NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 42 – HEALED

Happy Monday, everyone! It’s been a minute because, after dreaming and writing about it for years, I finally made it to England. And not just England, but Oxford, Burford, and the rest of the Cotswolds. I took a writing class right next to the Chemistry Building, I roamed the Ashmolean, I strolled the University Parks and along River Windrush, I stalked every cottage with roses, I ate clotted cream and drank tea and took in every cobblestoned alley I had been imagining, but never seen. I wrote the last scene in a little Inn on Burford’s High Street. And I loved it even more than I love it in my head. More on it soon, but for now, you’ve waited long enough. Here is Chapter 42, written largely at the bench on Lucas Walk where little Aiden saw his parents’ kiss. I hope you enjoy it.  Theme: healing. Song: it has to be Für Elise. Favorite line: “But deep within our hearts, there is always the truth, if we are only brave enough to believe it: love always wins. And in its triumph, it does not die like fire and powder. Love heals.” xo, Ani

42

Healed

This second kiss on the other side is different from the first. Slow, as though we have stopped time. Aiden’s lips fold with mine in a dance, not domination. Soft, tender. I can keep up with him, savoring his fiery flavor. The feeling is like coming home, like returning to myself. And like glowing. Heat smolders deep in my belly and a gold shimmer flames behind my closed eyelids. I melt closer in his warmth, wrapping him with all of me, his air to my air, his skin to my skin.

From somewhere in the distance comes a muffled sound of indistinct voices. And the outside world starts fluttering at the edges of the real one between our mouths.

Aiden kisses my bottom lip, once, twice, nipping it with his teeth, nudging his nose to mine. Then he pulls back with a sigh. His eyes are still brimming with shock and wonder. “Should we go find out how this happened?” he asks, hushed like a bedroom whisper. “Before they decide to trespass us?”

I almost say no—everything can wait, and there is the changing room right next to us—but, underneath his desire, I can see his desperation to make sure this is real. Still too afraid to hope, or perhaps too afraid to wake up. I curl my fingers in his hair so he can feel this is not a dream.

“Yes, but before we go, I want you to know something.”

“What is that?”

“That no matter how this happened, you did this. Not Doctor Helen, not Corbin, not anyone else. This win is all yours. Trust in that.”

His eyes linger on my lips where the words formed, and he tightens his arms around me, still holding me up against the wall. “This win—whatever it is and however it looks like—is all because of you.”

Except there is something else he doesn’t know. Something that will give him the full truth. My gift to him, still wrapped in the small box in my picnic basket that I left in Doctor Helen’s command center.

“You’ll see,” I tell him and kiss his scar.

He looks like he wants to go inside the changing room too, but he sets me down on my shaky feet, holding me against his side, knowing my balance problems after his kissing.

“Come. The sooner we know, the sooner we can be just us.” He smiles, cheered by the thought. “And if it turns out it’s not real, don’t let me wake up.”

“It is real, and I promise to wake you up with these words as soon as you let me.”

That my-all look blazes in his eyes again, almost incapacitating me. I want to ask what he is thinking when he looks at me that way, but not now. This moment belongs only to him.

We start winding down the hallway, our arms around each other, my eyes constantly on his surreal face. It’s still glowing with that faint, candlelit luminosity that it always will hold for me when I feel desire. He looks at me too, his fingers tightening sporadically on my hip as if to test reality. In the one peripheral glance I spare for the outside world, I realize the hall is now entirely empty—we must have nauseated poor Benson, Richard, Doctor Helen, and whoever else ran after me into seeking refuge as far away from us as possible. At other times, I would have blushed brighter than the Reagans. But right now, the only thing I care about is being with Aiden, finally free.

As we reach Doctor Helen’s lab, the tension returns to Aiden’s body. All the memories and doubts start dimming the new light burning in the stunned sapphire eyes. He pauses at the metal doors and looks at me.

“I love you,” he says. “No matter what they say or what this means, nothing will change that part. Do you still believe that after these last two weeks?”

I get lost for a moment in the intensity of his gaze, as though something vital depends on me knowing this before I hear anything else. “I believe it even more. And I love you the same way.”

He kisses my hair and opens the door, waiting for me to go first, still unwilling to let anyone behind his back. I don’t let go of his hand as he follows me inside, hopefully for the last time.

The lab looks exactly like two days ago when I was here—I remember every single wire, beep, and monitor—but now it’s back to its intimidating, white gleam instead of the fantastical, snowy landscape of the protein. The giant screens are still glaring electric blue, each displaying an image of Aiden’s brain from April 12, 1987, and every other scan since then. Doctor Helen is sitting at the long desk with her Van Gogh binder and my picnic basket full of roses, reading her notes. Corbin is above her on the overhead screen, his features crumpled in an abashed expression. As soon as I see their faces, my blood simmers with a strange mixture of anger and gratitude. Anger because they lied to us. Gratitude because where would we be if they hadn’t.

Doctor Helen stands as soon as we walk in. “Ah, Aiden, Elisa,” she starts, gesturing at the two chairs she has set out for us across her desk. “We’re so glad you took a moment to yourselves. If you’re ready, please, have a seat.”

“Where is Benson?” Aiden remembers to check on his friend before anything else begins.

“He’s perfectly alright,” Doctor Helen assures him quickly. “He said he will wait in the car while we finish up here—something about work.”

Aiden nods, and we take the metal chairs that feel too hard and cold to me after his embrace. He grabs my hand, holding it in both of his fists. Abruptly, my conviction becomes fear too. What if I’m wrong? What if this was only an accident, sheer chance, or a simple fluke? What if we cannot count on it to last? How can we survive losing it now that we know how it feels? How can I watch this new light extinguish in Aiden’s eyes, this new life die out before it even starts?

I grip his fingers and cup my other hand over his blanched knuckles. Neither of us is able to speak. We just stare at Doctor Helen and Corbin, waiting while I try to remember how to breathe.

The two doctors must see our sudden paralysis because Doctor Helen rushes to break the silence. She closes the Van Gogh binder, setting it next to my basket, and meets our frozen eyes.

“First, please allow me to apologize to you both,” she begins, her voice low with contrition. The pleading tone is so unexpected, so incongruent with her regal mien that I start in my chair at the dissonance. But there is no question the regret is almost palpable in her liquid, grey eyes. “I wish there could have been another way to test the startle,” she continues. “And I am deeply sorry for the ambush and the fear I caused. Please know that the decision was mine alone. Doctor Corbin, Benson, and my team knew nothing about it until yesterday. I had my reasons for that choice, which I shall explain soon, but now, I’m certain you don’t want to hear my apologies. You want answers about what happened and how is it possible that the startle reflex changed.” She peers at Aiden on that last word, putting volume behind it, as though she can see the shock and doubt rippling through his core.

Perhaps so does Corbin because he intervenes with a similar remorseful expression. “I am very sorry too, for all of it. I don’t feel blameless despite the amazing and incredible results.”

The two doctors nod emphatically in unison, their regret earnest in every blink, but all I can hear is that one word: incredible. Is this change too big to trust or too good to last? My eyes flit to the Clares, still sparking here and there with dew. Make it real, Mum. Make it ours.

“So . . .” Aiden hesitates as though unable to give voice to this fear. “So you both agree that it—the startle . . .”—he forces out the word, his teeth clenching around it— “it has in fact changed?”

“Oh, yes! There is no doubt about that part.” Doctor Helen’s voice rings back to its authoritative note, and I grip Aiden’s fist to stay upright.

He leans closer to me, his body still tense. I can’t feel any flow of breath through his chest. “And this change, could it be . . . just an accident?” The last word is barely audible from his lips.

Doctor Helen’s stately features soften, as if she heard the unspoken dread behind his question. “No,” she answers immediately with decided confidence. “Your reaction was not randomly different. As Elisa so quickly realized, your response was precisely adapted to Für Elise and your nightly dance. There is zero statistical probability that this could be a coincidence. The startle has changed at last.”

My heart inflates, pushing against my ribs, as I clutch Aiden’s fist frantically and sink into him in heady relief.  It’s real, of course it is! And not just luck or chance. It is a change forged deep within Aiden himself. With all his blood, tears, fever, and agony—every reel, every day, every night, every minute. But can it last?

Aiden’s fists do not relax; he does not breathe even as he seems to inhale Doctor Helen’s words like oxygen.

“How is that possible?” he asks.

“Ah, now that is the question, and I believe we know the answer.” The two doctors exchange a nod and, for the first time, the great neuroscientist smiles. Not her barely visible smile, but a full smile I have not seen on her that makes her look decades younger. When neither of us manages to blink or exhale, she continues. “I’ll start at the beginning—the moment when I think the startle began to change: on the night Edison struck.”

“What?” My tongue releases abruptly, and the question tumbles out of me in a choked gasp. Aiden freezes—a flawless statue carved out of ice by my side. His lips fall open in a perfect, silent O of surprise.

“Yes, indeed,” Doctor Helen presses, her smile sparkling an ivory gleam. “That moment of terror went from horrific to hallowed in the end, although of course none of us could have predicted that. You see, when Edison struck that treacherous blow to Aiden’s head, in the exact place as the old rifle injury in Fallujah, in all relevant ways, he replicated the past trauma, down to the details—jagged glass like the broken window in the classroom, dark night like the smoky skies, harming someone Aiden loves, and most crucially, Aiden’s loss of consciousness. By all accounts that should have doubled the trauma and the startle. Yet it didn’t—why? First and foremost, because this time, through the startle, Aiden saved Elisa’s life and his own.  Unlike Fallujah where he was unable to rescue Marshall or himself, or back home when he injured his mother, this time the startle itself became an ally, a savior—not an enemy. And once that happened, Aiden’s mind began reversing a process that started so many years ago in that Fallujah classroom. By chance, intention, and Elisa’s subsequent actions, the entire experience in fact became the opposite.”

She emphasizes that word as though to impart its meaning but my brain is stunned past all basic functions. I look up at Aiden as astonishment starts blending with analysis in his eyes, replaying the past with this new filter.

“The opposite . . .” he muses almost silently to himself.

