"Liz, I'm so sorry," Mrs. Evans said, shaking her head in dismay. "You went through all this trouble, and she just left."
"Oh, no. It was... it was nothing," I mumbled, staring around at the empty room.
Thank God the whole thing was over. The last of the party guests had left a few minutes ago. Mrs. Evans had lingered, making small talk and staring more openly at the door with every passing minute. Isabel had been gone for hours, and everyone had gone after her.
Typical, I thought, and tasted the sharp tang of jealousy.
"Maybe she got one of her headaches at the house and decided to not come back," Her mother offered, giving me an apologetic smile. "She's been having them all the time."
I nodded. "Sure," I said tightly. "That's probably it."
"Well, I guess she's just gone home," she said, sighing and standing up, lifting her purse strap to her shoulder. "I better go check on her. A mother's work is never done. Thanks again, Liz."
"No problem," I murmured as she walked past me. She'd only gone a few steps when I turned around. "Uh - Mrs. Evans?"
She turned around. "Yes, Liz?"
"I think - she might have gone to Maria's house," I said evenly. "To get the stain out of her dress. It's closer."
"Oh," she said wanly. "Well -"
"I can call her, if you want," I said quickly. "Tell her the party's over."
"Oh, that's sweet of you, Liz, but - I don't mind calling her."
"Well, I'd - I'd kind of like to," I lied, my voice stammering, my hands waving about aimlessly. "I mean - I never got to really wish her a happy birthday or anything."
She smiled and tilted her head to the side for a moment before crossing back over to me. "She's so lucky to have friends like you," she said, embracing me in a quick, generous hug. She stepped back and held me at arm's length. "You and Tess."
I felt the corners of my mouth curl up and looked down at the floor. God, I was getting good at lying "Thanks," I murmured, and felt a little sick.
"Well, I'm exhausted," she said, smiling wanly and shaking her head. "Tell her I'm going home to sleep. She can wake me up when she comes in."
"Sure," I said, watching her walk away from me. She turned at the door and waved before she walked out. I raised my hand in a small wave back, and watched her disappear around the corner.
I don't know why I helped Isabel out. I had every reason not to.
I frowned and walked in the back room, picking up my coat and reaching into the pocket. I pulled out the CD I'd found in Whittaker's office, the one of my conversation with Maria. She'd asked after Isabel a few times and then said her goodbyes.
I shook my head. I didn't know what to think. Maybe she was just careful about who worked for her. Or maybe she was deliberately looking for something...
Either way, I hadn't found anything about cadmium X in any of her files. Just pages that were almost entirely blacked-out. Lot of good that did.
I put the CD back in my jacket pocket. I turned and pushed the restaurant door open, surveying the damage. Half-empty glasses and plates dusted with crumbs dotted the tables.
I sighed, picked up a tray from the counter, and went to work.
I was wiping the counter down for the third time when I heard the back door to the Crashdown open. I tensed for a second and then moved quickly, backing up until I could feel the cool firmness of the wall against my shoulder blades. It took me a second to recognize Maria's voice.
"Liz," she hissed loudly. "Liz!"
I felt my body relax. Between Michael acting crazy and everyone being on a rescue mission for Tess, I was feeling jumpy. "I'm in here," I said, letting my voice carry across the room instead of shouting. My parents were asleep upstairs, and I didn't want to wake them.
The door to the back swung open and Maria emerged. "Hey," she said breathlessly, her eyes wide.
"Did you find her?"
"Tess? Yeah," she said quickly. "She's beat up pretty bad, but -"
"What?" I said. Something's wrong. Oh, God -
"Look, she's alright," she said, her hands catching on my arm gently. "Valenti's taking care of her. Liz, we have to talk about Whittaker."
"You mean the phone calls?" I interrupted. "I've been thinking about that. I think she -"
"Liz, Whittaker's dead," Maria said quickly, her grip on my arms tightening slightly. Her eyes flickered across my face, gauging my response.
I stared at her blankly. "Wh - Maria, what're you -"
"She's dead," she repeated evenly, her eyes locked on mine. "And Isabel killed her."
"...Liz, I swear, it was the grossest thing I'd ever seen," she said, shaking her head. "All these little flakes of skin drifting through the air..."
I let my hands fall from my face and slumped back in the booth. I felt sick to my stomach. No wonder she'd been taping my conversations. "I can't believe I was working for her," I murmured.
"Liz. You couldn't have known. She fooled everybody. She was a congresswoman, for God's sake."
"Yeah, but.." I raised my head and stared out the windows. But I should have known, I thought. I should have been able to recognize them. I should have done something...
"OK, look," Maria said, leaning forward across the table. "The important thing is, it's over, and she's gone." Her eyes lit up and she smiled a little. "And you, honey, are out of a job. So now can we please, please kick Courtney to the curb?"
I blinked at her. She'd caught me completely off guard with that one.
"Look, Liz, this is important. I swear," she started, leaning forward and shaking her head. "I dropped Isabel off, and when I came back, the two of them were in the alley, like, inches away from - augh!" She shook her head and threw her body back against the seat. "From I don't know what," she muttered.
"Maria..." I shook my head. "What are you talking about?"
"Her and Michael!" She snorted. "I mean, please, her? Look, you have to come back. You have to help me. She's out to seduce him or something."
I licked my lips and looked down at the table top, feeling the weight of the words on my tongue. He's with Isabel, Maria. Remember? Remember the way he looked at her?...
The memory flashed before my eyes, his smirk dancing before her, reaching out to touch her hair. I flinched and watched my fingertips pick at the edge of my shirt. Maria had left before she could see it. She'd run out the back, into the alley. But she had to know.
Didn't she? Couldn't she feel the change in him?
"Maria," I said slowly. "I don't think you have to worry about Michael and Courtney."
"Yeah, well, you didn't see them in the alley," she muttered, folding her arms over her chest. "Looking at each other all intense. All schmoopy." She made a retching sound and pouted. "Made me want to pukel," she grumbled.
I stared at her in disbelief for a moment. She had to know. There was no way she couldn't see what was happening between him and Isabel...maybe she didn't want to admit it.
Or maybe she just needed to hear it from me.
I cleared my throat and took a deep breath. "Look," I said quietly. "Maria, I know you care about him, but -"
"Nope," she interrupted suddenly, shaking her head. "No, no,no. We are not talking about Michael Guerin, the ho-dog of Roswell. You," she said, reaching across the table for me. "have to see something."
"Maria, I really think we should talk about -"
"Shh," she hissed, waving a finger at me with one hand and practically dragging me out of the booth with the other. "Do you still have that little TV set up in the back, with the VCR?"
"Uh - yeah," I mumbled, following her. "Yeah, I think dad still has it hooked up."
"Good," she said, opening one of the cabinets behind the counter. She stood up and held out videotape, her smile broadening into a grin. "Because you are not going to believe what Alex Whitman did tonight. Trust me," she said, taking my arm and giggling. "If this doesn't cheer us up, then nothing will."
I stared at the TV screen in disbelief. Maria had collapsed in giggles on the couch and was shrieking, pointing at the screen and bouncing on the cushions.
"Oh my God," I said, feeling the smile tugging at my cheeks.
"Can you believe it?" she demanded, giggling. "I mean, can you freaking believe it?"
"That is so humiliating."
"Wait, wait - this is the part where he rips his shirt off -"
"Tell me you're -"
We both stared at the screen. Maria clapped a hand over her mouth and shook with laughter.
"- kidding," I finished lamely, starting to giggle myself.
"Oh my God," she said suddenly, sitting up and wiping tears from her eyes. "Where's the remote? I have to see that again in slow-motion."
She was turning the couch cushions over behind me. "I can't believe he let you videotape this," I said, still staring at the screen. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her pause for an instant, and then more cushions went flying.
"Maria," I said slowly.
"I know it's here somewhere. Do you have it? Look around."
"Maria, tell me he knows about this."
"Oh, come on!" she whined, turning around to face me, a look of pleading on her face. "I mean, it's Alex! Doing a striptease! How could I not get that on tape?"
"He doesn't know?"
