“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Claire said, her apology reflex kicking into overdrive.
The girl she was apologizing to tossed red hair over one shoulder and tilted her head to the side. For a moment, she stood ramrod straight and so still that Claire thought she was broken. Then the girl brought one hand up and slowly ran it over the side of her own face. Claire watched, feeling like she was intruding on some kind of sacred ritual; the girl lifted her other hand up, palm first, and let it hover just over Claire’s face, then her arms.
Maybe I really did break her, Claire thought.
“Are you okay? I’m so sorry.…”
The red-haired girl didn’t register Claire’s words. Her hands fluttered back down to her sides and in a completely impassive voice, she whispered a single, haunting word.
Claire took a step back. The girl reached for her cell phone. And then she turned around and walked back toward the parking lot, the coveted towel still slung over her arm.
“Okay,” Claire said, under her breath. “Now that was weird.”
Determined to shake it off, Claire scanned the deck and found an open lounge chair angled between the baby pool and the diving board. It was, without question, the loudest, wettest, least desirable chair on the deck, but in her contrary moments, Claire liked liking things that went unappreciated by others.
Settling back into the chair, Claire offered her face up to the sun and closed her eyes. She breathed in and out, letting the din of the pool fade into the background, pushing the red-haired girl and her accusation—Nothing—out of her mind. The hum of Claire’s brain waves settled into the requisite pattern for an old standby, perfect for sunbathing and guaranteed to keep overthinking at bay.
Situations, Claire thought, waiting for one to take hold, enjoying the feel of the sun on her face, her body, the length of her limbs.
Situation: What would it be like if you got hit by a car, and you desperately didn’t want to go to the hospital, but the person who saw it happen—a total stranger—was dead set on seeing you checked out by a doctor? What if it were a mother, with several small children, who couldn’t help but mother you, too, and pursed her lips when you said you didn’t want to go? What if it were an undercover FBI agent, and you had somehow stumbled into an integral part of their case?
What if it were a boy, and he wouldn’t let you stand up off the ground, because moving might upset your internal injuries? What if he kept his face close to yours and his hands on your shoulders? What if you wanted to fight him, even though you knew he was right?
For reasons she couldn’t quite put her finger on, Claire quite liked that Situation. Flipping over onto her stomach, she felt the sun on the small of her back and gave into the lure of the image taking hold in her mind.
Car accident. Blood—not much, because then it would be stupid to refuse to go to the hospital, but a little on the back of her head, and a bruise on her side. The car that hit her peels off, not bothering to see if she’s okay, and then the boy is there, beside her. He comes in a blur and bends over her, until he is all she can see.
His hair is dark.
“Are you okay?” he asks her.
No, that wasn’t right. That was such a normal thing to ask. It would be a much more interesting Situation if her rescuer were a little abnormal. And if she didn’t want to be rescued.
“What the hell were you doing?” he demands, his voice little more than a growl.
“I’m … who are you?” She tries to sit up. “Ouch.”
“Lie still.” He seems to expect that his words will be obeyed. Her eyes flash.
“Don’t touch me. I’m fine. And if I want to get up, I’ll—”
“You got hit by a car. You wandered into the street and got hit by a car. An ambulance is on its way.”
“I don’t want an ambulance.”
He leans down closer toward her, his eyes narrowing, and for a second, she thinks he will kiss her. “Well, princess, that’s too damn bad.”
Princess? Princess?! Claire rears back, ready to tell him what she thinks of his machismo BS, but he grips her shoulders, holding her in place more by the power of his touch than by force.
“Get your hands off me!”
“Be still.” For a moment, the boy’s voice is awful, but then he softens. “You could be hurt. Humor me.”
And then the ambulance came. End of Situation. Claire opened her eyes and rolled back over, just in time for a tsunami of water to body slam her like a professional wrestler.
Curse you, cannonballs.
Claire sputtered and snorted and tried desperately not to drown in her own chair. She blinked violently, and that was the exact moment she heard the voice.
“You look like you’re thinking deep thoughts, young lady.”
It took her a few seconds to locate the speaker: an elderly man with a face creased like a worn leather sofa and brown eyes so dark that she couldn’t make out the pupils. For a moment, Claire assumed that the man was talking to someone else, in part because people, as a general rule, didn’t come up to Claire and start making conversation, and in part because she was positive that she looked more like a drowned rat than someone caught in the throes of thought.
Say something. Respond. Be witty.
As Claire tried desperately to come up with the proper response, the man leaned forward, the intensity of the gaze behind his centimeter-thick glasses swelling, his eyes fixated on a point directly over her left shoulder. Those pupil-less irises flicked left to right, then up and down with a concerted effort that reminded Claire of a squadron of soldiers searching a field in a grid.
“I was just sitting here,” Claire said finally, but the words came out in a whisper.
“Have a way of going unnoticed, do you?” the man asked, his voice not unkind.
Claire nodded, but before she’d even finished the motion, the man glanced away, and something deep inside of Claire told her that he wasn’t going to speak to her again. He’d seen what he needed to see, and now he was going to leave.
As Claire watched him disappear into the parking lot, she couldn’t help but wonder what he’d been looking for, and she couldn’t shake the single word her memory whispered over and over again in the red-haired girl’s voice.
White walls. White floor. White bed. Nothing to look at. Nothing to do.
Tired of the pretense that the door, locked from the outside, could keep him caged, Nix made the decision to fade. With expert precision and unnatural ease, he let go of his grip on the physical world.