|posted on 25-Jan-2002 8:44:44 PM|
|Hope this works!...|
Liz sat self-consciously in her chemistry class. Max. She could feel his eyes on her, her left side heating up from behind. She fidgeted with her pen, trying to ignore the small panic rising inside her chest. It felt like he was going inside her body and feeling everything she felt. Invasion of the Alien Lover.
"Huh?" she looked up at Mr. Britsky.
"I said, did the change make a significant difference in this equation? And if so, how significant? What does it mean for us in this example?" he repeated with faint reproof.
"Um, I'm not...sure."
He sighed, and Liz caught Maria looking at her quizzically.
"Ms. De Luca, what about you?"
Maria appeared to carefully consider the question. "A difference? Yes, definitely. But significant? That depends on how we're measuring significance. I'd say any change in a chemical equation is significant because it makes a difference. Now that's significant."
There was a short, uncomfortable silence in the room.
Liz gave Maria a negative look when she saw her about to make matters worse, and then the bell rang.
"Ms. De Luca, please grace us tomorrow with further clarification of your point during the first five minutes of class. Chapter Three tomorrow, people. You will start us off with that too, Ms. De Luca. Ms. Parker, a moment please."
Maria waved, and Liz kept her head down as the class emptied out quickly into the noisy hallway. She didn't even want to catch a glimpse of his legs when he walked by. She just couldn't take the rush it would give her.
***** ***** *****
At lunchtime Maria was eating a bag of big purple grapes like it was a marathon.
"So what'd he say?"
"Nothing. He thinks I'm acting weird just because I don't raise my hand in class one day."
"Ha! Try two weeks. You're ill. And I thing the cause and the cure are the same." Something caught her attention behind Liz.
"Is it him?" Liz asked quietly.
"Well, it's somebody."
Maria smiled saucily at her, then became contrite when she saw her friend's expression. "It's not Max, Liz."
Liz fingered the napkin next to her more or less untouched hamburger.
"You are totally wasting food lately." Maria took it. "I still don't know why you won't even talk to him---"
"I don't want to talk about---"
"---and he's walking around staring at you like a mirage in the desert. It's a shame."
Maria shook her head and bit into the sandwich. "It's just too stupid. You love him. He loves you. No matter what the thing in the cave said, Max and Isabel are not real aliens. They're mostly human. Now, Michael, he's probably a real alien. Look next to me." She opened her hands to the empty chair beside her. "What do you see? Nothing. That's right. 'Nothing' is an alien's version of 'because I love you so much.' And oh, what a great love it is. Mmm, I can feel it now through muscle and bone. Wow."
Maria swallowed back the feeling coming over her. "As for the so-called 'Tess', I don't know what it is except irrelevant."
Liz smiled a little sadly, putting her hand over hers.
"The bell's about to ring."
Maria stared down at her plate.
"Yeah, well it's too late."
***** ***** *****
The next two nights Liz cried herself to sleep, and she was determined not to do it a third time. She sat on the roof that evening, her journal waiting patiently next to two lit candles on a little table. It was cool, but not chilly, the warm blanket wrapped around her making her feel secure. She laid her head back to gaze at the stars. They were so beautiful, and they hadn't changed. Beyond the incredible events of the past year, they were her treasure, a constant in her life. Something she could count on. A forbidden memory came to Liz and, after an initial resistance, she reveled in it because...what did it matter? She sank slowly into a midnight blue pillow of dreams...and told destiny to 'suck it' on her way down.
Liz woke up in the darkness, disturbed at being outside. Something was wrong. She became more apprehensive as the seconds passed. When she stood up, she heard a strange voice that sounded like it was coming from a cave.
Afraid, she quickly moved to go inside, when suddenly in front of her was a bright vertical line of white light about a meter long and a humming, the vibration of which undulated acutely through her. She backed away when two hands seemed to extend from the line and pull it apart.
Then all was quiet.
Liz nearly peed on herself as she stared in disbelief. Before her stood a young man looking as if nothing strange had just happened. She forced her voice to work. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
The man stepped toward her petrified form. "Liz. Sweetheart, don't you know me?"
Liz looked at each feature of his face, his body, then came back to his eyes filled with a melancholy tenderness.
He gently took her hand in his and smiled. She snatched hers away and paused at the faint look of hurt she saw.
"It can't be!" She was going to break down. This was just too much! Would anything ever be normal again. Falling on love with an alien had finally brought her to this! Whatever this was.
"I didn't want to do this, but there's no other way. Liz, it is me -- Max -- eight years from now. I've come back through time to save my planet, Antar, from destruction."
Liz sat, deciding to see the insanity through. Whoever he was, he did look like Max, only older and, if possible, more handsome. Either she was going insane or this was a Skin or something else up to no good. Tilting her head at his worried expression, she decided to find out all she could.
"The Max you know is going to make a fatal choice, and only you can change his mind."
"How?" she demanded again, her voice brittle.
"You've got to make him stop...loving you."
He turned away. "You've got to kill him - inside. And you know exactly how to do it."
When he turned back to her with questioning eyes, Liz thought he could indeed pass for a Max of the future, but he had the hard look of someone who had fought for survival. Was it him? Would whoever this was kill her if he didn't get what he wanted? She had to be careful.
"You know what I know?"
His eyes narrowed.
"You don't believe I'm Max Evans, do you?"
"I believe, er Max, that a person appearing the way you did is very strange, to say the least. Besides, you're not really telling me anything."
When he remained silent, she continued, "If you have noth---"
His sudden kiss was brief, but familiar; then he stepped back, shoving his hands in his pockets, his left jaw ticking.
"That's what you have to do," he said roughly, "with another guy. And I have to see it. Then you have to tell me to my face that you don't love me and mean it."
Liz just stared at him.
"Liz, say something! This is serious and it's all true. Eight years ago I chose you over everything, over Isabel and Michael, and my world. Because of me, a whole planet, a whole civilization, perished. Isabel, Michael...Maria and Alex."
"Oh, give me a small break!"
He grabbed her arm when she turned away.
"I know this is hard for you---"
"Look, why don't you just visit yourself with this story. If Max had ever loved me, and you're him, you wouldn't dump something like this on me."
"I don't want to hear any more!"
"---I don't have a choice! I have to do the right thing and you're the key. The Max you know would deny me because he loves you too much -- just as much as I love you. But he hasn't seen what I've seen. Liz, if you don't change destiny, eight billion people will die, including your best friends and, in case you're wondering, there's no happy ending for you and me either."
He suddenly gasped and doubled over in pain. Liz stooped down and grabbed his shoulders.
"I can't stay any longer. The interdimensional rip is closing. Ahh!"
"Yes?" He looked directly into her eyes, smiling a little through his pain. Even while she stared at him the white vertical line appeared behind him and he backed up into it.
"Liz, beloved," he began desperately, still holding her gaze, "this is our only chance. I can't come again."
He reached out and gently pulled her face, streaming with tears, towards his.
"I know this is unfair, and you probably wish you never met me. But I love you, Liz, past, present and future. No matter what the future is or what the past becomes."
With his lips against hers, he whispered raggedly, "Break my heart, Liz. Now is the only time it will make a difference. Eight billion lives, Liz! l love you. Goodbye!"
"Don't leave me, Max!"
He tore himself away from her, reaching behind and thrusting himself into the line, while it buzzed and hummed low through her bones again.
Then all was quiet, and Liz stood looking at the heart Max had drawn on her wall what seemed like a long, long time ago. It was glowing again, while the peaceful dawn approached.
"Okay, okay, let me get this straight---"
"Maria, will you lower your voice!" Liz hissed.
"There's no one here but us," Alex said, looking around his bedroom.
"You mean to tell me that some guy who looked like an older Max comes through a hole in time---"
"---to beg you to save his planet by pretending to screw around on Max."
Liz sighed. "Basically, yeah."
"It sounds like a B-movie, Liz."
Alex looked away from the TV to say, "The 'B' doesn't mean bad, just low budget."
Liz looked back and forth between the two of them. "I don't think you guys are really hearing me. This is a serious situation in the worse way."
Maria held up her hands. "Okay, here's my take on Future Max. One, he was telling the truth, and you should tell your Max. Two, it was an alien enemy trying to trick you and you should tell your Max. Or---"
"Or three," Alex piped in, "all that Tabasco you've been eating lately is talking to you, but there's no need to tell Max. Is the Tabasco a substitute for him?"
