November first was always tough. A physical hangover could be counteracted with drugs and neurostim, but a psychic hangover was nearly undefeatable. I looked forward to the party so much, when it was over it was almost like I’d been punched in the gut. Halloween was like stepping back in time, like for one night I could be the person I used to be, before.
It had been years since I’d met any of those people in the real world, my “closest friends.” I knew they talked about me, the ones who still met for the occasional drink or meal. Even the ones who’d moved somewhere far kept in touch online. Except me. I was alone. How could I face them after?
There had been an investigation and they said it wasn’t my fault. That it was the conditions and the other driver crossing the line. But it was me who’d been at the wheel, me who had been responsible. And I had just walked away, while Emil lay there, broken and unmoving. His beautiful body reduced to a shell, animated by wires and painted in pixels. And I did that.
I lay in bed, watching the sun slant through the window. Something had changed, somehow. At first I couldn’t even identify the feeling, it had been so long. But finally I knew what it was — I really did wish that every day were Halloween. I wanted to be out there, wanted to be back there, at the party. The only place where I felt like a human.
I rolled over and picked up my handheld. I’d always kept the contacts up-to-date, but never used it. When I hit the connect button I was so surprised I didn’t have time to be afraid. How long has it been since I wasn’t afraid?
“Hello?” The voice sounded hungover, too. That wasn’t a surprise. It was the only thing that wasn’t.
“This is the Empress of the Universe,” I said. “Well, I was yesterday. Today I’m just Diego, I guess.”
I waited for Emil to answer, fear, exhilaration and anticipation nearly drowning me. As the moment stretched out toward infinity, I looked out the window and saw a flock of birds take flight off the roof of the building next door, their tiny bodies moving together as if they were individual components of some complex machine. I felt something warm and real and safe returning to my body, like birds returning to their nesting grounds after a long, cold winter — there, at that moment between question and answer, between gravity and flight.