The Beauty of Grey

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Chapter 23

It was a long, lonely walk out of the forest. It felt like forever until I was able to drag myself up to my feet, and out of my clearing. I had claimed it as my own. It was a safe-zone; my evacuation area. There, I’d found sanctuary.

Which was why it was so hard to come back. I wished I could sit in that clearing forever.

Patches of sunlight cut through the trees, and I was able to make out the ultraviolet rays. My skin tingled, my legs feeling heavy. I wished I would’ve been able to appreciate the scenery. It was lovely. All I could seem to focus on, however, was the only successful thing I had created. A mess.

I let out a groan before I could stop myself, stepping over a rotted log—not tripping over it this time. Again, I remembered when I had run away the first time and was hunted down by the wolves. Zacharias, as if predicting the future, had already beat me to the forest and spared my life. If it weren’t for him, I’d have been detritus with the rest of the muck littered on the ground.

I wished I could wash myself clean of my mistakes, discard the things I had done to him, too. Was Zacharias really the sole one at fault? I wasn’t faultless, either. Perhaps, out of all that had happened here, that was the most bitter pill to swallow. I was past the point of running and escaping.

I had accepted the fact that I’d be here until my final days. Sure, Zacharias had given me a gateway when he allowed me to run out of the pack house...but he had only done it with the intentions I wouldn’t elude his life for good. Even if I had made a break for it, I couldn’t get far. And if I did, Zacharias would find me. Or maybe that’s what I kept telling myself...

Maybe he was letting me vamoose.

I told myself it didn’t matter. It never did. It never would. At this point, there was nothing left for me except for acceptance. I accepted my role presence. There was no point in running anymore—I had nothing to run for. I had lost the desire. My only desire was to see talk to him.

And to try and avoid hostility. With Zacharias and I, it was give and take. Well, morbidly. Admittedly, he was more often the one to give and I was the one more often to take. We both, however, had the terrible habits of taking a mile when we were given an inch. There was no bad blood between us, but there was bad history...and bad habits. We needed to settle our madness or we would drive each other mad.

Our shared sanity, although wavering like a candle flame, seemed to be holding in for the most part. At times we reached the breaking point and exploded into incoherent messes, but we hadn’t completely blew our fuses. We still had some rational thought left in us. If we kept on going the way we were going, though, that would soon expire.

I broke the tree line, saw the pack house amidst all the cabins. I paused for a moment, serenity subduing me as I tuned into the endless silence of the forest. Again, like before I had screamed in my circular clearing, the silence seemed to carry answers that the whispering winds couldn’t.

I closed my eyes, dropped my chin. The sun felt hot against the back of my head, heating me up from the inside out. Everything, all at once, felt...perspicuous. I was having an epiphany; a brief moment of total clarity. I wasn’t thinking anything, but everything was making sense.

I remembered the morning before my mother took her life she was standing in the kitchen, looking out of the broad window, a cup of steaming black coffee in one hand as she hugged her tattered robe around herself with the other. She was in deep thought...remembering, revelling, reminiscing. I stared at her for a minute or two before walking away, feeling as if I was invading her privacy. Maybe that was her pre-death epiphany.

I swallowed. Maybe this was mine. 2018 to 2018.

I began walking back to the pack house, opening my eyes. Death no longer scared me, I realized. But perhaps death doesn’t really scare anyone. I had a theory that people only feared death because they didn’t always entirely know how they were going to die. If people knew how, and when, they were to die, I think we’d fear death a little less. We always fear the unexpected.

But I wasn’t scared. I couldn’t afford to be scared anymore. If I stayed scared, I could never move forward...Zacharias and I could never move forward. Was it best for us to move forward? I felt conflicted in every way possible. Could we pull romance from what we had been through?

There was no romance in violence, I told myself over and over again. But I wasn’t set to be here for much longer. My life-clock was reaching its final hours, it felt like. I could die thirty seconds from now, I could die on December thirty-first at eleven fifty-nine pm. Why was I to neglect myself of some peace and amendments with the one I was destined to?

Or maybe I was making excuses...

