"Come back to school," I growled, watching the flood of students rush past us. "What a great plan."
"I am so not having this conversation," Isabel muttered, jerking a book out of her locker.
"You realize the killer could be here, right now, walking the halls just looking for us," I said, trying hard to keep my voice down, glaring at her. She slammed her locker shut and stormed past me.
"And gee, where are we?" I demanded, following close behind her. "Hey, we're right here. Just waiting to be found -"
"You know what?" She snapped suddenly, turning around. "Stop, okay? Stop putting me in the middle of this. If you have a problem, take it to Max," She said, her eyes burning, her voice softer than a whisper.
I opened my mouth to say something. Anything to not hear what was coming. The last thing I wanted to hear about was -
"He's the leader," She hissed.
I closed the distance between us, feeling the light bubbling up to the surface under my skin. "Listen. If we're not careful, he's gonna get us all killed -"
Max's face appeared over Isabel's shoulder. Just outta nowhere. I shut my mouth and glared at him.
So what if he heard?
I hoped he did.
"Hi," I sneered. He didn't answer me. His eyes were locked on Isabel. I rolled my eyes and shook my head and looked away.
"Gotta go," I muttered suddenly, walking away from them both. "Bell rang." Something more interesting had caught my attention.
Alex was walking through the hallway, his fingertips dancing nervously over his backpack strap, an anxious look on his face. Liz stood about fifteen feet ahead of him, her face turned to something in her hands.
Careful, Guerin. Careful.
Some girls jostled my shoulder and I fought the urge to scream.
I was close to something. I could feel it. I stared down at the index cards in my hands, covered in scribbled, hurried writing. I stared at the names written on bold, capital letters on each card, flipping them over, trying to put the pieces together. Max. Michael. Alex...
"Hey, Liz," A breathless voice said suddenly, right in front of me. I looked up to see Alex, fidgeting with the strap on his shoulder.
"Hey!" I said brightly, shoving the notes in my jacket pocket. "Hey. Have you talked to Isabel? Did -" I looked over my shoulder and lowered my voice. "Is Nasedo alright?"
"Oh, man," He mumbled, looking at the ceiling.
"I'm sorry," I said quickly. "Sorry. I shouldn't - I mean, I know things are tense between the two of you right now. I just haven't seen any of them yet, and… never mind," I said quickly, taking a breath. "I'm, uhm - I'm glad you're here. I wanted to talk to you about something -"
"Really," He interrupted, glancing around, shifting his weight. "What a coincidence. I have to talk to you about something." He took my elbow suddenly and started pulling me down the hall. "Right now."
"What - now?" I asked, stepping into the wake of his path to avoid the crush of students. "But - but the bell just -"
"So you'll be tardy," He mumbled.
"Alex," I said. "Alex -"
"I'll explain everything in a second," He mumbled.
I stared at the back of his head for a moment before twisting my elbow out of his grip. He stopped and looked back at me, confused. "What're you doing? Liz, this is -"
"How do I know you're Alex," I whispered.
He looked like Alex. He looked just like Alex. But I'd fallen for that before…
His mouth opened and he blinked before reacting. "Oh, that's great," He said suddenly, turning around and waving his arms. I frowned and swallowed. His voice was bouncing off the school walls in harsh waves...
"That's just great. Look," He said, turning back to face me and letting his voice drop to a whisper. "I'm me. I'm Alex. Alright?"
"Alex would tell me where we're going," I said evenly, holding his gaze.
He stared at me for a second before leaning back and shaking his head. "Fine," He said. "Ask me something. Anything. Just - hurry it up."
I took a breath and folded my arms. "What's the first time we met?"
"Under what circumstances?"
"I mean it," I said.
He sighed and shook his head. "Fine. I stole your ice cream. Happy?" He demanded, reaching for my arm.
"No," I said quickly, jerking my arm out of reach. "What else?"
He let his head roll back and stared at the ceiling. "It was mint chocolate chip," He groaned. "Can we go now?"
I felt the smile tickling the edges of my mouth. It was him. "And?" I asked, biting the smile back.
His head rolled back to face me, disbelief coloring his features. "And, what?" He demanded.
"Sorry," I lied, shrugging my shoulders. "Alex would know what -"
"Oh, fine," He mumbled. "Fine, fine, fine. I tripped when I took it and it smeared it all over my shirt and everyone laughed at me and then you stood over me and told me it served me right and then you yelled at the other kids to stop laughing," He said, glaring at me. "Now can we go?
