Kristi Cooley

Inside

by Kristi Cooley

 

I’m standing at the gates of hell as they open wide, but the devil knows he cannot keep me. He forces me back; inviting me to return when the timing is right.

 

“I can feel it; something taking over my body. I can’t control it. I’m gonna kill him.” Scrambling eyes searched for a reaction, but she was numb. She stared just over his head, avoiding eye contact. “That bitch is gonna wish he had never…”

 

“Aiden, stop. It’s immature and stupid. People don’t just go around…” she was speaking through an almost sedated calm.

“No, he has to be taught a lesson. Do you understand?” His eyes narrowed as his skin reddened with anger. The veins in his forehead became visible.

 

Her eyes filled with disappointment. Her thoughts went to minutes before when they had been holding each other. Everything was ok. Even in their shitty apartment, it had felt like home. Everything was ok. They got lost in the softness of the blankets and warmth of their bodies. It was a daily welcome escape until something pulled on Aiden’s chain. He was always connected to something heavier than himself. It was a disease that filled the air with static anger and tension. It was a disease she had learned the scent of and become comfortable with in spite of never being able to recognize the illness.

 

“Well, I’ve got to go.” He leaned down to kiss her, but she remained motionless and stiff, staring straight ahead. “Bye.” His voice was annoyed as he started to slam the door (a warning), but slowed its momentum just before latching it.

 

Outside,​ the air was the kind of warm that felt like a warm blanket hugging you as you walked out into it. The landscape was a watercolor. The nearby ocean was calm but playful. A perfect day for surfing, but he was heading to work. He had taught himself to become impartial to the perfect weather in order to keep his sanity while working his time away in paradise.

 

On​ the freeway, his lips twitched as he thought about driving faster (a passion of his that helped to relieve the stress). He started thinking about money, his job, keeping his girl content; every worry added weight to his foot resting on the gas pedal. Despite promising everyone he would try and keep it under control, he continued to drive faster. He was an addict; an adrenaline junkie (among other types of addiction). He weaved in and out of the traffic, constantly watching for cops, but it would be hard for anyone to see the one parked just in front of the tree, behind the center of the overpass; especially when going 95mph. Aiden hesitated punching the gas pedal down as he saw the cop car light up. He had a record (a DUI a while back), so any run-in with the law was usually unpleasant, and his full cooperation was always necessary to keep things from boiling over.

 

​The police officer approached Aiden’s car cautiously as if he knew Aiden’s mind was on fleeing. “Sir, do you know why I pulled you over today?”Aiden hated that they asked this question. It was part of “the test.” Are you going to play dumb and hope they let you off with a warning (that only works for women), or are you going to admit your guilt, leaving them no reason to let you off?

 

“I’m​ assuming it’s because I was going a little over the speed limit, sir.” Aiden tried not to sound too arrogant as he answered the police officer avoiding eye contact and staring straight ahead; the only thing he could do to maintain his composure.

 

​“Yeah, a little.” The police officer eyes slivered. “Here’s a little citation to help you remember.” The officer started jotting down the citation.

 

“Sir,”​ Aiden took a deep breath before continuing to speak, trying to hold in his pride, “could you give me any kind of a break? I have this girl, and I am really trying to do good for us. You know what I mean, I mean, this is the kind of girl I plan on marrying someday… someday soon. I just need to save up for that ring.” Aiden looked at the officer with a smirk that let both of them know he knew he was laying it on thick.

 

“I’ll​ tell you what I’ll do. I’ll continue writing you this ticket, and make it so it is just under the limit that should cause me to arrest you. How about that?” The officer ripped the ticket off of the pad and handed it to Aiden. Aiden nodded as he grudgingly accepted the ticket, then as the officer started to walk away, Aiden crumpled up the ticket and threw it on the passenger side floor. The cop shook his head and kept walking to his patrol car. Aiden peeled out of the dirt, then slowed down, pretending not to have done it on purpose.

 

​Now Aiden was late for work. He started hearing his supervisor’s voice yelling at him. His foot began to sink on the pedal again, and then the memory of flashing lights chasing him caused him to slow down as he felt the overwhelming weight of, “being controlled,” box him in.

 

​One thought entered his mind; spice. Aiden had promised he wouldn’t do it anymore, but if there were ever a time he felt he needed it; it was now. He took the first exit and started heading back west. The closest smoke shop was just two exits down. He knew the store owner, a kooky middle-aged man with an Indian accent. The owner was skinny, and his skin had smoothed-out, leathery wrinkles. His eyes were always vacant and bloodshot, sunk-in, and only slightly open. He wore clothes that made him look like a pimp: flowery button-down shirts with the top four buttons undone. Some kind of sports jacket was always frumpily thrown over the shirt, and it was always an odd color: green, purple, or lightly covered with paisley. His hands were adorned with cheap looking jewelry that looked tarnished. When someone walked into his store, he would always stand up from behind his counter as if he had just taken a hit of something; smoke seemed to emanate from him constantly.

 

There was always one girl working the counter with him, and she was always scantily clad and heavily tattooed. The girls would try and one-up patrons on their paraphernalia knowledge, always recommending something harsher than what they wanted. What Aiden wanted was spice.

 

​Spice: “Not for human consumption,” is what it read on the label. It was a type of “incense” that potheads used as a legal and untraceable alternative. It had stronger or weaker affects on its users depending on where you got it and how your body processed the synthetic potpourri. Brands like “Armageddon,” “Red Dragon,” “Gate to Hell,” it was all tinged with an ingredient called salvia that was also sold by itself and had a reputation of being a strong hallucinogenic that even the store owner gave a strong warning about before selling it. “My friend, you are sure you want the salvia? If you haven’t done it before, be sure you are with a friend who does not do it at the same time. No, I think this may be something you would rather try this time,” he would hold up one of the Spice containers sold by the gram, “this is a good time, but not so intense. You try this, then come back if you need something stronger to have a good time. Work your way up to it.” He never recognized Aiden despite Aiden being a frequent customer. Aiden would have to remind him that he came by often before the store owner would offer him a “one-time deal” of by one-get-one free. Aiden would always act surprised at the “bargain,” and graciously accept. This time he went with the “Juicy Fruit Gum,” but it smelt more like toilet bowl cleaner than chewing gum. Spice could be smoked just like pot, in a bong, or in a pipe. It was harsher, scratchier than pot, causing a bong to be preferred. Aiden kept his bong hidden in his sweatshirt in his backseat. He had a cop see it once and insist on searching his car, but when the officer found the Spice, there was nothing he could do. It was legal. The cops knew about it, and efforts had been made to make the substance illegal, but because it was labeled as a potpourri, and the ingredients easily switched around and altered, making it illegal was tricky. It would be taken off of the market, then put back on in a few weeks after one of the ingredients had been deemed, “dangerous and mind-altering,” it would often come back stronger and in higher portions. Even when it was off the market, people like the smoke shop owner would always have a supply that they would sell to their repeat customers. Aiden never found it a problem to obtain Spice.

 

After​ leaving the shop, Aiden found a secluded place to take a hit. As Aiden inhaled, he missed the high he used to get from it. It had worn off from him using so often. He didn’t even feel it affected him that much, but Mara told him it made him paranoid and aggressive. He just knew he needed it to unwind. It was an addiction he didn’t even understand. It would make the world seem bubble wrapped like things were always kept at a distance. It was a depressant that slowed down strong emotion, but it replaced it with a dash of paranoia. Aiden thought everyone at his work was conspiring to have him fired, but it was because he was often on spice at work, and it would make him hear people talking about him, the way anybody imagines a conversation could be about them, but when on spice, the words are audible, and you are writing the vicious dialogue about yourself with your own mind as it spills out of the speaker’s unknowing mouth. It was a dangerous mixture: a fast temper, paranoia, and a tendency to be violent when feeling threatened.

Aiden went through his workday dazed and emotionless. He laughed at jokes he didn’t think were funny, and eyed the guys he thought were plotting against him. He completed his day’s work and headed home. He stopped on his way home at Sunset Cliffs and had a couple of bowls to unwind. Mara always knew when he had Spice, but he always thought, “this time,” he could fool her. He watched the waves come in, and go out. They were in slow motion with the moonlight bouncing off of them like a neon spotlight. Through each wave, Aiden could see sharks chasing dolphins around in the waves. Their fins were as clear as the crest of each wave. Aiden could feel himself riding the inside of the barrels, if only he were six inches tall; it would be a perfect barrel. Aiden looked at the clock, surprised an hour had already passed. He knew he needed to head home, and that his girlfriend was already going to be upset about him missing dinner. He instantaneously remembered she had called him that afternoon and specifically asked him to come home early because she had planned a nice dinner for both of them. ​ ​

 

2.

 

The human mind cannot create a face by itself. Every face in your dreams, in your thoughts, and in your memory comes from a face you have seen, even if it was for a second.

 

This​ place was new; everything was incandescent: intense colors and hard edges. Aiden knew he should be in pain, but wasn’t sure why. He was surprised when he instead felt younger with a dull sense of touch, like the distance between two positive magnets. The surroundings were tropical and clean. It reminded him of his time in Hawaii when he was a little boy: his best memory. He began to wonder if he had died, but he never figured he’d be in heaven. There was something that told him he hadn’t gone that far. There was a tall, stone wall to his right that looked old and worn down by the weather, but it was noticeably tall, too tall to see over. The dirt path he had woken up on had been worn down but was surrounded by soft sand that was the purest white he had ever remembered seeing. The green tropical plants were plush and plentiful. The vast body of water at the edge of the snowy sand was clear and calm; similar to the surf he had seen while driving on his way to… the destination wasn’t clear. His memories were disassembled and missing. It was unclear where the memories were coming from and where they were heading.

 

He​ assumed he was alone until he saw a tall figure walking towards him from off in the distance. The glare of the light made it hard to make out what it was exactly. He could see red and black. It was someone who seemed familiar, but the memory was still dull. He kept trying to grasp at clods of memory that would flit around in his head, but they crumbled in his grasp. The frustration made him irritable.

“Hello, Aiden.” Her voice, smooth and soulful, sounded as familiar as her face looked, but he had no idea who she was. She was beautiful but solemn.

 

“Hello?”​ He studied her appearance to look for something that would remind him of how he knew her. His familiarity with her was comforting and took the edge off his irritation. Her face was doll-like and pouty, with a mouth that didn’t seem to curve any way but down. Her pale skin was lightly speckled with friendly freckles that made her seem more tangible.

 

“It’s​ Mara, if you don’t remember.” She looked at him docilely. It made him uneasy that she seemed so calm and knowledgeable about the circumstances that were a complete mystery to him. “It’s all going to make a lot more sense once you start to remember, just try not to stress out too much.” She started to slink off as Aiden grabbed her arm pulling her back towards him. She was openly aggravated by the physical contact.

 

“Well, could you possibly explain all of this a little more thoroughly?” He laughed angrily to himself, “I mean, you seem to know so much more about what is going on.” Despite being more confused than angry, and attempting to use a smile to communicate, his tone had a hint of violence in it. He looked down apologetically. “I’m sorry, I’m just…”

 

“I’ll​ take you to meet everyone. They’ll want to meet you. We’ve all been waiting for you.” She reached out her hand. She offered no smile or any type of emotion. She wasn’t affected by the harshness in his voice. He accepted her gesture hesitantly, unsure about her somber demeanor. The two began to walk, but as she turned he noticed dark marks along her neck and arms. At first, he thought they were shadows, but it became clear they were much more permanent. They were bruises, but they looked like they had been imprinted much deeper than something that had only occurred once.

 

​“Who did that to you?” He nodded his head towards the bruises on her neck. His voice sounded authoritative, like a police officer asking for details at a crime scene.

 

She smiled slightly at him, but even her smile was emotionless with no presence of joy. “You did, Aiden. Don’t worry; I don’t hold a grudge.” Aiden swallowed hard and started to search all of his memories, but there were none that seemed to stick. He became lost in his confusion as he was led to their destination.

 

“I’ve​ found him.” Mara’s voice sounded like it was forced to have a joyful hue as she raised Aiden’s arm. There was a circle of people gathered around a fire pit on the sands of the beach.

 

​“Thank God! It was taking too long; we are going to … well, let’s just hope he figures it all out soon.” An old but strong looking man with white, wavy hair walked up in a friendly manner and pulled on Aiden’s arm to guide him towards the other people. “Do you know who I am, Aiden?” Aiden examined the old man as he had Mara, but nothing stuck other than a similar sense of familiarity. “Well, I can tell by the emptiness in your eyes that you don’t. Damn. Well, we have to work with what we’ve got. I can’t just tell you, it’s not going to be easy so don’t feel overwhelmed. We’ll get there. For now, my name is Eugene.”

 

“I​ already told him that he doesn’t need to stress out.” The old man looked displeased by Mara’s interjection.

 

​“And how much of that did he understand? If I were to show up clueless about what was going on and someone showed up telling me not to stress out, I’m sure I’d start doing the exact opposite. Thank you, Mara.” Eugene said crossly as he seemed pleased to have pointed out Mara’s error in her assumptions. He looked up at Aiden as if checking for any understanding but went on with his tour contently after seeing nothing but confusion stamping Aiden’s face.

 

“She​ didn’t explain anything to me, Eugene. I would like someone to explain what is happening. I’m not even sure where I am. I mean, I don’t remember anything.” Aiden said this as he pulled back on Eugene’s shoulder in a mildly forceful way.

“Well, that’s good. She shouldn’t have told you anything. You have to figure it out on your own, or else it will all fall apart and we’ll lose you again.” Eugene’s voice trailed off towards the end of his sentence seeming unsure about whether or not to share any more with Aiden. As Eugene’s eyes again searched Aiden’s face for any type of understanding, Aiden realized Eugene’s eyes were very similar to his own. He knew there was a connection between the two of them. It must be by blood.

 

“Ok, well you’re talking in riddles again, and I would like to know what you’re talking about. Why are you afraid of losing me, and where might I be lost? I don’t know if you realize that I don’t remember anything. I feel like this isn’t even real. I feel like I am in a dream. So if you could just help me out, it would really be appreciated.” His last statement was filled with Aiden’s trademark hint of anger.

 

A​ woman in her early to mid-sixties gently placed her hand on Aiden’s shoulder. “Do you know who I am, Aiden?” Aiden studied the woman who had long dark hair that matched her dark eyes; both were speckled with gray highlights. She seemed the most familiar. He had always known her. “You can trust me, Aiden. You know you can. You may not know who I am, but you know you can trust me.” As the woman dramatically awaited recognition from Aiden, Mara abruptly stood up and started to walk away. Aiden could see Mara begin to leave from his peripheral vision, which distracted him until the woman in front of him gently took her hand and used it to guide the direction his head was facing back towards her.

 

“Abuela?” Aiden’s face was coming together as he began to realize who she was. He could smell lavender and it reminded him of blankets, stuffed animals, and the warmth that came from a childhood living room.

 

“Oh,​ yes! Mi amore! I knew you would know who I am.” Aiden’s grandmother threw her arms up and hung around Aiden’s neck. He thought this was odd since the last time he had seen her she had threatened to hit him over the head with a shovel if he didn’t leave her house directly. “We have so much to catch up on. I have missed you, and I love you. You know I will always love my little Niño.” Aiden felt extremely overwhelmed, it was in moments like these he would sneak off and take a hit of Spice (he remembered the Spice), but he didn’t even know if that existed here. He looked around for an escape route and saw Mara’s image still walking away in the distance.

 

​“I need some space to process all of this. I’ll be back.” Aiden took his grandmother’s arms down from around his neck gently as he gave a polite smile. He then began to walk, gradually transitioning to a jog, towards Mara. “Where are you going?” Aiden slowed down and tried to make eye contact with the intriguing woman.

 

​“What are you doing? You should be getting reacquainted with everyone else. It will help you to regain your memory.” The stable expression of calm concern was a constant on Mara’s face.

 

“I​ don’t know. I just feel like I need to follow you. You’re the only one I feel comfortable around. I’m almost …” Aiden paused thinking about the consequences of revealing his true unexplainable emotions towards her, “ drawn towards you.”

“I’m really the least substantial to you. You have a lot to remember.” Mara could see he was not detoured, “You can come to help me. We need to patch up the wall. We need it to be secure before we celebrate tonight.”

 

“Secure​ from what? And what celebration?” Mara’s eyes seemed to smile as she looked at Aiden, but her mouth maintained its severity.

 

​“A celebration for you and you’ll find out soon enough what we need protection from.” Aiden had figured out that he wasn’t going to get any more information from her by asking more questions, so he accepted this and followed her down the beach eventually coming to a path that led back into a more lush area, almost jungle like.

 

“So​ what is this place?” Mara gave Aiden a softly disappointed glance. “I know; you don’t like questions.” Aiden rolled his eyes as he tried to think of a way to rephrase the question into a statement that would cause her to explain something, anything to him. His smile cracked and he caught Mara staring at it. She looked back up at his eyes and shook her head annoyed.

 

​“Don’t worry so much about the details. Just relax, and it will come to you.” Mara tenderly cupped her hands around the lower part of his face and chin, “I promise, if you take my advice, my words will stop being riddles. You’re the one making this such a mystery.” Aiden felt oddly comforted; it brought to his mind a vision of a white room with pillows and blankets. Mara was there, also dressed in white. Her hand was cupped around his face in the same manner, but she was smiling in a very vivid way. He yearned to be there, just as it faded. He didn’t share what he saw with Mara, but he did take her advice for the moment.

 

​“Alright, we need to take these stones and begin stacking them back up wherever they have fallen down.” Aiden listened to Mara’s detailed instruction on how to do this as he examined the wall. It seemed to go on forever; down the beach into the forest. It hadn’t lost that much of its height, but it had holes in the middle of the wall. It looked as if something had been trying to punch its way through. The question of what, why, and how left his mind as he remembered Mara’s advice. He simply followed her instructions and began filling in the holes in a drone-like manner. He kept finding himself distracted by Mara; examining the way she moved, the expressions she made, the way her hair fell on her face, the end of her brow, the curves of her mouth, the shape of her hands, the way her body moved. She felt like a carbon copy of someone as close as skin.

