My ear was still aching by the time dinner rolled around. And everybody had matching earrings now: single, flat, bright red disks, rimmed in silver, shining like beacons in the newly inflamed cartilage of everybody’s right ear.
Beside me, Collin’s toes were tapping out a rhythm under the table. On my other side, John’s fingers were drumming the table top. For my part, my fingers continued to tap against my thumb, playing an imaginary song on an imaginary piano—the only difference now was that the tempo was a little faster than it had been before. The stress was palpable at the table. Hell, the entire room was emanating stress. Without thought, my hand went to my belly, but as soon as I realized what I was doing, I closed my fingers like I was scratching an itch.
I looked to see Collin looking at me. There was a look in his eyes I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen before. It wasn’t fear, and it wasn’t sadness, but whatever it was had both of those ingredients within it.
But before I could say anything in response, Collin’s attention was pulled away. I followed his gaze to see a woman approaching our table. A shifter—a fellow prisoner.
Nobody ever approached our table. I’d seen people talking, moving table to table and sitting with different people during dinner each night, but not our table. We all sat together, and nobody generally approached us. I’d seen Harris go over to another table once, and Harris and Sam together another time. I’d assumed they were talking to a friend or someone they knew, but nobody had ever come up to our table before—at least not that I’d seen.
Collin drew a slow sigh as the woman approached Samantha, who turned in her seat so she could face the new comer.
“We all feel it,” the woman said. “Is it Cecelia Brayton?”
Nobody at the table moved or even breathed as Samantha appeared to force a swallow. She nodded and, after pressing her lips together a couple of times, then looking away and drawing a breath, she looked to the woman again and nodded. “We don’t know for certain—it may be. It’s the only person who makes—“ her voice broke, and her applied calm fractured along with it. Hand to her mouth, she turned back to the table, shoulders shaking and tears falling into her food.
Harris put a hand on his wife’s shoulder and looked at the woman. “Yes, we think it may be Cecelia. Please let word spread so those who know her can prepare themselves.”
The woman looked so genuinely sad, so genuinely concerned for Samantha. She nodded in response to Harris, then put a hand on Sam’s other shoulder. “I’m so sorry. She is a great woman, and she will be missed.”
It wasn’t until Samantha began pulling herself together and the woman looked up and saw me that I realized I had been staring. When the woman saw me, she smiled—but I averted my eyes, embarrassed to have been caught staring no matter how odd the scene had been to witness. It had just been such a strangely open, surreally genuine interaction.
After a moment, the woman went down that side of the table. Trying to look like I wasn’t looking, I watched as she took each person’s hands in her own and wordlessly held them for a moment at a time. She’d smile sadly, give a nod, and then move on to the next person. Before long, others were coming to the table and following suit, taking the hands of those of us sitting, especially Samantha, Harris, and John, giving a nod, or saying a few words.
“Do you know Cecelia Brayton?”
I looked up to see a girl, not much older than me. She was looking at me like she expected me to respond. “Uh…” I had to clear my throat. This was all way bizarre. “Yeah. I just met her this summer. But her niece is my best friend.”
The girl reached for my hands and I found myself lifting them to meet her. Her fingers were thin but when she squeezed my hands there was strength there. Her warmth was subtle. “I’ve never met her, but everyone says she’s wonderful. My grandmother died last year, so my heart goes out to you.”
Words skated right out of my head. “Uh… thank you.”
The girl smiled and moved on, leaving me frozen.
“It’s a show of solidarity and sympathy,” John said quietly, apparently seeing my confusion.
“Huh?” I felt sort of lost, like a child stepping into the unknown.
John smiled like he could see I was feeling that way. “Everyone here knows of Cecelia, and many of them know her by warmth, even if they don’t know her personally,” he said. “Traditionally, shifters took one another’s hands as a loved one passed as a way to share their warmth, share the burden. Like giving those closest to the one passing a bank of warmth to pull from. They know that the Kings are very close to Cecelia.”
“Wait—how do any of them know she’s so sick?” I asked. I only knew because she’d told me—and then asked me to keep it to myself. I hadn’t told anybody. So how did anyone else know she was dying?
“The fidgeting,” Collin said, having been listening on. His voice was low. When I turned to look at him, his eyes still held that same haunted look as they had before. “You see how nobody can sit still? You feel the tremor in your skin—your fingers won’t stop moving.”
I looked around like I needed confirmation—but I didn’t, I’d already noticed it. And of course, I felt it. “Yeah but… I don’t understand.” What did any of that have to do with Cecelia being sick?
