Nick shrugged a jacket onto his shoulders and opened the door to his house only to find Sara Sidle standing there, her fist poised as if about to knock. She gave an awkward shrug and a smile.
“Hey,” she said.
“We’ve, uh… we’ve missed you,” she told him, sounding a bit timid.
He warmed just to look at her. “I’ve been back working with you for three weeks now.”
“Physically, maybe,” Sara agreed. “But you can’t fool me, Nick. That head of yours is far away, and it has been for a long time.”
Nick gave a curt, amused grunt. “Come to check on my head, have you?”
But she shook her head. “Wanted to make sure you were still here is all.”
Nick felt a pang, deep in his gut, and the urge to embrace her almost overwhelmed him, but he restrained himself. He was getting quite good at that. Instead, he said, “You couldn’t have called?”
“It was on my way home,” Sara replied.
“You live nowhere near here,” Nick told her.
She shrugged. “I’m staying at a friend’s.”
Something about the shine in her eye told him there was more to it than that. Nick assumed she had gone out of her way to stop by, so he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. “I was just on my way out, actually.”
“I noticed,” Sara commented, nodding at his jacket. “Where are you headed?”
He stepped out onto his porch and closed his door. “Well…” he began, choosing his words carefully. “I wanted to check on… some things.”
“Like?” Sara prompted.
Nick pursed his lips. “Look, there’s something I gotta do. But afterwards, when I’m done, why don’t we get dinner or something, and if you want to talk, we can talk.”
Shades of gray bled into the irises of Sara’s eyes. “Can I go with you? To check on these things?”
Nick squirmed. “You wouldn’t want to—”
“Because in all honesty, I’m kind of curious about how she’s doing myself.” She offered him a tiny smile. A peace offering for a war Nick didn’t remember fighting.
Nick just shook his head, looking at her. “How’d you know?”
“I have a sixth sense about these things,” she admitted. “And take it from me, that place is not somewhere you want to go alone. You’ll appreciate my company.”
Nick had to give a small, sad laugh. “I think I will.”
The drive up there didn’t take long at all, especially with Sara in the car. She was intuitive enough to know what topics to avoid discussing, and also when quiet was better than chattering. Nick was grateful that she didn’t offer any condolences or ask if he was OK. She seemed content with not knowing. Or perhaps, Nick mused, she didn’t ask because she already knew.
Sara was noticeably jittery when they entered the lobby. For a moment, Nick considered inquiring about this, but quickly remembered that she had the decency not to ask him that question, so he kept quiet. She tapped her fingers against the desk as Nick spoke with the receptionist, who got on the phone and called one of the guards.
Nick looked up at Sara. “You coming?”
Her head moved from side to side in short bursts as she bounced up and down on her feet. “I’d rather just wait for you.”
Again, Nick debated commenting on Sara’s sudden idiosyncratic behavior. She was the one who had volunteered to drive all the way out here with him, confessing curiosity after Alexa’s state. And now, she didn’t want to go in with him. Nick wondered if she’d even really wanted to come in the first place.
He asked one more time as the guard took a place beside him. “You sure?”
“I don’t really want to be in the same room as her,” Sara finally admitted.
“You’ll be speaking with her in the game room,” the guard explained to Nick. He looked at Sara. “This is a teaching hospital. We have an observation room there, with a one-way mirror, if you would like to watch.”
Sara blinked, then looked from Nick to the guard. Nick raised both his eyebrows at her, questioningly.
She seemed to have run out of excuses, so she nodded, short of breath. “All right. Sure.”
Alexa was the only person in the room when Nick entered. She looked extraordinarily different than she had on the day Nick had last seen her. She was sitting at a chess board, staring at the configuration through a pair of rectangular glasses, rimmed with black plastic. Her hair fell in yellow sheets on her shoulders and down her back. She moved a piece. Nick took a step forward.
She didn’t look up from her chessboard. “Hello, Nick.” Her voice was even and detached.
Nick nodded, slowly. “At least you recognize me.”
“Thirty-one days,” she said.
