Michael moves in.
She doesn’t give him much of a choice. The way she sees it, it’s the two of them against the world, and after Noah, after Max—well, they’re sticking together whether they like it or not. To her surprise, she does like it; if Michael dislikes it, he keeps his feelings to himself.
Isobel turns inward, vaguely agoraphobic; she seldom leaves the house. Michael rises early, makes breakfast, then drives off to do whatever it is Michael does during the day. Working, presumably. She picks at the food he’s prepared; it’s more than palatable, but she hasn’t much appetite. Afternoons she spends taking long baths, napping, or—if she can muster the willpower—dragging Noah’s possessions down the driveway and leaving them at the curb for the trash collector. Michael returns after dark, bearing groceries or takeaway cartons, depending on his mood, and maybe they’ll watch a movie while she downs a bottle of wine and he works his way through Noah’s liquor cabinet.
They sleep in the same bed like twins. Isobel takes her melatonin supplements and lies perfectly still, pretending she’s dead. Michael tosses and turns, and by morning he’s kicked all the covers to the foot of the bed. It’s the heat, he complains; he’s not accustomed to sleeping in clothes. Sometimes Michael’s hand finds hers in the middle of the night and they cling to each other. She’s still too frozen to cry. Michael’s face is always wet.
They don’t talk, much. They don’t say his name.
Isobel knows Michael spends a lot of time in the lab with Liz. But she doesn’t want to hear about it. Why get her hopes up, only to have them dashed? Michael’s wan, exhausted face speaks for itself every evening: he and Liz are no closer to bringing Max back. There is another way: Isobel would rouse herself immediately, go out there and kill if she thought Michael would let her get away with it. But he won’t. The psychic connection between them has grown stronger—she can feel Michael all the time, a restless, mercurial presence in her mind—and she knows he would never let her.
So the waking nightmare continues.
In the bath, she’ll slide underwater and stay there. She only thinks about Noah when she’s submerged. Her lungs burn and the water goes up her nose, but she doesn’t delude herself that she’ll ever be clean of his filth.
She doesn’t know, doesn’t ask, about Michael’s private life. If he’s making a go of it with Maria, or if he’s back to his old ways. Whatever he gets up to during the day, he comes home every night without fail. Nocturnal prowling suspended for her sake.
He doesn’t ask anything of her in return.
Then something changes.
Michael’s color returns. She hadn’t noticed how much he’d faded into a tarnished, sepia-toned version of himself, not until he’s flooded with gold again: his eyes, his hair, his very skin gilded with halcyon splendor.
He regains his appetite and his muscles stop sitting so oddly atop prominent, jutting bones. He shares bits and pieces of what he and Liz are experimenting with, prattling on, undeterred, as she stares into her wineglass.
She is too sunk into her lethargy to realize what’s coming. But come it does, early one Saturday morning, when Michael hauls her out of bed and drags her off into the desert.
Isobel moans plaintively when Sanders’ Auto comes into view. The sunlight glints off Michael’s old airstream, half-blinding her, and she feels a migraine coming on. She doesn’t want to be out here in the dust and the sand and the dirt; she wants to be back in bed with a cool washcloth over her eyes. She stays in the truck while Michael darts into his trailer for supplies, and she curses him roundly when he makes her come down and sit in one of the chairs by the fire pit.
Michael sits opposite her. He takes his knife and opens a shallow cut in the palm of his hand. “Watch,” he says. The hand glows red; the cut heals. “I can only do small things,” he explains. He takes a swig of acetone and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “Still working up to broken bones and internal stuff. I won’t be putting Valenti out of business anytime soon, but it’s a start.”
She blinks at him.
“So, what do you wanna try first?” he asks. “Healing or telekinesis or electrical stuff?”
“No,” Isobel says. “I don’t feel well.”
Michael sighs. “I know you feel like shit, Izzy. But you gotta—”
“What?” she says listlessly. “What do I gotta, Michael?”
“There’s so much we can do,” he tells her. “We were barely scratching the surface of what’s possible—what we’re capable of. But we can’t be stupid about it. Not like—” he swallows. “Not like Max. We’re not fucking gods. But we can practice. We can get better. So that’s what we’re gonna do, all right?”
