Happy Sunday, friends! It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend here in Portland, perfect for moods and writing. Wanted to thank all of you who read and wrote to me about the last chapter. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Real v. Reel? I can’t answer that, but I’m loving your comments and theories. Here is another chapter. Hope you like it. Lots of love, Ani
Chronologically, a sunrise lasts only two minutes. Emotionally is another matter. Because right now, waiting for Aiden, the seconds between the first glow above the horizon and the first rays scattering across the sky ooze like congealed blood from an open wound. Each willow murmur sounds like footsteps, each lark song like a familiar melodic voice—but there is nothing. He’s not here, he’s not here.
I jump to my feet, unable to sit on the garden bench without him a second longer. Max’s alert eyes follow me from the hedge as I dash to the hybrid rose behind the shed. Chills prick my skin like thorns at the reel’s proximity. Does the evil inside know it hasn’t been unleashed today? Will it avenge itself on Aiden later? I shiver and force my mind to scour my work bench for any disturbance. But nothing is missing here either. My brain stutters to produce any differences—is that pot of dirt closer to the edge? Has the Elisa graft moved an inch? I stare without blinking, yet I can’t decide if I’m seeing differences or missing them.
Then things strike fast like the sun bursting over the hilltops. Max rumbles, “Good morning,” Benson’s voice booms through the air, “News?”, and I break into a sprint.
“Aiden!” I shriek, rounding the shed, jumping over a Clare, losing a slipper, and launching myself at him the moment he streaks through the garden hedge. His gasp whooshes in my ears as he swoops me in his arms and tucks me in his chest while I run my hands frantically over him to make sure he’s okay. He is—not a single scratch on his beautiful head.
“Hey, hey, I’m fine,” he assures me, but he’s doing the same with me, scanning me from my hair to my bare toes. His shoulders sink in relief when he sees everything is the exact mess he left it. “Elisa, what the hell are you doing up?” he chides, tracing the circle under my eye with his fingertip. “I thought I told you to go to bed.”
I lock my arms in a stranglehold around his neck, blubbering in his throat. “But you—not here—worried—I couldn’t—”
“I also told you not to worry.” His exasperated voice has never sounded more like music to me. “You don’t really think someone can hurt Benson and me, do you?”
“No, but—you’re tired—and stressed—and—”
“Shh, it takes a lot more than that to take me down.” He cradles me in his arms and kisses my hair, all anger seemingly forgotten—or vanished I should say, for him.
“I’m glad you’re home,” I sniffle, crushing myself closer to him and inhaling his scent.
“I’ve told you this, too.” He sighs again, but his lips stay in my hair. “I’ll always come back to you.”
The cottage door flies open then. “Aiden?” Stella cries and hurtles down the path, Robert on her heels.
“Oh, fuck, does no one listen to me?” Aiden mutters under his breath, setting me on my feet without releasing his hold around my waist as he turns to reassure his poor parents. I peek at Benson in his usual spot behind Aiden. He winks at me, but there is a shadow of worry in his brown eyes.
“Are you okay?” I mouth at him behind Aiden’s arm as Aiden keeps saying I’m fine to Stella.
Benson nods with a smile.
“And him?” I tilt my head slightly toward Aiden.
“Worried,” Benson mouths back and the smile disappears.
I tighten my grip on Aiden’s arm, resting my head against his stony bicep. It softens at the point of contact, but I still don’t let go of him or he of me as we troop back to the cottage. His eyes devour the garden corner to corner, and he crouches at the Clare to pick up my fuzzy slipper.
“Here you go, Cinderella.” He slides it back on my foot, his exhausted smile more dazzling to me than the new sun. Then he squints across the rose bush at the garden shed and the hybrid behind it.
“I checked,” I say immediately so he doesn’t have to wonder or spend any more time on his feet.
The V appears between his eyebrows. “And?”
I shake my head, aware of all the eyes and ears on us. “Everything is there, but I can’t tell if they moved an inch or two. I’m so sorry.” My last three words stun us both. Until they slipped out of my mouth under his gaze, I didn’t know I preferred a real intruder to giving Aiden this news.
As if he heard that thought, a trace of the same hurt flickers in the turquoise depths, and he stands, taking my hand. “Don’t be sorry. I’d rather be wrong than have you in more danger.”
And I’d rather be in danger than have him be wrong. But worse than that is that four-letter word—m-o-r-e. No doubt he used it because he believes the first and foremost danger is him. “I’m never in danger if you’re with me,” I answer, knowing he won’t argue with everyone around us.
And he doesn’t—the only sign of protest is his clenched jaw.
Inside the cottage, Stella has been busy while I was staring at empty fields and cluttered working benches. The smell of fried eggs is wafting from the kitchen, but she herds us into the living room, where she has set out coffee, rose water, scones, jam, cream, strawberries, and mum’s soup tureen full of scrambled eggs on the coffee table that’s creaking under the weight.
“Eat something, Aiden. Benson, Max—you too. Elisa, darling, I’ve got your tea right here, in this pretty cup. There you are!”
It’s not until I see the food that my body registers hunger. Or maybe it’s because Aiden is home, and I can feel something else other than my throbbing chest. We all load our plates and scatter on our old seats from the night, Aiden folding on the sofa next to me, except now our arms and legs are touching.
“So what happened, son?” Robert asks when Aiden finishes his scone. “Did you find anything either way?”
Aiden blows out a gust of breath, not touching his coffee, while a shiver whips over my skin. “Many and nothing,” he answers, his voice controlled. If I didn’t know it so well, I would have missed the faint hard edge underneath. “There are tire tracks on the roadside gravel by Elysium but, as Elisa is no doubt thinking this very second, that’s not surprising because it’s the main road to town.”
He nods at me, as if to say I’m considering your theory. I vow to do the same for him. “What else did you see?”
“This was by the garage,” he answers, taking something from the back pocket of his jeans and handing it to me. It’s an After Eight mint wrapper. “It wasn’t there this afternoon when we pulled out of the garage to go to the Inn,” he explains as I pass it around. “But it could have ended up there in any number of ways. Someone could have tossed it out of a car window for all we know.”
“Does it mean anything to you, Elisa?” Stella asks, sipping her tea.
“No, After Eights are popular around here. I’d wager every cottage in town has them. My dad used to love them, but I haven’t bought them since . . .”
Aiden takes my hand, hearing the unspoken day in my drift. There are shadows under his brilliant turquoise eyes, his skin shimmers less, and the ray of sun beaming through the window fractures over his drawn cheeks. Yet he is still here, caring for me.
“Aiden, love, why don’t you get some sleep?” I plead, clasping his fingers. “We can finish this later. You’ve been up all night.”
He shakes his head. “We’re almost done. Benson, show them what you found.”
Benson sets his clean plate on the floor and digs in the liner pocket of his jacket. His massive hand covers whatever it is, but he tosses it at me. I see as it somersaults through the air that it’s a tiny ball of crumpled paper. It lands in my open hand with uncanny accuracy. I smooth it out, looking at the random doodles like concentric circles. Five necks crane to peek at it with me.
“Any thoughts about this one?” Aiden prompts.
“Umm, not really. It looks like scrap paper. Anyone can doodle like this.”
He nods with a deep sigh. “I had the same thought. I’ve seen you draw circles like this, and seventy-eight other people in my life. It’s in blue ink—also your usual choice—but blue pens are hardly unique. I can’t prove this came from the cottage or was meant for it. There’s nothing unusual about the paper either—just a generic lined notebook.”
I look at it again. I have notebooks like this. As does Reagan. As does the town’s stationer, Mrs. Sterling, and probably everyone who buys notepads there. The doodles are symmetric, it’s true, but I see nothing in them to link them only to me. “Where did you find this?”
“Down the road toward town.” Aiden gestures the direction with his thumb. “Why? What are you thinking?”
I shrug. “Just trying to consider your theory as fairly as mine. This does look like something I would draw but, as you said, so could anyone.”
Aiden runs his hand through his hair in frustration. His eyes zoom on the empty fireplace like last night, the tectonic plates shifting back and forth, back and forth as if he is looking at a chessboard.
“Did you see anything else?” Max wonders, gulping coffee.
“Random details, equally ambiguous,” Aiden answers, his eyes not breaking the inner analysis. “There’s a broken rose in the climber by the garage door, but that could have happened when the door closed behind the car. There’s a cigarette butt further down the road but it could be anyone’s. There are no footprints because, of course, it’s been dry.” Then his eyes flit to Max. “Did you check for footprints under the windows?
Max nods with vigor. “As soon as it got light out. There’s none in the dirt or the rose beds.”
The faithful V forms between Aiden’s eyebrows, and something quick passes between him and Benson.
“If there are no footprints where there should be, that means either they swept them or we’re left with the key theory,” Benson rumbles.
“Or mine,” I offer, looking only at Aiden, feeling like we’re stuck in a circle. I’m about to ask him to stop this now and go to sleep, but he takes my hand.
“Elisa, I know you have serious doubts about this, and if I only listen to logic, I have them too. But I can’t shake off this instinct that I’m right. So, I’ll ask you one more thing about this that you will hate, and then I promise I’ll be done for today. Will you please call the Plemmonses and ask them if they ever gave the cottage key to anyone else? They’re usually up by now, setting up the shop.”
I’m about to say “no bloody way” but the lines of worry on his beautiful face stop my tongue. How can I not give this to him if it helps him sleep and fight the reel later today? How can I not give him everything after the story his parents told me? Exactly as he would do for me.
“If I do this, will you go to sleep?” I ask, brushing his knuckles.
“And you will stop worrying?”
“I can’t promise that, but I promise I will drop the subject for today.”
“What about security? If the Plemmonses say no, as I’m sure they will, can we let Max enjoy the rest of his vacation? He’ll get so bored guarding me from doodles, he’ll have to steal roses himself for entertainment.”
He shakes his head before I’m done. “I can’t do that—not until I figure out what we’re dealing with.”
I watch his set jaw, knowing this is the best he can give right now. As he must know from my eyes that this isn’t over. I nod, reserving all my arguments for when he’s rested, and pick up my phone from the sofa corner, where apparently it’s been sitting forgotten all night.
“Thank you,” Aiden says simply as I dial.
Mr. Plemmons answers on the seventh ring, and it takes several different shouting volumes to establish the right level of bellowing for him to hear.
“Is summat the matter with the roses, Rose?”
“No, Mr. Plemmons, but I have a quest—”
“Wha’ ‘bout the Festival?”
“I’m all set, Mr. Plemmons, but—”
“Did yeh like the garland, Rose?”
“It was beautiful, Mr. Plemmons, thank—”
“Is Adam being a gentleman? I told him, I said, ‘only because yer parents ‘ull be here, Adam, but yeh keep yer hands off our Rose! An’ we ‘spect to meet them, we do. Didn’ I tell him, Josephine?”
“Yes, you did, Harold. You scared him right off. The man promised he’s sleeping in the shed.”
The first chuckles of the day susurrate around me, Stella’s in a pillow, Benson’s on his knuckles, Max’s in his elbow, and Robert’s in his palm. Aiden is too stressed and tense to laugh or do anything but pinch the bridge of his nose and breathe deeply with his eyes closed for strength.
“Mr. Plemmons, I have a question,” I yell at the top of my lungs into the receiver to delay the stroke that is surely coming for Aiden.
“Wha’ is it, Rose?”
“Did anyone ever borrow the cottage key when I was in Portland?”
“The cottage key, Mr. Plemmons!”
“The key? I don’ think so, Rose. Josephine, do yeh remember anyone ask fer the rose key?”
Some silence on the other side presumably as Mrs. Plemmons scratches her head with her knitting needles. “No, I don’t remember anything like that,” she wheezes after a while then her voice rasps closer to the receiver. “Has something happened, Rosebud?”
“Nothing at all, Mrs. Plemmons. Not a thing. I’ll bring by some roses and Aiden’s parents later. They’re coming to the Festival.”
“Oh, how wonderful! On with you, Harold, on with you! I have biscuits to bake for Aiden’s parents.”
“Stop calling him Edmund, Josephine. His name is Adam.”
They are still arguing about Aiden’s name when Mr. Plemmons hangs up without saying goodbye.
“Feeling better?” I ask Aiden as his parents, Benson, and Max are catching their breath from laughing.
He runs his hand over his thick stubble with a deep sigh. “How much can we rely on their memories, Elisa, really? The man believes I’m sleeping in the shed.”
I caress his tense jaw. “And you might well end up sleeping in the shed if you don’t drop this right now like you promised. Now on with you, Adam, on with you. Go to bed and sleep this off.”
The first real smile since the Suite of Firsts lifts his lips. “Oh no, not the shed.” But he stands without further argument, and everyone stands with him.
Fifteen minutes later, after his parents leave with Benson while Max insists on staying guard outside until we wake up, Aiden and I finally climb the stairs to our happy bedroom. With each creak of the old boards, the terror of the night starts to dissipate. First as a wink of a smile at the corner of Aiden’s mouth when he steps on the fifth stair, then as a sigh in my throat when his hands curve around my hips, until the moment we cross the threshold of our room, we both transform. The glow returns to Aiden’s face, warming his ashen skin back to gold. His jaw relaxes, the V releases his eyebrows, and every wisp of tension floats away from him until his long, graceful body moves with his patent fluidity, half-water, half-man. And every debris of fear and anguish disappears from his eyes until they gleam the clearest shade of turquoise.
As for me, I’m back to the drooling state I started this night with.
“Are you having déjà vu?” Aiden smiles as he closes the bedroom door.
“How did you know?”
He flows to me and wraps his arms around my waist. “Because I’m having it, too.”
“Déjà vu to what?”
“To entering our Room of Firsts. You?”
“Mmm.” He lowers his face to mine as he did last night, pausing an inch from my lips. “Can you make us a protein to turn back time?”
“I wish.” My voice turns to vapor under his heated breath.
“Let’s try to repeat it then.” His eyes become molten and descend over me like fire. I have exactly one second left for thought. Already my body is arching toward his.
“Oh, no!” I lean away, pushing against his chest. “Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Plemmons. There will be no female nudity of any kind. You’re here to sleep.”
He laughs with that waterfall sound as I quote his words to me from Oxford’s University Park but doesn’t release my waist. “But I sleep so much better with female nudity around, Elisa.”
“Well, maybe Mrs. Willoughby can oblige.” I push weakly against his chest again, but he brings his lips to my ear.
“I don’t want Mrs. Willoughby.” His hand trails up my spine. “I want your hair . . .” He sweeps aside my tangles. “And your skin . . .” His fingers trace my throat. “And your smell . . .” His nose skims along my jaw. “I want everything of yours on me.” He molds me to his shape as his lips brush mine. “If I have all that, Elisa, no one on this earth sleeps better than me.”
His words stop but it’s not silent. My heart is thundering, my blood is hammering, my breath is hitching. He blows gently over my lips to open my eyes I didn’t know I had closed. “Can you still give all that to me?” he asks as soon as I blink at him. “After everything I put you through last night?”
It only takes that change in his voice—from amused to tender to uncertain—to clear my mind. “They’re always yours.”
The dimpled smile sparkles on his cheek. “Then may I have this dance?”
We have danced together to Für Elise fourteen times now, once before each sleep. I know his steps by heart, yet each time feels new. He takes off my clothes and I take off his, and we sway together, skin on skin, each piano note as vital as a heartbeat now that I know how it became the soundtrack to our dreams.
“I’m sorry, love,” he murmurs, his voice more melodic than our lullaby. I look up at his incandescent eyes—there isn’t a single trace of fear, hurt, or anguish there now. Only peace.
“Why are you sorry?” I whisper back, letting the melody reign over us.
“For getting angry when you were only trying to reason with me. For worrying you. For making you lose sleep. For being unable to drop this like you wish I would.”
“Shh.” I press my finger on his lips—he kisses it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. I know everything you’re doing is to protect me. I’m the one who should apologize.”
His raven brows arch in shock, and he stops mid-turn. “What do you have to apologize for?”
“For hurting you when you were only trying to save me. For yelling at you. For not believing you like you wish I would.”
‘Shh.” He smiles, pressing his finger on my lips—I kiss it. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You did the right thing. I need you to challenge me. Always, but especially now.”
He picks up the dance, nose in my hair, as Für Elise plays on. I debate whether to tell him I know how he found it, but I don’t want any painful memories to enter this bubble. ‘I can’t be anywhere else,’ he told his parents the night I left him. I lean into his body before chills whip my skin. What happens this time if we lose? Or if the reel takes him from me before time does? Will there be any place left in this earth for him or me now that we are so deeply entwined together I no longer know where I end and where he starts? I press myself closer to him, inhaling his pure, vivid scent that keeps the goose bumps away.
Für Elise ends with its last poignant note and starts again. We curl into our cotton bed that smells like us, and he takes his anti-nightmare pill while I pray for the protein. Make him brave, keep him whole.
“How long should we set it for?” he asks, programming my song.
“Don’t—sleep as long as you need. We can do the r-e-e-l whenever you wake up this time.”
He doesn’t argue or flinch like I do. Still invincible, still braver than me. He wraps his arms around me and pulls me to his front, every curve of me to every angle of him. I can feel his desire, but he keeps his promise. He just buries his lips and nose in my hair, breathing me in. “Don’t worry, love.” His fingers trail down my arm. “I’m built for this.”
“But it’s different now, with all the trauma you’re revisiting.”
A deep sigh flows through him and washes over me. “I know . . . same answer.”
From the beech tree outside the window, a lark starts to warble, harmonizing its song to Für Elise. “Is there any part of you that thinks the r-e-e-l might be causing this?” I whisper, not wanting this question to interfere with either melody.
He caresses my arm, back and forth like piano keys. “Maybe I’m afraid to think it,” he whispers, too. “The idea of not being in control of my own mind . . .”
I turn in his arms, placing my hand over his heart. “You are in control. You’re just learning new ways of thinking. Don’t doubt your mind. Only your reactions to stress. I’m sure Doctor Helen will agree. You should talk to her about this.”
He nods, weaving his fingers with mine, looking at our joined hands. His lashes cast long shadows over his cheeks. “Will you answer something for me? The full truth, no diplomacy or sparing of feelings.”
“Of course,” I answer, surprised by the uncharacteristic request. His eyes usually see my truth before I even know it. But right now, they’re locked on our folded hands as he speaks in a slow, deliberate voice.
“If the reel fixes the startle but breaks my mind, would you still want to be with me?”
His question makes me gasp, but not only because of the heart-wrenching words. I stop breathing because I finally realize why he is afraid. It’s not fear of losing his mind, it’s fear of losing my heart.
“Aiden Hale.” I lift his chin as he does with me so I can see his eyes. They’re steady and bold, except that flicker of pure hurt that now I fully understand. “I will want you no matter what the reel does—whether it changes your mind or not and even if it doesn’t fix the startle. I know you don’t like hearing that, but you asked for the full truth. I’ll always love you, and no distance, or time, or reel can ever change that.”
He has inhaled every word, breathing them in like air. And I know he believes me. I know because the painful question clears from his eyes. “So, it’s not just my brain that you’re attracted to?” he smiles, gesturing to the photo of his brain and heart waves on my nightstand.
I grin back. “No, sorry. It doesn’t even make the top five.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” he chuckles. “But I’m curious now, what are the top five?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Your heart, your character, your strength, your laugh, your mouth—”
I’m about to continue, but he kisses me with a low throaty sound. “Mmm, this mouth business seems to be important.”
His fingers braid into my hair and he strains me to his shape until I can feel his heartbeat on my skin. The moment I taste him on my tongue, I realize that until now my own mouth tasted bitter, but it wasn’t the night. It was the hours apart. His lips brush away the acrid residue until I only taste his honeyed flavor.
“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, freeing me for air, but his breathing is almost as uneven as mine. He turns me around—all iron and silk—and presses his lips in my hair. “Our top fives are the same, you know . . . except mine also include your faith in me and your patience and your humor and . . .”
I’m about to point out that this is more than five, but a deep breath of cinnamon air swirls in my hair and his weight becomes heavy around me. I peek around, and he is asleep, his lips parted in a soft smile.
“Like cookies, my love,” I whisper. I lie here as always, counting his breaths, and happiness shifts again despite the night. It becomes his puffs of sleep to my song in our humble bedroom with the dried poppies of our weapons in this fight: our love, his strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love, our families, the team of scientists, my calming effect, Für Elise, hope, laughter, and, if I can finish, the protein. I still don’t know if they’re enough to win against Aiden’s past. And after today, I no longer know if they will be enough to see us through the reel.
Abruptly, sleep vanishes, and I feel wide awake. More than awake—drumming with nervous energy and fear, making my feet and mind twitch. Instead of poppies, I can only see Bia and the protein’s formula in my head. It’s no longer just urgent—after last night, it’s imperative. I can’t afford to lie here when I can calculate Oxytocin Twelve doses instead. I finish counting the one hundred and fifty breaths that it takes for Aiden to drift into deep sleep, and inch out of bed, jittery and tense.
Dad’s library is filled with sunlight when I tiptoe there. The gauzy curtain billows with the rose breeze, and Max’s reflection plays on the windowpane, sipping his coffee by the hedge. Was it only five hours ago that I stumbled in this room shuddering in terror? Now the idea of an intruder sitting on Dad’s armchair or touching our unfinished chess game under the glass case feels fuzzy, like a distant nightmare that has left only its startle behind.
I switch on old Bod, wishing I could run to Bia instead, but there is no point in testing until I understand exactly how much O-12 I should add and why else the formula didn’t hold yesterday. I’m blurry eyed with calculations when Skype’s jingle dings loud enough for Max’s head to snap up toward my window. Reagan! I answer it immediately, not wanting to wake Aiden.
“Top o’ the morning, Rose.” Reagan’s curls explode on the screen and her feigned British accent chimes through the library. As soon as I see her sparkling smile in her pajamas, an urge to hug Bod overpowers me. I blow her a kiss on the screen.
“Hey, Reg—how was the flight? Did you find everything okay?”
“Oh yea, okay and empty and boring. I’ve decided rhododendrons are highly overrated compared to my rose.” She glares at her window where our old pink rhodie is blooming. “I miss England already.”
“And England misses you. How was Javi on the flight? Any progress?” Between meeting Aiden’s parents and dealing with real or reel intruders, I’ve been itching to ask her since Aiden found the sketch of her eyes at the Inn.
She blows a ringlet off her face, and her smile disappears. “Well, we fought for half of it so no—unless you define ‘progress’ as conversation in which case, yes, it was an improvement over the dour silence that filled the other half.”
“What did you fight about?” I ask even though it doesn’t matter. The real reason is Javier being invisible for all his formative life and now he is unable to see when he is seen.
“Everything—no matter what I say or do, I seem to aggravate him. I don’t know, Isa, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I have to let him be . . .” She wipes her eyes with her sleeve.
“No, Reg, don’t give up yet. Javi loves you—he just doesn’t know how.” I trap my tongue between my teeth, so I don’t mention the sketch. I can hear Aiden’s voice, even asleep, thundering through his synapses to tell me to keep my mouth shut. And as much as I hate to admit it, he is right.
Reagan just shakes her head, mopping up more tears.
“I’m serious,” I tell her, clutching the screen as if it were her shoulders. “Let Javi open the gallery and get some confidence, like Aiden said, and I think he’ll come around.”
She wipes her nose this time and nods. “He’s very excited about Solis Art—he’s named it already. But enough about me or I’ll cry all night. How did it go with Aiden’s parents?”
I want to keep talking about her and Javier, but I can tell she needs the space. And I can’t even berate her for not warning me about the fact that Aiden’s parents make the Beckhams look like garden compost. “They’re so sweet, Reg. I wasn’t prepared for how kind and supportive they are.”
“I know, right? They’re exactly who I would have picked for you. Stella already posted a picture of your roses on Facebook, quoting Shakespeare, ‘Of all the flowers, methinks a rose is best.’ Here, look.”
Reagan holds up her iPhone to show me Stella’s profile, but I stare at it without seeing as shivers scrape my skin at the mention of the charlatan. Does he creep up on other people’s lives like this or is he only haunting mine?
“I have to hit the pillow, Isa,” Reg says after I manage a nod. “I’m still jetlagged, but I have to go to work tomorrow. Who invented jobs? Horrible person.”
“Love you, too. Say hi to our dragon. Tell him to prepare in advance because in September, I might even hug him.”
She hangs up with a laugh before she hears the whisper that hushes out of my lips of its own volition. If we have until September . . .
I listen for any sign of Aiden upstairs, but there is nothing. Hopefully he is dreaming of cookies while I stare at my lined notepad waiting for a stroke of brilliance. That odd sensation I felt in the Room of Firsts, like a tugged thought, flutters again now for some reason. What was I thinking about when I first felt it? Oh, yes, I had mumbled “orgasms are oxytocin but taste better” in my sex coma. And there it is—the same curious feeling, like a tip-of-the-tongue hesitancy . . . I try to analyze it but can’t find any clues in it. It must have been because I tasted the protein earlier at Bia and it didn’t taste as good as Aiden. But why did it fizz away?
Outside the library window, Max’s pacing shadow rolls over the roses. And on my notepad, my pen draws concentric circles over my calculations without a single answer.
Hey gang, how is everyone? I hope your weekend is off to a good start and you all have some R&R planned. Here is a new chapter for you, a day early since I’m technically a couple of days late. Hope you enjoy. Things are changing… lots of love and thanks for reading and writing to me. On a personal note, this blog is giving me a much needed respite from life, and for that, I’m grateful to all of you. xo, Ani
“Goodnight, dear.” Stella kisses my cheeks as we leave their luxury suite at the Inn after dinner on their balcony. “Make sure you get some sleep. We’ve kept you late.”
“This is what happens when you get my mother started on baby stories, Elisa. I sincerely hope you’ve learned your lesson if you want any of us to sleep for the next two weeks.” Aiden’s voice is exasperated, but there is tenderness underneath. Something flows quickly between him and Stella, and he nods. Carefully, she steps into his arms on her tiptoes and kisses his cheek. He embraces her gently as though she is a soap bubble, but his shoulders turn to granite with memories. In that feather-rock hug, I see the difference between me and everyone else for Aiden: he softens under my touch and tenses with all others, even his mum. Yet he holds her for a while longer, despite the tension straining him, before releasing her with a chuckle. “All right, save some for tomorrow.”
She sparkles at him. “Sweet dreams, Aiden-bear.” That same swift exchange happens between them, and he smiles.
“Like cookies, Mom.”
Some private joke, no doubt, but one I have to know with a similar urgency as the oxytocin. Despite the deluge of details about his childhood, from his first word (“oh, dear, it wasn’t a word, it was a sentence: Mama, where is Daddy?”) to his favorite bedtime story (“he didn’t like baby stories, we had to read him poetry—he loved Byron and Keats”) to his favorite toy (“his chess set!”), I feel parched for more.
“Night, Dad,” Aiden nods at Robert who only hugs Aiden with his eyes.
“Night, son. Goodnight, Elisa.” He clasps my shoulder. “Be careful driving back to the cottage. It’s dark out.”
“We’ll be fine, Dad. Go to sleep.”
They wave together, their soft eyes following us down the hall.
“What does the cookies thing mean?” I ask as soon as I hear their door close, and Aiden presses the button for the lift.
He laughs. “All night you’ve heard all manner of trivia about me, and you still want more?”
“Fine, that’s how I answered her the day I discovered cookies when I turned three, and it became our standard goodnight for a while. But I suspect it had nothing to do with that tonight, rather than the fact that she finally can wish me sweet dreams again now that I can finally have them. Because of you.”
The lift doors open, but I can’t move my feet—how can I when he says things like this? He pulls me into the tiny box, overwhelming the space, and presses me against the velvet-lined wall with his hips. There is nothing granite about his body now. It’s all steel, forged to every line of mine. The air becomes rare—I lose it and find it as he brings his heated lips to my ear. “At last,” he murmurs, his breath strumming against my skin. “Just you and me.” His nose skims the Aeternum spot. “We met the parents . . .” He kisses the corner of my jaw. “And there were no accidents or heart attacks . . .” His lips brush along my jawline. “Everyone adores everyone . . .” He presses his lips to the corner of my mouth. “Elisa?”
“Do you know what time it is?” His dark voice ignites my blood, my memories.
“It’s now!” I gasp as his mouth melds with mine. Every angle of us fuses together. One of his hands gathers in my hair, his other arm lifts me off the floor. I wrap my legs around him, tangling my fingers in his soft waves. He doesn’t tense—the shiver running through him is desire. His hips start grinding and rolling against me.
“This is where we left it, I believe,” he says against my lips. “When I so rudely said no.”
“Mmm . . . very rude.”
“Let me be rude some more.” His erection presses into me over the linen of my dress. Once, twice, and the point of contact becomes a rapid pulse. Then abruptly he swoops me in his arms. He’s so quick, I gasp and blink around startled, registering that the lift was moving, and it has now stopped. The doors open on the top floor to his suite. “You said something about a Chatsworth bed?” His eyes blaze as he carries me out. “And maybe fainting?”
I bring him back to my mouth. “Hmm . . . I’ll need a reminder.”
“I might have a few.”
He kisses me down the empty hall, lips fluid, tongue alive. I taste him back as deeply as I can. How many times can you kiss a man before he becomes your taste? By the time he breaks the kiss and sets me down at the door to his suite, my head is whirling. He lowers his face to my height, blowing a gentle breeze over my lips. “Reminded?”
“Uh huh . . . fainting . . . you.”
“You take my breath away, too,” he translates. Then his beauty intensifies in that surreal way, as though lit from within. It does nothing to help my balance. “Ready for more reminders?” he dazzles and unlocks the door with the old brass key. “After you,” he whispers in my ear as he opens it, tickling an old memory.
I step inside . . . and gasp to a stop.
It’s the same suite where we had our big bang—the same four poster bed, the same ivory silk linens—but how different it looks. How new, yet how ours. A gentle fire is dancing in the fireplace to the low sultry melody of Amado Mio—the song we first danced together. A garland of the Plemmons’ apricot roses—similar to Aeternum in color—adorn the mantle. On the wall across the bed, taped over the Inn’s painting of roses is a photo of Javier’s first painting of me as it hangs in front of Aiden’s bed at his home. And on the nightstand is the first gift I gave him: the double-frame with my ticket to America and a photo of his home he bought that same day.
“Oh!” I breathe, gazing at the bedroom in a trance. No, not a bedroom anymore—a mosaic of some of our most beautiful moments. The firm thud of the door closing breaks through my spell. I turn to look at Aiden. He is watching me, part-fire, part-man. I take the one step between us, feeling unsteady on my heels. His hands curve around my waist.
“Enough reminders for you?”
“Explain it to me,” I say, knowing by now he never creates a memory without a purpose, a purpose worth remembering for life.
“I’m sure you can unravel this one.” He bends his face to mine as though to kiss me but stops an inch from my lips. “Try.”
And I do, I really do, but it’s almost impossible with a scent like this and eyes like that and beauty like nothing else. “Well, there’s our first night with the painting?”
“Yes, that’s there.” His lips hover so very close to mine. I try to reach on my tip toes, but his iron hands don’t let me. “Solve the next clue, and you get a kiss.”
“Ah, our first date at your Alone Place, with Amado Mio, the roses, and the silk pillows like the bed?”
“Beautiful,” he murmurs, his mouth touching mine. The warm tip of his tongue traces my lips, and tingles spread over my skin. He pulls away at my sigh. “Next?”
It takes me a moment with his lingering aftertaste. Amado Mio ends and starts again. “Something about the fire? Because it wasn’t on last time.”
“Very good. Now what do you think it means?” He inches his lips closer, his hold on my waist correspondingly tighter. His breath enflames my skin like the fire clue, scattering my thoughts.
“Umm, a little hint?”
“What could you burn in a fire, but you would never want to?” he helps me, and instantly I know.
“Your letters! In your homecoming letter, you wrote you would have no words for my face, for my smell, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.”
“And I still don’t.” He gives me his mouth for a while this time, his tongue like a flame crackling with mine. But he stops again when my legs start to shake. “Next?”
“How many clues are left?” I barely hear my voice from the drumbeat of my pulse. “I’m already close to fainting.”
He grins. “Don’t do that. I need you coherent for this last one.”
“Oh, good!” I shake my head to rattle some brain cells awake. “Something about my first gift to you, with the double-frame?”
“I have debated with myself what your first gift to me is but for purposes of tonight it’s true enough.” And then his mouth is on mine in a slow, potent kiss until I drape in his arms. He has to lift me off the floor to take me to the nightstand. “Now find your prize.”
“I thought you without latex invaders was my prize.”
He chuckles. “Okay, I’ll give you that. Find your second prize.”
He doesn’t release my waist as I search through the nightstand, opening the first drawer. Resting right under the double-frame is a rectangle package the same size, wrapped in parchment. I tear it carefully and lose whatever breath I was managing to draw. It’s another double-frame exactly like my gift, but even more precious. On one side is a photo of the cottage as it is blooming now and on the other a yellowed, old ticket bearing the name Aiden Hale and the date April 11, 1987.
“Oh my God, Aiden! Is this your ticket when you first flew to England for your meeting at Oxford?”
“The very same. I had my mother dig for it after we visited Chatsworth. Of course she had saved it. They brought it and your frame this morning.”
I caress the glass over his name, the date, the PDX and LHR airport initials, swallowing back tears before they drop on my prize. “I love it. It’s a real-life treasure.”
He takes the frame from my shaky hands and places it next to the one I gave him. “It’s our first ‘first’” he explains. “Our first connection. My first dream of you in Iraq. First sight of you in the gallery. First date. First dance. And first night.” He brushes my cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Tonight is a first, too. Just you and me and nothing in between. It seemed like the right time to remember how far we’ve come.”
His voice turns our history into music, more harmonious than the song that is replaying. I crush myself against his steely lines, half-climbing his legs, throwing my arms around his neck, and pulling him to my lips. “I want my first prize now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he chuckles, and everything else disappears. I hear, see, and feel nothing but us. The riff of our first dance, the sound of our mouths, the pop of his shirt buttons, the tinkle of the locket as he takes it off, the unzipping of my dress. As soon as it pools into a linen cloud at my sandaled feet, he lifts me and wraps my legs around his waist. “Open Sesame,” he murmurs as though finding his own treasure.
I tighten my thighs around him, frantic for contact. His abs ripple in between as he strides to the bed, pulls back the duvet, and drops me on the silky sheets. And air becomes scarce again. I watch, teetering between shaky elbows and crumbling mind, as he peels off his clothes and his body materializes like a sentient sculpture under the muted glow of the chandelier. Then his snug briefs dash to the floor, and my elbows give out. I can’t blink away from the sight of him springing free. Carved steel wrapped in gold silk with a filigree of veins and bubbles like a diamond crown. C-o-c-k: how did I forget the good four-letter words? My skin bursts into flames, blazing hotter than the crackling fire next to the bed.
He grasps my ankle where it’s dangling off the bed and plants a soft kiss at the bridge of my foot as one might with a lady’s hand. “I like these.” he says, tracing the gold strap around my ankle with his fingers. “I think we’ll leave them on, like our first dance.” He climbs between my legs that are quivering like bowstrings to his arrow. “As for these . . .” He trails his thumb along the wet lace of my knickers, making me moan. “I’m afraid they have to go.” And he grips the delicate fabric and tears it off. The brush of lace raises goosebumps on my feverish skin as he glides the shreds over my torso to my lips. They blow away from my gasp. “I think these are better than the Chatsworth veil, don’t you?” He flutters the cool lace over my mouth. It flurries with my breath.
“No,” I whimper as the lace floats back on my lips.
“No? Hmm, is something missing?”
“Your mouth,” I huff, and the lacy ribbons fly again.
“Ah, yes, how could I forget?” And his lips start racing the frilly scraps. They whirl over my throat, and his tongue chases them off. He sweeps them across my jawline, and his teeth graze my skin. The lace brushes over my mouth, and his tongue traces my lips. The lace flits back, and he sucks my lower lip until blood pools there, throbbing like the rest of me. From my moan, the ribbons fly off and disappear. Then Aiden’s lips and tongue seize mine, spilling kisses, strokes, words inside my mouth. I taste them all, feeling the tickle of my name when he sighs it, the way his I want yourolls off my tongue, until the world starts spinning behind my eyelids. As if he knows, he frees my mouth, but his lips don’t leave my skin.
“No fainting today,” he smiles against my throat as he snaps off my bra.
“Mmm,” is my answer, and the race begins again. He slides the straps off my shoulders, his tongue gliding down their path. His nose skims the lacy trim as he inches down the cups like a veil over my breasts. His mouth folds around me in a lacework of licks and nibbles. And frenzy strikes. My hips arch for contact, and my fingers sprint over every part of him I can reach. How many times can you touch a man before he becomes your fingerprint?
Finally the bra sweeps off and Aiden’s husky voice breaks through the pulse thundering in my ears. “There you are. Just as magnificent as that first time, and better still.” His eyes descend like fire over me, but unlike that first time, I don’t shy away from them. I tangle my fingers in his hair, writhing off the bed toward him.
“Aiden, please, I want to feel you,” I gasp, my voice breaking with need, not nerves.
He holds my eyes. “Then feel me.” And the length of him presses against the wettest part of me in nothing but flawless skin. Ah, the feel . . . My moan mingles with his deep, throaty sigh.
How many times have I longed for the faintest brush, and now his smooth, heavy weight rests on the blazing folds, sending shiver after shiver to my very bones. A sudden wave of emotion rises within me, and I tremble. But the delicious weight disappears. The sudden absence is excruciating.
“Aiden,” I whimper and raise my hips for more contact, but he pins them down on the silky sheets.
“Feel all of me.”
And hard—in this new first time—Aiden slides inside. My cry drowns the music and the groaned oh-fuck that tears from his lips. Our bodies shudder in tandem, once, twice. A string of profanities in Russian hisses through Aiden’s teeth, but with a low snarl, he reins his body under control and becomes flexed steel above me, breathing hard. I don’t have such mastery. My body is flailing about at breaking point. I feel every ponderous spasm of him inside me as though magnified a thousand-fold, and I’m quivering inside out.
“Breathe, Elisa, breathe and flex,” he guides me urgently, remaining utterly still to help me. And I try. I grip his arms and lock my legs around his waist, but it’s impossible with him so real. I cannot slow a single tremble and he feels it.
“I got you, I got you,” he murmurs, and for a blinding second, his iron chest presses on mine, stunning my lungs.
“Oh!” I huff, and his weight lifts immediately.
“There. Now breathe with me.” He takes a deep breath and lets it wash over my lips. I match my lungs to his, inhaling his fragrant air, and the trembles recede. “Beautiful,” he praises me as if I did anything. “One more time.” And he restarts my mind again, easing me further away from the brink. “Perfect. Now feel with me.”
And I can now. I can feel him with perfect acuity—every angle of steel that manages to feel like velvet, his vibrant heat radiating through my core, the delicious bubbles now a liquid warmth lapping at my depths, and his weighty presence pulsing in sync with me. The feeling is so intense, so overwhelming that it surges all way to my eyes. I close them, drowning in the sensation of being with him like this. All those other times he felt divine pale in comparison, like my dreams paled to the real him.
“Ah you,” Aiden sighs. I fling my eyes open at the sound of his resonant voice rising over the music. He’s watching me with an aura of pure ecstasy. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful—even in my own euphoria I can appreciate that. The sight nearly restarts the tremors as I realize that, despite his masterful control, this is just as intense for him as it is for me. “You feel even better than I dreamed. And that’s saying something.”
“As do you.”
He brings his mouth to mine and for an immeasurable moment there is just this—his taste with my taste, his heat with my heat, most of him in every depth of me, exactly as we were made. Then he releases my lips.
“I have to move, love, or I will die. Please don’t faint on me.” His lopsided smile takes my breath away like his weight.
“No dying or fainting,” I promise. “But there will definitely be dancing.” I circle my hips in invitation. And Aiden starts to dance with me to our song, skin on skin—no veil between us. At first, a slow tango like our first dance. I wind my arms around his neck, undulating eagerly against his hips, following each bump-and-grind. Then his tempo grows, pounding a tribal beat at my core. I fall behind, and moans change to cries—a chorus of Aiden-Aiden silencing the music. And my body starts vibrating again in a pirouette of trembles and quivers. He feels them all. His rhythm becomes relentless, now punishing, now worshipful. I absorb his force, his possession, the feeling of our bodies fused together, flesh on flesh, liquid on liquid. How many times can a man be inside a woman like this before he becomes her heartbeat? A thousand? Once? Whatever the number, he feels like that to me.
And the finish starts. My vision sparkles, my ears ring, and convulsions start shimming inside me. An overpowering urgency builds at the bottom of my belly, and I spiral, palpitating around Aiden with violence, hauling him over the brink with me. A startling sensation surges in my depths in the final beats. Like two rivers breaching through their dams and flooding each other’s riverbeds to form a little ocean. We plummet in its depths and drown.
But eventually we float back to the surface again, gasping and shuddering, Aiden’s head rising and falling with my chest like waves. My senses lap at him like a shore—his warm weight on me, his messy hair brushing my cheek, his sharp breath on my neck.
“Elisa?” His low drawl thrums above my heart.
“Are you here?”
“Do you remember last night on the kitchen counter with the jam?”
“And all the other one hundred fourteen times before?”
“How convinced we were it couldn’t get better than that?”
“We might as well have been virgins compared to this.”
We laugh together, and he sways inside me with the motion of our laughter. So real and vibrant, exactly as if he’s new. My body, already shaped to his contours, grasps him with vivid detail—every flawless angle of him, the silkiness of his skin, the velvety texture of us together. And the more of him I feel, the more I want.
“So now that we know,” I muse in wonder. “How do we stop?”
He lifts his head to look at me, the panes of his face glowing. “We don’t.”
I’m about to tell him never, but my mouth is suddenly busy, as captive to him as the rest of me.
The next thing I notice outside of our bodies is the fading fire in the fireplace. The sky outside the window is the inky black before dawn. I’m sprawled on Aiden’s chest on the Chatsworth bed, a sash of the silky curtains still tangled around my wrist. It brings back a vision of my hands tied to the poster, and I flush—that was a first too, and what a first it was.
“You’re back.” Aiden’s chuckle rumbles under my cheek. “I worried you really fainted there for a moment.”
“No, just your usual orgasm coma but deeper. You didn’t even snore this time. If it weren’t for the drooling, I’d have called the village paramedics, which would have been an awkward conversation.”
“Well, you only have yourself to blame and these new antics with the posters.” I press my lips on his chest, sniffing it surreptitiously. “What do you do when I’m oblivious, anyway?”
I feel him shrug. “Watch you. Some of my favorite memories are with you like that. One time you hummed the entire Für Elise. Just now you said, ‘orgasms are oxytocin, but taste better’ and smacked your lips.” He chuckles again, stroking my hair.
Heat burns my cheeks, half-embarrassed, half- irked at myself. “You’d think after one hundred eighteen times, my body would have learned some discipline. I wonder if I’ll ever stop reacting like this every time you make love to me.”
“I sincerely hope not,” he laughs, but brushes my flushed cheek. “And you have nothing to be embarrassed about. I have to talk to Rostov in Russian because of you. Objectively, we can agree that’s a lot more embarrassing than ‘orgasms are oxytocin.’”
“That’s true,” I giggle, something tugging at the edge of my mind like an unfinished thought. It vanishes the moment his fingers trail down my spine.
“Speaking of passing out, did you want to stay here tonight or go back to the cottage?”
“Hmm, what time is it?”
It takes me a while to subtract. Two and a half hours to the reel. His voice is quieter, and his fingers miss a step on their stroll over my skin. Is he thinking about it too? I wrap myself around him closer, covering as much of him with me as I can. “The cottage,” I decide. “The happiest place there is. Although this suite is now a very close second.”
His long fingers pick up their promenade on my back. “We’ll keep it like this for the summer—a gallery of our firsts. Maybe we’ll add more.”
The end of the summer. I swerve around the thought immediately, but even in that fleeting space, a shiver prickles my arms. “What other firsts should we add?” I ask to distract myself.
His voice is as soft as his caress when he answers, “A whole life of them, Elisa. If we’re lucky enough.”
Elysium is entirely silver when Aiden parks in the garage fifteen minutes later. Moonlight falls over the wildflowers like pollen and, if it weren’t for his arm around me supporting all my weight, I would curl up on the pearly daisies and say ‘like cookies’ here.
“Why don’t you sleep in today?” Aiden suggests, his voice already a lullaby. “You haven’t slept much in the last couple of nights.”
A huge yawn chooses this moment to overpower me. “Why don’t we both sleep in? Doctor Helen said a couple of hours off occasionally won’t make a difference.”
He looks toward the inkblot of the reel—visible to us even under starlight—and the bands of muscle at his waist petrify. For a breath, I think he’ll argue, but he answers quickly. “That sounds nice.”
And he sweeps me in his arms and picks up his pace as we pass by the spot. I watch his moonlit profile, resisting my drooping eyelids. Even two weeks later, there are moments like this—when he glides toward the cottage under starlight, dreamlike in his beauty—that I still test reality discreetly, nail into my thumb, retracing last steps. Not because I’m worried he is a dream. But because I’m terrified he will disappear—my entire being remembers the staggering agony of waking up without him. Reality hasn’t fixed that fear: it has only made it more intense, as it has done for the rest of him.
He is quiet too as we reach the willows. Wishes, somehow, he’s here. “What are you thinking about?” I ask, afraid he is already drifting into terrors.
“Just trying to stay in the present moment.”
“Are you feeling sad?”
He peers down at me, eyes puzzled. “Sad? I can’t recall a single day I’ve been less sad in my life.” His smile beams like the moonlight, lifting my own lips in automatic response. “Because there isn’t one. Today, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
He nods, effervescent with bliss. “Elisa, the person I love most in the world just met my parents. I finally was able to give them a day of nothing but joy since I turned seven. And I’ve spent the last three hours inside a woman that seems to have been made exactly for me. I’ve never had more in my life than I do today.”
It is true for me too, in a sense. Despite the terror and unknowns ahead, in this one present moment—fighting together, with our families supporting us, and the cottage beaconing—my orbit is more complete than it’s been in a long time.
The cottage is amethyst with starlight when we cross the hedges, the roses lavender silver, filling the air with their little puffs of breath.
“Like cookies, roses,” I bid them goodnight as Aiden unlocks the front door and we step inside. But as soon as he turns on the foyer light, everything changes so fast, it strangles my cry.
Tension strikes through Aiden like a thunderbolt, and his arm whips around me, wedging me between his side and the corner behind the door as if he’s shielding me from something. A low growl rips through his teeth—nothing like his loving sounds this evening. It’s a terrifying snarl that wrenches me awake and has me cowering in my corner.
His finger flies to my lips as his eyes eviscerate the foyer with scalpel vigilance. I follow their beams wildly, but I can’t see anything that’s making him tense like a lion next to me. Then his hand curves around my face. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” His whisper is firm and urgent. I open my mouth to speak but he’s already gone. Streaking to the kitchen and living room then back in the foyer, checking on me frozen at the corner behind the door. “Stay,” he mouths and blows to the library, laundry closet, and up the stairs this time. Despite his speed, his footsteps are barely audible with practiced stealth. I crouch in my corner, wide awake, trying to periodic-table through the panic that’s closing my throat. I have barely managed a few gasps when Aiden is back, pulling me in his arms.
