Hello all, and happy Tuesday instead of Sunday! Computer troubles are always a pain in the tonsils as a good friend here would say, but during a pandemic they’re more akin to strep throat. Hence my delay. Hope you enjoy this chapter, and thanks as always for reading and writing. Lots of love, Ani.
One week of war. The most beautiful war there has ever been. Every day is a new reel of brilliancy—one blissful moment to another, all blending into a catalog of happy memories counteracting the reel of torture. Each night is a sheet of music—Aiden’s waterfall laughter, the sounds of our love, and Für Elise rebuilding his memories note after note. And Aiden and I have never been closer. Even our internal clocks have synchronized, melding together in a united front. How different love feels at war. It’s as though each cell dreads love’s absence and therefore magnifies its presence a million-fold. Each touch feels like a hundred touches before, each kiss like a thousand of the ones pre-war. Or maybe our cells have not changed—maybe we’re simply living more. Every day, every hour is a new life, even the darkest hour of them all: right now, at dawn.
Because this is the hour of the reel of torture. We tried other times for it—before supper, afterwards—but the waiting was its own torment, at least for me. Only this small hour wedged between the blissful moment of waking up together and the blissful moment of watching the sunrise in the garden has been survivable.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep in today?” Aiden asks as I throw on my pajamas. He is still in nothing but star-gold skin and midnight hair, glowing under the soft light of the bedroom chandelier. He pulls me into his chest. “It is Saturday after all. You deserve a day off.” His eyes are overwhelming, his voice a lullaby willing me to drift. I have to use all my strength to resist them.
“I’ll take a day off when you take a day off,” I answer, caressing his scar.
“It’s not the same, love.”
“You’re right. You have by far the hardest job.”
He brushes my cheek with whisper-light fingers. “I don’t think that’s true. I know I’d rather go back to that school in Fallujah every hour than watch you do it once, let alone every day as you’re doing with me.” The music of his voice misses a note at the mere thought, as it does every time we have this argument.
“But even worse than that is not being there at all.”
“You would still be there for the recovery part. You just don’t have to be there for the gore.”
I place my hand over his lips. In a few moments, their warmth will disappear, their vivid plum color will bleach away. “Aiden, we’ve been through this and through this. It’s the only option I can live with. I have to be there.”
He kisses my palm and moves it to his cheek. His eyes hold me for a moment, their depths unfathomable. “I love you,” he says. “It’s a selfish reason for you to deal with this, but it’s still the truest thing in my world.”
Before I can say I love you back, his mouth captures mine. His lips are gentle but his tongue is deep, as though he is trying to kiss me inside out. I give him back everything I have, drinking him like an elixir for strength. Because without his taste, I cannot live through the forty-five minutes ahead.
He breaks the kiss with a sigh. “Come on then. Let’s get this out of the way.” He looks around our happy bedroom one final time and takes my hand.
The moment the bedroom door closes behind us, Aiden transforms. The warm glow of his skin vanishes, and he expands—taller, Herculean in his stance. It’s as though the more this war takes from him, the stronger he grows. A flame is lit within him, finally unleashed to raze his past to the ground.
But every war exacts its toll, even the beautiful kind. Not like a big bang—this cost is insidious. It’s in the skunk spray cans and the strobe flashlights that Aiden has planted like landmines throughout the cottage for my safety—which are an improvement to the Tasers and bear spray he wanted. It’s is in the laundry cupboard where each morning after the reel Aiden washes and stores his battle uniform—the same dark jeans, blue shirt, and grey boxers he wore for the MRI because he will not taint any other item of clothing with his memories of terror or allow those memories to linger inside the cottage even if only on cotton fibers. He dons his uniform now, his eyes darkening except that flicker of turquoise that will continue to gleam as long as I’m in his sight. Because there are live landmines inside us, too. They’re in Aiden’s longer silences and the far-away stare at certain moments. They’re in his touch and mine—the way we hold each other as we pause in the foyer.
“What will you remember during this?” he asks, throwing my mum’s parka over my shoulders.
“This is just a petal.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That the worse the pain, the better the reward if we have each other on the other side.”
“That’s right. And what is our reward today?”
I smile even here on the threshold of our bloodiest battle. “We’re going to Pemberley with Reagan and Javier, and you have a surprise for me that will make my heart melt.”
He traces my lips with his thumb. “I do. I want you to think about that for the next forty-five minutes. Think only of the good things ahead.”
“I have a surprise for you, too,” I tell him, kissing the pad of his finger.
His lips lift into my favorite dimpled smile—his last true smile until I bring him back. “You do?”
I nod. “I know you can’t think about that in the next forty-five minutes, but just keep it here.” I rest my hand above his heart. The blade of muscle flexes under my fingers.
Abruptly, I wish we could skip the next hour, climb in the Rover, and drive so he can see it now, so the dimple can stay. It’s almost impossible to surprise Aiden, but I think I’ve managed it this time.
He sighs as though he is wishing the same thing and bends to slide my socked feet inside my Wellingtons. Then with a last glance at my childhood photos, he opens the front door. Because we both knew from the beginning we could never do this inside the cottage or even in the garden.
The sky is still dark when we step outside. The roses are fast asleep under the moonlight, but their fragrance is always awake, healing our lungs. I hear Aiden take a deep breath at the same time that I inhale until my ribcage hurts. Stay with us, Mum.
He is quiet as we cross the garden, and I give him the silence he needs to harvest his strength from every corner of his mind. I do the same but tuck my arm in his and rest my head on his stone bicep. The spot of contact is softer than the rest of him now entirely carved in granite. His knuckles brush the Elisa blooms as we pass them.
We stop at the largest landmine of them all. The garden shed where the headset of torture lives, pulsing with evil. I duck inside to pick it up, ignoring the snap of his teeth in wordless protest. He knows by now this is another argument he cannot win. I crave the pain it gives me to touch it so he doesn’t have to hold it a single second more than he needs. I wrap it inside the woolen blanket dad used for camping, drawing strength from mum’s gardening tools. I am steel like them. I’m the shears slicing off each cable that bound him. I’m the rake flaying the skin of everyone who touched him, the spade digging their graves. I tuck the other item in my pocket, having zero sense or science for it, and come out. “I have a good feeling this comeback will be easier,” I say, trying to make him smile again.
He does, but there is no dimple anymore, no light. “They’re all easier with you.”
As soon as we leave the garden, his stride picks up, tension snapping like armor over him, ready to demolish and be demolished. The opposite happens with me. Even though I battle to stay with him every dawn, suddenly I want to slow to a crawl or even better go back under the sheets with him and hide him in my hair for the next eighty-two days.
But the spot in Elysium where we do this comes too fast. It’s the spot where we sat together exactly a week ago after I had left him a second time. These are the only blades of grass in Burford that hold an initial painful memory for him. We spread out the blanket together while I straighten the corners, prolonging each last second. An ancient grief enters his eyes as he watches me and I know in this moment his only wish is for me to leave, to run away as far as possible from this. No matter how much he wants me.
“I’ll be right here,” I say, forcing my voice to remain steady.
“Only during the safe time.”
“After that, you’ll go straight to the safe zone until it’s over. Promise me.”
“I promise.” It’s the hardest promise to make, the hardest to keep, but the most vital one not to break. Because he needs to trust this to get through the rest. His eyes arrest me, burning intensely, but I don’t blink so he sees the truth in mine. He nods once and sits on the blanket, folding me with him in the fortress of his arms. I rest my head on his chest for a final moment, listening to his heartbeat, drawing his fragrance inside me like a tonic.
“Here,” he says, and I can tell the effort is costing him to keep his voice light. He pulls an Elisa petal out of his cuff and presses it into my palm, closing my fingers around it in a fist and bringing it to his lips. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
“I’ll be waiting,” I whisper so my voice doesn’t break. He reaches for the headset but I beat him to it for once. “Let me do it. I know how.”
His jaw clenches again but he doesn’t argue. He lies down for me even though how he sits doesn’t matter. The white headset is icy like my body heat or dad’s woolen blanket never touched it. I fight my shudder as I look into Aiden’s eyes. In the dark dawn, I feel more than see the turquoise flame go out.
“Think about your surprise and stay safe.” His final words are low, tension twisting the music of his voice into a hard command.
His hands cover mine, pulling the evil over his beautiful head. I secure the strap around his soft waves and snap the buckle at his temple, swallowing my tears. If Aiden doesn’t cry through this, neither will I. I kiss his lips—they’re cooling already. “I love you,” I tell him.
With more strength than it took to attend my parents’ funeral, or to board my flight back to England, or to visit their grave, I press the white button in the center. The sinister red dot gleams immediately like a sniper point at his forehead as the reel starts. Aiden’s body becomes motionless with a soft gasp. And I know even though he is here on the blanket with me, he is now gone. Traveling places, decades, years, days, even hours of the thirty-five years of his incredible life.
I know each minute of the reel by heart—Aiden walked me through them painstakingly second to second to prepare me now that I get to see him, even though we both know no amount of preparation will ever inure me to this. But the first fifteen minutes are the easy ones. Just neutral or positive images from Aiden’s life, including me. I use them to prepare for his arrival. It makes no sense to do this whatsoever—as soon as Aiden reenters the present time, we will want to leave this spot as soon as possible to start our life. But I still decided yesterday to make each comeback new, different somehow. Not because it will make any minute of this hour more livable. But maybe it will make his return easier. I take out the spool of fairy lights from my pocket and tiptoe around the blanket, unraveling it while drawing deep, slow breaths like Aiden taught me to conserve air for the hardest part. I flip on the battery switch and his still form is surrounded with a hundred bright little stars, twinkling under the indigo sky. His face below the headset looks warmer under their glow, like he is sleeping, even if soon it will turn to ice.
“You’ll like this,” I whisper and trot to the safety line he has marked in the grass for me some twenty feet away where I imagine the rose shield starts. The easy fifteen minutes are almost up. I sit on the meadow where I first crawled and wrap my arms around my knees, counting the seconds in my head, eyes never leaving Aiden’s form encircled with lights.
I know exactly when he enters that schoolyard in Fallujah. I know because his restful body becomes rigid, chest jolting upward as his shoulders press against the ground.
“Thirty minutes, love,” I mutter, clutching my petal. But what thirty minutes they will be. In Aiden’s world under the blistering Fallujah sun, the IED just exploded as his body shudders here on Elysium while the shock reverberates through his mind equally deafening as that fateful May morning, unmuted by time. Yet not a single sound escapes his lips. The picture of the little boy’s ruptured torso strikes him now, and Aiden’s throat bends like he is choking on bile. I breathe like he taught me, but the dust and the little boy’s blood are suffocating him. His breaths become gasps as he tries to find pieces of the boy while a helmet full of brains strafes his retinas. But despite Aiden’s gasping, I don’t want the next minute to come. I’d rather asphyxiate here and now for him than have him live through it, but come it does. Aiden’s chest heaves with another shattered breath as the image of the school flashes on his screen and the Marines become surrounded by insurgent fire. He retreats inside the school with Marshall for cover, his body taut on the woolen blanket.
“Twenty-five minutes, love.” I press the heels of my boots in the meadow.
The photo of a young Jazzman blasts Aiden now, and he and Marshall reach the second floor, crossing the classroom I wish they had never entered, to save Jazzman and the others who are under fire below. Go low, Aiden signs to Marshall. Cal and Hendrix are upstairs. I grip my own arms and lock all my muscles in place despite Aiden’s flat and alert body on the meadow, because his hand just closed in a victorious fist. He just fired his last shot, the shot that saved Jazzman’s life. Then Aiden’s head jerks violently and slumps to the side as the back of a rifle cracks his skull.
For the next ten minutes—the only minutes Aiden doesn’t remember—his body is inert on the blanket, his mind utterly dark. I should use these minutes to breathe for the horror ahead, I should use them to think of Aiden’s surprise and mine as I promised, but a different darkness enters my own mind. In thoughts of the worst kind. What if Aiden had never tried to save Jazzman and the children? What if he had gone to the third floor with Cal and Hendrix instead? Worse still, what if Aiden had not woken? What if he had never seen what happens next? I clutch mum’s sleeves, rocking in place, each what if pounding like a crack to the back of my own skull.
But no amount of bartering lives with the universe can stop time. Aiden’s mind reconnects with his body, and he comes to with a strangled gasp at the image of a severed arm. And the torture begins.
No one touches Aiden here on Elysium, yet he starts writhing in silent agony. His head jerks side to side, and he cringes against the blanket, shoulders rounding forward then suddenly convulsing as he tries to tear through the steel cables that now bind him. But he can’t break though. His body contorts in pain right here before my eyes, but not a single scream tears through him, not one cry, as he is throttled from behind.
I jump to my feet then, clenching my jaw to stop my own screams, clutching my head to keep it from imploding like that schoolyard. If I could only get closer, if I could only touch him, hold his anguished face, bring him back now. But I couldn’t—I know that—he is locked in the darkest flashback of his life, his eyes seeing only his best friend being tortured alive. He will need the reel of my pictures before the danger passes for me to get close. I can never betray him now.
On and on Aiden strains in universal agony and I start pacing, shuddering up and down the safe half of my childhood meadow, eyes on him. Because for these ten minutes I am just a child, just a girl who has never once felt pain like this. My parents’ crushed Beetle, their broken bodies, their coffins in the grave together—although big bangs to me—they’re tragedies happening every day in life. They’re not the kind of horror that stuns history and stumps science. Their massacre of the soul does not compare to this.
“Six minutes,” I gasp through my teeth. “I’m coming, love, you just have to hang on for six more.” And he does. He burns in soundless agony, his fists shaking at his sides. “Five minutes. Five petals, Aiden, and we can be together.” Between my fingers, my own petal disintegrates, and I stifle my sob. Because the worst images are still ahead.
Abruptly, I’m furious. With a red-tinged haze over my eyes, Elysium looks different. Nothing has changed—Aiden is still burning on dad’s blanket inside the wreath of lights under the cobalt sky—yet the scene transforms for me. I’m no longer the orphaned girl, the muse in a painting, or the woman who waits for the letters at home. I’m not a warrior or a survivor. I am the war. I am his peace. I summon all our weapons like a shield over me. Because I cannot stop the next four minutes, but as soon as the reel ends, I will need to be as invincible as him.
I stop where I am, steadying my mind, quelling my lungs as the seconds tick away and the sky turns sapphire. “Three minutes, my love. Just three more, and I’ll bring you back. I won’t let anything touch you then.”
But the end does not come easy for him—it never does. If it were for myself, I’d shut my eyes and ears. But I’m here for him. I plant my feet, shove my hands in my pockets to warm them for him, and brace for his visceral low snarl that reaches me here. Chills run from the crown of my head to my heels, but I flex every muscle as Aiden taught me so I don’t move an inch. The torment on his face impossibly doubles, whether with his own agony or Marshall’s or both he will never tell me. Then suddenly he stills, he breathes, because in this image the insurgents have agreed to release Marshall in exchange for Aiden’s life. Go, pretty boy, they’re sneering at him because he is no longer the handsome, young Marine I saw in the photo. His face without lips, nose, or ears is scorching Aiden now. Strangled sounds are ripping from his teeth, as he begs Marshall to leave him behind.
And Marshall listens. Aiden’s ribcage rises and falls quickly as the picture of a blood trail sears his eyes. I watch without blinking as Marshall crawls to the classroom door in Aiden’s flashback. I know because, even drowning in pain, Aiden smiles. Just a small smile watching his best friend leave, no regret for having traded his own life for Marshall’s freedom.
Then with a sudden gasp, Aiden’s torso jolts and his smile dies. Because one of the insurgents fired the first bullet, ending Marshall’s life. Then another jolt and another—like a defibrillator shocking Aiden’s heart—seven times, one per each bullet riddling the corpse of Marshall that is flashing on the screen now. A guttural sound of agony rips from Aiden’s chest, and his lungs give out. It’s the single most harrowing thing I’ve ever heard. His body slumps seeming lifeless in the same position he was then—shoulders contorted and shuddering throat to fist. Under the warm glow of the fairy lights, his mouth is parted in a silent no.
And then it ends. The torture is over even if Aiden is still in its grip. Yet, the chills leave me as I stand here shaking and silent. Because in five seconds, my photo will caress his eyes. My sleeping face, my rose, the stave of my music, my favorite chocolate— the small things that calm him, that make him happy—will enter his mind.
“Almost home, love,” I whisper, swallowing more tears. “I’m coming, Aiden, coming right now.” I step over the safety line, timing my steps to each image.
I would know the second my photograph hits the screen even if I weren’t counting. I would know because he draws his first breath and his arms settle naturally on each side of him. My rose softens his throat. But he is still gasping, his shoulders are still convulsing, his fists are iron hammers at his sides. Then my face kisses his retinas again, over and over, breaking the steel cables and slowing the convulsions of his shoulders. By the time I cross the fairy lights, the tremors have become the familiar ripples that, until I witnessed his torment this week, I had thought were earthquakes. His seraphic face is ashen under the fairy glow, but no longer contorted. The red light on his forehead goes dark. I can touch him now, even if he is still locked away in the aftermath.
I sit next to him and wrap my warm hands around his fist as Doctor Helen taught me. “Aiden,” I call him, pouring all my love, faith, and pride in my voice. “You’re through, you brave, brave man. You’re right here on Elysium with me.” The fist skips a quiver but remains closed. His breathing is still harsh as strangleholds of tension strain him. “You’re safe, I’m safe, and we’re together. I’ll take off the headset so you can see when you’re ready. Feel my hands, love, I’m touching your face.” I tuck his fist between my knees so it stays warm and cradle his face. The sharp panes are cold. I shove back my Romeo vision—this is Dante, he just walked through hell for me—and massage his jawline gently in little circles. “Do you feel that? It’s my fingertips that you kiss each morning.” His jawline flexes, like a hello. “Hi, you,” I greet it back. “You’re strong, you’re loved.” I trail my fingers to his temples and release the small buckles that secure the evil thing. It’s warm now with all the life it has drained from him. I pull it off, immediately finding Aiden’s eyes. They’re closed as I expected them to be, his pupils still racing under the lids in flashbacks. I lower my face to his and kiss them like petals. “We’re on dad’s green blanket, my love, with wildflowers around us. Daisies and forget-me-nots and orchids and poppies.” I kiss his eyelids on each flower name, but there is no change in him. “The sky is lightening, almost lilac-sapphire like it’s mixing the color of your eyes and mine. And in a bit, we’ll watch the sunrise like every morning, just you and me. Can you hear the skylarks and the nightingales? They’re starting to trill.” The fist softens between my knees, but shudders are still running through him. “Do you know this present moment right here is probably the seven thousandth time I’ve sat on Elysium? I can’t remember most of them, but I’ll always remember this because this is when you come back to me. And I have a little something for you when you open your eyes. It will make you smile. What could it be, you might ask . . . ” The ripples are not slowing. “I’ll give you a clue: ‘love that moves the sun and other stars.’ How about that, Dante?” His eyes remain closed, and his breath is still ragged. I press my lips to his and blow inside his parted mouth as he does with me. “Let’s breathe together, love. Your air and my air and the rose breeze. We can smell the roses even from here. They’re awake, waiting for us.” For a moment I start to panic that it’s taking longer to bring him back, but then a familiar sigh warms my lips. His gasps slow as his lungs synchronize to mine, and Aiden kisses me back. Just a gentle brush of his lips, but he is here. “Hi!” My voice breaks in relief and I clutch his face so I don’t collapse on top of him. “Welcome back.”
His eyes open at the same time as his fist. They are dark and ravaged still, but the turquoise flame starts to flicker the moment he sees me. “I missed you.” I smile at him, ribcage swelling at his arrival.
He doesn’t speak but, slowly, lifts his head for my mouth. I mold mine to his, keeping him inside my hair bubble because he likes the way my hair smells. On clue, he inhales deeply. His fist leaves my lap and his arm winds around my waist—it feels weighty, as it does when he falls asleep. He holds me to him, breath to breath, mouth to mouth, as the last wave of ripples disappears. I feel him test his body for response, and I know exactly the moment when control reverts back to him. The weight of his arm eases but he doesn’t release me, and his lips fold with mine. “I missed you, too,” he says as soon as he can speak. His voice is worn and hoarse as though his silence under torture scrubbed it more than a scream would.
I pull back an inch to watch his now-clear eyes. As soon as they meet mine, he smiles. An I-crossed-the-desert-for-you smile, but it lifts up his cupid lips. I will never tire of this smile, ravaged and exhausted though it is. It’s as precious to me as his dimple—because this is the smile that brings him back to me.
He brings his hands to my face—they’re steady and warmer. “How are you?” he asks, searching my eyes, feeling my forehead.
“I’m fine, sweetheart. Safe and happy and so proud of you.”
“As I am of you,” he says. “You did beautifully.”
The word sounds backwards when he says it—like it was made only for him, no one else. “I worried it was taking a bit longer this time,” I admit.
“I’ll always come back to you.”
He pulls me back to his lips here inside my hair bubble and I kiss him back with hunger. Like his worn smile, this languid kiss has become life to me. Second only to his very first kiss because it vanquishes the last dregs of tension and brings him back to him. With each brush of his lips and stroke of his tongue, Aiden comes to life. His mouth takes on its brand of possession, seizing the present moment inside mine. Then abruptly he stops. “Love that moves the sun and other stars?” he asks as all his memories and synapses reconnect. His voice is gaining back its music.
I smile, suddenly feeling as girlish as I was when I first did cartwheels on this field. “Yep. Solve it and you get to see your present moment in full.”
The dimple puckers in his stubble more beautiful than the fairy lights outside my hair curtains. Not that I need their cover—he hasn’t looked away from my face once. “Is it Baci?” he guesses reasonably since that was the first quote Baci gave him in England.
“No, that was to trick you.”
I love watching his eyes shift with childish curiosity, not horror. “Is it one of Dante’s books?”
“No. You’re thinking too big.”
“Something small then . . . that you could fit in your pocket so I wouldn’t see . . . that has to do with love and the stars and the sun . . .” he muses while I almost bounce next to him because he is not thinking of Fallujah now. “A condom?” he asks, and I laugh at his boyish grin.
“No, sorry. But soon you won’t need those anymore.”
Apparently that thought works better at revival than riddles. Pure delight bursts over his face like the imminent sunrise. “In exactly six days—”
“And seventeen hours.”
I’ve never seen his eyes torn with better conflict: desire and curiosity splitting him in half. They both win and lose. He pulls me on top of him, rippling with a different kind of hardness. “I give up,” he says against my lips, pressing into me. I press back, sweeping my hair to the side.
“For you, Dante.”
He blinks in the sapphire dawn where the fairy lights are still twinkling. His grin becomes a soft, good gasp and that flicker of shyness gleams in his eyes, like an echo back from seven-year old Aiden. He sits up, holding me to him, and gazes around at the circle of lights speechless. “I did it during the safe time,” I assure him. “They were shining on you, like our bedroom chandelier.”
It’s a testament to how selfless he is—how little he accepts for himself from others—that even this smallest of gestures stuns him. If this is his reaction to some old lights, what is he going to do at Pemberley today? He feels my excitement in my bounce and looks at me, his eyes brighter than the twinkly lights. “Thank you,” he says with so much feeling that my chest tightens. “I love my surprise.”
“Oh, this isn’t your surprise. You’ll see that later. This is just our present moment.”
He smiles with a strong emotion in his eyes. “Leave it to you to find a way to make even this beautiful.” And he brings me back to his mouth.
By the time we reach the rose garden to catch the sunrise, the hour of torture feels far away, a different life. How can all the terror of the last hour fade so quickly? Add love, just the right kind. Aiden strips out of his clothes at the threshold immediately and leaves them in a pile with the blanket and the headset, but throws the twinkly lights over his neck—his mind already disassociating them from any pain. At the sight, even the sunrise doesn’t impress me anymore. A flash of heat whips my cheeks. He swoops me in his arms and strides in nothing but lights and golden skin to the garden bench.