The sound of Max’s name drives a sliver of ice into her heart.
“Have you taught yourself to influence minds yet?” she inquires. “Maybe you can influence Alex Manes to fall in love with you.”
If she wanted to provoke him, she’s come up empty-handed. Michael just tips his head to the side and considers her thoughtfully. “You know, I don’t think I want to learn. No offense.”
“No?” She raises her eyebrows.
“Nah. That’s not a power I… It makes things like consent too ambiguous.” He meets her eyes levelly. “You of all people should understand that.”
Isobel launches herself out of the chair and flies towards him; her fingers curve into talons and she half-slaps, half-rakes him with her nails. The momentum of the attack sends her sprawling across his chest. Before she can fall, Michael’s arms come up and catch her. She makes an ungainly landing, half on his lap, half off. She bangs her elbow on something.
And she ruptures.
The dam breaks, the ice melts—whatever she’s done to make herself so small and cold inside gives way, and
she fucking wails.
Michael just sits there and takes it. He rests his chin on the top of her head as she sobs into his neck. She clutches fistfuls of his shirt in her hands, she might even drum her heels against his shin. The ferocity of it takes her back to those pre-linguistic days after they first left the pods, when there were no words, no thoughts, just violent swells of inchoate feeling. Fear, mostly, and anger, too, at hatching into such a hostile, alien world. But there was also love. Love, love, unspeakable love for the two other wide-eyed little creatures who somehow shared her heart and her soul.
And Michael takes it, because his heart is big enough to carry hers, too. He’s been doing it since they were seventeen, perhaps earlier; it’s only recently that she’s come to know it.
Michael hums under his breath, a melody that might be “Sweet Child O Mine”: I hate to look into those eyes and see an ounce of pain…
She’s marked him: four angry red scratches slicing across his cheek. To her consternation, he refuses to heal them, and for the next week he goes around looking like he got mauled by a wildcat. He thinks it’s funny. Isobel wonders if he’s funny in the head.
Lessons in the desert continue. The work is draining, nausea-inducing. Even Michael, who probably has more acetone in his veins than blood, gets ill from healing. After a session, they collapse in the bed of his truck, sick, dizzy, shaking. She tells him she hates it, and him, for making her do it. But secretly, she loves it. Power is the most beautiful thing, and she craves more. And more. And more. She wants to glut herself on pure, unadulterated power.
Invariably, her estimation of the black-sheep brother changes.
Michael makes her feel the true meaning of the word alien. There’s something uncanny, so far beyond human, in his eyes when he lets his guard down. Alien—beyond any teasing, any cheap tricks or clever questions. Michael never tried to be human, not really. Not to the extent that she and Max did. He long ago accepted what they spent decades repressing, ignoring, disguising; of the three of them, he’s the most authentically himself.
Isobel never thought she would aspire to be more like Michael. She never thought she would rely on him to show her the way forward, but after the consecutive blows of Noah, Max, he has become her entire world.
Until one night he doesn’t come home.
Defeated by the prospect of preparing her own food, she has cereal for dinner. Then it’s wine and Queer Eye on Netflix; she falls asleep on the couch. When she jolts awake several hours later, it’s not to the familiar sound of Michael unlocking the door with his mind. No, it’s a feeling that sends her bolting upright: a surge of unalloyed joy. Disoriented by the strange sensation, she takes a moment to determine it is emanating from the psychic link with Michael. He is the source. Curiously, she prods at the feeling with her mind. It pulses briefly, then it’s as if a door slams shut between them, and she’s cut off.
He blocked me, Isobel thinks, outraged. Michael blocked me.
She stomps up to bed in a huff. The quantity of wine she’s guzzled ensures she falls back asleep easily enough. When she rolls over in the middle of the night, Michael is beside her, sprawled face-down with his curls strewn across the pillow. When did he get here? she wonders blearily, and slips under again.
Morning brings with it hangover, and clarity. When Michael creeps into the bedroom to leave her a steaming mug of coffee before he vanishes for the day, she’s waiting for him.
“I knew it was only a matter of time,” she intones.
Michael passes her the coffee. She sniffs: oat milk, no sugar, just the way she likes.
“So how was it?” she says.
