“Are you going to sleep all day?”
I groaned, and shook my head. Yesterday’s events hit my skull like a sledgehammer. The intensity of the emotions left my chest feeling hollow and scraped now. I could still feel the anxiety, the nerves, the desire to pull up the covers and delve back into sleep. I resisted, but only because it was Isabelle speaking. I shook my head, the bright morning light sleeting through the nearly transparent curtains. The sound of birdsong grew impossible to ignore, and the fresh scent of summer washed through the room. I took a deep breath, and an unexpected tear dripped down my cheek at the memory of my mother, and what she had said.
No regrets. I seized Isabelle’s hand as she got within range, and with one quick tug, pulled her across my lap. I hadn’t really thought, I realized, how good it felt to touch her. How much I really enjoyed being close to her. The soft scent of peach and hibiscus floated around her hair as she brushed it away from her eyes, a flush reddening her cheeks. Her voice came out hesitant, nervous, anticipatory. “H-Hello.”
I wrapped my arms tighter around her, squeezing her, pressing my face against her neck. Sometimes I felt as though I was moving in a fog, that I did things on reflex. That I was living my life at arms length, without engaging with it properly. Right now, I did not. I felt the warmth of her skin against mine, and I loved it. And I loved her. I decided to be redundant; There was no harm in it. “I love you.”
“Well, and you didn’t even see the present I got you,” she murmured. “What’s gotten you so affectionate? Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”
I planted a soft kiss on her chin. “I don’t make it clear enough. How much I care about you. How happy I am to be with you.” I tugged on the dress she wore, and one shoulder was exposed as she squirmed in my arms, putting absolutely no effort into escaping me. “How happy I am to be alive.”
“Ah… Well, I don’t want to discourage these kinds of displays, but if we don’t hurry, the others are going to start getting antsy.” She laughed, and smiled, squirming out of my grasp. This time, I let her go, as she adjusted her clothes and hair.
“The others?” I frowned. “That’s right. You and Susan. And Penelope?”
“Yes.” She smiled. “She showed us some around the island last night. It’s beautiful. We decided we wanted to show you, too.” She paused for a moment, as though uncertain. “Dean. How do you really feel about Susan?”
I frowned. “If this is about the dream-”
“The dream was a dream. I don’t believe you’re going to leave me, and I’m not going to let fear of that mess with my head. If you do, it happens. If it doesn’t… I’d much prefer that, obviously, but I’m going to be braver about that.” She swallowed. She sounded like she was trying to persuade herself as much as me. But that was kind of an attractive look for her. “But Susan. How do you feel about her?”
“I…” I considered the question. Really thought about it. “If I hadn’t fallen for you, I really could’ve easily fallen in love with her. She’s… a bit more approachable than you are, sometimes, and a lot more relaxed. A little less mature, and a bit sharper, but…” I squeezed her hand. “I always saw her at her best around you. The two of you always seemed to bring out the best in each other. It was something I admired. It was something I kind of wanted to be a part of.” She nodded, as though it had been something she’d wanted to hear. “But why-”
“Because I don’t want to choose between the two of you. Because I love both of you, and I don’t want either of you to feel neglected. So you both have to be open about how you feel about each other. And… It might be selfish of me. But I hope you two can love each other, too.” She frowned at me fiercely. “For your own sakes. Understand? The two of you have to be able to be open about it. To not hide your feelings, no matter what they are. Good, and bad alike” She took my hand, pulling me up to stand with her. “Come on.”
The two of us walked through the house. There was no sign of mom and dad, but I thought that was probably a positive sign. We made our way out into the orchards, and walked for a while. I wasn’t following the turns we took very closely, but Isabelle chose our path deliberately, checking the hills every now and then, as though they had something to say to her. “Isabelle… what’s this all about?”
