It’s been a while but I have two chapters for you: Chapter 31 – Romeo and Chapter 32 – Juliet. We’re getting close to the end now. Thank you for your patience as I finish this story while coping with some health matters. And special thanks and love to my friends here for checking up on me and being a source of support: Wattle, Linda, Liz, HN, and Suzi. Love, xo, Ani (P.S. There were no songs for these chapters, but I recommend you re-read Chapter 11, Phenomenon, after you read them. They are in some ways bookends to each other.)
The sound of rain lashing the window wakes me. I open my eyes to the charred light of a grizzly dawn. In that same blink, a shiver whips my skin despite the woolen blanket and heavy quilt over my shoulders. It takes only another blink to realize why. There is no sandalwood body warmth wrapped around me.
“Oh!” I gasp, sitting up. My body screams in protest at the sudden movement. The anesthetic has long faded, leaving behind only the stabs and aches of last night. The soles of my feet burn, my knees sting, my shoulder throbs where I fell against the chair from Edison’s slap, the corner of my mouth smarts where his bony hand struck, and my head pounds from my temples to my eyelids. But worse than all that is the pain in my chest—that jagged, raw feeling when Aiden and I are apart. It hasn’t left me while asleep; it has magnified.
“Hey, hey, easy.” Aiden’s muted voice reaches me from the direction of my old desk only a second before my eyes focus enough to see him flash to my side, still in his sweats and T-shirt. A deluge of relief floods me at the same time that my stomach fills with splinters of ice. Because he is still here like he promised, but he has changed profoundly in the night. The expression of the burning man has vanished as if his agony has scorched everything to ash. There is no flicker of animation on his face. A pallid haze blurs his skin like dust over his former golden glow. The sapphire eyes are glasslike, their sentient depths gone. And tension strains him differently. Not like a sculpture that still evokes emotion in stillness, but like a lifeless body embalmed in eternal beauty. He is no longer thousands of miles away; he has left life.
“Oh, my love!” I hear myself choke out. I scramble out of the covers he must have draped over me and pull him down on the bed, taking him in my arms. His body is rigid and cold. I don’t have to ask how he feels. I just hold him, trying to think of the first words I want him to hear from me right now. His war letters echo in my head as if they’ve been playing like Für Elise in my sleep. “This is not that day either, sweetheart. We go on together, one minute at a time.”
Nothing passes through his stony frame, not even a breath, as he pulls away.
“How are you feeling?” he asks. His voice is dead, too, without any pulse of intonation.
“Worried sick about you. How is your head?” I reach around, feeling the spot gently with my fingertips. The bump has shrunk some, but it’s not gone. “Any dizziness or confusion?”
“No, I’m fine, but I meant your feet and knees. How badly do they hurt?”
Who cares about my stupid feet when he is like this? “Actually, nothing hurts at all,” I lie with conviction, but I don’t fool him.
“I’ll bring you some Tylenol,” he says, standing so fast, I don’t have time to draw breath.
“Aiden, I’m alright, really,” I argue, but he is already out of the bedroom.
My panic skyrockets through the stratosphere. Even in my deepest fears last night, I didn’t think it was possible he could get worse, but I was wrong. It’s as though every minute has sucked out his very soul. And it hasn’t been a lot of minutes. The clock on the nightstand is ticking five thirty. I was out only three hours. What has Aiden been doing since then? Has he heard from Corbin? How many ways has he found to hate himself? The beloved letters are back inside their envelopes, stacked neatly by the clock like handwaves. If I end, you end, he wrote. Even though the idea of him not existing is unendurable, his words give me some air: he goes on if I’m still breathing. But how? I hug my torso, trying to inhale. To be strong for him. I have barely managed two breaths when he returns—morgue white—with a glass of water and a bottle of paracetamol in hand. I take the pills without argument, saving it for bigger fights that are surely ahead.
He sits at the foot of the bed, checking my feet and knees without any sign of life. At least the gauze is still sterile, not a drop of blood has seeped through.
“They really don’t hurt,” I promise again, not even lying this time. I cannot feel anything but dread for him. He doesn’t blink or speak, doesn’t gaze at my face for calm as is his instinct when he needs it most. Something about that makes the base of my skull prickle, but I set it aside for now. “So what have you been doing while I was asleep?” I ask, even though I’m terrified of the answer.
“Taking care of a few things.”
“Getting you a lawyer in the Edison prosecution, for one. I spoke with Bob—he’s contacting a law firm in London who will represent your interests so you won’t have to deal with it. Bob is confident Edison will plead guilty given all the evidence.”
Of course he took care of this. Of course he will take care of everything except the one thing I want: staying with him. “Thank you,” I whisper, a shudder running through me.
Even in hell, he doesn’t miss it. “He will not bother you ever again, Elisa.”
I nod, letting him misunderstand. My shivers have nothing to do with Edison anymore.
“And for what is worth, I don’t think Graham was in on it,” he adds. “We’ll watch him closely but . . .” He trails off, his eyes drifting inertly to the letters. “I think he would be a safe friend for you.” There is something about his statement, like he has put a lot of thought in it despite its simplicity. I change topics immediately, afraid he has been contemplating who I should be with instead of him.
“What else did you do other than mobilize an international legal team at my defense?”
“Informed Oxford and drafted your report to them about Edison. You should review and submit it this morning. They’ll need to change security codes and take other measures.”
“I’m sure it’s perfect if you wrote it. What else?” I’m still terrified. Any normal human would not have had time to ponder right and wrong after doing all that, but Aiden probably did this and a lot more.
He sighs, no doubt hearing the fear in my voice. “Think, work, Corbin—”
“Oh, thank God!” The words blurt from my mouth. “He called you already?”
He nods once. I expect, even hope for that tight reaction to Corbin’s name he had last night, but nothing glimmers on his ghostly face or the empty eyes.
“What did he say?” I ask, barely hearing my voice over the hammering of my heart.
“He saw fit to wake up Helen. They’d like to see me in an hour.”
My mouth falls open. For a second, I forget even the terror about his thoughts in the black night. They must be besides themselves if Doctor Helen is seeing him at six thirty on a Saturday.
“Bloody hell!” I squeak. “I’m so glad he did that. We need to get going right now.” I throw off the covers, ready to sprint.
“What?” I ask, one leg out of bed.
“There is no sense in wasting time with this meeting. I obviously don’t have an internal injury, and there’s nothing left to discuss with them.”
It takes me a moment to comprehend what he is saying. “Of course there is! There is everything to discuss and understand. What it means, what we should do now, how we react—”
“They don’t know any of that. They understand my memory about as much as dark matter. The rest is for us to decide.”
Us. At least he is still using that pronoun. But how can I convince him this is first and foremost for his health? What can I say that would make him care about that?
“Aiden, please,” I beg him, trying to stroke his pale cheek, but he leans out of my touch and closes his eyes. I feel blind without them, as if I am missing my own sight or some deep internal sonar. “I know you don’t see the point but do it for me, if not for yourself. At least let Doctor Helen scan your brain. If nothing else, it might help me sleep better tonight.”
It’s probably not true. Sleep—as in dreams and rest—seems lost forever. But my health is the only argument he might accept.
He opens his eyes unwillingly as if in surrender. “If that’s what you prefer. But I’d rather—”
“I’m coming with you,” I interrupt with as much strength as I can muster before he starts trying to convince me to stay in bed and rest my feet while he is locked inside an MRI tube alone. “Even if I have to walk there, barefoot in the rain,” I threaten for good measure.
We look at each other for the briefest moment: me unyielding, him . . . lifeless—there is no other word for it. Then he sighs, no doubt realizing I mean it, and stands. “I’ll let you get ready then.”
“Please, stay,” I say, taking his hand.
He looks down at my trembling fingers without seeming to breathe. For the first time this morning, a shadow of emotion flickers on his face. And then it’s gone before I can understand it. He sets my hand gently to my side.
“I can’t, Elisa.” His quiet voice is agonized. It lingers in the room as my childhood door closes behind him with a thud.
My body starts shaking so forcefully that for a while I cannot move even though I can hear the clock ticking, his footsteps fading, the willows murmuring ashes, ashes, ashes. My mind cannot think past the blinding fear. I try to remember any other time I have seen Aiden like this . . . I never have. Even after his attack on me, his eyes stirred, he was able to keep up a façade, he held some hope, at first for me, then later for us. Now there seems to be none of that. But every second I stand here is a second away from Doctor Helen and Corbin. They will have some guidance, they must.
Their urgency releases my feet. I scramble out in the hall, noticing as I run to the bathroom that Benson’s door is still closed. But as soon as I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I stagger to a stop.
I have definitely seen worse, but I know—from the goosebumps on my skin to my bandaged toes—that Aiden is bleeding life because of the image in front of me. My lower lip is swollen and red although the cut there is shallow and will heal in a couple of days. There is a faint shadow across my cheek in the shape of Edison’s fingers. A small purple bruise has bloomed on my shoulder and another one is starting at my hip. But it doesn’t matter that my injuries are minor or from a monster’s hand that Aiden saved me from. When it comes to my safety, his perfect cognition sees no nuance. Everything is a mortal danger to be eliminated, especially himself.
Another volley of shudders rattles my very teeth. I start brushing them on reflex, all my conscious mind focused only on one thing: how do I give Aiden some hope? How do I help him? But my brain cannot form any coherent answers, just cracklings of instinct, vague and tenuous. Things like dabbing make-up and lip balm to mask the worst. Or choosing every layer of clothing carefully so they only trigger good memories for Aiden: mum’s scarf from the first time he saw me, the white blouse from my supplement presentation, my old jeans from our date at Paradox Café, the jewelry he has given me, a drop of Aeternum perfume. Head to toe, a collage of some of our happiest moments. I race down the stairs, trying to calculate doses of serotonin. Will I even be able to work on the protein with Edison gone?
But all chemistry disappears from my head the instant I enter the living room.
