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 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 11 – PHENOMENON

All the answers, my friends. Thank you for your response to that last chapter and for continuing to go on this journey with me, Aiden, and Elisa.  Lots of love, xo Ani.

 

11

Phenomenon

There is no question about reality back inside the cottage. If anything, it has never felt more real, more full of life since my parents’ accident. The fire crackles in the fireplace; Mum and Dad are still dancing on the small TV screen. But the most tangible life comes from the two people on each side of me. I’m curled on the sofa with my head on Reagan’s shoulder, soaking her blouse with my tears, while Javier has wrapped both my socked feet in his callused hands. He clutches them every so often, probably at an inner thought he does not speak, while Reagan combs my hair with her fingers.

And yet, even with all this life suddenly flowing within these walls, I feel like I’ve just returned from another funeral. A funeral for the deepest, best part of me—for the brightest star of them all. Aiden, Aiden, Aiden. It’s as though his name has breached through the ramparts and now my mind cannot stop saying it, sighing it, sobbing it. I didn’t even invite him inside the cottage. He would have liked this for me. He would have imprinted every book and teacup in his eternal mind, and they would have lived inside him. But could I have ever let him go if I had let him in? Especially now that Javier and Reagan have told me everything he did to save us, to give me this one moment full of life. Things that recast the final day Aiden and I had together in America under a new, blinding light.

I now know how Javier was arrested by ICE that early May morning. How he called Aiden’s phone because mine was still in the trunk of his old Honda. How Aiden told him he would do what he could to help—yet he never told me. Whether to protect me from the distress or to ensure I hated him more, I will never know. But he kept his word to Javier. It was Aiden who sent Benetto at Javier’s hearing, who paid every dime of Benetto’s fees without telling anyone until Benetto himself told Javier in the end. It was Aiden’s Marines who moved the Solises with his parents so they could be safe from ICE, while Aiden and his military mentor at the CIA, General Sartain, secured a safe, solitary cell for Javier. And at the trial, Aiden himself took the witness stand. He testified that he commissioned Javier for a painting as a family gift—not as illegal work—and that the painting supplies were at his home, never stolen. He anticipated every threat and prepared for it with military precision long before any of us could even see it. And it still didn’t work in the end. Judge Lopez still ruled Javier should be deported but no one expected Aiden’s Plan B.  He had mobilized Senator Kirschner—a name I overheard myself that last day—to campaign for Congress to intervene. Such a rare, historical avenue, with such slim chances of succeeding, no wonder Aiden kept it to himself.  But his stock with the U.S. Government must be high indeed. Senator Kirschner and General Sartain—with their vast political networks—managed to give Aiden this one gift, perhaps as a small repayment for everything his country cost him. The Senator used Congress’s legislative power to abrogate the court’s ruling for humanitarian reasons and grant Javier and his family immediate amnesty. And this congressional act means that ICE can never deport Javier or any of the Solises, that Javier is now a legal resident of the land he wanted so much. A freedom, a new life—all possible in the end because of Aiden’s torture in Iraq.

How small and feeble my own sacrifice now seems compared to his. But for his part, Bob kept his word and attended Javier’s trial. When it was over, he told Javier I had left and released the funds to him. Javier was getting mad while talking about that so he skipped over it quickly to the happy parts. How the Solises reunited with squeals that may have actually cracked a window. And how, after Maria and Antonio learned what I had done, they decided Javier should come with Reagan right away to check on me. How Aiden flew them here in a private jet with advance parole from ICE to get to me as soon as possible. And how none of them will touch my one million dollars so I can still use the money to return to America.

But how could I after all this? I didn’t leave America because of Javier’s fate. I left America because I could not live there a single day without my love. And that has not changed. In fact, it’s stronger now that I know everything he did to save the Solises. And I have never felt more bound. But that does not mean Aiden should remain bound to me. And if I returned, the green card deal requires that I invest my money in his company, that I remain in his life. And I can never do that to him. No matter what it costs me, he must have a chance at freedom, at happiness, away from the obligations and pain I trigger for him. Not to mention that I could never abandon this cottage again or give up on the bravery protein that will help Aiden more than I ever could. I have to work even harder now, day and night, to give him some peace.

These are things I cannot tell Javier and Reagan who have travelled across the world to see me.

“Isa, are you sure about this? I hate to see you so upset.” Reagan breaks the long silence, asking the same question for the sixth time since I ran back in, sobbing.

But Javier stops her now. “Not anymore tonight, Reg. You’re both exhausted. Actually, I think it’s time for bed. Things might look a little better after some sleep.” He lumbers up and sets down his empty bowl of pea soup as though to make it final. Then he douses the fire and checks all the windows and doors like he would do back at his home even though Burford has not had a break-in since 1976.

