Chapter 1: Chapter One
Getting what you want really makes no difference.
It's a hard lesson to learn. Kilgrave’s been dead for weeks, neck twisted as if he were a particularly ugly owl. No more demands and threadbare justifications. Just silence, and the certainty that he’ll never be in her head again. She should be celebrating.
She's not. She may have been immune in the end, but he still left his mark on her, like a dog’s pee stain on the upholstery. You can yell at the dog, but you can never get rid of the smell. At least this particular dog isn’t going to pee on any armchairs ever again. That’s what Jess tries to take solace in when the panic attacks render her a sobbing, shaking heap on the floor of her bedroom.
She hasn’t had one in twelve hours. That’s respectable, given her recent track record.
Her streak is almost ruined when she stumbles home from staking out a cheating wife and sees a shadow moving as she enters her apartment. Her heart jumps into her throat, her chest seizes up, and she falls into a fighting stance. “Who’s there?!”
“Jesus, Jess.” The lights come on, way too bright—she’s both drunk and hungover, her least favorite state of alcoholism—and Trish’s judgmental stare hits her from across the room. Times like this, Trish looks a lot like her mother.
Jessica immediately hates herself for that thought.
“What’re you doing here?” Oh-so-casually, she shuffles over to her desk to dump the camera into its accustomed drawer.
“Waiting for you. We had dinner plans, remember?”
Shit. “I forgot.”
Her jacket ends up crumpled on the couch, and she heads into the kitchen, back turned to avoid Trish’s stare. She’s pretty sure it’s lethal. If anyone’s got laser eyes, it’s Trish.
“Jess, we’re not doing this again.” Trish steps behind her as she grabs a bottle of something-or-other from the cabinet. Her neck muscles tense as she expects a hand to land on her shoulder, but of course Trish knows better than to touch her from behind. “I know you’re having a hard time dealing with everything, but I’m not going to wait six months this time until you finally climb onto my balcony and ask me for money. We dealt with Kilgrave together. Why can’t we deal with the aftermath together?”
“This is my problem, Trish.” Dishes clatter as she rifles through the assortment on her counter for a clean glass. “My trauma, my fucked-up brain.” She gives up the search and grabs a mug with brown-green coffee rings at the bottom, then turns around as she pours. “How do you think you’re going to help? You get a degree in trauma therapy while I wasn’t looking?”
Trish looks radiant, as always, in a tight three-quarter-sleeve top with a turtleneck collar circling her throat like a ribbon. The dark purple color makes her hair and eyes pop. Nice, clean, attractive, put-together. Trish Walker at your service.
Her face is doing that thing where she looks concerned and irritated at the same time, and that, too, is very in character. “I could fund your trauma therapy if you ever agreed to get any,” she says. “Or I could simply—go to dinner with you. Be your friend. Ask you about your day. Try to make things normal for two or three hours. You need a friend right now, Jess. You’re disintegrating.”
“I’m not disintegrating.” Jess hides behind a deep gulp from the coffee-whiskey mug.
“You look like crap. It’s been ages since your place got trashed, and you haven’t done shit to fix it up. It’s still got a giant hole in the wall, I almost cut my hand on your door when I came in—”
“You don’t have to grab the frame to open it. Just use the handle.”
“—and I’m pretty sure there’s a hazardous materials law against hoarding this many empty liquor bottles.” Trish kicks one of the bottles that litter the floor, and the clattering of glass on tile rings in Jess’ ears and makes her head throb. She pulls a grimace, then jumps a little when Trish’s hand lands on her wrist. “Let me help, Jessica. Stop isolating yourself. You don’t have to do this alone.”
“Don’t call me Jessica.” It’s new, the aversion against her full name, but anytime she hears it, the echo in her head has a British twang and makes her skin crawl. “Just—let it go, Trish, all right? I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
The silence that follows lasts long enough for Jess to chance a glance at Trish’s face after all. She wishes she hadn’t. She’s not sure she can handle the pain she sees there.
“You’d better be,” Trish says finally, gathering her coat up from the back of a chair as she retreats into the office. “Shut me out all you like, but I’ll be checking in on you. First sign you can’t go this alone, I’m intervening. You got me?”
“Yes, mom.” She’s still in the kitchen, so she doesn’t have to see the expression on Trish’s face at that jab. She can hear the harsh scoff, though, as Trish makes her way to the door.
“You owe me dinner! Friday, 8PM, I’m picking you up. Don’t stand me up again.”
“I’ll be here.”
Probably. Dinner doesn’t fix jack shit when your day consists of fighting your own brain for every scrap of sanity you have left, so she’ll have to see on Friday what Friday brings. She takes another swig of whiskey, then grabs the bottle and makes her way to the bedroom as she hears the apartment door shut with a rattle of broken glass.
“She strung me along!” He’s human garbage dressed up as a 20-something hipster boy, and he’s waving a fucking bayonet, of all things. “Four fucking months! And when I ask her to finally make up her mind, she disappears!”
“You were scaring me!” The girl behind Jess is shaking; Jess can feel it against her back where Rebecca is pressed against her, hiding from her wannabe boyfriend. Her voice is thick with tears and fear. “I was scared you were going to hurt me!”
Jess should’ve known that this was going to go bad the moment Human Garbage burst into her office and demanded that she deal with his case first of all. She could smell the conceited entitlement pouring from his pores when he spun his tale about a missing girlfriend. He knew that they were meant for each other, knew it the moment he laid eyes on her in the NYU cafeteria, except the love of his life had disappeared, and please, Jessica Jones, please find her. He’ll pay anything to find her.
Human Garbage smelled of money as much as he did of entitlement, so she took the case. Rebecca was easy enough to find, just follow the credit card trail. Not being completely stupid, Jess came up to the cozy Hartford bed-and-breakfast to see what’s what before handing Rebecca’s location over to her client.
She doesn’t know how Human Garbage found them. She’d like to think it impossible that he followed her, and it is—paranoia is a great asset when it comes to making sure you’re not being followed—but she did polish off an entire thermos of Jack on the train. Maybe the little fucker actually put a tracker on her.
“Hurt you!” Human Garbage is blubbering, snot gathering on his upper lip. “I could never hurt you, Rebecca. You’re the love of my life!”
“Bullshit,” Jess snaps. “If you’re not planning to hurt her, who’s the knife for?”
“She stood me up!” The blade is trembling in his hand. He’s more likely to stab someone by accident than on purpose. “She said she’d be there, and then she stood me up! I bought a ring!”
Rebecca wails behind Jess, and Jess’ fingers clench to fists. “We’re done here. Put the knife down, or I will make you, asshole.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.” The snot-covered lip curls into a sneer. “You’re just a drunk, fucked-up girl P. I. from Hell’s Ki—“
Her knuckles connect to his jaw. There’s no fight in this hemp-clad bag of pretentious attitude. His balance disintegrates on impact, arms flailing like windmill blades, one of them razor-sharp. The fall is more theatrical than expected, and Jess dodges a second too late. Hot pain slices up her side. “Motherfucker!”
“Oh my God!” Rebecca screams. “Oh my God, did he stab you, oh my God, Kyle, are you all right?”
“He’s fine! Fuck!” Her side is soaked, blood seeping into her shirt. She yanks her jacket off; last thing she needs is a fucking bloody mess all over the lining. It hurts. Shit.
“That’s assault!” Human Garbage has found his voice, if not his feet. “You assaulted me, I was defending myself, I didn’t—“
“Shut up!” Frustration tears at her throat. “Shut the fuck up, you piece of shit!” One quick grasp, and she’s got his knife hand pinned at the wrist; a twist, and the bayonet clatters to the floor. The cut in her side burns like hell as she drags him over to the window. The curtain cable’s beaded plastic. Jess yanks it off, ties Human Garbage’s wrists behind his back, then loops the cable around the radiator.
“You’re going to stay here.” She steps around him. “You’re going to wait for the cops. Even if she won’t press charges—“ She turns around to face Rebecca, who’s got her back pressed against the wall next to the door, purse clutched to her chest. “Which, really, you should, because this jackass is nothing but a plain old stalker—“ Back to Human Garbage. “Well, I definitely will. Talk about assault, asshole. Oh, and by the way? Every second of this is going on your bill, and my rate’s just doubled. See you later, jerkface.”
She calls it in anonymously. Hartford PD, there was an altercation in the bed and breakfast on Jefferson and Main, no, she didn’t see anything, but it sounded violent. You guys should check it out. Please call her never for more details. Her civil conscience protests as she hangs up, but with everything that’s happened recently, she doesn’t want to deal with the police and the courts and the system. She’s had more than enough of them.
She’s had enough of Rebecca, too. She keeps it together long enough to speak some comforting words, give her the name of a self-help group and the number of a detective friend, and put her in a cab back to the city. Then she finds a set of concrete steps in front of a strip mall and collapses.
