Tina looked over at me and smiled sadly, always sadly, as she grabbed Dana’s arm to pull her away from Alice. It was only a second, a single ambiguous moment of hazel-steeped heaven, before it became a reminder of the living hell that I’d forced myself to live in.
I had to blow out a breath to keep from shaking with anxious control, a control that I was barely able to manage.
Dana didn’t move at first. She was nervous to leave Alice here with me, and I was nervous to have Tina leave when Lilith could arrive at any moment. Mostly though, if I were honest with myself, the most nerve-wracking thing of all was my uncertainty with Tina specifically.
After our… I wasn’t sure what to call it – discussion, foray into blinding pain – just eight hours prior, I was left devastatingly empty, and the feeling only grew as I watched Tina finally pull Dana away with a sense of all-encompassing loneliness.
I nearly shook with it as I watched her disappear into the night, but finally tore my eyes away to glance over at Alice with an internal groan.
I was about to share the deepest parts of myself with her, and I didn’t know if I could handle that kind of exposure just now. I closed my eyes against it all. At least it wasn’t Tina’s turn. That would have been emotionally disastrous; It had already been emotionally disastrous.
The talk with Tina had brought about a drastic decline in our faux relationship. Tina had shut herself off to me, completely, and it was all I could do to choke back the torrent of terrible dread that was welling up inside of me. I had finally accomplished what I’d set out to do, and now, I was learning what it meant to suffer the consequences of my choices.
I had to swallow the lump of irony that was souring in my throat. I’d never known love or had the freedom of choice at any point in my life, but I’d always longed for them. And when I finally had them, I was learning that it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Was this what all of the poets and song-writers went on and on about? Love meant pain and choices meant consequences. At least before, I had been ignorant of what I was doing and what it meant; but now I wasn’t, and I couldn’t tell if it was regrettable or the most incredible feeling in the world.
Whichever was true, being shut away from Tina was – there were not words to explain how deeply it tore at me.
Alice glanced up at me and I did my best to compartmentalize Tina so that I could focus, though I was beginning to believe that even my broadened mind couldn’t possibly begin to hold any of her. But I had to at least try if I was going to get through this moment, or any subsequent ones, for that matter.
I didn’t want to do this just now; I wasn’t ready, but Tina’s position had been sound and impassioned as we’d sat together around the fire and discussed it just a few hours earlier.
“We need to do this as we go,” she’d said.
“If the worst were to happen and we were to get cornered, those of you who could escape, should,” she’d said.
“I couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to any of you, Bette,” she’d said.
And I’d agreed… mostly because I couldn’t bear to let her down, not again. But also because I’d heard the desperate panic of a frightened and tortured heart, one that I was determined to protect though I was destroying with that very determination.
I had no way of knowing if what she said was the truth anymore. No, I would have to trust her. Could I trust her? I wasn’t sure. I could only hear what she was saying and compare it to what I already knew of her. I had to find a way to believe her without peering into the vastly lush terrain of her mind, the same place from which I’d been banished. And for a moment, it not only terrified me, but I felt almost… human again – helpless.
I felt like I was living in the Lucas Cranach painting of Adam and Eve. Was this how they’d felt when they’d been cast out for the sin of wanting to know the truth – naked, ashamed, and dejected… maybe even a little raw? I thought that it must be, only Tina was my forbidden fruit, and I the maker of my own punishment.
I’d unwittingly exiled myself to this barren place, not realizing that I’d counted on Tina to just always be there. That hadn’t been fair of me. Would I ever know her again, or would it always just be words? And, could words be enough? Could they be honest? Could they be anything but empty?
I ran my hands through my hair. No matter what, dishonest or not, I missed her. I missed that connection that only she could provide, and it had only been eight hours.
What would I do with an eternity?
“Look, I get it. I know you’re only doing this for Tina, and you don’t have to…”
Alice had been fidgeting as I stood motionless and trapped within myself, always trapped within myself. I locked onto her eyes as my thoughts melted and settled heavily in the spongy tissues of my skull, and this time I was almost thankful for her interruption. I’d have taken any distraction I could get, even Alice…
I flexed my fingers to control my edginess. It didn’t work, and I decided to just do what I’d always done, jump into the fray and hope to forget, however temporarily.
“I know it’s my choice, Alice.” I held my hand out to her. “Let’s just get this over with.”
For once she didn’t huff, roll her eyes at me, or threaten me in some wholly irrelevant way. Instead, her head was down as she stepped forward, looked away from me, and held out the object in her hand. Her grip was tight as I tried to take it, but I didn’t fight her. That would defeat the purpose.
I had learned over the course of my life that things were just… things. They mattered little in the grand scheme of time. Like everything else, they withered or were eventually abandoned to fall into disrepair. But I also knew that some things were more than just things. Some things were so close to a person’s heart, so personal, so indicative of some portion of a person’s life, that it was as if a piece of the owner’s very soul had been bound up in the object.
Personally, I had no conception of how difficult it was to let go of something that I had truly allowed myself to love. I had just never allowed myself to feel anything that fully. When Lilith had asked me for my most treasured possession, something truly sentimental, I’d had nothing to offer her that I hadn’t already given her. I was blank and loveless; everything that I’d cared about had already been consumed. I’d had no trade to make with the balance of nature because nature had already stripped my bones clean.
I couldn’t fight the annoyance in my voice, even if I had cared about Alice’s struggle, which I didn’t.
“Alice, you have to give it to me as a gift. I can’t take it from you.”
She still didn’t look up at me, but I saw her squeeze her eyes shut as she visibly loosened her grip. I held my hand out and she reluctantly placed the item in my palm, pulling her hand back quickly before she could change her mind, and wrapping her arms tightly around her chest as if to hold herself together.
No, I’d never understand having something so personal or meaningful. And if her actions were any indication, feeling that way seemed petty.
Her voice was small as she said, “Sorry…”
I looked down at the diminutive, ornate, metal box in my hand curiously. It was ancient and heavier than it appeared. Patina was clinging to the corners of the tarnished surface, and every centimeter was painstakingly etched with more detail than should have been possible.
A thin, broken handle protruded from the side, and I gripped it to rotate it slowly. The delicate sounds of a haunting but unfamiliar tune chimed out as I cranked, and I couldn’t help but smile. The melody was light but soul-stirring, and the craftsmanship truly remarkable.
I glanced back up at Alice as the last note died away but she still wouldn’t look at me. I could see the tell-tale streaks of tears beneath the pale lashes of her eyes. I didn’t know the story of this item, but I knew that it would do the trick. However insignificant it may have looked, it was so important to her that she could barely stand to let me hold it, let alone…
A grin tugged at the corner of my lips. “Alice…”
She sniffed and swiped at her nose before tentatively meeting my eyes. I held the small object up, keeping my smile in place as I said, “This is really beautiful, and it obviously means a lot to you.”
She returned my smile with a sad one of her own as she nodded, a warmth settling over her countenance as she gazed at the object wistfully. My own smile became more authentic as I unceremoniously tossed it into the fire like so much garbage and released a satisfied sigh.
I wasn’t sure why I had wanted to do that so badly. It could have been because I couldn’t stand Alice, but there was also a part of me that was slightly jealous that I had never cared about something that deeply.
Alice’s mouth gaped and her face became so red with anger that I thought she might attack me.
Ultimately, all she could do was mutter, “You’re a sadistic…”
My grin widened, daring her to finish her sentence. She sniffed again and resettled her arms tightly across her chest as she helplessly watched the metal lying in the coals start to glow and warp. As I looked into the flames my petulant satisfaction faded and I realized that it was time for me to make a sacrifice of my own. It was the only way to bind her to me.
I made sure my shirt sleeves were rolled up high before addressing Alice.
“Okay, now the fun part.”
I held my wrist up to her and she backed away from it as if it were diseased with leprosy. She stared at it distastefully before realization dawned.
“You aren’t serious…”
I gave her a tired expression and she grimaced a little bit as she reluctantly took my hand in both of hers, holding it up to her mouth and scrunching up her face to prepare herself for what she must have thought would taste like lemons. It felt like ages before she finally mustered up the courage, but her fangs eventually appeared and she bit into my wrist.
It was repugnant to let her do something so entirely personal to me, but it was only about to get worse. As I felt the blood start to pull out through twin openings, I said the words that would start the process of restoring the balance between light and dark.
“Illic est tantum obscurum. Commodo recipero is vitualamen quod reset pondera.”
I blew out harshly before snapping my other hand forward to hold it in the flames. It hurt immensely, but faded into the background as my walls crumbled and Alice’s most guarded thoughts started to flicker to life behind my eyelids.
Alice was old, older than I’d originally thought. Maybe six hundred years? The era was definitely medieval as snapshots of her life with her family came in from the background of her memory. In every instance she had been shunned and unwanted. She’d had no friends, despite her considerable efforts and her father’s thinly veiled threats. She’d watched on as the years passed and her younger sisters had married before her, something of a scandal in that particular culture.
Her father, obviously a nobleman by his home and his clothing, had been trying to secure her a groom because of her failure, but he hadn’t been able to even give her away and he’d constantly berated her for her lack of desirability, though he’d claimed to care about her all the while. Either way, her father’s love hadn’t surpassed his need to restore his honor in his social circles.
She’d tried so hard to make friends, to make her father proud and find a suitable husband, but no one had shown even a modicum of interest. By the time she had turned twenty-one, her father had paraded her through most of Poland, having taken her to every masquerade ball within a fifty mile radius. Most times he had lied about her bloodlines, even using a different name in the hopes that it would change their circumstances, but it hadn’t.
