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Jane never had trouble sleeping before. But these days she stares at the off-white ceiling of her bedroom in the dark for hours before she manages to fall asleep. She says her prayers, and she makes up new ones. She remembers.

 

 

Sharon had always told her not to get attached. Early in her training, it had been part of her task. Sarah knew it, too; she knew it surer than anything she’d ever known. Or so she’d thought. That was not how they did things at Hiller Brood.

But as time went on, it was clear that she was not doing things for Hiller Brood any longer. Not like that. Not in that way, when it was growing increasingly clearer that Hiller Brood operated only on the treadmill pyramid of capitalism. She had once wanted to be exactly like Sharon, but that changed. She once would have derided herself for getting too emotional, sentimental. But somewhere along the line her judgment slipped, and now that type of harsh criticism seems as foreign to her as the lines in her training manual now did.

How did it change, and why? If she closes her eyes now, lying in the past-midnight stillness of her sterile apartment, she can summon the images of all the members of the East with clarity to the screen of her darkened eyelids. She remembers them two ways—the photos pulled from Facebook, the Internet, yearbooks, slightly outdated, larger-than-life, the ones she’d used in her briefings along with their real names, and her memories of them in person from her time in The East. All those memories were faded but bright, punched out at the outlines as if cut from the pages of a magazine and preserved forever.

They still live with her, all of them. She dreams them: Doc, Tess, Luca, Eve, Benji, Izzy. She can still smell the house they lived in, the slightly earthy smell, and the charred smell of the ribbed walls. She remembers the way the wind rippled through the trees just outside the house, deeper into the woods where she’d kissed Benji for the first time, the somber and eerie melody made by the tree over Izzy’s grave. She remembers the weight of Doc’s arm around her shoulders, the softness of Tess’s hands, and the fire in Luca’s eyes, the sweetness in the way he’d look at you if he knew you were hurt.

She rolls onto her side and curls into a ball, tucking her knees into her chest in a defensive posture. She stares into the darkness, willing dawn to come and to relieve her sleeplessness. But she can’t avoid the memories, not for now. 

So she lets them come.

 

 

It was hard at first, and Jane was used to hard assignments. Her first assignment out of school had been a corporation in Eastern Europe. She’d had to do an accent, fabricate a background, and live in a grimy apartment in a suburb of Prague for three months on her own. She’d been terrified, overwhelmed, and homesick, but she’d done it. Since then she had successfully been posted to a variety of jobs that had never made her lose her cool. Jobs with lots of backing, another agent almost always along for the ride, and plenty of backup and opportunity to get yanked out if things ever got too deep. She’d never gone all-in like this; it had been an honor. She was beyond convinced that she was ready, even as she reminded herself not to overestimate her own abilities.

Please give me the strength to do well. To not be arrogant. But to not be weak. Amen.

But then she’d felt like such an intruder, so wrong. Entering the inner circle of a global corporation, that initiation had been nothing like passing the feeding ritual test—an embarrassment that still makes her cringe, cutting to the bone, although she’s not sure why. There was a difference between professional pride and personal—whatever it was, with Benji, she hadn’t known to expect it. The gentle way Benji had analyzed her for it, even though she logically knew she shouldn’t feel any shame for it. She had become Sarah.

Sarah had catalogued all the members quickly, locking them into the archetypes she’d been taught in the psych module at Hiller Brood. But that wasn’t the same as knowing them. That came later. She’d first pegged Benji for the charismatic leader: all cults had them, a natural center, and an eye of the storm. But that was not how anarchist collectives worked, she knew, and as time progressed Sarah came to realize that all the rest of them were equally as much leaders as Benji. The East really was a collective, not a cult. They were not pretending to be anything they were not, and they truly loved each other.

This kind of love, the way they all loved each other… Sarah wasn’t used to that. She recognized it, in a way that she would recognize Sunday school lessons or stories from her childhood. But the love she knew was the love for honor, or duty, or her college boyfriend. The sense of greater purpose, she knew it from church. But it was humbling and frightening, to see so much of what she herself believed in the simple dogma of how the group interacted.