“Are you warm or is it my male nudity à la Oxford?” Aiden teases as he sits on the bench with me across his lap.
“Oh, more of one and less of the other,” I answer, eyes on his erection pressing firmly against my thigh.
He chuckles and slips off my Wellingtons and parka, setting them carefully aside. Then he turns me on his steely thighs so we can both see across the river, past the field of epiphanies, and over the rolling hills where an orange flame very similar to the one on my skin is kindling the horizon. Magnificent and utterly ordinary compared to the face behind me. Or the erection now pushing against the small of my back.
“Maybe this will help with the male nudity part.” Aiden’s lips are at my ear, sending tingles down my spine.
“Definitely not helping.”
“No?” His lips press at the Aeternum spot below my ear and brush down my neck. “What about this? Does this help?”
“Not at all.” My voice quivers like the rest of me. A marigold halo bursts through the sky.
“And this?” His hands slip under my pajama top, peeling it off a step ahead of the sun. Wherever his fingers touch, my skin catches fire despite the sultry morning and the rose breeze.
“My, my, male nudity seems positively dangerous. How about this?” He cups my breasts, and I fall against his chest with a sigh, reaching behind me to grasp the male nudity in question. “Oh, this won’t do, Elisa.” He twines my arms over his neck with the twinkly lights. “Male nudity is distracting you from the sunrise. Maybe something stronger?” His fingers blaze their own fire-trails over my breasts, and his teeth graze my shoulder. My sigh turns into a moan. “Sounds like this is helping.”
“Hmmm . . .”
“And this?” A smooth glassy tip circles my breast, and my eyes fling open. Two twinkly lights are flickering around my nipples as sunrays scatter over us. Every nerve ending in my skin becomes a spark. “Does this help?”
“Mmm . . .”
“Please . . .” The sssss blends with the willows. He draws orbits with the lights on my breasts like they are his suns and his hands revolve around them. The lights gleam on my skin as streaks of heliotrope, saffron, gold, and honey flare across the sky. But the only color I crave is turquoise. The familiar ember in my depths starts pulsing with life. I press my thighs together for some relief and roll against him.
“Looks like we need reinforcements,” he murmurs, kissing the spot just under the corner of my jaw. Before I can think, before I can concentrate on his words over the blood thundering in my ears, he starts winding the string of lights over my breasts, across my ribs, and around my waist like a glimmering thread tying me to him.
“Oh!” I gasp, mesmerized by the little stars blinking on my skin as dazzling as the new sun, as bright as the heat within.
“Helpful oh?” Aiden’s lips brush along my cheek to the corner of my open mouth.
“Yes,” I breathe, turning my face for his kiss. I get lost in his mouth as his hands slip under the waistband of my pajamas. He slides them down my legs along with my knickers until they fall off my feet. Hot as a sunray, his tongue traces my lips at the same moment that he entwines his long legs with mine, spreading them apart as the full sun blazes across the sky. I gasp again, and he frees my mouth.
“Feel, love,” he murmurs, his arms and legs encircling me like the lights, his fragrant body heat engulfing me with the sun. But on the hottest, wettest part of me, I feel only the cool rose breeze. Breathless and trembling, I clutch his hand and press it between my legs.
“Here, please,” I beg shamelessly. It would only be embarrassing if I didn’t know with certainty that he wants me as much as I want him.
One warm finger traces the length of me. “This helps more than this?” he asks, thrusting into the small of my back.
“No . . . but . . . condom . . . far.”
His finger trails back up, making me hiss. “Oh, Elisa, you’re not the only one with tricks.” Before my moan fades, his hand leaves me and reaches under the bench. I’ve barely managed to focus my eyes when he taps the foil of a condom inside my thigh.
He chuckles. “I’ve hidden these everywhere. You have six days, sixteen hours, and forty-five minutes to find them all and ruin them with me.”
He turns me around quickly so we face each other again. And for a moment the world stops for me, even the rapid pulsing inside. What are sunrises compared to him? The blue fire in his eyes smolders, his skin gleams, his lustrous hair like a black corona over his impossible face. Half of the twinkly lights are still draped around his neck, the other half sparkling all over my torso. He looks at me the same way—as though I am his sun.
Just one moment, and the world starts again. I launch myself at his mouth, starved for his taste, his feel, gripping his face, inhaling his scent. Over the rushing in my ears, I hear his moan and the foil tearing. Then he lifts my hips and pauses, waiting for me to open my eyes. I do—how could I miss a single fleck of him?
“Love that moves the sun and other stars, you said, Elisa?”
Happy Sunday, friends, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Hope it’s a day of rest and renewal for all of you. In that spirit, here is a new and (IMHO) important chapter. Thanks as always for reading, writing, and following. Lots of love, xo – Ani
Something soft and weightless pulls at the edge of sleep like a forgotten dream. I breathe against it, too comfortable and warm to wake up. It flutters again, like a puff of breath or a rose dancing over my lips in a familiar way. Memory and consciousness strike at the same time.
“Oh!” I gasp, flinging my eyes open.
Aiden is lying right next to me, his face more radiant than the sun, taping an Elisa rose over my lips, exactly as he did on our very first morning together.
“Good morning.” He smiles, his voice still gravelly with sleep.
“Aiden!” I rejoice and throw myself on top of him, quilt, sheets, and all.
He laughs and wraps me in his arms, burying his face in my hair as I burrow in his warmth.
“Elisa, we just woke up together,” he sighs with a profound note of relief. “You and me, and all your perfect ten fingers and ten toes. I checked, they’re all there. Can you believe it?”
“Yes, I can,” I answer, looking at him and believing everything. Not just because he is glowing on the white pillow, under a beam of sun, with the lightest blue sky in his eyes. I believe it because of last night—because of who he is. A whisper from my nightmare hisses like an echo, but I shove it back. Not today.
“What is it?” he asks, looking at the goose bumps that erupted on my skin at the nightmare’s hiss.
“Today will be another good day,” I declare to him and the goose bumps, kissing his lips. He engulfs me in his body heat, and we kiss like this for a while in our hot, sunny bubble. I breathe in his scent until my lungs hurt. He smells like a cinnamon stick inside a leaf of sandalwood wrapped with a rose petal warmed in the sun all tucked inside a heavy cloud of an unknown pheromone blowing out of some pagan sex god—all in concentrated form here under the sheets with me. He frees my mouth when I start hyperventilating and sweating, and throws off the sheets, letting the cool breeze tickle my back.
“I’m sorry, I’m a warm sleeper.” He blows on my flushed cheeks.
“Perfect because I’m usually cold. How did you sleep?” He looked so peaceful while I was keeping vigil, but I don’t know what happened after.
His eyebrows arch in bewilderment. “The best sleep of my life, Elisa.”
He nods with something like awe. “I don’t think I even had any dreams. I must have rolled onto my back at some point but I’m not sure I moved after that. Corbin will want to know.”
That’s true. He never moved while I was awake. And although he doesn’t know it, there was enough commotion to wake him up. “Do you think it’s because you were so tired from the flight and all the awfulness of the last two weeks?”
He shrugs. “Maybe. We’ll see, I suppose. My guess is it’s you but I’m not sure.”
I love that. The idea of giving him a full night’s rest. “Why do you look worried?”
“Not worried exactly. It’s just a very sudden, big change. Full eight hours, no dreams, no movement. I didn’t have that even before Iraq. I don’t know how long it can last.”
And there it is. Tic toc, tic toc. We’ve been given so much in the last twenty-four hours. Is this the held breath before the war?
“Did you sleep well?” he asks, his index finger tracing a circle under my eye.
I’m grateful my goose bumps can be blamed on the breeze this time. “My favorite part was when I was awake.”
He looks at me with a raised eyebrow. “Were you watching me?”
“Of course. You used to do it to me all the time.”
“That’s true. I’d like it better if we were both sleeping though. Were you afraid?” The first V of the day forms between his eyebrows.
Not from you, from my own mind. I smooth the V away. “Not at all. I was just getting to know you.”
He smiles. “Yikes. How the tables have turned. Do I want to know?”
“Oh, nothing serious, only eight erections by the time I fell asleep.”
He laughs his waterfall laughter. “Eight? My, my. Sounds dire. That will make for an interesting conversation with the experts at Oxford tomorrow.”
I prop myself up on his chest—his strong heart thuds there reassuringly alive. “What should I expect tomorrow? I want to get this right.”
“Well, Corbin will Skype in—you’ve already met him. They’ll scan my brain to compare it to five years ago before I met you, and again in eighty-nine days. And they’ll go over their plan with us. Just be you, and you’ll get it right. Look how far you’ve brought us with me completely against you. Maybe we can travel a little farther now that we’re on the same side.”
His voice becomes soft, colored with the h-o-p-e he is holding for us both. Maybe it’s that tone or last night’s nightmare or the loneliness of him carrying this little torch alone, but I let my mind tip-toe around the edges of h-o-p-e. How would it feel if I stepped inside its pool of light? Would it blind me so I can’t see the horrors ahead? Would it stun me so I cannot fight with a rational mind? Would it give me life so it can kill me in the end? Is h-o-p-e the dagger to the chest? I shake off the image, but even with that sliver of thought, the goose bumps return.
“What are you thinking?” Aiden asks, brushing the goose bumps on my arm. “These left and now they’re back.”
So much for the breeze as an excuse. “I was breaking Corbin’s rule and looking ahead instead of at the present moment.”
He nods, rubbing my arms until the goose bumps disappear. “Easy to do. How about my virginity Baci? Only happy memories in this room.”
I laugh despite my current love-hate relationship with Baci quotes and pick it up from his nightstand. “Make it a good one.”
He peels it slowly while I remind myself that I am a woman of science and took an oath last night against superstitions. My hands don’t care—they still clutch the sheets as though he is detonating an explosive device. But Aiden smiles as he reads the note.
“Oh, Elisa, you’ll love this. ‘Everything I know, I know because of love.’”
“Who said it?”
“Our closest friend and confidant, Tolstoy. Straight from War and Peace.”
“Yes!” I squeal, half-relieved, half-furious with myself for my reaction to this most trivial and nonsensical ritual.
“Share it with me.” Aiden pops it in my mouth and chases it with his tongue. We have learned to melt these little chocolates together by now—not a single crumble or drop ever spills. And they no longer taste as good on their own, without the taste of him. He doesn’t stop the kiss when the Baci is gone, and neither do I. His mouth changes, becomes full of slow, heated things. Things my body understands instantly, the way it catches fire and moves on top of him, searching for a precious blink of skin-on-skin.
“Elisa, you seem to be after something. Is there anything my twentieth erection and I can get you? We’re taking requests.”
“Yes, please.” I try to glide against him but he’s too quick. He lifts me an inch, where I can feel all his heat and none of him.
“Behave,” he says darkly when I whimper but tilts his hips a fraction for the faintest brush. “Is this what you want?”
My “yes” is more of a sigh, and he presses a finger gently into me. I tense, feeling the effects of last night’s homecoming.
“Are you sore?”
“No,” I breathe.
“I don’t believe you.” And the finger disappears.
“No, Aiden, more!” Oxygen becomes rarefied, and I try to find the rose-scented breeze.
He chuckles. “The headboard, Mrs. Plemmons.”
“The . . . the . . . the what?”
“Like this.” For a scarce heartbeat, he lets go of my hips and takes my arms, stretching them over him until I can grab the headboard. I take advantage of my hip freedom and brush against him.
“Hold on to that,” he says with a growl and locks my hips again. “I’m going to chain these, Elisa.” He smacks my behind while biting my breast, hard. It makes the fire worse. And the new problem of shaky arms. I grip the headboard as he pulls my prisoner hips upward until I’m hovering over his mouth.
“Wait, no, no—yes!”
His warm lips smile against me. “Now you can dance,” he murmurs. And he releases my hips while his tongue begins gliding as though it’s melting another Baci. Finally free, my hips tango to his rhythm. If he draws circles, they roll. He traces figure-eights and they shimmy. When he blows, they sway. Then his mouth changes again. Instead of a tango, it becomes a tribal dance—pressured, fast, and heavy until with one quick flick, I spiral and fall, sliding down the headboard and all over his face into an inert mass of trembles and whimpers.
He rearranges my melted arms and legs on top of him with a self-assured chuckle, while I try to regain some composure. The clock on the nightstand informs me that my entire transformation from adult woman to blob of molecules took him less than five minutes.
“Are you pleased with yourself?” I try to sound sarcastic and self-possessed but it comes out like a string of drunken slurs.
“Exceptionally. This is one thing where I’m above reproach as a partner. Don’t take it away from me.”
“Not the only thing.” I press my lips over his heart. “But you could certainly improve on self-love.” I wait for my body to solidify, the vague contours of a plan forming in my head. A rational brain cell warns me that I have no clue what I’m doing. But I only have so many weapons, and I promised to fight with him. And the fight has to include this.
“Speaking of self-love,” I say, sitting up and straddling him when I’m steady. His abs flex against me—hopefully an ally in my current incursion. “I’d like to play a game.”
He grins. “What kind of game?”
“It’s quite simple. Someone with your expertise should have no problem.” I press myself gently against his abs, but even the light contact tingles my still-sensitive skin.
Instantly, his grin becomes an arrogant, lopsided smirk. “Is this a sex game, Elisa?”
“It can’t be, can it? As you so thoughtfully observed, I’m a little sore. Which means we can’t use this—” I brush over the length of him, not bothering to hide my sigh. “Or these.” I knot my fingers with his. “As you’d never want to hurt me, right?”
The smirk disappears. “Of course not.”
“Exactly. And we already used your mouth but it just . . . how do I say this . . . it didn’t hit the spot.”
“What the fuck?”
“Yes, I think it left something . . . to be desired.”
He looks almost enraged—as though he has never heard such words in any of the twelve languages he speaks. “Encore,” he hisses, trying to bring me closer to his mouth, but I have his fingers locked with mine, knowing he’ll be gentle while in my hands.
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” The words slice through clenched teeth, as though all the strength I have neutralized from his hands has seeped into his jaw.
“Because your mouth and I have reached an impasse.”
I press myself against his abs more firmly and they nudge back—reflexively swearing allegiance to me. Good, I need reinforcements. “Yes, you see, your mouth—despite its considerable talent—has an awful habit of saying terrible things about you. So your mouth will not have any part of me until we fix this problem.”
His eyes darken as he catches up to my game. The good news is that the fury disappears from his face. The bad news is that it’s replaced with his patent fire. On command, my skin bursts into flames. “That’s a grave impasse, indeed.” The fire is there his voice too—low, with an after-sound building in his chest like smoke. “And how do we remedy this transgression according to you?”
His abs ripple under me, fueling me on. “It’s simple really. I’ll just have to love myself.”
He did not see this coming, that much is obvious. His mouth pops open into a perfect O, along with his eyes. With more courage than I knew I had, I release one of his hands—he grasps a fistful of my thigh immediately—and trail my fingertips between my breasts all way down like he does, until I feel wetness there. Then I place one fingertip inside his open mouth. He sucks on it with a growl, biting hard. “Do you taste that?”
“Good. Remember that forever because it’s the last time you taste it until your mouth and I resolve our dispute.”
He doesn’t release my finger, his teeth and eyes imprisoning me here. “You can keep that one finger, Aiden, if you want it so much. I have nine other perfect ones, as you call them, and your abs, which have sworn allegiance to your favorite home.” I roll against them with another sigh. “So, I will be just fine.”
He drops my finger. “You will beg.”
“Oh, but as you assured me last night, you would never let me burn. So I’m hedging my bets that you will beg first.” His abs twitch under me while a growl whirls out of his mouth. His twentieth erection presses imperiously against the small of my back.
“As you wish, Elisa,” he enunciates darkly, as though his tongue is moving inside me, not in his mouth. “We’ll play your little game. What do I have to do?”
His eyes don’t release me and his free fingers are digging into my thigh, so my voice is as tremulous as I feel. “ Well . . . as you know, I’ve never done this self-love business before. And I would want you to guide me through this very first time, like you have done for all my other firsts. But you lost that right for yourself.”
“An immense oversight on my part that will be rectified as soon as I’m allowed, I assure you.”
“Well, here is your chance. I’ll fumble my way through, just me and myself. And if you want to join, first you have to say something nice about yourself and mean it. And then I’ll do what you tell me to do. Agree?”
He looks at me like I’m the bane of his existence and his reason for living at the same time. “Agree,” he says with something like venom and fire. His free fingers grip my thigh. I slap away his hand as he does with me.
“And no touching, please. This is between me and myself. You can touch when you behave.”
I notice with satisfaction that a low gasp escapes his lips.
“Now, where shall I begin?” I circle my hips over the ridges of his abs, losing my train of thought. They flex with me, and I don’t stifle my moan.
“Elisa!” My name fires through clenched teeth like a warning, his hips thrusting underneath. I tighten my thighs around his waist as hard as I can to lock him down—it’s difficult with a thousandth of his strength and my own body shaking.
“Tsk, tsk. I might have to chain these, Aiden. You’re interfering.”
“I don’t give a fuck.”
“You should. Because the more you interfere, the more I’ll change the rules. For example, right now I’m contemplating doing this alone in the bathtub with a locked door while you have only your ears and imagination to torment you.”
“It’s not a hard door to break.”
“That may well be. But it’s an awfully small, European-sized tub. Not at all designed for the likes of you. I’m certain only I can fit in.”
“I really hope you do. And soon. But for now, I’ll just do what you would do.” I’m no longer able to handle the heat of his furious gaze so I close my eyes and, with a burst of courage, I throw my head back and wrap my hands around my breasts. “You would start here, I believe?”
A whimper—an actual whimper—comes from the god of sex. It’s the sound I needed for confidence. My hips unleash themselves on his abs, soldered as we are together from my thighs and my weight. And my hands start to mold around my breasts. I know the way he would touch them—his fingers have branded a permanent trail on my skin. I follow it now with my own fingers, thinking only of him. And everything inside starts to pulse.
Aiden shudders underneath me and the whimper becomes a growl that sounds like, “Oh dear God.”
“No, not that God,” I gasp through the inferno I just lit for myself. “Dear Aiden.” I brush my fingers over my nipples—this is harder, more intimate under his blistering gaze that burnishes my skin even with my eyes closed. I pinch as he does at the same time that I circle my hips.
I almost miss the snarl of his words over the blood hammering in my ears. But they hang in the air, raspy and clear.
“Yes, you are,” I smile. “One of your most noble traits. What would you like me to do in return?”
“Look at me.”
And I do. Those are the rules I made, even if they light me on fire. Under me, Aiden is falling apart. Every band of muscle has turned into a blade of steel. The V is carved so deep between his eyebrows, it might become permanent. His hands are in white-knuckled fists, clenching the quilt. And his fiery eyes are dark and hooded, boring into me with greed.
“Am I doing this right?” I ask, circling my nipples as he would.
He nods furiously, beyond all speech, his eyes unblinking on my fingers. His abs and I continue to dance to the music of my moan.
“I’m strong.” His words ring out again, a little louder.
“Very strong. Stronger than anyone I know. What do you want me to do next?”
“Lower,” he commands as another shudder runs through him. My fingers flutter over my belly like his did when he was playing the piano on me.
“I love you.” His words spill out again.
“No, that’s about me, not about you. Try again.”
“It is about me,” he protests through his teeth. “My love for you is my best trait.”
I deliberate but the throbbing inside makes me a biased judge. My fingers brush over my pubic bone. “How about you’re loving? Can we settle for that?”
“I’m loving.” Half-snarl, half-whimper.
“Yes, and I love that about you. It makes me feel like I’m the only woman in the world.”
My finger tiptoe my public bone to the inside of my thighs, tracing little circles there like he did yesterday with me. “Like this?”
“I like it so much better when you do it.”
“Yes . . . wouldn’t that be nice?”
But now I have a dilemma. Where do I go from here? If I move, I lose the friction of his abs and I need that—I need it like air. If I don’t, I run out of real estate on my thigh. And then there is only one spot left. The inferno that will burn us both alive. He must sense my battle because he doesn’t speak—he is breathing hard though. Like my next touch is air to him. And I give it. I wedge my hand between myself and his abs, pressing hard as he would. I barely hear him over my own moan.
“Christ.” His hips thrust again, almost buckling me off.
“No, just you in my head. And control your hips or I will stop.”
He becomes utterly still with a pained groan.
“Good. Now . . . the piano you said, Aiden?” And I play the first notes of Für Elise against myself. I know he can feel them on his abs. I know because he shudders, snarls, and swears at the same time.
“Yes! Even though it’s an understatement, I’ll accept it. What now?”
Damn him. He’s taking away his faithful, miraculous abs that have done nothing but love and support me. But these are the rules I made up. “Goodbye for now, Aiden’s abs.” I roll one final time against them and slide off him onto the bed.
He takes full advantage. He springs onto his knees between my legs, looming above me, fire raging from everywhere. He spreads his thighs slightly, forcing mine to open more. He seems taller, broader somehow—as though the last few minutes have stretched his contours to breaking point. His chest is rising and falling with his hard breathing. His fingers are curled inward as if he is gripping me in his head. His now-permanent erection is pointing straight at my mouth.
And the throbbing inside gets worse—like a drum on fire pounded by a flamethrower. I will my fingers to continue to play Für Elise, but I can only summon random, off-beat notes even though I heard it all night. My breathing becomes jagged, matching his. He doesn’t speak so my body arches toward him, as though pleading for his words. It marks a transformation. A flicker of calculation glints in his eyes, his hands relax, and his breathing steadies. His lips lift into a slow, deadly smile. Abruptly, I feel like I’m about to lose my own game.
“I’m an excellent fighter, Elisa.” His voice is now dripping with triumph. “I always win.”
“That’s true,” I sigh, addictive fear gathering like static over my skin. Not fear of him—fear of whether I can handle whatever he is about to unleash on me. “What would you like me to do?”
“I want you to play your song inside you since my fingers are banned.”
Oh bloody hell! Playing on the surface is one thing, venturing into the dragon’s den with him roaring on the threshold is quite another.
“Your rules, Elisa.” His voice is even and dark. I lost all his whimpers and growls the moment I laid back on this mattress. “I’ll even play the music on my phone to help you because I’m thoughtful like that. And that counts for two self-loving things, which means I’d also like you to spread your legs as far apart as they will go. Now.” Then eyes never leaving me, he calls to his phone. “Siri? Play Für Elise . . . for the only woman in the world,” he adds the last part under his breath.
And the piano starts. “Carry on, Elisa.” His voice is back to its taunting setting—he has already won, I just haven’t found out how yet.
Well, I might as well not go down without a fight. “Like so?” I breathe as I obey both his commands. But only one finger—that’s not bad.
“You will need two fingers for your notes, darling, unless it hurts. I earned this one fair and square.”
“Yes, you did,” I concede and do as he says. The first thing I notice is the soreness has eased, either from the heat or the throbbing I don’t know. The second thing I notice is a lot of wet, warm mess.
“Well, well, isn’t that interesting? How soreness just heals from self-love.”
“Only for me.” I try to sound strong but my breath leaves me entirely as I trace the paths he has blazed inside me as well. So familiar with him, so strange and new to me alone. But pleasant too—in a way I didn’t know I could give myself. Nowhere as bewildering as when he does it, more like a snack to his feast . . . but good nonetheless. My eyes flutter close.
“Oh, no. I earned the open eyes as well,” he reminds me.
I force mine open, begging him in my head as he predicted. Say more nice things, please. More nice things about yourself, and then make them into nice things for me.
“Now,” he begins in a tone that makes me shiver. “Self-love, you said?” And eyes on me, he grasps himself. I whimper as though he grasped me. “I don’t think your cruel rules prohibit this, do they?” And with a controlled sigh, he moves his hand up and down his length to the languid rhythm of my song. It’s my mouth that pops open now, my fingers that curl and stop. I’m the one shuddering. I can’t blink away from the sight.
“Your song, Elisa,” he prompts evenly. “Play it, like I earned it.”
