She's sitting, blank-eyed, as the night rolls on, trying to shut out the thoughts that are assaulting her. She tried shutting her eyes but when she sees the black they overwhelm her. There's an emptiness opened up inside her and it's deep, and it's filled with poisoned chaos she's fighting to keep down. All sorts of passions are churning and she's quiet. She stays quiet. She can't stop thinking about him, his better qualities, his eyes which were sometimes kind, and unbidden again comes that image. She clenches her fist but he's there in cliched slow motion as she screams and they watch with cruel and untroubled satisfaction. He dies, again and again in front of her. Colours swirl and she tries to block it. Anger rising, rage that is small and fearful. Anger and grief that hide her untamed terror lurking.
She knows she shouldn't say anything, dreads the response. She keeps her lips together but it isn't working, the words bubble to the surface and escape into the air.
"We were family. The four of us." From the front she senses a current of amused scorn and boredom and there's a pause before one of them bothers to reply.
"Things change," Rath drops the comment like there's nothing more to say. Really now she must stop it, stop the defiance and stay in her place or who knows, they will do the same to her. But she can't, her voice is not obeying her head - she appeals instinctively to the girl.
"He was your brother, Lonnie." Suddenly the air seems tenser. She looks up; Lonnie adjusts the rearview mirror, and Ava is struck with fear. The eyes watching her silently are cold and hard as flint. She shrinks back, looks into them with apprehension, and the voice when she eventually speaks is full of menace.
"That's right. Zan's my brother. Rath's my lover, but who are you? Why are you still livin' and breathin' and ridin' in this car?" She stops and challenges Ava with her stare. Ava cowers, and Lonnie waits.
"Oh, that's right. You're here because I love you. Ain't that sweet?" Every word she says chips off more of Ava's heart and leaves her raw and bleeding. Lonnie lets her torturing go after that last piercing comment, rolls her eyes a little and laughs; looks away. Ava subsides back into silence and draws her hurt inside herself. She hates this mocking, how Lonnie ridicules the only thing she holds dear. When she sees that indifference, and the frozen eyes, and Lonnie playing with her like a cat with a mouse, she wonders, if it's true. But she clings to that truth - or that lie - because what else does she have? She knows once it was true. Remembers it from far away, and she keeps that knowledge close to her heart as consolation. Lonnie was always hard, but she's toughened more over the years, her veins have solidified and now they run with stone. Ava knows though she must have a heart, red and alive and thumping with a regular beat that she knows so well; remembers her head resting on Lonnie's chest and its rhythm vibrating through her, so they were one. When the light was low and made shadows on their bodies, when she memorised Lonnie's contours with her fingers. Such romance. Lonnie was never classically romantic. Ava wouldn't have wanted it either, preferred mostly what they had. And they would kiss passionately, pressed against the wall, ahrd against Ava's back. Hands tangling in hair and roving over her body, they tore off clothes swiftly and roughly. Ava would taste her, of dust and black pepper, and feel her own mind exploding in joy. This taking her to places where she could never have imagined, sometimes boundless happiness; moons and earth and distant vague memories of unions under a burning far-off star.
Afterwards, and not just afterwards but at other random moments, they would lie. She would be cradled in Lonnie's arms, safe from harm at least for now. In this Lonnie is soft, her tenderness showing through. She looks after Ava. And she tells her stories, stories Ava begs to be told, her mind wanting to be filled. Under the stars they watch, and Lonnie speaks softly, pointing upwards. "You see that out there? Somewhere there, that's home." They're like diamonds, scattered onto the black velvet, countless. Unreachable, of course.
"Tell me about it," Ava asks. Lonnie strokes her as she begins to talk, her voice dispersing into the atmosphere and as much for herself as for Ava.
"It's beautiful, nothing like this shithole... an' if you think this is good" - gesturing to the stars - "you ain't seen nothin' yet. There's moonlight, from the moons, three of 'em, and the sun's huge an' fiery. There's deserts and seas, an' everything you'd ever want. And you're queen of the whole fucking world, you an' Zan rule it all; and I'm your princess, baby. Yeah, an' we can fuck anywhere we like, cause we're royalty. The stars are better than here... it's home, babe, fucking home..." She trails off here and they gaze up.
"We're goin' back there, right?" Ava asks quietly.
"Yeah, baby, we are. We're gonna go home an' live life like we should."
"Real soon... we'll take off in a ship and we'll land on Antar an' we'll be queen and princess again. The hottest queen there ever was."
