As a kid, Alicia had thought there was no better story than the one about Arthur, the boy who’d become a king through an accident, pulling a sword from a stone that had made him a legend.
She and Nick had sat in the bed, eyes wide and attention focused only on their mom and her mouth as she’d read from the worn book – brown cover tattered, pages rasping (fingers on sandpaper) as Madison had turned them, bedtime stretching from now, guys to okay, just one more chapter.
Their dad had read it to them once, when mom had been at school late, unable to make it home because of a weird tropical system that had battered their home in LA like storms they’d only read about in places like Seattle or New Orleans. It had been strange to hear Arthur’s voice in Dad’s, to hear Merlin talk about magic or learning to fight without the inflections mom always used. But Alicia had been okay with it; had been more than okay, actually, as they never saw their Dad. Or when they did, he was quiet and distracted or most of the time just not there.
But the next night it had been mom again. After time had passed she got used to it always being mom.
Alicia had a copy of the Steinbeck in her room, pulling it out upon occasion, trying to decide if she still loved it. After Nick had vanished maybe the second time, she’d shoved the book under her bed, and had left it there, unable to see it physically without white hot rage filling her brain with buzzing, shitty thoughts.
Or thoughts of how they’d played and played knights and squires and those thoughts were almost worse than the I hate him that circled round and round until she was sick at her stomach.
When Nick had started having his troubles (…troubles. Yeah.), Alicia would remember those nights sitting with her brother in the bed, listening to their mom reading the Arthur (she loved T. H. White too, but this one was her favorite) and tried to think about that person and who Nick had been, versus this one that was irritable, shaky, unpredictable, skinny and dirty and fuck, even now (especially now) he’s just not Nick anymore.
School can be hard. She misses the way he was, the way she’d been able to ask him things and reference teachers they’d both had and she remembers how’d they’d laugh about – the art teacher, Ms. Klein, and her you must try harder, children, art is not easy - how’d they’d laugh about whatever they could, because by that time it was just Alicia and Nick against Mom and her new boyfriend, his face so earnest, his care and words so pathetic and I want us to be a real family and his insistence that his own son would make them realize he wasn’t such a bad guy.
Alicia doesn’t hate Travis, but Travis is too Travis and now that Nick isn’t around regularly, it’s almost like it’s just her and she doesn’t know how she can do that.
On a particularly sunny day, the third day since Nick’s been missing (for what, the fourth time?), Alicia’s at the library at school, half-heartedly looking through the books on Italian history and trying to come up with a way to get out of writing her paper that’s due in the next two days that she hasn’t started yet. College is a done deal, and with all the shit going on with her family (and what’s with all the sick kids skipping or not coming in? She’d better not catch anything), she’s not really interested in writing…which makes her sad. She frowns and pulls her hair back, twisting it into a bun that sits askew on the top of her head.
Her phone keeps going off; it’s mom most of the time (Travis once), updating her with any info she’s been getting (Intel, whatever, mom) in reference to where her brother might be.
Alicia doesn’t care. She's over it, she’s over Nick, and she knows where Nick might be (most likely is), and she’s not going to tell her mom or Travis because she doesn’t damn well care. Nick abandoned her, left her to deal with her mom (and Travis) on her own, and that’s just something she can’t forgive him for. Aside from the fact that every time - this is the last time, Alicia, I swear.
She twists her mouth, a sour taste invading the back of her throat.
The books aren’t helping and she mutes her phone and shoves past the few people coming in through the library doors, her hands slapping the wood, the handles hitting the wall with a crack that almost has her feeling guilty for the violence of it.
Almost, but not really. Good girl, Alicia, never make a sound.
The steam in the shower feels great and for two seconds Alicia is quiet and alone and then her mom beats on the door and opens it and Jesus, mom pops out before Alicia can shut her mouth and the phone rings and it’s about (of course) Nick and they’ve found him.
Alicia puts on clothing, agonizingly slowly, fuck Nick, how many times will this be? And she gets in the car with her mom and Travis, and when they get to the hospital and mom kicks the cops out of Nick’s room, Alicia feels like she needs to say something (maybe tell him about all the kids that have been sick, and the weird way people are acting in class, and about her class schedule at Berkley that she’s already started planning just to stop thinking about other stuff and how super close mom and Travis have been and how’s she so fucking mad at him), but she keeps mute and lets mom talk to Nick and the doctor until she can’t stand it anymore.
The hallway is bustling but she finds it distracting. Travis is floundering, pacing back and forth, and she smiles a brilliantly empty smile at him.
“Happy you moved in?”
Something’s tight in her chest (she’d better not be getting sick, damn hospital or whatever flu is going around that has people acting weird), and she coughs, a dry yet sticky sound and she rubs at the place between her breasts, her stomach kicking up acid she can taste.
Yon castle looks like it needs protecting!
Lead on, sir knight! I will follow thee and keep your sword at the ready.
She jerks her head, the memory of playing with Nick trickling away as mom tells her to come on and she pops the ear buds back in, not willing to think about childhood or the skinny, wasted thing in the bed that was/is her brother.
48 hours later, she’s back at the hospital.
