NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 20 – GIFT

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.]

20

Gift

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.”

“What’s that?”

“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?”

“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.”

“And you?”

“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.

“On what?”

“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.”

“Correct.”

“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.”

“A millimeter”

“A centimeter.”

“Half.”

“Deal.”

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?”

“Seeking asylum?”

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?”

“Both.”

“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?”

“Your mouth.”

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.

He closes the journal, and places it carefully in the basket. Then he takes my face in his hands and he brings his mouth to mine. So we add love, kiss after kiss— we have learned this trick now—until fear recedes. Because sometimes happiness can look like a monster but it never is. Right now, happiness morphs, looking like Aiden and me in a foreign bedroom with guardian angels above us in the frescoed ceilings and a locket of bravery beating by my heart.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 19 – DAWN

Hello all, and happy Tuesday instead of Sunday! Computer troubles are always a pain in the tonsils as a good friend here would say, but during a pandemic they’re more akin to strep throat. Hence my delay. Hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks as always for reading and writing. Lots of love, Ani.

19

Dawn

One week of war. The most beautiful war there has ever been. Every day is a new reel of brilliancy—one blissful moment to another, all blending into a catalog of happy memories counteracting the reel of torture. Each night is a sheet of music—Aiden’s waterfall laughter, the sounds of our love, and Für Elise rebuilding his memories note after note. And Aiden and I have never been closer. Even our internal clocks have synchronized, melding together in a united front. How different love feels at war. It’s as though each cell dreads love’s absence and therefore magnifies its presence a million-fold. Each touch feels like a hundred touches before, each kiss like a thousand of the ones pre-war. Or maybe our cells have not changed—maybe we’re simply living more. Every day, every hour is a new life, even the darkest hour of them all: right now, at dawn.

Because this is the hour of the reel of torture. We tried other times for it—before supper, afterwards—but the waiting was its own torment, at least for me. Only this small hour wedged between the blissful moment of waking up together and the blissful moment of watching the sunrise in the garden has been survivable.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep in today?” Aiden asks as I throw on my pajamas. He is still in nothing but star-gold skin and midnight hair, glowing under the soft light of the bedroom chandelier. He pulls me into his chest. “It is Saturday after all. You deserve a day off.” His eyes are overwhelming, his voice a lullaby willing me to drift. I have to use all my strength to resist them.

“I’ll take a day off when you take a day off,” I answer, caressing his scar.

“It’s not the same, love.”

“You’re right. You have by far the hardest job.”

He brushes my cheek with whisper-light fingers. “I don’t think that’s true. I know I’d rather go back to that school in Fallujah every hour than watch you do it once, let alone every day as you’re doing with me.” The music of his voice misses a note at the mere thought, as it does every time we have this argument.

“But even worse than that is not being there at all.”

“You would still be there for the recovery part. You just don’t have to be there for the gore.”

I place my hand over his lips. In a few moments, their warmth will disappear, their vivid plum color will bleach away. “Aiden, we’ve been through this and through this. It’s the only option I can live with. I have to be there.”

He kisses my palm and moves it to his cheek. His eyes hold me for a moment, their depths unfathomable. “I love you,” he says. “It’s a selfish reason for you to deal with this, but it’s still the truest thing in my world.”

Before I can say I love you back, his mouth captures mine. His lips are gentle but his tongue is deep, as though he is trying to kiss me inside out. I give him back everything I have, drinking him like an elixir for strength. Because without his taste, I cannot live through the forty-five minutes ahead.

He breaks the kiss with a sigh. “Come on then. Let’s get this out of the way.” He looks around our happy bedroom one final time and takes my hand.

The moment the bedroom door closes behind us, Aiden transforms. The warm glow of his skin vanishes, and he expands—taller, Herculean in his stance. It’s as though the more this war takes from him, the stronger he grows. A flame is lit within him, finally unleashed to raze his past to the ground.

But every war exacts its toll, even the beautiful kind. Not like a big bang—this cost is insidious. It’s in the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights that Aiden has planted like landmines throughout the cottage for my safety—which are an improvement to the Tasers and bear spray he wanted. It’s is in the laundry cupboard where each morning after the reel Aiden washes and stores his battle uniform—the same dark jeans, blue shirt, and grey boxers he wore for the MRI because he will not taint any other item of clothing with his memories of terror or allow those memories to linger inside the cottage even if only on cotton fibers. He dons his uniform now, his eyes darkening except that flicker of turquoise that will continue to gleam as long as I’m in his sight. Because there are live landmines inside us, too. They’re in Aiden’s longer silences and the far-away stare at certain moments. They’re in his touch and mine—the way we hold each other as we pause in the foyer.

“What will you remember during this?” he asks, throwing my mum’s parka over my shoulders.

“This is just a petal.”

“And what does that mean?”

“That the worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”

“That’s right. And what is our reward today?”

I smile even here on the threshold of our bloodiest battle. “We’re going to Pemberley with Reagan and Javier, and you have a surprise for me that will make my heart melt.”

He traces my lips with his thumb. “I do. I want you to think about that for the next forty-five minutes. Think only of the good things ahead.”

“I have a surprise for you, too,” I tell him, kissing the pad of his finger.

His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile—his last true smile until I bring him back. “You do?”

I nod. “I know you can’t think about that in the next forty-five minutes, but just keep it here.” I rest my hand above his heart. The blade of muscle flexes under my fingers.

“I will.”

Abruptly, I wish we could skip the next hour, climb in the Rover, and drive so he can see it now, so the dimple can stay. It’s almost impossible to surprise Aiden, but I think I’ve managed it this time.

He sighs as though he is wishing the same thing and bends to slide my socked feet inside my Wellingtons. Then with a last glance at my childhood photos, he opens the front door. Because we both knew from the beginning we could never do this inside the cottage or even in the garden.

The sky is still dark when we step outside. The roses are fast asleep under the moonlight, but their fragrance is always awake, healing our lungs. I hear Aiden take a deep breath at the same time that I inhale until my ribcage hurts. Stay with us, Mum.

He is quiet as we cross the garden, and I give him the silence he needs to harvest his strength from every corner of his mind. I do the same but tuck my arm in his and rest my head on his stone bicep. The spot of contact is softer than the rest of him now entirely carved in granite. His knuckles brush the Elisa blooms as we pass them.

We stop at the largest landmine of them all. The garden shed where the headset of torture lives, pulsing with evil. I duck inside to pick it up, ignoring the snap of his teeth in wordless protest. He knows by now this is another argument he cannot win. I crave the pain it gives me to touch it so he doesn’t have to hold it a single second more than he needs. I wrap it inside the woolen blanket dad used for camping, drawing strength from mum’s gardening tools. I am steel like them. I’m the shears slicing off each cable that bound him. I’m the rake flaying the skin of everyone who touched him, the spade digging their graves. I tuck the other item in my pocket, having zero sense or science for it, and come out. “I have a good feeling this comeback will be easier,” I say, trying to make him smile again.

He does, but there is no dimple anymore, no light. “They’re all easier with you.”

As soon as we leave the garden, his stride picks up, tension snapping like armor over him, ready to demolish and be demolished. The opposite happens with me. Even though I battle to stay with him every dawn, suddenly I want to slow to a crawl or even better go back under the sheets with him and hide him in my hair for the next eighty-two days.

But the spot in Elysium where we do this comes too fast. It’s the spot where we sat together exactly a week ago after I had left him a second time. These are the only blades of grass in Burford that hold an initial painful memory for him. We spread out the blanket together while I straighten the corners, prolonging each last second. An ancient grief enters his eyes as he watches me and I know in this moment his only wish is for me to leave, to run away as far as possible from this. No matter how much he wants me.

“I’ll be right here,” I say, forcing my voice to remain steady.

“Only during the safe time.”

“I know.”

“After that, you’ll go straight to the safe zone until it’s over. Promise me.”

“I promise.” It’s the hardest promise to make, the hardest to keep, but the most vital one not to break. Because he needs to trust this to get through the rest. His eyes arrest me, burning intensely, but I don’t blink so he sees the truth in mine. He nods once and sits on the blanket, folding me with him in the fortress of his arms. I rest my head on his chest for a final moment, listening to his heartbeat, drawing his fragrance inside me like a tonic.

“Here,” he says, and I can tell the effort is costing him to keep his voice light. He pulls an Elisa petal out of his cuff and presses it into my palm, closing my fingers around it in a fist and bringing it to his lips. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

“I’ll be waiting,” I whisper so my voice doesn’t break. He reaches for the headset but I beat him to it for once. “Let me do it. I know how.”

His jaw clenches again but he doesn’t argue. He lies down for me even though how he sits doesn’t matter. The white headset is icy like my body heat or dad’s woolen blanket never touched it. I fight my shudder as I look into Aiden’s eyes. In the dark dawn, I feel more than see the turquoise flame go out.

“Think about your surprise and stay safe.” His final words are low, tension twisting the music of his voice into a hard command.

“I will.”

His hands cover mine, pulling the evil over his beautiful head. I secure the strap around his soft waves and snap the buckle at his temple, swallowing my tears. If Aiden doesn’t cry through this, neither will I. I kiss his lips—they’re cooling already. “I love you,” I tell him.

“Always.”

With more strength than it took to attend my parents’ funeral, or to board my flight back to England, or to visit their grave, I press the white button in the center. The sinister red dot gleams immediately like a sniper point at his forehead as the reel starts. Aiden’s body becomes motionless with a soft gasp. And I know even though he is here on the blanket with me, he is now gone. Traveling places, decades, years, days, even hours of the thirty-five years of his incredible life.

I know each minute of the reel by heart—Aiden walked me through them painstakingly second to second to prepare me now that I get to see him, even though we both know no amount of preparation will ever inure me to this. But the first fifteen minutes are the easy ones. Just neutral or positive images from Aiden’s life, including me. I use them to prepare for his arrival. It makes no sense to do this whatsoever—as soon as Aiden reenters the present time, we will want to leave this spot as soon as possible to start our life. But I still decided yesterday to make each comeback new, different somehow. Not because it will make any minute of this hour more livable. But maybe it will make his return easier. I take out the spool of fairy lights from my pocket and tiptoe around the blanket, unraveling it while drawing deep, slow breaths like Aiden taught me to conserve air for the hardest part. I flip on the battery switch and his still form is surrounded with a hundred bright little stars, twinkling under the indigo sky. His face below the headset looks warmer under their glow, like he is sleeping, even if soon it will turn to ice.

“You’ll like this,” I whisper and trot to the safety line he has marked in the grass for me some twenty feet away where I imagine the rose shield starts. The easy fifteen minutes are almost up. I sit on the meadow where I first crawled and wrap my arms around my knees, counting the seconds in my head, eyes never leaving Aiden’s form encircled with lights.

I know exactly when he enters that schoolyard in Fallujah. I know because his restful body becomes rigid, chest jolting upward as his shoulders press against the ground.

“Thirty minutes, love,” I mutter, clutching my petal. But what thirty minutes they will be. In Aiden’s world under the blistering Fallujah sun, the IED just exploded as his body shudders here on Elysium while the shock reverberates through his mind equally deafening as that fateful May morning, unmuted by time. Yet not a single sound escapes his lips. The picture of the little boy’s ruptured torso strikes him now, and Aiden’s throat bends like he is choking on bile. I breathe like he taught me, but the dust and the little boy’s blood are suffocating him. His breaths become gasps as he tries to find pieces of the boy while a helmet full of brains strafes his retinas. But despite Aiden’s gasping, I don’t want the next minute to come. I’d rather asphyxiate here and now for him than have him live through it, but come it does. Aiden’s chest heaves with another shattered breath as the image of the school flashes on his screen and the Marines become surrounded by insurgent fire. He retreats inside the school with Marshall for cover, his body taut on the woolen blanket.

“Twenty-five minutes, love.” I press the heels of my boots in the meadow.

The photo of a young Jazzman blasts Aiden now, and he and Marshall reach the second floor, crossing the classroom I wish they had never entered, to save Jazzman and the others who are under fire below. Go low, Aiden signs to Marshall. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs. I grip my own arms and lock all my muscles in place despite Aiden’s flat and alert body on the meadow, because his hand just closed in a victorious fist. He just fired his last shot, the shot that saved Jazzman’s life. Then Aiden’s head jerks violently and slumps to the side as the back of a rifle cracks his skull.

For the next ten minutes—the only minutes Aiden doesn’t remember—his body is inert on the blanket, his mind utterly dark. I should use these minutes to breathe for the horror ahead, I should use them to think of Aiden’s surprise and mine as I promised, but a different darkness enters my own mind. In thoughts of the worst kind. What if Aiden had never tried to save Jazzman and the children? What if he had gone to the third floor with Cal and Hendrix instead? Worse still, what if Aiden had not woken? What if he had never seen what happens next? I clutch mum’s sleeves, rocking in place, each what if pounding like a crack to the back of my own skull.

But no amount of bartering lives with the universe can stop time. Aiden’s mind reconnects with his body, and he comes to with a strangled gasp at the image of a severed arm. And the torture begins.

No one touches Aiden here on Elysium, yet he starts writhing in silent agony. His head jerks side to side, and he cringes against the blanket, shoulders rounding forward then suddenly convulsing as he tries to tear through the steel cables that now bind him. But he can’t break though. His body contorts in pain right here before my eyes, but not a single scream tears through him, not one cry, as he is throttled from behind.

I jump to my feet then, clenching my jaw to stop my own screams, clutching my head to keep it from imploding like that schoolyard. If I could only get closer, if I could only touch him, hold his anguished face, bring him back now. But I couldn’t—I know that—he is locked in the darkest flashback of his life, his eyes seeing only his best friend being tortured alive. He will need the reel of my pictures before the danger passes for me to get close. I can never betray him now.

On and on Aiden strains in universal agony and I start pacing, shuddering up and down the safe half of my childhood meadow, eyes on him. Because for these ten minutes I am just a child, just a girl who has never once felt pain like this. My parents’ crushed Beetle, their broken bodies, their coffins in the grave together—although big bangs to me—they’re tragedies happening every day in life. They’re not the kind of horror that stuns history and stumps science. Their massacre of the soul does not compare to this.

“Six minutes,” I gasp through my teeth. “I’m coming, love, you just have to hang on for six more.” And he does. He burns in soundless agony, his fists shaking at his sides. “Five minutes. Five petals, Aiden, and we can be together.” Between my fingers, my own petal disintegrates, and I stifle my sob. Because the worst images are still ahead.

Abruptly, I’m furious. With a red-tinged haze over my eyes, Elysium looks different. Nothing has changed—Aiden is still burning on dad’s blanket inside the wreath of lights under the cobalt sky—yet the scene transforms for me. I’m no longer the orphaned girl, the muse in a painting, or the woman who waits for the letters at home. I’m not a warrior or a survivor. I am the war. I am his peace. I summon all our weapons like a shield over me. Because I cannot stop the next four minutes, but as soon as the reel ends, I will need to be as invincible as him.

I stop where I am, steadying my mind, quelling my lungs as the seconds tick away and the sky turns sapphire. “Three minutes, my love. Just three more, and I’ll bring you back. I won’t let anything touch you then.”

But the end does not come easy for him—it never does. If it were for myself, I’d shut my eyes and ears. But I’m here for him. I plant my feet, shove my hands in my pockets to warm them for him, and brace for his visceral low snarl that reaches me here. Chills run from the crown of my head to my heels, but I flex every muscle as Aiden taught me so I don’t move an inch. The torment on his face impossibly doubles, whether with his own agony or Marshall’s or both he will never tell me. Then suddenly he stills, he breathes, because in this image the insurgents have agreed to release Marshall in exchange for Aiden’s life. Go, pretty boy, they’re sneering at him because he is no longer the handsome, young Marine I saw in the photo. His face without lips, nose, or ears is scorching Aiden now. Strangled sounds are ripping from his teeth, as he begs Marshall to leave him behind.

And Marshall listens. Aiden’s ribcage rises and falls quickly as the picture of a blood trail sears his eyes. I watch without blinking as Marshall crawls to the classroom door in Aiden’s flashback. I know because, even drowning in pain, Aiden smiles. Just a small smile watching his best friend leave, no regret for having traded his own life for Marshall’s freedom.

Then with a sudden gasp, Aiden’s torso jolts and his smile dies. Because one of the insurgents fired the first bullet, ending Marshall’s life. Then another jolt and another—like a defibrillator shocking Aiden’s heart—seven times, one per each bullet riddling the corpse of Marshall that is flashing on the screen now. A guttural sound of agony rips from Aiden’s chest, and his lungs give out. It’s the single most harrowing thing I’ve ever heard. His body slumps seeming lifeless in the same position he was then—shoulders contorted and shuddering throat to fist. Under the warm glow of the fairy lights, his mouth is parted in a silent no.

And then it ends. The torture is over even if Aiden is still in its grip. Yet, the chills leave me as I stand here shaking and silent. Because in five seconds, my photo will caress his eyes. My sleeping face, my rose, the stave of my music, my favorite chocolate— the small things that calm him, that make him happy—will enter his mind.

“Almost home, love,” I whisper, swallowing more tears. “I’m coming, Aiden, coming right now.” I step over the safety line, timing my steps to each image.

I would know the second my photograph hits the screen even if I weren’t counting. I would know because he draws his first breath and his arms settle naturally on each side of him. My rose softens his throat. But he is still gasping, his shoulders are still convulsing, his fists are iron hammers at his sides. Then my face kisses his retinas again, over and over, breaking the steel cables and slowing the convulsions of his shoulders. By the time I cross the fairy lights, the tremors have become the familiar ripples that, until I witnessed his torment this week, I had thought were earthquakes. His seraphic face is ashen under the fairy glow, but no longer contorted. The red light on his forehead goes dark. I can touch him now, even if he is still locked away in the aftermath.

I sit next to him and wrap my warm hands around his fist as Doctor Helen taught me. “Aiden,” I call him, pouring all my love, faith, and pride in my voice. “You’re through, you brave, brave man. You’re right here on Elysium with me.” The fist skips a quiver but remains closed. His breathing is still harsh as strangleholds of tension strain him. “You’re safe, I’m safe, and we’re together. I’ll take off the headset so you can see when you’re ready. Feel my hands, love, I’m touching your face.” I tuck his fist between my knees so it stays warm and cradle his face. The sharp panes are cold. I shove back my Romeo vision—this is Dante, he just walked through hell for me—and massage his jawline gently in little circles. “Do you feel that? It’s my fingertips that you kiss each morning.” His jawline flexes, like a hello. “Hi, you,” I greet it back. “You’re strong, you’re loved.” I trail my fingers to his temples and release the small buckles that secure the evil thing. It’s warm now with all the life it has drained from him. I pull it off, immediately finding Aiden’s eyes. They’re closed as I expected them to be, his pupils still racing under the lids in flashbacks. I lower my face to his and kiss them like petals. “We’re on dad’s green blanket, my love, with wildflowers around us. Daisies and forget-me-nots and orchids and poppies.” I kiss his eyelids on each flower name, but there is no change in him. “The sky is lightening, almost lilac-sapphire like it’s mixing the color of your eyes and mine. And in a bit, we’ll watch the sunrise like every morning, just you and me. Can you hear the skylarks and the nightingales? They’re starting to trill.” The fist softens between my knees, but shudders are still running through him. “Do you know this present moment right here is probably the seven thousandth time I’ve sat on Elysium? I can’t remember most of them, but I’ll always remember this because this is when you come back to me. And I have a little something for you when you open your eyes. It will make you smile. What could it be, you might ask . . . ” The ripples are not slowing. “I’ll give you a clue: ‘love that moves the sun and other stars.’ How about that, Dante?” His eyes remain closed, and his breath is still ragged. I press my lips to his and blow inside his parted mouth as he does with me. “Let’s breathe together, love. Your air and my air and the rose breeze. We can smell the roses even from here. They’re awake, waiting for us.” For a moment I start to panic that it’s taking longer to bring him back, but then a familiar sigh warms my lips. His gasps slow as his lungs synchronize to mine, and Aiden kisses me back. Just a gentle brush of his lips, but he is here. “Hi!” My voice breaks in relief and I clutch his face so I don’t collapse on top of him. “Welcome back.”

His eyes open at the same time as his fist. They are dark and ravaged still, but the turquoise flame starts to flicker the moment he sees me. “I missed you.” I smile at him, ribcage swelling at his arrival.

He doesn’t speak but, slowly, lifts his head for my mouth. I mold mine to his, keeping him inside my hair bubble because he likes the way my hair smells. On clue, he inhales deeply. His fist leaves my lap and his arm winds around my waist—it feels weighty, as it does when he falls asleep. He holds me to him, breath to breath, mouth to mouth, as the last wave of ripples disappears. I feel him test his body for response, and I know exactly the moment when control reverts back to him. The weight of his arm eases but he doesn’t release me, and his lips fold with mine. “I missed you, too,” he says as soon as he can speak. His voice is worn and hoarse as though his silence under torture scrubbed it more than a scream would.

I pull back an inch to watch his now-clear eyes. As soon as they meet mine, he smiles. An I-crossed-the-desert-for-you smile, but it lifts up his cupid lips. I will never tire of this smile, ravaged and exhausted though it is. It’s as precious to me as his dimple—because this is the smile that brings him back to me.

He brings his hands to my face—they’re steady and warmer. “How are you?” he asks, searching my eyes, feeling my forehead.

“I’m fine, sweetheart. Safe and happy and so proud of you.”

“As I am of you,” he says. “You did beautifully.”

The word sounds backwards when he says it—like it was made only for him, no one else. “I worried it was taking a bit longer this time,” I admit.

“I’ll always come back to you.”

He pulls me back to his lips here inside my hair bubble and I kiss him back with hunger. Like his worn smile, this languid kiss has become life to me. Second only to his very first kiss because it vanquishes the last dregs of tension and brings him back to him. With each brush of his lips and stroke of his tongue, Aiden comes to life. His mouth takes on its brand of possession, seizing the present moment inside mine. Then abruptly he stops. “Love that moves the sun and other stars?” he asks as all his memories and synapses reconnect. His voice is gaining back its music.

I smile, suddenly feeling as girlish as I was when I first did cartwheels on this field. “Yep. Solve it and you get to see your present moment in full.”

The dimple puckers in his stubble more beautiful than the fairy lights outside my hair curtains. Not that I need their cover—he hasn’t looked away from my face once. “Is it Baci?” he guesses reasonably since that was the first quote Baci gave him in England.

“No, that was to trick you.”

I love watching his eyes shift with childish curiosity, not horror. “Is it one of Dante’s books?”

“No. You’re thinking too big.”

“Something small then . . . that you could fit in your pocket so I wouldn’t see . . . that has to do with love and the stars and the sun . . .” he muses while I almost bounce next to him because he is not thinking of Fallujah now. “A condom?” he asks, and I laugh at his boyish grin.

“No, sorry. But soon you won’t need those anymore.”

Apparently that thought works better at revival than riddles. Pure delight bursts over his face like the imminent sunrise. “In exactly six days—”

“And seventeen hours.”

I’ve never seen his eyes torn with better conflict: desire and curiosity splitting him in half. They both win and lose. He pulls me on top of him, rippling with a different kind of hardness. “I give up,” he says against my lips, pressing into me. I press back, sweeping my hair to the side.

“For you, Dante.”

He blinks in the sapphire dawn where the fairy lights are still twinkling. His grin becomes a soft, good gasp and that flicker of shyness gleams in his eyes, like an echo back from seven-year old Aiden. He sits up, holding me to him, and gazes around at the circle of lights speechless. “I did it during the safe time,” I assure him. “They were shining on you, like our bedroom chandelier.”

It’s a testament to how selfless he is—how little he accepts for himself from others—that even this smallest of gestures stuns him. If this is his reaction to some old lights, what is he going to do at Pemberley today? He feels my excitement in my bounce and looks at me, his eyes brighter than the twinkly lights. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that my chest tightens. “I love my surprise.”

“Oh, this isn’t your surprise. You’ll see that later. This is just our present moment.”

He smiles with a strong emotion in his eyes. “Leave it to you to find a way to make even this beautiful.” And he brings me back to his mouth.

By the time we reach the rose garden to catch the sunrise, the hour of torture feels far away, a different life. How can all the terror of the last hour fade so quickly? Add love, just the right kind. Aiden strips out of his clothes at the threshold immediately and leaves them in a pile with the blanket and the headset, but throws the twinkly lights over his neck—his mind already disassociating them from any pain. At the sight, even the sunrise doesn’t impress me anymore. A flash of heat whips my cheeks. He swoops me in his arms and strides in nothing but lights and golden skin to the garden bench.

“Are you warm or is it my male nudity à la Oxford?” Aiden teases as he sits on the bench with me across his lap.

“Oh, more of one and less of the other,” I answer, eyes on his erection pressing firmly against my thigh.

He chuckles and slips off my Wellingtons and parka, setting them carefully aside. Then he turns me on his steely thighs so we can both see across the river, past the field of epiphanies, and over the rolling hills where an orange flame very similar to the one on my skin is kindling the horizon. Magnificent and utterly ordinary compared to the face behind me. Or the erection now pushing against the small of my back.

“Maybe this will help with the male nudity part.” Aiden’s lips are at my ear, sending tingles down my spine.

“Definitely not helping.”

“No?” His lips press at the Aeternum spot below my ear and brush down my neck. “What about this? Does this help?”

“Not at all.” My voice quivers like the rest of me. A marigold halo bursts through the sky.

“And this?” His hands slip under my pajama top, peeling it off a step ahead of the sun. Wherever his fingers touch, my skin catches fire despite the sultry morning and the rose breeze.

“Huh-uh.”

“My, my, male nudity seems positively dangerous. How about this?” He cups my breasts, and I fall against his chest with a sigh, reaching behind me to grasp the male nudity in question. “Oh, this won’t do, Elisa.” He twines my arms over his neck with the twinkly lights. “Male nudity is distracting you from the sunrise. Maybe something stronger?” His fingers blaze their own fire-trails over my breasts, and his teeth graze my shoulder. My sigh turns into a moan. “Sounds like this is helping.”

“Hmmm . . .”

“And this?” A smooth glassy tip circles my breast, and my eyes fling open. Two twinkly lights are flickering around my nipples as sunrays scatter over us. Every nerve ending in my skin becomes a spark. “Does this help?”

“Mmm . . .”

“More help?”

“Please . . .” The sssss blends with the willows. He draws orbits with the lights on my breasts like they are his suns and his hands revolve around them. The lights gleam on my skin as streaks of heliotrope, saffron, gold, and honey flare across the sky. But the only color I crave is turquoise. The familiar ember in my depths starts pulsing with life. I press my thighs together for some relief and roll against him.

“Looks like we need reinforcements,” he murmurs, kissing the spot just under the corner of my jaw. Before I can think, before I can concentrate on his words over the blood thundering in my ears, he starts winding the string of lights over my breasts, across my ribs, and around my waist like a glimmering thread tying me to him.

“Oh!” I gasp, mesmerized by the little stars blinking on my skin as dazzling as the new sun, as bright as the heat within.

“Helpful oh?” Aiden’s lips brush along my cheek to the corner of my open mouth.

“Yes,” I breathe, turning my face for his kiss. I get lost in his mouth as his hands slip under the waistband of my pajamas. He slides them down my legs along with my knickers until they fall off my feet. Hot as a sunray, his tongue traces my lips at the same moment that he entwines his long legs with mine, spreading them apart as the full sun blazes across the sky. I gasp again, and he frees my mouth.

“Feel, love,” he murmurs, his arms and legs encircling me like the lights, his fragrant body heat engulfing me with the sun. But on the hottest, wettest part of me, I feel only the cool rose breeze. Breathless and trembling, I clutch his hand and press it between my legs.

