I woke up with her voice in my head again. Alodia. My Princess. My wife. Five years on, I can still hear her. And not just the last message she recorded for us all as a goodbye. I can hear her laugh. I hear her bantering back and forth with me, rallying the Catalysts with a rousing speech, putting our enemies in their place with her voice full of venom. I hear her crying. I hear her whispering tenderly, telling me that she loves me.
I've got her last message saved to my cloud, my phone, my computer...I even burned it onto an entire pack of CD's because the very idea that I might ever lose her last words sends me into a panic attack.
In the five years since I lost her, I haven't loved again. I've had cheap, meaningless sex, paid for a few dinners, had a few bought for me. I've made friends who wanted more and who felt me pull away once they started to reach towards the deeper layers of my heart, the layers that belong to my family, to the other Catalysts, and the deepest, most abiding layers to her. Some of them got angry when I broke it off. Some of them quietly gave in. One guy tried so damn hard to save our relationship. I almost gave in to him. He loved me so much, and it was so damned hard not to love him back. Truthfully, I did...really, I did. Or...I was beginning to. I was beginning to think that I could open myself up again. But then I dreamt of her. I dreamt of dancing with her on New Year's Eve at Elysian Lodge. I dreamt of our handfasting. And then the dream ended with my arms around her and the crystal pillar until both vanished and I was left alone. I woke up with tears strangling me. I tried to cry quietly, tried not to disturb the man beside me. But they started coming faster and harder, and I couldn't stop myself from whispering her name over and over until he finally woke up and heard the name on my lips.
He knew I'd been married. He knew my wife was gone. He didn't know how, because how could I explain it? That night, he held me while I cried, and it comforted me. He was there when I left for work the next morning. But by the time I got back, he was gone, and so were all his things. There was a note from him on my pillow. It was long and loving and angry and it made me cry again, but it basically said what I realized was probably the truth: I wasn't over her. I probably never would be.
That was six months ago. I'm not sure why he's slipped in among the thoughts of her as I lie in bed at 6am, trying to convince myself that if I get up now I won't go straight for a flask. Her last message is playing on my phone. When it ends, I roll over and start it up again for the fifth time, rolling onto my back and letting her voice wash over me until the part where she speaks to me directly.
“Jake...I promised you a year and a day, and I'm sorry I won't be able to fulfill that vow. What we had is very rare. I'm grate--”
My eyes fly open as her voice abruptly cuts off. Fear bites deep in my gut as I roll over to look at the screen. Incoming call from...Diego. My breath shakes as I let it out. Irritation floods in, washing away the fear. I snatch up the phone, thumbing the green button.
“Fuck you, Diego, you scared the shit outta me!”
“Sorry, did I wake you?”
“No, you asshole, I was listening! Your stupid phone call cut her off!”
There's a pause on the other end. “...Jake, please tell me you're not drunk already.”
“Fuck you. What're you doing calling my worthless ass at six in the fucking morning?”
“I need to see you. Today if at all possible.”
I sit up, rubbing my eyes. “I thought you were in California with your folks this week?”
“Yeah. I was. Now I'm in Louisiana looking for you. I'm at a motel in Baton Rouge.”
“The hell? Diego, we're all gonna be in the Caribbean in two weeks. Can't this wait?”
“No. Not really. ...It's about Alodia.”
It's my turn to pause. “...What about Alodia?”
“I don't want to say over the phone. I can make it to Pearl River in two hours. Let me buy you breakfast when I get there, okay?”
I groan. “Fine. Fucking fine...you know where to find me.”
“Yeah. Stay off the bottle 'till I get there, okay?”
“Love you, too, Jake,” he replies sardonically. I thumb off the call and toss the phone back on the pillow. I got two hours to make myself look like a functioning human being, and I'm damn sure not getting any more sleep before then. I drag myself out of bed and stumble into the shower, the memory of her voice still ringing in my head.