Aiden and Benson are both there, Benson on the sofa, frowning at his phone, Aiden standing by the window, staring into the rainy garden. I cannot see his face, but he is dressed in his reel clothes: the same dark jeans and blue button-up shirt he wears every morning since the first session with Doctor Helen. The only fabric in this cottage that’s woven with horror. And the only clothes that live outside our bedroom. Is this because he will never step over that threshold again? Or because every minute today feels like its own reel? I swallow hard past my constricted throat.
“Morning, Benson,” I croak, asking him a million questions with my eyes. How was Aiden while I was asleep? Have they talked? Has Aiden hinted at what he is thinking now?
“Morning, Elisa.” He shakes his head slightly, but I don’t have time to decipher his gesture because Aiden turns at the sound of my voice. Against the dawn light, he looks so much like my Romeo nightmare—ashen, frozen, except the open, dead eyes. Somehow, they are worse than closed. At least then I could pretend he was asleep. But there is no pretending now even if there isn’t a vial of my failed protein in his hand. This reality is not a dream. I cannot wake up from this.
But my body does. Of their own volition, my feet sprint toward him. He catches me in his arms instinctively as I crash into his chest. I hold him tightly, resting my head against his pectoral. Listening to his heart.
“Elisa, what happened? Do your feet hurt?” His voice is low and tense.
I shake my head, breathing in his scent, wrapping my arms tighter around his waist. He doesn’t feel like my parents in rigor mortis—even though marble hard, he is touching me back. But only for a second. Then he leans away, extricating himself from my grip. I don’t know if he notices the ensemble of hope I’m wearing. Like before, his eyes don’t stray below mine to anything that might trigger calm or happiness. The base of my skull prickles again. Why is that?
“Do you need more time?” he asks.
“No, I’m ready when you are.”
“Then eat something first. There’s some breakfast in the kitchen.”
Of course there is. “Have you eaten?”
“I’m set.” Translation: no, I have not eaten, and I am not having this argument now. He takes a step back. And then I remember Benson. He is still on the sofa with his phone, studiously trying to ignore us.
“Benson, what about you?”
“I’m good too, Elisa.”
I don’t believe him anymore than Aiden, but there is no time to start a fight I will lose. I force a smile and wheel to the kitchen on shaking knees.
The clotted cream and rosehip jam are on the counter, a scone already slathered with them exactly as I take it. My cup of Earl Grey tea is steaming with my daily Baci glimmering on the saucer. I can’t even touch it without Aiden’s kiss, but I force down a few bites of scone only for him, shoving back tears. Outside in the garden, the roses are drowning. The Clares quiver by the windowsill, raindrops trickling down their petals. Help Aiden again, Mum. Help me save the seven-year-old boy like you did then. The biggest, heaviest bloom taps against the glass from the wind, splashing down a pattern of water. I search it for answers that might make this live reel easier, but the droplets cascade down the pane and disappear. I pack some food in a covered basket, a small token for Doctor Helen, and the post-reel surprise I had hidden for Aiden today. This small ritual never fails to make him smile even after fifty-four reels of torture, no matter how minor or silly the surprise is. Maybe it will help this morning, too. I close the basket and dash back to the living room.
Nothing has changed there: Benson is still on sofa, Aiden is still towering at the window, staring at the weepingElisas. Is he searching for answers like me? Or has he already found them?
“All done,” I announce, trying to inject some liveliness in my voice.
Aiden’s eyes fall vacantly on my basket. No familiar flash of curiosity sparks in their depths. The blankness terrifies me almost as much as my nightmare. “It’s a little something for Doctor Helen,” I volunteer, too afraid not to hear him ask.
He barely nods. And then we’re out in the crisp, sodden air. Ashes, ashes, ashes . . . Beyond the willows, River Windrush is a swollen, muddy gray. From its lethal depths, the boulder’s prophecy rumbles in my ears for the first time in a while: Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives. I huddle under the umbrella Aiden is holding over me, clutching his arm. As we pass the garden shed with the reel, tension bolts through him like lightning. Will Doctor Helen continue that torture or stop it after last night? Which is worse: one more minute of its evil or giving up?
As soon as we reach the Rover in the garage and Benson starts backing out, I climb on Aiden’s lap like always, hoping it will have the same calming effect it usually does. But it doesn’t—at least not enough. His arms feel reluctant and heavy, as they do after the reel. So I do what I do after the reel, too: flood him with me as much as I can with Benson present. I lean against his chest, pressing my lips at his throat, letting my weight, my smell, my warmth engulf him. Yet his posture remains strained, resistant somehow. His breaths are shallow and rare. Why is that? Are there some things that my calming effect cannot soothe for him? What do we do if we lose even that?
I fight back a shudder, staring out of the window into the blur of torrential gray. It whips by like a montage on rewind: rewind to that first rainy night Aiden came to England; rewind to another drizzly drive like this toward another team of experts, that time to save me from ICE; rewind to all the stormy battles we have fought for our love.
“Do you want to hear a little story?” I whisper to him as he asked me on that crucifying ride to Bob’s office when I thought I was losing everything. The ride when Aiden first told me about his dream of me that started the war letters. His breath catches in recognition. He nods once, wordlessly, as I did then.
“You have a birthday you don’t know about,” I quote him, keeping my face in his neck like that time. I only phrased it this way hoping to revive him, but as I speak the words, I realize how true they are. He doesn’t answer, but his breath has not restarted. “It’s October sixteenth, 1999, around eight in the morning, long after you were really born, of course. But I remember the date well because it was the day Dad and I carved our initials—PEC—on the bench. I was six a half, almost your age when you first came to Oxford, and Dad brought me to work with him that Saturday. It wasn’t that different a Saturday from today: cloudy but the rain hadn’t started. I used to love going to his work. He’d teach me how to play in the lab. But that morning, he said, ‘Eliser, we’re doing something else first.’
‘What are we doing?’ I asked him—always eager as long as it involved making a mess.
He smiled, ‘Today, we’re doing magic instead of chemistry.’
‘Magic?’ I remember laughing.
‘Magic,’ he nodded in earnest, grabbing a lab scalpel.
So we went out in the same quad you’ve been guarding every day and crawled under the bench. He didn’t tell me what he was doing right away even though I kept barraging him with questions. But then I understood as he first carved the P—he did it quickly like he was trying to get it out of the way. Then the E—that one took longer as he asked me how I wanted it to look. And in the end the C. That took him the longest. So long that other feet started passing by ours. But he kept going, being so careful with the curve of mum’s name. The whole time, he had this smile on his face. I think you would call it moronic, as you did for Marshall’s when he was writing to Jasmine in the sand ditch. And it was exactly that. Sort of loopy, the tip of his tongue trapped between his teeth. That smile was only hers, no one else ever gave it to him. Except I was getting impatient for the magic to begin.
‘Dad,’ I whined. ‘Stop smiling and do the magic. I want to make pink smoke today.’
He laughed—this big laughter that shook the wood flakes off his face. ‘Eliser, this is the magic. Right here, look!’
‘What is? Our initials?’ I was confused—we wrote down our initials all the time.
‘No,’ he answered. ‘This smile.’
He waited for me to get it as I watched his face differently. I didn’t know what I was seeing, I only realized that my smile wasn’t like his.
‘Why don’t I smile the same way if this is magic?’ I asked him, trying to lift my lips the same way but somehow knowing they wouldn’t.
He smiled even more widely. ‘You will.’
‘When you meet someone that will make you carve out the alphabet on an innocent garden bench. When you love someone the way I love this letter C. That’s magic.’
I was so disappointed—there was no pink smoke or blue sludge or yellow sparks or anything. ‘That’s it—love? Love is the magic we’re doing?’
He heard the letdown in my voice but kept smiling. ‘Love is the only magic there is.’ And he turned to finishing the C until it was an imitation of mum’s smile. That’s when it started dawning on me, kind of like it did for you with Marshall. As I watched how happy he was, lying there on damp grass, whittling these three letters together, I remember wanting that smile. I wanted to feel the magic he felt.
‘So when will that be for me?’ I wondered as he kept perfecting the C.
‘Someday. But it will be.’”
I stop, half in that memory, half in this present moment. Aiden is still silent around me, still hardly breathing. “And that’s when the fantasy of you started,” I add, quoting him again, and then flipping his words to the opposite. “You were not perfect in my head—I was too young to know any of that—but you are perfect for me in real life. Now, what can wars and startles do about that?”
I caress my PEC bracelet, listening for his breath, not really waiting for an answer. Even though he doesn’t speak, I know what he is thinking because it was the same thought I had that rainy Portland day: all those things can take me away, even kill me. But he knows, as did I, they cannot do anything to the dream. That will never be enough for me, but perhaps it will give him a speck of hope today like it did in Fallujah’s firepits.
It doesn’t seem likely from the look of his skin. It stands out in the heathered light of the car, whiter than bones, grayer than ashes. His eyes are trained on the bracelet at my wrist. From the gloom outside, the phosphorescent letters are glowing.
“A beautiful way to be born,” he murmurs after a long moment. His voice is ephemeral, almost part of the rain.
“And to live.”
“Sir?” Benson’s hesitant voice makes me jump. Somehow, we are already in the car park next to WIN—Doctor Helen’s building. Aiden’s vast oak looms in the distance at the fringe of the lawn. Beyond it, the heartline of Oxford’s spires is invisible through the thick clouds. “Same time as usual?” Benson asks, looking at Aiden in the back mirror.
Aiden nods without a word and opens the door. A gust of wind steals inside the cabin, sprinkling droplets on the leather seats.
“Benson, here, I packed you some food,” I remember, handing him a wrapped scone and fruit. “It will be at least another two hours before the shops open around here.”
“Thanks, Elisa.” He gives me a small smile and watches us leave with a deep frown.
Aiden holds his black umbrella over me, practically carrying me up the four slippery steps. But his touch is minimal, distant, releasing me as soon as we are at the entrance.
“So do Doctor Helen and Corbin know everything that happened?” I ask him.
He nods silently again and opens the door, shielding me from the rain with his body.
