A passel of kids splashed and waded about in the pool of the main square fountain, probably left there by their parents shopping nearby. They looked carefully dressed in well kept clothes, if not rich, and their limbs had proper weight.
What arrested my gaze, however, was the smallest, a toddler, wearing nothing but a big shirt and a diaper, dimpled thighs dancing in an excited march in place of being unable to do what all the other kids were doing.
A familiar, bone-deep ache that I only ever half understood overwhelmed me.
What am I doing here?
Hadn’t I already done enough? Didn’t I die? Where was my promised family? My promised home? Where were my lost babies?
Gus’s snarling face cropped up in my mind’s eye, furious that I had dared to mother him, baby him, have him. He didn’t want me. There was no promised child to care for or make a family with there. Just someone who thought me irritating and probably stayed with me out of obligation and guilt.
Allowing myself to admit that cut a cold line through me, along with a stark, chilling loneliness. A loneliness that put the kind I felt back at my earth to shame, because at least back there I had had my mother, aunts, uncles, and a splattering of empathetic friends. If nothing else I had people of the same culture and language, who had seen the same movies and laughed at the same memes. Who knew what wi-fi and catilac converter was. Who groaned if you mentioned the DMV.
Here…no one was like me. Yes, they had a heart and feelings like mine, but the likeness ended there. I had to strain to reach across a great ravine of differences to even be able to relate to them, and even then they all had their own lives to be caught up in that I could hardly imagine, because their world was just so different. We might as well be different species.
And my baby I’d so anticipated…might as well hate me.
I didn’t feel like buying a dress anymore, but I did anyways because I didn’t want to bother Milly anymore for her dresses. The women in the shop perked at seeing me, probably seeing a wonderful doll to dress, only to wilt when I asked for something simple. They asked for details, colors and the such, but at my continuing apathetic replies they exchanged concerned glances. I barely paid attention to the swaths of fabric they put against my face or the tugs of their fingers as they eventually pulled me out of my Belle dress.
Despite my lack of feedback, the dress they picked out for me turned out to be very pretty. It was a rosy pink, the kind that reminded one of blushing maidens and bows, with a leather waist coat that supported the breasts in the loose fitting, white top. The open collar revealed a peek of my pale collarbones.
“Do you like it?” asked a cautious little lady clerk.
When I gave a weak smile and a, “Yeah. I actually like it a lot.”
“Good. And it suits you perfectly.” She hesitated, but seemed to change her mind. “Will that be all?”
After ordering two sets of undergarments in my size and a bustier on their recommendation, I left the shop wearing my new dress. They’d even tied back my hair with a matching pink complimentary ribbon. Because of that, I didn’t bother with the shawl. It wasn’t like it mattered how much attention I got anyways.
My mood only grew more and more isolated as I made my way back to the Red Swallow Inn. It began to sink in that, hey, I had actually died. To my mother, I was dead. I had avoided suicide in part because I knew she’d probably follow right after me, or something akin to it. She’d always told me that she could never live through the death of one of her babies. But things had been happening so fast, I’d never taken the time to sit and realize the monstrous mess I’d left behind…and the people I wouldn’t be able to see for a very, very long time in the forseeable future.
Wait…would I be able to see my mom? What about my babies?
Nehcor had promised me a little boy that I could raise and as many babies as I wanted. He had told me I had suffered enough and that he’d make this mission as easy as possible. So why did I hurt so much? What was with this loneliness? Why did I go to bed aching every night and why did my hands and legs get burned raw by soap?
Why did the boy he sent me to hate me?
…Could gods be liars?
My arms and legs ached by the time I stepped through the back door of the inn. Milly was at her usual station in the kitchen, readying supper for the night. She had Gus at the counter dicing vegetables. He was surprisingly adept at cutting things into perfect cubes which had always fascinated me before.
They both turned just as I set the goods on the floor. The door thumped close behind me.
“Oh, how pretty! I love your new dress,” said Milly.
I thanked her, responded with the proper squeals, waved to Gus who was giving me a funny look, and went up the hall to step behind the bar where Hal stood to let him know I’d made it home. His smile which usually made me feel so warm did nothing, as though I were watching it through a TV screen.
