Backlight chapter 8

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Chapter 8: THE PLAN

Sonela: Valo, Jahid! Thank you for coming!

She smiles widely to us.

I just smile politely back at her. No point in pointing out that she was the one who asked us to come.

Sonela leads us to the living room. Ivy, Nana, Otto, Tatu and Irantu are already sitting on the couches, along with two women I haven’t seen before.

One of them seems around late-twenties or early-thirties. She’s a dark-skinned woman with a pastel-pink frohawk waited for us. Her features are distinctly African, with a broad nose and plump lips. Here eyelashes are really thick and long and she has five small, magenta-coloured stars tattooed (or painted?) below her left eye. Her eyes are very gentle, but they have a very piercing look to them, like she has known you for years and seen you at your weakest and still doesn’t judge.

The other seems to be an Arabic girl, about mid-to-late teens. She’s sitting in a wheelchair, and her almond-shaped eyes are sharp. She’s wearing a red hijabi and a wrist brace on her right hand. She’s fidgeting with a fidget toy with her left hand and she has dark circles under her eyes.

Sonela points to the black woman.

Sonela: That’s Shán.

Then she points at the girl in red.

Sonela: And that’s my daughter Setta.

Shán waves and Setta gives me a twitch of her fingers.

Sonela: My wife and Dix are in the kitchen, they’ll be here soon.

Sonela: Setta and Eins are a little jet-lagged because they just came back from Setta’s tournament in the States.

Jahid: Oh, right! That was happening too. How’d that go?

Setta grins, without a hint of tiredness.

Setta: First place, baby!

Jahid: Wow! Congratulations!

Setta: Thank you!

Valo: Tournament?

Sonela: Setta is a pro-gamer.

She’s preening with pride.

Two women appear from what I assume is the kitchen. One of them is a pale, short woman carrying a tray with fresh pastries on it. Her face is obscured by her long fringe, but I do get a glimpse of round cheeks and a cluster of… freckles? They are a little too big to be freckles though. And oddly coloured.

Behind her walks an Arabic woman dressed in navy blue, sleek dress, a matching hijabi and white pants. She has thick, dark eyebrows, full eyelashes and the same dark circles under her eyes as Setta. She’s carrying a tray with glasses and two pitchers, one full of what I assume is iced coffee and the other what I assume is either juice or ice tea. She seems a little more tired than Setta.

Sonela: Here’s Dix with the pastries.

Sonela: And the one with the drinks, the love of my life, Eins!

She kisses Eins on the cheek, who smiles widely.

Eins: Sweetie, I’m going to spill!

Sonela: Hehe~

Sonela ushers Jahid and me to sit down while Dix and Eins serve everyone coffee, ice tea and pastries.

Once everyone has a drink and a croissant, Sonela starts speaking.

Sonela: Right. Let’s get to why we’re here.

Otto: To catch the British rat.

Sonela snorts a sarcastic laugh. Her face doesn’t have a single trace of humour in it, though.

Sonela: Yes.

Sonela: But first, we must get everyone up to the same page.

Sonela: Nigel, as some of us predicted…

She sighs.

Eins: What did he do, exactly? I’m kind of out of the loop…

Sonela looks at me.

Sonela: Valo? Do you want to tell us what happened at the university?

I suppress a sigh and nod. I guess I have to. It has been a few days and I’ve had some time to process what happened, so it doesn’t feel like poking at a fresh wound anymore.

I tell the group about the events, this time including the details I didn’t tell back at the hospital. I tell them about the package, about… about Nigel’s virus and his plan and him siccing his android on me.

> If Valo got infected > If Valo didn’t get infected
I tell them about Nigel forcing me to swallow the liquid. I tell them how Nigel almost forced me to swallow the virus.
I feel sick. I’ve just been walking around with a virus inside of me. I feel sick. Was I just a possible host for him?

After I’m done, there’s a moment of silence.

There’s a lot of serious and grim expressions all around.