Nick hesitated. “I’m sorry?”
“Since the night I took you,” she said, moving one of her pawns. “Thirty-one days. Feels like years.”
Nick gestured at the seat across from her. “Mind if I sit down?”
Alexa frowned, then experimentally moved one of the white pawns on Nick’s side of the table. She examined the board again. “Do what you want,” she said.
There was something very disconcerting about her demeanor. She was definitely saner, calmer, and lucid and looked almost like a genius in her glasses at that chess board. But there was something else, and Nick couldn’t quite place it. And then, when he was sitting across from her and she still didn’t acknowledge his presence, he knew what it was. She had no passion. She was too calm. As if there were no emotions left in her at all.
“You look like you’re doing better.”
And then, she glanced up at him, but only for a moment, her eyes as fickle as a pair of green hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower, as if he didn’t matter to her at all. “Sure.” There were no overtones of sarcasm, or hints at discordance, however, she wasn’t enthusiastic either. It was almost as if she was just acknowledging his statement, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
“I, uh, didn’t know you wore glasses,” Nick said, at an attempt at conversation.
“Neither did I,” Alexa said, sliding her rook up. “Apparently when they were testing to see exactly how crazy I am, they discovered I had bad eyes.”
“They look good on you,” Nick told her.
Alexa’s brow furrowed again as she stared at her board. Nick thought she was trying to work out a strategy, but the frown deepened, and her mouth twisted. Finally, she lashed out with her arm and knocked all of the pieces to the ground. But as quickly as it had come, her emotion dissipated. She looked up, and though her face was set, her eyes were accusing.
“Why did you come here?”
Nick stared at the chess pieces, black and white, scattered wantonly across the floor. “Would you believe me if I told you I missed you?”
Nick pursed his lips. “I was worried about you. About how you were doing in here.”
“You need to stop worrying about me, Nick,” Alexa said. “You’ll never move on if you don’t.”
Nick shook his head. “I know, but… it’s more than that, Alexa. I can’t stop thinking about you until I know that you’re… safe. Better.”
“You still want to save me, don’t you?” she said, flatly.
Nick paused, but then he nodded. And then, for reasons he didn’t quite understand, he unexpectedly thought of Greg. He shook the thought from his mind.
“You already did.”
Nick blinked. These words should have comforted him. They should have put his mind to rest and he should have felt the tension slide away. But it wasn’t the words themselves that bothered Nick. It was the way in which she had said them. And he looked at her for a moment, this girl, this woman, sitting still at an empty chess table, looking at him through new lenses. And though he knew those eyes, those canopy eyes, and those bony shoulders and the purple scar across her cheek that mirrored his own, Nick realized that he didn’t know her at all. Alexa was calm, composed, logical and controlled, but she wasn’t real. She wasn’t alive. When she had said those words, she should have reached out. She should have taken his hand. She should have smiled at him with grateful tears in her eyes, but this woman had done none of that. Alexa had confessed this grand truth to him, if it was truth to her at all, as if she were reporting what she had eaten for lunch.
So Nick asked the obvious question. “Are you happy here?”
Those skittish hummingbirds flickered again. It should have been an easy answer. But there was a pause. Her eyes moved to the corners, as if trying to recall the definition of happiness. And then, “Yes.”
“Why?” Nick snapped, a little too quickly.
“What do you mean?” she inquired.
“What makes you happy here?” Nick explained. “What is it now that… gives your life meaning? Why, why are you happy?”
She cocked her head to the side and blinked at him blankly. And then, she gave him the worst possible answer. “Why not?”
His heart broke for her. As much as he hated the brutal animal that had left him burned and scarred and humiliated in that bedroom, he had loved the girl that it had devoured. He had seen counseling and treatment as a means of recovering her from the belly of the beast. He had seen himself as the lumberjack slicing open the wolf’s stomach and pulling out Red Riding Hood. But now, as he stared at her shell, he realized that fairy tales never come true.
And as strange as it seemed, this revelation wove the wound in his soul shut, stitching it together with painful precision, in a way that Nick had never expected. He wondered if this was the last stage of grief, or the first.
