DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
FEEDBACK: valyssia[at]gmail.com

Of Sand or Stone
By Valyssia



I chance a glance at her as we inch forward, following the cars ahead of us. She’s more interested in driving than anything to do with me. But I guess it’s no wonder. Traffic’s thick and the lanes are cramped. I could practically roll down my window and touch the guy next to us.

She’s doing great. So much better than I am. But if I’m honest, she’s probably better at pretty much everything than I am. Her driving’s even better. She drives me nuts sometimes, but she also follows the rules and doesn’t do anything sudden or crazy.

Her arm rests next to mine on the console. We’ve sort of been sharing the space. She hasn’t moved or shoved, so I take a chance and place my hand over hers. I don’t even know what makes me do it. I should still be pissed. She should be too. But I guess she isn’t because she lets me. I just wish my hand wasn’t shaking. It sucks.

That does it. I need to trust her. She’s got this. I shut my eyes. Focusing on how her skin feels beneath my fingertips is a much better waste of my time.

Her hand turns. She wants to slip away. I jerk like I’ve been scalded, beating her to—

My eyes snap open just as she catches my hand. Returning it to the console, she says, “I’m sorry.” I stare, watching her caress the side of my pinkie with her thumb. “I shouldn’t have said that. I just…” She takes a breath like she’s gonna continue.

When she doesn’t, I have to look. She presses her lips together and exhales through her nose. It comes out like a frustrated sigh. There’s even a little grumble at the end. It’s cute.

It’s also dead obvious she wants to say more, but doesn’t know how. Or maybe she’s afraid to. Either way, I’ve been there, so I give her some slack by turning my attention back to our hands.

After most of forever and half of next week, she says, “I don’t want to make excuses.”

“It’s cool,” I reply. “Don’t worry about it. I was just thinking about how great you’re doing. I know this is hard for you.”

“No, it’s not that,” she says. “I mean it is, but—”

She’s a little annoyed, so I lower my voice, “This is hard for me too.”

“I know,” she says. “It just feels like—”

When she falls flat, distracted because the car in front of us surges forward, I finish my thought, “Actually, there isn’t anyone around us who enjoys this shit.” Funny, for such an obvious, trivial little statement…it’s a bitch to get out there. I mumble under my breath. My palms are wet and my throat’s dry. It really sucks.

I don’t get nervous. Not like this.

Not over bullshit like this.

But in the plus column: we might make it through the light this time if she pushes it.

Someone needs to slap the snot out of the reject who designed these intersections. Two major streets meet here and both dead end one way. Westbound Calhoun is funneled over onto—I think this is Main—using the last thirty feet of southbound Clifton. It’s a complete clusterfuck.

And a booming commercial district. Great combo. Good planning.

As we turn, I take a look at the street sign. It’s McMillan. My memory’s for shit.

There’s enough room for us to squeeze in and not block the intersection, but the light up ahead is red, so…

Once we’re stopped, she goes on, “I only know one way to do this. I—” Or tries. Her voice breaks. The ‘I’ becomes a gasp. She shuts her eyes and scrunches them tight, blinking them open again.

I mutter, “Just say it,” hoping to encourage her. But I come off impatient instead, so I take another shot, “I’ll try to keep my mouth shut. I know I’m—”

“You’re fine,” she replies, cutting me off at the pause. “You have every reason to be upset. I should’ve been more honest.”

Go figure. I stalled because I wasn’t sure what fit best. “Yeah, you should’ve,” I agree, forever ending the debate by proving that I’m decidedly a pain in the butt.

And I’m probably just inviting more misery. What she said—that first thing—it didn’t exactly sound positive. But I want her to have her say, so I encourage her again, “Just tell me what’s on your mind. I’ll try to be cool about it.” It could be worth it. Maybe if we have this out, things will take a turn for normal.

Whatever that is.

“Okay,” she says. “I’ll try.” But she doesn’t.

The clock ticks. I can’t actually watch it—digital clock and all—but it flips over to the next minute as we sit in silence. Someone really needs to sweep these eggshells off the floor. This is getting tedious.

She’s probably just trying to get it all straight in her head.

Or more likely, she knows exactly what she wants to say and she’s just repeating the same shit over-and-over, trying to come up with the nerve.

I can’t imagine why. I’ve been the model of patience. I just went ballistic over going to the hospital.

Just going.

She didn’t have to tell me I could wait in the car. I should’ve seen that myself. I mean, unless she was planning to hogtie me and drag me along.

Not that she even bothered to tell me which one. We’ve passed two so far. I have no clue where we’re headed. I stare out my window at a U-Haul truck that sits in a parking lot along the side of the street. If I was driving, we’d be on the seventy-four headed for Indy by now. The longer she makes me wait, the crazier I get, the more I—

I’m not even sure what I was upset about now. I take my cheek in hand. It feels chilly, but I know it’s not. My face is burning up. I feel like an ass. I need to straighten up. Fuck off and get over it…before I end up doing that by request.

The light changes. It takes a solid fifteen seconds for the movement to reach our position. And once we get going, we only make it a few car-lengths before the idiot in front of us signals left. He can’t seriously think he’s gonna parallel park in this shit.

He does. And she actually hangs back to let him. That’s a hell of a lot nicer than I’d be. No surprise. The asshole behind us honks.

The guy backs up. He’s good. He hits the mark first try. No bullshit. We pull forward once he’s clear. I’m a little surprised to see that ‘he’s’ a ‘she.’ The difference isn’t obvious until she gets out of her car. Chick’s wearing one of those skirt-suit things I wouldn’t be caught dead in.

As I check out the townie’s tragic fashion sense, B. says, “There’s just so much between us that needs to be behind us for this to work.”

Being a model of corporate refinement costs this chick. She has an umbrella. Fat lot good it does her. The wind buffets it around as she dashes for a storefront halfway down the block.

“I have to forgive you and move on. Forget all that and concentrate on who you are now. It’s not fair to you if I don’t.”

B. doesn’t need to explain this stuff. She knows I get it.

The light turns red. We missed it. As we take our position in the herd, she concludes, “What I said about Giles was just not—” She squeezes my hand. “It wasn’t that.”

It figures she can’t make her point without scratching a scab.

“I really am sorry,” she mumbles.

You’d think once the anger faded, she’d have the good sense to give it a rest.

I’m so sick of fighting. I take a deep breath to clear my head and try to smooth things over. “Don’t be.” For a practiced liar, I suck today. My cheeks flush. I look down to hide my face with my hair and grumble something closer to the truth, “I haven’t exactly been a blast to be around.”

Giles ‘did his job.’ That’s what she said. B. implied he ‘watched’ the whole thing. I remember how I felt that night, the cold, the rain, the booze…and those were just the minor points.

Dae deserved to die as much or more than any of the other vamps I’ve offed. I did what I had to.

Until I did more than I had to.

I can just imagine what Giles had to say. He probably thought I was the one who needed saving. They probably both did. That’s exactly how they’d see it.

He sent me off, chasing after myself like some idiot child. Now she’s sticking by me with the same dogged determination she shows to anything she believes in. Or anyone she wants to save.

And this is exactly what set me off before. All she said was she’s sorry. There’s an outstanding reason to fly off the handle if I’ve ever heard one.

I need to get over this. It’s bullshit. I promised I’d be cool.

I set my jaw and look up, focusing on the traffic signal in the distance. Not the part that’s easy to see. That won’t tell me shit, except it’s not our turn. The lights for the cross street are what I’m interested in.

I just can’t believe she’d want anything to do with me after that. That doesn’t seem like her.

The inside of the crosswalk’s light hood reflects a red pulsing light.

Apparently I misjudged her.

Ten flashes. Ten seconds. Almost…

Why I’m in such a hurry to get someplace I don’t want to go is the real mystery.

What I should do is stop worrying about ‘why’ and just accept that she’s on my side. Be grateful that she thinks I’m worth the hassle. I may actually have something going for me now.

That’d be new.

Maybe it’s just that I’m not used to relying on someone so much. Could be that’s part of what’s got my nose out of joint. She’s the only thing that’s been keeping me coloring on the right page.

Inside the lines might be nice, but—

One thing at a time.

She lets go of my hand when I lift it. I reach around to touch the left side of her face and lean in. All I want is to give her a peck on the cheek, but she turns and I miss.

It’s the best miss ever.

She lingers, enjoying my miss. Her face is so soft. And her mouth…

Her lips…

Her hands…

And that tongue. It’s—

Someone honks and we both jump. Her foot slips off the brake.

She almost hits the gas. Good thing she checks. The car in front of us hasn’t moved yet. She gasps and stomps the brakes.

But once the initial ‘oh shit’ moment’s over, it’s over. She just brushes her hair back, takes my hand and says, “I think you’re an amazing person, Faith.”

That’s really sweet. I start to say so, but the guy ahead of us finally gets his act together and she keeps up. Figures, it’s the asshole behind us who wakes him up by hitting his horn.

At least one of us is with it. Between that kiss, which was pretty ‘wow,’ and this other guy who’s tragically stupid, I lose track.

The brain trust is on foot, holding a soggy, folded up newspaper over his head. His light-gray overcoat’s streaked with water, growing darker and wetter by the second. B.’s leaving enough room between us and the next guy to park a stretch limo. We haven’t broken fifteen miles-an-hour in blocks. So guess it’s no surprise when Rain Man walks out in front of us.

She mashes the brakes. Trouble is, no one in the other lane is feeling half as generous as she is. Now where I’m from, brain damage like this would be rewarded with a string of obscenities and rude gestures. The fact that B. doesn’t seem to care is just—

With the exception of one short pause, she talks right through the whole thing. She even waves to the doofus when he puts his hand up and retreats. By the time she finishes, all I have is that she said words, lots of them, most of them a little too fast. I catch her parting shot, “We both made mistakes.”

I reply, “I know,” just to keep up…or with any luck, make her believe that I am.

Lemming aside, things go pretty well this round. No one decides to parallel park and only one car slows down to turn. We almost make the light.

