Chapter seventeen

The results were set to come back tomorrow, so I was antsy. More antsy than usual. Antsy was a synonym of paranoid, which was also what I was. And when I was paranoid… well, I'll just start from when Jackson came to my room around three in the afternoon.

I was lounging on my bed, reading the same sentence over and over in a book I didn't even like. My mind was too preoccupied to focus, though I didn't put the book away. I couldn't stop thinking about Ligends.

Enough about him. Back to Jackson. He didn't knock, just walked in. The noise of the door opening startled me so much that I slammed the book shut, like something embarrassing lied within. I'd been really jumpy lately.

"Hey," he chuckled, sort of. Jackson could never quite laugh; it was sad, when I thought about it. I tried not to think about it.

I smiled my greeting.

"You're jumpy," Jackson commented, taking a seat beside me on my bed.

"I was just thinking that," I admitted. I didn't want to elaborate, and I knew he'd want me to, so I added on, "Uh, do you need something?"

He raised his brows. I was being rude—ruder than usual. "Well… I wanted to know if you were excited for tomorrow."

"Because you're excited," I guessed easily. My smile was weak; I was tired. It was only three, and I was very tired.

Jackson frowned. "Are you okay? You're acting…" He didn't seem to know what to say. That was all right. He didn't have to say anything for me to know what he meant.

I shrugged, not wanting to get into my issues. I'd had this talk already with Zoey. "I'm fine. Anyway, yeah, I'm excited for tomorrow."

"You're lying."

Dammit!

Before I could retort, he was sighing, "Why?"

"I'm not…" I paused. Didn't he, at least, deserve the truth? I wouldn't be bothering him too much if I let him know I wasn't operating at my best, right? He seemed to really want to know. I was fed up with being selfish; I didn't want to talk about it because I didn't want to, but Jackson did. I should give him this. "I'm not okay."

"What's going on?" he asked, face fading into something, into stoicism. I hated when he did that. I used to think it was endearing, kind of, but now I just wanted him to express things with me. I supposed feeling that way made me a hypocrite since I wasn't always honest with him, but it was my mouth I kept shut, not my expression.

"There is so much going on," I told him, exhausted.

"You and Zoey are both being weird," Jackson said. "Just tell me what's happening so I can make it better."

"You can't make everything better," I muttered, recalling what Zoey had told me. You want to make things better—people better—and I get that, but you can't fix everyone. Maybe she hadn't just been thinking of me when she said that.

"I can try."

"And fail." Failure and I had a close relationship; I didn't want Jackson to know it as well.

"You're being very negative today," he observed idly.

"I am." That was all I said on the matter.

Jackson sighed again; this time it was longer and more pronounced. "All right, let's try this. Do you love me?"

"It comes and goes."

"Kristen," he said firmly. He was being serious; he wanted me to be the same.

I looked at him; he was looking at me. His eyes were such a pretty brown. "Okay, I do. I love you. I will love you forever."

He was surprised by the proclamation. "Forever is a long time." Jackson hesitated, and then his voice lowered a few octaves, became a little less strong. "Don't make promises you can't keep."

"I'm keeping this one." There. He wanted me to be serious—so there it was. It was out in the open now, and if he didn't feel the same way, then it wouldn't be my fault but rather his.

He cleared his throat, as if to cut the tension. "So, if you love me, tell me what's happening." He was bringing the conversation back on track.

I pretended not to be hurt by him not saying he would love me for as long as I'd love him. I told myself he felt it, just didn't want to vocalize it. "Okay, here goes—I'm not excited for tomorrow."

"That's it?"

"Yes," I told him. There was no way I was ratting out Zoey and her suspicion of Ligends or Jason and his lack of feelings for both Zoey and me. Not yet. I doubted Jackson could keep up with all that was wrong, honestly. It gave me a headache, and I'd learned it all at separate times.

"Well." He coughed again. "Well, it'll be okay."

"And if it isn't?" I asked. "What happens when you see that I'm not the person you put up on your pedestal, when you see that I'm not good at all? I'm not kind or forgiving or understanding or brave."

"You are brave. You are the bravest person I have ever met." How odd; he seemed to mean it. "And I won't care if your primary is something that isn't societally great. It's great to me—whatever it is."

"You're lying," I accused, because he had to be.

Jackson shook his head. "Unfortunately, no."

We sat in silence for a few seconds; neither speaking. I didn't know how to respond, and he had no material to combat against since I didn't know how to respond.

Eventually I stuttered out, "I don't think there's anything good about me."

"Do you really think that lowly of yourself?" he inquired, astonished. I must've always acted so confident.

I bit the inside of my mouth, thinking of Elise, thinking of killing her, thinking of Jason, thinking of him getting shot because of me, thinking of him killing Brant because of me, thinking of him hating me, thinking of Zoey, thinking of how she looked at me, pitied me.

Wow, I guess I really did hate myself. I wondered when that began… or if it was just a gradual sort of thing. I couldn't quite recall a distinct moment the loathing began. It was just… there. One day it wasn't, then it was.

"Yeah," I said, after remembering that I needed to respond.

