Hunter Parslowe’s sudden disappearance from Blake Gao’s life felt a lot like having to go through the five stages of grief.
He had gone through the first stage – denial – for several weeks right after Hunter had disappeared. Anger followed through, which lasted quite a long time, and probably would have been a lot longer if it hadn’t been for Samantha who came to his aid and offered him comfort.
And then came the bargaining. Blake blamed himself for not knowing enough about Hunter’s life. He had constantly asked himself what he had done wrong and what he should have done differently to save their relationship. It almost came to a point that he wanted Hunter to come back and beg his forgiveness. He pitied himself for feeling that way.
A year after Hunter had gone from his life, Blake learned to embrace self-respect. All those months he had thoughtfully evaluated his decisions from the past, and ultimately believed he had no control over Hunter’s behavior.
As the saying goes, “We are just responsible for ourselves.”
Blake believed that for a time but when he entered the fourth stage of grief, he realized that it may not be entirely true. He believed he had a lot of influence on how Hunter behaved, which is probably the reason he had left him without even saying goodbye.
Depression swallowed him whole for many years. It was as if he had no other option but to recede into his own guilt and sorrow. You see, once depression had walked beside you, it never completely leaves your senses. Everything was hazy and distorted, each dark emotion covering you in layers upon layers of longing and regret.
And even when Blake decided to get married to Sam; even when he believed he had redesigned a path for himself, somehow he thought it was all just a false desire to live only for the moment. The world has changed yet remained the same, things look so familiar but feel so strange.
How could he have allowed himself to give someone all his love, to the point there was nothing left to save?
He used to believe that Sam had managed to pull him out of that dark phase in his life. But for many years, his depression had been a well-kept secret.
Hunter, why didn’t you come back to me? That has always been the one-million-dollar question.
After eight odd years, the wound was still fresh and thoughts of Hunter still hurt like a knife in his heart. But how could he still hope to see Hunter return to him? He’d been a fool. A fool waiting for someone who would never return.
For eight odd years he waited. Hunter Parslowe was either dead or he’d completely deserted him. Time to forget him. He was never coming back.
But now, as he read Hunter’s final letter, that inner demon he thought he had locked up inside his own emotional prison, was threatening to break free.
He thought that nothing else could be worse than finding out Hunter had died alone and in such a heinous manner. His passing alone was a difficult experience for Blake to endure.
But cancer? He wasn’t strong enough to bear a second onslaught of grief.
“How couldn’t you have known he was sick?” charged Samantha, after reading Hunter’s final letter. She sounded almost accusing. “You see him every day.”
Blake was beside himself with guilt. His tortured mind understood nothing more. He knew what Sam said was true. He’s a doctor, for goodness’ sake. He, of all people, should have realized Hunter was sick and dying!
All those times they’ve been together, Hunter had been battling an illness alone. He had not seen the signs – or just chose not to. Had his pride and hate for Hunter blinded him so much that he failed to see the obvious?
That made the pain of Hunter’s death all the harder to bear. Blake was kicking himself because he’d known something wasn’t right with Hunter, but he’d thought he was just acting up; just looking for lame excuses to leave him.
That’s it. Hunter laid out those excuses because he didn’t want him finding out about his illness. He meant to break up with him, leave him, make Blake forget about him.
Eight years of not knowing how long it would take to grieve. Eight years with a lot of conflicted feelings and no closure. Eight years to finally realize the truth.
It was more painful than Blake could ever imagine.
Three days after the body – or what was left of it – was discovered, Hunter had finally returned to Blake.
In a small, black cardboard box.
Apparently, they cremated him. Cyrus O’Malley had confessed to the crime, so Hunter’s case was technically closed. Now, the police are open to the possibility that the man may have committed a similar offense in the past. They are now looking to find his connection to cold cases in and around Florida. It was going to be a long and arduous journey for justice.
But now, they had nothing else to do with Hunter.
The officers did not tell Blake what was inside the box. But they didn’t have to. He just knew.
He refused to give Hunter to his mother. He was his family. The only person to hold his ashes that truly cared and mourned his death.