"Alex could be right, Liz."
"You have been consuming a lot of Tabasco lately. What's up with that? Are you an alien now?"
Liz stared at them and felt like screaming.
"What's wrong with both of you? Don't you believe me? Look, I'm not with him anymore and that's hard enough. I thought that maybe things would be a little normal for me again. Now I don't think it ever can be. Something horrible has happened to me and my two best friends...are not helping." She stood up to leave. "Maybe I should go."
Alex blocked her path. "All right, Liz. I'm sorry. Don't leave! Just sit down."
She did, and Maria bit her lip pensively as Alex continued, "It's just that...for me, at least...I'm enjoying being just another unpopular kid in school. I've actually missed this." He paused. "Isabel is kinda like the warrior queen now. You know what I'm saying? I mean, I can't talk to her because she shuts me out, and I'm tired of it. She, Max and Michael are doing their thing. They don't seem to need us, and right now that suits me just fine."
Liz was about to speak, but he held up his hands with a small smile. "No, no, I was watching 'Angel', but you made me miss the main part, so now you're gonna hear me out. And you too, " he added when Maria started to speak. "Liz, this is my sincere advice. The alleged Future Max said he couldn't come back. This is good. Tell our alien friends what happened, what you thought you saw, what you thought you heard. Describe it to a tee, leaving nothing out. Then walk away and let Present Max handle it. They'll figure out what to do." He hugged Liz briefly and said, "I'm gonna get some cookie 'n' cream ice cream. You guys want any?"
Maria nodded. "Right here." When he left, she said to Liz, "Well, he's right on target. I couldn't have put it better myself."
Liz was silent, glumly picking at the notebook in front of her.
"Liz, I'm sorry I haven't been supportive. It's just...any mention of this stuff makes me think of Michael and I get really, really annoyed."
"I know I've been, like, campaigning for Max and...he is a really nice guy. But his issues are so beyond major that I think Alex is right. Let's just be human."
Liz closed her eyes against Maria's concerned look and lay back on the bed. But he kissed just like him.
***** ***** *****
Liz hardly got any sleep for the next two nights. Every sound in the dark made her jump, so she kept the bathroom light on, her door wide open, and her windows locked.
On the third morning she got dressed and stared at her reflection, feeling lightheaded. She dragged herself down to the kitchen and found her mother sipping tea. It smelled like Kiwi Strawberry this time.
"Mom, I don't feel well. I want to stay home."
"What's wrong, honey."
"I didn't get any sleep and my stomach's upset." Liz slouched down in a chair and wrinkled her nose. "That stuff's strong. What did you do? Use two bags?"
"Mm-hm." Mrs. Parker felt her forehead. "Not hot. Well, if you really feel that bad, don't go. You don't have any tests today, do you?"
"Okay." After she called the school, she said, "Well, I gotta go. I'll call you later."
She kissed her daughter, who then stood at the door, watching her drive away. Liz ate some breakfast, watched the morning news, and then decided to go back to bed. She was halfway up the stairs when the hair on her neck stood up.
The familiar humming noise had begun somewhere above her head. Surely enough, when she looked up there was a big white spot of light.
A scream got caught in her throat as two hands reached out and held her head, as the voice rasped, "I'm sorry. This is the only way. No time..."
***** ***** *****
Liz went to school after all, but nausea kept her in the nurse's office for a while. After insisting that she had recovered, she sped-walked down the empty hall, eager to find out if Maria had what she needed. So intent was she on her task that she didn't notice Max Evans leaning against her locker until it was too late. Turning around would have been too obvious to those penetrating eyes pinning her now. She felt rooted to the spot. Was that some alien trick, or was it just that he looked so good right now that she...?
"Why aren't you in class?" Liz blurted.
He didn't blink. "Are you going to report me?"
Tell him. Tell him. Tell him.
"No," she said, backing up a step. He noticed and wasn't pleased.
"Liz, I want to talk to you."
Liz didn't like his tone of voice. Or the fact that she was still drawn to him like a rosebud to the sun. Why don't you tell him??
"Because I have something to do."
"You've been having 'something to do' for three weeks. How much longer do I have to wait?" Although his voice was demanding, his eyes were pleading.
Liz swallowed back a confession, and said, "Okay. 7 o'clock on the roof."
"I'll be there." He walked away just as the bell rang.
***** ***** *****
After school Liz ran to the nearly empty bleachers. Maria and Alex were so engrossed in conversation that they didn't hear her.
"Maria!" she called out shrilly, making them jump.
"Liz, please, you've got to calm down."
"Yeah, Liz, Maria filled me in, and all I gotta say is I got a lot to say. This is not good, not good."
"Yeah, Liz, something's really wrong here."
Liz blew her breath out hard. "No kidding! Did you find it, Maria?"
Maria looked guiltily at Alex, who shrugged, and then she took hold of her friend's shoulders.
"Listen to me, please. This whole thing is just totally bizarre and spooky. I mean, doesn't it seem strange that a guy who supposedly loves you, in the future as well as the present, would scare you this way -- with two chopped off hands in mid-air, grabbing your head and making you see apocalyptic visions, and then dumping it all in your lap. 'Oh save us, save us!' Why are you going through with this when it makes no sense?"
Alex sighed impatiently. "Scientifically and ethically it's muddy waters anyway, Liz. Even if this is legit, how do we know what's really being changed if you do this?
"Alex, what are you saying?" Liz snapped, as he jumped down to stand beside her.
"I'm saying how do we know that altering history to benefit their planet is right. What if Max's race has been persecuting the Skins or other beings? How do we know that destiny, as it stands now, won't save a dozen other planets compared to his one?"
"He let me see it all!"
"Liz," Maria cut in, "he could probably make you see whatever he wants! This isn't right. Tell the real Max."
"No! And don't you dare tell him! Give me the number, Maria." She held out her hand. "I know you have it, and now I'm pretty sure you didn't even use it like I asked you to."
Maria shook her head and started to pass her a piece of paper, which Alex snatched.
"Oh, and I would like add this. What's up with the number eight? Eight years into the future, 'eight billion lives.' Did he say you had to carry out this 'mission' at eight minutes past eight? Did he click his heels eight times before he disappeared? Seems a little too fairy tale-ish to me."
Without another word Liz snatched the paper from him and ran down the steps and across the field, while they watched with worry. When she was gone, Alex and Maria exchanged looks and ran back into school.
***** ***** *****
7 o'clock that night on her roof, Liz was a tightly wrapped bundle of nerves. Almost every sound made her jump and she wished she was somebody else...anybody else.
She nearly choked on a sip of water, then walked over to look down on her visitor. The image of their first kiss immediately came to mind.
"Come on up."
She backed up and felt unprepared for the wonderful sight of Max, alone with her, on the roof. He just stood there, unmoving, waiting, his eyes gently entering hers, caressing her on the inside. She turned away to hide what she felt. No, I can't be me. For his sake, for his people, for Alex and Maria, I'm just Bette Davis.
"Are you thirsty?"
She sat down and he followed her.
"What did you want to say to me?"
"Just that I miss you."
Liz trembled inside. No boy should have eyes like his. They could make her believe one plus one equals three! (God, help me do this!) "Hm. I don't think that's all you're missing. Correct me if I'm wrong, but did you or did you not kill Courtney last Tuesday?"
Max looked at her searchingly. "Why are you asking me this? You were there. You know what happened."
"What happened was a school dance at The Glass Planet that I missed that night. A nice club full of teenagers just like me...just being alive and not worrying about tomorrow."
"Liz, Courtney was about to---"
"About to cut Michael's jugular. Yes, I know, and I am glad that you stopped her. She was a Skin, a species apparently at war with yours -- but not with mine. Let's make a note of this."
"Liz, why are you acting this way?"
"Well, my point is, Max, that you need to be focused on the issues at hand - your own survival and finding out who you really are---"
Agitated, Max stood up, pulling Liz with him. "No. You're still pushing me away. I didn't come here to talk about all that. Now I want you to listen to my point. I need you, Liz. I can't stand this separation between us. Don't you understand? I'm not me without you."
"Max." She tried to pull away, but he pulled her into his arms, whispering, "No, don't! Please."
After about half a minute she put her arms around him, unable to help herself. She breathed in his scent, and he tilted her face up to his.
