Disclaimer: I'm going to admit this wasn't my favourite chapter. Not a lot happens action wise and it felt like mostly filler but some new developments do occur that I am happy with and I think progresses the relationships further. Not a lot of Derek but lots of Amanda and John. Enjoy!
I lifted the beer to my lips, hesitating before taking a sip and tasting the bitterness of it out of habit then any instinct of thirst. I balanced it between my hands, fingers scrapping at the damp label and shredding it all over my palms. A nervous habit. Soldiers didn't have nervous habits. Teenage girls did though and I was somewhere in between. I dropped my gaze down at the bottle, at my hands turning it and was rewarded in seeing older ones holding it. Larger ones that went around the whole bottle and held it like a lifeline. I remembered those hands. I had been afraid of those hands. I set the bottle down beside me harder then I intended and a crack etched its way up the neck. I clasped my hands together and exhaled, a weight at the back of my neck like eyes I couldn't get out of sight of watching me. The target on my back that had changed its purpose to a few hundred machines instead of just that one man. And it was the one man I was still afraid of. My jaw clenched and I looked up, scanning the playground for something – anything to distract me but coming empty but for a man in coveralls and a small girl with her mother. He isn't here. The tiny voice had become more tender then mocking and I hated it all the more for it. For pitying me –trying to comfort me when it wasn't what I wanted. Someone being kind about it because that's what he had done and he wasn't here. He told me he would be. That I could come to him when I needed him. Well, I needed him and he wasn't here. It tasted almost like grief acknowledging it and I wished I could be angry because I could manage anger when loss just felt heavy. But you can't lose something you've never had. And I had never had him. Just a promise he hadn't kept and a voice reminding me that he hadn't. I closed my eyes, exhaling again and my fingers scrapping for that nervous habit again. Machines. Skynet. Nuclear War. The Future. John Connor. Amanda Connor. Me. Derek wasn't in that equation. Neither was the memory of the girl who had buried her sister and then killed a bad man. The hands that had held the bottle and had made me put it down. I reached over to pick up the bottle, turning it slowly so the beer sloshed over the lip and into the grass to puddle into mud. I waited until it was empty; until all that came out was foam and then dropping the bottle after. It broke onto the grass in large pieces; half buried in the suds and poking clear out of the grass. Breaking the image of those hands and the man that they had belonged too. Of the emptiness of Derek's room and the weight of realization that it took until now to settle. He wasn't coming. And even if he was I shouldn't be here waiting for him.
I kicked up a rock, hands buried in my pockets and nudging the gun in the back of my jeans. It was obvious that I was sulking and I hated how ugly the sound of it was even in my own head. How out of place it felt with the beer pounding in my head and the gun at my back. That teenager in fatigues and not sure how she had gotten them. A mistake – mistaken identity and no one had come forward to apologize for the mistake. She should be the one to do it. Even if it wasn't her fault she was the face I gave to it and the one that I could almost hate. I was being a child, wanting what I couldn't have and angry at someone who had less control then I did. Amanda Connor was never a child. Or a victim. But now I had managed to be both. I am not her. Not yet. She was not a child or a victim. And I somehow managed to be both. I started to climb the front stone steps when my eyes caught something and I stopped – hand to my gun. The front door had been broken into; paint missing from the frame and the glass cracked inside the pane. John. Panic plunged its knife into my chest and I pulled my gun out of my jeans, fingers shaking as I edged closer to nudge open the door. Please let him be okay, please let him be okay, please let him be okay … The door creaked around me and a gun was in my face before I could properly get through.
"What are you doing here?" Sarah asked, the gun in her hand and raised to eye level.
"I live here," I said, not taking my eyes off the gun but wanting to look around her for some sign of John. I took the hint that if she was here talking to me then he must be alright but I knew I would feel better when I could see him for myself.
"You've been gone for hours," she finally lowered the gun and stepped back so I could come in around her. The living room had been torn apart; the table overturned with the glass top broken and pillows and cushions tossed across the carpet. I stepped over the table when something cracked under my boots. I pulled back and looked down to see a picture frame broken on the floor. I slowly knelt to pick it up; the cracks obscuring the faces of the family inside it but I could tell they were smiling. Something sick thrust itself up my throat and I turned it over on top of one of the couch cushions that had remained in place.
"What happened?" I asked and making myself step back from the picture and unsure why I still had that catch in my throat.
"We've been robbed," she sighed and I looked back at her for the tiredness of her voice. She tucked her gun back into her jeans and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. It caught in the morning light for a moment and I saw that it was grey.