Blake promised himself to forget Hunter for good. But, really, what could be worse than that? Being forgotten, being left behind as nothing more than ashes in a box, is insurmountably worse than dying.
And for a long moment, Blake just stared at that tiny box on his lap.
How in the world is Hunter in this little box? he wondered. He still could not quite grasp the reality of the situation – or the sheer absurdity of it.
Since Blake thought all of this and felt this way, he ultimately decided to make Hunter’s existence more than just a souvenir. More than just something someone carries around, unsure of what to do with it. He decided to ensure that his earthly remains become something that was enough to represent his life.
And so, he decided to set off on the biggest quest he’s ever embarked on. Following Hunter’s itinerary, he would travel to Taiwan to ensure that his ashes went as far as possible. That his ashes went to every beautiful place he wanted to see.
And then, it’s time to move on to the final stage of grief: Acceptance.
After they had gotten everything settled with the investigators, Murphy and Lucien went to see Blake for the last time. By the time they arrived in his room, he and Samantha had packed up the few things the hospital had given them and were ready to leave.
“Ready to go back home, Mr. Gao?” Lucien said as he closed the door behind him.
Blake smiled and nodded. “My doctor just came in to give me the go signal.” He heaved a sigh of relief. “To be honest, I can’t wait to go home.”
Just then, his eyes fell upon the white bandage wrapped around Murphy’s left arm. “Not bad enough to need a sling now?” he inquired as he sat back in a couch.
“Nope, thank god. It was so uncomfortable,” replied Murphy, grumbling. “This one’s good enough for me, but man does it itch.” He went to approach Blake. “I just got discharged, too. Congrats to the both of us.”
Samantha laid a suitcase on the bed then dusted her hands together, surveying the room for anything she may have forgotten to put inside the bag. With a satisfactory glance, she turned to Blake and said, “I guess that’s it for us. I’ll head over to the cashier to pay the bills, then pick up Dakota from daycare.” And then, she turned to Lucien and Murphy. “Would you guys mind if you stay here with Blake for a bit? I’ll go grab us some lunch.”
“Uh sure, we don’t mind,” Lucien said, nodding to Samantha and then to Murphy.
“I won’t be long,” Samantha said as she grabbed her bag, kissed Blake on the cheek, and went to the door.
“So, I guess the next time we’ll be seeing each other will be at the trial,” Lucien said as he sat on the sofa opposite Blake. He then slid his bag off his back and placed it on the floor.
Blake nodded. “The officers said the soonest would be sometime next month.” Just as he said this, his eyes wandered toward the little black box sitting on the bedside table. “I guess that gives me plenty of time to go on a trip to Taiwan.” His lips curved in a melancholy smile.
Lucien turned to Murphy with a look of bewilderment, then back at Blake. “Are you going with Mrs. Gao and Dakota?”
Reaching out, Blake ran his hand over the surface of the box. “No… It’s just me and Hunter. He’d been planning this trip for a long time. It’s long overdue.”
Lucien placed his hands on his knees and licked his lips. “So uhm… what are you planning to do with the ashes?”
“I’m not sure yet,” replied Blake, his eyes never leaving the box. “I was thinking of scattering it in the Sun Moon Lake. But… I don’t want to be selfish. As much as I hate Hunter’s family… his mom… I would want them to see him one last time, if that’s what they wish.” He looked up at Lucien and Murphy, his eyes red from the tears he fought to hold back. “After my trip to Taiwan, I’ll be heading home to Tallahassee. Talk to Hunter’s family. There’s a small columbarium at a local chapel in our town, so maybe I can place Hunter’s ashes there. That way, his family and I can visit him at any time…”
“So then… you’re not planning to keep his ashes with you?” Murphy asked.
Blake gave him a look of mild surprise. He chuckled under his breath and shook his head. “No, of course not. I never thought of keeping him with me like some sort of relic. Besides… it would be unfair for Sam and Dakota. Keeping his ashes would just… constantly remind me of the past.”
“Does she know about your plans? Mrs. Gao, I mean,” Murphy inquired.
“Yes. We discussed this already. She’s always been incredibly patient with me. And… she understood that the only way I could get proper closure is for me to go on this journey.” He looked up at them, with clear brown eyes that reflected so much more than words could say. Eyes that reflected determination, yet also showed the complexity of his feelings.