“Bed!” he says again when he is done, and marches us up the narrow creaky stairs even though he has no idea where he is going. I put him in the guest room I had prepared for Reagan. I guess the roses brought some good news after all. But Reagan refuses to sleep in my old bedroom, saying she’ll stay with me tonight.

Curled up on my parents’ bed, she’s on my dad’s side that has been empty for so long, holding my hand. And she starts again.

“Oh, Isa, why did you let him go? You don’t still think he reported Javi, do you?” she whispers, and I know she has been holding this question in because she never told Javier my suspicions. How can I ever thank her for that?

“No!” I shake my head hard. “No, I was wrong about that! You were right all along. It wasn’t Aiden. It was Feign. Did that not come up at the trial?”

“That fucking little weasel,” she hisses in the dark. “That’s who Javi suspected! And no it didn’t. The tip was anonymous like Benetto said.”

At least the Solises never believed Aiden a monster. At least they always saw him for what he is—a good man.

“So why leave him, Isa? If you know it wasn’t him.”

“Because I want him to be happy. I want him to be happy more than I want happiness for myself. And I can’t give him that.”

“But why? I’ve seen you two together and it’s like seeing your parents in the videos. Same look, same love. I don’t get it.”

Same love, same end. I can’t speak. How can I tell Reagan about Aiden’s eidetic memory that holds him prisoner, about his PTSD that will never allow him to give us a life together? How can I tell her he attacked me and now with his memory every time he sees me, he will see bruises and pain, not peace and calm like I used to give him? How can I tell her that Aiden’s love is forever but only from a distance and always at the cost of himself? These are his secrets that I will protect until my last breath.

“Is it because of that thing you can’t tell me?” Reagan guesses.

I nod. “It is, Reg. It’s exactly that thing.”

“I KNOW YOU’RE STILL TALKING OVER THERE!” Javier shouts down the tiny hall. “STOP IT AND GO TO SLEEP. DON’T MAKE ME COME OVER AND PUT YOU BOTH IN DIFFERENT BEDS.”

Reg giggles and, to my surprise, I giggle too. It feels nice, like a soft blanket or rosewater on parched skin. “He’s such a big brother,” I say, reveling in the sound of his free voice reverberating through the cottage.

“Yeah, he is,” Reagan agrees but her smiles fades away. And now that I’m not sobbing, I hear a sadness in her tone, a sadness that has nothing to do with me. I sit up and switch on the side lamp.

“Reg, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?” I touch her cheek, trying to lift up her lips back into a smile. She does it but it’s forced. Her heart-shaped face is pale, her eyes tearful.

“It’s nothing,” she says. “So small compared to what you’re dealing with.”

“Nothing is small to me if it makes you feel this way. Tell me.”

She traces the rose applique on the comforter with her pinky, not meeting my eyes. “I’m an idiot,” she says. My kindest, smartest, strongest friend in the whole word who has been carrying so much weight on her delicate shoulders thinks she is an idiot.

“What lunacy is this? Why would you say such a thing?”

“FINAL WARNING!” Javier howls again, and I see it then. I see the way she closes her eyes as her breath catches at his voice. The way her cheeks flush crimson. I throw my hand over my mouth to stifle my gasp. Her wide eyes match mine, except mine are happy for once and hers are terrified.

“You and Javier!” I mouth the words in case he’s stomping down the hall.

Shhhhh,” Reagan bolts up right, clamping her hand over my mouth. I try to grin with my eyes. “There’s no me and Javier,” she whispers so low I see the words more than I hear them. “There’s just me and . . . me.”

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” is all I can manage before Reagan throws the comforter over both our heads. “He doesn’t know?” I confirm though it’s obvious from the way she looks toward the door even under the blankets.

“Of course not. And he cannot. Isa, swear it!”

“Why ever not?”

She freaks out—that’s the only way to describe it even though it’s entirely silent. Head shaking, hands in fists . “No, no, no! He… he . . . he just sees me a sister, Isa, just like you.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just know.”

The bedroom door bangs open and the lights switch on as the source of all of Reagan’s suffering bursts in. “I warned you,” Javier says while under the covers Reagan turns about five shades redder than her curls. “Are you under the covers? What are you, Anamelia’s age?” He rips off the comforter, glowering at us in his long underwear and a white T-shirt. I see him now with new eyes—not as a brother, but as a man who apparently can turn my best friend into rubidium-hued puddle on the floor. He is rugged and toughened in every way from his worker hands and arms to his full beard. Except his artist’s eyes. Javier has always had the softest eyes. Bloody hell, my big brother is kind of good-looking! How did I not notice this before?

“What are you looking at?” he demands and I giggle again to keep his eyes on me rather than Reagan whose hand is trembling in mine.

“Sorry, Javier, we’ve just missed each other, that’s all,” I mumble in my best little-sister voice. It works. His already-lined forehead relaxes and he perches on my side of the bed. From his weight, the mattress shifts and I can swear Reagan almost tips over.

