My mother has been ignoring my calls. The night before my father’s funeral I toss and turn for hours, imagining every possible outcome of our reunion. The sun has barely crept over the bruised horizon when I step out into the frosty morning air; the visitation starts at ten and I want to arrive early enough to talk to my mom without any gossiping onlookers.
Hunter is already waiting for me when I arrive at the bus station. His hair is stark against his black dress clothes and his scars are more apparent as well. His hands are in his pockets again, though the frigid weather could be to blame.
“Have you ever thought of dying your hair?” I ask by way of greeting.
He chuckles and runs his hand through his hair, “You don’t like redheads?”
“I just thought that it might be a bit conspicuous for a wanted man,” my voice is low. I stand next to him, waiting for our bus to pull into the allotted space. Four or five other people stand in front of us, forming a haphazard line.
“It feels… dishonest to me,” he quietly explains, “Like pretending to be someone I’m not. I don’t want to fit the role of a criminal just because that’s what they’d like to cast me as. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t want them to catch me, but if they do I have no intention of denying who I am or what I’m trying to do.”
“It’s kind of nice short,” I say and it takes him a minute to realize I’ve returned to talking about his hair. When he does, he laughs again and pulls a strand of it in front of his eye. It barely reaches now though I remember it once brushed his shoulders.
“It’s alright,” he says, like he’s still getting used to it, “Grant did a pretty good job.”
“Grant?” I smile in surprise.
The bus pulls in and we all shuffle together to tighten the line. He moves ahead of me but turns back and says, “It got burnt that night in the… scuffle. He cut it for me to even it out. I was as surprised as you are.”
I laugh as we climb up the steps and find some seats. I sit against the window, its cold glass pressed against my arm. I’m keenly aware of how close Hunter is to me. Now that we’re seated he is forced to remove his hands from his pockets. He places them awkwardly in his lap, clasping them together like he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. I wish I knew how to make him more comfortable. I figure the best way with Hunter is to approach the topic directly.
“Why do you avoid touching people?” I ask, trying to make the question sound casual and not something I’ve contemplated for a long time.
He turns and looks at me, his smile assuaging my apprehensions. “I want people to trust me, I guess,” he says and turns his palms face-up so he can stare at them. His expression turns to one of consternation and maybe even a little disgust. “I want them to know I have no intention of hurting them. And I don’t want them to have to always question whether or not I worked them over when I shook their hand or patted their back. So I don’t.”
“Grant told me Mirena used to practice on you guys as kids.”
He nods, putting his hands back in his lap and leaning his head against the seat. “I never wanted to be like her. She used to torture me when we were pupils together – jealous whenever I succeeded where she failed. When our master died she became my teacher. Then she stopped picking on me and tried to force me to be like her instead.”
“She made you hurt other people?” I recall that he once blamed Yagher for his family’s choice to train him as a skin mage; I’m beginning to understand where he might have gathered enough resentfulness and rage to assault him.
“She would have me search for memories in people who had committed violent crimes. So I would see through their eyes what they’d done. She’d make me do it over and over until the memories were so real I thought I had committed their crimes,” his grey eyes are distant, boring into the seat ahead of him. I wonder how many lives worth of memories he carries. “I lost it once and lashed out at her. Johannes caught me before I could reach her – tore through my face. He always watched me closely after that and I never bothered going after her again.”
“Johannes? Was he close with Mirena? Wait… were they…? Is that why she’s so desperate to make my life hell?”
“It’s hard to say actually. He was crazy about her, but she never seemed to show any sort of affection towards anyone. She let him stick around, but I think that was because she found him convenient. He kept her enemies at bay and provided her with a strong connection to Solomon House. The only things she ever did seem to care about were animals,” his deep voice, usual patient and gentle, is filled with revulsion and indignation. It’s the first time I’ve heard him talk about someone as though he hated them.
