Bulletproof

It would be great to be so strong
Never needed anybody's help to get along

But we're so scared of the silence, and the tricks that we use

Oh, we're careful and we're cunning, but we're easily bruised

I don't want to lie about it, I'm not bulletproof
---Blue Rodeo

They stop three more times between Tijuana and the border. By the third time, she's weak enough that all she can do is lift her head and grunt for him to stop the car.

"I'm fine," she says over and over again, and with increasing desperation. "I'm fine. I'm fine."

She recoils visibly when Cameron try to press the bottle of water into her hands again.

"You need water."

"No."

"It's hot. You're injured. And sick. You should drink."

She groans, spits into the sand. "It'll just come up again."

She's dead weight by the time she's settled down enough for them to move her. Small blessing---the lone customs sentry at the backwoods border guard is so repulsed by the pitiful sight of her that he rushes them through with only a visual scan of the passports. They're home by lunch.

Cameron loads up the truck to go out again and finish it, and she collapses into bed, while John works the phone.

"No, he's not here," he's saying. "He didn't come back with us, so we don't...uh huh. And there's nobody else to stay and..."

A gun is cocking. Cameron must be cleaning them.

"Look, I'll explain everything, I promise I will. But we have to finish it first, and I can't just leave Mom when she's..."

She hears the door of the truck slam shut, and John's still talking.

"Fine, dinner, whatever. And I'll tell you all of it then. Just do this one thing for me first, okay?"

Her brain is almost conscious enough to process that it's Riley he's talking to. Then she's out again.

--

She comes to, and the headache is bad enough to send her, twitching and gasping, for the garbage can. It takes longer than it should to get whatever it is out of her system, considering how little she must have in there. And when she finally collapses, sick-stained, slick with sweat and fear and misery, she is aware of soft hands behind her head, a cool cloth pressing onto her face and the fluffing of pillows. The blinds are drawn. Someone has made an effort to keep her comfortable.

"Hi!" says Riley. Too loud, too cheerful. She winces, puts a hand to her head. Coughs pitifully.

"Okay," says Riley. "Let's not go down THAT road again! Hey, you should drink this."

It's Cameron's 'rehydration fluid.' She manages a small sip to keep Riley away from her, then starts coughing again.

"Whoa," Riley says. "Don't throw up on me, okay?"

She's too dizzy to move. All she can do is lay there, close her eyes and pray for her head to stop spinning. "Can't promise."

She scrunches shut her eyes. Why are there colours there? Flashes, images, moving through her fevered brain so quickly she can't even focus. Cromartie. A turtle. Three dots. And metal, all the time, metal, some of it just metal and some of it recognizable as arms, limbs, fingers. Some of the metal is covered with Cameron's skin.

It's too much. She almost shuts down again, then feels Riley's cool, light hand. "Hey. Just breathe, okay? What the hell happened to you?"

"Fever...or something..."

John, baby John, toddler John. He's gumming one of those crackers babies eat, but it's not a cracker, it's Cromartie's chip, and he's munching along, oblivious, while she screams. Then he grows up, and he's metal, and she's igniting thermite around him, but it's John again, his face, his blood, his scream as he burns, and she knows it's the end of the world...

She's aware that she's thrashing, that there is sweat in her eyes, that she's opened up the cut on her hand again. "Hey," Riley's shouting. "Mrs. Baum, Mrs. Baum, oh my god..."

She feels the wave of sickness hit, but she's too weak to do much more than roll on her side and let that tiny sip she took come back up again. Riley is there with a towel, wiping up the spatters.

"Hey, it's all right. God, your hand. Um, I'll get some bandages. You just...yeah. Um, stay here."

The bank vault, and before they jump, she's aware that Cromartie is in pieces, and each piece is spawning, growing itself like a worm, like those brooms in that song from Fantasia where Micky plays sorcerer, but each of his little fragments of broomstick are metal, and they grow before her eyes into new little Cromarties. Not enough guns for that, not enough guns, not enough guns...

Hands on her again. She struggles, or tries to, anyway. And Riley is there, and she's talking. Doing it gently this time.

"Hey, Mrs. Baum. It's okay, you understand? You're okay."

She moans, tries batting the noise away, feels cold wet hands on her cheek.

"No. Look at me. Look at me and just focus your eyes for a second. Now, here's what we'll do. I'm gonna put another bandage on your hand, okay? I have to wash it first. It might sting."

She grits her teeth, takes tiny breaths, tries not to throw up again.

"Good. Drink this, then keep taking those tiny breaths. You'll have to keep some down if you want to break the fever."

"John...John..."

"Uh huh, that'll happen. Just lie back, okay? Lie back, close your eyes and let me take care of this."

She submits, hating herself for it, for this, for all of it. She lies there for a long time. She feels Riley unwrap her hand, dab something prickly onto it, wrap it up again. She feels the cold, wet cloth pressing on her flushed cheek, then a gentle hand running fingers through her hair and whispering soothing, encouraging things. She thinks Riley makes her drink again. She's barely aware of it, almost outside her body now, like it's a movie, like it's a dream.