“I know you have,” he pats my head, and looks at Reagan for the first time. She’s staring at the rose appliques like they’ve come alive and are crawling on her hands.            “Come here,” he says softly, wrapping his arms around us both like a bundle. Reagan’s hand grips mine, and I know in that clasp exactly how she feels about him.

“Listen.” Javier pulls back, clueless about the havoc he is wreaking. “It’s almost light out. Please try to get some sleep. And if you do, I promise to make carnitas for dinner instead of whatever that thing is you Brits call food. Hm?” He smiles and we both grin at him, for entirely different reasons I’m sure.

“Now go to sleep,” he says and tucks us in, kisses the tops of our heads, and turns off the lights. “Dulces sueños.”

When the door closes, I wrap my arms around Reagan as she hides her face in my neck. I see her predicament now. Being a brother is so embedded in Javier’s DNA he can’t see himself as anything else. “We’ll figure it out,” I tell her. She nods but doesn’t speak. At length, as the sky lightens on this endless night, her breathing slows and her faint little snores blow warm gusts of air on my skin. I think about her love story, about how it must have started when she was visiting Javier in jail every day, how Javier could not possibly resist her if he could only see, how easy and perfect it would be, and how it should have a happy ending unlike mine. I’m not guarding my thoughts as carefully as I do so I don’t see where they lead me until the pain stuns me again, pinning me to the mattress until I can’t breathe. I try to match my breath to Reagan’s but it doesn’t work. She stirs, probably reacting to my body that has gone rigid with agony. Hydrogen, I think habitually without hope because I know tricks like that are futile against this kind of pain. It’s worth it for him, I tell myself over and over again. And I can help him from far away without him knowing. It will not be the life I wanted, but it will be life.

My body isn’t buying any of it. Pain radiates in shockwaves until my fingertips tingle. I know the pain is in my mind, but it doesn’t make it less real. I slip out of bed carefully and tiptoe out not to wake Reagan. Down the hall, I listen at Javier’s door, at his deep, rhythmic breathing. The hell he has lived through eclipses all of ours combined and yet he is still here, worrying about me. I kiss his door—I hope he sleeps for days. I hope he never frowns again. Thank you, God, thank you for saving him. I tiptoe down the stairs, skipping over the creaky ones, throw on Mum’s parka over my pajamas, grab my muddy wellingtons, and slip out into the garden. The crisp rose-scented air immediately fills my lungs, jolting them back into a rhythm. It’s staccato but at least I’m breathing.

“Morning,” I tell the roses. “How did you sleep? What a night, eh?” The blooms sway lazily, as though not ready to welcome any visitors, butterflies, or bees.

The spot where Aiden stood is still there, but there are no footprints anywhere, except my heart. I stuff my hands in my pockets and start walking the trail I used to walk with him in my dreams, sensing a routine in the making.

The sun is peeking over the horizon, its heat turning yesterday’s rain into mist. It rises like steam from the earth, a shallow sea of clouds instead of grass. I can’t see James’s tent anywhere but across the field of epiphanies, the town’s nightlights are still blinking. Which of those lights is Aiden’s? I hope none of them—I hope he is sleeping. I love you, I tell every window I can see in case it’s his. For a moment, I wish I had thought to give him back his letters. Perhaps I still should but now I want to keep them. I want that little paper universe where he and his love had a happy ending.

Elysium starts shimmering as the early sun varnishes the willows’ garlands and the river’s crests. The steam rising from the earth is sultry, but I’m still cold. I start pacing to warm up and then halt on the spot. Because there, in the middle of Elysium, Aiden’s unmistakable frame emerges from the mist with his precise, fluid stride. He must see me too, shaking where I am in my wellingtons, because he is coming straight toward me. I will my feet to move but they’re sunk dead in the muddy grass. I rub my eyes—am I always going to worry he was only ever a dream? But the closer he gets to me, the clearer I can see his face, there is no doubt he is real. Because my mind would never dream up the agony in that face. My psyche could never have fathomed it. My body erupts in chills like every pore is a counterpoint to his pain.

He comes to me at last, the first rays of sun glimmering like fingers on his face, as though the sun itself cannot resist caressing him. And I finally see his Aiden eyes. Bottomless, dark as though someone has doused the fire that burned underneath. But then they alight on my jawline as used to be their habit, tracing it slowly down to my throat, along every line of me he first saw in my painting. And the tectonic plates that always tell me the truth start shifting, jolting my heart with them. With a blink, the darkness recedes until all that’s left is the brilliant turquoise that belonged only to me. A single neuron registers with shock that apparently all the subsequent pain I caused him didn’t extinguish this light. All the other one hundred billion neurons are utterly absorbed with him and the fact that—somehow, against all reason—he is still here before me. Ashen, burning, but real.

“I couldn’t sleep or make it a good dream,” he speaks first.

