Francis Kwon stood on the roof of an old apartment building, staring down ten stories to the film crew below. The lead actress sat on the ledge beside him with her legs crossed. He closed his eyes and reshaped himself into her image.
“My nose isn’t that big,” she said.
He glanced down and made a slight adjustment.
“Sorry,” he said in her voice.
She smiled and stepped away from the ledge. One of the effects technicians moved into position in the middle of the roof and waited for further instructions.
“Give us some wind,” the director’s voice said through a two-way radio from ground level.
The technician took a deep breath and exhaled sharply, blasting Francis with a powerful gust of wind. A massive, winged demon would be added in post.
“Action!” the director said.
Francis threw his hands up in front of his face and tumbled backward over the ledge. He watched the building rise up above him as he plummeted a hundred feet and came to an abrupt stop on an inflatable mat.
“Cut!” the director said. “Great job, folks! That’s a wrap!”
The crew erupted into cheers and applause. Principal photography on the fifth season of Devil’s Due was officially finished. A few more months of editing and visual effects, and their hard work would finally hit the airwaves.
Francis lay back on the mat, staring up at the roof on which he’d been standing moments earlier. His skin shimmered as he shifted back into his natural appearance. He closed his eyes and smiled to himself.
Francis heard sobbing as he opened the door to his apartment. He crept tentatively down the hall and peered into the living room. His girlfriend, Jane, sat on the floor with a photo album on her lap and an assortment of old photographs scattered all around her.
Francis stepped into the room and said, “What happened?”
“I was just… rearranging the shelves,” she said. “I… I didn’t mean to open it, it just….”
“It’s okay,” he said, kneeling in front of her. “I’ll put it back together later.”
He gathered up the fallen photos, depicting Jane’s mother at various points in her life, and placed them in a stack on the coffee table. Jane resisted at first when he tried to take the album from her lap, but eventually she let him close it and set it aside.
“I just miss her so much,” Jane said, rubbing her eyes.
“I know,” he said softly, helping her to her feet.
“Can I… can I see her?” she asked.
“It’s been a long day,” he said. “I’m really tired.”
“Just for a minute,” she said. “Please.”
He sighed and glanced down at a photo on the coffee table. It was from last year, before Jane’s mother got sick. He closed his eyes and his body reshaped itself into the woman’s form. Jane wrapped her arms around him and sobbed into his chest.
“Mom,” she whispered.
He stroked her hair and stared off out the window.
Francis shifted back into his own skin and took a long, deep breath. Jane was asleep on the couch, having exhausted herself crying. Francis picked up the photo album from the coffee table and stuffed the stray photos inside. He turned to the book shelf.
“What are you doing?” Jane said groggily.
“Just putting these away,” he said, sliding the album into an empty space on the top shelf.
“I can’t reach it from up there,” she said.
“I know,” he said to himself, then turned to face her. “Did you take your meds today?”
She shook her head. “They make me feel queasy.”
“Honey,” he said, stepping toward her, “you have to take them. They’re for your own good.”
“They’re not helping,” she said.
“You have to give them time,” he said, and kneeled beside her. “Please. For me?”
“Fine, whatever,” she said, rolling away from him.
He sighed and stood up.
“Oh, the producers of Devil’s Due are throwing a wrap party tonight,” he said. “I kind of promised to make an appearance. Would you… like to join me?”
She shook her head.
“Okay,” he said, and headed to the bedroom to change.
The producers had rented out a nightclub downtown for the wrap party, and drinks were on the house. Francis was standing up in front of the grips department, mimicking various celebrities as his coworkers shouted out names, trying to stump him. After twenty faces, he collected his fifty dollars and returned to his seat.
Next up was Ted Morrow, the show’s animal actor. They started easy, with “canis lupus”, but quickly escalated to more obscure species. As Ted morphed into an okapi, Francis felt his cellphone buzzing against his leg and wandered off into a quiet corner to check his messages.
“When are you coming home?” a text from Jane read.
“Soon,” he typed, and sent the message.
He waited a minute, then shoved the phone into his pocket.
“I saw your fall,” a woman’s voice said. “Impressive.”
“Uh, thanks,” he replied, glancing her direction. “I….”