“Here, please,” I beg shamelessly. It would only be embarrassing if I didn’t know with certainty that he wants me as much as I want him.

One warm finger traces the length of me. “This helps more than this?” he asks, thrusting into the small of my back.

“No . . . but . . . condom . . . far.”

His finger trails back up, making me hiss. “Oh, Elisa, you’re not the only one with tricks.” Before my moan fades, his hand leaves me and reaches under the bench. I’ve barely managed to focus my eyes when he taps the foil of a condom inside my thigh.

“Wha—how?”

He chuckles. “I’ve hidden these everywhere. You have six days, sixteen hours, and forty-five minutes to find them all and ruin them with me.”

He turns me around quickly so we face each other again. And for a moment the world stops for me, even the rapid pulsing inside. What are sunrises compared to him? The blue fire in his eyes smolders, his skin gleams, his lustrous hair like a black corona over his impossible face. Half of the twinkly lights are still draped around his neck, the other half sparkling all over my torso. He looks at me the same way—as though I am his sun.

Just one moment, and the world starts again. I launch myself at his mouth, starved for his taste, his feel, gripping his face, inhaling his scent. Over the rushing in my ears, I hear his moan and the foil tearing. Then he lifts my hips and pauses, waiting for me to open my eyes. I do—how could I miss a single fleck of him?

“Love that moves the sun and other stars, you said, Elisa?”

At my gasp, he lowers me onto him, twinkle after twinkle, inch after inch, moan after moan. Then he takes us both over the horizon until our bodies start to fracture like the sunrays on our skin and a new reel of brilliancy begins.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 18 – FIGHT

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

18

Fight

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.

Mrs. Plemmons

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 Für Elise 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?”

“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.

“But—”

“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.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 17 – WAR

Hello again friends! Hope you’re having a wonderful Sunday. It’s sunny in Portland and warm enough for shorts, which are a nice change from pandemic sweats.  Here is Chapter 17 as war starts for our couple. I hope it gives you a good break today from everything you are facing in your lives. Thank you as always to everyone for reading and writing to me. xo, Ani

17

War

The lab that has studied Aiden’s mind since childhood is the size of Goliath. A dizzying number of screens glow from the vast white walls and the runway of white desks lining them—neuroscientists apparently use computers like chemists use vials. Monitors hang even from the ceiling. In each corner are clusters of futuristic equipment that looks like it belongs at the helm of a starship. But more overwhelming than all this is the platoon of neuroscientists waiting for us. Seven white coats stand in line as we walk in, two more are on video screens projected on the wall and—the only colorful wink in the white expanse—Corbin is smiling at us from yet another video screen straight from Portland.

“Aiden, Elisa, great to see you!” He waves at us in a checkered sage shirt.

“Victor,” Aiden nods at him. I wave back but I’m riveted by the woman standing in front of the line of the white coats. She is Amazonian in stature, white and silver from the crown of her short, swept back hair to her grey eyes and eyelashes. Her skin is ivory lace, each wrinkle a neural pathway leading to her steady, penetrating gaze. She is regarding me with gravitas, and I see a flicker of recognition in her eyes.

Aiden pulls me close as he introduces me with unrestrained pride. “Doctor Helen, this is my Elisa. Elisa, this is Doctor Brahms or Doctor Helen to me.”

“You are a daughter of Oxford,” Doctor Helen states like an edict. Even her voice is regal, with a ring of authority that silences the beeps and signals tweeting from the monitors.

I have to resist the urge to bow. “You knew my parents, Doctor?” My voice bends with the reflexive reverence she inspires.

“I did. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” I whisper as Aiden’s hand clutches my waist.

“Your mother was my favorite,” she adds in her commanding tone. “She helped restore Ashmole six-eleven—the very first manuscript in existence to discuss human memory.” She turns her dignified gaze on Aiden. “That was the manuscript I had to unearth the day I met you.”

At her words, the icy expanse of the lab’s tundra thaws for me, as though Mum’s warm hands are molding it to back to spring. Aiden smiles. “April twelve, 1987, six thirty, I believe. You said to my mother there was no such thing as fate to explain me.”

Doctor Helen’s grey eyes shift with a sort of wonderment when she looks at him. “I have yet to see evidence of fate. But I’ll allow serendipity. Speaking of both . . .” She turns to her team and they rumble as one. “We have a lot to do. Let’s get started.” She pivots royally to her desk, her lab coat billowing like a mantle behind her as the other researchers scramble to catch up with her ringing footsteps.

Aiden and I take our white seats in front of her—the white is so absolute, I wonder if it’s intentional to avoid triggers—and Doctor Helen introduces us to the rest of the platoon. “On the screens behind me are Doctors Nagapan and O’Connor from Edinburgh. You already know Doctor Corbin, of course, and this is our Oxford team.” She pulls out a binder from below her desk and I thaw further. It’s the only warm, personal detail against the white blank slate. The binder is covered with a collage of Van Gogh’s most famous prints—the wheat field with crows, the vase of sunflowers, the blue irises, the French Alps, his self-portrait—Javier would like it. She flips the binder open with a thud.

“Right then,” she announces. “Our plan today is to test Elisa’s calming effect on Aiden and see whether it’s simply placebo or whether there is scientific evidence of it. This will help us implement an experiment for the next eighty-seven days to reconsolidate Aiden’s memories with the hypothesis that the traumatic ones generally, and his startle reflex in particular, will decrease in intensity once allowed to freely associate with Elisa’s effect on him. Questions?” She reels all this so quickly that I have to blink a few times to realize she is looking at me—who else would have a hard time understanding this in such company?

“Umm, why does it matter whether my effect is placebo or real if it helps Aiden?” is the first question I manage, feeling utterly out of my depth. Chemicals are so predictable—memories and emotions are like fate.

But Doctor Helen regales me with a stately smile. “Excellent question, indeed. Therapeutically, Doctor Corbin would say perhaps it doesn’t matter in the short-term. But for this experiment to hold in the long run, as I understand you both wish, your effect must be real and significant at that. Any other questions?” More rapid-fire decrees, but I also can’t help but feel she wants me to keep asking. Next to me, Aiden is beaming with pride as though I’m the Einstein of neuroscience, not a blob of nerves.

“Ah . . . how do you plan to test my calming effect?” Me again, the Einstein. Except abruptly I feel exposed, riddled with a new fear I did not expect. We have taken for granted my calming effect. It’s our lodestar weapon—the mother of our bombs. Is that about to be eliminated too like the protein was this morning? And then what do we have left but our love and Aiden’s strength?

“You’ll see shortly. Aiden, did you bring the scent we requested?”

“I did,” he answers and nods at me. With trembling fingers, I hand my precious vial of Aeternum, feeling like I’m cutting out an artery of my heart. One of Doctor Helen’s assistants takes it from me with hairy bear fingers instead of the gentle, rose-breeze hold it deserves.

“Please be careful!” I urge before I can control my tongue.

“Don’t worry, Elisa, we only need a microliter of it.” Doctor Helen nods at her bear mercenary who marches out of the lab, taking my artery with him. But I can’t even stare behind it because Doctor Helen fires at us again. “Any more questions?”

Aiden asks his first. “How do you plan to trigger my startle reflex without me seeing it coming if it has to be in a controlled setting?”

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant question at the crux of the matter, but Doctor Helen simply waves her hand. “Obviously, I cannot tell you that, but trust me, I have a plan. I have known you for twenty-eight years, Aiden.”

“And this plan,” he retorts as his chair creaks with tension. “Guarantees Elisa’s safety?”

She doesn’t even blink. “It does. And if you need further reason to believe that, I owe it to her mother.”

That seems to pacify him for the moment while my nerves are buzzing like the hundreds of monitors around me. “And your sleep?” Corbin pipes up. “Have you tested it together with Für Elise?”

I clap my eyes on the Van Gogh prints, and let Aiden handle this one. “We have,” he answers in his controlled tone. “Two nights so far. Full eight hours the first, only three last night, but that was an exception and it’s changing tonight. No nightmares. Little movement. Some increased . . . nocturnal activity.”

The Starry Night is a true masterpiece, isn’t it?

“Full eight hours, really? That’s two hours extra than just Für Elise alone. Let’s keep track of that. Now, what is this increase in nocturnal activity?”

Artists are so warm unlike my next of kin in science who decide to torture me more with questions about our nocturnal activities—all of which make Corbin gleefully happy and Aiden monosyllabic with Aidenisms. I stare at Van Gogh’s self-portrait in the asylum, feeling like our most precious moments, our secret parts—every touch, every caress—is being siphoned into their clinical files. And although I know they’re our allies, maybe even generals in this war, my nerves disappear and abruptly I feel anger. Anger at science, anger at fate that Doctor Helen says doesn’t exist.

Finally the interminable discussion of nocturnal activities ends and Doctor Helen stands. The rest of them stand with her—very clearly not daring to blink without her command. “Aiden, you know this next part. We’ll need your heart rate and brain electrical activity. Elisa, you may stay with him for this. We’ll instruct you on next steps when you’re finished. Everyone except Morse, out with me.” She closes her Van Gogh binder and strides out of the lab with her court of scientists at the same time that the Edinburgh team and Corbin turn off their screens. The only one left is old Morse. He is a Graham-thin fellow in his seventies with wispy, static white hair; Aiden clearly likes him.

“How have you been keeping, Morse?” Aiden asks as he stands, holding out his hand for me. I take it, clueless about where we’re going, wishing I could take the Van Gogh binder with me.

“Oh, older and slower, Master Aiden. You are the one with the exciting life. Falling in love—golly gumdrops, I thought the monarchy would fall before I saw that.”

Master Aiden winks at me. “Old Morse is a monarchist. He’s been handling this part of the circus since I was seven. No one could get me to sit still for this back then except him. You’ll see why.”

I smile at old Morse as though he is Aiden’s Mr. Plemmons. He shuffles with us across the colossal lab to a monitor the size of a windshield, which is attached to a dashboard of countless buttons and dials the way a cockpit looks on TV. Next to it are two more white chairs.

“Morse has to attach a few electrodes on me, Elisa. Have a seat.” Aiden brushes my cheek and starts unbuttoning his blue shirt. I fall down on the chair and with every pore of his revealed skin—the warm skin I love, the skin I have kissed more times than I can count—the anger returns. Anger that his golden skin has to be exposed under harsh fluorescents, attached to electrodes in the cold, sterile air of this lab, only so that we can be together. Only for this simple, human dream of being in love.

“I’m fine,” Aiden assures me, seeing it all on my face. Shirtless now, he takes the chair in front of me and old Morse starts hooking him to a wheat field of wires over Aiden’s temples where the bead of sweat glimmered as he was climbing the oak, over his forehead I kissed only this morning, through his hair where I knot my fingers when we make love, over his chest where I rest my cheek. When Morse glues the next one over Aiden’s heart, I stand, unable to sit still.

“Elisa, love, this doesn’t hurt, I promise. Old Morse knows what he’s doing.”

“Oh, I know, I just want to look around.”

I glare at the blank monitor screen attached to Aiden’s electrodes, its beeps cawing around us like the wheat field crows. And suddenly I become Van Gogh’s sunflowers—firing seeds like bullets at the world. I am his cypress tree darkening your sky so my star can glow. And I can understand preferring an asylum to a world that did this to my love.

“Don’t touch the red, dear! You don’t want to fry Master Aiden’s brain now, do you?” Old Morse cautions me as I hover over the dashboard where the wires are ready to extract the inner Aiden, reducing the wonder that is him to more beeps. How could I have been excited for this? How could I have bounced on my car seat this morning? Now all I feel are murders of crows diving in and out of me.

“Of course not!” I spit out more sunflower seeds, glaring at the row of red buttons on the dashboard—the blood hue feels jarring to Van Gogh’s colors swirling in me.

But Aiden is perfectly still. His eyes are the blue irises, lightening and darkening as I flit in and out of his vision.  His torso is the inverse mountaintop of the French Alps despite the adhesive discs on his skin. His eyes are following me with concern, and he opens his hand in invitation for me to sit back down. I perch like a raven on the chair next to him and grip his warm, strong hand in both of mine.

“Please relax,” he says as though he sees all the madness inside. “I’ve done this dozens of times, although I’ve never enjoyed it until now. And in about three minutes, you get to meet my brain. You love that part. Think about that, okay?” The dimple winks like the starriest star of the Starry Night as he tries to comfort me. The man who needs peace the most is trying to assure me. At that, the rippling stops inside me, and the crows disappear. I am here for him, not the other way around. I force my body to be still like his, willing my calm effect to fall around him like a shield. Finally the last electrode is attached, old Morse flips a switch on the dashboard, and the monitor glows to life. After a flicker, Aiden’s brain waves oscillate brilliant blue on the huge screen and right below them, in gold, is his heartbeat.

“Oh!” I gasp, my hands flying to my mouth, all anger draining out of me.

Shh, listen,” Aiden says with a smile and I cup my ear as we did with the willows. After a static whirr, I can hear his mind speak. It’s a humming sound, a bit like soft waterfall and echoing wind. And every few flickers of the brain waves, his heart beeps as though not wanting to be outshone. Except this beep sounds like a piano note—not a caw—to me, more beautiful than Für Elise.

“Can you make out words from this one?” Aiden’s eyes are dancing in response to the wonder he must be seeing in mine. Peripherally, I register old Morse leaving us but I’m lost in the music of Aiden’s mind and heart. Mmm, ding,

“Mine,” I decide, eyes on the monitor. How could I have wanted to shatter it five minutes ago?

“Yours.” The waves flutter gently on the screen and my eyes fly to Aiden’s face—he is smiling. “Come here, Elisa,” he murmurs as if we’re in our warm bed, the only two people in the world. He pulls me on his lap and takes my face in his hands. His eyes seem to take in the moment, as his scent washes over me—headier than the Aeternum perfume. Then his lips brush against mine. At the some moment, a beep chimes from his heart.

“Oh!” I gasp again, eyes flitting to the monitor, lips glued to his. The gold line of his heart is spiking. His hands tighten on my face, bringing me entirely back to him, as he parts my mouth with his tongue. More beeps ding—the song of our kiss—and I close my eyes, listening. Ding, ding, ding. We chuckle together, mouth to mouth.

“Look,” he whispers, freeing my face as his lips start their favorite trail along my jawline to my ear, inhaling the perfume there. I open my eyes and gaze at the screen even as my eyelids want to flutter close. But I cannot blink because the heart waves are swelling and dipping. Then suddenly the beeps go wild—I panic but then I feel his body hardening against me on his lap. He chuckles again. “This, I have to see.” He meets this part of himself—the visual transcription of his desire for me—with curiosity. I hope he can turn it into self-love, I hope he can see what I see.

“Now you look,” I tell him and let my lips travel over his sculpted jaw down to the hollow on his throat away from the electrodes. The dings go mental, and his waterfall laughter washes over us. How are we ever going to pull apart?

But Doctor Helen’s brisk voice blasts through the lab over some sound system. “All right, you two. We need a baseline reading. Some neutral thoughts would help, Aiden. Elisa, if you could go across the room. In fact, if you could please wait outside the lab altogether while we finish. You can see Aiden afterwards.”

“Look what you did.” Aiden grins while I spring away from his lap, cheeks burning.

“They could see us?” I whisper in mortification.

“Of course not. They must have just received the data, and they know how to interpret it. Go on, love, I’ll finish here soon.”

I leave him there with all my strength, looking back at his face every few slowing beeps—his smile is fading with each step I take. The moment the heavy lab doors close behind me, the wound starts to fester again. I pace at the threshold, arms around my torso. If it hurts so much when we’re only apart for a few minutes, how will I live with it if this experiment doesn’t work?

One of Doctor Helen’s assistants enters a room down the hall, and I sprint behind him to sneak. The metal door has a narrow glass pane at the top, and I have to rise on my tiptoes to reach it. Even then I can only see more screens on the wall showing the monitor in the lab. To my untrained brain, it appears Aiden’s brain activity and heart lines are straighter than when I was there. I stare at every slight undulation, barely breathing.

“All right, Aiden, we have what we need. Morse will clear you and I’ll give you time to go to the fMRI room for the next part,” Doctor Helen says from behind the closed door. I race back to Aiden’s lab for a glimpse of him. The moment he comes out in his jeans and open shirt, all electrodes and adhesive discs gone, I can tell from his guarded eyes that he is not excited about this part. But he smiles when he sees me and pulls me against him with a sort of urgency.

“What happens now?” I ask as he starts walking down another white hallway opposite from the kiss lab. His long stride is slower.

“This is when they scan this beast.” He points at his temple.

Before I can find any useful words, he has stopped by yet another white door at the end of the hall. “I have to go in, Elisa. I’ll see you on the other side.” He kisses my hair and then he is gone without a smile. The door closes behind him with a click. A spike of fear lances the wound’s raw edges, rooting me here, palms against the cold door. There is no audible movement for a while, then it sounds like another door is opening within the same room. The sound releases my feet and I dash back to the control center, reaching on my tiptoes to see. But all the screens on the wall are dark. No one says a word as my toes start to wobble . . . Phosphorus, 30.974 . . . silver, 107.87 . . .

“Aiden, can you hear me?” Doctor Helen finally calls from behind the door. I can’t hear Aiden respond, but she must because she adds, “Very well. This will be hard, but you know the process. Lie still, blink and swallow as little as possible, and look at the photographs that will appear on the screen right above you. Forty-five minutes as usual, but after that, Elisa will join you. Try to hold on to that. We start in . . . three, two, one.”

Then the room goes dark and there is total silence. Not a single syllable or movement. Not one sound to tell me what is happening to Aiden. The pain in my chest rises up my throat, constricting it with panic. The white hallway becomes a tunnel of ice, and my teeth start chattering. It takes exactly one minute to realize I cannot breathe through forty-four more minutes of this. Without a second thought, I pound on the door. One of the researchers opens it with wide outraged eyes, but I’m past caring.

“I have to see,” I say, my own voice sounding foreign to my ears.

“Let her in,” Doctor Helen calls, and I step inside quietly, squishing myself into the corner behind the door. The control room is pitch-black except the monitors. Each scientist is at his or her desk, studying their own screens displaying numbers and patterns I cannot comprehend. One central monitor shows what I assume is Aiden’s brain and the way blood is flowing through it like a storm. Doctor Helen sits at the helm of the room, her back to everyone else, but that’s exactly what I need. Because I can see the wide screen she is commanding where a reel of photographs plays with eye-watering speed. I try to blink as little as possible as I realize these must be the images she is feeding Aiden in the MRI machine. They seem innocuous at first, without a visible pattern to me. Traffic light, Christmas tree, chess set, a blue bike, on and on, a few hundred. Then abruptly my own face startles me—the photo of me sleeping, the only one Aiden had before he came to England. And after my face, the reel changes—people now. Some I know, some I don’t, some I can guess: Aiden’s parents, Benson, Cora, James, two others I assume to be Hendrix and Jazzman, a military headshot of a young Black man in his Marine blues, countless unknown others, again in the hundreds, again with no pattern I can decipher. Then the reel changes quickly a third time—these images are more familiar, warming me. An Aeternum rose, a stave of music from Für Elise, Javier’s fateful painting of my jawline, a Baci chocolate, purple eyes . . . My eyes fill with tears as I realize she is feeding Aiden every image he must associate primarily with me.

I almost miss the next abrupt change of the reel from my tears. Then once I see it, I wish I had never seen. Because the images they are blasting on Aiden now are of terror, gruesome to the extreme. A military helmet splattered with human brains, disembodied torn human limbs, an imploded rib cage glistening in the sun, half a little boy, a flayed corpse, a face that once must have been human before it was peeled, eyes gauged out, nose, lips, and ears scraped off, and the young Black Marine who, with a strangle in my throat, I conclude must be Marshall.

“Stop!” I shout, bolting to my feet, my voice echoing in the control room as all the scientists except Doctor Helen gasp and leap off their seats. I jump forward to—what, do something, anything to the screen of horror—but the bear assistant throws himself in front of me, glaring in disbelief. “Don’t show Aiden those! Please!” I cry, trying to get around him.

But it’s Doctor Helen who speaks in an even tone never looking away from the screen or stopping the reel of terror. “We have to, Elisa. Now, please, we need quiet, or I’ll ask you to leave.”

The bear blocks my view of the screen, towering over me until I fall back on my corner and sink to the floor. He flits back to his desk, freeing my line of sight again. I should close my eyes, but I don’t because if Aiden has to see these, so will I. My stomach heaves violently, bile rising to my clamped teeth—over and over until my insides are burning with acid. A knifepoint pain stabs through my skull, dulling even the throbbing in my chest. I clamp my arms around my knees, pressing my back against the corner, rocking in place to fight off the shudders, as Doctor Helen triggers Aiden’s traumatic memories, searing his retinas while he is captive in the MRI machine with hundreds of sickening, macabre images. It’ll be over soon. It’ll be over soon, my love. Only twenty minutes left. Then we can go back to the cottage where Mum’s magic will help you, and you can sleep while I go back to Bia—to the lab that is trying to fight fear, not inflict it.

Doctor Helen changes the reel again, now alternating the horrific images with the images Aiden associates with me. Marshall—my face, flayed corpse—my face, dismembered body—Aeternum, on and on. Bile rises again and I grip my skull as I stare in horror at what he is living through for us. Then the speed of the reel skyrockets until the images become so blurry I can no longer distinguish them from each other.

“Is he truly processing at this speed?” Doctor O’Connor’s voice pipes through a speakerphone, and I realize the computer is feeding the same images to him in Scotland. Rage burns my throat as I try to find air now that the images have blurred for me.

“Yes, he is,” Doctor Helen responds in a majestic tone that makes me want to scream. “He is extraordinary. We cannot explain him.”

“But maybe we can help him,” Corbin says over the phone with a protective edge and, if he were here, I would hug him. Or ask him to hug me.

Doctor Helen does not respond in any way. Her silence strangles me more than the reel of terror, more than the failed oxytocin this morning. Is she silent because she doesn’t think we can win? Because she doesn’t think we can save Aiden?

“Last wave,” she announces and, for some reason, they all sit up straighter while I shrink smaller. The reel is still too fast for me so I fix my eyes on the image of Aiden’s brain. The brain I wanted so much to meet. The brain that is absorbing image after image of trauma so that Aiden and I can be together. But now that it’s here in front of me, I only see Aiden’s heart.

At long last the reel stops, landing with the image of me sleeping. My face fills the screen—calm and peaceful, hopefully filtering that peace straight into Aiden’s mind.

“Aiden,” Doctor Helen speaks on her microphone, and I jump to my feet again, fighting off dizziness. There is no response from him whatsoever. “The worst is over. Remain still and keep your eyes on Elisa’s photo.” Then she turns to me. “Elisa, if you could join Aiden now in the fMRI room, please? Richard will show you. Quickly. We need to capture these next few minutes.”

I barely hear her last words because I’m already bursting out the door, not waiting for Richard who runs after me. I streak down the hall toward the last room Aiden entered, but Richard leaps in front of me.

“Miss Snow!” he cries, hands out to stop me. “You have to remove your clothing in this room first and all metal from your body. The MRI machine is very strong. There are lockers for your valuables and another door that will lead you straight to it.”

“Fine, fine,” I shout, ducking past him and shoving open the door. It’s some sort of antechamber, but I see Aiden’s belt, shoes, and clothes folded neatly on a bench. I rip off my blouse and jeans, cursing the underwire of my bra. My only valuable—Dad’s watch—goes inside a locker, and I throw a gown over me. Then I wrench open the other door, plunging down another endless hall to the clearly labeled MRI room. I burst through those doors too, wanting nothing but to take Aiden in my arms away from all these computers and horror. But I can’t because he is still inside an astronautic-looking MRI pod.

“Elisa, are you in?” Doctor Helen’s voice blares through an overhead speaker.

“I am,” I gasp, hoping she can hear me.

“Good. Aiden, this part is new to you, too. We have never done this before. We will slide out the bed so that you’re out of the bore waist down. Then we will continue the imaging, so don’t talk or move. Starting in . . . three, two, one.” She counts evenly and the MRI bed rolls out, exposing Aiden’s long legs and narrow waist. He is covered with a pale blue sheet except his toes.

“Now, continue to remain as still as you can. I’ll ask Elisa to come stand next to you and say your name when she’s there. Do not speak. Elisa, now please.”

I sprint to Aiden, forcing myself to say his name as I normally would, not gasp it. I hope I sounded calm, I hope he can hear me.

“Very good,” Doctor Helen coaches. “Aiden, same orders: no movement or talking—we are still imaging. You will be smelling Elisa’s perfume in . . . three, two, one.” A stream of air blasts everywhere, making me shiver in my thin gown, but not because it’s cold. Because the scent of Aeternum floods the room and presumably the MRI bore. I gulp it, closing my eyes, gathering all my strength from every corner of my mind like he gathered roses across the globe for me. The perfume fortifies me like a tonic, and I brace myself for whatever comes next.

“Now then,” Doctor Helen speaks. “Elisa, please take Aiden’s hand gently and again say his name when you do so. Aiden, continue not to move, no matter how much you might want to. In . . . three, two, one.”

I reach under the blue sheet and find his hand. It’s curled into a shuddering granite fist. I wrap both my hands around it. “Aiden,” I say, and the shaking slows a fraction, but the fist remains locked.

“Well done,” says Doctor Helen. “Now the last part. Elisa, I’d like you to talk to Aiden. I want you to describe the present moment to him as if he is unable to see it. Bring him back to you, as it were. Aiden, your job is to focus every single thought on Elisa, continue to watch her image on the screen, and stay away from the images you just saw as much as possible. Feel what you need to feel, but listen to her voice and continue to stay still. We will start in . . . three, two, one.”

Wait, I want to call. Wait, I’m not ready. But Aiden is stuck in some horror while I scramble to find words. I draw another gulp of Aeternum air, and start. “Hi, my love,” I say, not caring who else hears except him. “I’m here. Where is here, you might ask. Here is a white room, with four white walls, smelling like the most beautiful memory in the world. Or in practical terms, like hundreds of Aeternum roses that you shipped for me from Kenya because I had never seen them. Isn’t that incredible? But more incredible than that is this moment right here. Just the two of us, you inside this white MRI machine under a blue sheet and me in a matching blue gown standing next to you in my rose socks, holding each other’s hand because this moment right here is your our fight and I’m so proud of you. That’s why this moment is more important even than Aeternum night. And also because I can see your toes. I’ve never told you, but I love your toes. Who knew there was such a specific type of love? But there it is, making my own toes wiggle in response. There’s some track lighting too—it’s a bit harsh, you wouldn’t like it, but I like it because it lets me see some of you even if you are under a sheet. I hope you’re not cold. It’s a little nippy here. But my hands are warm around yours so think about that and come back to me when ready. I’ll be right here. I love you.”

I stop talking, worried I said too much, too little, too fast, too slow. I don’t know—but I tried to deploy some of our collected weapons: our love, humor, his fighting spirit. Maybe that helped. The fist stopped shaking and has opened.

“Excellent work, both of you.” Dr. Helen’s voice booms over the intercom. “We have what we need. Aiden, you can relax but try to stay in the moment. We’ll give you some time and privacy, and then we’ll discuss.”

The static of the microphone cuts off and the MRI bed slides out, jettisoning Aiden in front of me. I immediately find his eyes—they’re bottomless ocean blue, the depths ravaged by the horrors the images must have triggered, but they are lightening. Specks of turquoise are already flickering.

“Thank you,” he says, and the hell he must have lived through is in his voice, too. It’s slow, hoarse, the way one might sound after a long illness. He takes a shuddering breath and stretches, searching his body that tenses here and there. I give him time as he opens and closes his hands, rolls his wrists and shoulders, wiggles his toes. He smiles then—a worn, exhausted smile that barely lifts the corners of his lips, but a smile still. “Toes?”

