- I take the towel from him and lay it down on the bed. “Just come out and say it. Someone’s going to kill me like they killed Rory. Isn’t that what you’re worried about?”“Yes,” he says. “That’s exactly what I’m worried about.” He doesn’t say another word. He doesn’t have to. We both understand the gravity of the situation. By telling me about the conspiracy, he’s unwittingly dragged me into it. I’m a part of it whether I like it or not–whether he likes it or not, to be frank. Even if I don’t do anything, I know what’s going on. Knowing is the crime.“So,” I say, “that’s it, then. That’s where we are.”“I’m sorry,” he says.I ignore him. “What’s next?”“If you decide you want to actively participate,” he says, “Atalanta, Malcolm, and I can walk you through our philosophy and basic strategies. You’ll meet Malcolm soon, I hope. Not sure you haven’t.”Realization dawns on me. “Malcolm McKinney? The district manager?”“The one and the same.”I gape at him. “But he’s a government official.”Julian smirks. “So am I.”I can’t believe it. Malcolm McKinney. He was appointed to the position by Alaric Silver himself. And Silver doesn’t appoint just any brown-eyed citizen. No—he’s only interested in stocking the ranks with loyalists. Malcolm is a better actor than I gave him credit for.“Where’s Atalanta?” I ask. “Do you think I should trust her?”“Absolutely not,” he says.“But you do?”He shrugs. “I trust her when I have to. Otherwise I don’t think about it. You’d be wise to do the same.”I think long and hard about his implications. For all intents and purposes, it looks as though the two of them are dating, but that’s impossible. Skies and muddies don’t mix. Everybody knows that.Besides, how could someone be in a relationship with someone they don’t fully trust?Julian goes over to the window and pulls back the curtain. His eyes scan over the parking lot. He turns back to me. “How did you get here?”“There was a policeman. He dropped me off.” I don’t understand why he’s suddenly so anxious.“Why, what’s the matter?”Julian stares at me. He seems to be frozen.“What is it?” I ask.“There’s a car down there,” he says, “and it looks just like your brother’s.”
- I crack the door open. “What do you want?”“Nice to see you, too,” he says. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”I wonder why he cares. “What’s going on?”He looks through the crack in the door, bracing a hand against the door frame. “Would you mind if I came in?” He lowers his voice. “It’s urgent.”“If it’s so urgent, you better just come out and say it,” I say. I’m still not sure I can trust him. How do I know that this isn’t a trap?He sighs. “Damita, please. I’ve been nothing but cordial thus far but unless you let me in, I’m afraidI’ll have to get a tad more assertive.” He pushes against the door until it opens.I don’t push back. There’s no use. Now that I think about it, he probably doesn’t mean me any harm.If he wanted to hurt me, he would’ve done it already. I decide to trust him until he gives me a clear reason not to. For now, he’s one of my only ties to Rory. He might be able to shed some light on my brother’s murder.Julian seems taller as he brushes against me. I haven’t been quite so close to him before. He smells nice, like mint. Rory had always smelled like cinnamon. I feel a twinge of grief. I choke it back before it has time to take root.After I close the door, Julian sits down on the edge of the bed. “I hope I didn’t scare you too much yesterday. What I said about Atalanta… well, I was wrong.” He rubs the back of his neck. “You’re not in any danger where she is concerned.”I want to ask him why he was so insistent before. I put my hands on my hips. “Am I in danger otherwise?”Julian pauses. “We think you will be.”“If I don’t get your help, you mean?”“No,” he says, “it’s not like that.”Julian stands again and goes into the bathroom. He turns on the tap, gathers water in his hands, and splashes it on his face. Odd. I hand him the towel wadded up on the floor.“What are you saying?” I ask. “Be specific.”He waits a long time before answering me. “I’m afraid we dragged you into something terrible. We were reckless.”I wait for him to continue. He dries his face, goes to throw the towel back on the floor, and decides to fold it neatly instead.“I promised Rory you wouldn’t get hurt. He made me swear that if anything ever happened to him, I wouldn’t try to contact you.”“You didn’t,” I reply. “It happened by accident.” Even as I say the words, I doubt the truth behind them. It’s all too convenient–what are the odds of me getting dropped off at the very motel in whichJulian and Atalanta are staying?The universe is seldom slapdash. Something big is brewing.
