I wondered it as our lips parted and I saw her brilliant face and as I let her take my hand to lead me out of that near-deadly room. I'd looked back at the sink, the knife concealed inside the basin and had felt relief course unhampered through my body. But the emotion didn't answer my question. I kept wondering as she asked me to sit closer and I did, though my initial action had not originated as a long-term declaration.
Mostly I wondered it now, as Alli drove us back to her home in her dark and quiet car. I hadn't done it. It was still hard to believe. It was probably the most selfless thing I'd ever done and I couldn't decide if I'd over or underestimated myself. I was still here, yes, but so was she. In my peripheral vision I could see her, staring at the empty road but clearly thinking deeply. About me? I was surprised by how happy the thought made me.
Still, I felt my face grow serious nearly as soon as the fleeting notion had passed. Because nothing had actually changed, no matter how momentous my personal feelings. I had let myself believe, for one giddy moment, that my actions could guarantee her future, that she could decide what to do after school because she would actually have time. I had let her have it. Yet I knew better than anyone that her path had been set long before I'd gotten involved. For all I knew, a car was about to swipe around the corner and kill us both, and then I'd get my way after all. But if it was still 'my way' why did that thought make my breath quicken in panic? The sentiment wasn't just for Alli's sake either. Life, I'd discovered (remembered?) tonight, was a powerful force. Despite how much this body knew through my transplanted mind, it did not want to die.
We pulled into Alli's driveway without breaking our silence. I waited for Alli to give me a hint as to how I should act now. Surely a kiss had to have consequences, consequences that hadn't mattered when neither of us was going to have to live with them. Was Alli worried about them, or wondering, like I was, just how far this was going to go? Just coming back to this house was father than I'd intended. What was I going to do in there other than watch and wait? I was back to square one, wandering without a clear purpose. I didn't regret disposing my original purpose, but it was still undeniably frustrating. And frightening. Because I'd gotten close to Alli, and now I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, or even what I wanted it to mean.
My mind fogged, I watched Alli as she gathered her belongings from the backseat, and knew that I would like nothing better than to touch her again. She was still here and alive and able to be touched in that remarkably intense way that didn't exist on the other side. I wanted to take advantage of it. There was a lightness inside of me that went beyond relief and I wanted to explore it. I hadn't done it and this opportunity was my reward. Karma, it seemed, was an equally powerful force.
Alli waited for me on the driveway, still respecting my silence by mimicking it. When I joined her with an apologetic smile, we walked together to the front door. It was still relatively early and light spilled out from inside the house. In the glow, I saw Alli stiffen almost imperceptibly. Her back grew straighter, her expression a little more fixed. I'd noticed this before, and in an even more severe form. It wasn't until this moment, though, that I realized she'd completely quit using this defense mechanism against me. I knew it hadn't started that way and I couldn't pinpoint when it had stopped. She wasn't hiding herself from me. She let me see her frustration and sadness and let me express mine without shame. She had opened herself up to me in a way that went far beyond a physical gesture. A rush of feeling washed over me that I wasn't brave enough to try and interpret.
In the entryway, warmth and the chatter of the television welcomed us. That I was glad to be back wasn't an emotion I felt like exploring either.
Alli led me into the living room. The television wasn't without an audience; her parents were sprawled across the couch, husband's arm around his wife's shoulders, her head resting against his chest. Happy. What a thing to achieve for people who were undoubtedly aware of what they were missing. Such kindness from two parents who must feel the hole, raw and pulsing, where their second little girl should be. I remembered the very first time I'd seen Mrs. Moore, through Alli's window, arguing with her about a boy. I'd pitied her, and that pity was what had made me fly away. Even then, when I had myself programmed to censor such thoughts and delete them immediately, I'd hated how unfair it was that she had to lose the child whose smallest actions she watched and guided. Now I knew the full truth and I didn't even try to stem my grief. It wasn't fair. It wasn't even over. I stood in that living room, watching Alli perch beside her parents, and let myself feel it. For every shared kiss there was a moment of tragedy. I'd lived in that tragedy for so long I couldn't even see the kisses. Now that I could, now that I was really here for the first time, which one won? The strength and resilience of these two remarkable people, or the leather-pouched angels?
"Earth to Jadin."
I twisted my head towards Alli's annoyed expression, glad that the sarcastic snap had returned to her voice and glad to be forced out of such thoughts. She jerked her head towards her mother and I shifted my attention. I was sure Mrs. Moore knew I'd been staring and I struggled to hold her gaze.
"I asked," she said patiently and not unkindly, "if you enjoyed yourself tonight?"
I nodded curtly. "Yes," I answered. "I'm glad I went."
"Good," she said. She was smiling sincerely, but her eyes sized me up. I could only imagine the difference she saw in me with her caretaker's eyes, but whatever it was, she seemed pleased. As she should be; she had every right to be proud of her accomplishments. I owed a lot to her and I was glad to see her smile. "Did you two eat?" she started to sit up and Mr. Moore obligingly removed his arm. He was watching the scene with interest, but care, not as comfortable with the living arrangements as his wife was. "Other than macaroni and cheese, I mean."
Alli nodded easily, not fazed by her mother's uncanny deduction of the truth. "We're good," she said, pushing on her mother's shoulders until she was leaning back into the couch. Mr. Moore extended his arm again, inviting Alli into the fold and she let him hug her.
"Come join us, Jadin," he called to me, kind, supportive even through his doubts. He gestured to an empty arm chair.
