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Chapter 15: After

It takes four deaths for an incident to be considered a “mass shooting.” The police counted three dead, two mildly injured, and one… Well, one hanging in the balance.

I’m sitting in Elizabeth’s kitchen with a mug of tea, watching the news, of all things, replaying those facts over and over in my head.

If no one’s reporting on a mass shooting in Boring, that’s a good sign, right?

Terry’s luggage stands in the living room, next to the door, ready to go with me when I go back to his place. He told me he wouldn’t need it, but that was a day and a half ago. I haven’t heard a thing since then. I wonder what he’s been wearing.

I sigh and pull his keys out of my pocket, running my fingers over them to reassure myself.

I’ve never been good with silence.

A knock resounds on the door.

My eyes slide over to the clock. It’s 10:40 PM on a Sunday night, and everyone who lives here has work tomorrow. Who the heck…?

I put my tea down and walk quietly to the door, keeping to one side of the hallway—you can’t blame a girl for being paranoid and jumpy after the weekend I’ve had. I slip in front of the door and look through the peephole. Terry stands on the front porch, hands in his pockets, flannel once again in place…

I undo the locks and throw the door open.

He barely gets a chance to offer me a half-hearted smile before I fling my arms around his neck and bury my face in his chest.

“I’ve been so worried,” I tell him.

He doesn’t say anything, just wraps his arms around my waist and nuzzles my hair.

“What are you doing here?” I ask.

“I needed to see you.”

Something’s wrong. His voice isn’t right. It’s hoarse and raspy, like he’s been screaming all day. I step back, and that’s when I really look at him. His hair’s a mess. The bags under his eyes make him look like he hasn’t slept in a week, and the red in them… How did they get so bloodshot?

“No…” I whisper.

He closes his eyes and lets his head fall forward in—assent? Defeat? It doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing right now.

Whoever thought sleepy little Boring, Oregon would be the place of a mass shooting?

“No!” I shout, whirling and slamming my fist against the house. I cling to it, all the strength suddenly gone out of me—because it doesn’t matter how strong I am, it’s all useless and destructive and there’s nothing I can do, again.

I cling to the wall, trying to get my breathing under control. When I do, I turn and take his hand.

“I don’t know what to do,” I tell him, leading him through the entryway and into the house. I pause to close the door behind us and redo the locks. Then take his hand again. “It’s killing me, because I’ve been through this before, and I know there’s nothing to be done, but… let’s… let’s just start with tea? Would that help?”

He gives me that same pathetic nod again, and I let go of his hand to bustle about the kitchen—pulling down my loose leaf, setting the kettle to boil, even frivolous things like slicing a god damn lemon. He doesn’t even take lemon with his tea, does he? Have we tried that for him?

My hands are just desperate to do something, anything to help.

I sigh and put down the knife. “Terry, what can I do?”

“Nothing.”

I turn to look at him. He’s tucked into the corner of the room where the counter meets the wall. He wears a wilted version of his smile, like he’s trying to convince me he’s okay but can’t overcome what he’s feeling—as if anyone could overcome a feeling this big.

“Like you said,” he says. He raises a hand to his face, hides his eyes, and chuckles. “There’s nothing to be done.”

“Stop it,” I say.

He moves his hand and looks at me.

“Don’t pretend with me. Don’t…” I let my words fizzle out, not sure what I’m trying to say. I feel inadequate. This isn’t about me, but he came here looking for something, and I have no idea what it is. “Why did you need to see me?” I ask instead.

Terry clears his throat. He shuffles, his eyes flicking about the room, as if searching for the words he wants to use in the overhead cabinets. “Titania, she, um…” He stops, takes a deep breath, tries to start again, then breaks. “She was holding my hand, for fuck’s sake! I was holding her, I was with her and there was nothing I could do to hold on to her. Nothing.”

I don’t know whether to hug him or keep my distance. I’ve never seen him like this before.

“She was dead when we got to the hospital. She’s probably just lying in a morgue somewhere, no name, just DOA taped to her toe or—”

“Terry,” I murmur. I want to stop him. She’s dead. It’s over. He’s just torturing himself. “It’s not your fault.”

He sighs and seems to relax fractionally. “That’s what Ma said too.”

“Did they come home with you?”

“No. That’s actually why I’m down here. They stayed to do the paperwork and make the arrangements. Ma sent me here to water their plants and feed the cat—at least that’s the excuse she fed me. She probably thought the house would be a safe space for me right now, but…” He shifts again and wipes at his eyes, as if he could discourage tears by preempting them. “I couldn’t stand being in that house. Tai and I grew up there. She’s everywhere. It’s impossible to be there without her.”

“Terry, she’ll always be with you.” I hesitate, fishing for all the things people said to my family that seemed to comfort them. “You remember her. She’s real to you, even if she’s not here anymore.”

“We were only thirty…” he chokes, and his head falls forward, hiding his face.

I’m out of words. I don’t think I’m getting through. I approach him slowly and hug him loosely. His face falls into my shoulder.

“It’s not fair,” he hisses.

I stroke his hair and run my fingers down his neck. “I know.”

The kettle whistles and I reach around him to turn off the stove.

I raise him up and set him back over his own two feet. I let go of him and set to making tea: leaves in the strainer, strainer in the pot, side plate for honey and lemon, two fragile tea cups and their saucers.