 

Suddenly,​ a loud screaming sound; it was booming and inescapable, more machine-like than human-like. A deepened scream amplified to the highest extent. Both Mara and Aiden covered their ears and looked up. Aiden was much more frantic in his movements. “I know you don’t like questions, but I think I need to know what that is!” Aiden yelled over the pulsing screech. Mara, still slightly emotionless, especially considering the situation, motioned for Aiden to follow her. She ran into the tropical overgrown forest and ducked under the giant leaves of a low-lying shrub. Aiden followed her; both kept their hands over their ears. The booming stopped.

 

​“I didn’t think they would find out so quickly. You aren’t ready.” For the first time Mara seemed to exude a genuine emotion, and it was fear. “Ok, there are bad … forces… evil forces, trying to force their way onto our side of the wall. Um… you are…” She paused for a moment searching for words. “Do you trust me, Aiden? I mean really trust me? Enough to believe anything I say.”

 

Aiden​ wondered what she could possibly have to say? Why would he not believe her? It couldn’t be any worse than whatever was happening. “Yes. I trust you.” Aiden said this while grasping both of Mara’s hands in his own. She responded by looking at him with disgust and pulling them away quickly.

 

​“You really aren’t ready for this.” Aiden could see her struggle over whether to tell him or not.

 

The booming scream began again. After it stopped, and both had put their hands back down, Aiden looked at Mara directly, “Ok, I’m sorry I reacted inappropriately, but I am ready.”

 

​“Well, whether you are or not, they are ready for you; so, you are going to find out one way or another. You are who keeps them on their side of the wall.” Mara stopped and looked into Aiden’s eyes knowing she wasn’t making any sense. “I’m not supposed to be the one to explain all of this. I don’t know how to …” Mara took a deep sigh and looked determinedly at the ground as if to focus, “It is your duty to decide who is permitted on which side of the wall. They can sense that you are here, so they are trying to cross over. You see, no one can move to one side or the other without you, but you’ve been in … you’ve been gone … absent … and they want to try and make it over again. Only you can stop them, but even I can’t tell you how to do that. No one can tell you how to do that. You should just know.” Mara said all of this in one breath and had to gasp for air once she was done. “You must be strong, Aiden. You must be so strong for us. I will try and keep them out, and they may be deterred for a short while, but they will be back, and they will keep growing in numbers. Quickly, go back to the camp and talk to Eugene. He will be better at explaining this to you.” Aiden opened his mouth to speak, but the booming began again, muting his words. Mara’s brows furrowed as she shooed him away. “They will try to trick you Aiden, but you must follow your instincts. You know they are evil. You cannot let them …” The screaming muted the last of Mara’s words. She angrily motioned for him to leave.

 

As Aiden ran back into the camp, Eugene and Abuela ran up to meet him. The large group of people who had gathered had dwarfed the bonfire. “I know there is much we must explain to you very quickly, boy. I did not know they would find out you were back so quickly. They are going to be much more aggressive next time. They are just looking for weaknesses in the wall for now.” Eugene was urgent in his words. “Everyone, I know you are alarmed, but we must go back to our precautionary routines. That means all jobs that can be put off must be put off now, and all efforts need to be put into strengthening the wall. Go now!”

 

“I knew she would lead them here.” Abuela’s expression was ferocious as she leaned in to speak to Eugene.

“Not now, Abuela. For all that is good, not now.” Eugene dismissed her quickly. She crossed her arms and started to walk away.

 

“You mark my words, mi amore; she will lead them to you; straight to you.” She seemed filled with more sorrow than anger although the latter is what spiked her words.

 

“Pay no attention to her at this moment, Aiden. She means well and has her reasons, but all of us have our faults, and it is your duty to discern what may truly lead you astray, not ours; Eugene was busily directing Aiden toward the wall. Aiden could see Abuela walking away muttering to herself.

 

“So, I’m sure, you heard the ‘ghosts’? They are not the kind of ghosts, you might think of when you hear the word, but they are spirit like in the way they are able to take shapes and move. The only thing they cannot travel through is the wall. That is why it is so important. None of us can control them, and once they have come across the wall, they are much more powerful than us, and no matter how pure their intentions seem; they never do good. You must remember that above all. If, heaven forbid, they do make it across the wall, they will try to convince you of their pure intentions. You must not be fooled, Aiden. Once they have you convinced, they will blind you from their own actions and manipulate your own ability to make good judgments. We cannot let it get to that point. Especially not before you … well, that’s enough for you to digest right now. I don’t want to overload you.

 

Unfortunately, only you know how to defeat them, but you must do it before they begin to alter your judgment. I know it seems we all speak in riddles, but it won’t be like that for too much longer. You must be strong and defeat them, Aiden. If not, all of us will die. If we die, you die, Aiden. That is how important this is.” Aiden did not understand all of what Eugene was saying to him, but he was trying to keep an open mind and drink in as much information as possible.

 

That night everyone came in and gathered around the bonfire, which had been built up much larger than before. There was calmness.

 

“So, do we not need to worry about them at night?” Aiden had found Mara and sat next to her on the same spread out blanket despite her obvious expressions against it. She responded with a “yes,” to his question by looking at him with the same look she gave every time he asked a question. “Come on, now that I know I am the ‘protector,’ can’t you answer a few of my questions?” Aiden laughed at his own wit, but found no support “Alright, well, thank you, for helping with the rebuilding of the wall.” Mara looked at him unsure whether to take that as sarcasm or as genuine praise. “I mean it. You were able to get everyone gathered and organized very efficiently. I appreciated not having to face a ghost yet. Not that I’m afraid, I just need to figure out a little bit more before I can decide how to destroy them.” Aiden was pleased with the words he had clumsily grasped onto.

 

“Well, you’re welcome. It is in my own best interest to keep all of us safe too.” Aiden was distracted again. In the dark, next to the glow of the bonfire, her skin seemed to melt perfectly in and out of her strategically placed light linen clothing. She was modest but in the most sultry way. It was what she didn’t reveal that made her so enticing, similar to her personality.

 

“You know, I have visions of you. You’re different in them; happier … sometimes angrier.” Aiden let out a subtly amused chuckle, “More vivid, or alive. I don’t mean that as an insult, I just think my visions are of the real you: the you that doesn’t keep a barrier up between us. Not weird visions either. I don’t mean to be creepy, I just mean … I think you are important to me, or you were important to me… I’m not sure. It’s all kind of hazy. I can tell you think that’s weird. I don’t mean that …”

 

“Visions? When did you start seeing visions? Is it a different place than here?” Mara’s face began to furrow into the worried look she had before when the ghosts were near.

 

“Well, yeah, I mean, I just see … almost like a memory of us. I don’t know; were we ever together?” Aiden smiled still trying to be charming.

 

Mara sighed heavily, “Forget me and you. Focus on the visions. When did you have the first one? I’m not upset. I just need to know. How frequently do you have them?”

 

“Oh, now you’re the one who has questions? Well, well, it sure is nice to have all the power on my side now.” Mara rolled her eyes, got up, and walked over to Eugene. Aiden followed behind her still rambling, “I really didn’t mean to be creepy. It wasn’t like that…I mean, not that I know of.” Aiden’s voice trailed off as he let his mind wander to the possibilities. He was lost in his thought for a moment.

 

“Mara told me you are seeing visions. It is very important that you tell me what you are seeing, how often you are seeing them, and when they started.” Eugene, Mara, and an uninvited Abuela circled around Aiden. Eugene was the first to begin questioning him.

 

“Well, it’s nothing bad.” Aiden began defending himself as he regretted ever telling Mara.

 

“We are not judging you, Aiden. It is one of the delicate balances of our world, and this could be an indication it is off balance. You have done nothing wrong.” Eugene’s consistently calm voice had a slight quiver in it.

 

“Well, it started when Mara touched my face earlier.” Aiden avoided eye contact with any of them and kept getting distracted, looking out toward the waves; he noticed they were violently pulled out and then thrown back in towards the sand.

They roared out, but no force on earth could stop what was happening to them.

 

“Don’t be shy with us, mijo. We must know everything. What were the visions of?” Aiden caught Mara giving Abuela painful, sharp glance.

 

“If it’s about me, Aiden, just tell us. It won’t affect me, or change anything.” Mara’s lack of expression continued. Aiden nodded showing that he knew this didn’t take away the awkwardness of the moment.

 

“It’s mostly of Mara. Us in loving moments, um, there were a few with us in a fight, but those were very brief and didn’t have as much detail. Mostly ones with her smiling or laughing.” Aiden hesitantly made brief eye contact with Mara. She was calm, staring straight ahead.

 

“I knew it! I knew she would be the one to destroy all of us! She would ruin him! I knew it!” The crowd of people grew silent and looked at the quartet of leaders. Mara walked away as she lowered her shaking head out of frustration.

 

“Abuela! You know nothing, yet. Do not blame the girl. We don’t even know what this means yet. Calm yourself.” Eugene’s efforts were fruitless as Abuela walked off in the opposite direction as Mara while yelling, “I told you, and I warned you!”

“Aiden, don’t worry yet. We don’t know if this is a bad or, possibly, a good thing.” The way Eugene said it, it didn’t seem like “a good thing” was much of an option. “Just be careful, and use your good judgment, always. Don’t distrust Mara. Just try to not monopolize your time with one person, and try to not let your emotions run away with you.

 

You should go get some sleep. Everything is always clearer in the morning.” Eugene placed his hand on Aiden’s shoulder as he guided him to a small hut that was big enough for only one.

 

“This is where you will sleep. My hut is over there. Let yourself relax, clear your mind. Just rest tonight, not too much thinking, ok?” Eugene smiled as he patted Aiden on the back.

 

3.

 

Once we have become accustomed to pain, it is what we seek out. This is why we follow the ones who treat us the worst.

It is what we know and where we feel comfortable. Aiden had been trying his best to avoid Mara, but he found himself never leaving her sight, even though he kept his distance. He felt as if he needed to watch out for her, or at least be near her. He made acquaintances with a couple of other people from the group in order to spread out his time as he had been instructed by Eugene, but they shared little more than instructions on how to best repair the wall with a few jokes thrown in to relieve the stress. One of them, Nick, was a short, solidly slim build, with red hair and freckles. He was constantly calling Aiden “Bro,” which always surprised Aiden. It seemed cartoon like the way he said it, but it was always sincere. The other guy Aiden had befriended, Mike, was scrawnier and taller than Nick. He was always breaking into a rap overemphasizing his skeletal, pasty, piano-fingered hands. Although the two men were so different from Aiden, he still felt camaraderie to them and would play along with their different mannerisms. Aiden didn’t even bother asking them about the ghosts or any specifics about anything on the island. It was clear that no one was going to tell him anything specific. He was working on the wall glancing over at Mara fairly frequently when he saw her walk towards the jungle; the dense part of it that needed to be hacked into just to move forward. He told Mike and Nick that he was going to take a short break and headed off in the direction Mara had gone. Once in the thick of the jungle, he was having trouble finding her.

 

“Hello.” A voice full of confidence and self-assurance poured over the nearby vines and leaves. The voice’s owner was shockingly beautiful. Aiden wondered how he could have missed this new acquaintance. She definitely would have been noticed: the blonde in a red dress type. Long platinum blonde hair, skinny hourglass figure, exotic facial features, and piercing green eyes. “I’ve been wondering when I was finally going to run into you.” Her full lips gently curved and her eyes slanted. It was one of those moments when Aiden’s gut told him this was bad, but he was too enraptured to avoid the imminent danger.

 

“Yeah?” Aiden’s first instinct was to play along and act as though he knew her too, but it felt childish. “I’m sorry, I’m a little fuzzy on all of the details here. I’m … I’m not sure who you are.”

 

“I know, Aiden. It’s alright. I am an old friend, but just like Mara, there are people here who don’t trust me, but I’m a friend. I’ve missed you. I’ve missed the time we used to spend together. Do you remember any of it?” The mysterious vixen slowly opened and shut her overly extended eyelashes, as she looked Aiden up and down. “You must.” Aiden shook his head regretfully. “No worries, love. We’ll have new memories soon. We use to go on so many adventures,” her silky hands gently squeezed Aiden’s upper arm. “You were so brave. You use to take me across the wall with you. Oh, I wish you did remember.” She now reached out and brushed her hand through his hair. The moment was interrupted as a branch broke and Aiden could see Mara, but Mara hadn’t seen him yet. He looked back at the beautiful blonde woman, but she was gone.

 

“Aiden? What are you doing over here?” Mara looked startled and upset.

 

“I,” Aiden was looking around for the woman. “I was following you. Making sure you are ok.”

 

Mara looked away annoyed, “Well, I’m fine. You shouldn’t leave your new buddies.”

 

“It’s not like I have many choices in the company right now, but they’re not that bad. They grow on you after a while” Aiden gently chuckled to himself, but Mara only looked more irritated. “Mara, can I ask you something?” Mara did not say anything, but her eyes let him know she was waiting for him to go on, “Who were we?” For a brief moment, Aiden could see Mara’s guard drop as her mouth trembled as if it needed to tell their story. “I mean, I have these memories, and I’m not sure if they are memories or just hallucinations. Were we a couple? I think that is something I should know.” She lost her vulnerability and looked at him with the same anger he had seen from her before.

Instead of deterring Aiden, it just made him more frustrated, “Dammit, I would like someone to answer one question for me. I don’t get how me not knowing anything will make it easier for me to protect everyone from these ghosts. I mean it; I’m demanding answers, not just asking anymore. At least a few basic questions should be answered.”

 

“Aiden,” Mara’s face slightly softened once again as she reached for his hand. “You are in a very delicate state. If we tell you too much, you will disappear again. Even we are not sure what is too much to tell you, so we have to let you discover it all yourself. If we tell you something that is too much for you to handle, or even worse, something that you didn’t know before, we could lose you again, and this time forever. I want very much to tell you things about us, but I am afraid for you AND for me.” He saw her draw her hand close to the bruises on her neck, but she did not touch them. She hadn’t meant to do this, and she quickly brought her hands back down once she realized she had.

 

“You mean you’re afraid I will do that again?” Aiden pointed to the bruises on her neck and wouldn’t stop looking into her eyes even as she closed them; fluttering eyelids revealed the struggle she was having holding back any emotion.

 

“I hate you for it, and I really mean that I hate you for it,” the second time Mara stated this she said it slowly and overly pronounced, “but at the same time, I feel sorry for you because of it. I don’t understand these combinations of feelings, so I honestly don’t know how to respond to you.” Her face was filled with more anger than pity. “There was a time when you betrayed me in the worst way anyone can be betrayed. I felt your kiss on my cheek, Judas, and it killed pieces of me because it was the deepest pain we ever felt.” She avoided eye contact.

 

“’We ever felt’? Why ‘we’?” Aiden sounded almost offended by this.

 

“That’s one of those things I can’t answer, Aiden.” She finally made eye contact as her face became solid and unreadable again.

 

“Well, I’m very sorry. I know, it probably doesn’t mean much since I don’t even remember what happened, but I can’t

see me doing anything to ever hurt you.” Mara quickly moved Aiden’s hand off of hers after he had offered it with his half-hearted apology.

 

“I need to get back to my duties. I would suggest you get back to yours as well. Mike and Nick will be wondering where you are.”

 

“They are probably arguing over Eminem lyrics and don’t even know I’m gone,” Aiden laughed to himself as he looked up to see Mara walking away. He stood and watched as Mara’s figure disappeared towards the sunny edge of the jungle. He knew he handled the situation poorly.

 

“Don’t let her shake you up too much, Aiden. She has always been very dramatic. It is her flaw or one of them at least.” Aiden was startled but pleased to see the beautiful siren again.

 

“Where did you go? I was looking for you, but didn’t see you anywhere.” Aiden failed at trying to hide his boyish excitement to see her, and this visibly pleased her.

 

“I told you, some people don’t like me either, and Mara hates me more than anyone, so I thought it was best to just avoid her.” Her words were purred. Always light and airy, pouring from her pouty lips.

 

“Well, that’s probably why I haven’t seen you. I’ve been so distracted by Mara, following her around like a lost puppy, to be embarrassingly honest.” Aiden felt stupid for oversharing. “I don’t know why, I’ve just felt drawn to her, but I … I don’t know why,” Both ignored his stumbling repetition as if he were trying to find the answer as he spoke. “She won’t tell me anything I ask her, but she has no trouble telling me what to do.” The woman smiled and looked down as if she knew exactly what he was talking about. “So, what about you? What is your name? How well did I know you?” Her smile got bigger and her eyes widened.

 

“You can call me Chloe. We knew each other very well. I knew you before Mara was ever around. She is the one who took you away from me, Aiden.” Chloe flirtatiously started straightening Aiden’s collar while talking, “That is why she doesn’t like me, as you can guess.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry about that. I would think you would be the one to not like her.” It was hard for Aiden to make direct eye contact with her as it made him feel like a high school boy going through puberty once again.

 

“I suppose we had already distanced from one another before she came along, but I believe we were always meant to be together, so it didn’t feel right when she came into the picture, especially with all of the trouble she caused you.” The stranger was not trying to be coy in her intentions to entice Aiden into asking for more information on the topic.

 

“So you think I shouldn’t trust her? I guess I have no reason why I should trust her. Everyone has been telling me she is nothing but trouble. I really am confused about how I’m connected to her. Sometimes this gravitation towards her feels like something ominous. I guess that is why she never answers my questions. It would probably just make her look bad.” The women seemed pleased with the direction Aiden’s thoughts were going.

 

“I need to get back to work. Why don’t you get back to your…” She hesitated as she looked the direction of the two men with a disappointed stare, “friends. You really could do better, Aiden. I don’t know why you always chose to hang out with the white trash that you did. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’ll meet up with again later today, or tomorrow at the latest.”

 

“Won’t you be in the village? We can meet up tonight.” “I have a few things to catch up on. I will be sure and find you tomorrow.” Her voice softened again as she caressed Aiden’s arm. “Don’t let anyone know we met up, it would just cause them to unnecessarily worry; you know how everyone here is, blowing everything out of proportion.” Aiden carefully studied her as she walked away. She looked back over her shoulder at him as she slinked away. Her exposed back and shoulders seemed to reflect the sun like new glossed paint. Her eyes turned to emerald as they caught the same light.

 

4.

 

The fear of losing something we love causes us to harm it more than anything we have tried to protect it from. When you let fear take over love, all love is lost.

