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Sandcastles

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Chapter One

If she had ever imagined life on the run, none of this would have made the list. Of course, there had never been a need to her to entertain such a possibility – not until Michael Scofield walked into her infirmary, that is.

Her bare feet were now immersed in the golden sand. The sun shone down on her in all its glory, reflecting off the idle waves. The light breeze, imbued with the smell of the ocean, was embracing her figure, caressing the cuts on her arms. If she closed her eyes, she could all but mistake it for the touch of his fingers. With her eyes shut, with only the calming sound of the waves breaking upon hitting the shore and the laughter of kids building a sandcastle to the left of her, the magnitude of all that had happened over the past week – her father's death, Gila, oh, Gila – felt a little less overwhelming. As broken as she was, she had never felt more alive.

Any day now, she repeated to herself for a countless time, any day he'd be here. She'd bury her face in the crook of his neck and his arms would press her to him, isolating them in a cocoon of … God, she was insane for merely considering the word. He was all that she had left. It was a fact that should make alarms in her head go off, but it didn't matter. He had annihilated her world, smashed it into pieces so small she could barely recognize herself – she had relapsed, for god's sake –, but they would build a new existence for themselves, together. There was an ocean of possibilities – it was all around her, so bright, so endless. They would get on a boat and sail off into the sunset. Only two months ago she would see it as a cloying trope, but she wasn't in love then. Insane, irrational, devastating, explosive, healing love.

Costa Rica was just an aberration in his plans. That was what Bruce Bennett had told her when he found her in that cheap motel in Nebraska, with blood still oozing from where the shard had penetrated her skin and the collar still wet from when she had been held underwater. She was sitting on a duvet, wanting a shot of morphine, just one, just to stop trembling, for her mind to calm down just a little, like a hundred others perched there before her, wanting to make love, to writhe under his reassuring frame, with her heart racing, reassembled the moment she had laid her eyes on him again.

A car came to a stop on the motel parking lot under her window. She rose with urgency that accompanied her since she had thrown herself from the window in Gila, further exacerbated when she had realized he was gone. She peeked through the curtains that had lost their divine white many washes ago, now permeated with the stench of cigarette smoke.

She held her breath, waiting for a figure to emerge from the parked car. It would certainly be a nameless nobody, like umpteen times before today, the rational part of her insisted, too tiny to silence her grief, panic, fear, longing. She was crazy to think, to just hope that it could be him. How could he possibly know? She had picked a random bus, the fourth leaving Gila, just to make it less obvious. He had been long gone by then, that one more day slipping away from her while she had been underwater. He must have been out of the country by now. Even if he did stay behind to find her, how could he know where she was? She herself had no fucking clue where she had gotten off the bus.

What had she been thinking, leaving their room by herself? The walls the night had built around them numbed her, shielding the insidious threat from her grasp. She had walked up that parking lot with a beam that still felt foreign to her, that should abash her, yet it felt so right. Now she would be hunted down like a dog with rabies, shot without the aim to protect, left behind without a marker to remember her by. And while her life would be ending, he'd have a new beginning. He'd remember her, for a while, certainly. Would he wonder what happened to her? Would he know it wasn't her choice? But the feel of her underneath his fingertips, the taste of her on his lips, it was all too ephemeral, too disjointed to last. He'd meet someone someday, and the woman would distract his thoughts until she'd be nothing more than an occasional echo, silenced by the babel of bills, babies, and freedom. He'd live out what would be the last thing on her eyelids.

Her throat was dry, her fingers clenched the curtain, and the tension in her legs readied her to bolt the moment she'd see a smile of a friend on the killer's face. She could cry with relief when the man turned and it was Bruce Bennett.

Michael had looked him up, Bruce told her. He wanted her out of the country, safe. From the way Bruce's eyes lingered on her bandaged upper arm, she guessed Michael must have known what had happened. Relief rippled through her body again, her desire to cry, finally cry, almost too much to bear. But he couldn't risk any direct contact with her, she forced herself to focus again on Bruce's words. Not after what had transpired in Gila. So Bruce was here instead, with a new passport for her, a new name. He was to get her to Costa Rica where she'd stay until it was safe for Michael to come and get her. Not Panama, Bruce stressed. People were working on decoding Michael's plan and Panama was its cornerstone. No way was she to be in Panama by herself. It was in Costa Rica that she was to wait for him.

Wait for him.

Wait for me.

If she had any doubt about the verity of Bruce's words, they evanesced with the memory of Michael's voice.

So here she was, on a beach in a sequestered town in Costa Rica, with her new papers stowed away in a nightstand in her beach-front cottage. Bruce had given her the keys. What could be arranged on such a short notice, Bruce had told her. But it didn't matter. They would be out of here, together, in a matter of days, she reminded herself.

The cool of the rising tide enveloped her feet, awakening her from her reverie. The kids on her left shouted and dispersed up the beach. Their sandcastle was losing its battle with the ocean, swallowed by the water wall by wall.

Four weeks later the adrenaline, the optimism, the infatuation had enfeebled enough for all that she had suppressed to return with vengeance. The heat of the Panamanian summer also seemed to be getting worse by the minute.