I hand him the teacups.

“Can you carry these for me? I’m afraid I’ll drop them.”

He takes them uncertainly. “We could use mugs instead, if you’re worried these will break,” he suggests.

“No,” I say. I trace the curve of one of the cups. “They’re fragile, but what’s the point of them if we’re so afraid of breaking them that we never use them?”

He swallows and grips the teacups a little tighter. I turn away. I know I must seem insensitive right now, the monster my mother and sisters felt I was during our dark days, but I’m out of words. I don’t know what to say to help him, and I don’t want to hurt him…

The pot and plate fit on the tea tray, and I lead the way up to my room. Terry puts the cups down on the carpet, and I pour for him and for me. After, I raise my cup in a toast. I don’t care if you don’t traditionally toast with teacups, I want to say something that will help him. I pause and then put my cup back in its saucer. “I don’t know what to toast to.”

Terry shakes his head, defeated.

I’ve had enough of defeat.

I lunge over the space between us and grab him by the collar. “Look. I get you’re upset—no, heartbroken. I get that. I’m so sorry this happened to you, to your family, to Titania. I know how this hurts. I know how you can’t escape it, how it follows you wherever you go and kicks you when you’re down, how it feels like the pain will never end. I know, okay?” I’m scared, I’m so scared. The last four years have been hell because of the way everyone around me who was still breathing reacted to death, because the people I ran to when shit got ugly with my immediate family weren’t there anymore. I can’t go through that again. I don’t want to be alone again. I don’t want to lose him. I know Titania just died, and it’s too soon to really get a read on his grief (if I’m even capable of such a thing)—but if I know this man like I think I do, he’s looking for something to do. “You don’t need to be strong when you’re hurting, but if you let this stop you from living—”

He interrupts me. “What do you mean, ‘living’? I’m still breathing, aren’t I?” His eyes dart away from me. “It’s more than she can do.”

“Exactly.” I shake him. “She can’t do anything anymore. But you can. You can still eat good food, laugh with friends, write a conspiracy-riddled, wacky cartoon. Hell, you already said you wanted to pay tribute to endings and what happens after with the Serenity Peaks finale. Do that!”

He looks at me hopelessly. “How do things like that fix this?”

“They don’t fix it.” I touch his cheek. “They let you sit with it. You take it and you use it to make life better. You weave it into everything until it isn’t something that only makes you sad. You learn to live with it.”

“I…” His voice is weak, faltering, unsure. It returns with greater force and volume. “I can’t, alright?!” He wipes at his face. “It’s like there’s this barrier between me and all of this, and I’m stuck playing that part. I can’t rip it away, I can’t deal with it, I can’t even see all of it, it’s just too big…

I cut him off there and kiss him. I claw my way into his lap and pillage his mouth. My fingers drag over his body and through his hair, and pull at him as if he’ll never be close enough.

When I come away, we’re both panting. “Don’t rob yourself of grieving. Don’t retreat into yourself and leave me here all alone…” I stop, choking on tears this time. “Don’t abandon me like that.” I can’t do it, not again. “Don’t walk away from your life just because she’s dead.”

I put my hand over my mouth, trying to will the crying away. “Come back to me,” I say. “I thought you said you loved me.”

He crushes me against his chest in a hug. “I do,” he says. He kisses my head. “I do.”

“Then don’t hide.” I pull my hands away from my own body and put them back on his. “Be here with me. Please.”

He lays his hand over mine. “I am here with you.”

“I mean your heart. Stay here, in the land of the living. Don’t follow her.”

“How can I do that when she…?” His voice shudders and breaks off into a keening sob.

I kiss his face, his neck, his ears, his eyes. “Because I need you here.”

“And what if you die?”

He clutches me more tightly.

I reach up and grab his chin. I force him to look at me. “Then you better do all the things I never got to. All of them. Every last one. I can’t speak for Titania, but if it were me, I would possess the nearest bodybuilder and kick your ass if you wasted your life just because it was going to do a silly thing like end.”

“Ha…”

Half a laugh. I’ll take it. “Do you think Titania regretted anything she did?” I ask him.

“No…”

“Then stop trying to pretend she didn’t live and it didn’t mean something. Living is worth dying, Terry. Don’t invalidate her life with her death.”

He drops his eyes and shakes his head. I’m overwhelmed by the sound of my heart thundering in my ears, adrenaline pumping through my veins. I’ve been in some intense boss battles in my life—Sephiroth from Kingdom’s Hearts anyone?—but this one where Terry is against himself is the first one I’ve felt like I didn’t even have a shot at winning. How can I… Wait. If he won’t listen to me, maybe he’ll listen to her.

I seize his hand and press it to my chest, just over my heart. “You feel this? I love you, Terry Walsh. You drive me crazy.” I release his hand, sigh, and lean into him. “I don’t have any real answers,” I admit. “Everyone does this differently. But you said yourself Titania loved happy endings. Maybe step one can be focusing on making yourself one of those.”

“Making a happy ending…” He says it like there’s something new he didn’t hear in them before. “You think so?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I kiss his neck.

“Don’t stop,” he murmurs. He places his hand back over my chest and slides his fingertips up to caress my neck. I gasp, a little surprised. “This is the most alive I’ve felt since…”

My mouth crashes back to his. Finally, something to do.