Five years since she gave away her existence to save the world. I found Mike on the other side of the island. He was alive, and so was Lundgren, both with their memories intact, including the memory of Mike's sacrifice. I guess it was Alodia's last gift to me. I was scared shitless to find Lundgren alive. Every instinct told me to run, but that felt too much like spitting on her grave. So we fought. The vision Vaanu had granted me was destined to come true. And for awhile, I road that high. But then the knowledge that she'd never share in my triumph set in, and I was back to where I started. I'm living alone at my grandparents' old place these days. The other Catalysts don't like me living alone since Alodia's not with me. Mike and I lived together for awhile, but after Lundgren's trial, he wanted to go back to his folks in Portland. I didn't blame him. After what he went through he needed a support system, and once the trial was over and I had nothing but my grief to focus on, I just wasn't enough. He did offer to let me stay with him. For awhile, I did. But we were both wrestling with our own crap, and I'm not proud to admit it, but I know I just made things harder on him. After a few knock-down-drag-out fights over dumb shit, we both accepted that it was better for our friendship if we kept our distance while we got past the worst. We call once a week to check in, keep each other from going too far off the deep end. For awhile, I stayed with my sister in Los Angeles, which had the advantage of making it easy for Diego and me to meet up when he was visiting his folks in Riverside. But that didn't last either.
Thing is...without her, that timer inside me had started running again. Going off and telling me it was time to move on again. And so far, no one I've met or taken to bed since then has made it stop like she did. I'm in Pearl River for now, but I can feel my time here is running short. ...Maybe I will find one of the other Catalysts to hole up with for awhile. Just to get everyone off my back. Or maybe I'll just go back to Costa Rica.
For now, though, I get dressed and wander into the living room and make myself some coffee while I wait for Diego to show up. I plop myself on the couch and turn on the TV, keeping the volume low so I can't really make out individual words. I don't want to listen to anything. I just want something to keep the silence away, and I don't think I can listen to her last words again right now without giving in to the lure of the bottle. I turn on some crappy tabloid talk show and imagine going on one of those things with the other Catalysts. We had opportunities when we got back to the States. I never took any of them. It was hard enough talking to the authorities about what happened on the island without bringing up Alodia. I wasn't looking for any kind of fame or recognition. I just wanted to mourn.
My phone buzzes beside me. Diego's calling again. Two hours have passed already. I thumb the green button.
“Hey. You here?”
“Yeah. Right outside.”
I hang up and wander outside. Diego's there, standing beside what looks like a swanky new car, gleaming deep red in the morning sunlight. At the sight of him, I feel tears threatening again. I didn't even realize how much I missed him. I never realize how much I miss any of them until I see them again. Most of the time, she's the only one it hurts to think about. But now Diego's holding his arms out to me, and I want to bawl like a baby. I choke in down and move in to accept his embrace.
“You look like you're doin' okay,” I murmur.
“And you smell like you took a shower, so that's encouraging. No whiskey breath, either.”
“Sober as a judge, Short Stuff. Promise.”
“...Not so much...”
He pulls back and looks me over, frowning. “...You look like you've been losing weight again.”
I shift uncomfortably. “Two pounds,” I admit. “But before that, I'd gained back seven, so I ain't in the red.”
I can see him debating whether to press the issue. Wondering whether I'll pull back if he does. I'm not so sure myself at the moment. Finally he sighs and slings an arm over my shoulders.
“C'mon. I promised you breakfast.”
Fifteen minutes later, we're in a red naugahyde booth at a local diner, digging into plates of pancakes and bacon with biscuits and gravy on the side. I'm more hungry than I realized, and eat enthusiastically, which seems to relax Diego slightly. When I've managed to slow down a little, I wipe my lips and look up at him.
“He's still in London. Grace and Aleister are keeping him company while I'm stateside.”
“Yeah? How they doing?”
“They're good, if a bit sleep-deprived. Reggie's teething, so...”
“Heh...gotta admit, I can't wait to see the little rugrat...”
Diego grins. “He's pretty frickin adorable...” His mouth twitches slightly. He looks like he's thinking something he's not sure he should say.
“...So...you said you had something to talk to me about? ...Something about Alodia?”