She had been strangely moved watching the members of the group bathe each other in the cold river that day. Even witnessing them washing each other was like trespassing on something Edenic. Who had ever touched her naked? But she understood that it was a rite of passage, and she agreed.

Her every memory of that time was heightened. She remembers that river, how cold it was. There had been Benji, his cool hands spanning the sides of Sarah’s face, as she trembled with fear of… she didn’t know what. She’d had to close her eyes. Even the sight of his face, upside down from where she lay in the river in the cradle of Tess and Luca’s hands, was too much. She focused on their faces instead, gentle and comforting and looming, like surrogate parent figures. Adam and Eve. Naked and beautiful. How could she, who had been brought up to admire images of holy love, not be touched? How could she fail to let something move deeply and irreversibly inside her?

 

 

Where was Izzy, Sarah wonders suddenly, that day the others held Sarah in the cold river water as she trembled and tried to relax, to unlearn everything she’d been taught about nudity and connecting with other people? Not there. That was always how she’d remembered Izzy—by her presence or absence, which was always marked. She always had a little shock when remembering Izzy, like pressing on a bruise. That had been what it had been like when Izzy was alive, too.

Izzy seemed slightly faceless, at first, a tiny figure of distrust that lingered at the periphery of Sarah’s memories. It was only later that she was filled in, as definitely as shading with a charcoal pencil, rendered in context of Benji and everyone else.

It was better that Izzy had not been there that day, she thinks with a shiver, not one of the ones to bathe Sarah. Izzy was not the gentle one. Tess, the brilliant one, she was soft. Doc and his slightly trembling hands and healer’s touch, he was gentle. Benji was gentle too, even as he was enigmatic and frustrating, inviting her in even as he offered opaque walls to confound her, paternal and nonsexual all at once. But Benji—no, another time.

But Izzyshe was like the edge of a ripped-apart tin can, turning around to cut. Sarah was wary at first, phrasing her questions gently, but there was no way around it. It wasn’t entirely faked. Her trepidation was the same as her cover’s; even if she had merely been the curious anarchist drifter she was pretending to be, she would have been put off by Izzy. Even Sarah’s mildest questions, timorous in spite of herself, irritated Izzy. Unlike Luca or Tess or Doc, Izzy seethed all the time. She was always coiled tightly, ready to spring.

She was tightly drawn, a knot of something clearly at her center. Sarah longed to know what it was but she could never get close enough to figure it out. Not at first, because Izzy was not forthcoming, Sarah didn’t want to ask too many questions and stand out in the wrong way. When she tentatively asked Izzy one day as they sprawled on the lawn with a few of the others, trying to sound innocuous and curious, “How long have you been here?” Izzy turned and stared at her with hard eyes.

“Why do you want to know?” she said flatly, hostility radiating from her like sparks, and Luca snorted and leaned forward to wrap his arms around her. “Be nice,” he said, shooting Sarah a look over Izzy’s head.

Izzy made a harsh sound of disdain and wriggled free, getting to her feet and walking away. “She’s been here a long time,” Luca explained simply, his mascaraed eyes locking on Sarah’s face. They both watched Izzy’s tiny figure stalking across the lawn, back ramrod-straight like an offended animal. “Since the beginning,” he added, meeting Sarah’s eyes again with some significance.

Sarah glanced away. “Oh,” she said, feeling chastised and embarrassed in some way. Far-away Izzy went over the crest of the hill, and disappeared into the woods.

So Izzy’s early acceptance of Sarah, voting her into their next jam in Eve’s place, wasn’t really acceptance at all. Sarah knew that. Izzy was voting Sarah in as a challenge, saying without saying it that if Sarah wanted to be part of their group, she had to prove herself.

So she did.

