspicious vibe. And she’d always had the feeling that she should have made more of an effort to get to know her neighbors, but somehow it had never happened, and now it had come to this: facing off across a poorly lit hallway at four in the afternoon, with no way of saying, “I’m not a criminal, don’t worry,” without it sounding — well, worrying.

“I’m Katy,” she offered. And then, probably unnecessarily, “I live here.”

The woman said, “I know,” like it was a given. “Thanks for not scaring Skyler.” She started to close the door, then opened it again. “Do you like chocolate?”

The obvious answer was ‘yes,’ but she hesitated — it didn’t really seem like the kind of thing you just randomly asked your neighbor you’d never spoken to before without some kind of follow-up. Luckily, she didn’t have to wait long. “We have a lot of Halloween candy no one’s going to eat. I hate to throw it away.” (The unspoken ‘giving it to you seems convenient’ was pretty clear.)

“I’m all set. Thank you, though. I think you can donate it, if you really don’t want it. Dentist’s offices, I think they’ll take it and give you a toothbrush, or something.”

“Really?” She seemed to be talking to herself when she added, “That would be useful, at least.”

"Well, good to see you.”  There was a point at which standing in opposing doorways without much to say started to feel ridiculous.  They passed it; she could practically see it going by.  "Have a good evening," she said finally, aiming for friendly but probably winding up  closer to random commentary.  She shut the door without waiting for a reply.  Tried to flip the deadbolt quietly, in case they could hear it across the hall.

Then she took a deep breath.  That hadn't gone terribly.  A solid fine, really, in the spectrum of awful to outstanding.  Not exactly sharing coffee and conversation, but a personable verbal exchange that had included physical proximity.  Good news: her across the hall neighbor did not seem to be a supervillain. (Then again, she'd been fooled before.)

Day 1
Here’s my first official journal entry. November’s my month to try ‘writing my feelings,’ or whatever clever catchphrase is in use now. I met one of my neighbors today — two of them, actually. Probably did not horribly embarrass myself. Still no clue what the people living above me are doing, unless they really are moving furniture every evening, which is what it sounds like. I feel tired.

Day 2
Does it count if you write your feelings before anything’s happened? I woke up, so that’s good. Somehow I thought the meteorologists would be wrong about the weather. I feel… cautiously optimistic.

It was a truth of Sundays that extra sleeping time didn’t count as laziness if it happened on a Sunday. Or if it did, somehow it was grandfathered in as acceptable, under some sort of ‘lazy Sunday’ clause. Regardless, she tried to take advantage of it whenever possible.

Of course, some weeks it worked better than others. “Charlie, hush.” She batted ineffectually at the cat, and he meowed louder — probably encouraged by the proof she was at least partially awake. It was no use trying to ignore him. He was currently still in ‘irritating but non-destructive mode,’ but it was neighboring country to ‘wakes the neighbors while ensuring you’ll never see your security deposit again mode.’ So far there were no reported Exceptional cats, but she had her suspicions.

Charlie howled from the kitchen, and she worked her way into a sitting position. “Ugh. Right, getting up time.”

She opened the shades after Charlie was settled with his food, and wished she hadn’t. It was cold, and it looked it. The sky was solid gray, steady rain mixing with wet snowflakes. “No balcony adventures today, Charlie,” she said.

The laundromat was close, though, and the roads looked fine despite the unwelcoming precipitation. It was probably time to catch up on laundry anyway; there was surely a limit to the number of times you could wear a pair of jeans without washing them, even if they didn’t show the dirt. And the laundromat was weird, but not creepy weird (or scary, unless the change machine broke again).

It was less than an hour later when she settled in with a notebook next to “her” washing machines. Well, it was within view of her machines, anyway; there weren’t that many chairs, and the floor was a mess. She was picking away at a grocery list when someone called out, “Hi Katy!”

It was Skyler, no pink in sight. She was dressed all in black instead, with her cousin right behind her. In pajamas again, she couldn’t help noticing, under a bulky parka. She was carting an enormous plastic tote, presumably full of laundry. “Hi,” she said, waving to encompass both of them in the greeting. They were the only people inside at the moment, so she added, “How are you?”

Skyer shrugged. “Angry, I guess.” And she gestured at her arm — or maybe her sleeve? — like it was an answer all on its own. “Ruth’s still trying to figure it out.”

Ruth must be the cousin, because she turned around at the name, pushing the tote closer to the nearest washing machine with one foot. “We’ll get it sorted, Sky. Until then, you can always tell people you’re a ninja, right?”

“If I was a ninja,” Skyler started, and she had clearly thought the whole thing through. “They wouldn’t know what I was wearing, because they wouldn’t be able to see me. That’s the whole point.” Then she disappeared.

Katy blinked. She looked at Ruth, who looked — surprised. “Skyler?” she said.

“Yeah?” Skyler’s voice sounded the same, like she was still perched on the next chair over.

Ruth said, “You’re invisible, sweetie.”

“What?” Skyler popped back into view, the black exchanged for an eye-searing shade of neon. “Did you see that?” Skyler demanded, turning to Katy. “I was invisible!”

She hesitated, glancing at Ruth. It was generally considered rude to comment on someone else’s Exception, especially if they were a kid. On the other hand, it was the kid who had specifically asked. “I did,” she said carefully, when it didn’t look like Ruth was going to intervene. “You were. It was very cool.”

“What can you do?” Skyler asked, and that got a reaction from Ruth.

“Skyler,” she said, in a disapproving tone. “We’ve talked about this.”

“It’s fine,” Katy told her. “It’s fair, right?” She really didn’t want to get involved in a family argument. She looked at Skyler — “You really should ask your cousin if it’s okay, though. What if I could breathe fire, or send you to the Netherlands, or something?”

“Fire breathers aren’t dangerous,” Skyler said, but she did turn towards Ruth and say, “So can she?”

Katy gave Ruth a quick smile. “It’s very mundane,” she said. “I promise.”

Ruth walked over to stand next to Skyler, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Go ahead,” she said, and it sounded more like a challenge than an invitation, but Skyler leaned forward eagerly.

She pulled a second pen out of her bag and checked to make sure it would write. “I’m ambidextrous,” she explained, and demonstrated all the usual tricks — synchronized writing, mirror writing, drawing two different things at the same time. Not that much different from playing the piano, really, except you didn’t have to read music.

Skyler was impressed, in the way that kids tended to love new things, and Ruth just nodded and went back to feeding quarters into the washing machine. Katy resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief. Nobody needed to know the endless hours of practice she’d put into getting those tricks just right. Not everyone’s Exception was obvious, or easy, and sure, legally speaking, everyone had to be treated equally whether they’d manifested an Exception or not. (Ever since the guy who’d been non-Exceptional his whole life had manifested as a phoenix when he died at 93, and gone on to sue the government for enough to set himself up for ten lifetimes.)

But legally speaking didn’t mean much outside of the courtroom, and it was just — easier to pass. Certainly easier than the attention of not having one at all. And who’s to say being ambidextrous wasn’t hers? She’d been able to learn it, after all.

Skyler said, “I can change the color of clothes and stuff. Not flannel, but Ruth says I might be able to someday.” She touched her pants and squinted, and they were black again. She sighed, and kicked at the leg of the chair. “Sometimes they match my mood.”

Suddenly Ruth’s wardrobe choices were making a lot more sense, although it was interesting that there had been no mention of the invisibility in that explanation. Maybe it was new. Or fading — sometimes kids had a lot of early Exceptions that faded as they got older. The jury was still out on why; the science of Exceptions was still very much a “science,” and a lot of questions just didn’t have any answers.

Ruth herself was silent on the topic, but Katy was pretty sure she was listening. Nobody was that fascinated by the wash cycle options. “What are you doing?” Skyler asked.

“Just making a grocery list.” It seemed like a safe topic. “I like to plan out a couple days in advance, so I don’t run out of stuff.” And because doing laundry was boring, and it was good to have some kind of task to keep it from looking like you were just staring off into space.

Skyler nodded. “We go to the store every day,” she said proudly. “And the laundromat.”

She couldn’t help the “Really?” that slipped out. Every day?

Ruth finally abandoned the washing machine and took the third (and final) chair in the row. “Not every day,” she corrected.

“Almost every day,” Skyler said.

Since it seemed like it would be rude to ask why they would possibly need to visit the laundromat that often, she asked, “Which one do you like better?”

Skyler didn’t even have to think about it. “The laundromat, because I get to talk to people. Even though I get lollipops at the grocery store. I only like the red ones. Sometimes they give me the wrong color. We’ve never come to the laundromat to meet you before, though. Why not?”

It was an odd way to phrase the question, and she wasn’t really sure what she was even being asked. So she said, “Well, I’m not here that often.” Skyler didn’t look impressed. “Also we live in the same building. So if you needed to see me, you wouldn’t really need to go anywhere.”

That apparently satisfied her, because she nodded, and — somewhat to her surprise — Ruth did too. Then she said, “Skyler, can you go get the extra quarters from the car? Grab your bag, too, we’re going to be here for a while, and if you finish your homework now we can do the movie later.”

Skyler dashed outside with a yell, and Ruth winced, then sighed. “She just moved in,” she explained, eyes on the window. “We’re still figuring things out.”

That explained why she hadn’t known there was a kid living across the hall. What was the appropriate response to something like that, though? Focus on the positive — that was generally a good bet. “She seems like a great kid,” Katy said. A little unusual, maybe, but that was probably just a kid thing.

It was the right choice. Ruth’s face lit up with a smile. “She is. Absolutely.”

Skyler ran back inside with only slightly less speed than she’d left with, and threw herself back into the chair between them. Her pants were green by that point, and the combination with the neon shirt was quite a statement. It was an interesting Exception — it would be a lot more convenient if she could get a handle on it, but then again, wasn’t that true for all of them?

They spent a comfortable hour in near-silence. She doodled all around the margins of her list, and Skyler did a lot of highlighting in a workbook that mostly looked like history. Ruth had a phone out, but she was at a bad angle for seeing what was on the screen. When they wound up folding fresh-from-the-dryer clothes at the same time, Ruth said, “We were going to go for a walk after if the weather was good, or french fries if it was bad. You’re welcome to join us — we’re just going down the street.”

It sounded nice. She almost wanted to say yes. But she’d just spent her last dollar on extra spin cycle in the dryers, and so she said, “I have to be getting back, actually, but thank you.”

(Of course, when she arrived at the apartment complex, her first thought was, ‘I should have gone for the fries.’) There was a fire truck. And an alarming number of people milling around the parking lot. Did that many people even live in the building? She couldn’t see any flames or smoke, which both seemed like good signs. Not good enough to make her feel great about what looked like a building-wide evacuation, though.

A fire fighter approached her as soon as she got out of the car. “Are you a resident?” she asked.

“Yes. Second floor.” She pointed at her apartment, which was probably not helpful. “I have a cat.” What she wanted to say was ‘what’s going on?’ and ‘can someone go rescue Charlie?’ and ‘I wish I’d thought to bring a warmer raincoat.’

But she kept her mouth shut on the questions, and the fire fighter nodded. “That’s fine. One of the first floor residents reported a firebug sighting. We’ve swept the building and the bug is currently contained, but the building is closed until it can be safely removed. We’re predicting another hour or so. You might want to go run some errands or something.”

And then she hurried off to where a minivan was pulling into a spot further down the row. Right. Well, there were two options. She could go join the crowd of spectators in the freezing drizzle, or she could sit in her car. Regardless of what the fire fighter said, she wasn’t going to go driving off again when Charlie might be in danger. (Firebugs tended to be more pesky than threatening, but it turned out that was easier to believe when it wasn’t your building they were trapped inside. There was a first time for everything, after all.)

In a surprising stroke of luck, the removal process actually wrapped up ahead of schedule. Even better, the rain-snow mix let up and the sun made a real effort at breaking through the clouds. So she didn’t have to worry about the laundry getting wet again when they finally opened up the building. She ran into Ruth and Skyler coming in when she was on her second trip, but their hands were full of grocery bags, and her hands were full of laundry, so they just exchanged ‘hello’s and ‘a firebug, can you believe it?’s and went their separate ways again.

Charlie, naturally, seemed completely unbothered by the whole situation. He was sleeping in the window, surrounded by pillows. “You’re lucky,” she told him. “So lucky. I just spent the last forty-five minutes sitting in the parking lot with only our laundry for company.”

He flicked an ear in her direction, and napped on. She sighed, and ruffled his ears. “Thanks for your empathetic support in my time of need, Charlie. Aren’t you supposed to be a therapy cat?”

It was enough to remind her that in fact, the daily journaling didn’t actually count if she did it before the day was half over (and who made up these rules, anyway?), so she sat down to type out another few sentences. Charlie even deigned to move to her lap while she did it.

Day 2 (again)
The day of the firebug. First snow of the season, unless you count the freak blizzard caused by the kid with the weather Exception back in September. I saw my neighbors again at the laundromat. What a funny word, laundromat. What does it even mean? Some combination of laundry and automatic? I almost accepted an invitation to go eat with people (neighbors again), but I didn’t. I feel frustrated. Did I used to be better at this? Back to work tomorrow, anyway.

Mondays were — well, they were Mondays. The best part about them was that they were a sort of magic social pass for being tired, cranky, or out of sorts for an entire day. Every week!

Plus the free coffee at work, of course. Even after six months, she was still amazed by whoever restocked the cream in the staff fridge. There was never more than one container, but there was always one in there, and it seemed impossible that usage stayed predictable enough for that to be anything but an Exception. A really useful Exception. She tipped an imaginary hat to the responsible party, and stirred in enough cream and sugar to make the mug cool enough to carry.

The talk of the office seemed to be the latest throw-down at the airfield. Amelia waved from her desk when she walked by. “Hey Katy. Did you hear about the fight? Perimeter Road was closed again this morning.”

She nodded. “It still is. I came in the back way.”

"Did you see anything?"

She shook her head, mindful of the mug in her hand.  "Just cops."  There was usually nothing to see, between the security fence and the police presence, but people always asked anyway.  The airfield was a -- popular was the wrong word — well-frequented, maybe.  Anyway, when two Exceptionals wanted to fight it out, more often than not they wound up at an airfield.  Her workplace?  Just happened to be next to one.

Amelia frowned. “No press again at this one. No news reports online. Where’s our promised transparency?”

She took a sip of coffee, and reminded herself that Amelia was very probably not an anarchy-loving villain intent on building a power base from her desk. (What would be the odds of something like that happening twice? They had to be tiny.) “I honestly can’t tell whether you’re worried about our government-mandated freedoms, or about your Exceptionals fantasy team standings.”

“Mostly the fantasy team,” Amelia admitted. The phone rang. “Hang on, that’s me.”

She made her way to her desk while Amelia answered the phone, and took a few deep breaths when she got there. Everything was fine. It was the fifth Exceptional airfield fight since she’d started, and she’d been fine for all of them. She could totally handle this.

The lights dimmed and flickered. Someone groaned. “It had to be Monday, didn’t it,” someone said.

Her boss stuck her head out from her office. “Hi Katy.”

“Happy Monday,” she said, and her boss laughed.

The lights came back, but Terry’s voice carried through the room. “Juniper just kicked me out. IT says the system’s down; they’re rebooting.” That got a few more groans and a couple laughs. Their computer system was quirky on a good day; virtually useless on a bad one. They were all used to backing up their work, and it still only saved them from starting over about fifty percent of the time.

It gave her plenty of time to sort through the weekend’s backlog of emails, at least. And when her cubicle neighbor arrived, she got to share the good news. “Juniper’s down, so don’t log in yet.”

Sam just rolled her eyes. “So, it’s Monday.”

“Mm. Did you have a good weekend?”

“My brother’s back in town. We did the family bonding thing this weekend; it was nice.” She tossed her bag on the desk, and Katy could hear her rummaging around underneath it, probably looking for her slippers. (There was a dress code; it was just sort of — vague on footwear. Slippers were not, technically, disallowed.) “He’s here for the month, but we’ll both be working. Hopefully we won’t drive each other nuts.”

“Is he staying at the house with you?” Katy was never sure how much she really wanted to know about her coworkers, but Sam didn’t tend to overshare, and siblings were generally a pretty decent topic for them.

“For now, yeah. The dogs love him. Hang on, I’ve got a picture.”

Sam leaned over the top of the cubicle and held out her phone. It showed a man (Sam’s brother, she assumed) in mid-flight around a fenced-in backyard, carrying a small dog. Both of them appeared to be having the time of their lives. “That’s a great photo. I’m impressed your dogs go along with that.”

“Delta does, but she’s a pug, she likes everything.” Sam flipped to the next picture — a larger dog sitting on a deck. “Harvelle’s strictly ground-bound. She gets motion sickness.”

Everyone wanted to see cute dog pictures, and it set off a round of ‘here’s a picture on my phone of—‘ Pets were a classic, but Halloween costumes were still making up a good portion of them, and Amelia had a photo of the snow. It was a surprisingly easy group to blend into, though typically her own pictures were all some variation of ‘Charlie sleeping on something.’

When her phone rang, it was the perfect excuse to bow out of socializing. For better or worse, the phone system wasn’t connected to the computers, so even when they had no system access, the phones still rang. Luckily it didn’t sound like this was going to be a call that required the computer.

“Good afternoon, this is Katherine. How may I help you?”

**I have one of your products, the strength chews? I was wondering what the serving size would be for my dog. I looked on your website, but I couldn’t find anything.**

In her call log, she wrote: consumer - dog? - strength chews

Out loud, she said, “Well, we don’t offer a specific recommendation for dogs. That product is designed for humans with Exceptional strength, to offer additional support to their other body systems.”

**Yes, but some of your products can be used by dogs. I just want to know how much to give her.**

“Was the product recommended to you by your veterinarian?” There were occasional instances of dogs with Exceptions. Usually under the care of a specialist, but it wasn’t unheard of that a vet might recommend a product like that.

**Oh, they don’t know anything. That’s why I’m calling you, because it’s your product. Are you familiar with your own products?**

Or not. She doodled in the margin of her call log and reminded herself not to escalate. “We’re all fully trained in the suggested usage of our products, but in this case the product is designed only for humans. We don’t have any research to suggest that it would be an acceptable product for dogs, so we do not make that recommendation at this time.”

The voice on the other end of the line only got more agitated. **You’re not listening to my question. I already researched all the ingredients online. Look, I was going to give her a quarter of a chew. That would be safe, right?**

Some people just couldn’t let it go. And didn’t seem to understand that they were calling a customer service center, not an oracle hotline. The desire to help — how much did the dog weigh? Did it even have super strength? — warred with the desire to escape a conversation that was rapidly headed into zones that could get her reprimanded. Not getting reprimanded won.

“I really can’t say. I’m very sorry I can’t give you the information you’re looking for, but it’s not something we have a recommendation on.”

**Unbelievable.** The call cut off.

“She hung up on me,” Katy said, probably unnecessarily.

“That sounded like a doozy,” Sam said. “What was she trying to give her dog?”

“Strength chews.” She made a few more notes in her call log, and underlined ‘dog’ three times for good measure.

“What? Why?”

She shrugged, even though Sam couldn’t see her. Probably. She had her own suspicions about Sam’s Exception. “Heck if I know. She found them online, it sounds like. She said her vet doesn’t know anything.”

Sam leaned over the cubicle wall again. “At least she didn’t say the vet told her to call us. That’s the worst.”

That was the worst. Except for the shouters, but they were really in a category all their own. She opened her mouth to say just that, but the phone rang again. She could hear Sam’s phone going too. It looked like it was going to be one of those days.

There was a lull in the late afternoon, when the phones were quiet, except for a single call fielded by Sam, asking for an ingredients list for a baking mix.  ("I'm so sorry ma'am, but I think you have the wrong number; we don't offer any baking mixes.")  Mostly, everyone tried to look busy and not be too obvious about checking their facebook pages and pinterest accounts.  Terry was watching youtube videos; her computer was pretty much right in Katy's line of sight.

By some stroke of luck, her own desk was positioned in a way that gave her a few seconds leeway for the quick click-back to a work screen, and she was thankful for it every day.  It was a relatively laid back environment, but it always good to stay within the bell curve of slacking off. A little extra observation could go a long way. Hopefully, the same was true of self-observation, and the “write your feelings” project would help settle some of the lingering uncertainty. (Which was a good reminder that she’d written a grand total of nothing for the day so far.)

When she heard her boss pick up a call from one of her children, she pulled up a blank email and addressed it to herself. She could add it to the file when she got back to the apartment.

Day 3
Today I feel bored, but I feel good about being bored, if that makes sense.  After so long dreading Mondays, it is a relief to see that sometimes it's just easy.  It doesn't have to be hard all the time.  Of course, then I feel guilty for not applying myself, but that's not new.  Also I need to add eggs to the shopping list.  And I wonder what my heating bill will be this month.

Tuesday morning started in the usual way-- Charlie yowling for breakfast, the heating system squeaking slightly whenever it kicked on.  By the time she was awake enough to think 'I don't have to be at work until noon, maybe I could go back to sleep,' there was a knock at the door.  She froze.  Who would be knocking?  Everyone she knew would text ahead, or at least call.  The building supervisor had knocked, back when the kitchen sink was leaking, but she hadn't put in any maintenance requests since then.  Maybe they had the wrong door and they'd leave on their own. 

The knock came again, louder.  Or not.

She grabbed a sweatshirt to put over her pajamas and opened the door.  Right, neighbors.  Ruth and Skyler stood on the welcome mat. It wasn't actually quite big enough for both of them.  "Hi," she said.  She was acutely aware of her unbrushed hair and overall state of sleep-bedraggledness. Of course, it had to be the one time Ruth wasn’t in pajamas.

From somewhere in the apartment, she heard Charlie meow.  She wasn't expecting him to come running.  Usually he stayed well away from strangers.

“Kitty!” Skyler said excitedly. Charlie skidded into view around the corner and stopped, staring at the door.

“That’s Charlie,” Katy said, for lack of anything better to offer. Charlie sat down and scratched his ear.

“I’m so sorry to disrupt your morning,” Ruth told her. “I just got called in to a meeting. Usually I’d bring Skyler with me, but —“

“The meeting’s about me,” Skyler interrupted, not sounding concerned.

Ruth winced. “Yes. It would be — a good thing if I could say that Skyer was staying with a trusted neighbor instead of home by herself.”

Katy was mostly surprised that she was up for the title of “trusted neighbor” after a grand total of three encounters, but she figured it was probably the laundromat that did it — there was nothing like folding your sheets in a public place to rapidly create a sense of trust. “I have to leave for work at 11,” she said, before she remembered that she had been trying not to publicize her work schedule. (On the other hand, if Ruth was going to hand over her cousin, she could probably divulge a little information.)

Ruth clearly recognized that wasn’t a ‘no,’ and she looked immensely relieved. “I’ll be back in an hour. 90 minutes tops. Skyler has snacks and water, and homework to get done, and she’s promised to be quiet.” Skyler nodded, all seriousness.

Katy was pretty sure her own nod was a little more hesitant, but it was more the logistics than the concept that were tripping her up. “Emergency number?” she asked. “Not that I think we’ll need it,” she hurried to add. “Just in case.”

“Skyler has it in her phone,” Ruth said. She looked at Skyler. “You have your phone?”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course. And my keys. And my schedule. Remember? You put it in my bag this morning.”

“You’re right. Okay, is there anything else?” Ruth kept reaching out towards Skyler like she was about to hug her, and then stopping herself. Probably to make sure her clothes didn’t get accidentally turned orange, which was the color Skyler was currently wearing.

“I think we’re good,” Katy said. Skyler shrugged, and stepped over the threshold into the apartment. Ruth looked nervous, but the decision had been made; time to move forward. “We’ll be fine.”

“Call me if you need anything,” Ruth said. “I’ll see you in an hour.”

And then she left, and Katy locked the door again, and turned around to see Skyler patting Charlie. Charlie looked like he was in heaven, butting his head against her knees and purring loudly. “Your apartment is backwards,” Skyler said, not looking at her.

It took her a second to figure out what she meant, but then she nodded. “Yeah, it’s reversed. They alternate, I think. So.” She stopped, not really sure where to go from there.

Her phone chimed. It was probably reminding her she was supposed to be cleaning the bathroom that morning. “I should — do some things,” she said awkwardly. “Are you good?” She tried to remember the things a kid would probably want to know when they were in someone else’s house. “Um, Charlie’s friendly, obviously; he’s fine to be on any of the furniture, but not outside. Eat anywhere; there’s paper towels on the counter.” (There were napkins too, in one of the cupboards, but she hadn’t exactly organized the kitchen to accommodate anyone shorter than her.)

She waved a hand briefly around the apartment, pointing out the relevant features. “Kitchen, bathroom, living room. Give a shout if you need anything. I don’t think there’s anything super hazardous or embarrassing around, but you know, if in doubt, let me know.”

Skyler was still focused on Charlie. “Okay,” she said easily, in that way that could either mean she was, in fact, okay, or possibly that she hadn’t been listening but thought a response was needed.

She was a little nervous about the whole thing, especially when it occurred to her that Skyler's Exception might extend to changing the color of other things.  Like the sofa.  Or the cat.  Still, she'd agreed, and she had things to get done that wouldn't be helped by worrying.  And there was no polite way to ask, so she mentally crossed her fingers and hoped for the best.

It took her less than twenty minutes to forget she had a guest at all.  Skyler was quiet -- startlingly so; she remembered kids being noisier.  Charlie sauntered into the bedroom at the twenty minute mark, and she said, "And just where have you been?" before it clicked.  He'd been with Skyler.  Who was where, exactly?

The sofa, apparently.  She had another workbook open on her lap, and earbuds tucked into her ears.  One sock-clad foot was tapping at the edge of the coffee table.  She looked up when Katy walked towards her, and pulled the earbuds out.  "Do you need this space?" she said.  There was none of the bubbling enthusiasm from the laundromat, and Katy had no idea if it was her fault or not.  Maybe the meeting Ruth was attending was more serious than she'd thought?  

"No, you're fine," she replied quickly.  She hesitated, then added, "Can I get you anything?  I was going to make a sandwich."

"For breakfast?" Skyler asked, looking skeptical.  Obviously sandwiches were not considered appropriate breakfast foods in Skyler's world.

"Why not?  I like sandwiches.  Besides, it's more like brunch.  Or second breakfast.  I have a funny work schedule, so I usually eat early."  She was relatively sure she had enough bread for two sandwiches, but it would be easy enough to check.  Everyone liked peanut butter, right?  Wait.  "Do you have any allergies?"

Skyler had followed her into the kitchen, and she nodded.  "Not to food, though," she said.  Which was great, except that the jar was almost empty. And there was only one slice of bread.  She was definitely coming up short on the whole provider thing. 

She looked in the fridge.  She checked the cupboards.  “So, sandwiches will have to wait.  Sorry about that. I have pasta?" she offered.  "We'd have to cook it."  She thought carefully about the contents of the kitchen.  "I also have ice cream."  (Apparently it was bad for freezers to be empty?  Therefore: ice cream.)

"For breakfast?"  Skyler's question sounded more delighted than skeptical the second time around.  She thought they might have a winner.

"Well, the key is to add other healthy things, like nuts, or --" She almost said fruit, realized the only fruit in the apartment was in the form of jam, and switched it to "or peanut butter," at the last second.  Somehow she was always putting off actually going to the grocery store in favor of making lists for the grocery store.  It was possibly a problem.

"I have snacks, though," Skyler said.  She made a face.  "Healthy snacks.  Can I have ice cream instead?"

Uh-oh.  She'd forgotten Skyler already had assigned food for the morning.  "Maybe we can compromise.  Do you want to show me what you have for snacks?"  

Skyler was unzipping her backpack when they both froze at the sound of two loud thuds from the balcony. The blinds were wide open, so it was impossible to miss the fact that she had EF cops at her door. Dammit. Unscheduled inspections were supposed to be finished after six months. (Not that filing a complaint would do anything about the fact that they were there, but she’d said over and over that she didn’t want them using the balcony entrance. She didn’t care if they could fly; heat was expensive and bugs were annoying, and there was no reason why they couldn’t use the inside door like everyone else.)

“It’s okay,” she said, trying to sound calm. “Just — stay still and keep your hands in view. I have a sign; they have to come around to the other door.”

She did have a sign. It had been vetted by her lawyer and her therapist, and it had both their phone numbers on it. It was a very effective sign.

Only one of the EFOs actually left the balcony, though. The other one moved back to the railing, but stood with their arms crossed in a clear intimidation move. Unfortunately, it was working — Skyler was shaking, just enough to be visible from where she was standing, and she said, “It’s me. They’re coming for me.” And then, more alarmingly: “It didn’t work.”

