THE STENCH OF ROT FILLED MY NOSTRILS, AND a voice buzzed in my ear.
“Biologists are reporting that the fish kill in Everglades City was most likely due to oxygen depletion in the water.”
Images of bloated, belly-up alligators appeared in my dark consciousness.
“A startling number of alligator corpses are thought to be the culprit.”
I had done that. Just like I’d done this.
Noah surveyed the destruction with empty eyes. He couldn’t look at me. I couldn’t blame him. I wrestled with the doorknob and bolted into the darkness. An assault of screeches and howls and barks met my ears. At least the slaughter was limited.
I was disgusted by myself. And when Noah followed me outside, I saw that he was too.
He avoided my eyes and said nothing. The sight of his hands curled into fists, of his revulsion, stung my heart and made me cry. Pathetic. But once I started, I couldn’t stop and didn’t really want to. The sobs scorched my throat, but it was a good kind of pain. Deserved.
Noah was still silent. Only when I dropped to the ground, unable to stand for a second longer, did he move. He grabbed my hand and pulled me up, but my legs trembled. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. Noah wrapped his arms around me but as soon as he did, I just wanted them off. I wanted to run.
I struggled against his grip, my thin shoulder blades digging into his chest.
“Let me go.”
“Please,” I choked.
He loosened his grip by a fraction. “Only if you promise not to run.”
I was out of control, and Noah knew it. Afraid I’d do even more damage, he had to make sure I didn’t ruin anything else.
“I promise,” I whispered.
He turned me to face him, then set me free. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him, so I focused on the pattern of his plaid shirt, then at the ground.
We walked wordlessly amid the snarls and shrieks. The animals were all awake, now; the antelope had herded together at the edge of their exhibit, stamping and shifting in fear. The birds flapped, frantic, and one pelican dove straight into an out-cropping of rock as we approached it. It fell to the water and emerged, dragging its broken, limp wing beside it. I wanted to die.
The second we reached Noah’s car, I lunged for the handle. It was locked.
“Open it,” I said, still not meeting his gaze.
“Look at me first.”
“I can’t handle that right now,” I said through clenched teeth. “Just open the door.”
He did. I folded myself into the passenger seat.
“Take me home, please.”
He started the car and we drove in silence. I stared at my lap the whole way but as we slowed down, I finally looked out the window. The scenery was familiar, but wrong. When we passed the gated entrance to his house, I shot him a steely glare.
“What are we doing here?”
He didn’t answer, and I understood. Since my confession, Noah had only been humoring me. He said he believed me, and maybe he did really believe that there was something off, something wrong with me. But he didn’t get it. He thought I’d been dreaming when I kissed him and he almost died. That Rachel, Claire, and Jude were killed when an old, decrepit building collapsed on them. That Mabel’s owner could have fallen and cracked his skull open, Ms. Morales could have died of shock, and the whole thing might just add up to a series of terrible coincidences.
But he couldn’t think that now. Not after tonight, after what I’d just done. That could not be explained away. That was real. And now, Noah was ending it, and I was glad.
I would figure out the next step by myself.
He parked the car in the garage and opened the passenger door. I didn’t move.
“Mara, get out of the car.”
“Can you do it here? I want to go home.”
I needed to think, now that I was completely and utterly alone in this. I couldn’t live this way, and I needed to make a plan.
I got out of his car but hesitated by the door. The dogs sensed something wrong with me the last time I was here, and they were right. I didn’t want to be anywhere near them.
“What about Mabel and Ruby?”
“They’re crated. On the other side of the house.”
I exhaled and followed behind Noah as he entered a corridor and climbed a narrow staircase. He reached to take my hand but I flinched at his touch. Feeling him would only make this harder for me. Noah kicked the door open and I found myself in his room. He turned to face me. His expression was quietly furious. “I’m sorry,” he said.
This was it. I had lost him, but was surprised to find that instead of anguish, or misery, I just felt numb.
“I don’t know what to say.”
My voice was cold, removed when I spoke. “There’s nothing to say.”
“Just look at me, Mara.”
I raised my eyes to his. They were savage. I would have been afraid if I didn’t know better. The scariest thing in the room was me.
