as stuck in my windpipe. I rubbed my arms like I could calm the flow of unease and confusion coursing through my entire body. I was cold and then hot. Nauseous.
It is not logic.
It does not expand or contract on command.
It is unexpected. Unending. Unyielding.
A force of nature stronger than any hurricane and twice as deadly.
It makes no apologies for feeding off the lie of forgiveness.
Love will fight the world even if it has no chance of winning.
It is the excuse and the reason.
The sacrifice and the reward.
The pain and the disappointment.
The ultimate betrayal.
My mother was standing a few feet from me.
She took a small shuffled step toward me and I took one back, knocking over the chair behind me and almost falling with it. I couldn't catch my breath. My mind raced with possibilities, none of which made any sense.
I was in an alternate universe. One where people came back from the dead. It couldn't be real. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was the whiskey. Disbelief, doubt, and utter confusion were all sitting like a knot in my gut, pushing upwards on my racing heart and making its way up to my tight throat. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't swallow.
I—I couldn't do much of anything except gape at the woman who looked and sounded exactly like my mother. Only—it couldn't have been.
"It's not possible," I said in a shocked whisper. "It's just not."
"It's possible. She's really here," Critter said. His deep voice was usually calming for me, but in that moment, there wasn't anything that could calm my shaking hands and sweaty palms. "This ain't no dream, Sawyer. She's alive. Just as much as you and me." I glanced up at him and he was watching me--gauging my reaction. "I told her she needed to hold off until she was stronger, but she wanted to see you and when she's all there, like she was this morning, there is no talking her out of it."
A tall, robust woman with broad square shoulders and short black hair appeared at my mother's side. The scowl on her face didn't match the bright pink scrubs with large, happy face print. "This is not good for her, Mr. Critter," the woman said. "I need to take her back to the house."
It was then I realized my mother hadn't moved since she'd first said my name. Her stare was blank and unfocused on the back wall.
"No, wait!" I called out. I ran up and threw my arms around her, needing to feel her, needing to know she was really there because words weren't enough.
My mother's arms stayed to her side, hanging limply against her body. "My girl," she whispered. I pulled back just in time to see the small smile on her lips fade into a straight line. Her lips hung partially open.
"What's wrong?" I asked on a strangled cry. She didn't answer. I turned to Critter. "What's wrong with her!" I demanded to know.
"Come on. It's time to go," the nurse said, scooping my mother up and cradling her in her arms like she weighed no more than a small child.
"What was I supposed to do, Maddy? Tie her to the goddamn bed?" Critter asked the nurse. "Never could say no to her." He grumbled, rubbing his temples.
"What's going on?" I demanded, glancing between the nurse and Critter. I took a step back while my mind raced. I held onto a table when I grew dizzy. "How is this possible?"
My mother moaned, and the nurse carried her out the back door. Critter and I both followed and I watched her place her into an awaiting van, expertly buckling her into the gurney in the back within seconds.
Critter walked up the ramp of the van and stroked his hand lovingly over my mother's face. "It's okay. We'll get you home now so you can rest." My mother didn't respond. "I'll come see you later, my love." He kissed her on the forehead, sighed, then turned back to Maddy. "Take her. I'll follow soon."
"Where are you taking her?" I asked, feeling panic coursing through me at the idea of not knowing where she'd be as they drove off.
"Home. My house," Critter answered. He scratched his head and looked at the van long after it disappeared down the road. "Where she was always meant to be." He turned to me and placed a hand on my shoulder but I stepped back as if he'd shocked me. He looked to the ground. "I know you have a lot of questions..."
"Questions?" I asked, and without realizing it I started to laugh. "Questions seems so small compared to what I have right now."
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you when you first got here," Critter continued, ignoring my outburst. "But your mother was in such rough shape that I didn't want you to have to grieve her twice. I never gave any thought to the condition she'd be in when I got her back. I was stupid enough to assume that she'd just be herself like she'd been before. I should have known better. You don't spend two decades with a man like Richard Dixon and come out whole on the other end." He looked at me and winced, realizing what he'd just said. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
"Don't be sorry. It's true. You don't spend two decades with a man like him and come out whole." I took in a long shaky breath. "I'm all too familiar. But please tell me, what's wrong with her?"
"It turns out she's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It's the same thing soldiers sometimes go through after they've come home from combat. And there's no doubt in my mind that what your mother went through was a goddamned war zone. She was quiet but all right at first. Once we told her you were here and all right it was like all the walls she'd put up came crumbling down, and the magnitude of everything hit her like a damned tidal wave."
"Will she get better?" I asked.
Critter's eyes grew teary and again. "Only time will tell. She's getting help. But she has her moments. Sometimes, when she's with it, she goes back and forth between the present and thinking it's twenty years ago."
"You lied to me," I said. The weight of reality wasn't just crushing my mother because I felt it sitting on my shoulders like an anvil.
"Yes. I did," Critter admitted. "But if it helps any, I know how you feel. I thought she was dead. I thought she'd left me and then he'd killed her." He clenched and unclenched his fists. "I know now that's what he led me to believe. Your mother thought the same. That I was dead. Wasn't until I had a dream about her that I felt like she was somehow alive. I sent a team to look for her again. At first, they didn't come up with a damn thing. And then they located the camper and truck in a storage unit in North Carolina. That's how I traced it back to her. That's how I knew where she was."
"So, she faked her death?"