“Aiden, what is it? What’s wrong?” I choke.
“I think someone’s been here.” His volume is back to normal, but his voice is strained.
Blood drains from my face. The words are foreign, incomprehensible for Burford. “What? What do you mean?”
He’s impatient now, eyes darting everywhere. “I mean someone who isn’t us came here today or tonight when we were out. They’re not here now, and it doesn’t look like they took anything, but I want you to check to be sure.”
My knees almost give out. “Why do you think this?” I whisper in terror, but his phone flashes in his hand almost blurry with speed and he’s already pressing 2, tightening his hold around me.
“Sir?” I hear Benson’s gravelly voice on the other side after the second ring.
“Benson. Cottage. Thorn. Cold. Leave Max at my parents’ door,” Aiden reels off, his lips moving so fast I barely make out the nonsensical words, but Benson must understand them because he simply answers, “On my way,” and hangs up. Aiden is about to press another number, but I yank the phone from his hand.
“Bloody hell, Aiden! Tell me!”
He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, love. A couple of things have moved since I last saw them when we were leaving with my parents for dinner. That makes me think someone has been here.”
“What things? Where?”
“Here in the foyer, but I need you to check the safe first, then the library, your old bedroom, and the guestroom to see if anything looks different from when you last saw it. I hadn’t been there since you and Reagan cleaned so I can’t tell when the differences happened. Can you do that for me?”
I nod woodenly, and he tows me through the three rooms, his protective arms around me as though to break a fall. I check the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia first, but nothing is missing. Then I wobble through each room, staring at everything for signs of intrusion. Nausea wrings my stomach at the idea of a specter inside our bubble, touching our most precious memories, breaching mum’s magic shield that I thought impenetrable. But everything seems to be where it was—in its neat, orderly place from the deep-clean for Aiden’s parents—at least to my average eyes and memory.
“I wish I could remember like you,” I mutter, scanning every surface. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right, love. Maybe they didn’t come here.”
“What about our bedroom—did they move anything there?”
Fury jolts in his eyes at the idea. “Nothing. I was there last, changing for dinner. Even the door was still closed as I left it.”
“And the other rooms?”
“The only place things have moved is the foyer, as far as I can tell. Now I wish I had entered these other rooms before we headed out, but I never imagined I needed to for this.”
“What did they move in the foyer?”
“Come, I’ll show you.”
As we wade back down the stairs, I recall that fleeting sense of panic when I first entered the cottage a month ago, the guilty worry that someone had touched my parents’ things. How silly it feels now compared to this. Yet everything looks exactly the same to me, even in the foyer.
“Aiden, where—” I start to ask but he gestures to the foyer wall with his chin.
“Look at your picture with your parents in Italy.”
I squint at the photo of the three of us at the Trevi Fountain. “Umm, do you mean that it’s crooked?”
Without conscious decision on my part, my lungs draw the first deep breath since we came in. “But Aiden, I could have done that when I was dust—”
“It wasn’t like that when we left with my parents,” he interrupts me, shaking his head. “That frame was straight.” There is no doubt in his voice, no room for argument. His memory is absolute, as I know it to be. Yet there is a lethal fervor about him. I watch his face carefully now: the panes are sharp with tension, eyes ferocious with intensity, fierceness emanating from him in destructive waves. Abruptly, a different fear starts spreading over me. Not just for the cottage now, but for him. Is there danger here? Or is this the effect of the reel—seeing danger everywhere, even in the most innocent things?
“But the frame could have moved when you closed the door or on its own,” I argue, trying to stick to logic for answers. “Why do you think someone did it?”
He is shaking his head again before I’m finished and strides to the front door. “Watch the frame,” he says, opening the door and then closing it. “Did it move?”
“Watch again.” He opens and closes the door three more times, each time harder than the one before, and the frame dips on the third.
“There! There, it just moved!” I cry out, pointing at it. “See, it doesn’t mean anything, love. You’re just extra vigilant right now, that’s all.” I almost sink on the floor with relief, but something flashes in his eyes too quickly for me to understand it.
“I didn’t slam the door when we left, Elisa. I had to slam it now to get the same effect.”
“I know, but frames move all the time. These are just hanging on old nails. Is this the only thing you noticed?”
His jaw flexes once, and that same nameless emotion strikes his face once more. “No, it’s not. Look at your father’s scarf.” He tilts his head toward the coat rack that only has the scarf and parka in it.
A frisson of panic courses through me. “What about it?” I scan the scarf urgently, heart crashing against my ribs, but again I notice nothing.
“It’s slipped on the peg. When we left, both sides were hanging down almost equally. Now the left is a couple inches longer than the right.”
It would have been impossible for me to notice without him pointing it out. “Okay, yes, I see it. But why do you think someone moved it? It’s a piece of tweed on a peg. It can slip on its own. I have dresses that fall from hangers all the time.”
Something gives out at my words, and his eyes start to harden. “Because—” he speaks through his teeth now, but then pinches the bridge of his nose in what I assume is an effort to moderate his voice. “Because—” he tries again. “It’s too many coincidences all in the same six-square feet. That’s why.”
His eyes are boring into me, half-glaring half-imploring me to see things his way. But I no longer know what is worse: for him to be wrong or for him to right. And what is best: to support him or challenge him here? His acute tension decides it for me. “Aiden, love, there aren’t too many coincidences. There are exactly two.”
“You’re wrong!” His voice slips out of his control as it did in my dreams when I couldn’t see past the field of epiphanies. “Look at your mother’s coat.” My eyes flit to it immediately. “The right sleeve is straight now; it was bent when we left.”
“But, Aiden, it probably relaxed on its own. It’s called gravity. Haven’t you ever heard of hanging up your clothes to release wrinkles?”
His jaw flexes. “I see. And the petals on the console?” I whirl to the console with split terror: dreading and wishing for him to be right. Two petals are under the vase of Clare roses I cut for his parents. “One wasn’t there when we left,” he explains. “The other fell when I slammed the door just now. From fresh roses, I might add.”
I stare at them, counting unnecessarily.
“Well?” he demands.
“I don’t know what answer you want me to give,” I admit, suddenly losing my patience. “If I argue, you’ll just get angrier. Do you want me to agree or disagree with you?”
“I want the truth,” he hisses.
I don’t know what does it—whether it’s that hiss, his refusal to consider a benign explanation, the last several minutes of apparently needless terror, or the emotions of the last forty-eight hours—but abruptly I feel exhausted and angry myself. “Fine, here’s the truth. Petals fall all the bloody time. That’s what they do. I see absolutely nothing about two petals from a bouquet of thirty roses to indicate someone was here, especially when there’s no sign of a break-in at all, in a town that hasn’t had a burglary in forty years, in a cottage that has zero riches of any kind except the roses which are all outside.”
His face becomes livid. “Zero riches?” he roars, hand in a fist around the doorknob still—the brass rose is shuddering from his strength. “It has you, Elisa! For the first time in four years. Maybe that’s why they didn’t steal anything—because who they really wanted wasn’t here tonight! And why would they need to break the door when all the windows stay open the whole fucking time?”
“Enough!” My voice fires off, too loud by my standards, too low by his, shocking us both. He’s breathing hard, watching me with that nameless emotion again. And everything becomes too much for me. I just want to go to bed with realities that, although excruciating, I can understand. Or at least trust. I take a deep breath, trying to lower my voice. “Aiden, it’s been a long day, we have to be up in a few hours for the reel. Let’s just go to sleep. We’re not solving anything tonight even if someone did come in and we can’t call PC Dockery with this kind of evidence.”
I turn for the stairs, but his voice stops my feet. It’s no longer loud or hard—it’s quiet, almost part of the night. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
I look back at him, still standing by door. “I believe you believe this.”
Fury strikes his face so staggering that it makes the livid look of a few moments ago seem like a smile. “Spare me the diplomacy bullshit, Elisa, and say it in plain English. Say, ‘Aiden, I don’t trust your judgment because you’re a madman who has to wear a fucking monitor over his eyes every morning and it’s making you see things.’ Say it!” He speaks in a guttural, arctic voice that rends the night more than his roar. But even worse is the nameless emotion now drowning him. It’s no longer nameless. It’s the purest compound of hurt and fear I’ve ever seen in my life. It knocks me breathless, and I have to grip the rail of the stairs for balance.
“Aiden, no,” I gasp. “I don’t think—” But the doorbell chimes with its Für Elise jingle followed by a battery of booming knocks. I jump up, but he doesn’t move. He is frozen at the door, watching me, anger and anguish in every pore.
Another volley of knocks shakes the door, and a panicked familiar voice shouts, “Aiden! Elisa!” It’s his father, not Benson.
“Fuck!” Aiden hisses, shutting his eyes and trying to rearrange his face, jaw clenching with the effort. But he’s still blanched and jagged when he yanks open the door. I watch, peripherally, as his parents storm in first both in their pajamas, Benson and his military mate, Max, towering behind them. I hear their frantic voices, muffled from my heart hammering in my ears, sputtering that they heard Benson and Max at their door talking about trouble at the cottage, and Benson apologizing for not being able to stop them. But my central focus is on Aiden—shocked, exhausted, worried, furious, surrounded with the people he loves most and vibrating with tension against the foyer wall in terror of hurting them, fuming for his parents to go back to bed right now. That unlocks me.
“Everyone!” I call from the staircase, not wanting to crowd Aiden more. “Let’s all go in the living room and give Aiden some space. We can talk there.”
They scramble and follow me immediately, Benson bending at the waist and Max, not as hulking but still broad, lumbering sideways. None of them even looks at the seats—they just scatter around in various poses of distress while Stella takes me in a hug where I’m hovering by the sofa, gesturing futilely at it. “Are you all right, darling? What’s happened? We were awake from jetlag and heard Benson tell Max something about a break-in.” Behind her, Benson looks almost as murderous as his boss.
“We’re both fine, Aiden’s just being careful,” I assure her but I’m really listening for any sign of him in the foyer. I hear nothing. “Why don’t I get us some tea?”
But before I can take a step, he strides in the room. His face is back under his control albeit ashen, his frame in its granite public setting. He scans the room, eyes landing on me first. They’re opaque under his tight leash, the hurt well-hidden in their depths.
“Everyone, have a seat.” His voice is back to its alpha timbre, too. They all thaw at his command and perch at the edge of everything—armchairs, floor, piano seat—leaving the sofa to us. I panic he won’t sit next to me, but he does. Not close enough for our arms to touch as usual, but I’ll take any closeness at this point. Then he steeples his fingers and starts with his parents. “I’d like for you to go back to bed. This is nothing Benson and I can’t handle—”
“Son, we’re staying.” Robert’s voice is calm but final. “Now tell us what happened.”
Aiden watches his father in exasperation for a moment, then summarizes the last fifteen minutes that feel like fifteen years in three sentences. “When we came in tonight, I noticed a few things had moved. Nothing seems to be missing, and there are no signs of a break-in. But I’m not convinced these changes are accidental, although Elisa has some rational reservations about my theory.”
My eyes fly to him, startled by his admission, but he’s looking at Benson sitting on the floor.
“What was out of place?” Benson asks in an efficient tone, taking notes as Aiden explains everything, including my objections. It’s impossible to miss how unquestionably Benson accepts Aiden’s theory. And how Max nods, clearly considering this possibility. Is that because Aiden is Benson’s employer? I watch Robert and Stella who know Aiden best. Their faces are folded in concern, but I can’t tell if they agree or disagree with him. And the earlier dread starts creeping over me again. Am I wrong? Was there someone really here? Did I hurt Aiden over nothing when he’s only trying to protect me?
“They must have had a key if they didn’t break the door,” Benson concludes. “Elisa, who has a key to the cottage?”
“Just Aiden and me. The Plemmonses had a copy when I lived in Portland, but they gave it back. That’s the copy Aiden has.”
“They don’t need a key,” Aiden disagrees. “They could have picked the lock or easily slip through any of the open windows. No one closes them around here, but that’s changing tonight.”
“Theories on who or why?” Benson prompts.
“Many, one as likely and unlikely as the next.”
“So, we can rule out burglary since nothing was taken,” Max interjects, drawing a line on a scratchpad he seems to have pulled from somewhere.
“I agree.” Aiden nods. “Which points to a more personal motive, but why?”
Benson turns to me. “Has anything like this happened here before?”
I shake my head. “Burford hasn’t had a break-in since 1976 and even then, it was Plemmons Blooms, not a home.”
“What did they steal?” Aiden looks at me again, and I meet his anxious eyes immediately.
“Roses.” A general gasp fills the room, and his eyebrows arch in disbelief. “But it never happened again,” I explain quickly. “It just became a local legend—the Rose Thief. The story goes that it was the ghost of Lady Tanfield who used to own Plemmons’s street hundreds of years ago or a desperately poor farmhand trying to impress his love.”
“So they never caught the Rose Thief?” Benson clarifies.
“No, but it was forty years ago. And they didn’t cause damage or hurt anyone.”
“They didn’t tonight either,” Max points out and ticks something on his notepad. “So maybe we have a motive. There are thousands of roses around here.”
“Yes, but they’re all outside,” I argue, feeling mental for considering legends as options instead of gravity. “Why would they need to come in if they were after roses? And just about every other cottage in town has them. Why this one?”
“Why indeed,” Robert muses, eyes on Aiden. Something quick passes between them, and Aiden’s jaw flinches in defiance.
“You have been working on that new rose hybrid you showed me,” Stella suggests. “Maybe something about it? And the Rose Festival is next weekend.”
I can see all their faces pondering her theory with seriousness, although Aiden shakes his head. “The timing with the festival is suspicious, I’ll grant you that. But the hybrid is out in the garden. As Elisa said, they wouldn’t need to come in. And whoever the intruder is wouldn’t know about it in the first place. But let’s keep it on the table for now. I’ll search the garden as soon as it’s light out.”
“What about a stalker?” Max throws out.
A muted snarl rumbles from Aiden and, for the first time since our argument, his arm flies around my shoulders. “It was my first thought,” he answers through his teeth. “Although Elisa’s things are untouched, which is inconsistent with their playbook.”
I should shudder at the idea as improbable as it sounds, but with his stony arm around me, I can’t feel that kind of fear. My only fear is for him. I lean closer and he peers at me, eyes softer now. “Have you seen anyone follow you since you’ve been back or even before you moved to Portland?”
“No, never as far as I know,” I assure him. “I would tell you about something like that.”
He nods, but the phone screen flashes to his ear. Everyone is frozen as he waits for an answer from someone at two thirty in the morning. He doesn’t have to wait long. Whoever he’s calling picks up almost as quickly as Benson.
“Yeah, Cal, it’s me,” Aiden speaks into the receiver. I inhale every rapid-fire word he exchanges with James. “Sorry about the hour . . . when you were watching Elisa, did you ever see anyone around the cottage?” A quick answer. “What about anyone following her? Town, Oxford, anywhere?” Another quick answer. “I figured . . . Yes, she’s fine. I’ll fill you in later . . . Agreed . . . See you next weekend.”
“What did James say?” I ask as soon as he hangs up.
“He didn’t see anyone, and if there was someone to be seen, Cal wouldn’t have missed him. And I certainly haven’t seen anyone or they wouldn’t have come here tonight. Don’t worry about this. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” His voice is resolute, and his hand clutches my shoulder on the last words.
“I know you won’t—I’m not worried about that. I’m more worried about the stress this is causing you.”
He looks like he’s about to argue, but Robert jumps in with his idea. “What about anyone at work, Elisa, where Cal and Aiden couldn’t see?”
I shake my head, a smile pulling my lips without permission. “No, I’m working with one of my dad’s friends and his best former student who thinks my dad was a chemistry god and talks to him out loud. They quite literally are dedicating a bench to him like a shrine. I’d suspect Lady Tanfield over either of them.”
“Does anyone else know about the protein?” Aiden asks.
“Just the other Bia chemists, but they’re all screened and know everything already.”
“Not everything,” he reminds me.
“Yes, but no one alive knows about the code or the list except you and me. The code is in the you-know-what and the list is always you-know-where and we’ve left no evidence of our work here or there. Besides, if they had found out, why would they need to break in? They’d camp at Bia twenty-four seven, celebrating and testing.” I caress the locket for emphasis.
“I’m sorry, I’m not following,” Stella speaks for the first time in a while. All their eyes are on us, brows knitted in confusion.
“Elisa is working on a highly complex and confidential project,” Aiden explains and, even in his tension, a note of pride still enters his voice. “But we can’t discuss the details.”
“So what options are left? If this project, the roses, a stalker, or a burglar are out?” Robert looks straight at Aiden now and the room falls quiet. He gazes into the empty beehive fireplace, eyes squinting as they shift in analysis too quick for me to follow. Only in the end do I see a flicker of the hurt before he throttles it immediately.
“Well, first, I’m not ruling out any of those options until I have solid evidence to the contrary,” he answers in a tightly controlled tone, eyes still on the fireplace, but his hand on his knee has turned into a fist again. “But if it’s not any of them, the only other option left is that Elisa is right . . . that I’m seeing things.”
“Aiden, no!” I take his fist in both of mine, not caring of the four pairs of eyes on us. “I don’t think you’re seeing things, love. But I do think you might be seeing danger. I don’t question the frame has moved, or the scarf has slipped, or your judgment. I’m only worried you’re under incomprehensible stress and might be interpreting these things to mean something sinister in your heightened vigilance. Please believe me—there’s no one I trust more than you.”
I brush his white knuckles and let him see everything he can see in my eyes—the whole truth. A very, very small part of my brain registers how silent the room has remained around us. Eventually his fist opens, and he nods once. “Fair. We’ll keep that option on the table, too. But I can’t ignore the others. If you’re right, there’s nothing I can do about it. But if I’m right and someone was here, there’s a lot we need to do.” He pulls back his hand and his head snaps up at Benson. “We need to scout the area. It’s almost light out. Max, how long can you stay in England?”
“I have another week off work.”
“If I double your current salary, will you consider staying here as Elisa’s security until I find someone local?”
“My what?” I gasp, but he silences me with one look.
“I’m indulging your theory, now please indulge mine.” His eyes fly to Max again who jolts to his feet and almost salutes him while I watch my life transform in seconds.
“Absolutely, sir. I’ve been wanting to work for you since Benson first started. No one will get near her.”
“Agreed. And vet security for my parents while they’re here as well. Cal and the others will be here next weekend for the Rose Festival, so that’s three more hands. We’ll discuss surveillance and logistics when I get back.” His sniper gaze flashes to his parents who are still at the edge of their seats, faces in identical masks of stress. “Can you stay with Elisa until I get back?”
“Of course,” they answer in unison.
With a deep breath, Aiden turns to me and cups my cheek. “I know you think this is unnecessary and even insane, but I have to do this. I cannot take any risks—no matter how remote you believe them—with your safety, do you understand me?”
I manage a nod, too stunned to produce any words.
“Good. Now stay here and don’t worry—Max will guard the cottage. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
Translation: I’ll be up all night for you, then do the reel, then protect you from known and unknown dangers no matter what it costs me. That unlocks my tongue. “Why don’t you sleep first and go out later?” I plead with him. “Sleep is important for you right now.”
“I’ll sleep afterwards. It’ll be easier to notice any differences now before there’s more activity around or to check if anyone is still in the area. But the three of you should absolutely go to bed.”
“I will if you will,” I offer urgently. “Please?” But he presses his lips on mine quickly and bolts to his feet.
“Benson, let’s go.”
They’re out of the door before I can say or do anything else. I sprint to the window barely catching their shadows disappear over the rose hedges into the violet dawn.
The silence that follows their departure is deafening. I stand frozen, staring at the empty garden, the wound in my chest ripped wide open. What is happening to my love? How can he keep up with this stress? And what if he’s right against all reason, and someone is out there? What if Aiden gets hurt trying to protect me? I’ve been dreading losing him at the end of the summer if we don’t win. But what if we don’t have even that long? What if this experiment or something else claims Aiden before then? Abruptly a flashback of my Romeo nightmare blasts in my vision for the first time in over a week, blinding me with its force. I shudder at its clarity, seeing nothing but Aiden’s parted lips, feeling his cold skin on my fingertips, so much like Mum’s hand in the morgue or dad’s forehead in the casket. A gasping sound patters close by—my own. Distantly I feel a warm arm around my shoulders and Stella’s faraway voice snaps me out of my own terrifying reel.
“Elisa? Darling? Come sit, sweetheart.” She pulls me back on the sofa that no longer has Aiden’s warmth, and curls next to me, holding me in her gardenia hug—much like Reagan two weeks ago except Stella’s arms are wrought with her own terror for her son. That seeps through me. I should be comforting her, not the other way around. I breathe against my own fear, clutching my locket, and fold out of her embrace. Robert is sitting on the other side of her, face lined with worry. Max has taken my spot at the window, staring out into the garden.
“I’m sorry,” I croak, voice hoarse with unshed tears. “I’m being an awful hostess. I’ll start the kettle. Or do you want to rest for a bit? The guestroom is clean, and it would make Aiden happy if you tried.”
Stella chuckles with a forlorn sound. “Oh, sweet pea, you’re not our hostess. You might as well be a second child to me as much as my son loves you. And there’s no chance of us catching a wink. Come on, I’ll help you with the tea. I could use the busy work, too.”
In the kitchen, I don’t dare to touch mum’s tea set in my state. Just our old everyday cups that are almost as precious in their chipped way. I warm the leftover scones from our afternoon tea, fighting back tears at Aiden’s playfulness with the kettle. How blissful and proud he was just two hours ago. The happiest day of his life, he said, and it ended like this—with terror and hurt from me. I stifle back a sob and chase it with tea from his coffee mug to cover the sound. It doesn’t fool his mother.
“You know,” she says, shuffling the Twinnings tea packets in their wicker basket. “Aiden has always been very strong, even as a little boy. He’s like Robert that way. I’m worried about a lot of things tonight. But not about anyone hurting him and Benson together.”
I nod because it’s true—physically Aiden is a weapon of mass destruction—but I don’t feel comforted. Because the reel and he are destroying each other every dawn in other ways—and his parents don’t know that. Outside the kitchen window, the sky is turning sapphire. Max’s boulder shape is out there pacing the garden perimeter, and the roses are washing off their sleep with dew. Did you see anyone last night? I ask them in my head. I think you’d have found a way to rise from your roots and scratch their eyes out with your thorns if that was the case. They don’t answer.
“How has Aiden been sleeping, Elisa?” Robert’s quiet voice startles me from my monologue. It’s the first time he has spoken since Aiden left. He’s at the kitchen table in dad’s and Javier’s chair—his tea and scone untouched.
“Quite well actually, except tonight of course.” I take a sip of chamomile tea, blush prickling my hairline at discussing our sleep with his father.
“That’s good. At least Für Elise is holding.”
The mug shakes in my hand so much that hot tea spills on my fingers, but it’s still cooler than my cheeks. “You—you know about that?”
Stella is dabbing off my hands with a tea towel, looking as stunned as me. “Know about it? We were the ones who discovered it. Didn’t Aiden tell you?”
The kitchen goes blank, except their lined beautiful faces and the gasps of air on my lips. I shake my head, barely mouthing the words. “He said it was painful for him to talk about.”
“Oh, believe it.” Robert nods, exchanging a glance with Stella.
I look at his grave expression then at Stella’s sad smile then back at Robert then back at her again, thoughts a snarl. Can I ask? Should I ask? But Stella nods in encouragement. “Would you like us to tell you, dear?”
“Oh, please, will you?” I stammer, all breath gone. “I’d never make him relive it, but . . .”
“But you want to know. Of course, you do. Here, come sit, and we’ll tell you the story. I don’t want Aiden to have to revisit it either.”
I perch at the wooden edge of mum’s seat and wrap my hands around Aiden’s mug as Stella takes my old chair next to Robert and starts in a low sonata voice. “How to start? From the beginning, I suppose . . . The last night Aiden ever spent in our home was June eighth, 2003—the night he attacked me, about one week after he had returned from that unspeakable place. He was sleeping in the basement back then, although ‘sleeping’ is a generous word. He’d never been a good sleeper, but this was different. He would just lay on the hard floor, either in a nightmare or wide awake—nothing in between. Robert and I used to listen at the stairs . . . I still hear the screams . . . ‘let him go, let him go, let him go,’ he would say in Arabic . . . I was foolish that night. He had told me not to wake him, but I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer that way and . . . well, you know how it ended . . .” She shudders and tea splashes from her cup. I dab her hands, as Robert rubs her shoulder. He doesn’t seem to be breathing.
“He never returned after that night, no matter how much we pleaded with him,” she continues. “I would see him some nights—under the old cedar in our backyard or driving by, but he never crossed our threshold again. He felt so wretched for hurting me, he didn’t think he deserved to come in . . .” She drifts again, a tear sparkling in her eye.
“Where was he staying?” I whisper.
“Outside, camping with Cal and the other boys for a while. They were all in bad shape, although Aiden more so, of course. He was lost to us for a long time. As were they to their families. Only the four of them know how they lived through it. But they did somehow, they kept each other alive, I’m convinced of that . . .” She shudders again, and the cup slips through her hands, tea sloshing everywhere. “Oh, I’m sorry, Elisa. What a mess!” She apologizes frantically while I try to comfort her and mop up the tea, my own hands trembling. Robert shifts his chair so close to her that their arms are touching, like Aiden does with me.
“Anyway,” she sighs. “For the next few years, we’d hold our breath every time we heard tires on the driveway, or a knock on the door, or the doorbell. But it was never Aiden. He would only call or write. Once he started his company and could afford Benson, we’d visit him at home but the pain and guilt and fear in his eyes when he’d see us . . . I couldn’t stand for him to feel it. And so the distance grew year after year and we stopped holding our breath when the doorbell rang . . . But it all changed one night a month ago, the night you left.” Stella looks at me, eyes glimmering with tears and a smile lifting her lips. Robert seems to breathe for the first time I’ve noticed since the story began while my chest throbs at the reminder.
“He had called us earlier that evening to ask if the Solises could stay with us for a couple of weeks. He sounded upset; they’re very important to me, he said. Of course we agreed immediately—it’s so rare for him to ask anything of us. So they moved into the guest house only a couple hours later, and Berty and I had gone to bed. Then around one in the morning, the doorbell woke us. I don’t know how long it had been ringing, and there he was—right on our doorstep as we had always dreamed but looking so destroyed, we almost fell to our knees. I thought a diagnosis or another Marine had been lost or another accident. But he just said, ‘Can I stay here tonight? I’m not in trouble, but I can’t be anywhere else.’ I don’t even remember what we said . . .
“I just remember he crossed the threshold, very carefully, and that’s when we saw Benson behind him, looking pale, but he didn’t come in. And then Aiden took the stairs to his old room where all his childhood things still are. We followed at a distance, expecting him to close the door, but he didn’t. He let us sit with him in total silence. For almost an hour, he just sat at the edge of his old bed, no words, no movement, staring at an old frame of the three of us at Oxford, for moments at a time he wasn’t even breathing. Then my heart started acting up and I needed my medication, and that’s when he came to. He looked at me and said, ‘I met someone.’
“At first, I didn’t think I heard him right, but he said it again. ‘I met someone, and I lost her.’ We didn’t know what to do, we were just . . .”
“Shocked,” Robert speaks for the first time since the story began. “Absolutely floored.”
“You see, ever since Aiden’s gifts became apparent, we had spent years worrying about the right girl for him, then years worrying about the wrong kind, and then years no longer hoping he’d find anyone at all. And now here it was, and we didn’t know what to say. My first worry was that you had been hurt, dear, but I knew with his memory the very first words we’d utter were the most important.
“So I just asked, ‘what’s her name?’
“‘Elisa,’ he answered and then sort of breathed.
“‘That’s beautiful,’ I said, ‘like the melody?’ And he nodded.
“I don’t know what made me do it, I don’t know why—maybe because I couldn’t find the words—but I went to his old record player and put on Für Elise. And almost immediately he started to breathe. Just regularly, in and out. I sat next to him on the bed—which would have been unthinkable for him to ever allow—and said, ‘tell me about Elisa.’ He lied down on his side, facing us, and said ‘I love her.’
“Neither of us was breathing at that point even though he was, were we, Berty?”
He shakes his head, eyes on his cold tea.
“Then the song ended, and Berty replayed it. ‘I love her,’ Aiden said again. ‘The Solises are her family, but she’s gone. And I don’t know how to be with her or without her . . .’ We waited for him to finish but he just fell asleep. Just like that. Poof! Our Aiden, our tortured, beautiful, kind boy just drifted. We couldn’t believe our eyes . . .”
For a while, they both gaze unseeingly at their cold cups, their faces folded in wonder, as I labor sick with worry to find my lungs or anything in my body to keep me here instead of running through the fields to search for my tortured, beautiful, kind love. To bring him home where he can sleep and dream sweet dreams, safe from everything outside and inside of him. I’ll stand guard while he rests, not Max or Benson—because I’m the one who calms him.
Robert comes back to the kitchen first. “We stayed up all night, just watching him, replaying your song. We figured out how to do it on our phones, so that one would start as the other ended.”
“And through it all, my baby slept,” Stella sniffles, wiping her nose with the wet tea towel. “I know it sounds odd to call him that, as big and hard as he is, but he’ll always be my baby. And that’s why for us, you could have been Medusa living in Hades and we’d still love you. But you’re not—you’re a loving, beautiful girl who is giving our boy sleep.” She caresses my cheek.
“Thank you,” Robert says with a deep emotion in his voice.
I watch their faces, blurring through tears, without knowing what to say or how to breathe or sit still.
“Oh, don’t cry, darling.” Stella wipes my cheeks even though hers are almost as soaked. “This is a good thing. He loves you so much. I know it’s difficult to deal with his . . . intensity, his protectiveness, not to mention his awful temper and stubbornness, but you’re the most important thing in his life. Please indulge him, like he said.”
“But stand up to him, too,” Robert urges. “Like you did today with this threat. I think it’s important you do that. Aiden wouldn’t accept it from anyone else, but he needs to hear it.”
My head is spinning with all the revelations, the different directions my emotions are pulling at me, the millions of needlepoints of panic for Aiden, and love so strong it feels it might crush me more than his startle blow. I try to squint through the gale of my thoughts for the most immediate. “Thank you for telling me,” I manage after a while. “And for being here.”
“Where else would we be, dear? We’ll help you through this and anything else you need. But don’t be afraid, if there is someone out there trying to hurt you, God save him when Aiden finds him, and he will.”
A shiver courses through me, and I gulp some tepid tea, placing my lips on the mug where Aiden wraps his. “I’m not afraid of that. I’m more afraid of what Aiden is going through.”
“You really don’t believe this threat is real then, Elisa?” Robert frowns.
I shake my head. Who would ever want to hurt this place? Or me? Why?
“You make some good points. On the other hand, I’ve never known Aiden to be wrong on matters of perception,” Robert argues. “Emotion is another issue. And this is a bit of both.”
Happy Sunday, everyone! Hope you’ve had a great weekend. Here is a chapter close to my heart for a lot of reasons, including that it is one of the last times we see Reagan and Javier in the books. Thank you to all for reading, and especially to Wattle Ido, HN, Liz, Linda, Darla, and all the others who are writing to me. Your good cheer and love of this story means a lot. xo, Ani [credits: Chatsworth Estate; viator.com.]
I never used to give much thought to happiness. I either had it and took it for granted or I lost it so deeply that thinking about it wouldn’t help. But I think a lot about it now. Not about what it means, but rather about it is. And I notice how different it looks each day, each hour, even minute. An hour ago, happiness looked like two bodies wrapped together in twinkly lights, bursting like halos around each other’s sun. Then it looked like hunting condoms hidden under petals in a rose garden while drinking coffee mouth to mouth. And right now it looks like Aiden and me watering the roses together, waiting for Reagan and Javier for our overnight trip to Pemberley, or rather Chatsworth Estate that Jane Austen immortalized as Mr. Darcy’s abode. Of course to me, Chatsworth is happiness for an entirely different reason: my own Mr. Darcy and the surprise that awaits him.
Happiness is a shapeshifter.
“Well, I’m disappointed,” my Mr. Darcy says, watering the Cecilias in a fresh white shirt and grey jeans while I label the cyclamen floribunda rose I’m dedicating to Reagan. “The woman who breaks chemical protein codes while kissing only managed to find five of my hidden condoms fully caffeinated. That won’t cover us even for tonight.”
“We’re not all CIA-trained analysts, Aiden. Some of us need clues.”
A smile ignites his eyes until his face lights up with that surreal beauty it takes on at certain moments, like when he asked me to meet his parents. My brain couldn’t solve a clue right now even if he gave it to me. He drops the nozzle on the grass and takes the three steps between us, holding out his hand. “Fair point. Close your eyes.”
“That sounds even harder,” I grumble—why would I want him out of sight?
“Come on. I’m trying to be romantic. Don’t ruin it for me.”
“Fine,” I sigh, closing my eyes. “But if you’re being romantic with condoms, you better hurry before Javier comes. We’re really pushing his aneurism.”
He chuckles but cups his hand over my eyes. “No snooping this time.”
Whatever plans he must have for this condom must be hazardously good. He leads me down the path by my waist in the direction of the garden shed, his body brushing against the cerise summer dress he brought me back from Portland. He stops us a few steps later and frees my eyes. “Everything you need is here.”
We’re at the workbench behind the shed where I’ve been trying to cultivate a new rose—a hybrid between the Elisa and the American Beauty I bought from Mr. Plemmons. Not that I’d ever admit to Aiden I’m trying to breed our roses. My excuse is that I’m preparing for the Burford Rose Festival, which is technically true. But maybe he guesses anyway if he put a condom here. I search through the bench mortified, my face matching my dress. “Umm, I don’t see it,” I mumble, looking under my tools and in the plastic pots of dirt, but then something in the Elisa bloom I’m using for grafting catches my eye. “Oh, wait—what is that?”
It’s not a condom. Condoms do not sparkle. There, nestled in the heart of the ivory petals, something blue is shimmering. I inhale a low gasp, fishing it out. Dangling on a fine gold chain is a filigreed locket embedded with a brilliant sapphire the color of his eyes. “Oh my God, Aiden!” I whisper, looking up at him. The delight in his face dims even the radiant gem in my hand. “Is this . . . this is the surprise that will make my heart melt!”
He smiles casually, but I sense a strong emotion underneath. “In part. Open it.”
I stroke the engraved lid, noticing the filigree is an intricate rose vine. “It’s so beautiful,” I murmur, lifting the clasp. A small roll of paper is tucked inside in a message-in-a-bottle kind of way. I pick it up carefully so I don’t drop either it or the locket with my shaking hands.
“Allow me,” Aiden says. He takes the locket and clasps it around my neck, sweeping my hair to side. His fingers brush my collarbones, raising goose bumps in their wake. “Now you can read the note.”
I unroll the strip of paper—it’s longer than it seemed—and I lose my breath again. It’s his assertive handwriting, albeit much smaller—I’d know it anywhere after reading his war letters. But this is not a love note. It’s a list. A list of the oxytocin options that meet the CREB test for the protein. “Good heavens, Aiden! You already solved them?”
He shrugs as though that’s not the most astonishing part. “It’s still long, love, I’m sorry. No matter how many combinations I tried, we still end up with ninety-seven. But I’ve listed them in order of potency—hopefully that saves you some time. I’ll keep working on it if you have other id—”
He never gets to finish his sentence because I throw myself at him, dangling like a locket over his own heart. “Aiden, this is everything! I thought we’d end up in the two hundreds still. Do you realize what a huge leap we just made?”
His arms fold around my waist. “It’s still a lot to test on time. There must be something else I can do.” The V forms between his eyebrows, and abruptly I see how much he wants this now. Why is that? Is it still to help me sleep or is the torture draining more of him than he lets on? I hold him closer to fight a shiver.
“You just did in a week what would have taken me months. Let me worry about the rest. One way or another, I’ll make this for you, I promise.” I try to smooth away the V, but he shakes his head.
“I don’t want it for myself, Elisa. I want you to have it every morning since you insist on staying with me.”
And there it is, the reason why the protein has become just as vital to him as it is to me. I kiss him, unable to find words—they’ve melted away with my heart as he promised. The strong emotion in his eyes is in his mouth too, the way it moves with mine in ninety-seven different forms of love.
He has to break the kiss when I start hyperventilating—there’s no question of me being able to pull apart—and at last I find some words. “Maybe we can share the protein. Like we do with Baci or your coffee?”
He chuckles. “Well, if there’s anything that will convince me to take an ounce of it for myself, it would be your mouth.” He takes the long ribbon of paper, rolling it back into its papyrus form. “I have this memorized just in case, but I tried to think of a way for you to carry it around without anyone suspecting.” He tucks the list back inside my locket and secures the clasp.
“It’s perfect.” I pat the sapphire, not wanting to imagine how much it cost. “Wherever did you find it?”
“The antique shop you told Reagan you liked. Obviously jewelry is not my expertise, but I thought it was a good fit for this. A locket for a secret. And the roses for you.”
“And the sapphire for your eyes.”
He shrugs. “If you want.”
“You forgot the most important part.”
“It rests on my heart, like you.”
His eyes gaze at the spot like a caress. “What a great place to rest.”
There are a million other things I want to tell him. How the gold reminds me of his heart, how its strength reminds me of his character, how someday I want to give it to our daughter. Instead of embarrassing or terrifying him with any of that, I just rest my head on his chest and say, “Thank you. I’ll love it forever.”
Benson drops off Reagan and Javier only fifteen minutes later on his way to London to pick up his mate, Max, whom Aiden is flying over for a few days to keep Benson company. Reagan is wearing the most resplendent hat for Mr. Darcy’s home. It’s an ivory wide disc with a coral silk rose blooming underneath the brim. The rest of her glows in a matching linen dress as she practically runs up the garden path to me.
“Reg, you look like art,” I tell her, choosing the word for Javier.
“Never mind me. What’s that on your neck?” Her emerald eyes widen when she spies the locket.
I caress it as I’ve been doing every few seconds. “Aiden got it for me.” Even I hear the gloating in my voice. He shakes his head next to me with an indulgent smile.
“Well-done, Aiden,” she grins at him. “Very Mr. Darcy of you.”
“I’m assuming that’s a high honor.”
“The highest,” she says, lifting her chin. “Speaking of Mr. Darcy, where the hell is your hat, Isa? You promised you’d wear it for him.”
“He’s not real, Reg.” Javier laughs behind her. “It’s not like he’ll be there.”
“He’s real to us, Javi,” she retorts. “He’s gotten us through hell. And now Isa won’t even wear a hat for him! We’ve been waiting for this day for four years!”
“Reg, calm down,” I laugh. “I have my hat inside. But first I want to show you something.”
All indignation disappears from her face and she smiles. “Oh, whew, I thought you had lost your mind. What is it? Did Aiden get you a tiara, too? Because that would be even better than a hat.”
“No, this one is just for you.” I take her hand and nod at Aiden. He pulls out his phone to record the moment for me.
Reagan looks between us with a grin. “Oh, this must be good. Is it a present? Wait, how does my hat look?”
“Better than Duchess Kate,” I assure her and lead her up the path past the Cecilias, the Clares, and the Elisas to the magenta floribunda bush by the bench. And even though this is her moment, suddenly it feels like my own throat is full of petals. “Here it is,” I smile, holding out my hand toward her blooms.
She blinks at them confused, but then her eyes fall on the rosewood plant marker stuck in the dirt. Reagan Starr, it says in mum’s calligraphy. “No way!” Her hand flies up to her mouth, and she curls down on the petaled grass, stroking the bright blooms. “Isa, is this for real?”
I kneel next to her. “Of course it is. Every woman in my family has a rose in this garden. And now you do too.”
Her hug almost knocks me flat on the grass as Aiden and Javier chuckle above us, now both recording. “I love it so much!” she blubbers. “It’s my spirit plant.”
“And it’s the kind of rose my dad gave to my mum on their first date. It brought them nothing but luck in their love.”
A knowing smile sparkles in her teary emerald eyes—she understands why this is the rose I chose for her.
“You need luck in love, Reg?” Javier pipes up, still recording.
“Duh!” she answers without looking at him. “I’ve been in England for a week and I haven’t seen Gandy yet.” She gives me another hug, this one gentler like all the vulnerability she must be feeling. “Thank you,” she sniffles. “Do you think it will do well in Portland? What am I saying—your green thumbs can grow anything.”
“It will do beautiful in Portland,” I answer her question, unable to touch her assumption. But the petals in my throat just turned to shards of glass at the idea of leaving this garden or being away from any of my three stars. In a blink, their brilliant constellation goes dark. I feel Aiden’s unerring eyes on my face along with the phone cameras and smile the widest smile I can manage. “All right, here’s a Reagan to take with us.” I snip off a bloom and tuck it in her hat. “Now let’s get going. It’s a two-hour drive.”
If Aiden saw the way my heart just ripped in two, he says nothing. He just takes me by the waist as we climb up to our bedroom to pick up our suitcase—just one suitcase, my knickers with his boxers, our socks balled up with each other, our toothbrushes together for our first overnight trip.
“That was a beautiful thing you did for Reagan,” he says as he zips it up.
“She deserves it.” I shrug and pretend to make the bed, glancing at the picture of our kiss and the wilted poppies on my nightstand. Why is fear punching so hard now that I’m carrying the key to the bravery protein in a locket right next to my heart? Can fear sense its end is coming? Or is the end coming for me?
Aiden’s hand covers mine as I am smoothing the pillow, trying to fight the sudden shivers. How many times has he kissed me on this pillow by now? How many times are there left still? He pulls me around and tips up my face. “What’s wrong, love?”
The peaceful beauty that floods him in this room has a shadow of worry, like stubble over his dimple. But the moment his turquoise eyes meet mine, abruptly the shivers start to recede. “I broke Corbin’s rule,” I admit. “I looked ahead instead of at the present moment.”
His hand curves around my cheek. “It comes out of nowhere sometimes, doesn’t it?”
“Yes! For you too?” It’s a terrible thing to give me relief, but it still does—like we’re together even in fear.
“Oh, yes. Sometimes, the more beautiful the moment, the harder it hits.”
“That’s exactly it. I couldn’t understand why it happened just now until you said it. We had the most beautiful morning and then . . .”
“Here, try something with me,” he suggests, folding me in his arms. “You’re better at this than I am, but I’ll start. You’re in my arms, too beautiful for words, with your head on my chest, exactly where I want you to be. Now your turn.”
“Okay.” I smile as I realize what he is doing: bringing me to the present moment. “I’m wearing the locket you gave me, the dress you gave me, the knickers you gave me, and the perfume you gave me. I’m wrapped in you.”
“And we are in the happiest bedroom in the world.”
“And there are only six days and fourteen hours of condoms left.”
He chuckles with me, now continuing out of fun, not fear. “And there are three more condoms in the foyer for you to find on our way out.”
“And you still have your surprise to see.”
“And you still have yours.”
That derails me. “You already gave me mine.” I clutch my locket as evidence.
“I said I gave you part of it. The best part is still ahead.”
“The best part? What could be better than bravery?”
He presses his lips to mine. “Love, Elisa,” he whispers. “Love.”
And just like that, happiness shifts. It becomes this present moment in a tiny bedroom with a white bed, wilted flowers, and a worn rug where we dance.
“OI!” Javier hollers from the garden. “I’M BECOMING AN INSTAGRAM PHOTOGRAPHER DOWN HERE. CAN YOU HOLD IT IN FOR LATER?”
It never ceases to make Aiden laugh. He picks up the suitcase and glances around our bedroom. “You know, despite Chatsworth’s luxury, I’d still rather be here tonight.”
Abruptly I miss this room and we haven’t even left it. “Me too,” I say, grabbing our pillows on a whim.
Visiting Chatsworth is not something you are supposed to get used to, no matter how often you do it, and I have visited twice. The magnificent house glows in yellow stone surrounded by hundreds of acres of lush gardens and serene woods, with the Emperor Fountain like a liquid mirror reflecting the opulence of both nature and man. History flutters in every leaf, glimmers in each drop of dew, flows through River Derwent, and settles like pollen over the emerald expanse of the parkland.
But visiting Chatsworth with Aiden, Reagan, and Javier makes all that history feel new, the grand house a bit like home, and Mr. Darcy just a hero in a book. Not because Aiden has reserved the public part of the house for the afternoon and booked the exclusive Park Farm Estate for the night—I know now that, underneath the lavish expense, these are nonnegotiable safety measures and that, deep down, Aiden dreams of being able to visit such places in a crowd as much as a tourist might dream of being him. No, today is breathless for an entirely different reason: because today my life is better than the fairytale. And happiness has changed shapes again. Now it looks like Aiden, Javier, Reagan, and me plopped on a picnic blanket under an ancient alder tree at the farthest border of Salisbury Lawn. The park is quiet today despite the Saturday sunshine, perhaps because soon the house will be closed to the public for us.
“I just can’t get over it,” Reagan says, downing the last drop of her bubbles from a paper cup. “A week ago, Javi was in jail about to be deported, Isa was here in hell, Aiden—I don’t have the words, and I was visiting a jail. And now, we’re all here together, waiting to visit that palace in private, and I have a rose named after me. Anyone else think they’re dreaming?”
“I was, until Aiden started kicking my ass,” Javier answers, frowning at Aiden’s chessboard where is he ensnared in the Budapest Defense and his king will be mated in five moves.
I haven’t been able to look away from the hand-carved mahogany board since Aiden set it up, despite the plush gardens around us. It’s the same board I saw in his library on our first night together. A rich scent of musk and cigar wafts from it with the woodsy breeze. The chess pieces glow even under the alder’s shade. How many times have Aiden’s fingers touched them? Hundreds, thousands from his seventh birthday when his parents gave the set to him until now.
I haven’t touched a chess piece since my father died, since that unfinished chess game that sits in the glass flower case in the cottage’s library. But even if I could move a finger to stroke the curves of Aiden’s queen or the sharp angles of his knight, I wouldn’t dare. Because Aiden playing his favorite game is formidable. He seems to play entirely in his head, gazing at the board only to see what mistake the mortal in front of him makes next. I’m certain he is letting Javier persevere out of chivalry—he could have ended this game on move six.
Every so often I sense his eyes on my face through the birdcage veil of the fuchsia fascinator I’m wearing for Reagan. Aiden knows what this game means to me. Yet he has never once asked me to explain my decision to lay it at rest. And for that, impossibly, I love him more.
“Some help?” he invites casually, raising a perfect raven eyebrow at me.
I shake my head. “If I help anyone, it would be Javier.”
“Perfect.” His voice is still casual but something warm filters through his eyes like the sun through the alder leaves. He controls it immediately but it was enough. Enough for me to see what he is doing. What he really wants but will never ask. A game with me, even if only through Javier.