"No, he doesn't know!" she huffed. "God, you think he'd have done it if he knew it was being taped?" She rolled her eyes. "I got Nick to tape it for me."
I stared back at the screen dumbly. Alex's mouth was in the shape of a large O, like he was emitting a war whoop.
"I kinda told Nick he could have free fries for life," she said behind me. A cushion fell to the floor.
I closed my eyes briefly. "Maria. What're you going to use this for?"
"Entertainment on my endlessly dateless Saturday nights?" she said hopefully. "Oh, come on, Liz. I mean, look, he's doing the booty-dance."
I turned back to the screen. Alex was gyrating widely and smacking his butt. I blinked and choked back a laugh.
"See? See?" she demanded, clutching me with one arm and pointing at the screen with the other. "Liz, this is comic gold. We cannot let this slip through our fingers. Oh, there it is," she said, snatching the remote up under the couch and pressing the rewind button. "Okay, let's watch it from the beginning."
I sighed and stood up, readjusting the cushions and sitting down on the end of the couch. Alex's clothes were miraculously reattaching themselves to his body.
I tried not to giggle. It wasn't funny. Except it really was. I felt the laughter tickling my throat and the smile spreading across my face.
"That's my girl," Maria said proudly, sitting back and shoving me playfully. "Okay. What's your favorite part? Oh, my God, the look on Max's face when he threw his hat -"
"That's my favorite part, too," someone said from the back doorway. Maria jumped, startled. I stood up quickly and backed up.
"Hey," Max said softly, stepping into the room.
"Max!" she scolded, her hand over her heart. "God, don't scare us like that."
"Sorry," he said, looking at her for a moment before looking at me shyly. "I just wanted to, uh..."
"Right! Right," Maria said brightly, looking at me. She stood up and pressed some buttons on the remote. After the third try the screen went dark. "Well, I better go," she said briskly, striding over to the VCR player and pushing the eject button. "I'll just take this and go home..."
, "You don't have to go," I said, looking at Max.
"No, you know, it's really late, and there's school, and I -"
"I don't want you to," I said, turning to her.
She glanced over at Max before looking back at me with desperation in her eyes. She looked wounded. On his behalf? What was going on? She opened her eyes wider and jerked her head in his direction
His eyes were downcast, his hands jammed in his pockets, and I felt something in me begin to crack and melt. He looked like the boy I knew, from long ago. From a lifetime ago. He looked so sad, and heartbroken, and...
His eyes flickered up, meeting my gaze, and suddenly he was looming over my bed, over me.
He'd hurt me. He'd hurt Michael.
The pity crystallized into sharp, brittle anger, and rested there. "You shouldn't walk home alone," I said coldly, turning back to Maria. Awkwardness rippled out across the room in silence -
"She's right," Max said, his voice quiet. He smiled tightly at Maria. "I'll walk you home."
"But - but she's gone," Maria stammered. "I mean - Whittaker's gone, so there's nothing to -"
"We don't know if she was the only one, Maria," I said.
Max looked over at me. "That's exactly what Michael said," he said quietly.
I stared at him openly for a moment, shocked, then turned away and moved behind the couch, my fingertips shuffling over the pilled upholstery.
"Can you just give us a couple of minutes?" I heard him ask. "I'll be out in a sec. "
"Okay," she finally said. I heard her walk across the room and looked up at her as she stopped at the swinging door. "Don't rush on my account," she said, smiling hopefully at both of us.
I opened my mouth to say something but she moved too fast. The whisper of wood over linoleum was the only sound in the room, and then the door finally drifted shut.
I leaned against the kitchen counter, feeling it dig into my back. I stared at the couch.
Lately I keep having these... dreams.
At least I think they're dreams. They're always the same, just like the night I dreamwalked Liz on her rooftop. I'm on a small area of soft, green clover, with the ash tree growing in the center. Beyond the circle of green there's glimmering, white-hot desert in every direction, the air isso hot it hurts to breathe, and the sky is covered with black, rolling clouds, crackling with lightning...
She's always there before I amShe doesn't talk to me. She doesn't acknowledge me. But she's always doing something. Looking through scraps of paper covered in gibberish, her hands flickering over the scribbled words; drawing lines in the sand until they look like aerial drawings of labyrinths; murmuring questions into the roots of the tree that I can never get close enough to hear...
Sometimes she's crying. Not the detached kind of crying you see in the movies. Nothing that clean. They're deep, wrenching wails welling up from the center of her. Like she's tearing herself up from the inside. I thought that would be the hardest thing to take. Knowing I've done that to her.
And then, the last time I had the dream, it was different. It was the air - it was thicker and more still than before. I glanced around for her and spotted the edge of her dress on the other side of the tree.
I walked toward her carefully, circling the trunk. She was sitting quietly against the roots, facing away from me, watching the horizon. Her hands, usually busy with papers or outlines, were still and open, lying in her lap. I crouched next to her, and the movement stirred the wisps of hair framing her face. She didn't move.
I frowned. "Hey," I said. "You okay?"
She turned her face, and for a moment I thought she could hear me, that she was looking at me. And then I felt her gaze passing through me, settling on the jagged shards of earth cutting into the sky. The sun was hanging low and the wind was picking up
"Almost time," she murmured.
I felt the thunder before I heard it, felt the darkness of the shadows before they came. The sunlight around her faded, and her shadow melted into the rough bark. I stood up and caught my balance at the last minute. The wind was howling. I stared up at the darkening sky, a blistering inversion of the hot desert sun, white clouds rolling across a endless expanse of black -
"Time for what?" I demanded.
She dropped her gaze and stared down at her hands. Fine grains of sand dusted the lines of her palms.
"Almost time to leave," she said quietly.
The wind whipped the hair from her face. The air was crackling with electricity, and the sky was a rolling black mass. This isn't how it's supposed to go.
I felt myself step back. She looked up at the sky.
"What's going to happen to you then, Michael?" she whispered.
That was three days ago. I hadn't slept much since.
I scowled and looked around quickly, searching the room for my jacket. I felt like the walls were closing in on me. Might as well get something accomplished if you're going to be up -
The weight of the jacket settled on my shoulders as I stormed out into the hall.
"So... I'm guessing she told you everything," Max said slowly.
I turned back around to face him and nodded. "Maria. Yeah, she, uhm... she did." I stopped and shook my head. "How's Isabel?"
He paused and stepped toward the couch. "I don't know. She said she wanted to be alone."
I took a slow breath. "Good," I mumbled.
"I'm worried about her," he said quietly, sitting down on the edge of the couch, looking up at me. "She's never had that kind of power before. Not enough to..."
I glanced down at him and our eyes met for a second before he looked away. Not enough to kill anybody. Only Michael had that kind of power -
"How's she dealing with it?"
"I don't know," he said again. "I don't know what to tell her. I mean, I know she acted in self-defense. She knows that. She just seemed so..." He shook his head and his voice trailed off, blanketing the room in an awkward silence. I turned my head to the couch.
"Distant," I finished numbly, watching my fingertips find a loose strand on the upholstery and tug at it, unraveling it further. I flinched a little and dropped my hand from the sofa, glancing over at him, surprised to find him staring at me. I turned away before I realized what I saw in his eyes.
"Yeah," he said, nodding. "She was just kind of - unreachable, I guess."
"That must be strange," I said evenly. "For you."
"We've always been able to - to talk, you know?" he asked. "When all we had was each other. But this..."
I swallowed and moved around the couch, sitting on the opposite side. "Maybe - maybe Valenti could talk to her," I said gently. "You know, tell her how he dealt with it."
He shook his head. "Michael tried to talk to her," he said quietly. "But..."
He kept talking, but the words blurred together. I could feel the blood in my veins turning to ice. We don't discuss this. Not tomorrow, not next week, not in ten years. The only way I can stand to look at either of you is to pretend it never happened...
"You should get Maria home," I said suddenly, standing up and moving for the restaurant door.
He stopped in mid-sentence. Hurt flickered across his eyes and he looked away, standing up slowly. "Okay," he said, his voice suddenly more determined. "But before I go, I want to talk about us."
