It was the smell of baking cinnamon and apple that finally lured me from our bed, the mixture of crisp autumn freshness and smoky caramelized sugar physically pulling me out of my dream like a vaudeville stage hook.
I didn’t mind. I’d overslept and it’d been one of those dreams, the fucked-up ones fueled by anxiety and fear that had started after the Flare and would seemingly never leave me. The world was starting to rebuild—I was even contributing in my small way with my administrative work for the Communications Department at Burnell. The dark cloak that had draped itself over the world three years ago was slipping behind us, but the memories of it were still sharp, pressing into you if you made one wrong move. Intermittent electricity couldn’t burn away images of death or the scent memory of your attacker. The ever-growing phone connectivity only reminded you of those who’d never be on the other end of the line.
I inhaled sharply and then released a long, slow breath between my lips.
You’re safe now. Everything is okay.
I knew that was true, mostly, but I still glanced warily around the bedroom of the little faculty house Gabriel and I shared with John and Mykhail at Burnell. The house was an oasis of safety and warmth on a campus bustling with governmental activity. It was the one demand John had made when offered a job by the Department of Infrastructure Repair; he was always thinking a step ahead.
Which reminded me…
I grabbed my cell phone from the bedside table and flipped it open. It still felt strange, even though pre-Flare I’d be scrolling through social media before I wiped the sleep from my eyes. Internet service hadn’t been restored enough to support social media. I was searching for a something much simpler: a text from my sister-in-law, Maggie.
It was her first day of school since the Flare, and we weren’t there to harass and bully her until she was glad to be leaving the house. Unlike John, Maggie was dead set on pretending things didn’t have to change. I couldn’t blame her. She’d just turned eighteen, but she’d missed out on all the social milestones that were supposed to lead up to that. I’d been scared to leave for Burnell; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go to high school.
My phone screen lit up. There was no message.
I jumped out of bed and grabbed my nightgown, annoyed in a way that had been completely foreign to me as an only child. Freaking Maggie. I could just imagine her stomping around her filthy room, digging through piles of clothes for the perfect back-to-school outfit. She’d roll her eyes and pretend she was too cool to care about something like the GED program for people who’d gotten an apocalypse instead of a prom. Mama Seong would be chasing her around the house trying to get her to put her guitar down and eat breakfast. I could just see Maggie glaring from behind her bangs and muttering as Mom—
I froze with the nightgown halfway over my head.
Even after living in close quarters like we had, it was still a shock when I slipped up and thought of Gabe’s mother that way, especially since I had no idea how my own parents had fared or if they were even still alive. The Seongs had taken me in—they were my family now, too, and I already knew how far I’d go to protect them—but the betrayal of how easily I fit in with them never left me. It was a physical ache that it had been Mama Seong who’d helped with my wedding updo months earlier—or tried to, although she couldn’t understand the physics of my kinks and curls at all—and not my mom, who’d never pushed but always reminded me that I’d look beautiful in the wedding dress stored in her closet. That it was Seong Senior who’d danced with me at our small reception, and not my burly dad who used to spin me round and round as a little girl, as if we’d been practicing for that special moment, had made each awkward two-step seem as if I was dancing on their grave. Not that I even knew if they’d been buried…
I closed my eyes, pressed my fists into them to stop the flow of tears that really should have dried up already but somehow never did. Some people had lost so much—every goddamn thing they’d ever cherished. Me? I was up one hot husband and several annoying but lovable family members. How could I be sad about that? But still…
“I hear you scurrying around up there. Get a move on, lazybones.” Gabriel’s deep voice echoed up the stairwell, triggering that familiar bittersweet clench in my chest. The joy that he was there with me, tinged with apprehension.
For how long? What if?
“Do you have your stethoscope against the ceiling or what?” I asked. I stomped toward the door, making a racket that hopefully drowned out the roughness of my voice. I needed to get rid of the pesky feelings and slap a smile on before I faced him, even though he was almost as good as his brother at telling when I was putting up a front.
