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As everyone started readying for bed in the Birdhouse that night, Adam’s gaze drifted to the small library that had caught his eye the moment he’d walked in. Then his eyes drifted to look out the window next to the nook that overlooked the direction Chad had disappeared earlier that evening.

Chad hadn’t made it back yet.

That was weird. But Adam wasn’t worried since he’s seen someone from Gia’s team follow Chad beyond the trees after he’d run off. That had been nearly three hours ago, but Adam felt certain Chad was okay. Just … hiding for some reason.

Perhaps Bella had been right the night before. Something might be wrong. Chad had been acting like he was ready to jump out of his skin all day. Then he’d skulked in the shadows once they’d arrived at the dome, before running into the woods without saying a word to anyone. 

That wasn’t like him. At all. Chad was an extrovert who liked to be surrounded by people, even if he didn’t like them all that much. 

Dr. Gia has it under control, Adam thought as he forced his eyes back to the small reading library, filled with faded, worn books that looked decades- and even centuries-old. All unfamiliar to him.

He needed to change that.

Crossing the room to the smooth reading bench, Adam flipped the switch on the small lamp there and found it put off a soft, warm glow perfect for night reading.

Whoever owned this place had an admirable eye for detail, all the way down to light bulb choices. It made the place feel like home, even though Adam had maybe only spent twenty minutes inside of it.

“What are you doing?” Whitney asked from behind him and Adam tensed on instinct in response -- a reaction he immediately felt guilty for. 

He liked Whitney. She was smart and sweet and so easy to talk to, but Adam’s brain was tired of talking. He needed silence. And books. And no more touching.

When Adam turned to face Whitney, he noticed that Bella was already in bed frowning at the ceiling like she was having a mental conversation with it. Not too far from her, Kei was heading to the bathroom to change.

Adam took both of them in before his eyes landed on Whitney in her perky pink jammies with flying pigs on them. Adam felt so dull in comparison to her with his button-up shirt and standard pants.

It seemed pretty clear that Whitney though they might date after this, but Adam felt like he needed a makeover from Bella before he could ever be seen in public with someone as fashionable as Whitney. She was so beautiful and always looked ready for a theme photoshoot every time he’d seen her.

And, apparently, Whitney aimed to be just as photo-ready when she dressed for bed. She looked ready to sell anything from a new bedroom set to ice cream sundaes while Adam looked ready to sell Excel spreadsheets to businesses in the 1990s.

Adam never felt self-conscious about his lack of fashion until he saw how strangers reacted to Whitney doting on him at gas stations over the past two days.

People were visibly baffled at the thought they might be a couple and, if the expressions on their faces were to be trusted, seemed to think Whitney could do much better than him.

Honestly, Adam agreed with them. Whitney could do better. But whether she could do better or not, tonight Adam just needed some space and he was looking into the eyes of a blonde who didn't seem to want to give him any.

“I thought I would take a look at these books,” Adam said, gesturing to the shelves. “I hope this lamp won’t bother you when all the other lights are out.”

It was there first night not having their own rooms because the Birdhouse didn’t have any bedrooms. Aside from the bathroom, the building’s interior was all open space with pull-out beds stowed in the furniture and walls. 

Kei had chosen a twin bed in the opposite corner of the reading nook, while Bella had chosen a pull-out twin with a view of the entrance. 

Whitney was the only one who had gone for the queen-sized bed from the couch and the move made Adam nervous that she might want to cuddle again, like they had when the sun set. That had been nice, but he wanted to do something else now.

“Where are you going to sleep?” Whitney asked him, eyes coy and a little hopeful as Adam felt himself fluster in response.

He cleared his throat. “The reading nook transforms into a bed. I can just sleep here.” If he ended up sleeping at all. He doubted it, but wasn’t worried since he could easily catch up on sleep the next day. “Bella, will this light bother you?”

