Aquarius Undone by Tricia Barr
Zodiac Guardians 61
The day is a gray and rainy one, the heavy sheet of water pelting the windows of Chestnut Hill. The other children are running around the common room playing tag, but Eric has never felt he belonged with them, so he doesn’t join their game.
He’s been at the orphanage since he was two years old, and though he has no memory of his life before, he’s always felt certain that his parents—whoever they were—loved him. Maybe they died in a car crash, or some other tragic accident. Or maybe they’re still out there somewhere, looking for him. Either way, he’s always known he belongs somewhere else, that he didn’t fit in with kids his age.
Except for Ada.
Ada, who’s currently rocking in a ball in the corner, hugging her knees tightly against her.
Her bright and wild red curls look especially frizzy at the moment, and yet she still looks so pretty. The prettiest girl here. The prettiest girl he’s ever seen. He knows, at eight years old, he’s supposed to think girls are gross, but Ada could never be gross. Not even at this moment, when her face is sheened in sweat and paler than usual, darkening the freckles that cover her nose.
Ignoring the loud play of the other kids, Eric closes the distance between them and sits beside her, putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“What’s wrong, Ada?” he asks.
Her eyes dart sideways at him, wide and panicked, and she scoots away from his touch.
For a moment, he falters, lowers his hand and assumes she doesn’t want him near. But he can sense what she doesn’t say, that she does want him there, just not touching her.
“It—it’s happening again,” she whimpers in a broken voice.
Eric cocks his head, uncertain of what she means. Then, as he looks closer, he can see a spark of static snapping in her curls, feel the electrical pulse she gives off like the subtle hum of a television that’s been left on.
So, that’s it. She’s amped again. Or whatever it could be called. That’s why she didn’t want him to touch her. She could zap him.
He nods, trying to plaster a look of comfort on his face as he smiles at her. “It’ll be okay. I’m sure it’ll stop soon. Just ride it out and try to be calm.”
She shakes her head and hiccups, trembling from the strain to keep herself together. “I don’t understand why this happens to me. What’s wrong with me? Why am I like this? Why aren’t they?” She juts her chin at the kids who are gleefully frolicking around them, ignorant to her struggle.
Eric wishes he had an answer for her. One that would soothe her and not scare her even further. But he has even less of an answer for her than he does for his own differences. He doesn’t know why he can do things the other kids can’t, either.
Though he knows Ada isn’t in pain, he closes his eyes and focuses on her, hoping to at least alleviate her stress if nothing else.
After a few seconds, she lets out a long, shaky breath, and when he opens his eyes, he sees that she’s a little less tense.
She turns her head and gawks at him. “W—was that you?”
Eric nods quietly. She knows about his secret ability, too. Their shared freakishness is why they bonded. But not why they’d grown so close. Even if she was normal, or he was normal and she was still this way, he’d be just as drawn to her, just as eager to protect her.
Her brow smooths in relief and gratitude. “Thank you.”
“Any time.” He attempts to put his hand on her shoulder again, and his hand is met with a tiny shock before his fingers ever reach her.
She grimaces. “Sorry.”
Shrugging off the little zap, he continues the gesture anyway. He can stand a little static if it means making her feel better. “Don’t worry about it.”
She sighs, and he dares to scoot closer, showing her he’s not afraid.
Lightning flashes in the distance, brightening the room for a split second, and a boom of thunder follows soon after. Eric looks out the window, watching the curtain of water cover it. And it makes him realize something.
“You know,” he begins, “come to think of it, the last time you felt like this, it was raining. I wonder if something about the lightning amps you up.”
Her brows hike up, and she inhales sharply, her eyes darting from side to side. “Oh wow, you’re right! I bet there’s a connection!”
Even though he can’t solve the problem, he’s glad he could help her figure out the cause. Or at least, the trigger. They may never know the cause. Why she emits this strange and powerful charge, or why he can alleviate pain…and cause it…
“See.” He puts his arm all the way around her shoulders and gently squeezes. “As long as we stick together, everything will be okay.”
The twinkle in her eyes dulls for a moment, doubt creeping in. Doubt that they won’t be adopted together, that they’ll eventually be pulled apart by circumstances beyond their control.
