by Eva Rieder
I ran into the forest to collect my thoughts.
What he’d told me was shocking, unimaginable—and in the midst of the forest, streaming filters of light scintillating through the dense canopy above me, I began to break it all down.
My knees buckled beneath me. I collapsed to the earthen floor, digging my fingertips into the soil and burying them like the weight that crushed my lungs and pushed the air from my chest in slow, shallow breaths.
I stared up into the trees, the tears escaping from behind my eyelids and streaming down my cheeks. The green above blocked the sky. It rustled with the wind and blew away all I’d known as I tried to understand the truth he’d whispered into my ear.
Except, I realized, I was not alone.
From the wall of trees around me, their faces emerged. One after another, all of them covered in the same pattern he’d shown me in secret, the swirling designs that spread over their skin as they arrived into this world and before they left for the next.
His voice came from behind me and I shuffled to face him, the last of those who watched from the trees.
He reached out his hands, turning his palms up in a show of apology. “You know I didn’t mean to.”
“You did,” I whispered. I pressed my forehead against the ground, sobbing as he stepped behind me. The others buried me in their stares while he rested his hands on my back. His touch came hotter than I’d ever felt from him, in all those months together…
“Maybe I did.”
“Why?” I snapped my head up. His eyes, like those from the trees behind him, were the only ones that would ever understand what had happened to me.
What he did to me.
“Because I love you, and I don’t want to be alone anymore,” he said. He grabbed my elbows and stood me up, propping me against the warmth of his chest. “Neither do you.”
“You aren’t alone,” I said. I pointed at the trees. “You have all of them.”
He shook his head. “They’re not real, Alison. Ancestors. They’re only a whisper now.”
“Which we’ll be too!” I tried to tug myself away but he held firm. “You could have offered me the choice.” I squeezed my eyes shut.
“It will be a lifetime until we’re like them—and I did offer you the choice.”
His words echoed, filling the space around us and ringing in my ears. Had I said yes? Every hint, every conversation, every time I told him I couldn’t stand the world around me and I marveled at his life, and what he was. Every time I told him this world had nothing for me.
“I did,” he repeated. “Many times. And you said you wanted it to be different. You wanted to feel something different.”
I froze. A tingle spread across my skin, starting cold and turning hot, like a gentle lapping of bath water against my arms and legs. He saw it in my face and nodded before I looked down.
“You’ll be happier, Alison. I promise. We’ll be together, not living in two separate worlds anymore…”
My skin changed then, lines of brown and red etching themselves starting at my elbow. The trails ran like veins up and down my arms, swirling into patterns like the ones on his ancestors. He took my hands and stretched out my arms, smiling as the colors spread against my tanned skin. A similar etch traced his own arms.
“We can be together if you really want this, Alison.” He ran his finger along my cheek. “And if you don’t want it, there’s only one way to stop it. But you have to do it now.”
He drew a knife from his pocket, aiming the tip at his chest and nodding at me. His eyes shined as bright as the day we met, and his cheeks flushed the rose tint they always did just before he said the words.
“I love you,” he said, “and I did it for you. Choose to be with me, like this, or…”
The pattern spread to my hands. Beneath my clothes, I felt it spilling further across my flesh, changing me into a mirror image of what he was. I stared at the intricate lines along his arms and face as he began to pull away, to dissolve. Behind him, the ancestors disappeared into the trees, camouflaged, airy beings that no one of this world would ever see.
My body began floating, leaving with him—two creatures who would never fit here.
“Alison?” He held the knife out.
I grabbed the handle. The smile in his eyes changed to fear.
Then it washed away.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Whatever you wish. I love you, and I respect your choice.”
The warmth stretched across my stomach and down my legs, and as I peered at my arms they began to match my surroundings, camouflaging me as I became one with the air. The sunlight breaking through the trees shimmered over us, lightening that which became so much harder to see.
I tossed the knife to the forest floor.
“I love you,” I said.
And then we vanished.