In Which No One Understands Becky
Crap! was the only thing I had time to think before I went into the air again. In our prior battles, I had always managed to be a step ahead of Mark, a rung above on the ladder. Just, just barely stronger, even when my blood, my strength, flowed in him. But now, he was absolutely sending me to the floor.
Despite what I had told Becky, despite what I believed, I kept talking. “Mark, listen to me. If you can still hear me, try to listen. I know you’re confused. I know you’re lost, I know you’re scared, but we can still fix this! I can help you, but you have to let me.” Next thing, I was spinning back into a tree -- the same freaking tree I had run into twice before. I’ve never been so irrationally angry at a tree before.
Nothing had worked, not even the desperate pleas of a loved one. Becky might still believe he could fight his way through, but I wasn’t that naive. He was gone, and I was swiftly running out of options. I kept holding out, stalling, hoping against hope that he could, that he would, but my mind knew the truth. Run, I urged myself, run! It wasn’t an idea I liked; running, backing down from a brawl, was against my nature. But it wasn’t hard to see that if I kept this up, I would be torn apart. “I’m sorry, Mark,” I said, throwing my full weight against him and knocking him to the ground. I hit him with everything I had left, and he received the full weight. He shuddered and slumped, stunned. I hesitated after running two feet, looking back at him. End this, a voice in my head urged. End this now. It would be easy -- too easy. He’s asleep. Unconscious. He would feel nothing. Would it not be more merciful to end his life than to let him continue rampaging, tormented, whatever was left of him trapped inside this mindless beast, until he either ended up killing himself or someone braver than I put a bullet in him?
But...could I? Should I? Instinct and responsibility battled lingering naivete.
I bit my tongue, cursing myself, cursing my softness, and ran, berating myself as I did. Why are you so weak? You say you could, you can, you’re prepared, but...you can’t. You can’t do it!
Soon as I was back to the road, I started regretting telling Jason to drive off in the truck. My energy was running very low. How much farther could I run? Not far.
But that’s the thing about running. You just have to do it. You can’t stop. Until you physically collapse, until your legs give out from under your body, you can’t stop moving -- and when your legs give out, you crawl. When your life is on the line, when all you can do is run, you just do it. Until you fall.
So that’s what I did. My legs throbbed, feet on fire, and my lungs felt like they were being stabbed with tiny knives. The hammering of my heart was so strong I could feel it beating against my ribcage like an imprisoned beast. I kept going going going going....
I fell. My legs reached their limit. “Get up,” I murmured. “Get up. Please, Hailee, get up. Get up.” I pushed and struggled, eyes watering. “Hailee, you have to get up. You have to get up, girl. You have to get up.” The begging didn’t seem to work. My vision was blurring. A terrible, aching pain had carved itself into the center of my chest.
This was it. I was going to black out, right here on the side of the road. No! I snapped to myself internally. You chose to run. Now get yourself up and run. As I tried to pull myself back onto my feet, my eyes filled with blinding light. Was my vision about to start blurring again? Was I going to pass out?
No. The light wasn’t from my eyes. It was headlights. A truck, the same truck that I had seen drive away not long ago. I shut my eyes, feeling myself being lifted up, arms slung over someone’s shoulder. “Levi?” I muttered, or tried to. My tongue was so dry I could barely speak.
“Take it easy,” he said reassuringly. “I’m getting you home.” Once in the backseat of the truck, once I finally stopped moving altogether and the last of the adrenaline wore off, my exhaustion truly caught up to me. Pain and soreness flooded my muscles, and I blacked out.
I woke a few moments later and slowly sat up, muttering Levi’s name again. Looking out the window, I saw that we were on the dirt road that lead through the woods down to the lake, the road that led to Vicar’s Lot. “Ugh...what...Levi....”
“Don’t speak,” he said quickly.
“It’s fine. I ca--” I swallowed hard. “C-can talk.”
“How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been slapped with a brick wall,” I groaned. “What happened to Mark? Did you find him?”
He shook his head.
I put my head in my hands, lying flat across the backseat. “What have I done, Levi?” Even though I was using his name, I was talking more to myself than to him. “What have I created?”
We pulled up in front of the little shack by the lake. Jason stood outside. When we came to a stop, he ran up to the truck, bombarding Levi with questions soon as he stepped out. “Easy, kid!” Levi said with amusement. “Let a man breathe, why don’t you? Now, help me out.” He opened the door and helped me out of the backseat.
I tried to protest “I’m fine, I’m fine,” tried to push him away, but the minute I did, my legs became weak again. I very nearly ended up face-first on the ground.
“You sure about that?”
“Never mind.” I leaned on his arm and let him assist me to the door. Once inside, I collapsed into one of the questionably solid wooden chairs. Jason gave me a glass of water. “Thank you,” I gasped, swallowing the entire thing in a gulp.
