dedication: to everyone who commented. yo holla.
notes: does this make sense? no. do i care? also no. it will make less sense if you haven't read once more with feeling, so you should probably go do that.
notes2: alesund — sun kil moon.
PART II of ONCE MORE WITH FEELING
title: into the endless night
summary: Alex and Jonas, stumbling through the aftermath. — Alex/Jonas.
Evening is pale lilac.
It's one of those nights where nothing feels real, where everything is just the right side of off-kilter to set her teeth on edge. Golden light spills out of the windows like expensive champagne and Alex draws her nails along the skin of her wrist. Ren's babble winds through Clarissa's snarking beneath Michael's alcohol-smooth laugh, the clash and clang sharp as a looped feedback squeal. All the stars have gone out and it's too loud inside, too warm, too close, so she sits outside on the front stoop with her knees up to her chest and her face to her thighs while she tries to figure out how to breathe again.
(It's not a haunted house, but some days it feels like it.)
You should be used to this by now, something in the back of her head says.
And yeah, maybe she should be. Maybe she should be used to feeling like darkness coats her skin, maybe she should be used to feeling like she's outside of reality, maybe she should be used to not being okay. The ghosts used to sit on her shoulders and whisper soft sweet nothings to her, dripping venom and vitriol into her system, a slow-acting poison, and even though they're gone now they're not really gone, because—
She is sitting out here alone.
Ghosts, one. Alex, zero.
It's always like that, though. You win once, and then you're playing Hangman on a chalkboard without chalk, running blind through the rain. There's no winning that game, and Alex should really have learned her lesson by now.
But she hasn't, not really, so instead she sits out on the porch alone while her friends laugh from inside. And it's good, it's okay, Alex is only a line of noise out of static, anyway. She can count on one hand the number of times she hasn't disappeared from a party in the last six months. People would worry, if they knew there was anything to worry about.
Jonas usually finds her before she gets into any trouble. It's not a terrible thing.
The porch creaks beneath her, splintery old wood just in the beginning stages of rotting away groaning beneath the weight of a second person. For a minute the noise roars, sound pouring out of the open door. Alex gets halfway through a flinch, and then it stops. Quiet, again.
"I figured you'd be out here," comes Jonas's voice. "You want company?"
She hasn't decided, yet.
Jonas waits by the door, doesn't move at all. He's always been good about that, about waiting for verbal confirmation of whether she wants something to happen or not. Sometimes, Alex thinks she might like it if he sat down beside her without asking, but the fact that he always makes a point to ask makes him one of the most stable people she knows.
And making out on the dock under the sun and the mist is one thing, but things change after the sun goes down. Right now, Alex isn't the same person she was yesterday morning, and she's not sure if she wants to inflict herself on people right now, even if those people are just Jonas in ratty jeans.
She weighs it for a while.
And all that while, Jonas waits.
A breeze shivers its way down her collar. For a summer night, it's pretty cold; gooseflesh breaks out all over her arms. Alex tips her head and like, that's as good as it's gonna get.
The porch creaks beneath his weight, because yeah, he gets it.
He stays standing, though. Alex thinks that sometimes, Jonas knows her better than she knows herself.
"Let's go somewhere," he says.
"What?" Alex squints up at him. He's in silhouette, standing in the warped backglow of the glass doorway with his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. His face is swallowed in shadow, only shifting lights for eyes. That's not ominous or anything. "Go where?"
"I dunno. Somewhere," he shrugs, jerks his head at his truck, parked on the side of the road. The headlights flick on and off, the quiet click of locks unlocking made visual.
"I don't wanna be here right now."
He doesn't say you look like you're about to tear your skin off to get away from yourself, but that's what he means. Alex can hear it in the hanging in the air around his shoulders, in the space between seconds. There and not. Ghosts of themselves. Always ghosts.
Alex unfolds from the porch, all of her bones creaking. She feels so old. This place is in her bones, sunk inside of her. She carries it like she carries the empty plot of land where Michael's grave used to be, and not even a hundred parties can take that away. She carries it like she carries Edwards Islands, like she carries Maggie and Anna, like she carries the blank space between resets. She carries it like she carries the ghosts.
"What if I don't want to come back?" she asks him. The night colours up around them black and rotted, and it's not the only one. She hasn't slept in days. Steady, Alex, steady. "What if I want to keep going?"