"Elizabeth Jennifer Parker, I love you now and forever. You're part of me. This isn't just a crush I'm feeling and you know that. But I can understand your need to step back. I don't even want you involved in...whatever's going to happen. But I need---" He swallowed and looked down for a moment. "I need to be with you...somehow. Do you love me?"
Liz stared at him transfixed, on the verge of giving him anything he asked of her.
"You said it once before." His voice became deeper. "Liz, do you still love me?"
Her eyes must have told him she was about to confess it, because he kissed her then to make certain. Everything inside her became honey, heat, and springtime until she was sure she'd do anything to cherish this love she felt.
That meant rejecting it.
She broke the connection, spinning away from him and the heat turned into pain. She looked at the clock, but she couldn't wait anymore. Max was breathing a little heavily when she turned slowly to him again, finding his face troubled.
"Liz, something's wrong. You wouldn't let me all the way in, but I...I saw...I don't know what, but---"
"Then let me fill you in. Max, I can't be a part of your life. I've lost myself during these past months. I care for you, but it's not worth losing my life. And I'm never going to be safe with you. I'll never be able to follow my own dreams with you." She steeled herself. "Also...while I was away this summer, I---"
"I met someone. We just started hanging out. He's a normal guy, and I need that now." Liz's eyes teared up, mirroring the ones they were looking into. "I want that now, Max. And I don't want...you."
Alarmed by his expression, Liz turned away again, saying quickly in a low voice, "I'll always care about you, but you, Michael, Isabel, and...Tess need to unite and face your destiny. Like I said, you need to find out who you are. I mean, your 'mother' didn't really tell you much."
She turned and Max was only two inches away. "Right?" she squeaked, as he wrapped himself around her again.
"Liz, don't do this to me, please! Are you trying to kill me inside?" He plunged his hands into her hair while he desperately searched her eyes. "Are you lying to me? I have to know!"
Liz shut her eyes tight and grabbed his wrists. "No! Max you can't invade me like this. You have no right. I don't want it! I don't love you!"
He spun away, nearly cursing, and walked to the ledge. "I'm not sure now which is worse: that you're lying to me or that you're telling me the truth."
"If you hang around my room tonight, you'll find out. I'm expecting company," she said coolly.
Max stared at her for a long moment -- so long that Liz thought she would tear her hair out. Then he suddenly leaped to the sidewalk, walking away without a backward glance.
Liz sat down heavily, resting her head in her hands. She heard a car pull up and then someone ringing her doorbell. The new arrival came too late and, as it turned out, was unnecessary.
Because Bette never needed a co-star to put on a good show.
Liz gripped the phone tightly.
"Look, Liz, I'd help if I could. Buddha wouldn't object, but then again, did he ever meet organ-frying alien hybrids? No, I don't think so."
"Kyle, Max isn't violent like that. I'm just trying to send him a message that he'll accept."
"Ahhh, there again you're wrong! Never, never underestimate a man scorned. He could be Gandhi; I don't care. And if you want to send a message, Liz, e-mail him. If you need me for anything, call me anytime -- just not this time."
As if on cue she heard a tapping on her bedroom window and closed her eyes. Please don't let it be Max again! My resistance is weakening big time.
When she looked and saw it was Alex, she sighed with relief and raised the window.
"Alex!" Liz hugged him and he gave her a gentle squeeze of concern.
"Liz, are you all right? Wait. What am I saying? Of course you're not all right. Um, Liz, Maria and I were going to tell Max everything right after you left us that day in the bleachers. Nice lamp. Is it new?"
He said all this in such a rush that Liz blinked while she waited to think of a response.
"So," she started slowly, "I trusted you with a life-and-death secret and you were going to tell it."
"That's right. We thought it was the best thing."
Liz sat down on her bed and Alex took a chair beside it.
"I see. But you didn't tell Max because you realized it would be wrong, that you're my friends and I can trust you."
Alex pressed his lips together, nodding thoughtfully.
"Yes, that would be the Hallmark card answer. But no, we didn't tell Max because we couldn't find him."
Liz jumped up, annoyed. "Oh that's just great, Alex!"
"We thought your 'interdimensional rip' ate him. I mean, we asked everybody and looked everywhere for the guy."
"I bet! And just where's Maria, your partner in crime? Shouldn't she be sharing this confession with you? Don't you understand what's at stake here? Oh!" She threw up her hands.
"We do realize, " Alex began, shamefaced, " that a lot could be at stake--"
"--and although you may be having some doubts, we are your friends. Forgive us?"
"Maybe. Where's Maria?"
"She ran out of Cypress Oil."
"Oh no. Well, I'm glad you're here because I need your help. I...Max came back. Future Max. Um, it seems that what I did didn't change anything really."
"No. So now I have to...go to another level. To change things."
"And you're being vague because you don't want to come right out and say what this next level is. Well, good. Because I don't think I want to know unless you need me to know -- for now."
Alex sat watching her expectantly and Liz dropped her eyes, the feeling of dread returning in waves. "It's going to be the hardest thing I've ever had to do, " she began quietly.
They both turned to find a rather dazed Maria coming towards the window.
"Well, it's about time," Alex said as he helped her climb in.
"Can you believe my Cypie is out of stock in both places? I gotta wait at least a week. They must be crazy! And I'm winded. From now on I'm always coming through the front door, okay?"
When Maria caught Liz's solemn stare, she returned it and sighed, saying, "I'm sorry, Liz. We were only going to tell because we love you."
With tearful eyes, Liz drew them both towards her for a group hug and Maria started crying.
"I'm sorry. I can't help it."
Alex cleared his throat as they all slowly pulled away and said, "Future Max is making her do even more stuff and of course she can't tell us exactly what -- yet."
"What?" Maria nearly shouted. "Oh no! I hate Future Max! If he were here, I'd kick his a**! "
"I don't know, Maria, " Liz said, sniffing as she laughed a little, "he's pretty buff. I...can the three of us stay over at your house. I'm not going to want to be alone later."
"Why's that? Is Present Max becoming a little too determined lately. Oh, nevermind. You can't tell -- yet."
"Um, no, he's all right. I mean, he's...I'm just going to need some no-questions-asked company and lots of ice cream."
Maria hugged her again. "Well, you got it, chica."
"Excuse me. Maria, your Mom is not going to let me stay overnight," Alex said.
"Why not? You did it before."
"Oh yeah! Like back in the Twentieth century when our equipment looked pretty much the same."
"Oh well, I'll sneak you in and we'll go from there. What's the problem?"
"You guys, " Liz cut in, " I need Bendrix again."
"Again? You didn't have Johnny-Come-Lately the first time. Look, can't you just pick a more mentally stable member of Alex's band for your 007 missions?
Alex looked insulted. "I wish folks would leave the guy alone. He hasn't had it easy. His home life would make what Michael had look peachy."
Maria held up her hands in apology. "I know. I know. I don't mean to be mean, but come on, Alex. He has no sense of time and sometimes no sense. The guy would miss the bus even if he was already on it."
"Maria, hush. Alex?"
He shook his head. "Whatever it is, Liz, don't include him. I don't know what you said to him that night, but it ticked him off. You know he likes you, don't you? You know, like...that."
"No, he doesn't!"
"Yeah, he does, Liz. I've observed him," Maria said, nodding her head emphatically. "Be right back. Bathroom, " she added, walking away.
"He certainly didn't act like it. Alex, he came too late, and I just wasn't in the mood for his twenty questions at the time."
"Be that as it may, I think you'd better ask him for whatever in person because I'm sure he's not going to do it any other way."
"But you said he was mad at me."
"Yeah, but he still likes you."
Liz threw her hands up in the air. "Oh, to have another life! Why wasn't I born and raised in New York?"
------ ------ ------
The next evening Liz was pacing in her room like a caged cat. Bendrix was late -- again. She ate much humble pie to persuade him to help her with an emphasis on timing. It was apparently all wasted energy. As the seconds passed, she was becoming more and more convinced that the whole plan was all a big mistake anyway. Fear and frustration welled in her heart, and the desire to run and to forget pulsed thickly in her veins.
The phone rang louder than usual. It was Alex. "Liz, Bendrix is not coming. He's in jail--"
"Oh my g--!" Liz slammed down the phone, grabbed a sweater and flew out the window.
