Damien dropped the multi-tool, the heft of it slapping the gravel with a rough thunk. It sparkled in the waning light of dusk, it’s diamond cut ridges reflecting onto the device it laid beside
He had been painted in pinks and purples as we worked, but the sky continued to fade and the light couldn’t reach into his skin any longer. His thin blond hair went flat and gray in the dark, and his flesh, normally peppered with amber freckles that made me want to smell it, taste its spice, now took on the mottled simplicity of quarry stone.
I watched his fingers work.
“You ready for this, Pickle?”
His voice sliced through me like a hot knife. The beam from his heavy MagLight danced across my face, blinding me for a second before he lowered it again.
His torch blue eyes held me. Like a candle holds a flame, every muscle in my body worked to keep me from flickering.
I stepped toward him and opened my hand for it.
My voice was like a trumpet against the woods, and he slid the device into my grip. My heart raced as his fingers tightened around mine, his body moving closer. A breath caught in my lungs as the vague citrus hint of his cologne mingled with the acrid scent of his sweat.
I waited for him to let go, but instead, he pulled me closer. I could taste the cola we’d shared on the drive, still sweet and thick on my tongue, and wondered if it would taste different on his. The ruddy fullness of his lips made me tighten my grip on the black box, as it fell to my side.
His fingers rose to the back of his neck, unfastening the thick chain that sat there, a tiny vendor key hanging just between his collarbones on his slender but toned chest. When they came around my own neck, refastening the clasp, my thighs pressed together involuntarily.
Touching the small round shaft of the key, I wondered if he’d felt my heart racing beneath my breasts. If my unsteady breath was obvious. If I would collapse from the weight of my want combined with the heft of the responsibility he was placing around my neck.
His voice in my ear was just like an electric bass, strumming right through me.
“When you come back to me, I’ll give you something better.”
A film of smoke was the only evidence of the poison pumping out of that wretched place. He’d slid the gas mask over my face as he whispered my instructions. I knew some of the others received instructions too, but mine were different. And he wasn’t with any of them.
I felt it. When he spoke about the conspiracy, what they were doing to us, I felt the delicate wire of synchronicity between our souls. It wasn’t just physical attraction.
But I wasn’t naive. I knew his fingers dipped into the coffers of his other followers’ desires. I also knew that we all wanted him so desperately because of the melanocortins this plant pumped into the air, water and food.
As I stared up at the massive stacks, holding the device that would either change our existence forever or kill us all in one night, the doubt started to creep up my spine again.
My momma had worked in there. She loved that job.
Or so they said.
She died in her sleep. But they didn’t know I’d seen them. They didn’t know I had her diary. They didn’t know what she’d left for Damien and I to figure out.
I looked up into the trees and saw him.
His smile pushed down all the doubt. All the fear. All the hate.
It was all for him.
The train approached must faster than we thought it would. I thought someone might have seen me, I thought someone might try to stop it. But there was no one.
Just Damien. And me.
His mouth at my neck and his fingers between my legs.
The first explosion was beautiful. The second deafening.
Then, everything just collapsed.
Except me. And my momma’s mask.
Damien died on top of me. He made me leave on the mask.
“I know you thought it was for me, Pickle. But it was always for you. It was all for you.”
There are moments in life when your children stop being tiny extensions of you. They come in minutes at first. Then days. Weeks. Months.
Molly refused to let me hold her after her second birthday. Balling her little fists and bellowing in defiance, her hot, sour breath blasting me in the face whenever I attempted to pick her up.
“I do it. No grab me.”
Her independence was a double edge sword, driving her to develop maturity beyond her years. It made caring for her simple, but I longed for her affection. My best friend’s daughter would splay her fingers across her mommy’s cheeks and whisper. It made my heart ache.
I soaked up cuddles brought on by fevers and earaches, cherished moments instead of anxious interruptions. I may have wished for nightmares, relishing in her need for me during the lonely hours of the night after her father left us.
By the time she became a freshman in high school, however, our lives ran in parallel. I had swallowed the bitter pill of resentment because it was candy coated in the freedom to go out on weeknights or spend long weekends in the mountains without worrying. I trusted her in a way most parents wouldn’t.
She crawled into my bed that night, waking me from a sound sleep, my mind couldn’t process the adrenaline that pulsed through my system.
She smelled of leaves and the clean, electric scent of rain. Her skin was wet but warm where I lifted the backs of my fingers to feel her forehead. Instead of brushing me away, she buried her face in my chest.
“What’s wrong, Mol?”
A broken, breathy sob shook her whole body as she crumpled handfuls of my nightshirt and pulled herself further into me like she might hide beneath my flesh.
