Melina lay dead still in the double bed in the spare bedroom of Lucia’s house. She stared blindly at the window, unable to see the beautiful sunny day that lay beyond it. She was too numb with grief.
She’d had it all. The perfect woman, the perfect life, the perfect everything. And what wasn’t perfect was pretty damn close to perfect.
And now Ari was gone.
She thought back to that horrible day almost a month ago. She had been babysitting Rena’s boys. When Rena and Armando came home, Rena dropped her off in front of the house as usual. Ari was supposed to be back by then and so she had been surprised to find the house empty when she entered it.
She went and checked the landline for messages and found there was one message from Lucia. She could tell that something was very wrong by the sound of her voice telling her to just stay put and wait until Nara could get to her.
Her heartbeat quickened as she shakily dialed Lucia’s number.
“Come on, pick up!” she pleaded, as the phone rang twice, then three times before going to voicemail. “Rena just dropped me off,” she said into the machine. “What’s going on? Oh, God, I hope everything’s alright!”
A sound out in the driveway.
“Nara’s here. Gotta go.”
Melina hung the phone up and ran to the door. Nara pulled herself up the stairs as if she weighed a thousand pounds. Melina took just one look at her face and started screaming, “No, no, no, no, no!…”
She barely heard Nara telling her about the accident and how Ari had lost her footing when she got too close to the cliff’s edge. Lucia had tried to save her, but hadn’t been fast enough and nearly fell over the edge as well.
Lucia summoned the police with her cell phone that had been in her jacket pocket, but by the time they’d arrived on the scene, it was too late.
And all Melina had to be thankful for was the fact that Ari had died instantly and hadn’t suffered at all.
Melina felt sick. She’d lost her real mother. She’d lost Beth and Mitch. And now she’d lost Ari. Who would she lose next?
In the last month, she’d been more or less like a robot, guided by the kind and gentle mother-in-law she’d always adored. She tried so hard to cheer her up and bring her back to life, despite the daughter she’d lost, going on and on about how cute she was and how well she did the things she liked to do.
Or used to like to do.
Melina was barely aware of the door to the room opening. “Melina, sweetheart,” Lucia said softly.
Melina slowly pulled her eyes from the window and shifted them to the tall, dark figure before her, though she simply stared right through her.
Lucia suddenly yanked off the covers. “Come on, sweetie. You’ve got to get back to living.”
Melina moaned in protest.
Lucia tugged at her arm. “Come now.”
“No! I don’t want to live! I’m not as strong as you. You’ve been through this more than I have. You’re the tough one, not me.”
It was true. Lucia had had her share of heartache as well. She’d lost her baby brother as a child, and over the last decade, she’d lost her parents as well as her husband.
“Why? Why do people have to die so suddenly and so young?” Melina sobbed.
“Oh, babe, I don’t know,” Lucia said with emotion thick in her voice. “Only God can answer that.”
“He hates us,” Melina muttered.
“God hates us. He has to in order to take so much from us.”
“Oh, no, sweetie, He doesn’t.”
Lucia dragged a protesting – even swearing – Melina into the bathroom.
“I don’t want to live anymore! Just leave me the fuck alone! I have nothing left to live for and I don’t want to live!”
“Well, you’re going to live, like it or not, because there has been enough death around us. You can still mourn the loss of them. I know I always will. But we’re still alive. And as much as it hurts us at times, we have to go on. This is only temporary. You know we’ll all be together one day for all eternity.”
“No, I don’t know that. I’ve never been dead yet, so how can I know that’s nothing more than just wishful thinking? If you’d just get out of my way and let me kill myself, I can find out if that’s true or not.”
“Or maybe you’ll find out that those who take their own lives really do end up in eternal hell, forever alienated from their loved ones,” Lucia said.
Melina stilled and just stared at Lucia. She had a point.
“Strip,” Lucia ordered firmly, then she turned and began to fill the tub with hot water, adding a fruity-smelling bubble bath along the way.
Melina let Lucia bathe her and wash her hair. When she’d handed her a razor, Melina took it and shaved her legs and underarms under Lucia’s watchful eye.
“Scissors,” Melina said softly when she was done.
“Scissors,” Melina repeated a little louder.
“You going to cut that beautiful hair of yours?” asked Lucia.
Melina shook her head and said, “No, I’m going to cut the hair most of us don’t want much of.”
Melina saw that Lucia was confused and so she motioned with her eyes to the area between her legs.
“Oh, I see,” Lucia said with a slight smile playing upon her lips.
Melina didn’t know if she was amused or embarrassed, and frankly, she didn’t really care.
“They’re in the medicine cabinet,” Lucia said as she went to leave the room. “Please don’t do anything stupid. I need your support just as much as you need support. So please, please behave. Losing a significant other may be a horrible thing in itself, but I lost a daughter. So please, please don’t do anything stupid.”
