Lydia sleeps and does not dream.
She has the most coveted research assistant position in the department, working under the tutelage of a man who won the Fields Medal at 28 and the Abel Prize at 45. He pushes her hard, but he also knows what she’s capable of and gives her solid encouragement. "They’ll name a building after you one day," he often says. "Buildings crumble and decay," she replies, "and theorems are more beautiful." It’s their little joke.
Lydia spends most of her time in the lab. Her seminars are well attended, and she has had several publishing successes. The other students in her cohort respect and admire her. Some are perhaps even quite jealous of her natural aptitude, but that does not stop them from recognizing the value of her work. They are not, however, her friends.
She stays busy, keeps her focus on her academic and professional goals. She does not allow her mind to wander.
Lydia works in her garden. The spring thaw is ending, and for weeks she’s watched the first buds push their way through the soil. She cuts back the perennials and pulls up fistful after fistful of grasses and weeds. There’s large patch of them in the back she dreads dealing with—it’s a section of the garden she has never planted, though not for any concrete reason she can think of. But it’s true that every time she starts to consider putting in a few shrubs or several rows of irises her mind shrinks from the task.
Lydia has routines and sticks to them. During the week she cycles between the fixed points of class, lab, gym, and home with the occasional trip to the university library or the city's nicer shopping district. There is a bar in her neighborhood she visits when she wants to enjoy the warm hum of strangers’ conversations. She never has to pay for a single drink.
She lets herself sleep in on Sunday mornings, and most of the time she is alone when she wakes.
Loneliness wraps itself around her, soft and gray, diminishing the force of gravity which once drew so many into her orbit. Lydia does not liken this to a curse or a flaw; she takes comfort in the autonomy it provides because she must please no one but herself. Self-possession has always been her armor. The world, her body—these are not insubstantial. It is only her thoughts that are sometimes unclear, like an echo without source. Lydia clings to the clarity of math, secure in its precision and logic.
Guilt too is familiar enough. What does Lydia Martin have to feel guilty about?
They end up sitting next to each other at one of the President’s meetings. She’s seen him around campus but never spoken to him before—no reason to, the mathematics and history departments have very little crossover except for the occasional seminar on mathematicians of antiquity or the Enlightenment. He nods to her as she takes her seat, smiling slightly. During the break she remains in her seat, watching his back as he exits the row in the opposite direction. When he returns he has two Styrofoam cups of coffee, one for her.
He invites her to talk with him in his office after the meeting. She feels herself say yes, of course before she really even considers it. She follows him across the quad, deciding whether to give him an excuse and head home, but she hesitates for too long and ends up ascending the stairs to the office. He has been provided a small room on the third floor of the History building; Lydia’s own allotted space is bigger but much sparser. His has crowded bookshelves and framed prints of Blake watercolors, overgrown plants and flowers blooming on the windowsill.
“Which area do you specialize in?” she asks, intrigued. “Looking at these shelves I would have said pre-Industrial Europe, but then you also have whole stacks of military history and strategy.”
“I follow my interests.”
He tells her he studies the points of possible divergence, all those nodes of time when things could have turned out differently but for a decision made or an opportunity missed. He likens it to energy conversion, the evolution of language—nothing is destroyed, only changed, sometimes into an unrecognizable form.
Ironic, really. Her own work concerns convergence.
Someone keeps parking their car along the curb across from her driveway. She doesn’t recognize it as belonging to one of her neighbors, but Lydia knows a Porsche when she sees one. She never witnesses anyone get in or out of it, but there are many days when it’s not there.
Lydia has driven a Porsche exactly once, and she recalls that its owner raised hell the whole time, critically concerned that she would cause irreparable damage. If she thinks about it hard enough she can remember what it was like to drive that car, the feel of the steering wheel in her hands and the smooth texture of the leather seats. If she thinks even harder she can remember pulling off to the side of the road, laughing and laughing at how stupid she’d just been, deliberately going 90 in a 35 zone just to see what it felt like. He had screamed in her face then kissed her and started laughing too. Lydia is at a loss for a name.
