“I can’t decide if I want to punch something or scream,” Priyanka said. “What did you do?”
“We backed up and returned to DC,” I said. “I never had the guts to read the news coverage from that day, but it must have been everywhere. I got questions about it for years, even after Mel put a ban on them.”
Chubs and Vida had been waiting for me the second I got back. Chubs had hugged me so tightly I thought I wouldn’t feel anything anymore. That would have been a relief. Instead, I held it in and had dinner with them, then raged and sobbed in private, with the shower running.
That’s one of the few things rehabilitation camps gave you: the ability to hold in tears on command, and the knowledge of how to cry so no one will hear you.
I hadn’t spoken to Hina or my aunt and uncle in almost a year. They were good, kind people, and had fallen out with my parents for years over my parents’ decision to send me to a camp. I knew they’d been frustrated when I didn’t move back to California to live with them, and I knew that frustration had only deepened when the wedge between me and my parents turned into a canyon. I just didn’t want to hear their explanations, I didn’t want to be cajoled. I wanted to work.
I turned to look at her and accidentally knocked the first-aid kit off the sink with my elbow. Priyanka and I both knelt to pick it up. In the process, something slid up out of the back pocket of her jeans and clattered against the floor. At first glance, it looked like the burner phone, but the rectangular device was a matte black, with no screen. Inside its casing was a faint charge.
“Backup battery for the phone,” Priyanka explained, sliding it into her pocket as we stood. “In case we have to ditch the car. I was going to charge it in here for a while.”
It must have been run down to nothing. The power whimpered as my mind brushed against it.
I tucked the first-aid kit against my chest, shooting her a grateful look. “Roman’s probably getting worried….”
“I think that’s a definitely, not a probably,” she said, now looking at herself in the mirror. “I’ll be out in a few. I might try to wash my hair in this hellacious little basin.”
I nodded, making my way to the door. Just before I slipped out into the warm summer night, I looked back. Priyanka had braced her hands against the rim of the sink and was staring at herself in the mirror, searching for something I wasn’t meant to see.
SOME PART OF ME HAD expected to find Roman outside the door standing guard, but it looked like he hadn’t moved at all. He was still gripping the steering wheel, staring out the windshield. I opened the front passenger door and dropped into the seat, shutting the door as quietly as I could.
For a long time, we sat in silence, watching the door of the bathroom. I didn’t understand the tension I felt radiating off him. It wasn’t directed at me, and neither was his look of quiet frustration.
“The haircut’s that bad, huh?” I said lightly.
He looked over, then looked again. “Oh. No—I mean—”
“I’m kidding,” I told him. “Everything all right?”
“Yes. No.” A thread of anger pulled through the words. “He’s wrong. About everything. He doesn’t know you at all.”
“Who’s wrong?” I asked. “My father?”
He nodded, his brows low and his jaw set.
“Some of what he said is true,” I said. “I did refuse to go home. I did hurt them by causing an accident. I did fail to live up to their expectations of what my life would be. But I take some umbrage with that one, mostly because I didn’t exactly choose to have my power. I just chose to keep it.”
Neither of my parents really bought into the concept of shikata ga nai, the knowledge that some things in life were simply outside of your control thanks to circumstances. My dad in particular was the type to believe that, with enough careful planning, there was little in this world that couldn’t be brought in line or contained. One of the reasons it had been so hard to hang on to my anger after they sent me to school on Collection day was because I understood. I really did. My power had been anomalous to their worldview, and they struggled to rationalize it as much as I struggled to control it.
Roman turned in his seat, his eyes blazing. “There is nothing disappointing about you.”
I leaned back, resting my temple against my seat’s headrest. I didn’t want to say anything. I wanted to live inside those words a little longer, even if there was a voice in my head whispering that I was a fraud. “I wish that were true.”