And all the bravery that felt just out of reach when it was for herself was suddenly right there. She kept her hands out, but moved carefully around the kitchen island to Skyler. “Hey,” she said softly. “Look at me.” She knelt down close, and there were tears in Skyler’s eyes. “It’s going to be okay.”

She held her arms open, and Skyler shuffled closer. Not quite a hug, but standing close enough that one might happen at any moment. “I’ve done this a bunch of times, and it’s always scary, but it’ll be okay. It’s pretty likely they’re here because of me and not you.”

Skyler shook her head, and Katy didn’t want to argue with her. “Even odds, then. Either way I’m going to stay right here with you.” She tried for a smile; didn’t think she quite made it. It was true she’d been through the visits before. The worst was when they demanded she produce Charlie, who usually tucked himself away in the deepest darkest corner behind the water heater when he heard boots. And they tracked dirt everywhere, which was ridiculous, because where were they even picking up that much dirt?

It felt like it took a long time before they heard the knock on the door. She wondered if her downstairs neighbors had been giving the officer a hard time. They seemed to always have one eye on the entrance, and were free with their opinions if they thought you didn’t belong there. Finally, though, she heard boots in the hallway.

“Who is it?” she said loudly, after the knock.

“Welfare check,” was the answer. “Emergency aid doctrine.”

She raised her eyebrows. That was a new one. “I’m coming to the door now,” she called. Then she looked at Skyler, who looked resigned. “I’d feel better if you stayed close,” she said quietly. “Is that all right?” Skyler nodded, and they walked to the door hand in hand.

She opened the door part way and put her arm on the door frame. “Could I see your badge, please?”

The officer sighed, but produced a badge as requested. It looked real enough. “Exceptional Forces Officer Grundstein-Heyley,” Katy read aloud. “Is your camera recording?”

“Yes, the camera is recording,” the officer said. Unenthusiastic, but not officious. So far, it was all very standard. (A year ago, she’d had no idea she’d ever find this routine. She didn’t even need her notecards anymore. )

“You can clearly view the resident and current occupants of this apartment. Is there a reason you need to physically enter the space?” She actually had no idea what a welfare check was meant to consist of; usually she got ‘unannounced security check,’ or sometimes ‘scheduled inspection.’

The officer hesitated. Katy tried to silently communicate to Charlie that it would be a really bad time for him to knock over the laundry soap (again) on his way into his hiding spot. Ultimately, there were no crashing sounds, and the officers went on their way without ever setting foot in the apartment. “Well,” Katy said, once the door was closed again. “That was interesting.” There was still at least a half hour till Ruth was supposed to return, and forget the healthy snacks — they were eating ice cream, and plenty of it.

Day 4
I think my neighbor and I should probably have a conversation at some point about unexplained visits from Exceptional Forces Officers. Which is looking more and more like a conversation that’s going to have some throwing stones / glass houses potential. Sadly, there was no time to do it in the morning unless I wanted to be late. So… I feel curious, which I’m counting as a feeling word for the day, because after all that I still had to go to work, where we were all treated to a solid hour of wedding proposal ideas from Mary Ann (she’s thinking spring, on the coast). Still not sure why so many people want that conversation to be a surprise. What a day — still only Tuesday; feels like it’s been a week already.

She didn’t see Ruth — or Skyler — at all on Wednesday morning. She did find a note tucked into the doorjamb. It said: ‘Katy - Thank you for your help yesterday. Skyler says thank you too. We’ll be gone all day today on a field trip. We’re not avoiding you, it was scheduled back in July. Sorry about the bad timing for explanations. Text me tomorrow if you have time to talk, or just come knock on the door. We’ll be up by six. - Ruth’

There was a phone number listed underneath, and a smiley face. The smiley was cute — it was sideways, like an emoticon. The note as a whole, though, wasn’t very informative. She tried to put it out of her mind, but it was one thing to tell your brain not to worry over something, and an entirely different thing to actually make it happen. 

Worry or not, the morning passed without incident.  She even managed to catch up on the cleaning she'd skipped the day before.    There was some minor excitement on the drive to work -- a rubbernecking slowdown around an ice sculpture in the median.  The inside was on fire, which meant either two Exceptions working together, or one extremely creative Exception.  (Or, she supposed, a highly motivated non-Exceptional with a love for graffiti-type art.)

The cops were arriving as she passed, which only slowed traffic more. Between the road delays and an unexpected meeting, the start of the work day was a wash, and then they were all swamped with catch-up post-meeting. By the time she was able to look up and take a breath, it was lunchtime.  (Lunchtime meaning 4 pm; she hadn't been kidding when she told Skyler she had a funny schedule.)

"Right, I'm on break,” she said, pulling off her headset and fighting back a yawn.  Food.  Tea.  A walk around the building.  She’d be ready to go back to work after that. She looked out the closest window and saw rain spitting down -- maybe just the first two, then.

 "See you in a bit," Terry called, and Katy waved back at her.

There were a couple people studying the coffee machine in the kitchen when she went in.  She bypassed them in favor of the fridge, but one of them looked up and smiled as she walked by.  "Hi Katy."  

"Hey," she said, hoping a friendly smile would cover the fact that she had no idea who she was speaking to.  She looked familiar?  Probably because they worked in the same building, she was guessing.  "Is the coffee machine broken again?"

Stating the obvious; a staple of the workplace lunchroom.  

The second person said, “Well, it's making a noise.  We're just not sure if it's a normal noise or not."

There was a whirring and a clicking sound coming from somewhere in the back of the machine. As they all waited, a grinding noise started up to join the other two. It was certainly alarming. “I’ve never heard it do that before,” she said.

The second woman shook her head. “I’ve never heard anything make those noises before.” As if sensing it was only offending one of their senses, and could do more, the display on the front of the machine started flashing. “That does it; I’m unplugging it. I’ll put a sign on it, or something”

The first woman — the one who’d greeted her — asked, “Shouldn’t we put in a maintenance request?”

She must be new. Katy busied herself with unpacking her lunch — she didn’t want to even try to explain the odd amalgamation that was their maintenance / IT department. She wasn’t sure anyone actually understood it, but some people were better at faking it. She just knew that the ‘on site’ team seemed to have a lot of people named Tom on it, and there was never anyone in their office when she walked by. She was sure work got done; she just never saw anyone actually doing it.

“We could,” the other woman said. “Or we could say we were going to and then forget, and let someone with a lot more maintenance department clout than us send it, and it would probably get fixed a lot faster.”

She couldn’t help the laugh that escaped, and the woman said, “Right? It’s true!”

“It’s true,” Katy agreed.

She left it at that, because she’d already had her coffee for the day, and they hadn’t broken the microwave, so she could afford to see the humor in it. She was pretty sure it would be fixed by the time she got in the next day — as soon as the 7 am openers started trickling in, there’d be an uproar. It would probably rank right up there with watching people try to figure out the new safety switch on the hot water dispenser for entertainment value, and she wondered if anyone would take pictures.

Day 5
Where did the day go? I felt lucky today, because my hardest call was a shipping issue, and I got to call the shipping Gold Line. I think they may hire specifically for calming Exceptions, because I always feel fantastic when I get off the phone with them. Since I’m not on company time right now, I can say in all honesty that their customer service is about eight million times better than ours. I wonder if they’re hiring? Not really; I’m committed for a year, minimum, before I even start thinking about switching jobs again. Tomorrow I should have a chance to talk with Ruth about the EFO visit. It’s been a while since I had to explain any of it. Maybe I should dig out my notecards again.

At precisely 8:45 am, she sent a text to Ruth’s number. *Is this a good time?*

Her phone chimed a reply seconds later. *Yes - come on over. We have pancakes.*

She looked around, but nothing was turned on that needed supervision, and Charlie was working on nap number two for the day. "Charlie, I'm going across the hall," she said. “You’re in charge."

She did experience a moment's doubt about footwear -- socks? Shoes? Would putting shoes on be weird to just walk across an indoor hallway? Probably yes, but would not putting them on be even more weird?  

Ultimately she compromised with slippers, then took a deep breath and knocked on the door. She could do this.

Skyler opened the door right away -- "Hi Katy!"  She looked behind her.  "Where's Charlie?"

"He's sleeping," she explained.

“Come on in,” Ruth called. “Skyler, your pancake looks ready to flip.”

“I’m making my own,” Skyler told her, and Katy followed her into the kitchen. Skyler was right — it was weird to have everything be backwards.

Ruth was at the stove, frowning at a large pan. On the next burner was a much smaller pan. Skyler went right to it, poked at it with a spatula -- she hadn't even noticed it in the girl's hand -- and flipped the single pancake easily.

Katy blinked. "I'm impressed," she said.  

"Skyler's a good cook," Ruth said, and Skyler beamed.  Ruth frowned at her own pan again.  "Much better than me."

There was a little table clearly set with three plates, and she walked over to stand next to it, feeling awkward. "Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked.

Ruth shook her head.  "We're nearly done.  I thought it might be easier to start this conversation if we had something to distract us."

Since she'd eased into many difficult talks over the breakfast table, she could see the sense in it. She also figured she might as well go first, and get it over with. "My last boss turned out to be a supervillain who'd been using the business as a front to cover his plans for world domination."

It didn't get much of a reaction.

Skyler was focused on getting her pancake onto a plate, and Ruth just shrugged.  "It happens," she said. "Are you okay?"

"I'm under observation by the Exceptional Forces for a year, to make sure I don't have my own secret plot, but yeah.  Getting there.”

"Good."  Ruth set a plate of pancakes on the table.  "Sit, enjoy.  Do you want juice?  Coffee?  Water?"

There was flurry of activity as they sorted out drinks and passed around syrup and jam.  Then Ruth laughed.  "I'm sorry, it's not funny.  But world domination?  Really?"

Katy knew exactly what she meant.  "I know, right?  Isn't figuring out your own life hard enough?"  

"Yes," Skyler said emphatically.  

She exchanged a look with Ruth.  "You want me to tell her?" Ruth asked, and Skyler nodded.

"Skyler's Exception can't be tested.  It doesn't register at all.” That was -- unusual.  Especially since she was so clearly Exceptional. Ruth added, “Which has gotten some attention.”

There were only a few reasons she could think of why that might happen, and none of them were good news. Mostly they were bad news for the kid, though, which probably explained why Skyler thought the EFOs were after her. Lots of people were interested in kids with unusual Exceptions.  

She'd never really subscribed to the idea that things outside the norm were dangerous -- how could she, given her own family? "Okay," she said.  "It happens, right?"

Ruth and Skyler exchanged another look.  "See?" Ruth said. “It’s fine.  Anyway, Skyler found me, and it turns out that this is actually my job, and that's where we're at now."

Wait. That didn’t make sense. “I thought you were cousins," Katy said.

Skyler was the very picture of innocence.  "We are," she said.

Ruth wiggled her fingers.  "Eh.  Family's complicated."

It was obviously a deliberately vague explanation, but that didn't meant it wasn't true. It seemed rude to push, given what they had already admitted. “What did you mean, that this is your job?"  
Ruth pointed at the wall next to them, which was full of official-looking certificates and kid's artwork. "I do adaptability fostering. Mostly with kids -- help them get caught up to their grade level, figure out strategies for Exception management, that sort of thing."

That sounded hard. It was obviously a topic she was passionate about, though. Out loud, Katy said, “That sounds amazing.”  

"It's been eye-opening.  Usually it's a lot of education action plans, life skills practice--"

"Family counseling," Skyler interjected.  

Ruth smiled.  "That too.  Skyler just gets the added benefit of me attending those with her."

"What about you?" Ruth asked. “You said you work afternoons?  Not for a supervillain in the making, I'm guessing."

She nodded around a bite of pancake.  "Not that I know of, at least.  I have a job at a call center -- customer service, for a company that makes nutritional supplements."  

Ruth’s expression brightened. “A local place? Is that Supplemental Exceptional?  I love their stuff!"

That was a first, actually; most people she talked to had never heard of it -- the concept was still kind of a niche market. Probably someone who worked with a lot of different Exceptions had to be familiar with that sort of thing, though.

"Yeah -- I started a few months ago.  It was a pretty big surprise to find out my old job got raided by EF cops the week after I left."  

“I bet. A call center, though — what’s that like?  Do you get a lot of interesting calls?"  Ruth looked genuinely curious, and it was nice to have someone asking about something other than the raid.

"It's up and down," she said. “Nice people, for the most part.”  

She realized she didn’t have a good answer ready to go, beyond those two things. She wasn’t used to talking about work with anyone except her coworkers (and a lot of what they said wasn't exactly child-friendly).

She did add, "They have good benefits," which she figured was sort of a grown-up code for 'it's not awesome, but I get insurance and a steady paycheck, and it turns out that means a lot more than I gave it credit for when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.'

Ruth nodded, at least, so she probably got it. "Their Pipe-Down powder is great," she said. “Works wonders when I can't sleep at night."

Skyler made a face.  "But it tastes gross."

Katy finished the last of her juice, and smiled. That one she had a good answer for. “It does.  I can tell you a secret about that one, though. It says to take with water, right?  Well, it actually tastes better if you mix it into a spoonful of yogurt.  Or pudding, if you have it."  

(She usually used ice cream, but she figured if Skyler hadn't already spilled the beans about getting ice cream for breakfast the other day, she wasn't going to bring it up.) “You eat it all at once, and then drink the water.  It's still not delicious, but it's not awful."

Ruth looked impressed.  Skyler looked dubious, but kids were usually a hard sell on taste anyway.

“Do we have yogurt?” Ruth asked. Skyler nodded. “In that case, we will definitely try that," she said.

There were a few seconds of awkward silence while they all shuffled their silverware around and wondered what to say next.

"Thanks for the pancakes," Katy offered.  "They were delicious."  

She thought they’d probably exchanged all the explanations they were going to offer, and she was sure Ruth had things she needed to do. "I should probably get going."

Skyler looked up. “Can I come visit Charlie?" she asked.  At a pointed look from Ruth, she added, "Please?"

"I'm sure Charlie would enjoy seeing you." She glanced at Ruth, but got no help from that direction; she’d gotten up to clear dishes. In an effort to strike a balance between being a friendly neighbor and not stepping on any parental-type boundaries, she said, "Maybe we can find a time that works for all our schedules, so that it won't disrupt other things you're working on."  

There.  That was diplomatic enough, right? Apparently it must have been, because promises were made on all sides to check schedules, numbers were exchanged (again), and Skyler still somehow wound up over at the apartment for five minutes right then to take a picture (“For school!”).

Her phone was blinking with waiting texts when she arrived at work. *Thank you for letting me take a picture of Charlie* it said, from Skyler. Next was a forwarded copy of the picture, followed by a message from Ruth that said *Let us know if you can’t text at work, okay?*

She started a reply, only to receive another missive from Skyler that said *Is it OK for you to text at work?* They were definitely related.

She wrote back *Texting at work is fine - I may not be able to always write back right away, but I’ll enjoy reading them. Very nice Charlie picture!*

Day 6
I’m not sure what to make of my neighbors, but I think I like them. I feel like I like them. I got 18 pictures from Skyler today, four of which were of her fingers. We had an interesting breakfast discussion, and I learned that there’s such a thing as ‘adaptability fostering.’ I wish I felt more confident that this was all just a lovely synchronicity of the universe, and not a trap for the unwary. It would be nice for Charlie to have more company during the day, but I’m just not sure I trust anyone to be in the apartment (with him or without him) when I’m not there. In other news, it’s been cloudy and/or raining since Sunday. Where is the sunshine, and when will it be back? Inquiring minds want to know. (Forecast says Saturday; we’ll see.)

She woke up Friday with a tickle in her throat, and groaned. There was a nasty cold circulating at work, and it looked like she wasn’t going to be able to escape. The main symptoms seemed to be muscle aches and irritability, with a few sniffles and coughs thrown in for good measure. Why did these things always hit right before the weekend? She couldn’t call out sick, because then it would look like she was just trying to get three days off in a row, but if she gritted it out through the work day, she was bound to need most of the weekend as recovery time.

Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. Charlie prodded her out of bed, and she went through the motions of getting up and ready for the day. A hot shower helped immensely. (She thought sun streaming through the front windows would have helped too, but the clouds remained locked in place.)

Before she knew it, it was the appointed hour for Skyler’s visit to pat the cat, and her phone chimed with an incoming text.

*Charlie time?*

She smiled, and wrote back *Come on over.*

The knock was nearly instantaneous — she must have texted from right outside. She noticed Skyler had also gone the ‘no shoes’ route, though she had picked very fluffy socks over slippers. “Nice socks,” she said.

“Thank you,” Skyler said, and she held up one foot and wiggled her toes. “They’re new.”

She’d been a little worried that Charlie and Skyler might not have compatible ideas of spending time together, but Skyler seemed happy to just sit on the sofa and wait for him to join her. He wasn’t one to pass up a lap, so it didn’t take long before he was laid out across her knees, purring. Skyler kept up a steady stream of chatter that was too quiet for her to hear much of, and Katy puttered around getting the trash ready to take out and making sure her phone was charged.

“I haven’t met any of our other neighbors,” Skyler said suddenly.

She was looking up, so Katy assumed that had been directed at her and not the cat. “That’s okay,” she said. “I mostly just wave and say hi.”

“No, I mean—“ Skyler hesitated, then blurted out, “I didn’t want to meet them. I picked you on purpose, because you seemed like the nicest. Ruth doesn’t think I should talk to strangers.”

She could feel her eyebrows go up. “You picked me. On purpose.”

“That sounded bad,” Skyler said. She looked worried.

“Does Ruth know about this?” Skyler shook her head. She thought about it for a minute. On the one hand, it meant Skyler had totally been lying when she’d first knocked on her door. On the other hand, it was pretty clever, and she could respect that. “Well, she’s probably right about not talking to strangers, and you should probably tell her what you just told me.”

Skyler dropped her head back on the sofa. “Do I have to?”

“No. But keeping secrets can be just as hard as telling them, and you might be worrying for no reason. Plus, if Ruth knew what you wanted, she might be able to help.”

Skyler didn't look too convinced, so she just said, "You can think about it." And then, since she was pretty sure Skyler was already weighing her options, she added, "If you do tell her and it goes badly, you can come back and tell me I was totally wrong."

It got a smile, but Skyler just said, "Maybe."

(But when she checked her phone when she got to work, she had two messages: one from Ruth that said *Thank you*, and one from Skyler that said *You weren't wrong*.)

The day became steadily crazier after that, unfortunately. First she got stuck on a forty-minute call with an employee looking to order one of everything. Literally-- one each of all 120 products in the line. She hadn't even known they made 120 products.

Then the woman with the dog called back, and she had to hear the entire story again, even after assuring the woman that yes, she was the one she'd spoken to earlier in the week, and yes, she remembered the situation.

"What is going on with this day?" Amelia asked, in a rare moment when they were all off the phones. "Did we nominate this as a weird calls day and no one told me?"

Terry said, "I don't ever remember having so many people ask me about packaging.” She held up her call log. “Seriously?  'Are we using synthetic dyes in our printing process?' What kind of a question is that?"

"Maybe they're eating the pouch," Sam suggested. "Honestly, I wouldn't put it past some of these people. "

It did sometimes seem as if people fell into two distinct camps. There were the 'I must follow the directions' people -- the ones who wanted to know if they took Flight Recovery 50 minutes after landing instead of 45 if it would still work (yes). And then there were the 'I do what I want' people, who figured if the product didn't specifically warn against taking six times the recommended dose, it must be safe. (Not so much.)

Mary Ann coughed, and it was loud enough to get all of their attention. It sounded like she’d been getting worse all day, and Katy was pretty sure they were all torn between feeling bad that she was sick and hoping she’d take her germs somewhere else.

“Are you okay?” Terry asked. “That sounds bad.”

Mary Ann groaned, and put her head down on her desk. “Yeah, I think I can stop hoping it’s just congestion from the season changing. I’m pretty sure I’m actually sick.”

“It sounds like you’re hacking up a lung. You’re only pretty sure?” Amelia said. (When you wanted blunt honesty, Amelia was the go-to.) “Do you want to go home early?”

Mary Ann shook her head. “I’d rather stay. There’s only an hour till the end of my shift, and I used all my paid time when we were moving.”

There wasn’t much to say to that. No one was going to force her to go home; they all understood the need to get paid. Besides, the work started dropping off on Friday afternoons, so hopefully they could pretty much coast through to the end of the day. (Most callers seemed to assume — correctly — that anyone important enough to make decisions probably went home early on Fridays. Technically, they were still open till 8, but having a live person transfer you to voicemail didn’t really mean much if you were looking for an immediate result.)

Still, they managed to get through Mary Ann’s last hour with only one call going through to her phone. She wasn’t watching the lines, so she probably didn’t realize the others were grabbing her calls before they hit her queue. Katy breathed a sigh of relief when six o’clock hit, and Mary Ann packed up to go. “Feel better, okay?” she said. “I hope you can get some rest this weekend.”

Sam said, “Maybe we should just spray that whole area with disinfectant, or something. I felt like I was getting sicker just watching her.”

It wasn’t a bad idea. Except — “We could, except everyone upstairs is already gone, so there’s no key to the supply closet. We’re in trouble if we run out of paper towels again.”

For whatever reason — a desire for tidiness, a suspicion of theft, who could say — all cleaning supplies were kept in a locked closet, along with the backup reserves of paper towels and toilet paper. It had some interesting consequences. Sure, there was the benefit of not losing boxes of tissues to frugal but morally gray employees, but there was also the fact that when you saw a mess, or a problem, there was virtually no way for you to simply fix it. (Also, napkin hoarding. In a company trying to reduce paper waste, napkins were like gold. She was pretty sure an underground napkin-based economy was going to spring up any day.)

“True.” Sam nodded. “Alternately, we could just not go over to that side of the room.”

They settled into the last two hours of the day with just the two of them. Without the distraction of having Mary Ann to worry about, she could feel her own sinuses slowly becoming more congested. The tickle she’d felt in her throat that morning was inching back. “At least there’s Thanksgiving this month,” she said. “That’s something to look forward to.”

“Four days off in a row? It’s going to be like a vacation,” Sam agreed.

“Are your parents going to be back in town by then?” She thought maybe they’d already talked about holiday schedules, but it was a toss-up whether it would be weirder to remember the details or have forgotten them, so she asked again.

Luckily, Sam didn’t seem to think it was a strange question. “No, not till Christmas,” she said. “It will just be me and my brother and the dogs.”

“Pizza and watching the parade?” she asked. She wouldn’t trade it for the family get-together, but it didn’t sound bad.

“Pizza and sleeping in,” Sam said. “Even better.”

Katy stood up to lean over the cubicle wall, ready to argue the merits of the parade-watching tradition, but Sam pointed at her computer screen. “Check this out — this is what that last caller was talking about. This study showed people who touch at least six other people per day are happier and get sick less.”

“Really?” She thought back, but it wasn’t hard to count to zero. “I’ve touched zero people today. Unless cats count, in which case it’s one.” They weren’t a group that was big on touching. Holding doors for each other, sure. Sharing food, sometimes. But not touching.

“I wonder if you can touch the same person six times,” Sam said, scanning the article. “Because if pets count, I’d be golden. But yeah, I’m with you otherwise. Zero.”

“One?” she asked, holding out her hand for a fistbump.

Sam tapped it with her own fist and smiled. “One. Plus, I really think the pets should count, which gets us practically halfway there.”

Day 7
It turns out that along with everything else there is to worry about in the word, apparently I don’t touch other people enough and may be setting myself up for a shortened lifespan full of depression and disassociation. Alternately, social sciences are BS. At least it’s Friday, because I think we all need a weekend to recover from whatever this bug is. Hopefully everyone will be healthy by Monday. I feel… Relieved, to have made it through the week. General vague sense of worry, nothing new there. And happy, I should include that. Happy that Charlie’s got a new friend, even if it is a little kid with a bucketload of her own stuff to deal with.

She woke up to knocking, and it took a minute before she could figure out what it meant. Someone was at the door. She pulled the covers up higher and hoped they’d go away. She was sick; she was excusing herself from all activities for the day. Really, she thought, she was doing whoever it was a favor, by not exposing them to horrible, horrible germs

Then she heard Charlie join in, scratching at the door from the inside and meowing piteously. And she possibly remembered hearing her phone chime a few times, before she stuffed it under a pillow (and then flipped it to silent and tossed it angrily towards the door). Maybe more than a few times.

“Oh, all right, fine. I’m coming already,” she said, nowhere near loud enough to be heard by anyone at the door. She swayed a little when she got to her feet, and blinked a few times to try to clear out the fog. “This is the worst,” she muttered. “Thanks a lot, Mary Ann.”

It was Ruth. She slumped against the doorframe and wished her head would stop pounding. She thought Ruth looked worried, but the hallway was always sort of poorly lit, and she had the entryway light off (see: headache; sleeping). She’d totally forgotten about Charlie until he darted out the door and Ruth scooped him up.

“Are you okay?” Ruth said. “I texted, but we didn’t hear anything back, and your car is still here. I was worried. You look—“

She didn’t finish the sentence, which Katy thought she was probably grateful for. “I’m sick,” she said. “I was sleeping.” She squinted at Charlie. She was pretty sure he was purring. “Sorry,” she added, as an afterthought.

“No, it’s fine. Can I—?” Ruth pointed at Charlie and took a step towards the door, and Katy got out of the way.

“Yeah. Thanks for grabbing him. I’m just going to go—“ She waved her hand, which she hoped Ruth would take to mean ‘go lie down again,’ or possibly ‘die, most likely.’ She hadn’t been hit so hard by a cold in years.

“Can I get you anything?” Ruth asked. “Soup? Tea? Crackers? Do you want me to call someone for you?”

That was way too many questions for her to be able to process all at once like that. It must have showed, because Ruth said, “Never mind. Is it okay if I come back in a few hours to check on you?”

Her brain finally felt like it was catching up to the conversation. It was already after noon; she’d slept most of the morning. She should drink some water. Food was a definite no, but staying hydrated was important. She was sure there were things she’d been planning on getting done, but they could probably wait. Just thinking about starting anything made a wave of exhaustion roll over her.

She realized Ruth was still waiting for an answer. “Yes,” she said automatically. Then, “Sure, that would be nice. Thank you.”

Ruth hesitated, like she was going to say something else, but ultimately she just nodded. “Okay. I’ll see you later.”

When she woke up again, it was dark outside — not really that surprising, since the sun was starting to set by four in the afternoon, but still disconcerting. And there was music playing. No, it was the timer going off. Ruth must have found her phone, then. (It was a nicer way to wake up than the knocking.) She rolled out of bed and felt — better. Not good, but better. A little weird, because that was bound to happen when you slept the whole day, but not like she was about to fall asleep again any second.

She yawned, and stretched, and found her phone. There was a message flashing that said *Come over for hot food when you wake up! Dinner in 30 minutes.*

It took her 22 of those minutes to be ready to see other human beings. Charlie meowed at her the whole time, and she had a long, one-sided conversation with him about whether or not she should change out of her pajamas. (She decided on yes, because it would make going back to bed later less weird.)

Then she spent six more minutes trying to figure out what to do with Charlie, who was clearly looking for attention after a day of being ignored. Finally she texted *Can Charlie come too? I don’t want to be a pain if your apt is not cat friendly. He would be fine here. Giving me the sad eyes, though.*

She figured Skyler would be on board, and she’d been invited to dinner despite having awful plague germs. It possibly wasn’t something she would have asked if her brain had been at 100%, but it made sense at the time. The knock on her door came a few seconds later, and she opened it to see Skyler — “Ruth says yes,” Skyler announced, already looking for Charlie. “Are you going to carry him? Can I carry him?”

Charlie himself looked a little unsure of the whole situation. She said, “Why don’t I carry Charlie this time, and you can carry his treats? That way he can have one as soon as he gets there.”

Her first impression of Ruth’s apartment was that it was warm, and full of light. Charlie accepted a treat, sniffed delicately at the door, and then disappeared behind the sofa. “He’ll be back,” she told Skyler.

“You look better,” Ruth said. “How do you feel?”

“Better,” she said. “Thanks. Sorry I was so out of it earlier.” Whatever was cooking smelled amazing. Soup? Potatoes? Toast? Her nose was still wonky. “And thank you for dinner; exposing yourself to whatever I have is above and beyond neighborly concern. I feel like I should be wearing a mask.”

“We’ve both had it,” Ruth told her. “A couple weeks ago; I picked it up from one of the kids in Skyler’s field trip group, and we were both out of commission for three days. Besides, we were home all day, and I was already making soup. There’s plenty to share.”

“She wanted to make it in your apartment,” Skyler said, and Ruth blushed.

“I thought it would be nice, to wake up to the smell of noodle soup? Skyler told me it would be stalker-y, though. I told her we could ask you when you got here.”

