Chapter Thirty-Nine

Posted: July 12, 2015 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

     Maddie fell back against the pillows with a sigh. Sore muscles cried out in relief as she sank into the mattress; she twisted and stretched, nearly purring as the tension in her shoulders released. Her body hummed with a mix of exhaustion and pleasure, the kind of satisfying ache that comes after a day – or night – of hard work.

     The bed shifted. She clenched her eyes shut, aware that he had rolled over beside her. Don’t talk, she thought. Please just let me lie here. Don’t talk yet.

     No such luck. “Madelyn.”

     She turned her face away, striving to ignore him.

     “Madelyn.”

     Heaving another sigh, she opened her eyes.

     Caleb stared back at her, his face hard. “Get the hell out of my bed.”

     “Don’t be a jerk,” Jessie admonished. Her tone was indulgent, a mother scolding a favorite child. “We were up all night. Someone has to make sure you don’t get eaten, you know.”

     “She’s pulling on my blankets,” Caleb whined.

     “Boo-fucking-hoo.” Maddie rolled her eyes and sat up, giving the comforter a petulant yank as she did.

     She had, indeed, been up all night. Jessie had resisted getting back out of bed – until, that is, she’d realized that Maddie was asking for help. From her. Her utter glee at the prospect had nearly sent Maddie back to her own bedroom in a snit, but she’d resisted the urge, swallowed her pride and coaxed the insufferable younger woman down the stairs, where the guns waited.

     It didn’t take long for Maddie to realize that Jessie had been doing far more than flirting shamelessly during her time spent with Vinnie. The information she’d managed to absorb was dizzying – caliber, gauge, sight versus scope, how to load without looking and brace for a shot. The last was strictly theoretical, for now; they couldn’t afford to practice firing.

     Even more surprising was the patient and careful way Jessie explained everything. Maddie had expected to feel stupid from the outset, and she had, but that wasn’t Jessie’s fault; she didn’t sneer, or insult, or even tease. When she’d dozed off briefly, just before dawn, Maddie found herself staring at her sister’s face, contemplating the new side that she’d seen.

     “She’s smart.” Hannah’s voice had startled her; the older woman had remained out of the way, standing watch by the window throughout the long lessons.

     “Yes,” Maddie had agreed. “She is.” She’d been ashamed of how surprised she sounded, and tried to distract herself from it. “You don’t want to learn?”

     Hannah had shaken her head. “My husband taught me once, a long time ago. Handgun. Shotgun, too, but mostly handgun. He was a cop.” She shifted on her feet, the curtain rustling gently with her movement. “I hated it. Haven’t touched one since he died.”

     “You might have to,” Maddie had pointed out.

     “Maybe,” the other woman had conceded. “But not tonight.”

     Soon, though. The night had been quiet, without a single person – dead or otherwise – out on the street. But it wasn’t a peaceful quiet; Maddie felt that in her gut. It felt more like a pause. She was afraid of what was coming when things started moving again. It’ll be soon.

     The clink of glass on wood brought Maddie back to the room. Jessie fussed over Caleb, setting a glass of water and bowl of dry cereal on the nightstand before she adjusted his blanket and felt his forehead. Maddie watched as her sister’s hand lingered on Caleb’s face. The kid gazed up at her, eyes wide and adoring, and smiled. She’d never seen him smile like that before – or at all, really, since the unfortunate day they’d met – but she knew a lovesick grin when she saw one.

     One by one, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled.

     Jessie bustled away, heading into the master bathroom. Maddie rose to her feet and followed, full of concern and outrage, intent on delivering a lecture that would no doubt shatter their fragile peace. Before she could speak, however, she stopped on the threshold, knocked back by the smell of the tiny room.

     “Urgh,” she complained, waving a hand in front of her face. “Have you- have you been smoking in here?!”

     Jessie, at least, had the good grace to look ashamed. “It’s not like I can go outside,” she defended. She gestured to the bathroom’s small window, which sat above the tub. “I open the window every time.”

     “Clearly that’s helping.” Maddie moved into the room, grimacing, and shut the door behind her. The weak morning light barely penetrated the gloom, hampered as it was by the tiny entry point and the haze of stale smoke that hung in the air. “Where did you even get cigarettes?”