“That’s the feeling of a shifter you know by warmth passing. The closer you are to them, the more intense it will be as they go.”
God, I couldn’t get the sight of Collin’s deep green eyes out of my head. I’d said goodbye to him after dinner. He’d hugged me harder, and held me longer than he normally did, and when he’d pulled back, there’d been something truly broken in his expression—something more than sad, and fearful: a look altogether too serious, too adult and self-sacrificing to belong in his always-playful, always self-sure expression.
The closer you are to them, the more intense it will be as they go.
What did that even mean?
Now, back in our cell of a room, Samantha was perched on the edge of her cot. She had stopped trying to hold it together, quietly sobbing into her hands, held over her face with her elbows tucked into her lap. The other women in our room were closer to Samantha’s age than I was—if anybody was going to offer her comfort, you’d have thought it would be them. But they kept their distance, though I got the impression it was more out of respect than callousness. Once or twice, one of them quietly approached and asked if there was anything they could do, to which Samantha just shook her head. But still, whether their distance was out of respect or not, it was just so depressing to see Samantha crying on her cot alone.
Respect be damned. With a sigh, I stood from my cot and took a seat beside Samantha on hers. “If you want to be left alone,” I said, “just say the word. But I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind if I sat with you.” I put a hand on her arm. Samantha had never struck me as a terribly warm person. Not cold, but not anyone you’d describe as cuddly. Especially to hear Leah tell it—and especially to hear her tell it after we’d arrived back in Tubac this fall and Sam had been key in keeping Drake and Leah apart.
So imagine my surprise when Sam turned and took my hand in hers.
“Cecelia is my best friend,” she whispered. “I won’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t know she was sick until we got here. I don’t even know what’s wrong—I haven’t been able to bring myself to ask her. I was so worried about Drake, I didn’t stop to ask her what was wrong. And now I’ll never…”
Oh jesus. “Samantha.” I laid my hand over hers, both holding mind tight.
What if it was Leah? I asked myself. What if it was me sitting there, thinking I’d never get to talk to my best friend again—never get to tell her goodbye, that I cared about her. It wouldn’t matter that she knew—of course Cecelia knew that Samantha cared for her, was her best friend—the fact that she didn’t get to say it now, in these last minutes, the fact that that she probably hadn’t been able to say anything like that, or have a real conversation in all the weeks since they’d arrived here was so incredibly wrong.
I looked around the room for inspiration, for an idea of what to say. For anything that could help me help her. Across the way, in the far corner of the room, Nina was curled up onto her own cot. Her knees were drawn up in front of her as she leaned back against the wall. And she was crying. Just quietly, slowly, crying. I hadn’t seen Nina look vulnerable at any point in all the weeks since I’d met her.
That made a memory play through my head—a bittersweet memory, where Cecelia was the star.
“I remember when Leah and I got to Cecelia’s house this fall,” I said quietly to Samantha. “We’d been driving for, like, 20 hours or something. We were exhausted and terrified, but Cecelia made us feel safe. She was happy to see us regardless of all the reasons we’d had to drive there—she was just happy we were there.” I smiled despite the bittersweet taste of the memories of this fall. “When Leah went to dinner at your house,” I went on after a moment, “Cecelia made dinner for Collin and me. While we ate, she told the two of us what was going on—that her and you and Harris were asking Leah and Drake to take a break from one another because of everything that was happening.”
Samantha’s crying had slowed. She took a shuddering breath. “Cecelia thought it was cruel to ask them to do that.”
“It sort of was,” I replied, but before I could worry she would take that badly, she laughed a broken, sad laugh. “But I get it,” I went on. “I get why you had to do it. And, you know, you’re Drake’s Mom, so probably you were okay with him not being with Leah for a while…”
“It wasn’t Leah,” she replied quietly. “I just…” she drew a slow breath. “I didn’t want that for him. For either of them. For them to be linked. It’s not fair… I just.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “But I love Leah. Just like Teresa loves you.”
Before I knew it, my hand was on my still-flat stomach. I moved it, but not before a flash of something like knowing question flashed across Samantha’s face.
A knock rang through the metal door to our room, then cracked open. A nurse I’d seen before when sitting in Cecelia’s room during dinner ducked in and closed the door behind her. We all just stared at her from our cots.
“Any of you who are especially close to Cecelia Brayton,” she said quickly. “I can’t take you all, but two or three of you can come with me if you want to.”