“How was what?” says Michael, infuriatingly blank.
“You were gone last night. I know you got laid.”
“I came home last night,” Michael counters. “Didn’t realize I had a curfew.”
“Who did you entice into the back of your truck this time?” she asks silkily. “One of your old standbys, or fresh prey? Male or female? Are you going to move them into your trailer and shack up for a time, or is that too much domesticity for you?”
“Entice? Prey?” Michael takes a swig of coffee from his thermos, looking equal parts indignant and intrigued. “You really think I seek that sort of shit out?”
“I wouldn’t have any idea what you seek out,” she retorts. “And I didn’t lose any sleep over it, before you ask. But I can tell when I’m about to be jilted. Michael, I felt you come last night.”
It’s a shot in the dark; she couldn’t actually decipher what that rush of ecstatic happiness signified. But judging from the sputtering it engenders, she’s hit her mark.
“So here I was, thinking we were looking after each other and, like, learning how to be better aliens together and—all this time you’ve just been waiting for me to abandon you? So I can get my rocks off?” Michael shakes his head. “And I thought we were getting along so well, Iz.”
“We are getting along,” Isobel says, patting his hand with only the slightest mockery. “Siblings are honest with each other, or at least they should be. So you didn’t get any last night, is that what you’re telling me? You’re really not having sex with anyone?”
Michael runs a hand through his hair, looking seriously discomfited. “Well. Like. Reports… vary, depending on who you ask.”
“Oh? Who should I ask, then? Maria?”
His left eyelid twitches. Only someone intimately familiar with his repertoire of ticks and tells would have caught it. But catch it she does. Bingo. Alex Manes.
She laughs. “You’re so full of shit, Michael.”
“And you’re so full of questions,” Michael replies. “Am I about to be drugged and stuck under a microscope? The experience doesn’t really recommend itself.”
“Are you together?” she asks. “You and Alex? Have you been seeing each other this whole time? Or did you just collapse into each other’s arms last night? Oh Alex, take me, take me—”
“Christ.” Michael takes a step back, grimacing. “Is that how you imagine my sex life? And, like, why the hell are you imagining my sex life in the first place?”
“I’m not the first to be curious,” she points out. “So don’t pretend like I am. Women seem to line up for you, even though your head looks like a mop. It’s ridiculous.”
“I’m generous in bed.” He smiles. “I can afford to be. Especially since—well. Though I’m sure the experiences have their little differences, I know what it’s like to get fucked.”
He lets that last word fly, sharp as a slap. She knows what he’s doing, testing her, daring her to retreat from this new vein of intimacy she’s opened between them.
Isobel doesn’t back down. “So, you’re saying—what? That you’re a… bottom?”
“No. What I’m saying is that I’m extremely versatile.” Michael looks pleased with himself.
“That’s your big secret?” she asks blankly.
“Mm, sex secrets. I don’t think so.” Michael narrows his eyes. “Don’t forget, I know you. I know how your mind works. What would you do with your vast array of knowledge, huh, Isobel? Would I be an object of fun? Profit? You better not say charity—”
“I just want to know things—things about my brother, sure, but also things in general. Isn’t that enough?” She sets the coffee aside so she can knot her fingers together. Apparently Michael sees something in her face, because he comes over to sit on the side of the bed. “Now that the wool’s been pulled from my eyes, or whatever you want to call it, now that I’m thinking for myself for the first time in years—I want to know how things work, and I want to know how we work. You’re the only one I can ask.”
“Iz, I don’t know any more than you do,” Michael says.
“But you do,” she insists. “You’ve always been different. From me. From…Max.” It’s the first time she’s spoken his name aloud in weeks. They both pause, waiting for the hurt to subside. “Do you think you’re… normal, for us?” she continues. “Or as much of an outlier as you are here?”
“What, like, sexually?”
Michael shrugs. “Am I supposed to feel ashamed or something?” he asks, without rancor. “Pretend I don’t enjoy doing it with both? Pretend it doesn’t feel nice to touch and be touched?”
“That’s not what I’m saying at all!” she exclaims. “No, Michael, I’m—”
“I don’t know how else I’m supposed to explain myself,” he says flatly. “I’m kind of an omnivore?”
