Main The End and Other Beginnings

The End and Other Beginnings

Bestselling Divergent and Carve the Mark author Veronica Roth delivers a stunning collection of novella-length stories set in the future, illustrated with startling black-and-white artwork.

No world is like the other. Within this masterful collection, each setting is more strange and wonderful than the last, brimming with new technologies and beings. And yet, for all the advances in these futuristic lands, the people still must confront deeply human problems.

In these six stories, Veronica Roth reaches into the unknown and draws forth something startlingly familiar and profoundly beautiful.

With tales of friendship and revenge, plus two new stories from the Carve the Mark universe, this collection has something for new and old fans alike. Each story begins with a hope for a better end, but always end with a better understanding of the beginning.

With beautifully intricate black-and-white interior illustrations and a uniquely designed...

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About the Author

Books by Veronica Roth

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“There must have been some kind of mistake,” I said.

My clock—one of the old digitals with the red block numbers—read 2:07 a.m. It was so dark outside I couldn’t see the front walk.

“What do you mean?” Mom said absently, as she pulled clothes from my closet. A pair of jeans, T-shirt, sweatshirt, socks, shoes. It was summer, and I had woken to sweat pooling on my stomach, so there was no reason for the sweatshirt, but I didn’t mention it to her. I felt like a fish in a tank, blinking slowly at the outsiders peering in.

“A mistake,” I said, again in that measured way. Normally I would have felt weird being around Mom in my underwear, but that was what I had been wearing when I fell asleep on top of my summer school homework earlier that night, and Mom seeing the belly button piercing I had given myself the year before was the least of my worries. “Matt hasn’t talked to me in months. There’s no way he asked for me. He must have been delirious.”

The paramedic had recorded the aftermath of the car accident from a camera in her vest. In it, Matthew Hernandez—my former best friend—had, apparently, requested my presence at the last visitation, a rite that had become common practice in cases like these, when hospital analytics suggested a life would end regardless of surgical intervention. They calculated the odds, stabilized the patient as best they could, and summoned the last visitors, one at a time, to connect to the consciousness of the just barely living.

“He didn’t just make the request at the accident, Claire, you know that.” Mom was trying to sound gentle, I could tell, but everything was coming out clipped. She handed me the T-shirt, skimming the ring through my belly button with her eyes but saying nothing. I pulled the T-shirt over my hea; d, then grabbed the jeans. “Matt is eighteen now.”

At eighteen, everyone who wanted to participate in the last visitation program—which was everyone, these days—had to make a will listing their last visitors. I wouldn’t do it myself until next spring. Matt was one of the oldest in our class.

“I don’t . . .” I put my head in a hand. “I can’t . . .”

“You can say no if you want.” Mom’s hand rested gently on my shoulder.

“No.” I ground my head into the heel of my hand. “If it was one of his last wishes . . .”

I stopped talking before I choked.

I didn’t want to share a consciousness with Matt. I didn’t even want to be in the same room as him. We’d been friends once—the closest kind—but things had changed. And now he wasn’t giving me any choice. What was I supposed to do, refuse to honor his will?

“The doctor said to hurry. They do the visitation while they prepare him for surgery, so they only have an hour to give to you and his mother.” Mom was crouched in front of me, tying my shoes, the way she had when I was a little kid. She was wearing her silk bathrobe with the flowers stitched into it. It was worn near the elbows and fraying at the cuffs. I had seen that bathrobe every day since Dad gave it to her for Christmas when I was seven.

“Yeah.” I understood. Every second was precious, like every drop of water in a drought.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to take you?” she said. I was staring at the pink flower near her shoulder; lost, for a second, in the familiar pattern.

“Yeah,” I said again. “I’m sure.”

I sat on the crinkly paper, tearing it as I shifted back to get more comfortable. This table was not like the others I had sat on, for blood tests and pelvic exams and reflex tests; it was softer, more comfortable. Designed for what I was about to do.

On the way here I had passed nurses in teal scrubs, carrying clipboards. I passed worried families, their hands clutched in front of them, sweaters balled up over their fists to cover themselves. We became protective at the first sign of grief, hunching in, shielding our most vulnerable parts.

I was not one of them. I was not worried or afraid; I was empty. I had glided here like a ghost in a movie, floating.

Dr. Linda Albertson came in with a thermometer and blood pressure monitor in hand, to check my vitals. She gave me a reassuring smile. I wondered if she practiced it in a mirror, her softest eyes and her gentlest grins, so she wouldn’t make her patients’ grief any worse. Such a careful operation it must have been.

“One hundred fifteen over fifty,” she said, after reading my blood pressure. They always said that like you were supposed to know what the numbers meant. And then, like she was reading my mind, she added, “It’s a little low. But fine. Have you eaten today?”

I rubbed my eyes with my free hand. “I don’t know. I don’t—it’s the middle of the night.”

“Right.” Her nails were painted sky blue. She was so proper in her starched white coat, her hair pulled back into a bun, but I couldn’t figure out those nails. Every time she moved her hands, they caught my attention. “Well, I’m sure you’ll be fine. This is not a particularly taxing procedure.” I must have given her a look, because she added, “Physically, I mean.”

“So where is he?” I said.

“He’s in the next room,” Dr. Albertson said. “He’s ready for the procedure.”

I stared at the wall like I would develop X-ray vision through sheer determination alone. I tried to imagine what Matt looked like, stretched out on a hospital bed with a pale green blanket over his legs. Was he bruised beyond recognition? Or were his injuries the worse kind, the ones that hid under the surface of the skin, giving false hope?

She hooked me up to the monitors like it was a dance, sky-blue fingernails swooping, tapping, pressing. Electrodes touched to my head like a crown, an IV needle gliding into my arm. She was my lady-in-waiting, adorning me for a ball.

“How much do you know about the technology?” Dr. Albertson said. “Some of our older patients need the full orientation, but most of the time our younger ones don’t.”

“I know we’ll be able to revisit memories we both shared, places we both went to, but nowhere else.” My toes brushed the cold tile. “And that it’ll happen faster than real life.”

“That’s correct. Your brain will generate half the image, and his will generate the other. The gaps will be filled by the program, which determines—by the electrical feedback in your brain—what best completes the space,” she said. “You may have to explain to Matthew what’s happening, because you’re going before his mother, and the first few minutes can be disorienting. Do you think you can do that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I won’t really have a choice, will I?”

“I guess not, no.” Pressed lips. “Lean back, please.”

I lay down, shivering in my hospital gown, and the crinkly paper shivered along with me. I closed my eyes. It was only a half hour. A half hour to give to someone who had once been my best friend.

“Count backward from ten,” she said.

Like counting steps in a waltz. I did it in German. I didn’t know why.

It wasn’t like sleeping—that sinking, heavy feeling. It was like the world disappearing in pieces around me—first sight, then sound, then the touch of the paper and the plush hospital table. I tasted something bitter, like alcohol, and then the world came back again, but not in the right way.

Instead of the exam room, I was standing in a crowd, warm bodies all around me, the pulsing of breaths, eyes guided up to a stage, everyone waiting as the roadies set up for the band. I turned to Matt and grinned, bouncing on my toes to show him how excited I was.

But that was just the memory. I felt that it was wrong before I understood why, sinking back to my heels. My stomach squeezed as I remembered that this was the last visitation, that I had chosen this memory because it was the first time I felt like we were really friends. That the real, present-day Matthew was actually standing in those beat-up sneakers, black hair hanging over his forehead.

His eyes met mine, bewildered and wide. All around us, the crowd was unchanged, and the roadies still screwed the drum set into place and twisted the knobs on the amplifiers.

“Matt,” I said, creaky like an old door. “Are you there?”

“Claire,” he said.

“Matt, this is a visitation,” I said. I couldn’t bear to say the word last to him. He would know what I meant without it. “We’re in our shared memories. Do you . . . understand?”

He looked around, at the girl to his left with the cigarette dangling from her lips, lipstick marking it in places, and the skinny boy in front of him with the too-tight plaid shirt and the patchy facial hair.

“The accident,” he said, all dreamy voice and unfocused eyes. “The paramedic kind of reminded me of you.”

He reached past the boy to skim the front of the stage with his fingertips, drawing away dust. And he smiled. I didn’t usually think this way, but Matt had looked so good that day, his brown skin even darker from a summer in the sun and his smile, by contrast, so bright.

“Are you . . . okay?” I said. For someone who had just found out that he was about to die, he seemed pretty calm.

“I guess,” he said. “I’m sure it has more to do with the drug cocktail they have me on than some kind of ‘inner peace, surrendering to fate’ thing.”

He had a point. Dr. Albertson had to have perfected the unique combination of substances that made a dying person calm, capable of appreciating their last visitation, instead of panicking the whole time. But then again, Matt had never reacted to things quite the way I expected him to, so it wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that, in the face of death, he was as calm as still water.

He glanced at me. “This is our first Chase Wolcott concert. Right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know that because the girl next to you is going to give you a cigarette burn at some point.”

“Ah yes, she was a gem. Lapis lazuli. Maybe ruby.”

“You don’t have to pick the gem.”

“That’s what you always say.”

My smile fell away. Some habits of friendship were like muscle memory, rising up even when everything else had changed. I knew our jokes, our rhythms, the choreography of our friendship. But that didn’t take away what we were now. Any normal person would have been stumbling through their second apology by now, desperate to make things right before our time was over. Any normal person would have been crying, too, at the last sight of him.

Be normal, I told myself, willing the tears to come. Just now, just for him.

“Why am I here, Matt?” I said.

Dry eyed.

“You didn’t want to see me?” he said.

“It’s not that.” It wasn’t a lie. I both did and didn’t want to see him—wanted to, because this was one of the last times I would get to, and didn’t want to, because . . . well, because of what I had done to him. Because it hurt too much and I’d never been any good at feeling pain.

“I’m not so sure.” He tilted his head. “I want to tell you a story, that’s all. And you’ll bear with me, because you know this is all the time I get.”

“Matt . . .” But there was no point in arguing with him. He was right—this was probably all the time he would get.

“Come on. This isn’t where the story starts.” He reached for my hand, and the scene changed.

I knew Matt’s car by the smell: old crackers and a stale “new-car smell” air freshener, which was dangling from the rearview mirror. My feet crunched receipts and spilled potato chips in the foot well. Unlike new cars, powered by electricity, this one was an old hybrid, so it made a sound somewhere between a whistle and a hum.

The dashboard lit his face blue from beneath, making the whites of his eyes glow. He had driven the others home—all the people from the party who lived in this general area—and saved me for last, because I was closest. He and I had never really spoken before that night, when we had stumbled across each other in a game of strip poker. I had lost a sweater and two socks. He had been on the verge of losing his boxers when he declared that he was about to miss his curfew. How convenient.

Even inside the memory, I blushed, thinking of his bare skin at the poker table. He’d had the kind of body someone got right after a growth spurt, long and lanky and a little hunched, like he was uncomfortable with how tall he’d gotten.

