Happy Sunday, friends! Hope the weekend was a relaxing and happy one. To help with Sunday Scaries, here is Chapter 16. Hope you enjoy it. Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani
Monday morning at precisely four o’clock, I want to laugh despite the indecency of the hour, my bleary eyes, and gelatinous legs. Because the Dragon that is driving me to Oxford is very clearly not a morning beast now that he is able to sleep in his den. As it is, my giggle is stifled by a yawn, followed by two of his.
“I really would have been fine riding the bus,” I tell him, my voice still raspy with sleep. “That’s what I had been doing.”
“Fuck, don’t yell!”
“I’m serious,” I whisper, gripping the edge of the seat of his newly leased Range Rover not to laugh.
“No bus!” He glares at the dark road as though he is about to carbonize it into volcanic rock with his fire breath.
“All right, if you want to be gallant and protective, then at least go back to hibernation after you drop me off.”
“What part of my face says joking is welcome at this ungodly hour?”
This yawn is more like a fuming roar. The talons grip the wheel. But despite the scales, I have an overwhelming urge to pet him. He needs sleep more than me right now to consolidate his memories, yet he dutifully rose an hour ago, helped me with my breakfast, and now is driving the long way to Bia so that I don’t have to pass by my parents’ accident site.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I have to go in this early so I can test the protein before Edison and Graham show up. Dad didn’t want anyone to know for a reason.”
“This—” yawn “—is exactly what I mean by don’t stress yourself for me, Elisa! I don’t want you operating on three hours of sleep.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have had three hours of sleep if someone hadn’t insisted on avenging my self-love game on every surface of the cottage once the pestilent soreness was gone.”
It works some. One reference to our happy, albeit obscene night and the claws are retracted but he is still glaring. “Yes, well, that ends after tonight. Going forward, sex will be at eighteen hundred hours sharp! You will be asleep by twenty-one hundred.”
“That’s a good thought, Lieutenant. There’s still an awfully lot of floor left.” The scales smooth out and the fangs disappear. The lips almost twitch in a smile. “Not to mention half the stairs,” I continue.
The Dragon flies out of the sunroof and my Aiden is back on the wheel. Because, as I discovered through gymnastics I did not realize I could accomplish, the stairs are Aiden’s favorite, second only to our bedroom. He gulps some coffee from his fourth cup, much calmer.
“You’ll be okay today?” he asks, his voice now a muted, slow key instead of a growl.
“Of course. I’m not handling any dangerous chemicals. Just the protein.” I decide he doesn’t need to know about the way it combusts into flames exactly like him.
“Maybe I should reschedule our meeting with the scientists so you can come straight home after work.”
For a second, I’m distracted by the flutter in my stomach when he calls the cottage home no matter how casually. But only for a second. “Absolutely not. I’m as excited to meet your brain as I am about the protein.”
He sighs, frowning at the road, but doesn’t answer. A heavy feeling—like his memory heard its name and is rising, shifting all its vast weight around us—fills the Rover. Abruptly, I feel selfish, buzzing with excitement when the process must be difficult for him.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “That was thoughtless of me.”
“Of course it wasn’t. How can I be upset with you for loving every part of me no matter how unlovable it is?”
“You’re violating the self-love rules. You know what happens when you do that.”
“It’s not self-loathing if it’s a fact, Elisa.” The melancholy in his face changes to anger as his hands tense on the wheel again. “If I had a normal brain, you wouldn’t have to wake up at this hour. You could sleep in, go to work at a reasonable time, develop the protein at your pace—not exhaust yourself to save the man you love. And then you could come home where we would be together without every tick of the fucking clock feeling like an IED. And I could fall asleep with you in my arms without dreading what I might see next to me when I open my eyes in the morning. So yes, if that violates your self-love rules, so be it.”
I never know what to say when he speaks truths like this—truths that are true in abstract, but completely untrue to me. He is glowering ahead, but I know it’s not at the windshield. It’s at his own reflection. “This isn’t feeling like the opposite,” I mumble. “It’s feeling like more of the same.”
“The opposite doesn’t mean a lie, love.”
I snatch that last word—small as it is, shuddering with anger and fear—and tuck it into every thought. It cancels all his other words. “If truth is what you’re after, if you had a normal brain—whatever that means—we might have never met. And even if we had, it wouldn’t be this kind of love. I’d rather love like this than play it safe.”
More four-letter words, so I grip L-O-V-E tighter. It’s ours—no torture, capture, or war can take it from us while we are still breathing.