“Molly, you’re scaring me. What happened?”
I reached over the sliver of bed she occupied to click on my side lamp. She shrank further into the bedding and her sobs grew harder and faster.
As my eyes adjusted, I tried to push her back so I could see her face. She clung and fought, but the livid purple color of her cheekbone gave fury to my need to see.
“What the- Molly, look at me. Now.”
She turned into the pillow releasing a hiccuping groan but exhaled in surrender, turning red-rimmed, storm gray eyes toward me.
The left side of her face was one giant, swollen, mottled bruise. Her lip and brow were split and clotted. Clumps of mud matted her hair.
“How bad is it, mom?”
She choked on the words, a breathy whisper working against the parched rasp of her normal voice. She peered up at me, trembling, and I met her gaze with an instinct I’d thought disappeared long ago.
“Just bruises and cuts,” I lifted my fingertips to run over her damaged skin. “But no broken bones, I think. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow to be sure.”
I kept my voice steady and soft, despite the rage that boiled inside my veins.
“What happened, baby? Who did this?”
Fear flashed in her watery eyes before she buried herself in my breast again. I pushed down every urge in my being, knowing the best thing I could do was stay with her. But the need to say something was strong.
“You cannot let him get away with it.”
She sobbed for a long time, clinging like I was a life preserver. In the muted light, I stared at the picture on my night table behind her. A preschooler swinging her feet on either side of a massive branch, up high in a big oldtree in front of an orchard we’ve visited a dozen times.
Molly was holding a huge red apple, the size of a man’s fist, three perfect, round bites already missing from its flesh.
She climbed that tree by herself at four and a halfyearsold, ate that entire apple, plus half of another she picked for me, and wouldn’t even let me help her down.
When I looked back down at my little girl, now a brazen, vicious teenager, she stared back at me with wide eyes, blood in her teeth.
I pried her hands loose from their grip on my shirt and examined them. Three nails broken past the quick, knuckles cracked and bloodied, her right index finger broken.
She swallowed, gazing at the backs of her hands as she flexed her fingers.
She swallowed hard before looking up at me through pale lashes as we sank to the floor in my room. She was swathed in a heavy blanket, and I pulled the thin sheet around myself. My room was cold, but I knew it would pass.
“Thank you, Ber.”
I followed her eyes as they moved around my walls, stopping on the poster I’d hung between the windows with all the constellations mapped on it, then on my telescope resting in it’s lower position beneath it. Some pictures I’d taken on my dad’s phone and that my stepmom had printed for me were pinned on my bulletin board above my navy blue desk, photos of the sky I was so obsessed with. And the trophies and patches I’d earned in Cub Scouts perfectly displayed on a bookshelf above my personal library of every space or magic related book I could get my hands on.
I felt my cheeks heat when she looked past me to the old, original Star Trek poster behind me, and felt grateful for the midnight shade of my skin as she dropped her focus to me.
Kiera’s watery gaze was something I’d grown used to in the few years since we met, but I hadn’t really understood the emotion held deep inside those clear blue depths. It came later, along with an undying need to protect her from them. But at 10 years old, she was simply my best friend.
She smirked lightly. “I like your room. It fits you.”
I’d seen hers a hundred times. Watched it transition from Princess pink in her to Rainbow punk to Moody darkness. It fit her, too.
The frown returned quickly, and her focus dropped to something in her hand, as she blinked at tears in her eyes.
“He did it again, huh?” I kept my voice at a whisper even though rage welled up inside my chest.
I knew what would happen if my stepmom heard her up in my room. Not that it would work, we’d been able to find each other over and over again since we were four. I wasn’t sure any amount of distance could keep us apart.
“It doesn’t matter, Ki. You don’t have to talk about it. Where do you wanna go tonight?”
Her eyes flickered up, but went back to the coin between her fingers. It looked like a penny.
“I found this yesterday. I couldn’t wait to show it to you.”
She held it out, pinched between her tiny finger and thumbnail, turning it back and forth.
“A black penny? Is it a trick coin or somethin’?”
Her eyes found mine and flashed something as her lips curled up at the corners. “Something.”
Leaning forward, she took my hand and placed it in the center of my palm. I smiled broadly. She was finally going to show me.
I’d known since the first time we’d met. Two four-year-olds with parents who couldn’t be bothered to pay attention as we sat side by side in a sandbox in Wilton Park. She’d been digging, and I’d been molding. Then, in a blink, we were on a beach by the ocean, staring at each other with wide eyes.
A pretty caramel skinned woman in a white uniform shirt found us a few hours later, our pockets full of seashells and tummies rumbling. She bought us pretzels and flavored ice. Her car smelled like coffee and oranges, and her eyes glittered with something I’ve never seen since.