I picked up one of the receipts from the foot well and pressed it flat against my knee.

“You know Chase Wolcott?” I said. The receipt was for their new album.

“Do I know them,” he said, glancing at me. “I bought it the day it came out.”

“Yeah, well, I preordered it three months in advance.”

“But did you buy it on CD?”

“No,” I admitted. “That’s retro hip of you. Should I bow before the One True Fan?”

He laughed. He had a nice laugh, half an octave higher than his deep speaking voice. There was an ease to it that made me comfortable, though I wasn’t usually comfortable sitting in cars alone with people I barely knew.

“I will take homage in curtsies only,” he said.

He pressed a few buttons on the dashboard and the album came on. The first track, “Traditional Panic,” was faster than the rest, a strange blend of handbells and electric guitar. The singer was a woman, a true contralto who sometimes sounded like a man. I had dressed up as her for the last two Halloweens, and no one had ever guessed my costume right.

“What do you think of it? The album, I mean.”

“Not my favorite. It’s so much more upbeat than their other stuff, it’s a little . . . I don’t know, like they went too mainstream with it, or something.”

“I read this article about the lead guitarist, the one who writes the songs—apparently he’s been struggling with depression all his life, and when he wrote this album he was coming out of a really low period. Now he’s like . . . really into his wife, and expecting a kid. So now when I listen to it, all I can hear is that he feels better, you know?”

“I’ve always had trouble connecting to the happy stuff.” I drummed my fingers on the dashboard. I was wearing all my rings—one made of rubber bands, one an old mood ring, one made of resin with an ant preserved inside it, and one with spikes across the top. “It just doesn’t make me feel as much.”

He quirked his eyebrows. “Sadness and anger aren’t the only feelings that count as feelings.”

“That’s not what you said,” I said, pulling us out of the memory and back into the visitation. “You just went quiet for a while until you got to my driveway, and then you asked me if I wanted to go to a show with you.”

“I just thought you might want to know what I was thinking at that particular moment.” He shrugged, his hands resting on the wheel.

“I still don’t agree with you about that album.”

“Well, how long has it been since you even listened to it?”

I didn’t answer at first. I had stopped listening to music altogether a couple months ago, when it started to pierce me right in the chest like a needle. Talk radio, though, I kept going all day, letting the soothing voices yammer in my ears even when I wasn’t listening to what they were saying.

“A while,” I said.

“Listen to it now, then.”

I did, staring out the window at our neighborhood. I lived on the good side and he lived on the bad side, going by the usual definitions. But Matthew’s house—small as it was—was always warm, packed full of kitschy objects from his parents’ pasts. They had all the clay pots he had made in a childhood pottery class lined up on one of the windowsills, even though they were glazed in garish colors and deeply, deeply lopsided. On the wall above them were his mom’s needlepoints, stitched with rhymes about home and blessings and family.

My house—coming up on our right—was stately, spotlights illuminating its white sides, pillars out front like someone was trying to create a miniature Monticello. I remembered, somewhere buried inside the memory, that feeling of dread I had felt as we pulled in the driveway. I hadn’t wanted to go in. I didn’t want to go in now.

For a while I sat and listened to the second track—“Inertia”—which was one of the only love songs on the album, about inertia carrying the guitarist toward his wife. The first time I’d heard it, I’d thought about how unromantic a sentiment that was—like he had only found her and married her because some outside force hurled him at her and he couldn’t stop it. But now I heard in it this sense of propulsion toward a particular goal, like everything in life had buoyed him there. Like even his mistakes, even his darkness, had been taking him toward her.

I blinked tears from my eyes, despite myself.

“What are you trying to do, Matt?” I said.

He lifted a shoulder. “I just want to relive the good times with my best friend.”

“Fine,” I said. “Then take us to your favorite time.”

“You first.”

“Fine,” I said again. “This is your party, after all.”

“And I’ll cry if I want to,” he crooned, as the car and its cracker smell disappeared.

I had known his name, the way you sometimes knew people’s names when they went to school with you, even if you hadn’t spoken to them. We had had a class or two together, but never sat next to each other, never had a conversation.

In the space between our memories, I thought of my first sight of him, in the hallway at school, bag slung over one shoulder, hair tickling the corner of his eye. His hair was floppy then, and curling around the ears. His eyes were hazel, stark against his brown skin—they came from his mother, who was German, not his father, who was Mexican—and he had pimples in the middle of each cheek. Now they were acne scars, only visible in bright light, little reminders of when we were greasy and fourteen.

Now, watching him materialize, I wondered how it was that I hadn’t been able to see from the very first moment the potential for friendship living inside him, like a little candle flame. He had just been another person to me, for so long. And then he had been the only person—the only one who understood me, and then, later, the last one who could stand me. Now no one could. Not even me.

I felt the grains of sand between my toes first—still hot from the day’s sun, though it had set hours before—and then I smelled the rich smoke of the bonfire, heard its crackle. Beneath me was rough bark, a log on its side, and next to me, Matt, bongos in his lap.

They weren’t his bongos—as far as I knew, Matt didn’t own any kind of drum—but he had stolen them from our friend Jack, and now he drumrolled every so often like he was setting someone up for a joke. He had gotten yelled at three times already. Matt had a way of annoying people and amusing them at the same time.

Waves crashed against the rocks to my right, big stones that people sometimes spray-painted with love messages when the tide was low. Some were so worn that only fragments of letters remained. My freshman year of high school I had done an art project on them, documenting each stone and displaying them from newest-looking to oldest. Showing how love faded with time. Or something. I cringed to think of it now, how new I had been, and how impressed with myself.

Across the fire, Jack was strumming a guitar, and Anna—my oldest friend—was singing a dirge version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” laughing through most of the words. I was holding a stick I had found in the brush at the edge of the sand. I had stripped it of bark and stuck a marshmallow on it; now that marshmallow was a fireball.

“So your plan is to just waste a perfectly good marshmallow,” Matt said to me.

“Well, do you know what a marshmallow becomes when you cook it too long?” I said. “No. Because you can never resist them, so you’ve never let it get that far.”

“Some questions about the world don’t need to be answered, you know. I’m perfectly content with just eating the toasted marshmallows for the rest of my days.”

“This is why you had to drop art.”

“Because I’m not curious about charred marshmallows?”

“No.” I laughed. “Because you can be perfectly content instead of . . . perpetually unsettled.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you calling me simpleminded? Like a golden retriever or something?”

“No!” I shook my head. “I mean, for one thing, if you were a dog, you would obviously be a labradoodle—”

“A labradoodle?”

“—and for another, if we were all the same, it would be a boring world.”

“I still think you were being a little condescending.” He paused, and smiled at me. “I can give it a pass, though, because you’re obviously still in your idealistic-adolescent-art-student phase—”

“Hypocrisy!” I cried, pointing at him. “The definition of ‘condescending’ may as well be telling someone they’re going through a phase.”

Matt’s response was to seize the stick from my hand, blow out the flames of the disintegrating marshmallow, and pull it free, tossing it from hand to hand until it cooled. Then he shoved it—charred, but still gooey on the inside—into his mouth.

“Experiment over,” he said with a full mouth. “Come on, let’s go.”

“Go where?”

He didn’t answer, just grabbed me by the elbow and steered me away from the bonfire. When we had found the path just before the rocks, he took off running, and I had no choice but to follow him. I chased him up the path, laughing, the warm summer air blowing over my cheeks and through my hair.

Then I remembered.

He was leading us to the dune cliff—a low sand cliff jutting out over the water. It was against beach rules to jump off it, but people did it anyway, mostly people our age who hadn’t yet developed that part of the brain that thought about consequences. A gift as well as a curse.

I watched as Matt sprinted off the cliff, flailing in the air for a breathless moment before he hit the water.

I stopped a few feet from the edge. Then I heard him laughing.

“Come on!” he shouted.

I was more comfortable just watching antics like these, turning them into a myth in my mind, a legend. I watched life so that I could find the story inside it—it helped me make sense of things. But sometimes I got tired of my own brain, perpetually unsettled as it was.

This time I didn’t just watch. I backed up a few steps, shook out my trembling hands, and burst into a run. I ran straight off the edge of the cliff, shoes and jeans and all.

A heart-stopping moment, weightless and free.

Wind on my ankles, stomach sinking, and then I sliced into the water like a knife. The current wrapped around me. I kicked like a bullfrog, pushing myself to the surface.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Matt said as I surfaced.

As our eyes met across the water, I remembered where I really was. Lying in a hospital room. Unaware of how much time had actually passed.

“I like this memory, too,” he said to me, smiling, this time in the visitation instead of the memory. “Except for the part when I realized my dad’s old wallet was in my pocket when I jumped. It was completely ruined.”

“Oh, shit,” I breathed. “You never said.”

He shrugged. “It was just a wallet.”

That was a lie, of course. No object that had belonged to Matt’s father was “just” something, now that he was gone.

He said, “So this is your favorite memory?”

“It’s . . . I . . .” I paused, kicking to keep myself afloat. The water was cool but not cold. “I never would have done something like this without you.”

“You know what?” He tilted back, so he was floating. “I wouldn’t have done it without you, either.”

“It’s your turn,” I said. “Favorite memory. Go.”

“Okay. But don’t forget, you asked for this.”

I had always thought he was cute—there was no way around it, really, short of covering my eyes every time he was there. Especially after he cut the floppy mess of hair short and you could see his face, strong jaw and all. He had a dimple in his left cheek but not his right one. His smile was crooked. He had long eyelashes.

I might have developed a crush on him, if he hadn’t been dating someone when we first became friends. And it seemed like Matt was always dating someone. In fact, I counseled him through exactly three girlfriends in our friendship: the first was Lauren Gallagher, a tiny but demanding gymnast who drove him up the wall; the second, Anna Underhill, my friend from first grade, who didn’t have anything in common with him except an infectious laugh; and the third, our mutual acquaintance Tori Slaughter (an unfortunate last name), who got drunk and made out with another guy at a Halloween party shortly after their fifth date. Literally—just two hours after their fifth date, she had another guy’s tongue in her mouth. That was the hardest one, because she seemed really sad afterward, so he hadn’t been able to stay mad at her, even while he was ending things. Matt never could hang on to anger, even when he had a right to; it slipped away like water in a fist. Unless it had to do with me. He had been angry at me for longer than he was ever angry with a girlfriend.

For my part, I had had a brief interlude with Paul (nickname: Paul the Appalling, courtesy of Matt) involving a few hot make-out sessions on the beach one summer, before I discovered a dried-up-booger collection in the glove box of his car, which effectively killed the mood. Otherwise, I preferred to stay solitary.

Judging by what Anna had told me while they were dating, girls had trouble getting Matt to stop joking around for more than five seconds at a time, which got annoying when they were trying to get to know him. I had never had that problem.

I heard rain splattering and the jingle of a wind chime—the one hanging next to Matt’s front door. My hair was plastered to the side of my face. Before I rang the bell, I raked it back with my fingers and tied it in a knot. It had been long then, but now its weight was unfamiliar. I was used to it tickling my jaw.