I had only stayed on the outskirts of the living room, but already I was backing away from even that. I was here but I was far from comfortable. The room seemed too small, the warm gathering too large, my thoughts too full. I thought that I could only handle one person right now, but I wasn't about to ask her. I'd fooled myself into believing that I'd been resisting, but of course I'd been relying on Alli this whole time. I'd imprinted on her like a baby bird, helpless and fully dependent. It was worse now. The entirety of my budding outlook had been built around Alli and it was a fragile structure. I wanted to retreat before I managed to shatter it.
"No, thank you," I answered in a valiant attempt to overcome my awkwardness with politeness. "Actually, I'm pretty tired." Not a lie. Who knew that mental strain could be as taxing as physical exertion?
"Me too," Alli agreed, surprising both me and, judging by their expressions, her parents.
She didn't sound like she was lying either, and that reminded me of how sad she'd been earlier in the evening, upset over her boyfriend, I knew now. The rest of the night had nearly washed the memory away. I felt selfish all over again for forgetting. Here then, was one of those consequences. My feelings were no longer the only ones that mattered.
"And I have some homework to finish," Alli added in response to her parents, sticking to an excuse that needed little explanation. She kissed them goodnight and then went past me to the stairs.
I nodded my own farewell and tried not to seem too eager to escape as I followed her.
Alli had gone into her room and I paused in her doorway.
"You can come in, if you want," Alli said, her back to me.
I took the invitation only as far as a few steps. I looked around, noting details I'd ignored before. The room wasn't immaculate, but it was tidy, clothes relegated to a single corner, books and homework stacked on the desk next to the picture of Alli and her sister. I thought back to my very first day living again, to the shock I'd felt because everything was so vivid, so close. This was similar and almost more disturbing. For the first time, I understood that my experience was a trade rather than a loss: wings for new eyes. There was so much life here, so much that I'd filtered out. Was it really any wonder that I'd forgotten her sister, a defining moment not just in her life, but mine too? I nearly brought the subject up. It would be easy with the picture as a launching point. I couldn't do it without lying though, and that didn't seem fair or necessary.
Alli turned to me, her hands halfway through creating a side-braid in her hair. This might have been the time for me to appreciate that she was beautiful, all steel surrounded by soft lines and completed by bright eyes. But I'd known that for a long time. What I found myself focusing on was the embodiment of possibility that stood in front of me in the guise of this stunning girl. How soon was soon? One more week, two? A year was soon, wasn't it, if you were already dead and didn't care? I barely even believed that she was losing her mind anymore, why should I believe the timetable I'd been given? I could have looked. The ability was there for me to use, except that I was a coward. What would I do if I knew? What if the vision hadn't changed?
Alli was eyeing me expectantly, waiting for what, I wasn't sure. My mind was too addled, suffocating under relief and fear and an inexplicable hope I couldn't ignore.
So I blurted out what was waiting on my tongue, a trivial concern turned monumental. "We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
Out of all of those emotions, it was that sick feeling of selfishness that bothered me the most. The idea that I was still only focusing on myself and ignoring Alli's side. Outside of that invitation to sit closer, she hadn't given me much indication of what she felt about what we'd shared. Her habit of trying to please everyone made me skeptical. The irony that I was now focused on petty details I'd once scoffed at didn't escape me; self-disgust had joined the queue and was trying to force its way forward. But I needed to know. I needed a friend far more than anything else and I wasn't willing to lose her over something like this.
Alli tied off her braid and walked toward me, still quiet. A crease between her eyebrows told me that she was considering my offer. She stood close and took my hand without her usual deference to my aversion to touch. I'd given up that right in the Montgomerys' kitchen and was not sorry to see it go. She looked down, contemplating our entwined fingers. Her hands were soft and warm and soothed my fractured nerves. Then she pushed up the edge of my shirt sleeve and my heart froze. Slowly, she traced the outline of the pattern on my wrist.
"What is this?" she asked curiously. There was no other emotion in her voice, no indication that she knew she'd stumbled on something important or embarrassing. "I've seen it sometimes, but just the edge. It's pretty."
New eyes or not, I couldn't see any beauty in the brand. I hid my other arm behind me so that she couldn't fully understand. "Just a tattoo," I muttered, sacrificing volume to keep my voice steady. She kept circling the pattern and her touch made the mark burn like a blush of shame. I waited for her to ask for more. Maybe it was only fair; I'd uncovered an intimate secret of hers and she didn't even know it. She didn't ask. Instead, she gently replaced my sleeve and went back to inspecting my fingers.
"We don't have to talk about it," she agreed, answering me as if there had been no interruption and meeting my eyes. "We don't have to make any decisions right now."
I nodded, "Okay," and relaxed because that implied more time and it was what I wanted most.
"But for what it's worth," she continued, her eyes as warm and soft as her hands. "I'm glad you were with me tonight." Then she reached up and kissed my cheek, erasing all doubt.
"Me too," I agreed, because I wasn't the only one who needed to know.
"Good night, Jadin," she said, with an expression that made me understand just how glad I really was.
"Good night," I replied, leaving it at those two minimal words that in no way conveyed all that I was feeling. There would be time to elaborate.
I left her and went next door to the office, settling on the deflating air mattress. I closed my eyes and let myself imagine the time that really did exist for all of those possibilities. Shorter than usual, maybe, but full of promise. It was an intoxicating sensation.
The answer was insultingly simple. I had made the choice to say yes to life. Now it was time to start living.