November 26, 2010

Artwork by Jack Robbins

Nothing could have prepared me for the Garden of the Hesperides. Life bloomed in lush greens and bright colors amidst the simple stone and stucco buildings that peppered the grounds. Potted herbs and fragrant blooms graced pathways, doorsteps and windows. For more than two thousand years the Hesperides had lived in almost complete isolation from the outside world, and even other immortals, working the earth in quaint gardens and carefully tended orchards.

Their quiet simple lives were an odd juxtaposition to their use of modern conveniences. Not only did they have a helicopter they also made use of things like electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigerators, microwave ovens and even the internet.

Despite the initial debacle of our first meeting with Juno's seal of approval the majority were friendly and accommodating people. It felt exactly like I imagined paradise would be.

Right up until I met the Oratin tree.

My wildest nightmares could not have imagined such a thing, which in retrospect might explain why in the passing months it came to haunt my dreams.

The Oratin tree grew on an unremarkable patch of land near an uncultivated bit of forest on the east side of town surrounded on two sides with the ivy-covered ruins of what might have once been a house. At its base, a tall mass of branches circled and twisted around each other fusing into one solid mass as it stretched heavenward where soft sprigs of green danced and whispered in the breeze.

At its center - its heart - twisted among the boughs and branches, was Oratin. His emaciated form existed now as part of the tree. His left arm was twisted and at an unnatural angle to his side, while his right arm reached skyward mingling with the leaves and branches. His face sat delicately framed by the twisting boughs, tilted backward with his face toward the sky.

Oratin had existed this way for more than three hundred years, sharing his immortality with the tree. Those who tended to him were unsure if he was still aware, but from time to time he was known to open his eyes and look around and so they talked to him as if he were.

That none of them found it unusual was possibly the most disturbing part. What kind of mental dysfunction had compelled a person to grow themselves into a tree?

That night was my first nightmare featuring the Oratin tree. Every night that followed that I crossed paths with the Oratin tree brought nightmares. But I had to keep going back. I had to see the tree. I had to overcome the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I saw him.

Almost four months had past and I was still afraid, still having nightmares.

I took the same path I always took on my evening walks. It was easy to become lost so I always stayed close to the path I knew. As the Oratin tree came into view I saw that someone had built a fire next to him. Oratin's eyes were open wide darting around in fear.

"Stop. You have to put that out," I called. "Can't you see you're terrifying him?"

"It's for your own good," the person said.

My stomach sank as I realized it was my mother and she was holding my angel drawings, my journals and the line of lineage box. I ran toward her but was too late to stop her from tossing them all onto the heap.

"No!" I shouted, but I wasn't the only one screaming. To my horror, the words and images scorching in the flames were somehow alive. They screamed and writhed in pain, desperate to escape the flames, helplessly bound by the paper's edges.

"Don't do this!" I screamed.

"Devils. Every last one of them." My mother said quite calmly as she stabbed at the pages with a poker. Then Detective Carter appeared and together they raised the poker and stabbed it into the Oratin tree. It was then that I realized it wasn't Oratin it was Ashe.

Blood seeped from the wound and caught fire from the heat. Ashe opened his mouth as if to scream but all that came out was fire. I tried to help him, but the flames were too hot. Detective Carter and my mother laughed as they ran away together, setting fire to the rest of the garden as they went.

"Help me!" I screamed. "Someone help me!"

"Eden!" Vaughn called as he came running toward me. I thought for sure he would help me rescue Ashe from the flames, but all he did was pull me to safety.

"How could you do that?" I cried as the flames engulfed the tree entirely. "Why wouldn't you help me?"

"I did help you," Vaughn said.

Then I woke up. I sat for a very long time trying to will the fiery images of my nightmare to leave my mind. I felt sad, confused and very much alone.

I snuck quickly across the room and as quietly as I could out the door. Ashe's room was directly across from mine. I stopped just outside his door. I wanted to find comfort in arms wrapped securely around me, to forget all my worries in the sweet taste of his kiss.

Then I thought back to the way things had been.

As the days and weeks that past after my abrupt induction into the immortal world it became quite clear to me that I had become irreparably broken to the ideals of a conventional life.

I trudged through the mundane, hoping to catch a glimpse of something worthwhile, something meaningful, but everything came up short. School, work, homework, shopping, libraries, paying bills, friends, parties... they all blended together into one utterly pointless waste of time. 

My mood was only made worse when Detective Carter decided to take it upon himself to drop in and harass me at least once a week, despite my threats of procuring a restraining order. He said he was worried about me. I knew he was spying on me.

I was surprised when Anna approached me, talking in circles around her plan to free her sister from the rogues.

"I'm in," I said. "Whatever you need me to do, wherever we're going, I'm in."