She believed us.
But then, a not so pretty woman in a dark blue pant suit came and stole us from her. And each other.
I’ve heard the story a hundred times, how we were taken and how I refused to help them find the monster. They asked a million questions. Event tried to make us believe we’d forgotten him, this terrible man who stole us out from under our parents noses. That the stress had given us a form of amnesia. No one even tried to explain the small gap of time we had traveled a huge distance.
They couldn’t even consider the truth. They wouldn’t.
My dad met my stepmom that day. And Kiera’s mom left hers. That day created a new direction for each of our families that drove us further away from each other at every turn.
The news story had been spectacular. Two years later when they reunited us and asked us questions about that day, our answers were trained and forced. But neither of us ever lied. We just stopped telling the truth.
They didn’t realize we’d seen each other every night since. That I’d hijacked her dreams or that she’d stolen me away from mine.
But that night, I’d brought her home, physically, to my room. I knew she needed to go somewhere that felt safe.
He had really hurt her.
“He’s not going to stop. And she’s not going to stop him. So tonight, I want to go somewhere else forever.”
She stared at the penny resting on my dark lined palm.
She didn’t know that I’d seen her do it before. She was practicing in hopes of using it as a weapon. Against him, I was sure.
The penny rose into the air, but when she glanced to my eyes, it fell to the hard wood floor between us.
I frowned, letting out a rough sigh. I picked it up and held it out in the palm of my hand again. “Don’t stop, Kiera.”
Her white blond brows furrowed, and her mouth pinched tightly. “You know?”
I nodded slowly. “I didn’t want you to think it ever had to be some competition. And I was afraid.”
“Of me?” Her voice was small but more fierce.
“I wish I hadn’t said that.” The air around us went electric, so I had to think fast before the headache came.
Closing my eyes, I thought of each time I’d seen her do it. I made the memories into a loop for her, but when I opened my eyes, hers had gone dark.
I pushed harder. I made her see what I saw. That I hated him too.
“I want him to get better, Ki. I don’t want you to do something you can’t take back.”
I felt her relax, but I showed her all of it. That I longed to help her find a way to be free of his sickness. That my greatest fear was that I did it to her. Put her in his path. Then somehow gave her the power to fight it.
“You did,” she said, scooting closer so that our knees touched. “You gave me the power. You lit the spark that day in the park, Ber. But it wasn’t your fault I ended up where I am.”
My mind went to find that day, two tiny kids, one as pale as the sun shining high in the sky, the other as dark as midnight in a forest. The magic was born by itself, every facet of our worlds would have kept us apart for eternity, except that we somehow ended up in that sandbox on the same perfect day at the same perfect time. And that inside me lived something bigger and brighter than life, while inside her rested the tiniest darkest molecule of the opposite.
Her memory was misty and soft, seeing us transported by feathers and breeze through the wooshing current of time and space, before being deposited in the white, silky sand on the gulf coast of Florida. My own memories were clearer and more harsh. But as our thoughts congealed together, we formed a beautiful image of what that day had truly been.
“You told the police I was your angel?”
“You are, Berhanu.”
“You said they would pay for keeping us apart.”
“They still will.”
As I opened my eyes to see her, I understood.
We sat, knee to knee, palm to palm, the penny rose before us and changed.
She tore it into tiny fragments, spreading out between us in a sheen of brilliant copper. The tiny globs of molten metal swam around each other and then around us in a sparkling figure eight. The fire in her eyes flashed again and the eight split into two circles.
My heart raced inside my chest, churning my blood throughout my prepubescent body so fast that I could feel myself growing. Hormones building upon enzymes, soaring through me and waking up every cell in their path.
Kiera was not simply governing the metal in the penny, but every substance within it’s circumferences.
My bones and muscles stacked and reordered themselves, expanding as I watched my dark skin stretch to contain the new shapes within. My stomach flipped under the biological strain on my system and I squeezed my eyes shut to stop the spinning of my vision. The only thing keeping me from crumpling under the sickness of it was the pleasure of her skin against mine where our hands met.
Eventually, I heard her sigh and felt her fingers slip between mine so she could grip my hands hard against the work of what she was creating. When I finally opened my eyes, the creature I found stole the very breath from my lungs.
Kiera was now a woman, as much as I was a man. The physics of the transformation had rendered our individual night clothes useless piles of shreds in the same figure eight pattern I had watched the penny create moments ago. Naked and staring at each other, we were truly opposites in sight as much as in power. But the beauty of her was so intense that I could not avert my eyes from her nakedness.
The copper circles shifted and shrank to create two perfect rings which cooled and fell to the floor between us. She gazed at my body while releasing my hands.
