The room is just as I remember it, this place that I’d spent my last time with Lilith before I murdered her on a rooftop in New York. It’s a strange feeling to be back here, not because of any negative connotations associated with my last stint as a captive, but because I was unwittingly drawing closer and closer to the truth of myself during a time where my denial was at its strongest.
I was so stalwart in my conviction against Lilith and her words, her attempts, her subtly screaming pleas that echoed the beast. I shake my head at myself. I would not allow myself to listen, I was so… naïve, star-crossed. I truly believed that I was better, that Tina’s love had helped me become the kind of person that deserved to live despite my past.
And maybe it had been true for a time. But that’s the problem with all life on earth: nothing gold can stay. The only constant is change, even as some things never really do. And it would seem that all things are a contradiction.
I find no comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in that conundrum.
But there is comfort in knowing that nothing lasts forever. My last time here, I’d made this place a prison, a monument to how nothing could defeat who I had tried to become, how my love could last forever.
But now… my time here will be my last comfort if there is any to be had, even as I know that I’m still being held, and it will be for an entirely different reason: I’m aware now.
I know myself now.
I’m still a prisoner here, but that won’t last and neither will I if I decide not to.
Everything is just as I left it, the bed made, the minimalistic quality to the decor, everything serving a utilitarian purpose because Lilith knows how much I dislike worthlessness. But in all of the ways that it’s the same, everything is also different.
I am different.
I glance up at the hatch, the area around it bearing only slight scars for all of my desperate attempts at perceived freedom. But this time, I have no desire to claw and go mad, to try and pry open the very jaws of life and lift myself above my station.
And that’s because while I am still being held, it’s no longer against my will.
I no longer have any will at all.
I just am, for the most part, as I was born to be, both naturally and unnaturally.
It’s with a blissful emptiness that I take advantage of a real shower, feeling months of anger and frustration congeal and slide away, taking the grime of outdoor living to a swirling death down the drain. I have so little to consider and weigh, but it still feels like a daunting task. My time is limited, but for the first time in my life, I have a choice that isn’t tainted by desires, not my own or what someone else would have for me.
For the first time, my life is in my own hands.
My death is in my own hands.
It occurs to me as I turn off the water and step out that I have had more than two centuries to know the answers to the same questions that I’ve always asked, but I suppose never actually being afforded the chance to have choice robbed me of even conjecture.
I feel young, childlike, as if opportunity is only now stretching itself in vast, starless skies against the backdrop of my existence. But it’s so late that I only know how to gaze out at it, to wonder at it, because I have no idea in what form I will yet choose to embrace it.
I only know that the choice is mine, that it’s finally there, and feel the awe and wonder of a void so immense. I never thought that the fog would clear, that opportunity’s path would dare cross my cursed one, or that it would be so empty.
I wrap myself in a towel and walk to the study to see if there is something to drink. Human or root, it makes no difference. I smile as I see that the fridge is still there and pad my way over, turning on the stereo as I walk by as if by muscle memory.
Barber’s adagio is still in the player, and as I reach into the fridge to retrieve the fresh supply that has been stocked, I find my attention turned away from the container my hand is about to grasp and instead focusing on the music grating mockingly against my eardrums.
I shut the fridge and frown as something within me seems to tilt, as if something is here in this place with me, watching me, tugging at me and begging to be seen. But as I look around me, I realize that there is no one here but me, and for all intents and purposes, I am that nothing.
No, it’s not that something is here, but that something is missing altogether.
The shadows in the corners seem to be alive, like ghosts reaching out and retracing old footsteps before fading into nothingness. The small squares on the walls, slightly yellow around their vacant edges, are talking to me, whispering their histories like phantom limbs tingling with their inexistence.
‘There’s a way for us to be together, T,’ a disembodied voice says.
My eyes land on the easel sitting empty against the far wall.
‘I know, baby. I know. I’ve thought about it too,’ the very atmosphere replies.
Everything is not as I left it. My paintings are gone, and as I look around the studio, I notice that even the art supplies have been removed.
“I’ll love you forever, T. That will never end,” the other lies.
I’m forced to lean against the desk next to me as something else shifts, only this isn’t as gentle. Instead of a tilt, it’s as if the world has been flipped over and left me smashed against the snow globe of my tiny universe, against that very opportunity and choice that’s supposed to set me free.
It’s as if it’s reminding me that all things end…
Sometimes, opportunity is the end.
I look to the couch near the fireplace without knowing why and find myself drawn to it, somehow needing to know if some long buried piece of a fabled connection has somehow survived the destruction of time and indifference.
I kneel and reach a hand under the couch, the edge of something coarsely smooth brushing my fingertips like dry bones. I pull it out, its colors muted by the coat of dust layering over the once fresh varnish and I swipe a hand over the surface to clear it.
I find myself gazing into the warm, hazel eyes of a stranger. The look on her face is almost expectant, as if she is trying to tell me something in a language that I can’t comprehend.