The empty lobby feels cavernous with the stark white that covers everything—an arctic tundra much like the wasteland of his gaze. He scans the building he has visited since his own seven-year-old days, but there is no vigilance in his eyes.
“Aiden, love, what are you thinking right now?”
He blinks down at me. “Too many things, including that I’d like to get this over with.” He starts leading me down the polished hall to the lift.
“Wait! Just a second!” I rummage inside my basket for the Clares I brought for Doctor Helen. They’re still wet from the windowsill. He watches as I take his hand and press a blushing petal onto his palm. “This is just a petal,” I tell him as he does for me before every reel. Maybe it will help him, too. “I’ll be waiting on the other side.”
But it has the opposite effect. Instead of a ghost of a smile or speck of life, that unspeakable agony from last night floods his face. Except it has grown and multiplied beyond any limit I could ever fathom. So staggering that it closes my throat and twists like a knife in my gut. Has the idea of me waiting for him become this excruciating? Am I making things worse instead of helping? I try to say something—anything—but I cannot form a single sound. Neither can he, it seems. He opens his mouth as one might do to scream, but no words come out. And his eyes . . . they darken from barren to burning as they stare at the petal on his hand.
“Aiden, Elisa, there you are!” A commanding voice breaks through the suffocating moment. Doctor Helen is bustling out of the lift toward us, her pristine white coat billowing behind her despite the early hour. Aiden tries to leash back the devastation in his face, but not fast enough. I watch in horrified stupor as their eyes meet and the unshakeable Doctor Helen falters. Horror because I realize I’m not the only one who has never seen this depth of torment in Aiden before. The scientist who has studied him for twenty-eight years is stunned.
Aiden recovers first. His face folds back into nothingness. He inclines his head at the silver neuroscientist who still has not blinked. But she does now and lopes through the last few steps between us.
“Good morning, you two. My apologies.” Her tone regains its authority as she tries to cover up her shock, but to me it sounds like I’m drowning in the river again. “I’m still reeling from Edison—what treachery from one of our own! I have already reported the matter to the Council. Elisa, thank everything you’re alright.” She grasps my shoulder.
“Thank Aiden,” I whisper, unable to find my voice. I cannot blink out of my retinas the image of his ravaged face at the idea of me standing by his side.
“Of course—him above all.” She turns to him. “Aiden, let’s get you in the MRI room right away, then we can discuss.” And the woman I used to think of as cold takes both our hands and tows us into the lift to the top floor where she presides. I follow her without knowing how—my heart and mind are splattered on the spot where Aiden stood, dying before my eyes.
The familiar, gleaming hall is empty with no court of scientists waiting for Doctor Helen’s every command. “It’s only us for this,” she explains, sensing the question I still cannot form. “And Doctor Corbin, of course. I thought that would be best. Aiden, you know the way. I’ll only scan for brain injury now; I won’t show you any images. Go on!” She urges him down the narrow corridor leading to the MRI machine I have seen only once before. He glances at me, his face remaining void of life.
“Stay with Doctor Helen. I’ll be fine.”
I think I manage a nod, still frozen. But even if I could move my lips, I have no idea what I would say. Somehow, in one minute, everything I thought I knew shattered. He strides away and enters the MRI antechamber without looking back. The heavy door thunders as it locks him in.
“Elisa?” Doctor Helen’s voice sounds distant even though she is standing right next to me. “Come, child. This one will be quicker than last time. You will see Aiden very soon.”
I know I should say something but all I can do is stare at the white expanse that swallowed up Aiden. Peripherally, I feel Doctor Helen’s hand around my elbow as she leads me across the hall to the command center where she tormented Aiden’s mind before, when he was still so full of hope. When the only option he could live with was to walk through the fires of Fallujah every dawn only for the chance of being with me. A chance that now seems all but destroyed.
“Do you need a moment before we go in?” she asks, still muffled and far-away.
I shake my head as she opens the metal door, her hand never leaving my arm. I can’t tell if her fingers are warm or cold.
The analytics room feels claustrophobic without the glow of the giant screens displaying Aiden’s brain in electric blue. Doctor Helen’s Van Gogh binder is resting next to her central monitors. But now I have no murder of crows circling out of me in rage, no sunflower seed bullets firing from my lips at fate. I am just the blank canvass that never became art.
“Have a seat, Elisa. Doctor Corbin is waiting on the line.” She pulls up a chair next to hers. I place my basket at my feet, feeling foolish, even naïve. How could anything I can pack in a basket help with this kind of torment, especially when they dangle from my arm?
“Doctor, we’re here,” she speaks into the ether, then Corbin’s face appears on a smaller screen in front of me like last time. Except unlike then, he is not smiling or waving. Deep wrinkles are burrowing around his bloodshot eyes. He is sitting under a desk lamp, the window behind him black with Portland’s night. The same night lulling Reagan and Javier into sleep. How can I tell them about this? How can I break their hearts along with mine?
“Ah, Elisa.” Corbin’s tired voice pipes through the room. “I’m glad you’re here. How are you holding up?”
It takes me four tries to mumble a whisper. “I’m fine, but Aiden . . .” I can’t finish. What can I say? Does any language in the world have words to describe the harrowing pain I just witnessed? It makes his anguish during the reel seem like a minor headache.
“I know,” he sighs, peering at Doctor Helen. “How does he seem to you this morning?”
She doesn’t answer verbally, but her eyes flit to me then back at him and she gives an almost imperceptible shake of the head. I would have missed it if I wasn’t staring at her like a life raft.
“He’s even worse than I know, isn’t he?” I breathe, clutching the edge of my chair. A hesitant look passes between them. “Please, tell me. I don’t want to be protected from his pain.”
Corbin tries to force a smile through tight lips. “Of course you don’t. And you deserve to know. The trouble is I can’t tell how much worse, but it seems worse than any other time I’ve known him. With every other loss, Aiden has had a purpose—building his empire to support his parents and the Marines, saving Javier, saving you, his hope for this experiment so you could be together. But Aiden without hope . . .” Despite his years of experience, he pales.
My mind reacts quicker than my body: the walls start spinning, the floor shaking, the air congealing. Then my body catches up, swaying on the spot like Aiden in the library last night. I grip the chair harder to stay vertical.
They must notice my reaction because Doctor Helen pats my shoulder.
“Deep breaths, Elisa,” Corbin coaches methodically. “Let’s try to remain optimistic. This time Aiden has your calming effect after all, and there’s no medicine more powerful for him than that.”
Except his words make the dizziness worse. That prickly sense of unease jolts from my skull down my spine. And I finally realize why. “C-can—” I start, then try again for volume. “Can my calming effect get weaker? It doesn’t seem to be working as well today as it was last night.”
Their reaction is unmissable. An identical mask of dread drops over their faces at the same time. Doctor Helen’s forehead crumples, eyes narrowing as though they are reading an invisible text. Then they widen in some inner understanding. “Of course,” she mutters to herself. “Of course, we should have known.”
“Known what?” I wheeze.
Her perturbed, grey eyes zoom on me. “Your calming effect on Aiden is strong and unchangeable. There is only one thing in the world that can impact it.”
“W-what is it?” I didn’t even know this was a real risk we’re facing.
“Aiden himself.” Her voice doesn’t sound distant anymore. It roars too loudly even though she is speaking in her usual, authoritative tone. “He is trying to stop it from helping him.”
Another deep sigh comes from Corbin but I barely hear it over my own gasp as this morning flashes back under a different light: Aiden avoiding my face, leaning away from my touch, not breathing in my scent—fighting all the stimuli that usually trigger my calming effect.
“No!” I tremble. “No, he can’t do that . . .”
Their somber gaze tells me he already has. And understanding strikes as fast as denial. “It’s because he doesn’t think he deserves peace, isn’t it?” The words strangle me as a new terror snakes its way through my heart. How many more kinds of horror can there be? Which one will kill?
The two doctors nod in unison. “You know him well,” Corbin agrees while I wish he would tell me I’m mad. “Yes, there’s no other explanation I can see. And he is probably trying to get used to an existence without you in it.”
Existence—not life. As my days will be without him. Both breathing only so the other can live. Abruptly, the boulder’s prophecy resounds through distance, no longer a prediction, but now reality: Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives. It reverberates around my head, chorusing with Aiden’s letter and my own silent refrain: If I end, you end . . . violent ends . . . Because is there a death more violent than a life unlived?
“Doctor Corbin, you use the word ‘existence.’” Doctor Helen picks up on the same thing. “Is there any scenario where you think Aiden would . . .?” She doesn’t finish because the idea is unfinishable, unspeakable.
But Corbin answers immediately, with conviction, before I can collapse. “Not while Elisa walks this earth. But I have no doubt he will suffer beyond all our imaginations every minute of the time left. I fear I won’t be able to reach him, especially without Elisa’s calm . . .” he trails off, now unable to finish himself.
The room blurs again, the walls closing in around me as if my mind is clamoring for unconscious relief. “What do we do?” I choke, laboring to keep my lungs working. “How do we help him? How can we save him from this?”
To that, the doctors have no answer.
Panic cleaves through my skull like Edison’s microscope. There has to be something, anything . . . “Should we ask his parents to come?” I grasp at any idea even though I don’t think he would allow that anymore. “Or maybe the Marines? Aiden’s mum said they kept each other alive last time.”
Corbin shakes his head, still looking disturbed. “With this revelation, I’m sure he will not accept their comfort. And they come with their own traumatic triggers for him. It might be better if we focus on the two of you having this time together.”
Better together than apart. An axiom on which I would have staked my life when I woke up. But now I can’t unsee Aiden’s pain at the thought of me standing by his side.
“I tend to agree.” Doctor Helen’s eyes are still deep in analysis. “Our priority must be getting Aiden to accept your calming effect. That’s the best hope we have at this point, but I think Robert, Stella, and his brothers should be prepared.”
She doesn’t need to explain for what. I know. The ceiling tilts oddly toward my face.
“Elisa, how far are you from solving the protein?” Corbin asks.
“I don’t know. There’s still a lot left to do, and I’m not sure what will happen to the project now with Edison out.”