"And John?" I asked, finally giving voice to the question and my throat closing after it so I wouldn't breathe until she answered.
"Upstairs," she said and jerked her head to the staircase. I slowly nodded though she couldn't see my answer and the fist in my chest loosened its fingers so I could breathe again.
"What about Derek?" I thought I asked it casually but Sara must have heard some catch in my voice that she imagined or I didn't notice. She turned, her eyes dark but her face expressionless.
"We thought he was with you," her voice was had gone flat, the end of her sentence hanging for me to pick up and implicate myself on. Of course he was with me. Where else would he be?
"I haven't seen him," I shrugged, walking over to the overturned table and gripping my hands around two of its legs to righten it. I could feel her eyes on the back of my neck; a pinprick of a target that could nonetheless kill me if she decided to press hard enough.
"Hmm," she said as way of intelligent reply, footsteps echoing down on top of it. My hand went to my lower back as John ducked his head down over the railing and grinning when he saw me.
"What are you doing here?" He asked, jumping the last few steps and landing hard on the front carpet before making his way over to hug me. I rested my head briefly into the crook of his neck as way of alleviating the sore tension in my chest before stepping back and dropping my hand from my gun.
"I live here," I said, shrugging of the similarity in the question between him and his mother but not the intent and tone behind it. His grin widened and he ducked his head like he was embarrassed by his reaction. The strands of his hair fell down over his forehead and I curled my fingers into my fist to keep back from touching it.
"What did you find?" Sarah asked, her patience frayed over waiting for us to finish as Cameron silently came into the room and stopped to stand behind her.
"My leather jacket is gone," she said, her left eyebrow raised and lips pursued in the mimic of human grief. I remembered her asking me once what people looked like when they were sad and I answered they didn't look like anything – they bottled it up where no one can see it.
"So is most of the food," John sighed, arm falling heavily to his side as he gestured to the kitchen and then back upstairs. "And all the bedrooms have been gone through, the medicine cabinet …"
"Human," I guessed, almost smiling at the thought that we had spent our lives defending ourselves against machines and had forgotten that humans could still be the enemy. It was mine and John's footsteps that had spurred us to action but Cameron's we hadn't even heard.
"What about cash? ID's, diamonds …," Sarah went on, listing anything she could remember off the top of her head and counting off her fingers as she went.
"All missing," Cameron confirmed, an indecipherable nod that Sarah had to look back to see. "Including my leather jacket."
"I'll call Derek," I volunteered, taking my phone from my jacket pocket before Sarah snatched it out of my hands.
"I don't think so," she said, turning her back to me as she finished dialling and waited for him to pick up. I awkwardly closed my fingers over my palm, clenching them harder then necessary and imagining that it was her throat they were closed around.
"Where were you?" John asked, now that Sarah was occupied and his question concerned instead of accusing.
"Re-con," I lied, dropping my eyes and guilt settling in my chest that it was Derek I had been waiting for instead of John. But it was my duty to protect John not to confide in him. He had his own burdens to bear. I owed Derek nothing and all he had to claim was a promise he couldn't keep. The thought was bitter and I tried to smile assuring past it.
"No, it's Sarah," she turned to glare at me as whatever Derek said thinking it was me earned me the reproach. I shrugged nonchalantly in response, turning my back to her and not wanting to feel cowed by whatever she thought she knew. I gripped my fingers into the arm of one of the chairs and started to tilt and right it.
"Here," John said hurriedly, rushing over to help and grunting under the awkward weight as I then grabbed the scattered pillows to toss them back onto the seat.
"Do you think they saw them as a threat or a commodity?" He asked, gesturing to the last pillow in my arms and smirking at the awkward joke. I grinned; appreciating that he was trying to elevate the tension, which was, more then Sarah or I could claim to. (Better transition).
"What's wrong with the system?" Sarah asked, now off the phone and pressing various buttons on the alarm before slamming her palm in frustration into the wall beside it. "Why didn't it beep or do whatever it was supposed to do?" John looked down as she asked, gaze off to the side and to the broken glass on the floor like he was fascinated by it instead of it simply being used as a distraction.
"It was my fault," I said, louder then necessary but wanting to speak over any protest he might make with enough authority that it would look like he was covering for me instead of the other way around. Sarah turned, the lines of her face sharp and her expression bordered on murderous.
"Your fault?" She asked, not as much because she didn't hear but wanted me again to admit to my fault.