‘I love you…’
I prop her up against the couch and just sit there staring as the starless horizon of my choice tries to light with depth, with understanding, and with wisdom. But it’s still out of reach.
I did not know her and she did not know me. But, there was once another woman, one that looked like me in many ways though she was a liar, and they knew each other. But she died, and maybe in the loss of one both were consumed.
Everything grows still and quiet, a different time and place acknowledged and finally laid to rest, but that quiet is stifling, and all I can do is sit here and gaze at this stranger. The horizon inside lights with a million stars as if they’re waypoints on a candle wick, and as this last bit of honesty blooms forth within, I find myself embracing it with bloody hands.
Tainting it with bloody hands.
And I now know what I must do.
Nothing lasts forever.
The void closes in, the stars are shut out, and I find myself dressing and preparing to meet that nothingness.
Annihilation, consummation, a death wish fulfilled, that candle lit from both ends at birth will be snuffed out completely.
And I am waiting.
And I am ready.
And I just am…
The guard came for me as Lilith had promised, and I find myself feeling pressed from behind, as if something is nipping at my heels, and so I move in an anxious way to meet oblivion even as I try to outrun it.
The gray light of this day is oppressive as the doors open into the encampment. I had not expected an audience, but this is a grand one. Shoulder to shoulder, the whole of the camp, their thoughts as grave as the silver sun and their faces angry as their hearts pump a distracting staccato.
The whole of the known world is standing at Lilith’s feet from the edge of a dais.
For all that I can hear there is not a sound, not a twitch nor a sneeze, not a breath that is heard or the blink of an accusing eye. It is too still but somehow riotous as I’m escorted toward the brink of the known world.
Everything seems to have soaked up the gray like a sponge. All life, all color, any semblance of vibrancy seems to have been leeched away by the stifled smoke billowing up at the edges of the fence in the distance, and the scent of burning flesh hanging heavily over my face like a wet blanket. It’s all so empty, my mind so shockingly desensitized, even as I notice that for as many that are left, they are far fewer than they should be, and the rigors of war is evident in their condition.
The only fraction of color is the red carpet at my feet. It glares up at me angrily and I find my eyes following it to the edge of the wall behind us where it bends up and stretches as high into the sky as I can see, like a broad path to heaven.
My attention is drawn to the white and black emblem of Lilith’s new reign, her new world, resting oppressively at its center. This is it, truly, and I find myself closing my eyes to embrace the annihilation to follow.
Her words cut through the silence, even as she whispers sadly, “Darling, have you really chosen such a senseless path?”
It’s then that I look back at her. Last night, when I saw her, I had not taken notice of how her face is still ruined, marred with the tell-tale sign of who I had tried to be and who I killed just to be standing here, ready to embrace this fate.
I gaze down on her, the instinctual creature that she always wanted for me to be, and find my tongue stuck in my throat.
All I have to do is say it, and it’s over.
No more weariness.
No more choices.
No more consequences.
No more expectations.
Just as I am, nothing more or less.
I would just cease to be.
I made this choice. This is on me. For once, I have the final say, and it’s true: I want out. I want to see the end, and I want that end to be now.
Why is it that I can’t say it?
She strokes a hand down my cheek, and I don’t even feel it. “What happened last night?”
She searches my mind, and must not find it as empty as I had believed, because her scarred face screws up with anger. I watch her suck in air heavily as she sees what I see, a stranger lurking in the shadows of an insignificant painting, of an insignificant life, of a ruined and lonely soul.
And I’m too late in shutting her out.
Without a sound, she turns to the guard at my side and tells him to remove his helmet. I frown, but we all watch as he does what he’s told. Even he looks confused as he’s forced to his knees by the small hand on his shoulder, but he’s quick to die with that confusion.
Lilith grips his hair in her left hand, and using her right, pulls down on his mandible until his skull is split in two with a sickening series of snaps and bloody spurts.
His scream is short and poignant, and I find myself envying both pieces of him equally as they thud to the carpet, his eyes unseeing.
Lilith lets out a breath and looks up to me. “I told him to be sure that all of those… things were removed so that your decision would be pure. He failed us both, and now you are confused again.”
I disagree. “I don’t think that it confused me.”
She sighs indulgently. “I know that you can’t see it, but you are. It takes decades to learn how to shut the emotions down as they arrive. You’ve not had the practice, dear one. You can’t help it.”
I can’t deny that something happened last night in that room; that the painting disturbed something inside of me, but it wasn’t love or even remorse. I just felt empty, and that’s when I knew what I would really want.
It’s what I’ve always wanted, but something always got in the way, some sense of not allowing myself to give up, or maybe the instinctual side that is the preternatural will to survive.
Or, perhaps just too proud to die.
I have no such pride anymore.
Lilith touches my chin and lifts my eyes to hers. “There is a way to help you, darling. I had hoped to wait, to offer this to you at a less confusing time, but given your thoughts I feel that to wait would be imprudent.”
