July 2, 2028 (cont.)
Heartstrong Valley, Colorado
She lifted her pale fingers to her lips, a rosy red apple in her clutches. “So, where am I going to sleep?” Relieved to see their same dumbfounded stares, she took a large bite of the apple and again smiled broadly at their bewildered but blissful faces.
It took a while, minutes in fact, for them to take in the sight, for them to accept her presence. She was, indeed, not a ghost, nor a specter.
There she stood, tall, in full form, and devious as only her nature could be.
Surprisingly, Ira was first to recover. His voice quavering with emotions, his head pounding as if he had been hit, he stammered, “You… you’re alive… But how? You were buried beneath tons of plaster.” His breathing became quick. “You were alive… and we left you!”
Chuckling, as if it was an idyllic memory, Meryl explained, “Well, I did suffer from the collapse.” Heaving a nonchalant sigh, she postured, “It took me awhile to escape the ruins of the Palace, thankfully we were safe beneath a solid part of the structure. The hardest part was climbing through without damaging ourselves any further.” Gasping, as if she remembered something, she added, “And although I haven’t told anyone, as I have been trying to hide it, my leg aches every time I move. Of course, having glass shards jabbing into me as I battle to reach the surface is no picnic.”
Wondering how she could speak of her near-death experience as if she were discussing the weather, the men would never know.
As the tension rose following her statement, she opened her arms, “Well, say something. Reproach, admiration, hatred… C’mon, I need to hear something more than the bugs buzzing outside.”
Alec leaned over and turned on the ceiling light so they could see clearly. Recovering from the immediate brilliance, they found that she had in fact been in the midst of an explosion.
Even though most of the blemishes she had received were fully healed, there were still the unmistakable scars from being burned, scratched, punched, and even crushed.
“If you won’t say anything then I will.” Meryl threw out the apple core and pulled a small orange bottle from her pocket. Tossing it a few inches up in the air and catching it, she asked, “So, Raven, how long have you been on antidepressants?”
Everyone blinked, and then turned to stare at their captain with a look of astonishment, and incredulity.
Ira felt his blood pressure rising, whether because of the medication, or seeing her in the flesh, he could not tell. All he knew was that he needed air.
With the bands clutched tightly in his fist, he pushed past his friends, his family, and nearly ran out of the kitchen.
Sighing, rolling her eyes, Meryl whispered loudly, “There he goes again. He can be such a child.”
“Well, you feigned death for the second time,” Alec responded with a cheeky smile, he placed his hands on his hips. “Yes, he can act childish. But Meryl, you have made no attempt to contact him for several months. And then, without warning, you show up. What were you expecting?”
“Hm...” Meryl tapped her lips with her finger, “Something other than running away. I’ll take hatred over that. I figured he would’ve seen that reporter’s interviews.” After a short, uneasy pause, she studied Alec’s guilty look. “You kept him away from the news, didn’t you?”
He nodded uncomfortably. “Yeah, he was better off not knowing. He was already on the meds; I didn’t want to further his depression.”
The others glared at the man. Charlie asked angrily. “You knew?”
As if to defend himself, Alec held up his hands. “I only found out today.”
“But, you didn’t tell us.” Chris crossed his arms.
“I didn’t know how to! Anyway! Meryl, how did you find this place? What made you come back?”
“A dear friend of mine said I should return, and for once, I took her advice.”
“But how did you get here?” Charlie restated the first question.
Meryl shifted and batted the inquiry away as if it were an annoying pest. “I really don’t want to answer that. It’s better left unspoken.”
“Okay, then how did you find our home?”
“Are you kidding?” she stared at them dubiously, “Have you read the national newspapers?”
They shook their heads, glancing curiously at her.
“The five heroes who saved the world turn towards a normal life,” she quoted word for word.
Their jaws dropped.
“They mentioned us?” Charlie asked stupidly.
Exasperated by their ignorance, Meryl laughed. “Of course they mentioned you!” She stared at them. This time, she was bewildered, but happy. “You five are famous. You saved the world. You saved the presidents, and you stopped a madman from creating further destruction!”
Responding quietly, Chris corrected, “We merely ceased his attempts. You ended his reign.”
Meryl smiled and shook her head, “You all deserve the credit, I was just a convenient asset, and I prefer to stay behind the curtain.”
“Well since you are back, Ghost, you are very welcome to stay with us.” Alec approached her and held out his arms like a brother.
She grinned. “I just hope your captain can harmonize with that.”
Alec scoffed with a wave of his hand. “Oh, he’ll get over it. When it comes to you, he always does. He loves you too much to stay angry with you… for long.”
The boys gathered and hugged her in turn. As she wiped away threatening tears, she declared, “Now, if you will excuse me, I must reconcile with the troubled raven.”
Opening the front door slowly, Meryl found Ira sitting on the porch, his head in his hands, his breathing quick with emotions running amok.
With the porch lights off, the moon illuminated Ira’s silhouette, as if comforting him.
Before she could say two words, Ira stifled a shuddering sigh, straightened up, and commanded tersely, “Go away, Meryl.”