He shook his head. “I know what failure is. I have failed so many times in my life, I can’t even begin to understand how I’m still here. But you survived that camp, you used your voice to try to help others, you fought like hell against those kidnappers, you saved us from them—you, alone. You’ve navigated us this far, and you haven’t backed down from anything, even as you’ve taken hit after hit. That’s not disappointing. That’s incredible.”
I ducked my head slightly, a riot of emotion moving through me. In the backseat, I could have hidden that from him. The backseat was safe that way. You didn’t have to join the conversation. You didn’t have to be seen.
But I wanted to be seen. Because when Roman looked at me, he only saw the person I was now. Someone capable, strong, and in control. Not the little girl with her gloves who only had control over her voice.
“How have you failed?” I asked him. “I can’t even imagine it. Every time I get to the edge of being afraid, I just have to look at you. You hold it together, and you never miss a shot. You think every possibility through.” Then I added, teasing, “You sing like an angel….”
He let out a soft laugh, his hands slipping from the wheel and into his lap. His left hand rubbed absently at the scars on the back of his right. “I want to be that person you see.”
“You are that person,” I told him. “We don’t have to be what anyone else wants us to be.”
Roman smoothed his hair off his face. That same distance had returned to his eyes.
“My father lived and died to the rhythms of violence,” Roman began. “He did odd jobs, and was always at the mercy of whoever he had a debt to or agreed to work for. My mother kept us away from him, but he was like a bruise on the heart of the family. We couldn’t escape the stain of what he was doing, not fully. He was a terrifying man.”
I waited for him to continue.
“My mother made me promise I wouldn’t be like him. She really put a notch in my nose about it.” The phrase was a new one for me, but I took his meaning. “I promised. Again and again. I’d go to school, become a doctor, or a fisherman, a banker, a teacher…anything but that. And here I am, good at the one thing I hate more than anything.”
“Roman…” I began.
He tried to lighten his tone, but it didn’t quite take. “I also promised her that I would take care of my sister. Taking care of Lana has always been my responsibility, from the time we were little. I couldn’t even do that much. I looked away for a second, I focused on something else, and she slipped away.”
Roman scrubbed at his face with his hands, letting out a frustrated sound. I felt for him and Priyanka right then, even more than I had before. They both did their best to hide it, in whatever ways they could, but seeing Lana had rattled them. Being near them was enough to feel th
e deep pain burning beneath their skin like a live wire.
“Sorry. I’m feeling sorry for myself,” he said slowly, bracing his head against his hand. “I didn’t expect to see Lana there, and to have her be like that was…I don’t have a word for it.”
I did. Devastating.
“I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, even though I’m trying,” I told him. “Nothing about failure is final unless you accept it. We’re going to find Lana, and we’re going to help her. I have no doubt about that, unlike everything else in this situation.”
“Proving your innocence, you mean?” he asked.
“And getting justice for the people who died,” I said. That was the most important thing in all this. “But if Clancy was right and Ruby left on her own, it means my theory about her disappearance being connected to the kidnappers just got knocked out. I’m not sure how I’m going to collect evidence now if we’re on a completely different trail.”
“Once you have the evidence, though, what are you going to do with it?” Roman asked. “Is there anyone in the government you still trust enough to give it to?”
The way he said that last part gave me pause. “What do you mean by that? You think the government is involved?”
“No, no,” he said quickly. “I meant someone who would take it seriously and get it into the right, unbiased hands.”
“It’s government,” I said dryly. “Everyone’s got a bias. Everyone’s picked a side, I just have to find someone on mine. The only way to beat this narrative they’ve built about me is to create one that’s even stronger. One that’s unassailable.”
“Similar to what you did for the camps,” he said, putting it together. “Creating the media package of interviews and footage.”
I nodded. “Stories are powerful. You can give people a list of facts and they’ll be dismissed or ignored. People believe what they feel is true. So I have to make them feel something. I have to make them angry on my behalf, sympathetic to the victims, and try to restore some of that trust Moore is chipping away at.”
“Sounds nearly impossible,” he said. “So, all in a day’s work for you.”