I pressed my lips together and looked down at the floor, trying not to smile. It was nice to know something, to be sure of something, I thought…
I didn't want it to stop.
"Oh, for God's sake," He said suddenly, the words tumbling out of him in a rush. "Your teddy bear's name was Mister Fuzzy. Your favorite color is dark blue. Your favorite aunt lives in Florida -"
"Alright," I said quickly, smiling and waving my hands for him to stop. "Alright. You're Alex."
He snatched my elbow and was dragging me behind him before I could even ask where we were going.
At least the halls are empty, I thought.
I listened to their footsteps fading and glanced out of the doorway into the hall. I caught just a glimpse of her hair flowing out behind her as they turned the corner…
I stepped out of the doorway and stared after them. What was wrong with him? I thought. They'd stood in the hallway arguing forever. Just give her the ashes. Let her test them. Was that so complicated?
I took a step in the direction they'd gone, and the voice in my head snickered softly.
It's who you are, Michael. You can't fight it.
I learned from you…
I turned around and stormed down the corridor, away from them, slamming my fist against the lockers as I left.
"Alex, you're kind of weirding me out," I said slowly, looking around at the small space.
"I'm weirding you out," He muttered, hunched over his backpack. He'd thrown it to the ground as soon as we'd closed the door. "I'd remark upon the irony if I wasn't about to throw up."
"Okay, what…" I said, shaking my head. "Why are we in the eraser room?"
"Could you just - not talk?" He asked, looking up. "For two minutes? I really need to concentrate on not being sick."
"What's wrong?" I asked, crouching down next to him. He looked faintly green. "Alex, are you okay? Should we go to the nurse, or -"
"Here," He mumbled, and held something out to me. Something brown, and wadded-up…
A paper bag, I thought numbly. I stared at the bag, then at him. "Alex," I said slowly. "What's going on."
He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Just… take it," He mumbled. He let go as soon as my hand closed over the bag.
"What is this?" I asked, standing up.
"Just gimme a second," He mumbled, sitting down against the tiled floor, his hands covering his face. His breath was slow and deliberate. I stared down at the bag and opened it, looking inside.
I reached in and pulled out a clear, airtight bag, holding some kind of pale dirt. Sand, or -
I felt the tension surge through my body, the cold fear opening up in my stomach, my breath catching in my mouth. I stared at the contents of the bag for a moment, watching them clump and shift, feeling the instinct like an itch in my fingertips, the voice in my head screaming drop it, let it fall, let it go -
"Alex," I whispered, hearing the tension and the question in my voice, listening to the reverberation of it in the tiny room... "Alex, what -"
"Is he alright?" I asked.
Michael stood a few feet away from me, a thick patch of clover at his feet, the ash tree towering over him. Desert stretched out behind him, blurring the lines of his shoulders, dark clouds rolling overhead -
"No," He said, his voice wary, as if we were in danger. He swallowed and licked his lips, breathing in the hot air that flooded our lungs before opening his mouth to speak -
I closed my eyes and opened them again, staring at the contents of the plastic bag, watching them shift and slide with the shaking in my hands.
I looked at Alex. "Oh my God," I whispered.
I watched him sigh deeply. His fingers laced together over his forehead, exposing his closed eyes to the sunlight filtering into the room. He took a breath and laid his arms across his knees slowly. When he opened his eyes, they were staring at the cold floor.
"So this -" The words stuck in my throat. I tried to swallow and failed. I took a breath. "Alex, this isn't…"
He looked up at me wordlessly.
The room tilted sharply and I felt the ground underneath my left hand as I lowered myself to the ground. After a moment, I stared at the bag again. The contents - the ashes, I thought, numb and sick all at once, his ashes - shifted clumsily with my sudden movement. I let the bag fall to the floor and pushed myself away, rubbing my hands together as if I could brush the feeling of it away, rub the knowledge out of my skin…
"Michael brought it to me last night," Alex said finally.
I looked up at him. "Michael?" I whispered. "When?"
He shrugged, pulling his arms around him like a shield, his knees tucked up against his chest. "Around three, I think," He mumbled, shaking his head. "He, uh - he ordered me to get a ziploc bag. So I got it."
"He didn't -" I pressed my lips together and tried to ignore the sour taste in my mouth. "He didn't tell you why he was there?"
