Karl wouldn't say it to anybody, but once in a while there are times he wishes he was back on the island. Whenever the bad memories decide to lie low in the corners of his mind, he finds himself missing the little things: bright stars, the way the air smelled. Every morning he wakes up wondering why he can't hear the ocean, and he has a feeling that might not change no matter how long he lives in this world that he remembers from his early childhood.
He's been throwing himself into his job at the shipyard or into keeping in touch with the old crowd, or spending time with the new one. Still, there are moments. Today he found himself surprised that he couldn't just run into Sawyer and hash out whether Nick Carraway is really a necessary character, or what it is that he sees in Gatsby. It's strange being able to read the books Sawyer could only complain about not having on the island: The Grapes of Wrath, Exodus, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
He hears the door to his apartment being opened and then shut and latched, but he doesn't bother getting up. He's pleasantly sore after a day of work and staying fit for it, and right now his bed is much too comfortable. He can't complain about having a bed again.
There's a sound he's come to recognize as Alex fumbling with her cell phone, and then her side of a conversation from by the door: “Hi, it's me... I just got in. I'm going to stay the night... Don't worry, I locked it. And I had dinner and everything... Busy. Fine. How was yours? ...I'll probably take the Santa Catalina ferry back in the afternoon. I'll call before then... I will – you take care of yourself! ... Okay, I will... I love you too. Bye.” Karl hears the phone snap closed and what he knows is a backpack full of textbooks set down, and then Alex comes into the room. “I thought you read that one already,” she says, after they've exchanged hellos, indicating his book.
“I wanted to read it again.” He decides against saying Old habits die hard and sets the book on his bedside table. “Come on over.”
She bends to give him a quick kiss. “My mother says hi. And you're invited over this weekend. It's been forever since you visited.”
“What, three weeks?”
“Something like that.” She settles herself on top of the duvet and kisses him properly. “How are you doing?”
“I'm fine,” he says, before he kisses her back. “I'm doing fine.”
“Your buddy Aldo's a little farther to the left.”
Karl whipped around and dropped the rock he was holding. “Sawyer! I–”
“Didn't mean to scare you,” Sawyer said, putting his hands up. “Just remembered you said he was your friend before he was guardin' room twenty-three. Thought you looked a little bit distracted from whatever graveyard duty it is you're supposed to be doin'.”
“Securing the ditch. Jack thought it was getting eroded.” After the December beach raid there had been more than a dozen burials on a single day, and the pit for the people Karl had come to think of as The Others, capital, had been finished in haste. There had been problems with it since then. Karl was just grateful they'd either given up on raiding the beach since then, or didn't have anyone to spare for the risk. He set the last rock down and brushed his hands on his jeans. “I'm pretty much done.”
“You better come with me, then.”
“Why?” Karl still wasn't over being startled. He could be jumpy enough before everything went to hell in his old life, but now...
“Me and Desmond got a little R&R scheduled. Looks to me like you could use some yourself.”
Karl couldn't really argue with that. He and Sawyer wound up just inside the tree line at a little hut made of sticks. “Old project of Locke's,” Sawyer explained, “back when you and me were locked up in those cages. Mr. Eko got the whole thing started, 'course. Go on in; ain't any bears hidin' out there anymore. Desmond'll be here in a minute or two.” There was nothing inside but an old fire pit and a bundle of rags, but before Karl could ask about it, Sawyer sprawled on the packed-earth floor. “Might as well make yourself at home, kid.” Karl sat down across from him and was halfway to saying something when Sawyer interrupted him. “You been thinkin' about Aldo lately?”
Karl had never been much of a liar. “I think about him sometimes, yeah.”
“Probably everybody else there too... You been thinkin' it might've been your fault what happened to 'em?”
“No.” Aldo and the rest were four months buried, and Karl didn't know how the doubts and memories swirling in him would mature into unanswerable questions months or years down the line. At the time it was true.
“You got more sense than most people, then,” Sawyer said. “Lot of people's fault what happened to him, but it sure as hell wasn't yours.”
Karl nodded. He wanted to say something, but his throat was tight, suddenly, and he couldn't find words.
“There's something been botherin' you, though.” When Karl didn't answer, Sawyer added, “Look, kid, I met nuns that could get around the truth better than you... Sit here not sayin' anything all day if you want to, but somebody's gonna notice what you got eating at you soon enough.”
“Why wasn't it me?” he blurted out. “I grew up with Matt and Aldo like everyone else. How come – ?”
Sawyer gave him a hard look. “I'm guessing you were on Benjamin Linus' shit list a long time before any of this went down, weren't you?”
“Danny Pickett's. I didn't make it to Ben's until... ”
“And I bet you ain't half as dumb as you let either of those guy think.”
“Alex is the smart one.”
“Doesn't make you an idiot. Not much of a shot, is all.”
“I'm trying to practice–”
“Save your time. You couldn't hit a beached whale if it was three feet in front of you.” That was probably a fair assessment of Karl's marksmanship, little as he liked it. “Too small to throw much weight around and you ain't fast enough to make up for it. That's luck of the draw for you.”
“So that's it?”
“You were no good at what they wanted, you never got on the right foot with those guys, and I'm not the one to be askin' which one's the chicken and the egg, let alone what was first. Either way, this is how you wound up.” Karl looked at his hands in the dim light, and Sawyer said, “Doesn't matter how important anything is, it winds up comin' down to things that're barely worth a first thought, let alone a second. Just the way it works.”
Karl nodded and brushed his hands against his jeans unnecessarily, grateful when he heard Desmond approaching in the brush. “Well, hey there, Des,” Sawyer called out. “Brought some company along.”
“Company?” Desmond said, coming into the shelter. “Hello, brother.”
“Hi.” It occurred to Karl that he hadn't really talked to Desmond very much. Then again, hardly anyone had.
“Karl here's had a little too much on his mind lately. Thought it might do him some good to forget about it for a while.”
“Aye,” Desmond said, the confusion fading on his face. “I've brought the flint and leaves for us.”
“Sounds good.” Sawyer unwrapped the rags to reveal a little stash of marijuana cuttings that looked to be from that morning and turned to Karl. “I'm guessin' you and your old friends chanced across this stuff once in a while.”
“Well, that's a whole lot of information for you. You want to elaborate on 'yeah' for me?”
“Matt said someone brought it over in the 1970s and it spread. Sometimes on breaks we'd go off and put it in a campfire.” Karl was never brave or stupid enough to share that little ritual with Alex, but apart from Ben's inner circle she was about the only one who didn't participate. “Aldo could always find the good stuff,” he added, quietly enough that only Sawyer would hear him. There was one memory he decided would only ever be his: Aldo at sixteen, letting a thirteen-year-old Karl tag along on an afternoon off and showing him how to breathe in from a sheltered, acrid little fire. He grinned when Karl started to laugh like a fool, but he was almost wary until then, keeping an eye out in case Karl didn't take it well. It must have been six or seven years ago, when Alex was a little kid too young to notice as a girl, and for all the world it felt like yesterday. “Roll it in the smaller leaves,” Karl said hastily. “The taro ones will make you sick if they're raw.”