He pushed his chair back and got to his feet. She slipped out of her own and one by one gingerly plucked the chess pieces off of the floor. Nick might as well not even have been in the room anymore for all she seemed to care. Nick took a few steps backwards. She neatly set up each chess piece on the board. Nick stopped in his retreat as he realized she wasn’t starting a new game. It took him a moment to fully understand that she was recreating the game she’d had in progress with herself, before she had dashed the pieces to the floor in some rare burst of emotion that had burned out like a shooting star. Nick wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn that not a piece was out of place. She remembered exactly where everything went. And then, she continued to play. Nick made his way to the door.
“Goodbye,” he said to her over his shoulder.
She acknowledged him with a slight nod of her head, but her eyes never left the board. “Mm.”
“I’ll… see you ‘round.” It was a lie. Nick knew it was a lie. He wondered if she knew it was, too.
He exited into the observation room where he saw Sara turn to him. She was holding her elbows in her palms, her face almost as inscrutable as Alexa’s.
“Smile,” he begged her. “Cry. Do anything, just don’t stand there like a statue.”
And she responded heartily, her eyes widening and her mouth opening in a tiny gasp. “Nick…” she began. She slowly shook her head, then looked back at Alexa through the one-way mirror.
Nick’s eyes fell on the pair of guards. “What happened to her?” he breathed.
“She’s been stabilized,” the guard who had escorted them there explained.
“Maybe…” Nick said. “She’s also been dehumanized. Did you guys give her a lobotomy or something?”
“Meds, as I understand it,” the other guard said. “You’d have to ask her doctor. They tried a few things before this stuff did what they wanted.”
But Nick still didn’t understand. “No. She said she was on medication before. She was treated for this before, and she was fine. She led a normal life.”
“She was treated for manic episodes,” the guard said. “It’s all in her file. This was a psychotic break. Different disease, and she was at higher risk for it with her history. But we’ve got her stabilized now. Dr. Platt says she might be one of their greatest success stories.”
Nick suddenly felt very ill. His gaze drifted to Sara and he would always remember and be grateful for the waves of empathy breaking against the shores of her warm brown eyes. “Let’s go home,” he said to her.
Once in the car, they spent a full ten minutes in silence. It was much more tense than the ride over had been. Finally, he spoke.
“I don’t know what I expected…”
Sara looked over at him, waiting for him to continue. When he didn’t, she said, “I do. You expected her to be cured. You expected her magically fixed, and healthy and normal, as if none of those horrible things had ever happened to her. You expected to find a completely different person.”
“I did find a completely different person,” Nick muttered, bitterly. “I found a corpse.”
“You found a woman with a severe illness on heavy medication,” Sara clarified. “You wanted to find a woman who was never sick in the first place.” Something about her voice was unexpectedly sharp, like a paper cut. She turned away from him and looked out the window. “Sometimes, it hurts to be healed.”
“You sound like you speak from experience,” Nick noted.
“I do.” But she left it at that.
Nick debated whether or not to push her. He knew if their roles were reversed, she would never push him. He had just made the decision to stay silent, when she continued.
“My mother was in one of those places. I visited her once or twice. But I couldn’t handle it. She wasn’t crazy, but she wasn’t my mom anymore, either…”
Nick threw a glance her way. She was still staring out of the window. “How is she now?”
“Hm?” Sara asked, as if she had lost the conversation.
“Your mother. How’s she doing?”
“Oh… She’s…” Sara didn’t seem able to find the words. “The same.” She was quiet for what seemed like minutes. “A part of me is still terrified that I’ll end up like her.”
“You?” Nick scoffed. “Not possible.”
“You don’t know—”
“You went crazy years ago,” Nick interrupted with a lopsided smirk.
Sara tried not to smile as she folded her arms. “It’s good to see you still have your humor.”
“Greg helped me find it again.”
“He’s good at that.”