"Okay," Jonas says. "We keep going. You're gonna have to learn to drive, though, I've gotta sleep sometimes."
"I know how to drive," Alex says, which is a lie, she is a lying liar who lies, she has no idea how to drive whatsoever. It's not that she's scared of flying metallic vehicular death, but yeah, okay, she's sort of scared of flying metallic vehicular death. She's been close to the end enough times to not want to go there.
(Four people drowned at Cape Meares. The red pulsing light from the headlamps in a locked car. And Jason sounds a lot like Jonas. Jason sounds way too much like Jonas. God, there's just no leaving the ghosts behind, is there.)
"Stick," clarifies Jonas, grinning. He's not privy to the wheels Alex's mind are turning. "You have to learn to drive stick."
"You're the worst," Alex manages, and she's unsteady as she stands but she's always unsteady, so what the fuck ever, right. The night slips further into itself, turned the colour of a bruise blooming violet-dark above them and Alex wraps her arms around herself like a shield. "I mean—yeah, okay. I can drive stick. I can totally drive stick!"
"Yeah, you can," Jonas says. He drapes an arm over her shoulders, and Alex goes kind of grudging until the seams of their jeans brush. Gathered close like this, it only takes a minute for all of her muscles to begin to unknot. His thumb draws a line along her collarbone.
Alex doesn't have the heart to push him away. He's warm. "I'm not twenty yet."
"Yeah," Jonas says. "But I am."
She squints up at him again. "I will push you off the dock, do not test me."
"Already tried that, Als, it didn't go over awesome," and they both remember the weathered-silver wood, the sun-shot fading mist, the island in the distance lurking like a hungry thing. A distant chill runs over them, a ripple of time and loss and forgiveness. It's so quiet these days.
"Yeah, well," Alex says. The crook of his body is an okay place to be, and yeah, things are still—they're still delicate, sometimes, still difficult and too big and she should be over it! She knows she should be over it, okay, she knows. But that's not the way things work, that's not the way Alex works, that's not the way the ghosts work. Worked. Past-tense. They don't work at all, anymore, do they.
Alex takes a shuddery breath in. Alex lets a shuddery breath out.
"You gonna be okay?" Jonas asks the top of her head.
"I dunno. You really wanna run away with me?" Alex shoots right back at him.
"Yeah," Jonas says, like it's easy. For him, maybe it is. All of his muscles go lax, this weird little smile crooking up the corner of his mouth. "So. Wanna go?"
"God," Alex sighs. "More than anything."
And so they do.
Jonas drives too fast, flying down the highway towards the state line like the ghosts have come back grasping from the gates of hell (but they don't and they haven't, please god say they haven't), until there's nothing but the motion-blur outside the window, the summer-new leaves reduced to dark impressions along the side of the road. Alex dozes with her head against the window.
Michael's jacket is a shitty pillow but Alex couldn't bear to leave home without it. The radio is left untouched in the back of her underwear drawer wrapped in Maggie's stories and Anna's letters, and she very carefully didn't look at them before they booked it out of town. Her parents had been watching TV. They didn't hear her leave.
(There are some things that she can't let go of, and maybe that's okay. Healthy? That's a different question, but no one's here here to tell her that her coping methods are going to get her killed, so whatever. She's only running away for a little while. It'll be fine. It always is.)
The highways are deserted, this late at night. The occasional passing vehicle's headlamps are the only light, washing passively over their faces, bright then not. They're far enough away from the city already that the light pollution's faded, and the galaxy sprawls out above them, a diamond-covered blanket soaked in ink.
Inside, the truck is very quiet.
Alex doesn't sing anymore, but that's alright. No one else does, either.
And she doesn't reach for the knob of the radio, because that's still impossible. It feels like it's always going to be impossible, because sound is waves and waves are drowning and drowning is the ghosts underneath a hundred million tonnes of water.
It's dumb, Alex knows that.
But associations are hard to shake off, especially when you've played the game so many times that you don't freak at the jumpscares anymore. She doesn't have enough fingers to count out all the ways that's fucked up.
So instead she draws on the window and thinks about Jonas, about the toothpaste cowlick on the back of his head, the weird difficult way he looks at the world with his jaw up and out like he's daring it to come at him. They're all problem kids, really, but Jonas is quiet about it; it's the cigarette and the leather and the beanie, the wide shoulders and the habitual background lurking thing he does.