Katy thought about it. “Maybe a little? I don’t know, I’d say it’s borderline. It would have been inconvenient, though, carrying food back and forth.” She was looking at the stove. “How do you even fit that pot in your cupboards?”

Ruth laughed. “We don’t. It lives on the stove, actually. That’s why I got a red one; so it would at least be pretty.”

“I made the salad,” Skyler said. “That bowl lives on the counter.” She took Katy’s hand and led her to the table. “Ruth doesn’t put a lot of things away,” she said confidingly. “I like it.”

Ruth cleared her throat. “Which reminds me — did you get all the paper put away already, or should we add it to the list for after dinner?”

“It’s done,” Skyler said, and then they were all sitting around the little table, and Skyler looked at Ruth. “Are we still—“

“We usually say something we’re grateful for, before we eat,” Ruth explained.

Honestly, she was just happy to be sitting down to a meal she hadn’t had to cook and probably wasn’t going to have to clean up after. She wasn’t going to be offended by her host’s traditions, unless they got a lot stranger than giving thanks. “Sounds good. Do you want me to join in, or would that be against the rules?”

“No, you can join in if you want,” Ruth said. “Skyler, do you want to go first?”

"I'm grateful for my cousin, Ruth.   And craft Saturdays.  Oh, and green beans."

There were no green beans on the table that she could see.  Of course, she couldn't see any crafts, either.

Ruth said, "I'm grateful for family, and neighbors, and sharing a meal together."

That seemed easier.  Both of them were looking at her, and she pushed past a sudden surge of panic.  "I am grateful for -- getting the chance to eat together with friends."  Ruth and Skyler had both said multiple things, so she added,  "And also for weekends and holidays."

"Well done, let's eat."  Ruth started handing out bowls, and they all focused on eating for a few minutes.  Green beans never made an appearance, but the soup was delicious, and nobody seemed to mind when she went for seconds on the bread.

Dinner segued into dishes into tea in the living room.  ("I'm all for coffee and hot chocolate in the morning, but at night it's all about tea.")  Charlie slunk out from wherever he'd been hiding to join them, and they passed an amiable hour talking about favorite foods, and the beverages of their childhood.

Going back across the hall to her apartment afterwards was harder than she'd expected.  It was too dark, too cold — she turned the radio on for some background noise, but it still seemed too quiet.  (And then her upstairs neighbors started moving furniture again, and it seemed too loud.)

She sighed. “Well, Charlie, I guess it's bedtime, then.  Tomorrow's another day."

She was already in bed when she remembered her journaling. She fished around for her phone and thumbed it on.

Day 8
I feel sick, dammit.

Sunday brought sunshine, and much better health. Unfortunately, even “much better” left a lot of room for improvement. She got through the morning basics — clothes that weren’t pajamas, bed made, curtains open — and then found herself sitting on the sofa staring into space, feeling like she’d just run a marathon.

Since the computer was there too, and checking email was at least adjacent to productivity, it got bumped to the top of the to do list. No standing up or moving required; that was key. Most of it was junk anyway — the Christmas ads seemed to start a little earlier every year. (She heard a lot of complaining about it, but really, she was just glad it was Christmas expanding and not Halloween. She’d much rather have extra weeks of reindeer and snowmen than zombies and spiders.)

“Delete, delete, delete — whoops. Undo.” Mail from work, to her personal email? That was unusual. Not unheard of, but unusual. She clicked it open.

‘All employees located at our Chesley Ave campus, please plan to work from home on Monday, November 10 and Tuesday, November 11, Veterans Day. All buildings at the Chesley campus will be closed on those days for an audit and safety check. Perimeter Road and North Oak Boulevard will be closed to all employee traffic.

’This closure will not impact operations at our manufacturing campus. If you have an office at the manufacturing campus, you may use that instead of working from home. If you need to retrieve work materials from the Chesley campus, team leaders will be onsite from 2 pm to 4:30 pm on Sunday afternoon. All questions should be directed to your immediate supervisor or team leader; do NOT reply to this email.

‘This will not be a paid time off eligible event. If you require special accommodations for a work from home setup, please contact the IT department via HelpDesk. Thank you in advance for your support and cooperation. We will communicate with team leaders regarding the progress of the audit and the schedule for re-opening the campus on Wednesday.’

Huh. She read the email twice, to make sure it said what she thought it said. (It did.) She frowned at the screen. “That doesn’t make sense,” she said. An unplanned audit and safety check, but they were letting people take things out of the building ahead of time? That didn’t sound like any kind of audit she’d ever heard of.

On the other hand, if they were going to let people pick stuff up, she would take advantage of it — technically, she could work from home just using the intranet resources, but it would be easier if she had her hard copies. And maybe she’d get more information if she was there in person. And just like that, she had plans for the afternoon. That hardly ever happened on a Sunday.

Charlie jumped up in her lap just as she was thinking she should get up, and she wound up dozing off instead, one hand on the cat and the other on the computer. She woke up starving twenty minutes later, when she remembered she’d already made plans for the afternoon — she was supposed to be watching a movie with Ruth and Skyler.

She typed out a quick text one-handed. (The other hand was holding a sandwich. Cheese on toast was quick, and didn’t require washing too many dishes afterwards. It would be better with eggs, but then she’d have to wash a pan. And egg yolk was a pain to get off the spatula.)

*Change of plans? I need to go to work to get a few things, it will take probably 90 minutes round trip.* She checked out the window. Still sunny. It was a nice day to get outside, so she added *You’re both welcome to come if you want. It’s a nice drive.*

She figured Ruth might appreciate some time to herself if Skyler wanted to go somewhere new, and there was always something sort of fun about showing off your workplace. At the very least, she figured the invitation was more polite than just saying ‘hey I can’t come watch a movie with you even though I said I could just last night.’

Somewhat to her surprise, she got a near-immediate text back saying that both Ruth and Skyler would "love to go."  They rescheduled movie time for the evening, and piled into Katy's Honda.  "It's kind of a mess back there," she said, while Skyler was rooting around for her seatbelt.  "Sorry about that.  It's usually just me in here, and I keep tossing stuff back there without ever organizing it."

"It's way cleaner than our car," Skyler said.  "You have a lot of bags."

"Way cleaner," Ruth agreed.  "You know, I went on a tour of Supplemental Exceptional once, years ago."

"Yeah?  What did you think?"

"It was nice.  Noisy."  Ruth shrugged.  "It was years ago, like I said.  I don't remember a lot, honestly."

"Well, just keep in mind that customer service isn't exactly on the tour. Not much to see except desks and computers."

And police tape.  They were stopped at the top of the driveway by a uniformed officer and the office manager, carrying a clipboard and looking frazzled.

"I got the email," Katy said.  "Just came to pick up my call log and a couple of printouts."  She looked back and forth between the officer and manager.  "Is everything okay?"

"What about them?"  The officer pointed a finger at Ruth and Skyler, which was actually quite a feat since they weren't that close together.

"I'm sure they're just carpooling."  Jill, that was her name -- Katy always got her confused with Jackie, who worked in accounting -- gave her a look she couldn't fully interpret.  The gist of it was clear enough, though.

"Ride share," Katy agreed.  "Combine errands, save the planet.  It's for Green Initiatives." The officer waved them through.

At the building itself there was another officer, along with -- somewhat alarmingly-- an ambulance.  A few employees were milling around the parking lot, but no one she recognized more than in passing.  She pulled into a space and took a deep breath.

"Is it always like this?" Skyler asked.  She looked excited.  Ruth, thank goodness, looked calm, and not at all like she was ready to make a run for it with Skyler and never speak with Katy again.

"No," she said, eyeing the building cautiously.  "No, it's usually very normal.  I was going to invite you inside, but given --"  She waved a hand to encompass all of whatever it was that was happening.  "Maybe you should wait in the car?"

"You want us to keep it running?"  Ruth sounded completely serious.

"Sure."  Why not, right?  "It shouldn't take long."

She was asked to show her badge at the door, and run through some kind of scanner -- metal detector, maybe.  Despite what the email had said, none of the team leaders appeared to be in attendance; or if they were, they weren’t immediately present. Other than that, and the fact that half the lights were off, it was easy.  No one walked with her to her desk, no one looked at what she took.  Whatever they were “auditing,” it wasn't her team.

"It sounds like a medical scanner," Ruth said, when they were on the road again.

“Maybe.” That would explain the ambulance, at least. "But I sneezed all over it, and all I got was a tissue and a grumpy look.  They let me through with no problem."

"It depends what they were looking for, though.  Not the common cold, it sounds like."

She couldn’t bring herself to delve into a debate to try and figure it out. (“You just don’t have the hero instinct, Katy; you’re not feeling it.” She’d heard that plenty growing up, and she pushed the doubts back down.) It was hardly the simple drive plus show-and-tell she'd anticipated. But, she reminded herself, she hadn’t been arrested, it didn’t look like her department was the one in the crosshairs, the company didn’t seem to be shutting down, and she got to work from home for two days. All in all, it could be a lot worse.

“That was awesome,” Skyler said decisively.

She exchanged a look with Ruth, who smiled. “What can I say? She likes new things. And you were right — it’s a nice drive, and we have good music, and good company.”

“And a movie later!” Skyler reminded them, bouncing slightly in the backseat.

“And a movie later,” Ruth agreed. She looked over at Katy again. “You like Christmas movies, right?”

Day 9
Not exactly a lazy Sunday, by any normal definition of the phrase. Drove to work, sassed a police officer, watched a Christmas movie with my neighbors. Only one of those was on my to do list for the day when I woke up. I feel less like a walking germ factory and more like I’m on the mend. I wonder how the rest of the office is doing. (I wonder what’s going on at work, and when we’ll find out.) I feel curious, and I’m curious if I can use curious as my feeling word of the day. I ate a lot of sugar during the movie; Skyler and Ruth were trying to get rid of all Skyler’s leftover Halloween candy, I think. I learned that there are six Sundays left before Christmas, and that Skyler has a carefully-planned movie viewing schedule for all of them.

She logged in at precisely 11:50 am, or tried to, anyway. In reality, the time clock was the one feature they hadn’t tested in their work from home “practice event” earlier in the fall, so naturally, it didn’t work. Everything else seemed to be trouble free, with the remote logins working fine — even the group chat, which tended to be quirky even when they were sitting in the same room with each other.

(She scrolled back through the earlier hours of the chat, but there was nothing about the reasons — real or otherwise — that had closed their building. So they were keeping it quiet, whether by choice or decree. She was all for rocking the boat, but this time she was determined to keep her mouth shut. She trusted her coworkers enough to follow their lead.)

It helped that there was enough work to do that it (almost) didn’t seem weird that no one was talking about it. After a couple of slow days, it looked like their customers had hit the ground running for Monday, and there was plenty of other commentary filling the chat.

*Good morning Sam!*

*Hey everyone! Couldn’t get the time clock to log me in, anyone else?*

*It was the same for all of us. Time card adjustment sheet link should be in your email.*

*Working on email orders now.*

*I think my remote Juniper connection is better than my in-office connection. Maybe the system just doesn’t like me.*

*Importing, BRB*

And of course, there were the phone calls.

“Good afternoon, this is Katherine, how may I help you?”

**Hi. I was out shopping, over the weekend, and I saw some of your products. The store clerk told me about them but I had more questions. Would you be the person I speak to about that?**

“Sure, what can I tell you about them?”

**Well, I guess my first question is do they really work? I mean, I know most products are just junk; I never believe what it says on the package. But I’ve heard good things about your company and I wanted to try your brand, but it’s pretty pricey, and I want to make sure it’s going to work before I buy it.**

Since she was in the privacy of her own home, she took a second to look skyward and hope she hadn’t gotten a shouter. That was actually a surprisingly delicate question, legally speaking. For the average user, the products did what the company said they did. Whether or not this caller was an average user, and whether or not he might have inferred product functionality beyond what was strictly labelled on the package — that got tricky.

“We’re very confident in all of our products,” she said. “Was there a particular product you had in mind that you were looking at?” Honestly, some of the stuff they sold was just snacks. They weren’t meant to do anything except taste good, which was a pretty subjective measure by anyone’s standards.

**I don’t think I should need to specify a product, unless you’re saying that some of them work and some of them don’t. Is that what you’re saying?**

“Some of our products don’t have a specific purpose, like our On The Run Bars.” (A terrible name, everyone agreed.)

**Obviously I’m not referring to those.**

Oh, obviously, yes. She’d been through this ‘gotcha’ game before, with way too many callers. “Of course,” she said, aiming for polite and trying not to lose too many points in case the call wound up being recorded and reviewed. “I’d be happy to tell you about the suggested uses for any of our products, but I can’t guarantee that a product will work for any specific individual’s situation.”

**Well, I’m going to do more research before I buy anything. I suppose you’ve answered my question.**

“Thank you for your—“ The call disconnected. She took a deep breath. That hadn’t gone too badly. It felt different, though, having that sort of energy in her personal space. It was easier to keep it at a distance at work. She was suddenly extra glad she’d changed into “work clothes,” even thought it had felt silly at the time.

She clicked through her email accounts automatically, and smiled to see one from Ruth. It just asked how the day was going, and explained she hadn’t wanted to text in case that was too distracting.

‘It’s too quiet,’ she wrote back. ‘Last time I did this I left the windows open the whole day just for the extra noise.’

A few minutes later, there was a reply. ‘Want us to come over? Skyler’s doing homework and I’m working on reports.’

She looked around, sizing up the apartment. Relatively tidy. She’d put all her work stuff in the office area, which didn’t actually have three chairs in it, but there were three chairs in the apartment itself. She was pretty sure. (She did a quick mental count just in case. There were four, if she included the stools. Technically five, with the sofa, but that wasn’t super portable, and she was hesitant to move into the living room. It had more seating, but fewer flat surfaces.)

She typed, ‘Sounds perfect — come over whenever.’ She thought about adding ‘Bring snacks if you want,’ but then decided it might seem like she was making food a requirement, or like she was unwilling to share her own snacks, neither of which were true. And then she got caught up on a call when Ruth and Skyler actually arrived, so she missed most of their setup.

She didn’t miss it when Ruth set a bowl of popcorn next to her elbow, though. She gave her a questioning look.

“What, you thought we were going to show up empty handed?” Ruth said quietly. “Food is vital to a productive working environment.” She was smiling when she said it, and she pointed at Skyler. “She gets cranky,” she added in a stage whisper, and Skyler just gave a thumbs up.

“Thank you,” Katy said. Then she uncovered the speaker on her phone, and said, “Yes, absolutely. With a meal can mean before, during, or after; you’re right.”

They passed a comfortable few hours, working in the same space, trading conversation in between phone calls. Skyler got bored first (or possibly she was just the only one of them who was allowed to stop working when she got bored), but she seemed happy enough to take Charlie off to the living room and let him chase a piece of string until they both fell asleep on the sofa.

At 4 pm, she clicked out of the phone queue and pushed away from the desk. (Or tried to, anyway -- her chair wasn't exactly on wheels, and she was pretty sure she just ended up looking ridiculous.) Ruth looked up from where she was frowning at her computer screen. “Everything okay?" she asked.

"I'm on lunch," Katy explained, standing up and fighting the urge to yawn. “Sort of -- it's my break, anyway.  It's thirty minutes of not working, whatever you want to call it. Lunch, dinner, snack time.”

Ruth stood up too, and stretched her arms over her head.  "I could eat.  We should get out of your hair, though.  Skyler's probably drooling all over your sofa."

She was just about to invite them to stay (and, honestly, kind of wondering about the drool thing) when Ruth's phone rang. Ruth looked down at the display and went pale.

"Ruth?" Katy asked, when Ruth just stared at the phone.

"I -- can you keep an eye on Skyler?  I should take this."  

It didn't seem like the time for questions, even though they were piling up fast.  "Of course," she said.  

Ruth hurried out of the apartment, and Katy was left staring at Skyler (still sleeping) and wondering what was going on. Charlie's sixth sense for food woke him up while she was trying to decide what to do.  He leaped off the sofa with a loud meow, and Skyler startled awake, and sat up, rubbing her eyes.  

"What time is it?" she asked.  "Where's Ruth?"

It was enough to get her moving again, and she headed for the kitchen to have something to do with her hands.  "It's just after four; Ruth's taking a phone call.  She just went back across the hall."

Skyler made a face.  "I don’t like those calls."

"Yeah?"  This was not her best area. Her usual strategies for unhappy kids included generous applications of food, movies, or giving them back to their parents. None of those seemed like they were going to work in this particular situation.

What if there was something seriously wrong?  

What if there wasn't, and she got involved in a situation that was none of her business?

She looked at Skyler, who stared back. “Do you want me to get involved?" she said finally.

Skyler thought about it for a minute.  "I don't know?"  She bit her lip, and added, "I don't want anything bad to happen to you."

Which wasn't exactly reassuring. The sound of glass breaking and something large and heavy hitting the floor coming from the apartment across the hall was even less so. Skyler was on her feet in an instant.

“Wait,” Katy said. “We should be smart about this. And Ruth told me to watch you, so we’re definitely not getting separated. Have you two talked about this at all? Do you have an emergency contact? Backup plan?”

Skyler’s expression was more desperate than she would have liked. “Ruth is the backup plan!”

She didn’t sigh. (Maybe she sighed a little. Twenty minutes till her lunch break was over.) “Right. We’ll use mine, then.” She activated the timed text and tucked her phone back in her pocket. “Let’s go.”

Of course, it was hard to either sneak or burst in when you had to unlock the door first. And when you were both wearing fuzzy socks. The arguing might have covered the key noise, though, and it turned out they actually did manage to enter without either of the participants noticing. They were both facing the back wall, where the balcony door lay shattered across the floor.

Ruth waved a hand at the mess. “What is this? What were you thinking, Maggie? Does May even know you’re here?”

“Of course not! No one knows where I am, because no one knows where you are!”

“I’m retired!” Ruth said.

“You’re only 30!”

Katy cleared her throat. Normally she understood that you shouldn't interrupt people who were arguing and might reveal important exposition or motivation, but they were on the clock. Two clocks, actually.

Ruth and -- whoever the other person was -- whirled around. "Who's this?" the stranger asked.

Katy ignored them to focus on Ruth. "Do I need to call for help, or what?" she asked.

"She has a good plan," Skyler said, and it only sounded a little worried.

Ruth mostly looked resigned. "No," she said. "No, there's no danger." Then she looked around the living room, which was mostly covered with glass, with a cold breeze blowing in. "Except to glass doors, apparently." The last was said with a dark look at the stranger.

Who gestured rapidly between themselves and the door. “You used to leave doors open for us!"

"Yeah? Well, when I gave up expecting to see you come through them, I started leaving them closed again."

Ouch. She sort of wished she'd found a way to leave Skyler back in her apartment, but it was always better to stay together. She was uncomfortably aware that she was still technically on lunch break. What was it, fifteen minutes left? Ten minutes?

Ruth and the stranger had switched to simply staring angrily at each other, and she had no idea if that was an improvement or not. Either way, the incoming weather (November was no time to be leaving the door open; the temperature in the apartment was already dropping) was going to be a problem they should address before business hours were over. If Ruth said there was no danger, she’d take her word for it.

Since the staring didn't seem to be coming to a natural conclusion any time soon, Katy figured it was up to her to start the ball rolling on other things. Things like calling the building manager and letting her know they were going to need a repair team. "Skyler," she said. She pulled her aside. "You have the building's office number in your phone?"

Skyler nodded. "What should I tell them?" she asked.

That was a good question. "Ruth, do you have renter's insurance?"

Ruth nodded, not taking her eyes off the stranger. "Right. Tell them there was a flying accident, then. See if they can get some kind of maintenance up here to cover up the door."

The stranger scoffed. "Accident?"

"Unless you'd like me to call the police? Maybe I could text them your description." (It was probably not her best idea. She was almost definitely not going to do it, and it was never a good idea to bluff with things you weren’t willing to fully commit to.)

"Police?" The stranger said it in a tone that heavily implied 'hah - like they could stop me.'

Right. Well, that meant there was still cleanup to deal with, though it could probably wait. And the question of what the hell was going on, but she thought that was going to have to wait as well. "I have to get back to work in less than ten minutes, and I don't want to play the 'family emergency' card unless I have to. But we're not leaving this apartment with you in it."

Ruth finally looked up. "She was just leaving," she said firmly. "Right Maggie?"

"What? No, I'm not leaving until I get an answer. A better answer," she added, and Ruth closed her mouth on whatever she'd been about to say.

Skyler rejoined the conversation — “The building manager’s coming here with some plywood. She said they can fix it tomorrow, or to let her know if we want to take care of it ourselves.” She slipped her hand into Katy’s. “It’s cold in here.”

“Why don’t we all go back across the hall, and we can heat up some soup, and sit quietly and not break anything.”

It seemed like a perfectly reasonable plan when she suggested it, but once she actually had all of them in her apartment, and they were all staring at each other warily and taking up space, she began to wonder what she’d been thinking. “Ruth, Skyler, you’re in charge of food. Please.” She turned to the stranger. “You. Maggie? You’re going to sit with me in the office, and not say anything or touch anything while I log back in to work.”

Maggie raised her eyebrows, but followed quietly enough. Katy sighed. It was going to be a long four hours till the end of her shift.

Day 10
Where to start? I feel… a little claustrophobic? Confused? Clandestine? Now I’m just listing words that start with C. The soup was good, the building manager arrived quickly, but plywood’s not exactly insulating. Skyler and Ruth are spending the night here — Skyler on the sofa, Ruth with a camp cot in the office. After a lengthy and aggressively silent exchange of notes, Maggie departed, probably to return at a ridiculously early hour of the morning. I missed most of it on the phone, and no one was in a good place for explanations afterwards. I don’t know whether to hope Tuesday is quieter, which would give me more time to focus on whatever’s going on here, or busier, which would be the perfect excuse to not get more involved.

Tuesday wasn't busy, on the work front. But she didn't find that out until she'd already spent the morning with Skyler, making cookies and cleaning the kitchen. (They had a box mix thrust upon them by Ruth; all it needed was water, eggs, and butter. They had to borrow the butter from Ruth.)

It felt a lot like she and Skyler had been relegated to the kids table while the grown-ups talked, since Ruth herself spent the morning with Maggie, across the hall. 'Watching the repairs,' according to Ruth. Arguing, was what it sounded like, any time they opened the door to check on them.

Skyler was more calm about the whole thing than she would have expected. ("We talked last night," she explained. "Now we have a plan, like you.") Since Katy's plan mostly involved sending up a flare for help and then running away, it was less reassuring than she thought Skyler intended.

In a very obvious change of subject, she said, “You’re doing a good job, with the color control.” She pointed at her own sleeve, still the same color it had always been. She hadn't seen Skyler's outfit shift colors a single time over the last day. "You must be practicing a lot."

Skyler shook her head. "Sort of? Mostly Ruth showed me a trick for it. I have four layers on? So I'm trying not to touch the top one. It works sometimes."

She thought it was working a lot more than sometimes, but she wasn't an expert in Exceptions. The biggest thing she'd had to deal with was making sure she always had a couple pencils with her in case she was required to "prove" hers.

“Well, I’m impressed,” she said. “Whatever it is you’re doing. And thank you for your help with the cleaning. I’m sure that wasn’t on your plan for the day.” (She had no idea what Skyler’s normal days looked like. She was usually headed for work by this point, which she figured was as good an excuse as any for having no idea what her neighbors did all day.)

Skyler just shrugged. “We’re still working it out. There’s a lot of workbooks.”

“I meant to ask about that — workbooks? I thought all of that would be on the computer by now. Pencil and paper is like a flashback to the 90s, or something. Were you even alive in the 90s?”

“No. But we’re supposed to be learning how to print neatly, and the homeschool group leader really likes hard copy. She says it can’t be hacked, which I don’t think is really true, but her daughter has a technology Exception, so it’s mostly for her, Ruth says.”

They could hear the footsteps crossing the hall before the door burst open. Maggie entered first — “Well, we’ve done it now,” she announced cheerily.

Ruth followed more slowly, and she sighed at Maggie’s words. “For the record, I am so, so sorry about this,” she said.

That sounded bad. Ruth’s apologetic look being directed straight at her also seemed bad.

“The good news is, you get to call in sick to work today,” Maggie said.

That was the good news? “That’s the good news?” she asked. “I don’t know if I dare ask what the bad news is.” (She was 100% sure Maggie was going to tell them anyway.)

But when even Maggie wouldn’t meet her eyes, she started to get worried. Maggie stuck one hand in her pocket, and looked out the window. “I think it’s sort of still good news, really. In a certain light. Sharing is caring, and all that.”

“Maggie,” Ruth said, sounding exasperated. She looked at Katy. “We need to break into your workplace. And we need your help to do it.” She paused, probably taking in Katy’s shocked expression, then added, “Really sorry. Very, very sorry.”

She took a minute to think ‘this is really happening — this is a thing that is happening, right now, in my life.’ Out loud, she said, “I think I’m going to need more information.”

“Great,” Maggie said. “Can we talk about it in the car?”

“No,” Ruth said, at the same time Katy said, “We’re just going to drive there?”

Maggie rolled her eyes, but she wasn’t sure if it was meant for her or Ruth. “Of course not. We’re going to drive to Urgent Care. You’re calling in sick, remember?”

"I don't even know where the nearest Urgent Care center is," she said, which wasn't even close to the most important issue they were dealing with. But the fact that they were still talking about it at all probably meant she wasn't going to call the authorities (of any type). So details were going to be important.

"Besides, we want a specific center anyway," Maggie said. "It's close enough."

Then the timer started beeping, and they all jumped.

(It was the cookies, of course -- thank goodness for timers, or they wouldn't have remembered them until the smoke alarm went off.)

"Well, we might as well eat them," Ruth said.  From her tone, it was a toss-up whether she was being philosophical or just feeling hungry. "Skyler, how are you holding  up?  You've been awfully quiet over there."

Skyler stopped with her hand halfway to the cookies, and Katy nudged them in her direction.

"Good?" Skyler said.  “It’s very exciting, I guess." She didn't look excited.

"Not exactly what we talked about," Ruth said, and for some reason that made Skyler smile.

Ruth turned back towards Katy. “Here’s the thing," she said, and it looked like explanations were finally happening. "Turns out your office is shut down because someone tested positive for 1680 and they're trying to find the source. It's highly contagious; you can thank your coworker for sharing her cold with you, since it blocked out everything else."

“And the added bonus," Maggie said, waving a cookie. "You're not under suspicion."

She was pretty sure that A) germs didn’t work like that, and B) Maggie had missed an important point about culpability in there. “Because I haven't done anything," she said.  "There's nothing to be suspicious about."

Maggie pointed the cookie at her. "Not yet, you mean.”

Ruth sighed again.  "There's a runaway Exceptional child hiding in your office building. They've probably been living there for a few weeks. And they're sick, obviously."

"We're going to get them out," Maggie added.  "We're on a timeline, here, too, if you were wondering."

She ignored the clear 'hurry up' implied in that sentence.  "And we're doing this ourselves, breaking multiple laws and risking my job and all of our safety, instead of turning this over to the proper agencies.  Because -- why?"

It was Maggie's turn to sigh.  "Family's complicated."

She looked at Ruth, who shrugged helplessly.  "It is a family thing.  It's important -- I wouldn't ask otherwise."

They were going to hit the trifecta in no time; she could tell she was going to hear 'trust me' from someone before long.  She just wasn't sure she was at that point -- definitely not with Maggie, and she'd only spoken to Ruth for the first time ten days ago.  

She looked back and forth between Ruth and Maggie, and then between Ruth and Skyler. "Are you bringing Skyler?" she asked.  (She might not trust Ruth enough for herself, but she trusted Ruth's dedication to Skyler.)

There was no hesitation.  "Yes," Ruth said.  "Katy, I know I don't have any right to ask this of you.  Please, just trust me on this."

Well, all right then.  Looked like she was going to commit a crime.

"Okay," she said.

Maggie threw her hands up in the air.  "Finally!  Can we go already?"

"Hang on; we can't just go running off," Ruth said, which was so sensible that Katy actually did a double-take.

"What?" Ruth said.  "We can't."  

Maggie gave a loud, exaggerated sigh.  "This is why you were never the fun one," she said.

Katy shook her head.  "No, she's right.  If I'm calling in sick I need to actually call in, and I need to feed the cat, and we should all probably be wearing shoes.  And what about water, and snacks, and exchanging contact information for in case we get separated?”

She looked around. Skyler, at least, was nodding. “Right? I mean, that’s not even covert law-breaking prep; that's just basic running an errand stuff.  Do we even have a cover story?  Should we have one?"

Ruth beamed.  "My neighbor is the best neighbor," she said. “Seriously, though, we’re going to need at least twenty minutes.  You can figure out a cover story." She caught Maggie's eyes and emphasized, "A simple cover story."