A half an hour later Liz was in her bed with Kyle. They were nearly naked and breathing hard. As their bodies slowly relaxed, Liz bit her lip nervously, looking at him out of the corner of her eye when the silence became uncomfortable. He was staring at the ceiling.
He held up his hand. "I'm still trying to catch my breath from matching the speed of light running down here. Plus, I was on the toilet, too? Leave me alone."
Meekly, she was quiet for a few minutes.
"I hate being 'car-less'. What?"
"I really want to thank you for doing this for me."
He sighed heavily. "Something tells me I'm going to need more than your thanks later."
When Liz didn't say anything, he looked at her, and she was near tears.
"Liz," he began gently, "what is this really all about? I know you. And this...whatever's going on, this just seems below your dignity."
"I can't explain it, Kyle. But it's important and...necessary."
Kyle looked down thoughtfully at his toes sticking out from under the covers.
"Well, if it is, it is. But honesty really is the best policy. If you can't talk to Max and make him understand, maybe a restraining order would be more effective."
At Liz's look of alarm, he quickly added, "I mean, the guy seems all right, but it's hard when you're rejected by someone you like." He drummed his fingers against the covers. "Speaking from experience, a person can kinda lose it for a while. I'm just genuinely concerned about you."
Liz gave him a small smile and squeezed his hand. "I know, Kyle. You're becoming a very nice human being, and I don't think Buddha can take all the credit."
"Becoming?" Kyle faked indignation. "Are you implying I wasn't always nice?"
"Don't answer that. I think I'm more crazy right now than nice. But I can recall some nice moments in my past, moments when I let things slide. Remember that time we went to the movies and this, well, older lady--?"
"Yeah, yeah!" Liz sat up, merriment twinkling in her eyes. "She sat behind you complaining the whole time that your head was too big and she couldn't see!" Liz fell back down on the pillows, giggling.
"Yeah. Ha. Ha. Ha. Soooo funny. What was a woman her age doing up that time of night anyway? She should have been home getting friendly with the Ben Gay."
"Kyle!" Liz hit him lightly.
"But that wasn't the worst part, remember? Miss Oldest Flapper In The World began snoring and this big explosion in the movie woke her up--"
"And she started screaming and dumped her Big Gulp fruit punch all over you!" Liz convulsed with laughter and rolled against him.
Kyle looked at her for a moment and started laughing himself until a thought occurred to him.
"Speaking of 'Big Gulp,' can I use your phone? I forgot to give my Dad his overeager deputy's message, and I know I'll never hear the end of it."
When he leaned over her, Liz turned her head forward and froze. She gripped Kyle's arm tightly, her breath all but stopping.
"What--?" Kyle began quizzically and then looked towards the window.
Max Evans was there watching them. He seemed like an awkwardly placed statue. Two strips of paper fell from his upraised hand. Then he backed away in a blind motion and was quickly gone.
"No, " Liz whispered, then there was silence.
"So this was it," said Kyle finally, looking uncomfortable. After watching Liz, who lay face down, for a while he got up and dressed.
"Liz, I want to call Maria. I can't leave you here like this."
In a muffled voice, she recited the number.
"She's coming over, " he said when he hung up and put a hand on her shoulder. "If you need me for anything, don't hesitate." Then he left her.
Liz barely heard him. All she could think about was the expression on Max's face. As long as she lived, she knew she'd never forget it. She turned over, crying and hugging the covers up under her chin.
Oh Max! My love, what have I done?
------ ------ ------
What did she do?
He only barely heard the angry blare of a car horn.
"What's the matter with you, kid?" There was a screech of tires and more horns.
When Max finally reached the pavement, he dropped to his knees and breathed deeply, trying to dispel his lightheadedness. Shortly, he began walking again and hated it because the motion made him think more clearly. No, he didn't see what he saw. He couldn't have! Liz in bed with someone else, with Kyle. Making love with Kyle. Max's gut filled with a scalding heat that pushed up through his chest. He rushed over to a public waste basket and vomited. When he moved again, he doggedly focused on the throbbing in his temples and the immediate question of where exactly he was going.
After a block or two he stopped to lean his head against a tree, feeling strangely tired. He was beginning to lose the fight to block out the image of the tender flesh of her leg pressed against Kyle's, of her sweet laughter that wasn't for him. When he moved away from the tree, Max had a chunk of several layers of bark in his hand and bleeding fingertips. Disoriented, he smiled at the sight.
Was there anywhere he could go, except under the wheels of a truck, to be free of this pain?
So he would go to the next best place.
In Maria's bedroom, Liz sat on the floor, a little apart from her friends, morosely staring at nothing. As it turned out, she didn't have the heart to eat ice cream. All evening she noticed Maria's and Alex's covert glances amid their animated chatter. She was beginning to feel guilty for stressing them with her gloom and doom presence, although they hid it well. They were both such great friends, and she knew she'd be going nuts right now if it weren't for them.
When Maria looked at Liz the next time, she found her crying silently.
"Liz!" Maria went over and cradled her, gently rocking back and forth. Alex stopped the video game and moved near them, propping his chin up on a fist, looking downwards and waiting.
"I just wanted to say, " Liz began with difficulty, "you guys are so special to me."
"We're family," Maria said, stroking her hair.
"We must be," Alex added, " 'cause your Mom is actually glad I'm here. She even asked if I was staying the whole weekend."
"See, I told you!"
"Maria. If I were Michael Guerin, would your Mom be asking me if I were staying in your bedroom the whole weekend?"
"Without spelling it out any further, that's my point. To the world, and one alien in particular, I am Little Opie - perky, dependable, but unexciting. It's a drag and it's lame."
Liz laughed a little, saying, "There's nothing lame about you. Come here." She hugged him. "Alex Whitman, you're a man among men."
"Well, thank you. I know this."
Maria yawned. "I don't want to be a party pooper, but it's like three o'clock and I'm still going through Cypie withdrawal. I need sleep."
"Me, too," Liz said, not meaning it.
"And me too. Lara Croft raided hundreds of tombs with me tonight. What's one more? I'm just glad tomorrow's Saturday.
Alex claimed the big heavily cushioned fold-out chair in the corner and Liz shared Maria's bed. Within minutes both were sound asleep while Liz lay awake, unsuccessfully trying not to let grief drown and dissolve her. Much later, she fell in to an emotionally exhausted sleep, with a hand under her pillow clutching two Gomez concert tickets.
----- ----- -----
Isabel Evans sat in her room struggling with a sense of foreboding. There was no way she could sleep now without doing something. She put a hand on the phone and chewed her bottom lip, deliberating. It was very late - or very early, depending. It didn't matter; this was an emergency. She snatched up the receiver and started dialing.
"Yeah?" answered a frog.
"Michael? It's Isabel."
He cracked open an eye to look at the clock on the nightstand. "Do you not know the time? It's three in the morning."
"Come over here, please. Something's wrong with Max."
"You gotta be kidding me. What's the matter?"
"I don't know. He just came in. He's not saying anything and he looks terrible. It must have something to do with Liz."
"What's new? Are you sure he won't survive for an hour or two - like when the sun's up? Liz' Dad worked the crap out of me. I was sleeping."
"Well, I'm sorry flipping a few extra burgers was so traumatic for you, but if you ever cared just a little bit about Max or me, you'll make this sacrifice!"
"What about your folks, Isabel?"
"What about them? They don't bite. Besides, they're away for the weekend. Now are you coming or not?"
"Yeah, I'm coming. This had better be major."
----- ----- -----
When Michael arrived at the Evans', Isabel was waiting and pacing behind the door. She immediately pushed him upstairs saying,
"He's in his room with the lights off."
"And the problem is…?"
She said nothing as she manuevered him to Max's door then retreated to her own room. Sighing hard with annoyance Michael pushed open the door, walked into darkness and waited.
"Well, this is creepy, Maxwell. I can tell you're awake with your eyes wide open."
The only response was silence. Michael felt around for the sleeping bag, knocking things over noisily in the process. He was making himself comfortable on the floor, satisfied to sleep there if Max wouldn't talk, when he heard the latter say in a monotone,
"You actually came through the front door."
"Don't worry about it. Isabel thinks you've snapped and made me come over. You sound okay to me. Mind if I crash?"
"She'll be in here soon. You'll need something to report."
"Okay, where have you been all night?"