He dropped his gaze back to the box, which was now resting on his lap. “I need some time alone to think things over. Call it ‘soul-searching’, if you will. I… I just need to clear my head and my heart from all of these.”
Lucien was genuinely intrigued about this. One way or another, someone had to ask the all-important question. “Mr. Gao,” he started, “I hope you don’t mind me asking a personal question, but –“
“I know what you’re about to say,” Blake cut him off. Again, that faint smile. “You’re wondering if I still have feelings for Hunter. If I still love him after all these years and after everything that’s happened between us. Is that it?”
Lucien pursed his lips and nodded weakly.
Blake’s voice lowered almost to a whisper. “I spent days pondering everything I was feeling. And… I can’t say all those difficult feelings are magically gone. That includes my love for Hunter. Especially my love for him. But… perhaps I’m close. I guess I’m almost there. I’m slowly making some progress and I’m determined to keep working on it. This trip I’m planning on making will help me get there somehow. For sure.” He watched as the impact of his words registered in Lucien and Murphy’s expression. “I need to become a better, more responsible husband and father. It’s the right thing to do. I have to. I’m sure Hunter would want that, too.”
Murphy turned away, a slight smile on his lips. Standing right behind him was Hunter. He had been listening quietly and intently to every word Blake had said.
“Chen-hong…” Hunter said his name slowly, savoring the sound as it rolled off his tongue. “You’re perfectly right. Nothing else can make me happy than to see you moving forward and living your life to the fullest.”
After pausing a moment, Lucien drew in a long breath and blew it out through his nose. “Mr. Gao, I’ve been meaning to return this to you,” he said as he unzipped his bag and pulled out a green box.
Blake squinted, and then a flash of recognition registered on his face. “That’s… our treasure box.”
“I figured it should be returned to its rightful owner,” Lucien said as he handed him the box.
Blake slowly opened the lid and peered inside; a rush of nostalgia overpowering his mind. “I… I couldn’t thank you enough,” he said, tears threatening to clog his voice.
His hand reached to pick up a random picture. He looked happy next to Hunter. But these good times captured in a piece of paper can be a little treacherous. They could fill your life either with happiness or sorrow. And right now, Blake was overcome by sadness. His only company during those lonely moments was this box filled with pictures, letters, and memories. Things that once made him happy now hurt him.
Just then, Blake remembered something.
Once more he reached into the box and held up the waxed cord necklace that was once his; a silver ring hanging from it, delicate and shining. “Thank god it’s still here,” he muttered as he closed his hand over it tightly.
And then, with his other hand, he reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked to be a second silver ring. “The officers gave this to me, along with Hunter’s ashes. All this time, he’d been wearing it,” he said tenderly as he held the ring up between his thumb and forefinger. He then untied the knot at the back of the necklace and slid Hunter’s ring on the cord. Then he tied it up again and placed it back inside the wooden box.
“Are you going to keep it this time?” Lucien speculated. “You know, some things may rust and age, but these memories you had with Hunter… these memories are like fine wine. They become more valuable with time.”
Blake replied with a smile. “It’s nice when you put it that way, but – “ He shook his head lightly before continuing, “ – I’d best leave this in the columbarium, along with Hunter’s ashes. I think… that’s what he would want me to do.”
Lucien glanced over at Hunter. Over the past few weeks, he had grown used to seeing in the man’s smile something very sad. But right now, for the first time, that smile was replaced with something more genuine.
While wiling away time waiting for Sam to return, Blake had told them stories behind some of the memorabilia inside the box. Lucien had heard all of this from Hunter, but he did not interrupt the other. He listened intently just as Murphy did, who had never heard of the stories before.
After a while, Blake decided to close the box and set it aside. He used the moment of silence between them as an avenue to change the subject.
“Listen,” he started as he sat down on the edge of the hospital bed, casting Lucien and Murphy a solemn look, “there’s one thing I need to know.” He paused to take a deep breath, and then smiled faintly. “Both of you… aren’t exactly Hunter’s friends from college. Am I right?”