“Yes, in significant detail,” Doctor Helen explains. “Instead of a bare classroom filled with torture, this time you were in a cozy library you associated only with love. Instead of a rose drawn on a blackboard, there was a real garden full of them. Instead of a prayer on the wall, there was a periodic table. Rather than seeing black smoke, you saw the bright light Elisa flashed into your eyes. Instead of hearing ‘Your death will come soon,’ you heard ‘I love you.’ Instead of falling on a cold, tiled floor, there was a soft pillow that Elisa placed there with her quick thinking.

“And of course, when you woke, that experience was the opposite too. Instead of waking with Marshall’s blood on your lips, you woke to her kiss. Rather than inhaling smoke, you were smelling her. Instead of hearing screams of pain and hatred, you were hearing Für Elise—the melody that calms you the most—as Elisa, in her desperation, was singing it. Instead of seeing Marshall’s broken body, you saw the most precious thing in the world to you: Elisa’s face that gives you peace even in the most profound torment. And instead of failing to save a life, you saved two: Elisa’s and your own. And so the process came full cycle, the opposite from the beginning to the end. That’s when we believe your neural pathways started rewriting themselves . . .” Doctor Helen trails off, her commanding voice lower as she allows us time to process.

I try to follow her explanation but awe is blurring my brain. How can the moments that almost ended us become our salvation? Yet, her words ring with the chime of truth. I can see it in Aiden’s expression as wonder widens his eyes. And something else too: a flicker of h-o-p-e, shining like a light behind his skin now that he hears some reasoning behind the result. But his grip on my hand still does not relax.

“So—” he pauses, as if unsure how to form words. “So because of all that, the violent reflex died that night?”

I look back at Doctor Helen, struggling with the same question, but she shakes her head. “Not quite. I believe it got wounded that night but, on the whole, I think you were right that the violence survived because that original memory of trauma was still very much alive. We can never dismiss the fundamental principle of your memory: the initial one is always the ruler, the decider.”

“But then how?” He frowns, skepticism evident in his voice. “How did the violence end?”

Doctor Helen exchanges a glance with Doctor Corbin on the screen, who grins hugely.

“Because apparently there is a way to change that initial memory even for you,” he answers.

The impact of his words on our side of the desk is staggering. Aiden’s jaw drops, and his fist falls open around my hands. He stares at the two doctors, seeming beyond the powers of his impressive comprehension. Never mind me. I just gape blankly into the white space. Because nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for this. I thought I knew Aiden’s memory better than my own. I thought there was nothing truer in our world than its unchangeability. It’s the reason why we are embedded in each other’s every neuron and heartbeat. The power of his memory has been our creator, our architect, our protector, even our enemy—the soundtrack of our love, like a cerebral Für Elise.

What could be so strong as to change that force?

Aiden is still staring at the doctors, more shocked than I have ever seen him—even more so than minutes ago when the violence itself stopped.

“Excuse me—I think I misheard you. What did you just say?” he asks in a low voice, grasping my hand like an anchor for reality.

I squeeze his fingers back while Doctor Helen smiles her maternal smile. “You heard Doctor Corbin correctly. Apparently even your initial memory can change,” she repeats.

How?” he breathes.

“Only through an equally powerful counterforce.”

Her words, so similar to the question resounding in my head, manage to help me find voice. “And w-what could be such an equal force?” I stammer.

Doctor Helen looks straight at me. “You, child.”

“M-me?” I jump a little at the unexpected word. Did she really say me? She must have because she nods.

I will my mind to make sense of her answer but I can’t. Yet next to me, Aiden comes to life. I can feel the change washing through him in the way his grip softens on my hand, the first deep breath flowing from his lips. Whatever doubts he had, that one simple answer—me—must have resolved them. The shock fades from his expression, leaving behind only awe. He turns to me, his beautiful face triumphant, which doesn’t help me think at all. And his eyes warm with that gaze that has become my entire world.

“Of course!” he murmurs in understanding, a smile lifting the corner of his mouth. “Of course it was you.”

It takes me a moment to remember how to speak, let alone think. “I . . . I’m not following,” I admit, looking away from him reluctantly to the two doctors. “How can I be equal to the strength of Aiden’s memory?”

His fingers trace the PEAC diamonds at my wrist but he lets Doctor Helen explain.

“Remember what I told you both on our very first meeting, Elisa?” she asks, and then proceeds to answer her own question when I barely manage a stupefied huh. “That your calming effect on Aiden is so effective because his own memory gave you that power. When his mind created you during war, it marked you as its equal. It purposefully gave you the ability to calm it, to defeat it. None of us can do that for him like you can—not any kind of therapy invented today. Only you. Because Aiden himself designed it that way.”

I remember now, every word she told me in the command center next to this lab. The hope that rushed through me at hearing that my effect on Aiden is by his mind’s own choice, not just by fate. But how does that give me the power to change his past?

“I’m sorry, but I still don’t get it. Even if my calming effect is powerful, I can’t go back in time and change what happened to Aiden in Fallujah.”

Doctor Helen beams at me. “As it happens, you sort of can.”

“What? How?”

“In ways none of us could have possibly dreamed. Least of all Doctor Corbin and me. We designed this entire experiment based on Doctor Corbin’s brilliant theory that your calming effect was shrinking the snowball of trauma. We believed that if Aiden lived with you in the present, instead of expecting and reliving past horrors, the snowball would not grow further. But we focused so thoroughly on bringing Aiden in your present moment that we didn’t think about the crucial importance of bringing you into his. And even if we had thought about it, how would such a thing be possible? And yet, that’s precisely what you were able to do two nights ago after Aiden completed his final reel. Do you remember?”

A shudder runs through me despite Aiden’s warm hand on mine. I will remember that day with perfect clarity for as long as I live, from every droplet of blood on his blistered palms and every diamond of sweat sparkling on his feverish skin to the scalding agony and that healing, Everestian love still surging inside me as potent as during the protein. Like it always will be.

I blink past the images flashing vividly through my mind. “I remember,” I answer as Aiden wraps his arm around my shoulders.

“Well, you told me on the phone everything you tried to bring Aiden back to the present moment with you. But when it didn’t work, you broke all my rules. You listened to your instinct and made the brave, even reckless decision to enter Aiden’s present moment and follow him inside his terrifying memory. And that changed everything.

“You guided him through the horror in your loving way. Pointing out the positive details that your enhanced mind had been able to perceive during the video. Things none of us had noticed, not even Aiden, because we were all terrorized while watching or living through it. But not you. You saw it all fearlessly because of the protein. And you forced his mind to revise its own memory. You permeated it with your calm, building new associations, new imagery. The market vegetables like wildflowers, the minarets like Oxford’s spires, images that mean something beautiful to you both. You brought your love inside the hatred, your peace inside his war, turning the experience into its opposite. You guided him quite literally through hell with light and faith. And Aiden, now full of something other than terror, was able to focus and follow, feeling for the first time calmer inside that horrific memory. His mind started noticing new angles, new details, new perspectives. It absorbed all that newness, fighting and enduring unfathomable agony until it found the truth, replacing his perceived guilt with innocence. In effect, the initial memory that caused his violent startle in the first place changed itself under your effect and his own raw strength. It became new. And I suspect that’s exactly when the violent reflex was destroyed once and for all.”

Doctor Helen’s voice quiets into a thoughtful silence. Even the digital beeps fade from my ears. Because what she is saying sounds so impossible, yet some place deep inside me recognizes the truth. At the time, I thought I had ruined everything by breaking all the rules. I made Aiden’s agony worse, I added to his fear, I went against the fundamental principles of any experiment. But perhaps sometimes that’s what we need to do—break the rules, write our own, start new. And perhaps at other times, there are no rules at all. Only heart. And we just need the strength to listen to its beat and not give up.

“Wow,” I whisper in wonder—not at myself, but at us. “And so . . .  and so . . . that’s it?”

Doctor Helen smiles. “I believe so. The process was already unraveling from Edison’s blow, but then once that initial memory that caused it was reframed as one of love, peace, and redemption instead of torture, terror, and guilt, the causal connection in Aiden’s brain between startle and violence broke. There was no more reason for it because the underlying threat that prompted the reflex to defend no longer exists.”

“What an amazing force she is,” Aiden murmurs now that I have had time to catch up, his finger caressing the lifeline of my palm. “Does this mean Elisa can change every other memory of pain?” He talks about me with a veneration that makes my cheeks burn but Doctor Helen’s smile shines even more widely.

“For you alone, yes, she can. And if you need proof, think about your reaction last night when you watched the video for the first time. It felt like a new memory, didn’t it?”

“Yes, but I thought that was because it was a new memory. I was, in effect, seeing events from an angle I hadn’t seen before: from Marshall’s body camera.”

Corbin speaks for the first time in a while. “That’s true, but we believe there’s more to it. Think if you had simply heard Marshall’s voice before you completed your fever reel. The sound of his voice alone would have triggered flashbacks for days, if not weeks. Yet, by Elisa’s account, this time, there was nothing but acceptance and grief for a lost friend. And the peace Elisa makes you feel. That’s not only because it was a new memory. It’s because you have healed.”

Healed. The word sounds dreamlike, no matter how true and real I feel it to be. It fills the lab like the lark song, like the willows, like Für Elise. A profound feeling of home settles deep in every cell of me, like we have finally arrived where we fought so hard to be. Whether in an arctic lab or burning schoolyard, a sultry rose garden or blood-soaked dessert, a mournful hilltop or lonely mountain, an English village or American metropolis, a tent or a cottage or a mansion, at peace or in battle, we are exactly how we want to be. Together and healed.

Aiden holds my hand, his eyes full of emotion as he mouths that same word silently to himself. Healed. His breath catches as though the syllables become air and enter his bloodstream. Then he repeats the word again, out loud but still quietly.

“Healed.” Exactly as he murmured “not my fault” two nights ago. And I realize that he is trying to hear it in his own voice.

I squeeze his fingers so he knows it’s real. “Healed, love,” I say it back to him, blinking back tears.

“Healed,” Doctor Helen echoes as though she senses the same thing. “And not only your violent reflex. You are finally healing from a pain I’ve seen in your eyes since you were seven years old.”

The grown warrior blinks up at her, and the years flow between them, from his heavy childhood to this moment. Except even I can see the difference in this reel: the blue sentient depths are lighter.

“So it’s truly over then?” he confirms.