Apparently, her personality had always been grating to others, or maybe it had been her desperation. Perhaps it had been her honesty or blatant flippantness, but she had been unable to connect with those around her. And when her father’s parade hadn’t worked, he’d forced her to go to court and nearly prostitute herself, forcing her to show more skin than had been appropriate. But outside of the sniggers and the eligible young men scattering in opposing directions, no one had paid any notice, at least until a nobleman had visited.
He had taken notice and approached them. Apparently he had been having a similar issue with his son and had thought that they could help each other. Alice’s father hadn’t hesitated to load his eldest daughter and wife into a carriage headed for Lithuania almost immediately.
She’d married her groom nearly the moment her feet had touched the ground, and once her chastity had been confirmed intact for the wedding, her parent’s had left just as quickly as they’d arrived with nary a goodbye. She had been abandoned to her new husband, a man she’d only just met.
He hadn’t been an ugly man or even very unkind, just wholly uninterested like the rest of her known world. There had been something very different about him though. He was a flamboyant sort of man – almost effeminate, and decidedly depressed. He’d taken her virginity as quickly as possible before leaving her alone in her room traumatized. The following morning, after the sheets had been properly displayed to the rest of the nobles to prove consummation, he’d gone, disappearing without a word.
Alice had been left utterly isolated in the drafty castle that was to become her cage, nothing but stone walls, gaudy tapestries, and the occasional rodent to keep her company. She’d spent her time walking the grounds or reading from the small library, but the quiet of extreme solitude had begun to warp and twist her mind. Even the servants had avoided her. But there had been one ray of hope: she’d become pregnant. She considered that bearing an heir would have caused someone to take notice of her. Surely, she would finally matter.
As her belly grew, she’d spent countless hours talking to the child inside, loving him as she’d always hoped to be loved. She’d been provided a midwife to see her through the process, but really, she was just as alone as she’d always been, only the life growing inside of her to keep her company throughout her days. And that life had made all of the difference to her… for a time.
When the news that she had become pregnant had reached her husband, he’d reluctantly returned home. Again, he had been kind to her during their sparse interactions, but ultimately, she had known that he’d been acting only out of a sense of duty. The rare moments that he’d spent with her had left a grimace on his face, though she had been able to tell that he’d felt bad for his reaction. She hadn’t been able to puzzle him out, at least not until she’d found him late one night near the stables meeting with his lover, a young foreign man that she’d never seen before.
She’d watched shocked as they’d come together, knowing the hefty punishments associated with the act. Her husband could have damned them all with his perversion. He had been guilty of sodomy and Satanism by the Church, and the Church had been the law. Both of those acts had carried a sentence of death. She had begun to worry for the child that she would bring into this trouble, but apparently her absent father-in-law was all too aware of what had been happening despite his distance.
The child had barely screamed his first free breath before he had been torn from Alice’s arms and removed from their lives. Alice’s father-in-law had ignored her desperate pleas and cries for mercy as he’d taken the boy from the room. She’d been too weak to fight, but that hadn’t stopped her from trying. Devastatingly, by the time she’d stumbled down the stairs, blood and afterbirth covering her legs and dressing gown, and leaving a gory path behind her, all she’d been able to do was watch from the open door as the carriage had sped away, her husband listless and drunk as he’d watched on without care.
She’d then spent five years spiraling into a terrible depression. After her son had been taken, her husband had left her again, and life as she had known it had went on around her. She had again become utterly invisible, until one night, one random night, as she’d been walking aimlessly through her gardens and considering ending her life, she’d stumbled upon a woman.
Alice had been terrified by the woman’s appearance as she pushed gracefully through the rose bushes. She’d looked wild, untamed, and there had been an overwhelmingly desirable aura about her, one that only the uninhibited and spirited could attain.
The woman had spoken to her, soothed her, focused on her, and spent most of the night walking with her through the gardens, laughing and challenging Alice in every way that she had always needed. Just before dawn she’d left with the promise that she’d return the next night, and Alice had considered the notion that she may have dreamt this woman up – the conjured apparition of a love-starved mind protecting itself from an inevitable death.
Alice had carried on this way for several months, meeting with her ghost in the gardens to relieve herself of her depression, and it had begun to work. The sun had seemed brighter when it rose, and the dark nowhere near as imposing as it set. She’d grown to love her ghost, a lean figure with soulfully brown eyes, and straight, dark hair that shimmered in the moonlight like spider silk. Everything about her had embodied the very life that Alice had wished to attain for herself, even the ghost’s name: Uta.
One night as they’d strolled through the gardens, Uta had told Alice that she would have to leave and she wouldn’t be back. Alice had become hysterical. She couldn’t have imagined her life without her ghost. Why would her mind be so cruel as to summon up the one thing that she needed only to tear it away when she’d come to rely on it so fully?
Uta had comforted her, but as she’d tried to finally leave, Alice wouldn’t hear of it.
“Take me with you,” she’d said, no more and no less in its simplicity, but the need and longing in her voice had been unmistakable.
Uta had gazed at her sadly, rejecting Alice’s plea with a plaintively cryptic response of her own.
“You know not what you ask of me.”
They’d argued back and forth before Uta had transitioned, giving Alice the first real glimpse of what it would mean to abandon not just her life, but life in general. Alice had been frightened and shocked at first, just as Uta had hoped, but there had been other realizations that would not be stifled.
No matter which way it went, becoming a monster would have been better than living under a monster’s rule, wouldn’t it? Being undead but free would have been better than being a corpse in chains, wouldn’t it?
Uta hadn’t been able to argue with Alice’s reasoning, and if truth had been known, she’d loved Alice. That had probably been the most important aspect of this singular nightmare. For once, someone had chosen Alice, had wanted her, and she’d needed that more than the sun or her next heartbeat.
Uta had taken her then, releasing her from the mortal coil.
Alice had been happy with Uta. The two had spent five years enjoying and loving one another. But Alice’s need to know what had become of her son had been gnawing at her. Uta had argued with her, telling her that her pain would only worsen should she seek out the boy, but Alice had convinced her, and she’d relented.
Alice had crept into large room, walking over to gaze down on the sleeping form of a boy with blond ringlets crowning his cherubic face while his eyelids fluttered in sleep. She’d known that there would be no way for her to take the boy, and Uta had been right – it had been worse to see him and know she couldn’t be his mother than to have just let him go. But she’d longed for him, and a part of her had known that she always would. But she wasn’t mortal anymore. And mortal or immortal, pain and loss are indiscriminate, just like Lilith.
Uta had been one of Lilith’s progenies, the first to turn away from her, to betray her by wanting freedom. And as such, Lilith had been searching high and low for Uta to destroy her. Alice had known this, and even if she had been able to bridge the gap between life and un-life, taking her son and raising him as she’d always intended to, she wouldn’t sentence him to a life lived in shadows, running like vermin. So it was with a heavy heart that Alice had taken the small music box from his bed chamber and left him, never looking back.
She’d spent several centuries relishing Uta’s companionship and love despite the loss of her son. That’s what had made it all the worse when Lilith had eventually found them, destroying Uta and leaving Alice alive to live with the pain of it. Again, she’d had no one. But just as surely as pain is a part of life, and un-life, so is hope.
Alice had found Tina while tracking for Lilith, and while their dynamic was so very different than that of lovers, they’d needed each other, and as time had drawn out, they’d realized that they shared another commonality: Tina wanted me as Alice wanted Lilith.
All of this information flooded through within moments, though it had felt like lifetimes. I snapped my gnarled, melted hand from the flames and Alice released the other as it all started to carefully file away in my mind. She stumbled away from me, disoriented and confused, and I hastened to guzzle down the two pints of blood that were waiting nearby to reverse the incredible pain that was shooting through my arm and brain.
It started to lessen as I watched my hand heal, but part of me knew that I’d never really heal. My mind now had more information with which to damn itself, and part of me was now regrettably sympathetic toward Alice.
I gazed over at her. Her chest was heaving as she stared at me in awe, and I wondered if our antagonism toward one another would change. I couldn’t bring myself to even let Tina in, so I doubted it very much. But oddly enough, while I wanted to strangle Alice most of the time, I had grudgingly come to rely on our steady bantering.
As if to answer my question she inappropriately spoke, as was appropriate to who she was.
“Wow, no wonder you’re such a bitch all of the time…”
I would have laughed, but I couldn’t muster the emotion because I couldn’t sort it out from all of the other emotions inundating me. I finished the last of the blood, not fully sated but at least healed and slightly revitalized. What was I going to do when it was Tina’s turn? At least she was last. London was closer to Bulgaria than America, so Dana would be first, but it was inevitable. It wouldn’t help to put it off, but maybe, hopefully, by that time, I wouldn’t need her so much.
Alice was quiet, which was worrisome, but then she spoke again, which was just irritating.
“Look, Bette, I didn’t know…”
I stood and glared at her.
She swallowed what I was sure was casual venom, making her voice high and grating as she said, “I just wanted to say that I’m sor–”
I glowered at her as I interrupted, “I don’t want your pity. Now leave me alone. You can daywalk now and the sun will be up soon. Go play.”
I waved a dismissive hand at her and she crossed her arms over her chest.
“I’m waiting for Dana if I can help it, but if you want to continue to be an angry bitch, I won’t stop you. You will at least hear me say thank you.”
I smiled tightly. “Fine, I heard you. Now leave.”
She shook her head and left, and I sat by the fire, watching the last of the music box melt into a puddle in the snapping flames. This tiny, innocuous thing that meant so much to Alice lay spent and forgotten to her selfish desire to survive. Nature had determined it to be that way. The most important possession that you owned had to be consumed in flame so that you weren’t.
