Alli drove us through the dark streets in a heavy silence. I was glad enough to let her have that silence to process; it gave me time to rein in my own feelings. Mostly those feelings consisted of fear. If this woman, this Guardian, was telling the truth, the situation had escalated far further than we'd thought. Ponderous isolated incidents had turned into a pattern that justified all of my worries for Alli's safety.
And then there was Alli herself, of course. Alli, who had found her own angels and gained their respect but had chosen not to say so until we'd been at Olivia's door. It was easier to worry about the murders.
As Olivia had suggested, we stopped at a nearby motel and my newly restored heart contracted painfully. It was a standard little building, just on the better side of shabby, and it reminded me of the last roof Eli and I had ever sat on together, right before I'd left to go Mark Alli. We had talked, I remembered, talked as equals while someone had yelled and argued below us. I couldn't remember what about. Some inane thing.
"I don't mind another drive," I told Alli as she parked in front of the office.
"I do," she replied. "And I can pay, don't worry."
I actually hadn't been thinking about money but was glad when Alli produced a glossy looking credit-card without any qualms.
We were given a room on the very corner of the second floor, the key handed to us by a middle-aged woman with an obnoxiously assuming smirk as she looked between us. Inside, the space was lit by a single squat table lamp that cast the darkly patterned bedspreads in a yellow glow. The carpet was old and of a brown that made it hard to tell if it was dirty, or just an unfortunate hue. It was small, and I knew I'd be wishing for an open window within minutes.
Yet none of the aesthetics mattered, because stepping across the carpet felt like dragging weights through sand. I was tired, physically and mentally exhausted. Even stress hit harder here. For now though, we were safe, and relief loosened all of my limbs.
"Nice place," I commented. It was a joke, though half-hearted.
Alli wasn't smiling. Not even half-heartedly.
I was standing between the two narrow beds, but Alli hadn't moved more than two steps past the threshold. Her braid was coming apart in places, and she looked around the room like she hadn't needed minutes to find the room claustrophobic. Her expression made my stomach knot. She'd already admitted to not being okay, and I doubted the idea of doing something as vulnerable as sleeping so near each other helped. Certainly it wasn't doing my nerves any favors.
"Look," I began, focusing on the other thing. "It's going to be okay. We'll figure out what's happening. We've done it before, you and I."
It made me feel better and it drew her eyes to me.
"Jadin," she asked, "how did you know where to find me?"
Unable to follow her abrupt change of subject, I could only utter a startled, "What?"
"I thought you must have been nearby," she continued. "In the neighborhood, you know? But you told Olivia you'd been working in the city."
"So?" She spread her hands, inviting further explanation. "How did you know to come to the college? Were you keeping tabs on me?"
"No, Alli, of course not," I said. "I would never spy on you."
She didn't answer, just kept her arms wide and shook her open hands emphatically.
Feeling cornered without knowing why, I gave her the truth: "I've been here a couple of days. First, I went to your house."
"You didn't," she groaned.
"I had to. It was the only place I knew where to look for you."
And it was a place I'd been avoiding as thoroughly as Alli herself. It was a good place with warm memories and far too much temptation in its own right. I hadn't wanted to tell her, because I hadn't wanted her to know how detached I'd made myself.
Now she did know, and she didn't seem anywhere close to satisfied.
"Come sit down, Alli. You look…tired."
I borrowed Olivia's word, but it was a lie. She didn't look tired at all. She looked like she'd planted her feet firmly in the carpet by the door, daring someone to push her over, and the tension in her muscles was enough to set adrenaline in my veins.
She ignored my request.
"Please, please tell me you didn't talk to my parents."
"I tried," I told her. "I wanted to. But I had to ask a neighbor. Then I just got lucky to see you crossing campus when I did."
"My mother," she said in a scathing tone I hardly recognized, "would not want to talk to you."
That stung. I remembered Mrs. Moore fondly.
The hurt must have shown on my face, because Alli responded to it.
"Well, what did you expect?" she asked in that new tone, a cold one that I associated with the color of her eyes. "You just ran off one day, and they think you meant to take me with you."
"They think I stole you away?" I asked, righteous anger building in layers. "Is that what you told them?"
