NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 34 – ASH

Hey peeps,

Did this last week go on forever or what? Just in time to end the weekend and kickstart Monday, here is another chapter.  Thank you to all of you who read the last one and commented. As her mom, it was emotional for me to watch Elisa finally accomplish what she did. And of course, it wasn’t going to be the magical fix she had hoped, was it? Well, this next chapter was even more emotional for me to write. It’s one of the very first scenes that came to me with the story, and I knew it would take a while before the readers could see it because of where it had to be revealed. I also knew it would be painful to write. Hope I did it justice.  Thanks as always for reading. See you on the other side, as Elisa would say.  xo, Ani

34

Ash

“Okay, Elisa,” Doctor Helen says, still holding my hand. “What is your worst fear without the protein?”

“Aiden hurting,” I answer without hesitation.

She nods as though she expected as much. “What about your second deepest fear?”

“Aiden losing himself, although I wouldn’t call it a second. It’s tied with the first.”

I catch her by surprise with that—her silver brows arch. “I would have thought it would be you losing Aiden.”

“No.” As if any loss of mine could compare to the loss of the most beautiful, precious wonder there is.

“What about the next greatest fear?”

“Surviving the end enough for Aiden to truly live.”

Her intelligent eyes narrow in analysis, and I can tell from her pressed mouth she doesn’t like my answers. Who would? She seems to plunge deep in thought, staring beyond me. For a moment I think she is looking at one of Aiden’s brain images on the giant screens, but her eyes are far away like his travel sometimes. “Challenging. Very challenging,” she murmurs as if to herself. She is still for so long that I start watching the clock on the wall without fear for the first time since May seventh. There is a hypnotic quality to it now that I’m not terrified. The rhythmic tic toc is lulling like my measured heartbeats.

At last, Doctor Helen resurfaces back in the lab, looking unsettled. “Please wait here,” she says. “I will return shortly.”

Not a single nerve flutters for me as she strides out of the lab despite the onslaught of the super-emotions and questions. My mind is already hours, days, weeks, years ahead. How vast the capacity to think is when unhindered by fear! I’m still sorting through all the knowns and unknowns when Doctor Helen returns fifteen minutes later.

Fifteen minutes that have aged her. Her face is pale, her commanding footsteps slower as she carries a white filing box. My body’s response to her is automatic. My muscles flex and coil, jolting me to my feet. A sense of danger fires up my spine as the instinct to defend bolts through me. “Doctor Helen, what is it?” I ask, stepping to her side as far as the electrodes will let me. “Are you feeling alright?

She glances at the box she is carrying, and a shudder rocks her great frame. “I wouldn’t say so, no.” Her authoritative voice sounds hesitant. “Not when I’m about to cross the same professional and moral duties I have sworn to uphold.”

“What duties? How are you crossing them?”

“With what I’m about to show you.”

Even though my curiosity flares, there is only one correct answer to that. “Then don’t show me. There’s no reason to place yourself in conflict.”

“Yes, there is. Because nothing else will test the protein for you more realistically in a lab.”

“Then test me in the real word. Make me speak publicly to the entire Oxford faculty or in Trafalgar Square. Or take me car racing. Or anything else, I don’t care.” But as I reel off the options—as my mind struggles to conceive any terrifying test—I know all of them would be futile. As effortless as blinking. Nothing that would truly challenge the protein.

She nods knowingly, already having anticipated this problem. “Your worst fears are not typical, child. You’re not afraid of your own pain, loss, or embarrassment. You fear something impossible to test artificially: harm to the person you love the most. Public speaking or the risk of a car accident wouldn’t affect you at all now.”

I can’t argue with any of that, not to mention that I promised Aiden I would be safe. How inconvenient that promise has become now that I can’t be afraid. “But there must be some other way?”

“Not without risking your safety or Aiden’s, and I will never do that.”

Risking me? The idea is laughable, almost a thrill. But risking Aiden? That’s out of the question.

She must see my resolve without any answer from me. “I still want you to consider carefully,” she warns. “What I’m about to show you is going to hurt deeply. You can choose to accept uncertainty for Aiden or proceed without the protein. Indeed, I’m certain he would never permit this if he knew about it.”

There’s no doubt about that. Aiden would set whatever is in the box on fire before he allowed me to hurt in any way. Which is why this is my only chance. “I choose pain. And he will never know. I swear it.”

She shakes her head. “There may come a time where you will need to tell him. Don’t keep secrets from him on my account. His trust in you is infinitely more valuable than his peace with me.” But my confidence must resolve her conflict because she takes a deep breath, straightening up to her full height, and gestures toward my chair. “I think it will be best if you’re sitting for this.”

The instinct to defend turns inward, yet I can’t find any trepidation. Only raging curiosity. I sit back down, waiting as she takes the seat in front of me and sets the white box at her feet.

“I acquired this for the sole purpose of studying it,” she explains. “I never imagined I would ever need to use it this way.” Her grey eyes burn on mine. “There is still time to change your mind.”

Except my mind recoils from that option. “No, I want to be absolutely certain for Aiden.”

“With a mind like Aiden’s, we can never be certain until he tries it,” she amends. “But if this doesn’t terrify you, I think there is a very good chance, the protein will shield him from terror, too.”

If only there was a way to also shield him from pain . . . I nod, scarce for words again.

Her fingers hover a final moment above the box, then she lifts the lid. And for the second time since I ingested the protein, a super-charged storm of agony tears through me.

I can see now why I needed all her warnings. Why Doctor Helen looks ill. Why bile geysers in my throat. Why other emotions throb in my tissues: loathing, revulsion, anger. But I can’t argue with her flawless logic. What other test could ever match the protein except the one that rips Aiden to pieces?

“You’re showing me Aiden’s reel,” I whisper, glaring at the icy white monitor in the box exactly like the one in our garden shed. My hands ball up in fists ready to crush it, but her answer derails me.

“No, this is not his montage. But everything you’re about to see is real.”

My eyes fly up to her in astonishment. “Real?”

She nods gravely. “Real. I haven’t shown it to anyone, not even Aiden. But I won’t tell you more. I think its effect will be stronger if you don’t know what it is.” She picks up the monitor. My eyes don’t miss the quiver in her fingers as she touches it, but why if it’s not the reel? “You can stop any time,” she assures me for some reason that I no longer can comprehend. “I’ll be right here monitoring your every response. I have total wireless control and can pause it in a millisecond. All you have to do is tell me. Agreed?”

“Agreed.”

She gives me the fiercest gaze I have ever seen on anyone who isn’t Aiden. “Your word, Elisa.”

“My word,” I vow, my mind and body revving up for anything. Yet there isn’t a single frisson of fear. The dominant emotion is profound relief. At least I won’t have to see Aiden hurting. What else can possibly touch me?

“Then let’s begin,” she answers and secures the monitor around my eyes as I do with Aiden. His piano voice whispers just a petal in my memory, and abruptly something scorches the corner of my eye. Startled, I realize it’s a single tear. How different tears feel without dread. More painful and solid somehow, like a piece of flesh is chipping away.