"I want to go back there," she says, and means it with all her heart. Forever, from long, long ago, she's known she doesn't belong here. Lonnie fills the air with images and they fill her dreams. She dreams of life in paradise, one where Lonnie will love her unconditionally and everything will be Eden.
"I love you," she tells her princess; she dares to now, though she treads carefully most times. She sees herself saying it and there's a little bit of derision, despising, but she's a cornball at heart, she thinks.
"Yeah, an' I love you, baby," Lonnie says that time after a pause, and Ava knows it's true. She is loved, Lonnie does love. And she trusts her with all her being; has to, and though it might not seem so the next morning, she carries that secret utterance with her, a talisman.
But Lonnie's cold, she finds it difficult to love, and when she does she doesn't often admit it. Ava has to cling hard to the belief. Hardness, though, surrounds the once Vilandra. Often it seems she doesn't love anything or anyone, and she's only out for herself, and she can't feel. It scares Ava, and she does her best to avoid Lonnie's cruel, vindictive side. She steps lightly and her life seems a path; treacherous and winding and if she puts a foot wrong she will fall into the fiery abyss. Fear surrounds her; sometimes she wonders that she can feel anything else amid it. Of course, emotions aren't always pure; her fear is woven in with love just as her love is tinged with fear. But Lonnie does love her; they have kissed and loved under the stars, and before the pods, and once, near the sea, and in so many other places.
She remembers all this, and more, as the car speeds silently through the darkness; she looks out of the window, and keeps her eye on the other travelling streaks of light.
* * *
Descending the stair with Rath and Lonnie, she's apprehensive, and also eager. To know what the others are like, a question that has long plagued her mind. As they enter into the room, and she sees their faces, she's overcome. Now they stand, the Royal Three before the Royal Four; and Ava feels simultaneously more a part of her pod than ever, as they face the strangers, and more apart from them. A heady mix of emotions is filling her up. With Rath, with Lonnie, she scorns their doubles for their pathetic clothing and their petty small-town life. Alone, she reaches out to their humanity and a deep sense of longing rises up in her. They *are* family. The girl who is not she, the pristine, self-assured one, tells her that her name is Tess. It's a pretty name, she thinks. She's racked with curiosity over what could have been, if she had been the one to have that name. Cosy, small, loved life. And her thoughts and eyes turn to the other girl. Isabel. The third Vilandra. She's filled with wonder, as she watches her, seeing what Lonnie could have been like. The long blonde hair is so striking, and Ava can feel it, silken, running through her fingers. She's beautiful, as beautiful as Lonnie is, and she's drawn to her, and she's scared. She can't disassociate that face from Lonnie's hard eyes, and she sees some of that hardness beginning to form in this Isabel. She wants to war her, to tell her to feel, to look after Ava's own double. But she can't; can't talk to someone who looks so like terrible, wonderful Lonnie and can't betray Lonnie. So while Lonnie and Isabel gravitate towards each other, she stands alone, awkwardly knowing that Tess is doing the same, and is lost in thought.
She wonders, whether Tess has fallen into the trap of Isabel's love. Or if love with Isabel is a trap. Maybe it's sweet and untainted, like ice cream and the feel of the sun on your face on hot summer days. Where did Lonnie's hate come from? How can Isabel be so different? The questions swirl, and most of all she wonders at Tess. The green of envy fills some part of her, how is it that she can stand up to these people? She who is like looking in a distorted mirror, showing calm and most, most of all confidence. She doesn't see this girl shrinking into herself of being berated by Isabel. She longs, the desire wells up and floods her, to be a part of that. Unfair. She wants to go to Isabel and tell her about Lonnie, cry into her arms and be truly consoled. It aches, deep, deep within her, clenching at her lungs, paralysing. She watches from her position at Lonnie's side; close in body and so far, far away in spirit. Maybe if she wishes hard enough to be in the other one's body, fresh and clean and piercingly blue-eyed, her soul will fly out of her and into that. She concentrates, tries to detach her mind from her downtrodden substance. She hears herself derisive, and clings to the desperate hope; imagines all the motes of dust of her existence and wishes herself into them, feels them streaming out of her in a radiating flare. Leaving the dark and murky shell behind, becoming shining Tess there with shining Isabel. Or even just disappearing, because that would also be better. She can move feeble humans with her mind, she can ignite and burn them, surely she can do this? How hard can it be, to escape? She wills it, pleads for it, cries out to some higher being. Anyone, anything, help. She doesn't believe in higher beings. Here, she knows, is all there is: here, amid the torture and the dirt. Which she endures in hope of the flight home to a fantasy world. She watches them with a deeper despair, one that touches every cell, and prays with everything she has to be taken from where she is.
