Mallory’s had enough.
She’s silent as she follows Alex through the terminal. There’s a woman on her left, maybe in her early thirties, brisk walking with her hand entwined tightly to her kid’s. She sees another a few minutes later, on a wooden bench next to the soda machine persistently trying to soothe her newborn. Slightly younger than the first, she guesses. But the creases on their faces are all the same.
She wonders how their day went. It can’t be good, it seems, but it makes her feel less alone.
There are people rushing to and from all directions, clearly immersed in their own lives. She’s extra conscious anyway, as anyone in a public setting would be if they had a swollen face and mascara on their cheeks. She keeps her head down because it’s easier that way, but the feeling of being stared at, even for a moment, gnaws at her. She doesn’t like it, but there’s not much she can do.
There are two seats left on the seven-thirty train. Alex pays for them and asks her if she’d like the one by the window. Alex, I’m not that dense. You can’t see anything at night, she would say, but her throat is sore and she just doesn’t have it in her. She shrugs instead.
He gives her a doleful look and holds onto their tickets.
She didn’t mean to drag Alex into this, but there’s no point in telling him now because gone are his chances of ever getting into Princeton. She would overhear him yapping about this interview any chance he got, would sometimes even make Dad a pretend dean just so he could practice. Months, maybe years of anticipating that moment down the drain in an instant, and it’s all her fault.
Jeff is about the last thing on her mind. It should come as a relief, but instead she finds herself thinking about what kind of sister she’s been to Jennifer, what kind of daughter she is to her parents, and all the times she’d let them down. What would they think of her tomorrow morning, when they realize her petty boyfriend problems are to blame in between Alex sulking over what-could’ve-beens? Keaton on her birth certificate makes her a little harder to resent, but it’s far from something to be proud of.
It takes all of her to not sink to the floor and hope to disappear. She’s had enough.
Her legs almost give out when they reach the waiting hall. Alex doesn’t sit down, hands diving into his pockets for some loose change instead as he strides to the other side of the room.
“Where are you going?” She asks, and then she sees a payphone. “Alex—”
“Mal, they need to know that we’ll be home earlier than planned. That’s all.”
“They’re going to ask why.”
“So I’ll make something up.” He says resolutely, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “It’ll be okay.”
She watches Alex pick up the handset. He drums his fingers on the machine for a few minutes, and then stands a little straighter over what she assumes is an answer on the other end. His eyebrows are knitted together, and she suddenly curses not moving to a spot where she can hear him. Apprehension bubbles in her gut as she waits.
His face finally softens. Their eyes meet, and she immediately understands. Their mother’s asking for her.
Mallory looks at him reluctantly, but then figures a few words on the phone couldn’t hurt. She takes it. “Hello?”
“Mallory? Mallory, it’s mom. Alex told me what happened—” she shoots Alex a glare, “—don’t blame him sweetheart, I grilled him for the truth. Are you okay?” It’s the exact opposite of what she prepared herself to hear. It makes her want to cry again, except she has the strength to hold back this time. “I wanna go home,” she swallows, not recognizing her own voice.
“Oh honey, I know. I know.” Mallory lets out a sigh. She wants to tell her everything. And it may not matter to Alex anymore, but she desperately wanted someone to know how thankful she is for him being there, how understanding he’s been despite everything, how she couldn’t have gone through her first heartbreak alone. She’ll need a few more hours for that, but people are filing out of the hall and the announcer just barked that their train leaves in fifteen minutes. It’ll have to wait.
“Call us when you get to Columbus, okay?”
“You guys just stick together. You’ll be home before you know it.”
“We will. Thanks, mom.”
“I love you both, remember that,” Mallory smiles for the first time all day, and it doesn’t take as much effort to. She passes the handset back to Alex, who says they really should get going. He’s on the phone for a few more minutes, and then he hangs up.
He turns to her, carrying all their luggage at once. “You ready to go?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. The sooner we’re home, the better.” She nods towards the burgundy cross body tugging at his neck. “Alex, you’ll twist your joints,” she half-mocks, taking the bag from him and slinging it on her shoulder. They both chuckle at that.
“Mal?” Alex muses sometime later, breaking the comfortable silence between them.
“This trip wasn’t so bad, really,” he says. She gapes at him because there’s no sarcasm to it, because it’s the sincerest thing he’s ever said to her. Alex P. Keaton, of all people, might actually have a compassionate side.
“Close your mouth, you wouldn’t want it to freeze like that,” he sneers, which earns him a jab on the head. Back to his old self, but she decides she’s completely fine with that.
He swings his arm around her shoulder as they approach the train, the cold November fog enveloping them.