For years Julia had kept a list of what she would miss when Quentin was gone: Long talks in coffee shops and movie nights at her apartment. His intelligence, his sense of humor. Their inside jokes and obnoxious habit of leaving sentences unfinished when they knew the other would understand regardless of whoever else might nominally have joined the conversation. His sweetness and how rude he could be when he thought someone was unjustifiably sure. His heart, his soft bruised heart which he had never learned to harden or constrain no matter how it hurt.
What surprised her about grief when it finally came was how physical it was. She missed him bodily, as though without him her skin no longer fit. She missed his big dark eyes and the light catching in them and how they crinkled when he smiled, how wide they opened when something good happened like it was a shock to him every time. The solidness of his back beneath her arms when he squeezed her hello and his arms tight around her ribs and his hair smooth against her face and the fuzz under her chin of his sweater which smelled like him and beneath it the curve of his shoulder, muscle and bone and the living animal warmth of someone she loved. His scent, his profile. The precise color of his mouth.
She couldn’t stand to look at Penny, after. She couldn’t stand the way he looked at her. Like someone witnessing a miracle. Like he saw in her everything beautiful that had been lost.
No. It didn’t work like that. He didn’t get to have his person back. Not when hers was gone.
Penny wilted. He pleaded. He said she wasn’t herself. He said he would wait for her to remember what she had wanted. She stood stone-faced, looking at the floor. Let him protest. Let him throw himself against the world until he bruised. It felt better than it should, to be on the other side of that for once. Maybe she would have enjoyed being a goddess after all.
Then he said, “Quentin would want you to be happy.”
Julia said, “Get his name out of your fucking mouth.”
Penny’s lips twisted ruefully. She could tell he knew that had been the wrong move. “Julia—”
She wanted him to more than know. She wanted him to feel it. To feel wrong and sick and sorry all the way to his marrow. “How fucking dare you talk like you knew him. How fucking dare you act like you know me. I’m a ghost, to you. Of someone else you probably also treated like shit when she was desperate enough to fall for it. I let myself think there might be one decent thing in the constant nightmare of my life, and you took my body away from me. Again. And you have the goddamn nerve to argue with me when I tell you in no uncertain terms to get the fuck out of my life?”
It was mean. Cruel, even. She could see the moment it started to hurt. It was the same moment she started to like it.
Like hunger, like thirst, like drowning: his smile but not just his smile, his voice but not just his voice. The funny little quirk of his lips into a smirk, the flash of his teeth when he laughed. The angle at which his mouth tilted up slowly on one side while his brow furrowed like he was confused at his own happiness. How when something caught him off guard with delight his whole face moved like fireworks, lighting up the sky.
The way his words tripped over themselves when he got excited, the way he swallowed his own sounds when he was nervous, the way his voice bore into the air when he was angry, the way he laughed, the way he said listen, the way he said I’m fine, the way he said Jules. Twenty years she’d had him. More than most people ever get with a love like that. Twenty years and at the end of it instead of grateful she was only greedy for more.
Kady knocked at her door and let herself in with a face like: I’m ready to let bygones be bygones, now that your best friend is dead.
“Hey,” she said, with that gruff care Julia remembered so well from years ago when something dark had been growing inside her and her body had been burning from the inside out with memories of the violence that had put it there. She had been so grateful for it, in that other life when Quentin was alive.
“It’s honestly not personal,” Julia said, “but I really don’t want to fucking talk about it.”
Kady, god bless her, shrugged and said, “That tracks.” It was the warmest Julia had felt towards another human being, since. “You know where to find me if you need anything.” She shut the door on her way out and it felt right. Julia lay on her back staring at the empty white ceiling and tried to think it, the thing she had never before needed to think: I am alone.
She didn’t know what that was, to be Julia alone. It made her feel vampiric: staring into a mirror that refused to prove she was there. Hungry for something that would hurt.
