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been waiting on a touch to save me

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Curt brings it up, the next time they all grab a beer.

 

“My sister’s got a place upstate,” he says. “We only use it for holidays or family reunions. It’s off the grid, but well-stocked—booze, food, you name it. Even has a hot tub.”

 

Frank snorts. “Swanky.”

 

“C’mon, man,” Bill says, leaning on the bar. “When’s the last time you got out of the city?”

 

Frank takes a drink before answering. He’d thought about taking a road trip, a few months back—even put new tires on the van, bought a heavier sleeping bag for the nights he didn’t want to pay for a motel. The plan was to drive until the car broke down or he hit ocean, whichever came first.

 

He didn’t make it an hour out of the city before he had to turn around. That stretch of highway ahead of him, a road without an end—it was too much. He’d driven back to his apartment with his knuckles white around the steering wheel, bitter adrenaline coating the back of his throat.

 

Three years after losing his family, he was still too goddamn scared to have a life without them.

 

Bill waves a hand in front of Frank’s face. “Earth to Frankie. You okay, man?”

 

“Yeah,” Frank says, blinking. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just beat from today.”

 

Curt frowns. “You’re gonna burn out if you keep working extra hours like this.”

 

“It’s good money,” Frank says. “And it beats sitting on my ass in a cubicle.”

 

Bill drains his beer and gestures to the bartender for another. “You know my offer still stands. Consulting’s a good gig, Frank. Pays a hell of a lot better than swinging a sledgehammer, I can tell you that.”

 

Frank just grunts in response. Both of his friends have made lives for themselves since getting out of the service, doing what they know best. Bill wines and dines and consults for big-name companies, and Curt runs a group for veterans on the days he’s not working at the VA office. Frank is proud of them, he really is—they kept him from sliding somewhere truly dark after he lost Maria and the kids—but he can’t help but compare his life to theirs.

 

The problem is, Frank’s not sure what he’d do differently if given a choice. Most of his work is in demolitions, and he likes it. There’s something cathartic in the destruction, putting his brain on autopilot and letting muscle memory do the rest. He’s bone-weary by the end of each shift, which helps him sleep. He hasn’t had a nightmare in months.

 

It’s steady work, and it pays the bills, but Frank knows he could be doing more. Going through the motions—lather and rinse, day after day—it’s not a life. But it’s all he can do. He can’t see beyond it, and he doesn’t want to. Knowing that he's alone, that every day is one he has to endure without his family—sometimes it’s all he can do to drag himself out of bed in the morning.

 

“Can you even lift a sledgehammer, Russo?” Curt says, hiding his smile behind a swig of beer.

 

Bill flips him the bird. “Kiss my ass, man.”

 

“Guess I'll have to get in line.” Curt tips his head, and Frank follows his gaze to where a younger woman is casting coy glances over at Bill from across the bar.

 

“Jesus Christ,” Frank mutters. “Everywhere we go.”

 

Bill’s smug expression slides across his features like it’s what his face was made for. “Another beer, please,” he tells the bartender, slipping her some bills. “For the lady over there.”

 

A few minutes later, the woman makes her way over to where they’re standing. Frank’s honestly surprised it took her that long.

 

“I’m more of an IPA girl,” she says, teeth flashing. Bill leans in close to reply, bringing his hand to the small of her back in a fluid, easy gesture. His words are lost to the dull roar of the bar, but the woman laughs. No surprises there—Billy Russo is good with people in a way that’s entirely foreign to Frank.

 

Curt pretends to gag, and Frank chokes on his beer.

 

“What about you, huh?” he says once he’s recovered, shooting Curt a knowing look. “Aren’t you still seeing Delia?”

 

“One month and counting,” Curt says. He pulls a face as Bill snakes an arm around the woman’s shoulders. “Just promise me you’ll kick my ass if we ever start acting like that.”

 

Frank grins, about to open his mouth to agree when he’s jostled by someone pushing their way up to the bar. The guy is plastered, judging by his lack of body awareness and how strongly he reeks of alcohol. Just another asshole who doesn’t know his limit.

 

“Hey,” the man slurs, leering at the bartender. “Another pint. And one for yourself, on me.”

 

The bartender doesn’t look up as she pours the drink. “Thanks, but I don’t drink when I’m working,” she says.

 

The man leans further over the bar. “C’mon. Just one drink. I want you to have a drink with me.”

 

Curt raises his eyebrows, taking a pull of his beer, but Frank notices how he subtly angles his body toward the newcomer. The bartender looks like she can handle herself—she’s young, maybe just out of college, and Frank’s sure this isn’t the first night she’s had to fend off drunken idiots like this one. Still, his hand reflexively balls into a fist as he watches the man give her a very deliberate up-down.

 

“You’re really hot,” the man drawls. “I like your tattoos. Maybe you could show me where that one goes.”

 

“Wouldn’t that be fun,” the bartender deadpans. She seems unfazed by his behavior. “Too bad I’m working.”

 

It’s as if a switch has flipped. The man’s face twists into something ugly, his lips curling as he sneers, “Bitch.”

 

Curt’s eyes darken, but Frank is way ahead of him. “Hey,” he says, loud enough to get the man’s attention. “Leave the lady alone, yeah?”

 

“Who the hell are you?” the man says, drawing himself up.

 

“Just a guy trying to enjoy my beer,” Frank says. “Kinda hard with you being an asshole over there.”

 

Anger flashes in the man’s eyes. “What did you just—” he cuts off as Curt silently moves to stand beside Frank. For a moment, the man looks like he’s considering throwing a punch, but then he backs off. “Whatever. Fuck this.”

 

Frank doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath until the guy is out of his line of sight. He feels like he’s just left a warzone—his palms are slick with sweat, and his pulse is racing.

 

He’s almost—disappointed. He would’ve thoroughly enjoyed kicking that guy’s ass.

 

Curt must be reading his mind. “Kinda wish he’d given me an excuse,” he says. “Probably for the best that he didn’t, though.”

 

“Yeah,” Frank says, staring in the direction that the man went. His blood is still thrumming, his muscles itching for release. He digs his nails into his palm, hard. “Yeah, probably is.”

 

“Hey,” a woman’s voice says behind them, and Frank turns. The bartender is looking at both of them. “Thank you.”

 

Curt bobs his head. “Don’t mention it. On behalf of all men, we’re sorry.”

 

The bartender laughs. “I appreciate it. Thanks again.” She moves further down the bar as someone calls for another drink.

 

They finish their beers in silence. Frank can tell that Curt is still tense—he keeps fidgeting, all potential energy with nowhere to go. Curt’s day job isn’t as conducive for working out built-up tension, but he’s always been the most level-headed of the three of them. He knows the value of using words to solve a problem, instead of his fists.

 

Bill has disappeared, which is typical. Frank sometimes wonders if he agrees to come out with them for their company, or to pick up women. It’s probably a little bit of both.

 

By the time he's polished off his beer, his pulse has evened out. He’s teetering on the edge of tipsy, and that’s how he knows it’s time to stop. “Think I’m gonna head out,” he says to Curt.

 

Curt nods, tipping the rest of his beer back. “I’m right behind you. Just need to close my tab. You see Casanova anywhere?”