"There is no us, Max."
"Liz, I told you -"
"No. You listen to me," I interrupted, walking toward him. "I will help the three of you in any way I can. But there is no us. There's never going to be an us. You need to accept that. What happened at the end of last summer -"
"I love you," he interrupted softly.
I stared up at him, my eyes wide, my heartbeat thundering in my chest.
"I don't love her," he said evenly. "I'm never going to love her. I love you. I'm always going to love you."
I shook my head and took a step back. "God, Liz," he said softly. "Don't you know that?"
I swallowed. "You can't - I mean, you can't think that it's still possible," I whispered. "Not after..."
His eyes darkened suddenly and he turned away. The only way I can stand to look at either of you is to pretend...
"I made a mistake," he said softly. "I never should have said what I did -"
"But you did say it," I said quietly. "Look, we can - we can pretend, Max, but... it's never going to happen with us. With the two of us."
He turned around to face me. "I don't believe that," he said.
The anger surged back suddenly. "So - what, you're just going to stalk me?" I demanded. "Come to my home, or to the restaurant, where I can't avoid you, and threaten to make me change my mind?"
"Threaten you? What -" He shook his head, bewildered. "You think I was threatening you?"
"What else do you call that?" I demanded. "'I'm coming for you.' What is that?"
He looked stunned. "I can't believe you think that," he said.
I stared at him in disbelief. "You made me believe a lot of things before I left, Max," I said quietly. "Do you have any idea what it was like, to..."
It was so tempting to say exactly what I thought. But he wouldn't take it out on me, I thought, remembering the charred hole in Michael's shirt. He'd take it out on Michael...
He stared at me in confusion.
"Look, just... just leave me alone," I said, stepping away from the door and heading for the stairs. He tried to catch my arms as I passed and I jerked back from him.
"Liz I'm sorry," he said behind me softly. I stopped on the stairs.
"I should have tried harder to understand," he continued. "It must have been so hard for you to hear that, and -"
I turned around to face him, my hand clutching the banister tightly. "You know, Max, this... alien stuff really doesn't have anything to do with me anymore," I said sharply. He looked up at me in surprise.
"So let's just forget it," I continued. "Okay?"
He pressed his lips together and looked down for a moment. "Okay," he said slowly. "I deserve that."
Yes. You do, I thought. You deserve that and a lot more...
He looked up at me and the rest of the thought vanished. He looked so broken, and desperate, and sad...
His head dropped and he stared down at his hands. "You must hate me," he said.
I do, I thought, I do hate you
and I don't.
It was a shock, realizing that. I'd spent so much time being angry at him, at what he'd done to us, avoiding him at all costs to concentrate on Michael. But now that Michael had made his choice...
Max sighed and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips as I stared at him, feeling the familiar weight of guilt and loss settling around me again, like a second skin. I breathed in, remembering all the sketchbooks in Michael's apartment, all of them open to the pictures of me...
I pushed the thought away from me.
"I'll, uhm -" He shook his head and moved toward the door, his voice choked and hopeless. "I'll just get Maria, and get out of here."
"Wait," I blurted out suddenly. He turned around with hope in his eyes.
What now? I thought desperately, staring down at him. What're you going to say now?
The metal of the doorknob was cool against my palm, distracting me from the knot in my chest. You're just checking on her. You're just making sure she's alright. That's all...
The door drifted slightly and I froze. Liz knew better than to leave a door unlocked. Maybe someone had broken in. Maybe Whittaker had friends, maybe she'd told them about Liz -
I was almost inside when I heard his voice.
"What, Liz?" Max asked.
"I just..." I heard the catch in her voice and tried not to move. She must be on the stairs. "Look, maybe we can be friends."
My heart lurched.
"Friends," he repeated quietly.
"Right," she said quickly. "Just friends."
"Okay," he said. "I'd like that."
"Alright," she said. I heard a creak from the floorboards. Go. Just go. Go upstairs, close the door, get into bed
"Good night," she said. She sounded exhausted.
"Liz. Wait." I heard movement, the sound of him crossing the room toward the stairs. "Maybe this is stupid, since you just... just said we could be friends, but..."
There was a pause. I held my breath.
"...I'd be lying," he said quietly. "If I said I felt any different."
There was a pause. I heard shuffling, like she was shifting her weight. "Alright," she said.
The doorknob warmed suddenly against the palm of my hand.
"But I don't feel different, either," she finished, her voice like a stone.
Another pause. "Okay," he said quietly, disappointment resonating in his voice. "I just wanted you to know. I'll - I'll take Maria home."
Silence filled the room and then I heard the rhythmic creak of the stairs as Liz climbed the stairs. A moment later I heard him sigh and then the soft swish of the restaurant door closing.
I heard a crackling sound and looked down at my hand. The doorknob was glowing white-hot. I let go and stepped back into the shadows, swallowing the pain and the panic welling up in my throat. I moved my good hand over the blistered skin and watched the faint, silver light, rippling across burning flesh like cool water. The raised welts sunk back into smoothness, cracked, blackened edges knit back together into even skin, blood-red coloring faded back to normal
I breathed in deep and clenched it into a fist experimentally, feeling the muscles contract. They still ached.
I heard faint sounds from the doorway and moved back to listen.
"...she's just upset," Maria said quietly. "She'll come around."
"I don't know," Max said sadly. "You didn't hear her. She sounded so -"
"Oh, come on," she said suddenly in a harsh whisper. "Are you kidding me? Everything you went through last year, and you're letting this destroy it? I thought you loved her, Max."
"I do love her! I told you that."
"Yes! Me! Not her!"
"But I told her -"
"That you were coming for her. Yes. I know. Max, a little advice: there's a thin line between the overwhelming adoration of your boyfriend and the threats of a psycho stalker..."
I stepped back further. I'd heard enough.
I walked down the alleyway, jamming my hands into my pockets. Damnit. Everything I'd gone through to keep her safe, everything I'd put her through, was for nothing if Max kept hanging around her -
I walked faster, but it didn't help. Disbelief faded into anger. She was talking to him. She said they could be friends...
I stopped right next to a pool of light from the street lamp. I would've laughed if it didn't hurt so much.
I was jealous of Max.
I can't even tell anyone, I thought, disbelief flooding through me. I can't even blame her. I'd made her hate me. And there wasn't anything I could do about it...
I frowned and twisted around sharply, staring back at the alley door. There was something...
I turned suddenly and ran into the night.
I closed the bedroom door behind me and stopped, trying to make my breathing slow to normal. I almost expected footsteps on the stairs. After a few moments of silence I relaxed, moving across the room to my stereo, turning the radio on and lowering the volume so I wouldn't wake my parents.
I choked back a laugh. My parents slept more soundly than anyone. The number of times Michael and I had been here...
The sharp tang of disappointment flooded through me again. I walked over to my bed and sat down.
I didn't know how to stop thinking about him.
I wish there was a book for this. A manual. I wish I knew how to let him go how to let myself go. Who I used to be who I am now...
I sat there for a moment and then looked over at my nightstand, staring at the bowl of shells next to my bed, filled almost to the point of overflowing. I reached over and picked the bowl up gently, letting it settle in my lap.
I'd picked them all on the beaches in Florida. When I still had hope that things would work out...
I touched the edges of the shells. Tiny welks. Coquina shells, little oval-shaped shells that opened up to look like a butterfly, faint stripes of blue or rose emanating out from the center.
I pressed my lips together and raised my other hand, touching the smooth, resilient wood around my neck...
"I didn't expect God to take him so soon," she said softly, her arm wrapped around my shoulder, both of us staring up at the desert sky.
I looked over at her. "I loved your grandfather so much," she said quietly. "I think of him often when I'm out here, staring up at the stars..."
I looked down at the sand. "I'm sorry, Grandma," I said. I felt her look at me. She smiled a little and I felt her hand pull me closer to her.
"Me, too," she said, a small smile flickering across her lips. She sighed and looked back at the sky, moonlight covering her with silver.
"They say when God closes a door, he opens a window," she said softly.