She shook her head. “Talking about it isn’t going to help. It’s…” She bit her lip. “I’m not going to try to explain it. I just want you to see if you can help. We were talking, and…” She turned to face me, and there was concern in her expression. “She’s not okay. She acts like she’s okay, she tries to be okay, but she’s not okay. I don’t think she’s going to kill herself, but she wants to be punished. She’s practically screaming it out all the time, and I just didn’t notice because she’s too good at hiding it from me…” Isabelle shook her head once, sharply. “It’s about you. I can forgive her, and she can believe me, but she feels responsible for you dying.”
I nodded. “Alright. Let’s go help her, then.”
“I can’t.” She looked away. “Whether I like it or not, this is something that you two need to do on your own. If you force it because I’m there, because I’m telling you to…” She sighed. “Just be honest with her. Whatever you’re really feeling, tell her. Don’t try to be what she wants you to be, just… be who you are. Okay?” She smiled. “I trust you.” She rested her hand on my cheek, and gave me a very soft kiss, before pointing down the branching lane.
Anticipation is a killer. Even more when you’re anticipating something frightening. I thought of Susan on the rooftop, staring down at the ground, and quickened my pace.
She did not, in point of fact, look like a woman on the edge of doing something desperate. She sat in a small, sunny clearing, leaning back on her hands, her legs crossed, staring up at the apples hanging from the trees. She turned her head towards me, and sighed. “Isabelle really got that freaked out, huh?” She smiled. “What’s the opposite of crying wolf? Like, when you say something and people take you seriously because of the past, instead of ignoring it?”
“A cry for help, I think,” I said, and slowly approached. Susan’s eyes weren’t red. She didn’t look as though she’d been crying. She wasn’t shaking with barely suppressed emotion. She looked amused, if anything.
“Yeah. That’s the really fucked up part of this all, you know? I can’t claim that I don’t have any feelings for you. I can’t pretend that I’m fine with you and Isabellebeing together and me never being a part of it, never touching you, never being close to you, because I was a stupid fucking kid and I nearly destroyed the entire world because you chose her instead of me. Do you think about that, Dean? Does it cross your mind while you’re hugging me and telling me that I’m a good person that I nearly killed everyone? Everyone you love? I got you killed, I made Isabelle responsible for the death, I nearly got both of your moms killed in a feud with each other, and it was all because I’m some dumb fucking bitch?” She looked me in the eye. “You know how that hurts?”
“We were all responsible, Susan. In one way or another. Maybe none of us understood it the way that you did, but you were being manipulated by someone. If you feel responsible, so do I.”
“Yeah. I see that.” She shook her head. “You’ve been making it up to us since you came back.” She turned her head towards the apples. “I was thinking about them, you know. Immortality. I talked with Penelope about them. See, the thing is, gods and monsters, we don’t really need them. Even heroes don’t. All of us are going to live forever, because of what we are. The only exception is you.”
I frowned. “So?”
“So, we’re going to have to live forever with the consequences of our actions, or die. Unless I do something stupid, I can probably live forever. Heck, as tough as I am, even if I do something stupid, I might live forever. And people are never going to forget what I’ve done. People are never going to stop thinking of me as the little idiot who nearly destroyed the world. But you? You’ve got an escape.”
“You think I want to die?” I asked, frowning.
“I think that you know you can get away with this. You can hold down your bile for, what, another sixty years? Tops? Then, you’ll die, in the fullness of time. You can get away from us. You don’t have to be around us forever. But I look at Penelope, and… I see my future. She’s going to be immortal. She’s going to be around this group of people for the next few millenia, at least, barring the world ending. Feeling herself ground away.” She was quiet. “I don’t believe you, Dean.”
“I forgave you,” I said, and there was a bit of heat in my voice. “You did something dumb and impulsive! You hurt me! That’s love!”