 

“Nah," Frank says, “but I’m sure he’s doing just fine, wherever he is.”

 

They make their way toward the entrance. Frank shrugs into his coat, craning his neck to scan the bar one last time for Bill—

 

There’s a blur of motion to his right, a fist flying into his periphery. He reacts instinctively, twisting away—and the punch that was meant to take him above the ear lands between his shoulder blades.

 

Frank lurches forward. He’s dimly aware that Curt is shouting, and he turns on his heel, fists raised defensively.

 

It’s the asshole from earlier. He rushes at Frank again, swinging his entire arm in a wide arc. Frank ducks, then jabs his elbow into the man’s face. There’s a crunching sound, and the man staggers to the floor, clutching his nose.

 

“Alright, Rambo,” Curt says, hauling the man up by the shoulders. He shoves him roughly out the front door, then turns to Frank. “You alright, man? I’m sorry, didn’t seem him coming—”

 

“Me either,” Frank says. He rolls his shoulder, assessing the damage. The pain has already receded to a dull ache, though he’ll probably feel it more in the morning. “We’re getting rusty, brother.”

 

Curt laughs dryly. “Speak for yourself. I’m not the one who just got sucker punched.”

 


 

Karen has just finished closing up when she feels the blow.

 

It hits like lightning—one moment, she’s locking the diner’s front door, and the next she’s thrown onto the blacktop. Pain blossoms between her shoulders, and she whips around, expecting to see whoever just hit her—

 

But there’s no one. The parking lot is empty and quiet, save for the hum from the nearby streetlight. Karen squints against the darkness, straining to see if there’s a silhouette of her attacker disappearing into the night. She drops her right hand into her bag, fingers sliding around the .380 stashed there. Muggings aren’t a common occurrence in Fagan Corners. Most likely this is one of the local high schoolers messing around, but Karen keeps her hand clenched around her gun as she moves quickly to her car.

 

The roads are mostly empty on the drive home. She scans them uneasily, unable to shake the sensation that she’s being watched. She’s been on her own for years now, but she rarely feels unsafe. This is something new, and it’s more than a little disconcerting.

 

The song that’s playing on the radio crackles with static, and Karen goes to switch the station.

 

“Alright, Rambo.”

 

Karen jumps in her seat. Someone’s in the car with her—

 

She swerves onto the shoulder and hits the brakes. As soon as the car skids to a halt, Karen lunges for her gun and points the barrel at the backseat.

 

There’s no one there. Of course, there’s no one there, but that voice—it sounded like it had come from inside the car, like someone was sitting right behind her. Even now, she can hear the low rumble of many overlapping voices, threaded through with music. It’s like she’s sitting in a restaurant, or a bar.

 

Karen shakes her head furiously, and the noise stops.

 

She remains frozen where she is, her gun trained on the backseat—but all she hears is the thin shimmer of static from the radio. There’s no voice, no music.

 

Karen lowers her pistol and sits back. She blinks at the clock above the dashboard. It’s only just past eight, but it feels like it could be midnight. She’s been working twelve-hour shifts for the past week—maybe it’s finally starting to impact her brain function. She probably just needs some sleep.

 

Karen drives the rest of the way home feeling vaguely on edge, but mostly exhausted. Her apartment is only a ten-minute drive from the diner, but by the time she’s pulling into her carport and unlocking her front door, it’s all she can do to keep her eyes open.

 

She collapses into bed without taking off her coat or shoes, asleep within minutes.

 

.

 

The rest of the week passes with little incident. Her daily routine at the diner is monotonous, but it keeps her busy—the phantom attack and strange voice are quickly forgotten in lieu of more pressing concerns like the stovetop’s leaking gas line and a server out with a nasty bout of flu. There’s a tidal wave of shit that needs fixing, bills piling up, customers who only give her business because they knew her father—but she does it. She treads the water.

 

She doesn’t touch the photo of the four of them. It aches to look at, the memory stinging like soap to a cut, but it’s proof that they were a happy family, once. It’s all the closure she has.

 

Penny’s Place hasn’t given her much else. She couldn’t make things right with her dad, even after he got sick. A broken bone never heals quite right, and the chasm between them was no different. Karen still considers it a small miracle that he left her the diner when he passed, though she doubts his intentions were benign. It feels like karmic retribution—punishment for surviving, for being here when the rest of her family isn’t.

 

Fagan Corners is her penance.

 

.

 

The week ends on a high note—she’s able to fix the gas leak herself with a bit of mechanical tinkering, and she finds someone to cover the sick server’s shifts, so she celebrates by going to the grocery store. Her pantry is painfully bare, and she’s been subsisting off diner leftovers for longer than she cares to admit. Her body is craving something—anything—that hasn’t been deep-fried in oil.

 

It’s early enough in the morning that the parking lot is fairly empty. Karen snags one of the coveted spots near the front doors, grabs a cart, and makes a beeline for the produce section.

 

She’s inspecting the strawberries, her hand reaching for one of the containers, when she’s suddenly staring at—someone else's hand. She blinks several times. The hand in front of her looks masculine, fingers long and callused. She can see a thin scar running up the length of the index finger, and some light bruising across the knuckles. It fades slightly, an almost transparent image on top of her own fingers—

 

A car horn blares, and Karen flinches. She snaps her eyes up—and she's not in the produce section anymore. She’s crossing a busy street, but there’s a taxi right there, it’s going to hit her—

 

“Watch out!” she yells, shoving her arms out in front of her protectively. Her shopping cart careens away from her, crashing into the banana stand.

 

“Jesus, what—”

 

Karen freezes. It’s the voice. A different one from before, but unmistakable.

 

“Who said that?” she demands, spinning around. There’s no one else in the produce section besides a store employee, who is looking at Karen with a mixture of concern and fear.

 

“Everything okay, ma’am?” the employee asks hesitantly.

 

“Yeah, I’m—” Karen swallows. “I’m fine—”

 

“Who is that?” the voice asks, louder this time. Karen’s heart kicks in her chest.

 

The voice—it’s coming from inside her head.

 

“What the fuck,” she whispers, hands bracketing her face. “What the fuck.”

 

“Who is that?”

 

Karen slams her hands over her ears and runs out of the store, not stopping until she’s back in her car. She sits like that for a minute, nails digging into her scalp and her pulse in her throat.

 

She’s still sleep-deprived—she’s just tired, that’s all this is—

 

“I’m not gonna ask again,” the voice says, low like thunder. “Who the hell is this?”

 

Karen’s eyes dart to her purse, to the .380 tucked away there, but it doesn’t matter—whoever this is, they’re not actually here. They’re in her head.

 

Maybe living in this bumfuck town really does drive people insane.

 

“Get out of my head,” she says through gritted teeth, “get out of my head, get out of my head—”

 

“Listen, lady, I’m not in your head, I’m—” the voice cuts off. “Am I in a car?”

 

I am,” Karen answers slowly. “It’s my car.”

 

As if on cue, her steering wheel blurs and she’s looking down a sidewalk. Tall buildings line either side of the street, and the air is thick with noise—taxi drivers laying on their horns, people shouting, distant sirens.

