On a day like that, it was impossible to feel like everything is okay. Some people have an unfaltering belief in the positive outlook: rainbows always come after the rain–as long as you let the sun shine through.
I used to think that way too, when I was Mira Casse, a starry-eyed teen with a passion for the sky. But there was no silver lining for the cloud that had eclipsed my life. I had been as normal as I ever could have been, a month ago. Now I was huddled in an alley, clutching the limp form of a girl I’d barely known.
I shuddered, letting the tears spring to my eyes. I hadn’t cried in a long time, it seemed, and with every petty little heartbreak I’d endured in my high school years, the cries had felt freeing–as though the warm torrent of tears that slid down my cheeks carried all my sorrow with it, lightening the swirling storm in my heart.
This cry was different. It was a cruel, empty, shameful act of cowardice in the face of death. It was trying to hide from my grief, wake up from this enduring nightmare of the last few weeks. I cradled in my arms a lifeless prodigy that I had barely known, a sweet Italian girl without the slightest inkling of how vast her powers truly were. A heavenly embodiment of the sea with endless possibilities. Killed within the course of a few days. A wound from a ship. An arrow to the back. Daria was dead.
Zara had taken off with determination in her gaze, chasing after a young woman, screaming after her insistently and leaving us in the dust. Talia said the name was that of her long-lost sister: the one who had disappeared years ago after running away to Kommetjie… the one that had never come back. Zara was gone, too. A poor girl with a missing sister and a tortured past, condemned by her whole village for trying to help them. Knowing Artemis’s games, the “sister” Zara was chasing was nothing but an illusion to lure her away. If that was true, as I suspected it was? Zara was dead.
Curled in a dank, fetid alley, I willed death to come take away my suffering. Kenna and Talia sat on either side of me, leaning their heads on my shoulders. Kenna conjured sparks and swirling ashes in the air, tinkering with the curling threads of fire that hung suspended in her control.
Her left knee jittered, body wrought with tension and unasked questions that I could sense on her tongue. How much longer will we rest? The mercenaries were without a doubt nearby, canvassing the area. But I was thankful she didn’t ask the question. I couldn’t imagine moving right now, taking a step forward and running away again. Running away was what had brought me here, to the stench of death congealing on the humid air, to the darkest shame of my heart: I wished I was human.
Somewhere in me I felt Mira Casse, striding boldly down the dark hall, smelling the scent of cherry blossoms and fresh grass wafting in from the open window. A beautiful high school girl dreaming under a blanket of stars, gazing up at the brilliant Ohio sky and yearning to be a part of the vast unknown of the heavens. Human. Loving and living, heart cracking and mending, carefree and vivacious under the blazing starlight. I wanted more than this twisted, power-filled life that I was trapped in. I wanted more for all of us.
I was going to be an astronomer. Kenna could have been a firefighter or a military officer, Daria a marine biologist. Talia might have become a lead meteorologist, growing out of her shyness and lighting up the screen. Zara could’ve been an environmental biologist, studying the natural world and the Earth. Now two were dead. Three quivering in an alley, waiting on a command from some unknown force, longing for an apparition to show us the way, to drink some honeycomb elixir and let myself fade away into the stars.
Footsteps sounded, not far away. The drum of sound grew with each passing moment, a heavy tread like a large man in boots. I could feel myself floating away, detaching from reality. Kenna’s hands grabbed me roughly, pulling on me. I cried out, blind with pain, batting away her hand.
“Leave me! Run! I can’t leave her alone.” Clutching Daria to my chest, I stroked her hair, tears spilling over the girl that I had barely known. Kenna shook me with increased fervor, urging me with words that I couldn’t hear. The world was a haze of tears, a meaningless blur of voices and dead eyes.
“Selene, she’s dead! We have to go!” Talia insisted, her clear, frantic voice cutting through my hysteria. More than anything, I yearned for Mira Casse. I wanted to be a human; I never wanted to run again. Let Artemis kill me. Let me drown in my sorrow and join Daria. Perhaps I’d meet my mother again, face framed with blonde locks. Braiding my hair, gazing at me with pure, human pride. My beautiful angel. One day you will be among the stars, where you belong. But we need your light on Earth, Mira. Let it glow.
I had failed her, the mother who had never truly been my mother at all. Kenna squeezed my hand, as though in a silent goodbye. She knew better than anyone that I wouldn’t move unless she physically dragged me away. That wasn’t what I wanted, they knew. Embers and Storm, bright-eyed, able to change the world. My time was up.
As the pounding footsteps grew ever louder, the two girls slipped out of the alley, disappearing from sight. On cue, a man thundered into the dank sliver of space. Stark red hair, ghostly pale skin sprayed with freckles, a silver knife clutched threateningly in his palm. Hugging Daria close, I closed her eyes with a butterfly-soft touch and waited to die.
Daria had always imagined life after death a certain way, the way that had been ingrained in her head since the moment she was born. Good souls go to heaven. Sinners go to hell.
Heaven, a billowing landscape of pillowy white clouds, beams of golden sun streaming through the puffy wisps. Everything you’d ever loved and lost, your family you’d never gotten to meet, or the ones that had gone too soon. A childhood dog trotting energetically with a bone, youthful as a small puppy and as soft as the cotton-candy clouds themselves. The chiming of the Saint Maria Assunta church bells filling the air with warm, joyful chords.
Hell, a fiery chasm of endless tortures. Sinners on every level uniquely punished by twisted demons. The flap of leathery winds. A stench of brimstone and diseased breath.