She wanted to want to see Eliot. The person Quentin had lived his last few months for, the person he had loved and maybe raised a fucking kid with, depending on how you were defining reality. The person who had survived what she’d survived for much longer, right up through the point of needing to be saved by the guy they’d both die to protect. Maybe someday they’d share a bottle of tequila and cry and, whatever. Bond. She’d wrench out of him every scrap of the decades of Quentin that had never been hers and he’d drink down her panorama of childhood secrets and at the end of it Quentin would still be fucking dead but—something, some future state she couldn’t imagine. That was how it was supposed to go, when something like this happened.
But Eliot was still in the hospital, and Julia felt contaminated, radioactive. (Nineteen years old reading the same page of People over and over waiting for visiting hours to officially begin nauseous with nerves thinking his laugh, his sarcasm, our study sessions, wondering what to say when she saw him, what secret combination of words she had failed to come up with in time to keep him from—) Besides, Eliot had Margo still. Whatever he had lost, whoever Quentin had been to him in the end—and Julia wasn’t sure she wanted to know, wasn’t sure she wanted Eliot to get to say it now that Quentin had died without hearing it—he didn’t have to learn what she was learning. Not yet.
So she went to find Alice.
The hunch of his shoulders, the arc of his brow. That tightness he carried, a coil wound and waiting for detonation, and the pleasure of the rare occasions on which it eased. His hands—she dreamed of them, after: palming coins, writing notes, turning pages. Card tricks that turned to spells and back again. His fingers hanging crooked in the air, moving with his voice, solid and nervous and excited and strong. The way he slipped his palm against hers when he was afraid or knew she was. The way he’d been doing that since they were kids.
That was the problem with loving someone the way she’d loved him, that always love like the land or the sky: when always flipped into never. No ground beneath her feet, no stars. No slouching cartographer brushing hair out of his eyes to make legible this new terrain.
The house looked more normal than she would have expected of Alice’s home. When Julia thought of the place Alice had come from she pictured a garden overgrown with unclassified plants, an attic stacked with dusty instruments. From the outside this was just a house: white clapboard, tidy lawn. But when she approached she could feel—its magic. Old and thick and deep. A house that had magic like the Wickers had money.
The woman who opened the door looked like Alice’s mother the way fire looked like the mother of a ruin. She looked pleased and skeptical as she asked, “Are you Alice’s friend?” Julia hated her instantly. Her tone reminded her horribly of eating apple slices with peanut butter in Quentin’s kitchen, the way his mother had always regarded her. That uncomfortable mix of relieved appreciation and what’s the catch? lurking behind her eyes. The suspicion Quentin had inherited, that anyone there for him was unlikely to stay. Julia could almost hear her now: Oh, Julia, you joined Model UN? That’s great. Quentin, isn’t that great? Don’t you think you should try to be more involved?
Julia had been the one to email his mother to let her know. She hadn’t gone to the family’s funeral. She didn’t want to know how they would remember him.
To Alice’s mother she gave a polite smile and said, “Yes. Is she here?”
Alice’s mother led her into the house and down the hall, keeping a running commentary as they walked. “Of course I was so sorry to hear—he was very gracious when we thought she was gone… Alice can be difficult as I’m sure you know but he had such patience for her—very decent soul… He and I had a real connection, you know. She won’t tell you that—Alice has always, always been possessive in her love, gets that from her father…” Julia wanted to hit her.
Alice—pretty, prim, pathologically tidy Alice—looked like shit: bathrobe over old sweatpants, hair tangling in nest-like clumps. Pale and bruise-eyed. It looked wrong in a way that felt right. This was how the world should be now, said something buried in Julia’s chest: unkempt and unhappy and diminished. Everywhere should make visible his loss. When Alice saw Julia she stared in mute alarm like she thought she might be hallucinating.
“I’ll leave you girls to it,” Alice’s mother chirped, and sashayed from the room.
“Girls,” Julia said, curling her voice around the word with a wry smile.