“Toes and everything.”

I sit on the edge of the narrow MRI bed, ready to give him more time but he opens his arms—they seem heavy. “Come here,” he says as he did before.

I lift his sheet—he is wearing his grey briefs underneath—and lie gently on top of him because the MRI table is too narrow for both of us. His heartbeat is fast under my ear. He folds his arms around me and I feel his lips in my hair. He is Van Gogh’s Alps again but this time in wrought iron, shoulders rippling like the wheat field, skin frozen like the Alps’ snow, breathing wounded and clipped. He doesn’t talk. I search through our weapons to help him stay in the moment and find one. His words of self-love. “You’re loyal. You’re strong. You’re loving. You’re fucking smart. You’re an excellent fighter. You always win. You’re thoughtful. You are loved.”

And Aiden comes back with a shaky breathless sound that could be a chuckle. His fingers trace my spine over the thin cotton of the gown. I lift my head and watch his eyes clear as they gaze back at me until they beam with my turquoise. At that moment, he kisses me lightly, holding his mouth to mine. I follow his lead, and at length his body comes to life. The heaviness becomes strength—I feel it in his hold, in the way his hands clutch my waist, travel up my arms, and knot in my hair. His lips brush along my jawline, down my neck, and he pulls the gown off my shoulder, kissing to the very tip. By the time he is back at my mouth, the Alps of his body are a different mountain—vibrant and warm, rippling with a faint breeze of desire. But he simply holds me, his fingers memorizing my skin.

“It was a lot easier this time . . . with you.” His voice is back to its beautiful husky timbre, although slower.

I kiss above his heart, fighting a shudder at his words. If this was a lot easier, how was it without me? At least he has a three-month break until he has to be inside this torture chamber again. At least the next eighty-seven triggers will be just Aiden and me in our cottage with Mum’s magic. And I’ll do everything I can to make them the best eighty-seven days of his life. A thousand happy memories to each horrific one.

The telltale static of the sound system makes us both tense. “Aiden, Elisa, if you feel ready, could you join us in the control room?” Doctor Helen calls.

We climb off the MRI bed, neither of us looking back at it. We help each other get dressed in the antechamber—not because we need the help, but because we need the touch—and plod down the halls to the neuroscientists.

But only Doctor Helen and her Van Gogh binder are in the command center now, as well as Corbin over the phone. We take the two seats in front of her, never releasing each other’s hand. Did we win this battle? Or are we about to lose more?

“Aiden, how are you feeling?” she starts with him, as she should. Yet, I taste anger in my tongue. Even if she’s trying to help us, she will always be Doctor Pain to me now.

“Better,” he answers politely. “Much better than five years ago when we last did this.”

“That’s wonderful,” says Corbin; it sounds like he is clapping. “Well done, both of you.”

“You certainly look better and sooner,” Doctor Pain agrees. “And that’s a good place to start. With the encouraging news.” She bestows a nearly invisible smile on us—noticeable only because the gravitas of her face is so absolute. I grip Aiden’s hand tighter. “There is little doubt now that Elisa’s calming effect is more than placebo. It’s very much real to you and its impact on your brain is no different than a powerful injection of serotonin.”

“Of course it’s real. It’s too strong to be anything but,” Aiden responds with conviction as if he never doubted this part, while I draw the first effortless breath since smelling the Aeternum. We get to keep the mother of bombs.

Doctor Pain gives him one stately nod. “That strength, however, is hard to quantify. But based on the fear-related brain areas with heightened CREB protein, we guess Elisa’s effect reduces your terror by about twenty-thirty percent.”

Something about her words tickles a memory of my own but I have no power to chase it because she just drained me with her last two words. “That’s all?” I ask, unable to control the fear in my voice.

“That can’t be right,” Aiden argues. “It feels a lot stronger than that. You saw how quickly she brought me back. About half the time of my best record on medication.”

“I saw. And it’s possible that Elisa’s effect is stronger—our experiment is limited by laboratory conditions. We tried to approximate her presence as much as possible inside the MRI bore with her picture, smell, voice, and touch, but we were lacking the sense of taste and of course the sum of her and the two of you alone together without my voice interfering which of course you associate with unpleasantness and pain. But the point is that we are unable to give it beyond twenty-thirty percent.”

When neither of us can speak—I because all I hear is eighty percent chance of losing this war, Aiden for whatever reason that’s making his jaw clench—Doctor Pain continues. “That said, there is something surprising we discovered about Elisa’s effect on you. It appears to be particularly effective at counteracting images of war.” She gives us another regal smile that I cannot return.

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Is that good or bad?”

The regal smile remains, but her eyes seem to soften when she turns to me. “I believe it to be encouraging.”

“By all means, take your time to explain,” Aiden says in his arctic tone, and I have a mad Van Goghian desire to laugh, if I could move my face.

Doctor Pain’s near-smile becomes more visible. “It means that although Javier’s painting is what brought Elisa’s effect to life, it was very clearly conceived a lot earlier by you yourself, Aiden. We believe it goes back to your war letters. In a nutshell, when you were surrounded by war atrocities, you calmed yourself by writing letters to an unknown woman. And your powerful memory started to associate the idea of being in love with this mysterious woman with being at peace. When Javier practically handed such a woman to you in a frame, he completed a process that had already started twelve years before. That’s why Elisa is able to bring you back from images of war much more quickly. Because you chose her. Your memory itself gave her that power. And I hope in the end that will make a difference.”

“How big a difference?” Aiden’s voice is soft now, perhaps with the same wonder, the same H-O-P-E that is flooding me. Somehow knowing that my effect on Aiden is by his mind’s own choice makes me feel like we belong together in a real, not magical way.

“Unknown. All of this is conjecture at this point. We are not operating within known scientific concepts when it comes to you.”

“But you have designed an action plan for us?” Aiden prompts.

“We have. You just did your first session of it. You’ll need to trigger yourself with traumatic images and have Elisa bring you back to the present moment as she did now but to the full extent of your senses, every day for the next eighty-seven days, at the same time, the same place away from the bedroom or anywhere you associate with rest.”

Aiden nods tensely in understanding, but I no longer feel the chair underneath me. “Excuse me, what do you mean ‘first session’? What do you mean ‘traumatic images’?”

Aiden’s thumb rubs my palm as if to comfort me, but she picks up a box from the desk and brings it on her lap, glancing at me with a trace of concern. I watch in horror as she takes out a monitor wearable over the eyes, like a virtual reality headset, and hands it to Aiden. “This has been uploaded with all the images you saw during the fMRI. You will have to watch them every day, Aiden. I’m very sorry, but it’s the best way.”

“No!” I gasp, jumping to my feet again and grabbing the headset before it can touch his fingertips.

“Elisa, be careful with that!” Doctor Pain’s clinical tone betrays the first note of anxiety as she stretches out her hand. The Van Gogh in me wants to smash the implement of torture on the polished floor. I clutch it to my chest instead.

“Love, what’s the matter?” Aiden rises on his feet too, brushing my cheek—still slower than his usual reflexes. “This isn’t like you.”

“I don’t want you watching these images again. I saw them, Aiden. They’re awful.”

Where the prospect of watching the reel of terror eighty-seven more times didn’t shake him, hearing I watched it once does. He blanches and his entire frame locks in horror. “You saw them?” The strangled question is clearly meant for me but he turns his lethal gaze on Doctor Pain, and for a moment he looks truly frightening. He looks exactly like the Marine who lived the atrocities I only saw in pictures.

“It wasn’t her fault,” I intervene despite my own problems with the regal neuroscientist. “I barged in after snooping. And yelled at everyone.” I peek at Doctor Pain, face hot enough to power all the monitors. “I’m very sorry about that, Doctor.”

“It’s quite understandable.” She nods and meets Aiden’s sniper glare without flinching. “She had a right to see them. This is her fight, too. She clearly loves you very much.”

He turns his eyes back to me, but they’re wild with anxiety now. He cups my neck, except it feels like he is checking for vital signs. “Are you all right?”

“How could I be all right, Aiden? I’m worried sick about you. Watching these horrors every day is torture.”

His hands come around my face, light as if I might break. “Love, please sit. Don’t worry about me, I can handle it,” he pleads. His voice is tender with the concern I’m adding to the agony that must already be burning him. I drop on the chair, gripping the torture headset. He sits down too but shifts his chair so close to me that our arms are touching. His hands are open, ready to catch the monitor that will brutalize him in case I drop it.

“Doctor, please!” I look only at Doctor Pain now, and all my anger at her drains away, all that’s left is terror for him. “This is too much. Why can’t Aiden simply summon a memory on his own instead of watching these? I thought that was the plan.”

“I’m sorry, Elisa, that was our initial idea but it won’t work based on the tests we just ran. Aiden’s brain is too powerful for that, his memory too smart, too quick and adaptable. We have to meet it at its level, while combining exposure therapy with reconsolidation. Please trust that we considered all other methods.”

A total silence follows her words, and I wish Corbin would speak or Mum and Dad would alight from above to put an end to this, to show us another path that doesn’t involve Aiden walking barefoot through the fires of Iraq to come to me. But Aiden pries the implement of torture from my grip—pries it by gently opening each finger one by one—and takes it from me.

“I’ll do it,” he says with finality, leaving no room for argument. There is no hesitation in his voice, no fear. Nothing but resolve.

“Wait!” I gasp again. “Can’t he at least alternate—one day with images, one day by himself? Or would it help if I watched with him on a TV or something? Please?”

“Over my dead body!” Aiden snarls, angling himself as though to hide me from the world. He holds the headset of horror behind his back where he knows very well no one will reach.

Doctor Pain’s face softens in a maternal way that startles me, and she takes my hand. Her touch is not cold, as I expected it to be—it’s warm and tender, like crimpled organza. “Elisa, daughter of Clare, you are so very much like your mother even though everyone says you have Peter’s talent. How I wish I could say to you there was an easier way. But Aiden’s startle reflex is too strong, child. This is the best method that stands a chance at helping him. Many others are more traumatizing or dangerous if you can believe me.”

Abruptly, she becomes Doctor Helen again. Next to me, Aiden relaxes now that she has ruled in favor of him being the only one to watch the horror. “How high is that chance?” he asks. “Knowing that I’ll do this regardless.”

Doctor Helen releases my hand, but the maternal edge stays on her face when she looks at him. “Unknown. Unknown how high. Unknown if it will work at all. Science can’t give you any answers for this. You will have to give the answers to science.”

I grip Aiden’s hand again, and Doctor Helen sees it. “But you do have a choice.” She regards us both now, and the gravitas returns to her face.

“We do?” I whisper, and I no longer know to whom. To science or magic?

Doctor Helen is the only one who answers. “Of course. There is always a choice. Option one, you do this—you stand to risk everything or gain everything. Option two, do nothing—continue as you are but risk Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s sanity if another attack happens again. Option three, you say goodbye now—you lose each other, but perhaps someday science discovers something new, although we cannot promise that will happen.”

A deep chill falls over the control room—or perhaps it’s just me. And the space feels cavernous, but perhaps it’s the wound in my chest that just ripped wide open. The air feels muddy and liquid too—but maybe it’s the river water. And I don’t see the overhead track lighting—it’s extinguished like the dark void before and the dark void after Aiden. No stars, just endless night.

I realize now that Aiden and I have turned toward each other reflexively. His eyes find mine, agonized as though he is back in the MRI.

“We’ll give you a moment,” Doctor Helen’s voice sounds faded but Corbin speaks for the first time.

“One second, Doctor, if I could add my two cents. You are the memory expert and I’ll defer to you on that. But in my experience, Aiden and Elisa’s connection to each other is just as unique on its own right. We cannot underestimate the risk of significant new trauma to them if they lose each other. I fear they would also lose themselves.”

His words light a single candle in the darkness. A candle like the one that burned by Romeo and Juliet.

“Well said,” Doctor Helen agrees. “Aiden and Elisa, you have a difficult choice before you. We’ll leave you alone now so you can decide.”

The door closes behind her as our foreheads fall against each other. Aiden sets down the headset of torture, and wraps both my hands in his—fingers knotted together like the branches of his oak tree that we climbed today. Was it only today? Has it only been one day of war?

“They say it’s a difficult choice,” he says. “But to me, that’s the easiest part. Option one is the only option I can live with. I cannot risk your safety or give you up without all my fight.”

“Are you sure, my love? It’s too much pain, you would be hurting too much.”

“We knew this would be hard.”

“Not this hard. We didn’t know you would have to watch those horrible images every day. Was that M-Marshall?” Despite my resolve to be strong for him, tears fill my eyes. I try to wipe them, but he is there first. He dries them with his fingertips before they spill and pulls me gently onto his lap, folding his arms around me like he is trying to fit me inside his heart.

“Yes, but he is gone, love. No matter how hard I’ve tried to keep him here, he’s gone. All of it is gone, and I’m trying to lay it to rest. I’m just sorry you saw them. I’m sorry they’re in your head. I’m sorry they touched any part of you. I’m sorry I’ve dragged this torment in your life. I’m sorry I am the way I am—”

I place my hand over his mouth. “Please, don’t.”

His eyes rage with acute conflict between fury that I know it’s at himself and desperation to give me what I want.  His jaw is flexing as if to contain all the sorries left unsaid. He takes my hand from his lips and rests it on his cheek. “You’re right,” he finally says. “I’m sorry for so many things that don’t matter anymore. All that matters now is us. Do you choose option one? Will you still fight with me now that you’ve seen all this?”

The direct question leaves me breathless—because it was never really a question. “Of course I will. I promised you that.”

He shakes his head, eyes still agonized. “Not because you promised. I’d understand if you change your mind. A part of me still wants you to—you’d be better off. But I will never force your hand again. Do you want to fight with me now that you know what it will take? Do you have faith in me, Elisa, to overcome all that?”

He asks that last question in a hard, jagged tone—a counterpoint to the vulnerability he must be feeling. I realize with horror that, in my fear for him, I’ve made him question this most axiomatic truth, instead of protecting him as I was trying to do. I grab his face not at all gently like he does with me. “Aiden, I have faith in you most of all. Your strength and our love are the reasons I said yes. Nothing I’ve seen today changes that. If anything, I’m more in awe of you. And I didn’t think I could love you more but I do. Don’t you ever question any of that. Of course I want to fight with you.”

He nods as much as he can in my tenacious grip, his eyes no doubt seeing the pure truth in mine. But his arms tighten around me like a vise. “That’s all I needed to hear. All those images, I can watch them every day, every hour if I have to, if I know you’re on the other side waiting for me.”

“I will be. And after you watch them, we will make the rest of the day so happy that even you will forget what you saw.”

He releases my finger-hooks from his beautiful face, bending it to mine. Love is a strange, powerful weapon. We are in a clinical, cold room, surrounded with monitors whirring with danger, bombarded by the beeps of the risks we’re taking, suffocated by horrific images of the enemy ahead and the enemy within, yet we both smile as our lips meet. And the monitors go silent—there is only the soft sound of our mouths and our breath, hitching with desire, not fear. Or maybe it’s not love. Maybe it’s madness. Maybe we are not in Van Gogh’s paintings. Maybe we are Van Gogh himself—cutting off ears, eyes, and hearts for each other’s love. Whatever it is though, I don’t care as long as I am with him.

He breaks the kiss first, but seems as unsteady as me. “Let’s call them in so we can go home. You need sleep and I need you.”

Sleep is not in the formula for me this summer, but he doesn’t need to know that right now. He sets me back on my chair and strides out of the door to locate Doctor Helen while I sit here processing how a room that seared him with so much cruelty became a place of love. When they return, Aiden sits next to me, arm around my shoulders while Doctor Helen dials Corbin to join over the phone.

“Elisa, Aiden says you have made your choice,” Doctor Helen starts.

I nod, smiling that he waited for us to tell them together. “We choose option one.”

Neither of them seems surprised by this. “In that case,” Doctor Helen says with significance. “Three rules. First, self-care. This will take its toll. In Aiden’s case particularly, sleep is crucial as the memories begin to reconsolidate. Continue to follow the routine of that first night and keep track of everything. Let us know if you start noticing any changes.”

“We will,” Aiden nods.

“Second, endorphins. Live the life you want to live as fully as possible, and stay in the moment. That’s the point of all this. We stand a much better chance if Aiden has as many happy memories as he has traumatic ones.”

“We will,” I promise while Aiden’s fingers draw a happy circle on my shoulder.

“And third—the startle reflex.”

The happy fingers stop and Aiden turns into stone at the mention of the formidable foe. His hand in mine closes into the shuddering fist again. Doctor Helen nods, her face severe as she notices his lockdown. “I’m sure we don’t need to explain how imperative it is that you guard against the startle reflex during this time.”

Corbin interjects in a forceful tone. “I couldn’t agree more. For both Elisa’s safety and Aiden’s mental health.”

Identical shudders run through Aiden and me at the same time—probably for different reasons. I shudder at the fear in Corbin’s voice when he talks about Aiden. I’m sure Aiden is over there in his chair terrified for me.

As if he feels the shudders himself, Corbin continues, “To help with that, we think you should implement some safety measures since you’ll be living without Benson. Maybe things like pepper spray or some other method to incapacitate Aiden should the startle get triggered during this process.”

Aiden is nodding in vigorous agreement before Corbin has finished while all I hear is incapacitate Aiden. “Agreed. Benson and I are already working on some options.”

I watch Aiden terrified about what options of self-incapacitation the most self-loathing man in the universe is contemplating. At my look, he backtracks quickly. “Correction, Victor. Elisa and I will be working on some options.”

He rubs the goose bumps under my sleeve, raising his eyebrows at me as if to ask, is that better? I nod, somewhat relieved, while Corbin chuckles. “My wife wishes I could learn as fast as you, Aiden.”

Aiden smiles, but his turquoise eyes that have absorbed so much trauma today stay on me. Abruptly I want to leave. I want to go back to the cottage—just us and Mum’s roses that will heal him as he sleeps, while I try to be Dad and solve the protein that can protect him when he is awake.

Seeing the urgency in my eyes, Aiden stands. “We need to go,” he announces. “It’s been a long day.”

Things wrap up quickly then. One minute, we’re collecting the box with the torture headset, the next Corbin is gone and Doctor Helen is walking us through the door.

“We’ll be in touch to schedule the next scan. In the meantime, here is your perfume,” she says, giving me back my treasure that immediately warms my fingertips. “Oh, and I thought you both might like this.”  She takes a polaroid out of the Van Gogh binder and hands it to us. “It’s a picture of your kiss,” she explains as I take it with trembling fingers.

There, on the black glossy paper are Aiden’s electric blue brain waves and his golden heart line, spiking and swelling as we were kissing.

“May it bring you both calm when you feel the most fear.” Doctor Helen casts the words like a benediction.

From her binder, Van Gogh’s brushstrokes look suddenly ordinary compared to the brushstrokes of Aiden’s mind, but my own brain waves are abruptly spiking. Because Doctor Helen may have just given me another gift.

“Thank you!” I say with fervor.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 16 – SHOCK

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

16

Shock

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?”

“The fangs.”

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.”

“But—”

“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?”

Yes. “No.”

“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 first.”

The dimple blows a kiss at my forlorn voice anyway, and he takes my hand. “Probably for the best. After a decade without kissing, we’re guaranteed to be late.”

We cut across the quad, Aiden made of granite and Benson close behind even though most summer Oxonians are either still behind office, laboratory, and library doors or off to supper at this hour. Aiden asks about my favorite spots and I show him the bench, RadCam, the cobblestone where Mum broke her kitten heel the first time Dad saw her, the Ashmolean’s columned rooftop in the distance, but despite these keystones of my life, I cannot take my eyes off Aiden, off the reality of him walking the same paths that Mum, Dad, and I walked.

“So how was your decade-long day on three hours of sleep?” Aiden asks as we take the quiet Queen’s Lane to avoid the busier Magdalen Street.

I pretend to look around to make sure we’re alone but in fact I’m trying to compose my face and words so his eyes don’t see the awfulness of my day. “No breakthroughs yet,” I shrug. “But guess what?”

“What?” The dimple is still there. So far, so good.

“In August, the Chem department is having a ceremony to dedicate the quad bench to my dad. And I’m supposed to speak.” I only shared this so he would attribute any flicker of fear on my face to public speaking but as I say the words, I hear another truth. The truth of how much this ceremony means to me, how much I want Aiden there.

“Is that what’s worrying you? The speaking?”

I nod, not needing to pretend anymore. “I’m terrified of it. It’s my spider.” If only there was a way to have the protein by then. But there is no longer hope for that.

His brow puckers in confusion. “How could that be? You seemed so calm during your supplement presentation to Samson and me.”

“That’s because I had worked on it for four years, practiced for hours with Denton, and had a whole box of paperclips with me. And I still barely slept the night before.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

“You really didn’t notice?”

He smiles, shaking his head while I miss his eyes behind his Raybans. “I had a lot on my mind.”

“Like me trying to sell you my supplement for a million dollars?”

“No, like me trying to stay in my seat and behave normally when I knew you were the woman in my paintings.”

I stumble over a cobblestone, grateful I’m not wearing kitten heels. “That’s when you figured it out?”

He nods, looking down at me but all I see is my wide eyes and open mouth reflected on his sunglasses. “As soon as I saw your jaw and neckline without the scarf you were wearing at Feign’s gallery, I knew. I was barely able to function after that.”

“Well, you could have fooled me.”

He chuckles and we both look ahead on the walled ancient lane, but I’m certain we are both lost on that day. For me, despite the nerves and anguish, that’s the day I first touched his hand, heard his chuckle, felt the electricity of his skin on mine. But now it’s more than that. It’s the day his memory brought us together by a scrap of skin.

“We can practice your speech together, if you want,” he offers. “You knew your father longer than you knew your supplement. You’ll do great.”

I want you to be there, I think. I want to add an A to PEC. But he cannot come because there will be a crowd, even if small. Unless we win this fight, he will always be absent from moments like this. “Careful what you offer,” I answer. “I’ll probably need to practice every day for the next two months just to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ for something like this.”

“Sometimes, those are the most important words.”

It’s true, isn’t it? Bookend words that open and close entire conversations, even relationships. The high stonewalls curve with us toward WIN, Benson’s shadow over us like a shield.

“How are you liking England, Benson?” I ask him, suddenly worried he is missing his home, that he resents being conscripted into this fight with us.

But his smile is bright and genuine as always. “It’s practically a vacation for me. All these open fields and scientists will put me out of a job.”

Aiden chuckles. “If that day comes, Benson, you have my word you will never need a job.”

They laugh while I break Corbin’s rule and catapult myself into the fantasy of such a day. Saying thank you to Benson as our guard, saying hello to him only as a dear friend. Strolling without his protective shadow, just Aiden and me. The beauty of the daydream pierces me like a new siren song, stunning me with longing as strong as the dream of sleeping with Aiden. I tear my mind away from such dreams—they’re enemies still. They’re the apex assassins in this fight.

WIN with its artless four walls that would offend Javier emerges at the end of the street, and Aiden tenses further—not just his shoulders now, but all of him.

“We got it from here, Benson,” he says. “You know this drill as much as me.”

“I’ll be back in two hours, sir.” And with that Benson turns back the way we came.

“Benson used to come here with you?” I ask.

“Of course, every five years since Iraq. Before then, it was my parents.”

“And everyone we’re meeting has been with you this entire time?”

“The lead neuroscientist, Doctor Helen—Doctor Brahms, of course, but I used to call her Doctor Helen when I was seven so it stuck—has been with me since then. She knows my brain better than anyone. Her research fellows have changed over the years except old Morse—you’ll like him. And the Edinburgh team is new for this. They’re all itching to meet you. None of them has ever heard of such a thing as your calming effect on me.”

Abruptly I’m nervous. “Should I have prepared, Aiden? I feel like I don’t know anything.”

He shakes his head. “They didn’t want us to prepare. I expect that’s part of the plan. They wanted you to be you and us to be us—as much as we can be with all the circus.”

I nod, wishing for a paperclip. Hydrogen, I start in my head but he interrupts me. “Before we go in, there is something I’d like to give you. We have a few minutes. Come.”

He takes me by the hand to the back of the building—a place new to me. But that’s not why I’m surprised when I see the grove of oaks. It’s because of a simple playground to the side, clearly for all the children who must need neuroimaging here. Only two swing sets, a slide, a couple seesaws, and a merry-go-around.

“Oh!” I gasp. “Aiden, did you play here when you were a kid?”

He laughs, but it’s not a joyous sound. It has a hard edge, like a “no.” He marches us past the playground that abruptly looks desolate—the swings swaying empty in the breeze, the seesaw squeaking. He stops at an enormous oak—the Benson of trees. It takes me a moment to grasp it’s not just one oak, it’s two conjoined ones, like two open hands attached at the inner wrists. The branches are thick gnarly trunks on their own right and the canopy of leaves is its own green sky.

This was my playground,” Aiden says, tilting his head toward the two-headed tree. The hard edge is in his voice too.

“Take off your glasses, please.”

He almost huffs but takes them off. And his eyes tell me everything—the way the blue has hardened too, the plates grinding with all the memories this place must hold for him. For the seven-year old boy with a gift no one could understand, a weight he could never share—a lone star, away from childhood and childish things. I step into his tense arms, knowing they will wrap around me like the oak’s branches. “It must have felt so lonely.” I kiss above his heart. Is the past tense really appropriate? Does he still feel lonely now?

He shrugs but the pectoral muscle softens slightly under my cheek as my calming effect fights with his memory. I wish I knew a way to intensify it. Maybe there is. “Show me how you would play. Do we have time?”

He deliberates, but the conflict in his eyes is not one of terror. It’s one of sadness. For what? A lost childhood? Lost time? “Come on,” I coax him. “Let’s play for two minutes.”

His lips lift in a tight, closed smile and that rare flicker of shyness glints in his eyes.

“All right,” he says with a sigh. “Look inside.”

I peek between the two oaks. At the ground where the roots grew together, they left a perfectly round circle surrounded by the thick trunks, like a well. Small enough for a seven-year old boy to play without triggers of any kind.

“I stopped fitting in there by the time I turned twelve. After that, I just climbed the branches.”

“When was the last time you climbed?”

The smile grows bigger, eyes softer—my calm is gaining ground. “When I was seventeen. But I get a feeling I’m about to climb again now.”

“Climb, Aiden!” I grin at him, and the calm advances further. He looks up at the oak canopy of leaves and back at me. Then before I can blink, he lifts me by the waist, making me gasp, and secures my arms around his neck and my legs around his hips. And the calm wins. The plates release and sudden excitement flares in his eyes. His mouth lifts into the dimply smile.

“Hold tight, Elisa!” he warns, and with one jump that makes me shriek, he grabs onto the lowest branch.

“Aiden, I weigh more than my rucksack.”

He laughs, but now the sound is happy and carefree. “Hah! But not much more than full battle rattle.” Then with another laugh, Aiden starts to climb. I solder myself to his front, laughing with him at the different kind of hardness I feel now. The thick branches are so enormous that he might as well be climbing up a steep trail or a rock. But he remembers each knot in the ancient wood, each bough. I’m lost in the way his body ripples with strength, not tension; the way his breathing spikes with athleticism, not fear; and the way he chuckles now and then, both seventeen and thirty-five. In minutes, we reach the thickest branch near the top, like a wooden bridge that has grown between the two trees.

“Hold on to me,” he says, only breathless from the climb that would have made the rest of us faint, drop, and maybe die, and sinks down carefully until he is sitting on the hulky trunk, me coiled tightly around him like the wood’s knots. “Well, this is it.” He shrugs, the dimple forming in his cheek as he takes in the tree of his childhood and adolescence. “It hasn’t changed much—just grown even more massive.”

