Eternity's Edge: Embrace

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Chapter 7

“What’s wrong with me?”

Wendell and I were once again seated at his kitchen table enjoying a late dinner as I poured out my grief and frustration over the day’s events. There had been a subdued, almost cautionary way in which Andrew and I had interacted at work today and the awkwardness of his admission to me back at his apartment still hung heavily in the air between us. The situation was further aggravated by Karla’s inexhaustible perkiness, but when it became apparent that Andrew was unwilling to mention—much less continue—what had happened at the karaoke bar, her mood had turned sullen, clearly hurt by the rebuff. The tension swirling around the office today had been thick enough to cut with a knife, and I highly doubted that it had escaped the other co-workers’ notice.

I sniffed back tears and raked my hands up through my hair. “Of course I have nothing against Andrew and Karla being happy, but is it too much to ask of the universe that he find happiness with me?” I laughed mirthlessly. “God, I am so pathetic.”

Wendell reached across the table and took my hand. “No, you’re not. You’re in love and being jealous of another woman who shares his affections is normal. Human almost.”

I met his gaze levelly. “But I’m not human.”

He spread his hands as if to indicate that that didn’t matter. “You’re immortal sure, but not amoral. You have a heart and it still and always will experience human emotions.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I haven’t felt this way about anyone in so long and the loneliness feels like it’s crushing my heart one beat at a time. The fact that I don’t even understand why I feel this way about him isn’t exactly helping.” I let out a shaky breath and stared down at the table top. “I’m beginning to understand why so few of us survive the centuries.”

He nodded sympathetically. “When Helen died I thought that I would die too. The pain and loneliness were unbearable and were all I knew, and there were times that I regretted having loved her at all. Oh, I got over it eventually,” he added after seeing my shocked expression. “I eventually learned to move on with my life and came to appreciate it for all the things that I did still have: my health such as it was, my children and grandchildren, you.”

I offered him a warm smile and he continued. “I know that nothing can ever replace your late husband the same way that nothing can replace my wife, but for both our sakes learn to find happiness where you can.”

I nodded. “I know, and I’m trying really hard to not let my emotions get the better of me. I mean they both deserve to be happy and if they are happy together, well then I can be happy for them too.”

He squeezed my hand. “Who knows? Maybe one of these days you’ll meet another immortal like you and hit it off. Stranger things have happened.”

This time I laughed. “Yes, they have.” I paused, the levity suddenly drained from the mood. “Today is my anniversary.”

Wendell went very still and when he spoke his voice was sympathetic. “Where will you go this time?”

I sighed, hating this part of my existence. “There’s a relatively deserted place along where Andrew and I went during my first day on the job; no one will see or hear me.”

He nodded. “You’ll call me if you need anything, right?” It was an old joke between us. Wendell was far too old to be of any real help to me—not that anyone could prevent the painful and debilitating process anyway—but just knowing that he cared made me feel like I wasn’t such a monster.

I squeezed his hand gently. “Yes. I’ll call if I need anything.”

*************

The drive over to the place in question was pleasantly devoid of traffic, but given the relatively isolated location and late hour—or early hour, depending on how you looked at it—this wasn’t entirely unexpected. The hillsides with their scraggly trees and sparse brush looked ghostly and surreal under the pale light of the moon as I steered the car effortlessly down a dirt side road. It was at this point that I killed the lights on the car—I had excellent night vision—and followed the road’s meandering curves for another two miles before shutting off the engine. For a few moments I simply sat behind the wheel listening to the rhythmic ticking of the engine as it cooled and of the night noises that were audible only to myself. I knew that it was foolish to prolong this moment and the familiar tightness in my skin informed me that I had only minutes in which to prepare myself. With a final glance at the hillsides gleaming silver in the moonlight, I picked up my phone from the console and ensured that it was on and fully charged.

It was.

‘You’ll call me if you need anything, right?’ Wendell’s words echoed back to me and I clung to them like a talisman.

Cool wind gusted my hair back from my face as I stepped out of the car and shut the door with a slight snick. I decided to head to the left of the spot that I had chosen as the tree line offered me a moderately sufficient hiding place on the off-chance that some mortal might stumble upon me in mid transformation. Once there I set about stripping my clothes off and then carefully folded and placed them on a nearby rock. I knelt down and hugged my arms close to my body, bracing myself for what was coming next. My skin had already gone from uncomfortably tight to itchy, and the sensation was spreading rapidly from my toes up to the roots of my hair. I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath as the first spasm began to blossom low in my abdomen, and just as I released the air in my lungs the spasm tore through my stomach and up into my chest cavity.

I cried out as my heart rate shot up into a dangerously elevated state, but I knew that no matter what torture my body was about to endure that I would survive the process. I always did, and each year it grew worse.

Whimpering, I eased myself onto my side and wrapped my arms tight around my torso and drew my knees up to my chest. By now my limbs were jerking sporadically as spasms radiated through and among each of them, seemingly at random. I risked a glance down at my hands and saw that the skin was no longer tight, but was wrinkled and hanging loosely. Age spots dotted my once pristine hands and the fingers were crooked and twisted into horrid claws. As I watched, the nails yellowed and began to peel away in shreds while the skin shrank and cleaved to the bones, transforming me into a living skeleton. It seemed nearly impossible to breathe in these moments as my body suffered this unnatural torture, as my limbs withered and my eyes dimmed and shrank back deep into my skull. For half a heartbeat I longed for death.