I had to shut off my mind. I was overthinking. My thoughts revolved in an unpropitious loop. I took a deep breath and took off in a light jog, trying to hone in on the sound of my feet falling onto the wet earth as I rushed back to the pack house. I had to oppress my thoughts.

I walked up the steps quickly, but pushed the door open slowly. It was silent inside. I briefly wondered if Zacharias had abandoned the place. But when I heard the sloshing of a liquid, and got a whiff of strong alcohol, I knew he hadn’t left. I saw him tucked in the front right corner of the room.

I only opened the door wide enough for me to slink my way inside, then I closed it softly behind me. I took a deep breath as I pressed my back against it, feeling overwhelmed. I looked around the room, seeing the ruined paintings strewn along the floor. He had ruined every single picture in here. Except for mine. Mine was untouched.

I’d have thought he’d save his most concentrated rage for my picture. I, out of all of these people, tested and infuriated him the most. But he left my picture alone as if it was sacred to him. I wondered if he’d read my dates, thinking it would be best to ruin my portrait after I was carried by the light off of this planet, so I couldn’t see his destruction of me.

“Edie,” he spoke to me, sounding breathless. I closed my eyes and didn’t look at him, knowing I’d be too overwhelmed by his incensed presence, and the incense of the alcohol. “I didn’t know if you were going to come back.” He said, before taking a swig of alcohol.

“You were going to let me run.” I said softly.

“I was going to let you do whatever you want,” he informed me, and I swallowed. “I’m going to let you do whatever you want. I’m done trying to control you. You will not conform. I can’t break you.”

“Have you been trying to break me?” I asked, but knew the answer. “Because I’ve been trying to break you, too.” I confessed.

“You have broken me, Edie. I don’t want to argue anymore. If you run away and never want to see me again, then you can do that. But please remember I am nothing without you. I don’t want that to be our final parting ways.”

It took all I had for me to not slide down onto my knees and break down into tears. “And I am nothing without you.” I choked out weakly, rubbing my hand across my forehead.

“That’s not true,” he said, a little too harshly. I flinched, and opened my eyes. “You’ve proven to me that you are nothing with me. Without me, you are everything—” he took another swig. “Without me, you are everything.” He repeated.

“I don’t feel like everything. No one is everything...only the divine power is everything,” I took a step away from the door, faced Zacharias. He sat with his back against the wall, his knees pulled up close to him—not close enough to his chest to be considered childlike, however. He could still stand and snap someone’s neck in an instant. “You and I together...not even we are everything.”

“When I’m around you, Edie, I feel as close to everything as I can get. Whether you hate me, despise me, loathe me, you make me feel complete. And I’m scared.”

I started walking quickly towards him, his vulnerability pulling me toward him with an invisible chain. I couldn’t bring myself to stay away from him, even though I knew it would’ve been better for me if I did. I had never heard him admit to me that he was scared.

I’d have never thought I’d hear him admit to being scared. Looking at him, he didn’t seem the type to get scared. I just had to be near him.

I sat directly in front of him, close enough where he could reach out and touch me, but far enough that we weren’t touching yet. I sat cross-legged in front of him, my hands laced in my lap. I broke my laced hands apart for a second to run a muddy palm through my hair, but I laced them again right after. I was nervous.

“What are you scared for?” I asked timidly.

“I’m scared because I know I’m going to lose you.” He said calmly.

I couldn’t help but look at him with wide eyes at how calm, cool and composed he seemed about admitting that to me. Had he known all along? Did he know I was going to die? I knew there were different stages of grief; to pre-grief as well, I was sure. Despite him admitting it out loud to me, was he still in denial? Or if he had known all along, was it acceptance?

“You saw my dates,” I choked out as his eyes seemed to stare right through me. “Am I going to die?” I thought about how calm he was. “Are you going to be the one to kill me?” I asked, the feeling of betrayal eminent in the way I spoke.

“You’re not going to die, and I’m not going to be the one to kill you,” he said, his voice bordering sarcasm. “But you’re not going to be here forever. I know exactly what is going to happen to you. I don’t want it to happen...” he drifted off.

I flew in. “But it has to,” I finished for him. “What will happen to me?”