“What do you mean?”
She smiles slightly. “Over the centuries, when I found myself becoming unreasonably attached to someone, I found that it’s best to destroy them, or at least any attachment. It’s what helped me survive for as long as I have and maintain my instincts.”
“Is that why you kept making new progenies only to kill them?”
She nods, a sad expression odd on her broken face. “Unfortunately, yes. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to in order to keep myself free of emotion.”
Her eyes become sharp. “And this is the gift that I offer to you, if you will at least consider it.”
I’ve only created a single progeny that ever mattered to me, but she’s not here…
I watch as Lilith gestures to Addie, whom I only now notice on the edge of the dais, and I find myself further confused.
Addie was killed a few weeks ago…
Addie nods to Lilith and gives me a knowing glance before turning to perform some unspoken request, and Lilith pulls my attention back to her.
“You recognize Adele, don’t you?”
Addie is short for Adele…
Why is that the name sounds so familiar?
Addie… Adele, I puzzle over it for a moment, but it all comes together when she comes back with a few other guards, each holding someone that I used to know prisoner and pulling them up onto the dais.
I feel a wave of curious nausea as I see that Addie has Tina, and if Tina’s plaintive gaze on her captor is any indication, Tina knows Addie as well.
No, Tina knows Adele.
She saved Tina and Shane when they escaped execution; she led the rebels in Tina’s absence; she was with us outside of the CDC…
She’s been Lilith’s eyes and ears for a long time…
“Don’t be angry with her. She was only doing as I asked, and she performed marvelously.”
Lilith need not worry.
I’m not angry.
I couldn’t care less.
Even still, when Tina finally focuses on me, I find myself staring into the hazel eyes of a stranger yet again.
And yet again, my tongue feels stuck in my throat.
Lilith’s voice is smooth like honey, offering promises greater than death. “If you kill her, you’ll finally be free, my dark angel.”
Lilith’s hand is resting gently at the small of my back in a possessive manner, and she uses the other to motion Tina forward. Adele moves to pull Tina those few feet, but the blonde pulls her arm free and makes the trek alone.
She doesn’t appear to be afraid. Her head is high, her steps measured, even as I can see the tremble in her limbs and the slight cloud of emotion pooling in her eyes.
They speak volumes, even as I can’t hear what they’re trying to tell me. I only know that they are trying, speaking, maybe even screaming.
But it’s not in fear.
To my shock, she doesn’t walk slowly. Instead, she moves quickly and wraps her arms around me. I feel frozen, my muscles tense, but she doesn’t relent. Her arms sear a path around my waist, her palms spreading against the flesh of my back, branding me with their openness.
Raw and open…
I can feel her thoughts trying to find purchase on my mind, and while I’m curious, part of me knows that if I open myself to her, this will be over. I will lose the progress that I’ve made. It would be final and there would be no going back.
But maybe that’s okay, because I just want this to be over, now more than ever.
That is my choice. I have no wish to kill Tina or anyone else. I only wish to stop, to lose my next breath, to let it all go.
And since that is unchanging, what can it hurt to let her in one last time?
I’m familiar with it. We are old friends, closer than family. But there is nothing on this earth that can hurt me anymore. I’ve already seen what hides in the shadows. I’ve lived amongst them for lifetimes on end. I’ve felt the sting of a lash tear the flesh from my back. I’ve felt my very heart ripped from my chest, both figuratively and physically.
I’ve been used, violated, beaten, and utterly shattered on the rocks of both youth and maturity. I’ve been a slave for more than two centuries, and my innocence has been ripped out of my very womb time and time again. And when all of that wasn’t enough, I lost the one thing I had left to me: my mind.
But by far the worst of it all is that I had held hope in my hands and watched it wither to ash.
Truly, what more could hurt anymore?
I find my eyes closing. I find my stiff arms unsure but still finding an awkward hold. I find my head dipping into a blanket of silken gold where my lungs pull in the smell of sunlight and darkness, of passion and triviality, of provocation and solace, of earth and flesh.
Yes, it’s all a contradiction.
No, nothing ever makes sense.
And I find myself smiling because I just don’t care. I lower the barriers to what’s left inside. There’s not much that’s soft or vulnerable anymore, but I let what’s left breathe because it’s a last breath. And yes it’s temporary, but it’s still gold, this place that I find myself in.
And I feel myself releasing a shaking laugh because if I’m going to go out, then this is how I want to go. It may be pointless, and I may be weak, but I don’t need to endure anymore or find a reason.
I let go.
I give up.
And I let the sea have me.
The familiar stranger in my arms tries to reign me in, showing me all of the missing pieces of the last few months, all of the times that I came to her but don’t remember, how I found Hope in an outcropping in the desert, and how I let the desert consume it from inside of me, even as that succor I had been searching for was coming.
And that’s okay.
Because it’s all still out there, protected and fought for, ready to put an end to this.