Alice didn’t react. She kept watching Julia wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Afraid, Julia realized. As though Julia might attack her.
As though there were anything Julia could do to make things worse.
Julia had the idiotic impulse to say You okay? But of course she wasn’t. She settled for, “Hey. It’s just me.”
Alice leaned forward warily. “What are you doing here?” she said finally, in a tiny voice not like her at all.
“Well,” she said, holding up the handle of vodka in her bag, “I was planning on drinking miserably. But I can do that alone, if you want me to go. I just thought—” But she hadn’t thought, exactly. She had just wanted: not precisely company but the shape of an alone-ness that would match hers. A mirror of the wreck inside herself. Someone else with nowhere to turn.
“I don’t want you to go,” Alice said. “I just—I just thought you’d hate me by now.”
Julia frowned. “Why would I hate you?”
“Because—” Alice’s eyes were darting back and forth, her teeth crushing her lower lip hard enough that it must have hurt. “Because I hate me? Because—I figured, you’d be asking the same question I keep asking, and you’d—because—” Her face wrenched with pain. “Why did I let him go with me?”
“Oh,” Julia said.
“Why—” Alice kept talking like some dam she had been straining to keep secure had burst. “I knew him, I knew what he was like—why did I let him—he asked me to take this huge risk, for no reason, and—I just keep seeing it over and over in my mind, and—it happened so fast, but his face—” She had started to cry.
Julia opened the vodka and took a drink. She didn’t want to hear this but if she had to she wasn’t going to hear it fucking sober.
“His face, at the end…” Alice’s voice had the hush of a confession. “He looked so sure. I’d never seen him look that sure. About anything.”
Julia sat on the bed, took another drink. Handed the bottle to Alice who accepted it with a bewildered expression, wiping her eyes. “I think this is supposed to be the part where I tell you it’s not your fault,” she said. “But.” Remembering: crying into Mackenzie’s lap like she hadn’t since they were little kids and Mackenzie managing to step it up and be a big sister, stroking her hair, saying everything right (not your fault, it’s okay to be scared, he’s getting help now, not your fault) and all Julia could hear was his hugs, his terrible puns, the way he remembers everything you tell him about your life even the things you almost forget...
“But—it is my fault?” Alice said, insistent. Like she was hoping Julia would give her a reason to keep feeling as bad as she felt.
“It’s not,” Julia said. “But—I never learned how to believe that shit either. So.” She shrugged. “If you let him go I let him go too. And if we hadn’t—” She couldn’t say it. “But we did.”
At this Alice seemed minutely to relax. Enough to take a drink, make a face, take a longer drink. They passed the bottle back and forth for some time in silence. Julia tried to take in Alice’s room, its cheerful patterns and bright jewel tones: a time capsule of some girl Julia had never met who had nothing in common with the woman she knew.
“When my brother died,” Alice said, “I thought—I’m never going to feel better but at least nothing will ever feel worse. And now it’s like—Q proved me wrong on both counts.”
Julia remembered meeting Alice’s Shade in the Underworld: shining and sure, a girl who could fit in this pretty room on this pretty bed with its pretty linens. How open she was. How open they all had been. How open we all are, Julia thought, until—. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“Charlie,” Alice said. His name brought some life into her voice. “He was—he was everything I had. We were like—this little pocket world of sanity, growing up in this fucking house. When our parents were screaming at each other he’d teach me funny spells, or read to me. And when they started to cool down he’d go and—talk them back into feeling normal, or whatever passed for normal with them. That’s what he was like, you know? He always wanted to—fix things. He died, trying to fix things.”
“He sounds like a good person,” Julia said because that was the kind of thing people said. She tried to imagine hearing it in five, ten years: telling someone how brave Quentin had been, how deeply and fiercely he had cared. She tried to imagine hearing He sounds like a good person and not wanting to wring their fucking neck for being alive when he was dead.