“Leave that part to me.” Doctor Helen sounds resolute and confident. “You keep at it, child, keep at it.”
Is that all we have left? An unfinished dream? Even if somehow I manage to succeed, what chance does it stand with Aiden denying himself any form of relief? He simply wouldn’t take it. How can I convince him?
“For now, let’s just try to stay in the present moment and take it a step at a time,” Corbin hedges, perhaps wondering the same impossible questions. “You’re not alone in this, Elisa. We are here for you both.”
I listen to his practiced voice trying to comfort me. But there is only one person I want comforted, and he is tearing apart, alone inside an MRI machine that suddenly seems like a coffin, in a room icy like a morgue.
“Without question.” Doctor Helen revs into motion. “There’s much to consider, but let’s start by ruling out any physical injury first.” With a quick tap, she switches on her monitors. They blare neon blue on the walls that are still spinning. Static bristles in the air like high pitch. “Aiden, we are ready,” she fires into her microphone without any reply. “Starting on three, two, one.”
His wondrous brain lights up the screens in brilliant sapphire like his former eyes. But this time, I cannot bear to look at the images. I fold my arms on the desk and rest my forehead against them. Perhaps it will help me think if I can’t see. Perhaps I will find a way if I am blind. But the computers caw loudly around me with beeps, clicks, tweets. And the doctors’ grave voices like jarring notes in the digital buzz.
“Did Aiden say he was hit right over his old rifle injury, Doctor?” she verifies.
“Yes, smack in the middle,” he confirms while I try to fight the nausea. “Why?”
“It hasn’t caused bleeding or internal swelling in the area—we can be grateful for that part.”
Thank you, God! Thank you, Mum and Dad! My legs almost give out despite the fact that I’m sitting. Even the chaos in my head pauses for a second, immobilized by profound relief. Tears burn my eyes, and I let them fall. It’s better now when Aiden cannot see.
“Thank heavens he turned around so quickly.” Corbin repeats the words that have become a mantra. “He saved his own life and Elisa’s. Although he doesn’t view it that way.”
“Indeed . . .”
And the snarl inside my skull restarts. Like this morning, I only seem able to blurt out questions, not answers. The same question really—how do I help Aiden?—but with a different, razor-sharp edge now. It slices through every purpose, reflex, or analysis, leaving me only with raw instinct. Everything I have ever known, wanted, dreamed, wished, hoped, fought, or strived for all tumble one rung down to make room for this one visceral compulsion at the very top: saving Aiden, no matter the cost.
As from across the globe, the beeps stop at last and Doctor Helen’s voice projects into the microphone. “Aiden, we’re all finished. Good news: there’s no internal injury, just as you expected. When you’re ready, why don’t you meet us in the lab? I have Elisa with me—she’s perfectly safe.”
There is no answer from him, but I expected that. I want to run down the hall and be there, on the other side of that door, when he comes out. I want to take him in my arms. But will that bring back the unfathomable agony? Is my very presence now another reel of torture for him?
I wobble to my feet, wiping off any evidence of tears, and follow Doctor Helen to the futuristic lab where I first saw the waves of Aiden’s heart and mind. Its snowy interior is empty, but as we walk in, Corbin’s face flickers on the overhead screen. He is scribbling furiously on a yellow notepad. Doctor Helen takes her seat at the same long desk, flipping through her Van Gogh binder, eyes narrowed in concentration. And I fall on the chair closest to me, staring at the white double doors.
“While we’re waiting, Elisa, could you clarify something for me about the time Aiden was unconscious?” Doctor Helen asks. “He told us everything you shared, but obviously has no memory of that part, and I’d rather he not relive the experience.”
I don’t want to relive it either, but to help him, I would relive the day of my parents’ accident. “Anything,” I offer.
“I know he started losing his balance quickly after he was triggered, but did you do or say anything to him during that time?”
Despite the chills flogging my skin, I let last night flood my mind. Abruptly, I’m back in dad’s library, staring into every slide of my memory as if with microscope for magnification.
“I was just telling him to keep standing, that we love each other, that the glass was just petals, that I was waiting on the other side . . .” My voice breaks, thinking of the effect those same words had on him today. “I don’t know, a lot of things like that.”
“A lot of loving things,” she corrects kindly. “And did Aiden react in any way?”
“No, he was already locked in the flashback by then. He just fell.”
“Not just. He fell back safely on a pillow because you had placed it there and calculated his trajectory so precisely. Well-done in such crisis. You saved his life as much as he saved yours.”
I listen to her words, finding no pride in me. All I can think of is how can I help him live the life I saved.
“What did you do while you were waiting for the medics?” she asks.
“I was taking his pulse and breathing in his mouth and—” I stop because, suddenly, those few terrifying minutes become private, our last ones together on the same side, in the final throes of hope.
“It seems there is something else. It might be important.”
“It’s not,” I mumble. “It was just things that mean something to him and me alone.”
“I know this is reprehensively intrusive, but would you mind sharing? We’re looking for anything that might help him.”
As am I, and failing. “I was just talking to him . . . trying to keep him in the present moment like you taught me . . . and, umm, I was humming Für Elise. It was silly—I knew he couldn’t hear me—but I couldn’t think of anything else.”
She gazes at me with something like sorrow. “Actually, when I think of it, it doesn’t seem silly at all. It was love in a moment of untold terror.”
“But it doesn’t help Aiden now.”
“No, but perhaps it helped him then.” She gives me a wistful smile.
I look away from it, unable to withstand the grief hidden underneath—the grief that confirms we have already lost. A long, twitchy silence falls over the lab. A scratch of a pen here, a shiver of a page there. And my own thoughts, howling the same impotent refrain. How can I help? How do I convince Aiden to let himself feel peace?
There are no clues in the computer beeps, no patterns in the white surfaces that undulate like Van Gogh’s rippling wheatfields.
“Doctor, perhaps we should check on him.” Corbin finally breaks the silence. I can’t look away from the doors as Doctor Helen answers in a pensive tone.
“Not yet. Aiden wouldn’t make Elisa wait if he absolutely didn’t need the moment.”
I agree, I disagree, I don’t know. My only goal right now is to breathe so if he looks at my face, he sees a semblance of hope. It takes everything I have to sit here and not run to find him: a locket in my hand, ten periodic tables on my mind, non-scientific prayers in my heart, the ticking seconds on dad’s Seiko watch like a back-up pulse: one, ninety, six hundred . . .
At long last, the doors open.
Aiden comes in, as blanched as the wintry space around us, too beautiful to last. His eyes flash to me, then away, but in that glimpse, I see the aftershocks of agony he must have been fighting to control. Unfathomably, it’s even more blistering than an hour ago. How much more can it grow? How is he still standing? I have to lock all my muscles to stay on my chair and not fly to him. I have seen now the pain my touch is causing, like acid on his skin.
“My apologies for the delay,” he says, taking the seat next to me. His piano voice is hoarse, the way he sounded when he first came to the cottage after I left him. My fingers flutter to take his hand, but I grip the rim of the chair hard against the instinct.
“It’s no problem,” Corbin speaks first. “I’m glad you took the time you needed. And even more glad you came. I know you don’t want to be here.”
H-e-r-e. The hardest word for Aiden right now.
“I’m here for Elisa,” he answers.
“I know you are.” Corbin nods in understanding. “I know no one else could have convinced you to stay.”
S-t-a-y. For me. Am I worth this torture? Is anything?
Aiden doesn’t respond again. He stares beyond Corbin, beyond Doctor Helen, beyond anything we can see. How much more is he suffering because of my insistence?
“Why don’t we get started so you can go back to the cottage and be more comfortable,” Doctor Helen suggests while I question everything. “I’d like to begin with the obvious: the startle reflex.” She pauses as though to allow us time to adjust to the name that terrifies Aiden the most. He doesn’t blink, but the tension of his body throbs through the polished floor tiles. “Clearly, it’s still there,” she continues. “Although in what form and to what extent we cannot know without the final test.”
“I know,” Aiden states without any inflection. “There is no reason for more tests or for exposing Elisa to them.”
Her intent grey eyes examine him, as his used to do, although the sentience of his gaze is not something anyone else can achieve. “Perhaps, but I won’t argue with you on that point because, as it happens, I tend to agree in part. Even though there is no physical injury, I am deeply concerned about the psychological harm you are suffering. And I have no way of knowing what effect it will have on you if I trigger your startle reflex again so soon after last night. For that reason, I propose that we extend the September eighteen deadline and wait to run the final test for at least an additional month or two while you recover.”
My head whips toward her in shock. Did I hear her right? More t-i-m-e? Isn’t that what I have been begging for every hour of every day since I the very first moment I saw Aiden? And now that it’s being offered, I cannot breathe a single sigh of relief. How can I after seeing how much every minute is costing him? Suddenly, dad’s watch seems to tick the seconds faster on my wrist as if to spare Aiden.
He is staring at her with nothing in his eyes. Somehow the void there makes his gaze more chilling. “Doctor Helen,” he addresses her slowly, deliberately, and I know what’s coming. “There is no circumstance under which I will stay here beyond September eighteen or continue the study of my memory ever again. I suppose it’s up to you how you want to proceed from here.”
The huge lab sways again. They look at each other: her gaze pleading, his dead. Then she nods, but it looks like defeat in her regal manner. “I see. In that case, you are giving me no choice. Since you are determined to leave on September eighteen and I have taken an oath to do no harm, I will not run the test—”
“Doctor?” Corbin interjects, clearly stunned at her decision. As was I a second ago, but now I am nothing. Not because she is protecting Aiden—that’s exactly how it should be—but because how final everything suddenly becomes. The last slide of our reel, the last note of Für Elise, the final words in our story. The End. Life, meaning, dreams, purpose—all over. So certain, so quick. Like death.
I realize now how much hope, instead of fear, I was placing on that ultimate test: hope for a change, for a different result, for waking up and realizing this is only another Romeo nightmare. H-o-p-e. I always knew it would finish me in the end.