“Thanks, brother,” Desmond murmured, changing over. “Usually easier just to start a fire,” Sawyer said, “but we're too close in for that.” He pressed a couple of respectable-looking thorns into the roll, which was long and fat, probably as much as they could manage between them. Desmond fumbled with the flints a couple of times – it occurred to Karl that he could have done it better himself – before catching a spark. In a few minutes they were all lounging on the floor and smiling, and the thick air inside the shelter felt soft on Karl's skin. He took a swig of his water: Keep drinking, this stuff dehydrates you. He wished he could remember every detail of when Aldo told him that, what day it was and where they were and who they had to slip past to get there... He told himself to focus on the water, the way the canteen's cap felt as it slipped and wobbled under his fingers, the taste of warm water and its weight on his tongue. A little bit of the water spilled and dribbled down his neck, and it was hilarious, and soon he and Desmond and Sawyer were laughing at nothing at all.
Even Desmond started talking eventually – not a whole lot, but he told them about the times he and his brothers made mischief for their father at a Celtic match or threw shaken-up bottles of ale from an attic window and watched them explode on the pavement below. Old stories came to Karl's mind too: the time a coconut-smashing contest with the other kids got out of hand and earned them all a week's punishment, which was worth it, or how the older boys would dare each other to try to touch one of the polar bears. Sawyer grinned and clapped him on the back - “Hope you would've had enough sense not to take 'em up on that one, if you'd been a little older,” he said. “Fuck if I know what I would've done.”
“Oh, the right thing, brother,” Desmond said, and he laughed like a madman.
It didn't take Karl long to figure out that Sawyer and Desmond weren't meeting just to get high once in a while. If you were looking for a guy to substitute for Kate, he supposed Desmond would be your best bet – same build, same hair, same smooth, toned body. He didn't entirely see the appeal himself, although he could see Kate's without any trouble. And it was Kate that Sawyer was always talking to at the beach or trying to charm: sneaking in kisses whenever she'd let him, assigning himself to the same chore rota whenever he could and making his walks coincide with her bathing routine.
Sawyer only talked with him once about the situation, after one of the inevitable breaches of what passed for privacy. “Man's got to do what he can,” he said, as if to explain it.
What he can. For the thousandth time Karl imagined a kissing session with Alex escalating suddenly, saw her supine and rigid on the stretcher it had been his job to push into the makeshift morgue. “I know.”
“You probably figured out that whole set-up's not exactly unique.”
“Yeah. I did.”
“Told you you weren't dumb. Point is, if I can be generous and give you a little unsolicited advice, don't go around asking for yourself.”
“Don't go seein' if you can get in on any of it. Know you're desperate for a little somethin', but you're too young to get mixed up in all that.”
Karl didn't know what to do besides nod. “Right.” He didn't know why Sawyer thought he'd be angling for a place in it, but he'd have to be so far beyond insane to ask that he couldn't even imagine it. He jerked his thumb toward the sky. “It's going to be a big storm tonight,” he said, and he listened to Sawyer bitch.
Sawyer was more generous with his unsolicited advice on the subject of work. Kate glared or needled Sawyer if she overheard it, but that didn't shut him up: Not worth doin' unless it's life or death, for the most part; Some people just like work, and you gotta let 'em do their thing; Waste of effort to do things to the max if the minimum'll get you through. Once Karl was well enough, though, he usually found himself in the liking-work category, even if he resented Sawyer's share of self-appointed days off once in a while. The resentment never really lasted.
What did last was the resentment over the dizzy spells that he still had, the times his vision and hearing would tunnel out and he'd think he could hear loud, discordant music and see dark flashes of things: dead fish, coins, plastic dolls. Think about your life. Jack gave him a lecture about needing to rest when it happened and managed to scare him into complying. Once the Kwons had a baby to preoccupy them, it was usually Sawyer who got assigned to monitor Karl. Baby-sitting, Sawyer called it, although Karl thought he was probably easier to take care of than Aaron – as long as he stayed conscious and hydrated, someplace cool and dim, there wasn't a whole lot to it.
Sawyer usually kept him awake by reading to him, even if the light was bad; he'd practically memorized all the books they had anyway. “Figure most of 'em ain't much good to a convalescent like you,” he said the first time, “so for the time bein' you got a choice between Grimm's fairy tales, A Wrinkle in Time, and Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.”
The fairy tales and time warps sounded too familiar to Karl, and he asked what the last one was about. “Not much of anything, far as I can tell,” Sawyer said. “Eleven-year-old girl fussin' over things that happen to everybody and gettin' all worked up about her parents.”
“What's wrong with her parents?”
“Wrong with 'em? They're different religions from each other, is all. Kid ain't got much to worry about, far as I can see.” He turned the book over in his hands. “You don't say a whole lot about your folks, Tarzan.”
Karl swallowed heavily. “You never talk about yours.”
“First one to ask gets the answer.”
“They died a long time ago.”
“Yeah.” There really wasn't much else to say about it. When the silence got uncomfortable, Sawyer said, “Might as well find out more about Margaret's, I guess.”
And they did: Margaret's parents, wicked stepmothers, conflicted fathers in Titus Andronicus, which Karl couldn't stand. “Did you always read this much?” Karl asked him one day. “Before... ”
Sawyer snorted. “Little habit I picked up in prison. You think there's nothin' to do here, try a year or two in the lock-up. Before that I hardly read a damn thing.”
“So you're making up for lost time?”
“More like there's just not a whole lot of other diversions, are there?”
“Some of 'em are easier than others. Shakespeare's a real bitch to get through, but that ain't the point.” Karl didn't say anything. “Point is, quittin' school when I was fifteen wasn't exactly the best decision I could've made. Not the worst one I ever made by a long shot, but sure not the best. Just don't go spreadin' it around I told you that,” he added, and Karl managed a smile. “We ever get off this godforsaken shithole, you best get in as much learning as you can handle.”
“As much as I can,” Karl said.
At the time he hardly gave it any thought; he couldn't anticipate having the chance to keep his word, or to break it and hoping there was some kind of credit in reading what he could, or watching Alex follow the equivalent advice from Kate and drift into university because she didn't know what else to do.
Karl wasn't aware of giving much attention to Sawyer physically until the day he noticed the love handles were gone. They'd never been conspicuous, and Karl took a second glimpse away from his washing to confirm it.
Sawyer caught him. “What're you looking at?”