He answered the door, so the screen was between us. He was wearing his gym shorts—his name was written on the front of them, right above his knee—and a ragged T-shirt that was a little too small. He had dark circles under his eyes—darker than usual, that is, because Matt always had a sleepy look to his face, like he had just woken up from a nap.

He glanced over his shoulder to the living room, where his mother was sitting on the couch, watching television. He drew the door shut behind him, stepping out onto the porch.

“What is it?” he said, and at the sound of his voice—so hollowed out by grief—I felt a catch in my own throat. In the memory as well as in the visitation. It never got easier to see him this way.

“Can you get away for an hour?” I said.

“I’m sorry, Claire, I’m just . . . not up for hanging out right now.”

“Oh, we’re not going to hang out. Just humor me, okay?”

“Fine. I’ll tell Mom.”

A minute later he was in his old flip-flops (taped back together at the bottom), walking through the rain with me to my car. His gravel driveway was long. In the heat of summer the brush had grown high, crowding the edge, so I had parked on the road.

Matt’s house was old and small and musty. He’d had a bedroom once, before his grandmother had to move in, but now he slept on the couch in the living room. Despite how packed in his family was, though, his house was always open to guests, expanding to accommodate whoever wanted to occupy it. His father had referred to me as “daughter” so many times, I had lost track.

His father had died three days before. Yesterday had been the funeral. Matt had helped carry the coffin, wearing an overlarge suit with moth-eaten cuffs that had belonged to his grandfather. I had gone with Anna and Jack and all our other friends, in black pants instead of a dress—I hated dresses—and we had eaten the finger food and told him we were sorry. I had been sweaty the whole time because my pants were made of wool and Matt’s house didn’t have air-conditioning, and I was pretty sure he could feel it through my shirt when he hugged me.

He had thanked us all for coming, distractedly. His mother had wandered around the whole time with tears in her eyes, like she had forgotten where she was and what she was supposed to do there.

Now, three days later, Matt and I got in the car, soaking my seats with rainwater. In the cupholder were two cups: one with a cherry slushie (mine) and the other with a strawberry milk shake (for him). I didn’t mention them, and he didn’t ask before he started drinking.

I felt struck, looking back on the memory, by how easy it was to sit in the silence, listening to the pounding rain and the whoosh-whoosh of the windshield wipers, without talking about where we were heading or what was going on with either of us. That kind of silence between two people was even rarer than easy conversation. I didn’t have it with anyone else.

I navigated the soaked roads slowly, guiding us to the parking lot next to the beach, then I parked. The sky was getting darker, not from the waning of the day but from the worsening storm. I undid my seat belt.

“Claire, I—”

“We don’t need to talk,” I said, interrupting. “If all you want to do is sit here and finish your milk shake and then go home, that’s fine.”

He looked down at his lap.

“Okay,” he said.

He unbuckled his seat belt, too, and picked up his milk shake. We stared at the water, the waves raging with the storm. Lightning lit up the sky, and I felt the thunder in my chest and vibrating in my seat. I drained the sugar syrup from the slushie, my mouth stained cherry bright.

Lightning struck the water ahead of us, a long bright line from cloud to horizon, and I smiled a little.

Matt’s hand crept across the center console, reaching for me, and I grabbed it. I felt a jolt as his skin met mine, and I wasn’t sure if I had felt it then, in the memory, or if I was just feeling it now. Wouldn’t I have noticed something like that at the time?

His hand trembled as he cried, and I blinked tears from my eyes, too, but I didn’t let go. I held him, firm, even as our hands got sweaty, even as the milk shake melted in his lap.

After a while, it occurred to me that this was where the moment had ended—Matt had let go of me, and I had driven him back home. But in the visitation, Matt was holding us here, hands clutched together, warm and strong. I didn’t pull away.

He set the milk shake down at his feet and wiped his cheeks with his palm.

“This is your favorite memory?” I said quietly.

“You knew exactly what to do,” he said just as quietly. “Everyone else just wanted something from me—some kind of reassurance that I was okay, even though I wasn’t okay. Or they wanted to make it easier for me, like losing your father is supposed to be easy.” He shook his head. “All you wanted was for me to know you were there.”

“Well,” I said, “I just didn’t know what to say.”

It was more than that, of course. I hated it when I was upset and people tried to reassure me, like they were stuffing my pain into a little box and handing it back to me like, See? It’s actually not that big a deal. l hadn’t wanted to do that to Matt.

“No one knows what to say,” he said. “But they sure are determined to try, aren’t they? Goddamn.”

Everyone saw Matt a particular way: the guy who gave a drumroll for jokes that weren’t jokes, the guy who teased and poked and prodded until you wanted to throttle him. Always smiling. But I knew a different person. The one who made breakfast for his mother every Saturday, who bickered with me about art and music and meaning. The only person I trusted to tell me when I was being pretentious or naive. I wondered if I was the only one who got to access this part of him. Who got to access the whole of him.

“Now, looking back, this is also one of my least favorite memories.” He pulled his hand away, his eyes averted. “Not because it’s painful, but because it reminds me that when I was in pain, you knew how to be there for me . . . but when you were in pain, I abandoned you.”

I winced at the brutality of the phrase, like he had smacked me.

“You didn’t . . .” I started. “I didn’t make it easy. I know that.”

We fell back into silence. The rain continued to pound, relentless, against the roof of my car. I watched it bounce off the windshield, which had smeared the ocean into an abstract painting, a blur of color.

“I was worried about you,” he said. “Instead of getting angry, I should have just told you that.”

I tried to say the words I wanted to say: Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I wanted to smile through them and touch his arm and make a joke. After all, this was his last visitation. It was about him, not about me; about the last moments that we would likely share with each other, given that he was about to die.

“I’m still worried about you,” he said when I didn’t answer.

I didn’t carry him to this memory; the memory. It was weird how much intention mattered with the visitation tech, in this strange space between our two consciousnesses. I had to summon a memory, like pulling up a fishing line, in order to bring us both to it. Otherwise I was alone in my mind, for instants that felt much longer, little half-lifetimes.

After Matt’s dad died, there was a wake and a funeral. There were people from Matt’s church and from his mother’s work who brought over meals; there were group attempts to get him out of his house, involving me and Anna and Jack and a water gun aimed at his living room window. The long, slow process of sorting through his father’s possessions and deciding which ones to keep and which ones to give away—I had been at his house for that, as his mother wept into the piles of clothing and Matt and I pretended not to notice. Over time, the pain seemed to dull, and his mother smiled more, and Matt returned to the world, not quite the same as he had been before but steady nonetheless.

And then my mother came back.

I had two mothers: the one who had raised me from childhood, and the one who had left my father without warning when I was five, packing a bag of her things and disappearing with the old Toyota. She had returned when I was fourteen, pudgier and older than she had been when my father last saw her, but otherwise the same.

Dad had insisted that I spend time with her, and she had brought me to her darkroom, an hour from where we lived, to show me photographs she had taken. Mostly they had been of people caught in the middle of expressions or in moments when they didn’t think anyone was watching. Sometimes out of focus, but always interesting. She touched their corners in the red-lit room as she told me about each one, her favorites and her least favorites.

I hated myself for liking those photographs. I hated seeing myself in that darkroom, picking the same favorites as her, speaking to her in that secret language of art. But I could not help but love her, like shared genes also meant shared hearts, no point in fighting it.

I saw her a few times, and then one day she was gone again. Again with no warning, again with no good-byes, no forwarding address, no explanations. The darkroom empty, the house rented out to new people. No proof she had ever been there at all.

I had never really had her, so it wasn’t fair to think that I had lost her. And my stepmother, who was my real mother in all the ways that mattered, was still there, a little aloof, but she loved me. I had no right to feel anything, I told myself, and moreover, I didn’t want to.

But still, I retreated deep inside myself, like an animal burrowing underground and curling up for warmth. I started falling asleep in class, falling asleep on top of my homework. Waking in the middle of the night to a gnawing stomach and an irrepressible sob. I stopped going out on Friday nights, and then Saturdays, and then weekdays. The desk I kept reserved strictly for art projects went unused. My mother—stepmother, whatever she was—took me to specialists in chronic fatigue; she had me tested for anemia; she spent hours researching conditions on the internet, until one doctor finally suggested depression. I left the office with a prescription that was supposed to fix everything. But I never filled it.

It was at school, of all places, that Matt and I found our ending. Three months ago. It was only him and me in fifth period lunch, in April, when the air-conditioning was on full blast inside so we sat under an apple tree on the front lawn. I had been going to the library to sleep during our lunch hour for the past few weeks, claiming that I had homework to do, but that day he had insisted that I eat with him.

He tried to speak to me, but I had trouble focusing on what he was saying, so mostly I just chewed. At one point I dropped my orange and it tumbled away from me, settling in the tree roots a few feet away. I reached for it and my sleeve pulled back, revealing a healing wound, sealed but unmistakable. I had dug into myself with a blade to make myself feel full of something instead of empty—the rush of adrenaline, of pain, was better than the hollowness. I had looked it up beforehand to figure out how to sterilize the edge, how to know how far to go so I wouldn’t puncture something essential. I wanted to know, to have my body tell me, that I was still alive.

I didn’t bother to explain it away. Matt wasn’t an idiot. He wouldn’t buy that I had slipped while shaving or something. As if I shaved my arm hair.

“Did you go off the meds?” he said, his tone grave.

“What are you, my dad?” I pulled my sleeve down and cradled the orange in my lap. “Lay off, Matt.”

“Well, did you?”

“No. I didn’t go off them. Because I never started taking them.”

“What?” He scowled at me. “You have a doctor who tells you that you have a problem, and you don’t even try the solution?”

“The doctor wants me to be like everybody else. I am not a problem.”

“No, you’re a kid refusing to take her vitamins,” he said, incredulous.

“I don’t need to be drugged because I don’t act the way other people want me to!”

“People like me?”

I shrugged.

“Oh, so you’re saying you feeling like shit all the time is a choice.” His face was red. “Forgive me, I didn’t realize.”

“You think I want to pump my body full of chemicals so I can feel flat all the time?” I snapped. “How am I supposed to be myself when something is altering the chemistry of my brain? How can I make anything, say anything, do anything worthwhile when I’m practically lobotomized?”

“That isn’t what—”

“Stop arguing with me like you know something about this. Just because you have this emotional trump card in your back pocket doesn’t mean you get to decide everyone else’s mental state.”

“Emotional trump card?” he repeated, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah!” I exclaimed. “How can I possibly have a legitimate problem when I’m talking to Matt ‘My Dad Died’ Hernandez?”

It had just . . . come out. I hadn’t thought about it.

I knew that Matt’s father’s death wasn’t a tool he used to control other people. I had just wanted to hurt him. It had been a year, but he was still raw with grief, right under the surface, and embarrassed by it. I knew that, too. Between us was the memory of him sobbing in the car while he held tight to my hand.