“He was,” Alice said. “When I met Q—he was so nice to me, even when I—wasn’t, to him, at all, but—he was nice like no one had been nice to me, since…” She shook her head, darkness brewing on her face. “But, god, isn’t that kind of sick? I mean, what kind of person just—falls into bed with the first guy that reminds them of their dead brother? I’m—” She reached for the bottle and Julia handed it to her, watched her take a long and determined drink as if to fortify herself. “I want, I just want to be able to—remember the good things, and how much I loved him—and I did love him, I loved him like crazy—like no one else—but—with us it’s like every good thing is tangled with something totally fucked up, and I just—doesn’t he deserve better than that?”
Alice had started to cry again, softly. The vodka was taking effect and Julia felt warm and blurred, edges dissipating around something raw and red that would not move.
“For years,” she said, “every time I got a call from an unknown number I thought, this is it. It finally happened and this is someone letting me know.” Thinking: his clumsiness, his snobbery, his stupid fucking messenger bags… “And then it wouldn’t be, and I’d be so—fucking mad at him, and then I’d feel like shit for being mad because obviously it wasn’t his fault.” What she was trying to say was what she couldn’t say, what you weren’t allowed to say, after: loving him was complicated. Maybe loving anyone was, when it was real. Maybe love couldn’t grow like that without accumulating regrets like scars along the way. Silences you stepped around like broken glass. But she didn’t have anyone else to compare it to.
“I don’t know how to go on without him,” Alice said.
“I don’t know who I am without him,” Julia said. “I’ve never had to know.”
“God,” Alice said. “I've just been—unloading on you, when you… you came here, and you knew him so much longer, and… You must think I’m such a bitch.”
Julia laughed a little, at that. “I don’t. But he didn’t love either of us for being fucking nice.”
“No,” Alice said, bitterness seeping in; “he had someone else for that.”
Julia passed her the vodka wordlessly. She didn’t share Alice’s bitterness but she didn’t blame her for it, even if nice wasn’t precisely the word she’d use. Compared to Alice, maybe. If she’d had to carry around her dead boyfriend looking at someone else like that— What she had instead was a night at the penthouse after they knew Eliot was alive when Quentin had told her the whole long story that had never quite happened. What she had was his face: delicate and uncertain and confused, saying, The craziest part is that I think we were actually happy. I was—happy. Disbelieving, like he was afraid to hope for its truth.
What she had was: there had been or almost been a version of Quentin who had learned to be happy, and she hadn’t been around to see it.
She wouldn’t make Alice hear that. She’d hold this one on her own. But it rooted an ugliness in her.
“I’d raze the fucking world to the ground,” she said, “to hear him say Jules again.”
His name for her, only ever his, as explained to every boyfriend she’d ever had. Something that was theirs and she wanted it back bad enough to destroy something for it. And—more. She wanted his breath and his heat and the hunch of his shoulders. She wanted to push a hand into her own guts and disembowel herself and scrape the entrails out from under her fingernails with her teeth. She wanted to find Quentin’s body and devour it and set herself bloody-mouthed on fire to be scattered in the wind.
She kissed Alice. Thinking: Close enough.
“What the fuck,” Alice sputtered, pushing her away. “Is this some—completely fucked way to feel close to him, or—?”
Julia had always liked this about Alice: her refusal or inability to not say the things everyone else avoided. She shrugged. “Take it or leave it.”
Alice stared at her, lips slightly parted, looking stricken. Idly Julia thought maybe Alice would hit her. That would be good, too: blood running down her face and bruises that would sting for days, her skin lit up with some infinitesimal sliver of what was inside her. Touching the swollen places, making herself feel it.
“Oh, fuck you,” Alice spat, and kissed her so forcefully their teeth knocked together.
