When Laura was little, there was an apple tree in their backyard. She wasn’t supposed to climb the apple tree, because it was high and she could fall and because her dad had said that if she did, it would open up its gnarled branches and swallow her whole.
At seven, she suspected this to be a lie, and so to prove it to herself, and maybe to her dad, she climbed the tree.
She remembers lying on the grass, after she fell from a high branch near the top, with the wind knocked out of her and her arm twisted in an unnatural position above her head. She remembers lying there and thinking, “I did it! I climbed it!” And despite the excruciating pain in her arm and the hot rush tears in her eyes and the way the world was slowly getting blurry, her tiny body was filled with a sense of achievement and success. She did the thing she said she was going to do, and it was worth it.
Laura keeps waiting for that feeling. That sense of accomplishment, of triumph, of knowing that the thing she had spent months trying to achieve has come to fruition. She keeps waiting to feel something other than the hollow void in the pit of her stomach.
Lafontaine is the first person to say, “You did it, L. You saved us.” And Laura nods and swallows back a sob, because what she wants to say is, “No, I didn’t. I’m not the one who saved us.”
The hours after the battle are raw and filled with a harsh kind of silence, where everything unspoken sounds like a scream. They file out in this order: Kirsch and Natalie. Perry, Lafontaine and Elsie. Danny.
They look at Laura with big, wet eyes, the way everyone looked at her dad in those months after her mom had left. Like they’re afraid to talk to her, afraid to break her, or maybe they’re afraid of her sadness, which is messy and noisy and seems to spill over onto everything.
Before she leaves, Danny touches her on the shoulder. A firm, warm, comforting touch and Laura leans into it. “Call me if you need anything, okay?”
She thinks she says, “Okay.” And maybe she manages a “Thank you.”
Danny stands for a moment longer, waiting, or perhaps just being there. And Laura moves away, because she doesn’t want to be comforted anymore. She wants to curl up somewhere and sleep for a thousand years. She wonders vaguely if there’s an apple tree anywhere on campus that would swallow her up if she asked nicely.Stranger things have happened.
She closes the door on them and turns around and there’s Betty.
Elizabeth Spielsdorf. Roommate extraordinare.
The sob that’s been building in Laura’s chest claws its way from her throat and she finds herself shuddering with tears that seem to come from some limitless source. She’ll drown them both if she keeps this up.
Betty stands uncertainly and makes her way over, and Laura, who has wrapped her arms around herself in a vice grip to keep from breaking into a million little pieces all over the dorm room floor shakes her head and says, “No, I’m okay,” despite the fact that she clearly is not.
But Betty, the real Betty is smart and seems to understand this, and so she backs off and stands in the centre of the room, between the two beds, neither of which belong to her. Not anymore.
Laura gulps down air in an attempt to fool her body into believing that everything is okay. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale just like normal. Eventually the shuddering stops and the sobs stop bubbling from her lips, which she presses shut to keep them in.
She’s vaguely aware of the stinging on her cheek and she raises her fingers to it, then winces. The pain is surprising.
Betty says, “You should probably get that cleaned.”
“Yeah.” She finds monosyllables are the easiest form of communication at this point. But Betty’s still standing there, staring at her with this look that Laura thinks might be gratitude and might be pity and is probably a mixture of both. For a terrible, awful moment, she thinks I wish it was you instead of her.
But then Betty- wonderful, kind, traumatised Betty says, “Hey, would you like me to make you some cocoa? I remember how much you liked cocoa. I could make you some if you-”
She shakes her head. She doesn’t want cocoa. Cocoa reminds her of everything she’s just lost and she doesn’t think she’ll drink it ever again.
“I think I’ll just shower,” Laura manages, and she’s proud of herself. She got through the entire sentence without her voice breaking.
Betty nods again. She nods and stares and Laura walks past her. But then, because the thought of coming out and seeing Betty in a space she’s not supposed to be in sort of destroys Laura, she says, “You can take my bed. I’ll-”
She nods towards the other bed with its ruffled leopard print sheets that smell vaguely of smoke. The bed full of crumbs and spilled grape soda and for some unfathomable reason, cat hair.
Betty smiles at her again and because it seems like the right thing, the kind of thing she’d do if she still had a working heart, Laura attempts to smile back and says, “I’m glad you’re okay.”
