We walk slowly through the thick wood, our every step heralded by the crunch of fallen leaves. Caelen’s dark form darts in and out of my sight as he is camouflaged by the shadowed undergrowth. My anticipation and fear mingle into a near-unbearable tension. Mirena also seems tense – her movements are almost robotic, as if every muscle is taught with the expectation of a trap.
A cold breeze slips past us and carries a hint of whispered conversation. Mirena hesitates, but my steps do not falter; Hunter’s voice is unmistakeable. A moment later and I can make out two figures, one with a head of bright red hair, the other salt-and-pepper. Hunter and Grant.
Hunter runs forward to greet us. He slips out of his jacket, wrapping it around my bare arms and pulling me into a tight embrace. The sudden intensity of the gesture makes me lose my breath, but his warmth helps me find it again. I look up and over his shoulder to find Grant staring at us, completely bewildered. He raises an eyebrow in question and I smile back, no less surprised.
“I’m so glad you’re alright,” Hunter whispers in my ear. He pulls away from me and returns his hands to their usual station in his pockets. Until he sees Mirena.
She lingers several paces behind me, watching the scene unfold. Hunter removes his hands from his pockets and holds them awkwardly at his sides. To a stranger it would seem a meaningless gesture, but to present company it’s an obvious threat.
“Why are you here?” he growls at her. Grant shuffles closer to us and pulls a blue, luminescent crystal from his pocket.
I run in front of Mirena, holding Hunter’s jacket close around me. “I told her she’d be safe here. I couldn’t have escaped without her.”
“She’s the reason you were in there in the first place!” Hunter objects. His face is twisted in rage and hatred. His scar is stretched and for the first time I see how far it runs along his chin and down his neck.
“That doesn’t matter now! I promised that we would help her. I showed her what you’re trying to accomplish,” I’m acutely aware how loud my voice is, how loud all of our voices are. If any pursuers are nearby, they will have heard us by now.
“You’re a fucking traitor, Hunter,” Mirena says with her usual venomous calm, “But I’ll take you over the alternative.”
You’re not helping, Mirena…
“I know you,” there is a darkness in Hunter’s voice that is alien to me – an absence of the warmth that I’ve come to define him by, “This is just a fucking ploy. Some kind of game to get what you want. That’s all anything is to you.”
There’s something familiar about his words. About the way his eyes glaze over when he talks about her.
“Hunter, you have to listen to me. Let’s put this aside until we get out of here…”
“No, Selene. She’s dangerous. She’s hurt more people than you can imagine. She’s hurt you,” his attention is fixed on her even though he’s speaking to me, “Did she touch you while you were in there? How do you know she hasn’t tricked you into believing whatever she wants?”
I understand now.
“This isn’t about me, is it Hunter?” I take a couple of steps towards him, forcing him to look at me, “You know, Yagher said the exact same thing about you. Even your face – it’s just like his was.”
He shudders as if something inside of him has suddenly broken. “You don’t know what she’s done to me,” he says, and his voice also breaks. Tears are pooling in the corners of his eyes.
“Then show me,” I say gently, reaching out a hand to him, “but not now. We have to get out of here. Please, give Mirena the chance you want Yagher to give you.”
I see his eyes flicker to Mirena standing behind me. For a second I see the fury build, but it quickly fades as he reaches out his hand to me. There is no vision when he takes it, only the warmth of his skin against mine. He pulls me forward and says, “Let’s get out of here.”
There is a minivan waiting for us at the edge of the woods. I don’t recognize the driver, an older woman with long silver hair tied up in a bandana – one of Hunter’s connections it seems. Mirena sits in the very back, alone. Hunter sits in front of her, his eyes trained on her hands. I sit beside him and watch out the window as rural shifts into urban, the entire van draped in suffocating silence.
Though no one has given instruction, the driver stops in front of a massive high rise apartment building on the edge of town. Hunter glares at Mirena before getting out and calling for me to follow. Grant turns his attention to Mirena as we walk away, apparently taking Hunter’s place as her unofficial guard.
When we reach the front entrance Hunter pulls a key fob out of his pocket and waves it in front of a keypad on the outside wall. The glass doors slide smoothly open and we walk into a cavernous lobby. It’s not particularly well maintained though it looks like it may have been luxurious a decade or so ago. I wonder if we’re meeting someone here.
We call the elevator and ride it up to the eleventh floor. Hunter is oddly silent, but I assume it has something to do with the bystanders crammed in beside us. When we reach the fourteenth floor he leads me to a door at the end of the hall which he opens with a key attached to the fob.
Inside, the small apartment is nearly empty. There are basic appliances – a fridge, stove, and microwave – and a single, ragged-looking couch. Hunter passes me the key and fob.
“When Caelen told me how Yagher took you, I figured you would need a place to hide out,” he explains, “We keep this place around for times like this. I’m sorry it’s not more. We’ll try to get you some of your things and a TV or something. Your friend Brie will bring some clothes by this evening.”
I’d been so relieved that we had managed to escape, that I hadn’t thought about what would happen next. Of course Yagher will be looking for me. “I can’t go out, can I?”
Hunter tilts his head and bites his lip apologetically. I’m sure he has experience lying low for long periods of time. “I’m sorry, Selene. We’ll feel out the situation and go from there. Whatever you need just tell us.”
