I opened the door quickly and felt the rush of air as I slammed it behind me.
You had to do it.
I stormed into the kitchen and jerked the refridgerator door open, glaring at the bottle of tobasco and an already-opened soda.
The look on her face-
I flinched and shut my eyes, my fingers curling into a fist on top of the white door.
It didn't help. I could still see her, clutching the doorway for support, her knuckles pale, her eyes red and -
"Damnit," I snapped, pushing my fingertips down on my eyes. I hit the door under my fist, hard, and tried to breathe, listening to the fridge rock back and forth with the force of sudden movement and then shudder back into place…
You had to do it. She wouldn't have let you go...
I heard the laugh start to rise up out of my throat and swallowed it. She wouldn't hurt you like that.
But you could. Right, Guerin?
"Sure," Isabel said. "Just lemme call Max and -"
"No," I said, standing up, trying desparately to not look at kitchen, at the door to the alley… "Now."
She glared at me. "What's up with you?" She demanded, tossing her hair back.
I didn't answer. I pursed my lips and glared around the restaurant. I heard her sigh irritably and felt her twist around in her seat.
"Alright. Where do you wanna go?"
"Anywhere but here," I muttered, twisting around and walking out the café doors.
The memory faded with the pinpoints of light as I let my hand fall away from my face. Come on. Deal with it.
I hadn't even fixed the CD player.
I'd meant to go back and fix it when she was gone - but she'd rushed out of the café, her face crumbling, her hair flowing out behind her and -
Get a grip, Guerin. I opened my eyes and stared up at the ceiling, taking a slow, deep breath before I turned around.
The wave of memories almost knocked me over.
Everywhere I looked, I remembered her. She was standing in the far corner, looking at one of my paintings, her hands moving over the brushstrokes without ever touching the canvas. She was leaning over the sink, running water over my hands, brushing the glass from my palms with the soft, gentle movements of her fingertips. She was lying on the couch, staring up at me, whispering something -
I closed my eyes again and felt my teeth clench the inside of my cheek. You had to do it, the voice in my head insisted. It's who you are...
I flinched, opened my eyes, and flinched again. The memories were threatening to choke me. That's where you made her leave you. That's where you threw the ashes. That's where you broke her heart...
I bolted across the room and jerked the front door open, slamming it shut behind me. Someone yelled something from across the hall about keeping it down, but I didn't care.
I was already down the stairs and outside, breathing the night air in giant, rushing mouthfuls, running as fast as I could.
"Listen," Maria said. "Do not obsess about this."
My hand stopped at the door handle inside the car. I closed my eyes for a moment and then twisted around, staring at her. "What are you talking about?"
She rolled her eyes and waved her hands in the air. "Oh, come on, Liz. I know you. You're going to go upstairs, and you're gonna wallow in that whole image of Max and Tess -"
"- and you're gonna make yourself totally miserable, and tomorrow you're going to look like a wreck, all stressed out and puffy-eyed and-"
"Maria," I said sharply. She turned to me, her mouth open in an O. She pressed her lips together in a pout of sullen disbelief and glared at me.
"Listen to me," I said, trying to keep the tremor in my voice down. "Max Evans is the furthest thing from my mind."
Her lips pursed. "Really," She deadpanned, one eyebrow rising up in sarcastic challenge.
"Yes," I said. "Really."
She shook her head once and breathed out loudly, leaning forward to rest her forehead against the wheel. "Oh, man," She groaned against the dashboard. "You're so deep in denial, Liz -"
I jerked the car door open with one swift, violent movement, standing up and turning around quickly to glare at her. "See you later," I said, turning away.
"Liz," She called out, her voice carrying through the open window. "Liz, come on -"
I jerked the restaurant doors open and let them close behind me. I waited in silence, my eyes closed, standing with my back to the door. After a moment, I heard the sputter of the Jetta engine.
I waited until it faded into the night, and then I covered my face with my hands.
I breathed in sharply and opened my eyes, brushing my hands over my cheeks quickly. "Yeah," I called out. "I'm here, Dad."
He stepped out of the kitchen, a pair of needle-nose pliers in his hands. "Do you know what happened to the CD player?"
I stared at him for a moment. I'd forgotten all about it. I'd just been thinking about getting as far away from here as possible… "Uhm… yeah," I said, frowning and licking my lips.
"Lizzie, what the hell happened?" He demanded. "That was a five hundred dollar system. I mean, who…" He shook his head and glared at me. "Was Maria messing around with those oils of hers?"