As we roll to a stop, she says, “People screw up. We don’t mean to. We just do.” She licks her lips, drawing the lower one in to nibble. For a nervous tick, this is pretty hot. She doesn’t let go so much as pull her lower lip from between her teeth before she says, “And it’s not a matter of ‘if’ it’s more a matter of ‘when’.” That was even hotter. “Whether you mean for it to or not, it happens.”

I expect her to say more, but she just turns to look out her window. She picked a hell of a place to leave off, especially with that ‘you’ in there. It’s like she thinks I’m gonna screw up again.

And again. I smirk. Like that’d happen.

All the time.

I’m sure she didn’t mean it that way. She’s probably just kicking the next thing around before she brings it up. Eventually she proves me right by mumbling, “If someone falls off a building, is it the last step that matters or all the others it took to reach the roof?”

I answer, “Both,” without a second thought. For something totally random that leaves me wishing I’d paid more attention, I sure come up with a snappy reply. It just feels like a no brainer. Each step would be a bitch if their goal was to jump.

Thing is, she never said that. Maybe I should—

“Okay, so…same roof,” she says, “only more people. Say a group of friends is up there and one of them falls. Whose fault is that?”

I answer a little more carefully this time, “I’d need to know more to really judge, but if no one was pushed, I don’t see where it’d be anyone’s fault.” I even qualify my answer to avoid the same trap, “Could be the one who fell was just clumsy. Or unlucky.” I shrug. “Or maybe they wanted what they got.”

“That’s nicer than I’d be,” she replies. “But looking out for my friends is kind of an obsession for me.” As I open my mouth, ready to get all defensive, she plays peacemaker. “That didn’t come out right. It’s not that I think you don’t care.” I’m glad she does ’cause I wasn’t sure what to say.

I could point out that the only times I’ve fallen like that it was my call. The little swan dive I took to get away from her comes to mind. Somehow I can’t see her enjoying the reminder. Besides, I don’t think she’s talking literally. It figures I’m screwed up enough to have something literal to jump to.

She asks, “What if just one person led everyone else up to the roof, but wasn’t the one who fell?”

Another unrehearsed answer slips out, “I don’t see where that’d matter.” It just seems so obvious.

But she obviously doesn’t think so. “It does,” she says. The only thing that’s obvious now is her frustration. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t—” I don’t get why she’s so upset. “I should find another way. This is such a sucky analogy. It really doesn’t fit.”

There’s only one car ahead of us. We get to go at almost the same instant the light changes. If no one turns, we might even cover more than one block.

But that’s just too much to ask. As we slow with the car in front of us, she says, “Willow was the one who fell.” Oh. No wonder. “And you know her, doing anything the normal way just isn’t in her makeup.” It figures she’s so pissy.

But I’m not exactly thrilled myself. The asshole ahead of us just had to pick this particular Kwik-E-Mart to stop at. There are dozens.

Whatever. He only slows her down the one way. She does just fine the other. “Barring the obvious result: death—and you don’t know how glad I am to bar that—a normal person might come away from a fall with a few booboos, maybe a broken a bone or two, something like that.”

Guy probably just wants a smoke. I can totally sympathize.

“Will fell without so much as breaking a nail,” she says. “But when she hit bottom, she tried to split the Earth in two. She’s a really special girl.”

 It almost feels like a miracle when we blow through the next light. The real miracle is that B. sees it turn yellow and actually speeds up like a normal person.

“Thing is, we were all up there, dancing on the edge,” she says, growing progressively more bent out of shape. “We saw what was happening, but we were too wrapped up to really…” She trails off to take a breath. “I was too busy trying to fall myself to even notice. Will just beat me to it. To preserve my lame analogy, a gust of wind blew her over the edge. But I led her up there. She wouldn’t have been on that ‘roof’ if it wasn’t for me.”

It’s unsettling hearing her cut herself to ribbons. I have to put my two cents in. “That’s pretty harsh.”

“Is it?” she asks. “Will started using magic to help me.”

“Yeah,” I reply. “You didn’t make her choices for her.” It’s funny, this has nothing to do with me, but I sound almost as aggravated as she does.

“I know that,” she says. “But I didn’t try to stop her either. Not until it was too late. I didn’t really even caution her. That was mostly Giles and Tara. I didn’t do anything. And pretty much everything she did was because she wanted to help me. All the big stuff at least.”

I still think she’s being too hard on herself, but that’s just how she is. “Okay,” I reply. “I see your point.” I’ll let her have that. “But what good does feeling guilty do?”

Another car slows down to turn and so do we. “Guilt is part of it, but that’s not what I’m talking about,” she says, pausing to do something unprecedented for B. There’s a break in traffic in the right lane. She signals and actually moves over. “Will was the one who screwed up, but it was my fault too. She went down that path because of me.”

We still aren’t going to make the light, but I’m still impressed.

As pull up behind the car ahead of us, she says, “Forgiveness is all well and good. It’s great. But without that—” She falters, searching for the right words. What she arrives at seems pretty lame considering. “It just isn’t enough.”

What’s more, I’m not sure she’s even right. Placing fault before forgiveness is actually pretty messed up.

“It’s like when you came to town,” she says. “We were all so hung up on our own issues we didn’t even see. You were out of control and none of us lifted a finger to help. We didn’t even notice that there was a problem until it was too late. Whose fault was that?”

“Mine,” I reply. “I didn’t exactly ask for help.” I shake my head. I get that she’s trying. I just wish she’d try something else. “Hell, I didn’t want your help. I didn’t think I needed it.”

“And we didn’t try,” she implores. “We should’ve done something, but—” Her hand closes over mine. “We should’ve at least noticed.”

“You did notice. It just made you hate me,” I reply. She opens her mouth, but I’m a little more anxious to change the subject than she is to interrupt. “Look, B., it’s cool. I get it.” But even as I say that, I’m pretty sure I don’t. “That’s ancient history.” And that’s okay. The last thing I want is to reminisce. We have plenty of reasons to feel like crap without…

I watch the debate. Finally, she sees sense all on her own. “I guess.” I don’t even have to help. “It just bugs me that when it was all over…”

As I turn to rest my head against my window, forward momentum pushes me back in my seat. The light must’ve changed. Warm air blows on my face. Combined with the chill of the glass against my temple it feels strange, but good.

The view could use some work. I resist the urge to recoil. What I see reflected in the rain spattered window should be me, but it isn’t. It’s the washed out face of that bimbo from the picture she showed me earlier. Just goes to show, magic’s mostly mindfuck. I reach into my sleeve to touch the culprit. Like that’ll somehow make it alright.

I absently play with a little piece of quartz woven into the braided leather band fitted tightly to my wrist. My luck I’ll break it if I fidget too much.

I let go of my bracelet as she admits, “You’re right, I hated you.” She sounds really upset now, but there’s only so much… “I thought that everything that happened was your fault.”

Honestly, I think I’ve done enough. I’m the main reason she’s so stressed. She actually said she was sorry for helping me. There’s a first. People usually only help me when they want something. She did it just because.

But it wasn’t just that. She felt guilty because she couldn’t do more.

“It’s the same thing,” she says. “I thought I was infallible, but nothing could’ve been further from the truth.”

Oh. Oh. I get it now. She’s talking about owning your mistakes.


No, not that…or not just that. Owning your part in the shit that happens. That’s totally different.

How’d I miss that?

A switch clicks followed by the tick of the turn signal. She’s going way too fast to turn.

I gasp. “Don’t—”

She does. The back end kicks out. Before I can warn her, she slams on the brakes. The car’s so overloaded and the pavement’s so slick, it spins us like a top.

As the rush hits me, I brace myself.

We come to an abrupt stop. Her laptop case flops against my legs. I guess the curb caught us. We end up still in our lane—the one she turned into—facing the opposite direction.

No one’s in the other lane. The street’s really wide. If she was gonna screw up, she picked the perfect spot.

I let go of the dash. Is it wrong that I think that was kind of fun, like a Tilt-a-Whirl without the ‘tilt’?

Probably. I should feel like the luckiest idiot still alive. I know better. We didn’t hit anything, so the airbag didn’t break my arms.

After shoving her stuff against the console with my foot, I release my seatbelt and hop out.

She stammers, “Wha—” as I shut the door. I should get back in and explain, but—

My hair’s not dry from the last time I was out in this shit. Rain that might as well be sleet pelts my face. I’m instantly miserable.

I’ll get there when I get there.

There’s a driveway about three car lengths behind us. Trying to get her to go there would probably be too much. She was white as a sheet last I looked. I round the back of the car. I don’t know how she’s gonna handle me taking over, but one of us needs to do something before some Good Samaritan calls the cops.

That’d be just my luck.

Speaking of…a guy waits at the intersection to turn. He could go. There’s room, but—

I don’t see a cell phone so I guess it’s cool. As I approach her door, I hold my hand up, gesturing for a minute. He nods.

She still looks pretty freaked. I need to be gentle. She starts to lower the window, but I open the door. Looking up, she asks, “Why are you—?”

I cut her off, “It’s cool, B. I’m not upset.” I think she knows that. I just want to make sure. “I love you, but we need to go. Okay?” I don’t know why I said that, but it has the right effect. “Put the car in park, please, and move over.”

She gives me a funny look and starts to say, “I—”

I interrupt, “Please. Just trust me.” She knows I’m right. Nothing was hit and no one was hurt. There’s no reason for us to hang out.

And every reason for us to leave.

Besides, I’m getting no less miserable. That might actually be the part that does it. Water trickles down my face, collecting at the lowest points, my nose and chin. When I wipe it away with my hand to keep it from dripping on her, she says, “Okay.”

I don’t really care what part works, so long as it does. But she isn’t nearly as graceful at getting over the console as I expect. I feel bad. She even tilts the wheel up and still struggles. I’ve never seen her quite so shaken. Wish I could help, but there’s not much I can do. I just thought this’d be better. I wanted to save her from what I’m going through. As she lifts her legs over the hump and swings them down, her heel snags on her laptop case.

