I studied my reflection, feeling an odd sense of deja vu. I wore a knee length, three quarter sleeve, sky blue wrap dress. Kalea’s mother made her wedding dress, and her aunt made my dress. I had opted to leave my long curls mostly down, with a small bunch pinned on the back of my head. Simple shoes that I wore any time I was required to dress up. I still needed to walk there and back after all. I wore no jewelry except the necklace with the Matron charm that I always wore.
The silver of the charm I wore around my neck was smooth as I rubbed it, deep in thought. The last time I was dressing up for a potential union, it had been for myself. The necklace a constant reminder of not that horrible day, but of the person who had worn it. I often think of her, of what she would think about the person I was now. What would she think about what it took for me to find my freedom? Would she have liked this life? I think she would have. I think being among the trees, clean air, and sunshine would have had her blooming like a spring rose just waking up from winter. Sometimes I imagine her walking in the woods, what she would have looked like with her honey eyes sparking like fire in the dappled sunlight. The thought makes me smile.
“Girl! You ready in there!” Grandmother hollered down the hallway at me.
“Coming!” I plucked my cardigan from the small bed I slept in, closing the closet door with the mirror on the inside of it.
Grandmother was waiting by the front door for me. Her white hair was in its usual braid, pulled over her shoulder. She always dressed simply, saying she had no need for frills. Today it was a pale green blouse that accented her rich tanned skin tone, with a brown skirt, and a bag slung over her shoulder. The sight of the bag made me smile, she wasn’t one to go to any kind of gathering without supplies in case someone got hurt.
“You look lovely, Grandmother.” I opened the door for her.
“You flatter an old woman,” she chuckled, the wrinkles around her eyes deepening.
We walked arm in arm to town in silence, which was not something new. Just like her needing time alone in her garden, she also needed space to just be in quiet. I took my cue from her in most conversations. I think the fact that we both had our share of wounds from our pasts, we were uniquely connected through mutual grief. It allowed us both to recognize when the other needed to just be left to their own quiet, or when they needed distraction. I was listening to the chitter of squirrels arguing in the branches above us, trying to imagine what they were arguing about when she finally spoke.
“Why does Kagan make you so uncomfortable?” she asked in a matter of fact tone.
“He doesn’t,” I answered, picking up my charm between my index finger and thumb.
“I also notice that you pick up your charm whenever he is brought up.” I could feel her sidelong glance. There was amusement in her hazel eyes when I peered at her.
“It was from someone I cared deeply for,” I dropped the charm. “And then lost.”
“Ah, so that’s why.” She patted my arm where hers was looped around it. “You haven’t yet said goodbye.”
“There are no goodbyes in death. Just regret and grief.”
“That doesn’t mean that you can’t say goodbye to their memory. Giving their spirit permission to stop haunting you, as well as giving yourself permission to move on.”
Elia’s death had never stopped hurting. I just made room for it. And I never could stop blaming myself for it. There were so many what ifs floating around in my head about what had happened, I couldn’t even begin to start putting them all to rest. If I hadn’t wanted so desperately to be free. If I hadn’t been so careless with my words. If I hadn’t rejected every match. If I hadn’t lost my temper. If I hadn’t fallen for her. If I hadn’t given in to her. If I hadn’t loved her. If just one of the many “ifs” that plagued me had been different, she might still be alive. I may not have given the order, or pulled the trigger, but I was just as responsible for her death as they were.
My father had always said that we had a bigger responsibility. I never understood what he meant before. I was born closer to power than I realized, regardless of whether or not I wanted to be there. The only choice power gives you was whether or not you were consumed or destroyed. And power has a way of laying waste to those in its path that did not acquiesce. I did not acquiesce, and Elia stood in my mother’s way. In her need to control me, she razed through the only thing I could say was mine.
With that looming over me, how could I in good conscience move on, let alone with someone else? It wasn’t just that I couldn’t let go of what had happened, I wouldn’t. I could deny my mother access to me, deny her need to control me. But I couldn’t risk anyone else on the chance of her finding me. So, I was content being alone, as I imagined Elia walking just beyond the tree line. Imaging the shafts of sunlight sparking bronze off of her mahogany hair, her laughing honey eyes watching me between the leaves of giant ferns. I picked up and kissed the charm that hung around my neck. This way, the only thing at risk was myself.
We arrived close to time for the ceremony to start. Their house was on the edge of town, where they lived on their small farm. Grandmother went to find a seat while I went to find Kalea. She was in her kitchen, her mother and aunt fussing with her hair and dress. Her hair was down, unadorned, but for the crown of small, white, wildflowers that rested upon her head. White ribbons streamed from the crown down her back. Her dress was elegant in its simplicity. A white, thin strapped slip was underneath a layer of off-white lace, that came down to her elbows. If she were a Puritan, her right arm would have been left bare to display the glyphs that told who she was. A wide, white satin ribbon was tied around her waist with a loose bow on the back. She was barefoot, which was custom in the Borderlands. A smile lit up her face when she saw me walking in.
“Just on time!” she came over to hug me.
“You look lovely.” I returned her embrace.
