Two emails in one week, you say? What’s happening! Nothing much. Just today is the one-year anniversary since Thirty Nights was published. Oh the chills and thrills of that day. I’m feeling them all over again, even as I get ready to finish my second book and start the third. How about celebrating with the first three chapters of Ninety Days? Here they are in draft form. Not edited yet so things may change for the final publication. Hope you enjoy! And thank you to all of you who bought Thirty Nights, told a friend about it, and have stayed loyal to me throughout this time. – Love, Ani
Every airplane hurtling across the sky carries goodbyes. Some for days, some for life. Then there is mine—the unknown kind.
I stare out of the Plexiglas window into dense darkness. It’s midnight back in Portland, Oregon. Did Reagan make it home safe? Is she curled up on my bed, still crying? And Javier—does he even have a bed in his jail cell? Or is he slumped on the floor, staring at darkness just like me? I leave the hardest person for last . . . him . . . Aiden Hale, I force myself to think the name. Is he awake? Or finally asleep—relieved to have me out of his life?
A burning pain—part rage, part agony—flares like a livid wound between my lungs, and I close the window shade. The businessman next to me is snoring softly. I avoid looking at his charcoal suit—so similar to Aiden’s when it hung closely with my dresses. The wound throbs again, and I gaze at the crumpled note still in my hand. Aiden’s right-hand man, Benson, scribbled it on a torn piece of paper like he was out of time.
I am breaking Mr. Hale’s rules by giving you his letters in hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.
Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life.
I have the words memorized, but they still seem scrambled. Alone they make sense, but together they mean nothing. What does Benson know about my mistakes? About our regrets? What rules is he breaking? Why? What’s the difference between the man I know and the one I heard today?
I know the answer to that last one. Aiden Hale—the man I thought I knew, the man I loved—would have never reported Javier to the immigration police just to save my future. He would have never ruined my little family. He would have never hurt someone I love. But the man he truly is—the man I saw today with finally clear eyes—did all of that, and admitted it three times.
The burning ache rages up my throat, constricting it until I can’t breathe. I loosen my scarf, searching for air. It blows in a steady gust from the airplane vent. Straight into the center of my forehead. Where Aiden’s lips rested last. Where my father’s lips rested always.
I lift my face toward the vent and draw a huge gulp of pressurized air. In, out. Hydrogen, atomic weight 1.008, helium, 4.002, lithium, 6.94—
“Miss? May I get you anything?” A hushed feminine voice murmurs next to me.
I turn to the flight attendant, trying not to look at her Union Jack scarf that reminds me of Reagan and her obsession with all things British. “Some coffee, please,” I whisper.
Her eyebrows arch—coffee is not the drink of choice at this hour—but she scurries back to the galley for the pot.
I know this is a mistake. I know I should try to sleep. It would be easier to shut down, drift into a different place, a different time. Perhaps I would be back in Portland again. On the couch with Reagan, listening to Lana Del Rey. Or in Javier’s studio, looking at his paintings. Or perhaps in a rose garden, tangled under the blooms with the Aiden I loved, not the one I discovered today.
Yes, it would be easier to sleep, but I cannot. Because if I sleep, this day will be over. If I sleep, this will be the last day in my home, the last time I saw my family, the last time I held my best friend, the last time I was in love. And when I wake up, everything I have will be yesterday. It will be the past.
“Miss? Your coffee?” The flight attendant is back, holding a steaming Styrofoam cup. How long has she been standing there, waiting?
“Thank you,” I mumble, gripping the cup with both hands. She nods and cruises up the aisle, checking on the only other overhead light that is still on. I gulp the coffee, hoping it will burn. It does, and that’s good. Because this kind of burning pain I can understand. When the flight attendant strolls down the aisle again, I refuse the pillow and blanket but take more coffee until that last light is off, and I am the only passenger awake.
Alone now—as though this should matter—I take the stack of Aiden’s envelopes from my rucksack, running my fingers over the coarse commissary paper. Forty-eight of them—one for each of his last days in Iraq. They’re not marked or organized in any way—only yellowed by time. I feel each one for thickness. About the same—one page, two at most. This would be a good time to open them. They would keep me awake. They would let me escape in a love story that was almost mine. But perversely I do not. At first, I don’t understand my reaction. This afternoon I would have ripped them open, drinking in each word, each syllable. But as the plane charges through the night, the reasons for my resistance become clear.