He’s not going to let that worry her. Because nothing will keep them apart. “I’ll never leave you. I promise.”
* * *
The tequila goes down like it’s water as Eric slams the freshly emptied shot glass onto the bar top. The first few burned like hell, but the edge has finally—mercifully—worn off.
But part of him knows that, no matter how much he drinks, or what myriad of colorful pills he swallows, this pain isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Maybe not ever.
“Another,” Eric says, tapping the bar.
“Joo chure, my friend?” asks the heavy-set Mexican bartender in his thick accent as he wipes the inside of a glass with a not-so-clean looking rag.
Eric nods lengthily up and down, realizing his gesture probably made him look more drunk, not less. Especially when the bartender frowns.
“How ‘bout some agua, my friend?” Without waiting for Eric’s retort, the man places a sweating bottle of water in front of him.
Now it’s Eric’s turn to frown. He doesn’t want water. Water won’t help him forget. Water won’t take away the pain. But if it’ll get him closer to that next shot, he’ll take it.
He grabs the bottle, wrenches it open, and chugs it. Despite the sweat that coats the bottle, it’s not very cold. And even when he’s finished it, his mouth still feels like a wad of cotton. Though that’s probably from the Molly he took a few hours ago. He flicks his tongue a few times, as if the motion might make the effect go away, which it doesn’t. The sticky dryness only feels more pronounced.
“I’ll take another water,” Eric calls. “And another shot.” He gives the bartender a hostile glance.
The bartender sighs and mutters something in Spanish under his breath, then grabs another water and the Don Julio from the shelf.
Eric chugs the second water as his chubby savior reluctantly fills the shot glass with the miraculous, golden liquid, then walks away, shaking his head and muttering again. From the meager bit of Spanish Eric knows, the words are quite colorful, and they only make Eric chuckle as he picks up the shot glass and swirls the liquid around.
“You’re not seriously going to drink that, are you?”
The glass slips straight through Eric’s fingers and spills on the bar top.
No. She couldn’t have found him. He knows all her tricks, and he’s been careful to stay off the radar. Fake names, cash instead of cards, fake passport. The whole nine yards. Hell, make it twelve yards. Anything to keep her from finding him and dragging him back to a life where he has to watch her every day in the arms of a man who’s not him.
All blood drained from his face, Eric turns.
Ada is perched on the edge of the bar not one foot from him, red hair wild and beautiful as ever, piercing green eyes seeing only him.
How did she get there without him seeing or hearing her? She damn sure wasn’t there a second ago.
“Wh—what are you doing here?” he asks, his voice hoarse and deep.
“What do you think I’m doing here?” She flicks her thick orange curls over her shoulder and leans suggestively toward him. “We promised never to leave each other.”
“I’m not the one who left,” Eric accuses, mildly aware he’s slurring his words.
“My friend?” The bartender looks at him, concern scrunching his round face. “Are joo okay?”
“We’re fine, thank you,” Eric growls. “She was just leaving.”
The bartender looks even more confused, scanning the bar. “I’m sorry, who?”
Eric narrows his eyes and shakes his head. “Her.” He gestures at Ada as if her presence is obvious. How could anyone miss this gorgeous redhead sitting on the bar like a phoenix perched?
“Señor, there’s no one there,” the bartender states slowly.
Eric blinks as he looks at him, then looks to Ada again, only to find that the bar top is completely vacant. Ada has vanished just as quickly as she appeared.
“I think joo’ve had enough, my friend.” The bartender takes the upturned shot glass and uses the same old rag to soak up the spill.
“Oh, come on, Pablo,” says a girl as she walks into the bar. “Let the man have one more drink. I promise I’ll get him home safely.”
Pablo eyes her for a moment, then throws his hands up. “Okay, but he’s joor problem now.”
The girl shrugs. “Fine by me. And put this one on my tab.” She takes the empty stool to Eric’s right and smiles at him. “Hi, I’m Jenn.” She holds out a hand.
For a minute, Eric just stares at it, forgetting what he’s supposed to do. But finally, his prefrontal cortex kicks in, and he remembers he’s supposed to shake it. So he does.