"No," I said quickly, moving to the counter, shaking my head. "No. It wasn't her."
He threw his hands up in frustration. "Well, what happened, then? I come downstairs and there's no customers in the restaurant, some song keeps skipping and playing over and over, and Javier swears he wasn't here when it happened…"
His voice faded into a fast, muffled murmur, scratching at the edge of my consciousness. I stared down at my hands.
You'll be rich in love, and you will carry on
But no, oh, no...
No, you won't be mine...
I blinked and looked up. My Dad was standing right in front of me, a grease-stained rag crumpled in his left hand. "Are you even listening to me?" He asked.
I stared up at him. "Yes. Yeah," I whispered quickly. "Yes."
He frowned and took a deep breath. "Look, Lizzy, I know you don't want your friend to get into trouble, but -" He shook his head. His lips were pale, pressed together in a grimace. "This was an expensive system, honey. And we can't afford to replace it right now. So you need to tell me who-"
"It was me," I breathed, my voice trembling.
He stopped in mid-sentence and stared down at me for a moment. He shook his head slightly, like he was trying to clear his head. He took a step back. "What?"
"It was me, Dad," I said again, my voice trembling. "I did it. It was me."
He stared at me in disbelief. He turned suddenly and walked away. The pliers were a glint of silver in his fist.
"I was - I was carrying this pan," I stammered quickly, trying to follow him. "And it was - it was full of grease, and I was - I was trying to dump it out. It wasn't as cooled off as I thought, and -"
"You could have told me," He said suddenly, turning around to face me.
The words faded into air on my lips. He sounded so angry. He'd never spoken to me like -
"We lost customers today, Liz," He continued. "I come downstairs and the place is totally empty, Maria's nowhere to be found, a CD's playing over and over, I mean, you - you know better than that," He finished, staring at me, shaking his head. "What were you thinking?"
I stared up at him. "I don't," I whispered. "I didn't… I mean, I didn't think," I stammered.
His features faded from disbelief to grim disappointment. "Okay," He muttered, shaking his head and backing away.
"Forget it," He interrupted loudly, his back to me. He stopped suddenly and turned around, his movements quick and jerky. "I just - I have one question. When were you going to tell me?"
I didn't answer. I didn't know what to say.
He stared at me for a moment and then turned his back again, shaking his head. "Never mind," He muttered, his voice tired and disappointed, moving for the kitchen.
I watched his back as he went. His shoulders were hunched forward, defeated.
"Dad, I -"
He turned his back against the kitchen door and raised his hands in refusal or appeal; I couldn't tell which. The grease-stained rag was a ruined sign of surrender. "Just… forget about it," He said wearily. "Alright?"
He stepped back and walked through the kitchen door without looking back.
I watched the door swing back into the room with the force of his movement, my breath coming in quick, short rushes of air. My hands and lips were trembling. I couldn't seem to move…
I heard a sudden noise from the kitchen, a snap, and then a distant crackling, followed by the twang of a guitar. A man's voice rose over the chords, his southern accent thick and heavy …
Dad went to college in the south. The University of Virginia, I think. He said he'd wanted to get away from the desert, and the dust, that he wanted to go somewhere where there were - trees, he said, and rolling hills, something green…
He'd come back with a taste for country music. He never played it in the house. Mom couldn't stand it.
He called it a guilty pleasure. He only played it when he was really upset-
I felt like I was drowning under everything that had happened. Michael, my Dad, Max and Tess, Michael, the ashes, Michael...
The tears were already slipping over my cheeks when I bolted suddenly and raced for the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
I was curled up like a comma on my bed, staring out the window to the rooftop, when I heard the knock on my door.
I didn't answer. A moment later, I heard it open.
"Hey," My mom said quietly. "You alright?"
I didn't answer. I heard her sigh and then the soft sound of the door closing. Her footsteps shuffled over to the bed and I felt the bed move, heard the creak of protestation from the springs as she sat down behind me. I didn't turn around.
"Whatever he said, honey - he didn't mean it," She said gently.
I closed my eyes. I heard her sigh again.
"Look, Liz... this is a rough time," She said. I felt the mattress move again and felt her hand, gently smoothing down my hair. "I mean, all the tourists are gone, and it's a long way to the next convention. That's all."
I opened my eyes and felt my face contort into a frown. I rolled over and looked at her. She wasn't looking at me.
"Mom, what're you talking about? It's not like..."