Breathing hurts, searing pain burning along her side every time her chest expands. Her shirt is soaked, but the blood isn’t dripping down, so the cut can’t be too deep. She’s flung her jacket back over her shoulders, lining be damned, to ward off the cold, but the adrenaline crash does its part. Before long, she’s shivering like a junkie on his second day in rehab.
And of course, as always, there’s the added fun of PTSD.
“Main Street,” she whispers. “Birch Street. Higgins Drive. Cobalt Lane.”
The street names don’t work as well anymore, not since Kilgrave made those memories unsafe by turning her parents’ house into a shrine to his ignorance. Right now, though, they ward off the gaunt digits of panic scratching on her mind. You’re in control, Jess, she reminds herself. He can’t hurt you.
“He can’t hurt me,” she insists under her breath, words belied by the burning in her side and the pounding in her head. “Fuck.” She’d give anything for a drink. Or five.
After some time, she’s pulled herself together enough to register the cars passing by. Not long after that, she’s flagged down a cab. She just wants to go to the station, catch the train back to Grand Central and hit the free clinic on 57th and 10th—and the liquor store right next to it—but by the time they come up to Hartford’s cozy little train terminal, moving is out of the question. “Changed my mind,” she tells the cabbie. “Take me into the city. Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Long cab ride,” the cabbie says, gum crossing from left to right in his mouth as he gives her a flat stare in the mirror. “You got money?”
“Yeah, I got money. Fuck.” She doesn’t. “Fine, 90th and 2nd. Can we go?”
“Someone better pay up when we get there.” He’s munching on that gum like a cow on a patch of grass.
“It’s Upper East Side, jackass. Someone will pay. Now shut up and drive.”
Trish shoves a glass of water and two white pills into her hands.
“Let me take you to a hospital, Jess.” Insistent, reasonable. “It’s not deep, thank God, but you don’t want it to get infected.”
“No.” She shakes her head. “Hospitals suck, Trish. Can you get me a drink?”
“Take the meds first.”
“Mixing booze and medication.” A chuckle dies in her throat as she palms the pills. “It’s like it’s ten years ago or something.”
“It’s Advil. You’ll be fine. Also, don’t be a jerk.”
The drink’s in her hand not much later, soothing bronze liquid that burns in her throat. Trish makes her lean forward and cuts the shirt right off of her body. Her clenched teeth ache by the time Trish is done cleaning and dressing the wound. Then there’s a hand between her shoulder blades, rubbing small circles over knotted, rock-hard muscles.
“Oh, Jess.” Trish’s voice is quiet and close to her ear. There’s pain in it. Seems like any time she’s around Trish these days, all she does is hurt her. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
The burning in her throat migrates up into her eyes. She tucks her chin against her shoulder, trying to hide from Trish’s concern. Here they are, successful radio talk show host in a tasteful suit-style set of satin PJs and a smelly, half-naked, half-drunk mess of a woman, boobs hanging out and blood seeping all over the expensive couch. Her mere presence is probably reducing the market price of Trish’s apartment worse than the housing crash of 2008 did.
“Just cut me loose,” she rasps, choked tears getting revenge on her voice and almost silencing it. “This is never going to change, Trish. I’m always going to be a mess on your couch. At some point you’ll grow tired of it, as you should. Cut me loose. Better sooner than later.”
The silence that follows isn’t real silence. You don’t get that kind of thing in New York City. The clanging and banging of one and a half million people living on top of each other on a tiny island make the lack of spoken words all the more suffocating. Eventually, Trish pulls away. “I’m going to blame the state you’re in for you spouting this kind of bullshit,” she says. “But make no mistake, Jess, I’m done playing a game of emotional chicken with you. We’re in this together, we’ve always been in this together. You’re my best friend, and I need you. So we’re going to get you through this. It’s not up for debate.”
No sound comes out when she opens her mouth, but Trish doesn’t even need to hear her protest.
“It’s not up for debate, Jess.” She plucks the empty glass from her hand and puts it on the couch table. “Get your feet up.”
Her socks slide off right along with her boots when Trish pulls them off. Jess winces in sympathy for Trish’s nose. The blanket covering her is soft and warm, and just before she passes out, she hears Trish’s voice one more time.
“You’re stronger than him, Jess.”
Trish apparently didn’t get that memo. When Jess came around mid-morning, her bags were packed, and Trish had scheduled two weeks of Trish Talk reruns starting that day. Heedless of Jess’ objections, Trish herded her into the car and promised a rest stop breakfast once they were clear of the city. At least she provided a bottle of Cutty Sark, which Jess found herself clutching like a baby all the way through the tunnel and down I-95.
“Why Chincoteague, of all places?” Newark Airport is looming to their right, and Jess silently concedes that she’s lucky Trish didn’t strong-arm her onto a plane. Cars are bad, but she’s pretty sure planes were invented by the Marquis de Sade himself.
Trish is aggressively cheerful as ever, dressed for the occasion in slacks and a loose white blouse, with a pair of sunglasses perched on her head that probably cost more than Jess’ entire outfit. “It’s close. It’s beautiful. It’s as different as any place could be from New York. And it’s got wild ponies!”
“You sound way too excited about that.”
“Come on, you can’t tell me you didn’t have a pony phase at some point growing up.”
“Actually, I didn’t. I was more a Jurassic Park kinda girl.”
“Of course you were.” The eye roll is audible. “Maybe we’ll find some velociraptors for you. Got to keep the pony population down somehow, right?”
Jess snorts and settles in for the trip. Outside, the city gradually turns into countryside. New Jersey’s ugly as sin and more boring than ESPN at midnight, but once they cross the river into Delaware, the road leads them along the bay and presents a vast expanse of ocean bleeding into blue skies speckled with white clouds. Golden reeds line the shore, and seagulls caw overhead, chasing gusts of wind to sail out over the waters, wings glinting in the September sun.
Chincoteague is connected to the mainland by a causeway, a long stretch of road with narrow shoulders and a knee-high barrier dropping off into shallow waters and patches of rocks, reeds and bushes. A run-down billboard advertises a sea food restaurant, soft blues and yellows bleached by the sun and flaking to expose rough chipboard underneath.
The bridge to the island is guarded by a small tower, and then they’re driving through a picturesque little town, wooden houses squatting by the side of the road as if they’d grown there naturally. The smell of sea salt hangs in the air, and the bottle of Cutty Sark sits tucked next to the gear console, mostly full and (for now) forgotten.
“We’re staying at the Seaside Inn,” Trish tells her as her phone navigates them off of Main Street and past a row of mobile homes.
“Sounds quaint.” Jess shifts and winces. She took some painkillers when they stopped for lunch—OTC only, but that's fine; if she wants something to cloud her mind, she'll stick with the whiskey—and right now the pain in her side is just a dull throbbing memory. The rest of her body isn’t much better off, though. Muscle tension in her neck is radiating up into her skull and down along her spine, and she can’t find a comfortable position to sit in. Road trips suck. “Are we there yet?”
“Should be right about—here.” The car turns into an unpaved driveway and the Seaside Inn comes into view. Poised on the northeastern shore, garage, main house and gables center around a squat tower peaking up above the rest. The wood-slatted front is painted white, and the bushes and flowers lining the way to the front door are colorful and welcoming.
Trish clatters her rolling carry-on over the natural stone path with Jess’ duffle bag perched on top. The owners of the Seaside Inn are two middle-aged ladies who welcome Trish and Jess with genuine warmth and little fuss. The room is all the way up on the second floor, and even though she’d never admit it, Jess’ throbbing side is grateful that Trish insists on carrying her bag.
It’s only when Jess takes in the décor of their room that she realizes Trish has brought them to a romantic bed and breakfast.
“Are you putting the moves on me, Trish Walker?” Jess lets out a groan as she plops down on the king-sized bed in the center of the room. The walls are painted a muted grey-green, complemented by white window frames and flowery curtains. A squishy couch at the foot of the bed faces an open fireplace, and she’s pretty sure the corner tub she can spot through the bathroom door features Jacuzzi jets.
“You wish,” Trish calls out of the small walk-in closet. She’s already unpacking. “It’s either bed-and-breakfasts or tourist beehives on this island, and I wasn’t feeling the latter. I figured you wouldn’t mind sharing.”
Not an unreasonable assumption, considering they’ve shared a bed more than once over the course of their friendship. Not since Kilgrave, though. PTSD makes a sucky mattress neighbor of you. Doesn’t matter. If worse comes to worst, there’s the couch. “It’s fine.”
The art on the wall is a step above the non-descript paintings of impressionist flowers usually found in hotels and motels. A row of framed photographs shows an identical view of a coastal landscape in four different seasons: wind-swept seas and snow drifts piling up against clumps of reeds in winter, Canadian geese splaying their wings against a crisp spring sky, a setting sun painting the shore bright reds in summer, shades of grey seeping into the saturated earth tones in the fall picture. As Jess steps over to the French door that leads out onto the balcony, she realizes the photos depict the view from the room.