After weeks of ignoring his texts, and lying to him about why I couldn’t come hang out, and snapping at every little thing, I guess me using his dad’s death against him was the last straw. Even then, I hadn’t blamed him. It was practically a reflex to blame myself anyway.

“Matt,” I started to say.

“You know what?” he said, coming to his feet. “Do whatever you want. I’m done here.”

“I made a mistake,” Matt said, and his mouth was the first thing to materialize in the new memory—the lower lip bigger than the top one, even his speech a little lopsided, favoring the dimpled side. “I should have started the story here.”

We were in the art room. It was bright white and always smelled like paint and crayons. There were racks along the back wall, where people put their projects to dry at the end of each class period. Before I had started failing art because I didn’t turn in two of my projects, I had come here after school every other day to work. I liked the hum of the lights, the peace of the place. Peace wasn’t something that came easily to me.

My classmates were in a half circle in front of me. I was sitting in a chair, a desk to my right, and there were wires stretching from electrodes on my head to a machine beside me. The screen faced my classmates. Even without the electrodes, I knew how old I was by the color of my fingernails—my freshman year of high school, I had been obsessed with painting my nails in increasingly garish and ugly colors, lime green and sparkly purple, glow-in-the-dark blue and burnt orange. I liked to take something that was supposed to be pretty and make it ugly instead. Or interesting. Sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference between the two.

This was the second major art project of my freshman year, after the photographs of the love rocks. I had become fascinated by the inside of the brain, like it would give me explanations for everything that had happened to me and everything happening inside me. A strange stroke of inspiration, and I had applied for a young artists’ grant to purchase this portable equipment, at the forefront of medical advances in neuroscience. A doctor had taught me how to use it, spending several hours with me after school one day, and I had wheeled it into my art class soon afterward.

I didn’t say anything to explain it, just hooked myself up to the machine and showed the class my brain waves and how I could alter them. I did a relaxation exercise first, showing my brain on meditation; then I did math problems. I listened to one of my favorite comedians. I recounted my most embarrassing memory: sneezing and getting snot all over my face during a school presentation in sixth grade. My brain waves shifted and changed depending on what I was doing.

I kept my brain waves clean of emotional turmoil—the muck of my mother not coming downstairs for breakfast that one morning when I was five, the empty space in the driveway where her car had been. I kept secret the chaos of my heart and guts. I was only interested in showing the mechanics of my mind, like the gears in a clock.

When I finished, the class greeted me with scattered applause. Unenthused, but that wasn’t surprising. They never liked anything I did. One of the girls raised her hand and asked our teacher, “Um . . . Mr. Gregory? Does that even count as art? I mean, she just showed us her brain.”

“It counts as performance art, Jessa,” Mr. Gregory said, taking off his glasses. “Think about what you just said—she showed us her brain. An act of vulnerability. That is incredibly rare, in life and in art. Art is, above all things, both vulnerable and brave.”

He gave me a wink. Mr. Gregory was part of the peace of this room. He always seemed to understand what I was getting at, even if I couldn’t quite get myself there.

“Why are we here?” I said to Visitation Matthew, frowning. “We didn’t even know each other yet.”

Matt was sitting near the back of the class, on the side, his head bent over a notebook. He smiled at me within the visitation. Dimpled cheek, crinkled eyes, a flash of white teeth.

“This is where our story started,” he said. “You were so . . . I mean, their opinions were completely irrelevant to you. It’s like while everyone else was listening to one song, you were listening to another. And God, I loved that. I wanted it for myself.”

It made me feel strange—weightless in places, like I was turning into tissue paper and butterfly wings.

“You think I didn’t care what they thought of me?” I shook my head. I couldn’t let him believe a lie about me, not now. “Of course I cared. I still can’t think about it without blushing.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “But I went to that party sophomore year because I found out you were going and . . . I wanted to get to know you. I loved this project. I loved everything you did in art class. I felt like you had showed yourself to me, and I wanted to return the favor.”

My cheeks felt a little warm. “You never said.”

“Well, you’ve said before that talking about old projects embarrasses you,” he said, shrugging. “So I never wanted to bring it up.”

“This is what I was worried about, you know,” I said softly. “About the medication. That it would mean I couldn’t do this—art—anymore. I mean, feeling things—feeling intense things, sometimes—is part of what drives me to make things.”

“You think you can’t feel better and do great work at the same time?”

“I don’t know.” I chewed on my lip. “I’m used to being this way. Volatile. Like a walking ball of nerves. I’m worried that if I get rid of the highs, and even the lows—especially the lows—there won’t be anything about me that’s interesting anymore.”

“Claire.” He stood, weaving through the chairs, and crouched in front of me, putting his hands on my knees. “That nerve ball isn’t you. It’s just this thing that lives in your head, telling you lies. If you get rid of it . . . think of what you could do. Think of what you could be.”

“But what if . . . what if I go on medication and it makes me into this flat, dull person?” I said, choking a little.

“It’s not supposed to do that. But if it does, you’ll try something else.” His hands squeezed my knees. “And can you really tell me ‘flat’ is that much different from how you feel now?”

I didn’t say anything. Most of the time I was so close to falling into the darkest, emptiest place inside me that I just tried to feel nothing at all. So the only difference between this and some kind of flat, medicated state was that I knew I could still go there if I needed to, even if I wouldn’t. And that place, I had told myself, was where the real me was. Where the art was, too.

But maybe—maybe that wasn’t where it was. I was so convinced that changing my brain would take away my art, but maybe it would give me new art. Maybe without the little monster in my mind, I could actually do more, not less. It was probably equally likely. But I believed more in my possible doom than my possible healing.

“It’s okay to want to feel better.” He touched my hand.

I didn’t know why—they were such simple words, but they pierced me the way music did these days. Like a needle in my sternum, penetrating to my heart. I didn’t bother to blink away my tears. Instead of pulling myself back from them, back from sensation entirely, I let myself sink into it. I let the pain in.

“But how can I feel better now?” I covered my eyes. “How can I ever . . . ever feel better if you die?”

I was sobbing the way he had sobbed in the car with me, holding on to his hands, which were still on top of my legs. He slipped his fingers between mine and squeezed.

“Because,” he said. “You just have to.”

“Who says?” I demanded, scowling at him. “Who says I have to feel anything?”

“I do. I chose you for one of my last visitors because . . . I wanted one last chance to tell you that you’re worth so much more than your pain.” He ran his fingers over my bent knuckles. “You can carry all these memories around. They’ll last longer than your grief, I promise, and someday you’ll be able to think of them and feel like I’m right there with you again.”

“You might not be correctly estimating my capacity for grief,” I said, laughing through a sob. “Pro-level moper right here.”

“Some people might leave you,” he said, for once ignoring a joke in favor of something real. “But it doesn’t mean you’re worth leaving. It doesn’t mean that at all.”

I didn’t quite believe him. But I almost did.

“Don’t go,” I whispered.

After that, I carried him back to the ocean, the ripples reflecting the moon, where we had treaded water after jumping off the cliff. The water had filled my shoes, which were now heavy on my feet, making it harder to stay afloat.

“You have makeup all over your face,” he said, laughing a little. “You look like you got punched in both eyes.”

“Yeah, well, your nipples are totally showing through that shirt.”

“Claire Lowell, are you checking out my nipples?”


We laughed together, the laughs echoing over the water. Then I dove at him, not to dunk him—though he flinched like that’s what he expected—but to wrap my arms around his neck. He clutched at me, holding me, arms looped around my back, fingers tight in the bend of my waist.

“I’ll miss you,” I said, looking down at him. Pressed against him like this, I was paper again, eggshell and sugar glass and autumn leaf. How had I not noticed this feeling the first time through?

It was the most powerful thing I had felt in days, weeks, months.

“It was a good story, right?” he said. “Our story, I mean.”

“The best.”

He pressed a kiss to my jaw, and with his cheek still against mine he whispered, “You know I love you, right?”

And then he stopped treading water, pulling us down into the waves together.

When I woke in the hospital room, an unfamiliar nurse took the IV needle from my arm and pressed a strip of tape to a cotton ball in the crook of my elbow. Dr. Albertson came in to make sure I had come out of the procedure with my faculties intact. I stared at her blue fingernails to steady myself as she talked, as I talked, another little dance.

The second she said I could go, I did, leaving my useless sweatshirt behind, like Cinderella with her glass slipper. And maybe, I thought, she hadn’t left it so the prince would find her . . . but because she was in such a hurry to escape the pain of never getting what she wanted that she didn’t care what she lost in the process.

It was almost sunrise when I escaped the hospital, out of a side exit so I wouldn’t run into any of Matt’s family. I couldn’t stand the thought of going home, so instead I drove to the beach and parked in the lot where I had once brought Matt to see the storm. This time, though, I was alone, and I had that strange, breathless feeling in my chest, like I was about to pass out.

My mind had a refrain for moments like these. Feel nothing, it said. Feel nothing and it will be easier that way.

Burrow down, it said, and cover yourself in earth. Curl into yourself to stay warm, it said, and pretend the rest of the world is not moving. Pretend you are alone, underground, where pain can’t reach you.

Sightless eyes staring into the dark. Heartbeat slowing. A living corpse is better than a dying heart.

The problem with that refrain was that once I had burrowed, I often couldn’t find my way out, except on the edge of a razor, which reached into my numbness and brought back sensation.

But it struck me, as I listened to the waves, that I didn’t want to feel nothing for Matt. Not even for a little while. He had earned my grief, at least, if that was the only thing I had left to give him.

I stretched out a shaky hand for my car’s volume buttons, jabbing at the plus sign until music poured out of the speakers. The right album was cued up, of course, the handbells and electric guitar jarring compared to the soft roar of the ocean.

I rested my head on the steering wheel and listened to “Traditional Panic” as the sun rose.

My cell phone woke me, the ring startling me from sleep. I had fallen asleep sitting up in my car with my head on the steering wheel. The sun was high now, and I was soaked with sweat from the building heat of the day. I glanced at my reflection in the rearview mirror as I answered, and the stitching from the wheel was pressed deep into my forehead. I rubbed it to get rid of the mark.

“What is it, Mom?” I said.

“Are you still at the hospital?”

“No, I fell asleep in the parking lot by the beach.”

“Is that sarcasm? I can’t tell over the phone.”

“No, I’m serious. What’s going on?”

“I’m calling to tell you they finished the surgery,” she said. “Matt made it through. They’re still not sure that he’ll wake up, but it’s a good first step.”

“He . . . what?” I said, squinting into the bright flash of the sun on the ocean. “But the analytics . . .”

“Statistics aren’t everything, sweetie. In ‘ten to one,’ there’s always a ‘one,’ and this time, we got him.”

It’s a strange thing to be smiling so hard it hurts your face, and sobbing at the same time.

“Are you okay?” Mom said. “You went quiet.”

“No,” I said. “Not really, no.”

No one ever told me how small antidepressants were, so it was kind of a shock when I tipped them into my palm for the first time.