“Nor could I,” I manage, wrapping my arms tightly around my ribcage. That way my heart might actually stay inside of me.

“I had to see you again. See you in daylight.”

“Why?” I whisper. Whisper is good too—it hides how my voice is shuddering with me.

“Sit with me for a minute?” he asks in his husky timbre. I glance back at the cottage where Reagan and Javier are sleeping wondering if my legs can make it that far.

“Here,” he says, his eyes missing nothing. And he takes off his rain jacket—it’s a monumental tribute to his beauty that I only now notice what he is wearing, a simple black T-shirt and jeans—and sets it down on the soggy grass. Then he sinks down gracefully, as though his legs might be having a similar problem.

I sit as far as I can, almost on the jacket collar, folding my legs under me, not trusting myself to be this close and not touch him, not forget all the reasons why I had to let him go. He watches the distance between us and then slowly rests his palm there. If it’s an invitation, I’m utterly frozen—unable to move, breathe, or blink.

“You didn’t answer my questions earlier,” he starts, eyes boring into mine.

“Which ones?” Still a whisper.

“First, if this is really what you want.”

I break the connection with his eyes, knowing my resolve will dissipate like the mist around us if I gaze there much longer. I look instead at the wildflowers that are peeking through the ground fog. Keep him safe, keep him free. “It is,” I force out the words in another whisper, twisting a blade of grass between my fingers. Maybe he couldn’t even hear them. I’m not sure the air could carry such a lie.

“Why is that?”

A blue forget-me-not, similar to the color of his irises is rising above the daisies, lifting its face toward the sun. Make him happy, give him light.

“Please look at me,” he says, his voice as soft as the flower’s petals. “I have crossed the ocean just to see your face even though it’s seared in my memory forever.”

I meet his eyes then; I can’t resist. I would have swam the ocean if I had known I could make them lighten again. “That’s better,” he smiles but there is no dimple in sight. “Now, please tell me. Do you want this because I’ve hurt you so much that you’ve decided to move on? Because you can’t trust me with your happiness? Or is this all for my benefit?”

Each word like a magnifying lens straight into my soul. “What difference does it make if it leads to the same end?”

“It makes all the difference in the world to me. All the other answers in the dichotomous key, all the other reasons I’m here—none of them matter without this.”

How can I not answer if he needs it so badly? How can I not give him everything? Make me brave, make me strong. “I’m doing this because I want you to be happy so much it hurts right here.” I press my index finger in the very center of my chest where the wound is festering. He looks at it with tenderness.

“Does it feel like a dull, jagged knife has cut a huge chunk out of your lungs and you can’t breathe?”

“Yes!” I marvel. “Exactly like that!”

“I’m familiar with the feeling.” He takes a shuddering breath, wincing as though he is testing his own lungs.

“And that’s exactly my point,” I say, seeing the proof of his pain right here. “I want you to be happy and free from having to save me, from all the pain I’ve caused you.”

He opens his beautiful sculpted mouth as though to protest. “But,” I add and he stills. “I also think losing you again would finish me. I can’t always live in fear of when you’ll push me away next. Always worried I’ll step on a live wire that will electrocute us both. Never trusting that you won’t decide to banish me for my own good again if you think it’s the right thing to do to save me.”

It’s all out now—all my truth. His face is burning again, like each of my words was a branding iron. But he reigns it back in, masterful as always. “Yes, I understand all that. But if there was a world where those things didn’t happen, would you want to be with me then?”

I gaze at this little meadow Dad named after me, sparkling with all my childhood memories and my future emptiness. But, look, there we are, Aiden and I, grey and old like the Plemmonses, like my parents should have been, waddling together, arm in arm. The vision stuns me with longing.

“Elisa?” Aiden prompts.

I glance at the blue forget-me-not like his eyes and the truth comes out again. Even if I can only manage it as a faint “yes.” He must hear it because from the corner of my eye I see the palm of his hand close into a tight fist on his jacket.

“Yes you would want me or yes you heard me?”

“Yes, in another world, I’d be with you.” I modify because I want him in every world.

“And what does that other world like to you? What would you want to be happy?”

Old Aiden and Elisa are down by the river now. He’s snow-haired and still so tall, although a little hunched over, and his shoulders are finally at rest.

The real Aiden’s index finger hovers under my chin as he used to do when he wanted to tip up my face. He doesn’t touch me—perhaps he knows I couldn’t handle it or perhaps he too cannot—but it has the same visceral effect. I lift up my eyes to meet his and blurt out the truth again.

“I want the man and the woman from your letters.”

The V forms between his eyebrows and another brain cell wonders if he knew I have them. “Tell Benson thanks by the way. He only gave them to me to help and they did. Please don’t be mad at him. I’ll give them back to you.”

He shakes his head, waving his hand. “Don’t worry about that. They were always yours.  Please explain what you mean though.”