It's like this: Ren has his drugs and Clarissa has venom glands and Nona visits the graveyard like she can't stop. Michael dreams about running after Clarissa, and Alex dreams about running until she can't run anymore. Jonas stands in the background, a break in the river, a stone in the storm, ready to go whichever direction Alex picks.
That's pretty fucked up, too, now that she thinks about it.
"I'm sorry," Alex says.
"I just am," she tells him. A car goes whooshing by, and his face is lit up for a split-second. His eyes are very green. Alex's stomach twists, pain or pleasure or both or maybe neither, maybe something else entirely like want or regret or self-loathing. It's a lot of things, maybe. Emotions are like that. Sometimes, they're too big for names.
"Don't be," Jonas says. The road curves, a ribbon of grey silk disappearing into the gloom, and the steering wheel curves with it. "Nothing to be sorry for."
There is, though.
There are always things to be sorry for. Alex turns back to the window, and wonders if she'll ever be able to listen to the radio ever again.
Lonely hours slip by in the silence, and they drive and drive and drive. They drive and Alex counts the lines in the corduroy, the dust motes in the passenger cup holder, the cigarette butts in the ash tray. They drive until Alex is nearly asleep, or maybe is asleep, until—
it's raining. your hair sticks to your face, to your lips tinged blue. there's water dripping down your neck, down his neck, your starboy laughing into the force of the storm with his jacket up against the wind to try to keep you dry. edwards island's main street is drowning, rain a whole symphony in the gutters, and you duck down between two close-spaced buildings with your palms wound into his shirt to drag him somewhere a little more dry. alex he says, alex we're already soaked what are you doing, and you turn and his collarbone is right there. against his skin you say shhh don't make a sound and it's so close, so warm, he's laughing again and
—moonlight limes the horizon, and then Jonas flicks his blinker on.
"I'm hungry," he says into the silence between them. Alex blinks into wakefulness. Weird dreams. There's salt on her lips.
She doesn't question it.
But she does question his choice in rest stops.
"Are you serious right now," Alex says when they pull off onto the tarmac of a little roadside turnout diner, and it's not a question. The Last Dance proclaims itself in bright neon red-violet, bulbous incandescents flickering sepia gold, a cheerful pink sign in the window glowing OPEN. It's one of those disappearing heart-of-the-Americana-drain places, liminal simply because it's already halfway gone. Everything smells like just-baked apple pie and that peculiar not-quite-smell-not-quite-taste of diesel and dreams that infuses all roadside diners. The lights are on inside.
But the shadows stretch long, and Alex thinks that if she had her radio, it would be singing all kinds of death songs.
Wet pavement shines, but it hasn't rained in days except inside of Alex's head. Come play with us, soldier, she hears, all soup-can jingles on the breeze. There are ghostlights blinking in the distance. If there was a piano, it would be playing itself.
Holy man, this place is haunted as shit.
"Coffee," says Jonas. The smeary lines beneath his eyes are enough to have her reaching across the console for the keys. He can't drive like that, it's not safe, and she doesn't want to die tonight.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Alex asks over the clink of metal, even though it's a stupid question. She knows why, and when he looks at her in the dark with eyes like holes in the world, she wishes she'd never asked. It's easy to ignore the puddles in the cracks in the ashphalt. "You're exhausted, Jonas, jesus."
"You wanted to go," he tells her.
And that's just—that's just Jonas, isn't it. Of course, he hadn't stopped because he thought she wouldn't want to; she'd said as much before they left, hadn't she? Alex hates herself. She runs a hand through her hair, catching on tangles in straw.
(She still needs a dye job. She always needs a dye job.)
"Yeah," Alex says. It punches out of her, such a hurting thing. "I guess I did."
"So," Jonas says, like he doesn't blame her for it, like he could never blame her for it. It twists all of her insides into knots. "Coffee?"
"Coffee," she says, because, man, why not?
Fifteen minutes later, Alex is rethinking that assessment. Jonas orders pancakes, and when the waitress brings them over, he pushes them right across the linoleum table without a word. A white plate, the pancakes are golden and beautiful, soaked in whipped cream, dripping buttery syrup. There is a strawberry.
"Are you serious right now," she says again.
