Second place winner for The Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction (2022)
The thing about living long enough to see the aftermath (living longer than she ever thought she would), is that Josie doesn’t quite know what to do with herself anymore.
There was always something before. Something to be done, something to run from.
Now, there’s nothing—it’s all uncharted from here. Even before, supposedly free and lawless and wild, there was a predetermined end Josie expected to meet one day. A day she’d crash and burn and burn and burn until there was nothing left of her, only ashes to be scattered in the wind. She didn’t burn, and now she doesn’t seem to do anything at all.
Xuan is kinder to her than she deserves, and Josie knows it.
He doesn’t ask her to meet him at the station anymore, where the thick black bangle on her wrist becomes a brand of who and what she is. Instead, it’s at the library, or a parkside bench, or wherever he happens to be walking his cat that day.
Their meetings are relatively short, far shorter than her conversations with the therapist they assigned her. He does her the courtesy of treating it like small talk instead of the interrogation that it really is, like she’s still some facsimile of a human.
(She knows no one else would bother or care, and she knows he’s alone in thinking she deserves any consideration at all.)
Her grandparents are gentler than she expected, too, for all that they are quiet. Neither of them ask, or reprimand, or do anything but care for her as simply and unquestioningly as they always have.
Josie is not naïve enough to think they don’t care, exactly, about the mess she’s made of everything and everyone. Nor is she hopeful enough to think they might one day forgive her.
(Josie is a lot of things—a liar, an impulsive coward, a reckless fool—but she is never careless. Not with others.)
They have a home of worn wood and chipped white paint, sanded down to smoothness by age and wear. It stands atop seaside cliffs haunted by ocean spray, isolated and solitary. The skies echo the water below, ever turbulent, ever stormy, and waves claw against the cliff walls like they’re aching to reach up up up and drown the world.
When the sun sets, the horizon bleeds fire, painting them all in warm shadows.
The nearest area that could possibly resemble something urban is miles away. Even when she has to make the trek there on foot every month to meet Xuan, come rain or snow or hell itself, Josie can’t bring herself to mind the distance.
Every morning, Josie wakes to the soft sounds of clutter downstairs. Sometimes there’s the smell of food, but often there isn’t.
(She still hasn’t quite managed to train herself out of the instinct to tense before everything else, to expect the unexpected, and Aran says it’s a thing she should work on, but Josie isn’t sure she believes them.)
They had struggled to find anyone who would take her after the proceedings had been finalized. Josie’s eyes had been hard—not yet tired, not yet worn down to nothing.
No one had wanted her, and she hadn’t even been able to blame them. In the end, it had taken two weeks for her grandparents to cave. (She had spent two weeks refusing to admit to herself how, even though she knew she had no right to expect anything, it felt like salt in the wound.) Josie hadn’t even expected them to be the ones to break, out of everyone—she’d never been the favorite grandchild, she knew it, it was fine.
She had no bags, nothing to take with her but the coldness in her gaze and the weight on her shoulders. No one said a word, no one but the inquisitor explaining where to sign. At most, her grandfather nodded.
(Josie had been quietly grateful that neither of them cried, that her grandmother’s composure and resolve were made of stone and steel, that her grandfather had never quite learned how to show emotion.)
She had followed them out of the station wordlessly, refusing to acknowledge the awkwardness, as if pretending it wasn’t there would make it nonexistent. The two-hour drive to their home was stifling, and Josie had been tempted to roll the window down, as if the discomfort was a bad smell that could be blown away.
Even when they’d arrived, no one had yelled at her, no one had said or done anything she’d expected. Instead, her grandfather had silently waved Josie towards the old guest room she’d always used before turning away to go sit in his garden. Her grandmother had simply moved into the kitchen, never so much as glancing at her granddaughter.
The room hadn’t been wiped clean of her existence, of all the little knick-knacks she’d left over the years during her visits, even though she’d never lived there. Josie hadn’t known if that made it hurt more or less.
She’d known where she wasn’t wanted and hadn’t dared to leave the room until night had set and the hunger gnawing at her stomach couldn’t be ignored any longer. The house was silent, and her footsteps noiseless—she’d been gone a long time, but some buried part of her had remembered every creaky floorboard. There had been a bowl of soup on the kitchen table when Josie crept in, quiet as a wraith.
Josie had let out a harsh breath and swallowed down the sudden lump in her throat.
The next morning, a note sat on the table instead, bearing only two words. The bowl had been washed and put away, the slip of paper the only sign anything had ever been there.
The therapist they assigned her is Aran. They are also Xuan’s partner.
It’s a coincidence that they both got saddled with her, lucky for her and less so for them.
Aran has red hair like a bonfire and brown eyes so dark that Josie mistook them for black the first time they met. Everything about Aran is searing and kind all at once, a caustic sort of gentleness. Aran is unmistakable and unmissable, brutal and unrelenting in their kindness to Josie, and she feels herself drawn into their orbit as clearly as she is unable to stop it.
When Aran plops a wriggling ball of fur into Josie’s lap after one of their sessions, Josie’s first instinct is to question if Aran has lost their mind.
“You want me to do what?”
“Take care of him!” It’s a wonder Aran can say it with a straight face, much less twice.
Aran’s expression softens as they look back down at the puppy. “Someone left him in a box by the office, and you know we already have Sashimi.”
“Why me?” Josie repeats, even as she numbly, absently, pets its head. “I don’t know anything about dogs.”
“You can learn.”
Josie gapes, trying and failing to protest even as Aran tells her the vet’s diagnosis. The dog’s fur is velvet soft against her fingertips, its face so squashed and wrinkled that the eyes are barely visible, even open as they are. At best, it’s a facsimile of a dog, if one squints and unfocuses their eyes a bit.
