Hetty called her parents first once they got somewhere with a phone. Then Byatt's.
Neither set of parents dealt with the news well. Or the sight of the girls. The three of them together did make a strange scene: eye, scales, spine, scars and other remnants of Raxter life were abundantly obvious even when clean and dressed in new clothes. It's hard to learn your parents are more fragile than you are. Harder still to see it up close and in person that they're afraid.
Reese could've told them that.
Everyone agreed everyone would be better off if the girls didn't go public. Hetty would've had to speak for them if they did, Reese refused and Byatt could barely speak at all. Hetty was tired. She didn't want to fight anymore and no one could blame her, or any of them, for wanting time of their own to figure things out. It wasn't like anyone made a real argument for staying either, not them, not their parents. Hetty wouldn't leave Byatt and Reese, and without Hetty, Reese didn't have anyone. Byatt hadn't said much about her parents before, but the tension between them was apparent. They wouldn't be fighting for anything and Byatt was eager to put them behind her again. So they agreed to go away. Together.
Farther was better and for everyone's sake.
Guilt played heavily into the first fistful of money shoved at Byatt by her father. He said it would be easier, this way, money given by the handful or paid to an account if they got one. "Go back to the Island if you must,'' he’d said. Clearly or perhaps willfully misunderstanding exactly what they'd told him had happened. That there was no island to go back to. That they'd still be there if they hadn't left to find Byatt, if the Navy hadn't bombed it, if the CDC had figured out the parasite just a little bit sooner.
Yes, of course, the island where everyone they'd known a week ago was dead now, and dead before, and all surrounded by a forest full of creatures that wanted to eat them. Or poison them. Or kill them. All of the above.
Hetty's father had been less accommodating, despite all of Hetty's insistence that he'd be on their side in the matter. " It won't be safe for you girls to stay here," he'd said. " People will want to look at you, experiment on you," he whispered to Hetty later, " like your friend there."
By people, Reese assumed, he meant the government. The Navy. The CDC. The news even. Reese wondered what he'd think if she told him what Hetty had done to her father instead. Of the things his daughter was willing to do to protect them if she had to. What she'd done for the girls of Raxter before they'd left. What she'd done for Byatt.
Reese new that Mr. Chapin didn't deserve his daughter anymore than she did.
And Hetty didn't deserve her cowardly parents. Nor did Byatt, though it was clear Byatt Windsor had known that for a lot longer than she'd had the Tox. It wasn't Raxter that'd created that rift. It had only intensified what had been there already.
Reese wasn't sure what any of them really deserved, but it wasn't each other. But for the three of them now, that was all they had. That and a few fistfuls of cash and a new bank account in Byatt's name.
Out on their own, sleep proved the hardest thing to come by.
It wasn't that sleep had been something they'd had in deep quantities before, or that it'd been easier at Raxter. There was only so long a body could stay awake though, only so long the Tox could turn their bodies against them and eventually everyone figured out how to sleep with some kind of regularity. And there had been Raxter itself. The lie of relative safety that gave them -- most of them -- some kind of peace.
But after, after… sleep wasn't just elusive.
It was abusive.
It taunted. It screamed. It yawned in the back of their minds with a great terrifying darkness: a great unyielding forest of the dead and the dying.
In the first few weeks, they slept fitfully, taking turns to keep watch over the others. Even if their parents had assured them that the reports of their deaths were true, that no one would be looking for them, it was difficult to believe it was really true. Even if there was no one left at Raxter to report them alive, it was difficult to trust Byatt and Hetty's parents. Hetty's parents seemed most likely. Reese hadn't liked the way Hetty's father had looked at her hands. Or the way his gaze lingered on Hetty's face when he thought no one was paying attention. It wasn't concern in his expression but curiosity… wonder, wonder perhaps at what he'd get for turning the three of them into the CDC for study. Surely the government didn't want them renting motel rooms, or going to the grocery store, or trying on new clothes at the store. Reese didn't say it to Hetty, but she wondered why exactly he let them go in the first place.
Or why they were even still alive.
If the government had been willing to bomb the island to kill the remaining girls at Raxter, weren't the three of them even more dangerous off the island? A public health hazard?
They certainly felt dangerous.
So they kept watch.
All of their food came from convenience shops and gas stations, shopped for in baggy clothes and big sunglasses for Hetty. They ate junk tempered with small samplings of something healthy: an orange, an apple, carrots by the small bagful, chocolate bars and tortilla chips and anything that was something more than pale and stale and colorless. Which was everything. It made them ill the first few days on their own, rich food and malnourished stomachs. So they drank water they knew for certain was safe and slowed down on sweets, bringing home cups of noodles and instant rice and tiny cups of jello, yogurt and pudding.