 

“You’re so beautiful.” Mara was reading a book in bed with her hair falling across her face in a beautiful mess from the night before. She gave Aiden a coy smile in response to his compliment but never lifted her eyes from the book she was reading. “How did I get so lucky? You are everything I ever wanted.” Mara finished the sentence she was on, and slowly got up from the bed leaving the book behind. She glided across the room as she brushed her long hair behind her shoulders. The bruises. They were darker, and her neck was still red. She sat next to Aiden while indirectly wrapping her arms around his shoulders. She was still silent. “Are you feeling better? I mean, does it hurt?” She abruptly pulled away and looked at him with a look of either extreme anger or fear. It was hard for him to discern which. “I’m just asking.”

 

“I thought we weren’t going to talk about it,” Mara’s words sounded like they were to remind him of his own.

 

“No, you’re right. You should just cover it up, especially when you go to work.” Aiden started turning on his game console as if to change the subject.

 

“Right, I should hide it. Not that you did anything wrong, but I should definitely hide it.” Aiden angrily looked into Mara’s eyes that were defiantly staring back.

 

“Look, we talked about it and we both decided to move forward. I had too much to drink, you brought up your ex …”

“I did NOT bring up my ex, Aiden. You were talking about YOUR ‘gorgeous’ ex and I mentioned that I dated other people too, that was it …”

 

Aiden quickly interrupted her, “Shut up! If you’re going to lie about it…” Aiden stopped himself and took a deep breath, “It doesn’t even matter now. Let’s just move on.”

 

“I am not this girl, Aiden. I am not the poor victim that can’t walk away. I am not the girl who needs a man to define who I am.”

 

“Then leave, whore!” Aiden, again, did not make eye contact. Mara’s eyes reddened as they began to gently spill over. She stared at him for what seemed like too long. Aiden continued to load a saved game and began picking out his gun on the weapon screen of the video game. Mara calmly picked up her purse, grabbed her car keys, unplugged her cell phone, and headed for the door. Aiden looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Wait …” Mara stood with her hand on the handle of the door but did not turn her body. “I’m sorry. I can’t face what I did. I never wanted to be like my dad, but I have the same demons in my head. I can’t control it when I drink. We have to quit drinking”

 

“You’re the one that wanted to drink, Aiden. I have always been onboard to not drink if that will help you.”

 

Aiden stood up and walked towards Mara. She clenched her fists without thinking about it. He moved her rigid body and hugged her. She didn’t move or look at him. He pulled her in closer and whispered in her ear, “I can’t be without you; you’re my soul mate. Do you remember when we walked down at the beach under the stars and fell asleep cuddling on the sand? All of our adventures? I’m going to take you to see the world. I’m going to grow old with you. I love you, Mara. If you left me, I would kill myself.” Mara’s body began to thaw as she slowly put her arms around Aiden. “I didn’t know your skin was so sensitive. You know I didn’t mean to be rough with you. It’s just because your skin is so pale that it looks so bad.” Mara instantly pushed Aiden away. The look in her eyes reminded him of how she got the scars.

 

He was there now.

 

“You promised! You promised!” She began screaming.

 

Aiden began looking around unsure what was happening.

 

Suddenly, the scene changed.

 

She was face down on the floor. He was sitting on top of her with his hands around her neck, squeezing. “Oh, my god.” He released his grip and could hear her gasp for air. “Mara! Oh, my god! I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to … I don’t even know how.” She was terrified as she quickly jumped up. She grabbed a

bottle of hand lotion and threw it at him screaming. She wasn’t screaming words, just screaming. “Mara! I’m sorry. I don’t even know what happened.”

 

“How could you! What is wrong with you! What is wrong with you!” Mara let out another screeching alarm.

 

A knock at the door, “Is everything ok in there.” Mara’s eyes grew as her brows crinkled in anger and fear.

 

“We’re playing video games, dude. Everything’s fine.” Aiden was disturbingly good at changing the tone of his voice in order to be very convincing. He grabbed Mara and covered her mouth mid-sentence. He then whispered to Mara, “I swear to God, if you make them think I did anything to you, I will kill you. If I’m gonna go to prison, I’m gonna have a padded cell.” He still had a hold of Mara with his hand over her mouth. “Do you understand me?” Mara tried to pull away, but he squeezed her arm harder and pulled her back. She moaned in pain, and with still wide eyes nodded in compliance with his demands.

 

5.

 

Our biggest enemies are the lies we tell ourselves. The horrible loud screeching sound from earlier in the

woods vibrated the ground and woke Aiden. The noise brought him back to the island. He hurried out of his hut. Everyone else had woken up and they were all gathered.

 

“It’s happening, Eugene. Look.” Abuela had a terrified look on her face as she pointed toward the tall wall. A portion of it had been knocked down. It wouldn’t have occurred easily or naturally. Something forced its way in. “You must tell him, Eugene. It will happen again, only this time it’s going to be worse. We could all die.

 

“It’s too late, run! Everyone, into the forest!” Mara yelled as she began to run.

 

Aiden was still lost and unsure about the events taking place. As he looked towards the damaged wall he saw a large dark figure jump up into the air. He lost sight of it as he tried to follow its path high up into the sky, but felt its impact as it landed beside him. He could feel fear tingling up his spine. It was a dark presence. He stood frozen hoping this too was just a dream. Slowly, he turned to face his fear.

 

As he turned he felt a cold breeze and saw the dark image change, but so quickly its original form was not known.

 

“I told you, I would find you, Aiden.” It was Chloe. Her glowing eyes were unmistakable. Her voice had more volume and strength, a vibration to it.

 

“Chloe? I don’t understand. Are you a ghost?” He still felt an uneasy feeling in his gut, but he was unsure what was causing it: the suggestion of fear, or an actual fear.

 

“Oh, Aiden. The truth is often defined by what one hears first. I know you are smarter than that. I am here to save you. I want you to come to the other side with me. I have a lot to tell you. I can explain everything because I have the truth, Aiden. Over here, they cover their lies with secrecy. Will you come with me?” Chloe extended her slender hand. Aiden accepted the gesture and gently held on to it.

 

“Aiden, no!” Just as Aiden heard Mara’s scream as she ran back into the camp, Aiden was gone.

 

6.

 

Beauty makes fools of us all.

 

He wasn’t sure how he had gotten where he was or how much time had passed. It was daylight again, and he felt well rested, despite being woken up just a couple of hours after falling asleep. He was confused about what had just happened but tried to act confident as he saw Chloe lounging across from him on a wooden reclining chair. They were at the beach, but it was a different section of the shoreline. It must have been on the opposite side of the fence. Chloe was sinfully radiant in a strategically placed white bikini with an ethereal, sheer white cover-up trimmed with gold. She had her eyes closed as she soaked up the perfect sunlight.

 

“You’re awake?” Only Chloe’s blood red lips moved as she startled Aiden with the question. “Yeah, I thought you were …”

 

“I can sense your every move, my dear.” Aiden found himself staring at her mouth as the words oozed from her lips. She smiled as she lifted her head and gracefully removed her

sunglasses. “Do you have any questions?”

 

Aiden could tell this was a test by her tone, “Uh, no. I mean, not yet.” All of the unanswered questions he had before were blank. He was too bewildered to think of a single one.

 

“Well, you should. I basically kidnapped you in the middle of the night and teleported you to an entirely new environment that you are not familiar with. I’d have some questions if the roles were reversed.” She tilted her head in amusement as she coyly laughed still watching his mouth for a response.

 

“Of course, I have questions, but I assume they will be answered in time.” He felt like a trained dog giving that response. Mara would have been proud.

 

“My, my. Mara dug her little claws into you, didn’t she? You’re already trained to not ask questions, but to simply ‘wait until the answers are revealed to you.’ She would be proud, now, wouldn’t she?” Aiden looked down and tried to shuffle around for some confidence as he realized he had failed her test.

 

“So what do you want with me?” Aiden tried his best to be assertive.

 

“Hostility is often a mask for fear, my dear, and fear has never been becoming on you. Ask me a question you really want to know.”

 

​Aiden became more frustrated. “Why don’t I remember anything?”

 

“Mmmm,​ now we’re getting somewhere. Well, my dear, you’ve never been here before, not like this. In a way, you’ve always been here, but you’ve never known it. You are just now coming to the realization of your constant state of being. Next question.”

 

​“What the hell does that mean? If you’re going to talk in riddles, you’re no better than Mara.”

 

“I’m​ afraid, I can still only be as good as you let me be, Aiden. You are in control of all of this. This entire reality is dependent upon you. Nothing can be better than you allow it to be. There is some reason you don’t want to know the whole truth.”

 

​“So is this a dream?”

“I never said it wasn’t a reality, it is absolutely real; it’s just not the reality you usually find yourself in. This is the reality that determines how you will see your reality. We are all your projections of what you would call reality. You must see me as a real goddess, huh, sweetheart.” Again, Chloe smiled and laughed coyly without ever turning her head or eyes to face Aiden. “You can call me Aphrodite,” Chloe said this playfully as she began to laugh and tilt her head back allowing her neck to soak in some sun.

 

“Ok,​ assuming I understand what that means, are you a real person?

 

​“Yes, but currently I am your projection of me. I am a real person, but right now you are talking to who you have made me up to be in your mind. This means we may or may not be an accurate depiction of who we really are. This is why the other side is so troublesome. They are trying to convince you that they are the “good side,” but really they have simply fooled your subconscious, but their trickery can be detrimental to all of us, Aiden.”

 

“So​ how do I know I haven’t just ‘perceived’ you incorrectly?”

 

​“I suppose you don’t,” Chloe paused, sat up, lifted her dark, oversized sunglasses and looked straight into Aiden’s eyes, “but as I pointed out before, I am the only one who is giving you answers.” Aiden nodded and nervously looked down at the sand as he ran his fingertips across it. “It’s a lot to process, Aiden, and I don’t expect you to make such a big conclusion instantaneously.” Chloe put her sunglasses back on and casually resumed her reclined position. “I will continue to give you proof and answers. You can make your decision, and then, once you have realized I am your closest ally, we will destroy your enemies and you can return to reality.”

 

“Let​ me ask you one more question, why am I just now seeing this side of my consciousness, Chloe?” Aiden’s eyes fell upon her figure and back up to her red lips waiting for a reply.

​“That’s a smart question, Aiden. Unfortunately, it is one that is painful to answer.” Chloe sat up again, this time turning

her entire body towards Aiden. She leaned forward, lifted her sunglasses up to a more permanent position on top of her head, grabbed both of Aiden’s hands gently (making him very uneasy), leaned forward again to an uncomfortable, but thrilling, closeness to his face and whispered, “You are dying, Aiden.”

 

Aiden’s vision went black as his breathing became heavier. His heart felt tight, stuck like it wasn’t working correctly. He slowly opened his eyes, but Chloe wasn’t there. It wasn’t the shore. It was inside a dark room lit only by the glowing lights from machines: machines that beeped, whined, and wisped. His nostrils were sore from the plastic tubing. His mind was trying so hard to speak, but his lips wouldn’t move; his mouth wouldn’t open; like a nightmare where screaming at the top of your lungs is nothing but a silent prison. It was clear where he was, but he still didn’t remember how he had gotten there. He started to feel very tired, then darkness.

 

He​ woke up back in the middle of the tropical jungle resting on a large rock the size of a twin bed. It had been taken over by moss, but its surface was still hard and cold, a bit dewy. He wasn’t sure which side of the wall he was on; he just knew he was deep in the jungle. Something caught his eye. A dark figure slinked in and out of the heavy foliage. It was moving cat-like, but it was very large. Aiden tried to lift his head to see it, but he didn’t have the strength to keep it up for long. Finally, he got a good look, a black panther! It slinked towards him, eyes slanted, movements stealthy. Aiden forced his body to get up and cooperate with his need to flee as he looked around for a place to run and hide, but there was no time. The cat had its eyes steadily on him, but its movements were still slow, and fluid. There was something in the animal’s eyes that looked eerily human. Aiden frantically jumped behind the rock, as if it would offer protection.

 

“This​ isn’t real…this isn’t real…” Aiden was dizzy from the confusion of what was happening. He felt an urgency to wake himself up. He felt claustrophobic.

 

​“So you know.” It was more of a statement than a question, but its speaker was the surprise. It was the panther. He stared

into Aiden’s eyes that were silently peaking over the rock. He continued to wait for a response. “Yes, I’m talking to you.”

 

“What​ do I know? I feel like I don’t know anything. You’re a talking panther. I apparently did not know about you. I know nothing.” Aiden very cautiously and slowly stood up. “Especially now.” Aiden gestured to the cat with a nod of his head. He wasn’t sure if he should be scared of the animal, but he also didn’t really care at this point. It was all so bazaar, he had no idea what was real.

 

“How​ do you know to not be afraid of me?” The panther circled Aiden slowly coming in closer and closer.

 

​“Do I have a choice? Besides, none of this is real, right?” Sick of the confusion, Aiden seemed half-hearted in his response.

 

“No,​ you have no choice, but this is very real. It is the greatest extent of reality you will ever experience. You are getting a peek at the inner workings of your mind, Aiden. Most people never get to see this. If you were smart, you would use this time to figure out why you think the way you do and use that to figure out the truth.”

 

​“Why? Word is, I’m dying. What does it matter if I ‘figure everything out’?” Aiden spoke softly with a lack of caring or effort.

 

“Who​ told you that you were dying?” The panther continued to circle Aiden.

 

​“Chloe.” Aiden looked up at the panther realizing he shouldn’t have shared that information, but he looked at the panther with defiance as if he didn’t care if he knew.

 

“But​ who is Chloe, Aiden?” The panther stopped just in front of Aiden and stared into his eyes with a mentor’s patience.

​“I know, she is from the other side of the wall, or this side, I guess. Which side am I on?”

 

“Beyond​ that, Aiden. Who are all of us, really?” The panther began to lie down, crossed his paws, and laid his head down on them restfully.

 

​“I am so sick of these riddles…oh, you mean since we are in my mind. She is me, I guess. This whole thing is probably just my brain randomly firing electrons as I’m dying, I’m sure.” Aiden began to raise his voice and become very expressive with his hands and arms.

 

​“You are right about all of us being you. We all represent some part of you or a reflection you have of someone. Mara is a reflection of your most recent girlfriend. Chloe is a reflection of your most significant ex besides Mara, and so on, but everything they are saying is coming from you, Aiden.”

 

​“Then who are you, why a panther? I don’t know any panthers.” Aiden’s sarcasm felt juvenile as he said it.

 

“No,​ but I am something you are frightened of, and you have designated a symbol that represents your feelings towards me. I will take other figures as well, but you’ll see that later.” “So,​ what are you, panther? My regrets? My failures?”

 

​“Worse, I am what brings awareness to your regrets and your failures; I am your conscience. I am the one that informs you that you have regret, or that you failed. I am the one that tells you, ‘No,’ and is ashamed when you don’t listen.” Aiden began to feel cold as the panther’s stare became more powerful and controlling. “You’ve made me angry, Aiden.” The panther stood up and growled, “You should be afraid of me.” Aiden tried to pretend not to be scared.

 

“What​ did I do to make you angry? None of this makes any sense.” Aiden felt a deep truth in what the panther said but still tried to argue it away.

 

​“You’re still hiding from all of this, but Aiden, you don’t have much time, and you must sort through this, or all of us WILL die.”

 

“So,​ I am dying anyway.” Aiden still seemed unmoved by the panther’s threatening presence.

 

​“FORGET YOURSELF, AIDEN! THIS IS BIGGER THAN JUST YOU! YOU HAVE DONE SOMETHING THAT YOU MUST REALIZE! You can survive this, but only if you try, and if you don’t, you will see me again, and I will put an end to all of this.” The panther walked away as he spoke that last of his words, but glanced back with his glowing eyes as he stated his threat. He then lept into the jungle and quickly disappeared.

 

7.

 

There is no voice as condemning as our own conscience. ​Aiden walked slowly towards the beach. He felt as though

he had just woke up with a horrible hangover. Everything seemed very real but in a painful way. He carefully pushed aside every leaf, stepped on every slippery stone, and viewed every tropical bird in a slow, surreal way that was turned up to maximum volume. He questioned everything he had just experienced but came to no conclusions other than to remain indifferent to it all. He finally saw a familiar bonfire; he was on Mara’s side of the wall. He first saw Abuela, who ran up to him.

 

“Mi amore, where have you been? Are you hurt? Here, come, let me make you something to eat. You look so tired.” She grabbed Aiden’s arm and led him towards the fire. It was dusk now. Everyone was coming back into camp to get ready for the night. Abuela slopped some stew onto a plate, added some vegetables, and brought it to Aiden. “Here, you need to eat to keep your strength up. You look exhausted. Where have you been? You’ve been gone for an entire day. We didn’t know if you would come back when we saw her take you. Thank the lord you are back. She didn’t hurt you, did she? She didn’t convince you of her lies?” Abuela’s eyes were old and sunken. They had lines that were perfectly filled when she made the worried expression she was currently wearing. There was a sense of hope behind every worry; hope in Aiden, that he was all that she believed and dreamed and prayed for when he was still just a thought, still a changeable creature, still a gift that could be made into something great; before he was a man. Grandmothers never see their grandchildren as imperfect beings; they always represent that hope for something better, even when they show up with blood on their hands.

 

“I​ know what’s going on, Abuela. I know where we are, and who you all are.” Aiden pushed away Abuela’s food offering as he no longer had any urge to eat. Abuela’s face looked defeated as her eyes searched for words.

 

​“Did she take you to him?” Her voice cracked with desperation.

 

“To​ whom, Abuela?” Aiden had lost all respect for what he now saw as shadows of characters he had once known. They were nothing but a mirage and his mouth was full of sand.

 

“She​ must not have, or you would know. Don’t disrespect us, Aiden. You need us to conquer this. Every connection has a purpose, and we are the only ones who will help you conquer the demons we ALL must conquer. You will be fine. They made you do this. SHE made you do this.” Aiden followed Abuela’s path of vision; she was looking at Mara as hate spilled from the corners of her eyes.

 

“Why​ are the two of you on the same side if you hate each other so much, Abuela? Why don’t you like Mara? I know she was my girlfriend. I know you are my grandmother, what did she do? It will help me if I know, I’m asking you, I’m giving you permission to let me know, what did she do?” Aiden knew that pleading with Abuela would be the only way to reach her.

 

​“You are the one that assigned her to the right side of the wall. I have no idea why? Apparently, she deceived you. She is the reason for all of this. She is the one that caused all of this. She is the one who made you do those things.” Aiden closed his eyes out of frustration, as he once again had gotten no real answers. Abuela looked up at him defiantly.