I took the time he gave me to rest my feet, massaging the soles, watched on by the lone patron who’d come in for a drink. Usually, we were closed for lunch time so that we could prepare properly for dinner and finish cleaning up from the morning check outs. But he was a laborer who lived in one of the apartments next door, so Hal had known him for years and could spare the ale. He had grown up with Hal and grayed before him. He talked to me idly about his three girls, the pride of his life, to which I nodded and gave the expected compliments. As he laughed at something I said, I couldn’t help but wondered why I found I hated the sound.
It was just…no fair.
I threw myself into preparations, my mind a long way off behind a cold wall. I hardly noticed Gus working besides me, far more closely than Hal or Milly. One of the guests from the night before had left a foul stench in the sheets which wouldn’t leave after just one washing. Gus had to take care of it himself with his meager water magic spray.
Dinner time came round. The common room filled up with the usual mix of regulars and visitors. A newbie reached out to catch the tail end of my braid as I turned, brushing my back with his fingers.
Why am I doing this?
I found the cold in me mixing with a spark of dark hatred, but not towards the patron.
Why hadn’t Nehcor left me dead? It had been so easy dying the first time. It had been over in an instant, before I even realized what was happening. The second time would be painful, no matter how hard I thought about it, and scary with anticipation.
I don’t want to be here.
Suddenly, the smell of all the bodies, which I’d paid no mind to before, disgusted me. Many who dropped by for a drink and affordable meal were blue collar workers, and baths being only extra work and luxury, they sunk with sweat and whatever bit came along with their jobs. I hated the smell of alcohol too, which puffed into my face on their every breath. Mead and ale were weak for alcohol, true, but the rotting, yeasty tang still remained.
I wanted my mom. I wanted her hug. I wanted her stupid fart jokes and simple cooking. I wanted…
I wanted too much, so much, that my stomach physically cramped as though I’d been punched.
I took a moment back in the kitchen to catch my breath. Milly was too busy keeping the plates coming to notice, for which I was grateful. I managed to straighten before Hal came in after me, carrying dirty plates and silverware for the sink. But I thought I caught his frown as I scooped up more plates to be served.
My hands ached from the weight of the tankard Hal handed me. He gestured with his chin over the counter to Derrick, who had just sat down in his usual corner. My back had already knotted from all the carrying I’d done that day.
What am I even trying for?
I blinked, realizing I had just sat down Derrick’s drink and stood staring at a knot in the wood next to it for far longer than I should.
“Sorry, my head just blanked out there for a second.” I said, giving a smile that felt plastic even to me. “It’s been a long day.”
I turned to get back to work, but the blacksmith caught hold of my apron.
“Sit,” he said. “Everyone’s tended to. Tell me what’s wrong.”
I stared at him for a moment, almost blanking out again, before flopping down in the rarely used stool next to him. My throbbing legs cried out in relief.
Derrick folded his arms next to his plate, a still steaming trio of fat dumplings filled with veggies and leftover meat. He didn’t say anything right away, just looking at me expectantly, and with a sympathetic rise to his bushy dark eyebrows.
In the stillness, the sounds settled down on me, like birds that had hovered over a hippo until it finally settled down. Wooden silverware didn’t have the same kind of clinking that the metal from my home did. The conversation was low, only occasionally broken by a higher cadence of a voice to emphasize a word. The fireplace besides us was empty, as the day had been very warm. But I could feel the faintest of cool drafts coming down from it.
It grounded me from where I had been floating, disconnected, in the turmoil of my thoughts.
“It’s alright,” he said. It was amazing how he made such a low, growly voice sound so gentle.
I found myself trembling. A needle thin line of hope, fed by desperation, ran through me to him, and I opened my mouth.
When he said nothing, not even blinked, I licked my lips, urging my voice to stay steady.
Utterly alone. Utterly more than anyone on this planet. But I couldn’t tell him that.
“My family is gone,” my insides started shaking too. “My husband wanted other women our entire marriage while saying he loved me, then left me for someone else after only three years, and on the day I lost my fourth baby. My baby…they all died before they were even born. Anyone who—who wanted me alive I—I’ll never see again unless I die.”