“Nothing,” Karl said, and dropped his soapnut for an excuse to look away. The Dharma Initiative used to airlift supplies to the whole island, he knew, but that had stopped when John Locke blew up the Flame Station. Karl had been trying not to think about the things he couldn't change. “The rainy season's not much good for food,” he added by way of an explanation.
Sawyer snorted. “Well, ain't you quick on the uptake. Time was everyone would've been happy to shed a few pounds. Probably a few thousand when you count Jabba in.”
“The fruit will be back in another month.”
“See, now that's real helpful. Guess we'll just go to the grocery store until then, maybe get some fish there too since you can't net the slimy little fuckers in these storms.”
“Some of them get washed up.”
“Sounds fantastic. I bet exactly two people are going to eat 'em: Lardo and that greedy-ass dog.”
He was wrong about that, although it took another week to prove it. Karl didn't know if the storms' leavings had been hit by lightning or just swept ashore and died, but they turned up, beginning to stink. Jin and Jack sorted out the ones too rotten for eating, and Claire and Alex gutted the rest. Karl learned the routine because it became a spectator sport, watching to see what you'd get. That, or divvying up the fruit and ground insects Danielle and Kate could find when the rain lightened, and keeping up enough of a fire to cook them.
It was the first time Karl missed what he thought of as his old life. He'd lost count of how long he'd spent wishing for some kind of freedom, for the chance to be with Alex, and against his own will he found himself wishing he could throw it all away for the promise of white bread and canned spinach. He didn't dare mention it to Alex, or guess what she'd say. He came close once or twice, but he didn't mention to Sawyer either.
Instead, he did the same thing as everyone else and took it out on Hurley. In better times Karl would be ashamed of himself, but they all knew what they'd said and couldn't erase, things they knew not to claim they hadn't meant. Hurley never pointed out that Danielle wasn't foraging fair, holding food back for Alex and herself. Everyone figured it out soon enough, or guessed, but Sawyer was the only one who ever confronted Danielle about it. Karl never heard the details of that one, just found Kate patching him up afterwards and at a single glance from her knew he'd better not ask.
Karl thought he was still dreaming when Sawyer squeezed his shoulder and handed him an opened coconut full of liquid. “Rise and shine, Tarzan.”
“Right in one. Time to get out of bed.”
“What time is it?” Karl asked. Then he realized that Sawyer didn't have a watch, that nobody had one that worked. “Never mind... eight o'clock?” he guessed from the light.
“I told Jin not to wake you up. Get some clothes on and come with me.”
“What's going on?”
“I'll tell you while we walk. Drink up that coconut and let's get a move on.”
Karl gulped the milk down and rummaged for his clothes with an odd sense of modesty, which was probably down to having someone come into his tent. Sawyer handed him bits of sapodilla twigs to clean his mouth, which kept Karl chewing until they were inside the tree line. He spat them into a tangle of roots and said, “Sawyer, what's going on?”
“I'll tell you once we're in the clearing.”
It was a long five minutes getting there. If it were something horrible, Karl thought, it would have been all over the beach. But all he'd noticed was a grim look from Kate as they walked past her, and he had no idea what this was about. Once they were sitting in the grass, though, Sawyer gave him a quick look and said, “Bug-eyed son of a bitch turned up last night.”
“Just Ben. Had to tiptoe around the whole damn island, looks like. Point is, he says the cancer's back.”
“So – he's what – fuck!”
“Danielle did a perimeter check. Came up clean, but we're gonna step up security anyway. Mama Bear's keepin' a real close eye on Alex, so don't you worry about her.”
“How the hell do you think I'm not going to worry about Alex?”
Sawyer put a hand up defensively. “Can't help it. I know.”
“Where is he now?”
“By the fire. Trussed up like the ugliest Christmas turkey I ever saw.”
“What's Jack going to do, take him back and operate on him again?” Karl wanted to kill something.
“Hate to admit it, but even the doc ain't that dumb. Even if he was, seems Ben's not exactly in favour with the old set anymore.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“Not the first time out of the gate, but between Marie Antoinette and Captain Falafel a man's gotta get honest pretty fast.”
Karl stood up. “I'm going to go talk to him.”
“Not so fast there, Romeo,” Sawyer said, getting to his feet too. “Brought you out here to get calmed down a little about this whole mess.” He pulled a handful of leaves off a cannabis plant. “Somethin' to take the edge off all this for you.”
“I need to talk to him.” Sawyer put a hand on his arm, but Karl pulled away. “Don't try to stop me.” His mind had no room to be surprised that Sawyer complied.
He made his way back, stumbling over roots and and branches but not caring. He wasn't aware of anything at all, really, before the scene at the fire and his first glimpse in a year of Ben, who was seated with a black eye and bound hands. Jack looked as if he were standing guard over him, and Alex – before he could hear her voice above the waves he saw her gesticulating despite her mother's hands tight on her shoulders. “He's lying, he's been worse–”
“Alex, sweetie. I'm sick.”
“I'm not fucking talking to you!” She kicked sand at him and turned to Jack. “He looks better than he did when he had hepatitis–”
“He had hepatitis?” Jack asked.
“What do you care? Tell him, Karl!” She turned halfway out of her mother's grip. “Everyone knows he's lying! If Jack hadn't–”
Karl squeezed her free shoulder. “I know.” The last steps toward Ben felt like moving inside an echo chamber.
“Hello, Karl,” Ben said. Karl couldn't decide if there was a hint of menace in that flat voice.
“Hi.” He looked Ben over; it was strange to do that from above. “I've seen him look worse,” he said to Jack. He swallowed. “I've seen him look better too.”
“You've both lost weight,” Ben observed. “You and Alex. At least you haven't gotten her pregnant.”
“Cindy's dead,” Karl said quietly. He didn't know why Ben had sent her to their camp, although he had some guesses. Nobody'd ever made it as long as she had, and now Claire was saddled with an extra baby. Karl pointed in the direction of the graves, although they weren't within sight.
Nothing like that was going to be his fault.
“I'm sure your sentiments are very noble, Karl,” Ben said, as if he'd read Karl's mind. “Unfortunately you'll discover that it's not so easy. Once you've had one taste you won't be able to stop.”
Jack cut in at that point. “What do you want from us?”
“Sorry, I was drifting,” Ben said. “What I want is for you to come back to the settlement with me and operate again. I'll find a way to get back in. I always have a plan.”
“And then you'll let us off the island, is that what you're offering?”
“Yes, Jack, it's what I'm offering.”
Jack laughed. “I don't think that's going to happen.”
“Jack, you should know–”
“Save your breath,” Jack said, and he motioned the rest of them away.
“Jack, he's lying.” Alex's voice was low and strident. “It's what he always does. He–”
“He probably is,” Jack agreed. “But he's not doing well.”