 

“Abuela,​ does this have anything to do with the bruises she has? She told me I did it to her.” Abuela looked at the ground and remained silent. “Abuela, did I hurt her?” Abuela was getting visibly upset, but she held back from saying anything, which was unlike her. She took time to gather her thoughts.

 

​“She made you! She wanted you to make her a victim! She wanted to make you into a monster! She did it, Aiden!” Abuela’s rage boiled over as she quietly growled her response. Her face was shriveled with hate. Mara who was still sitting quietly working just across the way looked over with the same unexpressive, sullen weight on her face. A small snarl of anger tightened Abuela’s lips. “You did it! You caused all of this! You ruined my Aiden!” Abuela ran towards Mara who quickly stood up preparing to physically defend herself. Aiden rushed over and prevented the two women from coming into contact with one another.

 

“What​ is that old woman saying now?! Does she want us to tell Aiden what happened? Does she finally want us to tell him THE TRUTH!” Mara’s voice became brittle as her screams were interrupted by the crackles of her own crying. Both women were pointing fingers, waving arms, competing over one another’s screams.

 

Finally,​ Aiden interrupted, “YES! I would like to know the truth, what happened?”

 

​“She attacked you first, Aiden. She had been pushing you and pushing you…”

 

“You​ have no idea what you are talking about, you weren’t even there, old woman. You are the reason he is this way. I was fighting to make him a better person. You will die making excuses for the very behavior that killed …” Mara abruptly stopped.

 

​“You watch your words, mija! You watch your words!” Abuela’s voice had turned hoarse from all of the screaming and came out as more of a deep, breathy, whisper.

 

“Both​ of you; shut up!” Aiden stopped to compose himself. “Mara, you tell me first what happened. No riddles, no opinions, just fact; what happened?”

 

​“I loved you, Aiden…” Aiden gave her a stern look and put up his finger signaling for her to stop. He made it clear, he wanted no backstory, no explanation, just the facts that he needed to know now. He had moved beyond caring about why or how. He just wanted to know what. What had happened? “Ok, we were fighting, Aiden. We fought a lot towards the end. You had said some hurtful things to me about your ex, I mentioned something about my ex to get back at you, it wasn’t…”Aiden was circling her, but stopped and stared her in the eyes with a warning as she began to include explanations. “I began to walk away. You grabbed me by the back of the neck, threw me to the ground, straddled me, pinning me to the ground, and began squeezing with both hands around my neck.” Mara held steady with a defiant look. Throughout her description of the events, she had been overwhelmed with emotion for the first time since Aiden had seen her at the beach, but he was too overpowered by his own determination to find out the truth to take notice.

 

​“Are you ok? I mean, are you still alive? You know what I mean, on the outside.” Aiden found a moment to realize Mara’s emotion, but he was still very authoritative with his mannerisms and tone in an effort to stay on track to finding out the facts.

 

“I’m​ here aren’t I?” There was some gratefulness in Mara’s voice as she answered the question, but there was still a definite sense of defiance. It wasn’t a definite answer, but it was enough for Aiden.

 

“What​ happened after that, Mara?” Aiden encouraged her to go on despite being scared of what he heard.

 

​“I tried to leave, Aiden. I tried with all of my might to leave. You wouldn’t let me. You had been drinking, and you started threatening me, saying that you would kill me before you let me leave. I just wanted to get out, but you wouldn’t let me.” There was a weakness in her voice. It was clear revisiting the memory shook her.

 

“So​ what did you do? Did you leave?” Aiden kept guiding her back to the topic.

 

​“You pushed me around a few times. You kept blocking me from the door. I started picking up bottles and Kleenex boxes, throwing them at you to try and get you to let me leave. You grabbed me and threw me onto the bed.” Mara’s face began to harden with anger. “I just wanted to leave, Aiden.” She paused to get her breathing back under control. “You made me lie there with you all night. I had loved you, Aiden, more than I ever knew I could love, but I hated you that night. I kept trying to get up when I thought you were asleep, but you would pull me back down. I finally got up. I ran to my purse. I grabbed the pepper spray out of it as I tried to find my keys. This woke you up. You came towards me and I sprayed you with the pepper spray. You started yelling and cussing. I saw you had brought in your yellow backpack. I knew what you kept in it, always in case of an emergency. Your dad had given it to you. You saw me eyeing it. We both stood there waiting for what felt like an eternity. I lunged first. You quickly wrestled me to the ground. I felt the gun through the backpack, but couldn’t get to it. You pulled at the bag, lifting it out of my hands, but I managed to grab onto the zipper, which opened the flap that had the gun inside. It fell out; you were too stunned to move quickly enough. I fumbled with it, the safety wasn’t on, Aiden, and it was loaded. I didn’t mean to…” Her voice trailed as tears filled her eyes. “I only wanted to threaten you to let me leave, I didn’t mean to shoot.” Aiden was shocked by this story. It didn’t seem right. It seemed like a dream he remembered differently, but he couldn’t see what it was.

 

“You​ were not a victim, you are just as guilty as he is. You are a monster! You made my grandson a monster!” Abuela began yelling and waving her finger at Mara once again.

​Aiden pushed Abuela back. “Then what, Mara?” Abuela gave Aiden a disapproving glare, but respected his authority as he continued with his question, “What happened after that?”

“Once​ you were hit, you fell to the ground instantly and looked at me like a dog who didn’t understand why they had been kicked. I can’t even express… I called the police. You were silent but started cussing at me again once you gathered your words. I left before the ambulance got there. I didn’t know what to do, Aiden. You know I had no choice, and I didn’t mean for the gun to go off. You know it, Aiden.” Aiden was trying to find his own memory. Why could he not remember something as horrific as this? He must be able to at least remember this.

​“I told you she was the enemy, Aiden. Did I not tell you?” Abuela started pointing her finger at Mara as she briskly walked towards her, but maintained eye contact with Aiden who was looking straight at Mara.

 

Suddenly​ Aiden had a memory that felt more real than anything else he could remember.

 

​The laughter was loud and airy: weightless. The room was filled with unpacked boxes. A narrow maze had been carved through them as a path through the tiny living room of the apartment. Her hair was carelessly flopped into a ponytail on the top of her head. Her forehead was damp from carrying boxes in. Despite her unpolished look, she was perfect. Her smile turned her unkempt look into something perfectly flawed, captivating, and high fashion. The angles of her face were subtle, but perfectly placed and they always cradled the light like they were meant to be photographed. Something about her grabbed your attention. He had always told her that. Aiden was walking through the door when she turned to give him the award-winning smile: perfect white framed by cloudy crimson. Watching the memory, he wanted to freeze it. Examine her closely, like a painting, and then move into slow motion beginning with pulling her close to him. In the unchangeable memory, however, he held back and played it cool.

 

She had music on in the background. She began singing along while dancing her way to Aiden. She over exaggerated every movement of her hips, which made her smile a little bigger each time. He smiled but stayed still continuing to be only the spectator. She began dancing around him, occasionally caressing him, enticing him to join in. He smiled and laughed with a hint of nervousness trying to pretend he wasn’t embarrassed by the situation, but still did not move. She tripped on one of the boxes, but he grabbed her arm before she could fall. He pulled her down close to him. Face-to-face, he looked deep into her eyes. She smiled back innocently and wide-eyed. “I’ve never been more attracted to anyone in my life. You’re perfect.” His eyes filled with tears. She said nothing, but closed her eyes, rested her head into his chest, and melted into him with an embrace. The two swayed slowly despite the fast tempo of the current song. He nudged his chin in closer to her ear and breathed, “You bring a tear to an old man’s eye.” She laughed and shook her head. She always made fun of him for calling himself an old man, but she liked when he would say that.

 

​He was back. The memory was over. He had loved her. He had truly loved her. How he could have turned into such a monster was baffling to him. He still didn’t understand that person. He couldn’t be that person. It couldn’t be true. He looked into Mara’s stony eyes; they were so changed from the warm eyes he had seen in his memory. Abuela’s voice had become silent, but he could see her wide mouth changing shape out of the corner of his eye.

 

​“I am so sorry for what I did to you, Mara. You have nothing to be sorry for. I deserve whatever is happening to me. I don’t understand it, and I know I may not ever be able to make it right, but I know I was wrong. I had to be out of my mind. I have no idea what could have caused me to do such a thing. I remember now how much I loved you. It doesn’t make sense that I would have hurt you in such a terrible way. All I can say is that I’m so sorry.”

 

​“Aiden, you cannot let her trick you into feeling bad for her. She did something horrible to …” Abuela stepped up and started to step up in the center of the group so she could be heard by everyone.

 

“Abuela!​ I will not tell you again to keep your opinions to yourself. I have seen how I really felt about her. Nothing excuses what I did to her.” Aiden carelessly, but gently pushed Abuela back to her place. She again was submissive to him.

 

​“Then it’s time.” Eugene stepped forward and gestured for Aiden to come closer to him. “It is time to meet the Dark Ghost. He is the reason for all of this evil; that’s the only word I can find to describe it. He is who has caused this, but you could not meet him while he could still sway you. I think you are ready now, and we are running out of time. We must go quickly. Just remember to be true to what you know. Keep that memory of Mara as a visual you can go back to for the truth. That memory is how you really felt about Mara, and who you really are.”

 

Mara​ walked up to Aiden and smiled sweetly, not too openly. The hardness was still in her eyes, but her face softened as her mouth curved. She gently touched his face in a gesture of forgiveness. She put her hand out for him to hold onto it. He accepted the offer, and the two followed behind Eugene’s lead. Abuela continued to protest, but all three had muted her voice from their ears, and heard only noises of the tropical wilderness around them.

 

8.

 

If we don’t revisit and learn from the past; it will reenact itself for us over and over.

 

Eugene headed straight for the wall. Once they approached the wall, Eugene searched for a weak spot. The village had done a diligent job of rebuilding it, so a weak point was hard to find.

 

Finally, Eugene found a loose group of stones that collapsed with a slight nudge. They began to crumble down as they heard the noise again; the same sound they had heard the last time Chloe appeared. The ground shook and that entire section of the wall began to fall apart stone by stone. A shrill, screeching noise brought with it a large dark shadow just in front of the small group on the opposite side of the now-demolished wall. As it moved in close to Aiden, it began to shrink and take on form.

 

“Aiden,​ what are you doing? You cannot bring them to this side of the wall. I thought you understood the need for the separation.” Chloe slinked her way around the scattered rocks closer to Aiden in a circular pattern. She ignored everyone else as they said nothing and stood frozen.

 

​“All of this needs to end. I know about what happened, Chloe. I know about what I did to Mara, I know what she did and that it caused me to be in this coma.” His breathing was heavy as he took deep breaths between his yelling. There was still a loud buzzing noise emanating from Chloe.

 

“So​ you think because she admitted to harming you that she is on your side, Aiden? How do you know she is even telling you the truth?”

 

​“Why would she lie? Why would she tell me she shot me if it were not true?”

 

“I​ don’t know, Aiden, why would you have her lie to you? You need to come to this side of the wall with me, but you need to come alone.” There was something about her eyes that turned dark and menacing when she began to demand things of Aiden. It reminded Aiden of another time that she was yelling at him to do something, but it was somewhere dark, filled with smoke. It was a brief glimpse, too brief to discern.

 

​“No, Chloe, I am done with these games. Eugene is taking me to the Dark Ghost. He said he will be able to end all of this, and I can return to reality.”

 

​“I’m afraid it is not that simple, and the ‘Dark Ghost,’ as they are calling him, will not be pleased if you bring all of them with you. He will definitely not help you with them tagging along. Oh, Aiden, I wish I could help you to see what is really going on; who is really on your side. All I can tell you is to trust me.” The buzzing noise lowered and Chloe’s voice softened.

 

Suddenly​ Aiden was in the living room of a medium-sized apartment. He was younger. He could feel that in his breathing; it was lighter, more fluid, less energy was needed.

 

​“You can trust me, Aiden.” Chloe was sitting next to him on the couch. Her skinny frame was barely covered with a red spaghetti strap shirt and short white jean shorts that frayed at the ends and revealed the inner lining of the pockets from the bottom of the fray.

 

“I​ just don’t like it. I thought we were going to start turning things around. Start living differently.” He looked at her like a disappointed child that had no choice but to follow what he was told.

 

​“One more time, for old times’ sake.” She formed perfect lines on top of a magazine on the coffee table. She bent over the table. Aiden watched her quickly and meticulously snort each line. She knew what she was doing. He wondered if this was all there was; if the rest of their life would be spent trying to find ways to not feel it. There was a time when he loved her. She was a rock star to him. The hottest girl he had ever seen. He remembered taking her to his favorite bar at the beach; every guy there wanted to be him; she knew it just as much as he did. They had spent the last 6 months of their relationship stoned, but this time was different. They had just found out she was pregnant.

 

“That​ has to be doing horrible things to the baby; I really don’t like it, Chloe.”

 

​“God, Aiden. You act like you’re going to quit now. Shit. I should be able to get one last high before I’m condemned to living like a fat bitch for the next 9 months. Do you have any idea what this is going to do to my body? I swear if it gives me a single stretch mark I’m gonna make you pay for cosmetic surgery.” Chloe began examining her flawless naval. She pinched at the little bit of fat that was there. “Damn, I can’t believe there’s a little person inside of there. You better believe I’m still gonna work after I get my body back, Aiden. You better not try and stop me.” Aiden took the same magazine and created two large lines.

 

​“You’re going to be a mother, for Christ’s sake, Chloe. You can’t be a stripper and then come home and nurse your baby.” “It’s ‘Go-Go’ dancer, asshole,” Chloe flipped him off as she got up and walked into the kitchen.

 

“It’s​ my body, and you’re the one who knocked me up. You know I can’t get rid of it. I’m not going to have that on my conscience. Dancing is the only way I have ever made good money. I’m not going to be a stay at home mom all of a sudden, not on the income you bring in. My ass would go up 3 sizes before the kid turns 1. I’m disgusted even thinking about that family portrait.” Aiden began to think about what it would be like to be a father. How his life was going to change. What he was going to have to give up. How he was going to have to be responsible. Were they going to quit the drugs, or were they going to raise their baby exposed to that? He never wanted it to be like this, it was changing from the single guy’s dream he had. Now he was in a family, and it seemed like a nightmare, but one he didn’t know if he could give up.

 

​Aiden was back, he looked at Chloe standing in front of him. She knew he had remembered something bad from the way he now looked at her. The enchantment was gone. He lost that flirtatious feeling he had before towards her. It scared him because he could feel the same look that was on Mara’s face overtake his face when he looked at Chloe: cold, stone, broken, and uncaring.

 

“Aiden,​ you did love me, and it wasn’t always bad. It could have been great.” Chloe for the first time had a hint of desperation in her voice.

 

​“What happened to the baby, Chloe?” Aiden searched the few memories he had, but he couldn’t find one that gave him the answer.

 

​“Do you remember the time we went to Cancun? You told me you were living out all of your fantasies. I remember you told me another time, after we had come back from a bonfire on the beach with your high school buddies, they were all jealous of you. They were jealous that you got to go home with the sexiest girl on the beach. Do you remember when we moved into our place, Aiden?” Chloe bit her bottom lip and gently caressed Aiden’s face. He pulled away in an indifferent motion.

 

​Aiden looked at Mara, she was still motionless. A gloss had covered her eyes that still had not blinked. “Why are they not moving? Can they hear us?”

 

“I​ needed them to stay out of this, Aiden; I needed to talk to you alone. They can only hear what you want them to hear. Don’t worry about them; I need you to worry about us. I need you to think of the good times so you know who you can really trust.” Chloe continued trying to look seductive, but instead just looked desperate.

 

​“What happened to the baby, Chloe?” Aiden grabbed her arm forcefully.

 

Aiden​ was in a waiting room. There were two young girls sitting far apart across from him. There was a TV in the corner playing a lecture on how to prevent STDs on a loop that had a terribly upbeat hook at the beginning of each rotation. He looked at one of the girls, she wouldn’t make eye contact, then the other; the same thing. He looked down at his hands. They looked ragged and worn. If his face didn’t tell how old he was, his hands did. They may have even added a few extra years.

 

​The door opened and Chloe came walking out. She was wearing gladiator sandals; black with gold thread. Her tight t-shirt barely covered her midriff. Her overly made-up eyes looked down at her purse as if it were a burden to pull it up over her shoulder. “Let’s go, Aiden.”

 

“Is​ everything ok? Are you definitely pregnant?” He followed her frightened by either of the possible replies.

 

​“It’s not anything you need to worry about, Aiden. I have it all taken care of.” Chloe continued to walk and dramatically put her sunglasses on as they stepped outside.

 

“What​ do you mean? Are you pregnant, or aren’t you?” Aiden lost the softness to his voice.

 

​“It really doesn’t concern you, does it, Aiden? Leave it alone.” Chloe got into her jeep and slammed the door.

 

​Aiden quickly opened his door and got into the same vehicle, “Uh, yeah, it kinda does.”

 

​“Well, it’s nothing you have to worry about now. We were not ready to be parents, Aiden. I’m not ready to give up being a person. I am not willing to give up my life just so we can screw up a baby’s.” Chloe’s eyes were full, but her face didn’t show the same emotion. Aiden tried to understand, but he was angry. He was angry that he didn’t have a choice. He was angry that he was there for something else. He was angry that she wouldn’t let him feel. He started to hate her in that moment; he didn’t want to but didn’t know how not to.

 

“You​ didn’t…” Aiden looked down at his feet that seemed farther away than normal. The air from the ocean was making him sick, something he had never experienced.

 

​“You really didn’t have any say in the matter. It was my body, my decision. I just needed … I don’t know what, but you were there, so thanks.” Aiden looked at her trying to understand her. He was trying to understand where she was coming from. What could it have felt like for her, but all he could think of was the fact that he had no say, and now it was over? It was gone? Did she have some wisdom he did not? He was scared too, but she didn’t even let him know that was a possible choice. Now it was done.

 

“I​ thought you were just making sure you were actually pregnant.” Chloe looked down at her tan legs and brushed the ash from her cigarette off of them. She looked at Aiden who was waiting for a response. She looked back at the road and stayed silent. The tears in her eyes had dried up, and there was calmness in her face. It was emotionless but calm.

