Hello everyone and Happy Mother’s Day!
“Wait, who is that,” you ask? Ani who? Ani-the-seemingly-nice-author-who-dropped-off-the-face-of-the-earth-and-left-us-with-no-story? That bitch! Yep, it’s me. Really me and not the zombie-like creature that I practically became for quite a while. A hideously long while. I know it has been forever since I have posted here and, after you yell at me some more, I hope you say “ok, fine, welcome back! We sort of missed you, too.” Because I really missed you . . . And because I think my news will make you happy.
Half-jokes aside, I wanted to thank every single one of you who dropped me a line during this absence, and checked in on me, Aiden, and Elisa. All your messages meant a lot to me during a very hard personal time. I won’t bore you or waste your time with the gory details (nor do I really want to revisit them) but I promise I had good reasons, which kept piling up in what appeared to be some sick joke. I’ll be honest (and really embarrassed) to admit that I gave up on quite a few things, and dreams—like writing is for me—have a way of being the first ones to go. And the most painful ones to hold on to. I don’t know why that is, but I now know how to get past it: with friends and family and actually learning to accept some goddamn help! It sounds cheesy and simple but it’s the truth. So slowly but surely, things got better. A lot better! And now, I know what to do next time the universe plots a merciless shitstorm on me or anyone I love. :-) Some day, I may even write about it. But—as Elisa would say—not today. Today is only about happy news! And—aside from my family—I can’t imagine anyone else who would be as excited about this as you will be. Drumroll please . . .
THIRTY NIGHTS HAS FOUND ITS HOME! Yep, that’s right!!!! After months of editing and revising, preparing things like “book jackets,” writing synopses (eek!), taking author photos (double eek!), dealing with submissions, surviving rejections, rejoicing from offers, and learning about terms like “trade edition rights,” I have a deal for its publication with a great U.S. publisher and an awesome, kick-ass editor that loves Elisa and Aiden as much as I do (and that’s a lot!). Although I can’t share a lot of these details until we get closer to publication date (currently slated for Fall 2015!!) I’m very happy with it. Actually, “happy” does not begin to describe it! In the words of Elizabeth Bennet, it’s “incandescently happy.” I feel like it’s the reward, the gratitude, and the joy for everything that happened this past year and a reminder to never, ever, ever give up on your dreams! Take breaks from them, have some distance when they get painful, but keep writing until your little fingers fall on that keyboard from typing, ignore all the naysayers, especially yourself, and listen only to those who see your potential!! Because they are right! And trust me, some day, after rock-bottom, your dream happens! Not at all the way you thought it would (at least not for me) but it does come!! So at the risk of sounding like the movie “Pretty Woman,” keep on dreaming!! :-)
NOW, the fun details… at least those that I can share. 1) The picture below is just for fun, we don’t know what the cover will look like yet. :-) 2) Yes, my new pen name is “Ani Keating” (Surnois is really hard to spell… my fault, I thought I was being clever but why should any reader have to scratch their heads to find me?); 3) The published novel will involve scenes, dates and chapters you have not seen before, some of my secret twists and turns that I had always envisioned and hoped I could share with you but thought I’d never get a chance to (plus, if people will buy copies, I want them to get something new too :-)); 4) But it will be a bit shorter—those things you hear about word count maximums, etc.—they are all true. When the book goes to print, there is a huge cost to publishers so some things (as much as it wrenches my heart right out of my chest) have to come out. But they will be on my website after publication, so you’ll have lots and lots of materials to play with; 5) This novel—the story I had always wanted to tell—is the first of a series. Yep, a series. “The American Beauty” Series—I gotta admit, I have a soft spot for that name; 6) I am now a blubbering mess.
And LAST BUT NOT LEAST, because you have been so so so so so so patient, supportive, enthusiastic, and integral for this story to come to life—and the best readership I could have hoped for—here is a snippet from Thirty Nights you have not read before. I cannot post a lot of text now that it will be published but I’m hoping that just a little to say “thank you” will be okay. And an extra bonus—an Aiden POV. This is the chapter that a lot of you have asked for: the coffee shop scene. I hope you enjoy both of them and are as excited about this as I am. I can’t wait for all of you to finally hold the book in your hands, and who knows . . . maybe meet some of you too!!
In the meantime, I’ll be around. Although 30N and 90D material will be limited due to contract restrictions, I will have new things for you, new stories, and of course, the trials and tribulations of publication. Thank you for following me in this journey every step of the way, even during my absence, and thank you for the faith and loyalty you have given to me and my story!! Here it starts!!
THIRTY NIGHTS EXCERPT
*Pesky legalese disclaimer: this portion is provided for entertainment purposes only. It may change, alter, or not appear in the published version. It is copyrighted material that may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, or stored in any way without the express written permission of the author and publisher.*
“What do you want?” I whisper, fixing my eyes on his so I miss nothing.
They still—the turquoise more translucent than ever. His lips lift into the first full smile today. “I want more, Elisa. A lot more . . . I want to take you out to concerts. Fall asleep with my nose in your hair.” He runs his fingers through my tangles. “Kiss you in broad daylight in the middle of the Rose Garden, not caring who is around us.”
All the things he cannot have.
He tips my face up so I can look at him. “I want to be your new home.”
For a long moment, I can’t speak. And that’s good. Because the only thing I want to say is I love you.
Instead, I kiss him hard. He groans and responds so forcefully that we fall back on the bed, our bodies skating across the sheets to the very edge. His hand clamps around my jaw—like it did on our first night.
“I don’t want the fantasy anymore,” he says. “I want the real girl.”
His mouth locks with mine then, our tongues twining with no more space for other words. Or even air. He grips the collar of my T-shirt and rips it off. Before my gasp leaves my lips, he shreds my knickers. His lips start a scorching path down my throat, along my collarbones, to my shoulder, closing around my left nipple. He breathes on it once and tugs gently. It stands at attention, arching the rest of my body off the bed.
“Mmm . . . still perfect,” he moans, his breath making me hiss. He switches between tongue, teeth, and lips in a sucking, nibbling, kissing pattern. As my belly tightens in a familiar, sharp ache, I grasp what he is doing. He is retracing our first time, with perfect, infallible detail.
And like the first time, my body bows to him down to my last cell. But unlike then, now I move with him. In a togetherness we haven’t had before.
I wrap my legs around his waist, soldering him to me. His mouth and tongue travel to my other nipple, then lower—circling my belly button, nipping at my waist, sucking at my hip. With each kiss, his fingers skim around my ankle, along the calf, inside my thigh until they meet his lips on the relentless pulse beating between my legs. His mouth wraps around me in the same move as his fingers slide inside.
I moan a garbled version of Aiden, gripping his hair and pushing myself into his mouth.