"Yeah, I snuck out and forgot to reset it," I shrugged, hands dug deep into my pockets and the image of an unrepentant teenager admitting to her crime to take pride in the confession.
"No, mom …," John urged but Sarah held up a hand to silence him.
"That was very stupid," she stepped closer to me so the inches she had over me in height stacked on top of one another and so that my nose could have grazed her chin. I stared back at her as her jaw tightened, looking past whatever justification she could have for her anger and settling on that she hated me for reasons beyond my control. That I couldn't look to her for the position she was supposed to fill because I had lost it too many times before and I wasn't willing to trust it again.
"Yeah, that's me. Stupid Mandy," I raised my shoulder in half a shrug and the tension of the moment lessened as she took my action as negligent over anything purposefully malicious.
"We should move to Canada," Cameron suddenly suggested, brightened by the thought and not dissuaded from it by the tension in the room. "We should move to Canada."
The trek up the stairs seemed longer then usual – the weight of what there was to expect pressing on each of my steps so I was both afraid and anticipating what damage could have been done to the small space I'd called my own. Bed sheets ripped maybe? A broken lamp? The extent of my possessions and yet I felt the violation of it even before I got to my door and as I nudged it open. The carpet I'd had spread beside my bed was shuffled off to the side and my sheets thrown back like someone had dug through them looking for something. The lamp was on the floor but it wasn't broken and my bedside dresser had been moved back from the wall. The image twisted under my skin; unsettling it so I saw the hands of whoever did this pulling it apart and finding nothing of value among my things. It was stupid. A lamp, a bed … they were just things. But they were my things. I knelt to pull the carpet back into a straight line, harsher then necessary and that violation now beating into my chest like a clock ticking down to something. I picked up the pillow half shoved under the bed and froze as the dark space stared back at me with a clash of what it meant. A hiding place, a safe haven where only I had fit and he couldn't come under no matter how far he reached his arm and coaxed. Now it was a bed. Just the space underneath it. And a picture. I slowly reached out for it, dragging it back with me and dust gathering around it in a soft sweep. I turned it over, brushing it off and smoothing the crumpled edges. Like someone had picked it up; found it worthless and tossed it aside. The one thing that was really mine and it had been found wanting. Just a picture. Just a picture …
"Where'd Sarah and Cameron go?" I asked, loudly coming down the stairs and despite my question not really caring that they were gone. Just a picture. Just a promise. Just. I was beginning to hate the word.
"Went to go find the people that robbed us," John answered, broom balanced between his hands and the small pile next to him indicating that his heart wasn't in it. He made another sweep, which ended up scattering more glass, and I couldn't help grinning. Saviour of the world couldn't open a locker or sweep. Mandatory skills when saving the world.
"You're not doing that right," I said, gesturing and he looked down at his handiwork. He laughed and leaned his broom up against the couch.
"Well, you can't make coffee," He countered, leaning back on the arm and challenging me by use of lacking domestic skills.
"You can't open lockers," I said, hands in my pockets and coming closer.
"In my defense that was your locker," he said, now laughing as he countered and I nodded, remembering his hair falling into his face and his clothes that were too big. He had been ordinary then. I wasn't sure what he was now.
"You didn't … you didn't need to cover for me," he said, bringing his arms off of the couch and shoving his hands into his pockets. The almost compliment felt wrong as he said it; bitter when I repeated it to myself. That it was what I was supposed to do and I needed it to go unnoticed.
"Of course I did," I shrugged and he started to smile. "It's my job." The smile on his lips was steady but it flickered in his eyes.
"I don't think we had Froot Loops," John tried as I tossed the box into the cart and continued walking down the aisle. I ran my fingers down the other boxes, the brightly coloured fronts spelling out sugar and kid friendly in artificially pleasing ways. Everything Sarah would hate to find in her cupboard and every reason why I had picked it up. There was a freedom in deciding that I was going to be a teenager today. That for, the moment at least, that was my armour. And the soldier was what it protected.
"So? They're magically delicious," I said, turning over a box of pancake mix to read the ingredients.
"I think that's Lucky Charms," he corrected tiredly, taking the box from me and putting it back on the shelf. I rolled my eyes as he turned the cart out of the aisle and down a row of freezers with the cold air lifting goose bumps on my skin. He un-crumbled the paper from his pocket and started to mouth the items off of it. His brow indecipherably creased and he repeated the word "lasagne" several times as if memorizing it.
