Chapter 43: Only Natural

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January 2, 2358

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

America

As soon as the word left her lips, Ari felt deflated. It was the beginning of a flood. Words she never thought to say aloud suddenly poured from her in torrents.

Soon enough, she'd described the miserable years of her early childhood. The four spent crying in agony at the emptiness within her at the orphanage. Which is why she was to be without parents until almost five years old. Then came the astonishment she still felt at having been chosen by the Keirs. How she had wondered what she had done to convince them that she was worth their time and love.

When it came to her parents, Ari knew her voice had grown soft, and as she neared the age of nine, it was but a whisper. Which abandoned her entirely when Cai asked about the fire. As soon as the question was in the air, Ari felt her back become ramrod straight and she couldn't look at her brother. The horror of the memory was still fresh. It always would be.

In a voice as devoid of emotion as a steel beam, she announced, "It began on the floor below us. That's what the firefighters said. The smoke rising is what woke me. I could smell it as it came up through the floor. When I realized what was happening, I got out of bed and went to our living room window which led out onto the fire escape. I took that down and crossed the street, just as I was told. For most of the night, I remained on that corner in the pouring rain, waiting for my parents to come get me or the fire to die out. Neither happened that night."

A short pause followed her explanation and she waited for the inevitable. The question that had plagued her for half of her life. Already, her mind had transformed his voice into the insipid accusation, 'Why didn't you wake anyone?' And as she waited for the words to come, she seethed in silent fury and guilt.

Cai never asked.

Instead, he squeezed her hand a little and whispered, "I'm sorry, Ari."

And just like that, the last of her dam wall crumbled and a voice too small to be hers said, "I should have woken them. I should have made sure they got out with me."

His arm moved to her shoulder blades, rubbing across in a half-assed comforting gesture. "It wasn't your fault, Ari. You were doing what they told you to. There's no point beating yourself up over it."

"Except that it was. Because I didn't think about them. As soon as I woke, I knew I had to get out. That I had to survive. Never once did I think about my parents. Not until I was safely on the other side of the street. Up until that moment, it was all about me. Never anyone else."

Cai didn't reply. Really, there was nothing that he could say that she hadn't already heard. The same condolences and the gentle suggestions that it wasn't her fault. Instead, her twin remained silent at her side for several long minutes. Suddenly, he asked, "So what happened next?"

The question surprised Ari enough that she actually told him. About the rain and the funerals. Her Aunt Clara and the move to Genesis. And then she told him about meeting Eila, and her voice grew warm with appreciation. For longer than her two hours of watch, Ari brought him right up until the moment that they had met. And the events that changed everything.

For most of it, Cai merely watched her. Once in a while, he would lean away from her or rub his left hand over the back of his neck. Every time she saw that, Ari smiled. And when she noticed that Cai smiled with only the right side of his mouth, she could feel the pulse of him throughout her entire body. The hollowness had vanished in his presence, and this new wholeness made her absolutely blissful.

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