He nips at her fingertips with needle-sharp teeth, and Josie yelps at the pinprick of pain, more from surprise than hurt. Aran still fusses, and Josie tunes it out almost without noticing.
Josie doesn’t soften as she continues to pet him—it’s been so long since she felt any kind of warmth that her heart has forgotten how. She takes the pug home anyway. Maybe she’ll pawn it off to one of the neighbors if he gets to be too much of a pain.
The dog is too much of a pain. Indisputably, and at all times.
Josie names him Nelson and lets him sleep in her bed.
Her grandparents are far from delighted when she brings Nelson home. Still, they are kinder people than either of them would admit, and something about Nelson’s smushed face is adorable enough for them to let him stick around.
(Josie almost snorts when she realizes that they’d done the same with her—she’d still had the black eye when they picked her up, after all.)
Josie would’ve thought that they only allowed it with reluctance, if she hadn’t caught Granny feeding him scraps of meat while cooking.
Some use their power every day, wouldn’t know how to live and survive without it, if only out of habit. Her best friend had been like that, playing with his powers like it was a pencil he could fiddle with.
She’d never used hers so much that she’d developed that kind of reliance on it. Yet she misses it with a burning ache deep in her chest, an ever-present tingling in her fingertips as it begs to be used.
But this is the price for what she’s done, for however long of her sentence is left—maybe forever.
Without so much as a warning, Aran asks her one day, “What are your plans regarding school?” Josie has no idea, doesn’t know if she’ll ever know what her plans are now. (She doesn’t have any plans at all, and doesn’t expect to have any ever again.)
Her grandfather keeps a garden, ostensibly so they can go grocery shopping less often, but mostly because he enjoys the work of it. He grows just about every kind of vegetable under the sun, and potatoes.
On the nights when she can’t sleep (there are a lot of those, before and after Nelson’s warm weight at her feet), she naps in her grandfather’s garden. On those nights, she’s surrounded by the living, by the few that might not bear her any ill will or disappointment. It’s easier to forget, out there, all that she’s done and all that she regrets. The scent of warm, wet earth fills her lungs, and something easier to bear begins to bloom between her ribs.
Sometimes, she cries, silent and helpless, because she’s made such a mess of everything that there doesn’t seem to be anyone alive who can fix it, least of all her. Sometimes, she even feels a bit better afterward.
Gramps watches from the porch as Josie patiently explains to Nelson that he needs to pee outside, okay? It doesn’t really seem like Nelson’s getting it, his head tilted at the angle it always is when he understands something is wrong, but not what or why. Josie doesn’t mind the exercise in futility, somehow.
When she finishes her speech, turning back to the house and beginning the trek up the pathway, Gramps’ expression twists. Josie would almost dare to suggest he’s trying not to show amusement, but that would require someone in her family to still know what joy is.
“Is that really how you’re going to train him?” he asks as she stops at the porch steps. Nelson trots up beside her, immediately choosing to sit at her heels. His tongue sticks out as he looks between the two, something delighted in his features even though there are no promised treats, no obvious reason to be happy.
Josie shrugs, crooked amusement in her eyes. “I wouldn’t know what else to do.”
Gramps’ breath billows in the chilly air as he sighs, and Josie begins to smirk.
The window looking out on the porch is suddenly thrown open, and Granny gives first her husband, then Josie, equally dark looks. “Put on a sweater or get inside,” she instructs flatly, sliding the window shut afterwards too quickly for either of them to respond.
Josie salutes anyway, uncaring that the shadow signifying her grandmother’s presence is already gone, and hustles inside past her grandfather. Nelson follows obediently, only pausing by Gramps for a moment in an obvious beg for head pats.
Josie only picks up the phone by coincidence. “Hello?”
The line is silent.
Josie pulls the phone away from her ear, heart stilling at the call number.
(She never would’ve picked up if she’d checked first.)
She puts the phone back to her ear. “Hold on, I’ll get—”
There’s a sharp breath, and the line goes dead. Josie’s left standing in the hallway, listening to the slow, droning beep through the line and the roaring in her ears.
A few shuffling steps echo down the corridor. “Josie? Who was it?”
She drops the phone back onto the receiver, and doesn’t even feel guilty for lying. Probably mostly because her grandmother will know anyway. “Spam.”
When Granny doesn’t push, Josie leaves, climbing up the stairs to her room with heavy, plodding steps. Nelson’s head rises as she enters, perking up and barking a delighted greeting from her bed. His shoulders slump a second later when he senses her mood. Josie falls onto her bed face-first, letting out a keen as her chest tightens and the tears come unbidden, burning hot and fierce.
A gentle, softer warmth settles in at her side, curled tight against her ribs.
Josie twists around, rearranging the two of them until she can bury her face in the soft fur of Nelson’s belly. He makes no protest, only snuffling at her cheek and licking whatever part of her skin he can reach.
There are days she doesn’t get out of bed. The world is too heavy, and a weight presses down on her chest, pushing her deeper into the trenches of her own sanity.
The faces of her crew won’t leave her mind, all their quirks and little habits burned into her memory forever, no matter how briefly she knew them.
She would hate herself for thinking of them instead of all the people who cared about her, but she doesn’t have the strength left to berate herself for that too.
Her crew had betrayed her and left her behind, had never looked back even as they abandoned her to take the fall. A vindictive, cruel part of her is smug knowing that they’ll be caught soon too, with all the information she’d given up. It’d ostensibly been for a lighter sentence, but she doesn’t mind knowing they won’t walk free for long.
