Chapter 5: Solitude of a Birdcage

NOW

Detective Lake was waiting for Maxie when she arrived at the hospital the next morning. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you,” she said. “Did Savannah give you my messages?”

Maxie shrugged, avoiding Lake’s eyes as she moved past her and into Isaac’s room. Nothing had changed. He still lay in the same position she’d left him in two days before. On his back, slightly propped up, arms at his sides. She knew personally that he preferred to sleep on his belly. She couldn’t help but wonder if, even comatose, that was still the case. “I haven’t seen Van,” Maxie lied.

Lake nodded. “Well, I just thought you would be interested in knowing who attacked you that night.” She held up a picture and handed it to Maxie. “Drew Watson. Do you know him?”

Maxie didn’t need to look at the picture. His voice was in her ear again. How had she not recognized it? She shut her eyes tightly and tried to suppress the sensation of his hands on her body. “He attacked me?”

“Do you know him?” Lake asked.

I’ve met him a few times.” She leaned back against the window, wrapped her arms around herself. “He trained at Isaac’s gym. Sometimes I’d stop by to see Isaac, and Drew would be there.” She shook her head. “He was an asshole.”

“Did he know the truth about you and Isaac?”

Maxie shrugged. “We didn’t flaunt it, but I always assumed that he suspected. That’s why he was always coming on to me, to get under Isaac’s skin. I told Isaac not to let Drew get to him…”

“But he did?”

With a sigh, Maxie admitted, “Once. A while back. It was my fault, really. Alex, Isaac, and I decided to surprise Van at work one night. I was upset with Isaac—”

“Why?”

Maxie glanced at him. Could he hear them? “Because we argued earlier that evening,” she said, her voice barely audible. “Anyway, when we got to the bar, Drew was already there—”

“With who?”

“I don’t know. Some guys from the gym. They were all drunk. He didn’t say anything to me at first, just kept looking at me. And then I went to the bathroom, and when I came out, he was standing there.”

So you don’t know me, huh?’ he asks.

She glances over at the bar and just as she suspects, Isaac is watching, jaw tight, nostrils flared. She knows she should walk away, but she doesn’t.

‘You look nice tonight,’ Drew says. When she doesn’t reply, he adds, ‘The appropriate response to a compliment is thank you.’

‘Thank you,’ she says, flatly.

 He reeks of cigarettes and alcohol. His eyes are glazed, his shirt is wet where his beer dripped.

‘Can I buy you a drink?’ he asks.

‘No thanks.’

‘C’mon. I’m being nice, here.’

‘That’s a change.’

He smirks. ‘Don’t act like that. Just let me buy you a drink.’

Finally, she shakes her head and moves to get past him, but he seizes her by the arm and pulls her back. ‘Hey!’ he says sharply, leaning close to her. ‘Don’t just walk away from me—’

“Isaac was over there before he even finished his sentence. He grabbed Drew and hit him twice in the mouth. Hard in the mouth. One of his front teeth came out.”

“What did Mr. Watson do?”

Maxie shrugged. “He was too drunk to do anything but threaten Isaac and call me names. We left after that, and I never saw him at the gym again. He was humiliated.” She raised her hands to her face and slowly shook her head. “He wanted to humiliate me. I should have just walked away from him. As soon as I’d come out of the bathroom, I should have just kept walking.”

Lake patted her shoulder. “Was there anyone else there that night who could want to hurt Isaac because of it? One of Mr. Watson’s friends, maybe?”

“I don’t remember who he was there with.”

Lake nodded. “Well, I won’t take any more of your time. Thanks for your cooperation. And Maxie, stay in touch, will you? The man who shot Isaac is still out there. I’m only trying to find him, and keep you safe.”

“Sure, of course,” Maxie replied.

She didn’t move from her spot by the window until Lake was gone, and even then, she stood there, still holding herself, contemplating. Was there anyone else who’d been upset by the situation? Maybe the other person had nothing to do with it. Maybe it was just someone Drew had recruited to tag along for the deed.

Shaking away thoughts from that night, Maxie went to Isaac’s side. “Why are you always fighting my battles?” she whispered to him. “If you hadn’t been trying to protect me that night from Drew, he never would have come for me last week. And if you hadn’t been trying to protect me last week…” She let her voice trail off. “Isaac, I’m strong. I’ve lived through a lot, okay? You don’t have to protect me.” She took his hand, turned it over and ran her fingertip over his palm. It was rough and calloused. She always wondered how he managed to touch her so softly with such leathery hands. “If you want to do something for me,” she said, “you can wake up. Wake up for me. Because you dying, Isaac… that I can’t handle.”