His face softens, whether at my words or something else, I don’t know. But he takes my hand where it’s clenched into a fist on my lap and brings it to his lips. “You’re right. I can’t hate anything that brought me to you.”
I caress his lips and the tension of his jaw drains away. I see his mind rearrange the tectonic plates in his eyes as he glances at my profile for a second and finds his peace. When he sighs again, the sound is light and his lips lift in a sleepy smile. “I really know how to kick-start the day, don’t I?”
I grin. “You definitely woke me up.”
He chuckles, the soft sound flitters around the Rover’s cabin, carrying away the memory’s weight on its wings. “Let’s hit restart. I’ll meet you outside your lab at six and we can walk over to the WIN Centre together. And you can look at my brain as much as you want. God knows it loves looking at you, so it’s only fair.”
I smile at his familiar shorthand for the Wellcome Centre for Interactive Neuroimaging. And I love the WIN part for our fight. “Do you think we ever saw each other when you were coming to Oxford and I was little?”
“We didn’t. I wondered about that as I was looking at your childhood photos. I never saw your parents either.”
“Well, maybe I saw you,” I muse, looking at the Oxford road sign. “Maybe little me saw teenage you and tucked your face away so I would recognize you later. Maybe that’s why you feel like home to me, too.”
His hand tightens around mine. “Maybe you did, love.”
I like the fantasy of that. Little us, old us—all sprinkling a pinch of stardust from every time dimension to help us through this one. I will take every bit of help I can get, real or imagined.
Aiden pulls over in the parking lot of the Chemistry Building, and the dimple wakes up in his cheek. “This brings back memories of parking at Reed to ambush you at Denton’s lab for our first coffee date.”
I pick up his coffee cup and sip a mouthful, placing my lips exactly where he drank. Then I reach over to kiss him, pouring some of it in his mouth. “To coffee dates, Aiden.”
He swallows and laughs. “I’ll never enjoy drinking coffee out of a cup again compared to this.”
With his memory, this might actually be true. “What will you do with yourself today?” I ask, prolonging each last second.
“Go for a run on the hills, work at the Inn, miss you.”
I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here in this dark car, drinking coffee mouth-to-mouth, listening to his quiet chuckle, watching his sleepy eyes awake. There is still so much to catch up from the last two weeks. I don’t know every hour of his days without me. I don’t know what he read, what he ate, what songs he listened to, which favorite pajamas he wore, whether Cora made him his chocolate chip cookies—all these insignificant details that blend into a vital whole, the full totality of him.
“And you wanted to take the bus?” he smiles, reading my thoughts on my skin. Or maybe on his own.
“Terrible idea. Don’t ever let me think such lunacy again.”
I force myself to stumble out of the Rover—force only by thinking of the protein we so desperately need.
“Here, you forgot your snacks,” he reminds me, whirling down his window. “And your purse. And your kiss.”
“Bloody hell, I think I forgot my brain.”
His mouth takes it easy on me but I still feel the heat of his lips and the flame of his eyes as I plod across the parking lot to Bia.
“Be safe,” he calls behind me as always when we part. His gravelly morning voice would make Beethoven weep. It almost makes me turn around. As it is, I pause at the front doors to wave at him. He waits for me to go inside, but I peek through the glass panel, watching the lights of the Rover fade down St. Giles Boulevard. The moment they disappear, the livid wound in my chest rips open—as furious as on Friday—like the only anesthetic that soothes it is gone with him. My arm flies around my torso and I shamble down the hall to Bia, trying to remember how I lived with this. How did I think around it to get through the day? Did I lose the micro-layer of strength I had gained? Or has the pain at the thought of losing Aiden magnified, multiplying to the nth degree each second I spent in the bubble of his unrestrained love these last two days? A shudder of terror runs through me and I sprint toward the protein.
Bia is dark and quiet when I go in. It feels like I was here a lifetime ago, not on Friday. Because it was a lifetime ago—an entire dark existence of grief and loss. If its agony had not been etched on my insides, from my lungs full of river water to the festering wound, I wouldn’t have believed the woman who scrubbed these beakers on Friday was I.