I try to picture moving my hand for him, wrapping my fingers around Javier’s bishop to fall for his queen, so Javier’s king can die a dignified death. But I can’t. My hand closes into a fist. It will not open no matter how much I want to give Aiden everything. Apparently even though my body could give him the forehead kiss, it cannot overcome this.
“Sorry, Javier,” I say, straightening the veil over my cheeks. “May your king rest in peace. Reagan and I have to go see Darcy’s stairs.”
“Now you’re talking,” she hops up, arranging her hat.
I pick up my picnic basket—the other reason why I’m leaving, to set up Aiden’s surprise—but his hand wraps around my fist as I stand. He says nothing but presses it to his lips. One light quick kiss, but I know what it means. I saw you. I feel his eyes on me as Reagan and I stroll away toward the great house.
“So any progress with Javi?” I ask, pretending to look at a wild orchid by the rock I’ve been eying to hide a clue for Aiden.
Her delicate snort distracts me from my subterfuge. “As if. Sometimes I think he’s looking at me, but then I look at him and there’s just . . . nothing there.”
I tuck my arm in hers. “Maybe it’s not nothing. Maybe it’s something he’s too afraid to see.”
“Or maybe I’m not his kind of rose.” Her hand strokes the Reagan bloom still in her hat.
“That’s not true. This is an issue Javier has with himself. That’s what Aiden thinks, too. He thinks Javier needs to feel more secure before getting involved.”
“Oh hell, Aiden knows too?”
“He figured it out on his own, I didn’t say anything.”
“Of course he did. The only one who doesn’t want to see is Javier himself.”
“Just give him a bit more time,” I coax her. “It’s only been a week. And if he doesn’t wake up, Aiden said he’ll help us.”
She giggle-sniffles. “God help Javi if Aiden enters the ring.” Then she looks at my basket of roses. “What are you doing with that?”
“Oh, I’m setting up a scavenger hunt for Aiden and I’ve hidden the clues under the basket liner so he couldn’t see. Come, help me plant them.”
She giggles despite the melancholy in her eyes that seems to have become part of her. “Oh fun, what are you giving him?”
I caress the small gift under the liner—it doesn’t give but it’s hard and warm, like sunny marble. “It’s just something small. He’s impossible to buy anything for. It’s really more the game he’ll like.”
We curve around the grand palace where the last groups of public visitors are filing out for our private tour later this afternoon. The baroque facade is gleaming honey-gold under the molten sun.
“So, how are you doing with all of this?” Reagan asks as I tuck my next clue in the grass by the reclining statues of the Emperor Fountain. “I’m worried about you.”
I shrug, marking the clue with an American penny. “We’re just living moment to moment—it’s too hard otherwise.”
“And if . . .?”
Just two small words and the wound rips wide open so abruptly that it makes me gasp. “Oh, Isa! I’m sorry I brought it up. Take a deep breath, sweetie, I’m here.”
I clutch the locket, trying to stay in the present moment. The Darcy stairs are ahead, the bravery protein is literally in my grasp, Reagan’s arm is around my shoulders, Aiden and I are still together, there is beauty, there is love.
Reagan rubs my arm. “It’ll work out, Isa, you guys love each other. One way or another, love has to win, right?”
How can I tell her it’s a lie? How can I tell her about the Romeo nightmare at night even though Dante walks to me each dawn? She needs to believe love always wins for her own happiness right now. But love doesn’t always win. In some cases—some rare, once in a big bang cases—love even kills. Not with daggers and poisons and accidents and bullets. Love kills with beauty, with loss. I clutch my locket again, pressing it against the throbbing spot between my lungs. Make us brave, make us last.
“What a pair we are, huh?” Reagan says, her tone lighter as we stroll up the boardwalk and climb Darcy’s stairs to meet the housekeeper. “My Darcy just got out of jail and yours has a violent startle, and they’re determined to hate themselves while we’re determined to love them. Maybe I should just move here, and you and I adopt a pair of corgis instead.”
“They’re definitely more obedient.” I laugh, keeping my eyes on the gilded fairytale doors for the present moment, for reality. We have family and friends who love us. There is laughter, there is pleasure, there is hope still. For at least eighty-two more days.
The doors open, and the housekeeper comes out. “Miss Snow?” She looks at us both unsure who is the woman who pleaded with her on the phone for this.
“That’s me, Mrs. Redmond. Thank you so much for allowing this.”
“Oh, not at all. The public area of the house is yours for the afternoon.”
“Here, these are for you.” I give her the bouquet of roses. “I’ll be very careful, I promise.”
By the time we make it back to our Darcy’s, happiness looks like handwritten clues, each a quote from our happiest memories, for the man who forgets nothing. I try not to run to Aiden but don’t do a great job of it. It’s more like a leap and a trot. He pulls me close with similar urgency as I curl next to him in a blanket.
“Oh, good, right on time to watch me beat Aiden.” Javier laughs, clearly dying another painful death on the chessboard, while Reagan folds by him, swallowing the last grape.
“Speaking of beating,” Aiden says as he executes Javier’s knight. “The IRS is auctioning off Feign’s properties to cover his tax bill.”
“Good. Fuck him.”
“Including Feign Art.”
Javier blinks and loses his bishop. “Really?” His voice softens as though unable to hate the only place in the world he was able to do what he loved, even in misery.
Aiden nods, looking at the chessboard as though he is studying it, which of course he isn’t. “I bought it,” he adds in a casual tone, advancing his queen.
Three gasps meet his announcement. “You did what?” I ask, while Javier and Reagan watch him with identical open mouths.
“Correction: I rescued it,” he says in that same casual tone, looking up at me.
“Why on earth did you that?”
“A few reasons, but the main one is that Feign Art is where I first saw you, where your painting hung. I wasn’t going to let it fall into the hands of some other asshole or become a soulless thing like a parking lot.” Through the rosy tint of my veil, his face takes on that surreal beauty it held this morning when he gave me the locket, and I recall his words. Is this the other part of his surprise? The glow in his eyes is a clear yes.
“So you own it now?” Javier’s voice is full of the same awe I feel, while Reagan still hasn’t closed her mouth.
“Technically we both do, if you’re interested,” Aiden answers, and I gasp again as I realize the full extent of his surprise—better than a gift to me, it’s a gift to Javier.
Javier is beyond blinking. “Come again?”
“Well, I can’t paint.” Aiden shrugs, advancing his knight. “But I’d like the gallery to stay what it was—a place of art, the place that brought Elisa to me. That’s where you come in.” Finally, the reason for his casual demeanor becomes obvious to me. It’s to entice Javier to say yes or to keep the significance of this gift modest so Javier doesn’t feel indebted.
Javier finally blinks. And that’s all he does while Reagan starts bouncing next to him, chanting, “OMG, OMG, OMG.”
“Aiden, I don’t know,” Javier hesitates but his voice is soft, almost like he’s in a dream as Reagan said earlier. “This is too much.”
“Is it? For a place that abused you and Elisa, that can finally allow you to do what you’re passionate about and makes everyone who loves you happy?” Aiden’s eyes flit to Reagan, and I register another layer in this gift. He’s giving Javier confidence, not just a dream. “It doesn’t seem like too much to me. But, if it makes this easier to accept, you have my word I bought it at a steal. The IRS doesn’t sell for profit.”
For the first time in this conversation, Javier’s eyes squint as they do when he is sketching the first lines, seeing the finished masterpiece in his mind long before his talent brings it on canvass. “How would it work?” he asks tentatively.
“You would run the place. Paint, commission, distribute—your prerogative.”
“My only interest in this endeavor is that it stays a gallery and you finish Elisa’s painting that you started. Other than that, you’re a majority owner.” Aiden’s voice is still casual but something about his words pulls at the edges of my memory. From the time he offered to be a passive investor in my supplement so I would be free of him. Is that what he’s doing now? Giving me distance if we don’t win? A chill whips through me, and I scoot closer to him, clasping my locket.
“Deal, partner?” Aiden asks Javier, holding out his hand.
Javier meets his eyes for a moment, then looks at Reagan and me. Her face is pure bliss; I can’t even feel mine. “Deal,” he answers, shaking Aiden’s hand.
Reagan loses it then and hugs Javier with her usual exuberance. “So happy for you, Javi.” I don’t realize I’m crying until Aiden’s finger wipes a tear with my veil. A single tear as happiness shifts in the shape of an eave above a door, saying Solis Gallery—Fine Art in elegant script. Still shocked, Javier takes me in his minty hug. “How about that, amorcita? We couldn’t even use the front door and now look at us.”
“No, look at you.”
“Can’t wait for you to come back, and we can all be together.” Javier speaks softly, but his voice rings like a gunshot over the gardens for me, cleaving me in two—one part by this pond of lilies, the other across the transatlantic pond. I can feel my blood draining out of my skin, filling the entire ocean with it. I hide my face behind his full beard.
“Love you, Javi.”
“Love you too, kiddo. Is everyone calling me Javi now?”
“Yep, it’s stuck.”
I stay in his hug a few seconds longer—all the years with him at Feign Art flashing like its own reel in front of my eyes. How can I not see Javi every day? How can I stay eight thousand miles from him? A camera clicks, and I meet Aiden’s gaze, his quiet strength fortifying me. I smile, willing the pixels not to show the chill that just whipped through me.
“Pip pip,” Reagan cheers, and a shower of Reagan petals sprinkles over us like confetti as she shreds her rose for the occasion. “Aiden, forget what I said earlier,” she laughs. “This is your most Darcian thing.”
“Darcy is overrated, Reagan. Elizabeth Bennett was the star.” He takes another photo of me, his eyes full of things too big for me to understand.
Mrs. Redmond emerges on the other end of the lawn then, beckoning us toward the great house. And the future—suddenly so bright for Javier, hopeful for Reagan, and utterly unknown for Aiden and me—disappears. There is only this present moment of giving Aiden a beautiful memory.
“You guys go first,” I say, winking at Reagan. She drags Javier away faster than I can reach inside my picnic basket.
“Finally,” Aiden says, but he doesn’t stand. He pulls me onto his arms. “A minute just with you.”
He looks surreal again, in his white shirt as bright as the futures he creates. “Thank you for what you did for Javi. You were right, it’s better than even bravery. I’m afraid your surprise doesn’t compare to this.”
His lips lift into my favorite lopsided, dimpled smile. “Ah, yes, my surprise. I’m sure I’ll love it if you prepared it.”
“We have to walk around for a bit, but the grounds are almost empty.”
“Hmm . . .” he tilts his head side to side, pursing his lips, and my heart freefalls—did I miscalculate?
“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”
“Well, it depends.” I think I hear an undercurrent of humor in his voice, but his eyes are smoldering.
“Will you wear this hat?”
I giggle breathlessly in relief. “If you like.”
His lips brush along my jaw, following the trim of the veil to my ear. “I don’t like that it hides your face . . .” He kisses down my throat. “But I like the way it makes me feel.”
“How does it make you feel?” The veil flutters from my quick breath.
His nose skims my collarbone exposed over the neckline of my dress. “Forbidden.”
“You’re never forbidden for me.”
“Not even from making love to you right here, right now?” His mouth presses at the hollow of my throat.
“Oh, that.” My voice shakes. “Yes, nudity is strictly prohibited in the park.”
“Hmm.” His lips hunt up to my chin and stop on the other side of my veil as it wafts back and forth from our breath. “Then show me my surprise, Elisa, so we can go to the Park House where nudity is most certainly allowed, in fact required.” His mouth presses on mine over the veil. It takes all my power of concentration to form words.
“Okay then.” I push against his chest with difficulty—I can’t think with his lips on me. He chuckles and gives me space as I reach in my picnic basket and hand him the first folded clue. “Read it.”
He unfolds the scrap with that same boyish curiosity he had when he was solving the riddle for the twinkly lights. “What are men to rocks and mountains?” he reads, sounding perplexed.
“It’s your first clue. We’re doing a scavenger hunt. You have to guess each clue, until you find your surprise.”
Unrestrained joy breaks over his face as the tectonic plates shift. “I haven’t done one of these since I was ten,” he grins, looking back at the clue while I bounce on the spot—he loves it! “So this clue is obviously Elizabeth Bennett’s quote that we paraphrased when I was giving you a tour of my library on our embargo night.”
“A very happy memory.”
“That’s the idea.”
The only times I’ve seen him move faster is when he picks me up to make love. He cleans up our picnic spot in seconds. Then we start our hunt, basket with the chessboard in my arm, folded blanket over his. The grounds of Chatsworth are so open and vast that Aiden’s ever-tense shoulders are not rippling, the bands of muscle at his waist are not straining. They’re in their permanent vigilant setting that doesn’t release him even asleep.
“So I’m looking for a rock,” he says, scanning the Salisbury lawn. I almost start skipping because now his vigilant eyes are searching for something fun, not threats.
“My lips are a locket.”
“Your lips are a magnet. Oh, Elisa, what is this? I believe it’s a rock with a purple flower on top.” He found it in two minutes despite the countless mossy boulders dotting the border of the lawn as it slopes into wilderness.
“That’s a wild orchid, and it brings luck.” He tucks the first clue in his shirt pocket and finds the folded note under the rock with an impatient sparkle in his eyes.
“‘We can’t mess with luck,’” he reads, and the plates shift as he summons his memory of this quote. It takes three seconds. “Another happy memory. The fountain at the rose garden in Portland on our first night. You wanted to make a wish to bring you luck, and you wished for another day with me.”
“This is too easy for you,” I grumble, but loving every bit of it.
He brushes my collarbone with the orchid. “That’s not the term I’d use.”
“What would you use?”
“Beautiful,” he answers, and his face beams with a most unAidenish playfulness. “So the fountain next then?”
I nod, but he doesn’t move. “Will you let me add something to the hunt?”
“Whatever you want.”
“Each clue I guess right, we hike this little veil an inch higher.”
He drops the orchid in my basket and lifts the veil half a centimeter, kissing the dip below my lower lip. Then drapes it back down, and we stroll to the Emperor Fountain although I am already wobbling. The spectacular jet stream shoots up three hundred feet in the air today. Aiden’s quick eyes scan the perimeter. This should be harder—the fountain’s lake is a water mirror of eight acres, framed with another lawn of blooms and grass. It would take me an hour to hunt around this. But Aiden knows the way my mind works better than my own. “I have a feeling this clue is hidden by the reclining statue, Elisa, because it looks like it’s lying on a bed, albeit a very uncomfortable one, and you love bed with me.”
I watch in awe as he searches around the sculpture and, in exactly fifteen seconds, he spots the clue on the grass in front it. “Well, well, well, what’s an American penny doing at Chatsworth?”
He chuckles, tucking the rock clue in his shirt pocket, and picks up the folded note under the penny. “‘I’d like to discuss an unconventional proposal,’” he reads his own words to Kasia at Feign Art. “Ah, of course! You were eavesdropping.” He looks ridiculously happy about it. “Another good memory—commissioning my full painting of you. So next we go to the gallery in the Painted Hall?”
“Yes,” I smile, raising my face for him to lift the veil by another half a centimeter. He kisses the corner of my mouth with a sigh and drapes it back over. “I should have stayed strong at one inch. Can I throw the penny in the fountain and renegotiate?”
“No, they don’t allow that either.”
“Tyrants. No nudity, no coins in the fountain—how do they live?” I’ve never seen him more playful. He tosses the penny in my basket and tucks my arm in his as we climb the Darcy stairs that are now empty.
The Painted Hall of Chatsworth was built to take breaths away. And in both my prior visits it has stumped me, but not today. Today, the black and white marble floor gleams less than Aiden’s chessboard in my basket. The vivid demigods and nymphs adorning the staggering ceiling are dimmed by Aiden’s seraphic face flooded with the sunlight pouring from the high windows. We are all alone in this gallery of classical art, but the real masterpiece is framing me with his arms.
“It’s not my favorite painting,” he says, eyes on the frescoed ceiling. “But it’s certainly impressive. Now where would the next clue be?” He roams the hall, his footsteps ringing on the marble floor, gazing at each mural and antique. But the clue isn’t in the crimson settees, the delftware vases, or the marble busts. “Difficult,” he murmurs. “Very difficult—I like it.” His eyes absorb the scene with hunger, his mind focused on solving this happy clue, not reliving horrors.
I know exactly when he has found it because his eyes zero in on the spot in an almost audible way. “Aha!” He strides to the gilded staircase, lined with the burgundy velvet tapestry. “The fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”
“Yes!” I twirl as he jogs up the stairs and digs the clue from under the carpet, laughing his waterfall laughter. I skip to him and snap a picture with my iPhone as he unfolds the note.
“‘La Virgen. Are you sure you want to do this?’” His voice is soft as he reads the question he asked me in his bedroom before making love to me for the first time. But there’s nothing soft about the blue fire in his eyes as they meet mine. “My favorite painting, my favorite night.”
He lifts the veil another half centimeter, his teeth grazing my lower lip exactly as they did then. I hang in his arms, knees like air under me. Why did I hide so many clues? Why couldn’t I have ended it here so we could go back to the Park House and set fires there?
“The Sculpture Room next then,” he says, solving this clue. He tucks the stair note in his shirt pocket with the others—they’re starting to look like a paper boutonniere of happy memories—and sweeps me in his arms, the basket dangling from my elbow.
“Aiden, no! They’re not used to this here, we’re supposed to be modest and respectful.”
“We’re being both,” he answers, climbing the sweeping staircase. “This is modest compared to what I want to do. And it is respectful because there’s no one here and I have compensated them generously to give us privacy.”
What’s the point of arguing with him—I’m exactly where I want to be. He carries me down the splendid empty hall that he memorized from a map, his footsteps ringing in sync with my heartbeat.
“This is it, I believe.” He stops at the next gallery and sets me on my unsteady feet. We weave through the marble sculptures, Aiden more carved and graceful than any of them, until we reach the kneeling Vestal Virgin, her white veil flowing over her marble face as she guards the sacred flame of her temple.
“Do you think the flame she’s guarding represents her desire?” Aiden asks. “Or her life?”
“There is no difference sometimes, is there? When you want something so much it could kill you if you lose it.”
I grasp my locket, forcing myself to stay in this present moment as he picks up the clue on the floor before the virgin, his expression no longer playful. “‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies,’” he reads, and the Virgen’s flame is in his voice too. “A lot of happy memories there.”
He pulls me close and lifts the veil another half a centimeter to the part of my lips. His tongue traces it slowly, his breathing as rough as mine. “How many clues are left to burn me?”
“Umm . . . only two.” The tip of my tongue meets his.
He folds the veil back in place—it flutters and billows with my breath—and the playfulness returns to his face. “The library for Byron next?”
“Yes, but you have to behave there—we were told not to sit on the sofas.”
“What makes you think I would misbehave?”
“Shh, Elisa, you’re scandalizing the virgin,” he chuckles and leads me out of the room. As soon as we clear the delicate Sculpture Room, he lifts me in his arms again, basket and all. I’m sure the dignified portraits that adorn the corridor are as horrified as the virgin at our behavior, but I don’t see any of it. I only see the angles of his profile as we wind through the empty splendid halls. Briefly I wonder where Reagan and Javier are—I hope this gallery sparks something for them now that Javier owns his.
“The library,” Aiden announces, setting me down at the door.
The library is not part of the public tour but apparently at the right price, the exclusive doors open to a fortunate few. The stunning room has two floors, like Aiden’s in Portland. About thirty thousand leather-bound volumes line the walls with ladders leaning against the shelves. The precious emerald velvet sofas frame the marble fireplace.
Aiden glares at them as he strides to the carved pedestal on the corner for the library catalog. He flips through the pages quickly until he finds Byron. “Case six, shelf fourteen,” he grins, taking my hand. “Where will you lead me next?”
He finds the clue under the cover of the Venetian red leather volume only seconds later. “‘The most beautiful place in my life,’” he reads his words to me from a week ago when we were snuggled together at Oxford’s University Park. “Our bedroom,” he solves it without hesitation. “The happiest memory there is.”
“You’re impossible,” I laugh as the library clue joints the paper boutonniere and he tucks Byron’s volume back in the shelf.
He lifts the veil another half centimeter, exposing my upper lip, and presses his mouth on mine. The picnic basket feels suddenly heavy on my limp arms. He blows over my lips and folds back the veil with a pained sigh. “To the state bedroom, God help us,” he solves the clue.
As soon as we clear the library, he picks me up again, marching down the hall to the state bedchambers built for William and Mary. The bedroom is dominated by the bed, hung with curtains of crimson and gold and cordoned off in case there is any doubt whatsoever that we are not to lay on it.
“As I said, absolute tyrants,” Aiden says, but his arms wrap around my waist. He walks me backward to the wood-paneled wall until my back is against it and his body is pressed against every line of mine. My breathing is too fast, making the veil flutter as his lips take full advantage, kissing each sliver of exposed skin. I try to settle my lungs but it’s impossible with his mouth on me. The royal bedroom starts to spin.
“Aiden . . .” My picnic basket tumbles from my hand. “Be good . . .”
“Isn’t this good?” His mouth presses at the corner of mine as the veil blows open from my gasp. “I think it is.” Another huff, another fit of the veil, this one exposing my lower lip. He captures it with his teeth. “So good, Elisa.”
“Please?” I breathe. “They’ll make a fuss.”
“They’re not here . . .” His fingers skim my thigh lifting the hem of my dress and he plays hide-and-seek with my veil that doesn’t stand a chance against his mouth. His lips flutter over my jawline to my ear. He nips my ear lobe and trails his mouth down my throat and over my collarbones, kissing my skin as he would another part of me that is on fire. My head is whirling with his tongue. He dips it at the hollow of my throat, pressing into me through the thin fabric of my dress.
And I collapse.
“Elisa?” he asks alarmed, holding me up.
“Yes,” I gasp, shaking my head.
“Are you all right?”
“I think—your kissing—lightheaded.”
“Christ.” He pulls back a few inches to give me space but his arms don’t release me. He blows gently on my lips. “Hydrogen, 1.008, helium . . .” he starts. My giggle comes out shaky and weak.
“I’m okay,” I assure him, reaching a finger to smooth the worried V. “You’re just too good at this.”
He chuckles, still holding me up. “How can you nearly faint from kissing but handle everything else we’ve done?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want to sit? Or some water? Or fresh air?” He feels my forehead and I have to laugh.
“No, I’m fine. I get dizzy when you touch me all the time. Besides, we have your last clue.”
He watches me for a long moment as though to be sure I’ll live to tell the tale of his kissing. When my breathing finally evens out and my legs stop trembling, he chuckles again and releases me. “I think it’s this damn room. I better find this clue fast.”
He is probably right. There’s no telling what I would do if we stay in this room much longer—cordoned off bed or not. Besides the next part is guaranteed to cause more breathing problems. He scans the bedroom quickly, searching for anything resembling a clue. “Tricky,” he says, his eyes alighting on the off-limits bed, the dresser, the vanity, the porcelain vases, but there is nothing there. “Where would you have hidden—?” And then he smiles. “You wouldn’t have hidden this behind a painting, would you? Say, a painting of a river and grass and woods? A panting that looks a bit like the University Park where I told you our bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life?”
“You’ll have to find out.”
He strides across the room straight to the painting and peeks behind it at the small scrap of paper I wedged there. I hold my breath as he fishes it out because the happy memory he’s reading now is not ours. It’s his.
“‘When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.’” He reads his mother’s words from April 12, 1987—his first visit to Oxford—with a thick sound in his voice. A deep emotion enters his eyes and for a moment I worry I’ve triggered a horror. But he gazes at the scrap of paper with something like longing that I hadn’t seen in the dark park. “A happy memory from my life before you,” he murmurs.
I pick up my basket and teeter close to him, wanting to take a picture but not daring to ruin on the moment. “You’re done,” I say. “Kiss the first girl you’ve kissed, and you can see your surprise.”
He places the clue in his shirt pocket—the final scrap in the paper boutonniere—and pulls me against him, his eyes deep. “Can you handle this kiss?”
I nod even though I don’t know. I can barely handle his gaze. He hesitates a moment as though to prolong the memory and lifts the veil all the way this time, folding it over the rose on my fascinator. Then his hands curve around my face and he brings his mouth to mine.
I have lost count of how many times Aiden has kissed me—how each kiss feels both home and new, some slow, some urgent, some gentle, some hard, some deep, others light like air. But I’ll always remember this one. It’s like his mouth is combining all the kisses he has given me into this one, a boutonniere of lips imprinting everything he must be feeling on my tongue. When he pulls away, too soon so I don’t faint again, I’m not the only one gasping.
“Thank you,” he says, each word sliced by his harsh breathing. “Whatever the surprise is, I will always remember the hunt.”
“You always remember everything.”
“Not by choice. But I choose this. If I could forget, I’d still never forget this.”
I reach under the liner of my basket, hands shaking, lungs in shreds, heart in my throat, and pull out the little journal. Its yellowed cream cover is embossed with roses.
“Here is something you remember but don’t know,” I say, handing it to him. As soon as it touches his skin, a wave of warmth spreads over me and I’d like to think it’s a hug.
He must see my emotion because he doesn’t ask anything even though curiosity raging in his eyes as he opens the aged notebook. “Clare Emilia Brighton,” he reads my mother’s maiden name quietly. “Is this your mother’s journal?”
I nod. “She kept a journal all her life. Go to the page I’ve marked.”
He lifts the silk tassel and inhales a sharp gust when he sees the date. “April 12, 1987.”
“Read it,” I whisper, leaning over to read with him even though I know it by now.
April 12, 1987
What a day today, dearest! Only six months at the Ashmolean, and I already wonder what on earth was I thinking! Had I listened to Mama, as you know, I would be gallivanting the world for a while before settling. And had I listened to Katherine I would be dating Fawkes—perish the thought. But instead I chose this. The job of a lifetime, the dream —you know all about that, of course. Oh, but how difficult it is! All day, I am squished in this cupboard of an office in the bowels of the museum with only pipes around me and not one window. My chair, I am convinced, used to be a torture implement under King Henry VIII. But I do not mind. It is the Old Beards who are difficult—the senior curators of the Grand Ash. They still will not entrust me with anything older than 1970. I knew as a fellow I would not be allowed to touch the artifacts—it should take years for me to do that. But can I not handle at least something more than gluing ripped textbooks or dusting the shelves? Must I be treated like a schoolgirl, not the scholar I am? Yet I despair that is all they see in me. For months, I have been wondering whether I am foolish to hope I will ever be allowed to restore anything of value. Why, it did not seem like that would ever happen, did it? Until today. It was quite brilliant, as you will see. A neuroscientist came to our dining hall before supper, Doctor Helen Brahms. She is quite respected at Oxford already although not forty yet. She marched straight to the Old Beards sitting together in their grandeur (I am not invited to sit with them, for which I count my blessings—Old Sturgis is positively medieval with his chewing).
“I need Ashmole 611 restored by the end of the week,” she said. “I just took it out for a consult, and it’s in tatters, an absolute disgrace for the earliest study of human memory.”
She seemed mortally offended. The entire hall was watching. But the Old Beards peered down their noses at her although she stands taller than six feet. “That cannot happen,” cackled Old Sturgis.
“It can and it must,” she argued. “There’s a little boy who needs it.”
They ignored her, returned to their pea soup.
“Did you hear me?” she raised her voice. “There is a seven-year old boy who cannot forget anything, and that manuscript might have something to explain it.”
Not one of them looked at her, dearest. Six feet tall and brilliant and still not good enough while a little boy needs help. I could not bear it. So I jumped up and said, “I’ll do it. I will restore Ashmole 611.”
The Old Beards were apoplectic, shouting and telling me off. “She hasn’t touched a page older than 1976,” yelled Old Sturgis. “She will not touch Ashmole 611.”
“Well obviously neither will you,” Doctor Brahms snapped at him.
I admitted it was true, but said, “I’m good, and I will do it for you.”
More shouting—Old Sturgis spit his soup on his beard. But she smiled at me.
“I shall speak with the director. He is a close family friend,” she said loudly for them to hear, and they all fell quiet then. “You will restore Ashmole 611. What is your name?”
“Clare Brighton,” I answered, a bit church-moused now that I realized how well-connected she is.
“Well, Clare Brighton, let’s leave them to their pea soup, shall we?”
And that was it, dearest. She arranged with the director to move me to a proper office and I have been repairing Ashmole 611 until now. The little boy is here with his parents from the United States for the week. I must finish it by then. Can you imagine how that must feel? To never forget? A fearsome power to behold, I reckon. I do hope Doctor Brahms can help him. Meanwhile, she helped me. I have a window now and a director who agreed to mentor me. It was a good day. Goodnight, Diary!
By the time I finish it, I know the seven-year old boy who grew up has read it multiple times. But when I look up at him, his eyes are still on the page despite having already memorized it. A tear gathers in my eye but I dash it off while Aiden still reads. I give him time until he is ready. When his eyes meet mine, they are unfathomable.
“I can’t believe it.” His voice is low and husky.
“I know. I’ve been searching through her journals ever since Doctor Helen told us the date, and I finally found it. I read through her other journal entries for that week. You can read them next if you want. They’re just about her gluing up Ashmole 611 and giving it to Doctor Brahms. Here, see?”
He flips through the pages, reading them in seconds. “She barely slept that week to help me.”
“Yes, but you helped her too.”
He watches me for another long moment. No words, eyes unfathomable still. “Good surprise?” I ask. He nods, still seeming unable to speak. “What are you feeling right now?”
“Happy . . . terrified . . . I don’t want to hurt her daughter . . . or lose you.”
I place my hand over his thundering heart. “You won’t. And you cannot lose me, I’m yours.” For as long as he will have me.
Happy Sunday, friends! Time for another chapter in Aiden’s and Elisa’s story. I hope it wraps up your weekend with a smile and that you are are all enjoying some rest and relaxation. Thanks as always for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani
By the time we drop off Reagan, Javier, and Benson at the Inn, it’s nine o’clock and the terror of the day is winning, settling like sediment in my brain crevices, my ears, my eyes. Each time I blink, Marshall gazes back at me. Each time the Rover purrs, I hear monitor beeps. Each time I wade through my thoughts, Aiden’s pain lances through me, sharper than my own.
“You’ve been quiet,” Aiden observes next to me as he turns left off Ivy Lane toward the open fields.
“Just thinking about it all.”
“It has been an interminable day.” He hits the gas as we zip through the only country road to the cottage. My day is only half-over, but I can’t bring myself to tell him I’m going back to Bia tonight to test the idea Doctor Helen just gave me. How can I add even one more grain of worry to the incomprehensible weight he will be carrying for us, for me?
We reach Elysium in two minutes. Across it, the cottage’s peaked roof rises like a beacon against the brilliant moon. Aiden parks the Rover in the shed at the edge of the field that dad converted into a garage when he and mum bought their Beetle.
“Almost home,” Aiden sighs. He tucks the box with the torture headset quickly under his arm, as if to hide it from me, but even in that glimpse a shudder jolts down my spine. I pat the polaroid of our kiss in my purse and get out of the Rover as quickly as I can. He takes my hand, pressing his lips at my wrist, and we set off across Elysium. In a few steps, mum’s rose shield will fall over us, over him. Guard him, Mum. Take everything from me and give it to him.
The perfume of the roses intensifies, as if they smell the arrival of a new kind among their own—the rare Aeternum oil that Aiden realized for me. Like he did all my other dreams, like he is trying to do for my ultimate dream of being with him. The cottage and the garden come in full view, silvery white. Aiden is quiet, too—perhaps he senses my urgency to get inside the rose bubble, perhaps he feels it too. But the second we reach the garden threshold, he stops, halting me with a gentle clasp of his fingers. I turn, unaware that for the first time I remember, I had been walking several steps ahead of him. He sets down the box of torture outside the garden threshold and takes my face in his hands.
“Please tell me what you’re thinking. Before I lose my mind.”
What can I tell him? That I’m afraid even as I believe in him more than I’ve ever believed in anyone? That the present moment is as terrifying as the future and as fearsome as the past? Or the hardest thought of them all?
His face gleams with moonlight. No wires in his hair—just soft onyx waves, swept with the breeze.
“Elisa, please!” Urgently now, and his eyes seize me the second I lapse and gaze into them. The secret thought blurts out with irrelevance.
“I don’t think I’m worth all this pain . . .”
His soft gasp washes over my face, rendering all roses redundant. But I can’t breathe it in because I see the flicker of agony my words caused him. “This is my fault,” he says. “You’re so extraordinary to me that I forget you’re still only human. You have your own doubts and insecurities just like me. I’m sorry, love. I won’t miss that again.”
I try to look away, shaking my head, but neither his eyes nor hands let me. “I’m not looking for compliments . . . It’s not just me who is not good enough. Nothing ever could be worth you living through this.”
“Ah, Elisa, my fault again.” He releases my face, but takes my hands. “I haven’t explained this right. You say I brought you to life, but it’s the other way around. If it weren’t for you, I’d be stuck in Portland but living in Fallujah still. There would be no brilliancy, no beauty, no love. Just guilt and self-hatred. But you came in—not just as a fantasy or a painting, but so real, you eclipsed everything. All my rules and pretenses and structure and control. And suddenly there was light; there was life. Then you were gone. You did exactly what I forced you to do, but you turned off my sky. There was no more light, no more reason for anything—I couldn’t even go back to my old rules. I didn’t want to because you had made me want to live. That’s why I’m going through all this, for a chance to live. If my life, my health, my dream—and you are all three—are not worth this, then tell me what is.”
My life, my health, my dream . . . listening to him is like hearing my own life in words—it sounds beautiful in his voice. So beautiful, I don’t want to ruin it with mine.
“Do you see, Elisa?” he asks intensely. I nod because when he puts it that way I agree. Only he himself is worth this. But what happens to him if we don’t win? He sees my shudder even in the balmy night. “You’re scared,” he says, a statement, not a question.
“Yes, but not because I doubt you.”
“I’m scared, too, my love. Do you believe that?”
“You don’t seem scared of anything anymore.” I remember his strength and resolve today—the utter absence of fear when he learned the battle plan.
He smiles without the dimple. “Wrong again. I’m terrified of losing you. But you know what? I know from experience, the fights you’re the most afraid of tend to be the worthiest fights.”
He doesn’t promise me we will win. He cannot. All we can do is fight in every way we know, with every weapon we have left.
I reach on my tiptoes, pressing my hands against his face that still feels like a fairytale. “Make love to me then. Make us forget all this fear, and remember only why we’re doing this.”
His eyebrows arch at my sudden change in direction, but he smiles and the fire ignites in his eyes. “Now there’s the fight I’m talking about. Straight to the fifth stair, Mrs. Plemmons.”
“No. Make love to me here, right now. Let’s not bring any of this inside the cottage.”
He doesn’t even blink. He sweeps me into his arms over the garden threshold as I knot my fingers in his hair. “Should the roses be watching this? I seem to recall being told not to say ‘fuck’ in front of the roses once.”
“Of course. Roses love love.” I pull him to my mouth. “They just don’t like dirty words. You’ll have to save those for the fifth stair.”
He chuckles, striding into the garden straight for the Elisa roses without breaking our kiss. He sets me down on the petal-blanketed grass, right at the spot he waited for me in my dreams, the spot where he stood when he came back to me.
“Stay,” I whisper, meaning so many things. He becomes utterly still except his hands clutching my waist. I start unbuttoning his shirt—not like he did at the lab, but the way we do together, slowly, eyes on each other—and slide it off his shoulders, down his arms, on the petaled ground. The gold of his skin is silver with the moon, free of the electrodes’ metal discs. I run my hands over his chest, kissing each spot where the discs were. Above his heart, on his sternum, at the pulse on his neck. “Kisses, not electrodes,” I say, reaching on my toes to kiss his temple. His heated gasp enflames my skin.
“You, not memories,” he answers and pulls me hard against him, molding his mouth to mine. His kiss is so overwhelming that I hang in his arms, fingers knotted in his hair. The fear shudders recede. A different kind of tremble starts at my knees, and he tightens his arm around my waist, knowing by this point I have trouble standing upright. His lips flutter, soft as petals, over my jaw to the hollow below my ear where I dabbed the Aeternum oil. He inhales hungrily there, and good shivers flurry all over my skin. “God, the smell of you.” He sounds pained, like the ache gathering at the bottom of my belly. “It brought me back today, Elisa.” He kisses the Aeternum spot and kneels at my feet, taking off my Byron sneakers and socks. “And these wiggling toes.” He smiles, kissing the tips that curl. “They made me smile in hell—I couldn’t believe it. Just these tiny, itsy bitsy toes, able to lift all of me.” He nips my big toe but sets my foot back on the petals when he notices the wobble of my knees. “Strong, love, we’re just getting started,” he murmurs, running his hands up my legs, over the jeans. I wish I could speak, but I can barely breathe. Was I feeling afraid before? Now I can’t feel anything but the fires he is lighting everywhere with his touch, like fireflies in this garden. He unbuttons my jeans and unzips them with his teeth, peeling off the denim slowly, his lips following the trail of his fingers over my exposed thighs. The cool breeze tickles his hot, wet mouthprints.
“Aiden,” I sigh. His name has become synonymous with so many things. Help, save, love, live, home, kiss, hold—so many good four-letter words.
“I know, love.” He kisses the inside of my thigh. “But you wanted to forget. Forgetting is hard work, I ought to know.” He slips off the jeans completely and tosses them aside. The breeze whirls around my shaky legs as his nose skims back up. He clasps my hips as he inhales the lace of my knickers with the same hunger. I close my eyes, unable to watch when he does that, but I see fireflies even behind my closed lids. He does it again, pressing his nose firmly and I don’t know if this is my moan or his. “This here,” he says buried in the lace. “This is the reason why the roses don’t like dirty words. Because they’re jealous.” The movement of his lips sends a tremor through me.
“Aiden—I can’t—” I breathe, tugging his hair.
“Yes, you can. You’ll see.” He kisses the lace again and slides off my blouse, lighting more fires with his fingers around my waist, over my ribs, tracing the cream lace of my bra. His mouth wraps around the nipple hidden underneath. “It was nippy there today, wasn’t it?” His tongue wets the lace, but it feels like liquid flame to me. “That made me smile, too, Elisa. Was that a pun?”
“Ah . . . I . . . can’t . . . remember.”
“Good.” Another wet circle of fire, then my bra melts off and I’m free only to realize I’m bound to his mouth closing on my breasts. Whoever said hell burns has never been to heaven. His lips, his tongue, his teeth—they strike like firebolts through me, and my knees give out, but he catches me and lays me on the petal blanket. The petals are cool against my feverish back. I sigh with some relief and am able to open my eyes. He is lying next to me, propped on his elbow, moon and stars and roses above him, one long, denim-clad leg between mine. His eyes cascade like molten silver over my breasts and he brushes them with his knuckles. Such a light caress but the effect on me is gravitational. My back arches toward his hands for the faintest touch.
“Yes, the roses are definitely envious . . .” He plucks an ivory Elisa petal and flutters it over my lips. “There’s no comparison.” And he kisses me over the petal. What a kiss this is. The redolent petal as a thin veil, molding like silk with the pressure of his lips. I kiss him back, feeling the warm tip of his tongue through it, caressing mine. From my sigh, the petal flits back to him. He blows gently, tapping it back against my lips. The petal flutters between our mouths, kissing us both, breath to breath, moan to moan. And the throbbing begins. Not slow and steady as usual, but heavy and fast from the start.
“Your jeans . . .” I murmur through the petal, reaching to unbutton him. His mouth never misses a volley but he grasps my wrists above my head. Fistfuls of petals tickle my fingers.
“Soon. But first you wanted to remember why we’re doing this.” He leaves the petal on my lips where it promptly blows off from my jagged breath, and plucks another one, this for the center my forehead. He kisses over it—his wet mouth sealing the petal on. Another petal at my temple, another kiss. More petals in my hair, weaving with his fingers through my strands as I realize he is placing petals on me wherever there were metal discs on him. “Roses, not electrodes,” he smiles his lopsided smile, now kissing a petal over my cheek, and another at the corner of my lips, a trail of them down my throat, each pasted with the wet heat of his mouth. Petals and kisses rain over my chest, around my breasts, fluttering over my nipples until every spot where his tongue seals a petal is quivering. I’m lost on my own skin—cool breeze, hot breath, soft petal, fire lips—but he doesn’t stop. He drops petals down my belly and over my waist, kissing them in. I try to press myself against him but he hovers just a breath out of touch—only his lips and tongue through the petals on my skin. And the throbbing becomes painful. Not a rapid pulse anymore, but an achy hook, reeling me to him with a flaming pang.
“Touch me,” I whimper, fireflies blinking here and there in my vision.
“Soon, love.” Another petal along the lacy band of my knickers, and then the garden starts spinning because he hooks his fingers into the lace and rips it off, his knuckles brushing my skin. My hips tilt toward him as always, but he drops more petals over my pubic bone, inside my thighs, and at last presses a single petal with his lips right on the center where I need him the most. Another jolt of my hips but he is ready—they drop straight into his hands and he pins them back down on the petal blanket. And then the torment starts with the petal in the center. He blows on it and it flutters against me; he taps it with his tongue and I flutter against it; he kisses it and the ache becomes a deep, radiating thing; he licks the petal and my breathing stops. “Aiden, now.” It’s more of a cry than a plea.
“Just a little longer,” he answers, his voice strained with the same tension that is wringing me.
“Why?” I gasp, a hand pulling his hair, another grabbing petals on the ground, legs coiling around him.
His lips press the petal against me again and again. “Because if we’re strong enough for this . . .” He wraps the petal around me with his mouth. “If I can live through one more minute of not tasting you and you can live through one more minute without my touch, we can live through anything.” The petal circles me driven by his tongue, and tears gather in my eyes. “That’s what you really wanted to know, Elisa, isn’t it?”
How did he know that’s what I wanted before I did? I try to say yes, I try to say I love you, but all that comes out is a garbled, agonized moan. The petal of torment is wet, sticking to the fieriest part of me, and the achy wavelets ripple everywhere.
“See, this is torture too, love, just a different kind.” He slides the petal up and down with his tongue, as I try to find the breeze, the sky, the ground. “Your taste, your feel, your orgasm, mine, all just on the other side of this petal, and we can’t have them yet.” His lips press the petal hard against me, making me hiss. “It hurts, it feels like one more minute will finish you, doesn’t it?”
If I answer yes, I don’t know. I hear nothing but him.
“Me too, love. Right now the need to be inside you is so painful, it could kill me right here on your namesake roses . . . but then I think . . . this petal will fall apart. Any second now it will disintegrate from my tongue, from my hatred of it, and on the other side is you. And on this side is me. Doesn’t that help, Elisa?”
A tear trickles in my hair—a tear of pain, a tear of pleasure—as my scattered mind finally catches up. I moan to agree, clutching more petals on the ground at the next nudge from his hidden lips.
“And that’s all this is, everything you’re scared of, love, is just a petal. Forget all else and remember this.”
“I will.” Somehow the words form—a breathless jumble, but still words—and I start fighting through the petal with him. His tongue presses it into me, I thrust gently back; his lips fold it over, I rub myself against it; his mouth wraps me with it, I grip his hair and push toward his mouth.
“Perfect,” he sighs, breathless like me. “Fight, Elisa. Because through this stubborn, cruel petal is the biggest pleasure there is.” His lips twist it around me one more time and his tongue rips through. His mouth swoops on me, free and clear, and I explode instantly. My cry drowns his pained groan. I writhe with his lips, his tongue, pushing into his mouth, his face, any part of him I can find as waves of release crash over me so violently that fireflies burst in my eyes and tears spill over, Aiden after Aiden, God after God. His mouth knows me by now—knows exactly when to pull, when to kiss—and it sees me through to the other side, sodden, shaky, a mass of limbs and moans and tears on the petals, but alive.
“My turn,” Aiden says immediately before the shakes have subsided. By the time I manage to open my eyes, he is ripping off his jeans. Every aspect of him is raw with need. He springs free, but I barely see the bubble glimmering like a diamond because it disappears behind the condom. Before I can register I forgot to arrange my pill, he kicks apart my legs and slams inside in a blinding exquisite thrust. For the first time, his cry drowns mine. He freezes for a moment, eyes shut, jaw strained, teeth clamped over his lower lip, shudder after shudder running through him as I try to muster my own shaking, my own lungs. I don’t know if it’s the aftershocks of my first orgasm or a new one but it sets off the deep ache again—as if it wasn’t healed, only numbed. He is pulsing everywhere—ponderous spasms that make my own insides contract with him. His deep moan mingles with my sigh. I kiss his lower lip, releasing it from his teeth so I can bite it myself. The moment our lips touch, he is unleashed. All of him, bubble to hilt, relentless with no blinks in between, each thrust harder than the one before, hitting the deep ache head on. And the harder he moves, the harder I want. I cling to him with everything—my teeth, my arms, my legs, every muscle tightening inside. But his thrusts leave all my grips behind. And each time he moves, the ache disappears. All that’s left is the delicious tension building, magnifying every cell waist down. I know exactly when the pain leaves him too because he smiles, melding his mouth to mine, locking our fingers together, whispering his words of love—now dirty, now sweet—so the roses don’t hear. And pleasure comes for both of us at once in waves of warm tingles surging over us in lockstep, seizing our bodies with its singular tension. We fly at the same time, mouth to mouth, skin to skin, moan to cry—it lasts forever, it lasts a blink, it doesn’t matter because we float back on the petals on the same heartbeat. Gasping, shaking, laughing, weightless and tangled like vines. From the earthquake of our battle, little hurricanes of petals are swirling above, raining down on us as though his thrusts shook the roses root to stem. Maybe they did, maybe it was my cries. Whatever it was, there is no pain or fear—only my own body teeming with life.
He rolls off me onto his back, chest rising and falling like mine. “We survived,” he chuckles, catching one of the petals before it lands on his cheek.
“Either that or we died and this is what our heaven looks like.”
He looks at me, heart-stoppingly beautiful, carved moonstone with sharp angles of silver and shadow, and white petals in his messy hair. “It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, Elisa.”
I turn to face him, more petals gamboling off my skin with the movement, and rest my hand on his cheek. It’s warm and flushed. Even in the moonlight, I can see his calm, blissful eyes.
“Did I complete the brief?” he asks, turning to face me too, and dropping a fistful of petals over my head.
“What brief?” I laugh, brushing the deluge off my face.
“You charged me with making us forget the fear and remembering only why we’re doing this.”
“Oh, yes, with flying petals, I might add.”
His eyes soften, but his face intensifies. “The worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side. Will you remember this when it gets hard?”
I curl into his chest, breathing him in—covered in my roses, his own fragrance is even more impossible than the Aeternum. “I will.”
“I’ll remind you,” he says, and I sense something in his voice but I don’t know what it is. I try to look up at his eyes but he tucks me closer, trailing his fingers down my spine.
I could stay here in this present moment forever, just adding love each time either of us feels a frisson of fear. But the night is deepening, his memories need sleep, and dawn is coming with a fresh reel of terror waiting for him. I cannot let him live through that horror with only a twenty percent strong remedy even if it feels stronger to him. I need to fight at night in Bia so he can have an easier day.