Glancing at each other, Lucien and Murphy were both left speechless, not sure how to answer Blake.
“Hunter’s not close to a lot of people, you see, so it’s an easy feat to get to know all of his close friends,” Blake continued, and then gave them an assuring look as if to say he meant no harm. “But I trust the both of you. I really do. You’ve gone out of your way to come see me and to help find Hunter. There must be a good reason why you’ve come this far to do something not everyone would be willing to do. So then… I want to know who you really are and how you found out about us and where Hunter was.”
The two exchanged glances, unsure which one of them should speak, or what they should say. Lucien clasped his hands together and gave the other a knowing look.
Murphy scratched his head and stared at the floor. “You see… It’s not something that’s easy to explain. Unless you’re open to seeing it from a different perspective.”
Blake shrugged as he furrowed his eyebrows. “Well then, make it easy for me to understand.”
“By a different perspective, I mean an otherworldly kind of perspective.”
Surprisingly, Blake seemed unfazed by Murphy’s words. In fact, it was Lucien who looked more stunned.
Lucien leaned his head closer to Murphy. “Are you sure about this?” he asked in a low, barely audible voice. “I don’t think he’s the kind who’d buy this at all…”
Murphy contemplated for a moment before saying, “I’m afraid you’re going to think what I’m about to say is silly – crazy even. But Mr. Gao, what I’m going to say next is the truth.”
Blake laughed quietly. “I often think the things you and Mr. Salverson say are silly,” he said good-humoredly. “But please, go ahead and say them anyway. Because I know there’s something quite strange about how you found out where exactly Hunter was all this time. It’s… It’s as if Hunter himself was showing you the way.” He paused to give Murphy a searching look. “Is that what you meant by ‘seeing it from a different perspective’? That Hunter was with you this whole time, telling you to go and find him?”
Murphy kept his eyes on Blake and nodded. “There are some things in this world that can’t be explained or predicted by the laws of nature. What I’m saying is, there are things that exist in this realm that humans won’t be able to fully comprehend. There’s no telling how many there are out there. Beings walking the earth disguised as humans, spirits of which the nature you won’t completely understand… and then there are ghosts. Even though they’re invisible to most people, these beings have a perceivable form to others.”
Blake, who looked slightly unsettled, slowly opened his mouth. “So… you mean to say Hunter is…”
Murphy nodded again. “I see ghosts constantly, Mr. Gao. So does Mr. Salverson. And… Hunter came to us. He asked for our help. It was him who led us to you and to Cyrus.”
Upon hearing this, Blake’s expression flickered as his lower lip quivered. When he blinked, a tear escaped his eye. He swallowed roughly. Cleared his throat. “Is he… Is he here with us? Right now?”
Just then, Murphy felt something inconceivably cold touch his shoulder. He looked over his shoulder to see Hunter standing behind him, looking straight up at Blake with a pained expression.
“I want to talk to Chen-hong, after all. Let me talk to him before I go. Please, Murphy, I need to.” Hunter pleaded in a husky, almost tearful voice. Every piece of raw emotion that he had been bottling up inside him was now threatening to break free.
Blake’s body shook as he drew his hands across his eyes, realizing the futility of trying to wipe away the tears. “How can you expect me to believe that? I... I want to believe you, but…” He paused as his voice faltered, a deep sigh passing his lips. “How can I be sure you’re telling me the truth?”
Murphy tilted his head slightly to the side as Hunter leaned close, whispered something in his ear. After a while, he turned back to Blake and said, “Nate Walker.”
Blake stared at him; eyebrows scrunched up in confusion. “What?”
“Hunter’s roommate during his sophomore year,” Murphy explained. “You used to have a huge crush on him.”
“N-No, I didn’t,” Blake replied, shaking his head vehemently, ears turning red. “Who told you that?”
Murphy chortled. “Hunter did.” He tilted his head to the side once more, pausing for a moment before adding, “Even if you refuse to admit it, it was written all over your face the moment Hunter introduced you to Nate.”
Blake covered his face, embarrassment warming his cheeks. “This is just absurd. Why that, of all things?” he mumbled. It was clear he was still struggling with what he had just heard.