One, there is nothing in these letters written twelve years ago that can explain or justify what happened today.
Two, they will only break me further.
Three, I cannot survive any more breaking.
I tuck the envelopes back in my rucksack, along with Benson’s note and Aiden’s dog tags. Then I raise my face to the vent again, turn off the light, and shut my eyes.
I am not asleep. My senses are heightened, as though my body is on survival mode. I hear the snore of my suited neighbor, the rustle of a blanket as someone tosses and turns, the whoosh of compressed air, and, above all, the rumble of the jet as the thousands of miles race by. Toward ghosts.
The black iconic cab comes to a full stop on the side of the gravelly road. For a moment, the sight outside the window stuns me. Not because I didn’t expect it—I’ve been conjuring up this image over and over since I stumbled off that plane—but because nothing about it has changed. Not the low hill rising straight ahead, or the single trail meandering to its peak, or River Windrush flowing behind the blackthorn shrubs. Even the skylarks sing invisible in the air the same mosaic. Everything is exactly the same as I remember it. Time does not touch places like England. It only withers those who want to leave it behind.
“Sure this is the place, duckie?” The cabbie’s voice startles me, as though I’ve been yanked back through a space portal. He glances at the deserted road, then back at Burford’s spires and rooftops in the distance. “No soul ‘round ‘ere.”
“Yes, this is it.” I will never forget a blade of grass from this hill, or the tiny meadow on top. And yes, there are souls here.
For some reason, the cabbie frowns but then shakes his head. “Right. Tha’ ull be nine’y quid, then.”
Ninety pounds, 129.73 dollars. I dig inside my rucksack for the new, crisp notes. They look too flashy, too colorful compared to my American dollars. I hand the cabbie two fuchsia fifties and a mauve twenty, and stumble out.
It takes a while for that first step, but it’s the only step I’m sure about. Behind me, the cabbie is still watching. I start treading up the dirt road toward the hill, listening to the crunch of gravel under my old, worn sneakers. It’s warm—a typical June day for Burford—but my hands are chilled, even my toes. I know why. Chills are a symptom of grief. It will be months, maybe even years before I no longer feel cold. I walk faster, fixing my eyes on the sunny hilltop.
As though it senses my gaze, the peak summons my body, jolting it forward. A buzzing energy spikes in my muscles. Abruptly, I start running. Clouds of dust burst around my feet as I sprint down the road. The gravel is ending now, turning to grass, and I charge up the windy trail. The crest is straight above, beckoning me upward. My thighs burn, my breath comes in loud, sharp huffs, but I keep running. The rucksack rattles on my back with a faint metallic jingle from Aiden’s dog tags. I push my legs harder. The hilltop is closer now; the wind whips my sweaty face, flinging my hair everywhere, whooshing in my ears. Another summit, higher and craggier than this—Aiden’s Alone Place—flits in my vision, and I stumble. I shove the memory aside and hurtle toward the peak. Streaking past shrubs and trees, tripping, falling and getting up again. Three more strides now, two, one. I leap into the tiny crest meadow, gasping for air.
The dazzling sunlight blinds me, but I don’t blink. I don’t move a millimeter, even though every band of muscle is quivering. Because there, across the swaying grass, the white marble tombstone glimmers under the solitary cypress tree. The same as then, the same as it will always be.
Grief slashes through me, and my knees give out. I sink here at the edge of the meadow, wrapping my arms around my ribcage to keep it from imploding. Hydrogen, I think desperately. Hydrogen, hydrogen, hydrogen . . . But there is no trick for this kind of pain. The only way to survive this is to feel it.
A golden ray of sun shatters over the marble into a thousand sparkles, and I wish I believed it was a smile. They have waited four years, four months and twenty-nine days for me. And I have abandoned them. I wrench myself up, unwilling to make them wait a single minute longer. But even though I dash across the meadow, it seems to take too long to reach them.