With startling clarity, I realized that in the end, nothing important survived – neither memory nor possession. Even if the object was destroyed by fire to balance the scales and ensure that its owner wasn’t, it was worse to live without what mattered most. That was what truly balanced the scales – the owner was destroyed one way or another.
But I still envied Alice. At least she’d had something to destroy. And at least she still had the memory of that melody and the person who changed her life, however much it didn’t matter in the face of her desires.
How strange it would be to allow myself to have something like that, and how terrifying it would be to lose it. If anything, I should thank Alice. Her memories, her pain, it gave me the courage to let Tina go. I’d never really had her, but I would learn to squash the hope that one day I might.
We stepped up to the foreboding entrance of what used to be Saint Bernard’s Hospital in London, and I gazed up at the rusted, wrought-iron archway that was twisting over the walkway. Several of the weathered block letters were swinging heavily in the cool spring breeze, and the high-pitched grinding it created may as well have been as loud as a gunshot. It was quiet and dark, and while my stomach wasn’t thrumming with worry over Lilith, it was thrumming for other entirely different reasons.
It could have been because we were exposed in the city. It could have been because I knew what I would be doing here with Dana and how it would affect me emotionally. But deep down, I knew that it was because I wasn’t able to control what was happening inside of me.
It had taken a lot out of me to get through Alice’s memories and sort through all of the emotions that they’d inspired. But for all of my dread, I was almost hopeful to have to face myself again, though it terrified me.
It had taken roughly six months to get to England on foot and traveling only at night while avoiding Lilith’s Loyalists. They were, essentially, everywhere, but we’d made it relatively unscathed by being supremely cautious. All in all, crossing over into the United Kingdom had been mostly easy. I was concerned about the trip overseas to reach Georgia though. We would have no choice but to travel by ship or plane, and either one meant exposure. But for all that I was worried about, the most bothersome was Tina, or more specifically my emotions that revolved around her.
During our travel, our relationship had taken a turn for both the better and the worse. We spoke to each other again, not always just out of necessity, but while I missed her, she seemed to… it was hard to explain.
It was as if she’d grieved this huge loss and moved on. She was still sad sometimes, but she seemed… healthy, in mind and body, and while I wished nothing less for her, I had a hard time seeing it up close and personal. As much as I’d shut that part of myself out, I was equally inclined to be a part of it.
Was it selfish to want to be a part of that, to be a part of her healing and maybe obtain my own? Maybe, but everyone’s selfish in their own right.
I didn’t know how she was able to do it. Sometimes she’d look over at me with such a sad expression that I would feel the blood drain from my limbs. But unlike me, she somehow got through her emotions. She actually processed, and all the while I was stunted, living and moving but never growing.
I wanted to know how. I wanted to be capable, like her. I just wanted to find a way to either truly not care or truly let go of all of the pain and fear that was bound up inside of me. But how could I possibly process it all? How had Tina?
One morning as we hid to rest and wait out the sun, that very question burned on my lips, and I nearly dropped my walls to ask her how, to ask her to show me. But she was resting peacefully; I didn’t have the heart to disturb her, or maybe I was just too much of a coward. So instead, I tentatively reached out to see if her mind was open in sleep. It was, and what I saw there made me wish that I hadn’t.
Her dreams were still as warm as Tina herself, but I didn’t make an appearance, not once. What’s worse was that I had been replaced. The woman of her dreams was faceless with hopeful opportunity, and she was markedly not me. Tina had let me go, and my edginess had settled into a low tremor that threatened to tear me apart at any time.
Even as I gazed up at the opposing gothic architecture that stood for years of violence and pain to someone that I might have called a friend in another life, the heaviness of its haunting quality could never come close to the foreboding that was Tina.
I had checked her dreams many times over the course of the last few months, and a knowing part of me was heavy with the knowledge that she would never dream of me again. My only comfort was that she would be happy if I helped her survive, and I most certainly would.
Dana exhaled as she took the lead, and we all followed her into the dilapidated structure. The doors closed behind us, banging loudly against the echoing acoustics of the once-grand room and sending dust swirling up into the stale air. This room had a long, twisting staircase that crawled up the walls for what seemed like forever, and the main room just beyond it felt like it closed in on us as we entered.
The atmosphere was thick with the remnants of stale cigarettes and regret as we all stood still and took in our surroundings. There were large windows lining the inside of a courtyard on the left side, and the corroded bars that threaded across them gave the room a claustrophobic feeling. It was like stepping into a dark box, or maybe a coffin, despite the natural moonlight that streaked through.
Dana broke the eerie quiet as she strode over to the lopsided record player against the middle sidewall with intense purpose. She reached through the cobwebs to pull out a chipped record and she gazed down on the innocuous object with so much hatred that I thought it might combust.
The atmosphere slowly grew thick as her grip slowly grew tighter before she turned and threw it hard against the far wall. It shattered, and the crashing sound that followed seemed oddly natural in this space when offset by the distant howl of wind. All of Dana’s anger seemed to drain away as she stared at the wall, her shoulders slumped and her breath coming fast.
Alice stepped towards her cautiously.
Dana turned her head and spoke over her shoulder with a broken and dejected voice.
“I’m alright, Al.”
Alice reached her and I felt like a common peeping Tom as I watched her smooth her hand over Dana’s cheek and gaze at her with so much warmth that I’d have sworn someone had lit a fire in the room. I couldn’t help but recall how Tina had touched me that way, looked at me that way… and I glanced over at her.
She had lowered her own eyes to the floor to afford her friends some privacy, and I would have given anything to look into them. She knew that I was looking at her; she had to have known that I needed her, didn’t she? Whatever the answer, she was hidden from me.
For a moment I felt just how confined I was, and it wasn’t the stifling room or the haunting quality of our surroundings; it was me. I considered just lowering my walls, calling out to Tina and hoping that she’d come to me just like Alice had gone to Dana, but I couldn’t.
I just couldn’t.
I looked back over at her friends to see Alice holding Dana so tightly that I almost didn’t see the shudder of Dana’s body as she was overcome with memory. Alice caught my eyes over Dana’s shoulder, and I couldn’t help but be affected. The room closed in a little more and I again looked over at Tina, hoping that she’d offer me something, anything, a reason maybe.
There was nothing… just nothing.
I gazed down at the floor, clenching my fists and considering how to make myself stop, make myself just be what I pretended to be or maybe be better…
How could I be better?
Dana finally pulled back from Alice, and I could tell that she was ready to get this over with and get out of this place, and as we ascended the rickety, swirling staircase that seemed to sway with our weight, I couldn’t help but agree.
The walls on the third floor were mildewed, and I could see the bright pin dots of stars through the thin wisps of clouds that scattered across the midnight sky through the jagged holes in the decayed roof.
Dana led us down several long, peeling corridors and around several bends, no sounds but the pattering of rodents scurrying in the walls as they ran from the echoing of our footsteps.
This place had a chilling, maze-like quality, and it seemed to be living, like one hallway was never the same despite the exactness of the uniform design.
But Dana obviously remembered her way well, and I couldn’t help but be curious as to how she had found herself here. She had to be slightly insane to put up with Alice, but from what I could tell, she seemed as sound as anyone else that had survived life.
We rounded another corner and the sight before me sent a chill up my spine. I wasn’t squeamish, but while I could dish out torture with the best of them, with Lilith no less, I wasn’t a fan of surviving it. This hall was dotted along its immense length with huge metal doors, the cramped rooms within telling the various stories of the occupants that had been held there. Some had dozens of jagged hash marks carved into the walls, others yellowed drawings in charcoal and crayon that appeared to have been done by children, and all with stains that were unmistakably blood and other excrements.
Dana seemed unaffected as she moved with purpose, until she reached the door near the end. It was shut and she moved to push it open, but it was stuck. She increased her force, the metal groaning and denting but still unmoving. She pushed away from it and stepped back, angry at being denied, but in control of herself, at least until that control slipped.
She stepped up again and began to abuse the door, striking at it harder and harder. It bowed and warped with each strike, but something inside must have been barring it shut.
Alice gripped her shoulders and pulled her away, steadying her and again stroking her face to sooth her. Dana tilted her head back and let out an anxious breath before nodding at Alice.
Alice grinned at her before turning and stepping up to take a turn at the door. She gazed at it for a moment and I cocked my head as I tried to puzzle out what it was she was looking for. Dana’s barrage of punishment had caved the middle in, forcing the lip at the top and bottom to point inward towards the hall. She reached up, and I watched in awe as she gripped the lip at the top and pulled hard, peeling the metal down slowly with high pitched squeals and shrieks that set my teeth on edge.
The door lay at her feet like a twisted, metal banana peel and I realized that she’d been holding back on me. If she was that strong, why hadn’t she hurt me when I’d consistently hurt her? I glanced at Tina, somehow knowing the answer.
Everyone disappeared into the hole she’d created and I shook off my thoughts so that I could focus.
The door had been barred from the inside by a large metal beam that had fallen down from the roof to lay diagonally over the openening. I ducked down under the beam as I entered to find that the inside was charred and withered, great chunks of wall burned off of most of the lower portions and the ceiling missing almost in its entirety. What was still intact was covered with sticky, black soot, and the floor was so thick with ash that it almost felt like stepping in mud.
Translucent particles swirled around in the beams of silver moonlight that streaked in from the missing ceiling and tickled my nose as we moved around.
Dana went straight to the wire bedframe and picked it up to set it on its side before she frantically stuffed her fingers into the bottom of one of the support legs. More and more fingers followed into the hole until it was nearly filled, only to come back out dirty but empty. She let out a bellow and swung her leg at the frame, kicking it so hard that it slammed into the destroyed wall with a resounding crash. The room was quiet and still, even the ash motes had frozen on the air as nothing but the reverberations of loss and creaking springs rattled throughout the cramped space.