The halogen lamp suddenly came to life directly in Michael's eyes and he bit back a curse. As soon as he could see again, he scrutinized Max.
"Hm. Not pretty. So what's wrong with you?
"You're in bed, fully dressed, and you were just staring at the ceiling in the dark. Now you're staring at it in the light. I repeat, what is wrong with you?"
Max cut out the light and turned over.
"Fine," Michael said, more than ready to let it go, then Max got out of bed.
"Now what are you doing?"
"Taking a shower."
While he listened to the water running, Michael was thinking that he'd be snoring in peace and comfort right now if only he hadn't got his phone cut back on that morning. Just when the hum was beginning to relax him, Isabel walked in, abruptly flicking on the bright ceiling light.
"Well what? I'm working on it. Why don't you just go to sleep? I'm staying over."
"Well, okay. But as soon as you know something, wake me, Michael."
"You will never hear the end of it if you don't."
After she left, Michael cut off the light, muttering to himself, and once again tried to relax. But the water kept running and running and running, until he could stand it no more.
"Yo! Maxwell!" he called, knocking.
When there was no reply, he walked in and unceremoniously yanked open the stall door. Max was standing still with his hands splayed against the wall and letting the water run over his downcast head. Then he slowly turned to squint at Michael.
"What are you doing?" he barked.
Michael grimaced. "Please. Don't flatter yourself. You wouldn't even be my type."
"What kind of shower is this? Are you washing or voguing?"
"Damn!" Max nearly pushed Michael out of the way as he reached for a towel.
"At least you took off your clothes before you got in. You look so spacey I wasn't sure."
Max dried himself off, threw on clean boxers, and dropped back down on his bed while Michael settled in again on the floor, saying,
"Look, man, I'm not going to bother you anymore, 'cause whatever's going on…it seems like you need to just sleep on it. But you better recover soon. We got Skins and whatever else coming for us. You need to be focused." He paused a moment. "By the way, thanks again for…you know. With Courtney."
Suddenly the room was dark again. Michael shook his head.
"G' night, Maxwell."
----- ----- -----
Liz parted her lips in dismayed disbelief as she sat in her English class two weeks later. Ms. McKenna looked concerned.
"I - I mean I - couldn't I just read another part? I've done this one a lot."
"Well then you can challenge yourself, and us, by reading it differently."
"I know you can do it."
The bell rang and Liz waited for the class to file out, especially one student in particular, the chosen Romeo. Keeping her eyes down, she could feel when he left the room, like the sun going down quickly. She approached Ms. McKenna anxiously.
"Ms. McKenna, I really don't feel comfortable being Juliet. I just really don't want to do it. I would happily do someone else. Even two other characters--!"
"Why are you so adamant about not playing Juliet, Liz? I need a better reason than that." She added with twinkling eyes, "It can't be that your co-star repulses you. Anyway, often in life we have to do things we don't want to do. Start practicing early. Anything else?"
"Then I'll see you tomorrow, young Capulet," she added blithely, leaving Liz standing there dejected.
At lunch she broached the subject with her friend. "Maria, have you talked to Michael, Isabel, or Tess lately?
Maria stopped in mid-chew. "And I would do that why? Or Tess?"
Liz was silent for a moment. "Or Max?" she mumbled.
"Please stop echoing me. I…thought maybe since you had Soc with him--"
"I've talked to Max--"
"What'd he say?"
"Well, he didn't talk back really. I said 'hi' and he kinda nodded. We haven't been connecting at all since you dropped the bomb on him."
Liz's eyes widened. "Then you know--"
"No, Liz, I don't know, but I can guess. There are a few common reasons for a guy in love with a girl to suddenly avoid her and her friends like the Plague. True, the guy is 'special', but love doesn't let go unless it's been super seriously burned by betrayal. Usually intimate betrayal. Right?"
"Wrong. And lower your voice."
Maria looked around them. "Actually, Liz, we're in a pretty secluded corner of the room. Most everyone else is enjoying the sunshine. So how about it? It's been two weeks of me watching you go down in flames. What is it you apparently intend to keep from me until the end of time? I think I know, but it is important that you actually tell me. You can trust me, your best friend, remember? I have no interest in changing history. In fact I have no interest in not changing it."
"That's easy for you to say, Maria."
Maria sighed, resuming attention to her lunch. "I'm waiting." Then, she watched Liz slowly push her own tray to the side and said with a quaver she couldn't hold back, "You're still not eating right. You've got to eat and you've got to talk to me."
Liz rubbed her forehead wearily. "Okay. It doesn't matter now anyway--"
"Well, this is superior! You're going to reluctantly tell me something when it no longer matters."
"Hush. Future Max told me that Present Max was still going to choose being with me and pursuing me and that the future would still be the same whether I was with him or not. Present Max's actions would still keep the future the way it was. He said I had to hurt him more in order to alter his future actions." Maria held her friend's trembling hand and Liz drew a deep breath. "Oh, I can't believe it all turned out this way!"
"It's all right. I'm here."
"Well, to make this short, 'cause I can't talk about this much longer without…I got Kyle to get undressed with me in my bed, so that Max would see us and think that I had sex with Kyle…so that his future actions would change history and save eight billion plus lives." Including you and Alex, Liz wanted to add but didn't.
Maria just stared at her for a minute, then ate a french fry. "Okay."
"Come on. I know there's more."
"Well…you know how I feel about Future Max." She made a sour face. "You already know what I want to say. So I'll just add to it. I understand what you're doing, but Max Evans was your friend as well as your…and he would have understood, too."
"Because he's my friend, I'm saving him the trouble."
----- ----- -----
During sixth period Liz was sent to the eraser room for a folder that the substitute said she left in there. When she stepped inside, memories of her and Max assailed her like she knew they would. Taking two steps over to the grate, she remembered how a lifetime ago they stood there in the shadows, heads close together, spying on Topolsky. Topolsky who was dead now. Liz turned away. Everything had changed. The day Max saved her was the best day of her life because it led to a friendship and a love she'd only dreamt about, certain it would be years before she found it. But the best day had led to the worst. Looking back, how could it not? They were so different.
She grabbed some erasers, remembering the rather tattered ones the sub was using, and looked all around for the folder, not taking long to decide it wasn't there. She was about to leave when the door opened suddenly. Eyes widening, Liz dropped the erasers.
He came in slowly and locked the door behind him without taking his eyes off hers.
"Oh," she said, breathlessly, picking them up and shifting towards the door at the same time. "Ah, I just had to look for the sub's folder she thought she left in here. I'd better get back."
"Liz," he said, his body tense, "is there something you want to say to me?"
She looked down, both wanting and dreading this moment. But dread was dominant. "Max, I'm - I don't have the words to say how…" She faced him. "…sorry I am that you saw…" Liz couldn't finish.
Max looked away thoughtfully. "You're sorry that I saw," he said, enunciating each word. Then he pinned her with his eyes again. "What did I see?"
"Please, Max, not here. Can we talk about this later?"
"I don't think so, 'cause here's the thing. I've done nothing but love you. And you said you loved me. And it felt like you loved me. But you slept with Kyle Valenti. Right?"
Liz was hurt by the hint of bitterness that slipped into his tone, but there was only one answer she could give him.
"Yes," she said weakly. The word hung there, chilling the air and his eyes by degrees.
"Yes? So I can't imagine what you would say later."
Liz was achingly relieved when he stepped out of the way as if dismissing her. But as she reached for the doorknob, she gasped with alarm and, heaven help her, pleasure when Max pulled her back and held her firmly at arm's length away from him, his eyes no longer cold but ablaze.
"So how about you just say it now. For two weeks seeing Kyle Valenti has made me ill. But I really couldn't bear to look at you either, knowing every part of you had been taken from me and joined to him. I want to know right now, Liz, why the hell that happened!"
"I'm so sorry, Max! I was depressed about everything. He comforted me and one thing led to…I have to get back to class--" Max began to pull her closer to him. "I'll be missed and you're scaring me, Max!" She was only scared that any minute, she would blurt out the truth about everything and beg him to forgive her, to still love her.
Still holding her, he glared at Liz, slowly damming up his feelings again, the moment prolonged until her scalp pricked with sweat. Abruptly letting her go, he unlocked the door. "Well, I certainly don't want that to happen. Because that would depress you. And we both know how everything becomes nothing when you are depressed. Good-bye, Liz." Then he walked out.
