Will’s eyes were closed. He had closed them so he could enjoy the sensation of the intense morning sun that streamed through his window and pressed his body into the soft folds of his comforter like a big warm hand. A late-summer breeze sifted through the window screen and danced lightly up his legs, skipping over his bare torso to his face, where it brushed lightly across his eyebrows and forehead. He took in a long, slow breath, feeling his chest expand and stretch, pulling his skin tight, causing it to tug on the crisscross of still-fresh scars, reminding him that if he moved too much, too fast, the confusion of damaged tissue in his upper left chest would protest. But if he didn’t move, just breathed slowly in . . . then slowly out . . . he could pretend he was the same undamaged boy that he was at the beginning of the summer. Carefree, pain-free, fame-free, guilt free.
It was nice.
His mind felt free, too. It was quiet and relaxed for the first time in weeks. And exhausted. It had been so clenched up from the non-stop barrage of interviews, phone calls, text messages, emails, and snail mails that his brain cells felt like they had been balled up like a knotted snarl of tangled Christmas tree lights. And there were the follow-up appointments at the hospital and the tense day when he woke up with a headache and a teeny-tiny fever and his mom freaked out and rushed him to the emergency room terrified that it was an infection in his wound. It wasn’t, of course, it was just another sideshow in this crazy circus of the past couple of weeks.
But now, it was a beautiful morning, he was alone in his bedroom, it was quiet in the house, and he had the whole day to himself. For the first time, he felt like he could finally turn the page on this chapter of his life. It had certainly been an exciting chapter. The climax was, of course, two weeks ago. He had been shot. With a handgun. Point blank. The bullet had entered his body at terrific speed, careening off a rib, causing it to miss his vagus nerve (thank God, now that he knew what that was) and taking an alternate route through the tip of his left lung (thanks a lot), causing the lung to collapse (gradually–a little bit more with each breath). Somewhere along that path, the bullet managed to clip a small artery before it bounced off his scapula and made a tumbling exit out his back, tearing a hole in his muscle and skin as it went. It had finally clattered to the floor somewhere in the room behind him, deformed and spent, all of its energy having been used to create havoc inside his body.
The clipped artery had refused to stop bleeding, probably because he refused to stop trying to rescue his friend, Blue. Instead, a steady flow of his blood, and life, seeped through the exit wound onto the floor behind him. Blood loss is what almost killed him. Dead. Gone. The tragic death of a teen not yet even fully grown into manhood. Never to excel in college and grad school and realize his dream of becoming a preeminent scientist. Never to experience the euphoria of falling in love. His only lasting legacy being the heroic rescue of a 2helpless orphan girl from clutches of a cold-blooded drug dealer. Will Woods—dead teen hero. Mourned by a grieved community. Memorialized with a giant statue in Jefford’s Park.
Yeah, right—get a grip, Woods, he thought. A bag of ashes in a brass urn and an obituary in the Westbury News-Press was the best he could expect.
But he wasn’t a bag of ashes. He was still a very live bag of living, breathing bone and protoplasm. He took in another deep breath and let it out slowly, enjoying the sensation of air going in . . . and then out. He thought about how billions of humans around the globe were doing the exact same thing. Air going in . . . and then out . . . and then in . . . and then out. He wondered how many of those people had read about him or seen the news clips. Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? How many times had the story been posted and shared and tweeted and retweeted? That was one of the weirdest parts of the whole thing—his story going global—now a permanent part of his electronic legacy. Wherever he went from now on it would be, “Oh yeah, I remember that story. That was you!?” It was already weird enough just around town. Even strangers would walk up to him. “Hey, Will, how are you doing? Did it hurt, getting shot?” Did it hurt. What do you think? Of course it frigging hurt! Here, let me demonstrate (pulls out a gun, shoots the questioner in the shoulder). There! How are you doing? Did that hurt?
The funny thing was that some people acted almost jealous. He remembered being jealous of kids in casts who had broken an arm or leg. Why was that? Who would ever be jealous of someone going through so much pain? It was weird. He figured it was all the attention. People are so kind to you and generous, even the annoying strangers. And in the beginning, all that attention felt really great, but after about a week, it started to get a little tiring, and then it got really annoying, and now he’d reached the point where he just wanted to lock the door and tell them all to kindly fuck off. He had never really appreciated being a nobody before, but now he did. Now there was no more anonymity. Everyone knows you. People who had never given you the time of day before suddenly start acting like they’re your best friend.
And then there was this whole “hero” thing. They kept calling him a hero. Somehow being shot made him the hero. How did they figure that? Blue was the real hero. She’d been the one with the courage to go after the drug dealer (and single-handed at that, thanks to Will’s cowardice). It was because of her that their town was now rid of that psychopath. And she was the one who’d suffered the most, enduring twenty-four hours of captivity, beaten, bound, gagged, isolated, and alone, sure she was going to die. And now, instead of her being the hero, people were treating her like she was the victim—damaged goods. Even worse were the idiots on Facebook that were pushing complete lies; that she was an addict, that she was the dealer’s lover, that it wasn’t an abduction it was part of some S&M thing. What the hell was wrong with those people? He’d blasted them back but instead of listening to the truth, these morons wove him into their whole alternate narrative. They were so wrapped up in their own non-reality that it was impossible to talk any sense into them. He had finally given up and just thanked God that Blue didn’t do FB and didn’t see all this crap. Nobody needed to see that, especially her. Jesus, after what she’d been through she needed everyone’s support instead of being beaten-up even more. And the way she had been acting lately, it seemed like she could use a lot of support. He thought a therapist like his mom could help, if only Blue didn’t have a pathological hatred of therapists or anyone with a “Dr." in front of their name. In fact, Will wasn’t sure there was anyone she trusted enough to let them inside her head. On the other hand, she had reached out to him at the homecoming party.