Then I remember and draw back with a dissatisfied hiss. “I’m still bleeding,” I grumble.

For a moment, he looks scared. Then he collapses forward against me, breath gushing out of him in what I can only assume is relief. “You mean your period,” he says. “For a second, I thought…” He runs his fingers over me as if checking for invisible wounds.

I smooth his hair. “Nah, it’s not that kind of blood. This is 100% au natural.”

“Then I don’t care,” he whispers. He shifts his hips, and I moan as his erection comes into solid contact with my clitoris through my fleece pajama pants. “I want—God, I want something, but… Fuck, is this what survivor’s guilt feels like?” His shifts again and my breath does some sort of ridiculous fluttering maneuver in my throat. He runs his fingers through my hair. “If it is, I don’t think I have the brain space to focus on punishing myself when you touch me.”

I pull at the fabric of his shirt. “Did you put any condoms in your luggage for this weekend?”

He licks his lips and nods.

“Go. Get. Them.”

He bites his lip. “You don’t have to do this.”

“You know me better than that. I want this.” I press myself against him and caress his face. “I want you.”

He kisses me gently.

How can my heart feel so full and like it’s breaking at the same time?

He gets the condoms, I lay a towel down for the blood, and when he comes back, we shed the clothes that hide our bodies, and I let him inside. Together we work through it: the pain, the desire, the heart-pumping frenzy of closeness and too little air. He smiles, and he cries, and at the end of it, he dozes, too exhausted to do anything but lay beside me and breathe.

I watch him in the half light of the room, tracing the dark patches where my blood stuck to his skin, left behind by eager fingers and careless exchanges of touch.

I thought the blood might scare us, what with everything that had happened. But with what we just did, there’s something about it that keeps the dark red stains from ringing of anything but life.

I slide my hand down his torso until I find his hip. I curl myself around him to join him in sleep.

His hand comes up to stroke my back.

“Listen,” he says. “Don’t tell anyone at the office about what happened to Titania, okay? Aside from you, I think the show is the only thing that’s going to help.”

I consider this. My work certainly helped me. And he’s right… If Rhonda and Ron found out about this, they might make him take a break. I nod. “Okay.”

“Thank you.” He kisses me one more time before his breathing falls into the steady rhythm of sleep. Lost in the warmth of his arms, I start to fall away from consciousness too.

I’m so relieved he came back.

* * *

Three days.

It’s been three days since I’ve heard from him.

I’m very seriously studying the wood grain on my desk at Bizney with a cup of coffee Friday morning, trying to make sense of it and restore some semblance of productivity and having-my-shit-together.

He seemed fine Monday morning. I made breakfast, he ate, he smiled, he made me keep his keys because he wasn’t sure he’d beat me home, and then?

Radio fucking silence.

I scroll back through our text messages. How many have I sent? How many times have I called? Is his phone dead?

I try again anyway. I’m uneasy and unhappy. As if being sick with worry wasn’t bad enough, I can’t talk to anyone else in the office about this because I promised Terry I wouldn’t. Life in the office when no one else knows looks a little like this: everyone thinks he’s still on vacation with his sister and Ron’s been laughing it up about how jealous I must be that Terry is off in sunny Hawaii parasailing without us—with his glorious sister, no doubt. Oh wait, that’s right, Ron says, I haven’t met her before have I? Well, she is just the most enjoyable person on Earth, such a ray of sunshine, it’s such a shame I haven’t had the opportunity like some lucky individuals.

He has no idea he’s twisting the knife.

“Come on, Terry, I can’t take much more of this,” I grumble at the phone as it connects—and goes straight to voicemail. I put my phone with a sigh. It’s gotta be dead.

Where the hell is he?!

A flash of red plaid zooms by my desk, headed for the middle of our shared office space.

“Gooood morning everyone!” Terry announces. He jumps up on one of the desks in the middle of the room and holds a sheaf of papers aloft. “Cancel all plans, I’ve had a breakthrough, and I need everyone in the writers’ room for an emergency meeting, pronto!”

There’s a smattering of applause from Sean, who’s peeking out of his office. Matt cheers, and Ron rolls his eyes affectionately.

“Get down from there, you idiot,” he says, waving Terry towards the ground.

Terry grins and hops down.

“Rejuvenative vacation, was it?” Ron asks, gesturing to the papers. “I notice you didn’t tan.”

“You know I burn to begin with,” Terry says. “Besides.” He waves the papers in front of Ron’s face. “I had better things to do.”

“Inspiration is a fickle muse!” Matt calls as he heads for the writers’ room.

Not as fickle as some uncommunicative gingers I may know.

Ron moves off, following Matt, and Terry heads for his office, undoubtedly to pick up something to help explain to the rest of us whatever he’s got clasped in his hand.

I take it as my chance.

I close his office door behind me when I enter and drop the blinds. “Where the hell have you been?” I hiss.

He whips up from his desk drawers and cups my cheek. “Ah, Alexis, love of my life, what a grand day this is.” He kisses me fast on the lips. I push him away from me. We’re at work!

“Terry, what the hell has gotten into you?”

“I figured it out. What you said. About how she loved happy endings. I figured it out.”

“Okay, alright, okay… but where have you been?” I hold up my phone passive aggressively, hoping that will help him get the message since he obviously didn’t get the thousand I sent and left him.

