Caren

“Gravity”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Content Warning: EMOTIONAL ABUSE, TRANSPHOBIA, HOMOPHOBIC LANGUAGE, VIOLENCE, SELF-HARM

CHRISTMAS EVE 2010
CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY

Caren finished off the thick, unbroken ring of eyeliner pencil, smoothed her red plaid miniskirt, made a critical sweep of her reflection in her bedroom mirror.

After a moment’s deliberation, switched out her Chiodos shirt for her Paramore shirt for the third time; teased her hair even more at the crown; smoothed her side-swept bangs and long, ironed-straight ends; finally, gingerly, added the fake black-rosebud flower crown Luke had bought her at Hot Topic last weekend.

The bass from Vince’s sound system was already vibrating the whole house. From the sound of things, the family Christmas Eve party was underway, relatives starting to arrive. But Caren was taking her sweet time getting ready, making sure every detail of her appearance was perfect.

She heard a knock on the door—her secret knock with Luke, the rhythm of the first couple vocal bars of “The Futile” by Say Anything. Took a deep breath, scanned her reflection for the billionth time. Fucked with her hair a little more. “Get in here!”

Luke slipped into the room, closed the door behind him. He had on his tight-fitting Glassjaw shirt over a long-sleeved tee tucked into black skinny jeans. “Oh, holy shit. Wow.”

“Um. What do you think?” Caren did a little turn in place, feeling like a huge dork.

Luke stood behind her as she surveyed herself in the mirror. He was almost a head taller than her. Caren kind of liked the way he always made her feel petite.

“Fuck. You’re so pretty,” he said.

“Yeah?” Caren bit her lip, trying not to break out in a big stupid smile.

“Yeah.” He turned her to face him, beaming. Traced the hair back off her face.

“Stoppit!” Caren swatted his hand away, clawed her bangs back down over one eye. “I keep telling you my hair’s supposed to be in my face.”

“But then nobody gets to see how pretty your face is!”

“Yeah, well. People gotta earn that privilege.”

“I see.” Luke traced her shoulders, gently touched her chest where the stitches were hidden beneath her shirt. “How’s your battle wound?”

“Still kinda hurts. But NBD.” Caren took another deep breath. “So you promise I look okay?”

“Pretty nervous about tonight, huh?”

Caren fidgeted with her skirt. “I kinda wish I could just hide.”

Luke grinned. “We could stay up here all night, just you and me. I’ll smuggle you food.”

“Yesss! All I really want out of this whole dumb ordeal is buko pandan. And ube cake. And leche flan. And pancit and lumpia and lechón.”

“Seriously, though, you’re gonna be the prettiest girl here. And I’ll fuck up anybody who gives you any shit. Even if it’s Lola Taba.”

“You’d beat up Lola Taba for me?” Caren clasped her hands, gave him a mock doe-eyed look. “I’m so touched!”

“I’ll drop the People’s Elbow on the old lady, wheelchair and all.”

Caren giggled. “Poor Lola!”

Luke gazed warmly in her eyes, took her hands in his, rubbed his thumbs over her wrists.

Frowned suddenly, glanced down. “What’s this?” His thumb lifted the little skull charm on the friendship bracelet on Caren’s left wrist. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“Um…it’s a present. Christmas present.”

Caren kept her eyes downcast—felt Luke’s fixed on her face. “From who?”

“A kid at school.”

“Friend of yours?”

“Well, duh.”

“Which friend?”

Caren hesitated. “Aidan.”

Luke’s grip on her wrists tightened almost imperceptibly. Caren tensed. “Aidan who?” he said.

“What do you care, Aidan who? You gonna run a fucking background check?”

“Tell the truth, Caren. What’s going on with you and this Aidan prick?”

“He’s not a prick! And nothing’s going on. He’s just a friend.”

Luke’s thumbs rubbed the back of her wrists, an agitated, seemingly unconscious motion. “You know, you’re extremely fucking young and naive, Caren.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You gotta watch the fuck out for guys who say they want to be your friend.”