 

“What the hell is happening?” she says. “Who—who is this?”

 

“I asked you that,” the voice replies, sounding irritated.

 

“Is this in my head?” Karen says, feeling slightly dazed. She focuses her eyes. “I can see—a city. But I can see here, too. It’s like one is close and one is far away.” She relaxes her gaze, and the steering wheel swims back into view. “I can see what’s—in my head.”

 

“I told you, this ain’t your head, lady. It’s New York City.”

 

Karen focuses again, and she’s back on the sidewalk. New York. After Kevin died, she almost moved to the city. She wanted to be anonymous, just another face in a sea of many. Now she’s there, somehow—she can see it as clearly as the interior of her car.

 

“This is real,” she whispers. “You’re real.”

 

“Sure as hell hope so,” the voice grumbles. It’s definitely a male voice, low and gravelly.

 

Karen squeezes her eyes shut. “I don’t understand what this is. I can hear you like—”

 

“Like I hear myself,” the voice finishes.

 

Karen presses a hand to her mouth. Every rational and logical part of her brain is scrambling to accept that this is real. It’s like something out of a science fiction novel—she can see what this man is seeing, feel what he’s feeling.

 

Karen opens her eyes, tipping her head back against the seat. “This is—shit, this is crazy.”

 

“Yeah, you got that right,” the voice says. “So—where are you, then? If you’re not in my head?”

 

“Fagan Corners, Vermont.”

 

“Never heard of it.”

 

Karen smirks. “Not surprising. Trust me, you’re not missing much.” She has a sudden thought. “Wait, what day is it there?”

 

“Thursday, I think. The 24th.”

 

Karen nods. “Okay, that’s today. So you're not from the future or anything.”

 

"Big concern of yours?"

 

Karen frowns. "Just ruling things out." She pauses. “I’m Karen, by the way.”

 

The voice huffs. “Wow, didn’t think of that. I’m Frank.”

 

“Frank,” she echoes. “It’s—nice to meet you?”

 

The voice—Frank—makes a noise that’s halfway between a grunt and a laugh. “Interesting definition of that word, ma’am.”

 

“So, what now?”

 

There’s a long stretch of silence, and she wonders if Frank left, or if she somehow lost him. She has no idea how any of this works. But, no—she can feel him in the back of her head, a hazy sensation like she’s coming up from underwater. He’s still here.

 

“Would you—” he pauses for a beat. “Would you want to talk later? I’m on my way to work right now, but—” he trails off again, and when she doesn’t respond, he backpedals. “I know that’s probably way out of line, you don’t know me from Adam—”

 

Karen shakes her head. “It’s not out of line. I’m sorry, I’m just—processing. But I agree, we should talk again.”

 

“I get off around six. That work for you?”

 

“That works.”

 

“Great. If, uh—if for some reason I can’t reach you, or it doesn’t work again, it was nice—talking with you.”

 

Karen laughs. “I think we have the same definition after all.”

 

She can’t explain it, but she can feel Frank’s mouth tug at the corners like it’s her own. Like she’s the one trying not to smile.

 

“Take care, ma’am,” he says.

 

And he’s—gone. She can feel his presence in the back of her head, and then he’s sliding away like dust to a breeze, and she's alone again.

Chapter Text

He hasn’t thought about superheroes since Lisa was five or six, when she was convinced she had powers of her own. Frank remembers her bolting around the house as fast as she could run, flexing her tiny arms as she helped cart grocery bags in from the car. Maria had sewn her a cape from some old sheets while Frank was away, a big ‘L’ stitched in red on the back, and she wore it everywhere—at the table for breakfast, doing circles on her bike around the cul-de-sac at the end of their drive, even to bed, cinching it tight around her like a blanket.

 

I’m gonna be a superhero when I grow up, she declared, all matter-of-fact with her little chin jutting out, hands on her hips.

 

Frank would laugh, pulling her close so he could kiss the top of her head. I bet you will, sweetheart.

 

Just like you, daddy.

 

He blinks against the memory, the press of the city loud in his ears as he struggles to process—whatever just happened. His head’s all stuffy, so he cranks his jaw a couple of times, the way he would if his ears were popping. Frank can still hear the woman’s voice, as sharp and clear as if she’d been standing right here on the sidewalk with him. But it wasn’t just that—he had seen where she was, felt the leather car seat under him like he was the one sitting in it.

 

Maybe that bullet to the skull did more brain damage than he thought. But, no—he’s not crazy. Whatever this is, it’s not that.

 

Frank’s never given much thought to—gifted individuals, as they’re called these days. He was overseas when the skies opened up over New York, but he saw the footage, read all the news articles. He had his own definition of what a hero was, and it sure as hell didn’t involve tacky robot suits or spandex. Even after he came home, the flag-waver and everyone like him—everyone with abilities—always felt more like celebrities than real people. Not worth thinking about, so he didn’t.

 

Looks like he might be one of them, now. He and this woman seem to have formed some sort of mental link.

 

The thought is enough to keep Frank on edge the rest of the day, keyed-up like he’s sucked down too much coffee. He keeps waiting for it to happen again, half-expecting to blink and be standing in rural Vermont instead of the demolition site, or hear a stranger’s voice piercing through the noise—but it doesn’t. He replays their brief conversation in his head, each word looping over and over like a turntable as he tries to string together some semblance of meaning from them. The woman—Karen, her name is Karen—seemed just as confused and shocked to be hearing his voice as he was hers.

 

Frank tries to imagine how his friends would react if he told them he was hearing a strange woman’s voice. Curt would be quietly concerned, maybe ask how he’s been sleeping. Bill would tell him that he just needs to get laid.

 

Frank inwardly cringes as he considers the latter. The conversation with Karen is probably the longest one he’s had with a woman in almost three years. He hasn’t been with anyone since losing Maria—hasn’t wanted to. That part of his life has been sealed off and boarded up tight.

 

That’s not what this is. Yeah, he’d asked to talk with her again, but that just makes objective sense. They both deserve to get to the bottom of what’s happening to them, and why.

 

So why does the thought of talking to her again twist something up in the pit of his stomach?

 

By the time he clocks out, Frank can’t tell what he’s feeling. It’s all blended together, nerves and anticipation and his legs pumping a bit faster than usual as he walks home. He got off late today—the sun’s already sinking toward the skyline like a deflated balloon, and the city is softer in the evening light, shadows like brushstrokes against the glass and pavement. It reminds him of a painting, something beautiful and crafted with care. Makes it easier to pretend there isn’t a world of filth and bullshit under that shiny veneer. He needs to pretend, sometimes.

 

As soon as he’s in his apartment, Frank makes a beeline for the couch. He’s more mentally drained than anything, and he can feel a headache starting to build at the base of his skull. The book he’s reading is on the coffee table—a slightly tattered copy of On the Road that he’d found at a local thrift store—but just the thought of opening it makes him weary.

 

He glances at his watch—it’s five past six. His gut’s still churning with a strange cocktail of emotions, but he’s not one to break his word. He said he’d reach out, so he should.

 

Frank blows out a breath and closes his eyes. The pressure in his head is building—what he thought was a headache is actually something else, something sharp and shimmery like light refracted by water. He moves toward it, in his head, closer and closer until—

 

“Hi.”

