"Man, this is gonna be a great movie!" Micky exclaimed as he leaped onto the staircase and struck a "monster" pose with his hands curled into "claws," excitement making his voice crack. "Werewolves and vampires and mummies—!"
"Yes, well, if any of us have nightmares tonight, we'll know who to blame," Isabel retorted.
Beside her on the windowseat, Mike laughed as he draped his arm casually across her shoulders. "You mean, if you have nightmares," he teased, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
She glanced up at him, startled by his—for Mike—demonstrative gesture.
"Well, yes..." she admitted with a half-smile.
"Are we ready to go?" Micky demanded impatiently, and Peter and Davy jumped up from their places on the couch. Across the room, Mike rose to his feet and held out one hand to Isabel, who—after yet another startled look at him which he didn't seem to notice—took it and went with him to join the others at the door. Once they were all gathered there, an awkward pause ensued, and Micky darted impatient looks from Mike to Davy to Peter and back again.
"Who's got the keys?" he asked.
"I put them on the coffee table last night," came the amiable reply from Mike.
"Well?" Micky stared at him, obviously waiting for something.
The other four exchanged puzzled frowns. Wasn't this the part where Mike dove for the car keys trying to reach them before Peter did, or where they shot fingers for it and Mike pouted if he lost? Instead, he simply stood there, holding Isabel's hand and waiting as if he were completely removed from the issue.
"Well, who's driving?" Micky exclaimed, visibly exasperated.
"Doesn't matter to me," Mike said. "I'll drive if you want."
Doesn't matter...? Since when?! Isabel thought, her expression mirroring her growing worry.
Peter stared at Mike, eyes growing round and wide with shock. He hadn't just heard what he thought he'd heard...
Mike suddenly noticed all eyes were on him, and he stared back at them with a wide-eyed disingenuous look—a la Peter. "What?" he asked, voice cracking just a little as it rose uncertainly.
Peter held out a fist. "Shoot you for it," he said, grinning, but it didn't reach his eyes.
Mike shrugged. "Okay."
They shot fingers, and Mike lost. He walked over to the table anyway, picked up the keys and pitched them to Peter.
"There you go," he said, returning to Isabel's side and taking her hand again.
But nobody moved. They were staring at Mike, shock and worry etching themselves on every face but Mike's. It had been days since Connecticut. They had thought there would have been some improvement by now...
"Well, are we going to the movie or not?" Mike asked at last, and Isabel felt a fresh wave of despair washing over her as she realised his accent was fading in and out—again. Just like his personality seemed to be.
And the worst part was that he didn't even seem to notice.
"Yeah, sure," Micky answered, giving his roommate one more hesitant look before opening the front door and heading out.
Davy followed, his face almost grim as he cast a dubious glance over his shoulder at the threesome left behind. Peter stared at the keys in his hand as if he'd never seen them before, and then he glanced at Mike, extending them.
"You sure you don't want to drive, Mike?" he asked, but Mike shook his head and turned to amble out the door, all but dragging a shell-shocked Isabel behind him.
"Nope. You go ahead."
Peter slid behind the wheel, touching it with shaking fingertips. He could not believe what had just happened.
Micky dropped beside him in the passenger seat, leaning over to him and whispering, "You all right?"
Peter shook his head. "This is all my fault, Micky. If I hadn't wigged out, he wouldn't be—" He closed his eyes, fighting his tears. "He wouldn't be the—the way he is now."
"It's not your fault," Micky whispered. "You couldn't have helped it. You were sick."
Peter fixed tawny eyes on Micky, and they blazed with a gleam Micky had rarely seen in there before. Peter was livid. "And he became just as sick, Micky. Just like me. And now he's—" He stole a glance at Mike, who was holding Isabel's hand and whispering something into her ear. "He's...stuck, Micky. He's not getting better."
"Well, maybe we can talk to Isabel and get her to help," Micky suggested. "She pulled him out once before—"
"Look at her," Peter whispered, inclining his head to the seat behind them.
Micky shifted a little, pretending to be facing Peter better but in reality, he was sneaking a glance behind him, and what he saw made his stomach plummet to his feet. As Micky watched, Mike slipped his arm across Isabel's shoulders, then bent his head so he could whisper to her again. She rolled her eyes and swatted playfully at him, accidentally tangling her fingers in the white love beads around his neck, and he laughed openly as he untangled her, hugging her tight for a moment before settling back with a serene smile curving his lips. Isabel glanced up and noticed Micky's surreptitious gaze, and when their eyes met, the message in hers was clear: Something is wrong here.
"She's just as freaked out as the rest of us," Peter added softly, and Micky nodded agreement as he faced completely forward again.
"And if she could've done anything, she already would've," Micky finished for him. "Oh, man...what're we gonna do?"
"I don't know, man," Peter sighed, putting the car in gear. "I don't know."
"Pete—" Mike said suddenly.
"Think you ought’a start the car before you put it in gear?"
Peter let out an annoyed sigh as he put the car back into neutral and started it.
"You're welcome." Peter shot another look at Mike. The grin on his face—he was enjoying this—only served to annoy and alarm Peter further.
But if they didn't already know there was something going on with Mike before they got to the movie theater, they knew it the first time Micky started howling along with the Wolfman and all Mike did was give him an admonishing look and quietly remind him there were other people trying to watch the movie.
Micky—who'd only done it to see if he could get a rise out of Mike in the first place—slumped in his seat, casting mournful glances at Peter, who was so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he barely knew what was going on in the film.