“The actual fuck, Luke? I can’t have friends now?”

“The world is fucking sick, Caren. You don’t know the way guys think.” His thumbnails were starting to dig into her wrists.

Caren yanked her hands away. “Fuck you! You’re crazy!”

“I’m fucking serious, Caren.” Luke loomed. “There are a lot of guys who want to hurt girls…especially girls like you.”

“Girls like me? What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“Come on. You know what I mean.”

He was too close—it felt like she couldn’t breathe. She shoved him. “Fuck you, Luke. Stop patronizing me. I know how people fucking are, way better than you do. I deal with their shit all the fucking time. I know the fucking murder rates for trans women. They’re burned into my”—Caren pointed aggressively at her own skull—“fucking brain. I also know which kids at school are transphobic assholes and which ones are my friends.”

“When exactly did this Aidan douche start sniffing around? When you started dressing like that?”

“Oh, now you have a problem with how I’m dressed?”

“You dress however you fucking want. Just know that every single guy you meet is gonna wanna fucking fuck you.”

“What gives you so much insight into the deviant male brain, Luke?” Caren gave a snort, stared him straight in the eyes. “Do you wanna fuck me?”

Her new agimat gave a sudden, sharp throb. She whimpered, doubled over holding her chest.

“Fuck! You okay?” Luke went from pissed off to worried in a flash.

Caren glared at him. “Oh, just this fucking thing you put in my chest. It fucking hurts.”

“It’s probably still healing. Want me to take a look?”

There came a knock on the door. They both froze.

“Caren?” came a familiar voice Caren hadn’t heard in a while.

“Rory!” Caren rallied, bolted across the room to the door. Flung it open. “Oh my God, get in here! What the fuck, your hair’s so long!”

“Just keeps growing. Shows no signs of stopping.” Cousin Rory grinned her crooked grin, gave Caren a hug. She was twenty years old, about Caren’s height. Everyone in the family always said the two of them looked alike. “Can I come in?”

“Bitch, yes, please.” Caren accidentally caught Luke’s eye for a second. He’d gone stone-faced. She quickly looked away.

Rory strolled into the room, followed by her younger sister Abby, who was Luke’s age, as well as a super white…guy, was Caren’s first thought, except that he was unusually delicate for a guy, totally beardless with thick, wild black hair and hipster glasses and a calm, neutral expression.

Abby greeted Caren with a squeal, gave her a suffocating hug.

“Dude,” said Rory. “I love the Black Parade poster. And the Jack and Sally snowglobe—oh my gawsh.”

“Thanks.”

Rory jerked a thumb at the white guy. “This is my friend Jules.”

Jules gave a friendly but efficient nod.

To Jules, Rory added, “This is my itty widdle babby cousin Caren.”

“Dude, I’ll be sixteen in March,” objected Caren.

“And that fucking bronze god over there is Luke,” Rory went on. “Yo, Luke. What the actual fuck. You’re all tall and, like…swole. You been working out?” She went over to him, gave him a hug, which he returned stiffly.

“He’s always ‘wailing on his pecs.’” Caren rolled her eyes.

“How old’re you now, Luke?” Rory asked.

“Eighteen last month,” mumbled Luke.

Rory pressed a hand to her heart. “Oh my gawd! You’re, like, a little man.”

“Big man,” said Jules, who had gravitated toward Caren’s small bookshelf and was thumbing through her book on agimat magic. His voice wasn’t a typical dude voice either, Caren thought: more androgynous. “This is fascinating,” he murmured half to himself. “Implants might integrate well into my field alchemy system designs.”

“Ahhh, look at you.” Rory clapped her hands and danced in place, scanning Caren up and down. “You’re such a little scene girl now. Bitch after my own heart.”

“Well, you’re a total fucking hipster,” said Caren, “with that fucking little floral dress and Zooey Deschanel bangs.”