She turned to us and her voice was small as she said, “It’s gone…”
I looked around. It was apparent that this room had been burned. A thought struck me, and while I couldn’t figure out why I cared enough to consider another option, I didn’t realize that I’d voiced it until it was too late.
She sighed as she looked up at me.
“Listen, I’m not sure if it will work, but if it was destroyed in the fire…” I shrugged. “We could still try.”
I frowned as I realized what I’d just said, what I’d just done. Why hadn’t I just given up? Dana had been ready to as she shook her head dejectedly, but Alice stepped in for her.
“It’s worth a try, Dane.”
She looked around the room for a moment before lifting her hands and letting them fall to her sides with a listless slap.
I caught Tina out of the corner of my eye and turned to look at her. She was gazing at me with a curious frown, and I couldn’t help the matching one that pulled down on my lips. Had I done something else wrong or let her down again?
No, I didn’t think so. Her eyes were kind, but I had no way of knowing if that was directed at me, or just the dominant part of her coming through.
She snapped out of it, took a step forward, reached into the satchel on Alice’s back, and pulled out the large bottle of blood we’d gathered a couple of hours earlier. She then reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a flip lighter.
She brought them to me and I took them from her with a weary, “Thanks.”
She gazed up at me again, one of her delicate eyebrows arched, and for a moment I wanted to reach up and trail the line of it with my finger.
For a moment, I almost allowed myself to try it, but I stepped away from her instead, feeling out of place and like I didn’t belong here, like didn’t belong next to her.
She took a deep breath and turned her head to look at Alice.
“Let’s leave them to it.”
I could tell that Alice wanted to argue, but she couldn’t. This was personal, between Dana and me and this… place, and Alice knew that. Tina walked past me to the door and put her hand on the fallen beam, turning again to beckon a reluctant Alice.
Alice kissed Dana sweetly on the lips and I diverted my eyes from the intimacy of it. Tina did the same and we’d unwittingly turned in the same direction.
This time, my emotions weren’t as strong, and I didn’t need her to reach out to me as much as I’d had in the foyer, but it almost felt better this way. I could see her – connect with her – without being so desperate for her to throw me a life preserver.
She gave me only a moment of her attention, or maybe a lifetime, before Alice stepped up next to her and they were gone. I still felt lonely, devoid, but something was different inside of me, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to.
Dana and I followed them out and I watched them leave down the hallway before setting our supplies on the floor and nodding to the beam.
“We’ll need to move it. We need to catch the whole room on fire if any piece of it’s in there, and I don’t relish the idea of being trapped inside by a beam if it roars out of control.”
She didn’t hesitate to squat down and wedge herself under the lower portion of the beam as I pushed from the top. It took several grunting efforts, but we got it shifted to the floor without disturbing much of the ash.
If the item had burned here, the remnants of it could be anywhere in the mess, and if we were going to try this, I wanted to get as much of it in the fire as possible. I hoped that it wouldn’t be for nothing.
We both dusted our hands off, and I picked up the lighter that Tina had given me before stepping back into the room. I wondered if this would work. Most of the more flammable items had already been destroyed and the ash might stifle the flames.
I looked back to Dana. “We’re going to need an accelerant.”
We both looked around the wreckage before Dana got an idea and left the room. She was back moments later with a cotton mattress from one of the other rooms. She walked it in and stepped over the beam, her foot crunching on something as she moved. Setting the mattress down carefully towards the center of the small space, she walked back to her footprint. There, in the downy layer of compressed, gray ash, was a small piece of something gold.
She knelt down, lifted it from the floor, and dusted it off. It appeared to be the remnant of a bracelet chain.
She closed her hand around it tightly, ash sifting through her fingers as she shut her eyes and whispered to herself, “They must have shut her up in here and burned her.”
I frowned. “Who…?”
She didn’t answer, choosing instead to sift through the ashes at her feet. As she dug, the underlying layers revealed a few teeth and bits of bone. She held them, staring at them with the clarity of someone trying to forget what she’d just seen so that she could hold onto the possibility of the unknown. But it didn’t work.
She laid what was left of the person back in the ashes along with the bracelet, and I had to ask, “Was that what you were looking for?”
She shook her head. “No, that was something special to someone else.”
She didn’t say another word as she went back to the mattress and worked with focused purpose. I could see the sheen of tears in her eyes, but during my time with her, I’d come to realize that she wasn’t the sort to whine or become overly emotional. She felt things, and she felt them fully, but they were handled appropriately and swiftly. It was something that I was coming to respect about her.
She finished pulling the yellowed stuffing from inside of the old mattress and fluffing it in a pile in the middle, and an idea struck me. I opened the lighter and pulled up on flint and tinder to see that roughly an ounce of fluid was in the bottom. I separated the top from the fluid to find the bottom of the wick fully soaked. I smiled. It wasn’t much, but it would help to spread the fire and we’d have just enough still to light it.
I took the meager accelerant and started drizzling thin lines from the center of the mattress to the corners of the room.
“I heard you ask for accelerant from the foyer, and found this in the kitchen.”
I turned toward Tina to see her holding an old bottle of mineral spirits and I smiled as I put the lighter back together and took her find from her hand.
Again I said, “Thanks.”
She seemed like she wanted to return my smile but it was more of a grimace as she gestured to the grungy bottle in my hand.
“I don’t know why they were keeping it in the kitchen, but…”
That thought made my stomach roil with shame and I looked around me. These people, whatever they’d been through at the hands of the monsters around them, they didn’t deserve this. As much as I hated humans, well, these were different. Being simple made you innocent, like a child. It struck me then that I wasn’t innocent. I’d force fed many a similar item down a human’s throat in my time as a monster of my own making, and I had enjoyed myself. No, they didn’t deserve this, but I did.
I saw Tina’s hand snake forward just a fraction before it stopped and rerouted. She tucked both in her pockets with deliberate care and spoke.
“Alright then, I’ll be with Alice downstairs.”
She was gone quicker than that part of me that missed her could silently protest, and I swallowed everything that I was feeling, deciding to instead delight in the harmless destruction that was about to follow. Maybe if I burned Dana’s memories, burned something that was a monument to pain and the monsters who’d caused it, some of my shame and regret would burn with it.
Dana stepped out into the hallway and I pulled up the stopper on the end of the mineral spirits. I started slinging the contents around the room. The odor was strong and musky; it certainly smelled flammable, and I couldn’t wait to meet the flames. I was angry, at everything really, but mostly at myself. I needed something to distract me.
I slung one more time and stopped as the bottle was nearly empty. I knelt next to the mattress and collected one of the shredded fragments left by Dana’s work, stuffing it into the opening at the top of the bottle. I turned it over and let what remained of the spirits soak through the cloth before standing and meeting Dana in the doorway.
Dana exhaled heavily and I decided to take one final precaution.
“This item, what is it,” I asked.
She smiled sadly. “A locket with a letter from my grandmother in it.”
I nodded and took it a step further. “And if you could give it to me freely, would you?”
She looked over at me, her brows furrowed before she nodded.
“Don’t hate her, but Alice told me what she saw.”
I tilted my head back and groaned, and she chuckled before reaching up to touch my arm. I looked down at her hand, and for some reason, I had no desire to shrug her loose, though it still felt odd.
Her eyes were kind by slightly smug as she said, “For all that I did to fuck it up, I have some excellent memories. I would give you my most cherished keepsake just so you could know how it feels to have something special, something your own, something to lose…”
I wasn’t sure how to process what she was saying. And she must have realized that I would have no rejoinder because she had no expectations as she squeezed my arm and pulled her hand away. I contemplated her for a long moment, something tugging at my guts as her sentiment clattered around in my skull.
Her voice was low and sullen as it broke through my clouded mind.
“I think it’s time.”
I glanced at her before I held the makeshift Molotov out and opened the lighter.
“We’ll need to make this quick, Dana.”
She blew out an anxious breath and nodded once, and I flicked the flint, a small flame coming to life. I touched it to the cloth and watched as the flame crawled up its length before chucking the item hard at the floor near the foot of the mattress. The bottle shattered in a roar of flame that was centralized at first, and I began to wonder if it would work. But as it slowly began to build, I looked over at Dana to see her smile knowingly.
I faced the flames that had begun to consume the room until they were angrily licking out at the oxygen in the hallway. I rolled my sleeves up quickly and offered her my wrist. Unlike Alice, she bit into my flesh easily and I didn’t hesitate to say the words that would start the process.
“Illic est tantum obscurum. Commodo recipero is vitualamen quod reset pondera.”
I closed my eyes as I thrust my other hand into the inferno. Searing pain shot through my nerves as they melted in the intense heat, but nothing else happened. I focused in as I waited, ready to pull my hand away but for some reason unwilling to. If nothing else, I wouldn’t be deterred. I was too stubborn to lose.
Nothing happened except for continued, blinding pain, but I just couldn’t quit trying. I held myself in the flame, realizing that my hope wasn’t for Dana, but for me. I wanted this pain to be some sort of recompense for my transgressions, but as parts of the room started to collapse, I realized that we were running out of time. That’s when the first of Dana’s memories started to trickle through.
Dana had been born in Boston Massachusetts in the early 1900s to a wealthy family of English descent, and she had learned early on how to recognize her advanced social station. She had been snotty, rich, and bred to be as such. She had treated her servants like dogs, and berated those she’d considered to be beneath her for no other reason than because she’d wanted to be malicious. But despite her belief that she was perfect, there had been a flaw in her that no one had anticipated: she’d been a lesbian from the time of conception.
