Returns and Exchanges
In the White, I was alone. My body lounged against the wall like a mannequin at the mall. I took a last look at my Yolk body and grabbed my statue’s shoulder. The exchange was instant.
My vision wasn’t as clear as usual. My skin felt fatigued and stretched. I took three deep, huffing breaths and exhaled as I walked out into the forest.
My foot reacted to the dirt and leaves as if walking onto a bed of nails. I fell to the ground. My palms found the same pinpricks of pain. The scenery around me blurred like looking out while still inside the spinning grasp of tilt-a-whirl.
There were people all around me, but I couldn’t focus on their faces. My mother’s image became recognizable first. Her voice was in my ear like a buzzing bee I couldn’t swat away.
“No, Stephanie. Stop. Let her breathe.” The man’s voice came from the crowd. It wasn’t easily recognizable, yet he conveyed everything I wanted to say.
If Leo or Henry were near me, I couldn’t see them. Every breath tasted and smelled like wet rot—like dirt and leaves and fungus and damp decay. I exhaled through my mouth and inhaled through my nose. One, two, three. I stood up, telling myself I was walking on the hard-packed earth. Four, five.
“Al, get ready.” A warm hand grabbed my shoulder and swooped my hair off my face.
“For what?” My stomach delivered a loud rumbling growl, and I wretched on the ground behind me. “Ugg,” I coughed. “That is vile.” The contents of my stomach tasted like sour milk and hot sauce.
A red solo cup appeared in my hand. I filled my mouth, swished, and spit out what tasted like iced whiskey on the ground beside me.
“Was that good liquor?”
“Whiskey is the only thing that kills the rotten meat taste.” Dagen stood in the shadow of a large tree, trying not to get thrown-up on.
“Don’t you show up in the damndest places and with good hooch no less.” I rested my hands on my knees and let the spit drain out of my mouth.
“I came to see the show. The first group through this entry point in decades. It’s history in the making.”
“Leo and Herman are with Malou and her girls across the way.” He interrupted, patting me lightly on the back like he was burping a baby.
“Henry,” I corrected with a deep breath.
“What?” Dagen asked.
“The human’s name is Henry, and he’s not exactly human.”
“Yes, we all got to watch his wings burn away in the sunlight. He’s quite the showman. We were about to send a search party after you. Your elder was getting anxious. It’s been half an hour.”
I spat one final time and looked up at Dagen. “Time goes faster, the longer you’re inside.” He nodded his head in agreement.
“Lass, there you are.” Gar’s voice echoed from the shimmering edges of the entrance to the White. I waived at my soldier in the grave and smiled.
His team of Grove wolves decimated the demon stragglers. I could remember the feeling of the cold air under my wings and the fire in my throat.
My mother wrapped her sweater around my shoulders and nudged me away from my pile of puke. I winked at Dagen as my mother spirited me away with talk of tending to my wounds and not worrying about my mess. She would send someone back to rinse it all away.
My mother’s touch was smothering, but she led me toward a familiar set of laughing voices and Malou. Her image clear and her arms outstretched, I reached for the old witch and felt my mother catch me under the arms as my lifeless body dropped.
“There’s nothing of my monster left,” I laughed toward the growing sunlight. Hands moved me from low toward the ground to a tub of hot water. My carefully stitched garments melted into the water leaving behind blue jewel-toned rings of oil. Malou’s voice recited ancient-sounding prayers.
I lifted my arm from the water to see blood trickle from long scratches. Dipping my skin back into the water healed the wound completely. I repeated the action several times, marveling at how the injury reappeared once subjected to the outside air.
“Leave your arm in the water, Girl,” Malou commanded while pouring a green potion into my tub.
“Yes, Ma’am.” I watched my mother smile and shake her head. She looked much calmer than I would have imagined. Somehow my usually uncompromising mother’s happy demeanor put me at ease.
Leo appeared from the edge of my sight. He smiled and then knelt by the side of my trough. “Put some water on your face. Your cheek is scrapped.” Leo cupped his hand in the water and scooped it over my cheek, holding it in place. A sting spread across my skin, but my exhaustion helped me ride out the minor pain without flinching.
Henry was laughing with my father and a witch I recognized from our party. My mother noticed the odd trio and went to investigate, leaving Leo and me alone.
“What was with pushing me into the dirt?”
“It made you last inside. The angels are forced to heal you enough to leave, or they can’t bind the doorway. My father let me in on a few of the Yolk secrets. I asked Henry to help me. We did it to ensure you made it out alive.”
“Thank you, I guess.” I patted Leo on the hand. “Are you okay? No lingering damage?”