She waves that away impatiently. “No, what I—. Sometimes I wonder if our people—aliens—are meant to be like you.” Michael is regarding her keenly now, a hint of a smirk tugging at his lips. “You know…”
“Or do you think maybe we have the same laws and taboos against—”
“Iz, you’re way too obsessed with all that crossed-i dotted-t pillar-of-salt bullshit. Seriously, who gives a fuck?” He hunches forward, eyes inches from hers yet far too self-satisfied to exude any real menace. “I’m not human, and I’ve never been under any illusion that I am. Ergo: everything human is completely fucking insane to me, and that’s my license to do whatever the fuck I want. I don’t know the first thing about our culture back home, either, so as far as I’m concerned, same license to fuck. But that’s not really what you’re asking, is it?”
Defeated, she slumps back against the pillows. “No.”
“I’m confused.” She twists the sheet in her fingers. “I want to know if those feelings for Rosa were all Noah’s, or… if some of them were mine, too.”
“I’m brilliant, Iz,” Michael says, “not omniscient.”
She glares at him, strangely close to tears. “Forget I said anything.”
“No, I mean, there’s only one way to find out,” Michael says.
A knot forms in her stomach. “You’ve seen her?”
“Yeah. Buncha times.”
“You have?” He’d never mentioned it. “What—how is—”
“She’s confused, obviously. Hell of a shock. Otherwise? Same as before. Intense. Loud. Draws weird stuff all over the place.”
She smiles in spite of herself.
“Maybe you should visit her,” Michael suggests. “She’s bored out of her skull staying hidden while we cook up a new identity for her.”
“Does she hate me?” Isobel blurts.
“She knows you weren’t responsible for killing her, if that’s what you mean,” Michael says.
“Oh.” Isobel looks away. Inexplicably, her stomach is full of butterflies. “Maybe I will, then. Soon.”
A week later, Michael moves out.
Not by consensus. She doesn’t want him to go. But she knows they can’t spend the rest of their lives sleeping in the same bed. Michael is independent. Michael is not Max. On his last night they lie in her bed, facing one another, and press their palms together. She feels dreadful things—Michael’s guilt, his rage, his wild unhinged grief, and, worst of all, his love. His terrible love for her, and for Alex, that has already cost him so much. Whatever he takes from her must be awful, too, because he breaks down and cries.
In the morning she clings to his hand, childlike, afraid of being without him, afraid of being alone. Alex has come to pick him up; he waves to her and waits in his jeep while they say goodbye. Except it isn’t goodbye at all. Michael just isn’t going to live here anymore.
Isobel considers their clasped hands. “You know, the temperature difference,” she remarks, “I never—because Noah was alien, too, so we always had the same... I never realized that we—”
“Run hot?” Michael supplies, smirking.
“Mm-hmm.” She looks over at Alex, waiting patiently for Michael. “Is it uncomfortable, touching someone human, someone who’s that much cooler?”
“More questions about my sex life, Izzy?”
“Who said anything about sex? I’m just asking, is it uncomfortable—”
“Heat flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration,” Michael recites. “Till they reach an equilibrium.”
“—so, even if he’s chilly to start with, I warm him up and we meet in the middle,” Michael says.
She goes back indoors. Listens for the sound of the car driving away, but it doesn’t come, so she drifts to the upstairs window and pulls back the curtain. Alex’s jeep is still parked in her driveway. They haven’t gone anywhere. Alex has opened his door and Michael stands between his legs, hands resting on his thighs, as the two of them appear to converse in low tones. Then Michael leans in and kisses Alex. Alex spreads his legs wider to accommodate him, tangling his hands in Michael’s hair.
She lets the curtain fall back into place. If they’re still there by lunchtime, she’ll turn the sprinkler on them. She picks up her phone and scrolls through her contacts. First a message to Liz, asking if Rosa will see her. Then maybe a housecleaning. Or a drive into town. Maybe she’ll get her nails done. Or—
Her phone buzzes. Absolutely!! Liz has written. We’re just hanging at the Crashdown. Me and R and Maria. Come over anytime. Isobel feels the butterflies in her stomach stretch their fragile wings again.
When she leaves the house, the car in the driveway has gone.