|posted on 8-Dec-2002 6:03:50 PM|
This is a short one, but another fic that's really special to me for a whole bunch of reasons. It didn't win an award, but I won "Best Author of an Unconventional Fiction." So, based on that, here you go with probably my favorite of all my UC fics. Thanks for reading, as always. Hugs, d
SUMMARY: This story is set twelve years after TEOTW, and tracks from there. In this world none of the odious events of late season two ever occurred…it jumps off literally after TEOTW.
DISCLAIMER: The characters of Roswell are the property of Twentieth Century Fox Television and Regency Productions. All original characters and concepts are the property of the author. No profit has been made from the distribution of this work of fiction.
Nothing could have prepared me for this. No amount of hospice counseling, or advice, or even steely-willed notions of self. In the end, there’s only Liz and me, and I’m the one losing the battle here, not her, despite what the doctors say.
Her eyes flutter shut against the late afternoon sun, the rays filtering across the floor like a beacon, listless and sure. We’ve been sitting this way for hours, poised on the brink of something we both know is unavoidable, but unwilling to speak of it. When we came home earlier today, I carried her in my arms up the apartment stairs, my boots echoing hollowly off the concrete, as I took the careful steps one at a time.
We’d arrived in the ambulance, and the paramedics had insisted on using a stretcher, until finally I pulled the senior guy aside, Jose I think his name was, and explained things to him. We stood in the parking lot, shivering in the December cold, as I told him how it was going to be. That nobody would carry Liz home for this last time except for me. By God, she deserved to be cradled in the arms of someone who loved her, not strapped and hoisted and awkwardly toted up two solid flights of stairs.
Jose had stared at me blankly, clearly unconvinced, until in a very uncharacteristic show of diplomacy I added the word, “Please.” Something in his expression softened then, and I think it was maybe the first time he let either of us become real to him. Maybe that’s how you survive a job like that, the kind where you’re barely more than a liaison to the dying.
He nodded solemnly, indicating the backdoors of the ambulance, and I scrambled inside. Jose gestured silently to the two other medics who sat beside Liz, and they slowly freed her from the straps, as I squatted gingerly next to the gurney.
“I’m going to carry you up,” I explained, and I saw Liz swallow hard, her gaze darting around the ambulance fearfully. The dark hollows beneath her eyes seemed suddenly even more pronounced, and I pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Just me, baby,” I promised, as she gazed at the men around her.
“Good.” She nodded, and I reached for her hand, giving it a slight squeeze, as she whispered, “I’m tired of doctors.”
I stared at the paramedics, who continued adjusting her oxygen and tubes methodically. “Don’t worry about them,” I said, glancing at them pointedly.
But Jose had to assert his authority. “We’ll follow you up. Get things situated.”
“Of course,” I assured him, but behind his back, I rolled my eyes dramatically for Liz’s benefit. I wanted to make her smile, since we’d both learned one thing after a year’s worth of hospitals. Medical people craved their designated authority; otherwise they might feel less than necessary in the universe that had created them.
“Hospice regulations require us to show you everything,” he continued, and I nodded without speaking.
So they freed her, and I pulled her into my arms, cradling her close, her head tucked perfectly against my shoulder, my arm braced within the crook of her legs. She was shockingly easy to carry, not that she’d ever been heavy anyway, but she fit far too effortlessly within my large arms now.
I brought her into the apartment, and the medics settled her here in the living room. That had been mid-day, the winter light still soft and forgiving. Hours had passed since then, bringing family and friends, too many visitors. I’d stood to the side all afternoon, watching, sometimes giving comfort or trying to ease the awkwardness of watching someone die, but always supporting Liz.
It was funny how everyone faced down death so differently. It was always the unexpected people who came through for you. Like Tess and Kyle. I’d never have imagined how much comfort they would have brought Liz over the past year, what true friends they would have proved to be. Yet of everyone, even Liz’s family really, they’d visited the most consistently, remained the most positive and upbeat.
By contrast, Liz’s parents tended to upset her, despite their efforts at being strong. They cherished their only daughter too much, and watching her slowly waste away as the cancer overtook her body, well, that had been more than they could bear. They’d followed us home from the hospital earlier today, and Jeff had practically fallen apart at Liz’s bedside. I’d had to protect her from that, so I’d slipped an arm around his shoulder, helping him into the kitchen, as he began to sob into his hands.
My own father-in-law, and he couldn’t even talk to me, the emotions were that intense, as I pressed a glass of ice water into his hand, and gave him some tissues. How had I slipped into the role of the strong one here, I wondered? I was the one losing a wife, a best friend.
Because that’s what Liz would do, the soft answer came. She’s given that gift to you. If it was a gift, here at the end it felt like the worst kind of curse.
So the day had wound down. We were alone now; the late afternoon rays shining across our worn carpeting, spilling over the blankets and the edge of my chair, where I’d settled beside her rolling bed. I never knew how easy it was to rent hospital beds and equipment until the past months, until Liz had grown weary of the endless hospital rooms and the sterile smells of treatments that were accomplishing nothing.
Until she’d finally told me that she just wanted to come home, if she were going to die anyway.
That was when we’d all really begun to search for Max in earnest, not that we hadn’t before. But we knew then that time was truly slipping away from us if something didn’t give way soon.
Never in all my life had I felt so powerless as I did that day, wishing that my stupid alien gift were something more than an unfocused ability to blast random things. Max the healer, Max the gifted…Michael the pointless warrior who can’t even save his dying wife.
The irony is, in all these months that we’ve tried to find Max, I’ve had to wonder if he only granted her some perverse reprieve that day in the Crashdown. If maybe the very fact of his changing her hadn’t been the thing that ultimately caused her illness. Who knows, but God, I’d do anything for just an ounce of Max Evans’ gift within my hands. To be able to touch my precious Liz, and bring her rushing back to life, just like he did that day more than twelve years ago.
But Max isn’t here, and I’m only me. And time is running out.
So she’s just lying on her side, studying me with what seems almost an air of serenity. The sunlight is fading fast within the living room, but I won’t budge, don’t want to move away from her, even for a moment. I should turn on the lamp beside the sofa, or in the bookshelf, but I can’t seem to break away. Not when we’ve been transfixed this way for almost an hour, just studying one another in loving silence.
Periodically, I caress the length of her hair, memorizing the feel of it beneath my fingers, willing my hand to know these strokes years from now. Decades from now, when I think back to what it was to touch her. She blinks steadily, but doesn’t speak, even as she nestles just a little closer to where her hand is folded within mine on the edge of her pillow. I wonder what she’s thinking. Because she is thinking something, just not saying it, of that I’m certain.
I wonder if she ever once loved me like she loved him.
But I quickly shove that thought aside; I relegate it to a dusty corner of my mind where I’ll bury it forever.
She smiles faintly, giving my hand a weak little squeeze. “What?” I ask, feeling guilty, and wondering if my thoughts somehow betrayed me.
“Michael,” she laughs, my name huskier than ever as it passes her lips. That surprises me these days, the way her voice has become like whiskey, raspy and deep.
“What?” I ask again, this time feeling nervous. I don’t even realize it, but I tighten my grip on her hand a bit, and she covers it with her other one.
“I want to show you something,” she says, drawing my hand to her lips and brushing a light kiss over the knuckles. “Come closer.” She waves her hand weakly, beckoning my face lower toward her pillow.
I swallow hard. She did know my thoughts, but why the hell should that surprise me? My amazing, perfect Liz --of course she knew, I realize as slowly I bend low toward the bed.
I draw her hands toward my lips, kissing them in a mirror image of how she just kissed my own, a light brushing of my mouth across her knuckles. Only now she slips her hands free from mine, drawing them open wide, and I know what’s coming next. What always comes next.
This is Max’s legacy between us--the good legacy, at least. This is the way that Liz’s powers, which were once so ungrounded and mercurial, finally settled into her spirit. This is the gift she’s able to give me now when I need it the most.