Alex shook his head. "He said he was doing rounds. Something like that. I don't know. I mean, he's -" He took a deep breath. "He's not the sharing type. You know?"
I stared back down at the bag, resting a foot away from my body. "I thought he couldn't die," I said quietly. "I mean, I thought they could heal him..."
"Yeah. Well, he, uhm - he said I should give it to you."
I looked over at him. His gaze was locked on me for a moment before he looked down and rubbed his face with his hands.
"He said he thought it might give you some answers," He said evenly, pressing his fingertips against his eyes before his hands dropped again. "He said that he remembered you were upset, the night that I was at your house, the night we were on the internet, you know, looking for -"
"Cadmium x?" I said suddenly. "That's what this is about?"
"Yeah," He said slowly. "I mean, that's what he said."
I stared at him for a moment and then turned back to Nasedo's ashes, lying still on the cold floor. I took a slow, deep breath.
I watched my hand reach out, feeling Alex's eyes on me, watching my fingertips closing over the thin green line that sealed the bag, my fingertips white and trembling. I lifted it slowly, feeling the weight of it. My arm moved back slowly and I raised my other hand to it, letting it settle in my palm, feeling the ashes pressing into the hollow of my hand…
He brought me ashes. He gave me back the necklace I'd refused to take, and he gave me ashes…
"So - what do we do," Alex said suddenly, interrupting my thoughts. I looked over at him.
"I mean -" He shook his head. "Do we stay late after school, hide out in chem lab, what?"
I stared at him wordlessly, trying to understand. "What're you talking about?"
"Well, the - " He said awkwardly, pointing at it. "I mean, how do we test it? To find out?"
I opened my mouth and closed it again. I looked down at the ashes, spilling over my hands.
Test it? Neither Michael or Alex knew much about chemistry. We needed a whole research lab to test it. I could do a wet chemistry test, but that wouldn't neccessarily give us any conclusive results - and we couldn't send it away to be tested, because if cadmium x was found, we'd have to explain it, and that put all of them at risk...
He'd brought me ashes for nothing, I thought.
"I'll take care of it," I whispered.
"Liz," He said, unfolding himself, crouching next to me suddenly. "You don't have to do this by yourself. Let me help -"
"Just don't tell anyone," I whispered, not looking at him. "Alright?"
He was still for a moment. I could feel his eyes on my face, struggling with the request. His hand was gentle on my shoulder and I heard him exhale slowly. I closed my eyes.
"I know how you get," He said finally. "When you, uh - when you make up your mind about something. So…"
I closed my eyes. "Thanks," I whispered. I turned to look at him. He was unconvinced, doubt and concern blanketing his features. "I can do this on my own."
His eyes searched mine for a moment and then he nodded, his face turned to the floor. He sighed and stood up slowly.
"Alright. I guess we should go back to class," He mumbled, shaking his head. "This is crazy."
"You go ahead," I said quietly, looking back at Nasedo's ashes. "I'll go in a second."
"Alex," I said gently, looking up at him. "I'll be okay."
He opened his mouth and closed it again. "Okay," He said. "But if you need anything, you know, moral support, a lab partner, any of that stuff -"
"I'll call you," I said quietly. "I promise."
"Alright," He mumbled, shifting his weight, unconvinced. I looked back at the bag and heard him turn to the door. "I mean, I don't like it, but alright."
"Alex," I said suddenly. "I, uhm - I wanted to ask you something…"
"Oh. Right," He said, turning around. "What?"
"Well - the night that you came over," I said, standing up and facing him, my voice reluctant and heavy. "You, uhm… you said that you knew that my computer was offline, and I was just - I was just wondering, you know, uhm… how you knew that."
He stared at me. "Well - uh, it was your dad," He said quickly. "You know, he said that the computers were all down at the crashdown, and he asked me to look at them. Over the summer, when you were..."
"When I was gone," I finished, nodding. "Right. That makes sense."
He stared at me for a moment before raising his shoulders in a shrug. "That's it?" He asked.
I sighed and shook my head. "Yeah," I said quickly. "That's it. I'm - I'm sorry, it was just -"
"Hey," He interrupted, waving his hands. "It's cool. Glad I could help."
I nodded. He raised his hand and gestured to the door over his shoulder. "So I'm just gonna -"
"Yeah," I said quickly. "Good. Right. Thanks."
He nodded, trying to mask the concern on his face. He turned and opened the door, walking out of the room, the door slowly swinging back behind him as his footsteps echoing in the hall.