Once again, silence permeated the room – at least from Blake. Meanwhile, Lucien and Murphy seemed to be listening keenly to something he could not hear nor see.
After what seemed like the longest minute, both men looked up at Blake almost in unison, soft smiles plastered on their faces.
This time, it was Lucien who spoke. “You and Hunter once planned to become foster parents.”
Blake appeared shocked for a moment. The sappy, condescending smile slowly faded from his face, replaced by something that hinted bitterness. A tinge of melancholy flashed in his eyes.
“Hunter had always wanted to adopt a child. He wanted to name her ‘Lizzie’, after Queen Elizabeth,” Lucien continued, followed by a chuckle. “But you didn’t like it one bit. You wanted to name the child…” he paused again, listening to the silence. And then, his gaze drifted back towards Blake, his eyes gleaming. “… You wanted to name her ‘Dakota’. And… Hunter loves it, too.”
Blake’s shoulders drooped and his hands began to shake. As he dropped his gaze down to the floor, his vision blurred as his eyes flooded with tears. A spiral of longing wove its way through his chest.
“I… want…” he managed to say around tears, covering his face with his hands, “I want to hear his voice again… I… I want to see Hunter one last time...”
They were almost at the end of the long and dark tunnel. Sooner – and hopefully not later – Hunter Parslowe will have to let go of material, worldly possessions. This includes leaving the world behind with no lingering emotional attachments.
At this point, if there’s one thing Murphy didn’t want to happen, it would be for Hunter to feel a sense of guilt and remorse that would prevent him from crossing over.
This is the problem with untimely, unanticipated deaths. For the dead, there were no arrangements nor opportunity to express their wishes to their loved ones. Meanwhile, those who were left behind had to deal with the lack of closure, having had no opportunity to bid their farewells.
Hunter and Blake’s situation was not entirely unique. A lot of people had to deal with the same kind of grief on a daily basis. But Murphy witnessed their pain and he couldn’t manage to turn a blind eye. Both were left with feelings of guilt and regret from their unresolved conflict. And if those loose ends were left hanging, so will Hunter’s ever-fading chance to go to that one place he needed to be.
This is Murphy’s raison d’etre – his reason for being. To help the powerless. To guide the lost. And this time, Fate brought him here to bridge the gap between life and death.
Even for just a fleeting moment.
“Mr. Odenkirk, what should we do?” The sound of Lucien’s voice snapped Murphy back to attention.
The dark and heavy atmosphere was slowly weighing him down. He needed to decide now. Although honestly, he only had one choice.
Murphy closed his eyes, making a conscious effort to organize his thoughts. “Alright,” he said, “this is what we need to do.” He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then opened his eyes again. He looked back over his shoulder and motioned Hunter to come closer. Hunter did just that.
“Put your hands on my shoulder,” Murphy ordered him. “Do it now.”
Hunter was reluctant. “I’ve tried that a thousand times before. I can’t touch humans.”
“You can’t touch the physical body or soul of a human, unless you’re given divine permission,” Murphy explained. “You have my permission, Hunter, so do it now.”
With a shaking hand, Hunter touched the other’s shoulder. When Murphy did not flinch or move away, he placed his other hand on the other shoulder. When he did so, Murphy felt a burst of cold energy enter his body. He let the strange sensation linger for a moment, until his body grew accustomed to the chill.
Next, he looked up at Blake, who was sobbing quietly in front of him. “Mr. Gao,” he called out as he reached out his hands to the other, palms up. “Please take my hands.”
Blake bit his lower lip, working up his nerve to take Murphy’s hands. “W-What will happen if I do?”
“You want to see Hunter one last time, yes?”
“Yes. Yes, of course I do.”
“Then this is your chance. Your only chance. Trust me, Mr. Gao. Just hold my hands.”
Murphy knew he had to be scared and at the very least, wary. Blake stared at him for a good five seconds before finally reaching out and taking his hands, as if offering him his trust.
Blake allowed himself to be pulled forward and the next thing he knew, the strange-looking tattoos on Murphy’s fingers were glowing, climbing up his arms like a vine. But what was normally black against his skin, now glowed with a bluish sheen.