“Come on, love. It’s past your new bedtime,” he says, no doubt seeing the prospect of the night dawning on me and attributing it to exhaustion. “I’ll make you my special scrambled eggs and we can sleep.”
“Tell me about these special scrambled eggs.”
“Oh, the secret is salt.” He grins and rises fluidly, lifting me with him. Torrents of petals pour from everywhere. His gasp draws my eyes up to his face, and I’m certain the wonder in his eyes is a mirror of my own. “You’re stunning,” he murmurs and, in this moment, I believe my effect on him. Or rather the effect of Mum’s roses. Who isn’t stunning when wrapped in magic? He picks up our clothes and takes my hand, heading straight for the cottage’s front door. Neither of us looks at the box of the headset of torture by the hedges at the garden threshold. I suppose it will spend the night there tonight—it’s certainly safe. Unfortunately no one will steal it around here.
Thirty minutes later, fed and exhausted, we make it to our bedroom. I walk straight to the bouquet of the twelve wilted poppies of our weapons on my nightstand, and rest the picture of our kiss against the vase. He smiles—all dimple and turquoise from the happy memories he has in this room. “Will you please explain to me what the deal is with the wise-not-dead poppies when you have about a million roses outside and probably as many petals in your hair still?”
I shrug, shaking off the petals and putting on my night oil so his eyes don’t see my insane plan on my face. “I like them. Now off to bed with you, Mr. Plemmons. You need sleep at your old age.”
He laughs, swallows his anti-nightmare pill, and turns on Für Elise. “Our dance, first. We have to follow the first night’s routine, remember?”
I do now, and for the next few minutes, I forget my plot. Because dancing with Aiden is fourth of my favorite things: only his laughter, his lovemaking, and sleeping together rank higher on the list. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine as he did two nights ago, wiggling his attractive toes with a grin. And we sway, petals floating to the floor with each turn. He holds me tight against him, plucking more petals from my hair as I memorize the steps to his lullaby. I remember most of them already. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He dips me over his arm on the final note, kissing at the end of my jawline.
It only takes a second Für Elise for him to fall asleep tonight, wrapped around me, nose in my hair. If that doesn’t betray the toll of torture, nothing else does. I know how many puffs of happiness it will take for him to sink into deep sleep. I keep very still and count each waft of cinnamon breath as his weight gets heavy and he rolls away, lying on his back. On puff one-hundred-and-fifty-two, I move one inch at a time—not afraid of him, but afraid of getting caught. He would be a dragon, it’s true, but worse than that, he wouldn’t let me go. He would camp at the front door and probably have Benson, Javier, James, Hendrix, and Jazzman guard the cottage windows at night so I could get enough sleep. But I need every minute I can get with the protein to test the idea Doctor Helen gave me. If Corbin was right today, having me in bed adds two hours of sleep for Aiden, which means, without me, he will wake around four. I must be back here before then and pretend to wake up to go back to Bia. I recognize it is a downright mental plan based on one single supposition by a single therapist from one single night that could be entirely wrong. And I’m fully aware I cannot keep this up, but I’ll do it for as long as I can. If need be, I’ll take power naps in the library.
It takes ten excruciating minutes to crawl out of the bed, heart pounding and barely breathing. I tiptoe to the door, lungs stopping every time a floorboard creaks, but Aiden stays asleep. Thank you, Beethoven. Another three minutes to open the bedroom door just enough to squeeze through one limb at a time. But when I’m almost out, I cannot move, I cannot look away from the sight of him, peaceful and asleep under the moonlight. I know the wound will start festering as soon as I leave. I almost go back, I almost curl right next to him to watch him all night. But the reel of terror is quite literally waiting outside. Sleep well, my love. I’ll be back before you know it.
Torso aching, I get dressed in my old bedroom, in my old high-school clothes, and sneak down the stairs, skipping the creaky ones, smiling at how much he loves them. I leave a note on the fifth stair, hoping he never sees it but not wanting to worry him if for some reason he wakes before four. Although he shouldn’t—Corbin and he have been testing Für Elise for over two weeks. It has worked every night, with or without me.
I had an idea so I went to Bia. I’ll be back soon. I love you.
I pick up the Rover keys he left on the console, shake off more petals, and steal outside. But I don’t run right away. I wait on the threshold, fretting that the door woke him, half-expecting his beautiful head to peek out of the bedroom window, shouting enough fucks to scare all the roses. But he doesn’t. I glance at the petal angels we left on the garden and break into a sprint, not looking at the box of torture as I leap over it, plunging down Elysium to the garage. Every few moments, I look over my shoulder like any fugitive, but he is not behind me. Guard him, Mum. Keep him safe until I’m back.
I turn on the Rover as soon as I throw myself inside, but despite the gentle purr of the engine, I still jump, squinting in the darkness. But no light switches on at the cottage. I drive down the country road carefully until I reach town. Then as soon as I clear Burford’s border sign, I hit the gas, eyes on the road, mind on Aiden’s waterfall laughter, hands on the wheel exactly where he rests his.
I reach Bia in twenty-four minutes, chest blistering in pain. I have five hours left before FürElise wears off. A few researchers are huddled over piles of books in the lobby as always, but Bia is dark and empty. I run straight to the bookshelves to confirm the idea I got from Doctor Helen. She said my calming effect decreases Aiden’s fear by reducing the CREB protein in his neurons. So, theoretically, if I can identify all oxytocin options that reduce CREB, I should be able to find the right one. The trouble is I have no clue which of the four hundred and thirty oxytocin formulas decrease CREB and which ones increase it or leave it unaffected.
I wrench out every textbook on neural chemicals and sit at the corner desk to read. It’s hard, tedious work on three hours of sleep and the day we’ve had. I would do much better if I was mixing oxytocin instead, but I need a way to identify the right one before I start. The hours pass, chapter after chapter, mumbling to myself, muttering to Dad, looking for any scribble of his on the pages and finding none. But at two-fifteen in the morning, as my eyes are itching and panic is setting in with jitters, there it is in bold font: a list of compounds that impact CREB proteins. All eighteen hundred of them. I almost vomit on the page. I almost crawl to the vent for air, but I don’t have time for meltdowns. I select the top one hundred with the highest potency in reducing CREB to start with. It will take weeks, maybe the whole summer, to eliminate even these from the oxytocin options, but it’s the only path I can see. I take a screenshot of the list and start compiling an inventory of all the ingredients in the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules in the cooler to compare them against the CREB list. I scrawl them in my notepad, not wanting to leave any computer traces in Bia. It feels like I’ve catapulted back to pre-historic times but computers can’t keep secrets. At least this part is mindless—just copying down chemical names—it’s all the calculations afterwards that will break my brain. I scribble name after name in mum’s writing to fight off my heavy lids, smiling at her and dad joining this way while Aiden’s waterfall laughter plays in my head. Almost like a family all of us together here in this present moment . . .
The slam of a door startles me. I jump up, almost toppling off my chair, realizing with dread I had fallen asleep. I glance at dad’s watch in panic, but then I see him. Aiden is towering by the lab door, in jeans, a T-shirt, and my dad’s lab coat over his arm. How he got in I don’t know, but I do know no wall or door would have stopped him because the fury and anxiety emanating from him are so palpable they could shatter all the vials and ignite all the combustible chemicals. It is beyond anything I imagined. He is not the Dragon, whom I’ve tamed. He is whatever fear itself is afraid of. He doesn’t speak but, from the way his jaw is set, his teeth must be clenching so hard they could pulverize the building walls. He is glaring down at me, either beyond all powers of speech or still choosing his words. Yet despite his fury, the wound in my chest—festering even while asleep—disappears. I scramble to speak first, with zero formula or plan.
“Hi there,” I start, my voice high enough to break a few beakers on its own. He doesn’t answer in any way, but his jaw flexes once. I look back at Dad’s watch even though I already saw it’s four forty. “Looks like Corbin was right,” I continue in bat-ear frequency. “Did you sleep well? I sure did . . . this desk is so cozy.” Still no response from him whatsoever. “I was going to come back before four but—ah—I’m so thrilled you came here instead because I can show you my—umm—workstation.” That earns me a blink. “Oh, good, you’re thrilled, too.” I hold out my hand, teetering to my bench scrubbed spotless with not a single item of interest on it. “So this is me . . . and over there is Graham who will be here in an hour and a half . . . strong emotions near his beloved 2-AG will give him an aneurism . . . and over there are some beakers . . . oh, have you ever seen a Bunson burner? I think you may be cousins—”
“Enough!” His voice is low and hoarse, yet it silences me more than his dragon roar. He doesn’t move, but his hands clench in fists. “Do you have any idea how it felt to wake up and not see you there?” The question is a strangled whisper. “Any idea at all how worried, how sickened I was?” A shudder runs through him. “I thought I had hurt you in my sleep. I was searching the sheets, the floor for any drop of blood only to find your ridiculous note and then worry more that you were out driving at night stressed, with no sleep, not answering your phone—what if you had gotten hurt?” He shudders again and throws the lab coat on the desk, breathing hard.
I, on the other hand, can’t breathe at all. How did I manage to torment him when I was trying to protect him? How did I cause the exact fear I’m trying to heal here in this lab? How could I have added even one minute of pain to the horror he already lived through yesterday and the horror he will live through again today?
I run straight to him, wrapping my hands around his fists. “I’m so sorry, my love. I fell asleep and didn’t hear my phone, and even worse, I was reckless. You have every right to be furious.” His fists soften in my hands, and his breathing slows. “I’ll never put you through that again,” I promise, leaning my head on his chest.
He takes a deep breath and wraps his arms around me. “Do you know what you mean to me, Elisa? What you would have done to us both if something had happened to you?”
I nod against his T-shirt that he barely must have thrown on. “I do because I know what you mean to me.”
“Then why did you come back here last night? What was so important that couldn’t wait until you got some rest?”
I look up at his anxious eyes, and the words I never wanted to weigh on him spill out. “It’s the protein . . . it’s failing. I had an idea about how to save it, but even that I don’t think I can solve on time now. I know you don’t want me to stress about it, but I can’t do that, Aiden, I have to try. I want us to have every chance and every weapon we can get. But I’m losing this one. Losing it for you, losing it for my dad . . . ” As soon as I say the words, they become real. The truth and exhaustion break through, and the tears start, splashing down my cheeks like his petals. Was it only seven hours ago that we were tangled together under the roses?
“Oh, my love.” He folds me into his chest and carries me back to my chair, sitting with me on his lap. “You’re not losing anything for us—this isn’t your fault. How could it be, loving and brave and bright as you are? Shh, don’t cry. It’ll be all right. We’re fighting together now.” He tips up my face, brushing away my tears. His forehead is lined with worry like his heart line at the lab. That brings me back to my senses. Haven’t I caused him enough grief for a day? For his whole life? I wipe my nose, trying to smile.
“You’re right— we are together, and I don’t want to waste another minute crying. Let’s get some fresh air for a while before I have to come back for Graham and Edison. I’ll be better about sleep tonight.”
He cups my cheek, shaking his head. “Show me the problem, love. Show me what’s upsetting you so I can see if I can help.”
“No, you have enough on your plate, you don’t need to learn chemistry, too.”
“I don’t give a fuck what’s on my plate if you’re hurting. Show me before Graham comes. ”
“But you don’t want anything to do with the protein.”
“I want everything to do with you. And if I can’t convince you not to worry about it, then at least let me help.”
“Really, but only if you give me a real smile. I can’t stand seeing you in pain, Elisa.”
His lips lift into an automatic smile in response to my own, except his is a lot more beautiful. I kiss the corner of his mouth and tell him everything. It feels like it did by my parents’ grave—like the moment I tell him my problems, they split in half or we become double-strong. I show him the four hundred and thirty oxytocin ampules and the one hundred compounds that increase CREB proteins. “So, you see, we need the protein to emulate my calming effect on you so we can boost its power—maybe instead of twenty percent, we can make it forty or fifty. But the problem is there are too many choices. So I need to cross-reference these CREB compounds against all the ingredients in the four hundred thirty ampules and eliminate all oxytocin formulas that contain any compound that increases CREB proteins. And hopefully the options I’ll need to test will be more manageable then.”
He has absorbed everything—names and concepts that took me entire semesters. “Sounds like a perfect job for my brain.” His eyes are already scanning the labels of the ampules, capturing the ingredients list. “I won’t be any help with the experiment, but combinatorial calculations are my thing. That was going to be my specialty at the CIA.”
“You really think you have time to help me with everything else you have to do?”
He nods, eyes racing over the CREB list—no notes, no screenshots, nothing but his own mind. “How many ampules can you test per day while still getting at least seven hours of sleep?”
“One, two at most before Graham comes in or after he leaves.”
“So we need to narrow down the options to about eighty and we need it stat so you have the rest of the summer to test?”
“Ideally even less than eighty, but if you do this, it frees me up to research other ways to identify the right oxytocin and how much to add.”
“And to sleep.” He strides straight to the cooler of oxytocin and starts turning the ampules so he can see the ingredient list for each.
“Aiden, Graham will be here in an hour. We can come back tonight.” I glance at my watch, a new worry gnawing at me. The last thing I need is for Graham to catch us here.
“We’ll be gone by then,” he answers with confidence, never looking away from the ampules.
“Give me fifteen minutes.”
I fall silent, watching him mesmerized. I realize until now I’ve never truly seen him work. Everything I’ve seen him process—from complex financial documents and stock analyses to the books he reads in hours, sometimes minutes—must be as effortless to him as the periodic table is to me. But now that I see him really use his mind, I’m awed. He is memorizing about twenty ampules per minute, slowed only by the time it takes to turn them over for his eyes to photograph the ingredient list and place them back in their previous position. And I finally witness the processing speed that so astonished the Edinburgh scientists—it is not something anyone can envision without seeing it in action. He stops exactly in fifteen minutes as he predicted.
“There,” he says. “Now we can leave.”
He smiles when I just stare with an open mouth, unable to form any words. “There are some benefits to my mind, I acknowledge that.” He grabs me by the hand and helps me put back the books and erase all evidence of my work—he of course left nothing behind. In five more minutes, we’re done. He throws my dad’s lab coat over my shoulders and rushes me out of the lab as I finally manage to find some words.
“So how did you get in? Can you secretly walk through walls, too?”
He chuckles. “Nope, I innocently told one of the researchers in the lobby that you forgot your father’s lab coat. As soon as he saw its initials, he let me in.” Of course, easy as breathing, provided that you have his brain under pressure and remember everything. I stumble next to him, stunned and wordless again, and in another two minutes, we’re out in the parking lot, not a single Graham or Edison in sight.
But Benson is there in his rental van, waiting for us, puffy eyed and in pajamas. I shouldn’t be surprised to see him—of course he would have driven Aiden here since I took the Rover—but it still takes me off guard. A new wave of guilt washes over me. “I’m sorry, Benson. I messed up your sleep, too.”
“Don’t worry, Elisa. I’m still jetlagged,” he lies with a sleepy smile.
Aiden opens the van’s back door and brings out my blanket from the cottage. Even in his panic and anger, he thought ahead for me. The tears almost start again, but I fight them off while he sends Benson back. “Thanks, Benson. I’ll take the Rover back, you get some rest.” He starts towing me toward the Rover before Benson has turned on the van’s lights.
“Where are we going?” I ask him as he tucks me in the front seat and secures my safety belt in case I find the task too onerous in my state.
“University Parks so you can take a nap.”
Despite the exhaustion that suddenly crashes over me, I smile—it will be just the two of us together for a while longer. He backs out of the parking lot and whips right on South Parks Road. I can’t look away from his face—here, caring for me while internally his brain must be already processing. “So how many ingredients were there?”
“Three thousand four hundred and forty seven,” he answers automatically. “You were right, this will take some time.”
“Bloody hell!” All the relaxed feelings disappear. “How can we possibly eliminate them on time?”
He’s racing down the empty road. “That’s my job now. Your job is to relax before you have to go back there. I’d tell you to call in sick but I don’t think you will listen.”
“You would be right.”
He sighs in a way that could only mean give me strength. In minutes, the brakes skid to a full stop at the secluded corner of the park, by River Cherwell. I grin, peering out of the window. “Did you know down the path here is where the dons of Oxford used to go for male nude bathing away from delicate female eyes?”
He chuckles. “Don’t get any ideas, Elisa. Your no-longer-delicate eyes are here to sleep. There will be no male nudity of any kind. And that’s a promise.” He gets out of the Rover quickly lest I rip off his clothes, which is entirely possible even with my current heavy limbs. By the time I unbuckle my safety belt, he is already at my door, wrapping me in the blanket like one of Maria’s empanadas. He carries me as always, striding across the soft grass to the shrubs by the river. A déjà vu of him carrying me across his Alone Place in Portland hijacks me, and I kiss his neck.
“What was that for?” he asks.
“I love you.”
“Are you after male nudity, Elisa?”
“Always, but I don’t think you will listen.”
“You would be right.”
He sets me down by a tall cluster of salvias that are blooming a deep inky purple against the still dark sky. The shrubs and stalks hide us completely as the grassland slopes toward the river. “Sleep now, love,” Aiden says, lying next to me directly on the dewy grass and pulling me in his arms.
“No, you’ll get wet. Come inside the blanket with me.”
He chuckles again. “Elisa, this is a feather mattress compared to Fallujah. Sleep.”
“We’re not in Fallujah. We’re in a quiet park together and I’m not sleeping unless you’re inside the blanket with me.”
Another deep give-me-strength sigh, but he crawls inside the blanket that stretches like a hug around us. He brings me in his chest, and his fragrant body heat envelops me, blowing the scent of the park’s lime trees into oblivion. “Happy now?” he murmurs.
“Yes.” I bury my face in the spot above his heart, knowing there are salvias, cedars, and mugwort blooming around but smelling nothing but him. I feel his nose in my hair, perhaps inhaling me too. His body relaxes like another blanket over me, as if we are back in our bedroom, but abruptly I panic.
“What is it?” he asks, sensing my tension.
“Did I ruin your happy memories of our bedroom tonight with my stupidity?”
“Of course not. That bedroom will always be the most beautiful place in my life. And it wasn’t stupidity, it was love.”
I want to tell him he is the most beautiful place in my life. Whether among petals or in his primordial oak or his sky-high craggy mountaintop or here in a sleepy park—nothing compares to him. But not because he has the face any angel would become a demon for. Because of all the beauty he has within.
“Are you asleep?” he whispers.
“Not yet. It feels like a dream, though.”
“Do you want me to play Für Elise so you feel like we’re at home? I thought maybe the river would help.”
Always thoughtful, always for me. “It does, but I prefer your voice. Tell me a story.”
“What kind of story would you like?”
“Tell me how you discovered that Für Elise helped you sleep.”
He hugs me closer, lips in my hair still, but his body tenses around me. “That’s a very difficult thing for me to talk about. I found it on the night you left . . .” A shudder runs through him and me.
“Then don’t.” I stop him before he forces himself to think of more torment. “Only happy memories now. Pick whatever story you want.”
His comforting, relaxed weight cocoons me again. “All right,” he murmurs after a moment, his musical voice more soothing than any lullaby. “I’ll tell you about my first memory of this park. I was seven, and my parents and I came here before my first meeting with Doctor Helen on April 12, 1987. I was a difficult child, as you might imagine. I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Why could I remember everything my best friend Brandon told me but he couldn’t remember anything I told him? Why were the teachers whispering about me? Why did I have to meet with scientists instead of playing ball with the other kids? And why was mom crying at night? Anyway, when we came here that day though, it wasn’t bad. I felt somewhat normal. This was a brand-new place, no memories yet, and I could just run amok or play ball, without crystal clear images in my head every corner I turned. And mom seemed happier, too. She was smiling, as was dad. They were so hopeful the brilliant Oxford scientists would help me. And I saw them kiss. Right down Lucas Walk over there, on that bench. It was just a light kiss, but I hadn’t seen them kiss since Christmas morning in 1986—over four months prior. And in that one moment, they looked happy. It lasted seconds before they spotted me looking at them. They pulled away quickly and waved me over. I pretended to gag but went and set with them. ‘Does our kissing embarrass you?’ Mom asked. Me, the brat: ‘It’s gross, but at least you remember how to do it.’ And she laughed, Elisa. I hadn’t heard her laugh in so long—ever since my mind started showing. She kissed my cheek, as I was squirming away, and she said, “Well, you will never have that problem, Aiden-bear. When you kiss your first girl, you will never forget. So pick a good one.” I lied and told her I had kissed Jenny, Sarah, Myra, Kate, Laura, Ashley, Emily, Tara, Erica, Leah, and Anna—basically all the pretty girls in my class. She looked horrified until she saw the lie in my eyes, and then laughed again. But what she said stayed with me. That’s how I knew not to kiss on the mouth until I met a woman whose taste I’d want to remember forever in mine. Until I met you. And that’s my first memory of this park—a happy one, just like right now.”
His piano voice stops and, for a while, I don’t know whether I’m asleep or awake. But I must be awake—my mind could never conjure this. I lift my head, fighting off the wall of sleep and the heavy lids just enough to look at him. “Kiss me here then, Aiden-bear.”
He sighs again, no doubt thinking I had fallen asleep, but he kisses me. Softly, slowly, so light it could be the breeze. Or just a dream. And I drift, sleep shutting all of my mind except this one urgency of being the Oxford scientist that can save the seven-year old boy who became a soldier and is now fighting for his own peace.
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.
Of all the chapters I’ve written about Aiden and Elisa, this one is the closest to my heart. I hope it is the same for you too. Enjoy and thank you as always for reading, commenting, and following. xo, Ani
The last time the cottage was this crowded and cheery was when Mum and Dad invited thirty of their Oxford friends for a Christmas toast three weeks before the accident. Sure, now there are only six of us, but Aiden, James, and Benson are so tall and muscular for the cottage that each of them counts for at least three professors or seven Grahams. Benson in fact is sitting on cushions on the floor, too self-aware to risk crushing the small furniture, for which I’m grateful. Javier is in my dad’s armchair, laughing and clinking ale mugs with Benson, and my eyes keep flitting to him every few minutes. How perfectly the universe can reform—some new stars find the orbit of the older ones, gravitating there so naturally, it feels as though the old and the new stars merge, neither gone, both shining. And then there is Reagan perched on Mum’s chair, playing with her new hat purchases. She quibbles with Javier about whether she will be able to fit them all in her suitcases (“you’ve lost your mind, Reg, it’s spatially impossible.” “I’ll just pack them in your suitcases then; I’m sure your T-shirts will love some diversity.” “My T-shirts are vintage, thank you, they say soul.” “They say bored.”) The two of them sound like a young version of the Plemmonses—a star pair that is not arriving perhaps because the ancient stars are still blinking. Then there are James and Aiden—bold twin stars—taking up the whole sofa so that the only place left for me is on Aiden’s lap, rotating around him like a moon. And that place suits me just fine. Because his arms are around me, and the sound of his deep voice reverberates through the crisp linen of his shirt and the thin cotton of my dress straight into my heart. His waterfall laughter at James’ jokes is my favorite star frequency: every time it breaks over him and his ribcage pushes against mine, my own lungs vibrate with his carefree sound. Every so often, his fingertips brush my leg inconspicuously, or his lips press on my hair, or his hand tightens on my hip—a silent conversation we are having, a postscript to the chatter around us. You ok? Yes, you? Perfect with you on me. Sleep is almost here. I know, love, present moment. I like this present moment. One of my favorites, too.
And all around us is the stardust—wiped clean plates of Javier’s carnitas, ale mugs and bottles, Mum and Dad’s vinyl records playing oldies, their photographs on the walls sprinkling smiles above our heads, and the rose-scented breeze wafting through the windows.
Life restarts. Even for me.
“I better go pack to take the suitcases at the hotel. Sounds like my T-shirts are about to be evicted.” Javier stands, clueless of Reagan’s emerald eyes following him.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell Aiden and follow Javier upstairs. Except in my case, every cell of me feels Aiden’s gaze climbing these stairs with me.
Javier is rolling up his T-shirts into tight balls when I walk into the guest room filled with roses. For a moment I wish we could all just sleep here on top of each other, like children at summer camp. Aiden and Javier would find a way to protect us. Except my playtime with Aiden would give Javier a stroke.
“Hey, amorcita,” he grins at me. I walk straight into his arms, and he hugs me, tugging my hair. “What’s up?”
“Nothing, I just love you. Thank you for accepting Aiden like you did.”
He plops on the bed, patting the spot next to him. When I perch there, he takes my hands in his.
“Isa, you’re smiling.”
“And you love Aiden.”
“More than anything.”
“And he loves you like a lunatic, that’s obvious.”
“Yes, he does.”
“And you’re scared.”
“Yes.” I whisper so quietly, afraid of speaking the word into this new reformed universe until I finish my protein.
Javier throws his arm over my shoulders—his peppermint smell so much like Dad’s after-eights in the library downstairs. “You know, I’m scared for both of you, too. But remember that Spartan warrior painting we saw at the Portland Art Museum? Well, Aiden makes that dude look like a wimp. Isa, he mobilized the U.S. Congress for me. Can you imagine what he would do for you? I think he loves you so much, he’d rather die than lose this fight. We just have to keep the faith, amorcita.”
Chills whip over my skin and my throat twists shut so abruptly I can’t breathe. The new universe is cruel in its beauty too, aligning with vicious symmetry my brother and Aiden’s brother to say on the same day that our love could finish Aiden.
Then I’d die with him, too, I answer Javier in my head—Romeo and Juliet’s love moving the stars and sun now, not Dante’s words. I don’t know what that end would look like, but I know I heard that boulder prophecy because it’s inside me. Because death can look different than a dagger to the chest or poison to the lips, can’t it? Sometimes the surest death is the one that tears apart your very heart.
“And now you two have all of us,” Javier continues when I say nothing. “Aiden is gathering the forces, sweetheart, he knows how to fight. And Reg and I can stay longer or come back if you need us until you two sort this out. Okay?”
I like the sound of that. Keeping them all here with me. But this reminds me.
“What about you, Javi?” I use Reagan’s nickname for him intentionally. “Where are we going to find you one of these big loves?”
He chuckles. “Oh, you know me, I’ll just draw her.” And he starts rolling up his T-shirts again. I help him pack, biting my lip. How do you make someone so loving see love through a different prism?
“She might be real,” I say, folding his socks into balls.
“Yea, and I’m sure the first guy all real girls want is a recent inmate with no college degree, four little sisters, and a paralyzed dad to care for. Isa, Aiden’s love has made you drunk.” He zips up his suitcase, tugs my hair again, and walks out of the room.
“You are rare,” I call behind him but, if he hears me, he doesn’t answer. Why do all good men hate themselves? This will be my next protein if I survive: self-love.
I pick up a T-shirt Javier forgot to pack and hug it. Here is the price of living in the shadows all your life: even when you come out into the light, you cannot see it. If an entire system treats you like nothing, you will believe you are nothing even when you are so many somethings that mean more than everything.
I grab one of the vases of fresh roses and make my way down the hall to the bedroom where Aiden and I will sleep tonight. Every part of me tingles. I change the sheets so he has fresh ones for his first sleep with someone. The new sheets have a faint scent of the dried rose sachets Mum used for our drawers. I sniff at it deeply. Help us, Mum. Help us with your magic. I set the vase of roses on his nightstand, fill the pitcher with fresh water, and place a Baci next to it.
Downstairs, Benson and James are helping Javier and Reagan with their suitcases and Aiden with his, in this little exchange of guests that will give me my dream tonight and hopefully give Reagan a chance.
“I better head out too,” James says. “Early day tomorrow.”
“James, wait. I have something for you,” I tell him and flit to my Dad’s library.
When I come back out, they are all filing out of the door, laughing about Benson needing to exit sideways. James is not in much better shape; he has to duck so he doesn’t hit his head against the doorframe. He and Aiden are laughing on the threshold and I wish I had my phone to capture it. Or to have eidetic memory just for Aiden’s laughter in this moment—a man-to-man smirk, some synaptic bond forged in the fires of Iraq that will always elude me. Or maybe it’s just another dick joke.
“Here you go.” I hand James the package when I reach them. “Sorry about the girly rose paper. Everything is made of roses here.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Elisa. Cal is really a woman.” Aiden chuckles and pulls me against his side. James tears the paper with what might be a smile—it’s hard to tell with the Viking beard.
“A book?” He sounds perplexed.
“Not just any book. It’s my Dad’s secret fly-fishing guide about River Spey. And that bookmark is his favorite fly he fished there. He said he always hooked something with it. I hope that river gives you better fish than this one did.”
Aiden’s hand tightens on my waist as James pats my shoulder. My knees buckle under the weight of his hand. “You’re a little pest, aren’t you? Making me like you and shit. Well, thank you. I’ll let you know how it goes when we get back.” Then he turns to Aiden. “You are fucked.” And with another barking laugh, he follows Javier, Reagan, and Benson into the garden.
“See you in the morning, Isa.” Javier and Reagan wave, and the four of them disappear down the dark path to pile on Benson’s rental van across Elysium. And then all that’s left are the roses, the night, and my North Star.
I turn to him slowly, our bodies so close together on the small doorstep that our clothes and sneakers are already kissing. Half of him is candlelight gold from the foyer chandelier, the other half dark silver from the moon. He is watching me with a powerful emotion, too powerful for me to grasp, except a flicker of shyness in his eyes I have never seen before.
“That was very kind of you,” he says, and it’s there in his voice, too. A very rare note of nervousness for Aiden.
“James has been very kind to us.”
“Yes, he has,” he murmurs.
“Well then,” I answer, caressing his scar, tracing the L with my finger.
“There’s still time, love.” His knuckles brush against my cheek, and I know he is offering, maybe pleading, for another delay. But the urgency to live, to have every second of these ninety days together has become too potent for rational decisions, no matter how safe they might be.
“No, Aiden, there isn’t. The time is now.”
He smiles, tracing my lips with his thumb. “You are so brave, Elisa. You don’t need your protein at all.”
I want to tell him I’m not brave. I want to tell him how terrified I am. Terrified for him, for us. Terrified of the end, of these dark prophecies I hear in boulders and camera clicks. Terrified of missing a single blink of him. Terrified of everything. Except one.
“I’m never afraid of you,” I say, placing my hand over his heart. It’s thundering, and he shudders at my touch. “We are part of each other.”
His dark-and-light smile breaks over his face. And in a blink he bends and sweeps me off my feet into his arms.
“Bed,” he says over my squeal, exactly as he did in his homecoming war letter, and carries me over the threshold, kicking the door closed behind us.
I don’t know how he finds his way up the narrow stairs, soldered as our mouths are to each other, but he does it without hitting our heads once.
“Which door?” he asks against my lips at the landing, his breathing rough like mine.
He kicks it open and we both pause at this second threshold. I know the white king bed I just made with the rose quilt. The crystal lamps on the mahogany nightstands now holding fresh roses, the gauzy white curtains billowing with the evening breeze from the open window. I know them because they were my parents’, and now they are ours.
Aiden’s arms tighten around me. “Should I be expecting lightning bolts in addition to Mr. Plemmons’ cane?”
I giggle, bringing his mouth back to mine. “You barmy old fool. Don’t you know the roses will protect us?”
He laughs as he carries me over this threshold too and sets me down at the foot of the bed. “My dear Mrs. Plemmons, where do I start with you?”
But he knows exactly where to start. With his eyes that ignite a wildfire from the split ends of my hair to my curled toes. He stands right in front me, towering in his full height, and places his phone and other things I cannot bother to register on the dresser behind him. Then, eyes never leaving mine, he throws about six condoms on the bed next to me.
“In case we can’t sleep.” He winks while I check the condoms did not spontaneously combust. For the first time since I met him, I hope we only get to use one or two, three at most.
He steps out of his sneakers and socks, takes off his shirt, and removes his boxers and jeans—his body materializing inch after inch. My skin bursts into flames but I can’t blink away from him to check for smoke.
“I’ll never tire of that look,” he says, his smile pulling up his soft, cupid lips at the left corner while my breath stops completely.
“Come to me,” I mouth, my hands gripping the quilt in little fists.
He parts my sneakers slowly with his bare foot while the sight of his toes launches a blast of sparks to the bottom of my belly, and then kneels between my legs. My hips lurch forward to meet him, but his rests his palms on my knees, steadying the trembles that have already started.
“Slow,” he murmurs, and his hands trail down to my sneakers. He takes them off gently but wherever his fingertips touch, a new fire starts—around my ankle, at the tips of my toes, my heels. His fingers glide up now, light like the cool breeze wafting through the window. I try to feel only that breeze as a new flame erupts at each point of contact. He peels off my dress but even the brush of the soft cotton against me makes me shiver. Everything feels more intense than any other time between us—the fire, his touch, his smell—I don’t understand why. Is it because in so many ways this is like our first night? Is it because we’re here in my home, in this bedroom? Is it because of the day we had, just Aiden and me with people we love and no rules? I don’t know, but my head starts to whirl as the dress finally slips off and his face is so close that his breath warms my lips. Even his beauty is more intense—my eyelids flutter as though I’m staring into the star’s very halo. I find the cool breeze again and open my eyes. It’s good and bad. Good because I can’t miss a blink of tonight. Bad because the fire in his eyes doubles my burning. His fingertips trace the lace of the bra—the one that matches his eyes—and it snaps off, releasing a wisp air into my lungs, which disappears in seconds again as he slides the lace straps off my shoulders, down my arms, and onto the floor.
“Ah, all of this under your dress,” he says, brushing his knuckles lightly like feathers over my breasts. A shudder rips through me and I almost flop backwards on the bed but he catches me and lays me down gently. “Better?” he asks, climbing between my legs, parting them with his knee.
“Closer,” I whisper, unsure whether I’m ordering or answering him. The ceiling is twirling. I catch the breeze again, but his eyes descend over me like fire, from my lips to the precise center between my legs where the flames are spiraling into a pulsating fireball. My hips arch of the bed straight into his waiting hands.
“These are torturing us both, aren’t they?” His fingers hook under the lace of my knickers, and he slides them off slowly. Then he bends down, skimming his nose exactly where the knickers were. “Ah,” he sighs as my hips try to fly off again but he is prepared for that. His grip has secured them to the mattress. I can’t move. I search for the cool breeze but I can only feel his nose circling the little inferno and then tracing a straight line upward, over my belly, between my breasts, along my throat until his body covers mine, the dusting of hair like live wires against my skin.
“Aiden, please!” I gasp, trying to twine my arms and legs around him, but he has tangled them with his. His thigh is pressing between mine firmly, making every cell throb. I reach for him with the only things I can move, my lips. But the moment our mouths touch, his lips brush along my jawline to my ear.
“Slow, love, I want to take this slow.” His teeth graze my earlobe. How can I have chills up here and raging fires down there?
“But I might set the cottage on fire.”
I feel his smile as he kisses the spot below my ear. “You don’t think I’d ever let you burn, do you?”
I’m already cinder, I want to say, but he gives me his mouth. I drink him in like he is a spring of glacier water. He makes each second last a minute, an hour, until I no longer count time between his body and mine. I measure time with us—flesh intervals between blistering heartbeats. Our mouths and tongues move together, taste bud to taste bud. If I live a million years and sample the world, I still will not be able to describe Aiden’s taste. Or the way his tongue moves like it’s alive. The way it knows my mouth, the way it catches all my syllables and sighs.
“I missed your taste, Elisa. I know it better than mine,” he murmurs against my lips, stealing all my words, as his fingers start a stroll of their own. Tracing along each blue vein that is hurtling lifeblood to all the fires. Gliding over each curve, goose bump to goose bump.
“And your skin, so soft, so warm, like a welcome.” His fingers trace the inside of my thigh, each fingertip a spark, while his mouth glides down my throat, dropping kisses like hot plumes on my feverish skin. Then in a blink, he brushes his knuckles between my legs. I roll frantically against his hand as the inferno starts spreading little licks of flames everywhere waist down.
“You are my home,” he continues, and his mouth closes on a nipple at the same time his fingers slide in. I cry out his name—it zooms around the room and out the window like I’m his homing beacon. Because he is right. My body molds to his fingers exactly like it was built for his hand. And his fingers move like they know every threshold, every secret nook, every spot of warmth. My hips move with them, umbilically corded to him. When his fingers circle, so do my hips, when he presses down, they tilt. His fingers say come here and my hips listen. His fingers tap and my hips shimmy and shiver.
In the same path, his mouth trails over my belly, planting wet kisses lower and lower until finally it closes around me with the same pressure as his fingers. Each flick of the tongue rings a doorbell. Each circle of his fingers is a knock. And my legs fall open like doors at his arrival. My foundations start to shake exactly as in his war letter.
“What took you so long?” I whimper the words he wrote.
I feel his smile against me, his lips opening with mine. I hook my fingers in his hair—support beams for the earthquake of his homecoming. The pressure of his mouth increases. Flicks, circles, kisses. My whole body is aquiver. Each wall and chamber shakes, and I don’t know: is he the one arriving or am I the one going home? It doesn’t matter though because either way I free-fall. Spiraling, each nerve an epicenter, earthquakes radiating from my eyelids to my curled toes. Then everything crumbles and I’m gone. With his name on my lips, exactly as he wrote.
Aiden, Aiden, Ai-den.
Somehow he puts me back together. He rebuilds me with soft, hushing kisses. He pastes the crumbles with his tongue, resets the plaster with his lips over my breasts, my throat, my jaw, my cheeks. His hands mold the foundations back together, flesh brick after flesh brick. And his fingers etch all my curves, cinching my waist, rounding my hips, arcing over my neck. His mouth on my mouth is a door. His tongue on my tongue, a garden path. His eyes on my eyes are windows. Until piece after piece, my body builds again. For him.
And he is on top of me, but I don’t feel his weight. Only his heated skin, the sagebrush of his hair, and the hardened lines of his body. Here and there, his muscles twitch like a wink.
“Hi,” I tell him, running my fingers through his hair. He shudders.
“Hi.” His voice is husky and gravelly with his own need.
“That was some homecoming.”
He smiles as another shudder ripples through him. “I haven’t come . . . home. Yet.” I get lost in his darkened, hooded eyes. No, he hasn’t. This was all for me.
“Then come,” I say, twining my arms and legs around him. “Come home like you do in your letters.”
I grasp him with my hands the way he has shown me. He surges forward and a droplet of liquid bubbles on him like a diamond. On impulse, I brush it with the tip of my finger like he does with my tears and bring the finger to my mouth. Ah, the taste. I open my eyes that I did not know I had closed to reach for more but he has transformed. Half-animal, half-man. A deep growl whirls in his chest. The sound vibrates straight down to my epicenter, and my hips lurch up to meet him. For a precious blink, I brush up against him, skin on skin. But he’s too fast. In another blink he’s covered.
“I loathe using this with you,” he hisses with venom.
I loathe it too. Every cruel latex atom of it. “Monday . . . pill . . . me,” is all I can manage because in another syllable, he is inside, and words become scrambled. An anagram of his name and moans. I arch toward him, but he locks down my hips.
“All of me,” he says, his voice dark and guttural. He secures my legs around his waist and rises up on his knees until the only parts of me left on the bed are my head and shoulders. Everything else is pressed against him. But despite his support, my body is shaking. I grip his wrists for balance, trying to breathe through the feeling of him this far, in this new upside-down.
“Beautiful, Elisa,” he says gently despite the strain in his voice. “Hold on to me. Breathe.”
But my lungs are not working—every part of me is full. Full of him, full of trembles, full of fire. It takes several heartbeats for me to find air.
“There,” he says, watching, noticing every movement of my body. “Now, you breathe, I’ll move. And when I do this . . .” he pushes a little further into me, causing my breath to stop again. “You do that.” His fingers tap my hips, teaching me how to relax.
It takes a lot more heartbeats for my body to open to him like this. More of his patience, his gentle instruction, a shift here, a tilt there, a pause to let me adjust. But no pain—never that. Only us expanding, taking each other into our deepest parts, and locking each other there in a hermetic touch.
“Perfect. Now hold. Feel.” His voice is rough, sliced between his teeth. “It’s just all of you and all of me. Farther than we’ve ever been. Isn’t that beautiful?”
It is, I want to say. It’s exactly as it should be. But I’m beyond things like speech. The only sounds that come out are garbled sighs, but he must understand because his hands tighten on my shaky hips.
“Now this,” he says, pushing into me. “Is my home.”
Welcome, I think. Welcome, welcome, welcome. But all that comes out is “mmm.”
“I’m going to move now, love. Stop me if it’s too much.”
And Aiden starts to move. Gently at first while I vibrate, trying not to faint. Then his rhythm picks up. Some moves are slow but so deep we both stop breathing. Others are faster, quick and shallow like our gasps. Then he combines them, shallow-slow, shallow-fast, deep-slow, deep-fast—his tempo rising until I get lost. Lost in the darkness of my shut eyes. In the space between breaths. In the feeling of our bodies fused so close together, I no longer know where he ends and I begin. There are several heartbeats when I have no sense of direction or time. Only fragments of awareness between thrusts. As though each time he moves inside me, he sends an electric current to my mind, bringing me back. But then abruptly there is a change. My body catches up, finds a new bubble of space, and molds around him. No struggle, no ache, just wavelets of pleasure lapping against him as though I’m the sea and he is the shore.
He feels the change too. “Ah, Elisa,” he moans and then starts to move with abandon. With perfect clarity, my senses absorb everything this time. The sound of our voices, the words we gasp to each other. The harsh breathing tearing the air. His mouth, his shut eyes. The ripples that descend over him. And the end begins for us both. My body breaks first in the most intense climax I’ve ever had. It palpitates so violently, my fingers grasp Aiden, the quilt, the pillow, my own hair. With each final move of his, a new wave of convulsions starts, so powerful that for an instant, I think I’m turning inside out. An overwhelming sensation builds at the very bottom of my belly, like a surge, and I explode in every way. My breath becomes a cry, tears spring in my eyes, and my insides liquefy at the same time that I hear his homecoming—my name—and we both collapse in a quivering mass on the mattress.
And then there is nothing.
I don’t know for how long. But eventually I start drifting between reality and non-reality. Reality is a vague sensation of movement and sound, but I can’t say what or how. Non-reality is stillness, as though my body has shut down for universal rest. But I know even in that restful state that there is something stronger coming, something more intimate, something so special, I have been waiting for perhaps all my life. So I hold sleep at bay, inch by inch, and focus on the one thing I know is real. Aiden next to me. Holding on to him with every sense, I realize we are lying on the bed, he is cradling me over his chest, and his heart is deafening in my ear. At that precise moment, I register my own heartbeat galloping in the same rhythm. I hear his harsh breathing at the same time that I find my lungs. And I smell his Aiden scent at the same time that I catch the rose breeze from the window. Then with a last shove against sleep, I open my eyes.
Aiden has one arm over his face as the other one flexes and twitches around me. I think he just mouthed holy fuck. Tremors still ripple through him like aftershocks, as they do with me. He seems equally unable to lift any body part. His chest is rising and falling at the same speed as mine.
He finds his voice before me, though, even if it is just to rasp, “Hi.”
“Hi.” My voice is just as hoarse.
“I think we’re alive.”
“Can you die from orgasms?”
“That one came close.”
“I think I might have fainted at some point.”
“I’d never allow that.”
“Is it . . . does it . . . is it normal for it to feel like this? So intense?”
“Never for me.”
I think about this new word for us. Never. I was crediting his sex talent for this experience, but it sounds like it’s neither him, nor me. It’s us together. And it’s a good feeling—this rare conviction that, no matter all else that’s against us, in this one aspect of our love, we are a perfect match. No matter how this ends, if they ever were to write stories about us, they would say our physical love moved stars and suns. Even if our storybook would be next to Romeo and Juliet.
“Will you do me a favor?” I ask him.
He turns his head to look at me, questions in his eyes, but I lose my train of thought seeing his face for the first time since his homecoming. A destructive beauty has fallen over him. His pupils are dark and dilated still, but a halo of light is illuminating the irises as they change color before my incredulous eyes until they become the luminous shade of turquoise that belongs irrevocably to me. His lips are darker too from my biting. His skin is flushed, the gold almost bronze.
“Anything,” he says.
“If we make it through these ninety days together, will you tell me about this night some day? I’m losing parts of it already.”
His smile is dizzying. Exactly that. It makes my head spin. “I promise,” he says, cupping my cheek. “If we make it, when I’m eighty-five with a cane and still trying to find a way to make love to you, I will say, ‘my dear Mrs. Plemmons, there was this one night on June sixteen, fifty years ago, when you were so spry you brought a Marine to his knees.’ And you will laugh and say, ‘you crackpot fool, I’m still spry, but you don’t have any knees.’”
I giggle. “I’ve decided that’s what we will dream tonight. You and your cane, chasing me about.”
The dizzying smile softens until it becomes a melancholy kiss at the corner of his mouth. “What a beautiful dream.”
He holds my gaze like gravity. It changes the moment, the room, the night. A different electricity hums between us. Serious, full of unsaid things, full of spoken and unspoken dreams, full of always and never, full of every night gone and every night still ahead, and every single moment in between. Full of this small chance for big things.
Full of dangerous things too—his h-o-p-e, his f-e-a-r for me and my f-e-a-r for him, full of d-a-r-e, of t-i-m-e left and t-i-m-e lost, full of this brand new h-o-m-e we are building inside each other.
Full of his all and my all.
They suspend here in this moment between us—hanging on the balance of what happens tonight and for the rest of the summer.
He does not release my eyes. Shyness flickers again in the blue depths, and I grasp that flicker is the essence of young Aiden. The little boy who was given an almighty gift at such a tender age. There was shyness there once, before memories, war, and torture stole it. But they didn’t take it all. Somehow, in his vast mind, he knew to hold on to this small flicker of virtue, of innocence. He knew to keep this part only to himself. For thirty-five long years until tonight.
I am abruptly overwhelmed by his trust in me. He is lying right here beneath me, mouth silent, eyes loud. In nothing but skin and completely mine. His vulnerability floats inside me and becomes protectiveness, pride. I sit up and place my hand over his heart. It’s still sprinting, and he shudders even at my lightest touch.
“Aiden, do you want to do this? Not because I want it or because Corbin thinks you should. Do you want this for yourself?”
His Aiden’s apple bobbles once, but when he speaks, his voice is clear. “I do.”
“Are you sure?”
He sits up too now so that we are face-to-face. “I am. I’ve waited all my life to sleep with you. And you’re finally here. My only hesitation is your safety.”
I caress his scar, his sculpted jaw, kissing his full lips lightly, feeling the pull between us, feeling it and resisting it. “Tell me how you pictured it,” I ask, my lips moving along his jaw to his ear. I kiss the spot below as he does with me. He winds his arm around my waist pulling me so close, my breasts brush against his chest.
“I haven’t allowed myself any fantasies about it, Elisa.”
The loneliness of the image pierces my heart. A desire so deep, so out of reach even his fantasies couldn’t catch it.
“Not even a single detail?” I brush my lips down his throat, kissing the dip there.
“Well . . . I suppose . . . I always thought I’d fall asleep with my face in . . . your hair.”
I kiss along his collarbone, waiting for the tears that have welled up to dry. Just my hair. That’s all he could give himself. My lips travel over his chest and kiss his heart.