Doctor Helen’s smile glitters pearl and silver. “My indefensible experiment just now proved it. At most, if you are startled, it will trigger memories of Für Elise and you might react to dance to it. But with your learning speed, that should not last long. I suggest you still test it a few more times for your own comfort but yes, it’s truly over.”

O-v-e-r. The four hardest letters for us, second only to t-i-m-e, sing in the ethanol-scented air, musical and free. But they remind me of another question crooning in my brain.

“Why is the startle connected to Für Elise now? I mean, I understand its significance for us but why did Aiden’s mind go straight to my melody when startled?”

“Ah, now that is curious, isn’t it?” Doctor Helen’s eyes spark with fascination. “We wondered the same thing. I believe that, once the violent connection was broken by your calm, Aiden’s memory reacted with what it associates most immediately with rest: the song he has been listening to while sleeping. Your melody obviously played a critical role in his memory healing, although of course, we have no way to measure it.”

I feel my lips turn up in a smile as Aiden’s fingertips tap my palm in a way I know in every pore: the first notes of Für Elise that he has played so many times on my skin. The heat of his touch sends tingles down my spine like music notes on the piano ivory.

Aiden’s fingers twine with mine as they do during our dance. “Speaking of testing, how did you know to run the experiment today at all?” he asks. “I’m grateful you did, of course, but what made you suspect something had changed in the first place?”

I turn to Doctor Helen curiously too, but her face ages back to remorse. “I’m still sorry I kept this from you, but I couldn’t think of another way to hide it so that you could, in fact, be startled. You see, I started suspecting something was changing the morning after Edison’s attack when I scanned the spot where he hit you. There was no internal injury to your brain, that was true, but I could see increased blood flow in the area. Ordinarily, that would mean simple healing. But in your case, it very well could have meant something more. So I didn’t say anything but asked Elisa to walk me through every detail while we were waiting for you—what she saw, what she did, how you reacted. It struck me then how opposite the experience was. And objectively, there was no evidence the startle was the same because it was interrupted mid-progress by your loss of consciousness even if, subjectively, it felt the same to you.”

She gives him a small, apologetic smile, and I remember her cryptic questions and reactions during that meeting. Questions I assumed meant the worst when they were apparently the analysis that saved us.

“That’s when I decided to pretend to agree that the test was off so you would not expect it later,” she continues. “The opportunity was too singular to miss. Our other ideas for startling you became untenable after the attack. Still, it was only a hunch; I wasn’t sure I would actually run the test. The risk to your well-being was too high, but I wanted to reserve the chance. So I tried to bargain for more time or for you to continue the reel, but you wouldn’t, quite understandably. I admit we lost all hope then, given your mental state as the days passed. At that point, we were simply trying to help you survive. Doing all we could, from testing our theories on computer models to speaking with the General and the Marines.”

She pauses, looking a hundred years old, as Aiden tenses at the black memories. They seem so distant now, yet so crystal clear. I can feel the scalding flames licking up my throat at the reminder of his pain. I lean closer into his body to stay in the beautiful, healed present.

“But then Elisa succeeded with the protein and convinced you to start again,” Doctor Helen moves on quickly. “And the most incredible thing happened. She told me about your fever. Only a very powerful mental process could have caused that. Add in the speed at which your memory was processing and your ability to realize your own innocence, and it became quite clear that something was unfolding. I just didn’t know what it was and if it had anything to do with the startle. But I reached out to Benson and Doctor Corbin yesterday to prepare them. Because we all knew this was your final chance. Still, even this morning, I was undecided. Testing you against your wishes for such a traumatic experience goes against all ethics, rules, and conscience. I almost decided against it when you two arrived and I noticed you seemed a little better. Why threaten this new sliver of peace you had found with your innocence? But then Elisa changed everything again. She told me you watched the video without a single trigger. Of course, she was thinking it only meant you had finally laid Marshall to rest, but that was also my clue. The first real proof that something had indeed changed. That’s when I made the decision to test you—only minutes after you went in the antechamber. I sent a signal to Benson, Richard, and Doctor Corbin to confirm it, and you know the rest.”

She shrugs remorsefully again, but I cannot find any anger in me. Only gratitude for her brilliance. I look up at Aiden, and I see the same appreciation in his expression. A slow smile spreads over his face as he looks between the two doctors.

“Well, I’m impressed. I would have never profiled either of you as rule breakers or co-conspirators, and I certainly never expected this. Well-played.”

Doctor Helen lets out a shaky, relieved laugh. “You might be pleased to know it was the single, most difficult trial of my forty-year-long career. So much so that I’m considering retirement. After all, everything else will seem quite boring now compared to your mind.”

Doctor Corbin chuckles too. “Not so fast, Doctor. We might need to work after Aiden fires us. For now, I’m only counting our blessings that he’s not having us arrested for showing Elisa the video. But we would do well to secure some security detail. Only his startle has healed, mind you. His personality is very much exactly how it was.”

And exactly how I love it.

We all laugh together then, with these two generals at our helm, so different, yet so alike in many ways that count. In their intelligence, their care for Aiden, their willingness to take risks for us, their faith in our love. Then slowly, the laughter quiets like the last note on my melody, and both doctors breathe a sigh of relief.

“I suppose all the risks were worth it to see you both laugh like this,” Doctor Helen says.

“Is there any way it can ever come back?” Aiden asks, abruptly tense again.

“I don’t think so.” She opens her Van Gogh binder and pulls out a polaroid, similar to the one of our kiss. “And here is why: this is the last image I took of your brain when you were in the MRI today, processing photos of Marshall. Look for yourself.”

She hands the photograph to him, and we both gasp at the same time. I still don’t know anything about neuroscience, but even I can tell the difference. The dark blue areas in his hippocampus that rage like the vortex of a tornado in all the other historical screens around us are an astonishing azure in this photo, like a summer sky.

“You can still see your incredible recall, perception, and speed right here.” Doctor Helen points to the denser areas. “I was not lying when I said they have not changed. Your memory remains as powerful as the first day I met you. But your automatic reaction to trauma has calmed. The image you have in your hand is what healing looks like for your brain.”

Aiden watches the image mesmerized, tracing the light blue areas with his index finger. “You won,” he says softly, gazing up at me, his eyes shining with pride and victory.

“No, love, you did.”

“But because of your calm and the protein you made for me. And here, we have the evidence to prove it.” He waves the polaroid, then tucks it in his shirt pocket by his heart.

I wait to argue just a little longer because of that something he still doesn’t know, something I want to tell him when we are alone.

The two doctors smile knowingly at me, and I have a feeling Doctor Helen has told Corbin my secret because he amends gently. “I think you both won. I never saw two people fight harder for their love. Aiden with a strength that defied all human limits, and Elisa with a faith I would have never believed.”

“I agree.” Doctor Helen inclines her silver head at us with a dignified nod. “May you live the rest of your days happy and without any fear.”

F-e-a-r.  It’s gone too. Not a single chill left. I feel as invincible as I did during the protein. That sense of infinite possibility sweeps over me, but this time for two. Like there is nothing Aiden and I cannot live through, nothing we cannot conquer after this. He squeezes my hand, and I don’t need his words to know he feels the same. But Doctor Helen’s words remind me of something else.

“There is one thing that is confusing me,” I say, even though that’s an understatement. My head is still spinning with all the discoveries of today.

“Yes?” Doctor Helen invites in the same encouraging way she did when we first met right here in this lab.

“You said it takes ninety days for memories to reconsolidate and change. All this happened on day fifty-five of the reel or sixty-five since Aiden came to England. How could that be?”

All three smile at me now, Doctor Helen indulgently, Corbin excitedly, and Aiden like his entire universe begins and ends with me.

“Actually, Elisa,” Doctor Helen explains. “If you count the first thirty days of your relationship, from the very first moment you entered Aiden’s life in Javier’s art gallery, the change happened right on time.”

Time. The word flows easily without clawing my ear drums, scorching my throat, or ripping apart my chest. There are no shivers scraping my skin, no black river water in my lungs. Willingly, I find the clock on the wall, wanting to remember forever everything from this moment. August 22, 10:05 in the morning. The minute that time stopped racing against us. Two days before the anniversary of when I landed in America and when Aiden bought his home, four years ago. Funny thing, time. I smile, watching the seconds tick away without any pain. Entirely healed myself.

“Is there something else?” Doctor Helen asks, following my eyes to the clock.

I shake my head because right now I only want one thing: to be alone with Aiden.

He must want the same thing too because he wraps his arm around me. “We need to go, but first, we brought something for you. Elisa’s idea.” He gestures to the picnic basket, and I remember what he means. I reach for it and gather the Clares and his heartfelt note for Doctor Helen, wishing we had known to send something to Doctor Corbin too.

She takes the bouquet from me, her regal face lightening at the blooms. “I was dearly hoping these were for me. It’s like having a piece of Clare right here with us in this moment, just like she was the day I met Aiden.”

“Then you will have one of her roses on your desk every day for as long as they bloom. But there is something even better inside the envelope.”

“Ah, in her stationary too.” She brushes the initials, opening the envelope carefully.

I watch her sharp, grey eyes glisten as she reads the words Aiden wrote this morning. I hear her intake of breath as she reaches the part about him being grateful he cannot forget. And I feel her wonder as she looks up at him—a scientist, a mentor, a friend. “Oh, Aiden. You were already accepting who you are even before you knew you had healed.” She picks out the most important message from his note. Then she rises to her full height and rounds her desk to give him a hug, roses and all. “That is a much better victory than any of my experiments could ever give.”

He did not expect her words or embrace, that much is obvious from his wide eyes. But he holds her a moment as he does with his mum even if her touch still strains him. It probably will for a while after all this time. A pink petal flutters from a Clare behind his back, kissing his tense shoulder and floating to the floor in a celestial dance.

“You know—” Doctor Helen looks at us both— “if I must believe in fate as Aiden wrote, I’m quite glad to start with your happy ending.”

F-a-t-e. We really will have our happy ending, won’t we? We were never Romeo and Juliet as I thought. We have always had a healing kind of love. From how we began to how we go on, in every breath and every heartbeat, Aiden saved me and I saved him. He is my strength, I am his peace. I gave him meaning, he gave me my dreams. And in the end, we kept our hearts beating.