 

Frank jerks, eyes snapping open. “Hey. Wow, this is—sorry, I didn’t expect this to work again. Thought I was just—”

 

“I know,” Karen says, and he can hear the smile in her voice. “I did, too. I spent all day trying to figure out why this could be happening.”

 

So he wasn’t the only one. The thought is strangely relieving. “What’d you come up with?” he asks.

 

“One thing did occur to me—you’re not Satan, right?”

 

Frank is surprised by the laugh that tumbles out of his mouth. “No, ma’am. Don’t have the bone structure to pull off horns.”

 

“Okay, good,” Karen chuckles softly. “I like the telepathy option better, anyways.”

 

Frank frowns. It’s not like he wasn’t thinking it earlier, but the notion that he suddenly has superpowers is still a bit too insane to fully lean into.

 

Karen seems to be feeling similarly. “I know how that sounds,” she says, and Frank has the vague sensation of a hand gliding through hair. “But compared to a literal alien invasion, this is pretty tame, right?”

 

He huffs. “Suppose you have a point, there.”

 

“The real question is—why now? Why us?”

 

“You asking if I’ve been bitten by any radioactive spiders recently?”

 

It’s Karen’s turn to laugh, the sound bright and warm. “Not exactly. I just think it’s interesting that this started—” she cuts off. Then: “Oh my god. Okay, I have to ask—did you get hit last night? Like, really hard?”

 

Frank blinks. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I did. Son of a bitch took a swing at me—”

 

“—and hit you in the shoulder instead, right? I felt it.”

 

Frank feels a stab of guilt that he inadvertently caused her harm, threaded through with anger at the asshole who punched him.

 

“I’m fine,” Karen says, like she can read his mind. “A little sore, that’s all. Just be sure and give me ample warning the next time you plan on getting in a bar fight.”

 

Frank snorts. “Don’t plan on making that a habit, ma’am.”

 

“Call me Karen,” she replies. “I think we can probably skip past the formalities, seeing as how we’re in each other’s heads.”

 

Frank hesitates. He knows what he’s doing, using the formality as a shield. It’s safer, not using her name. Easier to stay detached.

 

“I mean, only if you’re comfortable with that,” Karen says, once again accurately deciphering his silence. It twists something in his stomach, how easily she can read him. He nods stiffly, even though she can’t see him. Or—maybe she can. He can sense all of the gestures she’s making as if he’s the one making them, so it’s probably the same for her. It’s more than a little disorienting, feeling like his body is in two places at once.

 

He’s not sure he’ll ever get used to this.

 

The silence stretches between them. Frank’s vision blurs, and a room that’s not his own swims into view, overlapping his apartment like a transparency. He squints, eyes straining a little against the competing images.

 

“This your place?” he asks.

 

The image jerks, moving in different directions. It’s Karen, glancing around. The space is small and sparsely furnished, just the basics—he spots a mini-fridge in the corner, a simple bookshelf against the wall. The walls are bare, no pictures or art.

 

“Um, yeah, this is my apartment.” The image shifts again, moving downwards until he—Karen—is looking down at the ground. “Not the nicest place, but it’s close to work.”

 

“What do you do?”

 

“I run a diner,” she says. “It’s my dad’s—or, it was, before he passed.”

 

There’s a familiar pressure building in his chest, a tightness in his throat. Frank can’t tell if it’s coming from him or Karen, but he’d recognize that pain anywhere—the kind that comes from losing someone.

 

“Anyways,” she says, pressing on before he can say anything, “it keeps me busy. I’m not much of a cook when it comes to food that hasn’t been fried in grease, so it’s nice to be able to bring leftovers home. Super healthy, I know.”

 

“Hey, no judgement here. I did a few tours overseas—always craved the greasy stuff whenever I was home.”

 

“What branch?” Karen asks, and she sounds genuinely curious.

 

“I was with the Marines.” He opens his mouth to say more, but the words stick in his throat. He can’t quite bring himself to mention his family. “Work in construction, now. Mostly demolitions.”

 

“Wow—that idiot at the bar really picked the wrong guy to throw a punch at.”

 

Frank grunts. “Trust me, I’ve had worse. Hardest hit I ever took was—”

 

—flat on his back beneath the hellish desert sun, sand down his back and coating his tongue, and he’s here but also somewhere else, a world of lurching metal and glass shattering and someone’s frantic scream—

 

“Holy shit,” Frank breathes. He senses Karen’s confusion, blurred like watercolors against the kick of his pulse as realization slams into him. “Were you—I’m sorry to ask, but were you ever in an accident? A bad one?”

 

“Why?” she asks warily.

 

Frank sucks in a breath. “About a month into my first deployment, I got knocked out cold by something. Went down hard, right in the middle of base—must’ve been out for more than a minute. I chalked it up to the nerves and exhaustion, but—”

 

Karen is quiet for so long that Frank briefly wonders if he lost their connection. Then he hears her exhale, a shaky rattle of air that confirms what she’s going to say before she says it.

 

“There was an accident, when I was a teenager.” Her voice is flat, like she’s trying to keep it steady. “I—the car flipped. That was”—she makes a small sound of disbelief—“that was over ten years ago.”

 

Her words hang suspended in the air for a moment. Frank is still trying to wrap his head around this connection—the implication that it’s been ongoing for the past decade and change makes his brain ache. His heart is still racing, and he takes a deep breath. Beneath the adrenaline, he feels something else, a sorrow that’s grating and bone-deep in a way he’s intimately familiar with.

 

Maybe Karen wasn’t the only one in that flipped car.

 

His mouth is dry, when he swallows. “Hey, I’m sorry—”

 

“Like I said. It was a long time ago.” Her tone is gentle enough, but there’s a weary tinge to each word. Frank reads that cue like a neon sign. He knows better than most how grief can slowly scrape away at a person, leaving nothing but void in its wake. And he knows better than to push. Even now, he struggles to talk about Maria and the kids. He gets it, he really does.

 

Karen is looking at her hands, now—he can see her picking idly at one of her nails. “I should probably go. I have an early morning at the diner tomorrow.”

 

Frank bobs his head. “Yeah, okay.”

 

“Have a good night, Frank.”

 

He tries to ignore the way his stomach flips when she says his name. “Night.”

 

Then the pressure in his head evaporates, and when he blinks, his room is the only one he sees.

 


 

“You alright over there, honey?”

 

Karen scrubs at her forehead, at the sweat slicked there. “I’d be better if you stopped asking me that.”

 

Across the yard, Barb stops her raking. “Ooh, you’re in a mood, today.”

 

“I’m not—” Karen lets out a measured breath. “I’m just tired. It’s been a long day.”

 

And that’s mostly true. She’d spent the day in a daze, screwing up the most basic of orders and narrowly avoiding starting a kitchen fire by forgetting to turn a burner off. Her conversation with Frank feels like a dream, something ripped straight from one of those old comic books her brother used to stash under his bed. The abrupt realization that she has a decade-old telepathic connection with a complete stranger has left her feeling like she’s adrift at sea, floundering in uncharted waters.