He trailed off as a pair of brown eyes stared up at him through horn-rimmed glasses, framed by black hair cropped short into a pixie cut.
“You what?” she asked.
“Huh?” he said.
“You were about to say something,” she said, “but then you went all Blue Screen of Death.”
“I turned blue?” he asked.
“No, it’s… a figure of speech,” she replied.
“Oh,” he replied.
She stared at him with an arched eyebrow for a long moment and said, “Okay then.”
She took a step back and turned away.
“I’m Francis!” he blurted out.
“I know,” she said, glancing back. “Ted pointed you out earlier. Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said. “I was just… distracted. Sorry.”
She pulled up the sleeve of her grey flannel shirt and extended her hand toward him.
“Name’s Charlie Ban,” she said. “I’m one of the new writers they brought on this season.
He shook her hand and said, “Francis Kwon, stunt double.”
“Nice to meet you, Francis,” she said. “I have to confess, when I watched you drop from that roof, I felt a bit guilty. I wrote the finale, you see. That scene was my idea.”
“Actually, that was pretty fun,” he said. “Last month, they hit me with a car. That left a mark.”
“Yeah, that was me too,” she said. “Sorry.”
He smiled. “Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
“Now you’re catching on,” she said, chuckling. “Of course, if I really wanted to hurt you, I’d just write a bunch of episodes where everyone sits around talking for forty-five minutes straight.”
“Okay, that’s just mean,” he said.
Francis ended up lingering at the party well past midnight, finally extracting himself a little after two in the morning. His head was buzzing as he rode the train home, reflecting on the conversations of the night, and one in particular.
He quietly unlocked his apartment door and slipped inside. He removed his shoes and crept up the hall to the bedroom. Tiptoeing across the room, he sat lightly on the edge of the bed and got undressed.
“You said ‘soon’,” Jane said softly.
He glanced back over his shoulder; she was curled up on her side of the bed, facing away.
“Sorry,” he said. “Something… came up.”
She didn’t reply. Francis slid under the sheet and lay back. He stared at the ceiling for a while, trying not to think about Charlie. He reached out and brushed Jane lightly on her back; she shuddered and pulled away. He sighed and slept.
Francis was out of bed and showered before Jane had awakened. She opened her eyes for a moment when he placed her pills and a glass of water on the nightstand by her head.
“What time does your shift start?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, turning away. “I quit.”
“Already?” he asked. “Honey, it’s only been two weeks.”
“A woman came into the store with a little girl,” she said. “I just… couldn’t do it.”
“You’re going to have to get used to being out there eventually.” he said. “Hiding away is just delaying the inevitable.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” she snapped. “It’s not like I want to feel like this.”
“I know,” he said.
He walked to the window and opened the blinds to the sun. Jane pulled the covers up over her face. Francis sat back down on his side of the bed. On his nightstand, his cellphone buzzed.
A new text read, “Lunch?”
Francis stared straight ahead at the wall for a long moment, then glanced back over his shoulder at Jane’s shape under the blankets.
“Do you… want to get something to eat?” he asked. “We haven’t gone out to lunch in ages. We can even go to that steakhouse you like.”
“It burned down months ago,” she said, her voice muffled. “I’ll just order in.”
“All right,” he said. “Well, I’m going out for a bit. I’ll see to you later.”
She didn’t say anything as he crossed the room and stepped out into the hallway. He glanced down at the cellphone and stood there with his thumb over the REPLY button for a long moment.
“Where?” he typed finally.
Francis found Charlie sitting by the window of the Rue Wood Cafe with a small laptop on the table surrounded by sheets of notes. She looked up at Francis and smiled. He took a seat opposite her as she closed the computer and gathered her papers.
“Sorry, I’m racing a deadline on this script,” she said, sliding everything into her bag. “Did you have any trouble finding this place?”
“Not at all,” he said. “I actually come here all the time.”
“Oh really?” she said. “I just discovered it last week. It’s so hard to find decent vegetarian in this town.”
“Not if you know where to look,” he said.
“Well, I guess you’ll have to show me sometime,” she said.
“I guess I will,” he replied.
A waiter approached their table; Francis ordered an avocado and tomato sandwich, while Charlie got the taco salad.
