This house is the place she lives. Rooms inside of rooms, living room sprawling into the dining room into the kitchen. Walls of stucco and plaster, wrapped all around with windows that are impossibly large and spill bright sunlight onto the carpeted floors. During the long heat of summer there is lemonade in tall glasses, ice clinking persistently against the sides, and she can pull her heavy hair from her face and let the cool breath of the air conditioner dry the trickles of sweat from her brow, the back of her neck.
Five people live in this house, this complex of rooms, delineation of space. Apples on the counter that aren't eaten if they're bruised, milk thrown out at the end of the week. Her foster family's definitions of 'yours' and 'mine' don't make sense, and Jan and Eric give 'ours' without thought, without condition. There's too much space for so few people, too many entrances to this house, to this family.
If she had to barricade the windows, block the doors, there wouldn't be enough furniture, enough time.
She was naked when they found her, hair hanging in strings that couldn't cover the hollows of her collarbone, the sharp wings of her shoulder blades, the rough lines of her spine. She thinks she screamed when they touched her. She thinks she sat silent and still as the paramedics wrapped her in the sweet-fresh-roughness of grey wool blankets.
This is what she remembers: the fading smell of ozone and burnt earth, the startling clarity of the air. Grass. The peculiar hitch in her lungs at her first breath of air not full of ash and smoke. The dull, diffuse silence of the night, and the ringing in her ears that rose to fill it. At the police station, they brought her clear water that she drank until she was sick.
"Somewhere between ten and thirteen," she guessed when they asked her age. Could tell by the look they shared that the answer was wrong.
"I don't remember," she told them from then on, shoulders curled in, thinking of Jesse's hastily whispered instructions, still feeling the weight of her words, the hand on her shoulder. Broken bones on her x-rays, a broad scar across her ribs, star tattooed on the inside of her wrist, hollow-eyed and trembling; they spoke softly and she let them think her fragile.
She sees Cameron before she sees John. It's standing in the hall like it belongs, notebooks in hand and wearing a purple sweater. Head cocked to one side, distant, perfectly still, eyes and smile so wrong that Riley doesn't know how everyone can't see it for what it is. Riley's hands have gone for a weapon she hasn't carried in years, and she can't hear anything above the pounding of her heart. The sharpness of her hate surprises her, sucks the air from her lungs, its edges untouched by time, nothing but her vigilance blunted.
"I just don't want to sit around and talk about my messed-up childhood," John tells her. Mexico, Dia de los Muertos.
He has no idea.
Riley can read but she's never heard of Harry Potter. She can do sums but she's never seen algebra. She has no frame of reference for Van Gogh or Vermeer, Beethoven or Bach, America's Next Top Model or Days of Our Lives, Facebook, YouTube, shoe shopping, international policy, or the American justice system.
She could learn, but she doesn't see much point.
John asks eventually. She knew it would come, but she's still not prepared. Closes her eyes and she's eight, nine, ten. Can smell the smoke, the sickly-sweet odour of flesh burning, feel the press of the hot girder across her back and the way it seared into her as she screamed and screamed. Crackle-crackle pop of machine gun fire. Her mother's wide open eyes and the hand out stretched toward her, the rough star tattoo on her wrist smudged with soot and gore. Skin-job infiltration. Cameron's model. Maybe Cameron herself, who sleeps down the hall ten years older and twenty years before.
"They died in a fire," she tells him. There was smoke, so it's not entirely a lie.
They eat ice cream at the pier. Sit on the sloped roof of her too-large house at night, peering at whatever stars puncture their way through the LA sky, light already millions of years old, stars and planets burned to ash before she was born (before she will be born). They flick pretzels at each other, and she pretends that there's nothing about the openness of the sky that scares her. They have strained, awkward meals at the Connor's house, pizza or Thai, takeout, and she always eats with chopsticks or her hands to stop herself from driving a knife between Cameron's eyes.
Riley knows Sarah doesn't like her much.
Most days, Riley agrees.
This house, Jan and Eric's house, with its loud open spaces, is not the place she lives.
She thought it would be easy to lose. The hunger and pain. The fear. Jessie warned her against it, the forgetting. Kissed her forehead and told her to grow up strong. Riley's only memories of her father are his rough, low voice, and what his insides looked like. She remembers her mother's arms, tight around her despite the oppressive heat, skin tacky with sweet and grime, snatches of song, the tattered dictionary she used to teach her to read. Scratching letters into the dirt on the floor. Her mother reverentially passing her a battered, dented, red can, somehow still intact, and the sharp sweetness on her tongue from the liquid it held. You don't get to pick and choose what you lose.
If you leave a place vacant, something else moves in.
