“Hey, Johnny, how’s the head?”
Riley greeted John with a bubbly smile and a kiss on the cheek. She had agreed to meet him at the mall; he couldn’t handle the circus of her foster parents’ house for what he needed to say, and he didn’t want Cameron listening around the doorway, either. A public place seemed safest.
She looked fresh and pretty and spunky, all the things he associated with Riley, and John tried very hard not to remember her as he’d last seen her in Sideways Universe – with a hole through her heart, put there by Cameron. He also tried not to remember the awful things she’d accused him of in that other reality. That he’d slept with her and then tossed her aside like yesterday’s newspaper. That he was so self-absorbed he simply expected people to die for him, like it was their duty.
It wasn’t fair to be mad at Riley for something she’d said in his dreams, but he sort of was anyway.
Probably she attributed his stiffness to either after-effects of head trauma or residual awkwardness from their intense make-out session in his truck a few nights ago. Truthfully, John was a little embarrassed about that, because it felt like a lifetime ago to him. He had absolutely no desire to kiss her now. He realized he’d been a little afraid those feelings would come rushing back when he saw her.
John wasn’t the type of boy to use a girl. He had really cared about Riley before his trip to Sideways Universe. He wouldn’t have led her on intentionally.
She just couldn’t compete with Cameron.
They sipped smoothies at a juice-bar in the food court. Riley, as usual, seemed absorbed in the people around her, drinking in the bright, ordered space as though it might all disappear in a flash. With a twinge, John wondered if that was because she knew it could.
“I wanted to come visit you in the hospital,” Riley said, “but your mom told me you needed to rest.”
“I mostly slept,” John confirmed. And dreamed. Or visited another reality. Either way, things have changed.
“You missed a killer chem exam last week,” Riley complained. “You are so lucky your mom is homeschooling you. I seriously thought my brain was going to explode. Who knew there was so much math in chemistry?”
John grated out a smile. Riley pushed her smoothie away. “Okay, John, how about I stop making cheerful banter and you tell me what’s up.”
You would think that after fighting killer robots from the future your whole life, breaking up with a girl would be easy. It wasn’t. John fumbled for words, finally settling on, “Riley, we’re not going to be able to see each other anymore.”
He held his breath, anticipating an explosion. Something warned him Riley could be dramatic about break-ups.
But she looked, if anything, sympathetic. “Your mom decided to give me the boot for good, huh? It’s okay. We’ll sneak around, like we did the other night. It’ll be fun.”
She leaned in to kiss him, and John pulled back. Riley frowned. “What is it, John? Did …Did I do something?”
He had the distinct impression she’d almost said more than she wanted to there. But what? Did I piss you off in an alternate reality? Did you see the inevitable conclusion of this little entanglement – me being offed by your cyborg bodyguard? Did I somehow give away this big secret I’m hiding? What had she been going to say?
John gave her the most honest answer he could, because it seemed like one of them needed to be truthful here.
“Riley, you’ve been great about everything. About me, about my weird life, about my mom, about Cameron.” She winced; she winced every time he mentioned Cameron, John noted. “But I’m in a complicated place right now. I have to figure out what’s going on with me. I’m not interested in a relationship.”
“We moved too fast the other night, is that it?” Riley twirled her straw in her smoothie, watching the icy drink slowly dissolve into pinkish-orange water. Peachy Keen, her favorite flavor. John would never taste peaches without thinking of Riley.
“We can slow down,” she offered. “Just be friends.”
“I don’t think that’s going to work.”
“So that’s it? We’re just never going to see each other again?”
She looked so panicked, so stricken, John couldn’t stand it. He picked up her hand. “I’ll always be here if you need me. All you have to do is call.”
Her eyes searched his. “Why are you doing this? You can tell me the truth, John. You can trust me.”
Right then, he knew. He knew that she knew who he was, really, and what that meant. Maybe she was from the future. He was ninety-nine percent certain she wasn’t a cyborg, because if she was, she had to be the most advanced infiltrator model every created, even better at affecting human emotion than Cameron. Maybe she was a friend, maybe she was an enemy, but she wasn’t Riley Dawson, slightly lost foster kid and sweet innocent girl.
One last time, John gave Riley an opening to tell him everything. If she had gotten caught up with Skynet somehow, he wanted to protect her. John Connor was not heartless. He wasn’t even vindictive. Lies he could forgive. He understood lying.
“You can trust me, too, you know,” he told her. Color tinged Riley’s cheeks. “With anything. If there’s anything you want to say to me, Riley, today’s the day.”
Silence stretched like a cord between them. John watched her decide not to trust him, watched her retreat back inside of herself, like a shy bird shrinking from the sunlight.
“I’ll miss you,” was all she said.
Derek slammed on the brakes and brought the truck to a screeching halt in the middle of the isolated desert highway. “What is it?” he demanded, his hand dropping to the .9 millimeter tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
Sarah lowered the photograph of the California Drones and pointed to the opposite side of the road, where two red hills rose like twin camel humps in the distance, crisscrossed by telephone lines. “That could be it,” she said. “That could be where the photograph was taken.”
Sighing, Derek opened the truck door and stepped out into the oppressive desert heat. Sarah followed him. The grumpy set to his mouth told her what he was thinking: They’d been driving around for two hours, and this was the sixth site Sarah had insisted on checking out, on the off chance that it might be the place in Abraham’s pictures.
“See the shapes in the background?” She held the grainy photograph out to him. “Those hills. That could be those hills.”
“Or it could be a cloud. Look, Sarah, I want to find Skynet as much as you do, but this is insane. We’re driving around the desert looking for phone lines in front of a hill that might be a cloud. We need to go home, do some research into this Drone thing, see if we can’t figure out what happened to Abraham.”