I run straight to the cooler of chemicals but the moment I open the pressurized doors, I almost collapse on to the tile floor. Right there, in neat rows with clearly marked labels are hundreds and hundreds of ampules containing oxytocin in one form or another. By the time I’ve calculated four hundred compounds of it, I sink down, head between my knees, palms against the cold tiles, trying to gulp air. But all oxygen is gone. There are not enough days left to test all these. I will not be able to finish on time. Aiden’s cold lips flash in my vision from the nightmare and I cannot breathe. The tile floor starts spinning like a centrifuge. I lift my head to look at the periodic table on the wall but it is blurry with speed too. I can’t even see the lab. All I see is Aiden’s frozen body in permanent sleep. And the boulder’s sickly lapping sound hisses like high pitch through Bia so resonant it could shatter the oxytocin ampules: violent ends.
I throw my hands over my ears and lean my forehead against the cooler door. I should have worked all weekend. I should work all night. But even if I spend every single hour in this lab—not only the secret hours—I’ll never have enough hours to test all the oxytocin options. Even I confide in Graham and Edison—against Dad’s wishes—we do not have enough time. How can I tell Aiden? How can we lose one of the very few weapons we have? How can I kill the tendril of hope before it has even blossomed?
I try to focus only on the cold air blowing from Bia’s temperature-controlled vents. At the same moment, my phone buzzes in the pocket of Dad’s lab coat. Only Aiden would text me at this hour. Only he could get my hands to move or my eyes to see something other than my nightmare. I open the text and the picture Aiden took of us on the poppy field fills the screen. Right below it are his words:
“Does my first selfie count as self-love if we’re in it together? ”
Could he sense I was falling apart? Is his chest hurting like mine? Is that how he knew to send me the only thing that could restart my lungs?
I gaze at his face full of life—the turquoise eyes that manage to look sentient even in pixels, his vivid lips—until I can breathe regularly again and Bia stops spinning. Then I wrench myself upright. I still have to try, don’t I? For the face on the screen, I will do anything.
And right now, I know he is waiting for me. I take a deep, shuddering breath to steady my fingers, my thoughts, and text him back.
“Yes! And it’s extra points. Use them well.”
The three dots indicating he is typing race on the screen. “Then I’ll meet you on the fifth stair before bed, Mrs. Plemmons.”
“I’ll be there.” Until the very end, until my own heart stops beating.
“Present moment until then,” he reminds us both, and then he’s gone. But he brought me back to me.
I stare at the lines of ampules in the cooler. Which of these bottles did it, Dad? Why did you keep it a secret? There are no answers, no miniature roses waving from the marble stone. He lives in you, Graham would say. You are your own brilliant scientist, Aiden would argue. I close my eyes, still seeing blotches from the cooler’s fluorescent bulbs like a Rorschach test. Dad believed the simplest solution is the most elegant. So I begin there, too. I select the purest, most elemental oxytocin compound and prepare the 2-AG blue liquid. I don’t even know how much oxytocin to use. I only know when to add it. And I try. Over and over and over again. But no matter how much I modify the measurements, the vials explode. BANG! BANG! BANG! Each a shotgun bullet straight through my chest. Each broken vial a Juliet flashback. Each explosion decimating the few allies we had managed to collect. Graham’s usual arrival time ticks closer and I’m forced to clean and destroy all evidence of my efforts despite the utter failure. And that was only one ampule of love.
“Top of the morning, Eliser!” Graham calls, bursting through the door right on time. Even though I was expecting him, like all good clandestines, I still jump and whirl around, hand clutching my throat. He laughs. “Every morning! You’re as good at getting startled as you are at handling the pipettes.”
He wastes exactly two minutes hanging up his jacket, donning his lab coat, disinfecting his hands, and marching to his own bench to my left.
“How was the weekend? Did your friend arrive?”
I have to remember what I told him on the last day of my dark ages. Right—only Reagan was visiting then, every other star was imploding or was already gone.
“Yes, she did,” I answer a little late. For a second I contemplate telling him about my other visitors, but the last thing I need right now is for Graham or Edison to think I’m too distracted by social obligations. I need their full confidence now more than ever.
“It must have been quite the weekend,” Graham observes, beginning to allocate the fear molecules futilely.
“Why do you say that?” I go through the allocation motions, feigning concentration when I know very well his method will fail. But I cannot feel enough guilt to share Dad’s last secret. Not when my love depends on it.
“Because you look almost normal. Still your pale self, but no dead eyes. They were a bit spooky. No offense.”
This morning’s meltdown must have bleached all the pink in my cheeks that Aiden so energetically painted there last night. “None taken.”
“Go on then! What did you do?”
Why, of all the mornings, is Graham choosing this one for small conversation? “Not much. Explored Burford.”
“All the eight streets and eight hundred fields?”
I think he is joking so I force a laugh. It sounds like a maniacal screech.
