“Dogger, Kate, you got hot!”  The boy was fifteen and spoke with a slight accent that might have been French but it was hard to tell.  He used a lot of select slang that I guessed was trendy among simmers.  He was also just a hair under five feet tall.

Katie-Anne smiled at the boy as we joined him and his older companion at their table.  “Thanks, Mudflap.  I see that you haven’t changed at all.”

“Yeah, I gave some thought to growing for awhile, but decided against it.”

“Couldn’t stand being average, huh?”

“That and I’d have to buy new clothes.  I hate clothes shopping.”

They went on bantering like that for a while.  We put in our orders for greasy breakfast food.

“How’s your family?” Katie-Anne asked.

The boy shrugged and looked down at the table, “Mom and Dad split up awhile back.  Everyone expected Dad to go back to the SIM to be with Chelci, but he hasn’t.  He hasn’t been to Terrasend since the day I was killed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  What about Chelci?”

“She’s still exploding things.  When Jaime left, she took over training the new kids.  She’s not you, but she’s doing what she can.”

Katie-Anne smiled at the compliment, and then turned to the other person at the table, a man in his mid twenties.  He wore a patchy brown beard and shoulder length hair that stuck out, disheveled, from beneath a baseball cap on his head.

“And what do you go by these days?” Katie-Anne asked.

“Kaj.”  Katie-Anne smiled at him too, though he didn’t much look like the smiling type.

“I cried when I first heard you’d been killed,” she said.  “You did mean that much to me.  I’m sure the others felt the same way.  Telema must be having an awful time with it.”

Kaj scoffed.  “I’ll bet she is,” was all he said.  Whatever more there was to the story, Kaj didn’t seem like he was up for sharing just now.  Katie-Anne must have gotten the same sense because we settled into an awkward silence where I mostly just avoided eye contact with everyone.

 “Who’s the tag-along?” Mudflap finally asked, referring to me.

“This is Adam.  He’s…” Katie-Anne hesitated for just a moment before she finished with, “A friend.”  Kaj looked me over and now I did meet his eyes.  I got the feeling that neither of us particularly liked what we saw. 

“Are you two it?” Katie-Anne asked.

“It?  It!”  Mudflap made a show of being offended.  He looked at Kaj, “Who could she possibly have been hoping to see besides us?”

Kaj just scoffed again, but this time he was smirking a little.

“That’s not fair and you know it.”  Katie-Anne’s eyes narrowed.  “The message said Jaime wanted to see me.”

“And the message we got,” Kaj matched Katie-Anne’s cynical look, but his was meaner, “Was that if we ever wanted to return to Terrasend, we had to get you to agree to return.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Katie-Anne said, “There are no respawns in Terrasend, and you both died.”

Mudflap winced.  “Thanks for reminding me about that.  I’d almost forgotten.”

“The point is,” Kaj offered, “That no respawns is just a rule of the sim, and Jaime breaks the rules.  So if bringing you back will make him happy enough to break the permanent death rule, then I’m inclined to try to give him what he wants.”

I don’t think Kaj was making a threat, or even trying to be threatening, but that was certainly how he came off.  Even Mudflap looked a little taken aback.  “Look, Kate,” he said, “I know this is a lot to drop on you all at once, and I’m sorry that we’re making it sound all urgent.  It’s just that, you should know as well as either of us how losing the sim affects you.  That sim was our lives and we liked those lives.  And when we were killed it really was like we’d died.  The people we loved just went on about their lives and we got stuck in this crappy, mundane afterlife.”

Our orders arrived and conversation died as food was passed out.  Mudflap, Kaj and I started in on our food.  Katie-Anne pushed hers around her plate with a fork.  She wasn’t eating.  She wasn’t looking up at any of us either.

I had the sense that everyone at the table was holding something back, and that I was the reason for it.  I also had a hunch about what that something was.  I left my meal half-eaten, ran my cash card through the reader at the table and told Katie-Anne that I’d be out in the car.

From the car, I could see them through the restaurant window.  Katie-Anne’s head was still lowered and stayed that way, though the other two were clearly talking.  Mudflap looked concerned, if determined.  Kaj looked distant and angry.  Off the car window, I could see my own reflection.  I looked a lot like Kaj, and I sort of understood why. 

Like I understood why Katie-Anne was wearing that dress.

The End

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