Isabel made an attempt of her own to annoy Mike and make his temper flare by grabbing the box of popcorn they were sharing and settling it in her own lap instead of stuffing it between their seats as they usually did. But instead of indignantly demanding that she put it back where he could easily get to it, he simply reached over and scooped it up as cheerfully as ever.
She wanted to scream.
Davy even got into the act, faking a bathroom break halfway through the movie and deliberately stepping on Mike's toes as he crossed in front of them. Mike didn't bellow or issue death threats to the little man; he simply hissed in pain and whispered for Davy to please watch where he walked.
It took five full minutes for Davy to stop shaking enough to return to his seat. And he was careful where he walked, earning a smile from Mike as he passed. Davy spent the rest of the movie in stunned silence.
After the movie, nobody really wanted to go home. So Mike drove them to a small restaurant close to the park. They could afford it for a change, and they needed the break.
The waitress came and took their orders, beginning with Isabel's. Then the other three, then she turned to Mike, who ordered the barbecued chicken. As with the others, she asked, "What do drink with that, sir?"
Mike smiled up at her as he folded his menu and handed it to her. "Iced tea, please."
The others exchanged baffled looks for what felt like the hundredth time that evening. Tea? Mike? Since when?
Conversation was sparse and lifeless at the table; Peter was growing more depressed by the minute, Isabel felt on the verge of tears, and Micky and Davy simply had no idea what to do to help matters, so they said nothing. Mike was the only one of them who tried to spark any conversation, but his questions about the movie only got a half-hearted response from Micky, who usually would have been bouncing off the walls with excitement.
By the time dessert came, stony silence was the result. The five split the cake evenly, but really only picked at it.
One final finger shoot, and Mike drove them home. Davy had dozed off, and Peter and Micky each took an arm and dragged him inside, shooting one last concerned glance at Mike before Peter closed the door behind them.
Mike walked Isabel to her door, and she hesitated before unlocking the door, debating whether or not to invite him in. In the end, she decided against it; she'd seen enough that evening to know that if she witnessed one more Peterism, she'd go mad herself. Instead, she forced herself to smile as she looked up and met his expectant gaze.
"I've—got a really early day tomorrow," she said. "Gregory's called a meeting."
His face fell, clearly mirroring his disappointment, and Isabel had to look away. She didn't like this—everything so plainly written for anyone to see.
"Okay then," he replied softly. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Right," she nodded, hoping her voice sounded steadier than she felt at the moment. "Tomorrow."
He leaned forward and kissed her forehead, then turned as if to leave, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm, and he faced her again with a quizzical look. "Okay, Peter, you want to let Mike say good night to me properly?" she asked, barely able to keep the deep, bitter sarcasm she felt out of her tone.
"What—?" He visibly started at her words as if it hadn't even occurred to him what he'd just done. "Oh. Sorry."
He leaned forward again, kissing her on the lips this time, but despite the fact that she tried her best to coax a normal response from him, even his kisses seemed subdued now. She wrenched herself free from his arms, tears springing into her eyes as she flung her front door open. She had reached her own snapping point. After weeks of juggling both Mike and Peter and their respective problems, she was emotionally exhausted, and she wanted things back to normal.
"I fell in love with Mike!" she cried, knowing her outburst probably wasn't going to help matters, but unable to stop herself. "Not Peter!"
And with that, she ran into the house, slamming the door shut behind her. Mike stood frozen, staring at the empty air in front of him. He'd been trying to erase the Peterisms, trying to be consciously aware of what he was doing and how he was acting, but apparently he wasn't doing as good a job as he thought. What was it going to take? he wondered as he slowly crossed the lawn, heading back to the Pad.
What was it going to take to get himself back? And what was it going to cost him before it was all over?
Peter tossed and turned, before finally giving up and heading for the shower. He'd woken up very early and couldn't get to sleep. He was tormented in his dreams by the moves he'd made on Isabel.
And he'd not yet been able to say he was sorry.
That was going to change.
After the shower, he dressed and went to check up on Mike, whom he found staring blankly out the window, still dressed in the clothes he'd worn the day before.
Buckle on the left side and all.
Mike smiled slightly at him. "Morning."
"Morning," Peter replied, staring at the belt. "I was thinking... Later on, I'd like to go over to Isabel's. We've got some things to iron out."
"Are you asking me or telling me?"
Peter met Mike's eyes. "Asking. She's your girlfriend, after all..." His voice wobbled into nothingness as he stared at Mike.
Mike fixed him with a steady gaze that was—for once—unreadable. For a moment, Peter grew hopeful that it was a sign he was beginning to rebuild his shields, but his hope withered and died when the mask cracked and he could see the pain lingering deep in his friend's eyes.
Something had happened, he realised. Something happened between them...
"Go ahead," Mike said, his voice quiet, almost lifeless as he turned away to stare out the window once more. "If you don't talk to her now, things will only get worse. That's the last thing any of us need."
Peter waited till after ten, when he was sure Isabel was up. Then he crossed the lawn alone and knocked on her door.
She opened it hesitantly, and her shoulders sagged in relief when she saw it was Peter. "Come in," she said.
Peter walked into the living room. "We need to talk," he said with no preamble. "What happened last night? He's almost completely withdrawn into himself!"
"Which one?" she blurted before she could stop herself, and—as soon as she saw the stricken look on Peter's face—she let out a frustrated sigh and plopped down on her end of the couch.
"I'm sorry," she said in a gentler tone. "I didn't mean to hurt you. It's just that—" she paused, frowning a little as she stared at her hands in her lap, unwilling to meet Peter's eyes. "I'd hoped things would get back to normal once you were, you know? And it's just not working out that way."