If it hadn’t been for Lucia saying that, she probably wouldn’t have behaved. And so Melina went on, even if she functioned rather mechanically, and was still miserable inside. She missed Ari immensely. It seemed that the only thing that was going well was business. She’d sold a surprising amount of books, and Lucia’s antique store had been bustling with more customers than usual.
She thought of the nightmare she’d had before she died and how it had been a warning of sorts that she didn’t understand at the time. Seeing herself falling over the edge of the cliff was really something’s way of warning her about Ari’s accident, but she just didn’t know it at the time.
She wanted to remember Ari, but found that she had to block her out instead because she couldn’t think of her without bursting into tears. She knew Lucia still cried too, even though Melina saw her as the stronger one. Lucia mostly cried late at night while her own tears were more random.
She wasn’t human anymore. She was just this machine that was programmed to go through the motions of life, but not really live life itself. Life was for everyone else but her. Instead, she just stole a glimpse of life and what it was like to be alive every so often from the outside in.
Melina sat up in bed one morning, yawned, then pulled herself to her feet. Then she padded barefoot down the stairs in a sleeveless shirt that didn’t quite cover as much of her butt as her hair did now that it was growing out again. She moved through the house that was a bit old for her tastes, though in fine condition, decorated beautifully, and an ideal size. Not so small that you felt cramped, but not so roomy that you felt like space was being wasted.
She slept alone most nights, but sometimes she slid into bed next to Lucia, especially when it was windy out or storming. Lucia didn’t seem to mind. Even so, she tried to snuff her desire to find comfort in the warm, safe and secure embrace of Lucia. The last thing she wanted to do was get close to yet another person whom she could lose.
Lucia came downstairs just as Melina finished pouring their coffee which had become a morning ritual. Lucia worked and managed the money. Melina cooked, cleaned and helped out at the store a few days a week, more to get out of the house than to be helping Lucia.
Melina turned and looked up at Lucia. Her eyes were red. “You’ve been crying.”
Lucia nodded. “A little bit.”
Melina reached out and gently caressed Lucia’s cheek. The movement seemed to surprise Lucia at first, then her expression turned loving. She hugged Melina, kissed her forehead, took her coffee and said, “Grazie per il caffè.”
“Prego,” Melina replied, sipping from her own cup of coffee.
“So how ya doing this morning, sweetheart?”
Melina was thoughtful a moment, then she simply shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“No. I just don’t know anymore. I went from being heartbroken to angry and now I’m just plain old numb. It’s not that I’m not still very sad, though.”
“I understand,” Lucia said, hugging her again. “Grief has its various stages.”
“I feel like I’ve become somewhat of a black widow. It’s like everyone I get close to ends up dying. First my mom, then Beth and Mitch, and now Ari. And I can assure you that losing Ari hurts worst of all,” Melina sobbed against Lucia’s shoulder.
“I know, hun, I know. But you’re stronger than you think, and while we’ll always miss them, it does get easier with time. It really does, Princess Melina.”
Melina stiffened as Lucia stood back and gazed down at her. She didn’t like the Princess Melina thing. It reminded her too much of Gothic Beauty, who still sent messages to her every so often through cyberspace, even though she just ignored them.
“Mondays are slow, so if you want to stay back and do things online – take care of the house – that sort of thing, feel free to do so, ok?”
“You sure you’ll be alright alone today?”
Melina nodded again.
“Call me if you need anything.”
After Lucia left, Melina showered, dressed, then settled in the living room at her computer. When she wasn’t daydreaming and staring into space, she spent the morning online, reading email and taking surveys at a site that paid her to do it, even though it wasn’t much.
She hadn’t written in her journal since losing Ari and it seemed she no longer did most of the things she once loved to do. What little she managed to do only got done because it was either necessary or required little thinking.
A random memory of Ari and Lucia at the store, laughing over how much she hated antiques. “Grazie a Dio non si vende il profumo e i dolciumi,” Ari told her mom with a laugh. At the time she hadn’t understood, but she later learned that she’d told her to thank God she didn’t sell perfume and candy, two of her former guilty pleasures in life. With Ari gone, however, she had no pleasures at all, guilty or not. She barely tasted the food she ate. She barely smelled the flowers in the garden Lucia cherished. She didn’t even see the beauty in the sea anymore.
She could not stand to even think of going to the beach. It was bad enough that she couldn’t get the image out of her head as to what it must have been like for Ari when she slipped over the cliff’s edge and knew she was about to fall to her death.
Nothing surprised her anymore either, other than the fact that Ari would dare get so close the cliff’s edge in the first place. Although she had asked, Lucia insisted that she and Ari had taken that scenic route before to enjoy the view. It was strange that Ari would all of a sudden get into a dangerous position as she had, but strange things happened all the time, didn’t they?
The doorbell rang at noon.
Probably the gourmet coffees Lucia ordered once a month. It was about time for the next round.
Pulling herself up out of her chair, Melina strode over to the door and opened it. A tall dark-haired man she’d never seen before stood before her.
And then he had his way with her.