They stand together, four, facing against the other halves. The women are close, supporting and strengthening and united, it seems to Ava. Tess and Isabel. Vilandra and Ava, such different ways the same people can end up. She wonders whether the originals, queen and princess of Antar, were like them or like her and Lonnie, because she remembers only hazily. Seeing them there, she burns to tell them, to warn them of the dangers, the cruelty and selfishness that rests in Lonnie. She dreads to think of the havoc that will be wreaked, their symmetry shattered. They look so right, in the same way that she and Rath and Lonnie and Zan once did. A perfect foursquare, two by two and two by two. They were balanced and they were stable, just like they were meant to be. They complemented each other. Left over from their past lifetimes, they lived in that sewer, as contented as it was possible for them to be. Ava doesn't remember a time when she wasn't in love with Lonnie. It seems she's always been directing her life towards pleasing her opposite in the square, but it's true that she loved Zan too. She was his queen, always, and she loved him like a brother. It wasn't the passion she had for Lonnie, but it was real, he stood by her side. Of course it was physical too, the desperate urge left over from Antar compelling them to rip off clothes and fuck each other senseless. But not like Lonnie, here the physical and emotional were separate. Nobody was hung up on the supposedly destined couples; they knew what they'd been but who gave a shit? They did what they liked, cutting swathes through life and pushing over anyone who stood in their way; cause Zan was the king and Ava was the queen and the four of them stood above everyone else. Calmly, arrogantly, Zan and Lonnie asserted their power, Rath too, and Ava as a part of that absorbed their superiority as they strode the streets of the city, blasting out menace.
Fate made a mistake, though, in choosing the wrong queen. Ava knows only too well that she was not designed for the job. It is Vilandra who has the drive, the ruthlessness and thirst for power. She herself is weak and could only rule with Zan. Of course, that's why he chose her. Every king needs a queen, but a king like Zan couldn't suffer anyone who would approach his own power. He likes Ava, who follows. She doesn't like this characteristic of herself, but it is who she is - follows Zan, obeys Lonnie. Lonnie resents Zan deeply. She is angry that he rules and she is only a princess, and when Lonnie isn't satisfied with a situation she will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Their life together was one of precariousness: each gathering support and manipulating, pulling on the fine threads of the web. Because of this Ava is contemptuous of Rath, who does not see what is going on under his own nose. He can't see past his own ego, he pig-headedly assumes himself to be second-in-command and heir to Zan. He thinks he has a chance of being the man; he has no chance, he has no power. Ava herself is aware of each undercurrent between Zan and Lonnie, and they are the two with power. She would hear them, sometimes, arguing bitterly, and not the simple fights of Rath and Zan. Lonnie knows how to cut deep and infect her wounds (as Ava knows); such did she do to Zan. They lowered their voices but still the viciousness hurt Ava, and she hung on to every snatched word, while Rath was oblivious. The fights would reach her ears and reverberate in her head, the eardrums echoing; and she'd stare down at her hands, nervously scratching, watching the flesh go red and mottled. Chewing on her fingernails, which tasted of oranges and coffee. These times worry her, she is astute, in fact she has remarkable perception. Ava notices every little thing that goes on, and this frustrates her because she can do nothing to influence them. But she must know what happens, she thinks, because she must protect herself, as the fallout from any explosion will inevitably settle on her. She sees Lonnie, manipulating, sowing her seeds of discontent in Rath. She is an enemy agent, an infiltrator. So cunning is her scheming; Rath believer his feelings are his alone. She stirs up his resentment, adds ingredients here and there, a well-placed comment, an interpretation of an innocent action. Ava admires her ability in this. And while she loves Zan, and loves and hates Lonnie with a passion, she dislikes Rath. He irritates her, and, of course, he frightens her. He may not have the power but he has it over her. He can subjugate her, and does, and when he is angry, what is she but a punchbag? Of course he drinks, and then too she fears. He strides in, kicking objects away, and she tries to make herself invisible; he will come across her in a corner and curse.