And as if she gains some sort of ethereal understanding, Tina leans back and looks up at me. Her smile glows with warmth and I watch her eyes trace over every facet of my face as if she’s memorizing it. Her scrutiny is so intense that I can feel it more acutely than any touch.
This stranger has always had that effect on me and I remember it all.
I remember her.
I remember my wife.
With her, I feel everything. Colors are more vibrant and the inconsequential becomes intricate and life sustaining. And it’s now that I see within her the will to let me go, the will to let me take what I need to find the peace that I’ve sought for so long.
I want to apologize to her, not because I loved her, but because I killed the woman that loved her in a vain attempt to set her free. I didn’t mean for it to come to this, but intention or not, there is no penance for such a thing. This is something that pain has taught me. Nothing will ever make it right. Nothing will ever erase it or change it.
All I can offer is my life, and I do because I don’t want it.
And true to her form, the same form I could never attain, she forgives me.
She loves me.
But it’s more than that: she loves me enough to let me go if that is the only way to save me.
She is life, even in death.
And maybe I can save her life with my death.
I’m roughly pulled away from her, but I don’t take my eyes off of her, even as Lilith places one of the long stakes the guards use in my hands.
I’m unshakable even as I’m utterly shaken.
“There is nothing left of your rebellion,” Lilith shouts at the assembly of baleful statues.
She turns to me. “We spent most of the night and this morning eliminating the threat you’d been creating. All of those you see before you have sworn fealty to me and the rest have been dealt with, but for these few.”
Alice, Dana, Duffy, Tina…
Are they really all that’s left?
Tina’s eyes say it all. Hope is not lost, no matter what happens here today.
‘Do what you have to do, Bette. I’ll love you forever, no matter what.’
I feel a rush of something sweep through me. Call it determination or gratitude, or some tincture of both, but whatever it is, it gives me what I need to finish this.
‘Nothing lasts forever, T.’
She breaks before my eyes, shattering into so many pieces that I can’t even begin to account for them all, but each one loves me. She hates this, this darkness that’s consumed me, and I hate it with her.
There’s only one way to be rid of it, and she deserves to be rid of it.
And I’m ready.
Gripping the stake a little tighter, I feel the ring on my left hand grind against the polished wood, and find myself shaking, my vision blurring, and yet somehow, my heart is soaring.
The starless sky isn’t so starless anymore. The horizon is in sight, and I’m finally free to embrace it. And again, I want to thank her for all of these things, these gifts that she’s given me with a sigh or a look or the willingness to care when no one else would.
She’s sobbing, but I know that she’ll be okay. My family will be okay. That is my gift to them.
I turn to my maker. “You want me to kill her?”
“No,” she coos. “I just want you to be free of this, to be by my side as you were meant to be. There’s just no other way, dear one…”
I nod in understanding, grimacing slightly. “If there’s no other way…?”
She shakes her head, her tone truly apologetic. “There isn’t. You have to kill anything that causes you to second guess your instincts, and your instincts lie in darkness.”
I smile sadly and take Lilith in my arms, holding her tightly. She seems surprised at first but finally returns the embrace with a sigh. The sounds of engines in the distance cut through the silence and I turn us so that I can see Tina over her shoulder.
“Thank you for setting me free,” I whisper.
Both women seem appeased with this answer, but only one of them is the owner of that gratitude, and she’s loving me from afar even as I hurt her. There’s a commotion in the crowd as the fences are barreled over and without another thought, I lift the stake and shove it through Lilith’s heart, not stopping until it’s sunken through my own.
I watch as Tina falls to her knees in her grief but I want to laugh because it’s over, not just for me, but for her and for Hope. I feel Lilith’s hands claw into my flesh. I hear her gasp and feel her writhe against my chest, but I hold fast to her, to this darkness that won’t survive this day.
Because if I’m going down, I’m taking it with me.
If I have to kill those things that represent my confusion, then I will.
This is what I wanted, what I needed, but it helps everyone.
And even if people make monsters of themselves, if hate manages to resurrect itself in the generations to follow, there will always be someone to push it back, to plunge a stake through its heart and scatter it on the wind.
It’s a strange feeling, my bones turning brittle and my muscles withering. I keep my eyes on my wife for as long as I can, watching her foes fall down around her feet as they’re ambushed by the last of the rebellion.
Shane rushes to her side, trying to pull her away, but she won’t go, and I find the will within the darkness that’s consumed me to tell her what I wish I knew how to do.
‘I love you, T.’
And with that, my maker and I crumble into red oblivion.
My whole life I’ve been a scholar, and if you ask any scholar how they came to know anything, they will tell you it’s because they read. But then they don’t just read, they read voraciously. It’s a passion, a passion that gives wisdom and exposes the heart of both light and dark.
As a scholar, I shared in that passion. It was probably the only good thing that I did with my time, even as I failed to see the wisdom in the pages that I was devouring. Because if I had, I’d have seen that love isn’t weakness, but the ability to find strength in that weakness.