“Closer,” she breathes, and I swear I hear her heartbeat thundering off the thin walls of our apartment. I swear I hear her whispered exhalations move down the hall, toward our bedroom. I swear I hear our past, beating like the present just between us, as she captures my face within her palms. “Remember…with me,” she urges. And I close my eyes, as her memories become fused with my own, and I can no longer differentiate between us.
I’m eighteen and I’m so damn nervous. God, I’ve arranged my hair like a dozen different times, until finally I’ve settled on this mess of curls that seems to just spill off the top of my head. Not that I care about the boy who’s taking me to the movie, but at this point, a date’s a date. It’s been almost two years since Future Max came. Almost two years since he forced me to push Max away. And almost two years since Max or any other boy has even taken me out.
Months have bled into years, and while I ache for Max, for what should have been, something’s finally started to change. Maybe the familiarity of the grief has muted the emotions. Or maybe it’s just that I finally realize that he’s never going to press me for the truth. Whatever it is, as much as I love him, I can’t seem to recover what’s lost between us.
And the ironic thing is that he and Tess never did get together. Instead, when she heard that Kyle had been in my bed, something about that made her possessive, and attracted her to Kyle, not Max. They’ve been lovers practically ever since. And oddly enough, it works between them, too, I think, as I pirouette in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. The same mirror where I’d once stood and pronounced, “I, Liz Parker, take Max Evans…”
Famous last words, I reflect grimly, smoothing my palm over the front of the flowered sundress. This is a racy one for me, cut above the knee, bare along the shoulders. And then on my feet, there are strappy little sandals, to boot. I’ve even painted my toenails a lovely pink color, and they peek out in invitation.
I wiggle them playfully, and I can’t help myself, because like a familiar addiction, I immediately wonder what Max would think if he saw me in this ensemble. I wonder if he’d stare, and if I’d spy latent desire in his golden eyes.
But another thought chases just as quickly on the heels of that one. A thought that’s far more disturbing, one that causes such a spasm of emotion that I can hardly breathe, so I push it back. I refuse to acknowledge it, even though one glimpse in the mirror reveals how the thought made my cheeks grow pink.
He won’t be here, he’s not even working tonight, I assure myself. Not like he’d ever notice what you’re wearing anyway.
Still, as I turn in front of the mirror one last time, my heart races as I imagine how Michael might react to the dress.
My dad sees me first, as I enter the restaurant, and he gives a low whistle, tucking his pencil behind his ear. “Lizzie, you look beautiful!” he pronounces, swiveling on the barstool.
I want to kick him for drawing so much attention to me, even though he makes me feel special and beautiful. “Oh, dad,” I sigh, rolling my eyes.
“Come here and let me look at you,” he encourages, but I just fold my arms protectively across my chest, feeling suddenly very exposed in my sundress. But at least the restaurant’s not very crowded yet, just a few patrons at some of the tables.
But my stomach tightens when I spot them in the booth by the window, and then it really does a double flip when I realize that both their heads have snapped in my direction. Max lifts his hand, giving an awkward little wave, and I wonder if it’s an invitation.
“Just gorgeous, Lizzie. What time’s he coming?” Dad asks, but I’m already moving toward the front of the restaurant, as I call over my shoulder, “Fifteen minutes.”
He says something else, but it’s lost on me, as I nearly float toward that booth by the window.
For a moment, Max and Michael both just stare, mouths half-open, and it makes me feel giddy and strange. Lighthearted, especially the way Max is looking with such undisguised desire, something he’s not done in a very long time.
“Hey,” I smile, tugging nervously on my dress strap.
“Hey,” they reply in unison, and I feel heat creeping up my neck, into my face. I will it to stop, but it doesn’t, and I know they can see my embarrassment as I draw near their booth.
The moment seems to screech to an awkward halt, and I’m painfully aware of them both, of how they’re staring, how surprised they are by my feminine appearance. But then forward motion begins again, as suddenly Michael averts his gaze, staring down at his hands.
Something about the simple gesture stuns me, as I see his face redden sharply, and realize he has definitely noticed me. Not just tonight, but maybe for a while now, judging by how shy he seems. But not Max, he’s not shy at all. He stares at me boldly, and the incredibly ironic thing is I’ve wanted him to look at me again this way for such a long time, but now that he has, it’s Michael’s obvious interest that arouses me. I can’t look away, anymore than he can meet my gaze.
He says nothing, just keeps studying his hands, the table, anything but me.
“Going out?” Max asks, and I hear a tinge of jealousy in his voice.
“Yeah, just somebody my parents wanted to fix me up with.”
And with these words, Michael’s head finally snaps up, and he meets my gaze. “Who?” Michael asks. We’ve worked together all summer, eight hours a day, and we’ve grown much closer than ever before. Laughing, having food fights, commiserating over late night closings.
Things have definitely changed between us this last summer, these final months before I finally leave Roswell, heading to my future at a college back east.
“Yeah, who is it?” Max adds, and I giggle nervously, realizing I’m facing the great alien tribunal.
“Does it matter?” I laugh softly, arching an eyebrow.
“Yeah, it does,” Michael snaps irritably. “Sure as hell does.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize my social life was up for group discussion.” My words come out tart and bitter, and I instantly regret it when I see Michael’s gentle brown eyes darken.
“Forget it,” he grumbles, staring back at his hands again. But Max doesn’t look away, he stares at me, and this time I glimpse undisguised pain in his eyes. For a moment, I wish it weren’t too late for us, as I ache for our soul connection like I once did on an hourly basis.
“Just curious,” Max smiles, encouraging me. “Hope he’s a nice guy.” He wants me to be happy; I see it in the way his tight jaw relaxes. And I want to fling my arms around his neck, and swear I’ll always love him.
I shake my head, laughing again. “Do parents ever fix their kids up on good blind dates?” I ask, and Max and I both laugh, bobbing our heads, as we reply in unison, “No.”
“Exactly,” I smile, and for some reason, I slip my hand onto Michael’s shoulder. I mean it as a gesture of goodwill after our snappish interchange, but I shiver when I feel him tighten beneath my slight touch.
Immediately, I draw my hand back, and in embarrassment, brush at the loose tendrils of hair that spill across my cheek. I have no idea what made me touch him that way, but surely I’d know by now that you don’t express tenderness with Michael Guerin-- at least not if you don’t want to be rebuffed.
But he didn’t rebuff me, not precisely. He reacted, something altogether different, and I wonder what it means, as I tell them to have a good time, and turn quickly away.
The sun has almost set now in our apartment living room, and images flash through my mind…Liz’s mind, as time ceases to exist. She still cups my face loosely within her palms, as I bury my cheek against her pillow, nuzzling close as she opens herself like this, sharing her memories with me. One final, precious gift.
Our interchange in the Crashdown gives way to her date with the blonde-haired boy, the one who brought her back to the restaurant much later that same evening. And I see it all through her vision, even though her mind is shadowing my own thoughts.
Quicksilver memories, senseless and imagistic, they layer one upon another.
And then the seamless rhythm stills, and Liz is simply standing outside the Crashdown, fumbling with her key, because it’s late and the restaurant is closed for the night. She’s wearing that gorgeous flowered sundress, and one of the spaghetti straps has slipped off her shoulder.
She looks up and presses her face close to the glass, because surely her eyes are playing tricks. Surely that can’t be Michael Guerin sitting there at the counter; he can’t possibly be waiting up for her, well onto midnight. Her heartbeat quickens, and her hands shake so badly, she can’t even get the key in the lock for a long moment.
But it is Michael Guerin. I know, because it was the longest damn night of my life, sitting on that barstool and wondering if the date would mean anything to her--or if I’d missed my chance with Liz Parker, once and for all.
And as she turns the key in the lock, I’m in Liz’s mind once again, her thoughts perfectly melded with my own; no differentiation or boundaries--just the two of us, like this in the near-darkness, as she cups my face firmly within her palms again.
