There’s not much to look at in the sky over Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The lights of D.C. and its suburbs blot out most of the stars. Jack watches dark clouds lighten as they drift in front of the moon. The night air and the distant drone and rumble of the city clear his mind.
He puts his cigarette to his lips, adjusts his seat on the balcony railing, and takes a long drag. He looks down into the darkness two stories below, where just a few leafless treetops poke out at the top.
A montage plays in his mind, of Chris’s confident smile, Sabine sitting on her chair like a lawn gnome, the short doctor standing in front of the class in her pantsuit with her perfect posture and the florescent lights reflecting in her glasses. He watches the images move past like the clouds.
Maya is the most difficult to expunge. The way her full lips scrunch together when she’s thinking, the way they frame her different kinds of smiles: her polite smile, her genuinely entertained smile, her goofy smile. The movie that replays most is the turn of her head and smile when he first saw her. That thought gives him a funny feeling in his stomach, like he could fall for this girl.
He hears the glass door behind him slide open, and is surprised to see Maya step out onto the balcony.
“Hey you,” comes her lyrical voice. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?” She walks up to the railing and leans on it a couple of feet from where Jack is sitting on it.
“Trying to get some space. To think.”
“All we did today was think. Isn’t your brain tired?” She drops her head like a rag doll.
Jack smiles and takes a drag. “A little bit.”
“Just a little? Maybe this whole enterprise will work out well for you.”
“I don’t know.” Jack looks off. “What would that even look like?”
“That’s the million-dollar question. We’d all like to know why we’re here.”
“What did they tell you?”
“Probably similar to you. That we showed up on a test. And they’re studying our brains.” She makes googly eyes and hits the word brains like she’s a zombie. She laughs at herself.
He looks down at her and smiles.
She looks out over the railing. “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to fall off?”
“Do I look afraid?” Jack says nonchalantly.
“Well, now that you mention it . . .” she leaves him hanging.
“You don’t. I can picture you sitting like that on a horse fence back in Ohio, or wherever you said you’re from.”
That’s good, he thinks. She remembers where I’m from.
“Not too many horses there, though.”
“Is that really where you’re from?”
“Why would I lie about that?”
“I don’t know. Get a rise out of Chris?”
Jack looks away, amused.
“Anyway, you just seem like the sort of guy who would make up stories about your life, to hide from something.” She has a distant look her eyes.
“Who are you, my shrink?”
She smiles. “I might be. Nobody knows who anybody is in this place.” She leans on the railing with one elbow and faces him.
“So, what’s life like in Sydney,” Jack asks. He can’t get this idea out of his head that Jewel planted, that she’s some kind of scion of privilege. He’s curious to get the details.
“Oh, it’s a bore most of the time.”
Jack raises his eyebrows.
“No, I love it. All my friends are there. My family. My dog, my cat, my guinea pigs.”
“You have guinea pigs?” Jack laughs.
“I love my guinea pigs,” she says with absolute conviction.
Jack takes another drag and blows smoke over the treetops. “So, how did they get you here?”
“Well, it was quite the procedure. Again, I’m assuming it was similar to yours. They met with my teachers, my parents. They had to agree to it all. I wanted to go. I thought it sounded quite interesting.”
Jack lets a short chortle escape.
“That’s not how it went with you?”
“I want to hear the whole story.”
“Some day I’ll tell you.”
She turns around and leans her back on the railing. “Any family back in Ohio?”
She looks at him with shock and concern. “None?”
“There was my mom and my little sister and me for a while, but,” he hopes he can get the words out without getting choked up, “they died in a car accident a couple years ago.”
“Oh, Jack. That’s dreadful. I’m so sorry to hear it.”
A light wind rustles the trees.
She holds out her hand and asks, “Can I have a drag?”
Jack takes the cigarette out of his mouth and passes it to her. He watches as she puts it to her lips and inhales deeply.
Not yet a third of the way into her inhalation, she convulses, hacking as though she has no air left in her lungs. Her hands grip the railing hard. The cigarette goes flying down to the darkness below. Jack jumps off the railing and cradles her elbow with one hand, and lightly touches between her shoulder blades with the other.
She heaves loudly between gasping, desperate coughs, looking at him with horror.
She gets enough breath for a moment to say “Phew, phew, phew!”
He laughs a big, hardy laugh. “Why did you do that?” he asks incredulously.
She coughs some more, putting her fist to her mouth, her other hand flat on her sternum. She tries to speak, but nothing comes out.
“Are you okay?”
She finally manages to squeeze some words out. “I . . . always wanted . . . to try that.” She says in a pinched voice.
Jack can’t stop laughing.
“You are crazy,” he says. “Or nuts. Or both.”
They laugh, hers strained, more a half-cough, half-laugh.
“I think both,” he adds.
She clears her throat and tries to stand up straight, presumably to regain her dignity.
“I don’t understand how you can smoke those things.” She clears her throat again. “They taste so disgusting. I almost threw up.”
Jack leans back against the railing and folds his arms. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be smoking them then.”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking.” She leans over the railing and wipes off her chin. “Do I have, like, slobber all over me?”
“Come here,” Jack says.
She turns around to face him.
He inspects her chin and takes the opportunity to touch it gently with the back of his hand. “No, you look good.”
He puts his hands in his pockets but keeps her gaze. She lets out a small laugh. Jack wonders if it’s a nervous laugh. Then he decides it’s not. She’s very much at ease.
Jack thinks he could move in for a kiss now, but thinks better of it.
Make her wait.