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Chapter Text

Helena

 

In the mornings, when the apprehensive sun is just coming through the windows of the garage, before the city has begun making any sounds of life, Helena holds her children. She lifts them out of their cradles and tiptoes around with them pressed to each side of her chest. Not because they are crying – at dawn they have most often finally gone to sleep – but because she needs to know she still can.

Helena has never gotten to hold anything she loves. Once, she had a doll that she loved dearly. But the nuns took it away from her, and after that people kept taking away from Helena: her clean conscience, her unsullied body, her freedom of will. Her trust: in God, in truth, in herself, in anything real. They took away from her until there was only bad and ugly left, only other people's ideas and convictions in her mind. Perhaps that is why she did all those terrible things that she tries not to think of. Because she never got to learn how not to. Not once did she get to stroke something along it's back and feel the honor in return. Never did she get to care for anything. Love anything.

Until now.

Now, Helena has more people to care for than she can count. Now, Helena has so much love that she feels it stack in her throat and weigh her bones down. Now she has something more valuable than she thought she would ever get to have. So every morning when a new day breaks, she has to lift her children up to make sure that she still can. That they aren't a dream or a mirage or a trick, that they are really hers to comfort, with her hands stroking their backs endlessly soft. Her sons. They whimper into her chest and stir in her arms, and it vibrates through her whole body. To get to hold something close. Protect it. Love it.

Mother it.

She tries the word on her tongue sometimes, as she sways around in the quiet of the garage. I am your mother. It lies uncomfortably in her mouth.

She never had one, always wanted one. And then she got one, but Helena killed that mother. Knife through mother's ribs. Mother's blood on Helena's hands. Something drove her to drain the life from the promise of mother and Helena cannot understand what it was. Maybe anger that she didn't get to be a daughter because mother decided so, or confusion, or fear, or maybe a terrible combination of them all. Maybe she did it because it was all she knew how to do: take things away.

Then Helena was pitch black with envy for girls with mothers. Sarah. Kira. Gracie. They all knew something, a secret that she would never understand. She prayed to God every day for something she couldn't name. She never got to learn how to say the word. She never had anyone look at her in that way, that way that says nothing is ever going to matter as much as you. She wanted so badly it made her sick, but she didn't know what it was she wanted. Empty of everything but others' ideas. And yet, all the time while stumbling through those meaningless corridors of darkness, so enraged, so appalled at herself for throwing away her own remedy.

Then Helena got a sestra. Holy and alive. Despite the scars on her skin and the blood all over her hands, Helena got to hold her in the cabin of a shower while they both shook in tandem, and for the first time, she was loving something and holding it in her hands. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Helena wanted something that she could put a name to. After that she got many sestras and maybe a couple of brothers, and her hands became full and she stopped thinking so much of mothers.

Until she became one.

Alison calls her mommy. Delphine calls her mamán. Helena holds her children up in front of her and looks deep into their green eyes and tries to become one. She doesn't find herself any closer. Still cannot close her mouth around the word. She asks Sarah how she did it. "Oh meathead," Sarah says, "I still haven't. I'm still in way over my head, and it's just a matter of time before Kira realises I'm actually a shit mum and moves out."

Helena wants to argue with that, wants to tell Sarah how she almost stole Kira away because she was so unfathomably, achingly jealous of the way she was looked at by Sarah. But she also wants an answer, so she asks Alison.

"Oh, honey," says Alison and stops folding laundry to look at her fondly. "It took me months- maybe even years, before I really felt like I was a mother. I think you just have to pretend you know what you're doing, until one day, you wake up, and you don't feel quite as much like you're lost at sea anymore. And your child smiles at you in that... way, when they see you and you're just sort of... there. You know?"

Helena doesn't know. Alison smiles at her and puts the folded dresses into the top drawer. "It'll come. Don't worry."

Helena tries not to worry.

She lets Krystal cut her hair so it falls soft onto her shoulders. When she lifts the shirt over her head and glances back into the mirror, the lines on her back have started to whiten. She finds a razor blade in the bathroom one day and her hand doesn't dare to touch it. Is afraid of what would happen if she felt it between her fingers: if her arm would bend back of its own accord to remind her of how unholy she is.

Helena still tries to talk to God sometimes. But God has never really listened, and before she thought it was because she was undeserving, but now she thinks it might be because she doesn't need him anymore. The part of herself that Helena would cut open and bleed out on the floor for God to take has been gingerly picked up and sown back into her body. By her sestras, her sestras with their beautiful brown eyes and shining faces and their hands that are always there in some way: stroking her back, pulling her up, holding her still to remind her who she is.

Perhaps she doesn't need mothers, or gods, because Helena has something else to love now. Something that loves her back. And so finally, she manages to pick the razor blade up from the sink and fold it into toilet paper until it isn't sharp and hurtful anymore, and she throws it away and walks out into the summer's day, her hands clean.

 

Chapter Text

Cosima

 

There is no more blood. In lungs or in eyes or in glass vials. When Cosima laughs it doesn't warp into a cough. When she jogs up the stairs, when she twirls below Delphine's hand in dark clubs, her lungs don't collapse in on themselves.

At first, after the first test result came back and Delphine's lips trembled when she whispered the growths have regressed, Cosima, it's working, she was afraid to do anything at all. Afraid to breathe, afraid to move, afraid of the memory of seizuring, still there like a phantom pain in her limbs. Cosima used to be the first one to dance at university parties. She used to be the loudest one in the concert crowd, the first one to reach the top of the hill, the last one to get out of the water. She used to close her eyes and become only a fluttering heartbeat and a collection of sighs when Delphine mumbled feverish love into every corner of her chest. Now, she sat on the couch and tried to remember how to do it all. How to trust things not to fall apart.

She hated it. How she had come to fear what she used to love. How those people had control over her even now, even after most of them were dead in the ground, and she had found a cure for their reckless gambles and won against the sickness inside her. How sometimes she became scared to touch a petri dish, suddenly reminded of how not long ago her own cells had been smeared onto it. How not long ago her hands had been cold, shaking things that couldn't hold onto science.

She told Delphine this, and Delphine cradled Cosima's face in her hands and said defy them. Cosima didn't say that that would mean defying Delphine too, because Delphine was theirs once, was once incorporated in the signature after the patent that was tucked into her DNA in code. That sometimes when she thinks about that patent she feels so trapped in her own skin that she has to heave over the sink like she's trying to physically reject it, but no, no, they're dead now, and Cosima is still here, she's still alive after all, and she will not be dictated by anyone anymore.

So she does what Delphine said. She stands from the couch, even though it's frightening. She searches for every name on the neatly printed list Felix gave her until she can cure them or mourn them. She lies between her sisters in the hammock in Alison's back yard and lets Sarah trace the shape of the golden ratio on her wrist, and she watches with equal parts fondness and amazement as Helena gently plays with her sons on the blanket on the grass. She lets peace come to her in short moments, and then in longer ones. She teaches Kira the basics of genetics. She steps on a plane to visit her parents, she goes back to school and laughs at Scott's silly jokes in the lab, and eventually she jogs up the stairs, and dances in dark clubs and she laughs at how life tickles her skin again, and it feels so wild that it drowns out the fear.

Once a month, she lets Delphine push the clear liquid through the syringe and into her bloodstream. They do it on the sofa during commercials, or in the hallway before she goes to class, or leaning towards the kitchen counter after dinner. Never in the bathroom. Never in bed. Cosima throws out the box of surgical gloves Delphine has stored in the bathroom cabinet. She's not a patient anymore. She'll never be a test subject again. From now on, she refuses to be anything less than an equal.

Some fears take longer to lure away than others.

"Promise you'll always be honest with me," Cosima whispers in the blackness of their bedroom, their bodies flush beneath the sheets. She can barely keep her voice from sounding like a threat.

"I promise," Delphine murmurs.

I thought you were dead once, and sometimes it's still so hard to believe that you're alive, she doesn't say. I love you so much but I don't know how to trust you again, she doesn't say. You're still the safest thing I know, and that's scary, she doesn't say.

“Promise me you'll stay," she says.

"I promise," Delphine whispers.

And every morning that Cosima wakes up and Delphine is there, kissing her shoulder, making her french toast, walking her to the train, Cosima doubts a little less. Delphine's patience never wavers, and neither do her eyes. Je t'aime, Cosima, she mumbles into Cosima's hair every chance she gets. And those people, they stole so much from Cosima. They don't get to steal her courage to love, she thinks, with the scent of Delphine still a memory below her tongue. She has to defy them one final time, show them that despite everything they did, she is brave enough. To breathe deeply, to be unapologetically free, to trust.

She laces her fingers with Delphine's in bed at night.

Her hands are warm.

 

Chapter Text

Alison

 

She goes to the cemetery as often as she can. It's not as often as she'd like to. There are just so many people who are still miraculously alive around her craving her attention, and she's so willing to give it to them.

Oscar is growing into a middle schooler who drags mud into the house after soccer practice and eats astounding amounts of mac'n'cheese. Gemma is almost ten and has begun squinting through the shop windows in the mall with a concerned expression, carefully counting the contents of her piggy bank every week. Charlotte is her new best friend, and Charlotte, with her vivid smile and features just like Alison's once were, and her leg that's too slow for her when she runs after Gemma up the stairs, presents Alison with a whole new toolkit of worries and aches and affections.

And then there are the twins, with their eyes wide open to the world and their little hands gripping onto Alison's fingers like they're afraid she'll leave them. Helena lets her take one or the other sometimes, because Alison always offers to, and it's her favorite feeling in the world to have a small, warm little being sighing against her, clinging to her, depending on her.

Helena requires caring for too, what with her strange antics, apparent belief that rocks are baby toys and inability to maneuver the washing machine. "Alison, washing machine is flooding," she can shout from the laundry room, and Alison needs to come and show her how to shut the door properly and where the floor mop is. And then there are diapers that need changing, food that needs to be cooked, bedtime stories that need to be read, backs that need rubbing, a whole house to fill with love.

And then, there are her sisters, who keep growing in numbers, and who have deemed Alison's house some sort of base camp. Not that Alison tells them to leave. They come over to plop down on various couches and tell Alison about their respective lives and Alison needs to comfort or scold or counsel them, and there are more backs to rub and more food to cook, and endless hugs to hand out.

Still, she tries to make time for her first sister as often as possible.

Beth's grave doesn't have a real headstone, sculpted and smooth, proud and upstanding, golden engravings and carved birds. It is a small, naturally rounded rock protruding humbly from the grass, perhaps fifteen inches across, in a pleasant dove gray shade. Alison couldn't afford anything bigger, even though it's what Beth deserved. Beth deserved a mausoleum decorated with a thousand flowers. Most of all, Beth deserved to live, but there's no point going down that road.

Alison had the small stone picked out and engraved, and she rented a burial plot near a large oak at the local cemetery and had the urn interred on a Tuesday afternoon, with the bleak Toronto sunlight looking down on her. She had wanted Cosima to be there, Cosima had wanted to be there too, but with flight prices and school schedules and secret after hours lab research it simply wasn't possible. So Alison stood alone and looked on as the remains of Beth's body were placed in a hole in the earth by the burial custodian, and the soil was tucked back around it.

She stood there for some time, after he left, and tried to find something fitting to say, something that would help her loosen the tightly wound knot of fear and anger and desperation that was growing in her chest. Beth had been the motion in Alison's monotonous life. When she had been treading water in Bailey Downs, silently wondering if this was it, Beth had called her from a private number and asked her to meet. After that meeting, Alison had gone home and felt powerless in a whole new way. She had hated what Beth had revealed to her, but what she had hated most of all was to feel as if she was of no use. So she had decided to help Beth, to be of purpose in whatever way she could, and if that was through money, then so be it.

Beth had kept calling, sounding a little less pissed off each time and a little more dejected. Alison had made lunches, placed them in paper bags and brought them to the parking lot of the grocery store next to the police station. Beth had looked tired but grateful. She had told Alison about monitors with bit back betrayal in her voice, and Alison had tried to comfort her, but she hadn't known what to say. After a while, she had taught Alison how to hold a gun and hit a target, and Alison had gone home with a little more purpose to her hands. Now, she could at least defend her family.

And then months had spiraled on, the panic in Beth's eyes had grown but Alison hadn't been able to make it better, because what could she say? She was just a component in the machinery that Beth was uncovering, living proof that Beth's nightmares were true. Beth had kept her distance, and autumn had turned into winter and Beth had stopped calling and stepped in front of a train. Because after all, they hadn't really known each other. They had just been on the same side of a war, and Beth had never hugged Alison or told her about her issues with Paul or called her sister the way Cosima did. Alison had been left sitting in the dead silence of her crafts room staring at the glass of wine before her, trying to find some purpose for her hands. And when she hadn't found any, she had picked up the glass instead.