She’d known it early, though she hadn’t realized what it had meant. How could she have? It wasn’t something seen and imitated like the casual cruelty that her family had indoctrinated her with, and it hadn’t been a problem until puberty.
One summer, she and a friend had been horseback riding at her grandmother’s estate in England. As they’d changed clothes in the stables, she’d had the impulse to kiss her friend, and so she did. Dana’s mother and father had been outraged when they’d found out, but her grandmother had stepped in to take Dana under her care and protect her. Her father had protested, but when threatened with the remainder of his inheritance, a large sum of money in bonds, he’d acquiesced.
Her grandmother, while married into money, hadn’t always been rich. She had married for love, and while her husband had died of an early heart-attack, she had known what it meant to be a servant, to be poor, and to be treated as such. She’d spent her time with Dana educating her and instilling kindness when possible, but Dana hadn’t wanted to change.
Instead, she’d begun to closet her feelings and lash out, believing that it was her right as someone of means to have anything that she’d wanted. She hadn’t been able to understand why. Everything else had been given to her on a whim, but this, this had been denied. And even when the stock market had collapsed and her grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, even when she’d lost those means, she’d still retained the feelings of undue injustice.
Her grandmother had been watching this happen, but she had been unable to help Dana see it for herself. She’d continued to try until she’d died, leaving Dana an heirloom: a locket, the letter inside written in the hopes that she’d be able to reach Dana from beyond the grave. But Dana had only grown colder to the world around her and the people in.
She’d moved back to America to find her family ruined. Her father had insisted that she marry someone wealthy and save them all from the depravity of destitution. And while she’d been repulsed by the idea, she’d wanted her lavish lifestyle more. So she’d found a wealthy man, seduced him, lied about being pregnant, and married him to secure this wealth.
They were married only three years, and during that time, Dana had grown more and more angry at the world, taking it out on her husband with a depth of malevolence few could imagine, and it only became worse when she’d met someone like her: a woman.
She hadn’t loved her, but she’d never expressed her desires carnally before, and the woman had excited her.
Like any affair, it had begun casually and then burned out of control. She hadn’t meant to kiss her mistress so desperately when she’d arrived at the door that afternoon, let alone fumble with her mistress’s clothes as she’d pulled her into the parlor, but it was too late to be cautious by the time that her husband had come home early from work.
The site that had welcomed him angered and embarrassed him beyond measure. He’d banished the other woman and argued with Dana long into the night. He had been truly convinced that she was sick, and as her husband, he would get her the best treatment possible.
Dana had thought that he’d meant counseling or sleeping together more frequently, which was fine. She’d had no qualms about prostituting her body to him, but she hadn’t dreamt that he’d meant to institutionalize her. She had been shocked when a therapist and two orderlies had shown up at her door two days later to drag her away from her home.
Time had passed imperceptibly and Dana’s treatments hadn’t helped. The electroshock therapy had made it impossible for her to focus enough to lie during her counseling sessions, and the transference methods that had been employed were barbaric to say the least – attempting to condition her with negative stimulation while showing her pornographic images of women.
Her ability to lie her way out had been stripped away by barbiturates, her family had abandoned her, her social status had plummeted, and she’d been living in a drug-induced haze. All of these things had only furthered her cruel nature as her mind started to fail her, but then her body had started to fail her as well.
By the time that she was twenty-four, the same breast cancer that had stolen her grandmother had begun to ravage her system. Her hair and teeth had started falling out; she had been sick all of the time, and in an effort to save her, the doctors had taken both of her breasts, most of the muscle in her chest, and even her lymph nodes. She had then been left to wait for death, disfigured and sedated, and she had welcomed the thought of dying during her more lucid moments.
A pagan girl had started to come and visit Dana, stating that she was the only other person that wasn’t crazy. At first, Dana had shunned her for her radical appearance – strange Celtic tattoos and a freshly shaven head as her catholic penance. Dana had wanted nothing to do with her. Even dying and disfigured and a lesbian, she had still believed herself to be so much better than those around her, especially this freak.
But the freak had been inexplicably determined and, within two years, she’d managed to help Dana see beyond herself just a little bit, and she’d done so with a locket.
She’d presented it to Dana with a knowing smile, and Dana couldn’t even remember the life that it had represented. It had all felt like a dream.
She had no choice but to speak to her freak, asking simply, “How…?”
The freak had explained that she’d gone searching for her bracelet and stumbled upon it. From then on, the girl took Dana everywhere with her, and while Dana only tolerated her, the girl had confided in Dana. Dana wouldn’t have believed her story that she could move things with her mind if she hadn’t seen her do it for herself. Though the drugs had limited her abilities, she was special, and Dana had been forced to look at her in a new light, though still not as an equal.
Despite her sickness, it had been better for Dana for a time. But as life is wont to do, it frowns upon complacency, however moderate.
A new headmistress had been given reign over the asylum, and things had begun to decline even further. Meant to hold no more than 560 patients, within her three years there, more than 1400 had been admitted.
The deranged had begun to roam the halls at all hours. It hadn’t been unusual to find them masturbating and fucking in the hallway or staring into space for hours on end as others twitched and ambled by. Bathing had become a thing of the past, many defecated where they chose, and all the while the fewer and fewer numbers of orderlies had begun to beat and abuse the most docile of their charges for seemingly no reason.
The smell had been that of living death, and the circumstances had begun to further deteriorate Dana’s health. To make things worse, the new headmistress had ordered a popular children’s song, “The Wedding of the Painted doll,” to be played on repeat in the common room. It had been meant to soothe, but it had only furthered the sense of insanity that had begun to pervade Dana’s very soul.
Time had begun to bleed together and Dana had reached her end. She had told her freak where she’d hidden the locket, but before she could retrieve it, something incredible had happened. The chaos around them had somehow shifted into a nightmare as the headmistress and several other nuns had swept through the halls, eyes black and teeth flashing as they’d tore into the demented population without thought, regard, or fear of anonymity.
Her friend had tried to bar the door as the black and white army descended, and she had even used her mind to fling some of them away, but they had been lucid, faster, and stronger. Dana had been left with no choice but to watch helplessly as they descended on the room. The last thing that she’d seen had been the devilish eyes of the headmistress before shock and disease had whisked her away soul first.
She’d awoken to in a dark hollow, the smell of fresh air and the realization of freedom stirring in her bitter soul. To her amazement, her health had been restored, but for all that the transitioning had healed, some things had been beyond even an immortal grasp. There were no scars, but the strange caves along her torso were still evidence of the butchering that her tormentors had visited upon her. And her mind… there was no healing to be had.
Alice had been there with Dana when she’s awakened, and she’d tried to reason with Dana, but Dana hadn’t wanted to live that way; she hadn’t wanted to live at all. She had been counting on death. She had demanded that Alice end her life, but Alice wouldn’t or couldn’t. She’d understood Dana’s pain, but there had been something about the brunette that had called out to her, just as it had when she and Tina had saved her from the Loyalists running the asylum.
Unwilling to live, unwilling to change, Dana had left Alice and Tina, and spent years hating herself, hating life, and existing as a shadow.
One night, as she’d sought for a place to sleep near the embankment by Charing Cross Station, she’d come across an old, haggard woman who had been selling photos from a small camera stand.
Dana had kept walking as the woman pitched her sale, wholly uninterested until the woman had blurted, “I can tell yer a kind soul. Please…”
Dana hadn’t stopped, but the words had struck a chord in her. And as time had passed, she had begun to notice things around her. More importantly, she had begun to feel compassion.
At first she had tried to outrun her feelings, making her way through Italy and Spain, but desperation seemed to be universal; there had been nowhere to hide from it. One night, instead ignoring the pleas around her, she’d stopped and tried something new: she’d helped.
She’d continued this way, moving around and helping when it was needed, and as such, she’d begun to feel better about herself, and as that feeling had grown so had her hope.
By the mid-1940s, she’d become better than her memories, and had decided to just stop – stop hating, stop hurting, stop wallowing, and stop living in the past.
She’d set herself free with nothing but determination, and it had only felt natural for her to seek out her maker. She’d eventually found Tina and Alice in Prague looking for Lilith and joined them in the search. They’d spent years together, and while they had never caught up to Lilith, Dana had found more than friendship in Alice; she’d found a confidant, a companion, and a lover.
Alice had still struggled with letting go over her own past, but Dana had been constant, consistent, and steady, as was in the strength of her will. She’d determined that she wouldn’t give up. She’d determined that she was more than a survivor; she was a fighter.
I snapped my eyes open as I pulled my nearly destroyed hand from the fire. Dana was disoriented, but it quickly faded as three entirely urgent dilemmas came into foggy focus: my hand… it may have been beyond repair. The fire was uncontrollable, and Lilith… Lilith was there. I could feel it in my guts, but I was too paralyzed in my thoughts to take action.
Dana, Alice, and Tina converged on me, but it all seemed as if it was happening in slow motion as my mind began to weave a tapestry of the fraying threads that had lingered inside for so long. There were far too many of them to recount them all, but two stood out: Tina had come close to finding me, but Lilith was always a step ahead of her, as if… as if she had known that Tina was coming. But, more than that, I was realizing that I had bound far too much of myself up in my pain, and far too much of my hope up in Tina.
I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing at the time to know it, but I couldn’t help but allow it to finally sink in. I’d turned to anything but my own will to make myself who I wanted to be. I had kept waiting for Tina to save me, only to just roll over when she didn’t. No, no she couldn’t.