“There. Now we can go wherever we want.”
She rose up onto her knees and licked her lips. She touched her own skin and then mine. She giggled before covering her mouth to stifle the sound, but my new ears longed to hear that sound over and over, a hundred million times more.
“Now we can do whatever we want.”
My words hung, as dark and heavy as I now felt, in the dim night air between us. The depth of my voice, sounding remarkably like my dad, and the edge of the accent I inherited from him brought visions to my mind of all the far away places we could now go.
“We can change the world, Ki.”
She slipped the larger ring onto my ring finger and I did the same to hers before staring at the black veined copper band wondering what it meant, what it was.
“Tomorrow, Ber. We will change the world tomorrow.”
She rose to her feet, took my hands and urged me to follow. With a whisk of her fingers, the shreds of old clothes and blankets we had wrapped ourselves in earlier became something new and styled themselves around us each in white and black clothing that fit our new bodies perfectly.
“Tonight, I only want to feel that sand between my toes again.”
She wrapped me in a childlike embrace, pressing her cheek to my chest.
“Are you angry with me? For making you come with me?”
I felt the deep chuckle in my throat before I heard it. The sound startled me, but then I looked over into the slim mirror my stepmom had hung on the back of my door. And the thought of my parents waking up the next day without me stabbed at something deep in my gut.
But they had each other. And Kiera had only me.
“You were never angry with me for making you come with me that day to the beach.”
I felt my new arms tighten around her, that need I’d never known how to express, to protect her and keep her and hold her, it now had purpose.
It was two months before our eleventh birthdays, which we had learned were almost exactly the same, except that I was born at 11:59pm on the 31st of December and she had arrived seconds later, on the 1st of January. A moment apart, but separated by a day, a month, a year.
With less than a thought, that rift in time and space pulled us through on a cloud of feathers and breeze again to the soft white gray sand of Clearwater Beach. But we crossed more than distance. We were now physically in our twenties. We’d jumped time and space, all while barely moving. Completely relaxed. Hoping to escape without worries or fears.
But our future would embrace us, as clingy and needy as it would ever be, right from that first night.
And the lessons wouldn’t all be as magical as that night.
The walls seemed to be breathing. Ugly, stained brocade peeling from the plaster shifted as the wind squealed through the broken glass of the old attic window. In the dark, he could barely see the figure. Like an absence of light in a room streaked with moonlight.
It moved toward him, somehow bending the light away. Repelling it by some unnatural means. He lifted his flashlight, but the bulb popped and hissed, leaving the space between them even darker than it had been.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
He took several gulps of stale air as the temperature dropped.
“Why are you-“
The room seemed to swallow the sound, choking off his voice until he lifted his fingers to his mouth, confirming it was still there.
The house shifted and swelled. Romeo’s brain hurt as though it were working without him. He brought his fingers to his temples, but the thing forced him to his knees.
He’d lived there as a child. The house was huge and dark, and the old musty wall tapestry had always felt alive. When he was young, however, it was the breath and laughter of all those women that brought it to life. Incense and perfume hung in clouds through every room. Its purpose had been to mask the bleachy, musky smells that would have otherwise permeated the air. But it had given birth to a sensory soaked existence, a daily lesson in manners and chivalry, the playful molding of a young boy’s identity in a place he simply didn’t belong.
Romeo had been named for his father, or so that was the story. But he never knew a father figure until Charles came to the house one evening to bleed the radiators.
There had been other men. The ladies called them suitors, but Romeo was not a dim kid. His mother’s room was directly below his, and he’d understood from a very young age that this was all business. He’d understood so well that, as Charles went from room to room, floor to floor, making repairs, Romeo was careful to follow him and watch his every move.
“How old are you, buddy?”
“Eight and a half.”
“You protectin’ these ladies?”
His chuckle bristled Romeo’s spine, drawing his face into a venomous scowl before he stepped toward the stranger, rivetting him with a stare that made his answer unnecessary.
“There ain’t no freebies here.”
Charles had lifted his hands, holding them palms out as he rocked back on his heels to rise from a low squat.
“Hey now, you’ll have no problems with me, kiddo. I’m just a handyman. I’m only here to fix the heat.”
There had been something in his tone that changed Romeo’s mind. It wasn’t instant, as he’d seen too many arrogant jokers in and out of these rooms, leaving behind bruises and twenty dollar bills that should’ve been hundreds. It was hard to believe there were any good guys out there. But what Charles taught him that night was far more important than how to repair the radiators and seal the windows with insulating tape.
It was almost 9 o’clock when he sat down at the kitchen table with him for a cup of milk and a slice of Molly’s spice cake.
“This your homework?”
