NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 5 – CHEATER

Hey everyone! First, thank you so much for all your messages, comments, and prayers after my last post! After all this time, I truly wasn’t expecting anyone would still read, and it warmed my heart to see so many of you come back here to this space to read more about Aiden and Elisa, and to check on me. Seeing all your names and messages was exactly like one of you put it: like meeting old friends after a long time and picking up exactly where you left off without missing a beat.  It meant so much. I had missed you and this little friendship we have built so much. And, an unexpected bonus: seeing you made some more words flow. I’m not naive enough to think that the trauma of the last few years is letting me be, but every day or hour where I can do something beyond cry or grieve feels like a gift. So thank you for that too. Truly. 

And second, as a thank you, here is Chapter 5 – a lot longer than usual. Originally it was two chapters, but – well – you’ve waited so long.  I hope you enjoy it. I hope you let me know. And I hope I can keep going.  Lots of love, xo–Ani 

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It’s pitch-dark inside the cottage. The air is stale with the scent of books and aged wood.  Mr. Plemmons—in his eighties by now—must only come here every few days.  I will have to thank him tomorrow morning for caring for my home so well. I fumble for the light switch on the wall, relieved when the overhead chandelier lights up, bathing the small foyer in a soft glow.  At least electricity went as planned.

On the oak console is the crystal vase of the last roses Mum ever cut, now dried and shriveled. Pictures of the three of us on our world travels line the foyer walls. And on the coatrack still hang Dad’s tweed scarf and Mum’s ladybug-red parka, now faded to pink. Gently, I caress Mum’s sleeve. The fabric is stiffened with time, cracking under my hand like a roll of parchment.

“Hello,” I whisper. “It’s me.” 

I reach in the pocket, afraid of finding it empty, but she doesn’t let me down. Inside, there is a grocery list and a Baci quote—of course.

“If you can forget, forgive.  If you can’t forgive, forget.”

I stare at the words, trying to convince myself that they are just a coincidence. That Mum could not have predicted I might need them some day. Then again, maybe she could. I blink away tears and tuck the note back in her pocket, shoving away memories of reading Baci quotes with him. Some things even Mum would not forgive. 

I dump the rucksack and sneakers on the floor and slip off my dirty socks, clenching my teeth when the skin peels off in some spots. But the cool floorboards feel balmy against my soles as I start roaming the cottage, turning on every light.

White sheets are draped over the furniture like ghosts. I can’t stand looking at them and smelling the lifeless dust. I start ripping them off, grey clouds puffing up everywhere. Sneezing, I open every single window until the rosy breeze floods every nook and cranny. It blows through the cottage with me as I dash through every room, checking to make sure everything is as it should be. It seems so—the picture frames, pillows, the last book Dad was reading on his nightstand—yet I cannot shake this sense of panic that someone else has been here, has touched them, has moved them an imperceptible inch. Rationally, I know it isn’t true; I know it’s only this guilt, this grip of possessiveness that I now feel over every speckle of dust here. How could I have left it unprotected?

I save my favorite room for last. Dad’s library. Bookshelves line the green-paneled walls floor to ceiling. The plaid, squashy armchair still has a dent on the seat, as if Dad just got up to go to the kitchen. This is where my love for science first started, where I memorized the periodic table that spans the entire back wall. And where my most precious treasure is—one that I could not take to America. The unfinished chess game that Dad and I started the morning before the accident.

It rests under another sheet on the corner table, inside the glass flower case Mr. Plemmons gave me after the funeral. The sheet is askew, and I panic again. What if a piece has been touched or knocked over? Hands trembling, I peel away the sheet and air flows freely again. Every piece is exactly as we last played it. I was white. Dad was black. Six moves to checkmate for each of us. I run my fingers over the glass case, knowing I’ll never finish this game, and pad to Dad’s desk, shutting down the memory of another chessboard in another library in his home in Portland. 

Dad’s desk is messier than I remember it; he must have been running late that last day. But everything seems to be here—the solved Rubik’s cube, the After Eight peppermint wraps, the yellow notepads with his scribbles. I caress the indentations of his precise script, missing him so much in this moment that I wish I was there with him, under marble.

Unable to stand myself, or the silence, I fire up our Oxford Bodleian desktop, or Bod as we used to call it. I am prepared for it to take ages to turn on and update, but the loyal machine hums back to life with ease and the Internet is connected. I need to call Reagan—she must be besides herself with worry. Sure enough, Skype’s first ring is barely finished before she picks up.  

