I’ve never understood long goodbyes. Andrea and Louis are playing chicken with the rising sun, torturing themselves for just five more minutes. I probably do need Eros to make a pincushion of my ass. I’ve gotten jaded.
Andrea kisses Louis one last time. Okaaaay, maybe not. She’s kissing him again.
“The sun is rising,” I say, nodding at the eastern sky. It’s as rosy as Andrea’s flesh, which I’ve kept warm for her.
With a pained expression on his face, Louis finally does the gentlemanly thing and pushes her away. But he keeps hold of her hand, and together they walk toward the chaise where Andrea’s body rests. Andrea leans her forehead against his, eyes closed.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” she says.
I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or Louis. I decide to let it be him.
She looks at me. “How do I…?”
“Pretend your body isn’t there,” I tell her. “Lie down like you were going to sleep. Your soul will do the rest. It knows the way.”
Andrea sits on the edge of the chaise and sinks back against her mortal shell, still holding tight to Louis’ hand. She gasps as her flesh begins to knit itself back to her spirit.
It hurts, coming home. Ankle to knee to hip, her legs begin to burn as they come back to life. All pins and needles, like her whole body has been dead asleep — because it has. The moment the reattachment process reaches the base of her spine, her body rips Andrea’s ghostly hand from Louis’ grip and slams her soul home.
Louis recoils as the veil of Andrea’s flesh comes down hard between them. She groans like a woman on a birthing bed and rolls over to vomit a yellow stream of bile on my white-tiled rooftop. Louis watches her with a look of concern that sets my teeth on edge. Something isn’t right.
Louis looks down at his left hand, watching it fade as rising sun turns the Mississippi into a mirror of fire. His voice is a grave whisper, not long for this world.
Andrea swipes her mouth with the back of her hand and looks up and through him. Realizing they are out of time, she jumps up on deadened legs and immediately comes crashing down. Her bloodied knees add a splash of red to the tiles.
As she pulls herself to her feet, I scan her body to make sure nothing is broken. She’s fine — but that’s going to hurt like hell when her nerves come back online.
A golden sunbeam pierces the clouds as Helios steers his chariot toward the heights. Shadows solidify. Louis does the opposite. Andrea whimpers as the sun begins to burn away the man she loves like so much fog. He lifts his hand to her cheek. His fingertips pass through her tears.
“Three weeks,” Andrea whispers. “Then, forever.”
Louis brushes an ephemeral kiss across her forehead.
His broken eyes are on me as his lost soul goes to ground.
* * * * * * * * *
The querent sitting across from me is nursing a broken heart. And it’s my job to stomp on it. For his own good.
“Three of Swords. Pain all around. You, him, your relationship.”
He flinches at my words. He knows he fucked up. I flip another card.
“Two of Cups. The soulmate card. Your hope and your fear.”
When I’m done telling him that he’s an idiot for letting go of the best man he’s ever going to meet, I’ll send him downstairs to nurse a Mai Tai or two. Maybe have Spica slip a coin in his pocket to help him clean up the mess he’s made of things. This love shit has to work out for someone.
I flip over the final card. “Judgement.”
The twentieth trump snatches the words from my tongue. It’s been twenty days since I’ve seen Andrea, since I had Rigel walk her home after her little out-of-body experience. I haven’t seen Louis since that night, either. It’s his absence that has me on edge. The look on his face the last time I saw him has been haunting me for weeks. You’d think he was a ghost or something.
“It’s all on you, Ross,” I say, pushing the card across the table. “Is this the life you want? Always denying the thing that could make you happy, just to avoid the possibility it won’t?”
“But what if it doesn’t work out?” Ross says, gnawing at his nails.
“Then it doesn’t work out.” I shrug and gather up the cards. “I can tell you this, though. Acting like everything is a matter of life-and-death is killing your chances of having a life at all.”
“What if…” Ross stumbles over his words, “what if Ethan won’t take me back?”
I slip the cards back into the velvet-lined box. “Then you do what you do with any loss — you move on. Or don’t you believe in life after love?”
“Did you just quote a fucking Cher song?” Ross laughs until he cries, fanning his face. “Oh, honey! I’m so proud!”
He rounds the table and pulls me into the kind of disjointed hug that avoids my breasts entirely. I stop him when he reaches for his wallet.
“I’m working pro bono tonight,” I tell him with a smile. “Now, go on. Tell Rigel I said your drink’s on me. A little liquid courage will do you some good.”
A little luck won’t hurt, either.
He drops an air-kiss beside my cheek and heads for the stairs. I reach out to Spica with my mind and slip a coin in her pocket. She’ll know what to do.
It’s two in the morning. The lovers should be arriving soon. Thanatos, too. I lean back in my chair and stare up at the night sky, grateful for the magical dome that blocks out all the light pollution from the city. The Orionids have already peaked for the year, but my attention seems to coax a few more falling stars from the sky.
The door to the rooftop opens. I smell Spica before I see her and turn. She stops a couple of paces away from me, clutching an envelope in her hand. Even upside down, the flowing handwriting makes Andrea’s name easy to read. I sit up straight as she places the letter on the table and heads back downstairs.
