This is a work of ecclesiastic fiction. All characters and events are fictional and any resemblance to real people, places, or events is purely coincidental.
The Patron Saint of Flame
Copyright © 2018 Alyssa Rabil
All rights reserved.
Art by Alyssa Rabil
Published by Alyssa Rabil
First Printing 2018
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.
I am the light that broke the dawn
I am the wave that broke the land
I am the storm that split the sky
I am the shock of blood in sand
I am the heat that burns your soul
I am the pulse beneath your skin
I am the quake that split the earth
I am the breath that stirred the wind
I am the dread of night to come
I am the grief beyond the pain
I am the fracture in perfection
I am the meaning in your name
I am the death of hope and love
I am the life that comes with sin
I am the prison of this world
I am the freedom found within
I am the spark that burned the forest
I am the dove beyond the sea
I am the circle around the end
I am the man beneath the tree
I am the gilded mother tongue
I am the evil in your scent
I am the hand that let you fall
I am the good in your descent
I am the fleeting grasp of knowledge
I am the atrocities of war
I am the wrinkles in your youth
I am the wasp within the spore
I am the scum that clouds the water
I am the necessity of decay
I am the vibrant purple iris
I am the conscience in your way
I am the doubt of understanding
I am the Goddess of the Freaks
I am the shattered roar of thunder
I am the shepherd of the meek
I am the chaos in your eyes
I am the coal that fuels the Earth
I am the viper bleeding poison
I am the God for what it’s worth
I am the soldier in your arms
I am the virus in your blood
I am the harbinger of peace
I am the children in the mud
I am the plague that killed your father
I am the notebook full of lies
I am the trembling in your voice
I am the pity you despise
I am a warning against the tide
I am the frailty in your grace
I am the truth to all your secrets
I am the fear that shapes your face
I am bewildered, calm, and desperate
I am fighting just to win
I am loyal to a fault
I am restless in my pin
I am lost, alone, and broken
I am dejected and deterred
I am still writhing in the desert
I am misleading one last herd
I am holding onto hope
I am the keeper of our shame
I am all that you have left
I am the Patron Saint of Flame
He crept through the darkness with one hand in front of his body, fingers outstretched. It was a subconscious reaction to the thoughts racing through his mind. The attack would be quick. He would sneak in then disappear. His eyes widened in the darkness as he tried to make out the shapes at the end of the hall. A figure stood at the entrance to the sanctuary, his back to the hallway and the stalker. It was almost too easy. The preacher had no reason to expect an attack, especially now.
The stalker bit his lip and savored the feeling. He could only experience this when he was here. There was something so beautifully primitive about the way this world was constructed, and the closer he crept to the preacher, the stronger the feelings became. The world was the product of hundreds of minds agreeing to believe one lie. Deep down, every single one of them knew the truth. The afterlife could be anything.
The stalker inhaled sharply as his heart came to life, beating urgently, begging him to move faster. He could feel it pounding in his chest leading him closer to the end. He placed one hand over his heart and tapped his fingers to the rhythm pulsing beneath his skin. A chill ran down his spine and his entire body shuddered. He exhaled, grinning.
These feelings were a product of succumbing to the same lie as the rest of them. He stopped near the edge of the hall, careful to stay in the shadows. He could hear everything; from the gasps to the scattered mutterings of “amen” as the congregation watched, spellbound in the moment.
The preacher gestured to a stained glass window and gazed knowingly into the eyes of his audience. He bowed his head and the room fell silent.
“Let us begin,” he whispered.
A man stood at the back of the room, his hands in his pockets. He lowered his head with the rest of the followers, but kept his eyes on the preacher. The sermons were becoming more sincere and less clumsy and the people believed. It was essentially harmless. These people needed something to believe in; they were new and this place was familiar for most of them. The man at the back watched as the preacher raised his head, lowering his hands to grasp the sides of the podium in front of him. His followers opened their eyes and waited.
The preacher took a deep breath and held his arms wide like a magician preparing to attempt the impossible. “This is the beginning of the end,” he said. “The way forward is clear. There is no path but this one. The way of the lamb is illuminated by your good deeds, and those who turn away from the light will be eternally damned. Our way is the truth.” His voice burned and the followers cringed.
The man at the back felt a knot twist in his stomach. He’d seen this performance before, but that didn’t make it any less unnerving. This preacher was not the only one educating his congregation about the inevitability of damnation. At that moment there were countless revered individuals speaking to countless masses in countless sacred halls. Some spoke of peace, some taught enlightenment, some prepared for war; so it had been and so it always would be forever and ever.
The man at the back stopped listening; he was not here for the preacher. Something was about to happen; something he could not stop. He watched and waited, hoping he was wrong.
“We have dark days ahead, but rest assured the things you do in the name of righteousness will be forgiven.” The preacher paused and slowly lowered his arms. He stared past the gathering, centering himself on some deep inner reverence. “As long as your heart is pure and your intentions are true, you will find grace.”
From the shadows, the stalker patiently observed his target. He had only a minute to wait for his cue.
The preacher raised his hands. “Forget your sins and I will forgive you,” he said. “Through me, you will be saved from the fires of eternal damnation.” As if on cue, the podium burst into flames. The crowd screamed as the preacher stumbled backwards in an attempt to avoid the fire.
The stalker snickered, and quickly retreated to his hiding place.
The man from the back made it to the front of the chaos in time to see a dark figure disappear into the shadows. He watched the flames die with a hiss as the fire was extinguished. The man from the back faded into the shadows after the stalker.
The preacher scrambled to his feet trying to reclaim the momentum he had before he was upstaged by the spectacle.
The stalker crouched behind a large chair trying desperately to control his laughter. He knew better than to insight chaos but the opportunity was too good to pass up. He smiled to himself as he replayed the scene in his mind. He was too distracted to notice the sound of footsteps as someone entered the room.
“I know you’re in here, Lucifer,” said a voice.
He adopted a dazed look, and stood up from behind the chair. “Jesus?” he asked. “Is that you? Is this heaven?”
Jesus rolled his eyes. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
Lucifer grinned. “But that was hilarious.”
“No,” said Jesus, “that was bad.”
“He deserved it.” Lucifer moved out from behind the chair and leaned against the wall.
“We should leave before he finds us,” said Jesus.
“Why? I’m sure he already knows it was me.”
“True. You are predictable.”
“What do you think he’d do if I did it again?” asked Lucifer.
Jesus sighed. “I think you’ve done enough.”
“Well somebody has to do something.”
“No,” said Jesus. “This is their choice and their path. We have no right to intervene. They’re not hurting us.”
Lucifer sneered in disgust. “But they’re wrong,” he said, “and they’re mean and stupid.”
Jesus began to speak but Lucifer stopped him.
“If you say ‘blessed are the meek’ so help me, I will set him on fire.”
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
“You could at least pick a different God to harass,” said Jesus. “This one isn’t even the worst. If you’re just determined to bother the Christian gods, there’s one in one of the evangelical heavens who’s doing something weird with snakes and virgins.”
Lucifer crossed his arms over his chest. “But this one is my favorite.”
Footsteps echoed down the hall as someone else approached.
“Uh-oh,” said Lucifer.
Moments later God burst into the room. “You,” he shouted. “Both of you!”
“In my defense,” said Lucifer, “it could have been a lot worse.”
“This is treason,” he shouted, his voice growing louder with every accusation. “This is heresy.”
“It’s not treason if we don’t live here,” said Lucifer.
“Technically I think it was sabotage,” said Jesus.
God rounded on him, turning away from Lucifer. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“All the gods say that,” said Lucifer.
“There is only one,” growled God.
“Technically there’s only one here,” said Jesus. “But there are millions if not billions outside of this Heaven.”
God ran a hand over his face.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” said Lucifer. “It’s a paradox. He’s going to implode.”
“I dare you step foot in my domain again,” said God. “It will be the last thing you do.”
“I dare you to be reborn,” said Lucifer. “It will be one of many things you do because we’re all spirits and we can’t die.”
Jesus threw up his hands. “I’m out,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” said Lucifer. “That’s it, that’s the deal. I’ll leave your Heaven alone if you live one more life on Earth.”
“No,” said God. “That’s not possible.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow” said Lucifer.
“Leave him alone,” said Jesus.
“Lilith is Baptist this time around,” said Lucifer.
“We’re not going to stalk a heaven waiting for Lilith. Look, God’s upset. We should leave.”
“She seems pretty devoted,” said Lucifer.
“She’ll find us; she always does.”
“I admire your faith,” said Lucifer. “But I think I’m going to wait here.”
“This is Michael all over again,” muttered Jesus.
“Michael was different,” said Lucifer. “He left.”
“Michael is a good man and you will leave him out of this,” said God. He wasn’t sure what they were referencing but he didn’t want to find out.
Jesus grabbed Lucifer’s wrist and tugged. “We’re leaving.”
“Think about my offer,” said Lucifer.
God huffed but didn’t object this time. He watched as Jesus pulled Lucifer from the church. One life in exchange for an eternity of peace may not be a terrible price to pay.
Jesus dragged Lucifer out.
“They really went all out for this Heaven,” said Lucifer.
“I’m partial to the Dragon Ether,” said Jesus.
“Who built that?”
Jesus shrugged. “It was a New Age group effort I think.”
“Kudos to them.”
“How many times are we going to do this?” asked Jesus.
“Bother God. Specifically this God.”
“Until he stops bothering me,” answered Lucifer.
“He’s not doing anything to you.”
“He converts people.”
“They all convert people.”
“This one specifically sneaks into other afterlives and converts people.”
“You can’t stop him from doing that.”
“Yeah, I can. His freewill ends where someone else’s freewill begins. He can’t force people to believe his bullshit.”
“Everyone believes in some kind of bullshit,” said Jesus, “and they’re free to change their minds if God presents a more appealing idea.”
“He’s taking advantage of people.”
“People are gullible. If he is able to convert them it’s because they weren’t terribly loyal to their own beliefs in the first place.”
“Michael was different,” said Jesus. “God is his friend. He converted so they could stay together.”
“He gave up everything he was.”
“Sometimes friends do that. You’d do the same for me.”
“No,” said Lucifer. “If you developed a God-complex I’d find a way to put you out of your misery.”
“I’d do it for you,” said Jesus. “I’d do it for Lilith and Gabriel.”
“Really?” asked Lucifer. He sounded unconvinced. “You’d give up everything you stand for and convert to an entirely different philosophy just to stay with us?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“That’s ridiculous. Freewill includes the freedom to fuckup without being responsible for your friends fucking up with you.”
“And freewill includes the freedom to follow someone into a different madness if you so choose.”
“Lucifer snorted. “Whatever. At least God won’t be bothering anyone anymore.”
“He’s going to live. He doesn’t stand a chance. He’ll end up believing someone else’s nonsense then he’ll fall from God to follower and Michael will fall right behind him.”
“He’s not going to take your bet.”
“I guarantee you he will. He literally thinks I’m the devil. God always takes bets from the devil.”
“I bet he’ll stay God and ignore you,” said Jesus.
“What do you bet?”
Jesus thought for a moment.
Lucifer nudged him. “Come on. Make a deal with the devil.”
“Give me a minute,” said Jesus. “I’m thinking.”
“How about winner gets to pick the next lifetime. And we have to go together.”
“You mean we’re born together, live together?”
“Deal,” answered Jesus.
“So if God is reborn, I win. If he stays safe in his little Heaven, you win.”
“We need to find Lilith and Gabriel so they can keep score.”
Suddenly they heard screaming. They turned to see people flooding out of the church. Amidst the shouts and panicked voices, one cry rang out, “God is dead!”
Lucifer turned to Jesus, grinning ear to ear. “I already know where I want to live. There’s a beautiful place near the shore of the Amazon River. You’ll love it.” “Fine,” muttered Jesus. “When do we leave?”
He didn’t make it beyond the front porch that morning. He’d barricaded himself inside the house and skipped school. He’d locked all of the doors and double checked the windows then set up camp in the living room. He was armed with a kitchen knife and a walking stick.
He was going to get detention for skipping. Miss Jeanie wouldn’t excuse him. She was a foster mom in legal title only. She was away on a business trip. She probably wouldn’t answer the phone much less return the call.
Nabil crouched behind the couch, knife in hand. The Event, as he decided to call it, occurred when he opened the front door that morning.
It was raining; it had been raining for several days. The weather was often damp and gray in this part of North Carolina. The day started off wrong when Nabil woke up before his alarm and couldn’t get back to sleep. He’d stayed in bed until his clock finally rang and he’d silenced it with more force than necessary. He’d gotten dressed, collected his things for school, and prepared himself for an average day. However, when he’d opened the front door he was greeted by a set of fresh wet footprints. They stained the wooden porch, leading to and then away from the door. The prints directly in front of him seemed to stare. He’d slammed the door, locked it the proceeded to secure the house.
He felt safer now, though Jeanie’s gun would certainly improve his chances of winning if a fight occurred. Unfortunately she kept it with her at all times. It didn’t matter. If it came to a shoot out Nabil would lose. He had miserable aim and suspected he lacked the will to actually pull the trigger. He knew of several people who would want to scare him like this. Number one on the list was Jonathon, his nemesis.
Jonathon Rose grew up in North Carolina as did his father, his father’s father and his father before him. They came from a long line of Roses. Their family was the kind that honored the oldest son born to the oldest son. They had a confederate statue in their front yard. It was commissioned to honor their relatives who died in the Civil War. Jonathon had blond hair and blue eyes and a very genuine accent that Jeanie thought was “charming.”
Nabil was an orphan with black hair, olive skin and brown eyes. His family died in Lebanon. His mother’s last act was fleeing to America with Nabil. They were poor. She was sick. She didn’t last long and he didn’t remember much. He didn’t have any relatives in the U.S.
The staff at the children’s shelter did their best to find someone connected to him, but apparently Nabil came from Mars and the Earthlings could not trace his lineage. His foster families lived on the other side of numerous burned bridges which he’d ignited after each member rejected him. It was like a ritual, a sick routine of hope, family, and conflict, finally ending with Nabil standing alone with a match, lighter fluid, and no reason to look back.
According to his latest tally, he’d lived with five sisters, three brothers and six different foster parents. Older children were less appealing than sweet smelling babies. Babies and toddlers were precious and pure. Parents could bring them home and raise them in their image without worrying about the child’s past or any preinstalled behavior. Babies were gently used, or like-new. Some of them were even pre-owned, but still sold in the box from a nice clean pet-free smoke-free home. Nabil never was one of those like-new children.
He was pre-owned, out-of-box and used when the first family adopted him. He hopped from family to family until Jeanie came along. With no previous history of collecting, she adopted him at 14. After three and a half years, she seemed satisfied with her purchase. He basically required no work, which was good because she was barely home enough to see what he needed. After the habitual month long stints of staying home alone, he began to suspect he was more of a cheap security system than anything else. Security was not his intended use, but he assumed she read something in his description that gave her the idea. He didn’t mind. She was not his mother and would never be family. Once he turned 18 he’d probably never speak to her again.
His real mom was gone and he needed to remember that. He had vague memories of her when they lived in Lebanon. He tried not to dwell on them. They always led to memories of the violent struggles in Beirut. He’d looked for her a few times, trying to trace her using Fahim, his real last name, but he always came back empty handed. His searches were not thorough. A small part of him was afraid to find the woman from his memories. A small part of him knew she was dead. A small part of him remembered.
He imagined his mother with deep brown eyes, warm olive skin and cascading, wild black hair framing her soft face. She matched him. She was dark like him. People would hate her as they hated him, but it wouldn’t matter because he loved her darkness and it justified his own.
His mother was not bothered by insults like sand monkey or camel jockey. And when those taunts echoed after him in the school hallways, he could hear his mother saying “Ignore them. They’re ignorant.”
She wore scarves and painted her eyes with kohl. She would tell Nabil he was too good for these people; too good for Nighton, NC. He belonged with her some place far away eating figs and enjoying the sea.
Nabil spent the rest of the day hunkered down behind the couch. He left only to make a sandwich for dinner and to grab his pillow and blanket from his room. If it was Jonathon who wandered onto his porch, he probably did it just to scare Nabil.
No one had hurt him in Nighton, not yet. He considered himself lucky. He wasn’t a fighter and he certainly wasn’t much of a runner. He didn’t have any allies at school. Olivia, one of the popular girls, was kind to him. She’d even eaten lunch with him a few times, but she was Jonathon’s friend first and pity was probably the only connection she had to Nabil.
The only other person he spent any real amount of time with was Kelly. They worked together at a hotel not far from Nabil’s house. Kelly worked full time as a housekeeper and Nabil worked with him part time. It didn’t pay much, just enough to cover his phone bill. He didn’t need a phone, but it made him feel connected even if his contacts only contained Jeanie and Kelly. Maybe he was spoiled. Maybe wandering from home to home had turned him into something rotten that no one would ever want to love. Maybe he’d been left outside of the world for so long he’d turned sour. Maybe he didn’t belong here.
He fell asleep on the floor that night with the knife and walking stick within reach.
* * *
“He’s got lint on his clothes,” whispered Aubrey. She snickered and wrinkled her nose.
Mrs. Deaton scrawled another equation on the board, oblivious to the lack of interest in the room.
“I can’t imagine going out like that,” whispered Aubrey. “Look at that hole in his shirt.”
“Look at his hair,” snickered Jonathon. “I bet there’s all kinds of stuff in there.”
Nabil heard him tear a sheet of paper from his notebook followed by more tearing and finally a crinkling noise.
“Aim for his head,” hissed Aubrey.
Nabil kept his eyes on the board. He imagined being brave enough to turn around and punch Jonathon in the face.
Jonathon snickered and Nabil saw a small white ball of notebook paper land on his desk. He picked it up and turned around. Jonathon sat two seats behind him with a small arsenal of paper wads on his desk. He and Aubrey were still laughing.
Nabil glared and threw the paper back. Jonathon ducked and the paper landed on the floor. Jonathon laughed louder.
“Mr. Fahim,” said Mrs. Deaton, “is there a problem?”
The words Jonathon threw a tiny scrap of paper at me ran through Nabil’s mind. He scowled. “Jonathon was throwing paper at me,” he said. The room filled with giggling.
Mrs. Deaton eyed the paper wad on the floor. “Jonathon, don’t throw paper at Nabil. Nabil, don’t throw paper at Jonathon.” She turned back to the white board and continued explaining what happened as x approached infinity.
Nabil stared at the front of the room and tried to ignore the whispers behind him. Lunch was only a few minutes away. The other kids would either stick to the cafeteria or take advantage of the school’s open campus policy and wander somewhere more interesting. Nabil considered going home, but he knew if he left he’d stay home and he did not need another detention. He already had detention for skipping yesterday.
The lunch bell screeched over the speakers and broke his train of thought. Nabil threw his things into his backpack and hurried out into the hall. He pushed through the double doors and followed the breezeway past the cafeteria and to the computer lab. Jonathon and Aubrey were far behind him. They were probably going to the Chicken Coop for lunch, away from campus and away from him.
The computer lab was the designated detention zone and an ill-tempered, white-haired lab instructor guarded it. Mrs. Bowe was infamous for yelling at students and not knowing how to use the computers. She watched him with beady-eyed anticipation as he entered the room. She clicked her tongue and shook her head but didn’t say more.
Nabil picked a computer at the back of the room. He opened his notebook and pretended to do his homework. To his surprise someone took the seat next to him.
Olivia smiled as she set her notebook on the table between them. She wrote What’s up? on the top line.
Detention, wrote Nabil.
She giggled. Yeah, I got that. What are you in for?
I skipped yesterday. Why are you here?
I skipped English last Friday. Why did you skip?
Nabil considered answering honestly, but thought better of it. I didn’t feel like going to school.
I don’t blame you. It’s so boring here!
As mundane as their conversation was, it made the time pass much faster. At the end of the period Olivia gave him her number and told him to call her the next time he was bored. He wasn’t sure what it meant, but it made a cold, forgotten part of himself flutter. He wondered if this counted as making a friend.
A voice inside told him no, she wasn’t his friend. It reminded him that people’s interest in him was fleeting. There wasn’t a point to his sad little life and he certainly didn’t have a purpose. He didn’t fulfill any worldly need and probably would never make a difference in the grand scheme of things.
At night, when the voice was loudest it told him he was wasting his breath. His body was a waste of cells and oxygen. It reminded him that the only reason he was alive was because he couldn’t think of a way to kill himself without making a mess. There was a time when he didn’t think these things, when the voice was quiet, but that was long ago. It was part of him now. Olivia gave him her number because it was what people did. She didn’t want to get to know him and even if she did it was only out of naïveté. If she really knew him, if she ever saw his raw, bleeding soul, she’d run. Any sane person would. Nabil was a gaping wound of a human being. He bled onto the nice clean world around him. Olivia was sweet. She wasn’t built for blood.
When the day finally came to an end he took his usual route to the front parking lot. The sky rumbled above him and he wondered if he could beat the rain home. The clouds behind the school were heavy and black. If he wanted to avoid being caught in the rain, he needed to cut through the woods using the trees for shelter, but the woods were Jonathon’s territory. He and a few friends would stalk through the trees doing God knows what. Nabil had been fortunate to hear about his routine instead of experiencing it first hand.
He stopped at the edge of campus and looked around the parking lot. Jonathon usually had some kind of practice after school, so he was most likely busy. Nabil wasn’t afraid, at least that’s what he told himself, but he had no desire to endure whatever insults Jonathon had prepared. Sometimes he imagined going through the woods and letting Jonathon beat him to death. But he was a coward at heart. He couldn’t even muster up the nerve to die.
Once he had covered his bases; he turned his back to the school and headed to the tree line. His phone rang in his pocket and he retrieved it.
Every time he called, Nabil newly regretted giving Kelly his number. What were the consequences of answering? He flipped it open. “Hey,” he said. He could always come up with an excuse to get off the phone.
“Nabil, I need your help right now.” Kelly’s voice was higher and whinier than usual. “I’m serious. This is so bad. Where are you?”
“I’m going home,” Nabil answered. “But—”
“Ok. From school? Are you still on campus? Stay there. I’ll get you.”
“Yeah I’m still here, but—”
“We’ll talk more when I get there.”
“Kelly, I have homework.”
“I’ll help you with it. Just stay there. I’m not even joking. I really need help.”
Nabil groaned. “Ok,” he said. “I’ll wait in the parking lot.”
He hung up and wandered over to the brick wall surrounding a small wilting garden in front of the school. He had to be at work at the hotel later for the evening cleaning shift with Kelly anyway. He was looking forward to some time alone between school and work, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen now.
He pulled a half-empty water bottle from his backpack and poured it out onto the ground where something soft and green was trying to grow. Upon closer inspection it looked like a dandelion. The thunder growled above him and he realized the pointlessness of watering the garden.
He shoved the bottle back in his pack and looked up in time to see Kelly flying into the parking lot. He came screeching to a halt next to Nabil and rolled down the window.
“Get in,” he said.
Nabil opened the passenger side door and threw his backpack in the seat behind him. “What’s going on?” he asked, shutting the door.
“Rachel’s coming,” answered Kelly.
“Rachel,” he said again, half shouting. Little beads of sweat ran down his face. “I told you about her, right? My girlfriend?”
“Oh. Ok, yeah I remember.” He lied. He rarely remembered the details of Kelly’s personal drama.
“Yes. And Joanna wants to come here, too.”
“Yeah. I’ll show you the emails.” Kelly blistered through a yellow light and turned abruptly down the little street leading to his house.
“You don’t like Joanna, right?” asked Nabil.
“Yes.” Kelly was half shouting now. “That’s why I broke up with her.”
“Sorry, just checking.”
“If Joanna comes here when Rachel is here I might lose her forever.”
“Lose Rachel?” asked Nabil
“So you’re trying to keep Joanna from coming?”
“Have you been listening to anything I’ve said?” He parked in the lot in front of his apartment complex and was halfway up the stairs before Nabil was out of the car. “Hurry up.”
Kelly was an unfortunately proportioned man. His gut sloshed over his belt and his bulbous balloon-shaped head lolled about on a neck that was almost entirely concealed by his chins and a sad attempt at a beard. His boney legs did not seem strong enough to keep him standing, yet somehow against all odds, they prevailed. Nabil imagined it was a daily struggle.
Nabil grabbed his bag and followed Kelly. This was, admittedly, more entertaining than sitting home alone doing homework.
“Ok,” said Kelly, sitting down at his computer. He put on his glasses and began scrolling through messages.
Kelly didn’t need glasses, but he bought a pair so he could have them during important moments. He wore them all day when he first got them. He’d put them on saying “I look like I belong on CSI or something.”
“Ok, it starts here,” he said. “Joanna says she’s sorry we had to end things.”
Nabil leaned over his shoulder to make sure Kelly was reading and not interpreting Joanna’s messages. So far so good.
“She wants to make it right between us.”
“She says she wishes she could make it right,” said Nabil.
“Yeah. Anyways, here’s Rachel’s message saying she’s coming out to visit.”
“Kelly, that says November at the earliest.”
“That’s months away.”
Kelly held up his fingers and counted. “What’s your point?” he asked.
“You made this sound urgent. You’ve got plenty of time to figure this thing out.”
“But Joanna,” he began.
“Ok, when is she coming?”
Kelly scrolled up to the most recent message.
Nabil leaned in and read it out loud. “Maybe one day we can see each other in person. I’ve always wanted to visit the south. I hear it’s beautiful, especially the coast.”
“See?” The urgency was still strong in his voice.
“Yeah, maybe someday. That’s not soon. I thought you said they were coming at the same time.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I—well I thought—” He frowned.
Nabil took pity on him. “You panicked.”
“Yeah, I did a little bit.”
“Do you want Joanna to come to see you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I have feelings for her anymore, but just the thought of seeing her again—it’s complicated.”
Kelly lost speed with his first drama, but he was quick to recover with a new, more emotional dilemma. Nabil sighed and stepped away from Kelly’s computer.
“What?” asked Kelly.
“I should probably go,” he answered. “I really do need to get some homework done.”
“Oh. Ok,” said Kelly. “Well thanks for coming over.”
Nabil grabbed his backpack and headed to the door.
“I guess I should offer you a ride, huh?” asked Kelly.
Rain was just beginning to fall and the thunder was growing louder.
“No, I can walk.”
“Are you sure? I mean, it’s too early for me to leave for work, but I guess I could take you to your house.”
“I’d have to come all the way back here, though. Or we could just hang out at your house. Do you have internet?”
Nabil shook his head quickly. “It’s slow.”
“Oh,” said Kelly. “Are you sure you can walk?”
“No, I should give you a ride. I mean, you are within walking distance, but you probably want a ride, right?”
“Nope, I’m good. Really.” Nabil opened the door and started down the stairs. “See you later.”
Kelly groaned and followed after him, keys jingling. “Yeah, I’ll give you a ride. I’ll feel bad if you walk.”
Kelly continued his relationship monologue in the car. They pulled into his driveway and Kelly waved as Nabil got out and bolted for the front porch. This time, the only damp footprints were his own.
Albert lay on the flat of his back on the shore, the saltwater pooling around his almost naked body. His shoes would wash up later and the police would speculate they belonged to a male, 25, with mangy blond hair, gray eyes and numerous scars on his forearms. His jeans wouldn’t be found. He tied weights to his belt loops to make the sinking process easier.
It was cloudy and the beach was empty. He tried to pick a day when no one would be out. He didn’t want to startle anyone.
He jumped from the end of the pier. He was quick, but Gabriel must have already known the plan because just as he began to sink beneath the shadow of the pier, an arm wrapped around his waist. Gabriel wasted no time and quickly removed his shoes and jeans. As Albert slipped into unconsciousness, at the edges of his mind he noted Gabriel’s improved rescue strategy. The last time he jumped, they struggled beneath the water for a while, the heavy clothes weighing them down. This time, it only took a few seconds to bring Albert back to the surface. Now, Gabriel sat next to him on the shore panting, but triumphant.
Albert’s death was almost a success.
He heard the sirens in the distance. They were close.
Gabriel spat a mouthful of water into the sand and glared at Albert. “I’m letting you die next time,” he said. “You want to drown, fine, but it’s not going to change a damn thing.” He swept his thinning brown hair from his brow. “You got about a minute before they get here and I’ve got a mind to shoot you in your damn foot and let them catch you.”
Albert stared up at the clouds. It was going to rain soon. “You won’t let them catch me,” he said.
“The hell I won’t,” snapped Gabriel. “For Christ’s sake don’t just lay there. At least make it look like I tried to chase you down.”
Albert breathed deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. His throat still burned from the salt. “There’s nothing here.”
“You can’t go back,” Gabriel said, standing. “You’re not ready.” He nudged Albert with the toe of his boot. “Go on; they’re already in the parking lot.”
Albert looked up at the soggy, disheveled man standing above him. Gabriel was in his 50s, but age never slowed him down. Albert wondered if it was health or obstinacy that kept him going. Albert did not remember Gabriel at first. The only name he remembered was Lucifer. However, as his encounters with Gabriel increased, bits of memory returned. Albert had asked him for details about their past. Gabriel claimed he couldn’t help. Albert knew it was a lie.
He knew there was the option to remember past lives. Gabriel claimed some chose to remember everything and carry the secrets of their spiritual existence with them as they tried to create a future in their new lives. He said others remembered nothing, preferring a clean start in case preconceptions prevented them from learning something new. Some chose to remember fragments. They lived a new life, but kept their most sacred memories. Whether it was part of their identity, knowledge of a significant physical place, or the memory of someone they loved; they carried these things as they tried to live. In most cases, Gabriel said the memories were good and acted as a bastion of hope in the misery of life. Sometimes memories were shameful and that burden of knowledge haunted them as a kind of self-inflicted punishment for wrongs committed in the past. Sometimes, the memories were simply a clue.
Albert only remembered Lucifer. Whether his memories were good or bad, Albert couldn’t tell. He only remembered the presence of his friend and knew in this life, his absence felt wrong.
The sound of doors slamming echoed down the beach. The EMTs probably hoped Albert was dead. They were hoping for a body.
“Maybe don’t call them next time,” said Albert.
“I didn’t,” said Gabriel. “You’re just that predictable.” He nudged Albert again with his boot. “Go on Suicide Man, they’re coming.”
Albert groaned and got to his feet. Gabriel always found him, no matter how covert he tried to be with his plans. Were people posting his location now, or was Gabriel always behind him? He heard the wooden sound of footsteps on the boardwalk, his cue to take shelter. He stumbled away from the shore and crouched behind a clump of tall grass and dug his feet into the sand to dry them.
The EMTs looked disappointed when they saw Gabriel alone.
Albert crept back to the parking lot before they started combing the beach. Gabriel shook his head and pointed down the shore. They’d follow his footprints until he lost them on the pavement.
He stopped in the men’s restroom, checking to make sure it was empty. He slipped into the third stall and retrieved his backpack from behind the toilet; a backup in case he lived. He changed into dry clothes and tucked his hair underneath a gray baseball cap. He smeared sunscreen on his cheeks and nose and stepped out to check his reflection. His disguise was good enough for now. He tightened the straps on his sandals and stepped outside.
The police were still trying to determine his location. He slipped around to the back of the building to avoid being stopped for questions. Behind him, an officer was talking to a young couple.
“He’s about 25, blond, about six feet. He was last seen wearing a pair of black and green striped boxers—you seen anybody like that?”
He was lucky this time. He didn’t see anyone standing around with a camera. No one filmed this one. He was getting better at avoiding Watchers. His obsessive following was getting out of control. A few months ago, Gabriel informed him that he was viral now. Videos of Albert jumping, running, drowning, or choking circulated around the internet and a cyber community watched them religiously. In a way, it was good. It forced him to consider other consequences whenever he felt the hopelessness returning; whenever the knowledge of his friend was not enough. His death should be private when it happened.
Albert found his car still parked in front of Dean’s Crab Shack. He climbed in the front seat and turned on the heat. The waters of the Oregon coast were chilly even in the summer. He waited for his hands to warm up before driving to the nearest crowded parking lot. Gabriel was responsible for describing his vehicle to the police. He was confident Gabriel would give a fake description, though he probably didn’t know what Albert was driving this time. He switched cars every few weeks, trading his current one for something less recognizable.
He found a place in the back of the parking lot where the RVs parked. He pulled the keys from the ignition and stuffed them in the glove compartment. He crawled into the back seat and curled up inside a green mummy bag. He’d leave for California in the morning.
Nabil’s chest heaved as he sighed. His time alone passed too quickly. The heavy downpour from the storm turned to a steady drizzle. Work was going to be slow today. The hotel was quiet, which meant he’d be subjected to more of Kelly’s inane babbling about his internet women.
As he made his way to work, he decided it would take the grace of some benevolent otherworldly force to turn Kelly into something Nabil could endure. Unfortunately, if there was such a force, it probably had better things to do than make Nabil’s life less annoying.
The neon sign on the hotel window flashed “vacancy.” In a few hours he’d be back in front of the window of his living room watching darkness creep over yard before consuming his home. Kelly’s rusty Oldsmobile sat alone in front of the hotel. Nabil entered the building quietly and reached for a towel.