“ISA!” Her American accent booms around the library, and her face and wild red ringlets fill my screen. For an instant, my chest clenches with joy, not pain. But then I see her red-shot eyes and tear-streaked cheeks, and the 8,000 miles between us stun me into silence. They must stun her too because for a moment we just stare at each other across the pixels. She is sitting on my old bed, in my old room, wrapped in my old blanket, wearing her purple fascinator. 

“Oh sweetie!” She finds words first. “I’ve been so worried. You were supposed to get there hours ago! Are you okay? What happened?”

A whole life. A whole death. “I… I’m so sorry, Reg. It’s been—” I stop because I can’t tell her about falling asleep on graves. Only one of us should have nightmares.

  “Hell,” she finishes for me. “It’s been hell, I can see it.”

I swallow hard—even my best friend is not safe from my mistakes. “It had to happen . . . I had to face it.”

  “Yeah, but not like this. Not alone . . . Hey, have you heard from Aiden?”

It’s the first time his name is said out loud since Portland, since before the end. It rings like a shotgun, echoing off the walls of the library, reverberating throughout the cottage, until it pierces through my lungs. The wound flares, as though my ribcage is being ripped open. My arms wrap instinctively around my torso.

“Don’t say his name!” I spit out. My tone is sharper, harsher than I intended, and Reagan leans back, her eyes widening. I take a deep breath, staring at the periodic table on the wall. “Sorry, Reg, I just can’t handle hearing his name. But, no, I haven’t heard from him and I don’t expect I ever will.” This is what he wanted after all. To put distance between us. He’ll never let our lives collide again. And that is a good thing.

            “No, no, Isa, you don’t understand!” Reagan presses. “I saw him at the airport! Right after your plane took off. He missed you by five minutes, ten maybe. That’s why I thought he must have called or come over there.”

            Everything inside me goes silent at this announcement. “What?” I manage after a moment. 

            Reagan is off then—fast and animated, like she has been bursting to speak for hours. “Oh, Isa, I didn’t know what to do. One minute I was watching you take off, the next I was sitting there on the airport floor, looking at the pictures in your camera. The one you gave me before you left, remember? And I was crying so much. Just seeing all your pictures, everything you loved, and then bam! There he was! Towering over me with Benson and these two big guys I’d never seen before. Do you know who they are?”

            I’m so lost it takes me a second to realize she is asking me. “Umm, no—no idea.”  Maybe his Marine friends? Hendrix or Jazzman or Callahan?

            “Oh! Well, they looked pretty intense. Anyway, the minute Aid—I mean he saw me, he dropped to his knees—more like fell actually. ‘Is she gone?’ he said. I was so shocked to see him, I couldn’t answer right away so he grabbed my shoulder and kept asking ‘is she gone? Is she gone?’

            “So then—well, you know me and my big mouth—I flipped out. I told him it was all his fault and he ruined your life. And a bunch of other horrible things. But he just sat there on his knees, frozen. Except his shoulders were convulsing, kind of like he was getting electrocuted. It was weird. Benson and the two guys were hovering over him like he was dying—honestly, I think he might have been. But he wouldn’t talk to them. He just kept staring at the camera, at your picture on the screen.

            “Then Benson said something really fast to the two guys and they ran off somewhere. And security came because I was yelling. Aid—he didn’t even look at them! He was just locked on your picture. And his eyes—holy shit, Isa, I’ve never seen eyes like that. It was scary. Like he was burning or something.

            “Anyway, I didn’t want to get in trouble so I stood up to leave but then he sort of came to and asked if he could have your camera. Can you believe it? I was like, “fuck no!” I thought he’d get mad, you know, like he does, but he just said, ‘Please. I’m begging.’ I said “no way” and ran out of there. I only looked back when I got to the exit doors and he was still kneeling there on the floor, Benson with him.”

            Reagan stops talking abruptly. A ringing silence follows her story—punctuated only by her harsh breathing as though she had said all this without drawing breath. But inside me there is clamoring chaos. The questions are deafening—hammering against my skull like a stampede so that for once the throbbing in my temples is worse than the one in my chest. How could he have been surprised that I left? Why would he chase me to the airport after doing everything in his power to push me away? And why would the man with eidetic memory ask for my camera?

            Yet louder than all of these questions is a faint whisper, so deep inside I almost miss it. It doesn’t care about the how’s or the why’s. It has only one worry, just one: is he all right? And because of that, I hate it. I hate it with vengeance. Because I know that whisper—it is the cheater part of me that likes his delusions, the traitor that listened to him in my sleep on the hilltop, perhaps that conjured the dream-nightmare in the first place. Mutiny against the self when I’m barely surviving, when I’m trying to move on.

            “Isa?” Reagan brings me back.

            “Yes?”

            “So what do you think? About Aid—him at the airport, I mean.”