Once she’s untangled, I get in and shut the door. Classy as ever, I unzip my coat and mop my face with my shirttail. It helps, but there’s a wet spot on my stomach now. My hands are frozen. I don’t want to touch her, but—

It’s all good. When I lean over, she takes the hint. Just a quick smooch is all I want. I pull away before I get her cold too. She looks calmer.

“Y’know, there’s something kind of beautiful about us.” Figures I’d get off to such a good start, only to stymie. I want to say something about how we fit. I’m not sure how to put it. I don’t want to add insult to injury by accusing her of being bad at anything, so…

First things first. I fasten my seatbelt and adjust the tilt wheel. I wish I could move the seat back, but that ain’t happening. There’s too much shit in back. So I put the car in drive and weasel us out of this mess. There’s no way to get around scuffing the rims some, but again, I do my best to be gentle.

Once we’re away from the curb, I shift into reverse and resist the urge to look back. Being that dense would just…

Besides, I know where I’m going. I check my door mirror anyway mostly to put her at ease. Turning to her, I say, “It’s just…the things I suck at…” I press the gas “…you’re pretty good at.” I could do this full throttle, but a bunch of reckless, showy shit would only make things worse. What I go for is something more relaxed and precise.

There’s a telephone pole this side of the driveway. I could use that as a mark and pull this off slicker than snot without ever looking. But nothing about my luck’s changed, so I glance in my mirror just to be sure before turning into the driveway.

I leave enough room for the guy who was waiting to pull in beside us if he wants. It’s rare, but some people do like to check. I’m just as glad that he isn’t one of them. As he blows by, she asks, “You love me?” I’ve got enough problems without…

Well, I said I was gonna wait till nothing else was hanging. I guess I did. This definitely isn’t about sex, or anything else for that matter. No one’s coming, so I put the car in drive and pull out before I reply, “I think so.”

Now there are ways normal people answer questions like that. All it takes is her mumbling, “But you’re not sure?” for me to realize that wasn’t one of them. I should’ve said, ‘yes.’ An emphatic ‘yes’ would’ve been even better.

I told her I love her to placate her. That’s beyond bad. But this…?

I’m not even sure what this is.

Traffic’s not as thick. I really don’t need to focus so much on the road, but I do…sort of. There’s just not much to look at right now. The view descending this hill’s usually pretty, but the rain’s reduced the city skyline to murky outlines.

I let off when the cars in front of us slow for another red light. There’s no shimmy or shake. I think the car’s fine.

I’m not, but that’s an entirely different story.

I guess I should count my blessings. She hasn’t blown up yet. She must be waiting to see if I dig myself out or in deeper.

Yeah. I’m just a thrill a minute.

Well, I wouldn’t want to deny her the pleasure of watching me squirm, so… “Y’know how there are things that just come natural?”

It’s a rhetorical question, but I still give her a sec to confirm. She says, “Yeah,” as we come to a stop.

When I find the nerve to look, she appears more thoughtful than upset. That’s loads better than I expect. “I haven’t done this a whole lot,” I admit. “I’ve never been able to afford a car. But the times I’ve driven, it’s always just been…” I shrug “…easy. I don’t even have to think about it.”

I stare at my hands where they rest on the bottom of the steering wheel, listening to rain peck at the windshield, the heater, her breathing, the engine… Through all of that, I pick out the faint sound of the car next us idling.

I take a deep breath, letting go a sigh. “Sometimes when we’re together and you smile at me, I feel like I can’t breathe,” I say. “It’s like I’m too full. Not my stomach, my chest. It doesn’t hurt. Kind of the opposite…butterflies and warm tingly stuff. I feel so stupid. Coherent thoughts definitely aren’t in the picture. And talking—?” I snicker.

“I should avoid that at all costs. I spend half my time worried I’ll say something dumb and the other half scared shitless I’ve said something to piss you off.” As I get this off my chest, I sense her. She wants to say something, but I’ll never finish if I let her interrupt, so… “I’m afraid you’ll get mad. You’ll realize it’s not worth it. That I’m not worth the hassle. I’m more trouble than—” Unable hold it in, I snicker again. “Whatever.”

At least my hair hides the smirk. The tone of my voice doesn’t hide shit. “If that’s love, then…” I don’t even try. “I must just be bad at it.” I shake my head. My hair sticks to face.

I know part of that was funny. That was the point. Or that was what I had in mind. I wanted to gloss over my emotional retardedness. How I ended up…I got a little sidetracked, but it makes no kind of sense that it hurts when she giggles.

“You’re not bad at it,” she says, sounding way more confident than I’d ever be. “And I think you’re totally worth the hassle.”

When she reaches for my hand, I look up. The Audi in front of us is still in front of us. The cross street walk light’s still on. We’ve still got time.

I half expect her to say, ‘I love you too.’ Instead, she says, “I just want you to be honest with me. I know it’s hard, but…please.”

I guess I’m just as glad she doesn’t. It always sounds so cheesy when couples do that shit. Like the second ‘I love you’ is necessitated by the first. And the first is about beating the second to the punch. I don’t think it’s s’posed to be a competition, but it sure comes off that way.

I nod so she knows I’m listening. That’s about all I’m good for right now. I feel like I ran an emotional decathlon. Course, it could be that I haven’t slept in—

“Things will get better. I promise,” she says. “It’s just gonna take some time.”

I don’t remember. When I sleep, I dream. It sucks.

As she caresses my hand, I stare dully at the Audi emblem, kind of half focused on it and half on the slush filled rain drops that splatter our windshield. It’s sleeting. The wiper blades squeegee the evidence away. I stifle a yawn.

I knew this dude years ago who mumbled ‘olive view’ when the other chick he was banging came off with the occasional, wanton, post coital ‘I love you.’ I’m not sure what read slimier, the fact that he said it or that he told me about it. No wonder I can’t remember the fucker’s name.

The Audi moves on. As we cross the intersection on its tail, she stammers, “Oh, uh…”

I say, “It’s okay, B.,” hoping she’ll take a hint.

She tries again, “I—”

But I interrupt, “You don’t have to say anything. The fact that you’re still here tells me everything I need to know.”

“No, I, uh…oh.” She gasps and sighs, gaining control by saying, “Dammit. I’m sorry. I do, but I wasn’t—” I dunno what throws me more the fact that she’s so flustered or the news that my own stupid assumption is totally wrong. “I was just gonna tell you that the hospital’s not far. Keep an eye out on the right.”

Shit. Romeo and Juliet we ain’t. Or Rosalyn an—whichever, whatever—it’s good. We’re not exactly the double suicide, double tragedy types.

Well, we’ve got the ‘double tragedy’ part down.

God, I need a drink.

Oh, well…at least one thing’s working in our favor now. Traffic gets up to speed without much stress. And once there, it flows along at five above the posted forty. I can focus on that and try to forget.

Some music wouldn’t hurt, but it’s a little late in the game to ask her to break out her iPod. And I’m not quite desperate enough to turn on the radio yet.

The Audi signals to turn into an office complex. There’s room, so I move over and pass him.

Debating the merits of being lulled to sleep by the ambient noise versus the latest hit by some bubble-headed bimbo whose ‘enormous talent’ must be contained in her bra because there’s no sign of it anywhere else carries me far enough down the road that B. squeezes my fingers and murmurs, “Umm…” I spot the sign. “It’s just up here.” I can’t exactly read the damned thing from this far away, but that sort of sign is a pretty solid clue. Only government agencies and hospitals are sad enough to think that squat, fat, white, square pillars make for perfect signage. Everyone else takes a flatter, broader, more readable approach. Probably because that makes sense.

I signal to change lanes, but there’s a guy in the right lane matching our speed. I have to slow down to get over. As I get over the annoyance and work that out, she says, “Turn after the parking garage.”

We pass by the main entrance with its normal sign, set too far back on the acre deep lawn for anyone to see and make the turn onto Mason Avenue. When I signal to turn again at the first garage entrance, she says, “Next one. I think this one’s for hospital staff or something.”

I don’t see a sign saying that, but I follow her lead, make the turn and grab a parking slip. These places are always a nightmare to get in and out of, unless you’re dying. Then it’s just the ‘getting out’ that sucks. The entrance leads straight to a ramp. At least that keeps me busy. I get to play ‘follow the arrow-shaped breadcrumbs,’ climbing and turning. I’ll never forgive B. if I end up holding a bone out of a cage for some twisted old hag to grope.

I don’t even try to fight the smirk. Though grinning like an idiot for no apparent reason is considered suspicious behavior, I can’t help it.

Yeah, some sleep wouldn’t hurt. Maybe more than five minutes.

A road trip with her should be fun. I was fine with not knowing that Cibo Matto had more than one album out. Now I’m just disturbed.

And tempted. I should pick up a couple of audio books at the gift store. But the way things work with us, those’ll probably put her to sleep. If it wasn’t for her iPod, we might’ve killed each other by now…over music. That’s just sad. But she likes everything on it and I like some stuff, so I’ve been able to pick and choose and get by.

Thing is, she’s done all of the driving so far, leaving me to play around. But she doesn’t do interstates, so that’s gonna change. She wouldn’t even hop on one long enough to get to Kentucky. She parked the car and walked across the bridge every time she went to Newport.

I thought it was kind of cute when she explained that. Hiking to the car the next morning was less cute, but—

At least she knows her limits. Weird they don’t involve walking a couple of miles in heels.

When the ramps finally let out, I hang a right. There are actually quite a few empty spots. No surprise in this weather. As I pull into the one closest to the stairs, she says, “It’s not always easy to see your mistakes.” I put the car in park and shut it off, taking the keys in hand. “And if you don’t see them, you’re pretty much doomed repeat them.”

She unfastens her seatbelt and faces me. I meet her eyes and she says through a snicker, “That’s the thing about clichés. The older, lamer and more annoying, the truer they usually are.”

She’s right, but it’d be nice to know where this is coming from. I ask, “And this is…?” She’s still in a mood. I don’t want to upset her anymore, so I keep that last part to myself, filling in with my right hand by gesturing for more. The keys press into my palm as I swirl. I let them go. They drop, swinging down where they’re hooked over my pinkie.