“By the way, did Edison tell you yet?” he asks.
“Tell me what?”
“They’re finally naming the bench out in the quad after Professor Snow. Where he used to sit, you know. I think there will be an inaugural ceremony—plaques, speeches, and all. Mad, isn’t it?”
My hands tremble so hard I spill some of the fear molecule.
“Ugh, watch it, Eliser! Bloody hell!” Graham tries to recapture the spilled drop frantically while I concentrate on breathing. It is too early for so many emotions. Dad’s favorite bench. The bench where we secretly carved PEC beneath the seat with a lab scalpel.
“At least you only spilled a few microliters. What the hell is the matter with you this morning?” Graham demands, his voice half-puzzled, half-mad. There is no bigger crime in Graham’s eyes than wasting his beloved 2-AG.
“I’m sorry, Graham. The bench ceremony distracted me.”
He takes a deep steadying breath. “Yes, all right. But it’s not until August, Eliser. And you’ll get to go. I know they’ll want you to speak now you’re back.”
Another hand tremble and only half a spilled drop this time but Graham doesn’t miss it. “You’re not handling the 2-AG today,” he fires me summarily. “You’re on peptide duty.”
“What? No! I’ll—I’m very sorry. I—I just have a fear of public speaking, that’s all. Here, look, hands steady as forceps now.” I hold them out as evidence.
“No, Elisa. I’m sorry, but this is vital. Not to mention expensive.” And without a word, Graham—the only semi-friend I’ve made here—turns his back and starts measuring the blue fear liquid with the pipettes.
I gather the refrigerated volumetric flasks of bubblegum pink peptide bonds, fighting off tears. My throat and eyes are aflame like Graham’s Bunsen burner that I cannot touch. I’m not angry with him. Graham is right and, although he doesn’t know it, I already wasted some 2-AG this morning with my first oxytocin disaster. But that’s not what hurts right now—what hurts is my father’s lab coat that suddenly weighs a million pounds. A million pounds of embarrassing him. I swallow wave after wave of tears, not letting one spill, stealing looks at Graham’s back clad in his own brilliant white coat that has never been stained by shaking hands and undisciplined emotions. Because he is a true, grown-up scientist. Not a child whose only accomplishment for access to the exclusive doors of Bia seems to be her last name. Sophie, Rupert, and Elena come in about fifteen minutes later, and I hear their footsteps pause when they see me demoted to the peptide bench. I can’t look at their reflections on the glass cabinet doors in front of me. Without a word, their trainers shuffle to their own workstations, leaving mine next to Graham sterile and empty. I separate all the peptide bonds, not needing brain or attention for it: I learned this from Dad when I was fifteen. I try to find one peaceful spot in my mind to rest my thoughts—one without fear, shame, or pain. But everywhere I look, there is only loss. Either loss in the past or loss in the future. Either loss of life or loss of love. And the present moment is uninhabitable. I squeeze through my neurons, weaving in and out, looking for any image to get me through this day. I find it at last—Aiden’s waterfall laughter. The carefree sound, blasting away all the debris of the mind. I replay it in my head like he does with Für Elise. And the hours pass.
Before lunch, Edison blows through the door with his usual marathon step. And as with Sophie, Rupert, and Elena, I hear his Oxfords skid to a stop on the tile floor.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demands. “Why is Elisa at the peptide bench?” I steal a glance at his reflection on the cabinet doors. He is facing Graham.
“She’s not feeling herself today,” Graham responds charitably, but his voice wavers under the weight of Edison’s authority. I’m sure the other three are pretending to look at their workstations like me.
“Elisa?” Edison turns to me. I draw a quiet breath and turn, unable to look Edison in the eye and missing Denton so much.
“Graham is right, Professor, I’m sorry.”
The tip of his Oxfords taps the floor slightly. “Are you feeling ill?”
Do invisible chest wounds count? “No.”
“Are you under distress?”
“Has anything whatsoever happened to you that makes you unable to perform your regular lab duties today?”
“I was a bit nervous about the . . . the bench ceremony, Professor, and my hands shook. But I’m better now.” I risk a peek at his face but I cannot understand his expression. “Graham was right to assign me the peptides,” I add loyally.
“Elisa, return to your workstation and resume your duties. You are Peter’s daughter. You do not allow anything—absolutely anything—to get in the way of his dream and now yours. Not time, not exhaustion, not failure, and most certainly not nerves. And if you ever forget what you are made of, come talk to me.” The Oxfords pivot on the tile floor and stride out of the lab.