"So what does that have to do with last night?" he asked hesitantly.
"I...got a little upset because of the way he was acting last night, and...And I yelled at him. I said I fell in love with Mike, not Peter. No offense," she added hastily.
"None taken," he said with a chuckle, sinking down beside her on the couch and running a hand along his forehead. "Ouch...no wonder..."
"So now you know," she said quietly.
"Yeah..." He smiled slightly and ducked his head. "I know this has been really hard on you, having to deal with both of us, I mean."
"I'd say I've been through worse, but I don't think I have," she replied with a wry smile.
"Sweetheart..." Peter began carefully. "I can remember everything I said, everything I did—and I am really, really sorry..."
"It's okay." She waved her hand dismissively. "You couldn't help it, and I don't blame you for any of this."
"I blame me," Peter said. "Isabel, I tried to seduce you! Twice! At the Pad, I tried to get through to you with his charm—and—" He looked down at where they were sitting. "And here..."
Peter abruptly stood up and moved to the chair beside the couch. He couldn't stand to be on that couch with her, not after what he'd almost done. He could still feel her in his arms, taste the unique flavor of her lips on his, sense her fingers stroking his back and neck...
Peter shivered, wrapping his arms around himself. "I could never have done those things, Isabel, unless part of me wanted to... unless deep inside, I—" he broke off, shivering again.
She regarded him silently for a moment, choosing her words carefully. Their friendship hung in the balance, and she didn't want to risk alienating him with an ill-considered word.
"If it had really been you, I'd be furious," she told him. "But it wasn't. Peter wouldn't act like that. He would never try to steal his best friend's girl. And he would certainly never risk making me angry with him—I should hope you'd have more sense than that," she added lightly, trying to inject a bit of levity into the tense situation. She was rewarded with a small, troubled smile. There was a lot more on his mind. "What is it?"
"Memories." He frowned. "Sweetheart, it was hell."
"Watching. Seeing and feeling myself act like him and watching him act like me." Peter shook his head. "I even thought like him, Isabel. You were my girlfriend, and I couldn't understand why you were treating me like you were. He was Peter, he just wore the face I saw as my own." Peter looked at his right hand, at the small scars that remained from putting his fist through a mirror. "And I felt so trapped, sweetheart. I couldn't escape the prison I felt I was in. I tried and I tried—I dressed like Mike, I talked like Mike, I could do everything like Mike—"
"But deep inside, you knew you weren't Mike," Isabel said softly.
"Yeah, I knew," he admitted in a low voice. "I think that's why I kept having nightmares every night—the real me was trying to emerge—kept begging 'Let me out'—"
Instinctively, she stood and reached out to touch him, then drew her hand back, unsure if she ought to. But he's really Peter now, she reminded herself sharply. And Peter is your friend. And he's hurting.
With newfound resolution, she wrapped both arms around him and drew him into a warm, comforting embrace, trying to show him not only that he was forgiven but that things could be—would be —the same as always between them.
He lay his cheek on top of her head for a second, then brushed his lips on the part in her hair in a Peterkiss before squeezing her and releasing her, smiling warmly as she went back to the couch and sat down. Peter then sighed, the smile fading.
"What is it?" Isabel asked.
"Michael." Peter leaned back, resting his head on the back of the chair and rubbing suddenly-aching eyes with the heels of his hands. "I'm getting worried, Isabel."
"You and me both," she replied vehemently. "I thought he'd get better once things settled down, but he's not showing any signs of improvement! He's still this weird blend of himself and you, and I don't know what to do to help him out of it."
Peter shot her a sidelong glance and smiled a ghost of his dimpled grin. "I could always go back to being 'Mike.' Shock therapy, you know."
Isabel gaped incredulously at him, then as the smile widened, she realised he was teasing her. She laughed as he had intended, but the sound made him wince. He swiped at his eyes again as he sighed. "Seriously, I don't have a clue. He's really down today—he's still in the clothes he wore last night." Peter groaned, rubbing his eyes for the third time in five minutes.
"You've got a migraine coming on, haven't you?" she asked, lowering her voice as she peered at him closely, noting the pain he couldn't hide building in his eyes.
"M-hm," he mumbled, pain increasing with every moment. "Gotta get home... before the blindness hits..." He stood on shaky legs, swaying slightly as he got his bearings—and Isabel saw his eyes unfocus and glaze over.
"Come on," she ordered as she jumped up and slipped one arm around his waist to steady him, taking his reaching hand in hers to guide him better. "Let's get you home before you end up crashed on my couch."
Peter smiled slightly at that. He did not resist as Isabel led him across the lawn to the Pad.
Mike hadn't moved from the windowseat this entire time, not even when Davy and Micky had vacated the premises on an errand in town. But when he heard the door open and Isabel's voice say softly, "Watch your step," he turned. Mary-bel? He thought, but didn't speak.
He saw her come in, an arm around Peter's waist, holding his hand with her other hand, and his heart sank. Then he realised she was leading Peter, and he looked at the blond man's staring eyes. Mike was off the windowseat and across the room before he fully realised he was moving.
"You've gone blind," he said quietly, taking Peter's other arm. "Your migraine's hit, hasn't it?"
Peter nodded, then winced from the pain that caused. "Please get me to a chair," he said. "And some aspirin—it's not hit all the way, and I don't want it to..."
Mike helped Isabel guide Peter to the chair, then he patted Peter's shoulder before he bolted for the bathroom.
"I see what you mean," Isabel whispered as she sank onto the couch next to Peter's chair. "He's obeying you instantly, without argument. And he's still speaking with a New England accent."