He exhales slowly. “...Yeah. ...How close have you been following the news lately?”
“Close as I ever do...which isn't very. I know who won the national election, know what's been shot up or bombed lately...where the major natural disasters are...”
“...Have you heard what happened at Prescott Industries a few days ago?”
As a matter of fact, the incident did capture my attention. Prescott Industries is the long time rival company of Rourke International. With Rourke in a hospital for the criminally insane, ownership of the company has passed to Aleister and Estela. I suspect Iris had something to do with the fact that his will included both of them. No way Rourke would encourage his children to work together in anything. But for the life of me, I couldn't guess which one of their names was on the will the night Alodia gave herself back to Vaanu. Anyway, a couple nights ago, Silas Prescott unveiled something he called the Prism Gate. He said it was supposed to be a source of renewable energy, but something about the images I saw reminded me so much of the Lernaean Gate that I had to turn my TV off because I was working myself into another panic attack and I still ended up huddled behind the couch sobbing. I read the next morning that the gala had been broken into and the Prism Gate had blown up part of the building. Miraculously, no one was killed, though there were injuries.
“You mean the Prism Gate thing that exploded.”
“Yeah. I was watching the news coverage. Grace and Aleister and Varyyn called me from London the next day. ...They all got the same feeling I did. The Gate is powered by a crystal, and we think the crystal came from La Huerta.”
“There are no more crystals,” I say flatly. “Vaanu took them with it when it departed. When Alodia...”
“I know. I know. But hear me out here. Silas Prescott and Everett Rourke were rivals for years. And back on the island, Alodia did find a note with the Ursa idol that mentioned a Silas. ...What if Silas Prescott does have a crystal from the island, and it somehow managed to survive because he took it off the island before the eruption?”
I sigh. “I dunno, Diego. What if? What if? What does it matter?”
“...I wasn't sure myself. I'm still not really sure. Except...” He pauses, swallowing. “The next evening, I found my mom going through photo albums. I sat down to go through them with her, and I found this.”
He reaches into his messenger bag and pulls out a photo, sliding it across the table toward me. I pick it up and look at it. Immediately, my heart drops.
Two children, maybe two or three years old, are seated at a yellow plastic table, eating sandwiches, sippy cups in front of them. One is a boy immediately recognizable as Diego. The other is a girl with golden blonde hair swept back from her face and held with barrettes. Bright blue eyes reflect the sunlight streaming through the window. Even at that age, her smile is unmistakeable.
“...Yeah. It's Allie, right? I mean...it looks just like her...”
“Wh-who did your mom say she was?”
“Just a rich girl she used to nanny for. Mama couldn't remember her name. ...But she did say the girl was an orphan. That her aunt and uncle were raising her.”
“...But that...that isn't...” I swallow. “It couldn't be her. I mean, your mom coulda been a nanny for another blonde girl who was being raised by relatives. I mean you built Alodia's backstory outta something, right? Maybe just a vague memory...”
“...That's what I thought, too. At first. But then I was going through some stuff in my old room, and...”
He reaches into his messenger bag again, this time pulling out a battered shoebox. He sets it on the table between us and lifts the lid. On top of a pile of odds and ends are two more photos. I take them out and examine them. The top one shows an eight- or nine-year-old Diego with a backpack on his shoulders, hugging a blonde-haired girl in a crisp white blouse and a pale blue skirt with a pink rose pattern blooming over its surface. The blonde girl also wears a backpack. She's missing her two front teeth, and her tongue pokes adorably through the gap as she grins at the camera over Diego's arms. She looks even more like Alodia than the girl with the sandwich in the first picture. My hands shake as I flip to the second picture. When I see it, I nearly drop it.
...It's Alodia. My Alodia. My Princess. My wife. Not much younger than she was when I met her, and unmistakeable. She's dressed in an elegant burgundy gown with rhinestones on the bodice, and a corsage on her wrist. Diego, in a tuxedo and boutonniere, is with her, posed behind her in front of a formal blue backdrop. Above them, a glittering banner reads: PROM 2014.