 

 

Time passed. Sarah was horrified after the first jam, although more horrified at what had happened or Sharon’s callous response she couldn’t say. People could be poisoned, people could die—They are not my clients. Then she wasn’t so horrified any more. She learned more, and the more she learned the less strange it all became.

Benji and Izzy’s faces burned with the same militant fire. They weren’t apologizing, and they weren’t sorry. Sarah thought for a moment that she could almost understand it. With a strange emotional twinge of jealousy, Sarah had wondered at first if Izzy and Benji were together, or had ever been together. There was a proprietary way that Izzy spoke to him, demanding things. But then she realized that everyone interacted this way, and Izzy simply demanded things, her confidence in her ideas standing out above all. (Still, Sarah wondered about their history, how long they’d known one another.)

She started to feel things for Benji, things that frightened her, and she didn’t know what to think about it.

“You’re not soft enough,” he’d said that first night, staring at her so intensely, “to handle the truth.”

Perhaps not. Maybe not at first. But Sarah felt herself softening, whether she wanted to or not. That was the frightening part.

She wasn’t sure what she wanted any longer. She wasn’t sure.

 

 

Then Izzy softened to her, almost imperceptibly, and it made everything better and worse, all at once.

“May I… kiss you?” she said, the air warm with the candlelight and the circle of everyone, everyone already loose and loving with everything that had gone before, and Sarah felt something stop in her chest. “You may,” she answered.

When Izzy crossed the circle of people, stepping past the empty champagne bottle that rested on the floor, her dark eyes burning with something intense in her face, Sarah felt something. She knew. Izzy trusted her now, on some level.

She thought that maybe it was a test, but it was past that. It wasn’t. Izzy’s hands were soft in their fingerless gloves as they cupped her face, holding Sarah close to her. She kissed Sarah so softly, and Sarah felt light-headed.

She’d never kissed another woman; she wondered if Izzy had. Izzy pulled back for a moment, one dark half note of breath escaping her lips, and then kissed Sarah again. Who knew? There was a new softness in her touch, something Sarah had never felt from her before. The other woman’s lips were full, and lush. Such softness seemed antithetical to everything else about Izzy.

Her own hands remained at her sides. She clenched her fingers for a moment, and then released them. She wanted to bring them up to clasp Izzy’s face, to brush away the strands of dark hair. They would be soft, she imagined. Izzy could be soft, and gentle. She had never known.

Instead she broke away, shocked at herself and what she’d just done, her heart thudding with electricity.

She was frightened. This softness from tiny, angry Izzy—it was something enormous, and Sarah felt that she couldn’t accept it without opening herself in some way. It was clear that Izzy would have continued (or was it clear? Was Sarah just making things up?).

Izzy fell back, giving Sarah a long, meaningful look. She crossed back across the circle, and Sarah couldn’t meet Izzy’s eyes, or even look to see the expression on that pale, intense little face. She felt shaky. Breathlessly, she reached for the bottle in her turn.

She turned her head abruptly to see Benji gazing at them, watching. He was always watching. He looked as if he’d sensed something had changed and transpired. It had. Everything was different now. High on it, the dangerous edge of whatever had just passed between her and Izzy, Sarah was bold. “Can I kiss you?” she asked, selfishly. It was not as if she was asking it to ingratiate herself. If anything, it was dangerous.

Benji gave her a look, a heavy one, the kind that Izzy had used to give her. A warning look, one that warned of transgressions. She’d crossed a line, was what he was saying. “Can we hug instead?”

Sarah released her breath, hot and trembling. “Sure,” she heard herself saying, too quickly. How could she really be disappointed? But she was. “Sure.”

She closed her eyes as Benji moved closer and folded his arms around her, squeezing them shut tightly. He smelled tempting, like sin.

Her eyes felt hot.

 

 

Perhaps to distract herself from thinking of Benji—I think you’re not soft enough to handle the truth, he’d said—Sarah thought of Izzy. She was fixating on the subjects unnecessarily, and she knew it was unhealthy.