“Thank you. So, do you.” She pulled back, and handed me a single white calla lily. She would be empty handed.
Her family was already headed out the door, announcing that everyone needed to find their seats. Excitement danced in Kalea’s sea green eyes when she gestured for me to follow them. I couldn’t help but smile at her hurrying me on. I could hear everyone quieting down before someone playing a flute. I kicked my shoes off just inside the door and then stepped out the back door and onto their porch. The wood was smooth beneath my feet. I took the first step down, out into the sunlight. I was temporarily blinded before my eyes adjusted. The sun was warm on my face, the grass beneath my feet was soft, and cool. There was a path of flower petals for us to walk down, leading to a flower adorned archway. To the right of it was Nakoa and Kagan. They both wore simple white cotton dress shirts, and dark blue slacks. They, too, were barefoot. Nakoa was darker skinned than Kalea, but where she had black hair, his hair was a chestnut brown. His long hair was down as well. Joy lit up his dark brown eyes as he took in Kalea as she stepped out of the doorway behind me. Behind him, Kagan smiled at me. His long hair was tied back. He had his hands clasped before him, an odd tension gripping him.
The sun was starting its descent when I took my place next to where Kalea would stand, and she took Nakoa’s hands as she took her place, a priestess in purple robes between them. There had been a few weddings that I had attended since being here. I remember how shocked I was at how different they were compared to what I was used to. In the Pure States, vows were taken in an ornate temple. It was a private, solemn affair that had been preceded by each party inspecting a report on the other’s genetics, and then signing of a contract. The first joining after their vows was considered sacred, and often took place within the temple in a room that had a two-way mirror so that the families and clergy could watch if they felt so inclined to do so. Typically, only the couples that were reluctant were watched. Like I would have been. It isn’t a celebratory affair like this. There was a certain amount of delight in everyone’s eyes as they watched the priestess wrap a white cord around their joined hands. Their love for each other evident on both of their faces as they murmured their vows to each other. As they kissed to complete the ceremony, everyone cheered for them. Their joining at the end of the night would not be a public affair like it is for the Puritans, but I believed that it would be just as joyous is their vows. Nakoa lifted Kalea off the ground in his embrace as he kissed her. I could hear her laughter over the applause. I looked over them and saw that Kagan had been watching me, a small smile on his lips. I gave a small smile back. I wondered if it was odd for him to have his best friend marry his twin.
Immediately after, their families had provided a large spread of food and drink for everyone who had attended. As well a band to provide music for the party. I spent most of the evening sitting on my own, at the edge of the area that had been cleared for dancing. I’d eaten my fill of the meats and delicacies that had been laid out for everyone, and I sat watching the dancers as I sipped on a fruity drink that had a generous amount of alcohol that was hidden under the sweetness. Grandmother was dancing with one of the older gentlemen that owned a farm not too far from her cottage. Her face was flushed, her smile brilliant as she laughed with him. Kalea and Nakoa were a mirror, if younger, image of the older couple. They were on opposite ends of their journeys, and both were just as beautiful as the other.
The sun had sunk to just below the horizon, casting everything in a reddish orange hue. The trees shadows stretched long across the grass blowing in the breeze. The music slipped into a softer, slower tune. I was sipping my drink when Kagan’s shadow slipped across my shoes. He stopped a few feet away, one leg cocked out in the relaxed manner that was common with him. I drug my eyes up to his face. His green eyes were soft in a way I hadn’t seen before, a shy smile lighting upon his lips.
“Come dance with me, Elodie.” He held out his hand to me.
“No, thank you.” I didn’t feel like indulging his need to look out for me. “I’m not good with dancing.”
“Me neither, so you’ll be in good company.” His eyes turned pleading.
I don’t know if it was the fruity drink warming me, making everything slightly blurred along the edges, the pleading in his eyes, or just the fact that the air was still heavy with the rejoicing of the young couple’s union, but I was slowly talking myself into it. It was only a few seconds that had passed, but having changed my mind, I accepted his outreached hand. He walked me towards the middle of the gathered dancers. Everyone was embraced, slowly rocking back and forth. Kagan spun me around once, pulling my hand at the last moment. The sudden momentum had me crashing into him. I laughed nervously, stepping back. I settled into position with one hand in his, the other on his shoulder, with his hand on my waist.
We moved through the dance awkwardly, avoiding each other’s gaze. When the song ended, the band started up with another softer tune. No one seemed to leave the dance floor. But as the song ended, I murmured a thanks, and tried to walk back to my seat. Kagan tightened his grip on my hand though, gently tugging me back.
“One more.” He gave me a crooked grin.
“Why? You don’t seem to enjoy my company very much.” I was more blunt than I had intended to be.
“That’s not true at all.” His smile fell. “Why would you think that?”
“You just spent the last couple of minutes avoiding looking at me, not speaking to me.” I was acutely aware of his hand still gripping mine, tighter than a moment before.
“I assure you, that is not the case.” He tried to smile again. “I didn’t believe Kalea when she told me you thought I felt like I was responsible for you. Like I brought home a stray that needed looking after.”