I still cannot face the others so I return to the peptides, pretending to mix the viscous mass while trying to muster things like lungs and tear ducts and fingers. Every molecule wants to sprint out of Bia, go sit on that bench, and text Aiden to come pick me up and hide me away. He would. He would take me into the deepest forest or the highest mountain top—he’d find a way through borders, passports, memories, and rules—and we could camp in my little tent, just the two of us, and wait out the next eighty-eight days. It would be a kind of heaven in Dante’s nine circles of hell.
But I resist all that because Edison is right. In the end, even I fail with the protein, I would at least have stayed true to Dad. I would have tried.
“Come here, Eliser. You heard Edison,” says Graham.
I step up to my workstation, stretching my fingers to make sure there isn’t a single tremor there. When I pick up the pipette, it is so steady it might as well be an extension of my bone. And I start piping the fear molecule into vials, never missing a single drop, no matter how useless I know this method to be.
“I’m sorry I was harsh,” Graham mumbles under his breath.
“No, you were right. This is vital.” For the love of my life, for my dad, for me.
Graham and the others ask me to join them for lunch but I turn them down. I cannot waste a single minute. As soon as they’re gone, I start thinking of ways to eliminate oxytocin options without needing to test everyone. But I don’t dare test a second ampule. I’ll have to come back tonight. I shudder when I think of the fight that would cause with Aiden. I’ll have to leave while Für Elise keeps him asleep. The wound throbs at the idea of missing even a minute of sleep with him. But what else can I do?
Graham returns early, and I’m grateful I didn’t attempt testing more oxytocin.
“Listen,” he starts. “I feel awful. I was a tosser.”
“No, you weren’t. You’re a real scientist, Graham. Able to turn off emotion to benefit the protein before all else, as it should be. I wish I could do that.”
He grins his sunbeam smile. “You just did. I’ve never seen a steadier hand. Not even your father.”
I clench my hands into fists, as Dad taught me to do during lab breaks. His never shook in a lab though.
“Mates still?” Graham asks.
“Mates still,” I smile back.
“All right, you drive the 2-AG today. I’ll finish the peptides.” And without waiting for a response, he demotes himself to the peptide bench of shame.
The day improves then. Not only because I can use my time with the molecule of fear to understand it more—how it bends, how temperamental it is, how sensitive to the smallest flicker of change. And not only because the lab feels warmer with Graham’s sunbeam on my side. But because the minutes are passing and I will see Aiden’s face in three hours, two, one. With each tick of the clock, the familiar energy builds in my tissues like electric current. But my fingers do not tremble, even if everything else starts palpitating at Aiden’s arrival.
“Well, there’s another day with no breakthroughs,” Graham declares the obvious with a sigh. “We try again tomorrow.”
I watch him clean up, riddled with guilt. Should I drop just a little hint? A feeling in my stomach—like slammed brakes—seals my lips. I let him and the others leave first, unable to walk along them with my secret.
By the time I sprint through the front doors, I almost crash into Aiden himself. He has ventured into the quad, leaning against the wall, my personal statue of Adonis sculpted in a way that would make Michelangelo resign.
“Aiden!” I squeal, running straight into his chest. He opens his arms at the exact moment I leap into them. We have this move so synchronized by now that it makes him chuckle as he folds me in his embrace. I listen to his strong heart and gulp his Aiden scent, and instantly the wound seals shut as if it never existed.
“You’d think we’re at the airport and she hasn’t seen him in a year!” Javier’s voice floats from somewhere. It’s only then that I notice him, Reagan, and Benson standing almost right next to me, laughing.
“It’s called love, Javi. You should try it sometimes,” Reagan responds, pulling me into her own version of an airport hug. “We hitched a ride with Aiden so we could see where you work and tour Oxford while you two meet with the experts.” She has reserved an elaborate hat for the occasion that is an art form in itself. A pearl-white beret covered with silk ivory roses.
“It’s perfect,” I tell them—the hat, their smiles, the four of them right here on Dad’s quad, everything.
“Is this where you’re geeking out these days?” Javier points with his chin at the monolithic building.
“Isn’t it brilliant?” I say, squinting at the way the sunset is breaking over the straight, precise lines and reflective glass windows.
“I guess, if you want to go blind. That’s the problem with you scientists. You have no sense of style at all. Let’s go, Reg. There’s real architecture to see around here that’s not made up of four boring walls.” Javier laughs, unfolding a map of Oxford from his back pocket. I circle the places they must see and they take off while Benson waits for us.