 

​“I really don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Chloe didn’t look at Aiden as she finally replied.

 

“You​ had no right to do that. I knew you were a selfish bitch, but I had no idea you were this cold.” Aiden punched the dashboard as he began to yell. A hairline crack appeared where his fist had hit. He closed his eyes as he saw the damage.

 

“And​ you are making me feel more and more confident in my decision, Aiden.” Chloe remained calm.

 

​“Why did you even tell me in the first place?” Aiden’s voice was still angry, but the volume was turned down.

 

“I​ hadn’t made up my mind yet, and you are supposed to be my support person.” Chloe flicked the finished cigarette out her window as she began to merge lanes.

 

​“Support person? I was that baby’s father.” Aiden’s voice cracked unwillingly.

 

“Actually,​ Aiden, you don’t know that!” Chloe took her sunglasses off to look him in the eyes as she yelled at him, then she calmly looked the other way and slipped them back on. Both of them sat in silence for a minute as Chloe continued to drive. Then he suddenly grabbed the wheel of the car. “Are you kidding me?!?” Chloe screeched as Aiden overpowered her weak grip. He pulled them up over onto the curb. There was a loud crack as Chloe slammed the breaks bringing them to a jolted stop. The car sat skewed as one tire was up onto the sidewalk. The traffic behind honked angrily.

 

​“Let me out now, you whore!” Aiden tried to open his door that was locked. Chloe smacked him. Again they both sat motionless and silent for a moment. Then Aiden punched the dashboard again and yelled for her to let him out. She stared straight ahead motionless. “I can’t control this, Chloe. You let me out now, or I can’t promise I won’t do something to you.”

 

​Aiden was back, standing in front of the wall.

 

​“So was it true? Was the baby not mine?”

 

​“Aiden, you always hold on to the worst things; you’re such a masochist,” Chloe said this more playfully than cutting. “We had what everyone wanted. I’m sure we both made a few little mistakes in our relationship, but it didn’t take away from the big picture of US, until you had to let it. I always missed you. You know I still haven’t moved on with anyone like I was with you.”

 

“You​ are why I treated her like that.” Aiden looked at Mara as he angrily held back tears. “She never did anything, but I always thought she was going to turn out like you. Like she was going to hurt me as you did.”

 

​“Does that make it easier for you, Aiden? To blame me for the fact that you like to beat up women? Does that make you feel like you are justified? Maybe it was because of your mommy, or maybe because of your daddy slapping you around as a kid. No, this time blame your slutty ex-girlfriend; is that why you beat her up after you found out she was pregnant, Aiden.” This time, Chloe spoke with conviction and she seemed earnest. “That’s right, you think I’m such a monster. You are just like me. That’s what made us such a perfect couple. I knew we weren’t ready to be parents. Apparently, you did too. That must be why you tried to choke her out the same day she told you the ‘good’ news.” Aiden looked at Mara again trying desperately to find any memory he could. He remembered jealousy. He began to remember every guy becoming someone she might rather be with.

 

​“I thought she was cheating on me.” Aiden looked at Mara with tear filled eyes. Chloe looked at him knowingly with an arrogant crack of a smile and nodded slightly. He turned his sorrowful look into a glare as he turned to Chloe, “She wasn’t though, was she?”

 

“How​ would I know, I wasn’t there. I don’t know what she did or didn’t do any better than you did. She’s a woman, Aiden. We can’t be kept caged. We need out every once in a while to feel needed, and wanted, and loved. Sometimes we need that in a new way from someone new. You know that feeling Aiden, when a girl you don’t know smiles at you in that certain way and your mind begins to ask, ‘what if.’ I’m sure Mara was not any less guilty of this.” Chloe got close to Aiden as she said this. He could smell burnt vanilla on her skin.

 

​“She wasn’t like that though. She wouldn’t have done that. It doesn’t make sense.” Aiden searched his memory for more answers but found nothing but intuition.

 

“I’m​ going to go let him know you’re coming. You won’t survive him, Aiden. He’s going to kill you, and it’s going to kill all of us. You better make sure you understand the consequences before you do this.” Chloe’s eyes set fire as she aggressively stared at Aiden for a reply. He casually nodded annoyed by her dramatization. The loud, screeching began again. Chloe disappeared. As she did, the others in Aiden’s group reanimated and left their frozen state. It was obvious that they were oblivious to anything that had just happened, even the lapse in time.

 

Eugene walked up to Aiden and put his hand on his shoulder. “You are ready now. You know what you needed to know. Just hold on to what you know to be the truth, which is what he will challenge. Are you ready to take this on? Once we cross over into the opposite side of this wall, everything will turn upside down. We will not be able to follow on with you the entire way.” Eugene’s eyes were full of loving concern. Aiden put his hand gently on Eugene’s shoulder and nodded.

 

A memory of Eugene sitting in a study surrounded by worn, but expensive looking books entered Aiden’s mind. “I know that your grandmother is a strong-willed woman, Aiden, but this is why I married her. She has the best intentions for you. Don’t mind her for being so upset. She will cool down with time.” Eugene was slowly puffing a cigar while looking up from his book on his lap. He gestured for Aiden to take a seat in the oversized dark leather seat next to him. Abuela could be heard in the next room ranting in Spanish. She always had a very strong emotion when she started speaking in only Spanish, and it was easy to identify this strong emotion as a very negative one by the tone she was using. Her “R”s were especially curled.

 

“You should have heard your Abuela the night before our wedding. Her mother and father did not approve of her marrying a young Irish man, as you know, especially one as “lively” as I. Her mother had pulled her aside and shared her opinion that I was going to be the decision that would ruin her life. That there was no way I would be able to understand her, appreciate her. They told her I was bland and would not give her the passion she would need in her life. I would not be reliable.” Eugene shook his head as it was clear he was picturing the night in his mind, the emotions he had been feeling forty years earlier. His eyes crinkled as he narrowed in on the memory. “That was the night we decided to elope.” A smile of the purest happiness took over Eugene’s freckled face. Aiden began to forget why he was upset with Abuela, and smiled too, enjoying the happiness he could see in his oftentimes solemn grandfather; never bitter, angry, or even cranky, just solemn, to-the-point. “We had a church secured (Catholic, of course, the one she had attended as a girl), a dress paid for, invitations and RSVPs, but we decided we didn’t need everyone watching from the sidelines discussing our poor decision. It was to be just about us. We drove, five and a half hours to Las Vegas. We thought the tiny drive-thru wedding was too tacky. There was a chapel that actually looked like a chapel, not a topper to some cheap wedding cake. We were dressed to the 9s. Your Abuela looked more beautiful than Ava Gardner.” Eugene again stopped here for a moment as if breathing in the memory. “She loves much more passionately than she hates, and that is why she is so upset, because she loves you, Aiden. She will always love you.” Aiden nodded as Abuela entered the room, still flushed from her anger.

 

She began to talk; an angry tone again began to roll out of her mouth. Both Eugene and Aiden sat there and smiled. This obviously annoyed, her. “What, what are you two doing? This is not funny! It is a very serious matter, Mijo. Your future … just like your father … I tried to warn him too,” Abuela stopped talking as Aiden got up and hugged her tightly. “You silly boys, you drive me loco. What am I supposed to do with my boys?”

 

Aiden kissed the side of her head softly, patted her shoulder as he walked out of the room, “It’s all going to work out, Abuela, I promise. I will not let you down.” Abuela shook her head.

 

“What were you saying to the boy, Eugene, you better not have been filling his head with … backing up his nonsense.” Eugene saw his grandfather stand up and embrace his Abuela in a very passionate kiss. He looked down in embarrassment, shook his head and walked to the front door.

 

Aiden was back. He looked at his grandfather and hugged him. “Another vision?” Eugene asked. ​

 

“Yes, and you are a very good man, Grandpa. A very good man.” Eugene smiled and gave him a quick, firm embrace.

 

“You must go.” Eugene squeezed Aiden’s arms as Aiden nodded.

 

He turned to look at Mara. “I’m so sorry. I don’t understand how I ever could have…” Aiden wanted to reach out and touch her.

 

“Just do what you need to do, Aiden. It’s too late to go back, so keep moving forward.” Mara started to walk forward on the path Eugene had pointed out for Aiden. Aiden reached his arm out to block Mara. She looked at him annoyed, “I don’t understand.”

 

“I have to do this on my own, Mara. I can’t let the confusion of what may or may not have happened cloud what I know to be true. I have to do this without any bias of what I may think your opinion of me is,” Mara nodded. She was not completely pleased with this answer, but she did not argue it.

 

​“When I return, there will be no need for a wall. I’m going to get rid of whatever is dividing us.” Aiden’s surety was evident in the way he looked at everyone standing in front of him. He looked forward; the scenery was darker and a cool breeze had begun to blow. He noticed that the further he went into the jungle the more the foliage began to change to that of a wooded forest, no longer tropical like a jungle. The temperature was also slowly dropping as the low sunlight shifted to an even dimmer moonlight.

 

“Aiden.” The name was breathed, not spoken, as it stretched out over the breeze. “Aiden.” Aiden looked for the source but could see nothing in the forest that was now filled completely with pine trees that overwhelmed the air with their presence.

 

“Who’s there? If you are the ghost, come out! I want to settle this.” Instantly, Aiden heard a deep breath come from behind him.

 

“Do you?” again, the words were loud but soft like a vapor. Aiden jumped, his eyes following the voice, but no figure was there. “And what makes you think it is that easy? You invited me here. I plan on staying. I plan on killing you, and ruling over all of this.” Aiden turned quickly again, still not seeing any type of image.

 

“Why do you want to kill me? Why do you think it will be so easy to do so? I’m not going to let you … ” Aiden was quickly knocked down by a hurricane strength gust of wind. “Face me! Coward, FACE ME!” Aiden was more frightened than he had been since he was a little child. The light was quickly getting darker and darker. All he could make out were dark silhouettes of the tree branches. Aiden was turning in circles, looking for something to pick up to fight with, but every time he went to reach for something, he was knocked down again.

 

“I thought you wanted to fight me?” The breathy masculine voice sounded amused. “You have no power here.” The voice was calm and sure as its tone became surer. Aiden felt a strong hit to the back of his head as everything faded.

 

9.

 

It is not until we wake up in hell that we realize where we were headed.

 

The crispness of the cold was refreshing to the pain of Aiden’s wounds. He smelled the stale wood that was also fresh and dewy because of the cold. His eyes were burning from the smoke of a wood-burning stove. His arms were on fire from hanging down below him, and his feet were weightless in a disturbing way as he realized he was hanging upside down. He hesitantly opened his eyes, afraid of what he would see. He was surprised to see a mirror that had been propped up in front of him. He looked at his reflection. It was then that he noticed his thoughts were cloudy. He had been drugged. He could smell it; the Spice. It was strong. It was like basil and potpourri. His face did not follow the movements of his reflection in the mirror. As he moved his head the image in the mirror seemed delayed and his face more so than the rest of his image. There was a multiplicity effect. The several faces began to take on their own personalities; some mad, some happy, some confused. They were interacting with one another in a dream-like way (similar to seeing your own doppelganger in a dream). It was a few minutes before he realized he was actually moving his own head back and forth slowly while making these different expressions. He abruptly stopped. He heard her voice, and was taken back…

 

“Oh my god, Aiden, look. I have two heads.” Mara moved her head back and forth slowly.

 

“You nerd, I told you not to look in the mirror. It will trip you out. This shit is the stronger stuff. Especially for you.” Aiden laughed as he packed himself another bowl.

 

“Aiden, it’s frightening me, it’s like I am not controlling my face anymore. Aiden, I’m hyperventilating.” Aiden didn’t walk over to her until he had finished taking his hit.

 

“What are you talking about?” He said as he was still blowing out the smoke.

 

“Aiden, I don’t like this, it is way more intense than the last time. I feel like I can’t breathe.” Mara had only been high a couple of times before meeting Aiden, and he enjoyed exposing her to new experiences but became annoyed when she would overreact like a novice.

 

“Stop freaking yourself out. You’re fine. I’m here with you.” Aiden put his lighter in his pocket and reached out for her hands. He crouched down to be at eye level with her. “I’m with you, and I won’t let anything bad happen to you.

 

Whoa, your eyes are totally trippy right now. It’s like they are dancing, ha, they are like the waves in the ocean: coming in, going out, coming in, going out.” Mara started laughing and gazed back into Aiden’s eyes.

 

“Yours look like they are on fire. The flames are dancing around in the smoke.” Mara’s smile was genuine.

 

“Oh my god, Mara. Are you ok?” Mara’s carefree smile turned to a look of horror.

 

“Why? What is it?”

 

“Your eye; one of your eyes just drifted off, like a lazy eye or something. Do you have a lazy eye?” Aiden sounded more disgusted than concerned.

 

“I never have before. Oh my god, I can feel it. Do you think it is the spice?”

 

“I don’t know, I’m sure it couldn’t be. Could it? Does that make sense?”

 

“I don’t know, it’s really freaking me out, tonight, Aiden. I don’t think I want to do it anymore.”

 

“Okay, we won’t do it anymore. You mean more to me than stupid spice. We’ll just finish this jar, then we’re done.” Mara nodded. She had closed her eyes, frightened by what she was feeling.

 

Aiden was back in the cabin staring at his reflection. His eyes began to narrow as his brow furrowed. His own reflection looked evil, but it looked like someone else’s. His evil doppelganger had returned.

 

His eyes rolled back as he entered a new memory, “Aiden, you told me you were going to quit.” Mara was crying picking up a shattered glass on the kitchen floor.

 

“I just have a little bit left in this jar. I’m sorry, ok. It’s not because of the Spice. I just got upset. You said you were talking to that guy again.” Mara’s expression was that of disgust.

 

“No, Aiden, I did NOT say that. I said that he tried to contact me. I was trying to be honest with you. I did not even respond to him. You hear whatever you want to hear. It’s worse when you’re on that poison! I told you I would leave you if you didn’t quit.”

 

“You’re just trying to distract me from being upset with you. You’re a whore!”

 

“You’re an addict! Call me when the Spice is out of your system. Dammit, Aiden. I am so sick of cleaning up your messes!”

 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. It makes me more alert. It helps me at work. I don’t even do it when I come home. You want me to start doing bad at work?”

 

“Do you hear yourself, Aiden? A drug helps you to do ‘good’ at work. Do you really think that’s true? I don’t even want to hear it anymore. You give it up and quit it, or I’m leaving you for good.”

 

“No, please, I can’t be without you.” Aiden quickly tried to recover from what sounded so painfully pathetic as it spilled out of his mouth. He grabbed Mara’s arm and forced her to look into his eyes. His eyebrows were raised as if he could control her mind if he tried hard enough. “You are my life.” Aiden stopped, looked down, and swallowed deeply as he thought of what to say next. “You can dump it out.” Aiden dropped her hand and hurried over to his dresser drawer to find the jar of Spice. He pulled it out, took off the lid, and pushed it towards Mara.

 

“You’ve said that before, Aiden; and I’ve dumped it out before, but you always manage to go get some more, eventually.”

 

“I really mean it this time, I promise, Mara. You are so important to me. So much more important to me than … anything.” The last word was whispered and there was a hint of realization in his voice as he said it.

 

Aiden opened his eyes, seeing his reflection again. He had returned to the cabin. He closed his eyes, trying to avoid seeing his own dislocated face.

 

“Do you smell it?” The breathy voice from the forest was back. It was still shapeless and had no visual trace. Its airy presence sent vibrations through the wood of the cabin’s walls. “It’s a wonderful drug, isn’t it? It makes you forget, it makes you carefree, it makes you weightless, and most of all, it makes you powerless. The more you breathe in, the stronger I become. So breathe it in, Aiden. I feel my regaining strength.” The incense was being burned over the open fire, filling the room with its fumes. Aiden remained silent; his eyes pinned closed. He could hear howling off in the distance. “I’m the one that got that wench off your back, you know. She was a cheating whore, like the rest of them. She always thought she was too good for you anyway. It’s a shame you didn’t kill her though. She almost ruined everything.” Aiden was holding back his anger knowing how powerless he would be in his current state. “I can’t just destroy you, unfortunately, you have to surrender. That’s how it works, but I’m going to make you an offer. Instead of being tortured by the memories of your ill-spent past, I will numb your mind and let you live in a state of ignorant bliss. It’s a warm comforting feeling; nothing to fear.” Aiden had still not seen the image of the ghost, but Aiden could feel his breath with each word he spoke as if his enormous mouth was just above Aiden, breathing down on him. The howling suddenly got louder, closer, just outside the cabin. The shutters to all of the windows slammed shut with a mighty gust of wind similar to what had knocked Aiden down in the woods.

 

Aiden could hear it; the wolf was attempting to get inside the cabin. The gust of wind came again as if it were fighting off the ghost’s unwelcome visitor. Aiden was unsure about which creature to fear. His drugged state was beneficial in keeping him calm. A slight whimper, after the wolf had been thrown into the ground by the gusts of wind, would be followed by aggravated, determined snarls and scratching at the cabin’s door. Pieces of the door began to splinter away, and finally, a hole was big enough for the wolf to make its way inside. “BE GONE!” The wolf growled. Aiden recognized the voice.

 

“Panther?” Aiden was still groggy from the effects of the Spice.

 

“Give me a reason to not kill you!” Aiden was startled by his supposed rescuer’s response. It took him a minute to realize the threat from the wolf was directed towards Aiden.

 

“What are you talking about? I thought you were here to help me.” He had the same eyes, the panther had become the wolf.

 

“Help you? Help you to what? Kill the ghost? Do you think you have done any damage to him thus far? He is simply watching right now in order to humor us. We have no power over him. I told you I would destroy you if need be. I must do whatever is needed to ensure he does not win, even if that means killing you.”

 

“But if you kill me, you kill yourself. I am you. It doesn’t make any sense.” Aiden’s eyes kept closing against his will as he was still in his upside-down position now slightly swinging from the wind that had entered with the wolf.

“It is for the greater good. Better we all die than one of us lives being controlled by the ghost.”

 

“If you help me out of here, I can defeat him. I just need to go back to the village first. Please, panther.” The broken wall into the cabin had aired out the spice’s fumes. Aiden was beginning to gain more consciousness, although his arms and legs were beginning to feel as though they were ripping apart at the seams.

 

“What makes you think I am willing to let you go?” The ghost’s voice returned accompanied by a strong breeze. The voice was deep and clearer than before, still full of breath.