She begins to look for it, slotting her fingers through the blinds every morning to see if it’s there. Lydia is not unaware of the oppressive little game she’s created for herself. Her mind seeks a pattern, but reliance on the familiar, bright points of limits and equations and formulas yields little. Porsche days, she notes, are full of frail hours that will break apart into oblivion if she dares to push upon them.
Three weeks of their acquaintance pass. He eventually invites himself over, phrasing it in such a way as to make it seem like her idea. The grayness has become thick as a fog, but Lydia can sense some power within him and thinks that maybe he can burn it off, perhaps even re-ignite the dormant star grown cool within her.
The moment he touches her she realizes her mistake. He is gentle with her at first, but everything feels suspicious, like he’s searching for something hidden beneath her skin and once it’s revealed he’ll have her blood. Her heart is hammering against her chest, and she is light-headed in the same way one might be before getting sick. When she gasps it’s partially due to the anxiety she can’t seem to quell. It radiates through her body as he moves within her, and when he moves his hand up to stroke her cheek she jerks her head away. He makes no comment, just lightly pinches her chin between his forefinger and thumb and turns her face to his own.
He flips her over on her stomach, his right hand curling around the back of her neck as he braces himself. The nail on his index finger is slightly longer than the rest of them, and when he thrusts it scratches her. She can feel grit under her knees.
Lydia rubs at the scratch he's left as she watches him get dressed, trying to smooth it down into her skin. She goes to examine it in the mirror after he’s gone. There is no mark, but when she pulls the sheets off the bed she finds a thin layer of dirt coating the mattress. She supposes she must have forgotten to change her jeans after coming in from the garden.
Lydia does not dream but on this night she wakes screaming when phantom claws tear her stomach open. She feels her guts slide out, hot blood soaking the white sheets. Her intestines tangle around her hands like live snakes.
Her parents. She can’t remember her parents’ names. She tears apart her desk looking for something—a photo, a letter, something that will confirm their existence. Lydia Martin, daughter of—
She feels weak, stupid, unable to breathe. She lies on the bed and tries to calm herself, recounting every task she needs to accomplish that week, every point and counterargument she wants to address during her seminar that evening. Her cell phone rings and it’s him asking if he can take her out to dinner afterwards. “I’d love to,” she says.
Before she leaves the house she spends a half hour retching into the toilet. Nothing comes up. She has to empty herself out, purge every wretched thought. She stares blankly into the bathroom mirror and puts on her make-up with stunning precision given how badly she’s shaking. The shade of lipstick she chooses is a bit much for an academic presentation, but it’s what he prefers. Lydia will be damned if she lets herself look as bad as she feels.
Lydia is working in the garden. Gardens are confined, comfortable, not worryingly open and unknown like a forest. The weeds in the back have grown even taller, but Lydia has just put in several rose bushes and is proud of her diligence. When she’s done she calls the nursery to have them deliver a few bags of mulch.
She sits at the kitchen table in her muddy jeans, quite still, waiting for the doorbell to ring. She has the distinct feeling that if she moves to do anything else the moment will shatter and leave her so thoroughly unanchored that she’ll never get back.
Her heart is caught in her throat when she goes to let them in at the back gate. It turns out they’ve sent a skinny teenager with poor balance. He struggles under the weight of the bags but manages to set them next to the shed like she’s requested.
His eyes are those of a boy who used to love her. A boy whose name slips through her mind like water poured out. He wipes the back of his forearm across his brow, smearing sweat and dirt, and gestures to the flowerbeds. “I’ve never seen flowers like that before. What are they?”
She doesn’t remember planting them.
They’re in his office. It’s three o’clock and she’s sitting on the edge of his desk with her skirt hiked up over her hips. He pushes her underwear aside with two fingers and slips them inside her. She clenches around them despite herself.
Lydia knows she should leave; she has an advising session at 3:30. Lydia wants to leave. But he’s lifted her off the desk and the next thing she knows she is lying on the floor with her blouse unbuttoned and her legs folded over his shoulders. He raises his head to meet her eyes. “Calm yourself, Lydia. I don’t want to hurt you,” he says. It’s not a lie, not exactly, but it makes her shudder all the same. Her fingers scrabble over the dusty rug trying to catch onto something.
