I let my eyes drift shut and drop my head against the steering wheel. I ignore the slight sting of my knuckles as they protest any movement, still incredibly sore from my spree against the tree. All sense of urgency to get here had dried up the second I actually arrived. Now all I want to do is run away.
I didn't deserve to be here, didn't deserve to show my face after all of this time and after everything I had done- I shake myself. I might not deserve this, but everyone else does. Steven's family deserves the respect, my family deserves the acknowledgement, my friends- both old and new- deserve an explanation of what I'd lost, what I'd done.
You owe them this, at least. My conscience agrees with me.
Swearing to myself, I rip open the car door and step carefully onto the gravel. I feel my breath hitch as I slowly let my eyes drift up to the shining black gates.
They are swung open, inviting.
As if a place like this could ever be welcoming.
The sign reads "St Martin's Memorial Park". My hands are clammy.
I take a deep breath and then force myself to take that first step towards the gates, needing to cross the threshold for the first time. I hold my breath as I take the first step in; the silence that meets me sets me on edge. I remember the instructions I'd been given so long ago, and my feet automatically start in the direction they need to go. Counting paces to stay calm, I make my way towards the one place I never wanted to see.
It had never occurred to me that I would need to exist in a world without him. When I was born he was already 2 years old. Our parents were old friends and we spent every second together. My first memory is of dancing to Bruce Springsteen with Steven's hands in mine. I had always assumed that we would leave this world in the same way that we walked through it: together. And now... I have to figure out the next steps to a dance I was never prepared to learn.
Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I take in a deep breath before turning to my right and walking over ten more paces, counting the mounds as I pass. One, two, three.... I pause in front of it. I can't make myself look up from my feet. I feel my breathing get impossibly tighter and suddenly my knees can't hold me up anymore. I collapse onto the snow dusted path, knees tucked neatly below me, hands cradling my head.
I feel them behind me a moment later. I knew, deep down, that they had always been a couple of feet behind me. But feeling them here, behind me, hurts.
I sob into my hands because they are going to understand now- there is no avoiding the truth anymore, and I am the one to blame..
"Y-you followed m-me." It isn't a question. It is a statement of facts, and they don't bother answering me. I shiver as they read the words that I can't bring myself to. The words that I have never seen before but are still etched into the bones of my ribcage, squeezing me with every breath I take.
Here Lies Steven O'Malley
Beloved Son, Friend, and Confidant
"IF YOU STUMBLE, MAKE IT A PART
OF YOUR DANCE"
December 10th, 1998 - August 28th, 2019
I braid my fingers together and settle the unsteady beat of my heart.
"Andy.... Is this who hurt you?" Arrow whispers. I buckle even further, and stretch my body out so that my fingers can bury themselves in the grass above him.
"H-he is the m-missing half of e-everything I am. He c-couldn't have hurt anyone, l-let alone me." I choke on a sob and lower myself further so that I'm pressed into the ground above him.
"I h-had everything. And I l-lost it. I l-lost you. How d-do I go on when t-this is my fault? I d-did this and I don't.... I can't... I l-love you more than b-breathing and you l-left me! You p-promised you w-wouldn't and then... we d-did this. I d-did this. I'm sorry. Oh god I am so s-sorry." I whisper to him, buried not so far below me.
"Andy.." Ryker murmurs, closer than I expect. I flinch at the sadness in his voice. "What happened?"
Simply nodding into the ground, I murmur mostly to myself.
"I am a b-bomb. A treacherous w-whore that l-leaves wreckage a-and s-smoke with every m-movement I make. I h-hurt the ones I l-l-l-love the most w-without trying, leaving b-b-broken bodies and s-shattered lives everywhere I go. D-d-don't you s-s-s-see that I am p-p-p-poison?" I find the strength to lift my head, finally letting my eyes meet the stone I have been avoiding for so very long. It is cold black marble, and despite the fact that it looks nearly identical to its neighbours, this one causes old injuries to ache in ways I can't explain.
I turn to meet Arrow's watering eyes, the sadness leaking from them desperately like she would explode if she tried to keep it in. I grimace and force myself to keep my gaze locked with hers.
"H-he's dead because of me." Arrow starts shaking her head before I have even finished, arguments all ready to bubble up. But I know she is wrong. This was my fault, and only telling them the truth would make them understand how dangerous I am... how dangerous he is.
"I h-had a stalker. H-he f-followed me for months, and he... he d-decided that it was t-time to take me. S-so on my s-seventeenth birthday he f-followed us to d-dinner, and afterwards... he f-followed us into an a-alley." My tears are making it hard to see her, but I push on. "He h-had a knife and h-he was s-so determined... S-steven tried to f-fight him off but S-S-Seth was s-stronger. He knocked m-me out and t-took us away. He s-strung Steven up and s-started t-torturing him." I turn at this point to see the headstone again. I can see the shadow of him just beyond the pipes, hanging behind his headstone.