Slowly, I enter the café, my strappy pink sandals dangling from my fingers, as I walk barefoot over the smooth, cool floor of the Crashdown. The tiles feel clean beneath the soles of my feet, chilled by the air conditioning that’s still running full-blast, even this late at night. My dad would kill Michael for setting the thermostat this low after hours, I think, as I pad quietly toward him.
I know Michael hears me, yet he just stares down at his open newspaper, pencil poised between his fingers. “Crossword?” I finally ask, as I drop my sandals onto the counter beside him. He glances at them strangely, as if they’re something foreign and unanticipated.
“Well, I think that might be a general yes or no question, Michael,” I tease, leaning my elbows onto the counter. For some reason he seems like a mountain sitting up on that stool beside me, especially since I’m only barefoot. It reminds me of seventh grade, how I’d feel after taking my skates off at the end of the night at the roller rink. I’d always felt instantly tiny, dwarfed as I did now.
“I was just kinda looking at it,” he explains, folding the paper shut. He steals a sideways glance at me, and I smile encouragingly, even though my heartbeat quickens insanely.
“The date was a bust,” I offer gingerly, and I see his features visibly relax. “He’s way uptight,” I laugh a moment. “Of course, human boys are pretty boring at this point. I think I prefer the alien ones.”
Michael turns on the stool toward me, and for a moment it seems he’ll say something. Then he just closes his mouth again, running a weary hand over his eyes.
“What?” I press him, touching him lightly on the arm. Like earlier, I feel a little shimmer of energy beneath my fingertips.
He stares at me a long moment, silent, assessing and I force myself not to flinch, despite the way something strange seems to coil tightly within my abdomen. Something I’ve never felt before, not even with Max.
Without a word, Michael slips off the stool, stepping right into my space, and cups my face within his hands. It should be unexpected, yet it feels more right than anything I’ve ever experienced before as he draws my lips upward toward his own. I have to lean way up on my tiptoes just to return the kiss, even as I sense him folding downward to take me. It’s almost like he’s drawing me into him, the way our bodies meet between the distance, and like warmest velvet, his lips brush against mine.
I can’t breathe, as the tautness in my abdomen wraps itself tightly around my whole body, my lungs. I’m drowning in him, and it’s absolutely beautiful. He’s not Max, not remotely like him, but a surge of energy pools so quickly in my body that I stagger slightly, and his sure hands press into my lower back, steadying me.
“I’ve got you,” he assures me quietly, and I nod, as our lips part, tongues slowly twining together.
Up, up I reach, onto the balls of my feet, as I thread my hands around his neck, feeling his long hair beneath my fingers. I’m expectant, because I know what should come next, the connection that should open like a perfect rushing river between us.
But it doesn’t come. At least not like I expect, and I have to choke back the disappointment that starts crowding the edge of my mind. Maybe there’s only ever Max. Maybe he really is my one true soulmate, and everything else will fall short. Yet even as I entertain these dim thoughts, I can’t focus on them, because the kisses are too arousing, too intense, as Michael draws me even closer against him.
His heart pounds against my chest, thundering, and that’s when it happens. And it’s not like with Max, though why would I have expected it to be? Little flashes of heat shoot into my extremities first, and along with them, so do memories. I know his childhood in my arm, his last week in my fingertips; each memory almost penetrating me on a cellular level, as flashes of trailer parks and leather belts, and even gorgeous desert sunrises penetrate my wrist, my skin, my hand.
Then it’s his youth, older and more rebellious, and those remembrances skitter down my thighs, into my calves, imbedding within my very body. He’s a part of me now, the memories, the pain, the wondrous experience of just being Michael.
Then and there, I know what I never would have guessed—though I might have suspected it. Michael Guerin’s soul is beautiful; it’s just hidden from the rest of the world. But when he chooses to share it, he’s so open, he can’t even try to hide from me, and it all just comes pouring out, all in this one simple and amazing kiss.
It all imprints upon me within a moment’s briefest shadow, and I’m changed forever. That’s what I know that night.
We’re both trembling now, as Liz’s hands slip away from my face, back onto the pillow. She’s weaker. God, I shouldn’t have let her do this, and I say so, murmuring my regrets, as I kiss her cheek.
“I wanted to,” she sighs faintly. “Wanted you to know,” she hesitates, drawing in a ragged breath. “That there will never be another you. That there’s no competition…”
“I know, baby, I know,” I promise her. The last thing she needs is to worry about my hopeless insecurities, my fears that I can’t measure up to one man’s memory. Because that’s all Max is to any of us anymore, it’s been that long.
That was the greatest irony of Future Max’s visit. He came to prevent Tess from leaving Roswell, and in the end, it was Max who ran away, away from all of us, from Liz and me.
And now, if Isabel can’t find him, if Tess and Kyle can’t, then Liz’s life is finished.
I have to fight the urge to ask her to feel for him, because deep down I know she still could, though she’d never do it. I can’t help but wonder if he knows how sick she is, how desperately she’s suffered this past year, yet still stayed away. Because wouldn’t he know? After what they shared? I sure as hell would.
Maybe therein lies the reassurance that even Liz could never seem to give me—Max doesn’t know, and I would, because I’m the one who’s bound so tightly to her now. Not him; not his other self. Just me.
It’s later now, and I move about the apartment, turning on lamps. Their glow fills the corners of the room, causing the shadows beneath Liz’s eyes to seem much more pronounced. She’s far too pale, and the smudges beneath her eyes much too dark, giving her face a slightly hollow appearance that unsettles me as I watch her from the doorway to the kitchen.
Maria’s by her side, brushing her hair with soothing strokes, singing low in her ear. My heart swells with incredible love, as I watch how gently Maria ministers to my wife, our mutual best friend. Liz doesn’t have to talk to her at all, can just lie there and listen to the quiet tones of her lilting voice, and rest. Rest is something Liz has been granted far too rarely all these months, and I whisper a silent prayer of gratitude. Not just for the moment, but that I was able to bring her home at all.
As I watch them, childhood friends clinging together in these final hours, I can’t help but think of those children in Phoenix, that Christmas so many years ago. Liz’s chest rises with shallow, labored breaths, and I try to imagine what it would really be like if Max suddenly appeared here tonight, bringing the same kind of healing miracle within the palms of his hands. But I can barely hope anymore, not with the way my throat clinches painfully with unspent tears every time I look at my wife. Not as I work to memorize every line of her face, every nuance of her expression.
It’s almost like I’m holding my breath, hour upon hour, yet still she remains. Hell, sometimes when I glance at her, I’m almost surprised she’s still here. But I’m ashamed of that fact, because I’m not ready for her to go, not even close. It’s just that we’ve been on the brink of this thing for so long, I feel myself teetering over the precipice right along with her. I know how she’s suffering yet I can’t quite let go, either.
And maybe that’s why she lingers, I think, rubbing a weary hand over my eyes. Maybe I should say goodbye, say what neither of us has wanted to say just yet…
Maria winds the brush carefully over Liz’s long hair, and I listen to the Christmas carols she softly sings. I’ll be home for Christmas, just you wait and see…
Does Maria even notice the irony of her song choice? Does she even understand how slim the odds are that Liz will last another three days? Or maybe she’s thinking of Max, as she sings the familiar lyrics, maybe she’s willing him home to us all. I’m not sure, but I don’t care, not when I see the faint smile play at the edges of Liz’s lips, even though her eyes remain pressed shut.
“You know,” Liz breathes, hesitating a moment, gathering strength. “I love that one.”
“Of course, sweetie,” Maria says, leaning low to kiss her forehead. “I’d never forget.”
Suddenly the air becomes electric, as Liz whispers, “Never forget…anything, Maria, okay?”
Maria nods her head, and I study her closely, as tears fill her eyes. She struggles to speak a moment, and then in a thick voice says, “I won’t, Lizzie.”
“I know,” Liz smiles, opening her eyes. “I know.”
The strange thing about this place, this hovering on the line between life and death like I am, is that there’s no real separation between the past and the present. Or even the future. I just move in and out of my memories, and the moment, and ache so badly for Michael that I can taste our past together. I can taste the future that we’ll never have; the children we’ll never nestle and cuddle, the dreams we’ll never realize.
