Outside, the crickets sang a song of beauty and joy and night and Bella found comfort in it. The world was still spinning. Everything that was her, the sky and the trees and the grass and the air, all of it was still intact. And in the morning the sun would rise and there would be dew and the air would be so soft, and this whole business would have disappeared like fairy gold during the night.
She was startled out of her reverie by the sharp crack of Lilith’s heels on the floor as she jumped to her feet.
“He’s out there? Right now? Alive?! How?!”
“I have no idea how he’s done it. I don’t think I want to know. But he certainly is still alive, and yes, he is out there. I’ve seen him.”
Two days ago she had gone out to the waterfall. She’d heard Cassandra gossiping on the phone about the strange lights at the old Morrigan house and somewhere beneath the ensuing waves of guilt a faint hope had risen.
She had seen Emma’s mother die, seen her reduced to a pile of ashes. She would never forget the way the flames had swallowed the woman whole. The images haunted her dreams.
But she had last seen Emma alive. Had she survived? Had she come back? Was she the one behind the lights? After so many years, would she understand and forgive?
There was only one way to find out.
The yard was full of weeds and the house sat empty and forlorn. The only sound was the roaring of the waterfall. Birds did not come here. Nothing came here anymore.
The furniture was gone, but the cursed fireplace remained. In her mind the fire raged.
Emma had seen her that night. Emma had known that she was there, that she had stood uselessly outside the door and watched, that she was a coward, that she had let Emma’s mother die.
Should she really be here? If Emma had survived and had come back, would she want to see her? She had no right to expect forgiveness. She had no right to expect anything. She deserved the hatred she had seen in Emma’s eyes.
She turned to go home.
And that’s when she saw him.
“I went out to the old Morrigan house the other day. He was there, looking exactly as he did on the night of the fire. Luckily for me he seemed very absorbed in what he was doing and I managed to get away without being seen. Then I heard about Ms. Ursine on the news and then you came with your story.”
“You…you saw him? And you didn’t tell anyone?”
A hot flush of shame began to spread over Bella’s cheeks. She wanted to escape into the cool night air and commune with the stars, who never asked any questions and never had any expectations and accepted her as she was and forgave all.
“I didn’t know who to tell. I didn’t know if I should tell. You know how corrupt this place is. Why do you think Sam was scared to tell you what little he knew?”
Bella couldn’t stand the look Lilith was giving her. The whole feeling between them had changed. It had become cold and brittle and hard.
“My boyfriend is a cop. He’s not corrupt. A lot of them aren’t. You could have told someone.”
Bella rubbed the back of her head. It had been a very long day and she was exhausted and she could not deal with this. Not right now.
“Your gentleman friend is a police officer? That’s wonderful! We can tell him together tomorrow, all right? Now let’s go to bed. It’s quite late and I’m sure you’re tired.”
“I’ll go and ask Cassandra to get the guest room ready. Good night.”
“Cassie, can you show our guest to her room and make sure she’s comfortable? I’m off to bed.”
Bella watched as Cassandra stood up and put the book she’d been reading back on the shelf.
Cassie still loved her, right? She still had one friend in the world.
“Sure thing, Mom. Good night. See you tomorrow.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it. Good night.”
She smiled at her daughter. Cassie had grown up so beautiful and innocent and sweet. She was so pure, and Bella herself was so…not. Blackened by fire and guilt, she’d lost her purity long ago.
She turned and walked to her bedroom.
She sighed with relief as she entered her sanctuary, her own personal green and gold universe.
She walked to the window and gazed out at the night. It was so lovely and dark and peaceful, and the star at the core of her being longed to be with its brothers and sisters.
But there was to be no blissful union with infinity tonight. There was a screen now between her and nature.
The same old images played on that screen. Over the years they’d worn a deep groove in her mind, but tonight they were fresh and new again. All the old wounds had been reopened, and the stars were lost in a sea of shame.
She turned away from the stars that were no longer hers and went to change into her bed clothes. The pictures on the wall above the dresser were remnants of earlier happier times, when she and Mortimer had been happy and carefree and convinced that the past could never come back.
As she closed the drawer her eye was caught by the candle on top of the dresser. She considered lighting it, and then quickly dropped that idea as in her mind the happy dancing flame became a roaring and devouring conflagration.
The wood floor was as cold as regret against her bare feet. She was so incredibly tired.
With sleep would come oblivion. The nightmare screen would fall away and she could once again dance with the stars.
At least until the dreams came.