“This day really did feel like a year, didn’t it?” Aiden says. He’s still lounging against the wall, in a blue shirt that matches the eyes behind the Raybans and his staple dark jeans. I knot my hands and feet so I don’t run straight to his mouth. Not here in front of Dad’s work or mine.
“A decade,” I breathe.
“Should I assume from your current pretzel position that I am not to kiss you here or that you need to use the restroom before we go to WIN?”
The dimple blows a kiss at my forlorn voice anyway, and he takes my hand. “Probably for the best. After a decade without kissing, we’re guaranteed to be late.”
We cut across the quad, Aiden made of granite and Benson close behind even though most summer Oxonians are either still behind office, laboratory, and library doors or off to supper at this hour. Aiden asks about my favorite spots and I show him the bench, RadCam, the cobblestone where Mum broke her kitten heel the first time Dad saw her, the Ashmolean’s columned rooftop in the distance, but despite these keystones of my life, I cannot take my eyes off Aiden, off the reality of him walking the same paths that Mum, Dad, and I walked.
“So how was your decade-long day on three hours of sleep?” Aiden asks as we take the quiet Queen’s Lane to avoid the busier Magdalen Street.
I pretend to look around to make sure we’re alone but in fact I’m trying to compose my face and words so his eyes don’t see the awfulness of my day. “No breakthroughs yet,” I shrug. “But guess what?”
“What?” The dimple is still there. So far, so good.
“In August, the Chem department is having a ceremony to dedicate the quad bench to my dad. And I’m supposed to speak.” I only shared this so he would attribute any flicker of fear on my face to public speaking but as I say the words, I hear another truth. The truth of how much this ceremony means to me, how much I want Aiden there.
“Is that what’s worrying you? The speaking?”
I nod, not needing to pretend anymore. “I’m terrified of it. It’s my spider.” If only there was a way to have the protein by then. But there is no longer hope for that.
His brow puckers in confusion. “How could that be? You seemed so calm during your supplement presentation to Samson and me.”
“That’s because I had worked on it for four years, practiced for hours with Denton, and had a whole box of paperclips with me. And I still barely slept the night before.”
“Well, you could have fooled me.”
“You really didn’t notice?”
He smiles, shaking his head while I miss his eyes behind his Raybans. “I had a lot on my mind.”
“Like me trying to sell you my supplement for a million dollars?”
“No, like me trying to stay in my seat and behave normally when I knew you were the woman in my paintings.”
I stumble over a cobblestone, grateful I’m not wearing kitten heels. “That’s when you figured it out?”
He nods, looking down at me but all I see is my wide eyes and open mouth reflected on his sunglasses. “As soon as I saw your jaw and neckline without the scarf you were wearing at Feign’s gallery, I knew. I was barely able to function after that.”
“Well, you could have fooled me.”
He chuckles and we both look ahead on the walled ancient lane, but I’m certain we are both lost on that day. For me, despite the nerves and anguish, that’s the day I first touched his hand, heard his chuckle, felt the electricity of his skin on mine. But now it’s more than that. It’s the day his memory brought us together by a scrap of skin.
“We can practice your speech together, if you want,” he offers. “You knew your father longer than you knew your supplement. You’ll do great.”
I want you to be there, I think. I want to add an A to PEC. But he cannot come because there will be a crowd, even if small. Unless we win this fight, he will always be absent from moments like this. “Careful what you offer,” I answer. “I’ll probably need to practice every day for the next two months just to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ for something like this.”
“Sometimes, those are the most important words.”
It’s true, isn’t it? Bookend words that open and close entire conversations, even relationships. The high stonewalls curve with us toward WIN, Benson’s shadow over us like a shield.
“How are you liking England, Benson?” I ask him, suddenly worried he is missing his home, that he resents being conscripted into this fight with us.
But his smile is bright and genuine as always. “It’s practically a vacation for me. All these open fields and scientists will put me out of a job.”
Aiden chuckles. “If that day comes, Benson, you have my word you will never need a job.”
They laugh while I break Corbin’s rule and catapult myself into the fantasy of such a day. Saying thank you to Benson as our guard, saying hello to him only as a dear friend. Strolling without his protective shadow, just Aiden and me. The beauty of the daydream pierces me like a new siren song, stunning me with longing as strong as the dream of sleeping with Aiden. I tear my mind away from such dreams—they’re enemies still. They’re the apex assassins in this fight.
WIN with its artless four walls that would offend Javier emerges at the end of the street, and Aiden tenses further—not just his shoulders now, but all of him.