“There’s something I’ve been wondering,” she said. “If throwing yourself off buildings is what you do for a living, what the hell do you do for fun?”
He chuckled. “Not a whole lot,” he said. “I… used to hike.”
“But not anymore?” she asked.
“I have a… sick relative,” he said, glancing down at the table. “Taking care of her eats up a lot of my spare time.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Charlie said, “but it’s nice that you’re there for your family.”
He glanced away and said, “What about you? Hobbies?”
“Well, I’m always at the movies,” she said. “I see everything. No exceptions.”
“Even the bad ones?” he asked.
“Especially the bad ones,” she replied, smiling. “Nothing makes you feel better about your own writing like listening to the dialogue in a cheesy action movie.”
“I’ve been in a few of those,” he said.
She chuckled. “No doubt.”
“So that’s your ultimate goal?” he said. “Writing movies?”
“My ultimate goal is to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay,” she said, “but, yeah, I’ll settle for a prolific screenwriting career. I’ve gradually been building a name for myself in television over the years, and since I landed the Devil’s Due gig, I’ve really started to get noticed. I’ve actually got a few major studios considering me for feature work as we speak, if I can just get around to finishing the damn scripts.”
“That’s great,” he said. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” she said. “And what do you have lined up next?”
“I’m doing a commercial later this week,” he said. “After that, I guess I’ll just play it by ear until we start shooting season six.”
“Well, if I hear anything, I’ll be sure to drop your name,” she said.
He smiled and said, “I appreciate it.”
He glanced out the window and saw something he hadn’t seen in a long time: Jane’s face, smiling. He instinctively shifted into a nondescript white man as Lucy, Jane’s twin sister, walked by. Francis’s heart pounded as he glanced at Charlie and switched back to normal.
She arched an eyebrow and said, “What was that?”
“Oh, just a reflex,” he replied. “It, uh, happens sometimes when a face catches my eye.”
“Huh,” she said. “So can you turn into anything? Or just other people?”
“Technically anything,” he said, “but it gets… uncomfortable the farther I go from the human form. I could turn into, say, a chair, but I’d still have to find a place for all my internal organs, not to mention finding a way to see and breathe.”
“That’s… kind of gross,” she said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “But compared to that, switching faces is a snap.”
He snapped his fingers and his face shifted into hers. She glanced away and held her hand up in front of his face.
“Okay, that’s enough of that,” she said.
He turned back into himself, and she smiled.
“I like that face better, anyway,” she said.
Francis climbed out of bed and staggered to the bathroom. He glanced into the mirror and Jane’s mother stared back. Jane had trouble sleeping last night, so he’d taken this form to comfort her again. He sighed and shifted back to normal.
He heard a knock on the door and hurried out to the living room to answer it. Lucy stood in the hallway carrying a Styrofoam container. Francis swallowed hard and forced a smile.
“Morning,” she said. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything. I was just in the area and thought I’d stop by, see how Jane’s doing.”
“She’s… not well,” he said. “She quit her latest job a few days ago.”
“Why’d she do it this time?” Lucy asked.
“The usual reasons,” Francis replied, and glanced back over his shoulder. “Hey, Jane, your sister—”
He heard a flurry of feet and the bedroom door slammed shut.
“Uh… sorry,” Francis said sheepishly. “Looks like she’s not taking visitors.”
Lucy sighed. “She’s not off her meds again, is she?”
“I don’t even know anymore,” he replied. “I keep putting them out for her, but where they end up is anyone’s guess.”
“Probably down the toilet,” Lucy said.
“I hope not,” he said, glancing back again. “Do you want me to try to coax her out?”
“Nah,” Lucy said, and handed him the Styrofoam container. “Just give her this. Or eat it yourself. I don’t care.”
He glanced inside at the omelette and sausage combo from Jane’s favorite diner and quickly closed the lid.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m sure this will make her feel better.”
“We’ll see,” Lucy said, and turned to leave. “Are you still doing that… thing for her?”
Lucy glanced back and gestured to his face.
“I… try not to,” he said. “But sometimes it’s the only way she can sleep.”