Jesse buys Riley tea, croissants, chocolate. It's kindness, habit, reminder. This is how they met (five years ago for Riley, two for Jesse): Riley, nine or ten, collarbones sharp, mother two weeks dead, caught with her hand in Jesse's rations. Cold press of the barrel to the back of her neck, and Riley was surprised to find that she didn't much mind. She looked up to find Jesse looking at the small star on her inner wrist. "You're the Dawson girl," Jesse said.
('So we can always find each other, no matter what,' her mother told her, pressing the needle into her skin. Sitting in a chair, Riley was too small for her feet to reach the ground, but she still knew what her mother meant.)
The gun dropped, replaced by a hand on her shoulder. "Let's get you some food," Jesse said. Not kindness, but close enough.
Riley is not stupid. She knows -- she knows that the moment she drew her first breath of pre-Judgement Day air, things changed. In her existence, she is an anomaly. Every word she speaks has already been uttered, every sound a place where history changes. Everyone she loves will never exist, and everyone around her is already dead.
She sits in the mall and watches the people ebb and flow. They carry shopping bags, footballs, cell phones, fresh cut flowers. They smile, they laugh, and she crunches ice between her teeth and hates them all. Hates their stupid clothes and their stupid irrelevance and hates their stupid families who won't be around to miss them.
John Connor is nothing and everything she expects. He is more open and less honest, speaks without communicating, thinks after acting. There's an anger running under his skin, none of the tight control she expected. He's not quite there when she's around, off guard and off balance. He thinks she's safe.
Of the John Connor, she remembers this: a solitary figure moving down the hall, a raised fist in a circle of ragged men and women. She met him once, when she was small. Five, six, scraggly and blonde, standing outside at her father's grave as the grey haze on the horizon started to muddy with orange and red. He wiped her cheeks with cracked hands, and carried her back inside.
Her foster parents talk in whispers when they think she can't hear. She is a construct to them, a broken girl pieced together from cracked ribs and bad dreams. She is a weapon in Jesse's hand, a loaded concept, a mote in John's eye. She is sharp with hate, disconnected, stagnant, belly full with food. She has never been born.
Her parents named her Riley, valiant. They just wanted her to live.
They stand on the boardwalk. There is an ocean breeze on her face, fine mist on her face. "Do you ever feel like you don't exist?" she asks John. Licks her lips and tastes salt. Closes her eyes to listen to the rush of surf, the call of gulls. The wooden railing beneath her fingers is worn smooth by sand and time.
"Sometimes, yeah," he says, looking at his hands.
"Like none of this is really happening," she says, staring out at the ocean. "And it's all just so meaningless than you want to scream, only you're a part of it too. You're walking and you're talking and you're breathing, but everything's already happened. We're all just... ghosts in the machine."
She had a nightmare last night, bad, thrashing, and when she woke up, her foster mother was asleep in the chair beside her bed. John buys her ice cream. The family down the block has two little boys who play catch in the park. There's a pair of surfers on the horizon, yellow boards flashing. They're real, she realizes. They're real.
"How do you do it, John?" she asks. Whispers. He's looking at her. Concerned but unwary, and she wants to scream. It's not fair for John Connor to be so young, for her to be so frail. She gets it, then, that to him they're more than a walking, breathing backdrop. "They're alive," she says, salt on her face and bitter on her tongue.
"I can't do this," she tells Jesse. It is midday, baked-asphalt smell heavy on the air, and they are sitting in an open air cafe, in view of at least two hundred people.
"Of course you can," Jesse says. She licks crumbs carefully from her fingers, two muffin wrappers folded neatly on the glass table, edges of her face still filling in. "You're a clever girl."
Riley breathes deep. The packet from her tea bag informs her that it came direct from China. She thinks of the man who grew it, the pilot who flew the transport, the barista who served it to her. She thinks of Alison, Cameron, John. It all seems so petty. "But I won't."
Jesse's look is sharp, direct. "I warned you."
Traffic on the street is a lazy mid-afternoon flow, the sun sharp. Riley realizes, absently, that she's going to burn. "I know."
"You can't really think he'll trust you," Jesse says.
"No," Riley replies. She thinks of the farmer, somewhere in China, of the sun hot on his shoulders, the warmth on the back of his neck. The rich brown soil the bush would have emerged from, the sharp, bright smell of loam. "But that's not what's important."
She is sitting on John's bed when he gets home. The light of the day has long since faded, and she sits in the dark with her arms drawn around her knees. He has a gun in hand before she can register the movement, muzzle inches from her forehead. She doesn't blink.
"Jesus, Riley!" he says, letting the gun drop. There's a cut on his forehead, taped but bleeding sluggishly, and he shrugs stiffly out of his leather jacket. She takes in the moment: soft play of shadows on the walls, rustle of leaves outside the open window. Texture of the bedspread beneath her bare feet, the warmth of the room and John's affection.
"My parents are alive," she says. He sits down on the bed across from her, eyes steady. She breathes deep. "They will both be dead by the time I am nine or ten years old."