As reluctant as she’s feeling about this vacation, Trish sure picked a beautiful destination.
“Do you own anything that’s not a tank top?”
“I got a few jeans. Are you unpacking my shit?” She peers around the closet door to see Trish trying to wrangle a tank top onto a hanger.
“How do you hang these?”
“You don’t.” Jess snatches the top from her hands. “These are drawer clothes, Trish. Like underpants, except you wear them as a top layer.”
She pulls out one of the drawers behind the door to chuck the shirt in. She’s barely opened it when there’s an inhuman sound, like a saw cutting through bone. The drawer flies open and a furious ball of rags lunges at her. She stumbles back into Trish as sharp claws slam into her chest, flailing to keep her balance as she finds herself face to face with the angriest cat she’s ever seen.
Trish shoves a hand between Jess’ shoulder blades to push her back to her feet. “What the f—oh my God.”
Jess’ eyes are on the cat, her heart beating in her throat. The animal’s black fur is standing on end, tail thick and back curved as it edges towards them, hissing and spitting and looking like a demon incarnate. Albeit a small one.
Trish’s hand is frantically tapping her shoulder; Jess tries to shrug her off. “What?”
Trish’s outstretched finger is pointing at the drawer. In a nest of shredded pillow filling, two tiny furballs are cozied up together. Clumsy paws pat at nothing, blind eyes searching as toothless mouths open to emit the tiniest of mewls. The kittens are barely audible over the racket their mother is making.
“Shit. She’s got her babies in there. We got to—“ Jess grabs Trish by the arm and edges them past the protective mother cat, who loses interest in them as soon as they clear the way between her and her babies. Claws clack on wood as she climbs back into her makeshift birthing lair. Jess gently pulls the door shut. “We can’t go in there.”
“All my clothes are in there!”
At Jess’ glare, Trish holds up her hands. “No, of course. Got to leave her be. But—“ She laughs. “I can’t believe the owners didn’t realize she was there. We’ll have to change rooms.”
“No.” Jess sits back down on the bed, eyes on the closet door. She’s left it ajar by a small gap, just enough for the mother cat to get out and find food. The scrabbling and shuffling in the small space has stopped. She can still hear the tiny mewling, though; almost inaudible, but now that she knows what to listen for, it’s unmistakable. “We’ll go back in later, get the clothes out. We can just leave them in the bags. I don’t want to change rooms.”
Trish doesn’t question her, which is good, because Jess would have no idea what to say. When they head out for dinner, they tell the owners that they’d like to keep the room despite the unexpected co-inhabitants. It knocks ten percent off their rate, which is unexpected but pleasant. They also learn that the cat’s name is Maggie Thatcher.
Well, nobody’s perfect.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
When a former child star turned successful radio talk show host takes you on a vacation, the places you stay tend to be on the swanky side. The Seaside Inn’s swankiness is as understated and rural as it is undeniable. Nibbling on her bacon (definitely organic) and eggs (undoubtedly free-range), Jess watches seagulls play catch above a sea of swaying reeds through the giant display window that makes up the entire east wall of the breakfast room. A couple of early risers are wandering down the jetty leading across the reeds to the water, dark silhouettes against a sun rising in deep reds and oranges.
It’s too goddamn early for a picture-book view like this.
She fell asleep quickly enough last night, helped along by alcohol, pain killers, and exhaustion. It wasn’t a good sleep, though, more like a coma, and it didn’t last very long. In the middle of the night, she came around to a pitch-black room. It was way too quiet for her city-accustomed ears, the creaking of the closet door the only sound audible. Maggie’s big cat eyes caught a faint glint through the window, glowing green as she peeked into the bedroom. Jess isn’t one to turn down a staring match, but Maggie ducked back into her closet after less than a minute. At this point wide awake, Jess listened to Trish’s soft snores for about an hour before she decided to give up on sleep.
As it turns out, one of the Inn’s proprietors also suffers from insomnia. Jess found Ada on the porch behind the house, sneaking a cigarette in the dark and blanching in embarrassment at one of her guests catching her in the act. Making small talk isn’t one of Jess’ strong suits, but turns out Ada is kind of a cat lady. Sharing Ada’s Marlboros, Jess learned everything there is to know about Maggie.
She’d made her way into the Inn last winter, using a ventilation shaft to sneak into the pool house after a close encounter with a careless driver. Maggie had left a grizzly set of bloody marks to lead Ada and Jenny—the other innkeeper—to the box of poolside chair pillows where she’d hidden to recover or die. A few trips to the vet and a couple of months on Ada’s and Jenny’s couch helped her do the former, and Maggie became a permanent guest at the Inn. The innkeepers had blamed Maggie’s rounding stomach on the edible tokens of affection Maggie would demand from the patrons, and were worried sick when Maggie disappeared about a week ago. They were so glad to know she’s all right. And so sorry about the inconvenience. God knows what they’d do with the kittens; not that they weren’t adorable, but one cat was enough for the Inn. And what would they call them?
“How about naming them after some famous duo?” After listening quietly for most of the conversation, Jess felt she had to contribute something. “Jake and Elwood. Thelma and Louise. Something like that.”
“Thelma and Louise!” Ada seemed delighted. “That’s perfect.”
Eventually, the innkeeper checked her watch and realized it was time to start breakfast. An hour later, Jess sat in the chair where she is now, one breakfast richer and one conversation partner poorer. Checking her phone, she pulls a face. Seven is too early to wake Trish on her vacation. Jess is rude, but she’s not heartless.
She grabs her jacket and heads into town on foot, walking along the deserted country road with the sun climbing into the sky to her left. Seagulls caw overhead, and a fat red cardinal replies from the top of a tree by the side of the road. Twenty minutes bring her to the town’s main street lined with touristy storefronts and cafes. There’s even a liquor store, but of course it’s not open yet. Jess kicks her boot against the pavement as she walks past. She misses New York.
Off in a side street, Island Foods seems to be where the locals get their groceries. For lack of anything better, Jess grabs a six pack of beer before stopping in the dairy section. The cooling shelves are full of milk, yoghurt, cream, half-and-half, and cottage cheese. Maggie’s hungry eyes staring at her through the closet door come to mind. Nursing two kittens must be exhausting. Don’t cats like cream?
The cashier rings her out with her beer and a box of liquid cream, her smile growing even wider and faker as she looks from the alcohol to the clock. Jess ignores her and carries her loot back to the Inn.
Trish is up when she gets there, munching on a piece of watermelon in the swanky breakfast room. It’s a bright, beautiful morning now, and Trish decides they should check out the beach.
“Can’t.” Jess steals a strawberry off of Trish’s plate. “Don’t have anything to wear.”
“Of course you don’t. Luckily, I brought more than one bikini. We’re going.”
Jess resigns herself to her fate.
The beach is on Assateague Island, a long stretch of seaside national park that shelters Chincoteague from the Atlantic tides. They purchase a day pass for the park from the little wooden hut at the bridge connecting the two islands, and follow the Beach Access Road through a lush forest filled with squirrels, birds, and (allegedly) ponies. They leave the car in the sandy lot next to the beach, and use a wooden footpath to step onto a vacated strip of Atlantic seashore.
Trish stops in her tracks to take it in. “Definitely a change from Hell’s Kitchen, right?”
Jess can’t dispute it. Grains crunch under her feet as she walks further up the beach, heavy combat boots feeling awkward and clumsy sinking into the ground. She stops to pull them off, and the warmth of the sand under her bare soles finally elicits the first smile of the day. She glances at Trish, whose hair is glinting in the sun, suddenly shy. “Maybe this wasn’t a completely terrible idea.”
They spread out their towels and change into their swimwear, foregoing modesty in the face of having the beach to themselves. Jess hasn’t worn a bikini since her forced swimming lessons in high school, and the lack of layers makes her feel naked. Trish, on the other hand, looks in her element—but then, she always does. It’s one of the things Jess loves about her.
“You probably shouldn’t get that wet.” Trish’s fingers poking at the cut in Jess’ side make her wince. It’s already healed up more than it has any right to be, but not as much as it could be. Jess heals quickly, but sleep is a major factor in the healing process, and she didn’t get much of that last night.
“I wasn’t planning to go for a swim. I’m a city dweller, Trish, not Nemo the clownfish.”
Trish makes disappointed noises, and that’s all it takes to make Jess accompany her down to the edge of the water after all. She stands in the shallows, gentle waves lapping about her feet and dragging grains of sand out from under her soles, and watches Trish dive head-first into the water. Apprehension mixes with fondness as Trish ventures further out, where the waves pile up to a couple feet’s height before breaking and washing onto the beach. Some knock Trish off-balance, others she manages to dive under before they can get her. Either way, each time Trish comes up splashing and laughing and quite obviously having the time of her life.