I don’t know how I make it through the next minutes. The walls whirl like Bia’s centrifuge, and my fingers glue themselves to my locket for balance. Keep me standing please, keep me breathing for Aiden. Because it’s better this way. Less pain for him. I will gladly suffer every day of my existence to spare him another hour of agony in this lab.
For once, I’m glad his eyes are away, lost in past and future torment. At least he is not seeing the present torture next to him.
“I understand your surprise, Doctor Corbin. I truly do. Even Elisa’s, I imagine.” Doctor Helen’s voice is fading in and out of my ears. “But I cannot justify the procedure so soon. Not with Aiden in this state, no matter how strong he is. The only thing I would insist on is to scan his brain with the war images before he leaves, to ensure Elisa’s effect remains an option for the future ahead. His memory does not need her physical proximity to give him comfort as he grapples with the greatest loss in his life yet.”
She looks only at Aiden for that last part, and I finally understand why she is giving in so quickly, why she isn’t arguing with him, why she isn’t trying to convince him there is hope left. She must have analyzed all battles and realized the only one worth picking now—the only one worth fighting for—is not to save us, not to beat the startle, not even to heal him. The only battle we might still have a chance at winning is to persuade Aiden to allow himself some peace. What is my pain compared to that? Nothing—just a petal.
Doctor Corbin presses his lips together, shaking his head. “I cannot disagree with your rationale, but that must mean you have concluded there’s nothing more we can do to end the startle reflex?”
“Indeed,” she answers, ever logical. “Because Aiden has concluded it, it is over. He knows this reflex better than all doctors and neuroscientists in history combined.”
I can see from the set of Corbin’s mouth how much he wants to argue with that incontrovertible fact, and how little he can. He looks at Aiden from his screen with a beseeching gaze. “Aiden, please reconsider. Are you sure about this?”
There is no wavering in Aiden’s face, but he inclines his head toward me, still staring beyond the lab. “Elisa, is it important to you for me to undergo the final test, however it was planned?”
I can almost hear Corbin’s thoughts imploring me to argue, like my own heart does. But there is something else more important than all that. Something that has silenced all the chaos, finally bringing order, even if not answers. “I don’t want you to get hurt again.” I am surprised by how calm my voice sounds. “And there is no procedure that can take away my faith in you. I will always believe you can do this, test or no test.”
A new wave of agony drowns his eyes, but he masks it quickly and nods as though he expected my words before I uttered them. “Then I am sure,” he responds to the doctors. “No test for the startle reflex, but I will allow a final scan of my brain if you would do me a final favor in return.”
“What favor?” Doctor Helen asks immediately.
Aiden’s eyes focus on her and abruptly come to life. They deepen with an intensity so fierce that I feel as though I am standing at the edge of a great precipice. Even the mighty Doctor Helen withers from it. “Will you be a source of support for Elisa as you were for her mother? For friendship, mentorship, solace, and guidance—a safe, loving presence for her after I leave?” The intensity is in his voice, too; it becomes guttural, pleading. And the air thickens again. It clots in my throat like the failed protein. So this is how we end—the same way as we started: caring for me above all else. I clutch the locket harder. Don’t let me fall apart, please. Give me strength to wait until Aiden cannot see.
Outside my personal hell, Doctor Helen and Aiden are locked in a silent exchange. I cannot fathom their thoughts, but I know the pained look that flows between them. I know it because I have seen it in every goodbye. At last she nods again, but not defeated this time. “I will be there for Elisa until my last day,” she vows in her commanding voice. “And for you, in every way you will allow me to be.”
“Thank you,” he answers—a fervent, agonized sound—and the life dies out in his eyes. The void returns as swiftly as it left. “Then I promise you I will be here on September eighteen and watch every image you show me so that you can collect the last data you need to complete your research of my memory.”
“You have always been more than research, Aiden, but I will take whatever time you give me,” she replies. “Now, let’s talk about what happens from today to September eighteen. I reckon you’ve been giving it to a great deal of thought.”
The lab splits along an invisible fault line at her change of direction. On her side of the desk, both doctors breathe a sigh of relief. On ours, all breathing seems to stop.
“I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with Elisa,” Aiden says.
Corbin looks between the two of us. “Do you mind if we do so together now?”
Nothing moves in Aiden’s face, yet I sense his hesitation in the air. Or perhaps it’s mine. “Whatever Elisa is comfortable with.” He leans his head in my direction.
I nod, unable to think of a reason to protest but I know I don’t want to see what happens next. Some old instinct, forged in the days after my parents’ accident slithers on my skin like a warning. It will get worse, it says. Much, much worse than everything you have lived through.
“Thank you.” Corbin smiles with evident gratitude. “Then, Aiden, why don’t we start with you? How do you want to spend the next five weeks given the decision you have made today?”
The hesitation disappears from Aiden’s stance. “What I want is irrelevant. There is only one defensible way to use that time: to prepare Elisa for our separation and protect her from me.”
Each word stabs like knives of glass. Each syllable a confirmation of every fear that has been riddling me since last night, since the very first time I loved him, in fact. Yet expecting them does not make the words easier to hear.
“And how do you plan to do that?” Corbin asks, but I know. I knew it from the moment Edison struck. Childishly, I want to throw my hands over my ears so I don’t hear the words that will make it real. But they are real, and they are what Aiden needs.
He doesn’t speak as tension strains his posture. Every part of him seems etched in war: stillness versus tremor; void versus agony, right versus wrong. Then a side must win. His hands close into fists on his thighs and, slowly, at last, Aiden turns to me. His eyes look only into mine. I can see the effort it’s costing him to keep his focus there and not drift anywhere else on my face that might add some calm. Yet despite his Herculean resistance, some specks of turquoise start shimmering in the distant blue depths. The light is so beautiful—like a dazzling star in the vast obscurity ahead—that it fills me with longing. But before it can ease his tension, he clenches his jaw and drops his gaze to my hand around the locket. Then agony throttles him again.
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” I murmur so my voice doesn’t shake. “Tell me what you need to say.”
The end comes almost soundlessly from his lips. “I think I should move out tonight.”
Seven words, seven bullets. The same number that finished Marshall. So why are they not enough to finish me? The lab turns upside down in my vision, and I grip the locket tighter. Keep me breathing, please, keep me alive for him.
“Where would you go?”
“To the Inn. It’s still close to the cottage so that it will give you time to adjust to this.”
This morning I would have argued, I would have probably screamed at him, blocked the cottage door, even summoned his parents and the Marines. But now that I have seen his hurt, I cannot fight with him. I can only fight forhim. “And then?”
“And then we would do whatever it takes to make this . . . livable, healthy for you. I would fly over Reagan and Javier earlier if you want, secure your future here at Oxford or anywhere else, build you a support team, anything and everything to prepare you for September eighteen. I know you will not be happy, not for a very long time, but at least you will live, Elisa. At least you will have a chance at a safe future, as it should be.” His quiet voice breaks in the end. The shudder that runs through him reverberates under the soles of my wellies.
“What about your future? What would we do to prepare you?” My voice cracks too, no matter how hard I try to control it. His knuckles glint marble white, no doubt fighting his instinct to comfort me. I know because mine shove the same way against my skin.
“Don’t worry about me,” he answers as always. “I’m built for this.”
“No, my love, you are not. No one is built for this. You will be giving all you have to me, keeping nothing for yourself. I can’t, Aiden. I can’t watch you do that. If I have to prepare for the end, so should you.”
He shakes his head—the motion is rigid as if lifting an enormous weight. “I’ll be fine, Elisa.”
“No, love—” I start to argue anyway despite all my determination to stay calm for him, but Doctor Helen decides to intervene.
“Aiden, I hate to interrupt, but I can’t stay silent. I agree with Elisa on this. We must focus as much on your well-being as hers.”
Aiden looks away from my locket, his eyes skimming over the blank, white slate, landing on the only color in the room: the red buttons of the machine that measured his heartbeat and brainwaves during our kiss. The buttons that can incinerate his brain in one flick. I know, I could wager my life on it, that if it weren’t for me breathing, he would have flipped that switch. Reflexively my body leans to the side to block his line of sight.
“All I need is for Elisa to live,” he answers. “I just need her safe from me.”
The torment beneath his bleak voice is overwhelming. If torture itself could speak, this is how it would sound.
“That’s not enough, Aiden,” says Corbin. “It might suffice to keep you breathing, but not enough to live. You are hurting too much. More than I have ever seen in my career.”
“Or I in half a century of mine,” Doctor Helen agrees. “You will need to allow yourself to heal, and that has to start now while you are still together.”
“This minute, in fact.” Corbin’s urgency radiates from his screen. “You have to allow yourself to feel Elisa’s calm. We can see you are trying very hard to block it, but you can’t. Her effect on you is much stronger and healthier than any antidepressant or sedative I could prescribe. Let it comfort you now so you can grow stronger for September eighteen and beyond.”
No reaction from Aiden at realizing we know what he is doing. Perhaps he thought it was obvious, not the shock it was.
“It’s crucial, Aiden.” Doctor Helen leans across her desk as though to reach him. “You were already weakened by the reel. That was a risk we all accepted. But then you were wrenched awake by the worst nightmare of your life: Elisa in acute danger. And that terror and pain hasn’t stopped since. It’s as bad as Fallujah even though there was no death or physical torture this time. Would you ever have sent any of your brothers on another mission shortly after that schoolyard?” She pauses, waiting for him, but he doesn’t respond. He is still staring at the red button as if he wishes it could blow him up now.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she answers her own question. “You would have given them the time they needed to recover. Show the same care to yourself now. Don’t move to the Inn. You would be making a mistake.”
Corbin nods. “A grave one. Spending these final weeks at a distance will rob you and Elisa of the closure you need to survive the end of this rare relationship.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” she presses without pause. “The only reasonable option is to continue as planned: maximize Elisa’s calming effect while you cope with trauma.”
“Do the opposite of your instincts,” Corbin fires before she has finished. “They have always served your fears, not your happiness.”
With each rapid word, Aiden’s shoulders curve under the onslaught of their dire injunctions.
