Kenji clears his throat. “Not a freak. Just . . . interesting.”
I point my gun at his nose. “I’m so interesting I can kill you with my bare hands.”
A barely perceptible flash of fear flickers in his eyes. He swallows a few gallons of humility. Tries to smile. “You sure you’re not crazy?”
“No.” I cock my head. “I’m not sure.”
Kenji grins. Looks me up and down. “Well damn. But you make crazy sound so good.”
“I’m about five inches from breaking your face,” Adam warns him, his voice like steel, his body stiff with anger, his eyes narrowed, unflinching. There’s no hint of humor in his expression. “I don’t need another reason.”
“What?” Kenji laughs, undeterred. “I haven’t been this close to a chick in way too long, bro. And crazy or not—”
“I’m not interested.”
Kenji turns to face me. “Well I’m not sure I blame you. I look like hell right now. But I clean up okay.” He attempts a grin. “Give me a couple days. You might change your mind—”
Adam elbows him in the face and doesn’t apologize.
Kenji is swearing, bleeding, running out of expletives and tripping his way toward the bathroom, holding his nose together.
Adam pulls me into James’ bedroom.
“Tell me something,” he says. He stares up at the ceiling, takes a hard breath. “Tell me anything—”
I try to focus his eyes, grasp his hands, gentle gentle gentle. I wait until he’s looking at me. “Nothing is going to happen to James. We’ll keep him safe. I promise.”
His eyes are full of pain like I’ve never seen them before. He parts his lips. Presses them together. Changes his mind a million times until his words tumble through the air between us. “He doesn’t even know about our dad.” It’s the first time he’s acknowledged the issue. It’s the first time he’s acknowledged that I know anything about it. “I never wanted him to know. I made up stories for him. I wanted him to have a chance to be normal.” His lips are spelling secrets and my ears are spilling ink, staining my skin with his stories. “I don’t want anyone to touch him. I don’t want to screw him up. I can’t—God I can’t let it happen,” he says to me. Hushed. Quiet.
I’ve searched the world for all the right words and my mouth is full of nothing.
“It’s never enough,” he whispers. “I can never do enough. He still wakes up screaming. He still cries himself to sleep. He sees things I can’t control.” He blinks a million times. “So many people, Juliette.”
I hold my breath.
I touch the word on his lips and he kisses my fingers. His eyes are two pools of perfection, open, honest, humble. “I don’t know what to do,” he says, and it’s like a confession that costs him so much more than I can understand. Control is slipping through his fingers and he’s desperate to hold on. “Tell me what to do.”
I can hear our heartbeats in the silence between us. I study the shape of his lips, the strong lines of his face, the eyelashes any girl would kill for, the deep dark blue of the eyes I’ve learned to swim in. I offer him the only possibility I have. “Kenji’s plan might be worth considering.”
“You trust him?” Adam leans back, surprised.
“I don’t think he’s lying about knowing a place we can go.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Why not . . . ?”
Something that might not be a laugh. “I might kill him before we even get there.”
My lips twist into a sad smile. “There isn’t any other place for us to hide, is there?”
The sun is revolving around the moon when he responds. He shakes his head. Once. Fast. Tight.
I squeeze his hand. “Then we have to try.”
“What the hell are you doing in there?” Kenji shouts through the door. Pounds it a couple times. “I mean, shit, man, I don’t think there’s ever a bad time to get naked, but now is probably not the best time for a nooner. So unless you want to get killed, I suggest you get your ass out here. We have to get ready to go.”
“I might kill him right now,” Adam changes his mind.
I take his face in my hands, tip up on my toes and kiss him. His lips are 2 pillows, so soft, so sweet. “I love you.”
He’s looking into my eyes and looking at my mouth and his voice is a husky whisper. “Yeah?”
The 3 of us are packed and ready to go before James comes home from school. Adam and I collected the most important basic necessities: food, clothes, money Adam saved up. He keeps looking around the small space like he can’t believe he’s lost it so easily. I can only imagine how much work he put into it, how hard he tried to make a home for his little brother. My heart is in pieces for him.
His friend is an entirely different species.
Kenji is nursing new bruises, but seems in reasonable spirits, excited for reasons I can’t fathom. He’s oddly resilient and upbeat. It seems impossible to discourage him and I can’t help but admire his determination. But he won’t stop staring at me.
“So how come you can touch Adam?” he says after a moment.
“I don’t know.”
He snorts. “Bull.”