It turned out twenty minutes wasn't very long -- once she'd called her boss and cuddled Charlie, she hardly had time at all to figure out what a person might need for -- whatever it was they were going to do. She definitely didn't have time to contemplate her life choices, but she figured that was probably a good thing.

And it wasn't until they were all tucked into her car and headed for the highway that she had a chance to say, "So what are we doing, exactly?"

Maggie, who was driving, turned around to check on her, but Ruth said, "I've got it. Keep your eyes on the road, okay?" (Ruth and Skyler were in the back seat; Maggie was driving, which had made sense when they presented it, but wasn't doing a thing for her nerves.)

Ruth said, "We, your concerned friends and neighbors, are going to drive you to the Urgent Care center. That's where we'll meet the others. From there, we'll go straight to your office, find the kid, and get out. Back to Urgent Care, then we'll split up and all go home."

It sounded -- manageable. She thought there were a lot of potential hurdles involved in the step that had been covered by three words: 'find the kid.' And of course, 'meet the others.'

Ruth added, "If anyone sees us at your office, we're there for your insurance card, because you were sick and we believed you when you said the card was there and you needed to have it before you could see a doctor."

That was simpler than she’d expected, and she nodded. “I think that's true, actually. But why would I leave my health insurance card at work? No, you don't need to answer that; it's fine."

"Who else will be there?" Skyler asked. "Is May coming?"

It was hard to tell whether she wanted the answer to be yes or no. Maggie nodded, though, and Skyler didn't look upset. "May's at Urgent Care, with Molly. We'll see them when we get there."

"How, exactly, are we going to find someone who's managed to stay hidden from dedicated searchers for over 24 hours?" she asked. (It probably wouldn't have been that hard to manage when it was just the employees. There was plenty of unused space in the building, and it wasn't like they were required to have their badges on them at all times. None of the interior doors even locked, as far as she knew.)

"Well, that's where Molly comes in. She's good at finding things."

"Molly's a pediatrician," Ruth said, like that explained it. "But her Exception is finding hidden things. It comes in handy for things like this. Also she has an in with the current search team.”

She was getting the feeling that "things like this" might not be a one-time occurrence for this particular group. "And what happens once we find this person? Do you have someone else whose Exception is returning lost things to where they belong?"

Maggie laughed. "Kind of the opposite, actually."

Yeah, that's what she'd been worried about. "Ruth," she said, turning around as much as she could in the seatbelt. "Please tell me I haven't accidentally gotten involved with a group of kidnappers, and that this isn't about child trafficking, or ransom demands, or anything like that.”

Luckily, Ruth looked genuinely surprised. "What? No, of course not. We would never."

"You said we!" Maggie called from the driver's seat, and Ruth rolled her eyes.

"It's a long story," she said.

"We have time." (She thought it was more a case of not wanted to talk about it than the story actually being lengthy, but maybe not. It was worth a try, anyway.)

Maggie cleared her throat. "Actually, we don't. We're here."

The next few minutes were a blur of getting out of the car, into the building, and ushered back into a private exam room, followed by introductions and far more hugging than she was really comfortable with given that these were basically strangers she still thought might turn out to be kidnappers.

"Skyler! You look great! How are you?"

Skyler did seem to be receiving the lion's share of the attention, and it was clear she'd met all of them before. Katy found herself perched on a stool in one corner of the room and tried to stay out of the way.

"Hey," someone said. "You okay?"

They were wearing scrubs with tiny starbursts and spaceships on them. Molly, she thought. Had to be. "Sure," she answered. "You?"

Molly ran her hands through her hair and shrugged. "How much of all this --" She waved a hand at the room at large. "--has been explained to you."

"Not as much as I'd like."

"Yeah, I sort of figured. Well, Cliffs notes version, we're the good guys." She stopped there and looked over.

"Yay?" Katy said. "I mean, that's good. Pretty sure you wouldn't tell me if you weren't, but I appreciate the plausible deniability."

"Hopefully you'll be in for a pleasant surprise," Molly said. "We really are. Sanctioned and everything. There's a prevailing theory that everyone has an Exception, right? Well, maybe yes and maybe no; we've all got our own thoughts on that. But it's a definite that some people are -- more Exceptional than others, or less Exceptional than expected Just to be completely politically incorrect. And sometimes they run into trouble because of that."

She sighed, and Katy was pretty sure she was looking at Skyler. "And sometimes they're kids, and they don't have a lot of great options, and that's where we come in. We generally do advocate work, basic stuff like that. Sometimes it gets more complicated. Foreign governments making a citizenship claim; that's the worst -- May usually handles those, thank god.”

It sounded nice, but vague. Super vague. “What about the whole ‘it’s a family thing; family’s complicated’ part?” she asked.

Molly winced. “That would be the part you need to ask Ruth about. Not my story to tell; I’m sorry. I mostly wanted to reassure you that if we do get arrested, which is very unlikely, we will definitely get bailed out and you won’t end up going to jail. Interagency cooperation might be slow, but it is there.”

“And if you told me more you’d have to kill me, right?” The whole thing felt weirdly like the B-plot of every action movie she’d ever seen.

But Molly frowned, and shook her head. “No, we just don’t really have time right now. We want to get to the office building while the current team is in their daily meeting; that way they’ll all be in one place.”

They took a van to the office. It was white, and she fought off what was surely an impending nervous breakdown by imagining her journal entry for the day.

Day 11
This is crazy. I am looking at my life; what was I thinking? I feel — concerned. That’s a good word for it. I always thought that when you went in on something like this, there was a point when you would feel ‘all in’ — fully committed, convinced you were doing the right thing for the right reasons. So far that hasn’t been the case — just doubts and questions followed by more doubts and questions. At least they all seem confident that finding the kid will be the easy part.

An hour later, when she was sitting in the dark in a locked supply closet, she thought back on that oh-so-wrong assumption. She nudged Ruth with her foot. “I thought you guys were confident that finding the kid would be the easy part,” she said, keeping her voice quiet.

(As far as they knew, there was no one close enough to hear them. She wasn’t going to count on that being true, though.)

Ruth mumbled something, then said, “What? I’m awake.”

She squinted, but couldn’t make out any details despite how close they were sitting. “Were you sleeping?”

It wasn't a big closet; she could feel Ruth shrugging next to her. “No. Maybe. I’m a stress sleeper. You said something about finding the kid, right? And -- confidence is the key to success?" she offered.

It wasn't funny.  Maybe it was a little funny. Maybe that was just the stress talking. "I'm not sure this is really the moment to use fake it till you make it as an actual plan."

"Well, sure, in retrospect..."  Ruth trailed off.

In retrospect, it seemed clear that they should have done a little (or a lot) more prep. It turned out the schedule Molly had been given was really more of a suggestion than a solid timeline. The good news was that the official search crew had cleared out entirely shortly after they’d arrived. The bad news was that they'd done so in order to put the building under lockdown and run a full decontamination on it.

They were essentially trapped in the building until the decontamination process ended, unless they wanted to make it exceedingly obvious that they'd been there. Hopefully, one of the others had found the kid by now.  

(And, of course, there was the closet. But how they'd wound up stuck in a closet that locked from the outside was a story they would — fingers crossed — never need to share.)

"Would this be a good time to ask about the whole 'Maggie, Molly, May' alliteration?" she asked.  "Because I've been wondering about that since this morning."

There was a long silence, and then Ruth said, “Yeah. It’s as good a time as any, I guess. Do you know, I think you're the first person I've ever actually told this to." Ruth added, “Well, Skyler’s heard a lot of it.  The first adult, then."

Katy nodded, even though Ruth probably couldn't see it. Didn’t they all have at least a few of those stories? The ones that were so personal that everyone who needed to know about them already did, because they were all a part of them already.

Ruth said, “I honestly don't know if it was a coincidence or not -- I never thought much of it at the time, but now, of course, it seems unlikely. Anyway, there they were:  Maggie and Millie and Molly and May. Just like the poem. And then there was Millie's tagalong baby sister, Ruth.  Me."

Her voice shifted; Katy was pretty sure she’d just leaned her head back against the wall. "They all did pretty well in the Exception lottery.  By the time they got to graduation they were already attracting a certain amount of attention."

Ruth stopped talking.  There had to be more to the story than that. "So what happened?" Katy asked.

"What ever happens?  They teamed up and ran into the classic escalation situation -- bigger team, bigger problems.  Bigger collateral damage every time they went out."

"You were on backup?" Katy asked.  

“Yeah. Millie got hurt; I stepped up.  Took her place on the team for a while. By that time we were spending more time fighting with each other than fending off villains.  It wasn't exactly...  Well, it wasn't our most shining moment, as individuals or as a team. Then Millie disappeared, and that was much, much worse."


"The less said about that time, the better," Ruth said.  "Basically, we don't know.  Whatever your question is about what happened, we don't know. No, we don't know why. What we do know, is that there's a lot of very intimidating people who wear a lot of black who show up every once in a while and ask for help, and they seem to think it's our job, and we mostly do what we can. Or we did, anyway."

Katy thought about that for a minute. Then she said, "I'm still not seeing how that relates to family.  Or kids." She frowned. “Or Millie, actually. Is she okay?”

"Remember how I said we were fighting? It didn’t feel like something that was just going to magically get better, so we all sort of went our separate ways. Molly and May still work together a lot; they have a thing set up with an NGO to do this sort of thing officially.”  

She heard rustling, and then the crinkling of a wrapper. “Snack bar?” Ruth asked, delaying any additional explanations. “I’m starving.”

“I’m good, thanks. It’s probably the super speed putting additional strain on your metabolism.” She stopped. “Unless you didn’t want me to mention that.”

Ruth bumped their shoulders together companionably (probably because her hands were full of snack bars). “It’s fine. It’s not something I use much, these days. Speed Exceptions are one of those things you should enjoy while you’re young, like gymnastics. Do you know how much my knees and back are going to hurt tomorrow? So much; it’s crazy.”

“Is that why you know so much about supplements?”

“Part of it, yeah. Maggie had a tough growth spurt, trying to coordinate the flying thing, that’s when I first got into them. We all had a bottle of Flight Recovery in our backpacks all the time, because she was constantly forgetting hers. She’s mostly freelance now, but May calls her in for consults all the time anyway. Maggie’s the one who thinks we should get the band back together. I think she thinks that would make Millie stay.”

It didn’t seem like the time to ask more questions, so she kept her mouth shut. Ruth was circling around to the main issue, she was pretty sure.

“Millie’s always been — I don’t know. She’s my sister, and I love her, and we’ve all got our own issues that we’re working through in our own ways. Millie’s finding herself. That’s what she says, anyway, and I’m going to believe her until I have some reason not to. She travels a lot. She writes home sometimes; she says she’s fine.”

There was more crinkling, probably the wrapper being crumpled up. Or possibly shredded into tiny pieces, based on the sound. “But she’s never been one for keeping her head down and going with the flow, and it seems like she must give our names to every single person she meets. Personally, I think she has some kind of runaway network going on, and she’s made us all part of it without actually telling us. I don’t like to mention that around May, though, since technically it’s something she would need to investigate.”

Certain things were starting to make more sense. “So, Skyler? And the kid we’re looking for now?”

“Actually, Skyler really is my cousin. Distant cousin. Her branch of the family is a little unusual.”

Part of her wanted to say ‘more unusual than you?’ but that seemed rude. Especially since Ruth was right — the story of ‘group of friends with compatible Exceptions team up, fight villains, break up’ wasn’t all that uncommon. It was more what they had done after the breaking up that set them apart. And the ninjas; that was definitely unusual.

There was a noise outside the closet, and the door swung open suddenly. She blinked in the bright light. “What are you guys doing in there?” Molly said. Then she looked over her shoulder, and called, “I found them! They’re in here!”

“The door was locked,” Ruth said, matter of fact-ly, and as if that actually answered the question. She stood up and held out a hand to help Katy up.

“Hi Molly. Did you find the kid, too?”

Molly waved a hand. “Ages ago, yeah. We were just waiting out the decontam to find everyone else and get out of here.”

Katy looked around. She didn’t see anyone else. Molly must have been talking to someone before, right?

As if on cue, Maggie burst into the room. “Hey, there you are! May’s waiting with the kids, are we all set? We gathered up all of Casey’s stuff. Nice posters at your desk, by the way. What have you been doing in here, anyway?”

“The door was locked,” she said, borrowing Ruth’s non-explanation.

“Casey?” Ruth said. “The kid’s name is Casey?”

“How is Casey any weirder than Ruth? Or Maggie? Or Katy?” Maggie asked.

“It’s Katherine, actually,” she said.

Maggie just shrugged. “Well, Casey’s probably short for something cool too.”

“We need to get back to the Urgent Care center,” Molly said firmly. “We can talk about names when we get there.”

Day 11
I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until we were out of there and safely back home. So far, so good. Ruth has two house guests now, and I’m back down to me and Charlie. (He seems unperturbed by the day’s excitement.) I’ve already called in sick for tomorrow as well, thanks to Molly’s doctor’s note. I feel like I saw a whole new perspective today — it sounds silly, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met an Exceptional that identified as “retired” at age 30, and who went from that to a new career. It should make me feel worse about my string of unimpressive jobs, but instead it’s kind of inspiring. So I’ll go with that — today I feel inspired.

She backdated her entry for the 11th so it looked like she’d written it on time. Extenuating circumstances, right? Then she set the computer aside and settled into the sofa, cup of coffee in hand. “Charlie,” she called. He was sitting in the doorway, pointedly ignoring her. But even the cat instinct to ignore all calls and requests couldn’t outweigh the allure of lap plus sofa (plus hot beverage perfect for knocking over or dropping cat fur into).

This, she could handle. A day to just take it slow, get back into the usual routine.

And then her phone rang. She shook her head while she fished the phone out of her pajama pockets. "When did I start having my phone with me when I was in my pajamas, Charlie?" (It was probably the same time she started wearing those pajamas at ten in the morning.)

It was Ruth.  **Hey, good morning.**

"What's up?  Everyone okay over there?" (There didn’t seem to be a polite way to say ‘why are you calling instead of texting,’ so she skipped it.)

**All good here. The kids are wondering if they can come see you.**

"You mean if they can come see Charlie?"

Charlie looked up at the sound of his name, and she scritched under his chin.

Ruth laughed. **I think it's a toss-up. I didn't want to have this conversation by text, though.**

That sounded — not good. But her next words were, **Casey's confirmed for a case of 1680; we're probably looking at another few days of being contagious.  Is that going to be a problem?**

She held the phone away from her ear for a second and frowned at it.  What?  "What?" she said.  "No, of course not; I already had it when I was a kid."

(Regardless of Maggie's scientifically dubious comments about one virus blocking another, 1680 was a pretty common childhood illness -- it could be serious if you caught it as an adult, but most people got it out of the way young, like chicken pox.)

**Yeah, you said that.**  Ruth sounded hesitant, but added, **I just wasn't sure if you'd had it like you actually had it, or if you'd had it like your Exception is ambidexterity.**

She should have figured that would come back up at some point. "I'm rolling my eyes right now," Katy told her.  "I would show you my medical records, but I don't actually have them on me, so you'll have to take my word for it. Besides, we were all exposed yesterday anyway.  Send the kids over if they want; I'm not doing anything today."

She curled her toes over the edge of the sofa.  It wasn't something she loved to talk about, but she figured she owed honesty for honesty, and Ruth had shared a lot the day before.  "I don't know what my Exception is.  It's never really seemed like I was very Exceptional at anything.

“I’ve definitely had 1680, though.  First grade, Christmas vacation. So either it can affect non-Exceptionals, or I've got some kind of Exception.  And ambidexterity's easy enough to learn." She looked out the window.  "It's always been easier to just -- pass, when it came to that.  Be average."

**Yeah, I --**  She could hear the crash through the phone, and in stereo from across the hall.  **Hang on, Skyler and Casey just knocked over a bookcase.**

It didn’t sound disastrous, and Ruth didn’t seem angry. Joking seemed safe enough. “I’ll make sure to hide the breakables before they come over,” she said.

**That may be a good idea.  They're both going to help with cleanup first anyway.  We'll talk later?**

'Later' turned out to be mid-afternoon, and all three of them wound up at her apartment.

"They look exhausted," Katy said quietly.  She and Ruth were in the kitchen, washing dishes. Both kids were set up under a blanket fort in the living room, watching movies on a laptop.  

(They'd lured Charlie under with cat treats. She was pretty sure she was going to look over and see all three of them asleep before too long.)

Ruth nodded, and reached for the next mug. "Thank goodness," she said. "After the bookshelf incident, we went over to the park down the road so they could run around for a while. Hopefully they'll be tired enough to sleep now and tonight."

Katy gave her a careful look. Ruth looked exhausted too. “How are you doing, with all of this?"  It seemed like a lot to manage all at once, but maybe you got used to it?

Ruth made a face.  "It happens," she said.  "I try to take it one day at a time. It'd be nice if we could all sleep through the night tonight, though. Between the kids waking up every couple hours, and the noise from our upstairs neighbors, last night was a little rough."

"Do they move furniture all the time?" she asked.  "Your upstairs neighbors?"

"What?  No, I’m pretty sure something just hatched up there, and they're letting it run around the apartment." She shrugged.  "It's totally against the rules, but I'm not exactly in a position to throw stones, you know? And it's not like I have concrete evidence that they have banned pets in there.  Just a strong suspicion."

"Well, you're welcome to stay here again tonight, if you want."

She was finding that she liked having people in the apartment -- sharing the space was unexpectedly comforting. "My upstairs neighbors make their fair share of noise, but it usually quiets down at night."

"Thanks.  We might just take you up on that," Ruth said.  

"Also, I think that's the last of the dishes." The sink was clear, possibly for the first time in several days.

"You're missing the whole movie!" Skyler called from the living room.

"Have they left the castle yet?" Ruth called back.

"That's what's happening now!"

Katy grabbed the bowls of popcorn (bowls! from Ruth's apartment, obviously), and Ruth said, "Then get ready for company, because we're coming in, and we're bringing popcorn."

Day 12
This was possibly one of my top five sick days ever.  I'll be going back to work tomorrow; that should be interesting.  And I have a full house again -- the kids are in the living room, and Ruth's with them, in case they have nightmares.  Is it selfish to hope she'll make pancakes in the morning?  Probably.  I need to get to a grocery store this week, or I'll be down to just ketchup and instant coffee in the refrigerator.  I had fun today.  But at the same time, it felt a lot like the eye of the hurricane, and that makes me nervous.  What's coming on the other side of the lull?  Taking things one day at a time is easier in theory than in practice.

Thursday was a blur. It usually took two days out sick for her boss to start reassigning work, so that meant she had a day's backlog to catch up on, along with the usual daily dose of tasks. Somehow she had managed to miss most of the gossip about the building closure by being out on Wednesday; by the time she got there, the topic of conversation had mainly switched to weather, along with general uproar about the fact that there was Christmas music playing in the lobby.

(It was about a 40-50 split between people who were happy about the news versus outraged. The remaining ten percent were okay with holiday tunes in general, but objected to the particular assortment currently being played.)

She left her headset on the whole day and focused on slogging through the to-do list, and the should-have-done list. It made the time pass quickly, at least.

In the mid-afternoon, she did get one memorable call from a woman who's cat had accidentally eaten one of the vitality mints. (Not exactly a recommended usage, but probably not a huge issue. She explained that her own cat frequently ate things she'd prefer he didn't, and that was common with cats, and did there seem to be any symptoms showing up? There did not, and they left it at that.)

She thought it might win for wacky call of the day, but in the evening Mary Ann got one of those calls they all dreaded. The classic 'It seems like the bottle isn't full, I feel like you tricked me.’ Mary Ann explained that there were 30 servings in the bottle, and that the seal indicating 30 servings was clearly placed on the front of the label. She explained that the product was packed by weight, not by volume. She explained the need to be able to fit your hand into the bottle to reach the scoop.

Finally, she said, "Could I place you on a brief hold?" and started banging her head on her desk. "This is a nightmare," she said. "I don't know what else to say. There's 30 servings. The bottle says 30 servings. The customer measured out 30 servings and confirmed it -- while I was on the phone, they did this. And still they say we’re being 'deceptive.' What does that even mean?"

Everyone made generally sympathetic noises. Terry stood up and leaned over the wall. “Sometimes there's nothing to be done. Do they at least want something? Have they actually made a request?"

Mary Ann groaned. “No! That's the worst part; they don't want anything. They haven't even taken any of the product yet.”

“Feedback form,” Terry suggested, and they all lifted their coffee mugs in a toast. (Some days she was amazed that the department hadn’t come up with either a bingo card or a drinking game.)

It wasn't until after six pm that things started to settle down -- she finally started being able to cross things off the list, instead of just adding another check mark. It was an imprecise system, but anything that got you through the day, right? Sam peeked over the cubicle wall and said, "You've been quiet today. Everything okay? Are you feeling sick again?”

She leaned back in her chair with a sigh. "I'm okay. Just a lot to get caught up on. How was yesterday, anyway?"

"Weird. Basically weird all day. I'm not sure anyone believes we were getting audited, but there's no official unofficial word about what was really happening, if you know what I mean. Just a lot of random guessing."

"Yeah? Any favorites?" She wasn't about to offer any theories of her own; she was a pretty terrible liar, unfortunately, always with the tendency to blurt out the truth at the worst possible moment. But coworker socializing was pretty much a requirement of the job, and she and Sam were the only ones there.

"I don't know, they all seem kind of unlikely. But did you see that Lisa's still out today? I heard her entire office was emptied and got all new furniture while we were all working from home." She shrugged. "I wish they'd taken my chair too; I could use a new one."

She hadn't noticed. But she hadn’t been upstairs all day, either. “Huh. Hey, I meant to ask, how did the dogs like having you at home?"

"Oh, they loved it. I swear, you'd think we're never there. I'm pretty sure I got call recorded on one where they're barking like maniacs in the background, though. The caller kept asking about it."

"What did you tell them?"

Sam gave a short laugh. "I told them I couldn't hear any dogs barking, and were they sure? Then I said maybe it was on their end."

"Did they believe that?"

"Probably not. But they don't believe us when we say there's 30 servings, either, so I'm not going to feel too bad about it." She yawned, and stretched. "What about you -- how did work from home go before you got sick?"

She’d prepped for the question, so she was able to say easily, “I met part of my neighbor's extended family. It was interesting. And I got some leftover soup; that was good. Mostly quiet, though. Charlie got bored having me around pretty quick."

"Cats, man. I'm telling you, dogs are the best. They're always happy to see you."

They'd had this discussion many times. "Sure, you just keep telling yourself that when you're taking Delta and Harvelle out for a walk at 9 at night, in the middle of winter. In the sleet."

“That,” Sam said, “is a good point.”

Day 13
How is it even possible that it still isn’t Friday? It feels like it’s been a very long week already. One more day to go. Ruth is taking Skyler and Casey shopping tomorrow; she promised to text updates. I’m not sure if that is more for entertainment or sanity. Everything seems fine, as far as I can tell, but all three of them were away today doing — who knows. I assume there must be a lot of meetings involved with kids. And paperwork, probably. You can’t just find a kid and take them home with you, right? I hope not? I feel antsy. So ready for this week to be over. (Rushing the weekend again, for what? No big plans. No small plans to speak of. Just weekend chores, but it feels more inviting to know that there’s friends across the hall.)

“Who are you texting?”

Amelia leaned over the table like she’d be able to see the screen if she was just a few inches closer. (Phones, once banned in the workplace meeting rooms, were now a necessity thanks to a recent workplace “aesthetics” movement. Clocks were apparently not aesthetically pleasing, and had been removed from all public spaces. It was bizarre, everyone agreed, but word came down from corporate to make the change, and did anyone really want to be the one who made a fuss about it? No way.)

“My neighbor,” she answered. “She’s shopping.”

It was only sort of true, on both points. Technically, her last text had been to May, who was with Ruth and the kids. And technically they were eating lunch at the moment. But the intent was there.


She looked up at the surprise in Amelia’s tone. Was it weird to be texting with her neighbor about shopping? “Is that weird?” she asked.

“Kind of, yeah,” Amelia said.

Sam spoke up from the other end of the table “I don’t think it’s weird. It’s like — community, right?” Katy was going to get Sam a thank-you brownie, or something. Then she added, “Plus, she’s already met the parents, so shopping together is pretty much a given.” Or not.

“Wait, what?” Now Amelia actually looked interested, as opposed to just passing the time. “Is something going on?”

“I have not met her parents,” Katy said, giving Sam what was hopefully a quelling look. “I met her cousin, and some of her sister’s friends.”

“That’s how Jill and I met,” Mary Ann said. “It was kind of a love at first sight thing.”

Apparently her look had not been quelling enough, because Sam said, “And you’ve had dinner with her. More than once.”

The boss walked in at exactly the right (or wrong) moment. “IT’s on their way to fix the speakers. What did I miss?”

“Katy’s dating her neighbor,” Amelia said.

“I am not dating my neighbor.”

The boss looked around the room, but no one else jumped in. “Huh. Well, keep me posted.”

Even factoring in the meeting, it was a quiet afternoon. It wasn’t much later that she found time to send another text. *My coworkers now think we’re dating. Sorry?*

*This is still May. You and Ruth are dating? Is it serious? We WILL do a background check.*

It was obviously not going to be a good day to buy a lottery ticket.

*I don't think so* she wrote back.  *Is Ruth there?*

*There was a small try-on room meltdown. She's with Skyler in the employee break room right now.*

And really, what was the appropriate response to something like that? Finally she typed *Best of luck.*

Then, of course, she got distracted by a call, and then a string of emails, so it was a while before she was able to check messages again.

The reply simply read *Thanks*. Well, that was vague. And it was impossible to tell if it was from Ruth, or if May had still had the phone at that point.

She wasn't sure whether the day got better or worse when the flowers arrived. It certainly made it harder to convince her coworkers that nothing was happening.

"Ooh, flowers from your neighbor?  Are you sure you're not dating?" Mary Ann was looking pretty starry eyed herself.

The arrangement had been hand-delivered to her desk. (By one of the accountants, of all things. They must have been passing by the door when the delivery person showed up.) There was a card, too, with the message: "Congratulations! I knew that closet was no coincidence.  Hearts, Maggie."

Since the whole thing was attracting a fair amount of attention, she tried to explain. "They're not from my neighbor," she said. Then she realized that probably made it look worse instead of better, so she added, "They're from one of the friends I met.  It's a joke. I think.”

She was pretty sure it was a joke. She took a picture of the flowers and the card, and sent it to Ruth with a couple of question marks, just in case.

“You’re going to take them home, right?” Terry said. “They’ll just wilt sitting here all weekend.”

And that was how she would up distracting her entire team of coworkers for the afternoon, and then having to figure out how to drive home with a vase full of flowers without the whole thing tipping over. Seat belts were not designed for flower arrangements.

Ruth met her at the door of the building, holding it open for her and dropping her eyes at the last second. “So,” she said. “Sorry about the flowers.”

“It’s fine,” Katy said automatically. “I mean, they’re pretty.”

Ruth said, “I would have gone for an edible arrangement, if anyone had bothered to ask me. I mean, what are you going to do with flowers? Look at them? Feel guilty when they turn brown and you have to throw them away?”

She couldn’t help the laugh, because the whole situation was a little ridiculous. “So true. Flowers are kind of a tough gift — even living ones; I always feel like it’s some kind of test to see how long I can keep them alive. Usually I try to bring them to work and get one of my coworkers to take them.”

“Maggie has a kind of — unusual sense of humor,” Ruth said. “I didn’t know she was going to do this.”

She actually felt a little better hearing that. “It’s nice that they want to look out for you?” she offered, not entirely sure Ruth would agree. They reached the door of her apartment, and she held the vase out in Ruth’s direction. “Can you hold these for a second? Charlie’s gotten into the habit of dashing for the open door the last few days.”

They juggled flowers, bags, and keys back and forth. She had yet to figure out how to make a graceful entrance to the apartment. It was on her wish list, somewhere below ‘figure out that weird noise the pipes make sometimes.’ “You can put them down anywhere,” she told Ruth. “Maybe next to the sink, actually. I dumped a lot of water out before I brought them home.”

Ruth slid the vase onto the counter carefully, and rearranged a few of the stems. “Do you want to come over for dinner?” she asked suddenly. “Molly has Skyler and Casey at the movies, so it would just be the two of us.” She looked nervous, and Katy tried to ignore her first instinct (escape as quickly as possible) and think.

Dinner sounded nice. Conversation sounded — potentially fraught, possibly a minefield of tricky topics. But now that the topics had been raised, it wasn’t like they were going to get any less awkward if they ignored them. So she said, “Sure, I’d love to. Let me just —“ She waved her hands, trying to encompass the cat, and the flowers, and the fact that she’d just been at work for nine hours. “Give me ten minutes?”