“I’m sorry if I’m prying or making you think about things you’d rather not.” I know what it’s like to want to leave the past exactly where it is.
“No, it’s alright,” his voice is apologetic and he smiles at me, drawing my attention again to his scar and inevitably to his lips, “It’s probably good to talk about it with someone. Most people don’t ask about my past. I think they’d rather not know more than necessary when it comes to skin mages.”
“Well, I’m here to listen… if you need it,” I hope he can’t detect the nervous tremor in my voice.
“What about you?” he asks, “I know this is difficult for you today. You said your dad was abusive? Is it okay if I ask about it?”
At first I feel defensive; all of my muscles tense and I feel like dismissing the question. The tension dissipates as I answer, as if I am passing off a great responsibility. A private burden I’d been carrying all this time. “It’s okay. A few people know about it already… Brie and I grew up together so she was around sometimes when it happened. I stopped seeing him around the time I started university. Well… when I quit actually. He flew off the handle about it and I realized that every time I visited him it always ended with my mother and I getting hurt. So I stopped visiting.”
“Your mom didn’t take it too well.”
“No. I tried to talk to her about it, tell her I wasn’t trying to shut her out, but she couldn’t understand. I told her I would go out of my way to visit her away from my dad and that she could come see me whenever she wanted. I told her he was abusive – she’d said it before herself, but suddenly she was trying to convince me that it wasn’t his fault. That it was our responsibility to tiptoe around him,” I look away from Hunter to the passing trees and farms outside of the window. I don’t want to cry over a decision I made years ago. I take a few slow breaths. “I think she saw it as a betrayal. Like I was leaving her to face him on her own. Sometimes I wonder if she isn’t right.”
“It’s probably hard for her to see things clearly,” he says gently, “You didn’t choose your father, she chose her husband. It’s a different kind of challenge, leaving that behind.”
“That’s what my shrink says too.”
“That doesn’t mean what you did is wrong. Hurting yourself wouldn’t have helped your mother escape the situation. And she probably doesn’t realize that watching him hurt her is its own form of abuse.”
Mr. Harris said that Hunter was orphaned — I wonder if that means people like Mirena were the only family he had. If so, maybe what we’ve experienced isn’t entirely dissimilar.
“But she was still stuck there, facing him every day on her own…”
“She could have chosen to leave. You did.”
“Yeah, but if it’s like you and my doctor say, and she’s sick… if she doesn’t see a way out…”
“Did you say this to her? Did you tell her you thought he was hurting her? Did you ask her to get help?” I wonder how a voice can be so strong and confident yet so tender.
I nod, afraid that if I open my mouth a sob will escape instead of my voice. The tears must be obvious now, but some part of me is relieved that I can share this. That he’s the one here to listen.
“Selene, we’re all faced with choices. You made one and so did your mother. You question your choice every day, don’t you? Wonder if it was the right one? Run through the logic you used to come to each conclusion? But you still stuck to that decision, even to the very end. It’s hard to stare our decisions in the face like that and sometimes it’s easier to say someone made it for us. That we took the only avenue left to us. I think that’s very rarely the case — there’s always another choice, we just don’t always want to see it. You took that difficult choice no one wanted to admit was there.”
When I turn and face him, he’s staring at me with an expression I can’t quite decipher. Like he’s impressed somehow, but also deeply saddened. After a minute he offers me a gentle smile and I accept it gratefully.
“Thank you,” is all I can think to say.
He shakes his head, “All I did is tell you what I think.”
“Well I appreciate it anyway,” I smile at him.
During the remainder of the trip he tells me about all of the places he travelled, first as a child and again after leaving Freyja house. When I ask, he tells me that he picked up Caelen in Scotland while visiting with his then-living parents. He begged them to let him keep the animal, telling no one about the cat’s mysterious ability to speak.
When we pull into our station we’re laughing, engrossed in each other’s stories and anecdotes. For a while, it’s easy to forget why we’re here.