I’m not a big person; the jacket engulfed me. And the warmth from his body, that, too. It steadied me—not necessarily the fact that the warmth came from his body, just the warmth itself.
“Another thing human beings do is learn their alphabets,” I said. “So they can read. So they can learn things. Things like history and math and science and practically everything else you can name, including the really important things like art and culture and faith and why things happen and why other things don’t and why anything even exists in the first place.”
My voice broke. Uninvited, there’s that image again, of my father pulling a red wagon loaded with books after the 3rd Wave and his lecture about preserving knowledge and rebuilding civilization once that pesky little alien problem was disposed of. God, how sad, how pitiful: a balding, bent-shouldered man shuffling down deserted streets with a wagonload of scavenged library books behind him. While others looted canned goods and weapons and hardware to fortify their homes against marauders, my father decided the wisest course of action was to hoard reading material.
“He can learn them again,” Evan tried. “You can teach him.”
It took everything in me not to give him another smack. There was a time when I thought I was the last living person on Earth, which made me all of humanity. Evan isn’t the only one who owes an unpayable debt. I’m humanity, he’s them, and after what they’ve done to us, humanity should break every bone in their bodies.
“That’s not the point,” I told him. “The point is, I don’t understand why you did it this way. You could have killed us all without being so goddamn cruel about it. You know what I found out tonight, besides the fact that my little brother hates my guts? It’s not just the ABCs he’s forgotten. He doesn’t remember what our mom looked like. He doesn’t remember his own mother’s face.”
Then I lost it. I wrapped myself tight in that stupid Pinhead jacket and bawled, because I didn’t care anymore if Evan saw me lose it, because if anyone should have seen, it’s him, the sniper murdering from a distance, comfy in his farmhouse while, two hundred miles over his head, the mothership unleashed three escalating waves of devastation. Five hundred thousand in the first attack, millions in the second, billions in the third. And while the world burned, Evan Walker was smoking deer brisket and taking leisurely walks in the woods and lounging by a cozy fire, buffing his perfect nails.
He should see the face of human suffering up close. Too long he’s been like the mothership, hovering above the horror, untouchable and remote; he needs to see it, touch it, press it against his perfectly shaped, wholly unbroken nose and smell it.
The way Sammy has. I felt like running inside and yanking him out of the tub and dragging him naked onto the porch, where Evan Walker could count his bony ribs and feel his tiny wrists and trace the hollowed-out temples and examine the scars and sores of the little boy he’s tortured, the child whose mind he’s emptied of memories and whose heart he’s filled with hate and hopelessness and useless rage.
Evan started to stand—to pull me into his arms, no doubt, to stroke my hair and dry my tears and murmur that everything was going to be all right, because that’s his MO—but then he thought better of it. He sat back down.
“I told you, Cassie,” he said softly. “I didn’t want it to happen this way. I fought against it.”
“Until you went along with it.” Still working to get a grip. Along came out a three-syllable word. “And what do you mean, you didn’t want it to happen ‘this way’?”
He shifted his weight. The swing creaked. His eyes strayed back to the empty road. “We could have lived among you indefinitely. Hidden, undetectable. We could have inserted ourselves into leading roles in your society. We could have shared our knowledge, exponentially expanding your potential, speeding your evolution. It’s conceivable we could have given you the one thing you’ve always wanted and never had.”
“What?” I snuffled the snot back into my nose; I didn’t have a tissue and didn’t even care that it was gross. The Arrival had altered the whole definition of gross.
“Peace,” he answered.
“Could have. Could have.”
He nodded. “When that option was rejected, I argued for something . . . quicker.”
“An asteroid. You didn’t have the technology to stop it or the time even if you did. It was a simple solution, but it wasn’t a clean one. The world wouldn’t have been habitable for a thousand years.”
“And that matters because why? You’re pure consciousness, immortal like gods. What’s a thousand years to you?”
Apparently that question had a very complicated answer. Or one he didn’t want to share with me.
Then he said: “For ten thousand years we had the thing that you only dreamed of for ten thousand years.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “An existence without pain, without hunger, without any physical needs at all. But immortality has a price. Without bodies, we lost the things that come with them. Things like autonomy and benevolence. Compassion.” He opened his hands as if to show me they were empty. “Sam isn’t the only one who’s forgotten his ABCs.”
“I hate you,” I said.
He shook his head. “No, you don’t.”
“I want to hate you.”
“I hope you fail.”
“Don’t lie to yourself, Evan. You don’t love me—you love the idea of me. You’ve messed it all up in your head. You love what I represent.”
He cocked his head, and his brown eyes were sparkling brighter than the stars. “What do you represent, Cassie?”
“What you thought you lost. What you thought you could never have. I’m not that; I’m just me.”
“And what are you?”
I knew what he meant. And, of course, I had no clue what he meant. This was it, the thing between us, the thing neither of us could put our fingers on, the unbreakable bond between love and fear. Evan’s the love. I am the fear.
BEN WAS WAITING to pounce the minute I went back inside. I knew he was waiting to pounce because the minute I went back inside, he pounced.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
I scrubbed the tears from my cheeks and laughed. Sure, Parish, aside from this whole annoying alien apocalypse thing, everything’s great.