The envelope is sealed. I run my fingertips along the seal, heating the glue. It’s a pointless curiosity. I don’t have to read the words to know how the story ends. I unfold the letter and sigh.
My dearest love,
When you asked me about the ring on my finger, I told you it was a tale for another time. That time is now.
Madeleine was my wife, a golden and delicate flower that bloomed in the sun of my affections. Her family hailed from New York, where I had traveled for business. I loved her on sight. That seems to be the only way my heart knows to move.
She was as different from you in every way it is possible to be — except one: she left her life behind to be with me. Her family, her charity work, her social circles. I crooked my finger, and she followed, believing she could survive anywhere in the light of my love.
But swamps make wet graves, and dead places never seem dead when you’re wrapped around a lover.
It wasn’t long before she began to fade, my sweet Maddie. The stifling heat wilted her, and her grounded spirit could find no purchase in the silted soil of New Orleans. When the resentment first set in, she clung to me, as sweet and thorny as the climbing roses scaling the arbor.
But then, like a mildewy haze, her despair overtook her spirit, draping her in a shroud of death I did not see until I found her dead in the garden, empty bottle in hand. The belladonna she’d been taking to help her sleep had closed her bright eyes forever.
Despite the love my heart bears for you, I cannot bring myself to rip another flower from the living world to plant it in my dead one. The way you spoke of your mother, your sister, the dreams you were willing to leave unfulfilled to be at my side…your life is more precious to you than you know.
I hope that you will never read this letter. That you will have heard your living heart as clearly as I did when you held my hand and told me all the things you were willing to sacrifice for me. But if not, I can only pray you will accept my decision — my sacrifice for love.
It is only by letting you go that I can keep you, alive and blooming, in the salted ground of my heart. Forever.
Live well, my love.
Goddamn it, Louis. I fold his knife of a letter and return it to its sheath. I’m not angry — I’m…moved. The gods know I’ve dealt harder blows than this one and flinched less, so it’s not that.
It’s that selfless mortal shit that’s got me twisted. Gods don’t do that. What we want, we get. And if we don’t get it, we burn down the world until we do. The only sacrifices we’re concerned with are the ones on our altars, in our beds.
The sound of the rooftop door opening makes me flinch. I instinctively tuck Louis’ letter out of sight beneath me. Good thing, too, because Andrea is headed toward me.
“You’re early,” I say with a smile I don’t feel. “Never seen someone so eager to die.”
Andrea sits down beside me. Her hand drifts to the tiny vase of rosebuds, her fingertips tracing their silky, spiraling hearts.
“I love roses,” she whispers. “I can’t seem to grow them for shit, but Mom has a garden full of them.”
I say nothing. Not because I have nothing to say — the letter burning a hole in my ass has that covered — but it’s considered bad form to talk at a funeral.
“It was surreal, knowing today was my last day. I mean, who gets that? I spent the morning in the garden with my mom. We had coffee and biscuits. My sister had to cancel. I’m usually the one doing that. Always thinking I’ll see them next time. Oops.”
Her laugh is bittersweet. Or sweetbitter. I can’t make out the predominant flavor in her tone.
“Did you tell them?” I ask, curious.
Talk about a whole lot of pain for nothing, I think, knowing I’m going to have to deal the blow, and the sooner the better.
Andrea blinks back tears and shakes her head. “The only thing I’m worse at than love is goodbyes, Asteria.”
I’m reaching for Louis’ letter when Andrea slides an envelope of her own across the table. Her bubbly, rounded script is so different from Louis’ flowing hand. And there’s a circle of pale blue ink where a teardrop has washed out the first letter of his name.
I’m still processing the convergence of fate on my rooftop when Andrea stands up. Like a woman who’s afraid she’ll change her mind, she hurries to the door in a walk that desperately wants to be a run. The hollow gong of the rooftop door gives way to the scudding squeal of Thanatos pulling a chair up to the table.
“Was that my blushing corpse-to-be?” he asks.
I drum my fingers once on Andrea’s letter, then set Louis’ letter beside hers. Thanatos’ eyebrows shoot up.
“And you can keep that comment about pulling things out of my ass to yourself,” I warn him.
He smiles, which makes me smile, which I didn’t realize I needed until it happens. I wave my hand over the table and magic us up some coffee and beignets, and a full bowl of sugar.
“I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing,” I tell him, dotting a lump of powdered sugar with my finger and transferring it to my tongue.
Smiling, he sets to emptying the sugar bowl into his cup, a spoonful at a time. “Don’t be. Nothing makes me happier than showing up for a potential suicide and finding my services are no longer required.”
We sit there for a long time, enjoying the bittersweetness of dark things — both the coffee and everything that has happened tonight. He doesn’t ask what happened, and I don’t tell him. Gods have little use for reasons why. For beings like us, mortal lives are sparks rising from a fire, stars falling from the sky. We blink, and you are gone.
He pulls his gaze away from the night sky and looks at me.
“Promise me something.”
“If I can.”
I lay my hand on top of his on top of the love letters. “Next time, remind me to leave the whole star-crossed lovers thing to Eros.”
Thanatos chuckles and turns his hand over in mine.
“Agreed,” he says, giving my hand a squeeze. “But just between you and me, you did alright.”
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