Chapter 1


It wasn’t the playful slap to her backside as she bent over to retrieve the roll of silverware that made Cross glare reproachfully at the inebriated old men sitting at table nine. It was unnecessary and embarrassing, but it was unfortunately nothing new from drunk customers. If that had been the extent of it, she’d have maybe slapped the offending hand in a light-hearted, flirtatious manner that would hopefully lead to a slightly better tip. But that was not the extent of it; table nine had crossed the very fine line the waitress laid down when it came to putting up with drunk old men.

“What did you say?” she asked, even though she had heard his words quite clearly.

He just smiled at her, his friends still jeering at his sly maneuver. “Nothing, sweet cheeks. I was just saying how much I love me some big ol’ booty.”

Cross clenched her fists, willing laser beams to shoot from her eyes and break the constraints of reality for some swift justice. Most girls had some physical attribute they didn’t want to draw attention to; for Cross it was the width of her ass. Childbearing hips, they called them, as though that would make them more bearable to deal with on a daily basis. To define them as feminine curves would be an understatement, and as far as the hourglass figure was concerned, hers was disproportionately bottom heavy. To her understanding, there were curves and then there were veritable road hazards and the sign Cross felt she was sporting read “wide load.”

With effort she laid the silverware on the table and walked back to the kitchen area to turn in their order, muttering to herself as she passed through the swinging silver doors. “Four slices of pie for the creeps at table nine. Spit on it for me, will ya?”

The cook, a man in his late thirties with a balding patch on the back of his skull, smiled at her over the partition separating the waiting staff from the kitchen proper. “Someone piss off our little princess?”

“Not at all. See, it says right here in their order: pie with ice-cream and snot laden spit on top.” She waved the datapad in his face, though it was obvious there had been no such request.

He chuckled, knowing without having to ask what had angered her after a year working with the fiery young woman. “Well, would you look at that. I’ll make sure they get it.” He snorted to punctuate his intentions, disappearing from her line of sight to fetch the order.

Cross gave a long sigh, which was followed by a yawn out of nowhere as she stretched and waited. It was nearly closing time: in ten or so minutes they could usher out the last of the customers and lock up the small restaurant. The closing shifts were not only killing her and her feet, they were complicating the system she had in place to help her juggle her personal life and the time she was forced to spend as the bread winner. On many nights such at this one, there was no compromise and both parts of her life were forced to coincide.

The door to the kitchen area swung open, and the cook walked out with a tray of pie in his hands. Cross eyed him in confusion; usually he slid the food across the partition to her.

“I’ve got this,” he assured her. “You could use a break. Go ahead and take a load off.”

“If you didn’t remind me of my daddy, I would kiss you.” Cross gave him a large smile as she reached around and began untying her apron. “Thanks so much.”

He waved her thanks aside, shouldering the tray. “Don’t mention it. Can’t none of us leave until Teyen manages to get done with the dishes, anyway.”

Cross gave an understanding nod and hurried through the door to the back of the kitchen, a skip in her step as she gave a cursory check of her appearance in the polished metal counter top before walking towards the sinks. Though the hours were often as bad as the pay, the people she worked with really made it a pleasure to work at the small Fringe diner. One of her favorite co-workers was without a doubt the bus boy and dish washer that had joined them several months earlier. Quiet by nature but generally not timid, Teyen Rodion was the best reason the Fringe had to offer to wear a push up bra.

The employee break area was next to the sinks, and as she rounded the stoves she could see Teyen standing at the sink, rubber gloves pulled up to his elbows as he used the overhead spray gun on some offending object hidden in the deep basin. He always reminded her of a child who had decided to play dress up with his father’s clothing; everything seemed too big on him from the huge shirt he wore to the baggy jeans that he held up not with a belt but an extension cord wrapped around and tied in front. With so much baggy clothing on, his arms looked pencil-thin, even more so now as they disappeared into baggy yellow gloves.

Even his hair seemed too big for him. It was short and spiked but wild and everywhere with patches of electric blue through the golden spears. He looked rather like a homeless punk who could afford nothing but second hand clothes and hair wax and who probably hadn’t eaten in years. He was always clean shaven, though, and smelling strongly of soap. The fact that he at least took care of his personal hygiene had always been enough for their employer; he was generally seen as someone who simply could not afford to care about his appearance rather than as a lazy degenerate.

Lazy was certainly not a word that many associated with Teyen Rodion. He had several jobs, mostly bussing tables or washing dishes. It was the kind of work that paid next to nothing and offered only a clean table and empty sink by way of job satisfaction. Despite many opportunities, though, he never applied for or accepted jobs as a full time server or manager. Teyen seemed more than content to continue working in the background, as though he didn’t quite trust anyone else to take care of the dirty dishes properly. He was an odd man but a good one, and Cross had become instantly fond of him and his eccentricities.

“Hey, Teyen,” she called sweetly, watching the muscles in his back twitch slightly through the thin white shirt before he turned his head to look at her. “Guess Johnny wasn’t kidding. You’ve got quite a back up of dishes. Hope Sem isn’t the cause. I really thought he’d sleep most of the evening.”

“Not exactly. He woke up, I got him a snack and it...escalated.”

Cross continued to smile as she walked into the break area and over to the carrier parked near the door where she had left her seven month old son to sleep while she worked. She hated bringing him with her, especially when it meant giving Teyen the added responsibility of watching over him on top of his paid duties. Still, as far as babysitters went, there weren’t many people she could trust more than the dish washer. Upon finding the bassinet empty, though, she felt ready to retract that opinion.

“Teyen, where’s Sem?”

Teyen’s face pinched slightly as though he was preparing himself for her reaction. “Like I said, he woke up and started crying so I got him a snack. Nothing bad, just some of that carrot stuff you left back here for him. I left him alone with it to finish off the tables up front and when I came back he was covered in it and he smelled like...like the worst smell you can imagine and then tripled and mixed with the second worst smell you can imagine.”