Instead, Daria found herself in midnight’s blank grasp. Nothingness. Empty black as far as the eye could see, neither hot nor cold, but an uncomfortable sensation of…no sensation at all. There was no tether to the outside world, nothing but the faint sound of lapping water somewhere in the blackness.
“Mom? Are you out there?” she asked the dark in her native language, hopeful phrases rolling off her tongue. Daria expected at least an echo of her words, to hear the sweet Italian syllables cascade into the air. It was as though her sound was immediately quenched, a towel thrown down onto a bass drum.
Disappointment swelled in her unembodied conscience. Water. Just water, a soothing lap like the waves on the shore outside her Positano home. She should have known better than to hope: for a spirit-filled heaven with soaring white clouds, for her late mother’s warm touch and sweet bakery smell, for anything more out of death but an infinite oblivion.
Out of the dark, a great sob came to her, nothing like the church bells from her seaside home. Selene, she’s dead! We have to go!
A voice! Was it her own thought? Surely not; it was a voice like raindrops on the roof, rapid, frantic. Was that what the angels sounded like?
Daria wished she could feel something: the blissful warmth she imagined of heaven…or even the fiery cold of hell. Instead, she felt no sensation at all: no underlying feel of being. It was a sensory-deprivation chamber, a distant sound of lapping water and screams and pounding feet. Of ragged breath now, a distant voice coming from all sides then not at all.
Was she being held in the arms of her mother, awoken from a nightmare that had lasted years and years? A nightmare where she set off to work one day, still smelling like pastries from the day before? A nightmare where Daria’s mother never returned except for a motionless body in a casket, a dismal funeral on a rainy day? Or was she laying on a coroners’ table, being examined for her strange powers, poked and prodded and shocked with electrons?
All she knew was that this was the end of the line, and…somehow, she knew that she was being held. There was no sensation. No contact. Just a gut feeling. As though from an echo in a deep, dark cave, Daria could hear the sounds of sobs, gasping breath.
Someone out in the other world was crying for her, someone she knew if only in a dream. She wished she could tell the voice that she wasn’t in pain. Memories of an arrow rose and fell, crumbling in the oblivion. Barely an inkling anymore…but the person sounded as though their heart was breaking, as though watching whatever was left of Daria hurt her soul. She wished she could tell the voice she wasn’t in pain there.
There was no suffering, no joy either: she supposed that was all she could ask of Death. Greedy of her to think that her failure to live would be rewarded by clouds and a smiling face.
Suddenly, something called to her. She felt a tugging at her thoughts, a power, a strength–water? An invisible tether snapped into creation, an olive branch extended from her to the other side.
They weren’t by the sea anymore; the water that called her had to be tears. Selfish. Selfish! But Daria grabbed onto them, pulling the droplets through into the nothingness. A drop of water splatted on her nose.
Wait! She was dead. Yes. Certainly. Embroiled in darkness, she was dead–so why did she feel the splat of water hitting her skin?
A state of being was forming in the dark. More water called. She received it, pulling it closer, hearing a vacuum suction as she dragged each tear through. Another splat, another…baffling. Baffling! But unmistakable water…
“Mamma? Mamma, mi senti?” Mom? Mom, can you hear me? The words echoed this time, the darkness accepting them rather than suffocating them. Still no response–her heart dropped with realization: the tears I am summoning are not the tears of an angel, of my mother bringing me closer to Heaven. They are the tears of a human. I’m being pulled back!
Abruptly she stopped seeking out the water. It hovered somewhere out of reach, itching for her call. She could feel her nose now, wrinkling as the droplet slid down her cheek and slithered down her throat.
Was this what she wanted? Each tear Daria pulled through to that side–death’s side–was strengthening her tether to the living world. Was she prepared to go back to pain, to the prick of the arrow throbbing in her back, to the metallic gush of blood through her tattered black swimsuit?
This should be easy, she thought, wrinkling her nose, still trying to spread the state of being down to her legs, her toes, her fingertips.
It should be an easy choice: seize the connection her power brought, spring forward into life to help that suffering voice. But–in a way–the nothingness was comfort. It was uniquely sweet in its blankness.
She was mortally wounded in the living world–flesh torn by a wooden hull, skin pierced by an arrow. But there, floating in the black…she was nothing. No pain, but at the hefty price of no pleasure. Daria was willing to pay that price.
Just as she began to let go of the sensations of face and nose and teardrops, just as she was ready to hope for a heaven beyond this black, she heard a voice.
Take me. Kill me if you want to, I won’t fight! I’m done running from Artemis for my choice…I’ll never be ready to live forever. But if Daria…Her face contorted, startled to hear her name in the disembodied words…if Daria, an innocent, had to die for the Huntress’ agenda, it seems right that I die too before she can torture me for her own gain. I will take every opportunity to steal her pleasure. I will relish the fact that I will die here, with Daria. So do it. Do it! Kill me. Because I will not leave this alley alive.
Daria didn’t even have to make the choice. She didn’t have to know who it was, the voice on the other side of the void. She called every single drop of water from the girl’s tears, every ounce of humidity from the living world, every essence of being from the place where she lay dead.
In a rush of light, life sprang forward to her body. She felt the thud of her heart in my chest. Her eyes snapped open, tears splashing across her skin, tangling themselves in her hair. An odor foul and bloody as death itself washed through her nostrils.
Selene was above her, midnight hair tickling her chin, face gaunt yet strikingly gorgeous in its moondust pallor. Daria’s side throbbed, her back throbbed, her head throbbed, and yet when she sucked in a breath, hope flooded her now-beating heart. She was alive. And she wasn’t going to let Selene die.