“Let’s go.” It’s a sudden suggestion, voice giving life to it half-hysterical, like Skye knows that what she’s saying is going to sound ridiculous. “Let’s go outside and get in your car and drive until we’re somewhere nobody knows any of our names, where nobody’s heard of Steven Rae,” she spits the name like it burns her lips to say it “and nobody watches Cult .”
“You want to run?” Jeff asks, folding his arms.
Ever since the basement, ever since Skye had everything she thought she knew bulldozed down around her, she’s been quiet. It was alarming to see, walking into her apartment and watching her bedroom door shut behind her. Nate sat on the couch with a Rubix Cube, fingers only shaking a little as they flashed around the brightly colored plastic squares, while Jeff paced around the living room. It was only a few minutes before Skye reappeared, and now she stands in front of them with her hands folded across her chest and a nearly desperate glint in her eyes.
“Yes,” she says, and laughs a little, arms dropping from her chest to her sides. Skye looks to the ceiling and laughs again, short and sharp. “Yes, I want to run.”
“Running is…” Jeff trails off and Skye looks over to him, finishing the thought before he gets the chance to.
“I know it’s not brave. I know it’s not a hero’s thing to do, I know it’s not going to get us any answers but-”
“Running is the best idea I’ve heard since this whole thing started,” is what Jeff actually finishes with. He watches the surprise creep over her face, quickly replaced by relief. The slick sounds of plastic sliding against plastic stops, and Jeff looks to his left. “Nate?”
“Let’s do it,” Nate says, not looking up from the Rubix Cube but nodding all the same, slowly at first and then more confidently. “Let’s disappear.”
Skye drives. She says it settles her nerves, and Jeff can see it happen. Her hands ease on the steering wheel as the pavement slides by under the wheels. The muscles in her jaw, which Jeff saw strained tight when she got in the car, have relaxed, and her forehead has lost the crease between furrowed eyebrows. She’d looked angry before, with a note of panic, and now she just looks confused. Betrayed. Tired.
A glance backwards shows Jeff that Nate is still sprawled across the back seat, bundled in a hoodie sweatshirt and a pillow from Skye’s place bunched under his cheek. It’s been a long series of days for him, Jeff thinks, and he looks like hell. He looks back over at the woman next to him. It’s been a long series of days for Skye too.
“All these years,” Skye says, voice starting strong and fading as she goes, dwindling to a wounded murmur. “All this time I thought he was, and the whole time- No, you know what, I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk ab- I don’t want to.”
“You don’t have to,” answers Jeff, leaning against the car door as he watches her drive. “We’re running away, remember? You don’t even have to think about it, not until you want to.”
She laughs a little in response to that, shaking her head. “Yeah,” she says, with only a little bitterness. “Yeah, okay.”
It’s relatively clear on the I-5 North, for this time of day, but still the other cars zooming around them make Jeff nervous. Given everything they’ve been through recently it’s not out of the realm of reasonable reactions that every car that passes them carries for him the possibility of danger, a vague and menacing threat just real enough to make him watch them with wary eyes. The concentration of vehicles around them is nothing compared to Los Angeles traffic, but it’s still too thick for comfort, and Jeff is relieved when Skye signals left at the fork in the road and diverts onto California State Route 99, headed towards Bakersfield.
While in Bakersfield, refuelling both the car and themselves, at a gas station and a quiet twenty-four hour diner respectively, none of them say much. Nate remains half asleep, stumbling around the parking lot, taking three tries to close the car door. Jeff is too lost in a heady combination of memory and the aftershocks of a near miss, watching his brother fumble with the door and remembering fifteen years ago, teaching Nate how to tie his shoes, remembering yesterday, hearing bullets ping off metal and wondering if any of them would make it out of this. For her part, Skye’s gaze is trained on the ground, and her throat feels too tight and stinging to risk opening her mouth, like if she tries to speak she’ll sob instead.
“Where are you headed?” asks Jeff when they’re back in the car, catching flashes of bright color in the rearview mirror, Rubix Cube squares replacing one another too fast to register what they were originally.
At first, Skye doesn’t answer. She watches the road, the dust-tan landscape monotonously slipping by, broken only by a sickly blue-green river that disappears into a tunnel underground, scooping down below a section of road that can’t even be counted as a bridge. The buildings become slowly less populous, until they abruptly drop away behind them, and all that’s left is countryside.