I opened my eyes and my bedroom drifted back into focus. The pendant was clutched tightly in my hand.
I was staring at the window to the rooftop. The one Michael used to open...
What happens when a window closes?
My hand fell to my lap, moving the shells to the bed. I stood up slowly and crossed to the window, examining it closely. The latch had been closed for months. A thin line of rust had formed between the latch and the lock.
I reached for it with both hands, the tips of my fingers brightening from pink to white as I tried to open it. It gave way after a few seconds with a sharp creak and I pushed it open, the cool night air rushing over me, raising my skin in goosebumps.
I stepped through the window and out onto the rooftop. Voices drifted up from the street below.
"...you just have to take it slow," Maria said encouragingly. "She's just going to have to take some time."
I moved to the edge of the rooftop and watched the two of them walking, watched him nod sadly. Her hand rose up to rest on his shoulder. He looked over at her, smiling with faint gratitude. She grinned and hugged him with one arm, clutching him to her. "That's the spirit," she said quietly. "C'mon."
They walked down the street toward Maria's house, and I watched them until their silhouettes faded into the night.
His bed was made. Of course it was.
I sat in the dark and waited, the bitterness ready on my tongue. I didn't have to wait long.
His steps were slow on the stairs. He stopped at Isabel's door. I heard him sigh when he realized she wasn't there. He paused for a second and turned, opening his own door. He didn't turn on the light, but walked to the corner of the room where his CDs were lined up in perfect order.
"Lemme guess," I said evenly, flicking the switch on his nightstand lamp, watching the pool of light spill out onto the floor. He jumped and spun around, arm extended -
"Counting Crows?" I asked, glaring at him. "Hear that's your music of choice when you're fighting with Liz."
His hand dropped to his side and his eyes narrowed. "You're following me now?"
"Me?" I demanded, standing up to my full height. "Why would do that? What possible reason could I have to follow you, Maxwell?"
He glared back at me for a moment and then turned away quickly, back to his CDs. "It's been a long night," he said. "We could use some sleep."
"I don't," I shrugged. "I'd rather know why you're going to Liz's house."
He twisted around, anger dancing across his features. "I don't have to explain myself to you, Michael."
"You're endangering her life," I said. "You know that. Whittaker proved that. Why are you still holding on to her?"
"It's my life, Michael," he interrupted, the words rushing out of him. "It's my business. Stay out of it."
"Sorry, fearless leader, but if you're the king -"
"I'm not a king," he snapped, his eyes suddenly dark and fierce.
I stared at him. "You really think that?" I asked. "You think Nasedo acted like he did for no reason? Grow up, Maxwell."
"Go home, Michael," he said, his voice low and dangerous.
"I know you don't want to hear it. And you know what? Tough," I said, my voice rising as I walked toward him. "You're going to get her hurt. I told you they were out there, that there could be more of them -"
"Get out," he said again, his voice rising to meet mine.
"Why do you think Whittaker took Tess, Max?" I demanded.
His mouth hung open for a moment and then closed. He twisted away from me. "They took her because of you," I said evenly. "Whitaker was trying to get to you. Look what she did to Tess. To Isabel. And they've got powers, Max."
He didn't move. Didn't argue, either.
"Just think about it," I argued. Easy. Easy. "Tess could defend herself. She could have done a mindwarp on Whittaker, tried to get away. Isabel could barely handle her -"
"But she did," he said quickly, turning around.
"Liz doesn't have that option, Maxwell," I snapped. "You want her death on your conscience?"
"I could heal her. Save her -"
"You can't be with her all the time," I said, my voice rising. "You want them to come after her the way they came after Tess? Keep it up, Maxwell. Nasedo knew what she was to you. That's why he kidnapped her. That's why Whittaker took Tess. Hell, maybe it's why Liz got the job in the first place, Max. So they could get to you."
He tossed his head quickly. Trying to shake off the truth. A surge of pity rushed through me. I know. I know what it feels like. But you have to do it anyway
"If we're going get through this alive, Maxwell, you have to let her go."
He bolted suddenly, moving away from me, closer to the door. "So we just forget everything we've ever known? Everything we feel?" he demanded, his voice choked. "We throw this life away and take up the previous one? If we do that, Michael, then who are we?"
"What we've always been," I said evenly. "What you're afraid to be."
He almost laughed, choked on his words and twisted away from me again. I pursed my lips together and stared at the walls as the truth crowded the air in the room.
"We've had this discussion before," I muttered to the silence.
This time, he did laugh, short and bitter. "I remember."
I started to move toward him and stopped. I knew what he wanted. I wanted it too. But not if it was going to hurt her, or Alex, or anyone else
"We have responsibilities, Maxwell," I said quietly. "We have to deal with that. If we don't, they'll eat us alive.
"And not just us."
He took in a long, slow breath and circled around slowly. Moonlight fell on him like a ragged shirt, partially illuminating him in silver, the rest of him sunken in shadow. I waited for him to say it, that he understood, that I was right, that her life was more important...
"You're wrong, Michael," he said softly.
I felt my breath rush out of me on a wave of disbelief.
"I don't know how I know it," he said, his voice insistent. Shut up. Shut up. "I just know that she and I are... we're stronger together, Michael. The only way we're going to make it through this is if we're all together."
"What if you're wrong?" I snapped, walking closer to face him. "What if Whittaker's just the beginning? What if they come after Liz and Isabel at the same time? What're you going to do then?"
He stared at me, surprised. "That's not going to happen," he said defiantly.
I glanced down at his hands. They were trembling. His gaze followed mine, and his fingers curled into fists.
"Right," I said, sarcasm tainting my voice. He looked up at me.
"Back off, Michael," he said dangerously.
"Lemme make sure I've got this right," I growled, leaning in to him. "You're going to risk her life just because you can't imagine your life without her?"
"You don't understand," he said evenly, softness creeping into his voice. No. Pity. "Maybe I shouldn't expect you to. You've never -"
"You don't love her," I snapped.
It was too much. I knew it as soon as I said it. The anger was back, sweeping the emptiness from his face, and I was glad. Anger I could deal with. I understood it. Anything was better than -
life is dangerous. *Breathing* is dangerous. Feeling anything is especially dangerous. Right?
I shoved the memory away and focused on Max. His eyes were glittering.
"That's not love," I said. "Keeping her in danger? That's something else, Maxwell. That's need."
"What would you know about it?" he asked, moving toward me. "You've never felt anything like what Liz and I -"
"You wanna know why you're holding on to her, Maxwell?" I demanded. "Because you think that if you let go, you won't be human anymore. She's not a ticket to humanity, Maxwell. She's not your stamp of approval. Stop being selfish and -"
"Are you kidding me?" he demanded. He was almost laughing. "When have you ever given a damn for anyone but yourself?"
"Don't start," I snarled. "You don't know anything about me -"
"Running's your specialty, Michael, not mine," he snapped.
I stared down at him, stunned. After a moment he stepped back, clearing a path for me to the window.
"Go on," he challenged. "It's what you do best."
We stared at each other for a moment, both of us trembling with rage and disbelief, fists clenched, breath locked in our chests, and then I was crossing the room, launching through the window, sucking the night air down into my lungs as I hit the street.
It was ten minutes later when I stopped at a street light, searing blood rushing through my veins. I pressed my hand against the cold, smooth metal and leaned against the light, trying to catch my breath.
I hadn't made any difference at all.
I blinked, my breath coming in ragged gasps, as reality swam back into focus. The building across the street was well-lit and looked empty except for a lone woman by a cash register, hunched over as if she was reading a book. Pulsing blue light fell on her shoulders from the signs over her head.
I'd done everything I could think of.
Everything except giving up.
I let go of the light and stumbled across the street.
"Hey, doll," she said slowly, a grin breaking across her lips. She straightened up, tilted her head to the side, slipped a crooked finger under her tank top to adjust her bra strap. "Haven't seen you in a while. Where you been?"
I shrugged and pressed my lips together. She frowned and turned away slightly. "Fine," she said. "What d'you want?"
I blinked and pursed my lips. "What've you got?" I asked.