Liz closed the door again and leaned her head against it, gravity seeming to pull her insides down and out.
Saturday morning at The Crashdown a large trucker type belched and eyed Maria critically as she came near. He reminded her so much of the guys who shot Liz that she had to reach into her pocket.
"Hey Miss, I been waitin' fifteen minutes for a cup of black coffee. What are you doing? Gathering the beans from the field? Hey! Are you...my g*d! Are you sniffin' drugs??"
"Ummm, not exactly and not illegally. You said you're waiting for a black coffee?"
The man slapped the countertop and leaned back. "Oh man, you're a piece of work, a drugged-out dingbat. I don't want you servin' me."
Maria was taking a deep breath before apologizing or cursing, she didn't know which, when they were interrupted.
"Then I guess you don't want to be served at all. In fact you can't be served here anyway." Michael was standing beside her.
"Kid, I'm not the one. You better watch yourself. Where's the manager?"
"He can't help you 'cause he can't change the rule - no dogs or *ssholes allowed."
When the trucker stood up, Maria put a hand on Michael's arm. "Sir," she began carefully, "there's no need to get up. I'm sorry about the coffee. I had a rough night and I'm sure you didn't mean to snap at me. If you still want the coffee, I will get it right now."
"I don't want anything from here!" he barked. Then snatching up his newspaper, he stomped out.
Maria turned to Michael who was staring after the older man. "Better watch you don't cut yourself with that razor sharp tongue of yours." She observed him thoughtfully. The armor is certainly shining bright this morning, hmmm? I've had irate customers before but no such rescue as this. What's up, Guerin?"
"Oh, you can still talk. I was starting to wonder. How about a 'thank you'?"
"Thank you," she said turning away.
"Well, now that we're on a roll, I want to talk to you about something," Michael said following her into the pantry.
"What did Liz do to Max? He's like Jeckell and Hyde and I haven't seen Jeckell lately."
"What's his Hyde like?"
"Max times ten - a cold, uptight clam nobody can talk to."
Maria smiled and winked, waving her finger at him. "Now that sounds like you on a normal day."
"Look, I'm serious. He can't be distracted right now and she always distracts him. Whatever it is tell her to lay off."
Maria slammed down a ketchup bottle. "Lay off what, Michael? They're in a relationship. Humans, and I guess some aliens - somewhere, have relationships and relationships have ups and downs. Maybe you should try being distracted for once because being so focused has backfired on you a couple times, hasn't it?"
"Why are you mad at me? I'm not the creep that just insulted you."
"No, you're just the friend that hurts me - frequently."
Michael took a deep breath, watching her replace items with jerky motions. "Maria, were we ever friends?"
She swung around. "Well…," she dragged out slowly with a cool little smile. "Wow! Your question actually answers a question. Thank you." She stalked out and nearly ran into Isabel who said urgently,
"Maria, I need to talk to you."
Maria threw up her hands. "We need. I need. I need. We need. I need. Does anyone or anything else in the universe matter besides the four of you? I am sick of you."
Isabel's eyes flickered shut wearily. "Been talking to Michael, have you?
"Ah, relevancy? Look over there. There's someone you need to talk to," Maria said, pointing to Alex sitting at a booth with his back to them. "I think he's more your friend than I am. Oh, excuse me. I mean, he was your friend before you started treating him like some lowly human beneath your consideration."
"Maria - "
"I'll tell you what, Isabel, and you can pass this on - " she continued in a low voice. " - keep your d*mn E.T. problems to yourselves."
After Maria left her standing there, Isabel exchanged a look with Michael, who resignedly returned to the grill, and then she walked slowly over to Alex.
"Hi Alex," she said hesitantly to his back.
Without turning around he sipped his orange juice. "Hi Isabel."
"How are you?" she said after the awkward silence that followed her taking a seat opposite him.
"I'm wondering what you want."
"You're mad at me, even though you know a lot is going on right now. After all that's happened I thought you of all people would understand."
Alex's eyes flashed. "Understand what, Isabel? That you've been ignoring me for no valid reason whatsoever? That you've been just plain rude? Yes, my memory's good. I was on the Special Unit's list, too. Remember? I probably still am, so it's not just all about you. Well, mostly but not all. Just don't sit there and pretend there's some acceptable excuse for your attitude, not only towards me but Maria and Liz, too. Now, you just came in here, you saw me sitting here, and didn't say squat to me - as usual. Then when you don't get what you want from Maria, you saunter on over. 'Oh well, he's the last resort.' Right?"
"Alex please! I'm sorry. I just haven't been handling the situation very well. I don't know what else to say. I guess I just needed some distance, but there's a problem that I need your help with now. It's about Max and Liz."
Alex looked incredulous. "In one ear and out the other, huh? Well, that's fine 'cause the sooner I listen to you, the sooner I can get back to my Lunar Lumps, which are getting cold. What about Max and Liz?"
"Max is not himself at all lately. It's scaring me. It's like he's changed - really changed into something. He won't talk to me about it - " Isabel broke off, turning away a little with a hand to her mouth.
Alex closed his eyes briefly and sighed. "And you think Liz might know why or that she's behind it. And you think I know all about it."
Isabel looked at him hopefully.
"Isabel, I don't know what's wrong with your brother."
She sat back. "Then what's wrong with Liz?"
"Nothing's wrong with Liz."
"But - "
"Nothing's wrong with any of the humans, Isabel. We're just fine. So maybe, like you, Max isn't handling the situation well."
Isabel said nothing while she watched him attack his Lunar Lumps. "How long are you going to stay mad at me, Alex?"
He stilled and said without looking at her, "Not long I'm sure. If I learn anything about what you're talking about, I'll tell you if I can."
----- ----- -----
Monday Liz was walking rather aimlessly through the semi-crowded hall at school. Earlier that morning was the disastrous Romeo and Juliet presentation in her English class. She didn't know if she was more upset with Max or Ms. McKenna, but she knew she didn't want to think about it anymore. Needing to see a friendly face she was hoping she'd run into Maria or Alex, so when Liz reached her locker she stood idly looking around. Finally she turned to get some books out for her next three classes. A hand suddenly grasped her shoulder, making her jump.
"Oh, Kyle." She smiled. "You startled me."
"If that was 'startled', I'd hate to see 'scared witless'. Are you sure you don't need to change your pants now?"
"Shut up," she said, hitting him lightly.
"Why are you getting used to hitting me? A woman's supposed to be gentle like a flower, you know."
"Yeah, and you've plucked quite a few."
"Come on. I'm not like that anymore - much. You should know, especially since that night."
When Liz's face fell with the tilt of her head, Kyle cursed himself for being thoughtless. "Whoa, I'm sorry."
"No, it's okay."
"So how are you? For some reason I haven't seen you around much. You been playing hooky?"
"No, I guess I didn't want to be seen." She laughed wryly. "I don't want to be much of anything lately."
"Come on. Come on. You can't do this. You can't do this, Liz."
"Got your own echo, huh?"
"You made a decision leading to what we did the other night. Whatever it was, I don't know. But if you're going down because of it then you need to make another decision to get yourself right again. That sounds corny, doesn't it?"
"I wish it was that easy, Kyle."
When Kyle put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to his side, Liz felt a strange heat touching her face, neck and chest. And it wasn't coming from Kyle or herself. She sensed with alarm that if she turned her head a little she'd see the source.
(He's near. Oh g*d, he sees me with Kyle.)
Stepping away from Kyle, she took him by the arm, saying, "Walk with me."
"Okay - Commodore."
----- ----- -----
"…so he told me to do all these laps just 'cause I was late again." Michael shook his head. "He's lucky I came at all. I'm telling you school is a daytime prison to house the enemy. Us. Anyone under nineteen. I don't know why I even…. What the--?!" His mouth dropped open as he witnessed the whites of Max's eyes glow a bright green around greatly dilated pupils. It took a passing girl gasping, "Oh my god!", to snap him out of his fascination.
"Glow-in-the-dark Halloween contacts," he snapped in explanation, as he adroitly blocked Max's blind forward motion.
"He's touching her," Max whispered harshly in a voice Michael barely recognized.
Michael pushed him with some effort as discreetly as possible into the empty eraser room, locking it behind them. He grabbed Max's face. "Max, what's happening to you?"
