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Saying The Same Thing

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Michella makes her brother leave her after he brings her to the graveyard. He hems and haws about it; she can tell he's confused and doesn't want to: he clears his throat, he shuffles his weight, he tugs at his clothes and he runs a hand through his hair over and over. She almost tells him that it's getting too long, but instead, she repeats her gentle request: I'd like to be alone for a bit. I'll call you when I'm ready. Yes, I have my phone. See? Don't worry. I just want to sit for a while.

He finally goes. She listens to his footsteps retreat. In another story, he might have gone behind a monument to hide, or he might have simply stopped and made it seem like he'd kept going.

But that would be a different story, and a very different brother from the one she has. She knows him better than that. He's always very honest. He doesn't always think he is, because like most people, he's given to casual white lies and omissions. If one tries to point that out to him, he argues. He hasn't called their parents in months, and when he did talk to them, he lied about what he was doing for a living. They didn't even know he was in Hellsalem's Lot itself before Michella told them. She's only here because she decided it and refused to take his no for an answer.

But the truth is, her brother is a very straightforward man. His heart might waver, and it may hesitate, but she has known it all her life. She has always known. He never backs down. He never stops. She thinks that the large man who'd been lurking in the hotel lobby when she arrived might be someone similar, but Leo hasn't yet introduced him. She's not sure yet if it's because it hasn't occurred to him, or if he just believes she hasn't noticed. He's silly like that, sometimes.

"But that's part of what you liked about him, isn't it?" she says. "Mary."

There's no answer. She didn't expect one. She leans back in her chair and folds her hands in her lap.

"I had to have someone read Leo's letter," she said. "I hope you don't mind another stranger knowing your story."

Her voice is quiet. A breeze moves past her cheek, so that her hair stirs, and then settles again. She can still hear the sound of people not too far away: just a short distance away is the hospital, and beyond that are the busy streets of Hellsalem's Lot. Nothing can stop the machine of the city, not even a near-apocalypse. Most of the major rebuilding is done, Leo had told her, but even before that, people were continuing with their lives. Whether huma or Beyondian or some other unclassified, everyone in Hellsalem's Lot lives on.

The barrier lives on.

Michella can see it, when she can't see anything else: a wide, impossibly complicated network of golden lines of power, glowing bright and steady. They remind her of stars. She had seen them from a distance as they'd drawn near to Hellsalem's Lot, but she'd said nothing. Toby is an opthamologist who had been unable to find a way to fix her eyes, but had said yes to her invitation to coffee. He likes the stars in her eyes, but he also feels guilty, she knows, that he can't take them out and give her back her proper sight.

She thinks that he and Leo will get along very well even with that common point.

The barrier pulses like it has a heartbeat of its own. From what she has been told, that's not too far from the truth. There is living will, even if it is dispersed and formless now.

"I wish I could have met you," she says. "My brother never talks about the people he knows. You must have been someone very special. Maybe I would have let you have him."

That is half a lie. Michella knows herself as well as she knows her brother. As long as that person made him happy, she would not protest, but that doesn't mean she wouldn't be exactly herself at that person -- perhaps aggressively so. She tells pointedly awful jokes and she deliberately pushes buttons. People tend to remember Michella Watch because of those things, and not because of her wheelchair or, more recently, her starry eyes. That's the way she likes it.

"I wonder if you can see anything, like you are," she said. "Whether you're really around that much. Do you see what's going on in the city now? Leo tried to explain what happened a little, but I don't think he really got it, either. If he cared about you that much, you probably got to know him pretty well, didn't you? You know what he's like. He forgets to say everything in his head aloud, and then everyone else around him is confused, and then he's confused ..." She laughs a little at that, covering her mouth with a hand.

There is no answer, but she feels comfortable like this. It feels like talking to an old friend.

"Anyway. I wanted to thank you. So I really hope you can hear what I'm about to say." Michella reaches into her pocket. She can't do it as effortlessly as she once did, careless the way that one does when one can see normally, but she has practiced over the months, and the movement is smooth enough. She pulls out a folded piece of paper. She'd needed help from both her mother and Toby for this, and both of them had thought she meant to prank Leo somehow, though neither of them had figured out why. Michella had only smiled and said nothing on the matter.