“Don’t be afraid,” I tell him. “You won’t hurt me.”
He pulls up my face until we are mouth to mouth. His eyes are hooded, heavy with the same need I feel but he is resisting it like I am.
“I have an idea,” I say, pecking his lips, and climb out of the bed. The only rational brain cell left registers I’m already feeling sore; the rest of my mind is absorbed with his eyes that I sense on me and the old record player on the dresser. I find Beethoven’s and place it on the turntable. After a few scratches, Für Elise starts.
When I turn to him, he is smiling with his dimple. I hold out my hand, palm up.
“Aiden, may I have this dance?”
The smile becomes a grin. He rises with his usual grace and takes my hand. Then we sway to my song—skin on skin, our bare feet together on the worn rug. His lips in my hair, my lips on his heart, arms like rose vines around each other.
“Are you romancing me, Elisa?”
“Yes, Aiden, I am.”
“I’m a sure thing, you know.”
“You’re the opposite of a sure thing. You’re impossible to me in every way.”
I’ve stunned him speechless but not motionless. He lifts me by my waist and slides his bare feet under mine, holding me tight against him, burying his face in my hair, and we dance. I memorize his steps to the familiar notes. Right, right, right, left, left, turn. His feet move so effortlessly to the melody that has become his lullaby, it’s as though he is playing the piano with our steps. Three languid rights, two quick lefts, turn, turn. He twirls me on the final bridge, our laughter trilling with the tune. And on the last note, he dips me over his arm, kissing his favorite spot at the end of my jawline.
“Thank you for the dance,” I say when I’m upright.
“Thank you for the memory.”
In the silence that follows, the willows are playing their own lullaby with the river. Wishes. Wishes. I sense he needs a moment to himself so I start straightening the bed that is a tangle from our homecoming. When I finish, I pull back the covers for him in invitation. “They’re clean,” I assure him. “Except the mess we just made, but it’s all us.”
He must like our mess because he grabs his things from the dresser with speed and flits over to his side—no hesitation on his step or voice anymore. When he sees the Baci on his nightstand, he smiles.
“Is this for now or morning?”
“Whenever you want.”
“Morning then,” he says, looking at the chocolate with more emotion than Baci gets from people who are not me. “Is the vase of the Elisas for me too?”
“Yes. I tried to put only happy memories here for you.”
“I have everything I need for happiness right here in this room.”
He pours a glass of water from the pitcher, takes out a small red pill from his wallet, and swallows it. I thank science in my head for giving us this chance, even if it needs to be combined with magic we do not understand. Like my song’s effect on him. He taps his phone and Für Elise starts again, lower now, like background music.
“Will this bother you? It’s programmed to replay until my alarm goes off.”
“Aiden, I’d listen to heavy metal all night if it keeps you asleep.”
He grins. “Lucky for you, nothing else works. Just your song.”
“Will you tell me how you discovered it?”
“Nope. Only happy memories enter this room tonight.”
And hopefully every other night. With our eyes on each other, Aiden and I climb into bed together. Side by side, face-to-face, our pillows touching, our knees touching, our forearms touching. We don’t turn off the side lamps; neither of us wants to miss any detail tonight.
“Will you do me a favor?” he asks, knotting his fingers with mine.
“You will be careful, right? You will put your safety above all else, including me?”
As if I could ever separate my safety from his. As if could ever tell him no. “I will.”
“And you remember what that means?”
“Yes. No startling you awake, no touching if you’re having a nightmare, add love.”
He chuckles with a sound like the piano. “Add love,” he repeats, bringing his mouth to mine. His lips move in perfect harmony to the music. “Do you remember the morning we played this together?” he murmurs.
“Yes,” I whisper against his lips. “On your piano.”
He turns me around slowly until my back is against his chest, and kisses along my jawline. “You were so new and innocent . . . yet so familiar.” His lips press right below my ear. “And do you know what I was thinking?” Lips brushing over my shoulder to the tip of my shoulder. He nips at it gently.
“No,” I sigh.
“I was thinking . . .” Hands around my breasts in the languid rhythm of the melody. “I must be asleep.” Lips pressing soft kisses like piano notes over my neck. “I dreamt her in war . . . ” He returns to my mouth. “And now she is bringing me peace . . .” His tongue plays Für Elise, while his fingers tap my nipples like piano keys. “And that’s why your music keeps me asleep . . . because when I played it with you . . . I didn’t want to wake up . . . how about that, Elisa?”
I want to answer, I want to tell him so many things, but I am lost. Lost in the way his mouth plays my song. Lost in the way his long fingers flutter over the ivory of my skin. He synchronizes each touch to the melody. Each flick of the tongue is a note. Each caress of his fingers is an arpeggio. Each slow, gentle thrust is a bar of music. Trill after trill, chime after chime until my body arches against him during the last bridge, trembles during the legato, and we both snap like piano strings into a thousand notes of our own music, us and Elise finishing on the exact note. As he must have planned it to be.
He holds me like this against him as Für Elise restarts. I feel him pull out and discard the latex invader. He wraps his arms around me and buries his nose in the hair behind my ear. I fight sleep with all my strength and lay very still, feeling every tremor of our bodies fade, every gust of his breath in my hair. After another Für Elise, Aiden stills too, and his breathing slows and deepens.
“Oveu,” he murmurs and drifts into deep sleep.
I know exactly the moment when he is gone because his weight around me gets heavier. But I still don’t move. I just listen to the sound of his breath, counting each gentle waft on my neck. One puff of happiness. Two puffs of happiness. Three . . . On the one-hundred-fiftieth puff, Aiden rolls away, lying on his back, one arm still under my pillow. It’s then that I move. First one finger, then two, then my hand, turning slowly, inch by inch so I can see him.
Aiden thought I was a dream, but there is no better dream than the real him asleep. His face is relaxed under the muted light. The sharp planes are softer, the sculpted brow smooth. His lips are parted and his long lashes brush against his cheekbones, casting feathery shadows over his lucent skin. But there is heartbreak in his beauty too. How he has trained himself to sleep on his back, how tension still drapes over his shoulders like a quilt.
I memorize each breath and learn all his little sleeping quirks. Like the way he moves his lips softly sometimes as if he is tasting his sleep. Or the way his toes curl where they’re dangling off the bed. Every so often, he gets an erection which, of course, for Aiden it’s visible through the quilt. I know this is normal for men, but I still wonder if my song is giving him pleasant dreams. I hope it is. I hope the snowball is shrinking even as he breathes. And through it all, Aiden stays asleep. Five-hundred-ninety-nine puffs of happiness, six . . . My eyelids start to droop. In those last moments between awake and asleep, I sense the edge of a dream similar to this moment and I chase it. Because Aiden is there too, and in the dream I can touch him as much as I want. We’re in the same room, the same bed, but the light is weaker, flickering from candles, not side lamps. Aiden is asleep, but on his side, facing me. I place my hand on his chest. It’s cold like the river breeze has been blowing on him all night. A sense of unease creeps upon me. Something is missing. My fingers flutter in panic searching his chest. There is no heartbeat. Aiden? I call but no voice comes out. A scream builds from my throat, ripping through my vocal chords, without a sound. Aiden! Aiden! Aiden! The silent screams suffocate me as my fingers fly to his lips. But there’s no breath there—they’re cold, parted on a permanent kiss. I start kissing him, blowing all my breath into his mouth. Take it, take it, take it. But he doesn’t. I keep blowing, pushing against his heart. Will no one help me? Can no one hear? My hands race over him—what can I fix? What went so wrong? And then I see it. In his half-open hand is a vial from Bia. Full of lilac liquid. I did this. I did not make the protein of bravery on time. I take the vial out of his cold hand—kissing each icy fingertip. Maybe there’s an antidote. Maybe I can bring him back. The vial drops into my hand and shatters into smithereens, but the glass-dust spirals and reforms, changing into the glinting blade of a dagger in my hand. It turns like a compass toward my chest. And I plunge it there, straight into my heart.
I jolt up awake, gasping, the silent screams stuck in my throat like shards. I whirl to the real Aiden still here in bed with me, terrified I’ve startled him. But he is still sleeping peacefully on his back. I hover my fingers over his lips. His warm breath is even and strong. The pupils under his eyelids are racing with his own dream—hopefully a lot happier than mine. I know this is real because Für Elise is still playing, the date has changed to June seventeen, and my hand doesn’t go through the wall. But still I lean in, listening to his deep breath for a while, smelling his Aiden scent. As if he senses my terror even asleep, his lips do the little tasting thing again and he sighs. Very real. Very much alive.
I sink down on the bed, still gasping, eyes on him, unable to blink away. And that’s when I notice tears on my cheeks. Abruptly, I’m furious with myself. What a stupid nightmare to give myself on my first sleep with him. I brought this on like a bloody idiot by obsessing about random chocolate quotes, imagining prophecies out of inanimate objects, and pondering universe alignment in a day when I have been given nothing but gift after gift after gift, with the most beautiful gift of all still soundly asleep next to me, despite my sudden jolt and gasps. Yet another gift: Für Eliseand the medication work. Without them, Aiden would be wide awake right now, trying to comfort me—the lunatic girlfriend who dreamt him dead and killed herself in her sleep. I should be locked up. We should absolutely not rule out Burford Dementia Centre. I almost slap my own cheek. I had the best night of my life and had to ruin it with this. Well, no more. I make a vow here and now to have faith in this man who is working so hard for us even in his sleep, while I sit here useless, dreaming up Shakespearean tragedies. Who cares how terrified I am—I’ll work as hard as he, and not indulge these idiocies. I also vow never to breathe a word about this to Aiden and throw out Romeo and Juliet the first chance I get. I’m a bloody scientist, not a fucking oracle.
I shake my head, this time actually slapping myself, and rest my eyes on Aiden’s peaceful form. The only lines I know from the worst love story in the world still manage to slither like gnarly thorns, coiling around the hedgerows of my mind.
Happy Saturday, friends! What can I possibly say about this chapter? I’ll let you find your own words but I will add that the “Male” poem under the Poems page in my website was written exactly for this chapter. Hope you enjoy it and thank you as always for following this story and for commenting and writing to me. It means a lot and I might not have found the energy even for these chapters without your words. Happy weekend! xo, Ani [The following material is R-rated.]
“What is it?” Aiden asks, noticing my smile. He is still glowing above me, breathing hard, his body still pressed against every inch of mine.
“You gave me an idea.” I breathe, my legs wrapping around him like a vise.
He closes his eyes with a moan. “Does it involve how to prevent pregnancy when the most desperate man on the planet does not have a condom?”
“Umm, no, but it should help with desperation generally.”
“Mmm, I’m beyond help on that point.” He runs his nose down my throat and around the nipple protruding through the thin cotton of my pajamas. He shudders and opens his eyes—looking at me that way—and my body riots. It arches off the meadow, brushing against the denim of his jeans. He presses into me reflexively, that part of him to that part of mine, cancelling out the whole world.
“Ah, Elisa,” he sighs, his jaw flexing, the bands of muscle tensing like he is trying to move and stay still at the same time. I’m not sure though, I’m over here on the soggy meadow, burning. With a groan, he pulls away from me and rolls on his back, staring at the sky and muttering something fast and low.
The small distance feels transatlantic. I turn to my side and flutter my fingers on his cupid lips. But his hand flies up and places them over his chest where his heart is crashing against his ribs like mine. “A man minute, please,” he breathes, lying here motionless on the wildflowers, all the sky in his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Reciting War and Peace backwards.”
A laugh bursts through my lips. A true-bubbly-effortless-straight-from-the-heart laugh. Of course an impossible being like this needs a fifteen-part saga to cool his fire.
I think my laugh works better at distraction than Tolstoy though because he turns to me with my favorite lopsided smile—ardor reined in. “I love the sound of your laugh, Elisa. I thought I’d never hear it again anywhere except in my mind.” He props himself on his elbow. “Now tell me about your idea. What was it?”
It takes me a moment to remember lost as I am in this feeling of laughter. But when I do, words tumble out, telling him everything about the protein of bravery from the moment I first interviewed with Edison. He listens to me incandescently, that’s the only word to describe it. “Anyway,” I take a deep breath when I get to the clue part. “I’ve been so sure I would disappoint Edison and, worse, embarrass my dad. He’s a legend there, Aiden, I can’t even describe it. And they all seem to think I’m a mini-him with his skills and brain. It’s mental. But then I found a clue in Dad’s safe the same night I started reading your war letters because that’s where I keep them. He had locked the clue in there at some point, but clearly didn’t tell anyone, I’m not sure why. Want to know what it said?”
He strokes my cheek with the back of his fingers. Humor has left his eyes, and they have become unbearably tender. “I think you are a brilliant scientist on your own right, not just as your father’s daughter. You may have inherited his talent but your work, your worth, that’s all yours. Never forget that. You are nobody’s mini. All of them are just mini-Elisas.”
“Want to hear the clue or not?”
He chuckles. “Yes, dear.”
“It said: Fifth Time. Not December. Add Love.”
I see his own intelligence and curiosity flash in his eyes, and the tectonic plates shift, probably retrieving everything he has ever heard, read, or learned about number five, December, or love. He whistles in awe. “There’s a lot to unpack there. We can break it though; let me think for a minute.” And he closes his eyes, his pupils shifting rapidly under the eyelids as his super-brain starts sifting through a vast network of data at lightening speed. A part of me wants to drool here in awe but a bigger part misses his eyes on me.
“I already cracked the first two sentences,” I say, and his eyes are mine again.
“Of course you did. Why would I think you need my help? Tell me.”
“It means I have to remove magnesium, the twelfth element, after the fifth spin on the centrifuge. But I had no idea what “add love” meant until you helped me with your kiss.”
“Oh?” A blinding smile.
“Yes, I was watching how you happy you looked compared to how afraid we were right before—”
“And still are.”
“And still are, but tell me, during the kiss were you feeling any fear at all?”
“None. I was drowning in you. And those pajamas.”
I nod as he confirms my hypothesis. “That’s the third code. Kissing releases oxytocin. Dad is telling me to add oxytocin to the formula.”
His mouth pops open.
“Or at least I think that’s what it means. I can’t wait to test it. But it’s really complex. I have no idea how. And I have to do it in secret—Dad obviously didn’t want anyone to know yet. And if I can do it, it can help you so much. You can eat it like candy every morning, no side effects, and the terrors can’t touch you at all even if my calming effect fails. I’ll save you, you’ll see.”
He changes before me—emotions flitting through the beloved face so fast, I’m breathless. I try to name the ones I can fathom: pride, joy, tenderness, love, pain. Others are too big, too nameless for my mind. At length, his eyes settle in their peace setting and he lowers his face to mine. I reach eagerly for his lips, but they rest on the center of my forehead. The spot my dad always kissed, the spot I couldn’t bear to touch until that last time Aiden and I made love. The spot that now belongs to him.
“You save me every minute, Elisa” he says. “Don’t stress yourself for me. Do this because you love it, do it for your father, not for me. Promise?”
I try to decipher his mood like my clue but it’s too deep. Is it because he thinks my calming effect will win? Or because he thinks no protein of bravery could save him if it doesn’t? I want to ask but instinctively I sense a wall there—a wall he is keeping up for a vital, fundamental reason. A chill prickles my neck. Make us strong, make us brave. I pull him to my mouth for more oxytocin but he sits up, smiling now. “I don’t want to run through the entire fourth book of War and Peace, do you? Come, you’re getting all wet.”
“I know,” I grumble, and he laughs. My favorite, free-waterfall Aiden laugh that springs from a secret part of him and crashes through all his craggy cliffs, washing away every memory debris from his eyes even for just one brief, cascading moment. And I know what he means by the sound of laughter. I could lie here and listen to his all day.
“I meant wet from the grass,” he chuckles. “But I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in my inferno. Come.”
“Elisa, I swear.”
“Oh, yes! Swearing is good too.”
“‘Early in the year 1806 Nicholas Rostóv returned home on leave. Denísov was going home to Vorónezh and Rostóv persuaded him to travel with him as far as Moscow,” Aiden starts reciting, yanking me up with one hand as though touching me with anything more might bring war here in Burford. “It’ll be Rostóv and Denísov all the way if you don’t behave yourself,” he says with a stern voice that doesn’t match either the fiery eyes or the dimply smile.
But now that I’m vertical, I see exactly what he means by “wet.” The back of me, from my hair to the wellingtons, is muddy. An imprint of my body is pressed into Elysium from Aiden’s weight. And his rain jacket looks like a tarp forgotten on a sludgy ditch overnight. For his part, Aiden wears mud extremely well. It has molded around his shoulders and derriere like it wants nothing more than to become an exact replica of him. And his black wavy hair is specked with it, as though Old Aiden sprinkled him with silver wisdom when passing by in my vision.
“Keep looking at me like that, and I’ll tell you all about how Denísov met a comrade at his last station, drank three bottles of wine, and—”
“Okay, okay, I’ll stop.” I laugh, trying to brush off some of the mess in vain. It’s caked everywhere. I look back at the cottage where from the shuttered windows Javier and Reagan are clearly still sleeping.
“You’re a mess. Let’s go to my hotel before everyone wakes up,” Aiden says, seeing my predicament. “Besides, I’ve brought you something.”
“Is it condoms?”
“That’s okay. I’ll go on the pill. Especially if we need to flood you in me.”
“Denísov did not once wake up on the way to Moscow, but lay at the bottom of the sleigh beside Rostóv—”
“All right, I’ll really stop this time. Rostóv is starting to sound appealing.”
He zips up my parka with the very tips of his fingers lest my nipples electrocute him, tosses his rain jacket over his shoulder with a deep sigh, and tucks my arm into the crook of his. And we start walking along the river to town, following the trail of my dreams. He slows his long stride to match mine, never rushing, his eyes absorbing the countryside. It’s still early, the hilltops just glazed with the sun’s lacquer. And the willows, the larks’ warble, the river whitecaps, the arched bridge all start becoming imprinted in Aiden’s mind. I try to watch my childhood world through his eyes. It’s peaceful, quiet—the only sounds coming from nature, not man. A land with circadian rhythms that never change, always predictable like the infinity symbols of the rolling hills. Rise, fall, rise, fall—an eternal, cozy pattern of the simple life.
One look at Aiden and I see it, that pastoral standstill filling his eyes. He looks restful, a small smile lingering at the corner of his mouth like a kiss at certain moments. His steel shoulders are less tense, swaying more with movement than his American ramrod posture. Because, as he said, he has no memories of this landscape. Nothing but the ones he is creating right this very minute. I keep quiet to give him these first images to himself. He must be thinking the same because he doesn’t talk, but his hands never leave me. Every few steps, he strokes my cheek, my hair, my arm. As I do with him. But not because I don’t think he is real. Seeing him here, teeming with beauty on my dream trail—how could I possibly have believed those pale imitations my psyche threw together were reality? They were blurry polaroids, grainy images, muffled sounds compared to the real him.
“What are you thinking about?” he breaks the comfortable silence as we are crossing the field of epiphanies.
“Dreams. And you.”
“You mean nightmares?”
I scoff and lean my head on his arm. Always against himself. “In England, Aiden, you’ll always be better than dreams.”
He pauses and takes my face in his hands. “Will you tell me something?” he asks.
“If you take back the nightmare part.”
“I take it back.”
“All right then,” I smile.
“When we were in the garden at your cottage last night, you asked what I did on June sixteenth ten years ago and then said, ‘It’s really you!’ You seemed so shocked. Why was that? Did you believe I’d never come for you?”
I feel my smile fading. He must sense my tension because he releases the pressure of his hands, but not enough to let me look away from him. “Would you have?” I ask, suddenly unsure if I want to know the answer. “If Corbin hadn’t made this discovery that’s given you hope?”
I know the answer before he speaks it; his eyes give it to me. A ghost of the wound creeps up my throat. “I don’t think I would have risked your safety ever again,” he says at last. “But I also know I couldn’t have stayed away. I guess I would have done what I was always planning to do if you had left me but stayed in the U.S. as I thought you would.”
L-e-f-t. “What were you planning?”
“I’d have let you live your life, knowing your normal memory would eventually fade and leave me behind, allowing you to move past the pain and wreckage I had caused. But the whole time, I would have stayed yours. I always planned to find a way to steal a glance at you from a distance. Not like a stalker, just occasionally to get through life, one glimpse to the next. But I never expected I wouldn’t have even that distant glimpse. I didn’t realize how much I had poured all my hopes for survival in that one glance. So when you came to England and took the hope of that glimpse away . . . ” He shakes his head, eyes dropping at my feet.
H-o-p-e. Is this the future that awaits us if Corbin’s theory is wrong? Or will it be even worse? Will there be enough Aiden left to chase that one glimpse? Will there be enough of me? Could I walk through life, sensing his eyes on me every blue moon but when I would whip my head around, he would not be there? Would I always look over my shoulder for my own glimpse of him, search all my déjà vu’s for his mark? A forget-me-not here, a Für Elise there, a line of Byron’s in an old book. And I would think, is this him? Or is it wind swirling our stardust around because our stars would have long since imploded? Goosebumps erupt on my skin, as though the cosmic wind is already blowing. Keep us whole, make us brave.
“Let’s not think about any of that now,” Aiden says, brushing my lips with his thumb, perhaps sensing and asking the same questions to himself. “We’ve been given ninety days, and that’s much more than I could have ever hoped. Not to mention that I’m under strict medical orders to stay in the present moment with you. And in the present, you’re here in my arms, covered in mud and I can’t think of a time when you’ve looked more beautiful.” Then he pecks my lips lightly, flooding my system with oxytocin and, at least for now, fear recedes. Why would I want any other moment than the one here with him?
When Aiden stops us in front of the quaint hotel he has booked at the edge of town, I smile. Not just because it’s down the lane from Solstice Gallery and that feels like another good omen. But because I should have known he would have picked this when I was searching for his window this morning. Aiden is nothing if not intentional about the symbols he creates in his memory.
“Rose Arms Inn?” I grin at him.
“It seemed appropriate.”
“And I assume it’s all vacant because you’ve booked all seventeen rooms despite any prior reservations and compensated the proprietors for their lost earnings so excessively that they have already exceeded their revenue for the next five years?”
“Of course,” he shrugs, but his smile disappears. “Elisa, this isn’t a joke, love. We still need to be very careful, you understand that, right?”
I caress his scar. “I know,” I assure him. “We will be.”
He shakes his head. “My love for you is a terribly selfish reason for exposing you to this again.”
“It’s not just for your love that we are doing this; it’s for my love too. We both want the same thing. Besides, if I’ve learned anything these last two weeks is that selfless love is highly overrated. We have to love ourselves as well.”
He smiles—just a longing smile—and opens the inn’s heavy wooden door. “After you,” he says in that way that sounds like “for you.”
The quiet round lobby looks exactly as it used to when Mum and I delivered roses here on weekends. The same deep chocolate walls, the same wide fireplace burning even in the summer, the same chesterfield sofa with burgundy velvet cushions, the same winged chairs flanking the hearth. Only there are no roses from my cottage anymore and the receptionist is new. But the biggest difference, in every sense of the word, is the colossal man on the sofa, occupying at least a quarter of the space.
“Benson!” I cry and recklessly sprint at him. One should never intentionally collide with Benson. But he rises and catches me gently with a laugh.
“Hello Miss—Elisa.” His kind eyes squint down at me and I have to throw my head all way back to see them.
“I’ve missed you,” I say.
“You’ve been sorely missed too.” He ruffles my hair, frowning at the dried muddy nest.
How relaxed he looks compared to the last time I saw him as Reagan drove me away from Aiden’s home. “Thank you,” I tell him, trying to pour all my gratitude in my voice. “For the letters. I didn’t open them soon enough but they really helped when I did.”
Aiden reaches us then and pulls me to his side. Benson looks at our arms around each other with a smile. “Very glad to hear it. For all our sakes,” he chuckles and steps aside to let us pass. And that’s when I notice for the first time the man lounging in the wing chair by the fireplace. Actually, I can only see the shock of wild auburn curls over the chair’s back but there is no mistaking him.
“James?” I call, peeking around Benson while Aiden tenses under my arm.
James unfolds in all his immense height that still barely clears Benson’s shoulder but certainly hovers over Aiden, and looks at me. “Hello again!” he says, eyes calm, polite smile, as if he didn’t save my life exactly a week ago.
But it’s Aiden who answers before me. “‘Again?’” he repeats, eyes like snipers on James. “Cal, what’s going on?”
I look up at Aiden, confused, but he has locked eyes with James. “Did you call him Cal? I’m sorry, do you two know each other?”
He tears his eyes from James to look at me, and the snipers become smiles. “Elisa, this is Callahan, James Callahan. One of my closest friends. Cal, this is Elisa.” He announces me like I am The Mona Lisa of women, not a muddy recently-drowned sleepwalker.
With a swipe of mortification, everything clicks. “You’re one of the Marines!” I say to James, the words sounding like an accusation, but I can’t meet his eyes. Heat sears my cheeks.
“Nice to formally meet you, Elisa.” I hear JamesCalCallahan respond as I turn to my real problem next to me. “You sent him here?” I whisper to Aiden even though there is no hope JamesCalCallahan or Benson won’t hear me.
He shrugs, still beaming with pride. “Of course I did,” he says as though this is the most natural thing to be doing. “Elisa, you had just come back to your hometown after four years and significant trauma with only two octogenarians for protection as far as I could surmise. Of course I’d sent one of my brothers here to make sure you were safe at least until Reagan arrived. I was losing my mind. There wasn’t supposed to be any interference, however.” The snipers turn on James again, a familiar icy undercurrent in his voice.
I manage to peek at James and I’m glad I do. Because in that glance he frees me. I know from his hazel eyes and the almost imperceptible shake of his head that he hasn’t told Aiden about my river disaster. I don’t know his reasons, but I know I’ll forever be indebted to him not only for saving my life, but also my dignity. “He didn’t interfere,” I rally to his aid. “I just happened upon James during one of my night walks.”
The good news is that my statement distracts Aiden from James. The bad news is that the snipers are now on me. “Night walks?” Aiden says through his teeth, wisps of smoke starting to whirl from his ears. “What the hell are you doing walking out at night, Elisa?”
Despite the Dragon landing on Burford, I smile. He truly does not know. “I like the stars.” I shrug and drag him by his claw toward the lift before he starts breathing fire on my savior. As we step inside, I glance over my shoulder at James.
“Thank you,” I mouth.
He winks with a smile as the lift doors close.
“Stars?” The Dragon in the antique lift hasn’t dropped the subject.
How did I ever find this intimidating? Right now, even though he is glowering down at me, I can’t stop smiling. He is so close, so everywhere in the tiny, velvet-lined space that I walk into his arms, scales and all. They wrap around me automatically like iron wings. “Yes, stars,” I tell him, tapping his snout. “I’ve developed an interest in astronomy recently. You know, big bangs, black holes, that sort of thing.”
“I don’t want your euphemisms right now, Elisa! Tell me what really happened.”
How curious. “Why do you suspect something must have happened?”
“Because James Callahan is a human sniper and was one of the deadliest Marines in the Corps history. No one ‘happens upon’ him if he doesn’t want to be seen. And he was under strict instruction not to be seen unless it was absolutely necessary. That’s why.”
“Oh! Bloody hell, these deadly men,” I grumble as the lift grinds to a stop on the top third floor—which is a tall building for Burford. I exit as soon as the doors open, but he is behind me in a second.
“Yes, deadly. Now what happened before I go back down there and get it from Cal myself?” he demands, marching me down the hall to his room as though preparing exactly for such a battle whether with James or me. The oil paintings of deep red roses that line the walls speed by. Like our American Beauty ones back in Portland. Abruptly I miss their vibrant buds. I take his hand that planted them with me. The moment our hands touch, he slows with a sigh and morphs back to my Aiden. “Elisa, please tell me. Or I’ll just imagine a lot worse than what actually happened, and I’m not supposed to do that.”
I nod even though my mouth has gone dry. I doubt he can imagine this. But how can I deny him even an ounce of relief? “You’re right. I’m sorry,” I say, as we reach the last door and he opens it with the skeleton brass keys they still use here in my village.
Inside, the suite is a wink in time, an ellipsis at the end of a fairytale book. The four-poster bed dominates most of it, with the cozy fireplace tucked in the corner. And on his nightstand is a framed photograph of me sleeping—the same as his old screensaver—facing his pillow. The only photo of me he has. That’s all I have time to see because Aiden tips my head up to him, waiting with tense eyes. Will he think I’m entirely insane when he hears it?
“It truly is nothing for you to worry about,” I start.
“I’m listening.” His voice is forced calm.
“Just a little quirky thing that happened the first week I came back. See . . . I . . . started having these very vivid, very real dreams . . . of you . . . and I couldn’t wake up easily. One might exaggerate and call them . . . next-street over, adjacent to sleepwalking type of behavior . . . but one would be very wrong indeed to go even that far.”
His eyes lock in terror. “Sleepwalking?” he sounds strangled.
“Adjacent. Adjacent to that. Not even that really… more like, going on a night stroll with a . . . dream.”
“You—were—walking—out—at—night—while—asleep—dreaming—of—me?” The strangled voice becomes a horrified whisper, and his shoulders could pulverize Rose Arms Inn to the ground.
“Yes, but I was completely safe. I know this village like the periodic table. We . . . I mean I . . . was walking along the exact trail we just did . . . except even safer because everyone else was asleep. And truly, this is an exceptionally safe hamlet with one of the lowest crime statistics in the world. The last crime here was in 1976 and it involved stealing rose breeds, and the whole town—”
“Elisa!” Half-strangle, half-snarl.
“Right. So, we . . . I . . . would then wake up and . . . umm . . . skip right back to the cottage. All ten fingers and ten toes.” I hold up my hands as evidence, but they’re shaking so hard they could be used against me.
“Then why did Cal have to intervene, Elisa?”
“Oh, hah . . . that . . . well, that was just . . . nothing . . . a complete misunderstanding between me and the . . . the river.”
His hands fly to his face, pulling it down in a realistic, but much more exquisite, rendition of The Scream. “The river! You fell into the fucking river while sleepwalking, and the river dragged you down to the point where you must have been drowning and that’s why Cal had to jump in to save your life! Is that what you’re telling me?” He is breathing like he was in the river with me.
“Well, technically, you said all that, but you would be . . . adjacent right . . . on that theory. But, as you can see, James and the river completely overreacted, and I’m just fine.”
“Yes. The pink of health. It only lasted for about a week until I found the answer and—voila—it went away and I’ve been ever since sleeping very soundly in my bed, with very warm blankets and . . . umm . . . quilts.”
“Until you found the answer?” His tone is dangerously flat without any inflection, probably because all inflection has gone into his muscles.
“Right! Right! Uh huh. I can see why . . . umm . . . you might have more questions about that, but—”
“Elisa! You are this close,” he says, pinching his index finger and thumb together. And then I truly see his eyes—his ravaged Aiden eyes, torn between the horrors of imagination and reality, sickened with panic about me, probably growing the snowball as we speak. And at that look, I no longer care if he thinks I’m certifiably mental and locks me in a padded room at the Burford Dementia Centre for the rest of my life, so long as he heals.
H-e-a-l. Make him whole, keep him safe. I take his fist in both my hands—it feels like a grenade. And I tell him the rest, including my gratuitous home-made drug use while his fist never relaxes, the knuckles icy white under the strain. “But it’s all gone now,” I finish. “It only lasted while my mind redeemed you. And even with that river mess, I’m so glad it happened, Aiden. Because I couldn’t bear living a lie. Where that river didn’t kill me, believing that awful thing about you would have done the job. So please don’t let this ruin this day we never thought we’d ever have again. The present moment, remember?”
He had listened with horror until now but that changes. The fist opens, his face ages, as if he drowned with me, and he brings me to his chest clutching me like a life raft on that river. “Oh, my love!” he kisses my hair, my temple, my forehead. “Thank God Cal was there.” He shudders in my arms. “Thank God! I’ll never forgive myself—”
“Stop.” I place my hand over his lips. “There’s nothing to forgive.” He looks like he wants to argue but decides against it, holding me a while longer as his body relaxes around me. “Does this mean you won’t call the psych ward on me?” I laugh, only half-joking.
“Only if they lock me up with you. And as we’ve established I’m by far the worse patient. From nightmares to fighting imaginary insurgents, you name it. Five scientists across the world can’t sort me out. And that doesn’t include my very favorite scientist of them all. You have to admit, I win this one. It’s not even close.”
This kiss is different. Gentler, slower, like he is solving anagrams inside me with his tongue. A little tip here, a little stroke there, spelling, rearranging my letters, my signs until I’m breathless and—like in my dream—there is only the truth left. The truth of his love for me. And my love for him. A love that has ninety days to survive or end forever. At the thought, my fingers pull his hair like hooks and my leg wraps around his, pressing him closer.
“Hold that thought,” he says, untangling himself from my snare.
“What? Rostóv again?”
He laughs and flits to what I assume is the restroom. I barely have time to take off my crusty parka when he remerges with a victorious smile like he just vanquished War and Peace. With a flourish he rips open a pack of condoms. “Be ready, Elisa. This will be the best sixty-second big bang of your life.”
“Yes!” I laugh and launch myself at him.
It takes less than sixty seconds. One second for him to catch me. Another second for our mouths to meld. No time at all for our breath. Then we lose some seconds wrestling who can touch the other more—a race of lips and tongues and hands; he wins on the kisses, I win on the moans. In another second, I’m flat on the floor. Covered in him, as his T-shirt flies to the wall. His teeth graze my throat as his hands grip my collar. And in another second, my top is ripped open. His mouth closes on my nipples in revenge, and I’m torn. A fire starts there, matching the fire below. In another second, my pajama pants and knickers disappear. But my wellingtons resist—stealing five whole seconds—so he hurls them across the room as far away as possible. I make up some time snapping his belt open, then waste a few seconds fumbling with his buttons. I shove down the waist of his jeans; with a gasp from us both, he springs free. I finally take him in my hands—not enough seconds in the world to feel all of that. He hisses and slaps my hands hard away, pinning down my wrists right above my head.
“Eyes open,” he groans and kicks apart my legs.
A millisecond for my eyes to meet his blue fiery depths. Half a second for his teeth to tear through a condom. In barely a blink he is covered. Then one hand grasps my hip as the other clenches my wrists. And in one more second, he slams inside me. We both cry out—it’s been much too long. But it only takes a breath for our bodies to respond, to remember. To grip and grind in that way they only do for each other. And then it starts. Two power lines thrashing, thrust after hard thrust. His body bolts every inch of mine to the floor. One thrust per second, two, maybe more. But the deeper he moves, the more I want. Every muscle starts shaking, my moans becomes words, cries, muffled by his mouth.
“Elisa!” he gasps, and I know we’ve started the countdown.
I think I say “Aiden” but I don’t know. That one spot in my depths that he keeps hitting is expanding, radiating like a centripetal force field; my vision is narrowing. I try to match his tempo; his rhythm leaves me behind. I grip him with my legs, with my insides, and absorb every final thrust. Every final blow. Until with one last cry, with both explode. Gasping and writhing to that very last drop. And then stilling and collapsing, and the whole world stops.
He is not the big bang; he is whatever big bangs come from.
The sudden stillness is deafening and blind. I can hear nothing but my blood roaring in my ears and our shattered breaths. And for a space in time, I can’t even open my eyes. I sense everything else though. An odd poetic rhythm inside my head. The smell of Aiden—sandalwood and liquid steel. The blanket of his weight all around me. His head rising and falling with my chest. The tempest of his breath on my skin.
He stirs first, and I feel his weight shift. His nose nudges mine.
“Hey.” His husky timbre reverberates inside me.
“Hey,” I breathe, eyes still closed. My hoarse whisper brings a memory of these same two little words during our very first time. If I remember them, he certainly does because, instantly, his entire body springs to life.
“Oh!” I gasp, and my eyes fling open. His stunning face is inches from mine, an exultant smile on his lips like a firework—exactly as then, but exactly for now. He flexes his hips, pulsing inside me.
“You know—” I say, breathless “—there are some benefits to your memory. This would be impossible with a normal man.”
“Let’s be impossible then.” He laughs and rolls us until he is beneath me on the floor and I’m straddling him. The ripped pajamas drape down like love letters. But the moment my arms become bare, everything tilts on its axis. His laugh dies on his lips, draining his face from all color. His eyes lock on my left arm where he last saw the purple bruises left by his crushing grip. And although my skin is ivory now and all healed, the tectonic plates grind to a halt. And in that one glance, we are catapulted from the first time we made love to the last time when he was saying goodbye.
“Aiden, no,” I say, caressing his jaw; it has turned to granite as his teeth are gnashing, exactly as then. “They’re all gone, my love.” I take his face in my hands, trying to turn his eyes on me rather than my arm, but he is frozen away, seeing only the dark patches. Tension rips through him, and the earlier vibrations of his love become ripples beneath me. His hands close in fists where they were resting on my hips, in an identical image of the past.
No, my mind revolts. I won’t let this horror have him. I promised I’d fight with him. But I have no idea how, wishing for Corbin as my Aiden trembles underneath me. Then abruptly my own memory comes to my aid, replaying his musical voice from this morning in my head. ‘We have to do the exact opposite of what we were doing.’ Quickly, I rewind our last time together and the world tilts again, as I start turning everything from that memory upside down.
Where then he leaned in and blew on my bruises, I now lean close and blow gently on his lips. “My love, you love me,” I say, turning his past “I love you” on its head. “You love me so much.”
His breath hitches once, but his eyes are still gone.
Where he last kissed the contours of my bruises, now I kiss the contours of his eyes. “Look at us,” I whisper, instead of the “look at me” he groaned then.
He blinks and slowly the plates start to shift. But his body is still taut, muscles shaking like he is tearing from within. So where the last time it was he kissing every inch of me, I take over now, kissing all of him. His last kisses were all goodbyes so I try to make all of mine hellos. And because last time was silent, now I talk.
“Hello you,” I say to the center of his forehead, kissing it as he did with mine. “Hello,” I kiss his scar. “And you, too, you get a kiss as well,” I peck the tip of his nose and the nostrils stop flaring. “And so do you,” I kiss along his jaw and it slackens. “And I missed you most of all,” I say to his mouth. It opens now, he breathes—and his very first air is the air inside me. I trail down his throat, to his Adam’s apple that bobbles. And wherever my lips touch, the tension starts to soften. At the tip of his shoulder now, the craggiest crest of them all. “Hello stubborn!” I greet it. “You get lots of kisses.” And the moment my lips close there, the tremors slow; I kiss it again and again and again until they stop. And it feels like Corbin’s voice is echoing through time.
“Extraordinary,” I whisper now. I see my calm start spreading over Aiden like light. As though my lips are striking the horrors down. Every time I touch him, that last memory seems to bend. I give him all my kisses, all my touch, like he did with me then. Under my lips, all the tension disappears, blowing out of him like some dark evil force. And with a sharp gust of breath, my Aiden returns.
“Hello,” I say, and he smiles. His eyes find mine; brightening, they become vernal, the shimmering turquoise like a sky for this new constellation. My favorite dimple twinkles on his cheek.
“Beautiful!” he marvels as though I am the art. But in this new opposite dimension, he is the painting and I am the painter.
“Yes, you are,” I answer, and my lips starts again. Not to reverse time now, only to taste him. But he is back in full force and wants to take over. He sits up, his hands tangling in my hair, gripping me closer. His body revs up in ardor, not flashbacks. But I am not letting this calming power slip. My hands lock like manacles around his wrists.
“You’re mine,” I tell him and all the horrors within.
“Always,” he smiles, his hands tightening on my face as though to press the point. And then his dominant mouth is on mine. I get lost in the feeling of him here and more powerful because of me. The expanse of his golden skin, the dusting of dark hair, all his peaks and valleys and riverbeds and cliffs—the entire battlefield of his body. It starts flexing and hardening under my hands, but this hardness I know, I crave. My frenzy strikes again. And although the bed is right next to us, I know I’ll never make it that far.
“Aiden, now,” I beg, but he is already ahead. Jeans gone, new condom, he lifts my hips. Then slowly he lowers me onto him, inch after endless inch. The instant he slides home, my hips are unleashed. Circling, twisting, writhing, shimmying. With each round, my body is building. My skin starts zapping with a static storm. I drive faster down, needing more. And the more he has to give, the more I want. All of him, which I haven’t been able to manage before. But it’s as though the last two weeks have expanded our cells; making more room for each other, not less. I know exactly when I reach the farthest boundaries of him because my loud cry mingles with his and for a blind moment I think, this is how we’ll die. But he takes over very much alive. His hips start a fray of their own. Rolling into me, tilting, thrusting. Deep and slow and shallow and fast. With each salvo, my body ignites—a million points of fire, a million sparks. Then his words start—dark and carnal, stories we only tell each other. I try to match the tempo of his war dance and I falter. He knows. Because when my body arches and suspends, he doesn’t let me fall. His iron arms solder me to him. I hold on to his neck, his shoulders, his everything. With me secure, his rhythm changes. A deadly beat that gives me life. And every cell starts buzzing, zipping, thrumming, thriving. So much life my body starts to quiver. Inside out, there are only tremors and shivers. He groans my name and stars burst in my eyes. And with a final thrust, we both fall apart. For the first time, our release makes us laugh. We plunk down on the rug breathless with paroxysms of giggles. I sprawl over his chest, listening to his laughter, to his heartbeat drumming in my ear. A healthy and robust sprint, like mine.
“Was it always this good?” I ask him when the aftershocks recede, my fingers drawing letters on his chest. A, E, l-o-v-e.
“Always,” he answers without hesitation.
I think about that word—always—that has defined us from the beginning, from when he first explained what it means for him in my Portland apartment three million and two hundred thousand heartbeats ago. And other words that have a different meaning for Aiden and me. Forever, peacemaker, fighter. Can these longer words help us carry the weight of the four-letter ones?
I know this small win we just had is not enough to triumph in this war. I know the enemies ahead are formidable, mightier than any flashback my long-gone bruises triggered. Killings, death, violence, capture, torture—they are all looming. Their black-cloaked specters already darken our days. Their rattling putrid breath is already suffocating. Their rotting skeletal fingers are reaching through the years to claim him and hold him prisoner. I know these are horrors I cannot fight with a kiss. I know my touch won’t wipe them away. They will not vanish under my lips. And my breath will not make them fade. We have no powers except our love. We have no weapons except perhaps my protein of bravery. We have no armies except each other. So this little win is not enough to give me h-o-p-e. It’s not even a map. But it is a step, a sign in the maze of trenches ahead. “This way,” it said.
Hey all, I have no words about this chapter other than to say I hope you enjoy and thank you to all who are reading and commenting. xo, Ani
Friday lands with thunder and rain. It startles me awake, then I wonder whether I was truly sleeping. Javier’s trial is today—or rather in twenty-one hours Portland time. I shuffle to the window and peer outside. It’s still pitch dark. Heavy torrents are cascading like a waterfall around the cottage. And even though this is common for England in June, I tell myself it’s a good omen if my sky is matching Portland’s weather.
I wrap myself with the quilt and lumber downstairs to start the kettle. Despite the heat of the stove and the quilt, I start shivering. I watch my hands pick up the loose-leaf tea, the infuser, a teacup, but they’re background images. On the forefront, sharp and clear, are Javier’s hollowed eyes and ashen face last time I saw him as an armed ICE officer dragged him away. My hands shake and the kettle spout misses the cup. A clap of thunder rattles the cottage windows, and I shamble down the corridor to the library, clutching the hot teacup with both hands. Only one person can calm me now, but Reagan is not on Skype. I ring her mobile twice; no answer. More tea spills out of the cup, staining the quilt like an amber rose print. Then a text blinks on the screen from Reagan: “Sweetie, I’m with the Solises, can’t talk. The girls figured out what’s happening & they’ve been crying. I’m staying with them tonight.”
My teacup drops on the rug at my feet. I thumb a text back as quickly as I can: “Oh no! How did they find out?
“Overheard Maria talking with Benetto. He’s been here all day.”
“Here” must be his parents’ home. Another shiver whips over my skin. “What does Benetto say?”
“Not much. He’s working nonstop, preparing testimony.”
I resolve to send Benetto my very first paycheck even though he said he’s defending Javier pro bono. “Is he hopeful?”
It takes twenty-two elements on the periodic table for Reagan to respond: “We don’t know. We’re all praying.”
“Reg, what can I do? Please tell me what to do!”
“Pray with us, sweetie. There’s not much else you can do.”
I can barely see the screen through my tears. “I will. Should I talk to the girls?”
“No please don’t! We told them you’re helping Javier when they started asking for you.”
Another roll of thunder volleys through the sky, drowning my sob. “Tell them I love them. Tell them I’ll take care of them.”
“Will do. Hang tight. I’ll be there in 2 days.”
“Don’t worry about me. You stay there with them. They need you more.”
“Gotta go, babe. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
No, please stay with me. Please stay with them. Please be air, Reagan, and be everywhere. “I’ll be waiting. Love you, Reg.”
Her final text flashes quickly—“Love you too”—and then she’s gone. I drop on my knees and join my palms together. Prayer was not a daily practice in this cottage, but even Dad agreed science did not have all the answers. When I asked him what he thought God was, he said, “God is the wonder that makes science life.” I pray now to God, Mum, Dad, and any other angel who will listen to me up above. I pray for my Javier, crumpled on the floor in a cramped dark cell with armed guards outside. I pray for Maria and Antonio, and their love that has survived so much. And I pray for the girls and their little beating hearts. Give them strength, God, give them love! More tears splash on the rug like the downpour outside the window. Make them brave, please, save them from fear!
I don’t know how long I kneel here shivering and praying, but eventually my alarm buzzes for me to wake up for work. I start getting dressed, chanting my litany the entire time: “Give them strength. Give them love. Make them brave.”
Outside, the dark has lifted. The torrent has slowed to a downpour but heavy droplets still stream from the sky like crystal rosaries. Give them love, make them brave. I plod across Elysium for the bus stop huddled under Mum’s umbrella and rain jacket. My wellingtons squelch through the sodden grass and I dig deep in her pocket, checking for the Baci quotes that she stuffed everywhere, needing her so badly. She doesn’t disappoint. I read the crumpled quote, trying to keep it dry:
“Kisses are the lightning but love is the storm.”
Give them strength. Give them love. The bus is empty today—another advantage to boarding it so early. The driver has become accustomed to my drawn face and silence so he only nods as I drip my way to my parents’ seats. Then time starts moving in lulls and lurches like the bus. Reaching Oxford seems to take a lifetime, but once I’m there, it becomes a blur. I beat Graham to the lab and all the other researchers. Everything inside me starts working faster: my heart, my brain, my hands. Give them strength. Make them brave. My fingers fly over the lab equipment as though trying to form the protein of bravery instantly. If I had it now, if only I knew how, I could mail it to the Solises to use in the months ahead. I try to decode what Dad meant: “Fifth time. Not December. Add love.” It makes absolutely no sense, yet I’m convinced it has to do with this. Dad never locked unimportant things in the safe.