“You made it.” Kelly leaned against the doorway of the laundry room. He was already in uniform, though it was foolish to hope he’d started cleaning anything. The hotel was small and most visitors were tourists, who wanted to check in early in the morning. It changed cleaning hours to the evenings to accommodate their usual traffic.
“How long have you been here?” asked Nabil.
“Just punched in,” answered Kelly.
“Is the cart stocked?”
“Naw, I was waiting for you,” Kelly laughed. “Besides, I’ve got a ton of stuff to tell you about.”
Nabil followed him inside. He clocked in and wondered how Kelly could possibly have amassed enough gossip to fill the next few hours.
Kelly bumbled around in the supply closet and emerged with an armful of tiny soaps. He dropped them into a plastic tray on top of the cart and began stacking them into chaotic little piles. Nabil wandered over to help Kelly stock his cart.
“So much has happened since we talked,” Kelly said.
“I’m sure,” said Nabil.
Kelly leaned against the doorway and watched as Nabil stabilized the piles of tiny soaps into stacks in the basket.
“Ask me what happened,” said Kelly.
“What happened?” asked Nabil.
“So remember how Rachel was going to come here?”
“I thought we decided she wasn’t?”
“Yeah, well now instead of her coming here, I’m going to Ohio to visit her. This is so weird. I was planning on being done with women for a while, but you know, Nabil, love finds you when you least expect it.” He paused, waiting for his next prompt.
“What do you mean?” asked Nabil. He grabbed an armful of fresh towels from the shelf. He counted them while Kelly elaborated.
“Well, Joanna and I were pretty serious. I mean we dated for several months. But I didn’t really feel any effort on her end, you know? She didn’t really seem to want it, and that hurt. I’m not going to lie. You remember what I said when I broke up with her?”
“Oh, that’s right, you weren’t here Friday. Boy, you’ve got some catching up to do. Anyways, I said I was done. I’d had my fill. I did my time in the ocean and I’ve been bitten by one too many sharks. And I meant it. But then I met Rachel, and you know what?”
“What?” Nabil shoved the towels on the bottom shelf of the cart.
“The moment I saw her profile picture I knew she was different. I should get you to read her About Me. She’s so quirky.”
“Cool,” said Nabil. The upside to talking with Kelly was Nabil didn’t have to pay attention. Kelly’s monologues made it easy for Nabil to slip into his head and dream while his consciousness continued the banter. He knew his contributions to the conversation barely met the minimum requirement for small talk, but Kelly didn’t complain nor did his musing compel Nabil to be more engaged.
“She lives really close to me, too,” said Kelly.
“Cool,” said Nabil.
“Yeah. I checked a map and Ohio is way closer than I thought it was. It would be really easy for her to fly down here, or for me to go to her.”
Nabil wondered why anyone would visit their town. With a population of around 6,000, Nighton was painfully small. It was the kind of town where vultures circled above something dead, but no one ever saw the body. The seasons were typical for the south; summer and spring were too hot and rainy for tourists and fall and winter were nonexistent. The main attraction was the interstate, but people usually only stopped for gas or food. Every now and then, someone stumbled upon the town on their way to Black River. The river was a popular summer camping destination, but the best parts of the river, the parts that were clean and calm and good for swimming, were about 40 minutes away in a bigger town where most of the sane and interesting people lived. The part of the river near Nighton was almost a different river entirely. It was deep and black and fast with too few rapids for kayaking, but too many for swimming; though Nabil suspected it was the stench from the pig farms that kept people away.
Nighton did have a few unique qualities. It was small, so everyone knew each other. It was home to several well-established families. People rarely ever left Nighton for good. It remained constant over the years and was somehow able to resist both growth and change. It was predominantly white. Jeanie claimed it wasn’t, and for a town the size of Nighton, it was very diverse. Nabil sometimes wondered if it was his heritage alone that allowed the town to boast such claims of diversity. He suspected, if there were any other minorities in town, or anyone with skin darker than a Myrtle Beach tan, they probably went to school somewhere else. It was probably worth the drive.
Nabil rubbed his eyes and pretended to examine a tiny shampoo bottle. Sometimes loneliness invaded his daydreams. It was in those times he was grateful for distractions like Kelly. Sometimes it was nice to forget, if only for a few minutes.
“It could be love,” said Kelly, still chattering about his new pursuit. “I can’t help it Nabil. I think I’m falling. The best part is I wasn’t even expecting it.”
“Awesome,” said Nabil. He grabbed the room chart from the wall. The hotel had 30 rooms. Kelly and Nabil would sweep through, make sure occupied rooms were still occupied, double check rooms cleaned during the week, then move on to clean the check outs.
“Yeah, I know it’s legit because I wasn’t even looking for it,” said Kelly. “She came to me when I was done with love.”
“When were you done with love?” asked Nabil.
“Last week, after I broke up with Joanna,” said Kelly. His mouth puckered into a smirk again. “Man, I can’t wait to meet her.”
“Sounds fun,” said Nabil. He pushed the cart down the hall toward the first room.
Kelly straightened up and stretched. “I think so,” he said, following Nabil. “Her profile picture is gorgeous and she’s got a great career.”
“What’s she do?”
“She invented a pill that may stop hair loss in men.”
“I know. She’s a winner. I’m not going to rush anything though. We’re just talking about stuff at this point.”
“Good plan. Keep it simple.” Nabil pulled his phone from his pocket and checked the time, though he wasn’t sure what he was waiting for. How long before he went back to his house and hid from the world? The voice whispered to him again. He was a waste of life.
“She’s got kids though, and I don’t know how I feel about being a father,” continued Kelly. “I mean if there’s a downside to dating her, that’s it.”
“Yeah, I can understand that.”
A loud clank tore Nabil from his thoughts.
“Whoa there,” said Kelly, snorting. “Scared you? Scared me too.” He stooped to pick up the clipboard with the room assignments. “Anyways, where was I? Oh right, so Rachel might be depressed. She’s getting tested tomorrow. I think she could be bipolar. Sometimes when we talk, it’s like she has no idea who I am and she’ll just get mad at me for no reason. It’s usually when we’re talking about her kids. I tried to tell her she’s got some serious issues there, but she didn’t want to hear it.”
Nabil pulled the comforter from the bed they were changing and tossed the pillows on the floor.
“I’m glad she’s getting tested. I think the only real downside to her is she’s Mormon,” continued Kelly. “They’re like, the craziest frickin’ people on the planet.”
“I thought you were Mormon.”
“What?” Kelly looked horrified. “No, I belong to the Calvary Assembly of Christ.”
“Oh,” said Nabil. “Sorry.”
“Gosh, don’t you pay attention?”
“Sorry,” Nabil repeated.
“What church do you go to again?” asked Kelly.
“I don’t go to church,” answered Nabil.
“Oh, right. You’re Muslim. Don’t you like, hate Jesus or something?”
“Muslims don’t hate Jesus,” answered Nabil.
“Oh, so what do you guys believe?”
“I’m not Muslim,” answered Nabil.
“Oh.” His voice trailed off and his eyes wandered to Nabil’s face. “You kind of look Muslim. You have a Muslim nose and everything.”
Nabil looked up at him and contemplated a response. The educational foundation needed to even begin this conversation with Kelly was more than Nabil could construct. Instead, he grabbed a pillow from the floor and shook it out of its case.
“It’s probably nice to be so dark,” Kelly said. “You probably don’t get sunburned.” He laughed.
Nabil bit his tongue.
“So,” began Kelly, “what are you? I mean if you don’t go to church, then what are you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m an Atheist.”
“Is that like a Communist?”
“No, it’s not like a Communist.”
“But you believe in God right?”
Kelly paused and examined Nabil. “I’m going to pray for you,” he said.
Nabil sighed. “Thanks.”
“Welcome. I mean I don’t know what good it’ll do but you seem like a nice guy and I don’t want you to go to Hell. I mean I really don’t think you’re on the right path, but it’s not too late. You could start by going to the old Baptist Church. It’s nice and I think you’d like it. I don’t go there anymore, but I don’t know if you’re ready for the Calvary Assembly.” He snorted. “Rachel said she’d be willing to try my church,” said Kelly, “and I think it would be really good for her.”
Nabil nodded. He stuffed the pillows into new cases and tossed them in a chair. He let his thoughts slip back to fig trees and warm faces.
After work he paused to breathe the fresh air; relieved to smell something other than pink cleaner number five. He cut through the neighborhood even though the downtown route was shorter. As a rule, Nabil usually avoided the normal teen hangouts. He limited his time to school, work and the occasional walk. He panted as he walked up the street leading to his block. He was pudgier than the other kids and considerably less active. Outdoor activities only provided more opportunities to make himself a target. He hadn’t engaged in any significant activity since soccer, freshman year. He had no idea how to play the game. Jeanie just signed him up to “build character.” He was quickly kicked off the team and cured of any desire to participate in school sports.
He turned on to his street, but stopped when he spotted a patrol car parked across from his house. He approached his house cautiously. An officer was standing on the porch with his arms folded across his chest. Nabil felt a tingling sensation run down his spine. For some illogical reason, seeing the police always made him feel like a criminal.
The officer removed his hat and ran his hand through his thick curly brown hair. His chest heaved as he took a deep breath and moved slowly but deliberately toward the front door with one hand raised ready to knock.
“Hey,” called Nabil. “Can I help you?”
The officer jumped. His knuckles were white around his hat. “I didn’t see you there,” he said.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Nabil.
“Oh, no problem. I just didn’t expect to find—ah—see—” His eyes wandered over Nabil’s face as his lips moved silently, searching for the end of his sentence. “I didn’t expect to find anyone home. I was going to leave you a note.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, not at all. I was just checking some—ah—things.” His eyes were still furiously searching Nabil. He was nervous, almost apologetic. “We got a suspicious call about a break in on this block. I think it was just some kids pulling a prank.” He was still staring.
“Is my house safe?” Nabil shifted uncomfortably.
“Yeah. Pretty sure it’s just a joke. Nothing to worry about. You’re safe as long as I’m here.” He laughed but the sound was strained and hollow.
“Oh. Well, thanks.”
“Welcome.” The officer cleared his throat and placed his hat back on his head, finally breaking the stare. He pulled a yellow pad from his pocket and scribbled something on it. “So you live here?”
“You’re Nabil, right?” he asked.
“I’m Gabriel.” His arm moved forward like he was going to shake Nabil’s hand, but he realized he was still holding his pen, and changed his mind. “Seen anything odd lately?”
“Not really, no.”
“Good. Listen, this is just a formality, but do you mind if I get your full name and a way to contact you?” He handed Nabil the pad of paper so he could write down his information.
Nabil scribbled his name and number on the paper and handed it back.
“Good. Thanks. And you haven’t seen anything?”
“I hear people wander around out here at night, but I don’t know if that helps.”
“It helps. As I said, I think it’s a prank, but it’s my job to be sure.”
“Thanks,” said Nabil.
“Not a problem.” He stuffed the pad into his pocket and began fidgeting with the brim of his hat. “Right. Well, I better get going. I’ll see you around, Nabil.”
“See you around,” Nabil echoed.
Gabriel turned quickly and half jogged back to his car. Nabil went inside and hurried to his room. He peeked through a crack in the curtain and watched.
The officer sat in his car apparently unaware of Nabil’s surveillance. He was talking to someone on his phone and seemed significantly more animated. He was grinning and his hand moved quickly through the air. For a brief moment Nabil imagined a dark haired woman with olive skin on the other line, thrilled her detective had finally found her long lost son. He shook his head. Sometimes his daydreams were absurdly idealistic.
The welcome mat was crooked when Nabil came home from work the next day, another day of someone messing with him. Nothing was missing or disturbed. Whoever was responsible was clearly doing it to scare him. He checked the house while clutching a broom like a bat. It wasn’t much but it made him feel a little better.
He didn’t sleep that night, but he also wasn’t compelled to camp in the living room. He wasn’t sure if it was courage or apathy. If someone killed him it would save him the trouble of doing it himself. He didn’t skip school again. He was safer at school than at home, though he hated admitting that was what got him out of bed.
Bleary-eyed and half awake he struggled through the day. The only interesting moment came when the teacher introduced a new student during English. The new kid was tall with broad shoulders and dark, shaggy hair. He made eye contact with Nabil from beneath his bangs and quickly looked away. Nabil felt for him. He was a prime target for Jonathon. That thought was enough to compel him to keep an eye out for the new kid on the way to lunch.
He wasn’t hard to find. Nabil spotted him hovering nervously outside of the cafeteria. Nabil swallowed and forced himself to commit to socializing. He was 80 percent sure he remembered the kid’s name.
The new kid turned around.
“Have you had lunch yet?”
“No,” he answered quietly.
Nabil nodded down the hall. “Come with me. The cafeteria’s not worth the trouble.”
“I’m Nabil, by the way. We have English together.”
“We have Math together, too,” said Cannon. “I sit behind you.”
“Uh, cool,” said Nabil. “I eat out here.” He opened the door and pointed across the parking lot to the football field. “It’s quiet and I don’t have to worry about the other kids.”
“Why do you worry about the other kids?” asked Cannon.
“Most of them are assholes,” answered Nabil.
“Are they mean to you?”
“Sometimes. It’s just not worth the trouble.” He led Cannon to a sunny spot on the field. He retrieved a peanut butter sandwich from his backpack. He split it in half as best he could and handed a piece to Cannon.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll bring you a sandwich tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Cannon ate his half in two bites.
Nabil pulled a bottle of water from his backpack and set it between them. “You want to skip the cafeteria and meet me out here tomorrow?”
“Have you met anybody else yet?”
“Did you just move here?”
“Yeah. I moved from Raleigh.”
“Do you know anybody in town?”
“My grandma. I moved here to live with her. I’m kind of hard to deal with.”
“Me too,” said Nabil. “I live with my foster mom, but I’ve had a lot of different families.” He wasn’t sure what compelled him to say that. He hadn’t said that much about his life to anyone in years.
“I’ve had the same family, but I’ve lived with a bunch of different relatives,” said Cannon. “I hate moving around.”
“Me too,” said Nabil.
Cannon gave him a crooked smile. “I also suck at making friends.”
Nabil smiled back. “Me too.”
“I kind of hate it here,” said Cannon.
“Me too,” said Nabil.
They traded similarities for the rest of the period. Though he was loath to admit it, Nabil had made a friend. Something warm bloomed in his heart. The voice told him not to trust it.
It turned out that Nabil had physics with Cannon after lunch. They sat together and for the first time, Nabil passed notes in class. He saw Cannon again after school. As they crossed the parking lot together, an angry looking elderly woman marched toward them. She was backed by one of the school counselors.
“You missed an entire week?” she said.
Cannon stopped walking. “I can explain,” he said.
Nabil stopped beside him.
“Then explain,” said the woman.
“I—” Cannon sighed. “I didn’t want to go.”
“That’s not a good reason.”
The counselor stood behind the woman. “You’re already behind your classmates. Skipping puts you at a huge disadvantage.”
Cannon rolled his eyes. “For fuck’s sake,” he muttered. “Yeah. I’m sorry. I know better than to skip. I was nervous.”
“It’s too late for that,” snapped the woman.
“We’re assigning you a buddy,” said the counselor. “Actually, Nabil is a good candidate.”
Nabil had never been a good candidate for anything.
“Is this your friend?” asked the woman.
“Good,” said the counselor. “I will make sure you’re in the same classes and have the same study hall. You will do homework together and you will come to school together.”
“Is this like when you assign kindergarteners a buddy so they don’t wander off and die?” asked Cannon.
“Yes,” answered the woman. “This is exactly like that. And if you continue to act like a kindergartener, I will continue to treat you like one.”
“This isn’t a punishment,” said the counselor. “We want to make sure you both succeed. I’m glad it worked out this way. I didn’t want to assign Cannon to someone randomly.”
“Kismet,” murmured Cannon.
Nabil snickered. He didn’t know why. Laughing would probably get him in more trouble.
“I’ll handle it from here,” said the woman. “I need to have a talk with my grandson and his new friend.”
The counselor nodded and left quickly, probably relieved to be rid of the situation.
“My name is Edna,” said the woman. “And you are?”
“Nabil,” he answered.
“He’s new here too,” said Cannon. “Not new new, but he hasn’t been here as long as the other kids.”
Edna looked at Cannon, then Nabil. She clenched her jaw. “How nice. I’m glad you two have something in common.”
“We have a lot in common,” said Cannon.
“I’m sure you do.”
“A suspicious amount in common.”
Nabil kicked him in the foot. Again, he didn’t know why. It felt natural though, like they’d been doing this for years.
Edna just sighed. “Are you boys hungry? Would you like a snack? Nabil, you’re welcome to come to our house for dinner.”
“Yeah,” said Cannon. He nudged Nabil. “Say yes.”
“Yes,” said Nabil, “uh, please.”
“It’s the least I can do since you’re being so nice to Cannon,” said Edna. “Since you’ve agreed to be his shepherd you two are welcome to come to my house after school and do homework.” She started walking and looked at them as if she expected them to follow. “Nabil, do you have any hobbies?”
Cannon trailed after her, so Nabil did, too.
“Yes,” answered Nabil. “Kind of.” He tried desperately to think of something to make himself sound more interesting than he was.
Edna and Cannon were silent as they waited for the rest of the answer.
Nabil chewed on his lip. “I work a lot,” he said finally.
“It sounds like you need a friend to help you be less responsible,” said Cannon.
Edna pursed her lips. “That’s very industrious of you,” she said. “Your parents must be very proud.” She smiled.
Surely Edna knew Nabil’s story, everyone else did.
“I don’t have parents,” said Nabil. He sounded pitiful. He was pitiful. He was standing in front of Edna and Cannon bleeding neediness and tragedy. He scrambled to clot the wound and amend his mistake. “I mean I have a foster mom,” he said. “Jeanie. I live at her house – with her – when she’s around – I’m not alone.” He cut himself off after that.
Edna opened the door for him. “Then Jeanie must be very proud of you,” she said.
Cannon climbed into the back seat with him. Something rang in Nabil’s head about riding with strangers, but Cannon got in the car so Nabil did, too.
Cannon leaned over to him. “Relax,” he whispered.
“Sorry,” muttered Nabil.
“Don’t apologize. We’re friends now. You don’t owe me or my grandma any explanations.”
“Are we friends?”
“We had lunch together,” answered Cannon. “By high school law, that makes us friends. Plus we’re on the buddy system. If we’re not friends now, we will be in a few weeks.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“It is. I’m inevitably going to be your best friend. It’s easier if you just accept that now.”
“What if you’re sick of me in a few weeks?”
“Then we can break up,” answered Cannon. “But for now, we’re best friends.”
Nabil grinned. “Ok,” he said. “Best friends.”
Something in his life was about to change. Cannon seemed to feel it, too. He ended up having dinner with them. That night when the voice whispered to him that tonight was the night and it was time to end his suffering, Nabil countered with “not yet.” He had other plans.
Nabil and Cannon sat on the floor in Edna’s living room. They were sharing a textbook and had homework assignments spread out around them.
“You do the math stuff,” said Cannon. “I’ll fill out the history stuff, then we can switch and copy what the other one did.”
“They check for copying,” said Nabil.
“English and physics are the only classes that actually check our homework,” said Cannon. “Besides, they know we’re working together.”
“It would be faster,” mumbled Nabil.
“It’s the most efficient way to get this crap done. We’ll knock this out then I can show you a surprise.”
Nabil frowned. “What kind of surprise?”
“It’s awesome,” answered Cannon. “Well, you might think it’s lame. I think it’s awesome.”
“What is it?”
“A surprise, dummy. Do the homework then I’ll show you.”
Nabil retrieved his math book and began working through the problem set. He didn’t have to find out the surprise. If it seemed questionable or dangerous he could always make up an excuse to go home. Of course, Cannon knew how empty his life was so he’d need something convincing. He could pretend to be sick.
They worked through their respective assignments, traded answers, and packed their backpacks.
“Ok,” said Cannon, “surprise time. Follow me.”
“Are we going somewhere?”
“Yeah. It’s in the backyard.”
Nabil winced. “Is it a body or something?”
Cannon turned to look at him with his head cocked to the side. “What the hell, man? No it’s not a body.”
“It’s not like a dead cat or a bird?”
“Why, when I say ‘surprise’ do you go straight to something dead?”
“I don’t know,” answered Nabil. “I had a weird feeling.”
“It’s not a dead thing. I swear. If I’d found a dead thing I would have said ‘I need you to help me bury something’ not ‘I have a surprise’.”
“Fine,” said Nabil. “Sorry.”
Cannon rolled his eyes. “Come on.”
Nabil followed him to the backyard.
Cannon stopped in the middle of the yard. He pointed to the ground. “See?”
“No, it’s a crop circle.”
Nabil shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic.”
“I’m serious,” he said, “it’s a crop circle. Look.” He traced the outline of something on the ground.
Nabil squinted. It took him a minute but he finally noticed some grass that was darker than the rest. It was growing in a ring. “Oh,” said Nabil. “I thought those were fairy circles.”
“Whatever,” said Cannon. “It’s still cool.”
“I think they’re caused by fungus.”
Cannon huffed. “Way to kill the mystery.”
“It’s not a mystery.”
“It was until you brought fungus into it.” He folded his arms over his chest. “You’re not big on mystical crap, are you?”
“Sorry,” answered Nabil, “not really.”
“Do you believe in aliens?”
“Kind of. It’s a big universe.”
“Loch Ness Monster?”
Nabil laughed. “No.” He clamped a hand over his mouth. “I didn’t mean that in an offensive way.”
“It’s ok,” said Cannon. “I don’t either, but I do believe in bigfoot.”
That admission launched a surprisingly long debate. Nabil had dinner with Edna and Cannon again and the bigfoot conversation continued throughout the meal. Edna didn’t say much but it was pretty clear she sided with Nabil. She changed the subject after Cannon tried to launch into a rant about Gigantopithecus.
“Have you met Gabriel?” she asked.
Nabil realized she was addressing him. “Gabriel?” he asked. The name sounded familiar.
“He’s a police officer in town,” she answered. “He’s very nice – takes extra care of me.”
“Maybe he’s got a crush on you,” said Cannon.
Edna rolled her eyes.
“I think I’ve met him,” said Nabil. “I think he came to my house to check for a possible disturbance.”
“Oh good,” she said. “He’s a good person to know. He’s always willing to help.”
“That’s nice of him,” said Nabil.
Cannon cleared his throat. “So you’ll be back tomorrow after school, right?”
“Yeah,” answered Nabil, “if that’s all right with Miss Edna.”
“Just Edna,” she said, “and of course it’s all right. You’re welcome here any time.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” said Nabil.
“Good,” said Cannon. “I’ll walk you home.”
Edna shook her head. “You have to finish your chores.”
Nabil collected his things. “I’ll see you at school,” he said. Cannon’s classes had been rescheduled so he was taking everything with Nabil. They spent the majority of every day together. It was strange at first, having someone to talk to, but he was adjusting to it. He wondered how he got through the days before Cannon and Edna. He had a new friend and Edna felt like the grandmother he never had. He spent most afternoons with them as well.
Edna would watch them from the corner of her eye and smile to herself. Nabil caught her doing it several times. She’d lived in Nighton for years. She no doubt knew his history. She kept him fed and often sent Cannon to school with two lunches, one for him and one for Nabil.
She pulled him aside one day, while Cannon was working on their homework.
“Will you help me with the tea?” she asked.
“Of course,” answered Nabil.
She gave him a lemon to slice while she mixed the tea with sugar. “How is school going?”
“Great,” answered Nabil.
“And your home life?”
Nabil shrugged. “I don’t do much.”
“Do you feel safe? I know you live alone.”
“Yeah,” he answered. He decided against telling her about the footprints and his own paranoia.
“You know you’re welcome to stay here any time.”
“Thank you,” he said. He grinned as he stared down at the lemon. For the first time in a long time, he felt safe.
After dinner, he said his goodbyes and headed home. Halfway through the walk he got a strange feeling like someone was following him. He heard the sound of tires behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a patrol car slowing to a stop. Nabil fought the urge to run.
“Hey,” called a voice. “Hang on kid.”
Nabil recognized Gabriel’s voice. The officer stopped the car behind him and got out.
“I’m just coming back from a friend’s house,” said Nabil automatically. “I’m heading home.”
The officer laughed. “I didn’t stop to question you,” he said. “You need a ride?”
The passenger door swung open and a younger officer stepped out, a disgruntled look on his face.
Nabil recognized the young man as Olivia’s brother, Joshua. “I can walk,” he said. “I don’t live far.”
“It’s no trouble. Come on, we’ll take you home.”
“We don’t have time,” said Joshua.
Gabriel ignored him and addressed Nabil. “Hop in the back.” He opened the back door on the driver’s side. “We’ll have you home in no time.”
“Thanks,” said Nabil. He eyed the gun attached to the officer’s belt, and examined Joshua’s sour expression.
“Where are you coming from?” asked the officer, once they were all settled in the car.
“A friend’s house,” answered Nabil.
“That’s nice. Which friend?”
Joshua sighed loudly.
“What?” asked Gabriel.
“Nothing,” muttered Joshua.
Nabil leaned forward in his seat. “I don’t think we’ve ever met,” he said, “but I know your sister, Olivia.”
“I know,” said Joshua.
“We’re friends,” said Nabil. His attempts to lighten Joshua’s mood seemed to fall flat.
“I know,” he repeated.
Nabil decided to change the subject. “What are you doing in this neighborhood?”
“Just keeping an eye on things,” said Gabriel.
“No we aren’t,” said Joshua. “You said we had to interview someone over here and instead we’re wasting time with this kid.”
Gabriel shot him a quick glance. “We’ll have time for that later.”
“We drove all the way over here just to pick up this kid,” said Joshua. “I know we did.”
Nabil looked to Gabriel. He watched the road, making sure they were actually taking him home. He had no reason to be suspicious. Edna had already vouched for the officer, but something didn’t sit right with Nabil.
“Of course not,” said Gabriel.
“Yes you did. You’ve wasted our time again.”
“Did I do something wrong?” asked Nabil.
“I don’t know yet,” snapped Joshua.
“No,” said Gabriel. “He’s mad at me; you can ignore him. He thinks we’re wasting time.”
“We are wasting time,” said Joshua. “We’re police, not a taxi service.”
Gabriel glanced in the rearview mirror and looked at Nabil.
Joshua turned around in his seat and glared at Nabil. “You and that crazy old woman are the most well-protected people in Nighton,” he said.
“Turn around,” said Gabriel. He shoved Joshua back into his seat. “I like to make sure everyone is well protected,” he said.
“You have your favorites,” said Joshua.
“And you have your family,” said Gabriel.
Joshua muttered something and turned to look out of the window.
“Have you met Edna,” asked Gabriel.
“Yeah,” said Nabil. “That’s who I was just with. I’m friends with her grandson.”
“That’s great,” said Gabriel. He pulled into the driveway of Nabil’s house. “You still have my number, right?”
“For the love of God,” muttered Joshua.
“Yeah,” answered Nabil.
“Good. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Ok,” said Nabil, suspicion sitting heavy in his stomach. He backed away from the car and waved to both of them as they drove away. Gabriel waved back, but Joshua still seemed busy complaining. He wondered if Gabriel was following him to make sure he was a good fit to help Edna. That made sense. Maybe that explained his random visit and strange behavior.
Someone interrupted his thoughts. “You forgot your notebook.”
Nabil jumped and saw someone crouching next to the corner of the porch. His shaggy black hair covered parts of his face and his eyebrows were raised in anticipation. His eyes were wide and focused on Nabil.
Albert crouched in the bushes. The man didn’t see him. He was still struggling with the thorny brambles of the raspberry plants. He cursed as he cut himself on one of the branches. He looked right; dark brown hair, a deep frown when he concentrated, and deliberate movements. He did not hesitate as he trimmed the branches. He was swift and confident. It had to be him. Albert could feel it. He was right this time.
Albert stayed low among the leaves, huddled in the foliage in the back yard of the man’s house. His name was Michael Bishop. He was living with his parents until he saved up enough money to move back east. Albert found his information online. He moved to northern California last year. He majored in anthropology at Berkeley with a minor in philosophy. He took a year off to travel, but planned to return to school get his master’s degree.
The grocery store was the first place Albert saw him. Though, had it not been for a sudden craving for chips, their paths might never have crossed. After following Michael from the checkout line to his home, Albert parked his car a block away from the house and waited overnight, watching to learn more about him. What he could not discover through observation, he found online. Michael was easy to find, though he listed his hometown as San Francisco. Albert wondered why he moved north. Michael’s main profile was private. Albert created a fake name and began following him.
He scrolled through his pictures and his past and read his updates. Michael wanted to be a professor at Cambridge, for now. He visited the UK last summer and was eager to return. His friends joked that Michael’s ambitions would change as soon as he found a new passion. He had secret political aspirations as well. In one late-night post, he confessed he dreamed of being president. He was generous with his friends, offering them support when they were sad. He was a non-theist and a bit of a cynic. He enjoyed nostalgic road trips and loud music. When he was alone, he admitted to singing and talking to the family dog.
“Found you,” whispered Albert. He’d been wrong before. Of course there were other people who were perfect; who seemed to cross his path intentionally, but he was careful this time. He made a list. He narrowed down his options. He knew what to look for; what was coincidence and what was destiny. This was Lucifer, he was certain.
Michael stood and examined the tangled bushes. Satisfied, he gathered the clipped branches and disappeared around the side of the house. He was going out today to comb the beach after last night’s storm; a hobby Albert discovered after following him one day. Albert checked the time. It was low tide. He was getting ready to leave. He let Michael have a head start.
When Albert was sure he was gone, he left his hiding place and walked down the road to the public beach access. He touched a small collection of beach glass and shells in his pocket. He began it a few days ago after his discovery. Albert’s collection included several prize colors consisting of amber pieces and one purple. They would give him an excuse to begin a conversation.
He followed the boardwalk and crossed the hot sand. He scanned the beach to see which way Michael went. He spotted his outline in the distance. Albert stayed closer inland and walked quickly so he could place a large piece of mother of pearl ahead of Michael.
He didn’t notice as Albert passed. He was focused on the sand. Albert was careful to not put too much distance between them. He scattered some of his collection among the shell fragments, keeping the prize purple piece of beach glass hidden in his hand. It was smooth like a stone and perfectly frosted by the ocean. He checked to make sure Michael wasn’t watching, then moved away from the spot. He pretended to check the shore for other treasures and waited.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Michael reached the spot and knelt to collect the shells Albert left scattered in the sand. He moved closer to him, pretending to be engrossed in his own hunt. He was careful to keep his distance and conceal his excitement. He took another step and Michael noticed.
“Find anything good?” asked Albert. He pressed the piece of purple glass into his palm.
“What are you looking for?” asked Albert.
“Just looking,” he answered.
“It looks like you’re looking for beach glass,” pressed Albert.
Michael gave him a wary glance and frowned.
“I found a pretty nice piece,” Albert continued. He opened his hand to show off the purple glass.
“Cool.” Michael did not look at it. “There’s some other glass way over there,” he said. He pointed to a distant corner of the beach where the tidal pools formed.
“I’ve already looked over there,” said Albert.
“Good for you,” said Michael. He turned his back to Albert and began to leave.
“Is this a hobby of yours?” asked Albert. He blurted out the question before he could stop himself. “Beachcombing, I mean.”
Michael glanced back as Albert hurried to catch up to him.
“I come down here a lot. Do you?” He couldn’t stop.
Michael glanced back at him. “Did you come down here with a group or something?”
Albert shook his head.
Michael frowned again. “Are you lost?”
“No,” said Albert. “I’m just making conversation.”
“How about go make conversation somewhere else.” He quickened his pace.
“Michael, wait,” said Albert. He instantly realized his mistake.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Albert quickly. “We met at the bar last week.”
“I’m not a fag,” said Michael. “Fuck off.”
“I know,” said Albert, “I just want to talk to you.”
“Stop following me,” said Michael.
“Just hang on a second,” said Albert.
Michael stopped and Albert almost ran into him. Without warning Michael reeled back and hit him hard in the nose.
Albert stumbled and fell flat on his back, his face throbbing. He heard the shuffle of sand as Michael left the beach. He tasted blood. He rolled over onto his side and watched the man hurry away. He exhaled. He felt the disconnection. He was projecting again. He was wrong again.
“What are you doing here?” asked Nabil.
Cannon crept out from beside the porch. “I just told you,” he answered. “You forgot your notebook.”
“How did you get here before me?”
Cannon shrugged. “I’m fast.”
“I thought your grandma said you had to do homework.”
“I’ll do it later.”
“Does she know you’re here?”
“Yeah. She sent me to give you this.” He produced Nabil’s notebook.
Nabil didn’t have a good reason for the suspicion rising in him. Apparently he actually forgot his notebook. That didn’t explain how Cannon got to his house before him, or why Cannon was hiding beside the porch.
“I see you met Gabriel,” said Cannon.
“Yeah,” answered Nabil. He took his notebook from him.
“He’s a good guy,” said Cannon. “I better get going. Edn—Grandma will be pissed if I’m gone too long.”
“Ok,” said Nabil. “I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess.”