"I know," Peter said. "And he can probably hear every word we say, so sshh—"
Mike returned with two pills and a glass of water. He handed them to Isabel, then dropped a kiss on her cheek. "Be right back," he said, going back into the bathroom.
"What's he up to, I wonder?" Isabel asked as she touched the back of Peter's hand with the glass.
Peter turned his hand over and took the glass, then held out his palm. Isabel lay the pills in his hand. After he swallowed the painkillers, he said, "I don't know." Peter massaged the bridge of his nose. "Oooh... I hate these things..."
"How long have you had them?"
He lowered his hand. "Since I was two. Has Mike told you about my falling down a flight of stairs head-first?" At her "uh-huh", he went on, "I started having the migraines right after that. Used to be every two weeks, until I grew up. Then they started the three month cycle. The pain behind my eyes was always there, but the blindness didn't start till this past September." He chuckled. "In a way, I prefer it—it's better than the fuzzy-edged psychedelia that assaulted me before. There's only so much strobe-effect a person can take!"
She kept her laugh soft, so as not to cause him any more pain than he was already in. Mike came out of the bathroom, and for a second Isabel thought he'd gone mad again. He was twisting his hands. But she looked closer and saw that he was merely twisting what he held in his hands.
"Here," he said to Peter. "Lean back and close your eyes."
Peter complied, and Mike said, "I'm going to put a cold washcloth on your forehead and eyes. It might help ease the pain." Peter jerked with shock as the cold fabric made contact. "Sorry," Mike said quietly as Peter reached up and held the washcloth in place. "Is there anything else you need, Pete?"
Isabel gave a little start, looking up at Mike. All the blood drained from her face as her heart sank. Mike was standing there, looking at Peter with a look of profound concern in his eyes. He was also biting his lower lip in a very familiar way.
Peter sensed her start and reached a hand toward her. "What is it, sweetheart?"
"Mike," Isabel began. "I think he'll be all right now."
"There's gotta be something I can do to help," Mike responded.
Peter lowered the washcloth and sat up straight. "I'm fine, Michael," he said.
"Are you sure? I mean, I don't mind if—"
"I said I'm fine—Peter."
Mike was shocked into silence. His eyes widened and he took an involuntary step backward. "I—I'm sorry—I didn't realise—" He met Isabel's eyes for a second, then sank beside her on the couch with his head in his hands. "Man, what am I gonna do?"
Isabel put her arms around his shoulders. Peter stood up, hands making sure he didn't run into the coffee table, and sat on Mike's other side. He also encircled Mike's shoulders. Mike leaned toward Isabel, and he raised his head. Tears were streaking down his cheeks, though he made no sound.
"We'll get through this, man," Peter said. "Long as we stick together, we can do anything, remember?"
"Yes, I remember," Mike replied softly. "But I don't know how any of you are going to be able to help me through this."
"Okay, guys—last one," Peter called out, holding up the last remaining blueberry waffle on his spatula. "Who wants it?"
"Me!" Micky and Davy chorused at the same time, both of them jumping up, holding out their plates to Peter, who hesitated, unsure of whom to give it to.
"I called it first," Micky exclaimed, but Davy shook his head vehemently.
"You've already had four!" he protested. "I get this one!"
That set off a squabble that continued as Peter glanced from one to the other with growing confusion; Mike watched the unfolding scene without comment. Part of him wanted to stand up, put a hand on both their shoulders and make them sit down and shut up with a firm, "Cool it!" But something else prompted him to quietly suggest that they share the waffle rather than fight over the whole thing. Torn between two diverse reactions, he did nothing, and finally Peter spoke up.
"Why don't I divide it, and you can each have half?" he offered by way of compromise, and they reluctantly agreed, taking their seats again and shooting dark glares at each other across the table.
Engrossed in their own petty dispute, neither noticed Mike's face had drained of all color as he sat motionless, staring blankly into thin air. Even Peter, caught up in his domestic chores, failed to note the change.
That was my reaction... he thought. No...Peter's reaction...
But that was the problem. Lately, Mike didn't know where anything was coming from. He'd lost the ability to distinguish between his own natural instincts and the Peterisms he'd been forced to adopt. They'd become so ingrained that he no longer could simply react to anything. Not anymore.
He had lost himself. And now all that remained was some mismatched hybrid, incapable of making the simplest decision.
This couldn't go on.
"Mike" no longer existed, and the personality that now resided in this shell was too conflicted to be of use to himself or anyone else.
He had to do something.
Without a word, he stood up, feeling as if even his body didn't belong to him anymore, as if his limbs were on strings that were being pulled by some nameless force beyond his control. The others didn't react as he neatly folded the morning paper and placed it on the table by his plate of untouched breakfast. Micky and Davy were too busy wolfing down their respective halves of blueberry waffle, and Peter was at the sink, singing quietly to himself as he washed the dishes.
He made his way upstairs to the bedroom, closing the door behind himself; once there, he stood still for a moment, unsure of what he was doing and why, waiting to see what impulse led him next. He felt as if he had no more will of his own than a baby being pushed along in a carriage—his destination was unknown, and he could only watch and wait to see where he ended up.
He headed for the closet, pulling out his denim jacket, shrugging into it and grabbing his hat from the dresser, and he almost left then—but something stopped him.
Pausing near his bed, he found himself digging in his front pocket and pulling out his keyring and what little loose change he had, which he tossed on the bedspread. Reaching in his back pocket, he retrieved his wallet and dropped that on the bed as well. With one swift, fluid gesture, he pulled the white love beads he'd continued to wear over his head, and they joined the growing pile. A moment of hesitation—and then he unfastened his watch, letting it fall among the rest of the discards. The hat was next, followed by the jacket.