“...Senior prom,” Diego murmurs. “...I actually had a date. A real date with a guy I really liked. And she had been asked by this girl. Neither of us were out yet, so we decided we'd go together and get the picture for my parents' sake. ...Prom was a small distaster. Her date didn't show, mine showed up drunk. He and I got kicked out, I spent the night holding his head and cleaning puke off my shoes. Meanwhile, she got one dance from the prom king, who promptly decided to stick his tongue down her throat.”
I stare at him. “...That so...?”
“...I can remember it, Jake. ...I can also remember spending senior prom in my room watching old sitcoms.” He reaches across the table and taps the first picture. “That was the first day of third grade. The first year we went to school together. She went to one of the fancy private schools in Riverside for first and second grade. But one day her class was asked to draw pictures of their best friends. She drew me. But some snotty girl who had decided she was her best friend took offense, and insulted me. ...Allie got kicked out of school for sucker-punching her at recess.”
“...That sounds like her...”
“...Except it never happened. When I had to draw a picture of my best friend, I drew a blonde girl in a fancy dress and told everyone she was my friend who went to a different school. No one believed me, and my story fell apart under cross-examination. Plus the boys made fun of me for drawing a girl in a fancy dress.”
“...Diego, what the fuck is going on here?”
“Shit, Jake, I have no clue. ...But suddenly, I feel like I'm remembering two timelines. One where she existed, exactly as I imagined her, and one where she's just my imaginary friend come to life, who gave herself up to save us all...”
“Which definitely happened. ...And if it didn't, I'm frankly gonna be pissed as hell that I've spent five years mourning my wife for nothing.”
“...But now I have evidence of her existence. Photographic evidence. ...What's more is that I swear I can remember her address in Riverside. I can picture the house. I...haven't driven over there, or even Google mapped it, I admit. A part of me is too scared to...”
“...I don't get it, Diego...I don't understand...”
“I don't either.” His expression starts to waver, his dark eyes sparkling with tears. “...I miss her, Jake. I miss not knowing what she really was. I miss believing that she really was my childhood best friend who stood by me for years. ...I miss believing she would always be a part of my life.”
“...Aw fuck, Diego...please don't make me break down in a diner...”
“I had to see you. I had to show this to you. To the other person in the world who loved her as much as I did. ...I needed you to see it, too. Because if you can see it...if anyone can see it besides me who knows the truth...” He trails off. He's quiet long enough that I start to look in the box again.
“...What's the rest of this stuff?”
“...More keepsakes. More memories that I know don't really exist. ...The friendship bracelet she made me. ...A birthday card she gave me... There's a funny note in there, in her handwriting. With her signature.”
“...And your parents don't remember whether you went to your senior prom?”
“I haven't asked. I'm scared to, just like I'm scared to drive by the house where she grew up.” He bites his lip. “I don't want to ask and have my hopes dashed. I don't want to say what I'm thinking, either, because I don't want to get my hopes up. But...Jake...I think she's coming back.”
… I wasn't gonna do it. I wasn't gonna break down bawling in a goddamn diner. But here I am doing just that. I bury my head in my arms and sob like a baby. I feel Diego's hand on my shoulder and I can't even react for a good twenty minutes. Finally, with my head throbbing and leaking from every orifice, I weakly raise my head.
“Shit...” I whisper. “Goddammit...do you have any idea how hard I wanna believe that?”
“I think I have an inkling, yeah.”
“I'm not sure I dare, though.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. ...But...if it has something to do with Silas Prescott's machine...do you think I should tell the others?”
“No.” I startle myself with the speed of my answer, the lack of hesitation. “...They got hopes I ain't keen to dash, either. ...All my life, I ain't gonna stop hoping. Don't think you are either. But the others...”
“...Yeah. Maybe you're right. Not yet, anyway.”
“Wait until we know more. Maybe by the time we see them we'll be able to decide what we wanna do.”