"Eat your pancakes," Jonas advises, slouching back against the booth's wall-corner, eyes closed. Leather squeaks against leather as he shifts. The mug of coffee sitting between them steams thinly, little pale tendril like ghost hands reaching up towards the ceiling. Alex watches it for a minute without saying anything, chewing on broken glass words, shatter-shard and metal red in her mouth. She can still hear the Morse beeping through the static: still here, cannot move, very cold, love—.
"We are going to get murdered," she mutters at last, which, probably. Across the diner, the tired-eyed waitress raises an eyebrow like she heard it, which, also probably. It's not a big place, this diner, and the shadows are very hungry.
"Pancakes," Jonas says again. His eyes are still closed, the jerk. Who even looks like that after a night of driving? Who sits like the whole universe is an opportunity? It's not fair, and even more so because of the perspiration running down the side of Alex's glass. Rain, salt, oceans. Grief in all its forms. "Eat them."
"Death first," Alex stabs viciously at her plate.
"Been there, done that," Jonas kind of grins out of the corner of his mouth. It makes his lip pull up right where he normally sticks his cigarette, and the worst thing is that he's not wrong. It would be so much easier if he was. It would be so much easier if she had no idea what he looks like when he laughs.
Because dying isn't permanent when time is just a construct.
Alex eats the pancakes.
(The dream lingers for a long time. Hours later, she can still taste the rain.)
"So is this Tour de Haunted America, or are you punking me?" Alex asks, after Jonas has paid and they're strapped back into the truck. The tips of her fingers feel like ice; it's not a nice feeling, all the worse for being one that she knows. The Kanaloa ghosts were always cold, too—every time they gave Jonas or Clarissa or anyone else back, the body would spend fifteen minutes shivering the frost in their souls away—so it stands to reason that every other ghost would be, too.
"What makes you think it was haunted?" Jonas asks levelly. The truck hums beneath them, roadsong murmuring up through the faded corduroy seats and into Alex's bones. It's a warming thing. She tucks her freezing fingers underneath her thighs.
"Really?" Alex raises a skeptical brow. God, he's the worst, she can't believe she likes him. If he was wearing his beanie, she would pull it down over his eyes. Then they'd crash and die and become ghosts themselves, so maybe not. "We're gonna go there right now?"
"We're always going there, Als," says Jonas.
Well, they're always going somewhere.
Alex turns her face back to the window, inhales deeply and holds the air in her lungs until the beat of her heart slows to something a little more manageable. Her reflection looks back, all big dark eyes, brown skin, bleached-out bangs.
She's had other reflections, but this is the one that she knows the best.
Ang god knows, she owes him this much.
"I could feel it," Alex says, low. "It was like, shadows? I dunno, I can't even explain it."
"Try," says Jonas.
Alex sighs. Her breath fogs the window, and yeah, it was kind of like that, kind of not. All she has is impressions: merry red lanterns to lead the way, devoured suns inside the great gaping maw of the universe, the sharp jut of a collarbone in the rain, Clarissa's red curl of a smirk falling backwards out of a window. Hauntings feel like that, she thinks, that same edge of unreality.
Like peeling back flesh from bones.
"Do you remember when Clarissa died?" she asks the dashboard.
"Which time?" he asks, so casual.
Well, that's dark. "All of them."
"Yeah, I remember."
"It's like that," Alex says, takes a breath. This is still difficult to talk about, but at least he sort of gets it. At least he won't look at her like she's something unfixable. "Like—layers. We watched her fall, what? A hundred times? A thousand times? It always turned out the same, and then they stacked—"
"Memories on top of memories," Jonas nods. "Déjà vu."
"That's French for already seen, you know that, right?"
"Alex," Jonas stresses her name. He doesn't really need to say anything else.
"Okay, okay, be grumpy," she says airily, and when Jonas's mouth twitches like he's going to protest, Alex reaches over to poke him in the side just to watch him squirm. That it keeps him from interrupting her is secondary, but also appreciated. "Anyway, it's that. Feels kinda… heavy. Like there's too many people, but not enough space."
Jonas catches her wrist. With his thumb against her pulse, for a minute they both just sit there and count the beating of her heart. One-two, one-two. He tethers her to the real world, does Jonas, anchors Alex back in her body when she can't figure out how to do it for herself. His hands are just on the other side of too-warm, callused all over and nearly uncomfortably rough. His dad had him mowing lawns all summer, and the mower is an old one, made of splintery wood. She doesn't know why she thinks of it, because it's something so mundane.