Chincoteague’s natural beauty’s got nothing on Trish.
Eventually, Trish makes her way back to the beach. They sit on their towels, the sun climbing higher and chasing away the last morning chill. Trish remembers the sun screen she brought, and Jess is grateful for the chance to hide behind Trish’s back as she spreads white creamy liquid on Trish’s shoulders.
“You’ve probably already gotten burned.” She’s chasing a drop of salt water along Trish’s shoulder blade, the oil of the sun screen refusing to mix. “Sun’s worse when you’re in the water.”
Trish shrugs. “It’s not a real vacation without a sunburn, right?”
Jess shakes her head, tracing her fingers over the ridge of Trish’s spine at the top of her back. “You’re so fucking positive, man. It’d be infuriating if it weren’t—“
“If it weren’t what?”
She doesn’t have a good answer. Or maybe she does, but like hell is she brave enough to give it. “Nah, never mind. It’s just infuriating.”
“Do you ever think there’s a reason we met?” Trish cranes her neck to catch Jess’ eyes, but Jess keeps looking at her hands stroking down the smooth line of Trish’s back and waist.
“How d’you mean?”
“I mean … we met because Mom adopted you. But maybe we also met because we were meant to meet.”
“What, like fate?” Trish’s back is pretty much done, so Jess squeezes another handful of lotion onto her fingers and spreads it on the back of Trish’s neck; slow, deliberate strokes down the elegant slope of Trish’s spine. Trish produces a comfy little moan, and Jess swallows against a dry throat.
“Maybe. I’ve been reading about balance. It’s an important concept in pretty much all cultures. Yin and yang, opposites attract. You need two halves to make a whole.”
“You’re saying we’re opposites?”
Trish tries to turn her head again, dislodging Jess’ fingers from the back of her ear. Jess pulls her hand back as their eyes meet, the touch suddenly too intimate. Trish’s neatly shaped eyebrows arch high across her forehead. “You think we aren’t?”
Lotion spatters onto her chest as she flips the cap back on. She rubs it in, then grabs her flannel to hang it over her shoulders. “No,” she says with a nod, “you’re right. You’re successful, beautiful, rich, famous … and I’m, you know. Me.”
Her flippant snort is supposed to make a joke of it, but Trish isn’t having it. Her fingers are cool around Jess’ wrist, clasping tightly. You’d think she’d be concerned, but most of all, Trish looks pissed off.
“What the hell, Jess?” She shifts until she’s facing Jess properly. In the background, the beach is starting to fill with people as the hour grows closer to noon, but they’re too far away to serve as a suitable distraction. “This isn’t you. You don’t talk like this. What’s gotten into you?”
“For Christ’s sake.” Jess wants to match Trish’s outrage, but all she’s managing is a thin protest. “It’s—“ The tension in her body wants a release, so she chucks the bottle of sun lotion into the sand, too hard. It buries a foot deep into the ground, spraying grains and lotion as the cap bursts open. She grinds her teeth. “Shit.”
Trish hasn’t stopped staring at her, so Jess shrugs her shoulders. “I told you. I’m a mess. I’m always going to be a mess.”
“You’ve always been a mess, Jess. Losing jobs left and right, being rude, that nose ring you had for a while—“
“That is not—“ Jess’ voice cracks, and she yanks her wrist out of Trish’s grasp. “That’s not the kind of mess I’m talking about. There’s a difference between—not caring. And not—not being able. I’m not able, Trish. To be okay. I’m never going to be okay.”
Jess hates crying: the burning feeling under her eyelids, the clogged nose and throat, the runny snot that gathers in her nostrils and makes the grossest sound when she tries to breathe in. It makes her tense all over, so she jumps when Trish’s hand lands on her arm again. Trish just squeezes tighter, and her voice is quiet when she speaks, soft against the harsh backdrop of the sea and the cawing of the birds.
“I’ve told you this before, Jess, and I’m telling you again, and I will tell you as many times as you need to hear it. You will beat this. You’re stronger. You’re better, I know that. I know you.” Two fingers touch softly under her chin, and Jess lifts her head. Trish’s eyes are so full of determination, it’s almost painful to look at them. “I love you, Jess. I never said it back, but you need to hear it. I love you. And if you’re not okay, let me be okay for you until you can be okay again.”
Moisture creeps out of the corner of Jess’ eye, a drop spilling over and slicing a hot trail down her cheek. She trembles as she holds Trish’s gaze, tries to put her trust into the hard steel in Trish’s eyes. She moves her arm, Trish’s hand sliding along it until it lands in Jess’ palm. Jess gives it a squeeze and lowers her head in a small, silent nod.
Trish doesn’t demand anything more than that, and that proves more than anything that she’s a better friend than Jess could’ve ever dreamed of.
She’s been awake for a while, the howling wind and pelting rain keeping her up. The storm set in around midnight, rattling the shutters and banging a door off in the distance. Jess supposes it’s not unusual to get bad weather on the Atlantic coast at this time of the year, but the storm’s insistence is disconcerting. And noisy.
“Miss Jones, Miss Walker. So sorry to disturb you, are you up?”
It’s Jenny. Trish groans and shoves the blanket aside. “Coming!”
The light from the corridor hurts Jess’ eyes as she squints at the stout outline of the innkeeper in the doorway. The rain is almost loud enough to drown out Jenny’s voice as she apologizes again and takes far too long to get to the point.
“We’ve had a call from the local authorities,” she explains finally, pushing a stray lock behind her ear. “Some bad weather off the coast suddenly got a lot worse than expected. The storm, that’s the outliers right now, but they’re saying it’ll get worse. I’m afraid the entire area is being asked to evacuate.”
“Evacuate?” Jess climbs out of bed after all, dragging the sheet along to spare Jenny the sight of her in a skimpy pair of panties and a tank. “What kind of storm is this?”
“Well, it wasn’t supposed to get too bad here on the coast.” Jenny’s eyes widen as she looks at her. “But now the storm’s gotten mixed up with another one, and they’ve put it down as a Cat 1.”
“A hurricane, dear.”
“Right.” Trish and Jess exchange a glance, and Jenny nods solemnly.
“We’re being asked to evacuate all our guests as quickly as possible. Ada and I figured you might want to pack up now and try to beat the rush. The causeway can get awfully jammed.”
Trish speaks before Jess can. “Of course, Jenny, thank you so much for letting us know. We’ll start packing right away.”
Jenny flashes a regretful smile. “You’ll of course be reimbursed for the remaining nights. Oh, and do take fifteen minutes to get something in your stomach. Ada’s downstairs preparing breakfast.”
It takes a bit of urgency off the getting-woken-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night news.
They’re packed and ready to go by seven-thirty. The storm outside is still raging. The temperature has dropped from a cozy late summer warmth to a windswept autumn chill, trees shaking their branches and losing still-green foliage. The turmoil outside makes the room feel very snug, warm and welcoming. Maybe they should come back over Christmas, Jess catches herself thinking, then wonders when her self-imposed no-vacation policy changed.
Trish is going through all the drawers in the room to make sure they didn’t leave anything. Jess wonders if she’d ever agree to another getaway like this. As a radio talk show host, it’s not like Trish can just up and away at any time she pleases.
Except she did. Jess rubs her palms on her jeans in discomfort at the thought. Probably lost money in the four- or five-digit-range standing up celebrity guests she’d invited for this week. Might want to think about paying her back.
Desperate for a distraction, she turns on the light in the closet and crouches next to Maggie’s drawer, scratching her nails against the wooden front. “Hey, Momma Cat. Don’t startle, all right? Just want to check on you.”
Tugging the drawer open, she’s greeted by Thelma’s and Louise’s mewling, but no Maggie. She ducks her head to peer in the back of the drawer, taking a moment to let her eyes get used to the dark, but no luck. The drawer is empty.
The kittens, invigorated by the disturbance, wave their clumsy little feet and flash glimpses of bright red gums as they cry with increasing volume. Thelma, a dark tabby, plants a foot on Louise’s head for leverage, and shouts emphatic indignation at Jess. She extends a finger, holds it close to the kitten’s pink nose, and is rewarded with a sniff and a lick before Thelma attempts to suck on her fingertip in earnest. Jess frowns. “Are you hungry, guys? You seem hungry.”
Jess looks up to see Trish’s blonde head poking around the door.
“I don’t know. Maggie’s not here, and the kittens sound like they’re starving.”
“That’s weird.” Trish crouches next to Jess to peer into the drawer. “She’s never gone for long, is she?”
“Just long enough to find food. Did you see her leaving?”
Trish shakes her head as expected—they’ve spent the past hour in the room and would have seen the cat use the gap in the wall paneling next to the door to sneak her way outside—and Jess returns to the main room to pull on her boots. “I’ll check downstairs. Maybe she’s trying to score some breakfast leftovers.”