She looked at me, and my sentence trailed off.
"He didn't want -" She started, then stopped. "We didn't want to worry you."
"Worry me about what," I said, pushing myself up on my elbows.
"Well, the - the café isn't doing so well, honey. It hasn't been for a while, and we -"
"Mom, that café is filled all the time," I asked, sitting up now. "I mean, Dad had to hire another waitress just to keep up with everything. We always have people here -"
"And they're drinking coffee, most of the time," She interrupted gently. "I mean, yes, obviously, we get a lot of business, but - honey, times are a little tight right now. The price of beef is going up, and gas prices are skyrocketing... and you know we wind up paying for that." She sighed. "The produce guy we've used for almost ten years called today. His prices are going up. And there's another distributor that's cheaper that we could use, but his food isn't as good, so…"
I stared at her. She shook her head and shrugged.
"Anyway," She said brightly. "It's just a rough patch. Your dad's been juggling the accounts, trying to figure out some way to not raise the prices on the menu. That's all."
That's all? I thought, feeling the panic surging up through my veins. "But Mom -"
My voice trailed off. She was staring at my wall, her teeth tugging at her lip. There were circles under her eyes, and her smile had faded in a matter of seconds...
"Hm?" She asked suddenly, as if I'd just distracted her from something. "I'm sorry, what'd you say?"
"Nothing," I mumbled. "I'm, uh - I might go downstairs and talk to dad again."
She smiled absently and stood up. "It's just the restaurant biz, sweetie," She said. "This happens every few years. So if your dad seems a little stressed... it's not you."
I forced a smile and nodded. "OK," I murmured. "Good night."
She smiled again and opened the door, waving at me slightly before she closed it behind her.
They were trying to protect me.
They didn't want me to worry. Maybe there's nothing to worry about, the voice in my head argued.
I frowned and shook my head, staring down at my quilt, my fingers tracing the stitches. Don't overreact. This isn't aliens and FBI agents. It was just - a 'rough patch.' That's all. She said this happened every few years -
Except Dad hadn't ever spoken to me like that before...
It wasn't just a rough patch. It was worse than that.
I raised my eyes from the colored patchwork and stared at my bedroom door.
What if we lost the business?
What would happen to us if the café closed?
He didn't even hear me as I pushed the door open gently and looked down at him.
He was hunched over the CD player in the kitchen, the tiny black radio blaring next to him. I stood there for a moment, watching his quick, frustrated movements. He cast a screwdriver to the side and it made an angry rattle against the inside of the tool box. He muttered something under his breath and wiped his arm across his forehead before reaching into the toolbox, fumbling for another tool.
The room was hot, I thought absently, and I frowned in confusion until I realized he'd turned off the air conditioner. To save money.
Country music blared from the radio.
...We call them strong
Those who can face this world alone
Who seem to get by on their own
Those who will never take the fall...
I glanced over my shoulder at the restaurant windows and glanced back at him before letting the door drift back to being closed. It made a whisper as it drifted flush with the doorjam, and I held my breath, waiting for him to notice, waiting for him to say something. He didn't.
...We call them weak
Who are unable to resist
The slightest chance love might exist
And for that forsake it all
They're so hell-bent on giving
walking a wire
Convinced it's not living
if you stand outside the fire...
I walked quietly across the dining area, my bare feet warm against the hard floor, and lifted the latches, opening the windows to the cool night air. I stood there for a moment, staring up at the sky, at the stars that hovered above me, always so close, always out of reach.
I felt my heart lurch and tried not to think about Michael.
...There's this love that is burning
Deep in my soul
Constantly yearning to get out of control
Wanting to fly higher and higher
I can't abide
Standing outside the fire...
I closed my eyes. Breathe, I thought, feeling the edge of my lip threatening to break under the pressure of my teeth, feeling the familiar, wet burn behind my eyes. Breathe…
I breathed in deeply and opened my eyes, staring up at the night sky.
After a moment, I turned and walked back to the kitchen.
His body jerked in surprise. "Jeez," He said, staring up at me. "You scared me."
"Sorry," I whispered.
He reached for the radio and turned the volume down, then turned back to the CD player. Colored wires dripped from the hollow interior. "Shouldn't you be in bed?" He asked.
I blinked and bit down on my lower lip."I, uhm - I couldn't sleep."
He grunted something in reply, but I couldn't make out the words.
"So," I mumbled, walking over and standing next to him. "How bad is it?"
