Lying curled in against his side on their sofa, Selina looks at the sharp too bright green from the one string of Christmas lights sparking on and off again where it is wrapped around the tiny tree in the corner of their apartment.
She might be dreaming, she knows. She questions it, turns it over and over in her mind to catch the sharp corners of it, but she does not try to wake up. She learned years ago that waking up was worse. Years? Or maybe months. Or maybe minutes. As long as she has been the one still here to keep things running, to keep it running, she has had these moments. These moments and the machine.
Most of the time what the machine gives her is just memory. Abigail who lies and denies and seethes through her anger and protects herself longer than she needs to until she spills her secrets and fear. Jude and his cigarettes and his fights with demons that lurk in shadows only he can see; demons he’s made with his own hands. Fenly slipping invitations under doors, trusting and so ready to find himself again, being too good for any of them.
Emmett. Who knows her better than anyone else ever has, even in the moments before he speaks to her for the first time.
The machine only gives them back to her on its own terms, when it chooses. So this could be a Christmas gift from the walls, or she could be dreaming, and either way in these moments she would much rather be here than anywhere else. Here in their apartment where Emmett is real and tangles his fingers in the ends of her hair absently while he flips through the pages of a book with his other hand. Or while he watches the news. Or while he sleeps, dreamless, and she imagines she is keeping his nightmares quiet and watches his chest to makes sure that it is moving with his breath. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes she has to negotiate with the walls around her to start his breathing again.
One day, she knows, she won’t be able to convince it.
That day isn’t today, though. Today he is here and holding her until he slips away from her side and comes back moments later with a thin gift wrapped in too bright green paper. Today he is here, and he is smiling and so she answers his smile with her own smile that she hopes isn’t shaking as she takes the present from his hands.
Emmett looks so proud, but the walls are vibrating. She knows that this isn’t her imagination and so she focuses on the gift, on tearing the paper away strip by strip. In a life before this she might have torn through the wrapping in a rush. Now, she tears each piece away slowly, and Emmett’s voice is a distant rumble with something that sounds like desperation when he urges her to move faster.
She feels as if he is miles away now, afraid to look up to see him gone, and the walls are pounding out a steady, forceful rhythm that makes her blood rush hot in her veins. Her heart pounds and head aches and she knows she needs to breathe now, and to be careful.
The desperate rush of his voice is a trap she has fallen in to before. The Eye uses whatever it can.
Suddenly his hands cover hers, and they are warm and real and solid against the cold she knows has settled in to her fingers. You’ll tear it, he says. Careful, love. The pounding heartbeat of the walls quiets at his touch as suddenly as it began, and she takes a deep breath and looks into the clouded dark of his eyes.
“Thank you.” Her voice echoes quietly in the living room. She knows she should look at the gift, that it is something that must be important, but she doesn’t want to look away from the calming anchor of his face.
He allows it a moment more before he nods to her hands, and she takes another breath and steadies herself before she looks down. The folder in her lap says Star Register, and when she opens it three files spill across her lap.
WHEN IN RAINS,
THEY’LL LOOK FOR A RAINBOW
WHEN IT’S DARK
THEY’LL LOOK FOR THEIR STAR
I’ve named them for you. Emmett says, suddenly in focus again. For us.
He doesn’t need to speak the names that echo through the hallways outside their door for her to know who they have been named for. For a moment, she opens her mouth to deny it or to question it and logic tries to slip cold fingers in to moment, but Emmett shakes his head and the tracers of light around him at the movement mix with the light from the tree until he is haloed in twinkling green.
She stops to breathe, and when she turns away from him she can see stars shining through the open window.
Selina can’t stop herself from climbing over the back of the sofa and going to the window. The cold air of the city night and the sounds of traffic fill her head in ways she had forgotten they would, and for a moment it is overwhelming. It isn’t real, she tells herself. She knows. They can’t be stars. She knows they can’t be stars because they’re lost to the Eye and they Eye doesn’t give back anything it has taken. She’s starting to understand how the machine works.
Like with Emmett, though, knowing doesn’t stop her from wanting them to be true. His hands are on her shoulders, his strong chest pressed to her back, and when he points toward three stars shining together like a constellation, she can hear their names turning in his thoughts.
Fenly. Jude. Abigail.
She can’t remember the last time she’s seen the stars without feeling endless, but there they are now, shining just for the two of them.
It feels like family.