But for the first time in a long time, Alex doesn't feel like she wants to climb outside of her skin, so she just goes with it.
"Jesus, you're freezing," Jonas says, shaking his head. "Put your jacket on."
Michael's jacket, she wants to say. Michael's jacket.
But there's no way to say that without making it weird, even though Jonas probably won't be too judgy about it. It's not like he's the pinnacle of stable mental health, either; his mom's still dead.
(Sometimes Alex wonders if he begrudges her this: she brought Michael back because she couldn't stand not to bring him back, because broken dishes and broken hearts aren't the same thing, because she had the opportunity to erase the cataclysm that destroyed her whole life and he didn't. Sometimes she wonders if Jonas would do the same, if he had the choice. Sometimes she wonders why he didn't get the chance, but that never gets very far because it always ends up making her grit her teeth. God, she wishes so many things.)
Alex puts the jacket on.
Jonas turns the key in the ignition.
Into the endless night, they go.
They're four hours outside Camena's limits, far past where the city meets the sea, on a long empty stretch of stretch of road that hasn't seen another soul in probably a hundred years. It's a forgotten space, time-out-of-time, and that's exactly what Alex wants. There are some things that shouldn't be said in daylight places.
(Or when operating flying vehicular death traps, but that is another story entirely.)
"Hey," Alex says, "can we stop here?"
Jonas looks at her out of the corner of his eye like he's been doing all night, half measure and half respect and all exasperated, cracked-out affection. But it's not even a question. She can feel his foot heavy on the brake as the truck shudders, slows. Stops.
The night air is cold and wet with saltspray, the crash of the ocean against the rocks. But it's quiet, it's so quiet, there might be no one alive for a hundred miles. Civilization could end and neither of them would ever know, and it wouldn't be a terrible thing.
Alex climbs out of the truck without a word.
(Jonas follows her because Jonas always follows her. What else is there?)
After the island, they'd done this a lot—snuck out during one of Michael's parties to go driving out into the middle of nowhere, where no one knew their names. Not this far away from home, but something like it. In the back of the truck bed there are blankets in a box, half a bed already made just waiting to be laid out.
"Naptime?" Jonas blinks at her. "Seriously?"
"Naptime is great, don't front," Alex says. She yanks the blankets out of their coffin, thick handspun wool that she'd stolen out of her parents' house six months ago and hadn't ever given back. Her mom had looked at her, once, with ancient eyes.
But she hadn't asked about it, and Alex had no answers for her. Has no answers, for anyone.
Alex looks over her shoulder, out through the tangle of her hair around her face. "Are you coming?"
"Yeah, okay," says Jonas.
The truckbed dips beneath his weight, and they arrange themselves in the messy nest that she'd made. It's not elegant. It's not pretty. It's two kids trying to figure to figure out who they are, even though they have no idea who they are, not really. A boy and a girl. A girl and a ghost. A ghost and a shadow. the aftermath of a supernova, like nothing left. Like rain on lips from forgotten dreams, or forgotten lives. Alex feels scraped raw, but Jonas is a garbage snowman and she's a hole in the universe, and it's—it's okay. Maybe. A little bit.
Because then they're just laying there, and it's quiet, and it's good. Comfortable. Warm. And safe, and maybe that's the most important part. There's a screaming two inches of space between his shoulders and hers, and it's still too much.
Alex can feel the words welling up in her throat, tight and hot and laden with heartache.
"I can't swim," she whispers into the empty black dome of the sky.
"…Huh?" says Jonas.
"It's why—I mean, Michael wanted to teach me, you know? The lake, that's why we were—" and she stops, breaks, washes ashore. It heaves in her chest, wretched, such a howling grief. She can still see his hand reaching for her through the water, shimmering sun-speckled blue-gold. It's been a hundred days, or maybe a hundred years, and it still gives her nightmares. "That's why. The whole thing. 'Cause I can't freakin' swim."
"Huh," he says again. "Hey, move your head."
"Just do it," Jonas says.
Alex moves her head.
