WHEN I AWOKE, I FACED A WALL OF books. My eyes felt puffy and swollen with sleep and I rubbed them with my fists like a little girl. Lamplight from an alcove stretched across the room, reaching for my exposed legs at the foot of the bed.
In Noah’s room.
Without any clothes on.
I wrapped the flat sheet tighter around my chest. Lightning flashed, illuminating the roiling surface of the bay outside the window.
“Noah?” I asked, my voice shaky and hoarse with sleep. My last memory was the taste of that rank concoction Mr. Lukumi gave me to drink. The warm feel of it dribbling down my chin. The smell. And then I remembered cold, being cold. But nothing else. Nothing else. My sleep was dreamless.
“You’re up,” Noah said as he padded into view. He was limned in the light from his desk, his drawstring pants hanging low on his hips and his T-shirt hugging his lean frame. The light cast his elegant profile into relief; sharp and gorgeous, as if he’d been cut from glass. He moved to sit on the edge of his bed, about a foot away from my feet.
“What time is it?” I asked him. My voice was thick with sleep.
I blinked. “It was almost two when the seminar ended, wasn’t it?” Noah nodded. “What happened?”
He shot me a loaded glance. “You don’t remember?”
I shook my head. Noah said nothing and looked away. His expression was even, but I saw the muscles working in his jaw. I grew increasingly uncomfortable. What was so bad he couldn’t—oh. Oh, no. My eyes flicked down to the sheet I’d wrapped around myself. “Did we—”
In an instant, Noah’s face was full of mischief. “No. You tore your clothes off and then ran through the house screaming ‘It burns! Take it off us!’”
My face flushed hot.
“Kidding,” Noah said, grinning wickedly.
He was too far away to smack.
“But you did jump in the pool with your clothes on.”
“I was just glad you didn’t choose the bay. Not in this storm.”
“What happened to them?” I asked. Noah looked bemused. “My clothes, I mean?”
“They’re in the wash.”
“How did I—” I blushed deeper. Did I take them off in front of him?
Did he take them off?
“Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
I buried my face in my hands. God help me.
A soft chuckle escaped from Noah’s lips. “Fret not, you were actually very modest in your intoxicated state. You undressed in the bathroom, wrapped yourself in a towel, crawled between my sheets, and slept.” Noah shifted on the bed, and the oddest crunching came from underneath him. I looked, really looked, at the bed for the first time.
“What,” I asked slowly, as I eyed the animal crackers strewn all over it, “the hell?”
“You were convinced they were your pets,” Noah said, not even trying to suppress his laughter. “You wouldn’t let me touch them.”
Noah raised the light quilt, careful not to disturb my sheet, and folded it so none of my pets would spill onto the floor. He walked over to his closet and retrieved one of his plaid shirts and a pair of boxer briefs and held them out to me casually. I gripped the bed sheet covering my skin with one hand and took his clothes with the other as Noah walked back to the alcove. I slipped the shirt over my head and the boxers over my legs but I was acutely, keenly aware of his presence.
In point of fact, I was acutely, keenly aware of everything. The places where Noah’s flannel shirt billowed and curved against my body. The cool cotton sheets beneath my legs, which really felt like silk. The smell of old paper and leather mingled with the rumor of Noah’s scent. I saw, felt, smelled everything in his room. I felt alive. Vital. Incredible. For the first time in forever.
“Wait,” I said as Noah slipped a book from a shelf and headed toward the door. “Where are you going?”
But I don’t want you to.
“But I need to go home,” I said, my eyes meeting his. “My parents are going to kill me.”
“Taken care of. You’re at Sophie’s house.”
I loved Sophie.
“So I’m … staying here?”
“Daniel’s covering for you.”
I loved Daniel.
“Where’s Katie?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
I loved Eliza.
“And your parents?” I asked.
“Some charity thing.”
I loved charity.