For all of the knowledge that I found, that I absorbed, I missed the most important parts, trading heart for logic. Don’t misunderstand, logic is important, but heart… well, without it nothing holds value. And what’s even more disparaging, is that I focused on death, on the darkest pieces that I could find, and that is precisely where the most heart is found.
And yet, I still missed it, perhaps even ignored it.
Story after story about life and death, what it all means, how to find one before you unavoidably stumble into the other, and I missed it, the simplest of conclusions: what better place to find the light, than in the dark?
I was consumed by these things… these shallow and destructive things, all the while missing that singularly global concept. It’s ironic, especially now, when I’ve finally experienced death, to again miss the train, literally.
Where is it, the annihilation? Where is the grim reaper with his bony hands and sharp sickle? Where’s Charon and his boat to guide me across the river styx? Where’s the light at the end of the long tunnel? How am I aware when I know that I fell to ash at love’s feet?
I had hoped for just nothingness, but I’m still here, somewhere between, aware and alone.
‘You’re not alone.’
I turn in the direction of the sound, but it seems to have come from all directions, and even worse, I don’t have eyes to see.
For a moment, I’m forced to consider that this is a sick joke. I feel like one of those poor, drunken fools from the nineteenth century who awoke in a coffin and prayed for the sound of a bell to accompany their terrified thrashing, but the voice with me is quick to soothe, if somewhat mocking with her laughter.
‘No, you’re not a dead ringer, but you are dead… so to speak.’
If I could have a headache, I would. It seems only appropriate. This can’t be real, or maybe I’m in hell. I never stopped to consider an afterlife of eternal torment in all of my rushing to end my life.
She laughs again and then I feel something soothing sweep through me, or over me. I can’t tell. I don’t have a body that I can discern.
‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘You’re not in heaven or hell. Those places don’t exist. When people die, that’s it. But you, I made an exception for you.’
An exception? ‘Who are you?’
I can hear the smile in her voice. ‘Lilith called me mother and sometimes goddess, but in all actuality, I don’t have a name.’
‘You… you’re the creator.’
‘That’s a very literal title, but true nonetheless.’
Okay… so the goddess, this all powerful being that created all life on earth, has suspended me in… limbo… to… tease me?’
She laughs again before calming with a sigh. ‘This is why I created humanity. You’re so inventive… unpredictable.’
I feel myself growing sour. ‘Well, I’m glad that we amuse you. It’s not so comical from our vantage point.’
She seems to become somber. ‘No, I suppose it wouldn’t, and I can understand that.’
I laugh ruefully. ‘How could you possibly understand? You have infinite power; you made us, and yet… you’re sadistic. This all just a sitcom for you, isn’t it? It’s all just entertainment…’
She sighs. ‘I could easily take offense to what you say, but I won’t, because if I’d made it any differently, you wouldn’t have the choice to blame me, and I care too much to rob you of that.’
‘You care so much that you left us to deal with your daughter alone?’
‘You’ve been misinformed. It’s true that I could not bring myself to kill her, no matter how cruel she became, but she had freewill. You all do. It would be wrong to kill any of you for the gift that I gave you.’
I want to feel angry, indignant. ‘A gift? You call all that’s happened a gift?’
I can almost hear her shaking her head and it’s infuriating. ‘No, the gift is in the ability to choose, not the choice itself. Each of you makes choices, and each choice has consequences. You know this better than anyone. It is not my place to step in and take your choice away every time that I disagree with it, even when I know that the consequences will hurt. And it may not seem like it, but believe me, you wouldn’t want to live without it.’
I can’t argue with the fact that I’d want a choice. I’ve argued that fact with myself enough for the rest of eternity. Knowing this still does nothing to soothe the sting.
‘I know something that will,’ she says.
Her smile has returned. ‘Look within yourself, right now, and tell me what you feel.’
O-kay… I’m not sure what she means. I can’t really feel anything, nothing like touch or smell or sight at least. I don’t seem to have nerve endings at all to give any sensation of that sort.
I just feel… soft, light, there, somewhere…
But something niggles deeper, something outside of the realm of the physical, and as I focus in on it, I feel…
I’ve never felt this free, this unencumbered, this empty without losing the substance of myself. I feel almost frantic as I search for the beast, but I can’t find him. The abyss isn’t even there. I feel whole, complete. I’m not filled with remorse or self-loathing. And more than that, I don’t even have to feel empty to have achieved it. It’s as if the weight that’s been sitting on my chest has been lifted, and I can finally breathe, if I only I had lungs to do so.
She laughs again, and despite all of my confusion or upset with the way she manages things, I can’t stop myself from saying, ‘Thank you.’
‘Don’t thank me. You earned it.’
‘But how… why?’
‘I’ve been watching you the whole of your life. I saw everything that you went through, and I grieved for you because there was nothing that I could do. And when I saw Lilith find you, I knew that you’d take the same path that she had. But then… you didn’t. You somehow found it within yourself to love, despite so much, too much for any one person. You… you were inspiring, and you gave me hope that all of this fighting would come to an end.’