            I try to crystallize what matters and what doesn’t. “I think he was there out of guilt.  Benson obviously told him I was leaving and he came there to try to contain the fallout of his actions. His last words to me were ‘go live your American dream.’ I think he was hoping I’d just take the green card and move on.  He never expected me to leave—” My voice chokes off. How little he knew me. How little he knows about love.

            “I don’t know, Isa…he seemed pretty broken up. I’ve been thinking. What if we have this all wrong?”

            “How could we have it wrong when he admitted it, Reg? I don’t care how broken and guilty he feels now. He turned Javier in. He ruined my family!” I snarl through my teeth, the force of my anger chaffing against my raw throat.

            “But Isa, what if he didn’t?”

            “Stop it, Reagan!”

            “No, hear me out! There’s something else. He moved the Solises!” Reagan’s voice becomes pleading. 

            “What? What do you mean he moved them?” 

            My stunned question must encourage her because she is off again. “He moved them last night to a different home so ICE can’t find them now that Javier is caught. Maria told me when I called to check in. She said Aid—damn it, I mean he had called her and explained and sent movers to set them up. Apparently, it was all done within hours. He has moved them in with his parents . . . ”

            Reagan is still talking but the stampede inside my head becomes so loud, it drowns out her voice.  My Solises—my souls—have been uprooted, but I can’t deny that it is safer, that I should have thought of it. And they’re staying with his parents, probably because it’s the last place where ICE would ever look. And the last place where Solises would see him because he never visits his parents. Of course, it was all done immediately, with trusted movers, so he could not be anywhere near the girls. Despite my hatred of him now, I can’t help admire the military precision of his execution.

            “Isa? Did you hear me?”

            “No, sorry. What did you say?”

            “I said why would he go through all that trouble if he didn’t care about the Solises?”

            I don’t have many answers but I have that one. “Because it’s the least he could do, Reg, after tearing them apart. Don’t you see? He turned in Javier to save me, but there is nothing to be gained from deporting the whole family. He doesn’t want to think of himself as a monster. So he’ll try to save them to feel better about what he did.”

            Reagan’s raised eyebrow tells me she is not convinced. “But why, Isa? Why would he do this horrible thing in the first place? I mean, he obviously loves you. I don’t understand.”

            Of course she doesn’t. But it’s not her fault because she is missing information. Information like the fact that he suffers from PTSD and has a violent startle reflex that will cause him to attack anyone who sneaks up behind him. Like he attacked his mother. And then banished himself from her life. Like he attacked me. And then stopped at nothing to force me to leave him after that, including reporting Javier. No price was too high as long as I was safe from him. That is how he operates. Safety at any cost.

            These are things I cannot tell Reagan; they’re his secrets that even now, somehow, I feel bound to protect. But I also cannot lie to her—not when she is the only thing still right in my world. “Some day I’ll tell you the whole truth, Reg. But right now, I just need you to trust me that there is a major reason why he did all this. Can you do that for me?”

            She looks at me with knitted eyebrows for a moment, but then nods. “I trust you.” 

            “Thank you,” I whisper, staring at the keyboard trying to find letters for my next words. They are hard words, but necessary to my survival. “And I need you to promise me something…” 

            “Anything, sweetie. What do you need?”

            “I need you to never mention him again. I need you to promise me that this is the last time we will ever speak of him. No matter what.”

            It’s Reagan’s turn for a long pause now. I watch her resistance in every flutter of her curls, in every twitch of her eyebrows. After a few moments, she simply nods. 

            “I need your help to forget him, Reg, I can’t do it alone.” I plead, my voice breaking even as I reach deep for my anger. But it galvanizes her into the sister she has always been to me.

            “I’m here, Isa. What can I do?”

            My heart stutters. As though it thinks its beats are numbered. As though it knows a part of it is about to be flayed alive. The cheater part—the part that lets him in.  But the cheater and I cannot both survive.  One must die and—for my parents, for their hopes for me, for Reagan, for the Solises—it cannot be me. “I need you to log into my Gmail account and delete everything from him, then block his address.” I know it’s an empty action—he will never write—but the cheater cannot have access to his old words, the old him. She would only nurse him back to life while draining me.

            “Isa, are you sure?” Reagan’s voice trembles.

            “Yes, my password is “i-s-a-i-d-e-n-May7,” I say, embarrassed and broken for the girl I was a month ago, putting all her dreams and hopes in foolish passwords like this. “Change it after you delete everything, and tell me what the new one is.”

            She only nods this time. 

            “Tell Maria not to mention him to me either, please. Don’t tell her why; just tell her it hurts. Tell her I need space from it all.”