"Are you okay?" I asked, feeling unsettled by how quiet he was being. Mechanical like he had an itinerary of actions to play out and was repeating them when he came to the end.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said, glancing over at me before down at the list and pushing the cart back down the freezer length. I followed behind him; crossing my arms over my chest and looking over the line of customers that walked past us. That soldier couldn't be entirely gone. Some mark of her still remained in my bones. And I couldn't reach deep enough to clean her out.
"Is there anything I can do?" I asked as he stopped at the end of the aisle and stared digging through the freezer. A larger man with a plaid shirt passed with his sweaty forehead creased at the both of us and my hand went to the back of my jeans by instinct, staying there until he left.
"Um, yeah," he sighed as he re-stood, digging out the list again and tapping his finger along as he looked for something he could trust me with. "How about you get a dozen eggs?"
"That's it?" I asked, now that I had his attention reluctant to let it go. He shook his head; a grin threatening at the corner of his lips as my "teenager" proved more endearing then my soldier.
"Getting eggs is challenging enough. If I suggest anything else you'll come back with pears," his grin became wider and whatever had bothered him momentarily forgotten as he teased me.
"Maybe we need more fruits in our diet," I suggested, taking the list from his fingers and leaning back as he reached for it again. Lasagne, steak, granola, bread, eggs … John snatched it back from me having leaned dangerously far over the cart and almost causing it to crumble under him.
"The point of the list is to follow it," he said, panting slightly and keeping the cart now between us. "That is how we shop." He smoothed out the list across his palm and I could almost see his mom in the action; her influence in the way he said it. Keep your head down, follow the rules, survive …I may have been a soldier for the last almost year but he had been one his entire life.
"Okay," I said, sobered by the thought and of how violently it burrowed itself in me. "I'll get the eggs. White okay?"
"Yeah," he said, clearing his throat and looking confused at the change in my voice and my sudden willingness to play along. I nodded as I set forth on my errand, ignoring the customers who passed and remembering the uneasy flattening of the paper that had been coaxed into him to retain order. I had been hiding in the park, drinking by myself and running with Derek which left John alone with this responsibility on his shoulders and no viable escape from it. It was unfair for us to face it but more so that I had escaped it on my own.
"Turn here," I said, leaning past John to point out the driver side window. He jerked slightly, surprised at my sudden request and uncertain why I'd made it.
"The house is that way," he said, nodding his head in the opposite direction and I took note that he called it a house instead of home.
"We're taking a detour," I told him, still leaning forward and ready to direct him again or take the steering wheel if it became necessary. He sat with it a moment before reluctantly turning, glancing over at me uncertainly like he could read on my face to see what I was thinking. He couldn't. I'd worked too hard to make sure no one could but I wouldn't mind so much if he did. Maybe. I wasn't sure how far to take that trust or even if I could trust what encouraged it.
"What about the groceries?" He nodded even as he made no move to turn back and no doubt thinking that I had a reasonable answer to that. I didn't. But a vindictive part of me didn't care and was justified by the rest of me that said this was more important.
"We won't be long. Besides it's not that hot," I shrugged off the concern and he slowly nodded, waiting for me to divulge more or speak out again with more directions. I was gentler this time, resting my hand on his elbow before I spoke.
"Pull in here."
"I still don't know what we're doing," John said, slowly down to keep pace with me as he realized that his legs were shorter and I had no attention of rushing to meet him. All we did was run. It wasn't part of my oath but it was still there unsaid but understood. Skynet. The Future. Machines. Judgement day. John Connor. Amanda Connor. Run. And today I didn't want to run. I never did. But today I wasn't going to fight it.
"We're not doing anything," I said, stopping at a picnic bench halfway up a grassy slope leading down to the beach. I set the beer case on top of it and started to shrug off my jacket. It was hotter then I anticipated and I gave less then half a thought to the groceries we had still waiting in the truck.
"I don't understand," he came around to the other side, hands balanced on the table to steady himself and trying to meet my eyes. I reluctantly lifted my gaze to meet his, instinct running its warning down my spine that this was dangerous. That he would see somewhere in my eyes that I was afraid. That I was running from the space under my bed and my sisters voice and Derek not being there when I needed him most. That none of these things had to do with why I was here and that it was a betrayal to let them define me even for a few hours. It was selfish to grief for them. But I wanted to be selfish. Let me be selfish. Just for a few hours. And I was asking him this. For myself and for him.
"We're going to drink," I said finally, dropping my eyes and not trusting either of us for me to hold it any longer. "Or I'm going to drink and you can watch. If you want." I swung my legs over the bench to sit before starting to unscrew one of the bottles. He watched me for a moment before he also sat and I passed him the beer that I opened. He turned it so he could read the ingredients on the back of the label before he took a tentative sip. His jaw clenched and he made a face as he set it back – wiping his mouth with the back of his arm.