"How else was I supposed to explain this?" She gestured not to her eyes or wrists, but up and down the whole of her body, to the shape of the room. "Were you going to tell my parents that I'm supposed to be dead?" Then she scoffed at my loud wince. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
"You aren't supposed to be dead," I insisted, more emphatically than the moment called for. "You're supposed to be here."
"Yes," she said. "Here I am. Ready to go about my life."
"What's this about, Alli? Really?" I asked, but I thought I could guess. It was just that I'd never seen that glitter in her eyes directed at me before, argument as a default setting or not.
"Why did you come back, Jadin?" she returned. "Really?"
"I told you," I replied. "I need your help."
"And you also told me that you wanted to see me. So, which is it?"
"I don't understand why both of those things can't be true."
Defensiveness was creeping into my tone, tightening up the muscles in my chest and the limbs that had previously been ready to melt onto the bed. I was used to the feeling, but not against her. I ran my hand across my face and tried again, as patiently as I could.
"I did want to see you. More than anything. Needing help just made for a convenient excuse."
There. Now she knew. Everything I'd done for a long time had been about her, so she might as well know.
"You're doing it again," was her response to my confession.
"What am I doing?"
"Why is it so hard for you to tell me the whole truth? After everything? After I asked you to?"
Her voice was rising now, lifting to a dangerous pitch. It vibrated through her and made her whole body seem hard and unyielding.
"Are you really going to look me in the eye and keep hiding how terrified you are?"
"Of course I'm scared!"
The admission tore through my chest like she'd reached in and dragged it out with a fishing line. Like she'd always held the reel and was just waiting for the right moment to bait the hook. I didn't even try to stop the nastiness that followed, the pinched, derisive sarcasm that was barely noticeable since we were both yelling now.
"There are people out there who are killing people like you. And after everything? I don't want to watch you die, not again. I don't want to see you get hurt. So forgive me if I happen to be a little worried."
Her body had been unnaturally still, but she was moving now, hands clenching into fists, torso angling forward against the roots of her legs. She drew in a stuttered breath and let it out in a roar.
"You're worried about me getting hurt? You abandoned me! You left me to worry and wonder for a whole year! You didn't even know where I lived anymore, couldn't be bothered to find out. I had to trust my sanity to total strangers, who, by the way, wondered the whole time if I was a murderer. And then you come here, to finally be with me, and you won't tell me I'm in danger? Again? Like I don't deserve to know? You think that didn't hurt?"
"But you're here now. So you can do your precious job. Or is it just that you only like me when I'm your damsel in distress?"
"That is not true," I barked, but the look she gave me was so scathing I clamped my mouth shut against any other defense.
She let the resulting silence stand. The room rang with tension and the echo of her anger. My heart squeezed painfully around the truths she'd uttered, each one grown bloated and ugly. The entirety of Alli's face glowed with pent up fire, so strong that the fumes burned in my throat and eyes.
When she spoke again, her volume was low, her voice sad under a matter-of-fact cadence. The sadness had been there the whole time, I finally noticed.
"Earlier," she said. "You said you wanted to know what John had told me. If there was anything important."
"Yes," I grated out.
"He told me that, last time, you didn't come here to help me."
My blood chilled under my skin. That was one truth she should not know. I would have given up all the other truths in my body to keep her from knowing that I'd once intended to kill her.
"I insisted that you'd never hurt me. Thought it was just another mind game. 'Not for lack of trying,' he said."
I could feel my desperation as closely as if that day had been moments ago, feel the knife in my hand, her body leaned trusting along mine. I remembered what it was like after, to be free and confounded all at once.
"Is that true?"
I put aside the anger that the yelling had dredged up and saw how changed she was. How my choices had caused warping in all those places I'd thought were unflappable. And I couldn't lie to her anymore.
"Yes," I answered in a very small voice. "It's true."
She didn't rage or scream. She was done with that. She just nodded, her easy acceptance condemning me without words.
"I think what bothers me the most," she said. "Is that you keep talking about my life. But it doesn't hide just how selfish you are."
Then she pulled her silver eyes completely away from me and reached for the door. It opened and closed in the space of a breath, and I was alone.