He blinks. “Oh. Ohhhh. Yeah, sorry, I guess I got a little carried away writing all this down. My phone’s completely dead. But, hey, you had my keys, so it’s all fine, right? You got the car and got into the house, right?”

“Y-yeah, yeah, that was all fine, but that’s not what I’m—”

“Oh, good. You had me worried for a second.” He pulls me into a quick hug and then releases me. “Now, come on! I want to show you!”

He opens the office door and drags me out by my hand. I stumble after him, bewildered. Everything he says has sounded like good news, and he said work was probably going to help him during his grief, but… why do I feel so uneasy? What happens to him if he does something he regrets with the show? I try to swallow the feeling. There’s no reason to doubt him. He’s always come through before. Every time I had cause to think he was going to be old-fashioned cartoon sexist or something, he came through and gave me an intellectual commentary on the very thing he made me worry he was going to do. When Clint thought he wasn’t manly enough, but then rejected stereotypical masculinity as something he didn’t want because it was so limiting, when Alex taught Clint “how to pick up girls” and then almost got eaten by a giant spider woman for his trouble. I return his strong hold on my hand. I shouldn’t doubt him now. Not after everything we’ve been through. He’s always come through. Always, always…

Yeah, the skeptic in the back of my head says. That was before his sister died.

I wave her away. Terry isn’t stupid. This is the way he’s dealing.

He’ll be okay.

I take my seat in the writers’ room. Looks like almost everyone’s here. Terry goes to the front of the room and opens his mouth, but is cut off by a hand from Ron.

“Hang on, Rhonda’s coming,” he says, fiddling with his phone. He puts it away and smiles at Terry. “You just seemed so excited. May as well get the approval of the rough over with now too, yeah?”

Terry grins at him.

I try to soothe the butterflies in my stomach.

When Rhonda enters the room, a hush of anticipation runs through it. Terry looks ecstatic, ready to take on the world.

Rhonda sits at the back of the room. “Sorry for the wait, everyone. Mr. Walsh?”

“Right!” he says. Just like that, he’s off, a million miles a minute, rough storyboards already loaded on the computer, going through the boards and the lines like he can see it all on the back of his eyelids and doesn’t need the projector or the script in his hands—and the story he’s telling is fantastic! The invasion of the real world with the weird and mythical of Buck’s dreamscape that we’ve been waiting for this entire time on the brink of happening! The same rift of growing up forming between Cassie and Clint the way it formed between Alex and Xander, then Cassie’s trust and wish for things not to change giving Buck his opening, and…

“And then Buck snaps his fingers and Cassie collapses in a living death—think Snow White, but without the ability to come back,” Terry says. “See, Buck’s dimension needs a link to our world through which to sustain itself, and Cassie’s the closest dreamer available. But, since he’s using her dreams to come through, he’s essentially put her into a coma from which she’ll never wake.”

There’s a murmur, a stir that ripples through the room. My eyes flick to Rhonda. She’s the only other woman in the room. Surely she’ll ask the question that needs to be asked here.

“But will she wake up?” Rhonda asks.

Terry shakes his head. “No.”

Rhonda’s mouth twists.

“But it’s okay! I’m not really killing one of the main characters of a Bizney show. Yeesh, that’d never get through S&P… No, no. Clint’s gonna use time travel at the end of all of this, and it’ll be like it never happened.”

“What?!”

All eyes in the room flick over to me.

My shock drove me up and out of my chair. I’m standing over the table, hands spread wide to support myself as I gawk past everyone at Terry.

His face is shocked too: an innocent surprise, confusion making his lips neutral and his eyes wide.

“I… I said—”

“I heard what you said.” My hands dance inarticulately in front of me, trying to convey the inexcusable violence of this decision. “How can any part of you think that cutting away Cassie’s agency and removing her from the action of the narrative could—”

“MISS Ainsley!”

I lurch back from the table like the wood burned me instead of Rhonda’s outburst.

Rhonda glares at me hard enough to crush any words I had left against my teeth. “A word, if you would?” Her voice is more gentle than before, but I know better. I’m in trouble.

I look over to Ron. He won’t meet my eyes. He’s shakes his head like he’s disappointed. I turn towards Terry, and the shock I saw before is gone. Now there’s something hard in his eyes. They accuse me, silently: I thought you’d understand.

“Y-you don’t understand…” I breathe. There’s got to be something I can say to make them see this from my perspective. They’re not women. That must be why they don’t get it. I just have to present this point of view… They’re good people, they’ll see it. “How can you be okay with killing your only female lead? What about the viewers? What is this going to say to them?!”

“Whatever Terry damn well wants them to hear, I imagine.” Ron’s voice rings out loud and clear from his seat. “We had a long-term plan from the start, remember? You think we wouldn’t have said something if this messed with it?”

I stare at him. How am I supposed to know that when no one will tell me what the end game actually is? The best I’ve got is Terry’s musing about endings and the few storyboards and pages of script I saw on Thanksgiving. It isn’t much, but it’s enough to know that this can’t possibly be what he was going for even if it does complete all the objectives of the “end game.”

I take a deep breath. “Isn’t it my job to not know what the end game is so I can make observations like this?”

