Malika is uncertain if she will laugh, sob, or fall into an uncontrollable fit of both. This is far beyond any reaction she has ever experienced. An absurd race between hilarity and grief, roaring through her at unstoppable speeds, neck and neck with no clear victor. This would be deeply frightening, were it not for the expansive vacuum of stunned disbelief, simultaneously containing it all.
She does not respond to Chaplain Fauset. Does not think to respond. The terrible desperation is internal and silent. In her mind, she is continuously replaying what has been explained. Malika is searching for some hidden meaning, a possible misinterpretation on her part, or even a potential lie. Anything at all to help her dismiss this revelation.
Denial readily assures Malika this is wrong. She is very much alive. Of course, she is alive. The evidence is overwhelming, from her aching, exhausted body, to the continuing discomfort in her left arm. She smells the burning wood and traces of White Sage. She can feel the softness of the sofa beneath her and the welcomed warmth from the hearth. Everything feels as it should in this situation.
However, doubt gnaws, and squirms within this rapidly decaying reasoning, gorging itself on details that cannot be ignored. The abruptly empty city, that Beast, these Hunters and their masks, the ‘fireflies’, all of it is too much to simply “logic and reason” away.
“--this isn’t fair! This bullshit isn’t fair at all!”
Norah’s breaking voice draws Malika back to the conversation still apparently happening around her.
“No, it is not.” Chaplain Fauset readily agrees.
Glancing up, she finds Norah is now near the fireplace, raging through her tears, gripping her bloody shoulder. Octavia has also returned and is silently observing the situation from where she stands to the left of the circle.
Malika realizes she feels a touch dazed and lightheaded. She thinks to mention not feeling well, and maybe accept the earlier offer of being checked out by a doctor. The thought just as quickly leaves.
“Then why?!” Norah is still hoarsely yelling. “If it isn’t fair, why the fuck is it still happening? Why is this happening me? To any of us?”
“Every woman who pass through our doors, plead or demand, to know the answer to that very question. The truth is we do not know. Unfortunately, no one in the Legion has those answers. We can only see you through what is occurring right now.” Chaplain Fauset replies.
“That doesn’t fucking help! That explains absolutely nothing! What did I do to deserve any of this?”
“What has happened to you, is not about ‘deserve’, Norah.” Chaplain Fauset continues. “Suffering and injustice is rarely ever about ‘deserve’. They are frequently states inflicted upon others by the selfish appetites, desires, and callous actions of others. Unfortunately, this situation is no different.”
Malika lowers her eyes to the floor. The mute horror of these circumstances is still washing over her in big, rolling waves. The weight of her building guilt is threatening to pull her down into the crushing emotional darkness. She understands this is somehow her fault. She somehow caused all this—
“Stop it. You have no idea what happened.” Malika quickly rebukes herself. She desperately reasons things are clearly horrible enough without the self-destructive, personalizing, and filtering.
She needs answers. Malika goes to speak but her attention is diverted to her dress. Why does she keep coming back to this? It is such a silly and arbitrary thing to constantly return to. It is with profound sadness, she realizes, it is not vanity that keeps drawing her back. This was the last thing Ayana gave her. This ruined cocktail dress has become the only memento to remember her sister by.
“How did I let us drift so far apart?” Malika internally wonders.
They were so close. They told each other everything. Then she let Patrick come between them. It hurts to the core ruminating over how she, and her sister, barely spoken to one another, in roughly 4 years. So, then again, this dress is far more fitting as a souvenir now. It is ugly, ruined, and beyond repair, just like their relationship--
“No. Do not do this. Not now.” Malika fights to redirect her thoughts once more. “You need to focus on what’s happening in front of you.”
“—wasn’t interested! I couldn’t be more clear!”
Norah’s incensed voice and yelling act as an unintentional beacon. It draws Malika from the increasingly murky depths of her mind, and back into current events unfolding in front of her. Norah remains near the fireplace but has fallen to her knees. The chaplain is kneeled close by to her left.
“I said that! I said it over and fucking over again!” Norah continues bitterly. “What does this have to do with anything? Why are you blaming me?”
“This is not an accusation, Norah.” Chaplain Fauset assures her.
“But it feels like it. It feels like I’m getting shit about not giving some supposed ‘nice guy’ a chance.”
“Perhaps, it feels this way because you are justifiably hurt and outraged” The chaplain clarifies. “However, I wish to reiterate, I am not accusing you of any wrongdoing. No one here is. I am only conveying what I see surrounding your circumstances.”
“I don’t understand. Why are we even talking about him? What does that obnoxious, pushy asshole have to do with any of this?” Norah demands.
“But you do understand. You simply do not realize it yet.” Chaplain Fauset lightly lays a hand on her left shoulder. “I want you to think back. Remember, what you explained at the beginning of this conversation? You mentioned frequently rebuffing his unwanted advances. Yet, he ignored your feelings. He denied your requests to be left alone. He continued trying to change your mind. He grew more aggressive.”