But those thoughts blend perfectly with laughter from the past few Christmases, even as Maria’s husky voice wraps itself around familiar holiday songs. Suddenly, it’s years ago, I’m not even sure when, and it’s snowed. Michael’s chasing me through the park, and I’m running so fast that I’m amazed how swiftly my feet can carry me. Right up until the point when he tackles me, knocking me hard to the wintry earth. Before I can even cry out, he’s on top of me, pinning me against the cold ground.
“Okay, Parker, gotcha where I want you.”
I squeal deliriously, squirming beneath his large form, as he holds my arms above my head. “I surrender!” I cry, as he dips his head low, kissing me on the neck, his damp woolen cap brushing against my cheek. He smells like the earth, fresh and pure, as he closes his mouth over my own.
We’re in the open, children playing nearby, but everything melts away. There’s only the feel of Michael Guerin against me, the warm tickling of his breath against my face. And I’m aware of him in ways I never have been before, as I feel him grow aroused against me. I can’t help but blush at how definite his desire is, how undisguised—something very different than the kisses we’ve shared at his apartment, or my parents’ place.
“Liz,” he half-begs. “I’ve missed you so damned much.” And I know it’s a pledge as much as a plea. I’ve been gone for four months, such a long time for new loves, such a long time when you’ve never given your bodies to one another completely.
I try to breathe, even as I twine my mittened fingers through his long hair, brushing it back away from his face. The moment pierces my heart, pierces everything that’s been growing between us since the summer. “Me, too,” I manage, as our kisses deepen.
“Liz,” he whispers again, and it’s more than my name. It’s everything he wants later that night, all that he hopes for these two weeks that I’ll spend in Roswell.
“Yes.” It’s all I say, and I know he’ll understand. He’ll hear all that one word can possibly mean between two people.
He definitely hears, because his answer is a joyous sound low in my ear, something akin to a cry of pleasure, coupled with a growl of unspent desire.
That’s what I remember now.
That’s what I remember, even though my eyes are heavy, and I can’t seem to open them, even as I feel him clasp my arm. I know the morphine shot will come next, but I focus on the feel of wet earth beneath my back, and the weight of him upon me. I remember the way the snow smelled, and how I felt knowing we were about to become lovers.
I felt the future that day, as open as the sky that spread above me. That’s what I felt, I think, as the morphine hits my system, cloying and redemptive all at once.
I wish I felt the future now.
Maria’s gone, everyone’s gone, and it’s just Liz and me. I don’t even know the time anymore, maybe after midnight, maybe a little earlier. But I won’t sleep because I’m too terrified. What happens if she slips away when I’m not watching? I won’t let that happen, because I refuse to let her go alone.
She sleeps peacefully, the morphine having accomplished its purpose, and I’m thankful the pain’s been eased. There’s just me and this moment, and the infinite silence that bathes the apartment like a shroud. I can hear the clock in the kitchen, steadily ticking, matching the rhythmic dripping of that damn faucet I’ve never managed to fix.
Just peaceful, quiet…frightening.
So when Liz suddenly shrieks, her eyes flying open wildly, it startles me so badly, that I knock my chair over leaping toward her.
“What?” I shout, my heart in my throat. “Baby, what?”
“Max.” It’s all she says, her eyes wide and filled with wonder. She’s looking at some point on the other side of the room, as if he’s actually standing there, and I begin to shake. “He’s here,” she says.
“Liz,” I whisper, staring at the same corner of the room. Max isn’t here, I want to say. You’re hallucinating because of the morphine. But I don’t, I just follow her gaze to the corner, and wonder if she sees something that I can’t.
“Max!” she cries this time, struggling unsuccessfully to sit up in bed. “Max…is here.”
Then, a truly terrifying thought enters my mind. It’s stealthy and quick, and before I can deny it, it simply exists—Max is dead, that’s why we haven’t been able to find him all these years.
Max is dead, and he’s come here to take Liz away with him.
So I move between her and the place where she’s gazing near the foot of her bed. I stand him down, because I’ll be damned if he’s going to take her from me now, not after all this time.
“Michael,” she suddenly sighs, her breathing erratic and frighteningly loud. “Michael, no.”
My entire body is taut. I’m ready to pounce, to hold back anyone who would take her from me. I’m ready to hold back the hand of God itself if need be.
“No what?” I cry, spinning toward her. I know I’m out of control, that this is the Michael Guerin I’ve hidden from her for the past year, the one she always knew how to tame when he grew wild and unruly. But I don’t care, not tonight.
“No…fear.” It’s all she says, extending one pale hand toward me. “Just peace, okay?”
She reaches toward me and she’s already forgotten the dim corner of the room, the one I’d instantly armed myself against. She only seems to see me now, and slowly I bend down to right my chair again, drawing it near her bed. I drop into it heavily, and just bury my head against her face, hot tears spilling despite my best intentions.
She needs my strength, I know, but in the end I can only give her me.
I must have drifted to sleep that way, with my head just nestled against her heart, because the next thing I know, there’s the sound of a muffled knocking on the front door. My first thought is to check Liz, as I sit up with a start, wondering where the noise has come from. She sleeps quietly, her breath coming in uneven fits, but I’m just relieved that she still lives.
Then the noise comes again, just a soft tapping on our front door. Who the hell could be here at this hour, I wonder, glancing at my watch. It’s nearly midnight, and despite myself, my heart gives a leap of hope, as I rush toward the door.
I expect Isabel, or Tess…anyone other than him, as I squint out into the dimly lit hallway of our apartment building.
Yet there he stands. Heavier, for sure, with a thick beard that would have surprised me under the best of circumstances, but it’s him.
I can only stare in amazement, as I realize that Liz had been absolutely right. She’d known despite so many years away from him, even through the thick veil of illness and morphine.
She’d known what the rest of us hadn’t—that Max had come home at last.
And while I can’t help the vague insecurity that instantly coils itself around my heart at the sight of him, neither can I fight the desperate hope that twines right along with it.
Wordlessly, without either of us so much as flinching, I simply open the door wide, and welcome him in.
|posted on 8-Dec-2002 6:13:20 PM|
We stand three feet apart, maybe four, but there’s a lot more separating Max and me than just this threshold. There’s a decade, a moment, a lifetime. And in his mind, I know there’s the loss of a girl, his girl, and then there’s me making love to her instead of him. When it would have been him, should have been, if the future hadn’t skewed strangely on its axis the night of Future Max.
Because for him, it wasn’t about me marrying Liz, never was; it was all a done deal long before then. No, Max’s ten-year exile has been about Michael the Interloper; how I stole his rightful place by making love to Liz Parker for the very first time. It’s been all about what should have been, if only he’d learned the truth about Future Max sooner—and maybe if I had.
For a moment I remember those early days in her arms, the almost endless lovemaking, and I see the long winter light bathing my bedroom walls. I feel her bare skin beneath my fingertips, her delicate body contouring perfectly to mine. I recall the first time I heard her laugh in her sleep, how jarring it was, and despite myself, I nearly smile.
And then I remember how Max cried the night he discovered us in bed together. I see him sliding to the floor of my room, burying his face in his hands, and I hear the quiet sound of his tears, how they pierced my heart like some deadly bullet. Not just that night, but over and over in my dreams for years.
That’s what I hear, and I wonder how we’ll ever make it through this moment.
No, I’m not ready for what’s about to happen between Max and me, anymore than I’m ready to let Liz go. But in the past year I’ve also learned that sometimes we don’t have a choice about these things. Things like timing, or what we need… and who.
I don’t have a lot of choice about how much we both need Max right now. How much she needs him, I think, and that familiar insecurity wraps itself squarely around my heart, until I swear I can’t even breathe for looking at him. I can only stare into his shadowed eyes, and wonder why he waited so damn long to come.
So I draw in a shallow breath, and I know. I know that Max Evans is the only thing hovering between death and my wife, and something about that fact makes me insanely angry. So angry, in fact, that my hands clinch by my sides, fingernails digging hard into my palms.
