The creature slumped in a corner of the kitchen. Sandie had told it to sit, and it could not seem to distinguish any practical difference between sitting in a chair and sitting on the floor, so it sat on the floor.
Mike kept an eye on it while Sandie paced. Somehow, it seemed even creepier now that he knew it was both a dead body and a vaguely person-shaped amp. Dead things should not be that loud.
"Okay," Sandie was saying – very loudly, since two thirds of those present were still half-deaf. "Okay, weird is not necessarily bad, but within limits, you know? That was bad. No, trust me. Attracting attention for being weird is a recipe for disaster. I mean, people can't make the same sounds as a whole band." She sighed and yanked hard on her ponytail. "It would help if you could just learn to talk…"
The thing thrummed softly.
Mike cut in. "You're going to keep it? I mean, it probably doesn't eat much, but you're going to have to take care of it somehow, and you can't take it to work, and you can't just leave it here by itself, and I sure can't look after it…"
The thing's eyes swiveled toward him when he talked. It was creepy, but also somehow more normal, like it was making an effort to seem human. Mike was not sure whether to be relieved or disconcerted by that fact. Extremely realistic, his mind said sardonically.
Sandie shrugged. "It was on its own when it showed up. I think it would probably do okay at the house. I mean, if we set some ground rules and it doesn't go outside or set the place on fire."
"We still don't know what it is! That would go a long way toward figuring out what to do with it, but we don't know."
"So? It's not like anyone else would know what to do with it, either. I don't want it getting… I dunno, dissected or anything."
The thing sat in the middle of the discussion like a sack of flour, white and smooth and bland. It glanced up at the ceiling fan, and the ceiling fan vibrated, shaking down motes of dust into Mike's eyes.
"Well… No, okay, I'll give you that one. It's creepy. But so are those hairless cats, and I wouldn't let one of them just wander around lost, either. Or get dissected."
"Cats don't get into your head and read your mind or follow you around in your dreams like some kind of psychic stalker."
"I'm not joking."
"We'll just see, okay? And anyway, kicking it out wouldn't get it out of my head if it's really determined to stay there. And if it really freaks you out so much, d'you think pissing it off might be a bad idea?"
Pissing it off might have been a bad idea, but taking it to work was a worse one.
"Cousin," she told Brandon brusquely as she shrugged her apron on and adjusted her name tag.
"How is your cousin white?" he wanted to know.
"Hey, now, don't be racist. He's got some problems, okay?"
"Yeah, he. I said he's got problems, now leave 'im alone."
The cousin occupied a corner of the Joe Haus and stared out the window toward the highway, where a few thousand panicked San Antonians were hurtling toward the daily grind just a few minutes late. One split off and came hurtling toward the coffee shop, pausing for a moment to extrude Connie before shooting away again toward downtown. The cousin watched impassively.
Connie flopped artistically into the shop, dumped her purse on the counter, and spent a good fifteen seconds staring blank-faced at the thing sitting in the corner. It stared back until she flopped herself into the back to get her apron.
"Mm?" she demanded, falling short of eloquence.
"Yeah," Sandie confirmed in a whisper. "Just go with it, okay? I'm still figuring things out. 'S my 'cousin,' okay?"
"I thought it was supposed to be a dead body?"
"Yeah, well, things changed. It's still dead, by the way. Just… upright."
"No, de verdad. Look, I'll update you later, okay? During lunch break or something. When Mike comes."
Connie popped her gum in disbelief and shook her head as she scooted out to start taking orders. Sandie scooted out after her. The shop was beginning to fill up, but a wide open space radiated out from the corner where the thing was sitting. She could hear it humming along with the ambience music, thankfully just a hum and nothing more complex. It still did not sound human, more like an electric keyboard or a particularly well-tuned kazoo, but everyone seemed to be glancing up at the speakers in the ceiling rather than over at the person-shaped amp. It was learning.
Then her attention was arrested by a business suit with a yen for iced mocha, and for the rest of the morning rush, the problem of her counterfeit cousin was pushed onto the back burner. She made a few more mochas, lots of lattes, and a hot chocolate. There were house blends, Columbian black, and a chai tea. Finally, the flood slowed to a gush, the gush to a stream, the stream to a trickle, and Sandie took a moment to grab herself a bottle of water from the back.
In a whisper, she told Connie as much as she dared, until Connie's mohawk was standing on end, and the unlit cigarette slid off of her lip.
Connie swung her head back and forth, slowly. "That's some bad juju right there. Baaaad."
"Yeah, but what's worse? Helping it out, or blowing it off?"
Connie pressed her lips together tightly and fingered the cluster of medals on their chain at her throat.
"I hear ya," Sandie said. She grabbed a second bottle of water and moved out to check for customers. What she saw was Brandon's back. He was in the corner, trying to strike up a conversation.
The thing was, to all appearances, ignoring him. It was analyzing a napkin in minute detail, poring over the café's logo with single-minded interest while Sandie's spotty manager tried to make small talk.
"My cousin's autistic," he was saying. "Well, not cousin, exactly. She's like, uh, stepdaughter of my uncle's sister-in-law's second husband. But we're all real close, so…"
The napkin tore, and the thing paused. Sandie caught a flash of surprise, then curiosity. It tore the napkin straight down the middle, completely unaware that Brandon was talking. Then it held the two halves together and thrummed.
"Oh," Brandon said. "Cool trick! I've seen that done with ropes. Never with paper. Still no idea how it's done…"
Sandie stood on tiptoe to see that the napkin was whole again, just as whole as the no-longer-rotting body that was holding it.
"Got a name?"
"John!" Sandie blurted from behind the counter. She regretted it a moment later, but the creature at least had the decency to turn its head at the sound of the name, almost as though it understood. She supposed it might have recognized itself in her thoughts.
"John Doe?" Connie hissed under her breath from just inside the back room. "Oh, Jesus…"
"He doesn't talk. I mean, you've figured that out. Like I said. Problems. His name's John."
God, why can't you just talk and be normal so I don't start blabbering like an idiot and freak out my boss…
"John," it said clearly, vibrating like the string of a violin. Its mouth did not move. "Like I said. Problems." The voice was Sandie's.