“True,” said Rory. “Just wait, your time will come. This is the next natural step.” She plopped down on Caren’s bed. Abby settled into Caren’s desk chair. “Did you see it’s snowing out there?! We should make snow angels later.”

Caren also climbed onto the bed. “Uh, in case you haven’t noticed, we…don’t have a yard.”

“We should do it in the street.”

Jules glanced up from his reading, shot Rory a disapproving look.

“What? It’s Christmas Eve,” she said. “Nobody’s out driving. Let’s do it after midnight.”

Luke had wandered over and was staring out the window. Caren took a deep breath, realized her hands were shaking. Grabbed her coat and got out her cigarettes. Offered one to Rory.

“Nah, I quit,” Rory said. “Didn’t know you were a smoker…?”

Luke took one. Abby and Jules waved off the offer.

“Wanna put on some music?” Caren asked.

“Hell yeah. Can I see your MP3 player?” Rory asked.

Caren rummaged in the pile of clothes on the bed, handed it to her. Rory put on some shit Caren had never heard before.

“How do you two know each other?” Caren gestured back and forth between Rory and Jules.

“We’ve been besties since Academy,” said Rory. “Now we both work at the Enclave. Jules is in Alchemy, same as Abby.”

“Oh, word. That’s right. Mom said you’re working in Medicinal Magic.”

“Yep. It’s a pretty sweet gig. Getting to help people and stuff.”

“Arcanus people,” Luke muttered from the window.

Rory eyed him. “I feel you, bruh. We all do what we can.”

“Yo, what is this music?” Caren asked. “It’s really chill, but it’s really dope.”

“This is our band.” Rory grinned, gestured between herself and Jules.

“Word?”

“Yeah. The Stars Come Crashing Down. Jules on keys, me on lead guitar and vocals. Our friends Drew on rhythm, Chillie on bass, Kyra on drums.”

“That’s so sick! Fuck, I wanna be in a band. What do you even call this kind of music?”

“It’s like emo, but not like MCR and Panic! at the Disco emo. It’s inspired by more like the real emo from the nineties.”

“Real emo?” Caren was wide-eyed.

“Yeah. That plus a little math rock. The kind of music we make is big in Philly, actually—y’all have Snowing here, Glocca Morra. Me and Jules are gonna check out an Algernon Cadwallader show while we’re here.”

“Yo, that fucking rules. Can I go with you?”

“Hell yeah, if your mom and Tito Vince are cool with it. Assuming we can still get another ticket.”

“How you liking mundane high school, Caren?” asked Abby.

“It’s…all right. Better than Academy. At least they know what a trans person is.” Caren felt Luke’s eyes burning through the side of her head.

“Yo, I feel that. You did what’s right for you,” said Rory.

“I…got expelled,” said Caren.

Rory grinned. “You sure it wasn’t just a little intentional?”

“Mm…maybe a little.”

“You’re going to the same school as Luke now, right?”

“Yeah. He’s a senior, I’m a sophomore.”

“So at least you got somebody looking out for you.”

Caren scowled at the floor. “Yep.” Luke’s laser stare felt scalding.

“Well,” said Rory, “I dunno about you kids, but I could go for some Hennessy, and a slab of fucking lechón the size of a medium Shih Tzu.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Caren took a deep drag, exhaled, put her stub out in the ashtray on her windowsill. “Let’s go do the party.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Caren felt glad to have a whole crew with her, especially Rory, who had, after all, paved the way years before. But her heart was still fluttering as she came downstairs to a crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins—all of whom she imagined were staring at her, whispering behind her back. She found herself glancing back for Luke, but he was nowhere to be found—must have stayed behind in her room.

“So much for fucking up anybody who gives me shit,” she muttered to herself. “Fuck you, Luke.”

In the living room, the little nephews and nieces were hanging ornaments on the big-ass Christmas tree. Cousin Juancho’s daughter Aerith was playing with Mom’s Christmas village—the one Mom had always had to tell Little Caren was not a toy. The creepy animatronic Santa was on door duty; whirred to life with an uncanny song-and-dance rendition of “Jingle Bell Rock” everytime someone came in.