He didn't look up. His hands fell to his knees and he pushed himself up. "To tell you the truth… I have no idea," He muttered. "I've tried everything. I tried opening it up and looking for gunk - I thought maybe the oil got inside or something, but it's dry as a bone. It should work," He muttered, shaking his head and turning to the toolbox, his hand diving into the tools. "I don't know why it won't."
"Oh," I said in a small voice. "Well, what if - maybe I could get one of my friends to come in and take a look at it," I said quickly.
"What, like Alex?" He asked, turning around, a wrench in his hand. "I thought he was into computers."
"Well - I mean, yeah, but - but it's wires and stuff," I said, gesturing at the chaotic jumble. "I mean, maybe Michael could -"
"Michael?" He asked, his eyebrows going up. "No. I've bought three more fire extinguishers since Michael started here," He muttered. "I don't think the fine-tuning electrical equipment is really his forte." He knelt down again, peering into the machine's interior. He poked experimentally at the knot of wires and sighed.
My mouth closed. I licked my lips. "Dad?"
"I, uhm - I wanted - I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry," I said, staring down at the floor, my weight shifting nervously. "I mean, I - I should've told you."
I felt his gaze on me. "S'okay, sweetie."
"No, I -" I shook my head and bit down on my lip. "I mean, at least I could have told you. I just - I didn't think about the customers, and…" I took a breath. "I didn't mean to mess everything up," I stammered finally, glancing over at him. He was frowning.
"Lizzy -" He sighed and stood up slowly, facing me. "You didn't mess anything up."
"But the stereo -"
"You made a mistake," He said gently. "Everybody does that. I mean, that's - that's how we learn, right?" He shrugged and glanced down at his hands for a moment, taking a breath. "And, uhm - I feel really bad about yelling at you like that. I shouldn't have done that," He said evenly, looking up at me. "So I'm sorry, too."
I stared up at him. I could feel the lump forming in my throat.
"Next time, just - just tell me, alright?" He said, a smile tugging at his lips.
I nodded and he exhaled loudly, his hands on his hips. He leaned back and grimaced. "I'm done," He muttered. "I'll deal with this tomorrow."
"Wait," I said. "You're just - going to bed?"
He stared at me blankly. "Well, yes," He said drily. "It's an ancient custom. Here in America, at night, we generally go to bed."
"I just thought -" I said quickly. "I mean, if you're not tired, I was thinking you could show me the accounts."
He looked at me quickly, a suspicious look on his face. "The accounts?"
"Sure," I said quickly. "You know, show me the ropes, teach me the family business -"
"Has your mother been talking to you?"
"Mom?" I asked innocently. "No. Why?"
He stared at me suspiciously for a moment. Then he shook his head. "No reason. I just -"
"So you want to?" I asked.
"Lizzie, I don't know. I've been working on this thing for hours, and -"
"Look, Dad, if I can't sleep, then I might as well be doing something useful," I argued. "Right?"
He stared at me for a second, his lips pursed. Finally he sighed. "Fine," He mumbled. "Fine. But," He said, his voice stern, waggling a finger at me. "Only for a little while. Then we're both going to bed. Got it?"
For the first time that whole day, I felt the stirrings of a real smile moving across my face.
"Got it," I murmured.
I knocked against the window and waited. Nothing happened.
The first thing I felt was irritation. Come on, Maxwell. I'd checked on the rest of them. Alex, Maria, even Kyle.
I'd gone everywhere except where I most wanted to go. I wasn't sure I trusted myself. And there was always the chance that she'd be awake in her room, waiting...
I stared up at the stars above me and then felt sick and turned away, looking at the shingles on his roof. After a moment I knocked again.
I was just about to force the lock open when the window jerked back and Isabel stood there, glaring at me.
"Do you want to wake up the whole neighborhood?" She hissed.
I blinked. I'd already looked in her window, and she'd been asleep, her eyes clenched tight in a dream. "I was - I wanted -"
"The sleeping bag's on the floor," She muttered, walking away from the open window.
I watched her for a moment and then climbed through the window, moving to the bed to wake him up -
The bed was empty.
"Where is he?" I demanded, turning to her, trying to keep my voice low.
"Isabel, we have to find him."
"Michael," She said irritably, shaking her head. "I said, he's fine."
"Look, if we don't know where he is -"
"Where do you think he is, Michael?" She hissed suddenly, turning around to face me, her eyes blazing.
