John gone, p.29
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       John Gone, p.29

           Michael Kayatta

  Chapter 22

  Ronika eased open the door to her bedroom and peered through the crack at John, asleep upside-down with his head at the foot of her bed. It had been painful for both of them, but they’d agreed that allowing him a few hours of sleep before his departure would reduce the risk of John jumping while unconscious a second time.

  The trip to Kala’s laboratory was risky enough under the best of conditions, and even the doctor had seemed worried about John’s ability to jump again after the “misfire” that had happened that afternoon. Though the sudden teleport had allowed for his escape, no one felt comfortable with the Diaspora acting even more erratically than normal.

  Ronika looked on as her friend slept on top of her bed, his body spread out wide atop her sheets as if attempting a snow angel in the bedding. His breathing had calmed since she’d seen him sleep last, and the soothing pattern of his chest’s rise and fall mollified her, though only slightly.

  How can he be so calm? she asked herself.

  The fight’s left him, she thought angrily.

  Ronika tilted her head to one side and looked at his face. She took note of each contour and freckle, trying to register a fully defined image of him to her memory. She knew that this moment they shared would be one of their last.

  Ronika deftly slid through the crack in the door and entered the bedroom. The soft blue strands of carpeting that blanketed the floor crept up between her toes and quieted her steps. She continued left to the oak panel dresser standing on the side of her room and softly opened its top drawer. She removed a thin, plastic photo album and opened it under the dim light of the pink and purple butterfly lamp on the dresser.

  The first page of the cheaply-made album held two photographs locked in place by a glue stick, protected solely by a thin cover of translucent plastic sheeting. The first photo was a picture of Ronika as a child, smiling widely and looking straight up at the center of the camera’s lens. The photograph held below it was the only picture she had of her father, taken at the worst of angles when he wasn’t expecting the shot. She’d always hated that there’d been no one to take a picture of the two of them together, and for that reason had kept the two photos sharing a page, together always.

  Ronika turned the first page over and flipped through the tens of empty album pages behind it. There was room for 148 more pictures, a number Ronika knew by heart. The day her father died she’d promised herself to fill the album to its end with pictures of friends and loves. She’d told herself that she’d go to school, meet all sorts of weird and interesting people and document their adventures in photograph, joining her father and her eternally in the small grey album she kept in a drawer.

  Nothing had worked out, she allowed herself to realize. She’d accomplished nothing that she’d assured her late father that she would. Ronika closed the album shut and squeezed the plastic book against her chest as she looked back to her bed and the boy on top of it.

  He’s the closest I’ve come, she thought. And now he’s leaving me too.

  Her eyes tearing, Ronika put the album back into the drawer and slid it closed. She leaned down onto the dresser and put her head into her arms on its top.

  Why can’t I think of something? Why can’t I save him? This is all that I’m good at, and I can’t even stop it.

  “You should tell him how you feel,” Kala’s voice said quietly from across the still room. Ronika turned and saw the small blue hologram standing calmly on top of the watch that had caused everything.

  “What, that I failed him?” she asked, approaching the bed.

  “Failed him?” Kala replied. “You saved him more than once by my count.”

  “Not when it mattered,” she said coldly. “Not from the death of his mother, not from losing his hand, and worst of all, not from you.”

  “You don’t need to save him from me,” Kala protested. “I’m not the one who’s done this.”

  “You could still save him, but you won’t,” she said angrily, keeping her voice quiet for John.

  “At the expense of myself!” Kala argued. “I don’t know either of you! Even if I did, that’s quite a bit to ask from someone. Look, when I get out, there’s a chance I can save him later, perhaps in a few years. If I let him go now, I’ll never see the sun again. Never. You can’t ask me to do that.”

  “Yes I can,” Ronika said. “You’re the one who built this thing. You’re the one who put yourself in that lab. No one had a gun to your head. These are your consequences, not his!”

  “You aren’t thinking about this practically,” he replied. “You’re letting your emotions overrun the scientist within you. This is a decision made for the greater good. It has the highest probability for successful resolution for all parties. I know you’re smart enough to see that.”