"You okay?" I asked, grinning despite myself as he tried again with the same outcome.
"Yeah, it's just different then what I'm used to," he admitted, coughing. He exhaled deeply, bracing himself, and this time it went down better and he even smiled. I opened my own bottle and drank; the taste not as bitter as it was this morning but I again saw those hands holding the bottle and I lowered it – no longer thirsty.
"So why are we drinking?" He wondered, both his hands cupping the bottom of his beer and surveying me curiously. I dug my nail into the label and began to peel it, but the label wasn't as damp and so didn't come off easy.
"I don't know. I guess whenever I feel like I need a break I drink," I shrugged it off like it was no big deal. Like a break was a better word for wanting to run and never stop. To hide under my bed like a child and wait until the danger passed and I was once again safe. But I wouldn't tell him that part. No one knew except Derek and that had been the choice of another me. One I hadn't met and had placed all this weight on my shoulders without asking if I wanted it. I could hate her for it but she had never asked for it either. She was as much a victim as me. The word came with that black weight and sank into my stomach with its poison.
"A break from what?" He asked, leaning closer like he knew what I was going to say but wanted me to say it anyway. To admit that I was afraid of it too.
"The Future," I said and he nodded, dropping his eyes to the beer and going quiet. A couple walked past the bench holding hands the woman visibly pregnant. They stopped as an older couple approached them and the woman reached out to touch the belly. Her fingers lingered and they all smiled at what she said until they parted and went their separate ways. I watched until they walked onto the beach and then until I couldn't see them anymore.
"Do you want to play a game?" I asked, breaking the silence that was beginning to twist in my stomach. He lifted his head, blinking to clear whatever he'd been thinking about.
"I don't have any cards," he said, slowly smiling before it became an all out grin. I laughed, turning the bottle between my fingers and shaking my head.
"No, like "never have I ever"," I suggested, naming the first one I could think of and knowing it only because I'd read it somewhere once.
"Never have I – is that the game where you put your fingers done if you've done it or something?" He asked, scratching at his own label and squinting at me with the question.
"Kind of except instead we drink," I lifted the beer to demonstrate and took a long sip that I drank too fast and burned its way down my throat. I pressed my lips to keep from coughing but my next inhale felt sharp and sank hotly into my stomach.
"Okay. You first," he nodded to indicate me and I found myself suddenly cornered by a game that encouraged honesty and opening up. Telling him things that I didn't want to admit to even in my head and it was a long line of confessions and tragedies waiting their turn to turn to ash or blood in my mouth.
"Um … have you ever been swimming?" It was a weak start and he grinned in almost sympathy as I let my breath out, hoping that the questions would follow this train and I would be spared saying something I didn't want him or anyone else to know.
"Once. And not by choice. Cromartie was chasing me. Note: Machine's can't swim," he took a sip with his answer, glancing over his shoulder at the beach behind us as we spoke. Looking for him like he could be called up by name and be ready to finish what others had started.
"Who knows? Maybe we save the world on that fact," I suggest, trying to call him back from wherever he briefly went. He turned around again, a small smile on his lips and turning the beer between his clasped hands.
"Never have I ever – been ice skating?" He lifted his head, looking embarrassed by the question but I was relieved it wasn't more personal. I wasn't ready to offer more of myself up yet and I wouldn't know how to recognize if I was.
"No – I mean I've walked on the ice in my boots but never properly," I shrugged, mimicking his hands around my own beer and something about the innocence of the question moving deeper under my skin then if he had asked something else. I slipped and hurt my knee. Harmless. Trivial almost.
"Never have I ever – eaten so much I've thrown up," I was thrown up by the intimacy of my answer – repelled by it to the first thing I could think of and embarrassed by how it sounded aloud. He raised an eyebrow, trying to swallow a grin.
"Yes. First time at iHop," he buried his face as he grinned and took his sip, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "Whip cream, strawberries and pancakes – mom wad not impressed." I laughed, imagining Sarah's face and a younger John too excited by the thought of food to remember restraint. My laugh faded, the edges of my lips drawn in as the image grew shadow and I saw the grey in Sarah's hair and the hollowness of John's cheeks. It wasn't my memory but it may as well have been from the pang it brought in my chest.
"You really like bringing up winter and ice," I dryly remarked, clearly my throat and drinking even though I hadn't done it. He didn't comment though and only shrugged.