The karaoke machine was set up. Cousin Aemy was singing a corny Japanese ballad while Tita Vina made her enchanted paper puppets slow-dance to the music. Caren’s uncles were sitting around shooting the shit, manspreading with their arms folded over their chests. Vince had on Avatar so he could show off his new 3D TV to Tito Lenny.

Rory and Abby walked past their dad without acknowledging him. Together with Caren and Jules, they headed straight for the kitchen, where Caren’s mom and aunts were tending the food and a few of Caren’s cousins were gathered around the island doing shots.

Jules made a beeline for the buffet. Caren went for a vodka shot to take the edge off.

“Mom, Caren’s here!” Rory announced to her mother, who was hovering with Caren’s mom over an ube cake fresh out of the oven.

Tita Emma turned, looked Caren over head to toe and broke out in a big smile. “Maganda!” she exclaimed—roughly translated, You’re beautiful—and greeted her niece with a beso beso, a kiss on each cheek.

“Maganda,” Mom echoed, smiling.

“Thank you, Tita. Thanks, Mom,” Caren grunted, as her aunt wrapped her in a crushing hug.

“Oh my gosh, such a pretty girl,” Emma went on. “You and Rory look so much alike.”

“Have you had anything to eat yet, Anak?” asked Mom.

“I will, Mom,” said Caren.

“Yes, eat,” Tita Emma chimed in. “Just like Rory, you’re too skinny!”

Caren and Rory exchanged glances, rolled their eyes.

“Oh, Anak,” Mom added, “Lola Taba’s here. Be sure to go see her.”

“Okay, I will.”

“You too, Rory,” said Tita Emma. She called out to Abby, who was at the island chatting with the cousins, “Bunso, you too! Go say hi to Lola Taba.”

Rory walked with Caren toward the card table where the feast was laid out. “How ’bout I go see Lola first, and you grab some food? I’ll let you know when I’m done.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Rory winked, disappeared into the living room.

Caren glanced around, feeling suddenly alone. Looked back at the stairs.

Saw Luke sitting on the steps below the landing, where he was kind of out of the way but had a view of pretty much the whole downstairs. He was watching her all the way across the room with that stony look on his face.

“Asshole,” Caren muttered to herself.

She exchanged greetings with a few of her cousins, all of whom got her name and pronouns right, most of whom even complimented her outfit. Even her dudeliest cousins were chill, which was a huge relief.

Caren arrived at the food table, where Jules was adding shrimp paste to a bowl of stew. A few of Caren’s aunts stood nearby, watching him and whispering among themselves.

Tita Lourdes finally edged toward him, squinting at him. “You eat bagoong?”

Jules glanced up at her. “With kare kare? Of course.”

“Jules always eats Filipino food,” Tita Emma chimed in proudly.

Tita Lourdes eyed Jules. “Oh! Well, good for you! But where in the world do you put it all? You’re so skinny!”

Caren loaded up her plate, poured herself a rum and Coke, shot the shit with her cousins while she ate.

“Yo, what’s Luke doing being all dark and broody on the stairs?” said her cousin Christian at one point. “Homie looks like he needs a drink.”

“I’ll take him something,” said Abby, reaching for the vodka and a Solo cup.

Caren watched as she crossed the living room, handed Luke a screwdriver and settled down on the step next to him with her own. Luke took a big gulp of his drink, appeared to be responding to her attempts at conversation with one or two syllables at a time, his eyes still fixed on Caren.

Vince wandered into the kitchen, followed by Tito Lenny who was talking his ear off telling one of his fish stories. Vince had that unfocused look in his eyes he got when he was too drunk. He looked Caren over, scowled, muttered something to himself.

I fucking dare you, asshole, Caren thought. She glanced back at Luke.