“Open up,” he orders as he sucks hard. He kicks my legs apart as far as they will go. “I want to taste you . . . All of you . . . I wanted to do this since I first tasted your candy . . . That’s when I knew it was you . . . Ah, you taste better than your candy, baby. Better than Baci. Better than anything.” His tongue laps away in circles, jolts, dips, and flicks. Exactly as then. Yet new.
Everything burns and shivers at the same time. I hold onto his hair like I might drown if he lets go. He doesn’t. Another suck, another lick. His fingers thrust one more time, two, three. I’m suspended for a timeless moment—then I soar and vanish. Reincarnated back into that first night of wakefulness.
A faint gust of air wafts over my face, then a distant chuckle, a far-away sigh. I open my eyes and Aiden’s face is here.
“Hey,” he whispers, smiling. He has taken off his clothes, his skin blazing against mine.
“Hey,” I breathe, expecting his kiss and my citrusy residue on his lips. I kiss him until all I can taste is his fiery cinnamon flavor.
“I wish I could explain how this feels for me,” he sighs, raining kisses on my nose, my eyelids, my cheeks. “Always like the first time”—he kisses my forehead—“And always better.”
“It’s like that for me, too,” I whisper, wrapping my legs around him.
Eye-to-eye, he slides inside me. My body knows him now and grips his every inch. Our hips circle and roll together. He lifts my hips up until my toes touch the mattress above my head. He pins them there and thrusts hard inside me. My cries mingle with his rough breathing. Aiden. Baby. Aiden. Elisa.
His rhythm picks up—hard, fast, and blinding. I absorb all his blows, and crave more. On every thrust, my insides close around him with precision. Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.
I explode violently, crying out his name. Just like then. Just like always.
©2015 Ani Keating; Ani Surnois
This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine . . .
My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life . . .
We will become part of each other. . .
The United States Marine Creed
Saturday morning at precisely 9:42, Benson pulls into the Reed East Parking lot by the Chemistry building, as close to Dalton’s lab as possible.
“We’re here, Sir,” he says.
Here. Yes, here. What the fuck am I doing here? Didn’t I promise myself not to sully the air Elisa Snow breathes?
I stare out of the Rover’s window as though the answer will materialize there. An unnecessary, empty action. I already know very well what I’m doing here. I am further solidifying my standing at the top of The World’s Most Obsessive and Dangerous Suitors. No, that’s not the right word. I’m not a suitor, nor should I be. A stalker—that’s better. An obsessive and dangerous stalker. Who can’t forget anything.
“School is out so the campus should be all empty,” continues Benson. “And I’ll follow from a distance.”
I roll down the window—another unnecessary, empty action—but its whirling noise fills the air with a sound other than Benson’s words. A sound other than the disease I’m dragging into this misty spring morning. Into an innocent life. Now that I know who Elisa Snow is, now that I’ve had time to process what She means, all fire has left me. No, not really . . . it has just made room for reason. For conscience.
“She’ll be safe, Sir,” Benson persists.
His words—low, in his deep drawl—splinter the air. Instead of assuring me, I feel something similar to the sharp cadence of a rifle being loaded. A looming sense of an irreversible shot in the air that forever changes the war. The trouble in this case is that I don’t hold the weapon; I am the weapon. Loaded to the brim with bullets. She only has to choose where to aim me. My horror is that like any rifle, I could hurt my owner just as well as my enemy. And like any rifle, I no longer seem to have a will of my own. I am only as good as the soft hands that wield me. Maybe I’ll be lucky and She will point me to whatever is haunting her so I can end it. Or maybe, luck will be on her side and She won’t pick me up at all. But there is a third option— the bloodiest one—that She will pick me up and aim me at herself.
Of the three options, the one I should want is the second: that She will stay away from me, perhaps after using me for Option 1. But, deadly as I am, the option I dread as much as I covet is the last. The one where I claim her as mine once and for all. This is my Catch 22: there is no middle ground for me. No alternative where She can just hold me without firing. That’s the problem with loaded weapons: we all aim at something.
A thought flickers once. Maybe there is an Option 4: She can unload the rifle. I snort. No darling, this rifle is incapable of being unloaded. It has held a bullet in its chamber since it was born.
“Sir?” Benson asks, a bit more forcefully this time. “Should we go back?”
That does it. No! I don’t want to go back. I want to see Her. That’s why I am here—first and foremost. To see her. Not her image in my memory. Not her fantasy in my sleep. Her. And to finally find out what is haunting her; what She keeps locked away from the world, away from my intrusive search . . . Abruptly, I feel lighter.
“All right, I’m going,” I say, opening my door. “Follow us but not too close. “
“Where will you take her?”
“Wherever she wants.” I slam the door and race down the path to the Chemistry building, fighting a sudden urge to sprint. Even though Elisa Snow has no idea I am here, suddenly I feel late. 32 years late.
I yank open the double doors with a strange, enervating energy and take the stairs to Dalton’s office two at a time. The office is closed, the lights off. But down the hall, his lab is open, buzzing with an ominous hissing crackle that does not sound healthy for a place chock-full of chemicals. Fuck! What if She is here early and is in danger? I start sprinting to the lab before I realize that She knows more about Chemistry than I. Flying past the glass-pane windows, I try to assess the situation. I marshal all my Marine Corps knowledge for dealing with chemical weapons and burst through the lab doors, scanning the area corner to corner. Thank the good Lord! She is not here. Instead, a slight boy with tar-black hair sticking out in every direction is standing over a white-tiled workstation, mumbling to himself in triplicate.
“Crap, crap, crap. No, no, no. Shush! Shush! Shush! Be good, Beaker, be good. Do not break. Do not break. Ugh, Snow will kill me this time.” He is fidgeting with some crucible tongs in one hand and forceps in the other.
Jesus Christ! This must be her replacement. Fuck me—my grant is wasted if this fucknut is going to oversee the testing stage. Something hisses again and he jumps back like the beaker is about to bite him. I want to announce myself but this kid does not look like he can handle the strain of an introduction right now. Suddenly, he lurches forward and turns off the burner under the beaker. The hissing stops.
“There! Nice beaker. Nice beaker,” he whispers.
I clear my throat quietly to get his attention. He yelps and whirls around, eyes as wide as his goggles. But when he sees me, he takes a deep breath, his knees buckle, and he grips the counter. I have to repress a laugh when I realize he was worried that I was Elisa Snow. The idea that, to this kid, She is scarier than I am is ludicrous.
“Hello,” he says, clearly grateful that he will live for another few seconds.
“Pardon the interruption. Is this a safe time?” I ask, in case he has something else brewing that may explode and blow us all into smithereens.
“Oh, yeah, yeah. I unplugged the Bunsen. Sorry. I’m . . . well . . . ah . . . new . . . here. I mean I’m a second-year, but new with Dalton and Snow. Real coup to train with them, ya know. 72 people applied. Still . . . ah—umm—who are you?” he rattles off in one short, nervous breath.