Suddenly his hand jerked. Maxie jumped back, her eyes widened, panic seized her. His breathing quickened, he attempted to lift his head but it fell back limply on the pillow. “Oh, my God,” she breathed, raising her hand to her chest. “Isaac.” He moaned, his eyes fluttered but remained shut. “Oh, my God,” she repeated. She reached for the call button on his bed, pressed it frantically before turning toward the door and darting out into the hallway. She crashed right into a nurse. “He’s waking up!” she cried, grabbing the small women by the shoulders. “I think he’s waking up!”

“Okay, why don’t you just wait here, Miss?”

The nurse disappeared into Isaac’s room and a moment later, two doctors and another nurse followed. Maxie pressed her back against the wall across from the door, placed her hand over her beating heart, and cried. Had he heard her? She wanted, more than she wanted her own life at that moment, to believe that he had.

 

THEN

Isaac sat in the small coffee shop by the window, waiting. He checked his watch again for the umpteenth time in almost three hours. Seven more minutes and he would go. He couldn’t wait for her all day. Maybe this Sunday, this one particular Sunday, she wasn’t coming. He would wait seven more minutes, though. He felt as if he owed her at least seven more minutes.

Two minutes passed.

Still no one.

Then the door opened. He looked up expectantly. It was just a young couple.

Three more minutes passed.

She wasn’t there.

He began to feel anxious. What a waste. Now he’d need to get to her some other way. Get to her outside of her apartment, away from her roommate. Somewhere he could speak with her privately. With thirty seconds to go, he sighed, staring at the door, hoping that by some snowball’s shot in hell she’d walk through.

She didn’t.

“Isaac?”

He spun around toward the voice behind him. His eyes widened. “Maxie!” he nearly screamed. He stood, almost not believing it was her standing there in front of him. How the hell did she get in without him seeing her? He’d been watching the door the entire time. Watching for her. “Where did you come from?”

“Um… I come here every Sunday.”

“No, I mean…” He paused, realizing how crazy he must have sounded. “I mean, I didn’t see you come in.”

“That’s because I came in through the side door.”

“There’s a side door?” he demanded, scanning the café.

Maxie raised an eyebrow. “Yeah. Is that okay with you?”

He smiled, just relieved she was standing there at all. “Do you want to sit?”

She bit down on her bottom lip, looking at the seat across from his as if she wasn’t sure. Finally, she nodded. “Yeah, okay.” She took her seat, he took his. “So, what are you doing here? I’ve never seen you here before.”

“Yeah, I’ve never been. I was passing by, though, and decided to stop by for some coffee.”

Her eyes dropped to the table where his hands lay and then went back up to his face. “Where is it?”

“Where’s what? Oh, the coffee? I drank it. But it’s such a nice day. I’m just people watching now.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I like to do that. As a matter of fact, I like watching the people who come in and out, the regulars especially, and trying to figure out what they were doing before they got here. And what they’re going to do after. Or just what their lives are like in general. Like them,” she said, nodding toward the young couple who walked in just minutes before. “They’re high school sweethearts. She goes to college around here. He has three sisters. Sometimes, when she’s in class, he brings them in here.”

“His sisters? How do you know he’s not cheating on her?”

She shrugged. “He’s not.”

Isaac smirked, remembering that Van had said she was a helpless romantic.

She nodded toward a man in the corner, dressed in a suit. “He comes in here every week at twelve, on his lunch break. He’s sleeping with his secretary.”

Isaac’s eyes widened and he laughed. “How did you come to that conclusion?”

“Well, he’s usually with a girl, also dressed like a professional. A young, sexy professional. Also, it’s Sunday. What work could they possibly be doing on Sundays? I bet they’re just using work as an excuse to see each other. I bet the office is very private on a Sunday.”

“Okay, well, what about them?” he said, nodding toward two women in the corner. “Lesbians?”

Maxie rolled her eyes. “You would assume that. They’re friends. They met in a book club, but the other members didn’t want to read any of the books that they wanted to read, so they started their own book club. With just the two of them. And them. Mother and daughter.” She nodded toward a women with a little girl, both eating muffins. “I’ve never seen them here before, because they pick a new café every week. One day, when the little girl’s old enough, they’ll open one of their own.” Maxie watched them as they smiled and laughed. The woman leaned forward and kissed the little girl’s plump cheeks; the little girl happily accepted her mother’s affection.

Maxie looked away.

“This is the most I’ve ever heard you speak,” said Isaac.

