"If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman? If I'm alive and well, will you be there holding my hand?"
Michael leaned his head against the seat and stared up at the dingy ceiling of the hunkered old van. "I'm gonna kill him," he said, as Kyle continued his serenade in the front, hands thrumming against the top of the wheel.
As if to test his luck, Kyle leaned over to Michael. "Come on, Guerin. 'I'll keep you by my side, with my superhuman might. Kryptonite!'"
Michael rolled his head just enough to glower back at him. "I'm giving you a warning, Valenti."
Kyle smirked and drew in a deep breath. He splayed a hand over his heart. "It really resonates with you on a deeply personal level, doesn't it?"
"You wanna walk the rest of the way?"
In the back, Maria let out a sound of annoyance as she sat up just enough to glare at the two men in the front of the van. "Would you both shut up? Some of us are trying to sleep back here."
And successfully, she thought, as she cast a glance at Max and Liz curled around one another, utilizing each other as living pillows. Even Isabel seemed undisturbed, sitting alone with her cheek in her hand.
Maria scowled at them all. She was dying in this van.
"No can do, Maria," Kyle said, way too cheerfully for her current mood. "This is one muse that can't be silenced."
Maria turned that scowl on him, glaring into the review mirror.
She watched as he withered under her gaze. "Now that you mention it, my throat is getting a little sore. I'll just . . . rest the vocal chords for a while."
"Wise choice," she said, and batted her makeshift pillow of knotted jacket and shirt in an effort to get more comfortable. Why Max had gone for only changing the exterior of the van from a blue Volkswagen to a green Dodge Ram and not even touching the interior was still a mystery to her. "When did we decide we could actually stop?" she asked. "Because I swear, if I have to spend one more night in this tin can of a car, I'll be the one walking the rest of the way."
"You know the drill, Maria," said Michael, head still resting against the seat and providing her a good view of his hair. "No stopping overnight. Not until"—
"We're at least seven hundred miles out," she finished for him with a sigh. "Yeah, I got the memo. But there are some of us who need things like, say, a shower." And was it the truth. Already the van was starting to smell more of people than its original scent: old car. Now it just smelled of people and old car, which was far from an improvement, and if there was one thing Maria hated, it was feeling unclean.
Michael lifted his head and opened his mouth to speak but Maria intervened before he could. "And no, gas station sinks do not count."
Thanks to his own mirror, Maria caught the flair of his nostrils, the infamous sign that he was becoming annoyed. "You're the one who wanted to come."
She rolled her eyes skyward. "I'm sorry for thinking decent hygiene was unreasonable."
"Yeah, well, the rest of us have bigger problems to worry about. You know, like trying to keep ourselves alive and out of some alien rat lab. But no, you just want a shower."
Maria bit her lip and gave a small shake of her head, feeling an ember of anger ignite between her ribs. Yes, this was what she'd left home for.
The freedom of the open road ahead.
The friends around her.
For the blockhead alien upfront who was really starting to piss her off.
From her periphery, she saw Kyle raise a hand. "Actually, I could go for one of those, too. If it's like, you know, a democratic thing we're doing here."
"We're not stopping, okay?" Michael barked, effectively waking Max whose head shot up at the sudden outburst. "End of discussion."
Maria turned her eyes to the window, watching as desert drifted by. It felt like they'd been driving for more than four days. Like the desert was endless. Like it wasn't ready to let them all go.
"What's wrong?" asked Max, his voice thick from sleep.
"Nothing," Michael hissed. "These two wanna stop. I told 'em no dice, we can't stop. We aren't."
Maria let out a faint scoff and looked up at him, exasperated by the authoritative attitude. She felt Max scrutinizing them all.
"I think the tight quarters are starting to get to us," he said in his usual neutral tone.
Kyle glanced in the review mirror, eyes falling to Liz who was still snuggled into Max's side. "I don't hear all of us complaining."
Max placed a hand on her shoulder, the movement seemingly unconscious. "We've been on the road four days. We should be far enough. I don't see much harm in staying one night."
At this, Michael practically blew a fuse. "You're really willing to risk that, Max?"
"I think there's a risk either way. In this situation, tempers are bound to rise. What we don't need is any of us drawing attention to ourselves."