Ron sighs, like I’m a child missing the point. “It’s his show, sweetheart. Remember that our place, your place is to help him do it—not tell him how it should go.”

I flinch. He’s talking to me like I’m… Holy shit, like I’m just a stupid fan! Is that all I am when I disagree? When I’ve got something different to say? …Okay. Okay, fine! Serenity Peaks may be Terry’s baby and his best coping mechanism, but when he talked about what he wanted for the finale at Thanksgiving, this was not what he described! He was the one who talked about new beginnings, true endings to things and moving on. He’s the one who wanted to convey that to his viewers! But if the team is going to think of me as an idiot fan when I’m reacting off of the original finale I read, I’ll give them another reason to make Terry stop. I’ll tell them exactly why they shouldn’t let him do this, why this is too close to the chest, why he’ll regret it if they let him do this terrible, backwards thing. I open my mouth to tell them that real life Cassie is dead and that’s why he’s killing the fictional one, and freeze.

I promised him.

What if the show is his only way of coping? I didn’t know what was right for my family either…

But can I really let him go against everything he wanted the finale to stand for? Can I really support him through a decision that’s going to hurt so many of his fans just because he’s not okay?

Rhonda’s voice cuts through my indecision. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind, Miss Ainsley.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I murmur. I push my chair in and meekly exit the room.

I hear Rhonda tell everyone to take a fifteen-minute break and then regroup back in the writers’ room before she closes the door behind her. She marches off down the corridor, obviously expecting me to follow her.

My pace is sluggish and slow compared to her quick and efficient one. I trot to keep up with her when I fall behind. Eventually, we reach a door with her name inscribed on the front.

She unlocks the door and pushes it open. “Now,” she begins as I close the door behind us. “I understand that the show is very important to you as a viewer—”

The way she says that word. It’s the way I used to pronounce the majors of people who weren’t studying writing, editing, or anything even mildly related to stories and English back in college who tried to tell me they understood editing and publishing.

“But here, in the professional world, we cannot allow our personal feelings about a story to get in the way of our doing our jobs.” She pauses. “Am I making myself clear?

My hands clench at my sides.

Rhonda takes on a sharper tone. “Am I understood, Miss Ainsley?”

“Yes,” I say through gritted teeth.

She rises with a curt nod. “Good. In that case, I suggest that you take the next ten minutes to gather your editorial faculties and return to the writers’ room. You have helped Mr. Walsh to tell his story well in the past, I can only hope that you will aid him now as well.” She opens the door of her office for me to exit.

I give her a small bow. “I’ll do my best, ma’am.”

“That’s all any of us can ask,” she says as I pass her. “Let’s hope it’s enough.”

The door clicks shut behind me, and I feel my face burning with rage and shame. I escape down the hallway and flit into the first bathroom I find. I slam the door shut behind me and lock it. It’s quiet enough, I doubt there’s anyone in any of the other stalls. Good. I need a solid minute to myself. I need to be alone to deal with this. I turn away from the door, and let all of my anger and embarrassment come bubbling up my throat in a yell. I bang my fist against the wall, making my hand sting and forcing me to ground myself with the pain.

HOW COULD HE DO THIS?

This isn’t a happy ending, this is denial. This is wish fulfillment and grief.

Or am I really just the amateur Ron and Rhonda think I am?

“Alexis?”

I spin—because that’s definitely a dude voice—and see Terry.

My eyes flick around the room nervously. What’s he doing in the women’s res—

My eyes land on a urinal.

Ah.

“My mistake,” I say, bolting for the door.

He grabs my arm and pulls me back against him. “Hey, hold on.” His voice is soft, the edge that was in his eyes back in the writers’ room completely absent. His arms wrap around me in a hug, and I’m frozen.

“You don’t need to scream like that,” he says. “I’m know it must be hard to see again after what we went through last weekend, but… we have to tell this story so she can live again, through it. Don’t you see?”

“W-what?”

“None of it was fair, and we can’t change what happened to Titania… but Clint can. It’s the hope, the happy ending she would have wanted. Just like you said.”

He kisses me then, and I’m too shocked and upset to push him away this time.

When he pulls away, I hug him back to me. “Terry, I don’t understand what’s happening. What happened to the storyboard of Cassie and Clint taking Buck down together you made at Thanksgiving? What happened to the finale you already came up with?”

Terry laughs. There’s something about the mood he’s been in since he arrived this morning. He feels like a stretched-thin parody of himself. His smile, his laugh—they seem fake. He hugs me back and I squirm in his arms, trying to get closer and find the man I know in him.

“I burned it. It wasn’t strong enough, and it was just a partial draft, a rough idea. With these changes, the finale will be bigger than just the show! It’ll mean something.”

“It meant something before!” I say. I squeeze him, crushing my glasses against my nose as I hide my eyes against his shoulder. My eyes are tight; I don’t want to cry. “You’re forgetting about all of the women who watch your show, all the little girls who are going to internalize this! What is this going to mean when you see them at conventions cosplaying dead versions of Cassie?”

He pushes me back and holds me at arms’ length. He gives me a confused, almost stern look. “That’s not the important part of the finale.”

“Then what is?!” I counter. I don’t know what to say to him, I don’t know how to get through. It’s like he can’t hear anything I say. I know it’s the wrong thing to say before it’s even out of my mouth, but I’m desperate. “What would Titania think?”

