She nodded, trying to smile.
“Fine,” she panted.
He raised an eyebrow at her and frowned. He held the expression long enough for her to see his doubt, then turned his attention to the object on her palm.
“That’s it?” Kennen asked, his mocha eyes narrowed.
Seated beside him on the couch, Cali held a single gravel in her hand. With its rough, off-white facade, it could have come from anywhere. The hard line of his mouth said Kennen thought the same.
“It’s supposed to look like this,” she said, dragging air into her lungs. She was shaky, but it wouldn't last long. She'd practiced this part of the process dozens of times: the recovery from creating a piatreta–especially from collecting the energy hidden inside it–always left her breathless and trembling. But that would pass. This wasn't the hard part. “If anyone finds it, it’ll look like a bone chip. Easy explanation–or assumption. Not suspicious.”
“‘Bone chip’?” Kennen’s forehead wrinkled. Firelight danced across his temple, his cheekbones, his jaw, and framed his dark skin with a golden halo.
Cali shuddered a laugh and tore her eyes from him. I’m listening. I'm just listening. You don't glow like the sun.
“I don’t plan on breaking my arm or anything; but even if I did, that little rock wouldn’t be noteworthy in an x-ray or any other test they ran.” She rubbed the soft, underside of her forearm.
“Why would it show up in an x-ray? What’re you gonna do with this thing?" He reached toward the stone, then hesitated. "Can I touch it?”
“Sure," she said, holding it out to him, "it’s your secret. As for what I’ll do with it…," she shrugged. "I’m a Garridan. I’ll do what we do.”
Her hand had almost steadied…until he brushed it to take the piatreta. He pinched the pebble between two fingers, and examined the unassuming talisman.
"Which is?" he said, eyes trained on the stone.
Wow--that was fast… She drooped. If I spell it out, you won't go through with it.
“What I told you before: I’ll keep it inside, so no one will find it.”
“Then why–wait!" he started. "You mean physically? You’re going to physically put this inside you?" He glanced at the spot she'd been rubbing. "In your arm?” His eyes rounded as he stared at her and the false bone.
“That’s what ‘garridan’ means: we keep secrets within ourselves.” She smiled weakly. "It's about as secure as you can get, without losing your memory."
Chocolate-coffee eyes searched hers. Her throat tightened and Cali fought the urge both to look away and to drown in them.
“You’re serious,” he said, his deep voice quiet, his fingers wrapped around the stone. “You’d do this.”
"The Lab is this close," she pinched her thumb and forefinger together until they almost touched, "to finishing a medicine that prevents cancer. Cancer!" She shook her head. "Even if the funding does–” No. Too soon. Neither of us should think about it, especially right now. She sighed. “It’ll keep you safe and keep the research going. It’s worth it.”
His eyes shot to hers and locked there. Her lips were suddenly dry. She watched while his eyes drifted down her face as she wet them. His mouth parted, then snapped shut as his attention flickered back to the piatreta.
Cali fidgeted with the charm on her necklace: the swirling Garridan symbol from her grandmother.
“You’re playing with your necklace. You’re nervous,” Kennen half-grinned.
“It’s not a big deal,” she forced her hand down and fought to keep it there. “It’s a small incision. Deep, sure, but really small. If I'm careful for the next week or so, it may not even leave a scar. Pushing it all the way through my skin–deep enough not to show–is the only part that’ll probably hurt.”
Kennen’s face went from a coffee shade resembling his eyes, to a sickly green. His throat worked in silence, and Cali wasn’t sure if he was about to say something or be ill.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” He leaned forward, arms resting on his thighs. He scrubbed a hand over his eyes and down his face before he looked at her, again.
“I mean, it’s not what I do for fun,” she half-smiled, “but it’s okay: I’ve expected this for years–ever since Grandma started training me to be a Garridan.”
“Whoa–you mean you’ve never done this before?” Kennen straightened, gaping.
“No, …not really.” Her cheeks heated.
“What if something goes wrong? And who’s gonna put this rock in your arm and close you back up?” he said, lifting the hand that clutched the piatreta.
“I will,” she swallowed. “Grandma taught me how–and had me practice,” she added, cutting off the question before he could say it. Don't ask how, though. Please, don't ask how.
“Practice? On who?”
She closed her eyes. Not ‘how,’ but just as bad.
“Raw meat,” she grimaced. “Usually chicken or pork loin, but whatever was handy in a pinch.”
A scowl melted from his face, reforming into wide-eyed shock. He stood and spun away from her in one fluid motion, hands on his head as he paced the room.
Cali exhaled, once he wasn’t staring at her. That didn’t bode well: if he didn’t change his mind, if he did want her as Garridan, they’d be spending a lot more time together–and she’d have to remember to breathe, eventually.
But did he want her as Garridan? He’d hardly known anything about what he was asking, when he’d arrived–that became clearer by the minute. If he didn’t know the cost to me, she thought, there’s no way he knows what it’ll cost him.
