My head was pounding, and it sounded like I was underwater. The world was so far away and too bright after so long alone in the dark. A light shined in my eye, and I flinched. A face hovered over mine, and my heart turned over in my chest.
It had to be.
I tried to say her name, but my tongue felt like sandpaper, and my throat burned with the effort. All I managed was a whisper.
“Don’t try to talk, Rest your vocal cords.”
The voice was male, not Alex’s. My world chose that moment to sharpen, to emerge from the blur of my vision. I licked my lips. They were sticky and tasted like pennies.
Two fingers pressed into my wrist, and the man startled rattling off numbers to someone else I couldn’t see.
I registered the steady rumble of an engine, and whatever I was lying on swayed slightly.
I was in an ambulance. They were taking me away.
I panicked, and tried to sit up, but my shoulders were strapped down. I was trapped again. I bucked and squirmed, and a sharp pain shot up my leg. I tried to scream, but nothing came out.
The pressure in my head increased until I thought it might explode.
I mouthed Alex’s name again and again, even though I couldn’t say it.
“You’re going to be okay,” the paramedic assured me. “We got to you in time.”
No. No, they hadn’t.
They were too late.
I saw the paramedic pick up a syringe, and then my world went fuzzy again. The panic subsided, but the memories did not.
It all came too late.
I woke up, gasping, my arms and legs slick with sweat and stuck to the sheets. My dreams were always worse around the holidays, but that had been the first in a while. I’d been too preoccupied with other things of late for my old demons to show their heads. I guess it was too much to hope for that they’d finally ended.
I tried to go back to sleep, but now the accident was fresh in my mind. Every time a car passed outside, the lights reflected through my window, and I shot up in bed, afraid another dream was starting.
Finally I decided that sleep wasn’t going to be a possibility. I got up, and took a long shower. I used the time to clear my head, and focus on what I needed to do on this trip.
The end goal was music. That was what I had to remember. Music was my constant. As eager as I was to see Cade again, I couldn’t afford to be distracted. Not by him, not by the past, not by anything.
I used the extra time to straighten my hair, a rare occurrence for me, but it kept my hands busy. Mom called twice to make sure I was up, and the second time I just put her on speakerphone and let her chatter on, interjecting the occasional “Yes,” and “Really?” to keep her going.
I pulled a scoop-neck shirt over my head, and looked in the mirror. The tattoos weren’t blatantly on display, but they definitely weren’t hidden. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how my parents would react.
But for the life of me, I couldn’t picture it. Or maybe I didn’t want to.
I was grabbing my coat and scarf when a knock sounded on my door.
My head was spinning.
“Just a second!”
I leaned a hand against the nearest wall and took a second to calm myself and fortify my walls.
Don’t think about him. Think about music.
I imagined a quick cigarette, but it did little to calm my nerves. Finally, I just grabbed the doorknob, and pulled.
He stood on the other side of my door, leaning against my doorjamb in a way that was so comfortable and sexy that I thought I had to be dreaming.
I pinched myself, but nothing changed.
So much for not thinking about him. All the emotions I’d narrowly kept in check this week hit me hard and fast. I tried to swallow it down, but it was just too much.
The expression on his face was unreadable, and I couldn’t seem to get my brain to process the fact that he was standing in front of me. It took all of my brainpower to utter, “Hi.” Then the rest of my thoughts fizzled out completely.
He pushed off the door, and stood in front of me with his hands in his pockets. My traitorous eyes traced from his arms to his shoulders to the straight edge of his jaw before I managed to get myself under control.
If just seeing him could affect me like this, how was I ever going to survive the holidays with him at my parents? I looked up, and he smiled like there was no painful history between us, like he wasn’t dying just from being in such close proximity. It took all my strength to resist touching him, and he stood there, the picture of ease and comfort.
I stared, battling with myself until he cleared his throat and said, “You ready?”
Not even close.
When she opened the door, the sight of her undid me. Her hair was longer and so blond it was almost white. Her normal curls were gone, and it fell in long, straight sheets. My heart sunk because I thought she’d tamed her hair color to appease her parents. Then she turned to the side to gesture me in, and the light hit her hair through a window. It was not white, but a very pale purple.
She smiled, and she seemed genuinely glad to see me.
“The hair looks great,” I said.
The top half of her hair was pulled back so that it didn’t cover the birds on her neck. Her clothing wasn’t outrageous, but it was still her. More importantly, it didn’t feel like she was hiding.
She shrugged. “You told me to be myself, so I am.”
I didn’t have to fake the smile that spread across my face.
Max moved toward the couch and fiddled with her carry-on, giving me the chance to take her in completely. She looked nervous, but I was sure it was just about seeing her parents.
I was a mess inside. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to turn around and walk out the door, or pull her into my arms and kiss her. I settled for behaving as naturally as possible.
I didn’t know what to say, so I settled for being useful. As soon as she had zipped up her duffel bag, I leaned around her and took it. My chest brushed against her back, and she stiffened.