Everybody, myself included, looked to Samantha. Another one of the women leaned toward us and nudged Sam in the shoulder. “Go,” she said. “She’s talking to you.”
Much to my surprise, Samantha took my hand firmly as she stood, pulling me up along with her before she crossed the room to the nurse.
The nurse, appearing to recognize us both, smiled. Then she turned back to the door to lead the way.
“Wait.” I glued my feet still before I could follow. Then I turned around, looking across the room. Nina was looking on with undisguised, anxious envy—she didn’t want to be left behind. “Come on,” I said to her.
She bound from her cot and nearly ran across the room to take my hand. “Thank you,” she whispered as the nurse opened the door and ushered us out into the hall.
The nurse led us down the hallway like there was a fire on our heels. She kept a fast clip, stress in the line of her shoulders as she walked. When she wordlessly opened the door to Cecelia’s room, she let us in ahead of her before following us inside and closing the door again behind us.
There were others in the room. Nina saw her Mom right away. She let go of my hand and went to her, wrapping her in a hug. John was sitting in a chair near Cecelia’s bed; he saw me and stood, his expression an unvoiced invitation to sit in his place. With nobody else to sit with, I obliged his offer and crossed the room before taking his seat. He squeezed my shoulder briefly, then crossed his arms over his chest, standing behind my right shoulder like a silent sentinel.
Collin’s parents—John and Teresa alike—had always been so kind to me. It was baffling, in a way; there was no reason they should have loved me so immediately, so easily upon meeting me. But they had then, and continued to love me now—and I loved them for their support and kindness.
John went to stand along Cecelia’s bedside when the nurse left the spot vacant after checking the I.V. bags, making notes on her chart and leaving the room. Across the narrow bed from him, Sam stood, holding Cecelia’s hand. Cecelia’s silver hair had been brushed and pinned back from her face. The blankets, tucked beneath her arms, had been folded neatly across her chest. She looked peaceful. Which was equal parts a comfort, and a sight that ripped into my heart.
The door opened and I knew Collin had arrived before I could even see him. Relief flooded my crawling skin as his warmth gently pressed against me. I stood up as soon as I saw him, tears turning the sight of him blurry. He came straight to me and took me in his arms.
Turning his face into my hair, he breathed, “are you holding up okay?”
I nodded against him before I pulled back so I could see him. He looked tired, with darkness beneath his deep green eyes. I’d never seen Collin’s hair be particularly tidy—he preferred it haphazardly messy—but it wasn’t messy-chic tonight. It was slept in, unwashed, the way I’d only seen it the one or two times we’d woken up together.
“Sit,” I said quietly, nodding toward the chair I’d been sitting in. “I can’t sit still anyway.”
He sat, but then took my hand in his and tugged. “We’ll share it.”
He sat me across his lap and wrapped his arms comfortably around me; I leaned into him, grateful for his strength and calm. We sat in silence for a time, nobody in the room talking except to exchange a few words here and there in low, hushed voices. Nina stood with her mom along the wall across from the end of Cecelia’s hospital bed; Val and another girl sat on the ground, their backs against the wall behind them; there were others there I didn’t know but recognized from class and the cafeteria.
When the door opened again, the sound of it startled me; Collin and I both looked up to see Leah’s dad, Darrin, come into the room. Harris, who had been standing with Samantha, went to Darrin when he saw him. He shook Darrin’s hand and gave his shoulder a squeeze. John stepped away from his place alongside the bed. He ticked his head at Darrin in a wordless invitation to take his place, then he went back to playing silent sentinel behind the chair Collin and I shared, his arms crossed comfortably over his chest. I watched, oddly numb, as Darrin took Cecelia’s hand in his.
“Hey, Cici,” he said, his voice very low. Then he chuckled once. “I knew you were popular, but wow. You should see all the people who are here for you.”
Collin pressed his forehead into my temple.
“Everybody always loved you,” Darrin went on. “And with good reason. You’re just a good person, Cici. I know you’d disagree with me if you could, but I also know you wouldn’t be able to come up with any evidence to the contrary.” His smile was sad. “So we’ll just cut to the chase and assume I won this one, huh?”
When Darrin looked up, his red-rimmed eyes met mine and the suggestion of a recognition-fueled smile dashed across his face. I tried to return his silent greeting, but, knowing I had fallen short, I turned my face into Collin’s neck instead. I didn’t know what else to do—nothing felt appropriate, or right, or like anything I was capable of doing or saying could possibly do justice to this horrible moment.