His expression goes cold. “She would be proud.” He turns away from me.

I can’t imagine the woman I met being proud. None of us can know what she would want now. She’s gone. Even if he’s right, I know how much this man loves his fans. I’ve seen it. “Terry… You’re going to regret this.”

He shakes his head and ruffles my hair. His mania seems to have calmed, but his melancholy isn’t hearing me either. “What are you saying? Come on, let’s get back to the writers’ room. I’ll show you it’s not what you think it is.”

He goes to the door and puts his hand on the lock. Then he looks back over his shoulder as if he’s waiting for me.

I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror.

Saggy shoulders…

I stand up straight and square my shoulders, trying to mimic the body language of confidence and belief even if I feel unsure and lost. I nod to him and he undoes the lock. I follow him back to the writers’ room, hoping he does have something to show me that will convince me it’s not what I think it is.

No such luck. As the meeting drones on, it becomes clear that the finale is exactly as bad as I feared it would be.

I thought maybe he’d have Cassie influencing reality or Buck and his minions with her dreams since Cassie’s link to the mindscape is essentially the only reason Buck and his crew can exist in the real world, but no. It’s like she’s dead—just like Titania. The only effect Cassie has until the very end is the motivation she provides for Clint, Alex, and the rest of the Serenity Peaks cast. Everybody loved her, and that’s a great message, but there’s absolutely nothing of her left. Once Clint goes back, Cassie is the one who manages to keep Buck from entering reality in the first place, which is a nice touch, but it’s not enough.

He’s robbed her and every little girl that’s watching of their agency. He’s turned them into objects whose love and trust and tiny selfish wants are reason enough for them to be saved by yet another idiot boy that could have averted this entire crisis by checking on his emotions and communicating instead of going on some epic hyper-masculine save-the-world conquest.

And that’s it. That’s the end. It makes me want to crawl into bed and sleep the world away, dream up something better… Hell, it makes me wish I’d read the whole script he’d made back on Thanksgiving. Maybe then I could at least argue with him.

But there’s no going home without him, and he’s decided we’re going out for drinks after work with everyone. I’m being “professional” and nursing a sub-par Rob Roy while he dicks around with Ron and the others. Even our artists Emmy, Dana, Sabrina, and Stephanie came out after he gave them a call—Terry was just too thrilled about the finale not to tell them. He’s given them the whole spiel at least twice more, drawing details out for them on napkins.

I manage some rather shallow conversation with Emmy and Stephanie, but I can’t talk to them about what’s really on my mind. It’s Dana that finally gets pushy about my mood when Emmy and Stephanie move off to refresh their drinks.

“Dude, you’re like the only one here who’s not celebrating. Seriously, what’s the deal?”

I rub the rim of my glass thoughtfully, trying to decide how much to tell the storyboard artist. “I was really stupid in the meeting today because I don’t know what the end game of the series is. Everyone else knows what this random criteria is for nailing the ending of the series, and I just feel like I can’t offer any good suggestions because I have no clue. Makes me feel… Honestly, it made me feel like I wasn’t really part of the team.”

Dana laughs. “Is that all? Jeez, you could have just said so like three drinks ago.”

“Oh yeah?” I finish my drink sullenly. “And how would that have helped?”

“What, you think the writers don’t tell the boarders anything?” She smirks at me conspiratorially. “It’s not all that much anyway. Terry always was aiming for two seasons. He didn’t want the show to just stretch into a summer that magically lasts for years. Summer ends, life moves on, things change. He was always on about how the fleetingness of it made it precious.”

“Oh, are we talking about Terry’s process?” Emmy interjects. She and Stephanie sit back down, their drinks adequately refilled.

What Dana said sure matches up with what Terry said to me before. I don’t see how anyone who heard him say that could be on board with a finale that undoes an ending. If he’s going to include character death with those themes, shouldn’t the rest of the cast be focused on acceptance? Instead they backtrack, they undo something that no one can undo in real life. Serenity Peaks is full of magic, but the magic always acts as a catalyst for growth in real life. Now… Now it just doesn’t make sense.

“It was a really deep idea to want to portray in a kids’ show,” Stephanie adds.

“Definitely nice to see someone taking the kids seriously for a change,” Dana agrees.

Right. Definitely taking them seriously. Why else would he use time travel to undo death? “What is it about this last episode that make you think he’s conveying those themes?” I ask.

All the artists give me a bewildered look.

“Well, Alex and Xander make up,” Stephanie says.

“Clint and Cassie go back home to their parents in California rather than staying in Serenity Peaks too,” Emmy chimes in.

“Plus they finally defeat Buck,” Dana observes. “I mean, if beating the final boss isn’t a symbol for things changing and life moving on, I don’t know what is.”

I drop out of the conversation and listen passively as they chatter. Seems to me Terry’s missing the biggest thing all the characters should be moving on from if he’s planning on killing one of them, but the artists seem on board. So did the entire writers’ room. What am I supposed to do when I can’t tell them about Titania, and Terry won’t slow down to consider any of the words I have to say?

I eye the bar, considering getting another drink of my own. Just as I’m about to get out of my chair, Terry bounces up to the bar. I feel my lips twist as he takes another glass from the bartender. What is that, his fifth drink? Boy, he sure is “dealing” with his grief. Under normal circumstances, I’d love to watch him get up on a table and dance, but tonight, I can’t muster more than a slightly disinterested glare.

