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Black Sheep: Chapter 35

ELI

Sometimes when I close my eyes and remember the first time I saw Bria Brooks, I think of everything I would have done differently. I would have read her thesis proposal in advance, for one. But if I’d gotten up to buy her lunch in Deja Brew, what would have happened next? Maybe she would have found some clever way to shut me down with a cutting remark and a dark smile. Maybe she would have accepted and come to sit at my table. Maybe I would have broken every rule from the start, and things would be different. Everything would be different.

Or maybe we’d still end up right here.

Me, powerless to do anything but watch and wait. Bria, still and silent, bruised and broken. A Grade 2 concussion. Five hours of surgery, plates and screws drilled into her broken bones. Units of blood. Infection. Antibiotics. Tetanus prophylaxis. CT scans, IV bag changes, morphine.

Samuel must be wheeling down the hallway somewhere, pressuring doctors to re-review Bria’s CT results or check for blood clots or give her more pain relief, because a harried nurse enters the room early to administer Bria’s next dose of morphine and check her vitals.

When the nurse leaves and it’s just me and Bria again, I take her hand. I close my eyes. Every time I do, I hear her scream. It’s a terrifying, desperate sound of distress. A fresh burst of panic rises in my chest. You’re too late, I remember thinking so clearly.

I hear their voices, Bria’s and my brother’s, as I rush to follow the glow sticks on the floor. Bria laughs. A furious growl climbs the walls. She screams again as I rush up the stairs. And then it’s that horrible moment, suspended in time.

My brother, with such rage and malice etched in his skin, swinging a sledgehammer, ready to bring it down on Bria’s face as she lies unmoving on the dust and debris.

I don’t hesitate. I just shoot.

Gabe crumples. He’s already dead when he hits the floor.

I rush toward them. Blood flows from a wound in Gabe’s temple. His eyes are open but unseeing. Bria is unconscious, her breathing shallow. Her beautiful face is serene. It seems impossible after the sound of those screams filling the desolate darkness.

I open my eyes, trying to push away the memory of her broken bone illuminated by moonlight.

When I do, she’s looking back at me.

“Bria?”

She doesn’t say anything, just shifts her eyes from my face to our joined hands to her suspended leg with its pristine white cast, then to her other hand, twisting her wrist. She looks at the bedrail on that side, then the door. And finally back to me.

“I guess they know I’m not running,” Bria says, pressing the button to raise the head of the bed. I pass her a cup of water and realize she must have been looking for handcuffs or an officer posted at the door.

“You’re not in trouble. They’ll want to speak with you later, but only when you’re ready,” I explain. Bria shifts again, wincing before she settles. The pain in her eyes doesn’t fade. “Do you need more morphine? I can get the nurse.”

Bria’s brows furrow as she regards me. “No,” she says, her gaze falling away, the agony still heavy in her eyes. “I’m fine. Is Samuel okay?”

“Considering he’s threatened to kill me twice since nine o’clock, yeah… I’d say he’s in top form.”

“What about Gabe? Did they catch him?”

My heart sinks deeper into my chest as her question echoes in its chambers. I shake my head and swallow the spike lodged in my throat. “No… Gabe is dead, sweetheart.”

A long silent moment stretches between us. Bria squeezes my hand as she watches me, hopelessness and regret settling in the tears that glass her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I tried… I didn’t… I wouldn’t do that to you…”

“I know it wasn’t you. It was me.” A beat of guilt drums in my chest. But every time it hits, I see the hammer swing behind him and the destruction twisting Gabe’s features into a man I barely recognized. That moment of regret dissolves in an instant. “He was going to kill you, Bria. I love the brother I knew. I’ve mourned the boy I grew up with for years. But the man I saw…that wasn’t him.”

Bria’s bruised lip quivers. Her eyes press closed and she bends her head, wiping her cheek with the back of her free hand. It shatters my heart to realize it’s not relief I see in her face. It’s failure.

“Bria…” I lean closer, gripping her hand tighter when she makes a weak effort to pull it free. When I slide my thumb over a tear on her cheek, she shakes her head. “It’s okay, sweetheart.”

“It’s not,” she says, her eyes snapping open as she shakes her head again. The rage in her glare is glazed with a patina of sorrow. “I’m just… I’m so sorry, Eli. I wanted to give him back to you. He was supposed to live.”

“If he had, he would’ve done everything he could to drag you down with him.”

“That’s how it’s supposed to work, Eli. Those are the rules.”

Though she’s firing my words from our argument back at me, I can tell by her face it’s not with the intention to cause hurt. She believes that’s what I wanted. Maybe at one time it was. And she would have done anything to give it to me. She was genuinely ready to fall with Gabe, if that’s what it took. But in doing so, Bria was trying to fit into a box that she can never mold to.

“Maybe some rules don’t serve us well,” I say, sweeping more tears from her cheek. “Some people are just meant to break them.”