“Stay together,” Doctor Helen states with finality. “And in a few days, restart the traumatic exposure and let Elisa calm you while she can. This way the old trauma will hopefully be dulled some before this new one hits in full force.”
I stare at her in horror while Aiden’s head bows further. “Restart the reel?” My whisper is shredded by disbelief. She can’t be serious. How can that evil possibly help him when she just said it weakened him?
“Yes.” She doesn’t hesitate. “Restart the reel. Even it hasn’t fixed the startle, it might help close the door on Fallujah at last before the Burford door is ripped off its hinges. One trauma is easier to carry than two.”
Something scorching builds in my throat like a scream. I hate every syllable she is uttering. I hate every nod Corbin gives without argument. I hate their twirling pens and notepads and binders. I hate Van Gogh and every brushstroke of every painting. I hate every brick in this laboratory, every beep, every particle of ethanol in the clinical air that is touching Aiden’s lungs, chilling the body I love more than my own life. I hate them all, but I cannot argue with any of it. Because through this inferno, I finally start seeing a thin trail ahead. Uphill, thorny, bloody, riddled with peril at every blind curve, but a trail nonetheless. Perhaps this is the new purpose, the meaning. We cannot be together. I cannot heal Aiden enough for that. But maybe I can finally save him from his past. So he can go on.
Perhaps that’s what Romeo and Juliet did. They didn’t die. They only finished the life that gave them so much pain, so they could become immortal in the end. Their love did conquer all, survived even human death. That’s why we all know their names; that’s why they’re always uttered together in the same breath—because they don’t belong to us. They belong forever only to each other. Is that what Shakespeare meant? Is that what I have been sensing all along with boulder prophecies and goosebumps at the back of my neck? Is this what my subconscious mind tried to tell me through that vivid nightmare? We have to be Romeo and Juliet before Aiden can be Dante. As for Beatrice? She was only ever a dream.
“Will this really close the door on Fallujah?” I ask her.
“We won’t know until the end, but we have to try. It’s the only chance we have. How can it hurt at this point?”
Aiden moves then. His head snaps up at Doctor Helen, black fury rolling over his face. “It can hurt Elisa,” he snarls in a strangled voice. His body vibrates with the force of the emotions he is trying so hard to contain. “Watching me writhe in pain, over and over again every morning. I don’t give a fuck if it would bury Marshall. I will not risk her anymore for something we now know isn’t working!”
“It hurts Elisa either way,” Doctor Helen counters, not flinching at his profanities. “Either way, she will watch you suffer.”
And Aiden breaks. The void mask melts away, exposing the iceberg of agony underneath. The agony we have only been glimpsing. So primal that it knocks me breathless. It pours from his eyes, shifting them out of focus. He grips his forehead as though he wants to rip it off. The muscles of his back lock as the two scientists eviscerate his plan to save me—the only fight he still is willing to wage, perhaps the only shadow of hope he has left. His ribcage no longer rises and falls, as though they are taking everything from him, even his breath.
“—at least under my plan, she’s doing something instead of sitting there, helpless, watching you repeat your old patterns,” Doctor Helen is admonishing.
“Stop!” I hear myself cry out, my arms shooting in front of him like a shield. “Stop it, stop it, please!”
They all freeze, watching me with wide eyes. Even Aiden, though in a heartbeat his close at the sound of my voice. His head slumps on his hands. If he wasn’t sitting, I’m sure he would be falling on his knees.
“He is hurting,” I lower my voice, pleading. “Don’t push him! We’re here to support him even if we don’t agree.”
The two doctors are still staring but Aiden’s spine ripples as though he is imploding from within. I look away from them and drag my chair as close to him as I can without touching. He doesn’t look up, and that’s good. I will miss his eyes—I will gauge out my own—if it saves him even a second of pain.
“Aiden, love? Don’t worry about me. Because there is a way to make me happy and still keep me safe: just use my calm in whatever way you can, even if from the Inn. You have all my photos, my song, I will give you my home videos if you want. And I promise you, if you do that, there will be no happier woman in the world than me.”
He shakes his head into his hands. They curl inward into claws, digging into skull. He will not claim any part of me, whether near or far. It feels like my own skull is about to shatter from the pain of watching this. I caress his fingers with my eyes, the knuckles that used to brush my cheek, the strong wrists that no longer carry his watch because he didn’t want to watch our time run out. Higher still, the arms that are my fortress, the chest that is my home, the contours of his jaw, the entirety of his beauty, inside out. I kiss it in my mind, trying to get used to this non-life of loving him from a distance, this idea of existing for him, without him. Cell by cell, my own void starts to claim me, but it will have to wait a little longer.
A gentle pressure squeezes my shoulder from a different direction. I look up, and Doctor Helen is there. Silver and Amazonian, with that aura of invincible command. Except now, she looks her age, maybe older. Older than the Plemmonses, older than Oxford itself. In her hand is a polaroid like the one on my nightstand—the photo of Aiden’s heart and brain waves. She smiles the way my mum smiles at me sometimes in my dreams. Knowingly, sadly, from far away. Then, to my utter shock, she kneels on the floor in front of Aiden and rests the polaroid on his knee.
“Aiden,” she says in a voice softer than I have ever heard, from anyone, anywhere. “Singular, brave Aiden. Elisa is right; we are pushing too hard, and I am sorry. So try to listen to me not like a doctor or a friend. Try to listen to me like I am your eighty-year-old self. Yes, the experiment hasn’t fixed the startle, but you still have five weeks with the woman that makes your heart do this. Don’t throw them away. Even if it will be miserable and dangerous, this is the only time you have left. Use it to look at the face you love.”
He doesn’t react in any way. There isn’t a single spot to touch him that doesn’t look like it might break from the force with which he is trying to control himself. She must see that too because she rests her hand on his Timberland boot. “Aiden, I implore you to allow yourself to feel the calm Elisa gives you. You know it’s not as powerful with only the photos or paintings, especially if you won’t look at them.”
He shakes his head again, burying the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I will not take anything from her when I can no longer give her anything back.” His voice is a ravaged whisper.
“Yes, you can. You can give her the closure you cannot have. You know your love for her will never change. That’s not poetry. In your case, that’s a hard, scientific fact. You will love this girl for the rest of your days as deeply, passionately, and irrevocably as you did when I took this photograph. But the time you have left to love together in the same place and the same breath, is now. And it will never come back.”
She stops talking, plunging the lab into silence and ripping out my heart. Because my love for him will never change either. I don’t know much anymore, but I do know that. Above her, Aiden’s body is straining from his effort to hold it together, probably for my benefit. I cannot fathom the depths of his grief, but I know instinctively right now he only needs one thing.
“Let’s give Aiden a moment alone,” I tell them.
Somehow, I manage to rise on my feet. The lab tilts again with the motion, but the locket he gave me keeps me standing. Make me brave. Give me courage to see the right answers.
“That’s a good thought,” Corbin says from his screen. I had almost forgotten him and everyone else that isn’t Aiden. “Take as much time as you need.” His monitor goes blank.
Doctor Helen stands too, steadier than me. She gives me one of her nods that seem to bestow protection and rests the hand that touched Aiden’s boot on my shoulder.
It’s the hardest thing I have ever done to leave him here. Harder than hearing “there’s been an accident,” harder than seeing my parents’ bodies in the morgue, harder than the funeral, than moving to Portland, than the four years orphaned and alone against the U.S. government. Harder than even leaving Aiden the first time or boarding that plane back to England. Harder than returning to the hilltop grave or drowning in the river or trying to leave him a second time in the rose garden of my cottage. Harder than everything else in my short, tumultuous life. Especially leaving him without a word, without a single touch. But I do it because it’s what he needs.
He doesn’t move or breathe as I trail backwards behind Doctor Helen, never taking my eyes off him. The white doors close between us.
My own memory roils with flashbacks. The morgue’s steel doors hiding away bodies, the American courtroom’s wooden doors imprisoning Javier, so many doors shutting me out.
“Elisa? Elisa?” Doctor Helen is calling. “Let’s go to my office. I’ll brew some tea while we wait.”
I shake my head, needing my own alone moment. “Thank you, but I think I’ll just get some fresh air. I won’t be far.”
And then I run without knowing how I move my feet, leaving my heart behind.
The torrent has slowed outside, but the skies are darker—a bruised purple, churning around Oxford’s heartline. Their weight presses down with an electric charge. It crackles in the crisp air, raising my skin into goosebumps. I hug my arms around my torso and slosh my way across the soggy lawn, past the empty playground to the oak of Aiden’s childhood. Its powerful roots are dry under the shelter of the immense canopy above. I curl against the gnarly trunk where seven-year-old Aiden would crawl to hide. Everything is hauntingly quiet, even the leaves. The students, birds, and animals must be hunkering down.
Here, in the silence, the dizziness subsides. It’s easier to think, if not feel. Easier to focus on the only thing that matters: the seven-year-old boy who grew up. I can see him, perched where I am, away from the games of a childhood stolen from him, looking up at this green dome like his own personal sky. His own universe that no one else could comprehend but him. And I can see through all the questions and fears of adulthood, straight into the heart of things.
How quickly the universe transforms. It becomes a single star. That brilliant, elusive radiance we chase night after night, dream after dream, for the rest of our life. Until we implode, not because we give up, but because the only way to touch that one bold star is to become its sky.
That’s what this moment is, right here under these protective branches. The final big bang that makes us realize who we truly are. I was never meant to reach Aiden; I was meant to hold up his light. That’s how we go on, he and I. Not two stars dancing in the same orbit to a celestial Für Elise. There is only one star, and I am the cosmic dust that lets him shine.
I smile up at his childhood universe through tears. It was never a choice between Shakespeare and Dante, was it? Maybe we are always both things: hope and tragedy, guilt and redemption, love and loss. What matters is which one we choose to win.
A rivulet of rain trickles through the leaves, landing on dad’s watch at my wrist. It splashes on the glass case and soaks through the old dial.