The weight of his playful nudge at her side. The brush of his fingers against her palm borrowing change. The exact angle at which she’d had to look up to meet his eyes when they stood and the exact angle at which he had looked back down to meet hers. Like bleeding, like a fever, like a drug: the things she had never known to call hers, the things she would never stop craving. And throbbing sickly beneath, the unhealing wound of more: the things she had believed she would keep collecting. The things that weren’t hers but which now she wanted, ravenous, to fill up the space of what she’d never have.
Alice kissed like a fistfight. Julia didn’t want to wonder did you kiss him like that except that maybe she did. Maybe it felt like an unburying, pushing past a barrier hard and dark and cold to clutch in her hands something still pulsing with aberrant life. Maybe she wanted to feel Alice’s teeth sink into her lip and think: Did you do this to, for him? Was he safe enough for you to unleash your hunger on, or was his sweetness the kind you couldn’t stand to bruise? Did you even want this, in that other time when you were a girl who had never watched him die?
Whose blood is it you’re tasting, now?
Gripping Alice’s hair in her fist, tugging, hard, because she was angry or because she could follow a cue, and Alice made some pressed sound in the back of her throat like she liked it or like she was angry, and there it was, edging closer: Did he pull like this, did you want him to, did he worry about the politics of yanking your girlfriend around in bed? Or did he like it, a little, enough that he was surprised?
That private shadow self she had never wanted to know and was dragging her fingers ragged against the edge of because everything was gone except the memories and the memories weren’t enough—
Not enough: she pushed Alice’s shoulders back, a little, feeling them under her palms, that flesh and blood and breath there, and rounded her leg over to sit straddling her so that beneath her was a body like hers, alive, hideously alive, and she wanted—
(his clumsiness his sympathy his terrible shoes his illegible notes his copies of books always dog-eared and scrawled with marginalia his face turned to her his smile for her the way he said her name)
—to crush her own bones into a pulp, to crash against this other life until they blew each other up, to hear Alice cry out when Julia bit into her neck and stayed there until she was sure she would leave a mark, the way she felt she should be marked her whole life long by her love and her pain. It unlocked something in Alice, so that her hands stopped flailing and she clawed at Julia’s hips, as if to say how dare you, as if to say stay. And that—to be reached for, to be held onto—a soft groan fell out of her mouth. Alice looked up at her, questioningly, still her uncertain self—that self that couldn’t ever be less itself, could not hide or pretend, like—and Julia wanted—
—a ghost story that was also a lullaby, to curl herself up in every echo of him—
—to touch the skin that he had touched. To feel it like the earth under her hands. Julia pushed at the edges of the robe and Alice obliged, shimmying herself out of it, tensing for a second when Julia slid her palms under the faded pink camisole, resting them on Alice’s belly. Waiting for permission, or—Alice lifted it off, biting her lip, and grabbed at the hemline of Julia’s shirt, impatient or pissed off or desperate. Julia took it off, easy, unhooked her bra and tossed it to the side, feeling a churning something between desire and shame and the fundamental awkwardness of undressing against your dead best friend’s girlfriend which struck her suddenly such that she almost laughed.
Alice looked up at her, frightened or eager. Then she pushed Julia backwards, a push from a brawl more than a bedroom, and Julia sank into the off-balanced sensation, rocking backwards and lifting her legs to fall, noticing when her head hit the mattress that the ceiling had started to spin—
(fifteen years old sharing a bottle purchased with Mackenzie’s fake ID and stolen from the space in her bottom drawer where Julia knew she kept the shit she didn’t want their mom to find, giggling and hushing each other in Quentin’s bedroom at his mom’s place where no one would care enough to check in on them as long as they kept it quiet, laughing themselves stupid watching dumb Youtube videos and Quentin had fallen on his ass when he tried to get up and laughed so loud Julia clamped a hand over his mouth and in the morning they could barely sit up)
—and then Alice was in her field of vision, pretty Alice, vicious Alice. Alice kissed her and Julia arched up to press against her, skin sparking up in a line from her neck down, down. She wanted—more, deeper, stronger, worse—to claw down Alice’s back and hear her make that frustrated, gratified sound, and to wonder: Was this how he touched her? Harder or softer? Was he as nervous as you’d expect him to be, or unexpectedly sure? Did he like it when she dug her teeth into his bottom lip like that and had she done that to him or was this for Julia, now, for this needy, bladed thing they were doing? More, more, never enough: Did he watch her face wrench with his lips slightly parted? Was he reverent always with his face pressed against her body, or did he learn it well enough to become comfortably familiar? Did a deep and secret pride swell in him when her breath caught on her own pleasure, when he slid his hand (his hands, his wrists, his fingers unexpectedly strong) beneath the coarse tangle of her hair to find he had made her wet?
