Owen hadn’t seen Grimson in months, and he sort of missed him.
He didn’t miss feeling insane. He didn’t miss trying to look like he wasn’t having a conversation with a figment of his own imagination. He didn’t miss the worried looks from his family and the increasingly infrequent looks from friends that he had long since lost.
He missed having a brother who liked him best, though, and it was lonely to learn to go without.
“Alright, dummy,” Annie said. The word was used fondly and often. “A crash course in making cake, part one.”
She didn’t tell him what kind of cake they were making. She didn’t tell him about plans for frosting, or if making this cake would show him everything he needed to know about making any other kind of cake. She didn’t tell him what the cake was for. Annie, as per usual, assumed that Owen either already had the answers or could figure them out along the way.
The need to keep up with her made him a little frantic, but made him feel—feel something.
He frowned at the cake in the end. “It’s a little—a little heavy, isn’t it?”
“I sure hope so,” she said. “It’s a pound cake.”
His brow furrowed.
“Don’t look at me like that. Go get the strawberries and whipped cream from the fridge.”
He looked at her, surprised. “Strawberry shortcake.”
“Well, yeah,” she said. Her voice was gruff, the way it always was when she wanted to do something nice without people telling her how nice it was. “You said that you wanted some. God, that was months ago. The fast food was killing us.”
Owen waited until the fridge door blocked his face to smile. He didn’t feel lonely at all.
Annie woke up with something warm pressing against her face, something scratchy in her lap, and an unholy desire to snort something damaging.
It took her a second to realize where she was, and there was an inexplicable amount of discomfort when she tried to reconcile her life now with the desire to get her hands on drugs again.
She and Owen had been watching some movie, a mindless comedy. Harpo had been laying in her lap, hoping one of them would give him popcorn kernels. Annie wouldn’t. Owen always did. Annie must have fallen asleep, and her head rested against Owen’s shoulder.
The movie had ended. The dog was out like a light. Owen was sitting up straight, awake but unwilling to wake her.
Annie’s lungs were tight with the need for something.
She closed her eyes. The need would go away soon. It always did. It was more of a muscle memory than anything, and she prefered this life to the old one.
“Owen,” Annie called, “do you think that chick would be able to get the money out of your bank account? The one who married your brother last month. She’s technically a part of the family now, so she might be able to get in there.”
He didn’t say anything, but she couldn’t see him from the kitchen, so she kept talking.
“You guys were friends. Maybe she’d hook you up.” Annie smiled at the thought of it. “That’d be some serious money.”
“Yeah,” he said, and Annie paused. He sounded off. “Maybe.”
“We don’t have to,” she said. “If we want to go on with nobody knowing we’re here, that’s fine.”
“No, you’re right,” he said. “Totally. We need the money.”
She’d heard that voice before. Sometimes she thought about it, the way he’d asked her why she was helping him get out of crazy central. The recording of his testimony at his brother’s trial.
He’s clearly having a panic attack, the defendant said, and Owen had tried to power through.
She walked to the living room and looked at him, sitting ramrod straight on the couch. Deep breaths that somehow seemed too shallow at the same time. Eyes glazed over. He looked terrified, but like his head was somewhere else.
“Owen, are you okay?”
“Sure,” he said. “Sure, just give me a second.”
She gave him a second. His hands shook against his midsection; if she hadn’t know better, she would think he was trying not to vomit.
“Is this about the girl?” Annie searched for the name—she knew it, she had to know it—“Adelaide?”
“We don’t need the money,” she said. “A fresh start for both of us. I like the sound of that. Don’t you?”
He swallowed thickly and said nothing.
She perched on the edge of the couch, painfully aware of her own inadequacy. She’d never had a panic attack. She’d dealt with withdrawls, with depression, with a million horrible things—but never with panic attacks.
“Should I, like, hug you or something?”
“If you touch me,” he said, “I think I’ll lose my mind.”
Annie stayed where she was.
“I don’t know what to do, Owen,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t know what I can do for you.”
“You can’t do anything.” He sounded so far away, and it made her feel something near nauseous. He’d killed his inner demons, but new ones came to fill the open spaces.
“I can’t. But I’m here anyway.” Annie did not know what to do. “I wanted a bay window.”
Annie did not know what to do.
“My dream house has a bay window. I’d sit there with Harpo and read books.” She took a deep breath and settled back against the couch. “There’s a quiet room for—I don’t know—puzzles, and your Rubix Cube, and just being alone. There’s a big kitchen. We have one of those doors with the little peep hole, so we never have to wonder who’s on the other side.”
Annie kept talking about her dream house as though Owen belonged there, and she wondered if maybe he did. She sat with him, letting the minutes whistle by. She’d heard once, maybe on one of those mid-afternoon talk shows with fake doctors, that panic attacks only lasted around ten minutes. She could sit with him for ten minutes. She could talk to him.
“We’ll get a house someday,” she promised after a while. “I’ll let you paint the rooms whatever God-awful colors you want.”
“Not beige,” he said, voice steadier than before.
“Anything but beige. Status report?”
“Weak,” he sighed.
That’s ridiculous, she wanted to say. You’re the strongest person I know. You’re the only reason I’ve stayed strong through everything.
“Is this panicking, or is it self-pity?”
“Self-pity,” Owen said, lips twitching in a way that seemed almost amused. “Pretty much always self-pity.”
“Owen, would me touching you make this better or worse?”
“Better,” he said.
Annie held his hand, and though her goal was the same as when she held his hand at the mental institution, the way her chest felt wasn’t comparable in the least. “You aren’t weak.”
He gave a minute nod.
“I’m serious. You saved the world.” Annie swallowed, looking at her socks. “You’re strong in a way that I’ll never understand.”
“That’s funny,” he said. “I usually think the same thing about you.”
She inched even closer, letting her arm press against his while they sat side by side. He gave a shuddering sigh, but leaned into her. “I’m not going anywhere, you know. Even if I can’t help.”
“Do you? I’m staying here, Owen. We’re going to figure this out, and we’ll make our own okay.”
She’d always had a nasty habit of lying, but she had done her best to keep Owen out of it in the past few months. Lies were for people who didn’t matter. That was why, when she tried to tell him that this was what friends do, she pretended to cough instead. Annie had never been good at sticking around when friendship got hard; she had gotten better since meeting Owen, but that wasn’t what this was. Not entirely.
Annie peered at him. She would have to figure out what helped with this. She would have to find a way to help, even if that meant leaving him alone. “Are you okay? Really okay?”
“Sure,” he said. “One hundred percent.”