Now, she takes the paper and unfolds it. It's a photo, printed out. A couple of years before Leo had left home, he'd gone on one of his tangents and decided to digitize all their old family photos. Their parents had bought a new scanner to facilitate this, and Leo had found some version of Photoshop to pirate. Between him and Michella, they'd actually finished the project. The original photos are still around somewhere, but she's not sure if even their parents know where. So instead, she has to make do with this.

It's from their tenth birthday. An aunt had bought them matching boy/girl hoodies, and Michella, in a fit of pique of having to wear the pink, had demanded they switch. Leo had been less enthusiastic, but he'd still acquiesced. He always did, in the end, when she wanted something. Their father had snapped the photo of Leo slouched on the couch, the hood pulled up and the drawstrings pulled tight until it nearly covered his whole face, as Michella delicately put a paper crown on his head.

"Leo said that you liked to take photos," she said. "He said it was because you wanted to leave behind proof that you existed in the world. You wanted to have things we could remember. Well, he said that your brother told him that, but I'd believe it. Who doesn't want something like that?"

She holds up her hands. The wind stirs again, and she feels the paper leave them. She hears the crinkle and rustle of paper as it drifts away, and then silence. For a few seconds she leaves her hands raised, and then she folds them down into her lap again. She leans back in her chair and hears the way it creaks. She's had this one for years, and they know each other very well: her weight and fidgeting and the way the right wheel gets stuck on too-tight turns and how to get it to stop on a dime.

Michella breathes in. There's the smell of the city, too, like the sound of it; it reaches even a few blocks away. But it's distant here, overlaid with the scent of green and earth. It rained recently; she can smell it on the air. Something else lingers too, sharper and fainter, but still noticeable against everything else: ozone and copper. The smell of it had clung to Leo when she'd embraced him; it had followed the large man who'd watched them in the lobby, and the man with him, and the woman with them. They are another part of that world that Leo has found for himself, and it has kept him safe. She takes comfort in that.

She thinks that perhaps Mary would feel the same way.

She stays like that for a while. She can't quite tell the time. It would be easy enough to take her phone and ask Siri to tell her what she wants to know, but she also enjoys that silence. The uncertainty is its own kind of comfort. You can't rush getting to know someone, even if that someone is not really there.

But in the end, the cold is what gets her. Seasons in Hellsalem's Lot vary more than they do outside. There was a foot of snow when they started the drive to the city, but none here itself. There's still a chill, though, and it seeps through the layers of her jacket and sweater and doubled scarf.

So finally she stretches and she pulls out her phone. Before she can push the button to wake it up and have it call her brother, she pauses again.

"I just want you to know," she says at last, "that I think you sounded like a good person. I know it's strange to hear it from a stranger. But you know what? Thank you anyway. For trying for him. For being his friend. Thank you."

She pushes the button and brings it to her ear. It's a brief exchange, but when it's over, she leans back in her chair and waits. It's not long before she hears the shuffle of Leo's footsteps.

"Has anyone told you you're kinda weird?" he says as he takes the handles of her chair. "Who wants to come out to a graveyard, of all places? You don't even know anyone here." Especially this one, he doesn't add. He'd been resistant to bringing her in the first place, and she'd had to insist, again. She's very good at insisting things of him.

"Well," she says, "I just thought I might like to have a look around and maybe see to a few things. Oh. Wait--"

"Michella," he groans. He sounds genuinely pained. "Can you not?"

"Sorry bro, you don't really have a leg to stand on," she says. "Not that I do either. I'm starved. Can we get lunch?"

"Don't make me tip you out," he says. It's a growl, but it's half-hearted; they both know that he would never. He starts to turn her chair -- she's had it long enough that he also knows its idiosyncrasies -- and then he freezes. It's so fast that she almost does tip out of the chair; she grips the arms a bit more tightly and waits for him to recover.

"Leo?"

"No," he says. There's an odd note in his voice. "I just thought I -- it's nothing. Never mind."

He starts to walk, pushing her chair with him. The wind brushes over Michella's cheek. It feels almost like fingers, ending with a gentle little tug of her hair. All she hears is the whistle of it through empty tree branches, but she can tell, even if there are no words: Thank you. She thinks that Mary's eyes must have been green and her hair pale; she must have had a smile like the sun, and long limbs that she could fold with untrained grace, and these are things that Leo didn't tell her, but Michella knows it with a calm certainty.

Thank you. Thank you.

She smiles. "You're welcome," she says.

"Michella?"

"Nothing," she says, to his unfinished question. "Let's find Toby and get lunch."