“See you tomorrow.” Cannon sauntered away.
Nabil watched him leave. He stood on the porch long after Cannon disappeared. Something nagged at him. Something wasn’t right. Something lingered just beyond the edges of his memory. It wasn’t fear, but it felt dark and familiar.
He shook his head and decided Cannon must have triggered a memory of some remnant of his childhood. Things like this happened to him before; shadowy memories would float across his mind and drift just beyond reach. He’d accepted the fact that there were parts of his history he’d never know. Some things were lost forever.
* * *
Nabil headed to the field with Cannon for lunch. This was their routine now. They spent all day together at school and it had become so normal, Nabil forgot what it was like to be alone. Even after school Cannon would usually text him or call. Sometimes it was about homework; sometimes it was just to chat. He was Nabil’s first best friend.
“Oh no,” muttered Cannon. “An invader.”
Nabil glanced ahead and saw Olivia sitting alone directly in their path. She had her arms folded over her chest and her head hung. “Be nice,” hissed Nabil.
“I haven’t even had a chance to be mean yet,” Cannon hissed back.
Olivia looked up when they approached. “Oh,” she said, “hey. I didn’t think anyone else would be out here.”
“Yeah, right,” muttered Cannon.
“Are you all right?” asked Nabil.
She rubbed her eyes. “Not really,” she answered.
“What happened?” asked Nabil.
“Nothing,” she answered. “It’s stupid.”
“Do you want to eat lunch with us?” asked Nabil. He ignored the eye-roll from Cannon.
She nodded and stood. “My so-called friends ditched me,” she said.
“Aw,” said Cannon. “Poor you.”
Nabil shot him a warning glance.
“They said they were going to wait for me before they went to lunch,” said Olivia. She sniffed and rubbed her eyes. “But they left before I got my stuff from my locker.”
“I’m sorry,” said Nabil. “That sucks.”
“That’s tragic,” said Cannon.
“Do you have anything for lunch?” asked Nabil.
“No,” she muttered.
Nabil grabbed his sandwich and split it in half. “Here,” he said. “Eat with us.”
Cannon opened his mouth, snapped it shut, then sighed dramatically.
They spent lunch listening to Olivia vent about her friends. By the end of the period they knew who promised what, who drove the car, how many people were in her group and what she was going to order for lunch.
“You guys are so sweet,” she said. “Thanks for listening.”
“Of course,” said Nabil.
“You know,” she said, “I know this is random, or whatever, but there’s a concert downtown this week. It would be awesome if you guys came.”
Cannon shook his head at Nabil.
“Sure,” he answered.
“Yay,” she said, beaming. “You’re the best. I’ll call you later with the details.”
The bell rang in the distance. They gathered their things and Olivia said goodbye before running off to class.
“I feel bad for her,” said Nabil.
“You feel bad for everybody,” said Cannon. “And you gave her your sandwich.”
“I did the same thing for you.”
“Because. Never mind. Just be careful with that one.”
Nabil rolled his eyes. “And I thought I was paranoid.”
“She’s trying to convert you.”
“Wow,” said Nabil. “You’re worried about a concert?”
“Not worried. I just have a healthy suspicion.”
“You were invited, too.”
Cannon made a face. “No thank you.”
“It’s not a big deal. It might be fun.”
“It will not be fun.”
“Whatever. She’s been nice to me before.”
After school Cannon insisted on dragging Nabil to some “surprise.” Cannon’s surprises varied in success. Last week he surprised Nabil by dragging him to a new bookstore. The week before that, he surprised Nabil by taking him to lunch at the Chicken Coop. That was a less than pleasant experience and at this point Nabil wasn’t sure why he indulged.
They turned down a street Nabil usually avoided. He was pretty sure one of Jonathon’s friends lived somewhere nearby. He was surprised when a woman with short brown hair and a loose purple dress ran out of one of the houses towards them. She had a scarf wrapped around her head and a deck of tattered blue cards in her hand.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. Her voice was soft and high.
“Hey Shelby,” said Cannon.
“You must be Nabil,” she said, her wide blue eyes examining his face, “you probably get this all the time, but your aura is incredible.”
“My aura?” asked Nabil. He looked around the street, wondering if this was some kind of hidden camera prank. The neighborhood was empty.
“Please,” she said quickly, holding up a hand, “don’t say anymore. I want to give you an honest reading.”
“A reading?” He glanced at Cannon.
“You heard the lady,” he said.
“Is this the surprise?”
Cannon shushed him. “Don’t say anymore.”
“Pick a card.” She fanned the deck out in front of him.
Nabil sighed. “Fine,” he said. He knew it was only going to get weirder, but he decided to play along. He drew a card and showed it to Shelby.
She gasped. “You’ve drawn The World,” she said. “That’s a very important card. You have many new opportunities coming your way.” She took the card back. “Come inside.”
Cannon led the way. Nabil bit his tongue.
The porch was covered in various hanging chimes and peace flags. The Azalea bushes surrounding the house were large and untrimmed and Nabil suspected the Hosta plant growing by the front steps was home to several garden snakes.
The lights were dimmed and there was a soft glow coming from the hallway. The air in the house was thick and hot and it smelled strongly of dirt and lavender mixed with something spicy.
Cannon led him into a small room down the hall. As they entered, Nabil saw the source of the glow came from about thirty little tea candles arranged on a table in the middle of the room. Around it were several large, overstuffed pillows, varying in size, shape, and amount of fringe. Cannon took a seat on one of the pillows and nodded for Nabil to do the same.
“Relax,” said Cannon.
Shelby settled on a pillow between Cannon and Nabil. “Are we ready to begin?” she asked. She crossed her legs and straightened her back, then placed both hands on the table, palms facing the ceiling. “Let us join hands,” she said.
Nabil glanced at Cannon, who took quickly took his hand.
They formed a circle around the tiers of tea lights.
“I’m going to contact the universe,” said Shelby. “When I’ve interpreted all I can, I will invite you to speak. If this triggers a new flow, we will pause to focus on the new messages.” She rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath. “When you are comfortable, please take ten cleansing breaths, and close your eyes, then I will know you are ready. Once we’ve all achieved inner silence, we can begin.”
Nabil closed his eyes and waited. Shelby began humming softly to herself and Nabil could tell by a gently tug on his hand that she was rocking back and forth. They sat together like that for several minutes, apparently waiting for the universe to strike up a conversation.
Nabil struggled to keep his eyes closed, resisting the temptation to peek. Despite knowing her hands were not free, he felt she was taking this opportunity to go through his wallet. Maybe there was someone else in the room to do that for her.
Shelby’s humming grew louder and finally she spoke. “Listen,” she said softly. “You are brothers.”
“No, we’re not,” muttered Nabil.
“Shh,” hissed Cannon.
“Not by blood, but by purpose,” she continued.
“The world will try to keep you apart, but you must fight it,” said Shelby. “There is a secret. You must find it. You must listen.” She began rocking faster. “No matter what happens, you must stay together.”
Nabil could feel her hand shaking in his.
“Trust each other. Your lives extend far beyond this one. You know the costs and you know what is at stake.”
Nabil cracked one eye open. Shelby was practically convulsing. Her arms were stiff and trembling and her body was making odd jerking motions. Nabil shut his eyes again. She seemed thoroughly committed to selling her act.
“Remember,” said Shelby. “The key is to remember. If you lose yourself and forget who you are, you will lose everything and everyone you’ve ever loved. If you cannot find yourself, no one can find you.”
Cannon seemed to be sitting very still.
“The woman you are looking for has found you,” said Shelby slowly.
“You must not lose sight of what is most important. You must not let it separate you this time.”
Nabil looked to Cannon.
Cannon jumped. “You’re supposed to keep your eyes closed.”
“This is weird,” said Nabil.
“Let’s follow that thread,” said Shelby. Her eyes were still closed. “Why is it weird?”
Nabil shrugged. “It just is. Am I the only one who thinks it’s weird?”
“Does none of this sound familiar to you?” asked Cannon.
“Familiar? No,” answered Nabil. “Does it sound familiar to you?”
“Don’t you ever get lonely?” asked Cannon. “Don’t you feel like you belong with more people?”
“Is this a cult?” asked Nabil.
“No,” said Cannon. “I just—I think we’re meant to be friends, you know? Shelby thinks so, too.”
“Why are we here?” asked Nabil.
“That’s a cosmic question,” answered Shelby.
“I was talking to Cannon,” said Nabil. “I mean why are we visiting a psychic?”
“Because,” answered Cannon.
“It’s fun,” he answered.
“Can I offer you a drink?” asked Shelby suddenly. She let go of his hand and pulled a bottle from under the table followed by three small cups.
Cannon cleared his throat and shook his head quickly.
“Oh,” said Shelby, “never mind.”
“What’s in the bottle?” asked Nabil.
“Nothing,” answered Cannon. “It’s water.”
“Is it water or nothing?”
“Water,” answered Cannon.
“Nothing,” answered Shelby. She stashed the bottle back under the table.
Nabil released Cannon’s hand. “Ok,” he said, “what’s going on? Is this a joke?”
“I happen to have a lot of faith in psychics,” said Cannon.
If Nabil didn’t know better he’d think Cannon was offended. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ll shut up and pay attention.”
“The reading is over,” said Shelby. “The Universe has spoken.”
Cannon nodded. “Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
“Anytime,” said Shelby.
Nabil followed Cannon back out of the house. “So that was just, what? For fun, or do you really believe her?”
“It depends on the message,” answered Cannon. “Sometimes she’s dead on.”
“What about the rest of the time?”
Cannon shrugged. “It depends on what you believe.”
The picnic area was a few yards down the trail. It was vacant for the most part; people seemed to use the rest stop as a quick break before continuing with their journeys.
Albert stood alone, his hands resting on a wooden picnic table that sat a little ways back from the river. He made it to California, and as far as he could tell, Gabriel wasn’t in pursuit.
It was cold, but clear outside. The drive from Oregon to the Plumas National Forest was rainy and unproductive. He conducted a three-day search of the area and found no one of interest. The towns weren’t familiar and the people were strangers. He was discouraged after his encounter with Michael, but he tried not to let that interfere with his hunt. It was possible he missed something. A passing glance wouldn’t necessarily trigger the response he was hoping for, and in that case, he might not ever find him.
The sun reflected off of the surface of the water. He watched as the small rapids churned and broke against a fallen log in the middle of the river. He leaned forward, using the table for support.
“I’ll find him,” he whispered, gritting his teeth. He took a breath and straightened up, his eyes shut tight. He concentrated on the texture of the wood. His fingernails scraped against the surface as he flexed his hand. He forced his eyes open and stared at a tree growing up through the vegetation across the river from him. He counted his breaths, struggling to keep them even and steady. He visualized the numbers, struggling to combat the other thoughts lurking in the background. He’d come up empty handed too many times before. Sometimes the faint glow of hope was not enough to keep him going.
“I’ll find him,” he repeated. He shut his eyes again. He tapped his fingers over his chest to the rhythm of his heart. He replayed the night he left in his mind, the night the vision happened; the night he confirmed his memories were not imaginary constructs created to make him less lonely. Most of it was a blur, but he remembered the parts that mattered. He remembered being angry at his friends for not listening or understanding. He remembered standing in the living room shouting at his roommate and scaring him. He remembered climbing on the roof and threatening to jump. He remembered thinking if Lucifer, whoever he was, did not exist, then living was pointless because no one would ever really understand him. He knew what it felt like to be understood. He knew no one understood him now; no one saw his truth. He almost wished he didn’t know the difference. That night on the roof was the first time he chose death over living a lie. After he was committed, he knew living alone was the least painful way for him to exist.
Albert turned away from the river and walked back down the path to the parking lot. He stopped next to the sign pointing to the picnic area.
A young woman with dark curly hair was next to his car crawling around on her hands and knees and staring furiously at the pavement.
“Ah, hi,” said Albert, taking a step forward.
The woman looked up, blushing. “Is this your car?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I lost an earring around here somewhere. I’m afraid it might have gone under the car.”
Albert approached the car and knelt next to the back tire where the woman was looking.
“You don’t have to help,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll find it.”
“I don’t mind,” said Albert. “I don’t want to run over it. What does it look like?”
“It’s silver and shaped like a lizard,” she answered. “I don’t even know how it fell out.”
Something glittered in the sunlight next to Albert’s hand. “Is this it?” he asked, holding up an earring.
“Yes,” she exclaimed. “Thank you.”
Albert handed her the earring and she fastened it back in place.
“You’re welcome,” said Albert. They stood and Albert took a step back, moving closer to the driver’s side of the car.
“Where are you heading?” she asked, tossing her hair and checking her accessory one more time.
“Utah,” answered Albert, “to see a friend.”
“What a coincidence,” she said. “I’m heading that way too. I’m visiting my cousin. Where does your friend live?”
“Panguitch,” answered Albert. It was a lie.
“Well maybe I’ll run into you again,” she said. “I’m Maggie.” She took a step toward him, her hand outstretched.
He hesitated, but accepted it. “I’m Albert,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too.”
“I better get going,” said Albert. “I’ve still got a few stops to make.”
“Oh,” she said. “Yeah, me too.”
Albert moved away from her, edging back to his car. “Bye,” he said, waving over his shoulder.
“See you on the road.” She winked, then turned back to a burgundy car parked a few spaces away.
Albert got into his car and glanced back at the woman. He drove away slowly, but she did not look up as he passed. She wasn’t acting like a Watcher. She didn’t have a camera out and made no move to follow him. He frowned. She wasn’t familiar either. Did that mean anything? How much of this was intuition and how much was luck? He forced the thoughts from his mind and focused on the road and the journey ahead.
He glanced in the rearview mirror, but the burgundy car wasn’t following. Perhaps it was just a chance encounter. Not everything was a sign. Shit, he thought. What if she’s undercover? Or someone hired her to find me?
Was that too paranoid? She was probably just some girl. He tried to imagine her face. He couldn’t. He couldn’t even remember her hair color; brown?
As promised, Olivia sent Nabil the details of the concert. Cannon was less than impressed and refused to go.
“She’ll pick us up right after school,” said Nabil.
“No,” said Cannon. “It’s a trap.”
“It’s not a trap, it’s socializing.”
“I don’t want to socialize with her.”
Nabil rolled his eyes. “Fine, but I think you’re overreacting.”
“Fine,” said Cannon.
Nabil waited for her in the parking lot. Cannon stuck around long enough to see him get in the car with her and drive away. Nabil waved to him but Cannon didn’t wave back. They pulled into the parking lot of the event center. It was a small, off-white building usually reserved for city council meetings.
Olivia was the first out of the car. Nabil followed quickly behind her.
“I’m so glad you came,” she said. “You’re going to love this band. They’re really cool.”
Her brother was waiting by the door to the event center. He folded his arms over his chest when he saw them. “I didn’t know you were bringing a guest,” he said.
Olivia rolled he eyes. “I told you Nabil was coming.”
“It’s only for church members,” said Joshua.
“No it isn’t.”
“It’s ok,” said Nabil.
“It’s not ok,” said Olivia.
Joshua glared at Nabil.
“Just go find us a good spot,” said Nabil. “I can talk to him.”
“Fine,” she said. She looked at her brother. “Don’t take too long.” She left them standing by the door.
“This is a church event concert,” said Joshua.
“Yeah, I gathered that,” said Nabil.
“Are you planning to stay friends with my sister?”
“You don’t have much structure in your life.”
“Just let me in,” said Nabil. “It’s just a concert. We’re just here to listen to music.”
“You seem troubled,” said Joshua.
“I’m not troubled.”
“Everybody is troubled. You might consider joining the church.”
“I don’t want to join a church,” he said, “I want to go to the concert.”
“Think about it,” said Joshua. “You don’t have to give me an answer tonight.”
“I have thought about it,” he said. “I don’t have time to go to church.” He didn’t understand the part of himself that was so adamantly refusing to compromise on this issue.
“You have to make time; everybody does.”
“I don’t want to.” Part of him was tired of compromises. He worked so hard to stay genuine with himself in Nighton. It would be so much easier to change. It would be easier to fit in with everyone else. He should want to go to church, to cut his hair short like the other boys, to play football, to elevate himself to the top of the social hierarchy by laughing at Jonathon’s stupid jokes. It would be easier if he was apologetic about his differences, and laughed along when the other kids made fun of him. He should want to fit in and match the people surrounding him, but something about it felt like surrender. He was the last man standing and he would rather live alone than submit.
“Just think about it,” he repeated.
“I have. I’m not going to change my mind.”
“I’m only trying to help,” said Joshua. “Everybody needs guidance.”
“I have guidance.”
“I guide myself.”
“You need spiritual guidance,” he said.
“I have spiritual guidance.”
“I hear you’re an Atheist,” he said.
“So? Who are you to judge my beliefs?”
“If you’re an Atheist, you don’t have any beliefs,” snapped Joshua. “You don’t believe in anything.” It wasn’t a question. He was more daring him to confirm his suspicions.
“This is none of your business.”
“It is my business if you’re going to hang out with my sister,” he said.
“What does this have to do with us being friends?” he demanded. This was it. This was the part where Joshua wanted him to apologize for the things that made him strange and vow before God to be better, to be normal.
“She can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t believe he has a soul,” Joshua said.
“Funny,” said Nabil. “I’ve never believed I had a soul and we’ve been friends anyway.”
“You didn’t know any better.”
“So you’re going to educate me?” asked Nabil.
“I’m trying to enlighten you.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Joshua scowled. “Don’t say that.”
“What?” he asked. “Hell?”
“Stop saying it,” he said.
“It’s just a stupid word,” said Nabil.
“It’s disrespectful to God,” he snapped.
“I don’t care,” said Nabil.
“Yeah, you’ve made that pretty clear,” he said.
“What is wrong with you?” asked Nabil. “Why do you care so much?”
“I care about my family and you’re being rude.”
“You’re being rude,” he snapped. “For all you know I have a very strong spiritual foundation and this is offensive.”
“You just said you’re an Atheist.”
“You’re being really pushy,” said Nabil. “I thought Christians were supposed to be forgiving, or do you get to just make up rules whenever it’s convenient?”
“If you don’t want to join the church, fine,” said Joshua, “but don’t be surprised if Olivia can’t see you anymore.”
“I’m offering you a chance at a better life. You’re living out of God’s light.”
“I’ve lived out of ‘God’s light’ for a long time,” said Nabil. “I don’t think I’m missing anything.”
“How do you know?”
“You’re working so hard to live in God’s light, but I don’t really see it paying off.”
“It’s not about pay off,” he said. “You’re taking care of the future of your soul.”
“And what if we don’t have souls? Then this is a big waste of time.”
“How can you be so sure we don’t? You’re not willing to take precautions just in case you’re wrong?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t need a spiritual safety net just in case I have a soul. I’m not a bad person. I don’t need to go to church to prove that. If my soul is condemned just because I refuse to praise a deity of debatable existence, then I’m not sure salvation is worth it.”
“We praise Him to give thanks for protecting us,” he said. “He watches over us because He loves us. We owe it to Him to at least say thank you.”
Nabil rolled his eyes. “You can’t just say that like it’s a fact. If you need to believe in God to feel safe, fine. But a life without God’s light doesn’t scare me.”
“I feel sorry for you,” he said.
“Fuck this,” said Nabil. He left. He sent Olivia a quick text to let her know. She called him, but he didn’t feel like answering or explaining. He returned to his house and sat alone in silence, his back to the window.
At Edna’s the next day he discussed the argument with Cannon. They did not see Olivia during lunch, and Nabil did not expect to see her ever again.
“That bitch,” said Cannon. “I knew she was up to something.”
“She didn’t do anything.”
“I bet her idiot brother has gotten to her.”
“Well that’s probably true.”
“He knows you like his sister. He’s just trying to recruit you.”
“I don’t like his sister.”
Cannon rolled his eyes. “Not like-like, just like her in a friend way. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. He’s plotting.”
“Because he’s a douche.”
Nabil frowned. “Do you know him or something?”
“I know him well enough. He’s a nosey prick.”
He sighed. “Maybe I overreacted.”
“He was trying to convert you.”
“He didn’t do a very good job,” said Nabil. “I kind of feel bad for Olivia. She’s probably looking for new friends since the others were mean to her.”
“Oh my God, you’re gullible.”
“I am not.”
“Yeah, you are. They’re just adding people to the flock.”
“Maybe,” said Nabil.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Cannon. “Point is, she’s sketch, her brother’s sketch and her church is sketchy. You did the right thing.”
“I don’t feel right.”
Cannon grinned. “You’re a tough audience,” he said. “I couldn’t get you with Shelby. Joshua couldn’t get you with church. You didn’t do anything wrong, you’re just a skeptic. That’s good.” Nabil sighed, but didn’t say anything.
Nabil stayed lost in thought during work. Kelly rambled on about another girl, or maybe it was the same girl. It was difficult to keep track. He got off work early. He walked home thinking about what Cannon said about Joshua. Maybe it was a ploy. Maybe Olivia was bait.
He reached his door and tried to unlock the door only to find it was already unlocked. He heard a noise on the other side. He backed away from the door. He needed a big stick or bat or something with range.
He shook his head. He probably didn’t have it in him to fight. He was going to lose this battle. He gritted his teeth. The least he could do was face the invader. He threw the door open.
“I know you’re in here,” he shouted. The noise stopped. The house was silent for a moment.
Suddenly a familiar face appeared from around the corner. “You’re home early,” said Cannon.
Nabil stared at him. “What are you doing?”
Cannon emerged from around the corner with his hands up. “I can explain,” he said.
“This is going to sound so weird—you’re going to laugh when you hear it,” he said. “Um, huh, where do I start?”
The realization slowly hit him. “Has it been you this whole time?”
“What whole time?”
“How many times have you broken into my house.”
“Ok,” said Cannon, “I know this looks bad. I’ve broken in a lot, but I swear I have a good reason. Really, when this is over you’re going to think it’s so funny.”
Nabil folded his arms over his chest.
“And actually, I’m not breaking in. I have a copy of your key,” said Cannon. “I mean, first I had to steal your key, so that looks bad. But really, this is just a misunderstanding.”
“You stole my key?”
“Let me start over. So, you know how we’re friends,” said Cannon. “We’ve always been friends. No, wait. I should start from the beginning. You know how some people believe in reincarnation?”
“Are you casing my house?”
“You don’t break in to case a house,” said Cannon. “You case it first, then break in. But no, that’s not what I’m doing.”
“Get out,” said Nabil. Something dark coiled in the pit of his stomach.
“Let me finish.”
“You picked me because I don’t have any family, right? Because I’m alone and you knew you could get me to trust you easier.”
“No,” said Cannon quickly. “We’re friends. I like you, sincerely.”
Nabil shook his head. “You started this before we became friends.”
“I started this because I knew we were going to be become friends.”
Nabil ran his hands through his hair. “What were you doing? What did you want? I don’t have anything worth stealing.”
“I’m just checking on you, or I was. I won’t do it anymore. I swear.”
“Listen to me,” said Cannon. “We’re connected – cosmically – we’re meant to find each other. I came here to find you. I was born to find you again.”
Nabil stared at him.
“Your name is Jesus. I’m Lucifer. Edna is Lilith. Gabriel is Gabriel. He’s boring. He tries to pick the same name every time. But the important part is that we’re together. We’re family.”
“Yeah. And I’m Lucifer.”
Nabil struggled for words.
“It’s ok that you don’t remember yet. You will.”
“I’m Jesus,” he said again. “The Jesus or a Jesus?”
“The Jesus,” answered Cannon. “Well, according to Gabriel’s book. He wrote the Bible, or parts of it. It’s a work in progress. He keeps editing and republishing. You really did get crucified for heresy though.”
“This is too much.”
“I got crucified too. Later though, maybe a year after you died. A bunch of us were crucified actually, Gabriel just wrote about yours. He likes you better for character inspiration.”
Nabil ran a hand through his hair.
“Remember?” asked Cannon. “What about the time we were suffragettes? Or Vikings? The Vikings lifetime was fun, but kind of regrettable. You were stabbed because you kept talking about how wrong it was to pillage. Lilith had to mercy-kill you because the stab wound got infected. Come to think of it, Lilith was the only one who had any success as a Viking.”
Again, Nabil was at a loss for words.
“What about that time you were king? You were a great king. I was queen of the nation next door. We were rivals, or at least we pretended to be. That was awesome. You have to remember something. I’m your family.”
Nabil finally found his voice. “We are not family,” he said quietly. He took a step closer. “That’s what that psychic thing was, right? All that shit about Joshua trying to convert me but it was you the whole time. It is a cult, isn’t it?”
“Jesus, please listen to me.” Cannon dropped to his knees. “You’ve got to remember.”
“Get out,” said Nabil. He had no one to call. He couldn’t contact Gabriel or Edna. What if they were part of it? Whatever it was. Then again maybe Cannon was crazy. Maybe this was why he wasn’t living with his parents. Maybe whatever was wrong with him was the reason Nabil became his “buddy” for school. “I’ll tell Gabriel you’re here.”
“Please,” said Cannon again. He almost whispered it. His eyes were red and brimming with tears. “You need to remember. You’re carrying something with you from another life, a memory. You think you’re bad, but you’re not. I don’t know what the trigger is, but you’re in danger.”
Nabil pulled his phone from his pocket. “I’m calling him now.”
Cannon stood. “No, I’ll leave.” Hands shaking he moved around Nabil and backed toward the door. “Just think about what I said. I’m sorry it had to be this way. I didn’t want to tell you like this.”
He left Nabil standing in the living room alone.
* * *
Nabil walked briskly away from campus the next day. He didn’t speak to Olivia and he ignored Cannon. He didn’t want to run into either of them in the parking lot. He should have known it wouldn’t last. He took the walking trail through the woods hoping to put distance between him and school as quickly as possible. Cannon was crazy; there was no question about it. He broke into Nabil’s home, befriended him, set up a weird psychic reading, and kept him from having other friends, something was wrong with him. Nabil should have known better. People didn’t befriend him without a reason. Cannon either wanted something from him or he was simply unstable.
He continued down the path, lost in thought, until he noticed a sound behind him. Leaves crunched under the weight of someone following him. Nabil turned and saw Jonathon and three of his friends strolling casually down the path a few yards back.
“Hey buddy,” said Jonathon, waving. “I tried talking to you in class today, but you didn’t have much to say. Is something wrong?”
The other boys snickered.
“What do you want?” asked Nabil.
“I want you to pay attention,” answered Jonathon. He moved closer, but the others stayed behind. Jonathon kept walking until he was an arm’s length away from Nabil. “You need to learn some respect.”
“Fuck off,” said Nabil.
Jonathon glared and shoved him hard. “What are you going to do about it sand monkey?”
“Fuck off,” shouted Nabil, he stumbled but regained his balance quickly.
The other boys must have recognized a signal because they moved around behind Nabil to form a barricade, leaving Jonathon guarding his escape.
“You don’t scare me,” said Nabil, though he wished he’d said something more convincing.
Jonathon didn’t retort, instead he reeled back and threw his weight behind his fist, which collided with Nabil’s face. “How about that?” he shouted. “Did that scare you?”
Nabil dropped his bag on the ground and threw a punch that glanced off of Jonathon’s cheek.
Jonathon laughed and hit him again, this time harder and in his stomach. One of the boys behind him shoved him and he fell to his knees. Someone else kicked him and his body slumped to the ground.
He always imagined himself taking on Jonathon and four or five friends in a surprise rush of adrenaline-fueled justice. Yet here he was, flat on the ground with blood dripping from his nose and mouth.
“You do not walk through here, understand?” shouted Jonathon. He kicked him again and Nabil groaned.
He could hear laughter around him. Jonathon must have watched him leave campus. They must not have had practice today. He was an idiot for not noticing. Somewhere off to the right he heard a rustling noise followed by a familiar zipping sound. He looked up in time to see the contents of his backpack falling to the ground beside him.
“That’s mine,” said Nabil, reaching out to grab his belongings.
Jonathon was faster. They kicked the rest of his stuff around, but found nothing of interest.
Nabil pushed himself up and tried to gather his things. “Stop it,” he said. He wanted to scream, but the pain of being hit was still fresh. He wasn’t sure what was more crippling; the sting of his injuries or the sudden rush of shame he felt for being afraid.
Jonathon laughed. They had what they wanted and were already leaving. “Don’t let me catch you here again,” he called.
He watched them walk away, fury building up inside him. He wanted to say something to bring them back. He wanted a second chance. He wanted a chance to win. Instead, he cursed and pounded his fists against the ground. He let them do this. He let them win. He let them frighten him. He buried his face in his hands as his humiliation consumed him.
Cannon did a double take when he saw Nabil in class. Most of the kids did. His face was slightly purple and swollen from where Jonathon hit him. Obviously the fight wouldn’t be a secret, but Nabil wasn’t going to be the one to supply details. Jonathon had probably already started talking anyway.
Cannon opened his mouth, scowled, looked over Nabil, then snapped his mouth shut. He pursed his lips and glared down at his desk. He didn’t say anything to Nabil for the rest of the day. He hadn’t said anything since their fight. Nabil found a different place to eat lunch. He didn’t want to risk going to the field. The library was a decent substitution.
He headed home, walking through the crowded parking lot and listening as people whispered his name. He stopped at the end of the sidewalk when he saw Olivia walking toward him from the opposite direction.
“Why haven’t you answered me?” she asked.
He didn’t have an answer. He didn’t expect her to seek him out.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You didn’t answer my texts. I tried to find you at lunch but you weren’t on the field. Then you didn’t answer when I called you. I was worried.”
“I didn’t know I had messages.”
“I heard about what happened,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you sooner, but I didn’t have the chance.”
Nabil said nothing. He didn’t understand what moved her to speak to him. He suspected she felt guilty.
Her eyes drifted over the bruises covering his face. “I have to go, I’m meeting Josh,” she said, turning away. “I’m glad you’re all right.” She walked away briskly.
He shook his head. She’d had the opportunity to talk to him earlier. He checked his phone and saw only one text from her; no phone calls. Maybe she didn’t want to get caught talking to him. Maybe she thought she could blend in and go unnoticed in the afterschool rush. Maybe it didn’t matter. She wasn’t his friend and neither was Cannon.
Nabil walked home alone. He’d see Kelly tonight. At least he hadn’t isolated himself from everyone.
Kelly wasn’t known for his subtlety so Nabil was prepared for a dramatic reaction when he showed up for work. Kelly did not disappoint.
He winced and hissed when he saw Nabil’s face. “Wow,” he said. “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” answered Nabil.
“That looks so bad.”
“It looks worse than it is.”
“Why’d you challenge him?”
Nabil frowned and looked up from the cart he was restocking. “I didn’t.”
“That’s not what I heard. I heard you got up in his face and he had to put you back in your place. Not that he should have done that, but I mean, that was a bad plan on your part.”
“How do you know anything about what happened?”
“I run the youth group at church,” answered Kelly. “Pretty much everybody is talking about it. You’re normally so quiet. What made you snap?”
Lots of things had the potential to make Nabil “snap.” He didn’t bother correcting Kelly’s version of events. At least he did something in that version. At least he was an active participant. At least he started off strong. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” answered Nabil.
“I could have told you you’d lose that fight. That kid’s got way more friends than you.”
“I’m well aware of that.”
“No offense,” added Kelly.
“It’s ok. It’s true.”
“I can’t believe you thought you could take him. Did you really cry when he hit you? You can’t let them see you cry. That’s—I don’t know, that’s not good.”
“I didn’t cry.” Not at first.
“I heard you threatened his family.”
“I didn’t do that either.”
“Then what’d you say to make him hit you?”
Nabil shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You’re not giving me much to work with.”
“It was just a fight,” said Nabil.
“What are you going to do to get even with him?”
“You’re just going to take it?”
He took a deep breath. Anything he said to Kelly would get back to Jonathon. It was only a matter of time. He wished he could think of something cryptic, something to put Jonathon on edge, but something like that would likely encourage another fight and Nabil didn’t want to lose twice in a row. “It was just a fight,” he said again.
After work he was surprised to find a police car in the parking lot. Gabriel was leaning against the hood. He saw Nabil and waved him over. He made a clicking sound with his tongue when he saw him.
“Who did this?” he asked.
“Some kids from school,” answered Nabil.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me,” said Gabriel.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” said Nabil.
“Like Hell there isn’t. Do you want to press charges?”
“Do you want me to talk to his parents?”
Nabil raised an eyebrow. “Whose parents?”
“I have my suspicions.”
He folded his arms over his chest.
“Hop in,” said Gabriel. “Edna wants to see you.”
Nabil bit his lip. “I’d rather not go to Edna’s, if that’s all right.”
“Don’t worry. Cannon’s not there anymore. His parents picked him up this afternoon.”
“They took him back home. He’s not here anymore.”
For some reason Nabil’s heart sank. “He’s gone?”
Gabriel nodded. “We heard what happened. He means well but he’s not good around people. He’s got a history of doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason with the right intentions. Edna warned him before he got here. He knew he had to behave.”
“He didn’t say anything to me,” said Nabil.
“Good. Edna probably told him to leave you alone. He crossed a line.”