I am there at last. Mum and Dad rest together under the same marble cover. The tombstone stands sentinel above their heads, glistening with a million rainbow crystals.
Peter Andrew Snow & Clare Emilia Snow
10 October 1962 – 8 January 2011; 16 December 1967 – 8 January 2011
Amor Vincit Omnia
The miniature climbing roses I planted have grown. Their white buds are about to bloom around the epitaph. Abruptly, I wish I had brought them something—something other than my grief. I rummage through my rucksack, pawing through my clothes, pushing aside the envelopes, until I find what I want all way in the bottom, swathed inside a sock. The crystal vial with the dried rose from Mum’s garden. It has followed me from the day I left here, all way across the ocean, and back again. I rest it gently under the epitaph and kneel, running my icy hand over the marble.
To my surprise, it is not cold. It’s warm, almost hot from the sun. My fingertips thaw slightly, and I spread both hands on the marble, pressing them against it. The stone doesn’t budge, but the wind gentles and blows my hair away from my face. Like a caress.
How often have I thought about the words I would say to them and now, I can’t form them. Instead of words, or even letters, my body breaks into dry, violent sobs. My entire frame is shaking, vibrating until my teeth start to chatter. The tombstone tilts and blurs. A strange, strangled sound rips through my teeth, drowning the gentle hum of the wind. Under my knees the earth is rocking with a cradle-like movement. I know it’s not the earth; it’s me. I grip the marble edge and rest my cheek on the slab. Exactly where Mum’s chest would be.
I keep my eyes only on the epitaph I chose. Love conquers all. What a beautiful lie to tell. As though to prove the truth, the last four years burst through all my walls and fill my vision with every love I’ve lost. Dad’s Oxford thinker lines, Mum’s rosy cheeks, Maria’s liver-spotted hands, Antonio’s rumbly voice, the little girls’ giggles, Javier’s sunny smile, and Aiden’s sapphire eyes brightening to turquoise in peace as he looks at me. Agony tears through me, knocking me breathless, blinding me with its force. My body convulses as wave after wave of pain swells over me, fighting over which lost beloved face will rip me into pieces. I grip the marble tighter—my only anchor in the squall—and shut my eyes.
“Hydrogen,” I rasp. “Oxygen, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen . . .” In the deluge, I can’t recall the atomic weights of the elements or their order, but I choke out their names over and over and over. The marble radiates warmth through my chest, and the sun heats my back as though they’re battling the storm with me. I focus only on the world outside my head—the woody scent of cypress, the birds’ warble, the dewy grass under my knees—until the sobs recede and the shivers slow down. I don’t know how long it takes. Time no longer has meaning. But when they finally stop, I don’t move. I just lie there, breathing the hilltop air. It’s fine, I tell myself, it’s fine; you survived it. It can’t get worse than that.
At first, I think it’s the wind. Brushing through my tangled locks gently, sweeping them away from my face. But the caress feels too substantial, fingers instead of air. Combing through my strands, grazing my cheek softly.
“Elisa?” A low, husky voice murmurs next to me. Its rich timbre is so beautiful that my heart twitches with ache.
“Elisa? Baby?” The voice croons again, this time closer. A gust of warm breath tickles my cheek, and the fiery aroma of cinnamon wafts with the grass-scented air. I inhale deeply, for some reason surprised that my lungs are working.
“Elisa, can you hear me?” The voice pleads with heartbreaking softness. I open my mouth to answer but something silky, like petals, touches my lips.
“Open your eyes, love.” That word, that last word—so small, so big when the voice says it. My eyelids flutter to obey, but deep in my belly, something starts to thrash and claw as though in warning. It doesn’t want me to listen to the voice.
“Please, Elisa!” The voice begs now, breaking with anxiety. I ignore the thrashing thing—nothing is worth the anguish in this voice—and fling my eyes open.
I am glad I did.
Because the moment I see the seraphic face, twisted with tension, a sense of well-being washes over me. Rightness, the word resounds in my head, and strangely I remember the laughter of children.
“Aiden?” I sigh.