I wipe a bead of sweat at his temple. “It’s incredible—like its own universe.” I follow his eyes through the dome of branches and leaves, trying to remember everything like him. “What did you do here after you climbed?”

“Usually nothing. I’d climb after all the imaging and the memory tests and the rest of the circus you’re about to see. Mostly I was just hiding if I’m being honest.”

“Let’s hide together then.”

I kiss his lips like leaves. They flutter back, quick as the wind of his breath. A brush of tongue like the tip of a reed, then two mouths joined like the oaks around us, our arms branches knotted in each other’s tree. We don’t have much time, but his memory only needs a blink. And now this kiss is climbing his memories too, hopefully softening their bark with desire and calm.

He smiles. “I’d never have believed this when I was hiding here.”

“I barely believe it now.”

“I need you to do something,” he says. “I planned to give this to you on the ground, but your way is always better.”

“Give me what?”

“Reach carefully in my shirt pocket,” he says, tightening his arms around me as I do what he says. Inside is a tiny two-milliliter lab vial of some kind of oil, sealed hermetically shut.

“What is—” I start to ask but then I gasp because as I bring it close to my nose, despite the laboratory seal, a faint whiff of its scent blows with the wind. “Oh, my God! Aiden, is this—is this what I think it is?”

He laughs his pure waterfall laughter that got me through today. “If you’re thinking it’s the perfume from your Aeternum roses, you would be right.”

I blink at the vial, speechless. I barely mouth “Wow!” and sniff it again, wishing I could break the seal now without risking dropping it. I never thought I would see this, I never thought I would smell it again except in memory.

“I have to admit, at first I was not sure about this,” Aiden murmurs. “I thought I wouldn’t like you in perfume. I worried it would change such an intimate part of the way I perceive you. But then I got this and it’s so perfectly you. It smells like my Alone Place that night, like one of the best memories of my life.”

“Mine too. How did you get it? Did Denton give it to you?”

He nods. “Yes, we need it for this meeting apparently so I reached out to him last week. He’s still processing the rest of the roses. He thinks by the end of it, you might have nine milliliters. He misses you, by the way.”

“I miss him, too,” I breathe, smelling the vial again, leaning in to kiss Aiden’s lips but, in an unprecedented move, he pulls back. His eyes are darker, but with desire, not memories.

“If you do that, we’ll miss the meeting,” he explains to my startled face.

“Oh, right!” The meeting, his mind, his childhood, his memories, his everything. He says he needs to be flooded in me, but I’m flooding in him. And the deeper I sink into his depths, the less I want to come up for air.

“Tonight on the fifth stair then, Mr. Plemmons.”

He laughs and starts climbing down carefully after I tuck the rare bottle of Aeternum oil back in his shirt pocket. “So why do we need this today?” I ask.

“I’m not sure—” a huff as he negotiates the branches. “Doctor Helen told me—to bring a smell I associate only with you—which proved incredibly hard when I remember every smell I’ve ever smelled. But since I cannot bottle you up—this was the closest thing.  And once I got it, I had a vague dream of giving this to you here—in my only other Alone Place . . . by this tree.”

The moment we touch ground, I tear off the seal and dab a drop of Aeternum oil behind each ear. The indescribable scent makes my head whirl—more beautiful than any rare chemical in Bia. Aiden pulls me against him, burying his face in my neck, inhaling deeply with something like hunger. His nose skims along my throat with a low moan. Despite the perfume, I stop breathing and hang limp in his arms, trembling knees, racing pulse, and good goose bumps exploding everywhere. He seems unsteady too—where the oak branches didn’t shake him, the Aeternum scent does.

“Fuck!” he hisses and wrenches himself away, running his hand over his hair. “Rostóv, rubbing his eyes that seemed glued together, raised his disheveled head from the hot pillow . . .” And Aiden starts marching a foot away from me back to WIN, reciting War and Peace.

Rostóv is fighting with Denísov when we reach the lab. But neither of us needs him anymore. Because the moment we enter through the lab doors everything becomes real and Aiden morphs back to stone. Our war has started.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 15 – HOPE

Happy Sunday, friends, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Hope it’s a day of rest and renewal for all of you. In that spirit, here is a new and (IMHO) important chapter. Thanks as always for reading, writing, and following. Lots of love, xo – Ani

15

H-o-p-e

Something soft and weightless pulls at the edge of sleep like a forgotten dream. I breathe against it, too comfortable and warm to wake up. It flutters again, like a puff of breath or a rose dancing over my lips in a familiar way. Memory and consciousness strike at the same time.

“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.

Aiden is lying right next to me, his face more radiant than the sun, taping an Elisa rose over my lips, exactly as he did on our very first morning together.

“Good morning.” He smiles, his voice still gravelly with sleep.

“Aiden!” I rejoice and throw myself on top of him, quilt, sheets, and all.

He laughs and wraps me in his arms, burying his face in my hair as I burrow in his warmth.

“Elisa, we just woke up together,” he sighs with a profound note of relief. “You and me, and all your perfect ten fingers and ten toes. I checked, they’re all there. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, I can,” I answer, looking at him and believing everything. Not just because he is glowing on the white pillow, under a beam of sun, with the lightest blue sky in his eyes. I believe it because of last night—because of who he is. A whisper from my nightmare hisses like an echo, but I shove it back. Not today.

“What is it?” he asks, looking at the goose bumps that erupted on my skin at the nightmare’s hiss.

“Today will be another good day,” I declare to him and the goose bumps, kissing his lips. He engulfs me in his body heat, and we kiss like this for a while in our hot, sunny bubble. I breathe in his scent until my lungs hurt. He smells like a cinnamon stick inside a leaf of sandalwood wrapped with a rose petal warmed in the sun all tucked inside a heavy cloud of an unknown pheromone blowing out of some pagan sex god—all in concentrated form here under the sheets with me. He frees my mouth when I start hyperventilating and sweating, and throws off the sheets, letting the cool breeze tickle my back.

“I’m sorry, I’m a warm sleeper.” He blows on my flushed cheeks.

“Perfect because I’m usually cold. How did you sleep?” He looked so peaceful while I was keeping vigil, but I don’t know what happened after.

His eyebrows arch in bewilderment. “The best sleep of my life, Elisa.”

“Really?”

He nods with something like awe. “I don’t think I even had any dreams. I must have rolled onto my back at some point but I’m not sure I moved after that. Corbin will want to know.”

That’s true. He never moved while I was awake. And although he doesn’t know it, there was enough commotion to wake him up. “Do you think it’s because you were so tired from the flight and all the awfulness of the last two weeks?”

He shrugs. “Maybe. We’ll see, I suppose. My guess is it’s you but I’m not sure.”

I love that. The idea of giving him a full night’s rest. “Why do you look worried?”

“Not worried exactly. It’s just a very sudden, big change. Full eight hours, no dreams, no movement. I didn’t have that even before Iraq. I don’t know how long it can last.”

And there it is. Tic toc, tic toc. We’ve been given so much in the last twenty-four hours. Is this the held breath before the war?

“Did you sleep well?” he asks, his index finger tracing a circle under my eye.

I’m grateful my goose bumps can be blamed on the breeze this time. “My favorite part was when I was awake.”

He looks at me with a raised eyebrow. “Were you watching me?”

“Of course. You used to do it to me all the time.”

“That’s true. I’d like it better if we were both sleeping though. Were you afraid?” The first V of the day forms between his eyebrows.

Not from you, from my own mind. I smooth the V away. “Not at all. I was just getting to know you.”

He smiles. “Yikes. How the tables have turned. Do I want to know?”

“Oh, nothing serious, only eight erections by the time I fell asleep.”

He laughs his waterfall laughter. “Eight? My, my. Sounds dire. That will make for an interesting conversation with the experts at Oxford tomorrow.”

I prop myself up on his chest—his strong heart thuds there reassuringly alive. “What should I expect tomorrow? I want to get this right.”

“Well, Corbin will Skype in—you’ve already met him. They’ll scan my brain to compare it to five years ago before I met you, and again in eighty-nine days. And they’ll go over their plan with us. Just be you, and you’ll get it right. Look how far you’ve brought us with me completely against you. Maybe we can travel a little farther now that we’re on the same side.”

His voice becomes soft, colored with the h-o-p-e he is holding for us both. Maybe it’s that tone or last night’s nightmare or the loneliness of him carrying this little torch alone, but I let my mind tip-toe around the edges of h-o-p-e. How would it feel if I stepped inside its pool of light? Would it blind me so I can’t see the horrors ahead? Would it stun me so I cannot fight with a rational mind? Would it give me life so it can kill me in the end? Is h-o-p-e the dagger to the chest? I shake off the image, but even with that sliver of thought, the goose bumps return.

“What are you thinking?” Aiden asks, brushing the goose bumps on my arm. “These left and now they’re back.”

So much for the breeze as an excuse. “I was breaking Corbin’s rule and looking ahead instead of at the present moment.”

He nods, rubbing my arms until the goose bumps disappear. “Easy to do. How about my virginity Baci? Only happy memories in this room.”

I laugh despite my current love-hate relationship with Baci quotes and pick it up from his nightstand. “Make it a good one.”

He peels it slowly while I remind myself that I am a woman of science and took an oath last night against superstitions. My hands don’t care—they still clutch the sheets as though he is detonating an explosive device. But Aiden smiles as he reads the note.

“Oh, Elisa, you’ll love this. ‘Everything I know, I know because of love.’”

“Who said it?”

“Our closest friend and confidant, Tolstoy. Straight from War and Peace.”

“Yes!” I squeal, half-relieved, half-furious with myself for my reaction to this most trivial and nonsensical ritual.

“Share it with me.” Aiden pops it in my mouth and chases it with his tongue. We have learned to melt these little chocolates together by now—not a single crumble or drop ever spills. And they no longer taste as good on their own, without the taste of him. He doesn’t stop the kiss when the Baci is gone, and neither do I. His mouth changes, becomes full of slow, heated things. Things my body understands instantly, the way it catches fire and moves on top of him, searching for a precious blink of skin-on-skin.

“Elisa, you seem to be after something. Is there anything my twentieth erection and I can get you? We’re taking requests.”

“Yes, please.” I try to glide against him but he’s too quick. He lifts me an inch, where I can feel all his heat and none of him.

“Behave,” he says darkly when I whimper but tilts his hips a fraction for the faintest brush. “Is this what you want?”

My “yes” is more of a sigh, and he presses a finger gently into me. I tense, feeling the effects of last night’s homecoming.

“Are you sore?”

“No,” I breathe.

“I don’t believe you.” And the finger disappears.

“No, Aiden, more!” Oxygen becomes rarefied, and I try to find the rose-scented breeze.

He chuckles. “The headboard, Mrs. Plemmons.”

“The . . . the . . . the what?”

“Like this.” For a scarce heartbeat, he lets go of my hips and takes my arms, stretching them over him until I can grab the headboard. I take advantage of my hip freedom and brush against him.

“Hold on to that,” he says with a growl and locks my hips again. “I’m going to chain these, Elisa.” He smacks my behind while biting my breast, hard. It makes the fire worse. And the new problem of shaky arms. I grip the headboard as he pulls my prisoner hips upward until I’m hovering over his mouth.

“Wait, no, no—yes!”

His warm lips smile against me. “Now you can dance,” he murmurs. And he releases my hips while his tongue begins gliding as though it’s melting another Baci. Finally free, my hips tango to his rhythm. If he draws circles, they roll. He traces figure-eights and they shimmy. When he blows, they sway. Then his mouth changes again. Instead of a tango, it becomes a tribal dance—pressured, fast, and heavy until with one quick flick, I spiral and fall, sliding down the headboard and all over his face into an inert mass of trembles and whimpers.

He rearranges my melted arms and legs on top of him with a self-assured chuckle, while I try to regain some composure. The clock on the nightstand informs me that my entire transformation from adult woman to blob of molecules took him less than five minutes.

“Are you pleased with yourself?” I try to sound sarcastic and self-possessed but it comes out like a string of drunken slurs.

“Exceptionally. This is one thing where I’m above reproach as a partner. Don’t take it away from me.”

“Not the only thing.” I press my lips over his heart. “But you could certainly improve on self-love.” I wait for my body to solidify, the vague contours of a plan forming in my head. A rational brain cell warns me that I have no clue what I’m doing. But I only have so many weapons, and I promised to fight with him. And the fight has to include this.

“Speaking of self-love,” I say, sitting up and straddling him when I’m steady. His abs flex against me—hopefully an ally in my current incursion. “I’d like to play a game.”

He grins. “What kind of game?”

“It’s quite simple. Someone with your expertise should have no problem.” I press myself gently against his abs, but even the light contact tingles my still-sensitive skin.

Instantly, his grin becomes an arrogant, lopsided smirk. “Is this a sex game, Elisa?”

“It can’t be, can it? As you so thoughtfully observed, I’m a little sore. Which means we can’t use this—” I brush over the length of him, not bothering to hide my sigh. “Or these.” I knot my fingers with his. “As you’d never want to hurt me, right?”

The smirk disappears. “Of course not.”

“Exactly. And we already used your mouth but it just . . . how do I say this . . . it didn’t hit the spot.”

“What the fuck?”

“Yes, I think it left something . . . to be desired.”

He looks almost enraged—as though he has never heard such words in any of the twelve languages he speaks. “Encore,” he hisses, trying to bring me closer to his mouth, but I have his fingers locked with mine, knowing he’ll be gentle while in my hands.

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” The words slice through clenched teeth, as though all the strength I have neutralized from his hands has seeped into his jaw.

“Because your mouth and I have reached an impasse.”

“Excuse me?”

I press myself against his abs more firmly and they nudge back—reflexively swearing allegiance to me. Good, I need reinforcements. “Yes, you see, your mouth—despite its considerable talent—has an awful habit of saying terrible things about you. So your mouth will not have any part of me until we fix this problem.”

His eyes darken as he catches up to my game. The good news is that the fury disappears from his face. The bad news is that it’s replaced with his patent fire. On command, my skin bursts into flames. “That’s a grave impasse, indeed.” The fire is there his voice too—low, with an after-sound building in his chest like smoke. “And how do we remedy this transgression according to you?”

His abs ripple under me, fueling me on. “It’s simple really. I’ll just have to love myself.”

He did not see this coming, that much is obvious. His mouth pops open into a perfect O, along with his eyes. With more courage than I knew I had, I release one of his hands—he grasps a fistful of my thigh immediately—and trail my fingertips between my breasts all way down like he does, until I feel wetness there. Then I place one fingertip inside his open mouth. He sucks on it with a growl, biting hard. “Do you taste that?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever because it’s the last time you taste it until your mouth and I resolve our dispute.”

He doesn’t release my finger, his teeth and eyes imprisoning me here. “You can keep that one finger, Aiden, if you want it so much. I have nine other perfect ones, as you call them, and your abs, which have sworn allegiance to your favorite home.” I roll against them with another sigh. “So, I will be just fine.”

He drops my finger. “You will beg.”

“Oh, but as you assured me last night, you would never let me burn. So I’m hedging my bets that you will beg first.” His abs twitch under me while a growl whirls out of his mouth. His twentieth erection presses imperiously against the small of my back.

“As you wish, Elisa,” he enunciates darkly, as though his tongue is moving inside me, not in his mouth. “We’ll play your little game. What do I have to do?”

His eyes don’t release me and his free fingers are digging into my thigh, so my voice is as tremulous as I feel. “ Well . . . as you know, I’ve never done this self-love business before. And I would want you to guide me through this very first time, like you have done for all my other firsts. But you lost that right for yourself.”

“An immense oversight on my part that will be rectified as soon as I’m allowed, I assure you.”

“Well, here is your chance. I’ll fumble my way through, just me and myself. And if you want to join, first you have to say something nice about yourself and mean it. And then I’ll do what you tell me to do. Agree?”

He looks at me like I’m the bane of his existence and his reason for living at the same time. “Agree,” he says with something like venom and fire. His free fingers grip my thigh. I slap away his hand as he does with me.

“And no touching, please. This is between me and myself. You can touch when you behave.”

I notice with satisfaction that a low gasp escapes his lips.

“Now, where shall I begin?” I circle my hips over the ridges of his abs, losing my train of thought. They flex with me, and I don’t stifle my moan.

“Elisa!” My name fires through clenched teeth like a warning, his hips thrusting underneath. I tighten my thighs around his waist as hard as I can to lock him down—it’s difficult with a thousandth of his strength and my own body shaking.

“Tsk, tsk. I might have to chain these, Aiden. You’re interfering.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“You should. Because the more you interfere, the more I’ll change the rules. For example, right now I’m contemplating doing this alone in the bathtub with a locked door while you have only your ears and imagination to torment you.”

“It’s not a hard door to break.”

“That may well be. But it’s an awfully small, European-sized tub. Not at all designed for the likes of you. I’m certain only I can fit in.”

“Fuck you.”

“I really hope you do. And soon. But for now, I’ll just do what you would do.” I’m no longer able to handle the heat of his furious gaze so I close my eyes and, with a burst of courage, I throw my head back and wrap my hands around my breasts. “You would start here, I believe?”

A whimper—an actual whimper—comes from the god of sex. It’s the sound I needed for confidence. My hips unleash themselves on his abs, soldered as we are together from my thighs and my weight. And my hands start to mold around my breasts. I know the way he would touch them—his fingers have branded a permanent trail on my skin. I follow it now with my own fingers, thinking only of him. And everything inside starts to pulse.

Aiden shudders underneath me and the whimper becomes a growl that sounds like, “Oh dear God.”

“No, not that God,” I gasp through the inferno I just lit for myself. “Dear Aiden.” I brush my fingers over my nipples—this is harder, more intimate under his blistering gaze that burnishes my skin even with my eyes closed. I pinch as he does at the same time that I circle my hips.

“I’m loyal.”

I almost miss the snarl of his words over the blood hammering in my ears. But they hang in the air, raspy and clear.

“Yes, you are,” I smile. “One of your most noble traits. What would you like me to do in return?”

“Look at me.”

And I do. Those are the rules I made, even if they light me on fire. Under me, Aiden is falling apart. Every band of muscle has turned into a blade of steel. The V is carved so deep between his eyebrows, it might become permanent. His hands are in white-knuckled fists, clenching the quilt. And his fiery eyes are dark and hooded, boring into me with greed.

“Am I doing this right?” I ask, circling my nipples as he would.

He nods furiously, beyond all speech, his eyes unblinking on my fingers. His abs and I continue to dance to the music of my moan.

“I’m strong.” His words ring out again, a little louder.

“Very strong. Stronger than anyone I know. What do you want me to do next?”

“Lower,” he commands as another shudder runs through him. My fingers flutter over my belly like his did when he was playing the piano on me.

“I love you.” His words spill out again.

“No, that’s about me, not about you. Try again.”

“It is about me,” he protests through his teeth. “My love for you is my best trait.”

I deliberate but the throbbing inside makes me a biased judge. My fingers brush over my pubic bone. “How about you’re loving? Can we settle for that?”

“I’m loving.” Half-snarl, half-whimper.

“Yes, and I love that about you. It makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world.”

“You are.”

“What next?”

“Lower.”

My finger tiptoe my public bone to the inside of my thighs, tracing little circles there like he did yesterday with me. “Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

“I like it so much better when you do it.”

“Let me.”

“No.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes . . . wouldn’t that be nice?”

But now I have a dilemma. Where do I go from here? If I move, I lose the friction of his abs and I need that—I need it like air. If I don’t, I run out of real estate on my thigh. And then there is only one spot left. The inferno that will burn us both alive. He must sense my battle because he doesn’t speak—he is breathing hard though. Like my next touch is air to him. And I give it. I wedge my hand between myself and his abs, pressing hard as he would. I barely hear him over my own moan.

“Christ.” His hips thrust again, almost buckling me off.

“No, just you in my head. And control your hips or I will stop.”

He becomes utterly still with a pained groan.

“Good. Now . . . the piano you said, Aiden?” And I play the first notes of Für Elise against myself. I know he can feel them on his abs. I know because he shudders, snarls, and swears at the same time.

“I’m—fucking—smart.”

“Yes! Even though it’s an understatement, I’ll accept it. What now?”

“Get—on—this—bed—now.”

Damn him. He’s taking away his faithful, miraculous abs that have done nothing but love and support me. But these are the rules I made up. “Goodbye for now, Aiden’s abs.” I roll one final time against them and slide off him onto the bed.

He takes full advantage. He springs onto his knees between my legs, looming above me, fire raging from everywhere. He spreads his thighs slightly, forcing mine to open more. He seems taller, broader somehow—as though the last few minutes have stretched his contours to breaking point. His chest is rising and falling with his hard breathing. His fingers are curled inward as if he is gripping me in his head. His now-permanent erection is pointing straight at my mouth.

And the throbbing inside gets worse—like a drum on fire pounded by a flamethrower. I will my fingers to continue to play Für Elise, but I can only summon random, off-beat notes even though I heard it all night. My breathing becomes jagged, matching his. He doesn’t speak so my body arches toward him, as though pleading for his words.  It marks a transformation. A flicker of calculation glints in his eyes, his hands relax, and his breathing steadies. His lips lift into a slow, deadly smile. Abruptly, I feel like I’m about to lose my own game.

“I’m an excellent fighter, Elisa.” His voice is now dripping with triumph. “I always win.”

“That’s true,” I sigh, addictive fear gathering like static over my skin. Not fear of him—fear of whether I can handle whatever he is about to unleash on me. “What would you like me to do?”

“I want you to play your song inside you since my fingers are banned.”

Oh bloody hell! Playing on the surface is one thing, venturing into the dragon’s den with him roaring on the threshold is quite another.

“Your rules, Elisa.” His voice is even and dark. I lost all his whimpers and growls the moment I laid back on this mattress. “I’ll even play the music on my phone to help you because I’m thoughtful like that. And that counts for two self-loving things, which means I’d also like you to spread your legs as far apart as they will go. Now.” Then eyes never leaving me, he calls to his phone. “Siri? Play Für Elise . . . for the only woman in the world,” he adds the last part under his breath.

And the piano starts. “Carry on, Elisa.” His voice is back to its taunting setting—he has already won, I just haven’t found out how yet.

Well, I might as well not go down without a fight. “Like so?” I breathe as I obey both his commands. But only one finger—that’s not bad.

“You will need two fingers for your notes, darling, unless it hurts. I earned this one fair and square.”

“Yes, you did,” I concede and do as he says. The first thing I notice is the soreness has eased, either from the heat or the throbbing I don’t know. The second thing I notice is a lot of wet, warm mess.

“Well, well, isn’t that interesting? How soreness just heals from self-love.”

“Only for me.” I try to sound strong but my breath leaves me entirely as I trace the paths he has blazed inside me as well. So familiar with him, so strange and new to me alone. But pleasant too—in a way I didn’t know I could give myself. Nowhere as bewildering as when he does it, more like a snack to his feast . . . but good nonetheless. My eyes flutter close.

“Oh, no. I earned the open eyes as well,” he reminds me.

I force mine open, begging him in my head as he predicted. Say more nice things, please. More nice things about yourself, and then make them into nice things for me.

“Now,” he begins in a tone that makes me shiver. “Self-love, you said?” And eyes on me, he grasps himself. I whimper as though he grasped me. “I don’t think your cruel rules prohibit this, do they?” And with a controlled sigh, he moves his hand up and down his length to the languid rhythm of my song. It’s my mouth that pops open now, my fingers that curl and stop. I’m the one shuddering. I can’t blink away from the sight.

“Your song, Elisa,” he prompts evenly. “Play it, like I earned it.”

I try. I really, really do. But I’m frozen. I barely survive Aiden pleasing me. How am I supposed to live through Aiden pleasing himself? His beauty in this moment is a force. Exactly that. He knows his body with such precision and control—a fluid symbiosis unlike the treacherous flailing my body is exacting against me. And then he stops. The sparkly bubble of liquid forms over him.

“Don’t stop!” My plea escapes without permission—body and mind completely breaking ranks.

“Oh, no. This is your game. You play, I play. Self-love and all that. Go on.”

As if I can resist him. The sight, the voice, the bubble. I play the keys, and he starts again, as though he can see through my skin. I watch every stroke of his hand, the way the shimmering liquid spreads over him, the way the two of them mold together perfectly without me. And lust becomes almost anger—at myself, at him.

“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He smirks. “Feeling so left out when the person you love most in the world turns against you like this.”

“Please, Aiden!” My traitor mouth fires away, completely on his side now.

“Are you begging, Elisa?”

“Yes,” Judas continues.

“What would you like?”

“More nice things . . . about yourself.”

“Ah. I’ll have to think . . . hard,” he says as he pushes himself into his strong hand with a hiss. “It’s difficult to think about myself when all I have in my head is you. And what I’ll do to you once this pestilent soreness is all gone. You have chairs in your lab, don’t you, love? Because I don’t think you will be able to stand. But maybe all the oxytocin will help.” The crescendo of my song starts, and I manage to tap out one note out of three. Gasping, coming apart at the sight of him. The familiar tension wrings my body. At least it’ll be over soon. But the moment the trembles start, his words ring out.

“I’m loved.”

“Wha—? R-right now? I’m busy.”

“No better moment. You heard me. I’m loved. Admit it, that’s your favorite nice thing I should know about myself.”

It is. It is and he knows it, that’s why he saved it for now. But at last I’ll have my release. “You’re—very—loved—especially—by—me—what—next?”

An infuriatingly controlled chuckle. “Fingers out.”

“What? No, no, no.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Why?” The whimper sounds like another “no.”

“Because I earned it. And this one was a very hard one for me to admit. I have plans for this.”

I can’t argue with him, even if my brain cells had not been decimated by his strokes. I almost cry as I obey. The emptiness left behind is physically painful.

“I hate you,” I hiss at him, and he chuckles.

“And there’s the difference between our love. I love you even when you hate me. Now, those perfect fingers of yours . . .”

I tense. “Yes?”

“Since you’ve broken up with my mouth, I’d like you to put one of them in yours.”

“Ew! Really?”

Another slow stroke, another bubble sparkling on him. “Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Elisa. I admitted this very difficult, very vulnerable part of myself. It’s engrained in me not to accept love, but I want to accept yours. I want it so badly, I have gathered scientists, psychiatrists, Beethoven, medication, U.S. Marines, the U.S. Congress, the CIA, Siri, not to mention crossing an ocean and eight thousand miles—all the king’s horses and all the king’s men for the single purpose of deserving your love, but you—love of my life, star of my dreams, peace of my war, lullaby of my sleep—won’t even taste yourself from your finger when you have no problem doing so from my lips? Which is ironic when you are trying to teach self-love. And what’s worse, you refer to my favorite taste with ‘ew’. What is a man supposed to do with all that?”

I just stare. He has stunned even thought into silence, let alone speech. Eyes on him, I put my finger in my mouth without hesitation because he’s right—I’ve done this countless of times with his mouth. I think about the way his bubble tastes instead of me. His eyes widen a fraction—he must have expected more arguments—and a slow smile spreads over his face. I notice with some h-o-p-e that his hand is moving faster. Two bubbles now.

“Thank you,” he says, and his voice is huskier too. “Was that ew?”

I shake my head, still unable to speak.

“Will you say such awful things about yourself again?”

Another shake.

“Good. Did you like it?”

A shrug.

“Ah, that’s too bad. Personally, I could live on it. Would you like to taste something else?”

A nod.

“Well then,” he says, and gathers the gleaming bubbles on his fingertip and brings it to my lips like I did with him. “Taste.”

I shiver from the warm liquid steel that, at least to me, is better than melted Baci. The same moan escapes my lips as it did for him.

His breath catches as his eyes darken. “Better?”

“Mmm.”