Now he was ready.
He glided downstairs silently, stealthily, trying to ease out the front door without attracting attention, but he needn't have worried. Peter was still busily scrubbing pots and pans, Davy was on the phone and Micky had disappeared entirely.
He left undetected, and none of them even noticed he was gone.
"Hey, have any of you guys seen Mike?" Micky asked as he stood in the middle of the living room and peered around, his brow furrowed in an uncharacteristic frown.
Peter glanced up from where he sat on the couch, scribbling down some notes for himself on the sheet music of their newest song. "Not recently. Why?"
"What about you, Davy?"
Still running a comb through his hair, Davy moved from the sink in the bathroom to stand in the doorway, giving Micky a curious look. "No, mate. Sorry."
Micky scowled harder, not liking this turn of events. "When's the last time you saw him?" he pressed, and the other two appeared to concentrate for a moment before answering.
"Breakfast..." Peter said slowly.
"Yeah, that's it," Davy nodded agreement. "He was here at breakfast, but I don't think I've seen him since then."
"And you don't think that's odd?" Micky demanded, placing his fists on his hips. "Since when does Mike disappear all day without telling anybody where's he going?"
"I just thought he was with Isabel," Davy shrugged nonchalantly.
"It's a week day," Peter replied, his eyes growing wide and round with alarm. "She's been at work." He glanced at his watch and saw that it was just after 5:00. "She's probably not even home yet."
As that sobering thought sunk in, Davy's face turned grave, and he darted worried glances between his two room-mates. "That's right..." he breathed. "I hadn't thought of that..."
"Besides that, he always tells us if he's leaving, even if he's just going next door. He never just takes off," Micky reminded them. He paused, then glanced at the coffee table as a thought suddenly struck him. "Peter, have you seen the car keys?"
Mike had won the shoot with Peter for driving the night before, and usually whoever drove last dropped the keys on the coffee table so they could always be easily found, but they weren't there now. Perhaps Mike had taken them—?
"No," Peter answered hesitantly. "Mike had them last—"
"Yeah! And he took them upstairs!" Micky exclaimed with growing excitement. "I remember seeing them in his hand when we went up, and I was going to say something, but I figured it was no big deal. I think he left them on the dresser."
With that, they all dashed upstairs, bursting into the upstairs bedroom, homing in on the dresser—where the car keys gleamed dully at them.
"There they are!" Peter cried.
"Which means he's on foot," Micky said grimly. "Wherever he's gone, he had to walk there."
And somehow knowing that didn't make the situation any better.
"Well..." Davy began slowly. "Maybe that means he's close by. Maybe he has been at Isabel's this whole time! You know he goes over there sometimes when she's not home."
"Hey, yeah!" Micky snapped his fingers, grasping at the tiny straw of hope.
"He couldn't have gone far," Peter added, moving to stand near Mike's bed. "See? He didn't take his jacket."
He bent over and picked it up, his tidying instincts prompting him to hang it up in the closet again—and let out a horrified gasp when he saw what lay beneath.
Tears welled in his eyes as he sat heavily on the edge of the bed, picking up Mike's watch and then his wallet, staring at them as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"I don't understand..." he whimpered softly. "Why did he leave these?"
Micky rested a comforting his hand on Peter's shoulder as he shook his head, wide-eyed with apprehension. Something was wrong. Something was very very wrong...
"I don't know, big Peter," he murmured. "I don't get it either."
"He left everything," Davy said quietly, sifting through the small collection of coins scattered on the bedspread. "Wherever he is, he doesn't have any money—no i.d.—"
"Why?" Peter wailed, his cheeks tear-stained as he gazed up at Micky with wounded eyes. "Why did he leave? It's my fault, isn't it? He left because of me—what I did to him!"
"No, Peter, we don't know that—" Micky tried to soothe him, but Peter was inconsolable, burying his face in the rough denim folds of the jacket as he wept.
Feeling almost as helpless as he had been when he was paralyzed, Micky slipped his arms around Peter, rubbing his back and whispering soft words of comfort.
"C'mon, Peter, this doesn't mean he's not next door," Davy said, trying to sound encouraging, but somehow they all knew he wasn't.
With a wail of sheer misery, Peter jumped up and ran out of the bedroom; Micky and Davy exchanged worried looks, and then Davy hastily followed. Micky remained upstairs, feeling incapable of moving—of acting—for the moment as he struggled to digest the mystery they found themselves immersed in. He heard the downstairs bedroom door slam shut, then heard it close again—more quietly this time—and he assumed that meant Davy was with Peter.
"Oh, man..." he groaned, plunging the fingers of both hands into his thick mop of curls. "I dread having to tell Izzy about this."
"He's what?" Isabel demanded softly, her eyes growing huge as she stared up at Micky.
"He's gone, Izzy," he repeated in the gentlest tone he could manage, resting his hands on her shoulders, trying to be comforting. "Mike's disappeared. We don't know where he is."
He'd waited until he was sure she was home from work and had had time to get settled before calling and asking her to come next door. His stomach had knotted at the thought of having to break this news to her, but there was no sense in putting it off. And she'd seemed to be in such a good mood when he let her in, he thought bitterly.
"He's gone—?" she echoed, her expression frighteningly blank. "I don't get it—"
"We haven't seen him since breakfast," he explained, reaching down to capture one of her hands in his and leading her over to the couch. He sat down first, then lightly tugged on her hand to get her to sit as well, and she followed his lead with all the animation of a robot. "We didn't notice him leave; we don't even know when he left. It didn't hit me until this afternoon that he wasn't around."