She smiled flirtatiously and glanced over her shoulder, taking one of the bottles down from the shelf. "Vodka's on special today," she said, resting it on the counter and raising her right eyebrow. "For you."
I scowled and nodded, reaching into my pocket for the money. I drew out two bills and frowned down at the dog-eared, faded bills, a single crumpled number staring back at me...
A thin line of silver ran across the paper in a diagonal sweep, changing both bills to twenties. I dropped them on the counter and took the bottle without a word, stepping onto the dark plastic pad in front of the glass doors. They opened like magic, and I let the night swallow me.
. I shoved the bottle under my arm and stared up at the stars for a moment, feeling the weight of the liquid slosh back and forth against my body I jammed my hands into my pockets and headed north.
You're wrong, Michael.
I scowled and walked faster.
I don't know how I know it. I just know that she and I are... we're stronger together, Michael. The only way we're going to make it through this is if we're all together...
I crossed the street, felt the ground under my feet change from asphalt to soft grass.
Maybe all of you made mistakes. Maybe that's the reason you were brought back differently. Part human. So you would be different. And maybe this time, you would win...
My steps slowed. Maybe she was right. Maybe we had make mistakes, all of us. Maybe Nasedo was...
Everything I did was based on you, Michael,
I flinched and started moving forward again, my muscles aching to break into a run.
I followed you, Michael. Your words. Don't you remember?
I shoved branches to the side, ignoring the rough scrapes that rose up on my skin, and stepped into the clearing. I reached for the bottle with one hand and jerked the paper bag aside with the other, twisting the cap off roughly.
Nothing matters but victory. No matter what means you use to get there. That's what you said -
I stopped suddenly, the bottle hanging loose in my hand.
After a moment I walked forward slowly, staring at the tree that Liz had planted with her grandmother.
The area looked like it'd been hit by a tornado. Bushes were uprooted. To the right, a large hole had been dug, earth piled up on each side, looking almost like a small crater. It looked like a natural disaster, except for a thin, deliberate strip of orange that circled the trunk of the ash tree.
When I was living with Hank, inevitably the money would run out, and then the food, and then the liquor. He'd storm around the house, yell about how worthless I was, how the money the state gave him was never enough. Eventually, he'd go out and get a job. Nothing permanent. Nothing that he had to stick with just something to keep the booze coming until the next check arrived from the government.
Most of the jobs he got were in construction.
I didn't have to read the small, wooden sign posted at the base of the tree. I knew what the ribbon meant.
The bottle slipped through my fingers and shattered on the stones.
"Hey!" she said brightly, turning around. "Hey. Did you sleep well?"
I breathed in and opened the refrigerator. "Yeah," I lied. "You?"
"Good," she said quickly. "Good. I mean, well. I slept well."
I took out the orange juice and turned around, smiling at her a little. "Okay," I said, moving to the cabinets.
"I wanted to tell you," she said, moving closer to me, her voice dropping to a murmur. "Isabel's mom gave us a check last night for the party, and - everything's going to be fine, Liz. Not that I was worried, of course," she finished quickly.
"Oh! Well, that's - that's great," I said, taking the glass down and setting it on the counter, turning so she wouldn't see my face. "I'm glad everything worked out okay."
I heard her sigh heavily behind me. The sense of foreboding flooded through me just before her hand came to rest on my shoulder.
"Lizzie," she said quietly. "I need to tell you something."
"I know you're upset," she said quietly.
I took a step forward and stumbled slightly, catching my balance before I fell. The devastation covered the entire section of the park. A bulldozer rumbled twenty yards away, scooping a load of earth up from the ground, its yellow teeth barely visible. Construction workers with hard hats milled around the area.
"I didn't want to tell you until it was definite," she said, moving to stand next to me, her arms crossed over her chest. "The city council was adamant. New Mexico allotted funds for a beautification project, and they decided -"
"They can't do this," I murmured.
"Lizzie," she said softly.
"Mom, come on," I said, twisting around to face her. "You're locally active, there must be someone we can call. We, we can organize a sit-in, or call the Nature Conservancy, or -"
"Liz. I know it meant a lot to you -"
"Grandma said it could live here," I said quickly, my voice shaking. "I mean, she told me it wasn't native -"
"It's dying, Liz," she said quietly.
"No," I said suddenly. "No, she said it could survive in this climate, she said -"
"She was wrong, honey," she said gently. "I loved her too, but she wasn't a botanist, she was an archeologist. Even if she was right, even if it could flourish here, our rainfall's been so low this year, even for New Mexico."
I pressed my lips together and shook my head, felt the pressure of her hand on my shoulder.
"It can't live under these conditions, sweetie. They have to cut it down. I'm sorry, baby."
"We have to do something."
"We can go to Las Cruces," I said quickly, trying to ignore the desperation in my voice. "They, they have a botany department, they must have a tree surgeon or, or nursery specialist or something -"
She looked down at the ground and sighed. After a moment she released me. I turned away and stared at the construction workers clustered next to the tree. "Excuse me," I called out, almost running over to them. "Excuse me, who's the - who's the foreman?"
"That's me," An older man said, not looking up from his clipboard. "What d'you want?"
"I, uhm - I was wondering when you were going to take that tree down," I stammered, pointing to the ash tree.
He squinted down at me and glanced over. "That one? It's scheduled to go down next week," he said brusquely. "That it?"
"No. I mean -" I took a breath. "You can't."
He glared down at me. "Can't?"
"I mean, aren't there other trees you could -"
"Look, little girl, you see that giant hole we're digging over there?" he asked, jerking his thumb over his shoulder without looking. "That's gonna be a new pond. Koi fish. We can't have the tree that close. Roots'll be trouble. It's gotta go."
"But you can't -"
"Look, the thing's half-dead from dry rot. It's not going to be around long anyway. You treehuggers have some issues, take it up with the council," he said, turning away. "I'm on a schedule."
I grabbed his arm as he started to leave. "I planted it with my grandmother," I said quickly. He turned back around and stared down at me, confused. "She, uhm - she died last year. We planted it when I, when I was a kid, and you just - you can't."
Something flickered behind his eyes for a moment. He looked past my shoulder at the tree. "Tell you what," he said quietly. "I'll make sure it's the last one to go. That's the best I can do."
I felt my features crumble. My gaze dropped to the pattern of his shirt, thick red strips interlaced with thin black strips
I felt myself nod. "Okay."
His hand on my shoulder. Heavy. "Sorry, kid," he said.
"It's alright," My mother said behind me, taking my hand in hers gently. "Come on, honey. You'll be late for school."
We'd taken two steps when she slipped suddenly, clutching my hand tightly before she caught her balance. "Good grief," she said, staring down at the ground. "Excuse me? Hey! Are they drinking?"
"What?" he asked, frowning. "Who?"
"The crew!" she snapped. "There's broken glass all over the place. I could've hurt myself -"
"Sorry, ma'am," he said quickly, coming toward us. "I'll get someone to clean it up right away. Some kids come here to drink -"
"I think the council would be very interested to know that liquor bottles are on the premises," she interrupted angrily. "And furthermore, Mr. Lester, if you think this isn't a lawsuit waiting to happen, then "
Their argument faded into nothingness. I walked away from them, staring at the ash tree.
It's the tree that connects all worlds, the heavens and the earth... everything. Everything from that tree, from the ash tree, it's - larger than life. It's unique. Special.
"Idiot," My mother muttered next to me suddenly. "C'mon. You're going to be late for school."
School was a wash of noise. Maria kept looking at me funny, and Alex kept asking me if I wanted to talk. It was a relief to get back home.
"Hey, honey," My dad said when I came home. I knew by his tone that Mom had talked to him. She was really upset. I don't know what to do, how to reach her
"How you doing?"
"Fine," I mumbled, moving for my room.
"Uhm, I know you're upset, but I have something to cheer you up," he said brightly, the sound making me close my eyes. I heard his footsteps behind me. "These came for you."
I circled around and stared at the dozen white roses rising from the dark green vase, their petals wide open and trusting. I nodded numbly. "Thanks," I said, turning away.