But we are not Dante and Beatrice either. We are real, not ideal. We have flaws, we make mistakes, we rise, we fall. We are Aiden and Elisa.

And our violent delights do not have violent ends after all. Boulders don’t whisper tragedies or prophecies. They only whisper our fears. But deep within our hearts, there is always the truth, if we are only brave enough to believe it: love always wins. And in its triumph, it does not die like fire and powder. Love heals.

Aiden’s subdued, piano voice pulls me back from my epiphany. “Thank you,” he tells the two doctors. “For everything.”

“It was my privilege.” Doctor Helen bows her head in her restrained, majestic way.

“And my pleasure,” Corbin agrees, closing his notepad and dimming his desk light. Behind him, Portland’s night is still deep, hopefully giving our families good dreams until we can wake them up with our reality. Abruptly, I wish we were there or they were here so we could all be together, like families are meant to be.

We say our goodbyes then, Corbin promising to check on us next week, and Aiden promising a proper thank you for them both. I cannot fathom the sums of money that will be involved behind that gratitude. The two doctors very well might retire after that. With a last glance at the lab of his childhood, the glowing monitors displaying his mind, the red button that could incinerate his brain, Aiden takes my hand and we follow Doctor Helen outside.

But as we come out, we both stagger in another surprise. Right before us, lining the long, polished hallway to the lift, are Doctor Helen’s entire team of scientists. At least twenty white coats, from Richard, who no longer seems like a bear to me, to Old Morse, closest to Master Aiden. I recognize the nine who have been with us in meetings, but the others are new. Or rather new to me. Clearly, Aiden recognizes them. The tectonic plates in his eyes shift with memories as he looks at their faces. And I realize these must be other neuroscientists who have worked on his case over the last twenty-eight years.

As soon as they see Aiden, they start to clap, unafraid of startling him with their unannounced cheer. I can see his emotion underneath the shock sculpting his features. I’m sure it’s not because he is not used to applause—the military, communities, businesses, even my own little college have honored him so many times before. For his service, his philanthropy, his career. But it’s clear he never dreamed anyone would applaud him for this, not for what he has done, but for who he is.

“They all wanted to be here once they heard,” Doctor Helen says. “Especially Old Morse.”

At the mention of his name, the wispy man shuffles forward, hunched and quivery, looking up at Aiden with a wizened smile. “Well, well, well, Master Aiden.” He takes out a weathered chess piece from his lab coat pocket, and I see it’s a birchwood, scuffed-up king. “I know you remember this.”

The memories deepen in Aiden’s eyes as he reaches for the scruffy figure. “From your old chess set, the first game we played.”

“Yes, you brought your own after that—a beautiful one, it was too. But this kept you still that first day, didn’t it? Even if I lost every game to a seven-year-old.”

And now I know how this Mr. Plemmons got the little boy to sit for all the electrodes. “I don’t think it was the king, Morse,” Aiden answers. “It might have been the hands that moved it.” He grasps the frail hand gingerly so he doesn’t bruise it with his strength.

The old man’s eyes—watery with age—crinkle at the corners. “Well, you’re certainly still at last.” And he rests the war-torn king on Aiden’s palm.

“Thank you,” Aiden tells him. “And not just for the games.”

“Don’t be a stranger now. I have to get to know this lovely lady before I pop my cogs.” Old Morse grins at me, patting Master Aiden’s elbow, and bobs away.

Carefully, Aiden tucks the old king in his shirt pocket with the image of his new mind. It reminds me of the paper clues he placed there when we were at Chatsworth during our treasure hunt. Except this one is a boutonniere of healing.

Doctor Helen pats his arm lightly. “Go on. You have a lot to celebrate, not the least of which is Elisa’s promotion.”

“Promotion?” Aiden’s eyes flash at me in confusion. “What promotion?”

It takes me a moment to remember life before healing, and what she means. “Oh, right, I forgot! I’ll tell you later. It’s not really a promotion.”

“Well, I think it will be,” Doctor Helen counters. “Come by the house after you’ve settled. We can raise a toast to everything and Aiden can tell me how he really feels about that video. I don’t think I’ve heard the last of it.”

It hits me then. There is a life ahead. We can talk about the future without terror. We can choose. We can make plans.

The realization shoots through me like bravery. I throw my arms around Doctor Helen’s waist like I would have never dared without the protein. “Thank you. Don’t worry about the video. We love you.”

One of the roses nudges my head as she hugs me back. Her rare, voluminous laugh follows us into the lift with the neuroscientists’ handshakes and Old Morse’s wave.

As soon as the lift doors close behind us, Aiden takes me in his arms, tipping up my chin.

“What promotion?” he asks again. “What did I miss?”

All the worry about telling him about Graham is gone now, as if his healing cured every fear that ever existed. “Well, as I said, it’s not a promotion at all; it’s a recommendation. Graham decided he needs some leave to recover from the mess with the monster, which will be good for him, so he recommended me as temporary manager of Bia until he returns. Oh, and he gave me this sweet note my dad had written to him for his first experiment. That’s what helped me solve the protein.”

As I thought, the news of me without Graham doesn’t worry Aiden now. For the first time since before the monster struck, Aiden’s lips lift into my favorite, lopsided smile. More dazzling than I’ve ever seen it, the dimple finally glitters on his cheek. Like a star that had imploded has reformed to glow in this new universe just for Aiden and me.

Softly, his hands cradle my face. “You solved bravery all on your own. And there is nothing temporary about you. You are timeless in every way.”

Time . . . less.  The word rings defiantly against our old enemy, triumphant at last. I try to think of something witty to say back, but I can’t. My mind is so full of him, there isn’t room for anything else.

“When will you see that?” He caresses my cheek, not releasing my stare.

It takes me the rest of the lift ride to unscramble my brain, but he waits, seeming happy to just look at me. “Umm, when you see that you won all on your own,” I answer. “Which will be in a few minutes.”

He chuckles like he used to, with a free, deep sound. I get lost in the music, more beautiful than Für Elise. “How about congratulations first? Because I’m sure you will be the next manager of Bia. You can do anything.”

But do I want to manage Bia? Now that we have horizons of possibilities, that a whole new world is ours—without deadlines, ghosts, wars, ICE, or reels—what do I want to be?

“We’ll see. Right now, I only want to think about us.”

His eyes smolder with that my-all look that has kept me alive these last twenty-four hours. “Us,” he agrees, taking my hand and we step out into the lobby.

A few researchers have arrived despite the early Saturday morning, zooming around with their white coats like paper planes. Aiden freezes out of habit, scanning the space, his body reacting faster than his mind after decades of razor vigilance. Tension ripples over him with instinctive guard—not for himself, for others. But it only takes a moment.

Then I watch with a trembling heart as his mind catches up, his memory firing the truth to him: there is no danger here, you are healed. I can see it all on his clenched jaw as it softens, in his eyes as they lighten, gazing at the white hall before him. Just regular walls and ceilings and people he can no longer hurt. And that set of double doors like pearly gates, waiting to open into the new world.

“Come,” I whisper, squeezing his hand. “You’re ready.”

He looks at our joined hands, and his fingers tighten around mine. “We are.”

And we step out of the lift, weaving, half-tense, half-awed through the scientists. Each time one passes by us, a new lightning bolt of tension strikes through Aiden’s shoulders. And each time, I see him overcome it. Step by step, inch by inch. I rest my head on his bicep to add my calm as always. He pulls me close, kissing my hair, but I know it’s not because he needs me for this. He wants me. And because of that, this simple touch—just his arm around my waist, the slight pressure of his lips—means so much more.

In a few small steps—but so big for us—we reach the double doors. Instantly, Aiden’s old neurons command him to stop, let me go through first, safe from him. But that is not our life anymore.

“You first,” I tell him.

He hesitates, muscles flexing automatically against the idea, coiling with the instinct to protect me from himself. I kiss his granite bicep and wait, not caring who else needs to come and go. But his impossible mind doesn’t take long. New, healed neurons fire again, overruling the fear pathways. Aiden straightens his shoulders and grips the steel door handle. Such an ordinary gesture for others, so extraordinary for him. With a deep breath, Aiden opens the door. The morning breeze blows in, smelling of linden and clover. I smile secretly to myself. Linden, the tree of Aphrodite, symbol of love and fidelity. And a little bit of luck for his first breath outside.

The breeze dances again, caressing his face.

“It’s time, love. You’ve earned it.” I nudge the small of his back gently.

He looks around at the clinical building that has dissected, scanned, and imprisoned him over the years. Memories darken his eyes again, but only for a heartbeat. Then he turns his back on the sterile walls and his foot slides forward. Yet something about the motion must not satisfy him because he pauses and turns to me. The brilliant, dimpled smile bursts over his face like sunrise over the horizon.

“I like it better with you,” he says. And before I can blink, he sweeps me his arms, carrying us across the threshold on the same step.

I laugh, winding my arms around his neck and kissing his scar. “And what now?”

“Now this,” he answers, and brings his mouth to mine. Kissing me right here in front of the door, as deeply and slowly as though we are alone.

In the last wisp of thought, I remember something he told me long ago, on his bed in Portland, when he was so torn between loving me and letting me go. What do you want? I had asked him. His eyes stilled then, became translucent with dreams, with all the things he couldn’t have. Kiss you in broad daylight, he had answered, not caring who is around us.

So I kiss him back hard, right here on the threshold of our new life. If anyone is waiting or tsking or laughing or clearing their throat, I don’t know it. The only thing that exists for me is making his dreams true, giving him everything he can finally have.

He started this kiss, and he has to end it. There is no question of me breaking away. He pulls back to look at me, his eyes exultant. But underneath the victory is a deep love, mirroring my own.

“It’s real,” I tell him, like I promised.

He smiles with the dimple. “You’ll have to tell me at least another million times.”

“That suits me.” I reach closer and bring my mouth to his ear. “It’s real, it’s real, it’s real.”