“You need more?” he asked anxiously. “I can get you more.”
“That would be nice. Thanks.” It was only then I noticed Becky, standing off to the side of us. “Still here, Lester? I guessed as much. You’re all talk. I knew you wouldn’t do anything while Mark was still out there.”
“Stop it,” she said hoarsely. “I’m here because Fury and Gerard told me you had a chance. And I was stupid enough to believe them!” Her tone had suddenly turned hostile. “I believed them! I should never have come to you. I should have just trusted my dad.”
“Your dad? Ha! You trust him, and Mark dies. I promise you.”
“Gerard said as much,” she said, going from hostile back to sullen as quick as she had made the initial switch. “I don’t believe you, either of you. He wouldn’t! Dad cares about Mark, and he knows how I feel about him. He’d...find another way.”
A retort was already rising in my throat when Becky’s phone started buzzing. She whipped it out of her pocket, said, “Well, guess who it is?” and pressed the accept button. “Well, hello, Dad! Are your ears burning? Hold on a second.” She changed over to ‘speaker’ so I could hear some of the conversation.
Amid the static I managed to catch a few phrases. “...out cold on the side of the road...woke up screaming, had to sedate him...held down and hopefully under control...just don’t know...doing all we can do...I’m sorry, Becks.”
Becky raised the phone back to her ear. “I understand, Dad. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Yes, of course I’ll tell Mom where I’m going. Okay. Thank you. Be there in a flash. Bye.” She gave me a smug, triumphant smirk. “He’s fine. They have under containment and sedation, and are trying right now to figure out what to do with him. They saved him, Jackson. You couldn’t.”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I wish you’d see that I can be trusted. Your dad might care, but Mark is -- in a way, at least -- my own flesh and blood. I may not like him, but there’s no way I don’t care.”
“I....” Now it was her turn to shake her head. “Look, I’m gonna let you off the hook. I promise, my dad won’t find out about the den, or any of it. I appreciate that you tried, but you couldn’t save him. You understand if I’m let down.”
“No one can save everybody.”
She left the shack. Levi sighed, a shadow of a smile on his face. “What a character.”
“Humans,” I sighed. “Never know what’s going on with them.” Levi, Jason, and I climbed back into the truck and drove back to Vicar’s Lot. Victoria ran outside to meet us, gasping when she saw how beaten I looked.
“What happened to you, Hailee?”
I briefly ran through what had happened. “Mark’s officially snapped. Gone rogue. You wouldn’t believe how strong he’s become -- too strong for me.” I leaned back against the passenger door of the truck, putting my head in my hand, and said the five little words I thought I was too strong to say. “This is all my fault.”
Vic was quick to reassure me. “Don’t blame yourself, Hailee. There was no way you could have known that this would happen.”
“But I started this!” I half-shouted. “I was the one who infected Mark. I started this.” I swallowed. “And I had the chance to end it. Before I escaped the forest, I managed to knock him out. I could have killed him, prevented any more of this. I-I’m not sure I made the right choice.”
“You made the right choice.” This firm voice belonged to Fred. “Respecting life is not weakness, Hailee, and neither is refusing to kill out of anger or to hurt those who hurt you.”
“But I hurt him first,” I countered. “He has the right to want to hurt me back. I did something evil, Fredrick Roland. How do you justify that?”
He considered for a moment, then shrugged, helplessly. “I guess I’ve got nothing to say, if that’s the way you want to look at things. If you don’t want me to say anything.”
Silently, I retreated back into the house. The exhaustion had fully settled into my muscles. I was so tired that, when I returned to my room, I had only the energy to remove my dirt-streaked clothes before I collapsed backward onto the bed and fell asleep.
I woke at about five in the morning to the sound of my cell phone buzzing. Groaning, I rolled over onto my side and checked it, blinking in the harsh, artificial white light from the screen. It was Thalia. I hit accept, answering with, “Do you know what time it is, Ms Cleverly?”
“Apologies, Ms Jackson. I called you late last night, but you didn’t answer. Listen, I have big news.”
"I was held up. What is it?"
“Our leaks succeeded. Director Tyrone has agreed to speak about them.”
I immediately sat up, jerked fully awake by the rush of excitement. “When? And where?”
“November fourteenth, five days from now, at a conference center in Little Rock.”
“Excellent. Excellent. Is our plan in place?”
“Yes,” Thalia answered. “Barring any unfortunate accident, the plan should go off without a hitch.”
A wicked grin spread slowly across my face. “Fantastic,” I said, accentuating my syllables. “Thank you, Ms Cleverly.”
“Thank you, Ms Jackson.” I heard a click from the other end of the line, and the call ended.