And suddenly my words tumble out fast like the river. Like they sense this might be the only time I’ll ever voice my dreams since I lost them all. “I want to wake up in the morning with your face next to mine. I want us to have breakfast tea over there in the garden with my mum’s roses. And then we’d go to work, to a job we love that gives us a purpose, that helps people. Then we’d come back and walk to our little cottage arm in arm along the river. And maybe tango or garden like we did in Portland that one time. You looked so happy and carefree in that moment. And then night would come, and we would fall asleep together in the same cozy bed. And then with birthdays or anniversaries, or when we’d visit the Solises or your parents, you’d come with me because nothing else would matter if you weren’t there. Maybe we would even have a little Peter or a little Clare. And we’d grow old together like that, you and I. And whichever one of us goes first—and I hope it’s me—would be holding the other’s hand.” I stop abruptly, sensing tears. And he cannot see them.

But for once his eyes are far away, toward the cottage, as though he is trying to see the same dream. Then they’re back to me. “Elisa, I want all those things too. Whether in England or America is logistics, but the point is, I want every single thing with you.”

“But you can’t give them. You told me so when we were at your Alone Place, and I didn’t listen. Another mistake . . .”

Another truth like a grenade on the peaceful meadow. Old Aiden and Elisa disappear with the very last molecules of mist. “But what if there was a way?” he asks then. “If there was a way—even if uncertain—that we could have that life, would you give me another chance? And not because you feel indebted to me for Javier or anything else, but because you would want it—me—for yourself? He looks abruptly intense, the V etched deep between his eyebrows, eyes burning into mine as though trying to see through my skull.

What a ridiculous question. I want him for myself most of all. But can I fault him for wondering after what I said last night? “Of course,” I shrug. “But there isn’t such a way. You’ve said so yourself.”

He smiles the first real dimpled smile I’ve seen in so long. It knocks me breathless even if it barely touches his still-ravaged eyes. “That’s all I needed to hear. Because, as it turns out, there might be.”

“What do you mean?”

“First, please know I had no idea about any of this. Zero. I couldn’t have even dared to imagine it, let alone do it. Corbin only realized it after you had left.” He winces at the last word.

“Realized what?”

“Something that might change everything. That might give us a chance.”

The morning falls silent—I can’t hear a single chirp, babble, or flutter. “What did he discover?”

“It’ll take a moment to explain, but please bear with me. Now, you know how my memory works: every time I see someone or something, my memory will summon with perfect clarity the very first time I encountered that person or thing from the details of their appearance to the depths of my emotions.”

“Yes, and everything else that followed after that first time.” Even though I try, my voice breaks. This is why I now cause him both pain and peace.

He shakes his head, surprising me. “Not exactly. That’s what Corbin realized.”

“I’m . . . confused.”

“Picture a computer file for a minute. Every time you open it, read it, and then close it, the file changes: all the metadata, when last viewed, for how long, etc., right?”

“Right.”

“Well that’s how memory at large—not just mine—works. Each memory is a computer file. Every time we recall a memory and revisit it, it changes. So most people’s memories become faint and false with time. Mine is different in one crucial way: it doesn’t become false, it becomes more potent. When I revisit a memory, for example Marshall’s execution—” his shoulders ripple at the mere word—“I retrieve not just the torture of the moment, but also the pain of every single time I have replayed that memory in my head, in the thousands, snowballing into a massive network of pain in my brain.”

My hands plop to my sides as air leaves my lungs. I can’t understand why he thinks this gives us a chance, it sounds even more terrible. As if he can hear my thoughts, he changes. He turns to face me, crossing his legs, his palms up like he is holding the idea there for me to see. “That snowball has been growing constantly until my attack on you.” Another shoulder ripple, another wince. “But then something changed. You remember Corbin sedated me with Versed—that was standard procedure for my attacks. But when I woke up, the very first thing I saw was you sitting by my side—and that was new. Something showed itself to Corbin then. In essence, he observed that in the minutes, hours, days, and weeks that followed, I was able to speak and move and function in some form. Remember that?”

In some form? He implemented an entire defense strategy for Javier even as broken as he was. “I remember. But I can’t imagine how you were able to do so. You were so broken.”

“That’s precisely it. But it had nothing to do with me. It was because of you.”

“I’m not following.”

“After Marshall, or after I attacked my mom, I couldn’t do anything, and Corbin had seen that. I couldn’t move or speak or eat. I was catatonic for weeks. But not this time. And that’s not because I love you less.”

“Then why is it?”

He smiles another lopsided, dimpled smile that this time lights up his eyes. “It’s because at a deep cognitive level, you have changed my brain. Technically, psychiatrists call it interfering with my memory’s reconsolidation process.”

Umm, what?”