Her eyebrows furrowed. “Is it too much?”

“No, not at all. Keep going.”

She chuckled. “Now I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell me about you. What brings you here every week?”

Though the smile remained on her lips, it faded from her eyes. She looked away and shrugged. “I don’t know. To be alone. Or maybe just…”

“Just?” She slowly shook her head, her face reddened. “Tell me,” he said.

Still averting her eyes, she said, “Get away from Van.”

Isaac was silent.

“It’s not anything against her,” Maxie said, after a while. “It’s just that, we’re together all of the time. Once in a while, I think of moving out. But I almost feel like…” She paused, thoughtfully. “Like I’m alone, in a birdcage. The tiny little door is open, and all I have to do is fly through it to get to freedom. To get to the rest of the world. But I’ve grown so used to living behind those bars…”

Isaac nodded. “The comfort of the birdcage.”

“The solitude of it.”

 

“Hidden talent?” Isaac said, leaning back in his chair. Maxie was on her second cup of coffee. He was still sipping on his first. He didn’t particularly care for coffee. “Hmm, let’s see. I’m multilingual.”

“I already knew that,” Maxie replied.

“No, you already knew I’m bilingual. I speak English and French, but I also speak Italian, Spanish and German, and rudimentary Japanese.”

Maxie’s mouth fell agape. “I want to learn French.”

“I can teach you. I have a degree in Linguistics.”

Her eyes widened. “You have a degree?”

He laughed. “Yep. I’m smart. Surprise, surprise.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Well, I can tap dance.”

Isaac scoffed. “That’s not so impressive. I’d rather see you lift your leg above your head.”

She laughed. “Okay. I can recite my ABC’s backward in under a minute.”

His mouth fell agape. “I don’t believe you.”

She laughed. “I really can. And I know how to play Jingle Bells and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on the harp, too.”

“What else?”

She thought a moment. “Oh! I can hold my breath for three and a half minutes.”

“No way!”

“I can!” She shrugged. “I like to swim.”

Three and a half minutes? Prove it!”

“Right now?”

Isaac fiddled with the timer on his watch. “Yeah, right now. Hold on, when I say start…” Maxie rolled her eyes and waited. “Okay, one… two… three…start!”

She sucked in a large breath and held it. Isaac watched her, the sides of his lips turned up into a small grin, his eyes plastered on her face. Her heart pounded so madly against her chest, she wondered if he could hear it. But she remained still, held her breath, counted the seconds. “One minute,” he announced.

Why did she feel so nervous? So anxious? This was a walk in the park for her, she wasn’t even swimming. Not pumping her arms, nor kicking her legs. Just sitting there. “A minute and a half.”

Her palms were sweating. Anticipation made her stomach flutter. Anticipation for what? She wasn’t sure. “Two minutes, Jesus Christ,” he said, disbelievingly.

He was so gorgeous.

“Two minutes and fifteen seconds.”

She wondered what his lips felt like. Soft probably.

“Two minutes, twenty seconds.”

No! She wasn’t allowed to wonder that. She’d already gotten enough of him the day before, when he came out of Van’s room half naked—

She exhaled and sucked in a large breath. “Whoa! Two minutes fifty-five seconds!”

Still breathing hard, she said, “I’m also a pro at Scrabble.”

 

Isaac watched as Maxie spoke. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her lips, full and moist and a bit shiny with gloss, moving to form her words. “…and I was such a tomboy in elementary school. I used to cry when my mom would make me wear skirts or dresses.”

“What did you want to wear?” he asked.

“Tank tops and baggy jeans. When I was in second grade, I cut off all of my hair so I could look like my best friend, Joseph.”

Isaac threw his head back and laughed. “Joseph, huh?”

She nodded. “Funny thing is, Joseph was only my best friend because he actually had a crush on me. Then I cut my hair, and he didn’t like me anymore, so we stopped being best friends, and I had a crew cut for nothing.”

“It grew back, I see.”

“Yeah,” she said, running her hands over her head. “Longer than ever. I’ve thought about cutting it again, though. Only up to here this time,” she said, raising her hand to the side of her neck, just above her shoulder. “But my mom always liked my long hair. And Van thinks I’d look weird if it was short.”

“I think it would look nice short.”

She smiled, her cheeks turned a light shade of pink. She shrugged. “It’s not really for the look, anyway. My hair’s just so… so much.” She ruffled her ponytail. Her wild curls bounced and shook wildly on her back.

“Do you wear it down often?”

She shook her head. “Alex likes it back, off of my face. He says it brings out my cheekbones.” She chuckled and shook her head. “That’s so photographer of him, isn’t it?”