The rest of her is just sad, because while she’d known none of them were good people, she’d liked them. She sees their faces, sometimes, while in the city. She catches glimpses of them in the supermarket, or in reflections off glass storefronts, but they’re never there when she looks twice, and Josie thinks she must be imagining it.
Besides, it’s not like there’s anyone she could tell. At least, not anyone who’d believe her, or care even if they did.
Weeks pass by in jolts and starts, skipping ahead and tracking back with no warning. It’s hard to have a sense of time when her day-to-day life doesn’t change much at all.
She catches the date on the calendar once, and it takes her a long moment to realize why she’s so off-put by it.
His birthday was a week ago. Her best friend’s birthday was a week ago, and she hadn’t noticed or cared. She still doesn’t really care.
The realization sends her back to bed, and she wonders why she does this to herself, why she can’t just leave it all behind the way she wants to. Josie knows what Aran would have to say about that, about time to mourn, but knowing it and feeling it are different things.
Her grandmother stands in the doorway, a silhouette cast in shadow by the dim hallway light. “When are you going to get tired of hurting?” she asks quietly, voice unreadable.
Josie remains silent, leaving her grandmother to wait for an answer that never comes.
“What are you going to do after this?”
Blinking in surprise, Josie shrugs. “I don’t know. I never really thought about it.”
Aran nods, not saying anything for a long moment. “You do have a future, you know.” When Josie doesn’t respond, they continue, “Everything you’re living through isn’t forever.”
“Doesn’t feel like it.”
“Maybe, but you of all people would know how time changes all things.”
Josie dredges up a bitter smirk, even as the reminder sends a jolt through her veins, a lightning shock of memory and desperate, useless hope for something she can’t have. She forces herself to pay attention.
“You don’t have to go to school. You can get certified without it, and that’ll help you get a job, and other things, later in life.”
“Who would ever hire me?” Josie mutters, wincing at Aran’s unimpressed look. “I know. I’ll try to be less self-deprecating.”
Aran doesn’t deign to respond. Instead they ask, after a long moment, “You’re not really doing anything, right?” When Josie nods in embarrassed confirmation, they just seem unsurprised, not disappointed. “Studying for the education qualification tests should help—give you less time to wallow.”
“I thought you said it was important to take time to heal,” grumbles Josie, not even really meaning it.
“There’s a difference between reflecting and ruminating—between taking time to heal and dwelling.”
Softening, Aran says, “How about, by our next meeting, you find some places where you could take the test? And start working on getting references about what material is on it?”
Josie just nods silently, somewhat sullenly.
And so it goes, ever onward until Aran sees fit to set Josie free for the day.
(Josie does her best, she really does. And when she doesn’t quite have all of the information she should next time, Aran forgives and encourages her in equal measure, ever warm and hopeful in a way Josie still isn’t.)
She hadn’t particularly wanted to see him again, honestly. There isn’t really anyone Josie would be interested in seeing again, but on the list from bad to worse, Markus is somewhere between Xuan and her mother. Not someone she can honestly talk to, but not the last person she’d ever want to see.
They find each other at the grocery store, so innocuous it could be a joke if it wasn’t so tragic. They make eye contact for a second too long in their shock, just long enough that she can’t walk away without pouring gasoline on yet another burning bridge.
“Oh, hey,” Markus says, breathless and stunned.
Josie forces herself to smile, knowing it must be awful to look at from the way the muscles in her face complain. She absently tugs her hoodie’s sleeve over the bangle on her wrist, though she’s pretty sure Markus is too surprised to notice regardless.
“Hey,” she replies, every other word she once knew fleeing her mind.
“Long time, no see. How’s it been?”
She can tell he’s running on adrenaline and doesn’t notice what he said until it’s already out and they’re frozen in painful, uncomfortable silence.
“Eh, nothing much,” Josie replies, realizing too late that her response doesn’t answer his question and grimaces. “How’ve you been?”
He shrugs, shuffling, and it’s odd because he was never awkward around her before. It pricks at her heart, but no more so than anything else has lately.
“Same old, same old. Nothing’s really changed around here.”
(And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? Nothing has changed, not even her, except now everyone knows what used to be a secret.)
Josie bobs her head politely and he starts to turn away, mumbling something about seeing her around even though they both know it would only happen by uncomfortable accident.
“Hey! Want to go get lunch?” she asks suddenly, desperately. It’s a pathetic question, but in this moment, she doesn’t want to let this thread slip away.
“In general, or with you?”
Josie softens. It’s a horrible joke, but she’s too relieved by its existence to care. She cracks another smile, or at least something that might resemble a real one some day. “Of course.”
He grins back, bright and easy.
They walk and talk as they make their way through their respective grocery lists, and Josie doesn’t quite feel hopeful. She’d been down that road too many times before, and she isn’t interested in walking it again with him. Still, it’s nice. Nostalgic, almost.
When he suggests the diner five minutes down the road, she only nods, trying not to give away the sudden tightness in her throat. With that, Markus launches back into conversation, unknowingly giving her the time she needs to relearn composure. Or maybe knowingly—he always had understood her as well as she understood him. Eventually, she can make herself speak again, can banter back, as affectionate as they’ve always been.
They barely pause even when they get to the restaurant, only taking a break to sit and order, before falling back into easy chatter out of instinct, if nothing else.
(They’re just used to loving each other, to knowing one another inside out.)
Eventually, they lapse into comfortable silence and, under the guise of spacing out as she eats, Josie studies him.
(He summons small objects to himself, mindlessly, carelessly, and it’s aching in its familiarity. Her fingertips prickle in response, her own power burning like a limb that’s fallen asleep. Josie ignores it.)