My mouth opened in a silent scream as the tendons which normally controlled such motions grew brittle and snapped. All vision was lost to me now as my eyes shriveled up and I was dimly aware of my hair falling away from me in drifts as dry as the grass I lay on. My lungs contracted as they and the rest of my organs began to desiccate, and I felt my heartbeat began to skitter wildly before it lay still and leaden in my chest.

And now the true horror begins.

For all intents and purposes I was dead, my body reduced to little more than a bundle of dried bones and crumbling dust swirling around in the light breeze, yet I was not. I had never experienced one moment where consciousness eluded me and I was aware of everything, of every sound, of every sensation. Only Hell itself could have conceived of such a punishment, and I found myself contemplating—not for the first time—whether I was truly damned or not.

I didn’t know how long I lingered in this terrifying half-life, though surely it was no more than the space between heartbeats. Seemingly all at once I became aware of the darkness receding from my lost vision and of the coalescing of all my senses returning to me at once. I was aware of some unseen force winding sinuously around and within me, restoring substance to my fractured form before settling firmly at the base of my spine. Bones realigned themselves as sinew and cartilage came into being seemingly from the void and gradually muscles reconnected and remembered how to move. Organs, blood, and other viscera bloomed within me, reanimated and pumping furiously. Air was forced into my lungs seemingly outside my control and the sound was little more than a dry shriek. Little by little I could feel the flesh filling out the contours of my body and I was able to flex my hands, the skin once again creamy and flawless.

All trace of any injuries that I had received in the past year had been completely healed away.

Blinking, I once more was able to see the nighttime details with unnatural clarity and my ears picked up the faintest of sounds. With a shaking breath I managed to sit up and took stock of my surroundings and found that I was alone as I had hoped to be. No one had seen or heard me in my agony and come to investigate, and for the time being I was afforded the privacy I needed to collect my thoughts and my clothes.

I was a little unsteady as I made my way slowly back to the car, but it soon vanished in the wake of the soothing numbness I always put myself in once my ordeal was over. I barely remembered unlocking the door before I found myself once again behind the wheel staring blankly out at the night before me. For a precious few seconds I entertained the illusion that I was somehow shielded from the cruelties of fate, that those few individuals that I had allowed my path to cross were somehow protected from myself and the inevitable truth: that one day they would die while I would continue on alone forever.

Wendell I loved like a father, but Andrew reminded me of my long-lost youth, of innocence ripped whole and bleeding from me as I was flung headlong into a waking nightmare from which there was no escape. Andrew represented what was forever lost to me yet what was always temptingly within reach, if only I would submit and give in to my base nature, to create another of my kind to stave off the crushing loneliness of the passing centuries, to forge a companion of my own blood and eternal spirit in a bond as unbreakable as the heavens themselves.

The steering wheel creaked in protest and I hurriedly relaxed my grip. No. Andrew must be allowed to live his life as it was meant to be lived, without me and my unnatural hunger tainting it.

Are you sure that you have not interfered enough already? A small voice inside my head taunted. Just by meeting you, the path of his fate has already been irrevocably altered.

A small sound escaped my throat and I covered my eyes with my hands. My whole body was trembling with delayed shock and the strain of emotions that I had not allowed myself to properly acknowledge and deal with, and I felt the scream of anguish well up from the depths of my being moments before it burst forth from my lungs. Hot, angry tears streamed down my cheeks as I buried my face in my hands and wept. My cries sounded small and painfully young within the confines of the car and I sank forward until my head rested on the steering wheel. I let go of everything in those moments, relinquished my iron control of the emotions that I had kept locked deep within me and gave voice to my isolation and utter alienation.

As my cries gradually diminished into soft snuffles I felt light and oddly worn out, as if by purging myself of everything that had been weighing heavily on my consciousness had somehow brought on a form of absolution. Glancing down once again at my pristine hands, I was struck by a moment of profound clarity and it was then that I made my decision: I was going to call Crossman Estates tomorrow and resign. If the universe had a spark of compassion left in it, Andrew would not be the one to answer the phone. I imagined that if Karla were to answer that the news would bring her some measure of reassurance that what she and Andrew had experienced back at the karaoke bar had been more than alcohol-induced lust and fortunate timing.

I found myself smiling bitterly in the dark. Yes, they—he—deserved to be happy.

The tears still flowed freely but I was in control enough of my emotions to start the vehicle and make my way back towards my apartment to where Wendell was surely waiting up for me. I debated whether or not I should call him and tell him to go ahead and turn in, but I doubted that he would. He had always made an effort to sit up with me just making small talk after my ordeal, but tonight I didn’t feel up to it.

As I made my way up the stairs he was indeed seated in his customary camp chair outside his apartment. He must have seen something in my expression because he made a move to get up, concern written all over his face.

I held up a hand at his questioning gaze. “I’m resigning. As soon as the store opens tomorrow I’m calling in.” I gave a shaky sigh and ran my hands up through my hair. A few stray blades of dry grass still clung to it and came loose in my hand. I stared at them for a moment, remembering the feeling of isolation and alienation that had pervaded my mood ever since my ordeal had ended.

Unnatural. Outside of time. Inhuman.

I looked up and his watery blue eyes regarded me carefully. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Me too.” I let the blades of grass fall to the floor. “Come on, it’s late and way past your bedtime.”

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