Malika briefly notices Octavia watching her before she lowers her eyes to the floor again. Even focusing on the surrounding conversation feels draining now. She is increasingly unsteady, plus the discomfort in her left hand is radiating up through the forearm. She is worried she may have sprained her wrist earlier and is only realizing it now as the adrenaline wears off. She goes to voice her concern to Octavia— then her attention abruptly switches back to her dress just as smoothly as a sleight of hand.
Something is coming back to Malika. She is beginning to remember exactly why she choose to wear this cocktail dress. It was meant to symbolize new beginnings. Patrick was not there to judge or disapprove of what she was wearing anymore. She recalls texting a photo to Ayana of herself wearing it. They were tentatively starting to speak again. Starting to trust and rebuild. She wore that gift to demonstrate things were going to be different.
Too bad, she showed no appreciation, for such a beautiful gift, until it was literally too late--
“That is not true. I did appreciate it.” Malika is struggling to once again redirect her thoughts.
But it is true. She did not bother wearing it again until the last night of her life. Now, Ayana will always remember that dress as the thing she died in. Maybe even the gift she will be buried--
“No. No. You are spiraling. You have to stop.” Malika tells herself, fighting against this extremely painful internal dialogue threatening to pull her down into the darkness of her own psyche.
Something is not right.
Malika recognizes these warning signs. Her mind is beginning to wander like when she was back in the city. However, time it is worse. With her returning focus, she is not only immediately aware of the now persistent ache in her left arm, but a new, discerning sensation is coupled with it. Something cold, and persistent, but light, like dozens of fat icy slugs, gathered beneath the skin of the sore limb, all slithering their way over vulnerable muscles, steadily migrating up towards the shoulder.
Alarmed, Malika’s eyes jerk up from the floor, she realizes she needs help. Then it is just as quickly gone.
“What was I about to say?” She wonders absently. Her eyes search the room for some reminder, but she is unable to recall. Soon, her attention is drawn back to Norah and Chaplain Fauset, both still sitting on the floor by the fireplace.
“How?” Norah stresses as she looks to the chaplain.
“How?” Chaplain Fauset repeats for clarification.
“Jennifer, Eddie, and I, all went to the courts. They helped me fill out the paperwork for a restraining order. We did everything right.” Norah announces indignantly.
“Yes. You did.”
“Then how was he able to get that close to the restaurant again?”
“I have been a chaplain for a long time,” Chaplain Fauset begins, her cultured voice solemn and weighed by an antiquity worth of experiences. “I have counseled countless women, either found wandering by our squads, or who have miraculously stumbled into one of our fortresses on their own. Over half of them have had these documents either in their purses or in their pockets. But restraining orders are not magic. In best case scenarios, they are effective against rational men, who understand boundaries and fear legal repercussions. Harold is not that sort of man.”
“I did-- I did everything right! I didn’t lead him on. I didn’t.” Norah passionately tries explaining once more, as perhaps, maybe she did not communicate it clear enough.
“I believe you.”
“I didn’t accept any of his gifts,” Norah continues absently, her voice spilling out in pained frustration. “I didn’t take those obviously, stupidly large tips. I didn’t take his number or add him to any of my accounts. I purposely kept our conversations short and never personal. I told him I wasn’t interested so many times.”
“You did nothing wrong.” Chaplain Fauset reminds her gently. “Unfortunately, what happened is not about what you did or did not do. This is all obsession, irrational anger, and resentment, gilded by fetishism. This all stemmed from problems that began long before he unfortunately fixated on you.”
Malika feels awful for Norah. Lowering her eyes draws her attention to the phone still held in her left hand.
“Why am I still holding onto this useless thing?” Malika questions with a curious sadness.
The longer she ponders this question the more the hues of reality subtly shifts before her inquisitive gaze. Malika slowly realizes she is not just holding the phone. Instead, her hand is strangely clutching it, fingers curled about the frame, possessive and claw like, in what is beginning to seem less and less like a conscious choice.
The screen is also no longer frozen. Text messages are still visibly, but they are sporadically changing, the harshest, ugliest words, or cruelest sentences, highlighted in red, all randomly crawling across the strangely flickering screen.
The realization is akin to instantly shattering an illusion, breaching the numbing, gloomy depths of her mind, allowing Malika to become aware of her condition. She is conscience of her racing heart, the shortness of breath, this gnawing, alien pain coursing through the limb, encroaching into her chest.
Alarmed, she looks up to ask for help— then she does not. All the discomfort and pain forgotten.
However, this time, Malika’s mind resists being fully dragged down into whatever deception is taking place. Her struggling conscience strands her in a maddening state like waking from a dream and trying to recall its rapidly fading details.
There are no visible signs of danger or obvious threats, but the sense of dread and urgency only continues to increase. She decides it does not matter if she is unable to articulate what is wrong. Malika turns her eyes to Octavia, who is still dutifully observing the interaction between Norah and the chaplain.
Yet, she says nothing. No matter how hard or how many times Malika tries to speak, her lips never move. Her voice fails to as much reach her throat. It is only while rapidly looking about in growing panic, does the true horror comes crashing down. She is completely paralyzed.