“I didn’t phrase it like that, but yes. That is how it has always felt to me. You barely talk to me, and when you do, it’s usually awkward pleasantries.”
“I just never know what to say to you.” He admitted.
“I don’t expect you to say anything. You don’t have to make extra effort just because I’m your sister’s friend.” I went to pull my hand away, but he held fast. I looked back at him, at the intensity that started to burn in his eyes. He watched me for a moment, like trying to figure out how to agree without hurting my feelings.
“When the sunlight hits your hair just right, it looks like a sunset. There’s strands of gold, and orange fire hidden in the darker auburn curls.” He reached out and stroked a finger down the length of my hair that hung by my face. “Your eyes are so gray, that they have blue in them. Like storm clouds. And you smell like honeysuckle. You are a force of nature that has struck me down so surely that I can’t get back up. But how do you say that to someone?”
My heart had started racing, my throat had gone dry. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I swallowed hard against the lump that had formed, and cleared my throat.
“Just like that, apparently.” He smiled at that, which I echoed back.
He tugged my hand and I stepped closer to him. I could feel how flushed my face was, heating from the inside out. My head swam from the fruity drink that I had been sipping on. A finger gently stroked my cheek, then he slid his hand to the back of my neck, pulling me closer still. He leaned into me, lightly brushing his lips against my own, and then pausing to see if I’d pull away. I brushed mine against his. His hand tightened ever so slightly in my hair as he captured my lips with his own. He released my hand, and slid his now free one around my back, pulling me tightly against him. My hands found their way to is waist, gripping his shirt. His lips were soft, and teasing. I parted my lips for him, and he took quick advantage, licking between them, and nibbling my lower lip. The world began to spin around us, my heart galloping to keep up with my breath.
It had been so long since I had felt desired by someone. For a moment, I forgot what it was like to be alone. For a moment, I allowed myself to not fear being found. For a moment, I enjoyed the feeling of his deep, tender kiss, and strong arms around me. But a moment was all that I could afford to give him. I pulled away from him, turning to walk away.
“Wait, where are you going?” He chased after me, pulling me back towards him. Surprise was in his eyes, lips already swollen from our kiss. “I’m sorry if I was out of line. It just felt like you enjoyed it too.”
“I did. I just can’t give you that, Kagan.” I shook my head, avoiding his eyes. “I can’t give anyone that. I am not wholly free. If my people caught up to me, and I was with you. You’d pay the price just as much as I would. I can’t risk that.”
“That’s not your choice to make.” He frowned down at me.
“How is it not?”
“It’s up to me whether or not I want to take that risk. Not you.” He shook his head at me. “Besides that, the Puritans have never come looking for prior citizens. Once outside their border, they don’t care. Even more so if they can’t breed. Like the family you gave the baby to. You’re not any different. You’re gone, and they don’t even know who you are anymore.”
“I am different though. I left for much different reasons than being angry because I couldn’t have children. For me, it was escaping. You don’t know me. You don’t know the risk.”
“I want to know you. You never talk about your past. Tell me, let me decide for myself.” He held his hands out, palms up, trying to placate me.
“You don’t get it. I can’t. I don’t have it in me to take that chance.” My vision blurred. I could feel tears threatening to spill over. “Despite all that, you’d hate me if you knew the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” He chucked softly as if it was such a farfetched idea.
I opened my mouth to argue that he was wrong. But someone was yelling on the other side of the house. I turned back towards the house, there was light silhouetting it against the dark. SUVs were pulling around the corners of the house, men with rifles was walking in front of them, herding the people back with them. Someone was walking towards one of the officers, arguing and demanding they leave. He got the butt of the rifle to his face, knocking him backwards. Several people screamed, startling others to try running off into the darkness, to be greeted by more trucks and officers. They had effectively surrounded the area in the dark, ringing us all into the small clearing between the house and barn. Kagan’s face had gone pale, and then reddened with his suppressed rage. The muscle in his jaw twitched as he gritted his teeth. I started to lunge in the direction of where his father had been knocked down, blood streaming down his face. His mother was there with him.
“Don’t,” I grabbed his arm. “They will kill you.”
He flipped back towards me, as if he had almost forgotten I was there. He grabbed my arm and shuffled me into the barn. In the chaos that had erupted, we very easily could have slipped in unnoticed as we had moved closer to it when I had tried to walk away from him after his kiss. Despite the darkness, he moved around with east, maneuvering us around things that I couldn’t see. Someone was on a speaker, ordering everyone to gather in the middle and get on their knees with their hands behind their head. I head a door open, and I was being shoved into what felt like a small closet. I was at just the right angle that I could see people silhouetted against the headlights through the barn door, but not much of the light reached where I was.
“Stay here,” he started to close the door on me. “I can’t leave my family out there. But you can stay hidden. They won’t find you here, it’s a false wall.”
“How can I hide when everyone else is out there?” I started to push by him.
“If what you said is true, they aren’t looking for everyone else. Just you. And we will be fine.” I could just make out his face in the darkness. He was frowning down at me.
“Fine,” I growled at him.
“You can be mad later.” He kissed the top of my head and pushed me back into the closet and shut the door.