The exhaustion and tiredness that had shrouded him for months seems… maybe not gone, but lighter. He breathes more easily, and everything about him seems more cheerful. She’s glad for it because she loved him once, and the part of her that remembers him fondly wants Markus to be happy.
They were friends. Maybe they can be again, because all that had been there the first time still burns true.
Grief had changed him. Grief had changed her—mourning him and all they used to be had changed her more than anything else had in a long, long time.
Josie was not such a fair-weather friend that she had not been ready to stay, but she couldn’t shoulder all of his burdens alone. Trying to had nearly broken her, because he had trusted her completely at the expense of daring to rely on anyone else.
For all her shame, she had learned to forgive herself of this failure, at least. She couldn’t be the savior he seemed to think she was, no matter how much he denied it.
She doesn’t need him anymore, and doesn’t really want him either—not who he’s become, anyway. She wants the happiness of what they used to be, but she won’t find it here.
The thought slips out unbidden, and he glances up, brow furrowed. “I didn’t hear you.”
Josie smiles easily and waves him off. “Nothing important.”
They eventually pay and leave. No one gives them any mind because the truth is that Josie is wonderfully plain. She’s missable and, when her shoulders aren’t hunched up as they struggle to bear the weight of her shame, there’s nothing to draw anyone’s attention.
Outside, they say their goodbyes and he’s just about gone when she blurts out, not knowing what made her do it, “It wasn’t your fault.”
(It was the sense-memory of misery on his shoulders, even as he stands easier now, and the knowledge that they might never talk again. It has always been his pain that drives her to find the depths of herself and hate them even more.)
Markus looks back, eyes wide and stunned.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she repeats, needing him to know it. “There were a lot of reasons”—that’s a lie, there were only two, even if the rest is true—“but you were not one of them. If that makes you feel any better about the whole mess.”
He stares at her like she’s from another planet. Josie can feel her cheeks burning, but she refuses to look away or back down. In the end, he breaks first, gaze flitting away to the diner behind them. “Thanks?”
She’s tired—too tired for this—and forges on, even as it feels like her soul is slowly being eviscerated with the agony of continuing aloud. “I’m sorry that you were hurting, and I couldn’t be enough. I hope you’re happier now; I’m glad you seem to be.”
He gapes at her, stunned, probably wondering why she felt the need to ruin the mood and dredge it all up. She wishes she knew, too. Finally, he says, “I always thought of you as a friend. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you either.”
Josie smiles, and that lie comes easily.
It’s nice to have that part of her life closed and packed away, to have a kind of ending to it that she doesn’t have for anything else. It makes it easier to breathe when she finds her old phone on accident while cleaning out her desk. (It’s strange, still, to think of the things in the room as hers, but she’s trying. Aran would be proud, and her grandparents don’t seem to mind.)
She charges it on a whim, curious to look through old music and memories. But when she sees all the notifications on it, begging for an answer or an explanation, she throws it back into the desk and slams the drawer. (Aran would be less proud of this, but Josie’s never been the type of person to pick all the battles. That’s always been more her little sister’s style.)
She starts noticing them around town, forever out of the corner of her eye, nothing more concrete than specters. But the thing is, Josie hasn’t survived as long as she has by dismissing her instincts, and she’s seen them too many times to brush it off as her imagination anymore. She’s sure, now.
Josie almost tells Xuan when they’re having their regular monthly meeting, but then she sees another one somewhere in the park behind him and doesn’t say a word. Even if he believes her and cares enough to do anything, she doesn’t want him hurt because he tried to help her.
He still notices, because it’s his job, because he knows her well enough to pick up on it. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she replies, watching as his eyes narrow.
Instead of probing, he asks, “Have you been sleeping well?”
“You’re my inquisitor, not my therapist.” Josie rolls her eyes, too experienced to flinch when his jaw sets at her response.
“No, that’s Aran,” Xuan agrees gamely, even as his expression shifts to something unreadable and cold.
(She can’t be responsible for the pain of yet another person she cares about, even if it means pushing him away, too.)
Living with the fear, the knowledge, of being hunted is somehow easier than it used to be. Josie has so much more to lose now, but what she does have has made her fearless.
Besides, it’s hard to be afraid of anything as she watches Nelson trot up to her grandma to beg for pats, then race outside to do the same with her grandpa, before faithfully coming back to Josie with adoring eyes.
Josie stomps outside in rain boots to meet Liana, bowling her way through the swamp that their grandparents’ front yard has become until she hits the gravel driveway. Her sister leans against the side of their mom’s truck, narrowed eyes watching Josie.
The morning sunlight casts Liana in light and shadow, throwing her features in sharp relief. If she was anyone else, Josie probably would’ve been intimidated by the sheer coldness in that gaze.
Josie comes to a stop a couple feet away from her, raising an eyebrow in question.
“Why are you here?” Liana asks, tone unreadable.
“Is there somewhere else I should be instead?”
Snorting, Liana shrugs casually. “I don’t know—prison, maybe?” Josie’s jaw drops and, for a moment, her sister almost looks guilty. Then Liana rallies, pushing herself off the truck to stand. “Why do you think you get to come back here?”
“When’d you get so vicious?” Josie replies, scrubbing a hand down her face.
Liana’s laughter is almost hysterical. “I was never mean to you because I get no satisfaction from hurting the people around me.” Unlike you is left unsaid, but not unheard.
“Why are you here? What do you want?”
Liana grins, vicious and brutal—a hunter’s wicked smirk. “You were so normal before. What made you go off the rails? Why do you think you don’t even have to apologize?”
