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50 wanted No one came anymore. No families appeared in the parking lot, children tumbling from the cars and screaming; no solitary birdwatchers worshipped in the Church of the Woods; no school buses disgorged their loads and waited, their drivers lingering at their vehicles like coachmen near their steeds. Charles and Diana, Aullwood Audubon Nature Center’s two full-time paid employees , had spent the summer almost totally alone. Charles hadn’t escorted a morning nature walk for days, although in the past he had guided groups of up to thirty. The two interns, fresh out of college, had been yanked by their families to safer jobs in Virginia and Wisconsin. The hyper-oldie guide who liked to dither about watching Prince Charles marry the real Princess Diana had transported herself to Florida. The gift shop volunteers hadn’t shown up for weeks, and even Edna, the only volunteer who dusted, no longer bothered to message that she wasn’t coming. Charles suspected that Aullwood’s peculiar position—just south of the watchtowers and electrical fencing of the Grid, just west of the old Dayton airport (which saw a lot of military use these days), just north of I-70—gave it a sinister air. If it lay five miles in any direction but south, the nature center would be inside the Grid. 51 wanted Charles had an apartment on the property, above the turtle exhibit in the Education Building, but where Diana spent her nights he wasn’t quite sure. For several days, he was certain , she hadn’t left the nature center grounds. She had told him she hated going back to her apartment, on the electric robo-tram that was always empty, past the closed houses and the unmowed lawns of northern Dayton. It was the middle of a heat wave, the planes droning over them, and Diana, the titular nature center director (chosen over Charles, and he was bitter about this), who had a categorical if not particularly scientific mind, was much better than Charles at identifying the aircraft. Several afternoons they lay on the flat rocks of the amphitheater and watched the planes pass overhead. There’s a C-16, she’d say. That’s an F-24, or a Scorpion (a new sort of bomber), or a Turkish Delight. “My,” Charles might say, shaking his head, lifting his shirt to scratch his belly, “a woman who knows her machinery.” He knew most males would at least pretend an interest in the planes, but he knew by chirp and feather and flight pattern every bird that cut the nature center’s airy way. Birders thought he was a wonder; he didn’t care what other people thought. One afternoon—a Thursday? He’d lost track of the days— Charles fell asleep on a bed of moss under a tree, and when he woke up and staggered along the creek bed toward the Education Building, he happened upon Diana by the stream, pulling her cotton shirt over her head with a single hand, her back twisting in a disturbingly erotic way. He said, “What are you doing?” Diana didn’t seem surprised to hear him. She unlatched her bra and dropped it on the ground. “It’s a nature center,” she said, coyly yet firmly, dropping her shorts and unpeeling her underpants, “and I’m hot.” Smiling and totally naked, she turned to face him. Charles felt his penis swell. “What could be more natural ?” he said. 52 s ha r p a n d d a n g e r ou s v i r t u e s “Exactly.” Diana nodded approvingly, like a teacher. She brushed a dried leaf out of Charles’s beard. She’d been a teacher, Charles knew. She’d been a teacher, then some sort of counselor for people considering cloning (he didn’t understand this, exactly ; she’d worked for a doctor), then she’d had a bad experience and returned to college for a Masters in business. When theyfirstmet,fiveyearsbefore,she’dbeenhiredonasthecoordinator of investments. Her being a businesswoman repelled him. Despite her wild head of hair he’d thought of her as asexual; no sparks had ever flown. But now he saw her delicately upturned breasts and pink nipples, her modest tuft of pubic hair (reminding him of the hopeful crest of the pileated woodpecker, one of his favorite birds, not, unfortunately, spotted at Aullwood since 2024—the Grid had had some devastating effects on birds), and...


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