How was I so afraid of such a tiny thing, such a pretty, pale green color? How was I more afraid of that little pill than I was of the sobbing fit that took me to my knees in the shower?

But in his way, he had asked me to try. Just try.

And he loved me. Maybe he just meant he loved me like a friend, or a brother, or maybe he meant something else. There was no way for me to know. What I did know was that love was a tiny firefly in the distance, blinking on right when I needed it to. Even in his forced sleep, his body broken by the accident and mended by surgery after surgery, he spoke to me.

Just try.

So I did, as we all waited to see if he would ever wake up. I tried just enough to get the chemicals into my mouth. I tried just enough to drive myself to the doctor every week, to force myself not to lie when she asked me how I felt. To eat meals and take showers and endure summer school. To wake myself up after eight hours of sleep instead of letting sleep swallow me for the entire summer.

When I spoke to the doctor about my last visitation, all I could talk about was regret. The last visitation had showed me things I had never noticed before, even though they seemed obvious, looking back. There were things I should have told him in case he didn’t wake up. All I could do now was hope that he already knew them.

But he did wake up.

He woke up during the last week of summer, when it was so humid that I changed shirts twice a day just to stay dry. The sun had given me a freckled nose and a perpetual squint. Senior year started next week, but for me, it didn’t mean anything without him.

When Matt’s mom said it was okay for me to visit, I packed my art box into my car and drove back to the hospital. I parked by the letter F, like I always did, so I could remember later. F was for my favorite swear.

I carried the box into the building and registered at the front desk, like I was supposed to. The bored woman there printed out an ID sticker for me without even looking up. I stuck it to my shirt, which I had made myself, dripping bleach all over it so it turned reddish orange in places. It was my second attempt. On the first one, I had accidentally bleached the areas right over my breasts, which wasn’t a good look.

I walked slowly to Matt’s room, trying to steady myself with deep breaths. His mother had given me the number at least four times, as well as two sets of directions that didn’t make sense together. I asked at the nurses’ station, and she pointed me to the last room on the left.

Dr. Albertson was standing outside one of the other rooms, flipping through a chart. She glanced at me without recognition. She probably met so many people during last visitations that they ran together in her mind. When she turned away, I caught sight of her nails, no longer sky blue but an electric, poison green. Almost the same color that was chipping off my thumbnail. A woman after my own heart.

I entered Matt’s room. He was there, lying flat on the bed with his eyes closed. But he was only sleeping, not in a coma, I had been told. He had woken up last week, too disoriented at first for them to be sure he could still function. And then, slowly, he had returned to himself.

Apparently. I would believe it only when I saw it, and maybe not even then.

I set the box down and opened the lid. This particular project had a lot of pieces to it. I took the table where they put his food tray, and the bedside table, and I lined them up side by side. I found a plug for the speakers and the old CD player that I had bought online. It was bright purple and covered with stickers.

Sometime in the middle of this, Matt’s eyes opened and shifted to mine. He was slow to turn his head—his spine was still healing from the accident—but he could do it. His fingers twitched. I swallowed a smile and a sob in favor of a neutral expression.

“Claire,” he said, and my body thrilled to the sound of my name. He knew me. “I think I had a dream about you. Or maybe a series of dreams, in a very definite order, selected by yours truly . . .”

“Shhh. I’m in the middle of some art.”

“Oh,” he said. “Forgive me. I’m in the middle of recovering from some death.”

“Too soon,” I replied.

“Sorry. Coping mechanism.”

I sat down next to him and started to unbutton my shirt.

His eyebrows raised. “What are you doing?”

“Multitasking. I have to stick these electrodes on my chest. Remember them?” I held up the electrodes with the wires attached to them. They were the same ones I had used to show the art class my brain waves. “And I also want to stack the odds in my favor.”

“Stack the . . . Am I on drugs again?”

“No. If you were on drugs, would you be hallucinating me shirtless, though?” I grinned and touched one electrode to the right side of my chest and another one under it. Together they would read my heartbeat.

“No comment,” he said. “That’s a surprisingly girly bra you’re wearing.”

It was navy blue, patterned with little white and pink flowers. I had saved it all week for today, even though it was my favorite and I always wanted to wear it first after laundry day.

“Just because I don’t like dresses doesn’t mean I hate flowers,” I replied. “Okay, be quiet.”

I turned up the speakers, which were connected directly to the electrodes on my chest. My heartbeat played over them, its pulse even and steady. I breathed deep, through my nose and out my mouth. Then I turned on the CD player and set the track to the second one: “Inertia,” by Chase Wolcott.


I’m carried in a straight line toward you

A force I can’t resist; don’t want to resist

Carried straight toward you

The drums pounded out a steady rhythm, the guitars throbbed, driving a tune propulsive and circular. My heartbeat responded accordingly, picking up the longer I listened.

“Your heart,” he said. “You like the song now?”

“I told you the meds would mess with my mind,” I said softly. “I’m just getting used to them, though, so don’t get too excited. I may hate the album again someday.”

“The meds,” he repeated. “You’re on them?”

“Still adjusting the dose, but yes, I’m on them, thanks in part to the encouragement of this guy I know,” I said. “So far, side effects include headaches and nausea and a feeling that life might turn out okay after all. That last one is the peskiest.”

The dimple appeared in his cheek.

“If you think this heartbeat change is cool, I’ll show you something even more fascinating.” I turned the music off.

“Okay,” he said, eyes a little narrowed.

I stood and touched a hand to the bed next to his shoulder. My heartbeat played faster over the speakers. I leaned in close and pressed my lips lightly to his.

His mouth moved against mine, finally responding. His hand lifted to my cheek, brushed my hair back from my face. Found the curve of my neck.

My heart was like a speeding train. That thing inside me—that pulsing organ that said I was alive, I was all right, I was carving a better shape out of my own life—was the soundtrack of our first kiss, and it was much better than any music, no matter how good the band might be.

“Art,” I said as we parted, “is both vulnerable and brave.”

I sat on the edge of the bed, right next to his hip, careful. His hazel eyes followed my every movement. There wasn’t a hint of a smile on his face, in his furrowed brow.

“The last visitation is supposed to give you the chance to say everything you need to, before you lose someone,” I said. “But when I drove away from here, thinking you were about to leave me for good, I realized there was one thing I still hadn’t said.”

I pinched his blanket between my first two fingers, suddenly shy again.

Heartbeat picking up again, faster and faster. “So,” he said, quiet. “Say it, then.”

“Okay.” I cleared my throat. “Okay, I will. I will say it.”

He smiled, broad, lopsided. “Claire . . . do you love me?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I love you.”

He closed his eyes, just for a second, a soft smile forming on his lips.

“The bra is a nice touch,” he said, “but you didn’t need to stack the odds in your favor.” He smiled, if possible, even wider. “Everything has always been carrying me toward you.”

I smiled. Reached out with one hand to press play on the CD player. Eased myself next to him on the hospital bed, careful not to hurt him.

He ran his fingers over my hair, drew my lips to his again. Quiet, no need for words, we listened to “Inertia” on repeat.

“I didn’t come here to skewer you,” she said, low and throaty. “Unless you give me a reason.”

She uncurled her fingers so the weapon would retract. It made a click click click as all the gears shifted, but she still heard its low hum as she brought her hands up by her ears to show she meant no harm.

She was in a bar. A dirty, hot one that smelled like smoke and sweat. The floor was covered in a layer of stale peanut shells, and every surface she laid a hand on was sticky. She had busted her way in the locked door a minute or two earlier, since it was much too early for the place to be open to customers, just shy of 10:00 a.m.

The only person inside it wasn’t human—which wasn’t a big deal, unless they were trying to pretend to be one. Right now they were standing behind the bar with a rag in hand, as if it stood a chance against the grime.

“Not afraid of getting skewered by some kid,” they said. If she hadn’t been who she was, she would have called them an average man, even a boring one. Their face was rough with a salt-and-pepper beard, and there was grease under their—very human-looking—fingernails. But they had all the telltale signs of digital skin: flickering when their eyes moved, a still chest, and a shifty quality, like they didn’t belong in their body.

“That’s too bad,” she said. “I find a healthy amount of fear improves somebody’s likelihood of survival.”

Flickering, flickering, as their eyes moved.

“What can we do to improve yours, then?” they said.

She smiled, all teeth. “Why don’t you take off your little costume so I can get a good look at you?”

The ET shrugged. Twice. The first time was a human shrug, a Whatever, if you insist. The second time was a bigger one, to shuffle off its digital skin.

For a time, as a kid, she’d thought the skin was just a projection, like a hologram. But Mom had explained that wouldn’t work—if it was a bigger creature, it would get itself into trouble that way—knock glasses off countertops, hit its head on doorframes, jab people with a spiked tail, whatever. The digital skin was more like . . . stuffing some of its matter into an alternate dimension. The skin was real, but it also wasn’t. The ET was here, but it was also someplace else.

She didn’t have to understand the science of it, anyhow. She just had to know what to look for.

The ET burst out of its skin like stuffing coming out of a busted couch cushion. Matter bubbled up from the split, gelatinous and glowing purple-blue. For a second it just looked like a heap of purple crap, but then it started to take shape, a massive torso that oozed into squat legs, a bulging head without a neck to hold it up. And stuck on the front of that head like sequins from a Bedazzler, a dozen shiny black eyes.

The smell hit her next, like a cross between stinkbug and sulfur. It was lucky Atleigh had come across a few purpuramorphs last year, because she knew to keep her face passive. They were harmless unless you commented on or otherwise reacted to their stench. Then things could get ugly.

Well. Uglier.

“Thanks for obliging,” Atleigh said. “You know, most ETs don’t bother to wear a digital skin unless they’ve got something to hide.”

She lowered her weapon, slow, and slid it back into the holster on her belt.

“What is it that you want, kid?” the purpuramorph asked her, in a low rumble, almost subvocal. Purpuramorphs were one of the few offplanet races that didn’t need some kind of tech to speak like a human. Their vocal cords—buried somewhere in that purple mush—were actually similar to her own, somehow.

Atleigh took her phone out of her pocket and lit it up. On the screen was a picture of a woman with long hair—the same auburn color as Atleigh’s own. She had deep lines in her forehead, and a glint in her murky green eyes, like she was telling you to get to the goddamn point.

“You seen her? She was in here last week sometime.”

A dozen glittering eyes swiveled toward the phone, and Atleigh schooled her features into neutrality as a wave of odor washed over her, so pungent it almost made her eyes water.

“And if I have?”

“I just need to know if you spotted her talking to anybody,” Atleigh said.

“My customers are guaranteed a certain level of discretion,” the purpuramorph said. “I can’t go violating that just because some little girl asks me to.”

Atleigh’s smile turned into more of a gritted-teeth situation.

“First of all, I’m a little girl who can make your insides come out of you before you even notice it’s happening,” she said. “And second, that woman is my mom, and she’s dead now, so if you don’t tell me who she was talking to, I might do something out of grief that we’ll both later regret, get me?”