I bit down on my lip. I knew Alex.
He'd hesitated. For just a second.
He wasn't telling me something.
I climbed the steps quickly, my footsteps slamming against the floor. Nothing was working. Max wouldn't listen, and I couldn't talk to Liz, and -
I stopped at the top of the stairs. Liz stood facing my front door, her arms folded over her chest, her eyes locked on me. I felt my mouth open and close before I could form any words. I felt my heartbeat speed up.
I swallowed and scowled at her. "You shouldn't be here," I muttered, storming past her, slipping my palm against the doorknob and feeling the snik of the lock opening. I jerked hard and pushed the door open, slamming it back behind me -
I heard the slap of her hand against the door as she caught it and pushed it shut behind her. I turned around.
"Go home, Liz."
"What is this?" She demanded, holding something up to me. A paper bag -
"You know what it is," I growled. "I told Alex -"
"Yeah. Let's start there," She snapped, letting the bag fall to the kitchen counter. "You told Alex. Not me. Why?"
I glared at her. "Go home, Liz."
"Not until you tell me what's really going on," She said, meeting my stare.
I pursed my lips and shrugged. "There's nothing to tell -"
"Stop lying to me," She whispered suddenly, cutting me off, shaking her head, staring down at the floor. My words trailed off as I stared at her.
"You think I don't know when you're lying to me?" She said softly, looking up at me.
"You -" She pressed her lips together in a tight white line and looked away before starting again. "You gave - you gave this to Alex last night," She said slowly, gesturing at the bag on the counter.
"But we both know you were at my house last night, Michael," She whispered, turning her face to the floor. I heard the catch in her voice. She looked up at me, her eyes shining, pain blanketing her features -
I turned my back to her and stared out the window.
"What - why would you go to Alex," She whispered behind me. I heard her move closer to me. "Why not just give it to me?"
She took a breath and moved closer to me. I could hear the floorboards creak under her steps, I could smell the flowers and musk, I could feel the warmth of her body drifting closer -
"Just tell me why," She whispered.
Don't, I thought, closing my eyes. Don't make me do this…
"It doesn't make sense," She whispered.
I breathed in slowly.
It's who you are, Michael. You can't fight it...
Alright. If it had to be like this, then…
I turned around to face her. The movement startled her and she stepped back, surprised, her eyes turning up to my face, her eyes shining and hopeful…
I can't, I thought. She was so close. She was too close. I felt like I could just reach out and touch her...
...everything I did, I learned from you, Michael.
I scowled and pursed my lips, tasting the lie on my lips, the metallic tang tainting my mouth.
"I thought it'd be easier," I said, staring down at her, my teeth sharp against the soft flesh of my mouth. "Less of a scene. But whatever," I growled, pushing my way past her and snatching the paper bag off the counter and turning around, my arm outstretched, holding it out to her.
"Here," I said. "Take it."
She stared at me, stunned.
"You want me to give it to you?" I demanded. "Here. I'm giving it to you. Take it."
Her lips parted. Confusion and fear flickered across her face. She took a step back and shook her head slowly.
"Take it," I snapped, holding the bag out to her and taking a step toward her. She shook her head again, more firmly this time, her lips pressed together.
"Fine," I muttered, letting my arm drop, tossing the paper bag back onto the counter. "You want to know why? That's why," I snapped, advancing on her. "That's why I didn't give it to you. That's why I didn't wake you up. That's why I left the necklace on your window," I snarled. "You don't want to hear it, you don't want to admit it -"
"That's not true," She whispered, staring up at me, her lips trembling.
"Just let it go," I said, glaring down at her. "It's over. Deal with it."
"This is important," I snapped. "The four of us have to do this without distractions."
Her eyes widened and she stared up at me, doubt encroaching on her features. I tore myself away from her and paced into the kitchen, turning my back on her.
"Go home," I said, forcing the words out.
I heard her breath catch. "Michael -"
"God, don't you get tired of hearing it?" I demanded, turning around, slamming my hands against the counter so hard that she jumped.
"Go. Home," I whispered.
Her cheeks were wet with tears. Her fingertips fluttered over her hands nervously. "I - I know that -" The words died in her throat and she shook her head, trying again.
"Michael," She whispered, her voice broken and cracking, her eyes pleading. "I know that you love me..."
I snatched the bag and launched it at her. She barely caught it, startled, trapping it against her body, her gaze flying up to my face -
"I told you," I whispered. "I can't have the distraction."