Kennen strode back and forth across the room. Strong, agitated arms changed position every few seconds, –crossed over his chest, hands in his pockets, behind his head, --as his stare burned ruts into the floor.
I have to tell him. He needs to know what’ll happen if I keep the piatreta, she thought as he paced.
I’ll let him decide, then tell him how that choice will affect him. Her eyes followed as he walked the room from end to end.
Decide, already! She sighed briefly. Wait–doesn’t he think I can do it? Her forehead wrinkled, and she crossed her arms as she rose from the couch.
“You just saw me make a stone case around the original energy signature I pulled from your neurons,” she said. “I know what I’m doing.” At least, I should…
“Why isn’t that enough?” he paused and spun to face her. “Why do you have to…embed this thing in your arm?”
For you. The tension in her shoulders eased.
“You can take it, now,” she shrugged a little too nonchalantly. “But there’s nothing to shield it from being tracked. Garridans train to use our neural currents to cloak a piatreta’s energy. If you take it…well, you’re a little safer, since the original signal isn’t in you anymore–”
“But I still remember it,” Kennen paced toward her. “How can I remember it, if the memory’s gone?”
“The signals you have, now, are the same as what I have, after you told me what you heard: neural activity for some gossip. Hearing about something is different from witnessing it, yourself. It isn’t connected the same way in your brain, and it doesn’t have the visual elements as a first-hand memory.”
He frowned, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Just for a second, try it. Can you think of what anyone was wearing?”
Kennen paused. His eyes shifted to the side as he recalled the conversation.
“I heard more than I saw, …but, I can’t remember exactly what anyone said.
“How?” he asked. “I know what they were talking about. I know…” his eyebrows gathered over the bridge of his nose and he began pacing, again, as he spoke. “I know they were talking about money, and…something was wrong. It was four people…or three? Dr. Baylor was definitely one of them, I think–”
“Whoa–that’s enough! I just wanted to prove my point. I can’t pull energy from every neuron in you that's somehow related to this. You don’t want to strengthen any of those signal pathways and risk triggering something you want to forget.”
He nodded toward the ground; a moment later his head raised with his eyes. He crossed back to Cali in two steps, a wide smile lighting his face as he grabbed her upper arms.
“I don’t remember! I mean, I do, but not like before. It’s all faded, you know?”
His hands were embers, but it was his smile that warmed her. She returned it, her breath catching, again.
His hands stayed on her arms as he took a long, slow breath. Blinking, he exhaled a laugh and dropped his hands, forgetting the stone. It clacked against the wood floor. Kennen muttered a curse as he sank to his knees, skating his hands across the planks to find it.
With a sigh he clutched the piatreta, seizing the small, smooth shape as soon as his fingers brushed over it.
“That’s part of the problem," she strained to keep the quiver out of her voice, "if the stone isn’t shielded, it could be lost or tracked. If the secret’s important enough to need a piatreta, it’s probably important enough for them to hurt you to get it.”
He straightened, and didn't step back from where he had been.
"But it's not in me, anymore. As long as I hide it or lock it somewhere–maybe both--it should be fine, right? You don't need to–" he swallowed, "to cut your arm up for me."
"I don't mind–" she started, but his eyes drifted back to the fist sheltering the piatreta. Does he know he's doing that?
"I don't think that's a good idea,” she said, slowly. “The piatreta can't veil the energy signal entirely. That's why Garridans train to cloak them, too. We can't cover that energy alone, either, but a piatreta and a Garridan make it almost undetectable."
"'Undetectable' to who? I was worried about acting suspicious and giving myself away; but I won't, now, because you put the memory in this little rock, right?"
Cali opened her mouth, but he cut her off.
"Memory, energy, whatever," he said with his crooked, perfect grin. "Doesn't matter. Someone would have to know about all this–Garridans and piatretas and stuff–and be on the lookout for them, all the time, to find out about this.” He held up the fist with the stone inside. “What are the odds of that? I mean, I'd never heard of anything like this–"
"But you found out."
"Because you told me! How likely is it that other people around here know?"
"Dr. Baylor does," she whispered. "He recognized my necklace the day we started at the Lab. He said his mother read him folktales, when he was a kid. One was about a Garridan who had a necklace with this symbol in the picture. I laughed it off and said my Grandma told me those, too, and gave me the necklace. Which was true…ish. He laughed, but I can feel him staring at me, sometimes.” She shivered.
Kennen’s jaw clenched. He wavered a moment, as if he would take her hand or put his on her arms, again.
“Baylor’s a jerk,” he said, instead. “Why didn’t you tell me? I’ll stay close, so he’ll back off.” He stepped an inch closer to her, then.
He’s trying to protect me. She held back a smile.