Replacing Elisa Snow as Dalton’s Chief Research Assistant must be quite a feat. Although I have no claim to her whatsoever, I feel a strong sense of pride.
“I’m Aiden Hale,” I say, stepping inside the lab. “I . . . ah . . . I’m looking for Ms. Snow.” Apparently, Elisa Snow makes all men stutter.
Fucknuts looks like he cannot imagine why any man in his right mind would walk around looking for Ms. Snow voluntarily. His eyes dart to the clock on the wall.
“She should be here any minute. She’s never late. I’m running the experiment today so she should have time,” he says, starting to resemble very much the green goop in the beaker. He nods awkwardly once and takes off his goggles. He puts on a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and starts scrubbing the beaker vigorously.
At his intense focus, I feel the need to pace. The energy that was building in my blood has seeped in my brain, in my lungs. I look around the lab to distract myself from my ridiculous physical reaction to the mere anticipation of her. Instantly, I recognize what must be her desk. It’s spotless. The polished surface reflects the fluorescents. A large collection of pens bursts like a bouquet from a small crystal vase. Most of them have multi-colored feathers glued on top, like quills.
I inch closer to her desk, craving even this slight voyeurism into her world. If Fucknuts wasn’t here, I’d open the drawers. As it is, the eidetic beast inhales everything in double time. At the corner of the desk is a spray bottle labeled “Rose-Scented Ethanol.” Next to it, a small, clear glass jar of white cream, labeled “Shea Olive You.” It takes me a moment to realize it’s a pun. Good God, She makes her own cosmetics! From the feel of her hand, they work. On the shelf above the desk is a solved twelve-sided Rubik’s Cube because clearly a six-sided one would be too easy.
“Ah, here she is!” Fucknuts cries out.
I turn around. And there She is indeed!
Standing by the lab door, staring at me. On cue, the beast stops ravaging, kneels, and bows. Elisa’s silence floods every neuron until every space between all and nothing is filled with her alone. The sensation is extraordinary. Everything inside at peace and everything outside at war. Mind, heart, maybe even soul—quiet. Body, blood, skin—aflame.
The vibrant purple of her eyes twinkles with the same wonder as it did at her presentation but her lashes don’t release their trademark melancholy for a second. Her hair is straight today. Like a sigil of black satin. I like her natural waves better but that’s not saying much. It’s like comparing one star to another and preferring the one to the left because it’s on the side of your heart.
Her clothes cling to her closely, not that I blame them. She is wearing a light blue sweater and dark jeans. Modern clothes seem out of place on her. Like Snow White or Elizabeth Bennett wearing something so common as denim. It is not until this thought occurs to me that I realize how truly unusual She is. Here is the most ubiquitous of all fabrics, looking redundant. Every article of clothing on her is redundant, Private Dick delivers his verdict. Apparently, he has noticed her too and is very much pissed at my Diesels. Clearly, denim is unpopular this morning.
Elisa is still standing by the door, examining me. For the first time, I have enough presence of mind around her to notice the scientist in her eyes. They are sharp and focused, with a laser quality as if they look beyond skin, to my very cells and molecules. She assesses me like I am the cause of whatever theory She is forming. Strangely, I am unwilling to let her draw a conclusion yet. Not on so little. I step towards her, trying to look normal.
“Hello again, Ms. Snow.” As I address her, I notice a strange phenomenon. I want to call her Elisa. Not just to say her name in vacuum, but to hear her respond to it.
“Good morning, Mr. Hale. This is a surprise,” she chimes but I am distracted but yet another epiphany. Apparently, I want her to say my name, too. Lunacy all around!
“Yes, it is,” I mutter, except my “surprise” has nothing to do with showing up in this lab. In fact, of all the revelations where Elisa is involved, my presence here is the least surprising and the most expected.
“Do you have any additional questions about my project?”
A reasonable assumption. But utterly wrong. Still, I can’t blame her for not guessing ‘are you here because you cannot sleep at night, because I am usurping your every thought, because I own you in parts of yourself you did not know you could be owned, because I will rule you for as long as you live and there is nothing you can do about it?’
“Not as such,” I answer. “But I’d like to speak with you for a few moments. I understand from your assistant that your schedule is flexible.”
“Sure. Let me just leave a note for Professor Dalton and show Eric the timer.”
I smile at her easy “yes” to me. With the way She resisted my questions at her presentation, I was expecting at least a military-length interrogation before She gave a single answer.
She glides to Dalton’s office and starts writing a Post-it note. Eric has blanched completely, knowing that She is going after him next. Sure enough, She turns around and smiles at him. He tries to smile back but it looks like he has a toothache. Good God, I hope I don’t look like that when I smile at her.
“Did you burn the protein?” She asks him quietly. Her gentle manners are wasted on Eric who grips the station desk with both hands for support.
“H-h-h-how did you know?” he manages.
Good question. How did She know? The poor bastard scrubbed that beaker spotless.
“Well, the lab usually smells like ethanol, with a trace of peppermint or cinnamon. Today, there’s no peppermint or cinnamon, but there is more alcohol and a hint of carbon dioxide. That makes me think that you burned the protein and disinfected the beaker with extra ethanol, at least four times,” She whispers as if She is lullabying him to sleep. I suspect She is trying not to embarrass him in front of me.
Eric has forgotten to speak English altogether and just stares at her, mouth open. She laughs with a beautiful, Christmassy sound.
“Don’t worry. I burned mine when I first started, too. Here, you must remember to use this…” She is off in geek land, explaining to Eric how to use a specialized chronometer. Eric writes it all down but every few words or so, he gets lost on her face. Yes, buddy, I know. Brutal, isn’t it?
She gives him a last instruction, laughing and saying, “I’ve got my ion you.”
Her pun is lost on Eric who is staring at her without blinking. She pats him on the shoulder – Fucknuts gets a touch! – and dances towards me. Finally!
I open the lab door, relieved that I can move slightly better than Eric. She steps out with a smile playing on her lips. Those lips. I look away from her face. To my great misfortune, that’s my first mistake because my eyes roam over her back to her ass.
I realize now that I was holding it together quite well. Light-years better than Eric Fucknuts, for example. But this ass ended it all and catapulted me galaxies behind beaker boy. It’s an inverted heart with a fluid life of its own. It does not bounce. It sways. Gently. Right-left, right-left. Like a hypnosis pendulum. I use all my strength to look away. Futile. It’s not until we reach the main doors—the bane of my existence—that I resurface.