“Yeah, by like, fucking the patriarchy or something. Not by killing people,” Bria says. She looks at me for only a heartbeat before her attention strays to the corner of the room as she makes every effort to shut her emotions down. It’s a battle she doesn’t win. “Thank you, Eli,” she whispers, flicking her gaze in my direction without meeting my eyes. “I’ll never forget what you did for me. But you should go.”

“No, I don’t think so, Pancake.”

A deep, shuddering sigh fills Bria’s lungs. The agony in her face is excruciating. “Eli, I can’t be the person you deserve. I can’t change who I am in the ways that matter. You said love was about letting go when you know you can’t be what the other person needs. And I do love you, so much more than I thought I could. Saying goodbye is me loving you the best way I can. It’s the right thing for both of us.”

I keep hold of Bria’s hand as I shift closer until she has no choice but to look at me. “I also said it’s about fighting harder when things get tough. You didn’t put yourself through all this to give up now,” I say, my thumb making a careful pass over her split lip. “And I didn’t race over half the county in a blind panic thinking you might be dead just to let you go when I’ve got you back. I’ve never been as terrified as when I stood on that dock and expected to catch sight of your body out there in the water.”

Bria’s brow furrows in confusion. “You went to the cabin?”

“And your bug-out cache, and Honeycomb House, and a farm you apparently blew up… I even went back to the cabin to see if you’d returned for supplies. That’s when Samuel received your instructions about railroading Koffi N’Doli into pulling his people from the Vellera compound. I guess he’d much rather abandon his Lamb Heath contract than suffer the wrath of your computer wizard uncle and all his fail-safe backup plans.”

I sweep the hair from Bria’s forehead, watching as she takes in my face, her gaze lingering on my cheek. I smile enough that her eyes narrow at my dimple. My heart nearly bursts when she reaches a tentative finger up to trace it across my skin. Though there’s still so much hesitancy in her weary expression, that one simple act is enough. I catch her fingers and bring them to my lips.

“We didn’t go through all that to let each other go. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make our own rules. Ones we can both live with. Such as, I won’t leave you in the woods with wild animals after an argument. And you won’t kill FBI informants. We’ll trust one another to share our secrets so we don’t wind up here again. Sometimes it’s going to be hard, but we’ll find our own middle ground, one day at a time.”

I lean closer, my movement slow and careful, our gazes still soldered together until I place a gentle kiss on the faint freckles I’ve missed so much over these last few days. Bria’s breath hitches as her eyes drift closed.

“I can’t stop what I do, Eli,” she whispers as I place another kiss to her nose.

“I’m not asking you to.”

“What if I fuck this up?”

“We’ll both fuck it up sometimes,” I say, a kiss lingering on her tear-stained cheek. “That’s what makeup sex is for, Pancake.”

Her laugh is lost in a breath of longing as I warm her skin with my lips. “What if I find out your glasses weren’t prescription and they somehow wind up broken? Or a rogue tiger mysteriously enters the house and shreds all your tweed?”

I frame her face and smile, the first genuine smile I’ve felt in my face in days. A glimmer of relief brightens in Bria’s eyes as she watches me. “Then I’ll go to Cedar Ridge and steal all the bifocals and tweed I can find, and when I get home and you give me the evil eye, I’ll know you really love me.”

Bria’s palm warms my face. It’s just a simple touch, but it looks like it means everything to her. “I do really love you,” she says. “And I’m sorry.”

“I know, sweetheart. I’m sorry too.”

A faint smile rises in her face and the cracks that have been aching in my heart stitch back together as Bria presses her lips to mine. Her taste and scent flood my senses, cementing the first truth between us, the one I’ve known since the second I thought I’d lost her.

We belong to one another.

We just need time. With every touch, with every secret spoken or truth shared, we’ll grow and bind together.

And that’s what we do.

Just like healing Bria’s broken body, day after day, we get stronger. Splintered pieces pull together. Sometimes it takes rest and reflection. Other times it takes effort, just like Bria’s rehab. She works through pain to make her leg stronger. We work through hurt to make our relationship better. Some days are great. Others aren’t. But even on the days when it’s not, we’re still twining together. Learning to trust one another. To rely on one another.

Like today.

It’s been almost six months since Gabe passed away. And this afternoon was the memorial service for Samuel Brooks.

Bria has been preparing for this day from before I even knew her. On the surface, she’s handled it with strength and poise. To anyone else, she would be the reserved, efficient, resilient niece who planned out a beautiful event to celebrate the life and contributions of her beloved uncle. But there’s so much more than that beneath her shimmering surface. She doesn’t say it, but I know she feels adrift without her greatest ally. The more I’ve gotten to know Bria, and the more she’s come to terms with herself in ways she never expected, the more she’s struggled to understand her relationship with Samuel through different lenses. Now that he’s gone, she’s not just mourning the man who saved her from the desert. She’s grieving for a history she might never understand.