His chuckle caresses my temple and flurries in my hair. He steps away from the door, still carrying me in his arms. As we pass, his shoulder brushes the steel frame one last time. Goodbye.©2022 Ani Keating

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 38 – MASTERS

Hey all, I have waited for you to read this chapter for over six years, I’m actually in disbelief. It’s one of the most secret, fundamental things about Aiden that I knew would be excruciating to wait to reveal. But I also knew it had to come only now and not once before. So the clues were buried very deep. I’m oddly emotional setting it out in the world, but also happy and thrilled to finally let it free. And that’s all I will say about it. After you read it, you might see Chapter Ash and all the clues there under a new light.  Oh, and this photo. You’ll see why it’s so perfect for the chapter and, of course, our world right now. #Peace

38

Masters

I scramble on my knees to the side of the bed, searching Aiden’s face to understand the difference in his voice. What changed the desperate pleas to a bold injunction? His feverish expression folds out of agony into the sharp focus of a sniper, all creases of torment gone.

“Stop!” he commands again and, for a second, I freeze. Can he tell I’m here, leaning close to the danger? But no, his eyes are still closed, pupils racing underneath. “Stop, wait! . . . What is that?” he demands again. His voice is iron like the rest of his body. Something about his posture—despite lying perfectly still on his back—is tense, yet graceful, like the pause before the sinuous spring of a lion or the fluid strike of a snake. And even though he is asleep, I have an acute feeling that all his senses are awake, ranging out in hypervigilance. Is his mind reliving or discovering? I have no idea what to think or do, except follow Doctor Helen’s advice to change nothing, to let him process the unfathomable depths of his memory.

“My love,” I keep reciting my letter to him as I was. “I don’t know why it has taken me so long to write you back. After all, we’re still fighting a war—”

A breath whooshes out of him as though he was punched in the gut. “There!” he fires. “Right there . . . listen . . .”

A deep silence grips the tropical guestroom. So abrupt it makes me jump. Foolishly, I scan around me half-expecting a black shadow to morph from the inky dawn but there is nothing. Not even Aiden’s breath anymore. His entire being seems suspended in this one moment in time. Even the pupils under his eyelids have frozen.

“A war like no other,” I mumble. “With hearts instead of shields, memories instead of bombs—”

“There . . .” Aiden murmurs again, but his tenor is different—wonder now. Or is it dread?

“—Dreams instead of missions,” I stammer. “It’s the war to end—”

“That line . . .” he breathes.

“The war to end all wars. The war to save you—” I start again but never finish. Because in the same breath, Aiden’s forehead locks, his mouth parts, and with a thunderbolt movement, he springs up. His eyes flash open, vigilance blowing out of him like a tidal wave of power.

“They were there!” he gasps.

“Aiden?” I cry out startled, jolting on my feet.

He doesn’t respond. His stare is locked beyond this world into the influx of his memory. Not a single blink flutters through the long lashes, not one twitch flickers over the steely muscles.

“Love, what is it?” I call again, unsure whether to touch him yet.

No answer. The darkened eyes are wide with shock. He seems stunned beyond any capacity for words or movement.

“Aiden, please?” I gentle my voice, inching close to the bed. His fever slams into me like a gust of desert wind. “Can you hear me?”

He must because his eyes turn to my face, but he only stares in disbelief. His mouth is parted as though he wants to speak but no words are coming out. Fear slithers down my spine. I pick up the cold compress from the ice bowl on the floor and perch carefully on the bed at his side.

“Aiden, love, you’re alright. We’re in the cottage—”

But he shakes his head, his expression astounded. “They were there, Elisa!” he breathes.

“Who, love? Where?” My voice trembles in fright. Not for me, but for him. What is this? Is it the fever? Slowly, so he sees my intention, I press the iced compress on his bearded cheek. He blinks then, just once, refocusing on me.

“Hey, you.” I try to smile, dabbing his forehead with the damp towel. “It’s okay—it was just a dream. You’re safe, we both are.”

But he takes my hand off his face and folds it in both of his, dazed beyond any sight I’ve ever seen. Even terrified, his touch tingles my skin despite the gauze covering his blisters.

“No, not a dream,” he mouths, seeming unable to find his voice. “They were there, waiting for us.”

It’s my breath that whooshes out of me now at those last three words. The compress slips through our fingers. In a flash, the scene transforms before me. This wasn’t a nightmare, it was analysis. He is not terrorized; he is staggered. And this isn’t a flashback, it’s a realization. Possibly the biggest realization of his life.

The one I sensed in the smoke clouds during the video. The ephemeral instinct the protein gave me. Was I right?

Thankfully, he is too shocked to notice my reactions. Or perhaps he thinks I’m trying to catch up, which is true.

“The insurgents, Elisa!” he explains in a trance. “The IED! It wasn’t an accident. It was an ambush!”

My gasp blows over his parted lips. It’s not a gasp of shock. It’s heady, overpowering relief. Because he listened. He saw. He was able to follow my words. And he found it—the clue buried so deep in the black smoke and flames, even my super-senses barely glimpsed it. His conscience, with some sleep at last, caught up with his amplified memory. It connected the dots planted like landmines on that unspeakable May day over a decade ago, lurking in the deepest chasms of his mind, hidden from our unseeing eyes—his blindfolded by torture, mine blurred with the unknown. Until I saw the video without any fear, until we both felt invincible enough to ignore the terror and see the truth veiled behind.

Abruptly, my heart starts bombing my ears. Will this make a difference as I hoped when I was doubtless and indomitable? Can it help Aiden move on from Fallujah at last?

Half of my brain is racing forward. But the other half is frozen to a full stop, as stunned as Aiden.

“They must have known we were coming,” he continues in awe. “Elisa, they were already there, on the street by the schoolyard!”

Yes! Yes, that’s how it seemed to me too! I almost shriek. Only one surviving brain cell makes me clench my teeth against the gush of words that absolutely cannot slip from my tongue.

“It’s so clear now,” he murmurs, his eyes brimming with amazement. “I can access it all—everything during the reel, and everything before and after . . . everything you said to me.”

“Tell me, love,” I whisper frantically, clutching his fingers. “Tell me all of it.”

“I could hear your voice again in my sleep.” His eyes lighten on my face. The turquoise is almost diaphanous with wonder. “Guiding me through the schoolyard after the reel. You told me to find the market, you compared the colors of the vegetables to the flowers in Elysium— tomatoes for poppies, leeks for daisies, eggplant for orchids, a hijab like our blanket,” he quotes my words verbatim while I fight for air. He heard it all, his hermetic mind preserved every letter, ready for him to weave them into meaning. “Then you told me to search closer,” he presses urgently. “You asked if there were cars, if there was music like the willows. You asked what it was singing. Did you say all that to me?”

“Every word,” I breathe, as awed as he is.

“I searched with you as you spoke. Unearthed all the innocuous details I had never revisited since that first glance that awful day.”

Of course he hadn’t. How could he have lingered on trivia when he was fighting for his life, when he was drowning in torture? It’s not the eye that sees, it’s the mind. And what mind can manage to focus on such minutia when it is tearing apart? I know only one.

“That’s when I finally saw it again,” he marvels. “A tan Toyota truck, across the street from the school, the color of sand—dusty, off to the side, easy to camouflage.”

Yes! I want to cry. Yes, I saw it too, but I clamp down on my tongue and listen.

“It was loaded with banana crates as though it was delivering them to the nearby stall, no one at the wheel. And it was playing an old American song by Bob Dylan. Masters of War.”

So that’s what that song was! I couldn’t place the title or the singer during the video.

“Do you know it?” he frowns in surprise, no longer missing my facial expressions.

“I have heard it before,” I whisper, choosing my words with care—trying to stay as truthful as possible before he can smell the lie in my very breath now that his alertness is returning.

He nods. “Me too. Even before that day, but I certainly heard it then, when I saw the truck. I just didn’t think much of it. American songs were oddly popular in Iraq. We heard them all the time in shops and cars, although it was usually hip-hop, rarely the classics. I suppose, in retrospect, that should have been a hint, but it was not. None of us made anything of it . . .” he trails off, seeming disturbed by the thought.

“How could you have?” I intervene before he finds a way to blame himself even about this. “Who would think of music when the bombs started exploding?”

He shakes his head as if to disagree. “I did the same thing yesterday after the reel. When you told me to look for familiar things, I found the truck and the song in my memories—just the same as it had been that Fallujah morning. Seeming just as harmless and irrelevant. I rested on it only for a second, following your direction. It calmed me even—seeing Elysium superimposed over the market, the images braiding together so strangely. Wildflowers started blooming in my vision, the bananas became trefoils, the tomatoes poppies, Dylan chorusing quietly with Für Elise. It was mesmerizing but only that—a distraction from the pain. . .” He drifts again, now here, now there. I squeeze his hand gently, bringing him back, too amazed to be able to speak myself.

“I’ve told you what happened next,” he continues, his gaze darkening like the smoke that must be billowing in his memories now.

“The IED,” I mouth, shuddering on the mattress.

Even in one of the most pivotal moments of his life, he doesn’t miss it. He releases my hands and throws the quilt over my shoulders. “Yes, that should have been another hint in retrospect. The fact that the blast came from the side of the street. The side of that truck. But the truck didn’t explode, nothing else did—that’s why we concluded it was an off-road device, triggered by accident. Perhaps by the kids playing soccer. That was the norm for the region. The intentional attacks were usually suicide bombs, installed on bodies or cars. The DIA itself analyzed the blast radius afterwards and agreed—”

“The DIA?” I interrupt, confused.

“The Defense Intelligence Agency—the CIA’s counterpart for combat missions. Their exact quote was ‘accident of the most unfortunate kind.’ Of course, none of us realized then what I do now.” His eyes melt on mine. “What you and the protein helped me see at last.”

“What?” I breathe. What helped him make sense of the horror? What made the truth click?

“That the song was aimed at us, the truck was not alone. I finally realized it when I went up to the classroom with you in my ear. I sailed straight to the window where Marshall was, searching the flames for Jazz who was still stuck below. Then for a split-second, there was a pause in gunfire as my ammo was running out. And your voice was guiding me again at that moment, trying to calm me, I think. You told me, ‘Search through the smoke. What do you see? Something old? Something new? You remember it. Now see it, hear it all—not just the horror.’” He restates my words with precision down to my inflections. “Did you say all that to me?”

“All of it,” I whisper, shivering at the image I recall with too vividly.