Eins: There’s a lot to unpack here…

Shán: Indeed. Where do we even start?

Tatu: Why not ask Valo?

Irantu: They are in the middle of this.

Sonela: Good point. What do you want to talk about first, Valo?

> The virus > How the virus works > Nigel
Valo: The virus. Is that… Is there an actual virus in me now? Valo: Nigel said that the virus is… magical? Valo: …
Everyone turns to look at Otto. Valo: What was that about? Valo: Was Nigel…
Otto takes a slow drag from his vape and blows it out. When no one answers in a moment, I look around. Everyone is looking at Sonela. Now that I think about it, the answer is clear.
Otto: What did the Englishman say it did again? The one who starts talking, though, is Ivy. Nigel’s actions at the university were premeditated and not because of a momentary lapse of reason.
Jahid: It makes people more aggressive and violent, according to him. Ivy: Remember when we were at the abandoned house? My eyes well up and I blink rapidly to stop them from flowing over.
Otto nods and rubs his stubble. I nod. Did Nigel plan to use me all along? Was that all he wanted from me?
Otto: And have you felt any more aggressive or violent? Ivy: You must remember the skull too, right? I want to ask that, but I know the answer.
… Not really, no. I’ve been more anxious and afraid of hurting anyone than wanting to hurt anyone. I would rather not remember, but I do. I nod again. Valo: Nevermind.
I shake my head. Ivy: I’m not saying that magic is now 100% real, but… We can’t deny that.
Otto: Then it’s probably bullshit. I look at my bandaged hand. I do remember how the dry teeth dug into my skin… But when I later changed the bandages, I couldn’t find any bite marks. Neither could Otto…
Setta blurts out a small laugh. Nana and Ivy also chortle. Jahid: So we’re just supposed to accept that magic is real now?
… Is “probably” enough, though? Ivy shrugs.
Otto: I can take a blood sample from you and run tests, if that makes you feel better. Sonela: We don’t know what’s happening yet.

Sonela: Anything else?

> The virus > How the virus works > Nigel > That was all

Sonela: Alright. Now that we’re all on the same page… we need to talk about Nigel.

Sonela: He’s probably hiding and will not come out unless he really has to.

Sonela: I fear that he might try and leave the country.

Sonela: I also fear that he might try to get Valo to leave with him. Because they have something that he wants.

Despite the heat in the room, I feel a cold chill.

Sonela: … Any ideas?

Otto exhales a stream of vape smoke.

Otto: I say we take the light-head and use them as bait to draw the rat out.

Jahid: Absolutely not.

Jahid barely let Otto finish.

Eins: I agree. We can’t force Valo to be the bait.

Jahid: Why can’t we let the police deal with this?

Otto: And what? Let him escape again? They had their shot and they blew it. We have to take it from here.

Jahid: …

Jahid: Is he really that dangerous?

Valo: He did build an android from scratch.

Irantu scoffs.

Irantu: He built the frame, yes. But he stole the AI for it. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is.

Irantu: Alone, Nigel is nothing.

Irantu: We’re more worried about his connections.

Valo: What do you mean?

Sonela: His connections that he might have.

Sonela: We know little to nothing about Nigel and what he can do which is why we’re so worried.

Sonela: And why we want to talk to him ourselves, if possible.

Otto: Which brings us back to why we can’t let the police deal with this.

Jahid: … Fair enough.

He doesn’t seem satisfied, though.

Jahid: I still don’t like it.

Eins: You don’t have to. We’ll figure something else out.

Valo: I’ll do it.

Eins I’m sorry?!

Valo: I’ll be bait so we can lure Nigel to us.

Jahid: Are you sure?!

Valo: Yes. It’s the easiest, most obvious and fastest plan we have.

Otto: You can say that again.

Valo: And I want Nigel to be brought to justice.

Jahid: We don’t even have a plan yet.

Sonela: We should get to it, then, yes?

Eins sighs.

Eins: Valo. Please remember that you can change your mind at any time.

I nod and give her a smile and a thumbs-up.

