Finally, he sighs. He releases the tension in his shoulders. Runs a hand along the length of his face, the back of his neck.
I’ve never seen him like this before.
“I’m so sorry I scared you,” I say.
“Please don’t apologize to me, love. You don’t have to worry about me,” he says, shaking his head. “I’ve been worried about you. How are you feeling?”
“Other than the hallucinating, you mean?” I crack a half grin. “I feel okay. It took me a minute to come back to myself this morning, but I feel much better now. I’m sure the strange visions will be gone soon, too.” I smile, wide, more for his benefit than mine. “Anyway, Delalieu wants me to meet with him ASAP to talk about my speech for the symposium, so I’m thinking maybe I should go do that. I can’t believe it’s happening tomorrow.” I shake my head. “I can’t afford to waste any more time. Although”—I look down at myself—“maybe I should take a shower first? Put on some real clothes?”
I try to smile at him again, to convince him that I’m feeling fine, but he seems unable to speak. He just looks at me, his eyes red-rimmed and raw. If I didn’t know him any better I’d think he’d been crying.
I’m just about to ask him what’s wrong, when he says
and for some reason I hold my breath.
“I have to talk to you,” he says.
He whispers it, actually.
“Okay,” I say, and exhale. “Talk to me.”
I feel my stomach flip. My instincts tell me to panic. “Is everything okay?”
It takes him a long time to say, “I don’t know.”
I stare at him, confused.
He stares back, his eyes such a pale green in the light that, for a moment, he doesn’t even seem human. He says nothing more.
I take a deep breath. Try to be calm. “Okay,” I say. “Okay. But if we’re going to go back to the room, can I at least shower first? I’d really like to get all this sand and dried blood off my body.”
He nods. Still no emotion.
And now I’m really beginning to panic.
I’m pacing the length of the hall just outside of our room, impatiently waiting for Juliette to finish her shower. My mind is ravaged. Hysteria has been clawing at my insides for hours. I have no idea what she’ll say to me. How she’ll react to what I need to tell her. And I’m so horrified by what I’m about to do that I don’t even hear someone calling my name until they’ve touched me.
I spin around too fast, my reflexes faster than even my mind. I’ve got his hand pinched up at the wrist and wound behind his back and I’ve slammed him chest-first into the wall before I realize it’s Kent. Kent, who’s not fighting back, just laughing and telling me to let go of him.
I drop his arm. Stunned. Shake my head to clear it. I don’t remember to apologize.
“Are you okay?” someone else says to me.
It’s James. He’s still the size of a child, and for some reason this surprises me. I take a careful breath. My hands are shaking. I’ve never felt further from okay, and I’m too confused by my anxiety to remember to lie.
“No,” I say to him. I step backward, hitting the wall behind me and slumping to the floor. “No,” I say again, and this time I don’t know who I’m speaking to.
“Oh. Do you want to talk about it?” James is still blathering. I don’t understand why Kent won’t make him stop.
I shake my head.
But this only seems to encourage him. He sits down beside me. “Why not? I think you should talk about it,” he says.
“C’mon, buddy,” Kent finally says to him. “Maybe we should give Warner some privacy.”
James will not be convinced. He peers into my face. “Were you crying?”
“Why do you ask so many questions?” I snap, dropping my head in one hand.
“What happened to your hair?”
I look up at Kent, astounded. “Will you please retrieve him?”
“You shouldn’t answer questions with other questions,” James says to me, and puts a hand on my shoulder. I nearly jump out of my skin.
“Why are you touching me?”
“You look like you could use a hug,” he says. “Do you want a hug? Hugs always make me feel better when I’m sad.”
“No,” I say, fast and sharp. “I do not want a hug. And I’m not sad.”
Kent appears to be laughing. He stands a few feet away from us with his arms crossed, doing nothing to help the situation. I glare at him.
“Well you seem sad,” James says.
“Right now,” I say stiffly, “all I’m feeling is irritation.”
“Bet you feel better though, huh?” James smiles. Pats my arm. “See—I told you it helps to talk about it.”
I blink, surprised. Stare at him.
He’s not exactly correct in his theory, but oddly enough, I do feel better. Getting frustrated just now, with him—it helped clear my panic and focus my thoughts. My hands have steadied. I feel a little sharper.
“Well,” I say. “Thank you for being annoying.”
“Hey.” He frowns. He gets to his feet, dusts off his pants. “I’m not annoying.”
“You most certainly are annoying,” I tell him. “Especially for a child your size. Why haven’t you have learned to be quieter by now? When I was your age I only spoke when I was spoken to.”
James crosses his arms. “Wait a second—what do you mean, for a child my size? What’s wrong with my size?”
I squint at him. “How old are you? Nine?”
“I’m about to turn eleven!”
“You’re very small for eleven.”
And then he punches me. Hard. In the thigh.
“Owwwwwww,” he cries, overzealous in his exaggeration of the simple sound. He shakes out his fingers. Scowls at me. “Why does your leg feel like stone?”
“Next time,” I say, “you should try picking on someone your own size.”
He narrows his eyes at me.
“Don’t worry,” I say to him. “I’m sure you’ll get taller soon. I didn’t hit my growth spurt until I was about twelve or thirteen, and if you’re anything like me—”
Kent clears his throat, hard, and I catch myself.
“That is—if you’re anything like, ah, your brother, I’m sure you’ll be just fine.”
James looks back at Kent and smiles, the awkward punch apparently forgotten. “I really hope I’m like my brother,” James says, beaming now. “Adam is the best, isn’t he? I hope I’m just like him.”
I feel the smile break off my face. This little boy. He’s also mine, my brother, and he may never know it.
“Isn’t he?” James says, still smiling.
I startle. “Excuse me?”
“Adam,” he says. “Isn’t Adam the best? He’s the best big brother in the world.”
“Oh—yes,” I say to him, clearing the catch in my throat. “Yes, of course. Adam is, ah, the best. Or some approximation thereof. In any case, you’re very lucky to have him.”
Kent shoots me a look, but says nothing.
“I know,” James says, undeterred. “I got really lucky.”
I nod. Feel something twist in my gut. I get to my feet. “Yes, well, if you’ll excuse me—”
“Yep. Got it.” Kent nods. Waves good-bye. “We’ll see you around, yeah?”
“Bye!” James says as Kent tugs him down the hall. “Glad you’re feeling better!”
Somehow I feel worse.
I walk back into the bedroom not quite as panicked as before, but more somber, somehow. And I’m so distracted I almost don’t notice Juliette stepping out of the bathroom as I enter.
She’s wearing nothing but a towel.
Her cheeks are pink from the shower. Her eyes are big and bright as she smiles as me. She’s so beautiful. So unbelievably beautiful.