But Max doesn’t know that, and I’m not going to show him.
He just stands there staring at me through the apartment doorway, and I don’t have a clue what the hell I’m supposed to say. I don’t think he does either.
So neither of us speaks for a long moment, and I can tell by the way his eyes dart past me, toward the apartment’s interior, that he’s confused. And his confusion, in turn, confuses me. Doesn’t he know about Liz? Isn’t that why he’s here, after all?
“Wanna come in?” I finally ask, forcing my voice to sound casual, when what I most want is to grab him, and drag him right to her bedside without so much as a greeting.
“Sure,” he says with an offhand shrug, as if this is an ordinary moment between us. As if his showing up here, well onto midnight three days before Christmas makes the most perfect sense in the world. As if it hasn’t been a good ten years since I’ve so much as laid eyes upon him.
He gives a little toss of his hair, so that it falls away from his eyes, and steps past me. I see that he’s got a small backpack thrust over his shoulder, worn looking, like he spends a lot of time on the road. And I notice that he’s even heavier than I first realized, not in a bad way precisely, it’s just unexpected. Max has always been so thin and wiry, and now his down vest pops open across his middle as if it has no other choice. He’s definitely thicker, broader across the front; he filled out in these intervening years.
Beneath the beard, his face is surprisingly full, too, and I wonder what toll these years took on him, as he steps into a small arc of lamplight, turning toward me almost like he needs my guidance. He drops his pack to the floor with a thud, and thrusts his hands deep into his pockets. It’s an old gesture, and I know he’s nervous, as he glances up at me again. For the very first time, I catch the familiar golden hue of his eyes, and I feel like I’m really looking at Max. Not this strange, rugged imitation of the man I once called brother, but like I’m really seeing my best friend.
“So,” he says, and my gaze flickers past him, into the living room where Liz rests in the shadows. I’m beginning to get a sick feeling right in the pit of my stomach, as he stares at me, his eyes narrowing in slight confusion again. “Where’s Liz? Sleeping?” he asks, and I know right then that he’s clueless about her, has no idea how sick she is. I know because he asks about her like it’s yesterday, like the answer should be an easy one.
I rake my fingers through my hair and mumble, “Shit.” I do not want to be the one to tell him. I do not want to do this to him, but we don’t have time to delay.
“What?” he asks, that familiar soft voice wrapping itself around the word in slight panic. “Something’s wrong,” he says, and again my gaze tracks toward Liz. Only this time his eyes follow, as slowly he pivots toward that side of the apartment. I watch him, not her, and I see how his shoulders hitch upward, how his whole body draws tight.
“Michael?” he asks, his voice thin as a razor. He glances at me, fear having filled his gaze as he steps slowly toward her.
“Thought you knew,” I say, and I’m surprised by how exhausted I sound. How beaten.
“No,” he whispers, slowly moving toward her in the half-light. “I had no idea.”
“We’ve been looking for you since last year.”
“I didn’t know,” he says again, dropping heavily into the chair beside her. “I would have come right away.”
“Yeah, Maxwell,” I assure him, rubbing my eyes. “I know you would’ve.” Only, I wish he had known somehow, had been more connected to her, and as irrational as it is, I blame him for not knowing.
But I don’t say anything, I just watch him in silence, wrapping my arms across my chest. Anything to still my heart, the way it’s racing like some kind of mad fucker that I can’t control.
Max leans forward, slipping his hand on her forearm as he just stares down at her, and I step closer toward them both. I’ve been doing this for a year, helping our friends grieve, understand. It’s the least I can do for him now, after everything.
“What happened?” he manages, and even though he doesn’t look at me, I know he’s fighting tears.
“Cancer. Leukemia,” I explain softly, pulling another chair from the corner, and drawing it beside his. “She’s fought…damn hard.”
Max folds his hands beneath his chin, forming a little temple, almost like he’s praying as he watches her. “She’s only twenty-eight.”
For some inexplicable reason, I want to shake him for that comment. I want to grab him and beat the living shit out of him, for stating the absolute obvious, and for a moment I have to quell the familiar rage.
“I know.” The words are even, measured. I control the beast within me for his sake…and hers.
He rises half-way out of his seat, so that he leans over her a bit, as he strokes her cheek with the back of his knuckles. And in that moment of supreme tenderness, the thing I notice is how weathered his hands look. He works with them for a living, and again, like the extra weight and the beard, it just surprises me. “Liz,” he whispers gently. “It’s Max. I’m here.”
I get the feeling he thinks she might answer. But of course she doesn’t; there’s no change, except maybe that her breath falls a little more unevenly, a raspy sound escaping her lips. For a moment, he cocks his head to the side, just watching her, studying her.
“She’s still beautiful,” he whispers reverentially, brushing a lock of hair away from her cheek. “So incredibly beautiful.” I should feel possessive, territorial, but oddly enough, I don’t. That he still loves her, even now, comes as no surprise, and it makes me feel as if yet another peculiar bond winds its way between Max and me.
I say nothing, and watch as he wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand. I want to beg him to heal her, to touch her and do what he can, but I restrain myself with unimagined discipline. This has to go at his pace, and he’s had a hell of a shock in the past few moments. More than that, I can only imagine what it cost him to come here tonight at all, even when he still thought it might be a happy reunion of sorts.
He leans low, brushing his lips against her cheek and whispers again, “Liz, it’s Max.” Then he draws in a sharp breath, and adds, “I’m finally here.”
And with those words, he opens his palms wide in a gesture that nearly mirrors how Liz clasped my own face earlier, and he cups her hollowed cheeks within his hands.
He’s not supposed to be able to do this, to intervene in a natural death, but he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say it anymore than he did that night in Phoenix, when he opened his generous hands and stood between death and those children.
Is this a natural death anyway? I’m not really convinced of that fact, never have been as I’ve watched Liz’s body slowly wither before my eyes. I’m not convinced that the culprit isn’t this strange thing that runs through his veins and mine, having turned inward on her, devouring and evil. I’m not sure that the alienness that’s become fused secretly with her cells and tissues and bones isn’t eating her alive.
Max begins to shake, and I watch as a ribbon of light unfurls beneath his hands. Liz moans low, and he startles a bit at the sound. I move around to the other side of the bed, so that I face him while he touches her.
I lean over her, trying to soothe her, to help in whatever meager way I can. “Baby, it’s okay,” I murmur against her cheek, stroking her hair. My lips nearly brush his rough hand where it cups her face, I’ve leaned that close. “I’m here. Max is here…it’s okay.”
Again, she whimpers softly, though her eyes don’t open. “Morphine,” I explain in a whisper to him, and I sense him nod, as he bends closer over her.
The light opens wider, I feel the golden heat of his power graze my cheek, but I don’t move, and he doesn’t ask me to. It’s the three of us in this moment, as he bends closer on her one side, and I nestle near on the other. I’m willing my strength and power into them both, as I hear Max gasp, and I know that this is hurting him physically. Spiritually.
The glow from beneath his hands bathes Liz’s cheeks in soft color, making her appear alive, and vital again. Filling in the shadows and hollows that have haunted me for all these months.
I feel myself spinning into her, into her thoughts and memories, and he’s following right along with me, as his power charges up, opens, swallowing us all.
For the briefest moment, I fear what we might see.
I feel like I’m floating, just moving in and out of sleep in this truly transcendental way. I don’t think I can wake up anymore; this is just the place where I am. And that’s okay, because it’s a golden kind of place, humming and oddly filled with life. My memories wrap around me with every breath, like a cocoon, like a life force, and there’s tremendous comfort in that.
Right now, I’m back to that same Christmas years ago, that same day with Michael. We’re still in the park, both wet from rolling in the snow, and his cheeks are stained a gentle pink. He lifts me to my feet, pulling me up from the ground like I’m a light, airy thing, and we both giggle. I notice that he’s panting softly, as he steadies me within his gloved hands. He’s strong and sure, and I know that so long as I’m with him, nothing will ever hurt me, that he’d protect me to the death. I’m not sure why I think that, as we stand there laughing giddily, but I do, and it seems significant.