"Fuckin' hell, Ava, what the fuck you doin'?" And when she doesn't reply, only looking miserable - "What, you got nothin' to say? What is wrong wit' you? You don't say nothin', you don't do nothin' - fuck it, you're just a damn waste of space!" And he gets close up to her with stale alcohol on his breath and looks into her face. He kicks the wall and then he takes her by the shoulders and throws her against it. Shocks ricochet through her bones from the stone, in front of her eyes she sees them shaking amid explosions of too-bright light. Then he punches her, and she recoils, and his aggressive attitude fills her view. He's angry; somehow she perceives that he's also sad; but he's undoing her clothes, and she doesn't understand his anger. Alien powers; with another man she would blast him away, but with Rath, she senses that in his irrational fury he would kill her where she stands. Paralysed, she's frozen, cold and rooted; she looks below his ear, counts the hairs running down his face, where they emerge out of the skin. The shape of each hair, streamlined, and the pores. The moment stretches. She's petrified; and it's not the sex because she's fucked a lot of men and sometimes it was a little less than consensual, but she submitted; he's crazed, she's powerless and screaming terror inside. She feels her life ebbing away, knows that once this is over she will be nothing, just a receptacle of vomit and blood and suffering.
Then suddenly he's not there any more and she sinks back, lightness flooding her and she feels the empty space. It's Lonnie, of course, her saviour, and from where Ava is slumped she does seem to give out holiness, light and benevolence. For this moment she wholly forgets the rest. She's got Rath against the wall, now, and the words that come out of her mouth snake around his neck, tightening.
"Baby, she's mine," she hisses and growls, with hate. "You stay *away* from her... an' you know what?" Coarse, threatening. "If I ever see you *touch* her again, you ain't gonna live another second. I will cut off your fuckin' cock real slow, an' I'll shove it down your throat so you choke to death an' if that don't get the job done, I will smash your fuckin' face in wit' my own hands, ya hear me? I swear I will." And she pushes him onto the floor and leaves him there. Ava is hugely, wonderfully grateful; though she has doubts over whether Lonnie did it for her, or to reassert her own dominance and power. Either way, it is done.
After this he doesn't touch her for a while. Later he begins again to beat her up from time to time; but never again does he try to touch her sexually. This is Lonnie's power.
Of course, despite this, her fear of Lonnie is greater than her fear of Rath. She is terrified of Rath at times, when his rage overcomes him and he hurts her. But her fear of Lonnie is a constant; it is apprehension, a knife edge where she must do right in order to avoid rebuke. The most important thing is that Lonnie must love her, because her own love is so great. She looks at her in wonder, marvels that such a creation can be even part hers. At the touch of her skin, she fills with boundless awe and bliss. She thinks of Lonnie in colours; she is a blend of gold and amber, warm, with darker shades at the edges. She is like a lioness. Ava must please her, and draw out the comfort and warmth from where it is covered. Ava's love burns, deep inside her soul or her chest, the feelings both spiritual and physical. The fire warms and also it scalds; but where, she thinks, would she be without it?
They go in phases, her thoughts about Lonnie. She tries hard to focus on the beauty, but the beast has a tendency to invade unwanted. And while Rath is merely brutal, Lonnie is sadistic. She will torture, stick the knife in slowly and twist it for the fun of it, wrenching, screwing pain out of people. Mostly her torture is emotional. Her self-satisfied smile, mocking, playing and replaying in Ava's mind. She plays on Ava's insecurities. What is it you want? Love? Fuckin' hell, Ava, you're more pathetic than I ever thought. Maybe we'll just leave you here, cause you sure as fuck ain't much good to us. You shoulda been a human. And she says these things while she plays with Ava's hair and runs her fingers casually up and down her leg; and Ava doesn't know what to think. Sometimes she'll shout at her with angry demands. Always it seems she's deadly serious, and really it's only because of Zan that she has been tolerated so long.
Zan the protector. He wasn't always a good person, he was selfish, impulsive, and wouldn't listen to anyone else. He was the cause of the tension and anger, discontent running high. She doesn't think he would make a good king - and he didn't, he was overthrown. He ruled for himself alone, and the others resented that. So what? She doesn't remember that now. She thinks of him with a great tenderness and a huge reservoir of pain. When they stood in a four Lonnie would be with Rath, and Ava with Zan. He was her king, he'd chosen her, and knowing that kept her sane on the worst days. If Lonnie would say something,
"What you doin' here anyway? Why you wit' us? You're useless as shit," in a pissed-off moment, Zan would turn on her.
"Shut the fuck up, bitch - she the queen, and you don't forget that."