I try. I really, really do. But I’m frozen. I barely survive Aiden pleasing me. How am I supposed to live through Aiden pleasing himself? His beauty in this moment is a force. Exactly that. He knows his body with such precision and control—a fluid symbiosis unlike the treacherous flailing my body is exacting against me. And then he stops. The sparkly bubble of liquid forms over him.
“Don’t stop!” My plea escapes without permission—body and mind completely breaking ranks.
“Oh, no. This is your game. You play, I play. Self-love and all that. Go on.”
As if I can resist him. The sight, the voice, the bubble. I play the keys, and he starts again, as though he can see through my skin. I watch every stroke of his hand, the way the shimmering liquid spreads over him, the way the two of them mold together perfectly without me. And lust becomes almost anger—at myself, at him.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” He smirks. “Feeling so left out when the person you love most in the world turns against you like this.”
“Please, Aiden!” My traitor mouth fires away, completely on his side now.
“Are you begging, Elisa?”
“Yes,” Judas continues.
“What would you like?”
“More nice things . . . about yourself.”
“Ah. I’ll have to think . . . hard,” he says as he pushes himself into his strong hand with a hiss. “It’s difficult to think about myself when all I have in my head is you. And what I’ll do to you once this pestilent soreness is all gone. You have chairs in your lab, don’t you, love? Because I don’t think you will be able to stand. But maybe all the oxytocin will help.” The crescendo of my song starts, and I manage to tap out one note out of three. Gasping, coming apart at the sight of him. The familiar tension wrings my body. At least it’ll be over soon. But the moment the trembles start, his words ring out.
“Wha—? R-right now? I’m busy.”
“No better moment. You heard me. I’m loved. Admit it, that’s your favorite nice thing I should know about myself.”
It is. It is and he knows it, that’s why he saved it for now. But at last I’ll have my release. “You’re—very—loved—especially—by—me—what—next?”
An infuriatingly controlled chuckle. “Fingers out.”
“What? No, no, no.”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“Why?” The whimper sounds like another “no.”
“Because I earned it. And this one was a very hard one for me to admit. I have plans for this.”
I can’t argue with him, even if my brain cells had not been decimated by his strokes. I almost cry as I obey. The emptiness left behind is physically painful.
“I hate you,” I hiss at him, and he chuckles.
“And there’s the difference between our love. I love you even when you hate me. Now, those perfect fingers of yours . . .”
I tense. “Yes?”
“Since you’ve broken up with my mouth, I’d like you to put one of them in yours.”
Another slow stroke, another bubble sparkling on him. “Ah, now that hurts my feelings, Elisa. I admitted this very difficult, very vulnerable part of myself. It’s engrained in me not to accept love, but I want to accept yours. I want it so badly, I have gathered scientists, psychiatrists, Beethoven, medication, U.S. Marines, the U.S. Congress, the CIA, Siri, not to mention crossing an ocean and eight thousand miles—all the king’s horses and all the king’s men for the single purpose of deserving your love, but you—love of my life, star of my dreams, peace of my war, lullaby of my sleep—won’t even taste yourself from your finger when you have no problem doing so from my lips? Which is ironic when you are trying to teach self-love. And what’s worse, you refer to my favorite taste with ‘ew’. What is a man supposed to do with all that?”
I just stare. He has stunned even thought into silence, let alone speech. Eyes on him, I put my finger in my mouth without hesitation because he’s right—I’ve done this countless of times with his mouth. I think about the way his bubble tastes instead of me. His eyes widen a fraction—he must have expected more arguments—and a slow smile spreads over his face. I notice with some h-o-p-e that his hand is moving faster. Two bubbles now.
“Thank you,” he says, and his voice is huskier too. “Was that ew?”
I shake my head, still unable to speak.
“Will you say such awful things about yourself again?”
“Good. Did you like it?”
“Ah, that’s too bad. Personally, I could live on it. Would you like to taste something else?”
“Well then,” he says, and gathers the gleaming bubbles on his fingertip and brings it to my lips like I did with him. “Taste.”
I shiver from the warm liquid steel that, at least to me, is better than melted Baci. The same moan escapes my lips as it did for him.
His breath catches as his eyes darken. “Better?”
“Good. Remember that forever, Elisa. Think about it because it’s only yours. And allowing myself to be yours is the most self-loving thing I can do.” His finger circles the tip of my tongue, sending a jolt through the rest of me, releasing my words.
“I’m only yours, too,” I whisper as he takes his finger away. I’m palpitating from the torture I brought on myself. What was I thinking going against him in this area? But it was worth every unreleased tremble, every ring of fire, every achy throb, just to hear him say, “I’m loved.” I try to press my thighs together to relieve some tension but he is still standing between them—no doubt part of his plan. I give up and close my eyes, reciting the periodic table in my head. My brain glitches over all the elements that are combustible.
Then his warm breath washes over my lips, and my eyes fling open. His face is so close, so heady, the bedroom spins. “Now, will you please forgive my mouth?” he asks, and his voice has become very tender. “It says it’s very sorry and it really wants to taste you.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Oh, I’m serious. I have learned my lesson. It was a very effective teaching strategy. I’ll never forget it.”
“You never forget anything.”
“That doesn’t make it less memorable. Please, Elisa?”
“Are you begging?”
“Begging and dying.”
“And you’ll try not to say bad things about yourself again?” I sound almost in tears. Even his body heat and the sheets feel rough against my over-sensitized skin.
“I will. Now please kiss me. I’m literally on my knees.” His lips inch closer, almost brushing against mine.
“You’re forgiven,” my mouth says to his mouth.
He moans. Where his own hand didn’t break his composure, my lips shatter it. He kisses me like his whole soul is pouring into me through his tongue. I do my best to match him—it’s not even close—and every time I kiss him, I’m also kissing the words he formed in his mouth, the syllables of his self-love.
“Aiden, please, let’s try,” I mumble in garbled English. “I’m not that sore.”
“No, love, heal,” he murmurs, and then his mouth—my new ruler and savior—starts traveling over me. Wherever it touches, my skin zaps at even the lightest pressure. By the time he makes it to the mess I made, he has to hold me because I’m shaking so hard. And then he takes my hand.
“Let me show you,” he says and guides my fingers. It’s entirely effortless with him.
“Not this anymore . . . you.”
“You should always know how to pleasure yourself, Elisa. Always.” I sense something in his voice but I don’t have enough brainpower to understand it. I just follow his patient, mind-blowing lesson, introductions to parts of myself I only know from books of science. And soon I’m flying. The little snaps are starting.
“And now together,” he says and his mouth closes on me. It takes exactly one kiss, and I explode into a million tiny pieces—pieces of mind, of heart, of my body that now I can say I thoroughly know.
I feel his gentle lips and strong hands, holding me together until my breathing eases and the shaking recedes. When I’m finally still, he says, “And that, my Elisa, is self-pleasure. It is yours and no one else’s. Keep it and don’t ever give it to anyone. Not even to me.”
I think about his words, his voice—so forceful but for a trace of wistfulness. I’m too afraid to ask about it without my protein. Because a small part wonders if he showed this to me so I know it in case I lose him. So my body doesn’t shut down again after he is gone, like it did after the accident. A shiver having nothing to do with my recent orgasm runs over me. Violent ends . . .No! I mentally stomp on the whisper. I won’t let it slither inside this purest, closest part of our love. Pleasure is our super-power. Is there a weapon more powerful than that?
Aiden is still on top of me, on his elbows, tense with his own unreleased pleasure. Every plane of his face is etched with need, from his dark hooded gaze to his parted lips.
“You know something I’m learning about pleasure?” I ask him.
I sit up, forcing him to rise back on his knees. He is right in front of my mouth, soaring. “It feels as good to give it as it does to receive it.” And I swirl my tongue over the glistening bubbles. A shudder and a hiss rip through him.
“The headboard, Mr. Plemmons,” I say with another swirl.
His chuckle breaks and he actually grips the headboard. I wrap my hands around him and take him in my mouth as far as he can go in one swoop. He shudders again with an unrestrained “fuck” and the headboard shakes behind me. I do it again and all his control shatters with a snarl.
At the sound, I become possessed, ruled by instinct—my entire vision narrowing on this one goal of pleasuring him. He has never let me loose on him before like this, only as foreplay under his careful control. Sure, I have the matter of physics—there is only so much of me, and too much of him. But if I ignore the mechanics and think only about his mouthfeel, his taste, then I understand. I understand exactly why Aiden loves doing this to me. Why he was indignant at my ‘ew’—because if he ever said that about himself, I would be furious.
His entire body, from his vocal chords to his thighs, is thrumming. My name is slicing through his teeth, punctuated with groans and profanities that to me sound better than Beethoven. Every time I feel him at the back of my throat, I taste more of him. And the deeper I try to go, the more vicious his battle. I learn his body as he has done with me. The way his head falls back when I do this. The way his knees almost give out when I do that. I use every move he has used on me: from a peck to a suck and everything in between. He falls apart at the sucks—the harder, the better—and goes completely mental over the swirls, thrusting inside my mouth. Knowing him now, I pick up depth and speed. And Aiden—force of nature, epitome of physical strength, and paragon of sexual control—starts trembling, and the entire bed shakes with him.
“Elisa!” he grabs my hair, trying to pull out, but I grip his hips as he does with me. It seems silly to let go now after everything. I take him in the depths of my throat one last time.
He comes like war. There is no other way to describe it. A guttural growl, one hand nearly ripping off the headboard, the other in my hair, convulsion after convulsion, and then Aiden falls backward on the bed, shuddering and twitching.
I just did that. And survived.
I tilt my neck to test if my head is still attached to my shoulders. It is. To my utter amazement, I feel relaxed despite the tornado that just happened in and around me. Except for a trickle of warmth inside, I feel only wellness and a small sense of pride.
I look over at the foot of the bed where Aiden’s head is barely visible under the arm over his face. He has not resurfaced, ribcage rising and lowering rapidly, spasms over his muscles like waves, his sprinting breath filling the bedroom. I crawl over him, rest my head on my favorite spot on his chest, and kiss his heart. A gentler ripple courses through him with a low moan. I wait for him to recover, thinking about this new weapon in our hands. I add pleasure,self-love, and sleep to the list of defenses we are collecting for this fight. Is that enough for h-o-p-e to turn from foe to ally for me?
“Hi.” Aiden re-enters our realm with a hushed, husky sound.
“Welcome back.” I use his words with a grin.
“Hmm, have I been out long?” He plays along, even though we both know he wasn’t asleep.
“Just your first post-orgasm coma that I have witnessed.”
“Just the first post-orgasm coma, period.”
“That can’t be true.” It’s an unspoken pact that we don’t discuss his prior liaisons. I know he remembers them with perfect clarity and neither of us wants to revisit those memories. Oddly, I’m not jealous. On the contrary, I’m glad he allowed himself this healthy, ordinary part of life and made it extraordinary like he does with everything else. But I’m still curious about all the careful restrictions he imposed on himself and his partners before me.
“It is. I never would have allowed myself to relax like this, as I do with you.”
My cheeks flush with pride. More firsts—that too has to help.
“Well, Elisa, I’m amazed.”
“I know, the orgasm comas are good, aren’t they? Even if you didn’t pass out like I do.”
He lifts his arm off his face with some difficulty and peers at me with a loopy grin. Lazily, he turns to face me, curling around me and resembling very much a placated, well-fed, happy dragon on a sunny rock. “Yes, they are, but that’s not what I mean. That was quite your first time, too.” His nose skims my throat and he places a soft kiss on it. The flush spreads from my cheeks to my chest because I know what he means. The finale was a first for me. “Did you like it or did you do it just for me?”
My blush must burn even his skin. “I liked it.”
He kisses my throat again. “Don’t be embarrassed by our love. It’s the best chance we’ve got.”
And just like that, the first four-letter word joins our ranks. L-O-V-E.
It takes us a while to leave this bed—neither of us is willing to burst this bubble like no other we have had. But eventually the real world intrudes. Growling stomachs, parched mouths, still-packed suitcases, texts from Aiden’s phone about work, texts from Reagan and Javier that they’re awake and will be here in an hour. And Aiden starts making his own big place in the cottage. Hanging up his shirts with my dresses (“aren’t you glad I didn’t pack a lot of feathered hats, Elisa?”), tucking his boxers with my underwear (“will these dried rose packets irritate you with your soreness?”), the books he is reading on his nightstand (“I’ll finish these tonight and start on your father’s library.”), his toothbrush necking with mine in the restroom (“you were not kidding about this bathtub. How are we going to fuck in the shower, Elisa?”) his cologne nudging my face cream (“I have a surprise for you, but it won’t get here until tomorrow.”) All these little intimacies and normalcies—so routine for others, so ephemeral for us.
Eventually we make breakfast and eat it out in the garden, sprawled on a picnic blanket, waiting for Reagan and Javier. Aiden drinks his coffee, his phone tossed aside on the blanket. He checks it less, looks around more. The tectonic plates do not shift as much in his eyes as he builds new memories here.
“So what would you have done with yourself today if we weren’t here?” he asks, popping the last of the strawberries in his cupid mouth—he inhaled four scones and four eggs, the mush, the ham, and the fruit. Even his appetite seems better here.
I shrug, not wanting to imagine such a dark day. “I probably would have gone to the lab to work on the protein. I can’t wait to test it tomorrow. See if I got the code right.”
The same powerful emotion that fell over him when I told him about my protein yesterday morning molds his vernal face now. But unlike yesterday, I can’t hold back my question, or at least a version of it. “Why do you get that look when I talk about my protein?”
“I don’t know. Like you don’t want me to make it for you or something. Or are you worried I can’t finish on time?”
His gives me a tight smile. “Elisa, I think you can do anything you set your mind on. And that’s not just a cliché boyfriends are supposed to say. I really believe that.”
“Then what is it?”
He tilts his head side to side, deliberating. I sip my tea to give him time, watching every flicker of emotion on his face. But it’s carefully composed. “I suppose I don’t want your second invention to be tied to me. You already tied your first protein to me for your green card—which you threw away.” He glares at me, but I don’t take the bait. “Staking a claim on this second one too . . . it feels unconscionable.”
“I don’t know how to answer that without breaking Corbin’s rule.”
A shiver whips through me, and I see him notice the new crop of goose bumps on my arms. A familiar bolt of fury strikes in his eyes as the jaw flexes—a fury I now know is not at me. It’s at himself.
“It’s in case we don’t win, isn’t it?” I whisper. “That’s why you look like that?”
“I don’t want your second invention tied to me,” he repeats. I take it as a yes.
“But it could help you even if . . . even if . . . that happens.” My voice breaks. I need the protein for myself, I need it for Dad, but I need it for Aiden more than anyone else. Because I can’t shake off the terror I feel for him if we lose. He has cashed in all his hopes and dreams on this final chance. What will happen to the man with the dimply smile, shy eyes, self-loving words, and peaceful sleep if we don’t win? It would kill him, James said. He’d rather die, Javier agreed. A snapshot of my nightmare—the worst one, Aiden’s cold lips—flashes in my vision, making my gasp. Is this what killed him in my dream? Because we didn’t win? Because I made just one vial of protein and he refused to take it from me?
Aiden brushes my arm, no doubt attributing my gasp to his words. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind the crackpot fool—negative thoughts are a hard habit to break. You keep working on your protein. And when you finish it, I’ll try it. But please do it for yourself and your father. Don’t stress yourself for me. Okay?” I hate that he is blaming himself for my terror. And I hate that I’m letting him do it. But I’d rather board the flight I took back to England a million times over than tell him about my nightmare.
“I’ll make it Skittle-flavored,” I offer to move away from these thoughts.
His lips lift in a true smile. “But I’m so attached to the cinnamon flavor of your first supplement. That’s why I changed my toothpaste.”
“Yes, it was all spearmint before you.”
I lean in and peck his lips. “Cinnamon then. But only because your mouth and I are back together.” I lie down and rest my head on his lap.
He chuckles and takes a picture of me, eyes shifting between the iPhone screen and my face. “What does a picture look like to you?” I ask him to distract myself from the odd sense of unease that creeps over me when he takes pictures. “Compared to your memory, I mean.”
He smirks. “The best analogy I have is the difference between a faded Xerox copy and a high-resolution photograph. Pictures are just copies; they lack the depth, the detail my mind absorbs from the moment.”
“And what does the original memory look like in your mind exactly?”
“Well, imagine pulling up that high-resolution image in Photoshop, and the app gives you options of filters to choose from. My memory works sort of like filters. I see you right now sharp and clear, but if you turn your head like this—like you were in Javier’s painting—a translucent filter falls over you, silver-white because he had made your skin look silver. So right this second, your skin looks like porcelain, shimmering with a silvery light. You take my breath away.”
He brushes his index finger over my jawline where he must see the silver veil while I marvel at the woman he paints, trying to grasp his mind. Tomorrow, for the first time, I get to see his brain. Truly see it in ultrasound. “So, if I’m understanding this right, if you were to see me when I’m all wrinkly and old, you would still see the young silver pretty me?”
He smiles. “You’re never just pretty. But other than that detail, yes, even at eighty-five, you will have the youthful filter for me. I’d see the wrinkles, but Javier’s filter would light you up, fade them if you will.”
A loud whistle shrieks through the air then, startling a lark out of my beech tree.
“ISA! AIDEN!” Javier calls from what sounds as far as the willows. “REG TELLS ME WE HAVE TO ANNOUNCE OURSELVES, WHICH IS DISGUSTING.”
Aiden chuckles, looking in the direction of the howl with something like indulgence.
“Speaking of the genius. He thinks he owes me, but I’m the one who owes him for the most beautiful thing in my life.”
Jumping Aiden now is out of the question with Reagan and Javier emerging on the garden path. Reagan is wearing the most spectacular emerald hat with an enormous peacock feather so tall that it flutters above Javier’s head, tickling his hair so that every few steps he swats at it like a fly. I meet her eyes for an update but she shakes her head slightly with a sad smirk. Bollocks. Maybe we need more aggressive measures.
“How was the Inn?” I ask them as they plop on the blanket with us, thoughtfully giving Aiden his space. I push toward them the few scones, jam, and clotted cream that survived Aiden’s appetite.
“Dios, it’s like a different world. I’ve already sketched it. Speaking of, Aiden, how much do we owe you to stay there for the next two weeks?” Javier asks, while sniffing the clotted cream with a suspicious look.
“You don’t owe me anything. It’s already paid for.”
“Told you,” Reagan chimes while loading a morsel of scone with a dollop of cream.
“I know it’s paid for but we want to reimburse you,” Javier presses.
“You’re not reimbursing me.”
“What the fuck? Yes, we are.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, we are. You’ve done way too much for us, I can’t accept this.”
“I haven’t done nearly enough and yes, you can accept it.”
Javier looks at me completely bewildered. “Isa, help me with your man. Speak his language. He seems to be taking this whole do-the-opposite thing literally.”
Reagan giggles, and I with her. Aiden just looks calmly at Javier who stares at all of us like we belong at the Burford Dementia Centre.
“Javier, sweetheart, you don’t argue with Aiden about money,” I explain. “Or really about anything. It’s a terrible, terrible idea that never ends well for anyone. You would do better if you ask him ‘why’ questions.”
“Thanks for giving out trade secrets, love,” Aiden says next to me, but he is smiling.
“And you,” I turn to him and the smile drops. “You will do better if you explain your reasons to Javier so he understands where you’re coming from.”
They both blink at each other, while Reagan almost chokes from laughing.
“Fine,” Javier starts. “Aiden?”
“Javier.” Aiden inclines his head.
“Why do you not want us to pay you for the Inn?”
“At least five reasons. First, you are Elisa’s family, and I never let family pay for anything. Second, you have become my friends independently of Elisa and, as Cal will tell you, my friends also never pay for anything. Third, I’d like you to save your money now that you have your green card so that you can invest in your future and begin your new life. Fourth, the price of the Inn is nothing to me for the value of having you near while Elisa and I have our privacy. And fifth, as I was recently telling her, I’m the one who owes you for bringing us together in the first place.” He looks at me with an expression like, ‘how did I do?’ I squeeze his fingers to tell him he did very well indeed.
Javier blinks a few more times, speechless—a common side effect when one first experiences Aiden in full form—and eventually finds some words. “Well . . . that . . . okay then.”
Reagan claps, still laughing. “Well done, boys. Personally, I don’t see why it’s so hard but I also speak Aidenish well by now. I’m not as fluent as Isa, but I can definitely converse.”
It’s Aiden who chuckles first—a soft chuckle, nothing like the belly laughs James gives him, but it’s a happy sound. They laugh together as Reagan provides a dictionary of Aidenisms that she has developed in her head. “Yes, ‘hm’ usually means ‘I heard you, have already thought about it, but no.’ ‘Mm’ means ‘interesting idea, and worth considering, but still no.’ ‘Huh’ means ‘stupid idea, definitely no’ and ‘huh-uh’ means ‘get out of my face or you’ll burn alive.’ And the worst part is, he’s usually right. How did I do, Aiden?”
“Shit, I went too far.”
“Oh, okay, then. See, Javi? It’s easy.”
I watch them banter this way—learning each other, finding their own frequency, easing into each other’s orbit—and their constellation becomes so radiant that for a moment I have to close my eyes. Behind my eyelids, as though imprinted on the retinas, they are still laughing in this garden, but Mum and Dad are also here, on the wrought iron bench where they used to sit, smiling at us. The image is so stunning that I can’t breathe or open my eyes. How can I lose all this again? Make us brave, keep us together.
“Isa, did you fall asleep over there?” Javier asks while Aiden takes my hand. I swear he is feeling my pulse.
“Are you all right?” His voice is immediately anxious.
“I’m better than all right. But I’d like to take you three somewhere. Are you up for it? It’s a bit of a walk, like everything around here.”
“Will this hat work?” Reagan asks in complete seriousness. “Or should I change?”
Javier shakes his head with a chortle. “No way, Reg. The peacock feather screams countryside.”
“Shut up, Javi,” she retorts but I know her eyes. She is in so deep that even the most innocent tease from Javier hurts.
“The hat is perfect.” I smile at her. “You never know, you may run into your David Gandy while you’re here.”
“Oh, my goodness!” She gasps, as though she had forgotten the entire existence of her favorite male model.
“David who?” Javier pipes up.
I wink at her and scurry to the garden shed, trying to marshal the vortex of emotion. I don’t recognize my insides. Everything is a contradiction. Deliriously happy and utterly terrified. At peace while fighting my biggest war. In love and loathing everything that conspires against us. I rummage through the tool rack, tossing items into my camping rucksack and needing to get through the periodic table a couple of times to fight off tears. I can just imagine Aiden’s panic if he finds me here falling apart. And I’m not falling apart because I’m upset. I’m falling apart because apparently there is such a thing as too much love.
By the time I drag my rucksack back to them, Reagan has regained her smile while Aiden and Javier are debating how many years Feign will get in prison.
“If my sources are right, it will be at least ten,” Aiden says. “He’ll never bother you again . . . Fuck, let me carry that.” He stands when he sees me and grabs my rucksack, which rattles with a metallic clang. “What the hell is in it?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Let’s go.” I pick up one of the American Beauty seedlings I bought from the Plemmonses, saving the other one. He takes that, too, lest I strain my back from carrying a single rosebud in a plastic pot.
We set off across the fields, the four of us. The village of Burford has never seen a stranger group, of that I’m certain. Reagan leads the way with her peacock feather; Javier next to her with a pencil above each ear and a cross-body satchel full of sketchbooks; Aiden in a white T-shirt, Raybans, and jeans, too beautiful to belong on this planet, let alone in my village, carrying a rose and a rucksack that clamors and bangs loudly with his long strides; and me tripping every few steps because I can’t tear my eyes away from the three of them.
“Will we be walking through town or anywhere we might need Benson?” Aiden asks under his breath.
I hook my arm in his—it’s turned into granite again. “No, just open fields and air. And the occasional deer.”