I open them for her, stepping carefully aside so that She is nowhere near my back. She walks through—oblivious to the danger—and I follow in a trance. Mercifully, Reed’s moist air brings me back to my senses. Good. Regroup. Start over. Defense formation. Don’t look at her ass. My eyes – rogue fuckers – deprived of their new Mecca, start roaming up her front but I look away instantly. No! I cannot handle that right now. I already have her cleavage on replay in my head. Damn all clingy clothes to the deepest pits of hell where they belong. What’s wrong with turtlenecks or nun habits, hmm?
Fine. Don’t look anywhere below her chin. On second thought, don’t look at her at all. There, look at the wall of the approaching library. Or at Benson, following us from a distance. I sense Elisa’s eyes on my face and have no choice but to look at her. Only her eyes. Just her eyes. And say something.
“Is there a particular place you’d like to go? We can go to The Nines or the Heathman? Andina?” Mars? Jupiter?
She smiles but a trace of regret lingers at the corner of her lips. “They all sound lovely but I need to be back soon. Eric is still learning how to use the bioreactor. Maybe Reed’s Paradox Café?”
Good God, Eric operates a reactor? “Sure. Although if a reactor is about to go off, Andina may be safer.”
She smiles brilliantly, sadness all but gone from her lashes. Why is that? Let’s see if I can find out. I start with easy questions.
“How did your finals go?”
“Fine, all,” She says, her lips twitching with a smile but then She frowns. “I mean, they went well, thank you.”
A hint of blush bursts along her hairline, and She keeps her eyes on her red shoes. Embarrassed? At what—her pun? I don’t know why; it’s adorable. She just gave the word “final” three fully appropriate meanings in one utterance. And She smiled, which means that school is a safe subject.
“Did you have a favorite class this year?”
“My thesis with Professor Dalton,” She shrugs and instantly, the walls go up in her eyes. Hmm. Maybe school is not safe. What was the difference with this question? Maybe because college is over? Try it.
“Has Reed turned out to be everything it promised to be?”
She nods but does not speak. Okay, we are getting close. New test.
“I noticed you liked Rubik’s cubes.”
Guards down. Dazzling smile. “Yes. They have a new one now with mirrors! It’s supposed to be really difficult.” Her eyes twinkle as though putting the brain through torturous mirror puzzles is her idea of fun.
“How do you think Eric will do with the experiment when you’re done?”
Guards up. “He’ll do fine.”
Yes, something about her thesis and school ending. That has to be it. I slide my thoughts back to neutral for now, as we approach Paradox Café. Because whether Elisa Snow calms me or not, I need my head in the game if I’m about to enter a public space. From the corner of my eye, I notice Benson closing some of our distance. He holds up two fingers discreetly, then taps his left hand. Two people inside, both to my left.
I open the café’s door for Elisa, fighting the tension of my shoulders with every ounce of strength. It is not as difficult as usual—probably because She is here, calming me with her sheer presence. And consequently, making me more dangerous because I’m not as vigilant.
The café is small—30 by 24. One fire exit in the back. A wall of cottage windows. In the left, a gothic barista with a stud in his eyebrow. Next to him, wiping glasses, a bubbly waitress—corkscrew blond curls, sparkly eye shadow.
Safe. As safe as it can be with me here.
I sense Elisa’s scientist eyes on my face again and lead her quickly to a table in the far right corner. She can never see this part of me. I smile at her for good measure. For some reason, She blushes and looks away immediately, fixing her eyes on an unfinished chess game on the table. Four moves to checkmate for the white. As if I outlined them out loud, her eyes trace those very same moves with practiced ease.
“Do you play?” I ask, fighting a jolt of alacrity that we may have the ultimate game of strategy in common. When my brain is not occupied with mergers and acquisitions and predicting the stock market, it plays chess. The patterns tend to dull the memories and channel the mental energy to the least violent form of war.
“I used to. Not anymore though,” She speaks the words softly but the guards in her eyes become a fortress. Impenetrable.
“Why not?” I try to keep my voice even lest she withdraws more, if such a thing is possible.
“It’s a long story. What did you want to discuss Mr. Hale?” Even her voice has lost its silver bell sound. It is lower, like a muted piano key.
“I have time,” I press. As long as it takes. As long as it’s safe.
She looks at me as she did at her presentation. She does not speak but her eyes say it all. Please don’t ask me, she is begging. Abruptly, I sense rage prickling at the edges of my conscience. It builds like a gulp of smoke in my throat and I want to demand that she tell me everything. But I am not sure what will hurt her more. To tell or not to tell?
From the corner of my eye, I see the corkscrew waitress skip to our table. I tear my eyes from Elisa only enough to give my order. But the waitress is staring at me, eyes wide, cheeks flushed, mouth open. Ah, fuck! Not now. I raise my eyebrow at her. Nothing. I frown. Nothing. I cock my head to the side. Nothing. All right. I clear my throat. She blinks and draws a breath. Thank Christ. I don’t need an admirer right now unless she is sitting across from me with purple eyes, spewing out puns.
“My name is Megan. What can I get you folks?”
I keep my eyes on Elisa. We are not together but strangely, I don’t want her to think I have any interest in Megan or any other woman. In fact, from the way the beast is knocked out unconscious, it is highly unlikely I will ever have an interest in another woman again. Terrifying. If I could, I would leave now and never return.
“A hot chocolate, please,” Elisa orders with a grin as if the world is about to right itself at the prospect of chocolate.
“And for you, Sir?” Megan turns to me.
“An espresso doppio. A Pellegrino, still, no ice, no lemon,” I say, making only as much eye contact as politeness strictly requires. Megan takes off. Excellent.
“Are you sure you only want hot chocolate?” I ask her. Surely, she should eat some protein.
“Have you had breakfast? It’s early.”
“Yes, I had something at home.”
Good. At least, She won’t faint. I smile but her eyes widen abruptly at some realization. She looks around as though to see if anyone else witnessed whatever she did. What the fuck? Maybe She is unstable. I suppose I could arrange for top-notch psychiatric care and place her in an exclusive mental health facility with proper visitation rights. Or maybe I will voluntarily commit myself to the nuthouse, too. We can live there together, Ms. Snow and I—licking the windows. Or each other. Stop it with the licking!
Megan returns with our order. She gives the hot chocolate to Elisa who looks like she is praying for restraint not to swallow the cup and its saucer. Then, she sets the espresso in front of me, her hands shaking, and runs off.
I turn to Elisa to ask about her obvious chocolate issues, or anything else, but She has other plans.
“So, what did you want to discuss, Mr. Hale?”
God fucking damn it! So eager to be done with me. And that should be a good thing; not a rage-inducing event. I cannot allow myself to be in her company for long—or to enjoy it for that matter. And I’m enjoying it a lot more than I should. I set down my cup of espresso—it’s too sweet—and get on with the program.
“Are you the woman in my paintings?” I start.