Disbelief flooded her face for a moment, and then she was running, her hair flowing out behind her, the door hanging open, her footsteps pounding fast and furious over the steps…
I swallowed the bitterness in my mouth and stared down at the countertop, feeling the heat and the light raging under my skin.
You had to do it. You had to. She would have found out about you sooner or later, what you are…
We'd had this conversation over and over. This time had to be different. I had to make sure she believed me. That there wasn't any coming back.
I had to break her heart.
There was only one person who could help me do that.
I closed my eyes for a moment, and then I reached for the phone.
"Yeah," I croaked, stopping in the hallway. I brushed my hands over my face quickly and cleared my throat. "It's me, Mom."
She stepped out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel. "Liz, it's noon. Why aren't you in -" She stopped and looked at me more closely. "Are you alright?"
I nodded and looked away. "Yeah, I just - I don't feel well," I whispered. "I wanted to come home and lay down, and -"
"Shh. Shhhh," She said gently, moving toward me, her hands light on my shoulders, placing the back of her hand against my forehead for a moment. "You do feel warm," She said, concern creeping into her voice. "Why don't you go lie down for a bit. I'll call Maria and ask her to bring your homework."
I nodded silently and opened the door. Her hands slipped from my shoulders like water and she moved back toward the kitchen. I walked into my room and closed the door behind me.
I leaned back against the door and heard the click of the latch. I felt the shaking rip through my body, my back trembling against the door, trying to be quiet so my Mom wouldn't hear, watching my room blur into nothingness in front of me.
"Hey," She whispered, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "How's my baby?
I nodded once and closed my eyes. "Better," I whispered, tasting the lie on my tongue.
"Amy said she'll have Maria bring your homework over," She said softly. "She's not working tonight, so she can talk with you for a little bit. Do you want some juice?"
I shook my head, rolling away and staring out the window to the rooftop. Where Michael used to sit, at the very beginning, one leg hanging over the ledge, watching me sleep…
I closed my eyes. "No," I whispered, my voice barely slipping past the lump in my throat. "Thank you."
I felt her hand on my hair for a moment, her touch gentle and soothing. "Alright," She said quietly. I heard the bed creak and felt her bending over me, felt the soft brush of her lips against my cheek. "I'll check on you in a little bit."
The bed creaked again and I heard her footsteps moving across the room, away from me, and then the opening and closing of the door.
I bit down on my lip and felt the flood come over me.
"Hey," Maria said, a surprised frown on her face. "What happened to you?"
"Nothing," I whispered, sitting up and shaking my head. "I'm fine. Thanks for coming over."
"Jeez, Liz, you look like hell," She said, sitting down on the bed and staring at me. I opened my mouth to say thanks, thanks a lot, to roll my eyes at her…
Nothing came out. I stared down at the quilt on my bed and watched my fingertips fumble with the cloth. I heard her take a deep breath.
"This is about Max," She said gently. "Isn't it?"
I closed my eyes. I thought I was going to be sick. "No," I whispered, shaking my head. "It's not -"
"Liz. Look. I know you're on this crusade to be over him, but you're not. You need to deal with that -"
"Could we not talk about Max?" I demanded, looking up at her. The words died in her throat.
"I'm - I'm sorry," I whispered, looking back at the quilt, shaking my head. "I shouldn't - I shouldn't snap at you -"
"Hey. Hey," She said softly. I felt her hand cover mine. "I know how you feel."
I looked up at her.
"It's -hard," She said. "Not being with him. But, you know, you just have to keep the faith, Liz." She shrugged. "You know," She said. "That whole true-love-conquers-all stuff."
I stared at her and finally nodded silently, looking down.
"Right," I whispered. "Right."
I heard her sigh in relief. "Good," She said, squeezing my hand. I could hear the smile in her voice.
"Maria?" I asked.
I looked up at her.
"What if it doesn't?" I whispered.
"I'm going on break," Javier called out to me from the kitchen. I rolled my eyes and shook my head. I was in the dining room, not the grease pit. Did it look like I was wearing an apron?
"Alright," Isabel said, sitting down next to me suddenly at the counter and sighing loudly. "What's so important that I had to drop everything and come here?"
"Hey," I said, taking a breath. "You want a coke?" I asked, gesturing behind the counter. "Or, uhm, fries or something? I can just go back and -"
"No," She said, waving her hand in dismissal. "Why are we even here? God, Michael, do we have to spend every waking moment with the smell of old grease? Couldn't you come over to my -"
"No," I said, my voice sharp. "Look, I just... I thought we should talk about Max."