“I wish you hadn't done it,” she bit out at last to the little pile of dirt on the ground, and it didn't help at all, and then she turned and left.

The next time she came to Beth's grave, the stone had been installed. Alison had had great difficulty choosing an epitaph. It hadn't felt like her task. She was grateful to Beth, admired her and hurt for her, but she hadn't really known her. After all, she hadn't really known her.

She had thought of choosing Gone but not forgotten. Respectful, yet not making claims on a shared life. When she had suggested it to Cosima, Cosima had blown out smoke through her mouth in a disapproving way, clouding up the Skype call.

“I mean. Isn't that a little impersonal? Beth put everything on the line for us.”

“Well,” Alison had defended herself, “it's not like I can put loved forever on there! We barely knew her.”

“Alison, Beth might have been closed off and stressed out, but we knew her. Come on.”

Alison had fought the knot in her chest. “I don't know. Wouldn't we have noticed what was... happening with her, if we did?”

The pixelated image of Cosima on Alison's screen had looked concerned. She had peered over the edge of her glasses seriously.

“Alison, you're not blaming yourself for Beth, right? You know it wasn't your fault."

Alison's chest had threatened to break. She didn't allow it to. “I know, I just... I just wish she was still with us.”

Cosima had sighed again. “I know. Me too.”

Cosima had offered to take over the task of picking out an epitaph and Alison had agreed to it, because she felt more and more like she couldn't breathe properly. She woke up panting and sweaty in the middle of the night from dreams she couldn't recount, and her children began looking at her like they didn't recognize her sometimes. She started going to play rehearsals with a small bottle in her purse.

Cosima emailed her a few days later. Alison read the line in italics a dozen times and closed her eyes. It felt fitting.

And now, at the other side of everything, it is.

It's another warm day; summer seems to stretch on endlessly this year. The light is almost white as it hits the rows of stones and paths of grass in the cemetery. They have to squint as they tread slowly between the stones, but when they reach Beth's spot, there's semi-shade from the canopy of the old oak. Soft circles of light dance around the familiar letters on the stone, the wind rustles through the leaves and catches the hem of Alison's dress.

Helena stops silently a few feet behind her. She is dressed in Alison's old overalls and the ringlets of her newly washed hair shine like a halo in the sun. Alison motions for her to step forward and she does so hesitantly, chewing on her lip. Alison clears her throat.

“Hi Beth,” she says lightly.

In the beginning, Alison found it impossible to talk when she visited Beth's grave. It felt like talking to a ghost, or to herself, or to the body of her guilt. The first time Cosima had come with her, she had knelt down and brushed the snow from the letters of Beth's name, and murmured hey Beth, we really miss you. I hope you're doing good, wherever you are. Cosima had talked a little about her progress in the lab with Katja's briefcase, and Alison had looked down at her own hands and they had seemed more useless than ever.

“Do you really think she is somewhere?” she had asked in the car on their way back.

“How do you mean?”

Alison had shifted uncomfortably behind the wheel. “You talked to her as if she was just... someplace else.”

Cosima hadn't quite smiled. She had leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “Who knows where she is. Nobody knows if the soul lingers after death, but it's comforting to imagine. You know that poem, 'I have only slipped into the next room'. I don't think she can hear me, but it helps me connect to whatever I have left of her, you know?”

Alison hadn't known. She had wished she was a clever scientist like Cosima or brave and resourceful like Beth, and she had wished there was something she could do, and she had wished for the motion back in her life. She had pressed her lips together and stared at the mud-colored snow and the road ahead.

“Maybe try it, next time.” Cosima had momentarily put her hand on Alison's arm. “I know you miss her.”

Alison tried to talk to Beth. It made her feel ridiculous and frustrated and like a faker, she didn't know what she was supposed to say, but she persisted. With time it got easier to let the words come to her, to not feel like a fool or a fraud, and to see Beth in her mind, smiling wryly back at her and rolling her eyes when Alison told her about Sarah's escapades and how Cosima had managed to fall in love with her French monitor.

Now, she smiles at the name on the stone, and then back at Helena, who looks heart-achingly unsure. “I brought Helena with me today. I think you would have liked her."

Helena glances at Alison a few more times. “Hello,” she says awkwardly. “It would have been nice to meet you.”

Alison pats her arm. She lets the by now familiar sadness bloom in her. It's not full of confused resentment and fear anymore, it's much quieter, but it's still there, next to the piece of Beth in her heart. “We miss you,” she sighs. “It's a beautiful day today.”

Helena leans closer to Alison and whispers, “should I tell her about babies?”

Alison smiles at her. “I think that's a wonderful idea,” she says.

They stay at the cemetery in the shade of the oak for as long as it takes Helena to solemnly recount the way her children won't let her sleep a full night, and what type of green their eyes are, and how sestra Sarah helped her have them, and how very, very much she loves them. “You are aunt now, sestra Beth,” she concludes ceremoniously. And how is it possible for peace to be so beautiful and so heavy at the same time? How can Alison be standing there in the sunlight with her insides scrubbed clean and still feel like crying? Helena takes her hand. They breathe through it.

Before they go, Alison bends down and brushes some imaginary dirt off the stone, and the inscribed letters below her palm are a reassuring truth when they turn away to go home.

 

Elizabeth Childs

1984   † 2012

You gave your today for our tomorrow.

 

In the car back, Helena turns to her.

“She was sad?” she asks, eyes big and searching.

Alison sighs. “Yes. But she was strong, too. She fought for us. She was very brave.”

Helena nods. Through the corner of her eye, Alison sees her finger trace patterns in the dust on the car's window. “I will tell my babies about her when they know language,” she announces.

Alison thinks about that poem Cosima told her about when they sat in the exact same place all that time ago. Death is nothing at all. Death is something, Alison thinks, but it doesn't have to be the end.

When they get home, Donnie meets them at the front door looking harrowed, one crying baby on each arm.

“Thank God you're back,” he says feebly. “I need you.”

Alison closes the door and walks into a home where diapers need changing and sandwiches need to be made, and Gemma's homework needs helping with and Oscar's soccer practice needs to be driven to. And they wake up to new days where breakfast and lunch and dinner need to be cooked and plants need to be watered and babies need to be comforted and backs need to be rubbed. Sometimes Krystal comes over and Alison needs to make sure she doesn't burn Gemma's hair off, or it's Felix and Alison needs to act relationship counselor, or Art brings Maya and Charlotte and Alison needs to make sure there are enough pillows in the hammock and enough coffee in the pot to make Art stay.

Alison reminds herself as often as she can how lucky she is. That she is alive, that her husband and her children are alive, that her sisters are just a phonecall away, and that she came out on the other side. She looks at Sarah and she sees how hard she is trying to be okay, she looks at Mika and sees the ghosts of her past still swirling in her distant eyes. Alison made it back to happiness, and she needs to help her sisters get there too.

And so new days keep coming, another summer turns into another autumn and Alison has people depending on her, she has a whole beautiful family to take care of, and her hands always have a purpose.

 

Chapter Text

Mika

 

It takes a long time to learn how not to be alone. Get used to the way it frets. She has been for so long, she has forgotten how to be anything else.

In a basement. In a motel room. In a trailer. In the woods. Gunshots and fires and suffocation. It's just better to be alone.

Every morning she brushes her teeth for two minutes and thirty seconds, looking at the picture of a laughing Niki stuck to her dirty mirror. Niki when she was alive and warm and keeping Veera together, keeping her from being alone. But it only held for so long.

When Sarah starts calling her, Mika does not pick up. She sits in the eternal silence of her trailer and thinks about Beth. Beth, with her hard eyes and the drugs beneath her bathroom sink and the tremors in her voice. Beth tried to call for her, tried to lure her into an affinity that Mika knew would only lead to more death. But for some reason Beth kept coaxing, despite coming apart at her own seams.

Mika.

That's a nice face. You don't have to do this by yourself. I didn't know where else to go.

Mika.

How was Mika supposed to close the door? Beth looked just like her. She looked just like Niki. She was just trying to survive like everyone else, she was scared and alone too, and she gave Mika a name and made something human out of the hard scientific binary that she was made up of. So Mika let her in and she made iced tea and offered to think for her when she sagged on a chair in the darkness of the trailer. Mika sat there and felt Beth shake like a leaf below her hand, something dangerous stirring in her own body. And then she was entangled.

Then she stood in Beth's frosty apartment and knocked on the closed bathroom door, pleading, and everything inside her screamed you knew it would end like this. Then she had Beth yelling, not being able to look her in the eye, her voice a dying animal, pressing a gun into her hands. Mika begged not to be abandoned, and she had silence in return. She had Beth drawing her close for a single striking second, before stepping back and looking at her for the last time, and then she had the taste of iron in her mouth and a heart beating so fast she thought it would break and hands that could barely type the password to unlock her laptop and then, she had Beth stepping in front of a train through the grainy, hacked footage of a surveillance camera.

Just like Niki had been taken from her, so was Beth. And she was alone again.

Mika had so many deaths to avenge in the end that they erased the rest of the world. She just wanted to kill him. Them, all of them, but mostly him. To see the spark leave his eyes little by little and know that the last face he would ever see was the one he had thought he could defeat. A life for thirty-eight lives. It didn't seem fair. But it seemed like the only possible way to go.

Was it worth it? She can't say. Mika had a family in Niki that was different from anything she'd had before. It didn't matter in what way they loved each other: they belonged together, almost became corresponding parts of the same strange organism. Could have been. Could be now, too, if he hadn't done what he did. Mika stopped caring why, eventually. She stopped caring about illegal experiments and what was right or wrong in the world. She stopped caring about who put her in the world and why. She stopped caring because all she could ever think about was that once, she'd had a net of warm glowing lights around her, and one after the other he had put them out. Like candles. He had shut the warm glowing part of Mika down and left her in the dark, so now, he needed to pay. A life for thirty-eight lives. Three point seven million dollars.

It didn't seem fair. But then again, none of it was.

She saved Sarah for Beth's sake. She just meant to make that one phone call, and then disappear again. But Sarah became a distraction. She confused Mika with her obnoxious intrusion and resemblance to Beth, almost having her on the edge of becoming entangled once more. But she didn't quite succeed: Mika had become an expert at being alone by then, and when Sarah simply handed her his name and his face after all those years of looking, any trace of caring vanished from her mind.

It's simple, to stare at a single point until everything else fades. Was it worth it? She can't say. All she knows is that it kept her alive.

Within hours she had his body chained to a bomb. She had the truth burned into his eyes and watched the arrogance slide off his face; saw desperation replace it. She had it all lined up. A candle for each sister he had taken. Gallons of gasoline. She was the wolf, he was the deer caught in the trap.

And still, somehow, he walked out alive. Still Mika was left with painful, hollow echoes of warmth and Sarah's voice like an alarm in her head.

Mika. Mika. Mika.

Did it only take a name to break her? One juvenile promise? One soft voice persuading her to care about yet new sisters who would surely just end up dead, the way everyone Mika touched ended up dead? What was the point, when he still got to live?

She left Beth's apartment with betrayal and disappointment tearing at each other in her chest, and decided to stay alone.

Sarah calls and calls. So does the detective. Once, Alison Hendrix calls. Mika looks at her display, clenches her hands into fists, looks at Niki's picture, never picks up. She tracks their IP addresses: watches, like Beth told her to. She watches Cosima Niehaus reveal the truth about Neolution's founder and Rachel Duncan dig her bionic eye out. Mika has a coughing fit over a cup of iced tea and her laptop gets spattered with blood. She considers her ringing phone for a second, but quickly shuts the thought down.

She watches the branches of Neolution falter and die, board members resign or disappear, journalists begin investigations, companies declare bankruptcy, men in expensive suits look troubled. She watches Sarah crush the skull of the man pretending to be P.T. Westmorland and stagger outside clutching two newborn babies and a sister. A strange feeling grows in Mika. She doesn't have a name for it yet, but it makes her braver. Makes her sleep a little sounder at night, deactivate the bomb beneath her doormat, and one day, when it's been over a month and nobody has died and Sarah's number appears on her screen yet again, she picks up.

“Took you long enough,” Sarah sighs on the other end. Mika doesn't know how to explain, so she says nothing.