“Hah! Look who caught the Oxford insomnia,” Graham’s voice startles me. I whirl around, palm over my heart.
“Sorry! Didn’t mean to frighten you.” He smiles, shaking off raindrops from his jacket, but he’s not alone today. With him are three other researchers—dripping too—whom he introduces as Sophie, Rupert, and Elena. “They’re part of our team. They specialize in peptide reduction and are dying to meet you.” Graham rolls his eyes behind their backs probably to make me laugh. But nothing can do that anymore. Why did they have to pick today to join us? On the other hand, more brains for the protein of bravery. I smile and speak the absolute minimum that politeness requires, then turn to my pipettes to prepare them for dispensing the liquefied fear molecules. Graham takes his spot to my left.
“All right there, Eliser?” he asks under his breath. I nod, keeping my eyes on the pale blue liquid. Graham must attribute my silence to my concentration because he doesn’t talk anymore. He starts his methodical calculations, and I feel a rush of gratitude I have him as my lab partner instead of the newcomers who chat freely with each other, stealing looks at me.
Hours race like this as Javier’s last night falls over Portland. If the others talk or ask me questions, I don’t know it. I resurface only when Edison comes in and starts calibrating measurements with us for a while. Any other day, my nerves would be live wires from his presence. But today my brain seems to compartmentalize everything, as though it needs every single neuron to survive.
“You move your hands exactly like Peter,” Edison comments to my right, a ring of marvel in his voice. My brain tucks that away close to my heart, but doesn’t falter. At the same time, it’s dispensing the fear liquid into vials while converting time to Pacific Standard—it’s midnight in Portland now. Everyone will be curled up in bed, but they won’t be able to sleep. Give them rest. Make them brave.
“Elisa, slow down. We don’t want to spill the 2-AG liquid,” Edison coaches gently.
“I won’t spill it,” I answer with a confidence that two days ago would have stunned me. Today it stuns them. From the corner of my eye, I notice all five stop what they were doing and stare. My brain is already allocating the rest of the liquid into vials, but it sends a signal to me to pause, look up at them, and mimic a smile. “Sorry, I know I’m being rude, but I’ve had a thought and would like to test it as soon as possible. And I’m hopeless at talking while doing that.” The lie is smooth—too smooth for me—but instinctively I know I shouldn’t share my dad’s clue with anyone. Not until I have decoded it. Dad hid it in the safe and kept it to himself for a reason.
“No doubt, no doubt,” mumbles Edison, watching me intensely as though I’m one of the combusting peptide bonds. “Exactly like him,” he adds, but my brain has moved on. The last droplets of the blue liquid swirl into vials like glacial pools. Another line of neurons triggers a memory of his sapphire eyes, and my hands falter now. One of the pipettes trembles, and I almost miss the vial. I think I hear a smirk from Edison, but the liquid doesn’t spill. No more thoughts of him, my brain issues a global command, and every cell falls in rank as they mobilize my hands to start injecting peptide liquid—the fear’s counter-substance—into the blue pools. Two in the morning in Portland now, the hardest hour, and I move faster. The pinkish hue of the peptides infuses the blue liquid, turning it lilac like Mum’s eyes in the sun. Help them, Mum, give them sweet dreams! Edison, Graham, and the others have injected all the other vials. In unison, we place them in the centrifuge. While they spin blurry with speed, my brain is counting down the minutes to dawn in Portland. After a fifth rotation, the vials stop spinning.
“Now then,” Edison announces meaningfully. “I see you mixed them a fifth revolution longer. Let’s see if this will coagulate them.”
Gingerly, with the crucible tongs, I lift the first vial to hover it over the Bunson burner that Graham is controlling. A single brain cell takes a second to confirm my hands are steady, and then all six sets of lungs in the lab hold their breath. If the “fifth” in my dad’s note relates to spinning time, the lilac mixture should thicken to a viscous syrup consistency. If not—
BANG! The vial cracks at the same time that the mixture combusts into a blue flame. A collective gasp drowns the hissing noise as dawn breaks over Portland.
“Again,” I say. And we start all over. BANG! BANG! BANG! The vials explode into smithereens, fire after fire. The Solises will be getting up now, getting dressed. Reagan and Benetto will drive to the courthouse in Tacoma, while Maria, Antonio, and the girls stay behind, away from ICE officers. Will they even be able to say goodbye? Make them strong. Make them brave.
“Again,” I say, reaching for another vial.
“No, Elisa, this is the fifth time, we can’t waste it!” Edison’s tone is final, exasperated, but my brain pauses everything. The fifth time! I stare at the innocent lilac liquid in the vial in my hand. What happens to it in the fifth time? Whatever it is, it cannot be December. My brain kicks into overdrive, cataloging everything having to do with the month: Christmas, cold, winter, snow, ice, the last month, the twelfth month! In a blast of awareness, my head snaps up to the periodic table on the wall across from me. The twelfth element: magnesium. Remove it on the fifth spin!
“What is it? Elisa, what? What have you discovered?” Edison’s loud voice breaks through at the same time as adrenaline starts waning. Because I still don’t know what “add love” means. Is that February fourteen? I search the periodic table but neither the second nor the fourteenth element would make sense. My parents’ anniversary? My birthday? No, those don’t fit either.
“Oh for heavens’ sake!” Edison shouts, yanking me back. His eyes are wide, boring into me like lasers. Graham and the others are watching too.
“What did you see?” Edison asks again, his voice calmer now that he has my attention.
“It’s nothing, I didn’t see anything,” I tell them all. The energy that was powering my brain drains away, and abruptly I feel the urge to sit.
“You thought of something! I know you did!” Edison insists. “I’ve seen that look in Peter’s eyes a thousand times. What was it?” The lab is trilling with his excitement, his desperation, but deep inside my dad’s voice says hush.
“Well?” Edison’s hands are in fists at his sides, so intense is his hope.
“I thought maybe if we added an anti-fire coagulant this time, it would help,” I invent wildly.
Edison shakes his head with a deep sigh, deflated, as I knew he would be. His fists relax. “We’ve tried that. Didn’t Graham tell you?”
“He must have, only I forgot.”
He closes his eyes briefly as though unable to watch, and I see in that gesture how much this means to him. How he grieves each step-back, perhaps as I grieve Dad.
“We’ll get there,” I assure him, feeling guilty, but not guilty enough to break with my dad.
Edison nods and composes his face. “No doubt, no doubt. Keep up the good work.” He scans the lab one last time and strides out, but his sunken disappointment stays behind. We all return to our own desks in silence. I sense eyes on me, but my brain has gone from absorbing everything to registering nothing except the courtroom where I last saw Javier. Soon he will be leaving his cell in an inmate van. Give him strength. Give him courage.
Graham leans close to me. “Something’s going on with you today,” he mutters. “Did you really not come up with anything or was that just for Edison?”
“No, I really didn’t. I’m just distracted—my best friend from Portland is coming to visit tomorrow.”
“That’s brilliant. Is he or she staying long?”
“Her name is Reagan.” Saying it out loud feels good, like sending it into the universe for her to answer. “And I wish she could stay forever, but it’s only for a couple of weeks.” And then what? Will I have to start all over again? How many times can I say goodbye to Reagan before her star implodes too?
Graham starts the experiment from the beginning, but I’m across the ocean. Judge Lopez will enter the courtroom any minute now and begin trial. My stomach starts twisting so violently that I mumble about needing a break and barely manage to walk normally to the restroom. As soon as I close the door, I deposit whatever little is in my stomach into the sink. Make them brave. Make them safe. I splash cold water on my face, not seeing my reflection in the mirror, only that courtroom. Is ICE presenting its case now? Javier is a thief; he stole painting supplies; he is a risk.My dad’s watch ticks the minutes away as I lean against the restroom wall. When will Benetto start his defense? Dad, give him your brainwaves. Give him help. My stomach churns again but thankfully nothing comes out this time. I gulp some water straight from the faucet and plod back to Bia.
“Any breakthroughs in the lav?” says Graham.
“Ah, that’s rotten luck. Sometimes I get my best ideas in there.”
I start scrubbing all the beakers, flasks, burets, and unbroken vials vigorously, my eyes seeing nothing but the Tacoma courtroom. Benetto’s argument must be over by now. Any minute Judge Lopez should issue his ruling. Give him compassion. Give him mercy. A beaker slips through my hands and shatters on the stainless steel sink. I start cleaning up the shards, ignoring Graham’s offers for help, needing like air the focus required for collecting broken glass. Behind me, the four of them start cleaning up their workstations—it’s a summer Friday after all. Soon they’ll leave and I can fall apart alone.
“Eliser, come on! We usually grab a pint at King’s Arms on Fridays,” calls Graham from his locker. “I don’t think you’ve been there yet. And we might as well save some of the beakers.”
“Sorry, Graham, rain check this time,” I call back, keeping my eyes on the vial I’m disinfecting. “I have to be back at the cottage tonight.” As if any other place could contain me after my phone rings.
All four try to convince me to join them for a few useless minutes but they eventually relent. As they pass me on their way out, Graham whispers: “When I said he lives in you, I didn’t mean have no life for yourself. Have fun with your friend. See you Monday.”
The lab door closes behind them with a click.
Perhaps it’s the terror mounting inside me or Graham’s words lingering in my ear—“he lives in you”—but my brain reignites abruptly. What if I can really do this? Not just for Dad anymore, but for all my other lost stars. And what if someday he could use it? What if he could eat my bravery protein every morning—it’ll be flavored like Skittles, his favorite candy—like he did my anti-hunger protein that one time at Reed? It could help ease his terror of hurting others, his fear of flashbacks. And he would never know it was from me. I would donate the formula to an American lab for free on the conditions that they produce and supply it exclusively to all PTSD survivors and military combatants and never disclose my identity. A gift to give him even an hour of peace each day without the side effects of psychoactive drugs or the side effects of our relationship. Dad would have liked that too.
My fingers start flying then. I begin isolating and removing the magnesium on the fifth spin. The process is painstaking but that’s good. It fills the time as the clock ticks the minutes away and my phone screen remains categorically blank. Eventually, the magnesium disintegrates off the peptide bonds. I inject the stripped peptides into the blue liquid, goggles firmly on in case it explodes again. But it doesn’t. The lilac liquid starts thickening. My heart is sprinting but in a few seconds the liquid separates and disintegrates into a watery mess.
“Bollocks!” I curse at it. This must be the moment when I need to “add love.” But no matter how much I stare at the periodic table or search through the supply cabinets, I cannot fathom what Dad meant. Yet I can’t help but feel I’m getting closer. Give them all peace. Make them all brave.
It’s almost eleven thirty in the morning in the Tacoma courtroom. Minutes pass, one after the after, and my phone remains silent. I contemplate calling but what if Judge Lopez is still deciding or asking questions? I don’t want to interfere with anything. And what if they’re done? What if Judge Lopez ruled to deport Javier, and they’re saying goodbye? How could I interrupt that one last moment?
I jump to my feet then, cleaning up quickly. Even the breakthrough I just made cannot stop my molecules of terror any longer. I sprint out of Bia, needing only one place in the world that’s not that courtroom. My cottage. The downpour has changed to a drizzle by now, like teardrops against the twilight sky. Give them light. Give them strength.
I wish some day I could look back at these hours and say I passed them with courage, or at least grace. But that’s not what happens. Instead I have empty stretches of time where I remember nothing. I don’t know how I got on the bus or when I arrived at the cottage. But here I am as the rain stops completely and the clouds part for the evening stars. I call then. Ringing Reagan over and over while pacing every corner of the cottage but her bubbly American voicemail always has the same answer: “You’ve reached Reagan. I can’t get to the phone right now. Leave a message and I’ll call you back.”
After twenty-five times—definitely not graceful or courageous—I call Maria, no longer caring if she is standing right next to Stella. But the ring drops off with the generic computer greeting that all the Solis phones have. Antonio’s does the same. There could be only one explanation and my mind recoils from it even though we knew it could end this way. I whirl like a tornado through the cottage, trying to think. Who do I call next? I try Bob—his assistant informs me he is at a trial. Is that the Solis trial, Miss, has he gone to watch? The assistant politely tells me she cannot share confidential information and takes my name and number. By the time she hangs up, there is no one left. Only him! But how could I inflict myself on him when I know the pain my voice would cause him, the terrifying flashbacks I would trigger? And if it is bad news, as it’s looking to be, can I put the burden of giving it to me on his ever-tense shoulders? Can I force him to speak the words that will shatter me more than any attack of his? All this after making him a monster? And could I hang up after hearing his voice? Could I live through that again?
I march out of the cottage and start tending to the roses with a lantern. Help them, Mum, save them with your magic. I prune the withered blooms and gather the petals that have fallen from the rain into mulch. The thorns prick at me—they’re just sharp kisses, Mum would say—but I welcome it. Each prick is a call back from the nightmares in my head. But even the roses can’t hold my attention anymore.
Phone clutched in hand, I end up in Elysium, treading circles around its perimeter. The moon is brighter than the sun was today, and the clouds have cleared. And the phone remains silent, no matter how often I check its signal or battery. Make it end, God, give it a good end, please. My entire frame is shaking in terror. Perhaps I could keep some of the bravery protein for myself. I trudge back toward the cottage then, unscientific superstitions slithering inside my brain like venom. If I change paths, maybe they will call. If I enter the cottage on the right foot, maybe Judge Lopez will rule for Javier. If I light the fire in the fireplace, maybe it will burn away these thoughts. If I prepare the guest room for Reagan and cover every inch with fresh roses, she will bring me good news. But nothing works. I turn on one of our home movies on mute and curl up on the sofa, keeping my eyes on Mum and Dad dancing Argentine tango. I’m behind the camera this time, while they waive at me then embrace, eyes only for each other.
And still the night stretches without a call or text. Eleven now, midnight. With each swing of the pendulum clock on the wall, the answer becomes inescapably clear. Javier didn’t make it. And losing him is so staggering, no one has life left in them to comfort me. They’re all comforting each other, exactly as it should be. Tears start dropping hot and fast on my hands. So this is how it ends. In silence, without the words that make it true because no one can utter them. Who would have the heart tell me there’s been an accident this time? Poor Reagan will need to do that in person tomorrow, or I guess it’s technically today. What mirror did I break? What ladder did I walk under? Help them, God, stay with them. Not with me. I unmute the home movie, letting the tango play because I know my phone will not ring.
Thunder rumbles, rattling the windows again, startling me upright. It’s still dark out. I must have dozed off here on the sofa—how were my neurons able to fall sleep? Another salvo crashes through the cottage, jolting my phone off my hands.
“ELISA!” a voice booms over the clamor, loosening my very bones as another volley shakes the front door. And I realize it’s not thunder, it’s heavy knocks. “ELISA!” the voice resounds again but my feet are ahead of me, sprinting to the foyer. I wrench the door open and for one second, in the foyer light, I glimpse a face I’ve seen a thousand times today in my mind.
Gaunt and hollowed like me, with a thick ebony beard, Javier is standing on my threshold, fist in the air about to knock again. And right next to him, a mass of wild, red curls. That’s all I see because in a flash I’m wrenched off my doorstep as Javier crushes me to his chest.
“Isa, thank God! Thank God!” He cries in my hair, kissing the top of my head, clutching me tightly, as Reagan sobs, hugging my back. I’m squeezed between them, their arms and hands around me so solid, so substantial.
“Javier! Reg!” I gasp into Javier’s sweater, kissing it and clasping his shoulders. “What—how—you’re here—how are you here?”
“Shhh, amorcita, it’s okay. You’re alright. Gracias a Dios, you’re alright!” he says over and over into my hair, pressing me closer.
“Careful Javi, let her breathe!” Reagan chides while hugging my neck.
“You’re the one choking her,” he says but still he tilts up my face. His paint and peppermint smell envelops me, along with Reagan’s Lolita Lempicka perfume. At their homey smell, the tears start—sobs really, so intense that they pull away exactly one inch, while still gripping both my shoulders and hands.
“Breathe sweetheart, deep breaths! We’re here. We’re here for you,” Javier repeats methodically, his voice back to that calm, soothing timbre I remember. He strokes my hair, his ashen face wild with anxiety, and I blink hard to dispel the tears. I see them properly now: Reagan’s tearful emerald eyes—were they always so kind, so beautiful? And Javier’s deep obsidian ones sparkling above the beard full of life, so different than the last time I saw him.
“What happened, Javier?” I blubber, squeezing their hands in each word. “Did ICE kick you out? Are you hurt? Where is Maria? What about the girls and Antonio? How are they—where—why—Javier, what happened?”
“Isa, relax.” Javier brings me back to his chest, gently this time, while Reagan rubs my back. “We’ll explain everything, but we’re all fine. Worried sick about you, but fine.”
“But what happened? I’ve been waiting—”
“We won, sweetheart. Well, we lost first, then won. Then I got emergency parole to travel and see you for humanitarian reasons.” His voice shudders at the last words. “Why did you do this crazy thing, Elisa? I thought I told you not to do anything that risked your green card. And you go and give it all up for us.”
So Bob kept his word; he gave them the money. Exactly right. “You’re my family,” I sniffle into his chest. “Of course I’d take care of you.”
“And we’ll take care of you,” he says quietly, wiping away my tears.
“But how could you possibly have won? And how did you get here so fast? I’ve been so worried!” I pull back to look at the wall of their bodies in front of me, so close, so warm, I almost miss the sideways anxious glance Reagan gives Javier.
“Well,” he says slowly, softly, cupping my cheek. “We had a lot of help from someone.” They part then, like a double door in front of me, freeing the light of the foyer to stream into the dark garden.
And there, in the path of light some feet away, is a silhouette my cells know awake or asleep, ash or alive. Tall, ramrod straight, shoulders hard against the night, he stands motionless by the Elisa roses.
“Aiden!” My gasp, my feet, my very heart move fast on their own, propelling me forward while everything else falls behind. But with each trembling step toward him, the mind catches up. This isn’t real, it says. It’s too similar to before.
I stop and look over my shoulder. Javier and Reagan are still on the threshold, heaving suitcases inside—they were never in my dreams before. They felt real a few moments ago. But then they close the door behind them, plunging the garden into darkness. My heart starts clawing against my ribs. Under the terror, it will implode like all my stars. This isn’t real.
“Elisa,” his voice calls me, and the sound is so heartbreakingly beautiful. Softer and huskier than the other dreams—like the first word we might speak after a long, deep slumber. My feet obey instantly to his music, captive despite the terror.
I reach him then, as I always do. His face is darker than usual too, the moon is behind him this time, gilding his wavy hair silver. I can’t see his eyes, only the panes of his face contoured against the moonlight. And I know in that, this must be a dream. I know because the livid wound inside my chest is sealed shut. In its place is that deep ember he lit up the very first time we spoke to each other. Even afraid, I can feel it there, its warmth radiating through me, thawing every cell back to life.
“Elisa, are you alright?” He takes a step closer, yet is farther than the other nights he has visited. A faint scent of cinnamon, sandalwood, and something I can’t name wafts with the river breeze. The sandalwood and nameless scent are new; my dreams are getting better. Why is that? Is that because I’ve never needed him more than I do tonight?
“Elisa?” His voice is urgent now, a crescendo in his music.
“You’re here,” I answer, a statement not a question—like I did in the other dreams. Any minute now, he will smile. And the night will get lighter. And I will be able to see his stunning face.
“I am.” The voice is back to a sonata, so perfect for a dream. But the night is not lightening. We haven’t gotten to that part yet.
“Why?” I say my next line.
A deep, throaty sigh—so male I shiver. “There are about seventeen answers to that question in a dichotomous key, Elisa,” he murmurs exactly my words to him from an evening at Andina bar a lifetime ago. So vivid, so flawless even for dreams.
“Give me one,” I tell him. Make the night lighter. Say you’re here to show me the answers.
“To bring you your family,” he says, but it’s the wrong line. And the right one. Always trying to help me, never himself. But the night stays deep, his face still etched in shadow and starlight. I glance back at the cottage—it’s still there—then again at him, unwilling to miss a speck. He is not walking toward the river like he should be; he is still close to me and the Elisa roses.
“What day is it?” I ask us both to test reality.
“June sixteenth,” our voices join together, baritone and violin. “June fifteenth in Portland,” he adds after I stop. “Elisa, what is it? What’s going on?” The panic in his voice is almost muted by the sudden pounding in my ears.
“And what did you do on June sixteenth ten years ago?”
“Elisa, what’s the matter? Are you hurt?” He is inches from me, his hands out as though to break my fall. Exactly as a dream would.
“Answer me, please,” my voice shudders.
“Okay. I woke up at five-thirty, worked out for forty-five minutes, ate scrambled eggs and four pieces of toast, answered twenty-seven calls and eighty-nine emails, reviewed the articles of incorporation for Hale X, played sixteen games of chess, and fell asleep, reading Brothers Karamazov. The last line I read was ‘The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.’ Do you need more?”
“It’s really you!” I gasp. He is truly here. No one else could match him, real or dream. That’s why he smells better, why his voice is sweeter, why his answers are not lines from a play or details my subconscience could have known. My mind has never done him justice. I tense as my entire body springs to life but his face contorts in anguish at my words—even in the pale moonlight, I can see that. A gust of breath leaves his lips like he has been punched in the gut.
At that sight, at that sound, the last two weeks don’t matter. His lie about Javier doesn’t matter. My questions don’t matter. My wants don’t matter. The only thing that matters is to release him from this pain. To free him. To tell him the truth and turn his stardust into light. So he can shine on.
He is still watching, I can tell from his hard breathing, matching mine gasp to gasp. “I’m so sorry, Aiden,” I tell him. The words spill out fast, as though they’ve been rolling in my mouth since the Solstice Gallery that fateful night. “I’m so very sorry.”
“What do you have to be sorry about?” He sounds bewildered. I wish I could see the V that I know is forming between his eyebrows.
“For believing you reported Javier.” My voice trembles. “For even asking you that awful question in the first place.”
I have stunned him into silence, that much is obvious even in the dark. “Elisa,” he says at last, his voice so unbearably soft I imagine him calling me “love” instead. Like he used to. “You didn’t believe anything I didn’t want you to believe.”
Always trying to protect me, even from myself, even now after the end. “That doesn’t justify anything. I know now, I know it wasn’t you. I know you could never have done something like that. It was Feign all along.”
“How did you figure it out?”
You gave me the truth, I want to tell him. You came here every night, like you are right now, never stopping until I found my way. “That’s a very long answer. I’m just sorry I couldn’t figure it out sooner. I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much pain.”
His gasp drowns my voice. “Elisa, stop! You’ve given me nothing but joy. You erase pain, you don’t inflict it.”
How could that be, I want to say. How could I erase pain when my very sight must be triggering memories of his attack, of his suffering? So much so that he exiled me from his life. “That’s not true,” I tell him. “I should have listened to you. I shouldn’t have forced myself on you after the attack. I should have left like you begged me to so many times. I’m so sorry.”
“Elisa, stop this right now!” His voice rises to its familiar hard command. “If you blame yourself about any of this, you will only make me more disgusted with myself.”
And there it is. The truth of the truth; the end of the end. “We will always come back to that, won’t we?” I whisper. To his self-loathing, his determination to save me from himself at all costs, especially at the cost of himself. I step an inch closer—one fingertip and I could touch him. One fingertip and it would shatter me. I knot my hands tightly together at the exact moment that his hands do the same. “Aiden,” I start, feeling his name in my mouth one more time. The way the A molds to my tongue, the way the D caresses the rooftop, the way the N soft and airy brushes my lips. How could I have ever silenced it? How could I have banned it? He waits as I try to find my words. I can feel the warmth of his ember fading, the wound starting to throb again. “I know it’s in your very molecules to shoulder all the blame. Even your atoms think you’re not worthy. Even your cells don’t think you deserve happiness. But you do. I don’t ever want to be the reason for any of these feelings you have about yourself—”
“Listen to me, please! I told you once, you brought me back to life. And now you’ve saved Javier—I have noidea how you managed to pull that off, I’m sure I’ll soon find out—but I know it was for me. You keep trying to save me over and over again, even now when I’m not yours to save.”
His shoulders ripple against the moonlight, and his breath catches. “You’re not mine,” he repeats, as if to himself. And the air changes.
“We can’t keep doing this,” I say, every word a shard of glass, cutting the perfect mouthfeel of his name. “You can’t stay captive to me, always trying to do the right thing by me yet hurting us both. I want you to live, live the exact kind of life you want me to have.”
“Elisa…” he whispers. “Love, what are you saying?”
That word. I can keep that word as a souvenir, can’t I? We deserve that much, don’t we? “You call me ‘love’ still.”
“You will always be my love,” he repeats his words to me from that last day we had together. “You know that—”
“Once you love, you love forever,” I finish for him, dream and life coming full circle. This is why all my dreams ended this way. I must have known even then it would have to come to this. I’d have to leave him for the right reasons.
He is unfathomable before me, shadows of night and light carving him into stone. No sound, no breath. I wish the moon was brighter, I wish I could see his beautiful face, his eyes that never told me a single lie. But it’s better this way—how could I have spoken these words then? Yet the urge to touch him, to feel him real here in my garden once so I can look at this spot in the years ahead and say, “I touched a real-life angel there once” becomes visceral. It unlocks my hands and I reach for his face—a small part of me still afraid he will disappear. But this is the goodbye we should have had, even in my dreams.
My fingers touch his cheek for the first time—his warm, smooth skin, the gentle nip of his stubble, longer than I remember. He leans into my hand. “Elisa!” he says, voice catching at the “s” like a sigh.
“Thank you,” I tell him. “For everything.” I want that kiss, that one last kiss to keep forever on my lips like a Peter Pan wink that keeps one young. But I’m not strong enough for that even though I know he would give it. He would give me everything, everything but himself. So I reach on my tiptoes instead and kiss his L-shaped scar. His hands fist in my hair, holding me there tight, his breathing harsh in my ear. His body is taut steel, a forged statue brushing against every line of mine. “Be happy!” I say and try to pull away, shaking with loss. He must sense my need for distance because he drops his hands and lets me go.
“Is this what you really want? What about your happiness?” he chokes, always putting me first.
“I’m sorry, Aiden, you can’t give it to me. No one can.”
“I’d like to try. Please, Elisa.”
“It’s not your job anymore, my love.”
“You call me “love” still.”
“You’ve said it yourself, lack of love was never our problem.” I step back, tears searing my eyes. And why should I cry? Aren’t I lucky to have had this kind of great love? Doomed in the end, yes, but great. My insides don’t find that thought comforting. The wound rips wide open.
“Elisa, please,” he says again, but I am drained. I have seconds left before his sentient eyes see my own pain even in dark and try to save me again, in a never-ending cycle of selflessness that hurts more than any selfish deed.
“Do you have a place to stay?” I ask even though I know he must. He would never sleep with me. He doesn’t even have any suitcases with him.
He nods without words; I can only see the movement.
“Sleep well then. Make it a good dream.”
I caress his scar one more time and turn away, running inside as the tears breach through the last of my dams.
“Elisa!” his voice calls after me even as I close my door.
Hi everyone and welcome to all the new and old readers who are returning! It’s been wonderful to see your names and social avatars again. Thank you for coming back to Aiden & Elisa, and for your comments to me. You support and encouragement means a lot. Without much delay, here is Chapter 9. Tic toc…
Living with the truth turns out to be harder than I imagined. It’s harder because now I know exactly how much he couldn’t bear to be with me after the attack. It’s harder because there is absolutely nothing I can do to change that. And it’s harder because now I don’t dream of him at all. And that’s the worst part; it’s like losing him all over again.
Still, as difficult as living with the truth is, it’s easier than living with myself. Because harder than everything else are the what-if’s. What if I hadn’t believed him when he told me he reported Javier? What if I had looked closer? What if, instead of forcing myself on him after the attack, I had left as he asked? What if! What if! What if! Like a sledgehammer to the brain, shattering all my rules.
The only things getting me through are Oxford and Reagan’s visit in three days. Of course, we all have to live through Javier’s trial in forty-eight hours first. I cannot think about that. I grab Dad’s lab coat and run out of the cottage for the bus stop even though it’s only five in the morning. But today—after two days of orientation—is my first time working in my father’s lab at Oxford. And although things like joy and excitement are beyond me, I cannot bear the idea of embarrassing my dad.
Walking at dawn alone, without him, feels like the Portland airport, but worse. It’s as though losing him was a cataclysmic event, a big bang that could not be contained in one continent. It has expanded now, radiating through the planet, finding me here in my little, peaceful town, pulverizing whatever flimsy structure I had managed to build.
But the moment I step on the bus, I feel a little stronger, las though Oxford’s hard limestone permeates my skin. By the time the bus drops me off at the University Center, I am centered too.
On the outside, the Chemistry Building looks calm and quiet. But inside, it’s teeming with life. Apparently Oxford does not sleep even in the summer. Students are huddled over books, clutching thermoses of caffeinated drinks, eyes bloodshot with shadows underneath. At least here my face will blend right in. Researchers are stretching their arms in the air, twisting their backs side-to-side, loosening the night’s knots. And behind closed office doors, I’m certain there are professors poring through papers or staring into space at concepts the rest of us cannot see. The entire building is humming with single-minded pursuit of knowledge, with the thrill of discovery within. There is no space in its vast horizons for lost loves, immigration trials, or past crimes. Oxford has its eyes on the vistas of possibilities, on the finite rules of science that survive any big bang, that explain everything. And because of that, Oxford is perfect for me.
But am I perfect for it? As I enter the cavernous state-of-the-art lab that could fit Denton’s in one of its fume hoods, I’m not at all certain. At least ten researchers are there already and when they spare a moment to look up, they all stare.
“Ah, Elisa! Here you are!” Edison calls, striding toward me from one of the cryogenic freezers. “I was beginning to fear you had lost your way.” Clearly, 6:30 in the morning is too late for this crowd. I’m sure Dad used to come to work later, but then again he had Mum and me. Edison is betrothed to science.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, mortification draping over Dad’s lab coat that I’m wearing.
“Ah, not at all, not all. Like father, like daughter, I reckon. Peter would get in late too, but accomplished twice as much as us, the brain of his.”
Not wanting to waste another second, I start scuttling to the closest empty lab desk, but Edison chuckles. “No, my dear girl, you’re this way, with me.” And he starts marching the length of the lab at a pace that is only technically not running. I scramble behind him, feeling inquisitive eyes on my back, probably relieved that I, the flake, will not be anywhere near their experiments.
“Here we are,” says Edison, opening a door to a lab within the lab—like a heart chamber. I expect to see more futuristic technology, but this lab is homier, with a warmer glow than the harsh fluorescents of the Goliath around us. And, at the very front, as though he is waiting for me, stands a man, probably in his thirties, wearing a white lab coat identical to mine, except the initials: GRK. The moment I look at him, I feel the need to squint. He has lustrous blond hair as though a thousand sunrays are weaved in each strand. His skin is golden and his eyes a butterscotch hazel. He is so lanky that, clad in his brilliant white coat, he could be a neon beam himself. And he is the only one not staring. He is simply smiling.
“Elisa, welcome to the lab where many seasoned chemists wish they could brew. This is Bia.” Edison says the name of the Greek goddess of force and energy with reverence. “And this is my chief researcher, Graham Knightley.”
I’ve been practicing a smile and I employ it now as I reach for Mr. Knightley’s hand, expecting it to be hot due to his sunny appearance but it’s cold, like a true lab resident. “Hello, I’m Elisa Snow. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Knightley.”
“Graham, please! And I know who you are. We’ve all been very eager to meet you.”
If he meant this as reassurance, it has the opposite effect on me. All I can think about is how I am going to embarrass my dad next. What was I thinking taking this on in my current state? I should have worked at the local pub for a while or forever as there are no dreams left for me. But before I can panic thoroughly enough to submit my resignation, Edison claps his hands once, as if to call attention, and says something that changes everything.
“Now, Elisa, you know your father and I had this dream of inventing proteins that are easy to digest but accomplish big things. Like the protein that fights hunger, which you’ve already developed.” He inclines his head to me while I use every brain cell to block memories of selling that protein to him to buy my green card. “Well, shortly before Peter’s accident, we had another idea: develop a protein that fights fear.” Edison whispers this last word, as though it’s an incantation or some secret gospel. For him, it is. As it instantly becomes for me. It triggers a memory of Dad in those last few weeks locked up in our library in that fervor that took over his brain sometimes. He would never tell me the idea that possessed him until he thought it through or found a way, no matter how much I questioned him. “You’ll know soon enough, Eliser,” he’d say. But he never had a chance to tell me that time. He died before the answer came. But I’m still here: how can I resist finding the answer for him? If I cannot dream my own dreams, maybe I can dream my father’s.
“Did Peter tell you about this idea?” asks Edison with a fanatical gleam in his eyes, as though he can read thoughts.
“No.” I shake my head, disappointing him no doubt. “I just remembered that he was in one of his zones right before—” I swallow. “But he never told me what it was.”
“Oh.” The gleam in Edison’s eyes disappears, but he recovers quickly. “No matter. I think he may have made more progress than you realize. So, here in Bia, Graham and I are continuing this work. Every day, every night—for the last four years. We get close sometimes, then lose it right at the moment we inject the 2-AG molecule in the peptide bonds. It combusts into flames. This one is tricky—trickier than anything else I’ve tried. But with you here, maybe we have a chance. Perhaps something will occur to you that has not done to us. And imagine if we do succeed!” Edison’s eyes glint again. “Imagine brewing a life with no fear. What that would mean to you, to me, to so many.”
To my dad, I finish in my mind. It’s impossible not to feel that I will let Edison down; how could I ever do in a summer what my father wasn’t able to in his life? But how could I not try? How could I not give it every day and every night of what remains of my existence? This is the last thing I have from him.
Time becomes a blur then. Edison leaves for a lecture, and Graham and I work side-by-side, as he shows me their progress, their challenges, and where they’ve gotten stuck. He works quickly, elegantly, his gloved fingers handling the equipment with fluidity, like piano keys.
Every once in a while, he mentions Dad: “Professor Snow would have seen right through this” or “I think he’d have done it this way.” At some point, we both start talking to Dad out loud and neither of us seems to think this is mental. But mostly, we work in a companionable silence trying to reduce the elusive 2-AG molecule into any form compatible with peptides that doesn’t combust. Testing one compound here, another there—like a new musical note in a melody. Many look at chemistry and see fumes, liquids, beakers, flasks, burners. But that’s not what chemistry is: it’s music. Each element, each atom is a note. Each piece of equipment is an instrument. Mix these two compounds together, and they hiss. Mix those two others, and they babble. Throw this fifth substance in, and they ring like trumpets. Find the right formula, and you have a concert. A concert that feeds you when you’re hungry. A concert that makes you brave. Someday, perhaps a concert that keeps you young. But it’s always music—chemistry is the soundtrack to life.
“Break?” Graham asks after a while.
“No, it didn’t. See? The peptide is still intact.”
“No, I mean, take a break with me?” Graham annunciates slowly, as if thinks I might have forgotten how to speak English.
“Oh! No, no, no!” I say quickly like he suggested I should swallow the liquefied peptides. Who needs a break? What could I possibly allow myself to think? Not to mention I’m not ready to converse casually with people who are not Reagan. Graham’s eyes widen a fraction so I amend to keep him from seeing the madness within. “I mean, thank you, but I’d really like to finish this first. I might—”
“Eliser, it has waited four years, it can wait forty minutes. Besides, I’m famished.” He smiles, but I’m frozen solid. “What’s the matter?” He frowns when I don’t move, probably questioning my mental stability at this point.
“My dad used to call me that sometimes,” I whisper, remembering Dad laughing at his own pun: Eliser—Elixir. “I haven’t heard it said out loud in a long time.”
Graham blanches. “I’m very sorry, I should have asked. Only that’s how Professor Snow referred to you and I suppose it stuck—” he clears his throat. “My apologies, I shouldn’t have used it. What would you like to be called?”
Simple manners, yet the question feels suddenly important to me. “Eliser is fine,” I answer, surprising myself. Then again, is it really a surprise? The girl I was, named after Beethoven’s melody, is gone forever; no one will be playing the piano again for me.
Graham waits as though he guesses I’m processing something. Or perhaps he is getting used to everything taking me longer. “A break might be a good idea,” I concede, trying to sound normal as we walk out of Bia.
Without failing, the researchers’ eyes follow us out. By the time we reach the building cafeteria though I realize it’s not just the researchers. A couple of professors come up, shaking my hand, saying, “Welcome back! Welcome back!” The kind-faced woman who prepares our lunch grins at me. “Ham and mustard for your sarnie, dear?” she asks. I can only nod as I realize she is guessing I like my sandwich like my dad. Even the elderly groundskeeper weeding the quad when we go to eat outside looks up and tips his hat. “Bless my soul! It’s Peter and Clare’s girl! Welcome home, child! Welcome home!” I keep my practiced smile glued firmly on my face but it must not be very convincing because Graham picks up his pace, leading us to the ancient oak tree on the other side of the quad. As we perch on its thick roots, I try to look like I’m unwrapping my sarnie when really I am trying to breathe. All these people—each a molecule in my parents’ life—happy to see me, and all I can think is they have it wrong. I’m back, yet I feel gone too long.
“All right there, Eliser?” Graham prompts. The fact that he has eaten half his sarnie is a clue as to how long I’ve been drifting.
“Oh, sorry. It’s just all this. They all . . .” I can’t find words to explain what I’m feeling.
“Stare, smile, and welcome you back with open arms?” Graham finishes for me. “Come on, it could be worse. Besides, it’s only your first week here. By Friday, they’ll have moved on to something new.”
That should comfort me, but it does not. “It’s not just that. Even Edison . . . he—I don’t know how to put it.” What is the feeling Edison gives me sometimes? Like I’m not meeting expectations? Or like I am? I can’t decipher it.
Graham sets down his sarnie on the paper plate and turns to me. In the sun, he is even brighter. “Listen. I, Edison, the others—we can’t imagine how hard it must have been losing your parents. But you have to understand, Peter Snow was a legend around here. And your mum curated Ashmole’s manuscripts for heaven’s sakes. Everyone loved them. Their accident rocked Oxford! And now, everyone feels like they’re catching a glimpse of Clare again, or a bit of Peter. It’ll pass. With time, they will see you for you.”
There is no me left, I want to say. He is missing the real problem. “I’m more worried about disappointing Edison, about not being able to do this. I’ve only just graduated, and you two are light years ahead of me. Shouldn’t I be scrubbing beakers in Goliath instead of helping you in Bia?”
“Ah, yes!” Graham nods. “Feeling inadequate at Oxford—that’s novel. No one’s ever felt that before. Definitely not me. And especially not Edison.” He winks with sarcasm, probably trying to lighten the mood.
It does not work. I don’t mind not keeping up with the brainiacs. I mind embarrassing my dad. I mind failing at his dream. These are things I cannot tell Graham, but he must have a sense—he is one of the brainiacs after all—because he speaks again after a few more bites. “Listen, Eliser! I was born to study chemistry. I have no passion or interest in anything else, and I’m told I’m not brilliant with emotional conversations either. But I do know one thing: you can work day and night, you can study harder than anyone else, you can sacrifice everything, and you still won’t achieve something that does not live in you. To me, to Edison, and the other researchers, Peter Snow was a chemistry god, and mortals can’t do what gods can. But to you, he was only your dad. And whether you think that’s enough or not, he lives in you. So don’t do what Edison or anyone else expects: do what you and your dad would do. And all will be well.” He frowns at the last words, as if he is assuring himself as much as me.
I turn his words in my head. Could the answer be there in their simple precision?
“Do you still live at the cottage?” Graham asks abruptly, like he has reached his capacity for emotional reassurance.
“How did you know about the cottage?”
He gives me a look that can only be described as an eye roll. “Everyone knows about the rose cottage.”
And how it was abandoned. “Yes, I’m still there.”
“Well, after you’ve adjusted a bit, you could invite some of the profs and researchers—not all, mind, some of us can be positively cutthroat—and you can start forming your own relationships, hm? And if you finally finish that sarnie so we can get back to work, I might even be persuaded to leave the lab for a few hours and come over to help you with deep emotional things.” He chuckles, pointing at my sandwich. I wrap it back quickly and hop up.
“Can I have that if you won’t eat it?” Graham asks, quite serious. For some reason, I think of Javier—of that big-brotherly feeling I always had around him. They are opposites, Javier and Graham, in every way: Javier is dark where Graham gleams golden. Javier lives for art, and Graham lives for science. Javier sees straight to one’s soul, Graham sees the molecules. Javier is losing everything in two days, and Graham is only starting. Yet they’ve both given me the same thing: a sketch for the next step.
I think about that while riding the last bus back to Burford, nine hours later. We all have before-and-afters that change us forever. Our personal big bangs—massive explosions in our skies that form and transform our galaxies from the ashes and dust left behind. And we go on, each time a new star, gravitating across the universe until our orbit collides with other stars, and we form constellations we call families, friends, love. My constellations have imploded—one by one, each star was extinguished. I have been rotating around their void, searching for a trajectory of some kind. I’m not a star, only a cloud of ash left behind. But what if it’s not all ash—what if it’s the stardust of those bright, bold stars?
I see a solution then. Maybe I can use what’s left of my energy to ignite the stardust back to light. Use my orbit to make Dad’s dream come true, care for Mum’s roses, help Javier’s family, and let him live free of me without guilt. And if I can do all that, maybe my lost stars will shine again. And maybe that’s enough in the end to transform this existence from inertia into life.
The cottage is quiet when I go in, Mum’s roses fast asleep in their beds, tucked under the velvet sky blanket, with the moon as a side lamp. As I switch on the lights, I wonder if the cottage sees in me what I see in it: no more dust or cobwebs, warmer, with some signs of life. Fresh-cut roses here, open books and empty teacups there, a little fire in the beehive fireplace, trainers on the doorstep. At least the cottage must think I’m alive.
I make some spaghetti, tapping my foot while the water is boiling, eager to kindle my stardust. When the pasta is ready, I take the plate with me to Dad’s library.
First: Javier’s family. In two days, their own constellation will implode. I send an email to Bob, my lawyer, to confirm that the trust I set up for the Solises is ready for them to use immediately after the trial. It’s not the same as having their brother, but it will help. Then, after finishing almost all of the spaghetti in thought, I text Maria. I cannot call her while she is living with his parents; I won’t ever let my orbit collide with his again, no matter how distantly.
“Mamá, it’s me. I’m sorry I haven’t called, I will soon. I know the next two days will be very hard. But please remember what I told you before I left: no matter what happens, you, Antonio, and the girls will be okay. I may be gone, but you’re in my heart. I’ll take care of you. I love you, corazon y alma.”
I stare at the inadequate text, wishing I could tell them about the money but Bob was strict that I could not before the trial. The message bubble becomes green as it’s delivered internationally, and I picture it arriving in her phone, in his childhood home, beeping in her hand or by her ear. She’ll be looking at it now, dabbing her tearful eyes, whispering “Bendita, bendita.” As I wipe my eyes along with her image, a bubble floats on my screen:
“Isa, amorcita! I miss you. I love you. You here in mi corazon. Reagan says you hurt and no talk. Be strong, hija. Be strong. Eat your comida. Sleep your sleep. God is good. God will save all my children. God will bring you all back to me. I go to church now for pray with Stella. Call me, hija, I miss your voice!”
A tear drops on my phone screen. All her world is about to end, and she’s telling me to eat and sleep. I will never regret giving up my green card so she can live, and live well. Another tear drops on Stella’s name—his mum. The only other woman in the world who has borne the brunt of his startle reflex and the exile that follows. Who knows some of what I’m feeling. Maybe Maria and Stella will form their own constellation—two mothers with sons alive but lost. I send Maria a heart emoji and turn on Bod.
Second up: Javier himself. I cannot save him, but I can avenge him. I draft a full account to The Oregonian, exposing Feign’s fraud and telling them about the true Da Vinci. Javier’s genius will be known even if he will not be there to see it. I save the draft and schedule to send it Friday after Javier’s trial is over. None of us will have anything more to lose by then. I write to Oxford next, asking about their fine art program admissions for international students living in Mexico. Although America would be Javier’s dream, I know the universities there will not admit him after he is deported. But Oxford might—Javier has no past here. And, with his family secure and my cottage as a home, maybe he can pursue his art. Maybe his star can finally shine.
It’s near midnight now but I don’t feel tired. I still have Dad’s dream left. I dig out all of Dad’s notepads from every single shelf and drawer and stack them into towers on the floor, like miniature skyscrapers. And then start reading. Flipping through the pages, tracing every scribble and covalent bond with my finger, looking for anything he might have wanted, wished, or thought about the protein of bravery. But I can’t find anything—some of it I can’t even read or understand. My eyes start to itch, even though I’ve only made it through two of the fifteen towers. Oddly the lack of progress calms me. I have many years ahead to fill with this dream.
But as my eyelids start to droop and another dreamless night stretches before me, I can’t ignore the star I’ve been avoiding. His. He is the hardest of them all. Because his most powerful wish is to be able forget, and I have no proteins for that. But there was one other thing he wanted: me to forget him, me to stay away. And I will, but not because he is a monster. I will leave him because it’s best for him and best for me. I see it now so crystal clear. The end of love is never in anger. Love ends only when it’s the right thing. And this is right even though the agony sears me to my cells. I stand then, not surprised by where my feet are taking me. I think I’ve known since the field epiphany it would come to this. A goodbye to the man I know, not the one I heard that day.
The safe in the wall clicks open at the code, and the aged envelopes Benson gave me tumble forward. “You were brilliant, Benson. I just wasn’t quick enough to see it,” I whisper as I grab their rough, commissary paper, hands trembling so hard I almost drop them. The pain in my chest changes—it doesn’t throb; it suffocates, wringing my veins and airways until I can’t breathe. But I clutch the envelopes to that spot between my lungs he first brought to life, keeping the eyes on the periodic table until I find oxygen again. Then, gently as though the edges will slice me, I tear the envelopes with Mum’s letter opener. The reddish coarse sand trickles on my fingers. And like that very first time I read his words, I sink on the floor.
April 14, 2003
I come to you the way we come home. With dust on the skin and fire in the blood. It’s always dark when I come to you, the shamal winds wailing, the sand cycloning in places you haven’t touched (probably for the best). The light is always on above our door, the curtain is always moving. I raise my hand to knock, but I don’t want to knock gently. I want to pound with my fist on the door, tear it off its hinges, and make the foundations whimper. I want the night to go deaf from my arrival. I don’t want to enter, I want to burst into your arms and there I can kneel, molding into your small hands back into the man you believe me to be.
I want to go blind from your eyes. I have no idea what color they are (I have tried blue, green, brown, black—nothing fits you). I want my eardrums to rupture at your cry when you finally see me. I hope you yell at me, hit me, slap me. “What the hell took you so long?” I hope you tell me.
And I will stand there, absorbing your blows more than any bullet, with no words. No words for your face, for the smell of you, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.
“So help me God, Aiden Hale, what took you so long?” you will yell again, furious.