“That’s when I heard it again. That same song, that same line, ‘And your death will come soon. I will follow your casket, by one pale afternoon.’” He looks at me in sheer wonder while I shudder inside the quilt. Even with my super-mind, I hadn’t caught the words, only the tune. “Then there was a faint break in the smoke, and I saw them. A few more trucks—about four or five, behind the first one—they had all arrived. It was like the chalk rose on the blackboard. Like seeing something with new eyes, with yours. And once I did, it all made sense. Everything fell together. We didn’t walk into an IED. We walked into a trap. They were already there, waiting for us . . .” He repeats the words in a dreamlike state, but his eyes are awake in every sense of the word. Staring again beyond the room as the realities must merge. The one he always knew and the one he has finally seen. Which one hurts more? Which one will he believe?

I inch closer into his body heat, taking his blazing hand again. He blinks at my touch, his expression dazed and wary. Perhaps questioning everything he knows or testing this reality.

“I think you’re right,” I tell him, wishing I could say so much more. How awed I am by his mind, by his strength to watch the horror raw in his sleep—without any anesthetic of any kind except one piano melody—and endure untold agony with the courage to see the truth, to fight to the very end. He is bravery defined. No protein can ever compare. And I wish I had words in any language to tell him all that.

Instead, I only stare at the miracle of his face.

“Do you?” he asks fervently—the first time I’ve ever known him to be unsure of his bulletproof perception. “You agree that it was orchestrated?”

“Without a doubt. You’re the expert, but it all fits. The choice of song, the timing, the matching trucks, the color for camouflage, the motive, the way they got to you faster than you thought. I don’t see how it can be any other way. The only thing I’m wondering is how they knew you’d be there.” It’s the question that was stumping even my super-mind, but he shrugs as though this is the easiest part.

“That’s simple enough to explain. The network of civilian spies in Fallujah was vast. It was one of the most challenging war zones for the DIA and Langley—still remains to this day. Someone must have seen us enter the pipes and alerted them. We had to trek for a while to get there. The Iraqis will always know their desert best.”

I shiver, remembering their hike in the moonless dawn. There were other eyes in the darkness stalking the brothers with me, other invisible shadows haunting them, so enmeshed with the night, even the camera in Marshall’s chest missed them.

He stares at me, still stunned. “How could I have missed this?”

“Missed it? You didn’t miss it. You saw it all—every single detail even in moments of unspeakable horror. And your mind preserved it perfectly for over a decade. My God, Aiden, what human could have ever perceived more?”

He shakes his head. “Elisa, it has been four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days since that classroom. I have relived that morning at least fifteen thousand times. How could I not have seen this once?” Emotions fuse on his face like flames: dismay, pain, anger at himself.

“How could you have seen it even once?” I argue, pressing my other hand to his burning cheek. He doesn’t pull away. The feel of him seeps through my skin into the marrow of my bones. “You may have relieved it every day, but every single time you’ve been fighting it. You had never sat with it, trying to examine every angle, trying to find beautiful things. Who would? Tell me who could focus on songs and veggies when gunfire and bombs were blaring. Who would examine those details under torture?” My voice quivers. I don’t allow myself to remember the blistering image of his blood, the brunt of violence on the body that is my life. I couldn’t live through it without the protein. Even at the memory of the memory, I struggle to stay upright. “I’m not surprised at all it took you until now,” I add. “Until the moment you allowed yourself to see and feel all of it.”

“Because of you,” he murmurs, and the emotional flow changes, becomes wonderment when the real wonder is him.

“No, love.” My hand trembles from his cheek to his scar. From the heat, it shimmers as if it has become alive. “You did this all on your own. It’s okay to give yourself credit for that.”

“But had I not taken the protein, had you not guided me—”

“You still would have found it. I have no doubts about that. You would have seen it all in the end. I know you would have.” And I wouldn’t have rested until that day.

He doesn’t answer, but the tectonic plates shift deeply in the sapphire depths as though reaching seismically to his very core. I hope he believes me. I hope he finds this faith. And above all, I hope he finally frees himself.

“The only thing that matters now,” I tell him. “Is what you do with this knowledge. With what it means.”

He looks at me like a man finally finding the holy grail, the Moby Dick, the elixir of life—seeing that elusive treasure at last, yet too afraid to stretch out his hand and grasp it. Too afraid of losing it again. Too afraid that it is only a dream.

“It means it was not your fault, love.” I put all my conviction in my voice to make it real. “Your decision to stay in the schoolyard and help those little boys didn’t cause Marshall’s torture or Jazz’s scars or anyone else’s loss. The insurgents were already there, waiting. They would have gone after you even if you had gone back. Except in the pipes, it would have been even worse, without light and barely any air. None of you would have survived.” I try to fight the shudder that rattles my teeth at the idea and take both his hands again to anchor me here.

He has listened to every syllable entranced, his eyes liquid. Even his breath has stopped, as though the lightest puff of air might blow my words away. I scoot closer to his warmth, breathing gently on his lips as he does with me. He inhales sharply, the way my lungs open up to his fragrance. But still he doesn’t speak.

“You know it’s true. You know if you hadn’t listened to your heart, you would have gone back to camp through the pipes. The monsters probably hoped for that because they would have had the upper hand inside, with their knowledge of their own homeland.”

Another trembling breath of mine, another shallow gasp of his—two life threads entwined to the end. Strangle one, and you choke the other.

“You saved your brothers, Aiden. You didn’t hurt them. You’re the reason they’re still here, even if Marshall is gone. Because of you, they are safe, secure, and alive.”

Still no answer. Only that sentient gaze, so deep it would take a lifetime to reach the turquoise light. A lifetime I would gladly give.

“Listen to my words. Listen to the truth. You have waited for four thousand four hundred seventy-seven days to hear it. It has been living inside you under all the pain and the guilt and the fear. It’s okay to free it. It’s okay to accept it. This—was—never—your—fault.”

No words, no breaths, no blinks. Just torn gasps, snagging on the jagged teeth of agony, trying to break free.

“I will never stop telling you this. Not even after you’re gone. It was not your fault. It was your merit. You saved them. You brought them home. It’s time for you to come home too, love. Not in Burford or Portland—come home to yourself. To the man you truly are.”

He looks at me like no other time in our love. Utterly lost, with those shocking newborn eyes I saw in Stella’s photos—eyes trying to find their way in this reformed world.

“I know you’re afraid.” I keep going because if I stop, he will not hear the words his heart needs more than blood. “Afraid to believe it, afraid to lay down this guilt. It has been a part of you for so long. It has been your fight, your mourning, and your grief. You feel that if you let it go now, you are betraying him. You fear you won’t recognize who you are without it. But you will. I promise you that. You will still be just as loyal, just as honorable, just as selfless and brave as you’ve always been. Because all those things are in here.” I lift our joined hands to his heart like I did in my old apartment in Portland when he came back after our embargo, when he told me the truth about his startle reflex. His heart hammers back as if clamoring to be heard. I’m here, I’m here. “Listen to your heart. This was not your fault. Say it with me. Say it with Marshall.”

His chest thrashes like a broken eagle wing. Tension strains his jaw as though his body is tearing apart with war. I don’t need to ask if he could hear Marshall’s words, if he could read his lips. I know. I know from the ancient grief in Aiden’s eyes that he couldn’t. It was too low, too far, too stifled with the laughing monsters for Aiden to hear it, lost in his own torture. Fiery tongues start licking up my eyes. How will I give him that truth without breaking his heart?

“You know he would say it,” I tell him as I did after the reel. “‘Not your fault, my brother.’ These are Marshall’s words, not just mine. Say them with us.”

His throat constricts as though the words are suffocating him, stuck there, unable to get out. A single tear glimmers in the sapphire gaze like a lone star. At the sight, I forget everything—all the closure and our end and our own pain—and take him in my arms.

“Oh, my love,” I whisper, kissing his scar.

And Aiden breaks. His steel body wraps around mine, contorting with pain. A vicious shudder radiates through him, as if tearing him into pieces. I clutch him harder and tuck his head in my neck, like I did the only other time he has broken like this. When he attacked me. And like then, I give him everything: my smell, my touch, my breath, my strength, my voice. His fever consumes us both, flame after flame.

“It was not your fault,” I repeat in his ear. “Not as a brother, a friend, a commander, or a man. This was never your fault . . .”  Over and over and over until his silent, absent breath splinters into three ravaged words.

“Not—my—fault.”

They’re barely a gasp in the breeze, barely a note in the piano melody, but I hear them louder than I have ever heard anything. My eyes simmer with tears, but I fight them back for him and kiss his temple. His pulse kisses me back, rapid and deep.

“That’s right, love. Say it again, so you know how the truth sounds in your own voice.”

Another strangled breath. “Not—my—fault.”

“Please believe it. Believe every word because it’s true.” I cover him with all of me, body like a second skin, murmuring in his ear until he can utter the words on his own, without me.

“Not my fault . . . not my fault . . . not my fault.”

Sometimes, big bangs are neither big, nor loud. Sometimes, they are fractured kernels of soul, imploding and reforming breathlessly without a sound. Just a gasp, a shattered heartbeat, three words in the breeze. But that doesn’t mean they are small. It means they are deeper than our eye can see.

When the words fade, we shudder here on the bed, holding each other like no other time in our lives. Like a beginning in the middle of our end. But if we had to end, let it be so he can start to heal. Let it be so he can believe these words. Let it be so Fallujah ends with me. So when that airplane carries him across the skies, it is not just a goodbye. Let it be a hello to Aiden Liber—Aiden the Free.

Outside our heat bubble, the skylark starts to sing for the first time in eleven mornings, harmonizing its warble to Für Elise. My throat blisters as I finally realize why the lark had stopped coming. Because the music stopped inside the cottage when Aiden left at night. But the piano is playing again now. Once more, twice, until his usual wake-up time. Six o’clock. Our embargo is almost over. The melody stops like the breath between our lungs. Then there is only the lonely lark and the willows whispering, he’s free, he’s free.

And even though I vowed he would not see me crying, the tears spill down my cheeks and soak through his T-shirt, misting his wrought shoulder before I can stop them.

He leans back, his grip softening around me. My body shifts reflexively with him trying to prolong the contact. But he doesn’t let me go. One arm stays around my waist as his finger tingles under my chin. Mothlike, I lift my face to the flame of his gaze, afraid to see our closure in his eyes. But there is no goodbye there yet. Nor a hello. Just a crystal droplet at the corner like a question mark.

