I lay there, feeling broken. I put my hand on my belly and drew strength from that small part of me deep inside, the tiny group of cells forming into a human, another heart beating in the depths of my body. My hand felt warm on my own skin.
Hours later, I finally heard footsteps coming toward the door on the cement walkway outside. They sounded unsteady and off-balance and I narrowed my eyes. The door clicked and Calder pushed it open, swaying very slightly, a dark shadow in front of the pale light of the lit hallway behind him. I sat up, holding a pillow on my lap, my arms wrapped around it.
Calder came into the room and kicked the door shut behind him. "Hi," he mumbled, walking toward me. He obviously had been drinking, his walk unsteady, his eyes sleepy. He fell onto the edge of the bed and groaned softly. I remained quiet. After a minute he looked toward me, squinting with one eye. "You mad at me, Morning Glory?"
I huffed out a breath. "Did it help?" I asked. "Drinking alone at a bar? Did it help?"
Calder kept squinting at me, looking as if he was working out a puzzle in his brain. "I didn't know what else to do."
"You could have stayed here. You could have talked to me about your feelings."
He laughed. "My feelings? Where do I even start?" He shook his head back and forth slowly. "How can you not be disgusted by me? Did you see where I came from?" He started laughing a raspy laugh that died and turned into a grimace. "Holy f**k. Did you see what I have running through my veins, Eden? Did you see? What was that thing? Was it even human?"
"Calder . . ." I said under my breath, my heart pinching so tightly I brought my hand to my chest.
Calder propped himself up on his elbows behind him, lowering his chin, and glancing at my stomach before he focused on my face. "That baby in your belly, that baby has the same blood coursing through it as that thing in that house today. We both do. How does that make you feel? You've always been so pure, and I've always been so dirty. Hector was right. I am Satan's spawn. No f**king wonder." His face was deeply pained.
I tossed the pillow to the side and walked on my knees to where he lay at the end of the bed. I took his face in my hands, gripping tightly, and looked into his eyes. "You listen to me, Calder Raynes," I said, my lips tight. "You are nothing like the man we met today. I don't care whether his blood runs through your veins or not, I don't care that his DNA created you. That does not define your heart. And all that tells me is that even someone disgusting and evil and lewd can do something beautiful. That ghastly, horrifying human, even him, he did something wonderful for this world. He created you. And. You. Are. Good." I let go of his face and leaned back on my heels.
Grief passed over his face. "No. I'm bad. I am evil. Everyone sees it. Hector saw it. My parents saw it—they tried to burn me, Eden." His voice choked on the last word. "Oh God, they tried to burn me."
I sucked back a sob, moving to him so quickly I didn't even make a conscious choice to do it. Suddenly my arms were around him and I was cradling him to me, his head between my br**sts, my cheek resting on the top of his head. It was the first time he'd mentioned his parents. Even in that beautiful Bed of Healing, he hadn't been ready to go there, had skirted around the topic. Even after three years, and despite the alcohol in his system, when he looked up at me, the devastation and heartbreak were clear in his deep brown eyes. He didn't shed a tear, but I did, remembering the horror of that moment. I held him now because I couldn't then. I cried for him. I cried for the agony I knew lived in his heart because of the ultimate betrayal of that one moment in time, a moment that left him feeling scarred and unlovable. Thrown away, sacrificed in a way that still made him bleed inside.
"Sometimes," he whispered, "I feel like even though the fire didn't touch me, it burned me all the same. I feel like it melted my skin away and that the world is looking at my raw, charred insides. It feels that way, Eden. And now I know that it wasn't even the first time I was burned. I felt raw again today. That's how I felt, standing there before my father being told he sold me. He sold me when I was three years old."
I squeezed him with all my might, wishing I could open myself up and pour my love straight into his heart, that I could tear my own skin off and give it to him to wrap around his wounds.
"I see only goodness," I whispered. "I see only beauty."
"I thought I might just drive off tonight and never come back," he said. I tensed. "Just so you would never be able to love me again. So you'd go on without me and forget I ever existed."
I paused. "Obviously you didn't follow through with that plan." He must know that is my greatest fear. And a complete impossibility.
"No," he said. "I'd never do that. Never." He shook his head against my chest as if the statement itself was ridiculous. And it was.
I sighed, relaxing. "Evil," I said.
"Are you making fun of me?"
"Kind of, yeah."
I leaned back and took his face in my hands again, my eyes roaming over his handsome features. "You're not even a very mean drunk," I said. "I think you're failing epically if your master plan is to follow in your father's footsteps."
Calder paused and then started laughing softly. "This can't be funny," he said, grimacing. "There's nothing funny about this. It's only tragic and awful." He fell back on the bed. I lay down next to him and stared up at the ceiling.
"Sometimes tragic and awful can be funny, too. Sometimes it has to be."
We stared up at the textured ceiling for a few minutes. Finally, Calder said, "It's not that it's my master plan to become like my father. But what if . . . what if I can't help turning into him?" He shuddered. "What if it's just my destiny?"
I took in a deep, cleansing breath of air. "Someone tried to tell me what my destiny was once. I knew in my heart it wasn't true. It felt wrong. I don't think other people get to tell us what our destiny is, Calder. Do you feel in your heart your destiny is to be an evil, disgusting monster?"
He sighed and then was quiet for a minute. "No."
"No," I confirmed. "Not possible. I've known you all my life. I know you through and through, Calder Raynes. Not possible."
He was quiet for a minute. "That's not even my real name."
"Kieran Reed," I said quietly, recalling. I frowned up at the ceiling, wondering if I could get used to calling him by another name.
He shook his head next to me. "I'd never take that name."
"Then Calder it is."
"I guess so."
We were quiet for a minute. "I'm not even really that drunk," he said. "I like the Coke more than I like the rum."