"It's actually been a clement summer so far," a girl she befriended rebuked her words. "You're just not used to it."

She held on to Chloé's words with all her might, hoping she'd acclimatize soon. But beads of sweat covered her forehead regardless of what she was doing, sitting under the open window in her cottage, letting the breeze caress her hair (she still wasn't used to it only reaching her shoulders), or seeking shadow in the market when shopping for produce.

Why she even bothered getting food was beyond her as well. She couldn't keep anything down. If it wasn't the heat upsetting her stomach, it was the memories. There wasn't a single night that went undisturbed. She lay on top of the covers, yet woke up every night with her skin glowing from sweat. Some nights she could swear she smelled the reek of blueberry pies, sending her to seek solace on the cool tiles in the bathroom. Other nights there was an invisible smoke encompassing her and she kept looking up for a hand to save her, only to realize she wasn't in Fox River anymore. Once she toddled toward the kitchen for a glass of water when her sleep-deprived eyes missed the partly opened door. She screamed, thinking that amidst the shadows she had discovered her father's body yet again.

"You need to keep the windows open at night," Chloé told her. "It is the only time the air cools."

She couldn't tell her, of course, that she didn't dare to sleep with the windows open, not after the bloodshed she had lived through.

Most nights she still listened for a sound of someone else being in the cottage. She turned on the night light and took the kitchen knife she kept on top of her new identity. Tiptoeing, she surveyed the cottage, ready to push the knife into a body if one appeared in front of her. At the same time, there was hesitation, just in case it was his face that the moonlight illuminated.

There was never anyone there.

She was going crazy.

Before returning to the bedroom, she checked the door – double locked – and the windows – all closed. Throwing the sweat-drenched covers on the floor, she rolled into a fetus position, trying to calm her breathing. The cold water she later splashed onto her face seemed to match the heat of her burning skin.

Where was he?

In the middle of the night, with nothing but shadows keeping her company and the excruciating humidity disrupting her breathing, she feared she already knew.

Seeing Bruce on her doorstep one morning was the first thing that made her smile in weeks. He, too, a lifelong Chicago resident, struggled with the heat. She had never seen him in anything but his professional attire, not even when he had spent a day with her when she was little and her father (the word almost made her stomach turn upside down again) prioritized work over her. The realization widened her grin. She walked into his embrace and said she was okay.

There was a shopping bag hanging off his wrist.

"I brought breakfast," he said. They walked to the beach, to the pier from which fishermen headed into the early morning mist. The sun was still safely in the east, and the closeness of the sea was a respite that filled her lungs with air for the first time in what felt like an eternity.

They took off their shoes, and he rolled up his trousers around his knees before dipping his feet in the water. After sighing with relief, he took off his tie as well and flung it over his shoulder.

As happy as she was to see Bruce, there was worry in every fiber of her and a question on the tip of her tongue. He must have sensed it; while putting fruit and pastry from the bag and onto the wooden pier, he said, "He's okay."

"Good to know," she exhaled the air she had held for weeks. To make sure he didn't see it, she let her eyes run up and down the beach. There was an elderly couple, holding hands and giggling into each other's face. The kids were back, trying their luck with sandcastles once more. From where she was sitting, she could see they were too close to the edge of the water again.

"There has been a change of plans, though," he continued after a minute. "They, um, from what I understand, they have someone working with them now. Someone from the inside. It is not about running anymore. They are hoping to prove that Lincoln is innocent. To be exonerated. So that you will all be able to live free again. In America."

Of course he would do that, she thought to herself.

"So it will be a bit longer?" she asked, struggling to maintain a neutral tone.

"Just a little bit longer," he intoned.

The next time Bruce Bennett showed up, it was more than a little bit later and she wasn't alone anymore.

It was over three months since she had felt his hands caressing, claiming her and since he had given her a new name. The scars on her arms were gone – well, except for the deepest one, but her medical degree had never let her believe it would ever properly heal, having stitched herself up in the dim bathroom light – and her mind, her emotions finally accepted her choice of what she wanted to remember about Gila.

It had just rained, and even though it was two in the morning, the window in her living room was open wide. She was in the rocking chair she had got in the flea market for a ridiculously low price; Chloé's father was home while his ship was in Golfito and later put it together for her. Perhaps, she wondered, beers here would be even less than twenty-five cents at happy hour. She'd let him find that one out, at least for the next couple of months.

The breeze was refreshing and she let it cool her skin. She closed her eyes at the sensation, listening to the rustling of the curtains and the purring of the cat.

The cat. While she had thought there was someone sneaking around the cottage, trying to break in, it had only been the cat all along. She found the curious paws sleeping on her doormat one morning when heading to the market. It ran away startled, but she left it some milk in a saucer and left-over meat she knew she wouldn't keep down. A week later, while she was preparing her daily lunch, as plain as she could make it, it jumped through the open window on the counter, hanging around the cottage ever since.