Josie’s never been able to read her little sister, not really. She knows that Liana’s friends know her better than Josie ever has—maybe ever will, now. (Liana’s always been able to see right through her, through their mom and dad and everyone else, because she’d cared enough to study them until they were all open books to her, no matter how much they tried to hide.)
“I didn’t think it’d matter to anyone whether I apologized or not.”
“So, you didn’t even bother to try?”
“It’s called giving people space!”
Liana is disgusted. “You’re a coward, Josie. You always have been, and you still are.”
“Oh, like you’re so brave?” (Josie hates herself for asking that, for wondering what Liana would know about being brave when Liana was everyone’s favorite, always always always, smarter and kinder and so much easier to deal with than Josie, the lifelong troublemaker.)
Liana takes one, two, three steps forward, until she’s only an arm’s length away, and Josie distantly wonders if she’s going to get punched today. “Name one time when I did anything to make you, or Mom, or Dad, or anyone else happy.” At Josie’s stunned silence, she growls out, “I do things for people because I love them, but I’m exactly who I want to be, while you killed yourself rebelling because you wanted attention.”
“It wasn’t for attention.” Josie’s voice is ice-cold and she instantly regrets that it’s come to this, to practically slapping her baby sister across the face. “It wasn’t anything that stupid.”
“Oh, so what was it? Because you were alone and unhappy with yourself, didn’t know how to stop thinking about it, and refused to talk about it with anyone? Because you just wanted people to stop brushing you off, and at least this made you dangerous and someone worth listening to? Someone worth respecting?”
Damn it. Josie grits her teeth. “You don’t know what it’s like!”
“I know exactly what it’s like! I would’ve been there for you if you had just let me, if you trusted me instead of treating me like I don’t know anything. I would’ve understood.” Anger blooms across her face in red streaks, quickly turning her features into a blotchy mess.
Absently, Josie wonders if this is what Liana was thinking all the times she stoically continued eating through fights over the dinner table, unflinching from the yelling none of them knew how to fix.
“You were so caught up in your own misery that you refused to see the rest of us, trying and willing to help you. You were destroying Mom and Dad long before you ran away.”
Tears burn at Josie’s eyes and, despite herself, she reaches for Liana’s shoulder. Her little sister flinches away, brown eyes bright. Liana shifts and Josie stumbles back, arm thrown up to protect herself as condor wings buffet wind and grit in her face.
The sky fractures as she tilts her head back, watching Liana shoot into the air as gracefully as any real bird, wings beating desperately as she hurtles towards the cliffs.
Josie doesn’t know how long she stays out there, doesn’t know how long she spends biting back sobs before they break free anyway.
(No one comes out to give her a hug, to ply her into talking, and Josie’s reminded of how different it used to be. There’s no one left to even push away now.)
The sun is setting as Liana comes back, her eyes red and puffy but her shoulders easy with relief. She stops at the foot of the truck bed, arms crossed over her chest. “Get out.”
(Josie’s envious of the way that crying makes Liana feel better afterwards—it always just makes Josie feel worse.)
Josie doesn’t respond, and Liana rolls her eyes. “Why can’t you apologize? Do you not regret it?”
“Of course I do.”
She raises an eyebrow and Josie wonders when she learned now.
“I don’t think there’s a point to apologizing when we all know it’s not nearly enough. It’s just going to hurt everyone—”
“It could also give closure,” Liana points out, and Josie bites her lip.
“Are you so desperate to move on that closure from me is all you want?”
“Move on from the hurt, not from you,” Liana says, honest and blunt even in her affection. She learned it from their parents, while Josie skipped that just like everything else. Shaking her head, Liana runs a hand through her hair. “You don’t get it at all, do you? I’m not here because I hate you—I don’t know if I ever could. I think you’re an idiot, but of all the issues someone could have, that matters less to me than the others.”
“You don’t hate me?” The open, unintended vulnerability in her own voice makes Josie want to gag.
Liana scoffs. “I don’t hate anyone in our family, no matter how they’ve hurt me. I’m not capable of it, though I’m sure it’d make my life easier. I hate that you’ve hurt everyone, but I don’t hate you.”
Josie hops down from the truck bed, grimacing at the momentary realization that she’s still the short one. Liana nudges her towards their grandparents’ house, saying, “You haven’t eaten all day, have you?”
“You’re driving back?”
“It’s too far to fly,” Liana replies, shrugging as she moves towards the driver-side door.
“Can you even see over the steering wheel?”
Her little sister makes a point of looking down at her. Mischief brightens her eyes, and Josie knows what she’ll say before Liana ever even opens her mouth. “I don’t know, can you?”
Liana doesn’t hug her before getting in the car, and Josie won’t pretend there’s no sting there, but there’s an understanding now. It’s a start she can live with.
“Why’d you come out here today?” Josie asks, leaning through the window as Liana buckles herself in.
Liana doesn’t look at her as she answers. The drone of the engine starting almost drowns out her words. “Anniversaries remind me to do things.”
Josie is too startled to say anything, and Liana drives away without another word when Josie steps back. Liana does stick a hand out the window and wave, though, and Josie waves too until the truck has rumbled out of sight.
“Do you ever talk to your parents?”
Josie lets out a long breath, sagging into her seat. It is oddly comfortable, more so than she would’ve expected before she started these meetings. She tilts her head back over the top of the chair, staring up at the ceiling and avoiding Aran’s gentle gaze.
“My mom called my grandparents.”
When she doesn’t say anything more, Aran asks, “When was this?”
“About a month or two ago, maybe,” Josie says, gesturing vaguely. “I picked up because everyone was busy, and I barely got a greeting in before she hung up on me.”
Aran knows her well enough to wait, sensing that there’s more Josie needs to say, even if she doesn’t particularly want to.