I’ve never felt more like a woman in all my life as I do that day, standing there with his gloved hands circling my waist. I see such dark desire in his gentle eyes, that it unnerves me to my center. It’s like in one snowy tumble I transitioned from a girl to a woman.
Everything’s changed, just this quickly. I’m about to become his lover, to seal myself to him. I’m certain of that fact, after the past few moments, after how he looked into my eyes and asked to love me, asked if I’d give myself to him completely. He asked without words, with only a simple glance, with only the whisper of my name. But I heard what he didn’t say—it’s always that way with us, ever since that first kiss in the Crashdown. I hear him in my head, even back East, with him here in Roswell.
It’s like that now, as he smiles a bit, brushing snow off my back. He’s just talking fast, and quick and not even trying to make it coherent, yet I follow perfectly his words of silence. He’s giddy with expectation, blown away that I’ll give myself to him, high off our time together.
For some reason as Michael brushes the last of the snow from my shoulders, I notice the freckles by his eye, and I lift a mittened finger to trace them. “I’ve always loved these,” I whisper.
“That’s rich, coming from you,” he grins. And he peers dramatically into my coat, lifting the woolen scarf that’s twined around my neck and shoulders, so that his gaze travels down the front of my sweater. Further down my chest, until my body simply burns beneath his examination. “Damn if there aren’t a lot of freckles under that sweater.”
“Guerin, you haven’t seen that much,” I argue with a playful roll of my eyes. But I love what he’s implying, despite my protestations.
He smiles, a wicked thing, a truly cocksure expression that warms me to my very toes. “Seen all of you, baby,” he announces. “In my mind.”
For a moment I can only sputter, and feel my face flame hot, until finally I whisper. “Who said you could look?”
Again, there’s a smug grin that utterly disarms me, as he leans low, kissing me full on the lips. “You did.”
“Every time I kiss you,” he says, his warm breath fanning against my cheek.
“Oh, God.” It’s all I can remotely say.
“Hmm,” he murmurs, as the kiss deepens, and I wonder why we even bothered getting up at all. But then I remember what I’ve promised him, and my heart races, thinking of what we’ll become to one another later today.
I break the kiss, and I’m laughing, stooping low for a handful of snow. “Michael Guerin, just you…”
But like a dream that ends too abruptly, my memories suddenly blur, lurch a bit, and I wrestle to hold onto them. To hold onto Michael for all I’m worth, but the line between life and death is changing. I feel it becoming less pronounced, more diffuse—even as I feel his hands touch my face. I would know him anywhere, the feel of him caressing me this way, even now when I struggle to open my leaden eyes, but can’t.
I feel Michael on my other side, even stronger and more intense; he’s just like a golden pool of energy, always in my circle of awareness. He’s more than my lifeline; he’s a part of me.
Michael, don’t be afraid, I whisper within my mind. Baby, I’m still here…I’m not gone yet. Please don’t be afraid.
I’ve said the same words many times in the past year, yet he never seems to hear them. He’s too busy being strong, shouldering everything, when all I want is for him to know he can cry. All I want is for him to know that I’ve never loved anyone like I love him; that I never will. Not even Max. And I have always loved Max—of that, there’s never been any doubt--not in Michael’s mind, and not in my own. I think the only person who never really understood or believed it in the end was Max himself.
But Max has come tonight anyway, I’m certain of it, because his energy is pulsating within my core, like it once did years ago on the floor of the Crashdown. And he’s afraid too, but it’s different than with Michael. The thing Max fears the most isn’t my death, or even coming home to us, although those thoughts hold powerful sway over him. No, what Max fears is himself. But that’s not quite it, either…it’s something within himself.
I can’t quite make it out, but I feel him surrounding me with power, and healing. Protection. So I reach across the roiling blaze of energy that he’s wrapping around my body, and give something back to him.
Max, I whisper tenderly. Don’t be afraid. I’m right here…you’re safe. You’re safe with both of us. All of us. You’ve come home, that’s all that matters…
I feel him reach inward toward me in response, almost like he’s fisting me within his hands, yanking me hard into awareness. The incredible heat that has encased my body for days runs cold, and I’m drowning, losing, winning…I’m not sure. All I know is that Max has hold of me and is dragging me upward and higher, then higher still toward the light. I can breathe, I can breathe, I can finally breathe…
And I gasp for air, drawing in burning draughts of it, as my eyes fly open.
I’m not sure what I just witnessed, but I know we nearly lost her. One minute, Max was healing her, his golden warmth filling the entire room, and then suddenly Liz’s heart seemed to stop, as a raspy, final breath passed her lips like a sigh. In that flash of an instant, Max was on her bed, refusing to let her go. He leapt like a tiger, practically covering her thin, frail body with his own.
It was an odd sight, another man on top of my wife like that, even if it was Max, and even if it meant her life.
And he’s still straddling her, even now, his face hovering just above hers, as she blinks in confusion, consciousness overtaking her. For a moment, I suppress the urge to laugh hysterically, as she squints in the half-light at the strange-looking apparition of a man leaning over her. What the hell must Liz be thinking, I think, because damn if I’m not giddy now. Liz just died, and Max was here to bring her back. She died, but now she’s gaping at this strangely bearded, heavyset version of Max, like she has no clue who the hell he is. Like she’s never seen this man, the one breathing so heavily as he leans over her body.
Max slowly eases off the rolling bed, looking awkward and embarrassed for having drawn so physically near her in his efforts to save her life. As if he has one damned thing to apologize for.
I wonder if Liz even knows what happened, as he gently tugs the sheet back over her, nestling it beneath her chin.
“Max?” she whispers, her voice husky and thin. I can see that she’s as surprised by his physical appearance as I was, as she lifts her fingertips to his cheek, touching the thick beard.
He leans low, and brushes a feather-light kiss against her forehead. “You’re going to be okay now,” he promises gently.
“Do you know what happened?” he asks quietly, and I realize I’m just standing beside the bed, staring at them both. My hands are shaking; my shoulders are shaking. Hell, my whole body is just quaking with tremors now that the moment has passed.
Liz glances tentatively at me, then back at Max, and I draw her hand within my own.
“Yeah, baby,” I say, cutting my eyes at Max. Letting him know not to say anything more right now. He blinks a moment, as he simply nods his head.
“Thank you,” she manages, swallowing hard.
He just smiles, nodding, and tears well within his eyes. For several long moments, the three of us fall silent, as Max leans back in the chair, closing his eyes. A thin sheen of sweat has broken out on his brow, and I can see just by looking at him what this healing cost him physically. His breathing is heavy and labored, and he rubs a weary hand across his eyes. Liz watches quietly, blinking a bit as she studies him.
“What’s with,” she draws in a shaky breath, pausing a moment for strength, then finally adds, “The beard?”
Max’s eyes flutter open, and for a moment he stares at her in surprise, then a gentle smile spreads over his features, and I feel like I see the old Max again for a moment.
“Didn’t you recognize me?” he teases, adjusting his down vest a bit self-consciously, as he shifts in the chair.
“Barely,” she says, closing her eyes again. “Of course…I’d know those hands…anywhere.”
Then she’s gone again, only this time her breathing falls into a soft rhythm, and I know a healing sleep has overtaken her.
Max glances at me warily for a moment, then immediately looks away, and I wonder what he’s thinking. But another question presses hard within my mind quite suddenly.
“Why’d you come, Maxwell?” I ask. “I mean, if you didn’t know about Liz?”
He folds his hands within his lap and just studies them for several long minutes. In fact, the silence is so thick and endless, that I begin to doubt he’ll ever answer, until finally he looks up, leveling me with his familiar gaze.
“I needed to see you. Both of you,” he says softly.
My jaw falls slack, and I can only stare at him in disbelief. “You did know.” It’s the only way his statement makes sense—somehow Max figured out she was dying, and that’s why he came.