I meant to ask only for confirmation but I might as well have fired a shotgun. Her body stills from her lashes to her knotted hands. She blanches and her mouth parts only slightly, whether to let air in or out, I don’t know. What the fuck have I done? I am about to tell her to forget about it—whatever my question triggered is not worth this dread—but in seconds, She is back to her masterful command. The guards in her eyes become a stronghold. Wall after wall rises up at some internal command. I have never seen a mind overpower emotion on its tracks like this. The only thing left behind is her patent sadness. Apparently no matter what her mind can conquer, it cannot overcome that. Whatever causes that melancholy, is beyond her strength or perhaps a part of her.
“Why would you ask me that?” her voice is surprisingly strong, but her controlled delivery hints at a careful calculation underneath. I have hit a spot, but I don’t know if it is painful, scary, or simply private.
“I am a man of means, Ms. Snow,” I say quietly, not entirely sure how to handle this.
“What exactly does that mean?” The scientist is back. She will give nothing until She has her own answers.
That’s all right. I will give them if it calms her. I start explaining, keeping my voice soft because we are clearly in dangerous waters. “It means that if I want something, I will stop at nothing to get it.” Okay, that’s not really true when it comes to Her. Better stick to facts. “In this case, however, the conclusion was not hard to reach. I saw you at Feign’s gallery and the way the receptionist ordered you around indicated that you must work there. I obtained a copy of Feign’s personnel records and the only two women that have worked for him are blondes. You are the only one with dark hair and the woman in the painting of the neck has dark hair.”
“But the model does not need to be an employee. She could be anyone.” Still clinical, scientist voice.
Why is She insisting on this? Is She ashamed that she poses nude? Hmm . . . I had not considered that possibility. “Yes, she could be. But she is not. She is you.”
“If you have already reached this conclusion, why are you asking me about it?”
Because I want you to tell me something about yourself. Something you obviously guard so closely. “To hear you confirm it, Ms. Snow.”
“Why would my confirmation matter if you are convinced?” Her inscrutable eyes brighten slightly, and She cocks her head to the side as if the experiment just became interesting.
Beautiful question. It strips me bare but reveals nothing of her. Poor performance, Hale. Very poor performance. In four questions, She got to the heart of the matter, and in one week, you still know shit about her. Well, I might as well be honest.
“Because it will be a surrender, rather than a conquest.” I dissect her face but her control never slips.
“A surrender? Is that why you are here?”
This is not going according to plan. Clearly She uses her “Twenty Questions” game as a distraction. “It’s one of the reasons. And before you try your distraction technique again, let me make it clear that I don’t intend to divulge the other reason for my visit until you have satisfied me on this point.” There.
She squints her eyes at the corners as if She is masterminding some other strategy.
“Admit it,” I say before She bests me again. I don’t know why it is suddenly so important to me that She admits the truth. Perhaps because this kind of subterfuge is so at odds with the virtue She has exuded from that very first sight. Or perhaps because I want to have something of hers as a token—a souvenir for when I finally figure out how to leave her alone.
“It seems that despite your impressive deduction skills, you have overlooked one possibility, Mr. Hale,” She says.
Oh no, Elisa! I most certainly have not. “Have I?”
“Yes. It is possible that there are different women for each painting.”
At her denial, I briefly wonder how many ways are there to drive a man insane. I calculate at least six: mind, beauty, heart, paintings, candy, and secrets. I take a deep breath and try a different tactic.
“There is only one woman, Ms. Snow. And we both know who she is. But if you need more convincing, I’ll be happy to show you.”
“Show me? How?” Her voice breaks on the word “show.”
Finally, a crack! I take full advantage and lean across the small table into her space. Except at her proximity, my mouth dries. For the first time in my life, I am hesitant to touch a woman. Not just any woman, but this woman. She is here, inches from me, with a clean scent of soap and water—perhaps roses—but I cannot make contact even though touching her is all I have thought about this week. This entire life, it seems. I know why. From the first moment I saw her painting, I have been afraid of defiling her. Still, captive, I hover my index finger close to her skin. My body responds with vengeance, as if this non-touch is the climax.
“Like this,” I say. “It’s your neckline . . . Your throat . . . Your collarbone.” My finger trails along the path with no contact. “I have no doubt, Ms. Snow, that if you take off this sweater and these jeans, I would see the same waistline, hipbone, and leg as in my paintings.”
I keep my eyes on hers, afraid that if I blink, I will lose it all—especially my hesitation—and tear off her clothes right here, right now. Her body is tensed, coiled, and her eyes gleam with something like thrill and fear. If it were only fear, I would retreat. But that thrill—that spell-bound look—that illuminates her violets propels me forward.
“I can describe them to you if you wish,” I say, hardly recognizing the hoarseness of my voice. “You have three dark freckles, positioned exactly like an equilateral triangle right above your left hip. They are the only marks on your skin. I would be more than happy to prove my case. Would you like me to or will you surrender?”
Surrender, Elisa, surrender. Fight, Elisa, fight. The compulsion to touch her is so vehement that I pull back an inch. But at my words, something cellular happens. Her breathing shallows, her body braces as if to withstand a torrent within, and her pale-rose blush morphs into crimson—a color of life, so vibrant that it eclipses for once her shining violets. For any other woman, this would look almost like . . . well, frankly, arousal. But on her, this is . . . what is it? As though somewhere, in a mystical space in her veins, someone plugged in a cord, turned on a switch, or simply breached a dam and now her blood is rushing through her, strong and implacable.
Astounded as I am by the process, I almost miss her body straighten a fraction as though synapses are finally talking to the flesh. Her skin takes on a subtle glow, and for the first time, the sadness disappears from her eyes. Maybe relieved of the weight, her lashes flutter instantly as if She is shaking off sleep. The purple of her eyes changes. The bluish undertone turns indigo and burns with a fiery intensity until the only nuance left is a dark lilac or orchid, illuminating from within. She blinks once, twice… three times.
At her rose skin and vibrant eyes, I finally find a word for what I am seeing. More than bloom, more than life. An awakening. That’s what this is. And for some reason, I caused it.
Helpless—and fairly incoherent—I simply whisper, “Which will you choose, Ms. Snow?”
She blinks as if She returned from another world. She smiles at some thought, swallows once, then closes her eyes as if to stay in that other world a bit longer. When She opens them, they are still glowing.
“I surrender,” she whispers.
I know She only means that She admits She is the woman in the painting. But her small admission means more. It’s not her surrender, as much as it is her decision to let at least one guard down. And it belongs to me. But before I congratulate myself too thoroughly, reality seeps through and I realize what She really decided. She chose not to argue, not to let me in. It was not a yes, Hale. It was a no.
The dejection leaves me winded but at least, in it, I find the silver lining. She chose Option 2; She did not pick up the weapon. For a moment, it was tempting. But in the end, She chose against it. And that’s a good thing.