  “This isn’t about science and logic,” Ronika said. “This is about my friend, and I think he’s been through enough on account of you already.”

  “What would you do in my situation?” Kala asked. “And don’t just say you’d help John. Imagine if my girlfriend and I, two people you’d never met, appeared on the other end of a walkie-talkie one day and asked you to give up your entire life for them. Could you?”

  “My answer to that question is irrelevant. Your actions and decisions are independent of my personal opinions and scruples,” she said, spitting the words at him.

  “That’s exactly right,” Kala rebutted. “They are. I chose my own freedom over a stranger’s, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it! This is happening whether or not you can deal with it, so instead of raging at the inevitable, why don’t you wake him up and enjoy your last minutes together.”

  “I don’t even have Mouse anymore,” Ronika cried. “He’s going to be completely alone.”

  “And it will be difficult for him,” Kala said as soothingly as he could. “But remember, unlike me, he’ll have hope. I’ll go back for him. I just can’t guarantee when that will be possible.”

  “What do you even eat down there?” Ronika asked.

  “MREs mostly,” Kala replied. “Bottled water, multi-vitamins. There’s an astounding supply here. He won’t even have to worry much about rationing himself.”

  Ronika sat on the bed’s edge and lifted her legs on top of the mattress. She inched her body toward John’s and whispered to Kala’s hologram.

  “I’m turning you off,” she said.

  “Don’t,” Kala replied.

  “Don’t worry, he’ll go. He already switched the hands of the watch to your numbers,” Ronika told him, putting her fingers around the small knob on the side of John’s watch.

  “Ronika, forgive me,” Kala said as his hologram fizzled.

  Ronika moved her body in close against John’s. Her touch woke him.

  “Is it time?” he asked groggily.

  “Not quite yet,” she answered.

  John stretched his limbs even farther than they’d been lying and retracted them back in toward his body.

  “It’s freezing in here,” he said, eyes still closed.

  “Lift your legs,” Ronika said.

  John curled his body into a ball as she leaned forward and lifted the edge of her white comforter. She brought it over their bodies and let it fall around them, pillowed by the air.

  John slid his legs through the sheets below the comforter and rolled onto his side as Ronika pushed her body close against his. She took his hand. His fingers wrapped lightly around her palm as she touched it. She led his arm around her body. Secure beneath the weight of his arm, she hugged onto his hand while he embraced her from behind.

  “Can we just lie here, just like this?” she asked.

  “Yes,” he said, rubbing her hand lightly with his own.

  “I don’t want you to go,” she told him.

  “I don’t want to go either,” he said. “You’re all I have now.”

  “You’re all I have, too,” she said.

  “I’m sorry I never came here and saw you again after th
at first time a few years ago,” John said. “I don’t know what it was. The mainland felt so far away, and you felt so different than everything on Longboard. I always said I wanted to leave, but it’s harder to change things than it is to talk about changing them.”

  “You don’t have to explain anything to me, John,” she said.

  The current in the room blew a few loose strands of Ronika’s bright orange hair to John’s face, tickling his cheeks. He inhaled through his nose and smelled the girlish scent of red berries rise from her long, soft hair. The aroma relaxed him, and soon he thought he’d finally found what he’d been looking for outside of Longboard Key. The idea arrived bittersweet; the injustice of their parting now veiled and tinted each word and movement between him and the girl lying warmly against him.

  “What will you do while I’m gone?” he asked.

  “I don’t know,” Ronika said. “I’d like to say that your adventures have inspired me to finally leave my apartment and go outside into the world, but honestly they’ve made me even more scared than I was before.” She giggled, and John laughed alongside her.

  “We’re going to figure out a way to talk to one another,” John said. “When I meet him, I’ll ask Felix if he can make you some sort of hologram display like the one on the watch. All that technology should already be waiting there on my end in the lab, right?”

  “Felix?” Ronika asked. “Is that his first name?”

  “Yeah,” John replied. “Funny, huh?”