Cross crossed her arms over her chest, waiting for him to continue. “So where is he?”

“He’s…not done yet,” he answered, turning back to the sink. His right hand gently squeezed the trigger on the spray nozzle’s head, sprinkling water down into the first of three sinks. As he did, an almost purr-like giggle echoed up, nearly hidden in the sound of the drumming water.

Cross quickly joined him at the sink, looking down to find her baby lying at the bottom, naked and happy as the water rained down on him.

“I think he likes it. He can feel the beat of the water against the metal,” Teyen explained, angling the gun to continue to rinse the squirming infant clean, holding his legs up with his free hand to hose off the worst of it. The blonde little boy just giggled and played, pounding his small hands flat against the sides and bottom of the sink.

“Probably a whole symphony of vibrations in there,” she agreed, relaxing a bit as the panic wore off. “Honestly, though, why didn’t you just wipe him off with a rag and change his diaper like a normal person?”

“Normal people must get peed on a lot. Not me. Diaper comes off in the sink and as soon as he decides to try and shoot at me with that thing, it goes right back down and in the drain. It’s a win-win situation since he seems to find urinating on himself almost as funny as peek-a-boo.”

“And somehow I still pay you to watch him.” Cross patted his bony shoulder then lifted Sem up and out of the sink, wrapping him in a clean dish towel. “I’ll take over from here. Soon as I’ve got him put back together, I’ll help finish off the dishes.”

Teyen nodded, making a face as he turned the spray gun on full blast to clean out the sink, before tackling the dishes.

Cross carried Sem back to the break room and laid him on the table with her bag of changing materials. He was very quiet, mesmerized by the lights overhead as she powdered and covered his smooth, clean bottom in a disposable diaper. Only once she was finished did he begin to fuss, disappointed to be once again restrained by the absorbant nessessity. They were quiet, mewing sounds, though, nothing obnoxious enough to bother the other employees. Even though he couldn’t hear himself, when he could see his mother the noises he made tended to be relatively calm. He was fonder of gurgling than screaming anyway.

It had been Teyen who had first questioned Sem’s hearing when they’d met, and she’d had it confirmed not long after by a doctor. Sem had been born deaf, but in all other regards he was a happy, healthy baby, and obviously unaware that he was any different from others. His laugh was just as heart warming and joyful as any other baby’s and as far as Cross was concerned, he was perfect and had many of his father’s features. He would love him as much as she did when they finally met, of that she had no doubt.

Putting Sem in the bassinet again, Cross attached it to the stroller, and wheeled him out to park beside the dish drying area on the other side of the sanitizer sink. Sem watched them quietly for some time, and was asleep by the time his mother laid a blanket over him and rolled him out to the street toward their home.

The walk home was never a fun experience. Cross kept her purse close to her as she walked, careful to keep closer to the street than to the alleys that ran between the buildings. There were always petty gang wars going on throughout the Fringe and she was determined that she and Sem would not become casualties of them. On nights when she closed and had to walk home from the restaurant she walked fairly quickly.

Unlike the Core, which never slept, the Fringe had its hours of inactivity. There was an understanding of when your average citizen should be outside and when it was best they stay indoors. A couple lazy buses ran late, but Cross only lived a couple blocks, and would rather keep moving than stand around at a bus stop waiting for her ride. She was likely to get there just as soon, anyway. The sidewalk was nearly empty, though, which made it easy to notice the sound of thick-soled boots matching her steps behind her. There was only time for a moment of panic before things became clear.

“If you want to walk me home, you should stand next to me, Teyen.” Cross looked over her shoulder to see the gaunt young man standing several yards behind her, hands deep in the pockets of his coat.

He paused, as though wondering how she had known it was him, then took a few quick steps forward to stand between her and the rows of buildings to her right. He said nothing, and kept his head down as though he were a child. He motioned for her to begin walking again.

“I know this is out of your way. I want you to know I appreciate your concern,” She said as they walked, smiling up at the tall busboy. He shrugged, his head still down, eyeing Sem asleep in the stroller. She added, “You know, you two speak the same language: most of the time you’re quiet and contemplative and every now and then I can’t get you to shut up. Biggest difference I can see is I never get to hear you laugh or smile, Teyen.”

He shrugged again and changed the subject. “You don’t belong here. You could do a lot better. His father should be helping you.”

“Well, his father’s busy taking care of himself right now. Besides, Sem and I are doing alright. Rent being what it is out here, we’re quite well off on just my pay.” She walked into him playfully, bumping his thigh with her hip. “You’re a sweet guy to worry and all, but we’re fine. Really.”

Teyen didn’t look like he was simply going to stop worrying because she told him to do so. He gave a tired sigh, his bangs hanging over his eyes. “Taking care of himself? He on drugs or something? Prison?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. He’s paying his way through college. He lives pretty close to the Core. He doesn’t need Sem in his life just yet--there are things he has to do and places he has to be in order for everything to come to pass.” Cross smiled sadly, happy memories playing out in her mind. “When it’s time, we’ll all be together again. In the meantime, I’m not complaining. I get to be walked home by one of the sweetest, most gorgeous men in all of Solace.”

The blonde man ducked his head, hiding the blush on his cheeks and the scowl on his face. He remained quiet for the rest of their short trip down the street and to the front of her building, head down and hands deep in his pockets. Cross gave him a break and was quiet the rest of the way, pausing only for a moment before heading inside to stand on her tiptoes and kiss his cheek.

“Thanks again. See you tomorrow?”

Teyen gave a short nod, standing back long enough to watch her enter the building before starting back towards his own home.

Sem continued to sleep undisturbed.