* * *
I let Diego hang around a couple more days to break the silence and keep me off the bottle. His news shook me deep. I'm scared as fuck to hope, but I can't help it. It's been five years, and it doesn't hurt any less than it did the first day. I just want her back in my arms. I want to smell her hair again, taste her mouth...
Diego tries to distract me, catching me up on how things are going with him and Varyyn, how he's liking teaching. Hartfeld has invited him back a few times as a guest professor. He's taken the invitations, but he admits it hurts to be back there without her. Even if she was never really there. ...But maybe she was after all.
The third day, I wake up to find him packing his duffle. “Headin' out already?”
“Well, I'm not going to eat and run or anything, but I ought to be getting out of your hair. ...Unless you want me to stick around a couple days longer? Varyyn will understand if you do.”
“Nah. I'm fine. Go on back to your husband. ...At least one of us should have someone to hold all through the night...”
He pauses. “Heh...funny. That's exactly the line of thinking that made me push her to sleep with you...”
“Yeah. ...Hilarious...” My phone starts buzzing insistantly. I sigh, snatching it up. My sister's calling. I tap the screen. “Mornin' Rebecca. What's up?”
“Mornin' Jacob. ...You got a minute?”
“For you, sis, always.”
“...This is gonna sound like a weird question. ...What was the name of your wife?”
For a moment, I freeze, my blood fizzing with something like alarm or dread. I cast a glance at Diego, putting a finger to my lips. A couple taps on my screen puts my sister on speaker.
“...Why do you ask?”
“...Answer my question first, Jake.”
“H-her name was Alodia.” Seeing Diego mouth something, I add, “Chandler. Alodia Chandler.”
“...And what did you say happened to her?”
I feel myself starting to sweat. Diego inches closer to me, his face pale. “Rebecca, what's this about?”
She hesitates. I can almost hear her thinking it over. “It's just...you hardly ever talk about what happened to her.”
Diego tiptoes over to his bag and digs something out of it. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see it's a notebook. He pulls out a pen and hastily scribbles something on a page.
“Yeah...” I say into the phone. “It's kinda painful...”
“I know, but...” Rebecca sighs. “...Jake, just tell me you didn't kill her.”
“...The fuck?!” I can't keep the indignation out of my voice. I look over at Diego, who is side-eyeing the phone like it might come to life and bite him. He tiptoes back over to me and holds up the notebook for me to examine. My eyes frantically scan the page.
“Look, I ain't asking because I honestly think you did...”
“Then why the hell are you asking?” I take another look at what Diego's written for me: She disappeared. No body. “Look, Rebecca...I met her in the Caribbean. She was on La Huerta with me when all that shit with Rourke International went down. She disappeared one night, and her body was never found. Probably one of his victims. Or Lundgren's.”
“Now will you tell me what the fuck this is about please?”
“...I shouldn't, Jake. ...But you're my baby brother, and I didn't think I could keep this from you. I was goin' over the old records, cleaning stuff out and the like. I came across an old missing persons report among the cold cases. It was filed just about the time you got back. Alodia Rose Chandler, originally of Riverside, California. She disappeared the summer before her senior year at Hartfeld University in Massachusetts, on a trip to La Huerta. The name rang a bell with me, and obviously La Huerta got my attention. The timing was right, and something about it just felt...off to me. ...Did you ever try to contact her family? Ever tell them you were married to her?”
“...I...don't think I ever knew her family...” I reply lamely. My mouth is dry, and my hands are shaking.
“It seems strange that it should end up in cold cases...”
“Yeah...Hey, sis...can I ask you a massive favor?”
“You can ask. Whether or not I do it...”
“It's a lot to ask, but you called me with this information, I think you know you can trust me. ...I need you to keep this under your hat for a little while. Just a few months.”
“Sure. I'll do that.”
I blink. “Wow, really? Just like that?”
“Like you said, I trust you. You're my baby brother. Besides, it's a cold case. Unless you actually have any new evidence...”
“No...I don't. Not yet. ...But five years, I ain't really been able to stop hoping...”
“...I get that. ...Sorry for acting so weird. I guess it's just like I said. Something felt...off.”