“How do you like to wear it?”

“I don’t know. Down, I suppose. It’s such a hassle brushing it back every day. Plus, when’s it down, it’s on my neck, over my shoulders, all around me. Sort of like a security blanket.”

“I like it down.”

Her face grew hot as an image from the last time she’d seen Isaac appeared in her thoughts. Her curls had been out and wild, hanging loose down her back. I like your hair, he’d called to her as she ran out. She’d gone in her room and stared at it in the mirror.

“I don’t mean to pry,” he said, leaning toward her, “but I noticed you always refer to your parents in past tense.”

She nodded. “My mom died. When I was fourteen.” She glanced across the café at the mother and daughter again. They were gone. “And my dad… well, he may as well have died with her. I haven’t spoken to him since.”

His expression darkened. “I lost my parents, too.”

Her eyes went wide, but she quickly blinked and bit down on her bottom lip. “Wow. I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “I know everyone probably says that, but I actually know, firsthand, how much it sucks. So really, I’m sorry.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry for you, also.” Silence fell over them as he looked at her, studied her, captured every detail of her face, of her hair, of her fingers, to store in his mind for safekeeping.

“You don’t have to be sorry for me. Not anymore. I waited a long time for him to come back for me.” She thought back to her fifteenth birthday, when she’d sat in the darkness of her bedroom until well after midnight, waiting for her father to call. “If he was ever going to call,” she said, “it would have been that night. I should’ve known then that he was gone for good. But I still waited.” With a shrug, she said, “But I’m not waiting anymore. Don’t be sorry for me, Isaac. Be happy for me.”

He said nothing. Even with the small smile on her lips, anguish peered out at him through her eyes. “Maxie,” he said, finally. “I have to tell you something.”

She swallowed hard. “What?”

“I wasn’t just passing by here. Van mentioned you come every Sunday, so I was waiting for you.”

Her eyes widened. In a small voice, she asked, “For how long?”

He chuckled. “Three hours. But isn’t why I waited more important?”

“You waited here for three hours?” she said.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“Talk to me about what? Three hours. God, I’m sorry.”

“I don’t care about the wait, Max. I would’ve come back next week and waited three more if you hadn’t shown up.” Her eyes softened, she exhaled lightly. “I’m sorry about what happened between Van and I,” he said. “I did not mean for things to go that far—”

“Oh, Isaac, don’t,” she said, raising her hands to stop him.

“Just listen—”

“No, you don’t need to apologize,” she insisted, closing her eyes and shaking her head. She didn’t want to talk about that. In fact, she wanted to stay as far away from the conversation as possible. She’d been having such a good time.

Yes, I do,” he said firmly. “Just listen to me. The night you brought me back to your apartment, I wasn’t interested in Van. I wanted to sit in the living room and talk to you for an hour. The only reason I didn’t leave when you went into your room was because I was hoping you’d come back out. The only reason I stayed in the first place was because I was hoping you wouldn’t go into your room at all.”

Her mouth hung slightly ajar. Her eyes were wide, her eyebrows were raised. She blinked, speechless.

“I didn’t mean for the other night to happen. I didn’t mean for any of it to happen. My plan was to get to you.” He paused and sighed. “Van’s just so…” He shook his head, searching for the words. “Persistent.”

Maxie let out a humorless chuckle. She couldn’t blame him. She knew firsthand how well Van could engulf people and never let them out. “Isaac…” She frowned. “It doesn’t matter. She’s my best friend, my sister. You slept with her.” She shook her head. “What happened between you two the other night obviously didn’t mean anything to you. But it meant something to her. She really likes you.”

He looked away. “She doesn’t even know me.”

“Maybe you should give her a chance. Let her get to know you.”

He shook his head. “I like Van, I do. But I want you to get to know me, Maxie.”

She began to gather her belongings. “I’m sorry, Isaac,” she said, standing. “I’m sorry this is what you waited three hours for.”

He shook his head. “I got more than what I’d been hoping for.”

Her face reddened. She’d had a good time, too. So good. Why did he have to ruin it in the end? She turned to leave and then turned back. “She’s sensitive, okay? Don’t lead her on. If you don’t like her, just stop coming around.”

His eyes moved down the length of her and then up again. He slowly shook his head. “I don’t think I can do that.”

 

NOW

Maxie and Van were curled up in the small chair outside of Isaac’s room. Maxie sat sideways, her head against the wall, her arm draped over her friend. Van sat with her legs across Maxie, her cheek against Maxie’s forehead, her arm around Maxie’s neck. They both slept soundly.