She smiles at him, and he kisses her. His eyes, his eyes are so deep, soulful almost and dark as night. Gentle when they looked at her, so unlike Lonnie's. She should have seen, should have guessed. Should have noticed Rath and Lonnie plotting. But they were alone together so much anyway. She's helpless, frustrated, desperate that she couldn't stop it. What a fucking pathetic bitch, she couldn't save the man who was her husband. Why not? How hard could it be? A minute earlier, five second, to have stopped Rath or the truck. She can't do anything, she screams and it echoes and echoes in the void. There is no help. She feels him against her and sees those eyes. Wishes for the warmth of his arms with a ferocity like nothing ever before. This is impossible, the hurt inside her is too much, it will break out. He lies shocked, blinded by the light as he stares at his death speeding towards him, and looking in the last second at his sister and his trusted with betrayal and disbelief. They are hard, how can they be? Cold blood, blood on their hands, souls so thickened they don't care. Agony shoots out from inside her, hot and cold in turn, unbearable - really she thinks she will die. Inside her is a space larger than the universe, and it's swelling up. She can't keep it inside her, she's going to be sick violently. Her stomach's lurching. She can feel all these serpents twisting inside her, murky, black, and pushing themselves into her organs. Ride the pain, put your head down, pretend it's not there and let the wave wash over you. It washes, and she's drowning in it. Boundless, infinite, pure pain, corrupted pain, dirty and dark. The eyes keep watching her. In frustration her mind keeps on wailing, sending up the lament. Anything, anything to relieve this hell, and this is what hell is like, mourning and fear. Mourning sounds like such a peaceful act. But oh, it isn't, there are thousands of voices inside her, all clamouring, crying, in discord; the noise, the chaos. She can't endure this.
Zan was the protector. Now there is no more Zan, and there is no more protection. She is bare, alone.
* * *
The night is around them, the lights are coloured, glowing red and green. She stands, awkwardly, with the murderers; waiting. They're nervous, impatient. They relax as the boy comes into sight, with the girl, and Ava looks at them, the not-Zan and her other self. She sees Tess, sees what she could be, the confidence and self-assurance; and then it's like she's been struck by lightning, a blinding revelation coming over her. In her head she sees all the shit they ever poured on her, the underminings, the beatings, the fuckings with her mind. Cruelties and betrayals. She sees the others there, the Royal Four, and knows she is superfluous. Most of all, Zan's death is crystal clear in high resolution. She watches as the love of her life kills her own brother, Ava's king, and there is triumph, pleasure on her face. Revulsion fills her, and she understands that Lonnie's heart truly is of stone; also that the same fate will surely come to Ava. It's as if something has taken her over, she is a vessel for some spirit. Finally she knows that she cannot be with them, and the thing controlling her speaks.
"Too tight." Is she really saying this, leaving them? "Looks like there's no room for me. Just as well." After all these years, her resentment is finally leaving her shell. Lonnie and Rath shift, letting out exasperation at having to deal with her again. Well, this is gonna be the last time they do that.
"What you trippin' about?" Rath says, and she feels an immense calm come over her as she states:
"Don't be crazy," Lonnie says. "What you gonna do, stay in the desert?" Hope now; maybe, maybe, she does love her still, but when she glances at her, Lonnie is standing unconcerned and with that look Ava hates so much on her face.
; "Yo, just get in the car, Ava," Rath orders, and in her new-found recklessness she is scornful. He resorts to the old faithful, hurls her against the side of the car and shouts.
"Yo, I said get in the car!" But she isn't scared, and she lets her natural reaction come out for once.
"Kill me, what, you gonna kill me?!" And she pushes him away, just as Max, the not-Zan, rushes in to save her. This stranger, who cares more about her than her lover. His eyes are the same, and there's a rush of affection. So Rath shrugs her off, dismissing her.
"You thought I was gonna kill her? Nah. You wanna stay? You can stay. Not a problem." The words bring it home to her, she panics then at the thought of losing them, but the rash spirit is flooding through her veins and she's high on it and it overcomes other things. She looks at Lonnie one last time, reaches out to her with her eyes, and knows that if Lonnie gave the word now, she would go with her. She wants her to. She pleads with her gaze, and the moment seems to last for eternity. She sees Lonnie how she loved her with all her being; and Lonnie's impassive and uninterested, only some of that sly laughing playing on her face. Overwhelmed, she turns on her heel and walks away.
Left at the car, Lonnie watches her go for a minute; and the small flame that burns in the midst of darkness flares up. She feels the love, the pain of loss, and if Ava came back she would draw her into her arms and console her. But Ava doesn't see. Lonnie turns away, wrenching herself from the feeling, and the flame dies down. As the car pulls away, Ava stands and watches it streak down the highway and disappear, and a boundless, quiet, lonely grief rises in her throat.
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