Rory reappeared beside her. “Your turn with Lola Taba.”

Caren was only too glad for the excuse to get out of the kitchen. She headed through the living room, past the karaoke station, enduring beso-besos from aunts, exchanging greetings with uncles, feeling Luke’s eyes on her the whole way, till she arrived at Lola Taba’s wheelchair by the window at the front.

Lola’s worn set of playing cards sat in a stack on the tray table on her wheelchair. She looked up at Caren’s approach, crow’s feet forming at the corners of her eyes.

“Mano po?” Caren asked.

Lola chuckled, nodded. Caren took her great-grandmother’s hand, bowed and pressed her forehead to it.

“Pagpalain ka nawa ng Diyos,” said Lola.

Caren sat down in the armchair facing her.

“Maganda,” said Lola, with a big smile.

“Thank you, Lola,” said Caren.

Lola shuffled her playing cards with feeble hands, humming to herself, a faint glow emanating between her eyelids. She fanned the stack out in front of Caren, who chose seven cards and laid them facedown in a row on the table.

Lola set aside the deck, turned Caren’s cards over one at a time, still humming, nodding to herself.

As she turned over the last one, she abruptly stopped humming. Squinted at the spread.

After a beat, her eyes went wide.

She looked up, peered very hard at Caren.

“Katalonan,” she whispered, in a reverent tone of voice.

Caren furrowed her eyebrows. Wondered if it was even worth reminding Lola Taba that she knew hardly any Tagalog.

Lola gesticulated with her sunspotted hands, seeming to search for words. “The…gravity”—her right hand made a circling motion—“will take you. Like a star dies.” A fist—then fingers spread. “Cannot stop it. You fight, it only hurt more.” She suddenly grabbed Caren’s hand, startling her, and looked her fiercely in the eyes. “Let go. Let die.” Released her grip: “Let die…be born.”

Caren blinked at her. “…Okay. Thanks, Lola.”

Lola Taba patted her hand, smiled.

They both turned their heads at the sound of angry voices in the kitchen. The whole living room went silent, except for the backing track to Michael Jackson’s “The Girl Is Mine,” which carried on without vocals as Tito Jay and Tito Lito stood, microphones in hand, staring toward the commotion.

Vince could be heard yelling over the rest:

“You shut the fuck up, Didi! You know it’s true! Because you pamper him! Because you are too soft on him!”

Caren’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach. She got up, started pacing toward the kitchen like a zombie. Heard Mom sobbing. Other relatives trying to shout Vince down.

“You’re drunk, Vince!” came Tito Lenny’s voice.

“Fuck you too, Leonardo! You’re just as much to blame! You leave your son without a father, and look at him! Turned him into a fucking faggot!”

“Excuse me?!” came Rory’s voice.

“You leave my baby out of this, Vincent!” Tita Emma joined in.

“Shut your stupid mouth, Imelda! You let your son go around like this, dressing like a bitch, putting ideas in Caleb’s head. You are to blame—you all are to blame!”

A din of shouting broke out in Tagalog. Caren rounded the corner into the kitchen, and the full scene came into view—Mom huddled against the counter with her face in her hands, Tito Lenny palming his sweaty forehead, Tita Emma pointing and spitting in Vince’s face while Rory tried to calm her.

Vince’s eye found Caren. “Enough!” he roared. “I’m putting my foot down! You go take off those woman’s clothes and put on a man’s clothes, or you get out of my house!”

Emma and Rory started yelling again. A few of Caren’s cousins joined in.

The banshee scream ripped out of Caren before she knew it was coming: “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU, VINCE! FUCK YOU! GO FUCKING DIE!!!”

The next thing she knew, Vince was charging at her with murder in his eyes, his hands reaching for her, shrugging off everybody trying to grab him. Caren shielded her face and turned to run, smacked into a pair of cousins standing stupidly behind her.

“HEY!” thundered a male voice.

