Thirty-Seven - Linkin

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The week was unbearably long. Every day we got closer to Wednesday, the more I felt like I couldn't breathe. I stopped being able to focus on the meaningless tasks of the day. By the time Monday rolled around, I didn't even want to get out of bed. Stuart, of course, was overly kind to me. He told me that it was okay, and if I didn't feel good, then I should stay in bed and get some rest. When he had time between patients and answering the phone, he would come upstairs and check up on me.

There was a knock on my door, soft and hesitant. I pulled the blanket up closer around my face when I heard the door creak open.

"Linkin, I brought you some soup." Stuart's gentle footsteps echoed through my room as he came closer to my bed. "When I told Mrs Kendrick that you were sick, she dropped some off for you, asked me to give you her best."

I stayed rolled over on my side, my back to him. This wasn't Stuart's fault, but he also didn't know what I knew, didn't think the same way as me.

"You have to eat something, and this doesn't look terrible. It's chicken and wild rice, I think – it'll be good for you. You're looking pale."

"I'm only looking pale because this is the first time you're seeing me without something covering my skin," I mumbled coldly, tucking my arm under the blanket as well. "Don't get too close; you might spill that soup on the both of us."

Stuart sighed, and I heard the bowl clink against the glass of my bedside table. "This again, really? I thought we got over it when you managed to help Mr Collette with your touch."

I had far from accepted my situation, but Stuart was right that it felt good to help people again. With the idea of seeing Ira, however, I started feeling helpless once more. For five days, I had gone through every memory that haunted me. Jaysen's death, and Celestia's, were my fault. Stuart knew that I blamed myself, and he frequently emphasized that Dell Island killed them, just as he'd told Ira when she broke down at the news. But no matter how many times he said that, I was still the one who drove away, leaving him to bleed out in the open ocean.

Stuart had helped Ira. He was a terrible medical doctor, but at least he could touch her without also feeling like he had been shot and causing Ira more pain. All I could do was drive in the direction I was told. Ira was unconscious and Stuart was too focused on stopping the bleeding, but I saw the boat that was chasing us slow down, heard the two pops that had sealed the mutants' fates if they weren't dead already. I never looked back. I might as well have pushed Jaysen out of the boat myself, or put the bullet in him to spare him the agony of blindly, helplessly drowning until someone had a clear aim at his heart. They probably just let Jaysen's body sink to the bottom of the ocean, a feast for the crustaceans that lived there.

I had done the research. I knew that a shark probably wouldn't consider eating Jaysen's body; it wouldn't be worth the meal. I had watched every video I could find on decaying whale bodies on the ocean floor to torment myself – another fact that Stuart didn't know.

"Just a bite, please, Linkin?" Stuart brought me back to the present. He reached out and placed a hand on where my shoulder was hidden under the comforter.

"If I do, will you leave?"

There was a long silence followed by a slow exhale. "Probably not. We should talk about all of this, about Ira. I'm nervous to see her too."

"Nervous?" I scoffed as I sat up.

Stuart smiled weakly at his victory of me moving to face him, and reached out to pass me the bowl of soup. He looked rough with dark circles under his eyes and unshaved stubble.

"Ira won't tell you that you killed Jaysen, she won't tell you that—" After all this time, holding so many feelings back, I just broke. I brought my hands to my face as I started to sob.

Maybe forgetting that the comforter was no longer covering me, maybe braving what was to come, Stuart once again placed a hand on my shoulder. For a second, I could feel the warmth of him, the cold tears as they dripped onto my palm. It was soothing, until I heard him wince. I jerked back and looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. "Do you know what the worst part was? She was in New York."

Stuart's brows furrowed. He didn't understand.

"I talked to Miguel on Sunday, 'cause that's the only way she would have found us. For whatever reason, she left New York to go back to Mexico, to find us. I'm worried she's in trouble, Stuart. Not only did she need to find us because I let her go, she ended up finding a home for herself in my hometown." I blinked back more tears as Stuart stared at me.

"You know her leaving wasn't your fault. She chose to." It was his way of dealing with the loss when we found that she'd left. Ira is so used to being on her own. She just goes where her mind takes her.

"I let her! I fell asleep, I... I was supposed to protect her. I promised to help her, Jaysen, and you all off that island safely. I was supposed to give her a new life. I failed all of you, so badly that she had to go off and find a new one for herself." I paused and glanced down to the blanket, picking at it anxiously. "I thought she died; I could almost move on with the thought she was dead. Knowing she was out there? She was the best of us..."

I closed the space between us for a moment to grab the soup. I wasn't hungry, far from it. My stomach felt like a rock and there was a lump in my throat which wouldn't go away. Still, I picked up the spoon and blew on it before trying it.

"She is the best of us. You can't blame yourself for everything that happened."

"Can so," I said. "If she can't have a normal life, how could we? You still wake up screaming from nightmares of what happened on the island and my touch hurts people. As sick and twisted as she was, she was good. She was our hope for a better tomorrow. We can pretend we're surviving without her, but that isn't living. Stuart, you can't even leave the house..."

I shouldn't have said what I did, we didn't often talk about Stuart's new-found agoraphobia. It all got much worse when we got to England. Everything he and I knew was on the island or in North America, and Stuart and Ira had grown close in Mexico – I'd teased him on multiple occasions when they almost looked like they were closer than friends. Ira leaving had brought out the worst of my fears, but Stuart had brushed the situation aside and continued with life. Now, looking at the hurt etched on his face, I realized that he hadn't been as resilient as I'd thought, and it explained everything about the spiral into anxiety that he kept mostly to himself.

In the beginning, he'd tell me how he used to dream of going back to Philadelphia on the island, to live a normal life there. He'd talk about settling down, finding himself a wife and kids and becoming a high school teacher. I'd talk about going back to New York to set up a small free-clinic and I'd go visit my grandfather's grave everyday. They were just impossible dreams, but at least Stuart used to have them. Now, he just lived vicariously through his patients' and my personal development, a shell of what he used to be.

"How is it?" Stuart asked. His voice cracked, so he cleared his throat and tried again. "The soup, is it good?"

"A little salty."

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