They’d been there all night, all morning, all afternoon, and as the sun began to set again, there they remained. Waiting. Isaac was awake, lucid, talking. But the doctors kept Maxie and Van away, kept them out of the room, refused them any information. They were anxious, confused, worried. But most of all, they were tired.

“Excuse me.”

A man’s voice carried from down the hall. Van continued to snore lightly, Maxie stirred. “Excuse me,” the man repeated. “Can you tell me where room 313 is?”

A nearby nurse paused to help him. She said something Maxie didn’t catch, and the man replied, “Isaac Cole. Room 313.”

Maxie nudged Van. “Hey, wake up,” she said, attempting to sit up to get a better look at Isaac’s visitor. Van moaned, adjusted, didn’t open her eyes. “Van.”

“Right down there,” the nurse directed the man. “Second to last room on the right.”

The man nodded and started down the hall toward Maxie and Van. “Van,” Maxie said louder, practically pushing the sleeping girl off of her lap. Van jumped to life. For a moment, she looked about, disoriented, and then she turned her attention to Maxie.

“What’s wrong?”

“Someone’s here for Isaac.”

That woke Van right up. “What? Who?”

“Excuse me,” the man said, approaching as if on cue. He paused when he spotted Maxie, studied her, and she studied him right back. “Maxie.”

Maxie leaned forward. “Gnar? Daniel Gnar?”

“Who are you?” Van demanded.

Maxie gently pushed Van’s legs to the side and stood up. She and Gnar faced one another, looking each other over. Maxie was exhausted. She wanted to be surprised by Gnar’s presence there, but she was simply too tired. “Hi,” she said.

“Who are you?” Van repeated.

“Oh, sorry,” Gnar said. “My name is Daniel. I’m a friend of Isaac’s.”

“Friend?”

“Best friend,” Maxie clarified, then looked at Gnar. “Right?”

Gnar nodded. “Old friend, anyway.” His eyebrows furrowed, he bit down on his bottom lip. “What the hell happened to him? A detective came to the gym yesterday, questioning everyone. She said—”

“Wait,” Van said, raising a hand to stop them. “You two know each other?”

“We’ve met, yes,” Gnar replied.

“When?” Van demanded. Maxie recognized the traces of irritation in her voice. “I’ve never met any of Isaac’s friends.”

“Who are you?” Gnar asked.

Van’s eyes widened. “His girlfriend!”

Confusion passed over his features briefly. He shot a glance at Maxie, who looked away, and then looked at Van again. “Oh. Well, Isaac and I grew up together. We’ve been friends since middle school—”

“When did you two meet?” Van interjected.

“Last year,” said Gnar. Van’s mouth fell open, moved to form words, but she paused in frustration.

“At the gym,” Maxie added. “I met Isaac for lunch a few times.”

Gnar nodded. “Yeah.”

Van turned to Maxie. “I thought you said there was nothing else,” she hissed, and then she pivoted and stalked off before Maxie could reply. As soon as she was gone, Gnar tilted his head and narrowed his eyes.

That,” he said, pointing down the hall after her, “is Isaac’s girlfriend?”

Maxie lowered her gaze. “Yeah, that’s Van.”

Gnar’s eyebrows arched, his lips formed an O. “He really has changed. Except,” he added, “I just always figured it was because of you.” His eyes danced across her features. “It’s been a while. You look good.”

Maxie scoffed and looked down at herself. “Yeah, right. I look like death.”

He bit down on his bottom lip, slowly shook his head. “No. Really, you don’t.”

“Well, thanks,” she said, shifting uncomfortably. “You look good, too.”

That was the truth. She had always found Daniel Gnar fairly attractive, though she had never dared look at him long enough to think anything more. But now he stood in front of her, and she was free to look at him as much as she wanted. She indulged.

Never before had she noticed how flawless his skin was, how inviting his full lips were, how captivating his narrow, brown eyes were. Clearing her throat, she blinked and looked away, but not before she caught his sideways grin. “Anyway, the doctors aren’t letting us in his room yet. They said he’s awake and doing well, but they’re still running tests.”

“What kind of tests?”

Maxie shrugged. He sighed. When he spoke again, his voice was barely audible. “What happened to him, Maxie?”