The tension of his arm softens. “I hope some day we never have to worry about this again.”
H-o-p-e. “I don’t feel deprived of anything. Besides, town is overrated. What are men to rocks and mountains?” I quote Elizabeth Bennett like we once did in his library.
He chuckles and kisses my hair, shortening his stride to match mine. “It’s beautiful here,” he says after a while, eyes roaming the open fields brimming with wildflowers, the river gliding next to us, the rolling shamrock hills like the curves of some earth mother goddess protecting all life within its valleys.
I lean my head against his arm, imagining that his simple observation means more, fantasizing that he wants my little village to be a beautiful home for a beautiful man. He has not mentioned me returning to the U.S. and neither have I. What can we possibly say? We both know where I live is irrelevant if we lose this fight. It’s not a question we can ask until we know our fate. But I wonder if his unerring eyes see the way my heart twists at the idea of abandoning the cottage or Oxford again. Has his quick mind already sensed another deadly war ahead even if we survive this one? A war that could spread my organs across two continents like I’d be blown up by mortar fire: bits of heart here, sponges of lungs there, never whole, never at rest.
“So does Gandy visit where we’re going, Isa?” Reagan calls over her shoulder as we cut across another field, this one carpeted with daisies and forget-me-nots.
“Will somebody tell me who the hell we’re talking about?” Javier demands.
“He is an exemplar of male beauty, Javi. That’s all you need to know.”
Aiden slows down until we fall back a few steps. “So, how would you feel about these two together?”
I yank his arm to a full stop. “You know?” I whisper.
He shrugs. “Of course.”
“How did you find out? Reg barely admitted it to me!”
“I have eyes, Elisa. It’s not that hard to figure out.”
“Not for you, maybe. Javier hasn’t got a clue.”
He starts walking again, eyes on Javier’s back. “I don’t know about that. I just don’t think he’s willing to see.”
“Same difference. Meanwhile, Reg is in hell.”
“Yes, I recognize the symptoms. Give them time. They’ll figure it out.”
“I’m not sure they will. I don’t think Javier envisions a love life for himself at all.”
Aiden laughs. “Elisa, he’s a man. I guarantee you he envisions a love life. Whether he goes after it is a different question.”
“I’m starting to think he won’t though. He’s convinced himself he has nothing to offer. He’s almost as self-loathing as you.”
“You know what to do with these self-loathing men, Elisa?”
“Add self-love.” He winks, his eyes instantly catching fire at the memory of our game.
I grip his arm. “Don’t joke about that right now. Please help me make Javier see.”
“What could I possibly do about it? The man has to want it, Elisa. And I can see his point to a degree. Wanting to build some security, to be able to provide for his family before he gets involved.”
“Reg doesn’t care about any of that.”
“But he does, my love. It’s important to him.”
“Are we still talking about Javier?”
He smiles with the dimple. “Yes, we are, but I understand him on this point. You and I have serious problems, but at least I’m able to protect you from everything except myself. That’s important to me and I’m certain it’s important to a traditional man like Javier.”
I watch Javier duck away from Reagan’s feather as she skips past him playing with a daisy.
“Trust me on this one,” Javier’s new comrade-in-arms insists. “Javier has to be ready on his own. And if you need more proof, I draw your attention to exhibit one.” He points at the center of his chest, in the exact counter-spot where the raw wound used to hurt me two days ago.
“But in the meantime Reg is hurting,” I argue. “And Javier would hurt too if he knew he is hurting her.”
Aiden sighs. “And you would hurt with them. All right, at least give him these two weeks. Maybe being in this romantic place will trigger something. And if not, I’ll help you. I have no fucking clue how, but I’ll try. Is that better?”
I grin at him, watching his lips lift into a mirroring smile. As unfathomable as Aiden’s mind is, there is a simple axiom at the very kernel of its existence: to protect me, he would do anything.
“You think this place is romantic?” I kiss the spot above his elbow where my lips reach—his golden skin is warm from the sun.
He laughs. “Don’t read too much into that. I also used to think a sand ditch in Iraq was romantic when I was writing your letters. So I’m not to be trusted with the concept.”
A fiery field of poppies ripples around us now. The flowers brush against Aiden’s jeans like Marilyn lips. I watch the soldier who believes he doesn’t understand romance step carefully not to crush the blooms. Then I watch the man who doesn’t need photographs snap a selfie of the two of us parting the poppy sea. And despite the ice trickling down my neck at the camera’s click, I smile. Because this is the kernel of my existence: for him to see himself clearly, I would do anything.
We leave the poppy field behind and I lead them up the hill. For a while speaking becomes difficult from the climb and, in my case, from what the hill means.
“I’m very curious to see where you’re taking us,” Aiden says in perfectly even tone, despite carrying a rucksack full of metal, while the rest of us are huffing and puffing.
“We’re almost there.”
As I say the words, however, a current of panic courses through me. Was this a good idea for Aiden? Will it trigger anything? I stumble at the thought but he catches me gently at the elbow. “Careful, love.”
“How are you feeling?” I ask him.
He frowns at my sudden question. “As I always do with you. Calm. Why?”
I hesitate where I am—wanting this deeply, but also wanting only happy memories for him. Javier and Reagan stop with us, clutching their sides. I contemplate turning around, but then, right above us, a beam of sun breaks over the summit. A single, brilliant ray like a halo over the crest. It blinds me to everything else, even the three people next to me, and I start climbing in a trance, as though the beam is a gravitational string made of the most dazzling starlight, pulling me to the peak. I can’t hear Aiden, Javier, or Reagan behind me—I can’t hear anything. Just Mum’s voice crooning like in our home movies, “keep going, Elisa.” My feet gather speed like last time and I break into a run. The wind flings my hair, the sun blinds my eyes, but I’m air. Just air trying to float to the heavens above. Then with one leap, I’m on the tiny crest meadow.
Under the cypress tree, the white marble tombstone glimmers and sparkles like always. And, as always, I can’t breathe.
Aiden reaches me in a blink. I know because even though my eyes are fixed on the shimmery grave, I sense his presence like a shield right next to me. It blasts away the chills, releases my lungs, and fortifies my knees. He doesn’t speak, but he wraps his strong arm around my shoulders, holding me up, standing so close that I only have to tilt my head and it leans on him. And all the grief, all this implacable loss, all this anguish are also now resting on him, on his iron shoulders carrying this sorrow with me. The agony splits by half so my knees don’t give out like they did when I last came here. My body doesn’t break into dry sobs. And my voice doesn’t disappear. I can stand, I can breathe, I can form thought, even if I can’t speak.
Javier and Reagan appear to my right. I feel Reagan’s hand on my hair and Javier’s fingers around mine. And the climbing roses on the marble flutter with the breeze. Hello.
“Hello,” I whisper back.
The rose buds have now opened into white miniature rosettes, each like a smile, flittering with a “come here” gesture. It releases my feet and I walk to the tomb on my own power. The roses sway when I reach them. I notice our four shadows fall over the sparkling stone, the tallest right next to me. Below the roses, on the marble is the vial of dried rose and Aiden’s dog tags that I last left here. I can’t blink away from my parents’ names to look at him. I test the words in my mouth before I speak. They’re there, I just have to breathe.
“Mum, Dad,” I tell them even though I know they cannot hear. “This is Aiden . . . and Reagan and Javier.”
The rosettes wave.
The first sound registers in my ears. Reagan’s sniffle. I watch her shadow remove the hat, Javier’s shadow pat her shoulder, and Aiden’s shadow pull mine close, his arms folding around me until our two shadows become one that looks like a distorted heart.
Other sounds enter then. Aiden’s strong heartbeat, thudding fast like mine. The warble of the lark that lives in the cypress tree. The whoosh of the hilltop wind. And more words come.
“This place is where they had their first date,” I say, noticing my voice is not a whisper anymore, just a quiet key.
“It’s beautiful,” all three of them answer in unison.
“The four of us are the only ones alive who know that.”
None of them says anything but strangely it’s as though their silence finally allows me to talk in this place. Actually talk. “Everyone in town thought I had gone mental insisting they rest here, away from everything. Of course, I was mental so they gave in to me. I think it turned out well. I think they like this.”
“Of course they do,” says Reagan.
“I brought them something this time. This American Beauty rose from all of us. Will you help me plant it here?”
And they do. I hear Aiden unzip the rucksack, no doubt realizing the racket inside was a hand spade and shovel, a large stainless steel water bottle, and a bag of enriched dirt. We start then—all four of us together. Javier’s callused hands, Reagan’s delicate alabaster ones, Aiden’s strong fingers, and mine that look exactly like Mum’s. We dig the small hole in the grass at the foot of the marble, and I lower the seedling into it, covering its delicate roots with dirt and watering it. We use the rest of the water to wash our hands. In the end, the little seedling sways in the breeze.
“Want to sit here for a while?” I invite them, eyes still on the stone. “I know it’s strange but . . . it’s the only time I’ve actually been able to truly visit.”
As one, they sink on the grass around the seedling with me. After a while, we start chatting, not an involved conversation—just bits of thought and feeling. Javier draws a rough sketch of the cottage and tucks it with the rose vines. Reagan digs her favorite British toffee out of her purse and places it on the marble. And Aiden opens his wallet and takes out a familiar strip of waxy paper—“Love me for love’s sake only”—the very first quote Baci chocolates gave him on our embargo day. To my utter shock, a smile finds me here. He has kept it all this time and now secures it under the vial of his dog tags and dried rose.
I look up at his face, recalling my fear of whether this would trigger bad memories for him. But he is entirely here with me, from his tender eyes to his hands like strongholds around my waist. And this moment will live on in him, with every pixel of ache and beauty.
“This isn’t a happy memory for you,” I say.
“It’s better than that. It’s precious.”
“I’m sorry about the dog tags. I was trying to leave you behind. You should have them back.” I try to get out of his hold but his arms tighten around me like a fortress.
“Don’t think about that now. Let them stay here, in this special place with your parents. Hopefully that part of me will be at rest, too.”
H-o-p-e again. I look at the seedling, feeling something germinate in my lungs and wind up my throat like the rose’s tendril. It’s a singular, curious sensation—like a tickle, wrapped in warmth, swarming with butterflies. Light like a breeze, yet mighty too, as though it could parachute me straight up. I try to understand what it is. Sunrays shatter into millions of crystals around the epitaph: “Amor Vincit Omnia.” Love conquers all. And I find a name for the tendril. Odd that I should find it here in this place with so much pain, loss, and time long gone. A place of so many four-letter words.
“I hope it does,” I answer Aiden a little late. Here, by my most tragic loss, H-O-P-E joins my side. Or perhaps I join it.
The way back down the hill is easier. Not just physically, but emotionally too. So different than the two other times I’ve stumbled down this trail. By the time we’ve reached the open fields again, I feel light—like the tendril of hope is parachuting me above ground.
“Feeling a little better?” Aiden asks as we stroll across the poppy field back to the cottage.
“Yes. I actually feel happy in an odd way. Everyone I love now has met each other.”
I smile at Reagan picking poppies ahead of us, while Javier opines that she should balance out the red only with dark grass. To which she replies, “you should balance out your dark grass with red.”
“Good one, Reg,” I cheer for her under my breath as she fluffs her flame of red curls. But her euphemism flies right over Javier’s raven-black waves.
“Elisa?” Aiden pulls me by the elbow. I look up at him, tripping to a stop not because of his gentle hold, but because of his face. It’s always stunning but there are some moments, like right now, when it looks surreal.
“Yes?” I breathe.
“How would you feel about meeting my parents?”
Can one trip while standing perfectly frozen? Seems like I can. “What?”
He smiles patiently, giving me time to process.
“Are you serious?”
“B-but . . . they’re in Portland.” Of all the thoughts scrambling in my brain, this is the one my mouth picks.
He chuckles. “Elisa, to meet you, they’d swim over, let alone take a flight.”
“They know about me?” Maybe I should sit down, if I could move.
“They do. I told them after you left when I asked them to shelter the Solises.”
He gives me another moment to process, which is good because I need it. Aiden has isolated his parents since he attacked his mother when he returned from Iraq twelve years ago. Our conversation about this during the drive to his Alone Place might as well be blaring through foghorns over the poppy field. He doesn’t see them—only speaks to them occasionally by phone or other safe methods of communication that do not expose them to his startle reflex and him to the excruciating memory of hurting his own mum.
“I . . . I didn’t realize you’re reconnecting with them,” I manage. “That’s wonderful, Aiden.”
He shrugs with a small smile. “You told me I can’t shut them out. You said someday they will be gone and nothing will be able to take my grief away.” He quotes my words verbatim, of course. “I thought a lot about that after you left. And then seeing you just now, how close you still are to your parents even though they have passed, made me think you’re right about this too, like you have been about a lot of things.”
I stare at him, unable to voice all the emotion inside. When I still can’t speak, he continues. “I know it makes no practical sense for you to meet each other now if in eighty-nine days you and I . . .” His eyes fall on the immediate goose bumps that sprout on my arms and he rubs them gently. “But somehow that makes it even more important that you meet. That we try this normal life thing to the fullest.”
Finally my brain is able to string together the biggest question—the one that is ruling them all. “Do you want me to meet them? Or is this for me . . . or Corbin?”
“All three. I find that I want you to know them, and them you. I want them to meet the woman I love, no matter what happens in the end. I really haven’t given them many moments of joy in life as a son should. And I might never be able to, except this time with you.”
Except now—this present moment we may never get again.
“And I suppose I thought you would want this, too,” he adds. “To meet everyone we love. Do you?”
His question—as though he still cannot believe I would want every speck of him, let alone such a core part—releases my words. “Of course I do, Aiden. I’d love to meet your parents. I just want to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, not because you feel you have to do it for me.”
The dimple winks in his cheek, lifting his beautiful mouth into a moon of a smile. “This is the right thing for me. You’re teaching me that—you take these memories in life, no matter how ugly and you make them beautiful. I guess I want to do the same.”
“Well then,” I take his hand in both of mine as I did yesterday. “Let’s welcome your parents.”
He laughs with that pure waterfall sound. “Really?”
He runs his hand through his hair, looking around like he wishes someone was close to hear this. But Reagan and Javier are in the distance, plopped under the shade of an enormous oak, waiting for us. Aiden laughs again. “Fuck, I better give a heads-up to my mother’s cardiologist. She might need him.”
He tucks my arm in his and we start walking again. His step is quicker, lighter somehow.
“So when would they come?” I ask, nerves already starting to creak. How will it be meeting the genetic forces that created Aiden? What do they think of our experiment? Of their only son being in this far-flung village, thousands of miles away in another fight for his future, maybe even life?
“Well, if it were up to my mother, they’d get here tomorrow. But I was thinking it might be better after Reagan and Javier leave, so you can have something to look forward to. That way, we’ll also have family and friends around for about half of the summer.”
The easier half. He knows neither of us will be in any shape for company during the second half as the ninety days run out. “Very thoughtful.”
“What’s that in your voice? Are you nervous?”
“A little bit.”
He laughs. “Don’t worry—I’ll keep my mother in check.”
“No, don’t. She must miss you so much. Let this be special for her too,” I tell him, unable to ask my hardest question. But his inconveniently observant eyes have already seen it.
“So if that’s not worrying you, what is?” He tips up my face so I can look into his eyes and, on cue, the question blurts out.
“What do your parents think about us being together? With everything we have to overcome, I mean.” With how much there is at stake if we don’t, I add in my head. He must hear the unspoken part too because the tectonic plates shift in his eyes as he retrieves his answer.
“I won’t lie, they’re worried. Worried about both you and me if I were to . . . again. But they’re also ecstatic that I’ve found someone who has given me a reason to fight and take care of my health. So I’d describe it as joyful terror. A bit like us.”
Oddly his words make me smile despite the f-e-a-r. Because it’s similar to the reaction I see in Javier’s and Reagan’s eyes. And it’s the same reaction Mum and Dad would have had, of that I’m certain. Desolately terrified and deliriously happy—unable to help us with anything but their love. Could our families’ unconditional and undying love be a weapon? Could it help Aiden and me in the same mystical way that Für Elise does—ways science can’t explain because they’re written in the stars?
“And if you’re also nervous about whether my parents will like you—although I cannot imagine your brain forming such a ridiculous thought—of course they will. How could they not?” adds the man who literally has Javier’s magic filter over my face.
“Hmm,” is the only answer I give him.
“Is that an Aidenism?”
He laughs, clueless that my brain is more than capable of such questions. Will they like me? What do they think of their son falling for someone with her own trauma? Someone who lives so far away? Someone who—if they knew the full truth—believed their son to be such a monster that she left him and wasted his one million dollars? But none of my insecurities matter in this bigger constellation we are charting. They’re trivial compared to the brightest thing: Aiden is letting more love in his life.
“All right, tell me more about your parents. Robert and Stella. Tell me everything.”
“Well, this is their last year before retirement . . .” he starts as we make our way to Reagan and Javier. I listen to every word, picking some wilted poppies. No reason to end the young, pretty ones. But wilted poppies have their own beauty too. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, but their swan necks have their own grace—they have survived the wind.
With each withered bloom, I tick off our new list of allies and weapons: our love, Aiden’s strength and fighting spirit, pleasure, self-love if we can grow it, our families, the team of scientists, these mystical gifts from our stars—my calming effect from Javier’s genius, the protein from Dad, and Für Elise from Mum—and now H-O-P-E. Will they be enough for the unfathomable enemy before us, lurking, waiting to strike? Because strike it will.
“Why are you picking only the dead ones?” Aiden asks looking at the eleven wilted poppies I’ve collected.
“They’re not dead. They’re wise.”
He laughs again, and I listen to the sound floating free over the poppy field with the gentle breeze. I add a twelfth withered poppy—laughter has to be a weapon too.
“You two look like you belong in a Shakespeare sonnet or a Jane Austen novel,” Reagan grins when we reach the two of them under the oak tree.
“Shakespeare was an idiot,” I respond.
All three of them lecture me about my issues with the overrated fool all the way home. But they did not hear the chilling whisper that deafened my ears despite my bouquet of allies and the tendril of hope: these violent delights and have violent ends.
Hi everyone and welcome to all the new and old readers who are returning! It’s been wonderful to see your names and social avatars again. Thank you for coming back to Aiden & Elisa, and for your comments to me. You support and encouragement means a lot. Without much delay, here is Chapter 9. Tic toc…
Living with the truth turns out to be harder than I imagined. It’s harder because now I know exactly how much he couldn’t bear to be with me after the attack. It’s harder because there is absolutely nothing I can do to change that. And it’s harder because now I don’t dream of him at all. And that’s the worst part; it’s like losing him all over again.
Still, as difficult as living with the truth is, it’s easier than living with myself. Because harder than everything else are the what-if’s. What if I hadn’t believed him when he told me he reported Javier? What if I had looked closer? What if, instead of forcing myself on him after the attack, I had left as he asked? What if! What if! What if! Like a sledgehammer to the brain, shattering all my rules.
The only things getting me through are Oxford and Reagan’s visit in three days. Of course, we all have to live through Javier’s trial in forty-eight hours first. I cannot think about that. I grab Dad’s lab coat and run out of the cottage for the bus stop even though it’s only five in the morning. But today—after two days of orientation—is my first time working in my father’s lab at Oxford. And although things like joy and excitement are beyond me, I cannot bear the idea of embarrassing my dad.
Walking at dawn alone, without him, feels like the Portland airport, but worse. It’s as though losing him was a cataclysmic event, a big bang that could not be contained in one continent. It has expanded now, radiating through the planet, finding me here in my little, peaceful town, pulverizing whatever flimsy structure I had managed to build.
But the moment I step on the bus, I feel a little stronger, las though Oxford’s hard limestone permeates my skin. By the time the bus drops me off at the University Center, I am centered too.
On the outside, the Chemistry Building looks calm and quiet. But inside, it’s teeming with life. Apparently Oxford does not sleep even in the summer. Students are huddled over books, clutching thermoses of caffeinated drinks, eyes bloodshot with shadows underneath. At least here my face will blend right in. Researchers are stretching their arms in the air, twisting their backs side-to-side, loosening the night’s knots. And behind closed office doors, I’m certain there are professors poring through papers or staring into space at concepts the rest of us cannot see. The entire building is humming with single-minded pursuit of knowledge, with the thrill of discovery within. There is no space in its vast horizons for lost loves, immigration trials, or past crimes. Oxford has its eyes on the vistas of possibilities, on the finite rules of science that survive any big bang, that explain everything. And because of that, Oxford is perfect for me.
But am I perfect for it? As I enter the cavernous state-of-the-art lab that could fit Denton’s in one of its fume hoods, I’m not at all certain. At least ten researchers are there already and when they spare a moment to look up, they all stare.
“Ah, Elisa! Here you are!” Edison calls, striding toward me from one of the cryogenic freezers. “I was beginning to fear you had lost your way.” Clearly, 6:30 in the morning is too late for this crowd. I’m sure Dad used to come to work later, but then again he had Mum and me. Edison is betrothed to science.
“I’m sorry,” I mumble, mortification draping over Dad’s lab coat that I’m wearing.
“Ah, not at all, not all. Like father, like daughter, I reckon. Peter would get in late too, but accomplished twice as much as us, the brain of his.”
Not wanting to waste another second, I start scuttling to the closest empty lab desk, but Edison chuckles. “No, my dear girl, you’re this way, with me.” And he starts marching the length of the lab at a pace that is only technically not running. I scramble behind him, feeling inquisitive eyes on my back, probably relieved that I, the flake, will not be anywhere near their experiments.
“Here we are,” says Edison, opening a door to a lab within the lab—like a heart chamber. I expect to see more futuristic technology, but this lab is homier, with a warmer glow than the harsh fluorescents of the Goliath around us. And, at the very front, as though he is waiting for me, stands a man, probably in his thirties, wearing a white lab coat identical to mine, except the initials: GRK. The moment I look at him, I feel the need to squint. He has lustrous blond hair as though a thousand sunrays are weaved in each strand. His skin is golden and his eyes a butterscotch hazel. He is so lanky that, clad in his brilliant white coat, he could be a neon beam himself. And he is the only one not staring. He is simply smiling.
“Elisa, welcome to the lab where many seasoned chemists wish they could brew. This is Bia.” Edison says the name of the Greek goddess of force and energy with reverence. “And this is my chief researcher, Graham Knightley.”
I’ve been practicing a smile and I employ it now as I reach for Mr. Knightley’s hand, expecting it to be hot due to his sunny appearance but it’s cold, like a true lab resident. “Hello, I’m Elisa Snow. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Knightley.”
“Graham, please! And I know who you are. We’ve all been very eager to meet you.”
If he meant this as reassurance, it has the opposite effect on me. All I can think about is how I am going to embarrass my dad next. What was I thinking taking this on in my current state? I should have worked at the local pub for a while or forever as there are no dreams left for me. But before I can panic thoroughly enough to submit my resignation, Edison claps his hands once, as if to call attention, and says something that changes everything.
“Now, Elisa, you know your father and I had this dream of inventing proteins that are easy to digest but accomplish big things. Like the protein that fights hunger, which you’ve already developed.” He inclines his head to me while I use every brain cell to block memories of selling that protein to him to buy my green card. “Well, shortly before Peter’s accident, we had another idea: develop a protein that fights fear.” Edison whispers this last word, as though it’s an incantation or some secret gospel. For him, it is. As it instantly becomes for me. It triggers a memory of Dad in those last few weeks locked up in our library in that fervor that took over his brain sometimes. He would never tell me the idea that possessed him until he thought it through or found a way, no matter how much I questioned him. “You’ll know soon enough, Eliser,” he’d say. But he never had a chance to tell me that time. He died before the answer came. But I’m still here: how can I resist finding the answer for him? If I cannot dream my own dreams, maybe I can dream my father’s.
“Did Peter tell you about this idea?” asks Edison with a fanatical gleam in his eyes, as though he can read thoughts.