This should be good news. It should make Nabil feel happier, safer, but instead he found himself staring at his shoes wishing he’d known. “I think I’d just like to go home,” he said.
“I’ll give you a ride,” said Gabriel.
“I can walk.”
“Get in the car,” said Gabriel. “I don’t want to have to worry about you getting into more trouble.”
Nabil agreed and got into the front seat. The novelty of riding in the patrol car with an officer, who was apparently his friend, wasn’t enough to distract him from Cannon. They were friends. They were meant to find each other. Cannon wanted to keep him safe. He didn’t say much on the ride home. He tried to shake the notion that this was his fault, but he couldn’t. It was his fault. They sent Cannon away because Nabil got upset. He had a good reason to be upset, but friends were supposed to give each other second chances. Friends were supposed to listen. He wrapped his arms over his stomach. For better or worse, Cannon was gone and Nabil was responsible.
* * *
Jonathon wasn’t in school the next day. That was only significant because Nabil was hyper-aware of his movements since their encounter. It meant he’d probably stayed home sick and that meant Nabil could relax a little on his walk home and then to work.
He’d stopped obsessing over Cannon. It didn’t matter. Their friendship was bizarre and fleeting. Cannon was sick or disturbed and that wasn’t something Nabil could control.
Kelly was waiting for him when he got to the hotel. As usual he wasn’t ready and didn’t start getting ready until Nabil clocked in and began collecting his things. Kelly wasn’t one to work until it was absolutely necessary.
He looked gleefully at Nabil, anticipation radiating from his expression. “So?” he asked. “Do I get a first-hand account of what happened?”
“They’re saying he got in a car accident, but that’s not true, is it? You got back at him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Jonathon had to go to the hospital,” answered Kelly. “They took him in this morning. I heard he’s telling people it was a car accident, but it was you, wasn’t it?”
“No,” answered Nabil quickly. “I didn’t do anything. I haven’t even seen him since yesterday afternoon.”
“It happened last night.”
“Are you sure?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“How’d you hear about it so fast?”
Kelly laughed. “The star of the football team is in the hospital. That’s a pretty big deal.”
Nabil had no idea who his sources were of if they were reliable but if Jonathon was hurt, then it definitely was a big deal.”
“It must have been an accident,” said Nabil. “It wasn’t me.”
Kelly laughed again. “Yeah, whatever you say. Oh, did I tell you Rachel is coming to visit?”
“She is. I want you to meet her. She’s so great.”
Nabil tuned out the rest of Kelly’s babbling. Cannon did it. There was no question in his mind. Cannon was still in town and somehow he got to Jonathon. Whatever happened, he wouldn’t know the truth until he saw Jonathon again. For the first time in his life, he found himself eagerly awaiting school the next day.
After work Nabil arrived home to find a package in front of his door. He took it inside and opened it quickly. There was no postage or writing on the box. Inside, he found his backpack a few other things Jonathon had taken from him. There wasn’t even a note.
* * *
Mr. Martin sat at his desk at the front of the room, a half-eaten bagel clutched in his hand. He scowled and leaned over the newspaper in front of him then made a mark on the page. He mumbled something and his bushy gray mustache twitched.
Nabil watched him for a few minutes before deciding he must be working on a difficult crossword puzzle. He glanced down at the worksheet in front of him. He had answered one question so far, and the bell would ring for next period soon. It was too hard to concentrate anyway. It was possible Jonathon would be back today, depending on how bad his injuries really were and how long his parents could tolerate his being home.
The shuffling of backpacks and papers told him the bell was due to ring any moment. It was time to prepare for fourth period. Nabil quickly packed up his things and waited. He would feel better if he were the first one in the classroom. The bell rang and he hurried down the hall and grabbed his usual seat near the front of the room. Jonathon’s gang was already there, but they didn’t look at him as he sat down. He pulled his math book and notebook out and laid them on his desk. He wanted to look distracted. The classroom was almost full and Mrs. Deaton was writing sample problems on the board. The bell rang as the last student dashed through the door, but Jonathon was nowhere to be seen.
Nabil sighed and began copying the assignment, ignoring the mixture of disappointment and relief building inside him. Aubrey whispered something and Nabil heard the familiar tap of the buttons on a phone. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder. He considered asking them about Jonathon, but reason overruled curiosity and he remained focused on the board at the front of the room.
Mrs. Deaton crossed the room and stood by the door, staring out into the hall. Nabil held his breath. He could be late. She smiled and held the door open as Jonathon hobbled into view. “Do you need help getting to your seat?” she asked, shutting the door behind him.
“No, thank you,” he answered.
Nabil tried to keep his head aimed down at his desk while still watching Jonathon. His arm wasn’t in a cast, but it was wrapped like he sprained it. He was limping slightly; pampering his leg. His nose was still swollen and his face was various shades of blue and purple. His jaw didn’t look broken but he seemed to have trouble opening it to talk. He winced as moved into the room.
Nabil watched as he tried to get to his normal seat, but the rows were small and hard to maneuver, despite students moving bags and feet out of the aisle. Jonathon eyed the front row. There was a spot open next to Nabil. He set his bag down and slumped into the chair.
Once he was settled, Mrs. Deaton began her lecture.
Jonathon cleared his throat and made a soft gurgling noise.
Someone whispered something in the back row.
Jonathon made the strange noise again and Nabil turned, surprised to find Jonathon looking at him out of the corner of his eye, his head hung low. He realized Jonathon was talking to him.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asked. The words were barely audible.
Nabil shook his head, at a loss for anything to say.
Jonathon nodded and the movement seemed to take great effort on his part. “Meet me behind the cafeteria after class. I need to tell you something.”
Nabil nodded. Curiosity won again.
Jonathon didn’t speak to him or look at him again.
Nabil waited for class to end. He heard nothing Mrs. Deaton said, focusing only on the ticking clock hanging over the door. Each click of the second hand seemed to tap against his brain. He pretended to take notes, but instead ended up with a page full of meaningless doodles.
When the bell finally rang, he calmly gathered his things and glanced at Jonathon to confirm the meeting was still happening.
Jonathon nodded slightly.
Once he was out of the room, he hurried down the hall and out of the doors to the walkway that would lead behind the lunchroom. He found a spot near the field where he could watch for Jonathon. After several minutes, Nabil heard someone coming across the lot. Jonathon was alone. Nabil left his post and met him halfway.
Jonathon, though it seemed painful, managed to work his face into a scowl. He pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket and began reading. “Did you get back everything we took from you?” He glanced up, waiting for Nabil.
“Oh, um, yes,” he answered.
“Was it in perfect condition or did we mess something up?” His voice was low and he mumbled his way through most of the words.
“Yeah, I think so.”
Jonathon sighed. “I can repay the damages.”
“Nothing was damaged,” said Nabil.
Jonathon nodded, and continued reading from the sheet. “I am very sorry for what I did to you. My horrible friends are sorry too. We have learned and we will never mess with you again. You should not have to live in fear.”
“Ok,” said Nabil. “Thanks.”
“Do you accept or decline this apology?”
“Thank you. That is more than I deserve.”
Nabil leaned forward. “Why are you reading from that sheet?”
“This is all I’m allowed to say to you from now on,” Jonathon read.
“Does it really say all that?”
Jonathon nodded and held up the paper. His scratchy handwriting covered the page. The first few lines at the top were clearly marked apology, though it looked like someone else’s writing. The rest of the page contained general greetings and questions like “Do you mind if I sit here?”
“What happened to you?” asked Nabil, handing back the paper.
Jonathon glanced at the top of the sheet. “Justice,” he answered miserably.
Nabil lowered his voice. “Did someone attack you?”
Jonathon searched the page and held his finger next to a line at the bottom. “I was in a terrible car accident. I was lucky. I could have died.”
“Jonathon, you can tell me the truth; no one is watching.”
He looked up from the sheet, still scowling. “I was lucky,” he repeated. “I could have died.” He looked quickly at a row of hedges across the lot.
Nabil followed his gaze. “Is someone watching you?”
“Thank you for talking to me, Nabil,” he said. “I will see you around.” He waved, gave a half smile and limped back to the main building.
Nabil looked at the row of hedges and for a second, thought he saw something move behind one of them. He took a step closer.
“There you are.”
Nabil stopped to see Olivia coming around the corner. He looked back to the hedges, but whatever was there before was gone now.
“I was waiting for you on the field,” she said. “What are you doing back here?”
“Why were you on the field?” asked Nabil.
“I wanted to talk to you,” she said. “To see if you were going to the bonfire this weekend.”
“Why?” asked Nabil. “Joshua said we couldn’t be friends if I didn’t go to church.”
She looked down at her feet, frowning. “He shouldn’t have said that. He didn’t mean it.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I should have talked to you sooner.”
Nabil was used to people leaving, but he’d never experienced them coming back. “It’s ok,” he said. “I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have been so rude about it.”
“I forgive you if you forgive me,” she said.
“I forgive you,” said Nabil.
“Good,” she said. “I really missed you. I didn’t have anyone to talk to.”
“I thought you were hanging out with the girls,” said Nabil.
“Yeah, but I like you better,” she said. “Why are you back here? Is this the new lunch spot?”
“I was talking to Jonathon,” answered Nabil.
Nabil shook his head. “He wanted to apologize to me.”
“That’s nice. I’m glad you guys made up.”
Nabil nodded. Something wretched woke up in the back of Nabil’s mind. Her interest was nothing new and the sad little boy inside of him had not yet learned this would come to an end just like the rest of them.
“Thank you,” he said. He shuddered as he said the words. He knew better.
“So, yes to the bonfire?” she asked.
“I didn’t know there was one,” answered Nabil.
“It starts here but we’re having an after party out at Stoddard farm by Black River.” She rattled off the other details and Nabil agreed to go.
He wasn’t sure what compelled him to agree. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to say no to her face since she’d just apologized. He glanced at the hedges again. He wondered how long it would be before Cannon tried to contact him.
Nabil left the house that evening and followed the familiar route to campus. The bonfire was held in the back corner of the field. This was his first year at the event. It was something everyone else looked forward to every year.
Nabil arrived at the field, but stayed close to the bleachers at the opposite end from the fire. Olivia said she would text him when she was there. He watched the shadows of the other students. He didn’t need to see them to know who was at the party. He waited for fifteen minutes before his phone buzzed and Olivia informed him she was almost to the field. He stepped away from the bleachers when he saw her approaching.
“I’m glad you came,” she said.
“Me too,” said Nabil, though he wasn’t sure he meant it. They approached the bonfire together and merged with the other students.
“Are you ok?” asked Olivia. “You seem a little distant.”
“I’m fine,” said Nabil. “This just isn’t my first pick for how to spend Saturday night.” He couldn’t help but be on guard.
“You didn’t have to come,” said Olivia. “I just thought it would be something fun to do.”
“It’s worth a shot,” said Nabil. “I’ve never been to one of these before. For all I know it’s the best thing to do in Nighton.”
From across the crowd, a girl Nabil had seen, but did not know waved at them. She made her way closer to them, eyes on Olivia. “I thought you couldn’t come tonight,” said the girl.
“I changed my mind,” said Olivia.
The girl glanced at Nabil then back at Olivia. “Do you want a drink or something?” asked the girl. “Aubrey brought lemonade.”
“Sure,” said Olivia. She turned to Nabil. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
“Should I wait here?” asked Nabil.
The other girl giggled.
“Do you mind?” asked Olivia. “I’ll be quick. I just want to say hi.”
The girl grabbed her hand and pulled her away from Nabil.
He watched them disappear into the crowd. He pulled out his phone and checked the time. It was early in the evening. He wondered how long Olivia expected to stay. After a few minutes waiting for her to return, Nabil skirted around to the outer rim of the party hoping to spot the girls. His phone buzzed in his hand.
She’s not coming back. The sender was unknown and it came from a number he didn’t recognize.
Who is this? asked Nabil.
You know you’re her backup, right? asked the sender. You’re here just in case.
Just in case what? asked Nabil.
In case she has no one else to talk to.
Who is this? Nabil asked again. Is this Cannon?
Heads up, came the response, she’s going to the after-party.
Nabil was about to send a message back when he heard Olivia calling for him.
“Hey,” she said. She was alone. “Are you having fun?”
“I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to do here,” said Nabil. “Are you having fun?”
Olivia nodded. “Yeah, it’s great.”
“Really?” asked Nabil.
Olivia shrugged. “You should relax,” she said. She produced a flask from her pocket and handed it to him. “Will you hold this for me? I told the girls I’d be right back.”
“Did you only ask me to come with you as a back up?” asked Nabil.
“Of course not,” said Olivia. “I wanted you to have a chance to have fun. I wanted you to have a chance to see these people aren’t so bad.”
Nabil shook his head, but Olivia didn’t let him retort.
“Just hang on a second,” she said. “I’ll be right back.” With that, she returned to the crowd.
Nabil’s phone buzzed again.
Nabil responded. Fuck off. He opened the flask and took a sip. Whatever was in there was strong and terrible. He summoned his nerve and took a long drink.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Nabil ignored the message and debated leaving the party. He let the crowd mingle around him and soon he faded to the back. He saw Jonathon and his friends coming across the field, but they paid Nabil no attention. They joined another group and were consumed by the gathering. He thought he caught a glimpse of one of Olivia’s friends making her way closer to the fire with a few of her friends. He couldn’t tell if Olivia was among them. His phone buzzed again, but he didn’t bother to check the message. As night fell on the bonfire, the partygoers drew closer together. Nabil backed away from the crowd and stood watching them in the darkness.
“I bet she’s already at the after-party,” said a voice.
Nabil turned and saw Cannon approaching him. “What are you doing here?” asked Nabil. He shoved the now-empty flask in his pocket.
“I bet she doesn’t even invite you,” said Cannon.
“Go away,” said Nabil.
“This is pathetic,” said Cannon. “You’re not actually waiting for her to come back, are you?”
“I can’t just leave her here,” said Nabil. “Not with these people.”
“What are you, her silent protector?” asked Cannon.
Nabil pulled out his phone. “I’m calling Gabriel,” he said.
“Tattletale,” said Cannon.
Nabil pressed send and waited for Gabriel to answer.
Cannon yawned as he waited.
Gabriel’s phone went to voicemail.
“Now what?” asked Cannon.
Nabil turned away from him and merged back into the crowd. He was going to find Olivia and they were going to go home. But Olivia was nowhere to be found. Cannon was still standing where Nabil left him.
“You couldn’t find her, could you?” he asked as Nabil returned.
“She’s here somewhere,” said Nabil.
“You’re right,” said Cannon. “Maybe if we wait here long enough and look really sad and lonely, she’ll come back.”
“I’m not sad and lonely,” said Nabil. “I told you, I don’t want to leave her here.”
“Why?” asked Cannon. “If you think you’re doing her a favor by waiting, you’re kidding yourself. You’re trying to justify not leaving and believe me, that’s a losing battle.”
“Then why don’t you leave me alone?” asked Nabil. “If it’s so pointless to wait around for people who clearly don’t want you, why don’t you go the hell away?”
“That’s different,” said Cannon.
“No it isn’t,” said Nabil. “The only difference is that you’re crazy and I’m not.”
Cannon rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he said. “I guess we’ll just wait for her to come back.”
“I’ll wait by myself,” said Nabil.
“I’ll wait with you,” said Cannon.
“Aren’t you supposed to be back with your parents?” asked Nabil.
“Yes,” answered Cannon.
Nabil scowled and turned his attention to the crowd. He couldn’t make the maniac go away, but he didn’t have to indulge him. They waited in silence while the party continued. After a while, the people began to leave and the crowd thinned. Nabil waited, hoping Olivia would be easier to spot. As the field cleared and the fire died down, it became obvious she wasn’t coming back.
“It’s getting late,” said Cannon. “I don’t see your girlfriend.”
“Shut up,” said Nabil. He searched the remaining students, but Olivia was not among them.
“C’mon,” said Cannon. “I’ll give you a ride.”
Nabil ignored him and headed back to the building. He heard footsteps behind him and knew Cannon was following.
“I know it hurts,” said Cannon, “but it’s good to learn the hard way. You’ll be stronger for it.”
Nabil tried to block out the rest of Cannon’s words of wisdom as they walked around the school and into the front parking lot.
“I’m parked over there,” said Cannon.
“I’m not getting in your car,” said Nabil.
“Why not?” asked Cannon.
“Because you’re psychotic,” said Nabil. Suddenly his phone rang. He retrieved it and answered the call.
“Nabil?” It was Olivia.
“Where are you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. She sounded distant and her cadence was sluggish.
“Are you all right?” asked Nabil.
Cannon groaned. “Here we fucking go,” he muttered.
“Yeah,” answered Olivia, “but I can’t find Aubrey.”
“Stay put,” said Nabil. “Does anything look familiar?”
“The river,” answered Olivia.
“Black River,” said Nabil. “Are you sure?”
“I can see it,” said Olivia.
“The river?” asked Nabil. “Did you go out to the farm?”
“I don’t remember,” said Olivia. “Oh wait, I found Aubrey.”
“Are you still there?” he asked.
“Fuck,” he said. He called her again but she didn’t pick up the phone.
“Need a ride?” asked Cannon. “Or are you going to go rescue your damsel on foot?”
Nabil ignored him and tried Olivia again; still no answer.
“It’s an awfully long walk from here to the farm,” said Cannon.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you planned this,” said Nabil.
“Trust me,” said Cannon, “I’m nowhere near this coordinated.”
“You swear you’ll take me to the farm?” asked Nabil.
Cannon nodded. “Cross my heart.”
“Fine,” said Nabil. “Let’s go.” He followed Cannon to a car parked at the edge of the lot. He got in the passenger’s seat and wondered if he’d ever done anything stupider than this.
“I’m glad you finally trust me,” said Cannon.
“I don’t,” said Nabil.
Cannon started the car and pulled away from the school. “You must be pretty serious about this girl to get in the car with me.”
“I told you, I just want to make sure she’s all right,” said Nabil.
“The lady doth protest too much,” said Cannon.
“Shut up,” said Nabil. He could feel his face growing hot. He’d made a mistake. He shouldn’t have listened. He felt dizzy.
“Do you just like being needed?” asked Cannon. “Does she make you feel useful?”
“Shut up,” repeated Nabil.
“I’m serious,” said Cannon. “There’s nothing in this relationship for you. Everybody knows you’re a hermit, so it’s not like you can’t stand being alone.”
Nabil turned away and looked out of the window. “It’s none of your business.”
“I won’t tell anyone if it’s a secret,” said Cannon. “Do you owe her a life debt? Is she your baby-mama?”
“Why do you care?” asked Nabil. “Why does anything I do matter to you at all?” He glared at Cannon. “Why do you keep following me? Why did you go beat up my bully for me? Why won’t you leave me alone?”
Cannon was finally silent.
“If I don’t get answers, you don’t get answers,” said Nabil.
“I’ve given you answers,” said Cannon.
“No you haven’t,” said Nabil. “All I get is a lot of vague ‘I just want to be your friend’ bullshit.”
“You always leave before I get a chance to explain,” said Cannon.
“So explain yourself now,” said Nabil. “I can’t go anywhere.”
Cannon gripped the steering wheel. “It’s complicated,” he said.
“Of course it is,” said Nabil.
“Don’t snap at me,” said Cannon. “I want to tell you. I’m all in favor of transparency, but it’s not that easy.”
“Let’s simplify it then,” said Nabil. “Why do you keep following me?”
“I want to make sure you’re all right,” answered Cannon.
“Why?” asked Nabil.
“Because we’re friends,” said Cannon.
“No, we’re not,” said Nabil. “You broke into my house and now you’re stalking me.”
“It’s supposed to be this way,” said Cannon.
“See? It’s that stuff that makes you sound crazy,” said Nabil. “What the hell does that mean? Am I supposed to believe we’re family? Are we actually brothers, and if we are, why be cryptic? Why not tell me?”
Cannon scowled at the road ahead. “Are you afraid of me?” he asked.
Nabil felt his stomach drop a little bit. “Afraid?”
“Because if you really think I’m so crazy, you should be afraid of me,” he said. “If I’m so unstable and so creepy and you don’t trust me, then you’re an idiot for getting in the car with me.” He waited for Nabil to respond. “Yes or no,” he said. “Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” answered Nabil. “You’ve had plenty of opportunities to hurt me if you wanted; and you know where I live and something tells me you’re not above breaking and entering.”
“So there’s a part of you that trusts me?” asked Cannon.
“No,” said Nabil. “There’s a part of me that thinks you’re more likely to eat checkers than murder people. That doesn’t make you trustworthy; it just means you’re not dangerous.”
Cannon sighed. “We’re almost to the farm,” he said.
“Why do you care what happens to me?” asked Nabil. “Why try to save my dignity with Olivia? Why get revenge on Jonathon?”
“Because I’m your friend,” snapped Cannon. “Because you’ve had it hard enough. Because you deserve better. Because you’re alone. Because you don’t have anybody else.”
“So you pity me?” asked Nabil.
“It’s not pity,” answered Cannon. “I don’t have anyone else either.”
Nabil did not question him further. He glimpsed Cannon’s loneliness and suddenly felt guilty. He was no more friends with Cannon than Rachel was in love with Kelly. Maybe Gabriel and Edna were lonely too. Maybe five lonely people suddenly found each other and were trying to make it mean something. Maybe that was why he needed to make sure Olivia was all right. What if connections weren’t spiritual, they were just the product of whatever was needed to fill the void?
Kelly continued to trudge through cyber-relationships and profess his love because he didn’t want to be alone. Cannon beat up Jonathon because he wanted Nabil to trust him, because no one else would. Nabil was riding in the car with a lunatic to help a girl who didn’t need him. He’d made the mistake of holding out hope that she was loyal to him and needed his friendship because without him she was alone.
When Edna had said people were connected, the saddest, loneliest part of him woke up and believed her. It was the same sad, lonely part that believed Olivia might actually like him. He leaned his head against the window and watched as Cannon turned off onto the road leading to the farm. They didn’t speak again until they reached the end of the road and Cannon parked the car.
“You think you had trouble finding her at the bonfire,” said Cannon, “you’ll never find her here.”
They could see a gathering in the distance and the music carried across the field.
Cannon led them down the path and over an old wooden footbridge that stretched across the river. It had no rails, or guides and it creaked as they walked. Nabil wondered if it could hold them.
A few tents were set up and a campfire was glowing. Most of the people were gathered by the coolers near the trucks. Nabil spotted Aubrey. He crossed the clearing and approached her.
“Is Olivia here?” he asked.
Aubrey giggled. She reeked of alcohol. “Yeah,” she answered. “She’s over there.” She wobbled as she pointed to a tent.
“Thanks,” said Nabil.
Cannon followed him. “Classy,” he muttered.
Nabil opened the flap and used his phone as a flashlight to look inside. Olivia wasn’t there. Nabil looked around outside of the tent, but there were no signs of her. He went back to look for Aubrey, but she wandered off as well.
Cannon shrugged. “I guess she’s gone,” he said.
Out of the darkness, someone called to them. “Do you need help?” she asked. Shelby, the psychic, and another girl stood watching them beside a cooler. They both wore delicate little dresses and had their hair in braids. The other girl appeared to be collecting leaves and forming some kind of crown.
“Do you know Olivia?” asked Cannon.
Shelby shook her head. “Do you know Hannah?” She nodded to the girl beside her.
“Hi,” said Hannah, giggling. She donned the leafy headpiece.
“Have you seen a girl with brown hair in a ponytail?” asked Nabil. He struggled to remember what Olivia was wearing. “She’s about your height with blue eyes.”
Shelby laughed. “You have to be more specific.”
“Are you here with the high school kids?” asked Hannah.
“Yes,” answered Nabil.
“A bunch of them just left,” she said.
“Where did they go?” asked Nabil.
“Away from you,” answered Cannon. “She’s gone. Let her go.”
“Oh no,” said Hannah, “did you lose your girlfriend?”
“Yes,” answered Cannon, “and he can’t take a hint.”
“Come with us,” said Hannah. “We’ll fix you.” She took his hand and pulled him toward the fire.
“You can hula-hoop with us,” said Shelby. “It will help you.”
“I don’t want to hula-hoop,” said Nabil.
“C’mon grumpy,” said Cannon. “Forget about Olivia. Relax and have fun.”
Hannah led Nabil to the fire and pulled him down to sit in the grass beside her. He crossed his arms and she situated herself closer to him. Cannon sat with them while Shelby picked up her hula-hoop.
“You could be a professional,” said Hannah.
Shelby laughed. “I’m not that good.”
Cannon handed Nabil a beer. “Relax,” he said.
“Where did you get that?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Nabil glared at the fire in silence.
“You’re so much fun,” said Cannon. “I can’t imagine why Olivia ran away.”
“Just let go,” said Hannah, exhaling. She reached across Nabil and took the beer from Cannon. She took a sip and leaned against Nabil. “You can’t chase after people,” she said.
Shelby swayed her hips as the hula-hoop spun around her. “You have to let people do what they want,” she said.
“I am,” said Nabil curtly.
Shelby shook her head. “No, you’re still chasing her in your mind. You have to let go.”
“You’ll never find her if you don’t let her find herself first,” said Hannah.
“Groovy,” muttered Nabil.
“Jesus,” said Cannon, “we can’t do anything with you like this.” He offered Nabil another beer.
“Just take me home,” said Nabil. He started to stand, but Hannah held onto him.
“You just got here,” she whined.
“She’s right,” said Cannon. “One hour. If you still hate life after an hour, we can leave.”
Nabil rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He took the drink from Cannon, but kept his eyes on the fire.
“This too,” said Hannah. She handed him a joint.
“You can’t let anyone make you compromise who you are,” said Shelby, hula-hoop still spinning. “You’ve got to stay true to yourself.”
“Yeah,” said Hannah. She put a hand over Nabil’s heart. “You can’t lose yourself.”
“Stay the course,” said Shelby. “Lose yourself; lose everyone around you. How can they find you if you can’t find yourself?”
“No one is looking for me,” said Nabil. He took a sip of his drink, then inhaled a breath of smoke from the joint. He handed it back to Hannah.
“You’re a sad drunk, aren’t you?” asked Cannon. “Forget Olivia. Do what you want to do.”
“I wanted to stay home,” said Nabil. “I never wanted to come to this stupid party.”
“I’m sorry you’re sad,” said Shelby.
“She’s my friend,” said Nabil, “at least I thought she was.”
“It’s ok,” said Cannon. “We’ve all been there. No one likes being alone.”
“I thought we had a connection,” said Nabil.
“Bullshit,” muttered Cannon.
“You can only connect to people who are connected to themselves,” said Shelby. She nodded to Hannah. “You want to hula-hoop now?”
Hannah nodded and traded places. Shelby sat in the grass between Nabil and Cannon. They continued to pass the joint around their little circle.
“Close your eyes,” Shelby said to Nabil.
Nabil didn’t bother arguing. He was still hesitant, but less annoyed. He found himself relaxing. He closed his eyes.
“Life is like a path in the woods,” said Shelby. “Sometimes it takes us home, sometimes it takes us far away; but as long as you stay on your path, you can never be lost.”
“Ok,” muttered Nabil.
“Imagine you’re on your path and Octavia is on her path.”
“Olivia,” said Nabil.
“If you leave to go to her,” said Shelby, “then you’re going to miss things you were supposed to find on your path.”
“And your path might be leading you to real friends,” said Hannah. “Imagine your path meets up with others. If you’re not there when they cross, your real friends can’t find you.”
“What if my path doesn’t cross any other paths?” asked Nabil.
“You’ll never know if you leave it,” said Shelby.
“What if no one else is on their right path?” asked Nabil. “What if everyone left to go somewhere else?”
“Then they’re lost,” said Shelby. “But you can’t get lost just because you think everyone else is lost.”
“Picture your path,” said Hannah. “Are you really all alone?”
Nabil pictured a dirt road winding through a field. To his surprise it began at the entrance to a garden full of fig trees. He always thought the garden was the end of his journey, not the beginning. He let his mind guide him as he walked through the field and into the woods. He came to a crossroads and stopped. He peered down the intersecting path and saw Edna waving. After the intersection, their paths turned and became parallel, but did not merge. She walked with him until their paths met another crossing and Gabriel’s path turned and went along beside them.
“Do you see your friends?” asked Hannah.
“Do you see Olive’s path?” she asked.
Nabil imagined the crossroads where their paths met, but he couldn’t see Olivia.
“Is she there?” asked Hannah.
“No,” answered Nabil.
“Go look for her,” said Hannah. “Just don’t get lost.”
Nabil followed Olivia’s path until he came to a point where it met another one. It was Aubrey’s. He knew where it went from here. Aubrey was following someone else, Jonathon, another friend, her parents, her celebrity idol, God. Everyone had veered from their paths to follow someone else. If everyone was following someone, where did they all end up going? Did everyone eventually end up on one person’s path? How was that determined? How did people decide who to follow? Where did it all end? He opened his eyes.
“Don’t follow the herd,” said Hannah.
Nabil nodded. “Ok,” he said slowly, surprised any wisdom came from hula-hoops.
Hannah smiled. “Lose yourself; lose everyone,” she said.
“And you thought this wouldn’t be fun,” said Cannon.
“You want to hula-hoop now?” Hannah asked Nabil.
“No,” he answered quietly. He leaned back on the ground and let himself return to his path. He would rather be alone than lost. He saw his path diverge from Edna’s and Gabriel’s several times. Eventually they came back to run alongside one another. They stayed together without sacrificing anything. As the night drew on, he forgot about Olivia. He watched Shelby and Hannah dance by the fire and found a place in his head where he could let go and relax.
Cannon nudged him. “Pretend you’re Jesus.”
“Why?” asked Nabil.
He huffed. “Fine. I’m Jesus.”
Cannon grinned. “Good. Remember when we thought we’d invented flight? It was back in the tenth century. We built these huge wings out of feathers from dead birds.”
“We did what?”
“We each had a pair. Lilith was busy being a war chief or something, but Gabriel was totally on board. He took notes and everything. We jumped off this huge cliff. Come to think of it, that’s how we died that time around. That was a nasty death. We hit every rock and tree and stump on the way down.”
Nabil sputtered into his drink. “That’s terrible.”
“Worse than crucifixion,” said Lucifer, “and I was crucified upside down so that should tell you something.”
“Peter was crucified upside down, right?”
“Yeah,” answered Cannon. “Look at you, remembering things.”
“That’s kind of common knowledge.” Nabil frowned. “Wait, Peter denied knowing Jesus. Did you deny me?”
“No, Gabriel added that for extra drama or something. I hid.”
“That’s not better. Why didn’t you rescue me?”
“Right. Me against a bunch of Romans. Well, me and Lilith, but still, we didn’t have much of a chance.”
“What about the other disciples?”
“You didn’t have any disciples,” answered Cannon. “Gabriel made that up, too. And he made up the sermon on the mount, walking on water, bringing people back from the dead and a bunch of other stuff.”
“Then why bother writing about me? It doesn’t sound like I did anything.”
“You didn’t really. People kind of thought you were deranged. You were the lunatic from Bethlehem. You really did throw a fit in a temple though. You knocked over tables and went around screaming about ‘money changers.’ It wasn’t a great moment for you.”
“Your version of Jesus isn’t very flattering.”
“It wasn’t a flattering life for you. In fact, that’s one reason you stopped remembering your past lives. When you were Jesus you remembered about half of your lifetimes. You knew just enough to be dangerous but not enough to be helpful. You were a great storyteller though. Gabriel thought it was inspiring. I thought it was hilarious.”
“Where was Lilith?”
“She was your aunt, but Gabriel used her as inspiration for Mary. She raised you when your parents died so she was kind of your mom.”
“I don’t appreciate having my life written down wrong.”
“That’s what you always say,” said Cannon.
Nabil laughed. “Well damn, maybe I really am Jesus.”
“You are,” said Cannon. “Give it some time. You’ll remember.”
Reluctantly, Nabil opened his eyes the next morning when something buzzed under his back. He rolled over to find he’d slept on his phone. He flipped it open with one hand and rubbed his eyes with the other.
Did you get my message? I already asked Donnie from the front desk to be my Best Man, but you can be a groomsman.
“I don’t want to be in your wedding, Kelly,” said Nabil, yawning. He sat up slowly, his head spinning. His phone buzzed again.
Where are you? asked Kelly.
It took him a moment to recognize his surroundings. The campfire was smoldering in the pit and the smell of smoke was strong. His arm was asleep and his tongue felt thick and dry in his mouth.
Shelby and Hannah were next to each other nearby, and Cannon was on his stomach closer to the fire.
Nabil did his best to remember the previous night. He was barefoot and his clothes were damp. He yawned again and his face felt stiff. He touched his cheek and realized his face was also covered in mud.
Cannon stirred and stretched. “Rough night?” he asked, eyeing Nabil. He sat up then leaned forward and put his face in his hands. His clothes were damp as well.
“Why are my clothes wet?” asked Nabil.
“The river,” mumbled Cannon. “You went swimming.”
Nabil groaned and lay back down. “What time is it?” he asked.
“One-ish,” answered Cannon.
“Sunday?” asked Nabil.
“I’m supposed to be at work.”