"I like winter. I haven't seen one in a while. Snow," he gestured to the table like it was a template but I got the idea nonetheless. I hadn't seen snow in a while either.
"No I haven't. I haven't been regular fishing either," I shook my head and drank again though he still didn't comment.
"There goes my next question," he said almost sadly and I snorted, wiping beer foam off my chin.
"Never have I ever had a sleepover?" I tried and he obligingly took a sip without volunteering an example. He squinted over the beach, searching for his next question and I watched the sun alternately sharpen and soften his jaw making him old then young again in seconds. I wanted to see him old. The need like a fist in my chest to see him with wrinkles and grey hair and bad knees that would worsen when it rained. I needed it for him more then I wanted it for myself.
"Never have I ever been to the circus," he didn't turn as he asked, still looking out over the beach and lost in thought while still managing to leave half of himself here with me. The half that he left was contemplative – tense. Ready for an attack we always had to expect and something about the questions alerting it in him. Like an old instinct he forgot to flex.
"Once." He turned as I answered, intrigued by the possibility of a longer answer. "Amelia's mom took us. There was cotton candy and elephants and clowns … I didn't like the clowns." Clowns and needles. The two things that crept under my skin like a thin blade and yet I had had a stranger's blood on my hands and hadn't blinked. Those didn't bother me in the moment. It was after when it was dark and quiet when it came back.
"What about elephants?" He grinned hesitantly, coming back to himself even as he looked over the parking lot behind me – analyzing for level of threat.
"Yeah. And a tiger." He nodded, picturing it, and I took my sip as required.
"Never have I ever been outside the US," I leaned forward on my elbows, willing him to come back to me and where we were. Two teenagers asking questions and no monsters to look for that came in the shape of machines. He thought for a moment and then shook his head, lifting his eyes to look behind me then to my face.
"What about you?" His voice was innocent but there was a slight pressure to it as he asked. Trying to believe what I had built for us and that the world was safe outside of it. That it could last if we kept asking questions – grounded by how tragic the answers were of how little we had both lived. I laughed to hide my discomfort; the sound coming out nervous and giving me away.
"What?" He also leaned forward, looking over my face and trying to read what had scared me. A part of my history I had cut out. One that had no part in my future. No part in my oath. But he had asked and I was obligated to answer.
"No … but I've always wanted to go to Mexico. That's where my mom grew up." There it was said and now it couldn't be taken back. I had a mother once who wasn't part time a soldier and never lived to see that that is what I would become. I exhaled, satisfied and yet the words crawling their way up my spine with determination to hurt as they went. I had a mother. Had.
"Where in Mexico?" He asked, curious and eager for me to continue.
"Guanajuato," I told him, the word sounding full in my mouth but rolling off my tongue like it remembered saying it once and was eager to say it again. He nodded, arms crossed and waiting for me to go on – hesitant to say anything in case it broke the spell and I pulled back into myself. Everything I remembered about her rushed forward to be told first – desperate to be said aloud from where I had buried it because it hurt too much to think about.
"She used to tell me about the Festival of the Dead," it came out before I could call it back and in the world where anyone could take it. Play with it or remake it to mean something else. To have a different meaning that I couldn't control and could hurt me worse then when it had been buried. This is why you don't tell people things. You're not a person who can be hurt and broken. You are a soldier. And soldiers don't break easy. I'm not a soldier. Today I am a teenager.
"I always wanted to go," I shrugged it off; the weight the statement held and the pressure it invoked up and down my spine. It'll snap if you let it. Break you in two if you tell him more.
"I'll take you some day," he said. I lifted my head, struck by the softness of his voice and how earnest it was. He smiled, proud and assured that he could give this to me and I didn't even have to ask if he promised because I knew that he did.
I lifted the beer to my lips, tipping back my head to get the last of it and then turning it back and forth to dig into the dirt so it wouldn't fall over. John still hadn't finished his and it lay abandoned from one hand as he looked out over the water and the wind brushing back his strands of hair. I watched, wanting to reach out and do it for myself but not sure if our intimacy could extend that far. After he'd promised to take me to Mexico. After I'd felt like I had given enough and returned into questions of stealing gum or cheating on spelling tests. I had stolen food not gum. I had never cared about school enough to cheat.
"What you said this morning … ," he trailed off as he asked, waiting to have my attention before he finished to make sure that I heard. "About it being your job."