“So why are you going to read when I’m right here?” My voice was a challenge and a tease and I was shocked at the sound of it. I didn’t think, I wasn’t thinking—about what had happened last night or today or what would happen tomorrow. It didn’t even register. All I knew was that I was there, in Noah’s bed, wearing his clothes, and he was too far away.
Noah tensed. I could feel his eyes travel over every inch of my bare skin as he stared at me.
“It’s my birthday,” I said.
“I know.” His voice was low and rough and I wanted to swallow it.
Noah took a measured step toward the bed.
Another step. He was there. I was waist high, wearing his clothes and tangled in his sheets. I looked up at him.
He ran his hand through my still-wet hair, and his thumb drew a semicircle from my brow to my temple to my cheekbone, moving over my neck. He fixed his gaze on me. It was hard.
“Mara, I need to—”
“Shut up,” I whispered as I grabbed his hand and tugged, and he half-kneeled, half-fell into bed. I didn’t care what he was going to say. I just wanted him close. I twisted my arm to curl him behind me and he unfolded there, the two of us snuggled like quotation marks in his room full of words. He laced his fingers in mine and I felt his breath on my skin. We lay there in silence for some time before he spoke.
“You smell good,” he whispered into my neck. He was warm against me. Instinctively, I arched back into him and smiled.
“Mmm-hmm. Delicious. Like bacon.”
I laughed as I twisted to face him and raised my arm to hit in one move. He caught my wrist and my laugh caught in my throat. A mischievous grin curved my mouth as I raised my other hand to hit him. He reached over me and caught that wrist too, gently pinning my arms above my head as he straddled my hips. The space between us boiled my blood.
He leaned forward slightly, still touching me nowhere and smelling like need and I thought I would die. His voice was low when he spoke.
“What would you do if I kissed you right now?”
I stared at his beautiful face and his beautiful mouth and I wanted nothing more than to taste it.
“I would kiss you back.”
Noah parted my legs with his knees and my lips with his tongue, and I was in his mouth and oh. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. I felt myself unfold, turned inside out by his insistent mouth. When Noah pulled back I gasped at the loss, but he slid his hand beneath my back and lifted me, and we were sitting and his head was dipping and our mouths were colliding and I pushed him down and lingered above, hovered before I crashed into him.
I felt delicious for an eternity. I smiled against Noah’s lips and ran my fingers through his hair and withdrew at some point to see his thoughts in his eyes, but they were closed, his lashes resting on his stone cheek. I lifted higher to see him better, and his lips were blue.
“Noah.” My voice was rude in the stillness.
But he wasn’t Noah. He was Jude. And Claire. And Rachel and dead and I saw them all, a parade of corpses underneath me, pallor and blood in lunatic dust. The memory sliced through my mind like a scythe, leaving behind lucid, unforgiving clarity.
Twelve iron doors slammed shut.
I slammed them shut.
And before the blackness, terror. But not mine.
One second, he had pressed me so deeply into the wall that I thought I would dissolve into it. The next, he was the trapped one, inside the patient room, inside with me. But I was no longer the victim.
I laughed at him in my crazed fury, which shook the asylum’s foundation and crushed it. With Jude and Claire and Rachel inside.
I killed them, and others, too. Mabel’s torturer. Morales.
The realization slammed me back into Noah’s bedroom, with his motionless body still beneath me. I screamed his name and there was no answer and I freaked the fuck out in earnest. I shook him, I pinched him, I tried to wrestle into his arms but they held no asylum for me. I dove for his headboard and with one hand fumbled for his cell, furious and terrified. I reached it and began dialing 911 while I raised my other arm and backhanded him across the cheek, connecting with skin and bone in a furious sting.
He woke up with a sharp intake of breath. My hand hurt like a bitch.
“Incredible,” Noah breathed, as he reached his hand up to his face. The beautiful taste of him was already fading from my tongue.
I opened my mouth to speak, but there was no air.
Noah looked far away and hazy. “That was the best dream I have ever had. Ever.”