“It’s fine,” Bella replied, a little more gruffly that he would have expected given the shopping trip she’d just finished. But as soon as she’d returned to the Birdhouse and saw that Chad was nowhere to be found, her mood had darkened. Quickly.

She clearly didn’t like not knowing where Chad was. Part of Adam wanted to tell her which direction he’d run off to but, if he did, she might want to go searching for him. And then Adam would have no chance to read.

So Adam said nothing.

If Chad wanted to be at the Birdhouse, he would have been at the Birdhouse. And if Dr. Gia thought Chad was in a bad situation, she would bring him back to safety. But she hadn’t, which meant Chad was almost certainly fine and there was no reason to worry.

Bella was already worrying enough for everyone.

Adam looked over to where Kei was entering the bathroom. “Kei,” he said, his voice cracking on the name for some reason. “How about you? Is it okay with you if I keep this light on?”

Kei nodded a silent consent then shut the bathroom door and disappeared. That’s when Adam turned back to Whitney and found her already frowning at the question she knew he was about to ask. 

He asked it anyway.

“How about you? Mind if I keep this light on and read a bit? This is such a unique collection of books and I may never see them again.”

He saw the argument in her eyes, but it never made it to her lips.

“Sure,” she agreed instead. “I’m pretty tired anyway. That dome place was kind of overwhelming, don’t you think?”

When Adam nodded, he meant it. “Yes. I have never seen so much unique merchandise in one place. I do not usually enjoy shopping, but it was amazing. Thank you.”

Whitney’s cheeks blushed with pleasure. “I’m sure your mom is going to love those knitting yarns you got for her.”

Adam nodded. “I hope so. She is quite particular.”

“I’m sure she will,” Whitney said with confidence before giving him a bit of an awkward hug that held tight a beat too long.

“Okay,” Adam said, moving away and out of reach. “I’m going to go read now. Good night.”

As far as partings went, it was awkward. Luckily, everyone expected that of him so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. After all, Chad could have been there and started laughing at him. Then Bella would have defended Adam until she and Chad were fighting, and Adam wasn’t in the mood for any of that drama.

He was in the mood to read.

“So … good night,” Whitney said with a shy smile before returning to the pull-out bed and wrapping a vinyl covering over the mattress before adding sheets and blankets.

She seemed to have a whole method for making things as clean as possible and Adam left her to it as he made his way to the shelves of books that made up the reading corner of the Birdhouse. 

There had to be at least 400 books in front of him so Adam wasted no time making himself comfortable before reaching for the first book: 50 Shades of Red, which turned out to be 50 versions of Little Red Riding Hood.

Adam skimmed each page of the book—never stopping to actually read, but making sure he saw every part of every page before moving to the next page. Then the next and the next, until he’d skimmed the entire book. Then he put the book back how he'd found it to mark that he was done with it.

That was his speed-read filing system. Spine-out meant he was done with the book for the moment. Spine-up meant the content merited a second look, spine-back meant there was something in it worth studying closely, and spine-down indicated that there were charts and images worth committing to memory.

In Adam’s opinion, books were best read in the order of interest and, while it was interesting to know that multiple versions of the Little Red story existed, it was not the time to analyze 50 different versions of the same story. Best to simply catalogue their existence and move on.

If there was something to be learned from fairy tales, Adam would have to learn it all some other day and way.

He picked up the next book, scanned each page, and re-shelved it spine-up. It was another book of stories, but one of them had caught his attention so he’d give it a second look the next time around.

Adam was scanning through the seventh book when Kei re-emerged from the bathroom wearing silk blue pajamas as some sort of clay face mask. Adam tried not to watch as Kei crossed the room, but that was like trying not to watch a ghost float.

There was something about the way Kei moved that held everyone’s attention—not just Adam’s. It was why Kei had so many views on every video posted. Watching Kei on a loop was easy—even if it was something as simple as walking across a room.