I stopped in mid-sentence, the question frozen on my lips.
"You're kidding," I whispered.
She pressed her lips together in a pale line and shook her head. "Oh no," She whispered, her voice sharp. "No, I'm not kidding. There's a murderer out there, people trying to kill us, and he still won't - he won't -"
Her voice trembled and she turned away from me, her long hair rolling from side to side as she shook her head, her breath coming out in a short, ragged gasp.
He was with Liz.
Everything I'd done to keep her safe, and he was standing outside her house. Or even worse, climbing the fire escape…
"I'll get him," I muttered, moving for the window. I heard her footsteps following me as I swung my body over the ledge.
"He won't like that," She whispered.
"Too damn bad," I muttered, and jumped off the ledge.
"…okay, so if we combine these two columns and just go with the one distributor, then that drops your expenses by…" I punched the buttons on the calculator and tucked my pencil behind my ear. "Seven percent," I said quickly, looking over at him. "Does that make sense?"
"I have no idea where you get this from," He murmured, shaking his head.
"And there was some energy-saving stuff in last weeks' newspaper, I think," I said brightly, jumping off the counter stool. "You know, the, uhm - the daybreak section? I think I read that if we lower the temparature in the hot water heater, that should cut our -"
"I mean, look at this," He mumbled, taking the account book and shaking his head at the figures. "Lizzy, this is..."
I looked over at him for a moment and then stared down at the firmica counter, my fingertips tracing an invisible pattern, connecting the tiny specks.
"This is amazing, Lizzie," He said quietly.
I rolled my eyes a little. "It's just math," I mumbled, shrugging.
"Well, you didn't get it from me," He sighed, grinning over at me and putting the book on the counter. "C'mere. Give your old man a hug."
I smiled and walked over to him, wrapping my arms around him.
"You're a great kid, Liz," He murmured into my hair.
I felt my lower lip tremble and buried my face against his shirt, breathing in the smell of him - faint detergent, and the last bit of cologne he'd put on this morning, and soap...
"Oh, man," He said suddenly, releasing me and reaching for the radio, turning the volume up. The soft sound of piano chords filled the restaurant. "I love this song. C'mon, we're dancing."
I stared at him in surprise. I'd totally blocked out the music while I was concentrating… "No," I laughed, shaking my head and backing up. "Look, Dad, I better go to bed -"
"Now?" He demanded, his eyes wide. "No way. No," He said, shaking his hand, holding his hand out to me. "Look, next thing I know, you'll be marrying some doctor, and I'll be doing that 'daddy's little girl' dance at a wedding, and then you'll be gone," He muttered, gesturing for me to come closer. "C'mon."
I stared at him. One of my first memories was dancing with my Dad in the café. I was standing on his shoes, staring up at him while he held on to my hands, smiling down at me…
We hadn't danced in - I couldn't even remember how long, I thought. Not since Max. Not since -
He was sitting at the counter, smiling at her. I saw the tug of his lips, the beginning of the smirk right behind her shoulder, her blond hair loose and flowing -
"So?" My Dad said, grinning broadly, breaking through my thoughts. "Are we dancing or not?"
"Okay," I whispered, letting my hand rise up. He caught it in his hand, smiling.
"That's my girl," He said.
"Does it, uhm... does it have to be country music?" I asked, scrunching up my face.
He stared down at me in disbelief. "Oh, don't tell me you're with your Mom on this," He groaned.
"Well, it is kinda -"
"'Corny,'" He muttered. "I mean, really, how could anyone think country music is corny?"
"Dad," I said evenly, staring up at him. "Come on. My dog died. My wife left me. My truck died-"
"It's just white people singin' the blues, honey," He said, pulling me towards him, his hand falling soft on my waist, the other one holding my hand away from us gently. He pressed his cheeck against mine and danced us around in a circle. "You know, I think your mother's biggest problem is that she doesn't believe them."
"The singers," He said, rolling his eyes a little. "I mean... if you believe that they believe what they're saying, then..." He shrugged and kept dancing.
"Music is beautiful to those who hear," He said. "If you give it a chance, I think you'd like it."
I smiled wryly and shook my head as one song ended and another one began, soft piano chords filling the room.
I could feel the night air drifting in from the windows as a woman's voice rose up over the instruments, soft and clear…
…I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat, but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed…
I blinked, trying to concentrate on our movement, trying to stay in step.
…I hope you still feel small
When you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me you'll give fate a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance...
I hope you dance...