"H-he had us for m-months... We were so w-w-well hidden n-n-no one had any idea w-where we w-were... Every d-day he w-w-would come d-down to visit us and ask me t-to... to l-l-love him." My voice breaks and I feel my eyes drift shut. I can see it clearly now. I can smell the mould that was sprouting in the corner, and the dust that had settled all around the room, and the urine that I knew was a mix of my own and Steven's. I can feel the freezing metal looped around my wrists, feel the breeze drifting along my uncovered belly. I can feel the blood, both old and new, as it dries on my skin, the wounds still weeping because my eyes no longer can.
"After m-months of t-torture... I t-told him he could g-go fuck himself. And he d-didn't like that a-answer." I suck in another breath as I try to explain my mistake. My fatal mistake.
"H-he thought I c-c-couldn't love him because o-o-of h-h-him." I gesture towards the headstone with my chin. "So after m-months of g-giving me chances... h-h-he dragged h-h-him over from the other s-s-s-side of the pipes..." I cut myself off, the memories becoming too much.
I feel his hands dance down my bare legs, the shiny silver blade he always had on him skimming my still open wounds.I feel his lips against the shell of my ear as he whispers promises to me, declarations of love and fealty, begs me to love him too. His desperate pleas that I didn't want to hear, that I never want to hear.
I can hear him slamming the doors between us, dragging Steven as he kicks and struggles against him. I can see him dropped in front of me. He's covered in bruises and his clothes are filthy and coated in his own blood. His once shiny brown hair is now crusty and oily.
I watch as Seth's boot kicks out and collides with Steven's ribs. His eyes are dull, no longer the vibrant green I remembered. I watch in horror as Seth grabs him by the throat and hauls him back to his feet. Seth smiles over his shoulder at me and Steven locks his gaze to mine. I feel my throat close up as he flashes his blade.
It glides so cleanly against his throat, for a second I believe he missed. But after a beat, his skin splits and his throat gushes blood. I hear myself scream and I struggle against the chains he's strapped me down in the last few months. Seth drops his grip on Steven and he collapses with his hands wrapped around his throat. His eyes are wide, and he's struggling to breathe. I scream his name again but can't reach him.
I can't hear what he's saying, but Seth moves towards me nonetheless. Steven attempts to speak through his slit throat but all that comes out is a gurgle. Seth kicks him again as he walks past. I flinch as he closes the distance between us, blocking off my view of Steven as he takes his last painful breaths. I cry as Seth draws his blade along my arm, just barely touching me.
I can feel myself shaking as I manage to pull myself from the agony. I force myself to turn and look Arrow in the eye again.
"H-he's dead because of m-me. And if I c-can stop this from h-happening again... I c-can't be your f-friend. I c-cant help him k-kill someone else." I stand up then and walk the last few steps to the headstone.
I press the fingers of my left hand to the stone and wrap the fingers of my right hand around the necklace I wear every day- the only thing I had kept up after Steven's death. He had given me the locket when we were hired by our company. It is silver and has an oval shaped pendant that opens to show a picture of the two of us at four and six. I kneel beside the stone and bury my fingers into the dirt to create a small hole. Once satisfied, I tug on the locket until the chain snaps. I press a kiss to the pendant and then lower it into the hole. I cover it with the dirt I had dislodged and then stand back up. I press a kiss to my fingers and press them to the stone.
"You d-deserved so much b-better than me. And I h-hope you know I n-never wanted to hurt y-you. L-living without you is the h-hardest thing I have e-ever had to do." I let my eyes close for a brief moment, long enough to let him know that I mean it. " I love y-you, present tense. Y-you are s-still the best p-part of me. Even t-though I was the w-worst part of y-you.." I straighten up and turn to walk away.
Rowan and Arrow are crying quietly to my right, and they don't say anything as I pass. Ryker is the only one that tries to stop me.
"You're wrong." I turn to look up at him. He takes a step towards me to close the distance. I focus on the bottom of his chin to avoid the heat of his eyes.
"You aren't poison. You aren't a bomb or a whore or any of the things you think you are." I shake my head but he pushes on, not giving me a chance to say anything else.
"You aren't to blame for his death. And you can be sad, and you can miss him, and you can be scared from the monster that hurt you, but you can't leave us." I shudder.
"I can't hurt y-y-you too." I whisper.
"If you leave..... if you stop being a part of our lives... that will hurt more than anything else." I feel another tear slip out. I risk the trap of his eyes and lift my gaze. His eyes are a swirling mix of black.
"Y-you'll get over it." I turn but he stops me with a hand on my shoulder.
"We won't. You are so concerned about protecting us from this guy that hurt you so badly, but you aren't taking into account that we already care so deeply about you that we will do anything to protect you. Even if that means protecting you from yourself. We won't let you just walk away from us."
"He's g-going to come b-b-back" I cry. I feel rather than hear Rykers soul deep sigh.
"Then we'll be ready for him. I won't let him hurt you again." His voice is so strong, and part of me wants to believe him.
But a bigger part knows that the monster will come back, and no matter how many people stand against him, I will fall once again. And I can't take being responsible for anyone else's bloodshed this time.
"I c-can't let him h-hurt anyone else." He squeezes my shoulder. "I can't let you walk away from us."