He was right. Grudgingly, Sarah pocketed the photo. “Okay,” she relented. “Let’s just see what’s around this curve up here, and then we’ll turn around and go home.”
“Fantastic. I’ve been looking forward to your meatloaf.”
Sarah arched an eyebrow. “My meatloaf tastes like cardboard.”
“No it doesn’t. I’ve eaten cardboard, so I know,” he said, and she smiled a little.
Derek drove with his arm out the window. Sarah surreptitiously studied his profile. He reminded her so much of his brother. In many ways, Derek was the polar opposite of John’s father, yet even those differences reminded her of Kyle. She couldn’t help comparing them. They had the same laugh, the same build, the same guarded smile. Being around Derek had awoken a longing inside Sarah that she thought had been buried too deep to ever resurface.
She dreamed of Kyle Reese nearly every night now. Part of her almost wished she hadn’t jumped over her death; she would be with him in the grass now if she hadn’t.
And what would happen to John? her inner voice demanded. What would your son do if you died?
“John seemed different this morning.”
Sarah glanced sharply at Derek, startled by the non sequitir. “The kid had a tough couple of days. That drunk driver could have killed him, stupid bastard. The truck was totaled.”
“I know. I loved that truck,” Derek muttered.
In spite of herself, Sarah laughed. “You loved the truck?”
“What? It was a good truck.”
“Do you love this truck, or was that one special?”
Derek shrugged, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. He patted the steering wheel. “It’s not the Ram, but it’ll do.” He made a right turn, heading east down a newly-paved road, and added, “I guess you noticed the change in him, too.”
Before Sarah could reply, the scenery on either side of them changed so suddenly both she and Derek sat up straighter, gaping out the windshield. The red sand of the desert had given way to lush green fields surrounded by a white picket fence. An elaborate irrigation system sprayed water high into the air; the droplets pounded on the truck’s hood like rain. Derek switched on the windshield wipers.
“Keep driving,” Sarah commanded, her heart hammering. “Let’s see where this goes.”
“Hole in one,” John congratulated Cameron. “You win. Again.”
“I like this game.” Cameron lowered her golf club, studying the miniature-golf course – Mr. Whacky’s Fun Park, which was also home to an old-fashioned arcade and a bumper-car track. “But I don’t understand why it is a valuable skill.”
“What are you talking about?” John stuffed their scorecards into a trash can – he had lost by an embarrassing landslide – and started for the exit, taking Cameron’s club from her to return on the way out.
“This morning, you said miniature golf was a valuable skill to develop.”
“I was teasing you,” John laughed. “You understand teasing, right?”
In his mind, he heard her say, I understand wanting, and he shivered. He needed to stop flashing back to Sideways Universe, or he was going to end up doing something idiotic, like kissing her.
“Yes. Thank you for explaining.”
After they returned their mini-golf equipment, they walked into Mr. Whacky’s Sundae Shop. John ordered a hot-fudge sundae with extra whipped cream, nuts, and two cherries. “Want anything?” he offered to Cameron. She shook her head.
They sat at a table on the patio overlooking the bumper-car track, in the shade of a big green umbrella with clown faces painted on it. “How did it go with Riley?” Cameron asked, the first time she’d mentioned his break-up since he’d returned from the mall a couple of hours ago.
She was watching him eat his ice cream in a way that John found terribly alluring. He licked his spoon. “She took it okay. The breaking-up part, I mean.”
“But you still don’t know what secrets she’s keeping from you.”
“No,” John admitted, “I don’t.”
“I think we should find out.”
He mulled that over, mushing the whipped cream, hot fudge, and nuts together into a mix of soupy deliciousness. “Maybe. How would we go about doing that?”
“We could follow her. Or I could, if you don’t want to see her anymore.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to see her anymore?” John asked, bewildered. “It’s not like I hate her.”
“It might be hard for you. You might miss her. Seeing her might make you miss her more.”
John laughed again. “What have you been doing, reading romance novels all night while we’re asleep? I’m not some lovesick Romeo, you know.”
“I know. Romeo killed himself because he thought Juliet was dead. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not Romeo. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of glad it’s over with Riley. It was just too complicated.”
Cameron reached across the table and brushed her thumb along John’s lower lip. He froze, his heart stumbling in his chest.
Dark eyes holding his, Cameron said simply, “Hot fudge.” She held her thumb up for him to see the chocolate smear on the tip of her finger. “You had some on your chin. Do you want it?”
“I – what?” he managed.
“The hot fudge. Do you want it?”
Was she seriously asking him if he wanted to lick hot fudge off her finger? John melted into a puddle around his chair. “No, that’s-that’s okay. I’m good.”
She slipped her thumb into her mouth and sucked on the chocolate. The puddle of John evaporated into steam.
Cameron was studying him with a knowing expression that made John blush. Being himself with her, without any of his usual tough-guy-who-feels-nothing safeguards in place, meant not censoring his reactions to her. He was certain she could tell exactly how much he wanted to pick her hand up and kiss each soft fingertip one at a time, then her palm, then her wrist, then…
Breathe, John, he reminded himself. You have to breathe.
Feeling dizzy, John grasped at any way to change the subject. “Do you think we could spy on Riley without getting caught?”
“I know we can. Terminators make very good spies.”
“Let’s do it, then.” John stood up. Cameron followed suit. After a moment’s hesitation, he held his hand out to her. His heart started to pound.
This felt like a big step, holding hands with the machine.
Cameron looked from his fingers to his face, surprise registering in her expression. Then she laced her fingers through his.
“I had fun today,” John told her, as they made their way down the sun-baked sidewalk toward home.
“Yes,” Cameron agreed, bestowing one of her lovely half-smiles on him. “Today was fun.”