After all that I’d seen, I just couldn’t deny that anymore. She’d tried where I hadn’t. There was just nothing she could do to fix me – but I could. I had to fix myself or I’d never have anything that was worthwhile.
Freedom, choices – all of the circumstances that I’d been so fully denied access to, had been denied by my own will.
People, pain – all of the individuals that I saw as a faceless mass, I’d turned all of my power over to them by my own will.
Emotions – all of the different pendulums that I couldn’t stop from tearing into me, I had tied myself beneath them by my own will.
I’d blamed everything and everyone but myself, and I’d expected to just walk away unscathed. It didn’t work that way. If it did, then I’d have been saved. Tina had tried, tried with all that she had to pull me up out of it, to help me, to save me, but she couldn’t.
Only I could.
I was still here.
I was strong, stronger than my circumstances, wasn’t I?
I looked over at Dana as she grabbed the blood from the floor and took Alice’s hand, her movements fluid, as if she were underwater. Her eyes were wide with fright and her mouth was moving to shout something that I couldn’t hear over the ringing in my ears. And even as I registered that Lilith was rounding the corner in the distance with my eyes, all I could do was consider that if Dana had saved herself, couldn’t I?
Tina shook me, screaming in my face, but I couldn’t move or think. I loved her… but more than that, I felt it…
It was there, burning hotter and brighter than the fire threatening to consume my unstable surroundings. She was gorgeous, even terrified, but she was warm and present and alive, so alive; I was alive. What was I waiting for? I could have everything that I wanted. It was right in front of me; I’d been staying alive – kicking and screaming, blood boiling and streaming, and it was all for this moment.
The worst could be over…
I could do this. I could be worthy of her…
“Bette, get up! Fuck!”
The words finally penetrated my moment of intense clarity and I was able to take Tina’s hand and stagger to my feet. I looked over at Lilith who had stopped, lifting a fist to halt Shane and another Loyalist behind her as she bored into me with her pale-blue eyes. And while I’d been dreading this moment, working myself up into a frenzy over what it would mean and what it could do to me, I was surprisingly delighted to feel nothing but pity.
Whatever had happened to her to make her that way, whatever it was inside of her that had caused her to bind herself up in anger and distrust and cruelty, whatever it was in her that was desperate enough to save a slave and try to make them like her, it wouldn’t be a part of me any longer.
I was free, for the first time… truly free… and while I felt entirely exhausted, I felt invincible.
Lilith’s words were a shocked murmur as Tina began to pull me in the opposite direction.
But I’d heard them, just as I’d heard the screeching wail of sirens in the distance – “What have you done?”
What had I done? I’d betrayed her in exactly the same way that she’d betrayed me. I’d taken the only real gift she’d ever given me and passed it on. I’d freed myself, and despite the anger that I could see clenching in her fists and jaw as she screamed in frustration and threw herself into the task of capturing us, I felt like I could finally forget my head and listen to my heart. I felt like I could sing with rapture and dance like a dervish, and nothing was going to stop me.
The flames licked at our heels as the floor started to break apart and give way. Before I knew it Tina wasn’t pulling me, I was pulling her as I pressed Alice and Dana forward. I felt the floor crumple and knew that we wouldn’t make it. I picked Tina up in my arms to throw her to safer ground as it gave out, and I was sucked under into a pit of embers and debris.
I heard Tina scream my name as I gripped the jagged edge of a metal support to halt my downward motion. Lilith and her Loyalists tumbled into the hole and I watched as two them fell through the floor beneath, but Lilith’s grasping hands had found purchase on my leg and she was gazing up at me with frenzied anger. She gripped tighter, and I felt my bone snap like a pencil between her fingers.
The beam I had caught was scalding and my other hand was too damaged to help me climb.
I knew three things: I wouldn’t make it, my death wouldn’t be in vain if I took Lilith with me, and I loved Tina.
I looked up to see Tina’s face peering down at me like an angel in the clouds reaching into hell itself to save someone waiting on the precipice.
I could tell she was struggling against Alice and Dana’s attempts to pull her away, and it angered me. She needed to leave me here. She needed to know that I was okay, that all of her hard work had paid off, even if it was the end.
I didn’t hesitate to open my mind to her, to let her see the joy that was burning inside of me even as Lilith jolted me to pull us down and my grip on the support started to slip. The flesh of my burned hand was glued to the beam but starting to tear, and as Lilith jarred me again, I knew that I would end this now. Lilith had no intention of climbing up over me, only taking me down with her.
Tears were in Tina’s eyes as she gazed at me, her own walls crumbling to let me know that she wouldn’t let me go, especially not now. I slipped a little further and reached my other hand up to her. She bent over the edge, nearly falling in, but she had help to hold her steady, and I grinned as I realized that she always would, even if it wasn’t me.
She managed to clasp my wrist and my pain doubled, but it was worth it just to feel her touch one last time, even as her fingers slipped on my bloodied extremity and I was sucked down in a torrent of dust, metal, charcoal, and ember.
I took her face and her touch with me as I fell, and watched helplessly as the rest of the building above caved in on top of me, plunging the world into fiery darkness.
I added another log to the fire in the circle of stones that I’d built, and gazed out over the rippling stream in front of me as I cleared away the light dusting of snow and settled down into what used to be my usual spot.
It was a lifetime ago when I’d done this last, but oddly enough, as I gazed out at the tree-line beyond, I had no desire to run. I still had no idea where that home that Tina had told me about so long ago actually was, but I knew that wherever I found it, it would be because I was ready.
It would be a lie if I said that it wasn’t surreal to be back in this place – my place, Tina’s place, our place… beneath the worn and withered trunk of a dead magnolia tree. But I couldn’t lie, not to me or anyone else anymore.
I had feelings – most were terrible and all were great in magnitude, but ultimately, I understood myself so much better. I finally knew who I was and who I wanted to be. A lot had happened to get me here, and I’d had to fight the desire to give up many times along the way, but I had been determined. I had a reason: I wanted to; I chose to, and I had the freedom to.
Who’d have known that I could say that and it be true? Certainly not me. But it was true. Roughly fourteen months ago, I’d fallen to what I had thought would be my death, and of course, it was just when I’d figured out what it meant to live. But while life is cruel and ironic sometimes, it had been kind to me that night. I hadn’t died; I’d lived. More importantly, I had wanted to live.
Tina, Dana, and Alice had pulled me and Shane from the building, just barely able to escape with us before it had been engulfed in flames. They hadn’t seen Lilith, but she had fallen into the flame soaked rubble first, and there just hadn’t been time to confirm her death. So they’d just taken us and run.
Frantic to save us but not wanting to decimate the locals, Tina had found a blood-bank and broke in. It was there that she had worked tirelessly over us to be sure that we’d received as much blood into our systems as was available. We had needed more, and we’d looked a fright, but our condition had begun to vastly improve with the constant infusions. And the staff that had stumbled upon us the next day had been very helpful once compelled.
We’d hidden for several months unsure if Lilith had survived, before we’d slowly and cautiously made our way to Georgia. Shane had left us to go back to the Loyalists and hopefully find out that Lilith was dead. If nothing else, someone on the inside would be extremely useful. So Dana had made her a daywalker and we’d left her in Heathrow before boarding planes in different directions and hoping that it would all be over soon.
After we’d landed, I’d fed as much as possible to get my strength back as we’d wound our way to the Kennard plantation. But we hadn’t harmed anyone, and it had become gratifying to know that I wasn’t just doing what someone else had wanted of me, or seeking someone else’s approval; I was finally doing things entirely on my own terms.
I gazed into the fire before looking down at my hand and flexing it. After we’d healed the worst of the damage, my hand had stopped progressing as well as the rest of me. It had taken months of feedings, consistent ones that left me so full that my stomach sloshed as my muscles tried to absorb it all. But the overabundance had helped.
Only a few splotches that were still trying to mend on my thumb and knuckles remained. This night I would use my other hand for the ritual, but that’s not what had me so anxious. This night I would make Tina a daywalker; I would look into her soul and she would look into mine.
It was strange, both the idea that I had a soul and the fact that I was changing so vastly and so quickly. The darkest parts of me had always been more dominant, and it was that dominance that had made me so emotionally distraught, especially when it had come to Tina. Those parts of me had known that they were dying, and they had fought valiantly to keep their control, but they were becoming overwhelmed by the better parts of me, drowning in emotions that I had always thought were beyond my reach.
My anxiousness was no longer fear of loving Tina or my tenacity in pushing that love away. I was past that. I knew that I was in love with Tina, and I accepted it; I even embraced it, but I didn’t want her to see who I was at the core yet.
She’d really see me. I knew that she’d never hate me, but being friends wasn’t enough for me. No, what I wanted was to become the kind of person that would be worthy of her, and the only way to do that was to focus on myself.
So that’s what I’d been doing for the last fourteen months. While healing physically, I had begun to confront my emotions, determining that the only way to be rid of the mountain of guilt, remorse, and agony that I’d buried myself in was to chip away at it one stone at a time.
And that would have to happen before I made any attempt at being with Tina. I was impatient, but the better part of me knew that if I was going to do this, I had to do it right. And the better part of me was dominating all other parts. I would do things right because that’s what I wanted, and what I had been fighting for. And it had been a fight of epic proportions.
During our travels, I’d cried, screamed, and even cursed the sky many times over. It had been as cleansing as I had known it would be, but as time drew out and I kept regurgitating all of the problems that I had been facing, they never really left, not completely. And I had begun to wonder if they would.
Don’t misunderstand, the darker parts of me were receding, the mountain more of a hill with each stone carved away, but a part of me knew that even as my darkness was crowded by light, it would always be there.
