The Choice

“The Choice”

by Rebecca Burton

The first time she came to me, I was sat on a park bench pretending to be invisible. I’d been sat there for a while in the weak winter sunshine, hiding my bloodshot, swollen eyes behind dark glasses. I was trying to block out the cries of children playing on the swings and the sight of couples strolling by the pond. I wanted to be alone and yet I couldn’t bear being in the apartment so, here I was, sat in the middle of a crowd and utterly on my own.

She sat down beside me so quietly that I didn’t notice her arrive. One moment, there was no one there and the next, there was.

She was tall and elegant, wrapped in a black coat with a fox-fur collar against the chill. Her hands were hidden in black leather gloves and she wore bright red stilettos, incongruous against the frozen grass.

I kept my head turned away so that I couldn’t see her face and she couldn’t see mine. Could she not tell from my posture, my dark glasses, the misery which rolled off me in waves, that I did not want her there? It seemed to pass over her without affecting her as she sat, ankles nearly folded, hands clasped in her lap.

A curious sparrow dropped to the ground beside us, wondering if the humans had dropped any crumbs. It tilted its head to size us up before, reassured by our joint immobility, it inched closer to peck around our feet. It found a crumb of something and flew off, calling triumphantly to its friends. I almost smiled, for the first time in an eternity, my heart broken open again by the confiding little creature and its trust in us.

My companion seemed to take this as an invitation. “Life goes on. The world keeps turning and seasons come and go. Nothing lasts forever, not even love.”

I couldn’t hold back a small snort of agreement. Especially not love, I thought.

She seemed to be aware of the tenor of my thoughts and continued, as if in response to my unspoken words. “No, love is no different from anything else. All things are subject to entropy; all things decay. And yet we continue, and we learn to love again, perhaps.”

Silence fell between us again and I found myself trying to imagine loving again. I struggled to imagine that the thousand pieces of heart shattered in my chest could ever be repaired enough for love to take root once more. At least, not for a person. Maybe for the sky, and for birds and trees, and for art, but I couldn’t imagine loving another man the way I had loved him, the way I had loved before he cracked my chest open and pulled out my heart still beating and made me watch as he destroyed what was left of my soul. Before he hurt me. Before he left me.

The pain and the hate raged in me like a fire and I wondered that no one else could see the smoke. How could a frail human body hide emotions such as these, even with the aid of makeup and dark glasses? I wanted to destroy him, and I wanted to save him and be saved in return, and I wanted to scream into the void until the void screamed back to me. How could such agony be so invisible to the world?

“It is not invisible to me.” Her voice broke in on my mind like an ice-cold wind, laying cooling falls of snow on the unbearable heat of my emotions, soothing and calming as it went.

“What would you do to him, if you could take your revenge? What would be his penance for your pain?”

I stiffened. How could this woman know what I was thinking, know why I was here in the park on my own? How could she know that I came to plan how I could hurt him in return?

I glanced side-long at her and she smiled back at me, red lipstick staining her mouth like blood. “If you could have vengeance, would you take it? Think about it.” And, with that, she rose without a sound and strolled away towards the southern gate back to the city.

The second time she came, I was sat on the sofa in an old ratty robe, a tub of ice cream on my lap, a glass of wine on the table in front of me. That freaked me out, as you might imagine. There I was, sat there, safe in my own home, when suddenly she sat down next to me and poured herself a glass of wine.

I shot to my feet, shedding blankets and ice cream, and grabbed my phone to call the police, my heart pounding in my head. She reached out, as if she had all of the time in the world, and caught the falling tub, placing it on the table next to the bottle of wine.

“Come now, child. There’s no need for such a dramatic reaction.” She raised one elegant eyebrow at me as I stood, indecisive, not knowing whether to cry or scream. “Sit down and we can talk together.”

Not quite knowing why, I placed the phone handset back on its base-unit and took my seat back on the sofa. I sat with my back to the arm of the chair, facing her, and pulled the blankets back over my lap. I should have been freaking out, and I was—somewhere underneath or behind my conscious mind—but I didn’t seem to be able to resist her quiet voice or her calm instructions.