“All right. I’ll finish here and get the bags down to the car.” Trish hauls her handbag onto the bed and piles in her keys and wallet. Her eyes travel from the window to Jess. “We should leave soon. I don’t want to be stuck on the causeway when the storm hits properly.”
“Right, sure.” Jess ignores the look Trish gives her as she grabs her jacket on her way out the door.
Jess barely hesitates before she pulls her hood up and ducks outside.
She’s soaked by the time she’s halfway across the parking lot, wading through liquefied mud as the windswept rain slaps against her back. Trish’s Genesis is in the spot furthest from the house, and she spends a moment thinking that there’s no way either she or Trish will get off this island not drenched to the bone. Then a large piece of plant blows her way and reminds her to pay attention to where she’s going.
At the side of the road, she stops to recall a mental map of the Inn’s surroundings. The ocean lies to the east, with jetties leading across a carpet of reeds to a boardwalk running along the shoreline. The wooden walkways are flooded right now, covered in foaming salt water and torn-away bits of shredded reeds. The shore curves only a few minutes’ walk due north, forming the tip of the island with more reeds and a couple of precariously positioned vacation homes right on the edge of the water. South offers the main bulk of the island; inns, shops and hotels on widening roads with increasing traffic. Across the road to the west, residential streets line a sprawling camping ground, deserted at this off-season time of the year.
If Jess knows anything about cats, it’s that they hate water and traffic. She crosses the road and turns into a muddy walkway leading down to the camping ground.
A big yellow sign announces the Cedar Grove Campground and Wildlife Park. The noise of raindrops slapping against it is deafening, and as Jess passes the sign, she can see it shaking in the strong gales blowing in from the sea. Across from the maintenance cabin, empty RV lots stretch along a row of trees shaking in the wind. The wildlife enclosure behind them is empty, the animals already brought to the safety of the stable at the far back.
Jess makes a beeline for the latter. The stable would be the next best shelter available to Maggie if she’d returned from a nightly outing to find her entry to the Seaside Inn barred.
The churned-up ground in the enclosure is an expanse of treacherous sludge pulling on her boots and tripping her up with hidden roots and branches. By the time she reaches the far back of the lot, she’s covered from head to toe in what she hopes is only mud, water dripping into her eyes and clinging to her lashes. A gust of wind sends her stumbling against the hip-high gate, and she more falls than steps into the stable.
A rake that was leaning against the wall tips over, the handle snapping in her startled, too-hard grip. Splinters dig into her palm, and she drops the broken rake to the floor. “Motherfucker.”
“Can I help you?”
Following hard on the surprise of the rake, the voice feels like an ambush. Pain shoots up her arm as she clenches her injured hand into a fist. It takes an act of extreme self-control to keep from uttering a non-verbal yell of aggression.
The offending person doesn’t look like he’s worth the reaction. Standing five-foot-four, the kid probably weighs no more than a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet—which he is. Clad in a bright yellow rain coat and boots of the same color, he’s creating a large puddle of rainwater on the concrete floor around his feet. He’s clutching a bucket filled with what looks like horse food, probably meant for the ponies shuffling around in the stalls along both walls.
Jess takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. You’re good, she tells herself. You’re fine.
“Maybe,” she says when she can trust her voice. “I’m looking for my—for—“ She clears her throat. “I’m looking for a cat.”
Stable Boy looks at the splintered rake on the floor, then back at her face. “Ain’t got no cat in here.” He has to raise his voice to be heard over the wind and rain pelting against the roof.
“You sure? She might be hiding.” Jess uncurls her hand and looks down, a surreptitious glance to assess the damage. The sight of blood smeared in her palm makes her wince. “It’s Jenny’s and Ada’s cat, from the Seaside Inn. Pitch-black coat, bright green eyes. She got locked out during the night. I figured she might’ve come here to hide from the rain.”
Stable Boy’s lips purse in a mulish pout. “Ain’t got no cat in here,” he insists. “Bear chases ‘em out if they come.”
A chin jerk directs Jess’ attention to the back of the stable, where a shaggy mutt is crouching on a heap of old rags and eying her with canine suspicion. The dog’s muzzle is grizzled with white, his ears drooping. He looks about a hundred years old.
“Hey, Bear.” She waves to the dog and immediately feels like an idiot.
“Seen the cat you mean, though.”
“You have?” She snaps her eyes back. Thanks for coming out with that first thing.
“Mhm.” Stable Boy shuffles over to one of the stalls and scoops a handful of food into a wall trough. The two ponies start snapping at each other for the best spot until he fills the second trough as well. “Drove up from the house early, ‘cos Pop said to get the horses in ‘cos of the weather. See this cat running across the street, almost hit it. Black cat, like you said.”
“Where did it go?”
“Ran into the swamps.” Stable Boy waves a rubber-clad arm in the direction of Bear and the back gate of the stable, then gives her a cautious once-over. “You gonna go after it?”
“That’s kind of why I’m here, yeah.”
There’s a pause, then: “May wanna think about putting on some rain boots.”
“I’ll consider it.” There’s no denying the dripping sarcasm, but if this is Stable Boy’s usual speed, he must be used to it.
Bear’s dull eyes follow her as she heads for the back gate, a small snarl curling his lips as she walks past him. The wind yanks on her shoulders as she steps outside, deafening gales whipping about her head and tugging her hair out from under her hood. She swears and leans into the wind as she makes her way into the swamps.
They’re not, as such, real swamps. Tall pines, cedars, and other conifers interspersed with leafy trees being stripped of their foliage by the ravaging winds are rooted in solid ground. Long grooves filled with saltwater reach down from the shoreline and break up the forest in almost regular intervals, keeping the ground wet and giving it a swamp-like appearance. But even right now, with the hurricane blowing in a high tide, the forest isn’t flooding. Not yet, anyway.
The lay of the land forces Jess to make her way up to the narrow road, which spans the saltwater channels in a number of bridges. Roots and branches slippery with rain and mud serve her as handholds as she clambers up the steep incline to the guard rail. The cut in her palm burns as she grasps it to swing a leg over, a gust of wind almost knocking her off her feet as she finally stumbles onto the road proper.
“Fuck you!” Angry words tear away from her lips the moment she yells them into the wind, almost inaudible over the noise of the storm. Rain slaps in her face as she stands there, chest heaving, frustration clawing at her insides. It’s pointless to be angry at the storm, to rage against a force of nature she has no control over. But then, lack of control is nothing new, and it’s never soothing. If anything, it makes her angrier.
Setting her jaw, she turns her back towards the stable and heads off towards the pine trees.
It’s a miracle she even picks up the sound. It drifts in from behind her, sounding at first like a baby crying. She stops on instinct, irritated at the distraction until her brain catches up and identifies the sound. Then she’s running back the way she came, fighting against the wind trying to push her back up the road.
It takes her doubling back on herself twice to find the spot where the sound is the loudest. It’s similar to Thelma’s and Louise’s mewing, but amped up to triple volume and twice as desperate. She jumps the guardrail and drop-slides down the almost vertical incline to the muddy forest ground.
The gales are less savage down here, but she has to pull her hood back up to protect herself from flying pine needles and branches. For the first time, it crosses her mind that this may be the exact kind of thing the tourist evacuation was meant to prevent—people stumbling around outdoors and getting brained by a piece of flying tree because they underestimated the weather.
Well, she’s not going to be out here much longer. As soon as she’s found Maggie, she’ll get her back to her kittens and let Trish drive them back to the known dangers, if not safety, of New York City.
Her first step turns into a tottering stumble as a gust of wind catches her between her shoulder blades. Her boot snags on a root, and her injured hand screams in protest as she catches herself against the rough bark of a massive pine tree. “Shit!” She clenches her fingers into a fist, which doesn’t help with the pain—quite the opposite—and squeezes her eyes shut, trying to listen.
The crying is quieter than it was up on the road. The sound wouldn’t carry far in these conditions, maybe a few dozen feet at best before it’d disperse or be drowned out. If it was louder up on the road, that had to mean—
She raises her head and peers up between the pine needles. It’s dark up there, branches whipping back and forth and blurring her vision. Nonetheless, she spots a crouching shape huddled against the lee site of the tree on a sturdy branch about twenty feet off the ground.
Red gums flash as Maggie utters another heart-wrenching cry, and something shifts in Jess’ chest. “Screw you, you dumbass cat. Why’d you climb a tree in a hurricane?”
Heroism makes dumbasses of us all, she thinks in a flash of poetic self-deprecation as she grabs a low-hanging branch and pulls herself up. Crouching in the fork and looking for her next handhold, she can feel the tree tremble under her hands and feet and wonders if she’s being a complete idiot. She’s lived through more than one hurricane warning, but always in the city—holed up in her apartment with a few days’ supply of groceries and some candles in case the power cuts out. She’s never been evacuated. And she’s never tried to climb a tree in 50 mph-gales to rescue a cat.