‘But I didn’t… I mean, I couldn’t get past it all. I failed. I chose suicide.’
‘No, you loved so profoundly that you sacrificed yourself. You gave your life to stop Lilith, Bette, and yes, you were weary and ready and found peace with it, but you didn’t just suddenly decide to die. If Lilith hadn’t been in the picture, you’d still be living with Tina in New York. You’d still carry your burdens, but you’d have been fine. Why do you think you had that epiphany on the way to Florida? I wanted to be sure that you understood, that you realized what you were giving up. And you still did it. You did what I couldn’t do, even when you knew that you couldn’t live with it, that you’d have to die. You chose to save your family, and you saved everything for everyone.’
‘So Lilith’s really dead, and Tina and Hope are okay?’
Her voice grows sad. ‘Yes, Lilith’s gone. Tina’s grieving, but she and your daughter are alive and well.’
There’s that soothing feeling again. This is what real peace feels like, and I take a moment to recognize it, to absorb it, while my companion continues. ‘Your sacrifice and Lilith’s death made an opening for me, a chance to actually step in. You made a choice, and this is the consequence of that choice. That is… if you want it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Lilith was my first daughter with freewill, and I loved her, Bette. But when I made others, she grew resentful, jealous. She wanted all of my attention and she blamed her siblings for diverting that attention. The things that she did to them…”
If I thought it were possible, I would believe that she is fighting tears. “She killed them, all of them, brutally, and well, the consequence should have been death. But I just… I couldn’t. I’d lost so much already, and I still loved her. So, I chose to find a way to punish her, to kill her without actually doing so, and it changed everything. The world, my family, none of it has been right since. But you’ve changed that. You’ve set it right, and just like her consequence should have been death, yours is life.’
I can barely comprehend what she’s saying. ‘So… you’re offering me my life back?’
‘Yes. As I said, you’ve earned it. But, I know how much you’ve longed for annihilation, and if that is still what you want, I will grant it.’
‘I’d get to be with Tina, with Hope?’
That smile has returned. ‘Yes.’
‘Please… let me see them. I need to see them…’
‘Go to them then…’
Her voice fades away and I feel a rushing sensation, as if I’m being flung through a maelstrom, caught in its violent current as ash starts to gather and become mud in the very air, picking up mass as it collides together. My mind whirs as sensation returns, and I feel my eyes rolling endlessly in their sockets before finally coming to halt.
The silver light of the sun is bright and I want to shut my eyes but I don’t yet have eyelids. I turn away from it and watch as my arm pulls itself together in front of me, bone solidifies, tendrils of muscle crawl and wrap and insert their fingers, veins turn blue and pulse with life, and skin coalesces.
My heart stutters and I can’t catch my breath so I start to gape, my still broken lungs grasping at the air until it finally comes in with a choking rush. I glance down and watch as my organs slither and connect themselves in the cavity of my abdomen before closing in a grotesquely beautiful show of anatomy.
I feel the final joint lock into place and the tumult die away, and find myself on my back gazing up at the sky. My eyes have adjusted and I take a breath. I’m alive, but it’s more than just breathing and a pulse, my very soul is alive.
This is what it means to be human, to be good, to be alive. This is the start that we should all get, but I didn’t know just how much was missing because I’d never known what it was like to have it.
Choice and consequence.
I’d been robbed from the start, paying the consequences of other’s actions only to compound them with my own, but this is what I’d been working toward, what I’d been fighting for since the moment Tina gave me a reason. And just when I thought that my dreams were the price for the freedom of my family, I’m given this gift.
I lift myself up, slightly stiff but infinitely innervated.
“Thank you,” I say, and I’d swear that I hear a laugh.
It’s contagious and I find myself on my feet, shouting and laughing, the freest I’ve ever felt, even as I stand amidst the ruins of the last front of civilization. The CDC is gone, all of it is gone, but never have I seen anything more amazing, more full of promise, because I know that somewhere out there is my family, and this time, when I come home, I’ll actually be who they deserve.
I find my joy faltering as a problem presents itself.
Where are they?
There’s not a soul in sight.
I close my eyes as the same soothing rush grows hot within my chest before settling low in my stomach where it hums like a tuning fork. I smile again and take off at a run, knowing that my love for this one woman will guide me like a compass.
The wind is in my hair and the future is spread out in front of me.
And for the first time, I feel like I’m running towards something instead of away from it.
I’ve been running for days. I’m not really sure how many, but I’d run until I’d pass out with exhaustion only to start again the moment my eyes opened.
For the last twelve hours or so, the hum in my guts has gotten more intense, and that feeling has pushed me higher into the mountains. I know that I’m drawing closer to her, and I would be lying if I said that I don’t feel a certain amount of trepidation.