We end up coming up a few plans during the late afternoon. Most of the predictably included me sauntering outside in public alone and wait for Nigel to appear. Then I will lure him to a more secluded area, where Sonela and Nana would wait for us and take him.. somewhere.

Valo: What are you going to do with him afterwards?

Ivy: Don’t worry about it.

The smile she has on her face does not reassure me.

After we agree on the plan’s details and back-up plans, Jahid and I go back to Jahid’s.

We start settling for sleep in Jahid’s bedroom, as we’ve grown accustomed to, since after the funeral.

Jahid Signs deeply as he closes the thick curtains in his bedroom. Those curtains are amazing. They actually make the room dark, even if the sun is still fully up.

Jahid: I don’t like the plan. I don’t like it.

I look at the wall and shrug. I just want this to be over.

Jahid: I still think we should just leave this for the police to deal with.

He sits on the bed, so heavily that he jostles me.

Valo: Hm.

Jahid sighs and lies down, arm pressing against mine.

Jahid: I can’t believe you’re being so calm about this all.

Jahid: Are you sure you’re okay with the plan? You can still back out if you want.

Valo: It’s fine. I’ll do it.

Jahid sighs again. He’s still tense.

Valo: Let’s talk about something else.

Valo: I think we both need a distraction.

Jahid takes a deep breath.

Jahid: You’re right.

He shifts and I feel him relax a little.

Jahid: Isn’t it weird how you can just… know someone for ages and think about them in a certain way, but then one thing happens and your whole perspective on them shifts.

I glance at him, but I only see his profile silhouetted against the dim light barely shining through the curtains.

Valo: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Jahid: Uh… I mean, like. Love at first sight, but… you’ve known them for a while, right?

I wait for him to elaborate.

Jahid: Like, you’ve known this person for some time and they have never before… You haven’t looked at them in… um… You’ve always thought of them in the platonic sense.

Jahid: And one day you meet them again and it’s just. Like a flip of a switch, you just… see them differently.

Valo: …

Valo: Can’t say that that’s ever happened to me.

Jahid: … I suppose not.

Valo: I’m guessing you have?

Jahid turns his head away and says nothing. His silence spoke more than words.

Valo: Have you told them?

Jahid: …

Jahid: No.

Valo: You should. Anyone would be lucky to have you.

Jahid: …

Jahid: Th-thank you.

He rolls over and pulls the bedsheet acting as a blanket over himself.

Jahid: Go to sleep. Lots to do tomorrow.

A FEW DAYS LATER

I step out of the store and take a deep breath, soaking in the sunlight. It’s still hot as balls and I’m already sweating, but at least I have a popsicle.

I could go back to Jahid’s, but it’s such a nice day out. I might just sit down to enjoy my popsicle somewhere sunny and bright. I could even take a selfie to commemorate the event.

Which is exactly what I will do, in fact. Only because I want to, and not because this is a part of a secret plan.

I take a quick selfie and ignore that I look like death warmed over. I open Instagram and pause. Maybe I should explain why I haven’t posted in a month…

Fuck it, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to explain this clusterfuck. I don’t owe anything to my followers. I’m not insta famous anyway.

I do make sure to tag my location, though.

With the popsicle calmly hanging from my teeth, I saunter off to find a bench in a sunny spot. I am not anxious at all. Not at all! Not one bit!!

I hear someone behind me.

???: Hey, Valo.

I freeze. A British accent. I know that voice.

Slowly, I turn around.

Nigel.

He shifts his weight onto his other foot and sticks his hands in his pockets, the very picture of relaxed.

He looks… kind of small without his coat.

Nigel: Long time no see, huh?

I remove the popsicle from my lips and say nothing. I suddenly don’t want to eat it anymore.

Nigel: You look great! Did you do something to your hair?

Valo: …!

Despite everything, his words still give me a rush of warmth in my chest.

As if sensing my moment of weakness, Nigel steps closer.

Nigel: … Hey, mate.