The first time she goes to Mrs S's house, she nearly turns around four times. In the journal in her backpack is the picture of Niki. You know how this ends. But she's coughing up blood almost every day now, and she's scared again, so she goes anyway.

When she gets there, Sarah gives her a tired smile and a muttered apology that Mika doesn't know what to do with. Then she invites her in and introduces her to Felix and Kira. Kira doesn't seem confused by her presence at all, just sits down on the chair next to her and smiles happily at her. She is so acutely alive, it almost makes Mika want to get up and leave, but Kira turns to her as if she knows what she's thinking and tells her to stay for tea, please.

Felix is a little loud, but speaks in a kind way and watches his niece amusedly. His eyelids are painted a soft shimmering purple, and he has a comforting habit of kicking each of his family members beneath the table when they say something that makes Mika blush or stutter.

But Mrs S is Mika's favorite. She's calm and mostly quiet, and when she does speak she has a safe weight to her voice, and she smiles like she knows everything, so you don't have to keep track yourself. When Mika is stepping outside to leave, after Sarah has called Cosima and arranged a meeting two days later to get the injection and Felix has squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, Mrs S walks her outside, closes the door and comes to stand opposite her on the porch.

“I know you wanted to kill Ferdinand Chevalier,” she says.

Mika goes cold and can't meet her eyes. Mrs S reaches for her clenched hand and puts her own over it.

“You don't need to worry about him hurting anyone ever again. I watched him take his last breaths almost two months ago.”

Mika looks up. “He's dead?”

Mrs S nods. “Sorry for stealing your moment,” she smiles ruefully.

"You killed him?" Mika breathes.

Mrs S stops smiling and watches her carefully. "Yes," she says soberly. "I shot him. He's dead."

Everything in Mika stills. For a second, she floats, weightless, cut off from everything else in the world - even the ever-present ghosts of her sisters. When her heart starts beating again, it's in a different gear. Mrs S hugs her so tight she squeezes the hardened grief out of her.

Cosima is bright and attentive and holds her arm gently when Delphine picks up the needle. She smiles so warmly at Mika that she nearly forgets to cover her scar. After they're done and there's a band-aid over the place of punctured skin, Cosima makes her tea and starts conversations that she carries with her hands, starting at video games but soon veering into genetics and cosmos, and she doesn't seem to mind that Mika doesn't keep up.

Sarah drags her to her first dinner at Alison's, and there is a bit too many people there and a bit too much noise, but Cosima smiles encouragingly at her from across the room, and Sarah squints at her and leads her to the corner of the kitchen, where it's a little more quiet and nobody can see her scar. Eventually, Mika has said hello to Alison, who seems genuinely touched to meet her, and Krystal, who engulfs her in a cloud of sugary sweet perfume and starts talking about nail polish and animal testing and hair dressers, none of which Mika can focus on, but Sarah dives in and diverts Krystal before she gets too riled up.

Meeting Helena is the scariest. She looks the least like the rest of them; her eyes are different somehow, and she moves like something belonging in the forest. Mika knows what she has done, knows about Ania and Katja and Danielle, but there is also what Sarah and Cosima have told her about convents and wing-shaped scars and brainwashing. She knows that Helena has saved lives too, and she knows about the twins. Mika tries to understand but it's difficult: easy to focus on that single point of death and ruin and let it blind you to everything else. She grips the hems of her shirt and tries not to.

When Sarah drags Helena over to the kitchen counter, she smiles shyly at Mika and says in broken English, “Hello new sestra, it's nice to meet you.” Her accent sounds the most like Mika's. Her clothes look the most similar to her own. It's strange and new and perhaps what lets Mika be brave enough to uncurl her tensed fingers and say hello back.

Sarah smiles fondly between the two of them, but when Helena asks if Mika wants to meet her babies, Sarah puts her arm around Helena's shoulders and proclaims “alright, meathead, it's time for dinner, come on.”

Dinner, once everyone has finally had their plate passed around to be served, is nice. When everyone is chewing, they're not talking over each other. It's a comforting feeling to be sitting by a large table, full of food that someone cooked with their own hands. And it tastes much more and much better than what Mika is used to eating. She catches Alison's eye and smiles tentatively, and Alison beams back at her.

After, she feels exhausted and wrung out but a little less hollow. She goes home to her trailer that Sarah is trying to convince her to move out of and sleeps for twelve hours, dreaming of hands opening and reaching out to her.

Some days, she still needs to stay away. Stay curled up in front of her laptop and stare at the dots moving around on the screen, not talk to anybody, not put anybody in danger. She knows that the danger is gone, but she can still feel it on the surface of her palms. Sometimes she still hears that voice inside her, whispering that it'll never stay good. You know how this will end.

But eventually, her phone rings, and she glances at the frozen smile on Niki's face on her mirror, next to the newer one of Sarah, Alison, Felix and Kira smiling from the hammock in Alison's backyard with their arms around each other, and she picks up.

“Do you want us to call you Veera?” Sarah asks one day over mugs of hot chocolate in Siobhan's kitchen, when the fallen leaves have become brown sludge on the pavements and you need double pairs of socks to fight off the cold. Sarah is in a huge knitted sweater, there are no smudges of black around her eyes and her hair is pulled into a loose ponytail.

“No,” Mika says, looking down at the mug in her hands. “I like Mika.”

Niki cannot come back. Mika knows that. And neither can Justyna, or Jade, or any of the others. Neither can Beth. And neither can Veera. If she ever wants to be okay, it must be as the person Beth made of her, and the one Sarah and her family insist on seeing in her now. Maybe Veera died alongside Niki, and maybe that is as it should be.

Sarah looks at her with almost, yet not quite, pity. More understanding, maybe. “Too many bad memories?”

“Something like that,” she agrees.

Sarah leans back, her eyes going distant. “Yeah, I get that,” she mutters.

In the living room, Kira is making drawings. Mika sits down beside her by the big table and lets her demonstrate her works.

“I made this one of mom and auntie Helena,” Kira explains, showing her a drawing of two figures – one blonde, one brunette – in colorful swirly dresses standing on a meadow beneath the endless, crayon-blue sky. “Because they're twins. Did you know that?”

“Yes,” Mika says, tracing the thin golden lines connecting the two bodies on the paper. Some cold unwelcome feeling stings her, like envy. Like she has any right to be envious.

“And I also made this,” Kira continues, extracting another drawing from the pile. “It's of you.”

Kira places the drawing on top of the previous one. It depicts a single figure, hovering in a dark blue space, also in a dress that floats around her body. Her eyes are dark, her expression is solemn but content, and all around her body, tethered to her by the same frail golden threads that connected Helena and Sarah, are dozens upon dozens of warm, glowing stars.

Mika feels like crying. “How did you know?” she whispers at last, looking down at Kira.

Kira looks back at her solemnly, as if she can see everything there is to her and she accepts it, and Mika had forgotten what it felt like to be looked at in that way. “I don't know,” she replies. “I just do.”

Mika looks back to the drawing. “Is she lonely?” She asks through the thickness in her throat.

“No,” says Kira with confidence. “She has a big family.”

The floor creaks and when Mika looks up, Sarah is coming through the doorway from the kitchen with Felix trailing behind her, and she sits down opposite them and gives Mika a sympathetic smile.

“You get used to it,” she murmurs, nodding to Kira, who is fiddling with something underneath the papers, and Mika just nods a little in response, still trying to fit this long forgotten emotion inside of her body.

Kira finally looks up and hands Mika a purple gel pen. “Can you write your name on it?” she requests, gleeful again. “I don't know how to spell it.”

Mika accepts the pen and realizes, as she puts it to the corner of the paper, that she has never written her new name before. There has never been any reason to. Now, there is one.

She writes four letters on the paper. Perhaps this choice is another one in the line of choices she needs to make to become free.

Kira makes a sound beside her and after a bewildered second, Mika realizes it's a laugh.

“Your name almost has the same letters as my name!”

“That's right, monkey,” Sarah agrees with a wry smile, peeking past the piles of paper on the table. “It does.”

“And it means “lovely scent” in Japanese,” Kira supplies brightly, already pulling Mika's drawing over.

Sarah snorts. “What? How do you know that?”

“Dad helped me Google the names of all my aunts,” Kira shrugs, filling in some more blue in a white space. Mika never thought about Kira's father, just sort of assumed he didn't exist, but evidently he does because she sees Sarah blink at Kira for a second and then turn back to Felix, whose eyebrows are so far up on his forehead that they're almost eaten by his fringe, his lips pressed tightly together.

“Uh, did he, now.”

“Yep,” says Kira. “We email.”

The living room floor becomes a decoding software as Sarah and Felix pass another series of looks and minute shrugs over it, which Mika doesn't understand but which obviously mean something, since they end with Felix shaking his head bemusedly before returning to the kitchen and Sarah making a dejected gesture and turning back to peer expectantly at Kira. Mika thinks she really does need to get better at this silent language that siblings have.

She thinks, as Sarah begins interrogating Kira about this Dad and his googling, that maybe this is what siblings are: people who invite you for hot chocolate and teach you new languages. People who don't mind that you forget to hide your scar or that you don't understand science. People who want to hug you and cook you dinner and give you extra pairs of socks because it's getting cold out there. People who see the fear in you and allow you to be scared, but who don't leave you just because you are.

Mika thinks of all the sisters she has lost and all the ones she's still got. She thinks of how they have started to take hold of her hands for no real reason. Alison and Cosima and Kira, mid-conversation or while walking down the street, without getting hurt or dying. Something inside her has begun to flicker faintly, almost like a flame, and when she doesn't pull her hand away despite the fear, the flicker grows a little more distinct, and perhaps that is what it means to not be alone.

Chapter Text

Sarah

 

In the After, there are a lot of things she doesn't think about.

Sarah never thinks about the skull she crushed. The look in the eyes of the man it belonged to didn't attach to her memory. It felt simple: letting a long breath out at the end of a hard day. She didn't listen to the last words out of his mouth. She walked away before the blood could even spread across the concrete. After a while, they get skewed and shadowed and begin to dissolve into nothings, the people you've killed. Killed.

Sarah tries not to think about it.

What she does think about is her daughter.

Sarah used to think she was invincible. Untouchable. Nothing could hurt her, she could live her whole life with one foot on the wrong side of the line and never get caught. Things she excelled at: turning the other cheek. Spitting reality in the face. Throwing punches. Running away. Never stopping for long enough to taste consequences.

When Sarah had Kira, a window was opened in her life. A window to death.

For weeks after coming home from the hospital, Sarah would be afraid to pick her daughter up, the tiny baby seeming so fragile she would surely break below Sarah's careless hands. A single cough from her, it was pneumonia and Sarah was clinging to S's sleeve on the verge of tears. When the book said crawling by seven months and Kira passed seven months and one week and she wasn't crawling yet, Sarah was distraught to the point of kneeling on the blanket on the floor and begging her doe-eyed, beautiful baby to please, please, just do it. Please be okay.

Suddenly, the life Sarah had always thrown around like some worthless, expendable thing seemed so unbelievably prone to break. And that trepidation never really went away, settled at the base of her throat like the fluttering wing of some trapped animal. Being a mother seemed to be just a constant state of fear. Will I be enough? Will she listen to me? Will she be okay? Will she break my heart?

Will I break hers?

Kira has grown to reach Sarah's shoulders now, even though she's barely nine. She looks more and more like her father for each passing day; her eyes taking the same, kind shape as his, her hair inching closer and closer to his exact shade of hazel. She doesn't fear monsters hiding in the closet anymore. She's on the school's football team and the coach tells Sarah she's talented. She knows division and multiplication and her stick figures have evolved into willowy people in dresses with brown eyes and strawberry mouths. Her laugh is less childish, more self-aware. Sometimes Felix makes sarcastic comments and Kira smirks in a way that terrifies Sarah, because who is that grown up girl?

Fighting is easy. Running, kicking, growling, she knows those things. Staying still – acceptance – is harder. Nurture and patience. Sarah never knew that. But now the dust is settling and she's squinting at the rest of her life, the life she dreamed of for so long, and she has a daughter to mother and no one left to fight, and she can't recognize the dream anymore.

*

“How do you bloody move on from this?” she asks Cosima when not enough time has passed yet for it to be too pathetic a question. Late at night when it's still summer and burning heat all the time, and Cosima still moves gingerly and breathes carefully enough for Sarah to think that she's not completely okay either. She knows the cure is working. Scott has broken down the lab results for her. She thinks the frailness to Cosima now is more to do with the ghosts in her dreams. Sarah knows the feeling.