“We got it from here, Benson,” he says. “You know this drill as much as me.”
“I’ll be back in two hours, sir.” And with that Benson turns back the way we came.
“Benson used to come here with you?” I ask.
“Of course, every five years since Iraq. Before then, it was my parents.”
“And everyone we’re meeting has been with you this entire time?”
“The lead neuroscientist, Doctor Helen—Doctor Brahms, of course, but I used to call her Doctor Helen when I was seven so it stuck—has been with me since then. She knows my brain better than anyone. Her research fellows have changed over the years except old Morse—you’ll like him. And the Edinburgh team is new for this. They’re all itching to meet you. None of them has ever heard of such a thing as your calming effect on me.”
Abruptly I’m nervous. “Should I have prepared, Aiden? I feel like I don’t know anything.”
He shakes his head. “They didn’t want us to prepare. I expect that’s part of the plan. They wanted you to be you and us to be us—as much as we can be with all the circus.”
I nod, wishing for a paperclip. Hydrogen, I start in my head but he interrupts me. “Before we go in, there is something I’d like to give you. We have a few minutes. Come.”
He takes me by the hand to the back of the building—a place new to me. But that’s not why I’m surprised when I see the grove of oaks. It’s because of a simple playground to the side, clearly for all the children who must need neuroimaging here. Only two swing sets, a slide, a couple seesaws, and a merry-go-around.
“Oh!” I gasp. “Aiden, did you play here when you were a kid?”
He laughs, but it’s not a joyous sound. It has a hard edge, like a “no.” He marches us past the playground that abruptly looks desolate—the swings swaying empty in the breeze, the seesaw squeaking. He stops at an enormous oak—the Benson of trees. It takes me a moment to grasp it’s not just one oak, it’s two conjoined ones, like two open hands attached at the inner wrists. The branches are thick gnarly trunks on their own right and the canopy of leaves is its own green sky.
“This was my playground,” Aiden says, tilting his head toward the two-headed tree. The hard edge is in his voice too.
“Take off your glasses, please.”
He almost huffs but takes them off. And his eyes tell me everything—the way the blue has hardened too, the plates grinding with all the memories this place must hold for him. For the seven-year old boy with a gift no one could understand, a weight he could never share—a lone star, away from childhood and childish things. I step into his tense arms, knowing they will wrap around me like the oak’s branches. “It must have felt so lonely.” I kiss above his heart. Is the past tense really appropriate? Does he still feel lonely now?
He shrugs but the pectoral muscle softens slightly under my cheek as my calming effect fights with his memory. I wish I knew a way to intensify it. Maybe there is. “Show me how you would play. Do we have time?”
He deliberates, but the conflict in his eyes is not one of terror. It’s one of sadness. For what? A lost childhood? Lost time? “Come on,” I coax him. “Let’s play for two minutes.”
His lips lift in a tight, closed smile and that rare flicker of shyness glints in his eyes.
“All right,” he says with a sigh. “Look inside.”
I peek between the two oaks. At the ground where the roots grew together, they left a perfectly round circle surrounded by the thick trunks, like a well. Small enough for a seven-year old boy to play without triggers of any kind.
“I stopped fitting in there by the time I turned twelve. After that, I just climbed the branches.”
“When was the last time you climbed?”
The smile grows bigger, eyes softer—my calm is gaining ground. “When I was seventeen. But I get a feeling I’m about to climb again now.”
“Climb, Aiden!” I grin at him, and the calm advances further. He looks up at the oak canopy of leaves and back at me. Then before I can blink, he lifts me by the waist, making me gasp, and secures my arms around his neck and my legs around his hips. And the calm wins. The plates release and sudden excitement flares in his eyes. His mouth lifts into the dimply smile.
“Hold tight, Elisa!” he warns, and with one jump that makes me shriek, he grabs onto the lowest branch.
“Aiden, I weigh more than my rucksack.”
He laughs, but now the sound is happy and carefree. “Hah! But not much more than full battle rattle.” Then with another laugh, Aiden starts to climb. I solder myself to his front, laughing with him at the different kind of hardness I feel now. The thick branches are so enormous that he might as well be climbing up a steep trail or a rock. But he remembers each knot in the ancient wood, each bough. I’m lost in the way his body ripples with strength, not tension; the way his breathing spikes with athleticism, not fear; and the way he chuckles now and then, both seventeen and thirty-five. In minutes, we reach the thickest branch near the top, like a wooden bridge that has grown between the two trees.