“So what are we going to do about it?” asked Danielle. She hadn't let go of Alex's shoulders.
“Keep him tied up and guarded around the clock. I'll give him whatever treatment I can manage here.” Something must have shown in Karl's face, because Jack added, “I'm a doctor, Karl. Ben is sick and he's asked me for care. That's a line I'm not willing to cross.”
Karl was too shell-shocked to contribute much to the ensuing discussion of security, apart from agreeing with Danielle. Once she shepherded Alex off, Karl made his way back to Sawyer's tent. “Sawyer, are you in there?”
“Yep.” A minute later Sawyer poked his out. “Somethin' you need?”
Karl felt a flash of anger at himself, and shame at his own weakness. “Do you still–?”
“I've got palm wine and the flint. Why, you change your mind on takin' up my offer?”
“If I can.”
“Most times I'd just say you lost your chance.”
“Day like this? Shit, Karl, even I couldn't say no to you on that one.”
“Good. Thanks,” Karl said, and if his troubles weren't any further away fifteen minutes later, at least it was too difficult to wrap his mind around them.
Everything in Karl's life seemed to revolve around Ben for the next few months. There were a hundred false alarms of his imminent demise, and then disputes over whether to feed him when the food got low, or how to balance guarding with patrols. Alex didn't want to hear about any of it, although Ben got under her skin sometimes. It wasn't exactly the best situation for Karl's state of mind either, and he spent whatever time he could trying to get away from it all. He buried himself in extra chores, or he'd let Sawyer distract him with a card game or a quick smoke or just his stories.
Ben and Karl only really spoke when Ben brought up his symptoms. The headache's let up since yesterday, but I'd really feel much more at ease if you'd untie me. Karl never answered. Occasionally, even after long intervals of near-silence, Ben would still try with something irrelevant: You know Karl, I'm curious. After months of opportunities, how come you've never once asked me anything about your parents? Karl almost pistol-whipped him for that one, had the gun in his hand. He stopped himself before he could raise his arm and holstered the gun. “It's been a long time since I've asked you about anything.”
Danielle never said a word about the whole situation. She never let Alex out of her sight.
Karl watched Ben get worse and better and worse again, enough times that he stopped paying much attention to it. Jack stopped trying to figure out what was wrong, at least in terms of the specifics, which might have been because he didn't have much equipment or because he couldn't even guess what was happening. Rose brought Ben food and never gave the least sign that she heard any of what he said to her, which Kate tried to imitate. The Kwons pretended not to speak English. Claire and Danielle perched silently, guns at the ready. Ben was quieter than Karl ever remembered him.
Karl had lost count of which bad spell it was when he showed up for morning guard and found Jack by the fire. “I thought Desmond was supposed to be here,” he said.
Jack looked up from his crouch over Ben. “I gave him the night off.” He stood and walked over to Karl, glancing behind him before he spoke. Ben was still propped against a log with his eyes half-open. Jack urged Karl a few steps away, closer to the receding tide.
“What's going on, Jack?”
“He hasn't passed urine in sixty-five hours.” For a minute Jack looked like he was going to say what he always did, something about what Sun could come up with or some way to operate.
“You don't need to explain,” Karl said. “I know.”
Jack gave him a tight half-smile. “Thanks.”
“I need to take today off.”
“Is there anything you want to–”
“No. Thanks.” He swallowed hard. “I'll see you at last call tonight.”
Jack shook his head. “First call tomorrow.”
“Okay. I'll see you then.” There wasn't really anything else to say about it. He went back to the main camp without looking at Ben.
He intercepted Danielle quickly enough and didn't bother to greet her. “We need to check out the new security perimeter today.”
Her hands went to her gun. “What has happened? Is–”
“Today,” Karl said, not letting his gaze waver. “The stars should be good for a night check.”
They worked two at a time, one sleeping, at the lookout-to-be in the woods. Karl and Alex didn't talk much, but they'd all grown accustomed to working quietly. They'd run out of questions. It wasn't unlike Danielle to be mercurial, or at least to seem it, and sudden suggestions from her didn't surprise anyone, least of all Alex. She did the ground-scouting and cover up; Alex climbed trees and worked reed and vine together. Karl did the heavy work, whatever needed to be done.
At a lull in the afternoon he watched Alex sleep, Danielle's hand on his shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered. Karl didn't feel the need to say anything in reply.
The night shift was silent. At first light Karl and the Rousseaus turned away from each other as they made use of their wash kits and changed what clothes they could. They ate jackfruit and chewed sapodilla on the walk back.
As they approached the camp a clutch of people came into view, standing around where Ethan was buried. “What's going on?” Alex asked. Karl and Danielle looked at each other, and Alex at them, but no one said anything. Instead, Alex slipped free from her mother's hand and bolted ahead. “What happened?”
Sayid put down his shovel. “Even if we had an extra boat, it wouldn't be wise to send anyone to sea.”
Karl wondered, absurdly, what reaction he or any of them was expecting. Alex looked like she'd been hit on the head and out of nowhere Karl was furious that Sawyer hadn't stopped digging, at Kate for not stopping him. He almost told him to stop, but before he could open his mouth, Danielle jerked her head toward a thatch-covered lump at Sayid's feet. “Is it him?” Sayid nodded, and Danielle faced Alex and touched her arms again. “Alexandra. Your father is dead.”
Alex opened and closed her mouth a few times. “I need to be alone,” she half-whispered. She turned away before anyone could answer. Danielle looked like she wanted to follow her, but she only watched her retreat. When Alex was nothing but a matchstick standing by the ocean, Danielle walked to the other side of the plot and lifted away the thatch. She looked like she would cry, Karl thought, because of everything except what she was seeing, for a death that came eighteen years too late. She didn't, though; she just stood staring at what she'd uncovered, reckoning written on her face. After a few minutes she asked Kate for her shovel and started to dig.
It was an hour and a half later, judging by the tide, when Sayid said they'd gotten it deep enough. “We should bury him as soon as we're able, before the sun is higher.”
“Any reason we shouldn't just put the little fucker out of sight right now?” Sawyer asked.
Karl could have said the same thing, but he knew the answer. “Yeah. There's a reason.” Soon he was trailing after Desmond to Alex's spot on the beach. Kate seemed to have reassigned herself standing watch ten paces away, but stepped aside for them. Desmond crouched beside Alex in the sand, and Karl got close enough to hear him murmur, “Alex. In about an hour we're going to bury him.”
Alex nodded without looking at him. “Is there anything you'll be wanting to do, or have said?” She shook her head. “Then we can be there in an hour, yeah?” As Desmond stood up he put a hand on her head for an instant, and with a glance at Kate he motioned to Karl to leave Alex be.
