Chapter Eleven - It Stung and the Cold Only Made It Worse

Have you ever been afraid of someone you love?

If you have to think about it, then the answer is no. And by answering that question another is also answered. Have you ever been in love? The answer here is also no.

Love and terror are one and the same. It was a lesson Aether's father had begun and Christian finished. No one could hurt her like someone she loved. When you love someone deeply that person holds your happiness in their hands. You're at their mercy.

It was much scarier to fight with people you loved. It was scary because a piece of your soul could be ripped out at any moment. Don't go too far, don't say the unsayable - you'll lose a part of yourself if you do. What if you say this, what if you do that and they leave your life forever? What if you hurt them too badly, or they hurt you so deeply that things are never the same again?

In this way, things that should be said between people often go unsaid. Things that seem like common sense to outside observers are unthinkable to those involved. After the first time experiencing it the body instinctively avoids the pain of heartbreak. Even if we know it's inevitable.

This was why Aether never got around to properly asking Christian about that night. Anyone would have looked at that situation at told her, you need to talk to him. You need to work it out together. That much was obvious to her. But she just couldn't. She was too afraid to ask him. She thought back to when her father had almost killed her mother with a golf club. They were still in love after all that.

She didn't know if Christian was the same.

He started waking up at odd hours, usually just before dawn. He would crawl out of bed and throw on clothes before going outside, just like the first time. Often times he would not return for the entire day.

Eventually Aether started coming over to his apartment less often, if only so that she wouldn't have to watch him leave all the time. It drove her crazy the way he did that. She didn't want to be present for it anymore. Where the hell was he going all the time?

They started seeing each other less and less. Texts became terse and almost professional. She left her toothbrush at his place so she bought a new one instead of going back for it. Clothes and other little things, too. She never went back for those.

One night he invited her out. Aether almost lied about being sick but she ultimately decided to go. It felt wrong to have to hide from him. Weren't they supposed to be in love?

He picked her up in his car and they drove around the city aimlessly. Soon it grew dark and they were awash in city lights. Reds and yellows and whites and greens. They danced across the windshield, at one with the screaming outside.

"Do you want to spend the night?" he asked her.

"Why?" she asked him. "So you can get up and leave in the middle again?"

She heard him tighten his grip on the steering wheel. It always ended like this. It always ended with a tense car ride back home. First her father and now Christian.

"I asked you not to mention that," he said darkly.

"Then don't ask me to sleep at your place," she told him. "I'm sick and tired of it. The way you do it like I don't notice. And you won't tell me anything about it either."

He lifted his hand and struck the steering wheel. "It's something you wouldn't understand."

"Of course not. You won't tell me shit!" Aether snapped back. "Sometimes I catch you looking at me with this scary face. You look like you're staring at a ghost. Well guess what, Chris? I'm not dead! I've got feelings and they're fucking hurt. You don't get to just do whatever you want."

"You aren't the one who gets to say that to me," Christian growled, his eyes boring into the road. "Miss I-have-family-issues. Miss I-just-want-to-find-myself."

That was it. She couldn't do this anymore. She grabbed the handle of the car door and pulled it, tumbling out onto the street outside.

"What the fuck…Aether! We're in the middle of traffic!"

Fortunately the car had been crawling along in the traffic jam. Aether stumbled out of the car and slammed the door behind her, flipping the middle finger before disappearing into the night.

She felt like crying. Her chest felt like it was going to explode into a red mess inside her ribcage. She thought about Yusha, about what he had told her that one day.

It seemed that this lie would no longer protect her. And if she could not hide behind an illusion, there was only one thing left for her.

She had to know the truth.

Aether didn't know if Christian would return to his apartment after she left his car. Probably he would go off to wherever he fucking went off to without telling her instead.

The key felt like a weapon in her hand as she turned it in the lock. It clicked and she let herself in. She had never done this before. But she was used to the feeling of doing something for the first time now. Newness wasn't new. Not for someone who tore herself down and built herself back up every day.

Open, close. Open, close. Dressers and closets and desk spaces and kitchen cabinets. She pulled them all open and slammed them closed. Trying to look for a clue. Trying to find the truth. It was an invasion of privacy but she didn't care. He had taken a knife and plunged it into her heart, and nothing came close to that in her eyes.

In her fevered young mind, she thought being hurt by someone gave her the right to hurt them back.