Michael turned his glare on Maria who matched it. "That's just great. See what your little shower talk did?"
"Me?" Maria asked in disbelief, feeling as that ember sparked, like tinfoil in a microwave. "You're the one throwing the tantrum here."
"I'm the one trying to keep the FBI off our tail, or did you forget?"
"I'm five hundred miles away from Roswell, away from absolutely anything I know. How could I possibly forget, Michael?"
A flash of silver caught Maria's eye and she looked down just in time to see a lone can of soda shake before it exploded, dousing the lower parts of her jeans in spots of brown. Her mouth dropped open and she stared back at Michael, breathing in the fumes of people, old car, and cherry coke.
Across from her, Max looked from the can to Kyle. "Pull off at the next rest stop," he ordered. "We're staying at a motel."
Crappy motels, it seemed, were in danger of becoming a euphemism for her life, Maria decided, as they pulled into the lot of the Rose Inn, situated in the small town of Bisbee Arizona fifty miles later. Maria glanced around, expecting some rosebushes to support its namesake, yet the only plants around were dead brush and cacti. The two-story building wasn't even painted red, but a faded blue. The glowing purple sign over the top was missing its 's', making Rose look like Roe instead. The Roe Inn.
"Very . . . chic," Kyle muttered, when they all filed out and stood beside the van. Max had volunteered to claim the room keys and he his form could be seen clearly through the window, his back to them.
Maria stood off to the side, keeping a safe distance from Michael. No more in spite than it was in the interest of self-preservation. After their little spat, all Maria was looking for was a shower and bed. Then would she be fit for reconciliation.
A few minutes later, Max returned and came to a stop in front of the group. He leveled a look at each of them as he brandished three keys nestled in his palm. "It's safer for us to sleep in pairs. How you all want to decide"—
Before he could finish, Isabel stepped forward and snagged the keys from his hand with nothing more than an exaggerated, "Oh, please." She turned to the others. "Liz, you go with Max. Michael will go with Maria. That leaves Kyle with me. One alien per human. With"— she looked back at Liz, undoubtedly searching for the right term-"obvious exceptions."
But Maria was already shaking her head, holding her hands up in surrender. "Wait, I thought the goal was to dial down the emotion and you think sticking me with Spaceboy is the way to do that?"
She hesitated. "Well . . ."
"How about I stay with you and Michael can take Brad Arnold over here?" Maria proffered, ignoring the urge to look at her uncouth boyfriend.
"As inviting as that is," Kyle injected, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I'll have to pass."
Isabel acted as if she hadn't heard him and stared back at Maria. "You guys can't go a single night without fighting?"
Maria arched a brow at her.
Isabel shook her head, sprightly brown curls bouncing at the movement. "Right. Forgot who I was talking to. Look, that's not the point." She cut a sharp glance at each of them. "The point is Maria left her home to be here with us and, Michael, you were right to think about our safety. But if you two could find it in you to just shut up long enough to realize you have each other that would be a big help. I left my husband. My husband! And you're standing here complaining about not wanting to be around one another? Do you know how heartless that is? I envy you two." She looked over at Max and Liz. "And I envy you two. The only one I don't envy is Kyle because unlike the rest of you, he's in this alone."
"Can I just say how much this is doing for my self-confidence right now?" Kyle piped quietly.
"Both of us," Isabel forged on. "We have you guys but we are alone! So, Michael." Her gaze snapped to him and she started slowly in his direction, like a lion stalking its prey. "You are going to take Maria to your crummy room and you are going to act like an adult there. You will not fight, shout, or blow anything up. And when I see the two of you tomorrow morning, you will be together, and you will be happy in each other's company, even if I have to join the two of you at the hip and lock the both of you in the car until you learn to play nice like the sniveling, pathetic little children you are." She smacked the key down into Michael's hand. "Is that understood?"
Maria, who was feeling largely bewildered by this point, managed a small nod while Michael mumbled a grave, "Yeah, whatever."
And with that, Isabel tossed the second key to Max, turned on her heel, and tore off in the direction of her room.