From the monitor, my heartbeat tolls slowly. I blink away the moisture but can’t see anything. The screen is pitch black.

“You will need audio, too,” Doctor Helen adds, and I feel her hands snap a set of padded headphones over my ears. Instantly, they cancel out every sound. I hear and see absolutely nothing. Then a faint static purrs from the monitor like the fizz of a radio transmission flickering on. I squint hard but there is only darkness. For a moment I start thinking the monitor is broken or Doctor Helen has made a mistake, but then the clear sound of breathing fills my ears. Brisk and even, so vivid I almost feel the air at the back of my neck. Yet the screen remains midnight. One more invisible breath, two, then footsteps starts thudding, quick and heavy, as if walking on a soft surface. But the black never lifts. A sense of unease starts prickling over me. Not fear, but a hunch that something is looming. The self-defense instinct blazes in my muscles. I search the screen for any clues, but then a third sound changes everything. A low, male voice I’ve never heard before starts humming a familiar tune. Ray Charles’s I’ve Got a Woman.

A chill bolts down my spine as the blackness transforms before my stunned eyes. Because I realize now exactly who I’m hearing, what I’m watching. A body camera on Marshall, still alive, humming his good luck song for his love, Jasmine.

In a lightning flash, all the puzzle pieces fall into place. Why Doctor Helen shuddered, why she is breaking her rules, why this is the only terror that can test the protein. Because this must be the black dawn of May first, 2003—the day of that Fallujah torture. The real-time footage of the horror incredulously playing before my eyes. My body reverberates with the ghost of dread I cannot feel. Its absence mangles in my chest and contorts into agony. The wound that festers there implodes like an IED.  Every nerve ending blisters, and for a moment, I’m bewildered. Precisely that. Even with my new mind, I can’t make sense of this level of anguish. So potent, so immediate at the slightest trigger. I want to beg Doctor Helen to stop already.

Except I haven’t forgotten that there is an important reason for this. A lot more important than any pain I will feel.Aiden. The second his name resounds in my head, the pain retreats an inch. Just enough to boost my reinforced brain, that sense of invincibility that I can and will live through it for him.

Barely ten seconds have passed while my sharpened neurons process all this. Marshall is still striding into the impenetrable dawn. But those ten seconds changed the entire scene. I’m no longer captive, I’m a volunteer. Perhaps it will help to see this without fear. Perhaps with my new abilities, I can finally grasp a fraction of Aiden’s torment. Maybe watching this will bind us together in a way that no time or distance can ever break.

Without another thought, I follow Marshall into the black space.

There is no moon or stars on this dawn, but as he charges ahead—toward the end of his life though he doesn’t know it—dense, indistinct shapes morph out of the darkness, glowing subtly. With a start, I realize they’re tents lit from within, and I know where Marshall is going with a song under his breath.

No, I want to tell him through the years. Stop, don’t go, stay behind. But Marshall doesn’t. He strides onward into the black maze, his boots pounding on the sand that fills the envelopes of Aiden’s war letters. Then as quickly as he started, he stops. In a flash, a tent’s flap-door rips open, and I’m blinded by the sudden light. It takes a few furious blinks to see again. Only to realize until now I had been blind. Because in front of my sharp eyes, more beautiful than any sight in life, dreams, or art, is twenty-three-year-old Aiden. Lying in his cot, his black hair shorn into a buzz cut, bare chest gleaming under his steel dog tags, long legs in cammies, writing what can only be one of my letters.

He stuns all my new senses. I’m sure even my heart beeps have stopped. Every angle of him is carved in sun-forged bronze like some indestructible god of war. As his hand glides over the commissary paper, his arms throw golden shadows from the tent lantern. And his face . . . Youthful, untouched by tragedy, with an uncatchable Peter Pan smile at the corner of his lips. But more surreal than all these are his eyes. They haven’t yet seen the torture waiting. They’re turquoise flames, setting the night on fire as he gazes at the words he is writing. And I realize now that all those moments when his beauty dazzles in that indescribable way are echoes of this young, whole Aiden.

He looks up at his best brother, at me through the camera that must be clipped on Marshall’s chest. A shiver whispers over my skin. Not fear, but everything else in the extreme. And I know the words that are coming. I remember them from the Portland Rose Garden as if Aiden is quoting them to me.

“Drop your dick, Storm,” Marshall drawls in an American Southern accent. He has an upbeat voice, lighter than the other four brothers. “We’re going to Fallujah. Palomino’s got Q fever and Morton’s on his period or something. We’re switching patrol. Do some recon on the city pipes that lead to the hajji market.”

Aiden chuckles. “Isn’t this Morton’s fifth period in the last month?” Even with the flat distortion of the recording, his voice rings like storybook music.

“I’m getting him a box of tampons at the Baharia mart. Fucking pussy.”

“Ah, now that’s where you’re wrong, Marshall. See, pussies are astoundingly strong, fearless, resilient things. Not to mention absolutely perfect in every minute way. I refuse to have Morton’s face associated in my memory with something so divine.”

Marshall lets out a raucous laugh that rattles the camera. “Motherfucker, just once in my life I want to see you be wrong.”

“You’ll have to live a long time.”

“That’s the plan. Come on, let’s go smell the shit tunnels. By the way, I’m cam guy today.”

No, say no! Fall ill, make Morton go, stay in the tent, writing to me. I don’t care if you don’t follow orders. Just don’t go, please!

But Aiden smirks at Marshall. “I see that. Give me ten seconds.” And his eyes return to the letter. He scrawls a few more words quickly—I’d give up bravery now to know which ones—and the dimple forms in his clean-shaven cheek.

“So who the fuck do you keep writing to with that boozy-ass grin?” Marshall asks, and the camera gets closer to Aiden, leveling with his mirage face as Marshall must sit somewhere next to him. “Can’t be a woman. There’s only dicks as far as the eye can see.”

Aiden smiles again, and my heart beeps must stammer. “Oh, the eye can see pretty far.”

“Is that gibberish supposed to be some genius level shit?”

Another starry dimple. “I promise you in this area you know a lot more than me.”

“What the fuck? So it is a woman? Is she human?”

“Nope. As I said, divine.” He jots down another word—probably Yours, Aiden—and folds the letter, slips it in the envelope, and runs his tongue over the flap, sealing it. For twelve long years until the moment I opened it. He tucks it inside his rucksack and rises to his feet. The motion is fluid like water, without any tension straining his shimmering shoulders. So graceful I can’t breathe despite my powerful lungs. It seems awe is not affected by the protein either. It’s only intensified. Or perhaps it’s not the protein; perhaps it’s the impossibility of him.

“Then why the fuck do you never mail them?” Marshall continues, sounding half-puzzled, half-amused.

Another chuckle is Aiden’s only answer as he turns around to a large cooler. His golden back glows at ease with the lithe movement. I can barely blink from him to take in his surroundings even with my expanded brain. The spartan tent is tall enough for the soldiers to stand, another empty cot across, presumably Marshall’s. Between them two crates like nightstands, each with a lantern. On Marshall’s is a photograph of a stunning African-American woman with startling blue eyes who has to be Jasmine. On Aiden’s a folded map, his chess set, and Byron’s Poems. The rest is crammed with weapons and battle rattle as Aiden calls it.