“Skye?” Jeff says tentatively, wondering if she heard him the first time.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I’m just trying to get away.”
Which, Jeff decides, is a fair answer.
It’s not one of the more populated routes, the one they choose to disappear down. The car is quiet again, and as they continue further down the freeway the distance between the cars they see on the road gets longer and longer. It’s as if the further away they get from the chaos they’re running from, the further they get from humanity itself. Hours slip away to the sound of wheels on pavement. They stop and get out when they reach the ocean, admiring the vastness of the sea from a wind-buffeted scenic bluff by the side of Route 1.
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it,” Skye says, leaning her forearms on the guard rail and looking out over the waves. “It’s weird, I’ve lived here for so long but I’ve hardly spent any time at the beach. We never had time, my dad was always-” Her voice stops so abruptly that the sudden silence feels sharp. Jeff shifts to the side, moving closer to her, just enough that their shoulders press together, and stays there.
In a way, looking at the ocean is serving to have a calming effect on him. It’s massive and unfathomable, the most powerful force on the planet, and it doesn’t care at all about conspiracy theories or television shows or the fact that you’re running away. Jeff stands and watches it for a while, the last to leave the edge of the overlook and head back to the car.
The next time they stop for gas and food, Skye sits outside while Jeff and Nate go to pick up take out, and texts a friend. The woman is an assistant on Cult and will be able to let anyone who comes looking for her know that she’s out for a while and unavailable, just to head anybody who comes poking around off at the pass. Next, she messages her mother, telling her not to worry, Skye is alive and doing fine. After fulfilling the duties required to not get reported as a missing person, Skye turns her phone off. Whatever is going on in the rest of the world, she doesn’t want to deal with it right now.
Davenport, California has a population of four hundred and eight people, and it’s perfect. That’s where they stop, where the three of them tumble out of the car and onto the beach, slightly rumpled and exhausted in more ways than one.
“I don’t want to talk about it at all,” Skye says, watching the lapping waves cascade up and down the sand. “Let’s talk about something, but not that.”
So they do, after a couple stilted moments of uncomfortable quiet, broken when Nate holds up the Rubix Cube and asks, “Do you want to see how fast I can solve this?”
It takes him two minutes, during which time he explains the gift he got when he was five, a birthday present from his mother. It branches out there, Nate and Jeff telling stories from their childhood and Skye offering anecdotes of her own in return, unspooling an image of a woman Jeff both trusts implicitly and hardly knows.
It feels to Jeff like he already knows all the seemingly important things, the big tragedy and major heartbreak of Skye’s life so far, the mystery surrounding her father’s disappearance. He knows about Steven Rae and a life dedicated to finding answers that they still don’t have. But this is running away, so they don’t talk about that.
They talk about other things, about her favorite type of sandwich and that she’s always been a morning person. Jeff and Nate, sitting on driftwood at Davenport Beach, learn that Skye’s middle name is Mary after an aunt on her mother’s side, she’s allergic to almonds, she plays the cello - badly, and she always cries at the end of romantic movies. Innocuous information, get-to-know-you information, but it feels incredibly important, somehow.
Before they took off down the interstate, they hadn’t stopped at either Jeff or Nate’s places, leaving neither of them with anything but the clothes they’re currently wearing. Skye has her things in a backpack, a couple changes of clothes, toothbrush, hair care products, so she drops the Seftons off at the nearest department store and scouts around for a hotel. The one she finds is an out of the way, dingy little place, but the room is clean and most importantly, nobody is going to look for them here.
The tv in the hotel room doesn’t have very good reception, but it gets a few channels, and any kind of a distraction is a good distraction. Nate is in the bathroom washing his hair when Skye flips to a news channel by accident. Something about Cult is playing, the newscaster speaking in a grave tone Skye knows too well, and she switches to a cooking show before it can become clear what’s happened. She doesn’t want to know what’s happened. She figures she’ll be inundated by it as soon as she sets foot back in The Real World, so for now she feels justified in declaring it ‘not her problem’.
When she looks to the side, Jeff is watching her. Skye braces for him to ask her to turn the channel back, to comment on how swiftly she avoided whatever it is that’s going on. He smiles at her, and it reaches his eyes.