I gave up, and I failed my wife in the worst way possible. And yes, there were reasons, some of them noble and some of them selfish, but in the end, I chose to die; I chose to leave her.
How do I make up for that?
How can all that’s happened just disappear for her?
What will I say to her?
And our daughter…
I’m a complete stranger to this person that I’ve never actually met but inexplicably love so intensely…
Where would such words come from?
I’m sorry just seems so… pointless, trivial, lacking…
Despite my doubts, my progress is unhindered. In fact, it only helps to further intensify my desperation and hurl me through the weariness. I’m so tired, but I’m so close. I need my family, more than I can fathom let alone put into words.
I climb higher, the forest floor knotted with roots that give me solid footholds as I continue up. The hum inside of me is more like a resounding thrum and I find the will to push even harder, willing my legs and lungs to keep up.
I finally break through the forest line and into the clearing beyond where I come to a skidding halt. It’s like I’ve stepped into a dream, a dream that’s somehow a reality.
This place is untouched, pristine, just as I left it last. The gray sun is bright in the sky above as the rolling grass bends in the wind and folds toward the horizon. It’s open, clear, hopeful, this place, a place where a single tree is the only break where heaven meets earth.
And there, at the base of that tree, is a goddess, her golden hair falling in gentle waves that brush her bare, sun-warmed shoulders. She smiles and breaks off at a leisurely run, chasing the small child in front of her.
A girlish laugh reaches my ears as the child is caught and picked up in an embrace that I know so well that I can feel it right now. It’s a circle of protection that gives reason for every drawn breath, every thudding sprint of blood.
Something else inside of me mends, reanimates, and it’s just as strangely beautiful. My insides smile, and this time there is no darkness to chase it away. There is only my family, a goddess in white in the distance, and despite the numb ache in my limbs and the heaving breathes that don’t fulfill, there is fulfillment of another kind that forces them back into action.
It’s slow and arduous, a walk, but I’d crawl if I had to. It could be exhaustion, or maybe I just don’t want to startle them. But my wife needs to see me, to know that I’m here, and give me some sign that she can find it within herself to forgive me yet again.
It doesn’t take long for that radiant face to turn in my direction and sharp eyes to deliver the message of sight to an incredible mind. And to my everlasting amazement, I find grace where there is no reason for it.
I find forgiveness where there should only be anger.
But that’s just who she is, who she will always be.
How strong she is…
I could marvel for eternity.
My pace increases when she drops to her knees, releasing our child to cover her face and hold back the sobs.
She should never cry.
I should never have made her cry.
I wasn’t trying to, she has to know that.
I’m closer now, but it’s not close enough and I can’t catch my breath to move faster. I stumble as I try to pull myself together. My head swims and I can barely see through the curtain of tears that clouds my vision, but I keep the watery shape of her my focus.
If I can just get to her, then I can make this right.
I’ll find a way.
I’ll spend forever finding a way.
She’s closer, and finally, with the force of bullet to the heart, I collide with her. She’s in my arms, warm and sobbing and incredible. And I laugh as I cry, still unable to breathe but no longer needing anything else anyway.
It all tilts and I register the ground against my knees, but just barely. Nothing will shake her from my arms, roving hands finding purchase and cataloguing every inch. Nothing will ever pry my fingers from her again.
I bury my face in her neck and I find home.
I’m finally home.
Time stands still as minds are opened and we pull each other in, greedily soaking it all up. Everything from the joys to the pains, everything from the beginning to the end is laid out. And every piece is refined by trial, by fire. It’s pure in intent and heart. It’s shining and untainted, and there’s just no end to the desperation. There’s no end to this need that pangs from somewhere beyond where one body ends and the other begins.
An eternity is laid out in front of us and I’ll never have enough of her.
Tina leans back and we both look to this child standing next to us. She’s maybe four years old, her almond eyes wide and slightly scared, and I find myself wanting to pull her to me and never let her go, but unable to do so.
She must be terrified.
“Hey, baby, it’s okay. I’m just really happy. Come here.”
Tina motions the child forward, and her eyes refuse to meet mine, but she does as Tina beckons, if a little timidly.
I feel myself swallowing harshly, and wondering at how much I’ve missed. Hope’s grown so much, but she’s gorgeous, better than any dream. The delicate hand of my wife takes my own and squeezes slightly in reassurance as the answer is offered.
Six months, I’ve been dead six months…
The hand squeezes tighter with this thought and I look up into Tina’s eyes.
That word, it hurts her acutely, but she smiles at me all the same.
That word and that pain have been banished.
Oh death, where is your sting?
She turns to the child resting in the crook of her arm and whispers in her ear. “Hope, I want you to meet your other mom.”
The child looks up at me from beneath thick, dark lashes, curiosity and maybe a touch of wariness showing on her childish face, and again I feel how deeply my choices have affected those that I love.
“Hi,” I’m only just able to croak out.
The tears haven’t stopped and I find myself swiping at my eyes so that I can smile more convincingly at my daughter, help her to know that I’d never hurt her.