"It took you all day to realize that?" She turned on him, an edge of hysteria in her voice, and he squeezed her hand, giving her a sorrowful look.
"Pretty slack of us," he admitted. "But when we did figure it out, we started looking. We've spent the last two hours combing the beach and the neighborhood, we've gone to some of his hang-outs—nothing. But he can't have gotten too far—he's on foot."
"He could've hopped a bus or taken a cab—"
"Not without his wallet, he couldn't," Micky said somberly. "He left everything behind, Izzy. Best we can figure, the only thing he's got with him are the clothes on his back. That's it."
"Oh, no..." she breathed, her free hand flying to her throat. "No..."
"Peter and Davy are still driving around looking," Micky continued, masking his growing alarm at her parchment-white face and stricken expression. "We'll find him, Izzy. Don't worry. He'll be back home soon."
"Have you called the police?" she asked suddenly, and he nodded.
"They can't file a missing persons report until he's been gone twenty-four hours," he informed her. "If he doesn't show up tonight, we'll call first thing in the morning."
"I'm staying here," she announced.
He gaped at her wordlessly for a moment; he hadn't expected that! For a moment, he thought about protesting, but on second thought, he didn't see a problem with it. If he said no, she would have to go back to her own place, alone and worried, but if she stayed here with them, she might be no less worried, but at least they could all fret together.
"I'll sleep on the couch," she continued, her mouth thinning into that obstinate line he recognized as a sign he probably shouldn't try to oppose her. Not only would it be ultimately useless, but it would also result in him being on the receiving end of one of those temper fits that rivaled Mike's for strength, intensity and volume. He'd borne the brunt of one of those tirades once before--and that was quite enough!
"No, you won't," he interrupted quietly, and she rounded on him instantly, her dark eyes flashing with anger until he held up one hand to ward off the coming explosion. "You'll take the upstairs bedroom," he continued. "I'll sleep on the couch."
She closed her mouth with a snap, silently nodding. "Thank you," she replied softly, giving him a look filled with gratitude.
"No problem." He actually managed a smile. "Just don't trash the room, okay?"
Rolling her eyes, she gave him an "oh, please," look, but she also smiled a little, which was his goal. He reached out then and lightly caressed her cheek, trying to sound more reassuring than he actually felt.
"He's going to walk in that door any minute," he said, injecting his voice with a note of false cheer. "You'll see—we'll get mad at him for running off without a word, and he'll get mad at us for fussing at him, and everything will back be to normal."
But the hours passed, Peter and Davy finally came home after a long and fruitless search, and still Mike did not return.
The night wind whipped around him, tearing through the thin fabric of his shirt and causing chill bumps to dot his skin; his steps were slow, faltering, and he shuffled through the sand listlessly, his blank stare fixed at some indeterminate point in the distance.
The full moon overhead made the sparse sagebrush cast long shadows on the shifting sands, and he was vaguely aware of his silent presence frightening night-creatures, making them skitter out of his path, hiding under rocks and in what little plant life that grew in such a barren setting.
He wasn't sure how long he had been wandering. Hours it seemed. Maybe it was days. Someone was probably worried, he thought idly. Someone—but who? An image formed in his head, a picture of a dark-haired girl who seemed familiar, but he couldn't place her. A name niggled the back of his memory. Peter. But he wasn't certain if that were his own name or someone else's. He couldn't remember anything more than that.
He was thirsty—he knew that much—and the sudden, unexpected sound of trickling water brought him alert. He peered around, registering slight interest on his face, and he noticed a stream off to the left, a tiny rivulet of water cutting through the desert on a bed of rocks.
Hurrying over, he knelt on a wide, flat stone and, cupping his hands, he scooped up the icy water, drinking deep, savoring the sweet clear liquid flowing down his throat. It soothed his thirst, it soothed his mind, it soothed his soul.
And when he rose to his feet again, his eyes were devoid of expression; no residual spark of life remained in them.
On the horizon—far far away, farther perhaps than he would be able to go—a high cliff loomed, rising tall into the sky, and he had somehow made it his goal although he didn't know why. He only knew that the cliff pulled him, directing his steps.
Your name, boy...What's your name? Who are you?
The voice came like a howl on the wind, and he stopped in his tracks, cocking his head to one side as he listened.
He furrowed his brow, concentrating, but his mind was empty—a blank slate. He couldn't remember his name, he couldn't remember anything anymore. He thought he'd known once, but no longer.
"If you need anything, just yell, okay?" Micky reminded Isabel, his features suffused with worry as he hovered in the doorway.
He was aware that she was taking Mike's disappearance hard, and while he knew that being in love with him gave her reason enough to be freaked out, he sensed there was something more going on, and he fervently wished there was some way he could get her to talk about it.
But the likelihood of that happening was slim indeed, he snorted. He'd tried—and failed—repeatedly to coax her into opening up, but she'd rebuffed him at every turn, seeming to withdraw more and more with every attempt, and he eventually gave up. If she wanted to talk about it, she would; until then, no one would be able to pry anything out of her with a crowbar. Peter was the only one of them—well, aside from Mike, of course—who had any hope of scaling the walls, but Peter wasn't in the position to help anyone right now; he was too shattered himself.
With a quiet sigh, he bade her good night and, shutting the door as silently as possible behind himself, slipped downstairs to make his bed on the couch, leaving Isabel alone in their room.
She watched Micky leave dispassionately, standing in the center of the room with her arms folded around her waist; only when he was gone and she was finally alone did she move, heading immediately for Mike's bed.