There are some things you never get over, you just get through. And while I had been getting through it, slowly but surely, I had to accept that my struggle would survive as long as I lived.
And I did live.
I found that I was enjoying life more by living it without fear that I’d lose it. And I found that I often took a perverse joy in Tina’s dreams. I had known that I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help myself. I had been displeased to find that the faceless woman was still there where I should have been, even as Tina and I had begun to repair so much of our relationship. But the more that I began to interact with Tina, the more that I had let my barriers down to let her in, the more the faceless woman had begun to subtly look like me again.
It was almost as if the more that I had begun to discover myself, the more that Tina had begun to discover me as well. And as such, I had begun to gauge my progress on Tina’s dream woman. She was still faceless, but recently her skin had become bronze, and she had dark hair that curled loosely over her broad shoulders. She was tall and strong, transforming every day in parallel to my own progress, and I had begun to see myself in a different light, perhaps even as Tina had begun to see me.
Maybe, just maybe, this woman was me, but the me that was transitioning so much that I didn’t have an identity yet. Maybe Tina knew it.
Why not hope or dream that it was possible?
It had strengthened my determination because if Tina could believe in me, there was nothing that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish, and I chose to believe that she did.
It was evident in everything about Tina: the way that she’d laugh at something that I’d say and it would reach her eyes, or touch me in some wholly innocuous way as we’d play chess; it was in the way she had taken care of me, nursed me, and worried over me.
And while she still hadn’t given me full access to her thoughts, I had begun to trust in her. I couldn’t blame her for keeping me out because it didn’t mean that I had been banished or that she’d given up on me. She had just been guarding her heart. And while it still hurt, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
If Tina had been insistent or impatient with me, I wouldn’t have had the will to work on myself first, and I had to. I needed to be worthy of her. I needed to know that it was real, and right, and good before I got swept up in her. And I needed to know what would happen.
After tonight, after she became a daywalker, we would either go our separate ways, or we’d stay together.
Either way, I would know.
She needed to choose me over everything else, just as I was choosing her. And if she didn’t, I had to be prepared to be strong and let her go, just as she had done for me that night in the stronghold. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t afraid. That was something else that I was coming to terms with: it was okay to be afraid; it was just more important to be hopeful.
I heard the snapping of a twig and looked up to see Tina approaching. Her head was down, soft wisps of blonde hair floating up against the black, gray sky and a wet sheen on her eyes.
My guts churned for her and what she’d just gone through, what I’d put her through. Of course her item would be with her daughters, her twins, two beautiful girls who’d met a violent, abrupt, and tragic end.
An unbidden thought bloomed to life in my mind, and I considered what it would be like to have a family with her, to see two beautiful girls just like her and know that they were ours, for our circumstances to have been so different.
The newer and stronger part of me ached for it, even as it ached for what I’d stolen from her that night. I should have tried harder; I should have done better. And while I couldn’t go back and fix the damage that I’d done, I would do anything to make it better, and only because better was as good as it could get. I could never make it right.
I stood as she approached me, wiping my hands on my thighs nervously. Her arms were listless at her sides with an empty defeat, and the first edition book in her hands was loose in her grip as she held it out to me.
She didn’t look at me, and my anxiousness at her reaction to these old memories doubled. I felt that I was going to lose her before I’d even had her, and while I knew that was a great possibility, even deserved, I just wasn’t ready. The grief of loss still on my shoulders was already enough without losing Tina too… without losing her again.
I accepted the book and she tucked her hands in her pockets. I looked down at the book in my hands with a sad smile. Of course it would be Jane Eyre. I opened the cover and a letter tumbled out. I bent to retrieve it but Tina had beaten me to it. She held it in shaking hands as she gazed down on it, and unlike the ritual with Alice, I realized that it wasn’t petty to care about something or to have sentiment. It took heart to be weak and vulnerable. And to destroy a piece of that heart took immense strength.
“I wish there was another way…,” is all that I could say.
She shook her head and wiped at her face.
“No. Losing the book or even this…” She held up the scrap of paper before setting it back inside the cover. “It’s nothing really. I just… I miss them. As much as I’ve moved on, I always will.”
I meant it as I said it. “I would give anything, Tina…”
I took a step to voluntarily open myself to her and she finally looked up at me, only to again divert her eyes.
“I know. I forgave you for that a long time ago.”
I frowned, almost insistent that she scream and berate me.
“How? Why? I don’t deserve that, Tina…”
She exhaled heavily. “I learned a long time ago that forgiveness has nothing to do with the person being forgiven. It’s like taking a poison and then expecting them to die. If you don’t forgive you become resentful and cynical, and that’s just not who I want to be.”
She was the most amazing person that I’d ever know and I was struck by just how lucky I was to have her in my life.
Life… not just existence, not anymore…
I wouldn’t have thought it possible to love her more, but I did. Somehow, I was expanding. I could finally hold some of her, and I was hopeful that I’d one day be able to hold all of her.
She took my still mending hand gently in her smaller ones, running a thumb over one of the more stubborn injuries. It stung, but the touch was feather-light as it played over my knuckles, and left a pleasurable trail of gooseflesh behind it.
Her voice was soft on the slight winter breeze. “Are you sure you should do this?”
I gazed at our linked hands, reveling in the tenderness of her touch and the contrast of our skin: mine dark, hers light. We balanced each other.
I couldn’t help but smile as I made a mental note to apply that theory to other aspects of our relationship. I turned my hand to grasp hers and brought it to my lips, speaking close to the skin to prolong the contact.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine, Tina.”
I kissed the hand reverently and she sighed.
“Thank you for doing this, Bette.”
I shook my head and smiled at her. How little this was in the grand scheme of what I owed her, but for once I had something to offer her, and it felt good.
I closed the cover of the book on the letter and tugged her over to the fire to kneel beside it. I couldn’t bring myself to toss the book in, but I managed to reluctantly place it in the flames. They snapped at the offering and I took off my jacket to roll up my shirt sleeves.
I looked over at her. She was staring at her hands as they fidgeted in her lap, but I couldn’t see her face. I reached over and threaded my fingers through her hair to brush it over her shoulder and saw the quirk of a sad smile at the corner of her mouth.
It was a ridiculous attempt, but I was desperate to lighten her mood.
I held my wrist out to her and said, “Listen, I know being a vampyr really sucks…”
She gazed up at me incredulously before she tilted her head back and laughed. The throaty sound of it melted some of my own anxiety away, and I smiled as I watched her. She took my wrist in her hands, the smile permanently etched on her porcelain features as she kissed my wrist sweetly.
I closed my eyes against the intimacy of it and then her fangs snapped forward to bite in gently.
I felt the rush of blood start to collect in her mouth and had to swallow to speak.
“Illic est tantum obscurum. Commodo recipero is vitualamen quod reset pondera.”
I shook my other hand anxiously, as if to prepare it, before thrusting it into the fire. My heart lurched as not just her memories, but all of the emotions tied to them began to flood through me. Apparently, our connection would make this ritual something new, slightly incredible, and excruciating. I knew a little of what to expect from my time gazing into her mind, but as much as I knew of her story, there were some things that I wasn’t prepared for, and I was even less prepared to feel them so fully.
Her parents had done little with her as a child, choosing objects over affection. They’d left her mostly to herself while keeping a close watch on her every move.
Her childhood had been stifling; her imagination had been shut down at every turn because it had been considered nonsense, and playing just wasn’t refined or ladylike. She’d been little more than an ornament, something sat in a corner to be seen but not heard. She’d had no friends but those she could conjure up, and I felt every ounce of loneliness that had enveloped her.
It was her summers in England with her aunt that had given her the freedom to discover herself, and the direction to really embrace her individuality, her spirit, and her strength. The two had loved each other so immensely that I thought I might break apart as she shared it with me. Her sun had risen and set on the kindly spinster, and the adoration between them was overwhelming.
After she’d learned how to read, her life had been filled with books to circumvent her loneliness, and I felt just how much alike we were in that regard; especially when one summer day she’d met a girl, a slave, and found a reluctant friend. But it was so much more than that.
I’d believed Tina when she’d said that she loved me, but as I felt it, really felt it, I wanted to scream at myself for having wasted so much time with her.
The night that she’d been caught by her father… as it unfolded in memory, it was hard not to blame myself for having left without finding her. She’d tried and fought so hard to get to me, but he had been too cruel and she just too small. He’d seen us together by our tree, and he’d not just split us up, he’d given us over to his hate.
Her time with Deke was so monstrous that I considered pulling my hand from the fire and removing myself from her mind. I couldn’t bear to watch helplessly as images of him continually raping and beating her filled my vision, only to then turn to their children.
I hadn’t known that she’d lost her first child to miscarriage because of him, and the twins had only survived as long as they had because Tina had paid well to make sure that Mama had drugged his dinner.
As she’d awakened not knowing what she was, as she’d seen Deke grotesquely impaled and eating his insides, with even as much as he’d put her through and all that she was going through, all she could do was pity him.
How incredible it was to experience a loving and forgiving heart, especially when it had no cause to be that way. But as she’d said, that was just who she was. I knew it. I allowed it to fill me and banish some of the darkness that memory had inspired, but it wasn’t to last.
When Tina had found her daughters, her whole world had crashed in on her. It had gone pitch black, and a part of my very soul died with hers in recollection. There were not words for that pain or that guilt, and it was everything that I could do to hold myself in the fire and accept what she was showing me.
I didn’t want to see it and I didn’t want to be a part of it, but I was. And I held myself there taking it in, because if nothing else, I deserved to look on the anguish that I’d caused that same forgiving heart.