Taking them from where they dangle, she says, “Nothing really. I was just thinking about the stuff I was saying before I tried to get us killed.”

I bust up. “You didn’t try to kill us.” I shouldn’t laugh. Her statement’s just too funny.

Think I’ll take a pass on telling her I thought it was fun. She already has loads of reasons to believe I’m nuts.

Hanging her head, she laughs along. “I know. It’s just…” she says and sobers with a sigh. “I did everything I thought I was s’posed to, but I didn’t even think about who led who where. I didn’t have to. Tara’s death gave me something to blame…something bigger, uglier and way more obvious than myself.” She pockets the keys and looks at me, then down at her door, reaching for the handle. “It’s no wonder everything fell apart.” She pulls and her door swings open. “I didn’t accept that I was the one who put Will there in the first place.”

Getting out of the car, she leans back in to listen to me say, “I still think you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s not like you had a lot of choice.”

“Yeah, I guess,” she replies. “But I could’ve been a whole lot nicer.”

She’s right. She could’ve been a whole lot nicer to all of us. Bet she’d love hearing that from me.

I think there’s a byline in the ‘girlfriend’ description that says something about ‘being supportive.’ Maybe I should try that for kicks and see how it goes? But that pretty much leaves me with bupkis, so…

I could lie and tell her she wasn’t that bad.

Yeah. No. She’d never buy it. Best to keep my trap shut.

Enough time slips by that she gets anxious and prompts, “Do you sort of see what I’m saying?”

“I know exactly what you’re saying,” I reply and reach for my door handle. “Now let’s get this over with.” I’m not sure why, what’s changed, or whatever, but I get out of the car.

Sizing me up, she asks, “Are you sure?”

The first thing that comes to mind is ‘no,’ but I have the good sense to censor myself. “Yeah, you shouldn’t have to go through this alone,” I reply. That’s as close to a valid reason as anything I’ve got.

Of course, everything else I’ve got is pretty much telling me I’m an idiot.  

She pops the trunk. In the echo of my door shutting, I almost miss it. I wish I had. The faint sound makes me cringe. I remember all the freezing and shifting and shoving it took to get that damned thing shut. The trauma left a mark.

She’s digging through a duffle when I join her. Small consolation, but it’s one of the one’s on top. “We’ve still got that little problem with you and cameras,” she says.

Yeah, minor flaw. Mindfucks only work on things with minds. Thing is, things with minds usually believe their eyes, so it’s not really much of a problem.

She says, “Here, put this on,” pulling a sweatshirt from the bag. I don’t argue. There’s no point. She’s right to be cautious. I take off my coat before accepting the shirt. I’m actually tempted to change. My sweater’s damp. A big, soft hoodie like this would feel good, but it’s not worth freezing to death to get there, so…

As I follow her instructions, she gives me more, “I don’t want to take any chances. No one’ll look twice at someone wearing a hood in this weather. Just look down when you get inside.”

I put the hood up to slip on my coat. The damned thing’s so huge I won’t have a hell of a lot of choice. I state the obvious, “This isn’t exactly you.”

She shuts the trunk. From the lack of cussing, I’ll assume it actually shut. I have to tug the hood back to see. Yeah, it’s shut.

“Oh, you’d be surprised what’s me,” she replies. “There are days when all I really want is to find a small…” the car chirps “…dark place to curl up and hide. Think of that as a compromise.” She takes my hand. Leading me toward the stairs, she says, “You know you don’t have to do this, right?”

“I know,” I reply. When she first told me where we were headed, I assumed she expected me to suck it up and deal. Now I wonder if she thinks I’m nuts for tagging along. Whatever the case, I follow her like a lost pup. My stomach picks up a serious case of the jitters as we descend. I swallow a little air to force a silent burp. That helps some.

Sick, tingly warmth blankets my face. I swallow again to suppress the urge to gag. I know there’s something to the psychobabble. You have to face your fears to get past them. But it hasn’t been that long. Maybe I’m not ready. I don’t know. I wonder what she thinks. When we reach the first floor landing, I find the guts to ask, “Should I just sit this one out?”

“I can’t tell you that,” she replies and shoves the door open. I follow her to the next door and then outside into a stairwell. The hedges that hide it at ground level make it feel too much like another box. When I glance her way, she says through a smile, “But if you’re trying to prove something, just getting out of the car was enough.”

I reply, “I’m not trying to prove anything,” thinking better of it when she looks away. She was just playing. I came off all serious. But part of her playing was serious too. She was being supportive. And I wasn’t very nice. I mumble, “Sorry,” as I fall in behind her.

“It’s okay,” she replies.

The bitch is, this isn’t just about me and her. It’s more—

My imagination fills in the complication, tying my stomach in knots. A girl’s draped naked across an overturned barrel. Scrapes and bruises mar her swollen face. There’s a gash below her right eye. Blood cakes the nostrils of her broken nose.

Twisted laughter joins her screams. Wrenching my hand free, I run, desperate to find a spot to puke.

The laughter dies out, but not the screaming. Kako asks, “Have you ever heard of a book called ‘Schoolgirl in Concrete’?” She sounds delighted.

My jeans get soaked when I slip through a gap in the hedgerow. I grab the painted concrete wall, close my eyes and hang my head. Nothing comes up. I retch. Stomach acid hits the back of my throat. It burns. My eyes well up. There’s just enough coffee in the mix I may never want coffee again. I heave and spit. I can’t see shit. Just a blur. A big, black, cockeyed blur with a yellow dot on the leading edge.

It’s a car hood. This is the lowest floor of the parking garage, so there isn’t much else it can be. When I rub my eyes, the dot almost makes me grin. I’m one sick bitch. I just puked on some doctor’s Porsche.

Well, not quite ‘on it.’ ‘On it’ might’ve been an improvement. Shame, I think I hit the gap between it and the wall. Whoever got the idea that Porsche should join the endless parade of companies producing sport-utes was on some serious drugs.

Whoever decided that their sport-ute should look like a nine-eleven in the front was just—

The drugs weren’t working. It ended up with this ugly, bulging, lump of an— 

B. touches me, calling me back. “Are you okay,” she asks.

I was. I was distracted by a butt-ugly—

A luggage rack on a Porsche…now there’s something sick. I reply through a sigh, “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

But that’s rational. My problems are miles from rational.

I had two choices. I couldn’t even control that. I could’ve remembered the picture Giles sent me. She’s a pretty girl, whoever she is. I can’t even—

“We need to get you back to the car,” B. says, trying to coax me to come.

I picked barrel girl. Just considering that makes me picture her again. It’s one of those things. Now I remember, I want to forget, but I can’t.

I can’t shake the feeling that she hates me. She blames me.

That’s not rational either. She’s probably just as screwed up as I am…which isn’t helpful. If she’s screwed up, it’s ’cause I screwed her up.

But that’s not rational either. I was made to think I made her—

B.’s getting antsy. She gently tugs at my sleeve. Maybe she senses I’m chasing my tail?

I lift myself up and turn around, leaning against the wall. “No,” I reply. “I’ll be fine.” I don’t want to be alone. That’s the truth. There’s nothing brave about this. “Just leave me in a waiting room somewhere.” That’ll be better. She won’t go that far. I won’t fall asleep. And I won’t have to face—

It’s really the only solution.

“Okay,” she replies, offering me her hand. I take it and follow her out of the bushes. I don’t even mess with my hood. I don’t have to. The little bit of not much I can see is just fine. Our feet move through wet clumps of grass as she guides me. Each step sends a splash.

What’s got me twisted up inside—the part I can’t get past…sick-ass shit’s always turned me on. I can’t help it. I’m just broken that way.

My face is hot. At least something about me is. I’m shaking like leaf. B. probably thinks I’m cold.

We step onto the sidewalk and turn. Her heels click.

The girl has long, thick, straight black hair. It’s beautiful. It’s also so typical of Asian women I expect it, but I barely see it. Her head’s held back by it. It’s tied to a hook that’s—

I’m so fucked in the head. That warm down-low tingle turns to nagging pressure the higher up it goes. My stomach’s as nervous as a prom night virgin. The tingle’s more like a tickle at the back of my throat. It hangs there. I could puke again. Easy. My guts are all for it, but I—

Walking and breathing are enough. Ask me to chew gum and I’d choke. Though I could use the gum. My mouth tastes like ass. The only thing keeping me going is knowing that I won’t have to deal. I don’t have to face her.

I need help.

We near the entrance. Light reflects off the wet concrete. I pause as B. opens the door. Placing a hand on my back, she ushers me inside.

A man speaks somewhere to our distant right. The click of her heels grows louder. Acoustics give the place away. I don’t have to see to know we’re in an atrium. I can imagine how the balcony looks based on the shiny tile floor. It’s carpeted in a neutral color, something dark, like maybe emerald green or cobalt blue to contrast the boring walls. Hospital walls are always white, just like this floor. They want everything to look clean. The railings are probably brass and glass to add to the airy feeling.

Imagining the space keeps me busy as we skirt around a tropical garden set in this stair-stepped planter built into the floor. Nice touch. Wide dark-green leaves look good against the tile. But the earthy smells that should be there are overwhelmed by disinfectants. That pretty much kills it for me.

B. leads me to a water fountain at the back left corner of the lobby. I stop to rinse my mouth and take a drink, feeling somewhat better. She moves off, not far, just behind me. I hear a tap. She must’ve pressed the button for the elevator. Finishing up by wiping my mouth on my sleeve, I turn and walk in the direction of the sound until I see the bottoms of the elevator doors.

They open. I was close. The carpet’s teal. I go to the back and lean against the wall. She sticks near the front, pressing another button as she enters.

It’s messed up why it matters, but I need to know which one. When the doors close, I pull my hood back enough to see and look up. I’m relieved that the number three is lit. Without a robe or a net, that’s about my limit on improvised escapes.

The weak smile she gives me pretty much says it all. We’re on the same page. I can’t think of a single thing to say either. I take the hand she offers when the doors open and she leads me left down the hall. We don’t quite make it to the end. She veers right, passing through a set of double doors.