Max pulled away and sat down. He eyes were slowly returning to normal and his breathing was slightly labored. "I don't know. I just saw him touching her and I can't take it."
"Who's touching who? Who...What am I saying? It's Liz. Liz and who?"
"Well, what were you getting ready to do out there in front of the entire school?"
Max looked up at him with haunted eyes. "Lose it."
"Okay, that's it. I'm calling a meeting tonight."
"A meeting? About what?"
"Never mind. You'll find out when you get there. In the meantime, I'm taking you home."
"Michael, I'm not going anywhere. I'm not skipping three classes, and I don't need a nursemaid."
"D*mn your classes! Are you crazy? You were just about to do an Incredible Hulk or something out there. You don't know what you were going to do. What if it happens again before you leave school? You have a bunch of classes with Liz. You know how they keep all you honor students joined at the hip."
Max said nothing. He felt drained as much as by Michael's scathing tone as by what just happened to him. Whatever that was. He shoved a hand through his hair. "Okay you're right. I'm going home."
"I mean my place. You can't let your parents see you."
"Will you look at me? I'm fine now."
"Max, this is serious. We have to figure out -- "
Max stood up impatiently. "We have to get out of this eraser room. Now." He walked out with Michael, his expression stormy, following at his heels.
What do you think?
[ edited 1 time(s), last at 25-Jan-2002 8:57:00 PM ]
|posted on 27-Jan-2002 5:55:29 PM|
In the end Max did return to his own house despite Michael’s strident objections. He lay now on his bed trying to sort things out. He couldn’t go on like this. His frustration was changing him into someone he didn’t know and didn’t like. He was barely speaking to his parents or Isabel. He was neglecting his schoolwork, even the subjects he enjoyed, and he was acting oblivious to the alien situation - as if it would disappear if he ignored it. How he wished he could go back to his first date with Liz and just relive it for the rest of his life! And he had a lot of nerve wishing for that. Max remembered with shame how he had deliberately tried to make Liz uncomfortable during their enactment of Romeo and Juliet, toying with her, making her think he would take advantage of the kissing scenes. Liz must have thought he was just being spiteful. The truth was Max had to fight not to consume her lips with his own, his longing for her raging nearly out of control inside him. It hadn’t mattered that they were in front of a room full of people. However, he didn’t know if he could handle whatever he might see during their connection. Last time, although she was blocking it, he still saw and felt things inside her, blurred confusing fragments of her emotions and memories. The most disturbing image of all was of Liz, upset, recently talking to a shadowy figure that was…him. Yet it wasn’t him. Or was it? Or was it just a patchwork of different memories?
Max sat up. Yes, he was angry with her. Whatever the image meant, the fact was that Liz was hiding things from him, hiding herself, lying to him…. But which was the lie: that she had never loved him as much as she seemed to or that she had slept with Kyle and was meeting guys left and right? What else wasn’t she telling him? Yet despite all that one thing was clear. Max still loved Liz with everything that was in him. But his emotional upheaval must have triggered something dangerous in his alien nature. And it was growing. He would kill himself before he ever hurt her, but he feared his lack of self-control.
Needing to be distracted, he went into Isabel’s room, grabbed a CD he didn’t recognize, put it into his player and lay back down. The volume was low and the rough, jagged baseline soothed him so that soon he was thinking of nothing at all…
The next thing he knew the - Briinngg! - of his phone jolted him awake. “Mmm,” he murmured into the receiver. The nap had been too long, leaving him more tired than before.
“You’re late,” Michael said. There was silence on the line. “Maxwell!”
“You’re holding things up. Are you coming or what?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there. Give me twenty minutes.” He hung up wondering why he didn’t just say no. He felt like crap. All the time. Dwelling on that Max stared at a chair near his door without really seeing it, and it suddenly toppled over.
When he arrived at Michael’s apartment at about 8pm, irritated by having to walk in the cold blustery weather since Isabel had apparently taken the jeep and left him, he glanced around the room, his eyes finally resting on the clock.
“Where’s everybody else?”
“There is no one else, Max. This meeting’s between you and me.”
Max turned towards the door. “No thanks.”
“Max, what’s going on between you and Liz? Is she seeing someone else now? Is that it?”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“No, I didn’t think you would. You’re more uptight now than ever. I could get constipated just looking at you.”
“Yeah really. I’m wondering if a Skin popped up right now, would you even fight back.”
Max reached for the doorknob. “Well, keep wondering.”
Michael jumped in front of him. “That’s right, your royal high ass! Make the rest of us vulnerable while you sulk like a kid. This isn’t just about you. What affects you affects us all. So it ends here. Either we can talk it out, Max, or I can beat it out of you!”
Max stepped right into his face. “Try it!”
They stared each other down until the air of violence surrounding them cleared. Michael broke the silence, moving back slightly. “We need you. We need each other. How long are you gonna go on like this? Until we’re all dead?”
Max’s shoulders slumped and he looked away as he sat on the couch. A relieved Michael took a seat opposite him. “Talk. If you don’t want me to say anything, I won’t.”
“I saw Liz in bed with Kyle Valenti,” Max said dully.
“You’re kidding me.”
“In her bed. I saw it.”
“Damn,” Michael said softly, looking down. After a short silence he asked skeptically, “Are you sure? I mean what did you see? Were they actually doing it?”
“Well, how exactly did they look?”
Max huffed disgustedly. “What the hell, Michael? They looked naked in bed, all right? Do I have to draw you a damn sketch?” he snapped, standing up.
“You’re cursing a lot lately, you know. Very out of character. Just like what you’re saying about Liz.”
Max sat down again and raked his hands roughly through his hair. Something else he was doing a lot lately. He stopped, annoyed. “The thing is, it feels wrong. I don’t feel like she did it. She’s been pushing me away in all directions since that day we used the orbs in the pod chamber and...got that message. First she says she doesn’t want to stand in the way of my ‘destiny’. Then she basically avoids all possible contact with me. Then she says she met someone while she was away this summer and implies it’s more than casual. Then I find her with Kyle. Have I been missing something or am I just crazy?”
Michael shook his head. “Man, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“When she mentioned the first guy, I didn’t really believe her. And that was even after I kissed her and she tried to block the connection.”
“Did you see anything then?”
“Faint jumbled images. She’s strong. I couldn’t get through.”
“Sounds more like a fight than a kiss.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Look, I’m listening to you, but do you really believe Liz had sex with Kyle? I mean do you believe that what you saw confirmed that?”
When Max was silent, Michael waited patiently.
“I don’t know what to believe. Something inside me is telling me she didn’t. But on the other hand, why not? All of our lives these past months have been traumatized. Maybe we’ve all changed. If it happened, I probably drove her to it. She kept telling me it was over between us and I wouldn’t accept it.”
“And you can now?”
“I can’t let what happened this afternoon at school happen again. I could have...hurt someone and got us all busted as well.”
Michael went to the fridge, poured Sunny Delight into two mugs, and held his hand over them until stream rose.
“Hey, that’s pretty good,” Max said, taking the mug he was given. “You’re gaining control of your powers.”
“Yeah, it sure saves time. Anyway. But you should have seen your eyes. They really creeped me out.”
“How’d they look?”
“Fluorescent green and huge. Alien werewolf style.”
Max shook his head. “I’m tired of us not knowing about us. We need to find a way to get some information out of the granolith instead of letting it sit there and just look weird. Tomorrow after school."
“I’m with you. And then there’s Tess too.”
“Her memories and all the stuff Nasedo taught her. I only got her to help me with the powers. She must know a lot more though. Maybe you should connect with her. It would save time.”
Max was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of connecting with Tess and kept the fact that he had no intention of doing so to himself. Probably sooner or later he’d have to immerse himself in his alien history, but he was afraid of losing who he was now and those he loved. He’d put that off as close to forever as possible.
They sat drinking in silence for a while before Max asked with a touch of humor,
“So is this meeting officially over with?”
Michael drummed his fingers against his thigh, looking uncomfortable.
“What is it?”
“It’s probably nothing.”
“I mean it’s probably nothing so yeah, the meeting’s officially over. You better get home. It’s getting late.”
“It’s quarter to nine.”
“Well, you got school tomorrow.”
“We always have school tomorrow five times out of seven. Talk.”
“If it was nothing, you wouldn’t have mentioned it. Besides, it’s all right for me to spill my guts while you keep yours intact? No way.”