Luke came plunging through the crowd like a juggernaut, knocking relatives out of his path. “YOU GONNA LAY HANDS ON A GIRL, YOU PIECE OF SHIT?!” He got Vince by the shirt, practically lifted him off the floor. “I’LL FUCKING PUT YOU THROUGH THE WALL! I’LL FUCKING MURDER YOU, BITCH!!!”

Vince managed to twist free, got in a punch to Luke’s face. Mom screamed.

Luke dodged a second punch, then got Vince by the collar and landed a punch on his head, then another, then another, destroying Vince’s glasses, splitting his eyebrow, blood flying, everybody screaming at him to stop.

He reared back, teeth bared, the agimat in his right hand blazing.

“NO!” Mom screeched.

Luke’s next blow sent Vince flying across the room into the wall, knocking aunts and uncles down like bowling pins. The whole room shuddered as he landed. Cabinets and counter buckled from the impact. Pots and pans fell.

Vince collapsed to the floor in a crumpled heap, leaving a smear of blood on the bottom of the cabinets where his head struck.

“Vince!” Mom fell to her knees beside him, shook him. He blinked up at her, conscious but woozy.

She turned a blazing stare on Luke. “Get out!” she screamed.

“No!” cried Caren.

Mom pointed at the door. “Out of my house!”

Luke gazed at her, chest heaving. His hands twitched. He looked at Caren.

“Mom, please!” Caren begged.

“OUT!” her mother screamed, and broke down sobbing, cradling Vince’s head.

Luke’s jaw worked. He idled in place. Again looked at Caren, fists clenching by his sides, then turned and sprinted to the front door and out into the night. Left the door open behind him, a gust of December air chilling the house, Creepy Santa jamming out to “Jingle Bell Rock” in the deathly silence.

“I HATE YOU!” Caren screamed at her mom with every ounce of her strength, then went charging upstairs to her room.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Caren sat slumped against her headboard, took a drag, stared down at the fresh cigarette burns in the groove of her left elbow.

At the friendship bracelet on her left wrist.

There came a soft knock on the door, Rory’s voice: “Hey, it’s me.”

Caren stubbed out her cigarette, grabbed a hoodie off her bed, threw it on. “Come in.”

Rory edged into the room lugging a large object clumsily swaddled in wrapping paper that, by its shape, was very obviously a guitar.

Caren stared. “What is that?”

“Your present.” Rory set it down on the foot of the bed, turned back and shut the door. “Merry Christmas! You always talked about wanting to learn to play, so…”

“Dude, that’s so rad of you. Thank you.”

Rory grinned. “You wanna look at it?”

“Um…I will. Later. Promise.”

“Yeah, no rush. It’s an acoustic. Pretty nice one. I think you’ll be happy.”

“I mean, I wouldn’t know a nice one from a shitty one, but I believe you. Thank you.”

Rory moved the guitar to the floor and crawled up on the bed, sat down next to Caren. Caren leaned against her. “You okay?” Rory asked.

Caren just shrugged. Looked at her cousin. “…Are you okay?”

“Girl, I’m fine. Fucking shit-for-brains shitstain like Vince can’t change the way I feel about me.” She studied Caren. “Probably helps I don’t have to live with the guy.”

Caren picked at her skirt. Asked, a bit reluctantly—“What’s going on down there?”

“Well…Tito Lito drove Vince to the emergency room.”

“Oh, shit…really?”

“Yep. He’s getting stitches on his eyebrow and the back of his head.”

“Fuck.”

“Tita Didi—er, your mom won’t stop crying. She’ll stop for a little while then start back up again. Fucking Lenny won’t give up trying to keep the party going. Just sang ‘Afternoon Delight’ with Lola, who does not know any of the words. It’s getting very David Lynch out there.”

“Jesus. How’s your—Jules doing with all this?”

“Oh, he went back to the hotel. Family drama’s not his scene. Big parties either. I think he mostly came for the food.”

“All the way from Illinois, huh? For the food.” Caren eyed her cousin.

“And to see Algernon, of course.”

