After the fire had gone down and the rain had become nothing but a drizzle, Ria said to him, "you should know me by now."
He did not look at her but he knew she was smiling. "You're right. I should."
And yet, here he was, straddled to a chair, knowing he would die and she would kill him. And perhaps he'd known all along that the fire in his eyes had burnt with a delicate tenderness for a woman who did not love him.
By his feet, her cat lay curled up. He wanted to stroke the furry coat but she did not want to take any chances.
"Tell me," he said, graciously. "Why do you want me dead?"
She laughed, almost as though she'd been aching to hear the question. Her lips moved, gently, with a wild abandon that for a moment, he understood why he'd loved her blindly. She got up on her feet and made her way to the grate. Poking the fire with a cane, she turned back to him. The fire dissolved the frowns on her face so that she looked otherworldly to him. Almost ethereal. He did not think about dying at the moment when her hair looked like blurry sunlight. And if he'd been thinking at all, he'd say she made him doubt his natural existence.
Ria was beautiful but more than that, she was a bubbly figure. There was no way to describe her. It was because of the way she smiled —like the earth would shatter if anyone joined her— that he'd fallen in love, recklessly, with her. Her hair was brown, short, unattended. And it ran past the nape of her neck for only a second. Her forehead was wide and when they had first met, she'd joked that it was perhaps because the world had its home there. He believed her not because it had made sense. But because, in her eyes, there was a passion unspoken for. It was something he needed, something he ached for and it tortured him in silence.
She wore glasses on their second date and he thought she looked like his mother. He hadn't told her but she knew and she stopped. Then there was the matter of her skin and her body. It was almost as if she was not real, like a dream he would wake up from. She was easy to love. And easy to understand, like life thickened beneath the surface.
"If it was up to me, Jack, you'd already be dead."
He nodded and bit his lips. A week ago, she dragged him down the steep path until they'd reached the little garden and they'd lay their backs against the wet grass. She'd stroked his hair with a tenderness that still weakened him. And she'd talked.
"I love you, you know," she'd said.
Now, it sounded rehearsed. But it did not leave his mind. And really, his head. It was like fire and air, dancing before him, chastising him in a ridiculous subterfuge.
He struggled with the ropes now, tightening his hands until they formed something that resembled rage. But, no, he was not angry. Far from it. He was exhausted and sad and curious. It would kill him first —this tentative mixture of truth and relief and deep-ended curiosity —and he knew it. The ropes would not bulge. It was tight, uncomfortable, wickedly disastrous.
"Why am I tied up then? Kill me, alright."
Her voice came from the dying flames. Throaty as though there was no life in it. She closed her eyes but only for a second. When she opened them, she smiled. "There's still time, darling."
But there was no time. In three hours it would be daybreak and the sun would carve circles on her neck and he would see her clearly and she would exist before him. For now, she was a dream.
"Or are you afraid?" he asked, rolling his eyes.
"Afraid?" she repeated the words like it would mean something else to her. It was the same meaning, no difference. His question meant that he thought she would not kill him. But she would and she would dispose of his body the way she'd been taught at the Academy. "Nothing scares me anymore."
He picked his way through her words. "That implies you've been scared before, Ria."
"I like you," she was laughing now but it sounded rather unnatural, bleeding violently across the room.
He was a writer, she knew, and once, she'd read his work. He'd written it for her. It was one of those stories people wrote under the glow of artificial lights, dedicated to strangers in subway cars. She read it as she got dressed for their fifth date, applying lipstick and wondering why he'd laced in a remote kind of hope in the story. Hope was nothing for people like her. Hope meant that she would be weak and defenseless and human. But she was not human. Far from it. She was invisible.
"Do you know how to paint?" she bled the words out, her back against him. The rain had since stopped falling. But outside, it was still dark.
He could tell it was a trick question. But he answered nonetheless. "I don't, no."
"Oh," she turned to him and shrugged. The silence crept slowly, between the chairs and the dragonfly wallpapers and the grate with dying flames. It stopped before him. The cat got up and walked into the kitchen. "He must be hungry. Silly cats."
She went into the kitchen but came out minutes later and tiptoed to where he was. "Why do you write then?"
He lowered his gaze to her legs, trailing invisible hands against the soft flesh. "Do you ask everyone?"
"Who's everyone?" she wanted to lie to him; to feel the heat break around her neck.
He rolled his eyes again and sighed. She heard the sharp exhale but waited, patiently, for him to talk. "Don't tell me I'm the first person you're going to kill."
She did not smile. Her face was expressionless. She did not move.
"I should have known," he said.
She threw her hands up in the air and chuckled. "You're bright. Smart. I should expect nothing less since you're a creator. But, yes, you should have known."
He thought he was screaming but he was whispering. "I loved you, Ria. I loved you."
She said, "Then it's not my fault."
She touched his face now and lowered her lips to his so that she could brush it gently. He tasted her, briefly, but he knew she tasted salty. Like she'd been crying. Or she'd pushed her head deep into the waters.
"But you can't blame me," she said and ran a shaky hand through her hair. She would cut it later, he knew, but suddenly he craved to touch the messiness of her hair. "I mean, killing is not such a good thing, right? But you can't blame me."
"Why? You have a choice."
She shook her head before he finished talking. "I don't have a choice, Jack."
"Why?" he asked again, swallowing, dying in the sublime image of her.