There was quiet for a long time in the clearing as she stared down at her lap. Then she slowly stood up. “It’s credibility. You know? I lack credibility, when I say that I don’t need you, that I don’t love you, because whatever I might say, my actions spoke loud and clear. I wrecked everything. I fucked up everyone.” She frowned at me. “I really can’t imagine how you could ever love me. I can’t believe you when you say it. I don’t fucking believe you, Dean, because I really do love you. You’re trying so hard to support us all. I see you trying constantly, being there for all of us. It’s part of what made me fall for you in the first place.”
“So because you like me, nothing I say can be trusted,” I said, with slightly more sarcasm than was necessary at the moment. But I was angry. Angry that she wouldn’t trust me, angry that she thought I would hurt her like that. Angry that there wasn’t something more I could do.
“You know, that’s the thing about being messed up. You want people to find out you’re messed up and help without being asked. Because if you have to ask… It feels like you’re demanding something of them. When people help you, not because they genuinely want to help you, but because they have to help you, then what is it worth?” She crossed her arms, and turned away from me. “I believe you when you say that you’d act like you love me, if you thought it’d keep me together. You’re good at being compassionate, you’re good at being there. But I don’t believe for a second that you wouldn’t be waiting for the day when you can get away. I don’t believe for a second that you’d be happy.”
“So that’s it, huh?” I asked. “You’ve made up your mind, I can never love you, it doesn’t matter what I think?”
“We can’t know what other people think, Dean. We can’t be sure.” She stared down at her feet. “I’m thinking of going off on my own. Visiting Shangri-La. I can make it there fine, and learn where I belong. Maybe just… have my own story. Be a part of something different. I talked about it with her.” She grinned up at me. “I can get the fuck out of your life. And no, I don’t care what you say, Dean. I know that you’re too stubborn to tell me the tru- What the hell are you doing?”
I gave the apple I’d taken hold of one quick tug, and the stem snapped, the large apple coming loose in my hand. I reached into my pocket, and took out the small Swiss army knife my father had bought me for my graduation. “I’m not going to stop you,” I said, slicing into the apple’s shining, metallic skin. The juices bubbled where the knife slid through the crisp flesh, the sweet smell filling the air. “If what you really want is to go away, if you want to leave, I’ll trust you.” I sliced it from stem to the bottom, and then again. A wedge slipped out.
“You shouldn’t do something impulsive,” she said, her voice harsh. “That’s how we wound up in this situation. I acted impulsive, and look where it got us. If you eat that, you’re never going to die.”
“I died once already. It sucked, Susan.” I looked up at her. “I can’t promise I’m never going to resent you. I can’t promise I’m never going to get angry. It’d be fucked if I didn’t. There’s a bit of friction in any relationship when you’re being open and honest with people. But I’m not going to let that wear me out. If it weren’t dumb and impulsive, it wouldn’t be love.” I sectioned off a bite-sized chunk of the apple wedge, and chewed it thoughtfully.
It tasted amazing.
“You’re not going to change my mind,” said Susan, and her voice shook slightly. “I’m.” She took a deep breath, and sat down next to me. “Can I have some?”
I nodded, and sliced off a chunk of the apple, placing it in her hands. She ate it quickly, and licked her fingers clean. “How is it?”
“Allegorical. You’re eating an apple because a snake pressured you into it in the middle of a beautiful mythical garden.”
“You didn’t pressure me into squat,” I said, and sliced off another chunk, popping it into my mouth. I chewed it a couple of times, and grinned. “Love’s hard work. I saw that in my mom, and my dad, both times. You have arguments, fights, uncertainties, fears. The bloom falls off the rose. It stops being new and exciting. But when it’s love, you accept those ups and downs. You make it new and exciting. You keep going. It’s like life, or immortality.” I popped another piece of apple into her mouth, and she chewed it, tears trickling down her cheeks slowly. “You have to take it one day at a time.”
“Mmph.” She swallowed the chunk. “This is so fucking embarrassing. Here I am crying wolf again. Making a big dramatic fuss to get what I want. Manipulating you.” She sniffled softly.