But she thought of Izzy’s half-gloved fingers, and soft lips, how badly she’d wanted to reach out and touch Izzy’s hair—and she couldn’t help herself. Where did you come from, what’s your story? she imagined asking Izzy. Why are you here?

She sat quietly with Izzy and Tess in the kitchen the next morning, sharing pieces of apple and paring vegetables for Tess’s soup. Izzy stared at her across the table, and Sarah met her gaze evenly. She no longer felt like Izzy was testing her, but she was unsure what Izzy wanted. She was unsure what she herself wanted—besides Benji—and she stopped herself from thinking it as much as she could. She had relived the kiss countless times in her head, exploring its every detail. It had happened after all, unlike anything with Benji. Why did she feel that it was safer now to think of this, than to imagine scenarios with Benji? 

Because Izzy permitted you, reason told her. She let you in, and you think she’d let you in again. Benji never did. Only in words had Benji let Sarah in, and even then it was a challenge, almost a dismissal. Was she soft enough to love him, to let him in? Did she know the answer to that question, or was she too scared to admit it to herself?

 

 

So instead, evading the puzzle of Benji, she tried to imagine how it might be with Izzy. She imagined herself reaching forward, brushing her hand across Izzy’s smaller one and then later, following Izzy up the bend of the stairwell with its exposed skeleton ribs on some excuse, reaching for Izzy’s shoulder, leaning up and offering herself to be kissed. Pulling herself closer. Would Izzy kiss back, again? Sarah thought she would. Sarah was sure she would.

Then what? They’d go to one of the shared rooms—Sarah shared with Tess, and Izzy with several of the other women—and kiss like they’d done in spin-the-bottle, only longer and with nobody to see. But everyone would know, of course. There were no locks on the doors and there were no secrets here, anyway.

But what would that accomplish? Why did she want this: apart from the frisson she’d felt, the sexual static that occupied her fingertips and muscle memory, what purpose would this serve? Why was she thinking in this self-serving way?

Perhaps she thought that having Izzy in her arms would make Izzy soften somehow, be gentle, to reveal her inner secrets. And Sarah had to admit that the thought of Izzy sweet and gentle (laid back against the mattress, hands curled into tiny fists in the fabric, spread open for Sarah’s nervous taking) was inviting. It was such a paradox, and it humanized Izzy, to think of her this way. Izzy, besides Benji, had always been the most remote one of the group. She thought she understood Benji—she was afraid to go any farther down that path with him. But Izzy, on the other hand…

She wondered too, with the electric frizz of shame, how Izzy might be. Would she be gentle? Would she be rough? Would she take Sarah’s face in her hands as gently as she’d done before, and kiss her without judgment? Thinking of those burning eyes of Izzy’s, the way they locked with intensity on whatever she looked at, Sarah imagined how it might feel to be the one person Izzy was looking at like that, if only for a night or an afternoon or a series of moments, and she stirred in her chair with unexpected feeling.

Across the table Izzy glanced at her over the blade of her paring knife, dark eyes muted but neutral, and Sarah actually flushed and had to look away. A squeeze of electric guilt and confusion lined her stomach.

It was tempting. But Sarah had always been so good at resisting temptation. Up to a point.

 

 

She stared at Izzy, still wanting her in some intangible way, when they were all assembled again to discuss their next jam, but that softness had fallen away. Instead, Izzy seemed to actually crackle with energy, the intensity of her expression dark. She was almost frightening.

They were discussing things that Sarah didn’t understand. Izzy was again inscrutable; Benji, again frustrated and paternal and almost defeated.

“This is my jam,” Izzy was saying. “I joined this group for this jam.”

That was when Sarah realized why she’d wanted to sleep with Izzy. To peel back that hard exterior, those layers of anger and grief and bravado she wore underneath her hoodie strings. To pick her open like a lock; Izzy’s inner workings would no doubt be as compact and layered and neatly worked as something graven out of metal. To touch that hurt that had festered and turned to outward anger—if any of that hurt still remained in Izzy. To reach the girl inside the woman. 