He opens the cooler and takes out what I know are two Bologna sandwiches. “Pringles of Ruffles?” he asks Marshall.

“Motherfucker, knock that shit off. Tell me what’s the deal with the goddamn letters.”

Aiden doesn’t turn but his relaxed shoulders shrug. “Think of them as good luck. To keep me alive, like that infernal song you keep singing.”

“Hah, it’s not the song, it’s the woman, brother.”

“Exactly.” Aiden tosses a water bottle in the rucksack. “Ruffles or Pringles?”

“My dick.”

“It’s still attached? I could have sworn it fell off with all the combat jack.”

They laugh together with a sound that soothes the edges of my raw chest. “Gotta keep my balls in shape for Jasmine, man. Maybe this FUBAR war will end and I’ll see her for Christmas.”

“For all our sakes, I hope it’s sooner. There’s no Jergens left at the BX. Ruffles or Pringles?”

“Ruffles. So you’re not going to tell me who the letter woman is?”

Aiden throws on his shirt, and despite the horror he is getting dressed for, I still can’t miss the ripple of his chest or the Adonis V muscles flowing below his waist. “As soon as she comes along, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Well, fuck me, I’ll be dead by then. You have to go after a woman for her to come along, Storm. That’s mother nature. Like a lion with the gazelle.”

Aiden laughs my favorite waterfall laughter, pulling on his bulletproof vest. “Agreed. Jasmine is definitely a lion. Come on, gazelle, throw this on—” He tosses a groin protector at Marshall. “Keep those dainty balls of yours safe for Christmas.”

I would laugh if I wasn’t drowning in grief, if pain wasn’t scalding my throat. They arm up—protectors, ammunition, helmets, boots, rifles, knives—laughing together in this tent for the last time. Razzing each other with words that soon will pierce hearts more than any bullet.

Aiden hoists his enormous rucksack over his back, shoulders relaxed despite the weight, and ducks out first. That too is a last. No one has ever walked right behind him again after this dawn, except Benson. The pain ratchets up another level, and I wonder vaguely how much stronger it can get before it kills me. Not that it matters. There is no way I could leave him now. I will crawl to the deepest, fieriest end with him and for him.

The brothers’ boots crunch on the sand in practiced tandem, but they don’t go far. In seconds, they step inside another tent. There is only one dim lantern here, just enough light for me to recognize young James, Hendrix, and Jazz. How different they look from the life-worn warriors I have met! James is beardless, his wild auburn curls gone in the same buzz cut. Hendrix is unlined, more muscular than he is now. And Jazz . . . he is whole and unscarred. A youthful Paul Newman with alabaster skin. They’re all asleep in their cots, James’s immense height diagonal across the tent to fit. But as soon as Aiden and Marshall duck in, his sniper eyes fling open.

“What the fuck?” he rumbles. The other two wake instantly, leaving their last peaceful sleep behind.

“Sorry gents,” Aiden answers. “Recon is ours today. Morton went Semper-I.”

A huge yawn overcomes Hendrix. “That whiny little bitch bailed again?”

“PMS,” Marshall informs everyone.

Jazzman groans. “His asshole has a date with my M-007 tonight.”

They all rise with a chorus of profanities that would make me laugh if they were in the cottage. But I can’t even remember laughter now as I watch Aiden study the pipes map while the others get ready. I’m so absorbed with his relaxed stillness in a crowded space that the sound suddenly blaring in the tent confuses me, even though I should have expected it. Marshall breaking into his good luck song.

“WELL, I’VE GOT A WOMAN—” he belts out at the top of his lungs, making all four of his brothers jump.

“God fucking damn it!” James roars, hurling his rucksack over his shoulders and shaking the tent’s rooftop with it. “Stop that shit! It’s too fucking early.”

“WAY OVER TOWN,” Marshall keeps going. “THAT’S GOOD TO ME. OH YEAH…”

“Let him get it out, Cal,” Aiden sighs indulgently. “Or we’ll have to listen to it all year.”

“SHE GIVES ME MONEY WHEN I’M IN NEED! YEAH SHE’S A KIND OF FRIEND INDEED!”

All four of them glare as Marshall trills between lines, “Sing it, dicks, you know you want to.” The camera sways slowly, and I realize Marshall must be dancing. Hendrix shakes his head in disgust. Jazz flips him off. But a piano voice that almost dissolves my bones croons next to Marshall.

“She saves her lovin’, early in the mornin’, just for me,” Aiden hums for his best friend. His rare song swells in my ears and becomes acid tears in my eyes.

“OH YEAH!” Marshall riots, and then the other three join as a battery of fuck-you’s starts firing from other tents outside. I wish they would keep singing. I wish they would stay and wake up the entire world. But their swan song is over in less than a minute, and the five brothers head out in the starless dawn together for the last time.

Instantly, they plunge into silence. Not a single word or laugh passes through their lips now as they melt in the darkness, slipping here and there into other tents until the squad is complete. Eleven Marines I think, Aiden at the head, Marshall on his right shoulder, James to his left. Then everything starts zipping fast forward, as Doctor Helen must have modified the fragment for speed. No, I want to yell at her this time. Let them stay here. Because here they’re still themselves, still hopeful, still alive. But the blackness races ahead, dawn lightening to navy, just in time for a tunnel entrance to zoom up like a gaping black hole. My body coils with tension. The sewage morass. The last passage to that schoolyard of terror, the descent to hell. And the footage slows to normal speed again. I search swiftly for any orienting detail, but there is only the yawning darkness spanning the camera.

“Moonbeams out, single file,” Aiden orders, and the squad revs up. Rifle locks and clicks snap everywhere like teeth. And with a deep collective breath, they dive in, Aiden first—the spear point because of his memory. My screen glints black for a second, then flashlights slice the darkness. But even with their radiance and the protein, I can only see endless walls wreathing around like snakes. A relentless drip-drip punctuates the squelch of boots as the Marines slosh through the marsh below. Their methodic breathing echoes off the pipes and magnifies in my ears, replacing the absent thud-thud-thud of terror. The tight space presses down on my senses with an invisible weight that would have suffocated me without the protein. But bravery only hones them further under the sense of danger. So sharp, so vivid, I can almost smell the putrid air that’s making them gasp as Aiden leads his men deeper and deeper into the bowels of war. Left, right, right, left, left. Oddly, I think of his steps when we would dance Für Elise before bed, and agony nearly incapacitates me again. I pin my eyes only on the contours of Aiden’s back, more at ease under one hundred pounds of iron than I have ever seen it in life. So close, a breath away, yet forever gone.

“Storm,” Marshall huffs, and my throat seizes up. Because I know the words he is about to chortle—so similar to mine when I triggered this memory for Aiden at the Portland Rose Garden. “Your brain’s the best fucking thing that’s happened to this platoon.”