I’m watching Bria as she takes a stack of records from Samuel’s belongings we gathered from Cedar Ridge, examining the handwritten titles on their dust jackets. There are still boxes from my house in the corner of the room next to Samuel’s piano. Kane sits on the highest one, glaring down Duke. They’ve established a truce over the last week since I moved in, but the suspicions still run deep for both parties. In a tactic oddly reminiscent of Bria, the cat likes to use his murder mittens on Duke’s nose when no one is looking.

“Any old-school gems in there?” I ask, patting the top of Duke’s cat-scratched head as I bring over two glasses of wine, stopping at Bria’s side.

“Not really. These are all Samuel’s,” she says, setting the records down on the coffee table to pick up a sealed document envelope we retrieved from Samuel’s safety deposit box on the way home from the service. She peels the flap open, glancing up at me with a look that says “this is serial killer stuff you might not enjoy.” “His pieces were his…trophies…”

“Ahh. I might not listen to them the same way again,” I say, but with a smile and a kiss to Bria’s temple as she withdraws a thick leatherbound notebook from the envelope. In the life we’re building together, revelations like Samuel’s musical trophies have come to make sense. Part of the reason Bria and Samuel have been so successful in staying hidden is their ability to avoid patterns of behavior the rest of us believe are typical for their kind.

“Me neither…” Bria whispers, her voice trailing off. She flips a page in the notebook, reading the careful, scrolling penmanship on the yellowed pages. “He wrote lyrics for his pieces… I never knew…”

“A different kind of trophy?”

“Yeah…seems like it.”

I pick up the stack of records, ready to flip through them. “Which piece was his favorite?”

“Opus #139,” Bria says.

I shift to the middle of the sequentially-ordered stack and pull out Opus #139, placing it onto the vintage Thorens turntable on the sideboard. I turn up the volume and set the needle. A warm crackle precedes an evocative piano melody, filling the room with a haunting atmosphere.

“It’s not here,” Bria says, her voice full of disappointment as she flips back and forth between pages at the center of the book. I stop in front of her as she gives me a melancholy smile. She passes me the book and picks up her glass of wine. “It’s a shame. I would have liked to have known.”

Bria moves away to the hearth as the music swirls around us. I watch as she picks up the photo of her younger self and Kane. But I think it’s Samuel she’s looking at, trying to divine his thoughts from a moment caught in time.

I open the book, reading snippets of lyrics as I turn the pages. They’re poetic, atmospheric. Nothing is shocking or gruesome. Without knowing the man or the truth of his dark double life, the words would never cause suspicion. Understanding him now from what Bria has shared, I can see the trophies for what they are in the descriptions on the page. The color of a woman’s hair, a man’s eyes. The reflection on a blade or the glint of a metal wire in dim light. These lyrics are a history of small details that stood out in his mind for each life he claimed.

I flip to the end of the lengthy book, past the empty pages that will never be filled, to the very last one.

Opus #139. 

I read through the first stanza, my breath catching in my lungs. When I glance at Bria, her back is still turned toward me as she stares at the photo in her hands.

Daughter of the Devil. God grants no mercy in the desert sun.

Bria’s back stiffens. She goes impossibly still. I can’t even see her breathe.

Flower in the dust. In the darkest night you bloom.”

There’s a tremor in Bria’s fingers as she sets the photo on the mantle.

I thought that I would teach you. It was me who learned from you. Things I’d never known. Things I thought untrue.” I pause as she turns so slowly, tears gathering in her eyes. It’s the hope in them that breaks my heart. “Yet I find that when I watch you, swimming for the shore, these things I thought untrue, I can deny no more. Flower in the dust. In my darkest night you bloom.”

I lay the book on the coffee table and stride toward Bria, gathering her into my embrace. A sound of the deepest loss passes from her lips. And I think right now, as she lets the last of her armor down, she’s the strongest she’s ever been. The most whole.

“It was real,” she says into my chest as we sway together in the current of the music.

“Yeah, sweetheart,” I say, laying a kiss on the crown of her head. “It was real. And this is real too.”

We stay like that for a long time after the music has stopped. But then we play other songs. And we dance. We make the steps up as we go. I dip her and even earn a laugh. To some it might sound macabre, dancing to the trophies of a killer. But Bria and I, we make our own rules.

And now, as I lie in bed with Bria’s head on my chest, her breathing deep and even, I cherish the quiet moment for my nightly ritual. Careful not to wake her, I reach toward the nightstand and pull open the drawer on my side, retrieving a black box from its depths. I tighten my arm across Bria’s back and open it.

Diamonds glitter in the dim light, and I imagine every moment of how I’ll ask her to marry me. I’ll get down on one knee and promise to love her until my last breath. I’ll promise to show her so she never doubts the truth, even though not so long ago she would have thought it was impossible.

This is real.


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