“Good. Remember that forever, Elisa. Think about it because it’s only yours. And allowing myself to be yours is the most self-loving thing I can do.” His finger circles the tip of my tongue, sending a jolt through the rest of me, releasing my words.

“I’m only yours, too,” I whisper as he takes his finger away. I’m palpitating from the torture I brought on myself. What was I thinking going against him in this area? But it was worth every unreleased tremble, every ring of fire, every achy throb, just to hear him say, “I’m loved.” I try to press my thighs together to relieve some tension but he is still standing between them—no doubt part of his plan. I give up and close my eyes, reciting the periodic table in my head. My brain glitches over all the elements that are combustible.

Then his warm breath washes over my lips, and my eyes fling open. His face is so close, so heady, the bedroom spins. “Now, will you please forgive my mouth?” he asks, and his voice has become very tender. “It says it’s very sorry and it really wants to taste you.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Oh, I’m serious. I have learned my lesson. It was a very effective teaching strategy. I’ll never forget it.”

“You never forget anything.”

“That doesn’t make it less memorable. Please, Elisa?”

“Are you begging?”

“Begging and dying.”

“And you’ll try not to say bad things about yourself again?” I sound almost in tears. Even his body heat and the sheets feel rough against my over-sensitized skin.

“I will. Now please kiss me. I’m literally on my knees.” His lips inch closer, almost brushing against mine.

“You’re forgiven,” my mouth says to his mouth.

He moans. Where his own hand didn’t break his composure, my lips shatter it. He kisses me like his whole soul is pouring into me through his tongue. I do my best to match him—it’s not even close—and every time I kiss him, I’m also kissing the words he formed in his mouth, the syllables of his self-love.

“Aiden, please, let’s try,” I mumble in garbled English. “I’m not that sore.”

“No, love, heal,” he murmurs, and then his mouth—my new ruler and savior—starts traveling over me. Wherever it touches, my skin zaps at even the lightest pressure. By the time he makes it to the mess I made, he has to hold me because I’m shaking so hard. And then he takes my hand.

“Let me show you,” he says and guides my fingers. It’s entirely effortless with him.

“Not this anymore . . . you.”

“You should always know how to pleasure yourself, Elisa. Always.” I sense something in his voice but I don’t have enough brainpower to understand it. I just follow his patient, mind-blowing lesson, introductions to parts of myself I only know from books of science. And soon I’m flying. The little snaps are starting.

“And now together,” he says and his mouth closes on me. It takes exactly one kiss, and I explode into a million tiny pieces—pieces of mind, of heart, of my body that now I can say I thoroughly know.

I feel his gentle lips and strong hands, holding me together until my breathing eases and the shaking recedes. When I’m finally still, he says, “And that, my Elisa, is self-pleasure. It is yours and no one else’s. Keep it and don’t ever give it to anyone. Not even to me.”

I think about his words, his voice—so forceful but for a trace of wistfulness. I’m too afraid to ask about it without my protein. Because a small part wonders if he showed this to me so I know it in case I lose him. So my body doesn’t shut down again after he is gone, like it did after the accident. A shiver having nothing to do with my recent orgasm runs over me. Violent ends . . .No! I mentally stomp on the whisper. I won’t let it slither inside this purest, closest part of our love. Pleasure is our super-power. Is there a weapon more powerful than that?

Aiden is still on top of me, on his elbows, tense with his own unreleased pleasure. Every plane of his face is etched with need, from his dark hooded gaze to his parted lips.

“You know something I’m learning about pleasure?” I ask him.

“What’s that?”

I sit up, forcing him to rise back on his knees. He is right in front of my mouth, soaring. “It feels as good to give it as it does to receive it.” And I swirl my tongue over the glistening bubbles. A shudder and a hiss rip through him.

“The headboard, Mr. Plemmons,” I say with another swirl.

His chuckle breaks and he actually grips the headboard. I wrap my hands around him and take him in my mouth as far as he can go in one swoop. He shudders again with an unrestrained “fuck” and the headboard shakes behind me. I do it again and all his control shatters with a snarl.

At the sound, I become possessed, ruled by instinct—my entire vision narrowing on this one goal of pleasuring him. He has never let me loose on him before like this, only as foreplay under his careful control. Sure, I have the matter of physics—there is only so much of me, and too much of him. But if I ignore the mechanics and think only about his mouthfeel, his taste, then I understand. I understand exactly why Aiden loves doing this to me. Why he was indignant at my ‘ew’—because if he ever said that about himself, I would be furious.

His entire body, from his vocal chords to his thighs, is thrumming. My name is slicing through his teeth, punctuated with groans and profanities that to me sound better than Beethoven. Every time I feel him at the back of my throat, I taste more of him. And the deeper I try to go, the more vicious his battle. I learn his body as he has done with me. The way his head falls back when I do this. The way his knees almost give out when I do that. I use every move he has used on me: from a peck to a suck and everything in between. He falls apart at the sucks—the harder, the better—and goes completely mental over the swirls, thrusting inside my mouth. Knowing him now, I pick up depth and speed. And Aiden—force of nature, epitome of physical strength, and paragon of sexual control—starts trembling, and the entire bed shakes with him.

“Elisa!” he grabs my hair, trying to pull out, but I grip his hips as he does with me. It seems silly to let go now after everything. I take him in the depths of my throat one last time.

He comes like war. There is no other way to describe it. A guttural growl, one hand nearly ripping off the headboard, the other in my hair, convulsion after convulsion, and then Aiden falls backward on the bed, shuddering and twitching.

Bloody. Hell.

I just did that. And survived.

I tilt my neck to test if my head is still attached to my shoulders. It is. To my utter amazement, I feel relaxed despite the tornado that just happened in and around me. Except for a trickle of warmth inside, I feel only wellness and a small sense of pride.

I look over at the foot of the bed where Aiden’s head is barely visible under the arm over his face. He has not resurfaced, ribcage rising and lowering rapidly, spasms over his muscles like waves, his sprinting breath filling the bedroom. I crawl over him, rest my head on my favorite spot on his chest, and kiss his heart. A gentler ripple courses through him with a low moan. I wait for him to recover, thinking about this new weapon in our hands. I add pleasure,self-love, and sleep to the list of defenses we are collecting for this fight. Is that enough for h-o-p-e to turn from foe to ally for me?

“Hi.” Aiden re-enters our realm with a hushed, husky sound.

“Welcome back.” I use his words with a grin.

“Hmm, have I been out long?” He plays along, even though we both know he wasn’t asleep.

“Just your first post-orgasm coma that I have witnessed.”

“Just the first post-orgasm coma, period.”

“That can’t be true.” It’s an unspoken pact that we don’t discuss his prior liaisons.  I know he remembers them with perfect clarity and neither of us wants to revisit those memories. Oddly, I’m not jealous. On the contrary, I’m glad he allowed himself this healthy, ordinary part of life and made it extraordinary like he does with everything else. But I’m still curious about all the careful restrictions he imposed on himself and his partners before me.

“It is. I never would have allowed myself to relax like this, as I do with you.”

My cheeks flush with pride. More firsts—that too has to help.

“Well, Elisa, I’m amazed.”

“I know, the orgasm comas are good, aren’t they? Even if you didn’t pass out like I do.”

He lifts his arm off his face with some difficulty and peers at me with a loopy grin. Lazily, he turns to face me, curling around me and resembling very much a placated, well-fed, happy dragon on a sunny rock. “Yes, they are, but that’s not what I mean. That was quite your first time, too.” His nose skims my throat and he places a soft kiss on it. The flush spreads from my cheeks to my chest because I know what he means. The finale was a first for me. “Did you like it or did you do it just for me?”

My blush must burn even his skin. “I liked it.”

He kisses my throat again. “Don’t be embarrassed by our love. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

And just like that, the first four-letter word joins our ranks. L-O-V-E.

It takes us a while to leave this bed—neither of us is willing to burst this bubble like no other we have had. But eventually the real world intrudes. Growling stomachs, parched mouths, still-packed suitcases, texts from Aiden’s phone about work, texts from Reagan and Javier that they’re awake and will be here in an hour. And Aiden starts making his own big place in the cottage. Hanging up his shirts with my dresses (“aren’t you glad I didn’t pack a lot of feathered hats, Elisa?”), tucking his boxers with my underwear (“will these dried rose packets irritate you with your soreness?”), the books he is reading on his nightstand (“I’ll finish these tonight and start on your father’s library.”), his toothbrush necking with mine in the restroom (“you were not kidding about this bathtub. How are we going to fuck in the shower, Elisa?”) his cologne nudging my face cream (“I have a surprise for you, but it won’t get here until tomorrow.”) All these little intimacies and normalcies—so routine for others, so ephemeral for us.

Eventually we make breakfast and eat it out in the garden, sprawled on a picnic blanket, waiting for Reagan and Javier. Aiden drinks his coffee, his phone tossed aside on the blanket. He checks it less, looks around more. The tectonic plates do not shift as much in his eyes as he builds new memories here.

“So what would you have done with yourself today if we weren’t here?” he asks, popping the last of the strawberries in his cupid mouth—he inhaled four scones and four eggs, the mush, the ham, and the fruit. Even his appetite seems better here.

I shrug, not wanting to imagine such a dark day. “I probably would have gone to the lab to work on the protein. I can’t wait to test it tomorrow. See if I got the code right.”

The same powerful emotion that fell over him when I told him about my protein yesterday morning molds his vernal face now.  But unlike yesterday, I can’t hold back my question, or at least a version of it. “Why do you get that look when I talk about my protein?”

“What look?”

“I don’t know. Like you don’t want me to make it for you or something. Or are you worried I can’t finish on time?”

His gives me a tight smile. “Elisa, I think you can do anything you set your mind on. And that’s not just a cliché boyfriends are supposed to say. I really believe that.”

“Then what is it?”

He tilts his head side to side, deliberating. I sip my tea to give him time, watching every flicker of emotion on his face. But it’s carefully composed. “I suppose I don’t want your second invention to be tied to me. You already tied your first protein to me for your green card—which you threw away.” He glares at me, but I don’t take the bait. “Staking a claim on this second one too . . . it feels unconscionable.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know how to answer that without breaking Corbin’s rule.”

A shiver whips through me, and I see him notice the new crop of goose bumps on my arms. A familiar bolt of fury strikes in his eyes as the jaw flexes—a fury I now know is not at me. It’s at himself.

“It’s in case we don’t win, isn’t it?” I whisper. “That’s why you look like that?”

“I don’t want your second invention tied to me,” he repeats. I take it as a yes.

“But it could help you even if . . . even if . . . that happens.” My voice breaks. I need the protein for myself, I need it for Dad, but I need it for Aiden more than anyone else. Because I can’t shake off the terror I feel for him if we lose. He has cashed in all his hopes and dreams on this final chance. What will happen to the man with the dimply smile, shy eyes, self-loving words, and peaceful sleep if we don’t win? It would kill him, James said. He’d rather die, Javier agreed. A snapshot of my nightmare—the worst one, Aiden’s cold lips—flashes in my vision, making my gasp. Is this what killed him in my dream? Because we didn’t win? Because I made just one vial of protein and he refused to take it from me?

Aiden brushes my arm, no doubt attributing my gasp to his words. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind the crackpot fool—negative thoughts are a hard habit to break. You keep working on your protein. And when you finish it, I’ll try it. But please do it for yourself and your father. Don’t stress yourself for me. Okay?” I hate that he is blaming himself for my terror. And I hate that I’m letting him do it. But I’d rather board the flight I took back to England a million times over than tell him about my nightmare.

“I’ll make it Skittle-flavored,” I offer to move away from these thoughts.

His lips lift in a true smile. “But I’m so attached to the cinnamon flavor of your first supplement. That’s why I changed my toothpaste.”

“It is?”

“Yes, it was all spearmint before you.”

I lean in and peck his lips. “Cinnamon then. But only because your mouth and I are back together.” I lie down and rest my head on his lap.

He chuckles and takes a picture of me, eyes shifting between the iPhone screen and my face. “What does a picture look like to you?” I ask him to distract myself from the odd sense of unease that creeps over me when he takes pictures. “Compared to your memory, I mean.”

He smirks. “The best analogy I have is the difference between a faded Xerox copy and a high-resolution photograph. Pictures are just copies; they lack the depth, the detail my mind absorbs from the moment.”

“And what does the original memory look like in your mind exactly?”

“Well, imagine pulling up that high-resolution image in Photoshop, and the app gives you options of filters to choose from. My memory works sort of like filters. I see you right now sharp and clear, but if you turn your head like this—like you were in Javier’s painting—a translucent filter falls over you, silver-white because he had made your skin look silver. So right this second, your skin looks like porcelain, shimmering with a silvery light. You take my breath away.”

He brushes his index finger over my jawline where he must see the silver veil while I marvel at the woman he paints, trying to grasp his mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I get to see his brain. Truly see it in ultrasound. “So, if I’m understanding this right, if you were to see me when I’m all wrinkly and old, you would still see the young silver pretty me?”

He smiles. “You’re never just pretty. But other than that detail, yes, even at eighty-five, you will have the youthful filter for me. I’d see the wrinkles, but Javier’s filter would light you up, fade them if you will.”

“Wow.”

A loud whistle shrieks through the air then, startling a lark out of my beech tree.

“ISA! AIDEN!” Javier calls from what sounds as far as the willows. “REG TELLS ME WE HAVE TO ANNOUNCE OURSELVES, WHICH IS DISGUSTING.”

Aiden chuckles, looking in the direction of the howl with something like indulgence.

“Speaking of the genius. He thinks he owes me, but I’m the one who owes him for the most beautiful thing in my life.”

Jumping Aiden now is out of the question with Reagan and Javier emerging on the garden path. Reagan is wearing the most spectacular emerald hat with an enormous peacock feather so tall that it flutters above Javier’s head, tickling his hair so that every few steps he swats at it like a fly. I meet her eyes for an update but she shakes her head slightly with a sad smirk. Bollocks. Maybe we need more aggressive measures.

“How was the Inn?” I ask them as they plop on the blanket with us, thoughtfully giving Aiden his space. I push toward them the few scones, jam, and clotted cream that survived Aiden’s appetite.

Dios, it’s like a different world. I’ve already sketched it. Speaking of, Aiden, how much do we owe you to stay there for the next two weeks?” Javier asks, while sniffing the clotted cream with a suspicious look.

“You don’t owe me anything. It’s already paid for.”

“Told you,” Reagan chimes while loading a morsel of scone with a dollop of cream.

“I know it’s paid for but we want to reimburse you,” Javier presses.

“You’re not reimbursing me.”

“What the fuck? Yes, we are.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, we are. You’ve done way too much for us, I can’t accept this.”

“I haven’t done nearly enough and yes, you can accept it.”

Javier looks at me completely bewildered. “Isa, help me with your man. Speak his language. He seems to be taking this whole do-the-opposite thing literally.”

Reagan giggles, and I with her. Aiden just looks calmly at Javier who stares at all of us like we belong at the Burford Dementia Centre.

“Javier, sweetheart, you don’t argue with Aiden about money,” I explain. “Or really about anything. It’s a terrible, terrible idea that never ends well for anyone. You would do better if you ask him ‘why’ questions.”

“Thanks for giving out trade secrets, love,” Aiden says next to me, but he is smiling.

“And you,” I turn to him and the smile drops. “You will do better if you explain your reasons to Javier so he understands where you’re coming from.”

They both blink at each other, while Reagan almost chokes from laughing.

“Fine,” Javier starts. “Aiden?”

“Javier.” Aiden inclines his head.

Why do you not want us to pay you for the Inn?”

“At least five reasons. First, you are Elisa’s family, and I never let family pay for anything. Second, you have become my friends independently of Elisa and, as Cal will tell you, my friends also never pay for anything. Third, I’d like you to save your money now that you have your green card so that you can invest in your future and begin your new life. Fourth, the price of the Inn is nothing to me for the value of having you near while Elisa and I have our privacy. And fifth, as I was recently telling her, I’m the one who owes you for bringing us together in the first place.” He looks at me with an expression like, ‘how did I do?’ I squeeze his fingers to tell him he did very well indeed.

Javier blinks a few more times, speechless—a common side effect when one first experiences Aiden in full form—and eventually finds some words. “Well . . . that . . . okay then.”

Reagan claps, still laughing. “Well done, boys. Personally, I don’t see why it’s so hard but I also speak Aidenish well by now. I’m not as fluent as Isa, but I can definitely converse.”

It’s Aiden who chuckles first—a soft chuckle, nothing like the belly laughs James gives him, but it’s a happy sound. They laugh together as Reagan provides a dictionary of Aidenisms that she has developed in her head. “Yes, ‘hm’ usually means ‘I heard you, have already thought about it, but no.’ ‘Mm’ means ‘interesting idea, and worth considering, but still no.’ ‘Huh’ means ‘stupid idea, definitely no’ and ‘huh-uh’ means ‘get out of my face or you’ll burn alive.’ And the worst part is, he’s usually right. How did I do, Aiden?”

“Huh.”

“Shit, I went too far.”

“Mm.”

“Oh, okay, then. See, Javi? It’s easy.”

I watch them banter this way—learning each other, finding their own frequency, easing into each other’s orbit—and their constellation becomes so radiant that for a moment I have to close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, as though imprinted on the retinas, they are still laughing in this garden, but Mum and Dad are also here, on the wrought iron bench where they used to sit, smiling at us. The image is so stunning that I can’t breathe or open my eyes. How can I lose all this again? Make us brave, keep us together.

“Isa, did you fall asleep over there?” Javier asks while Aiden takes my hand. I swear he is feeling my pulse.

“Are you all right?” His voice is immediately anxious.

“I’m better than all right. But I’d like to take you three somewhere. Are you up for it? It’s a bit of a walk, like everything around here.”

“Will this hat work?” Reagan asks in complete seriousness. “Or should I change?”

Javier shakes his head with a chortle. “No way, Reg. The peacock feather screams countryside.”

“Shut up, Javi,” she retorts but I know her eyes. She is in so deep that even the most innocent tease from Javier hurts.

“The hat is perfect.” I smile at her. “You never know, you may run into your David Gandy while you’re here.”

“Oh, my goodness!” She gasps, as though she had forgotten the entire existence of her favorite male model.

“David who?” Javier pipes up.

I wink at her and scurry to the garden shed, trying to marshal the vortex of emotion. I don’t recognize my insides. Everything is a contradiction. Deliriously happy and utterly terrified.  At peace while fighting my biggest war. In love and loathing everything that conspires against us. I rummage through the tool rack, tossing items into my camping rucksack and needing to get through the periodic table a couple of times to fight off tears. I can just imagine Aiden’s panic if he finds me here falling apart. And I’m not falling apart because I’m upset. I’m falling apart because apparently there is such a thing as too much love.

By the time I drag my rucksack back to them, Reagan has regained her smile while Aiden and Javier are debating how many years Feign will get in prison.

“If my sources are right, it will be at least ten,” Aiden says. “He’ll never bother you again . . . Fuck, let me carry that.” He stands when he sees me and grabs my rucksack, which rattles with a metallic clang. “What the hell is in it?”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s go.” I pick up one of the American Beauty seedlings I bought from the Plemmonses, saving the other one. He takes that, too, lest I strain my back from carrying a single rosebud in a plastic pot.

We set off across the fields, the four of us. The village of Burford has never seen a stranger group, of that I’m certain. Reagan leads the way with her peacock feather; Javier next to her with a pencil above each ear and a cross-body satchel full of sketchbooks; Aiden in a white T-shirt, Raybans, and jeans, too beautiful to belong on this planet, let alone in my village, carrying a rose and a rucksack that clamors and bangs loudly with his long strides; and me tripping every few steps because I can’t tear my eyes away from the three of them.

“Will we be walking through town or anywhere we might need Benson?” Aiden asks under his breath.

I hook my arm in his—it’s turned into granite again. “No, just open fields and air. And the occasional deer.”

The tension of his arm softens. “I hope some day we never have to worry about this again.”

H-o-p-e. “I don’t feel deprived of anything. Besides, town is overrated. What are men to rocks and mountains?” I quote Elizabeth Bennett like we once did in his library.

He chuckles and kisses my hair, shortening his stride to match mine. “It’s beautiful here,” he says after a while, eyes roaming the open fields brimming with wildflowers, the river gliding next to us, the rolling shamrock hills like the curves of some earth mother goddess protecting all life within its valleys.

I lean my head against his arm, imagining that his simple observation means more, fantasizing that he wants my little village to be a beautiful home for a beautiful man. He has not mentioned me returning to the U.S. and neither have I. What can we possibly say? We both know where I live is irrelevant if we lose this fight. It’s not a question we can ask until we know our fate. But I wonder if his unerring eyes see the way my heart twists at the idea of abandoning the cottage or Oxford again. Has his quick mind already sensed another deadly war ahead even if we survive this one? A war that could spread my organs across two continents like I’d be blown up by mortar fire: bits of heart here, sponges of lungs there, never whole, never at rest.

“So does Gandy visit where we’re going, Isa?” Reagan calls over her shoulder as we cut across another field, this one carpeted with daisies and forget-me-nots.

“Will somebody tell me who the hell we’re talking about?” Javier demands.

“He is an exemplar of male beauty, Javi. That’s all you need to know.”

Aiden slows down until we fall back a few steps. “So, how would you feel about these two together?”

I yank his arm to a full stop. “You know?” I whisper.

He shrugs. “Of course.”

“How did you find out? Reg barely admitted it to me!”

“I have eyes, Elisa. It’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Not for you, maybe. Javier hasn’t got a clue.”

He starts walking again, eyes on Javier’s back. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t think he’s willing to see.”

“Same difference. Meanwhile, Reg is in hell.”

“Yes, I recognize the symptoms. Give them time. They’ll figure it out.”

“I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Javier envisions a love life for himself at all.”

Aiden laughs. “Elisa, he’s a man. I guarantee you he envisions a love life. Whether he goes after it is a different question.”

“I’m starting to think he won’t though. He’s convinced himself he has nothing to offer. He’s almost as self-loathing as you.”

“You know what to do with these self-loathing men, Elisa?”

“What?”

“Add self-love.” He winks, his eyes instantly catching fire at the memory of our game.

I grip his arm. “Don’t joke about that right now. Please help me make Javier see.”

“What could I possibly do about it? The man has to want it, Elisa. And I can see his point to a degree. Wanting to build some security, to be able to provide for his family before he gets involved.”

“Reg doesn’t care about any of that.”

“But he does, my love. It’s important to him.”

“Are we still talking about Javier?”

He smiles with the dimple. “Yes, we are, but I understand him on this point. You and I have serious problems, but at least I’m able to protect you from everything except myself. That’s important to me and I’m certain it’s important to a traditional man like Javier.”

I watch Javier duck away from Reagan’s feather as she skips past him playing with a daisy.

“Trust me on this one,” Javier’s new comrade-in-arms insists. “Javier has to be ready on his own. And if you need more proof, I draw your attention to exhibit one.” He points at the center of his chest, in the exact counter-spot where the raw wound used to hurt me two days ago.

“But in the meantime Reg is hurting,” I argue. “And Javier would hurt too if he knew he is hurting her.”

Aiden sighs. “And you would hurt with them. All right, at least give him these two weeks. Maybe being in this romantic place will trigger something. And if not, I’ll help you. I have no fucking clue how, but I’ll try. Is that better?”

I grin at him, watching his lips lift into a mirroring smile. As unfathomable as Aiden’s mind is, there is a simple axiom at the very kernel of its existence: to protect me, he would do anything.

“You think this place is romantic?” I kiss the spot above his elbow where my lips reach—his golden skin is warm from the sun.

He laughs. “Don’t read too much into that. I also used to think a sand ditch in Iraq was romantic when I was writing your letters. So I’m not to be trusted with the concept.”

A fiery field of poppies ripples around us now. The flowers brush against Aiden’s jeans like Marilyn lips. I watch the soldier who believes he doesn’t understand romance step carefully not to crush the blooms. Then I watch the man who doesn’t need photographs snap a selfie of the two of us parting the poppy sea. And despite the ice trickling down my neck at the camera’s click, I smile. Because this is the kernel of my existence: for him to see himself clearly, I would do anything.

We leave the poppy field behind and I lead them up the hill. For a while speaking becomes difficult from the climb and, in my case, from what the hill means.

“I’m very curious to see where you’re taking us,” Aiden says in perfectly even tone, despite carrying a rucksack full of metal, while the rest of us are huffing and puffing.

“We’re almost there.”

As I say the words, however, a current of panic courses through me. Was this a good idea for Aiden? Will it trigger anything? I stumble at the thought but he catches me gently at the elbow. “Careful, love.”

“How are you feeling?” I ask him.

He frowns at my sudden question. “As I always do with you. Calm. Why?”

“Just checking.”

I hesitate where I am—wanting this deeply, but also wanting only happy memories for him. Javier and Reagan stop with us, clutching their sides. I contemplate turning around, but then, right above us, a beam of sun breaks over the summit. A single, brilliant ray like a halo over the crest. It blinds me to everything else, even the three people next to me, and I start climbing in a trance, as though the beam is a gravitational string made of the most dazzling starlight, pulling me to the peak. I can’t hear Aiden, Javier, or Reagan behind me—I can’t hear anything. Just Mum’s voice crooning like in our home movies, “keep going, Elisa.”  My feet gather speed like last time and I break into a run. The wind flings my hair, the sun blinds my eyes, but I’m air. Just air trying to float to the heavens above. Then with one leap, I’m on the tiny crest meadow.

Under the cypress tree, the white marble tombstone glimmers and sparkles like always. And, as always, I can’t breathe.

Aiden reaches me in a blink. I know because even though my eyes are fixed on the shimmery grave, I sense his presence like a shield right next to me. It blasts away the chills, releases my lungs, and fortifies my knees. He doesn’t speak, but he wraps his strong arm around my shoulders, holding me up, standing so close that I only have to tilt my head and it leans on him. And all the grief, all this implacable loss, all this anguish are also now resting on him, on his iron shoulders carrying this sorrow with me. The agony splits by half so my knees don’t give out like they did when I last came here. My body doesn’t break into dry sobs. And my voice doesn’t disappear. I can stand, I can breathe, I can form thought, even if I can’t speak.

Javier and Reagan appear to my right. I feel Reagan’s hand on my hair and Javier’s fingers around mine. And the climbing roses on the marble flutter with the breeze. Hello.

“Hello,” I whisper back.

The rose buds have now opened into white miniature rosettes, each like a smile, flittering with a “come here” gesture. It releases my feet and I walk to the tomb on my own power. The roses sway when I reach them. I notice our four shadows fall over the sparkling stone, the tallest right next to me. Below the roses, on the marble is the vial of dried rose and Aiden’s dog tags that I last left here. I can’t blink away from my parents’ names to look at him. I test the words in my mouth before I speak. They’re there, I just have to breathe.

“Mum, Dad,” I tell them even though I know they cannot hear. “This is Aiden . . . and Reagan and Javier.”

The rosettes wave.

The first sound registers in my ears. Reagan’s sniffle. I watch her shadow remove the hat, Javier’s shadow pat her shoulder, and Aiden’s shadow pull mine close, his arms folding around me until our two shadows become one that looks like a distorted heart.

Other sounds enter then. Aiden’s strong heartbeat, thudding fast like mine. The warble of the lark that lives in the cypress tree. The whoosh of the hilltop wind. And more words come.

“This place is where they had their first date,” I say, noticing my voice is not a whisper anymore, just a quiet key.

“It’s beautiful,” all three of them answer in unison.

“The four of us are the only ones alive who know that.”

None of them says anything but strangely it’s as though their silence finally allows me to talk in this place. Actually talk. “Everyone in town thought I had gone mental insisting they rest here, away from everything. Of course, I was mental so they gave in to me. I think it turned out well. I think they like this.”