Christian did come home eventually, and when he did he found his stuff littered all over the floor and half his dressers hanging open. Aether was sitting on the floor in the middle of the chaos, her knees drawn up to her chest and her face buried within them.

"What the hell is this?" he asked her. "What did you do?"

"Who is she?" Aether asked him. "Who is Kala?"

He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, on the edge of coming and going. His coat, slung over his arm, was freckled with snow.

"Stop it. Don't talk about that. And I never said you could go through all my shit like this. What's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with you?" Aether said. "You aren't who I thought you were."

"I can't always be who you want me to be," Christian snapped angrily. "Sometimes I have to be myself. Why don't you understand that?"

She did, but it was unfair, so unfair. Everyone had their own way of surviving in this world but that didn't mean everyone else was obligated to accept it. Sometimes the mere act of surviving was an insult to someone else. This is why it hurts to live.

Just tell me. Just fucking tell me.

She forgot when they crossed the line between speaking and shouting. She also forgot who was the first to cross that line. But they descended into savagery and evil that night. They screamed things at each other that were unthinkable, unfathomable. For a moment they cared for nothing but finding the best way to hurt the other's feelings. She felt the hate and heartbreak building up inside her chest and though oh, here it is.

Another side of me.

The argument ended with violence. He rose his hand and struck her across the face. When his palm met her cheek she was reminded of all the times her father had hit her throughout her childhood. And she thought to herself, I've never been hit by someone who didn't love me.

Tears sprung to her eyes. She hadn't cried in years. For the longest time she had thought she was too strong to. She grabbed her things and ran out into the cold. He didn't try to stop her.

The snow crunched beneath her boots as she ran towards the station. For a moment she thought of throwing herself in front of the train as it roared past the platform. The pain in her chest was so great she wanted nothing more than to rip it out. If her guts were splattered across the tracks and her blood stained the concrete, maybe then she would be free.

But she didn't. She was still young and she thought to herself, maybe I'll still make it. So she let her tears fall into the snow and turn to ice. In the end it was all the same. Nature didn't care where things came from. Water was water, whether it came from the sky or a broken heart.

Yusha took a pull from his cigarette and exhaled, the gray smoke indiscernible from the gloominess of the sky.

They were sitting together on a park bench, the same park where she and Christian had met for the very first time. Across from them was the fountain where he had found her shivering and alone. It was day time now, and the lamps were turned off. Their little island of light was gone.

"Did something happen between you and Chris?" he asked her.

They were sharing the park bench but sitting on opposite ends of it. The space between them was covered in a light dusting of snow. It had been snowing that night, too. Almost two years ago.

"It would be easier to ask what didn't happen," Aether said.

Yusha chomped on the end of his cigarette. He was in a long gray trench coat that came down to his knees. His clothes, the cigarette, the snow and trees and sky. All of it a pale, washed out gray.

Someone must have forgotten to paint the universe this morning.

"I called him because I hadn't heard from or seen him in a long time," Yusha said. "At first he didn't pick up, and when he did he sounded really distraught. I've never heard him so upset. I know it's not really my business. And you don't have to feel pressured to tell me anything. But…did anything happen? I'm asking because he's my friend. I want to know that he's okay."

I can't tell you that your friend is okay. I can't even tell you if I'm okay.

Aether looked down at her boots. They were swallowed by the ankle high snow piled up along the walkway. It looked to her like she was a tree growing out of the white snow. She felt like she had always been like this, locked in place, unable to find somewhere new.

"Who's Kala?" she asked him.

Yusha went very still, then took the cigarette out of his mouth and stared into it. He didn't speak for a very long time.

"Where did you hear that name?" he asked.

"From him. I heard it from him," Aether said. Her voice cracked and she hated herself for it. "Please, Yusha. I want to know. He won't tell me. Who is she? Who is Kala?"

She remained staring at the snow around her feet. Yusha watched her for a very long time. He seemed impossibly conflicted. Aether felt guilty for forcing pain onto him too. It seemed like that was all she ever brought to the people she cared about. Pain for them and guilt for herself.

At last he took his cigarette and stubbed it against the arm of the bench, killing it.

"Kala…was the very first girl Christian ever gave his heart to," Yusha said.

Aether felt her own clench at those words.

"They met in undergrad," he said. "Back then he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. But she was always very free spirited and hopeful about the future. That's why he fell for her, I think. She embodied the things he wished he had himself. In the end we always chase the things we can't have."

A lonely bird cawed from a tree somewhere. The sound echoed across the empty shell of the park.

