Fantasy Fiction Speculative

This story contains sensitive content

Content warning: PTSD, flashback, physical violence/war/gore.

Alex has always known that their mother is a strong woman, but they are keenly aware of the fact right now, as they sit vigil at her bedside. Meredith's chest is rising and falling steadily, and there’s no sign that she nearly died just a couple of hours ago. She even woke up at one point, and used those few minutes to reassure everyone that she’d be alright, before falling back to sleep. Since Meredith isn’t exactly known for taking it easy, the doctors has placed her in a magically-induced slumber, where she'll remain for at least another night. Hopefully, when she awakes tomorrow morning, she’ll be fully recovered.

“She looks… peaceful,” Jen says from the doorway of the tent.

Alex greets her with a hug. “Yeah, she really does.”

“Your dad suggested that I take you on a walk to survey the clearing. There’s lots of damage. Trees are down, and there’s debris everywhere. The blow-back from Serena’s spell made a mess.”

“He just wants me to leave Mama.”

Jen turns her lips on one side. “Can you blame him? You didn’t come out for lunch, and I think he’s worried.”

“She only got hurt because I left her there alone with Serena.”

Taking Alex's shoulders into her hands, Jen shakes her head. “No. You don’t get to blame yourself for this, too. Serena did this, not you.”

Alex drops their gaze to the ground, eyes misting over. 

“I mean it,” Jen asserts. “I’ve been watching you for weeks now, blaming yourself for everything and torturing yourself over it, and I’ve let you. I get that it’s part of the healing process, or whatever. But you’re not healing! And you can’t keep putting it all on yourself. We were all there... I was there. Do you think it’s my fault, too?”

She’s not to blame for everything leading up to now, because Jen was only there due to her love for Alex, but what happened with Meredith today? Alex does blame Jen. They hadn’t wanted to leave their mother, but Jen had insisted.

“Of course not,” Alex lies.

Jen's eyes narrow. “You do blame me!”

Alex glances at Meredith, who is still sleeping soundly, despite the noise they’re making.

Alex glares at Jen. “You win. I’ll leave the tent. I don’t want to wake her up when she should be recovering.”  

They storm out of the tent, dropping the flap as a slap to Jen's face on the way out. Alex's chest is squeezing in, and their hands are warming. This is a new development lately—these burning hands. They first noticed it about a week after arriving here, when they overheard a conversation between a couple of the others… about Thomas. Alex had gone out for a walk around camp, and hadn’t expected to find their brothers talking. Apparently one had asked the other to heal him, but he hadn’t been able to since his own emotions were too raw and intense. They were interfering with his ability to focus in on what needed healing, outside of their own wounds.

While listening in, Alex had smelled the burning before seeing it, and certainly before realizing it was coming from their own hands. After several moments of looking around for fire, they glanced down at the tent rope, gripped tightly in their fist, smoke rising from it. They’d released it immediately, examining both the singed material and the red-hot indents in their palm from where skin had made contact with the rope. It was a bewildering sight then, and it’s still just as bewildering now.

They blow on their palms to cool them, shaking out the remaining energy, as Jen exits the tent. Alex isn’t surprised to see the blue-white flame of her eyes and the muscles flexing at her jaw. 

“I don’t want to do this right now,” Alex says with as little inflection as possible, all things considered.

Jen's brows lower. “Well that’s too bad, because avoiding everything isn’t working either. So it’s time we try something else.” She crosses her arms and rests her bodyweight onto one hip.

Alex resists the urge to roll their eyes. “You talk, then. I have nothing to say.”

“Yes you do!” she shouts. “You have plenty to say, you just won’t say it!”

“You know me soooo well,” Alex spits, dripping sarcasm. 

“Yes, I do. You know that I do, and that’s why you keep avoiding me anytime I bring up Thomas, or what happened in London, or the attack in the woods where your mother's unit died.”

Alex swallows hard, willing their pain to alchemize into anger. Pain is pointless, but anger is useful. Their chest collapses even more on itself, and they imagine that pressure crushing every bit of weakness in them. “You haven’t cared about where I’m placing my blame, until you felt like I was placing some on you. The only reason care about it is because you think it’s affecting you now.”

Jen blinks. “Are you serious right now? I’ve cared this whole time, and I’ve tried talking to you, but you won’t talk! And you’re going to put that on me, too? Nice, Alex. Nice.”

She’s flinging her hands around and Alex can practically see the magic whipping itself up into a whirlwind around her. Alex knows they should stop this, de-escalate it. But, that’s not what they do. Instead, they add fuel to the forming fire.

“My mother is in there because of you!” They point aggressively towards the make-shift healing center. “You wanted to go charging in after Serena. You fell on your ass, alerting them to our presence, because you weren’t happy that my mother thought we should wait for others to confront her. And you told me to leave her there alone, even though I said I wanted to stay. It is your fault Serena nearly killed her! Yours.” Alex exhales, and it takes everything in them not to scream into the sky. They close their eyes, waiting for Jen to yell at them, but it never comes.

“I know what you’re doing, and I won’t be a part of it.”

Surprised, Alex looks at Jen, a brow raised in confusion. “I’m not doing anything. I’m telling you the truth, since you wanted me to talk so badly.”