“No, that would be clean oxygen,” Aiden responds through clenched teeth.

“Hear, hear,” Cal croaks somewhere in the back. “Seriously though, how the fuck do you remember this shit? I can’t tell up from down.”

“Down will be Morton’s ass when I’m done with it,” Jazz grunts, and a chuckle rumbles through the squad. Speaking must become impossible then as they gag and wheeze in silence.

The camera races forward again, condensing hours of crawling into soul-wrenching minutes—the last moments before the schoolyard. And I know like the sterile air I’m breathing that I would have ripped off this monitor without the protein right now. I would have begged Doctor Helen to stop. I would have traded knowledge for ignorance in a jackhammer heartbeat, only so I wouldn’t have to see what happens next. But bravery has wiped out all those fears and hysterics. Instead, the deeper the Marines sink into the earth through the drains, the more the protein spreads like wildfire in my veins. Quite literally. My skin warms and a massive energy starts thrumming in my muscles. The blistering agony licks up my throat like flames. Yet the more it burns, the more my mind hones. Clearer now with the instinct of preservation but shielding Aiden instead of myself. Processing every facet and nuance around him with razor perception. I fling all my senses in the vast labyrinth before him, bracing my mind and muscles for the torment ahead.

It comes out of nowhere. One second everything is tar black, the next a burst of brilliant light blazes over the screen like the strobe light in dad’s library. I blink furiously for sight, regaining it before Aiden and Marshall despite the fact that I’m watching from a screen. They catch up in a second, choking triumphantly: “Thank fuck!”

Then Aiden falls back, letting Marshall and the others pass, clapping them on the shoulder while they don sunglasses. My gaze brushes his scarless brow as Marshall climbs out into the dazzling glare of the desert. I have to crunch my eyes as my pupils adapt to this strange light spectrum. And almost plug my ears. Because frantic gasps and coughs sputter everywhere as the Marines soar out. I search through them instantly until I find Aiden again, coming out last. His Crossbow sunglasses hide his eyes but he gazes up at the sky as though trying to inhale all of it and rinse out his lungs. I cinch him in the center of my focus—the end is getting closer now—and peer around the screen, dissecting the scene. Where did evil come from? Was it here lurking already? But the protein doesn’t see only danger. It locates the familiar, the safe even in the foreign, deadly horror.

The schoolyard, blazing with white desert sun. Sand glimmering like ice. The school with yellow brick walls. Mosques and minarets in the horizon, eerily similar to Oxford’s spires and domes. A market down the street flashing in brilliant colors: tomatoes, lemons, leeks, eggplant, all shot through with inkblots of hijabs scurrying through the aisles. The ancient Euphrates River sparkling like molten silver. A tan Toyota truck playing an oldie tune I can’t pinpoint. And right before us, six little boys, playing football with a Marine helmet, just as Aiden described it to me. I hear their Arabic and innocent laughter and more agony singes my chest fiercer than fear.

“All seems normal,” James says from somewhere behind Marshall where I can’t see him.

But a strange needly sensation prickles my skin. Before I can explain it—BOOM!

The explosion reverberates in my skull, rattling my ribcage violently. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! I never knew sound could rend the world like this. So deafening it would perforate normal eardrums, but these fearless ones somehow withstand it. Clouds of fire mushroom in my vision. Thick smoke billows everywhere, swallowing Aiden and Marshall down its black throat.

And that’s all I see. A fierce snarl I’ve never heard before tears from my lips, but it’s drowned by the instant human implosion. Piercing screams, wailing, a suckling gurgle nearby that makes me shiver. The screen becomes a dark blur of sand as Marshall must dive for cover, while I scan every grain for any sign of Aiden. There is none. No English, no familiar piano voice, no deep clearing of his throat. I listen in torture instead of terror, but another IED detonates, and the earth shatters against the monitor.

Aiden, Aiden, Aiden! Where are you? Keep your eyes closed, love! Roll away from the street, the protein commands for some reason I can’t access.

But I can’t hear him. Not a single rasp of breath that I know better than my own. Only screams and that same chilling spongy sound. Another salvo of violent energy surges in my body. I have to labor to adjust its intensity. But the less terror I feel, the more agony batters me. For entire minutes that with my new time perception feel both like milliseconds and hours.

I devour the screen in a frenzy, but the charred ground presses over my eyes, hard as a tomb.

Then at last something changes in the pitch void. A slight movement, a lightening in the grimy screen, new sounds that are not screams. Yet they tear through me with a new shockwave of torment. Coughing, retching, suffocating, a thunder of rubble, and a voice spluttering.

“Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Marshall croaks and stumbles, but the camera is coated with a smoky film. I can’t see anything as the violence of adrenaline wrings my own muscles, but then a familiar roar floods me with dizzying relief.

“MARSHALL, thank Christ!” And a powerful force wrenches Marshall upright, like it ripped Edison off me. I can’t see Aiden’s face through the sooty screen but I sense everything else about him, even the strength of his grip on his friend. He’s still whole, still himself. “You in one piece?” he shouts hoarsely.

“Yea, except my ears,” Marshall craws back. “Where the fuck did that come from?”

“The road, I think.”

And then I hear it. A third voice that starts the countdown to horror. “BACK TO VOLTURNO,” Hendrix bellows from somewhere close. “WE GOTTA GO NOW!”

“They’re fucking kids,” Marshall protests in broken breaths. “Fucking kids, man.”

“IN FIFTEEN MINUTES, WE’LL HAVE HAJJIS ON OUR ASS, STORM. THEY’LL SKIN US ALIVE AND SELL OUR BALLS FOR FALAFEL . . . WE GOTTA GET OUTTA HERE NOW!”

“Can’t leave them, Storm! They’ve got fucking mothers. Maybe one of them survived?” Marshall must be brushing himself off because a slender, brown hand swipes over the camera, and streaks of grime peel off, finally letting me squint between them. Only to see more billows of smoke, crags of rubble, and a shadow of Aiden’s face. Gone is the bronzed skin. He’s covered in white ash, staring in horror at something before him, his throat convulsing. And they’re still so close to the street.

“Marshall’s right.” Another gravelly voice spews next to Aiden—James. “Look at that shit.”

“I know!” Aiden hisses through his teeth. I can hear the torment in his voice, the battle of the decision that has haunted him ever since. Stay or go?

My own stomach heaves with ache as I see the tortured ghost of his face. What would I have chosen without the protein? I don’t know for myself, but I know for him I would choose fear, selfishness. I would choose for him to leave. But Aiden has never been selfish, no matter how much I want him to be.

“FIVE MINUTES!” he roars to the squad, making the choice that brutalizes him every day. The choice to listen to his heart, to his best friend. The call he has never forgiven himself for even though he wasn’t alone. “KIDS ONLY, THEN BACK TO CAMP!”

No one questions him again. They spill out in the yard, digging through the wreckage after the wails. That’s when I see them in the streaky screen—the small bodies smattered on rubble. The torn ribcage with shredded lungs at Aiden’s feet; the sound I was hearing is the gurgle of the little boy’s throat. A tiny hand here, a crushed leg there, a tangle of shrapnel-ridden intestines, that helmet full of human brains I saw during the reel—gruesome jigsaws that would have pulverized me without the protein. I could have never breathed through this even from a safe screen. My mind would have reached for unconsciousness before processing any glimpse of it.