It wasn't a big crowd that turned up at the gravesite, cleaned up and in light-coloured clothes. Desmond stationed himself at the head of the plot, close to the trees. Jack and Sayid were still there, across from Hurley, Jin, and Rose. Karl stood near Jack, not knowing what else to do.
When Alex made her way there, moving like someone in a trance, Kate came behind her. Alex went to lift the same piece of covering her mother had disturbed three hours earlier. Danielle said, “Alexandra–” But Alex held up her hand. There was a long look between them, and Danielle nodded once and turned back for the camp. Alex pulled the thatch away too and spent the longest few seconds in the world on a last glimpse of what used to be Benjamin Linus. A father of a sort, Karl supposed, once upon a time.
“Is there anything you'll be saying?” Desmond asked again.
“All right, then.” Desmond cleared his throat. “Beloved, we are gathered at the passing...”
Karl took a sidelong glance at Alex, but her face was blank. He tried to pay attention to Desmond: “...his prophets from the beginning: salvation from our enemies and the hand of those that hate us, to perform mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy testament...”
For Alex's sake Karl wondered if he could call up an old memory of Ben and make something of it: the man who put together cake and ice cream for all the kids on their birthdays, or Alex's dad lending them his Atlas of the Night Sky so they could make constellations. He wasn't surprised that it had all been buried under a cascade of newer memories he wished he didn't have.
Desmond raised his hands from his sides, palms up toward the sky. “I am the resurrection and the life.” Without any prompting, Kate said, “Our father who art in heaven–” and before Karl could register the shock, everyone else joined her: Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, Sayid and Jin speaking on their own: familiar, common words that everyone but he and Alex understood.
In the months after Ben's death Alex was quiet, especially around Karl. She spent more time with Kate and veered between clinging to Danielle and barely tolerating her presence. As far as Karl knew Danielle never questioned any of it, but when Alex had her at arm's length, he was the one Danielle sought out to keep an unnecessary eye on or have his hair stroked. Sometimes she asked questions about life with the Others, questions Karl doubted she wanted to hear Alex answer.
It was strange to have so little to do with the only person who knew where he was coming from. Karl spent as much time as he could picking up Korean from the Kwons or sharing chore rotations with Sawyer and with Kate or Desmond if it was a hard job, playing cards during breaks. Days off were increasingly rare, and they were having to be more careful about fishing and foraging, even when things were good. Fish-salting and fruit-drying were getting to be the biggest pastimes on the beach, and Alex spent so much time making baskets Karl was surprised she hadn't woven her fingers into one. He watched her from a distance sometimes, when he had a minute's rest. She might not want to spend too much time with him, but he liked to see with his own eyes that she was still there, doing okay, still herself. It was useless, but that didn't bother him.
Sawyer shared a glance over at her one day as they set down the freshwater they'd hauled. “She's gonna be real pissed off at you for another couple months,” he said, easing himself down into the sand and rubbing his shoulder. “Probably won't stay pissed off forever, though.”
“She can hold a grudge.”
“Bet she can, but it won't be too much use in the long term. 'Sides, she likes you too much.”
Karl shrugged. “I can see why she's mad at me.”
“She's got a right to be. I'd be pretty damn mad myself. Point is, you did the right thing.”
“Freak wasn't exactly a great-grandpa goin' gentle into that good night, was he?” Sawyer said, not looking at him. “Kid shouldn't ever watch his parents die. That's not somethin' anybody ought to see.” Karl didn't reply. There was a thick, edgy silence between them, and then Sawyer said, “I got a daughter. Back in the real world.”
“Name's Clementine. She must be three or four years old now.”
Karl knew he'd gone slack-jawed. “I didn't know you had any kids,” he said finally.
“Took me a year to find out about it myself.”
“But your wife–”
“Wife? Good one, Romeo.” There was another silence. “I never met her. Clementine, I mean. Don't you go thinkin' I got a whole lot in common with La Marseillaise. Kid's just wormed her way into my head right now.”
“Yeah.” Abruptly Sawyer got to his feet. “No sense mopin' around here. Let's get some more water,” he said, and Karl went along.
They kept up the stronger patrols after Ben died. Nothing got out of hand, but there had been a few more incidents than usual after he turned up, and they weren't taking any chances. Karl didn't make much of a guard, but he heard things. There were times when they could have had an easy grab at any number of people, including Alex, but they never tried. Karl gathered there had been one or two hostilities, as Sayid called them, but he never got asked to identify who might have been involved. All he knew was that Locke still had the transmissions jammed, and Richard wasn't amenable to negotiation.
They were less worried about security than they were about food. The rains were heavier than they had been the year before, and the wet periods lasted as long as Karl or Danielle had ever seen them. That meant the next year would probably be a dry one, which was no more encouraging. They went back and forth between trying to plan for it and trying to put it out of mind.
The rare sunny days were busy, a time for hurried repair work and for drying and smoking whatever catch they'd managed to pickle. Karl and Sayid, or Sawyer if Sayid was on repairs, usually got the job of keeping the fire from going out or getting too strong while the Kwons kept them supplied with brine-encrusted, gutless fish. By the end of the day they'd be almost sick from the smell, and it took a good half-hour and more than their share of freshwater and soap nuts before they were in any shape for other company. Karl was looking forward to the end of an especially bad session when Sawyer said, “Listen, kid, you might as well know that things are about to start gettin' dicey around here.”
“The rains are almost over.”
“I don't mean any of that.” Sawyer took a quick glance around them as if to confirm that no one was listening. “What I mean is we all know we got to get out of this place soon as we can, and there's some steps we got to take to get there.”
“We? What do you mean”
“It's only Mama Bear and Captain Falafel know everything from the patrols, but all the good shots and army boys are in on it.” That meant the Kwons and Desmond; they didn't trust Bernard enough, but maybe Kate or Jack. “Only reason I'm tellin' you this is that Sheena will find out soon enough. And you got to know in advance that you can't help.”
“You've seen more bad shit go down in your life than I want to know about, Tarzan. You ever killed a man?”
“I don't mean stuff gives you bad nights that wasn't your you fault. Them makin' you help Juliet and whatnot. I mean have you ever made someone die.”
He was startled almost dumb. “No.”
“You keep it that way, kid.” Sawyer seemed to notice the ocean again and turned his head to the sunset. “You do just about anything to keep it that way.”
Sawyer was true to his word about not sharing the details of what was going on; everybody Karl thought was involved played it close to the vest. Still, he could figure out when things were escalating, from the heavier patrols and the huddled, whispered conversations he wasn't supposed to notice. A few times Sayid or Sawyer came up to him and asked about the Others. Karl told them what he knew without asking any questions of his own.