“Safe decision,” I say, ignoring the mangled, terrifying ways in which my insides are twisting. They’re irrelevant. What matters is that She is safe from me. I should leave now. Let her move on with her life that is just starting. Earn a PhD or more likely ten. Invent a pill that cures cancer with one dose. Design a computer model that prevents wars. Or simply say “yes” to a nice, moderately geeky college professor, marry, and have enough children to deposit her DNA in this world’s genetic database.
For a blind moment, the beast does not conjure the past; it conjures the future. Elisa Snow—the way She was a moment ago, hectic spots of crimson on her cheeks, amethysts in her eyes, and fluttering lashes—dressed in white. Gliding down an aisle toward a faceless man. Why is that image so painful? So visceral? I don’t know this girl from Eve; She is not mine. But that’s precisely why. Because She is not mine. And should never be. The only place where She should belong to me is in a painting.
Abruptly, of its own volition, a haphazard plan forms in my head. On second thought, maybe it was not abrupt at all. Maybe it has been brewing in my subconscience ever since I realized that Elisa’s world and mine should not coexist. I take a sip of my water and fix my eyes on her.
“That leaves only one question before we move on to my other reason for coming here today,” I say, noticing with relief that my voice does not betray the madness within. “Why did you lie about it?”
“I didn’t lie,” she says defensively.
“It’s a loose use of the word but you cannot deny that you were trying to cover the truth. Why?”
She squints her eyes—clearly, a habit of geniuses. Then, She sits up straight and squares her shoulders.
“Because I was working illegally, Mr. Hale. My student visa does not allow me to work off campus. My brief hours of modeling have provided some much-needed income,” her voice is even, almost defiant.
Aha! So this is the issue, is it? She is just breaking the law. I am surprised by how unchanged She remains in my eyes. If this is what She needs to be well, I don’t give a flying fuck how many laws She breaks. And She just gave me another secret.
“I see,” I say, keeping my voice light. “That explains why there is so very little information about you anywhere.”
“You researched me?”
Researched? That’s an understatement. Hiring a whole team to find you and nearly breaking into the student health center to see if you had a health problem is more accurate. But tomato—tomato. “As I said, I’m a man of means. But I could not find much about you beyond your impressive academic credentials.”
She takes a deep breath as though this relieves her. “Yes, that would be the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service, CIS. They keep the records of foreign visitors strictly confidential.”
Well, that explains the nightmare that has been this last week. Benson will be relieved. I think he was beginning to worry he had lost his investigative touch.
“I must say, you’re unexpected Ms. Snow. I thought you were an independent contractor, not an under-the-table worker. But don’t worry, I won’t turn you in,” I say, in case this is worrying her. I take a deep breath and make the final move. The move that will allow me to keep her in some form without danger, and without guilt. “In fact, that brings me to my next point. I’d like to hire you.”
Her mouth pops open in one of those rare unguarded expressions of hers. “Hire me?” She squeaks.
“Yes, indeed. And yes, I realize that would break the law. Apparently, I don’t care.”
“B-but I have to finish my supplement first,” She stutters.
So naïve and responsible. It’s always about her supplement. “I’m not talking about your supplement although I would certainly hire you for that, too. I’m talking about a painting. I’d like to hire you to model for a painting for my eyes only.”
Her mouth widens into a perfect O but her eyes squint at the corners in some inner mischief. “What kind of painting? I don’t pose nude.”
Good! I’ve been driving myself insane with venom that Feign sees her naked. This small disclosure relieves me to no end and momentarily takes the sting off her rejection. I smile. “What makes you think I want you to pose nude?”
Her skin explodes crimson again. “I’m sorry, I assumed that’s what you wanted because of the nature of the paintings you already bought. My mistake.” She keeps her eyes on her cup of hot—or maybe cold—chocolate, looking like She is praying for Eric Fucknuts to blow a fuse in the reactor and take us all out.
She looks so precious that I can’t resist teasing her . . . and prolonging this moment without guards or walls or rules.
“You assumed both right and wrong,” I say. “If I were the artist, your reluctance against nudity would be a problem indeed. But since I am not, and you will have to pose in front of another man, I have no intention of commissioning a nude painting. Does that satisfy you?”
She blinks a few times while I start panicking that She will say no and leave me with nothing of her at all—nothing but my suddenly inadequate memory.
“Why should you care if another man sees me naked?” She says instead.
Because I’m obsessed with you in irreversible and unsafe ways. “I have pondered the question myself. For now, let’s just say that I like my art . . . unique. In fact, I plan to pay Mr. Feign a very handsome amount so that he does not paint you ever again.”
This, I had already planned. Mine or not mine, She’s not going to hang on anyone else’s wall. I cannot, and will not control her life. But I will be damned if I don’t keep one little, itsy-bitsy part of her for myself alone. After all, I’m the one She has irrevocably changed for life. I’m the only one who needs Her like medicine, not art. Between the sick and the healthy, who needs more help?
Is it an insane, selfish, stalkery, overblown demand? Yes. I admit it. Apparently, so does Elisa because her little mouth opens into another full O. I press my case before She can see through the madness or—worse—before I do something to that O of a mouth. “I regret that this will cause you to be out of a job that you desperately need.” This is actually true but I can fix it. “I will compensate you on a fair trade commission, which would include the share of profits you should have received for your work.”
Her mouth closes. Good. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Hale,” She says haughtily, her chin jutting out. “But you don’t need to pay me. I still have my job at the lab and my student visa ends soon.”
Why would I deprive her of something she really needs? And why is She determined to fight me every fucking step of the way? Especially when every single step is designed for her best interest, not mine? Rage starts prickling at my neurons again, so I fire off my first defense. Voice. “You seem to be under a misapprehension that this is a negotiation, Ms. Snow, but it is not. I refuse not to pay you when I am the reason you will never pose for anyone ever again. And that’s the end of the discussion on this point.”
For most people, men or women, usually this scathing tone is enough to trigger a natural warning to back off before my war defect implodes and burns them to ash. Does it work the same way on Elisa? Of course not. She stands up straighter, tilts her head to the side pleasantly, and smiles a seraphic smile that does not touch her eyes.
“Mr. Hale, you seem to have picked up on the same thing that Feign has: that some immigrants don’t have any bargaining power. You are unfortunately right, and you have me cornered because you know my secret. So I have no option but to agree. But make no mistake that, until your ultimatum, I was going to accept your offer with pleasure. But now, all you will get is the surrender you wanted. So let’s get down to business, shall we?”
What. The. Fuck. How can She react in this manner? How dare She question the way I view her? How high I hold her? If I thought She didn’t matter, I would not be waging World War Three inside my head, battling between my desire for her and her own safety. It’s not enough that She owns me, She wants to question my motives, too? My motives—the only fucking good thing I’ve brought into this mess.