But Aiden has always been braver, stronger. He starts heaving out huge chunks of pavement, and I think wildly of him rebuilding the riverbank for me. More agony incinerates my insides. I have never seen him work faster, more desperately than he is now, as his mind matches the flung-out body parts and puts them back together, frantic for any sign of life. I can’t see his face as Marshall digs too, but I know the torment tensing his frame as he blows through the debris, leaving macabre order behind instead of chaos.

He’s holding a little arm with a scrap of bloodied cloth when they come. At first, I can only hear that oldie song between screams, then a thunder of gunfire blasts through the thinning smoke from the street. Bullets shriek past Marshall, missing him and Aiden by inches, but piercing down two other Marines. Their bodies drop on the same children they were trying to save.

Somehow, I don’t fall. There is no time. Because another IED explodes, or maybe a bomb, shaking Marshall’s body and the camera on his chest. It resounds down to my bones, almost dislodging them at the joints. The world erupts on fire again, but this time the flames rage higher. There’s no more sky—only orange tongues lashing the clouds. Smoke churns through the yard like a hurricane. I can’t even make out Marshall’s machine gun even though I can hear its grisly snarl as he manages to aim. Crammed between its roars, a familiar voice rings in my ears, close but out of sight.

“GET IN AND RADIO BAHARIA!” Aiden shouts. “I’VE GOT THE STREET.”

“NO WAY!” Marshall hollers back. “I’M WITH YOU.”

“YOU FIRST. UN-ASS NOW! THAT’S AN ORDER!”

“Fuck!” Marshall swears, but I know from his tone, he has to obey. He has no choice; Aiden is his commanding officer. I watch the fire whirl by as Marshall bolts toward the school. Smoke and flames rush over my eyes like a blindfold, dense and impenetrable. My body tears in conflict—senses jailed to the screen, heart hooked at my spine as Aiden is left behind. I always thought they ran in together.

Marshall lunges inside and, abruptly, there is a crack in the suffocating darkness. I can see a narrow staircase and his dusty boots as he bounds up, yelling into a radio.

“Bravo-alpha-hotel—this is Unit 89—grid Whiskey-Hotel-Fife-Niner—blown up, TIC, direct fire. Need dust-off and artillery NOW! Repeat, dust-off and artillery now. Over.”

A staticky voice caws back but my mind mutes it because right then Marshall flies into the classroom of horror. My eyes rove furiously across it, scanning the threadbare walls. The protein vacuums up every detail, shuffling them in whatever priority keeps my insides in my body. Some Arabic lines scrawled in faded red. An empty bookcase in the corner. A flower drawn in white chalk on the blackboard like a rose. Cracked, loose tiles tremble on the floor. Desks rattle on rickety legs. And that’s it—nothing else. If my heart wasn’t already ash, it would break.

Marshall streaks to the first window where the glass has shattered, skidding to a stop on his knees. I squint through the spikes, but there is only a black sea of smoke boiling below. The less I see, the more my body revolts. Instead of the flight response, it strains for action. My limbs are vibrating with the compulsion to plummet into the flames, tear through rubble, and find Aiden where he must be choking for air. My body thinks I can do it. My mind recognizes the chance was never mine. My heart refuses to accept it. Three forces tearing me apart.

All around, the barrage of artillery is relentless. For a wild second, I wonder why my eardrums haven’t ruptured, then I realize the protein must be adjusting my perception just a decibel below harm.

“STORM!” Marshall bellows into the abyss, and my chest throbs with another wave of agony. What happened? Where is Aiden? How many seconds has it been? But then suddenly his homey voice booms behind me.

“AT YOUR SIX!” And he materializes beside his brother at the window, his beauty unrecognizable with black soot and white ash powdering every inch of his skin. I rip in half: one anguish, the other relief. Relief because he is here breathing. Anguish because we’re only minutes from the deepest terror of his life. Minutes where neither of us know what happened.

“Thank fuck!” Marshall cries, and his fist shoots out, grasping Aiden’s shoulder.

“Did Jazz make it in?” Aiden aims through the jagged glass, searching the inferno.

“Can’t see anyone, and I’m almost black on ammo.”

Dark fury rolls over Aiden’s face like the smoke clouds. Then he signs quickly. Go low. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs.

“Fuck!” Marshall hisses, crouching beneath the window frame, reeling off again into the radio. But I can’t peel my eyes from Aiden. The undiluted terror on his face almost stumps the protein and becomes my own. It drowns every ashen pore like the curdling smoke below. And even though I can’t see his eyes, I know the terror is not for himself. It’s for his brothers. I can see it in his sandy lips quivering in silence. I know their movement better than any language, and for the first time I see Aiden praying. Please God, he’s mouthing, please save them. Take me, not them, I’m ready. Send them home to their women, keep me to yourself.

In my own head, a different prayer is drumming even though I know how this ends: take all my bravery and give it to him. Take all his pain and give it me. Send me to my parents but keep him to himself.

Between each prayer, he tries to aim through the inferno. How many bullets does he have left? How many seconds before the deepest hell? Past the shattered panes—so similar to dad’s library—the smoke starts thinning. Enough for my eyes to glimpse the orange sky, a throng of sandy cars, Marshall’s fingers crossed as he keeps radioing. And for Aiden to see something that stops his praying lips. Dread implodes over his face like a grenade of its own.

“He’s burning!” he chokes, and I know he has found Jazz.

That’s when I register something I recognize—no, more than one, but the most crucial— Aiden’s posture from the reel. The way he leans forward, rolling on the balls of his feet. The signal that the torture is about to begin. Something must combust in my blood at the sight because the protein triggers a gust of heat around my heart as if to cloak it. In the same breath, agony soars higher, scalding my eyes.

“Yes!” Aiden rejoices and fires his last shot. I watch with an IED in my throat his hand closing into the telltale fist as he saves his brother. The last image, his final act. Then my unbreakable heart stops as several terrors strike at once.

Two black, masked shadows streak into the screen behind Aiden. A rifle flashes in the air and crashes into the back of his skull right at the helmet’s edge. His guttural groan rips through his teeth at the same time as Marshall’s cry, and Aiden drops unconscious on the tiled floor. Then five more shadows swarm above the brothers—one screaming, the other silent. The screen is a mosh pit of black. My last mad thought is of dementors sucking out their souls, then a tsunami wave of agony drowns me.

My parents’ wrecked Beetle—that was just a grain of sand in the eye compared to this.

The doors to the morgue—they were only clenched jaws.

Their frozen, bluish bodies—only a broken bone beneath bruised skin.

Their coffins in the grave together—barely a bathtub of acid swallowing me.

Losing Aiden—that was my flesh peeled away by a thousand scalpels.

Watching Edison hurt him—that was just death.