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” I try again.
It’s lame, but what can I say or do? I want to tell her how much I love her, and how I’ve missed her though I’ve never met her. I want to pull her into my arms and squeeze her until she can’t breathe, but to her, I’m just a stranger.
Tears start to gather in her eyes and I feel them like a knife in my guts. But when her tiny arms wrap around my neck, and her small voice squeaks out, “Where were you,” even as that knife twists a little, it doesn’t matter.
I can hold her tiny frame and breathe her in. She’s no longer something somewhere that I’ve been expecting and pushing away because I knew that I didn’t deserve it. But that’s the point of a gift, isn’t it? It’s freely given. You can’t earn it. There’s no deserving it.
That’s what this family is. This little girl is my life, the physical manifestation of the love that I share with the incredible woman who’s now holding us both, holding us all together.
That’s what she’s always been, before and after this child. Tina was the strong one, the one that kept us from falling to pieces. And when it happened anyway, she was the one who found the strength to always put us back together again.
“Trying to get to you,” I say.
I look at my wife. “I’m sorry that it took me so long.”
I lay a kiss to the round cheek near my face and marvel at the thick mop of blonde curls.
‘She looks just like you,’ I say to my wife.
She grins. ‘Yes, well, she’s your child through and through.’
‘Stubborn,’ I ask.
She laughs and the sound of it is held deep inside of me even when I can no longer hear it.
‘Utterly obstinate,’ she replies.
Tina leans in over Hope’s shoulder and kisses me. It’s chaste, and far too short, but the brief moment is like a balm to my weariness.
‘I wouldn’t have it any other way,’ she concludes.
Hope pulls back and her face scrunches up at us before her attention darts in an entirely different direction. She smiles and pries herself from our arms to run over to Alice and Dana, their shocked expressions causing me to feel awkward.
Dana hikes Hope up on her hip, and has to forcibly pull Alice away. Alice looks angry and I grimace as I realize just how much I have to do, to explain. But to Tina first…
‘T, I-,’ I start, but I’m silenced with another kiss, this one needy and open and somewhat fumbling with desperation. I feel utterly devoured, possessed, loved, and safe, and it just keeps coming.
She finally pulls away leaving me dizzy…
Her heavy pants wash over my collarbone as she rests her forehead to mine and chuckles. ‘You don’t have to explain, Bette. I’m just… you’re here. Nothing else matters.’
She leans back, linking her hands at my neck and holding tight. Her mind, her eyes, they’re fathomless and demanding. ‘And you’re not leaving again.’
I match her sincerity. ‘No, I won’t. I promise.’
I want to cringe at the word, but she smiles at me, raising an incredulous eyebrow. ‘You haven’t broken a promise yet.’
It may not have been the way that I had hoped, but she’s right. I protected her. I loved her. I lived, and I found her.
Hope comes running up, Dana and Alice chasing after her. Tina and I stand as she grabs us each by a hand and impatiently says, “Come on!”
She looks up at me, her beautiful face so much like my wife that I feel my heart skip a beat. “I want to show you!”
I glance at Tina who just smiles and we follow her to the edge of the hill where Alice and Dana are waiting.
“Sorry…,” Dana says. “I tried to stop h-”
I put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t. Just, thank you, Dane. Thank you.”
Alice has her arms crossed over her chest as she watches and I feel a pang of sadness. “And you.”
I scowl at her a little before leaning over to place a kiss on her cheek. “Thank you, Al.”
She seems a little flustered, and I know that she’s not forgiven me, but that’s okay. Time isn’t an issue anymore. My baggage isn’t an issue anymore.
Lilith isn’t an issue anymore.
She huffs and walks off ahead of us, and I just grin and shake my head.
Hope takes off after her, and as I watch the two play, I realize that my daughter might just be the best way to melt some of Alice’s warranted animosity. It’s just another reason to keep that baby close, not that I need another.
We crest the hill and I look down into a beautiful valley bustling with life. It’s not huge, this camp, but there’s something warm about it. Maybe it’s the laughter floating up, or the children running about, or the fact that while few, we have a chance at a new start. But for the first time, the hope inside of me is tangible.
“Where are Duffy and Shane?”
Dana shakes her head sadly and I close my eyes for a moment. Dana squeezes my shoulder before taking off at a run to catch up to the other two blondes, both now giggling as they run down into the valley.
‘Those children… down there…’
‘The only survivors.’
I look over at Tina, an unspoken question hanging on the air and she shakes her head. It pangs, but with a single nod, I put that away. I know that the goddess gave me a fresh start, removing the parts of me that were tainting everything that I touched, but this new life still moves forward by the same rules.
I will feel pain, and I will have to learn to cope with it. That’s what life is all about, but at least now I just have a chance, we all do.
‘Is it really over?’ I can’t help but ask the universe.
Tina takes my hand and smiles over at me. ‘No, it’s only just begun.’