Caught in a restless sleep he did not want, Ajax wandered through memories masquerading as dreams. Or was it the other way around?
His mother held his hand. “Doctors are expensive, my darling. I’m just a little tired. But let’s keep our fingers crossed that your papa’s ship comes in soon.” She sighed. “You mustn’t pester him, you know. He works so hard taking care of us.”
He doesn’t, Ajax wanted to say. It’s you. You take care of us, Mom.
“You look like him.” His mom smiled. “You have his fine nose and his good chin. You’ll be as handsome as he is when you grow up.”
An Awakened bit her arm. Another crawled up her chest to sink its teeth into her throat. She was still smiling as the monsters pulled her away from Ajax, still smiling as the monsters tore her into shadows.
Another hand slid into his own, this one child-sized just like his own. It belonged to a little girl, with a face he couldn’t place. She looked at him, then looked at the memories projected on the screen.
Something about the girl made him uneasy. Better to look at the screen of memories than try to understand why he knew her.
He’d bounced between a number of relatives and friends in the first year after his mother died, but it wasn’t until he landed with his father’s cousin that he’d started healing from the loss of his mother. Jenny was young and sweet and gentle. At first she had plenty of time for a grieving boy. Then she got engaged to a man who couldn’t stand Ajax.
“Why did you have to marry him?” Ajax demanded of the screen.
Screen-Jenny held out her hand to him, even as her husband pulled her away. “I need him. Who else would love me? I have to belong somewhere. But it will be better for you if you go away. I’m glad we spent some time together. Be well, Ajax.”
He wasn’t well. He went back to his father, but only for six months. Then his maternal grandmother invited him to stay with her. Recently widowed, she had plenty of room in her heart and just enough room in her pension for her daughter’s son. And they’d agreed on so many things. She never spoke of his father in the glowing way his mother had, never suggested that loving his father was his duty. She had understood.
And yet… On memory’s screen, she flipped through picture albums, looking at pictures of her dead husband. She touched mementos of him still placed on the fireplace mantle, beside Ajax’s report card with the certificate for improving his grades. The report card fell into the fireplace, but she didn’t notice. She faded, becoming thinner and older. She taught Ajax to make cookies and paused, looking off into the misty distance. “Your grandfather loved these cookies.” She argued with him about the series of books all the kids were reading. “My Cesar would have had opinions, oh yes.”
Ajax had thought his grandmother was all his. But her husband had called to her from beyond the grave, and in the end, she’d answered. She hadn’t even said goodbye. The EMTs pulled the sheet over her face and wheeled her away, promising Ajax somebody would call his dad for him.
The little girl holding his hand squeezed it, and Ajax blinked back tears. He was too old to cry.
The images flickered faster now. His aunt, accepting him into her large family out of duty and obligation rather than affection. But while she was busy, she wasn’t cold, and he became fond of her four children, all younger than him. That lasted until his aunt discovered her oldest daughter’s journal, full of her dreams and fantasies about Ajax. His aunt accepted that he’d never touched her daughter, in the end. All that meant was that she didn’t actually kick him out of the house in the middle of the night, and she bought him his bus ticket home.
He didn’t want to watch, but he couldn’t look away. His girlfriends paraded across the screen, the ones who didn’t stick around and the few who did. They said they loved him, but he knew it wasn’t true. How could they even know what they were talking about?
And then there was Natalie. Screen-Natalie looked up at him, and said words. The subtitle under the words said, “I don’t want to be what you love,” and the little girl holding his hand squeezed it again.
He wanted her even more once she’d told him that. He’d almost admitted that he wanted to be with her, almost asked her how they could make this work. Almost chased her down, almost acted like the girlfriends who hadn’t been willing to let him go. Almost believed in a future.
He remembered how he treated his ex-girlfriends.
Better that it was only ‘almost’.
He finally looked at the little girl holding his hand. It was a young Natalie. She smiled at him, and even if she refused to be his object, she was there and he wasn’t alone.
Then Hatherly said, “If only the world was a different place,” and young Natalie dissolved into sparks.
Ajax opened his eyes and stared at the infirmary ceiling.
“Ah, you’re awake. That’s a good sign.” Kwan sat in a nearby chair, with newspapers spread around him.
“She’s gone,” said Ajax. “I let her slip away because I was too weak.” He coughed. His mouth was dry and his chest hurt. So did his hands, as if he’d been clenching them tightly.
“Yesterday was a bad day.” Kwan’s voice was even and controlled.
“Natalie’s gone, right? That wasn’t a dream?”
“No. Not a dream.”
Ajax sat up, or rather, tried to sit up. But there were restraints across his chest, legs and arms, and a handcuff around one wrist. “What the hell is this?”
“The Tanist didn’t want to bring you back, but I told her that if we didn’t, she’d be leaving you to give more information to the military.” Kwan shrugged. “She insisted on the restraints when you started fighting us without ever waking up.”
Ajax processed this. “Are the soldiers okay?”
“As far as I know. Nobody on our team hurt them. I don’t know how their HQ felt about their failure to stop us from leaving.”
“And…” He searched his memory for names that he suddenly barely remembered. Meeting those faces seemed like a lifetime ago. “Laurel? Rose? Seth?”
“Laurel’s dead. We lost Laurel, Natalie and Hatherly yesterday. Everybody else made it home.”
Ajax stared at Kwan. “You’re counting Hatherly as a loss?”
Kwan looked very tired. “When you know somebody for over twenty years and you realize that person didn’t exist… yeah. We’ve lost a lot of people lately. Malachi. Emily. Kentigern. Slade. Aya. Laurel. Hatherly. Natalie.”
All Ajax could think was, Half of those people aren’t dead, and Is Natalie? And finally, They don’t think it matters.
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