tw: child abuse/physical abuse (discussed, incl. cultural differences), smoking, police violence referenced, severe PTSD flashback, death/grief
I’d never woken up with my head on somebody’s shoulder before, and I managed to keep myself composed enough to straighten up, try get the blush off my face and stuff all the internal panicking somewhere I didn’t have to deal with it. Then I checked my phone, which was desperately clinging onto life. We’d been in here for six hours. Jesus.
Of course, it was only after that I realized Will was awake.
“You snore when you sleep, by the way.”
“I do not,” I retorted indignantly, mostly to hide how startled I was. Did this girl ever sleep? She had her phone braced between her knees, bobby pin sticking out of her mouth as she bunched her hair back up into her ponytail. A few of the green strands fell loose around her face, and she blew one off her nose in frustration. My eyes stopped on the phone, a little bit of guilt flaring back up—
“Why’d you take it, anyway?” she asked.
Oh. Embarrassment crawled up my face. I should have expected that to come up again at some point. In retrospect, letting paranoia make decisions for me was a bad idea. I’d stolen Will’s phone while she was asleep, trying to figure out what was ‘really’ going on, and as it turned out, she was being almost completely honest. How was that for embarrassment? “Um—”
“I mean, it worked out, I guess.” She couldn’t quite hide the twinge of disappointment in her voice, and I wondered if she was angrier that I’d stolen from her or that she hadn’t caught me. “I just… yeah.”
“I thought you were hiding things from me,” I admitted. There didn’t seem much point in tiptoeing around it. “…I feel really stupid now that I know ‘Ophis’ is your sister,” I groaned as it dawned on me just how dumb I was.
Will paused, hands still in her hair. “…Most people are. Hiding things, I mean.”
“I know what you meant.” Her words were careful, controlled now. I felt the bond that we’d started to forge slipping away again, and grasped at it—
She pushed the bobby pin into her hair with a satisfied growl. “There we go. Also, Avery’s outside. We better get outta here before a janitor needs a mop.”
“Works for me.” I let her open the door carefully, checking around the corner. Then she took me by the hand, I tried not to read too much into it, and we tried to look casual as we made it out of the building.
And then we were outside the hospital, shading our eyes against the sun.
“So you didn’t get arrested,” came the low, sarcastic voice from in front of us.
I winced—but not as much as Will did. “Hi, Avery,” she said as disaffectedly as she could manage.
Avery crossed their arms, leaning against the door of their car. I hadn’t actually seen them since Kiera had tried to drop me off of a building, and I’d forgotten how distinctive they were, black-and-purple locs framing a dark-brown face and silver crucifix hanging on a chain around their neck. Every other time I’d seen them, though, they’d been hovering between cryptic, slightly breathless and tired-but-cheerful. This time, they were glowering at us so fiercely that I hoped death-by-disappointed-glare wasn’t a real thing.
They reached down and opened the passenger door with a sharp gesture. “Get. In.”
“Don’t be pissy. We—”
“I said. Get in. The car.”
I edged away from both of them. The air between Avery and Will was practically crackling with tension. Then Will shrugged, an arrogant smirk crossing her face.
“It’s not like anything bad actually happened,” she said, starting to slide into the car. “Don’t overrea—”
Avery’s hand shot out, closing around Will’s arm so tightly that I could feel it from where I was. “You didn’t get caught because you got lucky.”
“I can control minds, I’m not gonna—”
“You can suggest things. I’ve told you enough fucking times, you can’t depend on that. What if there’d been cops? What if—”
“If you don’t let go of me—”
They released her arm, and my eyes flickered between their two faces—the sullen flame in Will’s eyes, the jagged, worried fury in Avery’s. I was good at reading people, as long as it didn’t involve figuring out what I was supposed to do, and I could tell this wasn’t a new argument. If them cutting off each other’s sentences hadn’t given it away, Avery’s resigned sigh did.
“I’m going to have a smoke. Get in the car. Stay there. And for god’s sake, just—just, for once in your life, do what you’re told.”
