I couldn't resist doing an epilogue - I took liberties with Breeze's backstory (and various other aspects of the plot!), I know, but in my head her dad's awesome...
The voice in my head that's screaming at me to move is hers. That's the only reason I open my eyes and hold back the cry of pain that threatens to escape me as soon as I move. I ignore it, sitting up and looking for her.
But then I see the wreckage of the church all around me, barely visible through the smoke and the fire that surrounds the altar. It makes me remember, and suddenly I know she's gone.
The voice shouts again, yelling at me to move, and though I now know it's nothing more than my own subconscious, it still speaks with Breeze's voice. My head hurts and a big part of me just wants to lie back down on the altar and go to sleep forever. But Brianna wouldn't lie down and die. She'd fight. She did fight, so I can't quit either. Not when I know what she'd say if she was still here.
I raise my hands and aim my palms down, clearing a path through the fire and following it.
I make it as far as the plaza before I pass out again.
There are bright lights everywhere. And noise. So much noise, but different noise, noise I haven't heard for so long. Loud voices, the dull buzz of what sounds like a car engine underneath sirens wailing. I sit up instantly, raising my hands and pulling violently away from the force that tries to hold me down.
When my eyes adjust, I see a man staring down at me. A middle-aged man. I don't understand. That's impossible. Unless…
"The barrier's gone," I say, still struggling to get up.
The man nods. "A couple of hours ago."
"Stop. I have to get out."
"We're taking you to hospital, Dekka. You're pretty beaten up."
"How do you know who I am?" I retort, pulling further away until I hit what must be the side of the ambulance.
The woman driving looks back with a concerned expression and shouts to her partner, but he shakes his head and tells her to keep going.
"Your father identified you when we found you in the plaza."
"You'll see your parents when we get to the hospital."
I shrug my shoulders and say nothing. It's been a long time since I cared what my parents think and longer still since I missed them. All I can think is that Breeze died less than a day before the FAYZ ended. If she'd just stayed put until she recovered like I told her to then she'd have lived.
Then we'd have got out together, and whether she'd loved me like I loved her or not, I wouldn't feel so totally alone. I wouldn't feel like everything I went through was for nothing.
When I was discharged from hospital, I was sent home with my parents. I'd told everyone, from doctors to nurses to the psychiatrists who insisted on visiting me virtually daily even though I told them nothing that I could live on my own, but they didn't listen. I'm a child, they told me. A child? After the FAYZ? As if. But out here I am a child, legally anyway. Some of them said they wished they could help me but the law's the law. Others, especially the psychiatrists, see my refusal to talk about what happened as further sign of my mental instability and basically told me it's either my parents or a special institution.
"Dekka, get down here!" yells my dad from the bottom of the stairs. "You'll miss your appointment."
"Good," I mutter under my breath and checking my watch.
I think I must have set a record for getting through shrinks over the past few weeks. My mom has driven me into town virtually every day since I came home and I've sat in the same office for hours on end while they've tried to make me talk. Nothing they did worked. The only time I've ever spoken so much as a word was when one woman asked me if I wanted to talk about Brianna. The memory of upending her desk and storming out of the room is one of the few things that makes me smile.
The sound of a car pulling up outside the house makes me look up. Good. They're on time.
I grab my bag off the bed and swing it onto my shoulder at the same time as Dad yells my name again. That's the only time he speaks to me now, when he's yelling. To start with I thought the FAYZ and everything that happened might have given him time to think, to realise I'm still his daughter, but I was wrong. We might as well be strangers now, and Mom hasn't the strength or the will to go against him. There's nothing for me here. There will never be anything for me here.
"Miss Talent?" asks the uniformed man on the doorstep, and when I nod, he holds a set of keys out towards me. "I just need you to sign here. The payment's all gone through."
"Payment?" interrupts Dad. "Payment for what?"
"The car, Dad," I say, nodding in the direction of the black SUV on the drive and trying not to smile at the thought that this is just the kind of recklessness Breeze would have loved. "I'm going to the Pismo Beach memorial."
"I already told you, you're not going. If this is about that girl again…" he snarls disgustedly.
"You can't stop me," I reply, lifting the keys. "And her name was Brianna."
"Dekka? Honey? Are you coming back?"