Cosima blinks slowly at the sky in her lawn-chair folded back, cardigan drooping off her shoulder, and lets smoke coil toward the sky. “I think we just have to...” she chases the right words for a moment, “prove them wrong, you know? That they don't control us. That we can still be free and happy and human – that they didn't take all that away from us.”

“Yeah, but how do you do that?”

Cosima contemplates that for a second. “I don't know. Find something that's worth it?”

Sarah looks over at her. “Is that Delphine to you?”

She doesn't mean for it to come out sounding derogatory, but maybe it does anyway. Cosima looks abashed and like she's trying to cover up the fact, pulling the cardigan up to cover her shoulder again.

“No. Maybe. I don't know.” She sighs, turns the joint over with her fingers. “Mostly I think it's just the knowledge of how... exhilarating it can be to be alive. You know? Like, before all this shit when we were still just ordinary people. Living ordinary lives, having all those moments of happiness and sadness and hope and heartbreak and boredom and... joy; all those things that make you feel like a human being.”

Sarah hums. Cosima looks away from the faint lights of stars in the sky and down at her hands.

“The past years I've just felt scared, all the time, and like I'm dying. Like a shell of who I used to be. Like I don't have any control over my life.” She taps the joint against the armrest of the lawn-chair. “I love Delphine, but I don't think she's like, the sole reason I want to be okay. It's more like I want to show those assholes that they didn't take life away from me.” She looks over at Sarah, smiling with one corner of her mouth, yearning in the lines of her face. “I miss it. Don't you miss it?”

Sarah sighs. “Yeah,” she mutters, poking at a hole in her jeans. “But it's bloody complicated.”

“Well, life is complicated,” Cosima quips, letting another cloud of smoke rise from her lips.

There is nothing for Sarah to say to that.

You're the wild type, Sarah. You propagate against all odds. You're restless. You survive.

She wishes she wasn't so bloody restless. She wishes she was a little better at the other kind of survival.


*


The summer is sweltering. Every day is a new day where no one is trying to kill them, a new day where Kira is a little bit older, a new day presenting Sarah with endless hours to spend as she wishes, and she knows she should feel happy but she feels stuck instead. So she looks for salvation.

She looks for it in distraction. Anything she can use her hands for. All of Kira's old toys and clothes are packed up in boxes and driven over to Alison's. While in the process, Sarah lugs the boxes with her own old things down from the attic, and goes through them with careful carelessness.

“Are you really gonna throw this away?” Felix pouts, turning a shabby denim jacket he's fished out of one of the boxes over in his hands. Sarah knows he's remembering the times they'd sneak out after S retreated to her bedroom, riding on the empty tram in silent anticipation, gripping the packets of cigarettes in their pockets. Meeting up friends by a street corner in town, sharing lighters, huffing insults and bouncing laughs between wet brick walls, glancing furtively through the smoke. Trying to suffocate the urgence. Running down the streets, going nowhere, Felix grabbing her by the sleeve of her jacket and spinning her around on the pavement, puddles splashing. Before.

“Yes,” Sarah says, voice flat, and yanks the jacket out of Felix's hands, shoving it back into the box.

Most of the contents are driven to the waste ground with The Clash blasting so loudly through the speakers they drown out all noise of her adolescence in the back seat.

Order feels good, creating space feels cathartic, and when she's constantly sorting, cleaning, filling boxes, she doesn't have time to think of all the things she's not doing. So she helps Art empty Beth's flat for good, sits down opposite him at a booth at Fung's to pick out an estate-agent. She helps Krystal with the tiny space she has bought for her newly started hairdresser-business, installs blow dryers and hangs shelves and polishes mirrors until they blind her with the rays of sun coming in through the windows.

Once she picks up her phone again, once she allows visitors, Sarah drives to Mika below the pressing heat and helps her clean out the seemingly endless heaps of crap in the trailer, and almost ties her down to a chair to look at possible new living spaces.

“You have loads of money, you should use it on something good,” Sarah insists, pushing another brochure of a two-roomer in front of Mika.

“But I don't need an apartment,” Mika objects, her eyes darting to the photos stuck to her dirty mirror.

Sarah sighs. “You can't live in this trailer forever, Mika. You'll drown in your own shit.”

Mika looks hurt, and Sarah cringes. Sometimes, she thinks Mika is the human version of a game of minesweeper: a seemingly harmless sentence can make her completely shut down, while another might open her right up.

“Oi, I didn't mean like that, okay?” Sarah sits down beside her sister, catches her averted eyes and weighs her words. “I meant, you have a lot of bad memories living in here with you. And, it's way too cold in the winters.”

“I made it so far,” Mika points out feebly.

“Yeah, but if you got a flat, you could have a real bed, and central heating. And a real kitchen. Maybe even a balcony,” Sarah coaxes, tapping one of the brochures.

Mika says nothing.

Sarah tries for a smile. “Wouldn't it feel nice to spend all of Ferdinand's money building a life for yourself?”

Mika swallows, gaze fluttering around the trailer again, hesitating on the doormat. Sarah knows, because Mika has told her.

“Hey,” she murmurs. “There's no one looking for us any more. You know that.”

Mika's eyes are still filled with doubts, but finally she glances down at the brochure, then back at Sarah. “I suppose having a balcony would be nice,” she whispers.

*

On days not as painfully hot, she pushes one of the strollers down the sidewalks in Bailey Downs, Helena pushing the other one beside her, and smirks at her sister when people stop them to exclaim “twins!”, peering down into the strollers and up between the two of them. She potters about in Alison's garage, lets Helena talk her ear off about dreams she dreams and games she makes up with Gemma and Oscar and stories she tells her children, quietly soaking in her sunny contentedness.

Sarah helps Felix transport artworks to and from galleries. She hangs frames, collects offers, folds leaflets, folds laundry, folds empty boxes, folds the edges of her heart into a neat shape.

At the end of the day, she sits down on her bed and feels the day settle inside her, catch up to her; or maybe she is the one who is catching up. The empty space she has created is filled up with all the feelings she is trying to escape, and in the morning she wakes up with her hands itching to fight, her legs itching to run, and her heart unfolded.

Sarah keeps looking.

She looks for it in oblivion. She searches in the bellies of dark dance floors, in the throats of men and women who don't know her name or her face or her spoiled past. It's easy to feel purposeful when you're drunk enough or it's late enough or the bass line is strong enough to make the core of you vibrate. It's easy to stay whole when someone else's hands are keeping you together. But eventually the alcohol burns up, the lights come back on, the next day clears its throat in your ear. And when Sarah comes home, S meets her by the foot of the stairs, eyes filled with something between sympathy and disappointment.

“Sarah,” she says lowly, tilting her head. Sarah looks at Kira's little jacket on the hanger next to hers, the one she doesn't need in the middle of summer, but Sarah makes her bring anyway, just in case.

Sarah swallows down the guilt.

“I don't know how to be a bloody person,” she confesses in the stillness of the dawn, and S unfolds her crossed arms to wrap them around Sarah's shaking shoulders and hold her.

“You'll learn,” she promises.


*


When August comes around, Sarah walks back into the small high school, boots squeaking fractiously against the floor, and this time she sits down and takes the test. She hates the entire two hours she spends in the classroom, hates herself for struggling with such intrinsic questions, hates the people around her for being younger and smarter and less broken than her.

In the end, she passes the test with a two point margin. The high school teacher gives her a sympathetic smile as he hands her her diploma. Sarah goes home, stands by the sink with her hands beneath the running water and tries to feel relieved. She doesn't.

By September, the heat has finally begun to let up. Felix sends her screenshots of hiring-ads on Facebook. S says that she will “talk to people in town”, as if she knows everyone who lives there. Sarah sits at the kitchen table, scrolls the pages of available positions in the local area, glares at the stack of bills on the table. She hasn't had a proper job since Kira was a baby, doesn't remember how to live by a schedule or be responsible or say the right things in interviews. She applies for six positions; uninteresting, low-wage jobs. She goes to three interviews. Why are you interested in working for us? Sarah bites her lip hard to keep from screaming.

She gets none of them. So, she keeps looking.


*

There is some genuine solace to be obtained from helping her sisters, even if it's just to put off her own reincarnation. Sarah has specialized in the art of saving them. She feels warm when she sees them carefully stretch their wings in this new, forgiving, second part of life. Sarah loves it when Cosima laughs, each time a little less fragile, and grabs her by the hand, making Sarah dance along to some terrible song in her and Delphine's crammed living room, voices louder than the music.

She loves watching the gentleness with which Helena tucks little shoes onto baby feet and little arms into sleeves of little sweaters. She's so reverent already. Determined not to leave the faintest trace of her past in her children. Sarah loves the organized, chaotic harmony of Alison's kitchen during family dinners. She loves the spark in Mika's eyes when Krystal spins her around to face the mirror and squeals “you look amazing!” as Mika carefully surveys her new, shiny auburn bob of hair.

But there's a sting to it, something bitter that she won't admit to but is there all the same. Sarah wants so desperately to stand there with them on the brink of the future and feel strong and healed and happy. But it seems attainable to everyone but her. Each night she stumbles through the mistakes of her past and the inability of her present. The future stares at her pityingly, tuts its tongue, whispers about her. Even Helena could do it, it says. Even Helena could find happiness, but you still can't. It's tragic.

But there is one person. The one that Sarah thinks of in secret when she is laying in bed and grappling at straws of anything to comfort her. There's someone else that is as pathetically bad at adjusting as she is. So bad she had to leave the country.

S drinks tea and types on the laptop in the afternoons. They're corresponding, she says in her reasonable voice. The cottage is to her liking. She has found the linen. The old leakage has not reopened. Siobhan's old rifle is still in the shed. Yes, it's quite peaceful.

"How long is she gonna stay there?" Sarah's hands fold around a warm cup of earl grey.

S leans back in her chair and raises an eyebrow. “Why are you so interested in Rachel?”

“Ah, piss off,” Sarah mutters and leaves the kitchen, trying to stomp violently enough up the stairs to make the discomfort vanish. It doesn't, settles instead in her chest as a quiet wonder: does Rachel feel it too, the weight of all the time laying ahead of her? The weight of her uselessness? The inability to stay still and the foreign ring to happiness?

Sarah is infuriated with herself for wondering, ashamed that she's seeking solace in bloody Rachel Duncan. Reminds herself that she's still a psychotic bitch, after all. Paces restlessly back and forth in her bedroom until she becomes tired enough to fall asleep.

*


One day in October, S comes home with determination to her step, and she sits Sarah down in the kitchen and pulls up a website for a small youth shelter in town on her laptop.

“Look. They're hiring an accountant.”

Sarah looks at her blankly. “S, I can't bloody count.”

“Oh, how hard can it be? There are calculators. The point is, you can help people. That's what you want. That's what you're good at.”

Sarah scowls. “I don't like teenagers, they're annoying. And the pay is probably shit.”

S leans back in her chair with an unimpressed look. “You were Canada's most annoying one, it's time to give back. And the pay is bound to be better than the one you're getting now, which is non-existent.”

Sarah pouts. She tries to imagine herself in front of a computer, calculating costs and expenses. She can't. But then again, she can't really imagine herself doing anything else either.

Opposite her, S crosses her arms. “You're getting that job. End of.”

Sarah attends one interview. The woman behind the cluttered desk has a kind, sort of weathered face and thin glasses. She asks Sarah why she wants to work at the shelter.

“I think I might be alright at helping people?” she says uncertainly, poking at a scratch on her hand. “I was one of those kids once, after all.”

She gets the job.

*

“We email,” Kira says. Just like that. Out of nowhere, one Sunday when the leaves have left the trees bare and tragic, Sarah has stopped drawing black warpaint around her eyes and learned how to balance the cocoa to sugar ratio perfectly, and most of the names of the kids at the shelter. She stares at her daughter with that familiar sinking feeling. Kira has a whole own life, a father she didn't let Sarah take away from her, months worth of email conversations about things Sarah doesn't know. She grips her mug tightly.

Kira looks up from her pen on the paper and looks unsure. “Are you mad I didn't tell you?”

“No,” Sarah starts without knowing if it's true. “Are you okay with... not seeing him often now?”

Kira shrugs a little. “Yeah, I think so. I miss him sometimes, but we can still talk.”

Sarah glares down into her chocolate. “He's your dad, you have a right to see him if you want,” she mutters.

“It's okay. I have you, and Mrs. S. That's what I had before and I never needed a dad then.”

Sarah looks back at Kira. Her hair grazes the paper when she bends over her drawing in concentration. Sarah wonders if Kira knows what the right words to say are, or if they just come to her like another incredible gift.