"They fell in love very quickly. Sometimes I think a little too quickly," Yusha continued. "He didn't know enough about her before he let himself fall. He didn't know…he didn't know enough sides of her."

Aether clenched her toes inside her boots. The snow squeaked beneath her.

"Which sides?" she asked softly.

"She was a very energetic and friendly girl," Yusha said. "But it seems like everyone has a shadow inside them that represents everything that they are not. I didn't know this until it was too late. But Kala was hiding a darkness inside her. A darkness she didn't dare show to anyone, not even Christian."

A deep, cold fear sprouted in Aether's chest. It took root in her heart and spread frigid icicles into her gut. She was afraid of the words she somehow knew she was about to hear.

"She committed suicide in her parents' home over the holidays," Yusha said quietly. "It was strange because Christian always told me how much she hated going home. I never understood why she would go there to die, of all places. Maybe her darkness took her to the darkest place imaginable to her. But one moment she was here and the next she was gone. It happened four years ago, on January third."

Aether's heart thudded slowly in her ribcage. She wished she could tear it out and smash it against the park bench beside her. She wished she could feel nothing. If only she could feel nothing! Then none of this, none of this would matter.

"But why?" she whispered, on the verge of tears. "Why would she do that?"

"I don't know," Yusha said. "And I don't think Christian does either. I think that's what killed him about it. He was the closest person to her and he wasn't able to stop it. He wasn't able to save her. He goes sometimes to visit her grave. It's right here in this very city. He tells me that she always hated the cold. She told him that it's always warmer with someone else around. I think…I think he feels responsible."

So that was where he was going. That was where he went early in the mornings, right after the break of dawn, when the cold was at its harshest. He threw on his winter clothes and trudged across the city to visit a dead woman. A woman she could never confront. A woman she could never find and ask, why?

Tears leaked from Aether's eyes and trailed down the length of his nose. She didn't know if she was crying for Christian, Kala or herself. Maybe she was just crying because her body needed the release. The ice in her chest was melting and pouring out. She was turning to liquid, she was losing the strength to go on. She couldn't do this anymore. This existence, this human obligation…it was killing her.

"What kind of person was she?" Aether asked, turning her face to hide her tears. "What was she like? How did she look?"

Yusha hesitated, and she knew that her heart wasn't done breaking just yet.

"Kala was always a very unique person," Yusha said. "Even if I never knew her very well, that much was evident. And one of the most obvious things that made her different…was the fact that she wasn't from this country."

Aether turned to look at him as he reached for his phone. He logged onto a social media site and pulled up a profile. The screen too was gray as he turned it to show her.

"I'm sorry, Aether," Yusha said. "I know this may hurt you. But please believe that Christian is a good person. He makes mistakes…but I do believe you mean the world to him."

She didn't hear him. Her eyes were fixated on the photo on Yusha's phone.

A little girl with pale skin, black hair and slanted eyes. She was posing in the photo with parents who looked just like her own.

Her name was Kala, and she was the spitting image of Aether.

Pain, pain. She was in so much pain.

Aether's lungs nearly bled as she ran through the snow. Everything hurt but she didn't let herself stop. She was afraid that if she stopped the snow would swallow her.

Is that what you were doing the night we met, Christian? Were you coming back from her grave, when you passed through the park and saw someone who looked just like her? You must have felt like must be fate. Like someone had taken Kala and resurrected her.

She found him at the cemetery near his apartment. He was standing over a grave that must have been Kala's. She was so consumed by rage at this point that she didn't care that they were surrounded by dead bodies.

"Christian!" Aether shouted, approaching from the end of the row of graves.

He looked up and saw her, his face contorting. "Aether-"

"Yusha told me. He told me everything!" She brandished her phone in front of her lover's face. "About Kala. About what happened. Am I just a replacement to you? I'm just a second chance, aren't I? Aren't I!"

She threw her phone at him. He ducked and it impaled itself into the snow. On the flickering screen was a faded picture of Kala.

"Stop it," he snarled. "You don't understand anything!"

"Shut up. Shut the fuck up!" she screamed. Tears were pouring down her cheeks now. She was melting and she couldn't stop it. "You don't even see me when you look at me, do you? All you see is her. When you came home that night and took me…you were wishing she was still alive."

Christian's face grew very dark. He approached her through the snow and lifted his finger.

"Don't say that," he growled. "You don't know what you're saying."