When they settle again, he's somehow managed to get his bicep beneath her neck, arranged her close enough that they're touching from hip to shoulder. Alex blinks upwards, thinks about putting her cheek against his arm where his shirt's ridden up, skin to skin. His body is right here, and she could. She could.
"Shouldn't you be mad or something?" Alex asks the sky, instead.
"Shit happens," Jonas says. His muscles ripple like he wants to shrug but he also doesn't want to dislodge her head from his arm, so there's that.
"Okay, I'm sorry, but that's like, the worst excuse ever, man. And that's including the ghosts' whole let us have your bodies so we can pretend to be alive again thing," Alex says. "Shit happens. Seriously?"
"Shit does happen," Jonas says mildly, but she can hear the grin in his voice.
"Even when your brother drowns and it's your fault?"
"It wasn't your fault," he tells her, painfully gentle. "You came down after me, remember? If it was anyone's fuck-up, it was mine."
"You didn't fuck up," Alex murmurs, shaking her head back and forth like a crazy person. There's winding panic in her throat like there always is when she thinks of the lake; lake, water, rain in the gutters, drowned and drowning, a collarbone and a kiss. "If Mike hadn't—if I hadn't—if he'd just listened—"
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda," Jonas says into her hair. He's kind of mashed his face against her skull, speaking low and soft to calm them both down. "Als, breathe."
Right, breathing. That's like, a thing.
Alex gulps down air, gulps air, gulps.
"In to the count of seven, out to the count of eleven," Jonas says placidly. "C'mon, breathe with me."
It starts in the fingers, the uncontrollable tremble. Then it's the shrinking of the world, the black around the edges of the vision, the sudden saltwater sloshing behind the eyes, the breathe alex breathe breathe breathe you gotta breathe shit will you please breathe—
(She never used to be like this.)
"Crap," Alex says, a long time later. She sounds like she's been gargling soda and salt. "Sorry."
"Not something to apologize about," Jonas says, and his eyes go hard when Alex opens her mouth to protest. There's a line of pale pink on the horizon; it's an hour to sunrise, maybe two, and it's getting easier to see. "Als, don't apologize. Not for this. Not ever."
"I got snot on your shirt."
"Yeah well," he shrugs. "I've had worse things than snot on my shirt."
And it's that phrase, ghost goop, that breaks whatever was left of Alex's composure. She's exhausted, anxiety draining away, and Jonas is a dumb idiot who says things like ghost goop. Who even says that?
Alex hides her face in his side, and she laughs until she can't breathe. It's catching, too, because then Jonas is laughing, and then they're both laughing, like a pair of power-mad maniac supervillans. Two kids here at the end of the world before it's eaten into the sea, laughing and laughing and laughing.
"God," Alex says, the last bubbles of mirth easing the words. "Ghost goop."
"Ghost goop," Jonas grins. "Feeling better?"
"A little," slips out of her, not quite a murmur but close. The exhaustion leaks out of her, a loose-faucet of tiredness. "Let's never do that again, okay, that sucked."
"You wanna sleep? We can," he tells her.
The truck-bed blanket nest is perfect for curling up and sleeping off an anxiety attack, but Alex mostly just wants to stay where she is. If she sleeps, she'll dream. There's no telling where that will go, especially not after the night they've had. Edwards Island plus a panic attack plus a haunted diner multiplied by the heady attraction of Jonas' skin equals nightmares, probably. "The sun's almost up. Is there even, like, a point?"
"There's always a point to sleep, Als."
"Pfft, whatever man, says you."
"Says every bad decision I haven't made, because I get enough sleep, unlike some people," Jonas says, and actually has the gall to stick his nose in the air like he's not also rocking the insomniac eye-luggage.
"Oh my god, there is not one single bad decision you haven't made," she says.
"Name it," Alex grins at him with all her teeth. She has the emotional range of a teaspoon. "I dare you."
"Well, I mean. There's this," he says, waves a hand to indicate the… everything around them. The night sky turning light along the edges of the world, the moon's pale face a luminous disc beginning to wither in the coming dawn; this dark and quiet place they've found themselves in, safe and warm, is far away from the ghosts they carry.
"Okay, no, this was a terrible decision, Jonas. Like, no thought went into this decision. I said I wanted to run away, and you just, like, went with it so don't even front," says Alex, but then she's kind of smiling, so soft it's almost not there. "Thanks, though."