He doesn’t seem to take it as disinterested, though, when he catches my eyes. He grins and hops down from the table, wobbling a little and catching himself against the bar. He better check himself. Then again, maybe he’s already wrecked himself.

“You know this finale’s gonna be good when we even got the non-believers to come celebrate,” he calls back to everyone else. Ron, Matt, Sean, and the rest of the office team laugh and raise a glass, I can only assume to toast me, as Terry leans over our table and whispers in my ear. “See?” he says. “I told you I’d give you a happy ending.” His lips drop down to my neck. There’s a small gasp from Sabrina, and I surge up out of my seat and away from him. Has this whole affair really made him so careless that he’d endanger my job by acting like this in front of our coworkers?

“That’s it,” I announce. “I’m getting this guy home before he does something he’ll regret.” I glance over at Sabrina, who’s saying something to Emmy about how she had no idea Terry was such a touchy-feely drunk. That’s right, just write the kiss off as Terry being drunk and stupid, Sabrina. Nothing to see here.

Ron, on the other hand, frowns at me. Good thing I’m prepared for this one. I pull Terry’s keys from my purse and jingle them at him. “Don’t worry, mister supervisor, sir. I was entrusted with this sacred duty at the beginning of the night.”

Ron shrugs and backs off, but I have to wait as everyone congratulates and touches Terry on the way out, like he’s some sort of messiah. Ugh.

On the drive home Terry fiddles with the radio, singing along whenever he finds something he likes. He does a couple of voices, a fantastic falsetto to something Freddy Mercury, and continues on like this until I shut the car off in front of the house.

“Aww, at least wait until the end of the song,” he whines.

I throw open the driver’s side door, get out, then slam it back into the place. I quick-walk to the front door and unlock it, not bothering to wait for him before going in. If only I could deal with my shoes fast enough so I’m not in the hall when he walks in. But I’m not. I’m still taking them off when he comes in.

He spins me around and kisses me against the wall.

“I knew you wanted me back at the bar,” he says huskily, “but I had no idea it was so urgent you couldn’t stand for pleasantries.”

I try to push him back, but he’s got his full weight against me. “Terry, that’s not what this is—”

“The way you reacted in the writers’ room did surprise me, but you really don’t have to make anything up to me.” His hand sculpts itself around the curve of my buttocks.

And then I’m not trying to push him away anymore; I pull him to me to get him off balance, hook his leg out from under him with one of mine, and push off the wall to send us crashing to the floor in a tangle of limbs. I untangle myself and sit on top of him, pinning his arms and torso underneath me.

“What is wrong with you?” I breathe. “You slave away on this thing for three days”—did you even sleep?—“and don’t say a word”—has he been eating? He went down so easily—“Do you know how worried I was?” Even now my fingers itch to check his head and make sure he isn’t injured from the fall.

He wriggles a little, and I let his arm escape my thighs. He reaches up and strokes my face. I flinch. “Alexis…”

“No.” I bat his hand away. “What’s going on, Terry?” I push my hands over my face, trying to push away the buzzing confusion and anger I’ve been holding in all day. “Where were you?”

“Working. I told you, I figured it out, what you were saying about—”

“This is not what I meant when I said you should look to happy endings!” I pin his hand back down with one of mine. “I was talking about us. Here. Now.”

He frowns, his eyes taking on some of that steely exterior they had in the writer’s room. “So am I. Can’t you see that? If we don’t do this, she’ll really be dead forever! This is a message of hope! Of second chances! Of all that’s left of her life!”

“No, you damned idiot, it’s not!” I plunge the finger of my free hand into his chest accusingly. “Did you see the way you were drinking tonight? Did you?! You’re just running from the pain. You’re running from it, and it’s not going to work, and—”

“I’m not running. I’m living because she can’t. You told me that’s how you did it!”

“Not like this. I didn’t stop listening.”

His eyebrows shoot skyward. “You think I’m not listening to you?”

“Sorry, remind me how we got down here?” I grind my hand against his wrist and he looks away. “Terry, you can’t do this.”

He gives an exasperated sigh, frees his other hand, and runs it through his hair. “Do what?”

“Kill Cassie.”

“Okay, first of all, I’m not killing her, and secondly: Yes, I can, and I will. Then I’m gonna bring her back, and everything will be okay.”

“How? How is it supposed to be okay when Cassie’s reward for being who she is is essentially an endless sleep? You’re punishing her for trusting. You’re victim blaming. You’re turning Cassie into a thing—a motive for Clint to become something and save her.”

“Okay, if she was the only girl in the show, sure, fine, I take your point. Buuuut, not seeing the problem. I’ve got Jessie, Helga, Chip, Spinning Jenny, hell, even River turns back up for this one. How much more woman power do you want?”

“I’m sorry, are they main characters? Oh, wait, that’s right—they’re side characters.”

“What is your deal? This could happen. It just did!”

“Stories are not real life!”

“They have to be believable!”

“They have to make sense! This doesn’t make sense!”

“Yeah?! Well neither does anything else right now.”

I grit my teeth and glare at him. “Stop it. Just stop it. This isn’t about Titania! This is about Cassie! And you can’t just kill her because your sister is dead.”

