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the one that saves me

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Every night, Juliet dreams about the island.

Dreams where she’s running from flaming arrows or being chased by a cloud of black smoke or falling down an endless pit of nothingness, the blackness stretching on forever below her.

The falling ones are always the worst, like she’s dying over and over again, every night.

*

"So you guys knew each other from before?" David asks her, the night before James moves in with them for good. He's giving her that look, the skeptical one that reminds her so much of Jack. "Like, from college or something?"

"Or something," Juliet says, sitting next to him at the dining room table and passing him a plate of pasta.

David takes a bite of spaghetti and shakes his head a little, like he'll never quite understand the ways of adults. She's pretty sure David knows that she and James are hiding something from him, but there's not much she can do about that, short of telling him that they met in some kind of parallel universe. Somehow, she doesn't think that would go over so well.

"He's a good guy, David," she says instead.

He nods, contemplative. "Dad doesn't like him," he finally says.

Juliet rolls her eyes. "Your dad doesn't like anyone."

David laughs a little at that, giving her a lopsided smile. "True."

"What do you think?" Juliet asks. She knows it's maybe not fair to him, James moving in this fast, but she doesn't know what else she can do. The dreams are getting worse every night and she keeps thinking that maybe if James is there with her, she'll be able to deal with them a little better.

"He's okay I guess," David says, shrugging a little.

Juliet gives him a half-smile, figuring that's as enthusiastic an approval as she's going to get.

*

Sleeping next to James every night ends up not helping at all. She falls asleep fine, her body pressed close against his, feeling warm and safe. But after just a few hours, she jerks awake, her heart racing and this feeling like falling all throughout her body. James is still there next to her, pressed close.

He’s always got her, she knows, and he doesn’t stop touching her -- even when they're asleep he's got a hand holding hers or pressed against her hip -- but, still. It never stops her from falling down those dark, bottomless pits, night after night.

The dreams get more and more real every time, until eventually, it gets to the point where she can’t sleep at all, afraid of how it's going to feel when she does, like she’s falling through time and space, plummeting further and further into darkness.

*

It’s one night too many of this -- of just lying in bed and staring at the wall, willing herself not to sleep -- that does it.

She sneaks out of bed, trying to be as stealthy as she can. James has got his left arm draped gently across her waist, his fingertips warm against her stomach, but he doesn't stir as she gets up and heads downstairs.

There’s a bottle of gin that she keeps in the little cabinet above the refrigerator and she takes it out as quietly as she can, wincing a little as the glass clinks against the top of the fridge. David’s a light sleeper and the last thing she wants is for him to catch her down here, sneaking alcohol like a rebellious teenager.

Once she gets the bottle, she pours a healthy dollop into a glass and then heads over to the desk in the hallway. She pulls open the junk drawer, rustling around quietly until she finds what she's looking for.

Last year, David had a geography project where he had to memorize all the world capitals, so Juliet bought him a map of the world, one of those cheap paper ones that fold up into a neat little book. They would stay up late some nights, Juliet quizzing him and then the two of them joking around, laughing and trying to top each other with crazy places they'd like to visit.

And then the project was over and Little League started up again and the map ended up shoved in the back of a drawer, crammed in alongside rubber bands and old prescription pads and loose keys that open doors she can't remember.

Grabbing the map, she takes it and her drink outside, on to the back patio.

She sits on the edge of the pool deck, letting her feet dangle into the water and looking out over the placid surface of the pool. It needs to be cleaned, dried leaves and dead yellow jackets floating near the filter.

Setting the drink next to her, Juliet opens the map, laying it down on the deck and smoothing out the wrinkles in the paper.

She takes a sip of gin, savoring the sharp, piney taste of juniper, and then traces her finger on the map, along the jagged coast of California. From there, the light blue of the Pacific stretches to the end of the map, stopping abruptly at the edge of the paper.

On the other side of the map, the Pacific starts up again, the same pale blue color. There are dozens of islands dotted on both sides, some of them not even labeled, just small black marks in the middle of the blue.

For a few minutes, Juliet just stares at it, drinking as much of the alcohol as she can stand.

Part of her wonders if one of those is the island, the one from her dreams, the one she can't ever seem to escape. She knows it's not likely, that it wouldn't appear as something prosaic as just a picture on a map. She thinks that if it exists at all, it’s probably somewhere in the empty space between the edges, in the places that you can't see.

“Plannin’ a trip?”

Juliet starts guiltily, turning to see James standing in the open doorway, bare-chested and sleepy-eyed. He gives her a half-smile and walks over to where she’s sitting at the edge of the pool. Last week, he cut his hair, shorter than she's ever seen it, and it's sticking up in messy spikes all over his head.

“No,” she says, rubbing her index finger across the paper, tracing a dotted black line of latitude that runs through the blue space of the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Australia. She and Jack went to Sydney on their honeymoon. “No. Just thinking.”

“Kind of late to be thinking, ain’t it?” James says. He settles down on the ground next to her, rolling up the legs of his pajama pants and dipping his feet in the pool.

She shrugs and picks up her glass, taking a drink and leaning in to him a little.

James lets out a quiet laugh. “So not just thinkin’ then,” he says, smirking a little and bumping his shoulder against hers as he reaches for the gin.

Juliet rolls her eyes and passes him the cup, staring out past the edge of the yard. The moon is bright tonight and they’ve got a nice view of the city from here, the hills and the twinkling lights of the skyline, buildings stretching out for miles and miles.

He takes a drink and winces a little. “Shit,” he says, handing the cup back and rubbing the back of his hand across his lips. "Thought you hated gin."

She shrugs and takes a long drink. “Thought I did, too.”