I turn to look back at Mom. She's standing at the foot of the stairs, her eyes never leaving me. That's the first time she's called me 'honey' since before Dad sent me to Coates. I've never seen her look so confused.
"I don't know, Mom," I reply honestly. "Not for a while."
"Dekka Talent, if you walk out of this house then you won't be coming back!"
Dad, obviously. I lift my bag higher onto my shoulder and walk past the stunned man who brought the car and is still standing on the doorstep.
I don't look back.
Once there was rumour of a Hollywood movie and Astrid started appearing on the television with Todd Chance and Jennifer Brattle, they organised a memorial in what's left of Perdido Beach as well.
I leave the centre of town long before virtually everyone else who attended the service. A lot of the people here are FAYZ survivors and their families, and then the grieving families of those who didn't get out, but for every one of them there are at least two reporters or tourists, all clamouring for the latest exclusive or snapshot to show their friends back home. What happened here has become a tourist attraction, a media circus, and the mere thought of that makes my skin crawl with disgust and anger in equal measure.
"Hey, Dekka," says a voice behind me, and I turn to see Sinder smiling shyly.
She's with her parents, her clothes are neat and clean and her hair shines in the sun, but that isn't what I notice first. What I notice first is her eyes. Virtually all of the FAYZ kids have those eyes, haunted eyes that have seen more than any person should.
That's when I know I have to get out of here. There's nothing for me here now. And maybe that means there's nothing for me anywhere, but I can't bring myself to care.
I start running and don't stop for anyone.
I keep going without stopping until I reach Lake Tramonto, sometimes running but more often walking or stumbling down the stony path. The big clean up they've started in Perdido Beach hasn't reached here yet. The burnt out wreck of our settlement is still here. If I close my eyes I can still smell the fires burning and hear the kids screaming.
I walk closer. I can't stop crying. I can't see through the tears streaming down my face. I sink to the floor, hoping there's no one here to see me fall.
It's started to go dark before I realise I've been here for hours. I must have fallen asleep but I don't remember. No one found me. No one came after me. I suppose there isn't anyone to care if I'm there or not, not now the FAYZ has ended and she's gone.
For the millionth time I look up and expect to see her standing there, to feel her kick my leg impatiently to get me to hurry up. For the millionth time I look up and see nothing.
"Why did you have to leave me, girl?" I ask the shadow of her that exists only in my mind. "Why?"
I shake my head and reach into my bag for the single white lily I bought before the memorial service started. It's got a card tied to it, one of those the florists put there to trick grieving people into thinking there's a way to condense everything they're feeling into a few short words they're capable of writing down.
I'd been planning to write something even if I didn't know what. But I'd meant to put the lily on the official memorial plaque like so many of the others did as well. I guess that's not going to happen now either.
I grasp the stem of the flower and angrily pull my hand back, but before I can throw it in the lake, I stop and stare across at the tree a few metres down from where I'm sitting. How many times did she slouch against that tree, waiting for me to catch up with her only to breeze ahead all over again?
I spend a couple of seconds writing and then place the lily at the base of the tree, walking backwards until I'm too far away to read what I put. I don't need to see it. I'll always remember it, until the day I die.
'In loving memory of Brianna, the Breeze with a capital 'B'.'
I didn't really want to go back into town, but I had to because I left the car there. As I get close, I hope all the people have gone now, and mostly they have, but when I reach the plaza and see the small family leaving the newly reopened Italian restaurant, I know it's them. Breeze's family, or should I say her mother, half-sisters and the step-father she called Jerkface so easily and freely that I never thought to ask her his real name.
He's talking loudly to another man, a reporter, I'm guessing, laughing and joking until a woman appears with a camera. Then his obviously carefully perfected 'sad and grieving' face falls back into place instantly and he puts his arm around his wife. The pretence of grief vanishes as soon as the camera does, and he's already moved on with his conversation.
I know I should carry on walking, but when the small group heads towards me, I somehow can't make my feet move. I want to talk to her. I want to make sure she knows the truth about her daughter, so I stare back at Jerkface and Brianna's mom until they finally see me and stop.
"You're Dekka, aren't you? Thank you for writing to me," says the woman who looks absolutely nothing like Brianna.
"I think she'd have wanted you to know the truth," I reply cautiously, constantly watching Jerkface out of the corner of my eye. "Thank you for the photo."