“Eric,” he offers in return.
“So, Eric, where are you staying?” Her voice is husky, and he’s aware that she’s objectively very attractive. She’s tall and thin with short brown hair, body squeezed into the tightest purple tube-dress he’s ever seen.
“Playa Bonita,” he replies a bit robotically, still completely baffled as to what just happened.
How was Ada here one second and gone the next? Was she playing mind games with him? Even she wouldn’t be that cruel after she broke his heart. Or did all their years together mean nothing now that she’s found her real soulmate?
“What a coincidence,” Jenn purrs. “So am I.” She arches a brow and places a hand on his. “How about an after party in my room when we’re done here?”
Through his drug- and alcohol-induced haze, Eric slowly realizes she’s hitting on him. Though he’s heard that the fastest way to get over someone is to get under someone new, he has no interest in being physical with anyone right now. He just can’t.
He withdraws his hand as politely as he can. “Look, Jenn. I appreciate the drink, but I’m just not feeling like company tonight. It’s nothing against you, you’re very pretty. I’m just…going through something right now.” Holy crap, is that the understatement of the century!
Jenn shrugs and sighs as Pablo places a fresh shot glass and a sunset colored drink in front of them. “Just my luck. The first hot American in here in a week, and he’s unavailable. Story of my life.” She puts the straw to her lips and takes a sip.
Eric would normally feel bad about disappointing someone, but she doesn’t seem too bothered by it.
“Well…” She digs into her leather clutch and pulls out a business card. “If you change your mind, that’s my cell number.” Her fake purple nail is pressed onto the digits as she slides the card across the bar.
Eric accepts the card and nods, not wanting to insult her further by telling her he won’t be calling. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
She picks up the drink and slides off the stool. “See ya, Pablo.” She waves and heads out the door. There are no open container laws in Mexico. Well, they’re not really enforced if there are.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take her up on her offer?”
Eric jumps and whips to his left. Ada is once again sitting on the edge of the bar. Eric’s heart stops and repumps as if one of her electrical charges accidentally struck him. Or purposefully?
“She’s pretty hot,” Ada teases with a coy smile. “And since I’m taken, there’s no reason for you not to.”
Eric pushes away the full shot glass.
“Actually, Pablo, I think I have had enough.” He stumbles off the stool and slaps a few bills on the bar. “Thanks.”
“Chure thing, my friend. Buenas noches!” Pablo waves, and Eric rushes out of the dimly lit bar and onto the dark sand.
The night air is hot for this time of year, but it’s still refreshing. It smells of seawater, not stale booze and sweat like inside the bar. Eric isn’t sure how far Playa Bonita is from JJ’s Cantina, but he figures he could do with the walk to clear his head.
“I think you should call a cab.” The visage of Ada appears in front of him, floating and transparent like a ghost. “I don’t think they have Uber here, do you?”
Now Eric knows he’s hallucinating. He’s not sure if that makes him feel better or worse. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken that Molly after all. He damn sure never will again.
“Why don’t you call that chick? Maybe she can give you a ride…if you know what I mean.” The Ada hallucination waggles her eyebrows playfully, and Eric slashes his hand across it, making it vanish.
“Did you think it would be that easy to get rid of me?” Her voice sounds behind him and he whips around, panic setting in. “No matter how far you travel, how many miles or years you put between us, you know I’ll always be right here.” She jabs her ghostly finger at his heart, and he swears he can feel it on his chest.
He closes his eyes, willing her to go away. “Please, just leave me alone!”
When he opens his eyes, he sees nothing but a dark expanse of sand and sleepy beach houses in front of him. He sighs a breath of relief. She’s gone. For now.
“Turn around,” her voice whispers.
He spins on his heel, certain he’s going to see her figure hovering there. But instead, down the dirt road, he sees two figures in a scuffle. One is thin and lithe, and the other is large and bulky.
“No, please, stop!”
That’s Jenn’s voice! She’s being attacked!
Eric may have snubbed her advance, but he’s not going to ignore her obvious plea for help. That’s not who he is.
He storms toward the figures, itching to unleash his rage on someone who deserves it.