She stared out across the water, her misery painted so clearly on her face that I could feel it. “It isn’t your fault,” she said, her voice cutting through the eerie quiet that surrounded us. Even the things that usually made sounds, like crickets chirruping or leaves rustling in the breeze, were silent. All I heard was her voice and the sound of waves lapping against the side of the boat. It was as if we were the only living things in the city.
I was too exhausted to move, but I wanted so badly to cross the boat and touch her. To show her I was still here, even if it wasn’t for much longer. “But it is. It was Calliope this whole time, and I never saw it. I should have—”
“There have been many others who have known her for much longer than you,” said my mother. “If anything, they should have been the ones to see it, not you. You cannot blame yourself for something you could not have possibly known.”
“But I should have,” I said, my voice so strained I was afraid it might disappear. “I knew someone wanted to hurt me, and I should have tried to find out who it was, but I was so concerned about Henry, and I thought—I thought no one would dare when he was around. I thought I was safe.”
“You should have been.” I could see the moonlight reflected on her cheeks, a sure sign she was crying. “I should have done more.”
I hesitated. “What do you mean?”
Instead of answering me, she stood and crossed the boat, making it sway. I gripped onto the edges as hard as I could, but drowning was the least of my worries. If I wasn’t already dead, I would be soon enough. She sat beside me and enveloped me in her arms, and it was all I could do to keep my composure. One of us had to be strong.
I don’t know how long we sat there, listening to the boat bob up and down in the water. It could have been minutes or hours—time seemed to stop in this place, and her embrace was all the protection I needed against the cool night air. I ran through the events that had happened by the river, how one moment Calliope had been my friend and the next my killer. How had I not seen it? But looking back on it, what was there to see?
“Why do you think she did it?” I mumbled against my mother’s shoulder. “She said she loved Henry, but why kill everyone? Why risk his life like that, too?”
She ran her fingers through my hair. I was sure she meant to comfort me, but it only reminded me of what I was losing. What we both were losing. I’d failed her just as much as I’d failed Henry, but at least she forgave me for it. I wished I could forgive myself as well. “Why do you think?” she said gently, and I shrugged.
“I don’t know.” My mind wandered from Calliope to Henry to Ava, who had been so desperate to find love. “Maybe she was as lonely as he was. Maybe she thought she could save him. But—if she really did love him, how could she risk his existence like that? I mean, if I were her, I would’ve rather seen him with me than not see him at all.”
“There’s more than one kind of love,” said my mother. “Maybe that’s the difference between you and Calliope. Maybe that’s why you were chosen and she wasn’t.”
I closed my eyes as I tried to think about it, but nothing outside of the sway of the boat and the sound of my mother breathing made sense anymore. “I don’t want to go,” I whispered. “I don’t want to say goodbye.”
She buried her face in my hair. “You won’t have to.”
Before I could figure out what she meant, the boat glided toward the shore. When it came to a stop, I opened my eyes and saw a silhouette cast against the water, distorting as the water rippled. My mother’s slender arms were replaced with muscle, and I felt myself being lifted out of the boat. I wanted to struggle, to insist on staying with my mother, but my tongue felt heavy and my thoughts sluggish.
“I’ve got her,” said a pained voice. Henry.
“Thank you,” said my mother, her voice weighed down with something I didn’t understand. She brushed a hand against my cheek and leaned forward to kiss his. “Take care of her, Henry.”
“I will,” he said, but there was nothing beyond that. My mother bent down and pressed her lips to my forehead. I desperately wanted to take her hand, but she did it for me, and using the last of my strength, I managed a small squeeze.
“Mom?” Even to me my voice sounded foreign and twisted, as if I were only beginning to learn how to form words.
“It’s all right, sweetheart.” She pulled away, and I could see the tears in her eyes. “I love you, and I’m so proud of you. Don’t you ever forget it.”
Panic bubbled inside of me, but with no way of releasing it, I suffered through the heart-wrenching pain. She was leaving. This was the end. I was supposed to have weeks more with her, wasn’t that our deal?
Stupid me. How could I possibly spend time with her when I was dead and she wasn’t?
“Love you, too,” I said, and though it came out as more of a gurgle than anything, she smiled.
As Henry turned away from her and carried me into the inky blackness of the night, I turned my head enough to watch her grow smaller and smaller in the distance. Finally she seemed to fade, and she was gone. I clung to her last words, the glue that held me together as I struggled to resist the deep lull of sleep. I would see her again when she passed, and there would be no end of sunny summer days we could spend together in Central Park.
But even though I knew this, even though Henry was carrying me to my own death, I couldn’t help but form a single word on my lips, one I’d resisted saying for so many years. The one word I hoped I’d never have to say.