With a mouthful, all Romeo could do was nod. But in the following twenty minutes, the repairman checked his work, showed him an easier way to do division, and managed to get himself an invitation to dinner the next night.
“As long as it’s ok with your momma.”
Romeo was so used to not talking to his mother, the statement surprised him. She was wiry, strung out and unfocused. She had a lot of suitors, in order to pay for the pills that kept her up and put her down, and if he had to tell the truth, he didn’t like her much.
But Molly, she had been his favorite. When he was small, he thought she must have been a fairy or at least part fairy. She moved like she was made of water or vapor, and she practically glimmered in the red robe cinched around her tiny waist with a satin bow.
When he was four, he asked if she wore it to hide her wings.
She’d giggled and scooped him into her arms, whispering in his ear.
“They are magical, my Romeo. They hide themselves.”
That night, in the kitchen with Charles, she wore a pair of black capris and a red sweater. But she still looked and moved as though she had wings.
She’d blushed and giggled, explaining that she wasn’t Romeo’s mother, but that she knew it would be fine.
The next night, she wore a crimson dress with black polka dots, and Romeo might have told her he wished he was older so he could ask her on a date.
Charles got the privilege instead.
In the year that followed, Romeo learned what it meant to be a man. He grew six inches that summer, and though he was only nine, he stood as tall as most thirteen-year-olds and was just as smart.
But Molly held him on her lap through the funeral, mopping his tears with her tissues and rubbing his back as though he were much younger than the sight of him announced.
Charles stood behind them, his hand resting on Romeo’s shoulder, letting his own tears slide down his cheeks.
Not for the corpse that was laid in a pine box in front of them, but the life of a boy who might be lost to the wind after this.
The state hadn’t wanted him to stay with Molly. Whether they could prove it or not, everyone knew what that house had been. What went on there. But Charles had a friend who knew a lawyer and scraped together enough money for a home of his own. And a ring.
They were married by a judge on a Friday, and they moved in with him on Saturday. It took months of legal battles, counseling sessions, and psychiatric evaluations, but when no one came forward to claim him, Romeo became eligible for adoption.
So, one completely anticlimactic afternoon, he became legally theirs.
But they had already been a family. Right from that first night.
The cold bit into his cheeks as his blood throbbed in his ears. He tried to look up, his lips pleading with no voice. But the roar of silence crushed him down further so that he lay crumpled, like a fetus, on the floor.
The visions spilled from his mind like water from an overflowing cup. Some incredible force surged through him, pinning him harder and tighter to the floorboards.
The oxygen in the room was depleted. The realization that he was suffocating made his mind swim with terror. But he couldn’t die. Not until he found her.
He focused on what had brought him here. The phone call from Molly, talking about the house, telling him how it was finally going to be bulldozed after seventeen years. Her voice had been so strange, so distant. Like she was in a trance.
She said she was there, giving it one last look. Trying to find the happy times where none were to be found.
But there had been. So many joyous moments were had in that place, only brought to a halt by a fire that managed to take only the life of the lost soul who caused it.
Memories of blanket forts, chess games, math quizzes, and dancing in their pajamas in the firelight scoured over him like sandpaper.
Her words had been clipped, muffled. Peppered against a static that sounded like alien breath.
And then she said the one thing he’d never, ever imagined she would say.
“Sometimes I wish I had never adopted you.”
The silence that had followed was as thick as oil. No static, no breath. But then, a scream that sent him running for the door as fast as his feet would carry him.
He realized now, it wasn’t her. And it sparked a recollection of something said with equal hatred when he was very small. A memory Molly never wanted him to have.
“I wish I had never had you.”
He had been vying for his mother’s attention as toddlers do, begging for something. What was it?
The word hung in the space around him, stopping time and wind and breath. He could smell the wax, feel it on his fingers. He remembered, after that day, he only ever drew Molly. That was the day he first wished he was hers.
A rage larger than the house threw him back, pinning him to the wall this time as the creaking, shrieking walls tried to expand to hold it.
It seared into him like the stings of a thousand scorpions, dumping poison into his bloodstream and making him wretch, and writhe. Hatred funneled into him from all directions before twisting, pulling back, threatening to rip him to pieces.
He clenched his fists and looked at the figure, glaring into the blackness until, finally, he could see.
The walls around them began to buckle with the building pressure, but he gazed deep into the vaccum and pushed himself free of the wall, he shouted.
“What did you do with her? Where is my momma?”
The figure before him shook with fury, black eyes burned into him, but still he moved toward it.
The thing released a feral roar causing the house to vibrate then flex inward before it drew in an airless breath and raised hands of reverse flames.