“Everything about what happened on La Huerta was off,” I reply flatly. “Someday, sis, I'll tell you everything. ...But for now, I gotta get going. Gotta get ready for work.”
“Sure. Love you, Jake.”
“Love you, too.” My fingers are still shaking as I tap the screen to disconnect the call. I look over at Diego. “...Quick thinking there, Short Stuff.”
“...Jake...” His face is pale. His breath shudders. “...That was...she...”
“...I don't think we can avoid telling the others now,” I murmur. “...Something tells me we got a shitstorm brewing.”
“...A shitstorm that might bring Allie back...”
“I don't know. ...But it would be wrong to keep it from them. We'll tell them when we meet up in a few weeks. Maybe we'll know more by then.”
“Diego!” Allie screams frantically. “Diego, hold on! Please, please hold on!” I feel her hands on my face, but I can't make her out above me. My vision has gone narrow, filling with static at the edges. Every breath hurts, and I can taste blood. My ribs throb where one of the muggers got me with a baseball bat. I remember them holding us down, going through her purse and my pockets and digging out all our cash. I don't think it was supposed to be anything but a mugging, but one of them got off on having us helpless and started getting handsy with Allie. Or maybe he was pissed at her for fighting back and biting him. His companions told him to lay off, but he went for her jeans, so I went for him. That was when his friend got me in the ribs.
Now I'm struggling to breathe, struggling to focus on my best friend's face above me, focus on her tearful voice. A white light fills my vision, making me wince.
“Diego?” A woman's voice, with a soft Southern drawl. “I'm officer Rebecca McKenzie, and you're gonna going to be just fine. We got paramedics on route, so you just gotta stay with us, okay?”
“Stay with me, Diego,” Allie whimpers. “Please for the love of God, stay with me...”
I sit up sharply, gasping. A hand beside me finds mine and squeezes it.
“Are you all right, my love?” I exhale slowly, turning to see Varyyn beside me on the small plane bound for La Huerta. I bring his hand to my lips and kiss it.
“I'm okay, sweetheart. ...Just...another dream...”
I swallow, nodding. “...Another memory that shouldn't be real.” I feel a pair of hands come down on my head from behind me and muss my hair.
“Hey, Professor Soto!” Craig laughs. “Stop whispering with your husband and check out the view to your left! We're almost there!”
I grin and turn to gaze past Varyyn and out the window at the familiar island rapidly growing underneath us. Varyyn presses his nose to the window. “...I never grow tired of seeing it from the sky...”
“I never grow tired of watching you see it from the sky,” I murmur. Turning away from the window, Varyyn smiles at me and leans in to brush my lips with his.
“Heeeeey, you two cool it with the PDA!” Zahra leans around to poke me in the shoulder. “There's a child present!”
“Abababababa!” Reggie babbles, flailing in Aleister's arms.
“Don't worry about Reggie, Z. If he's not traumatized by his parents, he's not gonna be traumatized by these two.”
“I'm much less worried about Diego and Varyyn than I am about the two of you,” Aleister retorts.
“Be nice, sugar,” Grace chides, tweaking her husband's ribs. Aleister yelps with surprised laughter.
“Grace, that tickles!” Reggie abruptly starts to wail in his father's arms, an ear-piercing howl. Murphy, who had been dozing under my feet, leaps to attention, trilling.
“Uh-oh!” Quinn gasps. “Sad baby! Do your ears hurt, Reggie-rabbit?”
“That, or his mouth,” Grace sighs. “Or both. Poor baby boy.” Estela clicks her tongue, turning around in her seat.
“That poor child,” she sighs, plucking the baby from his Aleister's arms. “Come on, Reginald. Come to your Tia Estela. She will make you feel better.” She sinks back into her seat and settles Reggie on her lap.
“I have his teething ring here.”
“No need,” Estela replies. “My finger is perfectly clean and he likes it better.”
“Yup, no doubt about it,” Raj remarks. “If anything could make Estela embrace her Rourke blood, it could only be her cute little nephew.”