“No.” I shake my head, disappointing him no doubt. “I just remembered that he was in one of his zones right before—” I swallow. “But he never told me what it was.”
“Oh.” The gleam in Edison’s eyes disappears, but he recovers quickly. “No matter. I think he may have made more progress than you realize. So, here in Bia, Graham and I are continuing this work. Every day, every night—for the last four years. We get close sometimes, then lose it right at the moment we inject the 2-AG molecule in the peptide bonds. It combusts into flames. This one is tricky—trickier than anything else I’ve tried. But with you here, maybe we have a chance. Perhaps something will occur to you that has not done to us. And imagine if we do succeed!” Edison’s eyes glint again. “Imagine brewing a life with no fear. What that would mean to you, to me, to so many.”
To my dad, I finish in my mind. It’s impossible not to feel that I will let Edison down; how could I ever do in a summer what my father wasn’t able to in his life? But how could I not try? How could I not give it every day and every night of what remains of my existence? This is the last thing I have from him.
Time becomes a blur then. Edison leaves for a lecture, and Graham and I work side-by-side, as he shows me their progress, their challenges, and where they’ve gotten stuck. He works quickly, elegantly, his gloved fingers handling the equipment with fluidity, like piano keys.
Every once in a while, he mentions Dad: “Professor Snow would have seen right through this” or “I think he’d have done it this way.” At some point, we both start talking to Dad out loud and neither of us seems to think this is mental. But mostly, we work in a companionable silence trying to reduce the elusive 2-AG molecule into any form compatible with peptides that doesn’t combust. Testing one compound here, another there—like a new musical note in a melody. Many look at chemistry and see fumes, liquids, beakers, flasks, burners. But that’s not what chemistry is: it’s music. Each element, each atom is a note. Each piece of equipment is an instrument. Mix these two compounds together, and they hiss. Mix those two others, and they babble. Throw this fifth substance in, and they ring like trumpets. Find the right formula, and you have a concert. A concert that feeds you when you’re hungry. A concert that makes you brave. Someday, perhaps a concert that keeps you young. But it’s always music—chemistry is the soundtrack to life.
“Break?” Graham asks after a while.
“No, it didn’t. See? The peptide is still intact.”
“No, I mean, take a break with me?” Graham annunciates slowly, as if thinks I might have forgotten how to speak English.
“Oh! No, no, no!” I say quickly like he suggested I should swallow the liquefied peptides. Who needs a break? What could I possibly allow myself to think? Not to mention I’m not ready to converse casually with people who are not Reagan. Graham’s eyes widen a fraction so I amend to keep him from seeing the madness within. “I mean, thank you, but I’d really like to finish this first. I might—”
“Eliser, it has waited four years, it can wait forty minutes. Besides, I’m famished.” He smiles, but I’m frozen solid. “What’s the matter?” He frowns when I don’t move, probably questioning my mental stability at this point.
“My dad used to call me that sometimes,” I whisper, remembering Dad laughing at his own pun: Eliser—Elixir. “I haven’t heard it said out loud in a long time.”
Graham blanches. “I’m very sorry, I should have asked. Only that’s how Professor Snow referred to you and I suppose it stuck—” he clears his throat. “My apologies, I shouldn’t have used it. What would you like to be called?”
Simple manners, yet the question feels suddenly important to me. “Eliser is fine,” I answer, surprising myself. Then again, is it really a surprise? The girl I was, named after Beethoven’s melody, is gone forever; no one will be playing the piano again for me.
Graham waits as though he guesses I’m processing something. Or perhaps he is getting used to everything taking me longer. “A break might be a good idea,” I concede, trying to sound normal as we walk out of Bia.
Without failing, the researchers’ eyes follow us out. By the time we reach the building cafeteria though I realize it’s not just the researchers. A couple of professors come up, shaking my hand, saying, “Welcome back! Welcome back!” The kind-faced woman who prepares our lunch grins at me. “Ham and mustard for your sarnie, dear?” she asks. I can only nod as I realize she is guessing I like my sandwich like my dad. Even the elderly groundskeeper weeding the quad when we go to eat outside looks up and tips his hat. “Bless my soul! It’s Peter and Clare’s girl! Welcome home, child! Welcome home!” I keep my practiced smile glued firmly on my face but it must not be very convincing because Graham picks up his pace, leading us to the ancient oak tree on the other side of the quad. As we perch on its thick roots, I try to look like I’m unwrapping my sarnie when really I am trying to breathe. All these people—each a molecule in my parents’ life—happy to see me, and all I can think is they have it wrong. I’m back, yet I feel gone too long.
“All right there, Eliser?” Graham prompts. The fact that he has eaten half his sarnie is a clue as to how long I’ve been drifting.
“Oh, sorry. It’s just all this. They all . . .” I can’t find words to explain what I’m feeling.
“Stare, smile, and welcome you back with open arms?” Graham finishes for me. “Come on, it could be worse. Besides, it’s only your first week here. By Friday, they’ll have moved on to something new.”
That should comfort me, but it does not. “It’s not just that. Even Edison . . . he—I don’t know how to put it.” What is the feeling Edison gives me sometimes? Like I’m not meeting expectations? Or like I am? I can’t decipher it.
Graham sets down his sarnie on the paper plate and turns to me. In the sun, he is even brighter. “Listen. I, Edison, the others—we can’t imagine how hard it must have been losing your parents. But you have to understand, Peter Snow was a legend around here. And your mum curated Ashmole’s manuscripts for heaven’s sakes. Everyone loved them. Their accident rocked Oxford! And now, everyone feels like they’re catching a glimpse of Clare again, or a bit of Peter. It’ll pass. With time, they will see you for you.”
There is no me left, I want to say. He is missing the real problem. “I’m more worried about disappointing Edison, about not being able to do this. I’ve only just graduated, and you two are light years ahead of me. Shouldn’t I be scrubbing beakers in Goliath instead of helping you in Bia?”
“Ah, yes!” Graham nods. “Feeling inadequate at Oxford—that’s novel. No one’s ever felt that before. Definitely not me. And especially not Edison.” He winks with sarcasm, probably trying to lighten the mood.
It does not work. I don’t mind not keeping up with the brainiacs. I mind embarrassing my dad. I mind failing at his dream. These are things I cannot tell Graham, but he must have a sense—he is one of the brainiacs after all—because he speaks again after a few more bites. “Listen, Eliser! I was born to study chemistry. I have no passion or interest in anything else, and I’m told I’m not brilliant with emotional conversations either. But I do know one thing: you can work day and night, you can study harder than anyone else, you can sacrifice everything, and you still won’t achieve something that does not live in you. To me, to Edison, and the other researchers, Peter Snow was a chemistry god, and mortals can’t do what gods can. But to you, he was only your dad. And whether you think that’s enough or not, he lives in you. So don’t do what Edison or anyone else expects: do what you and your dad would do. And all will be well.” He frowns at the last words, as if he is assuring himself as much as me.
I turn his words in my head. Could the answer be there in their simple precision?
“Do you still live at the cottage?” Graham asks abruptly, like he has reached his capacity for emotional reassurance.
“How did you know about the cottage?”
He gives me a look that can only be described as an eye roll. “Everyone knows about the rose cottage.”
And how it was abandoned. “Yes, I’m still there.”
“Well, after you’ve adjusted a bit, you could invite some of the profs and researchers—not all, mind, some of us can be positively cutthroat—and you can start forming your own relationships, hm? And if you finally finish that sarnie so we can get back to work, I might even be persuaded to leave the lab for a few hours and come over to help you with deep emotional things.” He chuckles, pointing at my sandwich. I wrap it back quickly and hop up.
“Can I have that if you won’t eat it?” Graham asks, quite serious. For some reason, I think of Javier—of that big-brotherly feeling I always had around him. They are opposites, Javier and Graham, in every way: Javier is dark where Graham gleams golden. Javier lives for art, and Graham lives for science. Javier sees straight to one’s soul, Graham sees the molecules. Javier is losing everything in two days, and Graham is only starting. Yet they’ve both given me the same thing: a sketch for the next step.
I think about that while riding the last bus back to Burford, nine hours later. We all have before-and-afters that change us forever. Our personal big bangs—massive explosions in our skies that form and transform our galaxies from the ashes and dust left behind. And we go on, each time a new star, gravitating across the universe until our orbit collides with other stars, and we form constellations we call families, friends, love. My constellations have imploded—one by one, each star was extinguished. I have been rotating around their void, searching for a trajectory of some kind. I’m not a star, only a cloud of ash left behind. But what if it’s not all ash—what if it’s the stardust of those bright, bold stars?
I see a solution then. Maybe I can use what’s left of my energy to ignite the stardust back to light. Use my orbit to make Dad’s dream come true, care for Mum’s roses, help Javier’s family, and let him live free of me without guilt. And if I can do all that, maybe my lost stars will shine again. And maybe that’s enough in the end to transform this existence from inertia into life.
The cottage is quiet when I go in, Mum’s roses fast asleep in their beds, tucked under the velvet sky blanket, with the moon as a side lamp. As I switch on the lights, I wonder if the cottage sees in me what I see in it: no more dust or cobwebs, warmer, with some signs of life. Fresh-cut roses here, open books and empty teacups there, a little fire in the beehive fireplace, trainers on the doorstep. At least the cottage must think I’m alive.
I make some spaghetti, tapping my foot while the water is boiling, eager to kindle my stardust. When the pasta is ready, I take the plate with me to Dad’s library.
First: Javier’s family. In two days, their own constellation will implode. I send an email to Bob, my lawyer, to confirm that the trust I set up for the Solises is ready for them to use immediately after the trial. It’s not the same as having their brother, but it will help. Then, after finishing almost all of the spaghetti in thought, I text Maria. I cannot call her while she is living with his parents; I won’t ever let my orbit collide with his again, no matter how distantly.
“Mamá, it’s me. I’m sorry I haven’t called, I will soon. I know the next two days will be very hard. But please remember what I told you before I left: no matter what happens, you, Antonio, and the girls will be okay. I may be gone, but you’re in my heart. I’ll take care of you. I love you, corazon y alma.”
I stare at the inadequate text, wishing I could tell them about the money but Bob was strict that I could not before the trial. The message bubble becomes green as it’s delivered internationally, and I picture it arriving in her phone, in his childhood home, beeping in her hand or by her ear. She’ll be looking at it now, dabbing her tearful eyes, whispering “Bendita, bendita.” As I wipe my eyes along with her image, a bubble floats on my screen:
“Isa, amorcita! I miss you. I love you. You here in mi corazon. Reagan says you hurt and no talk. Be strong, hija. Be strong. Eat your comida. Sleep your sleep. God is good. God will save all my children. God will bring you all back to me. I go to church now for pray with Stella. Call me, hija, I miss your voice!”
A tear drops on my phone screen. All her world is about to end, and she’s telling me to eat and sleep. I will never regret giving up my green card so she can live, and live well. Another tear drops on Stella’s name—his mum. The only other woman in the world who has borne the brunt of his startle reflex and the exile that follows. Who knows some of what I’m feeling. Maybe Maria and Stella will form their own constellation—two mothers with sons alive but lost. I send Maria a heart emoji and turn on Bod.
Second up: Javier himself. I cannot save him, but I can avenge him. I draft a full account to The Oregonian, exposing Feign’s fraud and telling them about the true Da Vinci. Javier’s genius will be known even if he will not be there to see it. I save the draft and schedule to send it Friday after Javier’s trial is over. None of us will have anything more to lose by then. I write to Oxford next, asking about their fine art program admissions for international students living in Mexico. Although America would be Javier’s dream, I know the universities there will not admit him after he is deported. But Oxford might—Javier has no past here. And, with his family secure and my cottage as a home, maybe he can pursue his art. Maybe his star can finally shine.
It’s near midnight now but I don’t feel tired. I still have Dad’s dream left. I dig out all of Dad’s notepads from every single shelf and drawer and stack them into towers on the floor, like miniature skyscrapers. And then start reading. Flipping through the pages, tracing every scribble and covalent bond with my finger, looking for anything he might have wanted, wished, or thought about the protein of bravery. But I can’t find anything—some of it I can’t even read or understand. My eyes start to itch, even though I’ve only made it through two of the fifteen towers. Oddly the lack of progress calms me. I have many years ahead to fill with this dream.
But as my eyelids start to droop and another dreamless night stretches before me, I can’t ignore the star I’ve been avoiding. His. He is the hardest of them all. Because his most powerful wish is to be able forget, and I have no proteins for that. But there was one other thing he wanted: me to forget him, me to stay away. And I will, but not because he is a monster. I will leave him because it’s best for him and best for me. I see it now so crystal clear. The end of love is never in anger. Love ends only when it’s the right thing. And this is right even though the agony sears me to my cells. I stand then, not surprised by where my feet are taking me. I think I’ve known since the field epiphany it would come to this. A goodbye to the man I know, not the one I heard that day.
The safe in the wall clicks open at the code, and the aged envelopes Benson gave me tumble forward. “You were brilliant, Benson. I just wasn’t quick enough to see it,” I whisper as I grab their rough, commissary paper, hands trembling so hard I almost drop them. The pain in my chest changes—it doesn’t throb; it suffocates, wringing my veins and airways until I can’t breathe. But I clutch the envelopes to that spot between my lungs he first brought to life, keeping the eyes on the periodic table until I find oxygen again. Then, gently as though the edges will slice me, I tear the envelopes with Mum’s letter opener. The reddish coarse sand trickles on my fingers. And like that very first time I read his words, I sink on the floor.
April 14, 2003
I come to you the way we come home. With dust on the skin and fire in the blood. It’s always dark when I come to you, the shamal winds wailing, the sand cycloning in places you haven’t touched (probably for the best). The light is always on above our door, the curtain is always moving. I raise my hand to knock, but I don’t want to knock gently. I want to pound with my fist on the door, tear it off its hinges, and make the foundations whimper. I want the night to go deaf from my arrival. I don’t want to enter, I want to burst into your arms and there I can kneel, molding into your small hands back into the man you believe me to be.
I want to go blind from your eyes. I have no idea what color they are (I have tried blue, green, brown, black—nothing fits you). I want my eardrums to rupture at your cry when you finally see me. I hope you yell at me, hit me, slap me. “What the hell took you so long?” I hope you tell me.
And I will stand there, absorbing your blows more than any bullet, with no words. No words for your face, for the smell of you, for the crackling fire in the fireplace.
“So help me God, Aiden Hale, what took you so long?” you will yell again, furious.
But I will not answer you. How could I tell you that I had deserts to cross, oceans to swim, thousands to murder, more to free, bleeding brothers to carry on my back for miles and miles and miles before I came to you? You will never hear that outside of these letters. I have made an oath to give only music to your ears (and some really filthy words).
So instead, I will look at your face. I loved you at first sight. At last sight. I didn’t need to see all of you to know that I was yours. Probably only a single strand of your hair blowing in the wind, or your hand peeking from your sleeve, or maybe even your shadow, and I loved you. This is how I want to love. In a way that will finish me at the end of the desert, at the end of the war. At the end of it all, I want to die because of you.
“Are you going to answer or will you just stand there gawking at me?” you will shout.
I will reach for that strand of hair I first saw and kiss it. “Bed,” I will say.
Dawn breaks outside the cottage, the first ray of sun filtering through the library window. All the letters are open, each word tattooed forever on my retinas. They all start and end the same: “my all” and “yours.” In between are the words of a fairytale, of a man and a woman who could only be together in letters and paintings. And that’s where they should always remain, in a happiness we could not give them in life. I tuck all the letters back in their envelopes and place them in the safe.
“Be well,” I tell them.
But as I shuffle the rest of the safe contents to close the door, another speckle of stardust falls out: a torn piece of paper with Dad’s script, so rushed he must have barely finished it before locking it in:
“Fifth time. Not December. Add love.”
I stare at the words. To anyone else they would make no sense. I don’t know what they mean either, but I know what they are: Dad’s code when he discovered something. I lock it back in the safe as outside, a new day starts in England, ticking away the hours to Javier’s fate.
Happy weekend, everyone! And thank you again for all the kind messages, wishes, and prayers about this story and myself. Please know they are very appreciated, and many of them have come at a time where I need them most. Here are the next two chapters while the words are flowing. Things are getting close to a big reveal. I hope you enjoy them! xo, Ani
Days go by. Even in England. The sun sets and rises, the date changes on the calendar. But time does not pass. Everything seems suspended in the same, eternal moment. Case in point: here I am, on my fourth dawn in England, still waking up screaming on the riverbank; still shivering in the cold air of his absence; still staring at the empty field across the river. His parting words still ring in my ears, reverberating all around my rose garden: “Once I love, I love forever.”
Yet change happens. Almost imperceptible, but it happens. For one, each night, he is leading me further along the riverbank, away from the cottage; and each night, I follow more willingly. Awake, I’m fully aware of the potential for disaster, for real danger here. What if I sleepwalk right through town onto the motorway? Or slip and crack my skull against a rock? And yet, in my sleep, I trust him wholly, blindly, never to lead me into any harm. Because—change number two—the desire for him, the curiosity for what he is trying to show me is growing stronger, not weaker. I love him more in my dreams, the less I love him when I’m awake. And exponentially, the pain in my chest is getting worse, not better. As though each dream is chipping away at what little progress I manage to make during the day. Like Prometheus, tied to the rock, growing his liver only for Zeus’s eagle to eat it again in the morning.
But, unlike Prometheus, I’m adapting or at least learning. For example, I go to bed fully dressed now, even my sneakers. I don’t lock the door until after the dream because it doesn’t keep me inside. I agree categorically that this is pathological behavior. The first thing I should do when I get back inside is not prepare for my meeting with Professor Edison this afternoon, but book an appointment with a well-respected psychiatrist. Yet I can’t bring myself to do so. It’s not hard to understand why, as the sky starts to lighten but I still stand in the exact spot where he left me: because then these dreams might stop and I’ll never learn where he is leading me so urgently. But I must know if I am to overcome him, if I am to keep the oath I made on my parents’ grave. So I have a plan: tonight, I’ll find out once and for all.
I walk back to the cottage, gazing at the field across the river one more time, wishing I could solve this riddle now. But I can’t because my meeting with professor Edison is in nine hours, and I’ll need every minute between now and then to get ready. It’s not my scientific knowledge I worry about—I’ve been studying nonstop for this meeting since he emailed me back three days ago, not to mention the last four years. But I have no idea what to do about the face in the mirror that has transformed. Pale, gaunt, with deep shadows under the eyes that initially will remind Edison of my mum until he looks closer. Because worse that the drawn cheeks and the sallow skin are the lifeless eyes: dull, more plum than violet, and blood-shot. I wish I had Reagan here to transform me into Liz Taylor as she once did. As it is, I spend the next three hours with teabags over my eyes and rose oil over my cheeks, trying to force a semblance of color on my skin. While home remedies attempt the work of magic wands, I revise again every scribble of Dad’s notes about his projects with Edison and every one of Edison’s own eighty-seven published articles. I know I’m overdoing it for just one meeting. I’m very careful not to hope Edison will give me a job—that would violate Rule Number Three—but I do need to be able to hide the mess I am enough to make Dad proud. The entire Chemistry Department will be talking about me: Peter Snow’s tragic daughter come home at last.
There may come a time in my life—perhaps when I’m Mr. Plemmons’s age—when I might be able to sit with Reagan and tell her about the bus ride from Burford to Oxford today. About how it felt to sit on the seats that carried Mum and Dad to and from work twice a day, every work day except the day they died. About how the handrail felt exactly like their hands holding mine until this very last stop. But that day will not come for a long time.
I teeter off the bus, clutching Dad’s leather briefcase. Then, slowly, I lift my eyes to see Oxford’s medieval skyline for the first time since before the accident. The gothic spires, towers, and cupolas of the ancient colleges spike like heartbeats on an EKG line. Domed rooftops stretch out like knobbly protective arms. Every facet glows like limestone skin under the molten sunlight of the afternoon sky. And through it all, like emerald lifeblood, run the colleges’ lush parks, forests, gardens, and meadows.
Four years ago, I rejected this dream for another, thinking it would break me to face my parents’ second home. It never occurred to me that Oxford would have the power to do the opposite: heal. But as I stand here on its threshold, two hours early, braced for the lance of grief, that’s exactly what happens. I stop shaking, the nausea of the bus ride recedes, and I only feel a sense of shelter. It releases my locked knees and pulls me, like gravity, inside the university circle. I stroll the worn lanes with ease, feeling as though Mum and Dad are gliding on either side of me, as in our home movies, blissful that I have returned to the place they loved so deeply. The landmarks of their life feel like hugs, not bruises: Mum’s tiny office at the Ashmolean, the King’s Arms pub where Dad and Edison would drink cask ale after work, the Bodleian Library where they taught me how to check out Ashmole’s manuscripts using the old tube system. By the time I make it to the Science Area quad and steel a peek at my reflection on the windows of the chemistry lab, there is some color on my cheeks.
But the moment I enter the reception lobby of the Chemistry Building, that small rush of blood drains from my face. Because there, steps from me, carved in bronze, is my father’s bust.
He looks at me. His eyes, seeming too sentient for a statue, are crinkled at the corners as they were in life when he would smile. His jaw is sharper, more sculpted, the way it would look when he was chewing at the end of a pen. His lips are parted a fraction as though he is saying, “ah!” And right below his bust, an engraved plaque says:
“I am in my element.”
Peter Andrew Snow
Oxford Chemistry Department, 1990-2011
I don’t realize I have walked to him until my hand molds to his bronzed cheek. The metal is cool yet it warms my suddenly icy fingers.
A gentle cough startles me. Professor Edison is standing a few steps away, watching me with a small smile and wistful eyes—an improvement on Mr. and Mrs. Plemmons who looked positively frightened by my face that first day I dropped by. Edison looks exactly as he did four years ago, except thinner and his forehead is more lined.
“I’m sorry to startle you, Elisa. But oh, how welcome you are!” he says with feeling, stepping closer and handing me a handkerchief, as I realize I must be crying. So much for not appearing tragic. I dab my eyes quickly.
“Hello, Professor Edison. It’s good to see you. I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting…” I hand him back the handkerchief. It’s initialed NFE.
“Nigel, please. I’ve known you since you were in nappies.” He rests his hand on my shoulder gently—as physical as British men get for such a reunion. “And don’t apologize, this is my fault. I should have mentioned Peter’s sculpture, but I suppose it’s such a natural part of my day, it didn’t occur to me.”
The casual reference to my dad’s name derails me for a moment so I force a smile.
“Are you well? Do you need something to drink or a spot of lunch?” Edison asks quickly. My smile must not look like a smile.
“No, no, I’m fine; just a bit jetlagged.” True enough, even if not at all relevant to this moment.
“Of course,” he says quickly. “Right then, let’s go in. Do you still remember your way around this place?”
I nod, and he breaks into a full smile, leading me down the long hall to the research lab where his office and my dad’s used to be. The entire trek there—perhaps relieved that I’m no longer crying—he is talking. “I must tell you, I was gobsmacked to see your email. Just absolutely astonished. I’d given up all hope you would ever return. It would be completely understandable, of course, with everything you lived through. But, here you are, looking right like your mum—dear, beautiful Clare! What a day!”
He shakes his head as if in wonder or perhaps to give me a moment to respond. “What a day,” I say back, for entirely different reasons.
“So what brought you back, hm? I must give thanks to whatever it was.”
I’m ready for this one; I have rehearsed the answer down to each inflection so that it doesn’t sound like the lie that it is. “Well, my student visa ended after I graduated Reed, but I was missing England even before then. I suppose home is home. It always calls you back.” As I say the words, however, I notice they don’t sound like a lie, as they did a few days ago or even this morning. Did Oxford make them true?
We reach the end of the hall now, and my attention closes in on the last door to the left. Dad’s office. If Edison says anything, I can’t hear it over the pounding of my heart. When he opens the door, at first I think he’s trying to give me a moment, but then I register that this is now his office. A rush of heat rises creeps over my neck.