I leaned into my Dad, resting my cheek against his chest, feeling my teeth catching my lip. I closed my eyes.
"There you go," He said happily, bringing our hands in closer until he folding my palm against his chest and tapped it gently with his fingertips. "Now you're getting it."
I didn't say anything. I felt like the whole day was surging up inside me, rushing through my rib cage and up through my chest, threatening to break me -
Don't think about it.
I slowed from a run as I approached the corner, ducking around the street and glancing left to right. No sign of him. Damnit, Maxwell -
I glanced at the cafe and stopped dead, staring at the windows. Someone was in the café, moving around. I forgot about Max and moved closer to the building, inching along the wall, the fire blistering up in my palms. I was going to keep her safe, I thought, no matter what…
I crept closer and noticed the light inside. It was weird. Sort of - dim, and flickering -
Candlelight? I thought, and stopped, squinting at the figures across the street. That doesn’t sound like -
The figures turned, and whatever I was going to say disappeared from my mind.
Liz and her Dad were dancing. Slowdancing in the restaurant.
Her face was turned away, buried in the fabric of his shirt, her hair blanketing her shoulders, the two of them swaying gently back and forth -
I swallowed and took a step back, ducking into the shadows. Music drifted out through the open cafe windows.
…I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean taking chances, but they're worth taking
Loving might be a mistake, but it's worth making…
His hands fell away from her and she moved away from him, turning her body with her hand caught in his, rising over her head, her hair spiraling out gently. I caught a glimpse of her face as she spun away from him for a moment -
I moved back quickly until my back hit the wall.
She was smiling.
It was a little weak, but she was smiling...
I watched him beam down at her, like she was the sun and the stars. He let his arms settle back around her shoulders, almost like a hug...
There was almost no warning. A tremble resonated through me suddenly, and -
The disco ball turned slowly above us, drifting tiny flecks of light across her skin.
"It's easy," She whispered. "I'll show you."
I glanced around the dimly lit room. "Everyone's looking at us," I muttered.
She looked around and squinted a little before turning back to me, her voice soft and reassuring. "Michael, it's -it's just a dream," She whispered. "Right?"
I stared down at her. "Right," I said slowly.
She smiled a little. "So it won't hurt to try," She said. "Right?"
I stared at her for a second, my embarrassment fading to surprise and then to admiration. I trust her, I thought, staring at her. She wouldn't make fun of me, or freak out, or think I was stupid...
She liked me for who I was.
I took a deep breath and licked my lips nervously. "Right," I said. I jerked my hand towards the dance floor, half-amazed at the words that were coming out of my mouth. "So show me."
She squared her shoulders and walked out onto the dance floor, making ripples run through the dark blue silk pajamas that made me want to forget all about dancing. I was so mesmerized I didn't realize we were right under the disco ball until she turned around and -
"You ready for a dip?" Dad whispered suddenly.
"What?" I said, looking up at him. "No. No, Dad, I -"
He ignored me completely, leaning forward so I had no choice but to fall back. When he brought me back up I was laughing a little and blushing all at once.
"What's the matter?" He asked innocently. "You used to love the dips. That, as I recall, was your favorite part -"
"When I was five, Dad," I sputtered, shaking my head. It was the next best thing to being on a swing. All of a sudden your world spun, and twirled around, and then suddenly you were upright again, and -
The shock rushed through me quickly, almost like the earth under my feet was trembling -
"Put your hand around my waist," I whispered, sliding my hands up to Michael's shoulders. He blinked and frowned, circling me with his hands until one of them settled on the small of my back. I gasped a little and stared up at him.
"What?" He asked quickly, jerking his hands back. "I thought you said…"
"No, no, no," I murmured quickly, feeling the blush rising up over my cheeks. I snatched at his hand and moved it to my back. "There's fine too." I swallowed, feeling the heat from his hands rush through the silk material against my skin, realizing that was all that separated us. I took deliberate breath and stared up at him.
"Now what," He whispered fiercely, glancing at the shadows lining the room, knowing people were watching us. I was feeling nervous myself, but I'd told him I'd show him how...
"Now we - we, you know, step," I said clumsily. "Together."
"Okay," He mumbled, pulling my body in close, closing the air between us. I felt the way we - melded, almost, the way we *fit* so well, and the breath went out of me again.
"Sorry," He whispered.
"Don't be," I whispered back, and -
The world lurched suddenly and I opened my eyes, gasping a little. I heard my dad's voice, warbly and distant, as if he were speaking through water...