“Shut up, Raj,” Estela answers blithely. Settling back in her seat, she begins to sing a lullaby in Spanish.
“I still can't believe any of us have kids,” Sean remarks. “I'm starting to feel old.”
“Sean, you're not even thirty!” Michelle groans. “The only reason you feel old is because you abuse your body for a living!”
“Which is why I'm engaged to a doctor.”
Michelle snorts. “I'm still just a lowly intern. I'm damn lucky to get the time off to come here every year.”
“Yeah, but you're the best intern in that whole hospital. That's why you can get away with anything.”
“Attention all Catalysts, Vaanti, and rugrats!” Jake's voice sounds over the speaker. “Thank you for flying Rourke International, now five years without a supervillain at its helm. As usual, let's take a moment to thank our gracious hosts, Aleister Rourke and Estela Montoya, who thankfully have turned out nothing like their father, and who are kind enough to allow us access to their private family island again this year for the fifth annual Catalyst reunion. We're starting our descent, so if you could get your asses in your seats and buckle up, we'll be on the ground in about ten minutes, barring another time storm or sea monster attack.”
Everyone chuckles at his speech, the same one he gives every year. But I wonder if they hear what I hear, how forced the brightness in his voice is. By the end of the week, he won't be able to hide the pain he's in, but I wonder if anyone besides me realizes how soon it starts biting. I sigh, picking up Murphy and settling him on my lap.
“You remember how this goes, fella? Gotta stay still so you don't go flying all over the place.”
Murphy purrs his agreement and nestles in my arms. We land smoothly and disembark, stepping onto the island where all our lives changed forever. The Celestial is gone, replaced by a building reminiscent of Rosencraft Manor, big enough to comfortably house the eleven remaining Catalysts, plus a few guests. We make our way there to get settled in, all except for Varyyn. It's become our ritual to spend three days at the manorhouse before moving onto Elyys'tel. The Vaanti are more at peace now than they have been in their entire history, now that Aleister and Estela have closed the island to tourists and their society is protected. Varyyn has abdicated his throne, passing the title of elyyshar to Seraxa. But he likes to spend what time he has on La Huerta among his people, getting back to his roots. He exchanges his human disguise for his Vaanti warrior clothes, gives me a kiss goodbye, and takes off for Elyys'tel.
* * *
Our reunion begins as it always does: with a feast, prepared by Raj. Jake and I hold our peace while everyone eats, catching up on what's new in everyone's life. How Sean and Michelle's wedding plans are coming, how they've even managed to set a date with Sean being the Condors' star player and Michelle being run off her feet at the hospital. How big Reggie is getting, how Rourke International is holding up under its new management. How Zahra is managing to balance her band with her career as R.I.'s head of security. Grace's latest art show.
We discuss the success of the Kelly Foundation and how Quinn's parents are slowly rediscovering their love. She never told them that her Rotterdam's ever came back, so she has never felt the need to explain why it went away for good. They still put it down to the experimental treatments she went through before the island.
Estela's got a new boyfriend in San Trobida, whom she strongly hints was a former resistance operative. Raj's next show is going to be shot in Tokyo. Craig is excited about the new video game he's helping to design. The Ultra Bowl series has been a huge moneymaker, but he pitched an idea for a game based on our adventures on La Huerta, and it seems his teammates are getting behind it. We all chatter excitedly about that for awhile, until the others gradually start to realize that Jake isn't joining in.
“...How about you, Jake?” Michelle asks. “What's new with you?”
Jake looks down at his plate. “Ah...you know. Not much. Living at my grandparents' old place in Pearl River. ...Tending bar...”
There is a moment of awkward silence. The first few years, with Lundgren's trial and everything, it made sense for Jake to be taking things slow as he got settled back in. But now, five years later, I think everyone's finally understanding what has been clear to me for a few years now: Jake isn't moving on. He isn't getting over her. He can't let her go. Sean reaches over to grip his shoulder.
“...We all miss her,” he says softly.