"I shouldn't have said that," I said, apologizing for being honest and how harsh it had been aloud. This is why you don't say things better left unsaid. They cause damage. And I didn't understand the pain of words as well. They nestled deeper. Broke you up more easily.
"No. No, you're right it is your job," he dropped his eyes to the sand between his knees and the beer dangling from his fingers. "But what I meant to say is I don't want it to have to be your job – to protect me. I mean – we can protect each other but because we want too. Not because we have too. We can be friends. Until we marry or we don't have to we can just …" he exhaled, words spilling over the sound as he tried to stop them and giving up that he could. He squeezed his eyes shut, rocking slightly as if trying to shake loose something that made sense but it wasn't happening for him. He took another breath, lifting his head and opening his eyes. "We don't have to marry. Or date. Or do anything you don't want to do. It's not your duty to love me or at least I don't want it to be. We can be friends. Partners. And protect each other because we want to. I'll protect you too." He bowed his head again, waiting for me to answer and nervous what I would say in reply. I watched him, seeing that boy outside his locker and thinking how ordinary he was. Clearly not the saviour, not the one I pictured. Just a boy. I leaned over and reached out to touch his chin, turning his face to mine and kissing him. He didn't react at first; his lips partially open as if about to ask me a question but forgetting it as I kissed him. I wanted to know what he would have said so I pulled back just as his eyes were opening and he looked like he was waking from a very long, deep sleep.
"What?" I asked, suddenly nervous that I had struck him speechless and not sure what to do with his silence. Do I apologize? Say I shouldn't have done that though I had done it before and wanted to do it again?
"You didn't need to do that," he said, his voice quiet and a small smile playing at the corner of his lips like he was unsure to trust it – what had encouraged it.
"I know, but…," I trailed off, suddenly at a loss of what to say. How to voice the boy I had seen picking at my locker and the boy in front of me telling me that I didn't have to love him.
"But it's your job," he grinned and I ducked my head, heat crawling up the back of my neck and pricking me to how stupid it sounded now for the third time.
"Shut up," I said, now also grinning as he laughed and out of the corner of my eyes he threw his head back, the laugh vibrating on his Adam's apple and gripping his shoulders. But then I was laughing too and I couldn't stop and I didn't know why because it wasn't funny. I leaned my head forward into his shoulder and my lips touched over the scar at the base of his neck. I remembered the gun going off in the other room and the panic that I'd felt even as I knew he was fine. The thought sobered me and I swallowed, his laughter also dying as he became thoughtful and I wanted to know what about.
"You never told me if you'd been swimming before," he said and I lifted my head from his shoulder, eyebrows raised at the question.
"No, I haven't," I said, curious over why he'd asked and the mischievous glint I was seeing in his eyes. He turned to face me, slowly grinning and lunging just as I fell back. He landed over my legs and I was scrambling to my feet, heart pounding erratically in my chest and laughing again so I felt dizzy.
"Come on! It's fun!" He insisted, running after me as I bolted over the sand and gasping for air as one or two people looked up. I dodged in the opposite direction as he almost caught my ankles and tripping into the wet sand closer to the water. He got his hands under my arms and was pulling me to my feet as I struggled and kicked, sliding in the sand and waves. He was dragging me into the water and I gasped as the frigidness hugged my hips and he lost his grip as he fell down with me. He laughed as he tried to catch me again and I shoved him back into the water so it went over his head and he came too coughing and grinning. I stood triumphant; arms raised and breathless as he admitted his defeat and dramatically bowed at the waist. He fell into me, holding me close to my chest and I breathed in the scent of salt and sand that was clinging to his shirt. My jeans were wet, my shoes were soaked and my chest hurt from laughing but I was happy. I was really happy.
"Pass me the drill," John said, reaching out his hand behind him with his other hand, pressed to the board to hold it steady. I bent down to look through the pile of tools he'd built up before handing him the drill. He eased back his arm as he began to work in the screw before stepping back to admire his handiwork. He turned, grinning and spun the drill with pride but missing it on the second turn so it loudly landed on the carpet. I laughed, picking it up off the floor as he reached his hand for it again. I held it away from him as he tried to reach his arms around and I turned my back and stretched out my arms as far as they could go. He was almost climbing over me trying to get it and we fell into the couch with the drill still held far out of reach and precariously over the couch edge. I laughed, trying to move out from under him so I could get my feet on the floor and make a run from it. I didn't know why it was important to me but I didn't want him to get the drill and the giddiness swelling in my stomach encouraged this logic. Someone loudly cleared their throat at the door and I dropped the drill, reaching for the table for my gun before seeing it was Sarah. Her arms were folded over her chest and she was watching me in particular with obvious displeasure.