Ruth whooshed out a relieved breath. “Sure. Absolutely,” she said. “Bring Charlie with you, if you want. The apartment’s been thoroughly kid- and cat-proofed by this point. I’ll leave the door unlocked.”

She knocked anyway, exactly ten minutes later, and with Charlie in her arms. Watching him explore again gave them something to focus on until they were actually sitting down to eat. “This looks amazing,” she said, because it did. (Usually dinner was whatever was left over from lunch, or pizza if she was feeling particularly wealthy.)

“I don’t date,” Ruth blurted out, and then blushed bright red.

“Okay,” Katy said, when it seemed like Ruth was going to stop there. “That’s fine. I didn’t actually think we were dating.” That sounded less good than she’d hoped. “I mean, I like spending time with you? I’m not just hanging around for the free food and cat-sitting.”

She thought she was probably making it worse instead of better, and she tried not to sigh. Ruth’s nervousness must be contagious, or it could just be that this was another one of those things she didn’t usually talk about with anyone. “I just thought we could try for friends first. Friends who live near each other and enjoy each other’s company on a sometimes daily basis?”

Ruth smiled. “I’d like that,” she said. Then she took a sip of water, and fiddled with her silverware, before she started again. She explained, “I used to date, back when we were all on the team together. That’s why they assumed, I think.”

She nodded, and Ruth kept going. “It seemed like the thing to do, I guess, but it never really felt right. I mean, I liked the hanging out and the holding hands and stuff, I just never wanted to — kick it up a notch, as Maggie would say.”

Katy made a face without really meaning to, but Ruth just said, “Yes! That, exactly.”

She nodded again, slower. “Yeah. I get that,” she said. “I, um, usually tell people I’m picky, and leave it at that.” Honestly, it hadn’t come up that much. It wasn’t like she had an overabundance of curious friends, all wanting to know. She shrugged, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “Not exactly a role model, I know.”

She didn’t think Ruth was going to be impressed by that explanation, but she didn’t look upset, at least. “What are the odds, right? Mostly I just wanted to say — if I did date, I would definitely ask you to dinner.”

Their eyes met. She raised her eyebrows, and Ruth tilted her head to one side, as if to say, ‘I’m game if you’re game.’

Katy said, “And if you did, I would definitely say yes, just so you know. And we would maybe eat dinner and then hold hands on the couch and watch a movie.”

“Or,” Ruth said, smiling. “We could just do those things anyway, and not worry about what to call it.”

“All in favor?” Katy raised her hand.

Across the table, Ruth mirrored it, then leaned over and gave her a high five. “Who says you’re not a role model.”

Day 14
I’m pretty sure I went on a date with my neighbor tonight, and — cue surprised faces — we both had fun. Of course, we had to watch the shortest movie we could find, to fit it in before the kids got home, but at least it wasn’t a tearjerker or a horror film. Or subtitled. We might have had to reconsider the whole thing if there had been subtitles. I feel good, actually. I also feel like I might be allergic to those flowers I brought home. I wonder if I could tempt Charlie into knocking the vase on the floor and “accidentally” breaking it. Other than planning for the untimely demise of the flower arrangement, it looks like a quiet weekend ahead.

She was trying to decide on breakfast (a snack bar would be so easy, but the name itself did sort of disqualify it from counting as an actual meal) when she heard from Ruth again. She assumed it was Ruth, at least. Who else would be texting her on a Saturday morning?

The answer, apparently, was the Exceptional Emergency Alert reverse 911 system -- she nearly dropped the phone when she saw it:



She scrolled through the list quickly until she reached the Ts, hoping they might be excluded. No such luck, though.  And really, it had been a while since their last shelter in place alert, so they were probably due. They didn't usually amount to much anyway; the biggest impact tended to be on kids’ excitement levels, like a snow day.

Sure enough, there was a knock at the door a few minutes later. "Did you hear?" Skyler said, practically vibrating. Her shirt sleeves were a particularly glittery shade of neon. "There's a Shelter in place alert!  Do you want to come over?"

Katy shook a snack bar out of the box. Heck with it; it was close enough to a healthy meal. “Good morning to you too," she said. "Have you had breakfast?  Did you tell Ruth where you were going?"

Skyler did a sort of combination nod and head shake that didn’t actually resolve itself into a yes or no.  "Ages ago.  You haven't had breakfast yet?"

"I was still deciding," she said, half expecting Ruth to show up next. Possibly also to berate her on her breakfast choices. When no one came in, she added, “And I have chores this morning.  I could come over later?"

Skyler gave her an incredulous look. "Grownups don't have chores," she said.  "Plus we have to stay inside."

She nodded. “They’re indoor chores; cleaning and stuff.  And grownups absolutely have chores.  Check it out — I have a chart and everything." She pointed at the fridge, which did, in fact, have a chart on it. There were stickers and everything. (Months with major holidays were hard. Stickers helped.) “I bet you could make one if you wanted, or Ruth could help you.”

Skyler was suitably impressed with the chart, but she seemed distracted. “Can I stay here and help you clean stuff?” she asked.

“Sure. Wait, why?” A minute ago she’d been buzzing with excitement about the alert day. Now she looked sad. “Isn’t it craft Saturday? Was this just a secret ploy to get me to help with your chores once we’re done with mine?”

Skyler laughed, which is what she’d been hoping for. But then she said, “No. Well, I don’t know. Ruth talked about doing a chore chart last week, but now she’s busy with Casey all the time. We probably won’t do it. She hasn’t said anything about crafts today either.”

Oh boy. This was one of the many, many reasons she didn’t have children. What did you do if what you were already doing didn’t make them feel safe? “Look,” she said. “I don’t think I’m exactly qualified to offer any kind of useful advice in this situation. But you’re welcome to hang out here and we can work on getting a few things crossed off the chart. And we’ll make sure to do something fun afterwards. Does that work for you?”

Skyler stared at her intently for what felt like at least half an hour, but was probably only a few seconds. “Do I have to?” she asked.

“Nope.” That was an easy one, at least. “I don’t have to either. I’m doing it because I want to. It’s easier for me if I have a schedule, so that’s what I do.”

There was more staring. Not for the first time, Katy wondered what, exactly, Skyler’s “branch of the family” was like. Finally, Skyler said, “Ruth doesn’t believe you’re ambidextrous.”

“Ruth doesn’t believe ambidexterity is my Exception,” she corrected. “And I think that’s a conversation that’s between me and her.”

Skyler looked confused for a split second, then she smiled. “Okay. Sounds good. So, what are we doing first?”

(She wasn’t sure, but she had a sneaking suspicion she’d just been played.) She set Skyler up with dusting duty anyway. It was a never-ending task, so it didn’t really matter how well it got done any particular week, so long as you kept doing it. Also, it was a good excuse to get Skyler to go into a different room so Katy could text Ruth.

*Skyler’s here* she sent first.

Then she added *Cleaning*.

She got back *???*

She was still a little surprised Ruth hadn’t come over herself, so she sent *You and Casey okay?*

*Small problem*

*Casey knows who’s affecting the weather*

She read the message twice, but couldn’t think of any way an autocorrect mishap would explain it. She sent *Not Casey* and crossed her fingers. Element Exceptions on their own were generally pretty manageable. Dealing with an Exceptional Forces manhunt would be more difficult.

*No. Complicated. Can you watch Skyler?*

She breathed a sigh of relief. *You should be here for crafts. Skyler’s freaking out a little.*


They dusted, they tidied, they washed (and dried! and put away!) the dishes. They ate lunch, and debated the merits of various sandwich toppings. Just when she was thinking she was going to need to do something drastic, Ruth came bursting into the apartment.

She stopped abruptly when she realized they were both watching her, and waved. “Hey,” she said. “So, craft time?”

“Is that snow in your hair?” Katy asked.

“Where’s Casey?” was Skyler’s question, which was probably more important, in the grand scheme of things.

“Molly and May are with Casey; they’re trying to negotiate something May can actually put on paper and make look official. The Winter Element is there too.” She rubbed her hands over her head and shook off the snow. "It's very cold in the apartment right now. Not my favorite feeling."

"Do you need to be over there?" Katy asked. She felt a little bad demanding that Ruth show up; if she was in the middle of something...

But Ruth shook her head. "I'd much rather be here. Plus, I have a previously scheduled appointment for crafts that's in my calendar and everything. What are we making?"

Day 15
Did you know kids still make hand turkeys? But they're different now, a front view instead of a side view. The turkey body's shaped like a bowling pin, and instead of just one hand shape there's a whole bunch, like a fan behind the body. It seems like a lot more cutting out to me, but I guess that's good for eye-hand coordination, right? It's been a while since I did anything resembling arts and crafts. Excluding doodling in my work meeting notes, at least. It was fun. No word yet on what's going on with Casey; Ruth and Skyler never left after craft time. The heat's working awfully hard, though, and the alert hasn't been lifted, so it's a good bet they're still over there. I feel -- well, right now I feel cold, because I forgot about journaling and had to get out of a nice warm bed to write this. Emotionally speaking, I feel okay. The turkeys today were a reminder of something I'd been trying to ignore: Thanksgiving is coming. Like we needed another complication, except it's not really that complicated, since I'll be on my own this year. Going back to bed now before I depress myself.

Someone was whispering outside her door. It was a distinctive sound -- and why was it so easy to wake up to whispering, when she was pretty sure she could sleep through talking, singing, and shouting, at least based on her recent experiences with the upstairs neighbors. She said, "I'm awake," before she really was, and Ruth stuck her head in the door.

"Sorry," she said. "We were just talking about whether or not we should wake you up."

"Sorry!" Skyler added. She didn't sound very sorry.

"What time is it?" Katy asked, and yawned.

"About three."

"In the morning?" She blinked. "Why? I mean, what's going on?"

"Well, that's a good question. I just got a heads up from Maggie that EF cops are on their way."

Oh, it was way too early (late? early?) for this. "Here?" she asked.

"Do you have a plan?" Skyler said. "You usually have good plans."

She still wasn't sure why Skyler thought that was true. But it was enough to get her at least most of the way awake. She grabbed the sweatshirt from under the covers and pulled it on, thought about skipping the slippers, decided against it when she realized how cold it was in the room. "Well, that's not subtle," she said. No wonder the cops had zeroed in on their building.

“No,” Ruth agreed. “And it gets worse.”

Katy sighed. Of course it did. “Worse in what way?”

Ruth looked at her very seriously. “Well, your sweatshirt is on inside out.” She stared back. “Kidding,” Ruth said. “I mean, your sweatshirt is inside out, that part is true. But mostly I just meant it was the middle of the night, so everyone’s cranky, and that’s never the best mindset for talking to authority figures.”

“Is there anything in particular we should say? Not say?” She looked sideways at Ruth. “You’ve done this before, right?” She considered fixing her sweatshirt, but that would mean taking it off again and putting the cold side in. Inside out was fine for 3 am.

“Sort of, yeah. The goal is to not get to this point, typically. That’s — well, that’s why we usually meet at the laundromat. Public spaces keep people from feeling so defensive.”

She felt like she must have missed something. “The laundromat?”

Ruth shook her head. “I’ll explain later.”

The three of them stood around for a minute, all looking uncomfortably at the door. “What now?” Katy asked finally.

“We might as well make some hot chocolate, or something,” Ruth said. “There’s no point in going to them; the EFs will go door to door systematically.”

Katy frowned. “I kind of meant with your apartment. Guests?”

“They got the same warning I did. Either they’re all long gone, in which case there’s nothing to find, or May is still there, and she can handle it. Neither of those would be good situations for us to go running across the hall to check on them; it would just look suspicious.”

Which left her without any other questions. Except — “Hot chocolate? Do I have hot chocolate?”

“You do now,” Skyler said. “We brought it. Just in case.”

Ruth looked embarrassed. “No one should have a drawer full of tea and not have hot chocolate too,” she said. “And hopefully it makes up for the flowers, a little bit.”

The kitchen floor was cold, so Ruth and Skyler took the stools, and Katy perched on the counter. They all waited for the electric kettle to heat up. Skyler leaned on Ruth’s shoulder, and closed her eyes.

Katy said quietly, “Do you know, the online reviews for electric kettles are really funny. A lot of people want to know how hot they get the water. And — boiling hot, obviously, is the answer. But I kind of wish there was a lower setting.”

“A ‘I want to drink this right away instead of waiting for ten minutes’ setting?” Ruth asked. “You could probably just turn it off part way through the cycle, you know.”

She shook her head, then wished she hadn’t when cold air trickled into her hood with the movement. “The whole reason I have an electric kettle instead of a stovetop one is because I tend to wander off. I turn it on, then I forget about it. With this one I don’t need to worry that I’m going to burn the place down when I do that.”

They were pouring the hot chocolate when the knock came on the door. (Naturally, EF cops were masters of bad timing.) Skyler's eyes were wide, and she shuffled even closer to Ruth. "Just -- act natural," Ruth said calmly, but even she looked a little worried. Although that might have been due more to Skyler clutching a mug of very hot chocolate close to her lap than anything else. "Everything's going to be fine."

"Everyone act normal? That's your advice?" Katy said, as quietly as she could manage. That was not helpful.

She went to the door anyway. There was a standard four-person team in the hall. "Sorry to bother you," one of them said. "We received a report of unusual activity from this building. Have you seen or heard anything?"

"No," she said.

"Are you sure?"

Another officer stepped forward. "It's a routine check, but it's still important. There was a shelter in place alert today; were you aware of that?"

"Of course. I stayed in all day." She tried to look like a responsible adult, who’d been woken up in the middle of the night by police at the door. She wasn’t entirely sure what that would look like.

"And were you alone during that time?"

She gave up on responsible and tried for calm instead. "No," she said. "I wasn't. I'm not, I mean."

"Who were you with? They’re here now?”

She wasn't going to invite them in, not in a million years, so she said, "I was spending the day with my neighbor, and her cousin. We're having a sleepover.” She wasn't sure whether she should avoid mentioning that Ruth was her neighbor, but with the alert, spending the day with friends meant that either someone had broken the rules, or she'd been with someone from the building. It seemed safest to go with the truth.

"And you didn't observe anything unusual?"

"It's awfully cold," she offered.

The first officer said, "The heating system's broken. It just happened today; the building manager called us to report it. Several residents also called in with anonymous tips."

Good to know anonymous tips weren't so anonymous after all. "Because they thought the lack of heat was being caused by the same thing that caused the alert?" It made a certain amount of sense. "Is it?"

"No, ma'am. There's no need to be concerned. We're just doing a routine sweep of the building; standard procedure after a tip-line call. If you want to be evacuated to a shelter until the heat is repaired, we can also assist with that."

They'd switched back to 'reassure the populace' mode, which was equal parts condescending and reassuring. It meant she probably wasn’t under suspicion. "Do you know when the heat's going to be fixed?" she asked.

"Within 24 hours is the current estimate."

"I'll stay, thanks." She waited for one of them to say something else. There was a long silence. She counted to ten, then to a hundred by fives. Finally, one of the officers said, "If you do see anything, call us right away."

"Definitely," she said. She almost added, "Keep up the good work," but didn't think she could guarantee it would come out right. So she stayed quiet instead, and collected the business card they handed her, and locked the door behind them when they left. They headed down the hall instead of across, and she crossed her fingers that they wouldn’t come back.

"Nice job," Ruth said, when she returned to the kitchen.

"Thanks.  And where were you that whole time?"

Ruth’s expression was deliberately innocent. “I was -- you were doing so well?  I didn't want to leave Skyler?  I have an innate nervousness about facing EF cops in borrowed pajamas?"

 "I like these pajamas," Skyler said, patting her sleeve.  She must have been the most awake of any of them, because the fabric stayed sedately patterned with spruce trees and snowflakes.  (Novelty pajamas were her achilles heel; she had way too many sets.)

"Plus it gave me a chance to text Molly and make sure they were all set," Ruth added.  "Which they are.  I told them about the heat being out, and Maggie just texted back ‘sorry.’  I'm not sure if that means she's sorry in general because it's cold, or sorry because she broke it."

She wasn't touching that one.  "I have a space heater," she said instead.  "But just one -- probably the bedroom's the easiest to keep warm, especially if we're all in there.  Unless you want to go home?"

Ruth shook her head quickly.  "We have zero space heaters. If you’re okay with us staying, we will.”

It took a few minutes to move everything, but the room warmed up quickly with all of them in there, and the space heater kicked on with only minimal fussing. She'd been worried that Charlie might take himself off to a quieter (colder) corner of the apartment, but he settled down on Ruth's pillow.  

Skyler thought it was hilarious.  Ruth just shook her head, and borrowed another pillow.  

Between the adrenaline and the hot chocolate, she thought she might have trouble falling back asleep, but she drifted off without any difficulty.

Day 16
Sunday was a wash, even though the alert was lifted early.  Apparently I've reached that age where it's possible for me to be coherent at three in the morning, but only at the expense of the entire day after.  I slept through the first two movies before Ruth woke me up for lunch.  Skyler was marathoning talking dinosaurs all day, which was kind of fun. I liked the triceratops, although I’m pretty sure the mesozoic era wasn’t quite that family-friendly. Then again, what do we really know about it? I’m trying not to feel guilty about not doing anything productive today, but not very successfully.

Monday brought a welcome return to routine. Not that change wasn’t nice sometimes, she told herself. But it was a relief to go through the familiar patterns of the day — wake up, feed the cat, check the weather, figure out what she’d be eating that week. (Pasta, usually.) With the extra sleep from Sunday, she actually felt awake, instead of her usually Monday morning brain fog. Awake enough so that when Skyler asked if she could come over to see Charlie, and by the way could she bring Ruth, and Ruth wanted to bring coffee, she actually understood the message.

So she sent back a yes, and it wasn't long before they arrived. Ruth, as promised, came bearing takeout cups.  "I wasn't sure how you would want it, so I just asked for extra everything.  Let me know if it's gross."

She took a tentative sip. "It tastes good," she said.  "Do you want to sit?"

Ruth shrugged.  "I just wanted to say hi, mostly.  I hadn't gotten past that in my plan."

Skyler had already moved past them and into the office — as far as Katy could see, it looked like she was reading a book to Charlie.  Seemed safe enough. Hopefully. (She hadn’t forgotten the bookcase incident.) Ruth settled on one of the kitchen stools and wrapped her hands around the coffee cup.

Since the other stool was currently missing, Katy leaned on the counter instead. “In that case, hi, and congratulations on a successfully executed plan."

"How about you?  Plans for the day?"

"The usual, I guess?  Make some food for lunches this week, go to work later.  It's Monday, so —“ She checked the chart on the refrigerator. “Clean the sinks?   Empty the crumb tray in the toaster?  Nothing very exciting."

"I don't know, I think it sounds nice. Want some help?”

She hesitated. What did she want? “I’d love some company,” she offered. “Do you have anything you’re working on that you could work on here? If you wanted.” (Started strong; finished awkward on that one. But she didn’t really know what it was that Ruth did all day, when she wasn’t rescuing kids or going to the laundromat.)

“You don’t mind? I’ve got paperwork piling up like crazy. School assessments are always heavy on forms. It’s worth it, for the information you get, but it’s seriously time intensive.”

They worked for an hour or so. Skyler switched to workbooks when Charlie wandered off, and Katy struggled to remember the basics of algebra when she had questions about math. In her (admittedly hazy) memories of algebra, it was logical, and followed rules. She wasn’t sure Skyler’s math was going by the same rules, for all that they seemed to be coming up with the same answers.

“It’s the new math,” Ruth explained. “It’s based on number concepts.”

That couldn’t be right. “But that’s what they called the math I learned. Years ago, we had the new math.”

Ruth waved a hand, like ‘what can you do?’ “Well, it’s the new new math, then. Here, draw the grid again and start with the tens this time.”

She asked her coworkers about it when she got to work. “Have you heard of this ‘new math?’”

Amelia and Sam both said no, but Terry groaned. “Both my kids are learning it. The number concepts thing?” (Which led them to the internet, of course, and a solid block of non-productive time. Team cohesiveness exercises, their boss liked to call it.) “I’m all for innovation in education, but I wish they’d think of the parents when they do this kind of thing,” Terry said, while Amelia tried to work out how to use the grid. It was upside down, but Katy wasn’t entirely sure that would make it harder, so she kept her mouth shut. “I mean, how are we supposed to help them with their homework when we have no idea what they’re doing? They wind up teaching me most of the time.”

“I think I’ve got it,” Amelia announced. Then she frowned, and tilted her head. “Wait, is this upside down?”

Somehow the day passed, as they always did.  She saw the accountant who'd delivered the flowers when she was getting lunch, and managed to talk around the fact that she couldn't remember the woman's name. Ruth sent her a picture of Skyler's new chore chart, and Skyler sent a picture of Ruth trying to wash the permanent marker they'd used off her arms. (She responded with a picture of Sam holding up a sign that said I HEART DINOSAURS.)

And maybe she wasn't being one hundred percent aware of her surroundings when she stepped out of the door at the end of the night, with Sam right behind her.  But it was dark, and late, and the parking lot should have been empty.

"Hey," she heard someone say.  She startled badly, flinching backwards and bumping into Sam, who swore loudly and spun around.

"What the --?"  Sam wasn't easily spooked, thank goodness.  She just steadied Katy and squinted past her shoulder. 

May was leaning against the side of the building, wearing an all black parka and looking seriously intimidating.  "The door was locked," she said, which was definitely not A) reassuring, or B) an explanation.  
"What are you doing here?" Katy asked.  She didn't add 'other than scaring me out of my mind,' but the temptation was there.

"You know her?" Sam said.  

"Yes," May said, at the same time Katy said, "Sort of."

Sam stepped between them.  "Really."   Katy actually thought she might be getting ready to throw down, which was -- well, it was kind of nice.  Unnecessary, she hoped, but it had been a long time since someone had stepped into a fight on her behalf.

"She knows my neighbor," Katy said.

"The one you're dating?" Sam asked.  "Is this the shovel talk?  Because if it is I'm not leaving.  I mean, I'm not leaving anyway, but I might pay closer attention."  It was possible her coworkers were too invested in her life.

"It's not a -- I thought you said you weren't dating."  May looked at her accusingly.

She hesitated.  "I -- think this is a conversation I should probably have with Ruth, before I have it with anyone else." She hoped it wasn’t too obvious that she was using an outdated excuse, given that she and Ruth had actually already had the conversation.

"That's not why I'm here, anyway," May said.  "I'm here about Thanksgiving."

Then she stopped.  "Okay," Katy said finally.  

"It's next Thursday?” Sam offered helpfully.  

"Okay," Katy said again.  She really wasn't sure where the conversation was headed, but it was cold in the parking lot.  She was willing to play along if it got them moving.

May crossed her arms over her chest.  "I'm hosting this year.  Ruth's invited.  She's always invited, and she never comes."

It seemed like it would be redundant to say 'okay' again, so she just waited.  It was Sam who said, "Sorry, I'm still confused.  Who are you again?"

"Who are you?" May asked, focusing on Sam for the first time.

"I work here," Sam said.  "I have a badge, and one finger on the emergency call button on my phone.  The other finger's on the camera, because if you really are lurking around a dark parking lot at night in order to threateningly invite someone to Thanksgiving dinner, I think there should be photographic evidence."

May laughed, which was not the reaction Katy had been expecting.  Then she pulled out her own phone and stepped up next to Sam -- the click of the camera app was unmistakable.  

“I love pictures,” she said. “Want me to send this to you?”

Sam agreed, and Katy was starting to think maybe they'd be able to just slip away afterwards, but May turned back to her quickly when she tried out a tentative step backwards. "Anyway, I was thinking you could invite her, and then she'd be more likely to say yes," May said.

"You want me to invite Ruth to your Thanksgiving dinner?" She must be missing something.

May said, "You're invited too. If you bring Ruth." Then she shook her head. "No, that's not fair. Come on."

She frowned, but was Sam who figured it out first. "Are you talking with someone else?"

May pointed at her ear. "Maggie called me while I was waiting."

It was getting colder, and she wanted to get home before it moved past 'late' and into 'really late.' (Or worse, 'too late to feel like eating dinner.') "How about I talk with Ruth about Thanksgiving, and let you know how it goes," she said.

May was quiet for a few seconds -- either thinking about it or listening to Maggie or both; she had no idea. Eventually, she said, "Fine." She handed them both business cards that seemed to consist only of the name May and a phone number. "You can use that number."

"And now we can go home?" Sam asked.

They did, with Katy running the conversation through her head again and again as she drove. Something didn't add up. Ruth said the group broke up and went their separate ways, but now it was her who refused the Thanksgiving invitation every year? One thing was obviously true — just as Ruth had said, family was complicated.

Day 17
It always feels good to get Monday over and done with for another week. We’re in the midst of a cold snap, so even though the heat is working again in the building, I’m writing from under a pile of blankets and not sorry about it in the least. Ruth and Skyler were going to be out late tonight at tryouts for some kind of holiday concert. I had no idea how many extracurriculars were involved in homeschooling, even though I guess technically that’s not what Skyler’s doing. It meant putting off the Thanksgiving conversation, which I am not unhappy about. Absolutely not. I feel — grumpy, I guess, because things were going pretty well, and it felt like I was getting into a good pattern, and now along come the holidays to toss wrenches into all the works. And it’s not like it’s just Christmas, which — well, with the ever-expanding lead-up, it’s actually manageable, except that then you still have to figure out Thanksgiving, and food, and family stuff. Whine, whine, whine. Since my mandated counseling sessions are over, I’ll invalidate my feelings if I want to.

She woke up. It was Tuesday. It felt like morning. It sounded -- quiet. Where was Charlie? As far as she knew he hadn't figured out how to open the doors or windows, so he must be around.

As soon as she sat up, he came racing into the room. "Hey, there you are," she said, and then had to stop and yawn. "Did I wake up before you today?"

It was a rhetorical question. She never woke up before Charlie. His expression made it clear that he hoped she knew not only had he been awake for hours, he'd been hungry the whole time. Really hungry.

"I'm coming," she said. "You know, one of these days you're going to figure out how to get those cans open, and then I'm going to accidentally sleep all day because you never pestered me awake. It'll be a disaster, I'm telling you that right now.”

Charlie completely ignored her words and danced in front of her feet as she shuffled towards the kitchen. He was usually pretty good about food; at least she didn't have to worry about his appetite. She'd spent a futile month or so trying to convince him that eating spiders would be a really great idea, but he seemed as bothered by them as she was. Occasionally he'd munch down an insect, but usually it came right back up.

And now she was thinking about cat vomit first thing in the morning. Ick. "I think my brain is still sleeping," she said, and put on the radio to hear something other than her own barely-awake stream of consciousness. Advertisements weren't much better, but they were different, at least.

She took a deep breath. “Right. Morning. Time to get going."

Despite her words, she leaned on the counter and watched Charlie eat. She wondered what Ruth was doing. Someone on their floor always left early -- she could hear the footsteps striding down the hall each morning -- but she wasn't sure who it was. Not Ruth, obviously, but maybe the next apartment down?

Her phone chimed with an incoming message while she was still trying to debating whether or not just a few more minutes in bed would really be that bad, from a scheduling standpoint.

*Good morning! Laundromat emergency early, Skyler's with me. Talk to you later?*

Really? What exactly did a laundromat emergency consist of, she wondered. *Sounds good* she wrote back. And then, before she could chicken out, she added *Remind me to ask about Thanksgiving.*

She tossed a load of towels into the washing machine to keep herself from endlessly checking for messages. (Trial and error revealed the apartment washer could handle all the hand towels plus two medium towels, or one large towel.  Woe betide anyone who attempted them all at once.)

She didn't hear anything back from Ruth, but she figured most emergencies didn't leave a lot of time for texting.

After a quick trip out with the trash (yes, still cold, with a raw wind kicking up) and back, there was no putting it off any longer.  It was the third Tuesday of the month-- time to email her parents.

'Hi,' she started, and then debated for a minute over a comma versus an exclamation point.  'Everything is good here.  Charlie and I are fine.  I hope you are also doing well.'

That sounded -- all right, probably.  'Work is good; we are gearing up for a push to meet the numbers goals for the end of the year.  Of course, everyone is also looking forward to the four day weekend for Thanksgiving.'

Two sort of contradictory sentences, but fine on their own, and unlikely to raise any red flags.  That was the problem with being involved -- however peripherally -- when a major villain got exposed and taken down.  The spot checks from Exceptional Forces were supposed to be over, finally, but email monitoring would continue for a full year. 

(Phone monitoring, once a major component of the program, had gone under federal review eight times for violating citizens' rights.  It was the budget cuts that finally did it in, though.)

'I have been eating plenty of vegetables.  Thank you for the steamer idea; it works perfectly.'