Fire without heat, blue and black tongues licked outward, stealing the light and oxygen once again. Bearing down on him, the dark mass grew and seethed. Its eyes were obsidian slivers set in flesh so black, he hadn’t been able to see the resemblance before.
He couldn’t speak to tell it. He couldn’t even cough or choke as the smoke from its flames siphoned the life from his body.
Instead, he closed his eyes. And prayed.
Not for himself, but for the life of another. Molly.
Please, let it have been fake. Please let Momma be alive.
He was chanting the prayer in his mind, his heart beating too loudly in his ears to hear the phantom’s whispers.
He prayed she’d never been there, that this was just like the other times he was drawn to this place by some need he could never quite meet. He’d called his parents home from the gas station, hoping Charles would answer groggily and tell him Molly was asleep. But it just rang and rang, seventeen times before Romeo climbed back into his dad’s old truck.
The fact that they hadn’t answered was the reason he was there, dying, right now.
And as he prayed that this thing had only somehow impersonated his momma, he heard her voice, calling his name from downstairs.
He was sure his brain had begun to falter from lack of oxygen. But when Charles’s voice boomed from below as well, he opened his eyes.
Romeo drew up whatever strength he had left and threw himself at the monster.
It was as simple as tackling smoke. Diminished by the presence of others or by his pure will to defeat it, he found nothing but air beneath him, and as he stood, gasping and clutching his chest, he stared down at the blackness seeping into and filling the cracks of the floorboards beneath his feet.
“Romeo, sweetheart? Are you up there?”
He turned and met her on the stairs, shimmering like a fairy in the moonlight. Then he looked back at the absence of light in his old room.
As impotent as a ghost as she had been in life.
He hadn’t thought of his birth mother in many years.
And as they took the steps back down to Charles, he promised himself he wouldn’t again.
Analise stepped into the waiting room, feeling a bit lighter than she’d left it. She exhaled weeks of anxious waiting, and her sigh shifted her husband’s gaze from the tiny screen in the palm of his hand.
Curt slid the phone into his pocket and straightened in his chair.
“Well? What did he say?”
She sat down next to him holding the papers out for him to read. He frowned before taking them.
“I’d rather you tell me.”
His tone was soft but firm, the gravel in his timber stealing any emotion from his voice.
She’d loved that stoic depth when they were dating. He’d seemed impenetrable, unshakable. She didn’t witness a crack in his armor until their wedding day, but once she saw it, she desperately wanted what was underneath.
He was never prepared for that, though.
It had taken him two months to ask her on a date, but only four to propose. And after they said their vows on his 29th birthday, he’d whispered a hundred times that night that she was the best present ever.
Her sister had warned her not to expect the honeymoon to last forever. But when she woke, naked and tangled in hotel sheets two days after her wedding to find him showered and dressed, reading a newspaper and guzzling coffee, she hid her disappointed tears beneath the shower.
It wasn’t that he was ever unkind. In fact, he was the perfect gentleman. But she rarely got the glimpses of that man who was so smitten he couldn’t take his eyes off her on her wedding day. She could probably count them on her hands.
She sighed, looking up into his bright, cool eyes.
“Well, he said I need to have a procedure to remove the growths, but he says it isn’t cancer.”
In a flash so fast she almost missed it, his face crumpled with relief before settling back to his normal, stony expression.
“So they are growths, but not tumors.”
A statement, not a question. But not without a tremor in his voice.
She’d lived too long with the desperation to make him feel, and had been defeated too many times by his dismissals and robotic responses. So she hadn’t tried to see beyond his shell for a very long time.
Suddenly, it was all she could see. “Were you worried?”
His eyebrows knitted together, for a moment glaring at her furiously. But his words came out in a choked whisper. “Of course.”
Twenty-four years, two kids, two houses, a dozen cars, a handful of tragedies, and she’d never seen tears in this man’s eyes until today.
“I’m not a boulder, Ana.”
It wasn’t the first time he declared this, pointing at his chest in defiance. She’d said to him a few times during the first few years of their marriage that he must be made of stone. The first time he’d said he wasn’t, they were watching Titanic. He’d wrapped his arm around her as she sobbed, staring at the screen in disbelief when Leonardo DeCaprio froze. She’d looked up at him, startled, and his face blanched as if she’d struck him.
She realized now that it had always been those moments where she experienced some significant emotion that she caught those glimpses inside his heart.
He smiled so broadly the day she first held her son that she thought his lips might crack. He shook with fury the day a drunk driver had sideswiped her, forcing her off the road and into a ditch.
When she’d stood on the kitchen table, shaking in terror as a mouse raced across her kitchen floor, he’d stalked that pest like a lion hunting prey to feed his family.