I accept them all now, accept them humbly because, alone or together, they pale to this. Normal human minds were not made for this pain. Unfortified hearts would crush from this. And the torture hasn’t even started.

Abruptly, selfishly, I wish I hadn’t taken the protein. Let me fear, let me fear, let me fear. Dull this agony now before it ends me.

It’s too late for that, but bravery does give me one thing: acuity. Even as I beg for terror now, I don’t forget for a second why I am doing this. The one reason that is worth every moment of this unfathomable pain. Aiden, Aiden, Aiden. His name rings like a talisman in my head, fortifying me as much as the protein. I will endure this horror once for every time he lives through it without a single complaint. I will search for hope even in this hopeless place. I will be here on the other side for him.

The screen is still a viper nest of limbs, tearing and ripping. A knife glints as it slashes through the melee. Then a piercing scream stabs me and keeps echoing in Marshall’s voice. The black fist of bodies opens, and I can finally see. Just in time to wish I was blind or at least with my old, fear-struck eyes that missed so much. But these new eyes consume everything. Everything I never wanted to exist.

It’s worse than anything I ever imagined. A stream of blood has smeared on the broken tiles to the front desk where Marshall must have been dragged, gasping and thrashing. Under the window, Aiden’s body is still contorted on the floor, a crimson pool flowing out of his skull, his helmet, shirt, and weapons gone. Deep red is seeping beneath his skin over his shoulders and ribs. And closer to the camera, for the first time, I see the entire lower half of Marshall’s body as he must be propped up. He was shorter than the others, slenderer. His legs are twitching, the cammies stained with blood, and his dusty boots are no longer dusty. They are caked with coarse, red mud, the way sand must turn when congealed with blood. Somehow the protein keeps my heart inside my chest. These feet that pounded the desert with a song, that danced for the woman he loves, that have walked next to Aiden every step of the way, dreaming of the road home, will never walk again.

A harsh chorus of voices in Arabic draws my eyes from the red boots to the black ones. I don’t understand anything the monsters are grunting, except I know these are the moments Aiden doesn’t remember. The ten minutes hidden from his memory. The last moments before the torture begins.

Aiden’s body is still lifeless on the floor, his skull still overflowing. So vivid, so red, so much. A ghostly pallor is spreading over his face. It feels as though my own skull is crushing, my own blood draining out of me. Let me live, let me live, let me live for him, please.

But a new rush of torment clamors in my ears. Strangling, snapping, more grunts, one gunshot, then another. Pink droplets mist the screen. Another shriek rends the air, then a high-pitched reedy laugh as Marshall writhes in agony, the camera with him. Jarring voices are arguing, squawking phrases I can’t comprehend. Scientists say language makes us human, but science is wrong. Because although these voices speak human, human they are not.

The bloody mist dissipates now, and I can see Marshall’s boots again. Two bullet holes have torn through them, leaving behind ragged gashes where there used to be toes. His legs jerk violently as his tortured cries claw at my eardrums. The classroom pulses with his heaving chest, and I pulse with it. It’s an impossible fragment of existence—this feeling of terrorless pain without the need to scream, vomit, or expel any agony. Because your mind is strong enough to handle it all.

Even Aiden’s pain that’s just about to begin?

Steel cables whip in the air like lightning, and three monsters start advancing toward him.

“Don’t touch him!” A woman snarls, stunning me, then I realize it’s me.

“Leave him alone.” Another weaker voice gurgles in English—Marshall—but a black boot stomps on his gut, choking him off. The camera shudders with him as four arms yank Aiden’s body off the floor.

The instant they touch him, everything changes for me. Rage explodes like a car bomb, scorching through my muscles like lava and hardening into a ferocious sense of strength. It crackles on my skin like current and sinks down into my bones. Images of violence flash before my eyes like my own reel: skinning this evil alive with the knives of glass; carving out their eyes; pulling out each nail, each tooth, each finger, and wearing them around my neck like scalps; ripping open their chests and tearing out their hearts, still beating until I bleed them dry. And even that doesn’t seem enough because I can’t turn back time. But somehow knowing I could have avenged this changes the pain. Rage blisters forward with its own heat. A scarlet haze flames bright in my vision around Aiden’s and Marshall’s bodies as if to shield them. It doesn’t lessen the agony, but it balances it. Makes it just barely possible to endure, to witness with infallible senses what happened to my love and his brother. To hold it in my memory because both these warriors deserve nothing less.

Yes, just barely enough to give me purpose but excruciating still. I watch through the filter of fury as stained fingers tie Aiden in thick chains—two around his purple shoulders, three binding his arms behind his back. The same laughing monster digs his claw into Aiden’s bloodied scalp and tugs his head. The mouth I have kissed a thousand times falls open. With another reedy laugh, a second monster smears a blood-drenched thumb over Aiden’s lips. For a sickening moment, I think it’s a caress, and violence fires out of me in waves. But then the evil hisses, pointing at Marshall with more laughter, and I understand. Just in time to wish I hadn’t. Because it’s Marshall’s blood that Aiden will be tasting when he awakes.

A volcano of rage erupts in my throat, chewing its way into a silent scream, but deep beneath the hellfire, I’m grateful. Because Aiden doesn’t remember this. What would it have done to him if he had? Or am I wrong about that? Did his powerful memory know the taste of his own blood and could tell the difference?

I will never ask him those questions. I don’t want him to recall one more second of this horror. And there are too many seconds left.

More guttural voices are shouting over his body and, suddenly, the corner of a rifle slams above his eye. Exactly where today he has his scar. A fountain of blood gushes from the beloved face as his head lolls back. Then a foot crashes into his chest, cracking the ribs where I rest my head. Grimy hands touch his body—gripping his arms, spreading them apart as if to rip them off their sockets.

Another burst of fury blasts in my gut. A phantom vise twists my own limbs as though they, too, are tearing apart.

“No!” Marshall gasps, and the camera starts to shake as he tries to fight but another blow to his gut silences him again. Burgundy is flowing from Aiden’s wounds, coating his cheek, painting his inert shoulders. A third monster locks his arm around his throat, strangling him from behind. Then another crushing kick to his side, and his body sinks in the monster’s chokehold.

Stop! I roar in my head, but I know it’s useless. The protein cannot turn back time.

“Wake—up—Storm,” Marshall murmurs so weakly I can only hear him because his mouth is so close. “Wake—up—so—your—woman—can—come—along. Wake—up.”

But Aiden’s doesn’t move. The monster behind him throttles him again, as the other two start bombarding his shoulders with their fists like a game. And the fortress of Aiden’s body begins to break. Sharp cracks snap in my ears, as my heart keeps tempo with the blows. The camera shakes on Marshall’s chest, and I shake with it. From the motion, another lava stream washes in every crevice of my mind. But bravery commandeers my senses toward any detail that can soften the pain or at least differ from it. The rose on the blackboard, a tile cracked like the letter A, the blood forming shapes with its rivulets . . . a harvest moon, a setting sun, an American Beauty rosebud.

It’s just a petal, love, I think toward him fiercely. Just a petal, I’m right here on the other side.