When things were coming to a head, Karl got assigned to bringing in the extra fodder they'd need to build a new signal fire, or to collecting dark stones to put a message in the sand. When Sawyer was on the same shift, he offered Karl a surfeit of unsolicited advice about the world he was trying to get back to. Work enough to get by if you wind up having a job, but with you been through, you ought to be able to sue the shit outta somebody; Don't trust nobody with anything to do with money unless it's your bank and you walked in there; If you need an apartment make sure you bring a middle-aged lady like Rose with you to look.
“Why are you telling me all this now?” Karl asked once. “There isn't even a boat yet.”
“Best get a head start on all you can. Real world'll give you too much to think about once you wind up in it.” There was something uneasy in Sawyer's expression, and at a pressing glance from Karl he said, “I'm a wanted man back where I come from, Tarzan. You won't have me around to help.”
“Don't matter right now. Point is, I can either get fed in prison or stay behind and wind up like La Marseillaise over here.”
“You can't stay,” Karl said quickly. “They'll kill you in no time. Sawyer, you have no idea–”
“I got enough of one that I don't aim to sit around and wait for your old pals to do me in. And I can guarantee you prison back where I come from is about four or five times better than the nicest lock-up you've ever seen.”
“You don't know what will happen. Don't you get a big trial back there? And someone to help you–”
“Yeah. You do. And believe me, kid, that ain't gonna do me a damn bit of good.” Sawyer started bundling up the palm fronds he'd assembled while they spoke. “Look, if I promise you can visit me as often as they let you, will you stop fussin' over it? 'Cause that's the best I can do for you.” His face softened. “You'll make it okay on your own.”
The whole thing unsettled Karl more than he wanted to let on, but he was surprised by Sawyer's apparent commitment to going about his days the way he always did. He played cards with Karl and leered at Kate, even if she was as skin-and-bones as the rest of them, and found the energy to steal inside the tree line with Desmond if he thought no one would notice. And he kept up the advice to Karl, everything from The old make new friends but keep the old saying'll probably do you a lot more good than you think to Never get into an argument with a cop. There was more immediate advice, too, about any ship that was likely to pick them up: If you get lucky the crew will be a decent bunch, but it pays to keep your eye out and your head down anyway. Chances are you've dealt with worse no matter how bad they turn out to be. Karl laughed at that one. “You don't need to tell me that.”
“No,” Sawyer agreed, “I probably don't. Tell you what, though. They'll probably have preventives on hand for when they dock, and if you can get your hands on 'em, it'll make the sailin' a hell of a lot smoother.”
“Just make sure you have the doc explain how to use 'em first. Wouldn't want to make a mistake and knock your girl up right out of the gate.”
“So you think we're just going to–”
“Yeah,” he said with a smirk, “I think you probably are. Fuck knows you've been waiting for it long enough, and I've seen what she does you when either one of you's in a position to care about more than coconuts. Can't say as I blame you. Not like I ever minded mistakin' her for Kate at the wash spot.” Seeing Karl's face, he put up his hands and said, “Don't get your panties all in a bunch now, Romeo. Not like I don't have respect. It ain't a man's fault if he chances across an eyeful from time to time, that's all. Can't help thinkin' about it afterwards... Tell you what else: while we're still on the buddy system for gettin' those hard-to-reach spots and savin' water, you should see if you can't happen across her paired up with Kate. Even if they ain't much to look at these days, you'll still get a damn nice visual if you ever want to imagine Freckles pushin' her swing the other way.”
“I know you can beat me in a fight, Sawyer.”
“You're damn right I can. Anyway, if I can offer you some more counsel–”
“I can't really stop you.”
“More likely you're gonna be havin' the fun than Kate is, let's face it. Thing to remember is most girls take some trial and error before they warm up to the whole enterprise. Make sure you give her plenty of attention when you're gettin' into things, 'cause I guarantee it's gonna take some doing before you can make the main course last for more than about five seconds. Not ideal by a long shot, but it's how it always goes. Nothin' to be ashamed of; you just got to give her enough reasons to keep comin' back for more.”
“You're not the first person who thought Alex and I would let the whole world know we were fucking like rabbits the minute we had the chance.”
For half a second Sawyer's face froze, but only for that instant. “I guess not, kid. But there's a reason for it, and there's things you'd better know than not.”
“Why don't I just bet you a big wad of real-world money that we've got more self-control than you think?”
“Suits me just fine, Romeo. You just be ready to pony up when we get back there, 'cause I know what I'm talkin' about.”
In the end it was Karl who was right, but by then it didn't matter.
Alex snuggles up to him, although he's still too warm to join her under the covers. When she clasps his hand he turns over to face her, and she kisses him. “What are you thinking about?” she asks, her voice quiet and possessed of that clarity that always surprises him.
Half-absently he takes a strand of her hair and twirls it around his fingers. He's always loved her hair. “You,” he says, touching his fingers to her cheek in the lamp light. “I'm thinking about you.”
Alex closes her eyes and smiles a little. “No you're not.” When he tries to pull away from her she shifts to stay with him, and this time she moves to touch his face. “It's okay, Karl. I'm not supposed to be the only thing on your mind.” Karl feels himself begin to lose it and kisses Alex's head so that he doesn't have to speak.
Karl knew he wouldn't be there when things really went down when he found out they had to put out another distress call. He could see how it would go from there. Danielle knew the best way to get to the tower, and she wouldn't go anywhere without Alex. Alex would only go if Karl was with them. Out of harm's way, as much as they could be.
The surprise was that Sayid was coming with them. “Safety in numbers,” he explained to Karl as they smoke-cured a batch of mahi-mahi, “and I am the most useful second for technical matters.” Seeing Karl's expression, he said, “Unless you have an objection?” Karl realized, suddenly, that his objection might matter, that the Rousseaus' cooperation depended on him. “No,” he said, despite the fact Sayid had never stopped trying to make up for their having gotten off on the wrong foot initially, an effort that always made Karl uncomfortable. “Why are you really coming with us?”
Sayid looked out over the ocean, face set.“To keep Rousseau from disappearing into the woods. Be ready to leave as soon as you can.”
“The sign and the tinder aren't even ready.”
“Danielle prefers a circuitous route, and I defer to her judgment.” Karl nodded. “She and I will decide on our supplies. You and Alex will have to carry our clothes and such.”
“I'll leave room in my bag.”
“Very good.” He bent down to pet Mikhail's old cat, which was rubbing around his ankles in the hope of getting some undersmoked fish. “I like this cat. Perhaps I will take her when we leave here.”
Karl wasn't thinking that far ahead. He could remember the other world from his early childhood, a little bit, but the memories were scattered, too dislocated to make any sense. He focused on getting the supplies packed and practicing his shot, which was feasible with the guns they'd gotten hold of in the last months. Sawyer appointed himself to give Karl pointers on aim, pointers Karl was happy enough to take even though Sawyer's shot wasn't far above mediocre.