"Getting me outta there," she murmurs, turns her face into the crook of his shoulder. Something hot and tight had throbbed in Alex's chest all day, an ugly red beat that abated only with miles passing beneath them. Trapped in her parents' house, trapped in her own head, Alex hadn't been able to escape the cyclical nature of the thought patterns but, well—
Jonas gets it, which doesn't surprise Alex at all.
I'd do it again, he doesn't say, just shifts enough that he can press his chin to the top her head, and they stay like that for a long time because it's easy, it's so easy to just lay here and breathe together. There are no obligations, just silence and stardust the glow of far-off silvershot nebulae.
"What's a bad decision, then?" Alex asks, very quietly, what feels like an aeon later.
For a whole endless breath, Jonas is perfectly still.
It's a blur of movement, shadow-dark skittering smearing into her head going thud against the truck bed, into knees and elbows digging in, into the rush of blood beneath skin and heat and then—
Jonas hovers above her, looking down.
"What are you doing," Alex says, the echoes of a long-dead conversation soft like new leaves in her mouth. His chest is solid beneath her hands, beneath his shirt, the bones of him all elegant lines straining around her. He keeps her safe like that, legs tangled, arms a cage. She could leave if she wanted to but she doesn't want to. Alex wants—she just wants.
"Making a bad decision," Jonas says. He brushes her washed-out hair out of her face, and she catches a flash of his white fingers. Alex tilts her chin just enough that his knuckles graze her cheekbone. "Hey, we're not dead yet."
"I know we're not," she says. "How is this a bad decision?"
"You just had a freak out, Als, I wouldn't say it's great."
"I dunno, it could be worse. We could totally be possessed," she pauses to stare him up and down. There's a challenge hidden in the corner of Jonas' mouth like a drift of cigarette smoke on a cloudy day, and she raises her eyebrows at him. He doesn't get to be the only one that dares the world to come at him, does he; Alex is just as bad. "Are you going to kiss me, or what?"
(They're both going to eat it someday. Probably they already have.)
"If you want me to," Jonas says.
"I do," Alex says, raw and honest with it. Sink-spill, ghost-riders, starboys with their empty eyes and their canvas skin, she wants. She just wants. "I do."
"Cool," he says, voice hoarse, and he's close enough now to count the flecks of hazel-grey in his eyes, close enough now that their noses bump. There's nothing sexy about it. She doesn't know why it's endearing. "Cool."
When Jonas kisses her, Alex keeps her eyes open.
They both deserve to remember this, after all.
"D'you think Maggie and Anna are… you know, together?"
"They're okay, Als."
"Okay isn't the same as together," Alex murmurs. They've migrated inside, the chill of the pre-dawn air sending them skittering back into the truck. She pulls her knees up to her chest, Michael's jacket tucked between her shoulder and the window. It's a bright spot of colour in the grey morning light, a bloom of crimson, satin-soft.
"Better than not okay, though," Jonas yawns. There are little purple violets of exhaustion pressed underneath his eyes, blossoming night flowers that can't be smeared away, no matter how much Alex would like to.
They're going to crash, pretty soon, the both of them.
"Mm, I guess," she says, dropping her head back against the window. "But I mean—they're dead."
(Dead like his mom, dead like her brother, dead like the ghosts.)
Jonas looks at her. His eyes are soft. "I know what you mean, Als."
And Alex thinks about Michael and Clarissa, and the future, about time's strange and arbitrary rules on how she lives through it. She thinks about Ren and Nona, off-again this month, and about school and leaving and all the things that come after graduation. College, or travel, or… whatever the heck it is that teenagers do to become adults, whatever a person does to figure themselves out.
She thinks about the fact that in graveyards, she can feel the press of the dead like butterfly wings, whispering softly in her ears. She thinks about the fact that she knows what a final goodbye sounds like, that she knows the taste of time, that she knows the feel of sand slipping through fingers. People look at her like she's crazy, sometimes. Even Michael does it, and that hurts the worst.
Alex thinks about the fact that she still keeps that stupid radio.
"I don't think I'm ever gonna be normal," she says. Her hair falls into her eyes, and she shrinks behind it 'til all she sees is teal-turning-blonde, nothing but a sunlit sea. Alex thinks of rainwater down a window, streams converging, one thing becoming another becoming another becoming another, and doesn't know how to explain.
