“Blood can be so beautiful, so cleansing. And the pain only lasts for a second—a beautiful second—then it’s gone.”
Marah drew in a breath. The absinthe was relaxing her, making her light-headed, and she wasn’t quite sure what was real until she looked at Paxton and stared into his golden eyes and thought, He knows. At last, here was someone who understood her. “When did you start?”
“After my sister died.”
“What happened?” she asked quietly.
“How doesn’t matter,” he said, and it struck a chord with her, deep and clear. People always asked what had happened to her mother, as if it mattered whether she’d died of cancer or a car accident or a heart attack. “I held her as she died, that’s what matters, and I watched them put her in the ground.”
Marah reached over and held his hand.
He looked at her in surprise, as if he’d forgotten she was there. “Her last words on this earth were, ‘Don’t let go of me, Pax.’ But I had to.” He took a breath and let it go. Then he downed his absinthe in one drink. “It was drugs that killed her. My drugs. That’s why the court ordered therapy. It was that or jail.”
“They divorced because of it. Neither can forgive me, and why should they?”
“Do you miss them?”
He shrugged. “What difference would it make?”
“So you didn’t used to be like…” She nodded at his look, embarrassed by her question but intrigued. It had never occurred to her that he had been different once, a normal high school kid.
“I needed a change,” he said.
“Did it help?”
“No one asks how I’m doing except Dr. Bloom, and she doesn’t really care.”
“You’re lucky. Everyone asks me how I’m doing, but they don’t really want to know.”
“Sometimes you just want to be left alone with it.”
“Exactly,” she said, feeling a heady sense of connection. He knew her, saw her. He understood.
“I’ve never told anyone that before,” he said, gazing at her with a beautiful vulnerability. Was she the only one who could see how broken he was? “Are you here to piss off your dad? Because—”
“No.” She wanted to add, I want to be someone else, too, but it sounded stupid and too young.
He touched her face, and his touch was the softest she’d ever known. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“I do now,” she said.
It felt desperately solemn, this moment. He leaned forward slowly, so slowly she knew he expected her to push him away, but she couldn’t. Right now, nothing mattered except the way he looked at her. She’d been cold and dead until this second; he’d brought her back to life. She didn’t care if he was dangerous or did drugs or couldn’t be trusted. This feeling, this coming alive, was worth any risk.
His kiss was everything she’d dreamed a kiss could be.
“Let’s get high,” he murmured softly, his lips against hers. “It’ll make you forget it all.”
She wanted that. Needed it. All it took was the smallest of nods.
September 3, 2010
Ping. “Flight attendants, please take your seats.”
Marah let go of the memory and opened her eyes. Real life came back with a vengeance: it was 2010. She was twenty years old and sitting in an airplane, flying to Seattle to see Tully, who had been in a car accident and might not make it.
“Are you all right?”
“They don’t love you, Marah. Not like I do. If they did, they would respect your choices.”
She stared out the small window as the plane touched down and taxied to the terminal. A man in an orange vest guided the plane to its parking place. She spaced out watching him, her vision blurred, until what she saw was a ghostly image of her own face in the window. Pale skin, pink hair, cut with a razor and gelled in place along her ears, and black-rimmed eyes. A pierced eyebrow.
“Thank God,” Paxton said when the seat belt sign clicked off. He unhooked his seat belt and grabbed his brown paper bag out from under the seat in front of him. Marah did the same.
As she walked through the terminal, Marah clutched the wrinkled, stained bag that held all of her possessions. People glanced at them and quickly looked away, as if whatever had turned two kids into goths might be contagious.
Outside the terminal, smokers clustered beneath the overhang, puffing away, while the loudspeaker reminded them that it was a nonsmoking zone.
Marah wished now she’d told her dad what flight they’d be on.
“Let’s get a cab,” Paxton said. “You just got paid, right?”
Marah hesitated. Paxton never seemed to quite grasp the truth of their finances. Her minimum-wage job didn’t exactly afford them the money for luxuries like a cab ride to Seattle from SeaTac. Hell, she’d had to sell her soul for the money to stop an eviction this month (Don’t think about that, not now), and she was the only one of the roommates who even had a real job. Leif sold pot for a living, and Mouse panhandled. No one wanted to know what Sabrina did, but she was the only other one who seemed to ever have money. Paxton was too creative to hold down a steady job—it cut into his poetry-writing time, and that was their future.
But when he sold his poetry, they’d be rich.