“Much better, my dear. Now we can have a proper talk. Here, drink your wine.” She passed me my glass and took a sip from her own. We sat in silence for a moment or two as we both savoured the rich aroma of the Pinot Noir grapes.

I tried to summon my scattered wits and wondered where my fear had gone. With each sip of wine, I felt warmer, safer. I knew that this woman beside me was here to help, but I still didn’t know who she was or why she had come to me.

Once again, she responded to the unspoken thoughts in my head. “I come to everyone who suffers, every heart which calls out to me for revenge. I hear you all and I come at your call.

“I am Sekhmet, goddess of revenge and divine retribution, goddess of the sun and of war. I have come to offer you a gift, my child. Will you take it?”

My apartment had disappeared and we stood now in the middle of a desert, wine glasses still in hand. The elegant woman beside me now wore a robe—blood-red, rich arterial red, not the red-orange of fake blood. Her face was overshadowed by that of a ghostly-lioness, so that she appeared to be looking out through the lion’s mouth, and two male lions with full manes lounged at her feet. One of the cats “huffed” at me and I shivered where I stood.

Sekhmet waved her hand languidly, gesturing to something behind me, and I turned to stare in shock. She stepped up close behind me, her hand on my shoulder as she whispered in my ear. “See how I provide revenge for my children. See how I could provide revenge for you, my kitten, if you choose it.”

In front of me was a vast field of suffering. Although the edges must have been a mile or more away, when I focused on one of the distant figures some magic brought it into high relief, until I turned my gaze away in horror.

Everywhere I looked, I saw a man suffer, and they were almost all men. A few female figures were scattered across my field of vision, but the tortured souls below were overwhelmingly male. One was having his stomach eaten by a lion, but each time the creature paused, his flesh knit back together again. Another hung from a scaffold as two of the monstrous animals batted him back and forth, their claws tearing holes in his skin with each contact, a grotesque game played by over-sized house-cats.

I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat, sickened by the sight in front of me. It reminded me of a painting I had seen in a gallery once, a Renaissance depiction of hell.

“Do you not like it?” Her voice dripped like honey into my ear. “They deserve what is happening to them. This is revenge for how they have acted, for how they have chosen to act.

“Rapists, abusers, adulterers; every one of them.” She spat, the water evaporating as soon as it hit the scorching sand.

“But is this not what you want? For the one who hurt you so. Does he not deserve to suffer? Does he not deserve proper punishment? You thought so, or you would not have called to me, child. Let us look…”

She turned me away from the suffering, strong hands on my arms, and towards a sort of cauldron, an oversized goblet, full of shimmering water that did not appear affected by the suffocating heat. She pressed on the back of my head, forcing me to look down into the depths and, at first, all I saw was the reflection of my own face, and hers beside it. Then the waters shimmered and turned black, like a pool of ink or the liquid display of a screen, and up from the bottom swam a speck of colour and light, rushing faster and faster towards me until I thought it would swallow me whole.

I couldn’t move with her hand pressed on the back of my neck. All I could do was to close my eyes and wait for the impact, sure that the shock would crush my skull. Air rushed past my face and, then, the heat disappeared, replaced with biting cold and harsh sunlight that pierced through my eyelids.

I squinted my eyes open to see myself, standing in the middle of our kitchen, opposite him, exactly where we had stood just a few short days ago. I started forward towards myself but was tugged back into place by a warm hand on my arm.

“We are here as observers only,” Sekhmet said. “We can touch nothing, change nothing. Now, watch. See how it happened, see how he hurts you and then decide. What does he deserve for this?”

We’d been happy; or at least I’d thought we had. He’d moved into my apartment several months before and everything seemed to be going well. He travelled a lot with work but he always seemed happy to come home. I thought that we were on track and that he might propose soon, maybe on my birthday the next month. He’d been secretive lately, shutting down the laptop when I walked into the room, but when I looked later, the history showed he’d been looking at jewellers and engagement rings, so I was quietly excited. Everything was rosy.

Until the façade slipped. I’d tripped that evening, spilling red wine on his sleeve and he had snapped. A dark light had shone in his eyes as he lashed out at me.