“When I opened my eyes and recalled that unspeakable moment of hurting you—you, my entire universe—at the same moment I was literally covered in you. You were holding me with all of your body, your voice, your smell, your touch, your taste flooding all of my senses, telling me all those loving things that only you and I know what they mean. And your calming effect—of course, my memory retrieved that too at the same time as I was relieving all the terror. Except you won out! Eventually, but sooner than any other time in my life, I became calmer. Remember?” he asks urgently, hands closing in fists like everything depends on me grasping this.

“I remember. I remember Corbin saying it was extraordinary.”

“Yes!” Aiden says the word with force. “Yes, exactly. Extraordinary. Your calming effect cancelled out the new layer of horror that would have been added to the snowball if I was left to my own devices without you there. So, in essence, the snowball shrunk. By just one layer, but it shrunk, Elisa! For the first time in known history, my memory changed by one tiny fraction. It bowed to you.”

Elysium disappears as my own memory replays that excruciating moment in Aiden’s bedroom under this light. How little I cared what Corbin thought. Every part of me focused on the first tear I had seen in Aiden’s eyes. He says his memory bowed to me but all I can think is I bowed to that one tear. “Aiden, are you sure? How does that even work?”

“None of this is sure. But Corbin and I contacted some memory experts at The University of York and Oxford ironically. They had mapped my brain initially when I was seven and we first discovered my memory, and periodically every five years since. They agree something is different. They’re theorizing now that my memory works a little like phobias, which tend to get stronger with time. Every time I was replaying all the horror of Marshall and my mom in efforts to desensitize myself and prevent it from happening around you, in fact I was only making my memory stronger and making me more deadly. I was a ticking time bomb even more than usual.”

“But now?”

“I still am, there is no question about that. But there is hope.”

And here is another heavy four-letter word. Hope. A word I cannot afford to hear. Because if I hear it and let it in, I will never survive losing it. “I don’t see the hope part.”

“Yes, it’s there, faint but it is.” His voice breaks as it would in my dreams when I refused to see what was on the field of epiphanies. “The hope is this: next time I recall a horrific moment, instead of replaying it and wallowing, I would flood myself in you. Your calming effect should erase the dread I feel while I’m remembering—as it did after your attack—and, with time, the layers will keep melting off the snowball, shrinking it until it becomes more manageable and, if we dare to dream, disappears.”

I don’t dare to dream anymore, I want to say. Dreams kill you more painfully than all other murderers combined. So I try to stay clinical, skeptic, focusing on something that hurts only a little less. “But I’ve caused you pain too. What about your memories of that? Won’t your brain summon those too and add them to the snowball?”

He shakes his head, smiling but I’ve made the dimple disappear. “Never forget the first principle about my memory: my initial impression is always dominant. And when it comes it to you, you will always give me peace first and foremost. You could pick up a knife right now and dig it into my chest and the first thing I’d feel is calm.”

I shudder at the image of hurting him even in a hypothetical. “That’s wrong.”

“No, it’s exactly right. And it’s my best hope to give us the life we want.”

That four-letter word again. I was wrong a moment ago. Hope is a more brutal killer than even dreams. I focus on logistics instead. “Flood you in me how? I’m here, you’re in Portland or will be . . .” I can’t finish. He will leave soon. In an hour, a day, a week, but someday because he always pushes me away in the end. My calming effect only dulls terrors; it doesn’t give self-worth, it doesn’t make him accept love. And I will be here alone on this idyllic meadow, looking for the forget-me-nots among the roses—never forgetting him, always missing him in my heart. When it comes to him, I might as well have eidetic memory myself.

He must sense the finality in my thoughts because anguish enters his eyes again, slowing down the tectonic plates to a grind. I give him time to work through it because I need a moment too. At length, with another shuddering breath, he begins. “This is why I am here, Elisa. Not just to see you or bring you your family. I’m here to ask you this one last thing. Flooding me in you can happen in two ways: I can do it on my own back in Portland, using your pictures and paintings after I replay a horror. I’m sure Reagan will give me more pictures of you now. It might work, it might not. Or we could do it together. Fight for it together. Have the real you with me. Not because it might work better for me or because you feel obligated. But because, from what you said earlier, we both want the same thing in the end. Will you fight with me?”

In his flawless face, the Dream Aiden, the Old Aiden, and the Real Aiden merge. The triple beauty is blinding, and I have to close my eyes. I would fight for all these Aidens until that one last heartbeat. But fighting with Aiden is a whole other different plane of existence, one I don’t know if either of us can survive. “What would fighting with you look like? In practice, I mean.”

“We have to break my rules, except the startle reflex. We still have to be religious about that until we know if this works. But other than that, we have to do the exact opposite of what we were doing, of what I was forcing us to do.”

Another four-letter word. Rule. Rule his mind, rule my heart, break a rule, rule us out.  “But your rules are everything to you. They give you the structure you need.”