She stops. I guess this is it. The waiting area’s not much more than a wide spot in the hallway. It looks inviting enough, but I’m not fooled, not even for a second. No matter how comfy something looks in a hospital, it’s gonna be cold and hard. I pick the nearest floral print wrapped rock and cop a squat.

Before she takes off, it occurs to me to ask, “Can I see your iPod?”

Opening her purse, she replies, “Sure,” adding, “but I’ll have to find it,” as she starts to dig. She hands me first one thing, then another, and another…all sorts of shit that’s not even close. It’s funny, I basically become a table.

I’ll never understand the deal with chicks and their purses. They pack everything they might need to solve every imaginable crisis. With B. it’s worse. Add a couple stakes, two or three bottles of holy water and whatever other lethal shit she thinks might come in handy to the basic mix of half the medicine cabinet, makeup, lotion and…other miscellaneous stuff.

To further complicating matters, she’s one of those ‘organized,’ ‘smaller bags inside the bigger bag’ sort of girls. I get stuck looking through the smaller bags.

I don’t remember her being this way back in Sunnydale, but moving around makes some people crazy. I can see it hitting her that way. She was used to having a home and a life.

She asks, “Oh, can I have my phone?”

Smirking, I hold up my hands…along with the shit she just handed me. “I’d love to get right on that,” I reply. There’s not a lot I can do, except feel guilty for spacing it. But I don’t regret taking the damned thing either. That was a public service.

“It can wait till we’re done,” she says, taking out her sunglasses case. That’s gotta be the last of it. No clue why she opens it, but she does, then after giving the inside a quick glance, she mutters, “Shit,” and snaps it closed. Stirring the dregs at the bottom of her purse, she says, “I’m sorry. It must be in the car.”

“That’s fine,” I reply. “I’ll just grab a magazine.” I should’ve had the good sense to do that in the first place.

As we excavate my lap, I reach into my pocket and take out a phone. I’m not one-hundred percent sure it’s her phone, so I check the wallpaper before handing it off.

Pocketing it, she says, “Thanks.” I figure we’re done, but she leans down and rests her fingertips under my chin. When I follow her prompt, she rewards me with a kiss. “I won’t be long,” she whispers.

I wait for her to leave before going for a magazine. The first one on the stack is about parenting. That’s like the last thing…

I grab whatever’s next. It’s no better, but at least Southern Living is more about the perfect home and less about the perfect family. The odds of me ever having either are pretty much slim to none, but the perfect home doesn’t make me feel quite so hopeless.

I leaf through, just glancing at the pictures until something catches my eye. Go figure, it’s food. The last thing I am is hungry. I’m exhausted and wet and cold and sore and nauseous and…but Buffy would like these. The recipe’s for oatmeal peanut butter cookies. It looks pretty good. I’m tempted to snag it. She’s got this thing for peanut butter. And I like to bake. It’s one of the few normal things I do. But I don’t get to do it very often. My life’s too screwed up for that.

I imagine what it’d be like just to do something nice for her. Enjoy an evening together somewhere where we belong. We’re not exactly the Cleavers, but it’s still a good fantasy. I play it out a few different ways. It always ends the same, but never the way I would’ve thought. I can actually imagine us being happy together.

What are the odds?

Over the top of my magazine, I catch sight of her. She’s done? It hasn’t been five minutes. Has it? I look around for a wall clock. There isn’t one, so I put the magazine down and take out my phone to look.

Okay, it’s been ten. Maybe. I stash my phone.

Holding hers to her ear, she says, “No, she’s gone,” throwing her free hand up. “Totally gone—as in ‘not here.’ And the nurses are clueless.” The gesture tells me several things, none of them good, and none of them requiring her to say a single word to me. The message comes through loud and clear. Whoever she’s got on the line is testing her patience. Her hand drops to the crown of her head. She drags her fingers through her wet hair.

I expect her to walk up to me, but she doesn’t. Heading straight for the door, she shows no sign of stopping or even slowing down. I blink and she’s gone. The door swings in her wake. Guess I’m supposed to follow. I hop out of my chair, toss the magazine back on the stack and run to catch up.

She says, “No,” as I fall in beside her. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. The nurse at the desk recognized me. She’s not totally gone.”

Wait. You mean the girl? You just said she was gone. She’s either is or she isn’t. There’s no—


B. hangs a right, shoves a door open and barrels down the stairs. I get schooled. She covers all three flights in under a minute in heels while bitching someone out, “No, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Kim’s chart was in the door. They don’t take a patient for tests and leave their chart. I tried to jog the nurse’s memory by showing it to her. That was a complete waste. She’s been—” She postpones her rant to throw the door open.

This could be a post-modern Olympic event.

As we rush through the atrium, she picks up, “Yeah, that’s right, and with the nurse playing ‘If I Only Had a Brain,’ the math just isn’t that complicated.” She says, “Uh-huh, that’s right,” once more before we’re out the door.

At least whoever she’s talking to is catching on. There might be an end in sight. Maybe she’ll actually talk to me when she’s done. That’d be nice.

Once we’re outside, she frees up her hands by cradling the phone with her shoulder. “I think I’ve got something,” she says.

I almost laugh when she opens her purse. She can’t seriously believe—

She does. It’s sad. Digging through the contents as she charges toward the garage, she agrees with whoever she’s talking to, “Yeah, it’s a huge problem.”

I see people like this on the streets all the time. They look busy as hell. I always wonder what they could possibly be accomplishing. If she’s any example…

“Well, whatever you can do, do it faster,” she says. “We’ll head back to the apartment. I’ll catch up when we get there.”

She hangs up her phone. Letting her purse eat it might not’ve been the best choice, but that’s what she does.

I ask the first thing that comes to mind, “Was that Giles?” He’s the usual go-to guy for shit gone wrong, so it seems reasonable.

She replies, “No. Giles can’t do anything. He’s in England. I told you that.”

Oh. Yeah. Shit. She did.

We almost make to the steps before she gives up on her purse. I’m glad ’cause it’s just slowing us down. It’d be nice to be in out of the rain. I actually wait until that’s happened to ask, “So, who was that?”

Leading the way up the stairs, she replies, “It was Cass.” The fact that I’m gonna need a little more translates into a shrug. Simple, effective…if she’d seen it. It’s cool. She explains, “I don’t know whether you’ve met her or not. Probably not. She’s part of the Boulder Valley coven. They were supposed to help us out with Kim.”

I could ask another question, easy. Hell, I could ask a dozen, but it seems ridiculous to point out that what I’m missing outweighs what I know. That’s typical. She’s probably noticed the trend. I just follow her to the car. She’ll fill me in when she gets good and ready.

She goes to the driver’s side with me right on her tail, determined to get in her way. She gives me a funny look when I ask, “Let me drive, please?” so I state my case, “You probably have things you need to do. It’ll be better if I cover this.” Sitting through another round of cell phone roulette is the last thing I want to do.

I take the keys when she holds them up and says, “Okay.” As she goes around to the passenger side, I hit the button to unlock the doors and get in. 

The first thing out of her mouth after she joins me is, “I’m sorry. This is all my fault.”

It’s bad enough that we’re both apologizing every five minutes for stuff we actually did, but this is just… “Huh?”

When she doesn’t counter my ‘huh,’ I buckle up, take my soggy hood down so I can see and get going. We’ve got more pressing things to worry about than her martyr complex. If Kim’s missing, it might be a good idea to find her. Once we’re out of the parking space, I put the car in drive and follow the arrows toward the exit.

B.’s awfully quiet. She isn’t even digging through her purse. The only thing she has done is save me the trouble of switching off the blower. I tell her, “Y’know, you can do whatever. You aren’t gonna bother me.” 

“Oh, okay,” she replies. “I just figured you’d need to concentrate.”

“No, it’s cool,” I reply. It’s a little tight and kind of an obstacle course, but— “I kind of like these things. Back in Southie we used to meet up in one after hours and hang out. There was always someone with a bike or rollerblades or a skateboard. ’Cause of that we’d get run off by the cops sometimes, but it was mostly cool.”

She doesn’t take the hint, except that she picks up her purse and goes through it. Could be the same old misgivings getting in the way. Wish there was something I could do about that, but I’d say I’ve done enough. Nothing is probably the only thing I can do that’ll help. Or maybe she really does think I need to pay attention. Either way, the next time she speaks, we’re at the gate and she’s trying to hand me a credit card. She says, “Here,” but I wave it off.

“I’ve got it,” I reply as I take my billfold from my coat pocket. We’ve had this talk. It blew up in my face, but that doesn’t mean I was wrong.

I pull a twenty out and feed it to the stupid machine. Of course it spits it back out. This part’s always annoying. I flatten the bill using the edge of the glass and stick it into the slot again. This time the stupid machine just takes the money.

Thing is…it doesn’t matter where our money comes from. That’s not the point. If our goal really is to disappear, she needs to stop using those things.

The gate goes up as the machine spits my change out. I grab the bills, leave the rest and make the turn.

She must’ve found what she was looking for. No clue what it was, but she’s packing everything back into her purse, so…

As we pull up to the light, I turn to get a better look. Nothing jumps out. It’s just the same pile of stuff I had in my lap not that long ago.

“You aren’t going to like this,” she says in a soft, sulky voice. “I wanted to tell you before, but you had so many questions.” Her purse is the only left in her lap. She drops it on the floor with a sigh. “I just hope you can forgive me. I really screwed up.”

Y’know, this doesn’t have to be complicated. Kim’s gone and someone took her. All I really need to know is who B. thinks is responsible.

Really, I don’t even need to know that. I just want to know because none of the suspects I have fit. I got the impression from Sparky that Kako wasn’t going to be up to much for a while…if ever. He was out for blood. That still blows my mind. But if I take that at face value—which, considering the source, isn’t the best call—that just leaves him.

Thing is, B. was talking about the nurse like she’d been charmed or something. A Jedi mind trick like that usually means ‘magic.’