She looks sidelong at her husband. The look she gets back tells me he didn't know about that and he isn't too happy.
"None of it seems possible," she says. "But I saw her. I saw Brianna run. And she was on the television."
"Come on, Martha," interrupts Jerkface before she can carry on. "It's time to go."
With a slight nod, Brianna's mom walks after him without another word. I'd considered for a second that Breeze might have got her personality from her mom if she didn't get her looks, but there's nothing of the recklessly brave girl I loved in the weak-willed woman in front of me.
And that means there's only one place left for me to go.
Her real father lives in Beaumont, a mere half an hour away from where her mom still lives with her second husband in Banning. The houses that line the street aren't as big and impressive, but the one I've parked opposite looks bright and cheerful, with pots under the windows that are overflowing with flowers.
I sit there for so long that all the people I saw leave for work have started to return, and still I can't find the courage to get out of the car and knock the door. Breeze's parents divorced when she was seven, and she never saw her dad after that. He left and she never knew why, and for a while she hated him for abandoning her when she'd always thought he loved her as much as she loved him.
Then the man who became her step-father appeared on the scene shortly after her eighth birthday, and she knew there was more to the story than she'd been told. She told me how many times she'd asked her mom and how many times she got the same unsatisfactory answers. When she knew there was nobody else around to hear, she told me how much she missed her dad, how much she used to wish he'd turn up at Coates and take her away.
Then a knock on the window interrupts my thoughts and I jump back, laughing at myself inside because I still instinctively raise my hands like I'm going to be able to do what I could do in the FAYZ.
There's a man standing on the sidewalk, and though I only saw him from a distance just after the wall came down, I'd know him anywhere. He has the same hazel eyes as Breeze, the same slightly wild strawberry blonde hair. He's the reason I'm here, but now it's come to it, I don't know what to say or do and want nothing more than to run away.
"I think you're here to see me," he says, opening the car door slowly and calmly as if he knows I'm thinking of bolting.
"I'm Dekka," I manage eventually, all the ways I thought of explaining my presence outside his house deserting me totally.
"I know," he replies. "Do you want to come inside?"
I nod, and when he smiles at me, it's with her smile, that mischievous, cocky grin that used to take my breath away.
The inside of the house is as nice as the outside. There's a shelf in the hallway lined with photographs and Brianna's in every one, a baby in the first and the girl I knew at Coates in the last.
"You left her. How have you got those?" I ask flatly, gesturing at the photos at the end of the row.
He doesn't reply for a long time, giving me chance to realise that I probably have no right to talk to him like that, especially not in his own home. I should care, like I should care about so many things, but Gaia took away my reason to care so I don't. Grief is the only emotion my body and mind know how to do properly now.
"Left her?" he says, laughing the most humourless laugh I've ever heard. "I loved her. She was my daughter, my little girl. I didn't leave her."
"She told me about the divorce. About how one day you were there and the next you weren't."
"I suppose it would have seemed that way to her." He's crying openly now, and when I follow him into the kitchen, he sits down at the table and puts his head in his hands to hide his face. "I tried to see her every day. I waited outside the house, the school, I even followed her to the mall. I spoke to her a couple of times that way, but then her step-father came along and convinced her mother to get a restraining order. I lost all rights to see her and they hired someone to follow me. I tried everything but I couldn't get close. The last time I tried, they had me put in jail."
"How?" I ask disbelievingly. "You were just a dad trying to see his kid."
"Martha, Brianna's mom, told the cops stuff, made up lies about how I abused her and made her life unbearable, hers and Brianna's. I didn't. I swear to God I didn't," he says, almost desperately, like he's pleading with me to believe him.
I do. Whatever was or wasn't or might have been between Breeze and me, she told me things she'd never have told anyone else. If there'd been anything like that going on then I'd have known. And I reckon I was always a good judge of character and the FAYZ made me even better. Between the man in front of me and the step-father? I know who I believe.
"I don't know how but they made it stick," he continues. "Bribed the cops, I guess. Either way, I never spoke to Brianna again, not until the very end, up by the barrier."
"You saw her when she was in the FAYZ?"
"I got one of the other kids to get a message to her, then drove up to the barrier in the National Park in the middle of the night. I knew she'd be able to find me because of the way she could…" he trails off, as if he's searching for the right word.