"The hell is normal, anyway," Jonas says. He rolls down the window and there's a spark, a tiny flame alive then dead; he exhales opaque smoke.
"That's going to kill you," Alex says, but this is an old argument, and nearly fond for it.
"Everything's killing me. Might as well enjoy it," Jonas grins at her around the cigarette, startlingly white, startlingly charming. He turns sober and quiet when he looks at her, though, eyes going soft. "Normal's overrated, Als."
"No, I mean—" and Alex breaks off, chewing on the words, trying to pick the right ones for what she feels. "It's like, Clarissa's going to Boston, right? And Nona got that scholarship to Juilliard, and Ren's aiming for UCLA, and it's like, it's like everyone's doing the whole real life thing. But I can hardly sleep, because I can still—"
"I can still hear them. Not the Kanaloa them, they're gone, that's why I asked, but like… dead things in general. Graveyards suck for real, man."
"Is that how…?"
"The diner?" Alex thinks about it. There were other things, too, of course—the conspicuous lack of other patrons with solid food, for one, and the way that even the waitress was a paper-thin imitation—but mostly it was that cold trickle down her spine. "Yeah, that's how."
"…Why didn't you tell me?" Jonas asks. Exhales smoke, again, and drops the cigarette into the ash tray. It's the only one there.
"I did tell you, like, six hours ago."
"Why didn't you tell me before this?"
"What would I have said? Hey, by the way, I see dead people? Yeah, no thanks," Alex shakes her head. As it is, her parents have been quietly taking her aside and asking if things are alright—she doesn't need them worrying that their daughter's gone off the deep end and sending her to some correctional facility up in Alaska, which is totally not nightmare fuel or anything. As though she doesn't have enough nightmare fuel as it is. Jesus.
"I mean, you could've."
"Oh, shut up," Alex says, lips twitching as she reaches over to shove him.
Jonas catches her hands. He's always doing that. It would be annoying if Alex didn't know that he has a thing about touch: who's allowed to touch him, who he's allowed to touch. "I'm gonna have bruises, stop your violence."
"You like my violence!"
Jonas doesn't deny that, which, um, okay. He looks at her and says, "I like you."
Alex turns red to the tips of her ears.
"Are you blushing?" Jonas stares at her. "Christ, you're blushing, that's adorable—"
"Shush, I'm tryna be serious here! We made a deal, okay," Alex blows all the breath out of her lungs, forcing the flush away. Now is not really the time to turn into some eighteenth-century maid, swooning over a compliment from a stableboy. That's ridiculous. Alex is an adult or something. "Me and the ghosts. I promised that I wouldn't forget, no matter what. I can't—it's not a promise I can break."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I dunno," she shrugs. "Maybe I'll go chase ghost stories. Maybe they'll think it's funny."
"I thought we established that annoying dead people is a quick way to get killed," Jonas says flatly.
"Yeah, well," Alex says. A slow, creeping smile splits her face, bloodied in the wash of the rising sun. "We also established that I don't get on super-awesome with staying dead, right? I'm basically the perfect person that way."
"You're going to die," he says, dropping his head back against the headrest to stare at the ceiling, wonder-eyed and dazed like he can't believe the words coming out of his mouth. "I'm coming with you, or you're going to die."
"I'm not going to die. You don't have to come."
"Kinda do, though."
"No, you actually don't—"
"Alex," Jonas says. Her name passes his lips simple and low and honest. It sends a shiver down her spine. "I want to."
"Oh," she says. "Really?"
"I'm here right now," Jonas says, staring straight ahead. He puts the keys in the ignition, and the truck thrums to life. "Aren't I?"
Alex looks at his profile for a long, long time. The broken ridge of his nose, the dark bruises beneath his eyes, the line of his jaw. She knows his face, and she knows when it's lying.
It's not lying, right now.
"Yeah," she says. "I guess you are."
Along the edge of the universe, the sun is coming up gold, glinting diamonds across the ocean. There's an island out there, dotted with the leftover remains from a different ghost camp, a different girl who broke the world, different travelers, different stories. Jonas lets the truck sit idle beneath them, palm loose around the gear shift. His knuckles are a curvature, bone and tissue, marrow and blood.
Alex links their fingers like a prayer.
In the sunrise over the water, she can see for miles, miles, miles.