“You’re sick today,” said Cannon.
Nabil held his phone out and sent a message to Kelly explaining his absence. He made up an excuse then set his phone on the ground beside him.
Slowly, Nabil pushed himself back into a sitting position. Cannon was hunched forward, his head still resting in his hands.
“You can sleep, I’m going home.”
“Go back to sleep,” said Cannon. “I’ll drop you off later. You can’t walk back into town from here.”
“It’s not that far.”
Cannon groaned. “Hang on,” he said. “If you’re leaving, I’ll leave.” He stretched and pushed himself to his feet. Nabil did the same. They made their way past the unconscious partiers and back to Cannon’s car.
They pulled into the driveway of the house and Nabil got out.
“I’ll see you later,” said Cannon.
“Whether I want you to or not,” muttered Nabil.
Cannon grinned as he pulled away from the house.
Nabil watched him leave and a voice in his head told him his path had just crossed with another one. He rubbed his eyes and decided he must still be stoned. If Shelby was right about people and their journeys, then Nabil’s suspicions must be true. The only reliably honest way to live was to live alone and not hold out hope for anyone. People may or may not have wandered from their paths and may or may not be at the crossroads. A life spent waiting for people who would never show up was a life wasted. As Shelby said, he had to stay the course. He’d been tempted to follow Olivia. He would not make that mistake again.
Nabil showered and attempted to wash away the smells of the party and the campfire. He changed into fresh clothes and had as much breakfast as he could stomach. He took medicine to stop his head from throbbing and left to see where Cannon was hiding. He’d check Edna’s house first. It was possible she knew he was still in town.
When he reached her house, he took the steps two at a time then knocked on the door. He waited for an answer, but no one came. He knocked again and waited. Still nothing. The curtains were drawn and he could not see inside. He made his way around to the backyard. He heard voices coming from the back porch.
“You’re playing with fire.” Edna’s voice carried around the corner.
“So are you,” said Cannon. “What was that whole ‘connections’ speech about? You’re just as bad as I am.”
“At least we both agree you’re bad. I can’t believe you got him stoned.”
Cannon laughed. “It was worth a shot. You know how wound up he gets. I had to do something.”
Something made Nabil stop. Something made him press closer to the house. Something told him to listen first.
“I am not cleaning up any more of your messes,” said Edna. “If this goes wrong, it’s on you.”
“It’s not like you and Gabriel are exactly subtle, and Joshua sure as hell isn’t subtle.”
“Joshua doesn’t understand yet. He doesn’t remember.”
“I bet you he does and he’s just faking.”
“This isn’t a game, Lucifer. The stakes are high. If we mess up, we’ll lose him.”
“I’m being careful.”
“You broke into his house—more than once.”
“I just wanted to see what he was up to in this lifetime.”
Edna muttered something. “I should have trusted my instinct.”
“Some people need an extra push,” said Cannon.
“That’s not your decision to make.”
“Look,” said Cannon, “I think I have a better idea of how to go about this.”
Nabil steadied himself against the house and stood on his tiptoes. He could almost see around the bushes.
“You are going to fuck things up for everyone if you keep it up,” said Edna. “If we lose him because you were impatient I will never forgive you.”
“You think I don’t know what’s at stake?” asked Cannon, his voice rising. “You think I don’t remember?”
“Honestly?” asked Edna, “No, I don’t. I don’t think you have any idea. If you knew; if you really understood, you wouldn’t risk it.”
“I know exactly what’s at stake,” shouted Cannon.
“No,” said Edna, “you don’t. You’ve got one of your plans going on and you think that means you’ve got it under control.”
Nabil heard her voice crack and it sounded like she was fighting back tears.
Nabil heard a car coming down the road. He quickly dropped to the ground and peaked through the branches of the bush. He heard a car door open and shut and someone walked up the steps of the house.
Nabil stood up again, listening to see if he could identify the visitor. Whoever it was let themselves into the house and joined them on the porch.
“Oh great,” said Cannon, “you called for backup.”
“Shut up,” said Edna.
“Sorry I’m late,” said Gabriel. “I just got your message.”
“It’s all right,” said Edna. “At least I think it’s all right for now. How is he?”
“I don’t know,” answered Gabriel. “I haven’t seen him.”
“He’s probably scared,” said Edna. “Bless his heart.”
“You,” growled Gabriel. “I told you to leave him alone.”
Nabil assumed he was addressing Cannon.
“I was just hanging out with him,” said Cannon.
“What did you do?” demanded Gabriel.
“You’ve stopped everything I’ve tried to do.”
“What were you thinking?” asked Gabriel.
“I had it under control,” Cannon said slowly. “It was all going according to plan. We just hit one little snag—”
“Oh my God,” said Edna. “Tell me you weren’t trying to kill him again.”
Nabil’s heart skipped a beat. He stood taller and tried to calm his breathing.
“I had it under control,” said Cannon.
“Oh God,” groaned Gabriel. “You poisoned him, didn’t you?”
Nabil felt a lump forming in his throat.
“You are never allowed to do anything ever again,” said Edna. “Nothing. I mean it. You belong in a damn cage in a shed on a farm.”
“Stop it,” snapped Cannon. “You two are sitting around wishing and hoping and praying everything will work out and I’m the only one doing anything about it.”
“Listen,” snapped Edna, “if you do not stop this asinine behavior, I will personally make sure you never see him again.”
“I’d like you see you try,” growled Cannon. “I’m only here because you can’t handle him.”
“If you could handle him,” said Edna, “he wouldn’t have come here again.”
“If you hadn’t incarnated alone, he wouldn’t have come here at all,” shouted Cannon. “He was trying to protect you and you fucked up, so now I’m protecting him.”
“Protecting me and joining me are two very different things,” said Edna. “He knows the risks.”
“He would do the same for us if we were lost,” said Cannon.
“He’s not lost,” said Edna.
“How can you just sit there and watch this happen?” demanded Cannon.
“Because he’s fine,” said Edna. “You’re not afraid of what will happen to him if he gets lost; you’re afraid of what will happen to you if you lose him.”
Cannon was silent.
“I promise you,” said Edna, “this isn’t like Michael. No one wants to go through that again and no one is going to let it happen again.”
“You don’t understand,” said Cannon. “You don’t know the whole story. He’s not ok.”
“Quiet,” hissed Gabriel suddenly. “He’s here.”
The three stopped arguing and listened.
Nabil ducked down and backed away from the house. He moved quickly into the neighbor’s yard and hid in the bushes. He didn’t know how they knew he was there. He did his best to stay silent.
Gabriel walked around to the side of the house.
Edna and Cannon stood on the front porch leaning over the railing.
“Well?” asked Edna.
Gabriel shook his head. “He’s gone. Get in the house.”
Nabil waited for the door to close before darting from the bushes. He followed the road through the neighborhood until he got to the park. He cut through to one of the back roads that would take him home. He walked as quickly as he could, running part of the way, and did not stop until he reached his house.
Once inside, he shut and locked the front door, then checked to make sure the back door was locked. He closed the blinds and drew the curtains on all of the windows, then retreated to his room. He understood now. It explained the weird behavior and the random chance encounters. It explained everything. They were a cult and he was their newest member. Cannon was trying to test him, to initiate him. Maybe the others didn’t want him to join; maybe Cannon didn’t want him to join and was trying to prove he wasn’t worthy. Nabil pulled out his phone and sent a message to Kelly.
Are there any cults in town? he asked. He could find nothing to distract him so he stared as his phone while he waited for a response.
Yeah, answered Kelly, why?
Do you know that for sure, or have you only heard rumors? asked Nabil.
I’ve met one of the leaders, answered Kelly. She’s a witch, but she prefers coven to cult.
Nabil quickly realized his mistake in looking to Kelly for answers. His phone buzzed again. It was Kelly.
I’ve heard if you call it a cult, she’ll curse you and give you bad luck forever.
Nabil closed his phone and set it beside him on the bed. “Cannon tried to kill me,” he said quietly.He stared at the wall. He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. He knew he would not be able to sleep, but he did not want to think anymore.
Albert walked aimlessly alongside the road. His car died several miles back and it could not be revived. He surrendered, and abandoned it, continuing his search on foot. He followed the road to a bridge. He stopped in the center and watched the clear water tumbling beneath him. He would never find them like this. His cheeks felt hot and he could not stop thinking about how far he had to go. It was too far.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw someone approaching him. A boy in his early teens stepped forward cautiously.
Albert turned and faced him.
The boy tried to look casual but he could not stop his eyes from going to Albert. Not far away, parked on the shoulder, was a car full of kids. They were all watching their friend, wondering how close he could get. Albert was sure one of them was filming the scene.
“Really?” asked Albert.
The boy didn’t answer.
“I’m not going to jump,” said Albert. He heard the door slam as the boy’s friends left the car to get a closer look.
“Oh,” said the boy, “We were just filming the scenery.”
“Right,” said Albert. “The scenery. You’re not waiting for Suicide Man to make a move.” He wished his fan following had picked a better name for him. Suicide Man was not terribly imaginative, but the name they gave Gabriel wasn’t much better. He was simply known as The Hero.
The other kids reached their friend. “Is he going to do it?” one of them whispered.
“No,” answered Albert. “Get back in your car and go find a mall or something.”
“Are you going to jump?” asked one of the braver members of the group.
“No.” He glanced across the street and saw another small group forming. Albert rolled his eyes. “If I was going to jump, I wouldn’t do it in front of everybody,” he shouted.
“Why?” asked the boy with the phone.
“Because you’d be traumatized,” said Albert curtly.
One of the girls in the group had her phone out. Panic rose in Albert. He couldn’t hear what she was saying. She stepped back from the group. There was always one fan who got scared; one in the crowd who could not stand to watch and felt the urge to take action. He knew she would call the police. He tried to remain calm. They could not arrest him for looking like Suicide Man, but their interference would throw off his search.
Someone poked his arm behind him and he spun around. He was surprised to find the woman from the rest stop smiling at him. “Need a ride?” she asked. She nodded up the road to where her car was parked.
“No thanks,” said Albert. He could not begin to imagine how she found him, but the fact that she did was not a good sign.
“I think you do,” she whispered, pointing to the growing crowd across the street. “Unless you’re actually going to jump.”
“Fantastic,” he muttered. “You’re a Watcher too.”
“Come on,” she said, tugging on his arm. “They’ve got enough footage of you.”
“Wait,” said the boy. “Let him jump.”
“I’m not going to jump,” said Albert.
“Then come with me,” said Maggie.
He looked back at the crowd, and at the girl with the phone. He let Maggie pull him back towards her car. It was his only option to escape the spotlight.
The crowd followed, a few still filming. The group of teens hurried back to their car, ready to pursue Suicide Man.
Albert got into the front seat and Maggie started the car and pulled back onto the road. Albert turned around and watched as a little line of traffic formed behind her. “They’re following us,” said Albert.
“I’m sure they are,” said Maggie. “You’re a celebrity.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were a Watcher?” asked Albert.
“I’m not,” she answered. “I’m curious and I’ve seen your videos, but I’m not obsessed like your entourage back there.”
“They’re not leaving,” said Albert.
“They will once we get on the highway,” said Maggie.
Albert laughed. “Yeah, you’re not obsessed, you’re just following me. How long have you been on my trail?”
“I’m only following you a little,” said Maggie.
“Did you really even lose your earring?”
“No.” She pointed to the sign for the highway. “You’re going to Utah, right?”
“Yes,” said Albert. The cars began to peel away behind them. He turned around in the front seat. “So you followed me from the rest stop to here?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Sorry you didn’t get any good footage,” he said, arms folded over his chest.
“I wasn’t filming you,” she said. “I was trying to help. I thought you might be—you know—”
“Well I wasn’t.”
He pointed to an exit sign. “You can drop me off; I just needed to get away from them.”
“Why? So you can walk to Utah?”
“I can make it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Ride with me,” she said. “I’m going to Utah anyway. We can share the drive and arrive in half the time.”
“No thank you,” said Albert. He had no desire to share his journey with a Watcher. Conversations with these people were impossible. They all wanted to know why. Was it because he was lonely? Did he need a friend? They could be his friend. They could help him. They could fix him.
“I’m not dropping you beside the road,” said Maggie. “I don’t want to be the one who left Suicide Man next to the oncoming traffic.”
“I don’t care where you leave me,” said Albert. “Just let me out.”
“No,” said Maggie. “Why did you say you were going to Utah again? I can’t remember.”
“None of your business.”
“You didn’t have to get in the car with me, you know,” said Maggie. “You could have been stubborn and stayed with your little friends back there.”
Albert frowned. “I just needed to get away from the crowd,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” said Maggie.
Albert scowled. “Thanks,” he muttered.
“I’ll let you out of the car later,” she said, “if you’re still determined to get away, but I think that’s stupid. We’re going the same way and you have no car. You should just ride with me. Besides, everybody knows Suicide Man travels alone. You’ll be less suspicious if you’re with someone.”
“It’s only a matter of time before someone updates the website with video from the bridge back there,” said Albert. “They’re going to know I’m with someone now.”
She shrugged. “Still. I have a car, and I’m not going to film you.”
“Fine,” muttered Albert. He could reserve judgment. She did help him escape. He owed it to her now.
“So,” she said, “why are you going to Utah?” She repeated her question, giving Albert a second chance at civility.
“I don’t have anywhere better to go.” It was close to the truth. He planned to arrive in Utah tomorrow afternoon. Maybe they would arrive sooner. He could begin retracing his steps tomorrow night depending on where Maggie let him out.
“That works,” said Maggie. “I’m going to visit my cousin.”
“I’m visiting a friend,” replied Albert. “You can drop me off near Salt Lake. Someone can pick me up.” He knew once they were close to Salt Lake City he could find a new mode of transportation. He hoped Gabriel wasn’t waiting for him.
“We’ll see. I could just take you all the way. It’s not that far and I’m in no hurry.” She was so ready to trust him; so ready to share with him.
Albert glanced in the rearview mirror at the road behind them. The followers were gone and he didn’t see anything resembling a police car. He was safe.
“I can’t believe I’m riding with Suicide Man,” she said.
“Congratulations,” said Albert.
“I’ve followed your story online and when I recognized you, it just felt wrong to let you go without doing anything.”
“Well I’m not your burden,” said Albert.
“You are now,” she said. She grinned and pointed to her phone. “Check the website; see if they have footage of the bridge up yet. I want to know if I’m famous.”
Albert picked it up and typed in the address. It had been a while since he checked the website. He scrolled through the posts. People had messages up about the sighting, but no videos yet. He resisted the urge to check the forum page. People posted everything from messages of solidarity to taunts that he was too afraid to actually go through with it. Some threads included theories that it was all a hoax and Albert was trying to gain publicity. He clicked on one of the videos titled “Arizona.” His stomach twisted. Arizona was his first and last public attempt. He tried to jump into the traffic on the interstate. He only stopped because he realized it was cruel to impose his death on some unsuspecting driver.
“Are we on there?” asked Maggie when she heard the sound of the video.
“No,” answered Albert. He watched the little screen in front of him. The footage was dark and shaky. He could see headlights flashing by, lighting up the video. Whoever was filming was watching something across the street. The camera caught something moving on the shoulder as the cars rushed past. It was a man. He suddenly burst into a run and headed straight into the oncoming cars. Albert watched himself dart into the road as cars swerved trying to avoid him. The footage was grainy, but he could almost see his face on the screen. He watched himself standing there, panicked and confused in the headlights. He remembered being terrified. He remembered realizing too late that he was not just endangering himself. He remembered getting lost in the lights and feeling the wind rush around him as the cars few past. He remembered stumbling back onto the safety of the grass and falling into a ditch. He remembered how fast his heart was beating and how grateful he was to be alive.
This was a new perspective. Part of him was rooting for the desperate little man on the screen. Part of him wanted him to succeed with his sad little plan and be rid of the weight of his life, but part of him was glad when he watched himself retreat back from the road. It was a second chance.
“Have you seen those before?” she asked.
“No,” answered Albert.
“Maybe you shouldn’t.” She moved to retrieve her phone, but Albert pulled away.
There were more. He played the next video. He watched himself jump from a bridge into the water below. He watched Gabriel run, then throw himself in after Albert. He never noticed Gabriel before. Albert remembered jumping. That was after he came up empty handed after 4,000 miles. His relief from surviving the interstate was quickly diminished by his failure to find anyone after several weeks and three false leads. When he jumped, his only thought was putting an end to the nagging voice in his head telling him it was hopeless. When he jumped, Gabriel jumped too and pulled him from the water.
“Is that the bridge one?” asked Maggie. “That one got a lot of hits as a hero video. That guy shows up a lot. Do you know him?”
“Yes,” answered Albert.
“Is he your friend?”
“Does he have a name? Everybody calls him The Hero.”
“Gabriel,” muttered Albert. He played the next video. It was the parking lot of a grocery store in North Carolina. The store was closed and there weren’t a lot of people around to traumatize. He watched as Gabriel yanked the door to his car open and pulled his body from the front seat. Gabriel lifted his body into his arms and carried him away from the vehicle. The camera shook and panned around as an ambulance pulled up beside Gabriel’s patrol car. Albert remembered waking up and trying to explain that he didn’t need to go to the hospital, while Gabriel tried to clear the parking lot of onlookers. Albert remembered thinking the lot was empty when he first parked the car there.
He considered his survival a cruel joke. He thought Gabriel’s persistence was annoying and disrespectful. Watching it was different.
He played the next video. This was the beach in Oregon. He shook his head. He sure no one was around for this. Of course someone was watching.
Albert watched Gabriel lift his body from the water and set him down on the shore and struggle to revive him. He stopped the video and returned Maggie’s phone. Gabriel was trying to help him. He was giving Albert a second chance to see things would get better. Maybe Maggie was trying to do the same.
“Sorry,” she said. “I assumed you’d seen those. I don’t know why. If you lived them there’s no reason to watch them.”
Albert leaned his head against the window.
“Maybe you should stay off the site,” said Maggie.
“I’m sorry I was a jerk,” said Albert.
“It’s ok,” she said. “I was prepared for you to be more of a jerk and a lot crazier.”
Albert laughed. “And your plan was to put a douchey, crazy stranger in your car?”
“I’m good with crazies,” she said. “Besides, something told me I needed to stick with you.”
Nabil heard footsteps in the living room. He sat up quickly and jumped to his feet.
“It’s me,” called a voice. “Don’t shoot or anything.”
Nabil entered the living room to find Cannon standing with his hands raised, palms facing Nabil.
“Hey,” he said.
“Leave or I’ll call the police,” said Nabil.
“You mean Gabriel?”
“I know you overheard some weird stuff,” said Cannon. He paused. “Or maybe you didn’t?” He seemed hopeful.
“I know about your cult,” said Nabil. “I know you tried to kill me.”
“Ok, so you did hear it,” said Cannon. “Allow me to explain.”
Nabil flipped his phone open.
“Seriously?” asked Cannon. “Who are you threatening to call? You know Gabriel is with us. Just hear me out.”
“Go away,” said Nabil.
“Please,” said Cannon, “I’m not here to hurt you. I swear I’ll tell you everything. I’ll stand right here just like this and tell you everything you want to know, and I won’t be vague.”
“Yeah right,” snapped Nabil.
“I mean it,” said Cannon. “Just one more chance, then you can have me arrested or fed to lions or whatever.”
Nabil kept his phone ready, but did not protest.
“We’re friends,” began Cannon, “not just in this life, but in other lives. We’ve always been friends. I mean, maybe there was a time when we weren’t, but I can’t remember it.”
“You expect me to believe we’re soul-mates or something?” asked Nabil.
“Not exactly,” said Cannon. “We’re all in a group. We always find each other. Edna is Lilith, or she was. Now she’s Edna, but you would remember her as Lilith.”
“You said you were going to tell me the truth,” said Nabil.
“That is the truth,” said Cannon. “Edna is Lilith, Gabriel is—well he’s actually always Gabriel. He says he does it for the sake of consistency, but I think he just likes the name.” Cannon paused, giving Nabil a chance to speak, but Nabil said nothing. “You know me by a different name too,” continued Cannon.
Nabil remained unmoved, still clutching his phone.
“I’m Lucifer,” said Cannon slowly, “and you’re Jesus. We’re friends — usually. Sometimes you get in a mood. I keep telling you to incarnate with your memory so we can find each other, but you’re really fucking stubborn. You keep saying you’ll never learn if you’re born already knowing everything. Sometimes you leave with no warning at all. How the hell am I supposed to find you if I don’t even know you’re gone?” Cannon stopped, apparently trying to let the new information register.
Nabil finally lowered his phone. “So,” he began, “your real name is Lucifer. My real name is Jesus. We’re best friends, and I’m going to believe this because?”
Cannon frowned. “I was kind of hoping some of that would jog your memory.”
“It didn’t,” said Nabil, “because it’s nonsense.”
“It’s the truth.”
“Then maybe you’ve got the wrong guy,” snapped Nabil.
“Right,” said Nabil, “because you’re Lucifer and you just know these things.”
“No,” said Cannon, “because I choose to remember my past when I incarnate so I don’t have to deal with this bullshit. I remember you. I know it’s you. Gabriel and Lilith agree. We all recognize you, but you don’t recognize us.”
“If I had the option to remember my entire existence, why would I opt out?”
“I told you, you’re determined to learn new things or something stupid like that. You think you have to learn to be better, but you’re just torturing yourself at this point. You’re just suffering through life because you think you don’t deserve to be happy. I’d go so far as to bet if you do remember something, it’s how much you hate yourself.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means life can be good or bad and you make it bad because you think you have to atone. Your life is a fucking burden and you wear it around your neck like an albatross. Life is full of guilt and shame and disappointment and you keep trudging through it thinking you’ll find something new, but you never account for how much that shame holds you back. You incarnate with the intention of learning, but end up just trying to prove to yourself that you deserve to live. I’ve watched you do this over and over again and it has to stop. It’s ok to remember. It’s ok to live knowing you’re a good person. Stop punishing yourself.”
“I’m not punishing myself,” said Nabil.
“If you actually believed that, you’d stop wandering around behind Olivia.”
“Olivia isn’t a punishment. I like her.”
“You don’t,” said Cannon. “You follow her because you think no one else will be your friend. You think she’s being kind to you by offering you friendship, and you think that redeems you. But we both know deep down inside your cold little heart you don’t give a damn about her.”
“That’s not true,” said Nabil. “You’re just mad because she’s my friend. Stop bringing her into this.”
“Stop defending her,” said Cannon, his voice rising. He took a step closer. “She doesn’t like you. She’s expendable. She’s not your friend. She’s not loyal to you. She’s not going to stay with you. You’re only with her because you think her friendship cleanses you.”
“I’m with her because I’m lonely,” shouted Nabil. “I have no one and I follow her around because she’s someone.”
Cannon shook his head. “No. You’re lonely because you think you deserve to be; because you think you’re too vile to be around anyone.” He took another step. “She got close to you and abandoned you. Now you’re embarrassed because you thought it was real. You’re alone again, true, but not by choice. You’ve been cast out again. What’s worse is you’ll blame yourself for thinking she liked you. You’ll turn this into your shame instead of her betrayal.”
Nabil felt his face growing hot. “You’re wrong,” he said. “I’m just using people. Olivia is my friend because I’m alone and I need someone. It’s pathetic, I know. I’m pathetic.”
“You’re lonely,” said Cannon. “That’s true. But you mastered loneliness a long time ago. It’s your secret weapon. Your weaknesses are shame and guilt. You didn’t wait for Olivia at the party because you were hoping she’d come back. You waited because she acted like your friend and you thought it would be a betrayal to leave her there, and you won’t let yourself walk away from someone no matter how much they deserve it. That’s not loneliness, that’s guilt. You waited until she turned her back on you, and now, instead of righteous indignation, it’s shame.”
“I’m not guilty.”
“If I thought you really believed that, I wouldn’t be here,” said Cannon.
For a moment, Nabil thought he might cry. He scowled instead, but didn’t trust himself to speak.
“You’re guilty for your indifference and you’re ashamed of your weakness,” said Cannon. “I know you. I know when you can’t take it anymore you shut down and walk away. I know when that asshole beat you up and took your stuff, you blamed yourself. I know how you felt and I know what you told yourself. I know what you’re doing. I know your plan. You’re going to stay here and suffer and endure until you’ve convinced yourself that you deserve to be alone and then you’re going to retreat into your head and shut yourself off from everything. You’re going to lock yourself away from the world because you think you’re some kind of monster because you’ve forgotten how good you are.” He shook his head. “I’m not losing you to shame.”
“Does this have to do with Michael?” asked Nabil.
A look of hope crossed Cannon’s face. “You remember?”
“No, Edna said you were acting like a maniac because of Michael,” said Nabil. “Is that what’s going on? Is this some kind of transference thing where you stalk me because you lost Michael?”
“No,” answered Cannon.
“Are you sure?” asked Nabil. “Because it sounds like you’re the guilty one. Maybe you think whatever happened to him is your fault.”
“Michael wasn’t anyone’s fault,” said Cannon. “He made his choice. He wanted to leave and we let him go.”
“That’s not what Edna said. It sounded like she thought it was your fault—whatever that means.”
“Why didn’t you correct her?”
“Because it doesn’t matter what she thinks.”
A pair of headlights flashed through the window. Nabil and Cannon looked to the front door as they heard someone exit the car. Gabriel entered the house; his eyes immediately drawn to Cannon. He didn’t say anything, just stood by the door and held it open, waiting.
Cannon began to protest. He started to shake his head, but something made him stop. Without another word he turned away and walked outside.
Gabriel looked to Nabil. “I’m sorry,” he said. He followed Cannon, shutting the door behind them. Nabil did not bother going to the window. He knew they were gone.
“We’ll cross the state line in an hour,” said Maggie. “Do you have someone to stay with in Utah?”
“Yes,” said Albert.
“Are you just saying that?”
“I don’t know,” said Maggie. “Maybe you could stay with me and my family for a few days.”
“No. Once we get to Salt Lake I can call someone to pick me up.” Once they got to Salt Lake City, Albert could resume his search.
“Just think about it,” said Maggie, pulling him from his plotting. “You don’t have to stay long, but it would be nice to get off the road for a few days, don’t you think?”
“Why do you want me to stay with you guys?”
Maggie shrugged. “I just think it would be a nice break. Then I can drive you down to Panguitch.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine once I get to Salt Lake.”
“Just think about it,” said Maggie.
“Why?” asked Albert.
“You might change your mind.”
“I really appreciate it,” said Albert. “But—”
“Think about it. When we get to Salt Lake, you can decide.”
Maggie’s phone alerted her to an incoming call. She glanced at Albert and answered it. “Hey, what’s up?”
Albert could hear a man’s voice on the line.
“I’m in Nevada,” answered Maggie. “I’ll be there soon.” She paused, listening to the man on the other end.
Albert thought he heard the words “help” and “hospital.”
“Not again,” said Maggie. “I thought you were in Salt Lake City. No, Isaac—” She paused again. “Well that’s just something he needs to deal with.” She glanced at Albert again. “I understand that, but that doesn’t make him your responsibility. At some point he needs to face his own dem—Isaac, he’s not dead don’t be dramatic. He’s probably just passed out at home.”
Albert sensed a detour.
“Did you call your mom?” asked Maggie.
The voice on the other end of the phone rose as his pleas became more desperate.
“I thought you said Bob needed help,” said Maggie. She listened as Isaac continued to rant. Finally, she surrendered. “Fine,” she said. “I’m coming. I’m probably three hours away. Yes, before lunchtime. Ok. I’ll drive fast. Love you too. Bye.” She ended the call.
“What’s going on now?” grumbled Albert.
“We have to make a quick stop,” said Maggie.
“Of course we do.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to. My cousin needs help, and I can’t ignore him.”
“Of course you can’t.”
“He’s supposed to be with his parents, but he left for some stupid reason. He’s staying with friends and they aren’t exactly good people.”
“And we’re going to retrieve him?”
“He might be drinking again,” she said, “It will be quick, I promise. He’s right on the way.”
“Fine,” said Albert.
“Can you not be so grouchy, please? Just for a minute?” she asked. “I know you have an agenda, but this is important. You owe me a favor for getting you away from those kids.”
Albert rolled his eyes. “Fine.”
“Thank you,” said Maggie.
“So are you your cousin’s keeper or something?” asked Albert.
Maggie shrugged. “No, but sometimes it feels that way. We’re all kind of Isaac’s keeper.”
* * *
Maggie drove slowly through a neighborhood of small mismatched houses. They made no stops en route from Nevada to Isaac and arrived earlier than anticipated.
“I don’t know how to prepare you for this,” said Maggie. “Isaac may or may not be in good condition.”
“It’s all right,” said Albert.
“Good,” said Maggie. She leaned over the steering wheel and squinted down the road. “Brace yourself,” she said.
A man stood in front of a faded green house. There were large patches where the paint peeled off, revealing a grubby coat of white underneath. The man was barefoot in the grass. He watched the road, one hand tapping against his leg. When he saw Maggie’s car, he jumped slightly and lurched forward.
Maggie pulled into the driveway. “Here we go,” she muttered. She turned the car off and opened the door.
“Thank God you’re here,” said Isaac. His cheeks were bright red and his expression was manic. He pulled her into an embrace as soon as she got out of the car. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I mean it. Really thank you. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“It’s all right,” said Maggie, patting him on the back.
Albert got out of the car slowly. He stayed on the passenger’s side and watched Maggie and her cousin. Isaac looked a few years younger. He had a buzz cut and Albert could see a light pink scar above his temple.
Isaac’s hands were white as he clutched Maggie tighter. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. He buried his head against her shoulder and his body shook. He gasped and began to cry. “He can’t take care of himself. I should have watched him. I knew he needed me. I shouldn’t have left him alone.”
“Are you all right?” asked Maggie.
“I’m fine,” answered Isaac. “I’m just worried about Bob.”
“I thought you said you needed help.” Maggie pulled away from the embrace.
“I do. I need help finding Bob.”
“Damnit,” said Maggie. “Tell me you didn’t run away again just for Bob.”
“I did,” said Isaac. “Don’t be mad. I get so confused when I’m by myself. I really was upset. I didn’t know what to do. If you hadn’t come when you did, who knows what could have happened.”
“It’s all right,” said Maggie, holding up a hand.
Isaac’s lip trembled. “Oh God,” he groaned, sobbing again. “He’s probably dead by now. I should have called for help sooner.”
“He’s probably passed out at home,” said Maggie. She turned to glance at Albert, who shrugged.
Albert circled around to the other side of the car where Maggie and Isaac were standing.
“It’s all my fault,” muttered Isaac. He shuddered and coughed. “Oh God, what have I done?”
“Calm down,” said Maggie. “You’ve got us here now. We’ll help you find him.”
“Isaac?” said Albert, he reached a hand towards him.
Isaac jumped. “Who are you?” he demanded, a deep scowl replacing the look of desperation.
“I’m Albert,” he said. He extended his hand to Isaac.
Isaac accepted the handshake with some hesitation. “I didn’t realize you had a friend with you,” he said.
“I forgot to mention it,” said Maggie.
“Oh,” he said. He released Albert’s hand and took a step back. “Bob isn’t going to like this.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “Bob can deal with it,” she said. “He’s lucky we’re doing this much for him.”
“Do I know you from somewhere?” asked Isaac.
Albert shrugged. “I don’t think so,” he answered.
Isaac rubbed his eyes then ran a hand over the scar. “We should get going if we’re going to find Bob.” He stared at Albert.
“All right,” said Maggie. “Get in. Are we going to his house first?”
Isaac nodded as he got into the car.
Maggie backed out of the driveway and pulled onto the street. “Does Bob still live in the same place?”
“No, he moved. He’s across town now in the apartments by the train tracks. I’ll show you.” Isaac situated himself in the center of the back seat and leaned forward. “Have you seen Uncle Nick and Aunt Jean yet?” he asked.
“No,” answered Maggie. “I had to get you first.”
“Oh, right,” said Isaac.
Albert watched Isaac from the rearview mirror. Isaac had both arms folded over his chest and he kept bobbing his head as though listening to a song no one else could hear. Albert glanced at Maggie, but her attention was on the road.
“Just keep going,” said Isaac. “I’ll tell you where to turn.” He did his best to navigate through the little town.
Isaac pointed them down a side street that ran parallel with the railroad. They passed a large cemetery surrounded by a chain link fence. A dirt road cut through the center and ended in a large stone statue of Jesus. He was missing an arm, though his other arm was fully extended as though he meant to welcome them.
“Bob was trying to get that fixed,” said Isaac, nodding to the one-armed Jesus. “That stuff means a lot to him, you know?” He shook his head. “Bob’s a good guy with a good heart.” He pointed in front of the car. “This is it,” he said. “Bob’s in the corner unit on the bottom.” He pointed to a small apartment building next to a row of trailers.
Isaac gasped. “His lights are on now. They were off when I came by yesterday.”
Maggie parked on the side of the road across the street from the cemetery. “Have you tried to get in?” she asked.
“No. You know, with my record and everything I thought I’d leave that to the professionals.”
He grinned and Albert saw he was missing a tooth.