But Aiden doesn’t hear us—he can’t—no matter how much I hurl my mind through the years as the seconds grind in my head to a near-halt. Has it been ten minutes? Or fifteen? Will the protein be enough to endure the worse torture about to begin or will it kill me?

A sharp inhale sucks the air from the screen, from my very lungs. I watch without breathing as Aiden’s chest shudders, and he comes awake.

He returns as he lives, with strength, with dignity even in hell. He tries to straighten up despite the chains, dripping in blood, blinking his one eye open. I can’t see the color of his iris in the crimson sheen varnishing his face. Yet his beauty doesn’t release him even now, and I know why—because his beauty comes from within. Not from any part that evil can touch. It’s obvious even to the monsters who have frozen still, watching him come to life.

It takes only one blink for his mind to revive. He snarls and thrashes against the steel cables, searching frantically for his brother among the black specters. Utterly unafraid until his fierce gaze alights by the desk that has been my pyre, straight to the camera, finding Marshall at last.

Every life has two stories: the one we can tell and the one we cannot. Perhaps we can’t tell it because of fear or pain. Perhaps we don’t know. But there are some unspoken stories that stay silent because we simply don’t have the words. This is one of those stories. I will never find the language to describe the terror on Aiden’s face as he sees his best friend, or the agony there that suddenly makes my own seem like an old bruise. There is no code, no formula, no dialect in human I can speak this in. But I will always know this part of his story even when I am ash. I will know it because this is when a part of his soul dies. I almost hear its last breath as it blows out of Aiden’s lungs.

“Marshall,” he whispers, his face wringing in torture, bubbles of his own blood and Marshall’s forming on his lips. “Let me take this. Breathe for Jasmine.”

The camera is trembling on Marshall’s chest. Through his low gasps, I think I hear, “I will.”

Then Aiden turns his eye on the monsters, transforming to blood-soaked steel. He fires something at them in fluent Arabic, except his cadence is different now, low and pleading. But the monsters laugh, their words stabbing him like knives. Another desperate, urgent plea from him, pointing with his chin at his chest, and I know he is bartering for Marshall’s life with his own. Another cackle, then the world ends. The monsters converge on the two brothers like black smoke. The screen plunges to chaos. Gunfire punches my eardrums, more bullets shatter Marshall’s feet, a silver blade slices the air before the camera, right Marshall’s bloodied hand quivers up.

“Not your fault, my brother,” he chokes so low I can barely hear him. Before I can tense against the torture that’s about to start, the screen goes blank. I wait for it to flicker back on or any sound or static. But there is nothing. My ears ring with the deafening clang of silence.

“No!” I gasp, rattling the monitor against my face. “No! Come back!”

But two gentle hands cover mine, startling me, and a woman’s maternal voice calls nearby. “Elisa, you are fine, you are all right.”

Doctor Helen. I had forgotten her existence, the test, everything that’s not that classroom where the true horror has now begun.

“No, bring it back! Let me see, let me hurt with him.”

“Hush, child, you’re safe.”

“But they’re not!” I clutch the monitor harder, searching furiously for the power button with my fingers. “Bring—it—back!”

I feel a pull at my wrists as she must be trying to loosen my grip on the monitor. Her clasp seems so feeble compared to mine. I could break it easily, but she combs a hand through my hair.

“It’s over, Elisa. It’s done.”

“No, it isn’t. They’re hurting. Let me back in!” I press the power button in the center repeatedly, but the screen stays black.

“There’s no more, child. That was it. Marshall ripped the camera off. There’s nothing left to see.”

Her hands fold around mine again as I process her words. My heart rejects them in every way, yet my mind recognizes the truth, replaying that last image under this new light. Marshall’s hand flying up, but not to defend himself. My fingers stop pushing the button in vain as I stare at the empty screen. “He . . . he was trying to protect everyone else from having to see their torture,” I realize, hearing Marshall’s last words so clearly still. Not your fault, my brother.

“I think that’s a reasonable conclusion, but we will never know. That was the only footage ever recovered.” She strokes my hair again, and I let my arms fall to my sides. Agony is still scorching every crevice of my mind.

Doctor Helen notices the lack of resistance. She unbuckles the monitor and pulls it off as carefully as I do with Aiden. I squint into the sudden light from smoky, blood-red classroom to glimmering snow-white lab. How am I sitting in this same chair? How did I not claw through the earth to that school? How is my body so still despite the violent energy short-circuiting in me? How did I not go blind or deaf from all of it? My senses are still impossibly clear and unobstructed. As is my mind. I can feel it humming in the background, its conclusions inaccessible, just the rhythm. I let it run, focusing now on the silver neuroscientist. She is kneeling before me like she did with Aiden, still a thousand years old, but her grey eyes are full of the same wonder they hold when she looks at him.

“Well-done, Elisa. You brave, brave girl.”

As if I could accept any accolades. There are only two men who deserve them and their soul is buried in that classroom.

“How did you get that video?” I ask even though it’s not the most vital of questions. But its images are still entwining with reality, as if tattooed permanently in my retinas.

She places the monitor back in the box quickly. “Only recently,” she answers. “After Edison’s attack, Corbin reached out to Aiden’s parents and the Marines to prepare them for the end of your relationship and the support they might need to give afterwards. Without telling Aiden of course. We thought if he knew, it would only make his pain and guilt worse.”

I nod, convinced of that axiomatic truth.

“I was also hoping to learn anything that might help, any detail we might have overlooked,” she continues, still on her knees. “But their memories of that horrific time lack Aiden’s accuracy. And, of course, none of them were in that classroom especially for the unconscious part. That’s when Jazzman mentioned the camera offhandedly. Apparently, each recognizance mission involved one. I was surprised but it made perfect sense that Aiden never mentioned it. When has he ever needed videos or photographs that don’t involve you?”

I nod again, thinking of his smile when he takes pictures of me—Peter Pan-ish, like in his tent, as if he’s looking at something he might never reach even though it’s already his.

“Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about it but, understandably, none of them have ever watched it after it was recovered from Marshall’s body.” Her lined face crumples further. “I understand that collecting it from the . . . the remains . . . was very difficult. None of them has ever been able to touch it, let alone see it.”

Of course they can’t. If that’s how half of Marshall’s body looked before the torture really started, I cannot fathom the end. Agony rages in my chest, utterly unabated. “Then how were you able to get it?”

“Has Aiden told you about General Sartain?”

My mind instantly retrieves everything I know about the name. “He’s the man who discovered Aiden, his mentor at the CIA. He helped Javier.”

She nods with a strained smile. “The Marines thought if anyone might still have the footage, it would be him. Apparently, he is very fond of Aiden. Jazzman put us in contact, and the General called me personally three days ago.”

Her answer surprises me, and I thought nothing else could reach me now. “He did?”

“Quite eagerly. Obviously, I didn’t share any details other than we’re trying to assist. But he understood the urgency. He emailed Corbin and me the video only after we signed an agreement not to share it—an agreement I breached today. The General, Corbin, I, and now you are the only four people in the world who have watched it in full. And all of us, except you, needed multiple breaks.”

