Chapter 52 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

At one minute after two in the morning, Maria crouched behind a bush in the backyard of the Asylum. Behind the bush was a small metal structure that protruded from the ground a few feet away from the house. This was an air vent for Torrence's bomb shelter. The air vent could be closed, or it could be opened to allow air to flow in normally. It had originally been designed to use filters, which were supposed to keep radioactive dust out of the shelter in times of crisis, but Torrence had never been able to find replacements. Despite the lack of these filters, Torrence always left the vent open. With it closed, the shelter was stuffy and the air quickly became stale.

"Torrence!" whispered Maria into the vent.

The vent also conducted sound wonderfully, and allowed visitors to talk to whomever was in the shelter without disturbing the other inmates of the Asylum. It was a perfect intercom.

"Torrence!" whispered Maria, a bit more loudly.

Torrence had been sleeping. "Hello?" he said, a bit groggily, "Is that you, Maria?"

"Yes!" whispered Maria. "Let's go get some Ice Cream!"

Torrence groaned. But it was not a negative groan. It was the groan of a father who pretends to protest when his children are begging for one more bedtime story or yet another piggy back ride. It was a grin masquerading as a groan.

"Oh, come on!" pleaded Maria, reading Torrence's mood and playing along with it. "Please?"

"Very well," said Torrence.

"Yay!" said Maria, forgetting to be quiet.

Torrence gathered himself together, and eventually emerged, quietly shutting the front door behind him. While waiting for him, Maria had strolled around the house, enjoying the night. It was a cool November night, and the air smelled clean and crisp.

Torrence and Maria strolled along the sidewalk toward the Geddes Point subway station. Maria was full of energy, having just gotten away from work, and went skipping ahead, and running back, and bouncing around Torrence in circles. Torrence strode quickly, purposefully forward, talking big steps, with his hands in his pockets and his mouth in a grin.

They got on the subway and rode north, to the Industry Circle station. After a five minute walk, they slid into a booth at the Henderson Diner and glanced briefly at the menus. Maria ordered a banana split, and Torrence ordered a black and white, a vanilla milkshake served in a goblet lined with hot fudge.

Maria talked up a storm, telling Torrence about her day at work and about whatever else came into her mind. Torrence listened, telling her things when he was able to get a word in, and answering questions that she had occasion to ask. Then the ice cream came, and they stopped talking in order to eat.

Torrence stirred up his black and white, and slurpingly drank a few mouthfuls. Then he smiled to himself as he thought about where he was and what he was doing. He'd been dragged out of bed in the middle of a chilly November night in order to eat, of all things, ice cream. It was ridiculous! But he couldn't have been happier about it.

Maria loaded up a spoon with ice cream, whipped cream, and a big hunk of banana. As she chewed it, she looked across at Torrence and wondered what he was thinking. Was he just humoring her whimsical nature by going out to get ice cream with her, or was he actually enjoying the outing as much as she was? And did it matter?

Torrence thought about the events of the previous two months. He'd been spending practically all of his free time with Maria, and was thoroughly enjoying it. And he suddenly realized that, during this time, he'd almost never seen the Four. More surprisingly, he found himself realizing that he didn't even care about them anymore. His attitude had changed completely. He no longer had any interest in hanging around with them, or in being accepted by them. They didn't matter to him at all anymore. And while he took a certain amount of smug pleasure in this realization, he also found it rather strange.

Maria also found her mind wandering back, thinking about the time before she and Torrence began dating. She remembered her futile attempts to attract Dave's attention, and smiled to herself. She wondered if he'd ever been aware of her interest in him. She wondered if anything could ever have happened between her and Dave, and if it would have been as good as what she had going now with Torrence. Then reminded herself that it didn't matter, and smiled happily at the man across the table from her.

Torrence took another drink of his black and white and got a dollop of hot fudge on his nose. Maria laughed at him, and then wiped the fudge off with her napkin.

After they'd finished eating, they sat holding hands across the table for a long time. Finally, they went back to the Asylum, where, eventually, they went to sleep.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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