She rested the heel of her hand on the holster at her side.

“So what’s it gonna be?” she said. “Carrot, or stick? Because I gotta tell you . . .” She drew the modified gun, hooked her middle finger in the metal loop just under the barrel, and tugged on it so the mechanism extended the needle again. Click click click. “I’m pretty fond of the stick, myself.”

A couple of minutes later, Atleigh slid into the driver’s side of an old green Volvo, patted the urn buckled into the seat next to her, and started the engine. She knew exactly where she was headed next.

Atleigh Kent was a bounty hunter, and her bounty was exclusively leeches.

Not all extraterrestrials were leeches—in fact, 99.9 percent of them weren’t. Most of the ETs who settled on Earth were decent enough, and made things more interesting. When Atleigh saw pictures of the way her planet had been when there were only humans on it, she was always struck by how boring it was, all the same texture, like a bowl of plain oatmeal. It was better now, with beings of all shapes and sizes and colors, hearing half a dozen languages burbling or beeping or buzzing when you walked down the street.

She mostly dealt in the ones who had something to hide. Digital skin was illegal for a reason—mostly people wore it when they were on the run from something. But leeches . . .

Well. Leeches were a different story. They were a predatory race. They attached their silvery, centipede-like bodies to a person’s spinal cord and took control of their body and brain. As long as they kept the back of their neck covered, they could pass for human perfectly, absorbing the host body’s knowledge and experiences and integrating it into their new, joint self.

Meanwhile, the host suffered in silence, suppressed by the alien until they apparently fizzled out of existence. If the alien was attached too long, and then detached, the person was just a vegetable. Their bodies could go on living, if cared for, but their minds were gone.

All the alien races were vulnerable to leeches, but none more than human beings, their ideal prey. The easiest hosts to suppress, for whatever reason.

It had happened to Atleigh’s father. He—well, it hadn’t really been him, but they hadn’t known that at the time—had lived among them for weeks, dodging their mother and pretending at fatherhood. Then their mom had discovered the thing on their dad’s neck, and tried to stab it with a kitchen knife, and he had bailed.

They had gone on the hunt, as a family, the two little girls too young to remember much before the endless road trip their childhood turned into. Their mom had learned everything she could about the thing that had claimed her husband. It had taken her years to find him, in a lonely gas station in Iowa. Then she had ripped the thing off his spinal cord and gutted it. But their dad never came back to himself.

Atleigh had helped dig his grave, right there on the side of the road, by the mile marker, so they would always know where to find him. And since that day, she had been determined to save the human race, one leech at a time.

Lacey Kent’s hand went to her throat, to the buttons that fastened her collar closed. Just checking on them, as she had done a dozen times in the past ten minutes as she waited for the shuttle to reach the station.

There weren’t many students on the shuttle from the American Selenic Military Academy, and none that Lacey knew personally. A few teachers—including the famously volatile arachnoid, Mr. Zag—a few parents visiting ailing or troublesome children, a couple of fulguvore emissaries from their home planet, and of course, Lacey herself. She was in her sixth year, a secondary school transfer, so she didn’t quite have the posture that the lifers had—she could stand up straight, sure, but when no one was looking, she sagged like an old tree.

“Headed home, Ms. Kent?” Mr. Zag’s metallic voice asked. Arachnoids spoke through a complex system of pincer-clicking that no human had yet been able to decipher, so Zag had a voice box hanging from his pedicle. Even though the voice was computer-generated, Lacey thought she could hear some judgment in it. After all, she was going home in the middle of a semester.

“Yes, sir,” Lacey said. “My mother just died.”

“My condolences.” Zag’s pincers were clicking. Lacey had never gotten used to the sound. She hadn’t been in Zag’s class since her first year at the academy, but she still shivered when he spoke to her, the response Pavlovian. “Though perhaps it is some relief that you will not have to tell her—”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Lacey said, cutting him off. She didn’t want to hear about all the things she wouldn’t have to tell her mother now, because it just reminded her of what she wouldn’t get to tell her.

Zag’s multiple eyes blinked at her, but he seemed to get the hint, and fell silent.

Finally the chime went off for docking, and Lacey went to the window to look down at Peoria, Illinois, one of the shuttle’s few stops. Peoria had once been home to a major machinery manufacturer that had later moved to the Chicago area. The population of the city had dwindled almost dangerously until the local government made a bid for one of the space academies. Now, by all accounts, Peoria was booming.

Lacey didn’t care much about the city either way. She wasn’t from there—wasn’t from anywhere, really, unless you counted the back of her mom’s old Jeep. Her official place of birth was a town in Minnesota, and even that was just a word she wrote on official papers, not a place she felt much tied to.

She spotted the wide stretch of the Illinois River, the bridge that spanned across it, and a cluster of low buildings before the shuttle docked at the station. Then she was heaving her bag—packed carefully so nothing would wrinkle—over one shoulder, and walking through the doors to search out her sister.

Atleigh wasn’t hard to find. Most families of human military students were downright proper, moneyed, all pressed collar shirts and shoes that made snapping sounds on tile. Atleigh was wearing dusty black boots—one with the laces fraying so the top of the boot was flappy around her calf—blue jeans, and a red plaid shirt over a gray T-shirt with a few holes in it. She had chopped off all her hair, so it was like a boy’s, with a wave in the front where it was a little longer. She was pretty without meaning to be, freckled by the sun, and taking too big a bite out of a Snickers bar, so it bulged in her cheek.

Nearby, a pair of uptight-looking primusars draped in diamond necklaces were giving her sideways glances—not subtle when you had stalk eyes that swiveled.

When she spotted Lacey, Atleigh grinned, and pulled herself off the pillar she had been leaning against. The two girls collided somewhere in the space between them, Atleigh’s hug “so tight the bears were jealous,” as their mom said.

Well, she wouldn’t be saying it anymore.

The sudden awareness of what she had lost—what they had both lost—kept hitting Lacey out of nowhere. She’d go along feeling all right, and then open a medicine cabinet and wham, her mom’s name was on the bottle of painkillers Lacey took for bad cramps sometimes. Or wham, she pulled on the black running shoes Mom had bought her for school.

The color of Atleigh’s hair, and the creases at the corners of her eyes.

“Wow,” Lacey said. And then, to cover it up: “Your hair’s gone.”

“Yup,” Atleigh said. She had swallowed the giant bite of Snickers, somehow. “Supposed to be a hot summer, so I thought I’d get ahead of it.”

Knowing Atleigh, that had nothing to do with the decision, but Lacey wasn’t going to pry.

“I’d offer to take your bag, but I don’t want to let those military school muscles go to waste.” Atleigh grinned. “C’mon, let’s get going.”

“How’s the car holding up?”

“Had to sell it.”

“What about the Jeep?”

Atleigh snorted. “Not gonna drive that gas guzzler on a perpetual cross-country road trip. It’s parked someplace outside Lansing. You can have it when you graduate, if you want it.”

Lacey followed Atleigh to a green Volvo with a rusty bumper. She opened the back door to throw her bag inside, and saw the urn buckled into one of the seats.


“Time for one last road trip, I guess,” Atleigh remarked as she started the engine. And that was all either of them said about the catastrophic emptiness between them.

“We are not having this conversation,” Atleigh had said to her mother, a few weeks before her passing.

“Yes, we are,” Chloe Kent said with a grave nod. “It doesn’t have to be so hard. I want my ashes to be scattered at sea. There! That’s basically the whole conversation.”

“No,” Atleigh said, pointing a finger at her. “Because you’re not gonna die. You’ll get old, and there’ll be some kind of life-prolonging technology that will keep you going until the two of us are both ready to go. That’s how it’s gonna work. Hear me?”

Chloe grabbed Atleigh’s finger in her fist, and smiled.

They were in an Applebee’s, one of the oldest surviving chain restaurants on Earth. A plate of lukewarm mozzarella sticks was between them. The chipper waitress had just come by to make sure they were all right, to which they had both responded, waspishly, at the same moment: “Fine, thanks.”

“I don’t want tech like that,” Chloe said. She wore her hair in a braid that hung over one shoulder. She was old enough to go gray, but she hadn’t yet, and maybe she never would—Atleigh was hoping, anyway, because what happened to Chloe always ended up happening to her, in time. “When it’s my time to go, I want to go. And I want my girls to learn how to deal with it better than I dealt with losing your dad.”

Chloe sucked down the last of her iced tea. Sweetened with half a dozen sugar packets mixed in until they dissolved through the force of Chloe’s will alone.

“All right,” Atleigh said, a little unsteadily. Her finger was still caught in her mother’s hand. “At sea, then.”

“And then I want you girls to take a little vacation. At least a couple days. Go sailing.”

“Sailing?” Atleigh groaned. “What next, you want us to dress up in preppy polo shirts with the collars popped and scarves in our hair?”

“Absolutely.” Chloe wore her most gleeful smile. “My girls, dressed like proper southern ladies. I’ll laugh at you from the beyond.”

“My hairpin will secretly be a blade,” Atleigh said. “And the popped collar will be hiding an absurdly large throat tattoo.”

“You don’t have a throat tattoo.”

“I’m going to get one when you die, obviously,” Atleigh said. “Absurdly large. A heart with an arrow through it. Maybe some angel wings.”

“Don’t you dare. No daughter of mine would ever get such a cliché tattoo.”

Atleigh smirked.

“Honestly,” Chloe said, turning serious again. “I don’t care what you wear, but go sailing, scatter my ashes, and remember what life is. Two days. Okay? That’s all.”

“Okay,” Atleigh agreed. “But, you know. Try not to die.”

“Deal.” Chloe let go of Atleigh’s finger.

“First stop?” Lacey asked her. She was poking the keychain charm that hung from the rearview mirror. It was cheap metal, that yellow-gold color that shows up exclusively at gas stations and airport kiosks, and depicted the three fates. “Spinners,” Mom had called them, because they were passing thread to each other, one with the spindle, one measuring out the length, and the third cutting it. Birth, life, and death.

It had hung in Mom’s car so long Lacey had stopped noticing it. It looked out of place in Atleigh’s.

“Gotta go through Nashville. I have some things to do there while we’re in the area,” Atleigh said.

Lacey narrowed her eyes.

“Nashville is not ‘in the area,’” she said. “It’s hours out of our way.”

“We’re gonna have to stay overnight someplace anyway, so does it matter whether it takes us twelve hours or seventeen?” Atleigh said, scowling a little.

“What do you have to do in Nashville that can’t wait until after?”

“I don’t stop needing cash just because somebody dies, okay?” Atleigh snapped. “I got a job down there. The usual thing. But I can’t lose any momentum—not without Mom’s help getting work.”

“You have to be kidding me,” Lacey said. “This isn’t just somebody dying. This is Mom.”