 

He knows about the accident. He’d lived it, just like her—and she would be none the wiser if he hadn’t told her. Despite the warmth of the late-afternoon sun beating down on her, Karen’s blood freezes. What else has he seen through the half-silvered mirror of their bond?

 

Barb is now leaning on her rake, the expression on her face something between amusement and concern. Karen can’t quite meet the older woman’s gaze, instead turning her attention back to her own rake as she drags it across the lawn, pine needles snagging in its metal teeth. She could probably stop—the mulch pile she’s working on has reached a sizable height, more than enough to spread out over the vegetable garden, but the manual labor is a nice distraction from Barb’s laser-focused stare.

 

“Oh, okay,” Barb quips. “I see how it is. You’re playing hard to get. Gonna make me pry before you give me the tea.”

 

Karen snorts, but doesn’t turn around. “Don’t say tea, please.”

 

“What? That one actress is always saying it—‘and that’s the tea.’ I’m just staying relevant.”

 

“What actress?”

 

“You know—the one from the horrible show with the dragons and the incest.”

 

“Game of Thrones?” Karen laughs.

 

“That’s the one!”

 

Karen smiles, shaking a few errant pine needles from her rake. “I can come over more often if you’re bored.”

 

“You’re here enough as it is, honey,” Barb replies, not unkindly, but Karen can parse out the implication easily enough. It probably says something about the state of her life that she spends most of her time off work here, that her closest friend in town is a woman who is old enough to be her grandmother, but she doesn’t care. It was by chance that the local non-profit she’d been volunteering with reached out to her with Barb’s information—recently widowed, needing assistance with upkeep on her property. It only took a few weeks for Karen to realize that Barb was more in-shape than she was, and that she was actually just looking for someone to talk to.

 

Karen thinks that maybe that’s what she was looking for, too.

 

She sighs and turns to look at Barb over her shoulder. “I like hanging out with you,” she says, because it’s the truth.

 

There’s a hint of sadness in Barb’s answering smile. “And don’t think for one second that I don’t appreciate you coming over here. You know I do. I just worry about you. And before”—she holds up a hand—“before you roll your eyes and tell me to shove it, I know you’re an adult. You can live your life however you want to. You do you, as the kids say. I would just feel better if I knew you had a life away from here.”

 

“It’s Fagan Corners,” Karen says with a shrug. “Not exactly the thriving metropolis conducive to having a social life.”

 

Barb appraises her with one of her signature looks. “What about the diner? Anyone interesting come in, lately? Aside from me, obviously.”

 

“Barb, I swear, if this is your subtle way of asking if I’ve met any men, lately—”

 

“Or women! It’s twenty-bi-teen, Karen, anything is possible.”

 

“Okay, you are officially spending way too much time on the internet.”

 

Barb laughs, bright and clear. “Regardless, the question stands.”

 

Karen knows she’s just asking to be polite. Hardly anyone comes into the diner these days, aside from the old regulars. Friends of her father, mostly. She barely brings in enough business to keep the lights on, but that’s nothing new.

 

For a brief nanosecond, she considers telling Barb about Frank—but, no. It’s hard enough for her to believe, let alone attempt to explain to someone else.

 

Karen blinks, coming back to herself. “I like being on my own. Speaking of—” she moves toward the garage, depositing her rake with the other tools. “There’s a microwave meal at my apartment that’s calling my name. I’d better go.”

 

“You sure I can’t convince you to stay for dinner?”

 

Karen shakes her head. Barb always offers, and Karen is usually able to weasel her way out with an excuse. It’s not that she isn’t touched by the offer, but the thought of another person devoting that much time and effort just for her—that’s more kindness than she deserves.

 

“Well, if you’re sure,” Barb says. “I need to catch up on the Thrones show, anyways, spend some quality time with Jon Frost.”

 

Karen just grins, not bothering to correct her. She gives Barb a quick hug, then hops in her car and heads for home.

 

The midsummer sun dips low as she drives, almost in her eyes. The temperature is perfect for cranking the windows down, so she does, one hand on the steering wheel while the other glances against the breeze.

 

Barb lives a short ways out of town, maybe twenty minutes from her apartment. Karen is just turning off the state highway when she hears the noise, a repetitive chugging sound that seems to be coming from her engine. She hadn’t been able to hear it over the highway noise.

 

“Shit,” she mutters, pulling off the road into an abandoned parking lot. The last time she ignored an interesting new noise that her car was making, it had cost her a rear brake line. She’d spent the next month working herself into the dirt to make up for the expense.

 

Karen shifts the car into park and scans the dashboard. No lights are flashing, and the engine isn’t overheating, but the sound seems to have gotten louder. With a heavy sigh, she pops the hood. The noise is definitely coming from here, and Karen pokes her face closer, making sure to hold her loose hair back from her face—

 

—and there’s that swimmy sensation, like she’s coming up for air. She realizes she can smell something savory, the distinct tang of roasting garlic.

 

Karen pulls back, looking down at her car with confusion even as her vision clouds, replaced by a kitchen stovetop. She sees tomato sauce and minced garlic pieces bubbling in a pan, and a familiar callused hand holding a wooden spoon.

 

Fabulous. She’s interrupting his dinner. Which smells so delicious. She thinks of the Lean Cuisine sitting in her freezer, and wrinkles her nose.

 

“Uh—hey?” Frank says, giving her a little wave with the spoon.

 

“Hey,” Karen echoes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—reach out.”

 

She thinks she catches a flash of disappointment, but it’s gone before she can be sure. “Everything okay?” he asks.

 

Karen huffs a laugh. “Yeah, my car’s just throwing a tantrum, apparently.”

 

“I can hear that,” Frank says, setting his spoon down.

 

“You don’t have to—” Karen starts, but he gently cuts her off.

 

“It’s no problem. Mind if I take a look?”

 

Karen falters for a second, unsure of what to say. Guilt pools in her stomach as she remembers how abruptly she’d left last night. She’s still not sure what to make of all of this. If he’s seen the accident with Kevin, then it’s possible he’s seen other parts of her past, things she’s done her best to bury. She can’t imagine he’d want anything to do with her if he knew who she really was.

 

“Hey,” he says, the low gravel of his voice pulling her from her thoughts. “I’m sorry if I overstepped, yeah? I can go.”

 

She should let him. Instead, she hears herself saying, “No, it’s fine. I don’t mind.” She does a visual scan of everything under the hood, moving slowly so that he can see what she's looking at.

 

“What year’s your car?” Frank asks, and huffs when she tells him. “Shouldn’t be the exhaust system, then. Could just be the sensor’s gotten loose. That should be over by the ABS.”

 

Karen stares blankly down at her car. “This is going to sound pathetic, but—I have no idea what that is.”

 

He seems surprised, but he doesn’t push it. “Should be on the right side there. Looks like a box.”

 

Karen strains her eyes, then points to a part that’s vaguely box-looking. “That?”

 

“No, not that—maybe it’s on the other side. You’re looking for something that’s multi-pronged. Sort of like a switch. Yeah, there,” he says as her fingers drift over the part in question. “Looks like it’s loose. Try plugging it in.”