Kyle didn't seem all that anxious to go and stood rooted to the spot, hands crammed in his jean pockets. He released a slow breath through pursed lips and looked from the asphalt to the rest of the group. "Anyone wanna trade?"
At Isabel's shout, Kyle jumped a little and, with one last worried glance at the others, hurried after her.
Maria watched him go with a twinge of sympathy. Isabel may not have been Stonewall Guerin, but that didn't make her any more angelic.
"We'll meet out by the front—!" Max started to call after, but Isabel shut the door before he had a chance to finish. He turned back the others. "We'll meet out front by the car. You see or hear anything, wake everyone else." He waited for a nod of acknowledgement and then him and Liz went off to their room, next door to Isabel and Kyle's.
There was an awkward pause and Maria wanted to fill it, she just didn't know what to fill it with. Oh, forget it, she thought and strode up to Michael. With a fake smile, she plucked the key from his hand and sought out their room, which, given the placement of the others, wasn't all that hard to locate.
A silver three hung sadly from their door. Its second bolt was missing, making the number hang to one side. Maria unlocked the door and stepped inside. She was hit with that very distinct stench of motel and barely glanced at the single bed as she crossed over to the bathroom, hurried in, and closed the door behind her.
Resting against it, she threaded her hands behind her neck and drew in a deep breath, resisting the urge to bang her head against the wall. In times like these, she would've fetched her bottle of Cedar oil or lavender, something to calm her down, but their whole Great Escape didn't exactly allow her a quick stop by her house. No, she'd gone with the clothes on her back, which, as she moved to the mirror and appraised herself, wasn't much; one of Michael's jackets hung loosely from her shoulders, falling over a pale chiffon top and wrinkled jeans. The hems were now spotted in soda. Her newly dyed hair was losing its luster and, without Isabelle's help, was on a quick road back to becoming blonde. Makeup appliances never made an appearance in any film involving runaways and Maria was sorry to find it was an accurate rendition. Of course, women in those films still wore makeup, which gave the misleading impression women on the run at least looked hot on the run.
Maria wasn't too pleased to find how mistaken they really were.
She shook the thought from her head and let the issue go. Way to focus on the important stuff. Like how she was alive. That the others were alive. That's what mattered. That's all that should matter.
But that didn't mean she wouldn't take advantage of whatever luxury she had available to her, and Maria stayed in the shower until the hot water ran cold.
When Maria emerged, redressed in the same clothes, she found Michael perched on the lone bed, arm behind him as he flipped through the channels on the TV. He'd turned the sound off.
"Feel better?" he asked, but his tone held a trace of mocking and Maria deigned not to respond.
To keep herself from saying anything she might later regret, Maria quickly yanked back the covers and crawled into bed. She shoved her feet inside with a little more force then necessary, resulting in an accidental kick to Michael's shin.
"Ow! Watch it, will you?" he said.
Maria had her back to him and stared at the cream colored wall, waiting for him to add something else. To put in some sort of effort to rectify their earlier spat. But Michael stayed quiet, and Maria found her annoyance boiling over into rage. "That's all you have to say?" she finally asked, keeping her gaze locked on the wall as if she were talking to it. Knowing Michael, she may as well have been.
She felt him shift in what could only be a shrug. "What do you want me to say?"
"I don't know, sorry for being a jerk, maybe?"
"Well, maybe if you weren't such a princess about things, you'd see I have nothing to be sorry for."
Maria found herself tearing off the covers and lurching upright. Her anger boiling into rage. She stares across at him. "Princess? Because of what? Because I was tired? Because I've been wearing the same clothes for almost a week and just wanted to feel a fraction more clean?"
"Hey, you agreed to it when you decided to come. What'd you think this was gonna be, some friendly road trip? We're running for our lives, here." He returned his gaze to the silent TV. "You have no one to blame for it but yourself."
Maria stared at him, feeling her lips part in surprise. "I came along because I love you," she said slowly, voice growing in volume, "because you're all part of my family. I thought you wanted me to come."
His eyes didn't move from the TV screen. "I never asked you to."
Those words seemed to pack a physical blow and Maria blinked her eyes rapidly, trying to keep her sudden tears from falling. Bantering was one thing, but this was stronger. More destructive. It was like everything he'd said before speeding off on his motorcycle just five days ago suddenly lost all credence and she was left to sort through the pieces. Maybe she'd been wrong in thinking things had changed. Maybe the deception was believing it ever would.