"I used to be that way." He paused, either for dramatic effect or because he was thinking of what to say next. Maybe both. "I hated what I could do for so long. I hated me. And then I met Ligends, and he completely changed my life. He makes me feel normal. You could find someone like that, too, you know."

I tuned him out. He was making this about him. Jackson was probably trying to help me by showing that he related, but he didn't relate. He couldn't. He thought he was better than me because he let some short bald man poke and prod him like a little rat? He thought I needed my own personal bald man to make me drugs and give me injections?

Why couldn't Jackson just admit how awful I was and let it go? Why did he have to build up these perfect, fake scenarios? Why couldn't he give up? It was great he'd found his nirvana, but his path wasn't mine. I didn't want what he had. Could he really not see that? Was I becoming too much like Jackson now and hiding my emotions?

Him calling my name pulled me out of my thoughts. He did it several times before I gave the slightest reaction—the twitch of my index finger. "Kristen! Hey, Kristen, are you okay?"

I turned to stare at him and then leapt away, falling off of the bed at the sight before me. It was Jackson… it was him… but not… It was his body with Ligends' head.

Not only was it his face, but he was bleeding out of control. His eyes, his ears, his mouth, his nose—all were gushing blood. Gallons. Rivers. Oceans. It was everywhere; it was getting on me.

"What's wrong?" he asked in Ligends' voice. His hands reached out for me, but I scooted back on the ground.

"Just stop," I muttered as he moved to stand. The sight of the blood was making me woozy. "Leave me alone."

He extended an arm once more, ignoring me. "What's—?"

"Don't touch me!" I hissed.

He didn't seem to understand. Even without his right head, I knew how he was feeling. I supposed I always read Jackson without his face, though. He never showed anything there. "What's going on?"

I wished he'd stop asking that. I wished he'd stop asking that in his voice—Ligends' voice. It wasn't right. It wasn't Jackson. Had it ever been Jackson? Had I always been talking to Ligends?

I was beginning to lose my slip on reality, little by little. Piece by piece. Soon, would there even be anything at all? Would it chip away to nothing? Would I become Elise? Was that my punishment for having killed her?

It was fair. I couldn't even be mad.

Shutting my eyes tightly, so tight I saw stars, I began to chant, "It isn't real. It isn't real. It isn't real."

"What's not real?"

I ignored him, concentrating on my Zen. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. It wasn't real. Focus on the voice in my head, not his voice. Not Ligends' voice. What was real was what was in my head. I couldn't trust what I saw.

But, I thought, my head was making me see these wrong things, so could I even trust my head? I didn't dwell on that. I couldn't.

"It isn't real," I muttered aloud. It isn't real. It isn't real. It isn't real. It isn't real. He wasn't real.

"Kristen, you're scaring me."

His voice was normal again—and loud. He was close by.

My eyes popped open in surprise—and in fear. Jackson was beside me and was Jackson again, I noted. This was registered quickly in my brain, so quickly it made me slow, a little stupid.

"Kristen," he pressed.

I wasn't relieved he was him; I couldn't be. I was still too freaked out. The hallucination, struck me from behind, come out of nowhere. I hadn't been prepared.

"Kristen!"

My teeth chattered, lips wobbling. I wanted to cry. Maybe I was. "I think I'm going crazy," I whispered.

He pulled me to him, hugging me tight, but it didn't make me feel protected. His arms were constricting, like chains or the walls outside the complex. "It's okay. Whatever it is, we'll work it out."

"No, you don't get it. You don't… I'm insane. I see things," I told him, desperately trying to get him to understand. "They aren't really there."

I felt him nod. "It's okay."

Why was he being calm and accepting? Why couldn't he, for once, freak out? Why couldn't he feel the confusion I felt—the misery? Wanting others to understand exactly what you want them to, I later realized, was like chasing the dark.

"It isn't," I wept. "It's not okay."

"Yes it is. Come on, we'll get help," he soothed, cooing me like I was a child. "We'll get meds."

Meds like his—like his proteins. The paranoia was setting back in.

"Medication can't solve everything," I heard myself spit out bitterly. "Not everything can disappear."

"But some things can," Jackson pointed out. "We have to try."

"We will fail." I always failed.

He was quiet for a few beats, and in those moments I grew a little calmer, a little more relaxed in his grip. It really was quite comforting. Jackson finally uttered, "Then we'll fail together." My scoff caused him to increase the pace and flow of his words. "I'm serious. I don't care if you're ill or crazy or whatever, I'll be there. I'm telling you—we'll work it out."

I wished I hadn't told him, wished I hadn't allowed him to have all of this hope for me. I should've known he'd react this way.

"Do you still love me?" I wondered aloud. "Even though I'm mad like the Mad Hatter." Dad used to tell me stories about him, about Alice and her adventures in a land that existed all in her head.

"Yes." He paused. "Who is the Mad Hatter?"

"He is a man that is insane." I added on quickly, "He's from a book. I didn't make him up."

Jackson nodded against me. "Well, he sounds like an interesting guy."

"It wasn't even his fault, you know," I said, absent-minded. I was talking to myself. "He wasn't born crazy. There was mercury in his hat."

"Huh."

I thought: Was there mercury in one of my hats, or was I destined to be this way? Nature or nurture? Environment or heredity?

"Huh," I echoed sadly.