“You weren’t breathing,” I said. I could barely get the words out.
“My face hurts.” Noah stared past me, at nothing in particular. His eyes were unfocused, his pupils dilated. From the dark or something else, I didn’t know.
I placed my trembling hands on his face, careful to balance my weight above him. “You were dying.” My voice cracked with the words.
“That’s ridiculous,” Noah said, an amused smile forming on his mouth.
“Your lips turned blue.” Like Rachel’s would have, after she suffocated. After I killed her.
Noah raised his eyebrows. “How do you know?”
“I saw it.” I didn’t look at Noah. I couldn’t. I unstraddled him and he sat up, glancing his hand across the dimmer, brightening the room. Noah’s eyes were dark, but clear now. He stared at me plainly.
“I fell asleep, Mara. You were sleeping next to me. You pulled me into bed and I was behind you and … God, that was a good dream.” Noah leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes.
My head spun. “We kissed. You don’t remember?”
Noah smirked. “Sounds like you had a good dream as well.”
What he was saying—it made no sense. “You told me I smelled—like bacon.”
“Well,” he said evenly. “That’s awkward.”
I looked at my hands lying limp in my lap. “You asked if you could kiss me, and then you did. And then I—” There were no words to translate it, the dead faces I saw on the insides of my eyelids. I wanted to rub them out, but they wouldn’t leave. They were real. It was all real. Whatever the Santeria priest did had worked. And now that I knew, now that I remembered, all I wanted was to forget.
“I hurt you,” I finished. And it was only the beginning.
Noah rubbed his cheek. “It’s all right,” he said, and pulled me back down, curling me into his side, my head on his shoulder and my cheek on his chest. His heart beat under my skin.
“Did you remember anything?” Noah whispered into my hair. “Did the thing work?”
I didn’t answer.
“It’s all right,” Noah said very softly, his fingers brushing my ribs. “You were just dreaming.”
But the kiss wasn’t a dream. Noah was dying. The asylum wasn’t an accident. I killed them.
It was all real. It was all me.
I didn’t understand why Noah didn’t remember what happened seconds ago but I finally understood what had happened to me months ago. Jude trapped me, crushed me against the wall. I wanted him punished, to feel my terror of being trapped, of being crushed. So I made him feel it.
And abandoned Claire and Rachel.
Rachel, who sat with me for hours under the giant tire in our old school’s playground, our thighs gritty with dirt, as I confessed an unrequited fifth-grade crush. Rachel, who sat still for my portraits, who I laughed with and cried with and did everything with, whose body was now turned into so much meat. Because of me.
And not because I went along with the Tamerlane plan, even knowing it could be dangerous. Not because I failed to scratch at some vague tickle of premonition. It was my fault because it was actually, literally my fault—because I crumpled the asylum with Rachel and Claire inside like it was nothing more than a wad of tissues in my pocket.
I reeled at the delusions I’d invented after murdering Mabel’s owner and Ms. Morales. I was not crazy.
I was lethal.
Noah’s hand worked in my hair and it felt so wonderful, so painfully wonderful that it was all I could do not to cry.
“I should go,” I managed to whisper, even though I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to be anywhere.
“Mara?” Noah leaned up on his elbow. His fingers traced the outline of my cheekbone, stroking my skin awake. My heart did not beat faster. It did not beat at all. I had no heart left.
Noah studied my face for a moment. “I can take you home, but your parents will wonder why,” he said slowly.
I said nothing. I couldn’t. My throat was filled with broken glass.
“Why don’t you stay?” he asked. “I can go into another room. Say the words.”
The words wouldn’t come.
Noah sat next to me, the bed shifting under his weight. I felt his warmth as he leaned in, brushed my hair aside, and pressed his lips to my temple. I closed my eyes and memorized it. He left.
The rain lashed his windows as I buried myself in his sheets and pulled the covers up to my chin. But there would be no shelter in Noah’s bed or in his arms from the howling of my sins.