            “Okay. If she will listen…”

            “For me, she will. Besides, I won’t be able to call her while they’re living with his parents.” I realize now I will miss the Solises even more. Anger burns my throat again. “And, last, never give him any information about me.” Something stabs at my insides, as though the cheater is trying to fight back. “I don’t think he’ll ever ask but, if he did, I don’t want any part of my life to be shared with him. Promise?”

            She closes her eyes, and her shoulders rise in a deep breath. “I promise.” 

            With a loud thud from my heart, the cheater part is gasping her last breaths. Soon now, she will be gone. “Thank you, Reg.” I whisper, tightening my arm around my torso.

            “And one day you will tell me why?”

            “I will,” I promise her back.

            Another silence falls between us then. It’s dark out here but daylight still in Portland. How will I wake up tomorrow without Reagan, without the Solises, without Portland’s rain? How will I fall asleep tonight? 

            As though she is wondering the same things, Reagan says, “I’ll be there soon. Right after Javier’s trial on the fifteenth. You just do your best until then. One way or another, I’m bringing you back home.” 

            Home. Why are these four-letter words so heavy? Home, hate, love, oath, rage, hurt, hope, live, life. But I amhome. Whatever I hate, that part I love. But I don’t say this to Reagan. I don’t tell her about the oath I took on my parents’ grave, the rage against the self. I can’t hurt her. Right now she needs hope that someday I will return. So she can live her life.   

            “Do you want to see something?” she says, her voice suddenly lighter.

            “Sure.”

            “Hang on!”  She fumbles out of my bed with her laptop, and I see my old walls and closet in the background as she pads to my old window and opens it. Then the little rhododendron yard in front of our apartment fills my screen. The pink and cyclamen blooms are exactly as I left them. A heavy rain beats down on their petals mercilessly, yet they stand upright—their rugged, Oregonian stems not flinching an inch under the torrent. 

            “Can you see it?” asks Reagan.

            “Yes,” I breathe.

            “It started pouring right after you left. Three inches already. It’s a record. Even the sky is crying for you.”

            “It’s not crying, it’s singing.”

            “How does it look over there?”

            I turn Bod around so she can see the library. “Oh!” I hear her gasp. “Show me everything!” I give her a little tour—my reading nook, the chess game, the periodic table, the books.  

            “It’s precious,” she says in a wistful tone. “It’s so… you.” Her voice breaks, and I wonder if she is realizing that I might be gone forever. I cannot stand her pain. 

            “You’ll see it for yourself soon. And when it’s light tomorrow, I’ll show you the rose garden. You’ll die when you see it! Very British. Can you hear the river?”

            We stay like this together for a while, me listening to Portland’s rain, Reagan listening to River Windrush and the whispering willows. She’s here, she’s here. “I can stay on while you fall sleep, if you want?” she offers. 

            I want to say yes; I want to curl up here, with her on the line, and if I am lucky enough, I will not wake up. But that would violate Rule Number Two: that would keep me in the past. “No, don’t worry, I’m jetlagged. There won’t be much sleep, until you’re here with all your hats.”

            She giggles. “I’ve already started packing. See?” She points at the fascinator fluttering on her head. “Purple. For your eyes,” she chokes up again. “Okay, I’ll let you be. I’ll go do those…things…you asked and send you a fresh password. Then I’ll go see Maria. Try to get some sleep and make sure you set up your cell phone for England, okay?”

            I nod, trying not to think about the fact that Reagan will meet his parents and I never did. “I love you,” I tell her.

            “Love you, too.” She blows me a kiss, and then she is gone.

            The silence she leaves behind is unbearable so I turn on BBC. The commentator is discussing protests to legalize undocumented immigrants in the United States. If only protests could save Javier; if only they could reach inside his cell doors.

            I pad back to the foyer, pick up my rucksack, and make my way back to the library, my goal now the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia of Elements.  The cheater starts clawing at my insides as she realizes what I am about to do. I dig up his envelopes from my rucksack with fast, jerky movements, wishing Benson had never given them to me. I cannot burn or shred them, and if I were to mail them, they could get lost. I’ll send them back with Reagan when she comes to visit. Until then, they will stay locked up. I punch in the code, and the safe clicks open, revealing the miniscule universe of our important documents within. A copy of the deed to the cottage, my parents’ diplomas, Dad’s formulas every time he invented something. I shove the envelopes in the far back, and lock the safe shut. They seem to call and rattle from their prison inside the wall. Skype dings from the Bod, and Reagan’s message pops up on the screen: “All done. New password: ReaganIsComingJune16. Xo.”