By the time she gets out of the bathroom, her skin is soft and red and clean. Her fingers and toes are pruned. She smells like lavender body wash and the anti-septic cream she smeared over the cut on her cheek. Laura moves like she’s underwater. Her limbs are heavy and her muscles sore.
Betty is sleeping, or pretending to and Laura sits at the edge of a bed that isn’t hers and waits. She closes her eyes and sees flames and smoke and everywhere the strange sour smell of ash that is not ash, but whatever it is that happens to vampires when you put a stake through them.
She waits for the images to disappear, or for the emptiness inside to swallow her up, for the door to burst open and Carmilla to saunter in with some laconic comment about the ludicrousness of midnight pep-rallies, as if nothing at all had happened.
She waits so long that eventually she falls asleep and dreams of climbing apple trees.
“You’ve been staring at that screen for over an hour,” Betty says from where she’s washing a plate at the sink. She does that, Laura noticed. This new Betty, or real Betty. She washes her things immediately after she uses them. It’s an unfamiliar concept. The kitchen has only ever been this active during Perry’s brief sojourn.
Laura’s been awake for four hours. She woke up feeling sore and bruised. Her voice raspy, her eyes swollen, her heart unaccounted for.
“I know,” Laura answers, still staring. Her eyes are going watery from the glow of the screen. “It’s just,” she purses her lips to one side as she tries to explain it to Betty, to herself.
“It’s over now. There’s nothing to document anymore. But I can’t-” Laura lets out a wobbly sigh. “It can’t end like this.”
“You saved the day,” Betty sits down at the edge of what is most likely now her bed. “We won,” she gently knocks a fist against Laura’s shoulder, “That sounds like a pretty good ending to me.”
“Then why do I feel so lost?” When her voice cracks, she leans back and looks at Betty. “I never thought that she would-”
“Hey, I know,” Betty rubs comforting circles on Laura’s arm. “In time you’ll feel better. I know you will.”
Laura nods, not because she believes her, but because she realises that Betty really doesn’t understand. In a way, none of them do. Betty has her own demons. Laura imagines that months held hostage in an underground basement wasn’t all rainbows and puppies, even if the girls claim that most of it is a blur.
It’s both terrifying and liberating to understand that she is alone in her grief. There is no one else to whom she can turn. She only has herself.
She feels herself hardening, like an apple dipped into liquid sugar. Anyone who tried to take a bite out of her now would chip their teeth.
Laura forces her lips into a smile. “Hey, didn’t you say you had that reregistration thing this morning?”
Betty smacks her hand against her forehead somewhat comically. “Yes! I almost forgot.” She gets up and starts putting on her jacket and with one arm through a sleeve asks, “Are you gonna be okay by yourself?”
This fake smiling thing is getting easier. “Sure. Definitely. You go.”
“Okay! See you soon!” The real Betty might have slightly better hygiene habits than brain-wormed Betty, but Laura thinks they’re pretty similar, which is sort of comforting.
Once Betty is gone, Laura lets out a breath she hadn’t really realised she’d been holding. The dorm room is silent, but as far as she can tell, the campus is going on as usual. Somewhere, in the distance, the Glee Club is practising their Gregorian chants, which adds a sombre tone to the sunny morning. Laura considers putting on music to get out of her head, but she doesn’t know where else she’d go.
And so she stares at the computer monitor, waiting for inspiration to hit. She doesn’t want to go over what happened in that underground hell. She doesn’t want to talk about the screams and that terrible, terrible light. She certainly doesn’t want to talk about…
She wants to say, “And they all lived happily ever after.” It’s silly and childish and naïve, but that’s the ending she was hoping for. She can’t even say, “And they all lived.”
With slightly trembling fingers, she clicks “record” and sits back to look at the camera.
“So, as you know, last night we fought in the battle. And won.” Her voice wavers, but she continues. “What started out as a silly little journalism project became something so much more. In the end, we found the missing girls, and saved Laf and killed the Dean, who by the way is truly the stuff nightmares are made of.” She shudders for dramatic effect. “And…” she swallows and finds that a smile for the camera is a little more difficult to conjure up. “And we destroyed the Light. Or, Carmilla did. With the sword. The sword that eventually turned into this swirly purple fire thing and just…” Laura shrugs a shoulder, “by the end there was no more sword and no more Carmilla. She just… there wasn’t even a body that I could-” The tears are warm and familiar and she doesn’t fight them.