“Ah, my fault again!” Edison sounds alarmed that he might have triggered more tears. “I should have said. See, I moved in here after Peter—well, you know. I didn’t want to at first, but it felt … better. Closer to… to him.” Edison closes his eyes briefly, as I grasp that I’m not the only one who was left behind grieving. Of course Edison would have missed his friend. And of course Oxford would not have left a professor’s office vacant for years. Yet, I can’t help feeling angry, offended somehow, without any right to the feeling whatsoever.
“Here,” Edison says, beckoning me inside. “You can look. I didn’t change much. I still have his computer, his books, his files.” He waives his hand around the small office and my anger disappears as quickly as it came. Because he is right—not much has changed. Even the potted miniature roses that Mum gave Dad on their last spring are there on the windowsill. There is only one yellow bloom, but it’s enough to feel like a smile. Edison is still looking like he is sitting on its thorns.
“It’s fine, Professor—I mean, Nigel. I’m the one who should apologize. Of course you would have missed Dad. How can I blame you for that?”
He takes a deep breath, then smiles again. “Bumpy start, I know. For both of us. To be expected, I suppose. How else do you start after all that’s happened? Well, let’s try it again.” He chuckles and sits on my dad’s chair, gesturing for me to sit across from him. The conversation feels more natural then. He only asks about my projects, what I’ve been working on, and if any of it has to do with Dad’s previous work. The world-leading professor comes out: singular in his focus, consumed by his curiosity, his relentless search for knowledge. Beyond work or passion, chemistry is his life.
“So what are your plans?” he says, eyes still sparking with the fervor of describing his last publication. “Are you back for good?”
I don’t trust myself to verbalize yes so I simply nod.
“Well, do you want to test things here for a bit? Maybe intern for the summer?” Edison cuts straight to the point. I watch him stunned. I hadn’t even dared to ask.
“Do you mean as a research assistant? Here? In your lab?”
“Of course!” He shrugs as though this is the most natural thing to be offering me. “We have hundreds of research projects going, and look at your credentials. I’d offer you a position even if you weren’t Peter’s daughter. But you are his daughter, and that is everything.” He says this with finality, leaving no room for argument. And why would I argue? This is exactly what I need.
“Wow,” I say.
“Is that a yes?”
“Yes, absolutely, yes, but—”
He frowns. “But what?”
“But is this right? Shouldn’t I apply first?”
He smiles then. “My dear girl, do you know who you are? You’re the only child of the finest chemist this institution has ever seen. His talent lives in you; it’s quite obvious. You’ve had your name down for Oxford since you were born! I’ve already spoken to the rest of the faculty—they’re quite agreed.”
I swallow hard. I don’t know what to say to any of that. Can I do this in this state? Can I be who Edison thinks I am?
“Don’t you want this opportunity?” Edison sounds perplexed.
That question, so elemental, does it. “I can’t hope for anything more,” I answer truthfully because I can’t. That would violate Rule Number Three.
Edison’s smile becomes as bright as the yellow rose. “Well then, you can start whenever you want.”
He grins again. “I don’t believe we’re quite as desperate as to have you start on a Saturday, but Monday would be brilliant.”
For the first time since landing on Heathrow Airport, I have something other than dread to expect in the morning.
Edison stands then, and I gather my Dad’s briefcase to leave. But Edison’s eyes are trained on it, unblinking, with something like hunger. “His briefcase!” he whispers, as though seeing it for the first time.
“Yes, I took this with me to America. Can’t imagine going anywhere without it.”
“No doubt. No doubt,” he mumbles, still staring at it as he follows me out. I turn to shake his hand, but he reaches behind the office door. “Here,” he says, bringing out a white lab coat. For a moment, I’m confused—why would he give me his lab coat?—until I see the initials embroidered on the front pocket: PAS.
“I think you should have it for Monday,” Edison says awkwardly without meeting my eyes, and throws the coat over my shoulders.
The bus ride back to Burford is easier with Dad’s lab coat wrapped around me. It’s even more imperative now that I stop the dreams this weekend. So that I can take this last chance at life. So that I can be my father’s daughter.
Later that evening, I sit on the wrought iron reading bench, watching the last sliver of sun dip behind the horizon of the field across the river. The field turns lavender gray from the evening shadows. Its grass sways, like wavelets with no shore. Beyond it, in the distance, the town’s first nightlights are twinkling like fireflies.
“See you soon,” I say, standing up, tightening Mum’s pashmina around me. I could wait here for sleep, but not yet because—change number three—routines form, like slender reeds growing on a marshy path: not enough to support you, but enough to show you the way. My reeds are: wake up in the morning, force down porridge, study, research lucid dreams, tend the roses, Skype with Reagan, put on sneakers and the parka, go to bed, sleepwalk, scream, stumble back home, sleep, repeat. And now, Reagan is calling. She keeps it short tonight, like the last few nights, giving me barely any detail at all. If I didn’t have a plan to implement, I’d worry that distance is stealing her away from me. But she’s juggling a lot—visiting Javier, the Solises, her own life—for me to demand any more of her time.
“Say hello to Javier,” I say. “But remember, don’t tell him I’m gone until—”
“I know, I know.” Reagan’s voice is brisk. “I’m sick of all the secrets.”
“But you still love me?”
“Like a pest,” she says, but her soft, teary eyes say “I love you to England and back.”
After she’s gone, I get started for tonight. A strange energy builds in my muscles, like excitement or thrill. I know this is because soon I’ll have the answers. But deep down, I’m terrified that there is another reason for my excitement: that the buzz is the cheater, feverish to see him tonight. No matter. Soon, she’ll be gone too.
Dad’s cupboard of chemical ingredients has not been restocked in over four years but it still has the basics I need: galantamine, mugwort, valerian root, choline bitartrate, a few others. From my research, these substances, or oneirogens, may induce lucid dreams and keep the dreamer asleep longer and deeper, allowing them to redirect their dreaming. Although mine are not lucid dreams—quite the opposite actually; I’m not awake, I’m fast asleep—the same side effects theoretically should apply. Theoretically.
I grind the substances and measure each dose carefully on Dad’s digital lab scale, trying not to think how apoplectic he would have been if he ever saw me doing this when he was alive. How do you know what side effects it will have on you, he would have spluttered. What lab testing have you done? What control group? What safeguards?
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I mumble as I mix the substances together in simmering water, and spin the mixture in his centrifuge. “But I don’t have time. If I don’t do this now, the dreams might kill me. And that would be worse than any side effects, wouldn’t it?”
No, he would have spit out through his teeth. Think like a scientist! They could be equally deadly!
“Unlikely in these doses.”
Unlikely does not equal impossible.Go to a doctor! Now!
“I can’t. I have to know. I’ll be all right, I promise.” I let the sickly green liquid seep in the vial for fifteen minutes. Then with a final swirl, I swallow it in three gulps. Its bitter, resin taste stings my tongue.
For a few moments, terror locks me here. What have I done? What if I’m wrong? But worse than all the questions is the loudest one: what if this doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t give me the answers? I would keep trying until either the cheater or I wind up dead. And that cannot happen. I promised my parents I will live.
I clean up the mess of my experiment and get ready. Sneakers on? Check. T-shirt, jeans, and parka? Check. I unlock the front door, turn off the lights, open the window, and curl up on the sofa under my quilt. No need to go upstairs tonight. I close my eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and focus only on the whoosh of the river and the willows’ lullaby. She’s here. She’s here, they sing still. An owl hoots into the night, as the breeze carries the scent of roses inside me. I follow the rose scent in my mind, as it rides the river breeze through the window into my nose, blowing gently on the open wound by my heart, then flowing out with my breath into the garden. She’s here. She’s here. Flying back again with more perfume, floating inside me, and then drifting back out to the willows. He’s here. He’s here.
I fling my eyes open, holding my breath, but the room is dark and silent. There is no voice calling my name, not a sound. Then the willows rustle again, he’s here; he’s here. I bolt up and flit to the window. And there he is, a silhouette by the Elisa blooms, gazing at me.
“You were waiting for me this time.” His voice is as soft as the rose breeze, a murmur blending with the willows. “I’m here.”
A sense of impatience, a high surges through me and I sprint to the door. In a blink, I’m next to him, looking up at his face, darker tonight as the moon is waning. But his eyes light up in peace as always, two safety beams in the blackest hour.
“You’re eager tonight,” he chuckles in that old waterfall way I remember, and the sound fills me with longing. “Maybe you’ll finally see. Come, let me show you.”
He turns from me, always a step ahead, striding to the riverbank. I follow him without question, without doubt, an electric energy gathering inside me, raising goosebumps on my skin like static.
We reach the riverbank almost at the same time, and he traipses along it, toward Elysium. I know this path; we’ve been here before.
“No questions tonight?” he asks after a while.
“Would you answer them?”
He chuckles again, but it has lost the waterfall sound. “That’s why I’m here.” The familiar note of sadness enters his voice. He walks faster now, leaving Elysium behind, but always along the river. “It’s there!” he says with hope, almost pleading, pointing at the field across. “Right there! We’re getting closer.”
“There’s nothing there, Aiden. Nothing but grass.”
He stops abruptly and turns to me, eyes burning. “You’re wrong!” His voice breaks, the last word like a sob, and his hands fist in his hair. “You’re not looking far enough, Elisa. Please!” His shoulders convulse once and his angelic face contorts in pain, so sharp, so staggering that it counterpoints straight into my own heart. “Aiden, it’s ok, I’ll keep looking, I’ll—” The words die in my mouth. Because in his beautiful face, glimmering under the starlight is a tear. It trickles down from his closed eyes over the sculpted cheek. “Please, my love!” he begs. “Look closer!”
A few things happen all at once. The electrical energy that was building in my tissues radiates through me like a force field, as if the sound of his pain, so raw and primal, lit up a fuse. And then I’m running. Streaking past him down the riverbank to the point where the river bends and narrows into a chute.
“Elisa, wait! Not that way!” he calls behind me, but I’m almost there. I can see the opposite bank, closer and closer. “Stop!” his voice rings out, filled with dread. But with one jump off the balls of my feet, I leap hard off the bank, aiming for the boulder peaking in the middle of the chute to trampoline me to the other side. The last thing I hear is his terrorized “No!” and then I plunge through black, rapid water.
Every cell screams awake, as the cold river fills my mouth, my nose, my ears. It’s much deeper than I thought. The current sucks me under and flings me around, dragging me downstream, no matter how hard I kick my legs and arms to fight it. I try to grab anything—boulders, branches—but there’s nothing. My lungs are out of air and stars burst in my eyes. I push harder, trying to orient myself toward the surface for air, but the rapids roll me like a log and a wave of dizziness disorients me. Mum, Dad, I think. My promise. I try to kick harder, but my legs feel like lead, pulling me under. I can’t find my arms. I wish I had heard him say, “Once I love, I love forever” one more time. The current jolts me again, and then a thick branch must twist around my torso like a band, yanking me hard. I brace for my skull to hit the bottom but suddenly I slice through clear, cold air.
For a while, there is only chaos. I’m coughing and spitting out water, heaving for breath as the band constricts my torso again. Some more water gushes out of my mouth and finally air flows freely. I draw huge gulps of it, gasping, trying to right myself up and find the ground. And that’s when I become aware that I’m still being carried somehow. I thrash away, afraid the river is coming for me again.
“Fuck!” I hear a harsh oath right next to me, almost in my ear. My body stops flailing as I realize I’m not alone. And the bands around me are not branches, they’re someone’s arms. I don’t know the voice, yet it sounds familiar. An American accent.
My savior sets me gently on the riverbank on the side of Elysium, breathing hard. I try to make out my savior’s face but it’s still dark and my eyes are blurry. The body is obviously male, tall, bulky, as he crouches in front of me.
“Are you all right?” the man says anxiously. His accent gives me an instant feeling of safety, as I had in the dream. Oh no, the dream! I blink, clearing more water from my eyes, as I try to make out where I am and exactly how far the river dragged me.
“Hello?” the man calls more loudly now, sounding panicked. “Can you hear me? Are you hurt? Do you know where you are?”
“Who are you?” I croak, and instantly regret it. How about thank you first?
I think I hear a sigh of relief. “James, Ma’am. At your service.”
I can’t understand the disappointment that grips me even in current state. I knew it was not him—even if he was my last thought under water—but who else was I expecting? Maybe a Jazzman or Callahan or Hendrix or Benson: one of his many Marines? I’ll deal with myself later.
“Thank you,” I rasp again. “Thank you for saving me.”
“You’re welcome,” he sighs and sinks on the ground next to me. A few brain cells register that I’m alone with a stranger in the middle of the night, but I can’t feel the right kind of fear. All I feel is the fear for what happened in the dream. For what I’ve done. And for what’s still ahead.
“Quite a time for a swim,” James says casually but kindly, I think. I don’t answer. What would I say? That I intentionally mixed several substances to make my sleepwalking dreams longer so I could redirect them to find the answers that my ex-boyfriend wants me to see so badly, only so that I can finally forget him? So I can kill my love for him before it kills me? These are not reasonable things to tell a stranger.
“Well, thanks again,” I mutter, rising from the ground, legs shaking.
“Hey, hey, take it easy!” James sounds alarmed, standing with me. “No rush! You were down for almost two minutes.”
That’s all? It felt like a whole life. Like a whole death. It almost was. Abruptly, I feel exhausted, tired to the bone. “Good night, James,” I tell him, and start stumbling in the general direction of the cottage.
“Wait! Hey, wait!” James is next to me in one stride. “Where are you going?”
“I’ll walk with you. I promise I won’t hurt you,” he says, raising up his arms, as though in surrender. “I’ve got three sisters. I’d want someone to walk ‘em home. You’re safe with me.” Three sisters. An American Javier. For some reason, I believe him. Besides, why would he hurt me if he just pulled me out of the river? I manage a nod and start plodding—crawling would be more a more appropriate description, if I weren’t upright. The American Javier matches his pace with mine. I register now how tall he is, but his height triggers memories of another tall man I was chasing in the dream. The terror returns so strong that I start shivering. Or maybe it’s because my clothes are drenched, even Mum’s parka. My breath hitches into a dry sob.
“Here,” James says, handing me a light bomber jacket. It’s dry, unlike the rest of him that is soaked; he must have had enough presence of mind to take it off before rescuing me. I huddle under his jacket, inhaling the faint scent of tobacco to clear the fog in my brain. Where do I go from here? How do I safely stop the dreams and also find the answers? Because if I know one thing, know it instinctively, is that the two are related: if I solve the puzzle, the dreams will stop, and I will survive. If I don’t solve it, the cheater will continue the dreams until there is no American Javier to save me. Either way, a part of me dies. It just has to be the right part, his part. So the rest of me can heal.
“You came out pretty far for a dip,” James brings me back, probably wondering how much further he has to walk with the strange, silent woman. The contours of the cottage loom ahead, as I realize I ran well past Elysium trying to shortcut straight across the river and onto the field. A throbbing headache hammers at my temples.
“Hey, are you feeling ok?” James asks. “Is there something I can get you?”
I shake my head—it’s a true answer to both questions. We’re crossing Elysium now, and memories of playing hide and seek here with Mum and Dad flash like a reel. They loved me so much. And look at the mess I’ve made of all their hopes and dreams.
“You know,” James says, perhaps trying to help, perhaps bored of the one-sided conversation with the mute stranger. “If you were trying to get across the river, you could have just taken the bridge.”
The bridge! Yes, that’s where he would have taken me if I had let him, if the drug hadn’t made me reckless. “Not that way” he had called behind me in terror. He would have kept me safe. If only I had let him.
“I should have,” I breathe to James. We’re at the cottage now, the rose garden silver as the sky starts to lighten.
I turn to James, and am able to make out his face for the first time. Or what can be seen of it. He has a full beard, maybe auburn, and wild curly hair that adds to the impression of his vast height. His beard reminds me of Javier again, the last time I saw him, being dragged back to his cell.
“This is me,” I say, handing him back his jacket. “Thank you again…for everything.”
“No problem,” he says, looking past me at the cottage and scanning the rose garden. Something about that action reminds me so forcefully of him, of the vigilance that would emanate from him when he entered public spaces.
“You were out for a late stroll yourself,” I say. Maybe James has his own demons.
He shrugs. “Not really. I’m camping. Was in my tent when I heard you scream.” Camping! My loud gasp makes us both jump. That’s the solution! He has been trying to get me safely onto the field. If I camp out there, I’ll be already where he wants me to be, and he can lead me to whatever he needs me to see so desperately. It would be safe even for me. Flat grassy surface, no river to cross, no one around, no roads, no riverbanks. Yes! That’s it!
“You ok?” asks James, clearly wondering if I’m mentally competent at this point.
I nod, adding a silent thank you. He may have just saved my life again. We will see.
“Well, night then,” he bows his head gently. “If you need anything, I’ll be camping around here for a while. Just turn on a flashlight or something in that top window. Better than whatever it is you were doing tonight.”
He waits at the edge of the garden as I plod inside, my sneakers squishing, my clothes still dripping, Mum’s coat heavy with river water on my shoulders. All her last molecules, her scent spoiled and washed off. Another sob breaks through me. I lock the front door this time, despite friendly American saviors. That was what drew me most to that land, but thinking about that violates Rule Number Two. I take off my sodden clothes and leave them in a pile by the door but hang Mum’s coat. Maybe I can salvage it this weekend. Drained, I climb upstairs to my parents’ bed and curl into a ball, shivering under the covers. Images of the black river water and its earthy taste make me shiver harder. But I draw warmth from one fact. One way or another, it will be over tomorrow. I’ll camp on the field and finally I will know. I thank James again in my mind, realizing I didn’t even ask where in America he was from, how long he has been backpacking through England, or tell him my name. Yet I’ll always owe him. As I drift off, I think about how, despite the terror of this day, there was also hope. I faced Oxford, I got a summer job, a stranger saved my life and gave me a hint. Perhaps—change number four—luck happens. Even to me.
So the countdown is over, and Thirty Nights is here! Really, truly, finally here. I wanted to thank every one who has followed me in this incredible journey: from those very first few readers on fan fiction to every single one of you who has read, reviewed, emailed, messaged, and supported my story. And a ginormous thank-you and blog-hug to the following:
My wonderful editor, Tera Cuskaden Norris, for taking a chance on Thirty Nights, for her passion for a good story, and her hard work to bring you this book;
My awesome agent, Stacy Lorts, who saw the potential of this story when it was just a fairytale on my blog;
The whole Samhain team, and especially Katlyn Osborn, for all of their guidance and hard work;
My PR agency, Inkslinger PR, and the amazing, superwoman Nazarea Andrews, for curbing the insanity of the marketing and promos during the #30days countdown;
And last, because it’s the closest to my heart, my friends and my husband for all his love, patience, and support during these last two mad, beautiful years .
I couldn’t have made it without you! I hope you enjoy Thirty Nights, and know that this was all for you! I can’t wait to hear what you think. I will be waiting for your thoughts with open hearts. And no matter what you say, THANK YOU!
And now another little goodie to keep you company while reading: the Poem Soundtrack for Thirty Nights. Yep, you heard that right. And why not? A poem soundtrack makes as much sense for Thirty Nights as a playlist. 🙂 Here it is, with my favorite lines! Enjoy and see which one suits which scene and/or character… and read in the end for more info.
She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron
She walks in beauty, like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and light,
meets in her aspect and her eyes.
If You Were Coming in the Fall, Emily Dickinson
If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I’d toss it yonder like a rind,
And taste eternity.
I Do Not Love You… Pablo Neruda
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way
than this: where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.
I Do Not Love You, Except Because I love You, Pablo Neruda
In this part of the story I am the one who
Dies, the only one, and I will die of love because I love you,
Because I love you, Love, in fire and blood.
Fire and Ice, Robert Frost
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
I Carry Your Heart With Me, E.E. Cummings
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).
Because She Would Ask Me Why I Loved Her, Christopher Brennan
Then seek not, sweet, the “If” and “Why”
I love you now until I die.
For I must love because I live
And life in me is what you give.
If Thou Must Love Me (Sonnet 14), Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If thou must love me, let it be for nought
Except for love’s sake only.
Sonnet 116, William Shakespeare
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark…
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Extinguish My Eyes, Rainer Maria Rilke
Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.
Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.
and without feet, I still can come to you,
without a mouth, I still can call your name.
Sever my arms, I will still hold you,
with all my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.
Ahhhhh… I read these, and I want to give up writing because these are genius. But not yet… 🙂 I will have more goodies for you during release week, including excerpts, guest posts, Aiden POV, giveaway announcement (over 1,500 people have entered!!!!) etc. I will be back soon with more. All my love, Ani
Where did the time go? It’s the last day in our countdown! After three years and thirty days, tomorrow, Thirty Nights will be released!! For those of you who have already pre-ordered and are waiting for it to land on your Kindle, Nook, and iPads—thank you for the bottom of my heart. For those of you who have not pre-ordered yet, please give it a shot and see if you like the original Aiden and Elisa. The order links are on my home page. But whether you have ordered or not, I just wanted to say a BIG THANK YOU to everyone who has followed Thirty Nights throughout this journey, who has reviewed and emailed me with your thoughts and encouragement, and who has spread the word! Without you, Thirty Nights may have never happened. It’s as simple as that. Thank you!
Now, today’s goodies:
First, the official Thirty Nights Playlist. Enjoy it on Spotify as you’re reading, and see if you can guess which scenes and chapters go with which song.
Second, a special, exclusive excerpt from one of my favorite Aiden and Elisa scenes. I chose it for the last excerpt because in my mind, this was the true turning point for both of them. And for what each means to the other. Full-on trust, and full-on surrender.
He reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a tiny silver remote. A song I know—one of my favorites—floods the tent. “Amado Mio”, by Pink Martini. It’s flowing from a wireless set of speakers in the corner that I had apparently missed in my astonishment.
“May I have this dance?” he asks, holding his hand out to me.
“You tango?” I squeal. Bloody hell, I’m melting. Inert gases have more substance than I do right now.
My favorite dimple puckers on his cheek. “Since this afternoon.”
“You learned tango…in oneafternoon?” Where is my jaw? It was here somewhere, around the Aeternum.
He chuckles at my incredulous expression. “In the ninety-two minutes it took you to get ready, to be precise.”
When I open and close my mouth a few times, unable to produce sound, he smiles, tapping his temple. “There are some benefits to this beast and YouTube.”
I blink and close my mouth. “That’s just…just…” Brilliant? Stunning? No, I can only think of one word. “That’s just Aiden.”
His chuckle becomes a true laugh as he wraps his arm around my waist, pulling me into a close embrace. He starts moving. At first a slow cadencia, then the caminada, his long legs parting mine. Aiden leads in his dominant, protective way, but the real change is in me. For the first time in my life, tango does for me what tango does for women. I am not a daughter. I am not a sister. I am not a friend. I am a woman. Aiden’s woman. My leg hooks and wraps around his with a new confidence, sultry, feminine and powerful. I watch our entwined shadows on the tent’s curtains, looking very much like Mum and Dad’s when they danced. Yet, in this moment, I’m discovering a new bliss that belongs to me alone. Not to ghosts, and not to memories.
I bury my face in his chest, inhaling the Aiden-and-Aeternum scent.
And last, a small task! To support for Thirty Nights, for those of you who are excited and have been following it in this journey, please change your avatar to the Thirty Nights cover tomorrow for its release, with the French Flag colors to show our support and solidarity for the people of France and the victims. Feel free to download this, and I will circulate on my social media as well. And when you get the book, please don’t forget to leave a review!! 🙂 It makes the difference between a loved book that no one hears about and a loved book we can all share. THANK YOU everyone for all your support, your love, your commitment to this story, and your participation in this amazing journey! I will be back soon, xo Ani
An early morning in my household, as my hubby and I are volunteering at a church today. First, my thoughts and prayers to all the victims and their families in Paris. It’s heartbreaking and I’m giving all my French readers a big hug and comfort. I hope you are all safe, and that you stay strong through this. Lots of love from Portland, Oregon.