She pulls herself around to the lee site, ducking her head to avoid the thin branches slapping her in the face. Moving from handhold to shaky handhold, before long she’s clambering up onto a branch just underneath Maggie’s precarious perch.
As soon as she straightens up on the slippery tree bark, the cat hisses at her. Jess curls her lip in a snarl of her own. “Yeah, don’t thank me or anything.”
Jess is as close as she’s going to get, superior strength the only thing keeping her from being tossed off the tree like a rodeo rider off a bucking horse. There’s really no good way to do this, so Jess does the only thing she can think of. Keeping her balance with first one hand, then the other, she unzips her jacket and pulls it off. Struggling against the storm, she manages to hook her elbow over the branch Maggie is sitting on. She grabs the jacket with both hands, and with an apologetic “sorry, Mags” tosses it over the soaked, shrieking bundle of terrified cat.
Maggie draws back with a yowl. It’s all Jess can do to lunge forward and grab her as she slides off the branch. Clutching the twisting, shrieking bundle against her chest, Jess twists in an attempt to break her own fall. Her back scrapes against a piece of broken tree jutting out from the trunk, a vicious ripping sound accompanying her sweater being torn open from spine to shoulder blade.
Then she’s falling, shoulder and hip hitting branches on the way down and making bones as well as tree reverberate on impact. She flings one arm out, grasping for a handhold, and is rewarded with a painful crack as her wrist gets caught in a branch fork. Her body twists, her knees come up in reflex, and then a lance of pain shoots up her leg and the world greys out for a moment.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
There’s no way to get back up on the road, so Jess stays down among the trees, bombarded with pine needles and small branches in punishment for being the stupidest person alive.
Her wrist is throbbing, pain shooting up her arm every time she moves her fingers. It’s secondary, however, to the searing fire in her knee. Something’s fucked up there, and badly, judging from the way she can barely balance on her feet. The knee gave way and spilled her face-first into the mud more times than she can count before she quit trying to climb up the incline to the road. She’s huddled against Maggie’s tree now, using the trunk as feeble protection from the wind and rain. The scrape across her back is burning, filled with forest microbes and whatever else she’s collected off the bark, the rain, and the spongy layers of leaves on the ground. Even the cut in her side is once again aflame, reminding her that an ability to heal fast is worthless if you get yourself messed up more days than not.
Oh, and she’s shaking. Turns out coastal Virginia can get pretty damn cold if you’re out in a storm and using your jacket to keep the cat you’re rescuing from shredding you to pieces.
Maggie ruined her own escape by digging her claws into Jess’ shoulder when she tried to wrestle free after the fall. The pain brought the world snapping back, and Jess wrapped her arms around the cat-jacket-bundle and grit her teeth through Maggie’s desperate screams and struggle. The cat eventually resigned herself to her fate safe for occasional low-throated moans and half-hearted squirms. That’s one member of this sad excursion who’s entirely uninterested in being rescued.
Jess feels differently. At long last, she thinks with cutting self-deprecation. Even after taking the plunge off the tree, it took uncounted futile attempts at climbing the ditch to make her realize that she wasn’t going to get out of this without help. Semi-sheltered against the tree and clutching the unhappy cat to her chest, she finally fumbled her phone out of her jacket, only to find its display frozen to an unending list of pixelated messages from Trish. She hadn’t noticed them come in, the phone’s vibration too feeble to compete against the storm. The watered-down display blurred the text beyond legibility, leaving only the bolded name of the sender recognizable. Trying to swipe one of the messages, Jess inadvertently delivered a deathblow to her poor phone. The screen fizzed out into black and left her with a useless piece of plastic-encased circuits.
Now she’s left wondering if the phone was broken already when she diverted from the road to climb the tree. Or when she turned her back on Stable Boy and ventured into the swampy forest. Either moment would have been a perfect time to pull out her phone and call someone for help—Trish, the Seaside Inn, Chincoteague animal control, anyone.
She wants to believe she doesn’t know why she didn’t, but crouching under the pine tree with her head pulled down to avoid the flying forest debris, she’s beginning to think she does.
Rescuing the cat was her job, after all. The one thing she could do on her own, find a damn cat and make sure she’s all right. Hope, Ruben, Wendy, all the others Kilgrave left dead in his wake—they died because she wasn’t enough. Fast enough, strong enough, smart enough. Everything Trish went through, she went through because Jess couldn’t protect her from it. And even now, months after the fact, she’s a mess. She still needs Trish’s help, keeps imposing on her to the point of forcing her to stage an intervention.
As she lays it out in her head, Jess knows it’s bullshit. Trish is more than capable of taking care of herself, she’s proven as much. She’s more than capable of making her own choices, too. And if her choice is to ditch her life to take care of Jess for a couple of weeks, it’s not because Jess forced her into it.
Nobody makes Trish do anything, no more than they make Jess do anything. Strength through mutual independence, that’s always been the core of their friendship. And Jess, in her unimaginable wisdom, is currently in the process of eroding it.
“I’m a goddamn fucking idiot,” she tells Maggie through chattering teeth. Her words are pulled from her lips and dispersed by the wind the moment she utters them. “I’m going to freeze to death on this fucking island. If they ever find my body, I hope Trish has the sense to put a warning on my gravestone. Too stupid to live, don’t try at home. Something like that.”
Maggie yowls and opens her mouth in a silent hiss, and Jess thinks of Thelma and Louise, two tiny fuzzballs too young to survive without their mother.
Her knee screams in protest as she pushes herself to her feet once more, her back scraping painfully along the tree trunk. Maggie kicks her hind legs in the jacket bundle, sharp jolts to Jess’ solar plexus that make her insides cramp with nausea. “Stop it, jackass!”
The road is inaccessible to her, but the forest ground is even enough. Gritting her teeth, she takes a stumbling step into the wind, picking a path that leads back east along the bottom of the ditch. The trees are spaced a few steps apart, each of which sends an agonizing jolt up her leg before she can use her good hand to balance herself against the next cedar or pine. Her messed up hand is holding Maggie against her chest, her elbow stabilizing the grip whenever the bones in her wrist shift in an excruciating snag. Before long, tears of pain are running down her cheeks along with the rain that’s being blown into her face.
“I hope you appreciate this,” she grits out through her teeth. “You’d better, because this fucking sucks.”
Maggie’s sharp kicks into her stomach suggest the cat doesn’t appreciate it, which is just typical.
She keeps her eyes on the ground, and almost ends up drowning herself and her feline charge in the overflowing saltwater channel cutting through the trees. She barely manages to stop at the edge of the water, precariously balancing on her good leg. Given that the channel is more of a bay than a river, there’s not much of a current to speak of. Instead, the water is making its way to either side, flowing over the channel’s reed-covered banks. Swirling vortexes form wherever the water is spilling into uneven ground, pushed further up between the trees by the driving wind and rain. The opposite bank is an insurmountable ten feet across.
Panting, her good arm raised to protect her face from the elements, she shuffles towards the elevated road and bridge, mud sucking on her soaked boots with every step. The bridge stands raised up on six feet of concrete foundation, its walls drowning in rising salt water. To that wall clings a rusty old ladder, screwed tightly into the grey surface and leading from the forest ground all the way up to the guard rail. Its bottom rung is about to be swallowed up by the water, but judging by the reeds poking their heads above the surface, the flooding can’t be deeper than a foot.
Wet jeans are the least of Jess’ problems right now. She wades up to the ladder, cold water sloshing all the way up to her hip when a large branch blows into the channel and sends waves cursing her way. The metal of the ladder feels flaky and brittle under her palm, green algae clinging to the rungs and making them slippery as all hell.
Jess hates the countryside.
“Buckle up,” she tells Maggie, “we’re going up.”
The climb is awkward and laborious. She’s using her good hand to scramble from one rung to the next, too much weight on her wrist as she tries to use her injured leg as little as possible. Her fucked up arm screams in pain as she presses Maggie to her chest, the cat’s claws scratching at the inside of the jacket bundle as Maggie tries with renewed energy to break free. But they’re making progress, step after onerous step, until Jess clasps aching fingers around the top edge of the bridge foundation.
“Yes.” It’s a quiet pant between gasps of air as she starts to pull herself up. “Fucking ye—“
The rung she’s clinging to with the tip of her boot gives way. She sags downwards with a jolt, her body crashing against the foundation wall. She only just manages to turn her shoulder into the momentum to prevent crushing Maggie between herself and the concrete, but the twist dislodges her fingers. She’s falling again, a shorter distance this time, a layer of cold water padding the impact. A yell escapes her throat, silenced when muddy, salty sea water fills her mouth and makes her choke.