"Don't you want to read the card?" he asked.
I shook my head and opened my bedroom door. "No," I said. "It's okay."
I didn't have to look at the card. There was only one person who would send me white roses.
I knew they were from Max.
He was showing up on a daily basis. At the restaurant, at my locker, even on my rooftop.
"Max, you have to leave."
"Liz, please. I know you're upset -"
"Yes. I am upset, Max," I said, my voice trembling. I was beginning to be sorry I'd ever said we could be friends again. Every time I heard him climbing the fire escape, I hoped the hands clutching the edge of the wall would be wearing silver rings, and they never were. "Please. Just go home."
He left the same way every time, dejected but still with that spark of hope in his eyes, defiant and absolute. Nothing would convince him that there wasn't any hope for us.
And I never mentioned Michael.
"Go on, say it."
Max rolled his eyes. "Fine. Don't say it."
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Maxwell. Unless you mean that shiny boulder of alien history Isabel found."
"Keep your voice down," he said quietly, glancing at the crowd of students. "Someone could hear you."
"Really? Think we should worry about that?"
"Fine. After ninth period, we'll go back."
"Way to prioritize, Maxwell," I said, and then Maria was in front of me.
"Hey. New gel?" she asked. "Nice. So, um, Portishead tickets went on sale this morning "
I glared down at her. The light was blinking furiously when I came back home last night, and I'd almost run to the machine to see if she'd called, if she'd heard about the ash tree -
I'd listened to all of the messages. Well, the beginning of them, anyway. As soon as I heard Maria's voice I hit the fast-forward button, hoping the next one would be Liz
"So, did you get my messages?" Maria demanded.
She's not gonna call you. Not even about that. Not after the way you'd treated her.
"Yeah," I said, and kept walking.
Max caught up with me. "Nice," he said.
"Hey, our agenda involves the four of us," I said. "There's no time for -"
Liz was coming down the hall, her hair tucked back. She saw us, her gaze flickering over me for a moment and then moving to Max-
"- distractions," I muttered.
"Max," she said quietly, not looking at me. "Look, I don't know what to do -"
He shifted his books. Glanced at me. Moved closer to her.
"- calls keep on coming into Congresswoman Whitaker's office -"
Smiled. Leaned in. Close enough to touch-
Get away from her.
"Not now," I snapped.
She startled a little and looked up at me. Her gaze shifted back to Max, her hands tightening on her books. Her pulse was racing, fluttering against the hollow of her jawline -
Jesus. You're killing her. Idiot -
"We'll talk in trig," she said. She looked up at me quickly before moving away and walking further down the hall. I turned away and moved down the hall as fast as I could. Max drew even with me in a few steps.
"You know mean people suck," He said quietly, and then he passed me, breaking the waves of students before I could say anything. I almost turned around. I could catch up with her. Apologize. Tell her about the ash tree -
"True or false, Mister Guerin," some short, balding guy said in front of me.
I felt myself turning the corner and leaning against the wall of lockers. You should be used to it by now. It shouldn't catch you off guard anymore -
Did he know about the ash tree?
Did he even care?
The bell rang suddenly and students started moving faster, scattering through doors, pulling them shut behind them. That's when I realized I'd walked in the wrong direction. My class was behind me, on the other side of the school.
I'd have to go back. I'd have to walk past Michael.
I frowned and looked over my left shoulder. Sunlight scorched the earth red on the other side of the doors. You could just run. Just ditch. People do it all the time.
I felt the temptation, let the idea of it settle inside me, in my heart, in the pit of my stomach. Then I shook it off. If Michael could take it
I took a deep breath and walked back around the corner.
Michael was gone. I stood in the hallway, listening to the sound of a classroom door shutting in the distance.
I shook my head and started the long walk to my class.
"Can I help you?"
"I'm supposed to meet someone. A vet from the 509th."
"Alright." The desk clerk stared down at his register. "Which guest?"
I glared at him. "I don't know. I just know I'm supposed to meet him -"
"I can't give out guest names or rooms," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "If you don't have a name, then "
"Forget it," I muttered, turning away.
"You're lookin' for Charlie," someone said from across the room. I looked over at a white-haired guy, sitting on the lobby couch and reading Time magazine. "He went down to the ice machine. 'Course, his brain ain't what it used to be, so he might not be back for a while."
"Great. Well, tell him I had stuff to do," I said impatiently. Right. Find Liz. Tell her you know about the ash tree, that you're sorry -
"Kids," he snapped, flipping a page sharply.
I stopped. "'Scuse me?"
He didn't look up from his magazine. "You heard me. Think you're immortal. Think whatever you're doing is more important than anyone else's plans."
"He's not here, and I'm inconsiderate?"
He glared at me over to top of the magazine. "He served his country," he said. "Fought the blitzkrieg. Pushed back an army of people who wanted to turn the world into their own personal slaves."
"And now he's lost his way back from the ice machine," I said. "That's gotta be rough."
The magazine snapped shut and hit the coffee table with a loud slap. "You got an attitude problem, son."
"Look, grandpa -"
"Captain," he said, standing up. "You can talk to me. Think it'd be good for you to hear something other than that crap they call music these days."
"Sorry," I said. "Maybe some other time."
"Young guy like you, can't imagine why you'd come down here on your own account," he said as I walked to the door. "Sure you'd rather be dirt-racing or getting something pierced or whatever it is you do these days.
"Unless you need it for something. Maybe extra credit? "
I stopped and turned around, glaring at him. He chuckled. "Teachers," he said. "Gotta love 'em. They're the only reason I see anyone who doesn't remember the disco era. Be happy you missed that one, by the way.
He nodded toward the corridor. "
"Sorry," I said abruptly. "I got stuff to do." I turned to the front door and took a few steps, paused. I couldn't afford to flunk a class -
You just don't want to go back to school. You might see her. You might not see her -
Either option hurt.
I doubled back abruptly and walked down the hall. I could hear him laughing all the way down the corridor.
"Hey, kid," he said behind me.
Several hours later, I was sitting in Maria's Jetta, staring out at the desert, talking to the guy that had saved my life.
Life is strange sometimes. Or all the time.
I nodded and took my hands off the steering wheel. "Yeah. I'm okay."
I never expected to have a conversation like the one I'd just had with Hal. He'd told me everything - about the pods, seeing the aliens, how he underestimated how far the government would go to keep the conspiracy under wraps. He knew more about me than I did. And he'd told me.
It was more than Nasedo had ever done for us.
I owed him something. So I'd been telling him about me for the last hour. It was selfish, and stupid. I was probably putting him in danger. But once I started I just couldn't stop.
Hal shook his head slowly. "It's unbelievable," he said, looking out at the desert horizon. "You may be alien, but you've grown up human and you've sure got the attitude down."
I smiled a little. He laughed loudly and clapped his hand on my shoulder twice, shaking me a little before letting go. "Yeah, you're something else, kid. Remind me of myself when I was your age."
I shook my head a little and fumbled with the keys. It was weird. I didn't know how to explain it. I was sitting there with this guy I'd just met a few hours ago, and we were just talking. I knew he cared about me, that he wanted to make sure I was okay. He'd tried to help me.
I felt - relaxed. Calm. I think I was happy.
"So, you want to tell me about the firecracker?" Hal asked, squinting at me.
I glanced over at him. "You mean Maria?" I shrugged. "There's not much to tell."
"But you and she were "
"Kind of. I mean - no. It wasn't "
"I get it," he said.
"I mean, yeah, she was interested," I said.
I looked over at him again. "But it wasn't what I wanted."
"Mm-hmm," he said, squinting again. "Is it a - an alien thing? I mean, do you -"
"I'm just like everybody else, Hal," I muttered, rolling my eyes.
He grinned suddenly. "Uh-huh. Kinda doubt that. So what was it, then?"
"What d'you mean?"
"Well, what did you want?"
I looked up at him, surprised. "I dunno," I said slowly, putting my hands back on the steering wheel. My rings caught the sunlight and blinded me for a second. "I mean it just wasn't right."
"Ah," he said, shifting his weight and nodding a little. "I get it."