Nick nodded in agreement, his eyes on the road. But his mind was still on Alexa. He thought about what she’d said, what everyone was telling him, about how he had to let her go. He wondered if he really could, now that he’d seen her, now that he knew that she was a lost cause. But it was difficult for Nick to give up on anyone, even someone as far gone as Alexa.
“Is it better?” he asked, not necessarily of Sara, but of anyone or anything in the universe that would listen. “The treatment, I mean. It’s better than the disease, right? It has to be. Has to.”
He felt something warm and smooth slide across the skin on the back of his hand. The black leather was sticky beneath his palms. It was then that he realized how tightly he’d been gripping the steering wheel. He relaxed his hold and looked down to see Sara’s hand covering his.
“It is better,” Sara tried to assure him.
Nick saw his exit. He took it. He felt his chest constrict and he knew he had to pull over. He rode into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant and leaned his forehead against the wheel. He took deep breaths and tried to focus, and soon found himself gasping for air. Fire erupted in his lungs. For a moment, he thought he was going to pass out. His fingers tingled and he airily thought he shouldn’t be clinging to the steering wheel like a life preserver.
He could feel Sara squeezing his shoulder and rubbing the back of his neck. He wasn’t sure if she was speaking or not. The blood was flooding his ears. He was ready to burst, when he just let out a painful gasp, and the tears came with it. The second the seal on that dam broke, his body began to regulate itself again, and his breathing slowed as the tears spilled out of his eyes. He took a moment, taking slower, rattling breaths as he tried to calm down.
After giving him a second to relax, Sara whispered, “You can’t save everyone.”
“Not everyone…” Nick conceded. His voice cracked. “Sara, I just wanted to save someone.”
An arm slid quickly around his shoulders and he felt her lips gently pressed against his temple. He knew that his words must have struck something in her, the way her hand was clutching his left shoulder, and how her breath trembled against his skin. But she didn’t speak. She didn’t lie and assure him that he saved people every day. She already knew that he wasn’t a superhero. But Nick was just accepting that cold hard fact.
“Every day, we see bodies, and killers, and everything after the fact…” Nick began.
“I know,” Sara breathed.
“And I just wanted to—”
“It’s always just a little too—”
“I know.” She said it with finality, reminding him that he didn’t have to explain his statement, because she already knew, and she did, too, because Sara Sidle knew everything. She saw the same cases that he saw, and she walked the same roads. But she had come to terms with it much more quickly than Nick, or at least, that’s what he thought at the time. He didn’t know what the future would bring. He didn’t know that two years later, she would replay this conversation over and over again in her brain as she sliced her nametag off of her CSI vest and threw it in the trash. Sara Sidle knew everything. But she accepted nothing.
But Nick also didn’t know that he would have his chance to save someone yet, or that the one he would save was holding him now.
As he regained his exposure and begged for strength, Nick took a deep breath. He sat up in his seat and leaned his head against the headrest as Sara withdrew her hand.
“Do you want me to drive?”
“No, I’ll be OK,” Nick assured her. He turned to her and smiled, as if she hadn’t just witnessed him fall apart. “Where do you want to go for dinner?”
It was raining when Joanna King went to visit her daughter. She visited during free choice time, and there were other patients in the recreation room. Alexa’s chessboard sat on the table, set up for a game, but completely abandoned. Instead, she had decided to sit on the ratted, worn gray couch and watch the rain slide down the windows, lined with bars. Joanna took a seat beside her and took Alexa’s hand in hers. Alexa didn’t seem to notice.
“I spoke with the doctor. He said you’re doing much better now, sweetheart.”
“Yes,” Alexa replied, dully. Her glassy green eyes remained on the rivulets of water swimming down the windowpane. “I think I am.”
“I’m glad. I think this is good for you. I know that Willow Springs was a sanctuary for you, of sorts. If it were up to me, I would have had you permanently move in there. But that’s not what their program was about. And they said that you were fine. Clearly, they must have missed something. They must have. Because you were doing so much better, Alexa. So much.”
And then, slowly, Alexa turned her head, and only her head, to cast her mother a quizzical look. “How do you know that?”
Joanna blinked. “I… what do you mean, sweetheart?”