Anna smiled. "Train," she said. "Improve and prepare yourself physically and mentally and be ready to leave at a moments notice." Then she changed the subject to traveling by train and other outdated and under-appreciated modes of transportation.

Ashe was opposed to my involvement from the start and refused to help me, Lewis simply didn't have the time, and so I asked perhaps the most unlikely choice, Vaughn. I was sure he'd be an ass about it but all he said was, "Kay. I'll come by your place tomorrow around six."

With the combination of my disillusionment, Ashe's distance and Carter's harassment it was nice to have Vaughn around. Somehow we even became friends.

Vaughn is a tenth generation familiar. The past four served the house of Voll. He had grown up in the immortal world and could explain them to me, which was more helpful than I could have imagined because despite their ability to blend in with the mortal world, when it gets right down to it immortals are odd. Rules and social conventions of mortals don't apply to them. They don't age, they don't get sick, they can go weeks without sustenance or sleep, they have impeccable memories and yet because they are hardly concerned with things like, time and what happened yesterday, can often appear forgetful. This seemingly absentminded aloofness is really a defense mechanism that helps keep mortals from wanting to form relationships with them. Human emotion and desire is amplified by immortality and an eternity of heartache and loss has made them somewhat apathetic.

I can't imagine what it must feel like to both cherish something and not care about it at the same time, but it did help explain their behavior.

Vaughn's room was two doors down from mine. I wanted to avoid waking sensitive immortal ears so I didn't knock.

"Are you sleep walking or lost?" Vaughn said with all the appearance of being asleep except that his mouth was moving.

"I... had a bad dream," I stammered.

He lifted the covers and scooted over to make room for me. I hurried across the room and climbed into bed snuggling up against him as he wrapped his arms around me.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked softly.

I shook my head.

"Okay," he said and kissed my forehead.

I listened to his breathing become slow and rhythmic. "Vaughn?" I whispered.

"Hmmm," he breathed.

"Will you make love to me?"

His eyes popped open he lifted himself onto his elbow, and eyed me hesitantly. "That's a big question," he said.

"Wow," I covered my face with my hands, embarrassed. "Can we just pretend I didn't say that?"

"Hold on," he said coaxing and prying my hands away from my face. "I just want to get some clarification here."

"Clarification?" I eyed him.

"What is it you actually want here? You're asking me to make love to you. I can do that. I really like you Eden. I can be that guy with you. But I know how you feel about Ashe. Have you suddenly developed feelings for me now or are you just trying to find a distraction or a stand-in?"

I shook my head, mortified.

"Because I can be that guy too, Eden." Vaughn sighed. "I just have to know."

"I... I didn't really think about it," I stammered. "I just don't want to want him anymore, and..."

"And Lewis is too old for you," he smirked.

"That's not it," I protested.

"Locks his door?" Vaughn suppressed a chuckle.

"You've been there for me."

"When he wasn't," Vaughn added.

I swallowed hard. I couldn't deny it, but I wasn't about to agree with him. "Why are you being like this?"

"Perspective, Eden." Vaughn sighed. "You want Ashe and can't have him so you think that by giving yourself to someone else this will make you want him less and I've been his stand-in for months now, why not just add this one extra thing he's not giving you, right?"

"That's not it," I sat up.

"Then what is it?" He asked. "Do you even know?"

"Why are you making this so difficult?"

"Because we all have to see each other tomorrow and work together. I need to know what this is, what it's going to be, because one night of uncertainty is not worth compromising our entire team."

"You're right, "I breathed, as I turned toward him, tucking my legs underneath me. "I'm not sure what this is, what this could be, but it's not just that I want something else... I want..." I stopped.

"I can't know if you don't tell me," he said.

"You remember how we met."

"I half-assed my surveillance, threatened you with a gun I didn't have and then you threw half your bedroom at me and hit me in the head with a lamp," he smiled.

"And then you threw me into a wall knocking me unconscious and gave me a concussion." I countered.

"Which I have apologized for, and for your information, I was also concussed, thanks to your bludgeoning and it was late Sunday evening before anyone kissed my wounds away."

I tried not to think of Ashe, his kiss, his bite. I shook my head and tried to push the thought away. "I wish I could forget how we met," I said.

Vaughn shrugged. "I think it's a great story. Not because of how we met, but because of how things turned out. No one else has a story like ours."

"I know what I want now." I took a breath. "I want something real, something that's at least possible. I want to be with you because I want to be with you. I want you."

The corner of his mouth curled into a smile. "You want me to be your guy," he surmised.

"My guy," I leaned forward and kissed him.

"My girl," he smiled as he pulled me into his arms.


Chapter 48 - The Garden Of The Hesperides

(c) copyright 2010-2016 Lauren T. Hart