“Aw, gee, I sure am glad you reminded me, because otherwise I woulda forgot.” Atleigh was leaning hard into the mild accent they had both picked up in childhood. They had spent a lot of time in the rural parts of the Midwest then, and there was a distinct twang there that had proved unshakeable. Atleigh only twanged when she was getting really angry. “I told you, I have to do this. Okay? And since I’m the one driving—”

“It’s not like I don’t know how to drive—”

“And since this is my car, which I paid for with my own goddamned money while you were off with a bunch of fancy astronauts at your ritzy space academy—”

“Oh, here we go.” Lacey rolled her eyes. “It always comes back to me going to school. What did you want me to do, stay with you forever, hunting down aliens for cash?”

Atleigh shook her head, and went quiet.

And it was somehow worse, because it meant that she had wanted Lacey to stay with her forever, but she just couldn’t admit it.

They made it to Nashville that night around eight o’clock, and Atleigh went that whole way without talking to Lacey once. She only broke the silence to ask Lacey if she was hungry, and pulled into a McDonald’s. That in itself was a peace offering—McDonald’s was Lacey’s fast food of choice. Atleigh’s was Wendy’s.

They sat on the hood of the car to eat, the same way they always did, even in the winter. Atleigh hated the way the tables inside fast food places felt—tacky, like they were never really clean. One time they had wolfed down chicken sandwiches in the middle of an Indiana snowstorm.

“So how many are you up to this year?” Lacey asked. She figured it was a safe question. Atleigh was always ready to talk about leeches.

“Ten,” Atleigh said. She stuffed a few fries in her mouth at once.



“Damn. You’re a machine.”

Atleigh grunted a little, and chewed. Under normal circumstances Lacey would already have been teasing her for rooting around in the fry container like a pig hunting for truffles, but she felt weird doing that now. And not even because of their argument, but because she had left. She had chosen something other than leeches. Other than Atleigh, and Mom, and even Dad. And it just wasn’t the same anymore.

“Want me to look up a place for us to stay?”

Atleigh shook her head. “I got us an Airbnb.”

“You . . . what?”

“You may not have realized this, Lace,” Atleigh said, stuffing her burger wrapper and empty fry container in the McDonald’s bag. “But motels . . . are gross.”

“Yeah, I know! That’s why I always sleep on top of one of my old shirts when we stay in them,” Lacey said, hopping down from the hood. “I just didn’t think you would plan ahead.”

“The name of the place is ‘Cozy Country Cottage,’ so don’t get too excited about it,” Atleigh said. She balled up the McDonald’s bag and tossed it in a nearby garbage can. “No place with alliteration in the title can possibly be any good.”

It wasn’t a great spot, as it turned out, but Atleigh had stayed in worse. She had slept in the back of the Volvo once when she found a peephole in a motel wall. She had gotten flea bites from unwashed bedsheets, and uncovered bloodstains under motel sofas. So the smaller-and-dingier-than-advertised Cozy Country Cottage wasn’t so bad by comparison.

Atleigh told Lacey she was going to a meeting about a bounty, and left her at the cottage to settle in on her own. Then she drove out to the ET hideout that Gelatinous Gary (her nickname for the purpuramorph she had threatened just outside Peoria) had told her about. It was even more innocuous than their usual haunts: an old house-turned-coffee-shop with creaky floors and frilly curtains on the windows.

The young woman who smiled at her from behind the counter was flickering like a candle in the wind. Definitely digital skin, no question. She must have been newly settled, because most of them didn’t give it away so easy.

“What can I get for you?” she said.

“I’m looking for a leech who was in here a couple weeks ago,” Atleigh said. The young woman looked alarmed.

“Leech?” she said. “What—”

“Listen, Riley,” Atleigh said, eyeing the woman’s name tag. “I’m really tired, and I’m not in the mood for the whole rigamarole. I’m not here to get anyone in trouble, I just want to know about a guy.”

Riley looked at her for a few seconds, then the friendly expression she had worn when Atleigh walked in fell away, and she crossed her arms.

“The way Violet talked about you, I thought you’d be bigger,” Riley said.

Atleigh registered a moment of shock that Gelatinous Gary was actually named Violet—such a lovely name for such an unlovely thing.

“It’s the shoes,” Atleigh said dryly. Hidden under the flannel shirt she wore, pressed up against her spine, was the needleknife she would need if things went sour. And, judging by the hard look on Riley’s face, that was a distinct possibility. Whatever Riley was under that digital skin, Atleigh was pretty sure it wasn’t a purpuramorph.

“What is it you want to know?” Riley said. One of her hands was hidden under the counter. Not a good sign. Atleigh started moving her hand back, casual-like, toward her weapon.

“The leech was attached to the body of a middle-aged gentleman,” Atleigh said. “A scout. He goes looking for solid hosts, get it? And the others suck down on who he tells them.”

“If I had known someone like that was in here, I would have been legally obligated to report it,” Riley said coolly. “So are you accusing me of breaking the law?”

“Sure, but not in a mean way.” Atleigh’s voice softened. “Because you gotta get by, right? So you’ll do what you have to do, even if you don’t like it. I understand. I’ve done a lot of things I don’t like, Riley.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Riley said, matching Atleigh’s soft tone with one of her own. “From the look of you, girl, you’ve enjoyed every second of what you’ve done to my kind.”

She shrugged off her skin, and what was under it was the exact same—except for the glint of silver at the back of Riley’s neck.


Atleigh swore, and drew her needleknife. It was like an ice pick, but with a slimmer handle, to accommodate Atleigh’s skinny fingers. Mom had gotten it for her two years ago, for her birthday, and she had skewered more than one leech with it without hesitating.

She swung it without hesitating now, her arm curved so she would hit the back of the neck. But Riley was fast, blocking the blow with her forearm and then grabbing at Atleigh’s wrist. Her other hand went up to Atleigh’s throat, but Atleigh had the presence of mind to block that, so they were clutched together in some kind of two-handed arm-wrestling contest, the countertop between them.

Atleigh knew from the first moment that she wasn’t as strong as Riley—that was just something you figured out when you first came to blows with somebody. So after a second of grunting with effort, she decided her best course of action was to run like hell. She let go of Riley’s arm and twisted into the thumb part of the leech’s grip, so it would break easier.

She got away, but only for a second. Riley hopped over the counter like she did that sort of thing professionally, and grabbed Atleigh by her shirt collar. The shirt ripped, and Atleigh spun around to try with the needleknife again, this time blindly stabbing at whatever flesh was nearest. The needleknife stuck in Riley’s wrist, and she yanked it free, watching the blood dance across the leech’s arm.

Riley screamed her rage, and punched Atleigh right in the face. Atleigh stumbled back, blinded for a second by pain, and struggled toward the door. But Riley was on top of her again, tackling her so they both fell on the creaky floor. Atleigh elbowed and scratched, mostly hitting nothing, and Riley was on top of her, her arm a bar across Atleigh’s throat and her hands grabbing at the needleknife.

Atleigh did the only thing she could think of: she threw the needleknife behind her, so it was out of arm’s reach for both of them. Riley let up, and sprung like a cat toward the weapon, giving Atleigh room to run. She made a break for it, eyes on the back door. A couple of steps into her getaway, she felt heat on her side, a cut from the needleknife.

It was good she hadn’t told Lacey where she was really going, Atleigh thought. Now Lacey wouldn’t have to find her body. Atleigh had found Mom’s, and she wouldn’t have wished that on anyone.

Only the killing blow didn’t come. Atleigh was down, on her hands and knees, clutching at the wound in her side. She turned to see someone else bringing a blade down on Riley’s spine, chopping the leech attached to her neck in half. Clean. Nice, sharp knife. Silvery blood oozed from the cleaved thing, and Riley fell.

Standing over the body, wearing all black except for those stupid polka-dot laces he always insisted on, was a young man. Eighteen, or nineteen, maybe. She had asked, once, and he didn’t know. His ancestry was at least half Korean—he didn’t know how much, either—and he was smirking at her.

Eon was his name.

“Don’t give me that look,” she said, collapsing to the ground with her hand against her side. Her entire body felt like it was on fire. “I was totally handling it.”

“Oh yeah, I can see that,” he said. He was cleaning his weapon with a handkerchief. He had an endless supply of handkerchiefs, all of them black cotton. “How’s that wound?”

“Shallow,” she said. “Her left hook was worse.”

He sheathed the blade and bent to pick up her weapon, still half-clutched in Riley’s hand.

“You gotta end it,” Atleigh said, nodding to Riley. The woman’s eyes were still open, her chest still rising and falling. He had killed the leech attached to her body, but he hadn’t killed the body. He never did.

“I always want to believe they’ll come back,” he said, shaking his head. He bent over Riley’s host and—shifting so Atleigh would be shielded from the sight—stuck her with the needleknife. Atleigh knew where it went—in the meaty part of the shoulder and down, into the heart.

By the time he turned back to her, the weapon was clean, and his smirk was back.

“So are you stalking me, or what?” Atleigh grunted, panting.

“I followed up on some intel and it led me here, same as you,” Eon said. “Fireman, or bridal?”


“I’m going to pick you up, and we’re going to get the hell out of here before either more leeches or clandestine-government types with debriefing obligations show up,” he said. “We can call it in later. So do you want me to pick you up fireman style, or bridal style?”

“I can’t actually decide what’s more humiliating,” she said. She thought of Eon holding her over his shoulder, his hand right at the top of her thigh and his face next to her ass, and cringed.

“Bridal, go for bridal.”

The door hit the wall of the Cozy Country Cottage, and Lacey lurched to her feet, grabbed a knife from the butcher block on the counter, and held it at the ready.

“The family resemblance is uncanny,” the man holding Atleigh against his chest said, drily. Lacey saw blood streaking her sister’s side, and lowered her knife.

“What happened?” she said.

“Got in a fight I couldn’t win,” Atleigh said. She sounded steady enough. Lacey moved a wilting houseplant off the kitchen island, clearing a space for the man to set Atleigh down. She wasn’t eager to search the Airbnb’s cupboards for first aid, so she went out to the car instead, casting a backward glance at the man lowering her sister to the countertop.

The first-aid kit was in the trunk, where it always was. Lacey jogged a little to get back to the house faster. The man seemed to know Atleigh—and since when did Atleigh know tall, handsome men?—but it didn’t hurt to be careful.

“Lace, this is Eon,” Atleigh said when she got back into the kitchen. The man—Eon—was lifting the hem of Atleigh’s shirt. And as Lacey watched . . . he flickered.

Like he was wearing digital skin.

“Hands off, buddy,” Lacey said. “I can take it from here.”

She went to the sink and started washing her hands. Eon stepped back, showing his palms.

“What kind of name is Eon?” she said.

“What kind of name is Lacey?” he replied. “Are you a doily?”

Atleigh laughed softly. Lacey wasn’t amused. She turned back to Atleigh, who had peeled her blood-soaked tank top away from the wound, showing a pale stretch of side. Eon was arranging the contents of the first-aid kit in order of what Lacey would need: antiseptic and cotton balls, butterfly bandages, gauze, and medical tape.