That or the nurse has been dipping into the pain meds. But for the sake of argument, we’ll rule that out and focus on Sparky.

The only thing magical I’ve seen him do is fly…mostly through walls like a wrecking ball. Finesse really isn’t his specialty.

Hell, ‘finesse’ might not even be in his vocabulary. He’s wicked strong and not especially gifted in the smarts department, which makes me think ‘demon,’ not ‘warlock.’

Or maybe even ‘Hell God’…if we’re really, really unlucky. That thought’s so comforting it comes with a complimentary chill.

B. needs to get talking. Me speculating is just plain bad.

“All I wanted was a normal evening,” she says. “I should’ve known better. I always…”

When she trails off, I mumble, “I hear ya.” A weak smile passes over her face. As it fades, I get back to what I should be doing. The light’s green. I go.

Once we’re through the intersection, in the right lane, headed the right way, she says, “It’s always the same things that trip me up. You’d think I’d learn.” She lets out a contemptuous snicker. “But for Pete’s sake it was only dinner. I figured ‘how wrong could it go?’ ”

Without thinking I reply, “Really wrong.” Not that she could’ve possibly known.

“Pretty much,” she agrees.

I probably just gave her more reason to guilt.

The car ahead of us slows to turn. I glance in my mirror, hoping to change lanes. There’s someone coming. I have to slow down too, but I manage to time it so we don’t completely stop.

As we gradually rebuilt lost momentum, she continues, “What I told you was true. I came here because I wanted to be near you, but I left something out. This was an assignment. I figured it wasn’t a big deal. It sounded like a babysitting job.” She snickers again. This one sounds more laugh-like than hiss-like. That might be a step up. “I was sent here to keep an eye on Maeve.”

I stammer, “Maeve?” Wait. Is she saying that Maeve sold us out? But why? “Why would she—?”

“It doesn’t matter how she looks, Faith. She’s two things that are really dangerous together: ‘powerful’ and ‘desperate’.”

Her response comes out of whatever’s past left field. It’s so out there that “Huh?” is the best answer I’ve got. Yet somehow I get around to spelling things out before she does, “No, you were talking about dinner so I just assumed. You mean there’s more?” ‘Desperate’ I get. But ‘powerful’? Really?

When she replies, “Yeah, I think she’s responsible for what’s happened with Kim,” I see my ‘huh?’ and raise it a ‘what the fuck?’ Trying to picture her doing anything like that is just, uh, well…seriously ‘huh?’ She couldn’t find her way out of a wet paper sack. How’s she gonna kidnap anyone?

“You’re shitting me.”

“I know,” she says. “It seems that way, but you can’t really judge a book by its cover.” She stops. No clue what stops her.

The roads are a little slick. And because we’re in the Midwest…no one here knows how to drive in this crap. I’ve got my hands full just dealing with that. Add her and I’m, uh…

She reasons, “Well, sometimes you can,” as we come almost to a stop way before the light. “The pictures are usually pretty helpful.” It beats rear-ending the guy in front of us. “But some of the stuff Giles reads…?”

The last guy I watched defuse a bomb on TV looked less intense than she does now. Barely stopping long enough to breathe, she chatters, “But I guess ‘musty’ and ‘old,’ is pretty much ‘musty and old.’ Do you remember that great big book he had that said ‘vampire’ on the front, only it was spelled funny, like with a ‘y’ or something? Did he show you that? It was like the first thing he showed me. For someone who couldn’t even spell the word, whoever wrote it sure knew lots about them. Great big, ginormous, tedious lots.”

Who cares?

“Yeah, that expression’s pretty stupid,” I agree, hoping maybe she’ll let it go. But she may as well have at it. There are five stoplights separating us from our next turn and they’re all timed for traffic coming down the hill. Add the idiot factor and we’re pretty much screwed.

As we creep closer to the light, following the latest idiot, she replies, “It is, isn’t it?”

If her goal’s to make me understand, she’s there. I get it. Maeve could be more than she appears to be. That might be impossible to imagine, but it isn’t that hard to understand. B. could move along any time now…and actually bother to explain the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’

Of course, she doesn’t, so I look for something useful to do. We’re finally up to the light, or as close we’re getting for now.

Here’s something. I flip on the blower.

Okay, so…

Now I want a cigarette…and a drink.

When—to quote Giles—‘cooler heads prevail,’ she picks up again, “Here’s something a little obvious, but at least it makes sense.” At least she sounds like she’s chilled. “What do you think people see when they look at me?” Of course she doesn’t actually change the subject. Why would she? She’s got a perfectly good one to flog the piss out of.

“Yeah, so…it’s not that simple,” she concludes, taking my smirk for an answer.

Knowing her, she probably just thinks I’m amused because people think she looks like a soft target. What I really do think wouldn’t earn me a cookie, so I keep that to myself. I guess it all works out. As I cap things off by mumbling, “It never is,” something occurs to me. If Maeve really is somehow hitting for the black hats…

I’ll be damned. What was it Giles said, something like ‘one of our fellows’? I assumed he meant a slayer. Leave it to the British. Why tell it straight when being cryptic and weird is so much more fun?

B. says something like, “I thought I was getting through. I hoped that—”

She might actually be getting to something worth hearing. Whether Giles didn’t lie to me or not, doesn’t mean much. Of course, the realization’s written all over my face so she stops to ask, “What’s wrong?”

Oh, well. Nothing’s changed. We still have loads of time to screw around. Once we get past these crappy traffic lights, there’s still that whole intersection from hell clusterfuck standing in our way.

What I actually care about is seeing her this weirded out. Still wish there was something I could do.

“It’s nothing,” I reply. “I just realized something.”

As usual, I’ve got nothing.


I try to discourage her by saying, “It’s really not important,” but she isn’t having any of it, so I give her what she wants. “Giles is one slippery bastard. He never specifically said it was a slayer I’d be after. He led me to believe that, but he never used the word.”

“Oh,” she says. It takes her moment to put together what I mean. Or I guess that’s it. “I just assumed he’d lied. He said would if he had to, but it’s good that he didn’t.”

“I guess,” I reply with a shrug. The light changes. My foot reflexively travels from the brake to the gas. But I have to wait. The car in front of us is still stopped. As everyone gets with the program, I try to put her back on track. “I’m sorry I interrupted. You were saying?”

“It’s not that simple,” she mumbles, obviously mulling something else over.

This is the last stretch before we’re locked into the standard city block grid. We need to be in the left lane. The roads are bad enough that I take a page from her book and move over while I can without much stress. We may end up waiting for someone to make a left turn, but—

She has her phone out when I finish. Fiddling with it, she says, “I went into this not really even believing it was possible. You know how it is. Someone you trust tells you how something is and you just believe it. It becomes the truth and anything else that contradicts it must be a lie.”

The guy next to us speeds up. He wants to get over. It goes completely against my nature to let him in, but I do. He’s probably going to turn left at the next light. I want to move over into the right lane to avoid that, but I don’t. Conditions are just too crappy to play leap frog.

“Giles told me a long time ago that there wasn’t anything we could do for Mom, so I just assumed,” she explains. “He did the same thing to me he did to you. That wasn’t the whole truth. There are ways to fight cancer magically. But there’s a catch. Anything that works against the natural order is pretty much evil. The disease can’t be cured—he was telling the truth about that—but it can be forced into remission and life can be extended. You just have to be willing to—”

I have to interrupt, “Magically? You mean Maeve sold us out to get a witch to help—?”

“Maeve is a witch,” she replies, cutting me off. “I told you that.”

“You did? Where was I when you told me?” It’s stupid. That just slips out.

No surprise she gets snarky. “The usual place. Within earshot. That makes the telling part lots easier.”

I don’t remember anything like that, but there’s just so much I don’t remember and even more I’d like to forget, not to mention the shit I clearly remember that she’s told me is wrong. Funny how her telling me that something’s wrong doesn’t keep me from remembering it that way.

I’ll just have to take her word for this. I’m sure she’s right. It still blows my mind that it’s been nearly two weeks since I got here.

The conversation dries up. Bombshells tend to do that. I’ve got nothing. I had something. Hell if I remember what now.

I rub my neck as I drive. None of this shit’s helping. The nagging tension’s bound to become headache.

That’s actually not much of a bombshell. Really, it clears some stuff up. Like why we’re here.

B.’s totally sweet. I get that. I could see her caring, no problem. But about some random cancer chick? That part just didn’t wash. How would they even meet? The ‘spa’ thing sort of made sense, but this makes more. B. said Maeve was powerful, so she probably started off a person of interest who became a potential problem.

Whatever, I should get things rolling again. “What makes you think Maeve took Kim?” She hasn’t told me anything so far that makes me half as sure of that as she is.

She replies, “Well, you can imagine how tempting information like that might be to someone who’s dying.”

Yeah, okay…we’ve been over that, but it’s really not an answer, so I ask, “I get that, but how do we know anyone tempted her?”

“We don’t,” she admits. “That’s the problem. Every time I thought for sure Maeve was up to something, something else would get in the way.”

It’s not like I want to argue, but I have to ask, “Then why blame yourself?”

“Because it’s the best answer I have,” she replies. “Whoever took Kim used magic. Maeve is the only witch I know with a motive, so…”

The light’s just up ahead. And of course, it’s red. I let off the gas while intentionally provoking her by saying, “So?”

That does it. “Don’t you see?” she snaps. “If Maeve is responsible, then so am I. She betrayed us and I could’ve stopped her.”

And to make matters worse, who’s-it in the ubiquitous Toyota sedan ahead of us turns his blinker on. Shit. I knew this was gonna happen. There’s no turn lane or arrow, so we’re screwed. The light’ll probably change again before this guy gets to go.

‘Ubiquitous’? Where’d that come from? I’m not even positive it means right thing, but it sounds bad so I guess that’s good enough.

I’ve got enough to deal with just admitting, “No, sorry, I don’t,” as we come to stop. ‘See’ that is.

If someone’s willing to do anything, they can become immortal. That kind of precludes the cancer thing. That’s what I wanted to say before.