“I’m not breaking in,” said Maggie. “We’ll knock and see what happens. If he doesn’t answer we can call the—” Her eyes moved to Albert, then she quickly turned away. “We can call for help.”
“Not the cops,” said Isaac. He lowered his voice. “You know we can’t do that. Not with Bob. I don’t know what he’s doing in there.”
“Right,” said Maggie.
They got out of the car and approached the apartment with Isaac in the lead.
Albert walked close to Maggie. “Is your cousin ok?” he whispered.
“Sometimes,” muttered Maggie. “You don’t need to worry though. He’s harmless.”
“Are you sure?” asked Albert.
“Yeah,” answered Maggie. “Trust me, this is not the first time this has happened. Before I moved we did this all the time.”
Isaac reached the door first and began pounding on the glass. “Bob?” he called. “Buddy? Are you in there?”
“You don’t need to keep knocking,” said Maggie. “Give him a chance to get to the door.”
“I bet we’re too late,” said Isaac. “Bob,” he called again. “Maggie’s here. You remember Maggie. You like her. We want to help you buddy.”
Albert stopped a few steps back from the door. Maggie kept walking, but Albert touched her shoulder. “I don’t like this.” said Albert under his breath.
“It’s fine,” said Maggie. “I’m used to it.”
Isaac continued to call for Bob. He moved around to the front window and cupped his hands against the glass to look inside. He turned away, a sullen look on his face. “He’s not answering,” he said. “He’s not ok. I know it. We need to get in there. We need to check on him.” His eyes moved back and forth over Albert and Maggie. “He might need help,” he pleaded.
“All right,” said Maggie. “I’m guessing he doesn’t have a spare key?”
“I don’t think so,” said Isaac.
Albert stepped past Isaac and approached the door. He grabbed the handle and turned it cautiously. “It’s unlocked,” he said.
“Seriously?” asked Maggie, looking at her cousin. “You didn’t check that first?”
“It was locked last time I was here. This is a good sign. Maybe he’s all right.” Isaac rushed through the doorway, still calling for his friend.
Maggie moved to follow him, but Albert stopped her. “Wait here,” he said. “We’ll bring Bob out to you. You should keep the car running in case we need to leave quickly.”
“No,” said Maggie, pushing past him.
“Maggie, wait,” said Albert.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Come on.”
Albert followed quickly behind her. They could hear Isaac shouting inside.
“Bob?” called Maggie. “We’re here to help you. Are you home?”
Albert glanced into the kitchen. Dishes covered the counters and filled the sink. A rotten odor filled the air. A small mountain of beer cans sat in a bin in the corner of the kitchen. Albert noticed what looked like a pipe sticking out from underneath an old newspaper. He bit his lip and turned back to the hall. The odor was strongest in the kitchen, but it seemed to permeate throughout the apartment. It smelled like whiskey mixed with the sour stench of body odor. He pulled his sleeve down over his hand and covered his nose. Maggie did the same.
“I found him,” shouted Isaac. He was at the back of the apartment. “He’s in the bedroom.”
Maggie and Albert rushed down the hall. Isaac stood in front of a wood paneled door. He had one hand on the handle and was jiggling it furiously. “This one is locked,” he said. “But listen, he’s in there. You can hear him.”
Albert pressed an ear to the door. It was quiet at first, but after a few seconds he heard a low humming noise. “It sounds like a fan,” he said.
Isaac crouched down and peeked under the door. “I can’t see anything,” he said. “Bob?”
“I’m going to find something to open the door,” said Maggie. “I’ll be right back.”
Isaac stood up, both hands cradling the front of his head. “Poor Bob. Hang in there buddy.”
Albert grabbed the handle and pushed hard against the door. It was locked. He took a step back then threw his shoulder against it. The door did not budge. He tried it again but the door did not give. “What’s wrong with Bob?” asked Albert. “Or what are we worried might be wrong with Bob?”
“None of your business,” snapped Isaac. “Bob’s a good guy with a good heart and he doesn’t need your judgment.”
“I’m not judging, I’m just asking.”
“It’s none of your business,” he repeated.
Maggie came back holding a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. “Maybe we can take it off the hinges,” she said.
Isaac leaned against the door. “Bob,” he said. “We’re coming in. We’re taking the door down, ok? It’s going to be all right. Don’t panic.”
As Maggie began to unscrew one of the hinges, they heard a loud crash in the kitchen.
Albert was the first to follow the noise. He came around the corner and saw a man lying in the middle of the dingy floor. His balding head rested against the linoleum. He struggled to push himself to his feet and failed. Albert saw an empty bottle of Wild Turkey next to him. After a few breaths it became clear this man was the source of the awful smell.
“Bob?” asked Albert.
Isaac came around the corner followed by Maggie. “Bob,” shouted Isaac. “You’re alive.” He rushed to his friend’s side and arranged him in a sitting position. “It’s all right buddy,” he said. “I’m here. I’ve got you.” Isaac gave him a reassuring pat on the back.
“If you were really my buddy you’d find my whiskey,” gurgled Bob. His head lolled to one side before settling in a cushion of neck and shoulder. “Hand me that.” Bob reached toward the empty bottle and made a grabbing motion with both hands.
“We’re going to get you cleaned up,” said Isaac. He mouthed the word “help” to Albert and Maggie.
Maggie took a step forward, but Albert volunteered first.
“I’m going to help you stand up,” said Albert, approaching slowly. He put his arm around Bob, supporting him on one side while Isaac did the same.
“Lift,” said Isaac. They staggered for a moment, but managed to get Bob standing.
Bob grunted as he attempted to support his weight.
“We’ll take him back to my house,” said Isaac.
“Ew,” said Maggie. “I don’t want him in the car. What if he pukes?”
“Come on Bob,” said Isaac. “We’re going on a little ride.”
“Where are my keys?” growled Bob.
“It’s ok, Maggie’s driving,” answered Isaac.
“No,” said Albert. “Take him to the bathroom, let’s clean him up first.” He steered Isaac and Bob to the back of the house.
Maggie walked ahead of them and opened the door. She turned on the water in the bathtub.
“What if he drowns?” asked Isaac.
“We’re not leaving him here,” she answered. “Put him in and find some soap.”
They set him in the tub. Isaac removed Bob’s shirt.
“I don’t want to be nekid,” muttered Bob. “It’s cold.” He waved his arms, fighting Isaac.
“For God’s sake let him keep his clothes,” said Maggie.
“Should we do something about the smell?” asked Albert.
“How about you two leave and let the lady handle this,” said Bob, rubbing his belly and nodding to Maggie.
“Baby steps,” said Maggie. “We can’t do anything with him like this.”
“Knock it off,” said Bob. Isaac was slowly pouring water over him with a plastic cup. Bob waved him away. “I’m clean. You cleaned me. Now help me up.” He kicked his feet against the tub, but failed to achieve anything more than splashing water onto the floor.
“Ugh,” said Maggie.
“Drain the tub and let him sleep it off,” said Albert.
“And just leave him in here?” asked Isaac. “What if he needs something?”
“He doesn’t seem to have any trouble talking,” said Albert. “I’m sure he’ll let you know.”
Reluctantly, Isaac made sure there wasn’t any water left in the tub, then he arranged several towels over Bob like a blanket. “Are you going to be ok?” he asked.
“Are you going to be ok?” mocked Bob.
“Come on,” said Albert. He pulled Maggie out of the bathroom and away from the odor.
“I’m sorry,” said Maggie, once they were alone. “I thought this would go much faster.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Albert. “I shouldn’t have made such a big deal about it earlier.”
Isaac came out of the bathroom. The front of his shirt was soaked. “He’s going to rest now,” he said. “I’ll check on him again in a little bit.”
As the days went by, Nabil slowly returned to his normal routine. Olivia had not talked to him since the bonfire. He wasn’t sure what kept her away. It was possible she was too embarrassed to face him, though Nabil suspected it had more to do with her new friends than a conflict of conscience. It didn’t matter. He was happy to have the time to himself.
Cannon and Gabriel stopped contacting him, and he did not return to see Edna. Nabil still checked every now and then to make sure he wasn’t being followed. He wasn’t; he was alone again.
He tried to forget the strange things Cannon said to him. He decided they were the product of drug-induced cult fanaticism. He wondered if Edna realized it was a cult, or if she was being taken advantage of because she was a kind old woman. Nabil decided she was smart enough to make her own choices. If she was crazy enough to be part of the cult, it was not his responsibility to stop her.
He let his life drift back toward normalcy. The only pleasant and surprisingly lasting change was that Jonathon continued to avoid him. His classmates no longer snickered at him or teased him. He was invisible to them. He sat through class without interruption. He walked to the field without getting ambushed by Olivia. He ate lunch alone, returned to class alone, and went home alone. Kelly returned to being his most consistent form of communication, and because Nabil didn’t have anyone more interesting to talk to, Kelly became less annoying.
At first, he was disappointed to suddenly have so much silence in his life. Then he remembered, silence was all he ever wanted. It was reliable and calm. Silence had no ulterior motives. Silence would never leave or hate him. Silence was forever, and that thought was comforting.
He tuned in and out of a conversation with Kelly Sunday afternoon; something about his wedding. Nabil didn’t even bother pointing out some of the more impractical aspects of his romance. It didn’t bother him that Kelly was late again, or that he talked instead of working. Nabil locked himself inside his head and for the first time, felt nothing could pull him away from his thoughts.
“We’re thinking about making it a destination wedding,” said Kelly. “Her family is basically loaded so it won’t be a problem getting the right place. Rachel said it will be hard to get guests to the Bahamas, but if people really want to come, they’ll find a way. I mean, if they only want to come if it’s easy, I don’t really think they should be there. We definitely don’t need that kind of energy at our wedding.” He laughed. “Oh wow, Rachel says that all the time. You can tell we’re a couple. We’re already starting to talk like each other.”
Nabil, to his surprise, laughed along with Kelly. It wasn’t funny that Kelly thought repeating Rachel made them a couple. That was sad and a little desperate. In Kelly’s reality however, it was true love. It was funny that Kelly didn’t seem to care how stupid he sounded. Nabil wondered if by inventing his own truth, Kelly had stumbled upon happiness.
“Our guest list is pretty long. It’s mostly her friends and family. I guess she’s still really close to the rest of her cheerleading team from high school. I haven’t invited anyone in my family yet. I don’t want to hear them complain about traveling. I’ll deal with that once we’ve booked our venue.” Kelly sighed. “It’s finally coming together. I’ve waited so long for the perfect girl and Rachel is absolutely perfect. She was so excited to marry me; she said we should go to Vegas and elope. But we talked about it and we both want a big wedding. I tell you what though,” he said, grinning to himself, “when she said yes, I almost hopped on a plane right then and there.”
“I’m happy for you,” said Nabil. He pushed the cart along to the next room and Kelly followed along behind him.
“Thanks, I’m pretty happy for me too. Oh, did you hear?” he asked. “Edna passed away.”
Nabil stopped walking and turned to see if maybe he misheard Kelly. “Edna?” he asked.
“Yeah,” answered Kelly. He shook his head and grimaced. “She was such a nice lady. I was going to invite her instead of my mom, but I guess I can’t do that now.”
“What happened?” asked Nabil.
“Heart attack or something,” said Kelly.
“I don’t know; earlier this week I guess.” He shrugged. “The funeral was yesterday and her church had a special service for her this morning. That’s why I was late. It was really beautiful. Everybody cried.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Nabil.
“I didn’t think you cared,” said Kelly.
“Why wouldn’t I care?” demanded Nabil. He slammed his fist against the cart, knocking over the pile of soap. “You tell me every other stupid piece of insignificant gossip you can think of, but someone dies and you just keep it to yourself?”
“Sorry,” said Kelly. “I know you don’t like church stuff. I thought you’d be mad if I told you.”
“What the fuck kind of logic is that?” asked Nabil.
Kelly looked as if he was struggling to answer.
“Never mind,” snapped Nabil. He turned back to the cart and pushed it away from Kelly. They finished work without another word to each other.
Nabil walked home with his head down and his hands in his pockets. He was still angry with Kelly. He could not find an effective way to communicate what he was feeling so he decided to say nothing. He stopped himself from calling Gabriel or Cannon. He knew they couldn’t help him. He wondered if they were in some way responsible. Gabriel said Cannon planned to poison Nabil. Did he poison Edna instead?
He felt his rage returning. What was the last thing he said to her? Was it angry? Was he dismissive? Something told him he should not have left her alone with them. He should have stayed with her. They were taking advantage of her and he left her there because he was too focused on how he felt. He was selfish for leaving her. He protected himself and left her alone. He behaved like a child; like a brat. He saved himself and she paid the price. He let her die.
Isaac pulled the door closed as he returned to the bathroom to check on Bob. Albert and Maggie could hear him mumbling on the other side.
“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” said Maggie.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Albert.
A loud splash came from the bathroom followed by a heavy sounding thud.
Maggie tugged on the doorknob. “Isaac?” she called.
“We’re fine,” he answered.
“Unlock the door,” she said.
“Bob’s in the way,” said Isaac.
“Go away,” Bob growled.
Albert knelt down and tried to look under the door. “Bob, let Isaac out.”
“No,” shouted Bob.
“It’s ok, I’m fine in here,” said Isaac.
“What was that noise?” asked Maggie. “Did you fall? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” said Bob. “Mind your own business.”
“Not you, I meant Isaac.”
“I tripped, but we’re ok. Seriously, don’t worry.”
“I’ve got a gun,” said Bob. “Don’t try anything funny.”
“A gun?” asked Maggie.
“He keeps saying that,” said Isaac, “but I don’t think he actually has one.”
“How could you have a gun?” asked Albert. “We would have seen it.”
“Some things are beyond your mortal comprehension,” answered Bob.
“You don’t have gun,” said Maggie.
“I do. And I’ll shoot if you all don’t back away now.”
Albert could see Bob’s large bare feet blocking the door and his view of Isaac.
“You’re drunk,” said Albert. “You need to open the door.” He heard scuffling on the other side.
Suddenly Bob’s eye met Albert’s through the crack under the door. “Go away,” he said. “I have a gun.”
“What do we do now?” Albert asked, getting to his feet. “He won’t actually hurt Isaac, will he?”
“Yes I will,” said Bob.
“I don’t think so,” said Maggie. “Sometimes he throws things.”
They heard something smack against the wall.
“Still fine,” said Isaac. “He just threw the toothpaste.”
“How long does it take him to sober up?” asked Albert.
Maggie shrugged. “He usually passes out. I don’t know where this energy came from.”
Down the hallway at the front of the house, came a pounding noise, followed by an insistent ringing of the doorbell.
“I’ll get it,” said Albert.
“It’s probably another idiot friend,” said Maggie. “Don’t worry about it.”
Albert heard the door open. It was still unlocked.
“Bob?” called a voice. “Isaac? Hello?”
“Peter?” called Maggie, stepping away from the door.
A young man approached them. “Maggie?”
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “I thought you were with Mom. You’re supposed to be in Washington aren’t you?”
“Isaac called me a few days ago,” answered Peter. “He said he needed help.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“I’m fine,” said Peter.
“Did you drive down here by yourself?” asked Maggie.
“Yep.” Peter folded his arms over his chest. “Who is this?” he asked, eyeing Albert.
“A friend,” answered Maggie.
“Hi,” said Albert.
“Albert, this is my little brother Peter,” said Maggie. “Peter, this is my friend Albert.”
“Oh,” said Peter. “Hi.” He turned back to Maggie. “Where is Isaac?”
She pointed at the bathroom door. “We were trying to give Bob a bath; now he’s locked Isaac in there with him.”
Peter approached the door and pressed his ear against it. “You guys ok in there?”
A scuffling sound came from inside.
“I am armed and I will shoot,” answered Bob.
“We’re fine,” said Isaac.
“Yeah, you sound fine,” said Peter, taking a step back.
“Why don’t you wait in the car,” said Maggie. She put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Does Mom know where you are?”
“I’m fine,” snapped Peter.
Albert didn’t know what was wrong, but Maggie was clearly nervous. Peter turned away from the door and went down the hall. Albert suddenly felt a pull to follow him. Some connection tugged somewhere deep in his gut and he struggled to control it, but as suddenly as the feeling appeared, it was gone. It didn’t matter. That was enough. Albert recognized him. It was Lucifer.
“Where are you going?” asked Maggie.
“To find something to break down the door,” answered Peter.
Maggie started to follow him, but Albert held her back. “What’s going on?” he asked. His hands shook slightly as he tried to calm himself.
“Nothing,” answered Maggie.
Albert raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with your brother? Clearly you think something is wrong with him.”
“He can be a little high-strung,” said Maggie. “This isn’t a good situation for him to be in right now.” She shook her head. “He’s not even supposed to be here.”
“If you’re worried about him, go take care of him,” said Albert. “I can handle this.”
“Right,” said Maggie. “Isaac is probably high as a kite, Bob may or may not have a gun, but I can rest easy because Suicide Man can handle it.”
“Then let me take care of Peter,” said Albert. “You can watch the idiots.”
Maggie shook her head. “Let’s get the door open and get Bob to lie down somewhere. Then I’ll feel better about leaving them.”
“Go away,” said Bob.
Peter returned holding what looked like the leg of a table. “Move,” he said.
“We have a screwdriver,” said Maggie. “We can just take the door off the hinges.”
“This is faster,” said Peter.
“No,” said Maggie. “We don’t want to startle Bob. It’s better if we get him to open the door on his own.”
“What are we going to do,” asked Peter, “lure him out with cheese?”
“We could just go away like he keeps saying,” said Albert. “You know? Like how you’re supposed to ignore children throwing a fit.”
“Yeah,” called Isaac from inside. “I think that’s a good plan.”
“What if he hurts Isaac?” asked Maggie.
“I think he’s calming down,” said Isaac. “He looks sleepy.”
“I’m not sleepy,” said Bob.
“You guys make yourselves at home,” said Isaac. “We’re fine in here.”
Peter set the table leg on the floor and turned back down the hall. “I guess we’re waiting,” he said.
Maggie sighed. “This is ridiculous,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” said Albert. “I don’t think he’s in any danger.”
“I guess not,” said Maggie. They entered the living room and she gestured to the mismatched collection of furniture. There was a couch and an overstuffed chair both of which were covered in various burn marks and greasy looking stains. “Make yourself at home,” she said.
Peter came into the living room looking disappointed. “There’s nothing in the fridge but ketchup and pickles.”
“I’m going to see if there’s any coffee,” said Maggie.
“You mean you’re going to call mom and tattle on me,” said Peter.
Maggie pulled her phone from her pocket. “I might make a call while I look.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
Peter looked at Albert and frowned. “You look familiar. How do I know you?”
“I look familiar?” asked Albert. “Are you sure?”
Peter nodded slowly. “Yeah. You look really familiar.”
Albert moved closer to Peter, checking over his shoulder to make sure Maggie hadn’t returned. “Lucifer?” he asked. “Do you recognize me?”
Peter stared at him.
“It’s me,” said Albert. “I know you remember. I remembered you this time too, so I could find you.”
Peter was clearly stunned. Albert grinned. He suddenly felt lighter as if Lucifer’s name was weighted and saying it suddenly relived his burden. Albert waited for a response, but Peter didn’t speak. “You’re surprised, right?” asked Albert.
Peter was still silent.
“It’s ok,” said Albert. “Maggie can’t hear us. She’s probably someone too. I figured you would know. Actually I was hoping you’d remember me because I don’t remember me. Apparently I only took your name with me. I was hoping you could fill me in on the rest.”
“I’m sorry,” said Peter, finally, “did you just call me Lucifer?”
“Maggie,” he shouted.
Albert backed away. “Be quiet,” he hissed. “I don’t think she knows.”
Maggie rushed into the living room, phone still pressed to her ear. “I’ve got to go,” she said into the receiver. She ended the call and her eyes wandered between Albert and Peter. “What?” she asked.
“Who the fuck is this?” asked Peter, pointing to Albert.
“I told you, that’s Albert. Are you ok? Did something happen?”
“Do you know Albert is crazy?” asked Peter.
Maggie looked horrified. “Don’t say that,” she said. “He’s not crazy, he needs help. You of all people should understand that.”
“Where did you find him?” asked Peter. “Is he another nut you befriended because you feel sorry for me?”
“No,” answered Maggie.
Peter glared at Albert. “How do you know my sister?”
“We met in California,” said Albert. “She was nice enough to give me a ride to Utah.”
“Oh great,” said Peter, “a stray.”
“Stop it,” said Maggie. “You’re being cruel.”
“And you’re being stupid,” said Peter. He pointed to Albert. “This is stupid. I bet he’s carrying an axe or a machete or a gun like fucking Bob.” He threw his hands in the air. “No wonder I found you here,” he said, his voice growing louder.
“It’s ok,” said Albert. “I’m not dangerous.”
“Shut the hell up,” shouted Peter. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me. You shouldn’t know my fucking sister. Fuck you.” He started to move forward, fists clenched.
“Stop it,” said Maggie. She rushed to put herself between them, but Peter pushed her aside.
Albert held his hands up in front of him. “It’s ok,” he repeated.
“Get out,” he shouted.
“No,” said Albert. “Remember me, please.”
Maggie stepped between them again. “Albert is Suicide Man,” she said.
Peter stopped his advance and looked down at his sister. “Of course he is.” He relaxed his fists and muttered to himself. “Suicide Man. Leave Suicide Man alone. Don’t hurt Suicide Man. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. Don’t push him too far. You don’t know what he might do.” Peter began pacing.
“Is he all right?” asked Albert.
Maggie held up a hand, signaling him to be quiet. “Peter,” she asked, “why don’t we go sit in the kitchen?”
“Why doesn’t Suicide Man go sit in the kitchen?”
“I can do that,” said Albert. He backed away.
A commotion from the back of the house caught their attention. They heard Isaac shouting, but he was suddenly cut off by a deafening bang. A deep, chilling scream rang out down the hallway.
“Oh my God,” said Maggie. “Bob has a gun.”
Nabil lay on his back on the floor. He stared at the patterns in the ceiling, following the visible brushstrokes and imperfections in the paint. He breathed deeply, filling his body with a sweet, flowery scent like Edna’s perfume. He could hear her laughing as she told one of her stories. He could picture her clearly, sitting on the couch, asking if he needed anything. He could not remember the last thing he said to her, but he was sure it wasn’t significant. He remembered the look on her face as he left her there with Cannon.
He closed his eyes and tried to let his memories consume him. He hoped another tiny piece of the play that existed in his visions would come to him and bring an answer, but nothing happened. He was alone in his mind with distant and mocking memories. He stood in his garden and watched his secrets and comforts wither and die around him. He was defeated. The life he always tried to convince himself would eventually amount to something became undeniably meaningless. He was hollow with nothing to comfort him but the echo of his own voice inside his head.
A car pulled into the driveway and Nabil was vaguely aware of the driver crossing the pavement. He did not move when the visitor knocked. The door creaked as the visitor entered the house. Nabil ignored the sound of footsteps approaching. Someone knelt beside him and touched his neck and took his pulse. The hand moved to his chest as someone shook him gently.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” answered Nabil, not bothering to open his eyes. “Leave me alone.”
“Can you move?”
“Yes,” said Nabil. “Go away.”
“Get up,” said the visitor. “People are very worried about you and you need to let them know you’re all right.”
Nabil obeyed. He expected to once again stare up at the ceiling, but instead saw Gabriel leaning over him. He frowned.
“Do you know where you are?” asked Gabriel.
Nabil rubbed his eyes and pushed himself up into a sitting position. He felt groggy as though he’d slept too long. He gradually became aware of his surroundings. He knew exactly where he was. Gabriel was in uniform and he was examining Nabil with an edge of uncertainty in his eyes.
“You’ve been missing for three days,” he said.
“Is this Edna’s house?” asked Nabil.
Gabriel nodded. “Do you remember coming here?”
“No,” he answered slowly. “Three days?”
“Yes. We thought you were dead.”
“How did you find me?” Nabil suddenly became aware of a throbbing pain in his head. He moved his body to stretch, and groaned. Everything hurt.
“This was the only place I could think of where we hadn’t looked.”
Nabil looked down at his body. His clothes were caked in sticky red mud. “What happened?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” answered Gabriel. “Do you remember anything?”
Nabil tried to think back. He realized he’d been lying in Edna’s living room. He pushed himself back against the couch and leaned his head on the cushion. “I went to the river,” he said.
“Do you know why?” asked Gabriel.
“Why did you break into Edna’s house?”
“I miss her,” muttered Nabil.
“Why weren’t you at her funeral?” asked Joshua.
Nabil closed his eyes again. “I didn’t know she was dead.”
“Ok,” said Gabriel. “We’ll talk about this later. I need to let everyone know I found you. Wait here.”
Nabil groaned again. He pushed himself onto his side and got to his feet. His head was throbbing.
Gabriel went to the door, checking behind him to make sure Nabil stayed in place.
Nabil looked down at the mud on his shoes. He took it as a sign of his location during his blackout. He waited until Gabriel was outside, then he got up and crept to the back of the house. He snuck through the backdoor and down the steps from the porch. At some point, he must have gone to the river. He decided to start there and retrace his steps.
* * *
It was dark when he reached the bridge. The water rushed beneath him as he looked for a sign, any sign that would show him he was on the right track. The wooden boards creaked as he walked. He stopped in the center of the bridge and looked over the edge at deep murky water of Black River. Just beneath the sound of the tumbling rapids, he thought he heard a woman laughing. The smell of Edna’s perfume was faint, but he was certain he could detect it in the air. She did not deserve to die. They were planning to kill him, but they killed her instead. He took a step closer to the edge.
He knew why he came to the river now. He’d planned to jump. Nabil remembered looking into the water and imagining the air escape his lungs. He imagined surrendering to the current and not fighting back as he was pulled under. He imagined sinking to the bottom, eyes open, heart pounding and watching the sky fade away above him. He remembered being afraid.
He knew he must have stood on the bridge, afraid of what he might do if he stayed longer. He knew his courage escaped him as he ran away, searching desperately for something to comfort him. He must have gone to Edna’s house. He was a coward and went there to die like a coward. He went to her house to rot away on her floor, knowing no one would look for him because no one would notice he was missing.
Now he had a second chance. Now he stood on the edge of the bridge, ready to face the darkness. The sky could fade, the river could swallow him; he would not run. He balanced on the very edge of the wooden planks. He could hear them rebelling against his weight. He prepared himself and let his body fall forward.
Suddenly a hand snatched him back. Someone pulled him from the edge back to the center of the bridge. Nabil struggled free of the intruder.
“Let go,” said Nabil. They stumbled and fell backwards. Nabil broke away and rolled to his side. He saw Cannon lying beside him.
“What the hell were you doing?” asked Cannon.
“Fuck off,” said Nabil.
“No,” said Cannon. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing,” snapped Nabil.
“Edna was old, it was her time.”
“Why would I believe you?” asked Nabil. “You’re a murderer.”
“I’m a friend,” said Cannon.
“No you’re not,” shouted Nabil. “You’re a murderer and I let you kill her. I should have stayed with her. I should have trusted my gut. I shouldn’t have left her alone. I left her and you killed her.” He supported himself on his hands and knees. He felt his body swelling with rage. He wanted to make Cannon suffer. He wanted revenge, but he stayed hunched over staring at the cracks between the wood. Punishing Cannon would not absolve him. It was his fault. He betrayed her. He deserved to be punished.
“This isn’t real,” said Cannon. He stood up and moved closer to Nabil. “What you’re feeling isn’t real. You carried these feelings with you from your past and now you can’t separate them. You are haunted for no reason. No one is holding your past against you.”
Nabil didn’t respond. He tried to block out what Cannon was saying.
“Let go of your guilt and come back.”
“I can’t,” whispered Nabil. “I’m a monster.” He wasn’t sure where the words came from, but as soon as he said them, a new pain filled his body. “Why would you want anything to do with me?”
Cannon knelt beside him. “Do you remember—scratch that—I know you don’t,” he sighed and began again. “One time I asked you the same question. One time I was so lost; so isolated from you and Lilith and Gabriel, I told you to leave me because I could never come back from my sins. I pushed you away because I could not see a way back to being the person you loved. I was a monster.”
Nabil felt a hand on his shoulder, but did not look up at Cannon.
“Do you know what you told me?” asked Cannon. “You said no matter how far I went; no matter how lost I was; no matter what part of myself I left behind; I could always come back to you. No matter how hopeless the darkness became or how deep my wretchedness grew; no matter how hard I fought to keep you away, you would follow me. You would be there, even when the faintest glow of my goodness left me. You swore to be with me; to rot with me and suffer with me. You pledged your love to me and I came back because sometimes that’s all it takes to pull someone back from the edge. So here I am. I love you. Lilith loves you. Gabriel loves you. We will rot with you for all eternity if that’s what it takes to stay with you. If life has taught me nothing else, at least I know I love you, and you can always come back to me.”
Nabil looked up at Cannon. “I’m guilty. It’s my fault.”
“No it’s not,” said Cannon.
“Then why do I feel this way?” demanded Nabil. “I’m not you, I’m not insane.”
“Yes you are,” said Cannon. “This behavior is insane. You’re not guilty anymore. I forgive you. For the love of God let this go and come back to us.”
“You forgive me?” asked Nabil. He looked up and got to his feet. Cannon did the same. “You, of all people, you forgive me? After I indulged your stupid stories, and listened to your idiot rambling, after all the times I could have reported you and didn’t, you have the nerve to forgive me? What have I ever done to you?”
“Nothing,” said Cannon. “I thought—”
“No,” snapped Nabil. “How did I wrong you, Cannon? What could I possibly have done to you? Tell me what the hell I could possibly have done to you?”
“I thought it was something you needed to hear,” said Cannon.
“You have no idea what I need,” said Nabil.
“You need absolution,” said Cannon.
Nabil rolled his eyes. “Of course you’re going to be cryptic. I don’t know why I’d expect anything true. Why would I think you would tell me something useful? You know, for a second, I thought you understood, but you’re a lunatic. If you understand me, then I must be a lunatic too.” He stepped forward and shoved Cannon. “So what now? Are we both crazy, or are you living some lonely delusion where you get to hand out forgiveness because you have some fucked up God complex?”
“If crazy is what it takes to make a freaking connection with you, then I’d say we’re both crazy,” said Cannon.
“Stop making me into what you need to make yourself feel better,” shouted Nabil. “Stop transferring your shit onto me.”
“I’m not the one transferring here,” Cannon shouted back. “You’re not guilty for what you did to Edna, you’re guilty for what you did to me.”
“And what the hell was that?” demanded Nabil.
“It doesn’t matter,” snapped Cannon. “I forgive you. I always have. You didn’t have to leave. You didn’t have to forget. It was a mistake. Just come back. Please.” He held his hands up, palms facing forward, a sign of surrender.
Nabil backed away from him slowly. They kept eye contact. No matter how tempting his words were, he was still Edna’s killer. Nabil could not let himself betray her again by surrendering to Cannon. He balanced his weight on the balls of his feet and lunged. He hurled himself from the bridge and cringed as his body hit the cold dark water.
Nabil hit the water hard. It was cold and fast and immediately pulled him under. At first he was afraid. Fear swept through him, growing stronger with every second he stayed beneath the water. Instinct kicked in and he struggled to find air. A fog began to creep in from somewhere in the back of his skull. Don’t pass out, he thought. Don’t die. Stay awake. The water surged around him and he flipped. He lurched forward and blood rushed into his head. He forced his eyes open and caught a glimpse of light. He kicked off a rock and struggled toward the surface. He gasped as his face met the air. The river threw him forward and his body collided with a rock as he tumbled over another rapid. He took in as much air as he could, fighting the current. He saw a large shape in the water just ahead of him. A massive rock stuck out among another cluster of whitewater. He took another gasp of air and tried to swim toward the rock. His head felt heavy and he could hear his heart echoing in his ears—still pumping, still trying.
The current grew stronger around the rock and Nabil felt it sucking him down. He was so close. If he could just grab it, he could pull himself out of the water. He could almost reach it. He kicked harder and reached for the boulder. His fingertips grazed the surface but the thin layer of algae made it impossible to grip. He kicked again, but it was too late. The current had him. It pulled him down into the darkness. He filled his lungs with one last breath before the water took him down. The current crushed his body, pinning him against the rock. His lungs cried out in agony and he opened his mouth and air escaped. He pressed his lips together and tried to wiggle free. The current was too strong. He was trapped.
I don’t want to die. It was a mistake. He thought. I’m not ready. I was wrong.
The fog began spreading in his head and he again fought the urge to gasp for air. He struggled against the rock and another bubble escaped his lips. The water was freezing. His limbs burned from fighting against the current. His lungs burned for one last breathe.
He tried to push himself away again when something warm crept through his heart. This was what he wanted. This was the end. The struggle was over. The pain would end soon. He’d never been able to hold his breath for more than a minute. He had at most that much time left before it was done. Even then, he’d expended time and air struggling. How long did he have left? Was this really it? His last minute alive? His last minute to revel in the glories of life? His last minute to say goodbye? The warm feeling grew in his chest. He stopped trying to push himself from the rock and tried to relax.
