I heard Molly breathe out, "Oh my God," next to me, but I didn't turn her way. My eyes were locked with Calder's.
When he made it to me, he tentatively reached out his hand and felt my cheek, one of his thumbs swiping at a tear. He brought his hand back and looked at it in confusion and then back at my face. His mouth opened and closed. His expression seemed to clear as he grabbed my face in his hands, and let out a tortured gasp, his eyes going wild. "How?" he croaked out. "How, how, how?" He shook his head back and forth, his hands squeezing so tightly on my face that I cried out.
I brought my hands up and put them over his and we both sunk down to the floor. Calder's eyes roamed my face wildly and his breathing came out in sharp bursts. "You're real," he kept saying over and over. We were both on our knees on the gallery floor, Calder's hands running down my shoulders, my arms, shaking me gently. I squeezed my hands into his broad shoulders, too, convincing myself he was really there. Really real, really alive.
"Eden, Eden, I don't understand," he choked out. "How, how?"
Suddenly people were pulling us somewhere. I stumbled up as did Calder, our eyes never leaving the other as we were guided along and a door was closed. I could smell coffee and something sweet and hear the voices of the people who had come into the room with us. But I couldn't look away.
"You survived," Calder said. "God, you survived. How, Eden? How?"
"I floated," I said simply, tears coursing down my cheeks. "Just like you taught me. I floated."
Tears were flooding his eyes, too. "There was no air though. No one survived. There wasn't any air."
I squeezed my eyes shut tightly and shook my head, not able to form words, my head not clear enough to think about anything other than him . . . here, right in front of me.
Instead, I grabbed Calder's hands in mine again. We were both shaking like leaves, the adrenaline draining from our bodies. Behind me I heard lots of voices in hushed tones. "I know, there's so much, so much, and your art." I started to cry softly again. "Your art, oh my God, Calder. It's so beautiful." I breathed out a small sob. "You're an artist."
"Where are you living, Eden? Eden." He shook his head as if the words coming out of his mouth didn't sound real to him.
"With my mom, and my cousin, Molly," I said.
His eyes grew wide. "Your mom? Eden—"
"Hey what's going on in here? People outside are—" I turned toward Xander's voice just as he stumbled back against the wall. "Holy shit," he breathed out, and then, "Holy shit!" He rushed toward us and started shaking me slightly. "Holy shit. Holy shit." He threw his arms around both Calder and me and we stood there crying and squeezing each other until Xander pulled away and blotted at his own eyes with the cuff of his shirt. "How Eden?" he finally managed, his eyes roaming over my face with a look of wonder.
I opened my mouth to speak when a woman's voice came from behind us. "Maybe we can all have coffee after the show and go through the details?" she said very calmly. We all turned around and I wiped my eyes and attempted to get my breathing under control as I took her in. She was beautiful with dark brown, shiny hair that hung smoothly to her shoulders, and large green eyes.
"Madison, I'm cancelling tonight's show," Calder said, looking back at me, his eyes scanning my face again as if he still couldn't believe I was real.
Madison put her hands on her hips. "Calder, this show could mean everything for your career. Don't do that. It's only three hours. Three hours you'll never get back."
"Eden," Molly said gently from behind me, "let me take you home, honey, and you can call, uh, Storm, after his show. Right after his show, okay?"
"Calder," I said, still staring at his face. "His name is Calder." He was even more beautiful than I remembered him; his dark, silky hair longer, his bone structure more defined, a slight scruff on his jaw and his deep, dark eyes pools of joy as he stared back at me.
The woman named Madison let out a loud sigh. "Well that sounds like a good idea. This is a huge shock. Both of you can get yourselves together and we can all have a nice little reunion after Calder wows the crowd and makes a huge name for himself."
We? I looked back at Madison and held my hand out. "I'm Eden," I said softly.
Madison glanced down at my still-shaking hand and then took it in hers. She stared at me for several long seconds. She had said this must be a shock—she must know who I am. Does she know I'm the girl in all of Calder's paintings? Finally she said, "I'm Madison, Calder's girlfriend and the owner of this gallery."