But I will not answer you. How could I tell you that I had deserts to cross, oceans to swim, thousands to murder, more to free, bleeding brothers to carry on my back for miles and miles and miles before I came to you? You will never hear that outside of these letters. I have made an oath to give only music to your ears (and some really filthy words).
So instead, I will look at your face. I loved you at first sight. At last sight. I didn’t need to see all of you to know that I was yours. Probably only a single strand of your hair blowing in the wind, or your hand peeking from your sleeve, or maybe even your shadow, and I loved you. This is how I want to love. In a way that will finish me at the end of the desert, at the end of the war. At the end of it all, I want to die because of you.
“Are you going to answer or will you just stand there gawking at me?” you will shout.
I will reach for that strand of hair I first saw and kiss it. “Bed,” I will say.
Dawn breaks outside the cottage, the first ray of sun filtering through the library window. All the letters are open, each word tattooed forever on my retinas. They all start and end the same: “my all” and “yours.” In between are the words of a fairytale, of a man and a woman who could only be together in letters and paintings. And that’s where they should always remain, in a happiness we could not give them in life. I tuck all the letters back in their envelopes and place them in the safe.
“Be well,” I tell them.
But as I shuffle the rest of the safe contents to close the door, another speckle of stardust falls out: a torn piece of paper with Dad’s script, so rushed he must have barely finished it before locking it in:
“Fifth time. Not December. Add love.”
I stare at the words. To anyone else they would make no sense. I don’t know what they mean either, but I know what they are: Dad’s code when he discovered something. I lock it back in the safe as outside, a new day starts in England, ticking away the hours to Javier’s fate.
Thanks to those who read and dropped me a note on the last two chapters. It means a lot to hear from you, and keeps my story going. Here is Chapter 8–I think it will answer a big question many of you have been wondering since the story was first posted. Hope you enjoy it. xo, Ani
The next day is short. And long. It’s short because I spend most of it sleeping while my mind and body grapple with the consequences of my homemade drug use. It’s long because when I finally wake up at three in the afternoon, groggy and dazed, there are still hours left before I can camp on the field and hope for sleep—and him—to find me naturally this time.
I can’t say how I spend those hours. My mind is more determined to replay every minute of last night’s terror than register any hour of today’s waiting. It dissects every detail, magnified in Technicolor and surround-sound, while the present plays in the background like muted elevator music. Every time I try to pause the rewind reel—by washing Mum’s parka, by preparing my clothes for Monday, by tending the roses and allowing the occasional thorn to prick my skin—my mind wrenches me back to the dream, reliving the path we took, his words, my reckless leap into deep rapid water, over and over and over. Perhaps my mind is trying to learn something new, or perhaps it’s entirely broken. Whatever the reason, my brain only reconnects with the present when the sun starts to dip and I have to find our old camping tent in the depths of the garden toolshed. From that moment onward, my mind and body seem to meld together, moving in tandem, focused inexorably on every preparation for the night ahead. As though survival depends on it—because it does.
I finally find the tent from our last family camping trip to Scotland. That same old ache enters the fray of my insides, but my brain is too interlocked with my body to falter. Next, I grab the bare minimum essentials for tonight: my sleeping bag, a flashlight, a change of clothes in case I end up in the river again, and a thermos for tea. But packing it all in a way that I can carry defies all my mathematical skills. And it breaks all my three cardinal rules in one fell swoop. Because I have to unpack my rucksack from America to manage to pack for my trek tonight. It’s impossible not to think of the past as I dig out my clothes that still smell of Portland, that still carry him in their fibers. Raw, utterly un-scabbed by time, the wound inside my chest rips open and for, a few moments, I can’t breathe. But The Oregoniannewspaper Reagan bought for me at the airport to honor my tradition tumbles out and restarts my lungs like James’s arms did yesterday. I flip through its carbon-printed pages, marveling at the date. June 1. Only a week ago, yet it feels a lifetime away. So much happened on that day. How did the world have room for more? But it did. Someone won the Powerball, the Timbers lost to the Sounders, and—my breath catches again—Brett Feign’s investigation made the papers: “Brett Feign, prominent local artist and owner of Feign Art Gallery prosecuted for tax evasion, fraud, and assault on an officer.” I snort. A single headline for an investigation that caused so much grief. I crumple up the paper and toss it in the waste bin, wishing I had time to light it on fire. Maybe if I survive my expedition tonight, I will. I don’t need souvenirs or reminders of that day.
The sun is lowering further now, and I manage to cram all my camping gear inside the rucksack, except the rolled-up tent which I’ll have to carry in my arms. I gulp down some canned soup, and set out on foot, locking the door behind me.
“See you soon,” I tell the cottage, hoping this is not another promise I will have to break.
The evening is balmier tonight. The fluffy clouds are lit up with sunset, like apricot rose blooms across the sky, deepening to copper in the bottom with iridescent halos on top. With a sigh, I realize they look like my favorite rose: Aeternum Romantica. The rare rose I’ve only ever seen once…when he shipped hundreds and hundreds of them from Kenya for me. The jolt of pain from the memory knocks me breathless, locking my feet. I clutch the packed tent to my chest, hugging it close. “Hydrogen! I whisper. “1.008. Helium, 4.003. Lithium, 6.94…” It doesn’t dull pain—it hasn’t been working well since the hilltop grave—but at least my breath flows again and I’m able to move. The Aeternumclouds glow brighter above. I tell myself this is a good omen, and troop ahead awkwardly under my load.
I follow the same trail along the river as last night, but this time I will take the bridge. As he meant for me to do in the dream. The nightingales start their dusk mating song, and the Aeternum clouds float across the sky. When I reach the bend in the river, a shiver runs through me, but I keep walking, noticing with relief there are no tents or tall figures around. Wherever James is, at least I don’t have to face him.
The limestone bridge is only a quarter mile further—“we’re getting closer,” he said in the dream—but I’m still huffing and sweating by the time I reach it. Its arches curve over the river straight onto the field. I cross it as quickly as I can, and finally I’m on the other side.
I stop to catch my breath for a minute while scanning the field. It’s empty, a dark bronze under the twilight sky. The grass sways in the breeze, taller on this end than by the cottage. A beech or elm tree punctuates through it here and there, like guards standing sentinel in front of some invisible gate. At the far border opposite me, the town’s lights are starting to twinkle.
“What does he want me to see here?” I mumble to myself, feeling abruptly foolish for this whole endeavor. Worse than foolish; downright mental. Yet, there is no question of me turning around. I heave the tent into my arms and start searching for a spot to camp for the night. I don’t know where he would want me but, since he’s been pointing to this field as far back as the cottage, I have to assume I should camp in that direction. So I cut through the grass parallel to the river, breathing hard again. Eventually I make it back down across from Elysium. If I squint, I can see the peaky rooftop of the cottage in the distance. There is a strong beech tree nearby, about the size of the one planted for me in the garden. That seems like another good omen, so I set up my tent under its branches with a lot more effort than it takes to understand Dad’s and Edison’s theory of crystalline structures of inorganic matter. When it’s finally erect and secure, I’m so exhausted that I plop on the grass, panting and sweating, not even bothering to crawl inside, just staring at the sky as the stars begin to cross-stitch constellations across the navy velvet canvass.
At length, my breathing slows, and the breeze dries the beads of sweat off my temples. An inky darkness drapes over every blade of grass. And reality changes with the night. Instead of quiet, the field seems brooding. Rather than near, the cottage feels too far. Instead of alone, I feel lonely. And instead of a solution, this camp feels like closure.
I stand then. This would be a good time to take out my flashlight and comb through each centimeter of this field. Search behind each tree trunk, shake down the branches. It would keep me occupied, and it would block these thoughts. But instinctively I know the search would yield nothing. Whatever I need to see here is not part of my conscience, I cannot access it while awake. No, this is subliminal, somewhere deep, interred in the subconscious recesses of the mind. And for reasons I cannot grasp, it will only reveal itself with him.
I crawl inside the tent, certain that my psyche will summon him here when it’s time. The familiar thrill starts crackling in the closed space like electricity. The cheater is stronger tonight. My conscious being recoils from it in revulsion—I hate this frisson that binds me to him like an umbilical cord. But it will be over soon. If tonight doesn’t work, on Monday, I will call a doctor. My insides resist that option too for other reasons, reasons having to do with not seeing him again, but I shove them aside. They don’t change anything.
I slide inside the sleeping bag, sipping my chamomile tea, waiting for sleep to find me. But hours pass and nothing happens—probably because I slept in so late or because I don’t have the willows’ lullaby. Every once a while, I test reality: I can push my finger against the tent’s nylon fabric without it going through. I can trace back my steps. Awake. Awake. Awake.
Then, sometime in the night, something changes. Instead of wondering when he will come, I start thinking where he is. Is he in his home nestled in the hills of Portland or at his Alone Place, sleeping outside like me? His stars are just starting as mine will be fading. And it feels like a metaphor for everything.
His voice rings out, so clear, so close. I jolt upright, expecting to see him right next to me, but the tent is empty.
“I’m outside,” he says like a caress, like an answer to my unspoken question. In an instant I’m out of the tent and onto the field, as though his words were marionette lines.
He waits for me under the silver moonlight, with those eyes that look past the world. They trace my jawline like always, as the tectonic plates shift and find that peaceful spot that belongs to me alone. He smiles my favorite lopsided smile, and the dimple I know so well forms in his cheek like a kiss.
“Thank God you’re safe!” he says with relief, and his right hand lifts a fraction as though he’s reaching for me. Instinctively I step forward into his touch, but his hand flies behind him. The abrupt motion leaves me drifting.
“I should have listened to you,” I whisper, still looking at the empty space his hand left behind.
“Don’t be sad, my love. We can try again now. I’ll keep you safe. Do you trust me?”
“Yes.” My answer is resolute and automatic.
He smiles the full-dimpled smile again, then starts striding across the field, always a step ahead of me. But even though he walks slower tonight, I never seem able to catch up to him. I notice he is leading us away from the river, in the opposite direction, toward the edge of the field that borders town. I don’t ask him where he is taking me, it doesn’t matter; I know he will lead me there in the end. Instead, I look only at him, the hair tousled from the wind, the ever-tense shoulders, wishing he would slow down so I can see his otherworldly face. As though my wish was a silent command, he looks over his shoulder, and his pace slows to a stroll.
“You’re not in a hurry tonight?” he says.
I shake my head. Another dimpled smile. “I like it better this way, too.”
He stops abruptly, gazing at me without an answer. The smile is still there but the dimple disappears. So small a pucker but it leaves a chasm open in my chest. I want to bring it back.
“I was thinking of you,” I say. “Right before…before you came.”
“Oh?” The dimple reappears.
“I was wondering where you were, where you sleep.”
“You know the answer to that one.”
I shake my head. The dimple disappears again. “I am always with you.”
I want to tell him it’s not true, that he has never slept with me, but I don’t want the dimple to go away. So I just nod, and he starts walking again. “We’re almost there,” he says, his tone a mixed note of sadness and triumph. “Just straight ahead.”
We’re almost across the field now, as the rows of gabled rooftops and chimneys loom in the lightening night. Their windows are still dark, but the overnight lights of the shops are glowing, closer and closer. Then suddenly underneath my sneakers, I hear the thump of cobblestone instead of the whish of grass. We’ve reached the town.
“Right across the street,” he says, but for the first time, lets me lead. I cross the cobbled alley to the line of ancient shuttered shops. Now what? I turn to him for direction, but he is still on the other side, looking at me with unfathomable eyes. “Three doors to your right,” he says before I can ask anything.
I count the doors—one, two, three—and there, in front of me, is a very familiar whitewashed shop, with mullioned windows and barrel pots full of evening primroses that Mum planted as a gift on the shop’s fiftieth anniversary. On the eave above, under a pool of light, hangs its sign:
Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4PA
“Aid—” I start to call him in confusion but as I read the words again, something astonishing happens. The letters start moving, scrambling together, bumping into each other, sliding out again, dropping off, like vectors in chaos. My eyes are frozen wide, tracing every move as the mosh pit of letters spins and rearranges itself over and over. Then, in a burst of intuition, the letters stop and new words appear before my eyes:
Solis Ice Reality
“Oh!” I gasp. The force of my realization yanks me back violently, wrenching me awake as my scream drowns a fading whisper: “Once I love, I love forever.”
The world comes into sharp, crystallized focus, but it takes me longer—longer than any other night—to get my bearings. The raw wound by my heart is throbbing, pulsing like a heartbeat of its own, making my head spin as every event, every word of those last few days in America replays under this new light. I sink on the sidewalk, gripping the cold, cobblestone for balance and leaning my head against the wall of Solstice Gallery. The letters on the eave sign are immobile, exactly as they’ve always been, but I only read the truth, the reality of what happened with the Solises. It was always Feign who turned Javier in; it was never him.
Every puzzle piece falls together now, so obvious, so simple I could only have missed it by emotion, not logic. Feign panicked when the Department of Justice came looking and found Javier’s sketches of my face. Tax evasion he could defend, but he could never risk the world learning about Javier. So he took him out by calling ICE and reporting him for stolen supplies: just another illegal immigrant thief locked up in a cell. Who would believe Javier now even if he talked? Who would care what his family would say just to save him? And who would ever know that Feign was the tipster when he could do it anonymously, just like Benetto said at Javier’s hearing? Leaving the blame open for the taking. And who else would swoop in and take it but the man who needed it so desperately? The man who needed one unforgivable reason for me to leave him because I wouldn’t have left him any other way. How neatly it all fits together now that I see: link by link, a chain reaction shackling us all together, friend, family, lover, and foe.
I don’t need to look across the street for him—for I know he is forever gone. My subconscience summoned him to help me see what I must have known all along but refused to acknowledge. It stitched together these subliminal messages from my past—innocent tidbits of data so familiar, it was automatic, instinctual that I would know them even asleep. Things like opening the front door, the familiar path along the river through Elysium, this little gallery where Mum and I would come on weekends to browse the pastoral paintings, and the well-known “Fine Art” sign which sounds so much like Feign’s gallery back in Portland that used to make me snort with its pun. My subconscience arranged it all, sliding each detail into place, while I clung to denial and anger for survival. She was not the cheater, I was. But how to make me listen? How to make me see the truth when I was blocking him at every waking moment? There was only one time when my subconscience could do that: in my dreams. And there was only one dream I would obey so fully, so irrevocably: him. So the harder I worked against the truth during the day, the more it tried to burst through at night, until now I see it with finally free, clear eyes. All my mistakes, all my wrongs. Because worse than running from England, worse than abandoning the cottage, worse still then falling in love in my last days in America, was my belief—my conviction—that the man I loved, the man I knew was a monster. Is there a more grievous crime?
And he let me believe it. Because he would rather I hate him than be with me.
I curl inward in myself, trying to withstand the violent sobs. Everyone else trusted him and tried to tell me: my own lawyer, Reagan, even Benson. “In hopes that they will lead you to the man you know, not the one you heard today.Don’t make a mistake you will both regret for life,” Benson wrote. The waves of pain drown me here, slumped on the empty sidewalk, trying to breathe. Just to breathe. Do I deserve even that much? No, I don’t, but my parents do. For a long white, I shiver under the gallery sign, forcing air in and out, hugging my torso to keep it from imploding.
But dawn comes. Lightening up the street, the shops, the empty field, making me visible. Some brain cells register that my town shouldn’t see me this way—that Mum and Dad don’t deserve that—so, shaking, still gasping for air, I start back the way he brought me. The field seems endless, like an abyss without him.
Aiden, his name breaks through now that the walls are shattered, each musical syllable a new knifepoint in my chest, but I still try to silence it. Because none of it matters it in the end: despite the truth, he still will never be with me. And despite my crimes, I still would never be with him. How can you be with someone who will go to any length, pay any price not to be with you?
So the countdown is over, and Thirty Nights is here! Really, truly, finally here. I wanted to thank every one who has followed me in this incredible journey: from those very first few readers on fan fiction to every single one of you who has read, reviewed, emailed, messaged, and supported my story. And a ginormous thank-you and blog-hug to the following:
My wonderful editor, Tera Cuskaden Norris, for taking a chance on Thirty Nights, for her passion for a good story, and her hard work to bring you this book;
My awesome agent, Stacy Lorts, who saw the potential of this story when it was just a fairytale on my blog;
The whole Samhain team, and especially Katlyn Osborn, for all of their guidance and hard work;
My PR agency, Inkslinger PR, and the amazing, superwoman Nazarea Andrews, for curbing the insanity of the marketing and promos during the #30days countdown;
And last, because it’s the closest to my heart, my friends and my husband for all his love, patience, and support during these last two mad, beautiful years .
I couldn’t have made it without you! I hope you enjoy Thirty Nights, and know that this was all for you! I can’t wait to hear what you think. I will be waiting for your thoughts with open hearts. And no matter what you say, THANK YOU!
And now another little goodie to keep you company while reading: the Poem Soundtrack for Thirty Nights. Yep, you heard that right. And why not? A poem soundtrack makes as much sense for Thirty Nights as a playlist. 🙂 Here it is, with my favorite lines! Enjoy and see which one suits which scene and/or character… and read in the end for more info.
She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron
She walks in beauty, like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and light,
meets in her aspect and her eyes.
If You Were Coming in the Fall, Emily Dickinson
If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I’d toss it yonder like a rind,
And taste eternity.
I Do Not Love You… Pablo Neruda
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
I Do Not Love You, Except Because I love You, Pablo Neruda
In this part of the story I am the one who
Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.
Fire and Ice, Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
I Carry Your Heart With Me, E.E. Cummings
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).
Because She Would Ask Me Why I Loved Her, Christopher Brennan
Then seek not, sweet, the “If” and “Why”
I love you now until I die.
For I must love because I live
And life in me is what you give.
If Thou Must Love Me (Sonnet 14), Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only.
Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark…
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Extinguish My Eyes, Rainer Maria Rilke
Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.
Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.
and without feet, I still can come to you,
without a mouth, I still can call your name.
Sever my arms, I will still hold you,
with all my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.
Ahhhhh… I read these, and I want to give up writing because these are genius. But not yet… 🙂 I will have more goodies for you during release week, including excerpts, guest posts, Aiden POV, giveaway announcement (over 1,500 people have entered!!!!) etc. I will be back soon with more. All my love, Ani
Where did the time go? It’s the last day in our countdown! After three years and thirty days, tomorrow, Thirty Nights will be released!! For those of you who have already pre-ordered and are waiting for it to land on your Kindle, Nook, and iPads—thank you for the bottom of my heart. For those of you who have not pre-ordered yet, please give it a shot and see if you like the original Aiden and Elisa. The order links are on my home page. But whether you have ordered or not, I just wanted to say a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has followed Thirty Nights throughout this journey, who has reviewed and emailed me with your thoughts and encouragement, and who has spread the word! Without you, Thirty Nights may have never happened. It’s as simple as that. Thank you!
Now, today’s goodies:
First, the official Thirty Nights Playlist. Enjoy it on Spotify as you’re reading, and see if you can guess which scenes and chapters go with which song.
Second, a special, exclusive excerpt from one of my favorite Aiden and Elisa scenes. I chose it for the last excerpt because in my mind, this was the true turning point for both of them. And for what each means to the other. Full-on trust, and full-on surrender.
He reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a tiny silver remote. A song I know—one of my favorites—floods the tent. “Amado Mio”, by Pink Martini. It’s flowing from a wireless set of speakers in the corner that I had apparently missed in my astonishment.
“May I have this dance?” he asks, holding his hand out to me.
“You tango?” I squeal. Bloody hell, I’m melting. Inert gases have more substance than I do right now.
My favorite dimple puckers on his cheek. “Since this afternoon.”
“You learned tango…in oneafternoon?” Where is my jaw? It was here somewhere, around the Aeternum.
He chuckles at my incredulous expression. “In the ninety-two minutes it took you to get ready, to be precise.”
When I open and close my mouth a few times, unable to produce sound, he smiles, tapping his temple. “There are some benefits to this beast and YouTube.”
I blink and close my mouth. “That’s just…just…” Brilliant? Stunning? No, I can only think of one word. “That’s just Aiden.”
His chuckle becomes a true laugh as he wraps his arm around my waist, pulling me into a close embrace. He starts moving. At first a slow cadencia, then the caminada, his long legs parting mine. Aiden leads in his dominant, protective way, but the real change is in me. For the first time in my life, tango does for me what tango does for women. I am not a daughter. I am not a sister. I am not a friend. I am a woman. Aiden’s woman. My leg hooks and wraps around his with a new confidence, sultry, feminine and powerful. I watch our entwined shadows on the tent’s curtains, looking very much like Mum and Dad’s when they danced. Yet, in this moment, I’m discovering a new bliss that belongs to me alone. Not to ghosts, and not to memories.
I bury my face in his chest, inhaling the Aiden-and-Aeternum scent.
And last, a small task! To support for Thirty Nights, for those of you who are excited and have been following it in this journey, please change your avatar to the Thirty Nights cover tomorrow for its release, with the French Flag colors to show our support and solidarity for the people of France and the victims. Feel free to download this, and I will circulate on my social media as well. And when you get the book, please don’t forget to leave a review!! 🙂 It makes the difference between a loved book that no one hears about and a loved book we can all share. THANK YOU everyone for all your support, your love, your commitment to this story, and your participation in this amazing journey! I will be back soon, xo Ani
An early morning in my household, as my hubby and I are volunteering at a church today. First, my thoughts and prayers to all the victims and their families in Paris. It’s heartbreaking and I’m giving all my French readers a big hug and comfort. I hope you are all safe, and that you stay strong through this. Lots of love from Portland, Oregon.
Second, to cheer you up a bit, here is one my favorite surprises we’ve prepared for you for Thirty Nights. The Book Trailer!!!!! I love, love, love, love this trailer so much. I hope you like it too. Thank you, Amanda and Samhain Publishing for creating it for me, and for all your hard word on the book! There ‘re only three days left. 🙂 I can’t thank you enough for all the support you’ve given me so far. Have a good Saturday, with all your loved ones and families near and safe!
It’s almost Friday, which means it’s almost the weekend, which means it’s almost November 17!!! I’m not sure how I’m going to sleep at all in the next few nights. But we have some more fun for you. First a little art teaser. :-) And second my first podcast! A little honest to goodness real interview. Derek Diamond at DDE_Podcast. 🙂 It was so much fun to speak with him about Thirty Nights, authors, fan fiction, some new fanficiton authors, and more!! You can listen to it on the DDE_Podcast and I hope you like it!
And here is the TEASER! Enjoy!!!
“So, what did you want to discuss, Mr. Hale?” I ask the question that is buzzing in my brain to prevent myself from tripping while sitting down.
His smile vanishes as he sips his espresso. He sets down his cup and looks at me with probing intensity. “Are you the woman in my paintings?”
Bollocks! The question settles in front of me like a coiled beast. Blood rushes to my feet and my stomach twists. My mouth parts to let in some air. I notice with horror that he has seen all my reactions, which must be confirmation enough. I have to get it together. No matter my flights of fancy, what Javier and I are doing is illegal. I’m a goner already, but Javier could get deported. I have to help him, even if it takes me down.
“Why would you think that?” I try to keep my voice as composed as possible but don’t do a great job of it.
“I’m a man of means, Miss Snow.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Bloody hell, does he know about Javier already?
“It means that if I want something, I will stop at nothing to get it.
Happy Sunday everyone! A day for working in pajamas in my home. We’re in the single-digit days for Thirty Nights—nine more days. That’s it! How can time move so fast and so slow at the same time? You’ll be seeing lots of activity in the next few days: excerpts, trailer, reviews, interviews, etc. Please help me spread the word and make Thirty Nights what we’ve all wanted it to be. And because it’s Sunday, here is a full-length excerpt for you! Enjoy it!
EXCERPT 3: AIDEN’S HOME
An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us…
Suddenly, I know we have entered his domain the way we know spring has arrived. With a feeling in our blood, right before ice starts to melt. The pressure of the altitude muffles my ears until all I hear is my own heartbeat. There are no houses around anymore, only dense evergreens and sky. Aiden takes a sharp left and comes to a stop before a modern iron gate. He slides his palm over a pad in a stainless steel monitor. The gates open.
I expect to see a house, but no. An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us, framed by tall oaks and cedars. On the right, in a green clearing, is a paved, smooth circle. It takes a few blinks to realize it’s a helipad.
At last, as though part of nature, a stately house materializes among the trees. Except, the word house is too artificial. This is almost an extension of the primordial forest. Everything about it, from the red cedar wood panels to the charcoal slate, the gray riverbed rocks and the airy spatial windows, is organic. The modern minimalist lines curve around nature rather than bending nature to their will.
Aiden chuckles next to me, and I close my gaping mouth. “It’s beautiful here,” I say.
“It’s getting better.” He smiles, and gets out of the car to open my door. The moment I’m out, he takes my hand again and presses his lips to my hair. I lean into him, sniffing his Aiden scent surreptitiously. I should figure out a way to bottle this.
At the double front doors, he slides his palm over another pad. The doors open into a cream-and-slate foyer. The moment we step inside, lights brighten almost imperceptibly. I blink once and everything is back to normal. Hmm, maybe I imagined it.
Aiden leads me by my waist to a palatial living room. As we cross the threshold, the lights brighten and dim again, blinking fast. I turn to ask him, but he shakes his head. I tuck this away as a world perched between earth and sky surrounds me.
Straight ahead, Mount Hood is almost touchable. Refracting sunrays are my only clue that a back wall separates us, made entirely of glass. I blink, recalling Denton’s lecture on glass optical qualities. This must be the highest—nearly invisible.
Everything from the open-flame riverbed rock fireplace to the barstools in a kitchen the size of Feign Art is bespoke and chic. All light gray and cream, except the chestnut wooden floor and the oversized salvaged oak coffee table. Colors of rivers and forests. Abstract, understated art, none of it my paintings. There is something peaceful about the stunning natural décor.
Yet my first thought is…not loneliness. The controlled minimalism is too intentional for that. Isolation. That’s what it is. I look for signs of the inner Aiden. There are some books stacked on the coffee table. The Brothers Karamazov—one of my favorites, Byron’s Poems, The Things They Carried. Redemption, passion, guilt, war. And poetry. Aiden Hale has soul.
My eyes drift to a shiny black piano, tucked by the glass wall. My breath catches a little at the sight. Not because it’s a rare Bösendorfer. But because on it, is the most astonishing arrangement of flowers I have ever seen. They’re not in a vase—they’re in a low crystal terrarium, like a secret garden. I walk to it in a trance, sensing Aiden’s body heat behind me.
And there, rising over green moss, is a single bloom of probably every flower genus they sell in Portland. Hyacinth, orchid, gardenia, peony, amaryllis, calla lily, rose…
“I didn’t know which one was your favorite.” Aiden’s warm breath tickles my cheek. It’s just air—his air—but my knees start wobbling. He pulls me against his front, his lips fluttering over my jawline to my ear.
“So?” he whispers.
“Favorite flower?” He kisses the soft spot behind my ear. I shiver.
He chuckles and pulls away. “Maybe it’s too soon to combine thinking with kissing.”
I flush the color of the amaryllis. “Roses,” I breathe.
He raises an eyebrow. “Roses?” There is a hint of humor in his voice.
“What’s wrong with roses?”
“Nothing. It’s just such a common choice for such an uncommon woman.”
Good morning everyone, and Happy Day 11 in the countdown: It has been a week of great news in my world: First, Aestas Book Blog — yes, that Aestas, the Goddess of all Books–picked up Thirty nights in her to-be-read list. **Super-squeeeeeeeal** Second, I got my author copies in the mail!!!! There is no feeling like it in the world. Especially after a 15-hour long day at work. I can’t stop staring at them. And third, I did a guest post on NYT Bestselling Author and USA Today’s Bestselling Author, Delilah Devlin’s blog. I was a little star-struck for the whole process, but at least I managed to string two words together. 🙂 Please read it here, and let me know what you think. You’ll see one of your favorite excerpts there too. 🙂
ANI KEATING: From Fanfiction to Published Author—Five Things I Learned in the Process
When Delilah invited me to post on her blog, my first reaction was a fangirl squeal. My second reaction was a Carlton dance. And my third reaction was a complete, paralyzing writer’s block, which continued until last night. How the hell do I choose what to write on Delilah’s blog? This is Delilah! Everyone has been in bed with her, and I’m just popping my publishing cherry!! Oh, the stress.
But I have a generally-calm, down-to-earth, hold-your-hand-through-hell hubby who said, “That’s what you write about. Popping your cherry.” And he was right. With my first book only eleven days away, I haven’t taken a full moment to pause and articulate what I learned in this amazing process. It started out as a small story on Fanfiction, then it grew on my blog, and now, finally, it’s hitting the stands. It has been a beautiful whirlwind, filled with lessons. And because I’m a list person (blame my legal job), here are the top five:
Good morning, and happy Day 14 to #thirtynights!! Two weeks! Two weeks! The whole apartment building has been listening to me screaming that, and they’re all sure our apartment is actually a padded, rubber room. Oh well! I have a couple of goodies for you today:
The second full-length excerpt for Thirty Nights.
A schedule of all the blogs that will be featuring Thirty Nights excerpts from November 2 to November 8. Go and check them out and find out about some new releases as well.
I hope you enjoy them! And since we are getting so close, I’d love to ask for your help with spreading the word! You guys made this possible the first time around with telling your friends, posting on your media, etc. Please, please, please do the same now so that Thrity Nights can have a good shot on the stands and everyone can meet the same characters we’ve loved for a while. 🙂 And feel free to send me links to your posts and I’ll circulate them too. THANK YOU everyone! xo
And now the Excerpt. This is my favorite Aiden Moment. Ever.
EXCERPT 2: FIRST KISS
He steps inside. I think he’s trying to calm himself but it’s hard to tell with the smoke coming out of his ears. He runs a hand over his hair. What the devil is wrong with him? He takes one deep breath and explodes.
“Are you so above the rest, Miss Snow, that you will not deign to attend even your graduation from the institution that has granted you its highest academic honor? Or is this how little your own life means to you?” He speaks through gritted teeth.
Oh, bollocks! How did he find out, and why does he care? Be strong, Isa. “I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business.” I ignore his second question. Something about it makes me recoil.
He looks at me like I just insulted his mother. Honestly, I think I see fire from his nostrils. “None of my fucking business? Is that your answer?” Still gritted teeth, which I suppose is better than fangs.
“Yes, that’s my answer.” I stay calm, hoping some of it will rub off on him. No such luck.
“Over three thousand people watched President Campbell announce Miss Elisa Cecilia Snow, valedictorianin absentia, and a full minute of silence fell over the crowd, and you say it’s none of my fucking business?” He is spitting fire.
Damn it! Why would President Campbell announce it? I emailed the traitor. Well, one thing at a time. The Dragon first. “No, I didn’t say fucking business. I said simply business.”
He looks at me with flared nostrils and roars, his fists hanging down.
“What is wrong with you?”
Oh, this is rich. He is morphing into a Tolkien creature and I’m the freak? I am usually a calm, rational agent. It’s probably not apparent based on this last week, but I am. But right now, with my newly shaved legs and my lacy knickers on, after practicing his name all day in front of a stupid fan, I want to scratch his eyes out.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, Mr. Hale. However, based on your behavior these last two days, may I suggest the very real possibility that there is something seriously wrong with you? I strongly recommend that you visit a psychiatrist, sir, and soon, before you become a menace on the streets of Portland and incinerate us all for exercising our right as free human beings to go wherever we bloody well please,” I hiss, feeling a kindred spirit with Medusa because he has turned to stone.
Before I can draw a breath, he takes the two steps between us and his mouth closes in on mine, his hands like a vise around my face.
The force of his kiss slams me against the wall and makes me gasp. His lips mold with mine, and his tongue is dancing inside my mouth. My knees shake a little. As if he knows, one of his hands leaves my face, trails down my body and rests at the small of my back, arching me against him and supporting all my weight. I move my tongue shyly around his. I taste cinnamon and something else, something Aiden. My blood ignites, and another gasp escapes me. At the sound, he presses his hips against me, and his long fingers reach into my hair. He pulls my head back until my mouth opens wider. Our tongues move together, and his anger changes to desperation and then to a slower rhythm that I can follow. Of their own accord, my arms reach up around his neck and my fingers knot in his hair. He tenses, so I try to let go but he draws me closer until there is no more space left. I feel every line of his body against mine. His teeth graze my bottom lip. It takes me a moment to realize that the moan I hear is coming from me. He pulls away, his breathing harsh and labored.
“Impossible woman,” he growls.
I open my eyes. His sapphire depths are blazing. Without his arm supporting me, my knees go back to shaky and weak. Then it dawns on me. Bloody hell, I’ve just been kissed by Aiden Hale! And what a kiss it was. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have much experience with such things, but I am willing to bet my supplement’s formula that no girl, anywhere, has been kissed like this. I pinch myself discreetly to make sure I’m awake. Yes, it was real. My lips are tingling.
“Are you ready to go?” he asks, his breathing now back in control. Apparently, we are not going to talk about it. That’s good. What if his next words end this? And what is there to say regardless? By some miracle, he wants me at some level, and I want him at all levels. That’s good enough for now. Good enough for forever for someone like me.
Happy post-Halloween Sunday! Hope everyone has recovered from the candy. I have not. Ate one too many Twix bars… then tried to convince myself that eating bread and cheese would counteract the sugar… BAD idea! Note to self: if your stomach is hurting from too much food, the answer is not more food.
Anyway, as promised, and because Sunday used to be posting day for Thirty Nights when it was just a seedling, I thought I’d give you the first full-length excerpt today. Meeting Aiden Hale. Enjoy! (30N Pros: do you see the differences?) Be back with more. xo, Ani
EXCERPT 1: MEETING AIDEN HALE
A tall man, dressed in a tailored charcoal suit, white shirt and cobalt-blue tie, is standing a few feet from the gallery desk, scrutinizing a painting. His dark brown hair is swept back in casual waves. His eyes burn an intense sapphire blue. On the corner of his right eye is an inch-long scar, bleached by time. Beautiful in its savagery. Like something sharp could not resist his beauty but ricocheted at the last minute, desperate to mark him as its own, yet unable to defile him.
Attractive. Much, much too attractive. In fact, only someone so bewildering could reach me in this final hour. For a wild second, I wonder whether my brain has snapped and has created him, like a hallucination, to get me through the next thirty-seven days alive.
Despite his magnetic pull, something about his posture creates a force field around him. Untouchable. Distant. He stands straight, away from everything, his back angled toward the wall. His broad shoulders are tense, as though he senses an invisible, uninvited presence behind him. I scan the gallery, expecting to see something or someone other than Kasia. But it’s utterly empty, except a tall man, the size of Shaquille O’Neal, standing in the far corner like a security guard.
“Would you like something to drink, Mr. Hale?” Kasia simpers, her voice higher than usual. She sounds like she is faking a British accent. I snort.
“No, thank you,” he answers coldly, continuing to stare at the painting in front of him.
I follow his gaze and stop. I feel a twinge of satisfaction to see that he is looking at a painting of me. Not that he would know that. I never model my face, just random parts of my body. This painting portrays only the curve of my throat and jawline, my hair slightly swept back, exposing the skin. The rest of the canvas recedes into darkness. That’s Javier’s style—he never paints blatantly erotic things like breasts, arse, pubic hair. That’s not the point, he says. The point is to force the viewer to imagine the rest of the beauty. Good thing too. I couldn’t have posed naked for anyone, especially Javier. Today, we are painting my waist and left hipbone, but I have a long white sheet to cover the rest of me.
“We could probably have that painting done in color as well.” Kasia is melting. “But the artist feels that the black, white and gray colors allow the real beauty to shine through.”
He does not respond to her. I feel a tiny bit of sympathy for Kasia now. Really, anyone would be a mess. I need to leave, but suddenly I want to hear his voice again. It’s cold and cutting, as if every word is intended to crack a canyon between him and the world. But it’s also hypnotic. Like you would do anything it bid you to do.
My short-lived sympathy evaporates like smoke when Kasia turns to me with a raised eyebrow.
“Isa! Why are you standing there? You know Brett’s instructions. Cleaning ladies in the back.” She cocks her head to the side, pointing to the back door that leads to Javier’s secret studio.
Fuck off, Kasia. I start to walk away but Mr. Hale turns to see what has offended Kasia. He moves with paradoxical military grace. Fluid, yet erect. As if he expects to defend himself at any point but is confident about the outcome. He regards me intently, his eyes narrowing slightly at the corners. There is something endless about his eyes—like you enter through them and perhaps never come out. For a moment, I panic that he can see a similarity between me and the woman in the painting. That he knows it’s me.
But I recover quickly. There is nothing in the painting that can link its subject to me. That’s Javier’s point. That the woman on the canvas can be any woman, any fantasy, any emotion because only a small, unidentifiable part of her is exposed. Mr. Hale’s impassive face confirms Javier’s genius. He turns to Kasia and his voice is, impossibly, colder.
“I will purchase the painting. Is it part of a series?”
Kasia fumbles as she takes his credit card and hands him the purchase agreement. She blushes and stammers and finally manages, “Umm, no—I mean, yes. Yes, it is. The one you’re purchasing is the first. The artist is working on the final, and there are three others in the back. Would you like to see them?”
I know the other paintings. One is of my right shoulder and collarbone. The other one is just my belly. The last one is my left leg, knee down, standing on tiptoe.
“With the same model?” Mr. Hale asks.
“Yes—er, I mean, technically no. The artist says the model is not real, Mr. Hale. He imagined her.”
He does not speak. For an instant, I feel like I’m fading. Like I truly don’t exist here anymore. Adrenaline spikes in my blood and I have a compulsive urge to throw myself between them and say, It’s me! I’m the girl you want!
His voice whips through the air again. “I will buy them.”
Instantly, I feel the first warmth of the day. He kept me. I may be gone in a month but at least some parts of me are ending up on the wall of an earthly Adonis.
“I’ll call you when the final painting is finished, Mr. Hale,” Kasia gushes. She would have an easier time lifting the Portland Memorial Coliseum with her pinky than getting a reaction from him.
He starts reading the purchase agreement, and I get the feeling he is simply avoiding looking at her. “Double the price if it is finished by the weekend.”
Kasia’s mouth pops open. So does mine. Feign sells those paintings for $10,000 apiece. Of course, Javier gets only $400 and gives me $50. Who buys art without looking at it? At regular price, let alone double? Mr. Hale is now poring over the care guarantee agreement. Frustrated with his indifference, Kasia takes it out on me.
From my peripheral vision, I see his head whip up but I scuttle away to where Javier is waiting, not daring to look at the cold stranger.
I hope you’ve got your best, scariest, most dangerous face on, and all your ghosts, ghouls, and goblins are happily hovering around the candy. In our little apartment, hubby has already started to dig in the bowl full of Twix and Starburst. If there is any left by the time the kiddos get here, it will be a miracle. If not, I’m not sure what my exit strategy is when his sugar high hits. I may or may not be spending Halloween night at the motel down the street. 🙂 Anyway, I have a nice surprise for you tomorrow (I hope), but before then, here is a hint of the darker side of Thirty Nights. Coming in only 17 days. And great work entering the raffle: one of you better win that Tiffany’s necklace. Talk to you soon. xo, Ani
Happy Sunday everyone! Hope you’re all having a quiet, relaxing day. Mine is filled with laundry and waiting like crazy for the new Homeland episode tonight. #LetQuinnSurvive. In the meantime, here is another teaser for you. 23 days left toThirty Nights! Spread the word and don’t forget to register for the giveaway. Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for this story. xo, Ani
Happy Monday morning! Let’s start the week off right by talking about Aiden. Of all my characters, I have received the most questions about him. Take a look at his updated page here for new information about him, including his strong pet peeves, and even his reading speed. Do you think the new trivia about him makes sense? Why? What is your favorite Aiden trait? xo, Ani
Hello all! On October 17, we will be starting our Thirty Days to Thirty Nights campaign. Lots of teasers, excerpts, interviews, and more. Let’s start a little early! Here is a mini-mini teaser. Some of you will know where this is from. Hope you like. xo, Ani
Happy Sunday everyone! Two years ago, many of you helped Thirty Nights (back then Master’s Muse) become a loved story, a finished story, and now a published book (Nov. 17, 2015). For all that support, here is my thank-you in the official Acknowledgements page. Told you I’d try. 🙂 Unfortunately, listing everyone by name would be impossible with the publisher’s word limits. But I hope with this, you will know how much every click, review, and comment helped! And that I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you (and I hope you enjoy the new website and material)! I’ll be back soon with more fun stuff (teasers, excerpts, oh my!)
Why is it that the more real something becomes, the more surreal it feels? Like first author interviews, for example. Yeesh, puddle of nerves… Here is my first one with the resourceful Bryan Patterson. You’ll find some juicy bits about what’s coming, what’s happened, and a tinsy bit about me. Hope you enjoy!
Hope you all have fabulous plans for the weekend. It’s raining in Portland, Oregon—which means it’s a perfect day for snuggling up with Baci chocolates and a good book (“Far From The Madding Crowd.” Thomas Hardy, Matthias Schoenaerts, and strong women—what can I say.)
It’s also a perfect day to post the blurb and tagline for THIRTY NIGHTS. Just got them from the publisher and I’M IN LOVE! Hope you enjoy them. Here is the full blurb and an image of it below. Feel free to share them—I know some of you have already included THIRTY NIGHTS in your book club list. You rock! Thank you!
AMERICAN BEAUTY SERIES, BOOK 1
Thirty nights. Two hearts. One fate.
After her parents’ tragic deaths, Elisa Snow wanted nothing more than to escape her past. Eighteen and alone, she fled her quaint English village and moved to the United States. A starving science student by day and an artist’s muse by night, Elisa has slowly built a new life. She never dreamed she would lose everything again.
She is one week from graduation when her visa is unexpectedly denied. Given thirty days to leave the country, she must face the one thing she cannot survive again—saying goodbye and leaving her home. Yet within minutes of her world shattering, she meets a man with the power to piece it back together.
After finishing his tour of duty in Iraq, Aiden Hale traded battlefields for boardrooms, becoming one of the most successful venture capitalists in the nation. But all his wealth can’t buy him reprieve from the horrific memories of war. The only thing that gives him peace is a painting of Elisa.
Drawn together by their invisible wounds, they begin a passionate affair as they race against the clock to defy their pasts—and fight for their future.
Warning: Contains a blistering exploration of desire, sacrifice, and redemption…and love’s power to equalize us in ways laws cannot.
“Wait, who is that,” you ask? Ani who? Ani-the-seemingly-nice-author-who-dropped-off-the-face-of-the-earth-and-left-us-with-no-story? That bitch! Yep, it’s me. Really me and not the zombie-like creature that I practically became for quite a while. A hideously long while. I know it has been forever since I have posted here and, after you yell at me some more, I hope you say “ok, fine, welcome back! We sort of missed you, too.” Because I really missed you . . . And because I think my news will make you happy.
Half-jokes aside, I wanted to thank every single one of you who dropped me a line during this absence, and checked in on me, Aiden, and Elisa. All your messages meant a lot to me during a very hard personal time. I won’t bore you or waste your time with the gory details (nor do I really want to revisit them) but I promise I had good reasons, which kept piling up in what appeared to be some sick joke. I’ll be honest (and really embarrassed) to admit that I gave up on quite a few things, and dreams—like writing is for me—have a way of being the first ones to go. And the most painful ones to hold on to. I don’t know why that is, but I now know how to get past it: with friends and family and actually learning to accept some goddamn help! It sounds cheesy and simple but it’s the truth. So slowly but surely, things got better. A lot better! And now, I know what to do next time the universe plots a merciless shitstorm on me or anyone I love. 🙂 Some day, I may even write about it. But—as Elisa would say—not today. Today is only about happy news! And—aside from my family—I can’t imagine anyone else who would be as excited about this as you will be. Drumroll please . . .
THIRTY NIGHTS HAS FOUND ITS HOME! Yep, that’s right!!!! After months of editing and revising, preparing things like “book jackets,” writing synopses (eek!), taking author photos (double eek!), dealing with submissions, surviving rejections, rejoicing from offers, and learning about terms like “trade edition rights,” I have a deal for its publication with a great U.S. publisher and an awesome, kick-ass editor that loves Elisa and Aiden as much as I do (and that’s a lot!). Although I can’t share a lot of these details until we get closer to publication date (currently slated for Fall 2015!!) I’m very happy with it. Actually, “happy” does not begin to describe it! In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, it’s “incandescently happy.” I feel like it’s the reward, the gratitude, and the joy for everything that happened this past year and a reminder to never, ever, ever give up on your dreams! Take breaks from them, have some distance when they get painful, but keep writing until your little fingers fall on that keyboard from typing, ignore all the naysayers, especially yourself, and listen only to those who see your potential!! Because they are right! And trust me, some day, after rock-bottom, your dream happens! Not at all the way you thought it would (at least not for me) but it does come!! So at the risk of sounding like the movie “Pretty Woman,” keep on dreaming!! 🙂
NOW, the fun details… at least those that I can share. 1) The picture below is just for fun, we don’t know what the cover will look like yet. 🙂 2) Yes, my new pen name is “Ani Keating” (Surnois is really hard to spell… my fault, I thought I was being clever but why should any reader have to scratch their heads to find me?); 3) The published novel will involve scenes, dates and chapters you have not seen before, some of my secret twists and turns that I had always envisioned and hoped I could share with you but thought I’d never get a chance to (plus, if people will buy copies, I want them to get something new too :-)); 4) But it will be a bit shorter—those things you hear about word count maximums, etc.—they are all true. When the book goes to print, there is a huge cost to publishers so some things (as much as it wrenches my heart right out of my chest) have to come out. But they will be on my website after publication, so you’ll have lots and lots of materials to play with; 5) This novel—the story I had always wanted to tell—is the first of a series. Yep, a series. “The American Beauty” Series—I gotta admit, I have a soft spot for that name; 6) I am now a blubbering mess.
So again, thank you, thank you, thank you! I hope you are all as excited about this as I am. I can’t wait for all of you to finally hold the book in your hands, and who knows . . . maybe meet some of you too!!
In the meantime, I’ll be around. Although 30N and 90D material will be limited due to contract restrictions, I will have new things for you, new stories, and of course, the trials and tribulations of publication. Thank you for following me in this journey every step of the way, even during my absence, and thank you for the faith and loyalty you have given to me and my story!! Here it starts!!
I am sorry for the delay in posting this time. I had a not-so-minor crisis with our landlord who selfishly decided to renovate and not renew our lease. I will spare you the madness but it’s all sorted now. Thank you for your patience and thank you to everyone who wrote to me and almost sent out a search and rescue mission. YOU ROCK! I was going to write back individually but I figured between an email from me and a new chapter, you’d like a new chapter. So here it is! We are getting close to that KEY moment you’ve all been waiting for, very close, so keep going. 🙂 And thank you to everyone who reviewed in the last chapter. I know so many of you read and follow and spread the word and I love you all for it. And to those of you who take an extra minute to drop me a line, you have no idea how much that means to a writer, especially after long nights of wondering “why the hell am I doing this again?” SO THANK YOU EVERYONE!! Links below (pinterest will be up in a bit so that I don’t spoil for my Facebook followers). And if you are looking for cool stories, check out the other writers we have in our midst in my previous post. Love them!!