“I’m so, infinitely, forever sorry,” he said. His voice was empty, and my chest constricted. He shouldn’t feel guilty about this. I didn’t blame him. I shook my head.
“No, don’t shake your head,” he said. “I fucked up. Egregiously.”
The word escaped from my throat before I could stop it. “What?”
“I never should have let it get that far.”
My expression morphed into shock. “Noah, you didn’t do anything.”
“Are you joking? I tortured you. I tortured you.” There was a quiet rage in his voice. His muscles were tense and coiled; he looked like he wanted to smash something. I knew the feeling.
“You did what had to be done.”
His voice was laced with contempt. “I didn’t believe you.”
I had known that.
“Just tell me this,” I said. “Were you lying about what you could do?”
“So you elected not to do anything?”
Noah’s expression was hard. “It was too fast. The—sound— or whatever, was different from the last time with Morales.”
“Morales?” I said dully. “You heard that?”
“I heard—something. You. You sounded wrong. But I didn’t know why or what it was or what it meant. And with Anna and Aiden, when Jamie got expelled, you were off, too, but I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t understand it; only that he threatened you, and I wanted to break him for it. This time, tonight, wasn’t the same, and I don’t think the alligators were either.”
My mouth went dry as Noah confirmed what I’d done. He ran both of his hands over his face and back through his hair.
“There was too much going on—too much noise of everything else in the marsh. I didn’t know if they’d just disappeared, but I—I had a feeling something had happened.” He paused, and his face went still. “I’m sorry,” he said flatly.
I felt sick listening to him—my throat closed and I couldn’t breathe. I needed to get out of there. I made for Noah’s door.
“Don’t,” Noah said, crossing the room. He reached for me but I shied away. He took my hand anyway and walked me over to his bed. I acquiesced, knowing that this would be our last conversation. And as much as that hurt me, even though I knew it was necessary, I found myself unable to break away just yet. So we sat side-by-side, but I pulled my hand from his. Noah turned away.
“I thought—I thought maybe you were just seeing what was about to happen; that you were seeing things sort of like me. I thought you just felt guilty about Rachel.”
Just what my mother would say.
“I didn’t get it, and I pushed you, and then I pushed you further.”
He looked at me from underneath those lashes and his stare pierced the cavity where my heart used to be. He was furious with himself, not me. It was so wrong, so backward.
“It wasn’t your fault, Noah.” He started to speak, but I placed my fingers over his beautiful, perfect mouth, aching at the contact. “This was your first time seeing it. But it wasn’t my first time doing it. If I don’t—” I caught myself before I told him what I thought I had to do. What I did have to do. “I can’t handle seeing the look on your face the next time it happens, okay?”
Noah glared at me. “It was because of me, Mara, because of what I made you do.
“You didn’t make me kill every living thing in that room. I did that all by myself.”
“Not everything in that room.”
“You didn’t kill everything in that room.”
“With the exception of us, I did.”
Noah laughed without amusement. “That’s it. You could have killed me. I tormented you, and you could have ended it by ending me. But you didn’t,” he said, and brushed my hair away from my face.
“You’re stronger than you know.”
His hand lingered on my cheek and I closed my eyes in anguish.
“I know we don’t know how or why this is happening to you—to us,” he said. “But we will figure it out.”
I opened my eyes and stared at him. “It’s not your responsibility.”
“I fucking know it’s not my responsibility. I want to help you.”
I inhaled sharply. “What about tomorrow? Someone’s going to wonder what killed hundreds of endangered species.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll—”
“Fix it? You’ll fix it, Noah?”
As I spoke the words, I knew that that was exactly what he thought. That despite all rationality, he did think he could fix me, like he could fix everything else.
“Is that how you see this working? I’ll screw up and you’ll take care of it, right?” I was just another problem that could be solved if only we threw enough time or practice or money at it. At me. And when the experiment failed—when I failed—and people died, Noah would blame himself, hate himself for not being able to stop it. For not being able to stop me. I wouldn’t do that to him. So I said the only thing I could.
“I don’t want your help. I don’t want you.” The words felt mutinous on my tongue. And they hit him like a slap in the face.
“You’re lying,” Noah said, his voice low and quiet.