I didn’t like that phrase much, but Will recoiled as much as if it’d been a physical blow. She got into the back seat of the car, face set in stone, and I waited until Avery’s footsteps had faded around the corner before I took a step towards her, leaning slightly towards the open window.
She held up a finger in my face. “Don’t.”
“Not right now.” It was the first time I’d seen her really, truly upset. She’d had flinch reactions, sure, like when her emotions had flooded over me back at my house, but this was different. “Don’t even try. I don’t want to hear it.”
I wished I could help. She’d known how to help me, somehow. But I didn’t have a clue what to say that wouldn’t make her angrier. Instead, I just nodded and shrugged, and went to talk to Avery instead. I could pull clues together, but I wasn’t built for treading on somebody else’s broken glass.
The smell of cigarette smoke was immediately torture. I’d been so preoccupied with everything going on that my cravings hadn’t even registered, but with nicotine floating in front of my face, they came back with a vengeance. I managed to stuff them down, paying attention to Avery instead.
They looked tired, mostly. I hadn’t spent that much time with them overall, not as much as with Will, but they were… It was hard to describe. Not quite friendly, but not distant either. A book that wasn’t closed all the way, just open enough to encourage you to get closer.
Avery took another deep drag of their cigarette, head leaning against the concrete wall of whatever hospital building we were next to. “Will’s sulking, isn’t she?” they said with a small, sad laugh.
“I—I wouldn’t say sulking—”
“It sort of is.” They tapped the end of their smoke on their finger, ash falling onto the ground. “Sort of isn’t.”
I searched for the words. “…Are you okay?”
They shrugged. “I’ll be fine. I just—” They bobbed their head back and forth, non-committal, trying to find a way to soften whatever was on their mind. “…Remember what you said to me in the car when we first picked you up?”
“You’ll have to remind me.”
“Will’s a good kid. But, you know, you don’t get over being a rich white kid overnight. Especially not when you have mind control powers.” Avery sighed. “Most of the time it’s fine, but—merde, she is going to get shot one day because she’s completely forgotten that she’s not…” They trailed off.
“Not an Angevin anymore?” I added.
Avery nodded slowly. “She told you. That means she likes you, you know. Or at least trusts you.”
I glanced back over at the car. I could see her silhouette in the backseat, flicking through her phone. Sure doesn’t feel like it.
I still remembered what it had felt like in those few moments, when her own bitterness had washed over me. Then I looked back at Avery and tried not to cringe as I realized they’d had to have heard that. I’d practically broadcast it; I was starting to pick up the differences, but not fast enough.
Luckily for me, Avery decided to pretend they hadn’t. “It’ll be fine. I just—worry a lot. And unfortunately, I worry like a Barbadian grandmother.”
I tried—and failed—not to snicker. “Sorry.” I cleared my throat and tried to look serious again.
Avery was smiling too, though. “It’s funny most of the time. I just forget sometimes that white families take everything too fucking far.”
…Oh. Ow. Yeah. Yeah, I could attest to that. I didn’t have the courage to say any of it out loud, but I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, remembering all the jokes that school friends had made. My first girlfriend had been Mexican, and she loved memes about la chancla. It was a sandal, apparently. I’d learned how to keep my face still when she laughed about her mother throwing it at her. Apparently for her, it was a joke, something she didn’t mind; she had no idea that there were still echoes of bruises on my arms.
It was disquieting, knowing that Avery was getting every bit of it. I wasn’t making any effort to hide it—putting any of it in real words was too hard—but even if I wanted Avery to hear it, I almost didn’t at the same time. It was strange, but it made things easier, too.
Avery just took another drag on their cigarette. “Maman didn’t actually hit me. She just grabbed me by the ear or gave me a smack on the back of the head if I wasn’t listening. Normal stuff.”
Right. Like I had any idea what counted as normal. But I was following. Will had been okay, had been fine until Avery had grabbed her arm. For Avery, it was concern, pure and simple. For Will—and for me, I admitted, with a guilty sense that I was doing something wrong by acknowledging it—it meant trouble. It meant that everything was about to get worse.