“Running away, remember? I’m with you.”
Nate looks more present and aware when he rejoins them than he has since Jeff saw him again in the living room, what feels like forever ago but in reality was so shortly behind them. He walks over and sits down on the bed closest to the door, hand going automatically to the bedside table and picking up the Rubix Cube.
Jeff nudges him a little, getting his attention, waiting until Nate’s eyes are on him before he speaks.
“You okay?” he asks quietly. Nate looks back down at the puzzle in his hands, shoulders going up and down in a slight shrug.
“Will be,” mumbles Nate in a fit of honesty that has something in Jeff’s chest clenching.
“Yeah. You will be.”
As Jeff gets up to sort through the clothing and toiletries they’d bought at the department store, he hears Skye walk into the bathroom for her turn in the shower, and Nate continue to twist the box.
Jeff stands by the table near the window, pulling tags off newly purchased clothing while Nate still sits on the bed with that Rubix Cube, until the moment the sounds of plastic on plastic stops. He looks over and sees the Cube, solved, in Nate’s left hand. Nate’s looking down at it and grinning, soft satisfaction in his face. Jeff barely resists the urge to drag him over with an arm about the shoulders and kiss his baby brother’s forehead for sheer relief at having the option to.
He gives into that compulsion moments later. Thinking fuck it , they’re running away, and what happens here stays here, and after all of that they are damn well deserved a bit of gentleness, Jeff puts down the bag in his hand, walks over to the bed, and kisses Nate, just above his right eyebrow. Nate’s only reaction is to close his eyes and inhale sharply. Jeff doesn’t say anything to explain himself, just keeps his hand on the side of Nate’s neck a little longer, then sits down next to him to watch whatever superhero show is on the tv.
Skye comes out of the shower shortly and sits on the other bed in the small room, wearing shorts and a large t-shirt, one leg pulled up to her chest, staring blankly at the wallpaper. She doesn’t seem like she wants to talk, and that’s just as well, because Nate’s got his Rubix Cube and Jeff’s got no idea what he would say anyway. So he just finishes what he’s doing and then heads off to shower himself.
By the time he gets back, Nate’s already passed out asleep in one bed and Skye is on her back with the covers pulled to her chin in the other, staring this time at the ceiling. Jeff works on autopilot, walking over and managing to pull the blankets out from under Nate after pushing him out of the center of the bed, far enough that there’s room for both of them. He doesn’t say anything to Skye before getting in himself and turning out the light.
It’s quiet in the motel room, the light from the street lamps in the parking lot mostly blocked out by the curtains, and the sound of Skye’s breathing across the bedside table and Nate’s breathing beside him the only noises Jeff can make out. He’s almost asleep when he hears her voice, floating barely audibly across the space between the two beds, one word riding on a breath.
He doesn’t answer. They’re both asleep within minutes.
It’s a solid plan, running away, and it’s worked for them so far, but for the unforeseen complication of, no matter how hard you try, there are some things you just can’t run from, things you carry with you that sit in the background, patiently waiting for the moment you drop your guard. Deliberately avoiding thinking about something only goes so far, and the second Jeff falls asleep, the something is there waiting for him.
He thinks back and counts, when he wakes up, and if he remembers them all, Nate dies six times that night.
One, he’s on the floor of the church when Jeff and Skye get there, a crumpled paper with a feather drawn on it clutched in one hand.
Two, the SUV goes up in flames, a cartoonish detonation out of a Michael Bay movie that would’ve seemed comically exaggerated, almost funny, if it weren’t for the fact that he can still hear Nate screaming.
Three, clouded eyes, necklace of bruises, that fucking Billy Grimm vest.
Four, Jeff almost gets to him that time, Nate’s walking towards him and smiling, and then a handgun cracks and he falls.
Five, and they just dump him on Jeff’s porch this time, note pinned to his shirt, we WARNED you.
Six, they never find him at all, one, two, five, ten years pass in the blink of an eye, and somehow this is worse than all of the rest combined.
Jeff wakes up choking on his own breath, head whipping to the side, hand reaching out blindly. Nate stirs a little when his brother’s hand bumps into his shoulder, and it’s all Jeff can do to keep from sobbing out loud in relief. When he turns, eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom of the dim light from the street lamp, he sees Skye sitting at the window table with a cardboard cup of instant hotel room coffee between her hands. He blinks at her for a moment, swiping a sleeve across his face and pretending it doesn’t come away damp.