Yes, I can.”

I take a deep breath, trying to think of something, anything that will make him think of this from some place other than his own self-involved point of view.

“Artists,” I start, “use lies to tell the truth. Sound familiar?”

“Really? You’re quoting D for Declaration at me? I am telling the truth.”

“You’re telling little girls they’re going to die and be saved by a loophole at the end of the world.”

He glares at me, his mouth a thin line.

I lean over him.

“Lie,” I whisper. “Don’t let her die. Show us the truth of what Titania was, of what she could have done if—”

“Shut up!” he yells. He struggles against me, fighting to get his captive hand free, grabbing my hair with the one he has. “You didn’t know Titania, you barely met her! You have no idea what you’re talking about, not about her, not about the show, not about anything! You’re just a fan, you—”

He cuts himself off with a gasp and drops his hand from my hair to cover his mouth.

There’s a strange sort of numb calmly spreading through me; the feeling of accepting something inevitable and unchangeable. I sit back, releasing his hand. “Is that what you think of me?” I murmur.

“No no no,” he says. He drags himself further out from under me and then sits up. I’m now more over his lap than his stomach, and his hands flutter around me, as if unsure if he’s allowed to touch me.

“I didn’t mean it…” he says.

The calm shatters. Now the rage and pain come through. “How dare you…” I whisper.

“Alexis, I’m sorry!”

I jerk my face up to meet his eyes, not caring what he sees in my face now.

“Fans are what make this show!” I tell him. “You would be nothing without us. Nothing!” I slice my hand through the air between us and then take my hands back to my face. I don’t want to look at him.

“Alexis, please—”

“Don’t call me just a fan,” I growl. I drop my hands and meet his eyes, angry and hoping he can see it. “You make this show for me.”

He looks at me with pleading eyes, like he doesn’t know what to say.

I don’t have any pity left for him. I drop my gaze and get to my feet. I step over him and into the house, making for the stairs. I’m halfway there before he speaks.

“Wait.”

I don’t want to. I’m tired, so tired. I’m tired of losing people to their own damned emotions, of watching them destroy themselves and only being able to stand by, not knowing what to do, how to help…

The floor creaks underneath my weight as I come to a halt.

“Look, you’re right, I’m—the show is nothing without the fans… I know that. I know that. I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it… Please…” His voice cracks. I turn my head. Is he crying? His body heaves with a breath and he scrubs at his face with his palm. “Don’t leave me alone right now.”

I want to. I want to leave him alone. I want to retreat to my room and lick my wounds and refasten the armor of my heart against losing him. Instead, I go back the way I came and sink down to my knees next to him, fastening my arms securely around his neck. “I’m here,” I murmur.

He clings to me and cries, hiccupping slightly when the crying interferes with his breathing. “I’m doing everything I can think of,” he says. “I’m trying so hard. I don’t know what to do. This was the only thing that felt like it could make it better…”

“Shh,” I say, stroking his hair. “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay. You don’t have to do anything. Death doesn’t need fixing.” I grimace. “It’s the world that needs that.”

He chuckles, a strange sound through his tears.

“You can say that again,” he murmurs, a relative amount of calm coming through his words.

He lets me relocate him to his room, to his pajamas and his bed; but even there, in the warm, safe darkness of his room, I can’t get his tears to stop. So I lie there, stroking his hair and holding him until he finally gives way to exhaustion and sleeps. Even after, my hands keep carding through his hair.

What else can I do?

I sigh and flex my fingers. Everything in me is screaming for me to run, to bolt before this hurts me. It already has. Just a fan, he called me. Just a fan.

But I can’t walk away. Even as I muse over how much better it would be for me to go, there’s a chain affixing my heart to his, anchoring me here, to him.

I love him.

And we don’t abandon the ones we love just because it gets hard. We scream and fight and cry for them. We do everything in our power to protect them, to keep them close, to help them carry the weight of living when it gets too hard for them to bear alone…

I gaze at him, hesitant.

It’s arrogant of me, to think I know what’s best for him.

I know that. I know everyone has to face their own hell when something like this happens to them. This is something that happens to everyone. It’s not uncommon, it’s commonplace. Death is nothing special. It not some sort of tragedy that comes to scare us in the night, it’s the price we pay for living.

I’ll be damned if I’m just going to sit back and watch him crumble over that.

I need a safety net, though… Someone who loves him and the show just as much as I do, that would never let any harm come to him, regardless of who it was.

I reach out for his phone and then pause. What if… what if this backfires?

I shake my head. I can’t think like that. There are no second chances in life, and if I hesitate, it’s the same as inaction. This isn’t like with my family. This isn’t something where I can just wait for it to fix itself. There are consequences for inaction if I let him run his course.

I snatch his phone and scroll to find the numbers I need. Then I send a group text. I snap his phone shut, put it back on the bedside table, and get out of bed.

I’ve got until 1:00 PM tomorrow to throw a new script together. If Terry’s end game really was to end the series after two seasons, and the theme is the preciousness of summer because it’s fleeting, I’ll give them a twist on what he’s given us already that’ll knock their socks off and make Cassie an active, agency-possessing part of it.

There’s just no telling what they’ll think of it. Or what he’ll think of me after.

But there are no guarantees in life anyway.

Time to get writing.

 

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