"Hi, mom," John said, awkwardly climbing off of me and holding out a hand to help me up. I took it, swinging my legs over the armrest and pulling down my shirt where it had ridden up. The giddiness was still there, threatening to burst inside of me and I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling.
"Did you find our stuff?" John asked, clearing his throat to cover the awkward silence and his own laugh interrupting the end of his question.
"Yeah," Sarah said, coming further into the room and glancing around for any indication that we had shirked our work. She stopped at one of the lamps on a table and turned it an inch to the left. "They won't be coming back."
"Cameron did you get your jacket?" I asked, noticing Cameron coming up behind her and almost looking startled, head turned sharply to acknowledge me.
"I did," she held up her left arm which had the jacket draped across it as proof. "Thank you for asking."
"So you got everything done today, okay?" Sarah asked, interrupting and coming to a stop on the other side of the table with her hands firm on her hips.
"Yeah, we did," I said, picking the drill up off the couch to put it back onto the pile, John reaching for it one more time but I jerked it away and he choked down a laugh.
"I was talking to John," Sarah said coldly and I put the drill back on the pile to ignore the burn her voice made in my stomach.
"Stop it," John said, his voice hard and the sound of it snapping the air tight like it were about to fray and unravel. I slowly re-stood, John no longer paying attention to me and staring down his mother who seemed surprised at his response.
"Excuse me?" She asked, giving him a chance to call back what he had said – to pretend he had said something else.
"There is no need for you to be rude to her. She did nothing wrong," John stepped closer to her, his presence filling the room and pressing against the corners of it so there was nowhere you could go where you couldn't feel his anger.
"She left the alarm unset. She jeopardized the security of this house," Sarah argued, talking about me like I wasn't there and her eyes fixated on John like she didn't recognize him and was trying to place what caused this strangers anger.
"I left the alarm off," John said, his voice dangerously low and like he was biting the words so I could almost taste the blood they left. "She covered for me."
"Where did you go?" Sarah asked and her voice became quieter, softer like she had stumbled into a tragedy and wasn't sure how to proceed.
"I went looking for her," he said, gesturing back to me and I felt the pressure of the room collapse in my chest so there was a gap I could breathe through. I didn't realize I'd been holding my breath and I felt dizzy from the lack of it. "Something you wouldn't have considered because all you do is treat her like she shouldn't be here. She is as much in this as we are and this is just as hard. She's sacrificed as much and more because this is still all new to her. We've grown up with this she hasn't. And yet she is the only who actually makes an effort to make things better for me. To make me happy. All you care about is keeping me alive. There's more to this then that and you don't see that and she does. Maybe that's why you're so pissed. Because she's better at this then you are and because I want her here more then I want you." He turned away from her on that punctuation and took my hand from where I stood at the wall, leading me upstairs and leaving Sarah quietly watching where he had stood and Cameron still admiring her jacket.
I flinched as the bathroom creaked behind me, stepping up on my tiptoes and easing over the floorboards as quietly as I could. One of the boards groaned and I looked back to see which one it was and stopped as I saw Derek standing on the top step. His hand was on the top of the bannister and he looked uncertain whether he should come up or stay where he was.
"Hi," he said quietly, his voice muffled in the late night silence and yet the sound of it running its tough gently over my arms and down my back so goose bumps stood up on my skin.
"Where were you?" I demanded, the hurt that I had buried under all the confessions I'd made, all the moments of today coming out in a quiet rage that made it hard to stand still. He bowed his head, sighing like I had caught him in a crime he wasn't willing to confess too and now found himself trapped. I waited, the anger pounding in my head and making the corners of my vision red and blurred.
"I was out," he said, lifting his head and what he wasn't saying written on his face. I watched, trying to read it but it was dark and I couldn't see him but the shadow of him up against the wall. You promised. The whisper of it pinched in my throat and I bit my lip to keep from screaming at him. That he'd promised and I'd waited and he hadn't come. He hadn't been there. And I could hate him for it. But I didn't. How much easier it would be if I did.
"Where were you?" He asked, his tone sharpened though he cleared his throat to lessen it. I felt the burn of smugness in my chest at the hurt in his voice, the question of where I had been today and with whom? Not him. He hadn't been there and this was the price.
"Out," I said coldly and I turned to walk past him to John's room, not caring that the floorboards creaked with each step I took. I didn't look back to see if he was watching me. I knew that he was.