“Hey, no tears,” he murmurs, his voice rough. “No tears for me.”

I smile so he has it in his first memories for this other side. “They’re proud tears. And hopeful and awed and loving.” And painful and soul-slaying and scalding . . .

He brushes the moisture with his fingertips as if he heard all the unspoken words. “I still don’t like them.”

A cloud of warmth engulfs me as though the teardrops are evaporating from his touch. “What about this?” I ask, wiping the solitaire sparkling on his lashes. “What kind of tear is this?”

“Oh, don’t worry. That’s not a tear.”

“It’s not?”

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

“Then what is it?”

Lightly, his blazing finger glides down my cheek. “It’s a closed door.” His fingertip comes to a stop at the corner of my lips. “A different life flashing before my eyes. That’s what that drop is.”

I try to live through his words, his touch. My heart almost stops from it, from everything. I fight to keep it beating for him. “A closed door on the past?”

He nods. “It has to be.”

“What about the future? Is there something from the future in that non-tear too?”

A look passes in his eyes—a gaze I have no name for. It’s thoughtful, all-consuming, like a held breath or a stare in the horizon. Here, yet waiting for air or a beacon to lighten. “I hope so,” he answers.

H-o-p-e. “And what does that future look like?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“But you believe it now?”

He knows this one immediately. “A part of me will always feel some guilt. It’s the reality of being a survivor, a commanding officer whose men died on my watch. And I will always wonder if I could have done more, better, faster, smarter. But I won’t lie. That weight feels . . . less crushing. More livable knowing my decision didn’t force him—Marshall—to his death. And it’s all because of you and the protein you made for me.”

I don’t miss the way his voice drops on the name, but he still says it out loud. I see the haunted look that flickers in his gaze, though his eyes stay focused on me. And I feel the intense relief, more overwhelming than even when he returned from the reel. But abruptly there is something else that suddenly matters more than anything. Something so vital that instinctively I know we both need it to breathe.

“Aiden.” My voice trembles around his name, the way it caresses my tongue on the way out. I clutch his hand for strength, for bravery to ask the question. His fingers wind with mine like arteries. “If you had never seen those trucks or heard that song in Fallujah in the first place, if you had nothing at all to clear your decision, do you think you would have always carried that guilt?”

He must hear the gravity of the question because he seems to think about it, his eyes deepening as if looking inside himself. “I don’t think so,” he answers after a moment. “And not just because that’s what you were hoping to hear. There was something different about this reel. I couldn’t reconcile it then—the past and the present were merging so fast—but as I look back at the whole, it didn’t feel the same.”

My heart starts hammering in triple tempo like his mind. “Different how?”

“At first, it was worse. The worst agony of my life, even compared to that day itself. Because the classroom started blending with your father’s library the night Edison attacked you. I don’t know why but the images were melding together in the worst possible way. Your blood with Marshall’s blood. His screams with yours when Edison slapped you—” Fury chokes him off and locks his muscles. His eyes become black tunnels of horror again, exactly like the reel, exactly like that night.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m safe, love.” I swirl my fingers in his beard, hating Edison’s every atom and all my own molecules for adding to this agony.

He draws a deep, steadying breath. “I couldn’t breathe through it, Elisa.” His voice is more tormented than I’ve ever heard it. “I know you think I would, but I know my mind, my limits. And I know I could not have come back from that reel. I could not have left you there in his hands, even if only in a memory.” He shudders, and I shudder with him.

So this is why this reel took so long. Why nothing I tried was bringing him back. He was trying to save me again. Reliving two tortures at once—his worst terror and worst pain—both tearing him apart and burying him alive. Doctor Helen’s text blares in my vision, blinding me with its black and white letters: Aiden’s memory can stay in the past forever. I shiver as I realize how right she was, how close he came to being lost.

“Hey, don’t say that.” I whisper, unable to breathe myself through the agony that starts scalding my throat. “It’s gone now. I’m safe because of you. And you’re here. Right here, back and freer than you’ve been in a long time.”

His arm tightens around my waist, pulling me into his warmth as he sees the dread I can’t hide. “Yes, I am, because of you. Because you made a protein that gave me the strength to endure. And because somehow, against all rules and reason, you decided to come after me. You joined me in that hellhole, in the last possible place I would ever want you to be. My mind couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t accept it. This illusion of you—so beautiful, so full of love, the most perfect miracle to ever exist—walking through the flames with me . . . I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t tolerate one single second. For a moment, I wondered if I had in fact died and this was what my version of hell looked like.”

Another shudder ripples through us both. And more puzzle pieces fall together. Why he was shaking his head no when I first entered that moment with him, why it seemed the torment got worse. Because it did. Because I added to his agony instead of lessening it. I should be quarantined.

“But then your calming effect started to seep even through those flames, like it always does,” he continues. “And I was able to breathe again. I was able to see something other than Marshall’s body and yours on the floor. I was able to recall there was a reason to live through it, to come back even if we’re not together. Because the real you was worried and waiting. Because I had given you my word. That’s when the change started, I think. Having you there became strength, not weakness. It must have boosted the strength of the protein. Everything felt new. Like I was seeing it for the first time—just as painful, but there was also your calm, your love. And I was able to follow your voice. I could hear you telling me it was not my fault. Even in the end, in that classroom, with Marshall so . . . gone—” A convulsion tears along his shoulders like a ghost blasting through him. The turquoise gaze becomes speckled with darker stars, like Marshall passed and became a constellation in his eyes. “I was able to repeat your words to him. To say goodbye.”

He says it quietly, like a breath. My own breath stops with it. “You did?” I whisper in wonder.

He nods. “As much as I could.”

I want to ask what Marshall would have said back, if there was a final word he would have wanted to hear from his best friend, but somehow, I know this will always have to stay between them. “How do you feel?”

“Like he died all over again, except a better death this time. More human. And I could say a few last words.”

I caress his scar again, lightly so I don’t add a different kind pain. “They don’t have to be last words. I’m learning that. I randomly catch myself talking to mum and dad in my head. Maybe that makes me crazy, but it feels healthier. With a lot less pain. Maybe it will be the same for you.”

“Maybe.”

Neither of us says what I am sure we are both thinking: can his memory ever let him do that?

I remember my idea then—an idea that started brewing during the protein, building after the reel, honing into the night after Doctor Helen and science gave up. “How about we try something together?” I suggest.

“Try what?”

“Well, first, I made you a little something. Do you want to see it?”

He doesn’t miss the new lightness in my voice because a shadow-smile plays automatically at the corner of his lips. “Will it make me cry? Apparently I do that now.”

It’s an obvious joke, but abruptly I hesitate. Will it hurt him? Is it too early for this? Or too late? “I don’t think so, but you don’t have to do anything with it,” I answer, remembering the way he handled the chess set with me. “Or say anything. You don’t even have to touch it if you don’t want to. It’s just a . . . a reminder of something you love.”

He recognizes his own words immediately. “Well now, I’m extremely curious. What did you make that needs a warning?”

I stretch over the edge of the bed, reaching down into the mess of arts and crafts on the floor for my creation. His arm curves around my waist in case I topple and fall.

“This,” I whisper, losing my voice completely as I resurface and open my hand so he can see it in my palm. It’s not beautiful at all, nothing like the gifts he has given me, but his eyes rivet on the tangled coil with eagerness. “It’s a bracelet,” I explain. “Not as precious as the one you gave me—” The diamond initials chime musically on my wrist in agreement. “—But I tried to make it masculine.”

He fishes it from my hand, unraveling the thin, black leather plait and the wooden letters strung on it: M-I-R-A-J.

“All our initials,” he murmurs in wonder, gazing at the letters for the names of his brothers. From the first sunrays, the ordinary wood glows almost like antiqued bronze.

“I kept Marshall’s with an M, instead of his first name—Jacob—because that’s how you refer to him. But for the rest of you, I used the first initial.”

“Life with life,” he mouths in understanding. His eyes deepen with the vision I tried to create for him.

“Yes, but I tried to braid the leather cord like a double helix, like the bracelet you gave me. Because the five of you will always be family. Nothing can ever take that away, not even death. This kind of love does conquer everything.”

He looks up at me, and that nameless look floods his eyes again. Pensive, yet dreamlike, as though hitting pause on everything. I still can’t find the right words for it.

“You don’t have to wear it,” I remind him uselessly in case there is pain underneath. “I just thought—”

“You thought perfectly.”

“You still don’t have to wear it. Or even look at it if it causes you pain.”

“It doesn’t. It causes other things, but not pain.”

“What does it cause?”

He flicks through the wooden letters until he stops at his. “Faith,” he answers, brushing my cheek with the A like he did with the chess queen. “Hope that maybe all love can conquer everything even if not the way we think.”

His initial leaves behind a comet of heat. I open my mouth to speak, but all that comes out is a sigh. Can cheap, non-flame-resistant wood combust from breath? From touch?

As if he wonders the same thing, he smiles his after smile and drops his hand, holding out his wrist. “Thank you. It’s a very meaningful gift. But did you really think I wouldn’t wear it if you made it for me?”

I shake my head to rattle some brain cells back to life. “What if I had made you a dress?” is my genius response. “Would you have worn that?”

He chuckles—the first chuckle on this other side, more beautiful than the lark song. “Well, how far is a dress from a friendship bracelet really?”

“It’s more of a cuff,” I correct, taking the leather cord and tying it around his wrist. Little flames kindle on my skin at the contact and, for a blink, I see stars again even if they’re only the twinkly lights. But the fire must catch in his blood because the bands of muscle in his arm tense as if resisting a great force.

He clears his throat. “Did, ah, Cal tell you Jazz’s first name is Indy?”

“Yes, I texted him last night. They’re all so worried, Aiden. Maybe we should let them come when . . .”

I can’t finish the sentence, and he can’t seem to be able to hear it. “You said ‘first’ earlier, when you asked if we could try something,” he reminds me. “Does that mean there is a second part?”

“Oh! Right!” I remember, grateful for the change in direction. “Yes, but you can say no, like with the bracelet. It’s only if you feel up to it.”

Curiosity flashes in his eyes again, but he smiles. “Duly warned. What is it?”