            Is there a better friend in this world? I log quickly into my sanitized account. Reagan has been thorough—in my inbox it’s as if he never existed. The cheater thrashes again, so I start composing an email to Professor Edison, my Dad’s colleague and friend at Oxford. Perhaps he will have a job or internship for me. I type slowly at first, trying to explain my sudden return and interest in Oxford when I rejected it four years ago. But every letter, every word feels a step further away from America, from my past, from him. And another nail in the cheater’s coffin. My fingers move faster over the keyboard.

            I hit “send” trying not to think of Professor Edison’s reaction when he sees this. He worked closely with my Dad—the two of them would lock themselves in the lab for hours as they were developing a formula or a new chemical. He reached out to me a few times over the years but, as with everything British, I never reached back. Who knows if he will even want to help me.

            Abruptly, the weight of the last four years, thirty days, and thirty-six hours seems to free-fall over me, and my whole frame starts trembling. A deep chill seeps through my skin, all way to my bones. I trudge up the creaky stairs to the bathroom. It’s time to wash the past off, no matter how much the cheater fights against it. 

            I run the faucet for a while until the water is hot and clear on the tiny copper tub. During the first shower I took here all by myself, Mum sat on the toilet, telling me I should always raise my face to the water. It rinses off bad thoughts, she said. I step under the scalding stream now, wondering whether England has enough reserve to rinse off my thoughts. To wash off an entire continent, an entire life, an entire dream.

            The water scorches my skin but I welcome it, rubbing it methodically with one of Mum’s rose soaps. My fingers skate over the yellowing bruises he left on my skin. The contours of his fingers look like rust where he gripped me on my arm and shoulder. Four welts, the length of his fingers and the L-shaped imprint of his thumb on my bicep. It resembles the scar above his eye. I shut down the memory by scrubbing my skin harder. With each sud and bubble, the last molecules of America dissolve in reverse order. Portland’s carpeted airport, Reagan’s tears, Maria’s last kiss, Benson’s hug, Javier’s shackles, and finally, finally, his body, his kisses, his scent—all down the drain. Exactly as they did when I washed him off after our embargo night. He forced my hand then too.

            When he is gone from my pores, and all America with him, I sit under the stream of water, wondering how long it will take to expunge them from my insides. It could be one of those wars you wage until your last breath. But if war keeps you alive, wouldn’t you fight it?

            The last bubbles pop and disappear down the drain, and just like that, America is gone.  I tense for the cheater to stab inside me again, but there is nothing.  Shutting him out and washing him off in every day finally removed her only reason for living. Mentally, I lay her corpse on the hilltop grave. 

            Feeling freer, I dry off, put on pajamas, and wrap myself tightly with Mum’s soft robe. Her perpetual scent of roses lingers here too, and I inhale deeply, imagining it’s her hair, her shoulder, her skin. But it’s not enough. Somehow, although I’m not running away anymore, although I’m closer, I have never missed my parents more. I make my way downstairs to the living room, my mission now the small TV set in the corner. I slide one of our old home movies in the ancient VCR, and turn on the TV.  It takes a moment, but then the small screen lights up.  Entranced, I curl up on the sofa, eyes fixed on the screen. 

            It’s spring twenty-one years ago, out front in this same garden. The roses on the screen are blooming like they are now, just fewer. Mum is wearing her polka dot dress, crouched with her arms wide open, smiling at a chubby little toddler in a matching polka dot jumper, stumbling a few feet away. Me.

            “Keep going, love,” she croons, and I hear my Dad’s deep laughter from behind the camera he is holding. The film gets blurry from the tears I did not know had started to fall. I wipe them away with Mum’s sleeve, unwilling to miss a second. 

            We are by the beech trees, my baby tree is only as tiny as me. The grass is thick with petals—safe enough for a toddler to fall. 

            “Keep going, Elisa,” Mum sings again, and Dad and the camera zoom closer. The toddler’s fists seem clenched around something—petals, I think—and she is giggling with a joy that only my parents ever brought on.

            “Yes, that’s it. That’s it.” Little me takes another step, stretching out her fist full of petals at Mum. Mum looks at my Dad. “Are you getting this?”

            “Every second,” he answers, and she blows him a kiss. “I love you,” I hear him mumble, probably to himself. Or maybe for her to hear someday. The screen gets blurry again from the tears. 

            “Keep going, darling,” Mum tells little me again. I watch her face transfixed as Dad steps closer. But he zooms the camera on little me, pointing at him and babbling, “Dada.”

            “That’s right, my love. That’s your Dada. He loves you so much. Keep going, sweetheart.” 

            The light of the TV swaths the dark living room in a soft blue. I watch the little, happy family over and over again, even though my sleeve is soaked and my eyes sting with hot tears. Keep going. Keep going.