- He steps aside and allows me to walk past him. I make my way across the room and through the front door without so much as a look over my shoulder. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if I never see those two again.I can’t understand why Rory kept company with them. The woman is attractive but volatile–a smoker and a rebel and God knew what else. Julian is trickier. An aristocrat at first blush, he seems to be more of a poor little rich boy with a past I can’t fathom–a past I’ll never know.I hate not knowing.I hate the idea of going back there and confronting Julian even more.After a little deliberation, I go back to my room, close and lock the door, and slide the deadbolt into place. I take off all my clothes and tear the scratchy blanket off the bed. I turn off the lights and slide between the sheets.I fall asleep in minutes.
When I wake up, I’m disoriented. I think it’s morning, but the light is all wrong.
Then, I remember the strange encounter in the adjacent hotel room. I remember Julian telling me to run away before Atalanta came back. None of it makes sense. Why is he so insistent, so terrified? Atalanta won’t hurt me. She was Rory’s friend, too.I think again about my brother and want to throw up. I go into the bathroom and crouch down in front of the toilet. With my eyes closed, I count.One, two, three, four…No vomit comes. I spit into the bowl. Clear.I stand, shaking, and flush the toilet. What’s going on with me?Grief is a strange animal. I don’t have a weak stomach, but since Rory’s death, I feel like throwing up every time I think about him. When I remember he’s dead, I feel sick. It’s awful. I wonder if the feeling will ever go away. Based on the way Atalanta talks about her brother, I don’t want to get my hopes up.Someone knocks on the door.I start to answer before realizing that I’m still naked. I’m not expecting company. For all I know, Atalanta is waiting for me outside, ready to kill me once I open the door. I’m still not sure whether to trust her or not. For one thing, she took me in after I passed out. But there’s also the look of panic in Julian’s eyes when he talks about her and the urgency in his voice as he told me to leave. I don’t know much about Julian, either, but something about him seems more sincere. I’m torn.“Damita,” says the visitor. I recognize the voice.“Julian,” I say. “Just give me a second.”
I grab my dress off the floor and pull it over my head. It settles over my body. After smoothing it a few times, I walk to the door. A look through the peephole confirms that Julian is waiting for me.
- Atalanta comes out of the bathroom. She rubs her eyes. “She figured it out, didn’t she? What are we supposed to do?”“We don’t have to do anything rash,” Julian says. His voice is calm but I sense a touch of malice in it.My pulse spikes. What are they going to do?“She’s dangerous,” Atalanta says. “If she tells anyone–““She won’t tell anyone. Look at her. She’s a mud eyes. Who would believe her?”Normally I’d be offended, but I know he’s trying to help.“I don’t know, Julian. I think it’s risky.”Julian nods to me. “Would you mind stepping into the bathroom? Atalanta and I have some things to discuss.”I don’t dare disobey. I doubt Julian would press charges if I did but I don’t want to take the chance. I slip into the bathroom, shut the door, and flip on the fan. The lid on the toilet is down. I sit on it and bury my face in my hands. What’s happening to me?I hear them talking. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I hear their voices. For all I know, they’re plotting my murder. But if they’d truly been close to my brother, surely they won’t kill me, will they? I don’t know anything about them.I think about throwing open the bathroom door, pushing past them, opening the front door, and running away as fast as I can. What if I can’t get past them? What if they pursue me? If I do get away from them, where will I go? Home isn’t home anymore. I’m out of options.I stand and knock on the door. The talking stops. I knock again. Julian opens the door and peers in at me. His eyes shift around the room as though looking for something to cling to. They find me instead.“Atalanta’s going out,” he says. “You should be gone before she comes back.”At first, I don’t understand. Julian lowers his voice. “Please. I’m trying to help you.”“She won’t hurt me,” I say. It comes out like a question. “Tell me she won’t hurt me.”“Please go,” he replies.I hear the front door open and close. Atalanta has gone out. I want to get as far away from this hotel room as possible. Whatever these two are involved in–even if they’d known my brother–I don’t want to have anything to do with it. Treason is insanity. I’m only half-crazy.What is it that’s keeping me standing in the bathroom?“I want answers,” I say. “All you’ve done is confuse me. I have so many questions.”“I know,” he says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want–” He cuts himself off. “Please get out of here, Damita. Go to your room and lock the door. Pretend this nonsense never happened.”He has no idea how much I wish that’s possible. “My brother was murdered. That wasn’t pretend. You can’t understand how bad it hurts.”Something flashes in his eyes. “You have no idea.”