Second, to cheer you up a bit, here is one my favorite surprises we’ve prepared for you for Thirty Nights. The Book Trailer!!!!! I love, love, love, love this trailer so much. I hope you like it too. Thank you, Amanda and Samhain Publishing for creating it for me, and for all your hard word on the book! There ‘re only three days left. 🙂 I can’t thank you enough for all the support you’ve given me so far. Have a good Saturday, with all your loved ones and families near and safe!
It’s almost Friday, which means it’s almost the weekend, which means it’s almost November 17!!! I’m not sure how I’m going to sleep at all in the next few nights. But we have some more fun for you. First a little art teaser. :-) And second my first podcast! A little honest to goodness real interview. Derek Diamond at DDE_Podcast. 🙂 It was so much fun to speak with him about Thirty Nights, authors, fan fiction, some new fanficiton authors, and more!! You can listen to it on the DDE_Podcast and I hope you like it!
And here is the TEASER! Enjoy!!!
“So, what did you want to discuss, Mr. Hale?” I ask the question that is buzzing in my brain to prevent myself from tripping while sitting down.
His smile vanishes as he sips his espresso. He sets down his cup and looks at me with probing intensity. “Are you the woman in my paintings?”
Bollocks! The question settles in front of me like a coiled beast. Blood rushes to my feet and my stomach twists. My mouth parts to let in some air. I notice with horror that he has seen all my reactions, which must be confirmation enough. I have to get it together. No matter my flights of fancy, what Javier and I are doing is illegal. I’m a goner already, but Javier could get deported. I have to help him, even if it takes me down.
“Why would you think that?” I try to keep my voice as composed as possible but don’t do a great job of it.
“I’m a man of means, Miss Snow.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Bloody hell, does he know about Javier already?
“It means that if I want something, I will stop at nothing to get it.
Happy Sunday everyone! A day for working in pajamas in my home. We’re in the single-digit days for Thirty Nights—nine more days. That’s it! How can time move so fast and so slow at the same time? You’ll be seeing lots of activity in the next few days: excerpts, trailer, reviews, interviews, etc. Please help me spread the word and make Thirty Nights what we’ve all wanted it to be. And because it’s Sunday, here is a full-length excerpt for you! Enjoy it!
EXCERPT 3: AIDEN’S HOME
An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us…
Suddenly, I know we have entered his domain the way we know spring has arrived. With a feeling in our blood, right before ice starts to melt. The pressure of the altitude muffles my ears until all I hear is my own heartbeat. There are no houses around anymore, only dense evergreens and sky. Aiden takes a sharp left and comes to a stop before a modern iron gate. He slides his palm over a pad in a stainless steel monitor. The gates open.
I expect to see a house, but no. An endless hide-and-seek driveway undulates before us, framed by tall oaks and cedars. On the right, in a green clearing, is a paved, smooth circle. It takes a few blinks to realize it’s a helipad.
At last, as though part of nature, a stately house materializes among the trees. Except, the word house is too artificial. This is almost an extension of the primordial forest. Everything about it, from the red cedar wood panels to the charcoal slate, the gray riverbed rocks and the airy spatial windows, is organic. The modern minimalist lines curve around nature rather than bending nature to their will.
Aiden chuckles next to me, and I close my gaping mouth. “It’s beautiful here,” I say.
“It’s getting better.” He smiles, and gets out of the car to open my door. The moment I’m out, he takes my hand again and presses his lips to my hair. I lean into him, sniffing his Aiden scent surreptitiously. I should figure out a way to bottle this.
At the double front doors, he slides his palm over another pad. The doors open into a cream-and-slate foyer. The moment we step inside, lights brighten almost imperceptibly. I blink once and everything is back to normal. Hmm, maybe I imagined it.
Aiden leads me by my waist to a palatial living room. As we cross the threshold, the lights brighten and dim again, blinking fast. I turn to ask him, but he shakes his head. I tuck this away as a world perched between earth and sky surrounds me.
Straight ahead, Mount Hood is almost touchable. Refracting sunrays are my only clue that a back wall separates us, made entirely of glass. I blink, recalling Denton’s lecture on glass optical qualities. This must be the highest—nearly invisible.
Everything from the open-flame riverbed rock fireplace to the barstools in a kitchen the size of Feign Art is bespoke and chic. All light gray and cream, except the chestnut wooden floor and the oversized salvaged oak coffee table. Colors of rivers and forests. Abstract, understated art, none of it my paintings. There is something peaceful about the stunning natural décor.
Yet my first thought is…not loneliness. The controlled minimalism is too intentional for that. Isolation. That’s what it is. I look for signs of the inner Aiden. There are some books stacked on the coffee table. The Brothers Karamazov—one of my favorites, Byron’s Poems, The Things They Carried. Redemption, passion, guilt, war. And poetry. Aiden Hale has soul.
My eyes drift to a shiny black piano, tucked by the glass wall. My breath catches a little at the sight. Not because it’s a rare Bösendorfer. But because on it, is the most astonishing arrangement of flowers I have ever seen. They’re not in a vase—they’re in a low crystal terrarium, like a secret garden. I walk to it in a trance, sensing Aiden’s body heat behind me.
And there, rising over green moss, is a single bloom of probably every flower genus they sell in Portland. Hyacinth, orchid, gardenia, peony, amaryllis, calla lily, rose…
“I didn’t know which one was your favorite.” Aiden’s warm breath tickles my cheek. It’s just air—his air—but my knees start wobbling. He pulls me against his front, his lips fluttering over my jawline to my ear.
“So?” he whispers.
“Favorite flower?” He kisses the soft spot behind my ear. I shiver.
He chuckles and pulls away. “Maybe it’s too soon to combine thinking with kissing.”
I flush the color of the amaryllis. “Roses,” I breathe.
He raises an eyebrow. “Roses?” There is a hint of humor in his voice.
“What’s wrong with roses?”
“Nothing. It’s just such a common choice for such an uncommon woman.”
Good morning everyone, and Happy Day 11 in the countdown: It has been a week of great news in my world: First, Aestas Book Blog — yes, that Aestas, the Goddess of all Books–picked up Thirty nights in her to-be-read list. **Super-squeeeeeeeal** Second, I got my author copies in the mail!!!! There is no feeling like it in the world. Especially after a 15-hour long day at work. I can’t stop staring at them. And third, I did a guest post on NYT Bestselling Author and USA Today’s Bestselling Author, Delilah Devlin’s blog. I was a little star-struck for the whole process, but at least I managed to string two words together. 🙂 Please read it here, and let me know what you think. You’ll see one of your favorite excerpts there too. 🙂
ANI KEATING: From Fanfiction to Published Author—Five Things I Learned in the Process
When Delilah invited me to post on her blog, my first reaction was a fangirl squeal. My second reaction was a Carlton dance. And my third reaction was a complete, paralyzing writer’s block, which continued until last night. How the hell do I choose what to write on Delilah’s blog? This is Delilah! Everyone has been in bed with her, and I’m just popping my publishing cherry!! Oh, the stress.
But I have a generally-calm, down-to-earth, hold-your-hand-through-hell hubby who said, “That’s what you write about. Popping your cherry.” And he was right. With my first book only eleven days away, I haven’t taken a full moment to pause and articulate what I learned in this amazing process. It started out as a small story on Fanfiction, then it grew on my blog, and now, finally, it’s hitting the stands. It has been a beautiful whirlwind, filled with lessons. And because I’m a list person (blame my legal job), here are the top five:
Good morning, and happy Day 14 to #thirtynights!! Two weeks! Two weeks! The whole apartment building has been listening to me screaming that, and they’re all sure our apartment is actually a padded, rubber room. Oh well! I have a couple of goodies for you today:
The second full-length excerpt for Thirty Nights.
A schedule of all the blogs that will be featuring Thirty Nights excerpts from November 2 to November 8. Go and check them out and find out about some new releases as well.
I hope you enjoy them! And since we are getting so close, I’d love to ask for your help with spreading the word! You guys made this possible the first time around with telling your friends, posting on your media, etc. Please, please, please do the same now so that Thrity Nights can have a good shot on the stands and everyone can meet the same characters we’ve loved for a while. 🙂 And feel free to send me links to your posts and I’ll circulate them too. THANK YOU everyone! xo
And now the Excerpt. This is my favorite Aiden Moment. Ever.
EXCERPT 2: FIRST KISS
He steps inside. I think he’s trying to calm himself but it’s hard to tell with the smoke coming out of his ears. He runs a hand over his hair. What the devil is wrong with him? He takes one deep breath and explodes.
“Are you so above the rest, Miss Snow, that you will not deign to attend even your graduation from the institution that has granted you its highest academic honor? Or is this how little your own life means to you?” He speaks through gritted teeth.
Oh, bollocks! How did he find out, and why does he care? Be strong, Isa. “I’m sorry, but that’s none of your business.” I ignore his second question. Something about it makes me recoil.
He looks at me like I just insulted his mother. Honestly, I think I see fire from his nostrils. “None of my fucking business? Is that your answer?” Still gritted teeth, which I suppose is better than fangs.
“Yes, that’s my answer.” I stay calm, hoping some of it will rub off on him. No such luck.
“Over three thousand people watched President Campbell announce Miss Elisa Cecilia Snow, valedictorianin absentia, and a full minute of silence fell over the crowd, and you say it’s none of my fucking business?” He is spitting fire.
Damn it! Why would President Campbell announce it? I emailed the traitor. Well, one thing at a time. The Dragon first. “No, I didn’t say fucking business. I said simply business.”
He looks at me with flared nostrils and roars, his fists hanging down.
“What is wrong with you?”
Oh, this is rich. He is morphing into a Tolkien creature and I’m the freak? I am usually a calm, rational agent. It’s probably not apparent based on this last week, but I am. But right now, with my newly shaved legs and my lacy knickers on, after practicing his name all day in front of a stupid fan, I want to scratch his eyes out.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, Mr. Hale. However, based on your behavior these last two days, may I suggest the very real possibility that there is something seriously wrong with you? I strongly recommend that you visit a psychiatrist, sir, and soon, before you become a menace on the streets of Portland and incinerate us all for exercising our right as free human beings to go wherever we bloody well please,” I hiss, feeling a kindred spirit with Medusa because he has turned to stone.
Before I can draw a breath, he takes the two steps between us and his mouth closes in on mine, his hands like a vise around my face.
The force of his kiss slams me against the wall and makes me gasp. His lips mold with mine, and his tongue is dancing inside my mouth. My knees shake a little. As if he knows, one of his hands leaves my face, trails down my body and rests at the small of my back, arching me against him and supporting all my weight. I move my tongue shyly around his. I taste cinnamon and something else, something Aiden. My blood ignites, and another gasp escapes me. At the sound, he presses his hips against me, and his long fingers reach into my hair. He pulls my head back until my mouth opens wider. Our tongues move together, and his anger changes to desperation and then to a slower rhythm that I can follow. Of their own accord, my arms reach up around his neck and my fingers knot in his hair. He tenses, so I try to let go but he draws me closer until there is no more space left. I feel every line of his body against mine. His teeth graze my bottom lip. It takes me a moment to realize that the moan I hear is coming from me. He pulls away, his breathing harsh and labored.
“Impossible woman,” he growls.
I open my eyes. His sapphire depths are blazing. Without his arm supporting me, my knees go back to shaky and weak. Then it dawns on me. Bloody hell, I’ve just been kissed by Aiden Hale! And what a kiss it was. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have much experience with such things, but I am willing to bet my supplement’s formula that no girl, anywhere, has been kissed like this. I pinch myself discreetly to make sure I’m awake. Yes, it was real. My lips are tingling.
“Are you ready to go?” he asks, his breathing now back in control. Apparently, we are not going to talk about it. That’s good. What if his next words end this? And what is there to say regardless? By some miracle, he wants me at some level, and I want him at all levels. That’s good enough for now. Good enough for forever for someone like me.
Happy post-Halloween Sunday! Hope everyone has recovered from the candy. I have not. Ate one too many Twix bars… then tried to convince myself that eating bread and cheese would counteract the sugar… BAD idea! Note to self: if your stomach is hurting from too much food, the answer is not more food.
Anyway, as promised, and because Sunday used to be posting day for Thirty Nights when it was just a seedling, I thought I’d give you the first full-length excerpt today. Meeting Aiden Hale. Enjoy! (30N Pros: do you see the differences?) Be back with more. xo, Ani
EXCERPT 1: MEETING AIDEN HALE
A tall man, dressed in a tailored charcoal suit, white shirt and cobalt-blue tie, is standing a few feet from the gallery desk, scrutinizing a painting. His dark brown hair is swept back in casual waves. His eyes burn an intense sapphire blue. On the corner of his right eye is an inch-long scar, bleached by time. Beautiful in its savagery. Like something sharp could not resist his beauty but ricocheted at the last minute, desperate to mark him as its own, yet unable to defile him.
Attractive. Much, much too attractive. In fact, only someone so bewildering could reach me in this final hour. For a wild second, I wonder whether my brain has snapped and has created him, like a hallucination, to get me through the next thirty-seven days alive.
Despite his magnetic pull, something about his posture creates a force field around him. Untouchable. Distant. He stands straight, away from everything, his back angled toward the wall. His broad shoulders are tense, as though he senses an invisible, uninvited presence behind him. I scan the gallery, expecting to see something or someone other than Kasia. But it’s utterly empty, except a tall man, the size of Shaquille O’Neal, standing in the far corner like a security guard.
“Would you like something to drink, Mr. Hale?” Kasia simpers, her voice higher than usual. She sounds like she is faking a British accent. I snort.
“No, thank you,” he answers coldly, continuing to stare at the painting in front of him.
I follow his gaze and stop. I feel a twinge of satisfaction to see that he is looking at a painting of me. Not that he would know that. I never model my face, just random parts of my body. This painting portrays only the curve of my throat and jawline, my hair slightly swept back, exposing the skin. The rest of the canvas recedes into darkness. That’s Javier’s style—he never paints blatantly erotic things like breasts, arse, pubic hair. That’s not the point, he says. The point is to force the viewer to imagine the rest of the beauty. Good thing too. I couldn’t have posed naked for anyone, especially Javier. Today, we are painting my waist and left hipbone, but I have a long white sheet to cover the rest of me.
“We could probably have that painting done in color as well.” Kasia is melting. “But the artist feels that the black, white and gray colors allow the real beauty to shine through.”
He does not respond to her. I feel a tiny bit of sympathy for Kasia now. Really, anyone would be a mess. I need to leave, but suddenly I want to hear his voice again. It’s cold and cutting, as if every word is intended to crack a canyon between him and the world. But it’s also hypnotic. Like you would do anything it bid you to do.
My short-lived sympathy evaporates like smoke when Kasia turns to me with a raised eyebrow.
“Isa! Why are you standing there? You know Brett’s instructions. Cleaning ladies in the back.” She cocks her head to the side, pointing to the back door that leads to Javier’s secret studio.
Fuck off, Kasia. I start to walk away but Mr. Hale turns to see what has offended Kasia. He moves with paradoxical military grace. Fluid, yet erect. As if he expects to defend himself at any point but is confident about the outcome. He regards me intently, his eyes narrowing slightly at the corners. There is something endless about his eyes—like you enter through them and perhaps never come out. For a moment, I panic that he can see a similarity between me and the woman in the painting. That he knows it’s me.
But I recover quickly. There is nothing in the painting that can link its subject to me. That’s Javier’s point. That the woman on the canvas can be any woman, any fantasy, any emotion because only a small, unidentifiable part of her is exposed. Mr. Hale’s impassive face confirms Javier’s genius. He turns to Kasia and his voice is, impossibly, colder.
“I will purchase the painting. Is it part of a series?”
Kasia fumbles as she takes his credit card and hands him the purchase agreement. She blushes and stammers and finally manages, “Umm, no—I mean, yes. Yes, it is. The one you’re purchasing is the first. The artist is working on the final, and there are three others in the back. Would you like to see them?”
I know the other paintings. One is of my right shoulder and collarbone. The other one is just my belly. The last one is my left leg, knee down, standing on tiptoe.
“With the same model?” Mr. Hale asks.
“Yes—er, I mean, technically no. The artist says the model is not real, Mr. Hale. He imagined her.”
He does not speak. For an instant, I feel like I’m fading. Like I truly don’t exist here anymore. Adrenaline spikes in my blood and I have a compulsive urge to throw myself between them and say, It’s me! I’m the girl you want!
His voice whips through the air again. “I will buy them.”
Instantly, I feel the first warmth of the day. He kept me. I may be gone in a month but at least some parts of me are ending up on the wall of an earthly Adonis.
“I’ll call you when the final painting is finished, Mr. Hale,” Kasia gushes. She would have an easier time lifting the Portland Memorial Coliseum with her pinky than getting a reaction from him.
He starts reading the purchase agreement, and I get the feeling he is simply avoiding looking at her. “Double the price if it is finished by the weekend.”
Kasia’s mouth pops open. So does mine. Feign sells those paintings for $10,000 apiece. Of course, Javier gets only $400 and gives me $50. Who buys art without looking at it? At regular price, let alone double? Mr. Hale is now poring over the care guarantee agreement. Frustrated with his indifference, Kasia takes it out on me.
From my peripheral vision, I see his head whip up but I scuttle away to where Javier is waiting, not daring to look at the cold stranger.
I hope you’ve got your best, scariest, most dangerous face on, and all your ghosts, ghouls, and goblins are happily hovering around the candy. In our little apartment, hubby has already started to dig in the bowl full of Twix and Starburst. If there is any left by the time the kiddos get here, it will be a miracle. If not, I’m not sure what my exit strategy is when his sugar high hits. I may or may not be spending Halloween night at the motel down the street. 🙂 Anyway, I have a nice surprise for you tomorrow (I hope), but before then, here is a hint of the darker side of Thirty Nights. Coming in only 17 days. And great work entering the raffle: one of you better win that Tiffany’s necklace. Talk to you soon. xo, Ani
Good morning everyone! I took a little break for Day 20, mostly because of a 12-hour day writing briefs at work. 🙂 But I can’t go more than 24 hours without a little bit of Aiden, so this one is as much for me as it is for you. Because I freaking love this photo. And this line. You’ll know that this relates to Aiden’s eidetic memory, or total recall. But I bet you don’t remember the line because it’s from a brand-new scene. Hope you like it! Day 19 almost gone. #ThirtyNights is around the corner. Please spread the word and use the hashtag. Love you all, xo – Ani
Happy Sunday everyone! Hope you’re all having a quiet, relaxing day. Mine is filled with laundry and waiting like crazy for the new Homeland episode tonight. #LetQuinnSurvive. In the meantime, here is another teaser for you. 23 days left toThirty Nights! Spread the word and don’t forget to register for the giveaway. Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for this story. xo, Ani
Welcome back and thank you for your general awesomeness. My geekery will show if I say that the last chapter was one of my favorite Elisa moments. So a million thanks to those of you who supported her in that landmark moment. 🙂
For this new chapter, a lot of you have been waiting for a while (wow, that sounded like Yoda!). There is a section here you have seen before – hopefully, now that you will see it in context, the puzzle pieces will fit. Also, please listen to the song because in this case, the song is part of the chapter. 🙂 Oh, and check out Aiden’s letters in his own handwriting (or at least the only nongirly font I had available) on the side bar menu.
And a special thanks to those who are always there to help from British culture (Ariadne) to reviews to typos – it’s hard to list all the names or I will go on forever or worse, forget someone and torture myself while watching Game of Thrones (as if the show doesn’t tear your guts out enough). 🙂 Love you all! Link, song, Pinterest below. Also, we have some wonderful writers among our readers here: check out Wattle on Fanfiction, Sasha Cameron, BG Holmes, Nanette Virden, Candiefloss on Fanfiction, and Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps on Fanfiction and her Tmblr page! I’m still discovering others in my three minutes of reading per day. 🙂 Love – Ani
I promised to get you this chapter quickly because of the cliffhanger. Cliffhangers are not really my style – I just didn’t know where else to leave the last chapter. But hopefully, a quick update fixes that. NOTE about this chapter: AFTER you read it, you may want to consult the new pages on the side bar menu under Elisa’s Pedigree. You will need them going forward.
A big thank you to everyone who commented in the last chapter, along with everyone who reads and follows. As of now, this little blog has exceeded 1,000 followers!!!! And it’s all because of your word of mouth. So thank you for spreading the word. Please help me make Thirty Nights and Ninety Days as dear to others as it has become to you. 🙂 So for every time you have read, told someone about it, and sat down to drop me a note, thank you. A special hug to Ariadne for her guidance on British things and to my friends “S” and Arilee for always being a good soundboard.
The title of this chapter “Sub Rosa Reviresco” has a special meaning to Elisa, as you will see. It means “Under the Rose, I reflourish.” Finally, the Blue Roses Poem below is important to this chapter so you may want to refer to it as you read the chapter (or before). Link and song below. Pinterest will be uploaded soon, so as not to spoil it for those who will see my postings through my FB page.
Thank you so much for the outpouring of support at the last chapter. I loved hearing all your theories, and have posted a lot of the answers to your questions on my FB page for efficiency but will add them to a list here on the side menu as soon as I have a minute. And THANK YOU for all your comments and theories and guesses – there’s nothing better for a wanna-be writer than to hear from her readers in real time.
A special thanks and gratitude to Ariadne for British-proofing this chapter, Mr. Plemmons’ mannerisms, and all her advice on Snowshill and all things British. I have the “best of British” luck in meeting her. One day, I hope she will write a book of her own.
A kiss and hug from anyone who lives in Snowshill for letting me take liberties with your beautiful town. 🙂
This chapter is dedicated to two readers who have followed my journey from the beginning and who both suffered tragedy this week: To S’s mom – may you rest in peace and may your soul shine like phosphorus. To Purpleale – there is a bright road ahead, I know it!
Link, song, and Pinterest below 🙂
“Let there be light” – Elisa Snow Phosphorus Sand – this picture is real!
Here we go! Told you I’d be updating more frequently. 🙂 The sequel is in full flow now. Chapter 3’s link is below (or under the 90 Days tab), along with the song and the new Pinterest goodies (can you tell I am learning how to make Pinterest quotes? I’m going crazy with that stuff – it’s addictive!!) Thank you to everyone who read and commented on the last chapter. I know you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to review and I am so indebted to everyone who takes the time to drop me a word, no matter what you have to say. I read all of them (sometimes many times 🙂 – okay, my crazy is showing).
And last but not least, thank you to Ariadne for all things British, from giving me the correct radio station to giving me tips on the real Snowshill (and to even agreeing to help me with British slang). This lady needs to be a paid editor but until then, I am just fortunate that she came across my story and tolerates my incessant questions. Thank you also to Wendy for suggesting the song for this chapter – you are right: it is absolutely precious and the words are exactly what Peter and Clare would have said to Aiden. 🙂
I wanted to wish all of you Merry Christmas, the happiest of holidays, and a healthy, lucky, sexy, and loving New Year’s! I was going to write about how special you have made 2013 for me, by following Thirty Nights from its very first chapter to its current journey through publishing houses. I wanted to thank you for all your faith, support, and thousands and thousands of messages, comments, reviews, cards, and notes you have sent me. But if I did that, I would go on forever. So instead, I will say simply a BIG THANK YOU and give you what you like! Some more writing. 🙂 Over the last several months, so many of you have asked for this scene. It is set before Thirty Nights starts, and I thought it was the most appropriate to post today, on Christmas Eve. Not only to use it as a scene for hope and love for all of you, but also in a moment of self-indulgence because this scene is very close to my heart. Some of you know that Javier was partly inspired by my own brother. Well, this last week, I learned that the American Embassy didn’t give my brother a visa to come spend Christmas with me. So, this is for the apple of my eye, “Andrew,” as well as for all you who have been my muses in this process. Oh, and don’t panic. Aiden POV will return soon, too. I’m just trying to upgrade the website to include more of his chapters. THANK YOU EVERYONE!! HAPPY HOLIDAYS AND SEE YOU IN THE NEW YEAR (my hubby is dragging me to Seattle for a family get-together). All my love, xoxo, Ani
My mother, Maria, has been waking me up this way since July 2, 1994. New day, new life, she said. I remember her with a four-year old’s eyes. Tall, even though she is only five foot two. Plump, because she was wearing three wool sweaters—yes, in July. Happy, because she was smiling. Strong, because she was carrying two black, duffel bags full of our clothes. And right, because she was my mother. New day, new life, she said. She put me in three sweaters, too, and a coat. She gave me my Optimus Prime transformer that my father had sent me all the way from Oregon, America, and took my hand. Vamos a ver a tu papá. Vamos a América, she smiled. I followed her with a four-year old’s steps. Small, quick, and trusting—rushing to keep up with the rest of the world.