Mine was cold and distant. “I think it would be better if I didn’t see you again.” I didn’t know where the strength to say such a thing came from, but I was grateful for it.
“Why are you doing this?” Noah said, piercing me with an icy stare.
I began to lose my composure. “You’re really asking me that question? I murdered five people.”
“I wanted it.”
“God, Mara. You think you’re the only person to want bad things to happen to bad people?”
“No, but I am the only person who gets what she wants,” I said. “And Rachel, by the way, wasn’t a bad person. I loved her, and she did nothing to me, and she’s dead anyway and it’s my fault.”
I whipped around. “What? What did you just say?”
“You still don’t know if the asylum was an accident.”
“Are we back there again? Really?”
“Listen to me. Even if it wasn’t—”
“It wasn’t,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Even if it wasn’t an accident,” Noah continued, “I can warn you the next time you get close.”
My voice went low. “Just like you warned me before I killed Morales.”
“That’s not fair, and you know it. I didn’t know what was happening then. I do now. I’ll warn you the next time it happens, and you’ll stop.”
“You mean, you’ll make me stop.”
“No. It’s your choice. It’s always your choice. But maybe if you lose your focus, I can help bring you back.”
“And what if something happens and you’re not there?” I asked.
“I’ll be there.”
“But what if you’re not?”
“Then it would be my fault.”
His expression went carefully blank.
“I want a boyfriend, not a babysitter, Noah. But let’s say I agree to this plan, and you’re there but can’t stop me. You’ll blame yourself. You want that on my conscience too? Stop being so selfish.”
Noah’s jaw tensed. “No.”
“All right. Don’t. But I’m leaving.”
I stood to leave but felt Noah’s fingers on my thighs. The pressure of his grasp was feather-light on my jeans, but I was frozen.
“I’ll follow you,” he said.
I looked down at him, at his hand-stirred hair above his grave face; his lids were half-closed and heavy. Sitting on his bed, he was level with my waist. A thrill traveled along the length of my spine.
“Get off,” I said, without conviction.
The ghost of a smile touched his mouth. “You first.”
I blinked and stared at him carefully. “Well. Isn’t this a dangerous game.”
“I’m not playing.”
My nostrils flared. Noah was provoking me. On purpose, to see what I’d do. I wanted at once to smack him, and to rake my fingers through his hair and pull.
“I won’t let you do this,” I said.
“You won’t stop me.” His voice was low, now. Indescribably sexy.
My eyes fluttered closed. “Like hell I won’t,” I whispered. “I could kill you.”
“Then I’d die happy.”
I opened my eyes and focused on his. “I’d be happier without you,” I lied as convincingly as I could.
“Too bad.” Noah’s mouth curved into the half-smile I loved and hated so much, just inches from my navel.
My head was foggy. “You’re supposed to say, ‘All I want is your happiness. I’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means being without you.’ “
“Sorry,” Noah said. “I’m just not that big of a person.” His hands traveled up the side of my jeans, up to my waist. The pads of his fingertips grazed the skin just underneath the fabric of my shirt. I tried to steady my pulse and failed.
“You want me,” Noah said simply, definitively. “Don’t lie to me. I can hear it.”
“Irrelevant,” I breathed.
“No, it isn’t irrelevant. You want me as much as I want you. And all I want is you.”
My tongue warred with my mind. “Today,” I whispered.
Noah stood slowly, his body skimming mine as he rose. “Today. Tonight. Tomorrow. Forever.” Noah’s eyes held mine. His stare was infinite. “I was made for you, Mara.”
And at that moment, even though I didn’t know how it was possible or what it meant, I believed him.
“And you know it. So tell the truth. Do you want me?” His voice was strong, confident as he voiced the question that sounded more like a statement.
But his face. In the slightest crease and furrow of his brow, barely perceptible, it was there. Doubt.
Did he really not know? As I tried to comprehend the impossibility of that idea, Noah’s confidence began to fray at the edge of his expression.
Right would have been allowing his question to go unanswered. Letting Noah believe, impossible though it was, that I didn’t want him. That I didn’t love him. Then this would all be over. Noah would be the best thing that almost happened to me, but he would be safe.
I chose wrong.