“Could I…” Lucy trailed off. “Uh, never mind. Goodbye.”
“See you around,” he said as she headed off down the hall.
Francis closed the door, and turned to the bedroom door.
“She’s gone,” he said. “Can I come in now?”
Jane opened the bedroom door and returned to bed without looking at him. He set the food on the nightstand by Jane’s head. She opened the container an inch and peeked inside.
“That’s from Lucy,” he said.
She closed the lid and rolled away. He sighed and returned to the bathroom for a shower.
“If you feel up to it,” he said as he got dressed afterwards, “maybe you could start looking around for a new job today. I think there’s still some copies of your resume on the kitchen counter.”
She didn’t reply.
“I’ll be on set most of the day,” he said. “Remember to take your meds and eat lunch.”
Again, she didn’t reply. Francis shrugged and left.
Francis stood in a replica of an Old West saloon dressed in full cowboy regalia. An older man in the same costume acted out a confrontation with a gang of black hats. The men pulled guns, and the cowboy backed away slowly, toward a window.
The cameras stopped, and Francis assumed the old man’s position and appearance. When filming resumed, Francis spun and dove through the window. A sheet of sugar glass shattered around him and he landed on a crash mat on the other side.
After a few more takes, the film crew moved outside to film the leap from the other side. The real actor crouched by the mat as Francis landed on it again, and the old man hopped up into frame to hawk a deodorant stick before turning to face a horse waiting in the dusty street.
Francis switched places with the actor again and ran toward the horse, hitting a springboard and landing in the saddle. He lashed the reins and the horse galloped down the street of the Old West set. Eventually, the director called out and they turned around. Francis shifted back into his own face.
As he rode back up the street, he found himself wondering what Jane was doing right now. Did she actually take up his suggestion to go out and look for work? Or was she still in bed, as usual? Probably the latter, he decided.
“What’s she doing here?” the horse asked in Ted’s voice.
Francis glanced ahead and spotted Charlie standing by the film crew. She smiled and waved. He waved back.
“We’re, um, going to lunch,” he said.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” Ted asked.
“It’s… complicated,” Francis replied.
“Complicated, huh?” Ted said. “That sounds like horseshit to me.”
Francis climbed down to the ground as Charlie approached.
She glanced up at the horse and said, “Hi, Ted.”
“How did you know it was me?” Ted asked.
“Real horses generally don’t stare at my chest,” she replied.
Ted laughed. “Fair enough,” he said. “Well, I should go change and get some food. I’m so hungry I could eat a me.”
Francis rolled his eyes as Ted trotted off to the stables.
“You should probably get changed too,” Charlie said. “A cowboy might be a bit out of place in a vegan restaurant.”
Francis glanced down at himself and laughed.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and headed off to wardrobe.
He threw on his street clothes and headed for the door. Ted stepped in wearing a white robe and sandals, and took Francis aside for a moment.
“I know it’s none of my business,” Ted said, “but I think you should reconsider this road you’re heading down.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Francis replied.
“Yes, you do,” Ted said. “Trust me, I’ve been there before, and you’ll only end up making an ass of yourself.”
“I have to go,” Francis said, and hurried out the door.
Francis sat across the table from Charlie, watching her drink a vanilla soy milkshake through a straw. He’d barely touched his own meal, a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach having spoiled his appetite.
“I should know in a day or two if they like my script,” she said. “I’m so nervous. This thing’s going to be massive. Nobody’s tried to make a movie about the Venusian invasion before, at least not on this scale. They’ve already got some major stars circling the Captain Victorious role, like… You listening?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Francis said, “I was just….”
He glanced down at the table and took a deep breath.
“Charlie, there’s, uh, something I have to come clean about,” he said. “I… sort of have a girlfriend.”
Charlie’s face went blank. She took a sip of her milkshake, set it down on the table, and glanced back over her shoulder.
“Check, please!” she said and stood from her seat.
She opened her wallet and dropped a twenty on the table.
“Hold on,” he said. “I can explain everything if you’ll—”
“Look, I like you well enough,” she said, “but I’ve written enough love triangles to know I should avoid them at all costs.”
Her hand brushed his shoulder as she walked past him, and she paused at the doorway to glance back.