“No, you shouldn’t be sorry,” I walk the short distance from the front door to the couch and sit down. A cloud of dust rises and then slowly floats back down to rest on the brown-grey fabric once more. “I’m the one who got myself into this mess. I shouldn’t have trusted Yagher. I should have been more careful.”
Hunter sits beside me and shakes his head. “You can’t think like that. Yagher betrayed your trust.”
“I lied too. I’m no better than he is.”
“I think it’s a lot more complicated than that,” he says, and I notice that he hasn’t actually contradicted me, “You blame yourself for a lot of things, don’t you?”
“I don’t trust myself,” I stare at my hands in my lap, unable to meet his eyes, “When I lived with my parents, well… I felt responsible for everything that happened. To me and my mom. My dad always said it was our own fault. He never felt guilty for anything. Never thought anything bad could happen because of something he’d done. I don’t want to be that person. I’m terrified of being that person.”
“So you blame yourself for everything? You can’t live like that.” His large hand reaches out and covers my smaller one, making my heart race. I look up at him and I can tell he wants to ask me something.
“What is it?” I prompt, and he pulls his hand back as if confused how it got there.
“I was just wondering, what made you finally cut ties with your father? What made you finally lay the blame on him?” He must see my discomfort when he asks, because he quickly adds, “You don’t have to tell me. I know it must have been an incredibly hard decision.”
I feel nauseous as I speak, plunging myself into the darkest moments of my life to recall the story.
“My doctor, he helped me. My psychiatrist,” I speak in quick sentences, taking breaths between each and trying not to stutter. Simultaneously gathering my thoughts and my courage makes coherent speech a challenge, “I was in crisis. It was a couple of months since I had visited with my parents. Told them I was leaving school to sing. They were so disappointed. I… I started hurting myself. I had done it before as a teenager. Finding sharp things, cutting where no one would see. It made me feel better. I thought I deserved it.”
I breathe deeply, struggling to continue. Hunter waits patiently until I’m ready.
“I finally told Dr. Maharta. I spent a couple of nights in a psychiatric ward. I talked to some other patients. One of the girls, she told me about how her father would hit her mother whenever she did something he didn’t like. She told me how she deserved to die because if she were gone her mother would be safe. No matter what I said, she couldn’t understand that it was her father choosing to hurt her mother, not her. It got me thinking about abuse, and guilt, and blame. The next time I talked to my doctor, I actually heard what he was saying. He helped me gather some resources to give to my mother, and he helped me prepare to talk to my father.”
“What did you say to him?”
“I told him that I suffered from depression and that I was getting help. That our relationship was harmful to me and that I didn’t feel comfortable being around him until he got help too. Until he made an attempt to change. Of course he said I was sick and selfish and he didn’t need help. He never even tried to fix things.”
Hunter is silent beside me, his eyes searching my face. I can’t imagine what he’s thinking.
“I haven’t told many people about the… the cutting. Most people roll their eyes and tell me to look at things positively. To stop whoring for attention. So I get it if it upsets you.”
He shakes he head for a long time before he finally answers, “Most of us only acknowledge the scars on the outside as real. Only the pain we can see. I understand why someone might feel like they need to bring that pain to the surface to justify feeling it. To make it into a wound they know will heal.”
His acceptance is precious to me and I’m afraid to lose it. To lose this moment. I bite the inside of my cheek, preventing myself from telling him more. From sharing anything that might risk that trust. Instead I nod a little, trying to ignore my stinging eyes and the dampness on my cheeks.
“I’m sorry things have gotten so out of control, Selene,” he whispers.
“I chose to be part of this,” I remind him, “I’m just worried I’ve messed things up for everyone else.”
“No. Even if we had somehow won Yagher over, which I don’t think we could have, Marle would still have opposed us. It was always going to happen this way,” he sounds sad now, and I wonder if his own guilt is weighing heavy on him after Yagher’s rejection.
“They’re waiting for me.” There is reluctance in his voice as he stands, brushing the dust off of his jeans, “But I’ll come back soon and I’ll make sure you get a phone so you can contact us. Is there anything urgent you need from your place?”
“Not really,” I say, mentally listing my personal belongings, “I’m pretty sure I left my purse in Mr. Harris’ apartment, but I’m guessing that’s off limits now.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he says with a smile. He hesitates at the door for a moment, “Thank you for today. What you said about Mirena. She… she hurt me, Selene. She made me hurt other people. She reminds me of everything I almost was. I don’t think I can trust her, but I will do what I can to hear her out and work with her.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t trust her either,” I say, desperate wishing that he would stay just a little longer, “But I think we owe her a chance.”
“I just hope she doesn’t throw it away,” he looks down and shakes his head a little, obviously daunted by the prospect of bringing her into his confidence. “See you soon.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you soon.”
When he is gone, I slowly rise and walk to the door, locking the handle and deadbolt securely. I turn and look at the tiny apartment, empty of nearly everything but copious amounts of dust.
“Well, at least I don’t have to look for a new place,” I say aloud as I slide my back down the door and sit on cold tile of the entryway floor. I lean my head back, breathing deeply and failing miserably to convince myself that everything is okay.