 

“If you let me go, I will return, and if I am unsuccessful in defeating you when I do return, I give you my word, I will surrender to you. You already told me you cannot kill me and that I must surrender, well, I’m not going to surrender now; You can kill me or let me go, and I will not surrender until I have returned. So, you can take this gamble. Either I succeed, and I destroy you, or I fail, and I give you my word I will surrender.” The wolf’s eyes were filled with confusion as Aiden glanced towards him. Aiden then looked back up at the rafters waiting for a response, as the ghost still had no figure to be seen.

“How do I know your word will be kept?” All of the authority was still heard in the ghost’s voice.

 

“Ask the wolf. He is my conscience. He can’t lie to you. If he guarantees it, you know it is true.” Aiden looked back at the wolf and nodded.

 

“Let him down. I will accompany him back to the village. We will return. If we fail to defeat you,” the wolf stopped and sighed while looking into Aiden’s eyes, “You have my word that all will be surrendered to you.”

 

Aiden fell to the ground as the ropes holding him up disappeared, “Then go!” The voice yelled angrily filled with annoyance. The door was blown open by the ghost’s winds. Neither the wolf nor Aiden hesitated to quickly leave the cabin.

 

“Get on.” The wolf laid down as Aiden climbed on to his back to reach the rock wall faster. As they grew closer to the wall, the scenery gradually shifted back to its tropical state; warmer, brighter, greener. As the scenery changed so did the wolf, back into a panther. Aiden leaned back unsure if this was going to affect him. The panther stopped once the wall was in sight. As Aiden climbed off of the panther he studied the animal. It was his eyes that were human and again constant in both of the creature’s forms. They eerily reminded him of his own eyes: a light brown with orange highlights near the center. That was the fire Mara always commented on.

 

“What is your plan?” The panther moved his eyes away from Aiden noticing his fixation with them.

 

“I’m not sure, but I know I need everyone in the village’s help if I am going to come out of this successfully. If everyone here is me then they know the truth about everything; I just need to piece it all together. There has to be a way to figure out who the ghost is, and subsequently, how to get rid of him.” Aiden waited for the panther’s approval of his idea, but there was a pause until the panther finally looked back at Aiden.

 

“Just make sure to examine everything. Everything has a meaning, Aiden. Nothing occurs without having a consequence.” The panther’s eyes were piercing as he made sure to back up his words with a firm look.

 

“I have a theory, but I am unsure about it. There is nowhere on either side of the wall that is similar to the wooded area the ghost’s cabin is in. So, I think he isn’t from within. He got here somehow. Somehow the Spice let him in. I think he uses it to his advantage, and it’s spreading. It’s taking over the jungle. I have to figure out how to get rid of the residue, how to eliminate the Spice. It’s the source of his power.” Again, Aiden waited for the panther’s approval, but the panther was silent. “I’m missing something though.” The panther nodded, still not making eye contact with Aiden. “What is it? Tell me what it is. I don’t understand.”

 

“First, It’s not just the spice,” the panther seemed irritated, “AND you have an outer body, as well, Aiden.” He said this as if Aiden had been forgetting about something obvious. “This land, here, affects your outer body. That infection, where the forest is, is because of something that is actually affecting your outer body. You need to become conscious of what state your outer body is in. What is causing you to die?”

 

Aiden searched his mind. He was trying to think of the last thing he remembered. “A gunshot wound. Mara shot me after she was trying to escape. She told me about that, I already knew about it, but I didn’t realize that was affecting us in here. I guess that would have been the logical connection.” Aiden began patting down his body with his hands as if it would reveal where his wound was that was present on the outside.

 

“That is incorrect.” The panther’s voice was stale. Aiden looked surprised at the unexpected dispute. “It wasn’t Mara who shot you.” The panther maintained grave eye contact.

 

“Then who shot me?” Suspects started passing through his thoughts. He thought of Chloe, Eugene; no, that didn’t make sense.

 

“I did.” The panther’s eyes never wandered as they maintained their stoic hold on Aiden.

 

“I don’t understand, how could you have shot me?” Aiden looked down at his hands spreading out his fingers as if examining them for evidence. “That would mean I shot myself.” Aiden’s fruitless search for a gun wound became more frantic. The thought that he had shot himself and was now dying from it made him feel acutely claustrophobic. “I … I don’t believe it. I don’t believe I would do that. If I would do something like that, I would remember. I don’t have any of those feelings now. How could I just be a completely different person? That can’t be true.”

 

“You were out of control, and I could no longer get you to see the harm in your actions. You were harming innocence. The Spice took away your reasoning. You should have seen the destruction, the war that was being waged inside; it was happening right here, Aiden. Close your eyes.” Aiden looked at the Panther oddly, and then obeyed his command. “Now you can see what I have seen.”

 

Aiden was standing in the same place, but it was more perfect; brighter. The water was crystal. The sand was bleached, non-stick flour. Mara was there. She was beautiful. There were no bruises on her neck. She was happy. The look on her face was completely the opposite from her typical somber demeanor. Her bright skin was glowing with hope and love. She was walking toward Aiden with a mischievous smile that widened her face.

 

“Do you want to go on an adventure?” Mara’s hand extended to Aiden. He smiled and reached in to comply with the gesture.

 

The screeching! Aiden looked up. A cloud of bright lights streaked across the pure water-colored sky. It landed in the middle of the jungle. Aiden noticed the wall was not yet there. They coldness they felt stayed with them. 

 

“What do you think that was, Aiden?” Mara began to pull him into the jungle as the experience faded.

 

Time passed; again, Aiden was in the same spot, but it looked different. There was a storm. It was raining, but it wasn’t water; it was ashes as if a volcano had erupted. Aiden looked toward the wall, it was not as high, but it was being built. Aiden recognized faces from the village. Abuela was stacking rocks onto the wall.

 

“I told him that girl would destroy him. Bad breeding.” Eugene was shaking his head to Abuela’s words.

 

“You know it wasn’t the girl, Abuela. You are in denial of what he is capable of. He needs consequences. If he doesn’t find them, he is going to destroy…” Bright flashes could be seen on the other side of the wall. “Their coming, Abuela. We need to hide, now.” Abuela, stood there, defiantly continuing her task. “Abuela, get going!”

 

“Let them take me. I’m tired. They are destroying him. I want them to face me. I want to see them. I want them to try and get rid of me.” Two incandescent circles were bobbing in the air near the wall as if weightless. It looked like they were floating, as their bodies were not yet visible. They were head-like, but featureless, like empty skulls, but with less definition. Their eyes were the only part of the head not glowing. The eyes were hollow and black. One of them opened their mouth. It was the same type of hollowness as the eyes, but sharp jagged teeth could be seen, even from a distance. The teeth were extremely long, and the opening of its mouth stretched out as long as the length of the head doubling its size. It looked like a snake that was unhinging its jaw to eat an inconceivably large meal. With the mouth’s closing, the head regained its shape. When it opened its mouth, a loud shrill screech could be heard, like the wheels of the train scraping along the track. It stung the ears. Their bodies were stick-like; poorly constructed. They clomped with poor posture; taller than a human, but only by a few feet. They reminded Aiden of characters he often used to draw on this schoolwork during middle school. One of them walked up to a boy huddled under a palm tree trying to hide from them. Aiden squinted, the boy was a childhood friend, but he had not aged. The glowing creature turned its head toward the boy, let out a shrill screech, opening its mouth widely a bright light poured out falling on the boy. The boy screamed, but only for a moment, as that was all it took for the boy to disappear; vanish. As quickly as he disappeared, he reappeared, but this time hollow and empty with a menacing look on his face. Just by looking at him, Aiden knew. He wanted to bring harm to Aiden. It didn’t even make sense that he could now tell this, but it was an instinct, a sense that the boy now emanated.

 

One of the creatures spotted Abuela and Eugene. It quickly clomped towards them, its long stick legs covered several feet with one step. As the creature came upon Abuela, who was still running, it began to open its mouth. From the darkness, the panther pounced on the creature. It again let out a shriek, but quickly swiped the panther off of it with a swift movement from its lengthy arm. Abuela was able to escape towards the village. There was another man, built like a gladiator; it was Aiden’s father. He was punching at the creatures intermediately successful. He was yelling and cussing at them. Eugene was yelling at him to hide, but he insisted he had nothing to hide from. As one of the creatures was being struck down by him, another snuck up behind him and grabbed him simultaneously leaping into the sky while making the hideous screeching noise. They disappeared into the jungle. Once the panther saw the other humans were safe, he jumped the wall and began to run towards the center of the dark jungle where Aiden’s father had been taken. Aiden found himself there, watching. Mara was there too. She was being dragged by one of the creatures as she screamed, kicking and punching. She managed to slip out of its grip as Aiden’s father appeared, but he was one of them now. Hollow and full of hate. He kicked Mara to the ground with the strength of a horse. The panther pounced on the creature that had been Aiden’s father. Mara ran and hid behind a tree, watching as the panther wrestled with the creature. She would yell from behind the tree then back up behind it. She began gathering stones and throwing them at the creature. The panther concentrated on attacking the creature’s head. Suddenly there was a strong wind. The high pitch scream! With great force, a man landed in the center of the fight. He looked like Aiden, causing Aiden to gasp. He had something in his hand, it was temporarily blinding as it met the small amount of light shining down between the gray clouds, and heavy foliage. Squinting to see what his other self had, he realized it was a gun. His other self calmly walked around the tree Mara was standing behind.

 

“Aiden? You’ve been gone for so long. Where have you been?” Mara’s face managed to still be lit with hope as heartbroken tears began to drip down her soft cheeks, but Aiden remained calm and silent. The fire portion of his eyes seemed to be glowing. “Aiden, we’ve needed you, I don’t understand, where have you been?” Noticing something about him was not familiar, Mara’s hopeful look turned to fear. She began to walk backward; Aiden was following in front of her. As she backed up against another tree Aiden followed getting intimately close.

 

“Hello, love.” Aiden’s voice was deep and insincere. He went to kiss her, but Mara turned her head causing him to deeply kiss her cheek and neck. She looked toward the panther who returned her concerned glance.

 

“Aiden, what is this? What are …who are you? What is controlling you? You are not acting like yourself.” Mara tried to push Aiden away, but he pushed back pinning her arms against the tree. He then wrapped one hand around her neck, pinning her helplessly against the tree. She could use nothing but her eyes to communicate her terror with him.

 

“You lied to me.” His voice changed drastically lowering and becoming the loud whisper Aiden had heard in the cabin. He released his grip on her neck but quickly threw her against the tree again.

 

“You’re scaring me, Aiden.” Mara was gasping for air as she was searching his face for a recognizable feature. It was his face, but somehow it didn’t look like him at all.

 

“You’re a whore. You’re a cheating WHORE!” As he yelled this, the trees shook and the ground trembled. He threw Mara away from the tree and face down onto the ground.

 

“Aiden! I don’t understand, what are you doing?” Mara was on the ground fumbling to find something to help prop herself back up.

 

“It doesn’t matter, you won’t need to understand anymore.” As quickly as he spoke, he pulled the gun out of his back pocket and aimed it at Mara. The panther leaped out towards the chaos of the situation. Aiden quickly tilted his body purposefully making eye contact in the form of a warning glance; the panther continued to circle the situation but backed down.

 

“Aiden, No! You are not being yourself. Aiden, think about what you are doing.” Mara began crying so hysterically she was gasping for breaths between sobs. Her hands started frantically padding down the sides of the tree behind her to help her keep her balance as she started to try and kneel down as if to plea as a suppliant for Aiden’s sanity to return.

 

“All of this is me. I’m cleaning out all of the traders, all of the liars, all of the CHEATERS, all of the WHORES,” He paused and looked down at Mara repositioning his aim to accurately lineup with her temple, “like Mara.” His eyes brightened with each exclamation and then softened with a hint of insanity as he said her name.

 

“No, Aiden, something changed. You know what I’m talking about, Aiden. Think this through. What will happen to me out there, in reality, if you do this here? How will you feel about me? You can’t do this. This will lead to horrible things, Aiden. You will do horrible things.” Mara was hysterically crying between her words trying to wipe the hair, damp and sticky from salty tears, from her mouth while still keeping the appearance of raised hands.

 

Aiden drew in closer to Mara, “I am doing what you deserve, Mara. You’re just another hooker. Just like every other woman, you’re just another whore. Just like Chloe, you’re just another cheater. All women are filthy prostitutes! Lying, sneaky, worthless whores.” As Aiden began to pull the trigger, he froze. His entire body froze like a statue. His eyes did not blink; his lungs did not bring in air. The panther approached Mara.

 

“What happened?” Mara hesitantly picked herself up, still gasping for air from all of the crying.

 

“I’m only able to do this if his mind is weak enough. He is using again. I have never been able to do it for this long before.” The panther circled Aiden looking at his frozen body.

 

“Do what?” Mara followed the panther, circling Aiden’s motionless body. The panther was examining Aiden’s body still trying to figure out what was happening.

 

“Control his actions. I’ve never been able to control him for this long. He’s on something, but he’s gone too far. He’s let the drugs take him to a dark place he has been in danger of entering for a very long time. I can only hold him for so long, and once I let go, he’s going to kill you, in here as well as in reality.” The panther stood still looking gravely up into Mara’s eyes.

 

“What can I do?” Mara looked at Aiden’s still face searching for something familiar as she spoke to the panther. She started to reach out to touch him, but thought better of it and pulled her hand back quickly.

 

“Nothing. I want you to go as quickly as you can, run, back to the shore. Just run, Mara. Don’t look back.” As the panther said this, Aiden’s arm that was holding the gun slowly began to rise up, his hand turning towards himself. The gun was now pointing at his head.

 

“Are you doing that?” Mara’s eyes filled with confusion and fear as she looked down at the panther.

 

“Go, Mara. I need you to get away from here! Run!” Mara turned towards the direction of the shore and began to run as fast as she could. She kept stumbling over roots that were sticking up from the ground, but then quickly gaining traction again. She stopped trying to look back as she realized how badly it was slowing her down and the fear of the unknown sped up her heart As the panther released his hold of Aiden, and Aiden’s finger pulled the trigger releasing the bullet that was meant for Mara, Mara turned around one last time and screamed out. She quickly turned away again and started running without hesitation towards the shore, out of the jungle. She wanted nothing to do with any of this. She knew their world was about to end.

 

Aiden was back in the present next to the wall staring at the panther. “You did it for Mara. You knew I would kill her.”

 

“I knew we would kill her. I am you, Aiden. I had to do what was right. You would no longer let me. I did what I had to do.”

 

Aiden lifted his hand up to feel his head; he could feel a slight indentation in the side of his skull, as he was too frightened to feel and discover more. “Why couldn’t I find the wound before? I was feeling all over trying to find it.”

 

“The mind is a very powerful manipulator. You did not want to find it so badly, even when you were searching for it, your mind hid it from you. In this world, you only see what you want to see. You only know what you want to know. You are all of this, and your truest self is what controls it.” The panther looked confused as Aiden began to turn and quickly walk away. “Where are you going, Aiden?” He did not answer the panther and the panther did not attempt to follow him.

 

Once Aiden knew he was away from everyone, he sat down against the trunk of a tree and began to search his memories. He was breathing heavily from sprinting away in case the panther tried to follow him, not that the panther wouldn’t be able to catch him, but he would know Aiden did not want to be followed. His thoughts were so loud he could not think. He tried to search his thoughts, but they were too scrambled. He wiped his mind of anything and closed his eyes. After a moment he opened his eyes again and stared down at the ground that was covered in moss. He followed each fury string that connected to the next. He did this until his brain was numb and began to wander.

 

Suddenly he was watching himself in the same apartment he had seen Mara unpacking, but this time it was all put together; lived in. Aiden was sitting on the couch, rifling through his backpack. Mara walked in the door. It was cold and raining outside. Her clothes and hair were damp. Her makeup was smudged around the rim of her eyes.

 

“Hi, babe. Oh my gosh, the traffic was horrible.” Mara placed her bag down and began putting her lunch bag, coffee cup, and a pile of papers away without taking the time to look at Aiden with more than just a glance.

 

“I’ve got a jar of something that will make you feel better.” Mara knew by the tone in his voice what he was talking about. He sounded like a kid who had just found a stash of hidden candy bars, or more likely, a rebellious child who had just stolen a cigarette from their mother’s purse.

 

“I’m gonna stick to a glass of wine. I’ve got work tomorrow.” Mara walked toward the kitchen. She was not quiet about opening and closing the door to the refrigerator. She noisily placed the wine glass on the counter. Aiden knew she was also avoiding eye contact because she was upset.

 

“I got the good stuff. Ready to ‘spice up’ your life?” Aiden spoke like a TV ad and threw his deal-closer smile and a friendly laugh to try and smooth over her disappointment. Mara had been growing more and more annoyed by his addiction. It wasn’t endearing anymore. He had been the bad boy she never dated in high school who was exposing her to all of the things she had never been exposed to before, but now she had a real job, real responsibilities, and she was the only one carrying the weight of life on her shoulders. It annoyed her that he couldn’t kick the habit and that he still acted like he was seventeen. Being four years her senior, it would be easy to mistake him for being in his early 20s if the sun exposure hadn’t made his pushing-30 actual age so apparent. It was ridiculous at this point.

 

“I don’t want any, Aiden, and you told me you were going to quit.” She had yelled and screamed at him about it, but she had taken a more passive approach after finding that those methods produced no results, or even made the situation escalate.

 

“It helps me with work. It helps me keep my mind fresh, babe. It’s cool. I’ll leave you a packed bowl in case you change your mind.” Mara looked at him disapprovingly. Aiden finished two bowls before going to the fridge and pouring himself some wine. He grabbed Mara around the waist and tried to kiss her, but she pushed him away. He laughed it off and his eyes were already starting to hang down half closed as he began to enter the hazy cover of Spice.

 

“Aiden, both? You know you get kind of crazy when you do both. Come on. I have to work tomorrow, and so do you.” Aiden walked over to her and started dancing up next to her.

 

“I’m just trying to loosen up and have some fun…with you.” Aiden flashed his smile again as he walked to the couch pulling Mara with him by her hand. He sat down and pulled her onto his lap. “Want to play a video game? You pick. I’ll let you pick. I don’t even care. I just want to chill with you.” Mara hesitantly agreed. The two sat playing a two-player shooter for about an hour, throughout which Aiden commented on every unimportant thing in the most detailed, annoying way.