Critter looked to the ground and shuffled his feet. "No, we did. We extracted her. The plan was to get both of you out but I was there that day. Watching her from a distance, waiting for you to meet her, but something was off. She wasn't just sad. There was something else there. A finality in the way she watched the traffic move back and forth on the road. I knew we had to get her out of there right that second, so we did. Got some not so up-and-up members of society to pretend to hit her and fake a mangled body for viewing. They bribed everyone seven ways ‘til Sunday until your mother was dead in every single way but in the breathing sense. We planned on coming back for you a few days later. I wouldn’t have left you there. You need to know that. But by then you'd already bolted. I damn near had a fucking heart attack when you showed up at the bar that day."
"All this time I'd been here in Outskirts, she's...she's been here too?" I asked in a whisper.
Critter nodded without taking his eyes off me. A sad expression on his normally stoic face.
"And...and you've been caring for her?" I asked, already knowing the answer.
Another small nod.
Suddenly, the urge to catch my breath was overwhelming. My chest was tight. My throat dry. I couldn't swallow like something w
Overwhelmed and dizzy, I gasped for breath.
I had to get out of there. Leave. Go...somewhere. Somewhere less confusing. Without another word, I turned and darted from the bar, into the rain which had just begun to fall. I should be elated my mother was alive but there was something else blocking off that feeling from registering. A hurt. A pain like I'd never felt before. Confusion above all else.
I ran faster and faster as if I could escape it all. As the rain fell harder and harder, stinging my skin with each step, but it was nothing compared to the sting in my heart.
Finn is hovering above me in bed, his body is pressed against mine in the most delicious way. The heat from his chest warming my heart as well as my skin. His blond hair is disheveled. A light sheen of sweat covers his lightly tanned skin. His defined shoulder muscles are strained with tension.
I run my hand over his bristly jaw, and he closes his eyes like my touch is everything to him, and in that moment, I feel like it is. He peers down at me with his beautiful bright blue eyes and it's like he's looking so deeply into mine that he can see right through me when he thrusts inside me for the first time. My body ignites, and he groans, pulling out and pushing inside my body all over again. He kisses me, drinks in my lips like he's dying of thirst and I moan his name into his mouth as our tongues meet.
"I love you," he whispers.
I'm trembling. With joy. With anticipation. He's everything I never knew I needed him to be. My heart expands and my sex clenches around him as he thrusts harder and deeper inside my swollen channel.
I'm so close. The buildup is almost painful. Every stroke leaves me needier than the last.
Finn drives into me faster and faster. Relentlessly pounding harder and harder. Just as I reach the edge of my release...he's gone. The bed's gone. I'm now standing behind a familiar crowd of people in an even more familiar setting. Somewhere I never wanted to be the first time around.
"Marriage is the most sacred promise you can make. Family is second only to God himself." The Reverend preaches from behind his podium of lies. My mother's casket is front and center.
I'm back at her funeral.
Only, something's different.
Everyone in the crowd is smiling. They keep looking over their shoulders like they are all waiting for something.
Finn comes into view and I'm instantly relieved to see him. I exhale. He's as handsome as ever, wearing a dark grey suit with matching tie. His eyes crinkle slightly at the edges as his smile grows bigger and brighter. My stomach flutters. He walks down the aisle and just as he approaches I realize he's not looking AT me. He's looking THROUGH me.
Finn passes me by and stops at the podium, standing next to the reverend who places a hand on his shoulder.
What is he doing here? What's going on? I wonder as I look down only to find I'm once again dressed in a long skirt and shapeless grey blouse.
I try to take a step, to reach for him but I can't. I'm frozen in place. I try and shout his name but no sound comes out. He can't hear me. He's focused on something else down the center of the aisle.
A beautiful blond woman appears with perfect blonde hair and a bright white smile. She's wearing a long white wedding dress. A tear drips down her cheek as she reaches Finn who takes her hands in his. They only look at each other.
"We are gathered here before God to join Finn Hollis and Jacqueline Watson..."
I don't listen to the rest. I can't. I can't even breathe. My chest is terrifyingly tight it feels like someone is jumping on my chest.
I try and shout again, but it's not working. They can't hear me. Or at least Finn can't. Jackie looks over to me, her head turning ever so slowly.
I gasp and back out of the tent. Knocking chairs over on my way. Once again stumbling over a headstone but this time when I use it to break my fall I notice the name on it.
I turn and run. Faster and faster leaping over headstones until they turn into trees, the earth growing soggy beneath my feet.
I'm winded, but I push through the sharp burning sensation building in my lungs. The air is hot in my throat as I breathe through my mouth, trying to pull in as much oxygen as I can so I can keep going.
I must keep going.
I hear the echo of footsteps running behind me.
I'm not alone.
I run faster and faster. The brush grows thicker and thicker until my long skirt gets caught on a branch and drags me to a sudden halt. I fall forward onto the ground. My hands sting as I break my fall on a log. My teeth vibrate like a tuning fork when my chin smacks into the earth.
I turn and attempt to yank on my skirt to free it from the brush it's snagged on, but suddenly the thorns on the branch that has me captive turns into fingers. The fingers grow longer and longer, the flowers turn to hands, the branches to arms. Nightmarish flowers of flesh. Hundreds of them reach for me and I skid in the soft earth, trying to stand, to get away.
I unbutton my skirt and push it down my legs, but it's too late. The hands are holding me down against the ground. Struggling is useless. I'm trapped, my head encased in the flesh of the human finger flowers.
I try and scream as more and more sprout from nowhere, reach across my body, and strap me down like a crazy person to a gurney, but again, silence.
A small slit between fingers allows me to see the legs of the person who's been chasing me as they come to a stop.
My mouth is suddenly covered by a hand.
Then my nose.
I can't breathe as the person finally comes into full view.
She glances down, shakes her head and smirks. Kneeling beside me she begins to laugh silently. Her mouth wide open, her shoulders shaking violently.
I wonder if I can't hear her because the hands are covering my ears.
Or because I'm already dead.