That covered home, work, and food. What was left? 

She wrote, 'I have been getting to know my neighbors,' and then deleted it.  No need to cast suspicion on anyone else.  Unless it would be more suspicious not to mention them.  She tapped her fingers on the keyboard, debating, but finally she added it back in.  'One of the kids on my floor has been playing with Charlie and keeping him socialized.  Hope you are having a good November and enjoying the cold weather.  Talk to you soon, Love, Katy'

She left out any mention of holiday plans.  They'd already fought about that back in October.  Any family gatherings would have to be in the presence of an Exceptional Forces agent, which she objected to on principle and her mother just plain refused to consider.

Finally, she hit send and closed the program before she could spend any more time second-guessing her wording.

Luckily, work was mostly meetings.  Every once in a while they stacked up like that, and it was just one meeting after another, where she mostly had to show up with a notebook and look invested.  

She had a text from Ruth waiting when she checked her phone at lunch.  *Dinner tonight?*

She smiled, and sent back *See you then*.

The only bump in the road came when the computer system went down again for an hour in the evening, but they worked around it.  (As far as she knew, Juniper was already outdated when it was installed -- too sensitive to EM field Exceptions -- and had been set to be replaced years ago.  So far there was no word on when it would actually happen.)

And then finally, finally — it was time to head home. But not to a quiet apartment closed up from a day away; instead, she headed across the hall to warmth and the smell of spaghetti sauce heating on the stove.

"Hey," she said, and Ruth surprised her with a hug before waving her over to the table. She dropped into the nearest chair with a sigh of relief.

"Long day?" Ruth asked.

She nodded.  "It's amazing how exhausting it can be sitting around in meetings.  It seems like it should be so easy."

"It's because you have to look like you're paying attention, probably," Ruth said.  "That's what always gets me, anyway.  All the serious frowning and nodding along.  Breadstick?"

"They're really good!" Skyler called from the living room.  She'd already eaten, so she was 'chaperoning' — her word — from the other room.  (Mostly it looked like she was coloring.)

Katy said, "Thanks," around a bite of breadstick, and gave a thumbs up in Skyler's direction.  "How about you?  Did the laundromat emergency get worked out?"

Ruth laughed. “Oh yeah — turns out it was all just a misunderstanding. I guess some people just shouldn’t be trusted with those triple load washers. They thought that just because they could fit all their stuff inside, it was all set. ‘If it fits it’s fine;’ those were their actual words to me.”

“Not the case, I’m guessing,” she said.

“Not even close. On the other hand, the floor is probably much cleaner now, and Skyler said she had fun helping with cleanup.”

"And you were just helping out? I mean, that's really nice of you, I just figured there would be someone there in case of emergencies." She didn't want to sound like it was weird, jumping in to help out at the laundromat, but really, it was maybe a little weird.

"Well, when water and soap are going everywhere, I figure it's everyone's problem," Ruth said. "But no, the owner is a former student of mine, and we stay in touch. She helps a lot of people get some practical skills experience by helping out at the laundromat, and I make sure to check in a couple times a week and make sure she's still managing her Exception without any issues."

Skyler made a trip into the kitchen for more water, and she said, "Are you going to talk about Thanksgiving now?"

They both looked at Katy expectantly. "Oh," she said. "Well, sure. I was -- well, I saw May after work yesterday. She was right there, actually, standing outside the building when I left. And she wanted me to tell you that you're invited to Thanksgiving dinner, which she is hosting. Both of you, I mean. All of us -- well, you know what I'm trying to say."

"She was at your work?" Ruth asked. "Was that okay?"

"It was fine. Unusual, maybe, but fine. It's pretty casual; she probably could have gotten someone to let her in to see me if she'd wanted. It seemed like she enjoyed the element of mystery and surprise?"

Ruth nodded. "That sounds like May. She's very good at it. She's not quite as good at cooking, but she does have a big space to host in." She looked at Katy and said, "Is that all she said?"

Uh-oh. "That was the important part?" Katy tried. "She said that you don't usually accept the invitations."

"Oh, sure, put it all on me," Ruth muttered. “That’s classic.”

"It's really none of my business. She asked me to pass along the invitation, and that's all.” She hesitated, then added, "In the interests of full disclosure, she did also say you've been invited before and haven't gone. Which is fine, no judgement here," she hurried to tack on, when Ruth's expression started to darken.

"No, it's not you," Ruth said. "It's just -- they're always like this. I love them, and I know they love me, and yet we always seem to end up here, with May passive-aggressively stalking my friends and me angry in the kitchen."

It seemed -- oddly specific. "That's oddly specific," Katy said. Skyler was still in the kitchen, holding a glass of water and looking fascinated.

"The kitchen is the heart of the home," Ruth told her. It didn't make much sense as far as she was concerned, but it was true. Unless you were talking literally, in which case the heart of their particular homes was actually closet space.

"Anyway, I thought you all parted amicably. You told Maggie you'd retired."

"We did. And I'm not opposed to meeting up and having holiday get-togethers and that sort of thing. May didn't tell you that there was actually a good reason for me to miss the last four years worth of Thanksgivings." She held up her fingers and ticked them off one by one. "Blizzard. In the hospital. Out of the country. Helping Sal handle an emergency. She's the one with the laundromat, but she was specifically working with me at the time.”

"Those sound like excellent reasons to me," Katy said. "I'm on your side with this one, if there are any sides, which there may not be."

She held out her hand for a fist bump and Ruth smiled. She said, “We should go this year. All of us."

There was another question she'd been circling around in her mind for a few days. "Can I ask you something else? Since we're on the topic of uncomfortable questions?"

Ruth's eyes flicked to Skyler, and back to Katy. She nodded -- it was a kid-safe question. "Might as well get them all out of the way at once,” Ruth said.

"Super speed is one of the most sought-after Exceptions. Why retire? And keep in mind that you absolutely do not have to tell me if you don't want to. Or feel free to make something up."

“I retired to take part in a secret underground network helping people leave the country illegally to escape Exception discrimination.” She barely made it through the sentence before she was laughing. “Kidding, kidding! Honestly, I haven’t been able to work up more than an average sprint in years. Last week was all you. I never thanked you for that, actually, so — thanks.”

“What?” She had no idea what Ruth was talking about. She’d seen her — or rather, not seen her — using super speed right in front of her.

“What?” Ruth repeated. “I thought we were doing the no secrets thing; are we still not talking about that? We don’t have to.”

She felt like she was getting more lost by the second. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Ruth stared at her. “You really don’t know.”

“Know what?”

“Okay, so you know I work with kids on adaptability, right? One of the things I do is help them identify their Exception so they can learn to work with it, or around it, in some cases. So I’m pretty good at figuring them out.”

Katy nodded. “Which is why you didn’t believe me, before.”

“I really did think you knew. I thought you just didn’t like to make a big deal about it. I should have been more tactful.”

“Ruth. Just tell me.”

“Oh, right. Well, your Exception is making everyone else’s Exception work better around you. That’s why I was able to use my speed last week. And why Skyler’s never accidentally changed the color of your curtains. Or your sofa. Or your carpet.”

“Hey!” Skyler said. “That was one time, and I switched it back right away.”

She let their exchange wash over her and tried to think. She’d never heard of any kind of Exception that worked like that.  On the other hand, it wasn't like she kept up with all the latest theories in Exception science.  "That's--"

She was actually planning to say 'not very useful.'  As much as she didn't want to be faced with the 'great power great responsibility' dilemma, she'd still always had a sort of secret hope that she'd develop an Exception that was Something Cool.  Acting like a power-up for someone else's Something Cool didn't really qualify.  

But Ruth finished the sentence for her.  "Incredibly helpful in any group or community?  That's what I thought too."

"And you can just--". She gestured between them.  "You can just tell that about me?"

"It's kind of a knack," Ruth said easily.

"Secondary Exception?"

Ruth shrugged.  "Not everything you're good at has to be Exceptional.  You're looking kind of freaked out over there; are you okay?  Want some water?  Cold compress?  Quiet room?"

She laughed, which she figured was probably Ruth's intention anyway.  "I'm good," she said.  "It's just unexpected, you know?  Kind of a shift in my world view.  You guys really have a quiet room?"  

She had been trying to ignore it, but the sound of tiny toenails racing around the apartment above them was hard to miss.  It seemed unlikely that the other rooms would be any quieter.

"We do now," Ruth said.  "It's just a basic soundproofing kit, but at least we can sleep now.  They're even more active at night."  She pointed towards the ceiling, as if there could have been any doubt what she was talking about.

"You still haven't called Animal Control?"

Ruth shook her head.  "I went up there; I didn't see anything.  And they said it was just cats."  There was a particularly loud thump and skitter, and they all looked up.  "Big cats," she amended.

They'd set up the sound-proofing in the smallest room, and the difference was remarkable.  "Wow," she said, stepping fully inside.  There wasn't a lot of space to move around with two mattresses taking up the majority of the floor space, but it was quiet.  "That's surprisingly effective.  Why am I whispering?"

Skyler followed her in, and said quietly, "I whisper too; Ruth says it's because we're responding to environmental cues.  I think your Exception is really cool, by the way.  Ruth's getting ice cream for you."

Well, she thought.  It couldn't be that bad of a day, if ice cream was going to be involved.

Day 19
Not even sure what to say about this day.  Where to start? Skyler’s powers are getting more powerful, Ruth can read Exceptions, and I apparently have plans for Thanksgiving. I feel -- overwhelmed, with hints of relief and disappointment.  It's like a bouquet of feelings.  And obviously I'm too tired to write with any coherence.  Tomorrow: a new day.

Thursday was T-minus seven days until Thanksgiving, and it actually looked like the forecast was improving. Weather-wise, at least — it was hard to make a call on the family and friends front. It was really her own fault. Ruth and Skyler had come over in the morning to visit, but instead of getting a clear and concise explanation of Thanksgiving expectations, she’d dozed off on the sofa. She jerked awake when the dryer buzzer went off, and had a moment of panic that she was going to be late for work.

Ruth was on the sofa next to her, reading something on her phone. “It’s still before eleven,” she said without looking up. “You have plenty of time.”

She dropped her head back down with a sigh. “Sorry. I swear I didn’t feel this tired when I woke up.”

“Did you have trouble sleeping last night?” Ruth asked.

“Not really? Weird dreams, I guess. I’ve been staying up later than usual this week, so it’s probably just catching up with me now.” Her brain caught up to what she was saying, and she realized it might sound like she she didn’t want to keep eating dinners with them after work. “It’s been great,” she quickly added. “I’m just not used to it.”

Ruth nodded, but she was looking at her consideringly. "Do you usually get tired after being around people, especially groups of people?"

"Sure. That's pretty much the classic definition of an introvert, right?" She wasn't sure what Ruth was getting at.

"I hadn't really been thinking about it until this morning," Ruth said. "But if you didn't know about your Exception, you're only using it unconsciously, without specifically controlling it. I'd been picturing it sort of like a beacon, radiating all around you, but even automatic beacons use energy." She frowned. "That simile kind of lost the point. What I'm saying is it may tire you out to use your Exception, and you may be more tired this week because you’ve been spending so much time around us.”

Katy blinked. "Huh."

Ruth offered, "I can stay out of it, if you want. Sometimes I let my work life intersect too much with my home life and start offering advice about stuff without meaning too."

"No, it's good, I just -- never thought of that. There must be a way to work on that?" she guessed.

Skyler chimed in with, "Breathing exercises! You can practice with me if you want."

"And meditation, and experimenting, and lots of things," Ruth said. "Skyler's practically an expert by this point. I can send you some reading links to start out with if you'd like."

"That sounds great," she said. She yawned, and stretched her arms over her head. "I meant to ask before -- what are you doing this weekend?"

Ruth and Skyler exchanged a look, and they both shrugged. "No big plans," Ruth said. "Why?"

"There's a thing on Saturday I've been planning to go to. An arts fair. The flyer is on the fridge if you want to look at it. It's the classic pre-Christmas stuff -- food, music, people selling crafts and baked goods. This one is also supposed to have a petting zone where people will have animals you can touch and hang out with, like dogs and cats and parrots and stuff. Animals that are good at socializing."

Ruth said, “It sounds like a lot of fun — Saturday, right? In the morning?”

“Are you bringing Charlie?” Skyler asked.

Katy shook her head. “No. Charlie’s mostly good at socializing with you. I don’t think he’d like being around a big crowd of strangers. Sometimes they have catnip cat toys, though, and I’ll bring one home for him.”

“We’ll put it on the calendar. And — I hate to say it, but Skyler and I have to be getting back to work.”

She checked the time. Five minutes until she was officially past her planned time to leave. “Yeah, me too. See you tonight?”

“Count on it,” Ruth said.

After that the day flew by, mostly because one of the executive team was “sitting in” with them for the day. Instead of the usual ‘work, break, work, work, gossip’ pattern, they all found plenty of things to do at their desks that kept them looking dedicated and busy. (She spent a good chunk of time sorting old emails and color-coding them by priority and sender.)

They did get a surprisingly high number of calls from consumers who had easy questions and acted completely satisfied with the answers they received. Not only that, they all stayed on the line long enough so they could get all the talking points checked off, which hardly ever happened. By the end of the evening, when it was just her and Sam again, she could practically feel the smug satisfaction emanating from Sam’s desk.

“Sam,” she said slowly. “Did you know we were having an executive observer today?”

“It’s possible I may have overheard the boss talking about it yesterday when I was in the kitchen,” Sam said.

“And did you ask all your friends to call in today to make us look good?” It was sort of brilliant and ridiculous all at the same time.

“Well, not all my friends,” Sam replied. “Some of them aren’t very good actors.”

She thought about that for a minute. Their department tended to come under a lot of scrutiny because it was so hard to quantify “service”. Were they overstaffed? Understaffed? Working too hard? Slacking off too much? Plus, the company had just launched a new program to focus on their mission statement (dynamic problem-solving). It seemed to her that Sam’s plan was a perfect example. “You,” she decided finally, “Are my new hero. I am officially impressed.”

Day 20
Thanksgiving is now less than a week away. I’m not sure whether to be offended or relieved that I am not going to be trusted / expected to bring anything. Ruth says she’ll be bringing appetizers, which sounded fancier before she explained that she was planning to get the holiday cracker assortment box and a tub of whipped cream cheese, plus a bag of M&Ms. ‘They always complain that they’re not healthy, but they’re always the first thing to get eaten,’ she said. And now I feel hungry. I don’t think that really counts as a feeling word for the day, though. I feel comfortable, around Ruth, and Skyler too. Like I can be myself, even though they make me want to be better. Can’t believe we still have Friday to get through before the weekend, but I’m pretty sure I feel that way every Thursday, so that’s hardly a breaking news update.

"Have you ever considered that if someone wanted to poison us, all they would have to do is leave free food in the kitchen?"

Katy paused with her bagel halfway to her mouth.  There had been a plate full of them on the table in the kitchen when she'd come in.  She didn't technically know where they'd come from, but she was planning to eat it anyway.  "Are you expecting someone to try to poison us?"

Sam leaned over the wall of the cubicle.  "Well, no.  But it would ruin the element of surprise if we were expecting it."

That was a good point.  "On the other hand," she said.  "Free food."

"Yeah, I had one too," Sam said.  

The phone rang before they could get into any kind of cost-benefit analysis on eating free food of mysterious origins.  Fridays were always busy with last-minute orders and questions before the weekend.  

**Do you think this will ship out today?**

She checked the time on her computer: 4:00 pm.  It definitely wasn't going to ship that day.  "We do our best to ship all orders as quickly as possible," she said.  "If this order doesn't ship today, it would be leaving here first thing Monday morning."  (Not technically a factual statement, but at least a company-approved misdirection.)

Across the room, she could hear Terry reading an ingredients label word for word.  "Would you like me to keep going?" she heard her say.  The caller must have said yes, because she started up again, still sounding remarkably patient.  

Her phone rang again.  "Good afternoon, this is Katherine, how may I help you?"

**Yes, I just received my shipment, and one of the items is broken.**

He was a slow talker.  She doodled a picture of a broken egg in her call log, next to a stick figure pointing at it.  "I'm so sorry to hear that," she said.  "We're happy to provide credit and send a replacement as soon as possible.  Could I have your account number?"

**Where do I find that?**

She added a hat on the stick figure.  "It should be on the invoice, in the top left corner.  What was the product that was broken?"  

**It's the X-Vector 7; the largest bottle.  I take it every day.  I'm almost out, which is why I was so disappointed to receive it broken.**

She stopped writing.  "The X-Vector 7 is produced and sold by the company X-Vector," she said.  "That's not us; this is Supplemental Exceptional."

**Yes, I know that.**

She waited, to see if they were going to keep going, but no such luck.  "So, the product didn't come from us.  I'm afraid we can't give you a credit for it, because you didn't purchase it from us."

**But this was the only phone number I could find online.**  

That was probably true.  X-Vector was notorious for being hard to get a hold of over the phone.  She said, "Well, that part I can help you with.  Do you have a pen and paper?  I can give you their number right now."  
When she told the story to Ruth and Skyler later in the evening, she explained, "I have that phone number taped to my computer; that's how often we get questions about them."

"Was that your winner for the day?" Ruth asked.

She shook her head.  "No, my favorite for today was the person who called and wanted to know when their most recent order would arrive.  I told them the last order I saw was in May, figuring they'd be all outraged that something had gotten lost.  But they just said 'thanks, that's all I needed to know,' and hung up.  It was pretty great."

"I think I would like talking with all kinds of different people," Skyler said.

"It has it's ups and downs," she said.  It turned out that finding a job as a grown-up was a lot different that it had seemed as a kid, but maybe that was different for everyone.  Either way, she wasn't going to be the one to start that particular conversation.

Day 21
I’m not entirely convinced the heat in the building is fixed, since it’s been kicking on and turning off at seemingly random intervals all week. On the other hand, it’s still colder outside than inside. Right now it doesn’t seem very important, wrapped up in blankets and not interested in moving except to lie down and go to sleep. Heading into the last weekend before Thanksgiving, I feel nervous, about bringing Ruth and Skyler to the Christmas fair, even though I want to go with them.

It turned out Ruth was one of those people who really got really excited about Christmas fairs.  She even had a big Santa hat, complete with ear flaps.

"I know they're not traditional, but they're so practical," she said.  "Your ears are the first thing to get cold, really.  I'm not sure why all Santa hats don't have them."

Skyler frowned at the hat.  "It doesn't make sense for them to all be the same anyway.  Maybe some Santas do have them." (Skyler seemed less thrilled to be awake at 8 am on a Saturday to go to a fair for a holiday she didn't celebrate, but she was gamely playing along.  She'd been promised hot chocolate and donuts for breakfast, which probably helped.)

Katy was looking forward to the hot chocolate too.  Somehow that sort of thing always tasted better when you were away from home. Plus, it gave you something to hold on to while you walked around.  That way you could enjoy the ambiance with your combination hand warmer, proof that you'd purchased something, and excuse not to pick anything else up. Hot chocolate: the triple threat.

Since Ruth  was holding her other hand, it was pretty much a perfect system.  "Ooh, they have pie," Ruth said, tugging her towards the baked goods.

"Do you like pie?" Katy asked.  She realized that other current favorite ice cream flavor (pistachio mint -- why?) she didn't know a lot about Ruth and Skyler's dessert preferences.

"I love cheesecake, actually, but pie is good too.  Skyler is the pie fan."

"Pie is great," Skyler agreed.  She was looking off to the side, though, at one of the other tables.  "Are those cat toys?"

They were, and after much deliberation they found themselves with two pies and four cat toys.  ("One for each of us to give Charlie now, and one to save for Christmas.") After that they lost Skyler to the craft room, and Katy and Ruth sat on one of the benches near the animal cuddle corner.  "This is nice," Ruth  said, carefully arranging the pies on the bench next to her.

"Thanks for coming," Katy told her.  "It's nice to have company, especially, you know, really great company.  I'm glad Skyler came too; I didn't realize she doesn't celebrate."

Ruth sighed, and waved her hand back and forth.  "We're working on it.  When she says she doesn't celebrate Christmas, she means she never has before.  She's not necessarily opposed to it.  And Halloween went surprisingly well."

"Except for the candy," she guessed, remembering their first conversation.

"Exactly," Ruth said.  "Dressing up, walking around, talking to strangers-- all of that was totally fine, but the candy just didn't work out.  Taking food from strangers requires a higher level of trust than just talking to them, I guess."

"How does she feel about Thanksgiving?"

Ruth made a face.  "Well, she liked it a lot better before she started looking up its history.  She’s not crazy about the pilgrims. But conceptually, I think this is a celebration that makes sense to her.  You have things, and you know people, and you take time to express your appreciation for those things and people."

"The harvest season aspect is a little outside her current worldview; I keep meaning to take her to visit a farm or something. But she likes food, and she knows everyone who’s going to be at dinner, and I just have my fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong. No tears, no hospital visits, no initiating feuds that linger for more than two generations.”

“That’s the bar you’re setting?” Katy asked. She held her hand about a foot off the ground, indicating the approximate height of said bar. “That seems pretty manageable.” She took a close look at Ruth’s expression, and added, “Hopefully.”

"All of those have actually happened at gatherings Maggie's been involved with, so we'll see."  Ruth looked over at her and smiled.  "I'm glad you'll be there.  And I mean that in the nice way -- they all promised to be on their best behavior."

"I'm just glad we won't need to have an EF agent there. I can officially state from experience that they do not add an air of relaxed enjoyment to a gathering." There were only just so many times you could explain something before dealing with the explanations became more trouble than simply not going.  (Privately, she thought the monitoring placed on people associated with known villains would be enough to drive almost anyone to have a few villainous thoughts of their own.)

Ruth nodded, but she said, "Technically I think Molly has a badge, so we might have been covered anyway.  She travels a lot, so she keeps up with all her certifications." They were interrupted by Ruth’s phone beeping, and they both stood up.  "Skyler must be done with craft time.” Another message popped up, and Ruth said, “She says don't look when we get there. She must have made you something."

The community center was filling up as they made their way back to the craft room.  Lots of Christmas sweaters — where had that ugly sweater trend even started? It was always hard to tell whether a person was wearing an ugly sweater ironically, or on purpose, or maybe they just really liked reindeer antlers on a snowman. It was festive, though — someone had gotten the music going, and it was currently piping an inoffensive, lyrics-free version of 'Deck the Halls' throughout the room. 

“Speaking of Christmas..."  She trailed off expectantly.

"Oh, were we?" Ruth asked.

She stepped closer so their shoulders bumped, and Ruth smiled again. She said, “Yup.  Tis the season, and all that.  Do you do gifts?"

"Yes?  Can we just ignore it till after Thanksgiving?  That's my vote, anyway.  One holiday at a time, Christmas fairs and birthdays excepted.  I’m really bad at telling people things I want. And that way it Thanksgiving dinner makes you decide you never want to see me again, you won't be stuck with my present."

Katy stopped, and Ruth stopped, and they both just looked at each other for a few seconds — until the crowd moved around them, and Katy pulled them off to the side of the room, next to the coat rack. It was marginally quieter and less crowded there. She held up her hand. “Okay. First things first -- I'm getting you a gift no matter what, and I’m giving it to you.  Even if I'm completely freaked out by whatever it is you think may happen at Thanksgiving."

She glanced over, but Ruth didn't look like she was about to offer any additional insight.  So Katy added, “But -- having said that -- I am totally fine with delaying any conversation about gifting until next week.  It's not like I've done any other shopping, so it will be perfect timing."

"I've learned to be a late shopper," Ruth agreed, completely ignoring her previous alarming statement.  "I tried being an early shopper, but I just wound up shopping early and then again later anyway.  This way at least I don't end up spending as much money.”

Okay, so they were just going to gloss over Ruth’s apparent concern that Thanksgiving was going to be such a disaster that it would make Katy run screaming for the hills. Avoidance was certainly one technique; it wasn’t necessarily a recommended technique, but it was really Ruth’s decision to make. Maybe she was just presenting a worst-case scenario, so that if everything turned out only mildly awkward, it would seem like an enormous success.

She realized she should probably hold up her end of the conversation, so she said, “I actually like shopping in the season, because you get all the atmosphere.  It's social interaction with a built-in common ground -- you’re all in a store two weeks before a major holiday, hearing 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' for the sixteenth time, and you just found out a small electrical fire shut down the coffee cart.  It forges a bond, you know?"

"A bond of madness?" Ruth asked.  "Not that it's a bad thing, necessarily.  I think there's always a little bit of crazy that gets into all of us around this time of year."

"At least it's shared?" Katy offered, and Ruth laughed, so she kept going.  "I mean, the company's good, the food is a bonus."

"The scenery is nice.  Very scenic."

"What are you guys talking about?"  Skyler was standing right next to them, hands on her hips.

“I thought you were in the craft room," Ruth said.

Skyler pointed behind her.  The words ‘CRAFT ROOM’ were printed on a large sign, very obviously posted right next to the coat racks.

"We were just talking about how the holidays can make people kind of crazy sometimes," Katy said.

"And unobservant," Ruth added.  "Sorry Skyler.  We really were on our way back."

"I know, Skyler said.  They shared a long look, and Skyler repeated, "I know.  I wasn't worried."

Ruth breathed out a long sigh of relief.  "Good."

Skyler turned back towards the craft room, and said,  "Also, I have a lot of things to carry, so I need your help."

"Things, huh?  Things like presents?  Is this what Katy's not supposed to look at?"

Skyler nodded, then changed her mind and shook her head.  “Yes, but it’s all wrapped now anyway, so it's fine.  One of them is pretty heavy, though."

Katy really wasn't sure what Skyler might have been able to make that would be considered 'heavy,' in a room that was mostly designed for paper crafts and felt hats, but Ruth just nodded.  "Sounds good.  Load us up, and we'll head home for lunch."

Day 22
Between the Christmas fair this morning and the deluge of carols on the radio already, it's hard to believe we still haven't had Thanksgiving.  And even harder to believe there are still three work days to get through before we do have it.  I got off-schedule today after the morning, and wound up spending most of the afternoon reading recipes online instead of doing the Saturday chores. I feel like I'm constantly reminding myself that the schedule is just made up anyway.  It's not carved in stone; it's not even permanent marker.  Sunday will have plenty of time to get caught up before it's back to work on Monday.  (Now I feel like I should find some wood to knock on.)

She was just finishing the vacuuming when she heard someone knocking at the door.  She opened it to see Ruth, looking stressed.  "What's going on?  Are you okay?"

Ruth reached out and put her hand on the door frame.  “I tried to call you, but you didn’t answer. Please don't slam the door," she said.  "I have an emergency."

“I was vacuuming. Why would I slam the door on you?" Katy asked.  That didn't even make sense.

Ruth answered quickly, like she was trying to get all the words out before she lost her nerve.  "May's furnace stopped working last night, and when they had someone look at it this morning they found a whole wall was infested with power mites, and it's going to take at least a week to trap them all so they can replace the furnace."

She grimaced in sympathy. Power mites were a pain — pests, mostly, but they were considered both dangerous enough and rare enough that you couldn’t usually handle them on your own. First you had to report it, and them you had to get a certified mite-removal company to trap them all and clear the house. Amelia had gone through it over the summer, and complained loudly the whole time.

“Okay,” she said.  She still wasn't seeing the door slamming aspect of the news.

"So, Molly was staying with May because she's in between places right now, and Maggie rejects traditional living spaces, and now they want to have Thanksgiving here."

Ruth had been right.  She fought back the sudden urge to slam the door and hide in the other room for a while.  Deep breaths, she reminded herself.  Deep, cleansing breaths.  A thought popped into her head, already racing towards the next problem.  "They know these ovens are way too small to cook a turkey, right?"

“May’s a vegetarian, actually.  And it's possible I volunteered your kitchen too.  Maybe."

Ruth still looked nervous, even though Katy thought they were both doing an admirable job of not panicking.  "Is there -- more?" she asked, not sure she wanted to know, but unable to keep from asking.

Ruth took a deep breath. "Yeah.  Last thing, I promise.  May and Molly can't stay at the house, since there's no heat, plus the traps, and since they're already going to be here on Thursday..."

"They want to stay with you until the holiday," Katy finished, and Ruth nodded.

"They're already on their way," she said.  "I couldn't figure out how to say no in a nice way, and before I knew it I was saying yes!"

"Okay," Katy started, trying to buy herself time.  "Okay, this is not a crisis.  It's an emergency, but not a crisis."

“I’m — not seeing a difference,” Ruth said.

“Well, with an emergency, you can prepare for it. It typically happens, and then it’s over, and you can go into recovery mode. A crisis is —“ She mimed an explosion with her hands. “A crisis is more like an ongoing emergency that everyone things should be addressed but no one is sure what to do about it.”