When I got to the top of the stairs and saw him standing at the bottom, arms crossed behind his back, wavy hair trying and failing to hide his dimpled smile, I realized I didn’t have to pretend. He was wearing the sweatpants he knew I liked, the ones that hung from his hips just right and outlined everything, and I mean everything, just enough to tease me. His gaze was completely focused on me, as though I was some kind of angel descending from the heavens instead of a scrub who still hadn’t showered and had forgotten to twist her hair out before bed.
The bittersweetness I’d been feeling was refined into pure sugary joy at the sight of him; the anxiety from my dream drifted away, and my pulse kicked up a notch as I approached him, taking the steps one at a time just so I could stare at him a little longer.
“My stethoscope is still in the bedroom,” he said with a grin that reminded me of exactly we’d been using it for.
“Oh. That’s right, Dr. Seong.”
When I reached the landing, I didn’t stop walking until the curves of my body were molded against the muscular planes of his. I lifted my head and wiggled my nose in an exaggerated sniff.
“Using my above-average deductive reasoning skills, I’m guessing that you made me a delicious breakfast?” I raised myself up and down on my toes as if hopping with excitement, creating some friction that could lead to a pre-breakfast diversion if I played my cards right. I wanted Gabriel to touch me, to remind me of everything good there was in this world. The thoughts of my parents had put me on edge, but I didn’t want to hide my pain. I needed to feel Gabriel pulsing into me, to hear him whisper that he wasn’t going anywhere, the way he did when I woke up screaming in the darkness of our bedroom.
“What do I get if I guess right?” I asked, running my hand up over his pectorals.
He gave me another mischievous grin, but then stepped away, shoving his hands into his pockets instead of embracing me. “You win a hot breakfast, Sherlock. I didn’t get up early to cook just for it to get cold. Come on.”
I stood in hurt confusion for a moment as he walked away. Gabriel could be brusque, but he was always physically attentive. I thought I’d get a hug at the very least, but instead I was watching his ass in those sweatpants as he walked off into the kitchen. I mean, it was an extremely fine ass, but even his walk was a little stiff. Something about his behavior, pleasant as it was, was just off. When you’d spent the first portion of your relationship trapped in a cabin with your man, it was hard not to get really good at reading his body language.
I trailed him into the kitchen, skittering in front of him to look into eyes.
“What?” he asked. He grinned again, but this time it wasn’t mischievous. It was nervous, the same one he’d had plastered on his face when I’d walked down the makeshift aisle in the cabin’s yard.
“Nothing,” I said, looking at him askance as I felt the anxiety start to seep back in. He’d been joking with the Sherlock crack, but he knew very well that I hated secrets and would stop at nothing to sniff them out. The game was afoot.
He opened the oven and pulled out a tray of bubbling deliciousness. Baked apples.
“Any reason for this special breakfast?” I asked, sitting at the table and grabbing the mug of coffee he’d already poured. There were even place settings. Gabriel wasn’t one for formality, but he was the kind of guy who’d do anything to keep his hands busy when he was nervous. That often worked out well for me, although that morning seemed to be an exception.
“Nope,” he said, way too quickly
A sudden thought hit me. “Is everything okay? Did John and Mykhail check in? And Maggie was supposed to text but she didn’t. Just tell me. Did something happen—?”
“Everyone is fine,” he said gruffly. “Mom texted me that Maggie was throwing a tantrum about a missing guitar string, and I spoke to Mykhail this morning. They should be here later in the afternoon. Do you think I’d be playing Suzy Homemaker if my family needed me?”
“Oh. Right.” Perhaps I’d put too much stock in my detective skills. “Well, if this is your way of softening the blow because you’re having a secret baby with Mary, you both have my blessing.” Mary was the receptionist at the clinic where Gabriel worked. She maintained order in the chaotic environment of a place often packed with patients—when she wasn’t letting Gabriel know how she would have laid it on him if he weren’t married and she wasn’t old enough to be his grandmother.