“There’s so much I should have said. The last thing I did was send her away. And I don’t know if she knew…” Laura blinks and tears fall onto the keys and slide down into the grooves of the keyboard. “She shouldn’t have done it.” She shakes her head and lets it fall into her hands. Angry now, at herself, at Carmilla, the whole world and everyone in it. “Stupid, obstinate vampire-”
“Well, tell me how you really feel.”
Laura bolts up and stares at the screen. Did she just—was that just—
With a faltering squeak, she turns her chair around.
Carmilla is standing in the doorway.
She’s standing in the doorway wearing fluffy Piglet pyjama bottoms and an oversize t-shirt that says “Kiss me, I’m cute.”
She’s standing in the doorway. Alive.
Laura stares for a split second, taking it all in. The pyjamas, the messy hair, the eyebrows raised in question and apprehension.
And then, she lurches out of the chair so fast, its left spinning wildly.
Carmilla takes a few steps forward to meet her and then her arms are around a real, warm,alive body.
And all Laura can think is Mine, mine, mine.
Carmilla’s hands are in her hair, and around her neck, bringing her closer. Absorbing her. And it feels so right.
They stay like that for a century or two, Laura’s not sure and when Carmilla eventually begins swaying on a feet, Laura pulls her head back, but keeps Carmilla in her arms, their bodies flush together. She smells like dead leaves and laundry detergent.
It takes Laura another second to realise that she hasn’t in fact grown another heart and the pounding against her right side is coming from Carmilla.
“Your heart,” she breathes.
“Yeah, I woke up with this thing.”
Laura does steps back just far enough to place a flat palm over Carmilla’s chest. “So you’re-”
“Still a vampire,” Carmilla confirms. “But I guess the wizard decided to give me a heart.”
Laura’s eyes move from Carmilla’s face to where her fingers are splayed over Carmilla’s chest. “What does this mean?”
“No idea. But you seem to make it go crazy.” Carmilla puts her hand over Laura’s and presses down. “See?”
Laura lifts her gaze back up. “I thought you were dead,” she says in a small, teary voice with a wobbly chin.
“So did I.” Carmilla lets her hand fall and sighs. They’re still close enough for Laura to feel Carmilla’s breath on her face.
“It was dark for a long time. And confusing. Colours and shapes and voices. At one point I think,” Carmilla’s eyes find the ground as she says, “I think I saw Ell. I think she said goodbye and I figured that was it for me.” She looks back at Laura. “I guess I wasn’t the one leaving.” She exhales and says flippantly, “Aaand then I woke up naked in the forest behind the chapel with a killer headache and a newly beating heart.”
Laura smiles, really smiles for the first time in what feels like days. In the distance, the Glee Club’s chanting music seems to have shifted to something like the Hallelujah chorus. “That still doesn’t explain the outfit.”
“This was all I could steal from the laundry,” Carmilla mock scowls.
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“Laura.” Carmilla says her name like it’s something sacred and precious. Like someone who thought they’d never have cause to say it again.
Laura sounds a little broken when she says, “I never wanted you to-”
Carmilla reaches up and gently runs a finger over the cut on Laura’s cheek. “I know.”
“And I don’t think you’re a coward.”
“And I’m sorry for sending you away and about everything I said and-”
“Hey, cupcake,” Carmilla waits until Laura’s teary eyes find hers. “I know.”
They’re quiet for a second and Laura just looks at Carmilla. Alive, not-dead Carmilla. And then she breaks into a wide smile. “This is the perfect ending.” When Carmilla looks confused, Laura inclines her head towards the camera.
“I couldn’t turn it off because the ending broke my heart but you’re here and we won and everyone is safe and you’re alive. It’s perf-”
She’s cut off when Carmilla grips her by the collar of her shirt and tugs her forward.
The kiss is warm and familiar and Laura finds herself laughing into it until Carmilla nips on her lower lip and pulls her even closer and then it’s serious and all breath and tongues and newly beating hearts.
When Laura finally pulls back, she’s got stars in her eyes and possibly an exploding nebula or two and she hardly notices when Carmilla turns to the camera and says, “Now it’s a perfect ending.”