     “I brought them with me.” She pulled a pack from within the counter’s mass of clutter and shook a cigarette out, glaring defiantly as she brought it to her lips. “I wish I’d remembered to grab the vodka too. There was some left.”

     “Oh yeah, that’d be great,” Maddie muttered. “God forbid you go without vodka.”

     “Well I don’t have any,” Jessie snapped, “So I am going without. The guy didn’t even have any beer in his fridge.”

     The guy. Maddie shook her head at her sister’s callousness. Only Jessie could haul a man’s body out to his shed, then smoke in his bathroom and bitch about his lack of beer.

     Because fucking in his guest bed with the guy who shot him is so much better.

     She skittered away from that thought. Moving across the room, she sat on the edge of the tub, straightened her back and crossed her legs, assuming the lecture position she’d seen her mother take so many times in the past. Jessie obviously recognized it too; she sighed, flicked the lighter, and took a deep drag before dropping onto the closed lid of the toilet.

     “Usually I’m hanging over this, not sitting on it, when Mom starts in with her shit.” Maddie stared back, stone-faced, and Jessie sighed again. “Fine. What is it?”

     “What are you doing?” Maddie demanded, not aware of how angry she was until she was launched.

     “Look, I’m sorry about the smoking,” Jessie said, rolling her eyes. “But it’s not like the guy can complain about it now.”

     “That’s gross,” Maddie said, “And not what I mean. What are you doing with Caleb? You know he’s 17, right?”

     “Oh my god, is he?” Jessie put a hand to her chest, a look of mocking surprise on her face. “I had no idea!”

     “Cut the shit, Jess.” Maddie leaned forward, deadly serious. “He’s got a thing for you. And you’re sharing a bed.”

     “Now you’re being gross,” Jessie snapped. Dragging the seashell-shaped soap dish across the counter, she tapped ash into the well before jabbing her cigarette in Maddie’s direction. “He’s just a kid.”

     “That’s what I’m saying!”

     “Do you really think that little of me?” She shook her head. “I know how old the kid is. If he’s got a thing, it’s just a little crush. He hasn’t said a word.”

     Maddie wasn’t so sure. “I saw the way he was looking at you.”

     “It’s just looking,” Jessie argued. “Lots of guys look. Even 17 year old guys. He hasn’t done anything.” She inhaled. Exhaled. Blew smoke at the ceiling. “He has nightmares,” she said quietly. She met Maddie’s gaze steadily. “About Summer.”

     Maddie flinched. “That wasn’t my fault,” she protested weakly. “I didn’t-”

     “I know that,” Jessie interrupted. “And he does too.” She paused. “Most of the time.”

     Maddie glanced at the closed door, as if she could see the kid through the wood, ascertain that he was right where she’d left him. Of course he is. He hasn’t been up for days. She’d avoided seeing him at all since they’d taken up in the house, content with the knowledge that he was stuck in bed, unable or unwilling to creep down the hall on his wrecked knee and find her. She was sorry that she’d hurt him so badly – but not sorry that she didn’t have to be afraid that he’d come for her, full of misplaced grief and anger over the death of his friend. She hadn’t forgotten the threat he’d made, even if the others had.

     “He wakes up and cries,” Jessie continued. “He feels better that he’s not alone. Surely you can understand that.” Maddie heard the implication in her tone and looked away, blushing. “Anyway, he’s harmless.”

     I’m not so sure about that. She kept the thought to herself and merely nodded. “Okay.” She shifted in her seat, loosening her back and uncrossing her legs. “I’m sorry,” she offered.

     “Okay.”

     They sat in silence for a few minutes, Jessie smoking one cigarette down to the butt before lighting another. She offered the pack to Maddie, who shook her head. It would just make her jumpy and shaky, especially in her current state of exhaustion. She knew she should drag herself out of this room and lay down for a bit – her shift at the window would come up again in a few hours – but the thought of getting into bed beside Vinnie made her stomach ache with nerves.

     When Jessie finally spoke, her voice was soft. “What are you doing?”