- Atalanta sobs. Startled by her violent reaction, she claps her hands over her mouth. I want to reassure her. What can I say? Rory is dead.“Bathroom,” says Julian. His voice is clipped and cold. Atalanta goes into the bathroom. She pulls the door shut. Her sobs are almost muffled by the whirring of the fan. Almost, but not quite. They tear me up inside in a way I’m not expecting.“Hold on,” Julian says. He goes into the bathroom and closes the door again. I hear the two of them talking. I can’t make out what they were saying. Atalanta’s still crying. When Julian comes back out, he’s wearing pants and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He missed a button. I tell him so.He fixes the problem. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I had no idea. I never would’ve said…” He lets his voice trail off. “Rory and I were close.”“Why didn’t he ever mention you?” My question rings more like an accusation–maybe even an insult. Julian pales. He takes a step backward.“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean–““It’s fine,” he says. “It’s all right, really. I don’t know what I expected.” He tries to smile, but his face refuses to take it. I know he’s in pain. I feel terrible. Rory hadn’t said anything about Julian. I already said so. I can’t go back on my word. As silly as it seems, I feel like Rory will know if I lie–that he’ll come down from wherever he is and give me a lecture.“We didn’t talk much,” I try. The explanation is weak. “I mean, about personal issues.” That’s not right, either. Heat rises in my cheeks. I know he can see right through me. I feel pathetic. “He never bothered me with anything too serious. He always worried about upsetting me. Whenever I asked him about his day, he’d hit the highlights. I never got the gritty stuff.”My brother worked at a funeral home. It bothered me when I was younger, but as time passed, the job became an extension of my brother, another part of him to love. I learned a lot about the industry. Death, like everything else, is a business. I wonder what Rory would think about whatever they do to his body. I wonder if he has a will. I’m not holding out hope.“He didn’t want you to know about me,” Julian says.I can’t figure out why. If we have a sky eyed lawyer like him on our side, why didn’t we take full advantage of his status? The more I think about the situation, the less I understand.“It was for your own good,” he continues. “For your protection. Don’t you understand?”I do understand. I don’t like understanding.“Eye color,” I say. “Contacts. It all makes sense now.”They plotted something together. Why else would a sky eyes become friends with my brother? Rory didn’t want me to meet Julian because he knew it was dangerous. If I recognized Julian in public, people would get suspicious. Silver might hear something. Rory had really been looking out for everyone.
The man’s name is Julian. He has blue eyes. Their intensity startles me more than their color. More surprising than his eyes is the fact he knows my name. I swear we’ve never met. He looks at me like he can see under my skin. I’ve never been looked at like that before. I avert my eyes.“Julian,” I say, repeating his name. I like the way it rests on my tongue, “you’re a lawyer?”“I’m surprised you don’t recognize me.”“Why, should I?”His expression darkens. “I defended your brother.”I feel like I’m falling. As far as I know, Rory never stood trial for anything in his life. “What are you talking about?”Atalanta stands and puts her hand on Julian’s arm. Her fingers curve around his bicep. “Careful,” she says.He shoots her a look that says, I know what I’m doing. “Look,” he says to me, “I’m guessing there are lots of things your brother never told you. I can reveal a few secrets here and there, but I think it’s best you hear everything directly from him.” He puts his arm around Atalanta. “If the three of us know anything about Rory, it’s that he’s honest.”“Almost to a fault.” Atalanta smiles.My stomach churns like someone’s put it on spin cycle. They don’t know. Then again, how could they? Rory has only been dead for a few hours. It’s impossible for me to believe he isn’t dead in their world yet.“Damita,” says Julian, “are you all right?”I lie back down and close my eyes. Julian knows my name. Presumably we’ve met before, so why don’t I remember him? Why don’t I remember seeing him with Rory? Most importantly, what has my brother been doing hanging out with a sky eyes? Fraternization is illegal. Everyone knows that–especially Julian, if he’s serious about his career.“What crime was he accused of?” I ask. My voice sounds small. I try again. “When you defendedRory, what was he on trial for?”Julian hesitates. “It’s better he tells you. He might frame it better.”“There’s no other way to frame it,” Atalanta says.“She should hear it from him, don’t you think?”“He’s dead,” I say. “My brother died. He can’t tell me anything.”“You’re joking,” says Julian. I open my eyes. He’s holding on to Atalanta with both hands, as though he needs her to stay standing. She has a vise grip on his arms. Her nails pierce his skin.I look at him. That’s all. We don’t need speech.