“No. You’re everything to me. And the rules have to go anyway. Going by those rules, anticipating how I might hurt you every hour of every day while distancing myself from you was apparently very dangerous. Layer after layer of snow added to the snowball every single time. So, if you were to fight with me, we would do it the experts’ way. We would guard against my startle reflex. But other than that, we would live.”

L-i-v-e. “How?”

“Here is what the experts recommend but we could find another way if you feel more comfortable. In the morning when I wake up, I will intentionally recall a painful memory, top to bottom, but only once—probably Marshall because that’s where it all started. Then as soon as I finish, I’ll open my eyes and, if you do this with me, you would just be close by so that you’d be the very first thing I’d see, smell, hear, feel. And, if the experts’ theory is right, your calming magic will do what it does to my brain on its own, melting that fresh layer of deadly snow each time. We would just get on with our day. Do what we want for once, as best we can with me still so limited. And, during the day, I would have the very hard job of not letting my mind go to the negatives, the terror, the what-ifs. I’d have to use everything I have to stay there in the moment with you.”

S-t-a-y. “And what about during the night, when you’re asleep—wouldn’t the nightmares undo all your day’s hard work?” I want to ask another question. Would he sleep with me if I were to do this? But that question is too hard, too close to h-o-p-e.

He may hear my unspoken question anyway because a blue flame flashes in his eyes. Like the fire that burned there when we were together alone, bodies tangled so close I didn’t know where I ended and he started. “We have a solution for that,” he says, and his voice is huskier. “I still think it’s risky but Corbin and the experts think it might help.”

“What solution?” I try to keep my voice calm, scientific—in an effort to douse the f-i-r-e that now has caught in me.

“First, I’d take a medication against nightmares—it’s called prazosin. Then, while I’m asleep, we would need to do something that I associate strongly with you. They think this should help me stay asleep. We’ve tested it in the last two weeks and it works, but of course, I didn’t have anyone in bed with me.”

The flame in his eyes is now wildfire. He looks at me as though he is seeing past my coat and pajamas, through my skin—straight into those deepest parts of me that respond only to him. S-k-i-n. Another logistical question to extinguish these thoughts. “I don’t understand. How can you do something in your sleep that you associate with me?”

He smiles and the dimple appears now. “That part is easy. We play Für Elise.”

The answer is so unexpected I forget everything else for a moment. “You’re serious? Trying to shrink the snowball with my song while you’re unconscious?”

“Especially while I’m unconscious when I can’t interfere with it and make it bigger. I have to use every minute I can. I’m thirty-five years behind.”

“And Für Elise works to keep you asleep?”

“Like a charm.”

“How did you discover that?”

The dimple vanishes. “That’s a very long story, for another day, if you will give it to me. For now, let’s just say that whatever neural association my brain has built between you and that melody—maybe because we played it on our first morning when I was happier than I’d ever been—it works. Just like you’ve changed my brain, you can keep me asleep. And I didn’t even know it.”

A long silence falls between us then. I don’t know if he has said everything he had to say or if he is lost in another place, another time I cannot see. But the silence is good. It gives me time to think, to breathe into these new feelings and points of fire he has lit in me. To sort through all my questions for the most important. And to see a way through the fear. Make me brave, give him life.

“Please tell me what you’re thinking,” he says when minutes pass and I’m still unable to speak.

“Just taking it all in.”

His index finger hovers under my chin and my eyes meet his instantly, helplessly as always. The blue flame is gone. There is nothing but an achy tenderness there. “I know it’s a lot. I know I’m asking you to give me a chance based entirely on a theory that may not work when the pain I’ve caused you is very much real. I can see it here with my own eyes, the way you hug yourself, the way your hands shake, the way you can’t look at me anymore. And it’s tearing my heart out. So don’t say yes because you think you have to do this. You don’t. At all. You have changed my internal landscape permanently, and I can never go back to who I was before you. That’s just a scientific fact. My only option is to go forward and I will. Even if you don’t do this with me, I will keep trying with all my memories and pictures of you. So you’re not hostage to this. All you have to do is say the word “no”—no explanations, nothing, you don’t even have to look me in the eye as you say it. Whisper it if you need to. Or just give me a signal—raise your index finger for example if you don’t have the strength. And I promise I will leave. I will let you go on with the life you’re trying so hard to rebuild. I will never interfere. I will never ask anything of you again except to be happy. Like you asked me. And then some day, if I ever become safe, I promise I will call. Even if we are old and withered. It might not be as fun then, but it would be worth it if I could die next to you, just as you said. And if you have met someone by then—” his breath hitches and, for the second time in my life, I see a single tear tricking down his cheek. He smiles as his eyes become oceans. “Well then, won’t he be so very lucky to always have my heart with him?”

“Don’t!” I say as my own tears spill over at the same time that my fingers fly to his face to wipe his. “Don’t say that! I don’t want anyone else. I’m just afraid. Afraid I’ll screw up again. Afraid it won’t work. Afraid it will kill us both if it doesn’t. Afraid I’ll lose you again.” Why couldn’t I have figured out the bravery protein already? To make us both strong and fearless. Help us, Dad, help us please.