“Something that should’ve happened a long time ago. But I’m not going to tell you what it is,” he took a swig of the alcohol, stored in a gold hip flask. The alcohol was putrid and strong, but nothing I recognized. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

He held out the flask for me to take. Feeling a little daring, I gave him a nod as I took it from him. It smelt so strongly, even before I held the rim under my nostrils, my eyes began to water. I let out a rush of air, grimacing. “Is this nail polish remover?” I asked, half serious and half teasing.

“Moonshine.” He corrected.

“Patriotic.” I mumbled, and took a moment to hype myself up.

Tequila was by far my alcohol of choice. When my father was gone for days at a time, my mother would buy a bottle of it, and when I got old enough to drink like the rest of my underage friends, her and I would down the bottle before he came home. It was the only reason I was so fond of it. We would wash away our sorrows with every shot. Life went by smoothly with it.

This moonshine smelt like it could peel paint from walls. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stomach it. Craving to seem tough, however, I threw my head hack and took a swig so it would slide down my throat instantly instead of hitting my tongue. That didn’t mean I was less bothered by it, though.

It burnt like hot oil as it slid down my throat, stealing my breath from me. My face scrunched up and a wave of heat warmed my cheeks and ears. The alcohol was burning my esophagus as it dripped into my stomach. I could scratch that off my bucket list. And I sure as hell wouldn’t do that twice.

I handed the flask back to a chuckling Zacharias, who twisted the cap back on before placing it beside him. There was the tender moments between us like this that made me feel less crazy for wanting us to become something...something before I eventually vanished from his life. It might’ve been more painful to him that I wasn’t dying.

Because the fact that I was still alive, breathing, always left room for temptation. He never once said that after he lost me, we would reconvene. Instead, he’d always be left to know that I was always there, somewhere. He may never know exactly where, but he’d always be reminded I was walking the earth somewhere...and that I was unattainable to him.

And I would be reminded of the same with him. Even if we never saw each other again, I’d know he was here, stagnate as always. Like him, I’d have the temptation...that constant struggle to resist looking for him. I did when I was in the clearing. Nature felt so cruel, only a force meant to torture and keep us abashed from total happiness and fulfillment.

Death was final. With death came finality. There was no longer temptation or resistance because that person was dead, abiotic. It’s easier to say goodbye to someone who’s dead than it is to walk away from someone you have history with, but can no longer see. That scared me. What if I wasn’t willing to say goodbye?

My eyes began to sting with tears, and I blinked them back. “You’ve given up on me,” I said to him. “There’s nothing left to fight for. I’ve exhausted you.” And I’d exhausted myself.

“I have not given up on you, Edie. Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped at me. “I will never give up on you. Why do you think that?”

“Because you know you’re going to lose make it sound as if you’re getting rid of me,” I swallowed, but there was no sadness in my voice. Just...verity. “I don’t blame you, Zacharias. I’d kick me to the curb too.”

“I’m not kicking you to the curb, Edie,” he sighed, running a hand down his tired face. “There’s certain things in life that we can’t change. This is one of them. I’m doing it to protect you. Please don’t get that confused with me wanting to be rid of you.”

“I’m sorry, Zacharias,” I whispered, afraid if I talked any louder I’d break down. “This whole time I’ve labelled you as someone so cruel and outlandish. But I’m no different. You and I...I feel as if we are the same. We are both cruel to one another...but it starts with me. What follows me is only a chain reaction. I don’t want to fight either. I’m so tired of fighting.”

He sat up straighter, held out his hands. He rested the back of his wrists on his kneecaps, outstretching his palms to me. He started speaking before I considered what I should do next. “You do what nearly everyone else in your position would do. I don’t make your life easier. You don’t need to apologize.”

“But I do,” I said a little too quickly. “I’m past the point of wanting to run...and now you’re telling me that soon I won’t be here much longer anyway. What was I running from this whole time? Why was I fighting you? What was it for? My apologies must seem so hollow to you, but I mean them. I’m sorry to you. I’m so sorry. I, too, have abused you. If I lashed out because I wanted to escape, that’s one thing. Instead I’ve lashed out only because I could.”

“My apologies seem hollow, too,” He said. “But, like you, I mean them.”