     The question was so genuine, so full of concern, that Maddie was surprised into answering honestly. “I have no idea.” The admission took the last bit of energy out of her; she dropped her head into her hands and stared blindly at the floor, hardly aware when she began to babble.

     “I’m supposed to be married,” she said plaintively. “This isn’t- I’m supposed to be married. And now everyone is dead. They’re dead, but they’re not dead, and he’s…shooting people. But they’re not people, right? They’re not people, not anymore. But they are.” She looked up at her sister, vision blurred with unshed tears. “That woman had a baby, Jess. A baby.”

     Jessie nodded. “Yeah. She did.”

     “And this guy, his friend, Shawn – what if he wasn’t…you know. What if he wasn’t?”

     “He was,” Jessie said firmly. “You saw him.”

     “He could have been hurt,” Maddie argued. “He could have been confused.”

     “No.” Jessie shook her head. “No.”

     Maddie dropped her head back down and sighed. “No.” She tracked her eyes across the pattern on the tile floor, seeing and not seeing the points and swirls that moved in and out of shadow. “I’m terrified,” she admitted quietly. “And he’s…not. He’s not, and that makes me feel better. A little.”

     The silence stretched between them again, broken only by the scratch of the lighter as Jessie lit another cigarette. She’d smoked it halfway down before she spoke again. “He’s not harmless.”

     “What?” Maddie jerked her head up, surprised by the venom in her sister’s voice. “What do you mean?”

     “He’s killed people.”

     “Well, so have I,” Maddie defended. “That’s not fair, to hold that against him.” Even if I do, just a little.

     Jessie shook her head. “That’s not what I mean.” She shifted, clearly uncomfortable, avoiding Maddie’s gaze when she continued. “Even before. Overseas, you know.”

     Maddie frowned. “That’s different.”

     “Maybe.” Jessie paused, seeming to weigh her words carefully. “Do you know why he got out?”

     “No. He hasn’t talked about it.”

     Jessie chewed her lip. “Mom tried to ask, before the wedding. His mom wouldn’t say. Which means he’s got problems.”

     “Well, war is hard.” Maddie wrung her hands, feeling more like her mother with every moment. She disliked the turn the conversation had taken. “Lots of vets have problems.”

     “Doesn’t mean they have to be your problems.” Jessie shrugged. “Besides, he’s not your type anyway.”

     Maddie opened her mouth, prepared to ask exactly what her type was, certain she’d find the answer equal parts accurate and infuriating. Before she could speak, the bathroom door swung open. A hulking figure loomed in the doorway. For a moment, fear turned her throat and chest to ice, stealing her breath and the feeling from her fingers. Then the figure stepped forward, and she saw that it was Vinnie.

     “Hey!” Jessie jumped up, dropping her cigarette into the makeshift ashtray and flashing a huge, phony smile in Vinnie’s direction. “We were just, uh-” She glanced at Maddie quickly. “Just finishing up.” He glanced around the small room, his gaze falling and lingering on the stuffed soap dish. Jessie hung her head. “Sorry. Maddie already yelled at me.”

     His eyes sought Maddie’s through the gloom. He stared at her for a moment, his face drawn and sad, before speaking. “Where’s Shawn?”

     Maddie got to her feet, wary and concerned. “Out back. I told you last night.” She looked at him closely. “Are you okay?”

     “No.” He turned to leave. “I want his bag.”

     “I have it.” He turned back, eyebrows raised in surprise. “I took it,” she explained. “Before we…I have it. It’s downstairs.” She went to his side, placing a gentle hand on his arm. “I’ll get it for you.”

     He didn’t soften under her touch. Nor did he pull away; he waited until she dropped her hand on her own before turning away again and leaving the room. Maddie followed at a distance, watching him shuffle listlessly down the hall.

     “Problems,” Jessie said darkly behind her.

     “Shut up,” Maddie hissed. She glanced back at Caleb, who remained in the bed, half-eaten bowl of cereal in his lap. He glared at her hatefully – until Jessie drew close, and then all signs of anger drained from his face. She watched him for another moment, then closed the bedroom door.

     Problems, she thought as she headed down the stairs in search of Shawn’s bag. Oh yeah. Big. Fucking. Problems.

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