"Don't ask me."
But what she was trying to tell him was that he should keep asking her until the point where she would break and tell him everything. About her old life in the other world. About the Academy.
"I just need to know these things," he insisted. "You owe me that, at least."
What he was trying to tell her was that he loved her still, despite the fear of death by her hands.
"I owe you nothing."
Perhaps, they did not need to say it to each other. It was life, the way it should be, the way it would always be.
The fire died down and he imagined himself in bed in a motel, half-drunk, half-awake, listening to traffic signs and her soft snores. "You snore, you know."
She found that she laughed at his words, that she still found it funny he would linger over the past like a wicked discovery of something in its real, delicate form. That he would remember her in her weakness despite the fear that she would soon end him. "I don't snore, Jack."
And she discovered, quickly, that talking with him brought her relief. She was not running away from anything but it felt as though she'd come to a crossroad.
"You do," he argued. The pain was seeping through now, the ropes holding him in place. He used to think he was a strong man but here he was, aching to hold her in his arms, angry that he had not known she was not real. "Remember that night we ended up in a cheap motel? I did not sleep. I simply listened to you."
She stopped laughing. "We should blame you then."
He hesitated and then released his breath. "We should, I guess."
Ria got up on her feet and walked to the wall. She touched it and ripped the wallpaper out. A stark space stared back at him. "See? Not beautiful anymore. Not whole."
"Is that who you are?" he inquired, feeling a little subdued by the power of her imagination.
She looked at him and at the way his legs pushed out, away from the chair. "What do you think?"
"I think I'll refrain from all that," he said.
He chuckled dryly and bent his head. He did not want her to see his tears and regret. It would be too much —to die by her hands and cry by her words—so he stayed there until he was ready to talk.
And he talked, "I —we were good for each other. We had a connection and I thought we had a future. I keep thinking about it now. I keep thinking about how you could deceive me to this point."
But it wasn't deception. She hadn't always known he would die by her hands. The Academy had sent her to study him, make him love her, but they hadn't told her he would die or that she would be the one to kill him. So it couldn't be called deception.
"You think I didn't love you?" she asked, chewing her lips.
"Please, kill me."
She raised her dress and produced a dagger, strapped neatly on her thighs. Ria twisted it and yawned. "Why do you want to die?"
"I don't want to," he was almost shouting. "But I am tired of waiting."
"That's the whole point of this," she showed him the dagger. "There's something written on this. Latin. Don't know the meaning though but that means nothing, right?"
She twirled the dagger in front of him, in front of her, and then dropped it on the chair. "Have something to say?"
"Is there a point?" he wanted to know.
She started to drag her lips open but stopped. "If you want to say something, you should now."
"I love you," he said.
"I know. I should know."
"I loved you, Ria." This time, he screamed so loud he thought he'd died. Because he did.
The Academy did not live or exist on earth. It was in a different world, too far away from humanity, too old. But it was where she'd been all her life, schooled to become deadly. It was where young people went to when they did not remember their past lives. And she did not remember who she'd been before or what she'd have wanted to be. She was trained.
Ria had done her best, tried her nicest to hold him in but he'd taught her something called hope and love. They were foreign things to her but it was a warm feeling, circling about like an embrace.
Take, for instance, their first dance. It had been a reckless swaying of the hips and a mesmerizing swoop of curled fists. They'd locked eyes in the middle of the dancefloor with the jukebox playing solo. And he'd loved her to an unbearable end. That look in her eyes as she laughed had seemed real. How had she faked it?
"You should be surprised I want to kill you," she said, dropping to her knees in front of him. "I mean, you woke up this morning and kissed me and you told me you loved me. Don't you want to know how quickly things could change?"
"I don't want to know."
He did not want to because he knew. He'd changed for her, made time for her, loved her unconditionally. Knowing could kill him and maybe, for now, he needed to die by her hands with her Latin dagger lodged in his chest.
"I'll tell you," she folded her hands across her chest. "People change."
He waited, arched an eyebrow, and said, "I thought you were going to explain."
"You know me. I don't do explanations."
"I don't know you."
"Too bad for you then."
But if she'd been much of a talker, she'd have told him about the Academy. That she was not human in any way. That she was a decoy to a world waiting to overshadow reality. But she was not a talker.
Ria picked up her dagger and placed it on his thighs. He took a deep breath, said, "This is wrong, Ria."
She nodded, "I know."
She raised the dagger, flashing it above him, so he could see the end.
But he said, "What went wrong?"
"I don't know," she was honest and she did not know why. "But I'll give you a quick one."
"I suppose I should thank you."
After he'd stopped breathing, she raised herself from his lifeless form and tiptoed outside. The air was chilly but it tickled her. "You should," she repeated to herself.
There was no one around and she doubted anyone would be around in weeks. She stood there, watching the Blue Moon, sniffing. The air smelt like autumn but she could not tell. Ria walked back into her home and poked at the fire again. The flames filled the space up and she saw him now. He was dead, she knew, but she wanted to hear his voice again. She untied him and watched as he dropped to the carpet.
"What a shame, man!" she groaned.
Her voice greeted her from the kitchen, same throaty, same carelessness. "A shame, I suppose."
She allowed the sun to touch her hair in the morning. And then she changed her phone and drank alcohol. He was still on the floor by evening. In the night, she poked at the fire and laughed.