“We shouldn’t be able to pull romance from what has happened between us. What we’ve created is so toxic. It’s best that we’re eventually going to be departing,” I took a quavering breath. “But what happens after? Do we forget this ever happened?”

“We will never forget what happened!” he yelled, but his voice carried no malice. It was odd, how he spoke it. I’d never heard anyone sound that way before. He took a deep breath before he continued speaking, calmer this time. “I don’t know what will happen between us after, Edie. But we will not be separated forever. The moon won’t allow it...” his eyes grey dark. “I won’t allow it.”

And there was nothing left to say.

So I mimicked his actions with my hands. I outstretched my wrists, palms to the roof as I rested the back of my hands onto his palms. His hands were warm and calloused, his skin more tan than mine; my palms blackened by the dirt. I couldn’t explain why I didn’t just hold his hands normally...I supposed I just couldn’t.

“You and I are very different,” Zacharias told me softly, the whiskey-hue to his eyes replacing the inky colour. “Don’t ever think you and I are the same. You are better than I am. There is good in you.”

And we sat there like that for a while, but had broken eye contact at some point. There was such a...peace between us—an incomprehensible equilibrium that seemed unnatural. This might’ve been the first conversation Zacharias and I had without any hints of hostility or abhorrence since he brought me here.

I looked back up at Zacharias, who was staring intently at my palms as if he was trying to read my future...our future. I could see his jaw clench once I looked back up at him, but he never made the notion to meet my eyes. He continued looking at my palms. Eventually, I looked away again.

My fingers twitched, and right after Zacharias’ palms left the back of my hands. I looked up at him again but was jostled as he, in turn, linked our hands together and opened his legs to pull me in between them. My rear skidded against the floor as he pulled me to him. I uncrossed my legs so there was no gap room between us.

I lifted up my legs and placed them over his thighs, caging him in before he could cage me to him. How we sat was weird, but it worked so well for us. He wrapped his strong arms around my waist as he hoisted me up further...closer to him. I wrapped my arms around him, burying my face in his chest, listening to his palpitating heartbeat. This made him nervous.

He rested his chin on top of my head, and the pungent smell of moonshine lingered on his breath, rustling a few of my ringlets every time he exhaled. I felt myself slack as I allowed myself to let my guard down. There was an ache in my spine as I no longer held up my weight, but it dissipated away quickly.

Why had I tried to deny myself of this for so long? This felt nice. It made me feel made me feel as if, alongside Zacharias, I was everything. Had I been nothing without Zacharias all along? I would never ask, and Zacharias would never know the depth of my internal struggle.

The looser I became, the tighter Zacharias held me; as if he was scared that I’d float into the air and far, far away from him. His palpitating heart slowly began to settle into a gentle thump-thump, like a distant drum being struck every second or two. I felt so much much ease.

Would I be able to live without him? I tried to tell myself that I was strong, and that of course I could, but the more I tried to convince myself I could the more I started to believe that I couldn’t. Was this, beneath all of the benevolence, his final fuck you to me?

I shook that thought away. It wasn’t. Zacharias, like me, had let his guard down. He wouldn’t hurt me just to turn around and hurt himself the same way. As we held each other, I knew that we had put whatever game we had been playing with each other on pause. We were taking a break from the constant game of tug-of war. so many ways, was his way of saying goodbye.

“Tonight, you’re going to need me,” He said, and I was so caught up in the moment I only hummed. “And I’ll be there. I’ll always be there...” I hummed again.

I didn’t understand what he was saying, and at the time I didn’t exactly want to. I just wanted to hold him while he held me. It was the only healthy give-and-take we had participated in for twenty-three days. We had fought so hard for a cause that never even existed. I fought against something I couldn’t fight against. He only retaliated.

And now, we declared a truce. I buried my face deep into his chest, inhaling his scent and wishing that once I was gone I could bottle it up and take it with me. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes. His arms, again, tightened until I thought I wouldn’t be able to breathe. This feeling would forever stick with me. We had found the grey zone.

There were times where Zacharias seemed so unreal to me that I was convinced he was only a figment of my imagination.

This was one of those times.

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