The Echo Chambers, 49

“Do you ever find it unsettling?” she asked, her voice thoughtful as she touched one of the silver cylinders that controlled the terminal. “To know that anyone can see so much of you at the spin of a dial?”

“Monitoring my biological systems is the least of it.”

She turned to face him fully, and he forced himself to do the same. “What else is there?”

“I think we both have enough to think about for now.” He smiled, feeling his age pull at him.

 

Lyssa sat in the car the next morning, her fingers squeezing and releasing the steering wheel in slow, convulsive movements. The sky was the light-rimmed dark of early morning, soft in its stillness, the grace of a predator lying in wait. She swallowed hard, ignoring the cold sweat at her temples and down her spine, cursing herself. Again.

Movement stirred the shadows at the corner of her eye, and she turned, heart racing. Ji turned the corner of the building, his eyes watchful. He approached with sure steps, and she had the sense that he’d been watching her long before she’d noticed him.

Lyssa waited until he stopped several feet away before she opened the car door. “I didn’t think you’d come today.”

“I thought as much when I saw you leave without me.”

She felt her cheeks heat a little. “I’m sorry. I should have asked, but I…” she trailed off and shrugged, jiggling the keys in her hand.

“It’s been difficult,” Ji finished for her. Then, casting her a significant look, “For everyone.”

For Clare, he meant. Lyssa frowned. She still wasn’t ready to deal with that. Not yet. Instead, she crossed the tiny lot and unlocked the door to her bakery, turning on lights and trying to ignore the relief she felt at the sense of Ji at her back. A stranger, given to grand delusions, and yet he felt safer than anyone she’d ever known.

Having been introduced and trained in the basics by her competent staff, Ji immediately began to turn on the ovens in preparation for the breads left rising overnight. Lyssa entered her small office, cluttered but ruthlessly neat, and booted up her computer.

After checking her email and confirming her schedule, she returned to the kitchen to start her baking. They worked silently together, both ignoring the subtle hum of tension that lay beneath the quiet. An hour later, Sarah bustled in, her cheerful running commentary enough to break the strange melancholy that had begun to sink into Lyssa, and she fell gratefully into routine.

By the end of the day, her exhaustion was one of satisfaction. She logged out of the computer, gathered her purse, and poked her head through the bright curatin that separated the kitchen from the storefront. “Are you okay closing?” she asked Sarah.

“Yep.” She lifted her head from the display of petite fours. “Have a good evening.”

“Don’t stay too late.”

“I won’t.”

“Ted next door says he’ll walk you to your car if you’d like.”

“I know.”

“They’re open until eight, though, so you should—”

“Lyssa,” she interrupted, turning to give her boss her full attention. “I know you’re worried after… everything, but you don’t have to do this every night.”

“Not every night,” Lyssa said, frowning.

“Okay, fine. Ninety percent of them.”

She blew out a breath that lifted her bangs. “It’s at most seventy-five percent.”

Sarah’s lips quirked, but she managed not to laugh. “My point is, you don’t have to worry. I’m very careful.”

“Good. That’s good.” She hitched her purse strap higher up her shoulder. “Ji’s left already?”

Sarah nodded. “About an hour ago while you were on the phone. Why?”

“I could see if he’d be willing to change his shift so he could be here in the evenings.”

“Don’t you dare.”

Lyssa blinked, taken aback by her assistant’s vehemence. “What? Why?”

“Because I worry about you, and someone should be here in the mornings. Besides, you know you can’t handle everything by yourself first thing. A couple of weeks maybe, sure, but it’s just too much. Besides, he’s hot.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Sarah grinned, her eyes glinting with mischief. “I’m just saying.”

Lyssa narrowed her eyes. “Whatever’s in that head of yours can stay there.”

“Okay.” Fighting back her smile, she reached for a paper towel and needlessly swiped it over the counter.

“Be safe.”

“Okay.”

Lyssa hesitated, feeling strangely unsettled, but Sarah still refused to make eye contact. It wasn’t until she was passing through the back of the kitchen that she heard the muffled laughter and, shaking her head and having a chuckle at her own expense, she opened the door to the warmth of the late afternoon.

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