“He was shot,” she replied. “In the head. Someone broke into me and Van’s apartment and…” She couldn’t say it again. She shut her eyes tightly, forced the image of Isaac’s motionless body covered in blood from her mind. “He’s better, though,” she added, opening her eyes. “He’s awake, that’s what’s important. The doctors say he’s talking—”

“Have you seen him?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. They’re making us wait.” Before Gnar could reply, a doctor emerged from Isaac’s room. For a split second, she was relieved to have lost Gnar’s attention, but then she saw the look on the doctor’s face; somber, grave. Maxie opened her mouth to speak, but Van rushed forward. “Can we see him?” she demanded.

“Yes, but first there are some things we should discuss.”

Maxie shut her eyes. She tried not to, but she couldn’t help it. Her blood ran cold, her heart dropped, her legs nearly gave out on her. What could they need to discuss? He was alive. He was awake. He was coherent. What else was there? Brain damage? Something irreversible? Something permanent? “Please,” she heard herself whisper. Her eyes opened, she looked at the doctor. “Please,” she repeated, louder, firmer. “Please give us good news.”

The doctor looked away.

birdcagexs

Maxie stumbled into Bea’s apartment and slammed the door shut, leaning back against it as if someone had been chasing her. Bea jumped up from her seat in the kitchen and rushed forward. “What is it?” she demanded. “What’s wrong?”

Maxie opened her mouth to speak but a sob emerged in place of words. Dropping her face into her hands, she slid to the floor and wept. Bea kneeled beside her, eyes wide with confusion and concern. “Maxie,” she said gently yet urgently. “Tell me what’s going on. Is he okay?”

Still unable to find words, she simply shook her head and continued to cry. He wasn’t okay, nothing was okay. How were they supposed to move forward now? she wondered. What was the next step? What was supposed to happen next?

When she at last stopped crying, she dropped her hands and looked at Bea. “He can’t remember,” she managed, “anything about the past year and a half. Retrograde amnesia, the doctor called it. It’s like the last eighteen months of his life never happened.”

Bea gasped, her expression was pained.

“They’re still not sure what exactly he remembers and doesn’t remember,” Maxie explained. “He can still recall some small things, but mostly the last year and a half is just gone.”

“Does he remember Van?”

Her voice caught in her throat again, she simply shook her head.

Bea raised her hand to her mouth as it fell open. “Maxie,” she breathed.

“They were going to let me see him. I was right there, I heard him talking.” She paused to remember the sound of his voice, which played over and over in her mind. Deep and firm and confident. Even just waking up from a coma, even without his memory. “But I couldn’t go in. I don’t know what I’ll do if he doesn’t remember me. If he doesn’t remember everything.”

Bea was shaking her head. “He can’t forget you, Max.”

“He forgot Van.”

“But he’s in love with you,” she whispered.

“I know,” Maxie replied. “And now we’re being punished for it.”

“Stop—”

“This is karma.”

“No, Maxie, this is life.”

She glared at her friend. “Life? How is this life? You get to work late because you got pulled over. That’s life. Your computer dies before you save your ten-page essay. That’s life. Dating your friend’s boyfriend until he gets shot in the head trying to protect you is not life, Bea. How many people do you know go through that?”

“Know personally? Just one. But don’t you watch the news? Bad shit happens to people all the time, Maxie. It could have been worse. He could have died.” Maxie shuddered at the thought.

“On top of everything else, Van is pissed at me again.”

“Why now?”

She told Bea about their earlier conversation with Gnar. “When she walked away, he basically said that he thought was Isaac’s girlfriend. And when I said I wasn’t, he didn’t waste any time giving me the eye.”

Bea raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? How’s he look?”

“Bea!”

“What?”

“He’s Isaac’s best friend.”

“I’m just asking!” she said with a shrug.

Maxie raised her eyes and couldn’t help but grin. “He’s almost as gorgeous as Isaac.” Bea’s mouth fell agape. “He showed some interest when we first met, last year. But Isaac immediately put an end to it.” She chuckled at the memory, and then she shut her eyes and she was crying again.

Bea took her hand and squeezed it. “Go see him, okay? Talk to him. Maybe you’ll be one of the things he remembers.”

“And if I’m not?”

She sighed. “Cross that bridge when you get to it.”

 

She crossed that bridge several times that night. She crossed it in her dreams. The next morning, when she woke, she crossed it again and again, and then again on her way to the hospital. How would she handle it? How would she deal with looking in his eyes and seeing nothing? Like a stranger, all over again. Except she was in love with him. So in love with him that it hurt. And he loved her, too. Could he just forget that?

She arrived at the hospital while Van was at a photo shoot. It was the only time Maxie got to be alone with him, when Van was working. The door to his room was closed and Maxie paused before she opened it, to peek inside. He was awake, sitting up in his bed, watching television. Her heart melted for him.