“How do you know I was doing better?” Alexa inquired. “I haven’t spoken to you in over ten years. How could you possibly know how I was doing?”
“The letters…” Joanna breathed. “Once in a while, you sent letters. You said you owned your own business. You said that you were happy here.”
“I never said here, I never said Vegas,” Alexa continued.
“No,” her mother confessed. “You conveniently left out any details that would help me locate you. And you never put a return address.”
Slowly, Alexa shook her head. “You had no idea if I was doing better or not.”
“The letters told you that I was alive, and out of trouble,” Alexa returned. “Which is what they were meant to do. They never told you anything else, because that’s all you wanted to know. That I had survived my childhood, and was living a quiet life somewhere, didn’t even matter where, just so long as you weren’t responsible for me anymore.”
“That’s not fair,” Joanna snapped, biting back the hot sting of tears. “That’s just not fair. Alexa, I will always be responsible for you—”
“Oh, so suddenly you’re the loving mother?” Alexa said, cocking her eyebrows. Joanna saw something rise within her, something deep and ancient, and barely there, but it was there. Alexa’s voice was even, with the smallest hint of sarcasm. Joanna wondered exactly how much the medication muted her emotions.
Joanna’s voice quavered as she spoke. “I have always loved you.”
“So where have you been all these years?” Alexa returned. “Where were you when I needed you? Every day, I just wished that you would leave, get out forever, half the time terrified that maybe you really would. And you did. And I got what I wanted. I thought.” She frowned, wrinkling her nose, then looked away from her mother out the window again. “Be careful what you wish for.” She took a deep breath and gave a half shrug. “At least I don’t cry anymore.”
Joanna leaned forward, trying to catch her daughter’s eye. The glint in it proved her last statement a lie. “They told me you were different now. Calmer. This anger you’re feeling. Is it a side effect of the medication?”
“It’s a side effect of having an absent mother and a devil for a father,” Alexa replied evenly. He hand clenched on her knee. “You should go.”
“I won’t leave you alone again.” Joanna reached out and took Alexa’s hand. Her daughter yanked it away.
“You have to leave here eventually, unless you want to be committed,” Alexa replied.
“You know what I mean,” said Joanna.
A stout orderly dressed in green scrubs approached the pair of them with a glass of water and a small paper cup. He held them both out to Alexa. “Time for your medication, Alexa.”
Alexa’s eyes drifted lazily up to look at him, then took her pills and the paper cup. She dumped the contents of her cup into her mouth and gulped down the cup of water, handing their containers back to the orderly, who cocked his eyebrows, expectantly. Alexa took a deep breath and sighed, opening her mouth for inspection. Satisfied, the orderly moved on.
“So that was it,” Joanna said. “You hadn’t had your medication today. Perhaps this will calm you down.”
“Perhaps it will,” Alexa echoed.
Joanna rose to her feet, then kneeled in front of Alexa. “I’ll visit as often as I can.”
Alexa blinked at her. “I look forward to it.” The words were flat, and Joanna couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or if she really meant them.
She decided to give her daughter the benefit of the doubt. “I love you, baby, and I always will, no matter what.”
Alexa remained stoic, staring straight ahead as her mother stood up and headed for the door.
Alexa King stared at the rain. She heard the buzzer that indicated her mother was leaving the ward. “I love you, too, Mamma.”
Recreation time ended. The patients were escorted to their rooms. The minute the door closed and locked behind her, Alexa leaned against it. She fiddled around with her tongue on the left side of her mouth, around her bottom jaw line, then spit out two small green pills. She slid them in the pocket of her jumpsuit, and they joined the two others from that morning.
“What are you going to do now?”
Alexa blinked and looked up. Clear as day, there he was, sitting on her bed.
“Wait. Fall. Die. I’m not sure.”
“Stay here, with me, forever?”
“I’d rather live with her,” Alexa spat, her hands crawling back into her hair.
“That’s not true,” he said, standing up. “I know that’s not true.”
“You don’t,” Alexa insisted. “You don’t know me.”
