She nods as she scribbles into a file. I hate it when she does that. It’s like she’s tallying how many times those words have dripped out of my mouth.
“What about Noah?” I ask, trying to get the conversation back on course.
Mrs. Collins places the pen over the file and clasps her hands over it. “Let’s pause for a moment and see where our conversation has taken us. You’re afraid Noah’s going to leave you, yes?”
I bob my head in indifference because it feels like I’m cheating on Noah by even discussing this. “I guess.”
“You already feel like other people have left you.”
“My mom and dad,” I say for her.
“You also mentioned Aires.”
I pick at a fingernail instead of answering. “I asked about Noah.”
“Echo, I wonder if there are things we aren’t addressing. I wonder what you would say if I asked what Aires and Noah have in common.”
My eyes flash to hers. Noah walked into darkness, and it reminded me of Aires.
It’s like there are a thousand voices in my head and none of them belong to me. “I don’t want to talk anymore.”
With one click of the button, Mrs. Collins disappears.
With his legs kicked out on the bed, Isaiah relaxes with his back against the headboard. Beth rests her head against his shoulder and is absorbed in a movie they found on one of the five cable stations. She’s not as green as before, but dark circles mar the skin underneath her eyes, plus she hasn’t bitched yet. She must still feel like shit.
I returned thirty minutes ago to discover Echo missing. I showered, shaved and when I reemerged from the bathroom a half pound of cooking grease lighter, Echo stood near the window, peeking out the curtains. The moment I walked out we packed, in coordinated silence, what we’d need for the night. I zip up my pack and I say, “You ready, baby?”
“I need a few minutes.”
Echo disappears into the bathroom, and Isaiah and I share a glance. “Give me a hand?”
Beth shifts to free Isaiah, and he grabs my stuff as I shoulder Echo’s. The moment we’re in the hallway and safely away, I jack my thumb toward the room. “Beth going to live?”
“Yeah. She said she feels like she’s still moving. I sure as shit hope she’s not sick. I don’t know if states take another state’s free insurance.”
“Give her until tomorrow, and then we’ll figure it out.”
I shove the door open with my back, and the heat of the day permeates from the concrete. The sun’s low in the west, and the blue horizon starts to merge into that pink that Echo loves. We’ve got maybe an hour and a half before sundown. Not much time to set up camp, especially since I promised I’d do it on my own.
With the push of a button on Echo’s key chain, her trunk pops open, and Isaiah and I set the stuff in. “Is Echo okay?” I ask.
Isaiah pulls on his bottom earring before squeezing the last bag into a cramped spot. “She didn’t say anything when she came in. I saw her a while ago, though. She was hanging out in some room with her computer.”
“Yeah.” That’s where I left her.
“Look, bro. We were talking then that Mrs. Collins contacted Echo…”
“I got it,” I tell him so he doesn’t have to explain. Part of me is relieved to hear Mrs. Collins is the reason for Echo being withdrawn and not me. “Echo can get that way after they talk.” It can also mean night terrors.
“I’m not sure that’s what got her—”
“Isaiah, Beth’s asking for you,” Echo says the moment she exits the hotel.
He warily eyes Echo, and my mouth turns down when I notice her mirror Isaiah’s dark expression. What the hell? Isaiah offers his hand to me. “Have a great time.”
I accept the short shake. “We’ll catch up tomorrow.”
“S’all good,” he says then strides over to Echo, who’s hanging by the hotel entrance.
I pretend not to watch as I rearrange the cooler. Since Echo and I became the real deal after I gave up my brothers, the two of them have become tight. Not as tight as me and him and not as tight as him and Beth, but there’s an understanding between them. Nothing romantic, just a sense of acceptance on a different level.
He lowers his voice and mumbles something to her. Echo nods and offers him a half smile. She whispers back, but knowing Echo well enough I can read her lips. “It’s okay. I’m sorry if I upset you.”
“It’s my shit,” he answers in a normal tone and places his hand over his heart like he’s swearing a promise. “Not yours. Won’t happen again.”
She holds out her arms to offer a hug. He looks over his shoulder at me, and I slightly tip my chin in approval. It’s a quick hug, one like I’d give my brothers, and Isaiah says something to Echo that makes her laugh as they both walk away.
“You and Isaiah okay?” I close the trunk after he enters the hotel.
It’s like dragging concrete through mud. “Are you going to tell me what’s up?”
She folds her hands over her chest and holds her elbows like she’s cold. “If you want me to, but I think it’s better left behind.”
Neither of them would do me wrong. Few things can press Isaiah’s buttons, and it’s the same type of button that can propel Echo over the edge. “You guys talk about moms?”
“Then I get it.”
“Does that bother you?” she asks. “That we talked and that we hugged?”
I lock my finger around her belt loop and bring her closer to me. “The opposite. It feels good to know I have a family.”
In the fading evening sun, my hand rushes against the page as I attempt to capture the way the long grass of the field dances in the light breeze. I love the colors here: the deep green of the grass, the dark blue of the water cutting through the meadow, the still barely snowcapped purplish mountains looming in the distance.
What cements this picturesque scene is the sky. Behind me to the east, the black-blue of night races me to the end, threatening to cover the way the oranges and pinks and reds of the sunset bleed together. The scent of pine is thick here. So thick the smell is probably being absorbed by the page, and I hope it is. I want to remember this moment—forever.
My eyes narrow as I try to defeat the night, but like always, time runs out, and I’m on the losing end. No longer able to see, I drop the oil crayon and fall back onto my elbows on the ground.