“...Not like I do,” Jake replies, not unkindly. He's just stating a fact. No one could possibly miss Allie more than Jake does. ...Except me. Me with the memories that shouldn't exist.
Raj clears his throat. “On that note, I think it's a good time for me to point out that it's getting dark out. I think it's time to light the bonfire.”
The bonfire has become another ritual of ours over the last five years. Each step is precise, and carried out with reverence and solemnity. Back in Riverside or London or Hartfeld, I can appreciate how superstitious it all is. But on the shores of La Huerta, it's how we honor her and her sacrifice. And it's powerful, almost magical. When I think about all she was...it's really no wonder the Vaanti built their society around her.
Grace settles a sleeping Reggie into a papoose on her chest. Raj has mixed our signature cocktails, the exact same drinks he fixed each of us on our third night at The Celestial when we were fighting over what to do next. A twelfth drink is also prepared. The one Jake made for her beside the pool on that very first night, when she asked him to make a drink inspired by her. We make our way down to the beach by way of the pool, leaving our drinks on the bar counter while we go to build the fire. When it's roaring and crackling away beautifully, we each cut a bit of bark from the nearest tree, carving our Hadean signs into the backs with a knife passed between us. Jake cuts two pieces, carving the sign of Andromeda into one of them. We gather in a circle around the bonfire. Jake starts us off, throwing his first piece of bark onto the flame.
“Lupus. The Wolf. Jacob Lucus McKenzie.”
I follow suit. “Canis. The Dog. Diego Ricardo Ortiz Soto.”
“Cygnus. The Swan. Grace Tamara Hall-Rourke.”
“Aquila. The Eagle. Sean Marcus Gayle.”
“Draco. The Dragon. Estela Montoya Rourke.”
“Delphinus. The Dolphin. Quinn Erin Kelly.”
“Serpens. The Snake. Everett Aleister Rourke the Second.”
“Corvus. The Crow. Zahra Yasmin Namazi.”
“Centaurus. The Centaur. Raj Aditya Bhandarkhar.”
“Ursa. The Bear. Kuan-yu Craig Hsiao.”
“Pavo. The Peacock. Michelle Thuy Nguyen.”
Jake holds the second piece of bark reverently over the flame. “All Adds Up. Eleven catalysts made the twelfth. She was born of Vaanu, nurtured and shaped by our hopes and our dreams, our loves and our losses. Our fears, and our hatreds. She was born to bring us all hope. Andromeda. The Chained Woman. The Endless. Alodia. We love you and miss you. With all of us gathered here around this fire, on this island, we give you back a measure of the hope and the love you gave to us, sending it out among the stars to find you wherever you are now.”
He tosses the bark onto the fire, and we all join hands, murmuring in unison. “Two-thousand, one-hundred, thirty-nine. May every cycle be remembered and rewarded.”
I feel Jake and Grace squeeze my hands before releasing them. We all collect our drinks and regroup around the fire. I pull out my phone and let her final message play. We close our eyes and let her voice wash over us, reverent and silent save for those who can't hold back their tears.
“...Our summer is over now, but another will come soon. When it does, imagine me there with you. Spending our days on the beach, watching every sunset melt into the sea, and gazing at stars that fill our hearts with wonder. Because with you is exactly where I will be.”
I turn off my phone and put it back in my pocket. I watch the others brushing tears from their eyes.
“Happy Reunion, everyone. Here's to five years.” I raise my glass. “And here's to Alodia.”
“To Alodia,” the others echo, raising their glasses.
A high-pitched yelp of alarm from Murphy makes me jump. Reggie starts awake and lets out an enraged howl. Murphy pays him no mind, yapping insistantly. He's leapt to his paws, his attention pinned on the treeline. We turn, following his gaze. My heart wedges in my throat.
… She's there. Allie is there, standing at the treeline, the moonlight reflecting off her fair skin and golden-blonde hair. She casts her clear blue gaze between the eleven of us. She flexes her fingers, a shy, almost nervous smile curving her lips.
“...Hey, guys. ...Did someone call me?”