“Of course they do,” says Reagan.

“I brought them something this time. This American Beauty rose from all of us. Will you help me plant it here?”

And they do. I hear Aiden unzip the rucksack, no doubt realizing the racket inside was a hand spade and shovel, a large stainless steel water bottle, and a bag of enriched dirt.  We start then—all four of us together. Javier’s callused hands, Reagan’s delicate alabaster ones, Aiden’s strong fingers, and mine that look exactly like Mum’s. We dig the small hole in the grass at the foot of the marble, and I lower the seedling into it, covering its delicate roots with dirt and watering it. We use the rest of the water to wash our hands. In the end, the little seedling sways in the breeze.

“Want to sit here for a while?” I invite them, eyes still on the stone. “I know it’s strange but . . . it’s the only time I’ve actually been able to truly visit.”

As one, they sink on the grass around the seedling with me. After a while, we start chatting, not an involved conversation—just bits of thought and feeling. Javier draws a rough sketch of the cottage and tucks it with the rose vines. Reagan digs her favorite British toffee out of her purse and places it on the marble. And Aiden opens his wallet and takes out a familiar strip of waxy paper—“Love me for love’s sake only”—the very first quote Baci chocolates gave him on our embargo day. To my utter shock, a smile finds me here. He has kept it all this time and now secures it under the vial of his dog tags and dried rose.

I look up at his face, recalling my fear of whether this would trigger bad memories for him. But he is entirely here with me, from his tender eyes to his hands like strongholds around my waist. And this moment will live on in him, with every pixel of ache and beauty.

“This isn’t a happy memory for you,” I say.

“It’s better than that. It’s precious.”

“I’m sorry about the dog tags. I was trying to leave you behind. You should have them back.” I try to get out of his hold but his arms tighten around me like a fortress.

“Don’t think about that now. Let them stay here, in this special place with your parents. Hopefully that part of me will be at rest, too.”

H-o-p-e again. I look at the seedling, feeling something germinate in my lungs and wind up my throat like the rose’s tendril. It’s a singular, curious sensation—like a tickle, wrapped in warmth, swarming with butterflies. Light like a breeze, yet mighty too, as though it could parachute me straight up. I try to understand what it is. Sunrays shatter into millions of crystals around the epitaph: “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Love conquers all. And I find a name for the tendril. Odd that I should find it here in this place with so much pain, loss, and time long gone. A place of so many four-letter words.

“I hope it does,” I answer Aiden a little late. Here, by my most tragic loss, H-O-P-E joins my side. Or perhaps I join it.

The way back down the hill is easier. Not just physically, but emotionally too. So different than the two other times I’ve stumbled down this trail. By the time we’ve reached the open fields again, I feel light—like the tendril of hope is parachuting me above ground.

“Feeling a little better?” Aiden asks as we stroll across the poppy field back to the cottage.

“Yes. I actually feel happy in an odd way. Everyone I love now has met each other.”

I smile at Reagan picking poppies ahead of us, while Javier opines that she should balance out the red only with dark grass. To which she replies, “you should balance out your dark grass with red.”

“Good one, Reg,” I cheer for her under my breath as she fluffs her flame of red curls. But her euphemism flies right over Javier’s raven-black waves.

“Elisa?” Aiden pulls me by the elbow. I look up at him, tripping to a stop not because of his gentle hold, but because of his face. It’s always stunning but there are some moments, like right now, when it looks surreal.

“Yes?” I breathe.

“How would you feel about meeting my parents?”

Can one trip while standing perfectly frozen? Seems like I can. “What?”

He smiles patiently, giving me time to process.

“Are you serious?”

“Very.”

“B-but . . . they’re in Portland.” Of all the thoughts scrambling in my brain, this is the one my mouth picks.

He chuckles. “Elisa, to meet you, they’d swim over, let alone take a flight.”

“They know about me?” Maybe I should sit down, if I could move.

“They do. I told them after you left when I asked them to shelter the Solises.”

He gives me another moment to process, which is good because I need it. Aiden has isolated his parents since he attacked his mother when he returned from Iraq twelve years ago. Our conversation about this during the drive to his Alone Place might as well be blaring through foghorns over the poppy field. He doesn’t see them—only speaks to them occasionally by phone or other safe methods of communication that do not expose them to his startle reflex and him to the excruciating memory of hurting his own mum.

“I . . . I didn’t realize you’re reconnecting with them,” I manage. “That’s wonderful, Aiden.”

He shrugs with a small smile. “You told me I can’t shut them out. You said someday they will be gone and nothing will be able to take my grief away.” He quotes my words verbatim, of course.  “I thought a lot about that after you left. And then seeing you just now, how close you still are to your parents even though they have passed, made me think you’re right about this too, like you have been about a lot of things.”

I stare at him, unable to voice all the emotion inside. When I still can’t speak, he continues. “I know it makes no practical sense for you to meet each other now if in eighty-nine days you and I . . .” His eyes fall on the immediate goose bumps that sprout on my arms and he rubs them gently. “But somehow that makes it even more important that you meet. That we try this normal life thing to the fullest.”

Finally my brain is able to string together the biggest question—the one that is ruling them all. “Do you want me to meet them? Or is this for me . . . or Corbin?”

“All three. I find that I want you to know them, and them you. I want them to meet the woman I love, no matter what happens in the end. I really haven’t given them many moments of joy in life as a son should. And I might never be able to, except this time with you.”

Except now—this present moment we may never get again.

“And I suppose I thought you would want this, too,” he adds. “To meet everyone we love. Do you?”

His question—as though he still cannot believe I would want every speck of him, let alone such a core part—releases my words. “Of course I do, Aiden. I’d love to meet your parents. I just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, not because you feel you have to do it for me.”

The dimple winks in his cheek, lifting his beautiful mouth into a moon of a smile. “This is the right thing for me. You’re teaching me that—you take these memories in life, no matter how ugly and you make them beautiful. I guess I want to do the same.”

“Well then,” I take his hand in both of mine as I did yesterday. “Let’s welcome your parents.”

He laughs with that pure waterfall sound. “Really?”

“Yes, really.”

He runs his hand through his hair, looking around like he wishes someone was close to hear this. But Reagan and Javier are in the distance, plopped under the shade of an enormous oak, waiting for us. Aiden laughs again. “Fuck, I better give a heads-up to my mother’s cardiologist. She might need him.”

He tucks my arm in his and we start walking again. His step is quicker, lighter somehow.

“So when would they come?” I ask, nerves already starting to creak. How will it be meeting the genetic forces that created Aiden? What do they think of our experiment? Of their only son being in this far-flung village, thousands of miles away in another fight for his future, maybe even life?

“Well, if it were up to my mother, they’d get here tomorrow. But I was thinking it might be better after Reagan and Javier leave, so you can have something to look forward to. That way, we’ll also have family and friends around for about half of the summer.”

The easier half. He knows neither of us will be in any shape for company during the second half as the ninety days run out. “Very thoughtful.”

“What’s that in your voice? Are you nervous?”

“A little bit.”

He laughs. “Don’t worry—I’ll keep my mother in check.”

“No, don’t. She must miss you so much. Let this be special for her too,” I tell him, unable to ask my hardest question. But his inconveniently observant eyes have already seen it.

“So if that’s not worrying you, what is?” He tips up my face so I can look into his eyes and, on cue, the question blurts out.

“What do your parents think about us being together? With everything we have to overcome, I mean.” With how much there is at stake if we don’t, I add in my head. He must hear the unspoken part too because the tectonic plates shift in his eyes as he retrieves his answer.

“I won’t lie, they’re worried. Worried about both you and me if I were to . . . again. But they’re also ecstatic that I’ve found someone who has given me a reason to fight and take care of my health. So I’d describe it as joyful terror. A bit like us.”

Oddly his words make me smile despite the f-e-a-r. Because it’s similar to the reaction I see in Javier’s and Reagan’s eyes. And it’s the same reaction Mum and Dad would have had, of that I’m certain. Desolately terrified and deliriously happy—unable to help us with anything but their love. Could our families’ unconditional and undying love be a weapon? Could it help Aiden and me in the same mystical way that Für Elise does—ways science can’t explain because they’re written in the stars?

“And if you’re also nervous about whether my parents will like you—although I cannot imagine your brain forming such a ridiculous thought—of course they will. How could they not?” adds the man who literally has Javier’s magic filter over my face.

“Hmm,” is the only answer I give him.

“Is that an Aidenism?”

“Definitely.”

He laughs, clueless that my brain is more than capable of such questions. Will they like me? What do they think of their son falling for someone with her own trauma? Someone who lives so far away? Someone who—if they knew the full truth—believed their son to be such a monster that she left him and wasted his one million dollars?  But none of my insecurities matter in this bigger constellation we are charting. They’re trivial compared to the brightest thing: Aiden is letting more love in his life.

“All right, tell me more about your parents. Robert and Stella. Tell me everything.”

“Well, this is their last year before retirement . . .” he starts as we make our way to Reagan and Javier. I listen to every word, picking some wilted poppies. No reason to end the young, pretty ones. But wilted poppies have their own beauty too. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, but their swan necks have their own grace—they have survived the wind.

With each withered bloom, I tick off our new list of allies and weapons: our love, Aiden’s strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love if we can grow it, our families, the team of scientists, these mystical gifts from our stars—my calming effect from Javier’s genius, the protein from Dad, and Für Elise from Mum—and now H-O-P-E. Will they be enough for the unfathomable enemy before us, lurking, waiting to strike? Because strike it will.

“Why are you picking only the dead ones?” Aiden asks looking at the eleven wilted poppies I’ve collected.

“They’re not dead. They’re wise.”

He laughs again, and I listen to the sound floating free over the poppy field with the gentle breeze. I add a twelfth withered poppy—laughter has to be a weapon too.

“You two look like you belong in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Jane Austen novel,” Reagan grins when we reach the two of them under the oak tree.

“Shakespeare was an idiot,” I respond.

All three of them lecture me about my issues with the overrated fool all the way home. But they did not hear the chilling whisper that deafened my ears despite my bouquet of allies and the tendril of hope: these violent delights and have violent ends.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 14 – SLEEP

Hi all,

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

 

14

Sleep

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.”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Behind me.”

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.”

“Perfect.”

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.

“Anything.”

“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.

These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

Which, as they kiss, consume.

Shakespeare was a fellow idiot. I’ll stick with science, not literature, thank you very much. I toss my hair and the idiot’s rubbish lines with it. Present moment, Aiden would tell me now if he wasn’t sleeping beautifully, deeply, miraculously, trustingly next to me. And my present moment is made of cinnamon puffs of happiness, blowing gently on my skin. One puff, two, three . . . one thousand.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 13 – OPEN

Hey gang, new chapter for you! It has one of my favorite scenes in it, wonder if you’ll like it as well.  Thanks as always for reading and writing to me–love hearing from you. I had some questions about whether Aiden & Elisa’s story will be finished in this book. Yes, it will–their love was always going to be two books. I think after you read the ending, you will agree. 🙂 Lots of love, and hope you’re having a great week. xo, Ani

13

Open

Three simultaneous things wake me up: a buzz from a phone, a feeling of electricity on my skin, and a soft chuckle. Aiden. I don’t need to open my eyes to know he is real this time. His smell, his arms caging me protectively on top of his sculpted body still on the floor of his hotel room are more perfect than any dream I can muster.

“Welcome back,” he says, sensing me awake, his fingers trailing along my spine. His deep sultry drawl brings back a deluge of memories about everything that just happened on this floor, and electricity flurries everywhere from my toes to my matted hair.

“Mmm, have I been out long?”

“Just your usual post-orgasm coma. You even snored this time—the cutest little snore.” He chuckles again. A wave of blush must burn even his skin because he brushes his fingertips over my cheek. “I’ve missed your blush, but I don’t see what you have to be embarrassed about. I love that I can knock you fast asleep like your piano piece does with me. It’s good to know we have at least that effect in common.”

Everything inside me opens at his words—arteries, veins, airways—and abruptly I feel like my air, my blood flow, my heartbeat have doubled. Living twice: once for me, once for this dream of sleeping next to him. A dream so powerful, so forbidden that it sings for me like a siren song, always beaconing, never reaching. Until now.

“Are you okay?” He tips up my face to examine me. Can he hear my heart thundering?

“Is it tonight?” The words come out as a whisper, as though my voice already wants us to be asleep.

He understands what I mean immediately. I can tell from the way his eyes move with years of fear and practiced self-denial. “Elisa, love, I . . . can’t bear the idea of hurting you. We haven’t tested it with anyone in bed with me, let alone with anyone who affects me as you do. Can’t we wait the ninety days to see where we land?”

“But Corbin has given us the plan for sleeping. He wouldn’t suggest it if he thought it would be dangerous.”

“Corbin admits he can’t make guarantees. What if he is wrong about the sleep part? I can’t take that chance with you. Do you have the faintest idea of what you mean to me?”

“I know what you mean to me. And you’re not supposed to think of what-ifs. We have to live in the present moment. We have to do the opposite.”

“And we will with everything else. We’ll spend time with Javier and Reagan, we’ll go out, do whatever you want to do while I’m awake and can control myself. But we can’t do the opposite with your safety.”

“You won’t hurt me in your sleep. I don’t think you’re capable of it after what we’ve been through.”

But I’m losing him with arguments. The jaw is starting to flex. “Elisa, do we need a detailed review of everything that happened two weeks ago? I’m still the same man who . . . ” He shudders. “Nothing has changed yet.”

“That was different. I triggered your reflex while you were awake. This time you’ll have your medicine and you’ve never been able to sleep as deeply before Für Elise, you said so yourself.”

“Exactly. We don’t know. It’s too risky for you.” His hands turn into fists at the small of my back.

I give up reasoning and try my best weapon. “Please, Aiden. It’s all I want. I want it so much it hurts.”

I hate the torture that strikes in his eyes at my words. They tear asunder in conflict between never being able to resist what I want and always wanting to save me. But those are not the rules anymore. And he knows it. I watch as the battle slowly resolves and his side loses. He nods once as though he cannot bring himself to say the word, “yes.”

I cannot speak with the way my lungs are bursting; it feels like my ribs are cracking with the purest form of happiness. So I kiss him, pouring all my words into my lips, feeling his warm cinnamon breath washing over my face. He kisses me back just as urgently, as I knew he would. “Isn’t there a small part of you that is happy about this?” I finally manage when I can breathe again.

He brushes his knuckles along my jawline. “You can never know.”

His phone buzzes again, breaking the spell. But I hug this little victory tight in my mind, hide it deep inside my heart where it will beat with me all day until tonight.

“Javier and Reagan are awake. They’re asking for you.”

“Yes!” I bolt up. “Let’s go see them right now. Oh bloody hell, my hair!”

His lips lift in the smile I love best. “It is beyond all description.” And to my surprise, he snaps a photo of it with his phone.

“Aiden, don’t! It’s ridiculous.”

He chuckles. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up.”

As soon as we are vertical, the full extent of the devastation we have caused with our big bang becomes apparent. My old pajamas are in shreds. One of my wellingtons is on the dresser where it has kicked down a crystal vase of spray roses, the other is nowhere to be seen. My torn knickers are dangling from the chandelier. The buttons of his jeans are everywhere, including in his hair. One of his Timberland boots is on the bed, the other on one of his suitcases, which has collapsed open onto the floor. The nightstand has dragged away sideways from the wall exactly where he was pinning down my wrists. The lamp on it is knocked over, my picture frame too.

“Thank heavens this survived,” Aiden says, sauntering in nothing but flawless golden skin to the nightstand and straightening my frame. The sight of him, especially after my victory, makes me want to demolish the room some more, but I have bigger problems.

“Umm, I might have to wear your clothes back to the cottage. It’s going to scandalize the whole town, not to mention Javier.”

His eyes sparkle. “I’d never allow such infamy. I brought you your clothes.”

“My clothes?”

“Yes, all my gifts that you left behind—the dresses, Powell’s books. I couldn’t bear to keep them.”

Really? They’re here?”

He smiles at my obvious delight. “In that big duffel over there.” How could I have ever left them? Abruptly I miss them so much. “I need a woman minute,” I tell him, rushing for the restroom to clean up as soon as possible so I can wear his gifts. His chuckle follows me like a shadow.

The restroom is domed, like the spired roof of the Inn, complete with a console sink, a bidet, and a shower over a claw-foot tub. I try to clean up quickly but it’s a lost battle.

“Are you done with your woman minute yet?” Aiden knocks at the door. “It’s been twelve and I miss you.”

I wrench the door open to let him in. “Look at me! The mud won’t come off.”

He really tries not to laugh but it bursts from his lips. “Here, I’ll help you. Mine is a mess too.”

Under the hot shower stream with him running his fingers through my hair, it’s impossible not to recall that first shower I took in England two weeks ago, trying to wash him and all of America off. But this time, almost fused to each other in the tiny tub, it’s as though we are washing off the last two weeks together. He scrubs my strands gently and I shampoo his hair, rivulets of mud, tears, distance all draining away with the soap bubbles. And although we can’t wash off the terror still lining our insides, I feel lighter, stronger—as if his touch is flooding me with oxytocin. Which it probably is.

“Fuck, it won’t leave your scalp!” Aiden is doing battle with the mountain of foam on my head, the V etched deep between his eyebrows. It takes fifteen minutes and all twenty of our fingers for the water to run completely clear. But at least his hair and skin are glistening with droplets like a million diamonds are trying and failing to outshine him. A few drops peck his lips like kisses, but those lips are mine. I reach on my tiptoes for his mouth. He gives everything to me, like always. The familiar static gathers on my skin as though the water is vaporizing from the heat within. But he pulls away right as he starts to turn into gold-plated titanium in my hands.

“We’re never leaving this bathroom if we don’t stop exactly now.”

“Fine. Tell me about Rostóv again. I need him.”

Rostóv has made it to his Moscow family home by the time I open the giant duffel back of my gifts. And then I don’t need Rostóv anymore. Because inside, rolled so precisely he could only have packed them himself, are all the dresses he gave me except the one that was torn during the attack. And all my lingerie. And my graduation trainers engraved with Byron’s “She Walks In Beauty” line. I put on the gray sheath I wore when we went to the rose garden in Portland during the daytime—that was a good day. Then I slide on the trainers, convinced my toes and the fabric are hugging each other.

“I’m ready,” I say to the Adonis next to me in a fresh white shirt over a pair of jeans. But he is hiding something behind his back with a grin.

“I think something is missing,” he answers.

“What is it?” I try to peek, but he shifts, blocking the mystery from view. “Show me!” I try again but he is too fast.

“You have to solve the clue first: if you gave me all the kisses in the world, they would still be too few.”

“Baci!” I squeal and throw myself at him. It’s the quote the chocolates gave me the very first time I introduced Baci to him on our embargo day. He laughs and hands me a big box of them. “There are exactly ninety,” he says. “I counted them myself.”

“Ninety,” I whisper, caressing the clear lid through which the silver-wrapped chocolates are twinkling. Last time he gave me thirty of them accidentally before he even knew about my thirty days. But this time he knows the deadline. And he didn’t dare to buy one more. D-a-r-e. Keep us together, make us brave.

“Have one,” he says. “Let’s see what they start us with this time.”

I wrestle with the lid but he takes it back from me and opens it lest I die from a paper cut. I reach for one with closed eyes, willing it to be positive, and read the waxy little note:

“If love be rough with you, be rough with love.”

“That sounds inspiring for our fight,” I say, looking up at him. “It says it’s from Shakespeare, but I don’t recognize the line.”

“Romeo and Juliet,” he murmurs.

If he feels the chill that whips through me, he does not say anything. Don’t be silly, I tell myself. It’s just your fear. Make us safe, make us brave. But the goose bumps are not leaving.

“You pick another.” I tell him quickly, my own naked Baci completely forgotten.

He smiles—am I imagining the kiss of melancholy at the corner of his mouth? “You know, it’s probably because we’re not doing your ritual with the apples,” he says as he unwraps his. I hold my breath.

“‘Love that moves the sun and other stars,’” he reads. “Whew! Thank you, Dante.”

As though Dante’s sun leaps straight out of the waxy note to beam down on me, the goose bumps disappear. This is ours. Haven’t I been thinking about stars and constellations?

“Seems more consistent with the big bang.” Aiden winks with that uncanny way he has of guessing my thoughts. I take his chocolate and shove it my mouth.

“I choose this one,” I mumble, my mouth full.

“No contest.” He hurls the Romeo and Juliet one on the paper bin and brings his mouth to mine, melting the chocolate together until it is all gone.

Downstairs in the lobby, James and Benson are playing chess on the sofa. Benson is ahead by two moves but stands when he sees us.

“Where to, sir?” he asks Aiden.

“Just to Elisa’s for now. Did we get the EBIDTA reports?” They start talking about Aiden’s work at the concierge desk that Benson must have transformed into a mobile command center in the last couple of hours. I take advantage of their distance to perch on the armchair next to James. He grins. “Well, look’s who neither drenched nor muddy.”

I smile. “I told him, by the way.”

“I figured. Better you than me.”

“I don’t think I ever thanked you properly. If you hadn’t been there…” I shiver at my recklessness. “Well, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Why didn’t you tell him, James? I’m grateful you didn’t, but I’m curious.” I lower my voice as much as possible to still be audible. He looks at Aiden still at the desk and, above the thick ginger beard, his eyes age in a way Aiden’s do sometimes.

“He’s my brother, Elisa. I know he’s told you about Iraq. Well, he saved my life, he saved all of us except . . . Marshall. And you know what that’s done to him. All of us would give our lives to save him if we could.” His eyes flash back at me, and I see the human sniper Aiden mentioned. “But it sounds like you might be able to. So why didn’t I tell him? Because I couldn’t bring myself to add anymore to the hell he was in. I’ve only seen Storm that fucked up twice. Once after Fallujah, once at the cabin after he had left you. And then he got the call from Benson that you were gone. I don’t know what you were doing that night, but it would have killed my brother if something had happened to you.”

I can’t find the words to respond. They’re lodged with tears I can’t spill here.

“I’ll ask this once,” James whispers so low I can barely hear him, his sniper eyes still on Aiden—he doesn’t seem to need to blink as much as most humans. “Were you trying to hurt yourself, Elisa? Is that why you jumped into the river?”

And I understand then. I understand the deepest, darkest reason why he kept this from his brother. “No, James. I swear to you I was not. I was just stupid and had experimented with a very strong sleeping aid that I concocted myself. I’d never do that to him. I love him.”

I see relief spread over his eyes even though they haven’t left Aiden once. But they zoom on me now and, in that laser gaze, I know he believes me. “Then we’ll never speak of this again.”

Aiden strides to us seconds later. “Plotting how to keep more secrets from me?”

James barks a laugh. “Not this time. After serious consideration, Elisa and I have decided we both value our lives too much to fuck with you again.”

“How long are you staying, James?” I ask, wondering if I have time to know him more and see Aiden around a friend. It must be so good for him.

“Oh, I’m leaving tomorrow. Hendrix and Jazz are flying over and we’ll fish River Spey in Scotland for a while, courtesy of your man.”

“So soon.” I force a smile. “Will you be going?” I ask Aiden, my voice breaking despite my effort to appear calm and collected. He gives me a look that says verbatim “how hard did you hit your head on that floor?”

“No, I’m on partial leave from work and everything else except you,” he says in a tone that confirms the version in my head. “But don’t worry, Cal and the others will stop by before they head stateside. You can meet them all then.”

Yes! That’s brilliant!” I have wanted to meet his friends since the very first time he mentioned them on our second embargo day.

They laugh at my excited tone. I see Benson coming our way though and whisper quickly to James, “Knight to E-3.” His eyes widen, as he traces the chess move that will get him out the checkmate Benson has set up for him.

“Told you,” Aiden says to him with his “this is Gary Kasparov” tone and takes me by the hand. “Let’s go. You can say goodbye to Cal tonight.”

“Actually, I’ll walk with you. I need to pick up some cigars for the trip.”

But all our smiles vanish and we freeze on the inn’s threshold. The shops are now open and people are littering Ivy Lane. Fewer than Portland’s streets, but even one person in danger is too many. Tension snaps back around Aiden’s shoulders, petrifying them into granite slabs under his crisp white shirt. The ripples jolt all way down to his hand clenched around mine. He looks taller, forbidding, indestructible—as he always does when he feels most vulnerable. For a breathless moment, he locks eyes with the narrow alley, memorizing each shop, door, passerby, bench, flowerpot, cobblestone—engraving it in his mind, calculating and anticipating every outcome—all for the simple, beautiful purpose of protecting it.

It lasts only seconds to anyone who might be watching—just a beautiful man holding hands with an awed woman, heading out of their inn. But to the three of us who know what this costs him—know it, yet still not fathom it—it’s endless. With each ripple of his muscles, I want to say, “let’s just stay here in our little bubble, in the bliss of your arms.” But I bite my tongue so hard, I taste blood. Because he needs all my confidence in him right now.

Aiden looks at me then, his eyes searching my jawline that gives him the most calm.

“Let’s go do the opposite,” he says, donning his Raybans. And he takes the first step onto the street.

The next several steps are hard. As the passersby zig-zag to make room for us entering the lane, Aiden’s vigilance sweeps over us like a shield. An elder gentleman brushes past him, and I stifle my gasp. But a fraction of a second before the near-contact, Aiden shifts slightly away, his mind having already anticipated the move. Then a little boy on a green bike shoots toward us but, again, seconds before he enters our radius, Aiden steps fluidly out of the path. “Mum!” a little girl screams, making three of us jump, but not Aiden. He simply tilts his head as though he had expected her cry before being howled. I watch in awe as his impossible mind powers us through in an elegant, nearly invisible dance of hunt and save.

“Damn, Storm!” James says behind us in similar wonder.

Aiden doesn’t respond, but takes my hand and tucks it into his granite arm. I know he means, “stay close.” And I do. I lean my head against the stone of his bicep and feel it soften, mold to my shape, granite giving in to silk.

It gets a little easier then. Not because of my effect, though. Because of his. As we walk further down the lane and the passersby register Aiden’s presence, his beauty is so intense for Burford, so very clearly not from around here, that they instinctively give him a wide, admiring berth, stunned into general paralysis like me. Especially the female of the species, although some men as well.

“That’s interesting,” Aiden says, clearly not having factored the mind-numbing effect of his own beauty in his vast calculations at all. “Must be a Burford thing. People give you a lot more space and move slower, too. That’s good. I didn’t expect that.”

I can’t stop my giggle on time. He looks at me and, even behind the Raybans, I can tell he is thinking I’ve lost my mind to be laughing at such a juncture. “I don’t think it’s Burford, Aiden. I think it’s you. You’ve incapacitated the entire female population on this street. Why, Mrs. Willoughby just walked into that street lamp over there.”

His head flies up toward Mrs. Willoughby as though she might be an incoming missile. Which would be entirely possible if she wasn’t frozen, ogling our direction. Aiden clears his throat. “I don’t think this is the appropriate moment for us to be fucking around, Elisa. Head in the game.”

James chuckles behind us. “I think Elisa’s got a point, Storm. That dude at ten o’clock just tripped. Just come out dick first next time. Problem solved.”

That’s too much for me. Laughter explodes through my lips, drowned by Benson’s and James’ booming barks. Aiden does not dignify our laugh with any response whatsoever. But I know behind the Raybans, his eyes are sweeping the street with this new lens, no doubt noticing every stare, every mouth popped open, every stumble. Noticing it and entirely overwriting it. His Raybans turn on me.

“You find it amusing that the poor unsuspecting folk of your hometown find a violent madman attractive, Elisa?”

“I don’t know the madman you’re referring to, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one you have this effect on.”

