The moment her best friend died, Jean Grey first dreamed of fire, and dancing among the stars.
Neighbors since they were born, inseparable once they could crawl, she and Annie Malcolm shared toys and sandboxes, secrets and dreams, their parents, their entire lives. They had ten years together.
They never saw the car that brought that to an end.
Blind curve, guy’s in a hurry, Annie feeling competitive, totally focused on the Frisbee Jean had thrown. Reacting, not thinking, no consideration of anything but the prize, as a wayward breeze scooped the plastic disk up just beyond her reach. Tantalizing, infuriating, beyond wicked, to come so close and then fall short. For Annie, that was unacceptable.
She made a spectacular catch. Jean cheered.
Her smile was so special, a flash of pure delight that burned itself indelibly on Jean’s memory.
Then she was gone, wiped away so suddenly, so completely, it was almost as though she’d never been, thrown aside like a sackcloth dummy. There was a flash of shape and color, something big and powerful moving too fast to properly register—afterwards, when Jean tried to describe the vehicle to the police, what came out was more monster than machine. It was the first time—the only time—that her perfect memory ever failed her.
Or perhaps it was just that she didn’t care about the car.
She heard a squeal as the driver fought for control, stomping on his brakes too late to make a difference, then the roar of an accelerating engine rapidly fading in the distance, as shock gave way to panic and he decided to save himself instead.
Jean had eyes only for her friend, draped against the wall of piled fieldstone that formed the property line along River Road. Annie lay unmoving, all crumpled and bloody and broken.
Sobbing, face twisted with denial, Jean dropped to her knees, hands trembling as she reached out, not a sound issuing from her lips save Annie’s name—although every family in the neighborhood claimed later that they heard her piercing scream of anguish and horror. She repeated the name over and over, like a mantra, as if simply by saying the word she could anchor spirit to flesh and keep her friend from slipping away.
Then, she heard Annie call her name.
Instinct guided her to take a hand in both of hers, and Jean cried out again, a hoarse coughing exclamation that gave voice to all the pain balled up inside her friend. There were bursts of ice and fire along one side, scrapes and busted ribs, and a burning within one arm that told Jean it too was broken, and more pain where Annie had cracked her skull against one of the stones. That was the source of a lot of the blood, painting her face and now Jean as well as she stroked Annie’s brow and tried to kiss the pain away. There was a dull ache near the bottom of her back, a gaping hollowness in the center of her chest. With a start, Jean realized she’d forgotten to breathe, and with a frantic gulp of air realized to her horror that Annie couldn’t.
Her back was broken.
She couldn’t bear to look anymore and closed her eyes—only that didn’t help. Instead, it simply took her somewhere else.
Her own heart was a trip-hammer, pounding too hard and fast for her to separate the beats, her breath coming in shallow gasps that matched its cadence, like an animal in a terror trance, standing helpless before the predator who seeks its life. That made Jean angry; she hated being afraid and refused to be a victim, even of fate itself.
She thought at first she’d blacked out, because around her all was darkness. And then, of course, she assumed hallucinations as images rolled towards her out of that darkness, blurry in the distance, resolving as they moved closer into visions of people and places. She saw herself, arms thrown straight up as though signaling a touchdown, thought (absurdly) how familiar those clothes looked, until she realized she was wearing them now and she was looking at herself only moments ago, celebrating Annie’s catch.
Her mind took the connection a step further; she looked more closely at the other images floating past her and she knew that they were Annie’s memories.
They seemed to be coming from a central source, like stars being spun clear of the core of a spiral galaxy. Without hesitation she plunged into the heart of that glorious radiance, face transfixed with awe and wonder at the unimaginable myriad of colors and shapes that represented all of her friend’s life-experience. She couldn’t help grinning at the recognition of how many of them seemed to relate to her, and how richly textured they were.
She was still thinking in purely human terms and assumed that when she reached the heart of the radiance, she’d be this incredibly tiny dust mote facing some unimaginably huge representation of Annie. Instead, she came to her as an equal—only her body appeared wholly solid, whereas Annie’s was boiling away at the edges.
Aghast, Jean watched a string of memories—some birthday or other, a trip to grandma’s, boring days at school—tumble off into the distance until they were gone, swallowed up in darkness. Again operating from an instinct she didn’t understand, Jean reached out to try to catch them, but she might as well have been a ghost herself, grabbing at the wind. They wouldn’t be snared, couldn’t be held.
She heard Annie call her name.
They both knew what was happening; neither dared say it aloud.
“Don’t be scared, Annie,” Jean said.
“Show me how, ’kay?”
“You’ve got to hold on, Annie, you can’t give up.”
“I’m broken, Jean. There’s nothing I can do.”
“Stop it! Don’t you dare talk like that, I won’t let you go!”
The passion surprised them both, a fierce rage that outlined Jean, just for a moment, in a corona of fire, like a star casting forth a solar flare. The fire plunged into Annie, making her gasp with surprise as her fading radiance glowed more brightly.
“See,” Jean cried triumphantly. “See! I can help! I can save you!”
But Annie knew better.
“It isn’t making a difference, Jean, not so it matters.”
“Shut up, I’m working here.”
“Do you have a clue what you’re doing?” Annie asked.
“Making it up as I go. What do you care, so long as you come out all right?”
“Ain’t gonna happen.”
“No, Jean,” Annie said, “watch me.”
Jean didn’t want to, but Annie was by far the more determined of the two, always had been, with a focus (stubbornness, some said) that was legendary. They were still of the same size, a pair of galaxies, islands of breathtaking light and color, all by themselves against the backdrop of infinity. Now though, while Jean remained essentially coherent, Annie had spun off so much quantum substance that she was translucent. Yet she was visibly the more dynamic of the two—the part of her that remained burned far more brightly than it should, because Jean was sustaining it with her own energies. The consequence was that Jean’s own life-glow had dimmed considerably.
“Let me go,” Annie said quietly.
“No.” Jean could be just as muleheaded.
“You’re my best friend.”
“Can you make me better?”
“What do you mean?”
“Can you fix the all of me that’s broken? Can you find the all of me that’s lost?” Annie waved a barely corporeal arm to indicate what remained of her body, the mass of imagery cascading ever faster into oblivion.
Jean’s face twisted with a grief she’d never imagined, didn’t think could possibly be endured.
“I. Don’t. Know. How!” And with that terrible admission, her face went still with resolve. She would find a way, no matter what it took. She refused to accept that she couldn’t.
“You can’t stay,” Annie told her.
“I won’t leave you.”
“Do you want to die, too? Look at yourself, Jean.”
“I can barely see you. You’ve poured so much light into me, yours is almost gone. If you give me all your strength, how will you find your way home?”
“We’re going home together.”
With that, Annie lunged forward, catching Jean by surprise in an embrace that carried with it every bit of love and affection, every remaining aspect of their shared lives. She thrust both hands into the core of Jean’s being and returned the strength Jean had given her.
Too much power, too fast! It burst outward like a star going supernova, impossibly—for that single flash of time—turning a totality of darkness into an absolute of light. Against such a display, Annie was too small to even quantify.
For Jean, this was beyond revelation. She understood none of it, on any level. The emotions were too primal for a child’s mind to comprehend, and she had no resources of intellect or spirit that could give her even a hope of coping. She’d been cast into a maelstrom and knew only enough to hold fast to herself until it ran its course, praying fate was smiling on her enough to survive.