“Jesus,” Julia said out loud. Her body barely felt her own. She pushed ungracefully at Alice’s sweatpants, hissing, “Come on, come on, just—”
“I—” Alice said, and Julia stopped; body on fire and stubbornly whole; waited for Alice to drag them back to safer ground. But Alice said, “Just—you first,” punctuated with a sharp nod as if to prove she meant it.
Julia obeyed; it was easy to obey. It was easy not to think. It was easy and awful and right to feel—naked but not just naked, bare and cold and all the more so for Alice still wearing her sweatpants, kneeling above her and looking her up and down with an archaeological fascination, as if she’d never seen a naked body before. As if in all her years as a woman with a body she had never once regarded her own, which, if any woman went through life, Julia thought, avoiding as much as possible the proof of her own embodiment—
She felt like a live wire. She sat up and on some unexpected impulse planted a gentle kiss on Alice’s forehead.
It landed like a bomb. “Fuck,” Alice said, and wriggled out of her sweatpants, leaned forward to pull Julia in with her hands fisted in Julia’s hair. They stayed for a moment breathing against each other, lips close but not touching, before Julia made it a kiss. Alice pushed against her again but Julia pushed back this time, harder; pushed her against the headboard, slipped her hands down to Alice’s arms to hold her in place, just long enough to show her—to say: I’ve got you. This was the knife she would fall on: she wanted to take care of her. Like—
—his eyes soft and sleepy the morning after a late night his hand wrapped around a cup of coffee the way he smiled when he said something nice to her like it made him glad to speak it and frowned immediately after like he was confused that anyone would ever need to—
Alice eased, a little. Rose up in kind, uneven, a little jerkily, when Julia started grinding against her. Julia spread her hands all over, thumbing the divot of her neck into her collarbone, tracing down her sternum, stroking over her breasts. Knowing already this would be only once and wanting to memorize these stolen pieces: what he had seen and felt and how her body responded.
Alice moved her hand down to where their bodies met and stopped, hesitant. “How do you,” she said, “I’ve never, I’m not exactly, I mean and everyone’s different anyway so it’s not like—there’s not like a—I’m not a very—you know, with any of this stuff, with anyone—” Big blue eyes averted, somehow finding a way to be embarrassed still in this of all situations.
“It’s okay,” Julia said, and, with a brief surge of hysteria, laughing, “Me neither, you know? Here—” And kissing Alice to spare her the awkwardness of watching herself, she guided Alice’s hand, two fingers slipped inside, thumb—”Just hold—there”—resting outside against the base for some pressure. Then she could start rocking, feeling the tension start to build at its familiar nexus and radiate slowly outwards. Not her favorite way to get off but she didn’t want that; there were too many ways she was already undone. The roiling ache in her gut wouldn’t dissipate with that kind of release. Instead she wanted—and not even the thought but the edge of the thought she was trying not to look at more than the pulse in her hips sent her breath coming faster, face flushing hot—she wanted—her own hand now deliberately still at the crease of Alice’s thigh, fingers digging just slightly into the skin but not moving because she wanted—she couldn’t—
She broke the kiss to lift her head. Alice watched Julia fucking into her own fingers, looking mesmerized, and Julia waited. Finally Alice looked up again, her own breath shallow. Julia tightened slightly her grip on Alice’s thigh. She wanted to find the words she shouldn’t say but nothing came. “How…” she tried. Her mouth was dry. She wanted, she couldn’t—there were easier ways to finish this, better ways, ways that would feel less like dark magic waking things that shouldn’t be woken—
“Ask me,” Alice whispered. “Just—just ask me.”