Everything was as he'd left it—as they had found it that afternoon. She sat down and riffled through the abandoned items, picking up his watch and turning it over and over in her hands, wondering why he'd left that of all things.
She tossed the watch aside and scooped up the jacket, holding it in her lap and caressing the abrasive denim folds. Where was he...? Why did he leave...?
Tears welled in her eyes, and she impatiently dashed them away, refusing to cry. She was too angry—too frustrated to waste tears on him now.
He should have said something!
He should have let someone know!
He should have—
She stood up abruptly, dropping the jacket carelessly as she scooped up the loose change, carried it over to the dresser and dumped it heedlessly—it clattered and rolled, some of it falling to the floor—then returned with his watch, hat, keys, love beads and wallet, depositing them unceremoniously on the dresser as well. Picking up the jacket once more, she headed for the closet this time, robotically flipping through the garments searching for an empty hanger—
—And then she saw it.
The black shirt.
The jacket slipped from her suddenly nerveless fingers as a rush of grief and longing swept over her, so intense that it battered down the walls of indifference she'd struggled all night to build, threatening to engulf her soul.
"Why...?" she whispered, and this time the tears would not be held back. "I don't understand...Why?"
Her hands shook so hard that she fumbled with the top button as she tried to unfasten it; finally she managed to work it free, and she yanked the shirt off its hanger, burying her face in it to muffle the sounds of her weeping.
What if he never came back? What if something happened so that he couldn'tcome back? Was it something she'd done that drove him off in the first place? Did he think that she and Peter—?
So many questions. So few answers.
And there would be no answers until Mike returned to provide them himself. If he ever did.
When the tears had at last run their course, she reluctantly reached for the hanger again, intending to return the shirt to its proper place—and then a thought occurred to her.
She crossed the room again and, placing the shirt on Micky's bed for the moment, turned back the covers on Mike's bed; then instead of retrieving her suitcase—and the nightgown she had packed—she undressed swiftly and reached for the black shirt. As she shrugged into it, she found herself on the verge of crying again as she was suddenly enfolded in the warm, familiar scent she associated with him and only him. If she closed her eyes, it almost seemed as if he were there with her...
The sleeves were miles too long, and she rolled them up into huge, thick cuffs at her wrists, and it was long enough for her to wear as a dress--in public, without worrying about modesty one bit.
And it was his.
She slept fitfully that night, and when she dreamed, she dreamed of Mike wandering alone in a desert, lost and disoriented, and she woke up weeping anew.
Time to walk.
The cliff seemed no closer than it had the night before, but he kept walking; he knew of nothing else to do. It seemed nothing existed for him but the sand, the cloudless sky overhead and the precipice looming on the horizon. He had no memories; he had no thoughts of the future, not even idle contemplation of what would happen once he arrived at the cliff.
The journey was all.
And he continued to walk.
The phone rang, and all four of them jumped, more than startled; their hearts pounded, their breath catching in their lungs, and they shared wide-eyed, frightened glances. For once, no one dove for the phone; none of them wanted to fight to answer the call.
After three rings, Micky rose slowly to his feet and walked over to pick up the receiver. His voice was low, filled with dread as he answered, "Hello?"
Isabel stared at him, transfixed; every time the phone rang now, she was convinced that it was the police calling to say they'd found Mike seriously injured...or worse.
No, she corrected herself. Worse would be the news that they hadn't found him at all, which would mean more of this endless, terrifying waiting. She could deal with whatever news they gave her. Not knowing anything at all was about to tear her to pieces inside.
"Oh, hey..." Micky glanced around at the rest of them and shook his head to indicate it wasn't the police. Or Mike. "Yeah, he's here, but we're waiting on another call...No, not another girl, the police...No, he's fine. Mike's gone missing...Yeah, the tall guy with the hat...Thanks...No, he'll call you as soon as he can, okay? Great. Bye."
He hung up and tossed Davy a significant look. "It was for you," he said unnecessarily. "Mandy. Add her to the list of phone calls you need to return, okay?"
Davy shot him an irritated glance. "Right. Fine."
Peter—who had perked up momentarily, his features suffused with hope when Micky picked up the phone—huddled miserably on the couch, curled up in a tight ball at one end, withdrawing deeper and deeper into himself as the ordeal went on. Micky and Davy had tried to comfort him as best they could, assuring him again and again that it wasn't his fault Mike had left, but it was clear he was wallowing in guilt nonetheless.
Over at the windowseat, Isabel stared listlessly out the window as she had for most of the day, her eyes scanned the beach constantly as if she hoped to spot a familiar tall, lanky figure strolling along the shoreline at any moment. Distracted momentarily by Micky's pacing near the door, she glanced up and finally noticed Peter, the taut lines of worry in her face softening a little. Silently, she stood and walked over to the couch, sitting down as close to Peter as she could and slipping one arm around his shoulders.
"It's going to be okay," she told him quietly, hoping to reassure him even if she didn't know that herself. "A few days from now, we'll be laughing about this. Mike's going to get a big kick out of how worried we all are about him. You know how he'll react, don't you?" she prompted, hoping to coax a response out of him, and it worked.
Peter gave her a watery smile and nodded, shifting so that he leaned against her rather than the arm rest of the sofa. "He'll roll his eyes and snort," he said at last. "And he'll stand there with his hands on his hips, shaking his head—"
"But he'll smile a little, too," she added. "Just enough to let us know he's secretly pleased by all the fuss we're making over him."
Peter nodded—and then his expression turned tragic again. "I want to see that," he murmured, tears welling in his eyes. "I want him to hurry home so I can see him do that, and so I can tell him I'm sorry..."