“Eon was helping Mom out with a case when . . . you know,” Atleigh said. “He’s in the business.”

“Yeah?” Lacey squeezed some antiseptic on a cotton ball. “And why, exactly, is he wearing skin?”

She stuck the cotton ball up against Atleigh’s wound, not so gently. Atleigh cursed, and Lacey eased up a little, wiping the scratch clean. It was deep, but not deep enough to need stitches, thank God. Lacey wasn’t good at those.

She looked at Atleigh, and then at Eon, eyebrows raised.

“You weren’t kidding,” Eon said. “She’s got good eyes.”

“Always has,” Atleigh said. “Lace—”

“I like to get to know people before I let them see me naked,” Eon said to Lacey, leaning into the counter. “I’ve known your family for two years, Lacey. You think you’re the first one to notice I’m wearing this?”

He had a point, Lacey thought. Mom and Atleigh wouldn’t have let him stick around if he was the dangerous kind of ET. She bent down low to apply the butterfly bandage, tugging the two edges of Atleigh’s skin together as close as she could manage.

“Sorry,” she said.

“No big,” he said. “I know it’s suspicious behavior.”

He was a lot to take in at once. His cheekbones alone were head-turning. And then there were his dark, expressive eyes, and, when he took off his leather jacket . . .

Lacey forced herself to focus on positioning the gauze over the wound. Eon had torn off strips of medical tape and stuck them to the edge of the counter for her to use. He was rummaging in the freezer for some ice.

“I’ll get you a shirt,” she said to Atleigh.

She went into the bedroom to root around in Atleigh’s bag for something clean, and when she turned back, she saw Eon helping Atleigh up, his hand pressing to the small of her back to hold her upright. He held a dish towel full of ice to her cheek, and Atleigh rolled her eyes at him.

The way he looked at her, it was like he didn’t care if anyone else in the world existed. But that didn’t bother Lacey so much as the way Atleigh looked back—her eyes catching on every movement he made.

“It wasn’t just a job, obviously,” Atleigh said.

Lacey sat on the couch, her arms folded. Eon was on the floor, cross-legged, his big toe poking out of one of his socks. The socks had little dinosaurs on them.

“Yeah,” Lacey said. “I figured.”

“I’ve been tracking Mom’s killer,” Atleigh said. “He’s a leech scout. I went to ask the woman who runs a skin bar around here about him.” A “skin bar” was a place where an ET—or a human, but not many bothered—could buy digital skin without the authorities finding out. “Only I guess I should have known that a woman running a skin bar who knows things about leech scouts would probably be a leech herself.”

“And you, what?” Lacey said to Eon. “Just happened to be there?”

“I was finishing the job. Chloe’s last job,” Eon said. Atleigh couldn’t remember when she’d last seen him this casual, sitting around in his dinosaur socks and a T-shirt. She absolutely did not notice how his bicep strained against the fabric of said T-shirt, at all. “Following the same trail Atleigh was, just three minutes later.”

“Where were you when she died?” Lacey said, her voice sounding a little thick.

“We got two different locations for where the scout might be,” Eon said. “I went with Atleigh to one, and Chloe went alone to the other.”

Something gnawed at Atleigh’s stomach. She and Eon had gone all cavalier to some pile of rubble in the middle of nowhere, thinking they would take the leech by surprise. And there had been no one there. Nothing.

And if they hadn’t split up . . . if they hadn’t believed Chloe when she said she could handle it on her own . . .

No woulda-coulda-shouldas, Mom had always said. There was no looking back when you did what they did. It just drove you nuts. That was where the Spinners had come in, because you didn’t get to decide to be born, or when, or how long you lived, or when you died. You had to leave that up to the women with the thread.

“You can’t think that way,” Lacey said. “I wasn’t there either, At. And who knows, if you had gone, maybe it’d be your urn in the back seat, and Mom wishing she could unravel time, instead.”

“Yeah.” Atleigh blinked away tears, and brought the ice up to her cheek again to distract herself. “Well anyway, the trail’s gone cold, and I’m not sure we’ll ever find that leech asshole.”

“Well.” Eon picked at the toe of his sock. “That trail is cold.”

Lacey and Atleigh both stared at him.

“Okay, it’s possible I only came to Nashville because I knew you would come to Nashville,” Eon said to Atleigh. “Really, I was on my way to Durham, and I thought you might want to come along.”

“Durham,” Atleigh said. “The entire eastern seaboard at his fingertips, and that piece of shit goes to Durham?”

“I hear they have good barbecue,” Eon said, shrugging.

Atleigh cradled a mug of tea to her chest. It was a cool night, but somehow still muggy, like she was taking a bite of something every time she breathed in. She sat on the front steps, her knees drawn up as close to her chest as the wound in her side would allow.

“Hey,” Eon said. He sat down next to her on the step. He had a blanket wrapped around him. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Not really,” she said. “Not since Mom.”

Her mom had introduced her to him a year ago. It had been winter, so his black coat had been longer, and he had looked like someone out of The Matrix, combat boots and all. He had been watching a French cartoon on his laptop, eating Cap’n Crunch out of the box. She had noticed the flickering right away, but Mom said he was all right, so she didn’t question him. And he was easy to like, anyway. Teeming over with enthusiasm about every human thing he could get his hands on—not just cartoons, but any TV show he watched, and books, movies, music, art, everything. He got so hooked on The Bachelor that year that he cried at the finale. He liked speaking French better than English, he said, because he got to use his nose more. He loved hitting his funny bone. He was so much that by the time she heard the story of what he was, it was too hard to tease one thing out of the knot of him that she didn’t bother to try.

“Humans have a lot of truly useless sayings about grief,” he said. “Something about time healing, and her being in a better place—I find myself cycling through them again and again, in lieu of other words.”

“Your people don’t have anything to say about grief?” she said.

“Depends on which bodies we’ve joined with,” he said. “We don’t always have verbal language. But here?” He shook his head. “No, we don’t have words.”

“I didn’t mean to put you in a weird spot with my sister,” Atleigh said. “I wasn’t sure how to handle it when she asked you what you were.”

Eon shrugged. “We don’t have time to waste on that particular story right now.”

“Yeah.” Atleigh set her mug aside. “You handled it well, though.”

“Atleigh,” he said softly.

Something about his tone made her look at him—and really look at him, without a joke at the ready, without her eyes skipping around his face searching for some easier place to land.

Then he shrugged, and the skin fell away. Beneath it he was the same—focused brown eyes, stick-out ears, full mouth, Adam’s apple that bobbed when he was nervous. But glinting at the back of his neck was his other body, the silver streak of the leech.

He was not stifling a human host. Her mother had assured her of that, and so had he. His kind was at war with itself over the planet Earth and its inhabitants—some believed in taking what they could find, that other beings were prey and subsuming their consciousnesses was nothing. And some believed that the only body that ought to be occupied was one that had already lost its host. The boy who had been in Eon’s body, once, was named Danny. Daniel Goo, on life support in a hospital in New York City, no brain waves, just a beating heart in a body.

She tilted her head, trying to get a better look. He bent his head forward, so she could see the silver in the moonlight. The leech’s body was narrow, about the length of her hand, and pressed against the back of his neck—but it didn’t look like it was clinging to his skin, it looked like it had grown into his skin. Small tendrils stretched up, under his hairline and into his skull, and down, under the collar of his shirt where she couldn’t see what became of them. But she knew they were wrapped around his spinal cord, binding the two bodies together irrevocably.

“Do you feel it?” she said.

“The way you feel your arm in its socket, maybe,” he said.

She lifted her hand, and it quivered like a flame in the wind. She had been killing leeches her entire life. Even now, her instincts told her to do it, to cut this thing free of its human host. But no, she told herself—this was Eon. She touched the back of his neck, running her fingers over the silver streak there. It felt hard and smooth, like a shell. His breaths pulsed out, and he closed his eyes.

“Do you have a name for your own kind, at least?” she said softly. “A better one than ‘leech,’ I mean.”

She took her hand away, and he looked at her again, intently, as he always did, like she warranted every ounce of his attention.

“Symbios,” he replied. “We call ourselves ‘symbios.’”

“Nice word,” she said. She was breathless. She licked her lips. “I’m gonna do something stupid.”

Atleigh kissed him softly. And it was the breaking of a dam, the bursting of a bubble—whatever thin skin had kept them contained, ripped apart. He buried his hands in her hair, his mouth opening, and she let herself touch him, put her hands on his arms, his chest. As good as she imagined; no, better, warmer, kinder—

“Get away from her,” a cold, hard voice said from the doorway.

They broke apart. Lacey stood behind them in her school-issued pajamas—which were plain gray, of course, with black stripes at the seams—and a needleknife in her hand. She was staring at the silver on the back of Eon’s neck.

“Lace,” Atleigh said. She stood so Eon was behind her, blocking him.

“If you say ‘It’s not what you think,’ I will punch you,” Lacey said, her voice trembling. “He’s a leech, and you’re making out with him.”

“It’s different. There’s nobody else in there, just him,” Atleigh said.

“I don’t care,” Lacey said. “You make me feel terrible about leaving you, when this is what you’ve been doing without me? Cozying up to one of them?”

“I haven’t ‘been doing’ this; this is the first—” Atleigh scowled. “You know what? Yeah, I kept living my life, and you weren’t there, so don’t charge in with your judgment now, because it’s a little late!”

“Yeah? Well I may have left so I could make something more of my life than this shitty perpetual road trip,” Lacey said, eyes narrowed. “But at least I didn’t betray everything that we are by sucking face with a goddamn parasite!”

Atleigh felt heavy, suddenly, and so tired she could hardly stand upright.

“If something more than this shitty road trip is what you want, then you’d better get back to school, don’t you think?” she said. She brushed past Lacey on her way into the house, and grabbed the car keys, which she then thrust into her sister’s hands.

“Eon’s got a car, we’ll take care of the leech scout,” she said. “Just park the Volvo at the Peoria station. Leave the keys in it, nobody’ll steal it.”

“Fine,” Lacey said. Her eyes filled with tears. “Good.”

All the heat had gone out of them at once, it seemed like. Lacey pocketed the keys and started packing up her things. Eon stayed in the kitchen, with Atleigh’s empty mug, not looking at either of them. Atleigh waited on the porch to see Lacey leave.

“What do we do about Mom’s ashes?” Atleigh said stiffly. Lacey had her bag in one hand, the car keys in the other.

“You’re the one she told about how to handle them,” Lacey said. “You should be the one to scatter them.”

And she left.

The ride to Durham was quiet. Eight hours of the roar of Eon’s car engine and the low mutter of talk radio and the heat of the sun through the windshield. Atleigh spent half of it asleep, leaned up against the door with her head on a balled-up shirt. Her face throbbed from the hit she’d taken the day before, and there was a shiner on her cheek. She didn’t wear much makeup, but she made an exception after the looks she got at the first rest stop, dabbing and powdering until the bruise all but disappeared.

She didn’t know what to say to Eon. She f