“Hey,” she says. A low, toneless greeting. Jeff gets up slowly, stretching sleep out of stiff limbs, and walks over, sitting down across from her.
“Can’t sleep?” he asks, and she snorts, barely loud enough for him to hear.
“Tried for a while. Looks like it wasn’t much fun for you, kind of glad I avoided it.” It would have come off as snide, were it not for the understanding and compassion she put into it.
Jeff looks back over at where he left Nate. The faint green glow of the clock on the bedside table casts even deeper shadows in the dark circles under his eyes, and Jeff can see he’s frowning. It’s a reminder of everything Nate’s been through these last few weeks, one Jeff really could’ve done without, but it also means he can just barely make out the steady rise and fall of his chest, a trade-off he’s willing to make. It feels like he’s in college again, like he’s standing in the doorway of Nate’s bedroom, counting his ten-year-old brother’s breaths as if they would stop the moment he looked away.
“We have to go back,” Skye says. When Jeff looks back to her, she’s staring down into her coffee cup like it might hold the solution to all of this. It doesn’t. “I know we do, I’m not naive. This can’t last forever. Is it terrible of me to want it to last at least a little while, though? Is it terrible of me to run away?”
“No,” answers Jeff, even as he doesn’t know the answer. Even if it might be a lie. One, he’s on the floor of the church. “No,” he says again, conviction replacing platitude.
There’s nothing to do in Davenport, California, which feels like the best news Jeff’s ever gotten. So much has happened in the last month or so that it felt like every hour was stretched out threefold, and right now ‘nothing’ is a blessing. Just as Skye had said, however, it can’t last forever. Sooner than feels right, sooner than feels safe, Skye and the Seftons are headed back down towards Los Angeles and the mess they left behind when they ran.
An unspoken agreement falls over them when they get back into the car. As soon as the engine roars to life, they’re done running. Back on Route 1, headed towards the I-5 South, Skye starts talking.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna be okay,” she says, and her voice doesn’t tremble as she says it. She says it like she’s saying a fact. Like she’s saying the sky is blue, the sea is cold, it never rains in Anaheim.
“Do you have a plan?” Jeff asks her. He watches her breathe in, breathe out, flex her hands on the steering wheel.
“No,” Skye answers honestly.
“Okay,” he says back, looking away out the window. “I don’t either.”
He doesn’t know where to carry the conversation after that. Nate is silent in the backseat, no help in filling the quiet for once, and Jeff thinks of a couple things before dismissing them immediately.
So looks like your dad is Steven Rae, huh? Nope.
What do you think that phrase means, ‘well hey, these things just snap right off’? Nope.
What the fuck are we going to DO after all of this? Nope.
There’s nothing Jeff wants more than to keep running. He wants to pack up his brother and what’s left of his life and keep going, so far that nobody will ever be able to find him. But, he thinks, turning his attention back to the woman in the driver’s seat, he owes Skye so much more than that. You don’t owe me anything , she had said to him, when he’d found Nate and showed up at her door again anyway. Jeff happens to disagree with this. Skye helped him get his brother back - risked everything to get his brother back, a man she had never even met. The least Jeff owed her was his help in finally getting her some answers.
Even more than oweing her, though, Jeff wants to help. He wants to understand what’s happened, why all this has happened, and he wants to help Skye. Not just because he feels in her debt - far from it. Because she matters to him. He cares about her. There are things you can’t go through in life without becoming fiercely loyal to someone, and the events of the weeks Nate was missing… Jeff doubts there’s just about anything he wouldn’t do for Skye now.
I don’t know if we’re gonna be okay , Jeff remembers, and in a fit of impulse he gives in to because the vestiges of disappearing still cling to him, making him brave reaches out and takes the hand she has resting on the center console. She grips onto him and squeezes hard. Jeff holds on just as tight as she does, makes eye contact with Nate in the rearview mirror, and says, with every bit of conviction he can muster, “We’re going to be okay .”
The way he shakes her hand a little as he says it is a promise. To Skye. To Nate. To himself.
Even if we’re not, we’ll have each other, and that’s enough on which to base a foundation of hope. Even if we’re not okay, we will be.