"Breeze," I supply. "That's what she used to call it. That's why she was the Breeze."
"I had a notepad, a pencil and a torch and she wrote with a stick on the ground. I told her the truth about what happened when she was a kid. She told me that before the FAYZ came, her mom was going to take her home and let her go back to Nicolet. And she talked about the FAYZ and the power and something called the gaiaphage. I've heard that word so many times from so many kids."
"It's a long and very complicated story. I don't totally get all of it and I was there."
"She talked about people, too. She talked about you."
"She called you awesome. She said she loved you but she didn't know how, in what way, I mean. And said you were well-known for, how did she phrase it again…epic badassery? Is that even a word?"
"Kind of," I reply, torn between laughter and tears for what feels like the millionth time in the past hour alone.
"I've spent the past couple of months travelling around everywhere, talking to all the FAYZ kids I could find. Because I had to know the truth. And after all of it, the one person I wanted to speak to more than any other turned up on my doorstep this morning."
"I understand. If I can answer your questions then I will."
"You know, I've spoken to more kids than I can remember, and each one told me different things that just seemed to get crazier and crazier. But there were two things they all said the same: that Sam loved Astrid and Dekka loved Brianna. That never changed."
I look down at the floor, waiting for his outrage without knowing how I'll react when it inevitably comes.
"Tell me about her, Dekka. Tell me about the things she said and did. Everyone talks about the Breeze but I want to know about Brianna."
"Brianna was the Breeze. All that crazy brave stuff she did, that was who she was, even before the FAYZ."
"You expected me to hate you, didn't you?" he asks, changing the subject as quickly as his daughter used to. "I could see it on your face."
"My own father hates me. Why should you be different?"
"Because, forgive me for saying it, but I'm not a narrow-minded bigot like your father obviously is. And because you were there for my daughter when I couldn't be. I'm more grateful to you than I could ever say."
That's it then. There's something in his words, in his Brianna-like openness, that makes me crumble just like I did back at Lake Tramonto after the memorial. I cry for some indeterminable time, and it's only when I stop that I realise he was crying too.
I stay in Beaumont for a couple of days, but after I leave I don't know where to go next. I can't face my parents, and I'm not sure I would be welcome even if I wanted to go back to the place I used to call home. So instead I keep driving, sleeping in the car because I can't bear the thought of having someone recognise me if I try to stay in a hotel.
In the end, I start to think I'm going crazy. I see thousands of people going about their lives and it's almost like I imagined the whole thing, that the FAYZ never really happened.
But deep inside I know it did. Because I remember what it felt like to raise my hands and make the ground shake. Because I remember those bugs crawling inside me and eating me alive. And because I remember Brianna's kiss so vividly that it couldn't have been anything other than real. The good and the bad, that's what I told her about Penny's visions once, and the same is true about the FAYZ.
That's how I know it was real.
In the end it's an old newspaper abandoned on a park bench that takes me to San Luis Obispo. Roger's here, brought to the hospital after being found wandering the Stefano Rey long after the FAYZ wall fell. If he's here then Edilio will be here too, and suddenly all I can think of is seeing someone who understands what I'm feeling.
I walk inside quickly, trying to look like I know where I'm going. It isn't visiting time, so I doubt I'll be allowed in openly. But then I see him, or the back of him anyway, as he leans against a vending machine that clearly isn't cooperating.
"It just isn't Pepsi and Nutella, is it, Edilio?" I say, furious with myself because my voice is shaking with the effort of holding back tears I didn't think I had left to shed.
"Dekka? What are you doing here? I thought you'd gone home with your folks."
"I guess that just didn't work out," I reply. "It turns out not even the FAYZ could fix my family."
"Their loss," he says, his eyes telling me he understands at least part of why I couldn't stay with my parents. "How're you holding up?"
"I'm fine," I lie, lifting the bag I'd brought in with me. "I heard Roger was here. So I got him some proper food."
Edilio turns his back on the vending machine with a smile and leads me quickly down a long, sterile-looking corridor.
"Quick," he hisses, holding open a door about halfway down. "You shouldn't be here. They only let me stay because they got fed up of tripping over me when I wouldn't leave." Then he turns away and speaks to someone inside. "Dekka's here. And she brought pizza."
"Some people are just naturally awesome," is Roger's reply as I step into the room and Edilio closes the door behind us.