She moved away from the door and began to finger her curls. She wore her hair down, the way he liked. She wore his favorite shade of lip gloss, a light cinnamon color, and his favorite shade of nail polish, pale orange. The jeans she’d picked out were also his favorite, low rise and impossibly tight around her figure. And her shirt, he’d bought for her. She was dressed for him.

Taking a deep breath, she finally pushed the door open and stepped inside. Isaac sat unmoving, stared ahead aimlessly, his eyes blank, the corners of his mouth drawn down. He didn’t even look up when she stepped inside. He didn’t even flinch.

She steps into the room and his eyes light up, if only for a moment. He quickly looks away, of course, but she saw it. And even when he turns to Van, smiles at her, lets her hug him and kiss him, Maxie can carry on in peace, because she’d seen in his eyes what he kept so carefully hidden from her best friend.

Now he didn’t even turn to her. Didn’t even acknowledge her. For a moment, she simply stood there, contemplating whether she’d stay and face him or just go. She was standing right there, right in front of him, but apparently it wasn’t too late to turn and leave. Maybe that was what he wanted.

Blinking back tears, she shook her head, took a step back and started to turn back to the door. But then, as if someone had called his name, Isaac looked at her.

And there it was. That glint of something that passed through his eyes. It wasn’t recognition, no. But it was something. He quickly blinked it away, but not before she caught it, and for the first time all morning, she felt a spark of hope. “Hi,” she said, moving forward. He sat up, tilted his head to the side and narrowed his eyes with scrutiny. What was he looking for? she wondered. A reminder, maybe? She was the reminder. And if he still couldn’t remember, then he wouldn’t. She had to bite down on her bottom lip to keep from telling him.

“Hello,” he said, finally. His voice was low and even. Unemotional. Guarded.

How was she not in tears? How did she manage not to go to him? Throw her arms around him and kiss his face and beg him to remember her? She wasn’t sure, but she was thankful for the unnerving self-control she suddenly possessed. “I’m Maxie,” she said, placing her hand on her chest. Her heart beat unmercifully against her palm. “I know you don’t remember me.”

“No,” he said. His eyes swept across her face, over her shoulders, down to her feet and back up again. “I don’t.”

He wished people would stop showing up. Didn’t they all know that he couldn’t remember them? Didn’t they know that he didn’t know them anymore? They all just waltzed in, one after another, acting as if he only suffered from a bump on the head, talking to him as if they weren’t complete strangers to him. And what could he do besides nod and smile and listen to the things they told him about himself?

The girl—Maxie was her name—dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just… I don’t know what to say.”

You and me both, he thought. But at least she was keeping her distance. At least she wasn’t carrying on as if he were supposed to just know her because she knew him. “Who are you?” he asked.

“Maxie,” she repeated.

“Maxie,” he said. “As in…Maxine?”

She nearly choked. She needed to pause, to breathe. Shaking her head slowly, she replied, “As in Maximilienne.”

His eyes lit up a bit, and before he even uttered the words, she knew what they would be. “Parlez-vous français?”

It took all she had not to break down again. “Oui,” she replied.

“Maximilienne,” he said, and then slower, with his eyes closed, “Maximilienne.” He played with her name for a moment or so, rolling it around on his tongue like a piece of hard candy. “Maximilienne,” he said again, opening his eyes. “Who are you, Maximilienne?”

She shrugged. “Van’s roommate.”

“That’s it?” She nodded. “They said I was shot protecting Van’s roommate.” She nodded. “That would be you?” Again, she nodded. “I killed someone for you.” This time, she didn’t nod. “Who are you?”

“Van’s roommate,” she said again. It came out in just a whisper.

Maxie, Maxie, Maxie. How many times had he’d spoken that name in the last year and a half? However many, it didn’t ring any bells. He looked at her. “Maxie,” he said again. Nothing.

Her eyes widened a bit. So much emotion in them, yet she stood back. Her eyebrows furrowed, her mouth fell slightly agape. What was she thinking? How did she know him? Why was she looking at him that way? As if reading his thoughts, she dropped her gaze.

He looked away from her. It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. And who could he trust? Who had he confided in over the past eighteen months? Van, maybe? His girlfriend, the attractive woman who visited him every day, who hugged him and kissed him with ease and familiarity, who told him that they were in love? No, not her. She didn’t know him. He didn’t know her, but he could tell that she didn’t know him, either.

She certainly thought she did, though. Or at least, she pretended to. Is that what she wanted him to think? Did she want him to believe that he trusted her, so maybe now that he didn’t know left from right, he would actually trust her?