“No!” I whimper, wiping it off but the ancient seconds hand trembles and quits. “No,” I choke again, shaking my arm, turning the crown, tapping the crystal, but the delicate gold hand does not move again. It rests there, stuck at ten past eight after over forty-six years. “Not you too!” I stifle a sob, brushing off all moisture in vain with mum’s scarf. Perhaps she can fix it, perhaps only something of hers can mend something of dad’s. But it doesn’t work. The watch, like my parents, like my life, like my heart, is broken.
T-i-m-e. It has finally stood still.
“Elisa?” Aiden finds me, his voice not lifeless or remote. It’s bending with concern for me. This is the voice I will always remember to keep myself breathing. I look up, and there he is. Towering pale against the dark, fallen sky, with eyes like torn daylight snagged in the gruesome clouds. How can agony look so beautiful, so tempting even as it pulverizes me to ash? “What happened, other than me?”
I shake my head, grateful to have an excuse that doesn’t give him a new reason to blame himself. “Nothing, only my dad’s watch. I think it just retired.”
A ghost of the V forms between his brows. “Can I see it?”
I raise my hand to him, eager for his touch, but he wraps his fingers lightly around my sleeve. Even in that faint contact, I think I feel a shudder run through him. As it does through me. “Did it get wet?” he guesses.
I nod, memorizing the light pressure of his touch through the layers.
He sets my hand back on my knee, closing his own into a fist. “I’ll find a good horologist to fix it.”
“Don’t worry about that. It was about time.”
If he hears my pun, he doesn’t comment. His eyes seek my jawline reflexively, but he clenches his jaw and drops them to my wellies. The blue light extinguishes in an instant, bringing back the devastating void. And all the reasons why we are here. “You’ll get cold,” he murmurs. “I should take you home.”
H-o-m-e. Will it still feel like that without him?
“Your oak has been keeping me dry and warm.” I reach into every nook of my mind for strength. “Will you sit with me for a minute?”
His face doesn’t move again, but he folds down on the thickest root next to me and hands me his rain jacket. The jacket we sat on in Elysium, in the meadow of my childhood, his first morning in England. I wrap it around myself, inhaling his scent as he stares at the ground. I follow his gaze to the emerald blades of grass, brushing against the sole of his boot. Unlike the rest of the lawn, they are not soaked or drowning in mud. The oak protects them.
“Do you feel better or worse than in the lab?” I ask, looking up at his profile.
“Both,” he answers, and I’m glad he is being honest. It seems like a good place to start, even though neither goodnor start has anything to do with this.
“What would make the better feelings win?”
He sighs, scanning the dripping lawn. “Your safety. Your health. Your happiness. Clarity and strength to do the right thing.”
Mine, mine, mine. Never about himself. We will never be free from selflessness, will we? It’s too late now to change. “Maybe I can help with all that.”
His eyes fly to my face despite his resistance. And even though he only allows them to rest on me for a second, he sees everything. “If you’re about to suggest some self-sacrifice for my benefit, Elisa, don’t. I cannot handle it—not now, not ever again.”
I want to argue. I want to ask why he is the only one allowed to sacrifice himself, but I learned some things from Doctor Helen in the lab. I figured out which battle to fight and the only way I might be able to win it. “I’m not suggesting self-sacrifice, not any more than you are. I’m offering a . . . a deal, a compromise.”
His eyes don’t flicker with any expression. He waits, his back as rigid as the weathered trunk he used to climb. I search the lawn of his childhood, trying to find the words and the strength to utter them. And look, there he is. A seven-year-old boy with shocking sapphire eyes, playing at the merry-go-round. Laughing, circling, his black hair ruffled with the wind, a white T-shirt stained with grass and Levi’s jeans. His beauty fills my vision and stuns my mind. And the words release.
“You want me to have a future, a long, safe life,” I start—a fact, not a question.
“I do.” There is no hesitancy in his answer.
“Filled with love and family and happy memories.”
“Even if it is not with you,” I breathe, my voice quivering. But the little boy laughs again. A precious, cascading laughter that will grow up into a waterfall springing from his heart. It fortifies me for the response I know is coming.
“Especially not with me.”
“Because you think you are dangerous and unhealthy for me.”
“I don’t think it, I know it.”
Another argument lost, another battle I will never win. “That’s why you want to move out. To keep me safe in the interim.”
“And you don’t really want to stay in England at all, not even until September eighteen.” I risk a glance at grown Aiden’s face, beautiful and severe. He is looking at the lawn, too, at the memories of his real childhood, not the one I am dreaming of now.
“Wanting has nothing to do with it. I have given you my word that I will stay, Elisa.” He sounds abruptly aged like Doctor Helen. “You don’t have to worry about me leaving before then. I will keep my promise.”
Little Aiden has bounded to the swing now, shooting up like a fledgling star. My heart stutters at the sight. He laughs again and summersaults in the air, landing supply on his trainers, checkered like a chess board. I draw a deep breath, letting his giggle strengthen me for my next words.
“What would you negotiate to be free of your promise to stay?”
His head turns to me. Surprise flashes across his face, chasing away the void. Not the pain—nothing seems to erase that—but at least it brings him back to some semblance of life. “What did you say?” he whispers incredulously.
“What would you give me if I gave you all that: a future for myself, commitment to my own health and safety, and agreement for you to leave tomorrow, even today?”
He is so astonished that he forgets to avoid my face. His powerful memory takes advantage of his abstraction and consumes my calm with lightning speed. I know because the beautiful turquoise glow illuminates his eyes. And for a moment, he is my Aiden again. Stunned, but familiar like home, like the roses, like the sound of my own name. The sight makes my chest bruise with ache. Because I know soon it will disappear.
“What would you want?” he asks.
I commit his alive voice to memory as countless answers implode in my head. Smile, touch me, look at me like you used to, call me “love” again, yell, shout, take me in your arms, make love to me right here on your rain jacket, stay . . . stay forever. But they are all the wrong answers. There is only one answer that matters now.
“I want something that will make you feel better. I want you to use my calming effect. With photos, paintings, videos, Für Elise, and anything else we can find. And if I ever finish the protein, I would want you to take it so you can fight the reel and finally lay Marshall to rest. And even after that, take it as long as you need to feel alive again. Those are my only conditions. As for leaving, I will not hold you to your promise. You are free, Aiden, not my prisoner. You can go whenever you want, deal or no deal. I will not begrudge you taking away some of our days together. I will only feel grateful to you for giving this time to me.”
He watches me without blinking, his gaze so intense that I cannot handle it despite the turquoise light sparking here and there. I drop my eyes to the grass blades fluttering against the gnarly roots. Does the root feel their gentle caress? Is that what makes it so strong?
“That’s very different than what you were saying last night,” he reminds me. “‘If you leave before then, you might save my body, but you would kill my heart.’” He quotes me perfectly, of course. “Why the change now?”
I want to cut my tongue out. But that was before I had seen the full depths of his pain, before I could even imagine such agony exists. And before he decided to give up his last hope: the calm I give him.
“I was wrong last night to make you promise to stay when you’re hurting so much. I was doing the same thing I did in Portland. Forcing you to stay with me when it terrifies you. And all it’s done is hurt you over and over again. The doctors say not to repeat the past. But maybe it’s not your mistakes we should not be repeating. Maybe it’s mine.”
“Those weren’t mistakes. You’ve never forced me into anything I didn’t desperately want myself.”
“All the same. Besides you kept your promise: you promised to give this your best fight. And you have. You have been fighting all your life. Since you were a seven-year-old boy, climbing up this tree. For your parents, your country, your brothers, me. It’s time for you to rest, my love. That’s all I’m asking. Let me give you peace, like you healed me.”
“How could I possibly be at peace knowing you’d be hurting, Elisa? Sleepwalking and spending your days at the hilltop grave, waiting for the end.”
How well he knows me, better than I know myself. I find Little Aiden in the playground to say the next words without tears. “I won’t let it be that way again. If you dedicate yourself to your health, I promise I will do the same. I will go to work, make friends. And I’ll let you set up everything you need for my well-being, from bodyguards to trust funds and heaven knows what else you have planned for me. I won’t complain. And when you board the plane, you won’t have to see me cry. I will just say ‘like cookies, Aiden’ and turn around. Just please go and take my calm and the protein whenever I finish it. That’s what I’m offering. Will you accept it?”
His eyes become deep oceans, as they were that first morning in Elysium, when he was describing my future without him. I look away from the waves of pain in those eyes, knowing they will become tears in mine. The blades of grass he stepped on as a child swish against grown Aiden’s boots. Would that they could become staircases to heaven now.
“No deal,” he fires after a long moment, startling me.
“What?” I gasp in dismay.
“I reject your offer. I appreciate it but reject it nonetheless.”
“Because it’s not a win-win, like all the other offers you have made me.”
“What do you mean? Of course it is.”
“No, it isn’t. You would be giving up a lot more than you would gain.”
“No, I wouldn’t. I would gain your rest.”
“And you’d be losing yours. The best—the only—persuasive argument I have heard today in favor of me staying until the eighteenth is closure for you. If I leave tomorrow or move to the Inn, you will not get that. You will always wonder what those final days could have been like. It will be yet another shock to your system. And you will hurt even more. You will never move on. That’s not winning, Elisa. It’s losing before you’ve even started.”
I don’t tell him there is no chance I will ever move on, no matter when he leaves. The whole point of this is for himto move on from me as best he can with his memory. “I would try, Aiden. I would give it my everything.”
But his eyes miss nothing. “And it won’t be enough, because you still believe there is a chance I could overcome this. Even when you are Helen’s age, you will wonder what if. What if I had stayed the entire ninety days? What if I were exposed to your effect a little longer? What if I hadn’t moved to the Inn? What if you had offered me something else? What if, what if, what if. You will question everything: yourself above all. And I cannot live with that. I cannot and will not create any reality where you lose faith in yourself.”
How can I argue with any of those truths? Especially when I want him so much to stay with me? “So . . . so what will you do then?”