“Javier, ándale,” her voice drifts from our tiny, American kitchen, with the same urgency, the same faith as it held fourteen years ago. But unlike fourteen years ago, I am already awake, even though it’s only 4:30 a.m. Still, I let her believe she is waking me up because she likes that. My mother is nothing if she is not the first face her children see in the morning and the last they see at night.
“Okay, okay, I’m up,” I say, my voice still thick from sleep. The house is quiet except Maria’s soft footsteps on the linoleum floor. My father, Antonio, already left for work to build The Nines Hotel downtown Portland. My sisters are asleep. I look at the small Christmas tree in the corner, covered in tinsel and pink lights. No presents there yet. But the stockings hanging on the coat rack are stuffed, most likely with Maria’s knitted socks and gloves. I bet mine will be navy again this year.
I get out of our couch—that’s my bed. No, no, don’t feel bad for me. This sleeping arrangement is by choice because I have converted my bedroom into a painting studio. More about that later. I fold my comforter and sheets, and stuff them in the matchbox closet in our hallway where they will stay until around ten tonight, when I get back from work. Why 10:00 p.m.? Because my boss is letting me out early. Merry Christmas Eve, America!
I shuffle down the hall to the bathroom, stepping on two dolls and a pacifier, and nearly breaking my neck over a soccer ball. My sisters’ toys. Four sisters now. Anamelia just joined us two months ago. It was almost fun until I realized where babies come from. Then I went through a phase of throwing up in my mouth every time I saw my mother pregnant. But I grew out of it. Now, I just blame the five of us on my parents’ love for each other—the love that conquered time, distance, and illegal immigration—but I also know there is a little bit of good ole’ Catholicism in there, too. As faithful Mexican immigrants, we go forth and multiply, filling America’s schools, streets, buses, and homes with American citizens. So they can have the life that we came here to find. The American dream could be an ad for aphrodisiacs. Save an oyster, find America! Neuvo dia, nueva vida.
In the bathroom, I curse my stubble to the deepest pits of Mexico. It grows like fungus after rain. The painter in me wants to grow it out Van Gogh style but Antonio believes in three rules that make a man: a clean-shaven face, a good woman, and a back-breaking job. I am two out of three. I’ve been growing a beard since I was eleven. I’ve been working not one, but two, back-breaking jobs since I was fifteen. As for the good woman . . . well, I’ll just paint her. See, it puts a real damper on dating style when you are eighteen and living with your parents.
Hello Miss American Pie, my name is Harvey Sellers. No, not really, but I can’t tell you my real name because I am a criminal by your laws. In fact, your peeps call me illegal. I’d like to take you out to dinner somewhere on a hilltop, if my Honda Civic makes it that far. But it has to be around eleven because that’s when I get out of work. Is that too late for dinner? I promise to pack my mother’s carnitas . . . or salad, whichever you prefer. Once there, we can dance. Do you tango? Vertical? Horizontal? And at the end of the date, I’ll drop you off. I won’t give you my phone number because you may know Immigration and Customs Enforcement police . . . you know, ICE men. So how about that date, Miss?
And that is why I, Javier Solis, do not have a girlfriend.
I slap my newly-shaved face, now softer than Anamelia’s bottom after a new diaper, and start putting on my work clothes. We’re supposed to get an ice storm today. Lucky for me as a landscaper, ice storms are rare in Portland, Oregon. But when they come, they turn the world upside down. See, Portlanders have no fucking clue what to do with snow. They usually walk around like dingbats, calling off school and public transportation, wearing sleeping bags with holes for legs and arms, and discussing the merits of global warming. As a native Mexican with the word Sun for a last name, I would join them wholeheartedly. But Boss pays extra on ice storms, which means they’re better than sunny days.
I put on my long underwear—sexy. Then jeans—hot. Then my work coveralls—even sexier. Repeat the process with three layers up top. Steel toed boots? Check. A man needs toes. Ear muffs? For sure. A man needs ears, too. Coat? Two, please. They’re out in the foyer. Actually, foyer is what Maria calls it. In reality, it’s a two-by-two space cluttered with the girls’ shoes.
I come out of the bathroom, sweating bullets. I can smell Maria’s fried eggs and potatoes so I sprint to the kitchen. She smiles when she sees me, her chocolate eyes twinkling like the Christmas tree. In five seconds, she will hug me, bless me, and ask about my work schedule even though it’s the same every day. Five, four, three, two, one.
“Bendito, hijo, bendito,” she says, marking a cross over my forehead. Then she slides three eggs and a mountain of hash browns on a plate with reindeers—one dollar, ninety-nine cents at TJ Maxx, a present from Antonio two Christmases ago. I sit at the kitchen table and dig in. Maria pats my cheek.
“You growing. You need new jeans, hijo.” She smiles but in her voice, I sense the hesitation of math. She is adding up the dollars in our checking account.
“Not really. You know me, I’m a kilt guy,” I say because that will make her laugh. She does and for a moment, I sense an echo of the four-year old boy. That boy is long gone but there are some moments—rare, Christmas-Eve moments—when Maria’s laughter turns back time to Optimus Prime transformers, hot July days, trips to America, and a mother’s guiding hand. Nuevo dia, nueva vida.
“So what is Boss having you do today?” Maria asks in English. She always asks this question in English, as though to emphasize its importance.
“Going over to Reed College. Gotta treat the rhododendrons around campus. Then off to Feign Art. Someone ordered a replica of that Pursuit of Happiness series I did last year and I have to finish it by January third.”
“Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice,” Maria says, patting my arm. I know her pats by now. On the cheek to say hello or I love you, on the head to say behave, and on the arm to say maybe later. She reserves this latter pat for my “art talks.” She and Antonio know that if we really want to talk American dreams, mine would be to have my own gallery, paint the land I see versus the land I want, and of course, collect money from it. And they think that’s as impractical as a man can get. Pointless concern because as an illegal, I could never own or operate a gallery. So instead, I settle for ghost-painting for Brett Feign who sells my work under his name and gives me about a fiftieth of what he makes. Fair? No. Acceptable? Yes. It puts food on the table and I get to do what I love. Not many have that luxury. Not even Americans.
“How much is Feign paying for the paintings this time?” Maria asks.
“Same as always. Two hundred bucks a pop. There’re five of them though so that’s good.”
Her face softens and she pats my cheek. “Buen hijo,” she says. A good son. “Someday, you will not have to work so much.”
She speaks the words with a far-away look, as though that is the only aspiration, the holy promise. Because it is. She pats my cheek again, takes my plate, and walks over to the sink.
I watch her straight back. It breaks too, under loads of laundry, bending to clean, wipe, sweep, and mop Portland’s hotels. Still, on any given day, life is better here. Or if not life, the dream of life. Somehow it feels closer, graspable, or at least more vivid on this side of the border. I suppose, in the end, a vivid dream is better than a blurry dream, even if it never becomes reality.
I still have a few minutes before six o’ clock, but suddenly, the promise of Nuevo dia, nueva vida, rings both loud and mute. I stand to leave. Maria turns around and wipes her hands with a kitchen towel, covered with snowmen. Two dollars, ninety nine cents at Crate and Barrel. A present from me four Christmases ago. Maria is nuts about Crate and Barrel. Which is why this year, I’m getting her stocking-shaped mugs, in addition to a painting of her and Antonio.
“You leaving already? You still have a few minutes,” she looks at the cuckoo clock on the kitchen wall.
“I know. I want to drive slow. Ice and all.”
She blanches at the word ICE.
“I meant real ice, Mom. It’s okay.”
I walk over to her and give her a hug. The word ICE in our house is the same as the word muerte. It is never said unless it happens. Damn the genius who named immigration police ICE. What the hell are we supposed to call real ice without causing heart attacks for our parents?
“How about we call it Aspirin from now on?” I say.
Maria’s color returns. Almost. “Aspirin?” she smiles.
“Sure. Aspirin is supposed to prevent heart attacks.”
She laughs and pats my cheek. “Ah, sí. Okay. Aspirin.”
“I love you,” I say, and kiss her hair.
“I love you, too,” she answers in English.
I put on my two coats, pick up my packed lunch, and go out to brave the Portland Aspirin storm.
By 11:30 a.m., I have snowballs instead of testicles. Reed College has more rhododendrons than ICE has cops on the Mexico border. Why the fuck does any college need so many rhododendrons? Oh right, the college that gave us Steve Jobs, Wikipedia, the CD, and who knows what else. I usually keep my eyes on the ground and away from the brainiacs that attend this school but the truth is I have crashed a couple of their art lectures while pretending to take out the trash. I even wrote down their syllabus and have been saving for the books. At my rate, I will have a better chance at buying them one chapter at a time . . . and should have them all when I turn sixty. Awesome! I continue covering the rhododendrons with plastic bags and spraying them with anti-freeze, whistling Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time.”
“Umm… hello?” A soft voice, almost a windy whisper, interrupts me right at “you’ll know it’s me when I come through your town.” I look up. And man though I am, I gasp. Airless, I have a sudden urge to cross myself.
A few steps from me, is a . . . girl. I think. But the word does not fit her. She is almost transparent, as though she lacks substance, not form. She is tiny, no taller than five foot four. Her skin is pale, almost like onion skin. It stretches over her prominent cheeks and upturned nose like the edges of her bones are about to break through the delicate film. Her lips are white, chapped, and slightly parted as though she is barely drawing breath. Her hair is long, past her waist, and almost black. It is thin, and I suppose at some point, it must have been wavy. It blows in the wind behind her like a sigil—dark and ominous as the flag death would carry if it were in the habit of announcing itself.
Standing out above and beyond the haunting sight, are the girl’s eyes. They are an astonishing color. A deep orchid purple, almost indigo blue. I have studied human eyes and colors for my art but I have never seen eyes like this. They are large, too big for her drawn face. Long, black lashes frame them but she blinks very little. The lashes flutter in the wind, too, like feathers. I watch her eyes closely, wondering if she is wearing lenses. She is not. Her eyes are real. Yet despite their vibrancy, they remind me of a hearth after the fire has gone out. No embers glowing, no warmth. Only ash. Like her hair, her eyes must have had some life in them but whatever specter has hollowed her, has extinguished them, too.
I tear my eyes from her face and look at the rest of her. She is wearing a man’s coat, too large for her. It’s a dark brown tweed, the sleeves rolled a few times to expose her frail hands, locked together. The coat falls to her shins. She has a dark green man’s scarf wrapped around her neck. Under the coat, she is wearing a pair of black slacks. On her feet, some black pumps that look like they belong on a mother, not on a teenage girl. Her feet shift on the frozen lawn. It’s not until I see that slight movement that I realize why the word girl does not fit her. She is not a girl. She is a ghost.
I look back at her face. She swallows once and flinches as if the act caused her pain. She looks at the anti-freeze spray bottle and then back at me. Her shoulders are hunched and another word pops in my head. Waif. She has that aura of an abandoned child, even though she is probably about eighteen years old. I try to say something —anything—but cannot. There was beauty in this girl once. The kind of beauty you paint, immortalize. A beauty underneath, between reality and imagination. A painter knows a pretty woman at first sight, and a beautiful woman at the thousandth. The Mona Lisa’s, the Simonetta’s, the Dora Maar’s. The muses. What could destroy that type of beauty with such vengeance? Why?
“I . . . I can help . . . help you with the rhododendrons?” she whispers again. Now I realize that, in fact, she is not whispering; she is talking. Whatever evil drained her beauty, muted her voice, too. But quiet though her words are, I notice a British accent in them.
She waits with an empty dread in her eyes, like she is afraid I am going to say no. Maybe she is crazy. As in true mental illness. I watch her under this new theory. She blinks once and looks at the rhododendrons again like they may hold the answer on how to weird out innocent landscapers. Yes, ill. Ill describes her. But not dangerous, no. Just . . . hurting. I open and close my mouth a few times, blink for the both of us, and find some words.
“Hey, there. Ah, you don’t need to help me. I got this. Uh, is there anything I can help you with?” Some food maybe? Or gloves? Or rocks in your pockets so you don’t blow away in the wind?
The moment she hears my “no” she flinches again and her chest rises as if she is trying to breathe. “Umm . . . you can help me if you let me help you,” she whispers.
What the hell does that mean? Oh, that if I let her help me, it will in turn help her? How on Oregon’s green forests will that happen? This girl needs to be in bed, hooked up to some IV or something. Not out in an Aspirin storm, treating shrubbery.
I shake my head. “Honestly, I think you should go home. It’s getting bad out here. Just go be warm or eat or something. I’m almost finished here.”
At the word home, she closes her eyes briefly, then opens them, looking at the rhododendrons in panic. “But . . . but . . . But if you cover their roots with leaves, it will be better for them. And the spray you are using is not effective. It doesn’t have a surfactant ingredient listed on the bottle, and it won’t help. If you want, I can show you how to make one that will help,” she whispers urgently. “Please?”
Okay. Either this girl has some serious, tree hugger kind of obsession with rhododendrons, or she invents anti-freeze and is trying to dupe me into buying some, or she is downright nuts. Besides, I know what I am doing with the shrubs.
“Look, ah . . . what’s your name?”
“Elisa. Elisa Snow,” her whisper drops so low that I have to lean in to catch her words. She almost mouths her last name as if her vocal chords cannot support the sound.
“Right. Okay, Elisa. My name is Harvey. Are you feeling . . . you know, okay and all?”
She nods slowly in a way that could mean only “no.” Some strange current starts to crawl and zap in my chest the same way it does when Maria is crying or one of the girls gets picked on at school.
“You don’t seem okay,” I push.
She steps back, looks at the rhododendrons one last time, inclines her head at me once, and turns to leave. Maybe she accepted defeat with the stupid shrubs, or perhaps gave it up in exchange for her silence to my question. Before I know what I am doing, I run after her.
“Hey, hey! Elisa?” I call, but she tries to walk faster. I catch up to her in about three steps and a half. “Hey, don’t run. I thought you wanted to help me out?” I say, keeping my voice casual like I do when I tease my sisters. Maybe this way, she will tell me what’s wrong with her. I don’t know why it’s suddenly so important for me to know, but it is.
She looks at me, and blinks twice—a record for her. “You’d let me help you?” she asks.
“Well, yeah, sure. As long as you tell me why you’re so upset.” I meant to make it sound like a negotiation but instead, it came out as a question.
She dissects my face, with a thinker’s look. A flash of intelligence gleams in her empty eyes. “And you will let me help you until you are all done?”
She looks around. What could be so momentous about telling someone why she’s upset. Oh shit, maybe it’s a crime? No, she doesn’t look like a criminal. No, this is something painful. I know that. That’s why I’m standing here like a dude’s Christmas tree: stiff, dead from the root up, and with a pair of snowballs.
“So, what do you say? A secret in exchange for hard labor?” I offer. I hoped to make her smile but she doesn’t. Perhaps she does not remember how. Or maybe my joke was not that funny. Still, for some nutjob reason, I keep going.
“I promise to make the labor really hard if that helps? You can do all the rhodies by yourself even. And you can show me what the deal is with anti-freeze and the surf-whatever.”
She looks up at me. For an instant, a shadow of life flits in her eyes, almost like recognition or trust. To my utter astonishment, she nods only once.
“Yeah? Deal?” I ask, unsure that a nod really is a nod with this girl.
“Deal,” she whispers.
I smile and wait in what I think is a very nice-guy, encouraging stance. Elisa locks her hands together tightly, as if she is looking for something to grip. Yes, my chest is definitely acting up. She is so fragile and the pain in her eyes so acute that, of its own volition, my hand extends toward her.
“You can hold on to me, if you want,” I say. If any dude anywhere has had a weirder conversation with a woman, I’ll give ICE my real name.
She stares at my open hand in that blinkless way of hers. I am about to withdraw it when her fingers relax a fraction. I hold my palm closer to her, like one might when offering a hazelnut to a wounded, trembling squirrel.
She extends her hand to me slowly. It shakes like the last leaves on Reed’s oaks. The weird crawl in my chest creeps up in my throat, changing into an ache I have never felt about a stranger. Something about her trust is transformative, like that right ray of light that makes the canvass a window, not a frame.
At last, her small hand rests on mine. Her fingers are icicles, brittle and frail. I wrap my hand around hers gently, afraid that if I shake it, it will shatter into a million crystals. She closes her fingers around mine. They are weightless, almost a caress, not a grip. Still, the touch must do something for her because she looks up at me.
“Thank you,” she mouths.
“Sure. See? Not that hard. Now, all this shrubbery is yours for the treating, just tell me what’s wrong.”
Her fingers tighten slightly on mine. I wait for a long time. At least a long time by an hourly worker’s standards. “You know, those rhodies will freeze by the time we’re done here.”
That does it. Yep, definitely a rhododendron hugger. Her lips move slowly as if she is testing the words in her mind first. Is it possible she has never said them? Then she looks up at me.
“Do you have parents, Harvey?” she whispers, as if she just took her last breath.
I repeat her words in my head, trying to make sense of the riddle. Why is she asking about my parents? My eyes flit to her clothes. A man’s clothes. An older man’s clothes. A father’s. And the shoes. A mom’s shoes, just as I thought earlier. I suck in a sharp, icy breath as it finally hits me. She is asking about my parents because she has lost hers.
I don’t usually have time to study my insides but there are some changes, body and blood changes, that even the most practical, overworked, meat-and-potatoes, full-beard-by-lunchtime man notices. That’s where I am right now. A strange, thick burn— like I’m inhaling paint thinner on fire—blisters in my throat. Without thought or plan, I try to pull her slowly to me. She doesn’t move.
“Will you settle for a brother on loan?” I say. As the words leave my mouth though, I feel like I have signed and sealed some summons from above. Like her parents hailed me to this frozen lawn, on this Christmas Eve, with the missive of angels. And even though I offer her brotherhood, to Elisa, I will always be whatever is written in that missive. Brother, family, or whatever the skies have in order.
She looks at our joined hands, and then in my eyes. She nods, but the motion is more fluid, somehow. Not as stiff. She doesn’t smile but that flicker of life flashes in her eyes. “Can I help now?”
I pat her small hand as I realize what she is asking. She wants something to make Christmas Eve livable. Something she can breathe through. The bite of frost, the prickle of shrubs, perhaps even the idea of protecting something —a life form as simple as a plant—from the end.
I swallow to make sure my voice is not frozen. It is, but her purple eyes melt it into the only words she needs.
“Yeah, you can help me. For as long as you want.”
“Thank you,” she says with so much feeling that I am not certain whether she is thanking me for the rhododendrons or for something else. Her voice is a little clearer as if she put all her strength behind it.
I smile. “Sure. But if I’m a brother on loan, you should probably know my real name. It’s Javier. Javier Solis.”
She doesn’t ask me why I lied. In fact, she doesn’t look surprised. “My . . . parents,” she swallows as she says the word. “They called me Isa.”
“Well, Merry Christmas Eve, Isa.”
She looks at me for a long moment. A few wisps of snow fall over us. “Merry Christmas Eve, Javier,” her fingers tighten weakly on mine. Then, she lets go off my hand and picks up the bottle of anti-freeze. She walks to the next rhododendron in line and starts covering the base and upper roots with all the leaves she can find. Her hair gets stuck in the branches but she doesn’t care. She pats down the layers of leaves with an odd energy. Almost dedication. She starts to fold sleeves of plastic and tucks the branches in with a motherly edge to her delicate face. At length, a faint, almost invisible pink tints her cheeks.
The Mona Lisa’s, the Simonetta’s, the Dora Maar’s. And the Elisa’s.
I look up at the sky that sent me a missive, realizing it was not a commandment; it was a gift. Every painter has a painting, every painting has some art, every art has a maker, but not every maker is an artist. An artist exists only if he has a muse.
Snowflakes fall on Elisa’s hair. Merry Christmas to me.
Okay, here we go as promised. I reminisced with this chapter because I remember how many messages I got about what Aiden would do if he read the epitaph. Here it is in its original with a slight nod to the book that brought us all together. And I couldn’t help the picture below. Or the song – it’s one of my favorites (and a cool fan-video too). I translated the lyrics from Italian below if you want to read them. Thank you as always for reading and commenting. I do love hearing from you!! Song and chapter link below.
Hey everyone! Sorry for the delay. Sometimes reality interferes even with the best escapes like this one. But I hope to have an Aiden chapter for you soon. In the meantime, even seasoned TMM readers will notice some new parts here – parts that were in my original story, not in FF, and that may change some hypotheses you had about the story. I hope you all enjoy it. I have a special spot in my heart for this chapter because it was after this that I was officially admitted to the secret FB group of FF writers. Now, I have met some of my best readers, mentors, and friends there. Thank you all of you for your support. Song and link below. Love, Ani
To whom else does a man write on a day like this? Not to his son – there are no lessons or answers to give. Not to his mother – she would only weep. Not to a friend – he already knows. He writes to his woman – because she forgives.
I should write to you about how you have kept me alive. I should say that these nights, I only fall asleep if I synchronize my lungs to yours. You breathe like the Moonlight Sonata. At first slowly, softly, like a butterfly on my lips. Then, because I can’t fall asleep unless I am inside you, your breathing changes, now like a humming bird’s wings under my hands. Your body rises and trembles, and yet you never leave my lips. You hold on to them, as I breathe the air that you create faithfully. And that’s when it happens. For a blind instant, your breathing stops and it becomes a single word. My name. That’s how you come. That’s how you go. With my name on your lips, blindly, maddeningly, and for me alone.
As you fall asleep, your breathing slows. Deepens. I feel an instant of jealousy for whatever dream pulls you away from me. But your lungs let in and out a steady airflow, as if they know that without it, I am nothing. It takes 15 of your breaths for me to fall asleep.
I should write to thank you for breathing… But instead, I write to add to the burden that you already carry on your delicate alabaster shoulders (I have kissed them a thousand times).
It’s done, love. Baghdad is razed to the ground. Only 35 out of 650 animals in the zoo survive. Almost 170,000 Mesopotamian artifacts are missing from the National Museum. The National Library and all manuscripts over 7,000 years old burned down. I don’t know how many men, women, or children are dead, or how many of them from my hand.
Yet, there was a moment I reveled in it. We raided a marble palace with golden doors. You may have seen it on TV. That is where Saddam’s son, Uday, lived. Marble, gold, silk, milk-filled pools. Around it, homes with no running water. Stray dogs. Children playing soccer with an American helmet quoting Joshua 1:9, For the Lord my God is with me wherever I go. Blood danced in my veins as we stormed the golden doors. I laughed at the carnage. I whistled as we searched for bodies in the marble ruins, hoping one of them was alive so I could end him myself.
Marshall asks God for forgiveness, but I have no God with me, I have only you. Still, every man needs an altar. Mine is the taste of your lips and the glow of your skin. And your soft eyes that are neither tearful, nor sad. They sparkle with the light of open doors. The only doors that welcome someone like me. I suppose this letter is my knock. And because you are not real, you let me in.
Ani’s Note: Some of you may have wondered why Aiden asks Elisa “not to leave his lips” the first time they make love. Perhaps this letter will give you one of the answers.