When she wakes up, the curtains are up again, she feels much better, and Riley is still there.

"Hey! You look better."

'Better' is relative. But yes, she does. Still emphatically queasy. But the pressing in her skull is more a dull, low ache, endurable so long as she gets what peace and quiet she can. Her hand is bandaged and clean. And the pillows are soft, so soft...

She coughs a little, and Riley jumps, but she props herself up onto her elbows with a weak smile. "I could drink again."

That hand is on her at once. "You feel a little cooler. Your fever is broken, I think. Do you...want to go to the bathroom, or something? Get cleaned up?"

The very thought of moving almost sends her stomach up through her mouth, and Riley sees it on her face and hastily corrects herself. "Or you could just lay there."

Slow, tiny breaths. "Yeah. That." Her mouth tastes like something died in it. "Can I have some water?"

Riley pours her a glass of Cameron's vile 'rehydration fluid' and she closes her eyes. "No. Water."

There is a plastic water bottle, and there's a straw and she's grateful that Riley holds it for her. It's easy, for now. She's still kind of floating out of herself, and she feels like she can manage this. If she stays exactly this warm and this quiet and this still, she could go on this way forever…

Riley comes closer, reaches out a hand, and she flinches, the movement sending her spinning again. Her head hurts. Her stomach is cramping. Tiny breaths, tiny breaths. She almost has it. Then Riley holds out a glass of that awful drink, and the sight of it has her gagging.

"Shhh, shhh…" Riley is brushing her hair with her fingers, breathing slowly, talking softly. She manages to keep it together, but it takes her a moment to right herself again.

"No more," she says. She'll keep down what she's endured already, but she won't take more.

"You have to."

"No. I don't."

Riley puts down the glass with a shrug. "Well, you're talking, at least. That must mean you're feeling better. Or maybe feeling worse. I haven't decided."

"You don't need to decide."

"Yeah. This is fucked. I mean, what happened to you guys? That thing in Mexico, that was..."

"Yeah. Riley, what are you doing here?"

"What?"

"This. Now. You. What are you doing?"

"I…well, he asked me to come."

"Uh huh. Why was that?"

"Well, he didn't want to leave you alone with you half-dead and everything, and he couldn't find his uncle, and he didn't want to leave you with the neighbour because of her baby. So who else was he gonna leave you with?"

"He doesn't need to leave me with anybody."

Riley snorts. "Please. You were so out out of it, you could barely roll over on your own. So, what, you were just gonna lie there and die?"

"I don't want to die. Don't joke about that."

"Geez! Sorry. You're so sick and miserable that I felt sorry for you for a second and almost forgot about the huge stick up your ass."

The girl punctuates her insult with a dramatic pout, and the motion alerts her to a trail of perfume leaking from Riley's arm. The smell is like an assault, and she doesn't even make it to the garbage can.

Riley sighs, pushes up her sleeves and goes nice again, rolling her over, mopping her up and saying soothing things in an overly sweet tone. She suddenly sees that she's been napping on towel. Riley nudges her over just a little while she lifts it out and puts down a fresh one.

"Easier than changing the whole bed," Riley explains. "Easier than making you move for that. My foster mom had breast cancer last year. Three months of chemo. I learned some tricks."

She picks up the glass, takes a tiny sip swishes it around in her mouth, then spits it into the garbage can. "Thanks."

"No problem. Now, try again, and don't spit it out this time. You get yourself dehydrated, you'll only feel worse."

She tries, she swallows, lets it sit for a second. So far, so good. "How…how long was I out for?"

"Hour or two? I watched Oprah, then something about a family with three sets of twins…or maybe that the Oprah? I don't know. Something. So, you're better, right? I mean, a little?"

"Yeah. Much better. You can go now."

"Nice try. God, look at you. Even half-dead, you're still trying to get rid of me."

"I'm not…"

"Sure you are. You hate me."

"No."

"Well, what is it? Look, I've had some issues, I won't deny that, but I'm not a bad person. I'm not gonna, like, hurt him or something."

"He's not the one who will get hurt. Didn't you learn anything from what just happened?"

"No, 'cause I still don't know what it *was* that just happened. But I do know that whoever those…those people were, the ones with the guns…they were the bad guys. Not John. Not me. Them. And I'm not going to just run away, even if it's safer, because then they win."

"That's noble. And stupid."

"Maybe it is. Maybe him being there, you being there, is stupid too. He hasn't explained it yet. But I know there's something going on, and I'm not scared of it."

"You should be."

"Should I? Look, you...you kinda said stuff, before? While you were kind of out of it and everything. And..."

"What?"

"You said stuff. About John, and Mexico, and something called a chrome artie who wouldn't let you go..."

And like that, it's coming at her all at once, the stresses of the last few days: John's revelation about Sarkissian, and his shunning her, and the bowling alley, the ride in the trunk, the desert, Cromartie and everything that's happened, it's coming at her all it once, and she tries to hold it in, but it's too much. She feels her body tensing, stomach twisting like she's been punched, and she's shivering and whimpering and struggling for air.