*

November turns into December. Sarah wraps Kira in woolen hats and gloves and scarves. “Mom, it's not Iceland,” she says, but she allows the hats. S hangs a wreath on the door and wraps star shaped string lights around the kitchen window. Sarah drives to work with a box of gingerbread bumping around on the passenger seat.

She likes it perfectly fine there; her boss is nice and so are her colleagues, and her accounting tasks aren't that complicated. Calculators and computer programs really can do most of it nowadays. Most days Sarah gets to leave her small office and help out wherever an extra pair of hands is needed, and she ends up cooking spaghetti in the kitchen, or she's handing out toothbrushes and dry socks, or it's what her boss likes to call “theme day” and she's refilling the kettle and plugging her phone into the old loudspeaker to play some Buzzcocks for the kids sitting around making weird sculptures. They seem to like her. She jokes around with them, she's quiet while they talk, she makes them tea. It seems to be enough for them. It should be enough for Sarah too.

It should be.

One afternoon when she's just pulled into the driveway, she gets a call from Cosima. “We've booked the tickets,” she announces when Sarah picks up. “There are seven Ledas living in France, we've contacted them and they're getting the cure next week.” Cosima's voice is full of fervor.

“Wow,” Sarah says, silently stumbling through the constructions in her mind. “Wow, Cos, that's incredible. Europe.”

“Yeah, first place there we go to.” Cosima's breath trembles through the receiver. “Sarah, we're really going to do it. We're going to cure everyone of us.”

After they've hung up, Sarah can't stop hearing the emotion blooming in Cosima's voice, the spark in it. That girl coughing blood all over a white sink, that woman on the lawn chair has won. Sarah feels happy for her somewhere in the tangle inside, but it's overshadowed by how heavy her own heart is. She chokes on her own breath, suddenly can't bear the thought of going inside, fumbles manically with the key and starts the engine again.

She ends up by the quarry. Suddenly she's pulling up by the same clearing she spent a night in in a previous life. She glares at her hands on the steering wheel for a moment, the clawing feeling still all over her lungs, and then she gets out of the car and slams the door shut. Through the fading light, Sarah makes her way to the place where she buried Katja's body.

She hasn't been here since that night. Not seen it since standing on the opposite edge of the giant crater in the earth squinting across it, in Beth's coat and Beth's shoes and Beth's voice, Beth's ghost pressing down her throat. Sarah still remembers the ache from the physical tax of digging up all that dirt, it clung to her bones for days. Is it the same dirt she steps on now?

The actual spot has been eaten by the quarry, when they found her, but the edge of the clearing is still there. The same trees. Perhaps they left this part untouched after they found a body in it. Perhaps some of Sarah's lies are still there in the earth.

She sinks down to her knees, brushes some dead leaves away. Tries to dig up some dirt with her fingers, but the ground is frozen. Inhospitable. The cold bleeds through her jeans. Was it this cold last time? When she tries again with a little more urgency, her fingertips come away dirty and stinging.

This body, she remembers clearly. This is the place where she made it irrevocable.

“Jesus,” Sarah mutters, but halfway out the word breaks into a sob.

In the falling darkness by the edge of the sleeping quarry, below the bare canopies, the monster climbs out of her. An animal of regret. She cries strainedly, heaves and gasps, the sleeve of her coat becoming drenched in tears and snot.

“God, I'm sorry,” she sobs at the unresponsive ground. “I'm so sorry.”

Eventually, when it's almost completely night, she becomes so dizzy and out of breath that the sobs change into pitiful sniffles and hitching breaths that manifest in the air before her. Her body aches from the cold.

“God, I'm a bloody mess. I'm sorry.” Her voice is croaky, and she sits back, leaning against the trunk of a tree. She stays quiet until her breathing is even enough to not generate any sudden puffs of smoke.

“I survived,” Sarah whispers. “You didn't even get to do that. I really shouldn't be the one crying.”

A couple of fresh tears sneak past her eyelashes out of spite. Sarah closes her eyes, swallows. Puts her frostbitten hand against the dirt where she knows Katja no longer lies.

“I'm sorry Helena shot you,” she mutters. “I'm sorry I buried you in a bloody quarry. And I'm sorry I'm here crying about it now. I'm sorry.”

When Sarah stumbles back to the car she's freezing to the very core, and she feels pathetic, and a little ashamed, but at least it's silent inside her. She sits behind the wheel with the heating on max until her limbs come back to life, staring at herself in the rear view mirror. Through another mirror in the Before, Katja's eyes look back at her. When she was alive, in the back seat of Beth's car, coughing and pleading, they were wide and panicked. Now, they're calm. And they remain that way the whole drive home.

When Sarah closes the front door, the house is smelling of cumin and cardamom. The air presses against her like a warm wall. Something is playing faintly on the radio. S comes out of the kitchen, stops in her tracks and narrows her eyes at the red around the eyes of her daughter, the stains on her knees. She is familiar with this picture. For a moment, there is an emotion in her eyes that Sarah doesn't know how to name, but it's heavy to meet.

“Sarah,” S pleads lowly. “Enough of this. You've got to forgive yourself.” A nod towards the staircase. “God knows she already has.”

Sarah tries to-

fathom.

It's difficult.

She stands, slumped and dissolved in front of her mother in the hall. If her voice would carry, she'd apologize, but it doesn't mean anything anymore. They've all accepted it already.

S sighs for the thousandth time. Sarah wants to reach for her hand, look her in the eye and promise that this will be the last time, the last silence by the front door where the air is heavy from all the things they don't say. The last grief she'll have to harbor for her daughter. The last failed attempt.

“Kira needs help with her homework,” S says before Sarah can work up the momentum, and then she's back in the kitchen.

Sarah steps out of her boots and coat, climbs the stairs gingerly, still smudged at the edges. Stops outside Kira's door in the semicircle of warm light spreading from below it, stands there quietly for a moment, trying not to feel so scared. When she puts her shaking hand on the doorknob, it's stained and webbed from the dirt that has stuck in the small cracks of her skin. Dirt below her fingernails. A series of wicked images flash by in Sarah's mind. She makes herself set each one free, before lowering her hand and turning away.

Below the shower nozzle she exhales as slow as she can. Lets the hot water fog up everything sharp, lets the stray droplets bounce off her closed eyelids, lets herself imagine whatever darkness is still burrowing in her lungs being burned out by the heat when she inhales. Katja didn't get to live. Beth didn't. But Sarah did. Despite everything, despite every skull she crushed and every promise she broke and every string she cut, and all the ones she kept unsevered. She got to live.

Sarah opens her eyes to her hands held up before her. Pushes the glass door to the side, wades through the steam and picks up the nailbrush on the edge of the sink. In the mirror, the eyes looking back at her are clear.

When she steps out of the shower and wraps a clean towel around her body, the salty remnants of her past are going down the drain.

The soft light is still emanating from below Kira's door. Sarah stands outside with her hair dripping on the floor, long enough to make a little puddle. On the other side, her daughter is breathing calmly through the December evening. Her daughter who is smarter and kinder and a better person than Sarah will ever be. Her daughter who has already forgiven her; whom Sarah needs much more in this life than she needs Sarah, and that's probably the way it should be.

Sarah knocks carefully, cracks the door open and peeks inside. Kira looks up from the book laying open on her desk and smiles when she sees her.

“Hey, monkey,” Sarah murmurs. She slips inside and closes the door quietly. “Sorry I'm late.”

“It's okay,” Kira says, pushing the book aside, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. It's golden in the light from the desk lamp, but it might as well be shining directly out of Kira. “Will you help me with my homework?”

“Yeah,” Sarah says, stepping over to her. “Yeah, let's see what we got.” There is a second chair already pulled up to the desk. She sits gingerly down on it. Kira pauses in her quest to retrieve her books and pencils from her backpack to give Sarah a hug.

“You smell nice,” she observes.

Sarah kisses her temple. “Just for you,” she replies, and it's all true.

*

The last breath of the year. Stockings on the mantle piece, snow flakes furtively touching ground to quickly melt away again. As the day creeps closer, it feels more important to Sarah than she thought it would; gathering her sisters for the holidays. Despite Delphine and Cosima's travels, Helena's by now charmingly babbling children demanding her full attention, respective families and busy schedules, they make sure to come together for a few hours on Christmas day, cramming themselves into Mrs. S's small living room. Sarah likes to watch them together, from her lookout in the doorway. Felix in an ugly Christmas sweater, lap occupied by Cosima's legs, laughing at something Helena has said. Mika in a dress shirt that Alison has no doubt bought for her, shyly pushing her smooth hair behind her ear. Someone's always talking, always laughing, reminding Sarah how far from alone she is. And in the center, the hand the chain wraps around, is her daughter.

Kira is opening a gift from Krystal, neatly wrapped in glossy paper with a big bow on top. When she unpacks the eyeshadow palette, she laughs and says “I'm nine!”, but she stands up and gives Krystal a hug anyway.

“It's never too early to start experimenting,” Krystal says solemnly, and Felix nods in agreement.

From Mika, Kira gets a little flashlight to stick to books for late night reading, and from Cosima she gets a novel about a young aspiring scientist. “I thought since you're so good at genetics, you'd like this book. It was my favorite when I was about your age,” Cosima explains, leaning over Felix to show Kira the girl on the cover, excitement thinly veiled.

Delphine gives her a snow globe with a delicately shaped rabbit inside. Alison gives her a soft, knitted sweater, with patterns across the front and broad hems. Helena gives her a much less neatly knitted toy: the stitches are uneven and stretched thin in some places, there are a couple of knots where the brownish yarn has apparently broken off, and the figure, which doesn't seem to have eyes, is quite ugly.

“Oh, it's a... knitted person,” Felix trails off.

Helena gives him an unimpressed look. “It's a monkey,” she says, as if it's evident.

Kira smiles valiantly at her. “Did you make this, auntie Helena?”

“Yes. Sestra Alison has taught me knitting.”

Alison nods, looking mostly fond, if a little apologetic.

“Thank you so much, I love it,” Kira says and hugs them both. Helena pats her back proudly. “It is for luck,” she says. “Because you are my lucky charm, little monkey.”

S gives Kira a new, butterfly-embellished backpack. Felix gives her a set of water colors. Art gives her a matching set of brushes. Kira smiles and jumps in excitement, saying oh wow and this is awesome and thanking each of them politely, giving out so many hugs that the braids S gave her in the morning get tousled below all the arms being wrapped around her.

They all love her, Sarah thinks. All of them reach for her; come here, give me a hug, monkey. They follow her expression with attentive eyes, they laugh adoringly when she jokes. They protect her: be careful, don't lean too close to the candle, let me help you with that heavy one, they put shielding arms out and around her.

Sarah does something she hasn't allowed herself to do for such a long time. She pushes off from the door frame she's been leaning on, disentangles herself from the outskirts of the image and steps uncertainly into the middle. Art saves her the pain of being visibly outcast, quickly making room for her next to him on the couch. She smiles gratefully, squeezes down and tries to calm her for some reason galloping heart. She digs the little card out of her back pocket and hands it over to Kira when she's hugged everyone properly and sat back down.

“This one's from me,” she says, forcing her voice to sound cheerful instead of on the verge of breaking. On the verge of standing on all fours on that floor again, begging. Please, please be okay. “It's not as fun to open as the other ones, but hopefully you like it anyway. Happy Christmas, baby.”

“Happy Christmas, mom.” Kira takes the small envelope from Sarah with a curious smile and makes work of the sealed paper. As she opens it and her eyes skid over the letters in concentrated silence, Sarah can't even breathe, for some stupid reason.

Kira's face breaks into the image of utmost thrill. “Dancing lessons? Are you serious?!”

Sarah nods shakily.

“But I've never been able to take any lessons in anything!” Kira's eyes go doubtful. “What if we need to move again?”

And there it is. The wound she has inflicted. Doubt. Threatening to take over the whole room – the whole of Sarah's heart. She puts it out firmly.

“Nah. We're staying here until auntie Alison gets tired of us walking on her carpet with our dirty shoes on and drives us out of the country.”

Sarah can't see Alison snorting somewhere in her peripheral because Kira flings herself at her so forcefully it hurts, yelling thankyouthankyouthankyou in her ear. Sarah hugs her, wills herself very promptly not to cry, tries to laugh instead as she catches the significant look S gives her over Kira's shoulder.

“Yeah?” Sarah says thickly as Kira pulls back. “Are you excited to learn some moves?”

“Yeah! Will you come to my recitals?”

Sarah holds her hand very tightly. “Every single one.”