"I'm done," She interrupted brightly, standing up and pushing herself away from the counter. "I told you, Michael, if you have something you want to say to Max, then say it to him. Bye."
"Wait!" I hissed, glancing at the door again. She caught my look and glanced over her shoulder, looking at the door behind her.
"What is your problem?" She demanded. "Trouble in hormone land?"
"Look," I slowly, licking my lips. Easy, Guerin. Easy... "I'm trying to be - I'm trying to talk. Clear the air. That's it. Alright?"
She regarded me suspiciously for a moment. Then she sat down on the stool, folding her long arms over each other. She tossed her hair back over her shoulder.
"Alright," She said stiffly. "So talk."
"Come on," Maria said, looking over her shoulder at me as we descended the staircase. "You need comfort food. Starches, sweets - I can have Javier whip up some french toast."
"I'm fine," I said.
"Riiiiight," She said, turning at the bottom of the steps and turning to face me, her hands on her hips. "Fine. That's why you haven't said ten words since I got here."
"Maria…" I sighed. "Can I just have the homework? I really need to get some sleep, or something."
"Alright," She muttered, throwing her hands up in the air and walking to the door to the restaurant. "My backpack's on the counter. Just let me…"
She stopped at the door, staring through the diamond-shaped window.
"That jerk," She whispered.
I walked down the rest of the stairs and moved behind her, looking over her shoulder.
Michael was sitting at at the counter. He was smiling at the girl in front of him. Her long, blond hair was unmistakable.
He was smiling at Isabel.
"He's here on purpose," She whispered. "He's trying to make me jealous."
I stared at Michael. He was laughing at something she said -
I couldn't remember the last time I saw him smile.
"Well, if he thinks this is gonna work, he has another thing coming," Maria muttered fiercely, turning away from the door and storming past me into the kitchen.
"Maria?" I called after her. "Maria!"
"Why are you doing that?" Isabel said, a concerned look on her face.
"Hm?" I asked. "Doing what?"
"You're - smiling," She muttered darkly. "It's - weird."
"Fine. Sorry," I muttered, glancing at the door behind her. I'd seen Maria's face, but -
Silence filled the restaurant suddenly. I hadn't even been listening to the music, but whatever was playing, it'd been turned off. Someone was in the kitchen -
I heard the unmistakable click of the Crashdown CD player, and then music drifted through the room.
Go on and close your eyes
Go on imagine me there
She's got similar features
With longer hair
And if that's what it takes
To get you through
Go on and close your eyes
It shouldn't bother you...
"Damnit, Maria," I muttered, getting up.
"What?" Isabel asked, bewildered. "What's going on?"
"Be right back," I muttered, walking past Isabel and through the door to the kitchen. Maria was standing in front of the CD player, her hands on her hips, a defiant look on her face.
"What are you doing?" I demanded.
"Just providing the soundtrack for your warped little alien lovefest," She snapped. "Doesn't it fit?"
"You're acting crazy," I muttered, crossing over and pushing her out of the way, anger rising up in me quickly as I pushed the buttons on the CD player. Nothing happened.
Damnit, I thought. She's gonna ruin everything. Liz had to see me with Isabel, had to see me being happy with her...
She had to believe that I'd moved on. Maybe even that I was falling in love with Is. It wasn't such a stretch - she'd seen Max go right to Tess' arms after he told her that he only loved her...
And she'd been terrified, once, that I'd leave her for Isabel.
It had to work.
"...you know what's crazy?" Maria said behind me, interrupting my thoughts. "Crazy is telling someone that you aren't interested in someone, and then acting like you are. That's crazy, Michael."
"Turn it off," I snapped, turning around to face her, and stopped.
Liz stood behind Maria, in the doorway between the kitchen and the locker room, her eyes locked on me. She looked like she'd been crying since she'd left me. Her face was pale and drawn, her eyes red and swollen, and -
It's who you are, Michael. You can't fight it.
"...like hell," Maria said, her voice sounding miles away. "Do it yourself."
I tore my gaze away from Liz and looked down at Maria.
"Fine," I muttered, turning back to the CD player, stretching out my arm, feeling the blast of light and heat ripping through my skin. I watched a thin column of smoke rise up from the system and watched the outermost surface of the system start to melt -
The song skipped once and then stop completely. Rumblings of annoyance drifted in from the dining room.