“I’m the stranger that knows you best,” he replied with a sinister, sharp-toothed grin. “If you didn’t want me, you wouldn’t see me. You’d still take your medication. You wouldn’t willingly be crazy.”
“I’m not,” Alexa cried, defensively. “I’m not crazy. And if I am, it’s not because of you.” She waved her index finger pointedly at him. “I’m nothing because of you.”
His grin stretched to his soulless eyes.
“That’s not what I meant. I... I’m mixing up my words.” She faltered and stared at the corner of her room, as if she could find the answers there, beneath a stone in a road, a road that led somewhere soft and safe and long burned to ashes. But when she turned over the stone, all she found were bugs and dirt.
He approached her now, touched her chin, tilted it upwards to force her to look at him. “I have that effect on people.”
She pushed him away, screwing her eyes shut tight. “No. No. I will not lose my mind for you. I am who I am today because of circumstance and choice, but not because, never because of you.”
He laughed a deep, low laugh. “You are exactly as I made you,” he whispered.
“Oh, fuck off!” she spat. She raised her fists and launched herself at him. “I’ll kill you!”
He caught her wrists and she struggled. “I’m already dead.”
“I’ll do it again, kill you dead, send you down into the earth and the fire and the fear. Send you there so I can climb my way out of it and leave you behind!” She continued to bite and claw at him, but left no marks, drew no blood, and caused no panic.
“You can’t leave me behind,” he whispered calmly. She halted her attack, dropped her arms to the side and stared at him in a mixture of disgust and bafflement. He continued. “No amount of medication or therapy or prayer can do that. I’m deep inside you. Wriggling in your stomach like the worms that eat at my corpse. And that’s why you stopped taking your pills. Because it was muted, it was dull, but it was still there. They ripped out the cancer and what was left? Nothing. It had already consumed you. We have a symbiotic relationship, you and I.”
“It is you…” she whispered, stumbling backwards. “It has always been you. I never existed, not really. I was infected. I carry you in my blood. We’re blood, and I carry you.”
“Yes…” he whispered with sibilant pleasure. “Embrace it. Embrace me, ‘Lexa.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly uncertain. Slowly, she shook her head. “No, I…” But the protest caught in her throat like a lump of spoiled meat. She could taste the coppery tang of its blood coating her esophagus. She closed her eyes and tried to swallow. When she opened them again, he was behind the bars of her cage. The monster that had obliterated her and turned her into him.
She felt the rage and bile bubbling up again like a toxic acid in her gut and she shrieked with a murderous fire, launching herself at the bars, her knuckles clanging against them as she clawed at him behind them at the window. She smashed her fists against the hard glass, but it wouldn’t make a dent.
After convincing herself that the glass was shatterproof, she turned away from the window, hot tears spilling down her face. And she saw them, the parade of perversions, the men she had brutalized, drifting before her pale and translucent and as grotesque as gargoyles. Burns, scars, and a deeper damage, something unseen in life and in their corpses, but their psychological wounds were made visible to her now. They twisted the men in unnatural ways into something barely human. The last in the line, a broad-shouldered Texan had a gaping hole in his chest, his ribs cut away as the purple organ, oozing with black was ripped out by his own hand and offered to her before it shriveled between his fingers. And just as if they had never lived at all, they faded away.
“You are more of a monster than I ever was,” whispered his voice. She rose to her feet, looking for him. It had come from beneath her pillow. She threw the thing aside and revealed a keepsake her mother had smuggled in for her from her childhood. A small mirror from the dresser of her bedroom. He stared at her from beyond it with the devil’s eyes, black as smoke, and she wondered if she stared into a portal, or if she was seeing her future. She looked out and saw him in the window again, looking right back at her, a slightly confused and frightened expression on her face. She looked back at the mirror. He blinked at her, his expression slowly fading until his face was a blank page, his black eyes resolved.
“I will kill you,” they whispered at each other. She took the mirror and slammed it against the floor. She lifted one of the larger shards above her head and turned to the window to see he held a similar weapon. “Before you kill me.”