“Thanks for telling me the truth before things got serious,” she said. “It was… nice meeting you.”
She turned and strolled out the door. He thought of chasing after her, but he knew it was futile. He felt a buzzing in his pocket; he’d received a new message on his phone.
“Are you almost done?” Jane had texted.
“Yeah, I’m done,” he typed back.
Francis stood in the bathroom staring at Charlie’s face in the mirror. He hadn’t heard from her in a week but he still couldn’t get her off his mind. She hadn’t responded to any of his texts.
“Who’s she?” Jane asked, appearing in the doorway.
“Oh, just… an actress,” he replied. “I’m doubling for her in my next gig.”
“Okay,” Jane said, continuing on past the door.
“You ready for your interview?” he asked, following her out into the living room.
“I guess,” she said. “I’m not going to get the job, though.”
“You don’t know that,” he said. “Just give it your best shot and everything will be fine.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” she said, plopping down onto the couch. “With your powers, you can be anyone you want. I’m just… plain old messed-up me.”
“Well… good luck anyway,” he said.
She shrugged and turned on the television to a talk show.
“I have to go meet with my agent this morning,” Francis said. “Don’t forget to eat something, and take your pills. I’ll be back sometime in the afternoon.”
Jane nodded and started flipping through channels as he threw on his shoes and opened the door.
“Frankie,” she said.
“Yeah?” he replied, glancing back.
“Could you wish me luck again,” she said, “but… as her?”
Francis sighed and shifted into her mother.
“Break a leg, sweetheart,” he said.
“Thanks, Mom,” she said. “See you later.”
He forced a smile and stepped out into the hallway, turning back into himself the moment the door shut behind him.
Victory City fell beneath Francis’s feet as he rode the glass elevator up the side of the office tower that housed the headquarters of the Golden Age Talent Agency. His agent was a tall black man named Ellis who drank a lot of coffee and always had a stack of trashy gossip rags on his desk.
“Got a few jobs coming up for you,” he said as Francis sat down. “There’s a beer commercial shooting next week. There’s a soap opera that’s killing off one of its main characters soon and wants someone they can set on fire. Oh, and there’s a movie.”
“What kind of movie?” Francis said.
“The kind that makes a ton of money,” Ellis said. “It only got the green-light a couple days ago, but it’s being fast-tracked for release next year. It’s a big-budget historical action-adventure about the Invasion of ‘56. One of our clients wrote the screenplay and she’s dropped your name to the producers. They—”
“Charlie Ban?” Francis asked, leaning forward. “You represent her?”
“Oh yeah, she’s been with us for a while now,” Ellis replied. “She’s actually in a meeting right across the hall as we speak. I’m surprised you didn’t run into her when you….”
Francis sprang from his seat and threw open the door. Stepping out, he found himself face-to-face with Charlie as she emerged from the office across the hall. She froze, clutching her bag to her chest.
“Charlie,” Francis said, “I—”
“I have to go,” she said.
She pushed past him and hurried up the hall. He followed her through the waiting room as she stepped into the elevator. He squeezed in just before the doors closed. She pressed the button for the lobby and the elevator lurched into motion.
“Could you just hear me out?” he asked. “For one minute?”
“I don’t have time for this,” she said. “I have to meet with a casting director in half an hour and then I—”
Emergency brakes squealed as the elevator ground to a halt, throwing Charlie off balance. Francis reached out to catch her, but she steadied herself on a handrail instead. She turned to the control panel and mashed the buttons.
“Nothing’s happening,” she said.
Francis stepped over to the glass wall and said, “I think the power’s out.”
Down at street level, an intersection had turned into a four-way stop as the traffic lights blinked out. The lights in the office tower across the street had gone dark, too.
“Great,” Charlie muttered.
“Do you have time now?” Francis asked.
On the sidewalk below, an old man raised his hands to the sky and lightning streaked overhead. A whirlwind reached down from the clouds and enveloped the man, lifting him into the air and carrying him off toward a field of wind turbines further downtown.
Charlie sighed and said, “Start talking.”
“Her name’s Jane,” he said, mimicking her face for a moment. “We met a couple years ago, up there.”