Fat tears choked me, and I hated it. I could feel myself flush with shame.
“I’m a stranger in an unknown land. I have no friends who could—who could even begin to understand me. And the one person I thought would finally be my family,” I clenched my fists hard. “Doesn’t want me.”
I bowed my head, unable to meet his steady gaze any longer, hunching over as though to hide. I hadn’t missed how the conversations going on behind me had gone quiet, even though I had spoken in barely above a whisper.
Derrick gave a soft sigh. “Oh, Lilly…”
But before he could do anything more than that, I felt Gus’s hands tugging on the back of my apron.
“Up,” he said. “Come on.”
I kept my head down as I let Gus pull me from the quiet common room and into the shelter of the hall. He didn’t stop there, though, but took us back into our room, which was across from the kitchen. There, he nudged me onto the bed.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Did someone mess with you? Did something happen in town?”
I really, really didn’t want to be around Gus right now. Every part of me was screaming to be alone. Would he follow me if I got up and left, even if I told him to stay? He never listened to me anyways.
See? He had never been my baby.
“Oy, Lilly, tell me what’s wrong. Jeeze, at least put your apron to your face, you already got snot dripping down.”
That did it. I pushed him back and pulled my legs in, not caring that I was getting my boots on the bed. I covered my face with my brand new pink skirts, the fabric still so rough compared to most that I had back home.
There was a pregnant pause.
“No,” he finally said. “You have that look again, like you’re remembering bad things or going bad places. I’m not going till you stop.”
Screw it. Nothing came from putting forth any energy or effort in this world anyway.
And as wailing scream of despair started to percolate in my gut, following up on the trail of my tears, I did what I had learned to do back then when my husband had left me to the storm in the hospital, staring at a bottle full of dead baby.
I shut down.
I cut a wall between me, my emotions, and my thoughts. I went numb. I disconnected.
Because over that wall, my thoughts were screaming the inevitable conclusion to trusting Nehcor. And it was that there was no way I could do anything against a god. My mom, my babies, my life, were forever separated from me, and there was nothing I could do.
The scream died before it could get out. My tears slowed. The cold fell into my hands and feet, like frostbite, and I went still.
But, even though I ignored him, Gus didn’t leave.
Rather, he tried to get me to respond again. He shook me. He pulled my fingers. Pinched the back of my hand. Clapped my cheeks. At some point it began to get weird how hard he was trying. Most would have just thrown their hands and assumed the person just needed to be alone. But just leaving me alone didn’t seem to be an option for Gus. Something had scared him, and I was too overwhelmed and numb to care. After ten minutes it was a wonder that Hal and Milly hadn’t come back to see why we hadn’t come out yet. I could hear their voices now and then, talking to what sounded like Derrick up front, but was hard to tell against the background noise of the customers.
Finally, at some point, chewing his bottom lip and eyebrows puckered, he put his hands to either side of my head, as though to slap my temples rather than my cheeks.
Hair thin threads of heat seeped where his skin made contact. They coiled in deep and jerky, like diving centipedes, unlike the smooth swoops and lines of my own magic. The deeper they got, the less aware I become of my surroundings, and the more aware I became of the calming darkness of my own mind. Or rather, the calmness outside an equally black wall, where something rioted within.
I wanted to dive into that cool blackness. I wanted it to swallow me whole, let me sink down, until every speck of what made me ceased to exist. It was a beautiful, delicious dream. It told me how sharp Milly kept her knives. It told me there had been an apothecary near the square I had gone shopping in that day, which should have sedatives. There were ways. Everything would be okay. I’d already finished my life, hadn’t I? Surely God couldn’t hold ending it against me. Dying wasn’t so bad, even if it hurt a little. It would only be scary for a moment. I’d already done it once.
The hot threads snapped out like lightning, leaving a painful buzzing in my ears. I’d lifted my head back at some point, but it took me several blinks to see Gus in front of me, his eyes popping as they never had before and his mouth dropped open like a howl.
Then the sound came back.