"Then what are you saying?" she asked, hating the quiver in her voice.
Michael turned his head to look at her. They were fighting, and he couldn't even find it in him to sit up properly. "I'm saying you had a choice. The rest of us didn't. You could go back and no one would know any better."
She blinked, feeling her nails dig into her palms. The rest of us have bigger problems to worry about. You know, like trying to keep ourselves alive and out of some alien rat lab. "Right. Because I'm not special like any of you."
Michael simpered, some of the tension in his posture dissolving. "Maria"—
But she was already out of bed, grabbing her coat she'd discarded in the bathroom. There was no way she was staying here. Not tonight. Not after this. She wished Liz were alone in her room so she could barge in and talk it out with her best friend, but there was a part of Maria that understood she couldn't go to Liz. Not about this. Because she was an outsider. However Maria looked at it, however much she fiddled with the small technicalities and twisted the bolts into some excuse, she didn't belong. She could leave, and, as Michael had said, it would make no difference. They needed Max. They needed Isabel. They needed Michael and Liz. Kyle needed them.
But who needed her?
Maria shrugged on the coat and headed for the door.
Somehow, Michael located the ability to sit up. In fact, he did a little more than that, and jumped off the bed. "Where are you going?"
Maria didn't look at him. "I'm sleeping in the van."
"Thought you were tired of the van."
"I'll manage." Somehow. It was better than being here another second.
He was over to her in two strides and his hand grabbed her forearm. His brown eyes bored into hers with a sudden, vibrant intensity. "You're not goin' anywhere. It's not safe."
"No, it's not safe for you," she snapped. "Isn't that what you just finished telling me? That the people after you aren't interested in humans?" She pulled open the door.
Michael used his other hand to slam it back shut. "No," he agreed. "They aren't. But that doesn't mean those shooters back there can't use you to get to the rest of us."
"So I'm just a liability then."
Maria flinched and drew back, every thought she had dispersing until she was left in a silence. She stared at him through wide eyes as he seemed to register what he'd just said. "No," he quickly amended. "I mean, you are. But that didn't come out right"—
She held up a hand, cutting him off. "Save it, Michael. Just . . . save it." She ripped her arm from his and pulled open the door again, using her foot as a wedge so he couldn't slam it a second time.
"Maria, stop. Look, you can be pissed at me all you want, but that doesn't make it any safer."
"Fine, then I'll be lookout," she said bitterly. "It's probably better to have someone standing guard, right?"
The muscles in his jaw feathered, and Maria was marginally satisfied to know she wasn't the only one getting upset.
"Maria, this isn't debatable. If something is out there"—
"Then you'll be the first to know."
Michael shook his head, brown hair slapping back and forth. "No. No, you're not doing this."
She arched her eyebrows at him, ignoring the urge to scoff. "Oh, I don't take orders from you, Pal. Never have. And your ego is even bigger than your home planet if you think I'm gonna start now." And on that note, she stormed out. Now she really wished she'd brought some Cider oil. She could go for a few drops. Or a barrel of the stuff.
She heard Michael's growl coming from behind her, his presence seeming to singe the very air around her. "Maria, if you don't get back here"—
"You'll what?" she challenged, whirling back to face him. "You've basically just told me in your warped Michael way that I don't belong here, that you didn't want me here to begin with, and that I'm a danger to all of you to keep around. Unlike Kyle, I'm not even a candidate for your little Martian party because I'm just human. A boring, ordinary human that Max never healed. But there just so happens to be one thing I can do, one small thing, and that's to stand guard."
She resumed her walk back to the van.
Footsteps sounded behind her, but the concept of Michael chasing her at this time had long since lost its appeal.
"Is this your way of trying to get me to talk about relationship stuff again?" he demanded angrily. "About what I said before graduation? You want us to share our feelings?"
Maria took a shaky breath, very aware of her hands quaking at her sides. "You know, for once, you've actually said enough."
Then she hopped into the van and slammed the door shut before he could form any response.
Knowing Michael Guerin, he had none to give.