I moved back quickly, but the damage had already been done. She moved away from me to grab a few more of her things.
“Are you nervous?” I asked.
She looked up at me, her blue eyes wide and questioning. Her eyes made this so much more difficult.
When she didn’t answer, I added, “About your parents?”
She breathed a laugh and said, “Only enough to throw up.”
It was good to hear her laugh.
“Oh, is that all?”
I followed her out into the hallway and waited while she locked her apartment. Over her shoulder she said, “ I should warn you, my sister-in-law, Bethany, is the Antichrist in panty hose.”
I laughed, and she whipped around to face me. She looked so surprised. I could only imagine what she had expected out of this trip. Maybe she thought I’d try to get her back. Probably she just expected me to be broken up over what she’d done.
I was sick of being that guy.
There was no reason I couldn’t act normal. I was an actor for God’s sake.
She said, “You laugh, but I’m serious. Spending time with her is like taking a cheese grater to the brain.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
She gave me a look and said, “When she married my brother, she insisted on having white doves released when they kissed. They got married in Oklahoma. She’s lucky someone in the audience didn’t stand up and open fire.”
“So she’s a bit crazy, but aren’t all women like that about their weddings?”
We emerged onto the street and she added, “She told me I wasn’t allowed to be a bridesmaid because my skin tone would clash with the dresses she’d chosen.”
I winced, but she wasn’t done. “Yeah. She was also runner-up for Miss Oklahoma like eight years ago, and she still maintains that the pageant was fixed, and she should have won.”
A cab was waiting for us at the curb, and I opened the door for Max to slide in first. “I get it. Don’t leave Max alone with Bethany or the sister-in-law might lose her waving hand.”
As we set off for the airport, the conversation became forced. It was harder to pretend when we were in such a small space and had a cabdriver as an audience. She twisted her hands nervously in her lap. One hand wandered up to the skin of her neck and brushed across the birds on her neck.
Before I could stop myself I asked, “Why birds?”
She looked like she’d forgotten that I was there completely. I wished I was capable of the same. She worried her lips with her teeth and I said, “Sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”
“It’s okay. It’s pretty cliché. Before there was a bell jar, there was a cage.” She curved her hand around her neck and said, “I got these when I dropped out of UPenn. The first time I tried to stop pretending. They were supposed to keep me looking up and moving forward. Now they feel like a lie.”
I reached out and pulled her hand away from her neck. I ignored the shock of warmth and said, “It’s going to be okay, Max.”
I released her hand, and she wrapped both arms around her middle, like she was holding herself together.
“You’re really dreading this, aren’t you?”
“You have no idea. My mother is so hard-core about Christmas. She’s like the love child of Mrs. Claus and the Terminator. If you even look like you’re not filled with Christmas cheer, she’ll be shoving eggnog and cookies and Christmas carols down your throat.” She laughed, and it felt forced, but I could tell she was ready for a subject change, so I went with it.
I shrugged and said, “I like eggnog.”
She groaned, but her frustration gave way to a smile. Each new smile looked a little less faked, and I made a silent goal to put her completely at ease. I was a masochist. I was just as bad as that crazy monk in The Da Vinci Code, only her smile was my whip.
“So, um.” She fidgeted with her hands. “I should have said it before, but thank you for showing up. . . . I’m glad I won’t be alone.”
I thought that would be the end of it, but her cheeks flushed and she continued, “And well, we don’t have to . . . that is, if you’re uncomfortable about pretending to be together, we don’t have to really do anything, um, couple-like.”
I forced a smile. I’d been thinking of that almost constantly. Part of me thought I should avoid couple behavior at all costs, but another part of me saw it as a golden opportunity.
“Pretending won’t bother me.” Maybe saying it out loud would make it truer. “It’s not a big deal. Acting is what I do.”
She nodded, her lips pursed into a straight line. “Right, of course, I just wanted to . . . offer.”
Max’s anxiety continued to build so that by the time we boarded the plane, she looked ready to turn around and go back.
She gestured for me to take the window seat, and she sat on the aisle, leaning as far away from me as she could. She kicked off her shoes and pulled up her knees, like she was at home sitting on her couch. When we were high enough in the air that we could use electronics, she pulled out her phone and tucked her earbuds in. I could hear her music from here, and I wondered if it helped to drown out her fears.
I closed my eyes, leaned my head against the window, and tried to do some drowning of my own. It didn’t take long before my head drooped, and I drifted into a peaceful nap.
What felt like moments later, a movement against my shoulder jostled me awake. I lifted my head up from the window, and my face itched from where it had been pressed against the plastic window cover. I blinked, and looked over to find Max’s cheek perched on my shoulder.
Her brows were knit together, and her eyes clenched shut. She took short, sharp breaths, and every few seconds her expression would contract in what looked like pain. She mewled and pushed her face into my shoulder. She looked like a completely different person—vulnerable and in pain.