Figures I remember now that I can’t really share. She’s too busy shouting, “Oh, come off it, Faith!” to hear me. “I should’ve told you, but I didn’t. I just had to wait. You were little weird around Maeve without the extra added info, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to give you a couple of days to settle in.”

Mayor Wilkins didn’t start off immortal. He was gifted, but essentially he just your average Joe.

Whatever. As I turn my signal on, she adds a snarky, “That went well.”

I left enough room between us and the Toyota to pull out, but all I have is her mirror to tell me what’s what. She clues to where I’m looking and presses flat against her seat.

Looks like the guy behind us has the same idea. The front corner of his car pokes out almost across the line. His turn signal flashes. I may as well give up. There are cars stacked up behind us waiting as far as I can see and it’s gonna be a few before the light even changes.

Besides, if I can get her to change her tune, it’ll totally be worth the time. We could both use a break from the non-stop angst-a-thon. Cancelling my turn signal, I reply, “Yeah, it did and you’re probably right to a point, but I can see why you chose not to.” I turn my hand palm up on the console, hoping she’ll take it. “Let me ask you something.”

She replies, “Okay,” and accepts my offer. It’s a start. Her hand feels nice. It’s a little warmer than mine.

This seems kind of, umm…strange I guess, like it’s too simple, but I ask anyway, “When you decide you’re gonna do something, do you ever give up?” I don’t doubt that she gets this. She just needs a reminder.

No surprise, she replies, “Not if it’s something important.”

I agree, “Neither do I,” intentionally adding her caveat, “Not if it’s important,” so she can see we’re on the same page. “None of us do. That’s part of what makes us special.” Simply seeing eye-to-eye on something is refreshing for a change. “The bigger, badder shit we face is exactly the same way. Once it sets its sights on something, it won’t stop. You know that.”

The light turns green. As the Toyota creeps forward into the intersection, I point out the obvious, “What I did was pick a fight with something that was our brand of ‘special.’ I knew what I was doing. Kako was bound come after me and when she did, only one of us was gonna walk away. I sure didn’t expect it to be me.”

Moving up to give the guy behind us room to pull out, I make a minor concession, “You may’ve sped that up.” I’ll let her have that, but I refuse to give her an absolute where there isn’t one. “But we don’t know that. We can’t. Not unless Maeve gets caught and has an attack of conscience.” She tenses and takes a breath like the wants to butt in. That’s something else I won’t give her. “But does it really matter? I was on a path I chose. The only thing I regret is that I dragged anyone else down with me.”

She tries again, actually getting an, “Umm,” out this time.

Like it or not she’s gonna let me finish. “Look, B., I know you want to. I get that it eats you up to think you might’ve done something wrong. It screws with me too. The idea that anyone might’ve been hurt because of something I did—that you might’ve been hurt…”

The guy in front of us is still waiting to turn, but nothing’s passed on the right in a while. The light’s still green, so I look. It’s clear. As we pull out, she says, “It wasn’t you.”

We could debate that.

“But don’t you see?” I reply. “That’s exactly my point. Blaming ourselves or one another is senseless.” Holy shit! We just made it through the intersection without a fight. “It’s even kind of funny if you think about it. You’re not gonna to convince me it’s your fault ’cause I think it’s mine.”

And she might actually be listening, which is nice. What I have to say seems pretty important. “The best I can hope to do with this shit is accept it.” To me at least. “That’s the only way I’ll ever be able to get right with it. Blame really can’t be a part of that. You were the one who asked me to move on. This is the only way I know how.”

She says, “You’re right.”

I know I am. I may not be right about much, but that—

As we stop at the back of a long line of cars, I say, “You need to realize something else. I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. That buys you a whole lot of slack in my book.”

I’ve said my piece and exceeded my quota of schmaltzy sentiment for the week. If she has half a clue, she’s probably thinking, ‘Who are you and what have you done with my Faith?’

It’s her turn. We’ve still got plenty of time. It’s doubtful we’ll make it through the light when it changes. Pretty much everyone in this lane is gonna be turning. That always takes longer, so I wait and eventually she asks, “Do you remember the scar you had on your chest?”

“No,” I reply. The idea that there might be more booby traps buried in my head, waiting for the worst possible moment to trip, isn’t exactly thrilling.

She passes me her phone. As I focus on the picture, she says, “It took Maeve forever to remove that.” It’s not what she wants me to look at, but my face is a real attention grabber. No wonder I can’t remember shit. It looks like someone took a hammer to it. “She claimed it had a ‘binding element’ that was meant to keep you from working against the one who gave it to you.”

Above the sheet that keeps me decent is what she wants me to see…a mark that covers most of the rest of my chest. It looks like someone doodled on me with a hot poker. A horizontal line with a broken, almost half circle above it forms a crude sunset. Finer, scalloped lines make a four pointed star to the left.

It’s like I’m looking at someone else. The two things don’t fit.

I have this strange sense I’m missing something. Half-listening to B., I stare at the picture, trying to figure out what.

“None of the other witches could sense it. I figured it was because Maeve was just stronger. But what if she was working with Sparky? What if he did this to you just to give her something else to throw us off? This was what actually made me trust her. I wasn’t sure until she—”

That’s no sunset. The star makes it a sunrise, or dawn. Or I don’t know ‘twilight’?

“What was that?” she asks. The look she gives me makes me think something else is wrong with my face. Something not involving hammers or dorks in gimp masks.

Self-consciously rubbing my cheek, I reply, “I don’t know.” I don’t know how much I said or what she heard. I’m not even sure what part might’ve set her off, but whatever’s up, she’s making me wicked nervous, so I redirect, hoping to distract her, “So basically, you didn’t want to believe at first so you trusted Maeve. Then when you started to doubt, she played the hero to throw you off?”

“Yeah, simpled up that’s pretty much it,” she replies. “But none of this is simple.”

Her attention turns from me as she continues her thought, “I thought she’d saved your life.” It’s the first time in a long time I’ve been glad she’s interested in something else. “She probably did, but it’s hard to say that when I feel like I should doubt everything she said.”

I follow her lead and look too. When I see that no one’s in front of us, my foot moves from the brake to the gas. I’m surprised she didn’t say anything. I glance in my mirror as we pull away. No one’s behind us either. That’s why no one honked. We were just sitting in the middle of the street.

She says, “It doesn’t make much sense, considering.”

Sparky said he was doing me ‘a favor.’ I remember that. It was right before he threw me into the hole. He held his hand against my chest. He must’ve marked me. That symbol’s the same as the one on his chest. I guess he figured if he did that, B. would suspect me or maybe reject me. Or maybe it’s what she thinks. He did it to make her trust Maeve.

B. said something else that I totally miss because I—

Whatever the case, my nerves are fried. Nothing a twelve pack and a handful of valium wouldn’t fix, but—

We come to a stop where we should be. There are only a couple of cars ahead of us, but that’s enough. I was right. We wouldn’t have gotten to go.

She says, “Even considering all of that, there’s still something that bugs me.”

Her phone’s still in my lap. I hold damned thing out to its owner and reply, “What’s that?”

Accepting it, she asks, “How long did it take for Kakistos to find you after you got to Sunnydale?”

“A few days,” I reply. “Hell, it took you almost a full day to notice me.”

She says matter-of-factly, “I wasn’t looking for you.”

I mumble, “Fair enough.”

And she goes on, “It took a highly motivated, ridiculously old vampire and his minions days to find you in a tiny place like Sunnydale.” The light changes. The first car goes straight across. Only the Range Rover directly ahead of us is turning. “But in a city of almost a quarter-million it took Kako less than a day to locate and abduct two fully trained slayers.” As we follow it into the intersection, she arrives at her point, “Tell me that doesn’t smell the least bit fishy to you.”

“I can’t,” I admit. “Everything about this reeks. That’s the problem. Nothing adds up.”

The guy in front of us is seriously hauling ass. I stay on his six, but not too close. The spray of dirty water coming off the truck makes it too hard to see.

“Yeah, it bugs me,” she says. “What bugs me more is why she’d want them. Do you think she abducted them just to flush us out?”

“Probably not,” I reply. “It didn’t seem like she needed to.”

She says, “Exactly,” like I hit on something important. No clue what. That much seemed pretty obvious.

Tail lights come on in front of me. I respond to both things at once, going for the brakes as I ask, “So why’d it happen?” I should’ve taken Jefferson. It’s a little late for that now.

She replies, “I don’t know,” as we pull up to the red light in the wrong lane. “The best I’ve got is wild speculation and conjecture.” Her brow furrows. She mumbles, “It’s mostly not even my conjecture.”

“At least you’ve got that,” I reply.

“Wait,” she says. “Aren’t they the same thing?” She goes for her phone.

I’m pretty sure she didn’t hear me. Why I bother to say, “What I’d like to know is why Sparky let us go,” is anyone’s guess.

She’s way too distracted to answer. Finally, she announces, “Yeah, they’re pretty much the same.”

Good to know. Now can we please get back to—?

“Theories based on a whole lot of circumstantial nothing,” she says. “That’s what I’ve got.” She snickers. “And a dictionary app I picked up to make Giles happy. He seems to think that I should actually know what words mean before I use them. I think he’s just being picky.”

No, obviously we can’t. I guess she wants a break. I should ask her to look up ubiquitous while she’s at it. I would if I cared. Instead, I choose something not-quite-so potentially time consuming to fuel the small talk, “Did he sign you up for that stupid ‘word-a-day’ email too?”

“Yeah, I think he got all of us,” she replies. “He told me that since he was paying, he intended to ‘put this infernal technology to good use’.”

I laugh. Nothing big, but it feels damned good to chuckle even once and say, “That sounds like Giles.” Making fun of him will never get old.

“Today was a total waste,” she says, still playing with her phone. “The word is ‘expunge.’ Not exactly a hard one and I’ll never use it. It just sounds…”

“…like something he’d say.” Finishing her thought feels even better, in a weird, totally Stepford sort of way. At least we’re getting along.

“Yeah, way too Gilesy for casual conversation,” she says, dropping her phone back in her purse. “I’m not sure he even knows what that means.”