And Julia said, “How did he touch you?”
Alice closed her eyes. “Fuck.” For a second Julia thought she might cry. But she opened them again, looking half-crazed, too alive, and placed her hand over Julia’s hand, brought it to bear against her wet soft warmth. Began moving her fingers in slow, hard circles, and Julia could see the moment it activated some muscle memory, the way her legs twitched and her face twisted with it, the way she left Julia’s hand bare to cover her own mouth. Julia took her wrist and pinned it by the side of her head; she wanted to see this. To watch her remembering, to witness this insufficient resurrection—barely aware of her own body anymore except as a mirror of what was happening in Alice’s, muscles tightening, lungs heaving, their throats issuing some low pained cries into the air. Alice’s face shuddering, shuddering, her voice escaping louder now—he had done this, he had watched this, he would have loved to feel himself part of a whole—
—everything she would never have—
“Sometimes,” Alice choked out, closing her eyes, “sometimes he would say my name—”
“Alice,” Julia breathed, and watched her whole body heave with it, hips bucking against Julia’s hand, wild as Julia said it again, Alice, like an incantation, Alice, Alice, Alice, hearing only Jules, Jules, Jules…
Alice came with a strangled sound that freed Julia to take the last few deep final thrusts she needed to finish herself, a small and localized event less like pleasure than relief. She pressed her palm gently against Alice to feel the last few pulses like some misplaced heartbeat. Then she let go of Alice’s wrist and backed away so they could untangle themselves.
Alice was shining with sweat, hair even rougher than it had been. She glanced down at herself like she was only now realizing she was naked. “Fuck,” she said, “fuck—” And she slid until she was lying down and curled onto her side and began to cry.
Julia let her cry. She tugged the blanket free so that she could drape it over Alice, and then she nestled herself under it next to her. Pressed her chest against Alice’s back, arms around her waist. Holding her while she sobbed, feeling her stomach seize with each wave of sorrow, her cries huge, consuming, like some wailing out of myth. “He’s gone,” Alice said, and “Q,” Alice said, and “I’ll never fucking see him again,” Alice said, and Julia said, over and over, “I know.” She knew. She would never stop knowing. She would know it in her cells until the day she joined him.
She wanted to feel that this was a kind of homecoming: to offer herself again as shelter from someone’s inner storm, a safe and sturdy place for a person falling apart. But in truth through all the years they’d had and all the nights she’d worried and all the days she had watched him piece himself back together, he had never once let her see that darkest part of him. She had never comforted him during his own unspooling. She didn’t know how she would ever forgive him or herself for that now.
His nails bitten down raw when he was stressed about a project. The way he held his shoulders in the dark of a party, like he was bracing for a fight he knew he would lose. His eyes rolling privately for her when something stupid happened and the surge of peace she always felt when he hugged her no matter what else was going on. His awkwardness and how it had eased on the rare occasion she saw him talking to a kid, as if he became so focused on making them smile he forgot to worry about all the things he always worried about; the way he would grin, eyebrows arched, when he pulled a coin from their ear. His occasional bouts of surliness even in good times. His rare hours of contentment and even rarer moments of joy and how his joy every time felt like her own. His animation in the heat of a debate almost definitely about something stupid. His unquestioning faith in her, his good-luck texts when she had an interview or exam. His intellect, his curiosity, his controversial opinions about the Star Wars prequels. What it was to move through the world knowing always that someone in it understood you, knew who you were to your rocky core and had chosen to stay. What it was to have a piece of yourself that lived in another person and to guard another self tucked into your own.