She splashes upright, coughing and spluttering. Maggie is screaming and struggling against her chest. She’s sitting hip-deep in a muddy, watery mess, soaked to the bone and barely managing to hold on to the bundle of angry cat in her arms. The ladder above her sports two rusted-through broken rungs, eroded by weather and salt water.
“You’re fucking kidding me!” She struggles to her feet, cursing a blue streak as her injured knee gives out under her and spills her back into the water. She’s scrambling towards the edge of the flooded area, fearful of being spilled over the invisible bank into deeper waters. Reeds snap against her cheeks; one almost takes out her eye. A root juts out from a large cedar tree and serves as a handhold as she pulls herself up onto soaked, spongy forest ground.
Her throat is raw, hurting from the mud, the salt water she swallowed, and the yelled curses that are still emanating from her lips. Her words are losing coherency and meaning, wordless fury thrown against the raging of the storm.
The cedar helps her back to her feet, and then she’s stumbling over towards the steep incline of the ditch, determination pounding a fierce beat behind her temples. The ladder is useless to her now, immersed too deeply already in the rising water, with the broken rungs forming sharp jagged edges that make the construction more dangerous than helpful.
The ditch, on the other hand, is a more-or-less vertical incline, packed earth covered in jagged roots and a muddy layer of sludge. Almost impossible to climb with only one working arm and leg each, but Jess is past impossibilities. She takes a run, grits her teeth against the pain in her knee, and leaps.
The vault brings her most of the way up the ditch. She strains her shoulder and back to grab higher, reaching as far as she can and closing the fingers of her good hand around a thick root. In a rare stroke of luck, it holds, and now she’s dangling there. Maggie’s gone unnaturally still against her chest, and she’d be worried that she accidentally crushed her, except the cat is still making a low, panicked growling sound. Her whole body’s vibrating with it.
I’ll get you home. See if I don’t.
Kicking her legs, she swings, praying that the root will hold. Like a ragged, drenched ballerina doing vertical splits, she tilts her hips and fishes for the top of the incline. The tip of her mud-caked boot grazes the brink, and then she’s swinging back, leg dropping down as she lets out a streak of expletives.
She tries again, and again, her arm aching with the strain of holding up her weight. The wind is working against her, sabotaging her momentum on the upswing. Eyes squeezed shut and teeth clenched in literally superhuman effort, she gathers propulsion for another try. This time, she pulls her shoulder up as well, trying to get herself as close to the top as possible. Her heel snags over the edge, strain pressing on her good knee as her weight immediately starts to pull her down. She pushes up, pressed close into the mud as she wills herself upwards. But it’s no good; her boot’s sliding off, loose earth giving way under the strain and ruining her leverage.
Extra strength is a lousy superpower. Give her a set of awesome black wings any day.
Something grabs her ankle the moment her heel’s grip on the mud gives way entirely. A jolt runs through her body as she’s jerked upwards, her hips and torso twisting as she does her best to push herself over the edge. Then she’s rolling underneath the guard rail, the taste of metal in her mouth as she comes to lie on her back, panting and wheezing, staring at the storm-ravaged sky—and a pair of concerned blue eyes.
“Trish.” She gasps the word between huge gulps of breath. Trish’s hair is flying about her head in a crazy tangle, the wind ruining her carefully blow-dried styling. Jess holds out the jacket bundle with both hands. It feels like she’s bench-pressing Mike Tyson. “Take the fucking cat, will you?”
When they pull off the shoulder, Trish tosses Jess her phone and asks her to text Dennis the all clear. All Jess manages to do is fumble and drop it, so Trish writes the message herself, all the while berating Jess in lowly muttered curses.
Jess doesn’t protest. She figures she deserves some berating.
At the Inn, she’s shooed into Jenny’s and Ada’s large bathroom—it’s the one closest to the front door—and stripped out of her ruined clothes. Trish is efficient about it, grabbing a pair of large scissors and cutting the jeans off her body when her knee proves too swollen to allow the pants to be pulled down. Jenny and Ada make off with Maggie, who’s just as soaked and bedraggled as Jess, but alive and seemingly unhurt.
Jess sits in the bottom of the tub, naked and shaking with cold, and lets Trish douse her with hot water. It feels like ages until she’s able to take in anything but the pounding in her head and the pelting of the spray against her skin.
Trish’s fingers are in her hair, combing out the mud and leaves which swirl towards the drain along the bottom of the tub. That feels nice.
“Are you mad at me?”
Her lips feel numb, so she’s not sure the words came out clearly. Trish answers all the same. “What do you think?”
“’m sorry.” The rawness in her throat is messing up her voice. “I didn’t—“
Trish’s frigid tone breaks through the numbness. Jess cranes her neck to look around. “Spare you what?”
Trish’s eyes are on fire. “The martyr declaration. Go on without me. Leave me to die. I already told you, Jess. Not going to happen. But you’re putting my determination to an arduous test, so I hope you’re happy.”
For a moment, Jess doesn’t know what to say. She can count on one hand the occasions that Trish was angry at her—not mad, or exasperated, or pissed off, but genuinely angry, with her jaw clenched, her lips a thin line, and her eyes a hard, steely blue. Jess opens her mouth, closes it again, then shakes her head. “Gimme that.” She reaches for the showerhead, groping through the spray until she’s fumbled the handle from Trish’s fingers. She tucks it under her arm and uses her good hand to turn off the faucet. The noise of the water on porcelain ceases, and she shuffles around to face Trish properly.
Trish’s expression hasn’t changed. Jesus, this sucks.
“Look, Trish—I get it. I’ve been a complete disaster these past few months. Not—“ She holds up a hand to forestall Trish’s protests. “Not because I’ve been, you know. Having a hard time. But I’ve been shutting you out. And I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For—you know. Shutting you out. Come on, Trish, you know what I’m talking about.”
“Yeah, Jess. I do. I do.” Trish frees a hand from the tight cross of her arms to tap an emphatic finger against her chest. “Do you?”
Jess narrows her eyes, a shudder running through her as the water starts to cool on her skin. Her gaze skitters to the side, across the dripping showerhead to the angry red mess of her knee. She puts the back of her good hand against her thigh, examines the shallow cuts in her palm from the splintered rake handle. She didn’t even notice them anymore after the fall off the tree.
“I thought—after Kilgrave, I thought it’d be over. Like, not really, but—you hope, right? You want it to make a difference.”
“It made a difference, Jess.” Trish’s voice is still level, almost stoic, but a smidge less frigid than a moment ago. “All those people at the docks—“
Jess feels her own expression harden. “It didn’t make a difference to me.” She chances meeting Trish’s eyes, answering her friend’s accusation with her own pain and anger. “He’s dead, and I’m still terrified. Before—“ She draws a deep breath against the tightness forming in her chest, pulls her knees closer to her body, winces at the stabbing pain shooting up her thigh. “Before, I thought he was dead, too. I was piecing myself back together. Enter Kilgrave, and it’s like none of that counted for anything. How can I—“ Her voice catches, and she stops to hold her breath for a moment. “How can I go through all of this shit again when it’s so hard and can be ruined in a fucking heartbeat? And for what? To be a hero?” A laugh escapes her, brittle and breathless. “Still no hero, Trish. People asking me for help just freaks me out.”
From the corner of her eyes, she sees Trish move closer to perch on the side of the tub. A hand settles on her shoulder. The initial touch makes her jump, but Trish doesn’t pull back, just leaves her hand there, warm and grounding. After a while, the tension in Jess’ chest eases up, and she raises her head. Trish is regarding her with sadness in her eyes, but the tense anger lines are gone from her face.
“You’re not going through it to be a hero, Jess.” Soft fingers reach for her hand, and Jess lets Trish turn it over to run gentle fingertips just below the cuts in her palm. “Or maybe just—your own hero. You can’t heal if you’re constantly hurting yourself. And you need to heal.”
The tub is cold against her back as she leans back, the scrape across her spine protesting until she shifts to take the weight off of it. Trish’s face is limned with a bright halo, the tears in Jess’ eyes refracting the backlight from the lamp above the sink. Her voice is almost inaudible as she speaks. “Why?”
“Because you deserve to be okay.” The words are harsh. “You’re not doing this for anyone else, Jess. You’re doing this for you. You are worth all the hard work and the support in the world without being anyone’s hero. That has always been true. You have to believe that.”
Jess watches her friend, the woman she’s known for years, whom she watched struggle, fight and flail her way through her own hells and demons. She’s grown into a brilliant, beautiful force of nature. “Okay,” she says quietly. “Okay.”
The silence stretches for a while, and it’s probably appropriate, but Jess has never been good with silences. After a few moments, she squints up to find Trish’s eyes. “You going to make me join AA?”
Trish exhales in a laugh, and the tension is lifted. “No. I won’t make you. But if you considered AA as an option, I’d definitely encourage you.”