"Lizzie? Did I step on you?" He asked, his voice clearer this time.
"What?" I asked faintly, staring up at him, watching his features sharpen into focus. "No," I whispered. "No, I'm - I'm fine..."
I blinked and leaned my cheek against his chest, my mind still swimming. I was still dancing with Dad. The candles flickered on the crashdown wall, the song was still playing, and everything was - everything was the same as before. Before - before whatever that was...
Before the tremor, I thought. That's how it felt, like something shook me out of where I was and took me back to -
Back to Michael. Back when things were good. Back when I knew he loved me...
Something made me look sideways at the windows, staring into the darkness, at the shadows across the street.
I could feel it. Someone out there was watching the two of us, dancing in the café.
...my fingers were itching to move, to slide down the soft silk that covered her curves. I swallowed and leaned back a little, trying to concentrate -
Her eyes were warm, dark like coffee, like liquid chocolate with tiny flecks of gold, and those shimmering pinpoints of light kept drifting across her face... I felt her heart speed up and watched the smile spread slowly across her lips.
It's only a dream, I thought, it can't be wrong, it's only a dream and then I was leaning down to kiss her and -
It's who you are, Michael.
The world lurched suddenly, the room and the dance floor tilting wildly in one direction and then swaying back suddenly, and...
I was standing across the street from the crashdown, staring at the windows, watching Liz dancing with her father, her back turned to the world. I scowled and tried to catch my breath, feeling the rough pebbled surface of the brick wall digging into my back. What the hell was that, I thought, glancing both ways down the street.
Stupid. I was so stupid. I'd come here to get Max away from her, and instead I was daydreaming -
He was about fifteen feet away from me, facing the cafe, enraptured at the sight of her. He didn't even notice me. Why would he, I thought. He doesn't see anything but her...
The rage surged up in me, burning my throat and my hands. I took three steps and jerked him around to face me, his eyes wide and surprised -
"What the hell do you think you're doing, Maxwell?" I hissed.
"You okay?" My Dad asked, stepping back slightly. "You look a little pale."
"Yeah, I'm - I'm okay," I said quickly, and then changed my mind. "Well... maybe I am a little tired."
He sighed and nodded. "Alright," He said. "Well, let's go."
"Wait! I, uhm -" I stammered, stepping back from him. "I just want to look over something. I'll be up in a second."
His head rolled slightly to the side. "Liz -"
"I'll be up in a second," I said quickly. "I promise."
His hands settled on his hips and he frowned at me. Please go, I thought. Just go, dad, please…
"-it's none of your business where I go, Michael."
"See, that's where you're wrong, Maxwell, because it is my business. I'm supposed to protect you -"
"We don't even know that I need protecting -"
"You want whatever's hunting us to be hunting her too, Maxwell?" I whispered. "Is that it? Are you so obsessed that -"
"Leave me alone, Michael!" He snapped suddenly, his voice low and filled with contempt. "I shouldn't expect you to understand what it’s..."
His voice trailed off and he stared at me, his eyes burning.
"Understand what," I whispered slowly.
He raised his head and stared at me for a moment. Everything was suddenly quiet between us, sharp and brittle with words frozen in the night air, unspoken and still heard...
Say it, I thought, our eyes locked on each other, the silence more deadly than our argument, feeling the rage threatening to surge up out of my hands. Please say it.
He stared at me, possessive and enraged, and then he averted his eyes and shook his head, and the moment faded into nothingness, melted away.
"You just - you don't know, Michael," He whispered, his voice thick and broken. "You don't know what it's like..."
I felt the fire fade away under my fingertips. I frowned at him in surprise and recognition, hearing the catch in his voice, how much he cared about her...
My eyes flickered to the cafe windows visible over his shoulder. She'd stepped away from her dad, her back to us.
"C'mon," I muttered. "We gotta go."
He shook his head and stepped away from me, his back still to the cafe.
"Maxwell," I growled. "Come on -"
He shook his head. "I'll be home later," He whispered.
Dad leaned down, planting a kiss on my forehead, his eyes half-closed with sleepiness. "Good night," He mumbled, turning away.
"Good night," I whispered, watching him walk through the door to the stairs.
Our eyes locked on each other as he stepped back again, this time into the flood of light from the street lamp. "Damnit, Maxwell," I hissed. "Anyone can see you -"
He stared at me with empty, hopeless eyes.
"Good," He whispered.