Max shakes his head adamantly, just watching Liz as she sleeps. “No,” he says, and I hear terror in his voice, almost as if it’s finally hitting him what his exile nearly cost her. And suddenly, I’m so damned angry again that I could leap across the room and take him right now.
“If you’d been here…” I begin, and his eyes snap upward, his jaw tensing visibly. I’ve got to get this thing inside of me under control again; I’m wound so tight, I swear to God I’m going to snap if I’m not careful. That’s what I think as he reaches for Liz’s hand, drawing it within his own larger one.
“Well, Michael, I wasn’t here,” he finally answers, his voice thick. “But I am now.”
“Thank you,” I say, running my hands through my hair. I’m such an asshole. He just saved her life, and instead of being grateful that he spared my life right along with hers, I blame him for leaving me…her.
We fall silent, and I settle into my chair. I lean back and stare at my precious wife, and try to believe that she’s really going to make it. I want to ask Max if he thinks he healed her completely, but I don’t. In fact, I fight all that’s within me not to ask, and instead I watch the gentle rise and fall of Liz’s chest beneath the sheet. I focus on the freckles peeking through her gown, the small scar on her forehead.
These are the things that keep me from coming unglued as the minutes tick by between Maxwell and me. Until the infinite silence is broken when he shifts abruptly in his chair.
“Maybe.” It’s all he says, watching her a long moment, until he adds quietly, “Maybe somehow I began to know.” He doesn’t want a connection with us, either of us. It’s important that he came here of his own need and volition, not because he can’t ever cut himself off from us completely.
But then he surprises me, when he sighs quietly. “Yeah, I think I did know,” he finally admits, with a nod of his head. “I was so homesick, I thought it would strangle me…I longed for both of you.”
For a long time, I can’t even speak; I can only try to find my voice, as his gaze flickers toward me in the half-light. The golden eyes are open now, not guarded, not hidden. I know what this moment is costing him, and I can’t get it wrong.
“Thanks, man,” I say, dropping my head. I don’t want him to see me cry, not when I’ve fought so hard to be strong, but I feel the tears welling fast. “For coming and all.”
I know he nods his head, though he says nothing. And it’s not because he doesn’t accept my gratitude, it’s more complex than that. It’s that he doesn’t feel he gave me something that was truly his to give. To say, “you’re welcome,” would imply he did a favor. In Max’s mind, it’s always been about doing the right thing, not what he owes anyone with his gift. And he’d have died rather than have not saved Liz, so there’s no gratitude in that. I know. The reason I know is because this is Max. Our Max, and now that he’s here beside us both, I know his thoughts as well as I ever did.
Sometime later, we’re in the kitchen, and I’m scrounging up some food for him. We don’t have anything much; I’ve been eating all my meals at the hospital for weeks. Maria brought me takeout earlier, some kind of chicken and pasta concoction that I managed to choke down for her benefit. Opening the refrigerator now, I spy those leftovers, but otherwise it’s just a wasteland of half-empty Chinese containers and pizza boxes. There’s a milk carton stamped with an expiration date two weeks past, and a couple of bottled waters.
For some reason, I picture Liz standing right where I am, surrounded by a sea of grocery bags from the farmers market, and she’s neatly storing fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce in the refrigerator drawers.
And then I turn, and my gaze falls on four empty pots perched on the windowsill above the sink. Max can’t know that a year ago they were filled with basil and rosemary. That Liz loved to grow fresh mint for our iced tea. He can’t know what a home she made of this ridiculously small apartment, even when money was sometimes unbearably tight.
No, all Max can see is an empty refrigerator and a few weeds growing on our windowsill.
“Whatcha want?” I ask, peering back into the bright light of the fridge. The arc spills into the dark kitchen, and as I turn to him, it’s cast his features in an eerie glow. He’s glancing past me, at the meager offerings.
“Something to drink,” he says.
I lift the milk container, remembering how he used to love a cold glass, and I pitch it into the sink. “Way old.”
“No,” he laughs bitterly. “Something to drink.”
I turn to him, my brow knitting in confusion. I’m not sure what he means. Does he want water?
“Whiskey…gin,” he allows. “Whatever you’ve got on hand. Surely you keep stuff for parties.”
What the hell?
“Maxwell,” I laugh nervously, remembering the one time I ever knew of his drinking. “You joking with me, man?”
He looks straight into my eyes, and I know he’s serious. “No, I need a drink, Michael.” He’s making me uncomfortable with the way he stares me down, but I figure that if anybody ever deserved a drink, he sure as hell does. I scratch my head and try to think what we might have, because until she became sick, Liz did sometimes drink a little.
And suddenly I remember a small stash of vodka that she used to keep for her Friday afternoon get-togethers with Maria and Alex. They never drank much, but they’d enjoyed the occasional martini. Nobody’s touched the stuff at all in the past year, so surely it’s still there, I think, reaching high above the sink. I have to feel for the bottle with my hand, until finally it teeters and slips into my grasp.
I drop the bottle of Stoly onto the counter, and push it toward him. For a moment, Max just stares at it, but I swear I see the golden eyes flare a bit, as finally he reaches for the bottle. I have the distinct impression that he’s working to seem indifferent.
“A glass?” he asks, his voice soft, maybe a tad self-conscious now that he has what he wanted.
“Sure,” I say, retrieving one from the cabinet.
He fills it surprisingly full, and then in one swift motion, he tosses the whole thing back, dropping the empty glass onto the counter with a thud. For a moment, he draws in a tight breath; then he shocks the hell out of me by filling the glass again, this time a little more full.
And just like before, he drains the glass in one effortless swallow. This time, when he glances at me, I see that his hybrid eyes have become a bit bleary. But the stuff isn’t hitting him nearly like it should, is barely affecting him at all, and suddenly I understand, as he repeats the sequence one more time.
It all makes sense. The extra weight, the ceaseless wandering—this is the reason for it all, this glass bottle poised squarely between us on the counter. No, I correct myself. Not the reason, just the greatest symptom of the real cause.
And I have to swallow the guilt that chokes me like bile, as I watch him drop the empty glass onto the counter, and wander unsteadily back toward the living room. But then he does something I don’t expect. He turns back toward me, bracing his hand on the doorframe a moment to steady himself.
“I saw something earlier, Michael,” he announces. “When I healed her.” I nod encouragingly, as he pauses a moment, just blinking. I’m afraid of what he’ll say next, and yet I need to know.
“I saw that day, in the snow. I guess it was the day you first made love to her. At least, that’s what I think it was.”
I swallow hard. “Maxwell, look…”
He levels me hard with his gaze; it’s no longer bleary, or wandering. It’s intense and it’s focused right on me. “She chose you, Michael,” he says quietly. “You couldn’t take her from me because she had a choice, and it was you. I don’t think she’s ever regretted it since.”
He continues staring at me for a long moment, and I’m not sure what he wants from me—or for that matter what he needs.
Finally, I speak. “She never stopped loving you, Maxwell.”
He gazes at his boots, back into the living room toward Liz, anywhere but at me, as he whispers, “Yeah, I know that, too.” Then without another word, he leaves me standing in the dark kitchen, and I know he can’t handle anymore of this right now.
I’m not sure I can either.
It’s hours later, and outside the window I’ve begun to hear the earliest morning sounds. Darkness still cloaks everything like a hushed whisper, and I’ve turned off all the lamps except the small one in the bookshelf, but daybreak is at hand. Beside me, Maxwell sleeps like a baby, his jaw hanging slack as he snores, sometimes quite loudly. I know that’s partly because of the alcohol, but it’s also more than that, too.
Everything’s changed for him tonight, and just like Liz, he’s drifted into a healing sleep. It seems more than significant that he’s slumped in a chair right by her bedside, right beside me.
He’s just where he needs to be, and I feel nearly as protective of him as I do of Liz, as I watch over them both. My gaze flickers back and forth between them, I can’t possibly sleep, not now. So I fold my arms across my chest and listen to the quiet, to the sounds of the apartment around us, the sounds of their sleep. And as my eyes finally grow heavy, I find that I travel back in time to that day in the snow—the very one Liz was dreaming about. The one Max glimpsed as he healed her.