 

She does, her heart leaping into her throat as the chugging noise stops. “Oh, thank god. You’re a lifesaver, truly.”

 

“No problem at all.”

 

Karen inhales deeply, her stomach growling as she breathes in the aroma coming off his stovetop. “Although I have to say, it’s supremely unfair that you can fix cars and cook.”

 

Frank chuckles, and the sound stirs something in her chest. “Gotta break down those gender stereotypes, right?”

 

“Well, whatever you’re making smells amazing.”

 

“High praise from someone who does this for a living.”

 

“I mostly just deep-fry stuff. Minimal skill involved.” Karen pauses for a moment, silence dangling from her words like ribbons. “Listen, I’m sorry for bailing so quickly last night. I think I was just in shock, you know? It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about—about the accident.”

 

“Hey, that’s not necessary,” Frank says. “I’m the one who should apologize for bringing it up. You don’t know me, yeah? Don’t owe me any answers.”

 

A thought occurs to her, so obvious she can’t believe she didn’t think of it until now. “I have an idea—you should go look in a mirror.”

 

She can feel the instant his confusion morphs into understanding. “You sure?” he asks.

 

“Absolutely.” Her eyes flick to the glass window on the driver’s side of her car. “I’ll do it, too. It’ll be nice to put a face to the voice.”

 

His stovetop and pan dissolve, the image blurring a little as he moves away from the kitchen. Then it solidifies again, and he’s looking down at a sink. He must be in his bathroom.

 

“How do you, uh—how should we do this?” he says, and he almost sounds nervous.

 

Or maybe that’s just her. Karen’s stomach swoops, like she tripped going down the stairs. “On three?” she says. “One, two—”

 

She snaps her eyes up, staring at her reflection in the glass—only it’s not just her reflection. She’s looking at a square jawline, dark eyes set above the jagged ridge of a nose that looks like it’s been broken a few times. His hair is short, buzzed along the line of his scalp. He has a nice face, handsome in an intense sort of way, and the stirring in her chest unfurls, warmth spreading through her veins.

 

“Hi,” she says. “Nice to meet you, officially.”

 

His lips twitch at the corners. “Nice to meet you, Karen.”

Chapter Text

Karen is used to seeing the same faces at the diner. It’s only been a couple of years since her dad’s stroke, but business is as slow as it was when he was alive. She’s honestly amazed the place hasn’t gone under. It must be cursed—she sometimes thinks she could douse it in gasoline and set it ablaze and it would still be here, like a seeping wound that won’t heal.

 

She recognizes everyone here tonight, but the sight of Chief Bernie stonily observing her from across the counter still sets her nerves on edge. He’s retired now, but all those years slough away under his scrutinous gaze—she’s a teenager again, young and afraid.

 

“The usual?” she asks him, averting her eyes. She can’t look directly at him without seeing the flash of ambulance lights, her brother strapped to a gurney. Some small part of her wonders if that’s why he still comes here, to make sure she hasn’t forgotten the consequences of that night.

 

Like she could. Those memories are a stain, permanent. All the bleach in the world couldn’t scrub them clean.

 

“Please,” he replies. His eyes are on her like a brand, and she bobs her head, grateful for the excuse to escape to the kitchen.

 

Tony is on chef duty tonight. He’s removing a batch of onion rings from the deep fryer, but looks up as Karen enters.

 

“Steak and eggs for Bernie,” she says.

 

Tony’s mouth quirks as he shakes the basket of onion rings onto a plate. “Shocker.”

 

“I got these,” Karen asks, taking the plate from him. “Mrs. Olson, right?”

 

“Yep. Said she wanted them ‘extra crunchy’ tonight, so—” he shrugs. “I did my best?”

 

Karen smiles. Tony’s a good kid, reliable. He’s home from college for the summer, and she’s already dreading having to replace him when he goes back in the fall. She’ll manage, though. She always does.

 

She pushes open the partition that separates the kitchen from the dining room, pointedly not looking at Bernie as she delivers the plate of onion rings. There’s a handful of people in tonight, the space humming with conversation and a mix of greatest hits leaking from the stereo in the corner, but his presence is a black hole, sucking all the air from the room.

 

Karen knows she should be grateful. If he hadn’t kept her name out of Kevin’s report, the landscape of her life would look very different right now. She would have gone to jail, the diner would have surely closed down for good, and her dad—

 

She swallows around the ball in her throat. Paxton would probably have preferred that—he barely acknowledged that she was his daughter after the accident. What better way to shun her than if she was locked away, out of sight and mind?

 

Karen grabs a pitcher of water off the counter, making the rounds and topping off drinks to give her hands something to do other than shake. She hates this, hates dragging the past around like a pair of shackles around her ankles, but that small voice lodged way back in her brain reminds her that this is what she deserves. She’s not sure she can picture a world where she finds peace, not with her brother in the ground. Not with her heavy heart, an ocean of unspoken hurt and regret beneath her ribs.

 

She circles back to the kitchen, pausing once she’s behind the swinging doors to brace herself against the wall.

 

“You okay?” Tony asks.

 

“Fine,” she breathes, drawing herself upright and pushing her hair out of her face. “Table four wants more fries.”

 

“Cheapskates,” Tony mutters. “That’s their third basket. They haven’t ordered anything else since they got here.”

 

“Yeah, well—” Karen pushes off from the wall, heading toward the deep fryer. She runs a batch of potatoes through the slicer, then shovels them into the frying basket. “That’s the diner business, for you.” She smirks. “Sure you don’t want to stick around in the fall?”

 

“My parents would love that,” Tony snarks. “Me giving up a full-ride scholarship to wait tables and flip burgers.”

 

He says it lightly enough, but Karen must go quiet for just a second too long, because he rapidly backpedals. “Not that there’s anything, you know, wrong with that—”

 

“It’s fine,” Karen cuts in, forcing her voice to go all light and airy. She glances up and sees Tony’s hangdog expression. “Really,” she insists. “No offense taken, I promise.”

 

A semi-awkward silence filters between them, and Karen focuses on slicing her potatoes, the hiss of her knife against the cutting board. She doesn’t blame Tony for what he said—all the blame is squarely on her shoulders, for allowing herself to settle into this stagnated holding pattern. Not for the first time in the past ten years, she feels caught in a tug-of-war between the life she wants and the one she’s chained herself to.

 

Karen slides the remaining potato strips into the basket, but she’s distracted, thoughts swilling like water around a drain. She doesn’t realize that she’s setting the basket into the fryer with more force than intended until the oil sprays up, scalding her wrist.

 

Shit, ow!” she yelps, the basket of unfried potatoes clattering to the ground. The pain is sharp and stinging, and she barrels toward the industrial sink, plunging her wrist beneath a stream of ice-cold water.

 

“What happened?” Tony is asking, craning his neck, but his words are lost to a shimmering sensation at the back of her head, water crashing against a levee.

 

Frank. 

 


 

It’s been a while since he last went to one of Curt’s groups. He’s missed the last month or so, got off-routine when he volunteered to cover a few shifts for a sick coworker, and then the longer he was away, the harder it was to go back. Curt never pressured him, which just made the guilt fester worse. Frank remembers the headspace he’d been in following the carousel shootout, ready to tear the city apart to get to the ones that took his family from him. Curt brought him back from that ledge. It’s a debt Frank isn’t sure he can ever repay, though he knows his friend doesn’t look at it that way.