“You are not my captain, Ira,” she whispered coldly, even though there was a hint of enjoyment, which only furthered his ill will.
“I don’t care.” Ira choked up.
Taking a step forward, she stood right behind him. “I can explain why I didn’t come back sooner. Look, I came all this way to find you, to explain everything to you.”
He stood up quickly and faced her; with him on the lower step, he had to look up to her. “Do you realize what kind of pain you put me through? Twice now, I thought you were dead. Twice! Once is enough to drive a man over the edge, but you have done that twice! And was that blackbird on the window sill your idea?”
Ira did not answer, he could barely see her features, except her eyes. They were a brighter blue than he had ever realized, almost luminescent; though he suspected that it was partially the lunar sphere’s doing.
“Listen,” she composed, “I would have come back sooner, but I was in a coma for a month, spent another few weeks with a bitchy, nosy, intrusive reporter and Kai. And then I spent another couple of weeks looking for your knife.”
She held out the palms of her hands in the light to show him the scars she had received while trying to recover his heirloom. They were the freshest, still red.
If she thought that would amend the tormenting months he spent mourning for her, she was dead wrong.
“How could you do this? To Matthew, to me?” his voice broke.
“It wasn’t like I planned this!” Meryl, affronted by his pained, urgent voice, took the offensive. She tried to rally his thoughts with anything but depression.
“Is that why you are on the antidepressants?”
Ira’s spine stiffened, and it was not missed by Blackbird’s ever-watchful gaze.
“I see.” She paused dramatically. “So suffering from the loss of friends, results in taking drugs? Aren’t you supposed to be Heartstrong, as you commendably titled the place?”
So far, Ira had avoided getting too close to her, as if nearing her, hearing her heartbeat would confirm that she was actually there, and not just another hallucination.
However, her words stung him deeply.
Stepping up on the porch, he grasped her shoulders and held her at arm’s length, “I am taking those meds because I lie awake every night, reading your journal, suffering from New York City, from Reims, from you. Every time I close my eyes I keep seeing your death replay and again and again I fail to save you.”
Her fingers found his biceps, snaked up his arms, past his shoulders, and slid behind his neck. “Is that why you never found a girl and married? Because you are haunted by your past?” her soft tone turned chill, “Join the club, Ira. So many people in the world suffer as you do, yet they do not resort to drugs for help. They have their families, friends, and loved ones to talk to.”
“I didn’t want to burden the guys with my problems. And considering that all of my loved ones are dead, there’s a pretty slim chance that I could ever talk to them.”
“Is that true?” her voice lowered as she steadily drew him closer, “Are all your loved ones dead?”
Chest pounding achingly, he felt her pull him nearer, and he made no attempt to push her away. Her warm breath hit his cheek, she was so close that he could smell her floral perfume, but he turned away from the tempting scent,
“Yes,” he muttered tersely.
Chuckling softly, she leaned forward and found his lips with hers, “Liar.”
As soon as they had made contact, Ira felt lighter than he had in years. His arms wrapped around her neck and the small of her back. His fingers molded to match her figure.
She was real. She was here.
No antidepressant could make him feel as he felt now, the bliss and the passion he felt was stronger, by far.
Breaking away only to take a breath, Ira whispered, “You said Kai had survived… How did you defeat him?”
Euphoric beyond any comparison, Meryl smiled and shook her head. “Tomorrow, I promise to tell you, and the others, tomorrow.”
His fingers cupped her cheeks as he pressed his brow against her forehead. “So, you won’t leave this time?”
Smiling broadly, she whispered, “I promise.”
He seemed to consider this answer; he drew away and rummaged through his pockets. Suddenly grabbing her wrist, he pulled her into the moon’s light so he could see her more clearly.
Smiling, he reprimanded her. “After many years of knowing you, I know your promises never seem to hold true. Meryl, I want you to marry me.”
A stunned muteness followed this avowal; he gazed at her petrified features. Then, she blinked, “What?”
“Meryl, I want to marry you.” He bent on one knee and held the ring with the garnet up to her. The blood red stone glimmered; even after the years and trials it had been a part of, it was still in pristine shape.
“Ira… don’t you want to wait? I mean… I’ve only just returned…” she felt her legs weaken as she lost her voice. He wants to marry me?
He stood and held her shoulders, “I’ve been waiting for over a decade. And I know you have too.” He added with a beaming smile, “I read your journal, the passage about when we first met, when you fell out of the tree?”
“I was a kid then, we all were!” She half smiled, recollecting those days.
“And yet, here we are, almost fifteen years later. Meeting almost exactly where we started.”
A single tear slid down her cheek. Fifteen years, so much has happened since then, since we were carefree teenagers. Now look at us – older, battle worn, scarred.
Clutching his jawline, she kissed his warm, scruffy cheek and whispered, “Of course I’ll marry you. For better or for worse. I love you, Raven.”
His fingers ran through her hair, then his arms pulled her into a tight embrace. Ira kissed her tenderly. “I love you, Blackbird.”