Michael’s lips twisted. “Well, I’ve been having the same dream about the granolith over and over again. And it’s growing.”
“No, the dream. It gets longer each time. It goes like this…Ah wait, I need some chips.” Max hung his head in exasperation while Michael rummaged around in his cabinets for them and came back.
“All right, it starts off with the four of us looking at it together for the first time after Isabel found it. We leave, but I’m still there like I’m watching myself in a movie. Then all these people, about a thousand of ‘em, come in looking like Brady Bunch clones and carry the granolith into the desert. Then all of them form four bunches around it like the foursquare symbol that’s supposed to represent us. Then one large green alien comes out of nowhere, kills them all, grabs the granolith and shoves it deep in the ground. Then Earth explodes. I can see blood, brains and bones thrown through space—“
Max peered into his mug. “What’s in this stuff? Maybe you shouldn’t drink it at night.”
“Don’t joke. It means something. Mind if I finish? So anyway the blood, brains and bones finally disintegrate right before reaching our home planet’s atmosphere.” He looked expectantly at Max. “Well, what do you think?”
“Well, ah, I’ll have to think about it. It could mean…anything.”
“It could mean that we better figure out what it means real quick. I’m thinking we don’t have much time.”
----- ----- -----
The following morning Liz sat up in bed, feeling the lingering agitation of an adrenalin rush. This happened once before, last week. Swinging her legs to the side of the bed, she picked up the clock. 4:05am again – just like last week. She remembered only one part of the dream. An alien - tall, greenish-gray skin, large black eyes and wearing a long black robe with a long silver chain - plunged the granolith into the ground in the desert. Liz got up and walked to her window hugging herself and shivering. She felt uneasy about the dream the first time and even more so now. It had been more like a memory than a dream. She didn’t know what it meant and she wished she could talk to Max about it. She missed their friendship so much, but he’d been – and she never thought she’d think this – he’d been a jerk during English yesterday. Well, maybe that wasn’t a fair judgment, but it seemed like he was turning her on purposefully without feeling it himself. She had felt naked, exposed and vulnerable in front of the class. Nothing showed, nothing outwardly had happened. But she’d become a mass of nervous desire by the time it was all over. The final thrust was to see that smirk on his face. Max had never smirked at her! That was so unlike him. And yet she’d still been torn between wanting to smack it off and the urge to kiss it off. So yes, Max Evans had been a true jerk yesterday for the first time in his life. Liz turned from the window and bounced back into bed. Well, the incident lessened her guilty feelings somewhat. She now had him to thank for making it just a little easier to accept the end of their relationship, an end that she had to keep telling herself was vitally necessary.
----- ----- -----
Liz and Maria were walking near the little park on their way to The Crashdown after school. They were strolling very slowly because Maria needed to vent.
“I think I’m gong to cut Michael loose for good. When he starts talking, he annoys me. He just annoys me!”
“Alex told me about Michael coming to your rescue the other day.”
Maria tried not to smile. “Yes, that was sweet, but the sweetness never lasts long with him. There have been so many times when I’ve thought finally, finally, we’ve connected. Then two seconds later he disconnects. I swear it happens every time, every time. We have like permanently faulty wiring between us. I think I’m just plain ready for new wiring.”
They walked on in silence. Liz didn’t feel like sharing her Shakespearean tragedy and preferred to lose herself in her friend’s dilemma.
“Maybe it’s me, Liz. Maybe I keep expecting Michael to be what he’s not. Oh l*rd, what if I’m one of those women always falling for Mr. Wrong or always attracted to good men they just can't get along with. I don’t want to always have to be ‘on’ with Michael. I can count the times we’ve been in each other’s company for fifteen minutes straight without clashing on one hand and, yes, still have fingers left. I care about him a lot. I really do. But maybe he’s right about our differences being a permanent barrier. I think I want just a normal human life.”
“One day there might not be anymore ‘normal human life,’” Liz said half to herself, staring out into the distance.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh nothing. I’m in a weird mood. Don’t mind me.”
After mulling this over a few moments Maria said, “No, I think I will mind you. I know people just, you know, say things like that and it’s just subconscious mental wandering. Your body’s all relaxed and your mind just makes up random things for your mouth to say during a Maxwell House moment—“
Liz flinched at the name.
“—with friends but I don’t think what you just said was nothing, Liz.”
“No, Maria it really was a Maxwell House unconscious moment.”
“Hmm, let’s see. Michael, my semi-boyfriend, doesn’t communicate. Liz, my best friend, often lately doesn’t communicate.”
“Maria, come on.”
“No, no. And Amy DeLuca, my mother no less, is so busy playing the Grace Kelly role to our very own ‘High Noon’ Sheriff Valenti that she doesn’t communicate with me either, unless she wants my opinion of her fashion statements, as if she ever made one. I’m going to go home, pull up the covers and sleep forever.”
“Maria,” Liz touched her arm to stop her. “What else is really bothering you?
“Oh man.” Maria smiled self-mockingly. “Today is my father’s birthday. Why should I remember every year? When he left he should have taken everything. The memories too. No no, I don’t want Michael anymore. It’s the same crap all over again. Rejection, rejection.” Maria sat down on a bench and put her head in her hands. “I hate everybody who’s ever hurt me right now. Screw ‘em!”
Liz drew Maria’s head to her shoulder and patted her rhythmically. The cool crisp air slowly calmed and soothed both of them.
“Don’t see your father in other people, Maria. Just see them. And no one in his or her right mind would reject you. You’re beautiful, intelligent—“
“—funny, kind, feisty. And all that’s just the icing on the delicious cake that is Maria DeLuca, my best friend forever. We take risks with everyone we open ourselves to. And when they don’t do the same, it’s their loss, not ours. If they won’t trust us with their honesty, then they just lose big time. They become less and die a little inside.”
“Well, I like your philosophy better than mine.” Maria hugged her. “You’re truly like my sister. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
They started walking again, when Maria began tentatively, “I’m wondering though if you’ll take your own words to heart.”
----- ----- -----
Liz hung up her uniform around 7pm and stepped outside to clear her head after the hustle and bustle of the restaurant that afternoon. Maria’s heart wasn’t into what she was doing after Michael came in to work his shift, so Jeff Parker let her go a little early.
Liz closed her eyes and took deep breaths. She loved this kind of weather because cool air re-aligned overheated minds and bodies. She sat on a nearby bench and enjoyed being thoughtless, just listening to the sounds of light traffic and the footsteps of a few passersby. She might have even been edging towards sleep. Liz wished she could remain there for the rest of the night.
She instantly opened her eyes.
“Hi,” said Max. “Can I talk to you?”
She hesitantly gestured to the space beside her and he sat.
“I just need to say some things to you. You don’t have to say anything.”
Liz nodded without looking at him.
“I’m sorry about my behavior during English the other day. I disrespected you and I never--. You didn’t deserve that. Nobody deserves that. My only excuse is that I haven’t been myself lately and you know why.”
Liz started to speak but he said, “No, I’m not here to bring up anything. I don’t want--. Liz, I don’t know what’s happened to us. I just miss you and it hurts. But a part of caring about someone is accepting it when their feelings change or when the situation just changes.” Max sighed heavily. “I know you’re keeping things from me. For some reason it’s what you want or need to do. And I can’t take begging you to trust me with your secrets anymore because I keep wanting what I’m not getting. And it’s making me...mean. I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t know how this is going to work but I want us to at least be friends. Or try to.” He looked at her directly then and found her eyes, filled with distress, locked on him. “Can we try to be friends again?”
“Yes.” Liz cleared her throat and repeated, “Yes, I’d like that.”
Some of the tenseness left him. “Good.” When he stood up, Liz did the same. "Well...you’re finished in there for the night?”
“Yes. I guess I’ll go in now,” she said awkwardly.
“Yeah, me too. I still have some homework to do. So I’ll see you at school.”
Liz nodded. “Good night, Max.”
“I’ll walk you to the door.”
The door was twenty steps away and he held it open for her, watching her eyes smile sadly at him as she went in.
“Good night, Liz.”
Max kept walking back the way he came. He hadn’t gotten far when something caught his eye, making him stiffen. He looked all around, senses alert. Then he carefully reached among the hedges next to him to pick up a very fresh Skin shedding. It was shaped like an arm and he watched as it instantly disintegrated.