 

“Did you see that guy up in the corner, I got him because I used my special enemy locator scope.” “If they had a car shop like this one in real life, I would own it. I would run it. I would play Tiger Army all day. Everyone would think I was the coolest, badass boss. I would be awesome.” “If I were to name a potato chip, I’d name it Pot…ha…pot…get it?” It was amusing at first, but thirty minutes into it, it was clear Mara wanted him to stop talking. Like a toddler that comments on every new thing they notice, when Aiden was on Spice, he let his mouth run with any and every random thought that entered his mind. He always looked hollow after doing spice too. His eyes would be red and glossed over. His stare was vacant. His IQ would drop as he found himself unable to focus on a topic long enough to finish a simple conversation. Time slowed down. It made him think he was smarter, but it was only because he was slowly listening to his own thoughts, but they had nothing productive to contribute. It drove Mara nuts, but she had gotten used to faking her complacency with it.

 

“Let’s go get some beer, Mara. You drive.” “I can’t drive, Aiden. I had a glass of wine.”

 

“Psssssh, that’s not anything. I could drive, but I might not get us there.” Aiden laughed at his stale humor. “Seriously, take me to the store.”

 

“Aiden, it’s late, we both have to work tomorrow. There’s no way I’m going to take you to get a beer.” Mara didn’t stop playing the video game or make eye contact while talking to Aiden. She found that trying to reason with him as an adult, while he was on Spice, was pointless; so she had to take more of a parenting role.

 

“Fine, then I’m gonna go myself, probably get a DUI. Maybe go to jail.”

 

“Why are you going to get a DUI? You didn’t even finish the glass of wine you poured. You shouldn’t be driving, but your not going to get a DUI. Besides, you are going to be too lazy to get up off of this couch, let alone drive yourself to the store.” Aiden would often come up with elaborate plans while on Spice, but he would rarely follow through, ending up on the couch watching TV or playing a video game. It made him feel like gravity was so much more powerful pulling him down with strings on every inch of his body.

 

“Pllleeeaaase, Mara. I’ll give you money, go get me a tall can.” Aiden even knew he was pushing it after he said that. A tall can was basically a supersized beer, and Mara hated when Aiden would get one. The Spice made Aiden dumb, but the alcohol made him mean.

 

“Aiden! You’re a grown man. Stop it. You’re so annoying lately.” Mara knew that one hurt. “I mean when you’re on that shit.” Mara meant to sound kinder, but it came out as more of an accusation.

 

“Are you trying to tell all the neighbors that you’re sick of me?” Mara stared straight ahead still playing the game while shaking her head, “That you’re single? That you’re looking for someone new?” For this, Mara paused the game and gave Aiden a disgusted look.

 

“What? What the hell are you talking about, Aiden McCurry?” Mara paused for a response. Aiden looked back at her ferociously. Aiden’s lips were pursed tightly and his eyes were narrowed as he looked at her with true hate. Mara’s determination turned to confusion and then to fear. Aiden’s face didn’t look familiar. It was like he was wearing a mask of himself.

 

“You know what I’m talking about.” Aiden waited as if giving Mara a moment to confess, but she sat still with her mouth open dumbfounded. She searched for something to say, but it was such nonsense she was unsure how to respond, and she was scared the wrong answer could be dangerous. “My ex did the same thing. You’re all sluts.” Aiden overly emphasized the harsh sounding consonants. Mara’s brows furrowed uncontrollably as anger welled up from what he was accusing her of, how he was talking to her and treating her like dirt without any warrant.

 

“Aiden!? What are you talking about?” The frustration of the situation was too much. She threw the wireless controller on the ground and stood up. The controller bounced back up and hit her leg; Mara then kicked it. The calmness had passed. She couldn’t hold back from yelling. She was so sick of Aiden acting like a teenager and then her taking all of the blame for his misbehavior. Aiden would make up these stories and convince himself of their truth. She could ignore the ignorance, the irresponsibility, but when he started attacking her, after all she had to put up with; she would lose it.

 

“I heard the neighbor invite you to a party when you were walking in yesterday.” Mara looked towards the door trying to remember what incident he could be using to concoct his new accusation towards her. She now vaguely remembered the neighbor upstairs yelling down, “Hey, you guys should come to a barbeque I’m having next weekend,” Mara had her hands full of groceries and was half listening. She gave a polite smile and nod followed by, “yeah, we’ll see.” Which was her typical response to social obligations?

 

“Yeah, he invited US to a party.”

 

“Yeah, he asked you. He asked you because you’re always out in the parking lot sticking your ass up in the air.” Mara’s face was completely disgusted. She was frightened to even argue with him because of what little sense he was making.

 

“Aiden, I don’t know what you are talking about, but if you have a problem with something, we should talk about it when you are sober. I swear to you there is nothing going on behind your back. I know your ex cheated on you. You’ve talked to me about that before, but that doesn’t mean I would do that. You know that; I would never do that. You know how much I love you. I don’t even notice other guys.” She reached out and tried to grab his hand affectionately. He grabbed her arm and twisted it aggressively. This shocked, Mara. She didn’t expect that type of a reaction, although she had instinctively feared it.

 

“Bullshit! I’ve seen you out there sticking your ass up in the air.” Aiden had gotten up off of the couch and was now pacing around the room as if he were looking for something.

 

“Aiden, I don’t go out there and ‘stick my ass up in the air,’” Mara used both of her hands to gesture quotes and whined as she recited his words. She had not become so fearful as to not fight back, yet. “I don’t even know what you’re referring to.” Mara had stopped yelling, and gone back to a more calm tone as she saw Aiden’s face fill with more rage. She watched him as he began digging through the drawers in the kitchen, then shuffling through the bookcase. The frantic way he was doing this frightened her and she began to mentally figure an escape plan (something she had taught herself to do after so many times of him throwing her around, but not anything she would have admitted to herself as she made herself believe each time would be the last). She started to search the room for the best option. Deep down Mara knew it had been too good for too long and had been subconsciously dreading this for months.

 

“You’re always going out to get something out of your car. You bend over and stick your ass up in the air for all the neighbor’s to see, like a little whore.” As Aiden growled the words his voice was so gravelly it no longer sounded like him. Mara decided to hold back her anger from the way he was talking to her. It took everything in her to not start yelling.

 

“Do not call me that again, Aiden. I don’t know what you are thinking I am trying to do, but I don’t go out there so I can show off anything, let alone my ass.” She laughed a bit at the end of her sentence, but it was more nervous than joyful. If the situation had not been escalating the way that it had been, she would have found the conversation about her ass funny, but the moment of humor quickly left her mind as she studied Aiden’s sporadic movements. “The next time I need something out of my car, you can go get it for me, for all I care. I think you’re doing this because you’re high.” Mara paused considering whether or not to stick up for herself. “I am so sick of…”

 

“Shut your mouth! I know you’re lying! You know Chloe cheated on me, so you should have known that I would recognize the signs.” Mara recognized that Aiden was beyond logic now and searched her mind for ways to snap him out of it. “You’re a cheating whore, and you’re trying to get alone time with the neighbors.” Mara stood up and lost her inhibitions.

 

“You are making no sense,” She said this calmly, but with authority, as she stared confidently into Aiden’s eyes, “And if you want to keep comparing me to that dumb skank…”

 

“Don’t you dare call her a skank! She had more class than you’ll ever have,” Aiden would use his exes as weapons during fights comparing Mara to their whore ways, and then describe their superiority in looks and virtues with the same breath. Mara knew it was all fabrications from foggy memories, but it didn’t cut her any less. “She could have any guy she wanted just by looking their way. You wish you had her looks. Her tight body took years of toning to get just right.”

 

If Mara would have paused, she would have seen the absurdity in what Aiden was saying, but instead, she snapped. “You think you’re the best thing I’ve ever had? I’ve been with guys who actually had money and…” Before Mara even knew what was happening she was pinned down to the ground. She could feel Aiden’s weight on top of her; all 220lbs. of muscle weighing down on her. Both of her arms were straight down by her sides and pinned by his knees. His hands were around her neck. She was thinking about how odd the room looked from this angle; it was larger. Her face pressed tightly against the floor she could smell the dirt pressed deep into the carpet. She began thinking about whether or not she was going to die. Was this going to be how it happened? There was so much pressure she couldn’t even try to breathe. Her vision began to go black when suddenly Aiden let go.

 

“Oh my god, Mara. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Aiden was crying and he started pacing around the room taking large steps. He was rubbing his face with both of his hands. “What have I done? Oh my god. Mara.”

 

Mara slowly stood up and felt her neck, as if making sure it was there. It still felt tight even though he had let go. She stood still and emotionless for a moment. She wanted to cry, but she couldn’t get herself to do anything. Aiden approached her hunched down and looking concerned. He put his arms out and gently grabbed Mara’s shoulder, “Oh, honey,” Mara was still motionless and did not fight the action at first.

 

Suddenly, she found the will and control to burst into movement as she flung her arms up to move Aiden’s hands off of her shoulders. “You get away from me! GET AWAY!” Mara was screaming so loudly her words were distorted. Her throat ached from each scream that clawed its way out. Aiden tried to come towards her again. Still looking apologetic. His arms were once again extended. She started frantically feeling around herself grabbing nothing but air until she was able to grab a Kleenex box off of the coffee table and throw it at him. His apologetic look turned to annoyance. She quickly scurried into the bathroom; Aiden followed telling her how sorry he was. He leaned up against the door, trying to rhythmically force it open with his body. “Get out. Leave me alone!” Aiden persisted despite her screams. He was able to force the door open, as she knew he would since the old lock was not reliable. She started grabbing shampoo bottles and throwing them at him. As she did this, one opened and splattered shampoo on the side of her head as it was being thrown. She didn’t even know what she was doing. In fight or flight, she was simply trying to survive. That moment everyone thinks about at some point: what would I do if I were in danger? Pepper spray, a kick between the legs, or an upward thrust to the nose; none of that comes to mind when it actually happens. The one person she loved more than anyone else had just betrayed her in the most unimaginable way; acting logically and efficiently was not comprehensible at that moment. More than just betrayed, she had been threatened, she had been harmed, and she had been assaulted; despite who is doing that to a person, animalistic instincts take over. Even worse, she feared by the look in his eye that it wasn’t over.

 

Mara heard her mother’s voice echoing in her racing thoughts, “If you are ever taken away by someone, Mara, you fight. I don’t care who they are, or what they say they will do to you, or me, or anyone else; you fight. What they will do to you if you do not fight is much worse. Never let anyone hurt you.”

 

“Stop throwing things at me. I’m trying…” Mara yelled at him to go away again and then threw another toiletry. “I swear to god if you throw one more thing at me.” Aiden got a crazy look in his eyes again. Mara ran past him, put on her jacket and started for the door. “Mara, you can’t leave!”

 

“Let me leave. Please, let me leave, Aiden.” It was a frantic whisper.

 

“Mara! You are not leaving. You did this on purpose. You wanted to have a reason to leave me so you could be with the neighbor. This works out perfectly, he heard you screaming. He will be ready to rescue you. You slut!” Aiden slapped her across the face. Mara didn’t say a word as she turned her face back towards him. She just looked at him with both eyes wide open. She didn’t even move her hand to put pressure on the pain. “God, I’m sorry. You just can’t leave, Mara. Mara started looking around the room again trying to find a route for escape. She landed on Aiden’s yellow backpack. She remembered him saying his dad had given him a handgun to put in the apartment for safety. They had gotten into a fight over it, and last she knew, he had put it in his backpack and promised he would give it back to his dad the next time he saw him. Aiden followed her glance and saw that she was looking at the backpack. “What are you thinking? You little skank, what are you planning in that little college-educated brain of yours?” Aiden ran over towards the backpack as if guarding it.

 

“No, Aiden. I wasn’t planning anything. I just saw it. I wasn’t planning anything, I promise. Please, just let me go. Let me just go and we’ll cool off, then I’ll come back. Everything will be ok.” Mara knew that she needed to leave the apartment. She knew that her one goal, in order to save her own life, was to get out of that tiny apartment.

 

“I could go to jail for this, Mara. You know it wasn’t what it sounded like with you screaming your head off like I was trying to murder you or something.” Mara’s mouth dropped open instinctively shocked by his dismissal of the situation. This frightened Mara realizing his complete lack of remorse for his actions. What else would he be able to reason away? She needed to get out now. Aiden continued. “I mean it sounds a lot worse than what it was.” Mara nodded and started reaching out for the door handle, but never broke eye contact with Aiden.

 

“No, I know, Aiden. I wouldn’t tell anyone. The neighbor’s don’t know what’s going on. They probably think we’re watching a movie.” Mara tried to laugh to ensure authenticity, but it came out as more of a gasp for breath.

 

“What the hell are you doing? You can’t leave, Mara!” Aiden grabbed Mara’s arm and flung her across the room. She landed on the edge of the couch but fell onto the floor. Her arm landed on the yellow backpack. Aiden quickly ran towards her and grabbed the backpack away from her.

 

“I wasn’t trying to open it. My hand just landed there. I wouldn’t do anything. Please don’t act without thinking right now, Aiden. Please don’t do get into the backpack.” Aiden unzipped the bag slowly in a taunting manner.

 

“Why, Mara, what is in the backpack? What are you so nervous about in the backpack? What were you planning to do with the backpack while you were eyeing it, Mara?” He pulled out the pistol. Mara began to cry so deeply her entire body was quivering.

 

“Aiden, you aren’t in your right state of mind. This isn’t you. I know this isn’t you. Please, Aiden, put the gun away. You don’t even know what you are doing right now. I know you. Aiden, look at me; in the eyes. I know you. You would never do this. Please, Aiden.”

 

An interruption; someone was knocking at the door. Mara’s eyes doubled in size; they appeared to bulge slightly. She put her finger up to her mouth and made a “shhh” sound. Aiden looked furiously at Mara. He paced back and forth, then stepped forward and put his ear up to the door. Again a knock: “Everything ok in there?” The voice was loud but then muffled, as two voices appeared to be talking just outside. Their words were too fuzzy to make out, but it was clear it was two people. Aiden walked over to the window and looked out. An older man and his wife, they lived upstairs, were standing outside, but they had backed away from the door. They had been overheard commenting on the young couple’s whirlwind relationship that would spin from extremes of happiness to absolute hatred-fueled chaos without notice, especially lately. Aiden had commented on how much he disliked them on more than one occasion. Mara would always get mad at him for this, pointing out their complete innocence, but Aiden would insist they were assholes.

 

There was another person too close to the door to see through the window. All Aiden could make out was that it was a man. Aiden walked over to Mara and kneeled down. He whispered with an undeniable hint of spite, “Looks like your knight and shining armor is here. If they call the cops I’m going to jail tonight.” The gun was carelessly resting on his leg. Mara was completely still, but she stared at the gun, tilting her head making sure Aiden could not see her eyes. “What are you going to tell the cops when they get here? Are you going to have them lock me up?” Aiden was disturbingly alternating between affectionate and threatening tones. Finally, Aiden and Mara heard the neighbors’ footsteps going up the stairs. Aiden reached over and gently grabbed Mara’s chin. He pulled it towards him so that her face was now facing his. “Let’s just go to sleep, and we’ll talk about this all in the morning when everything is clearer. We’ll just go to sleep and hold each other. You know that I…” Mara didn’t hear any of his words, but she did notice that he had almost completely let go of the gun that was now in no more than a feather grip. Without completely thinking it through, Mara reached over, grabbed the gun, flung herself up, and pointed the gun at Aiden with little effort in a surreal moment for both of them. The look of determined furry took over Aiden’s face again.

 

“Don’t move, Aiden. I’m going to leave now. That’s all I want to do. I’m not going to the police. I’m not going to talk to anyone. I’m just going to leave,” Mara’s eyes only left Aiden’s when she glanced at her shaking hands holding the cold metal gun. Aiden followed her eyes down and slightly smiled.

 

“I’m trying to make up with you, and you point my own gun at me?” Aiden stood up in a seemingly fearless gesture. Without saying another word, he reached over, twisted Mara’s arm, and took the gun away from her. He breathed in deeply and let out a half-hearted chuckle, “This can only end badly.” Aiden took the gun and pointed it at Mara’s head. Mara closed her eyes tightly and began to pray. She asked God to forgive her of all of her mistakes. To forgive her for not following His path, for not respecting her mother enough, for living a life that led to this, for not following through. She asked God to make it painless, to not let her mom be sad, to not let her friends know what a loser she had become, to let something she had done in her life mean something. When nothing happened she opened her eyes. She saw Aiden closing his own eyes. He was saying his own prayer. In an audible voice, he asked God that Mara would forgive him. He pulled the trigger that was aimed at his own head.

 

10.

 

The greatest betrayal is lying to oneself.

 

Aiden was back in front of the wall with the panther. “I had to do it, Aiden. You knew we had to do it.” The panther looked straight at Aiden who remained stoic.

 

“So I’m not dead?” Aiden stated the fact more than asked it.

 

“No, not yet.” The panther stared at Aiden as if trying to read his thoughts.

 

“All of the people here are just my own projections of real people I know, yes?”

 

“In a simple answer, yes. They are not always accurate. Meaning that the word projection is a good choice since some of them have been influenced and therefore changed without you being conscious of it.”

 

“So they are really reflections of how I perceive that person?” The panther did not answer unsure if Aiden wanted an answer or meant it rhetorically. “I need to talk to Mara. Let’s go.” The panther nodded and stepped aside, allowing Aiden to take the lead. The two headed toward the village. Mara was sitting near a fire talking with a girl Aiden had known in high school. Aiden was beginning to remember where these, before unidentifiable, people were from. Each one of them had meant something to Aiden, and each had left an impression on his memory. It was odd for Aiden to finally realize this as he looked around at a group of unrelated strangers only he had a connection with.

 

“Aiden! I was worried about you. Are you alright? I was worried that you…” Aiden interrupted Mara who had stood up looking genuinely concerned.

 

“I’m fine. Would you come with me? I want to talk to you and ask you a few questions.” Mara nodded and instinctively followed Aiden.

 

“What is he doing here?” Mara seemed frightened, or at least uneasy about the panther being present.

 

“I need him here. Does he bother you?” Aiden watched closely for a response. Mara studied the panther with her eyes.