Kira beams.

“Gosh, you're already so good at it though, how are any of the other kids gonna have a chance?” Cosima jokes, and then there's laughter again, and Sarah can bury her personal little earthquake in the middle of it.

In the evening, when everyone else has left them to the aftermath of Christmas; the floor of the living room a calm sea of wrapping paper and colorful string and opened crackers and candy wrappers and candle stumps, piles of dishes in the sink, the Frank Sinatra record on repeat for the fourth time, and the echo of cheerful voices still in the air, Sarah presents the last gift to a pajama-clad Kira sitting cross-legged on the island that is the sofa.

From Washington, Cal has sent his daughter a heavy, neatly wrapped package. Underneath the snowflake-patterned paper, it reveals itself as a set of dictionaries, pens and beautiful notebooks that Sarah will have to call him about, because they look far too expensive. Or maybe she won't, because Kira marvels at the embroidered fabric of the notebook covers and the glossy pages waiting empty inside. She sits hunched over the dictionaries in her lap, flipping through the pages devoutly.

“There are so many words in here, mom,” she says, voice filled with awe.

Sarah loves her so much she'll break. Or perhaps, she'll be whole.

When Kira has finally gone to bed, Sarah wades through the living room and sinks down on the sofa. Frank Sinatra is valiantly going on about the holiness of the night. Outside, no snow covers the ground, but the warmth of countless lights installed on the lawns of the neighboring houses finds its way inside. Sarah looks at the glowing lights until they become just a jumble of kind, steady warmth, letting her mind drift off to some distant, quiet place.

Eventually, she gets up. Walks over to the tiny, cluttered desk in the corner and sits down, finds a smooth sheet of paper, picks up a pencil. Places it at the top left corner. She doesn't know how, or why. Accompanied by the unfamiliar feeling of tranquility, she begins to write.

It's a quiet act to move on.

She wills her palms to lay flat against the surface of the desk, and her fingers not to tremble or twitch. She examines them closely. They're free of cuts, burns and bruises now, her nails are clean. For the first time, they aren't fumbling or clawing or begging or searching. For the first time, they aren't hurting. They're quiet.

Chapter Text

Rachel

 

She seldom speaks, now. She has grown tired of the way her voice sounds. It always seems to be moving around the pieces of a game she never agreed to play: always hardening and sharpening into defense or demand or, her specialty: curated indifference. She is sick of hearing it praise the thing she spent thirty years trying to conjugate with. The thing she told herself tirelessly that she was a part of, above of, even when every medical file and the look in the eyes of every gray-haired man she faced kept telling her she wasn't. She is sick of her tongue shaping words like director and superior and scientific revolution so many times that the sharp consonants have been ground down to whispers by the tiny specks of doubt in her voice.

Her voice, something so personal. Distinctly different from the others; clearer. More aware. It just became a strategical tool, like the rest of her, and now she doesn't know how to change it back. And she cannot remember, like so much else of her past, if she ever had a soft voice. Like Veera Suominen. Or an emotional one, like Cosima Niehaus, or an animated one, like Alison Hendrix.

Perhaps the scientists fabricated her voice too, at the beginning of things. For this purpose.

It's not like there is anyone to speak to out here, anyway. Perhaps that's one of the reasons she agreed to come: there's nobody around to play the game of control with. Rachel has to remind herself of that sometimes, when she finds herself picking at her cuticles. That's all over now. The thought gives her very little comfort.

Siobhan had called Rachel two weeks after her rendezvous with Felix in the Uber, where she had sat just a few agonizing steps from the backyard that held everything she could never have. Siobhan Sadler: her own genetic niece. The science annoyed her, because it should mean that Rachel be the one with the upper hand. And yet, she had agreed to a meeting, because she didn't have it in her to protest. She brushed her hair, applied her lipstick and opened the door when Siobhan knocked on it twice. She poured tea into white, mass-produced hotel mugs.

They sat across from each other silently for a little while before Rachel asked, in that voice she was coming to hate more and more, “did he die immediately?”

Siobhan did not break eye contact. “No.”

“How long?”

“A minute, two perhaps.”

“Did he say anything?”

Her mouth curved slightly. “About you, you mean?”

Rachel didn't reply. Siobhan took a pensive sip of tea.

“Too much blood in his throat to say much of anything, I reckon.”

Rachel considered how she felt about that for a long moment. The results were inconclusive.

“Does it make you hate me?”

“No. I don't care for you enough to hate you."

They swallowed some more tea.

“Did you love him?”

Rachel studied her picked-apart cuticles. For some juvenile reason it was easy to be honest with Siobhan Sadler. “I am not quite sure I understand love.”

Siobhan bowed her head. “Fair.”

Rachel quietly remembered the way Ferdinand's voice had sounded when he had told her he loved her. She thought it had sounded fabricated, just like everything in her life. She thought of the six files that had been changed to Deceased when he had returned from Helsinki, that insatiable hunger all over his face. She thought of asking Siobhan if she felt remorse, but what was the point, and besides, she already knew the answer.

“So.” Siobhan's accent tilted the word into a peculiar question. “Where are you gonna go now?”

Rachel raised an eyebrow. “Does it matter to you?” 

“I just thought you might not want to spend your whole life in this hotel room.”

Rachel let her one seeing eye drift to the brown concrete wall outside her window and settled for a dry smile. “What gives you the idea that I have a life?”

Siobhan didn't answer that, so Rachel had a sip of tea instead. It was turning humid.

“I have a cottage in Ireland.”

Rachel closed her eyes.

“South-east part, in the countryside. After we left the country I kept it in my name, because I always had a feeling...”

A feeling I would fail? When she opened her eyes again Siobhan looked distant, and then she shifted her gaze steadily back to Rachel.

“I can arrange the trip for you within a few days.”

Rachel swallowed away the wavers in her voice. “I don't need your pity.”

It was Siobhan's turn to raise her eyebrows. “I don't pity you, Rachel. I think you are being given exactly what you deserve.”

Rachel looked away again. “Did Sarah put you up to this?”

Siobhan made a sound with her throat that was almost amused. “Sarah doesn't know I'm here, and I highly doubt she'd like it if she knew.”

Rachel hated herself for having asked. “Then why are you doing this.”

“I thought you didn't care.”

She rolled her eye. Her lungs still felt constricted.

Siobhan regarded her for a second, put her cup down on the table and sighed. She suddenly seemed about ready to be done with the conversation all together. “We were screwed by the same people. We have some irrational duty to do what we can for each other, don't we? You did what you could for us. And this is what I can do for you. You say no, and I'll never come to this depressing hotel room again.”

Her accent distracted Rachel again. She had heard it so many times. She knew what it warped into when it was scared, angry, lying, begging, thanking. She knew the round fondness it acquired whenever it said love or chicken to members of her family. Which Rachel was not a part of.

If Siobhan's voice had taken on that fondness then, Rachel would not have accepted. She knows it now, and she knew it then. But perhaps Siobhan understood that, or perhaps she just didn't have any fondness to spare Rachel.

“It's quite beautiful,” Siobhan sighed absentmindedly.

And it is.

Every day she walks a gravel road, carved between two fields bursting with flowers Rachel has only seen before in picture books. In the mornings, golden sun filters through every tiny petal and paints her skin in dreamlike patterns. Nothing is fabricated here. There are soft green hills, quiet mountains and billowing meadows, a rich painting framed by the steep cliffs and the roaring, ancient sea below them.

It really is beautiful, Rachel thinks, as she stands on the gravel road and feels nothing.

She initially decides to stay for six weeks. Six weeks is an appropriate time to rehabilitate. After that, she should return. To what, her mind asks as she walks up and down the roads, and she has no good answer. Her willpower is dissolving after just a week. What would it matter if she didn't go back? There is nothing to go back to. Nobody requires her. She thinks, as she bends and carefully plucks a violet flower from the roadside, that she might just remain here, forever purposeless, until no desire or memory is left within her.

Where would I go?

In the beginning, life alone in a small cottage in the middle of endless fields is difficult. There seems to be light years of time in a single day, but nothing productive to use it on. If she's not tethered to the consciousness of another person, she fears she will completely disappear. But eventually her phone shuts off, and she doesn't bother to charge it, because she knows no one will call. She stops keeping the TV or the radio on at all times just to hear someone speak. When silence encapsulates her it's frightening, but she opens her eye again, touches one palm to the other and she still seems to exist. That's something.

She stops counting the days. Five times she has been to the drowzy supermarket half an hour away. She buys local produce. Apples from the neighboring town, carrots, milk and butter and organic eggs until the basket is full. She walks past the bread shelf automatically, and then she stops and turns back. Surveys all the endless options and at long last, chooses one without whole grain. Pays in cash, rides the spindly bus back to the stop at the top of the gravel road, walks slowly with her paper bag grazing the ground and the flowers greeting her. In the kitchen, she spreads a thick layer of butter on a slice of bread and eats it leaning against the counter. It's good. Uncomplicated, Rachel thinks.

The girl behind the register at the shop has an accent so broad Rachel almost flinched the first time she heard it. But now she likes how it sounds. Most of all she likes the way the girl behind the register looks at her, which is, after glancing at her distant eye, with polite disinterest. Neither intimidated nor curious. Rachel is not to be experimented on, nor to be feared. Not even to be worshiped. She is just someone in a shop in the countryside, buying things like bread and fruit and organic eggs.

She barely looks in the mirror any more, because Siobhan's cottage doesn't have any. There is just the one, a small one, in the bathroom above the sink. By the sixth venture to the store she looks in it and is startled by a face slightly speckled with freckles. It's August. The sun has begun her lap of honor, and each morning Rachel has been there on the gravel to greet her. She has never had freckles before. She thinks of Kira when she sees them, of an innocence she can never regain. How many years, how many sprays of freckles does it take to be forgiven? How many to be new?

*

Rachel divides her time evenly between taking walks along the endless roads, sleeping, nibbling on food, and sitting in the different chairs of the cottage thinking about things.

She thinks of the people she has killed. There are a lot of them; lives that she simply snuffed out. Death is simple. It's just another tool she used to acquire her reverie of power. It's convenient.

She feels numb towards them, and then she feels faint disgust at herself for feeling numb. She realizes that Sarah has killed people too. So has Helena: killed her sisters, even, just like Rachel. First hand, finger on trigger killed. ID tag numbers marked Deceased in medical files. They don't seem to carry an awful lot of guilt about it.

But Helena was manipulated, abused and lied to until she barely had a conscience anymore. And most victims were people you sent to capture or kill them, says a voice in her head. They killed because you made them. Rachel supposes that is true, but if this new world is teaching her anything, it's that a life is a life. They are, apparently, all worth the same.

Often, when she loses herself in the abyss of thoughts like these, she ends up feeling awfully tired. She eats a slice of bread. She sleeps.

*

Two months go by before Rachel discovers the overgrown garden behind the cottage. One day she opens the door in the old fence panel behind the shed out of boredom, and is met with a dense jungle of greens. Slowly she makes her way around. The narrow paths of stone have succumbed to roots and weeds and large tufts of grass; bushes and vines climb the trunks of fruit trees towards the sky. There are high lilac hedges that turn into azaleas that turn into plants that Rachel can't name, bloomed over months ago but still full of heavy green leaves. A wild, living thing, full of force. Honey bees buzz calmly back and forth between the lavenders. Cosima Niehaus got a tattoo of the golden ratio on her right wrist when she was 19 years old to remind herself of everything's connection in nature.

Rachel screws her eyes shut. How long to stop comparing?

She considers cutting the garden down to perfect squares. She considers getting down on her knees and pulling all the weeds up with her own bare hands. She considers setting it on fire, just to see it turn into ash. In the end she does none of the above. She sits on the weathered bench closest to the apple tree and thinks of all the hands that have ever touched her. They've all wanted something from her; her blood, her anger, her obedience. They've all pushed and pulled until they've gotten it out of her. Rachel, the never ending resource. Rachel, the vessel to manipulate. They all laid hands on her.

Do you know your ID tag number?

It's time for your examination.

A corporation raised you. What are you?

779H41.

You are the experiment.

She cannot remember if the people who took the roles of her mother and father ever touched her differently – with love and care. Logically, she knows from the video tapes she has seen so many times they're etched onto the surface of her brain, that they did, but the physical memory is lost. How little it all seems to matter against the enormous canvas of cold, calculated touches. Perhaps that's why she kept coming back to those tapes again and again. To build a bridge. A dying person desperate for something to cling onto in the realm of life, but no matter the way she fumbles, she catches nothing. Those tapes lie in a drawer on the other side of the ocean now. Or perhaps they have been destroyed. Either way, she doesn't think she'll ever watch them again. They don't help her. They don't bring her closer to the truth. They only confuse her, only there to make her believe in fabricated lies.