“Right, right.” Caren smirked.

Rory hesitated a moment. “Sooo…you and Luke, huh?”

Caren picked at her skirt. “What do you mean?”

“Maybe I’m projecting. Just thought he was acting a little…boyfriendy.”

“It’s…not exactly like that. You know we’re close.”

Again, Rory hesitated. “He’s…kinda older than you. You know?”

Caren bristled. “I just told you it’s not like that.”

Rory showed her palms. “Cool, cool, cool. Just wanting to make sure you feel safe and like your boundaries are respected.” She fell silent a moment, then bumped Caren gently with her shoulder. “Speaking of which…if you ever wanna get out from under Vince’s roof, me and Jules got a sick pull-out couch.”

“Bitch, I am not moving to fucking Delphi to live on you and your friend’s smelly couch. Fuck Arcanus.” Caren looked at her cousin, felt the weakest of smiles. “But, uh…thanks.”

Rory nodded understanding. “Offer stands.”

Caren was silent a moment. “Hey…Rory?”

“Yo, kid.”

“What did Lola Taba say in your reading?”

“Oh, you know. Happiness and fulfillment in this lifetime. Same old shit as every other year.” Rory shrugged. “Probably the same thing she tells everyone, right?”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Later that night, in the wee hours, after Rory had gone back to her hotel and Caren figured most (though probably not all) of the relatives staying the night were asleep, she tugged on her black Converse hightops, put on her faux-fur-lined puffer jacket, climbed out her window onto the snow-covered roof below—after a few close calls with the ice, managed to lower herself with freezing hands onto the broken HVAC unit in back of the brownstone, and from there to the ground.

The snow had stopped coming down, for now. The moon was peeking through the clouds, just past full.

Caren scurried along behind the neighbors’ houses to the next cross street. Ignored the way the snow soaked through her shoes and socks, numbing her feet.

“A Candlelit Dinner with Inamorta” blasted from her earbuds. Caren rubbed snot from her nose, stuffed her bare hands in her pockets to warm them. Stepped around a homeless guy huddled on the sidewalk covered in newspapers, ignored a guy in a shabby trench coat who said something to her that she couldn’t hear as she walked past.

She rounded a bend a couple blocks down, stopped in front of another brownstone with a rotting porch with broken railings, cracks spidering several of its windows. Lights were on downstairs—looked like the occupants were having a party of their own.

Caren hesitated. Lit a cigarette and smoked it down, pacing the sidewalk out front. 

Stamped out the stub, pocketed her earbuds. Went up to the front door and tried the knob.

It was unlocked. The air inside stank of whisky and weed. There were people doing lines on the coffee table, someone shooting up on the beat-up couch next to a guy getting blown by a girl. 

“Hey, it’s Luke’s little girlfriend,” said one of Luke’s housemates, a dude with a Texas accent Caren had mentally dubbed Cowboy. He raised his bottle of George Dickel as she passed. “Merry fuckin’ Christmas, Luke’s girlfriend.”

Caren ignored them all, went straight up the stairs. Luke usually came over to her house, rarely brought her here—didn’t want her around his housemates. He never partied with them himself, she knew. Aside from Caren, Luke kept to himself.

The floorboards protested loudly beneath her steps as she made a beeline down the hall to his room. Knocked lightly, turned the knob.

He sat up in the dark on his mattress on the floor with a Hmm?, must have been lying awake—jerked his earbuds from his ears. Caren could hear “I’m a Fake” by The Used playing from them faintly, till he turned it off. “Caren…what the fuck? Did you walk here by yourself?”

With trembling fingers, Caren unknotted Aidan’s bracelet from her wrist.

Dropped it on the floor and stomped on it, hard. And again. And again. Stomp, stomp, stomp, STOMP, STOMP, a growl swelling in her throat, louder and louder, till she was shrieking bloody murder, pouring all her rage into obliterating the living fuck out of that stupid. Fucking. Bracelet.