“My sister came and yelled at me. Told me that I should actually apologize and face everything I’ve done.”
“Do you regret what you’ve done?”
She shrugs. “I do.”
“Do you want to apologize for it?”
“Yeah.” At Aran’s raised eyebrow, Josie sighs in exasperation. “Who would forgive me? I don’t deserve it.”
“You won’t know unless you ask,” Aran points out, so reasonable that Josie wants to cry.
Instead, she dryly says, “Your optimism is the stuff of legends.”
Aran just gives her a sunny grin.
Josie didn’t mean to help Gramps in the garden—it wasn’t her intention and she didn’t think it’d be anything that mattered. Still, she wasn’t heartless enough to make the old man do all the weeding alone.
It is nice, somehow, to be covered head to toe in dirt and sweat at the end of the day, to not have to think quite so much while she is working. It is steadying in a way she never thought she could feel. It’s the same whenever she cleans for Granny, as long as she’s not finding memories better left buried.
Gramps never asks her why she keeps working with him, only guides her with gruff gentleness and lets her do everything she can, even when he doesn’t really need the help.
It’s good work. It’s looking back at her day and knowing she’d accomplished something, even helped someone, with her own two hands.
Xuan doesn’t quite laugh when she tells him that she picked up cleaning as a hobby, but he is definitely amused. His expression twitches into what passes for a smile with him, and Josie sees it even when he directs the expression at Sashimi instead. All he says, though, is, “Good.”
“I like painting, too.”
An eyebrow rises. “Painting?”
“I used to be into art as a kid. I found some of my old supplies in the closet, the other day, and well…”
“While cleaning?” he asks, dry as dust.
“Yeah, while cleaning.”
His expression twitches again, and Josie smiles in return. They still haven’t talked about the day she snapped at him, but they’re edging back to warmth, slowly but surely.
They find her later, just like she knew they would. At least they had the mercy to pick a time when Nelson wasn’t with her, on a day she had left him at home because it was too cold for him to brave the wind on the clifftops.
As Wu’s blast sends her flying over the edge, Josie catches a glimpse of the steel gray waters far below before everything goes dark. The smell of salt and wind is more like her idea of home than anything else has ever been.
Somehow, she’s not afraid.
The water is achingly cold, terrifying and powerful as it shoves her under. Salt burns her eyes and glacial currents freeze her bones to ice, threatening to numb her entirely, but Josie hasn’t survived this long to die now.
She kicks upwards, reaching for the sky.
She wakes to a cold nose against her cheek, wet fur brushing her face. Sensing awareness, the touch immediately escalates into excited licking, and suddenly Josie is laughing at the tickling sensation. Rolling away, she opens her eyes to see Nelson on the sandy beach beside her, eyes bright and tail wagging so hard his whole body shakes as he bounds towards her. Josie catches him as he leaps, barely noticing—and caring even less about—the pained groan her ribs make at the sudden extra weight.
“Hey, how’re you?” she coos, burying her face in his side as he wriggles around, desperate to lick every inch of her possible.
Eventually, she looks up, relieved to see that the stretch of beach they’re on is deserted. From the shape of the overhanging cliffs, Josie wouldn’t be surprised if the two of them were invisible from everywhere but the ocean ahead of them.
The realization that the bangle that’d marked her wrist, that had branded her a criminal for so many months, is gone slams into her as fiercely as a roaring hurricane. It comes as she’s rubbing her fingers through Nelson’s fur, desperately trying to warm him up after he’d started shivering. Reaching out, stunned despite herself, Josie pushes her power through her fingertips. Pushes and pushes until she can sense the way Nelson’s fur used to be that morning, soft and dry and warm instead of sand-crusted and soaked. She hooks her fingers into the memory and yanks, reveling in the feeling as Nelson’s short fur fluffs up like someone took a hairdryer to him. Sand and salt shower to the ground, while Nelson looks as shocked as a dog possibly could.
Laughing, Josie grins, patting herself down until her clothes and hair are as dry as can be managed. It isn’t perfect, because skin is so much harder than fabric or fur, but it’s better.
Somewhere in the desperate swim for survival, she’d kicked off her shoes. The ground is rough, but Josie merely rolls up her jeans and starts walking, Nelson at her heels. He must’ve made it down here somehow, and however thorny the path might be, they would make it back to the clifftop.
The team isn’t waiting for Josie, naïvely assuming that getting thrown off a cliff would be enough to kill her. She whistles for Nelson to follow from where he’d gotten distracted sniffing at a bush, breaking into a sprint and laughing as he immediately abandons his quarry to chase after her as fast as his stubby legs can carry him.
Her grandparents aren’t home when she gets back, but that’s fine—for the best, actually, because she knows they’re safe at their weekly knitting club.
Grabbing her boots and a jacket, Josie doesn’t bother with anything else, zipping Nelson into the space between the coat and her chest before setting out again.
Her power is finally free, and it itches to be used. Josie has to consciously restrain it from sinking into the world around them as she walks, from reviving long-dead flowers by the side of the road into their bloom at the height of summer. Maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s just him still being relieved to see her again, but Nelson snuggles closer the longer she walks, licking her neck.
(She gives in just a bit, crouching down and trailing her fingers against the road’s tarmac, letting it regrow to what it’d once been, so long ago when it was first paved. At least she can claim she’d only used her powers in self defense and community service, if anyone cares to ask.)
The sun sets as she walks, setting the sky alight in a war-banner blaze of flames. Even as the wind howls across the open grasslands, Josie feels a little bolder, a little braver, like every step isn’t one closer to her inevitable conclusion but to some kind of peace she can live with.