She could have said no to the cab, but lately it was too easy to make him angry. It wasn’t as easy to sell his poetry as he’d thought and the truth of that bothered him. She had to constantly reassure him about his talent.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Besides, Daddy will give you money,” he said, and he didn’t sound unhappy about the prospect. It confused her. He wanted them to have nothing to do with her family. So why was it okay to take money from them?
They climbed into a cab and settled into the brown backseat.
Marah named the hospital and then leaned back against Pax, who put an arm around her. He immediately opened his worn, dog-eared copy of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and began to read.
Twenty-five minutes later, the car came to an abrupt stop in front of the hospital.
It was raining now, one of those nibbling, inconsistent September rains that came and went. In front of her, the hospital was a sprawling structure crouched beneath the battleship-gray sky.
They walked into the brightly lit lobby and Marah came to an abrupt stop. How many trips through this lobby had she made in her life?
Too many. And none had been happy.
Sit with me during chemo, baby girl. Tell me about Tyler …
“You don’t have to do this,” Pax said, sounding a little irritated. “It’s your life, not theirs.”
She reached for his hand, but he pulled away. She understood: he wanted her to know that he didn’t want to be here. When it came to her family, he might be beside her, but she was alone.
On the fourth floor, they exited the elevator and walked down a beige, brightly lit lobby toward the ICU. A place she knew all too well.
She saw her father and grandmother in the waiting room. Dad looked up, saw her. She slowed, feeling both fragile and defiant in his presence.
He stood slowly. His movement must have alerted Grandma Margie, because she got to her feet, too. Grandma frowned—no doubt at Marah’s heavy makeup and pink hair.
Marah had to force herself to keep walking. She hadn’t seen her dad in so long; she was surprised by how much older he looked.
Grandma Margie limped forward and pulled Marah into a fierce hug. “It can be hard to come home. Good for you.” Grandma drew back, looked at Marah through teary eyes. She looked thinner since the last time Marah had seen her, skinny enough to blow away. “Grandpa’s at home, waiting for your brothers. He sends his love.”
Her brothers. Marah’s throat tightened at the thought of them. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed them until right now.
Dad’s hair was grayer than she remembered. A day’s growth of beard shadowed his jawline. He was dressed like an old rock star, in a faded Van Halen T-shirt and worn Levi’s.
He came closer, moving a little awkwardly, and pulled her into a hug. When he let go and stepped back, she knew they were both thinking about the last time they’d been together. She and Dad and Tully and Paxton.
“I can’t stay long,” Marah said.
“Do you have something more important to do?”
“Still judging us, I see,” Pax said lazily. “Big surprise.”
Dad seemed determined not to look at Pax, as if ignoring her boyfriend could change the fact of his existence. “I don’t want to jump into this again. You’re here to see your godmother. Do you want to see her?”
“Yes,” Marah said.
Behind her Paxton made a sound she knew well, that little snort of derision. How many times had he reminded her that her family didn’t really accept her unless she was Good Girl Marah, who did what they wanted and looked a certain way? And hadn’t Dad proved the truth of it last December?
That’s not love, Pax had said. They don’t love the real you, and what’s the use of anything else? I’m the one who loves you for you.
“Come on,” Dad said. “I’ll take you to her.”
Marah turned to Paxton. “Will you—”
He shook his head. Of course he didn’t want to go. He hated pretense of any kind. He couldn’t pretend to care about Tully’s health. That would be dishonest. It was too bad; she could have used a hand to hold right now.
She and Dad walked down the hallway. There were people all around them, coming and going. Nurses and doctors and orderlies and visitors, all speaking in hushed tones. The muted conversations underscored the silence between her and her father.
Outside a glass-walled room in the ICU, he stopped and turned to her.
“She’s in bad shape. You need to prepare yourself.”
“You can’t prepare for the shit life throws at you.”
“Words of wisdom from Paxton Conrath, I’ll bet.”
He held up his hand. “Sorry. But you can prepare yourself. She doesn’t look good. The doctors have lowered her body temperature and put her into a medically induced coma in hopes that her brain swelling will go down. A shunt is supposed to help with that. They’ve shaved her head and she’s bandaged up, so be ready. The doctors think she can hear us, though. Your grandma spent two hours today talking about when Tully and your mom were kids.”
Marah nodded and reached for the door.
She paused, turned.
“I’m sorry about what happened in December.”
She stared up at him, seeing remorse in his eyes—and love—and it affected her so profoundly that it was all she could do to mutter, “Shit happens.” She couldn’t think about him—and them—now. Turning away, she went into the ICU room and closed the door behind her.
The click of the door sent her back in time. Suddenly she was sixteen again, coming into her mom’s hospital room. Come here, baby girl, I won’t break. You can hold my hand …