Only now it’s later that same day, nightfall, and the long daylight has long since vanished from my apartment. There are only golden candles flickering in every direction, trailing along the carpet in a neat path right to my bedroom door.
I’m waiting for her to come, and I swear it’s an eternity.
It’s a few days before Christmas, and Liz’s mother decided to drag her out on a shopping excursion at the last minute, so I’ve been sitting on the sofa, nervous as hell for hours. My stomach is in freaking knots and my palms are sweating, because I know what’s coming tonight. I know what this will mean for us, and I want it so badly that I can nearly taste it.
It’s not just rippling through my body, causing my groin to tighten painfully; it’s in the air all around me. There’s electricity so thick, I can feel it shocking me, over and over.
And damn if I can’t hear every thought in her head, how eager she is, how hungry for me. And her hunger only stokes mine further. Finally, I collapse onto the sofa in frustration, and draw in shuddering breaths because I feel what she’s saying somewhere in the middle of my body. She’s stuck with her mother for a while longer, and that means that all this tension, the tautness of this bond between us, will have to wait. It’s suspended this way, and it’s nearly killing me.
I want to strangle her mother because this expectancy is making me go a little bit mad. My heart is thundering, and something I’ve never felt before is twisting low in my body.
I stare at the candles flickering along the carpet, and wrestle with the desire—I try to command it a bit, get it under control. But I’m losing the battle, and before I know it, I’m babbling like an idiot to her. And she laughs. So sweet and gentle, she’s laughing right in my head and telling me to shush and get a grip. That’s what she actually says, Guerin, get a grip.
And then there’s some kind of joke about maybe a grip is just what I need for a little release, and I sense her get uptight and then we’re both just talking and murmuring a million words a minute. Who even knows what we’re saying, but at least it eases the tension a little.
For a moment, silence falls between us, and then I realize how much I love that I hear her this way, inside of me all the time. Not in my head really, just in the center of me. That’s where Liz lives. And after tonight, I know it will be permanent.
The memories move forward, scrolling and rushing until she’s with me later that night. Her mother’s gone home, and Liz is standing in the middle of my apartment, that big over-sized winter coat swallowing her small body whole. The scarf is wound tight around her neck, and I have to peel layers away just to find her. And she’s afraid; that much shocks the hell out of me, as we drop beside one another on the sofa. After all the urgency and need, now that she’s here, she’s shaking softly and frightened. I don’t know what to do with that, not at first, so I just get real quiet and slip my arm around her.
But the shaking doesn’t stop; in fact, it only intensifies until finally I get it, I understand. It’s not fear that’s causing her body to do this-- it’s just all the emotion that exists between us, working its way to the surface.
She gazes up at me, and the incredible dark eyes flare a bit, widen as she whispers, “Michael, I love you.” Her voice is raspy and thick, and I jolt at the immediacy of her words. She’s never said them out loud, not like this.
I blink beneath her steady gaze, feel my face burn instantly with the heat of her words. Why does her confession surprise me so much? Haven’t I known her heart for months?
“That surprises you?” she whispers, turning slowly toward me on the sofa. Her knees press against mine, and it seems my entire body is aware of that fact, of just that light brushing of her against me.
“No, baby,” I whisper, raking at my hair nervously. “It’s just…” It’s just what? Bizarre that Liz Parker loves me? That she even thinks I’m worth her time?
“Michael,” she chides tenderly, as she scoots even closer.
“I love you.” This time, I close my eyes and allow the words to hit their mark, and it’s like I’m drinking them in. They’re moving over my skin, reaching all the scorched, dry places, and I don’t fight their power over me.
“I’m so lucky.” The words escape before I can stop them. They’re almost a prayer of gratitude that she’s mine; that the twisted, weird universe has brought us to this point, when the future had once been prescribed so differently.
“No, Michael. This isn’t luck,” she assures me, and she lifts her fingers to my face, slowly tracing the outline of my jaw. “This is perfection.”
I’m not sure how it happens, but I know that I’m following her down into the soft cushions of the sofa, slipping on top of her. I’ve grown hard, my pants painfully tight with how much I want her, and as I cover her body with mine, I know she feels me.
For a moment, I lean up on my elbows because I want to be sure, and she smiles sweetly, twining her fingers through my hair as she nods. Then she lifts her hips slightly upward, and in that subtle movement, I know I’m not alone in this. She burns for me now, just like I do for her, just like she has from the very beginning…and that’s the only confirmation I need, as I lean low to kiss her.
Later, afterwards, we’re in my bed, the cool sheets draped over our bodies and I’m practically hallucinating from the depth of our bond. We’re nestled tight, her hips pressed back against mine, the warm dampness of me slick between our bodies. I cup her abdomen with my palm, holding her flush against me, because I never want to let her go.
They come in waves, the images and flashes. For long moments, there’s only us, but then like unexpected static, suddenly there’s movement between us, and I see inside of her. The visions track forward and backward through time--some of her family, then a quick glimpse of her dorm room back East, then there’s Alex in sixth grade. A dozen other random things, in no particular order as we hold one another. Then, occasionally Max appears in the flashes, and maybe I should be jarred by his presence, but he’s such a part of her, that I’m glad when he surfaces in her thoughts.
Then everything settles again, and there’s only me and her, and the feel of her smooth skin against my abdomen, the rounded curves of her hips pressing full within my palms. Immediate, perfect. I burn from being inside of her, and I know that before long, I’ll have to be inside of her all over again.
The memories are so intense I swear that I can live in them. That’s what I think, as slowly I open my eyes again, only to discover that the faintest pink has filled the sky outside our living room window. I stare at the gathering daylight for a long moment, and it hits me that the shortest day is done. Today will be just a fraction longer, infinitesimal really, yet time will begin to lengthen again on its axis.
I rub my eyes, glancing at Liz, and I’m startled to find her lying there in the semi-darkness, just watching me. She’s silent and still, and for a moment, my heart lurches as I instantly imagine the worst. That is, until she smiles, the warmth of it lighting her whole face. God, she’s never been more beautiful than just now, as life has slowly begun to renew her frail body.
She’s in my head again, but that’s no surprise, and I blush a bit because I’m certain she knows precisely what I’ve been remembering. I know it by the sexy, hooded way she stares at me, as she blows me a kiss across the short distance between us.
Not only that, but I’m certain she’s been remembering that first time right along with me. Especially when she laughs softly, beckoning me near with her hand. I ease out of the chair, and move around to the other side of the bed, to the spot closest to her.
“Michael,” she whispers, her voice husky and warm.
I lean near her, brushing a soft kiss against her lips. “What, baby?”
She glances at Max, and my gaze tracks right with her, but he’s sound asleep, exhausted and healing. He’s definitely unaware of what’s happening between us, as she turns back toward me, her lips grazing mine, and lifts a hand to cup my cheek.
“Closer,” she encourages, smiling softly. “Much closer.”
I swallow hard, feeling my chest constrict indescribably, because suddenly it hits me. We have all these shared memories, all this history that winds between us, but I know that’s not all she wants me to see, as she opens her palms wide, cupping my face between them.
She wants me to remember. Not just our past, not just the layers of experience she can share with me--she wants to remind me of a time before the illness, before all the pain of this past year.
She wants me to remember what we once saw in our future. What we can both see again, if only we look, because suddenly hope spreads out in every direction.
We need only claim it. That’s what she says, right in the center of me, as I bury my face against her hair and the tears truly come. Unrestrained, hot, they course my cheeks, and as she strokes my hair, she asks to comfort me; after everything, that’s all she wants.
And so I let her soothe me, and she’s just murmuring unintelligible secrets all through my heart. She’s murmuring them until the sunlight moves across the floor, bathing everything in a mystic glow.
She’s murmuring them until slowly, securely, I drift to sleep in my lover’s arms, and I know it’s the safest place I could ever possibly be.