The Great One swooped down along the shoreline, stopping at a brown form in the distance. He pecked once, then again, at the lump in the sand. "He looks pretty wild to me," Sky said, looking fascinated as she followed the bird's every movement.
Camille chuckled. "Now that he's eating foxes like a condor would in the wild, you'd think so. But you should have seen him when he was a hatchling. He was raised in our center, the first puppet-raised bird to be reintroduced to the wild."
"You mean, like, a sock puppet or something?" Chewie asked, his hand in a jaw-like pose to demonstrate.
She looked at his hand appraisingly. "Actually, just like that, except the puppet looked like a mother condor. The Great One was raised in captivity. He never knew his parents."
Sky's eyes softened. "Poor little guy." I looked over toward Jax to see if he was listening, but he'd moved on to a game I'd never seen, with a spaceship racing across the screen, and seemed completely engrossed.
"Not so fast, sis," Chewie spoke up. "Sounds kind of like the easy life to me. Human caretakers to attend to your every need, every meal gourmet."
Camille gave him an odd look. "Well, you know, you're right, life is different in captivity. I wouldn't necessarily say better, though." In the distance, The Great One ripped a big piece of flesh from the dead fox. "And it made it much harder to introduce him to the wild."
Jax's low, dark-tinged voice pierced through the sound of the crashing surf. "Maybe he just wasn't ready for it." I felt surprised, and a little relieved, to hear him say anything at all.
Camille gave him a tight-lipped smile. "That's what we thought at first, too," she says. "We worried he wouldn't make it—that he'd assimilate so badly that we'd have to capture him again. Or, worse, that we'd find him dead."
Sky watched as the massive condor arced upward into the sky. "But he looks fine now," she protested.
"He does, doesn't he?" Camille's smile widened. "That's because of The Wild One."
"The Wild One?" Chewie said. "Sounds like my kind of condor."
Camille reached for the remote tracker. "She's probably around here somewhere. Let me take a look."
I handed off the device to her, glad to have it out of my hands—unlike Chewie, I didn't have any particular fondness for gadgets. With it gone, I could stop pretending to care about condors and look back at the man I actually cared about.
To my surprise, Jax's eyes were nowhere near the iPad screen. Instead, I saw him scanning the skies with interest, looking where Camille pointed as she shouted: "There she is! I knew she wouldn't be far from him."
I looked past the cliff's edge until I saw another winged movement below, twisting in a wide circle near the fox corpse. "Ever since The Wild One found The Great One, they've been inseparable," she said. "She was raised by real parents, so she was really the one who could help him understand his heritage, that he was a free bird, not a captive."
In the distance, I heard motorcycles rumbling over the highway, a sound I couldn't hear any more without thinking of the night I'd thrown the Molotov. I glanced back toward Jax, and saw that his dark eyes were piercing right into me. The moment my eyes caught his, though, he averted his gaze downward.
Camille was still talking. "Over there, as you can see—"
"I've had about enough birds." Jax was quiet, but there was force behind his words. "I'm going back to the car."
Concern flooded me. What had made his mood change so suddenly? His face looked like a storm cloud had passed in front of it.
Sky spoke up first. "We'll come with you, Jax. We don't have to stay here. It's just birds."
He shook his head. "Stay. You're having fun. I'll still be waiting when you're finished."
"Are you su—" I started to reach toward Jax's shoulder, but he'd already started walking away. Sky took a deep breath and started talking to Camille like everything was normal. Chewie and Kev quickly followed her lead.
I wonder if they've had to do this before. The rest of the band might be able to pretend that nothing had happened, but Jax's unpredictable, erratic behavior had me worried. "Guys, I'm going back to find out what's up with Jax. But you stay here, this place is amazing."
Sky looked at me quickly and gave a short nod. Then I was off.
Jax's head was tilted down as I got to the car, and the glow on his face showed me that he was still wrapped up in the gift I'd given him. "Hey," I said as his thumbs twitched rhythmically against the glass. "Can we talk?"
Without changing his rhythm for a moment, Jax spoke. "Sure."
I opened the door and slid into the back seat next to him. "I'd like it better if I could look in your eyes," I said, as gently as I could.
Snarling with frustration, Jax thumb-swiped hard and set the tablet down. "Fine," he said, looking me dead in the face. His hardened look made it clear that he was trying to be tough, but somehow I saw something else there, too: fear and vulnerability. Even though Jax's stoic machismo was his way of dealing with trouble, I couldn't help but see that it had made him anxious and afraid.
"Jax, please just talk to me about what's going on," I said, my voice straining.
He looked away from me. "Look. I know this isn't what you signed up for."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
His eyes were closed, his fingers curling into his palms. "You saw things I never wanted you to see. Now you see me differently."
"I don't see you differently at all. You—"
"You deserve someone who can protect you, dammit," he said, looking into my eyes with a haunted gaze. "And instead, you ended up protecting me. You can deny it all you want, but I know it has to bother you."
Even though I knew Jax's words came from pain, it still stung to hear that he thought I'd be so heartless. "What are you talking about? That doesn't bother me. I wish I'd done more to get you to the hospital before the show, but that's guilt, not . . . whatever it is you're implying."
"You don't even know the worst of it," Jax said, his voice bitter. "And when you do, you're not going to want to be around me anymore anyway. I'm so fucked up right now."
I looked at him, confused. "What are you talking about?"
"Hell, I'm so fucked up I thought I saw Darrel on the highway for a minute on our way here. I'm fucking nuts, Riley. Can't you see that?" Jax's words sounded desperate, and my heart wrenched with guilt over the way the night with Darrel had gone.