I shrug. I don’t feel the need to convince him that I have absolutely no idea how I got so lucky.
“How’d you even know you could touch him? Some kind of sick experiment?”
I hope I’m not blushing. “Where’s this place you’re taking us?”
“Why are you changing the subject?” He’s grinning. I’m sure he’s grinning. I refuse to look at him, though. “Maybe you can touch me, too. Why don’t you try?”
“You don’t want me to touch you.”
“Maybe I do.” He’s definitely grinning.
“Maybe you should leave her alone before I put that bullet back in your leg,” Adam offers.
“I’m sorry—is a lonely man not allowed to make a move, Kent? Maybe I’m actually interested. Maybe you should back the hell off and let her speak for herself.”
Adam runs a hand through his hair. Always the same hand. Always through his hair. He’s flustered. Frustrated. Maybe even embarrassed.
“I’m still not interested,” I remind him, an edge to my voice.
“Yes, but let’s not forget that this”—he motions to his battered face—“is not permanent.”
“Well, I’m permanently uninterested.” I want so badly to tell him that I’m unavailable. I want to tell him that I’m in a serious relationship. I want to tell him that Adam’s made me promises.
But I can’t.
I have no idea what it means to be in a relationship. I don’t know if saying “I love you” is code for “mutually exclusive,” and I don’t know if Adam was serious when he told James I was his girlfriend. Maybe it was an excuse, a cover, an easy answer to an otherwise complicated question. I wish he would say something to Kenji—I wish he would tell him that we’re together officially, exclusively.
But he doesn’t.
And I don’t know why.
“I don’t think you should decide until the swelling goes down,” Kenji continues matter-of-factly. “It’s only fair. I have a pretty spectacular face.”
Adam chokes on a cough that I think was a laugh.
“You know, I could’ve sworn we used to be cool,” Kenji says, leveling his gaze at Adam.
“I can’t remember why.”
Kenji bristles. “Is there something you want to say to me?”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Then why am I still here?”
“Because I trust her.”
Kenji turns to look at me. He manages a goofy smile. “Aw, you trust me?”
“As long as I have a clear shot.” I tighten my hold on the gun in my hand.
His grin is crooked. “I don’t know why, but I kind of like it when you threaten me.”
“That’s because you’re an idiot.”
“Nah.” He shakes his head. “You’ve got a sexy voice. Makes everything sound naughty.”
Adam stands up so suddenly he nearly knocks over the coffee table.
Kenji bursts out laughing, wheezing against the pain of his injuries. “Calm down, Kent, damn. I’m just messing with you guys. I like seeing psycho chick get all intense.” He glances at me, lowers his voice. “I mean that as a compliment—because, you know”—he waves a haphazard hand in my direction—“psycho kind of works for you.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Adam turns on him.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Kenji crosses his arms, annoyed. “Everyone is so uptight in here.”
Adam squeezes the gun in his hand. Walks to the door. Walks back. He’s pacing.
“And don’t worry about your brother,” Kenji adds. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”
Adam doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t stop pacing. His jaw twitches. “I’m not worried about my brother. I’m trying to decide whether to shoot you now or later.”
“Later,” Kenji says, collapsing onto the couch. “You still need me right now.”
Adam tries to speak but he’s out of time.
The door clicks, beeps, unlatches open.
James is home.
“I’m really happy you’re taking it so well—I am—but James, this really isn’t something to be excited about. We’re running for our lives.”
“But we’re doing it together,” he says for the fifth time, a huge grin overcrowding his face. He took a liking to Kenji almost too quickly, and now the pair of them are conspiring to turn our predicament into some kind of elaborate mission. “And I can help!”
“No, it’s not—”
“Of course you can—”
Adam and Kenji speak at the same time. Kenji recovers first. “Why can’t he help? Ten years old is old enough to help.”
“That’s not your call,” Adam says, careful to control his voice. I know he’s staying calm for his brother’s sake. “And it’s none of your business.”
“I’ll finally get to come with you,” James says, undeterred. “And I want to help.”
James took the news in stride. He didn’t even flinch when Adam explained the real reason why he was home, and why we were together. I thought seeing Kenji’s bruised and battered face would scare him, unnerve him, instill a sense of fear in his heart, but James was eerily unmoved. It occurred to me he must’ve seen much worse.
Adam takes a few deep breaths before turning to Kenji. “How far?”
“By foot?” Kenji looks uncertain for the first time. “At least a few hours. If we don’t do anything stupid, we should be there by nightfall.”