Ruth stared at her. “Did you just get political in an attempt to distract me from my impending doom?” she asked.

“Did it work?” Katy said.

She got a shrug in response. “A little, yeah. But this is not an emergency I’ve prepared for. Floods, yes. Evacuation, yes. Semi-long-term visitors? Nope. Four people in my apartment, Katy — I’m not even sure the lease allows that!”

(It did.) “Look, why don’t you and Skyler stay over here for a few days? Let May and Molly stay at your place, and you can be next door. We know we get along, and we managed it last weekend without killing each other.” She paused, waiting to see how that idea was being received. “You can think about it, if you want. See how it goes when they get here this afternoon; you can send Skyler over if you need a rescue. You know my door’s open.”

She realized they were still pretty much standing in the hallway, and she stepped back. “Do you want to come in now?” she asked.

Ruth shook her head. “Thanks, but I left Skyler cleaning up the living room. I should get back before she puts the tv remote away somewhere; we’ll never find it again.”

“Do you want more help?” Katy didn’t want to barge in or overstep where she wasn’t welcome — and sometimes more hands wasn’t actually more helpful. But she didn’t want Ruth to feel like she was alone in this.

“You have helped,” Ruth said. “At least I feel calmer now. I just — this isn’t how I planned to spend today, you know? But they won’t be here for a couple of hours, so Skyler and I should have plenty of time to make everything presentable. You’d really let us stay with you while they’re here?”

“Absolutely.” She nodded firmly. “Thanksgiving kitchen use is fine too. It’s not like I was planning to use it that day anyway. Now we just won’t have to worry about travel time.” (The bonus of all the cooking smells without actually being the one to do the work was a draw as well. Even if she got stuck with cleanup; still worth it.)

Ruth hugged her. “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver, seriously.”

She started back across the hall, and Katy said, “Keep me posted, okay?”

“You got it.”

She heard the commotion of arrival when May and Molly showed up, but she was in the middle of — well, mostly she was just nervous, and by the time she’d worked up the courage to go over and say hello, enough time had passed that it would have been awkward. So she didn’t. Skyler arrived at her door an hour later anyway, and threw herself down on the sofa.

“If anyone asks, I’m here for my regularly scheduled Charlie time that we planned weeks ago,” she said.

Katy thought that’s what she was saying, anyway. Her voice was muffled by the pillows her head was buried under. “Not going so great?” she asked. She wasn’t sure how much she should get involved. It kind of seemed like she was pretty involved already, though?

Charlie must have heard his name, or maybe he could just tell that his favorite cuddle partner-in-crime was looking for him. He meowed until she sat up, and then jumped up in her lap. “Hey Charlie,” Skyler said. “Cats are the best. I bet you wouldn’t ask me lots of stupid questions, and eat my peanut butter, and not let me use the tv.”

Oh boy. Definitely not going well. “I wish I could tell you that this sort of thing gets easier when you get older, but it kind of doesn’t? I hate it when people touch my stuff at work. Most people do, actually; that’s why it’s such a popular trope in office-based tv shows and movies and stuff.” She did think it was probably worse for kids, because it was harder for them to imagine getting new stuff that would be as important as their current stuff. But she didn’t think Skyler would necessarily appreciate hearing that. So so she shrugged, and said, “They mean well. And you can hang out here until Ruth needs you back, if you want.”

“I am not staying there with them,” Skyler said. “No way. Ruth said we could stay here.”

“Door’s open,” Katy said, repeating her earlier words to Ruth. “Do we need to go liberate your peanut butter and your workbooks?”

Skyler’s smile was reluctant, but it was there. “Ruth’s going to the grocery store now,” she said. “And Molly and May are going out to dinner with some of their friends, so Ruth said I could come back and get my stuff them.”

It didn’t quite click at the time, that when Skyler said Ruth was getting groceries, she meant Ruth was getting groceries for Katy’s apartment. It wasn’t until she knocked on the door with four bags full of food that it became clear. “How did you even get all of these up the stairs in one trip?” Katy asked.

“I was just really determined. And it’s starting to drizzle, so that was extra motivation.”

It was a lot of food. Not as much as there was after they’d ninja-d their way back to Ruth’s apartment and taken another few bags worth out of the cupboards and refrigerator, but still a lot. “Are you sure they won’t notice that all this is gone?” Katy asked.

“I doubt they did a thorough inventory this afternoon. Besides, what are they going to say — ‘hey, did you take a bunch of food out of the apartment while we were at dinner?’ That’s ridiculous.” She dismissed potential questions with a wave of her hand. “May will probably start shopping for Thanksgiving tomorrow anyway. Come on, let’s ransack the bathroom and the bedrooms. Last time Molly and I had a sleepover, she took my favorite hoodie, and I never got it back. We were twelve, but still.”

“Did you warn them, about the neighbors upstairs?”

“Nope. I’m sure they’ll figure it out, though.”

They were all giggling a little by the time they ducked back across the hall with a duffle bag each. “Can I watch my movie now?” Skyler asked. To Katy, she explained, “It’s Sunday. On Sunday I’m supposed to watch a movie. It’s on my schedule and everything.”

“First it’s dinner time,” Ruth said firmly. “Then movie time.”

“I could start the movie now, and then finish it later,” Skyler said. “It’s long.”

Ruth hmm’d. “Well, I’m thinking about that, but I’m thinking it doesn’t seem quite fair. Because if we’re all going to eat the dinner, we should all help put it together. And if you start the movie while I’m working, I’m going to miss the beginning.”

Skyler looked like she might be ready to start up an argument just for the sake of wresting some sort of victory out of the day, but Ruth said, “How about this: We’re having soup. If you help with stirring, we can start the movie while we eat, but we’ll have to stop it again while we do cleanup.”

“I vote yes,” Katy said. She wasn’t sure if it was a democracy or not, but she thought she’d lend her support either way.

Skyler thought it over for a few more seconds. Finally she said, “Okay. I agree. Good plan.”

Skyler, Katy had learned, was a big fan of plans. And the plan worked well, though, even though she was pretty sure Ruth dragged her second bowl of soup out as long as possible to keep watching, and Skyler fell asleep on the sofa after they were done with the dishes, and missed seeing the end. “It was a long day,” Ruth said quietly. “Thanks again, if I haven’t said that yet.”

“You have. And you’re welcome. You’re great with her, you know.”

Ruth was quiet for a few minutes. Then she said, “It’s never what you expect. And I know that — I knew it before. But it’s still —“

“Not what you expected?”

“Not in a million years.”

Day 23
Houseguests again! It seems weird that we have a routine for this. But at the same time it makes it feel easier, which is nice. I’m not sure how we’ll all manage this for four days, honestly — hopefully Ruth can mediate between Skyler and May and Molly, or maybe it’s just one of those knee-jerk negative reactions to change and Skyler will feel better about the whole thing in the morning. The weather forecast is holding steady — mix of sun and clouds through Tuesday, then snow on Wednesday, but very cagey about how much snow and when. Sometimes I think meteorologists just make things up to make their job more interesting and seem more important. I feel excited, actually. Maybe my brain has gotten fed up with being anxious and is trying something new.

They worked around each other well enough in the morning. She was used to wandering through the various areas of the house as the mood struck — brush her teeth in the bathroom, check her email in the kitchen, back to the office to open the shades, into the bathroom for a shower… With the three of them there, there was a little more negotiation involved. (In the spirit of the season, she took a moment to be grateful that water was included in her rent — Skyler’s showers could have epics written about them.)

Once that was sorted out, it felt very much like a regular Monday morning. Skyler settled down in the office with Charlie and a tablet computer. Workbooks were out for the week, apparently; she was supposed to be writing a paper about Thanksgiving. Katy worked through the Monday chores list while Ruth ventured across the hall for a meeting with May and Molly.

She returned after less than five minutes. “They’re still asleep,” she said. “I should have known — they’re great to have on your side in the middle of a disaster, but they can’t stick to a schedule for anything if the world’s not ending. On the bright side, I found my hairbrush.”

“Well, that’s something, at least.” Katy tossed a few more snack bars into her bag for work. “Remind me to find the spare set of apartment keys for you before I go. Any big plans for the day?”

“Well, meeting with May, at some point.” Ruth tucked the hairbrush into her back pocket and sat down on one of the kitchen stools. “She’s got it stuck in her head that somehow I’m going to miss this Thanksgiving dinner too, and so she’s determined that I’m involved in every step to increase my commitment, or something. I think we’re planning the menu today. And depending on how Skyler’s paper goes, we might go out for some shopping this afternoon. There’s a couple good sales I’d like to take advantage of. How about you?”

Katy shrugged. “Work? It’ll be interesting to see how busy it is; the popular prediction last week was that Monday would be insane with calls and orders, and then it would drop off dramatically on Tuesday and Wednesday.” She found herself zipping up her work bag with considerably more force than necessary, and she sighed. “Sorry. I guess I’m a little grumpy today. No real reason; I usually just blame it on Monday’s general Monday-ness.”

She was pretty sure there was nothing that Ruth could say that wouldn’t make her want to snap back with something she’d regret later. But Ruth surprised her by saying nothing. It was Skyler who called from the office, “See? I’m not the only one who thinks Mondays are stupid!”

“You suggested renaming it ‘Dumbday,’ I just said I didn’t think that would make anyone like it more, and would be a bummer for anyone who happened to be born on a Monday,” Ruth called back.

“What about Dumbleday?” Skyler asked. She padded out to the kitchen in her fuzzy socks and handed the tablet to Ruth. “That’s catchy, and it’s literary. And,” she said, with the air of someone who had saved the best for last. “Then we could call it Bumbleday as a nickname. It would be awesome.”

“Rumbleday,” Ruth suggested. “Tumbleday. Grumbleday.”

“Okay,” Katy said, laughing. “I feel better now, you can stop.”

Ruth gave Skyler a high five. “She actually wrote all of those suggestions for me,” Ruth said, flipping the tablet around so Katy could see it. “In all seriousness, though, is there anything we can do? Sometimes talking doesn’t help, but sometimes it does.”

She wasn’t sure she’d ever tried to verbalize her general sense of Monday dissatisfaction. “I don’t know. I’ve tried not talking about it, so in the interests of science, talking is the next option. Mondays are hard because — suddenly I’m looking forward to the weekend again. Especially a week like this; and I’m excited to have the holiday coming up, and that feels good, but then I feel like if I’m only working to get to the next period of time when I don’t have to work, why am I even doing it? Why am I not out there following my passion, or pursuing my bliss, or whatever?”

“You may not believe it, but I’ve actually had this conversation with a lot of people. Do you know what your passion is?” Ruth asked.

“No.” She was pretty sure it came out sounding cranky again. That was one of those things she had always figured would come standard with adulthood, but it turned out not so much.

“Does your job now leave you with enough time and energy to do things you enjoy and try new experiences?”

She thought about the time she spent texting Ruth and Skyler at work, and her free mornings. “I guess so, yes.”

“So, you’ve got opportunities to find your passion, while doing something that provides you with a steady income and a social network. What if your passion hasn’t been invented yet? What if you find your passion when you’re 80? I bet your 80-year-old self is going to be pretty happy you built a solid financial foundation and career network so that you can invest in self-archiving virtual reality predictive technology.”


Ruth gestured, like ‘what can you do?’ “I just strung a bunch of words together hoping they’d amount to something, but it didn’t really work out that way. The point stands, though.”

"So what you're saying is, I should go to work."

"If you want. You don't have to be 100% committed to everything you do every day. No matter what you got told in school, it's statistically very unlikely that this is the most important day of the rest of your life."

She thought about that for a minute. "I think that's reassuring?"

“Oh, thank goodness,” Ruth said. “The last person I said that to started crying, and then I felt terrible, and she felt terrible, and I tried to re-word it so it was less depressing but I wasn’t sure it worked. Personally, I think it’s a big relief. Just think if this was the most important day of my life, and so far I haven't even brushed my hair. I would be disappointed in myself. But now -- there's no need to be disappointed; if I’ve showed up and I’ve done something, and I haven’t left anything undone that I’ll regret later, then that's going to be enough for today."

She kept turning Ruth's words over in her mind as she drove to work and got caught up in the usual hectic start of the week. (Everyone was aware that running a 12-hours a day, five days a week customer service department didn’t quite sync up with the 24-hour world, but no one was stepping up to volunteer for a weekend shift, either.) She thought it might not match exactly with what she was feeling, but still might be close enough to offer a way to get a grip on it. And it was nice that Ruth wanted to help, in a way that wasn't just advising her to 'think about what she liked doing.'

*Thanks for listening to me this morning* she sent to Ruth and Skyler, as soon as she had a free moment between tasks.

*We were happy to* Ruth sent back, along with a picture of the parking lot outside the apartment building. The drizzle from Sunday night had turned into full-fledged rain. However glad she was that it wasn’t snow, it was still harder to plan around than sunshine and blue skies. *We’re calling off the shopping trip on account of the weather. We might go tomorrow morning, if you want to come?*

*I would love to. Not a grocery store, I hope?* You could usually count on weekday mornings being a decent time to avoid crowds, but she was pretty sure two days before Thanksgiving wasn’t going to fall into the “usually” category, no matter how early they went.

*Hardware store. We need more Christmas lights.*

That sounded fun. Christmas lights, unlike snow shovels, were something you could get away with buying more of each year without feeling like you’d joined the crowd of crazy people who’d somehow lost their shovel from the winter before. (Hey, it could happen!) *Sounds perfect. I could use an insurance strand, for when that one final string of lights doesn’t work.*

*White lights or multicolor?* Ruth sent.

*Either. Usually white, now that they’re LEDs, the multicolor ones look weird to me. Plus it’s easier to light a room with the white ones. You?*

*Anything that doesn’t blink or chase is good. Very conflicted on the net lights for shrubs. So practical and easy, and yet… Not the same.*

*Did you meet with May yet?  How did it go?*

*Ugh.  Tell you later.  It was fine, no shouting.  Hard to be around people who knew you when you were a kid and not fall back into those patterns.*

"Is everyone off the phones right now?" Amelia called.  She was nominally in charge, with the boss out sick for the day.  "Let's go on Do Not Disturb; we need to do a quick huddle."

'Quick' was always a relative term when it came to meetings.  But Katy figured if she had really needed it to be fast, she could have just sent them an email, or shouted it out from her desk.

"I just got an email from Operations," Amelia announced, once they were all gathered.  "We're going to close early on Wednesday, at 5:30."

Katy blinked.  "But that's --"  The complete opposite of what we've been told for weeks, she didn't say.  'No closing early, no switching shifts.'  That had been the official word on holidays since she'd started.

"It's new; the executive team just decided it at their meeting this morning," Amelia said.  "If the schedule change drops you below eight hours for the day, you can come in early to make them up.  Just email the team about when you'll be here."

"When do we have to decide by?" Sam asked.

"As soon as possible," Amelia said, and Katy tried not to roll her eyes.  That was classic -- management waited until the last minute to make the call, and then expected the employees to come up with an answer immediately.

Her first thought was that it would certainly work better for her, though, especially with the weather predictions for Wednesday night looking worse by the day.  Her second thought was that she was glad it wasn't going to be Tuesday, so she wouldn't have to miss shopping with Ruth and Skyler.  

*Change of Wednesday plans* she sent, once she was back at her desk.  *Work closing early, schedule swapping to 9 to 5:30.*

There was a lull between five and six, and she spent the time wondering what to get Ruth for Christmas.  What said 'I'm glad you're my neighbor and I like holding your hand' in a festive, seasonal way?  She polled her coworkers, who came up with: homemade food, fancy food, restaurant gift certificates, and an invitation to dinner.  Food, apparently, was the hot gift of the year.

"You'll have to let us know what you decide," Terry said.  

"I definitely will," she said, even though no, she was definitely not planning to.  

After Terry left for the day, Sam leaned over the cubicle wall.  "You're not actually planning to tell us what you pick, are you," she said.


Day 24
Backdated. Written way too early Tuesday morning. Agh -- why did I think it was a good idea to stay up so late last night? We were talking, and one 'You've got to see this meme!' led to another, and then before I knew it we were hours past my usual bedtime. It was a lot of fun, but vacation's not here yet. Still two work days to go. Still, it's sunny (sort of) and I'm looking forward to going back out into the Christmas shopping world this morning. The hardware store shouldn't be too bad, right? How Christmas-themed can it really be; they sell paint and ladders and gardening stuff. Charlie is climbing onto the keyboard, either encouraging me to get up and feed him or go back to sleep. I feel a little guilty about staying up late, but not regretful, if that makes sense. And hopefully by the time it really starts catching up with me this afternoon it will be slowing down at work.

She had been wrong. So wrong, about the level of sheer Christmas excess that could be found at a hardware store. "I didn't think Santa was a giant," Skyler said, frowning at an enormous inflatable lawn Santa.

"He's not," Ruth said, while Katy tried not to look at it at all. The whole face was creepy, and she thought she had never been more grateful not to have a lawn -- not only could she not have inflatable lawn ornaments, her neighbors couldn't either.

"Oh, look, Christmas lights," she said. Luckily out of view of the creepy balloon Santa. Of course, there were about twenty options. Ruth and Skyler debated standard strands versus icicle strands and green cord versus white cord, and she wandered down the aisle. It seemed hard to believe she hadn't shopped there before; it was so close to the apartment building. Then again, it was set in a plaza in between a fitness center and an aquarium supplies store -- not exactly a hotspot of destinations.

They did have a vast array of Christmas decorations, though. She had a box of them, somewhere. Ornaments, mostly, but it wasn't like she had a mantle to drape with a -- she double-checked the display card -- 16 foot lighted garland. That was a lot of garland.

"Katy, which lights are you getting?" Skyler asked.

She held up her basket. Three boxes of white lights with white cord; easy. "I don't have a lot of skill at light placement," she said. "So I keep it as simple as possible."

"Since it's Skyler's and my first Christmas together, we're taking the 'go big or go home' approach," Ruth said, holding up her own basket. "I didn't really do much for it the last few years, so I figure I'm due." She looked back and forth between her basket and Katy's. "Is it hard to put up Christmas lights?"

She wasn't sure if Ruth was joking or not. She didn't look like she was joking. Should she say yes? "No," she said. "Not really." She thought back to what her parents always said (editing for language). "It's an art, not a science."

"Right. It's really hard, isn't it."

"Kind of, yeah." Katy shrugged. "It depends a lot on how much work you're willing to do putting holes in your walls, though. And access to outlets; that's very important."

Ruth nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe we should get a power strip."

They did. Two power strips, actually, along with a snow globe showing Santa's workshop, a red and green fleece blanket (for Charlie), and a polar bear hat (for Skyler). "I thought this was a hardware store," Katy said, as they passed another aisle full of kids toys and puzzles.

"It's multipurpose. They have a lot of seasonal things." They also had good taste in their Christmas music, which was an unexpected bonus.

"Katherine! There you are!"

She turned around quickly. It sounded like -- but it couldn't be. But it was. Her mother was headed down the aisle towards them. She blinked a few times, but apparently it wasn't a dream.

She took a fortifying breath. "Mom!" she said. "Hi!"

Her mother waved her phone in the air. "I tried to call you, but I don't have any service here. Your dad is around here somewhere too; we split up to find you." They waited a few seconds, but he didn't show up around the corner. Which probably meant he had gotten distracted somewhere in the store, looking at books or paintbrushes or whatever had caught his eye. It wasn't that big of a place.

"It's good to see you!" she said. She figured it was important to get that out there first, before 'what are you doing here.' They hugged, and over her mother's shoulder she saw Ruth mouth 'Katherine?' At least it didn't look like she was making a stealthy exit with Skyler and leaving her on her own.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, when she figured and adequate amount of time had passed so it couldn't be considered the first thing she said.

“We wanted to see you for the holiday,” her mother said. “We were going to surprise you tomorrow, but then the weather looked not so good, so we came today!”

“Oh,” she said faintly. “What about —“

“Don’t worry about the Exceptional Forces observer; we have that covered. Actually, it’s a funny story — we were just about to call the number to have one sent over, and one showed up at the door. She’s so nice, too; not like those formal ones from this summer.”

Okay, so that sounded bad. An unusually friendly EF cop who just happened to be at the door right when they were needed?  "And that didn't seem suspicious to you?" she said.

"Well of course it did.  That's why we took her picture and called in her badge number before we let her in."  Her mother patted her shoulder.  "You're not the only one who can take precautions, you know.  We were handling our own lives for years before you were even born."

She wasn’t sure what to say to that. Finally she went with, “I just want you to stay safe. I worry, you know that.”

She heard her dad's voice before she saw him.  "I bet she's already found them," he was saying, and then he did walk around the corner, and she felt Ruth startle beside her.

She didn't recognize the woman who was walking with him, but Ruth did.  "Millie?" she said, and then Katy was staring too.  Millie?  The missing sister?

"Hi Ruthie," the woman said.  "It's been a while."

“Yeah?” Ruth sounded very, very calm. Skyler moved closer and stuck her hand in Katy’s. “How’s retirement treating you?" Ruth asked, still the essence of calm.

"Not as quiet as I'd expected," Millie said, and she sounded a little wary. Good.  "You?"

"Fine.  But then again, when I retired I actually retired.  Not --"  She waved a hand towards Millie.  "Whatever this is."

"It's — a long story?" Millie offered.

"You two know each other?"  Katy's mother looked back and forth between them.  "That's perfect!  We can all spend Thanksgiving together!"

She panicked. Her mind felt completely blank. She said, “Oh,” and then couldn't figure out where to go from there. 

Ruth rallied first, and she stepped forward, holding out her hand. "I'm Ruth," she said.  "I live across the hall from Katy.  This is Skyler, my cousin."

Millie's eyebrows went up at the word cousin, but she didn't question it.  Katy's manners finally kicked in, and she said, “Sorry, of course. Ruth, Skyler, this is my mom and dad."

"Call me Henry," her dad said.  "Any friend of Katy's, and all that."

“And I’m Barbara,” her mother said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Ruth said, and then Skyler did the handshake rounds too, even though she never let go of Katy’s hand either, which made it a sort of combination of adorable and awkward.

She could tell Ruth was trying to communicate something with her eyebrows, but she had no idea what. She figured it was probably either 'figure out a way to be alone with my sister so we can talk' or 'get me out of here I can't handle this right now.'

It seemed like the polite thing to do would be to invite everyone back to the apartment.  Unfortunately, they hadn't exactly done a lot of cleanup before they left that morning -- the living room was still set up as a bedroom, and all the morning dishes were piled in the sink.

"So," she said brightly.  "What are your plans for the day?"

"We can't stay," her mother said, and Katy tried not to look relieved.  "We have reservations for lunch and then we were going to see that new movie, the science one."

Her dad nodded; the movie had probably been his idea.  "That sounds great," she said.  Since Ruth  didn't take the opportunity to suggest sisterly bonding time, she said, "we should probably get going too.  Ruth and Skyler are coming to work with me today."

By some miracle, the explanation actually seemed to pass muster with her parents, and Skyler and Ruth played along admirably.  It wasn't until they were in the car and headed for the highway that Ruth said, "We're coming to work with you today?"

"I couldn't think of anything else," she said.  "People bring kids to work sometimes, and I figured you'd need to fill out paperwork for Skyler if we were doing that for real, so it made sense we'd all have to go."

Skyler piped up for the first time since the store.  "Can we do it for real?  I want to go to work with you."

"It would probably be really boring," Katy warned.  "I get bored sometimes and I have an actual job to do.  But you can, if Ruth agrees and you're sure you want to."

Skyler was sure, and they agreed Ruth would take the car for whatever shopping or exploring she wanted to do, then meet them for 'lunch' at four.  Skyler could decide to stay or go at that point, and then they'd all head home together at the end of the day.

It felt very much like a usual work day, but there was a strong undercurrent of 'long weekend coming' that added a little excitement.  Everyone loved Skyler, and kept offering her snacks from their personal stashes.

"No thank you," Skyler kept saying. "I packed my own."

After the third time, Katy texted her.  *Did you really bring snacks?!  I'm super impressed.*

Skyler sent back a smiley face.  *Ruth packs my backpack every morning with food and stuff, so it's like I'm going to regular school.*

Or in case of emergency, Katy was guessing. Ruth seemed pretty alert to things like that. *Nice* she texted back.

It was amazing how having someone watching her -- even though she was pretty sure Skyler was actually watching a movie -- motivated her to stay productive.  Of course, Ruth was balancing the scales by emailing her a photo of every place she visited, with commentary.

Grocery store: *What was I thinking?  Day before Thanksgiving =/= good day to be here unless you like the chaos vibe*

Mall parking lot: *Tried not to get any license plates in the picture in case someone thought I was a private investigator.  Hasn't happened yet but you never know.*

Coffee shop: *Asked them to surprise me.  Got a drink with no caffeine.  Didn't want to be that surprised.*

Gas station: *Pretty good price on gas here.  Had no idea there were SO MANY flavors of pop tarts.  Also wondering who buys pop tarts at a gas station.*

And then, with no picture:  *I want to bring food for everyone, is that okay?  Does everyone eat pizza?  Would that be weird, or nice?*

She took a minute to think about it.  *You don't have to, but I think nice, not weird.  No idea if everyone eats pizza, but it's the thought that counts, right?*  It was way too hard to keep up with everyone's food likes and dislikes.  She was pretty sure Mary Ann changed her status from meat-eater to vegetarian every so often just to mess with them.

*In that case I'll be there at 4 with food.  Any special requests?*

*Cheese, veggies, no olives?  Not super picky; I'm happy to pick stuff off if I don't like it.*

*Done and done.  See you soon.*

The pizza was a big hit.  (No surprise there.)  But seeing Ruth and Skyler take off for the movies afterwards only drove home the point that she still had four hours of work left to go.  

"This is ridiculous," she said to Sam.  "It's like -- now that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, everything else about the tunnel is a million times more irritating to me.  I'm cold, my chair is squeaking, Amelia's turkey decoration is looking at me funny -- I'm a mess."

Sam leaned over the cubicle wall.  "Maybe you should walk around.  Go check the mail, or something.  We've got this."

Mary Ann added, "I break it down into single hours -- promise yourself something away from your desk every hour, like getting water, or sending a fax or something.  That way you're looking forward to the each hour instead of just the end of the day."

It was surprisingly good advice, and it certainly helped stagger out the rest of the day.  (For the record, four hours: checking the mail, refilling her water, getting a mug of hot chocolate, and investigating the community exchange bin.)  Still, it was a relief to walk out the door at the end of the night and know there was only one day left in the week.  Sometimes very slow days were as hard as very busy days -- people with nothing to do started looking for things to occupy their time, and those things were rarely what the company would prefer.

"How was the movie?" she asked.  

"Ruth fell asleep!" Skyler said delightedly.  "But I liked it."

Ruth shrugged, but she was smiling too.  "It was very soothing," she said. 

"Sounds like it was a good choice, then."  She took a deep breath. Right -- work challenge completed, time to tackle the home challenges.

Day 25
It had to happen eventually -- I almost expected to get home and find my parents chatting in the hallway with Molly and May.  But that day was not today.  Instead we practiced the strategic art of avoidance.  After last night, I am getting an early start on bedtime.  The building is surprisingly quiet tonight; not sure if everyone had the same idea, or if people just haven't gotten home yet.  On the bright side, the snow they were threatening for Wednesday has so far failed to materialize, so it's work as usual, just earlier!  I feel resigned, to the idea that Thanksgiving, which I had originally envisioned as just a quiet day spent doing some reading and maybe eating the expensive frozen pizza instead of the regular, will in fact be a crowded spectacle of an event at which many embarrassing moments will be either experienced or shared.  I think I can say for sure it will be memorable.  What was it Ruth said -- no hospital visits, no tears, no feuds?  It's not looking like quite such an easy threshold any more.

"I said no feuds lasting more than two generations," Ruth said. Katy was still trying to wake up, and she’d let her mouth get ahead of her brain, sharing what she’d journaled about the night before.  "Small ones are okay.  I mean, sure, it'd be nice to avoid them altogether, but I'm trying to be realistic."

"Right," Katy said.  "That makes sense?"

Ruth handed her a travel mug -- "It's coffee," she said.  "And it's hot.  Here's a bagel to eat while it cools down."  She leaned back so she could see the time.  "And -- we're good!  Two minutes to spare."

She had not truly been prepared for the mental shift it would take to start work three hours earlier.  Ruth and Skyler had both helped rush things along, and they exchanged first high-fives, then hugs, and then Ruth pushed her towards the door.  "We've got this," she said.  "May's going to put us to work baking all day; we'll be here, and Skyler's already volunteered to do the Wednesday chores for you."

Looking back, she was sure it was going to be one of those days they brought up at company events and all had a good laugh about.  Probably some day in the far, far distant future, but still -- there would be laughter.  

