"It won't be long," she promised.
"Not for you," Skip said. "A thousand years for me." Chelle smiled, and all heaven was in her smile.
* * *
Then he was looking down at his hands, and they were wrinkled and old. He stood before a mirror, but there was a mist between them that veiled his face from its own eyes. He raised his hand to push the mist away, knowing that his hand shook, knowing that horror waited beyond the mist.
He woke, sweating and trembling in his narrow bed, rose and went to the washbasin, poured water from the pitcher there into the bowl. The water smelled a little like sewage, but it felt cool and refreshing.
He soaked the cloth again, scrubbed his sweating face a second time. It was only a dream.
Only a dream.
In his dream he had gotten a yellow autoprint that had said she was back and he had been back too, back to the day she left. They had kissed...
That had been the dream. What had really happened?
He got a water bottle, filled his mug, and decanted this purer water into his teakettle. His striker lit the gas.
They had contracted. He remembered that, and it was no dream. Just before she had left, they had contracted. Together they had registered the contract. How romantic it had seemed!
"You'll have twenty years to devote to your career..." Chelle was lovely when she smiled. "We'll be rich when I get back, and you'll have a young contracta."
And he was rich, but she would (in all probability) never return to him. Now...
He looked at himself in the mirror, and saw that he needed to shave and that much of his stubble was white. His hair was gray at the temples, too, and through the doorway - what was that beside the screen?
Yellow paper, of course. He always used yellow for client copies. They were so frightened... He smiled to himself.
Always so frightened, though they tried (most of them) not to show it. Part of his job was to reassure them, and so there had been yellow paper in the printer.
Something seized him, and he stepped away from the mirror, trembling.
Five hundred. His watch, picked up from its place on the floor beneath his bed, read zero five zero six. His autocall would not come for more than an hour. He could go back to bed, go back to sleep.
Shave. He would shave instead. Shave, clean up, get dressed, go out and get breakfast.
He went to the window. Magnificent! The view always inspired him. The window would not open, of course. Here, just below the penthouse, the wind would be savage.
Savage and cold.
For the first time it struck him that he could have it replaced with one that would open. He could have a floor-to-ceiling window that would open at the touch of a button. The cost would be trifling and tax-deductible. With a bit of creative accounting...
Trifling for him.
It would be foolish of course. No one would really want such a thing, and he would never do it. But he could.
Boswash, NAU, was waking. From horizon to horizon, lights sparked into being in the tiny windows of lofty structures that were, for the most part, less lofty than his.
That yellow page. The Weyer murder?
He shook his head.
Shaving occupied the next eight minutes. Preshave, shave, aftershave. Good! He had gotten everything done before the power began to flicker, although his shaver could be plugged into the backup if necessary.
He folded the yellow sheet without looking at it and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Breakfast first, he told himself. Business afterward.
And realized, almost with a start, that he had been lying to himself. He knew what was on the yellow paper.
No. He sipped fragrant tea. That had been the dream. His tea was supposed to smell like tea roses; the knowledge planted a garden in his mind: huge bushes with dark green foliage and cupped pink flowers. Or red. Or white. A fountain in the middle, one in which pure water flowed without letup. The subtropics. There would be places there with gardens like that.
Excerpted from Home Fires by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 2011 by Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tor Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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