He sighs and his shoulders slump.

Nigel: I want to apologize. I really fucked up, didn’t I?

Nigel: God, I’m the worst.

Valo: …

Nigel: How can I ever make it all up to you?

He seems so earnest…

Nigel: Listen, I… It’s really hot out. Let’s go to my place and talk it out, okay?

Nigel: What do you say? I might have some leftover weed somewhere. D-different strand than the one before, of course. Weaker.

Nigel: Just like old times, right? You, me, a fat blunt and take-out pizza, talking about everything and nothing, just like we used to…

I give him a long look before I nod.

Nigel smiles, relieved.

Nigel: Awesome. You won’t regret this, I promise.

He starts walking and I follow him. There are not many people around, I realize. It’s kind of late in the evening on a weekday, so everyone’s probably at home.

We walk past a department store and make it to a woodsy, shaded area. It’s slightly cooler here, but not much. I hear traffic somewhere nearby, obscured by the trees.

Sonela promised she’d be nearby with Nana, but I’m not seeing either of them. Worry makes my stomach feel tight.

Nigel: So you still can’t talk, huh?

I snap back to the moment. Gotta stay sharp. I shake my head as a reply to Nigel.

Nigel: Still? It’s been, what. A week and a half? Since that?

I shrug. A week and a half aren’t that long.

And it’s not like other, equally traumatizing and depressing shit hasn’t happened after that.

One equally traumatizing shit, in fact.

Nigel: Hm.

Nigel: That’s unfortunate…

One equally traumatizing shit that Nigel directly caused.

Nigel: Hm?

Nigel: What’s wrong?

I realize I stopped walking.

Nigel: Mate, I hate to sound like I’m in a hurry, but we should get going.

Valo: Shut up.

Nigel: !!

Nigel steps back like I had physically slapped him.

Nigel: Did you just…

Valo: Every single thing you’ve said to me… It’s all been just lies and manipulation!

Nigel: I-I wouldn’t say…

Valo: I said shut up!

A gust of wind washes by, tousling our hair and clothes, snatching the popsicle out of my hand.

Nigel: Jesus, hell! Calm down, mate! We don’t have to-

Valo: Do you ever shut up?!

Another gust of wind. Now I realize that it wasn’t wind, but a surge of air, a shockwave. This new burst makes the air thick.

My blood feels electric, like my veins are live wires. Something powerful is coursing through me and rushing in my veins.

Valo: You’re unbelievable. You used me and lied to me all along and you have the gall to come back like none of it happened?!

My voice cracks from the disuse. I feel something, like static energy, crackling at my fingertips.

Nigel lets out a high-pitched, panicked-sounding laugh and steps closer.

Nigel: Listen, you’re not thinking clearly. Let’s just calm down and not make a scene…

He reaches out to me and I slap his hand away and step back. Another pulse shocks the air and makes my blood thrum. The air is crackling.

Valo: Oh, like we didn’t make a scene back at the university?

My voice booms and Nigel winces.

But then he scoffs and laughs incredulously.

Nigel: Seriously?

Nigel: This is when you grow a backbone? Now?

Valo: Oh, I’m sorry. When would’ve been more convenient for you?

Valo: That time when you made me touch that skull that mangled my hand?

Valo: Or that time when you gave me weed brownies and didn’t tell me how strong they were?

Valo: Or that time when you fucking made me break into the university and then broke my arm??

During my rant, I step closer to Nigel, who steps back. My heartbeat is thundering in my ears. My heart feels like it’s about to burst out of my chest.

Nigel: C-calm down, Valo, you’re not thinking clearly.

Valo: Am I?! Am I not?? Funny, because I feel like I’m more lucid than I ever was with you!

Nigel: Now, listen-

He grabs my arm and I feel something snap behind my eyes. Another burst of wind blasts us. It envelopes us and whips up dry leaves around us like a small tornado.

Something powerful swirls inside me. It would be so easy to just let go and accept it, let it consume me…

> Give in > Resist it

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