“Try to give you whatever closure I can. I can’t go back to the way things were—taking trips to River Eden, sleeping in the same bed. And I will not continue the reel. I cannot do that to you now. But I will stay and use this time for what it is . . . the goodbye we never had.” His voice drops, but not the way it does when he calls me “love.” The way it quiets when he talks about Marshall—another torture, another death that he won’t let me heal. And I have nothing left to convince him with. Everything inside and outside of me starts whirling like the merry-go-around. But I hold on to the dimple in Little Aiden’s smooth, golden cheek as he gambols to the slide, climbing up easily, then flying back down with open arms like wings. The dizziness fades again, and I can speak.
“What about my calming effect and the protein? Will you use them?”
Instantly, his eyes close. Is the idea of helping himself so unbearable? Would he rather live through torture everyday than take something from me? “Please, Aiden,” I beg. “It’s the only thing I want now.” It’s true and it isn’t—it’s the only thing I want that he might still give. “I want it more than air, more than water. Please?”
I expect the unspeakable agony now, the one with no name. My hands shake, grasping the thick root, as it floods his face. But he tethers it back, inch by excruciating inch. His throat seems to close as if he can’t speak, but he does—for me. “I will use the protein when you finish it only if there is enough for you to take as well.”
“Thank you,” I whisper fervently. “What about the calm—will you give yourself that?”
He doesn’t answer, jaw clenched into a steely blade.
“Please, Aiden. It’s yours already. Keep this one small thing for yourself. You deserve it even if your mind is trying to convince you that you don’t. You have given me so much love, you have saved my life, you healed me from my own past. Take this little gift in return. It will give me peace, too.” And it will. Nothing else will ever give me that except knowing his eyes will brighten again.
He still doesn’t answer, glaring into the tarry clouds. And I can’t help it, I slip. I touch his hand that is a gnarly fist like the burls in his childhood tree. It shudders under the lightest caress as it does when he watches the reel. I pull back my hand quickly. “Why won’t you do it anymore?” I ask, not sure I can live through the answer. “Is it only because you don’t think you deserve it? Or does it hurt too much to look at me now?”
He closes his eyes. “Elisa, looking at you is like looking at the sky. This beautiful, immeasurable space that makes you believe in wings and gods and dreams. There is nothing painful about it.”
He shakes his head. “Imagine living in a world without a sky. What would you do? Would you still look up or would you look at the ground because it’s the only evidence that the sky was real once?”
His question makes me gasp. Because this is my world he is describing, my dark universe. It shouldn’t be his. “I’m real now, my love. Look at me, so you can hurt a little less. Even if you only do it a couple times a day, it will be better than nothing. Will you at least try that? Please? I need to give this to you as much as you need to take it from me.” My breath hitches, and there is no locket or little boy that can stave off the grief that grips me.
I don’t know if it’s my pleading that he can never resist, or the quiver in my voice, or if his need is as exigent as my own. But whatever it is, Aiden gives in. He turns his face to mine and lets his eyes free. They race over every line, greedily, hungrily, as though they have been starved. My jawline first, my cheeks, the curve of my lips, my eyes, over and over and over, absorbing every pore of my skin. His breathing picks up, shallow and rapid, somewhere between an orgasm and a drowning man coming up for air. And the turquoise light blasts through the depths, almost blinding me with its force. More beautiful than the little boy of my fantasies, more exquisite than any star. It shatters my mind even as it mends my heart.
But as soon as tension starts to soften around his shoulders, he wrenches back his gaze. It takes only a blink, and his face plummets into lifelessness again. Before I can gasp or say anything, our names ring across the lawn.
“Elisa? Aiden?” Doctor Helen is striding toward us in her white coat and umbrella, carrying my basket on her arm. “I’m glad you’re still here. You forgot this.” She hands it to me before I can test whether I can stand. The wicker feels like a souvenir from a different life. And a colossal testament to the distress Aiden is in, that he didn’t notice right away my basket was missing. He is staring at it blankly, no doubt realizing the same thing.
“Thank you,” I manage, remembering the contents. I lift the lid, trying not to look at Aiden’s post-reel surprise, and take out the Clare roses. “Actually, I brought these for you, Doctor Helen. Thank you for seeing us so early and trying to help us.”
She takes them from me with a look of wonder. “Ah, the Clare roses! It’s been so long since I’ve smelled them.” She brings them to her nose, inhaling deeply. “Clare brought some to me when she finished her fellowship. You weren’t born yet, but she had just married Peter. I have never seen anyone that happy.”
“I found some of her journals. She was very fond of you.”
“And I of her, but I might like her daughter even more.” She looks at Aiden, who is staring at the roses like he is burning. “I’ll let you be together now. That helps you more than any scientific advice I can give.” She inclines her head in her dignified manner and walks away, smelling the roses.
The weight of the basket disappears from my arm as Aiden takes it.
“I got it,” I say quickly, yanking it back before he can see the surprise and feel more pain. I pretend to brush off grass from the lid, holding my breath.
“What is it, Elisa?”
“Nothing. Are you hungry? I brought you some scones. I know you didn’t eat.”
A heartbeat of silence. Then, “Tell me.”
I keep my eyes on the blades of grass, so the truth doesn’t spill out. “It’s just something silly. Please, don’t worry about it.”
“I can’t do that.”
I sigh, not knowing what is worse: letting him worry or causing him pain. In Aiden’s case, they’re made from the same molecules, but only one used to make him smile. I lift the lid, knowing it won’t have that power now. But maybe somewhere deep in the inconceivable networks of his memory, a single neuron might trigger even the faintest release of serotonin. Carefully, I bring out the seedling I have been cultivating between my Elisa rose and his American Beauty. Its very first leaflet has sprouted on Elisa’s stem, bright and chartreuse green.
A sharp breath from Aiden makes it flutter. I watch with a clenched heart as the void on his face changes to recognition, like a pulse of life.
“This was going to be your surprise after the reel today.” I fight to keep my voice even, as I hand him the little plastic pot with the word “Love” painted on it. It balances easily on his palm. He doesn’t move a finger, whether afraid of breaking it or breaking himself, I don’t know. “I first brought it to our Room of Firsts the day of the Rose Festival for our lunch date,” I explain, thinking of that day when I made the mistake with the devastating consequences we are suffering now. “Your clue had said to bring love. But then I got angry with you about my hands even though you were right, and I never had a chance to show you. Probably for the best—there wasn’t much to show then. But it has been growing ever since and it just got its first leaf. See? It’s really nothing, like I told you.”
He is still holding the pot in his open hand. “Nothing?” His voice is rough.
“I—I just thought it would make you smile like these things do after the reel, but it was foolish. Not even ninety thousand more reels can compare to today.”
“Not foolish.” He shakes his head, and his face starts changing again. Fighting between the nameless agony and tenderness. At least he is feeling something else, no matter how minor. “How long does it take for it to bloom?”
A lot longer than we have left together. “A few months,” I murmur, but that doesn’t erase the excruciating pain in his eyes so I change tracks to tangentials. “I wonder what color it will turn out.” Will it look like his rose or mine? Will he take it with him, plant it in his backyard with its grandparents that we planted together? Will it make him smile years from now or will it wither like us? I tap its happy, green leaflet, thinking vaguely of that first morning on Elysium when Aiden told me about his hope for this experiment. I was staring at the forget-me-nots then, trying to avoid his eyes, trying to keep my hope from fledgling. And now everything is the opposite.
“Is this its name?” He indicates at the word ‘love’ on the pot. Perhaps he is focusing on tangentials, too.
It was going to be. But as I watch it dance in the wind, the new green sparkling like the tendril of the American Beauty rose we planted at my parents’ grave together, a different name clicks, fitting the hybrid as his war letter put it: like air and lungs, hearts and beats.
“No, its name is Hope. H-o-p-e.”
The leaflet flutters again with his breath. “You changed your mind about giving it to me.”
“Yes, but only because I saw earlier how much it hurts you. The things we do, how we used to be—they are painful now.”
He shakes his head, still watching the hybrid. “That’s not what hurts, Elisa. It’s the knowledge that, soon, I will lose them.”
L-o-s-e. S-o-o-n. Dad’s watch doesn’t tick. Even my own pulse feels quiet. I cannot think of a single thing to say. Not one word that will not shatter us both. So instead I memorize this moment: the indestructible roots of his oak, the fragile grass, my rose stem carrying the bright, starry leaflet, the playground, the raindrops slipping through the leaves. And I know I will never forget this either, like him. I will return to this oak every day of my existence.
He sighs and rises to his feet, holding Hope in his hand. “Come, the rain is picking back up. Let’s take you home.”
Home. Where he will not be able to r-e-s-t at all if I am anywhere close for f-e-a-r of hurting me.
Not sure I can stand or even breathe, I do the only thing I can—continue the last battle to save him. “Actually, I want to go to Bia. I don’t know what will happen with the project with Edison gone, so I’d like to test some more today. You go on and get some sleep. Use Für Elise, please. I have food with me and paracetamol, don’t worry.”
He didn’t expect my answer, and that’s good. Because in his surprise, his eyes find my face again and some life touches him. The deep V forms between his brows. Resistance clenches his jaw. Worry creases his forehead. I can see he wants to protest that I should sleep or stay off my feet or talk to Reagan and Javier or any number of things designed to care for me. And I can see how much it’s costing him not to say them, as if his very soul is being mutilated. But he does because this is when our goodbye begins.
He nods once, the motion taut against the grain. “Benson will stay with you. And I’ll send Doctor Gramercy to check on you later.”
“Who will stay with you?”
He looks down at the seedling. “Für Elise.”
It’s a win, I suppose, in the dead center of losing everything. I will my deadened legs to stand so he can see me strong, so he can leave. His free arm reaches for me as if to catch me. I reach for him, too, my feet reflexively closing the small space between us. Our fingers brush, sending a shiver through us both like an electric umbilical cord. The feel of his touch spreads over my frozen skin like warmth. I can feel my face contorting in ache, but I control it. Not yet. He closes his eyes as though the image is burning him.
“Be safe,” he whispers roughly.
©2021 Ani Keating