“Y-You’re glowing!” Blake was about to yank his hands away, but Murphy held them firmly, refusing to let go.
Murphy closed his eyes. “No matter what happens, don’t let go of my hands,” he said resolutely. “If you do, you will break the link.”
Blake swallowed hard, his hands trembling as he watched the strange patterns crawling down the other’s fingers, down towards his own hands. The glow further intensified every place he made contact with his skin.
Murphy muttered something to himself as the azure light in his and Blake’s hands constantly pulsed.
“Close your eyes,” Murphy muttered after a while, as he drew Blake closer to him, clasping his hands together. “Clear your mind and focus on a fixed spot. Concentrate on your breathing.” His smooth voice began the same chant.
Blake immediately did as he was told. He closed his eyes, the muscles of his forehead tensing up. And then, he held his breath.
For a time, nothing happened.
“Think of the place where you first met Hunter,” commanded Murphy. “Let your mind slip down to meet that situation.”
Gradually, Blake found his thoughts flash to that fine Sunday morning, sitting in the middle pew of a wide, rectangular room; brilliant sunlight streaming in through the many stain glass windows, creating an explosion of bright rainbow colors.
Beside him sat a boy with light-brown hair, wearing a blue collared shirt and denim pants. He was dangling his feet under the pew in front of them. The boy was looking back at him, smiling coyly, cheeks and nose bright red from the heat.
It was Blake’s own memory, but stronger, more vivid, so full of colors, pulled forward to the front of his thoughts.
“Hold on to that memory,” he heard Murphy say, although his voice was now more distant, gradually fading into the background.
A ray of light shot out straight towards Blake’s body and enveloped him within. Instantly he began to feel lightheaded, as if some invisible force had pulled his soul from his body.
“Now, open your eyes.”
Blake slowly opened his eyes. At first, he thought he was still out because everything was dark and blurry. He rubbed his eyes and tried to make sense of where he was.
As his vision cleared, he found himself in unfamiliar surroundings.
No, it did seem familiar, although he hadn’t been to this place for a very long time.
It was the one from his memory. The community church in Tallahassee where he first met Hunter. The place hadn’t changed one bit in the ten years since had last been there.
Then again, he had created this place out of a memory from his past.
Blake found himself sitting at the end of a pew in the middle of the cathedral. His eyes wandered for a moment, at the high vaulted ceilings with its ornate decoration, the familiar stain glass windows lining all four sides of the church, and the same wooden crucifix hanging high above behind the altar.
He sat for a while, just looking straight ahead. Although small, it was a beautiful church for a wedding. Blake used to believe that one day he would be married to Hunter in this church, surrounded with family and friends.
He felt the whisper of wind breezing through him. Once again, he cleared his mind and let the atmosphere around him trickle down to calm his troubled heart and mind. The sound of church music greeted his ears; the familiar scent of incense drifted past his nose.
“I’ve always wanted to marry you here.” An achingly familiar voice broke Blake’s silent contemplation.
For a moment he thought he was hallucinating. He turned his head slightly to the left, carefully looking at the direction of the voice.
“Chen-hong… I’ve waited so long for this moment.”
There he was, sitting on the opposite end of his pew, looking just as handsome as the last time he’d seen him, eight years ago.
“Hunter…” It was a whisper against Blake’s lips. Hunter’s nearness, just hearing his voice again, made him feel as if he would shatter inside at any moment. He was torn with grief, unable to separate anguish from yearning.
Hunter had on his usual pleasant smile. One that Blake dearly missed and longed to see again. But somehow, something in his eyes hinted at sadness.
“Baby…” he said in a soft, affectionate voice, his eyes locked onto Blake’s. “I’ve come to say goodbye.”
At last, Blake could no longer bear the pain and the longing. A dam had broken, and an endless flow of tears spilled forth. Everything in his countenance broke, shattering into bits of pieces at his feet.
It took a long time before Blake finally stopped crying enough to be able to talk. He faced Hunter again, who remained on the same spot on the opposite end of the pew, looking at him with gentle, loving eyes.
“You’re so cruel, Mr. Parslowe,” he said between soft sobs. “Won’t you at least give me a hug?”