He laughed, the ringing deepness of it a reassurance. “No secret babies to report. Not mine, at least. I’m pretty sure Nurse Johnson’s boyfriend has been working on a repair crew in Florida for five months, and she just got good news from the Ob-Gyn.”
“Look at you, Doctor Busybody,” I tutted as he dropped into the seat beside me, holding two plates of apple-y goodness just out of reach.
“I think you mean Doctor Wonderful Husband, right?”
I looked at him skeptically. “Doctor…Moderately Acceptable Husband?”
His brows lifted.
“Doctor Freak in the Sheets Husband?”
He rolled his eyes, but handed me the plate. “That’ll do. For now.”
I dug my spoon through a dollop of fresh cream and into the soft, still bubbling apple before giving it a quick puff of air and shoving it into my mouth. The mixture of cool cream and sweet cinnamon goodness combined on my tongue in a flavorgasm that would have been perfect if not for Gabriel fidgeting beside me. His hand was in his pocket again instead of ferrying food toward his face, and his leg was jumping nervously. I willed myself not to whirl on him and demand answers.
He’ll crack eventually.
I scooped up another mouthful and almost bit my tongue when he jumped out of his seat. His hand left his pocket clasping his phone.
“Hey! Hi. Yeah. Hold on…” He paced over to a notepad and wrote something down. “Okay. Okay…no, I can’t wait until you guys get back…I never said I wasn’t a selfish jerk, Jang-wan. Yeah, yeah.” He hit the End button and then looked down at the pad.
At this point, I’d stopped chewing and sat staring at him, trying to make sense of the snippets of conversation.
“You’re really not going to clue me in here?“
“Just wait, Arden,” he snapped. Gabriel’s gruffness factor went through the roof when he was nervous, but I couldn’t imagine what was causing it. The bite of apple grated down my throat.
He took a deep breath and began punching numbers into the phone, messing up once because his hands were shaking. Gruffness was one thing, but hand shaking was quite another.
He turned and leaned back against the counter, his gaze locked on mine. I couldn’t read his strained expression and was starting to really worry when he leaned away from the counter and ran a hand through his hair. He cleared his throat. His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“Hello. Yes, this is Gabriel.” He was using his doctor tone, the one that was grave and often used to tell people things they didn’t want to hear. “Yes. Of course.”
He handed me the phone, but I didn’t reach for it. My stomach dropped, as if I was back in high school and my crush’s number had just shown up on the caller ID. Except my crush was with me.
Who could it be?
Gabriel leaned forward and pressed the phone to my ear, and I clutched it, listening into the void.
“Hello?” The word echoed back at me courtesy of the still-shoddy phone network. Did I always sound like a stressed-out chipmunk?
That voice. I’d know that voice anywhere. It had taught me the ABCs, reamed me out when I dug up his garden looking for treasure and told me I was the most special girl in the world.
“Dad?” I turned my head toward Gabriel but he was nothing more than a wavering mass of curls and hotness behind the torrent of tears spilling from my eyes. I didn’t realize I was heaving sobs until his hand pressed flat on my chest, exerting a strong but comforting pressure.
“Breathe, Arden,” he said gently. “It’s okay. Everything is okay now.”
I clutched his hand against my chest, squeezing it as though it was the only thing keeping me from shattering into pieces. Given the way my heart was pounding and my body was trembling, that might not have been an exaggeration.
“Dad? How the hell? I thought—” Words left me for a moment. There was so much I wanted to say, but I could only manage a strange hiccupping keen. I heard an answering sob and learned that I’d inherited my ugly cry from my dad. I’d never known my father to cry before and it made me smile, not just because I was a jerk, but because…
“You’re alive,” I croaked.
“I am,” he said with an incredulous chuckle. “Somehow, I am. And I’m so glad you are, too. I knew you were too stubborn to be gone.”