She walks toward the city through quaint suburbs, peaceful and pretty for all that they are uniform. Josie would never choose it, and is glad her grandparents hadn’t, but she can see why someone else would.
Xuan and Aran don’t live there, but in the suburb-city transition with both night noise and backyards. Their home is squashed between a corner store and a fortune teller’s shop, where weak neon signs cast a hazy glow on everything, and windchimes ring in the distance.
She doesn’t quite feel like she’s there at all, but reality filters in more and more as she climbs up the ramp to their front door.
Even as he obeys, Nelson whines when Josie orders him to sit and stay on the porch. Giving in, if only momentarily, she crouches down and pats the top of his head, taking care to rub his ears one last time before whispering, “Good boy, best boy.”
Tearing her eyes away, she takes a running leap off the porch. Her boots make a solid thump as she lands, steady and calming in their familiarity, yet Josie freezes at a familiar voice.
Xuan sounds exhausted, and she fights the urge to apologize. “Really, Josie? You’d leave even him?”
Blinking furiously, Josie forces herself to breathe. “I have to. I won’t let him get hurt.”
“Wouldn’t everyone be safe if you just served out your time?”
Xuan won’t plead. He’s only asking, and that somehow makes it easier to tell the truth. “They’re after me,” Josie says, twisting on her heel to face him.
Xuan’s expression changes instantly. “Your old team?”
Josie nods once, sharply. “They already tried to kill me earlier today.”
She sees the way he finally takes in the sight of her, eyes widening slightly at the salt and sand in her hair. “Did you even consider calling it in?” he asks dryly.
Josie shrugs, helpless. “Who would believe me?”
She meets his eyes, heart twisting at the genuine care she sees in them. I know, she thinks. I knew. She says, instead, “You’re just one person.”
“And you’re not?”
“I know what I’m doing.” It’s not true, but she’s done dragging people down with her.
Xuan leans back in his wheelchair. “In your old life, maybe. But you’re not alone anymore, Josie.”
Throwing her hands up in frustration, Josie lets the last of her patience snap and bites back, almost growling, as she says, “The last time I thought I could trust people, I was left for dead and arrested, so forgive me for not assuming anyone would be inclined to help me. Not after I ruined my life and theirs too.” Sensing her anger, her fear, Nelson stands up, anxiously shuffling in place as he tries to decide whether to go to Josie or follow her earlier command.
Xuan seems to accept that, taking it in with a slow nod. “What about your grandparents?”
Worry pools in her stomach, but she refuses to let it show. “They’re in their seventies, and have nothing to do with this. The team won’t bother with them.”
Xuan’s expression answers for him. Suddenly, Josie is turning away, fighting tears, because she knows it’s hopeless and despite everything, she doesn’t want to die. She doesn’t want anyone in danger, not on her behalf or at all. She wants to live so badly that it hurts, and his genuine sympathy, his worry and kindness and need to help, break through every wall and shred of determination she thought she had. Scrubbing a hand over her face, she sucks in a breath, flinching back when she looks up again to see Xuan has moved down to the end of the ramp, only a couple feet away from her.
He doesn’t bat an eye, merely stating flatly, “There are tissues in the bathroom.”
She takes in another shuddering breath, automatically picking up Nelson when he follows Xuan and leans against her leg. Nelson’s eyes are wide and doleful as he looks up at her, almost like he’s about to cry, and Josie kisses his forehead because she can’t be responsible for his pain too. Her voice is thin and weak as she says, “Thank you.”
“You’re only seventeen,” Xuan replies, already turning around and rolling himself up the ramp back into his house. “You haven’t lived enough life to ruin it yet.”
Josie stares after him for a moment, eyes wide, until Nelson licks her chin and she jolts, haltingly following Xuan.
Aran is already in the kitchen when Josie comes inside, immediately gentling as they look at her. “Tea or hot chocolate?”
Josie almost replies, “Coffee,” and ruins the moment’s soft, rounded edges again, but she’s tired of shattering what’s left of her heart.
“Tea, please,” she murmurs instead, pretending not to notice Xuan’s pointed look at Aran, or the way he only leaves after she sits down at their small kitchen table. The wooden surface is slippery-smooth under her fingertips, polished to a shine, and Xuan’s voice is a low rumble in the background as he talks to someone on the phone.
When Xuan comes back, Josie has buried her head in her arms, Nelson a warm weight where he sits on her left foot. She can’t see Xuan, but it’s easy to imagine the curious (maybe even worried, if she bothers to hope enough) look he’d give Aran.
There’s a tap on the table by her elbow, and Josie raises her head. She’d thought she was too tired to feel much of anything, but looking at Xuan’s creased expression, she realizes that explanation doesn’t feel quite right.
“Sa’d is going to find your grandparents.”
Sa’d can whistle motion into existence. A weight lifts from Josie’s shoulders, though she knows Granny would frown at her concern. Sa’d is powerful and honest—he’s never liked or trusted her, but he will keep her grandparents safe. He won’t punish them for her mistakes.
“Rackham and Hejia are coming over in case they attack again, and to take your statement.”
Xuan gives her a flat look, while Aran mutters from somewhere deeper in the kitchen as they putter around, “You need to let some optimism into your life, Josie.”
She can’t help but crack a smile at that. It’s weak and barely there, but it’s something.
By the time the two inquisitors arrive, Josie still doesn’t quite feel human, or have any answers for them, but she can make an attempt at seeming functional, at least.
“Why did you come here?” Rackham asks, flatly curious.
“I was going to leave Nelson and run.”
“Not call us?” He’s deliberately radiating mildness, and Josie wonders what kind of answer she could give that wouldn’t get her in trouble or make her look stupid.