She makes it to the session about twenty minutes late. She strides in deliberately, her blouse tucked back in and every strand of hair in place. But her advisor carries on as though nothing is amiss, does not even mention her lateness, not even when she apologizes for it.
(Lydia doesn't want to acknowledge how deeply his unspoken complicity unsettles her. It's just one more example in a growing catalog of isolation.)
There is something wrong. Something in her head. She pushes against it, feels it give slightly and then slide back into place.
At some point Lydia realized she hasn’t eaten in about two days, that eating is something she’s supposed do despite the constant nausea. Little by little her body has begun to betray her and now it seems to be in full revolt. She runs her hand lightly over her stomach, trying leach out the sick feeling with her fingertips.
She pulls up to the grocery store half an hour before it's supposed to close. The automatic doors squeak as she enters and shuffles off towards the produce section with only the vaguest idea of what she’s looking for. She tosses a few apples, a grapefruit into the basket. The fluorescent lights are making her head ache, so she tries to hurry, haphazardly pulling random cans and boxes off the shelves. Her behavior is attracting dead-eyed stares from the late-night stockers. Too preoccupied to care, she doesn’t even apologize when she drops a bag of frozen peas and it splits, sending little green balls bouncing across the linoleum. She grabs the torn bag up off the floor and slams it into the basket, nearly running now for the cash register. It split, she thinks, things are splitting, and maybe he studies divergence but he doesn’t tell her that he wants to fill those empty spaces with his own shadow.
She’s already on the verge of tears when she exits the store, but she can’t stop herself from screaming when she looks under the flood lights to see the Porsche parked there. Lydia drops the bags and sinks into a crouch, trembling as she wraps her arms around herself. Behind her the store lights begin to shut off; Lydia watches, frozen, as the grapefruit starts to roll down the slight incline of the parking lot until it’s resting against the Porsche’s front wheel.
Footsteps approach. A young woman with dark hair helps her to her feet. Lydia grasps at her arms, too stunned to say thank you, too scared to say the name that threatens to slip between her trembling lips.
The empty classroom. It’s like a nightmare she had once, but Lydia never remembers her dreams so that can’t be right. She looks down at her stomach to see the blood seeping through her shirt. She yanks up the fabric to see what’s underneath, sliding her fingers over the wound in her side. Each one of the puncture marks is wet. They make a half moon in her flesh.
Ash. When he kisses her, his mouth tastes like ash.
Lydia doesn’t want to sleep, but she needs to dream. It’s half past midnight when she unlocks the back door and pads across the wet grass to the garden shed. She takes out the shovel. The blue flowers are growing among the thick weeds, growing everywhere in fact. If she looks at the rest of her garden now it seems she only planted blue flowers.
The rain-drenched earth yields to the blade easily. She hacks at the roots of the flowers and the weeds and digs until her back is aching and numbness has begun to creep into her hands. The shovel hits something solid yet soft, and when she pushes down she can feel it shift in the soil. Working faster now, on her hands and knees scraping at the dirt as the first hint of pale skin is revealed and the smell of decay overwhelms her.
There are four of them, not entirely whole. She tries to wipe the dirt away from Jackson’s cheek to find that it won’t come off, that his face is really mottled with dark scales. She runs a dirty finger along the gash where his throat was torn open with a single swipe.
She’s screaming and screaming until she can’t because she’s choking on the cold oxygen from the breathing mask. She can hear the beep of the heart monitor, the low electric buzz of the medical equipment surrounding her. The restraints around her wrists are the only things keeping her from lunging for him.
Peter leans over her and sighs like a disappointed parent. “It’s just you and I now, Lydia.”
She tries to move again, making the bed railings rattle noisily. Rage and terror rush through her—the blood stings in her veins.
“I wanted to make it better for you. All I had were the flames and my family’s screams. Here, let me help you with that.” He pushes down on her shoulder with one hand and unstraps the mask with the other, gently pulling it away from her face. The stale air makes her cough and sputter.
“You couldn’t just let it be.”
“Gardening?” she spits.
Peter extends his claws.