We sit there all afternoon, eating pizza and talking. If it wasn't for the food, the room and the general lack of chaos and destruction then it would almost be like being back in the FAYZ. That thought is far more relaxing than it should be considering what we lived through.
I tell Edilio and Roger about leaving my parents' house, about driving to the memorials and going to see Brianna's dad, talking more than I think I ever have before, but when Roger asks me what I'm going to do next, I stare silently back at him. I don't know what to say. Do next? Is there a next? Can there ever be a next for me?
"Sam's mom emancipated him, you know?" says Edilio mildly, ending the awkward silence. "He's legally an adult now."
"Really? Good for Sam. I can just imagine my dad's response to that one."
"Two years is a long time if he can't accept who you are, Dekka."
"Eighteen months," I retort.
"Whatever. But you have to live your life while you have the chance. The FAYZ taught me that. Don't wait for your eighteenth, Dekka."
"This is for you," says Roger, holding the rolled piece of paper he's been working on for the past hour or so out to me. "Payment for the food."
I stare back at him incredulously, but he doesn't pull his hand back until I give in and take the paper. When I unroll it, I'm lost for words.
"From memory, I know, but I think it's right."
The simple pencil drawing I can't take my eyes off is of Brianna, not of the child in the photo I still have in my bag, but of the young woman I remember from the end of the FAYZ. It's of the Breeze I loved, and I don't know what to say.
"She'd want you to live, Dekka. You know that."
In the end I go back to Beaumont. I don't know why really, only that it feels right and somehow closer to her. My dad finds me eventually, although he doesn't seem to want me back any more than I want to return home.
Emancipation's a non-starter though. The idea of the news reporters dragging us and my so-called lifestyle choice through the headlines is far too much for him to bear.
I don't push it. I haven't got the energy. For anything. Ever again.
I thought I heard her shouting to me when I regained consciousness in the burning ruins of the Perdido Beach church, but it's only when I hear her again several months later that I allow myself to acknowledge that my subconscious isn't letting her go any more than I can forget her in my waking reality.
"Get off your butt and do something," she says, and if I close my eyes I can almost see her, standing in front of me with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face.
I shake my head and look around the apartment I bought with some of the money I got from doing the small number of interviews I consented to give after the FAYZ ended. I hide in here. I shut myself away from the world and its scrutiny. I know it and I'm ashamed.
But I hate being recognised when I go out. I hate the fame that Breeze would have loved.
"Dekka! Can I come in?!"
"I'm in here!" I yell back.
Brianna's dad is probably my only regular visitor. I guess we've become friends of sorts, united in our grief before anything else. He's a good man, but I can't help missing the dad I used to have when I was little whenever I see him. And he reminds me of Brianna so sharply sometimes that it hurts.
"You've got someone here to see you," he says. "She's not a reporter. I've checked."
He moves aside and is replaced by a young woman who's probably only a year or two older than me. She's expensively dressed, kind of like Astrid when she does her television interviews, but at the same time totally different. She's small and slight but she still looks fierce. Despite her caramel skin and jet black hair, something in the look in her eyes reminds me of Breeze. I have to turn away.
"If you're not a reporter then what do you want?"
"I could help you."
"Do I look like I need help?" I retort sharply, but instead of backing away like most people do in response to the glare I gave her, she stands her ground and shrugs her shoulders. The gesture seems out of place on someone who appears so together and composed. "I don't even know you."
"I'm Janelle. And I heard you have a problem with an emancipation case, namely your own."
"There isn't an emancipation case. Big media shows aren't my thing so I guess I'm just going to have to wait it out," I tell her, thinking of Brianna and how she used to perform for the cameras. "And what's it to you anyway?"
"I could help. I'm going to Harvard. To law school. I'm going to be the best attorney in the country," she replies with no hint of self-doubt.
"And you're so modest with it," I say sarcastically, but as soon as the words leave my mouth I remember the last time I said something similar and who I was speaking to when I said it. "I have to go."
And though I forgot about it soon after, in time I would come to remember that day as the first time I met a lawyer named Janelle.
On the day of my seventeenth birthday, I try to go back to school. I last less than a day.
I'm no Astrid, but I'm a long way from stupid, and it wasn't that I couldn't do the work. I just couldn't bear the place itself, the crowds of people, the enclosed environment, the rules I'm far too used to living outside of.
