"Stop," she said, her voice rising. "You didn't do that on purpose, you had no way of knowing what would happen. That is not your burden to bear." She brought her fingers to my chin and tipped my face up so that I was looking straight into her face again. "That system was your longing for more, Calder. That system was beautiful, despite what happened. I'll never believe anything different."
Guilt and love washed through me simultaneously—guilt for my part in the tragedy that day, and love for who she was and what was shining out of her eyes. "Still my morning glory," I murmured.
Her eyes moved over my face, filled with tenderness. After a short pause, she continued, "And the thing that wasn't on the news? The thing that only I know is that Hector swallowed the key to the cellar. He swallowed it. He didn't just lock the door, he swallowed the key." She let out a small, disgusted laugh and then her face went very serious. "He was never going to let those people out, whether they wanted out or not. And Calder, most of them, even at the end, they didn't. They believed. That's no fault of yours."
I blinked at Eden. I didn't know what to feel about that piece of information, that Hector had swallowed the key. On one hand, it filled me with horror, and on the other hand, it brought me a small measure of peace about my own part in the tragedy. Xander had told me again and again that it wasn't my fault, but seeing the same thing shining out of Eden's expression, fierce and honest, brought me a peace I'd been longing for. My brave, sweet morning glory.
"Tell me how you got out," I finally said.
Eden sighed and looked out the windows, and an expression that I had trouble reading came over her face. "Thinking back, it doesn't seem real," she said. And then she told me everything that she'd gone through that night, floating in the pitch blackness as the screams and calls for help ceased in gurgles and death on the other side of the wall right next to her. My heart bled and a lump rose up in my throat so large I thought it might choke me. I felt horrified, sick—my gut was wrenched—and yet, beyond that was pride. I was so proud of her. And not only had she survived, but she had done so using the knowledge I gave her. Somehow, a part of me had been there in that room with her. The thought soothed me, bringing me some small measure of peace.
She told me how she'd come here, about Felix and Marissa, about teaching piano, finding out about her mom, going to her door, and I listened to it all, incredulous and in awe of her strength, in awe of her resilience. Yet, she looked so sad. I could see that she'd still felt alone.
As she finished her story, she tilted her head and studied me for a minute. I must have looked shell-shocked.
"I thought you were strong," I said. "But I didn't know the half of it."
She smiled and then looked around my apartment. "Xander said you two have been doing construction work. Is that where you learned to do what you've done around here?" She waved her arm, indicating the room around us.
I cleared my throat, taking note that she was changing the subject. Maybe we both needed it. It was a lot to process. It might take a lifetime to process. "Yeah. I do more roofing now actually."
A worried expression crossed her face. "Yeah, Xander mentioned that, too." She paused for a minute. "But now your art—"
"I haven't made a dime off my art yet."
"But you will," she said, her voice full of conviction.
We stared at each other again for a minute.
My cell phone, sitting on the floor next to us buzzed and lit up and I glanced at it and saw Madison's name come up and the message: I'm worried. Come home, on the screen. I reached over quickly and turned it off, but when I looked back at Eden, her eyes were on the phone and I could tell she had seen it. Her eyes moved slowly to mine, full of hurt and I wanted to throw the damn phone through one of my windows.
"Eden . . ."
"Home? You've been living with her?" she asked quietly.
I shook my head. "No. I mean," I shook my head again, "shit. I was staying with her while I was finishing up this place—just temporarily. As you can see," I waved my hand around the dim apartment, "it's not exactly habitable."
Eden bit her lip, her eyes large pools of sorrow. "Do you love her?" she asked so quietly I almost couldn't make out her words.
"No. I don't. I . . ." Gods, God, this was awful, horrible in every way possible. I wanted to scream and smash something. I took a deep breath. "I love you. I'll never love anyone except you."
"But you're with her," she said. It wasn't a question, just a statement, and she said it matter-of-factly. She looked behind me for a minute and then back at my face. "You thought I was dead, Calder. I understand."
"No! I don't want you to understand. It's not understandable. I don't even understand it."
Eden sighed and started to stand up, stretching her legs once she did. I leapt up, too. Eden came toward me and put her hand on my cheek. "We have so much more to talk about." She smiled sadly. "We could talk for days and still not have told each other every bit of what we've gone through." She chewed on her lip for a minute. "But, Calder, right now, we both need to get some sleep." She walked over to her purse and took a phone out and texted someone, the girl who'd been with her at the gallery, I assumed.
"Sleep here," I blurted out, moving toward her and gripping her arms as she turned around. There was no way I could watch her walk out my door. The thought of it alone filled me with terror, just as it had earlier at the gallery. "Stay with me. Don't leave."
She shook her head, looking around. "I'm not leaving you. I'm just not going to sneak around with you. You have a life." She bit her lip, looking down. "I don't blame you for that. But—"
"I know," I said, feeling as if my heart was breaking open in my chest. "We deserve more than that."
"Yes," she said.
My phone buzzed again and I closed my eyes tightly and then opened them. Eden glanced at the phone and then back at me. "You need to go home, too," she said quietly. Her voice had a hitch at the word home and it felt like a splinter to my heart.
"I want you, Eden. I've never wanted anyone except for you," I said quietly. "I'm so damn sorry for this situation."
Eden took a deep breath and gave me a small, sad smile. "My mom is throwing some small garden party tomorrow for me." She shook her head. "Just some really close friends who can be discreet about me returning. Anyway, I should be done with that at six o'clock or so. Maybe we can get together?" she asked, running her tongue over her bottom lip.
"Yeah, of course," I said, "I mean, anything, just tell me. Tell me what to do here," I said, noting the desperation in my own voice. "I don't know what to do here."
