I hate it—hate it for him, and I hate it for us. Maybe that’s why I give him the closest thing to a smile that I can manage and softly ask, “Tell me the pirate joke?”
“What pirate joke?” he asks at first, still distracted by what his brother is doing right over our shoulders.
“You know exactly what pirate joke I’m talking about.” I groan as another wave of pain rolls through me.
“The pirate joke from the hallway?” Jaxon says in disbelief. “You want to hear that now?”
“I’ve always wanted to know the punch line. And I’m probably not going to have another chance, so—”
His dark eyes fill with tears as he stares down at me. “Don’t say that. Don’t you fucking say that to me, Grace.”
“Tell me the joke,” I urge him again, because I can’t stand to see the pain in his eyes. I’d take it if I could, take it all into me and away from this broken boy who’s already suffered so much. “Please.”
“Fuck, no,” he says with a scowl that almost—almost—battles back the tears. “You want to hear the punch line of that joke? You don’t die, okay? You stick around and I’ll tell you next week. I promise.”
Another wave of pain hits me, and this one is accompanied by a cold that chills every part of me. Together, they overwhelm me, nearly take me under. I struggle against it, not forever but for now. For a few more minutes to spend looking into Jaxon’s beloved face.
“I’d really like that,” I tell him after a second. “But I don’t think it’s possible.”
I raise a hand to his cheek, run my thumb back and forth over the scar he’s spent so much time despising and trying to hide. “You know that you’re going to be okay, right?” I tell him.
“Don’t say that. Damn it, Grace, you don’t get to talk about dying as easily as brushing your teeth in the morning and then say that everything is going to be okay!”
“I love you,” I tell him softly, wiping away one of the tears that fall in an endless streak down his cheeks. And I mean it. Maybe not in the same way I did when I first came to Katmere, but in a new way. Maybe even a better one.
“Please don’t leave me.” It’s a whisper from the deepest, most broken part of him—from the little boy who’s already lost so much—and it nearly shatters me.
I shake my head a little, because I won’t promise him that. I won’t be just one more person who treats him like he’s somehow more than a god and less than a person at the same time.
So I do the only thing I can in this situation, the only thing we still have time for. I smile at him and ask, “What did the beach say to the tide when it came in?”
He just stares at me, seconds ticking by as silence stretches hopelessly between us. In fact, he waits so long to answer that I’ve almost decided that he’s not going to. But then he takes a breath and blows it out slowly, so, so slowly. And says, “I have no idea.”
Of course he doesn’t. He’s terrible at these, but he indulges me anyway. Which is why I’m grinning as widely as I can manage when I answer. “Long time no sea.”
Jaxon laughs, but in the middle, it turns into a sob and he buries his face against my neck. “I’m sorry, Grace,” he whispers to me as hot tears slide against my skin. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not.” I comb my fingers through the silky coolness of his hair. “I’ll never be sorry for having found you, Jaxon, even if I didn’t get to keep you as long as I would have liked.” I pull his mouth down to mine, press my lips to his. And nearly sob myself when he whispers, “I love you,” against my mouth.
Behind us, Hudson finally stops doing whatever it is he’s doing to the land and takes a step toward me.
“It’s time,” Macy says, and there are tears streaming down her face, too, as she reaches for my hand.
“It’s going to be okay,” she tells me. “You’re going to be okay.”
I don’t know how, but as Hudson bends down and slides me from Jaxon’s arms back into his own, I get my first real look at what he’s been doing while I talked to Jaxon.
And horror seizes my chest. For all this time, Hudson has been carving a grave for me out of the frozen earth and the granite that lies below.
My breath catches as I whisper, “Why?”
Between a Rock
and a Hard Place
“No,” I beg, confusion muddling my already pain-soaked brain. “Hudson, please. Please don’t do it. Don’t make me—”
“What are you doing?” Jaxon demands, shoving to his feet and moving toward us. “Dude, don’t touch her—”
Without ever taking his gaze from mine, Hudson reaches out and explodes a wide fissure in the ground, leaving Jaxon and Macy on one side and he and I on the other.