I turned back to Maria. She was staring at the CD player, her mouth open in disbelief.
"Happy?" I asked.
She looked up at me. The CD player hissed and popped, and then I heard the unmistakable click of it selecting another disk.
"What is wrong with you," She said. "I don't understand you."
I didn't answer.
"Say something, Michael," She said, her voice softening to a whisper. "Michael..."
I looked over her shoulder at Liz.
"Tell me you love me," Maria said, her voice lower than a whisper. "Just - say it."
I looked down at her for a moment and then glanced at the window to the dining room. Isabel was staring out the cafe' windows, the sunlight dancing on her features.
I felt both Liz and Maria follow my gaze to Isabel. I didn't look away from her as I spoke.
"I can't," I said evenly.
Liz flinched. Maria breathed in sharply and looked up at me in disbelief before bolting across the kitchen, pushing hard against the door, a sob escaping her lips as she went.
I didn't move to stop her.
When the door closed, I looked back at Liz. She was trembling, one hand over her mouth, the other gripping the doorframe so tightly her knuckles were white. I swallowed hard and crossed the kitchen to her.
...it's almost like a disease
And I know soon you will be
Over the lies
You'll be strong, you'll be rich in love
And you will carry on...
But no, oh no
No, you won't be mine...
I heard the CD skip and return to the middle of the song, the CD player still hissing and crackling behind me. I stopped in front of her. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps. She looked so tiny. So small, and frail, and...
I almost told her everything.
That I did love her. That I wanted to keep her safe. That I wanted to be something better than what I was, better than what I used to be...
But that's the point of destiny. That you can't escape who you are. Or what you have to do.
I looked down at her and realized that I had done this to her. I'd broken her heart, made her cry, ripped her up inside until there was no room left for it and it had to find its way out...
What kind of person does that?
It's who you are, Michael. I learned from you...
Her breath slowed, becoming more controlled, settling into a rhythm. She swallowed hard and raised her face to me, her eyes wounded and empty.
...You'll be rich in love
And you will carry on
But no, oh no...
No, you won't be mine...
"Take it out of my pay," I muttered, and walked past her to the restaurant.
I gripped the doorway in my hand, feeling the slivers of wood breaking through my skin, trying to breathe.
He just walked past me. He didn't take it back. He didn't tell me he was wrong, that he was sorry, that he didn't mean it...
I looked through the kitchen window. He sat down next to Isabel and started talking again, a smile building on his lips...
...it's almost like a disease
And I know soon you will be...
She was shaking her head at something he said, tossing her head so that her hair flowed over her shoulders. He pursed his lips, looking her up and down for a second, and then I saw the smirk I knew so well...
Over the lies
You'll be strong, you'll be rich in love
And you will carry on
But no, oh no...
No, you won't be mine...
He was leaning over, leaning into her, his fingertips reaching out. She almost turned away, her expression confused and surprised, until he touched her hair gently, brushing it back and away from her face...
I pushed myself out of the doorway and crossed the kitchen, jerking the door to the alley open.
"You've got something," I murmured. "A leaf, or something. Hold on."
I reached out and brushed at her hair, gently removing what wasn't there. She almost jerked away from me, but her eyes turned warm when I tossed a small twig to the side.
Sometimes having alien powers is remarkably convenient.
"Thanks," She murmured, surprised, running her fingers through her hair, searching for other ones I might have missed.
I caught the sudden movement of Liz running to the alley door, her long, dark hair rushing out behind her. I bit down on the inside of my cheek.
"No problem," I muttered, forcing myself to smile. "I know you like things to be in place."
She was pacing back and forth in front of the dumpster. I let go of the door and walked out into the alley.
"Maria…" I whispered, walking toward her. "I'm sorry."
"No. I'm okay," She said, shaking her head, her hands dancing angrily over her face. She looked up at the sky. "I'm fine." Her body shook suddenly as if from the inside out and she turned away from me, her hand covering her face.
"Maria," I said gently, the guilt cold and hard in my throat. "What he said..."
"Oh, that's just him," She muttered angrily, throwing her hands in the air. "That's just the way he is."
I stared at her for a moment. "What?"
She turned around. "He's just so damn stubborn," She said, sniffling. "He won't admit it."