Welcome back and thank you for your general awesomeness. My geekery will show if I say that the last chapter was one of my favorite Elisa moments. So a million thanks to those of you who supported her in that landmark moment. 🙂
For this new chapter, a lot of you have been waiting for a while (wow, that sounded like Yoda!). There is a section here you have seen before – hopefully, now that you will see it in context, the puzzle pieces will fit. Also, please listen to the song because in this case, the song is part of the chapter. 🙂 Oh, and check out Aiden’s letters in his own handwriting (or at least the only nongirly font I had available) on the side bar menu.
And a special thanks to those who are always there to help from British culture (Ariadne) to reviews to typos – it’s hard to list all the names or I will go on forever or worse, forget someone and torture myself while watching Game of Thrones (as if the show doesn’t tear your guts out enough). 🙂 Love you all! Link, song, Pinterest below. Also, we have some wonderful writers among our readers here: check out Wattle on Fanfiction, Sasha Cameron, BG Holmes, Nanette Virden, Candiefloss on Fanfiction, and Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps on Fanfiction and her Tmblr page! I’m still discovering others in my three minutes of reading per day. 🙂 Love – Ani
I promised to get you this chapter quickly because of the cliffhanger. Cliffhangers are not really my style – I just didn’t know where else to leave the last chapter. But hopefully, a quick update fixes that. NOTE about this chapter: AFTER you read it, you may want to consult the new pages on the side bar menu under Elisa’s Pedigree. You will need them going forward.
A big thank you to everyone who commented in the last chapter, along with everyone who reads and follows. As of now, this little blog has exceeded 1,000 followers!!!! And it’s all because of your word of mouth. So thank you for spreading the word. Please help me make Thirty Nights and Ninety Days as dear to others as it has become to you. 🙂 So for every time you have read, told someone about it, and sat down to drop me a note, thank you. A special hug to Ariadne for her guidance on British things and to my friends “S” and Arilee for always being a good soundboard.
The title of this chapter “Sub Rosa Reviresco” has a special meaning to Elisa, as you will see. It means “Under the Rose, I reflourish.” Finally, the Blue Roses Poem below is important to this chapter so you may want to refer to it as you read the chapter (or before). Link and song below. Pinterest will be uploaded soon, so as not to spoil it for those who will see my postings through my FB page.
Thank you so much for the outpouring of support at the last chapter. I loved hearing all your theories, and have posted a lot of the answers to your questions on my FB page for efficiency but will add them to a list here on the side menu as soon as I have a minute. And THANK YOU for all your comments and theories and guesses – there’s nothing better for a wanna-be writer than to hear from her readers in real time.
A special thanks and gratitude to Ariadne for British-proofing this chapter, Mr. Plemmons’ mannerisms, and all her advice on Snowshill and all things British. I have the “best of British” luck in meeting her. One day, I hope she will write a book of her own.
A kiss and hug from anyone who lives in Snowshill for letting me take liberties with your beautiful town. 🙂
This chapter is dedicated to two readers who have followed my journey from the beginning and who both suffered tragedy this week: To S’s mom – may you rest in peace and may your soul shine like phosphorus. To Purpleale – there is a bright road ahead, I know it!
Link, song, and Pinterest below 🙂
“Let there be light” – Elisa Snow Phosphorus Sand – this picture is real!
Here we go! Told you I’d be updating more frequently. 🙂 The sequel is in full flow now. Chapter 3’s link is below (or under the 90 Days tab), along with the song and the new Pinterest goodies (can you tell I am learning how to make Pinterest quotes? I’m going crazy with that stuff – it’s addictive!!) Thank you to everyone who read and commented on the last chapter. I know you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to review and I am so indebted to everyone who takes the time to drop me a word, no matter what you have to say. I read all of them (sometimes many times 🙂 – okay, my crazy is showing).
And last but not least, thank you to Ariadne for all things British, from giving me the correct radio station to giving me tips on the real Snowshill (and to even agreeing to help me with British slang). This lady needs to be a paid editor but until then, I am just fortunate that she came across my story and tolerates my incessant questions. Thank you also to Wendy for suggesting the song for this chapter – you are right: it is absolutely precious and the words are exactly what Peter and Clare would have said to Aiden. 🙂
Hope 2014 is off to a good start for you! I know it’s been since before Christmas, but here is the second chapter of 90 Days. You’ll notice some changes in the website, too: now the sequel has its own tab above per your requests. In addition, there are two new Pinterest boards, one for Elisa’s new wardrobe and one for the sequel, which includes many things mentioned in this chapter, from the Cottage door to… well… no spoilers.
I hope you enjoy it. There will be more Aiden coming up, and more sequel. Link, song, and new Pinterest boards below. 🙂 THANK YOU!!
“The Cottage stands there, with the presence of soul and the absence of time.” – Elisa Snow, Chapter 2, 90 Days
I wanted to wish all of you Merry Christmas, the happiest of holidays, and a healthy, lucky, sexy, and loving New Year’s! I was going to write about how special you have made 2013 for me, by following Thirty Nights from its very first chapter to its current journey through publishing houses. I wanted to thank you for all your faith, support, and thousands and thousands of messages, comments, reviews, cards, and notes you have sent me. But if I did that, I would go on forever. So instead, I will say simply a BIG THANK YOU and give you what you like! Some more writing. 🙂 Over the last several months, so many of you have asked for this scene. It is set before Thirty Nights starts, and I thought it was the most appropriate to post today, on Christmas Eve. Not only to use it as a scene for hope and love for all of you, but also in a moment of self-indulgence because this scene is very close to my heart. Some of you know that Javier was partly inspired by my own brother. Well, this last week, I learned that the American Embassy didn’t give my brother a visa to come spend Christmas with me. So, this is for the apple of my eye, “Andrew,” as well as for all you who have been my muses in this process. Oh, and don’t panic. Aiden POV will return soon, too. I’m just trying to upgrade the website to include more of his chapters. THANK YOU EVERYONE!! HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND SEE YOU IN THE NEW YEAR (my hubby is dragging me to Seattle for a family get-together). All my love, xoxo, Ani
My mother, Maria, has been waking me up this way since July 2, 1994. New day, new life, she said. I remember her with a four-year old’s eyes. Tall, even though she is only five foot two. Plump, because she was wearing three wool sweaters—yes, in July. Happy, because she was smiling. Strong, because she was carrying two black, duffel bags full of our clothes. And right, because she was my mother. New day, new life, she said. She put me in three sweaters, too, and a coat. She gave me my Optimus Prime transformer that my father had sent me all the way from Oregon, America, and took my hand. Vamos a ver a tu papá. Vamos a América, she smiled. I followed her with a four-year old’s steps. Small, quick, and trusting—rushing to keep up with the rest of the world.
“Javier, ándale,” her voice drifts from our tiny, American kitchen, with the same urgency, the same faith as it held fourteen years ago. But unlike fourteen years ago, I am already awake, even though it’s only 4:30 a.m. Still, I let her believe she is waking me up because she likes that. My mother is nothing if she is not the first face her children see in the morning and the last they see at night.
“Okay, okay, I’m up,” I say, my voice still thick from sleep. The house is quiet except Maria’s soft footsteps on the linoleum floor. My father, Antonio, already left for work to build The Nines Hotel downtown Portland. My sisters are asleep. I look at the small Christmas tree in the corner, covered in tinsel and pink lights. No presents there yet. But the stockings hanging on the coat rack are stuffed, most likely with Maria’s knitted socks and gloves. I bet mine will be navy again this year.
I get out of our couch—that’s my bed. No, no, don’t feel bad for me. This sleeping arrangement is by choice because I have converted my bedroom into a painting studio. More about that later. I fold my comforter and sheets, and stuff them in the matchbox closet in our hallway where they will stay until around ten tonight, when I get back from work. Why 10:00 p.m.? Because my boss is letting me out early. Merry Christmas Eve, America!
I shuffle down the hall to the bathroom, stepping on two dolls and a pacifier, and nearly breaking my neck over a soccer ball. My sisters’ toys. Four sisters now. Anamelia just joined us two months ago. It was almost fun until I realized where babies come from. Then I went through a phase of throwing up in my mouth every time I saw my mother pregnant. But I grew out of it. Now, I just blame the five of us on my parents’ love for each other—the love that conquered time, distance, and illegal immigration—but I also know there is a little bit of good ole’ Catholicism in there, too. As faithful Mexican immigrants, we go forth and multiply, filling America’s schools, streets, buses, and homes with American citizens. So they can have the life that we came here to find. The American dream could be an ad for aphrodisiacs. Save an oyster, find America! Neuvo dia, nueva vida.
In the bathroom, I curse my stubble to the deepest pits of Mexico. It grows like fungus after rain. The painter in me wants to grow it out Van Gogh style but Antonio believes in three rules that make a man: a clean-shaven face, a good woman, and a back-breaking job. I am two out of three. I’ve been growing a beard since I was eleven. I’ve been working not one, but two, back-breaking jobs since I was fifteen. As for the good woman . . . well, I’ll just paint her. See, it puts a real damper on dating style when you are eighteen and living with your parents.
Hello Miss American Pie, my name is Harvey Sellers. No, not really, but I can’t tell you my real name because I am a criminal by your laws. In fact, your peeps call me illegal. I’d like to take you out to dinner somewhere on a hilltop, if my Honda Civic makes it that far. But it has to be around eleven because that’s when I get out of work. Is that too late for dinner? I promise to pack my mother’s carnitas . . . or salad, whichever you prefer. Once there, we can dance. Do you tango? Vertical? Horizontal? And at the end of the date, I’ll drop you off. I won’t give you my phone number because you may know Immigration and Customs Enforcement police . . . you know, ICE men. So how about that date, Miss?
And that is why I, Javier Solis, do not have a girlfriend.
I slap my newly-shaved face, now softer than Anamelia’s bottom after a new diaper, and start putting on my work clothes. We’re supposed to get an ice storm today. Lucky for me as a landscaper, ice storms are rare in Portland, Oregon. But when they come, they turn the world upside down. See, Portlanders have no fucking clue what to do with snow. They usually walk around like dingbats, calling off school and public transportation, wearing sleeping bags with holes for legs and arms, and discussing the merits of global warming. As a native Mexican with the word Sun for a last name, I would join them wholeheartedly. But Boss pays extra on ice storms, which means they’re better than sunny days.
I put on my long underwear—sexy. Then jeans—hot. Then my work coveralls—even sexier. Repeat the process with three layers up top. Steel toed boots? Check. A man needs toes. Ear muffs? For sure. A man needs ears, too. Coat? Two, please. They’re out in the foyer. Actually, foyer is what Maria calls it. In reality, it’s a two-by-two space cluttered with the girls’ shoes.
I come out of the bathroom, sweating bullets. I can smell Maria’s fried eggs and potatoes so I sprint to the kitchen. She smiles when she sees me, her chocolate eyes twinkling like the Christmas tree. In five seconds, she will hug me, bless me, and ask about my work schedule even though it’s the same every day. Five, four, three, two, one.
“Bendito, hijo, bendito,” she says, marking a cross over my forehead. Then she slides three eggs and a mountain of hash browns on a plate with reindeers—one dollar, ninety-nine cents at TJ Maxx, a present from Antonio two Christmases ago. I sit at the kitchen table and dig in. Maria pats my cheek.
“You growing. You need new jeans, hijo.” She smiles but in her voice, I sense the hesitation of math. She is adding up the dollars in our checking account.
“Not really. You know me, I’m a kilt guy,” I say because that will make her laugh. She does and for a moment, I sense an echo of the four-year old boy. That boy is long gone but there are some moments—rare, Christmas-Eve moments—when Maria’s laughter turns back time to Optimus Prime transformers, hot July days, trips to America, and a mother’s guiding hand. Nuevo dia, nueva vida.
“So what is Boss having you do today?” Maria asks in English. She always asks this question in English, as though to emphasize its importance.
“Going over to Reed College. Gotta treat the rhododendrons around campus. Then off to Feign Art. Someone ordered a replica of that Pursuit of Happiness series I did last year and I have to finish it by January third.”
“Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice,” Maria says, patting my arm. I know her pats by now. On the cheek to say hello or I love you, on the head to say behave, and on the arm to say maybe later. She reserves this latter pat for my “art talks.” She and Antonio know that if we really want to talk American dreams, mine would be to have my own gallery, paint the land I see versus the land I want, and of course, collect money from it. And they think that’s as impractical as a man can get. Pointless concern because as an illegal, I could never own or operate a gallery. So instead, I settle for ghost-painting for Brett Feign who sells my work under his name and gives me about a fiftieth of what he makes. Fair? No. Acceptable? Yes. It puts food on the table and I get to do what I love. Not many have that luxury. Not even Americans.
“How much is Feign paying for the paintings this time?” Maria asks.
“Same as always. Two hundred bucks a pop. There’re five of them though so that’s good.”
Her face softens and she pats my cheek. “Buen hijo,” she says. A good son. “Someday, you will not have to work so much.”
She speaks the words with a far-away look, as though that is the only aspiration, the holy promise. Because it is. She pats my cheek again, takes my plate, and walks over to the sink.
I watch her straight back. It breaks too, under loads of laundry, bending to clean, wipe, sweep, and mop Portland’s hotels. Still, on any given day, life is better here. Or if not life, the dream of life. Somehow it feels closer, graspable, or at least more vivid on this side of the border. I suppose, in the end, a vivid dream is better than a blurry dream, even if it never becomes reality.
I still have a few minutes before six o’ clock, but suddenly, the promise of Nuevo dia, nueva vida, rings both loud and mute. I stand to leave. Maria turns around and wipes her hands with a kitchen towel, covered with snowmen. Two dollars, ninety nine cents at Crate and Barrel. A present from me four Christmases ago. Maria is nuts about Crate and Barrel. Which is why this year, I’m getting her stocking-shaped mugs, in addition to a painting of her and Antonio.
“You leaving already? You still have a few minutes,” she looks at the cuckoo clock on the kitchen wall.
“I know. I want to drive slow. Ice and all.”
She blanches at the word ICE.
“I meant real ice, Mom. It’s okay.”
I walk over to her and give her a hug. The word ICE in our house is the same as the word muerte. It is never said unless it happens. Damn the genius who named immigration police ICE. What the hell are we supposed to call real ice without causing heart attacks for our parents?
“How about we call it Aspirin from now on?” I say.
Maria’s color returns. Almost. “Aspirin?” she smiles.
“Sure. Aspirin is supposed to prevent heart attacks.”
She laughs and pats my cheek. “Ah, sí. Okay. Aspirin.”
“I love you,” I say, and kiss her hair.
“I love you, too,” she answers in English.
I put on my two coats, pick up my packed lunch, and go out to brave the Portland Aspirin storm.
By 11:30 a.m., I have snowballs instead of testicles. Reed College has more rhododendrons than ICE has cops on the Mexico border. Why the fuck does any college need so many rhododendrons? Oh right, the college that gave us Steve Jobs, Wikipedia, the CD, and who knows what else. I usually keep my eyes on the ground and away from the brainiacs that attend this school but the truth is I have crashed a couple of their art lectures while pretending to take out the trash. I even wrote down their syllabus and have been saving for the books. At my rate, I will have a better chance at buying them one chapter at a time . . . and should have them all when I turn sixty. Awesome! I continue covering the rhododendrons with plastic bags and spraying them with anti-freeze, whistling Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time.”
“Umm… hello?” A soft voice, almost a windy whisper, interrupts me right at “you’ll know it’s me when I come through your town.” I look up. And man though I am, I gasp. Airless, I have a sudden urge to cross myself.
A few steps from me, is a . . . girl. I think. But the word does not fit her. She is almost transparent, as though she lacks substance, not form. She is tiny, no taller than five foot four. Her skin is pale, almost like onion skin. It stretches over her prominent cheeks and upturned nose like the edges of her bones are about to break through the delicate film. Her lips are white, chapped, and slightly parted as though she is barely drawing breath. Her hair is long, past her waist, and almost black. It is thin, and I suppose at some point, it must have been wavy. It blows in the wind behind her like a sigil—dark and ominous as the flag death would carry if it were in the habit of announcing itself.
Standing out above and beyond the haunting sight, are the girl’s eyes. They are an astonishing color. A deep orchid purple, almost indigo blue. I have studied human eyes and colors for my art but I have never seen eyes like this. They are large, too big for her drawn face. Long, black lashes frame them but she blinks very little. The lashes flutter in the wind, too, like feathers. I watch her eyes closely, wondering if she is wearing lenses. She is not. Her eyes are real. Yet despite their vibrancy, they remind me of a hearth after the fire has gone out. No embers glowing, no warmth. Only ash. Like her hair, her eyes must have had some life in them but whatever specter has hollowed her, has extinguished them, too.
I tear my eyes from her face and look at the rest of her. She is wearing a man’s coat, too large for her. It’s a dark brown tweed, the sleeves rolled a few times to expose her frail hands, locked together. The coat falls to her shins. She has a dark green man’s scarf wrapped around her neck. Under the coat, she is wearing a pair of black slacks. On her feet, some black pumps that look like they belong on a mother, not on a teenage girl. Her feet shift on the frozen lawn. It’s not until I see that slight movement that I realize why the word girl does not fit her. She is not a girl. She is a ghost.
I look back at her face. She swallows once and flinches as if the act caused her pain. She looks at the anti-freeze spray bottle and then back at me. Her shoulders are hunched and another word pops in my head. Waif. She has that aura of an abandoned child, even though she is probably about eighteen years old. I try to say something —anything—but cannot. There was beauty in this girl once. The kind of beauty you paint, immortalize. A beauty underneath, between reality and imagination. A painter knows a pretty woman at first sight, and a beautiful woman at the thousandth. The Mona Lisa’s, the Simonetta’s, the Dora Maar’s. The muses. What could destroy that type of beauty with such vengeance? Why?
“I . . . I can help . . . help you with the rhododendrons?” she whispers again. Now I realize that, in fact, she is not whispering; she is talking. Whatever evil drained her beauty, muted her voice, too. But quiet though her words are, I notice a British accent in them.
She waits with an empty dread in her eyes, like she is afraid I am going to say no. Maybe she is crazy. As in true mental illness. I watch her under this new theory. She blinks once and looks at the rhododendrons again like they may hold the answer on how to weird out innocent landscapers. Yes, ill. Ill describes her. But not dangerous, no. Just . . . hurting. I open and close my mouth a few times, blink for the both of us, and find some words.
“Hey, there. Ah, you don’t need to help me. I got this. Uh, is there anything I can help you with?” Some food maybe? Or gloves? Or rocks in your pockets so you don’t blow away in the wind?
The moment she hears my “no” she flinches again and her chest rises as if she is trying to breathe. “Umm . . . you can help me if you let me help you,” she whispers.
What the hell does that mean? Oh, that if I let her help me, it will in turn help her? How on Oregon’s green forests will that happen? This girl needs to be in bed, hooked up to some IV or something. Not out in an Aspirin storm, treating shrubbery.
I shake my head. “Honestly, I think you should go home. It’s getting bad out here. Just go be warm or eat or something. I’m almost finished here.”
At the word home, she closes her eyes briefly, then opens them, looking at the rhododendrons in panic. “But . . . but . . . But if you cover their roots with leaves, it will be better for them. And the spray you are using is not effective. It doesn’t have a surfactant ingredient listed on the bottle, and it won’t help. If you want, I can show you how to make one that will help,” she whispers urgently. “Please?”
Okay. Either this girl has some serious, tree hugger kind of obsession with rhododendrons, or she invents anti-freeze and is trying to dupe me into buying some, or she is downright nuts. Besides, I know what I am doing with the shrubs.
“Look, ah . . . what’s your name?”
“Elisa. Elisa Snow,” her whisper drops so low that I have to lean in to catch her words. She almost mouths her last name as if her vocal chords cannot support the sound.
“Right. Okay, Elisa. My name is Harvey. Are you feeling . . . you know, okay and all?”
She nods slowly in a way that could mean only “no.” Some strange current starts to crawl and zap in my chest the same way it does when Maria is crying or one of the girls gets picked on at school.
“You don’t seem okay,” I push.
She steps back, looks at the rhododendrons one last time, inclines her head at me once, and turns to leave. Maybe she accepted defeat with the stupid shrubs, or perhaps gave it up in exchange for her silence to my question. Before I know what I am doing, I run after her.
“Hey, hey! Elisa?” I call, but she tries to walk faster. I catch up to her in about three steps and a half. “Hey, don’t run. I thought you wanted to help me out?” I say, keeping my voice casual like I do when I tease my sisters. Maybe this way, she will tell me what’s wrong with her. I don’t know why it’s suddenly so important for me to know, but it is.
She looks at me, and blinks twice—a record for her. “You’d let me help you?” she asks.
“Well, yeah, sure. As long as you tell me why you’re so upset.” I meant to make it sound like a negotiation but instead, it came out as a question.
She dissects my face, with a thinker’s look. A flash of intelligence gleams in her empty eyes. “And you will let me help you until you are all done?”
She looks around. What could be so momentous about telling someone why she’s upset. Oh shit, maybe it’s a crime? No, she doesn’t look like a criminal. No, this is something painful. I know that. That’s why I’m standing here like a dude’s Christmas tree: stiff, dead from the root up, and with a pair of snowballs.
“So, what do you say? A secret in exchange for hard labor?” I offer. I hoped to make her smile but she doesn’t. Perhaps she does not remember how. Or maybe my joke was not that funny. Still, for some nutjob reason, I keep going.
“I promise to make the labor really hard if that helps? You can do all the rhodies by yourself even. And you can show me what the deal is with anti-freeze and the surf-whatever.”
She looks up at me. For an instant, a shadow of life flits in her eyes, almost like recognition or trust. To my utter astonishment, she nods only once.
“Yeah? Deal?” I ask, unsure that a nod really is a nod with this girl.
“Deal,” she whispers.
I smile and wait in what I think is a very nice-guy, encouraging stance. Elisa locks her hands together tightly, as if she is looking for something to grip. Yes, my chest is definitely acting up. She is so fragile and the pain in her eyes so acute that, of its own volition, my hand extends toward her.
“You can hold on to me, if you want,” I say. If any dude anywhere has had a weirder conversation with a woman, I’ll give ICE my real name.
She stares at my open hand in that blinkless way of hers. I am about to withdraw it when her fingers relax a fraction. I hold my palm closer to her, like one might when offering a hazelnut to a wounded, trembling squirrel.
She extends her hand to me slowly. It shakes like the last leaves on Reed’s oaks. The weird crawl in my chest creeps up in my throat, changing into an ache I have never felt about a stranger. Something about her trust is transformative, like that right ray of light that makes the canvass a window, not a frame.
At last, her small hand rests on mine. Her fingers are icicles, brittle and frail. I wrap my hand around hers gently, afraid that if I shake it, it will shatter into a million crystals. She closes her fingers around mine. They are weightless, almost a caress, not a grip. Still, the touch must do something for her because she looks up at me.
“Thank you,” she mouths.
“Sure. See? Not that hard. Now, all this shrubbery is yours for the treating, just tell me what’s wrong.”
Her fingers tighten slightly on mine. I wait for a long time. At least a long time by an hourly worker’s standards. “You know, those rhodies will freeze by the time we’re done here.”
That does it. Yep, definitely a rhododendron hugger. Her lips move slowly as if she is testing the words in her mind first. Is it possible she has never said them? Then she looks up at me.
“Do you have parents, Harvey?” she whispers, as if she just took her last breath.
I repeat her words in my head, trying to make sense of the riddle. Why is she asking about my parents? My eyes flit to her clothes. A man’s clothes. An older man’s clothes. A father’s. And the shoes. A mom’s shoes, just as I thought earlier. I suck in a sharp, icy breath as it finally hits me. She is asking about my parents because she has lost hers.
I don’t usually have time to study my insides but there are some changes, body and blood changes, that even the most practical, overworked, meat-and-potatoes, full-beard-by-lunchtime man notices. That’s where I am right now. A strange, thick burn— like I’m inhaling paint thinner on fire—blisters in my throat. Without thought or plan, I try to pull her slowly to me. She doesn’t move.
“Will you settle for a brother on loan?” I say. As the words leave my mouth though, I feel like I have signed and sealed some summons from above. Like her parents hailed me to this frozen lawn, on this Christmas Eve, with the missive of angels. And even though I offer her brotherhood, to Elisa, I will always be whatever is written in that missive. Brother, family, or whatever the skies have in order.
She looks at our joined hands, and then in my eyes. She nods, but the motion is more fluid, somehow. Not as stiff. She doesn’t smile but that flicker of life flashes in her eyes. “Can I help now?”
I pat her small hand as I realize what she is asking. She wants something to make Christmas Eve livable. Something she can breathe through. The bite of frost, the prickle of shrubs, perhaps even the idea of protecting something —a life form as simple as a plant—from the end.
I swallow to make sure my voice is not frozen. It is, but her purple eyes melt it into the only words she needs.
“Yeah, you can help me. For as long as you want.”
“Thank you,” she says with so much feeling that I am not certain whether she is thanking me for the rhododendrons or for something else. Her voice is a little clearer as if she put all her strength behind it.
I smile. “Sure. But if I’m a brother on loan, you should probably know my real name. It’s Javier. Javier Solis.”
She doesn’t ask me why I lied. In fact, she doesn’t look surprised. “My . . . parents,” she swallows as she says the word. “They called me Isa.”
“Well, Merry Christmas Eve, Isa.”
She looks at me for a long moment. A few wisps of snow fall over us. “Merry Christmas Eve, Javier,” her fingers tighten weakly on mine. Then, she lets go off my hand and picks up the bottle of anti-freeze. She walks to the next rhododendron in line and starts covering the base and upper roots with all the leaves she can find. Her hair gets stuck in the branches but she doesn’t care. She pats down the layers of leaves with an odd energy. Almost dedication. She starts to fold sleeves of plastic and tucks the branches in with a motherly edge to her delicate face. At length, a faint, almost invisible pink tints her cheeks.
The Mona Lisa’s, the Simonetta’s, the Dora Maar’s. And the Elisa’s.
I look up at the sky that sent me a missive, realizing it was not a commandment; it was a gift. Every painter has a painting, every painting has some art, every art has a maker, but not every maker is an artist. An artist exists only if he has a muse.
Snowflakes fall on Elisa’s hair. Merry Christmas to me.
On Thanksgiving, while I was eating things like soup due to my broken tooth, and seething that my hubby was gorging himself in turkey and stuffing, I thought to myself: yes, but he does not have almost 1,000 followers in his blog (ignoring the fact that he does not have a blog)! So I sat there with my soup, giving thanks for all of you. For every time you have clicked on this blog, followed it, spread the word, told someone about the story, sent me a message, wrote a review, or simply thought of 30Nights, THANK YOU!!
In honor of the holidays, I thought you should meet Aiden’s mother, Stella Hale, through an interview. I have had a lot of questions about Aiden’s childhood. Let’s see if she can answer some of them for you. As always, some sequel hints are embedded as well. Be careful, Stella does not know that she is a character in a book.
Stella Hale (Daphne Zuniga)
AS: (has changed into sweat pants for the occasion) Mrs. Hale, I’m Ani Surnois and I’m your son’s creato—ahh…creativity director… yep, that’s me.
Stella Hale: Hello, Ms. Surnois, how do you do? Do I owe Aiden’s brand-new campaign called Il Legal to you?
AS: Well, I only named it but it was Aiden’s initiative through and through.
SH: (smiles proudly) That’s my son! May I ask … where am I exactly? I was just in an airplane, and my husband was telling me to get some sleep, and now I’m here. I have a family emergency, you see, and I have to get to Portland, Oregon, ASAP.
AS: Umm… yes, the plane is … refueling. You will be on your way very shortly. While that happens, this … ah… place is my head. Sort of.
SH: I beg your pardon?
AS: My head … my office.
SH: Ah! Ah, yes, of course. (looks around with bright blue eyes, very much like Aiden’s). How curious a place! What is that thing in the back? Is that a… ballroom?
AS: Oh,that! Yes, yes, it is. Here, don’t mind that, Mrs. Hale. I’m doing a … biography of Aiden. And I’ve seen so much curiosity about his childhood. Would you be willing to answer some questions for me?
SH: Of course, of course. As long as I get back on the plane in the next few minutes. I really need to see my son. (fidgets and wrings her fingers.)
AS: (feeling like an emotional leech.) I understand. I’ll get you out of here very soon. Here, have some Baci chocolates. They really help. Now, let’s get started. What was Aiden’s first word?
SH: (eyes soften and speaks softly.) Aiden didn’t have a first word. He had a first sentence.
AH: A first sentence?
SH: (nods with a smile). Yes, he said “Mama,” paused for a just a second and continued “Mama, fank you.” I couldn’t believe my ears. He dropped his little bouncing ball and I gave it back to him, and there it was. “Mama, fank you.” So I did it again, and again he said it. With a big grin. “Mama, fank you.” I called my husband, Robert, at work in a tizzy. He came home immediately—we spent the whole day just watching Aiden. He was only 13 months old! And the words were almost fully pronounced. (shakes her head. Oh hell, there’s a tear. Yep, there it goes, down her cheek.) We should have known right then that something was different. But the pediatrician kept saying “he’s just a smart boy.” We had no idea just how advanced his little brain was…
AS: Are you referring to his eidetic memory?
SH: (looks up startled) You know about that?
AH: Umm… yes. Aiden told me.
SH: Really? That’s very unusual. Aiden does not share private information. (frowns, purses lips, eyebrow flies in the air and squints her eyes at me.) Are you sure you are his creativity director?
AS: Positive. I also do his hair so that means we’re friends. Plus, I’m very nosy. Mrs. Hale, when did you first notice Aiden’s intellectual gifts?
SH: Well, in retrospect, from the first time he fully opened his eyes. They were almost… too intelligent for a baby. Here, I have a picture, would you like to see it?
AS: (melting into a puddle of raging female hormones) YES, PLEASE!
SH: (pulls out of her bag, not a wallet, but an album, thicker than Brothers Karamazov, full of Aiden baby pictures and sniffles). Here is my favorite. This is how he watched us from the very beginning. Like he understood it all! Even Doctor Nikos who delivered him said, “smarty eyes! Looks like he’s telling me how to do my job.”
Aiden’s Baby Blues
AS: (can’t talk because she is experiencing an out-of-this-womb moment!)
SH: (looking at the photo.) When he was born, he came so gently. Doctor Nikos said it was almost as if he was worried he would hurt me. It took Robert and me a while to conceive but once I got pregnant, Aiden gave me no trouble… Here are some other ones (starts flipping feverishly through baby pictures). Here, this one. He was born with a full head of hair. Robert called him “Mohawk.”
SH: I tried to comb it a few times but Robert wouldn’t let me. Here he is with our dog Marlow. He loved that dog! We always had a dog. I have no clue why Aiden doesn’t have one now. He’s so good with dogs. Every time I ask, he gives me some joking answer like “because I don’t have a mailman,” or “because I can’t neuter another male.”
Aiden and Marlow
SH: I have some others, too— would you like to see them? (pulling more pictures now.) Are you okay, Ms. Surnois? You seem choked up?
AS: Ah, yes, yes, I have a tearduct allergy. Something about polaroids. Go figure. Mrs. Hale, aside from the intelligent eyes, when was the first sign of his memory?
SH: (looks up from the baby pictures as if she forgot I am here.) Oh! When he was five. One night, I was reading Fantastic Mr. Fox to him. The next night, I was tucking him in and started to read again but I couldn’t remember the page I’d left off so I picked up a few pages earlier. Suddenly, he started reading with me! It took all my strength not to scream. I was terrified. I thought he was really reading. But then I covered the words with my hand, and said “Aiden,can you read it now, love?” So he recited what he remembered from the night before: “Bogis and Bunce and Bean, one fat, one short, one mean, these horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean.” He didn’t know how to read, he just remembered it perfectly (shakes her head again, tearing up.)
Here he is, reading later, on Manzanita Beach. This is how he used to read, roughly two pages or so per minute, which is the speed of an average teenager.
Aiden reading on Manzanita Beach…
AS: Was eidetic memory something that ran in your family?
SH: (shrugs.) We don’t really know. My grandfather spoke four languages so there may be a genetic strain but scientists can’t say. I wonder if that’s why—(stops abruptly if she spoke one word too many.)
AS: If that’s why what, Mrs. Hale?
SH: (shakes head). An errant thought… my apologies.
AS: No, please, I’d like to know. And the sooner you tell me, the sooner you can go.
SH: Well, I was wondering if Aiden worries that the memory would be passed on to his children. Whether that’s not part of the reason why he has never really talked about having a family?
AS: (mental note to address with Aiden; he did put this in his first letter to Jacob Marshall. Damn him!) How many languages does Aiden speak?
SH: Seven, I think. Let me see… Farsi, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Greek, Sanskrit and English. The first four, he learned in the military, of course. The others, he picked up from reading.
AS: (picks up her jaw from the floor.) How did Aiden get so wealthy so quickly? A lot of … umm… investors want to know about that.
SH: (breaks into a laugh). Well, darling, he didn’t exactly get wealthy “quickly.” See, Aiden started making money when he was six. He started his own business, inventing mnemonic devices. (stands up straight, looking proud)
AS: (picks up jaw from the floor again and glues it to her face.) What?
SH: (laughs again). It’s true. One day, I went to the grocery store but forgot his Honey Nut Cheerios. He was not a happy camper. So he had Robert—who is an architect and engineer–install this contraption in my alarm clock that shuffled song lyrics in sync with our grocery list. That way I would never forget. The first song that played when the alarm went off was “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.” I couldn’t believe it. It was the story of being Aiden’s parents: being astounded on a daily basis. From then on, he started inventing other mnemonic devices. One time, he converted his baseball card statistics into a gambling operation, and showed up at home with all sorts of treasures from baseball bats and toys to candy. We made him return them—he was furious. He kept saying “I worked so hard all day long and no one helps me.” (laughs.) But soon, the private middle schools around Seattle were buying his mnemonic devices. We started patenting them for him, and saving the money. By the time he entered high school, he had about $100,000 in the bank.
AS: So that’s how he started HH?
SH: Yes, many years later. We held the money in trust. And I’m glad we did because he’d have blown it all away in his wild years. We just managed it until he returned from Iraq. Then he pulled it out, used it as seed funding for HH, and the rest is history. It helps if you never forget the stock market trends.
AS: What is your favorite moment of Aiden’s childhood?
SH: (wipes her tears.) There are so many. Like any mom. He was a character. But one that always makes me laugh despite the fact that it was horrifically embarrassing for Robert and me was something he did when he was 4. It showed me even then that he wanted to be like his parents and wanted a happy family.
AS: What happened?
SH: Well, he was in preschool one day. He usually played baseball or ran around in the jungle gym but he had this little girlfriend for about a week—Taylor. Taylor wanted to play house. The teacher told me that she and Aiden tucked in their baby dolls—Aiden got in trouble for holding the doll upside down—and then pretended to go to bed. There they lay, the two of them, next to each other. Taylor pretended to turn off the light and closed her eyes. Aiden tossed and turned, crossed his arms, and huffed and puffed. Eventually, bored, he asked Taylor “when are you going to go Aaaaaah so I can go play ball?”
AS: Oh my God!
SH: (laughs and blushes). I know! Robert and I were mortified when the teacher told us. We had no idea how much he was retaining. We were always careful of course, but he was four! He didn’t know any better, he just remembered a pattern. We had to be so careful. So very very careful. And we still let him down. (wipes a tear.)
AS: Looking back, would you have done anything different in raising Aiden?
SH: (looks down). Wouldn’t any parent? Hindsight is twenty-twenty. I would have done a lot of things differently. A lot…
AS: For example?
SH: I would have never kicked him out when he was spiraling. I would have rather he killed me in his rage than shut the door on my only son. I would have given him a brother if I could have. I wouldn’t have miscarried during our beach vacation. I would have never let him join the military. Never, ever. I would have slept outside his bootcamp every night. I would have laid myself in front of that damn plane when he was deployed. I would have gone to Afghanistan. To Iraq. Carry all that gear for him. All those guns. Have him sleep on me rather than on cold desert. Have my arms around him instead of bullet rounds. Enlist myself if they would let me, take his place. It really should be a law that mothers be allowed to take their children’s place in war. We would all do it. All of us. Kill those animals that touched a hair in his head. Or have them torture me. They hurt my baby boy. He’s always my baby boy. But I can’t turn back time. I just can’t… (wipes her eyes, straightens her camel-colored cardigan and looks up.) My apologies, Ms. Surnois… do you have any other questions? I really must get back to my son.
AS: (sobbing too, feeling like she might have wanted to take Aiden’s place as well). Only two more. Is there anything you think would help him?
SH: (looks at me, smiling.) Love. Love, if he lets it. But he is so convinced of his own danger that I don’t know what it will take for Aiden to ever really allow love in his life. If he has been able to isolate his own mother for years, what could possibly convince him to allow another woman to love him?
AS: Is that what you think Aiden’s main obstacle will be? Letting anyone love him?
SH: (nods firmly.) Yes. Yes. I think he will love, I have no doubt about that. And he will love deeply, that’s the only way he knows how. But accepting love in return… that, I don’t know. He has not accepted it from me, not once in the last 14 years … (wipes her eyes again, shakes her head.)
AS: (thinking furious of a way to cheer her up.) Can you show me another Aiden baby picture?
SH: (smiles immediately.) Oh yes, yes, of course. Here is one with him making his funny faces. He has not changed much.
Where is my boob? – Aiden “Mohawk” Hale
AS: Mrs. Hale, thank you so much for your time. I see they have refueled the plane, and you’re ready to go. I’m sure we will see more of each other.
SH: (stands.) Thank you, dear. Oh, the ballroom in the back is all lit up!! What is that for? Wait— a girl just appeared in there! Who is—?
AS: Ah, don’t worry about that Mrs. Hale. That girl is a dream. Have a safe flight.
SH: You too, Ms. Surnois. And please, darling, I know you are a creative and all, but sweat pants??
THANK YOU FOR READING EVERYONE!!!!! I had no idea you would enjoy the interviews so much. We have more coming up, including Reagan, Elisa, Anamelia, and some other characters. 🙂 See you soon. All my love – Ani
Hey everyone, thank you so much for all your comments, questions, love, and support!! You all rock (pun on reason for this post). I have received a lot of questions on the whole of Thirty Nights, current status, and future steps. I will post answers to those questions that are not going to be resolved in the sequel in the next few days. If you have a question, feel free to send it to me at email@example.com, and I will add it to the list. 🙂
Some of you have requested the fullThirty Nights Soundtrack (rather than the limited one I first posted). I love you guys for the attention to detail you give this story. Here it is to listen to some of these in the final hours!! You will see everything from Beethoven to a rap song associated with the epitaph and Aiden’s dick (boy, you guys have a lot of questions about his dick). See if you can guess which songs go with each scene (some I have tipped you off to). Trust me, listening to this is much better than if I was singing. My mom says “it rains when I sing.” 🙂 Anyway, hope you like it!
On a final note, hang in there!! I know some of you are going through withdrawals. I am too, which is good because there will be Aiden POV soon. Lots of love, Ani
P.S. Oh, and there will be a Thirty Nights Holidays Playlist soon too. 🙂
Fur Elise- Beethoven
Hey Hey, My My – Battleme (Elisa’s rejection)
Romeo & Juliette, Je Veux Vivre – Maria Callas (seeing Aiden Hale)
The Things That Stop You Dreaming – Passenger
Immigrant Song – Led Zeppelin
Take You Away – Angus & Julia Stone
30 Minutes – t.a.T.u.
Broken Life – Blue Foundation (long intro, but worth it)
Dark Star – Polica
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Nina Simone
Chocolate – Tricia Sebastian
All I want Is You – Barry Louis Polisar
Burn This Town – Battleme (Lie to Me)
Sentimientos – Tango Project
Hearts a Mess – Gotye
Sunday Morning Coming Down – Johnny Cash (Elisa waking up drunk)
Tiff – Polica
Closer – Kings of Leon
Breathe Mia – Sia
Caruso – Andrea Bocelli
Crazy in Love – Emeli Sande & The Bryan Ferry Orchestra
Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon – Neil Diamond
Tonight – Lykke Li (embargo starting)
La Traviata – Giuseppe Verdi
Une Femme Amoureuse – Mireille Mathieu
Il Tempo Se Ne Va – Adriano Celentano (Elisa’s parents story, song is about father and daughter)
Moonlight Sonata – Beethoven
No Light, No Light – Florence + The Machine
Let Her Go – Passenger
The Limit to Your Love – Feist
This is What Makes Us Girls – Lana del Rey
Baila Morena – Julio Iglesias
Mondo Bongo – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
The Moth and The Flame – Les Deux Love Orchestra
Million Dollar Man – Lana Del Rey
Even After All – Finley Quaye
Beyond Love – Time Bomb
You’re Onto Something – Ivan & Alyosha (no joke, that’s the title of the band! Straight from the Brothers K)
Freak Like Me – Santigold (Aiden’s and Elisa’s brains, after Aiden’s eidetic memory disclosure)
Some Nights – Fun.
Sail – Awolnation
Hello Veitnam – Johnny Wright
Soli – Adriano Celentano
My Dick – Mickey Avalon (the epitaph song)
Fever – Peggy Lee
Love Song #2 – The White Buffalo
Policy of Truth – Depeche Mode
I’m Feeling Good – Nina Simone
You’ll Find a Way – Santigold
La Vida Es Un Carnaval – Celia Cruz
Amado Mio – Pink Martini
Assassin’s Tango – John Powell
Schedryk (Christmas) – Pink Martini
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Dean Martin
Crawling King Snake – John Lee Hooker (second epitaph song)
You’re All I want For Christmas – Bing Crosby
Cream – Prince (Elisa’s striptease)
Sadeness – Enigma (Elisa’s striptease)
Criminal – Fiona Apple (Aiden’s revenge)
From Clare to Here – Ralph McTell (Lady Clare)
30 Lives – Imagine Dragons
Ave Maria – Celtic Woman
Clandestino – Manu Chao
O Children – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (babysitting)
Asturias – Isaac Albeniz (Javier’s kiss)
Bang Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down – Nancy Sinatra (The fight in the library)
O Fortuna, Carmina Burana – London Philharmonic Orchestra (the attack and Aiden’s fall)
Paint it Black – The Rolling Stones
Bonfires – Blue Foundation
P.S. I Love You – The Beatles (reading Aiden’s letter)
Stubborn Love – The Lumineers
Remember – Michael Groban
Your Bruise – Death Cab for Cutie
Only Time – Enya
Fire in Blood/Snake Song – Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Sometimes things happen by design. Sometimes by accident… these are the words Elisa uses to describe why Aiden and she came into each other’s life. I never thought they would ring so true for my last post of Thirty Nights which, by accident, happens to be on Veteran’s Day. Perhaps, as she says, accident will become meaning and plan. Perhaps it’s a sign that the story should go on. Or perhaps, I have gone crazy and am in a padded room somewhere. Please indulge me for a few moments (crying a little over here…)
I wanted to do something special for you today!! I spent all Veteran’s Day today taking pictures of the Reed Campus and all other moments referenced in 30N. I wanted to put them together as Elisa ends this phase of her journey and starts a new one. And – SCARY – I managed to make my first Youtube video for you – Thirty Nights from Aiden’s Camera!! If you know me, you know how radical this is and how much I love you. Computers and I don’t get along. As you will see, I tried to take pics of the places that meant the most to them. Just like Elisa wanted in her last wishes. I hope you like it. Hopefully, you won’t sob like I am right now. You will see the first fan art (for Master’s Muse), The Immigration Building, their last wishes, the Solis home, and the last moments of silence is the ending… (I couldn’t figure out how to add sounds of tears there)…. Go easy on me, I am a Youtube virgin!
My last note for Thirty Nights before we continue Aiden’s Nights and 90 Days is to thank you!! From the bottom of my heart. In my blog stats, I have viewers from just about every country, from the United States (my home) to my birth country (my origin – though they don’t know they are reading a compatriot’s story). To all of the Americans that gave me a home when I needed it, and to all those “originers” that gave me life – THANK YOU! And thank you to all of you for reading, encouraging me, becoming friends, supports, critics, lovers, haters but always putting time in 30N and me – THIS IS FOR YOU!
Thirty Nights comes down a week from today, at midnight (embargo night style). Then we start Aiden and more – Aiden’s story will have new parts you have not read, including all skipped days. Until then, trust me that I want these three happy. All my love, Ani (video, songs, and links below).
Hey lovelies… here we go! Three more up. I know these are hard: but hopefully, among the hardship and tears, you will see the beauty of these three souls. My goal is to highlight the hidden terror of PTSD. We all get the terror of Elisa and Javier but Aiden, like most PTSD soldiers and Marines, hides it all inside. It was very hard for me to write his past through a third-person but I knew Aiden himself would never “tell.” That’s the curse of PTSD – silence and judgment. I hope to God that real people who live with it find as much love as Aiden has and allow themselves to accept it. 🙂
The last two chapters will be posted together tonight or tomorrow. I thought it would be easier on you this way than rush through all of them. Thank you as always for your support, messages, and encouragement – including those of you who commented for the first time!! Love hearing from you and it makes this process so much more enjoyable. There’s no writer without a reader – that’s the truth. And I have been blessed with the best readership I could have asked for. Truly! As questions come up, feel free to email me. It will take me a few days to get to them all while preparing everything else, but I will get back to you.
New and senior readers alike will find new things in these chapters. Specifically, more of Aiden’s backstory. Also, of course, I am keeping more surprises for the official version that gets published (whether by a publisher or me so there are things that will be new at that time. This way, you feel like you get something new each time, specially those who know the story so well by now.)
Songs and links for all these chapters are below. THANK YOU!
Thank you so much everyone for your comments and questions. I will answer them all in the next couple of days. We are getting close to the end, with the final chapters to be posted tomorrow and Monday. I will keep them up for a few days to give you time to read, comment, ask questions. Then we start Aiden, skipped holidays, etc. Even senior TMM/30N readers will find something new in Chapter 35 – a bit of trivia that may become relevant in the sequel. Thank you so much for following this journey with me!! Song and link below.
For those of you who wondered what song Aiden plays for Elisa in the library (“bad, bad girl”), it’s Criminal, by Fiona Apple.
Thank you so much everyone for your birthday and anniversary wishes for TMM/30N. And thank you for all your good-luck wishes, too. As one of you quoted, fingers, toes, and mosquito bites crossed. So funny! I am so lucky to have readers like you. Truly – I couldn’t have asked for better followers. Smart, funny, loyal! What more can a writer ask for?
These chapters were fun to write. Here they are with some added pictures. Check out the pinterest board for more pictures too. A special hello to my Sons of Anarchy girls (yes, that’s a different story) who are particularly distraught this week after what happened in that show on Tuesday. See below for links and songs.
All my love to all of you!! xo Ani (still recovering from my all-American dinner of chicken wings and sweet potato fries.)