You needed your family, and he took them away from you as an experiment...

You are all barren by design.

For every Sarah, every Cosima, I regret making you.

Who hurt you?

Rachel sits on the bench and gazes down at her hands, turning them slowly, wondering if she'll ever know how to touch anything without the purpose of getting something out of it. If she will manage to turn them into anything other than weapons.

When she passes a rose bush in the garden that is suffocating from weeds, she stops and considers it. She ought to just leave it. When the organism is incompatible with the environment, the organism will die.

From the tiny shed, she retrieves a shovel and a pot and half carries, half drags them through the garden. She stings her fingers until blood draws as she tries to peel away the ivy that clings to every twig of the rose. Eventually she tears it off: suddenly consumed by this new-found purpose, even though she knows deep down it's ridiculous and futile. She just wants to try her hands at something selfless, see if they can do it. With great effort she severs root after root until the plant is free of the earth, presents it with the solitude of the pot and carefully puts soil into it until it's tucked in securely. Below the tap, she fills Siobhan's rusty water pitcher and carries it through the garden even though it's far too heavy. Some of the soil is washed away in the flood she brings, but in the end, Rachel has transplanted the rose bush.

"There," she pants, leaned against the shovel, blouse dirtied and pants ripped from thorns, right leg aching. "Now you are free."

The twigs of the plant look naked and awkward without their cloth of ivy, but the three pale rose blooms seem to have endured. Rachel decides the plant deserves an acclimatisation period. Surely everyone forced into a new environment deserves that.

One week later, Rachel wakes up in Siobhan's cottage to the sound of dense rain on the roof. She gets out of bed and goes to make herself a cup of tea on the stove, absentmindedly rotating her knee to loosen up her stiff leg. When she steps into the living room with her teacup, the rose bush is standing there by the window, begging her to come closer. She does so mechanically. She already knows.

The flowers that were first vigorous and delicate and the softest sunrise shade of pink have begun to shrivel and crack into brownish cadavers. The beautifully sleek leaves have wilted and started to fall to the floor. The naked twig Rachel takes carefully between her fingers breaks off with a snap that seems to ring through the whole cottage.

Rachel drags the dying rose out to the farthest back of the garden. She uproots it from the pot and throws it on a pile of dead brushwood. Her leg aches. She pours the soil back into the hole she made in the earth a week ago. It looks like a freshly dug grave. She sits on the bench below the dripping apple trees and stares at her hands. She wishes she could cut them off. She wishes someone would come and tell her how to be a person. She wishes she had a martini glass, just so she could smash it. How long until you're new?

You have proven yourself. I consider you my daughter.

My mum used to do that.

We chip away at the devil until there's nothing left.

Where's your smoking gun, Rachel?

She stands in the middle of the green flourish and shakes. How long?

After the rose, she seriously considers leaving the cottage and the damned island altogether. The rain smashes itself against the roof with a staunchness she's never heard before. Her cuticles bleed.

In the end, she stays.

She thinks that ought to count for something.

*

Despite the heavy, saturated end of summer that has seemed so intent on staying forever, the seasons begin the jading process of changing. The air in the morning nips at her cheeks. On the small gaunt trees in the garden, apples grow that are sour when Rachel tastes them. The pile of dirt from her attempt with the rose has been covered with faintly yellow leaves. When the sun shines it's all golden, but when it doesn't, looming clouds roll across the endless skies. Quicker and quicker in the evenings, daylight departs and twilight settles over the fields.

Siobhan emails semi-regularly. Short, concise messages, to inform on required maintenance of the cottage or to ask various questions about the weather, if the radiator is working, etcetera. She never asks how Rachel is doing, for which Rachel is grateful. She does what Siobhan asks her – which is not a lot, mainly checking pipes and making sure the fence is intact – and writes back in equally short sentences.

It's strangely nice, being given tasks. Being indirectly checked up on in this manner. Rachel's mother never checked up on her.

Rachel's mother. She hates it; the word; the woman; the loss inside her that demands to be felt despite Rachel trying everything to kill it. Her mother made her in a lab. Her mother studied her like a rat. Her mother gave her away and left her. Let Rachel grieve her, miss her, repress her, reinvent her through endless hours of video tapes.

Her mother locked her up and confessed to not wanting her while Rachel was stuck in a wheelchair with words hitching in her throat and an eye shining like a star. Her mother humiliated her.

And what would you do? Let the disease advance, or intervene?

Like she knew Rachel wasn't strong enough to make the tough decisions. Rachel hated her for looking at her like that. Like Susan had known all along: Rachel was nothing but another failure. And perhaps the biggest reason Rachel hated her was because she was right. Because, locked inside that secret prison of a house, locked inside her body that refused to obey her, locked inside her own rotting mind, Charlotte was the only one who lent her any relief. Charlotte would smile at her and tell her about geology and planets while everyone else looked at Rachel like she was a disappointing trinket. In that house, Rachel would have pushed the rest of the Ledas off the highest cliff on the island to cure Charlotte. And that, she knows, was a failure in Susan's eyes.

Rachel hated her. Rachel wanted her back. Maybe just to have someone left to blame for everything.

Charlotte was cloned from you, you know. She hadn't known. But of course. It made sense. After all, it seemed to be true; Rachel only cared about herself. All of it had seemed a fantastical, cruel joke.

What are you?

What am I?

Regards,
RD

She slams the laptop shut.

*

When she comes inside from a walk and looks in the bathroom mirror in mid October, her cheeks have that rosy tint she has seen in advertisements for gardening tools or arthritis medication, and her hair falls in loose windswept waves around her face. It has grown to reach her shoulders now, and revealed a dark shadow of origin nearest to her scalp. The roots she can't do much about, but she finds Siobhan's kitchen scissors and cuts her hair methodically in height with her jaw again. Her haircut is one of the few acts of rebellion Rachel committed, something she did to shed skin after men and their hands made her feel like a piece of cattle. She will not go back to that weak, doe-eyed girl.

She wonders what the girl behind the register at the supermarket will think of the change. The supermarket, which Rachel has made a habit of visiting at the same time every week to make sure the girl will be working when she shops for groceries, just so Rachel can receive that smile of recognition from someone. She wonders what the girl would think if she knew the things Rachel has done. Surely she wouldn't smile in that sweet way, then. Surely she wouldn't ask Rachel to have a nice day, then.

She looks away from the mirror, down at the locks of hair in the sink. She looks out the window at the hills. She picks at her cuticles until they bleed.

*

She comes to an agreement with herself. If she refrains from picking at her cuticles for a whole day, she is allowed to wear Kira's friendship bracelet. Only then can she wear it. If she relapses, she must take the bracelet off again.

When she realises she has accomplished her goal, she stumbles upstairs and rummages through her suitcase until she finds it. The thin, braided threads are still bright blue. Rachel has been careful not to wear it out. She slips it on and leans her head back against the edge of the bed, forces her breaths to come evenly. She remembers how soft Kira's hair was beneath her hands the times Rachel had summoned the courage to touch it. How brown her eyes were.

She never wants to see them again. She only wants to see them again.

Is Sarah happy now? The thought manifests in her mind before she can prevent it, and then she's already infected, and it's too late. Like a spring flood they come, all the thoughts that hurt her the worst. Of course Sarah's happy. She won, didn't she? In the basement, in the backyard, in the house with a mother who loves her and a daughter who loves her and a whole happy, perfect family. They're all together, and Kira is better off now that Rachel is gone, now that Rachel is no longer watching through a mirroring glass as people push and pull at her biology, unidentified emotions raging within her.

Rachel grips the bracelet so tight her knuckles whiten. All she ever did was hurt others. Irreparable. Misguided. Cold. She had to gauge her eye out, had to sequester herself on a rainy island to be able to stop. And they're all happy now, and she's still... Rachel Duncan.

To: s-sadler@gmail.com
Subject: [no subject]

 

Siobhan.

I have been here almost three months now. I have spoken to four people during that time.

Do you know how terrible it is to not get better when all you're trying to do is get better? When you tell yourself each night as you go to bed: tomorrow I will make something more, come a little bit closer. And you feel relief that the day is over, and you wish to forget it because it provided you with so little. Every night I long for the next day, and every morning I wake up and I am instantly disappointed. 

I am trying. I am trying my damnedest in this terrible nothingness but I don't know how to do it. This cabin is full of the past I never had and I feel like an intruder. I killed your rose bush. I ruined the nature. It's so beautiful here, but it's like I can't see it. Nothing is important. Nothing is happening. And I'm beginning to fade away.

You just shipped me off here so you could feel better about yourself, didn't you? You didn't really know how to help me. I'm just further away now, and you can tell yourself that you did a good deed. Well, let me enlighten you. You didn't. I am not any closer to freedom than I was in that hotel room. Maybe you should have just left me there. Maybe then, at least I would've had some naive hope still in me.

Of all the things to have happened to me, this might be the most unbearable. 

Regards,
RD

 

*

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If you go to the cliffs on a windy day, you can lean over the edge and be held from falling down by the sheer force of the wind. Rachel discovers this after twelve weeks in the cottage. She rides the bus to the end of the line, ignores the bus driver's concerned frown through the glass as she cuts away from the road and pushes through scrubby vegetation and icy rain towards the cliffs.

She has one of Siobhan's jackets on; a heavy, lined raincoat in black that reaches past her knees and shuts most of the cold out. Rachel feels like she's wearing someone else's life. It's comforting.

She reaches the edge of the cliffs, which are slippery from rain. The closer to the edge she steps, the stronger the wind is. Directly below her the monster of water is thrashing against the rocks, hissing and surging and loud, foaming at the mouth. It seems so powerful, so wild, yet the cliff walls don't even shiver. They stay still, unbroken, calmly letting the sea live out its rage. Rachel stands there for a long time, looking into the dim horizon, letting salt water creep below the coat and cover her from all sides.

She attempts to forgive herself. But how do you forgive yourself when you trained yourself into feeling no remorse? Does she have no moral compass? No capacity for love? Has she repressed it all?

From nowhere, a scream explodes in her lungs and she is momentarily scared it will sound horrible, but as soon as her lips part, the wind snatches the sound from her throat and folds it away in its ripples and curls. Rachel allows a second scream. She is so cursedly tired of these endless questions, these moral qualms she taints herself with and to which she's incapable of finding any answers. What is the point?

She closes her eyes. Holds her arms out, palms to the sea, as if she is hoping to catch something, or bless the world in front of her. If the wind holds me up, she thinks, that must mean something. If I don't fall into the water and get smashed against the rocks, I must be meant to exist. She leans forward.

Humans are impatient. It's in their nature. Keep moving forward. Don't stay still; you'll get left behind. You'll drown. You'll be eaten alive. If the organism is incompatible with the environment, the organism will die. The only other option is to change.

On the bus back, tears keep falling from her left eye. It's probably a reaction to the harsh wind and the salt that she didn't feel. Rachel imagines quietly that it's all the synthetic parts of her, being washed out.

*

One morning in late November, she wakes up to a world dressed in thin white robes. Rachel sits in her pajamas by the kitchen window, holding a cup of tea, and looks at it. The garden has given way to stillness at last. She thinks about her rose bush. Sleeping beneath the snow now, like the rest of the plants in the garden. What a relief it must be; being covered with all that cold, white, left in peace. Unbothered.

The next day it has already melted away, and then it continues like that; snow falling and melting and falling and melting again, until the lawn has turned into a soggy swamp. Rachel finds a pair of boots in the closet that are, annoyingly enough, just her size, and she wears an extra sweater when she goes outside. Her leg has stopped aching from the cold weather.

She goes into town one day, and there are Christmas trees outside all the shops. She roams around like a lost tourist, a ghost among all the people bustling and rushing to buy all their gifts in time. Rachel has no one to buy gifts. The thought upsets her more than she likes, so she buys a pair of handmade woolen mittens from an old man with trembling hands in a market stand. As he hands them over to her along with her change, he calls her dear. There you are my dear. A sudden, vivid image of Ethan Duncan slipping away from her in the flashing video room comes to her, and Rachel has to turn away quickly so the old man doesn't notice how frantically her heart starts to pound.

*

The day before Christmas she gets an email from Siobhan.

From: s-sadler@gmail.com
To: rachel@duncan.now
Date: December 24th, 2:26 pm.