She still doesn’t know what to say when Xuan gives her a pointed look, but she doesn’t bother to lie. “I didn’t think you’d believe me. Or care.”
Hejia snorts from where she stands guard in the kitchen doorway, unabashedly listening in. “You’re a dumb kid, sometimes.”
“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Josie agrees gamely.
That startles a laugh out of Hejia and makes Rackham chuckle even as he rolls his eyes.
Josie’s not really sure what they’re looking for, if they’re killing time or working through bureaucracy, because she knows Xuan probably told them everything already. (It’s odd being a witness instead of a criminal now, though she doubts they see a difference.)
She leans her head against the wall at her side and lets herself doze, waiting for the scratching of Rackham’s pen to fade away, when the tension unexpectedly ratchets upwards. She blinks awake to see Rackham and Hejia exchanging glances. Suddenly, Hejia is silently moving away, walking down the hallway to the front door. Rackham gestures for Josie to get under the table, but then Hejia strides back into the room, expression wry.
“Xuan took care of it,” she says, vaguely amused, but like she thinks she shouldn’t be. “They were sneaking in through the living room window.”
Rackham snorts. “How many?”
“Three,” Hejia replies, turning to Josie even as the teenager lunges across the table and drags Rackham to the floor. There’s a sharp pop and the tinkle of shattering glass, then Hejia fires back, and the remnants of Xuan and Aran’s kitchen window are destroyed by her shadow spikes.
A sharp gasp and a yelp of pain come from outside as Josie sprints to the back door, a familiar rush tingling in her fingertips as she bursts onto the stoop. Adrenaline sends her pulse racing, heartbeat pounding in her ears. Hejia is following her, but Josie doesn’t care to wait.
Rose had snapped around to aim at her the second Josie appeared, but she’s a moment too late, and a moment is all Josie needs. Grabbing the muzzle of the gun, Josie shoves it up and out of the way, melted metal already flooding the barrel and dripping onto the patio.
Josie hasn’t survived by pausing to catch her breath, and she surges forward relentlessly, impatient and exhausted. Her fist crashes into Rose’s cheek, sending the young woman falling to the ground as Hejia’s living shadows catch Wu in a tangle of darkness. A moment later, another web rises out of the night and winds itself around Rose too, and Josie finally lets her shoulders drop for the first time in what feels like years.
Rackham seems amused as he steps out into the backyard, followed by the roll of Xuan’s wheelchair and Aran’s unafraid footsteps. “Well, that’s one way to take care of a problem.”
Glancing up at the pair in the doorway, Josie gestures at the mess of a gun on the ground. She ignores Hejia’s and Rackham’s bewildered stares, and says quietly, “Sorry about the patio. I know you just got it redone.”
Aran shrugs, exchanging a tired glance with Xuan. “Eh, we didn’t like it too much anyway. My mother picked it out.”
Josie smiles, the expression turning into a grin as Nelson pokes his head out of the doorway, running to her even as the sirens’ wails grow louder. At their feet, Rose and Wu don’t bother to struggle, sending her death glares instead. Neither of them say anything, but Josie finds she’s glad for it.
She doesn’t have anything to say to them, either.
She’s texting Liana when Xuan rolls up to her, Sashimi strolling primly at his side. Putting her phone away, Josie automatically crouches to pet the cat, a smile on her face as Sashimi presses her forehead against Josie’s palm and purrs softly.
Josie doesn’t look at Xuan when he tells her the news, flat and unemotional, though she knows that’s not all he really feels. She glances up, eyes wide with shock and something between relief and joy as he tells her that they got her power-restriction time commuted. The details buzz past her ears, something about community service and an extended probation in exchange, about how she could do more good that way and needed her power for self-defense, but none of it really matters.
Josie nearly hugs Xuan, knowing it must have been his doing, but he’s softened around the edges and she doesn’t want to ruin that by making him uncomfortable. Instead, she grins, knowing she must look like a delighted fool and not at all caring. His returning smile isn’t quite as wild, but it’s real, and it warms her heart all the same.
The place where Josie goes for her education certification is so far away that even she can’t walk it. Gramps drives her instead, his car a small sedan that’s just old enough to be visibly out of date. Granny stays home. Maybe she could tell that Josie was terrified enough on her own without her grandmother’s fears and hopes compounding it.
(It feels silly that this is the only thing in a long time that’s made her hands this clammy. Aran says it’s normal and, as usual, Josie can only do her best to believe them.)
The old high school is rather pathetic: time has left the pale blue lockers stained, and the floor and ceiling tiles are cracked and bleeding with age. Josie pities the students who come here every day, inhaling mold and asbestos and whatever else lives in the walls of this mess.
(She could fix it all in a couple months, and maybe that could even be an option someday. In the back of her mind, she lets herself wish for the possibility.)
As she hunts down the room where her testing will be, Josie wonders at the lack of pain being here brings her. School hadn’t been… awful for her, exactly, but it hadn’t been pleasant. It hadn’t been the main reason, but it had contributed to everything she’d become.
And yet, it’s only a hallway. And the classroom is only a classroom. There are no shockwaves of memory or flashbacks to her own days of being in school, and nothing particularly distracts her as she sits through the tests and painstakingly does her best.
She doesn’t know if her best was good enough, or remember how to gauge whether she did well. Josie worries about it but, as she steps out into the fresh air again and spots Gramps waiting in his car, she is at peace with not knowing, with waiting to find out.
As she slides into the seat, Gramps gives her a wry smile, quirked and gruff the way his smiles always are. Josie smiles back, just as crooked, and finds she is hopeful.
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2022 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the full version of this piece.