“But it’s all about religion and shit.” Jess curls her lips in a pout cloaked as distaste. “Higher power and God. I’m an atheist.”
“God as you understand him. Could be anything.”
“Even the Flying Spaghetti Monster?”
Trish snorts. “Literally anything. In my NA group, one guy picked his own Super-Ego.”
“Hah. Very Freudian.” Jess wets her lips, daring herself to ask. “Could I pick you?”
The genuine mystification in Trish’s voice fuels her bravery. “Yeah, man. You’re like a celebrity, right? I read somewhere that celebrities are our new gods.”
Trish seems more exasperated than angry, and also somewhat amused, judging by the twitch of her lips. Jess waves a dismissive hand and smiles. “Never mind.”
Trish arches an eyebrow and reaches down to pick up the showerhead. She turns it back on and holds her hand under the spray, waiting for it to warm back up. “So.” She throws Jess a side-glance. “Are you going to go?”
“Probably, yeah.” A deep sigh wracks Jess’ chest, and she shifts back around to sit sideways in the tub again. “And—go back to that therapist. I need new street names.”
Hot water runs over her scalp as Trish continues to wash the mud and leaves out of her hair. “I’m really glad to hear it.” A gentle finger under her chin indicates for Jess to tilt her had back, and she closes her eyes as she complies. The water feels perfect on her skin. “You know I’ll be there every step of the way, right?”
Jess hums and smiles. “I know.”
Chapter 4: Epilogue
The snow’s been ploughed neatly to the side of the road, forming packed humps of white along the picket fences surrounding the quaint little houses. Jess’ feet are up on the dash of Trish’s Genesis, bootless only after Trish’s vocal protests. The vent is blowing hot air against the sole of Jess’ sock, creating a pleasant, tickly sensation.
The radio segues into Last Christmas for the third time during the trip, and Jess tears her eyes away from wintery Chincoteague to glare at Trish.
“This time we’re changing the station, try and stop me.”
“The controls are right here on the wheel, Jess.”
Jess growls. “I hate modern cars.”
“You hate all cars. Besides, we’re here. Look.”
Trish gestures at the house appearing in the windshield as she turns the Genesis into the unpaved driveway. The Seaside Inn hasn’t suffered any visible hurricane damage, and sits there with the winter sun glinting off specks of snow on the roof.
“Thank God.” Jess pushes herself back to sit up, barely remembering to keep her feet up to avoid soaking her socks in the puddle of snow melt on the floor mat. “My ass is so numb, if someone gave me a shot now, I don’t think I’d even feel it.”
Trish kills the engine and cuts George Michael off with a satisfying static fizz. Jess takes too long wriggling her feet back into her boots, and is still playing catch-up when Trish is already being welcomed at the door by Jenny and Ada.
“It’s so good to see you! How was your trip?”
Pleasantries are exchanged as they crowd into the hallway, Jess trying to keep her wet boots on the welcome mat as she shuts the door behind her. She stoops down to pull them off and is surprised by a soft chirping somewhere to her right. A blur of black enters her vision, and then Maggie bumps her head against Jess’ hand.
“Hey there, Ms. Thatcher.” Jess scratches the back of the cat’s neck, rubs her ears, and is rewarded by soft purring and more chirping. “Been hanging in there?”
“She’s gotten so fat over the holidays,” Jenny provides with dismay. “It’s downright shameful!”
Trish, who was helping Ada lug their bags to the bottom of the staircase, returns with a laugh. “Are you sure she’s not pregnant again?”
“Oh! Oh, no.” Jenny shakes her head. “We took care of that.”
Ada silently elaborates by scissoring her index and middle finger together. Jess huffs and tickles Maggie’s chin. “Better that way, right?”
“Come in!” Jenny shoos them towards the double door that leads to the innkeepers’ cozy little apartment. “We’ve got some leftover Christmas cookies and eggnog, and of course the highlight of the evening!”
Thelma and Louise, three months old and just beginning to grow into proper cat proportions, are occupying the sofa in the innkeeper’s living room. Thelma perches on the backrest, wide green eyes staring at the newcomers as the four women enter the room. Louise, who’s inherited her mother’s night-black coat, looks up from cleaning her face on the armrest of the sofa. She lets out a small meow, and behind Jess, Trish is charmed into laughing.
“Oh God, they’re adorable!”
“Right now they are!” Ada scoops Louise up in her arms and tickles her chin, heedless of the kitten’s flailing little paws. “Wait until it’s four in the morning and these two devils have decided your toes are the best toys in the world. You sure you want them?”
“Absolutely.” Trish is still smiling, and Jenny picks Thelma up from the back of the sofa to hand her to her.
“Here you go, then.”
Ada has stepped up to Jess, kind eyes nestled in crow’s feet finding hers. It’s like the older woman is asking a silent question, and Jess smiles, awkward but genuine, as she holds out her hands. “Give her here, then.”
Louise is a small, warm bundle just big enough to fill both of Jess’ hands. Her eyes, soft and golden, settle on Jess’ face in startled wonder. Jess smiles and blinks slowly, a gesture that the WikiHow on feline behavior she skimmed on the trip from New York mentioned to signal friendship among cats.
Louise lets out another meow, high-pitched and questioning, and Ada laughs. “I think she likes you.”
They get comfortable in the cozy living room, Jenny and Ada sharing the couch with Maggie, Jess and Trish in the two armchairs with one kitten each. Louise’s attention is rapt by the brace on Jess’ wrist, small paws patting at the plastic and pulling fine threads from the stretchy fabric. Thelma has decided that the top of Trish’s head is decidedly more comfortable than her lap. Sitting ramrod straight and barely daring to move her head, Trish looks like she’s giving testimony in court rather than spending a quiet evening with friends.
Jenny’s Christmas cookies are mouth-watering and delicious, and Jess nibbles her way through a good portion of the plate while Trish relates an update on their lives: Jess’ treatment for her broken wrist and torn knee ligaments, her move from Hell’s Kitchen to Trish’s apartment, their decision to relocate Alias Investigations back to Jess’ old apartment two weeks after (Jess loves Trish’s apartment for living there, but she hates the P.I. clientele that the Upper East Side attracts). She leaves out the more grueling details about Jess’ struggle with therapy and AA, but when Ada finally gets out the eggnog, Jess asks for a virgin one. She notices that Jenny is foregoing the bourbon, too.
Ada’s and Jenny’s update contains mostly clean-up stories post-hurricane and kitten tales. Dennis the Stable Boy apparently secured a scholarship to the University of Kentucky and has asked the innkeepers if they’d be available to take care of Bear when his parents are out of town, which will require careful diplomatic action considering Maggie’s and Bear’s mutual animosity. Beyond that, Chincoteague is as sleepy as ever, and before long, night falls and Trish and Jess catch themselves yawning in unison.
They settle into their room on the second floor, turning in early to be rested for the trip back to New York the next day. It takes the kittens some frantic clambering up and down the blanket mountains before they settle on the duvet next to Trish’s and Jess’ feet. Trish peers down at them, lips pursed in a smile.
“Should I wriggle my toes?”
“God, no.” Jess snorts. “They’ll wake us up soon enough.”
Trish hums and snuggles closer, fingers skittering over Jess’ back until an arm sneaks around her waist. “You think we’re doing the right thing adopting them? Neither of us is really the nurturing type.”
“They’re kittens,” Jess says, making herself relax into the touch until Trish’s hand on her skin feels warm and comforting. “They don’t want nurturing, they want adventure. I’ll train them to wear little spy cameras and use them for my work. There’s places a cat can go even I can’t get to.”
“Oh God,” Trish laughs. “I’ll be living with three P.I.’s. Goodbye, privacy.”
Jess grunts, a grin spreading on her face. “What’ve you got to hide, Ms. Walker?”
“Lots of things.” Trish nuzzles the back of her neck and presses a kiss right under her ear. “Like my secret cloning lab in the basement. I’m working on Channing Tatum, but all I’ve got so far is Rocky.”
“Mhm.” Jess turns half onto her back to throw a smirk over her shoulder. “We haven’t had the exclusivity talk yet, so I think man-toy cloning is no punishable offense.”
Fingertips trail circles on her stomach, and Trish regards her with a soft, contemplative expression. “Is that a talk you want to have? Now or—ever?”
Jess shrugs one shoulder and shifts to put some space between them, picking up Trish’s hand and placing a kiss on smooth knuckles to ease the separation. “Dunno. Maybe. Not now. But we’ve got time, right?”
Trish smiles, radiant like the sun, and squeezes Jess’ hand before she lets go. “Yeah, Jess. We’ve got time.”
They go to sleep not touching, each cocooned in a safe bubble of personal space on her respective side of the bed, with a tangle of two kittens snoozing at the foot of the mattress. For the first time in a long time, Jess feels optimistic about the future.