Collin pressed a kiss to my ear.
“It’s not fair that Leah doesn’t get to be here to say goodbye.” I whispered what had been whirring in my head for hours—days even.
“If she was here, that would mean she’d been arrested,” was Collin’s quiet, measured response. “But I know what you mean: I wish Drake were here—even though I’m glad he’s not.”
I nodded, knowing exactly what he meant.
We sat in silence for another set of minutes. I listened to the steady beep of the machines in the room, there to help take care of Cecelia though I had no idea what any of them actually did. Between the beeps—in between and on top of them—the quiet murmur of other bodies was a constant hum. Breathing and sighing, shifting position and murmuring prayers. Every few minutes, a new wave of skin-crawling, muscle-flexing sensation would wash over me and the gentle sound of movement would renew, a domino effect around the room. I wondered how long they were going to let us all stay here, camped out in Cecelia’s hospital room—waiting.
When a stronger pulse of muscle-flexing, skin crawling sensation came over me, it pulled a gasp from my throat; Collin’s arms tensed and his breath hung in his chest, before rushing out on a sigh as the sensation began to ebb.
“She’s making us feel this, isn’t she?” I breathed. I didn’t want anybody to overhear me—it was probably a stupid question.
Collin nodded then put his forehead against my temple again. “It will get worse as it gets closer to the end,” he breathed. “If you relax, it will help.”
I turned in his arms, wrapping my own around his shoulders and tucking my face back into his neck. “You say that like you know from experience.”
“My grandpa died in a car accident right after I turned 17.”
Shit. I blinked slowly. “Sorry.”
He only shook his head and held me more firmly.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on letting all the tension run out of my muscles. It was hard to do, and when I could manage to do it in one part of my body, I would realize another part was as tense as before. But Collin was right, the more I relaxed, the easier the buzzing under my skin was to endure, the less I wanted to crawl up the walls, the easier it was to breathe through the shuttering in my chest.
“I want us to keep the baby.”
Collin’s voice had been quiet, barely above a whisper. My reaction, however, was anything but subtle. All attempts at relaxation abandoned, I sat up and my head whipped around to find him looking at me with clear, guileless eyes.
“I know I said I would—“ he glanced around the room and dropped his voice further, “support you no matter what—and I will. I do—whatever you want. But I’ve been thinking about it for a while. And now I’m sitting here, and I…” his breath caught. “I want to make something good. We can do that, Fey. We’ve made something good.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at him for a moment, watching his brows furrow as uncertainty settled onto his expression when I didn’t respond right away. My Collin, who was never uncertain about anything. But it wasn’t uncertainty in his decision that furrowed his brows—it was fear of my reaction.
I tucked my face back into his neck. “I want to keep it,” I said simply on a whisper. “I’ve known for a couple of days. I want us to keep it.”
He exhaled in a great whoosh, a relief washing over him that was so complete the sensation traveled through the warmth and managed to cut through the incessant fidgeting energy buzzing beneath my skin. He drew me closer to him and buried his face into my shoulder. I squeezed him tighter in return.
I knew I should be terrified, or at least worried about what the future held, but I wasn’t. There wasn’t room for worry in me now: I was too full of relief, and love, and sorrow, and pain. It didn’t matter anyway—if Collin and I could get through everything we’d lived through together in our short relationship so far, we could get through anything.
A few minutes later, back aching, I sat up a bit and let my head rest against Collin’s; he rested his against mine in return. We held each other up. The room around us turned to silence. Collin’s hand found my stomach, low between my hipbones; I put my hand over his and laced my fingers between his fingers. He took a deep, slow breath. Then we both took a breath together.
And we breathed, until my breath was his breath, until everything within us was in sync, until I knew, if I’d cared to listen, our heartbeats were lined up and beating together. Until my skin was buzzing at a lower volume than before.
Then a whisper: “Leah, please. Felix. I’m so sorry…” A gasp. “Emsosorry.”
Collin lurched, fighting the latest wave of sensation, his breath hanging in his chest. At first, when his arms tightened around me, I thought he was holding me together, but no—he was holding himself in place, holding himself from shattering apart. I squeezed his hand in my fingers as tightly as I squeezed my eyes shut.
The sensation when Cecelia passed was horrible, but it was beautiful: being pulled down fast through space, her warmth was a thousand pinpricks on my skin. As she ran out of my awareness, she took her warmth with her, but it was with the knowledge that she took her warmth into peace.