I can’t see the stoplight, but the truck’s brake lights go out, so I get set to move.

The truck takes off. As we keep pace, she says, “I don’t think what happened had anything to do with Kako. She was just there to throw us off. Make us do exactly what we’ve been doing. Left to choose, I prefer my enemies confused and frightened too.”

I ask, “So, why’d Sparky let us go?” Maybe she’ll answer if a paraphrase.

She replies, “Obviously he wanted us alive.”

Well, obviously. A real answer was just too much to hope for. Like a fool, I try again. “Why?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” she replies. “Maybe he doesn’t think we’re a problem. Definitely not the standard, but considering the source, it’s not impossible either.”

I don’t buy that and neither does she. I just wonder if she knows about—

“I just know that if Maeve took Kim, she also tipped Sparky off about us,” she says. “One thing suggests the other one’s true. And that last thing seriously suggests the first, so…”

No, she probably doesn’t. How could she?

“Minions always have masters. The ones with any shelf life at all only have one. And the ‘one’ always has some sort of nefarious plan. All of the things that have happened should fit whatever the plan is.”

We blow through another light. I’m kind of lost just following. The truck doesn’t give me much of a forward view. And with the way she’s chattering…

“And no matter how seriously discomforting it might be, the only thing that really fits is what we talked about last night. Can you think of another reason that someone like him would be interested in snatching a couple of slayers off the street?”

Well, maybe because he’s evil and evil things hate slayers. But considering the timetable, I see her point. If it wasn’t Kako and he was the one took them—which seems likely, given—he must’ve wanted them. He snatched them before their bus seats had even cooled. And he didn’t just kill them. He could’ve. He could’ve killed us all and not even broken a sweat.

I don’t bother to share any of that. It’s almost as twisted up and full of ‘ifs’ as the shit she’s been saying. A simple, “No,” works just fine.

This is gonna start to suck really soon. I should get over. I glance at her mirror and signal. “It’s like that thing bored people do with dominos,” she says, stopping to snicker. “God, I wish I could be that bored.” We merge into the right lane. “That one detail’s a real game changer. A whole room full of dominos topple over.”

I can see again. And just in time. There’s a whole line of parked cars just ahead of us. I put on the brakes.

As we park too, she says, “Denial was so much easier. And look what that got me.”

She’s beating herself up again. I have to put my two cents in, “We still don’t know that’s true.”

“No we don’t,” she replies. “But I can’t think of anything else that makes sense.”

I can, but pointing out that there could be someone else—someone we don’t know about yet…that’d go over well. It’d have to be someone on the inside who knew their itinerary. And speculating…

“Yeah, so…worst case scenario, we’re screwed,” I reply. “Sounds like the usual.” No sense in opening another can of worms. “That doesn’t make it your fault.” Hoping that she’ll eventually see reason is probably too much to ask too.

I expect a comeback, something biting and snarky. She doesn’t bother. She’s too busy with her phone, catching the others up on the haps. I should’ve kept my mouth shut.

Okay, whatever…we’ve only got a few blocks to go before we turn. This won’t be too bad. It’d be better with some conversation to pass the time. Maybe something a little less ‘gloom and doom.’ I’m not sure where I’d find that.

Not here. That much is sure. I should just bite the bullet and admit that the only reason I was interested in any of that is that I wondered if she knew that Sparky tried to recruit me. But the idea makes me nervous as hell. It reeks so much of the past. I wonder if she’ll still trust me.

The light changes. As I keep up with traffic, she takes a break from typing with her thumbs to say, “Cass is going to meet us at the house. They’re working on a portal now. She’ll be able to cast a locator spell.”

I reply, “Okay.” I wish she’d say more, but she does the exact same thing. She clams up and hides behind her phone.

After we stop, time just drags. It feels like forever. It’s close enough that we move again and make it through another light. And all I’ve got to keep me company is guilt. It finally wins out and I mumble, “Sparky asked me to join him. That might’ve been why he let us go.”

Resting her phone in her lap, she replies, “I’m not surprised.” I am. I thought she’d flip. “Giles pointed some stuff out that sort of made sense. He thought the same thing.” She stalls long enough I have to look.

“Think about it,” she says as I set my jaw. Keeping it out of my lap might be good. “You were the last slayer who was called. The last time I died nothing happened. No new slayers showed up. And you’d think—what, with Sunnydale being the home of the perpetually pending apocalypse—they would’ve.” She lets go a cold snicker. “You’re the real Chosen One, Faith, not me…if that even matters anymore.”

All those years I was never more than second best. Turns out—

“I know it seems pretty farfetched,” she says. “But he thinks they might need you to put things back the way they were.”

Not that it matters. She’s right about that. It doesn’t. No clue about the rest. Traffic’s moving again. That’s what I should be worried about. As my foot goes from the brake to the gas, the asshole behind us honks. There’s only a car length to make up. Prick.

It’s really not my fault that we get caught by the last light before the three-way intersection. I guess it helps that everyone in the right lane is turning. The line clears out while we wait.

She leaves me to twiddle my thumbs for so long that her mumbling, “What I’d like to know is why I’m still alive,” catches me completely off-guard. “I’m the one who screwed things up in the first place.”

I’ve got nothing. I don’t even want to think that way. But I don’t want to blow her off either, so I say, “When things are this screwed up, it’s never about just one person.”

She drops it. Guess that means what I said actually made sense. Either that or she’s not into arguing. That’s probably it because she rewards me with more of the mind-numbing same. Half watching her, I stare off to my right at a distant tree until movement ahead of us demands my attention.

As we pass through the last intersection between us and our turn, I notice something. Straight ahead across Clifton Avenue is a church. I saw it last time we came through here, but—

Two three-story wings project from a larger central part. Spires and arches break up the standard boxy building shapes. Other than being just plain huge, it’s really nothing special. There were dozens of these things where I grew up. There are probably dozens of them here.

But for some reason I can’t take my eyes off this one. And as I stare, I get that feeling again. That ‘down in the pit of my stomach,’ ‘prickling at the back of my neck,’ creepy crawly, tense, fucked up feeling that something’s wrong.

Through the rain and past all the cars, what’s setting me off is pretty much a big gray shape behind a wrought iron fence. And that makes the feeling even worse. I just know I’m gonna get blindsided by something. That’s how this always goes.

Or maybe I’m just freaking out. B. hasn’t said anything yet. And if that is what this is, she should be sensing it too.

I’d be nice to have a plan on the off chance that I’m not losing my mind. But there’s nothing I can do. I could tell her I’ve got a bad feeling, but I can’t even tell her about what. I don’t know. She’d ask. And I’ve got my usual nothing to offer.

Yeah, that’d go over well.

The cars ahead of us make the turn one at a time as they can. As we creep closer, details emerge from the haze. The curbside lane becomes a turn lane. I keep right. Pretty soon we’re three cars from our turn and I’m no closer to having a clue.

The light’s about to change when I finally get it figured. There are gargoyles up near the roofline. They bother me, but I can’t place why. Not until I notice water pouring from one of their mouths. When I see that, the rest comes back to me. I scan from face-to-pudgy-fucked-up-face. All of them are there. Every single one. Some of them are in different spots. Above windows and shit.

This is from that dream. The one I had at the hotel. And if part of that dream hadn’t already saved our hides, I’d—

I put the car in park. I should’ve said something five minutes ago, back when I still had time. Now all I can do is wing it. There’s nowhere to pull over. Even if I made the turn, the best I could do is park on the sidewalk. There just isn’t anywhere to go.

I shouldn’t have stayed right. But maybe if I could get back there—

Y’know what? Screw it. I ask, “You know how sometimes there’s just stuff that sets you off?” I do my damnedest to keep the stress from showing. It kind of works.

She doesn’t look at me like I’m completely nuts when she replies, “Yeah.”

The cars ahead of us clear out. Traffic flows steadily to our left. We need to get going, but I can’t. I have to—

“Well, now’s one of those times,” I say. “I’m fine, but I need to go. I can’t really explain. I wish I could, but you’re just gonna have to trust me.” There’s no way that’s gonna work.

A car behind us honks. It’s not the one right behind us, like that even matters.

Much to my surprise, she doesn’t snatch hold of me when I release my seatbelt and open my door. But as I try to get out, she pins my right shoulder against the seat.

I face her. She’s so much calmer than I expect. It throws me. “I need you to promise me something,” she says.

“Alright,” I reply. Maybe she doesn’t get it.

Pulling me into a tight hug, she whispers, “Just promise if you find something, you won’t try to deal with it alone.”

Another couple of horns honk right in a row. I really don’t want to make a scene…which is strange ’cause making scenes used to be my thing. I was good at it. Now I’m just—it makes me nervous.

I agree, “Okay,” mostly so she’ll let me go. But what if I do find something? I hadn’t even considered that. I just know I need to go. I give it a sec to sink in before I reply, “Yeah, I can do that.” If whoever I run into lets me. I’m still not convinced it’ll be Maeve.

Having a change of heart, she says, “You could stay too. That might be good.”

I reply, “I’ve gotta go, B.”

As I gently try to weasel away, she replies, “I know.” Her hold on me loosens. “But you’ll be alright?”

I meet her eyes. She looks predictably concerned. But when I reply, “I’ll be fine,” she gives me a quick kiss and releases my shoulder. I can’t believe my luck.

We both get out of the car. As she comes round, I say, “Just get back to the house. Do what you need to. I’ll call if something comes up.” Before I take off, I pat my pockets to make sure I have my phone.

She’s actually letting me go.

The lane to our left is clear. There’s no one coming, just the guy behind us…and two other guys behind him. The last guy in line pulls out, around the other two.

With cross traffic stopped and no one turning right, I’m free to run across the street. I take off. Wind whips my hair. Rain stings my face.

She calls after me, “Be careful.”

I shout over my shoulder, “I will.”

When I get to the other side of the street, she’s making the turn. I put my hood up and stand watching as she drives away.

If I needed a hint—and really I did—I just got one. She trusts me.

Thanks, B.

Page 9

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