Rage—already in the horizon—now floods my veins, inexorable. My blood becomes gasoline, with a metallic, smoky taste in my throat. Instantly, my muscles lock down to stave off the onslaught. I have one, maybe two minutes left. I replay the Moonlight Sonata in my head, fixing my eyes on Elisa’s jawline, throat, skin, wrestling to fend off the symptoms. I just need the smoke to leave my throat. Ten seconds, five. Slowly, it wafts back into the pits of my stomach, and my throat relaxes enough for me to see reason. Just because I hold her to an impossible ideal, does not mean She knows it. And more importantly—it does not mean that someone else has not made her feel used.
“I don’t view you as a second-class citizen, Ms. Snow,” I say slowly, keeping my teeth together lest the rage implodes again. “But I suppose I can understand why my delivery would be offensive for someone in your circumstances. It was not my intent to make you feel used. My apologies.”
She gives me a curt nod. “Accepted.”
I take a deep breath and finish the Sonata in my head. My blood cools as instantly as it ignited and the remnants of fire coil and settle in the recesses of my brain. On a leash for now, along with the beast. Quickly, I turn the subject to lighter topics. “Now, about the business details. I’d like you to model in my home.” Yes, I need her there. Once. Only once.
“That’s fine,” She says, taking another sip of hot chocolate.
“And I don’t want just glimpses of your body. I want all of it, including your face.”
The cup shakes in her hand and she sets it back down. Crimson explodes on her cheeks again. “I don’t know why but okay.”
Her answer sets an odd indigestion-type ache in my chest. Because as perfect as She is in my eyes, She still has insecurities. “You don’t know why?” I ask her, my voice unintentionally soft.
“No, not really. But it’s okay. You don’t have to give me some speech about how I really am beautiful and don’t see myself clearly.”
“It seems you are familiar with that speech.”
“Yes, and frankly it never works for anyone. It would be better if we used our time productively.”
Yes, of course. God forbid we are being inefficient. Another idea pops in my mind—unbidden, awful, and beautiful. There is one thing I can do well for Elisa Snow. One thing I can do really, really well even by her standards. I can bring her to life, just like I did a few minutes ago. I can show her exactly why I want my eyes on her, on all of her. Exposed and open to me alone . . . Not that I should . . . but if it could cure even one insecurity, if it wipes away her sadness even for one night, if She comes alive only once with me, and if I was being very, very, very careful, maybe . . . Wouldn’t it be worth it? Just once? Ah, but would I have the strength to stop at once then? To stay away? One half-finished espresso and leaving her is already grueling. What would one night do? If She would even have me.
Maybe my thoughts are showing on my face because She blushes and breaks the long silence. “What would you like me to wear?”
Nothing. “My shirt.”
More crimson, more life in her eyes. “And what else?”
Me. “Nothing else. Just my shirt.”
Her cup rattles in her hand and she sets it down again. Then she picks it back up. “Will the shirt be open or buttoned?”
Oh, Elisa, your brain is failing you at this moment. “Open,” I mouth.
She swallows reflexively—as though her mouth is dry. Good! For once ever since I have met her, I have the upper hand. And She is not looking sad.
“Umm . . . ” She starts, her eyes flitting to my glass of water and then back at her cup as though water is winning over chocolate. “That might be a problem with the no-nude rule.” Another peek at my water. “I’d feel more comfortable if I could keep my knickers.” She bows her head completely, staring at the cup.
I almost laugh. I almost rip her off her orange velvet armchair and across the table onto my lap. I almost implement my insane idea in this small, well-lit café with witnesses. Almost. A very close almost. Only her hands gripping that damn cup for dear life—and my recently resurrected conscience—stop me.
“Okay, knickers,” I say, but it feels like too much to give up so I tack on a condition. “But I get to pick them.”
She nods so fervently that her teeth chatter a little. “Thank you,” She whispers, beyond crimson.
I want to ask her what kind of knickers She would like, what is She wearing right now, should we buy the entire Agent Provocateur, or how about the edible ones? Except there are two problems. One, Private Dick just defected and is going rogue. Two, I truly don’t think She could take it.
“That’s it,” I relent. “Unless you want to talk price.”
She shakes her head vigorously again—a lock of hair flops across her forehead. Apparently, she cannot even bring herself to speak this time. I take advantage of the chink in her armor, and move on to questions for which I need her unguarded. Questions I really shouldn’t ask. Questions that really are none of my business. Questions that make absolutely no difference between us. But fuck it!
“Now, I’d like the same color and style as the rest of the paintings but before I hire Feign, I need some information from you.”
Still crimson in the cheeks. “What kind of information?”
“Are you sleeping with Feign?”
Her eyes widen and the crimson spreads to her neck. “No, I am not.”
Excellent. “Incidentally, are you with someone else?”
A little crease between her eyebrows, but still crimson. “No.”
I relax and lean back in the chair as though these answers change everything. They don’t. They only make me selfishly, ridiculously pleased—a pleasure I should fight, not covet. “Then, I will discuss the schedule with Feign and get back to you.”
Her little crease becomes a full frown—an adorable, attractive frown. “Why would you not hire Feign if I was with him or someone else?”
Not a chance. She is not getting the upper hand again. I just broke her down. And She gave me so much in return. I try to deserve it by giving her some version of the truth. “I don’t want you distracted, Ms. Snow. And I certainly don’t need to invite the ire of a jealous boyfriend. It wouldn’t end well for him.” It most certainly wouldn’t. Not that I should fantasize about choking the non-existing boyfriend with my bare hands. Not that I would ever hurt her that way.
“I guess that makes sense,” She mumbles, but her eyes squint at the corners.
No! She’s thinking! That’s no good. Strike now! Learning her secrets is becoming an addictive yearning—placated only by more information. No matter how minor. “Do you go back to England often?”
She looks up almost startled. “No.”
“What about your parents? Are they in England?”
It was supposed to be an easy question. A simple one that keeps her silver bell voice in the air. But one look at her face and I realize now my mistake. All my mistakes with her. I know her answer before She gives it. I know it in the way her eyes zoom in and out of focus like mine do when I remember Marshall. In the way all blood drained from her face. In the way her mouth parts open to let in air because She has no strength to breathe it on her own.
I want to tell her not to answer. I want to take back this whole damn morning, this indefensible pursuit, and even give up the few moments of peace She gives me. Just so I don’t have to see that look on her face. But She speaks before I do.
“My parents have passed away, Mr. Hale,” she whispers, keeping her eyes on her cup, her fingers clutching the ceramic tightly.
It is even worse in her breathless whisper.
Are you happy now? You came here to learn what haunts her—well, there you have it! At what price did you learn it, you fucking asshole? Why couldn’t you have done a background check? Why did you have to be so fucking selfish that you wanted her secrets from her own mouth? What did her privacy matter in the face of this devastation?
