It takes Will more than a week to get around to doing what his mom asked him. His days are surprisingly full: showing Matt around and keeping his secrets, helping out in the clinic, trying to flirt with Payton whenever she comes by. So his mom’s soil project falls by the wayside, despite her reproachful eyes.
Will’s been trying not to think about his powers, about what they might mean. He still feels a pull behind his sternum some nights when the sky is clear.
When he woke up this morning, though, he’d found a container of soil from outside right next to his head. On a torn-out piece of notebook paper, his mom had written: Today. She’d underlined it three times.
It’s even more humid and sticky in the greenhouse than it is outside, which is saying something, and Will’s been trying to get the soil in the container to do something — anything — for hours now, but it’s not like before, it’s not something he can control. When he hears the door open and shut he looks up immediately, desperate for any distraction.
Payton’s standing there, being the best kind of distraction. “Hey,” she says. “Your cousin said you were probably in here.”
He feels a sudden and totally irrational stab of jealousy, but plays it cool. “Yeah, I’m just working on some stuff.”
Her eyes take everything in: things growing, the sun through the glass, trowels and garden gloves strewn everywhere. “This is cool,” she says, running her hand along a stainless steel shelf, touching the leaf of a tomato plant gingerly, like she might hurt it. “What you do here.”
“Come on. You’re the one driving around doing dangerous stuff all the time.”
Crouching down to look more closely at the plant, she says to the tomatoes, still tiny on the vine: “Everything we do is dangerous.”
Will watches her, finding it hard to swallow. Her long, slim fingers, the easy way she moves. He thinks about Louisa, the girl he’d taken to Homecoming and kissed exactly twice; he thinks about how she’s dead now, but he can’t picture it. He just sees her in that dark blue dress, spinning to show her friends the way the fabric swirls around her.
Finally Payton straightens and turns to him. “Look, I came here to — I don’t know. To say goodbye, I guess. That caravan is leaving tomorrow, going up into the mountains. And I’m gonna go with them.” She fidgets with a ring on her right hand, spinning it around. “So I’m passing the route off. I won’t be back here.”
He nods, slow. “I figured.”
“You figure a lot of things.” Her eyes narrow, but there’s nothing critical in her gaze. She’s careful, searching. “You’re not going to try to convince me not to go?”
Will shrugs. “Could I?”
“Then there you go.” That vision he’d gotten of the mountains — the tower, the toxic rain — flashes behind his eyelids, but he pushes it aside. He doesn’t even know if it’s real. “What changed your mind?”
Payton perches on the edge of the counter. With the sunset streaming in he notices, for the first time, the freckles scattered across her nose, the flecks in her dark eyes. “I was talking to Caroline,” she says. “She says your dad is — was — some famous alien hunter or something.”
“Or something,” Will agrees.
“Caroline says that it’s aliens who did all of this.”
“Caroline says a lot of shit.”
“Yeah.” She looks at him closely. “Is she right, though?”
Will’s tongue darts out to wet his lips. A nervous habit he picked up from his mom, probably, a long time ago. All he can eke out is, “Maybe.”
Her smile is small, and not at all pleasant. “Then this is war,” she says. “And I want the high ground.” She pauses. “You could come, too.”
“I can’t.” It’s not that he’s a coward and it’s not that he isn’t curious: but look what happened the last time he ran away. Payton’s gaze is clear, curious. Will explains, “It’s my fault my dad died.” It’s the first time he’s said it out loud in all this time. It hurts to say. “I left home to try to protect him and my mom, and instead it got him killed, and I can’t. I can’t do that to her. I can’t leave.”
Payton stares down at her hands, her fingers twining together. After a long moment, she glances up at him again. She asks, “Do you know how my parents died?”
He doesn’t. He doesn’t want to, either.
Her voice is soft. “It happened right in front of me, Will. I couldn’t do anything about it, and I see it happen over and over again every time I fall asleep.” He can see her swallow. “You can only protect yourself.”
“I don’t believe that,” Will says, and his voice is stronger than it has any right to be.
She hops off the counter and stands on her tiptoes to kiss him, so quickly it’s over before he knows it’s happening. “I figured,” she says, her lips almost brushing his cheek.
And she slips out the door. And she’s gone.
At some ungodly hour his mom shakes him awake, and in the darkness he can just make out the shape of the radio in her hands.
“Listen,” she hisses, settling herself cross-legged beside him.
Will obliges. For a few minutes there’s nothing, and then he hears it.
“This is Radio Nowhere.” Static, static. A few different voices talking over each other, sounding like they’re underwater. Then the same voice again: “…on a clear night you can hear forever.”
God. He knows that voice. Months ago he’d worried out that he might be forgetting his father’s face, the sound of his voice; he was wrong. He’d know it anywhere. He sits up.
He doesn’t have to say anything else. She nods. For the first time he notices how gently she’s holding the radio, like it’s a precious thing.
If his dad is alive. If this isn’t some kind of trick or a mistake.
If it wasn’t all Will’s fault, after all. If he is absolved.
Will says, “What are you going to do?”, and his mom is silent.
In eighteen years, he has never thought, even for a second, about the possibility of his parents choosing each other over him. Of course he knew that they were different from most of his friends’ parents, whose relationships tended toward the businesslike. He knew they shared a past — and a present — that would always be outside his ken. But he also knew that he was always first. That his parents made sacrifices for him, sacrifices he would never be expected to repay.
He is very, very quiet. Again: “Mom.”
She looks at him, eyes shining.
“Are you going to leave me here?”
She licks her lips and glances briefly away, the way she always does when she’s nervous. It’s her tell. He should know; he shares it.
“No.” The vehemence in his voice surprises him. “We have to stay together.”
“I’m not going far,” she says, infuriatingly calm. “Just until I find a town that can broadcast out. That’s all I need. I just need to send a message.”
“Then I’ll go with you.”
She touches his cheek like she did when he was a little boy, and it stings like a slap. “I need you here, Will,” she says. Before he can raise an objection, she counters it. “You’re not a kid anymore, Will. We both have responsibilities, and this is yours. Stay here. Work in the greenhouse. Keep an eye on Matt. Treat the people you can treat. I’ll be back in a few days.”
He can’t help it. “This isn’t fair,” he says, feeling petulant and thirteen again.
His mom sighs. “Nobody said it was.”