 

This week’s meeting goes smoothly enough. All the old regulars are there, with a couple of new faces—a young woman fresh off her first deployment, and some assshole in a MAGA hat who’s more noise than anything. Frank considers it a sign of personal growth that he doesn’t put his fist through the guy’s face before the hour’s up.

 

He tries—and fails—not to think about Karen.

 

Seeing her face made everything real in a way it hadn’t been before. He’s not sure what he’d been expecting, but he knew he was in trouble the nanosecond he locked eyes with her. She was objectively beautiful, but it was more than that—it was the way his stomach jolted when she said it was nice to meet him, the kindness behind her gaze. He remembers the last time someone looked at him like that, knows with laser-sharp certainty where that road leads.

 

Frank doesn’t want to be a martyr about it. He knows that Maria wouldn’t want him to live the rest of his life like a monk, he knows that. But the thought of anything less is a bucket of ice water down his spine, cold clarity bringing him back to his senses.

 

He had his shot at a happy ending. He’s not sure he deserves another.

 

After the meeting is over, Frank stays behind to help put the folding chairs away. He and Curt work in comfortable silence, and the small space is clear within minutes.

 

“You wanna grab a bite?” Frank asks, wrinkling his nose at the bag of instant coffee on the table. “Maybe some real coffee?”

 

Curt cranks a grin. “I knew your social life was sadder than mine.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Frank snorts. “You in or what?”

 

“Can’t, man. I’m supposed to see Delia tonight.”

 

Disappointment flares in his chest, but Frank squashes it down. He’s happy for Curt, he really is—the man has taken all the shit from his life as a soldier and built something from it, something good. He found someone to share the after with. It’s not his fault that Frank’s either unwilling or unable to do the same.

 

Curt’s appraising him with one of his looks, so Frank plasters on a smile of his own. “Hey, say no more. Rain check, yeah?”

 

“You sure?”

 

“Absolutely, man,” Frank says with a nod. “I’m pretty beat, anyways.”

 

Curt looks vaguely unconvinced, but he shrugs. “Alright, well you know—”

 

But Frank doesn’t hear what it is that Curt wants him to know. His head swims, and then a blistering pain erupts in his hand at the same time that a familiar voice shouts, “Shit, ow!”

 

Frank wrenches his arm reflexively toward his body, hissing through his teeth. His hand throbs fiercely—he glances down at it just as Karen’s wrist shimmers into view, the skin there already turning an angry red.

 

“Frank? You okay?” Curt’s voice yanks him back, and when Frank blinks up at his friend, he sees concern darkening his eyes.

 

“Fine, just—muscle spasm,” Frank says, already turning away. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Curt. Have a good night.”

 

He feels Curt’s eyes on him as he heads for the door, so he’s careful to keep his movements calm and natural until he’s out of the other man’s line of sight. By the time he makes his way out of the church and onto the street, he’s broken out into a slight jog. It’s early evening, but the day’s swelter lingers, clinging to his skin like wet paper. Unusually warm, even for summer.

 

Frank slows to a stop, shaking his hand. The pain has receded, but he can still feel it simmering under the surface. “Karen?” he says under his breath. “Karen, you there?”

 

There’s no answer. He can sense her in the back of his head, but it’s like there’s a wall between them. He can’t push through.

 

Frank paces for the next few minutes, fingers twitching restlessly at his sides. The swirling panic in his chest is acutely familiar, even as he tries to tamp it down. Could be that she’s with someone right now and can’t talk—he doesn’t know. All he knows is that she’s hurt, and he’s helpless to do anything about it.

 

The barrier in his head dissolves, and her presence floods through like tidewater.

 

“Frank?”

 

He blows out a breath. “Hey, you okay? Your hand—”

 

“I’m okay. Just got a little careless with the deep fryer.”

 

Relief washes over him, and guilt on its heels. He shouldn’t feel relieved. He shouldn’t feel anything at all, not where she’s concerned.

 

So why does he?

 

“Yeah, I felt that,” he says. “How’s it looking now?”

 

There’s the sound of running water being shut off. “Better. Less red, at least.” She sighs. “God, that was stupid. I was—”

 

She cuts off, and before Frank can say anything, he hears the sound of someone approaching, someone on her end. Karen turns, and Frank sees a lanky kid stalking into the kitchen.

 

“Everything’s good,” the kid says. “How’s your hand?”

 

“Better, thanks. And thanks for checking the front, Tony.”

 

“Don’t thank me yet.” The kid looks slightly apologetic. “Bernie heard the noise when the basket fell.”

 

Karen groans. “What did he say?”

 

“Not much. Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

Karen is quiet, but it feels like something heavy has been draped over her shoulders. It takes Frank a moment to recognize it as guilt.

 

“Okay,” she finally says. “I’ll clean up back here. Would you mind doing another round?”

 

Tony gives her a two-fingered salute. “Sure. I’d rather take my chances out front if you’re gonna be flinging oil around back here.”

 

“Hilarious,” Karen snorts, and Tony retreats. She waits until he’s disappeared behind a swinging partition before asking, “You still there, Frank?”

 

“Yeah, I’m here.”

 

“Sorry about that. I didn’t think he’d be back so fast. That was Tony, one of my employees.”

 

Frank nods. “Seems like a good kid.”

 

“He is,” she agrees.

 

Frank takes in Karen’s view of the kitchen. It’s smaller than he expected—from where she’s standing, he can see almost the entire space. He watches through her eyes as she scans the overturned fryer basket on the ground, thin potato strips scattered around it like a halo. She sighs again, then grabs a broom and dustpan from the corner.

 

“So—this is the scene of the crime, huh?” he asks.

 

Karen chuckles. “In all its glory.” She starts sweeping. “I still can’t believe I did this. I haven’t made a mistake like that in the kitchen since I was a kid.” There’s a shade of embarrassment behind her words.

 

“Hey, that’s nothing,” Frank says. “My smoothest move was with an avocado. I was making guac for a block party, right? Got a little too cocky with the knife when I was cutting the pit—nicked an artery pretty good.”

 

“Your poor guac.”

 

Frank laughs. “Wow, thanks.”

 

“Well, you obviously lived to tell the tale,” Karen says, smiling. “And good guac is hard to come by.”

 

“Must’ve been passable, at least. It was one of my wife’s favorite recipes.”

 

The words roll off his tongue like water, too fast to stop. Karen’s broom freezes mid-sweep, and he catches a flash of confusion mingled with something else—but then it disappears behind a wall, and the broom is moving again, bristles hissing against the floor. A new sort of silence yawns open between them as she continues to sweep—curious, but not pushy. She’s putting the ball squarely in his court, letting him decide to elaborate or not.

 

The thing is, he could. Their names balance on the tip of his tongue, and he imagines saying them aloud. Imagines choosing to. He can’t remember the last time he spoke about his family casually, without their names dredging up old grief and pain. He can’t remember the last time it was easy to talk about them—and the revelation is an anchor dragging him back to reality. Curt would call this progress, being able to remember them without reliving the trauma surrounding them, but for Frank, it’s the polar opposite, like he’s allowing himself to forget. And he can’t forget. Not ever.

