He took a deep breath in of the heavy air and shoved his hands into his pockets. He heard a voice in his head telling him how childish it looked, but he shut her out as fast as he could. His pace quickened toward the exit.
Warm air met his face as he stepped outside. In a mad fury, white flakes swirled around his head. He swatted blindly at the sudden flurry and jumped backward instinctively.
As the surprise wore off, Eliot blinked and looked out into the street. Pedestrians walked about in their normal shuffle through the layer of white fluff on the ground.
“Snow?” he muttered, though he knew it wasn’t true. Heavy summer air still weighed on his body.
Though if he hadn’t been able to feel the air and had simply been looking at the scene before him, he might have though it was the dead of winter. Nearly a foot of white powder covered the ground. And even though every person in the street was dressed in summer clothes, they walked differently, shoulders hunched and eyes down, as if they were trudging through a snow storm.
Eliot held out his palm and caught a few of the light flakes in his hand. Tiny, he thought, and the longer he looked, the grayer it seemed. He shook his hand clean and put it back in his pocket. He turned his mind from the strange phenomenon and marched on down the street toward the bus stop.
The lone bench hadn’t been sat on all morning, by the looks of it. The grayish-white dust was piled high and uniform across the seat. Two people stood on either side of it, staring into the street blankly.
Eliot walked up to the bench and brushed the dust away. It fell heavily to the ground and scattered in a dim cloud. He sat down and crossed his arms over his chest. One of the other waiters, a heavy-set man, turned halfway toward Eliot and rose an eyebrow momentarily before turning away.
Another person walked up to the bus stop and stood in front of the bench, her back toward Eliot as she leaned out and looked down the street, like seeing the bus approaching would help it come faster.
She was an acaeth, her dress just short of her ankles and a large paper back in one hand. He heard her sigh and roll back on her heels. Eliot turned his eyes back to the white street and shifted his weight. He took a deep breath and noticed, for the first time, the faint scent of old fire. The thought of fire made his chest hurt.
“Oh!” squeaked the acaethess.
Eliot shifted his eyes to the ground at her feet, not really willing to lift his eyes up to anyone. Her feet were pointed at him.
“You can sit down, if you want,” Eliot said, scooting over very slightly. There was still plenty of room for another person to sit. “I just brushed away some of the…”
“Ash,” she said. “Didn’t you hear? Mt. Baenrend erupted early this morning.”
“I’m sorry,” she continue. She was looking right at him, Eliot could tell that without lifting his eyes. She took a step toward him, but did not sit down. “But I think we’ve met.”
Eliot didn’t realize that his eyes had widened or that his mouth had opened until some of the falling ash landed on his tongue. He looked up at her, like his neck was lifting his head completely against his will.
“My name is Kara,” she said. She was smiling. Her brown eyes were honest and open, like she was smiling with her soul. “I think we met through my friend Sahm?” She seemed unsure.
“Yeah,” Eliot stammered. “At—um—that get together—”
“On Gryphon Beach,” Kara finished. “Yes! I remember!”
Eliot huffed slightly.
Suddenly, Kara’s face changed. The joy vaporized and concern took its place. “Sahm told me what happened. I’m so sorry.”
Eliot tried not to laugh. What in the tides could Sahm have possibly told her?
“Why are you here?” Eliot snapped. He immediately bit his tongue and swallowed hard. “I mean—didn’t you live…somewhere else?” It was almost painful to pretend he didn’t know.
She nodded uncertainly. “Yeah, well. I did. I live here now. We do. Me and my son.”
“Your son,” Eliot replied. He remembered hearing about it. It was still incredibly strange to hear, coming from her lips.
“Oh, that’s right. I hadn’t even found out yet when I was at that party. Fades! That was a long time ago, wasn’t it?” She squished her face in a strange, awkward smile as she asked. It was the way she talked to people when she didn’t know them, when she was uncomfortable. Eliot’s gut wrenched as she looked at him like that.
“So do you work around here?” she asked, her tone unchanging.
“Yeah,” Eliot replied, as casually as possible. “I work down the street at the station there. I’m an interrogator.”
She smiled, like she was playing impressed. “Ooh. Sounds important. You’ve never struck me as the talkative type.”
I’m a damn Flash, he thought. The voice in his mind screamed with rage. He took a deep breath in an attempt to calm it.
“I can do my job,” he replied, sounding gruff but not angry.
“Good,” Kara said. She seemed more awkward than he’d ever seen her in his life.
“I should go, in fact,” Eliot said, speaking as fast as he could.
“Okay. It was nice to bump into you,” she replied.
“Tell Sahm hello.” He thought he was going to vomit.
Kara nodded and turned away, shifting the paper sack on her arm.
Eliot stood, kicking aside the piles of white ash and hurrying down the street. He didn’t need a bus. He could walk. He’d walked farther distances to punch Nathaniel for saying something stupid. His stomach turned again. He looked up into the gray sky and exhaled. It was perfectly clear now: the world really did hate him.
He continued down the street under the fall of volcanic ash, trying to imagine that it really was snow.