“No, I’m good, just exhausted and wide awake at the same time.” Leo pulled his hand away from my face, inspected my wound, and replaced his water-filled hand. “One more round of voodoo water should do the trick.” We sat together still and quiet while everyone around us appeared to be moving at lightning speed.
Leo lowered his head to the rim of my tub. I ran my wet hand through his almost dry hair. I couldn’t bring myself to cry or even feel unhappy. We lived. This wasn’t the outcome I expected.
Taking a half-wolf and blind man into an interdimensional portal to kill demons shouldn’t have gone this well. I was missing something important.
Three of Malou’s disciples pulled Leo away from my tub long enough to inspect my skin and dress me. The tub was overturned in the bushes and stacked with the rest of the equipment. I thanked them for their help. As the girls wandered toward Malou, I noticed the wooded area looked vacant.
Groups of people methodically removed all traces of our time in the forest. Cars moved slowly up the access road toward except one large vehicle traveled down the road toward the main parking lot.
I gathered my strength and found Henry on the arm of one of Malou’s witches. Emma’s vampires left before I was out of the tub. Leo wasn’t far behind the group with his parents. My mother shot me the look she reserves for when she plans to shit all over my parade.
“Would you and Henry like to take the guest cabin tonight, Alerie?” My mother’s tone matched her bogus, haughty smile. I could feel Leo’s rejection from twenty feet behind me.
“Thank you, Mrs. Ganas, but I rented a room in town. I called for a car to collect me. It should be here any minute.” Henry explained his plans leaving no room for debate.
The long moment of silent air made an uncomfortable noise I could barely tolerate. Leo walked ahead of the crowd and took Henry’s arm, dismissing the young witch with his dazzling smile.
“Here, Man, I’ll help you out to the lot. The grounds uneven from here to the road.”
“Thanks, if I fell, I’d take that little witch girl down with me.”
“So, nothing, no eyesight?” Leo asked.
“No, and I can’t fly anymore either. Not sure which I miss most.” Henry’s voice cracked. He was tired but also mourning the most significant loss. His return felt cruel, yet he lost nothing. He just wasn’t allowed to keep anything he found in the White.
We reached the lot and found Henry’s car waiting. I hugged him and kissed his cheek.
“Can I call you later? I can pick you up for the party tonight.”
“Come with me now. Will and Lila can pick us up later tonight.”
I squeezed Henry’s arm and looked at Leo. I didn’t know what to say. I expected to spend my morning with Leo, but I didn’t know where that would be.
“Get in the car before you fall over, Sweetheart.” Henry nudged me toward the open car door. I climbed inside and moved to the middle seat. Henry walked around the back of the vehicle and got in behind the driver. “Leo, are you coming? Get in and close the door, Man.”
Leo looked at me with a wild glint in his eyes before climbing into the backseat.
“Back to the motel if you would, driver.” Henry fiddled with his phone before dropping it back into his pocket.
“Sure thing, glad to see you survived the night.” The driver answered.
Henry moved his hand down my left thigh. Leo rested his open palm on my right. The driver looked back at me through the rearview mirror and smiled.
It was a ten-minute drive. I told myself this several times, but it didn’t help. Each of my hands found a leg or an arm muscle to squeeze. I kissed them both quickly before we pulled into the parking lot.
The driver opened Henry’s passenger door, and I followed out after him. Leo grabbed the room key Henry dangled in the air and hurried ahead to open the room.
Henry closed and locked the door behind him and clumsily stripped off his clothes. Leo looked confused as he walked the room, closing the drapes before pulling his shirt off over his head, catching up to Henry.
The experience was less of a letter to Penthouse and more of an exercise in patience and moderation.
At first, Henry grabbed at me roughly with his warm hands, helping me take off my clothes. His lust was mixed with panic and loss—conversation wasn’t required. Leo happily watched us at first but joined us on the bed once we were done.
I switched my attention back and forth from Henry to Leo. Depending on the position, I could include the silent partner. It became clear, pretty quickly, that Leo and Henry were not interested in touching each other—at all.
Condom changes and water breaks transitioned smoothly to the walk-in shower and shots from a bottle Henry ordered from the restaurant bar earlier in the day.
Nearly clean and utterly exhausted, the three of us slept for several hours. Henry woke first and pulled me toward his chest, kissing the back of my neck and running his hands across my shoulders. He was calmer. We quietly worked for his second and my third while Leo sprawled out across the newly available space and softly snored next to us. I woke an hour later, sandwiched between two large, sweaty men snoring in unison.
It was not sexy.
I dressed quietly and sat on the small patio with the slider cracked and watched the little birds peck at the green lawn. The world looked much the same to me. No measurable change appeared because we spent our night in the White.
I felt totally ripped off. I wasn’t promised anything more than my life for entering the White, but I expected some quantifiable difference.