But Adam forced himself not to watch and dragged his attention back to the book in his hands before re-shelving it spine-out and moving on to the next ... and the next, until the entire bottom shelf was complete with only five book not spine out.

It was about this time that Kei had returned to the bathroom to wash off the mask before joining everyone else in turning in for the night. 

To Adam’s surprise, Whitney had been the first to konk out. It was like she had been perky and energetic up until the point she rested her head and passed out.

Bella was the second to sleep—although she kept tossing and turning and sneaking peaks at Chad’s unpacked luggage any time her eyes opened.

In contrast, Kei slept in perfect stillness while Whitney had a cute, little snoring thing going on.

As they all dreamed, Adam read through each of the books—finishing his scans of them a few minutes before 3:00 a.m. Then he restarted from the beginning and gave a second quick-read of all the books that were spine-up. 

Just after 4:00 a.m., Adam finished all his second pass and, unsure as to whether he would have time to get a good look at the 32 remaining books, read them in order of interest until the glow of sun started to transform the black of night into the shadows of morning. Only then did Adam take a break from his reading to stand and stretch before quietly making his way out the door to the full-circle of the balcony.

The eastern horizon was still a gentle glow that lit the valley just enough for Adam to see thathe was not the only one greeting the sun that morning. Not by a long shot. 

Over by the dome, people were setting up yoga and prayer mats—some facing East, others facing Mecca. There were others, too. Some dancing and playing drums that Adam couldn’t hear for some reason, and others meditating or praying in a more stationary manner. There had to be more than 50 people all greeting the morning in their own way.

So Adam did the same.

As soon as the tip of the sun appeared over the horizon, Adam moved to the west side of the balcony and watched as light slowly filled the valley, turning inky blacks into vague shadows before revealing a full-spectrum of color within minutes.

Adam loved how color did that—completely changed appearance, depending on how much light it had on it. What had once seemed black was suddenly green or golden or a vibrant pink that could be spotted from half a mile away.

The properties of color never failed to amaze Adam. Neither did morning birds. They were such a perfect soundtrack for morning, and Adam got so caught up in listening to them that he didn’t notice Dr. Gia until she was standing next to him.

“I thought you might like it here,” she said, leaning up on the railing next to him.

Adam flinched in surprise at her quiet appearance before nodding in agreement. “I do. It’s such a beautiful place. And odd.”

Gia smiled in agreement. “We’re here for another two hours and you’re all packed, since you never unpacked. Feel free to use that time however you like.”

Two hours? “I could easily spend two days here,” Adam replied. 

“Couldn’t we all,” Gia said with a little smile. “But, trust me. Where we’re going is better. And we arrive tonight. Today is the last day of driving.”

Adam felt a flood of relief at that, even as his eyes were drawn the direction where he’d last seen Chad. “Will Chad be coming?”

Gia nodded. “He’s fine and the sun should be on him in the next twenty minutes, or so. He should wake then, so I expect him back here in just over an hour.”

She said the words with such confidence that Adam decided not to doubt whether they were true. Gia hadn’t lied to him yet and her calculations often seemed to be superhuman. Until Adam knew how to beat her, it didn’t seem all that wise to argue with her. So he didn’t.

“I’m going to wake everyone up,” Gia said, pushing away from the railing. “Feel free to take a morning stroll. Those are always beautiful here. Breakfast is pre-paid in the dome, whenever you’re hungry.”

“Okay,” Adam agreed as she walked away. “Dr. Gia?”

She stopped, but didn’t turn to face him. “Yes?”

“Why are you doing all this?” he asked. He had to know. The past three days had been revolutionary for him. For the first time in his life, he was getting along with normal people. And it was all because of Gia. “I mean … why me?”

Even with her back mostly to him, Adam caught the small smile that tugged at her lips. “Who said I’m doing any of this for you?” 

Then she entered the Birdhouse and left Adam to enjoy the sunrise by himself.


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