I snorted softly and reached down between us and took his hand in mine. We lay like that for a few minutes. I didn't look over at him, but I thought he'd probably fallen asleep so I was surprised when he spoke. "I do have to say that I'm epic at one thing at least."
"Getting you knocked up."
I raised my eyebrows and stared over at him. He looked at me and we both started laughing at the same time. "True enough," I said.
Calder grinned, his eyes still slightly glazed over and heavy lidded. "I'm a badass when it comes to knocking you up," he said, looking overly pleased with himself. And then he promptly fell off the bed.
I looked over the side to see him staring up at me with a shocked look on his face and I tilted my head back and laughed so hard I thought I'd pee my pants. I fell back on the bed gripping my waist and howling with laughter, part hilarity, part hysteria. And for some reason, it felt just as good as crying. It was a release, and one I needed.
Calder pounced on me and I laughed harder and so did he until we couldn't laugh any more. We lay on our sides, face to face, getting a hold of our breathing and letting the laughter fade. "I love you so much," he said, pushing my hair out of my face.
"I love you, too," I said.
"Hey, Eden," Calder mumbled after a minute.
"Yeah?" I whispered.
He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth and worried his brow. "You remember how you said that at the end, in that cellar, there was love? And that maybe that's where God was?" I nodded.
"Well," he continued, sadness flooding his expression. "When I was tied to that pole, when my father . . ." He sucked in a shaky breath.
"Yes?" I whispered, putting one hand on his cheek and smoothing my thumb over his cheekbone.
"I tried not to think about it for so long because it hurt so much. And I just wonder, in that moment, where was God then? Where was the love then?" His eyes searched mine, looking for something I wasn't sure how to name. Hope? Some type of enlightenment that would make it better?
My gaze moved over his features, that strong jaw I loved so much, those deep brown eyes that could fill up with pain or with love in an instant. I let my mind travel back to that moment even though I had tried not to do that over the past three years either. I thought about the horror that had filled me—the helplessness, and the unfathomable grief—and I thought about Calder's promise to meet me at a spring in Elysium. I thought about how, in what he thought was going to be his very last moments, he had thought of me. He had sought to protect me in the only way he had left. Don't watch this, Eden. Turn away.
I studied the man lying next to me, the one I had fallen in love with because he gave me the things that were in his mind as if I had every right to them, because he was decent and fair and good. I had fallen in love with him as he carried his best friend twenty miles to safety. I had fallen in love with him because he knew how to tease in a way that felt loving, because he laughed easily and loved deeply, and because he looked at me in a way that made me feel precious. Love beat through my blood. "We were the love," I whispered. "In that moment, we were the love."
His eyes moved over my face, looking for the truth of that and seeming to find it. He smiled that same crooked, tentative smile I had loved the first time I saw it, the one that had calmed me when I was a terrified nine-year-old girl sitting in front of a temple full of strangers who expected something of me I didn't understand.
"Will my emotions always feel like, 'one step forward, one step back?' Will I always be this unbearable mess?" he asked.
"Probably," I answered.
He leaned back and let out a soft laugh. I grinned at him.
"And I'm okay with that," I whispered, going serious. "And we'll create a Bed of Healing, Version 2.0. It'll always be the place where we can be as messy as we need to be, in all sorts of ways." I winked at him.
He laughed and so did I, leaning into each other, sinking all the way down.
And I thought to myself, even though life could be horrifying and earth-shattering, terrible and tragic, it was also filled with moments of breathtaking beauty. And sometimes you just had to laugh.
It was true what I'd once said about the stars—some things are seen more clearly in light . . . and some things are seen more clearly in darkness. Because somewhere in the dark of the night, Calder pulled me close to him and we agreed in ways both spoken and unspoken that the world was ugly and broken, and love was ridiculously dangerous and absurdly unsafe . . . and that we would love anyway. We would keep our fierce and tender hearts open. It felt foolish and ridiculous and right. It felt like the bravest thing we'd ever do.
We got on the road bright and early the next morning. We were ready to leave Indiana behind. We were ready to go home. Our new life beckoned to us and we finally had everything we needed to start building it.
As we drove, we held hands, silent in our own thoughts. Calder seemed more peaceful this morning, more himself. We stopped at Starbucks and got coffees and muffins and sat in the parking lot. I felt like the world was different today. Something had shifted. Maybe it was the fact that we had all the answers, or at least all the answers we needed. I would tear down all those papers I had pinned to the back of my closet door—the project I'd taken up in an effort to do something with my deep pain and confusion. I didn't need it anymore.
"You know what I've been thinking about this morning, Morning Glory?" he asked.
I tilted my head, taking a sip of my vanilla decaf latté. He stared out the front window, giving me the beauty of his profile. "Xander told me once that he believed there was a purpose to me surviving Acadia that day," he paused, "and a purpose for all the suffering."
I nodded. "Yes, I like to believe that, too," I answered. "For all of us."
He smiled over at me. "Do you think we'll know it when we see it? Do you think we'll understand the reason for the pain someday?"
I thought about that for a minute, sipping sweet warmth and swallowing it. "Maybe it's not so much about one reason or one purpose. Maybe it's like this." I considered my words, looking out the window at the seemingly endless cornfields in front of us, the endless golden sky. "We all attach things to our hearts, kind of like how I pinned all those articles up on the back of my closet door, or how you covered your studio with paintings of me." I smiled a small smile at him. "We all attach things to our hearts, the things we value, the things we need, the things that make us who we are. But maybe . . . maybe it's only when our hearts are broken, that those things can fall inside. Maybe it's only then that those things truly become part of us, and it's only then we truly understand and recognize pain in others because we've experienced it, too. And we've let it make us better, more loving. Perhaps that's what real mercy is. Perhaps that's the purpose to the pain."