He shuffled through his memory and found a woman with warm olive skin and long black hair. She smiled and held her arms out and embraced him. Heat surged through his body and trickled down into his fingertips and toes. He held her there, clinging to the warmth, before letting the image fade from his mind.
Her face vanished and a new one appeared. Edna’s face was blurry, but inviting.
I’m so sorry.
He felt her reaching out for him; she seemed to pull him closer. A voice at the back of his mind told him to fight, and hold on just a little longer. He ignored it.
He let her slip away. It was going to be all right.
He focused on the warmth growing inside him. Seconds. He had seconds left. He could feel himself slipping. He focused on his muscles, willing them to relax, convincing his body not to fight. His lungs were clinging to his last remaining oxygen; his last few seconds of life.
I’m all right. I can do this. I want this.
A fire in his lungs exploded and they screamed for air.
He had to remember these people. He had to take them with him.
He couldn’t stand it anymore.
This was it. This was the end. He coughed and felt his last breath leave his body. As a reflex he inhaled and felt a surge of cold water rush into his mouth, stinging his throat.
“Where are you?” someone shouted.
In his head he saw Cannon, desperate and manic, searching through the nothingness. “Nabil,” he shouted.
I’m here, he thought, but I’m all right. I’m happy.
“I’m coming,” said Cannon. “Hold on. I’m coming.” His form moved faster toward Nabil, and the fog rolled in behind him.
Nabil watched him run. He was so close. Let me go. I’m finally happy.
Cannon didn’t answer. He just kept running. The fog was closing in, though he didn’t seem to notice. It grew darker, consuming the shoreline behind him.
“Not yet,” shouted Cannon. “I’m coming. I’m almost there.”
The fog morphed into an inky black wave. It lurched forward and his feet disappeared. He was almost to the rock. He reached out, screaming, but it was too late. The darkness had him.
Nabil watched as Cannon’s body vanished. His shape lingered in the ink; frail and powerless, until at last, his silhouette was gone.
Bob shot Isaac. It took one hour, four policemen, one ambulance and several ultimatums to get them to open the bathroom door. By the time they got out Isaac was deathly pale and bleeding profusely from his shoulder. He had a bloody towel tied around his arm and Bob was pressing against the wound with another towel.
The gun, as it turned out, had been hidden behind the toilet. Despite thorough questioning Bob failed to provide a comprehensible answer as to why it was there in the first place.
“It was an accident,” said Isaac, as they loaded him into the ambulance. “Bob’s such a good guy. I don’t know how it happened. It’s all a blur, but he didn’t do it on purpose.”
While the police questioned Maggi and Peter, Albert sat with Bob on the sidewalk. Bob was doubled over with his head in his hands and he kept muttering “Oh boy, oh boy,” to himself.
No one recognized Albert, not yet at least, but being around the cops put him on edge. Thankfully they were preoccupied with the shooting and they’d only asked him a few questions before clearing him.
Maggi and Peter joined them after a few minutes.
“Isaac isn’t going to press charges,” said Maggi. “They’re calling it an accident. We should probably follow him to the hospital to make sure he’s all right.”
Peter groaned. “No,” he said. “Let’s go home. We’re so close. I don’t want to spend all night in the hospital.”
“He’s family,” said Maggi.
“He’s an idiot,” said Peter.
“He’ll never forgive me for this,” whimpered Bob.
“He already has,” said Peter. “Stop crying.”
“A man has been shot,” snapped Bob. “Have some respect.”
“I’ll drive,” said Maggi. “Everybody get in the car.”
Peter refused to sit with Bob, which put Albert and Bob in the back seat. Bob was still crying and Peter was still complaining. They managed to bicker all the way to the hospital and then into the waiting room.
Maggi finally got tired of their antics and placed herself and Albert between them in the waiting room chairs.
“He’s going to need to go to rehab again,” said Maggi.
“Good luck with that,” said Peter.
“Again?” asked Albert.
“This would make it his third trip,” said Peter.
“It wouldn’t hurt to send Bob with him,” said Maggi.
“Fuck that,” said Peter. “Paying for Isaac to get clean is one thing but Bob? Hell no.”
“Bob is his weakness. If we don’t clean him up, he’ll just suck Isaac in again.”
Bob leaned over Albert. “I’m not going to any hippie rehab,” he said.
“Well, there you go,” said Peter. “Hippie rehab is out.”
Maggi gave him a stern look. “He is blood. We have to take care of him.”
“You are soft,” said Peter. “And wasting money.”
“Mom and Dad will help. They know he needs it.”
“Over my dead body,” said Bob.
“What if it wasn’t specifically rehab?” asked Albert. He’d had his fair share of lapses in judgment. He’d been sent to multiple centers as well. Before he ran away he’d considered checking himself into a facility that offered “spiritual recovery.” It wasn’t a rehab center as much as it was a resort for “troubled souls.” It sounded like nonsense but it also sounded like a vacation. It if hadn’t been so expensive, Albert would have tried it. It offered whole body healing and self-evaluation. Before he realized everything was essentially pointless, he’d looked into going.
“What do you mean?” asked Maggi.
“There are places that offer a holistic approach to—”
“No,” said Peter. “I’m with Bob. None of that hippie crap.”
“It’s not hippie crap. It’s like a vacation from yourself. It’s a place to meditate and—”
“No,” said Peter. “We’re not going to pay for Isaac to go on vacation and pretend to meditate.”
“I don’t know,” said Maggi. “We’ve tried everything else. It might work.”
“It’s not just for addicts,” said Albert. “You could all go.”
Peter slumped in his chair. “This is the worst day of my entire life.”
A nurse came to get them after a while. She said Isaac was heavily sedated but they could visit him if they wanted. The first thing Bob did was throw himself to his knees and beg forgiveness. Isaac instantly complied.
“Of course it was an accident,” said Isaac. “You were just upset. I understand.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Bob. “I’ll never shoot you again.”
“I know,” said Isaac. “I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have pushed you. I was just so worried.”
“It’s going to be ok,” said Bob. “These nice people are going to send us to get better. We’re going to be all right.”
“Hang on,” said Peter.
Maggi shushed him.
“Is that true?” asked Isaac. “You’ll help Bob too?”
Maggi sighed. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s true.”
Isaac shook his head. “I don’t do so good in rehab. I’ll just fall off the wagon again.”
Maggi glanced at Albert. “It’s not rehab,” she said. “It’s just a place to relax and get clean. No doctors, no pressure.” She lowered her voice, “right?”
Albert nodded quickly.
“And Bob can come with me?”
“Yes,” she answered. “As a matter of fact, we’re all going.”
Albert glanced at her.
“You, too,” she said.
“You’re in it with us now,” she said. “Besides, it was your idea.”
“It’s a lot of money,” said Albert.
“I have access to a lot of money,” said Maggi. “It will be good for us.” She lowered her voice again. “You’re on the run anyway, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” answered Albert.
“What better place to hide than a spiritual retreat?”
She had a point. Gabriel wouldn’t expect him to settle down somewhere, much less with a group of people. He couldn’t refuse the offer. He was so close. He couldn’t lose Peter.
“I’m going to get Isaac some ice,” said Peter. He took Albert by the elbow. “Why don’t you come with me?”
Maggi glared at him but they were already out the door.
“You want to explain what that weird shit was back at the house?” hissed Peter.
“I thought you were someone else,” said Albert.
“That’s not less weird. You said you remembered me.”
“You said I looked familiar,” said Albert.
“Yeah, you’re Suicide Man. Maggi’s obsessed with you. She’s made me watch all of your videos. I think that’s a sick game you’re playing, by the way.”
“Yeah, pretending to kill yourself just so you can rise to viral fame? That’s twisted.”
“I’m not—I wouldn’t do that. I just—sometimes I can’t—” He couldn’t find the words. He backed away from Peter. Maybe he was wrong again. Maybe Peter wasn’t anyone. Maybe he was wasting his time. Suddenly the hospital seemed very far away. The world was slipping away from him and he could hear his heart pounding in his ears.
Peter frowned. “You’re for real?”
Albert shook his head. “I’m sorry I bothered you. I just thought you were someone I knew.”
Peter put a hand on his shoulder. “Hang on.”
Albert ran his hands through his hair. Peter’s voice was like an echo. He wasn’t connected to anything. Somewhere in the distance he felt Peter take his hand and lead him to a chair. He urged him to sit.
“Take a deep breath,” said Peter. “You look really pale.”
“I’m ok,” said Albert. He wasn’t. He was wrong again. He was alone. He’d never find Lucifer. Why did he even remember Lucifer? Was it because he’d hurt him? Was Lucifer in trouble? Was he even alive?
“Hey,” said Peter. “Snap back. I’m sorry I was a dick. Maggi’s just been really weird about your story and I don’t want you taking advantage of her.”
Albert took a breath.
“There you go,” said Peter. “Deep breaths. You’re ok. I’m sorry, really.”
“It’s all right,” said Albert. “It’s not you. I’m ok.”
“Hey!” Maggi was marching toward them. “What happened? What’s wrong?” She eyed Peter. “What did you do?”
“I think he had a panic attack,” said Peter.
“He didn’t do anything,” said Albert.
Maggi sat on the other side of him and put a hand on his shoulder. “We’re all going to the ranch,” she said. “You included.”
“You don’t have to do that,” said Albert.
“It’s not up to you. This will be good for all of us.”
Albert glanced at Peter.
“If Maggi says you’re going, then you’re going,” he said. He gave Albert a crooked smile and for some reason Albert felt better.
Isaac stayed in the hospital for two days. The rest of them set up camp at Bob’s and did some much-needed housekeeping in between visits to Isaac.
Albert showed Maggi the place he was talking about. Their website boasted rustic living quarters and a guaranteed reconnection to Mother Earth. Peter was less than enthused. Maggi actually seemed excited. She took care of planning travel arrangements and reservations. By the time Isaac was discharged, they were ready to leave for Sunshine Ranch back in California.
Lucifer perched in the shadows amongst the trees and tangled undergrowth; watching. Jesus stood on the porch of a small gray house with his back to the woods. After a few moments of anxious little twitches and a nervous glance over his shoulder, Jesus entered the house. Lucifer grinned and waited before creeping closer. He half-wished Lilith was with him to see things from the beginning.
Once he was sure Jesus had enough time to get comfortable, Lucifer approached the house. He slunk around to the side-yard to a vantage point he’d discovered earlier when he first cased the area. From here, a remote little area sheltered by the fence and an old pine tree, he could watch the house undisturbed. He could see into the living room easily. If he moved back to the front yard and crouched in the shrubbery, he could peer into Jesus’ bedroom.
Jesus was pacing around in front of the couch. He looked, for the most part, the way Lucifer expected for this incarnation. His body was different, but his mannerisms and general demeanor remained the same. He marched back and forth in the tiny living room, all guilt and self-loathing, no doubt over-complicating some simple problem.
Lucifer knew Jesus didn’t remember his past. He never remembered. Lucifer always remembered. Lilith remembered if she thought it would be an advantage in the next life. Gabriel claimed to only remember his stories, but that was a damn lie. Gabriel always knew more than he let the others believe. Michael remembered God and God remembered Michael, but they got lost together centuries ago.
Lucifer scowled as his thoughts turned to the latest defectors from their group. God and Michael were so entangled in each other’s tragedy of an existence they’d basically merged into one messy, hapless soul. They lived together, died together. They believed the same nonsense and drank the same Kool-Aid. When one of them changed, the other would seamlessly follow suit. It was usually Michael following God. They might be better off if it was the other way around.
It was dangerous, one soul basing its existence off the existence of another. Lucifer had seen two souls become an endless chain of follow the leader, despite no one knowing who the leader actually was. That was how God became God. He had just enough insight to realize he was being followed and declare himself king. He was one of many Gods in the afterlife. Infinite space allowed for infinite souls allowed for infinite possibilities allowed for infinite waste. Lucifer knew God had a name before he called himself God, but he’d changed so long ago even Lucifer couldn’t remember it.
He snorted. Michael probably knew. Probably kept a little notebook of all God’s secrets, dragging it around from life to life. Idiot.
Jesus stopped pacing and looked over toward the window. For a second, Lucifer thought he’d been spotted, but then Jesus pulled a book from the backpack on the floor and sat down on the couch to read. Lucifer let out a sigh. Lilith would kill him if he got caught.
She was rarely as right as she thought she was. She called him obsessive and even had the audacity to compare him to Michael, following Jesus through eternity. Watching and following were two different things.
Lucifer jumped, snapped from his vigil, when someone whispered his name. He stumbled and turned to find a policeman with curly brown hair glaring at him. “Gabriel?” he whispered.
“I knew it,” hissed the officer. He grabbed Lucifer by the arm and dragged him away from the house. “Get in the car.”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” said Lucifer.
“Don’t tell Lilith.”
“You’re a child,” snapped Gabriel.
“You’re a child,” spat Lucifer.
“No,” he said, “you’re literally a child. How old are you right now?”
“Ugh,” groaned Lucifer. “Ancient.”
“I’m serious. You look like you’re still in high school. You know better than to leave a life before you’re ready.”
“I’m 17. So technically, I can do what I want.”
“Your poor parents,” muttered Gabriel.
“Don’t worry. I picked friends.” He had a deal with several other people who also remembered their lives. He was usually born to them to allow himself more freedom as he aged.
Gabriel pinched the bridge of his nose. He pulled Lucifer down the street to where his patrol car was parked.
“Wow,” said Lucifer. “You’re a real cop.”
“Shut up and get in.” He shoved Lucifer into the car. He stomped around to the driver’s side and slammed the door shut as he sat behind the wheel. “Where are you staying?” His face paled. “He works at a hotel. You know that. So help me, if you’re staying there—have you already talked to him? You have. I know you have. Dammit, Lucifer.”
“Yeah, yell at me first,” said Lucifer. “Whatever you do, don’t let me answer the fucking question.”
“Fine. Where are you staying?”
“Bullshit. I’ve been watching Lilith.” Gabriel glared at him.
Lucifer couldn’t help grinning. “She hasn’t told you, has she?”
“Told me what?”
“Does she know you’re you? I’m sure she does. You always stick out.”
“She doesn’t remember.”
Lucifer laughed. “Yeah she does.”
“And,” said Lucifer quickly, “before you yell at me again, she remembered all on her own. She took out an ad.”
“Where? I didn’t see one.”
“It was online.”
“The rule is print.”
“The rule is to reach the largest audience. I think she had something printed in a few classifieds, but the one I saw was online.”
Gabriel slumped back against his seat.
They had a tradition, a way to find each other if life separated them. They’d take out an ad in the classified section of the largest publication they could afford and wait. The ad had to include their real name, the Latin word for apple and form of contact. Gabriel invented the code and used it for the first time in Egypt. He’d hung up a sheet of papyrus that none of them found until Jesus came back as an archeologist centuries later. It was a hit-and-miss method of communication, but it was nice when it worked.
“I didn’t even check,” muttered Gabriel. “I thought she didn’t remember.”
“Then how’d you find her?” asked Lucifer.
“Before I was born,” answered Gabriel. “I planned to remember anyway and I had no fucking clue where you and Jesus ran away to, so I stuck with Lilith.”
“I was in that big Baptist Heaven for a while,” said Lucifer.
Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “You died again.”
“I’ve died a lot.”
“How would you know what happened to that Heaven unless you went back to it?”
Lucifer pushed the truth a little further away in his mind. “I was keeping an eye on it. You know that was my favorite heaven.”
“I watched it fall,” said Gabriel. “You were nowhere to be found.” He started the car. “You were alive.” He muttered something to himself.
Lucifer and Jesus were both alive when the Baptist Heaven fell, but no one knew that. It was their secret. That lifetime was a bad one. If Jesus didn’t remember, it meant only Lucifer knew the truth, and it wasn’t his truth to tell.
“I wasn’t alive,” said Lucifer.
“I think you were,” said Gabriel. “And I think Jesus was with you.”
Lucifer rolled his eyes and hoped his indifference looked sincere. He’d have to be more careful. Gabriel and Lilith were already suspicious; this was just one more reason to watching him.
He stared out of the window as Gabriel drove to Lilith’s house. They didn’t need to know the truth, not if Jesus wasn’t ready to tell them himself. The rest of the ride was quiet.
Gabriel pulled into the driveway. He marched to the front door and knocked. Lucifer trailed behind him, lingering on the porch while they waited.
Lilith opened the door moments later. “Good evening, officer,” she said. “Can I hel—” She stopped when she saw Lucifer. “Oh,” she said. “Did you tell him or did he figure it out?”
“He figured it out,” answered Lucifer. “He’s known for a while, he just didn’t know you knew.” Lucifer didn’t bother pointing out this was why it was important for them to talk to each other. Gabriel had been wandering around town “keeping an eye” on Lilith and pretending to only know her as “Edna.” Meanwhile, Lilith was doing the same thing.
“How much do you know?” asked Gabriel.
“Enough,” answered Lilith.
“Do you know where Jesus is?”
She nodded to Lucifer. “He says Jesus is a boy named Nabil.”
“That explains why I caught him creeping around outside of the kid’s house,” said Gabriel.
“Lucifer,” said Lilith, hands on her hips. “You don’t even know if that’s him. What if he saw you? That boy’s got it hard enough.”
“I’m one hundred percent sure it’s him,” said Lucifer.
“Get in the house,” said Lilith. “We’ve said too much. It’s bad enough there’s a patrol car parked in my driveway.” She ushered them inside and shut the door.
“Can anyone actually confirm it’s him?” asked Gabriel. “We’re all older. No one knows for sure, right?”
“I’m sure,” said Lucifer.
“Because Michael’s here too.” He’d been saving that piece of information. It was worth it now, to see Gabriel and Lilith gaping at him. “I know things,” said Lucifer.
“How the hell did you find Michael?” asked Lilith.
“He found you,” answered Lucifer. “And Gabriel found you. You’re kind of the lynchpin in this whole deal.”
“Does he remember?” asked Lilith.
“No idea. I haven’t talked to him.”
“Suspiciously absent,” answered Lucifer. That was another lie. God was alive and living as a man called “Robert” in Utah.
“Who is Michael?” asked Lilith.
“Your partner, Joshua,” answered Lucifer.
“What are the chances?” muttered Gabriel.
“I don’t know, but I don’t like it,” said Lilith. She eyed Lucifer.
“I told you,” said Lucifer, “Lilith is the lynchpin. She was born before all of us. Anyone who shows up here is either here by coincidence or is here because they recognized her.”
“That doesn’t prove Nabil is Jesus,” said Lilith. “But if he is, and if what you’re saying is true, then he’s here because of me which means he remembers.”
“And if he remembers,” concluded Gabriel, “why hasn’t he said something?”
Lucifer considered his options. Jesus probably didn’t remember his past. If he remembered anything, it probably wouldn’t manifest as more than a gut feeling. But Gabriel and Lilith didn’t need to know that. If they thought he remembered, they would be more willing to approach him.
Lucifer glanced at Lilith. She was watching him, reading him. He glanced at the floor.
“Jesus doesn’t remember,” she said. “He never remembers.” She sighed. “Where are your parents? You’re still technically a child.”
“They’re old friends. They knew who I was by the time I turned five. I’m a big boy now.”
“For the love of God,” muttered Lilith.
“I was thinking I should probably be in school,” said Lucifer. “To keep up appearances.”
“And to harass Nabil.”
“And that. You could be my grandmother. It makes a nice story.”
Lilith crossed her arms. “How convenient that you already have this all worked out.”
Lucifer shrugged. “I’m a planner, what can I say. Oh, by the way my name is Cannon in this life. You’ll need to know that, Nana.”
“Do not call me Nana.”
“I can’t call you Edna. How about Granny?”
Lilith rubbed her forehead. “Kill me,” she muttered.
“If he’s going to stay here it’s better that we know what he’s doing,” said Gabriel. “At least we can keep an eye on him.”
“Fine,” said Lilith. “You’ll stay with me. We’ll come up with a story, but you have to act like a 17-year-old. No tricks.”
“Deal,” said Lucifer.
Edna huffed. “Don’t make me regret this.”
When did that heaven fall?” asked Lilith.
“Not long after you incarnated,” answered Gabriel. “I’ll give you one guess as to who’s responsible.”
She looked at Lucifer. “What did you do?”
He laughed. “Oh man, it was too easy. All I had to do was bet God he couldn’t prove reincarnation was real. I think he’s in the top ten most gullible ‘Gods’ out there.”
“You made him reincarnate?” asked Lilith
“No, I dared him to reincarnate. He didn’t think it was real. I warned him. It’s not my fault he’s lost his damn mind. You can blame that on Gabriel and his stupid book.”
“My book is not stupid,” snapped Gabriel. “It’s a work in progress.”
“The Bible isn’t a work in progress,” said Lucifer. “Pretty sure there are millions of people who agree on that.”
“It’s not finished.”
“When are you going to finish it?” asked Lucifer.
“When my writer’s block is gone.”
“Great, meanwhile we’ve got nutjobs like God and Michael running around thinking it’s gospel.”
“Michael wasn’t my fault,” said Gabriel. “He and God have their own issues. I would have finished it sooner but it’s been difficult to get anyone to listen to me.”
“That’s because you’ve waited too long to work on it.”
“No, it’s because I kept incarnating as a woman. You have no idea how hard it is to be a woman.”
“Yes I do,” said Lucifer and Lilith in unison.
Gabriel snorted. “Have either of you been burned alive? Every time I come back as a woman I get burned at the stake.”
“You haven’t been a woman since 1602,” said Lucifer.
“Technically,” said Lilith, “gender is just a social construct.”
“Oh really?” asked Gabriel. “Maybe I should have explained that to the pitchfork-wielding townsfolk before they set me on fire.” He shuddered. “There are some things you just can’t forget.”
“Well being a woman hasn’t gotten much better,” said Lilith.
“Hey,” snapped Lucifer, “It’s a lot better than it used to be. I fought hard for our rights.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me,” said Lucifer. “Jesus and I were fighting along side our sisters for the right to vote. Where were you?” he jabbed a finger at Lilith.
“I was kicking ass with my brothers in the Great War, thank you very much.”
“Oh,” said Lucifer, “I forgot about that. That was the lifetime Gabriel started that cult.”
Gabriel threw his hands in the air. “This is why I don’t write anymore.”
“Well you should write something new soon,” said Lucifer. “And pick a different name for the devil. I’m tired of being labeled the bad guy.”
“I wasn’t writing about you specifically,” said Gabriel.
“Then maybe stop using your friends names in your stories.”
“You guys have cool names.”
“No,” said Lilith. “I’m with Lucifer on this one. I don’t want my name in your books anymore. You’re a writer, make something up.” She glanced at the clock on the wall.
“It’s your fault the Christian Gods are obsessed with Jesus and hate me and Lilith.”
“I didn’t mean for it to get so out of control,” said Gabriel.
“You didn’t even write the whole story. You totally left out me and Lilith getting stoned to death.”
“It didn’t fit the narrative,” said Gabriel.
“You need an editor,” said Lucifer. “Next time we get to see the new draft before you start spreading the word.”
“Enough,” said Lilith. “You have to get to school,” She handed Lucifer his backpack.
Lucifer groaned. “I hate this stupid age.”
“At least pretend to learn,” she said.
“I already know everything.”
“You don’t know everything. Try to pay attention.” Lilith practically shoved him out of the door.
Today would be his first day at the high school, though Lilith and Gabriel didn’t know it. They thought he’d been attending for a week already, but he had other priorities. He’d used that time to follow Jesus, learn his routine, follow Joshua and his little sister and make sure they weren’t a threat, break into Jesus’ house, read his journal, change the batteries in the smoke detectors and take care of other mundane household chores.
He had a few classes with Jesus, but he figured that would change soon. This school had a program where they assigned “buddies” to struggling students. He’d missed a week and he was new. He was a perfect candidate for a struggler. All he had to do today was befriend Jesus and get him assigned as his buddy. That should be easy enough. Jesus had a soft spot for underdogs and outcasts and Lucifer was an expert at playing the part.
He kept to himself during class. At lunch, he hovered around the cafeteria doors as though he was afraid to go in alone. He knew Jesus would have to walk past him on the way to the field.
Sure enough about a minute later he heard someone call his name. He turned and saw Jesus looking at him.
“Have you had lunch yet?” asked Jesus
Lucifer put on his best puppy-face “No,” he answered.
“Come with me,” said Jesus. “The cafeteria’s not worth the trouble.”
The rest of the day went exactly as planned. Jesus shared his lunch and even got comfortable enough to talk about himself. Jesus’ caretaker instinct kicked in hard. It always did and Lucifer knew exactly how to exploit it. By the end of the day Nabil and Cannon had a promising friendship and were the newest members of the school’s buddy system. Jesus even went over to Lilith’s for dinner. After he left Lucifer sat in the living room with Lilith, beaming with pride.
“You’re playing with fire,” said Lilith.
“Jesus and I always play with fire.”
“If you push him away and he disconnects from us it could be lifetimes before we find him again.”
“I found him this time, didn’t I?”
“Are you one hundred percent sure it’s him?”
“I’m ninety-five percent sure.”
“And if it’s not him?”
“Then I’ve just made a new friend.”
When the day came to leave for Sunshine Ranch Bob and Isaac suddenly decided they felt much better and didn’t need to go with the rest of them.
“You’re the whole reason we’re going,” said Peter.
“Do they have booze?” asked Bob.
“No,” said Peter. “That’s the whole freaking point. If I have to go to this stupid place, you guys definitely have to go.”
“We’re all going,” said Maggi. “Help me get the stuff in the car.”
“This might be a two day trip,” said Albert.
“No,” said Maggi. “We’ll drive in shifts and make it in one day. No stops.”
“I hate this already,” said Peter.
“It’ll be fine,” said Maggi. “We’ll drive fast, get there in the morning, check in and start relaxing.”
“Ugh, I’m already stressed,” said Peter. “How long do we have to be there?”
“One month,” answered Maggi.
“Oh my God that’s an eternity.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Albert.
They packed the car and Bob complained the entire time. Albert noticed an unusual bulge in his shirt. Albert poked at it.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“None of your damn business,” answered Bob.
“Is that a flask?”
Peter snuck up behind him and grabbed the object from under his shirt. “No booze, moron. I’m not telling you again.”
“Everybody in the car,” said Maggi. “Albert, you’re upfront with me. I’ll take the first driving shift. Bob, Isaac, Peter, you’re in the back.”
Peter grabbed her arm. “No, please don’t put me back there.”
“Just sleep through it,” she whispered. “You can drive next and I’ll take your spot.”
“We’re never going to make it,” muttered Peter
Peter was almost right. Four hours later Bob and Isaac tried to make a run for it at the gas station. They corralled them back to the car and Peter took over driving. Albert sat in the back to spare Maggi from sitting in what was easily the worst spot in the car.
“How much longer?” asked Bob.
“Three hours,” answered Peter.
“I want to drive.”
“Are you sober?”
“Yes. You all haven’t let me have a damn drop in hours.”
“I thought you quit drinking when you shot Isaac,” said Maggi.
“In that case I’ve been sober for days.”
Peter turned the music up louder.
Maggi punched him in the arm but didn’t argue. They arrived at the ranch three long hours later. A peppy woman with long braided hair greeted them. Maggi and Albert took care of check-in while Peter babysat Bob and Isaac. They were assigned two large cabins next to one another. Maggi and Isaac took one while Albert, Bob and Peter took the other. They decided it was best to keep Bob and Isaac away from each other.
“I get the top bunk,” said Bob.
“There are no bunks,” said Peter. “You get a room, with walls, where no one has to see you.”
“Is that a good idea?” asked Albert. “Leaving him alone, I mean?”
“I’m not going to sleep in there with him,” said Peter.
“I don’t want to either, but I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Me too,” said Peter. “But that’s not going to stop me from getting a good night’s sleep.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I wish we’d had more time to pack. I wasn’t prepared for this level of nonsense. I should have brought a book.”
“There are a lot of activities here,” said Albert. “In the morning we’ll do yoga.”
“No,” growled Bob. “I’m not doing no yoga.”
“Go to bed, Bob,” said Peter. “You can not do yoga in the morning.”
Bob muttered something under his breath and retreated to his room.
“Fuck me,” said Peter. “They’re like children. I hope Maggi’s all right.”
“I get a feeling she got the better end of the deal,” said Albert. “Isaac seems all right on his own, Bob is just,” he shook his head, “unique.”
“He’s an asshat.”
Albert nodded. “Yeah, he’s kind of an asshat.”
Peter scratched his chin. “Not going to lie, but the urge to fuck with him is pretty strong.”
“He’s going through a lot. I don’t think we should poke the dragon.”
“He’s not a dragon. If anything he’s a big, sleepy lizard.”
Albert laughed. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I meant to tell you,” he began, “I’m sorry for all the weird shit earlier. I get confused sometimes. I’m not on the right medication and I just—I get weird. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Peter. “Everybody goes through shit. Everybody has their baggage. I’m sorry I was a jerk about it. Still not sure why you thought I was the devil, though.”
“Not the devil,” said Albert. “I had a friend named Lucifer. He was,” he sighed. “He was a good friend.”
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” answered Albert. “I lost contact with him years ago.” He bit his lip. “I don’t even know if he’s still alive.”
Peter put a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll find him,” he said.
Albert closed his eyes. He felt it again, a brief flicker of familiarity. He knew Peter. It had to be him. “Yeah,” he breathed. “I’ll find him.”
Peter clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. I don’t know about you but I’m dead tired. I’m going to bed and I fully intend to sleep through yoga.”
“I’ll see you in the morning then,” said Albert.
“Or afternoon. Whatever.”
Despite their plans they woke up much earlier. Bob was missing.
Albert woke up to the door slamming at 5:00 a.m. Grumbling, he wandered from his room to check on the others. He found Bob’s room empty and his bag missing. He woke Peter and delivered the news. They quickly decided against bothering Maggi and Isaac. Maggi didn’t need the stress and Isaac would absolutely find a way to make it worse.
“Unless Isaac’s gone too,” said Peter.
“That doesn’t matter. If he’s gone they’re probably together. We find one we’ll find the other.”
“I can’t believe this falls to us. Why do we even care about stupid Bob and his stupid plans?”
“Because we care about Maggi and Maggi cares about Isaac and Isaac cares about Bob,” answered Albert.
“Why do you care about Maggi?”
“She is. And she’s weirdly invested in you.” Peter sighed. “We make a hell of a team.”
They tried to be as quiet as possible with their search. The car was still there which meant Bob was wandering around on foot.
“There’s a gas station down the road,” said Albert. “He probably went to find alcohol.”
“I really hate that guy,” muttered Peter. “I mean Isaac’s always been a pain, but after he met Bob he reached a new level of annoying.”
“How long have you and Maggi been dealing with the two of them?”
“I don’t even know. Years? Isaac was supposed to be clean, but I guarantee you he’s been on something for a while.” They reached the end of the long dirt driveway that lead back to the ranch.
“I can’t believe he made it this far,” said Albert.
“He probably got lost,” said Peter. “We might have passed him. He’s probably in a ditch.”
“I hope he’s in a ditch.”
Albert looked up and saw a black and white car driving slowly down the highway. “Oh shit,” he hissed. “Get down, quick.” He pulled Peter back into the trees and yanked him down to the ground.
“Is that a cop car?”
“Yes,” whispered Albert.
“And we’re hiding because?”
“I know that car.”
The driver had the window rolled down and he was shining a flashlight into the trees.
“Oh God,” breathed Albert. “He found me. I can’t believe he found me.”
“Are you on the run? What’d you do?”
“You know the videos of me?”
“You know the guy who always shows up and saves me?”
“Why are we hiding from him?” asked Peter. “He seems like a great guy.”
“He wants to take me away. He’s trying to stop me.”
“That’s a good thing,” said Peter. “You shouldn’t try to kill yourself.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
The car approached their hiding spot and stopped. Gabriel stepped out.
“Here we go,” muttered Albert. “If you want to get out of this you’d better run now.”
“How does he know you’re here?”
Albert shook his head. “He always knows. He’s got a sixth sense or something.”
Surprisingly someone else exited the car with him.
“Bob,” hissed Peter.
Bob pointed to the dirt road. “We’re staying down there,” he said. “Sunrise, sunshine, sun-something farm.”
“And Albert is with you?” asked Gabriel.
“Yep,” answered Bob. “Weird kid, jumpy, asks too many questions.”
“Sounds about right,” said Gabriel.
Albert huffed. “He’s going to find me anyway. I’m going in.”
“No, wait,” hissed Peter.
Albert stepped out of the darkness. “I’m here,” he said. He raised his hands.
Gabriel jumped. “What are you doing here? Why here of all places?”
“I found what I was looking for,” said Albert. At that moment Peter crawled out from the trees behind him.
“We haven’t done anything wrong,” he said.
“I’m not accusing anybody,” said Gabriel. “Who are you?”
“Peter, I’m Albert’s friend.”
Gabriel looked between the two of them. “Son of a bitch,” he murmured.
“That’s them,” said Bob. “They kidnapped me.”
“No we didn’t,” said Peter. “We’re here to detox – well Bob is here to detox. We’re here to guard Bob.”