“Hold on to me,” he says, only breathless from the climb that would have made the rest of us faint, drop, and maybe die, and sinks down carefully until he is sitting on the hulky trunk, me coiled tightly around him like the wood’s knots. “Well, this is it.” He shrugs, the dimple forming in his cheek as he takes in the tree of his childhood and adolescence. “It hasn’t changed much—just grown even more massive.”
I wipe a bead of sweat at his temple. “It’s incredible—like its own universe.” I follow his eyes through the dome of branches and leaves, trying to remember everything like him. “What did you do here after you climbed?”
“Usually nothing. I’d climb after all the imaging and the memory tests and the rest of the circus you’re about to see. Mostly I was just hiding if I’m being honest.”
“Let’s hide together then.”
I kiss his lips like leaves. They flutter back, quick as the wind of his breath. A brush of tongue like the tip of a reed, then two mouths joined like the oaks around us, our arms branches knotted in each other’s tree. We don’t have much time, but his memory only needs a blink. And now this kiss is climbing his memories too, hopefully softening their bark with desire and calm.
He smiles. “I’d never have believed this when I was hiding here.”
“I barely believe it now.”
“I need you to do something,” he says. “I planned to give this to you on the ground, but your way is always better.”
“Give me what?”
“Reach carefully in my shirt pocket,” he says, tightening his arms around me as I do what he says. Inside is a tiny two-milliliter lab vial of some kind of oil, sealed hermetically shut.
“What is—” I start to ask but then I gasp because as I bring it close to my nose, despite the laboratory seal, a faint whiff of its scent blows with the wind. “Oh, my God! Aiden, is this—is this what I think it is?”
He laughs his pure waterfall laughter that got me through today. “If you’re thinking it’s the perfume from your Aeternum roses, you would be right.”
I blink at the vial, speechless. I barely mouth “Wow!” and sniff it again, wishing I could break the seal now without risking dropping it. I never thought I would see this, I never thought I would smell it again except in memory.
“I have to admit, at first I was not sure about this,” Aiden murmurs. “I thought I wouldn’t like you in perfume. I worried it would change such an intimate part of the way I perceive you. But then I got this and it’s so perfectly you. It smells like my Alone Place that night, like one of the best memories of my life.”
“Mine too. How did you get it? Did Denton give it to you?”
He nods. “Yes, we need it for this meeting apparently so I reached out to him last week. He’s still processing the rest of the roses. He thinks by the end of it, you might have nine milliliters. He misses you, by the way.”
“I miss him, too,” I breathe, smelling the vial again, leaning in to kiss Aiden’s lips but, in an unprecedented move, he pulls back. His eyes are darker, but with desire, not memories.
“If you do that, we’ll miss the meeting,” he explains to my startled face.
“Oh, right!” The meeting, his mind, his childhood, his memories, his everything. He says he needs to be flooded in me, but I’m flooding in him. And the deeper I sink into his depths, the less I want to come up for air.
“Tonight on the fifth stair then, Mr. Plemmons.”
He laughs and starts climbing down carefully after I tuck the rare bottle of Aeternum oil back in his shirt pocket. “So why do we need this today?” I ask.
“I’m not sure—” a huff as he negotiates the branches. “Doctor Helen told me—to bring a smell I associate only with you—which proved incredibly hard when I remember every smell I’ve ever smelled. But since I cannot bottle you up—this was the closest thing. And once I got it, I had a vague dream of giving this to you here—in my only other Alone Place . . . by this tree.”
The moment we touch ground, I tear off the seal and dab a drop of Aeternum oil behind each ear. The indescribable scent makes my head whirl—more beautiful than any rare chemical in Bia. Aiden pulls me against him, burying his face in my neck, inhaling deeply with something like hunger. His nose skims along my throat with a low moan. Despite the perfume, I stop breathing and hang limp in his arms, trembling knees, racing pulse, and good goose bumps exploding everywhere. He seems unsteady too—where the oak branches didn’t shake him, the Aeternum scent does.
“Fuck!” he hisses and wrenches himself away, running his hand over his hair. “Rostóv, rubbing his eyes that seemed glued together, raised his disheveled head from the hot pillow . . .” And Aiden starts marching a foot away from me back to WIN, reciting War and Peace.
Rostóv is fighting with Denísov when we reach the lab. But neither of us needs him anymore. Because the moment we enter through the lab doors everything becomes real and Aiden morphs back to stone. Our war has started.©2021 Ani Keating