Eventually Alice quieted and her body stilled, lungs expanding in deep, even breaths. Julia was somewhere in the strange intersection of sobering up and falling asleep. “Is your mom going to freak if I sleep here?”
Alice scoffed. “Are you kidding? She’d be thrilled you got me to loosen up. She’s always thought I don’t do enough—‘experimenting.’”
“Eugh,” Julia said. “I practically majored in fucked up moms, but yours is on some graduate level shit.”
“Yeah,” Alice said. “I should—I should get out of here, but I don’t—I feel like I’ll go totally crazy if I’m just alone. Like at least being pissed at her all the time keeps me sane. And I can’t—I mean even if the others don’t still hate me I can’t—it’s just too much. Too many memories. I look at them, and I just see—the year I fell in love.”
“You could stay with me,” Julia said.
“Aren’t you staying with Kady?”
Julia shrugged a little, behind Alice’s back. “I don’t have to.”
Alice took a moment to respond. “That’s nice of you.”
“I mean it,” Julia said.
This time Alice didn’t respond at all. Out of some long-forgotten habit Julia started smoothing her palm along Alice’s side. Thinking: he must have done this too. And: he would never do this again, to Alice or anyone. And: how he would tap a pencil against his chin absentmindedly when he was thinking. The way he walked, the way he sat, the way he moved. His clumsiness and his kindness and his bashful face. How she could say anything to him and never need to explain. How he smiled sometimes with his eyes flickering like candle flames. How he loved her. How day after day he had lived at the precipice of despair and day after day he didn’t give up and he didn’t give up and he didn’t give up.
Julia started to laugh.
“What’s funny?” Alice said, sounding prickly like she was afraid the answer was her.
“What’s funny,” Julia said, still laughing, “isn’t really funny, it’s just—we’ve been so stupid, because—Alice. Alice, we’re going to bring him back.”
Alice sat up and turned to face her. “What the fuck, Julia.”
“No, listen—” Julia tried to calm down but she couldn’t keep her mouth from smiling. “You and me? With everything we know, everything we’ve been? Everything we can do? Who fucking better, to be on his team? If anyone can do it—”
“But no one can do it,” Alice said, “and it’s a terrible idea, dangerous and reckless and—”
“Well he sure as shit didn’t love me for my sensible fucking judgment,” Julia said. “And I doubt he loved Alice Quinn for that either.”
Alice flinched. “That’s not fair.”
“Nothing about this is fair,” Julia argued. “Nothing about life is fair. But this one we can fix. I know it. Like I know—like I know him.”
Alice regarded her warily. Finally she lay back down, on her back. “My dad’s collection,” she said. “There’s this one cult of Mithras with some life-death boundary stuff—it’s a whole other system of magic, it’s thought they didn’t even use finger positioning to cast—and some scholars speculate that the gods were active participants but it was considered disrespectful to write their actions down except as poems…. But we can look there. Tomorrow.”
Julia nodded. “And the Brakebills library has all kinds of shit we found when we were looking for monster stuff, I barely even bothered to scan it—and some people say the dragons know more than they let on but dragons can always be bought if you have the right price—”
“And we have a lot,” Alice said, “between the two of us. That we can find, or offer—”
“We’re going to do this,” Julia said. “We’re going to figure out how to do it right, and we’re going to fucking do it. And then—” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“And then,” Alice echoed, or agreed. She slipped her hand into Julia’s hand.
And then. And then the world tilting back on its rightful axis, the suturing of the abyss. The map of herself unfurling once again along its well-worn folds. And then her missing heart would return to itself, with the future stretching out before them like a path neither would walk alone. The expanse of time in which their fractured joinings could be mended. The horizon always guiding them, her polestar returned to the firmament. Her body made whole. And beside her that moving human heat, the scent and color of life, a boy with hunched shoulders and hair in his eyes and his hand outstretched pointing forward, saying Jules, look—