Gabriel shook his head. “I can’t believe this. Get in the car, all of you.”
Albert climbed in the back. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d been relegated to the back of this particular patrol car. Peter crawled in beside him.
“This is so weird,” whispered Peter.
“I have a feeling it’s going to get weirder,” said Albert.
Lilith pinched the bridge of her nose. “You took him to Shelby?” she asked.
“Yeah. She’s harmless,” said Lucifer
“You are so transparent.”
“I am not. I’m an enigma.”
“What are you trying to accomplish?”
“I had to do it. I needed to see how gullible he is.”
“He’s not gullible. Leave him alone.”
“She tried to convert him, wait, no, Joshua – Michael – tried to convert him.”
“I highly doubt Michael remembers enough about his past to try to convert Jesus.”
“He’d do it just because. He’s on autopilot at this point.”
“You can’t save him from everything.”
“I bet I can.”
“I just need to make sure he’s stable,” said Lucifer.
“He’s the most stable one of all of us,” she said. “He’s fine. This lifetime has been hard, but he’s been through worse. We all have.”
Lucifer bit his tongue. Gabriel and Lilith didn’t know the whole story. They didn’t know about the extra lifetime. They didn’t know he and Jesus lived together without them in a secret life. They didn’t know things went wrong. They didn’t know the toll it took on Jesus. They didn’t know the guilt he was living with now.
Lucifer knew the risks of being alive. He was in it for the thrill. He remembered his past, the afterlife, everything. Jesus didn’t. He considered it “cheating.”
They’d lost each other before. Over the infinite number of lives they’d lived they’d lost and found each other countless times. Lucifer had lost people who never came back. Every time he lost Jesus he wondered if it would be the last.
It was selfish for Lucifer to track him down and force him to remember something he clearly wanted to forget. It was selfish for him to steal Jesus from his shame and guilt. It was selfish to hunt for him and repair their friendship. It was selfish, but Lucifer didn’t care. Jesus never got the chance to remember his goodness. Lucifer watched him for the remainder of that life. He watched Jesus blame himself. He watched him spiral into self-loathing. He watched him hang himself from the doorway of his apartment. He watched guilt consume him. He watched him die.
Jesus didn’t get to carry his virtues into his next life. Jesus died and was almost immediately reborn. Lucifer wasn’t sure if it was a way of punishing himself, or if it was to find Lucifer, or something else entirely. Maybe Jesus just reincarnated by default. Lucifer had no choice but to follow him. He already knew where everyone else was. Lilith lived in Nighton under the name Edna. Gabriel kept his name and was keeping an eye on her. Michael, someone who they used to consider a friend, was living as a boy named Joshua. He wasn’t sure if Michael remembered anything at all.
God had been harder to find. He was living in Utah under the name Bob. At thirty-four, he was already an accomplished alcoholic who was stoned half the time. Lucifer made a note to hold that over his head later.
Lilith and Gabriel would probably be more concerned if they knew the truth, but it wasn’t his story to tell and he wasn’t sure if it would make things worse for Jesus. This was personal. It was their secret. Jesus was drowning in guilt and Lucifer needed to be the one to save him. Jesus could lose himself to the guilt of losing Lucifer. If he lost himself they’d never be able to find him. He’d be gone until he untangled himself from his past, if he untangled himself. Lucifer wasn’t going to let that happen. They’d been together forever. That wasn’t going to end in this lifetime. Maybe Gabriel and Lilith couldn’t see it, but Nabil was teetering dangerously on the edge of a deep shame.
“Everybody needs someone to watch over them,” said Lucifer. “There’s nothing wrong with keeping an eye on him.”
“That’s what Michael thought and look what happened to him and God.”
“Michael lost his mind because God lost his mind. They got sucked into the same rabbit hole.”
Michael used to be with them. He was closest to Jesus and Lucifer. God – before he was actually a God – joined them for a while. He and Michael bonded after several incarnations. When God got sucked into his religion, Michael went with him out of pure loyalty. They lost both of them at once. When Lucifer dared God to incarnate again, Michael predictably followed.
“You need to be careful,” said Lilith. “You can’t obsess over Jesus. He’s strong. Whatever you’re worried about isn’t going to get the better of him. You need to give him more credit.”
“Maybe,” said Lucifer. “I’m going to take a walk.”
“Don’t bother Nabil.”
“We’re friends. I can bother him if I want.”
“Fine, then don’t stalk Nabil.”
“I haven’t stalked him in weeks.” That was a lie, but Lilith didn’t need to know it.
“Don’t stay out long. You have to be home before dark. Remember you’re still a minor.”
“Ugh,” groaned Lucifer. “Don’t remind me.”
“Technically I’m your guardian. I want to raise you right.”
“Yeah, whatever. I’ll be back.” He left Lilith and headed toward Joshua’s house. He hoped he could catch Joshua off duty. If not, he could always spy on Jesus some more. It didn’t look like Joshua was home. He could honestly tell Lilith he didn’t leave with the intention of spying on Nabil. He’d be a work right now anyway. He rerouted and headed for Jesus’ house. He’d be quick. He just needed to look around and make sure the house was secure.
Lucifer had been lost before. He forgot who he was, forgot the things he knew, forgot what made him redeemable. Jesus didn’t force him to remember, but he found Lucifer and lived beside him until Lucifer came back to himself. Jesus’ method of retrieval was effective, but Lucifer’s was faster.
He had the spare key in his pocket. It was much easier to get in the house now that he had a key. He did his best not to disturb anything. He was pretty sure Jesus hadn’t noticed yet. He crept to the house, unlocked the door and darted inside. Jesus hadn’t kept a journal in years. Anything he had was old. He searched for other personal items that would give him insight into Jesus’ state of mind. He didn’t mean to let time slip away from him. He didn’t mean to linger. He didn’t mean to get caught.
“I know you’re in here,” called Jesus.
Lucifer flinched. So Jesus was suspicious. That explained the knife he kept beside his bed. He decided to go for casual and hope for the best. He peered from around the corner. “You’re home early,” he said.
Jesus stared at him. “What are you doing?”
Something about the way he said it hurt. It hurt because Lucifer knew he’d crossed a line and he wasn’t sure he could come back from it. He held up his hands and stepped around the corner. “I can explain,” he said. He couldn’t explain, not yet. He could try but the likelihood that Jesus would listen was slim. He wasn’t ready for the truth. He didn’t have any other choice. He did his best to justify his actions but Jesus was already too upset.
“You picked me because I don’t have any family, right?” he asked. “Because I’m alone and you knew you could get me to trust you easier.”
“No,” said Lucifer quickly. “We’re friends. I like you, sincerely.” He had to tread lightly. Lilith was right, one wrong move and they could lose him. If he broke the trust he’d worked so hard to build he might not be able to fix it.
He tried to explain but he could tell he was losing him.
“I’ll tell Gabriel you’re here,” said Jesus.
“Please,” said Lucifer. Begging was all he had left, but even as the words left his mouth he knew it wasn’t going to work. He left Jesus alone and retreated to Lilith’s. She was going to be furious. He ran home. The sooner she knew, the better. He reached the house and saw Gabriel’s car in the driveway. Great. He’d have to confess to both of them. He took a deep breath and summoned his courage. He wasn’t wrong. They didn’t understand. He nodded to himself. He could fix this.
Gabriel drove them back to their cabin. Peter scrambled out of the car and went straight to Maggi’s cabin.
Bob toddled out of the front seat. “Hell of a service,” he said.
“Get back inside,” said Albert.
“I’ll do what I want,” snapped Bob. “You’re not my daddy.”
Gabriel shook his head. “What on Earth have you gotten into?”
Albert shrugged. “I made friends.”
Maggi, Isaac and Peter emerged from the other cabin.
“Thank you for finding him,” she said to Gabriel. “I hope he wasn’t any trouble.”
“Which one of them?” asked Gabriel.
Peter nudged her. “That’s the Hero,” he whispered.
“Um, Bob,” answered Maggi. “I hope Bob wasn’t any trouble. Albert has been great.”
Gabriel squinted at Albert. “Care to explain what you’re doing here?”
“He’s with me,” said Maggi quickly. “We met not too long ago and hit it off. He’s my friend.”
“You’re all friends?” asked Gabriel.
“Well Bob is Isaac’s friend but Isaac is my cousin and Peter is my brother,” said Maggi.
Gabriel folded his arms over his chest. “And you’re all here because?”
“It’s not illegal to go on vacation,” said Maggi, taking a step forward. “I appreciate you finding Bob, but we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Albert has,” said Gabriel.
“No he hasn’t,” snapped Maggi. “He’s going through a hard time. It’s great that you’ve saved him, but you can’t arrest him. You’re out of your jurisdiction.”
“How the hell do you know that?” asked Gabriel.
“I’m very invested in the case,” she answered.
“She’s obsessed,” said Peter.
Gabriel nodded to one of the cabins. “Let’s go inside so we don’t disturb the other residents.”
“We’re going inside,” said Maggi. “If you want to come in you’ll have to come back with a warrant.”
“Don’t make this difficult,” said Gabriel.
“Boys,” said Maggi, “go inside.”
“Fine,” said Gabriel. “We’ll do it your way.” He got back into his car and took off down the driveway.
“He’ll be back,” said Albert.
“I dare him to come back,” said Maggi.
Isaac looked around wildly. “Was that the cops?”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Peter. “We’ll deal with it in the morning.”
* * *
They did deal with it in the morning. After dragging a petulant Bob to yoga, they saw a familiar face waiting for them in the back of the room. Gabriel was sitting calmly on a mat.
Albert took a seat next to him. “What now?”
“I’m here as a private citizen,” he said. “No tricks.”
“I don’t need you here,” whispered Albert. “I’m ok. These guys are my friends.”
“If they’re your friends then you absolutely need me here.”
Maggi took the seat beside Gabriel. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The others took seats next to her. They filled the entire back row.
“Albert needs professional help,” said Gabriel.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re here,” said Maggi. “All of us need help.”
The instructor walked in and shushed them. He told the class to get on their knees and tuck their head forward.
“Hippie bullshit,” said Bob.
“Just do the stupid pose,” hissed Peter.
“I think I popped something,” said Isaac.
The instructor shushed them again.
“You need to come home,” said Gabriel.
“No,” said Albert. “I think I’ve finally found what I was looking for. You don’t understand.”
“I understand a lot more than you think I do,” said Gabriel.
“We need total silence,” said the instructor. “If the back row would please settle down.”
“I’m settled,” said Bob. “Don’t tell me what to do.”
“We’ll be quiet,” said Isaac.
The instructor didn’t look convinced.
“What gives you the right to stalk Albert?” hissed Maggi.
“I’ve saved his life, for one thing,” whispered Gabriel.
“That doesn’t mean he owes you.”
“Again,” said the instructor. “If we could all be quiet.”
They could not be quiet. Five minutes later all of them were outside of the yoga studio.
“Now what?” asked Peter.
“We’re going to the steam room,” answered Maggi. “It will be good for Isaac and Bob. Gabriel can go do whatever he wants.”
“Funny enough,” said Gabriel. “I want to go to the steam room.”
The steam room was a makeshift sweat lodge, complete with the trappings of American Indian cultural appropriation. The woman who let them in said it was a “western” theme.
Peter rolled his eyes. “This is new-age hell,” he muttered.
“Just remember why we’re here,” said Maggi.
“Two junkies and one crazy,” said Peter.
“Albert isn’t crazy.”
“Thanks,” said Albert.
“Oops,” said Peter. “I meant to whisper that.”
They took their seats in the room.
“It’s too hot,” said Bob.
“That’s the point,” said Maggi.
“If Bob doesn’t like it we should leave,” said Isaac.
“Everybody shut up for one minute,” said Peter. “How about that? Can we, as a dysfunctional collective, shut the fuck up for one minute?”
“Rude,” said Isaac.
It was possible thirty seconds passed, but Albert wasn’t counting.
“I’m out,” said Bob. “It’s hot, it’s dark and my ass is sweating.”
“No,” said Maggi. “We are going to get through one activity today. We haven’t even been here 24 hours. The least we can do is sit in this god damn room for 30 god damn minutes.”
Gabriel stared at her, mouth slightly open and brow furrowed. “Lilith?”
“What?” she snapped. Her eyes went wide and her hand flew to cover her mouth. “I meant who?”
“Oh my god,” said Gabriel. “I should have known.”
“You know this guy?” asked Peter.
“Kind of,” she answered.
“Then that means—” Gabriel’s voice trailed off.
Albert jumped to his feet. “I knew it! We’re all connected and Peter is Lucifer.”
Maggi scrubbed a hand over her face.
“We’re all here,” said Gabriel, seemingly more to himself than anyone else. “I can’t believe you found them.”
“Maggi found me,” said Albert.
“What the living fuck is happening?” asked Peter, rising to his feet.
“I thought it was a secret,” said Isaac.
Gabriel jumped to his feet. “Liar,” he shouted. “You said you never remember but you do.”
Isaac put his hands in the air and flinched away. “I only remember some things. We’re talking about our past lives, right?”
“Somebody better answer me right now,” said Peter.
Albert threw his arms around him. “I found you,” he said. “I knew it was you.”
Peter squirmed away from him. “Maggi, what is his?”
She blinked at him. “You really don’t know? Out of all of us, you’re the one who doesn’t remember?”
“Are you all high?” asked Bob. “Because I thought we couldn’t be high. I want some.”
“Ok,” she said, “you and Bob. You have no idea how funny that is.”
“Somebody explain the joke,” said Peter.
“We’re all connected,” she said. “Our souls, we’re family. We incarnate together and try to find each other throughout lifetimes.”
“When a soul incarnates they have a choice,” said Gabriel. “They can remember their past, the afterlife, all of it—”
“Or just some of it,” said Isaac.
“Right,” continued Gabriel. “You usually remember everything and Jesus,” he pointed to Albert, “usually remembers nothing.”
“I’m with Bob,” said Peter. “You guys are high.”
Albert grabbed him by the shoulders. “You are Lucifer,” he said. “That’s your soul’s name. Don’t you remember anything?”
“You can’t force him to remember,” said Maggi. “Either something will trigger his memory or he’ll just have to take our word for it.”
Peter stared back at Albert. “Are you a cult leader?”
“No,” said Albert. “I’m your friend.”
Peter shook his head. “I’m out,” he said. He shoved away from Albert and left the room.
Albert almost ran after him, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“You can’t force him to remember,” said Maggi. “He has to come to it on his own.”
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what happened to Jesus. They weren’t on speaking terms, but when he came to school with his face black and blue, Lucifer knew exactly who to blame. Instead of following Jesus home that day, he followed Jonathon. He rarely needed his car, but tonight was an exception. He called Lilith and said he’d be home late. He lied and said he was “thinking about the repercussions of his actions.”
He waited until it was after dark. Jonathon was at a friend’s house, but he’d be headed home soon. He waited for Jonathon to pull out of the driveway and drive out of sight of the house. There was a stretch of road that was mostly trees. It was a mile in either direction before reaching another house.
Lucifer followed him with the headlights off. He wasn’t bigger than Jonathon, but he was meaner and angrier, and he brought a baseball bat with him for good measure. When they hit the desolate area, Lucifer hit the gas. He passed Jonathon then spun the wheel and turned the car so he blocked the road.
Jonathon stopped just short of t-boning the side of his car.
Lucifer got out, bat in hand, and smashed it against the hood of Jonathon’s car.
Jonathon got out. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Lucifer dropped the bat and clenched his fist. “How many of you did it take to knock out Nabil?”
“You’re here for the raghead?”
Lucifer took a step forward and hit Jonathon hard in the nose. He felt it crunch and break beneath his fist. Before Jonathon could react, Lucifer hit him again, and again. He didn’t remember in which lifetime he learned to fight, but every now and then it came in handy. Technically, it wasn’t fair. Lucifer was ancient. Jonathon was just a child. But he was a cruel, stupid child and someone needed to teach him a lesson.
Jonathon lay bleeding on the ground. “Stop,” he whimpered.
Lucifer threw a piece of paper and a pen at him. “From now on, you’re only allowed to say the following things to Nabil, understand?”
Lucifer picked up the bat. “I’d start writing if I were you.”
* * *
Lucifer was late getting home. He was bloody and his hands hurt, but the sting of his knuckles was almost pleasant. He left Jonathon in good enough condition to drive and left Jonathon’s car in bad enough condition to look like he had a legitimate accident.
He parked his car a few blocks away from Lilith’s and walked briskly to her house. Even she didn’t know he had a car. He needed to keep some things secret. He sauntered through the door, feeling lighter than he had in years.
“Where have you be—” Lilith stopped mid sentence. “You didn’t.”
“I had to work out some rage,” said Lucifer.
“Did you kill that boy?”
“I didn’t do anything to him. That boy was in a terrible car accident.”
“Lucifer, what did you do? Is he all right?”
“He’ll live,” answered Lucifer. “You know what he did to Jesus, right?”
“I taught him not to do it again.”
Lilith ran a hand through her hair. She sat down in a chair. “I don’t support what you did,” she said.
“But Jesus is safe now?”
She nodded. “Ok then.”
Lucifer grinned. “Ok.”
“What do we tell Gabriel?”
“We’ll tell him the little brat was in a car accident and it taught him that being a bully is a big no-no.”
“He’s going to be mad.”
“No part of me cares.”
“At least get cleaned up. He’ll be over to check on us before bed. He shouldn’t see you like that.”
“Like what? Victorious?”
“Lucifer,” she warned.
He laughed. “I’m kidding. I’ll get cleaned up.”
Lilith was right. Gabriel wasn’t impressed with the story, nor was he convinced. “That’s strike two,” said Gabriel.
“Is it?” asked Lilith. “Sounds like the boy was asking for it.”
“I have a real job to do,” said Gabriel. “I can’t cover for you.”
“I made it look convincing,” said Lucifer. “He’s not going to tell anybody.”
“If you get caught, there’s nothing I can do to protect you.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
“That’s what’s wrong with you,” said Gabriel. “You’re willing to take too many risks. We had enough to worry about with Jesus, now we’ve got to worry about Jonathon? And I’m already busy trying to avoid suspicion with Joshua. I have no idea what he remembers and what he doesn’t.”
“I bet he remembers God,” said Lucifer.
“Did anyone see you attack him?” asked Gabriel.
“No, I was careful.”
“Is he going to tell anyone?”
“I scared the shit out of him, so I doubt it.”
“Doubt isn’t good enough. What about school? What about his friends? What if he tells someone? What if Jesus figures it out?”
“If Jesus figures it out, at least he’ll know he’s got someone in his corner,” said Lucifer. “He’s totally isolated right now.”
“That’s your fault, too,” said Gabriel.
“He’s got you there,” said Lilith. “And you swore you wouldn’t interfere anymore.”
“You don’t understand,” said Lucifer. “This incarnation is different. There’s more to lose.”
“If you’re willing to explain, we’re willing to listen,” said Lilith.
Lucifer huffed and his nostrils flared. They probably knew there was a lifetime he hadn’t mentioned. Gabriel had all but called him on it. They knew he was keeping something from them. They knew he had a secret. They’d probably even help him if he told them.
He bit his lip. He couldn’t tell them. They didn’t need to know. Jesus was too ashamed and if he’d wanted them to know he would have said something, he would have waited before reincarnating. This was between the two of them. This was something only Jesus and Lucifer needed to know.
“That’s what I thought,” said Gabriel. “If you can keep secrets, we can keep judging you.”
“Don’t judge him too harshly for this one,” said Lilith. “He did what any of us would have done.” “I won’t cover for you,” said Gabriel. He always said that and he always covered for them. Lucifer wasn’t worried. He didn’t need Gabriel to cover for him anyway. He was thorough. Jonathon was terrified and Jesus was safe. That was all that mattered.
Things did not improve. Lucifer managed to get on speaking terms again with Jesus at the bonfire, but that success was short-lived. Nabil overheard a conversation that wasn’t meant for him. He was rightfully upset and Lucifer couldn’t do anything to fix it. Then things took a turn for the worse.
Lilith died. It was her time. Lucifer and Gabriel knew it was coming before it happened. They didn’t expect Jesus to take it so hard. Gabriel was supposed to keep an eye on him, but they lost him during the night. Lucifer sent Gabriel to check the hotel and the school. He went to check the river. Part of him knew Jesus would go to Black River. Part of him was pulled to go there. Part of him hated knowing. He reached the bridge just as Jesus was about to jump. Everything was a blur after that. They fought. Lucifer lost. Jesus threw himself into the river.
Lucifer jumped without a second thought. He swam with the current, searching for some sign of his friend above the water. It was too dark and too rough. If they died, they’d die together.
“Lucifer!” Gabriel called his name from the shore. He should have known Gabriel was watching. He saw him running beside the river waving. “You can’t catch him, he’s gone.”
Lucifer ignored him and pushed himself through the water. If Jesus could quiet his mind for a few seconds, Lucifer could find him. He just needed a direction. Gabriel could watch for him from the shore. He could call for backup while Lucifer retrieved him. With any luck, help was already on the way. If Jesus could focus, if he was asking for help, Lucifer could hear it.
He fought against the images of Jesus trapped beneath the water. He had to stop panicking. He had to stop his heart from battling with his nerves. He had to stop feeling these things or he wouldn’t hear him. He could not let him die like this.
As his head bobbed above the water he took a deep breath and tried to focus. He was close. He knew it. He needed to hear Jesus’ voice. He needed him to answer. The sound of his heart echoed through his entire body. With each beat Jesus’ chance of survival slipped away. If he died now, what would happen? Would he remember anything? Jesus’ face flashed into his mind. His eyes were empty and relaxed. His face was pale and his body was lifeless.
“Nabil,” Lucifer shouted. His voice was lost to the sound of the river.
A bright white light emerged from the darkness in his mind. It grew stronger and brighter and Lucifer could not shake it. The light began to shift and the center shivered. It grew. Lucifer’s heart beat harder. The air around him felt thick and heavy. He gasped for breath again.
The center of the light darkened and morphed into a face.
“Help me,” said Jesus.
Suddenly the light went out and from the blackness Lucifer saw him pressed against a rock beneath the water. His eyes were closed and his lips were pale, but he was alive. Lucifer was close. He wasn’t too late.
Lucifer pushed himself to a calmer part of the river to try to gain control of his direction. His feet scraped the bottom of the river and he tried to steady himself against the current. He scanned the river and saw a large boulder sticking out from the rapids. It was behind him, upstream. He passed it.
He stumbled out of the water and ran up the shore toward the rock. He could jump in again and float next to it and rescue Nabil. He heard footsteps ahead of him. Gabriel ran forward out of the darkness.
“He’s gone,” said Gabriel. “I saw it too, but he’s gone.”
Lucifer shoved him out of the way, but Gabriel grabbed him.
“Let go,” he shouted. “He’s there. He’s right there.” He fought against Gabriel’s grip.
“You have to let him go,” he said.
Lucifer broke free and stumbled back into the water. He struggled against the current, reaching out for the rock. He could feel where the water pulled as the current tugged at his body. Gabriel grabbed him again and dragged him back. “Stop it,” said Lucifer.
“You’re wasting time here,” said Gabriel.
“He’s there,” said Lucifer, still reaching for the rock. “I felt it. I know he’s there.”
“Lilith will find him,” said Gabriel. “If he’s there, she will find him. We can’t lose you too. You know you can’t leave like this.”
“We have to get him out of there,” said Lucifer.
“I’ll take care of him. I won’t leave him, I promise.”
Lucifer looked at the water. Jesus was dead. He felt it happen. But there was still a chance.
Gabriel pushed him away.
Lucifer clenched his jaw and turned away from the river and from Gabriel. He tried to ignore the voice that begged him to stay. It was a product of this form, he knew better. His heart was not beating faster because he was making the wrong choice. His feet were not trying to guide him to search the water because his friend was still alive. His hands were not shaking from fear. Nabil was gone. He knew it was true, but he could not ignore the feeling that he should not let go, not yet. He stopped and turned back to the river. They would all be together again. It was going to be all right. He wouldn’t let Jesus die alone. He broke into a run and threw himself back into the water, back to Jesus’ body.
Albert ignored the warning and ran after Peter. “Wait,” he called.
“No,” said Peter.
Albert grabbed him. “I can’t lose you again,” he said.
“What does that even mean?”
“I need a minute,” said Albert, “but I can tell you everything. I carried your name with me. I don’t now what happened, but I know it was important enough to remember.”
“If we were so important to each other, why don’t I remember you?”
“Something went wrong,” answered Albert. “I don’t know what, I’m sure Maggi and Gabriel can tell us. I know this sounds crazy but please give us a chance.”
Peter shook his head. “This sounds insane.”
“I know, but I’ve been chasing you – searching for you for years. I came back with nothing but your name. That has to mean something.”
“Leave me alone,” said Peter.
Albert felt a hand on his shoulder. Maggi and Gabriel stood behind him.
“Let him go,” said Maggi.
Albert blinked at her. Lilith. Her name was Lilith. His name was Jesus. Slowly his memory began to rebuild itself. Slowly the pieces slotted into place. Slowly he began to remember who he was. “Wow,” he breathed.
Lilith smiled at him. “It’s coming back to you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he answered. He looked past her where Bob and Isaac were emerging from the lodge. He stared at them. “God and Michael,” he said.
“Yep,” said Gabriel.
“Lucifer dared him to live,” said Jesus. “I remember.” He pressed his hands to his temples. “I remember everything.” He remembered rushing water. He remembered fighting the current. He remembered calling out to Lucifer. He took a step back. He wasn’t remembering Nabil’s death. This was the lifetime before. Lucifer was the one in the river. They went to swim. Lucifer got caught in the current. The water pushed him straight into Jesus’ arms but he couldn’t hold on. Jesus wasn’t strong enough and he was going to lose his footing. If he kept holding onto Lucifer they’d both be swept away. He let go. He let Lucifer drown. He let Lucifer die. Killing himself was his punishment. He died over and over again because he couldn’t stand the memory of letting go.
“Are you all right?” asked Lilith.
She didn’t know. No one knew but Lucifer. He’d been telling the truth as Cannon. Nabil was punishing himself.
“It’s a lot to take in,” she said. “You might need some time.”
“I let him die,” said Jesus. “Before I was Nabil.”
“I knew there was a lifetime I missed,” said Gabriel. “You two were here alone.”
Jesus nodded. “We were kids, playing by a river. He tried to hold onto me. I let him go.” His voice was small and distant. Lucifer forgave him. Lucifer came back for him.
Lilith squeezed his shoulder. “It was a mistake. It’s all right. He clearly forgave you.”
“I pushed him away,” murmured Jesus. “As Nabil – I didn’t listen.”
“He should have left you alone,” said Gabriel.
Jesus put a hand to his forehead. He’d been lost. He forgot who he was and tried to live again to make sense of himself. Living without pausing to remember was like tumbling through space without a tether. Even if they didn’t carry those memories into life, they were always careful to stop and remember themselves after death, remember they were more than the sum of their latest incarnation, remember they were ancient and infinite, remember they were good and bad. Jesus didn’t stop to remember. He died in a panic and was reborn, then died again. He was lucky he’d remembered Lucifer at all.
“He doesn’t need to know everything right now,” said Lilith. “You’ve told him enough. If he wants to know more he can ask. You need to let him process.”
Jesus nodded. She was right. It wasn’t crucial for Lucifer to remember everything at the moment. He would need to remember eventually. “This is a fucked up lifetime,” he muttered.
“It’s not as weird as the one in Papua New Guinea,” said Gabriel.
“Nothing will be as weird as the one in Papua New Guinea,” said Lilith.
“He knew I wasn’t ok,” said Jesus. “And he kept it secret.” He knew exactly what Lucifer was feeling now. He didn’t remember because he blamed himself for Jesus’ death as Nabil. Lucifer forgot so he wouldn’t be tempted to find Jesus again, wouldn’t be tempted to hurt him again. “He thinks it’s his fault.”
“He’ll come around,” said Lilith. “He just needs time.”
* * *
That night Peter shook Jesus awake and motioned for him to follow from the cabin. Jesus walked with him until they were out of earshot.
“What did you do to my sister?” hissed Peter. “Is this some Suicide Man shit? Is this how you get followers or something?”
“I didn’t do anything,” said Jesus.
“I can’t get a straight answer from her. You all have these weird code names. I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“It’s kind of our religion,” answered Jesus. “We believe in each other.”
“Maggi isn’t religious. What did you give her?”
“I didn’t give her anything.”
Peter glanced behind him then suddenly shoved Jesus against the wall. “What did you give her,” he hissed. “I don’t give a shit about you and your cop drama. I don’t want to turn you in, I just want to know what you did to my sister so I can tell her doctor.”
“I swear,” said Jesus, “I didn’t do anything to her.”
“How did you brainwash her? Did you promise her something?”
They both froze as a figure approached.
“Let him go.” Lilith emerged from the darkness, hands clenched into fists.
“Not until I get some answers,” said Peter.
“Can’t you just trust me?”
“I feel like I don’t even know you,” he said. “I don’t understand how he got to you.” He pointed to Jesus. “You’re not gullible.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I’m not. Which is why you should trust me. I believe in reincarnation. I believe, in another life, I knew Albert and we were friends. I think I knew you, too. That’s it. It’s not any more complicated than that.”
Jesus didn’t comment. It was a bit more complicated, but now clearly wasn’t the time to mention it.
Peter backed away from Jesus. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” answered Lilith. “I happen to also believe I had another name, Lilith. Albert thinks he had another name.”
“Is this part of the Suicide Man thing?” asked Peter.
Lilith glanced at Jesus. “Yes,” they answered in unison. It was a lie of necessity
“So that’s how that cop knows about it?” asked Peter.
“Yes,” answered Lilith. “And that’s how I know about it.”
“So is Albert like your god or something?”
“No,” she answered quickly. “He’s just a soul looking for a meaning. Just like the rest of us.”
“I need to do some research,” said Peter. He scowled at Jesus. “I assume we’re done with surprises for now?”
“Yes,” answered Jesus.
“Good.” Peter chewed on his lower lip, then muttered something about going back to bed. It wasn’t much of a victory, but it would do for now.
Bob was not made to resist the temptations of Sunshine Ranch. After four days of rigorous meditation, he claimed he’d had an epiphany and was now privy to the secrets of the universe. As luck would have it, the yoga instructor was very impressed and made plenty of time to talk to Bob about his budding interests in Buddhism.
He then tried to explain to Isaac the instructor had been blessed by Buddha himself. The instructor then had to explain to both of them it didn’t quite work that way. That didn’t stop Bob and Isaac from following her all over the ranch and bombarding her with questions.
Peter still wasn’t speaking to them, but he wasn’t trying to leave either. One night, they sat around a fire built between their cabins and Peter quietly approached and sat next to Lilith.
Jesus watched him and held his breath.
“Do you still believe you’re my sister?” Peter asked Lilith.
“Of course,” she answered. “But I also believe I’m much more.”
“Why haven’t you said anything before now?” he asked.
“Because she likes to be tricky,” answered Gabriel.
“Because I didn’t need to,” she answered. “I don’t need you to know me as anyone other than Maggi in order to know myself as Lilith.”
“But these guys know you as Lilith, right? How is that possible?”
“We know our pasts,” she answered.
Peter shook his head. “This sounds insane.”
“I know,” said Lilith. “And you don’t have to believe it.”
“There’s nothing about it online,” said Peter. “I checked.”
“It’s forum talk,” said Jesus. “You know, you could play along. It might help you feel less unnerved.”
“Yeah. Pretend you’re Lucifer. Pretend you remember.”
“To what end?”
Jesus shrugged. “Humor me,” he said.
Peter sighed. “What the hell,” he said. “Sure. I’ll be Lucifer.”
“Great,” said Jesus. “It will be weird at first, but it gets easier.”
Peter made a face. “I feel like I’ve been skydiving before. Maybe I went with one of you guys in another life.”
“That’s perfect,” said Lilith. “That sounds like something you would do with Albert.”
Albert nodded. “I think we went skydiving too,” he said. “So we probably did.”
Peter eyed him. “I assume it was fun.”
“You kind of hated it,” said Albert. “But in your defense your instructor sucked.”
“Is it weird to know details like that?” asked Peter.
“You’re Lucifer, remember? You know what I know.”
Peter sighed again. “Right. Lucifer.”
They tried not to tell him too much too quickly. They spent the next week easing him into their reminiscing and were careful to not be too specific. Peter, to his credit, put in serious effort. Jesus resisted the urge to nag him for memory updates.
During the last week of their visit Jesus convinced them to take a break from their routine and go swimming at the lake. It was a hot day and they were tired. Peter was doing his best to “yes-and” his memories and they all needed a break.
“Can you get Bob and Isaac?” Jesus asked Gabriel.
“He’ll need backup,” said Lilith. “We’ll meet you at the lake.”
Jesus nodded for Peter to follow him. Jesus was the first into the water. He took a running start and leapt into the lake. He resurfaced and rubbed the water from his eyes. He looked up at the pier where he’d just jumped.
Peter stood at the end, toes curled over the edge of the wood and one hand outstretched. He blinked and stared down at the water. Their eyes met and a slow grin spread over Peter’s face. “Jesus,” he said.