Something about my trip to high school brings everything flooding back. Despite everything, I miss the FAYZ. I miss controlling gravity, I miss the respect I had, and I miss Breeze. I miss her every second of every day. It's at times like this that I know everyone who's told me it would get easier was lying.
And that's how I end up racing through the school grounds like I'm never going to stop instead of going to math.
I'll never go back there again. I can't.
"Hey," says a familiar voice from behind me, and when I turn around, she's there.
"Are you real?" I ask, the question sounding stupid as soon as I say it because I know she's gone.
"Does it matter?" she replies, stepping closer, so close I could almost reach out and touch her.
"I can't deal with school, Breeze," I tell her, shrugging my shoulders in defeat. "I guess I suck at following rules as much as you do."
"It's the rules that suck, not you," she retorts. "Don't bother with them. Do something else."
"Whatever you want. You're you. You can do anything."
"That's crap and you know it, Breezy. I have nothing. No qualifications. Nothing."
"But you've got money."
"Money," I think, and suddenly I'm sitting bolt upright in the park gazebo, totally alone.
I look at my watch and know I must have fallen asleep. But now I have an idea and I'm wide awake. I don't know if I can make it work, but I'm going to try because Brianna would want me to. And because I want to. For the first time since Gaia destroyed my everything with a beam of light from her hand, I have a plan, a place to start.
Hollywood makes the movie in the end. They release it on the fourth anniversary of the end of the FAYZ amidst a flurry of promotional activity and millions of people all over the world flock to see it.
I'm not one of them. I avoid it like the plague. Seeing posters and billboards is enough for me. And is more than close enough to the slight young strawberry-blonde actress wearing denim shorts and battered sneakers who calls herself the Breeze.
But the small percentage of the film's takings I get is good though, and I plough it straight back into the charity. My charity, I correct. The charity I set up that provides support for children and young people who have no one else to turn to.
I smile at the thought of its success. It seems my fame as a FAYZ-survivor is good for something after all, and it keeps me occupied, it doesn't leave me time to think.
"You always said I think too much," I whisper, looking across at the photo of Brianna that still rests on my desk after all this time.
"Dekka! Dekka! We won!"
I look up just as Janelle bursts into my office without knocking, her face all lit up with her victory. Ten years ago I met a cocky high school graduate on her way to Harvard, and she kept the promise she made to me that day. She went to law school, graduated top of her class and then became one of the top human rights lawyers in the country.
"Did you hear me, Dekka?! We won. They dropped all charges and threw the case out of court!"
Some of the young people my charity helps require legal aid, and over the years, that legal aid has increasingly come to involve Janelle. For months we've been working to help a thirteen-year-old girl who killed her abusive step-father in self defence, and today was the day of the final verdict.
"I know there'd got to be a reason I put up with you," I tell her, rolling my eyes at the exuberance of the woman who has become my closest friend before giving in to the smile I can't hold back.
She flies around my desk and into my arms, not giving me the chance to push her away like I usually would, like I have so many times before. Her small weight is next to nothing in comparison to the massive force of her personality in a way that's painfully familiar even after all this time.
"OK, OK, at least try to remember you're this hotshot, professional lawyer not a kid in a candy store," I say, pushing her back to her feet. "Someone might see you and your badass reputation will be ruined."
To my total surprise, her only response to that is to lean down and kiss me, briefly but firmly enough to leave me breathless. I stare speechless up at her for several seconds before finally finding my voice.
"Jan, I can't. I'm sorry…"
"She died over ten years ago, Dekka. You can and will grieve forever, but she wouldn't want this. She wouldn't want you to go home to an empty house for the rest of your days."
"I know. I just… I'm not good at this."
"I've waited this long for you, Dekka Talent, and you should know by now that I don't quit at anything. Consider this a warning."
"Is that a promise?"
"Absolutely," she replies, grinning widely back at me. "So come out with me and celebrate yet another triumph for justice."
I shake my head in defeat, smiling at the same time. Just as it was ten years ago with a very different person, resistance is futile and I know it.
I tried an AU ending where Brianna lives, but I can't seem to stop it from descending into total fluff. I might post it anyway, but other than that, this is it - thank you for reading and especially to those of you who've commented :)