My blood ran cold and I swallowed heavily, my eyes flying to Calder. He closed his briefly and opened his mouth as if to speak, the color draining from his cheeks again, his eyes agonized and full of regret. "Eden . . ." was all he managed.
I took a deep breath, looking over at Xander who had a look on his face that was equally incredulous and now also pained. Xander looked at Calder. "Whatever you need," he said simply.
"I want to cancel it," Calder said, looking at me. "Madison, I need to talk to Eden. Now."
I shook my head, taking a big gulp of air. "No. It's three hours. We'll talk afterwards, all right?" I managed a smile, drawing in another big, shaky breath. "Us, you and me, we can wait three hours. This show won't wait." I smiled at him. It seemed utterly ludicrous that we would do anything other than hold on to each other for dear life right now, but even in my shocked, confused, joyful mind, I recognized he had a life that I wasn't a part of anymore. A terrible sense of grief gripped me at the knowledge that he had a girlfriend, but I took a deep breath and focused on him right in front of me. He was alive.
"Will you stay in here and wait for me?" he asked.
I glanced at Madison who had a worried look on her face, her lips pursed. I couldn't bear being in a room, or even a building, with Calder's girlfriend for three hours. It would kill me. "No. I'm going to let Molly take me home and I'm going to get cleaned up and I'll come back in a few hours, okay?" I brought my hand back up to Calder's cheek and he leaned into it. Madison cleared her throat and I brought it away, but didn't glance at her.
"No, Eden, no. I just . . . I need . . . I can't let you walk out of here. No."
"Calder," Madison interrupted. "I have to insist you stay here for at least a couple hours. We've hired all these people. They're all depending on you. And you have a contract with the gallery. Just a couple hours, that's all," she finished, her voice holding a note of anxiety.
"I'll take her," Xander said, glancing between us. "I’ve got her. I'll keep her safe, brother. Okay, Calder, yeah?" He looked at Calder worriedly.
Calder breathed out and then nodded his head, looking half stunned and half miserable.
Xander nodded. "All right. I've got her. Trust me? I'll text you her number and her address and I'll send yours to her phone, too. I've got her."
Calder brought his hand to his head and gripped his hair, bringing his lips together in a thin line.
I took a deep, calming breath. I was still shaking slightly and my brain seemed to be filled with white noise. "A few hours," I whispered.
Calder simply stood there—his expression one of anguish—his hand shaking as he reached out to touch me one last time, and then let his hand fall.
"Okay. Thankfully only a few people from the gallery saw that so not much damage control to do. Lori, will you open the doors again and just explain that—" The door closed behind me, shutting out Madison's voice. I walked out of the gallery on wobbly legs. People were flowing through the doors now and I only noticed a few curious glances my way. Xander held me on one side, Molly on the other.
Outside, it had started to pour down rain and the people in line were pressed up against the wall and window of the gallery, taking cover under the small overhang.
"Well this came out of nowhere," Molly said, stepping back under the cover of the doorway.
There was a brief discussion about whose car I'd ride in, but none of it registered and when Xander took hold of my arm and pulled me along, I let him. We both ran through the rain.
He helped me up into some kind of dull red, beat-up truck and I leaned back in the seat as he got in the other side and started the engine. I ran my hands quickly over my partially wet hair and then ran my palms over my jean-clad thighs. My mind and my body were weak with the toll of emotions slamming into me so fast and furious that I could hardly make sense of them all. Calder was alive. Calder was here, in Cincinnati. Calder was selling his art. Calder had a girlfriend. I closed my eyes.
"I didn't mention to your friend that I don't have a license," Xander said, running his own hand through his wet hair and then down his shirt. "I didn't know if she'd let you ride with me. The whole no ID thing tends to really get in the way." He trailed off, glancing over at me, a look of incredulity still on his face. He turned on his windshield wipers. My heart took up the same rhythm as the squeak of the blade clearing the water off the glass.