I didn’t know anything about radio waves and the inner workings of telephones—that was John’s bag. I didn’t know how they could carry my father’s relief over three thousand miles and wrap it around me like a quilt. But there was a gap in that comfort, letting in a stream of cold air.
“And Mom?” My voice echoed back again, wobbling like a plate balanced on the edge of a counter. Mom, who had been so sick that I couldn’t stand to face her. Mom, who had loved me regardless.
“She—” The rest of his words dissolved, a garbled mess. The connection was cutting out.
I jumped out of my seat and Gabe jumped with me, pacing beside me. He didn’t know what the problem was, but I knew he was already figuring out how to fix it.
The frayed magic that held our call together mended itself, and suddenly a prim, restrained voice was murmuring threats through the speaker.
“—I told you I would hit you upside the head with that shovel, Lucien. Now if this call doesn’t get picked back up—”
I’d dreaded that tone as a child, but now it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.
“Holy fucking shit.” My knees went out from under me then, and I sank to the floor cross-legged, unable to make it back to the kitchen table.
“Arden Dayanara Highmore! Is that how you greet your mother?” She sounded older, weaker, despite still being vivacious. Then she laughed, the deep belly laugh that she always told me was improper when it was coming from me. “Who am I fooling? Of course that’s how you’d greet me.”
Years of guilt and self-flagellation rushed at me, and I was suddenly tempted to throw the phone across the kitchen. What could I say to her? How did I ask who had taken care of her in my stead because I’d been too selfish to do the job?
“Arden? Are you there?”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry I didn’t come visit when you asked me to. I’m sorry I wasn’t there with you,” I managed. Then the tears took my words again and I cried helplessly, in the way only your mother’s voice can trigger, whether you like it or not.
“Arden.” Her voice was calm and pitched just right to put me at ease. I felt her forgiveness before she spoke the words. Still, her next question scared me. “You know what upset me the most about you not being here when the world went dark?”
“Knowing that if we never got to speak again, you’d always blame yourself. And that’s it. And now that’s settled and I never want to hear an apology again, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, chastened. I didn’t feel a weight miraculously lifted from my shoulders at her words; I was so busy being completely fucking happy that there was no room for a cliché.
“You know you would have driven me crazy if you’d been here, anyway,” she added.
“Wow. Too soon, Mom.”
“What? It’s the truth.” But even if she didn’t bawl like my dad, I could tell she was crying, too. “Why don’t you tell us about this husband of yours? Lucien, come close so you can hear. I’m scared I’ll hang up if I try to find the speaker phone.”
My dad’s voice was a bit muffled by the distance from the mouthpiece, but I could still make out the humor underlying his words. “They told us there was some kind of space Flare, but when I heard Arden was married I knew what’d really caused the apocalypse,” he said. “Someone finally able to tie that girl down? Pigs. Flying.”
“I’m going to crush your rutabagas if you don’t let Arden talk.”
“Okay, okay. Go ahead, Arden.” My dad sighed his familiar beleaguered sigh. It was then that the weight lifted from my shoulders. Hey, clichés exist for a reason.
I reached out to Gabriel, who was still beside me, and cupped his face in my palm. I knew my hand was sticky from the apple, and who knew what bodily fluids I’d emitted during my crying jag, but he didn’t even blink.
“Gabriel is probably the most annoying man I’ve ever met. He’s grumpy and bossy and always thinks he’s right. But he’s also the most kind and giving person I know, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”
Gabriel ducked his head closer to the phone, maybe to hear my parents’ response but probably to hide the fact that he was tearing up a little.
“That’s so wonderful, Arden,” my mom said. “Is he handsome, though?”
“I think our moms would get along great,” Gabriel said as he shook his head and stood to give me privacy.
“He’s pleasing to the eye,” I said as I watched his ass walk away from me again. “Maybe you’ll get to meet him one day and see for yourself.”
I thought of the map Gabriel had made for me, sketching out several routes to California. Before, it had seemed like a fantasy, but now…
“Okay, the call might drop again so let’s not waste any more time,” I said. “Tell me everything.”