"She have a name?" Hal asked, smiling at me, his head cocked to the side.
I stared at him. "The other girl," he said, pursing his lips. "C'mon, kid, I've been around for longer than I wanna count. I know some things about people. You've got it written all over your face."
I turned away and stared out the side window.
"Hey, I didn't mean to "
"No, it's alright," I said, raising one hand off the steering wheel and waving it at him for a second. My stomach was in knots again, and that cold feeling was spreading through my chest. Damnit. "It just - couldn't work out," I finished, staring at the desert horizon.
He was quiet for a second. "Sorry to hear that," he said finally.
"Yeah," I said, nodding a little. My teeth caught the soft flesh inside my mouth and I pressed down, stopping just before the blood started. "Me too."
The way he said it bothered me. I twisted to look at him. He was facing the windshield, his right arm propped up on the car door, a toothpick jutting out of the corner of his mouth. He was staring out at the sun.
He didn't move for a second. Then he shook his head, stared down on the floorboards. He nudged a straw wrapper with his foot. "Nothing," he said. "It just sounds like " He shrugged and looked out at the sun again, taking the toothpick from his mouth. "Just reminds me of Yvonne."
I blinked and shifted around the face him. "The nurse?"
He took a deep breath. "Yep," he said, nodding a little, breath escaping from his lips with the end of the word.
"What about her?"
He looked at me, surprised. "I told you. Met her at the restaurant, she came to my car, we talked for hours " He shook his head. "Never felt like that. Before or since."
He rolled his eyes. "You are a regular kid. You don't listen. I said I should've kissed her."
"No, you didn't," I blurted out.
His eyes narrowed. "Think I should know, kid."
"No, I mean - you said you were sorry you didn't kiss the reporter," I argued, feeling stupid for saying it. What difference did it make? It wasn't even my life. It didn't matter.
His index finger and thumb were pressing against the edges of his eyes, like he had a headache, but I couldn't stop myself. "You said you wished you'd kissed Betty. That night, with all the stars "
My voice trailed off.
He shook his head a little and his hand dropped to his lap. He looked over at me. "Right. Stars."
"You talked to Betty in the daytime," I said.
"Got a sunburn, as I recall," he said quietly. He raised his hand to return the toothpick to his lips and changed his mind suddenly, tossing it out the passenger side window.
"Betty was a great girl," he said. "I'll always be sorry about what happened to her. And to be honest, Betty was pretty much what I went for, back in the old days. And then - I saw her. Not like they show you in the movies, you know, where you see each other across a crowded room, I never bought that stuff. I mean I just saw her. Listened to her. Saw the fear in her eyes. Something about her "
He took a deep breath and stared out at the desert. "I don't know. Just made me want to open up to her, I guess. Take care of her. And then the rain started, and she ran out of the car, and "
And they killed her.I sat back in the driver's seat and stared up at the roof of the car. A thin, ugly scar marred the upholstery, running from the plastic edge of the doorjamb to the tip of the windshield.
"What's going on, kid?"
"Nothing," I said, closing my eyes. "It's just that - when you were talking, I mean, I was imagining it, and -"
"Mmm-hm," he said quietly. "So. She still around?"
I took in a breath and let it out slowly. He shook his head.
"Gotta tell her, kid," he said gently.
"Can't, schman't," he snapped. "Can't is a cop-out."
I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling of the car. "Thanks, Hal."
"I call 'em like I see 'em," I said gruffly.
The silence thickened in the car and hardened. I sighed and reached for the steering wheel, slipped the key into the lock. "I'll take you back," I said.
"Don't be like me, kid," he said sharply.
My hand rested on the key, the other arm crooked over the steering wheel. I looked over at him.
"I mean -" He scowled and twisted away abruptly. "I'd just - hate to see you regret something like that, damnit."
I couldn't move. There was something about the choked sound in his voice, and this cold, strange ache in my throat.
He looked over at me sharply. "She feel the same way about you?"
I opened my mouth to respond and shut it again. Stared down at the key in the ignition. I nodded.
"Then tell her," he demanded. "Look, I have pulled some crazy, stupid stunts in my time. With women, in battle, with my buddies. You know what I regret? That I didn't stop her. That I didn't at least tell her what I was starting to " He leaned back, his breath rushing out of him suddenly. He shook his head and stared out at the desert.
"Anyway, every stupid thing I've ever done that's the only regret I've got, kid."
I watched him for a moment and then followed his gaze out to the desert, stretching out in front of us endlessly. It was always the same, the colors too bright and violent, the heat so intense it could kill you, and never anywhere to rest
"It's complicated," I said, choking on the words a little. He sighed.
"It always is," he said.
"I don't " I shook my head and felt my teeth close over my bottom lip. "I don't want her to get hurt."
He twisted around. "Michael. C'mon. You can't let fear dictate your life -"
"Did you know Yvonne was going to be killed?" I said quietly. I stared at the steering wheel. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand.
"No," he said sharply.
I nodded. "Say you did," I said. "Say you did know that she was going to get killed. That she was going to disappear. Would you still have met with her?"
I looked over at him. He scowled at me. "That can't be the only option," he said evenly.
The laugh slipped past my lips, short and bitter. "There are people out there looking for me, Hal. They'd do anything to get to me, and I'm not just talking about murder. They'd - I don't even know what they'd do to her. And I can't let that happen. I won't."
I focused on the steering wheel, hands clenched tight over the faded, torn plastic, and then his hand was on my shoulder, his fingers clenched tight around my skin. The wheel blurred suddenly and I flinched, embarrassed and desperate -
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
I shut my eyes, blocking out the daylight, trying not to bolt from the car. His hand was still on my shoulder, fingers clamped down on my skin, the weight of his hand heavy and - comforting, I think.
I turned away and stared out the window, tried to breathe, tried to will the desert back into focus. I kept one fist on the steering wheel and scrubbed my hand over my eyes.
"That's why the two of you aren't together," he said. "To keep her safe?"
Breathe. C'mon, Guerin. I swallowed and nodded sharply. I heard him take a deep breath next to me and let it out slowly. "Sons of bitches," he said quietly. I didn't say anything.
"Alright," he said. "Look. That's - you're in a bad situation, kid. There's no arguing with that. And the people you're up against, they don't quit. They don't stop.
"You made the only choice you could."
Something inside me broke. I knew it. I knew it.
Then why does it hurt so much?
She's safe now. At least she's safe.
As long as Max stays away from her.
"If I had the chance to talk to Yvonne again I don't know if I would," Hal said slowly. "Her talking to me might have been what got her killed. But they might have killed her anyway because she knew too much. You can't know what they were thinking, Michael."
He shook his head. "I wish I could've done something, though. Something that would've - I don't know, protected her and helped her at the same time "
I looked over at him. "What?"
He looked at me, startled. "I don't know, anything -"
"No, I mean what you said." I twisted around and his hand dropped from my shoulder. "Helped her how?"
"I don't know," he said slowly. "Something that would've made her life easier, I guess. I never knew much about her."
I stared at the ignition. I turned the key sharply and the engine roared to life.
"Where we going now?" he asked, bracing his hand against the car door
"Back to town," I said, pushing the clutch in. "I just thought of something."
"Didn't figure you for a gardener, kid."
It was late in the afternoon and the crew had gone home for the day. I ignored him and crouched down next to the tree. If I could heal it, then I had to work from a place where the handprint wouldn't be seen
My fingertips found a loose root stretched away from the trunk. I gripped it in my hands and tugged gently, heard the small ripping sound as the tiny tendrils attached to the root broke free. I cupped the root in my hands and tried to concentrate, tried to imagine the cells of the tree, focus on light or breath or something like that -
Nothing happened. I could feel my power simmering right under my skin, but it didn't know how to do what I wanted. Stupid. You don't even know what you want - No, that wasn't right. I knew what I wanted.
I wanted her to have this. I wanted the ash tree to be alive, and healthy. For as long as Liz was alive, longer, if possible.
I just didn't know how to do it.
I felt Hal's hand on my shoulder. "Kid. You sure you're alright?"