I gave him a small smile. "I know. And Molly, she's my cousin."
He looked at me questioningly as he pulled into traffic.
"I found my mom," I said in answer.
Xander's eyes widened in shock as he glanced at me. "What? How? I . . ." He trailed off, shaking his head in wonder. "My God, Eden, and how? How did you survive? Holy shit," he repeated.
"I'll tell you all of it, Xander, when we get to my house. I think I need a couple shots or something."
Xander stared at me for a few seconds and then looked back to the road, letting out a small chuckle and shaking his head. "Yeah, you and me both."
"I can't believe I'm driving away from him right now," I said, almost to myself.
Xander gave me a look of sympathy. "I know it probably feels all kinds of wrong, but this show, Eden, it could be his big break. It's just three hours and it'll give you both a chance to get some equilibrium back."
I nodded, looking over at him and putting my hand on his shoulder. "I looked for you," I said quietly. "After Acadia . . . once I got to Cincinnati. I looked for Kristi, and for you. I was still looking for Kristi as of today." I breathed out, shaking my head.
Xander looked over at me shocked. "She left for college. Remember she was leaving—"
I nodded. "I know. I even got her last name from the ranger station once I finally got the nerve up to call. I thought the police might . . . I didn’t even know, but anyway, she was already gone obviously, but they gave me her last name. That's all they'd give me though. Smith. Her last name is Smith." I shook my head and Xander chuckled softly.
"Yeah, not the most uncommon name."
"No. Do you know how many Kristi Smiths there are in colleges all over the country? Some not even listed." I sighed. "I knew though, Xander, I knew she wouldn't leave you drifting alone through the world. I knew she must have helped you. I still wouldn't have ever stopped searching for you."
Xander looked over at me, his eyes filled with warmth. He looked back at the road and frowned. "I actually lost touch with her. We didn't have phones for so long and when we moved apartments, I couldn't find her number. I searched everywhere." He glanced at me with a look of regret. "You would have been out of luck even if you'd have found her. She wouldn't have known how to reach me."
"I'd have known that Calder was alive though," I said. "And I'd have known you were both in Cincinnati." I let the weight of that fall over me for a second and then glanced at Xander.
Xander reached over and grabbed my hand. "Thank you for looking for me."
"I was so worried about you," I said sadly. "I knew you had heard about Acadia and I could only imagine how you were feeling . . . and I thought you were mostly all alone out there."
Xander looked over at me sadly. "Only I wasn't."
I let out a small half-laugh, half-sob. "No, you weren't. Oh my God." Tears streaked down my cheeks and I swiped at them.
"He was supposed to meet me at the bus station on your birthday," Xander said quietly. "We had talked about taking a bus to Cincinnati on your eighteenth birthday. It was the only connection any of the three of us had to anywhere and we knew we needed to leave town. He probably didn't even have time to tell you that plan."
I shook my head, staring at his handsome profile, so familiar and yet still different - older, more manly. Xander kept staring straight ahead at the road where Molly's car traveled right in front of his truck. The rain continued to fall in sheets. It wasn't letting up.
"You guys never showed," Xander said, his jaw tensing and a look of pain washing over his features. "I went back the next day, too, and I sat there and waited for you. I thought maybe it had taken you a little extra time and I didn't want to miss you. But when I realized you hadn't been able to get out of there, I knew something had gone wrong. I just had no idea . . ." He shook his head slowly as if denying his own memories. When he looked over at me, there was anguish in his expression. "I waited for Kristi and she drove me out there the very next morning—I didn't know, I had no idea. I'm so sorry." His voice caught on the last word and his expression was filled with so much pain and regret.
"Xander," I said, reaching my hand out to him. He grasped my hand in his, squeezing it tightly. "None of us knew how crazy Hector had gotten." I shook my head. "You couldn't have known. And honestly, if you had shown up any earlier, you may have very well been among all those people. You showed up to save Calder. That's what matters now."