  “I always wanted to know Dr. Claw’s first name,” she said.

  John laughed. “That’s what I said!” he exclaimed.

  Ronika spun her body so its front met John’s. She looked into his eyes, now open and separated from hers by just inches. She peered at him with a recognizable sadness that tore through John like an arrow.

  Though he’d hoped his departure simple and unburdened, he couldn’t begrudge Ronika what he knew she was feeling. No matter how much he tried to calmly accept the events that awaited him, he couldn’t deny experiencing that identical sadness within himself. He wondered if his eyes were reading the same as Ronika gazed back into them.

  “I want to come with you,” Ronika said quietly, breaking the silence.

  “Mouse is broken,” John answered.

  “I don’t mean Mouse,” she replied. “You can hold onto a bag and bring it with you, so what’s the difference in holding me?”

  “I think if that was possible, then Kala would simply hold my hand and let both of us escape the lab when I go down there,” he said.

  “Unless he’s been lying,” Ronika pointed out, “and he doesn’t want you to escape. Maybe he wants you trapped down there where you can’t tell anyone about him or what you’ve learned.”

  “I don’t see why he--” John began.

  “John, we have to try!”

  “Even if that would work, I don’t like the idea of trapping anyone else down there with me,” John said.

  “Just ... damn it, John!” Ronika turned away from him and put her face down into the pooling blankets beneath her. “It’s all unfair,” she said, her voice muffled by the cotton. “We need to fight it, solve it.”

  John turned onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. “That’s what we have been doing,” he said. “You and me both; we’ve been fighting. And it may not look like a victory, but it is one. Things could have been worse in a hundred different ways. I’m just trying to be thankful that they didn’t.”

  Ronika opened her eyes and saw nothing but the darkness of the blanket’s folds around her. She realized then that, as hard as this was on her, it was infinitely harder for John.

  Like usual, she thought, John’s the one actually going through it. All I can do is sit to the side and be sad. He’s lying there trying not to feel bad about it, and all I can do is make it worse.

  Ronika felt the urge to cry again, but held her breath and fought it. She lifted her head from the blanket.

  “When my father died, there wasn’t anything I could do. I sat in a chair by a blinded window and waited for someone to tell me that I’d never see him again,” she said. “I don’t want you to leave, John, but at least we’re here together now, talking with each other, and at least there’s a good chance you’ll be back some day. And you’re right. That’s much better than the alternative.”

  John turned his neck and looked at Ronika.

  “Do you really think that’s true? That I have a good chance at getting back?” he asked.

  Ronika smiled and nodded enthusiastically. John rested his head back down on the bed.

  “How much longer before you go?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. I’ve been scared to look,” he answered.

  “Me, too,” she said.

  “But I think it’s getting close. I feel a buzzing in my arm.”

  “It’s not shaking or anything,” Ronika replied, looking at it.

  “Kala said that, since we actually programmed in its next destination, it won’t have to overcompensate by pulling in as much energy as possible, which, I guess, causes the spasms and such,” John explained.

  “That makes sense.”

  “So, I don’t know what to expect this time, other than it’ll be a bit smoother. That’s what he said, anyway.”

  Ronika rolled back toward John. “I’m going to really miss you,” she said.

  “I’ll miss you, too.”

  “And there’s something I want to do before you go,” she said shyly.

  “Yeah?” John asked.

  “It’s something I’ve never done with anyone, actually.”

  “What is it?”

  Ronika closed her eyes and leaned forward toward John’s face. She pursed her lips slightly outward, as she’d seen girls do in so many movies. As she drew her lips closer to his, she felt an energy surround her. Fireworks, she thought. These are the fireworks I’ve heard about. Her lips began to tingle, and her mind became slow with a tired, contented haze. Her eyes were closed, but she could almost see an electric blue light beyond their veil. Chemistry, she heard herself think.

  As she continued to lean down toward his lips, Ronika never noticed missing them completely, as she passed straight through where his body had been, and onto the soft bed below, fast asleep.

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