“Yeah. Forcing me into a bigamous relationship with two attractive and immortal young women. I truly am cursed,” I said, and wiped her tears away from her cheeks with my thumb. She let out a soft snort, and leaned against my shoulder, her head resting on my side.
“Mmmph. Don’t fill up on apple. Isabelle said she wanted to return the favor and do a meal for us. And she’s probably going to show off again.” She leaned against me a little harder. “What am I good for, Dean?” It wasn’t a rhetorical question.
“You’ve got a hell of a sense of humor. You’re probably the sharpest person I know.” I smiled, and stroked her hair slowly, trailing my fingers through it. “You don’t let people push you around. You’re confident. And you help me out all the time. You don’t take a lot of attention, but you’re always willing to help.” I turned her head to me, and planted a soft kiss on her lips. She accepted it, and flushed when I pulled back.
I sighed. “No pleasing some people.” I sat with her under the trees for a long time, letting the warm summer day pass us by. “What do you want to do with your life, Susan?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I used to think about joining the Peace Corps. Habitat for Humanity. Helping people. I could still do that, I guess. It’s just… It all seems so strange, in the face of the apocalypse, you know? I know something so few other people know. I can do things not many other people can. I am, for better, or for worse… special.” She trailed a finger through the grass. “Building houses seems so small in comparison to that.”
“Small isn’t a bad thing,” I said. “That’s part of the fun of life. I could spend eternity with you and Isabelle. The three of us building houses, making homes for people. There are so many worse ways to spend your time, especially when we’ve got so much of it. We can do anything.” I waved a hand around Avalon. “It’s more meaningful than anything these gods and heroes and monsters are up to.”
“What do you want, Dean?” She looked up at me. “You had to have a dream.”
“All I ever wanted was my family,” I said softly. “I wanted a mom, and a dad, and someone I could care about.” I smiled. “This is what makes me happy. Having the people I love and care about close to me. Being able to take care of them, to encourage them.” I squeezed her. “I was always lonely, growing up. Always moving on, leaving friends behind, never seeing my dad enough, then losing my mom… That’s what I wanted.” I stood up, brushing the dirt off of my pants, and helped her to her feet. “It doesn’t matter what we’re doing. As long as I’m doing it with you.”
“Heh.” She smiled, and rubbed at her eyes again. “You fucking corny bastard. You make that sound so sincere.” Then she leapt at me, her arms going around my shoulders, and she kissed me very ferociously on the lips. It was desperate, like someone clinging to a life preserver.
That kind of desperation can terrify some people. Being aware that you’re a lifecord for someone is a great deal of pressure. The fear of letting them down, the fear of disappointing them, it can drive some people away. It can make you aware of your own weakness, the fear that you’ll drown with them. For some people, desperation is a turnoff.
I didn’t give a damn. I squeezed her tight, and let her cling for dear life. It might have been arrogant, but I was confident I could bear the weight. I felt happiest bearing that weight.
After a long few seconds, she broke the kiss, sinking out of my grasp. “I don’t deserve this.”
“Neither do I. We’re not even twenty yet. We’ll just have to earn it, instead.”
The two of us walked for a while, until we reached the villa again. Penelope was outside, skinning what appeared to be a wild boar. Isabelle looked up from the rich bubbling stew that she had been cooking, and smiled. The scent of carrots and wild onions filled the air as she diced the slabs of meat Penelope handed her, rolling them into the stewpotsitting over the fire. A picnic table had been set up next to the fire, a pitcher full of lemonade glittering and gathering condensation. “Everything okay?”
“For now,” said Susan, apologetically. “You were right.”
“I’m glad,” said Isabelle. She stepped around the pot, and gave Susan a kiss on the lipsthat was something less than chaste. What I felt was related to, but vividly distinct from, jealousy. “Do you feel better?”
“Yes,” said Susan, rolling her eyes. “Don’t rub it in, okay?”