Stop being so cynical. You’re always so cynical. Why? That was the voice in his head. He’d been hearing it for two days already, randomly. Sometimes, when he lay in bed at night, it would whisper to him, don’t fall asleep, you need to go back. And others times, when he snapped at a nurse, it would laugh and say, ah, muscle-man slash comedian. Impressive. When he slept, he’d hear, wake up, Isaac. Wake up for me, and he’d awake with a start and peer around at his empty room. And now, now it reminded him to stop being cynical. That was like asking him to stop being himself.

“I’m sorry,” she said finally. She ran her fingers through her hair. Isaac couldn’t help but follow the sway of her curls, the way they fell around her face, bounced against her neck. “I shouldn’t have come. This must be…” She broke off, smiled uncomfortably. “Awkward.

Isaac sat up straighter, motioned toward the chair beside his bed. “Don’t go,” he said. “Sit for a while.”

She crossed the room and sat down before him. Her knee bounced, she rubbed her hands together nervously. “So…” Her eyes darted back and forth across the room. They never fell on Isaac, and his never left her. She had a nice face, one easy to look at. Big, brown eyes; full, moist lips; high cheekbones; and a small dimple on the left side of her mouth. Her hair fell in big, soft ringlets, dark brown against her smooth skin. He liked the sweep of her eyelashes whenever she looked in another direction, and the way she chewed on the inside of her lip.

“So, what’ve you got?” he asked, nodding toward the canvas bag in her hands.

“Oh,” she said, holding it up. “Well, I figured you’d be bored in here, so I brought you a sort of care package.” She handed him the bag and watched as he dug through it.

The first thing he grabbed from it was the small bouquet of tiny, blue flowers. He looked up at her, brows furrowed with curiosity. “Forget-me-nots,” Maxie said with a small grin.

Isaac looked back down at the flowers and chuckled. “Fitting.” Still smiling, he pulled two thick activity books from the bag next. “Sudoku? I love Sudoku… but you knew that, huh?”

She didn’t reply.

“Old newspapers?”

“Well, you probably want to catch up on your current events.”

He stared at her, still smiling, and she looked away. “Thank you,” he said, finally turning his attention back to the bag. He pulled out his favorite novel, a photo album, and a can of pecans. “I don’t like pecans,” he said.

“Yes, you do.”

Shooting her a skeptical glance, he pulled the top off of the can and retrieved a pecan. “I like these?”

“Since about six months ago.”

With a small shrug, he ate it. “Mm,” he said through chews. “Not bad.” She smiled. And of course, so did he. “So, tell me, Maxie,” he said, taking a handful of the nuts out and closing the lid. She bit down on her bottom lip. “What happened the night I was shot?”

“Didn’t the police tell you?”

“Sure, but they weren’t there.”

“I’m sure they told you everything there is to know.”

“Tell me again.”

He wouldn’t take his eyes off of her. They played on her face, searched her eyes; she feared they would see right through her, right into her soul. “Well, two guys broke in. One grabbed me in the kitchen, when I was getting water—”

“Before that,” he said.

“Huh?”

“What happened before that? What was I doing there?”

Maxie shifted in her seat, cleared her throat. “Picking something up.”

“At three in the morning?”

“Isaac—”

“The detective told me I was in my underwear when they got there.”

Maxie blinked. If she was going to tell him, now was her chance. Would he even believe her? She was more than capable of proving it if he didn’t. But then what? Would they just carry on as they had been? Certainly they’d learned their lesson by now. Maxie had surely learned hers. “I don’t know, Isaac. Maybe you were changing or something.”

“At three in the morning?”

She glanced at her cell phone. “Wow, I didn’t even realize how late it was. I should go,” she said, standing.

“Maxie,” he said, but she ignored him and gathered her belongings. “Maxie, wait—”

“Enjoy your pecans. You usually do. I’ll be back to visit you soon, okay?”

She turned to leave, but he reached out and grabbed her arm. “Maxie.” She sucked in a sharp breath, her eyes fell shut. His hand on her made her heart flutter, the sound of him whispering her name made it melt. Could he see it in her face? What he was doing to her? When she opened her eyes, he was staring at her. Yes, he saw it.

What was she hiding? he wondered. Everyone else who stepped foot inside of his room happily told him about himself, eagerly even. And he believed nothing of what they said. But this girl was different. She was aloof and unforthcoming, afraid to meet his eyes, though every time she did, hers were filled with emotion that she struggled to subdue. And she was keeping something from him.

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