"Hey," Riley says. She's gentle, stroking her back like she's a puppy, trying to calm her down. "Keep that up and you'll be sick again. Breathe, Mrs. Baum. Come on. It's been awhile since you've really cut loose and let go of all of this, huh?"

She nods, grateful for this little understanding. She's tough, and that's not just pride, that's staking your life on you being all that stands between the world, and the end of it. She's seen worse. She's had worse. But the fever is making a lot of things hazy in her head, including her usual defenses...

She gets hold of her breathing again. Wills herself to. But she's shaky, and she lets herself curl over and wrap her arms around her knees.

"So, I was saying," Riley continues after a moment. "You said stuff. And I got the gist. I mean, I still don't completely understand who or what that thing out there was, or why it was after you, but you know, it doesn't even matter what John tells me. That guy may be a druggie or a ganglord or a vampire or space alien or a freaking cyborg for all I care, I know what's right and I know what's wrong, and I know which side I'm on. I think I know which side you're on too."

She's angry, but oddly touched at the same time. "You don't get it. You don't. He's not the only one, Riley. You get that? He's not the only one, and now that he's gone, they'll send another. And another. And another And..."

"And that scares you," Riley says. "Because you knew this one, and you don't know how the next one will be different. If it will be worse. Or better."

"It doesn't scare me," she says. "Scary is being pregnant, nineteen, and holed up in a cabin in the backwoods of Mexico with a gun, a box of saltine crackers and a second-hand nursing textbook written in Spanish, knowing that when your baby comes, you'll be alone and this is all you'll have to make sense of it. So, this? This infuriates me. But it doesn't scare me."

"Okay. So you have a story."

"Yeah. I do."

"You know, my foster family...the first one, after my dad...well, after? That's also a story. They had two little kids with them, a brother and sister. Rescued them from another house they'd been at. Those other people, at that other house? Idiots. Decided they wanted the baby, but not the little girl. So they started saying things, real subtle, you know, like nothing they could get reported for. But saying things anyway, hoping that the girl would run away and they'd only have to have the baby."

She's not sure why Riley is telling her this. But she tries. "I'm sorry."

"So, finally, they get themselves into a good place, and the girl, she isn't settling. She's still cowering every time they come near her, because she doesn't know what's going to happen. That last place, it wasn't safe for her. Because she knew that one, and she didn't know how this next one will be different."

"This isn't like that."

"Sure it is. And you know, fight-or-flight is real handy when something bigger and stronger than you is coming at you with something sharp or hot or painful. But you can't live that way, or you'll go nuts."

"Nobody is nuts. Don't joke about that either."

"Look, all I'm saying is maybe you just need to understand that I'm not the one coming after you, you know? I have a story too. And I'm not coming after you."

"It's not that simple. If they find you...Riley, if they find you, they'll hurt you. Maybe worse. And they might make you lead them to us. I can't...I just..."

"I get it," Riley says. "Okay. So maybe you can live that way. But he can't, Mrs. Baum. He can't."

Damn fever. She can't keep the tears out of her voice. "So, where does that leave me?"

"That's your thing to work out. But honestly, if you want my opinion? You try and keep him away from life, and he'll wind up like you. I mean, look at you. You really think this is just a flu bug thing? It's not. This is you, falling out from all of this. And you know, there are better ways to land."

"And you?"

"What about me?"

"We're not the only ones in danger, if they come again."

"So, I've had danger. And don't tell me I don't understand, it doesn't matter whether it's a gunfight at the OK Corral, or a stupid son of a bitch who's bigger than you and doesn't know when to stop drinking. A threat is a threat. I'll deal with it the same way I always do, and if it goes wrong, at least I'll know I stood up for something that's bigger than me. That's the best I can promise you right now."

"I'm not happy with this."

"You don't have to be. But you can make it easier if you want it to be that way. You know that, right?"

It's been so long since she has had choices. She doesn't quite know what to do with this. But she's still shaking, and she thinks it's more from exhaustion now.

"Look, let's do some more of this healthy fluids crap, then I'll help you clean yourself up. And you should sleep a little."

"Yeah." She's already going spacey again. "I should sleep. Riley?"

"Yeah, Mrs. Baum."

"What...what happened? With that family. That little girl. Did she..."

"It's been awhile since I've seen them. I left when my mom got out of rehab, and when I went back into the system, they sent me to another family. But we stay in touch. And...it's hard, you know? They love her. They do everything they can. But it's a hard thing to believe that your safe again when you've spent so long waiting for something bad to find you."

She's gratified that Riley tells her this honestly, and doesn't sugar-coat a happy ending. They both know it doesn't work that way...

"God, you look like you're going to collapse again. Just sleep, okay?"

The dreams are different this time. There's still fire, and metal, and horrible, painful death. But Riley is in there too, and she even hours later, when John is home, and he stays with her, she can't decide if that's a good thing or not.

the end