 

“Well, Tony’s going to back any second,” Karen says, and her voice sounds different. Too light. “And I have to deal with this, so—I’ll see you, Frank.”

 

She’s fading away before he can blink, before he can say anything. He can pinpoint the exact moment she vanishes, a small space inside him going empty.

 

His hand throbs. Frank flexes it, feels his tendons burn as he extends his fingers.

 

He’s in more trouble than he thought.

 


 

A wife. He has a wife.

 

Or had a wife, at least. Karen hadn’t missed his use of past tense.

 

She makes an exasperated sound, curling into herself on her couch. The rest of the evening at the diner went relatively smoothly, with the exception of Bernie staring down at every given opportunity. She could almost see his thoughts swirling as he watched her—maybe he was attributing her accident in the kitchen to something other than distraction or clumsiness. Maybe he thought she was using again. As far as she knows, he’s the only person left in town who has firsthand knowledge of that part of her past.

 

Between that and her conversation with Frank, she’d been more than ready to close up at the end of the night.

 

Whatever his story is, it can’t be good. He’d clammed up after mentioning his wife, and even though she sensed that he wanted to say more, he hadn’t.

 

Not that it matters. A week ago, she didn’t even know that Frank existed. She was none the wiser to this person who can see through her eyes, feel what she feels. And yeah, maybe she’s spent the last twenty-four hours trying not to think about his sharp jawline and intense eyes and how the gravel in his voice softens a bit when he laughs, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still strangers. This new nugget of information about his personal life is proof of that. They hardly know anything about each other.

 

Karen wonders if it’s possible that she glimpsed something about his life through their mental connection, something she might have dismissed until now. She remembers having severe mood swings when she was a teenager, but had chalked that up to the compounded trauma of losing her brother and mom.

 

Frank had seen the car accident, though. He just hadn’t put it together until he had the rest of the puzzle pieces from her end.

 

Karen lets her eyes shutter. Her head is empty. There’s—nothing. Or, that’s not quite right. There’s something—but the hollowed-out sphere of space in her head where Frank’s presence lingers now feels like it’s been packed with concrete. She probes it gently, and it’s like hitting a solid wall.

 

He’s there, but he’s not letting her in.

 

She can sense something else, though—a name, bubbling to the surface like seafoam. Karen reaches toward it, wincing as it flares against her consciousness with the brightness of a signal flare.

 

Maria.

 

.

 

A week passes.

 

Karen doesn’t bother to check the connection. She can feel that solid wall in her head as clearly as she feels the ground beneath her feet. She can’t help but wish that he would have severed the connection—it’s almost worse, this way. The bond is an ever-present something taking up space in her skull, difficult to ignore.

 

That doesn’t stop her from trying.

 

She sinks into her routine the way she always has, as an escape. She works the diner, helps Barb seed the vegetable garden, numbs her brain to the latest reality show on Netflix as soon as she gets home. Emotions filter through her—disappointment, anger, sadness. She lets them crest over her like waves, here then gone. It’s useless to wonder what she did wrong, or why this is happening. Everyone in her life has left her at some point.

 

Why would this be any different?

 

She falls asleep that night to the flickering light of her television. Her dreams are a whirlpool of sound and color, until the picture crystallizes.

 

The trailer is on fire. She feels the heat as soon as she wrenches the door of Todd’s truck open, and then she sees her own car, someone moving behind the glare of headlights—

 

Kevin.

 

You stay the hell away from my sister!

 

More sounds, more color—Todd throws her brother to the ground, gunfire cracks like thunder, and the world blurs as they speed away, narrowed to her jackhammer pulse and her foot slammed down on the accelerator.

 

I already lost mom.

 

The world lurches, and Karen jerks awake with a gasp. Her television is still on, the light from the screen flickering like one of those flip-books she used to make as a kid. She fumbles for her phone and sees that it’s just past three in the morning.

 

She’s so groggy and disoriented that it takes her a second to realize that the wall in her head is gone. She’d gotten so used to it that the open space feels slightly alien now, like standing beneath a wide sky, nothing between her and the horizon. Tentatively, she reaches out.

 

His presence is half-formed and hazy, but he’s here.

 

“Frank,” she croaks.

 

“Was that—the accident?” His voice is husky with sleep, and she realizes that he must have sensed her nightmare—or experienced it alongside her.

 

“Yes,” she answers simply, because after a week of radio silence, she’s not sure she owes him more than that.

 

“The kid, in the flipped car—”

 

“My brother.”

 

He’s quiet for a minute. Karen knuckles the grit from her eyes, blinking. His room is still dark, but she can vaguely see the outline of his hands, curved like claws over his knees. He’s sitting on the edge of his bed.

 

“I don’t know what to say,” he murmurs.

 

Karen pushes up on one arm, folding herself into the corner of the couch. “Why did you shut me out?”

 

“Am I an asshole if I say it’s complicated?”

 

She can’t help it—her lips twitch at the corners. “Absolutely, yes.”

 

There’s a twinge beneath her ribs, only it’s coming from him. She identifies it immediately as shame, and it’s like looking into a mirror, seeing an emotion she’s intimately familiar with laid bare in someone else.

 

“Our last conversation—that’s the first time I’ve talked about my wife in as long as I can remember. I didn’t think I could, anymore. And it scared me. That’s not an excuse for my behavior, but—” he sighs. “I’m sorry, Karen.”

 

Something is swelling in her chest, something she can’t quite put a finger on. “Maria,” she finally says, and she feels him recoil slightly at the word. “That was her name?”

 

“Yeah.” His throat is tight as a vice—it hurts to swallow.

 

Karen squeezes the back of her hand gently, hoping he’ll feel it on his own. “You lost her,” she says, understanding.

 

“There was a firefight, a gang drug deal gone south. We got caught in the crossfire—me, Maria. Our kids.”

 

Karen’s breath swoops from her lungs. It’s all slotting into place like a missing puzzle piece—her unexplainable mood swings, sadness so deep she sometimes felt like she could drown in it. It was him—and also her.

 

“I’m so sorry, Frank,” she says.

 

He bobs his head. “I’m sorry about your brother.”

 

They both sit like that a moment, wrapped up in each other’s pain.

 

“There’s something—” Karen cradles her knees to her chest. “There’s something that didn’t make any sense to me at the time, but—I always felt like there was someone with me. It was just a feeling, but—it helped, after losing Kevin.”

 

“Yeah,” Frank says softly. “Yeah—I know what you mean.”

 

Karen suddenly feels how tired she is—she blinks blearily against iron eyelids.

 

“I can let you go,” Frank offers, some of his own exhaustion bleeding through. “Talk to you tomorrow?”

 

Her heart skips a bit, jolting through her haze of fatigue. “You sure? You don’t have to—”

 

“I want to,” Frank interjects softly. His thumb drifts idly across the back of his hand, and she’s not sure the touch is meant for her, but she feels it all the same.

 

She hugs her knees to her chest a little tighter. “Okay.”

 

“Okay,” he echoes.