I felt my mouth open and close. "Maria - I know it was hard to hear that, but -"
"Oh, please," She groaned, dabbing at her eyes with her apron. "Please. Every week it's something new with him. 'I'm a stone wall.' 'I can't get attached.' 'I love you too much.' And this is supposed to throw me?" She demanded. "No. You know what, no."
"Maria," I said carefully. "Look, if he's with Isabel -"
"He's not with Isabel," She snapped. "This is just Michael's latest plan to get me away from him. I mean, Isabel? Can you imagine two more different people? It'd never work."
"But what about -"
She looked over at me. "What about what?"
She doesn't know about the dreams, I remembered. She doesn't know how it felt, how real it was -
"What about the, uhm - the baby thing," I whispered. "Last year, I mean, weren't they worried that -"
"Oh, God," She groaned. "Don't remind me. That was a horrific. You know he told me here? Right here, by the dumpster. Augh!" She shouted suddenly, looking like she was going to kick something. Instead she stopped suddenly, her hands stretched out parallel to the ground. She breathed in deeply. "No," She said quietly, smoothing down her hair. "You know what? I am fine. This is gonna pass, just like everything else."
"Maria," I whispered. "What if -"
"Don't even," She said suddenly, looking at me. "Don't even finish that."
I blinked and swallowed hard, nodding and turning my face to the ground. I heard her sigh. "I'm sorry," She murmured, coming closer to me. "Hey. I didn't mean to -"
"No," I whispered, shaking my head. "No, you were right. I had no right to say that."
She sighed and tilted her head, moving her hands quickly over my cheeks. "You're still flushed," She said. "You got a fever?"
"No, I'm - I'm fine," I said quickly. "Can I, uhm... can I ask you a question?"
She shrugged and laughed a little. "Liz. Come on. You can ask me anything."
I bit down on my lip. "Why - why do you..." I whispered, trying to find the words. "I mean, after what he said..."
She smiled a little. "Why do I love him?" She asked.
"Well… yeah," I mumbled.
She shrugged and took in a deep breath. "I don't know," She sighed. "I mean, seriously, I don't know. I guess… I guess I think that he doesn't know himself as well as he thinks he does."
I stared at her. She moved her hands over my shoulders, smoothing wrinkles out of my shirt. "Man, didn't you get any sleep?" She asked. "You're totally rumpled, Liz."
Sometimes I thought she didn't know him at all, I thought, and then sometimes, she made perfect sense…
"You know, now that I mention men not knowing what they want," She said, planting her hands on my shoulders. "You and I need to have a talk about Max."
"Oh, God," I groaned, trying to squirm away. "Maria, no."
"C'mon, please?" She wheedled. "Come on. Talking about someone else's love life will definitely, definitely make me feel better."
"Maria, I just -" I started. Then I looked into her eyes, and the words died on my lips. It really would make her feel better…
I sighed. "Could we at least talk about it somewhere else?"
"Like I'm gonna stay here with dysfunctional boy?" She scoffed, tossing her hair back. She threw an arm over my shoulders and steered me toward the main street. "Where d'you want to go?" She asked.
"Anywhere but here," I whispered.
She pursed her lips and nodded. "Mom just filled up the Jetta," She said, shrugging. "I think that calls for ice cream."
I scraped the bottom of my blizzard ice cream cup and set it in the cupholder. Vanilla and heath crunch always helped. Especially when Maria kept talking about Max…
"It is just a matter of time before you weaken," She announced.
"Oh, thank you," I mumbled, rolling my eyes and laughing a little.
"It's not a dig," She said, shaking her head, fingers tapping against the steering wheel. "It's just a fact. You are in love with him. You can't live without him, and you're going to get back together with him."
I shook my head. "No. That's not true," I said evenly. "I walked away. From him, and her, and - and the entire situation."
"Her? There is no her," She said, looking over at me to emphasize her point. "Look, Max doesn't care about Tess. He's never gonna care about Tess. The only thing he's interested in is - oh, God."
I followed her gaze and turned to look out the window. Max and Tess were walking on the street.
My heart lurched.
Max and Tess were together. Michael and Isabel were at the restaurant...
Had I just been kidding myself this whole time?
…the man you were betrothed to, and your brother's second-in-command…
"Maria, whatever you're about to say, just don't, okay?" I said.
She stared at me for a moment and then turned back to the road. I sat back in the car seat, my fingertips against my forehead, trying not to cry.
Breathe, Liz. Breathe.
|DC Slash||Harry Potter||Ros. Hetero||Ros. Slash||Ros. Other|