“He is a jerk,” she said, “one who’d watch for suspicious energy signals, if he knew how. …And if he’s working for a cartel and using that money to fund the Lab’s research…” She shook her head. “I bet he does know how–”
“We aren’t supposed to think about what happened.” He was still and stiff…and scared. “I don’t remember exactly what I heard; but I know I shouldn’t have.” His brows drew together, low over his eyes, and he frowned, looking away. His lips twitched, as if he were rehearsing a scene in his imagination. “They’ll look for me. For whoever Baylor thought he heard. I can’t believe he’d just look around and decide everything was fine. I stayed out of the security shots as much as possible, but still…”
“Why were you there?” she asked. Her fingers rubbed the Garridan charm, wanting to reach for him, reassure him.
“I forgot to record the sample temperatures, again,” a smile started up his face, but couldn’t find a grip and fell. “Baylor threatened to take away my birthday and all my ancestors’ birthdays, after the first time. I remembered the readings–I swear. So, I went back to write them in the log.” He shrugged.
“Baylor checks the logs after everyone leaves,” she said, biting her lower lip. “He’ll notice if anything was added, and know someone was there. He’ll be waiting for the right energy.”
His gaze flashed from the piatreta to Cali, and pinned her with desperate eyes.
Breathe! Darn it!
“Let me grab a few things. I’ll be right back and we can get this finished.”
She didn’t give him time to reply before she rushed out of the living room and into the bedroom. Her breath came short and her heart raced. When did I stop breathing around him? That’s never been a problem, before.
The piatreta…it’s started for me, too. Her grandmother had warned her: a Garridan’s service came with a price, both for the petitioner and the Garridan. Giving and keeping a secret created a bond stronger than spider silk between them. The giver would be bound tightly and almost irrevocably to the Garridan. The Garridan would feel an attachment to the giver, as well, though not as strong. I can’t do this, she thought. He doesn’t understand what it’ll do to him. I have to tell him.
Her stomach turned. What if he doesn’t want me? Flashes of them darted through her mind. Kennen her best friend’s twin brother. Kennen her prom date. Kennen, who drove to another state to meet her, –and not his sister, –just to hang out, during college. Kennen, who interned at the same research facility as her, though they worked on different projects. She’d loved him for as long as she could remember.
She’d mentioned being a Garridan–a Secret Keeper–at dinner once, as they’d reminisced about their families. Her grandmother had always cautioned her about revealing that status; however, she expected the risk was in being exposed, not in being solicited.
When Kennen rushed to her, asking for help, she understood her mistake.
I can’t lose Kennen. …But if I don’t tell him, how will I know if anything is from him, or the piatreta?
Cali pulled her grandmother’s container of Keeping equipment from under the bed. She checked her supplies, took a deep breath, and returned to Kennen.
He was sitting on the couch, again, still examining the stone. His eyes slid to their corners to look at Cali as she approached.
“There’s more to this, isn’t there?” his eyes flashed from her to the piatreta.
“When I tried to put this down, it felt wrong. I had to make myself let go of it, but I could only do it for a second. I laid it on the table, but I couldn’t walk across the room without…without needing to pick it up, again.” He looked up at her. “What’s going on?”
Cali took a deep breath and sat beside him. She laid a circular, metal container on the coffee table in front of them and angled to face Kennen.
“Cookies?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” she grinned, her shoulders loosening, slightly, “Grandma didn’t believe in throwing anything away. She invented reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Cali opened the lid, letting him see medical instruments–scissors, stitching thread, butterfly bandages, gauze, medical tape, needles, antiseptic and alcohol wipes, etc. Each item was sealed in a plastic bag and held within a styrofoam casing that had been cut to fit the container.
Kennen leaned forward, resting his forearms on his legs as he scanned the contents of the cookie tin.
“You’re really gonna do this, aren’t you?” He blanched a little and swallowed.
“If you want me to,” she said, forcing her gaze to steady. “But there’s one more thing you need to know…about the stone.” She took a breath. “Since it’s yours–your secret’s energy inside–you’ll always feel…drawn to it. …No matter where it is.”
“What do you mean ‘drawn to it’?”
She straightened, muscles tense.
“You’ll think about it. A lot. You’ll want to be near it, want to know where it is. And if it gets too far away…you’ll be restless and worried until it’s back where you think it should be.” She drank in his coffee eyes. “It’s still your secret, even if the original is in here,” she pointed to the fist wrapped around the piatreta, then to his head, "and just a faded copy in here. You’ll have a connection with it until the day you die.”
A heavy stillness descended. They looked at each other. He saw it. He must have, she thought–how she adored him, wanted to keep him safe, wanted him to want her the same way. She was exposed, …and couldn’t breathe. She wanted to. She needed to. She tried to. But she couldn’t. Not then.
Kennen’s lips twitched, twice, before words finally escaped.
“And if you ‘keep’ the stone, …I’ll be connected to you,” he murmured.
“Until the day you die.”
Seconds like hours passed. Kennen dropped his eyes, and Cali closed hers, her heart plummeting. She gasped when a large, warm hand slid over hers, lacing their fingers, a gravel pressed between their palms.
“I guess…that’s a risk I’m willing to take,” he said.