She shakes her head. “No, you’re projecting your own shit onto me, hoping for a fight. I get it, but you must forget who you’re doing it to. You stole this one right out of my own arsenal, and it’s not going to work. I won’t fight you. I won’t lash back. I won’t give you the satisfaction of my anger directed toward you. Clearly, you have enough of your own... you don’t need mine to.”

Her eyes are sad, and the pity in them only inflames Alex even more.

“Oh, so you’re just the righteous, perfect person now? You’re sooo in control. Should I be impressed?" She performs a mocking bow. "Great job, Jen, you’re handling your grief so well! I wish I could be just like you. Won’t you please tell me what to do, like you always do, since I can’t even seem to be traumatized the right way for you?” Their words are venom now, and they’re seeking any opening to infect Jen.

“I didn’t do this to your mother, and you know that. Underneath all of this,” she waves her hands at nothing, indicating everything, “you know that Serena is responsible for what happened to Mama Meredith. Do I feel guilty for not staying to help her? Yes. But I also know that we never could have stopped them without everyone else being there. I know that we did the right thing by going to get help, even if I hate myself for leaving her there.” Jen's voice breaks and she looks away.

Shit. What is Alex doing? Jen is the last person they should be pushing away right now. Knowing this, and knowing that Jen would forgive them in an instant if they reach out, Alex shoves their hands into their pockets and stomps away in the direction of the portal. If there’s stuff that needs cleaned up or repaired, they’ll do it, but they’ll do it alone. And they don't want forgiveness.

Alex doesn’t look back even once, holding their breath to keep in whatever resolve they have left. They can still smell the acrid scent of the cooking fire, but they allow release anyway, their shaking body dropping to sit on a large boulder. That burnt odor has wrapped itself around them and is going nowhere, no matter how hard they try to escape it.

The boulder is moss-covered and damp, but Alex doesn't care. Their legs won’t bear their weight any longer, and it’s better than sinking into the mud beneath their boots, even if there’s a faint whisper inside saying that the mud is exactly where they belong—that if they’d been buried several months ago, everyone would still be alive.

The wind carries a strong tendril of smoke to where they sit, and panic climbs up their body in the form of tingling skin, thunderous heartbeat, and a sudden wave of dizziness so consuming that Alex has to grip the rock’s surface. Water squeezes out in ribbons from the moss in their fingers, and Alex is back in Covington, wringing out a sponge after doing a sink full of dishes. They’re only in the kitchen for a moment before there’s an inspector and his team at their dining table, asking about undocumented practitioners. Scenes flash through Alex's mind without mercy. 

Alex can’t breathe. The cabin and Jen's near-implosion. Alex punches their chest with a soggy fist. The Robed Ones reaching out and then collapsing into a pile of bones and ash, the scent of burning flesh invading nostrils and sticking to skin. Alex presses the heel of their palms into their temples. The Magi attack and the screams of the Order members before their lifeless bodies are flung onto a cart like bags of potatoes headed to town. Breathe! Jen, gasping with rattled breaths in the cave, smoke lingering thick on her hair and clothes. Alex grips their tunic with clawing, desperate fingers. They're sure they're going to die. Thomas' brown eyes, full of wild fear, right before implosion. No! Thomas' lifeless body in their arms, still smoldering. Stop, stop, stop!

Alex's shoulders are tight, and their body is being thrown around. They open their eyes but still see only blackness, overlaid with the horrible images in their mind. There’s no escaping it this time. This time, it’s going to kill them. It’s too much.

“Alex!” Jen's hands grip their shoulders firmly, shaking them. “Come on, Alex!”

They vaguely hear her voice above the rushing between their ears and the agony of people long gone. The past feels more present than whatever is happening in Camp Portalis. It’s still here, and it’s still happening, and Alex will never escape it. They shouldn’t, either, because they deserve to feel the weight of all they’ve done.

“Alex.” Her voice is desperate as her hands find Alex's face. “Please, come back. You’re here, and you’re safe, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Jen draws one of Alex's hands to her chest, placing the palm flat against her own breastbone and holding it there firmly. As Jen takes long, deep breaths, Alex feels the rhythm of it. Although barely perceptible at first, the beat of Jen's heart makes its way through Alex's hand and finds its way into Alex's body. 

“Good,” Jen soothes. “Keep breathing with me.”

The world isn’t spinning so much, and the images are fading. Alex becomes aware of the tears at the corners of their eyes, blinking hard to make them fall. 

Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Again.

Suddenly, Alex is back in their body, vision returning as the splotches of black recede, making way for the vivid greens of late-spring foliage. It smells like honeysuckle, fir, and decaying leaves. It’s actually not all that unlike what home would smell like this time of year. They want so desperately to go home.

“I’m sorry,” they croak, throat dry and scratchy. “I’m so sorry. It’s not your fault.”

Jen pulls Alex close, shushing them. “It’s not yours either.”

It is, but they nod in an effort to reassure Jen. They can at least do that much after what they said earlier.

“You can’t keep going like this,” Jen whispers.

She’s right, but Alex suspects they have very different ideas about what would help. Jen wants to talk and process and work through it together. Alex wants to run away and never look back.

“I know.”

October 06, 2023 21:12

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in the Reedsy Book Editor. 100% free.