And when she told him she had been to the doctor for a biopsy, he held her so tightly that night that she had to tell him she couldn’t breathe.
“You’ve been a bundle of nerves for weeks, of course I was worried.”
Lifting her fingers to his cheek, she longed to push him for more. To let her tug off that armor and snuggle into the softness she so desperately had hoped was underneath. Or warm herself against the fire he kept secretly to himself.
But, as her heart pummeled against her lungs, she knew that would only encourage him deeper into himself. So, she kissed him quickly before taking back the papers and folding them into a little packet.
“Ok. Well, the biopsy came back clear. But the growths are fibrous polyps and my endometrial lining is very thick. They will have to do a D&C, do you know what that is?”
“That’s what you had after Joel.”
The memory of Joel’s birth and the hemorrhaging that had followed burned behind his eyes.
“Yes, but this will be scheduled in advance and without all the hysterics.” She giggled, covering her mouth with her fingers. “Quite a bit less dramatic.”
He slumped and laid a hand on her knee. “Less scary, you mean.”
Lifting her eyes to meet his, she held her breath for a moment.
“I thought I was going to lose you that morning, Ana.”
She’d never thought about what that day had been like for Curt. Her whirlwind first pregnancy filled with difficulties, followed by an emergency cesarean birth. She barely remembered the bleeding or the surgery that followed. She barely remembered any of it, truthfully. The memory of Curt handing her Joel 24 hours later overlaid everything else. The bliss of motherhood giving her amnesia to everything that had happened in the days and even weeks leading up to that moment.
She stared at him for a long moment. “You’re not going to lose me now, either.”
His face went slack before his eyes widened almost imperceptibly. “Good.”
It was hardly a word, more of a release of breath pushed through the crack in his facade. She dropped her fingers to wrap around his in her lap, then drew her leg up beneath her so she could lean into him.
She thought about the way she’d always examined those cracks in his exterior, as if through a microscope. Trying to find a way in.
She’d been missing the fact that she was already in.
Every morning, he rose before her, showered and dressed, then waited for her to wake, ready with a cup of Earl Grey with two sugars. She focused on the fact that he wasn’t in bed with her instead of the big picture.
He held both of their babies for days before she could, but handed them over without question once her body and heart could handle it. She’d envied how they idolized him as they grew, and spent countless hours quietly at his side building, fixing, and painting. But if she’d just stepped back, perhaps she would’ve understood that he was keeping them out of her hair.
He never wanted to take exotic vacations, always opting for weekend trips to the country or the beach. But maybe it was never about the money or time off work. Maybe he just wanted to keep them safe and close.
Everything she ever saw as a dismissal could’ve been his simple way of showing how much he cared.
Reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, she watched his eyes follow her fingers, and she saw the same glow in his eyes that he’d seen on her wedding day.
“They will call me to schedule the procedure.”
She went on in a soft voice, to explain the surgery center and the outpatient procedure that should only leave her a bit sore for a few days. She slipped her hand under his arm and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. After she’d finished, he sighed another affirmative and pressed his lips against the top of her head.
“Let’s go somewhere nice for lunch. I’m in the mood for pasta.”
She looked up at him, her forehead lined with confusion. “Don’t you have to go back to work?”
Curt shook his head and kissed her again, this time on the bridge of her nose. “No. You’re stuck with me for the whole afternoon.”
“But- You don’t have to do that. I mean- You never miss work.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t always find out if my wife has cancer or not, either.”
Scanning his face, Analise grinned broadly as tears pricked her eyes.
He shook his head again as she hugged his bicep again. But then he stood, pulling her into his arms and holding her there long enough that she heard the nurses sigh and whimper behind the counter. He pulled back and cleared his throat, wiping his eyes with his thumb.
Raising up on her tip toes, she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Let’s go home instead.” Pressing her lips to his ear, she told him she would make him pasta.
His skin burned bright with the desire surfacing from within. The fire in his soul a damp, red sun fueling the hunger in his touch, made more intense by the pink heat of the desert outside.
I often wondered if he’d ever cool down. But even after decades, his want had never abated. Even through the trials of war which desiccated everything we knew. Years of chasing and being chased by devils. Our marriage peppered with miscarriages followed by months of devastation. Nothing ever made him see me differently. He always treated me the same. He wanted me just the same. And no matter where we were, in the frozen city where we met, the icy ridges of the mountains where he had hidden me, the stormy beaches we’d traveled looking for peace, or this dessert, cooled by the nuclear winter, he was always warm.
It was habitual for us, the way he would take me every Friday evening. Some might say such a routine is unromantic, even tedious. But when he came home, stalking me through the house like an animal before pouncing, pinning and devouring me, monotony was the furthest thing from my mind.