Where dick jokes didn’t make him smile, my words do. Or maybe it’s because we have reached the end of Ivy Lane and the field of epiphanies stretches ahead with no passersby or admirers of any kind lurking in the grass.

“Well, I’m off for my cigars. Benson, wanna grab a beer? I don’t think Storm needs us anymore. He’s too pretty.”

Aiden laughs, tension draining out of him now that it’s over. “You’re not my type, Cal. How often do I have to tell you?”

“Why would you say that? Just because I don’t have purple eyes and black hair?”

“That’s exactly why.”

“Come on, Benson, let’s see if Mrs. Willoughby is interested. See you lovebirds later.”

“Thanks you two,” I tell them, and we both watch them stroll easily back up Ivy Lane. Aiden gazes at the road he just walked over blistering torments of torture, coals of capture, and flames of bystander gazes for me. For us. And I think, this is Dante, not Romeo. It has to be.

“What is it?” he asks, noticing my stare or drool.

“Take off your glasses. I miss your eyes.”

He makes a show of removing them dutifully and tucking them in his shirt but I miss it. Because the blue depths are shining with this other victory—so miniscule to everyone else, so significant to us. I take his face in my hands.

“I’m so proud of you,” I tell him and kiss him with the full force of my words. He responds so enthusiastically that we stumble backwards into the field. And his kiss does what it always does—cancels everything but the taste of him, the feel of his mouth that he has only ever shared with me. Each time our tongues dance and our lips brush they tattoo a new memory in his mouth. A memory that is ours alone.

The walk back to the cottage is a breeze after that. Just open space and us. His shoulders sway with his natural grace. His laughter is easier too—cascading over the field of epiphanies, the arched bridge, the trail along the river. Every so often, he snaps a picture of me with his phone. And despite his smile and the high of the day, I don’t understand why the camera click feels like an icy flick against my skin.

“Why do you take pictures of me?” I ask him as he captures me showing him where I camped. “You don’t need them. You never took them before.”

He takes another one of me twirling a blade of grass, and the ice pinches me again, but he doesn’t answer.

“Aiden? Tell me.”

“I want you forever in every way I can have you,” he shrugs, not meeting my eyes.

He doesn’t have to. I know what he means. Forever in paintings, memories, pictures. In case we fail. In case we don’t win. How can I deny him that, no matter how many ice crystals just broke through my skin?

“Present moment, love,” he says, as if he saw every ice pick. “We have to capture it.”

“Present moment,” I repeat.

But the present moment eludes us both when he spies the river boulder that nearly drowned me. He recognizes it immediately from my description. His fists alone could pulverize it into fine sand. How different it looks to me now after James’s words and Aiden’s terror for me. Instead of a foolish stunt, its rounded black curve seems gravelike. A sinister tombstone or the hunchback of an evil sorceress lurking below. It would have killed him, James said. Perhaps it’s the conviction of his voice, or allowing myself to look at this spot that almost ended us both, or perhaps it’s the ice of the camera clicks, but Romeo and Juliet feel closer than Dante now. My life and Aiden’s are entwined by fate and circumstance like two nerves threaded inside a heart chamber. Cut one, and you cut the other. The river laps at the boulder like a dark prophecy. Neither survives if the other dies. Neither dies if the other lives.

Aiden’s hand wraps around my waist, and he leads us away from the boulder toward the cottage. Maybe he needs to get away from this spot as much as I do.

“Do you want to hear four things that will make you smile?” he asks as the boulder’s sickly lapping sound fades.

“Please.”

He tips up my face. “Cal was there, we are here, it’s been a good day, and tonight you get to take my sleep virginity. I hope you’ll be gentle.”

It works immediately. I giggle at the same time that tears spring in my eyes because he is right. Tonight is still coming. Tonight he will be mine exactly as I’ve always wanted.

“I love the giggle but not the tears,” he says. “Now tell me, what kind of dreams do you think we will have on our first night? The only rule is no sleepwalking allowed.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep at all. I’ll probably just watch you the whole time.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure you pass out. The more knocked out you are, the safer.”

I giggle again. Leave it to Aiden to turn even sex into a safety measure. “How will you manage that with Javier and Reagan? Javier might have an aneurism.”

“I’m working on that part.”

“Have you really never slept with anyone before? Even before Iraq?”

He kisses the top of my head. “Of course not. I never kissed on the mouth before you, but you think I stuck around and spent the night?”

“Why not?”

“Because if I have to remember something forever, it better be something I absolutely love.”

Like us. All his other conquests don’t matter, even if he still remembers them perfectly. The most intimate part of Aiden—his sleep—will belong only to the two of us.

By the time the cottage’s rose-covered roof appears, the boulder is far away and Romeo and Juliet’s quote feels like just another poetry line again, as though the cottage is a counter-curse, folding us within the protective charm of its rose magic. I feel abruptly safer, more carefree—like I always felt here as a child. Everything shifts away as I grasp the present moment: Aiden is coming to my home.

“Let’s do this the way I used to when I was little,” I say.

He smiles with the dimple. “Right behind you.”

We creep up to the guard of willows that susurrate as always. “Listen,” I whisper. “What words can you make out?”

He plays along, straining his ear against the trunks with me under the dense emerald canopy of the garlands. Shhhhhh, shhhhhh.

Wishes?” he asks, cupping his ear.

Wishes! “I love that! I’ve never heard that in the leaves before.”

“What do you hear?”

“Oh, I’ve heard all manner of words here over my life. From selfish to licorice. But since I’ve been back, I only hear she’s here and he’s here.”

He kisses me. Right here under the willow garlands, like a secret. “Come,” I tell him, feeling unsteady as his lips always leave me. And, parting the garlands like a curtain, we step between the trunks into Mum’s magic garden.

“Ah!” Aiden murmurs as he sees it in daylight for the first time. Delight molds his fairytale face as his eyes sweep over my little kingdom. And what a show it’s putting up for its prince. The cottage gleams pearl white under the brilliant sun. The shutters are open, the lace of the curtains fluttering hello with the breeze. The ancient beech trees are murmuring their own welcome like dignified sentinels with sun-plated helmets. The river is glistening like an emerald silk ribbon. And like a royal mantle over it all, are the thousands of roses in full bloom. Sparkling with sunlight like rare unknown gems.

Aiden does not move. He is stunned into silence. But his eyes are more luminous than I’ve ever seen them. They alight on each bloom, each detail of my childhood—absorbing everything.

“Come, let me show you the roses I told you about in Portland.” I take his hand and we wind up the garden path covered in petals. And as he did then, he kisses me by each rose when I introduce him.

“And these are the Elisas,” I tell him, remembering that he made poor Benson hunt for a look alike on our first morning together. My roses wink, flutter, and sway for him as though they want nothing more than for him to touch them. And he does. One single caress with the tip of his finger. I’m not a rose bush, but I can’t imagine any living cell being immune to his touch. I’m certain the Elisas look less white and more pink.

“I don’t have words in my memory for this,” Aiden finally speaks. For once, he looks completely past-free. Then I remember with terror.

“Won’t your first memory of this garden be me breaking up with you last night?”

He smiles. “That’s not my first memory of this.”

“Then what is?”

“My first memory of this is exactly what I had planned: your astonished beautiful face seeing Javier and Reagan on your doorstop. That’s why I stayed so far behind. I wanted that first memory to be only of you and your happy moment.”

What can I say to that?

Inside, Reagan and Javier are in the kitchen, Javier sniffing suspiciously the pot of porridge that Reagan is making while she beams at it, already wearing a royal blue feathered hat. As soon as they hear us come in, they bound to us and pull me into a hug.

“There you are! We were about to figure out how to call British search and rescue on you two,” says Javier. Then their eyes fall on Aiden’s and my joined hands.

“Oh, yay! You’re back together!” Reagan squeals, the feathers of her hat bouncing with her excitement.

Aiden smiles—their old cat-and-dragon exchange only a distant memory—but he lets me answer. “Well, I have officially introduced him to the roses. So I think that means yes. At least while we sort out a few things.”

“What things?” they ask in unison, their voice trembling exactly the same way, their eyebrows knitting together identically.

“Are you two okay? Is there anything the family can do to help?” Javier adds.

In those words, in their worried looks, I grasp exactly how much their relationship with Aiden has changed in the last two weeks. Perhaps working together to save Javier and the rest of the Solises bonded them in ways I never could.

It’s there in Aiden’s voice too when he answers this time. “Let me think about that, Javier.”

“Okay, want something to eat? Although I don’t really know if this is edible. What the hell is this mushy stuff, Isa?” He points at the pot of porridge.

“I’ll just show Aiden around first, okay?”

Aiden is watching me with his fiery eyes, so tall for the cottage his wavy hair brushes against the small chandelier. Impossibly, he has gotten more beautiful since he crossed the threshold.

“Welcome to the Rose Cottage!” My voice trembles. I want to say welcome home. But the home part is a dream, an h-o-p-e I cannot allow myself. “This is the foyer, obviously—it’s tiny by your standards but I love it. And over there is the living room . . .”

He takes my hand and starts exploring the cottage in the way only he can. He runs his long-fingered hand over the front door, the rose-shaped brass knob, the rotary phone, the walls—memorizing their feel. He spends a good ten minutes gazing at the photographs lining the foyer in reverse order of my aging.

“Look at you!” He smiles at one of me missing my front teeth. “The cutest kid.”

I watch him with a clenched heart, unable to speak. How many times have I imagined him inside these walls and now here he is. Bewildering in every sense of the word. I realize that in those vague fantasies I always imagined the cottage softening him. But as he winds through the living room, running his fingers through the ivory of Mum’s upright piano in the first few notes of Für Elise, clutching the arm of Dad’s plaid chair in the corner like a handshake, I see a symbiotic cord twinning between the cottage and him. He is shining as much beauty on it as it is pouring on him.

“This is surreal,” he says. “I thought I could envision this so well from your descriptions, but I was wrong. No one can picture this without seeing it.”

“Let me show you my favorite room.” I can barely hear my own voice as I lead him to the library. But I hear his quiet footsteps kissing the hardwood floor.

He whistles as he enters my dad’s bubble, and the tectonic plates shift as he recalls everything I’ve ever told him about it. He weaves through the towers of books and notepads, careful not to jostle anything, and goes straight to the unfinished chess game inside the glass flower box. “Is this the last game?”

I nod.

“Six identical moves to checkmate for each of you. So equal and you were only eighteen.”

“I could never equal him.” I barely mouth the words, but he must read them because he comes back to me.

“I’m sure he would disagree.”

“I wish you could you have met him. And Mum.”

“I do too.” His index finger comes under my chin and he bends down to my height. “I have an idea. I’ll read through all of his books and notes, then maybe I’ll know him more. Would you like that?” His voice, his eyes are so tender they could h-e-a-l the deepest wounds, except his own.

My “yes” sounds more like a sigh. “And maybe you can help me with the protein. Here, look at this.” I open the secret safe in the wall behind the Encyclopedia of Elements. He peers inside—a childish curiosity glinting in his eyes—and sees his war letters with Dad’s clue and everything else valuable I own, “my all” in a sense. Which is not much. “You can have them—”

He stops my hand before it slithers inside the safe. “Let them stay there.” When he closes the safe, I imagine him tucking in my entire life under a blanket.

This kiss is hushed too. So light, each brush like a whispered secret. A secret I can’t even tell myself.

“MUSH IS READY,” Javier bellows from the kitchen. “AND SOME CRUSTY STUFF!”

Around the dining table, Reagan and Javier have made their first British breakfast even though it’s almost noon. Porridge, scones, clotted cream. But I can’t swallow a single bite—everything from my eyes to my belly is overflowing. The three people I most love in this world who are still alive are here. My three brightest stars twinkling in this new constellation that looks like a table to everyone else but to me it’s a million-faceted crystal, gleaming and sparkling—each plane brilliant, fragile, a mirror of the others. Rarely meeting, always reflecting.

“Reg, I know it’s what they eat here. But just between us four, objectively speaking, this porridge thing cannot have been meant for human taste buds. Aiden, back me up as the only other man here. Is this food to you?”

Aiden is looking at me and I know he has read every flicker of emotion I have not been able to hide. He seems to make a decision of sorts because he turns to Javier. “I definitely prefer your mother’s carnitas. But it’s better than MREs.”

A total silence falls over my constellation. Reagan’s fork drops on her plate. My hand tightens on Aiden’s under the table. I’ve never once heard him make a casual reference to the military. And instantly I know whatever he is doing, he is doing it for me. He folds his napkin while Javier’s fork is still in the air.

“Actually, Javier, Reagan.” He addresses them both while I sit here periodic-tabling for oxygen. “May I have a moment? You asked earlier if there is anything the family can do to . . . help Elisa and me.”

Javier’s fork drops too. “Anything,” he says. “We owe you our lives.”

“It’s not as debt collector that I’m asking. You don’t owe me anything. It’s as a . . . friend, I suppose. This is not an easy thing for me to share. I’d appreciate your discretion. But you’re Elisa’s family, I’ve seen that over the last two weeks more than I was able to grasp before. So you should know—” His hand around mine becomes a live grenade. “Why things are complicated with Elisa and me. It’s not because I don’t love her—”

“We know that,” Javier says firmly. “We all can see that now.”

“It’s because there are things in my past and present that make me . . . not the man you would want for your sister.”

“Aiden, don’t,” I cut in, but he silences me with a grasp of his hand.

“What do you mean?” Javier says while Reagan mouths at me in a completely obvious way, “The thing?”

“Well, without getting into the gory details, I was a Marine. In Iraq. And one mission went . . . wrong. More wrong than I’m prepared to discuss. It has stayed with me in every way . . . and it has left me with a . . .” He takes a deep breath as his shoulders flex once. “It has left me with a violent startle reflex. Not your usual car backfiring thing. I cannot be startled from behind in any way without a series of events being triggered which always end with me attacking the person who startled me.”

The silence that follows his words is clamoring. I don’t think Aiden has breathed once since he started. But he meets Javier’s eyes evenly and I see the Marine there—the one who might never have needed a protein of bravery.

“You attacked Isa!” Javier’s somber, grave tone is punctuated by a small whimper from Reagan.

“I did.” The two words, so low, sound almost like “the end.”

“It was my fault,” I jump in, ignoring the clasp of Aiden’s hand. “I knew about it, and I was careless, and I triggered it, and—”

“Elisa,” Aiden’s voice cuts through, even and clear. “You will never take this on yourself ever again. Please. They have a right to know as your family, and now they do. I won’t be the reason for secrets between you anymore.”

I meet Javier’s eyes. They’re on me, stricken with terror. Reagan searches for my hand under the table but both of mine are on Aiden’s grenade.

“I love him, Javier,” I say directly to him. “I will fight with him against this. No matter what.” Tears start burning my eyes, but I don’t blink. Javier’s deep dark eyes are locked on me too for a long moment. He nods at last—a slow bend of the head but his eyes become so endless, as though he heard exactly what I cannot say. No matter how it ends.

“So,” Javier says. “How can we help? We’ll support you both with whatever you need if this is the decision you have made.” He does not say he agrees. How could he?

“I’m with you too.” Reagan’s voice trembles with tears. “Both of you.”

“Thank you,” I tell them, eyes still on Javier because he is the leader for our patch-quilt family. If he gives us his support, it is irrevocable.

“Yes, thank you both.” Aiden’s grenade relaxes a fraction. “Please know I’d never expose Elisa to this again without some hope that we might be able to overcome it.”

“What’s the hope part?” Javier asks.

I’m glad Aiden answers this one because Javier would see how little h-o-p-e I’m allowing myself. “We’re working with some experts at Oxford and University of York, and of course back home. We’re meeting them Monday; they have an entire plan. But the gist of it is that I need to do the opposite of what I’ve been doing. Not push Elisa away or isolate myself, but rather experience what normal life could be like for her and me if we allow it. Their hope is that, with other interventions and hard work on our part, this will begin to correct the startle reflex.”

Javier blows out a gust of breath and I realize now he has not been breathing much either. “That sounds like good news, right?”

“Hopeful.” Aiden corrects while I stare at my cold teacup trying to look like I am nodding sagely. “And this is where you two come in. The hope part. I will never keep Elisa from you. But of course, she refuses to leave me and I refuse to leave her. These last two weeks almost killed us both. So, by necessity, at least for a while, you might have to be around . . . me,” he says the last word like he is the dark boulder.

“Aiden, that’s nothing to ask of us,” Javier says, and I want to grab him over the table and hug him if both my hands were not around my grenade. “We all care about you. Not just as Elisa’s guy but for who you’ve shown us to be. It’s not a burden on us to be around you. We want you to heal. We want you in our life if you two can make this work.”

H-e-a-l. L-i-f-e. “Umm . . . thank you . . . I appreciate that,” Aiden says with a strong emotion. No doubt his deep self-loathing wasn’t expecting such acceptance. The grenade relaxes further.

Javier takes a deep breath and the deep wrinkles in his forehead soften. “We’ll just be careful, all of us. No one will sneak up on you or anything. And we’ll do whatever we can so you two can win this. Right, Reg?” he turns to her.

“Absolutely.”

For the first time since this conversation started, Javier smiles and the entire constellation brightens up with him. I look at Aiden, the Marine who just disclosed his darkest secret to give me this moment of togetherness, to tear down all walls between my family and me. He shakes his head with a small smile. Anything for you, his eyes say.

“Actually, I’m really glad we know now,” Javier says. “This explains so much. I mean, we started suspecting something when you were able to pull off my green card with all those political contacts, but not this. We thought you were some high-level CIA or something.”

Reagan giggles breathlessly. “Honestly, I thought you were an assassin. Really sorry about that.”

At the shaky laughter that follows, the grenade disarms and Aiden’s face softens with relief. “An assassin?” he chuckles. “And you were yay-ing earlier when you thought Elisa was back together with me? Reagan, I thought your common sense was one of your strongest traits.”

“Of course,” she shrugs. “You’re who she loves.” Her bright emerald eyes flit to Javier who is sighing with relief in an identical posture to Aiden’s.

“Javi,” she tells him, and for a mad moment I think she’s going to declare herself but she has other plans. “I think you and I should move to Aiden’s hotel.”

“What the fuck?” is Javier’s response.

“You heard me.”

“No, Javier has a point, Reg. What the bloody hell?” I ask but she kicks me under the table. Hard. I have to pretend to cough to hide my “ouch” while Aiden fusses I might be choking.

“Listen,” she says to us. “You two need privacy if you’re going to try this normal life thing. Javi and I can sleep at the hotel, you two stay here, and we all hang out and be normal adults during the day. And when Isa has to work, we can be tourists.” She stomps on my foot again in case her desire is not clear.

“Elisa, why do you keep coughing, love? Are you okay? Here, have some water.”

“I’m fine. Just a tickle.” But I drink the entire glass he pours for me to give Javier a chance to respond. And he does. Sort of.

“I guess you’re right. How far is your hotel, Aiden?”

“Just across the field,” Aiden answers quietly and I know in that tone how profoundly he wants Reagan to win, but how deeply he hates the reason for Javier’s hesitation: my safety in case I get hurt again. And he’ll side with Javier. That decides it for me. And I know exactly how to solve it.

“Javier, Reg is right. I want to sleep with Aiden.”

It’s Aiden who chokes now at the same time that Javier throws his hands over the ears, saying “Lalalalala.” But over the chaos, Reagan and I wink at each other. And for a moment, it feels like girls can win everything today.

I add this other little victory to my collection. Can a girl deplete her luck? Should I take more chances? Or should I save it all for tonight? No, I don’t need luck to sleep next to Aiden—I refuse to think that way.

“Let’s all go to town,” I decide. “I’ll show you some of my favorite spots. And you can meet my grandparents for all intents and purposes.” I know none of them can resist that. Especially not Aiden, even if his muscles just locked down at the idea of strolling the streets again.

“Your octogenarian bodyguards?” he asks.

“The very same.”

“Yes, this I have to see.”

The town is enshrined in gold under the late afternoon sun when we arrive, and the streets are lazier, sultrier. Plemmons Blooms is only two roads west of the inn, down a cobblestone alley so narrow that James and Benson—who have been strolling with us in their hulking frames—decide to wait at the inn’s terrace over cigars and ale.

Even though I visited the Plemmonses the very next day I returned, as soon as I see the cascade of wisteria draping over the familiar awning, my own memory rewinds the endless days I spent with Mum in this shop as she and Mr. Plemmons experimented with rose breeds. Nothing has changed except the two snow-haired, hunched over octogenarians who are sitting on bright yellow chairs, head to head, sifting through seeds together. The image is so precious that four phone cameras click at the same time, including Aiden’s.

“OMG, they’re so cute,” Reagan whispers.

“Don’t worry, they can’t hear. You have to yell,” I tell her and then shout at the top of my lungs, “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Plemmons!” All three of them jump despite my warning.

“Bless my soul, it’s Rose!” Mr. Plemmons wheezes, wobbling up on his birch-wood cane, and I notice how much it trembles. “Josephine, it’s our Rose. Blimey, she’s brought friends this time.” He wipes his thick-rimmed glasses against his woolen vest—an unnecessary act since they are generously wiped by his bushy eyebrows and even bushier mustache. Little tufts of cotton blossoms spring out of his ears.

“I can hear you, Harold, and I can see them, there’s no need to shout.” Mrs. Plemmons is sprightlier and she shuffles up to me—tiny, barely clearing my shoulder, looking at me with her once-green eyes that have paled to sage—and kisses both my cheeks. “You’re lookin’ fit, luv. It’s the rose air, I told Harold, didn’ I? I said, let that lass smell the roses for a week and she’ll be pink as their petals.” She still hasn’t let go of my cheeks.

“Ha!” Mr. Plemmons teeters closer and grabs my shoulder. His clasp is so frail that I’m not sure if he needs it for support or if he is greeting me. I peck his fluffy hair gently lest he blows away. “Who are yer friends, Rose?” He peers at them through his glasses, brows wafting high in his forehead like pampas grass.

“These are Aiden Hale, Reagan Starr, and Javier Solis,” I yell their names, pointing at each of them. “They’re visiting from Portland.”

“Hmph,” Mr. Plemmons harrumphs, tottering to each of them, squinting at their faces and finally declaring in front of Aiden. “We’re not giving our Rose back! No, sir!”

“Oh, don’ mind the crackpot fool.” Mrs. Plemmons clasps all their hands. “You’re very welcome here, very welcome. Oh, to see our Rose smiling with friends again! Here, luv, sit, sit.” She tries to clear a bench of cyclamen pots, but I beat her to it.

“You sit, Mrs. Plemmons, I’ve got this.” I clear out the bench and the four of us sit cramped together, visiting with them for a while. Mrs. Plemmons frets she doesn’t have tea and biscuits.

“Don’ fuss, Josephine. It’s only our Rose. We’ve changed her nappies, we have.” Aiden, Reagan, and Javier burst out laughing while I turn the color of the cyclamens.

“Your nappies,” Aiden murmurs in my ear, his fingers trailing my spine behind everyone’s back. “I think I prefer your knickers, Rose. Especially the ones you’re wearing right now.”

“Stop or you will die,” I whisper through my teeth, smiling at Josephine for telling Harold off. He chuckles so quietly I can only tell from his cinnamon breath in my cheek.

“What are yeh two bumpin’ yer gums about?” Mr. Plemmons calls to Aiden and me. “Yeh’re not tryin’ to take our Rose away, Anton, are yeh?”

“It’s Aiden, Mr. Plemmons,” I shout, ignoring his question, which keeps my voice from breaking.

“Are yeh sweethearts?”

“Harold, you don’t have to shout every thought that flits in that wooly ‘ead of yours!” Josephine scolds him, but smiles expectantly for an answer.

“Yes, we are,” I whisper before I remember they can’t hear. “Yes, we are,” I raise my decibels again. “And Javier and Reagan are my adoptive brother and sister. They took care of me when I first . . .”

“Ah,” they sigh in unison, abruptly looking one hundred, their heads bobbing at the same time, paled eyes away, and I know we are seeing the funeral day. The only two people left who know every minute of that day, who spoon-fed me until I was taken to the hospital.

“Well, yer Mum and Dad would ‘ave liked yer friends and sweetheart, Rose,” Mr. Plemmons blinks back to the present. “I told Josephine, I said ‘yeh just watch those roses bloom with Clare’s magic now that our Rose is back. They’re glowin’ up there, they are.”

I nod and smile, unable to speak, as Aiden rubs the small of my back gently.

“But no stayin’ at the cottage with Edmund without a chaperone!” Mr. Plemmons stomps the cane on the cobblestone.

“Ha ha ha!” Josephine almost topples off her yellow chair from cackling. “What codswallop you talk, Harold! You never let a chaperone stop you when we met.”

“Tha’ was diffren’. We were older than these two.”

Aiden, towering at thirty-five years old, and Javier, looking even older with his full beard, are shaking with laughter while Reagan is giggling so hard, she twists her legs together in that way she does when she has to pee.

“No, you barmy old fool. We were younger. I had Emma when I was Elisa’s age. That’s your second child.”

“I know who my Emma is!” And they’re off quibbling about the sixty-five years they’ve had together, the decades running together as they should. From the corner of my eye, I see Aiden watch them with something like longing—perhaps wondering whether the years will ever disappear for him. Yet he seems entirely present here in the moment, his fist never clenching, even though he has been sitting in a cramped bench with two other people, albeit in a quiet alley and me in between.

“Wha’ abou’ yeh two? Are yeh sweethearts?” Mr. Plemmons demands of Reagan and Javier.

“No, Mr. Plemmons, we’re friends,” Javier howls while Reagan takes an intense interest in the jasmine bush next to her. At least Javier didn’t say we’re siblings.

“These young ‘uns don’ get married anymore, Josephine. Blimey, there’ll be no more weddings needin’ flowers.”

Eventually, the sun starts setting and we decide to help them close up. I give Mr. Plemmons some new seeds from the garden.

“Yes, yes, they’ll do quite nice, these will. Rose, yeh’ll come to the Rose Festival, won’ yeh? Enter yer Mum’s roses fer the Rose Cup. Willoughby has been twirlin’ his mustache at me fer winning the last one.”

“Of course I will,” I say, even though it will be a day away from Aiden. A crowded festival would be too reckless, too terrorizing. But Mum’s blooms will go to that festival, especially if I don’t know how the ninety days will end.

I buy the American Beauty rose fledgling that’s been waiving at me for the last hour—Aiden carries it gently, earning a smile from Mrs. Plemmons—and say our goodbyes. The Plemmonses shuffle with us half-way through the alley, wishing us and the rose a good night.

“Even yeh, Adam. But keep yer hands to yerself!”

“It’s Aiden, Mr. Plemmons,” I yell again in vain but he just smiles and waves.

We watch them teeter away, arm in arm to their apartment above the flower shop. As the door closes behind them, I wonder how many of these memories I missed and how many there are left. An urgency gathers in my veins and abruptly I want to run, dance, shout, sing, jump, twirl, do everything, live everything, every hour, minute, or second left of our ninety days. Because what if these are the only present moment we have?

“Let’s go!” I tell my three stars. “Let’s find Benson and James and go back to the cottage. We can send James off on his fishing trip with a cheer.”

Javier and Reagan start ahead of us, but Aiden tips up my face. “Are you all right?”

“I’m so glad you met them.”

“Me too, Rose. One of my favorite memories in my entire life.”

“Let’s go make more,” I say and pull him behind me.

Above us, in the twilight sky, the first stars of our first sleep start twinkling.©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 12 – BIG BANG

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.]

12

Big Bang

“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.”

“I’m trying.”

“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?”

“Elisa!”

“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.

“Don’t ask.”

“Wasn’t gonna.”

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.”

“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.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 10 – THUNDER

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

10

Thunder

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.