“No, I guess not, I’m just not used to him being around.” She was still looking at him out of the corner of her eye. “I think he knows why I don’t trust him.” Mara finally directed her conversation to the panther rather than avoiding him. The panther lightly growled then lowered his head and looked at Aiden.

 

“You need to put your differences behind you,” Aiden kept the fact that he knew what the panther had done a secret as he did not necessarily want Mara to know this yet. “I need to know if you loved me, Mara, and if I loved you. More importantly, DO you love me, and DO I love you?” Mara seemed suddenly uncomfortable. “You can think about it. I would like you to think about it. Just let me know your honest answer.”

 

“Yes, Aiden, I LOVED you, and I think I still DO love you, but I’m not sure that I can ever trust you in the way that I did before. You betrayed my trust, Aiden, in a way so intimate, and so hurtful. I just don’t know.” Mara avoided eye contact more consistently the longer she spoke.

 

“Do you believe I love you? I don’t mean that in a sardonic way, I really need to know what you believe. It’s not a trick or anything.” Aiden tried to appear as earnest as his intentions were, but Mara seemed cautious. She stared at the ground for what seemed like a long time. Finally, she looked at the panther and then at Aiden. She opened her mouth as if she were going to speak, but no words came out, instead, she took a deep breath in, shut her mouth, and swallowed. Again she opened her mouth, this time making eye contact with Aiden.

 

“I do. I do believe you love me. I just think you don’t know how to love. I think you are selfish. I think you let your selfish desires take control of you, and in return, they have destroyed you. I don’t know if there is enough of you left to be capable of love.”

 

Aiden had heard this speech before. She had told it to him before, word for word, in reality, and it took him there.

 

The sun was hiding in the corners of the room as Mara sat slumped on the edge of the bed. “Aiden, I believe you love me, but …” Her hair draped over the left side of her face keeping her expression hidden. “You’ve become so selfish. I’m not sure what has changed. I feel like a big part of it is the Spice, but I can’t tell you what to do, Aiden. You are a big boy. I just want to be happy. There was a time when we were happy. I was happy. Happier than ever before, but it’s different now. I don’t do the things I love anymore. I got too caught up with you, and now we are falling apart. We are falling into each other. Do you feel that, Aiden? Do you feel us colliding into a horrific wreck?” Her head never lifted, her eyes never made contact with his. Aiden simply walked over to her and slowly knelt down to her level directly in front of her folded body. He lifted her head with both of his hands and moved the hair out of her face as he leaned in to kiss her. It was the end of the monologue and she embraced his kiss. He knew she was losing herself in pieces, but he couldn’t imagine being without her. He became what she needed just long enough for her to buy the illusion, but this was the first time he had realized it.

 

Back from the vision; Aiden pulled away from Mara and healed both of her hands in his as he looked intently into her eyes, “You’re right. I’m not capable of giving you what you need. I’m going to need your help right now, but after this, I am letting you go. Will you help me?” Mara’s eyes were searching for an explanation, but she could see there would be none. Her eyes lost their softness that they had embraced so briefly and quickly clouded over as they had been. Aiden knew she understood it; she just needed to hear it and process it.

 

“Of course.” Aiden studied her strong expression. It had been the most common one he remembered. She used it as a weapon, not a shield; it was sharper than just a reflector. It was poised to attack, prepared to bite. She had rarely had that ferocious edge until after the incident. Being attacked by Aiden had made her feel the need to defend herself offensively. It was that look that reassured Aiden he was making the right decision.

 

“Alright, I need to talk to Eugene and Abuela, then we need to go back to the forest and confront the ghost. He needs to know we are not letting him take over.” Aiden walked back out into the village and saw Eugene.

 

Aiden walked out towards the village and found Eugene who was talking to a woman Aiden recognized as a checker at the supermarket he frequented. Eugene looked at Aiden noticing his solemn expression.

 

“What is it, Aiden?” Eugene reached out and touched Aiden’s back.

 

“I am going back to the forest to face the dark ghost. I need you and Abuela to stay here, but if I do not return by nightfall, plan on coming in to find me. Do not come until sun up, however, so it will be safe enough. Make the preparations needed now so you can leave early if need be.

 

“I will make sure everything is taken care of, Aiden. Are you going alone?”

 

“I will be taking the panther and Mara.”

 

“Mara? I don’t think that is wise, Aiden. Are you sure of

 

it?”

 

“Yes, I know what I need to do. I need your full trust and I need you to follow what I have told you perfectly. There is one more thing.” Aiden leaned closer to Eugene and whispered something in his ear that was inaudible to anyone remotely close. Eugene pulled away after hearing Aiden’s command and studied his face, making sure Aiden was serious. He looked down at the sand below his feet as if he were trying to understand the reasoning for what Aiden had told him to do.

 

“I will make sure of it, Aiden. I will trust you know what you are doing.” Aiden nodded confidently at Eugene’s reply and hugged Eugene.

 

“Don’t let anyone else know about it unless it needs to be done. Not even Abuela.” Aiden’s eyes were threatening as he looked into Eugene’s, still, Eugene seemed more respectful than afraid.

 

Aiden searched the camp for Abuela. “Abuela, I need to talk to you.” Abuela set down the basket she was using to carry the freshly picked pineapple to camp. “I am going back to the forest to confront the dark ghost. I am only taking the panther and Mara. I have given Eugene instructions on what I need all of you to do. Please follow them closely.”

 

“I know you don’t want to listen to me about that girl, Aiden, but she is nothing but trouble.”

 

“I know your opinions, Abuela. You don’t know her like I do, but even you will be pleased with the outcome of what I plan to do. I need your trust more than anything, and I need you to instill that trust in the others. Please, help Eugene to get everyone prepared in case things do not go exactly as planned. Don’t worry though; I am confident I will be able to pull it off. I love you, and I will return by sun-up if all goes well.” Abuela was openly disappointed and worried, but she hesitantly nodded and agreed to do as Aiden had asked.

 

Aiden went over to Mara and the panther; neither were entirely sure what Aiden had planned, and they were discussing the possibilities of what should be done, but as he approached, they quickly grew silent and obediently followed. The trio crossed over the wall and headed deep into the jungle towards the forest. None of them said a single word to the other, each of them deep in thought, each of them thinking of a different scenario of events. The landscape began to morph from a tropical jungle into a coniferous forest with tiny pine trees camouflaged in the thick of the tropical foliage, then gradually the pine trees took over, dwarfing the tropical jungle that was slowly disappearing as the air became lighter and crisper. As the landscape changed, so did the panther. His black fur began to grow and turn gray. His nose lengthened and his ears began to stand up. A bitingly cool breeze was skating through the openings between the bristly branches. Mara watched the panther’s appearance change with each step they took deeper into the forest. She then looked at Aiden for guidance as they approached the cabin in the heart of the woods, but Aiden remained stoic and emotionless, staring straight ahead.

 

“Ghost! We are here, and I am prepared to defeat you!” Aiden yelled loudly and it echoed hauntingly through the open sky that could only be seen directly above the clearance that had been made around the cabin. Still, there was no reply. “We will not leave until you are seen, ghost.” Still, there was silence. Aiden’s confidence was slightly shaken, but it could only be noticed in the fidgeting of his hands by his side. As Aiden opened his mouth to call for the ghost again, a gust of wind flew up behind them, hitting them like a padded wall.

 

“I hear you. How do you plan on defeating me?” The airy voice did not sound frightened or concerned.

 

“By taking away my one weakness.” Aiden pulled out the same gun that had been used by the wolf to shoot himself. Mara’s eyes went to the wolf whose own look of confusion had aged his face. Aiden quickly poised himself to shoot, first aiming directly in front of himself but quickly shifting his aim at Mara.

 

“Aiden, what are you doing?” Mara was in disbelief. “You are just an image in my mind, Mara. If I let you go here, I will let you go in reality, but there will be no weakness that could be held against me. I’m doing the right thing. It is the only way to take away his power.” As Aiden pulled the trigger, the wolf ferociously jumped on his back and sunk his teeth into his neck. It was too late. He had taken the shot. Mara lay motionless and bleeding on the cold ground. Aiden swiftly, but gently threw the wolf off of his neck. “I told you to trust me. I know what I’m doing.” Aiden yelled at the wolf.

 

“No, Aiden, you don’t.” Aiden could hear the wolf’s voice but it sounded distant as if he were watching and listening from a distance. Almost at that same moment, all of the people from the village came running up to the cabin in such a short amount of time, it made no sense.

 

“So it’s done Aiden?” Eugene looked at Aiden, but he still felt as if he was not himself, but simply a spectator watching the scene, and so did not answer. He dropped the gun that was still gripped in his hands and stared at both of his hands trying to figure out what this feeling was: pins and needles throughout his limbs.

 

Abuela gasped as she crept up close enough to see Mara’s lifeless body. “I told you, I told you that girl would be nothing but trouble!” Abuela shook her head as she kneeled down to confirm the girl’s death.

 

“Aiden, I truly hope you know what you have done. I hope your theory was correct.” Eugene stared down at Mara’s soft face as it had taken on a new expression of calmness and peace. “Aiden, your neck. What has happened?”

 

The wolf was circling Mara’s body; silent and distant from anyone else. “You fools! You don’t understand what you have done. I should have known better than to have trusted you. I should have known better than to have…”

 

“You think any of you have any control? I have already taken a hold of Aiden, and this act only proves the strength of my power.” Each word brought with it a cold gust of air coming through the surrounding trees.

 

“My god, it’s the ghost. What does he mean?” Eugene whispered to no one in particular.

 

“I mean he’s the villain. He did the deed. He’s a killer. I’ve won.” The biting cold in the air sunk even lower.

 

Aiden looked up at the sky that had quickly turned into a brilliant lightning storm. As the rumbles echoed the strikes, a bright flash took over the sky blinding Aiden momentarily, bringing him back to reality. He was sitting in his apartment he had been sharing with Mara. The back window was open and the breeze was cold. His head throbbed as if he had finished a bottle of Tequilla the night before. His lungs felt thick as he tried to breathe deeply. He was lying on the floor; an angle that made the room seem more interesting. He realized the breeze was so cold because he was wet, and the air made the dampness sting against his skin. It was thick wetness, not a common liquid, but thick like blood. He felt his head. He could tell it was wounded but was too afraid to explore how wounded. He attempted to sit up, but his arms were too weak; wobbling with the slightest pressure. He could see Mara’s shoe, but he was unsure if she was actually in the room.

 

“Mara? Mara? Mara, are you in here?” His voice was muffled and distorted, but he shouted as loudly as he could.

 

Suddenly a pounding at the door, “Police, we need you to open up. We’ve had reports of gunshots. We need you to open up or we will be forced to break down the door. You need to put down any weapons before we enter or we will be forced to shoot. Again, this is the Police!” The pounding on the door followed their declaration. “Stay clear, we will be entering with force.” Aiden began to hear a thrashing against the door as the doorjamb began to buckle and give way. The door burst open with several officers behind it quickly getting into a shooting position aiming at Aiden.

 

“Oh,​ my god.” It was the voice of the elderly woman who lived upstairs. “I told you my husband and I heard gunshots. Oh, my lord.”

 

​“Ma’m, we told you to stay back. We are going to need you to clear the area.” As one police officer briskly pushed the elderly woman away from the door opening, two more police rushed in filling the tiny apartment. One headed straight for Aiden, the other ran past Aiden’s line of vision into the kitchen.

 

“Do​ you have any weapons on your person.” The voice was very harsh and demanding. Aiden was so confused about the situation he couldn’t think what the correct response was. His answer came out as an indistinguishable grunt. “Sir, do you have any weapons that we need to be made aware of!” The voice was much more urgent this time, as the officer reached down and began to pat down Aiden’s body.

 

“The​ girl is dead.” The officer in the kitchen said coldly. Aiden tried desperately to look up towards the kitchen, but he couldn’t. He also tried to ask who it was, despite knowing.

 

​“I found a weapon. It looks like it was dropped or thrown over here. He doesn’t have anything else on him.” This officer sounded older and a bit more shaken by the situation. He shifted his stance to face Aiden. “Can you talk? Are you able to tell us what happened here?” Aiden began to search his memory for what could have happened. It didn’t make sense. He was in a hospital, right? He had shot himself, not Mara. It didn’t make sense.

 

“We’re​ going to have to wait for the EMTs. They should be here …” Aiden closed his eyes as the officer’s voice began to fade away.

 

​Aiden opened his eyes and found himself in the forest, alone. It was a clearing in the forest, far from anywhere he had been before. Aiden looked around, but put no effort into getting up from the sitting position he was in.

 

​“Aiden, what have you done?” Aiden squinted to see the wolf approaching him.

 

“I’m​ so glad to see you. I think I had a hallucination or something. I’m so confused.”

 

​“Aiden, are you really in such denial? Do really not get it? You’ve been in here playing games and lying to yourself, while you are out there destroying real lives. You killed her, Aiden. You really killed her.”

 

​“But it couldn’t be real, I was in the hospital. It doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t have shot Mara. She is still alive. I know she is.”

 

“Aiden,​ you were under his influence, the dark ghost. All of your perceptions were skewed.” The wolf looked crushed by his story, as even his fur had lightened.

 

​“You shot me though, I saw you shoot me, so it had to be me that was shot. I couldn’t have shot Mara. I couldn’t have… you know what happened.” Aiden’s voice began to pitch upward as he began to lose his composure.

 

“You​ were released a week ago from the psychiatric hospital, Aiden. The gunshot wound only grazed you and did not permeate the skull because you flinched. Mara didn’t tell anyone about you threatening her, so they took it as an attempted suicide. You have been in a mental institute for the past 6 months. Only a couple of days after being released, you went and got some spice, so that you would stop thinking about Mara. You let the dark ghost take complete control. You were wallowing in your own self-pity and you blamed her. You went back to the apartment.”

 

Outside the apartment, the clouds were grey and brought with them unusual coldness typical of June gloom. Aiden paced back and forth for a moment before finally knocking at the door. He could hear Mara looking out the peephole on the other side. It was at least a minute before she guardedly opened the door leaving only enough space for one side of her face to peek through.

 

“What are you doing here?” She looked different. Rigid.

 

Older. Bitter. There was no softness in her voice.

 

**Listen to “You’re Mine” by Lola Marsh**“I wanted to see you.” Aiden had planned what to say to her, but that was all that would come out. She gave him a disgusted look. He bit his lip and turned his head to the side looking down. This allowed her to see the area that had been wounded from the gunshot. He slowly looked back up at her with his eyes slightly watering. The tears came naturally when he saw her. He began to doubt his plan but continued to follow it through. “Can we talk?” Aiden put his hand upon the door and started to gently push it back, but it was met with greater resistance than he had anticipated. At first, this made him angry, and it was visible on his face, but he could see that Mara saw it too and began to close the door. “Wait, Wait. I want to explain. I want a chance to let you know I’m not that person. I’ve changed. It hurts me that you would think of me as the monster you do.” He waited for a reply that would not come. “I’ve never loved anyone like I love you, and the idea of losing you is more than I can bear.” Mara opened the door slightly and looked down.

 

“There’s no way it could ever go back to the way it was, Aiden. It is over. I loved you, but I will never be able to love you in the same way again.”

 

“Let me at least come in and talk to you. Just five minutes.” “I’m scared of you, Aiden. I don’t feel safe around you. Do you understand that? You have broken any and all trust. I am scared to let you in.”

 

“That’s ridiculous. You know me.” He opened his eyes wide and looked into hers. “You know me.” Mara’s expression did not change. “If you never want to see me again, I promise, I will leave you alone if you will just sit with me for five minutes.” “Are you on spice?” Mara began examining him from head to toe.

 

“What? No. Why would you say that? I’m never going to touch that stuff again. I can’t believe you don’t know me.”

 

“The way you are talking, your talking slowly and you keep

laughing.” Aiden suddenly became very conscious of his movements and his voice.

 

“Mara, please. Let me talk to you.” He leaned in close to her face and leaning his body on the door that caused it to slightly open more.

 

“This is the last time I ever want to see you. This is for closure.” Mara flopped the door open and carelessly walked towards the loveseat plopping into a sitting position with arms crossed. “Fine.” Aiden started to close the door.

 

“Leave it open slightly.” Aiden looked at her with anger. She got a nervous look on her face. “Please, Aiden, so I feel comfortable.” Aiden finished closing the door and locked it. “Why, so your little neighbor boy can come save you? Is that who you are seeing?”

 

“Ok, I want you to leave.” Mara stood up and began looking for something to defend herself with. “I knew you were on spice.” “Spice has nothing to do with the fact that you are a whore.” “Aiden, you are not being logical. I’m not seeing anyone, and WE, you and I, are not even together.” Aiden pulled out his gun and almost simultaneously, Mara started crying. “Please, Aiden. Do not do this. I trusted you, I let you in my apartment.”

 

“Our apartment.” Aiden lifted the gun pointing it at Mara’s head. She quickly ran into the kitchen, grabbed a vase, and threw it at Aiden’s head. The glass object hit his previous wound causing it to burst open. At the same time, Aiden pulled the trigger.

 

The​ memory was over. “Aiden? Why did you do it again? Do you realize what you have done?” Aiden stood up and started walking deeper into the forest toward the cabin. “Aiden, where are you going?” Aiden did not answer the wolf.

 

​Aiden walked up to the cabin and looked up at the sky. The sun was visible, but it was not bright. The clouds were blanketing its face leaving only dull slivers to be seen by those on the ground. Aiden looked back at the cabin. It was darker, bolder. He looked down and could see a shadow from the blood that stained the ground where Mara had fallen. “Well, ghost. I’m here. I’m ready to surrender.” There was nothing but eerie silence. “I surrender!” Aiden screamed but it quickly faded into sobs. The agony could be felt in the sound. “Just let me forget. You can have all of me, just let me forget.” Aiden continued to wail; it was a powerful cry that bellowed from the back of his spine, vibrated through his throat, and rasped from his gaping mouth. A cool breeze signaled the ghost’s presence.

 

​“You have always been a fool. You surrendered to me a long time ago. Slaves follow directions more easily when they believe they are free, but I will take pity on you.” The door to the cabin was blown open as the fire inside simultaneously lit. “Come inside, Aiden. Let me help you forget.

 

Pain​ is a familiar devil I like to call my friend. Whenever I leave him, he is missed. It is not until I see him again, that I am home.

 

THE END

 

Dedicated to Brian: you asshole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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