A frisson of life thrums in my chest. Or is it nerves? I caress the A on his wrist, wishing I had one on mine. “Well, I was thinking, perhaps we could do something to celebrate Marshall today. Maybe as an early birthday or the Christmas he wanted?”

But in my focus on his heart, I have slipped. A big slip. I watch in horror as my words float from my mouth and land on his brain. He stares at me in disbelief. “The Christmas he wanted?” he repeats in a low voice. “How do you know he was looking forward to Christmas? I never told you that.”

Ice whips my cheeks. A wave of nausea heaves to my mouth as I see my blanched face reflected in his unerring eyes. “D-don’t all s-soldiers want to be home for C-Christmas?” I scramble. “B-but it doesn’t have to be Christmas either.” I change tracks frantically. “I just—I think it’s important we give you and him both a good day, like we did with mum and dad. It really helped me.”

He has seen all my reactions, the initial surprise fading and the V deepening between his brows on each word. “It sounds incredibly thoughtful, but why do you look so . . . scared?”

I try to stay focused only on the ultimate truth. The smallest lie and his eyes will catch it. “Because I don’t want you to hurt even more.”

The frown intensifies, and he brushes my arm as if he senses the goosebumps that have erupted there. “I’m not hurting more,” he tries to assure me. “I’m touched—that’s different.”

I manage a slight breath of relief, feeling guilty for letting him misunderstand, but not guilty enough to tell him about the video. Right now he only thinks I’m scared. If he knew the truth . . . I fight back a shudder because he is still watching me, worry creasing his forehead.

“Elisa?” He traces a circle under my eye, thawing the ice. “Your idea is as meaningful as your gift, but you’re obviously upset and exhausted. You’ve been up all night, taking care of me, making me presents, planning birthdays, Christmas, and God knows what else. So, no, sweetheart. We’re not doing anything—no celebrating, talking, or even thinking—until you finally get some sleep.”

“Sleep?” I cry out in panic. On one hand, he’s not pushing me about my Christmas slip. On the other, he has obviously concluded it must be from exhaustion, which is even worse. I’d rather move to Fallujah for the rest of my life than miss one second left of the embargo. “Not now, Aiden, please!” I beg. “This is more important to me—more important than anything else left. It won’t be much, I promise. We’re not supposed to do anything strenuous today anyway, according to Doctor Helen. She wants to check on us tomorrow morning.”

“Exactly—rest is the most important thing right now. We can talk about your idea when you wake up.”

“But then we’ll have to go see Doctor Helen and—and—” My voice breaks at what is coming, at the way her tone sounded last night. So final, so terminal. I can’t tell him any of that. Let him have just one day with h-o-p-e.

But he wraps his arms around me like a shield. “Elisa, you don’t think I know the words you cannot say? I know there is nothing more she can do and tomorrow is just a formality. But it doesn’t change a thing. You still need to rest. Come on, bed.” His arms flex as if to scoop me up.

“No!” I choke, my fingers gripping his T-shirt like hooks. All my resolve to be strong for him shatters, and the full truth spills out. “No, Aiden, please! There’s so little embargo left. I don’t want to miss any of it!”

That look I have no words for deepens his eyes again. Lightening them like skies, softening them like velvet, then morphing into almost palpable tenderness. “Hey, hey, shh,” he murmurs, almost crooning as he pulls me closer. “Forget about the embargo, all right? We can have more time when you wake up. Don’t worry about any of that. Breathe, Elisa!” He blows on my lips like always, slowly until my lungs restart. But I can’t even blink from his beautiful face. Did he really say what I think he said?

“More embargo?” I whisper, still grasping his T-shirt. “Really?”

“I promise you,” he vows, his arms tightening around me. “If you go to sleep, I’ll be right here, and we can celebrate or do whatever else you had in mind when you wake up. Just, please, Elisa.”

I can hear the truth and desperation in his voice even through the blood pounding in my ears. And as swiftly as it struck, panic recedes. Because this is all I want—more t-i-m-e with him. All except one thing: his health, his peace.

“But what about your fever?” I force out the words against every cell that wants me to shut up and curl in his arms for as long as he will let me.

“Elisa, I don’t give a fuck about my fever. I don’t give a fuck about my feelings, my memories, or whatever other worry you’re spinning in your head right now. The only thing I care about is you. Just you. So if you want me to relax, then do it for me.”

How can I argue with his words or his eyes when I feel the same about him? When all my resistance crumbled to stardust at the promise of another day together?

He sees my surrender in my eyes. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that the waterworks almost start again. And before I can breathe, anytime, he lies down with me, wrapping me in his arms. Electricity jolts everywhere the second our bodies touch. Tingles on my skin, trembles in my limbs, stars in my vision, earthquakes in my heart. And he is the force that makes them all run. Fire in the blood, titanium in his body, gravity in his hold, my entire universe in his eyes.

“Aiden, love, if—”

“Shh, you’re staying right here.” He throws a light sheet over me, but then seems to remember something. “Unless you’re hungry. Do you want something to eat first?”

“No, I’m fine.” It’s not even a lie. There are other hungers in me, but not the food kind.

“Not even a scone with clotted cream and rose jam?”

“No, not even that.”

He sighs, pressing his lips in my hair. “All right, but when you wake up, you’re eating a Marine-sized meal. Now sleep.”

I want to answer that when I wake up, I only to make happy memories for him. I want to ask what he would like, I want to tell him so many things.  Like the way his fragrance is blending with the rose mist into the stuff of heavens, the way the skylark stops singing every time he speaks, the tiny new bud leaf on Hope because of his warmth, the willows crooning he’s free, he’s free. Do they still sing Elisa, Elisa for him? I want to say all these little nothings that are my everything, but I can’t find the words. So I curl in his chest, closing my eyes, feeling oddly whole with everything in shreds. I try not to think of tomorrow when we meet Doctor Helen, the finality in her voice last night, the startle we couldn’t beat, the last goodbye. I concentrate only on his body heat, counting the times his heart beats in my ear—fast and vital and mine.

But abruptly, on heartbeat eight hundred and five, a change startles me. Subtle yet fast. Like a cool breath on my cheek.

“Oh!” I gasp.

“Elisa, what’s wrong?” Aiden sits up alarm, scanning my face.

“Nothing is wrong!” I cry out, my hand flying to his forehead. “Aiden, I think your fever might be dropping!”

“Christ, Elisa, relax!”

“Never mind that! Here, let’s measure it!” I twist in his arms to grab the thermometer from the nightstand.

“I can do that. Lie down—” he growls, but I stick the tip in his mouth before he can finish. He gives me a beautiful glare.

“Mmmm.”

“I know you’re saying fuck, not this again, and terrorizing the roses.”

No answer, except maybe the glower becomes darker.

“That bad, huh?” I trace his scar with my fingertip—it’s still hot, but not scorching. “I promise I’ll sleep after this, except it will be so much better if I know the fever is breaking.”

He sighs in a give-me-strength way, but the glare softens. The first rays of sun fracture on his thick beard, filtering into a prism of light entirely his own. Obsidian, midnight, garnet, bronze. Shimmering like the halo of my bravery visions.

“Then again being awake does have its advantages.” I grin at him, running my fingers through the lustrous bristles. “This, for example, would be difficult while sleeping.”

He sighs again, but above the dark horizon of his beard, the sky of his gaze deepens with that held, indescribable look. It lightens on my face, so hypnotic, I can’t even blink. But then the thermometer beeps, jolting me back to reality. I pull it out quickly, my hands shaking.

“You were really off this time,” he says, but my squeal drowns his voice as soon as I see the numbers blinking on the window.

“Yes! Ninety-nine-point-eight! It’s dropping, it really is!” I throw my arms around his neck, almost strangling him in relief.

He hugs me closer, kissing my hair. “That is, indeed, what I was trying to tell you.”

I sob-laugh in his neck. “Thank God! It’s still a little high, but I’ll take any difference. You’re almost normal temperature for a dragon now.”

He chuckles. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it will keep dropping. My memory started slowing after the connections were made. I think they were related.”

I pull back to look at him. “Really? It’s completely back to normal?”

“Well, normal for me. It had to have been the effect of bravery. Now, bed. You got what you wanted, you made a promise, and there are no more excuses left, no matter how much you want to argue with me that I should give all credit to myself.”

I sigh. He knows me too well. “Okay, I’ll argue with you when I wake up.”

He smirks and tucks me in, cradling me in his arms. “Sleep now, love. Sleep and dream beautiful dreams.”

L-o-v-e. The skylark chirps as if it hears the beauty in his voice and knows it cannot compete. “And what will you do while I dream?”

“I’ll be right here, dreaming too.”

“What will you dream?”

“The only dream I see, awake or asleep.”

“It’s Mrs. Willoughby, right?”

“Right.” He chuckles again.

A laugh bubbles on my own lips. And why shouldn’t it? When he is still mine for another day, one step closer to himself? Finally free from a heavy fault that was never his. What is my loss and pain compared to that?

“That is exactly the sound I dream about,” he says, pressing his lips in my hair.

I listen to his piano voice, trying to memorize its music. In secret, I wish I could remember like him. So the years that will sweep my mind can never touch a single note of his melody. “We have a very similar dream then.”

His breath pauses staccato for a second, then bridges fluidly into my lullaby. Not Für Elise, but his letters to me like I did for him. “My all,” he murmurs, as though he heard my thoughts. “Another night, just you, me, and the desert. I don’t know which of us has more heat . . .”

I kiss his heart again and snuggle in his chest, listening. That brave Everestian love surges omnipotently inside me. Inexplicably as strong as during the protein, as immutable as it will always be.

“The desert, you might say, but here is a secret that you don’t know. The desert can never burn the soul. And you are the mirage at the end of the fire. Shimmering like cold water, pouring over this pyre. No, the one burning is me . . .”

Slowly, with each word, a tension I did not know was wringing my muscles starts to drain out of me. His fever softens into the sultry warmth of home, and I start to drift. The last thing I sense is a featherlight pressure on my lips, like a whisper in the breeze.

What a beautiful dream.

©2022 Ani Keating

 

NINETY DAYS: CHAPTER 17 – WAR

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

17

War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Toes and everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We knew this would be hard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We will,” Aiden nods.

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

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

“And third—the startle reflex.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you!” I say with fervor.

©2021 Ani Keating