Will sighed. His whole body had tensed up and now his shoulder was hurting again. Damn. Why did he care so much anyway? Yeah, she was the first person he had met outside of his family that shared their secret special ability, vox oculis, and maybe that accounted for some of it, but it wasn’t all of it. It wasn’t physical attraction, though she was lithe and graceful and had a classic profile that had the potential for great beauty if she ever relaxed her semi-permanent state of grim seriousness. No, she was still more of a tom-boy than a teenage girl, at least in Will’s mind. Hard to imagine a romantic relationship developing there. As for her volatile personality, it wasn’t exactly what you’d call “sparkling,” though there was an undeniable quality of honesty and camaraderie about her when they were together.
Nope, he had no idea why he did, but there it was. He cared about her. And was amazed by her. Blue, the survivor. Her whole family gone and yet here she was, still plugging away, tough as nails and brittle as glass.
He took one more deep breath and let it out like a deflating balloon. So much for the brief delusion of peace and normalcy. He wondered if he could ever just relax and not worry anymore. Blue, reporters, physical therapy, nosey well-wishers, trolls . . . and on top of that, the coming onslaught of sophomore year. He was hoping to fly under the radar at high school, for a while at least, but that was probably just a pipe dream.
He closed his eyes and tried to refocus on the sensation of the warm sun and recapture that feeling of being at peace, but the sun had moved on and he was too wound up now. Just get up, Woods, he told himself. His body stubbornly refused. It wanted to stay on the bed, sun or no sun, but now even the bed refused to cooperate. It tried to eject him with a sudden giant bounce. He opened his eyes and found himself staring directly at an upside-down face.
“Hey there, big ugly brother.”
“Hey there, demented little sister.”
His sister’s vox flowed through her eyes into his and her words rang in his head with the most irritating tone Rose could muster, but to Will they had a comforting familiarity.
Rose looked at his shoulder. “Ugh! What a mess! Why’d you take the bandage off?” She scooted around so that she was lying next to him and leaned her head on his good shoulder. “Does it hurt much?” she said out loud.
“Nah, not anymore. Just kind of tight and achy.”
She reached her arm across and hugged him. “I’m just glad you’re still here.”
“Aww, you’re so sentimental.”
“I’m just practical,” she said. “If you were gone, I’d have to do the dishes every single night.”
“Very funny. You’re asking for a tickle attack.”
She sat up suddenly, “No, don’t! I don’t want you to hurt yourself!” She wasn’t laughing. “Willy! Don’t! Please!”
A tiny surge of anxiety tickled his stomach like a frantic butterfly. That feeling wasn’t coming from him. He looked her in the eye. “I won’t. Don’t worry, little Meerkat.”
She stared at him, but her expression relaxed. “You better not!” She slumped back down next to him.
That tickle of anxiety he felt from Rose—those sensations had been happening more and more lately—ever since the night he’d been shot. His mom in the hospital, Blue at the homecoming party, and now Rose. When he brought it up with his mom, she told him he should ask his dad about it when he was ready. He’d been puzzling about that one for a while. Why his dad and not his mom? Was this some kind of birds and bees talk? A little late for that, it seemed.
“Willy! Talk to me.”
“Blah de blah blah blah blah. And don’t call me Willy.”
“Don’t make fun.”
He gave her a little squeeze. “I’m okay, really. I’ll be one-hundred percent soon.”
“You’d better be. Blue better be, too. Sam said she’s acting more like she did at the beginning of the summer. She even skipped dinner once.”
Sam was Blue's younger foster brother. What Sam said to Rose just reinforced what Will had been thinking.
“Do you think she’s okay?” Rose asked.
“Hey, don’t worry, you. Blue is made of tougher stuff than us. She just needs a little more time.”
“You really think so?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Rose sighed and tucked her head under his chin, “I hope so. I like Blue a lot.”
“Yeah. You and me both.”
That’s all Blue needed was a little time, he thought. A little time and . . . a little help. If he could just get her to talk to his mom. Right. Like that worked out spectacularly last time he tried. It was easier rescuing her from being kidnapped than talking her into seeing a therapist—maybe because she was tied up and unconscious when she was captive. Maybe that’s what he should do—knock her out and tie her to a chair in his mom’s office.
Rose lifted her head and looked at Will. “What are you laughing about?”
He smiled at her. “Nothing. Don’t you worry about Blue.”
“Why not? You are!”
“All right, maybe a little,” he said and gave her another squeeze. Yeah, maybe a little, he thought. Maybe a lot.