He came to see them off the morning they set out. “Wanted to remind Romeo not to let the three of you push him around,” he said, and he grinned at Karl. “You've got what's practically your goddamn mother-in-law and then Captain Falafel to deal with. I want you to do me proud, you hear that, kid?”
“I hear you.”
“Good. Thought I'd give you a little reading material in case things get slow.”
“Sawyer, there isn't much room in the backpack,” Sayid protested.
“Don't you worry about that, Ahab. It's useful stuff," Sawyer said, holding up a little stack of Dharma manuals. Karl could guess which magazines Sawyer had chosen to sandwich in between them, and he crammed the stack into his bag hastily. “Thanks. I'll see you soon.”
Sawyer nodded and clapped him on the back. “You take care of yourself, Karl. And remember not to let 'em give you trouble.”
It took them ten days to get to the tower, although Karl had seen Danielle make it in less than two. They moved as silently as they could and covered their tracks, and spent plenty of time wandering off and half-covering them and laying false scents. Sometimes Sayid went off on his own for a few hours at a time, after some sign of understanding between him and Danielle. None of them spoke above whispering or started a fire. Cold smoked fish and whatever fruit they could come by were something everyone was used to by then. With just the four of them, there was more to eat.
Once they reached the tower Danielle was shiftless, jumpier than usual and not really sleeping. For a few days she kept them all occupied helping to establish a perimeter of traps ringed around the clearing, until the security was such that Karl didn't think a butterfly could get through it too easily. Still, Danielle wouldn't take her eyes off Alex: this wasn't a place where she wanted to be. She spent most of two days checking security and pacing, looking over toward the end of the island where Alex had lived for sixteen years.
Karl tried to let Danielle have her space until the third night they spent inside the tower, when a loud sound rocked him awake, a sound followed by a pulse that made his ears ring and his body shake. He couldn't find his voice as he watched Sayid scramble unsteadily to the controls and reactivate the equipment, then record something and set it to broadcast. He couldn't think as he and Alex were rushed into the breaking dawn to see a plume of smoke rising from the Pearl. Sayid murmured something, and when he saw that he hadn't been heard he repeated himself in a shout. “Earlier than we expected. Be ready to fire.”
“What's going on?” Alex asked.
“We need to leave now,” Danielle said, and she shepherded them through the security perimeter faster than Karl would have imagined possible. “Don't make any noise at all. Move quickly.”
It was less than two days on the way back, two days in which they did nothing but drag brush to cover their tracks. A few times Danielle held up her hand and fired warning shots, and twice she rolled Alex to the ground while Sayid ventured outward. No one said a word.
The fire came into scent before it came into sight, faint at first and then acrid in a way that Karl hadn't anticipated. He kept to instructions and crouched in silence while Sayid moved ahead, then followed him back to the beach once he circled back with an all-clear.
Karl only had a second to glimpse the largest fire he'd ever seen and the black stones arranged into distress letters before he noticed the human quiet of the beach, the lack of greeting. A knot of people were clustered around a shallow pit. The only one speaking was Claire, sounding plaintive: “He made Aaron's cradle. I wouldn't have got through the first two months here without him.”
Sayid put a hand up to stop Karl when he took a step closer, but Karl shook his head. “I've seen people get their brains blown out,” he said quietly, and Sayid let him go. Karl could still make out the bald crown of Locke's head.
“Aren't you going to say anything?” Claire asked, looking at Desmond.
“What do you want me to say, Claire? That I'm at least grateful someone let me out of the fucking hatch?” There was an anger Karl had never heard in Desmond's tone and in the look he exchanged with Claire. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” he said finally and shovelled sand into the new grave beside Ben's.
“Do you need help?” Karl asked. He was exhausted, but everyone else looked hot and worn out from digging on top of exhausted. He might as well: he hadn't come to hate Locke the way any of them had, hadn't even known the man.
He didn't think anything of Jack's accepting his offer to take over digging until the grave was nearly filled in, when Jack turned up again with Kate in tow. The two of them didn't do much on their own together, and Karl felt an uncomfortable twitch in his stomach. “Where's Sawyer?” he asked.
Jack and Kate looked at each other for a second, as if Jack held the upper hand in something. Before Jack could speak, though, Kate said hurriedly, “He got hurt. He needs someone to bring him water.” Her voice was half an octave too high.
The twitch in Karl's stomach worked its way into a knot. “I'll go,” he said, throwing down his shovel as he walked away. He was only half aware of Alex's presence a pace behind him.
Sawyer opened his eyes as they came into his tent, but he didn't bother to sit up. Even in the dim light, he was ashen. “I been thirsty. What've you two been doin' took you so long?” He managed a leer that suggested he had ideas of his own, then almost choked on the water that Karl poured onto his lips. Karl handed the canteen over to Alex and propped Sawyer up, supporting him with his arms. “We were burying Locke,” Alex said.
“Least my shot hit too, then... We got any more of them Mary statues around?”
They did; Alex figured out how to remove a little sack of powder from inside, then rubbed the powder onto Sawyer's gums. “Just a couple minutes to wait on it,” Sawyer said. From over Sawyer's shoulder Karl noticed the bloodstain expanding on the blanket, and he got across to Alex to give him a little more water and then eased him back down. After a minute Sawyer asked, “Mama Bear and Captain Falafel make it back okay?”
“They're fine,” Alex said, voice quivering. “People get better really fast here sometimes.”
“Don't get my hopes up, Sheena. I know what's goin' on.” He swallowed, with effort. “The whole world ain't as bad as you two maybe thought.” Alex nodded, but Sawyer had closed his eyes. “You run along and help your mama now.”
“Okay.” Alex moved to get up, then leaned over Sawyer and kissed him. When she pulled back, Sawyer grabbed her hand. “Sheena, you just made my day.” She and Karl laughed as best they could.
When she was gone, Sawyer asked for more of the powder: “Doc's orders. Give me what I need.” Karl rubbed another dose of it onto his gums, which, he noticed this time, were bleeding a little. “End of the line's comin' up for me, kid. Probably for the best, even if I don't like it much.”
Everything in Karl's body felt dry. “I never thanked – ”
“Spare me,” Sawyer said. “I got you read like a book from the beginning... You just remember everything I told you, you got that?”
“Yeah.” I love you.
Sawyer felt cold once the powder hit him, and Karl lay down beside him until Kate showed up in turn.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered – we are gathered... Dearly beloved, this day–”
There was a long, sluggish moment, and Rose nudged Desmond aside. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing...”
Karl was hardly aware of what she was saying, of anything at all. At one point Rose asked if anyone had anything to say. They all looked as numb as Karl felt, and in the end Rose opened her Bible and read some things from it. No one knows the place where he was buried, even today.