"I fucking do. Stop fucking saying that. Maybe you couldn't save her. But don't try to save me just to make yourself feel better!" Aether wailed. "I'm not her. I'm me! You can't change the fact that she's gone."

He hit her. It stung and the cold only made it worse.

"Shut up! Shut up shut up!" he shouted. "You never even knew her! You don't know what I've been through!"

"Fuck you!" she screamed, balling her fists and punching him in the chest. She hit him as hard as she could but he was unmoved. "Fuck you! Fuck you and fuck her too. You don't get to do this to me."

He seized her by the shoulders and held her and arm's length. His ragged breath was hot in her face.

"What about you?" he seethed. "You wanted this. You wanted me to save you. Don't lie to me. I know it's true. You told me everything about yourself. Do you think I'm stupid? I know it's because you want to be saved. You're fucked up, Aether. You're as fucked up as I am. You don't get to act like you're better. You don't get to do this to me!"

"Fine!" she exclaimed. She shoved him away and stumbled back into the snow. "Do whatever the fuck you want. I'll do whatever I want. Maybe I'll go home and blow my own brains out tonight. What the fuck are you going to do about it? Will you find another helpless foreign girl to save after me? Are you going to try a third time? You can't stop someone who wants to die!"

He grabbed her by the front of her coat. She took a handful of snow and threw it in his face. They fell to the ground and his weight crushed the air from her lungs.

"You're nothing. You're nothing!" he screamed. He was sobbing now. Hot tears sizzled against the ice. "You were nothing when I found you and without me you'll be nothing. That night when we met I was going home after visiting Kala. I thought maybe god had decided to send me a sign. It was like he had resurrected her and brought her back to me!"

Aether punched him in the face as hard as she could. He yelped and rolled off of her. She stumbled to her feet, clutching her side.

"You're fucking sick," she sobbed. "Why are you doing this? Why are you like this? She's dead, Christian. She isn't coming back. I'm here. I'm here right now. Why isn't that enough?"

"Enough," Christian gasped, crawling to his knees. He put a hand on the grave beside him. "You might look like Kala but you'll never be her. If you cant accept that then just leave. Turn around and never come back."

"Christian," she whispered, "Don't do this."

He turned his back on her.

"Just go away."

Her heart was being shredded into a billion pieces. She turned and ran away through the snow.

The door to her room crashed open as she threw it aside. Dust swirled across the floor as she swept past her bed and into the bathroom. Her head was a roiling maelstrom of grief and hatred.

She needed to break something.

She crashed into the bathroom and was greeted by her own reflection in the mirror. The Aether in the glass looked alien and dangerous. Her eyes were bloodshot and filled with a dark chaos. The sight filled her with so much anger, so much sadness and bitter regret that filled her up and spilled out of her body.

Aether screamed and hit the mirror so hard that the glass cracked. Her knuckles immediately split open and her wrist buckled beneath the pressure. Pain consumed her entire arm but she didn't care. She pulled her fist back and hit the mirror again, and again and and again, she didn't want to stop until the mirror was in pieces, she wouldn't stop until she herself was in pieces.

I'm done. I'm done with this. I don't want to be a human being anymore. I'm broken and I was never meant to make it. It's over and this pain is going to destroy me, fuck it! Smash this fucking mirror to pieces. Splinter it so badly you won't be able to recognize yourself anymore. Become a void. Become nothing, like he said you were.

Nothing nothing nothing.

She didn't know how many times she hit the mirror. But when it was over there were shards of glass all over the floor and her hand was a broken, bloody mess. When she tried to move her fingers she found that they were unresponsive.

Her legs gave out beneath her and she collapsed onto the edge of the sink. With her other hand she turned on the water and held the injured hand beneath it. Warm red blood swirled around the drain before disappearing forever. She wished it could swallow her entire body.

She spent the next three hours crying into that sink. Faucet water, tears and blood all becoming one. Chloe wasn't home and wouldn't be for a long time. She was alone in her pain, now that Christian was gone, gone gone gone.

Afterwards she dragged herself into bed and lay with her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Her brain told her she had to see a doctor about her hand, but she had lost the will to save herself. Her body was too exhausted to feel anything. She was dead to the world.

If only she could stay this way forever.

As she drifted off to sleep, she dreamed about the anguish on Christian's face. She had visions of the intense pain she hadn't known existed until it was too late. And she thought to herself, if only I knew. If only I could have done something to help him.

If only I could have saved him.