They send Byatt in to pay for any room they rent. She said very little to anyone and though the occasional weirdo made a comment about how tired or sick she looked, or how she didn’t smile, she had a way of looking at people so they didn't ask many questions either. They never stayed anywhere for too long. Rarely went anywhere all together. If they left the room, it was only in pairs, afraid the three of them would attract attention. In pairs they could keep watch on each other from a distance. It wasn't a perfect system, but it was the best they could manage.
So when sleep came, they took it in shifts.
Reese slept in chairs, on sofas, cots, pull-out beds and the floor. Hetty and Byatt shared, one awake, one asleep, both asleep, both awake. Byatt's nightmares were the worst, a silent terror that kept her awake for days at a time. Hetty might try to hold her, petting and hushing her like a frightened creature. She picked at her arm when she couldn't sleep, where she'd sliced it and it had healed over badly.
Hetty cried in her sleep. She thrashed and tossed and her face scrunched up in the darkness as tears streamed from her good eye. Where Byatt had stitched her eye, it had healed in a jagged pink scar and Hetty often rubbed at it when she slept. She'd picked up a patch to wear when they went out, Byatt decorating it in a patternless splatter of colorful stitches.
Reese knew she had nightmares too. Or nightmare, singular. The same one she'd had since the night she'd watched Hetty kill her father. If she cried or screamed or thrashed in her sleep, no one said and she didn't ask. Hetty looked at her softly in the mornings, from over a sleeping Byatt's shoulder, or farther way from the far end of their shared bed, Byatt still splitting the distance between them.
They moved a few times. Different motels, a rundown apartment, a hotel once when they couldn't find anything else. Shelters, hostels, the street once - despite their money, just because there wasn't anywhere else to go.
Mostly Reese fought. With Hetty. Sometimes with Byatt.
Mostly with herself.
She couldn't help missing Raxter: the island, the school, her house. Jealousy belonged to her in a way that sat twisted under ribs each time she looked at Byatt and Hetty next to each other. She remembered clearly how insistent Hetty and been about saving Byatt. And yet while everyone else had been dying around them and she knew she'd been right to fight for her own safety, for Hetty's safety… she remembered what she'd said about not wanting Byatt to come back. She had meant it too. Hindsight froze shame and guilt under her ribs, turned it to jealousy, turned it to anger. Just like it always had. Anger is easier, she's had a lifetime of experience being angry.
Hetty tried. She smiled a small, lopsided smile from beneath a curtain of dark hair. She'd reach out a hand. She'd tempt the waters if Byatt slept peacefully, to sit somewhere close to Reese, to talk.
"Tell me what you're thinking?" she'd ask. And it'd be quiet and soft in the dark shadows of night, Byatt's breathing only background static.
And Reese would send her away. "It's nothing." Or, " Get some sleep, Hetty. "
Yet from across the room she'd stare back at the two of them and wonder what it would have been like if Hetty and Reese had been the only survivors. If they could've made their way differently, then. If she could have forgiven her more easily, without the reminder of the Chapin's and the Winsor's confused and frustrated faces as they'd entered and left their homes. Without the reminder that Hetty and Byatt still had parents, even if there were myriad reasons to no longer stay with them.
Would she and Hetty share a bed instead? They hadn't had enough time together before it had all gone to shit. After Byatt left. Before Hetty began her fervent and indulgent rescue attempt. What then: would she be able to look at Hetty without the anger that made her hands shake and her heart ache? Eventually. Maybe. In time.
Now she watched Hetty nurse Byatt to health as the other girl's voice healed, arm healed, as she brought her softly out of nightmares and held her head in her lap. Reese didn't want to remember what that felt like. Being held by Hetty, being cared for and wanting it and then wanting it more. She remembered though and too well.
There was no Hetty alone. No Hetty and Reese. Only Hetty and Byatt with Reese on the edge, from a distance.
When Reese's scales broke and grew and her webbed fingers seeped she tried to hide it. Pulled sleeves down long and held her arms to her chest, folded over her stomach. She knew what it was. When she had to, she counted back the days, marked out the month. Remembered what they'd left unfinished.
There was a last piece of Raxter she needed to remove from herself.
She did it in the night. Hetty and Byatt were in their bed deep in the first blush of sleep. It was just like Byatt had described. When she thought about it, when she paid attention to the writhing pain under her skin, Reese found that knew exactly where it was. She’d watched Hetty do this later, when they were safe, where they could get help if something else happened. Byatt had done it on her own and half delirious though, and if she could, Reese could.
Reese’s knife pierced between the scales on her forearm, easier than expected. She sliced, feeling the squirm and wriggle of something under the surface. She cut back further, where scales became flesh. She bit down on the collar of her flannel shirt to muffle her sounds of pain.