I nodded and stood up slowly. "Yeah," I mumbled, staring down at the exposed root.
"Whatever you're trying to do, we can - y'know, come back later -"
"I'll figure it out," I said. "C'mon, I'll take you back."
"The party's not for an hour yet," he offered. "We could go back to the café and have a milkshake -"
"Thank you," I said suddenly. I looked over at him.
He looked surprised. "For what?"
I shrugged. "Everything," I said quietly. "What you did in '47. What you said this afternoon. It I don't know, it helped. To talk to someone."
He smiled awkwardly and clapped his hand on my shoulder for a moment. "You're all right, kid," he said.
I nodded and took a breath. "Yeah," I said. "C'mon."
"Where we going now?" he asked.
"I'm taking you back, Hal," I called over my shoulder "And then, I'm going to talk to a girl."
I stood in the outside corridor, staring through the windows in the school's metal doors. It looked like she was emptying out her locker. Her arms were full of books.
She was doing something different with her hair. It looked fuller, or something. I couldn't figure it out. And she'd started wearing these tops. They were - smaller. And more revealing. It was driving me nuts.
She still looked the same, though, once you got over the sexier wardrobe and - was it a different haircut? I frowned and shifted my weight. I missed the baggy jackets, in a way. There was more mystery about what was -
What are you doing?
The truth was, I didn't know. I couldn't tell her I was sorry. I couldn't tell her I wished everything was different. Nothing had changed.
There was one thing I could give her.
I took a breath, and pushed the doors open.
I stared into my locker, frowning at my books. The whole day, I'd felt like I was... sleepwalking, or something. Like this wasn't really my life. Like I couldn't breathe...
"Have you seen Max?"
I turned, startled. Michael was standing in the hallway, staring at me.
"Oh," I said, surprised. He looked different. Maybe it's the hair, I thought, missing the spikes for a moment, and then hating myself for thinking of it. "Um, no," I said quickly. "He, uhm... he said something about stopping by the Crashdown later." I turned back to the locker and stared at the books without seeing them.
His footsteps came closer. "You okay?" he asked.
I turned back and stared at him. Was I okay? No, I'm not okay. I don't think I'll ever be okay again, but you don't care and you're with Isabel and the tree I planted with my Grandmother is dying, Michael, they're going to rip it out of the ground, and -
"Me?" I heard myself say. "Yeah. Sure. Why?"
He frowned a little and shifted his weight. We hadn't been this close in what seemed like years. Something was different. There was an undercurrent of something. He seemed calmer, quieter -
You still miss him. And you don't want it to stop.
" the whole congresswoman Whitaker thing," he was saying. "We'll work it out."
I blinked and fought back a smile. "Yeah," I said. "I know."
"And this morning," he said haltingly. "Yeah, I'm...I'm sorry."
It was a dangerous thing to open your heart, I realized, staring up at him in the hallway. You can get hurt, worse than you ever thought possible. And after that person's broken your heart, when everything that was bright and vibrant and strong is hollow, and dull, and weak, part of you is still hoping, still clinging to the chance that it could just, please, start all over again...
"Thank you," I said quietly, waiting for something else. Anything else.
He nodded, an unsure expression flickering across his face. He glanced at my locker and hunched his shoulders, and then he was walking past me to the school doors. I watched the space where he had stood for a second, weighing the question in my mind, wondering if I should ask it, wondering if I had the strength not to ask it -
"Did Max ask you to do that?"
He stopped and turned back. "What?"
The chasm shifted. I felt it. The sun was streaming in behind him, and maybe, maybe, maybe if I just reach
"The whole - being nice thing," I said.
He looked at me for a moment. I couldn't read his expression, but at least he didn't wasn't glaring at me, or keeping me at arms' length, or telling me to go away...
"No," he said quietly, his eyes locked on mine. "I came up with it myself."
I didn't say anything. He looked down and the moment was gone. Whatever just happened, whatever was different, was fading, melting away with the sounds of his footsteps as he walked to the doors.
"I like it," I said.
He looked back at me and a smile flickered across his face. For just a moment, everything felt the way it used to. When we could be understood each other, when we were sure about each other. When everything made sense...
"Michael," I said quietly. "Do you think we could "
He looked down, closed his eyes.
"Okay," I said, smiling weakly. I turned back to my locker.
I felt his eyes on my skin. Say something. Anything...
I heard the glass doors swing open, and then he was gone.
I sat in the Jetta and drummed my fingertips on the steering wheel.
I thought I'd feel better. But I didn't. I'd done what I wanted. I'd apologized, told her things would work out. But I still felt empty.
I breathed in and looked around the street. A woman was walking with her little kid, holding on to his hand. She crouched down a little in mid-stride and kissed him on the head. He grinned and grimaced at the same time and reached up for her hand -
I scowled and looked back down at the keys in my hand. I couldn't tell Liz the truth, that I missed her so much it was killing me, that I was sorry I had to hurt her like this -
I heard the laughter of girls across the street. Three teenagers, freshmen, I thought, were walking into the Crashdown. They were probably laughing about boys or something stupid like that. And then I recognized a young woman walking in behind them, long, blond hair, and a withering look on her face
It hit me all at once. Maybe I couldn't tell her. But Maria could
I grabbed the keys, got out of the car, and headed for the Crashdown.
"Hey, Michael," Alex said as I entered the restaurant. "Have you seen this?"
"Not now," I said. Maria must be in the back. I started to walk past him and almost jumped when he caught my arm.
"It'll just take a second," he said. "Look, I think I'm going crazy or something."
I glared at the back door to the Crashdown and put my hands down on the counter. "What."
"Alright, she's not on right now, but I swear to God, I think I'm hallucinating or something," he said, pointing at one of those small TVs on the café counter. He reached over and turned up the volume. "Just hang out for a sec, alright?"
I scowled and stared at the screen. A lot of people were in a tunnel. Some band was playing, and it sounded like pop music. I let my breath out loudly and stared at the screen. Some guy running from a car, jumping over an interstate pass -
"Don't really have time, Alex," I said, and started to leave the counter.
"Wait!" he said sharply. "Look! There she is!"
I glanced back at the screen. A girl with long, dark hair was talking into a cell phone.
"Doesn't she look just like Liz?" Alex demanded.
I frowned and squinted at the screen. The girl had long hair, yeah, and she looked kinda like Liz -
"Doesn't who look like Liz?" Maria asked, right next to me. "Michael," she said indifferently.
"Maria, thank God," Alex said. "Okay, she's - she's gone now, but hold up, I'm sure they'll cut back to her in a sec -"
"It's not Liz," I muttered.
"Well, yeah, Michael, I knew that, Liz's been here. But it looks so much like her -"
"Courtney's busy, Michael."
"I'm not looking for Courtney," I snapped.
"And your shift doesn't start for a couple hours, spaceboy, so what do you want? Free food? I think Mr. Parker might frown on staff members eating when they're not on the clock -"
"I want to show you something."
"Really? Did you melt the Jetta's engine again?"
"Guys! She's on! Look, I swear -"
"It's not her," I snapped without looking at the screen. "You coming or not?"
She stared up at me, her lips pursed. "Fine. But I'm only going because my shift doesn't start until six."
"Maria," Alex said, his voice pleading. "C'mon, just watch this with me."
"Sorry, Alex," she said, looking at him with a smile. "I'll be back in a little bit."
I walked to the front doors of the Crashdown. I could hear her hurrying behind me. "So, the Jetta's alright, isn't it?"
"Jetta's fine," I said, holding the door for her. "Thanks for letting me borrow it."
She stopped in her tracks. I stared at her. "What?"
"Did you just -" she shook her head slightly. "No. You know what, never mind. I'm just going to satisfy my curiosity."
She breezed through the doorway and started crossing the street. I stared after her and took a breath. I'd show her the granilith, I'd tell her how much she and Liz meant to me, and she'd tell Liz. That should do it.
The nagging voice in the back of my head told me it wouldn't be enough, and I ignored it.
|DC Slash||Harry Potter||Ros. Hetero||Ros. Slash||Ros. Other|