From there she sought me out, returning to the ruined plantation that had been my place of rebirth, only to find nothing left. One of the slaves that had survived had told her that I’d been delivered to the stables, a place that had been swallowed up by fire, nothing but ash and charcoal and the sparse remnants of bodies left as a monument to my suffering.
She’d wept at the foot of that mass grave, over me no less, just as she’d wept over her children.
Without anyone that she cared about alive, she’d spiraled, wandering aimlessly and devoid through southern America for several months, starving and confused. She’d had no idea what was different about her; she’d only known that the typical methods of eating and suicide wouldn’t work.
She’d tried endlessly, but to no avail, and while she’d discovered her aversion to the sun and tried many times to let it consume her, her will to survive had stubbornly refused.
It’s like trying to hold your breath to suffocate yourself. It’s not possible no matter how determined you are, because your body takes what it needs at the last minute despite your struggles. Someone would have had to help her, to hold her in the light. But there had been no one, not until Alice had found her.
Alice had taken Tina in and explained what she’d become. She’d been there for Tina where I should have been. She’d showed Tina how to survive; she’d loved her, and they’d grown to rely on each other. And as Tina began to grow in understanding of her world and herself, as she’d begun to let go of the past and forgive for no other reason than she’s strongest and most genuine woman I’ll ever know, she’d begun to realize her purpose.
Tina had become the leader of the rebellion, her profound strength tempered by her immense compassion. It had shone out in her gentle but firm command. Those like her, and even those who’d just wanted to be free of Lilith’s reign so that they could revel in their bloodlust, they’d flocked to her like moths to a flame. She’d begun to plan and their numbers increased with her steady hand leading them. She’d had power, immense amounts of it as she’d amassed her army. But she’d worn it lightly as she began to fight back.
She’d made many runs just like the one that had inadvertently saved Dana, each time destroying the Loyalists without sparking Lilith’s attention. Tina had been smart. The resistance had kept itself impeccably hidden, taking to the shadows, making their runs smooth, quick, quiet, and efficient, until one day in the mid-1900’s, Tina had determined they were ready to end the war, and she’d sought out Lilith.
The deepest and most secluded areas of post-World War II Yugoslavia had seemed like the perfect place to stage this final confrontation away from civilization, but as Shane had reported back to Tina with Lilith’s whereabouts, the description of someone strikingly similar to me had caught her attention.
Her memory of her death had come back to her through a murky lens, and she’d realized that I’d been her maker; that I’d tried to save her, but more importantly, that I had been alive all that time.
She’d always regretted leaving me the night that she’d been little less than kidnapped and sold, and her conviction to not fail me again swelled in my chest with a longing so deep that only I could fathom it. I’d longed for her just the same, only I’d suppressed it in my cruelty. But she had never been like me, and she’d refused to abandon me.
They’d moved swiftly, trying to reach me and Lilith. She had still planned to end it, but this time, the primary goal had been to rescue, not just to change vampyr history. They’d descended on our location with pageantry and skill, only to have found us gone.
That hadn’t stopped Tina though. She’d been determined not to lose me again, and I could feel tears well in my eyes as I realized just how close she’d been to me in my time with Lilith.
She’d searched and searched, always drawing so close but Lilith had always a step ahead of her. Unknowingly, I’d convinced Lilith to step out into civilization, and as it were, one late night in 1975, as an immense crowd drew together to celebrate the passage of time, she’d found me. That was something that I could be proud of, if the only thing. I’d done something right in listening to my instincts and allowing them to lead me back to Tina.
The doors to Tina’s memories swung shut and I snapped my hand from the flame breathing heavily as all that I’d just experienced settled down deep to take root and spread into my mind and my heart.
Tina stood and backed away until she had stumbled and pressed herself against our tree. And while I realized her movement, I was left gasping in my own right. My soul took a huge strangled breath and my heart tried to sputter to life.
It took a moment for the dust to settle and I turned back to her. She was panting as she gripped the tree behind her like an anchor. I stood and took a hesitant step towards her, unsure of what she’d seen in me that had scared her so immensely. It took a moment for her to finally look up at me, but when she did, I couldn’t bear what I was seeing. She was broken, shattered, annihilated, and I had no choice but to look on what I’d done to her.
The empty expression on her face melted into a shuddering sob as she bared her teeth and doubled over at the waist. She fell to her knees, and I followed after her, pulling her against me.
She clung to me so tightly that I thought that I might break with her. And I did. I fell apart in her arms, opening my mind to her so that she could hear the desperate regret that I felt for what had happened to her. So that she wasn’t alone in her grief. I was present, finally, and I wouldn’t leave of my own will.
We stayed this way for a long time, neither of us moving. Tina finally calmed enough to pull away, but I couldn’t bring myself to let her go, not yet. I needed to grieve over this as much as she did. And however underserved, she didn’t let me go until I was ready.
When I finally loosened my hold, she pulled back and gazed into my eyes with wonder. She stroked my face and I closed my eyes as I relished the touch.
Her voice was low and breathless as she said, “You never told me…”
I opened my eyes and swallowed hard. “What… what did you see?”
I could sense her desire to let her own barriers down, but I didn’t have any expectations of her, even as much as I wanted to be let back in. But as she shook her head slightly, I began to feel terrified. She frowned, and not knowing what she was thinking was killing me. She should be hate me, especially right now, but I couldn’t tell if she did.
She grew rigid and replied, “I couldn’t hate you, Bette. Not ever.”
I scrutinized her as I tried to gauge her sincerity. I knew that she loved me, but love and hate are two sides of the same coin. A part of her must at least be angry at me, but despite my own fears, it was enough to have heard her words. And I realized that I trusted what she said without having to read her mind for confirmation. She didn’t hate me, even when she should. Her word was good enough. She’d more than earned my trust.
She began to cry again and tucked her head beneath my chin, a choked, “I’m so sorry…,” escaping her lips as she tightened her hold on my waist.
I couldn’t figure her out, and I knew then that I never really would. What I could do was be there for her, love her, be worthy of her, be worthy of the future that I wanted to shape with her. And I was determined that I would, no matter what it took, even if this was my last night with her, even if she walked away.
The first golden rays of sun gathered on the horizon and spilled out over the edge. Tina shook a little and I squeezed her in encouragement as she tentatively pulled back to gaze at the burning orb. It had been so long since I’d seen the natural light define her sculpted features, and all other thoughts escaped me along with my breath.
She turned her face and closed her eyes as the light broke against her skin, catching in the golden strands of her hair and throwing prisms off of the silky surface.
I felt tears wash over my lashes as I gazed at her. It was more than just her beauty; it was as if this moment was a rebirth. We were no longer trapped in the shadows. We were no longer hiding from each other or avoiding the dawn of what a new day, a new moment, could bring. I couldn’t help but smile, and I was surprised by the sound of my own laughter as it broke through my tears. She turned back to me and added her own exalted tune as everything encumbering us lifted.
I felt light, as if I was levitating.
The sun caught her profile as we calmed, and filtered into the hazel of her eyes, pulling all of the pin-dots of emerald to the surface as the brown around the edges glowed amber. It was like gazing into a forge and I felt myself willing to jump in, hoping to be refined and reshaped.
She reached up to stroke my face and wipe away some of my tears. And for the first time in what had felt like the depths of forever, she lowered her walls and took me back in.
I sighed with relief as her love and kindness flooded through every inch of me, and I closed my eyes to just bask in a light of an entirely different making.
I was so distracted that I didn’t hear her move, or maybe it was just her unnatural stealth, but her lips were soft against mine as they brushed delicately.
The kiss was not one of passion, but one of comfort and joy and longing. The silky touch was gone just as quickly as it had arrived, but it lingered and imprinted itself on my soul.
Everything was different as I opened my eyes and gazed down on her. She was still close as her thumbs drew soft patterns on my face, and I felt like I was really seeing her for the first time. The deep, smoldering intensity of her eyes stirred my blood and I wanted to lean in to kiss her again. She smiled knowingly as she came forward to meet me.
It was strange. I wanted to pull her in and ravage her. I throbbed with carnal passion for her, like part of me was on fire and only she could put me out even as she accelerated the flames. But my need for her was slow, calm, and unhurried, as if the more desperate parts of me were reclined on a cloud as the world beneath them burned out of control. I felt dizzy and I felt tethered. I felt like I was dying and I felt like I being born. But mostly, I just felt alive.
She sighed into my mouth and some primal part of me rattled against the cage of my ribs. She pulled away from me slowly, resting her forehead to mine so that we could breathe.
A foreign feeling swelled up in my chest and pushed out from my lips unbidden. “I love you, T-“
She kissed me so sweetly that my words and thoughts died on her lips. I was left bereft as she rose to her feet and a held a hand out to me. I looked up at her quizzically but took her hand all the same. She drew in close to me and put her hand over my heart, as if trying to stem the tide of emotion that was pouring out from the long silenced drum.
‘I feel it, Bette,’ she thought. She smiled. ‘I feel you… your heart, your humanity…’
I ducked my head and diverted my eyes, embarrassed by being so open. It felt foolish.
‘Don’t hide. I’ve waited so long for this. No words, no Lilith, no insecurities… just enjoy this with me.’
I exhaled as I realized that she was right. I’d come too far to be insecure now. She linked our fingers and walked backward toward the sun that had almost fully risen, tugging me with her.
‘Walk with me,’ she implored.
A quiet stroll through the magnolia grove with the sun in our faces, a new life spread out on the horizon…
I could think of no better way to add another chapter to the legacy of my life with her in this moment of intense freedom.
She smiled and tugged on me again, and I chose to go with her, hope and life overflowing within me like a wellspring.