He pointed out at the mountains rising over Victory City.
“I’d been hiking all morning,” he said. “Suddenly this girl came speeding down the trail on a mountain bike and winged me in the knee as I jumped out of the way. It wasn’t bad, but… well, I might have laid it on a bit thick when she stopped to check on me. She helped me back to my car, and then I asked her out on a date.”
He leaned back against the glass wall.
“It started off well,” he said, “but soon enough, the cracks started to form. It was just little things, mostly. We were always getting in these petty arguments. It wasn’t even that one of us was right and the other was wrong, we were just… incompatible.”
“So why didn’t you break up?” Charlie asked.
“We were talking about it,” he said. “About six months ago, we sat down and decided that we should spend some time apart to ‘re-evaluate our feelings.’ She was going to stay with her sister for a while. She started packing that night, but the next morning… her mother died.”
Charlie’s eyes widened.
“Turned out she had late-stage lung cancer,” Francis said. “Nobody knew she was sick. She’d been keeping it to herself for months until one night, she went to bed and just never woke up.”
“Why didn’t she tell anyone?” Charlie asked.
“We never did find out,” Francis replied. “The doctors said she must have been in constant agony, but she didn’t complain once. I think she just… didn’t want to make a fuss.”
“Damn,” Charlie said. “So you called off the break-up?”
“Not at first,” he said, “but then Jane got in a huge fight with her sister at the funeral, so she had nowhere to go. I figured I’d just wait a couple weeks and broach the subject again. But when the time came, I realized Jane had begun to change.”
“How so?” Charlie asked.
“She wasn’t sleeping,” he said. “She wasn’t eating. She started skipping work and got fired. I eventually convinced her to see a doctor, and he put her on antidepressants. They seemed to be working for a while, but then she just… bottomed out. She hasn’t been able to hold down a job. Some days, she can’t even get out of bed, and the only thing I can do to make her feel better is….”
“What?” Charlie asked, leaning forward.
Francis shifted into Jane’s mother. Charlie’s jaw dropped.
“No,” she muttered. “Is that…?”
“Yeah,” he replied sheepishly, returning to normal.
“It’s no wonder she hasn’t gotten better,” Charlie said. “How’s she supposed to grieve if she can just play pretend with you whenever starts thinking about her mother again?”
“I… hadn’t really though of it like that,” he said. “I just don’t know what else to do for her.”
“You shouldn’t be doing anything,” Charlie said. “You need to take yourself out of the equation entirely. Not for your own peace of mind, but for hers.”
Francis turned and stared out through the glass.
“And then… what about us?” he asked.
“Dude, I’m not some prize you get to win for doing the right thing,” she said. “We went on two dates. Maybe we’ll do a third someday, but I’m not just going to jump into your arms the moment you dump that girl. I have too much self-respect for that.”
On the street below, the traffic lights flickered back to life. The elevator shuddered and resumed its downward motion. Moments later, the doors opened to the lobby of the building.
“See you around, Francis,” Charlie said, stepping out. “Text me sometime, when you’ve sorted your life out.”
The doors slid shut.
Francis heard moaning as he opened the door to his apartment. He hurried down the hall and found Jane sitting on the floor by the coffee table, clutching her left arm. A chair lay on its side by her feet with several books scattered around it.
“What happened, honey?” he asked, rushing to her side.
“I was… trying to reach,” she replied, glancing up at the photo album on the top shelf of the bookcase, “but everything went dark… and I fell. I hurt my arm.”
He glanced down and noticed a faint bulge beneath the skin of her forearm.
“It’s bad,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just….”
“Don’t worry, honey,” he said. “I’m here now, and I’m going to help you. Just stay calm.”
He rushed to the bathroom and grabbed a towel from the closet. He tied it around her neck in a sling and placed a bag of frozen peas on her arm.
“Hold this here,” he said, and picked up the phone.
“Frankie, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t get the job. I….”
“It’s okay, honey,” he said, dialling the number for the hospital. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Francis held Jane’s hand while the doctor set the bone and put a plaster cast on her arm. While they were waiting for the cast to harden, he stepped out to get something to drink and texted Lucy on the way back to the room. He sat beside Jane and gave her a bottle of water.