Soon she was wavering on her feet, her body shaking, lungs heaving, foot and ankle aching. She stared down at her handiwork—the skull charm pulverized, just a spot of powder on the moldy floor.

Burst into tears.

“Oh—baby.” Luke reached up, took her hands, pulled her down to him. Wrapped her in his arms.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Caren wept. Her new agimat had been bothering her all night. Now it felt like the fire in her chest might consume her.

“Caren, Caren.” Luke held her tight, buried his face in her hair. “Don’t you know everything I do is for you?”

She sobbed into his chest till all her tears were spent, then clung to him hiccuping. Nestled her head against his neck, zoned out on the big new snowflakes clinging to his filthy, splintered windows. His embrace was so tight, so irresistibly strong, that she could go limp in it without her body moving at all—let herself hang suspended in place, pressed tightly against him, feeling his heartbeat thump-thump, thump-thump against hers.

She buried her face in his neck—drowned herself in his familiar scent. Had the thought float up:

I could stay like this forever.

Nuzzled his neck, then brushed it lightly with her lips.

Felt his body tense.

Brushed it again—

Heard him gasp.

Started covering his neck in kisses.

“Oh, God. Oh, Caren,” he sighed. Took her face between his hands, looked her in her eyes, his own brimming with tears. “I will never love anything like I love you.”

He kissed her—not a chaste little peck this time, but urgent and deep. Caren kissed him back, her whole body screaming like she wanted to inhale him.

This was inevitable, she realized, as he pulled her down on the mattress, under the threadbare blankets—had been coming all her life, inescapable as gravity. And it didn’t matter what anyone thought or said, whether they were right or wrong; what had come before, or what would come after…even if the fucking amulet that bound her to him blazed out of control and devoured her heart.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

CHRISTMAS DAY 2018
PHILADELPHIA

Caren shivered, pulled Nathaniel’s spare robe tighter around her. Leaned on the balcony railing, took a deep drag.

Exhaled, staring down at two gray check marks on a little screen.

Almost automatically, against her will, started scrolling up, through months’ worth of outgoing texts left on read—venomous words hurled into an unresponsive void.

Everything I do is for you.

Her chest exploded in pain.

Caren whimpered. With trembling hands closed her texts, stuffed her phone in her pocket.

There came the sound of the glass door sliding open behind her.

“Here you are,” came Nathaniel’s voice. He chuckled. “Thought you mighta ghosted me. How’d you sleep?” He leaned on the balcony beside her, beamed at her with puffy morning eyes—when he saw her face, frowned slightly. “What’s up?”

Caren swallowed. Took a moment to find her voice. “You…really don’t want me around, Nathaniel.”

He got a faint wounded look in his eyes, which Caren hated. “Shouldn’t I be the decider of what I do and don’t want?”

“You don’t know me at all, dude. I’m…” She searched for a less-cliché word; gave up. “…broken.”

Nathaniel seemed to go inside himself a moment. Then, a wry smile touched his lips. “Fuck, Caren….aren’t we all?” He eyed her sidelong. “Don’t we deserve good things anyway?”

“You don’t understand.”

“Maybe I don’t. But I’ll keep trying to.” He studied her a moment longer, then passed his gaze over the skyline. Took a deep breath, once more smiled at her. “You hungry? ’Cause we’ve got hella leftovers.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

The two of them ran into Soren on their way to the kitchen. “Caren, Nathaniel. Good morning. Or should I say good afternoon.” A faint, mischievous smile curled the ganglord’s lips.

Nathaniel grinned.

Oh lord. “What’s up,” said Caren.

“It’s convenient you’re here,” Soren said to her. “I’ve got a new job for you.”

“Word?”

“We can discuss it over dinner, if you’re free to join. I believe Ashton may be attending as well.”

“Yeah, sure, man.” Caren took a deep breath, bobbed her head. “I’ll be there.”

NEXT EPISODE: ASH – “FAMILY LOYALTY”
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