“I wish.”

“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—”

“You’re not!”

“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.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 9 – STARDUST

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…

9

Stardust

            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.

“I’m ready.”

“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

            My All,

            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.

            Yours,

            Aiden

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.

©2021 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 8 – THE TRUTH

Hi everyone,

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

8

The Truth

            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.

“Elisa.”

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.”

“Why?”

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:

Solstice Gallery

Fine Art

Ivy Lane

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

Feign Art

“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?

By the time I reach my tent, the sun has risen and the morning clouds are brilliant white.  No more Aeternumroses like omens in the sky.  Just an ordinary day, ending an extraordinary life. Because I know now, I know from the tangled strands of my hair to the blistered soles of my feet, what comes next: somehow I have to learn how to live without my anger, without my hatred of him. From this dawn until I’m passing from this life, I will have to live with the truth. I will have to live with myself.©2020 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTERS 6 & 7 – CHANGE & SAVIOR

Happy weekend, everyone! And thank you again for all the kind messages, wishes, and prayers about this story and myself. Please know they are very appreciated, and many of them have come at a time where I need them most. Here are the next two chapters while the words are flowing. Things are getting close to a big reveal. I hope you enjoy them! xo, Ani

rose in smoke swirl on black

6

CHANGE

            Days go by. Even in England. The sun sets and rises, the date changes on the calendar. But time does not pass. Everything seems suspended in the same, eternal moment. Case in point: here I am, on my fourth dawn in England, still waking up screaming on the riverbank; still shivering in the cold air of his absence; still staring at the empty field across the river. His parting words still ring in my ears, reverberating all around my rose garden: “Once I love, I love forever.”

            Yet change happens. Almost imperceptible, but it happens. For one, each night, he is leading me further along the riverbank, away from the cottage; and each night, I follow more willingly. Awake, I’m fully aware of the potential for disaster, for real danger here. What if I sleepwalk right through town onto the motorway? Or slip and crack my skull against a rock? And yet, in my sleep, I trust him wholly, blindly, never to lead me into any harm. Because—change number two—the desire for him, the curiosity for what he is trying to show me is growing stronger, not weaker. I love him more in my dreams, the less I love him when I’m awake. And exponentially, the pain in my chest is getting worse, not better. As though each dream is chipping away at what little progress I manage to make during the day. Like Prometheus, tied to the rock, growing his liver only for Zeus’s eagle to eat it again in the morning.

            But, unlike Prometheus, I’m adapting or at least learning. For example, I go to bed fully dressed now, even my sneakers. I don’t lock the door until after the dream because it doesn’t keep me inside. I agree categorically that this is pathological behavior. The first thing I should do when I get back inside is not prepare for my meeting with Professor Edison this afternoon, but book an appointment with a well-respected psychiatrist. Yet I can’t bring myself to do so. It’s not hard to understand why, as the sky starts to lighten but I still stand in the exact spot where he left me: because then these dreams might stop and I’ll never learn where he is leading me so urgently. But I must know if I am to overcome him, if I am to keep the oath I made on my parents’ grave. So I have a plan: tonight, I’ll find out once and for all.

            I walk back to the cottage, gazing at the field across the river one more time, wishing I could solve this riddle now. But I can’t because my meeting with professor Edison is in nine hours, and I’ll need every minute between now and then to get ready.  It’s not my scientific knowledge I worry about—I’ve been studying nonstop for this meeting since he emailed me back three days ago, not to mention the last four years. But I have no idea what to do about the face in the mirror that has transformed. Pale, gaunt, with deep shadows under the eyes that initially will remind Edison of my mum until he looks closer. Because worse that the drawn cheeks and the sallow skin are the lifeless eyes: dull, more plum than violet, and blood-shot. I wish I had Reagan here to transform me into Liz Taylor as she once did. As it is, I spend the next three hours with teabags over my eyes and rose oil over my cheeks, trying to force a semblance of color on my skin. While home remedies attempt the work of magic wands, I revise again every scribble of Dad’s notes about his projects with Edison and every one of Edison’s own eighty-seven published articles. I know I’m overdoing it for just one meeting. I’m very careful not to hope Edison will give me a job—that would violate Rule Number Three—but I do need to be able to hide the mess I am enough to make Dad proud. The entire Chemistry Department will be talking about me: Peter Snow’s tragic daughter come home at last. 

***

There may come a time in my life—perhaps when I’m Mr. Plemmons’s age—when I might be able to sit with Reagan and tell her about the bus ride from Burford to Oxford today. About how it felt to sit on the seats that carried Mum and Dad to and from work twice a day, every work day except the day they died. About how the handrail felt exactly like their hands holding mine until this very last stop. But that day will not come for a long time. 

            I teeter off the bus, clutching Dad’s leather briefcase. Then, slowly, I lift my eyes to see Oxford’s medieval skyline for the first time since before the accident. The gothic spires, towers, and cupolas of the ancient colleges spike like heartbeats on an EKG line. Domed rooftops stretch out like knobbly protective arms. Every facet glows like limestone skin under the molten sunlight of the afternoon sky. And through it all, like emerald lifeblood, run the colleges’ lush parks, forests, gardens, and meadows.  

            Four years ago, I rejected this dream for another, thinking it would break me to face my parents’ second home. It never occurred to me that Oxford would have the power to do the opposite: heal. But as I stand here on its threshold, two hours early, braced for the lance of grief, that’s exactly what happens. I stop shaking, the nausea of the bus ride recedes, and I only feel a sense of shelter. It releases my locked knees and pulls me, like gravity, inside the university circle. I stroll the worn lanes with ease, feeling as though Mum and Dad are gliding on either side of me, as in our home movies, blissful that I have returned to the place they loved so deeply. The landmarks of their life feel like hugs, not bruises: Mum’s tiny office at the Ashmolean, the King’s Arms pub where Dad and Edison would drink cask ale after work, the Bodleian Library where they taught me how to check out Ashmole’s manuscripts using the old tube system. By the time I make it to the Science Area quad and steel a peek at my reflection on the windows of the chemistry lab, there is some color on my cheeks.

            But the moment I enter the reception lobby of the Chemistry Building, that small rush of blood drains from my face. Because there, steps from me, carved in bronze, is my father’s bust. 

            He looks at me. His eyes, seeming too sentient for a statue, are crinkled at the corners as they were in life when he would smile. His jaw is sharper, more sculpted, the way it would look when he was chewing at the end of a pen. His lips are parted a fraction as though he is saying, “ah!” And right below his bust, an engraved plaque says:

“I am in my element.”

Peter Andrew Snow

Oxford Chemistry Department, 1990-2011

            I don’t realize I have walked to him until my hand molds to his bronzed cheek. The metal is cool yet it warms my suddenly icy fingers.

            A gentle cough startles me. Professor Edison is standing a few steps away, watching me with a small smile and wistful eyes—an improvement on Mr. and Mrs. Plemmons who looked positively frightened by my face that first day I dropped by. Edison looks exactly as he did four years ago, except thinner and his forehead is more lined.

            “I’m sorry to startle you, Elisa. But oh, how welcome you are!” he says with feeling, stepping closer and handing me a handkerchief, as I realize I must be crying. So much for not appearing tragic. I dab my eyes quickly.

            “Hello, Professor Edison. It’s good to see you. I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting…” I hand him back the handkerchief. It’s initialed NFE.

            “Nigel, please. I’ve known you since you were in nappies.” He rests his hand on my shoulder gently—as physical as British men get for such a reunion. “And don’t apologize, this is my fault. I should have mentioned Peter’s sculpture, but I suppose it’s such a natural part of my day, it didn’t occur to me.”

            The casual reference to my dad’s name derails me for a moment so I force a smile.

            “Are you well? Do you need something to drink or a spot of lunch?” Edison asks quickly. My smile must not look like a smile.

            “No, no, I’m fine; just a bit jetlagged.” True enough, even if not at all relevant to this moment.

            “Of course,” he says quickly. “Right then, let’s go in. Do you still remember your way around this place?”

            I nod, and he breaks into a full smile, leading me down the long hall to the research lab where his office and my dad’s used to be. The entire trek there—perhaps relieved that I’m no longer crying—he is talking. “I must tell you, I was gobsmacked to see your email. Just absolutely astonished. I’d given up all hope you would ever return. It would be completely understandable, of course, with everything you lived through. But, here you are, looking right like your mum—dear, beautiful Clare! What a day!”

            He shakes his head as if in wonder or perhaps to give me a moment to respond.     “What a day,” I say back, for entirely different reasons.

            “So what brought you back, hm? I must give thanks to whatever it was.” 

            I’m ready for this one; I have rehearsed the answer down to each inflection so that it doesn’t sound like the lie that it is. “Well, my student visa ended after I graduated Reed, but I was missing England even before then. I suppose home is home. It always calls you back.” As I say the words, however, I notice they don’t sound like a lie, as they did a few days ago or even this morning. Did Oxford make them true?

            We reach the end of the hall now, and my attention closes in on the last door to the left. Dad’s office. If Edison says anything, I can’t hear it over the pounding of my heart.  When he opens the door, at first I think he’s trying to give me a moment, but then I register that this is now his office. A rush of heat rises creeps over my neck. 

            “Ah, my fault again!” Edison sounds alarmed that he might have triggered more tears. “I should have said. See, I moved in here after Peter—well, you know. I didn’t want to at first, but it felt … better. Closer to… to him.” Edison closes his eyes briefly, as I grasp that I’m not the only one who was left behind grieving. Of course Edison would have missed his friend. And of course Oxford would not have left a professor’s office vacant for years. Yet, I can’t help feeling angry, offended somehow, without any right to the feeling whatsoever. 

            “Here,” Edison says, beckoning me inside. “You can look. I didn’t change much. I still have his computer, his books, his files.” He waives his hand around the small office and my anger disappears as quickly as it came. Because he is right—not much has changed. Even the potted miniature roses that Mum gave Dad on their last spring are there on the windowsill. There is only one yellow bloom, but it’s enough to feel like a smile.  Edison is still looking like he is sitting on its thorns.

            “It’s fine, Professor—I mean, Nigel. I’m the one who should apologize. Of course you would have missed Dad. How can I blame you for that?”

            He takes a deep breath, then smiles again. “Bumpy start, I know. For both of us. To be expected, I suppose. How else do you start after all that’s happened? Well, let’s try it again.” He chuckles and sits on my dad’s chair, gesturing for me to sit across from him.        The conversation feels more natural then. He only asks about my projects, what I’ve been working on, and if any of it has to do with Dad’s previous work. The world-leading professor comes out: singular in his focus, consumed by his curiosity, his relentless search for knowledge. Beyond work or passion, chemistry is his life.

            “So what are your plans?” he says, eyes still sparking with the fervor of describing his last publication. “Are you back for good?” 

            I don’t trust myself to verbalize yes so I simply nod. 

            “Well, do you want to test things here for a bit? Maybe intern for the summer?” Edison cuts straight to the point. I watch him stunned. I hadn’t even dared to ask.

            “Do you mean as a research assistant? Here? In your lab?”

            “Of course!” He shrugs as though this is the most natural thing to be offering me. “We have hundreds of research projects going, and look at your credentials. I’d offer you a position even if you weren’t Peter’s daughter. But you are his daughter, and that is everything.” He says this with finality, leaving no room for argument. And why would I argue? This is exactly what I need. 

            “Wow,” I say.

            “Is that a yes?”

            “Yes, absolutely, yes, but—”

            He frowns. “But what?”

            “But is this right? Shouldn’t I apply first?”

            He smiles then. “My dear girl, do you know who you are? You’re the only child of the finest chemist this institution has ever seen. His talent lives in you; it’s quite obvious. You’ve had your name down for Oxford since you were born! I’ve already spoken to the rest of the faculty—they’re quite agreed.”

            I swallow hard. I don’t know what to say to any of that. Can I do this in this state? Can I be who Edison thinks I am?

            “Don’t you want this opportunity?” Edison sounds perplexed. 

            That question, so elemental, does it. “I can’t hope for anything more,” I answer truthfully because I can’t. That would violate Rule Number Three. 

            Edison’s smile becomes as bright as the yellow rose. “Well then, you can start whenever you want.”

            “Tomorrow?”

            He grins again. “I don’t believe we’re quite as desperate as to have you start on a Saturday, but Monday would be brilliant.”

            For the first time since landing on Heathrow Airport, I have something other than dread to expect in the morning. 

            Edison stands then, and I gather my Dad’s briefcase to leave. But Edison’s eyes are trained on it, unblinking, with something like hunger. “His briefcase!” he whispers, as though seeing it for the first time.

            “Yes, I took this with me to America. Can’t imagine going anywhere without it.” 

            “No doubt. No doubt,” he mumbles, still staring at it as he follows me out. I turn to shake his hand, but he reaches behind the office door. “Here,” he says, bringing out a white lab coat. For a moment, I’m confused—why would he give me his lab coat?—until I see the initials embroidered on the front pocket: PAS.

            “I think you should have it for Monday,” Edison says awkwardly without meeting my eyes, and throws the coat over my shoulders. 

            The bus ride back to Burford is easier with Dad’s lab coat wrapped around me. It’s even more imperative now that I stop the dreams this weekend. So that I can take this last chance at life. So that I can be my father’s daughter.

7

SAVIOR

Later that evening, I sit on the wrought iron reading bench, watching the last sliver of sun dip behind the horizon of the field across the river. The field turns lavender gray from the evening shadows. Its grass sways, like wavelets with no shore. Beyond it, in the distance, the town’s first nightlights are twinkling like fireflies. 

            “See you soon,” I say, standing up, tightening Mum’s pashmina around me. I could wait here for sleep, but not yet because—change number three—routines form, like slender reeds growing on a marshy path: not enough to support you, but enough to show you the way. My reeds are: wake up in the morning, force down porridge, study, research lucid dreams, tend the roses, Skype with Reagan, put on sneakers and the parka, go to bed, sleepwalk, scream, stumble back home, sleep, repeat. And now, Reagan is calling. She keeps it short tonight, like the last few nights, giving me barely any detail at all. If I didn’t have a plan to implement, I’d worry that distance is stealing her away from me. But she’s juggling a lot—visiting Javier, the Solises, her own life—for me to demand any more of her time.

            “Say hello to Javier,” I say. “But remember, don’t tell him I’m gone until—”

            “I know, I know.” Reagan’s voice is brisk. “I’m sick of all the secrets.”

            “But you still love me?”

            “Like a pest,” she says, but her soft, teary eyes say “I love you to England and back.” 

            After she’s gone, I get started for tonight. A strange energy builds in my muscles, like excitement or thrill. I know this is because soon I’ll have the answers. But deep down, I’m terrified that there is another reason for my excitement: that the buzz is the cheater, feverish to see him tonight. No matter. Soon, she’ll be gone too.

            Dad’s cupboard of chemical ingredients has not been restocked in over four years but it still has the basics I need: galantamine, mugwort, valerian root, choline bitartrate, a few others.  From my research, these substances, or oneirogens, may induce lucid dreams and keep the dreamer asleep longer and deeper, allowing them to redirect their dreaming. Although mine are not lucid dreams—quite the opposite actually; I’m not awake, I’m fast asleep—the same side effects theoretically should apply. Theoretically. 

            I grind the substances and measure each dose carefully on Dad’s digital lab scale, trying not to think how apoplectic he would have been if he ever saw me doing this when he was alive. How do you know what side effects it will have on you, he would have spluttered. What lab testing have you done? What control group? What safeguards? 

            “I’m sorry, Dad,” I mumble as I mix the substances together in simmering water, and spin the mixture in his centrifuge. “But I don’t have time. If I don’t do this now, the dreams might kill me. And that would be worse than any side effects, wouldn’t it?”

            No, he would have spit out through his teeth. Think like a scientist! They could be equally deadly! 

            “Unlikely in these doses.”

            Unlikely does not equal impossible. Go to a doctor! Now!

            “I can’t. I have to know. I’ll be all right, I promise.” I let the sickly green liquid seep in the vial for fifteen minutes. Then with a final swirl, I swallow it in three gulps. Its bitter, resin taste stings my tongue.

            For a few moments, terror locks me here. What have I done? What if I’m wrong? But worse than all the questions is the loudest one: what if this doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t give me the answers? I would keep trying until either the cheater or I wind up dead. And that cannot happen. I promised my parents I will live. 

            I clean up the mess of my experiment and get ready. Sneakers on? Check. T-shirt, jeans, and parka? Check. I unlock the front door, turn off the lights, open the window, and curl up on the sofa under my quilt. No need to go upstairs tonight. I close my eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and focus only on the whoosh of the river and the willows’ lullaby. She’s here. She’s here, they sing still. An owl hoots into the night, as the breeze carries the scent of roses inside me. I follow the rose scent in my mind, as it rides the river breeze through the window into my nose, blowing gently on the open wound by my heart, then flowing out with my breath into the garden. She’s here. She’s here. Flying back again with more perfume, floating inside me, and then drifting back out to the willows. He’s here. He’s here.

            I fling my eyes open, holding my breath, but the room is dark and silent. There is no voice calling my name, not a sound. Then the willows rustle again, he’s here; he’s here. I bolt up and flit to the window. And there he is, a silhouette by the Elisa blooms, gazing at me.

            “You were waiting for me this time.” His voice is as soft as the rose breeze, a murmur blending with the willows. “I’m here.”

            A sense of impatience, a high surges through me and I sprint to the door. In a blink, I’m next to him, looking up at his face, darker tonight as the moon is waning. But his eyes light up in peace as always, two safety beams in the blackest hour.

            “You’re eager tonight,” he chuckles in that old waterfall way I remember, and the sound fills me with longing. “Maybe you’ll finally see. Come, let me show you.”

            He turns from me, always a step ahead, striding to the riverbank. I follow him without question, without doubt, an electric energy gathering inside me, raising goosebumps on my skin like static.   

            We reach the riverbank almost at the same time, and he traipses along it, toward Elysium. I know this path; we’ve been here before. 

            “No questions tonight?” he asks after a while.

            “Would you answer them?”

            He chuckles again, but it has lost the waterfall sound. “That’s why I’m here.” The familiar note of sadness enters his voice. He walks faster now, leaving Elysium behind, but always along the river. “It’s there!” he says with hope, almost pleading, pointing at the field across. “Right there! We’re getting closer.”

            “There’s nothing there, Aiden. Nothing but grass.” 

            He stops abruptly and turns to me, eyes burning. “You’re wrong!” His voice breaks, the last word like a sob, and his hands fist in his hair. “You’re not looking far enough, Elisa. Please!” His shoulders convulse once and his angelic face contorts in pain, so sharp, so staggering that it counterpoints straight into my own heart. “Aiden, it’s ok, I’ll keep looking, I’ll—” The words die in my mouth. Because in his beautiful face, glimmering under the starlight is a tear. It trickles down from his closed eyes over the sculpted cheek. “Please, my love!” he begs. “Look closer!”

            A few things happen all at once. The electrical energy that was building in my tissues radiates through me like a force field, as if the sound of his pain, so raw and primal, lit up a fuse. And then I’m running. Streaking past him down the riverbank to the point where the river bends and narrows into a chute.

            “Elisa, wait! Not that way!” he calls behind me, but I’m almost there. I can see the opposite bank, closer and closer. “Stop!” his voice rings out, filled with dread. But with one jump off the balls of my feet, I leap hard off the bank, aiming for the boulder peaking in the middle of the chute to trampoline me to the other side. The last thing I hear is his terrorized “No!” and then I plunge through black, rapid water.

            Every cell screams awake, as the cold river fills my mouth, my nose, my ears. It’s much deeper than I thought. The current sucks me under and flings me around, dragging me downstream, no matter how hard I kick my legs and arms to fight it. I try to grab anything—boulders, branches—but there’s nothing. My lungs are out of air and stars burst in my eyes. I push harder, trying to orient myself toward the surface for air, but the rapids roll me like a log and a wave of dizziness disorients me. Mum, Dad, I think. My promise. I try to kick harder, but my legs feel like lead, pulling me under. I can’t find my arms.  I wish I had heard him say, “Once I love, I love forever” one more time. The current jolts me again, and then a thick branch must twist around my torso like a band, yanking me hard. I brace for my skull to hit the bottom but suddenly I slice through clear, cold air.

            For a while, there is only chaos. I’m coughing and spitting out water, heaving for breath as the band constricts my torso again. Some more water gushes out of my mouth and finally air flows freely. I draw huge gulps of it, gasping, trying to right myself up and find the ground. And that’s when I become aware that I’m still being carried somehow. I thrash away, afraid the river is coming for me again. 

            “Fuck!” I hear a harsh oath right next to me, almost in my ear. My body stops flailing as I realize I’m not alone. And the bands around me are not branches, they’re someone’s arms. I don’t know the voice, yet it sounds familiar. An American accent. 

My savior sets me gently on the riverbank on the side of Elysium, breathing hard. I try to make out my savior’s face but it’s still dark and my eyes are blurry. The body is obviously male, tall, bulky, as he crouches in front of me.

            “Are you all right?” the man says anxiously. His accent gives me an instant feeling of safety, as I had in the dream. Oh no, the dream! I blink, clearing more water from my eyes, as I try to make out where I am and exactly how far the river dragged me. 

            “Hello?” the man calls more loudly now, sounding panicked. “Can you hear me? Are you hurt? Do you know where you are?”

            “Who are you?” I croak, and instantly regret it. How about thank you first?

            I think I hear a sigh of relief. “James, Ma’am. At your service.” 

            I can’t understand the disappointment that grips me even in current state. I knew it was not him—even if he was my last thought under water—but who else was I expecting? Maybe a Jazzman or Callahan or Hendrix or Benson: one of his many Marines? I’ll deal with myself later.

            “Thank you,” I rasp again. “Thank you for saving me.”

            “You’re welcome,” he sighs and sinks on the ground next to me. A few brain cells register that I’m alone with a stranger in the middle of the night, but I can’t feel the right kind of fear. All I feel is the fear for what happened in the dream. For what I’ve done. And for what’s still ahead. 

            “Quite a time for a swim,” James says casually but kindly, I think. I don’t answer. What would I say? That I intentionally mixed several substances to make my sleepwalking dreams longer so I could redirect them to find the answers that my ex-boyfriend wants me to see so badly, only so that I can finally forget him? So I can kill my love for him before it kills me? These are not reasonable things to tell a stranger.

            “Well, thanks again,” I mutter, rising from the ground, legs shaking. 

            “Hey, hey, take it easy!” James sounds alarmed, standing with me. “No rush! You were down for almost two minutes.”

            That’s all? It felt like a whole life. Like a whole death. It almost was. Abruptly, I feel exhausted, tired to the bone. “Good night, James,” I tell him, and start stumbling in the general direction of the cottage. 

            “Wait! Hey, wait!” James is next to me in one stride. “Where are you going?”

            “Home.”

            “I’ll walk with you. I promise I won’t hurt you,” he says, raising up his arms, as though in surrender. “I’ve got three sisters. I’d want someone to walk ‘em home. You’re safe with me.” Three sisters. An American Javier. For some reason, I believe him. Besides, why would he hurt me if he just pulled me out of the river? I manage a nod and start plodding—crawling would be more a more appropriate description, if I weren’t upright. The American Javier matches his pace with mine. I register now how tall he is, but his height triggers memories of another tall man I was chasing in the dream. The terror returns so strong that I start shivering. Or maybe it’s because my clothes are drenched, even Mum’s parka. My breath hitches into a dry sob.

            “Here,” James says, handing me a light bomber jacket. It’s dry, unlike the rest of him that is soaked; he must have had enough presence of mind to take it off before rescuing me. I huddle under his jacket, inhaling the faint scent of tobacco to clear the fog in my brain. Where do I go from here? How do I safely stop the dreams and also find the answers? Because if I know one thing, know it instinctively, is that the two are related: if I solve the puzzle, the dreams will stop, and I will survive. If I don’t solve it, the cheater will continue the dreams until there is no American Javier to save me. Either way, a part of me dies. It just has to be the right part, his part. So the rest of me can heal.

            “You came out pretty far for a dip,” James brings me back, probably wondering how much further he has to walk with the strange, silent woman. The contours of the cottage loom ahead, as I realize I ran well past Elysium trying to shortcut straight across the river and onto the field. A throbbing headache hammers at my temples.

            “Hey, are you feeling ok?” James asks. “Is there something I can get you?”

            I shake my head—it’s a true answer to both questions. We’re crossing Elysium now, and memories of playing hide and seek here with Mum and Dad flash like a reel. They loved me so much. And look at the mess I’ve made of all their hopes and dreams.

            “You know,” James says, perhaps trying to help, perhaps bored of the one-sided conversation with the mute stranger. “If you were trying to get across the river, you could have just taken the bridge.”

            The bridge! Yes, that’s where he would have taken me if I had let him, if the drug hadn’t made me reckless. “Not that way” he had called behind me in terror. He would have kept me safe. If only I had let him. 

            “I should have,” I breathe to James. We’re at the cottage now, the rose garden silver as the sky starts to lighten. 

            I turn to James, and am able to make out his face for the first time. Or what can be seen of it. He has a full beard, maybe auburn, and wild curly hair that adds to the impression of his vast height. His beard reminds me of Javier again, the last time I saw him, being dragged back to his cell.

            “This is me,” I say, handing him back his jacket. “Thank you again…for everything.”

            “No problem,” he says, looking past me at the cottage and scanning the rose garden. Something about that action reminds me so forcefully of him, of the vigilance that would emanate from him when he entered public spaces.

            “You were out for a late stroll yourself,” I say. Maybe James has his own demons.

            He shrugs. “Not really. I’m camping. Was in my tent when I heard you scream.”   Camping! My loud gasp makes us both jump. That’s the solution! He has been trying to get me safely onto the field. If I camp out there, I’ll be already where he wants me to be, and he can lead me to whatever he needs me to see so desperately. It would be safe even for me. Flat grassy surface, no river to cross, no one around, no roads, no riverbanks. Yes! That’s it!

            “You ok?” asks James, clearly wondering if I’m mentally competent at this point.

            I nod, adding a silent thank you. He may have just saved my life again. We will see.

            “Well, night then,” he bows his head gently. “If you need anything, I’ll be camping around here for a while. Just turn on a flashlight or something in that top window. Better than whatever it is you were doing tonight.”

            He waits at the edge of the garden as I plod inside, my sneakers squishing, my clothes still dripping, Mum’s coat heavy with river water on my shoulders. All her last molecules, her scent spoiled and washed off. Another sob breaks through me. I lock the front door this time, despite friendly American saviors. That was what drew me most to that land, but thinking about that violates Rule Number Two. I take off my sodden clothes and leave them in a pile by the door but hang Mum’s coat. Maybe I can salvage it this weekend. Drained, I climb upstairs to my parents’ bed and curl into a ball, shivering under the covers. Images of the black river water and its earthy taste make me shiver harder. But I draw warmth from one fact. One way or another, it will be over tomorrow. I’ll camp on the field and finally I will know. I thank James again in my mind, realizing I didn’t even ask where in America he was from, how long he has been backpacking through England, or tell him my name. Yet I’ll always owe him. As I drift off, I think about how, despite the terror of this day, there was also hope. I faced Oxford, I got a summer job, a stranger saved my life and gave me a hint. Perhaps—change number four—luck happens. Even to me.

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©2020 Ani Keating

Day 9: Full Excerpt 3

Happy Sunday everyone! A day for working in pajamas in my home. We’re in the single-digit days for Thirty Nightsnine 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...

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.

“Hmm?”

“Favorite flower?” He kisses the soft spot behind my ear. I shiver.

“Umm…”

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.”

©2015 Ani KeatingiStock_000033453000_Small

Day 17: A Hint of Danger

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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

Danger Teaser

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