She’s got a minute alone with Nick, and twisting her lips, she takes up the cup of jello there and sits on his bed, his sober behavior a bit like he was and she smiles and feeds him the jello and tries to make sure he understands he’s not the bastard son and she’s not perfect and things will be “better.”
The story he tells her about what he saw – Alicia tries to believe him. With the shit going on at school and the stories she’s been seeing on youtube and the news – well. But this is Nick and she’s just not sure but she smiles (forced) and feeds him and nods.
When it’s time to go back to school, she’s thankful.
She flips the butterfly knife back and forth in her hands, a relatively new, nervous habit. The sun’s out and the nondescript land around the house they’ve taken over is brown (did the grass get infected too?) as is the rest of the neighborhood – cracked sidewalks and broken glass and everything’s just dried up. Including the people they’ve seen (herself too – she is empty and crispy and it hurts, really) and Alicia shakes her head and finishes unpacking the bag she’s brought with her from Mexico.
A can opener, a sweater and two pairs of underwear, socks, and some iodine tablets she’d found at the abandoned village/colony next to where they’d found that school bus and that man (mom had been so sure Nick had been there). And all the dead, of course. No Nick, though. She clenches her jaw despite the shift in her thinking about her brother; he’s gone and that’s what he’s chosen, and she’s there and he’s not and stop thinking about it.
Night comes and she sets up the perimeter with the rusty wire they carry with them, a small protection but the dead can get caught in it and wake them with their tripping. This house is empty save for stripped beds and a non-functioning stove, and after heating their dinner of canned beans and stewed tomatoes over a fire mom’s built, Alicia volunteers for first watch and for once, her mom and Travis agree.
Alicia’s having a hard time meeting Travis’ eyes lately; the knife is in her hands again once she’s outside and the flipping back and forth reminds her of Andres and what she’d done to – well.
She would do it again.
She’s mom’s child, and Travis’ friend, and Nick’s… Nick has chosen another path.
She wants to think she’s still his sister, and she knows biologically she is, but after seeing him for the last time outside of the Abigail farm, she didn’t think she could be what she’d been anymore.
I’m your child, too.
I’m your sister, Nick. We’re in this together.
It’ll be different this time, Alicia. I swear it.
She’s lost almost all vestiges of what she used to be. Really, the girl she is now (the one that had used a dull knife to save Travis’ life) would be a complete stranger to the one that she’d been in school, caring about college, and Matt, and what she wore the next day, and what food she’d be eating, and what book she might be reading the next day.
She can’t even cry anymore. Not for that girl, who’d always known that something wasn’t quite right. Something wasn’t right about a world that could take her brother from her, easy peasy lemon-squeezy (says dad’s voice, soft smile in his words) and turn everyone viable into monsters and leave the crazy ones behind and in charge.
She examines the knife in her hand, and when it’s 1am, she goes and wakes Travis, and he takes over for her, touching her shoulder, lightly and with trembling fingers she chooses to not feel.
She sticks her head into the room her mom has chosen to sleep in, making sure Maddie is actually sleeping, and when Alicia can see her mom’s out (hopefully after not taking too much dissolute time to think about how to find Nick still) she continues to the room where she’s left her bag.
She picks it up to move it out of the way of her laying down, and it’s heavier than it should be, and she upends it and a book falls out and she starts, her heart full and empty at once, beating its autonomic beat. She scrapes her hair back off her face and picks the old, crinkly thing up in her lose grip, and stares at the knights that decorate the cover.
I know what you think.
What’s that, bro? What do I think?
That you’re perfect and I’m not.
The tiny battery powered lamp next to her sleeping bag flickers, and she rolls her mouth inward and after a (never-ending, breath stealing, head aching, forever) moment she tosses the book into the dark corner of the room, not realizing she’s brought it with her.
Or maybe mom had put it in her bag. Or maybe Travis. That would be more like it.
She curls on her side and turns off the lamp, knife at the ready, boots on in case they have to get up and leave fast. The wind hits the rusted, rain damaged metal of the roof and it sings, moaning and making fun of her and her tiny hope that she’s still got Nick out there, somewhere. Even though she doesn’t want to think it. Even though she hates him, even though he’s abandoned them all, even though he’s always abandoned them.
She misses him.
Maybe. Maybe things don’t have to be before, or after, or one way or another. Maybe they can be a different way, a way Nick and she had never seen possible, which makes her angry and her temples throb, and she wonders with her eyes burning just how different things might have been had they – had she – been able to exercise a different thought route. Maybe things can just be –
She closes her eyes, and if her mom wants to talk about Nick again in the morning, she won’t stop her. She won’t stop her, but. Mom is so naive. And she always will be, and yet, when mom talks about Nick now, there's something Alicia sees that scares her. Something in her mom's eyes that is fractured and Alicia tries to ignore it, because the last time she'd seen that look was right after her dad - hers and Nick's dad - had died.
When she packs up her stuff the next morning after agreeing with her mom to cover a five-mile radius around the neighborhood (the border is close, and they’ve seen helicopters, and mom wants to check it out, Travis agreeing) just in case that’s where Nick went (what do I think, bro?), she leaves the copy of Steinbeck’s Arthur in the corner where she’d pitched it the night before, face down and closed.