"Just.... come home with us. Let us explain why we aren't as fragile as you think we are." Arrow speaks up, sneaking around her brother's larger frame. I shudder again, and shake Ryker's hand off my shoulder to create more distance between us and take a careful step back. "Y-y-you don't u-understand!" I cry.
She reaches out her hands. "So help us to. We love you, Andy. And we will do anything to help you fight these demons, and we will never let that monster hurt you again." My legs feel like jelly beneath me.
She sounds so sure, so confident in their ability to keep me safe. But what about themselves? I am already dead, if he gets me it doesn't really matter. But these people deserve more than to die because of me.
"We won't just let you go." Ryker rumbles again. I hadn't realized he'd gotten so close to me again. "Let us help you."
I shudder before lifting my eyes to his again. Something is swimming in his gaze, that unknown spark that I notice every time he looks at me.
"Let us help you." He murmurs again. He offers me his hand, asking for a decision that I am too afraid to make. Still looking into his eyes, I think about my options. I could stay here, in the cemetery and pray for a death I didn't deserve, or I could go home with these three people that seem to care for me and ask for their help.
I could risk their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, and maybe be able to find some peace and happiness by their sides, or I could continue on alone, always wary of stumbling upon the monster that no doubt would eventually escape.
"D-do you p-p-promise that n-no one will g-get hurt?" My voice shakes impossibly. Ryker nods imperceptibly.
"I won't let anyone touch you." I shake my head.
"T-that's not what I a-asked. If I g-go with you, you have to p-promise me that n-no one else will get hurt because of me. Otherwise I w-will leave. I c-can't take anymore b-blood on my hands." Ryker cups my chin.
"We will all fight to protect you from your demons. A few bruises are to be expected."
"I c-can't-" "Andromeda. I didn't know Steven, but I know you. And if he loved you even half the amount that you clearly love him, he died at your side because he couldn't stand the idea of living without you at his. He fought for you to be free. To me, that is the worthiest reason to die." He brushes his thumbs along my cheeks and I realize that I'm crying harder again.
"I d-don't want anyone to get h-hurt because of me." He leans down so there's practically no space between us.
"Then stay with us. We can prepare for him, if he ever comes for you. No one has to lose anyone else."
If he comes, you can protect them. You can just go willingly and no one has to die. You can show the strength you lacked for Steven. No one has to get hurt, you can stop it. My inner voice whispers the compromise and I straighten my spine, resolved. I reach up and wrap my fingers around Ryker's warm hands. Something shifts inside of me, and suddenly I feel like I can breathe for the first time in a long time.
"Ok." Ryker smiles at me, and it is like being blinded by the sun. There is still sadness sitting clearly behind his eyes, no doubt from the revelations of my past, but the light in his eyes is shining again, and I can feel myself getting lost in it.
Ryker drops his grip on my face but holds onto my right hand. He starts leading us out of the cemetery. Arrow and Rowan fall into step behind us.
Everything is quiet, only the sound of crunching gravel underneath our feet to be heard. My tears have stopped for the moment and for that I am grateful.
"Andy?" Arrow breaths, something making her unsure. I pause and glance over my shoulder back at her. "What was he to you?" Her eyes flick back to the grave we have left behind, and my breath catches in my throat. I blink back fresh tears, unsure of how to answer. How do you explain that the man you'd had a hand in murdering was the light of your life, your other half, your best friend from your very first breath?
"E-everything." I breathe eventually. "He is everything." Ryker squeezes my hand, and when I bring my attention back to him, his eyes are glossy with unshed tears. There is something about the way he looks at me, that I know he is picturing the two of us together. I know I would have to explain more deeply about our relationship at some point, but right now I am too exhausted to try. I grip harder onto Rykers hand, and continue towards the exit.
I feel different now, stronger somehow. I will survive this, and anything else that the world throws at me.
But mostly, I will protect them from Seth. Mind made up, I turn to my friends. I suck in as much air as I possibly can before rubbing my hands against my face.
"I t-think I need to t-tell you t-the rest.... but I w-want to go h-home now." Ryker nods. I give him a weak smile and we walk in silence the last few feet to the cars.
"Andy?" I turn to Rowan. He smiles weakly. "Are you going to drive your car back?" I sigh and pull the keys out of my back pocket. His eyes shine in excitement as I twirl them on my finger.
"Ryker c-can drive it. I'm e-exhausted." Ryler laughs as Rowan's face falls. Arrow giggles too and I find myself smiling the smallest amount.
She returns my smile before carefully climbing into the passenger side of Ryker's truck. Ryker hands his keys to Rowan, who is pouting, and then takes mine from me. Rowan climbs into the driver's seat of Ryker's vehicle and starts it up with a rumble. I walk carefully around the front of my car and climb into the passenger seat.
Ryker smiles widely at me as he sinks into the driver's seat, and my breath catches again.
He pulls out of the parking lot and I turn to look at the gleaming black gates one more time. I say a silent prayer to whoever is listening, hoping Steven is in a better place, and happy, and that he may someday be able to forgive me for my part in his death.