Half of the company's phone lines stopped working halfway through the day.  The IT Department had cut out early for the holiday, so no one had any idea how to fix them.  The calls that did get through were split between people who were surprised they were open at all, and people who were outraged that they were closing early.  The entire shipping department was shut down for three hours when -- of all things -- a meteorite came through the roof.

By the time they finally all logged out to go home, no one wanted to be the one to say ‘at least nothing else can go wrong,’ because of course it still could. But she was pretty sure they were all thinking it.

Day 26
Last day before the long weekend: complete! It was definitely one of those days when I could say with great enthusiasm ‘I’m so glad I’m not in charge!’ Also very glad that time doesn’t want till you’re ready to keep ticking forward. Because I might never feel ready for tomorrow, and then I’d be stuck here, nervous about it, forever. Instead, it’ll come when it comes, and then it will be over. It’s comforting, I think. At least a little. Anyway, work is done for the week; Ruth and Skyler spent the whole day cooking with May and Molly. Not sure why, but she’s said it’s tradition and I wasn’t about to argue. My parents spent the day sight-seeing — again, not sure why, but that’s family for you. No word on whether the mysterious Millie accompanied them or not. Thanksgiving? Bring it on.

She woke up to no power Thanksgiving morning. Very early Thanksgiving morning. She thought it was the talking that woke her up; she could hear Ruth and Skyler in the kitchen, and she had a sudden fear that she’d slept through her alarm. When the light switch didn’t work, she figured it was just another burned out bulb. It wasn’t until she stumbled into the kitchen and saw flashlights, and Ruth and Skyler in their pajamas, that she realized what was going on.

“Are you okay? What time is it?” she said. It seemed too dark outside to even be close to daytime.

“Four-thirty,” Ruth said. “We’re good, but we’re some of the unlucky couple thousand people without power right now.” She shook her head. “May is going to be smug as —“ She cut herself off and edited in “—a bug. Making us do all the cooking the day before, and now look — it’s actually going to pay off.”

“What happened?” Katy asked, sitting down on one of the stools. Skyler was on the other one, with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

Ruth just shrugged. “I have no idea. I’m guessing it was a transfer station, because that’s the only thing I can think of that would affect so many people. But why, I don’t know. Freak accident? Exception fight? Government conspiracy to perpetuate the war on Thanksgiving?”

Mostly she was wondering why Ruth was so awake. Skyler, at least, looked appropriately sleepy. “I don’t that’s a real thing,” she said. “Is there any actual danger right now? Do we need to evacuate? Do we know when the power’s coming back?”

“No to all of them,” Ruth said.

The solution seemed clear. “In that case, I’m going back to bed. It will either be fixed in a few hours or not. If it’s too cold in the living room feel free to bring your stuff in the bedroom; it’s probably the best insulated even without the space heater. We’ll figure it out in the morning, I guess. The real morning,” she added, when Ruth looked like she was going to say something.

Of course, nothing had really changed when they got up at seven — still no power, still no heat. On the plus side: sunlight. It didn’t look so bad with sun streaming in the windows. “We’re still going to need electricity to heat up all the food, right?” They had juice, they had peanut butter, and she’d found a stash of emergency candles in case the flashlight batteries started to go. They did not, however, have a way to power an electric stove.

“I bet it will be back by noon,” Ruth said. “Not enough time to really cook things, but plenty of time to heat it up. If not, I’m sure they’ll figure something out.”

There was a knock at the door, and Skyler jumped up. “Can I get it? Molly said she was bringing me a Thanksgiving card.”

(They compromised, with Ruth checking through the peephole first, and then Skyler actually opening the door.) Molly had in fact brought Thanksgiving cards for all of them, which Katy hadn’t even known was a thing. “Maggie’s here,” Molly said, in explanation. “And she’s a morning person, which I am not. Is it okay if I hide over here for a few minutes?”

Why not? “You want some juice?” Katy asked, and they set another place at the table (such as it was) for Molly.

They were on cleanup by the time Molly left, only to be replaced by Casey. “When did you get here?” Ruth asked.

“This morning. I came with Maggie, because no one else I know celebrates Thanksgiving and she said I could come.”

Casey looked a little unsure how that explanation would go over, so she just nodded, and said, “Of course. Sounds great. Typically it’s a holiday that involves electricity, but we’re going to challenge that tradition this year.”

“I have a coloring book,” Casey said. “Maggie said it would be quiet over here? Can I color?”

And in fact, Casey had one coloring book to actually use, plus a bag of extras to share. “Never arrive empty handed,” Casey said seriously. “That’s what Maggie said.”

“We’re the kids table,” Katy told Ruth, once Casey and Skyler were settled in the living room with markers and coloring books. “How did this happen?”

Ruth looked as surprised as she was. “Huh. I don’t know, but I like it. May’s in charge of the schedule for today, and she knows where to find us, so… Want to color?”

Katy picked a coloring book of flowers, because why not? It had been a long time since she’d had a coloring book, but she figured flowers would be hard to mess up. Ruth picked famous buildings, while Skyler had butterflies. Casey’s, when she was able to get a look at it, seemed to be sea creatures.

Coloring turned out to be a surprisingly relaxing activity — they chatted about markers instead of jobs, and compared color choices instead of exchanging small talk about the weather. All in all, it was so far the most relaxing Thanksgiving party she’d ever attended. Although, come to think of it, it was hard to say whether the party had actually started.

“Hey Ruth,” she said. “Has the party actually started?”

Ruth shrugged. “It’s been a couple years since I’ve been to one of these, but — yes? I mean, May’s events are pretty much always like this; that’s why she gets roped into hosting so much. Show up by noon, eat snacks, mingle as desired. The actual meal won’t be till the evening, but this way people get a chance to see each other even if they can’t stay the whole time. May will probably be over soon to say good morning, and probably ‘I told you so.’”

Sure enough, the next person to knock on their door was May. "Happy Thanksgiving!" she said cheerily. "Hi everyone; is everything good over here? Casey, good to see you again! And thanks again, Katy, for letting us annex your apartment for the day -- kind of a surprise to not have electricity, but still way better than what we'd have at the house. We came with candles and extra batteries, so if you need any, let me know, okay?"

It was a lot of words, and she wasn't sure whether it was just May's natural exuberance, or if she was as nervous as Ruth about the way the day was going to come together. Probably a little of both, she figured.

"We're good, thanks. Happy Thanksgiving to you too." She glanced at Ruth. "And -- you know, nice job getting everything cooked yesterday."

"Well, you just never know what's going to happen. How many times did we get called out on Thanksgiving for save the world stuff, even when it was supposed to be being handled by the international teams?" She stopped suddenly, looking back and forth between Ruth and Katy. "You told her about that, right?"

Ruth shrugged. "Sort of. It hasn't really come up in exactly those words. Anyway, I'm retired."

May still looked worried, and Katy tried not to roll her eyes. Seriously? They hadn't even used code names as a team. (Although that was sort of the beauty of it — everyone thought they were, because what were the odds that they’d actually have a team made up of a Maggie, Millie, Molly, and May?) It didn't take a genius to figure out which four person team (sometimes five) Ruth had been a part of. "It's fine," she said. "We've talked about it."

"See?" Ruth said. "We've talked about it. Not everything has to be some big reveal, you know."

Millie appeared in the center of the room. Ruth just shook her head. "Of course, some people just can't resist."

"Happy Thanksgiving!" Millie said. "Casey! Long time no see!"

Casey waved, but didn't get up. Millie took in the rest of the room. "Why are there no lights on? I thought for sure you'd have the power back by now."

May put her hands on her hips. "Millie, is this your fault? It's Thanksgiving!"

"I think 'fault' is a strong word to use," Millie said. "I was briefly involved, more as a peripheral thing than anything else. It's not like I instigated it. Cripes, May, is that what you think?"

"I don't know what I'm supposed to think." May looked like she was torn between going in for a hug and starting up a fight. "Does Maggie know you're here?"

"Yes?" Millie looked away. "No. Probably not. It's complicated?"

"You know, I have heard that an awful lot lately," Katy said. "And I kind of think -- maybe it's not as complicated as you're making it out to be. At least for today, I mean, it's Thanksgiving, we're all here, there's food." (She didn't say, 'at least your parents didn't show up unexpectedly, and thanks so much for that, and also, by the way, where are they?' But she was thinking it.)

Ruth nodded. "And coloring books. And juice." She took a deep breath. "And -- it's good to see you."

It was Millie who stepped forward and grabbed her up in a hug. "You too, Ruthie. I heard you stuck up for me with the home team, too. Although -- finding myself? Really? You couldn't have gone with something less flighty?"

"What was I going to say? 'Well, I'm pretty sure she's gone undercover for an international organization I'm not supposed to know about' -- that would have been really popular, I'm sure." Ruth’s words were muffled by the hug, but still easy enough to make out.

"Thank you for believing in me, whatever you said," Millie told her, and Ruth nodded.

That was not what she'd been expecting, honestly. She looked at May. "Were you expecting that?"

May shook her head. "It's news to me. I really thought she was finding herself. Undercover's a new one for us. Looking back, though, it does make sense." Then she frowned. "Sort of. It does make me wonder where your parents come in with all of this."

"Yeah, where are my parents?" Katy asked. "I thought you were with them."

Millie finally stepped back from the hug. She said, "They stayed at a hotel; they said they'd be here by noon. I'm not their bodyguard. Wait, are they undercover too? That would be awkward. It's happened before, and I can tell you -- every time, super awkward."

"What? No. My parents are not undercover. They're just regular people."

"Hey, I was just asking. Like I said, it wouldn't be the first time."

"Maggie's here; you know that, right?" May was watching Millie carefully, and Katy wondered what the story was between those two. "Do you want me to tell her before you see her?"

Millie gave a sheepish-looking smile. "We've actually run into each other, a couple times. She didn't know I was coming here today, but she probably suspects about the rest of it. I should talk to her."

“I thought this was the quiet apartment,” Casey said to Skyler, not very quietly at all, and Katy tried not to laugh.

"No, she's right," May said. “We did say that. Millie?”

"I'll go talk to Maggie," Millie said.

They headed for the door, and May called back, "I'll send Molly over with some donuts." Skyler cheered, and Ruth sighed.

"You try to get them to eat healthy," she said. "And then the relatives spoil them anyway. Holidays are a minefield; I didn't even think of this sort of thing coming up."

And actually, Katy had a good answer for that one. She searched around for extra napkins (no chance she had any that were festive, but at least they'd be useful), and said, "Well, that's how you know it's a holiday -- eating things you don't normally eat, doing things you don't normally do. Now you have the perfect excuse not to have donuts the rest of the time, because they're a special holiday treat."

Ruth handed her a roll of paper towels instead. "I brought them from across the hall,” she explained. “You really can never have too many paper towels. You make a good point, though. We'll probably have to negotiate what constitutes a holiday, but we can work with that."

Molly arrived with the donuts just in time for Casey and Skyler to be ready for a coloring break, and for Charlie to decide that he really hadn't been getting enough attention so far. He arrived in the kitchen to demand additional breakfast and/or adoration (with a strong preference for 'and' over 'or'). Molly, naturally, thought he was adorable (which he was), and that maybe he would want to sit in her lap (which he didn't).

"To balance out the donuts, I brought a bag of the traditional Thanksgiving mixed nuts," she said, holding up the bag triumphantly. "Do you have a bowl?"

She had also brought bag full of battery powered candles, and they gave a surprisingly warm glow to all of the places that didn't quite get enough sunlight to pretend that the lights were out on purpose. "We did your apartment already," she told Ruth. "I hope that's okay. I know this was sort of -- unexpected. We really do appreciate it."

Ruth said, "It's been fine. So far so good, right?" And it was then -- right as they'd placed the last candle -- that the lights came back on, followed by the hum of the refrigerator. They all looked at the heat vents, and she was pretty sure there was a group sigh of relief when the warm air kicked back in.

"Oh, thank goodness," Molly said.

Ruth looked around and nodded, but she said, "Although actually, the candles are nice. Ambiance, and all that."

Personally, Katy was a little embarrassed how many lights were on. The power had gone out in the middle of the night; the apartment should have been completely dark at that point. They must have flipped light switches without thinking during the morning. "Is it back for good, do you think?"

"I hope so. Let's say that it is and focus on thinking positive.” Molly pointed at the oven. "Let me just check with May about what order she wants to heat things up in, and we'll start preheating." She took a step towards the door, then stopped -- one foot up, even -- and turned around. "On the other hand, they're probably still busy. Talking. Let's just go with 350, that's always a safe bet."

There was a sudden boom from the floor above them, and then silence. The lights stayed on, but they could all hear something skittering around, and then ker-thumping down the stairs. Katy looked at Ruth, who was looking back with wide eyes. "Uh-oh," she said. "They're loose."

"What's loose?" Molly said.

May's exclamation of, "The hell is that?" was clearly audible from the hallway.

They opened the door, which was probably a mistake, but at least they could see what was going on. It was cats. Three huge cats, who’d managed to slow their forward momentum after the stairs, and were prowling towards them from the stairwell door.

"This would maybe be a good time to mention my upstairs neighbors?" Ruth said. "I've been hearing some noises, which, in retrospect, should have been more carefully investigated."

Katy couldn't let her take the blame that easily, though. "You did check on it," she said. "And they said it was cats. And it was." She tilted her head, and one of the cats mirrored her. "Sort of."

"Less explaining, more planning," May said. "Katy, you have a cat. Do they look hungry?"

In her experience, cats were always up for a meal. She didn't think these ones looked particularly hungry, but who could tell, really? She tilted her head the other way, and the cat watching her mimicked it again. All three of them had stopped a few feet away. "I have no idea," she said. "I don't think they're normal cats."

"What gave it away?" Maggie said, deadpan.

"Are your upstairs neighbors at home?" May asked.

"I don't think so? Their car isn't here," Ruth said. "They must have left these kiddos penned up in their apartment. Maybe the power outage knocked something loose."

May nodded. "Millie?"

"On it," Millie said, and disappeared. Probably to go search the apartment. At least they knew the door was open, which would take out any potential abuse of Exception argument. And, you know, they were also looking at pretty clear evidence of illegal animal breeding. The fact that there had never been a cat with a proven Exception meant their was a lucrative (she assumed, at least, or else why would they do it?) underground market for potentially Exceptional felines.

"We should contain them," May said confidently. Everyone waited for her to elaborate. She didn't.

"Okay," Ruth said. "How?"

Katy patted at her pockets. She was pretty sure she had -- "Let me try something," she said. One of the cats was still watching her, and she met its eyes, then tilted her head down and looked at the floor. At the same time, she clicked on Charlie's cat toy laser pointer.

All three cats pounced, and she winced at the noise it made. On the other hand, they definitely had the cats' attention. "Where do you want them?" she asked. "Please don't say my apartment."

"I'm allergic to cats, actually," Molly said.

She sighed. "Fine. My apartment." So far they seemed tame enough. "Does someone want to go in first and keep an eye on the kids?"

Maggie stepped carefully behind her. "I've got it," she said.

Ruth joined her. "And I'll find Charlie."

"Thank you," she said -- she hadn't wanted to ask because it seemed like such a small thing, but it was Charlie.  She wanted him as safe as he could be.

As soon as Maggie and Ruth gave the all clear, she used the laser pointer to lure the big cats into her apartment.  They were plenty willing, though her welcome mat was never going to be the same.  When she clicked off the laser pointer, all three cats sat down abruptly.  "You won," she told them.

"Kitties," Skyler breathed.  "Wow."

"They don't seem dangerous to me," Maggie said. (Based on the small amount of knowledge Katy had of Maggie, that wasn’t at all reassuring.)

Without anything to focus on, the cats were wandering around the kitchen.  One of them stretched up on its hind legs and put its front paws on the counter.  "Hey," she said, without thinking.  "Could you not?  No paws on the food prep surfaces."

From the bedroom, she heard Charlie give a cranky meow.  All three cats swiveled their heads in that direction. Uh-oh.

"Ruth, you're about to have incoming," May said.  "You want us to try to stop them?"

"No need, we're coming to you."

She stepped into the hallway with Charlie in her arms.  He was wearing his harness, which was smart thinking if they had to evacuate, and also explained the meowing .  "Me and Charlie had a talk," Ruth said.  "He knows who's in charge in this apartment."

She walked right up to the big cats.  Seeing them next to Charlie put them in a little better perspective -- they were each about twice his size, but hardly lion or tiger level.

Still, Katy held her breath.  One of the cats stretched forward until it was nose to nose with Charlie.  Charlie allowed the contact, then leaped out of Ruth's arms to the floor. All three cats followed him into the living room, where he curled up in a sunny spot on the floor.  Much to her surprise, they all followed suit.  She blinked a couple times, but the pile of purring cats stayed the same.

"I am so glad that worked," Ruth said.  "I was ready to speed in there and grab him if it didn't, don't worry."

She took a deep breath.  "Thanks."  She reached out and squeezed Ruth's hand.  "So, do we have a plan from here?"

They didn't, but Millie came back from upstairs with more information, at least.  "It looks like they were experimenting, maybe trying to get a psychic bond?  Or maybe a talking cat. It’s hard to tell; at least half of these seem like they're in code."

She shuffled the stack of papers on her hands, then stopped when one of the cats lifted its head to stare at her. "Anyway," Millie said, carefully setting the papers down on the counter behind her.  "I don't think they're coming back. The apartment is pretty empty up there.  Maybe they realized they'd gotten in over their heads and made a run for it."

"What are we going to do with them?" Katy asked.  She was pretty sure the building's cat-friendly policy didn’t extend to cover enormous, potentially genetically modified cats.

Millie just shrugged, and it was such a Ruth-like gesture she had to hide a smile.  She wondered who had gotten it from who.  "Molly, this might be more your area? I can make some calls, but I'm pretty sure no one's going to pick up on Thanksgiving.  Cats like turkey, though, right?  May always makes extra."

Molly still looked a little wary.  "Is that even safe?” she said.

“Turkey? Of course, as long as you don’t give them the bones.”

Molly rolled her eyes. “I meant keeping them here.”

"All their paperwork says they're domestic cats," Millie told her.  "They should be as tame as a house cat."

Katy wasn’t sure why they were trusting paperwork from the same people who thought it was a good idea to make psychic and/or talking cats. (Could you imagine? ‘Feed me. Hey. Hey. What’s that? Feed me. Come here. Go away. No, come here. Hey. That’s mine.’ It would never end.) On the other hand, she was basically with Skyler on this one — big fluffy cats! And she figured Charlie was a good barometer of safety, which really just left the question of when she was going to get to pat them.

Right then, it turned out. She did it under the guise of "checking on Charlie," and snuck in a scritch or two on the big cat closest to him. The purring gave her away, and Skyler tugged on Ruth's sleeve. "Please?" she said. "Look, Katy's doing it!"

All three of them were immersed in the pile of cats by the time Millie checked her phone and said, "Oh, hey, your parents are here. They say — one of your neighbors let them into the building, and they're -- oh. Standing right outside." She walked to the door and opened it. "Hi! Happy Thanksgiving!"

"Happy Thanksgiving," she heard her mother say, as she worked on extricating herself from underneath one of the cats. "I didn't realize you'd already be here."

"It's been an interesting morning," Millie said diplomatically.

"Happy Thanksgiving!" Katy finally managed to present herself at the door, and she went in for hugs before anyone could start asking questions. “It’s good to see you!”

“It smells wonderful in here,” her mother said. “Are you cooking?”

“The neighbors are,” Katy said, then frowned. “Sort of. We’re all eating together, though. You’ve met Millie, of course, and Millie’s sister Ruth and her cousin Skyler. We were all at the store the other day.” She pointed people out as she went. “And that’s Casey, next to Skyler, and Maggie. May and Molly are across the hall checking on the turkey and stuffing; we have the sweet potatoes and the cranberry in here, that’s why it smells so good. I didn’t make them,” she admitted.

Her dad was already edging towards the living room. “What lovely cats. I didn’t realize you’d gotten more. Are they new?”

Maggie said, “They escaped from an empty apartment upstairs this morning. We’re just watching them, in a temporary sort of way.”

“An empty apartment? Well, I’m glad you took them in. You know, we had a cat about that size once when I was growing up. Clever fellow.”

And Skyler got points for life when she asked. “Really? Can you tell us about him?” Stories about cats, and pets of yesteryear in general, took up the time until May declared it time to move across the hall for the actual meal.

They’d left the lights off in Ruth’s apartment as well, leaving it lit just by the battery-powered candles. It was an impressive array of food, and impressively presented. “Where did they get that table?” she asked Ruth quietly. She couldn’t quite imagine that Ruth would have had a table big enough to seat ten people just sitting around.

“Beats me,” Ruth answered, just as quietly. “I’ve never seen it before.” More loudly, she said, “Skyler and I like to start each dinner with something we’re grateful for. Seems like it might be a perfect tradition for today, if anyone’s interested.”

For a second it looked like no one was exactly sure who should start, but May cleared her throat and held up her glass.  "I am grateful to Ruth and Katy, for opening up their apartments so we could have this meal."

She looked expectantly at Molly, who was on her right.  Molly held up her glass as well, and said, "I am grateful for the chance to see old friends and new ones and share the holiday with all of you."

Maggie was next, and she gave Molly a skeptical look.  "Well, I'm not going to talk around it.  So, I'm grateful that Millie's back and can finally tell her family and her closest friends in the whole world what she's actually been doing for the past few years."

Millie coughed, and blushed.  "I did say I was sorry," she muttered.

Maggie ignored her.  "Casey?  You're up."

Casey said, "I'm grateful for sweet potatoes, because they're my favorite."

“Well said," Ruth told her.  "I'm grateful for all of you, and that we've solved the mystery of what was making so much noise upstairs."

Skyler was next, and she carefully stood up and held up her cup.  "I'm grateful for cats."  Then she sat back down.

Which meant Katy was up next.  She took a deep breath and let it out.  "I'm grateful that a hard road these past months has led me to such a joyful destination."

"And we're just glad to be here with you," her mom said.

"That's right," her dad agreed.  "And I'm grateful I don't have to pretend to care about football today, because I'm not at work."

That only left Millie, on May's left.  "I'm just grateful to be here," she said, after a short pause.

"Here, here," May said.  They all stood up for a toast.  "Happy Thanksgiving -- let's eat!"

Day 27
I am still full, and possibly will be for days.  There was so much good food.  And it was so nice to get out of cleanup and that things went so well with my parents. It probably helped that there was so much going on — lots of other things to focus on that what I have or have not contributed to the family name recently. I’m pretty sure we hit all three goals — no tears and no hospital visits, at least. I’m not sure what’s going on between Maggie and Millie, but it doesn’t look like a feud to me. I feel tired, but accomplished. I also feel very warm, but that’s probably the blanket of cats currently “sharing” the bed.

She opened the door Friday morning to see Skyler standing in the hall with a plate of cookies.  "You know, Thanksgiving was yesterday," she said, and Skyler laughed.

"And I still like your welcome mat," she said. She pinched her sleeve and turned her hoodie bright pink, the same color she’d been wearing on Halloween.

"Come on in."  Katy held the door open wider, and Skyler ducked under her arm to set the cookies on the nearest counter.

"These are for you," she said.  "There was some kind of all-night baking marathon at our apartment and they made tons of cookies.  I don't know why."  She made a face.  "Ruth says it will make more sense when I'm older."

"Well, Ruth is pretty smart," Katy said, although she personally had no idea what would motivate anyone to do an all-night baking marathon.  On the bright side: cookies.

"Where is Ruth, anyway?" she asked.  "I figured she'd be right behind you." Ruth and Skyler had gone out early to wish the laundromat crew a happy Thanksgiving, but they'd planned to be back by nine.

Skyler nodded around a mouthful of cookie.  "She was.  She stopped to help May and Molly load things into their truck."

It was a good reminder that the odd arrangement of the last few days was coming to an end.  May and Molly were headed back home, and Ruth and Skyler would be moving back across the hall.  Everyone else had either left the day before -- her parents, after eating a truly impressive amount of pie -- or earlier in the morning -- Maggie, Casey, and Millie, though only after producing an apparent mountain of baked goods.

"They're coming back for the cats, though, right?" she asked.  Four cats in her apartment was a strain, no matter how adorable and friendly they were.

"Yeah."  Skyler kicked her feet against the rungs of her stool.  "I wish we could keep them.  I know we can't," she added.  "You don't need to explain it again.  But I still wish they could all stay."

"Well, luckily feelings and wishes don't have to make sense," Katy said.  "They just are, and it's always okay to talk about them.  Sometimes talking about things can help you figure out if you need to do something about it, or if just feeling it is enough."

It made perfect sense in her head, but Skyler just looked confused.  "Maybe I'll understand that when I'm older too," she said, and then hopped off the stool.  "I'm going to go pack up my stuff."

She headed down the hall, and Katy called after her.  "Just remember Ruth will know if you try to smuggle those cats home with you in your sleeping bag!"

It would be nice to have her space back, she thought, but she would miss having other people around all the time.  The apartment was going to feel very quiet again.  Of course, it wasn't like Ruth and Skyler we're going far.  They'd seen plenty of each other even before they were trying to share a bathroom.

Ruth chose that moment to arrive back, and she dropped off another plate of cookies on the counter.  "Please tell me we done have to do that again at Christmas," she said.

"We don't," Katy said automatically.  Then she frowned.  "Do we?" She hadn't really given it much thought, honestly.  "You could always go on a cruise," she suggested.  "Or a ski vacation.  I hear those are two of the top choices for avoiding traditional Christmas expectations."

"I think mostly I'm just complaining to get it out of my system," Ruth said.  She walked over to look out the window, probably to see if May's truck was still there.  "Plus I don't like boats.  Or being cold.  And I would miss all of them, probably."

Katy moved to stand next to her, and bumped their shoulders together.  "Not me, huh?"

"I figured you'd be there with me," Ruth said, leaning closer.  "It was your idea, after all."

"It is an honor to be invited on your imaginary Christmas getaway," she said solemnly.  "Maybe we should get through the rest of November first, though."

Ruth groaned and dropped her head on Katy's shoulder.  "So many cookies," she said.  "They're everywhere.  I don't even know how they did it."

"Anything you don't want, my coworkers will eat," she said.  "And you're welcome to use my freezer space if yours is full. I mean, I might have to try a few, just to make sure they're good..."  She trailed off, and Ruth laughed.

"You can consider them to be shared cookies," she said. "And thank you."

The coffeemaker beeped, and they both turned towards it.  "So," Katy said, when they both had mugs in hand.  "Any plans for the rest of the weekend?"

Thanksgiving had fallen late that year, and it felt like they were already on the precipice of December. It was hard to know whether it would be better to ignore it entirely until Monday, or dive in a few days early and hope the head start paid off.  She said as much to Ruth, who nodded.  "I'm thinking -- maybe a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B."

“Oh yeah?”

“Sure, why not? Clean up from Thanksgiving, decorate for Christmas — those are totally complementary activities. Same with checking the weather forecast for the weekend and checking the lease agreement to see what it says about Christmas lights.”

“I should probably go to the grocery store,” Katy said. Ruth gave her a look, so she added, “Where I could absolutely pick up some healthy December treat, like those little oranges that come in a box.” (She remembered Ruth’s feelings about candy.)

“And it’s still only —“ Ruth checked her phone. “Not even ten am. Plenty of time to be productive and also relax. Take it one day at a time, right? Such is the wisdom of the chore chart, according to my neighbor.”

“Your neighbor sounds very smart, then,” Katy said. She probably needed to update the chore chart, actually.

“Oh, she is,” Ruth told her. “And very community-minded. Which means she’s going to help me eat all the Thanksgiving leftovers, right?”

Mmm. Turkey sandwiches. Turkey salad. Turkey pot pie. The only time of year when it was one hundred percent acceptable to put stuffing and mustard in the same sandwich. “Absolutely. Lunch and/or dinner with my favorite neighbors? I will be there with bells on,” she said.

“And,” Ruth said. “Definitely and. There are a lot of leftovers. We will possibly be eating leftovers all week.” She looked thoughtful. “It does take some of the guesswork out of meal planning easier, I guess.”

“Are you guys done yet?” Skyler called. “I think one of these cats really is psychic!”

Katy looked at Ruth. Ruth looked back. “We’re coming!” Ruth called.

“One day at a time,” Katy said. “Let’s go take a look.”

Day 28
It’s been four weeks of journaling, now. A major holiday, a few unexpected reunions, a lot of shared meals — a little minor rule bending between friends, sure, but nothing that wasn’t to protect someone who needed it. Let’s see, also an abundance of domesticity, and neighborly bonding. And cats. Charlie’s in my lap as I write this, king of the castle as a solo cat once more. It’s been a good month. It’s been my life, one day at a time. And I can honestly say, I feel happy.
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