The deep sapphire eyes gazing back at me start brightening, like always. Marine, cerulean, azure, and finally a light, peaceful turquoise. The rest of his face glows, effervescent with beauty. I raise my hand to touch his cheek, but his eyes lock.
“Once I love, I love forever,” he says, and disappears.
My hand clutches around freezing, pitch-black void.
A guttural cry pierces the silence, and I jolt up, blinking and panting. The first thing that comes into focus is the tombstone, rose-gold now, no longer warm. The meadow is empty, grass swaying with wind, not with someone’s passage. The sky is a swirl of vermilion and sapphire. The color sends my insides throbbing. A lark rockets out of the cypress high into the air, its dusk song replacing my cry. I shudder where I am, frozen solid to the marble. Gulping the crisp air, I sit there a while longer, trying to shake off the nightmare.
No, not a nightmare. It was a lovely dream. And not just a dream, but a memory. A composite of beautiful moments I have truly lived. The rose petals on my lips like our first embargo morning; my epiphany of wanting my own children as Aiden and I babysat Javier’s sisters; Aiden’s gentle caress every time he woke me up; his words, his promises—all of that happened, they really happened.
With a feeling of dread, I realize that things can get a lot worse. Where traumatic memories didn’t kill me, the beautiful ones will do the job.
I scramble up—my body screaming with its own agony. A razor-sharp ache wrings my shoulders and neck. My muscles burn with stiffness and from the sprint up the hill. My ears, nose, fingers, and toes are numb with cold, and my throat is raw as though I’ve scrubbed it with sand paper. Everywhere I touch, it hurts. And I deserve it.
Suddenly, I’m furious with myself. For everything. For falling asleep on a grave, for drinking so much bloody coffee that I couldn’t sleep until my body collapsed in exhaustion, for drifting into memories when I should focus on the present and, above all, for still feeling the way I do about him.
These are faults serious enough to earn me my own padded room at the Burford Hospital, but fury is pouring freely now for all my decisions, all my mistakes. Inflicting him on the Solises, falling for him against all sense and reason, getting on that fucking plane to America in the first place, running away like a coward, abandoning everything the two people under this headstone tried to give me. Rage pulses through me, hot like the gushing blood of a wounded animal. It claws against my chest, and I finally recognize the thing that was clawing inside me in the dream. Even asleep, I make mistakes. My hands ball up in fists, and a scream tears through my lips. The force of my anger scorches my throat, stretching my vocal chords until I run out of oxygen.
It feels good. It feels good to scream by choice, and not for him.
He will not have any more pieces of me.
I straighten up, breathing hard and brushing grass from my jeans. But as I look down at myself—standing here by a grave with stained clothes, frozen limbs, no food in my stomach, no water, only aches and shivers—I know the problem is deeper than him. The problem is me.
Shame takes the place of rage and settles deep. It roots me here for a while as all the mistakes of my last four years merge into one thing: I keep letting myself get hurt over and over again. I keep chasing dreams. Well, no more. This is my third chance at the life I was meant to live. Science, roses, tea . . . quiet. Perhaps with time it will not feel like another death or a betrayal. Perhaps when I’m gray and old, I might even say I healed.
I stumble up to the tombstone and rest my hand on it. The words I’ve wanted to tell my parents finally come.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “For everything.”
The leaves of the miniature roses flutter in the wind like a nod. Strange how human beings will find signs to confirm what we want to hear.
I reach in my rucksack one more time, and fish out the dog tags. They jingle with a joyful sound at odds with their macabre purpose of identifying soldiers for burial. My fingers tremble over the letters carved in the steel surface.
Aiden Hale; Blood type zero; Social Security Number 520-13-1117; No religious preference for burying.
Of its own volition, my hand clutches around the tags so tight that the metal edges dig into my skin and my knuckles crack with the strain. How can someone with the blood type that saves everyone else destroy so many lives? I wrench my hand open and pick up the rose vial from the tombstone. I lift its hermetic seal and drop the tags inside, next to the dead rose. Then I reseal the cap and set the vial back on the grave.
“Goodbye,” I tell him.
A gust of wind blows through the hilltop, hugging me once, and then it’s gone.
©2016 Ani Keating