A/N: Here's the last chapter. I'm sorry it took me soooooo long to post it! I just finished a job, moved and started a new job, so I've been swamped. But thank you so much for your patience and all of your support! You have been the best readers ever, and I've enjoyed this process so much because of all you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
It's cold in the morning when I tumble out of bed, but I don't feel like getting dressed right away. Instead, I pull on Mr. Schiller's sweatshirt over my pajamas and stuff my hands into the pockets on my way out the door. I stop in front of the mirror in the upstairs hallway – the one made out of one-way glass. I cup my hands around a small space, and I lean close, trying to see through to the other side. I can't see anything – it must be because it's dark in the chimneys, and I try to imagine myself on the other side. I feel like Alice going through the looking glass. But all I see in the reflection is me.
I go down the stairs, slowly at first, but when I see the time on the clock in the entryway I start to run. "Mr. Schiller," I call out, bounding down the stairs. My feet know the cracks so I don't fall.
Mr. Schiller catches me on the landing and holds me still for a minute. He leans in, pressing his mouth against my hair. "Ssh," he says. He hugs me against him, and I'm surprised how quickly it comforts me. "Your mother is sleeping," he says. He nods towards the sofa in the living room.
"She's here?" I ask. I look up at him.
He nods and lets go of my arms. He waits for me while I creep into the living room, checking as if I think it's a trick. My mother is there, curled up under a white afghan blanket. It lays over her, making her look tiny. I lean close and take a breath of her air. I touch my cheek against the curve of her shoulder.
Mr. Schiller cocks his head, looking at me. I wonder how long it will take before I can stop feeling scared, stop wondering who I'm going to lose next. I feel like this has only begun.
I stand up – slow – and cross the room to Mr. Schiller. His arms are folded across his chest as he studies me. Then he reaches out an arm without saying anything and loops it around my shoulders. He turns me and walks me into the kitchen. He takes me to one of the tall chairs at the island and waits while I climb onto it. Then he leans down, resting his elbows on the counter next to me. He doesn't look at me, just waits for me to speak.
I turn to him slowly and look at the side of his face. "I thought she didn't come last night," I say. I say it softly, my words layering like feathers in a down blanket.
Mr. Schiller squints his eyes, like he's trying to work out a problem in his head. "And what would it mean if she hadn't?" he asks. He doesn't look at me until he's finished speaking.
"It would mean something had happened to her," I say.
Mr. Schiller gives a small sideways nod. "Or it could mean she got held up."
I chew on my bottom lip for a minute. "I guess, but then she would have called me," I say.
"She may have, or she may have called me," Mr. Schiller says.
I shake my head. "Three months ago I had a dad, and now I don't. Three days ago, I had an uncle, and now I don't," I say.
Mr. Schiller narrows his eyes even more, studying me. "Your mother is a very – resourceful – woman. I don't believe you need to worry about her," he says.
"But what she's doing – what you guys are doing – it's dangerous. Isn't that right?" I say.
"It is," Mr. Schiller says. And he nods again. "But your mother has good instincts for it. And, in any event, it won't be for much longer. There is an end in sight."
I look at Mr. Schiller for a long time. "After the end – then you won't make her do these things anymore?" I ask.
Mr. Schiller presses his lips together for a moment. "That's correct," he says.
I nod and look down at my hands. Mr. Schiller puts his hand on the back of my neck and squeezes it, then rubs my back. He dips his chin down until he catches my eye.
"Are you hungry?" he asks. "I can make you something."
I chew on my bottom lip and look back at him. He gives me a smile and then walks around the island, taking out a pan and putting it on the stove. He takes out bowls of different sizes and sets eggs onto the counter.
"Mr. Schiller," I say. I look at his back.
He turns and looks over his shoulder at me. I rest the tips of my fingers on the edge of the island and push myself up. I tilt my head, sagging my weight back. He squints his eyes and puts his hands on his hips, concentrating on me.
"Am I going to see you again after this?" I ask.
Mr. Schiller drops one hand down by his side, and then he circles the island back to me. He licks his bottom lip and looks out the window behind his back. He leans his hip against the island and brings his face close. "It depends, Natalie," he says. He presses his lips together, his thinking dimples appearing in his cheeks. "Do you want to see me after this? You're about to go home, be with your family."
I scrape my teeth across my bottom lip. I don't want to remind him that my family has suddenly gotten smaller – that I don't want to lose anyone else – that even though I know it's too soon for it, I've gotten attached to him, that he makes me feel safe. I know it's because of this void, this gaping hole that was left by my father and Uncle Mike. Just knowing he's been here for me has been comforting, and I'm not ready to give that away. I raise my eyes to his and just nod.
Mr. Schiller leans his weight against the island, lacing his fingers together in front of him and meeting my gaze. "I can't promise you that I will see you again. It's not solely my decision to make, and I don't make promises unless I am sure I can keep them," he says. He wets his lips and lowers his chin a little more, until he is almost looking upward at me. "But what I can give you is this." He reaches into the pocket of my sweatshirt – his sweatshirt – and takes out my phone. He dials a number into the keypad and holds it out to me. "This is the number to my personal cell phone. No one has this – not even your mother. If you ever need to reach me for any reason, you can call me on this line."
I take the phone back and hold it in both my hands. What I would like better is if he said I could call him any time, that he'd be around if I just wanted to hang out. But I understand by the way he's telling me this, that it won't be like that – that he's not permanent, not a fixture in my life, and it makes me sad to hear it.
By the time I get up, Natalie is dressed and waiting for me. Her bags are packed and standing next to the door. Schiller walks us to the front steps but goes no farther. I'm not sure how I know it, but I think if it were me alone, he'd walk me to my car. He'd carry my bags for me and put them in. He's holding himself back this morning – from me, but also from her. There are tears in her eyes when she says goodbye to him, and she presses her whole body against him when she hugs him. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath of his scent, and it makes my chest ache to see the look on her face.
Schiller holds her – tighter than I've ever seen him do before. He lays his hand on the side of her head and leans down, laying a kiss into her hair that lasts seconds. It's been just over three days that they've spent together, but the way they hold onto each other makes it seem like so much more than that. She holds onto his hand when she finally steps away. She keeps contact with him as long as she can.
When their hands part, Schiller's eyes meet mine – and the look is so immediate, so intense it knocks the wind out of me. He stares straight into my eyes – full force – for three long seconds, and I think my heart might crash it's pounding so hard. But then he smiles – brief and fleeting. And I would have stumbled if I hadn't been holding onto the doorknob, my grip tight.
"I'll see you tomorrow," Schiller says. His voice is thick as honey, sharp as venom.
I nod, nearly convulsant. "Tomorrow," I whisper.
A/N: That's it! :P The "tomorrow" reference kicks off the events of "The Coke" and "The Hit". I'd love to write more, and if I do, it'll pick up after "The Hit". Thank you all again for your support! This has been an awesome experience!