“I know, my love.” L-o-v-e. He takes my fingers in his strong hand and brings them to his lips, kissing the very tips that are wet with his own tears. “I wish I could tell you there is nothing to fear. I wish I could promise you this will work. But I can promise you this: you will never lose me, even if I’m not with you. I’ll always be yours even when you’re not mine as you said last night. And you could never screw up.” He kisses the tips of my fingers again and then gently places my own hand back on my lap.

“I screw up all the time,” I sniffle, missing his touch already.

As if his entire system is hardwired to my needs, he wipes my tears. Gently like butterfly wings. “Elisa, didn’t you listen to anything I said? Even these screw-ups as you call them have given us—me—a chance. If you had listened to me and had left after I attacked you or even before, we would have never discovered this. If you hadn’t believed me about Javier, I would have never found Für Elise. I’ll admit I wish you hadn’t abandoned your green card but you had to face England, I see that now. And it might be easier for us here at first if you do this. I have no memories of this village other than the ones I’d make with you. You might have given us a blank slate, and you didn’t even know it.”

His hands leave my face slowly. More l-o-s-s. He watches me as though he is extracting every pixel from this moment, every eyelash, every pore, every blink. Like he is lifting all thirty trillions of my cells to store forever in his impossible mind, to help him carry all the burdens of its terrors. And I see in that look the force with which he wants this to work. How he has cashed in all his hopes, all his dreams into this one small theory that my mysterious effect on his brain will be strong enough to undo the horrors. A shudder runs through me, and another, and another. What if this doesn’t work for him? What if my calming effect as he calls it is not strong enough to overcome decades of trauma? What will happen to my three Aidens then?

“Love? What is it? Is that a shiver from the breeze or from the storm I’ve put in your head?”

“How would we know if this works?” I ask.

His eyebrows knit at my change of direction but he answers. “That part is straightforward enough. We trigger my startle reflex in a controlled laboratory—away from you or anyone else who could get hurt—and see what happens. If it has worked, we should notice a change. Maybe it will be slower, or shorter, or less violent, we don’t know. But the hope is that there would be some reduction.”

I don’t ask what happens if it doesn’t work. I will need to have my bravery protein first before I can do that. Because I know then I will lose him forever. But as much as that rips the wound in my chest wide open, it’s not as paralyzing as my terror for him. That then he will lose himself, not just me, once and for all. Another shudder runs through me. “When would you do the test?”

“In ninety days.”

“Why ninety days?”

“Because that’s about how long it takes for my memory to shift from short-term to long-term. My memories of you are still new and need time to get cemented into the same brain areas that the old horrors live. At the crux of it, I have ninety days to tattoo you in every single part of my brain. If it doesn’t work by then, it never will.”

Ninety days. Nine million heartbeats. Will our love always be measured by deadlines and clocks? Tic toc, tic toc. Racing constantly against laws, governments, wars, and now against ourselves.

“Are you scared?” I ask him.

“Terrified.”

Trembling, I take his hand in both of mine and bring it to my lips. “Well then,” I say, looking up at him. “Let’s fight.”

Shock flashes through his beautiful face, changing his breath to a loud gasp. It lingers in his open mouth for a second and then it becomes my name. “Elisa!” he says, and brings his mouth to mine.

The moment our lips touch, an electric pulse courses through my body, as though his kiss is jolting it back to life. His lips mold with mine like they are speaking an ancient language to each other, “hey you, I’ve missed you, you’re mine”— words he first wrote on me with the quill on our very first night. The heat of his mouth stills my shivers and spreads over my skin like wildfire. His perfumed breath steals inside my lungs, healing them, filling them with him until my breathing sprints into a strong, healthy, jagged rhythm. At the sound, he moans and his kiss changes. It becomes urgent now, hands fisting in my hair, soldering me to him and yet it’s not close enough for me. I throw my arms around his neck, my fingers knotting in his hair as a frenzy ignites inside me. He responds with such force that I fall back on the grass. His weight pins me against the meadow, each hard line of his against every soft line of mine. His hands memorize my face, my throat, my shoulders, my waist, the entire length of me. With each grip, the ache in my chest disappears. With each stroke of his tongue, the wound heals shut. With each brush of his lips, the last two weeks blow away. And when he frees my mouth briefly to trail kisses along my jawline and my throat, my voice speaks only one word, freed and clear: “Aiden!”

His glorious face is right above me then, smiling—an exultant light in his incandescent eyes. And in this pin dot in time, there is no ache or sadness or fear there. Nor in mine. Only love. With a stunned gasp of my own, my mind—freed too—cracks the code. I smile at the brilliant blue sky beyond Aiden’s luminous face. Thank you, Dad, I think at him. I know now.

©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