            “Elisa? Love?” Dad’s voice sounds different now, almost worried, but Mum is still laughing. “Can you hear me?” the voice asks, and I realize it’s not Dad. This voice is huskier, deeper, closer.  

            “Love, listen to me.” The voice pleads now, more musical even than Mum’s laugh. I wait for the man with the piano voice to join the little family on the screen, but there is no one else. 

            “Elisa?” It sounds like a beautiful lament, like a mournful nightingale song. Then three quick taps, like a knock, and the voice begs again. “Come to the window, love. Let me in.”

            My head whips away from the screen toward the still-open window, and I squint through the pale blue glimmer of the TV. My heart is pounding a healthy, robust beat—invincible and strong.  I know there should be a wound festering in my chest, but there is nothing—only free, clear air.

            “Aiden?” I breathe, dashing to the window, squinting to see out in the dark garden. I can’t see his face, but his tall frame and unmistakable tense shoulders are silhouetted against the moonlight. A wave of wellness washes over me, even as I know I am supposed to fight it. “Aiden, what on earth are you doing here?”

            “Come, let me show you,” he says, and strangely I think of Reed College. “Bring a jacket, it’s cold out here,” he adds. I laugh—the motion feels strange, unfamiliar. Sprinting to the foyer, I throw on Mum’s parka and wrench open the door. He is standing by the Elisa blooms, framed against the moonlight, his back to me. But he must hear me, because he turns. I still can’t see his face from here, but I sense he smiles. “Come, you have to see.”  He sounds eager, urgent even.

            “See what? Aiden, wait! When did you get here?” But he has started to walk across the garden toward the river already in that quick way of his. I follow in a trance, reveling in the feeling of safety that cocoons me. Deep in my belly, I remember I should be angry but, with the moonlight like a halo above him, I can’t remember why. He stops by the reading bench, almost on the riverbank, beckoning me forward. I reach him finally, impatient to see his face.

            He turns then, his seraphic face stunning me with its beauty. In the light of the full moon, I can now see his eyes morphing as always into calm pools as he gazes at me. His skin glimmers with happiness, as though the moon’s very blood is flowing underneath.       “Look,” he whispers, pointing across the river to the field ahead. 

            I resent having to look away from his face but I follow his finger, straining to see in the dark. “What, Aiden? What am I looking for?”

            He smiles, but it’s a small, wistful smile—sadness lingering at the corners of his mouth, like a kiss. “Answers,” he says, and the ache in his voice throbs inside my chest. I would give everything to erase that sadness. 

            “What answers?” I ask, stepping closer, inches from him now, inhaling his cinnamon breath. I raise my hand to caress his lips, to wipe away the sadness, but his eyes—so calm and clear—lock frozen.        

            “Once I love, I love forever,” he says, and disappears. 

            My fingers flutter over an icy black void. 

            A piercing cry rends the air, still echoing into the night, even as I jolt awake, disoriented, looking around me, searching in panic. What I see only terrifies me more. I truly am out in the garden by the riverbank, the cottage right behind me, the front door open. I am barefoot, wearing Mum’s red parka over her robe, just like in the dream.

            And I am alone. There is no one else here. My knees give out and I plop down on the reading bench, heart pounding still, throat burning from my scream, the rest of me shaking. But worse of all are my insides. Gone is the wellness, the joy; the only things left are pain and dread. Dread that something has broken deep inside me.  Something beyond my heart.  Something in my brain. What else could explain this? Am I sleepwalking? What kind of dreams are these? Neither asleep, nor awake, just vivid composites of memories, thrown together in a senseless mash by a crazed mind.  Is it a crazed mind? Why did it bring me here to this spot? What is it searching for? Answers, he said, and I look at the field across the river uselessly, as if they will be spelled there.

            But stronger than any other fear is the terror of realizing that the cheater was never dead.  She was only biding her time, waiting to let him in when my defenses are down. Fueling these dreams, these memories, destroying by night everything I build by day. What hope do I have to survive this when a part of my own self does not want me to? How can I fight an enemy I cannot see?  Briefly, I consider going to a doctor, but my mind rejects the option. I test reality—I can pinch myself, a rose thorn makes me bleed, my coat drops if I let it, the date in my head matches the date on my Dad’s watch, I remember exactly how I got here—so insanity must not be the cause. I ponder other options for a while, sitting here on this bench, pressing my thumb gently against the rose thorns, feeling the reassuring prick that tells me I am real, this is real, and I am awake. 