Collapsing onto my side on the kitchen floor, giggling as his whiskers tickled my shoulder and sighing when his arms folded around me from behind, I watched the sky burn away into an amethyst haze.
“I missed you, Mrs.”
Squirming around in his embrace, I flipped over to face him and hold his salted jaw between my hands.
“Since you’re filthy and sweating all over my clean floor, I’m not sure I can say the same.”
His fingers raked through my damp hair as he chuckled.
“That sass doesn’t make me want to clean up any faster.”
His hand wound around my golden tresses, tugging lightly to raise my eyes so that I looked into his. They were as clear and brilliant as they’d ever been. But, something new had taken residence in his stare. Something that traced cool fingers down my spine. Something that held more weight than I thought was possible in his gaze. Something that made me swallow hard against the lump of empathy growing in the pit of my stomach.
“What’s wrong, Mister?”
As a General in the Gulf Militia, Ant had carried the responsibility of thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands, for decades. The heft hardens most men. Makes them power drunk or breaks them completely. But Ant had lived through the war that broke the Earth, and stood before the council of what was left of our world’s leaders with all the heart and devotion of a little boy dreaming of being president.
There were fourteen of them left. In the famine and fury of worldwide revolution, thousands of military and government leaders had been killed or fled. The death toll after ten years of post-nuclear fighting surpassed the actual nuclear attacks. But fourteen men and women found a way to finally settle the chaos.
My Ant was one of them.
“Do you remember when we came here? You’d told me we should make our home in the center of this dead land.” I nodded, searching a reason for that memory. “You said that it didn’t matter if America was gone. And you said-.”
His eyes were wet and he choked on the recollection.
“I said the world would be our country someday and that Texas could be it’s heart.”
We’d traveled all over the continent. The bombs had turned the east and west coasts to rubble, and the fallout from the concentration of attacks in the east reached as far as the Mississippi River. The north had been plunged into a nightmarish nuclear winter that made so much of the continent uninhabitable. And what was left of the western states after the collapse of California was dismal.
But Texas had been warm. And it simply felt right.
“Yes, Mrs. And you were so very right.”
Tears slipped down the ridge of his nose as he pulled my forehead to his.
“You’re scaring me, Ant. What is wrong? What has happened?”
I pulled away, praying silently that there wasn’t more war coming.
But as he shook his head and pulled me tightly into his arms, I knew it was something worse.
I didn’t cry. I’d known my whole life that being loved by him was more than any poor frostbitten orphan could have ever dreamed. I’d known after each lost pregnancy, seen it in the disappointed eyes of all of his soldiers. I’d felt it in the furious storm of security that swaddled me each time we went out. And more than anything, I’d heard it from my own heart.
The troubles weren’t his, which was rare in this post-apocolypse. My doctors, fertility specialists, nutritionists, anyone who had seen the scans knew it was my body that could not accept pregnancy.
If there’d never been any bombs, we would have simply hired a surrogate.
But if there had never been a bomb, my family would have lived. And I wouldn’t have endured the countless rapes that destroyed my body before Ant rescued me.
Irony is the cruelest joke.
“Is there already another?”
My voice was mist leaving my lungs. I felt myself dying inside as his arms tightened further around me.
“There could never be another.”
I pushed against his chest as my mind crumpled and my heart flew. My face ached with confusion and unshed tears. I glared into his eyes willing him to somehow split into two men so that no choice ever needed to be made.
“They want me to plant my seed, yes. But I can’t-.”
He averted his eyes as he choked on the thoughts and wishes of others.
“Until death parts us. That was my vow.”
An exhausted and prickly relief washed over me. I clung to him tightly as he picked up my broken body, carrying us both to bed. He was so warm, and as I burrowed deep into that warmth, I tried to push everything down.
But I knew what I was depriving the world of. I knew the only solution was to deprive him of the choice.
We made love three more times that night. He slept fitfully as I planned and plotted. When he woke, he talked about where we could go, how we could hide. But there was no way I could keep him from the world we’d built. Rebuilt. Created from almost nothing.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a beautiful girl with tawny skin and raven hair, looking exactly like her father as she picked flowers in a sandy meadow. She had my eyes, and held my cheeks in her tiny hands.
“You won’t make it through, Momma. But I will take care of him. Don’t worry.”
Her tiny smile told me more than words ever could have. So when I awoke to the barrel of a handgun at my cheek, I simply closed my eyes again and said my last, living prayer.
I never got to meet her, his beautiful little flower. But the gunshot only killed my brain.
She was barely as big as his hand when they had to take her from my body. But she burned with the same fire as Ant, and survived with my will and determination.