“I want to, baby. I really fucking want to. But…”
Blake tried to scoot across the pew toward Hunter, but he found himself frozen in place. “I – I can’t move…” His feet were stuck in that spot as if something held him fast. He turned and looked at Hunter almost pleadingly. “What’s happening?”
“Listen. If we make any form of contact, we will break the connection,” Hunter warned him gently. “So it’s best to just stay this way, babe. I want to stay with you like this a little bit longer.”
Blake exhaled sharply but couldn’t breathe back in. He pressed his lips together to stop them from trembling. “Okay. Fine.” He sniffled again, trying not to cry.
Hunter sighed before saying, “Chen-hong, listen to me. We don’t have much time so I want to tell you everything I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
Blake shook his head. “I also have a ton of things to say. I have so many questions that need answers. I need peace of mind, Mr. Parslowe.”
“I know. I know you do.”
Blake clenched his hands into fists. “… Why did you have to leave me like that? Why did you have to lie? Do you think I won’t be able to handle the truth? I’m not as weak as you think I am,” he lamented, almost breathlessly, not allowing the other to speak. “When we decided to be together, we made a promise. We promised we’d share both the good times and the bad. Do you remember now? You can’t have one without the other. I was ready to take on both. I know it’s not going to be all rainbows.” Finally, he paused to give the other a look of hurt and anguish. “You didn’t have to carry the burden all to yourself, Hunter. You didn’t have to hide it from me. But because of it, you hurt me tenfold.”
Hunter’s mouth twisted, and his lips began to quiver. He let the tears escape his eyes as he listened to Blake intently.
Tears brimmed on Blake’s lashes as he struggled to get the words out of his throat. “All these years, I realized how I lived my life in a deep trench of inaction and lost chances. I could’ve gone and looked for you. I could’ve tried to reach out to you. But I didn’t… I allowed myself to sink into anger and guilt. I… left you all alone at the most crucial time, haven’t I? I was so caught up with my own despair that I failed to see yours.” The intensifying painful ache in Blake’s heart made him clutch his chest. “And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
Once again, his eyes stung with raw tears as he stubbornly blinked in an attempt to clear them. “I’m so ashamed. Here I was, trying my best to become someone you’d be proud of. Yet I didn’t realize you were suffering and in pain. It hurts to know that I wasn’t able to save you…”
Hunter sighed as he shook his head ruefully. “Baby, come on. You know it’s not your fault. You haven’t done anything wrong. Haven’t you read my letter? I was the one who pushed you away. It’s all on me. Don’t keep punishing yourself like this.”
A deep and heavy silence drifted in, only punctuated by the occasional stifled sobs from the two men.
After a while, Hunter found his voice again and said, “I need your forgiveness, Chen-hong. And I need you to understand that you need to live your life as long as you can… happily and with no regrets.”
“How could I when – “
“Listen to me, love,” Hunter cut him off immediately. “I’ve watched you all these years. You’ve struggled to get proper closure. I left you in the most painful way possible and it left you scarred and broken. But baby, I don’t want you to let these things weigh you down anymore... You need to pick yourself up and move forward.”
“I’m sorry,” Blake said, voice feeble and distraught. He rubbed his eyes hard to remove the traces of his tears. “Am I… the reason you couldn’t cross over?”
Hunter looked at him earnestly and with a melancholy expression. “Without you, there’s no compelling reason for me to stay in this world. But now, my time is almost up. I need to go soon.”
“Why’d you have to wait this long to come see me?”
Hunter laughed softly. “Trust me, babe, I would’ve come sooner if –“ He stopped midsentence as Murphy’s face flashed through his mind for a split second. He scoffed. The man had already done so much to help him get to this point. The least he could do was to lay him off. It would do him great injustice if Blake were to find out it took him nearly a decade to have finally decided to lend him a hand.
He cleared his throat and clasped his hands together, trying to choose his words more carefully. “Reaching out to the living isn’t exactly a walk in the park,” he claimed. “I’m actually quite lucky to have been given this chance. Many others aren’t as lucky. So I have Murphy and Lucien to thank for giving me this opportunity to get to talk to you before… before I go.”
“Hunter… Is this really it? Are you leaving me for good?”