"Oh, Peter," Isabel sighed, wrapping both arms around him as he rested his head on her shoulder. "It's not your fault. But if you blame yourself, you might as well blame me too," she continued, feeling him start a little at her words.
"You?" he replied. "But you didn't do anything!"
"I helped drive him mad just as much as you did," she said quietly. "He finally admitted what drove him over the edge. He saw you and me on my front steps. He thought I was letting you kiss me. He thought—" Her voice caught in her throat, making it difficult for her to continue. "He thought I was encouraging you."
"I remember that," he informed her solemnly. "You didn't encourage me. You pushed me away."
"Mike didn't see that part. He looked away too soon," she said. "So this is just as much my fault—"
"No, no—it's not—you couldn't help it—" he protested, and she caught his chin in her fingers and made him face her, fixing him with a stern look.
"And neither could you."
Peter opened his mouth as if to protest—and then abruptly shut it again as he appeared to consider the implications of what she'd said. Then, slowly, he nodded. "Thanks," he whispered, nestling against her again, but this time with a more relaxed countenance than before.
"That's what friends are for," she replied, giving him a brief squeeze in response.
And the wait went on.
The moon rose overhead, tracking its steady course through the glittering sky; the night wind carried faint noises to him, the sound of distant voices taut with worry, someone weeping...and above it all the mournful cry of a lone wolf.
He came to a screeching halt, his heart pounding as he glanced around with wide, frightened eyes. That sounded close—a little too close for his comfort—and when he began walking again, it was with an accelerated pace.
"It's been two days," Isabel murmured, speaking to no one in particular.
Micky glanced over at where she stood by the beach-side door, her shoulders slumped, one hand covering her eyes. It was his turn to wash dishes, but they could wait; he dried his hands and moved to stand behind her, curving his arms around her in a loose embrace.
"I called his family in Texas," he told her.
"And?" she asked, her tone laden with resignation as if she already knew what he was going to say.
"They haven't heard from him either," he admitted, and he felt rather than heard her sigh in response. "But the police haven't called—"
"I don't imagine searching for one out-of-work musician who's gone missing is terribly high on their priority list," she retorted bitterly. "I doubt we will hear from them unless they happen to stumble on—"
But she shook her head, refusing to continue; she didn't have to. He knew the unfinished part: "unless they happen to stumble on his body."
"Where do you think you're going, boy?"
He paused, arrested in his tracks by this strange new intrusion. A voice—a low, growly voice coming from somewhere behind him. He turned, curiosity overcoming the inner urge driving him towards the cliff for the moment—and saw a monstrous creature loping towards him, its fur bristling, its jaws agape.
With a cry of pure terror, he whirled and began to run, kicking up fans of sand with every step. Behind him, the growl grew louder and louder; he sprinted faster and faster, but his two legs couldn't hope to outrun four, and suddenly he felt a solid impact on the middle of his back that sent him sprawling face-first in the sand.
He lay beneath the creature, pinned under its considerable weight despite his struggles to free himself; its hot breath steamed the back of his neck, and its claws dug into his flesh. He expected the fatal strike at any moment...
"I'll ask you again," came the same low rasp, but this time with an undercurrent of laughter. "Where do you think you're going, boy?"
Was the monster talking to him?
He strained to look over his shoulder at it and found himself almost nose-to-nose with a giant grey-furred wolf; it had dipped its head low so it could look him in the face, its mouth open in what appeared to be a toothy, wolfish version of a grin.
There could be no mistaking the source of the questions this time; any doubt he'd harbored was erased by the rough voice issuing from those fanged jaws and the odd light of intelligence gleaming in the yellow feral eyes peering down at him with a mixture of curiosity and amusement.
He remembered its question, and an image of the cliff formed in his mind, but before he could try to speak the words, the wolf nodded and jumped off his back with enviable grace.
"You'd better get walking then. You've got a ways to go," the wolf said. It danced backwards a few paces, and he rose shakily to his feet, regarding it warily, but he didn't move.
Again the wolf fixed him with its odd grin, its tongue lolling out one side of its mouth. "Worried I'll bite?" it asked, mock-snarling as it lunged playfully towards him, and without thinking, he stumbled back, throwing up his hands as if that could stop a determined wolf's attack.
"Don't worry, little one," it assured him in a distinctly paternal tone. "I'm here to help, not hurt. You've been walking in circles, you know," it added conversationally.
He felt his eyes widen as he gaped at the wolf, shocked by its words. How was that possible? He'd kept the cliff in sight the whole time he'd been walking!
"Nonetheless," the wolf replied. "you've been going in circles. Round and round, round and round, always looking forward but never getting anywhere. You need a guide. So here I am. Call me Wolf. Now, boy—who are you?"
He struggled to remember, knowing instinctively that he'd had a name once, but his mind was blank. Nothing—not even the slightest hint—presented itself.
"Ah, well, never mind," Wolf said, moving ahead of him. "You'll figure it out." It kept on trotting along the sand, not looking back as if it fully expected him to follow.
"Or not. It's entirely up to you. Now come on. You've got no time to waste."
He stared after it blankly for a moment, wondering if he should heed its words, but really he had no choice. For as long as he'd been walking, that cliff never had seemed to get any closer, and if the wolf had wanted to hurt him, it had had its chance while he lay trapped and helpless beneath it. With a shrug, he began to follow in its tracks, earning a backwards glance from his new helper.
"A sensible boy," it said, a clear note of approval in its voice. "Good. There may be hope for you yet. Come along."
ContinueOn to Part Two