“Do you trust me?” he asks.
“Of course, but—”
“Do. You. Trust. Me?” he asks again, and in the space between the words—the space between us—are all the things we’ve never said.
“Don’t!” Jaxon shouts to me. “Don’t believe anything he says. You know he can’t be trusted, Grace. You know—”
“Yes,” I whisper, even as my entire body recoils from the hole in the ground he’s made for me.
“Yes?” he asks, his blue eyes a little disbelieving and a lot determined.
“Yes, Hudson. I trust you.” It may be the most ridiculous decision of my rapidly draining life, but I do trust him. I do, more than I ever would have believed possible even a couple of short days ago.
“Do you remember that night we went to the library?”
He rolls his eyes. “The night Jaxy-Waxy got you those street tacos.”
I laugh just a little at how disgruntled he looks, then wish I hadn’t when another wave of pain slides through me at the disjointed motion. “Oh, right. The night you behaved like a total ass. I remember that really well, actually.”
“I think you’re confused,” he tells me with a heavy sigh. “But, considering the morning you’ve had, I suppose that’s to be expected. I won’t hold it against you.”
“You sure about that?” I ask. “Because I’ve got to say, burying me alive seems like one hell of a revenge plot.”
“Forget about the bloody ground for a second, will you, please?” he snaps.
“Easy for you to say, all things considered,” I snap back. Then spend several seconds having a coughing fit for my trouble.
“I read something in the library; then when we met the Unkillable Beast—” He stops as the coughing fit overtakes me and I gasp for air, tears sliding unchecked out of the corners of my eyes. “We don’t have time for explanations.”
“Yeah.” Another coughing fit comes on, this one harder and more painful than the one before.
“It’s getting worse,” he says, all traces of humor gone.
Now it feels like there’s a weight pressing down on my chest, but I finally manage to choke out, “No…shit…Sherlock…”
We both know what I’m doing—making it easy for Hudson to bury me in the ground.
He doesn’t want to put me there any more than I want to be there, but we’re out of options.
And so Hudson bends down and lays me gently inside the grave he so desperately carved out for me.
It’s terrifying—the most terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me, even after everything I’ve faced in the last few months—and I tell myself to close my eyes. To pretend it isn’t happening. To just breathe and wait it out.
But I can’t, not when Hudson waves Jaxon and Macy over, and everyone is standing over my grave, watching me.
“Bury her—” Hudson begins.
“I won’t,” Jaxon insists. “No way am I burying her before she’s dead.”
But Hudson isn’t in the mood to put up with anything from him right now. “Bury her,” he commands. “Right now. Or you won’t like what happens next. That much I can promise you.”
Macy’s eyes widen in fear, and I want to tell her he doesn’t mean it. But both she and Jaxon must take him at his word, because Jaxon is using his telekinesis to slowly, methodically cover me with small stones and pebbles.
He starts at my feet, dropping more and more of the tiny rocks on top of me, then slowly, carefully works his way up until my legs are covered, then my hips, then my rib cage and arms.
I’m cold, so cold, but I struggle to hold on just a little longer. If this is the last time I’m going to see these people—my family—then I’m going to hold on until the very last second. I’m going to stay with them until I no longer have a choice in the matter.
Macy is full-on ugly crying now. Jaxon’s eyes are locked sadly on mine. And Hudson, Hudson is crouched down at the head of the grave, his fingers gently, gently, gently stroking my hair.
I watch the three of them until the end. Until the stones reach past my neck and there is no more time left. Then, and only then, do I close my eyes and let the earth and the stone take me.
It’s not something I like to admit, even to myself—and something I’d deny if anyone ever asked—but I am bloody terrified watching Grace sink into the earth.
Watching the rocks cover her even as the cold rain and sleet pour down on us.
Watching her fade away a little more with each labored breath she takes.
This isn’t how this was supposed to happen—it isn’t how any of this was supposed to go. When we first made the plan to come back, together, I thought we’d covered every contingency, had thought of anything that might possibly go wrong. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I never, never thought it would end up like this.