He sat in the sand while Bernard and Jin filled in the grave. He should've helped, maybe, but he couldn't make himself take up a shovel. He watched as if he were miles away as the women brought flowers to the grave and left when they started hatching together a cross.
He was like a zombie over the next days, he knew he was, despite the current of anxious preparation that was running through the camp. Stockpile soap nuts and dried fruit. Hide the weapons so a ship won't see them. Karl did what he was instructed and told himself to stay strong for Alex, that she'd have to leave everything she'd ever known and a home she loved in a way that Karl had never been able.
“I'm sorry,” she half-whispered to him one day, blinking back tears. “I know how – I'm really sorry.” Karl just nodded. “I miss him too. It just – it must be like having your parents die again.”
“No,” he said dully, “it's not like when Ben killed my parents.” It was a really shitty thing to say to Alex, but there it was.
This wasn't as bad. Admitting it felt like he'd killed Sawyer himself.
The ship turned up before Sawyer had been buried two weeks. Karl did the last-minute chores mutely while Jack negotiated with the crew. He let Sayid shepherd him, laden with desalination stills and a meowing basket, into a lifeboat with Danielle and Alex. They'd all heaped flowers on the graves, but Karl didn't watch them slip out of sight. After that, Danielle kept busy protecting Alex from the crew and Karl let the ship's motion and its rota of tasks take over the numbing.
When they docked in Hawaii government officials came on board with papers and questions. “What's your name?” one of them asked him. “Karl,” he replied, and when that got a hard stare he said without thinking, “Karl James Ford.” At port in California they gave Karl Ford a Social Security card and a passport and a room in the same fancy hotel as everyone else "while they finalized the compensation arrangements."
There were a whirl of people who didn't register with Karl. Jack's mother. Rose's parents. Danielle's sister. Briefly he met a woman called Penelope – Desmond's Penelope, who hadn't crossed Karl's mind in a long time. Desmond had tried not to talk about her. Within forty-eight hours Desmond stood up during breakfast and announced that he was marrying her, that he'd made her wait five years and more and he wouldn't make her wait another day. There was clapping and crying all around, a bunch of the hotel workers got in on it too, and Karl caught Jack's eye. “Does she know? About him and – ”
Jack's smile saddened, but it didn't fade. “I'd be pretty surprised if she didn't.”
Karl swallowed the bile rising in him, and the next day he made his way down to the same room to be at the wedding and supposed he shouldn't have been surprised at how much he hated Desmond in that moment, at how wholeheartedly he wished it were Desmond left in that sandy grave to be forgotten once the flowers withered in the heat. The thought was poisonous, and he felt himself smile for the first time in weeks. He shook the Humes' hands and congratulated them and relished the idea of Penelope's being better off as a widow.
He decided he'd better go to Portland for a few months, like his uncle had invited him.
He didn't know what memories it would dredge up, it was true. He worried about that, but those wounds had more likely scarred over years ago, enough to get him through the day. He needed some time away from the crush of reminders and contact with the familiar. Everyone was using some compensation money to buy houses or winter houses in the same part of southern California, but suddenly Karl couldn't stand to see any of them.
So he took his uncle up on the offer and ate the falafel Sayid cooked for him at a going-away dinner and decided he'd find a way to deal with the fact that Alex didn't need to say she despised him for leaving just when she needed him most. They'd both have to deal with it; there wasn't any other choice. He'd be back in a few months, he reminded her. He'd be back as soon as he thought he'd be able to look at any of them and see something more than not Sawyer.
Alex pulls him under the covers and kicks the comforter away. “How come you never talk about him?” she asks.
Karl shrugs. It's true: he never talks about Sawyer, not to anyone. “I don't know how,” he admits after a minute, wishing he had a better reason. Sawyer's been gone almost a year, but everything reminds Karl of him: going into a library, the clementine oranges or the row of dirty magazines at the corner store, a southern accent. There are times when Karl is alone with Alex and isn't capable of any rational thought whatsoever and still Sawyer will find his way into his mind. He didn't think to hide that from Alex at the very beginning; now it's too late.
They don't believe in secrets anyway. Some memories each of them keeps absolutely private, but no secrets.
“I know you miss him,” Alex says.
Of course she knows. They'll never find words any better than the ones they have now.
Karl presses up against Alex and hugs the sheets around them. “I feel like a baby fruit bat,” Alex says, smiling a little, and Karl makes himself smile back. After a minute she asks almost tentatively, “Did Sawyer like – what is it, The Great Gatsby?”
“He talked about it. I can't remember what he thought.” Saying it hurts more than Karl could have imagined.
“Is that why you're reading it again?”
Alex nods – Karl can feel it under his chin more than he can see it “What's it about?”
“A guy whose friend sort of – I don't know, reinvents himself, does everything to get back with this woman he's in love with.”
“Is she worth it?”
“Not really. Actually, she's–”
“A complete bitch?”
“She doesn't even have that much substance.”
“That doesn't sound interesting enough to get through once.”
“It's better than I'm making it sound. You should try it.”
“I do plenty of reading,” Alex says.
“Not for fun, though.” Karl remembers what Ben used to tell her: There's nothing in the world like getting lost in a good book... Karl's really not enthusiastic about thinking about Ben while he's in bed with Alex. “You want me to read to you?” he asks quickly.
“If you want to.”
“Let me find something you'll like.” He gets up to go to his shelves, disliking the temporary loss of warmth, and scans the books quickly. A lot of them are out of the question, but he's not going to find anything perfect. He can skip some passages if he has to. “If something starts out a little slow, will you stick with me?”
“Okay.” Karl grins and finds what he thinks will work. He snuggles up against her again. “'One summer evening in the year 1848, three cardinals and a missionary bishop from America were dining together in the gardens of a villa in the Sabine hills...'”
He finishes the prologue, minus what's irrelevant, before he decides it's time to rest his voice. “Sawyer would have hated this book,” Alex says quietly.
“Yeah. He would have.” All of one fight scene, and no sex at all. Two of you best make up for the good part. He smiles a little. “I wish I could listen to him tell me how much it sucks.”
“I won't tell you it sucks.”
“You're welcome. You can still tell me my cooking sucks.”
“I don't need to.” It's true; Alex can't do more than soft-boiled eggs on a good day. “Come to the kitchen. I'll show you how to make pancake batter for the morning.”
“For the morning?”
“It's better if you let it sit overnight,” he explains. Danielle's not one for pancakes, and Karl's surprised sixteen years of powdered mix didn't put Alex off them for life. It doesn't seem to have, though; she shrugs off the covers as Karl is casting around for his shirt. “You're never going to turn me into a good little cook.”