It was too late for any of that, though. Izzy shone with her righteous anger, pure, almost like a saint. Joan of Arc, a latter-day girl warrior. Once again, Sarah was almost frightened to go near her.

 

 

It was time for the next jam.

Izzy looked tiny in her formal dress, like a child playing dress-up, but with the infinitely ancient and sad expression of a woman. Izzy was tiny, her features standing out like a child’s, but her dark expression always let you know she was suffering with the sorrow of ages. She could have been ancient, with the weight she carried on those slight shoulders.

“Dad?” she’d said, her voice cracking, the scene exploding into noisy disarray at the edge of the pond, and suddenly everything had made so much more sense, falling into place before Sarah’s eyes. But then they’d gone back to the house, and Izzy had been laid on the kitchen table and reduced to blood and viscera for forty-five minutes while Sarah immersed herself in Izzy’s actual flesh.

Then Izzy was gone. Sarah still has nightmares about that night: Izzy’s body on the kitchen table. Blood on her own hands, up to the elbows, and the look of horror and infinite sadness on Benji’s face when Sarah had finally raised her head to look at him.

And then everything changed.

Sarah hadn’t needed to sleep with Benji to understand him. She slept with him as an expression of grief, and her cries had been the awful cries of release and sadness and why, why had Izzy had to die? She wanted Benji with what felt like every inch of her body, inside and out, and she hated him too. But she tasted his regret, and realized too that it was not enough for him. Izzy’s death had caused Luca to leave, and in some ways she respected him for that. But it had not been enough for Benji to stop. Maybe nothing would ever be enough to make him stop, he was a void, and that frightened Sarah to no end.

I only kissed her once, she wanted to cry, and pound her fists into Benji’s chest. I only got to kiss her once, and I never got to learn everything that was inside her. How can you want to fuck when Izzy’s gone because of both of us, and all of us? But sex healed, and in the clear cold morning light she tasted Benji’s raw grief on his lips. She arched her back and cried out, and tore away his clothing and her own, and cried for what she had never been able to have with Izzy, and what Izzy would never again possess with anyone. What Sarah might never possess with anyone ever again after Benji, because the way she felt when they came together and he pressed his face into her neck, groaning and breathing hoarsely, was immeasurable, and infinite, and holy.

You lost her too. But you knew her. I never did.

And she thought, fiercely, at Benji, I knew it. I knew it from the moment I saw you, that we would ruin one another.

 

 

In the end she lost Benji, too, because she knew things had to stop somewhere. They had to stop. She let him go because she had to.

It had hurt, her follow-up work, learning the details of Izzy’s life before she was Izzy, filling out all those details she’d wondered about. She pored over the photos of Izzy, leading up to her dropping out of Brown. Those last photos before her disappearance to join the East. In those photos Izzy is still partly formed; she’s smiling. In some of them she looks so young that it hurts something in Sarah’s chest to look at them—tiny, swimming in a Brown University T-shirt. In these photos maybe she can identify the seed of the hurt that she knew that Izzy had possessed. What had turned Izzy into the woman as Sarah had known her, ferocious and unforgiving.

There are no photos of Izzy and Benji together. Benji’s photos are different. They make Sarah ache, but in a different way, in a hollow way that resonates all over her body. She feels grief and anger when she looks at his photos.

They live in her still. She wants to see Benji again, but in some ways he is just as dead to her as Izzy is, buried seven feet deep under a tree on an abandoned ghostly estate somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Instead she dreams at night, of the two of them. Benji and Izzy, both lost to her. Benji and Izzy, both dead or close enough.

It’s hard to say who came first or last, she realizes: Benji and Izzy. But they’re luminous, and gone. Always gone. They’ll never leave her, even though they’ve already left.