“You stupid bitch!” He threw his wine glass at me and it just missed my face. The glass smashed against the wall behind me and red wine dripped down the paintwork and puddled on the floor.

I stood like a statue, unable to comprehend this change in my quiet, gentle boyfriend. I couldn’t move, frozen to the spot, as he walked over and backhanded me across the face. I fell to the floor, a hand pressed against my bleeding lip.

“Wh…? Why?”

“You have to ruin everything, don’t you? This was our last night together and you ruin my favourite fucking shirt.”

“Our last night? I don’t understand.” I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. My whole world was disintegrating.

“You have no idea, do you?” He laughed. “I always knew that you were stupid, but I expected a little bit more.” He picked me up and shoved me against the wall. “You were only ever a toy, a plaything, something to amuse myself with.

“My real family, my wife, my kids—they live out of town. Where did you think I went away to so often? For work? Idiot. Although, they think I’m working when I’m here so… You’re all the same. Weak and stupid.

“But I’ve found a better diversion. I’m moving out tomorrow. She’ll be much more entertaining than you, at least for a little while. My bags are all packed and ready. You can go see if you like.”

I pulled out of his grasp and staggered to the bedroom. There they were, his bags packed and lined up on the bed. How could he do this? Why would he do this? “I thought you were going to propose,” I whispered.

“Because of my browser history?” A vicious smile twisted his face. “At least you had the brains to look at that. But it was all fake. I deleted the history of my new toy and left that in its place in case you went snooping.”

I clung onto the bedroom door frame, my legs barely able to support me. I could hear his breathing, hear his excitement at rubbing my nose in the despair he had created.

“Get out.” I wanted to scream but it came out barely audible, even to me.

“What was that? Are you trying to grow a spine, at this late stage? How adorable.”

I felt the rage growing in my belly, hot and roiling. How could he do this to me? When I had been nothing but honest and truthful with him, had done nothing but think that I was falling in love with him. I couldn’t bear to have him stand there, so close to me. I tried again and my voice, starting as a whisper, got louder and louder and louder.

“Get out, get out, GET OUT!” I turned and screamed it in his face, the blood pounding in my temples.

I had a second to see the fire spark in his eyes and then he threw me across the room. I hit the sofa and tumbled over it, a loud ‘crack’ as I hit the floor was a bone breaking in my forearm. I scrambled up, crouched against the wall, cradling my arm as tears streamed down my face.

I watched through my hair as he grabbed his bags and left, spitting curses at me until the door slammed behind him. Awkwardly, I jumped up and snapped the locks behind him. Then I slid down the wall and held my arm to my chest as the sobs racked my body.

I had stayed there until the sun had risen, its rays on my face waking me from my trance, and then I had phoned a friend, who had come and taken me to hospital.

The scene in front of us faded and we were back in the desert. My stomach churned, bile rising in my throat, and I turned to vomit on the sands. Cool hands held my hair and stroked my back until I had finished purging myself.

I was raised back up and the goblet of cool water passed to me was a glimpse of heaven in the heat. I rinsed my mouth and spat, before swallowing some of the water gratefully.

When I had recovered myself, she wiped the tears from my face and lifted my chin with a gentle hand, so that I couldn’t help but look at her. “When I come again, you must give me your answer. Do you want, truly want, vengeance? What would you have me do to him?”

I woke up on the sofa, two empty wine glasses and a tub of melting ice cream on the coffee table.

The third time, she joined me as I left the office and we walked side by side along the pavement. I had finally made it back to work three days before, although each day was a strain as I tried to appear normal to my colleagues when I still felt shattered on the inside. Only my boss knew why I had been away for so long. To the rest, I had merely had the flu, which explained my pallor and the sickly cast to my skin and had caused the fall which broke my arm.

She steered me to a café, where we found a table in the sunshine. The sun was setting, but there was some warmth in its rays still, beneath the cold of the wind. Spring was on the way and the terrace was busy with people making the most of the change in the weather.