“I’m not mad at her,” Avery mumbled. “Mostly at myself. Because if she’s still not telling me things, I’m still doing something wrong. And reacting like that—I should know by now. Also, yes, you can have a cigarette.”
“Thank god,” I exhaled. “I’m dying.”
They handed me one and I promised myself internally that after this, I’d stick to quitting. It’d been a stressful couple of weeks. It was fine.
“Are you—I mean, you’re not her parent, I guess. You’re not old enough. I think.”
Avery coughed a little at that. “The vote of confidence is appreciated. I’m definitely not old enough. No, I just—I feel responsible. Maybe I shouldn’t—I don’t know. But who else is going to look after her? Somebody’s got to. And Cassandra’s too busy coming up with ways to save everybody at once. Besides,” Avery added slightly grouchily, “if I’m keeping Will out of trouble, I’m not working myself into a panic about rising oceans or American politics.”
I mulled that over. Will’s debt of gratitude to Avery had been crystal clear every time they’d come up. Clearly it was a two-way street, however it worked—then I cracked a small smile. “…I think I might understand why, uh, Chandra’s been over so often.”
“Ch—Ah, oui. L’adage des familles d’immigré. If you can’t help, cook.”
“Is that a real thing?”
“No, but it might as well be.” Avery cocked their head, going quiet for a moment. “Alright, I checked on Will. She’s feeling better, so we should get going before somebody gets mad at us for loitering.”
I nodded, following Avery back to the car. Despite what they’d said, Will was still sulking, so without thinking about it too much, I slid into the front seat next to Avery. Avery started up the car, and then I started to panic. I could just get out and get into the back. It was fine. It was—
The car started moving, and I looked away from the windshield. Brick wall. I just had to think about a brick wall and neither of them would notice. Mary had a little lamb little lamb little lamb who you gonna call—Every earworm I could think of, old memes mixed with nursery rhymes, piled on top of each other. Kesha songs with Justin Bieber and Britney Spears—apparently it didn’t matter how much you hated pop music, a certain amount of it ended up in your head anyway—and Jingle Bells clashed with The Lonely Island.
It was working, maybe. I was too busy driving myself slowly crazy to worry about anything else.
And then Avery reached a stoplight. It was a normal stop. Completely normal. But I tipped that little bit forward when they hit the brakes and suddenly, the medley of white noise in my brain heightened into a screech of brakes and a scream.
—Headlights, too high and bright for the evening, like eyes in the darkness. A smudge on the window that I was trying to scrub off, the only reason I’d been looking outside. A scream that was mine—at least I think it was, it didn’t sound like me. My foster-brother’s face, too stunned to look guilty, a bruise purpling on his cheek—“I didn’t know she’d go into the road, I was just joking” just joking just joking just joking—
I didn’t want to remember.
The ground stopped moving (car I was in a car).
Somebody was touching me. I jerked away from them, pulled on the door handle, tottered outside and tried to get the nausea under control. My sister. Where was my sister. I needed to know Johara was okay. If she was fine, then everything was—then everything would be okay. Then I didn’t have to feel like this.
I remembered the room. The little room in the hospital, the same one we’d just been in, the one with all the ghosts. No wonder I’d felt so weird in there.
I remembered what she’d looked like, laid out under a sheet with her eyes closed and blood in her thick, curly hair.
No. No, no, no, I didn’t need to remember that, because she was fine. No point.
“Jamal, talk to me,” said Will—that was her name, Will, and I was fine, I just needed a moment to remember where I was—
“I need to see Jo,” I rasped, still feeling like I might throw up. “Right now.”
“Okay. Okay, we can do that.” She helped me back into the car—into the backseat this time, which told me that the white noise had stopped working, if it had worked at all. I didn’t really want to get back in, but back seats were easier. I could handle that.
I had to see Jo. I had to be sure that she was okay. Nothing else mattered—not right now.