"You should give him a name," Chloé had insisted, her voice still a little bit hoarse, but she found naming a cat to be too permanent a thing, even though she had brought curtains on a whim when returning from work the day everything changed. She still wasn't sure how long she'd be in Costa Rica. For all she knew, he would come to her any day now. Maybe he was passing through the border right then. She had to wonder if he'd notice the moment he'd see her. Would he be happy, just as it had restored her?

"Then I'll name him," Chloé decided, settling on Jackson after a medical soap the two watched religiously ever since it had come up that she used to be a doctor. In addition to helping at the local clinic four days a week, she was now analyzing medical cases featured on the show.

She hardly refrained herself from calling it Jackson herself now that it jumped onto her lap, determined to discover what she had in her bowl. She had started taking better care of herself and it had gotten easier to keep anything down.

"You don't eat fruit, silly," she laughed and petted its head. The cat seemed to realize it itself and instead coiled on her knees. She put the bowl – almost empty, she lauded herself – on the floor and commenced rocking back and forth, the furry bundle resting on her lap just like she had had on her mother's when she was a child. The two drifted toward sleep when a car came to a halt in front of the house, startling her awake.

It was the most beautiful sound. If it was one of them, they'd come on foot, careful to catch her unprepared, she was certain. Whoever the arrival was, they didn't try to conceal themselves, the sound of gravel under the wheels giving them unmistakingly away. They didn't let the rules of propriety stop them. It was past two in the morning. Only someone convinced she herself was longing to have his arms around her as much as he wished to hold her would be coming with the moonlight.

The cat sensed the rush that reigned over her. It shook, meowed and jumped off her knees, lying down by the chair to resume its napping. She got up and heard the bowl tip over. She didn't bother picking it up. Nothing mattered but hurrying to the door, opening it to the awaiting future. The oversized shirt Chloé's mother had given her flowed around her, like the air of an angel.

Are they free, she wondered. Are they finally free to share a new, blossoming life?

This time she could not muster any joy upon seeing Bruce Bennett leaning on the hood of a car. He didn't need to say anything. His shirt was buttoned up in that serious fashion, and he solemnly held a box in his hands. And then there was the ungodly hour, of course. No one drops by at two in the morning if not to convey news in a somber tone.

"It's not good," he broke the silence. She embraced herself, biting her lower lip. "I'm so sorry."

Perhaps she had known for a while, she mused with dry cheeks. He would have gotten in touch. Regardless of the peril, he would have found a way. There would be a paper crane waiting for her. A burner phone appearing mysteriously in the mailbox. He would have found a way. Maybe the third thing he had ever given her, after the paper rose and a new name, was the hello … and goodbye.

She invited Bruce inside with calm that surprised her. She made him a drink, and if he noticed, he didn't mention it. She was certainly not about to bring it up.

He told her they had broken into a building that supposedly held cards that would expose the Company's work. She didn't know what the Company was and she didn't ask. What difference would it make?

Someone had tipped off the Company about their plan. The building had blown up, and he and his brother hadn't made it out in time. Bruce's tale was vague, intentionally so, she supposed, yet detailed enough for her.

"I'm sorry," he repeated. "I, um, I took the liberty of bringing you some, um, things to, um, you know. Something to, um, remember him by. Photographs and such. If you want."

"Thank you," was the first thing she said since his arrival, lifting her hand off her belly and reaching for the box, no larger than a shoe box, pulling it closer.

"If you need anything, call me," Bruce continued. It seemed to her he wanted to reach out for her hand, but something stopped him. "I will do anything in my power to help you. I'm working to have the charges against you dropped."

"Thank you," she repeated.

"He was a great man. A valiant man."

She didn't respond. The image of sandcastles the kids kept building on the beach, always so naively close to the water, flashed in front of her eyes. It wasn't until this moment that she realized why it had always fascinated her so. She, too, kept building her own sandcastles. Now the water came, just as she should have seen it coming, crushing the mirage she had built. She was engulfed in a sandstorm that stuck on her sweaty skin, entangled in her hair.

But it didn't blind her. Her eyes remained clear, and her heart, though broken, kept beating.

She remembered a man brought to the ER in her first week as an intern. He had been crushed under a car, his entire left side crushed. Broken ribs penetrated his lungs, and his belly was swollen with blood leaking from his ruptured organs. Her superiors worked on him with motoric gestures, following the procedure despite the outcome lingering unspoken around them.

"It doesn't hurt," he managed as she held his hand. "It doesn't hurt at all."

She had thought he was trying to be brave, as much for him as for her. She had seen his scans after all. Now she wondered if perhaps a body has a way of deceiving itself when the pain experienced would prove too much to manage.

Bruce didn't stay long. The words he spoke, the condolences, the promises, the praise, it was all froth, they both knew it, just filling the harrowing void until it became uncomfortably cloying.

If he ever came to check on her again, she didn't know about it. Three days later, she made Chloé promise she'd care for Jackson. Then, with her new name in her pocket and her new start cradled under her hand, she boarded the ship captained by Chloé's father. Her eyes were unwaveringly dry; he had died for her freedom and it would be sacrilegious to cry. As the hamlet slowly diminished into a dot on the horizon before finally evanescing forever, she promised herself to never look back, for both of their sakes.