In the end, I decide it must be grief. True, I never had these kinds of dreams when my parents died but grief changes, I know. And this was a different shock; a betrayal, not an accident. Of course my brain is still processing what happened, trying to catch up with my body here in Burford when so much of it is stuck in Portland. Yes, that must be it. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I resolve to give it a few days for the jetlag and the shock to wear off. And double my efforts during the day to block him out and silence the cheater once and for all. 

            Calmer now, I pad back inside and lock the door. I gulp some water straight from the faucet and trudge up the stairs to my parents’ bedroom. I curl up on Mum’s side, focusing only the whispering willows. She’s here, she’s here—a sibilant lullaby sooths me into a dreamless sleep.

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©2020 Ani Keating

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39 thoughts on “NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 5 – CHEATER

  1. iheartroarke says:

    For some reason, I get tears in my eyes reading your posts. Maybe because I’m so happy to read them and also glad to hear from you. I’m so glad that these messages have helped you in a small way. You are not alone and how could we forget such a story? I loved this latest chapter. I have missed Elisa and Reg. I hope the words continue to flow and that each day is a little better than the last. After all, the dawn comes after the dark so there is light to brighten the day. Wishing you all the best! xox.

    • Ani Keating says:

      Hello darling! I hope they are good tears, and yes, these messages have been like little sparks in an otherwise pretty bleak and dark time. Thank you for being such a bright spark. xo

  2. Wattle Ido says:

    Oh You!!!!
    I thought he was there!!!
    I have so missed you and your writing and I’m sorry for all the grief you have dealt with but you write grief and heart ache so amazingly well.

    • Ani Keating says:

      My friend! I’ve missed you so much. Pics of your flowers to Contrite Shadow have given me a smile during this time. I’m so so happy to see you and your name here. And I’m sorry to hear the last seven years have been hell for you. I knew it was rough early on, I had hoped things had improved, but breaks my heart that they have not. What a powerhouse you are though–to keep going and still be such a source of goodness. Take strength my friend. We must hope for better times ahead. xo

    • Ani Keating says:

      My dearest friend! It made me so happy to see you back here. Your flowers in Twitter have been a spot of joy more often than you know. I’ve missed you and those old days when, despite the challenges, we/I was able to resurface. I hope you have been above water, breathing in air. How is your boy? How is our friend CS? Miss you darling and hope you enjoy the rest of the chapters.

  3. bibo61 says:

    Thank you, Ani 🙂 I just checked in my mail account and saw the notifications. I hope your days will get brighter, as you made mine just brighter.

  4. Suzi says:

    Welcome back! You have been missed. Time is a real bitch, right. I’m so sorry you are going through it on so many fronts. I will say a prayer for your husband and for your marriage.

    • Ani Keating says:

      Hi Suzi, my friend, thank you so much for being here for me on the other side. How have you been? I’ve missed you so. I hope life has been kinder to you–you deserve it so much. xo

  5. sillie j says:

    Hi Ani. Sorry to hear that it hs been bad for you and very glad you are back for however long that may be. I must confess I was sad at first when you disappeared but then I got to terms with it and now I am joyfully surprised with the continuation of what is happening with Elisa and Aiden and Javi and all. You have a unique voice and strong characters and it is a pleasure to read. However, first of all, take care of yourself. If that includes writing, then we are lucky and grateful for each word. And if writing is not happening, then don’t worry. We will be here and it will be like meeting old friends again. I wish you all the best. Day by day.

    • Ani Keating says:

      Hi you, and thank you so much for your kind words. They mean a lot to me. So glad to hear you are back here for more Aiden and Elisa. I hope i don’t let you down. xo

  6. Elizabeth t dairies says:

    Wow guilt is killing Aiden now. He doesn’t get it. He needs lots and lots of help. He says he loves her but destroyed the only family she had left. Poor Elsa with no one to help her get over this huge grief. She needs to find employment to keep her distracted and soon.

    • Ani Keating says:

      🙂 So glad you are still here. Nothing is really as it seems when it comes to Aiden, is it? The man is complex…

    • Ani Keating says:

      Hah! No one does guilt better than Aiden! Hope you liked I gave her a job the next chapter. So curious to see how you all react to Aiden after reading the next few. Thank you for being here and commenting after such a long time. xo

  7. Heather Reed says:

    I have really missed this story! And now I am going to go back and re-read it! Take care and stay safe and thank you!

    • Ani Keating says:

      Thank you so much for being here and for reading. I’m curious how the re-read will feel after the upcoming chapter 8. 🙂 Let me know. xo

    • Ani Keating says:

      Thank you so much for waiting and I’m so sorry it’s been so long. I hope you enjoy the chapters, and yes, re-reading it is probably a good idea after all this time. Many are doing it. I tried to read my own but it’s hard–I always think of another thing to add or say. Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting.

