Forty - Ira

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I didn't stay long with Stuart after Linkin went upstairs. He wasn't himself, and after a few attempts to make him smile, I gave up. Not that his smiles were quite right, either.

We'd all taken a huge step backwards since we parted ways. We weren't living a perfect life back in Mexico, but the last time we were together, we were all hugs and belly laughs. As unexpected as things turned out, Stuart, Linkin, and Miguel became the closest thing I had to a dysfunctional family. Now I couldn't even bear to look at either of them for too long.

As I towelled hot water from my body and put on a loose t-shirt and shorts for pajamas, I noticed how the face staring back at me in the mirror was almost that of a stranger. My ash-blonde hair stuck close to my scalp, water trailing down my slightly tanned neck and pausing at my firm shoulder muscles before sliding down into the towel. Maybe I didn't even look like the Ira they knew. What did they really think of me?

I heard the nasal voiceover of reality TV downstairs, suddenly interrupted by Linkin's laughter. "What an idiot!" she hollered, the most upbeat I'd heard her all day. "Want some tea, Stewie, before I convince myself I need a stronger drink to watch these buffoons?"

"You can always change the channel, you know," Stuart replied in his half-here, half-not manner.

"Hell no! They're about to get married!"

I wished that I could join in the fun, but I shook my head and headed to the spare room. They had prepared it for me – or maybe just Stuart did – laid out fresh sheets and emptied the small wardrobe. A guilty smile tugged at my lips. When I hung up my few clothes, I sat on the bed and stared hard at the wooden floor. It was warm in here. It felt homely.

Getting into bed, I was mentally wiped out but physically alert. I took my new phone out of my bag and checked the New York daily news. I was almost bored enough to fall asleep before a headline from two days ago caught my eye: "Man drowned in apartment pool". My throat closed up and my eyes went out of focus. Trying to breathe, I clicked into it and scrolled down until I had a name. Dylan Walsh, found drowned in the pool of his apartment complex. I tried to tell myself that the name Dylan could be a coincidence until I saw his picture. Blonde side-comb, brown eyes, chiselled jawline. The same face I didn't object to when he asked me out after a swim. Mr Walsh, 26, was a budding photographer.

I had more blood on my hands.

My lungs worked hard to expel all the panic weighing down on my chest. I felt like I was drowning again. The air was just as heavy and deadly as the water. Tears wouldn't stop running as I fought hard to breathe. I tossed the covers to one side, trying to lighten the weight on me. Everything was happening too fast. I was halfway across the world. Celestia's only witness was murdered. I was so lightheaded, I closed my eyes and curled up against my damp pillow. The only thing that came easily was the unconsciousness.

♟♙♟♙

"Ira!"

My senses came back, swinging and uncoordinated.

"Ira, Ira, Ira, Ira!" My shoulder was being shaken back and forth, and I felt sick. A drop of water fell on the base of my neck and I shuddered. "Ira, talk to me! Please!"

I pushed myself up with my right elbow, slipped, and dropped my phone on the floor. It made a clean knock against the sobbing in the room. I remembered about the phone and I started sobbing, too. Arms sheathed by soft fabric slid around my shoulders, and I could smell the overwhelming artificial scent of moisturizer. "Linkin?"

"Ira," she whimpered in my ear and we cried together some more, although for different reasons. "I'm so sorry about earlier. I didn't know." When I hugged her back and she shifted so that our skin wasn't touching, she added with a sniffle, "Are you okay? You scared me; I couldn't wake you up. You were in bed but not in bed, you were so cold, and you'd been crying..."

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