I was still groggy, and spent the next hour drifting uncomfortably in and out of sleep. Thoughts, some of them quite dark, mingled with feverish dreams. When the moon set, and the sun began to fade to a paler shade of blue, I fully woke up. Blinking the sleep out of my eyes, I sat up. I was still tired, and my muscles were so stiff and sore I could barely move, but I felt somewhat better, particularly after the news I had gotten from Thalia the night before. Now completely awake, I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom.
Seeing my reflection, I realized what a disaster I looked like. My body was covered in cuts and bruises, not to mention the cakes of dirt on my skin and under my nails. My hair was dirty and ragged, sticking in every direction, and I looked as tired as I felt. I looked not dissimilar to the way I looked when I awoke from the Change. Feeling dirty, I jumped into the shower, attempting to wash away the remains of last night’s events. There were still rings under my eyes, and bruises, cuts, and newly formed scars still littered my skin, and would last, but dirt and blood washed away much easier.
Washed up, I went downstairs. Fred was sitting downstairs, drinking coffee. When he saw me entering the room, he held up his mug and gestured -- with his full hand -- to the kitchen. “Made some extra,” he said. “‘S in there if you want some.”
I got some coffee for myself and went to sit beside him. “Sorry for getting mad at you last night,” I said.
“You don’t have to apologize,” he said. “You weren’t out of line.”
“Your views aren’t moralistic. They’re true. I don’t believe that I was weak for sparing Mark’s life.” I stared down into my coffee, thoughtfully watching the milk swirl around in the dark liquid, and bit my lower lip. “It scares me, Fred. It frightens me, the kind of choices I need to make, the things I have to do, for the good of my people. I don’t know if I’m capable of making those choices. Doing those things.” I took a long gulp of my hot beverage. “So, what I guess I’m trying to say is, I don’t think sparing Mark’s life was weak. I think my inability to protect my people was weak.”
“You’re not weak, Hailee.” Fred shifted his mug into his other hand, reaching to take my hand in his. “You’re the strongest person I know,” he said softly. I took his hand. Warmth spread through my body, creeping up my neck and settling into my cheeks. “You’re blushing,” he observed.
“I’m not blushing.”
“You’re blushing!” he exclaimed. “Look at yourself, you’re red as a brick.” I smiled shyly, turning my face downward. Fred leaned over, putting down his mug and brushing away the hair that fell in front of my eyes. “Your face is hot. I can feel it.” He pressed the back of his hand against my burning cheek, as if checking for a fever.
I laughed a nervous laugh to cover up the pleasant awkwardness I felt, reaching up to push away his hand. “You’re teasing me,” I accused playfully.
“I’m not teasing!” he protested. “Your face is on fire.” He traced the edge of my cheek gently with his finger. I laughed again, nervously, awkwardly, taking another long sip. Is he trying to be romantic? I wondered, suddenly. If he was, it was effective. I usually had more control over my emotions, and the actions I took because of them, but in that moment, I don’t think I’d have said no to anything he asked. Even if he’d asked to kiss me, I don’t think I’d have refused him.
Part of me almost wanted him to ask.
Right then, Jason walked down the stairs, rubbing the lingering ‘snooze’ out of his eyes. He stopped when he saw me and Fred, glancing, visibly uncomfortable, to the side. “Bad time, guys?” he called.
I quickly jerked away from Fred. “No,” I called back. “Come on down. We’re just drinking coffee.”
“Didn’t look like it,” he muttered. Jason gave me a glance as he walked into the common room. “You’re blushing,” he told me.
“What the heck?” I said, half-snappish and half-laughing. “I’m not! I’m just...hot.”
“It’s freezing in here.”
I made a motion like I was about to sling my coffee at him. Some of it sloshed onto my shirt. “Get outta here, you.” My voice had gone from half-snapping, half-laughter into full, teasing laughter. Despite telling him that, I followed him into the kitchen, going for a refill.
“Be honest,” Jason said, filling up a glass of water. “Did I walk in on something back there? Be honest, Hailee. Are you two...you know?”
“Jason Kingsley!” I exclaimed. “For future reference, what’s your middle name? That might help next time I want to yell at you.”
“Aspen. What’s yours?”
“Raven. Anyway. Jason Aspen Kingsley!” I realized I was yelling, so I backed up and lowered my voice. “Sorry. Now, what do you mean by ‘you know’?”
“Are you two, you know, involved?” Jason asked, far more blunt the second time. “Romantically?”
“No,” I said firmly, quickly editing the conversation. I hurried back upstairs, and walked into the bathroom to wash the spilled coffee off my shirt, catching sight of my face in the mirror. There was a slight glow in my cheeks. I was, indeed, blushing, for one reason or another. And, when I thought about the moment that had just occurred -- the way his cool hand felt against my face, the quiet way he called me strong -- my lips twitched with an unbidden smile.
I ran into Vic in the hallway, looking disheveled with sleep. “Morning, Hailee,” she said cheerily. She looked closely at me. “Something up?”
“Don’t even sat it, Victoria. Don’t even say it.”