She bled into the sink, arm held against the counter as she slipped the knife deeper under her skin. She knew exactly where it was moving, where it was hiding and she hooked it with her knife, scraping it closer. Like Hetty had done and Byatt before, she reached into the long slice in her arm. Her skin was pried apart as her fingers moved in after the worm, finding it where her knife had left it. She tugged at it, fueled by rage. Tears moved in streaks down her cheeks as she dug into her flesh and pulled out the long gray worm.
Her knife sliced it open too. Just to be sure, just to ensure it's death was final before she wrapped it in toilet paper and a plastic bag and dropped it into the trash can beside the toilet. Her arm left blood in streaks across the floor and counter as she moved, quick as she could while her arm throbbed in pain. The long strip of bandage from their first aid kit covered the majority of the length of where she'd cut into her arm.
"Reese?" Hetty whispered from the other side of the closed door. The handle jiggled, locked and unwilling to be interrupted. She ignored the voice of Hetty and the sound of her concern.
Reese ran her knife under the water, wiping it thoroughly dry on one of the motel towels. Another smaller towel, wet this time, Reese wiped down her arm, careful at the edges of the wound, mostly blotting up the blood. She was tired, moving slow as she pulled the end of the roll of bandage and fixed it against her arm. It was awkward, to unspin the roll as she held it in place for the first few turns.
"I'm fine, Hetty. Go back to sleep." Back to Byatt, she thought.
Her fingers, numbing at the tips, shook slightly as she wrapped the bandage up her arm, pulling the wound tight as she could manage. If it healed badly, she didn't care.
"You looked like you weren't feeling good earlier…" Hetty whispered. There was a creak from the door, evidence of where Hetty leaned against it. "I'm worried about you."
Reese opened the door, closing it immediately again with Hetty inside.
"I had to do something." She holds up her hand and looks defiantly at Hetty. "Been putting it off."
Hetty looked at her, momentarily horrified. As if she'd forgotten Reese had watched her do this to herself not that long ago. Reese shook her head and fumbled with the bandage.
Voice low Hetty asked, "Did you get it?"
Hetty nodded toward the trash bin. "Yeah, didn't move after I cut it, wrapped in paper and plastic, it's not going anywhere. "
"Good." Hetty didn't follow her gaze to the trash though. She watched Reese's arm, looked at the length of the bandage and the glint of clean knife on the counter. "You know I would've helped you do that."
"I didn't need you to." Reese frowned, both at Hetty and at the small tremor of defiance in her voice. She hadn't needed Hetty and she hated to want her.
"Sure," Hetty said in a way that made it very obvious she disagreed. "I can pull that bandage tighter, though. If you'll let me."
Reese sighed and looked at Hetty. She sighed. "Fine, yeah, I guess." She backed up and took a seat on the closed toilet seat with her arm crossed over her knee as she held it out to Hetty. "Doesn't have to be pretty or precise or anything," she added.
Hetty knelt before her, sitting back on her heels. She touched her tentatively, quiet and delicate in the way that neither she nor Byatt has ever been. Her focus was on Reese's arm and the bandage and her brow furrowed as she worked. She used the leverage of Reese's knee to keep the skin taut together as she pulled the bandage tight. Blood seeped through, pooling just underneath the fabric and Hetty ignored it. They both knew it would stop eventually.
And they'd both seen worse.
"When Byatt's awake she can stitch you up."
"Byatt," Reese said. It was more thought than a purposeful acknowledgement of the other girl's name. A reminder they weren't alone. Of part of the weight that still hung between them.
"Of course," said Hetty. "Once it's stitched up it'll heal better. Faster."
Reese sat quiet, eyes on her arm as Hetty worked. Then Hetty's fingers lingered over her own, bandage tied and cut and the job done. Silence gathered around them like the night, silent and unwavering.
"I better--" Hetty lifted her fingers to gesture behind her.
Reese followed the movement of them like a moth to a flame, wanting to be close to her touch again. She didn't know how to do that any better than Hetty could extract herself from Byatt. Not in a way that made sense to either of them.
Hetty nodded a nervous acknowledgement of nothing before she turned and left.
Behind her Reese whispered a 'thank you' she knew Hetty was too far gone to hear. She heard the shuffling feet of the other girl, a sound like shifting sand as she crossed the room back to her bed with Byatt.
Somehow she could extract Raxter and it's parasite from her flesh but she couldn't extract herself from Hetty. Hetty didn't make her skin crack and bleed, didn't turn the tips of her fingers blue, didn't smell like mold and death. But she still twisted her stomach and made her burn and there was nowhere to put the knife to make that stop.