 

I saw on the forecast that the weather is about to get colder. If the temperature drops below five degrees, run the hot water every hour or the pipes will freeze. If they freeze, you will have to call a plumber, and there won't be any plumbers available during the holidays. If it snows, there's a shovel in the shed, and make sure too much snow doesn't pile on the roof of the veranda or it will cave in.

Take care, S.

Ps: Kira wishes you a merry Christmas, and she wants you to know that she misses you.

 

The email has an image attachment. Rachel clicks on it and she doesn't know what she is expecting but it's not the drawing that expands across the screen of two figures, an elephant and a monkey, hand in hand beside a Christmas tree over poured with decorations. They're each holding a colorfully wrapped gift, they're smiling happily and their little cartoon eyes are twinkling. Around their left wrists are drawn thin blue lines.

Rachel stares at the image until she starts to cry. She sits on Siobhan's bed with her computer on her lap and cries, and God, it's reassuring to know that she's still capable of the act.

This exile, this loneliness, is just reminding her of what she is not. What she doesn't have. A home. A family. Someone who knows her and can tell her who she is when she forgets, which is most of the time now. Someone who understands what it does to you to be hurt and used and discarded like she has been. How it punches big holes right through the person you made yourself into. Rachel despises them all. Rachel wishes desperately she could be one of them instead of herself, jaundiced and incorrigible and alone in the Irish countryside, crying uncontrollably against the back of her shaking hand.

Hours later, when she is swollen and tragic and full of that thick, comforting exhaustion, she opens her laptop again. She saves the image to a new folder on her hard drive, and clicks reply on the email. Her fingers tremble over the keys.

Thank you for the information. I will make sure to run the taps and not let the snow pile. 

Tell Kira, I hope she has a wonderful Christmas.

Regards,
RD

*

The next morning, there's a new layer of snow outside, and big flakes are all the while joining their already fallen friends. Rachel runs the taps every hour. She steps outside and cuts a wound in the untouched snow as she makes her way to the shed to retrieve the shovel. Snow gets in her boots ahd in her gloves, but she manages to push the heavy layer off the roof of the veranda. At one point, a macabre noise of exertion slips from her mouth, and she's frightened by her own existence.

In the evening, she decides to make herself an actual meal and spends a good hour and a half in the kitchen with one of Siobhan's old cookbooks open on the table, methodically chopping and boiling and frying. She's not a very experienced cook, but following steps is comforting, and using her hands is distracting. She sits down with the meal in the armchair and flicks on the radio for the first time in months. She browses through the static until she finds a station that is playing carol classics, and she sits in the chair and eats her meal, listening to the choirs.

Rachel cannot remember anything from her childhood Christmases except vague glimpses of ornate trees and gifts wrapped in exclusive paper. She remembers the doll she got the Christmas before she turned six. It was her most prized possession and she would bring it everywhere, until that fateful day when Aldous sat her down in his big office and showed her the Leda files. After that, the doll was discarded. Rachel had been given better playthings. She thinks about the files, and then shuts the thought down on account of it making her feel strangely disgusted with herself.

She wonders briefly how Kira's Christmas has been but shuts that thought down too because it hurts, watches the snow fall below the veranda light for a while. She crawls beneath the cool sheets of the bed, wakes up twice to run the taps, but the pipes don't seem to freeze. Perhaps it's not cold enough. When she opens her eyes the next morning, it's a new day.

*

On December 30th, the girl behind the register at the supermarket is wearing a new, shiny metallic name tag that says Niamh. Rachel tries the name inside her mouth as Niamh scans her carrots. It fits her quite well.

“Have any New Year's plans?” Niamh asks suddenly, smiling politely at Rachel. Rachel is so taken aback that she fumbles for several seconds before managing to form words.

“Not... really,” she stutters.

“Oh,” Niamh says in an awkward tone, turning back to the groceries.

“What about you?” Rachel says on a whim.

Niamh's easy smile returns as she scans Rachel's bread. “Going to a party in Carlow with my friends. Rumour is, there'll be loads of huge fireworks and even a private DJ.”

Rachel has no idea where Carlow is, but she smiles back tentatively. “That sounds like fun.”

Niamh nods good-naturedly. “That'll be 28.50,” she says.

Rachel offers her 30 euros. “Keep the change,” she begs, and to her great relief Niamh doesn't protest.

“Well, happy new year, anyway,” she says as Rachel picks up her bag from the packing bench.

When Rachel replies “you too,” it's probably with too much gravity, but Niamh only smiles on, and turns to the next customer. Rachel leaves the supermarket so consumed by their conversation she almost gets on the bus in the wrong direction.

New Year's Eve makes itself known with a few scarce bursts of color at the far end of the horizon. Rachel watches them from the arm chair as she listens to the countdown on the radio, spinning the bracelet around her wrist. Perhaps the fireworks are Niamh's, from Carlow. Perhaps she's kissing a boy or a girl as the new year begins, or dancing with her friends. Perhaps she is throwing up in a guest bathroom. Rachel makes up scenario after scenario to keep her mind off the family in Toronto that she isn't part of who will be entering the new year in five hours, until she's tired enough to fall asleep.

*

The snow begins to melt on the second day of the new year. The muted lifelessness of winter used to feel comforting to Rachel, but now she sees the pale grass and the forgotten dirt again and she feels something loosen inside her. The pale January sun touches her skin when she steps out on the porch, water is dripping like a curtain from all the drainpipes around her and she is struck by a sensation, like a pressure and subsequent release.

On January 4th, as she is in the kitchen making herself a sandwich, a sudden noise catches her attention. A small motorcycle is coming down the road, and she recognises it as the postman. She has had no mail since she arrived here. But now, he comes to a stop by Siobhan's mailbox and sticks a letter in it. Rachel stands by the window with the knife in her hand and watches him disappear behind the curve of the road. Then, she puts the knife down and goes to retrieve her boots.

The letter is small and a little battered, and it's addressed to Rachel Duncan, c/o Siobhan Sadler, in a handwriting Rachel is quite sure she recognises but is too afraid to make assumptions about as she pokes the envelope open, braced against the kitchen counter, and she almost rips the pages open but forces herself to be calm, and then there it is, in her hand, and her eye trips over the words written in ballpoint for her.

 

Rachel,

Don't ask me why I'm writing this, because I don't have a good answer.

I'll be honest, when I first found out S had sent you to Ireland, I wasn't happy about it. I had really looked forward to a life where you and I had nothing to do with each other. But it's not that simple, is it, and besides it's not up to me who she invites to her properties.

I would say I hope you're happy, but honestly I don't know if either of us really know how to be that. They never taught us, did they? But, I hope you can forgive yourself. That's bloody hard too, I know. I've been fortunate enough to have a family who tell me all the time that they do, and I'm not trying to say that we're family by this, but I guess you deserve to know.

Kira forgives you. She's probably forgiven you from the very start. She asks about you sometimes, if you're okay. She senses that type of thing. S obviously forgives you, and Helena does too. She's too occupied with mum stuff now to have time for grudges. And I forgive you. Well. I'm working on it. At least I think I understand you a bit more now. I know you were used too, and all of it was a mess. I guess what I'm trying to say is that we did a lot of bad things for a lot of reasons, but we're here now and we're still alive, and we bloody well need to try and move on. If not for our own sake, then to spite the people who thought they could make a person in a lab and control them. That mindset's worked quite well for Cosima. Thank you by the way, for giving the list of all the Ledas to her. She and Delphine are curing people left and right. There really are so many of us still here, real people with all sorts of lives, and you giving that list to her is a big reason why. Maybe it felt like a defeat to you, but it was a thing that's helped save a lot of people. See, we're all improving.

I hope Ireland is helping you with whatever it is you need to get done. I know it can be bloody lonely there, though. I'm not saying we have to be friends now, or that you have any obligation to, but if you ever come back, I know it would make Kira happy if you stopped by sometime.

I'd wish you a happy New Year, but, you know. 

Sarah

 

Rachel's hands shake. She puts the letter down on the counter and clenches them to make them stop. She rereads the letter. A third time. Her breathing gets constricted. She stares at the word forgives in Sarah's wide hand writing. Kira forgives you. She doesn't know what to do with herself. Something inside her is splitting open and things are rushing out through the cracks. Rage, envy, desperation. She's enraged with Sarah for overpowering her like this, and she's envious that Sarah's apparently doing so well that she can afford to be working on it and she is also overwhelmed, by being recognised as a big reason why, by the words we're all improving, and she is desperate for something to hold onto and do the same.

*

In the end, it's a simple decision. The decision to go. Rachel thinks about the dead rose bush in the back of the garden. She thinks of the sea below the cliffs that didn't take her. She thinks about Niamh smiling at strangers from behind the cash register. And she thinks about all the people who hurt her. Rachel doesn't want to be the empty shell of their defect science. She wants to be the person who smiles back across the register. And she is terrified of that person, she is not sure she even likes her, and she has no idea how to be her, but she must try.

She twirls the soft braided bracelet around her wrist. The blue has started to wane. Her cuticles are smooth.

*

To get to the airport you have to take a train. To get to the train you have to take the bus. To Rachel's mild surprise it's not a struggle to haul her two heavy bags down the gravel road onto the main one, and walk along the wayside to the bus stop. A small sweat breaks at the nape of her neck under the benign sun, but nothing more. Her leg doesn't bother her at all, hasn't bothered her for a long time now. The countryside, Rachel thinks. Who would have thought.

At the train stop it's Rachel and four adolescent boys in dirty branded trainers, with hints of manhood in their features. Rachel attaches her eye to a crack in the stone wall across the tracks and observes them out of the corner of it with mild interest.

Their voices are low but in a precarious way, like they could erupt at any second. They stand in a circle a few strides to her right and seem to be discussing something of importance. A smatter of saliva globs on the ground, emanating from their center. A few cigarettes, smoked down to the filter, discarded. One of the boys snaps at another, loudly enough that Rachel would have flinched, if she had been someone else.

There is the faint rumble of an approaching train. The boys raise their voices to be heard over it. They seem upset now, and Rachel gives up pretending to look at the rock. The loudest one, also the tallest, suddenly shoves the one opposite him violently backwards, towards Rachel. The boy, who is wearing a red track jacket, swears at his aggressor and throws his hands out, affront written all over his features. His friends look unsure in that specific way adolescent boys will look unsure when they realize they aren't as fearless as they made themselves up to be.

The tall boy steps forward swiftly and spits some words out but Rachel can't hear what they are over the approaching train. And then he shoves the boy in the red jacket once more, and this time he loses his balance, arms flailing like useless wings, and stumbles towards the edge of the platform and he's going to fall over it, he is going to fall onto the tracks; unmade below the body of an incoming train just like –

Rachel's hand wraps around his wrist.

With a strength she didn't know she had, feet skidding across slabs of stone, she halts his momentum and pulls him towards her. He utters a noise of shock, swivels for a second, and regains his balance.

One more second, and the train pulls into the station with a speed that catches Rachel's hair in a gust of wind.

The boy is staring at her, his eyes wide open. They are brown and warm in the light, and in them Rachel can see every shivering second of his life.

The last carriage of the train comes to a stop behind them. Then silence.

“Thank you,” says the boy. His voice is barely deeper than a child's. It's shaped into beautiful coils by his accent. It digs right into Rachel. “Ehm. Thank you.”

The train doors open. His eyes are still attached to hers, luminous and transparent. Searching. He's waiting for her to say something, Rachel realizes belatedly.

“Be careful.” Her voice is untidy and sounds like a command mixed up in a question.

People spill out of the train and onto the platform around them. Rachel unlocks her fingers from around the boy's arm and tears her gaze away finally. The red of his jacket flickers in the corner of her eye as he moves. In one fluid motion, she picks up her bags, turns around and steps onto the train, and the doors close behind her. The sound of the train station is cut off, but through the narrow window she can still see the brown-eyed boy as he reunites with his flock. The tall one looks sullen, the others baffled. When the train starts to move, the boy squints over his shoulder towards Rachel and Rachel looks back at him through her one living eye as he becomes smaller and smaller, trying to make out that sunlit vivid brown once more, before the train enters a tunnel and everything goes black; the growing roar of acceleration drowning out the obnoxiously loud thudding of her heart.

Rachel doesn't know his name. She never will. No file.

Rachel will never see him again.

She is filled by a wildness so acute, she must brace herself against the train door and gasp for breath.

Thank you.

She opens her eyes, looks at her hands splayed over the dirty window, behind which the darkness is splitting in half, silence falling away to thunderous speed.

They look the same. But they are new.