She studied me for a minute and then she nodded. "I'll call you when it's over."
"Okay." My phone buzzed again and I almost went over to it and smashed it beneath my foot.
Eden must have seen the anger on my face because she said softly, "She's innocent in this situation, too." I stared at her. Still my compassionate girl.
I let out a harsh breath and ran my hand through my hair and said, "Yeah."
Eden leaned forward and kissed me softly and it was everything I could do not to grab her by her shoulders and force her to stay in my apartment. I felt desperate and miserable and joyful all at the same time.
After a few minutes, Eden's phone beeped and she looked down at it. "That's Molly," she said. All I could do was nod. She smiled one more small smile at me and then we moved together, wrapping our arms around each other and just standing that way for what seemed like a long time, but not nearly long enough. When she finally pulled away, she gave me one last sad smile and then the door clicked behind her.
I walked back through my apartment, finally sinking down to the floor against the same wall we'd sat against together. I spread my legs out straight and just breathed. I couldn't think of much else to do.
After a while I reached for my phone and texted Madison, telling her I was staying at my apartment. Then I turned it off. I sat back, pressing my wounded back against the wall, closing my eyes in relief at the small flash of pain. That's where I finally fell asleep close to dawn.
I woke up with a stiff neck and a pounding in my head. I sat up slowly and realized that the pounding was actually coming from my front door. I pulled myself to a standing position and massaged my neck as I walked toward the banging. "Hold on!" I yelled, my voice cracking like it usually did first thing in the morning. I cleared my throat and swung the door open. Madison.
She walked straight through the door, looking around, then turned and faced me. "Is she here?"
"No," I said softly, walking toward the kitchen where I had a small battery-powered coffee pot and some coffee. I went about the business of brewing a pot as Madison stood at the counter and watched me. She didn't say a word. Once I was done and the smell of coffee started filling the room, I leaned against the counter facing Madison. "I'm sorry," I said.
Hurt skittered across her features and she nodded, looking down. I walked over to her and took her in my arms, hugging her to me. "I'm sorry," I repeated. I didn't know what else to say.
We stood there for a while like that until her hands started roaming up my back, kneading the muscles, and her lips came to my throat, feathering kisses along the skin. I pulled away. "Mad . . ."
She dropped her hands to her sides, letting them hang loosely there. "What? I can't touch you anymore?"
I ran my hand through my hair and took a deep breath and then met her eyes. "No. I'm sorry, no."
"Why?" she asked, her expression pained. I felt like the biggest ass**le on the face of the earth.
"Because if you touch me now, I'm cheating on her. And I would never cheat on her." I grimaced. It was the truth, but I hated hurting Madison. She'd been nothing but good to me. I cared about her.
She looked incredulous. "Cheating on her?" Her mouth gaped open. "You're f**king cheating on ME! Did you f**k her?"
My jaw tensed. "Stop, Madison."
"Stop? You ass**le! What should I stop? Should I stop wanting you? Should I stop fighting to keep you? Would you have me just slink out of your life so it's more convenient for you to be with her?" She shook her head, putting her hands on her hips.
"I meant stop making this worse than it already is! Don't you think I know what a f**ked situation this is? Don't you think I know what an ass**le I am? What am I supposed to do here? For the love of the f**king gods! God! Fuck!" I turned and walked back around the counter, putting my palms on its surface and leaning forward, hanging my head.
"You're supposed to stay with me. You're supposed to see that she's your past and I'm your future. You're supposed to realize that all the two of you are going to do is drag each other back there, back to hell. Is that what you want? Someone who you look at each day and remember only tragedy and trauma? Whose very face you can't even paint because you can't bear to look at it?"
I raised my head and studied her face. She was beautiful, there was no doubt there, but her face didn't make my heart clench with fierce love. Only one face did that. Only one face ever had, since the time I was ten years old. Only one face ever would.
"I do paint her face, Madison. I just don't share it."
Madison's expression fell and another stab of guilt hit me. She took a deep breath. "Still, all she'll do is remind you of the worst day of your life."
"That's not how it would be, Mad." But deep inside, her words affected me. Is that how it would be? If not for me, for her? Did she deserve to move on? Explore her own life without me, and without the grief she'd been carrying? She had shared a little of how her life had been, but it sounded like she had little purpose, little direction. Was she able to move forward? Did she deserve a chance to find out?
Madison let out a sound of frustration. "You don't think that now, but it is exactly how it would be." She frowned. "At least take some time. You don't have to feel a duty to be with her. You don't owe her anything, Calder. You can still be friends, but come home with me. Please. Take some time."
I stared at her, not saying anything, not knowing what to say.
She looked down. "I'm sorry," I repeated. I moved forward and took her hands in mine across the counter. I shook my head, trying to come up with the right words. "I know Eden and I, we went through hell together. But . . . it wasn't all that. In fact, it wasn't even mostly that." I shook my head again, and took my hands away, raking them through my hair. "I don't even know if I could explain to someone who wasn't there, what it was like for us."
I had told Madison about Acadia, but not all of it. She knew what I'd gone through, and I appreciated the fact I'd been able to talk about some of it with someone other than Xander. I trusted her. But how could I tell her what I'd experienced with Eden? It wouldn't be right, and it wouldn't be kind, and somewhere inside, I wanted to keep it for myself anyway. It was ours – Eden's and mine. It was sacred.
"You don't need to explain it to me. I see your art. Every day, I see your art," she said. "Do you think I don't know how hung up on her you are . . . were, whatever. I just . . . please, take some time to think about this. Take some time to consider things once your emotions have settled. Please, baby." A tear ran down her cheek and I swiped it away with my thumb. She smiled softly at me.