“Frankie,” Jane said, staring at her cast. “I’m so stupid.”
“No, you’re not,” he said. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have put the album up there.”
“I shouldn’t have tried to grab it,” she said. “I just… after today… I needed to see her.”
“I know,” he said, nodding.
She looked away, scratching idly at the edge of the cast.
“Can I?” she asked. “See her, I mean.”
She stared up at him, pleading with her eyes.
He took a deep breath and said, “No.”
“Please,” she said. “I really need it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t keep doing this.”
“Why not?” she asked. “You said you’d help me.”
“I’m trying,” he replied, “but I think I’ve just been making things worse this whole time.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “You —”
“I need to take myself out of the equation,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get better.”
“You… what?” she asked. “Are you breaking up with me?”
“Come on, Jane,” he said. “We’ve been running on empty for ages. Long before all this started. Can you really say you’d have stayed with me if I couldn’t do what I can do?”
“I….” She trailed off, tears welling in her eyes.
“I’m just getting in your way,” he said. “Trust me, you’ll be stronger without me.”
She glared at him. “You condescending prick,” she said. “You don’t give a damn about me. You just want out, and you’ve come up with this pretty lie to convince yourself that you’re doing this for my own good. But you’re really just a selfish coward.”
“You’re right,” he said, standing from the chair. “I am a coward. I thought if I just waited long enough, everything would work itself out without me having to making any tough decisions. But it hasn’t, and it won’t. So I’m doing now what I should have done a long time ago: I’m leaving.”
She glared up at him with rage and pain in her eyes, and he wished he could make it all better. He hated to leave things like this, but he knew it was the only way.
“For what it’s worth,” he said, “I’m sorry.”
He stepped around the bed and headed for the door. She cursed at him as he slipped out into the hallway, but he forced himself not to look back, lest he break down and change his mind. He headed for the elevator and pressed the call button. The door slid open, and Jane’s face stared up at him.
“I got your text,” Lucy said, stepping out. “Is she okay?”
“She’ll live,” he said. “But she’s going to need you. I… won’t be there for her anymore.”
“You finally ended it, huh?” Lucy said.
“It was already over,” he said. “We just couldn’t admit it.”
“How did she take it?” Lucy asked.
“Not well,” Francis replied. “I haven’t seen her that angry since… well, the funeral.”
“That bad, huh?” Lucy said, and glanced down the hall. “Did she ever tell you what we fought about that day?”
He shook his head.
“You,” she said, jabbing her finger at his chest.
“Me?” he asked. “What do you mean?”
“She had this… stupid idea,” Lucy said. “She wanted you to speak at the ceremony… as Mom. You would thank everyone for coming, tell them you love them, say goodbye, and so on.”
“She never asked me to do that,” he said.
“That’s because I stopped her,” Lucy said. “I told her it was wrong, that it would dishonor our mother’s memory. Jane started going on about how I never really loved Mom and was glad she was gone, and it just escalated from there. We both ended up saying a lot of things we regretted.”
“I’m really sorry,” Francis said. “If I’d known….”
“It’s not your fault,” Lucy said. “It’s not her fault either. I understand the temptation. Even now, I’d like nothing more than to see you change into Mom, to hear you speak in her voice. But I know it wouldn’t actually be her. Just… smoke and mirrors.”
“I wish I could have given Jane something real,” he said.
“That’s what you’re doing now,” Lucy said. “She has to face up to reality now. Better late than never.”
“I suppose,” he said, pressing the button for the elevator. “Will you… let me know how she’s doing, every once in a while?”
“Sure,” Lucy said. “Just do me one favor: if she calls you—and she will call, when things get rough—don’t answer. No matter how many messages she leaves, no matter how often, just don’t answer. If you do, she’ll end up right back where she started.”
“You have my word,” he said.
The elevator opened and he stepped inside. Lucy waved and headed up the hall. As the door slid shut, Francis fished his phone out of his pocket and scrolled though to Charlie’s number.
“It’s done,” he typed, but hesitated at the send button.
He saved the message as a draft and put the phone away.
Later, he decided. For now, this was enough.
He glanced at the polished steel door in front of him and his own face stared back, smiling.