James ordered it once from the mainland, a cheap bottle of the Dharma brand that came in on the sub, and it ended up just sitting in the liquor cabinet in their dining room, mostly untouched. They both hated the sharp, bitter taste of juniper and neither one of them ever drank it. Juliet never understood why he got it in the first place. Here, though, gin's just about the only thing that she can stand to drink. She's not quite sure what that means.

James glances at her sidelong and she waits for him to say something else, but he doesn’t say anything at all.

They haven’t talked about any of it -- the island, the memories, the fact that this isn’t the only life they’ve lived -- since they left the hospital that night, and sometimes Juliet feels like she might explode, having to hold it all in like this.

Two weeks, she remembers him saying that first night, the two of them sitting just like this, both of them looking out onto the water, stinking of dirt and sweat and the jungle, neither one of them knowing what to say.

She kicks her foot a little in the water, which is blue and clear and smells strongly of chlorine. She misses the smell of salt and the way algae would float in the bay, turning the surface of the water green and bright.

James reaches out and puts a hand on her knee and she looks down at the rough, tan skin of his fingers. His nails are bitten down to the quick and that’s something new. Sometimes she forgets that they're not really the same people anymore. It’s always these little things that catch her off guard.

The warmth of his hand seeps through her thin pajama pants, and he feels solid and real beside her. There’s an inflatable basketball floating in the far end of the pool and Juliet watches it bob gently against the wall near the filter.

“You do remember, right?” she asks, suddenly. Her glass is empty and she feels kind of disconnected, like none of this is real, like she’s just observing this whole scene from somewhere far away. “The smoke and the jungle and those horrible flashes of light?”

“Yeah,” he says, taking his hand off her knee and scrubbing it across his face. He hasn’t shaved in a few days and there are dark circles under his eyes and he looks so much like he used to, right then, that she almost can’t breathe. “I remember.”

“I dream about it sometimes,” she tells him.

“Sometimes?” he says sharply. "How often is that?"

She looks out at the skyline and sighs. The first traces of pre-dawn light are starting to creep over the hills, making everything look soft and grey. “Every night.”

James runs a hand across the back of his neck, making the hair on the back of his head stick up a little. He doesn't say anything.

“Do you think it’s still there?” she says eventually. “Just...waiting out there in the ocean somewhere? Even in this world?”

“It ain’t a damn sea monster, Blondie,” he says, sounding incredibly tired. “It’s just a place.”

Juliet wonders if that's true, if it's as simple as that.

“Mom?” David says from somewhere behind them. Juliet turns, the map crinkling under her leg, and he’s standing in the open door, red sleep lines creasing his face. “You okay?”

Juliet just stares at him for a minute. He looks so grown up, standing there in the half shadows in his white t-shirt and boxers, his hair sticking up in a million different directions, and Juliet feels a maternal surge of love for him so intense it makes her chest hurt. She can't imagine how she ever lived without him, in this world or any other.

“Yeah,” she says, smiling a little. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Oh,” David says, glancing quickly at James. The two of them are still adjusting, feeling each other out, and Juliet feels James shift a little behind her. “I heard voices, so…”

“Sorry, buddy,” she says, wondering if he could really hear them talking quietly, all the way down here. “We’re coming in now.”

“Okay.” He stands there in the doorway, watching, as she gets to her feet.

James reaches over and picks up the map, folding it carefully as he stands. The crinkling paper sounds incredibly loud out in the silence, and David gives it a curious look. He doesn’t ask about it though, and neither one of them say anything, just follow David inside.

James leaves the map on the kitchen table, and the three of them head upstairs, their footsteps echoing dully on the steps.

When they get to the top of the stairs, David gives them a little nod and then disappears down the hall to his bedroom. Juliet just stares after him, vaguely wondering what’s going to come after this world, if he’ll still be there, if James will. If maybe she’s just going through time and space, collecting the people she loves.

It’s a strange thought, one that maybe should be comforting, but it’s more unsettling than anything, and she reaches out for James, feeling a little better when he threads his fingers through hers and squeezes gently.

“C’mon,” he says, tugging her towards their room. “Let’s go to bed.”

*

Back in their bedroom, the two of them lay in bed, James pressed against her back, their legs tangled up together.

He keeps running his fingers lightly through her hair, trailing his fingers across her shoulder and tracing the curve of her ear.

Juliet’s exhausted but she won’t let herself fall asleep, concentrating hard on not drifting off.

“I remember,” James says again, his voice barely a whisper, surprising her a little. She thought he’d fallen asleep.

“Then why won’t you talk about it?” she says. Somehow it’s easier to have this conversation now, in the semi-darkness, when she’s drunk enough that everything feels fuzzy and unreal.

Behind her, James shrugs, his chest moving against her back. “I just -- you don’t know what it was like, Juliet,” he says, voice rough. “After you were gone.”

He clears his throat and doesn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. Juliet leans back a little, concentrating on the warmth of his skin against hers.

“I can’t do that again," he says and it sounds like he's choking, like he's having trouble breathing. "I just -- I can’t.”

Juliet closes her eyes and exhales slowly. Outside, the sun is rising, the early morning sunlight starting to seep in under the blinds, the grey turning to gold.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, turning around to face him.

She reaches out, meaning to brush the hair back off his face before she remembers that he cut it. Instead, she settles for cupping her hand against his cheek, brushing her thumb across his cheekbone.

“I love you,” he says seriously, smiling a little, just enough so that she can see the dimples crease his cheeks in the warm morning light, just enough so that everything doesn’t feel quite so hopeless.

"Well," she says and she remembers yellow flowers and late nights sitting on the dock and how he looked right before she fell, covered in blood and sweat and begging her not to let go. She wonders if their lives will ever make sense. “I love you back.”

*

end