We ordered coffee and I cradled the hot mug in my hands when it arrived, not wanting to let any of its heat escape. The waiter brought out blankets for us, and we curled up in our chairs, as close to the heat lamp as we could get.

He finished fussing and left us, and a pool of silence seemed to fall around us, as if we were in a bubble cut off from the rest of the world. I could see the other people around us chatting and laughing, but I couldn’t hear any sound except our breathing and the soft roar of the gas flame. The trapped air warmed quickly and she stretched out again, smiling.

“Much better,” she sighed. “I was born of fire and the desert, and I cannot abide this cold and damp. Are you sure you don’t want to join me somewhere warmer, my child? No? Oh well.

“Let us move on to the heart of the matter. Have you made your choice? What revenge will you take on him? What does he deserve?”

I had been racking my brains since she had shown me my past and reminded me of the truth of what he was. I had turned the hate and the pain over and over in my hands, examining it from every angle, looking for a crack or a flaw in its sharp edges. And as I had kept returning to it, the sharpness had worn away, it had ceased to injure me so deeply, the cutting flake gradually softening into a pebble that I could hold in the palm of my hand. It was still heavy and the memory of the wounds still hurt, but I could hold on to it now rather than cringing away.

I had also thought on what I should say, what I should ask for, what he deserved. I still didn’t have the right words, but now was the time to speak.

“I… I don’t want revenge. I hate him! Of course, I do. I don’t want to be hurt by him anymore, and I don’t want him to hurt anyone else. But, I want to live and look forward and heal. I want to never think of him again, if I can…

“I want him to be unable to hurt anyone else again. I want him to feel the consequences of his actions and to change. But… no one deserves to suffer like that. Not even him.”

She smiled, her whole face softening and it seemed like the first genuine smile that I had seen her make. She reached out to caress my cheek, wiping away my tears. “Well done, kitten. You have chosen life and life you shall have. You will receive justice, I promise you that. His heart will be weighed and he will pay penance, but it will be at his own hand, not yours. He will never hurt anyone again.”

A dark fire burned in her eyes and I shivered.

“What would have happened if I had chosen differently?” I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know the answer, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking.

“Then you would have been judged, kitten, and found wanting, and your heart would never be healed. I may even have taken you home to play with my lions, if your soul had been heavy enough.” She laughed and there was cruelty and ice in it, and I was glad that I had made my choice.

She leaned over and kissed my forehead, lighting up the inside of my head with fire. The broken, scattered pieces of my heart glowed cherry-red and began to coalesce in my chest. My heart was in one piece again, marred by cracks and scars, broken and bruised, but healing.

“Be brave, little cat. Remember, nothing lasts forever.” She rose, towering in her scarlet heels and disappeared into the crowd.

As I watched her walk away, a voice spoke from behind me. “Excuse me, is this seat taken? It’s busy here this afternoon; I don’t think there are any others free.”

I turned to see a man, with long brown hair that fell in his eyes, standing behind the chair beside me, both hands resting on the back, looking at me with a laugh dancing in his eyes. I had taken too long to respond and he tilted his head towards me, an amused smile on his lips.

“No, go ahead. I’m not using it.” I stumbled over my words in my hurry to get them out. I assumed that he was with friends and he would whisk the chair away to sit with one of the noisy groups crowding the terrace. Instead, he sat down next to me, smiling. I smiled back shyly and, almost before I knew it, he had drawn me deep into conversation, talking about life and death and love and art.

Sometime later, I left him there, with his cup of coffee and my number scrawled on a napkin, and I strolled home under the moon-bright sky. A smile played on my lips as I lingered to watch the lights reflected in the dark rushing river. My heart was whole again, stronger than before, and I could feel it beating with excitement, and with hope.

_______________

Rebecca Burton is a queer, neurodivergent writer from the UK, who disappears into the fantasy worlds in her head to distract herself from her day job helping people with their taxes. Her stories have appeared in Fireside Magazine and Dark Dispatch, and she is currently seeking representation for her YA fantasy novels. When not writing, she can be found learning (too many) languages, drinking (too much) tea, and muttering about hair dye and k-drama on Twitter (@TyGrammarRex). Although not the first published, this was her first sale.

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