He turned away from me to face the cafe. My eyes flickered over his shoulder to Liz. She was standing alone in the cafe, she was turning towards us, she was going to see -
I stepped back into the shadows and let the darkness swallow me.
Please, I thought, staring into the darkness. Please...
A man stood in under the streetlight watching me, and for just a second, I thought it was Michael. That he'd come back to tell me he was wrong, that we were stronger together, that he didn't want to leave me...
It wasn't Michael.
Max stood in the pale circle of light, watching me from across the street.
I took a step back, sucking in my breath, surprise and fear making my heart slam against my chest. He didn't move, he just... stared at me, vulnerability and hope written across his face...
I stood frozen for a moment, and then I was running for the door to the stairs and climbing them two at a time.
I started to breathe again, watching her run from him. From both of us.
My gaze flickered to Max. He hadn't moved. I took a slow step toward him and felt the darkness slip from my body.
"C'mon," I said quietly. "I'm taking you home."
He turned around, his mouth opened to say something, pain flickering across his eyes momentarily. Then his eyes fell to the street and he nodded silently.
"Let's go," I muttered, placing my hand on his shoulder and wakling him around the corner, glancing left and right for anything suspicious.
I kept us in the shadows, moving quickly across the open spaces, until we got to his back door, until he placed his hand against the lock and the silver light flickered briefly under his palm, until he closed the door and I heard the snick of the lock in the quiet of the night.
He never said a word.
I sat on my bed, staring out my rooftop window. It was going to be light soon.
I still didn't understand what happened. I knew what I'd felt. That - tremor, or daydream, or memory - it felt almost like a flash, I thought for the thousandth time.
But why would I get a flash about Michael from Max?
I was so afraid when I saw him, I just bolted. And I didn't dare ask him if he felt it, too. Not after what he'd said to me before I left for Florida...
I closed my eyes for a second and sighed, feeling the air rush out of my lungs, feeling my shoulders relax a little. I'd been half-afraid that Max would suddenly appear on my rooftop in the middle of the night, telling me he'd gotten over the betrayal, that he and I could be together again...
I could never do that, I thought. Never again.
I glanced down and saw a corner of white paper sticking out from under my bed. I frowned and reached down, picking up the stack of three-by-five cards.
I stared down at them. Alex. Michael. Max...
"Max is the key," I whispered, reading the scribbled text on the card. I frowned. The key to what?
To me and Michael? That didn't make any sense.
I closed my eyes and leaned down, shoving the cards under my bed, far out of reach. I sat up and looked out the window again, watching the night sky fading to grey and then to red. Soon it would be time to get up. Time to go to school. Time to see Maria. Max. Isabel, I thought darkly.
The rooftop blurred suddenly and I closed my eyes.
How am I going to do this?
"Feeling better, honey?" My mom asked, moving next to me with a pot of coffee. "I heard you moving around all night."
"Yeah, I - I feel better," I said, I stared down at my plate of scrambled eggs and toast. I looked up at her. "Thanks, but... I guess I'm just not very hungry."
"Oh," She said, surprised. "Well, alright. Are you sure you're feeling okay?"
No, I thought. I'm not. I'm sick. Let me stay home. Just let me stay here -
"No," I murmured, staring up at her. "I'm - fine."
"Okay," She said, frowning a little and leaning down. "Look, if you're worried about what we talked about last night, I -"
"No, I'm - I'm fine, Mom, really." I stood up and swung my backpack over my shoulder. "I'm going to be at work after school, so..."
"Well - okay," She said reluctantly as I passed, leaning out for me to kiss her on the cheek. I pressed my lips against her skin and smiled weakly as I left the kitchen.
I walked down the stairs, out of the restaurant, nodding or smiling at the few customers sitting at tables, drinking their coffee, reading the newspaper. One of the customers, Mr. Myers, looked up at me and smiled, waving before looking back at the Daily News. I smiled weakly and waved back.
No one noticed a difference.
Everything looked gray. Like all the color had gone out of everything. And no one else noticed.
I'd made the promise to myself as the sun broke the sky. I had concealer, I had caffeine, I had tissues jammed into my backpack.
No one was going to know anything was wrong. Certainly not Michael.
I took a slow breath, feeling the shudder roll through my body. I stared up at the sun and pushed the café door open, walking out into the flood of light, my head held high.
No one would ever know.
|DC Slash||Harry Potter||Ros. Hetero||Ros. Slash||Ros. Other|