  8. Karen Cronin says:

    There is so much of this story I remember and so much I have forgotten, like the Baci quotes, don’t know how I forgot them as they are such a huge part of Elisa. Delighted that Aidan moved Javiers family, when the dust settles and Elisa has time to think things through she might just start piecing things together to realise that Aidan didn’t do anything. Thank you so so much for giving us another chapter and more time with Elisa.
    As you mentioned any little time you get to not grieve and cry is a blessing and I truly hope that little by little those few moments or few hours come to stay a little longer each time until it becomes those little few moments or hours that you’re grieving. You know it will take time but it will happen. Just know that we are all thinking of you and wishing you so much love to bring you peace and happiness again. Stay strong, you will get there little by little. Thank you so much for giving us another amazing chapter xxx

  9. Holly Oates says:

    Ani!! I didn’t realize how much I missed your story until I got this post. Had to do a double take! So happy elisa is coming through you again. I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles these past few years, I fear you’re not alone, but will keep you in my thoughts and hope things get better each day.
    Missed you,
    Holly

    • Ani Keating says:

      Holly, my friend! It’s so wonderful to see you here. I’m so sorry you’ve had to wait so long; it’s no wonder you had to do a double take. I did a triple take at myself. But it’s so warming to see you here, waiting and reading your words. I’m sorry to hear the last few years may have been hard on you too. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and heart too, and hope these chapters give you some much-deserved smiles. Missed you too. xo

  10. Rushmr says:

    Oh my how I’ve missed your writing. I truly longed for this chapter not to end. Looking forward to what comes next. ❤️

    • Anna says:

      My feelings and thoughts exactly. I wish this story would never end and at the same time I dread to leave these two like that. Ani, you are creating magic!

      • Ani Keating says:

        Thank you so much for this–it means a lot reading your comments. Kinda like energizer bunny, they make me able to write more. Hope you’re enjoying them as they come.

  11. rightytighty4 says:

    Ani, *sincerely* stoked to see that you’ve picked it up again! I love this story, I think your original work is a huge improvement on the fanfic origins of Elisa and Aiden – you’re brilliant, you’re inspired, and your writing holds notes of a time when the written word was the most dignified form of communication. I love it, and you’ve made my day!

    • Ani Keating says:

      Thank you so much darling for reading, waiting for this crazy long time, and commenting. And so glad you like my original work better. It feels more real to me, and I’m sorry I’ve made you all wait so long. i hope to make it up with the sequel here, even though a chapter at a time, but at least free like the good ol’ days. xo

  12. Tara Davidson says:

    What a pleasant surprise! Another great chapter! I recall there always being a twist in your writing, that was what I loved so back in the FanFic days! I need to go reread 30 Nights this weekend and refresh my memory and look for clues! So glad you are writing again! Blessings! Tara

  13. Shirley Wilkinson says:

    So happy you are back Ani. I can hardly believe it. Your writing is sheer poetry in motion. I find it mesmerizing. Please look after yourself and give us more of Elisa and Aidens story when ever you can.

    • Ani Keating says:

      Shirley, my friend, thank you for reading, waiting, and writing to me. I hope the new chapters have made up a little for the long absence. xo

  14. Sharon Starr says:

    Wow – an extra-long chapter the next day!! Knew I would love every bit of it. So touching to see Elisa remember her parents’ final days, such bittersweet memories that stay with you always. Love seeing you and your words again. Hope every day is getting a little better for you, and that your storytelling is part of your healing journey. Hugs to you!!

    • Ani Keating says:

      I’m so glad you read it and liked it! Thank you for that, the kind comments, and the hug. Love seeing your name and hearing from you. Hope you enjoy the new chapters. xo

  15. l. hamilton says:

    I read Thirty Nights right after its release & have reread it multiple times since. I’ve returned to your blog or Goodreads multiple times hoping to find any news or upcoming information; then I received your email! I’ve inhaled your beautiful writing these last few days and wanted to thank you for being true to Aiden & Elisa. A lot of life has happened since first reading Thirty Nights but this couple has a timeless love story I’ve never forgotten and you are the only one who can do them justice. I truly hope that you are able to continue because you have a beautiful & unique gift of writing.

    • Ani Keating says:

      Hello my friend–I know you! So grateful you are still here and reading and have been loyal to Aiden and Elisa even when their own mom wasn’t. I’m so sorry you have had to wait so long. i hope these chapters make up for some of that. I hope the life that has happened during this time has been good and kind to you. You deserve it. Thank you for commenting and reading. Means a lot to me. xo

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