Her eyes sparkle with awe again, but I can’t accept it. “Not even Marshall’s family or Jasmine? He loved her so much . . .” My voice that hasn’t shaken once since the protein, trembles now. At the mention of love, something airy and cool starts trickling through me like spring water, soothing the burn of agony.

“According to the General, he offered it to Jasmine and Marshall’s family, but none of them were able to watch past the pipes.”

In an odd way, this relieves me. At least they only saw Marshall as he was: alive, whole, in love.

“But you did, Elisa.” Admiration bends Doctor Helen’s commanding voice. “You watched every minute. You lived through your worst fear of Aiden getting hurt.”

“Did I?” I whisper even though the evidence of my life signs is everywhere around me. In the steady monitor beeps. In my heart and brain waves swelling and rising deeply with pain.

Her eyes flit to them, and she takes my hand.  “Absolutely. Now take a moment to recover and we can talk about the results.”

My mind doesn’t need a moment, but my heart must. Everywhere I feel, it hurts, but it’s a bodiless pain. Physically, mentally, I’m still brimming with power. I could pulverize that school, that entire desert with my bare hands. But emotionally . . .

“Would you like some water?” Doctor Helen offers, her forehead creased with worry.

“No, I’m all right.”

She surprises me again with a true half-smile this time. “Yes, you are. You were braver beyond any degree I could have dared to hypothesize. The protein works, Elisa.”

I know this, of course. I don’t need the data to tell me the protein does what it promises. All the other times in my life I thought I was being courageous were pale imitations to the bravery I felt during the video. But I still need to be certain for Aiden.

“Are you sure?” I ask, staring at the vast screens with images of his memory.

“There’s no question about it. Your heart rate didn’t rise even to the level of nerves, let alone fear or anxiety. It was remarkable.”

“And it will work the same for Aiden, too?”

Doctor Helen’s grey eyes are clear of any doubt. “Yes. With his singular mind, we will not know for certain how much and for how long until he takes it. But it’s safe to conclude that whatever courage you felt, his will be even stronger given his heightened perception and memory.”

And there it is. The true question. The implications of the protein my mind is still unravelling. “But there was also a lot of pain,” I say, looking at the monitor where the beeps are quiet, and the waves are oscillating deeply.

Doctor Helen is staring at them too. “Yes, and there still is. There were moments during it—especially at the end—where I debated stopping the video. But your processing remained astonishingly clear. The only sharper perception I have witnessed is Aiden’s himself.”

Aiden himself . . . The meaning behind the words echoes like the aftershocks of the IEDs.

Something on my face must clue Doctor Helen to my thoughts because she clutches my hand. “You already understand what this means, don’t you?”

I nod, wishing I didn’t. “That the pain will be stronger for him, too. And not just stronger, but extreme given how expansive his mind already is.” For the first time since the protein, my voice hesitates. Because this is only half of the truth.

Doctor Helen utters the other. “Yes, and the startle reflex, as well. Because that’s not based only on fear. It began with terror, but over the years, it has become an automatic response that is triggered by surprise: an entirely distinct emotion. Based on your data, I don’t believe the protein can heal it.”

My teeth clench against that half of the truth, agony still growing. Isn’t there a way to do both? To give Aiden this sense of power, of unshakable confidence I felt even during the video, but without the excruciating pain? “Did you see anything in the video that might help?” I ask, my mind racing in every time dimension for answers.

Her face grows somber as she shakes her head. “Unfortunately no. Aiden’s memory is as precise as I had feared. What about you? Your perception was certainly sharper than mine.”

I try to replay everything but sense a wall of resistance, as if my mind is blocking it. I decide to trust my brain—or rather the protein—to guide me. Perhaps bravery too has its limits. “I’m still trying to think through it all,” I admit. “But I know it’s not possible to change the formula to ease the pain. I’m convinced that’s another reason why dad kept it a secret.”

Another grave nod. “I think you’re right,” she says in her way that doesn’t soften any truth. “But remember, all emotions except fear are strengthened by the protein. The good ones as well. Love, joy, hope . . . perhaps that will be enough in the end to lay Marshall at rest.”

Perhaps. It’s not an answer the protein can give us today. But at that big, little word—love—agony stutters again. My mind grips the four letters, concentrating only on Aiden’s brilliant light still pulsating in the center of my entire being. And that one single emotion—love—blasts forward with a force that nullifies everything else. Impossibly, it has grown during my own reel. Soaring to summits I never knew I had inside me, even more staggering than the agony. Then washing down from its Everestian peaks like glacial water, flooding every cell, every space between every neuron, until it douses the searing pain. Not like it’s gone—as long as the protein is in my system, I will continue to feel everything but fear—but like I’m out of its grip. Free in that expanse of infinite possibility still spanning endlessly before me. In the faith that I will save Aiden, that no one and nothing can get through me.

“I have to go,” I say, ripping off the electrode at my temple.

She does not seem surprised by my sudden change—after all the waves on the computer have changed again. They are fluttering gently now like the calmest summer sea, the beeps chiming to their musical beat. She starts taking off the electrodes immediately in silence as if she knows I need the moment. When all the wires are gone, and I’m back in my blouse and locket, she hands me the vial with the remaining two doses and throws mum’s parka over my shoulders.

“Trust your instincts,” she tells me. “They have not led you astray with Aiden yet. And now you also have your experience and knowledge.”

I nod, tucking the vial in the inside pocket of the parka. Its warmth seeps through the layers next to my heart. “I hope they will be enough.”

“As do I, child. Go while the protein is still working. The reel may be a lot different with him fearless, and you might need your strength.”

“What do you expect?”

She stares beyond me again, at the images of Aiden’s memory on the blue screens. “As we just learned with you, the mind has a lot more room to perceive without fear. I think it will be excruciating and it will take Aiden longer to return from the reel.”

I suspected the latter already—my time perception during the video was warped, feeling like years and seconds. “How much longer do you think?”

She blinks from the glow of his memory back to me. “For as long as it takes him to process. We have no precedent for this. Give him the time but stand by him. Use whatever it takes to bring him back.”

A ripple of determination tears through me. “I will.”

“Call me if you need me. And keep track when your bravery ends. Let’s meet again in a couple of days to take stock and see how Aiden is feeling.”

In the storm of super-emotions, gratitude flares for this woman. A general on her own, a moonbeam in the underground tunnels of our psyches, who broke her rules to help us, however doomed we might be. Gently, I wrap my arms around her waist. Something I would have never dared without bravery. Her frame is harder than I would have imagined, yet it seems so breakable to me.

“Thank you,” I tell her. “For showing me the video.”

A frisson of tension runs through her. “Was I right to do so?” Her voice is hesitant again.

“More than you can ever know,” I answer, and I mean it. That sense of conviction, of rightness blazes in my chest right next to the warm vial. Is it the protein? Or is it me daring to trust myself? “I would take that pain every hour for the chance to save him.”

She hugs me back once, and then I release my new body. Pushing my legs into long strides toward the only hope we have left.©2022 Ani Keating