What can I tell her? What can I do? How can I fix this? How arrogant to think I could! There is nothing I can do for her. Nothing to replace this void. Nothing that will bring them back.
“I’m really sorry,” I manage. The words are inadequate, sterile, so I try to find other ones. “I’m sorry I asked. I had no idea.” These aren’t any better. I am sorry for more things than that. I am sorry that I’m here at all. That’s bad enough. But inflicting myself into the life of someone who has no protectors, who has already lost so much—that’s truly inexcusable.
“No need to apologize,” She says, her voice gaining some strength. “There can be no fault when the intention is kind.”
Oh yes, there can, Elisa. Trust me on this one. “Do you have siblings?” I ask. Please say yes.
As alone as she can get. In a foreign country, no less. “I’m an only child myself. I sympathize.” It probably makes no difference . . . but maybe if She sees something similar in another human being, She will feel less lonely.
She smiles. “I went through a stage where I would draw my brother and sister. My parents had to endure the stick figures at the dinner table for several months.”
I smile, too, so She doesn’t feel alone in the act. And also because I can picture her doing that—this sense of self-sufficiency fully formed even then. “I should have given that a try. It might have made me less selfish.”
“Most kind people think of themselves as selfish, I have noticed,” her voice is very soft—the audio equivalent of someone holding your hand.
I want to tell her that some men think they are selfish simply because they are right. But how would that help her? Especially when She is trying to redeem me? I force another smile because that’s clearly what She wants.
“What about your parents?” She asks, still in her hand-holding voice. But I cannot flirt with triggers right now. Not to mention that talking about my parents—when hers are not here—would vanquish any last cell of humanity I have left.
“They’re vacationing in Thailand for the next month,” I say quickly, but her face is open, expectant so I reel off the most mundane details. “My father, Robert, is an architect, my mother, Stella, an editor. Why did you leave England?”
Why not stay in the only home she had? Maybe with distant relatives in a world she knew?
She shrugs. “After my parents’ car accident, I needed a fresh start . . . I’d always heard the States were immigrant-friendly. So, here I am.”
Of course! Memories! How could I of all people not see that? Perhaps because mine are so vicious that I forget that normal memories are painful, too. Or perhaps because when it comes to her, none of my usual instincts work. For a brief moment, I want to tell her I understand. I want her to know something about my pain so she can feel less alone. But She seems to be exactly the kind of person who would take someone else’s pain and add it to her own. No! I can never burden her that way.
“This must have been very difficult for you,” I say instead.
A small smile. Another shrug—as though her own pain does not matter. “I’ve had my moments. It’s better now though. I miss them still, but I have done my best to keep parts of them alive. Like the nutritional supplement that my dad was so keen on. Most days, I just feel really lucky to have had such unconditional love even for a short while.”
It’s the longest explanation She has ever given. And it’s not about her. It’s about her parents. Every word She spoke sets off a chest ache again. For many reasons. Because She is hurting. Because She is resigned. Because She is kind. But above all, because every word hints at an enormous truth behind Elisa Snow: She does not live her own life. She lives to keep them alive.
I know it because I do it, too. And I have no idea how to fix it.
“Well, from what I’ve seen, they would be really proud.” If there is one thing She has to know, it must be this.
“Thank you. I’d like to think so,” She whispers, fixing her eyes on her cold chocolate. I bend my head to meet them but She does not look up. Instead, She starts fidgeting with the wristband of her watch—a 1970s Seiko with a wide, round face and sturdy leather strap, clearly built for a man . . . an older man. A man from the 1970s. A father! At the realization that chest ache becomes a full-blown spasm.
“Yes, this was my dad’s,” She says. She must have noticed me looking at it. “I know it’s masculine but I can’t imagine wearing something else.” Her voice is wistful and her eyes drift to my own watch.
A fucking Audemars Piguet. Why did I have to wear it today? I place my hand on my thigh, hoping the gesture looks casual and not premeditated.
“No need to hide your James Bond watch, Mr. Hale,” She smiles—of course her scientist eyes would notice it. She sees cause-and-effect, not accidents. “Trust me, orphans don’t like making others uncomfortable. On the contrary, I’m happy for you.” Her voice is fervent again, unquestionable. “Your parents must be proud, too,” She adds with a brilliant smile.
At her words, the beast—until now unconscious, snoring and dreaming of Elisa Snow—stirs. As though even in its slumber it senses the most painful triggers. The rolodex cards shift—bursts of all the events that could never make my parents proud. I clench my teeth and gaze at Elisa’s throat again, trying to stop the memory reel. Only a snapshot of my mother’s broken body slips through.
As if She knows, Elisa’s voice breaks the flashback. “If I ever sell my supplement, I’ll send you a picture of my Audemars.” She is smiling more brightly, perhaps intentionally so.
I force yet another smile at her obvious joke. “Or maybe you’ll find yourself winning the lottery, Ms. Snow.” Surely She is owed some good fortune. Somewhere, in the universe, some force must recognize this. Not in money, even though my bad joke could mean that. A lottery for what She’s lacking now. Love, I suppose. Safety.
She meets my eyes for a long moment—they twinkle more and soften. I have no idea what She is thinking but there is no question of me looking away. Finally, She speaks in that same hand-holding voice.
“You can call me Elisa, Mr. Hale . . . Or Isa.”
She couldn’t have known that I have wanted to say her name out loud since I first saw her this morning. But now that I can, I’m not sure I should. How would it help if I got closer to this woman? Isn’t distance the better strategy? Or is distance painful for someone this alone? I might sit here all day, driving myself insane with these questions but in the end, something simple decides it for me.
This is what she wants.
I swallow once, as if to clear my mouth for her name. “Elisa.”
She smiles brilliantly in response. The first, full, glistening smile that annihilates all sadness from her eyes. It’s so beautiful that I almost say her name again but instantly her smile disappears and She bolts to her feet.
“I’d better go,” she says quickly. “I have a lot of information to download on poor Eric.”
Eric? Eric, who? Fucknuts? I realize now that—eidetic though I am—I had forgotten the world outside this small café. Maybe because the beast is in a coma. Or maybe because another world seems to have sprouted here, between us. A world I where the regular principles of right and wrong don’t apply. Where there are no loaded weapons. Where gravity is a smile, and the sun is a girl. Where mass is the past, and energy is a vague, undefined future. And where I have no clue how the equation that holds them together works. The only thing I do now about this world is that if I step inside, I will likely never leave.
“I’ll walk you to the lab, Elisa,” I say her name again, and stand.
She stands too—seeming slightly wobbly on her feet—and leads the way. I follow in her wake, not sure whether I am going inside her world or leaving it for good.
©2015 Ani Keating; Ani Surnois
THANK YOU FOR READING AND FOR ALWAYS BEING THERE!