Isabelle hugged her tight. “I’m just glad.” She turned towards me, and smiled. “Thank you, Dean.”
Penelope frowned for a moment, eyes darting between the three of us. She raised an eyebrow at me. “Well, someone certainly has a type.” But she was smiling as she said it. Susan and Isabelle sat down on one side, Penelope and I sitting on the other. I stared briefly as Isabelle drew out a loaf of fresh-baked bread.
“I started on it last night,” she admitted, and smiled. Bowls of stew and crusty hunks of the bread went well together, and I plucked one of the apples from the trees, slicing it up and sharing it out.
“Penelope,” I asked, and frowned. “You said you left home, and hadn’t been back. Have you ever wanted to?”
She shook her head, her expression grim. “No. There’s nothing back there for me, anyway. No family worth the name. There wasn’t a lot that was worth holding onto. But… I still wanted to. Didn’t just want to be Artemis, a goddess, and forget about what I used to be.” She smiled. “It’s nice to have someone calling me Penelope. But I have a question for you… I’ve heard a few stories. About Zion. About what happened there. But nobody seems to agree exactly how it all happened.” She frowned. “Can you tell me about it?”
I frowned. “Well. It was complicated. Here’s the way I understand it…”
It occurred to me, as I told the story, how prevalent that attitude seemed to be. The uncertainty about what had happened. How many of the problems that we’d encountered were because nobody ever talked with one another, or they always tried to hide something. It gave me an idea of what I might want to do with my life. I’d been given a second chance. I could support people. It was something to consider for the future.
I thought of Mister Nash. I hadn’t heard back from him. I knew why. I knew that Pearl brought him the letters, and that he was busy. I knew that he’d sacrificed a lot so he could save me. I thought that maybe, someday, I would be able to return the favor. But even if I didn’t, I’d make sure I lived my life well.
The meal passed well. Evening came. Tonight, Susan, Isabelle, and I were all in the same bed. Around one in the morning, I found myself waking up, to find Isabelle’s tail wound around one of my ankles, making soft noises of pain. I rested a hand on her forehead, and she calmed almost immediately, her tail loosening, slowly flowing back into the shape of legs. Seeing her calm down, I turned my attention to Susan, who was shivering in her sleep. I pulled the blankets a little tighter around her, and kissed her once, softly, on the neck. Then, with great care, I slipped out of the bed, because my bladder felt like it was about to explode.
In the hallway, outside the bathroom, I found Megara, sitting on a chair, hunched over, her arms crossed in front of her. She was shaking, and tears were running down her cheeks. “Mom?”
She looked up, startled, and wiped her eyes quickly. “Dean. Son. Are you w-well?”
“Mom, what’s wrong?” I’d never seen her like this before. Never seen her shaken on this level.
“I…” She was quiet for a moment. “Have I ever told you why I cannot bear children?”
“I… don’t think so. I always thought it was a wound, or something.”
“No. It is more… metaphysical than that. An aspect of myself. The consequence of what I have done. Of who I have been. I gave it up willingly, knowing I would likely never regain it. I… sacrificed it.” She rubbed at her eyes. “When I married your father, it was knowing that our union would bear no fruit. That it was comfort that brought us together, and mutual pain, nothing more.”
I noticed the white plastic handle in one hand. My eyes widened slightly. “Mom, are you saying-”
“I’m pregnant.” She rubbed her eyes. The pregnancy test in one hand had two lines visible. “Dean…” She looked up at me, and she was scared.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, crouching down next to her.
“You know what I am. My name.” She looked down at the pregnancy test. “What if it’s…” She bit her lip. “I am what I am. What if it’s a monster? Something terrible?”
“Then, not to put too fine a point on it, It’d fit right in with the family,” I said, and smiled. “Mom.” I squeezed her around the shoulders, and she let out a little fitful breath. Then I released her. “We need to go tell everyone.”
Just for a little while, everything was perfect.