“Chen-hong… Baby… Don’t make this any more difficult than it already is,” Hunter replied, giving the other a consoling look.
“I’ve – I’ve tried to come to terms with this part of me that – that was lost… And it’s hard. Even until now, it’s – it’s so hard…” Blake let out a stuttering sob.
“Chen-hong, let’s face it. Time had stopped for me a long time ago.” Every word pierced his soul to its very core, carrying sorrow and grief to every sense. “But it doesn’t have to be the same way for you. You still have a life ahead of you that can be rich and full. You have Sam and Dakota. They’re your place of joy now.” His voice caught at the end and he could feel his eyes welling up with tears. “You need to let me go, babe…”
A wild protest revolted in Blake’s heart. “No… No, I don’t want to… Please don’t do this to me, Hunter…!”
“It’s perfectly okay to cherish the memories we shared. And I want you to. I want you to remember me. But… you don’t have to hang on too tightly to the past, Chen-hong. You don’t have to anymore. You’re not obliged to. You have to move into a beautiful future with your family. That’s what I want you to do.”
Blake cried inconsolably, every word coming out of Murphy’s mouth a cold pain gripping his heart.
Choking back a sob, Hunter said, “I’m so grateful to know that I was once an intimate part of your life. Of your happiness. Thank you for allowing me to feel so much of your love. And I love you, Chen-hong Gao. I love you towards the very end. But it’s precisely because of that, that I need to let you go. I could only hope that… the past between us will become a beautiful memory in your heart.”
“Hunter Parslowe, you will always have a special place in my heart!” Blake declared, determination replacing heartache. “It wasn’t always fun and excitement, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I wouldn’t trade our years together, Mr. Parslowe! I love every memory we made together. And I will cherish them forever.” He paused for a heartbeat, swallowed, tried to pull himself together.
Finally, for the first time, he managed to smile weakly through the tears. “I love you. Always did and always will. Caring for someone else, too, will never change that.”
Hunter’s lips drew up in a little smile, one that could have been pure joy for the way it brightened his face. “You don’t know how much that means to me. So I’ll ask you one last time, my foolish love, bury me in your memories. Treasure Sam and Dakota well…”
And then, the feeling of lightness.
The feeling of freedom and peace that came from letting go of the pain from the past.
For the first time in a long time, both are truly free.
Blake watched as a bright light bathed Hunter’s face. He was still smiling, his eyes fixed on him.
“Farewell, Chen-hong, until we meet again.”
Blake smiled back. For a long moment, the light held bright before it slowly succumbed to darkness. He kept his eyes on Hunter as the light dimmed and slowly faded. Hunter’s soft features gradually faded away with the waning light. All of him was disappearing into the shadow, leaving Blake behind.
Wait. Don’t go yet.
Blake still couldn’t move. His arms felt heavy as stone and rigid as steel.
Soon, Hunter’s eyes, rich with reddish brown flecks, were all that was left in the encircling darkness. It stayed fixed on the light and then, they too began to fade away. Blake forced his arms in front of him and reached for Hunter.
And then, complete darkness.
Slowly Blake opened his eyes as the sound of familiar voices rooted him back into the physical world. Sensations and his surroundings were slowly returning to him. A warm breeze drifted over his arms and legs.
Blake flinched as warm, tiny hands rested over his. The upturned mouth of his daughter, Dakota, smiled up at him, clear hazel brown eyes twinkling.
“Ducky, you’re here,” he mumbled as he cupped the little girl’s puffy cheeks and kissed her on the forehead. He then raised his head back up and blinked, trying to understand what had just happened.
Murphy was still seated right in front of him, rubbing his hands together as though soothing an unseen pain. Behind Murphy were Lucien and Samantha, talking in low, hushed tones.
Realizing that Blake had finally come to, Lucien turned to Blake and said, “Are you okay, Mr. Gao? I was trying to explain to Mrs. Gao about… about what just happened.”
“Is it true, what he said?” Samantha wiped a tear from the corner of her eye with a fingertip. And then, she walked up to Blake and smiled. “Did you… get to talk to Hunter?”
In that instant, the dreamlike memories of his encounter with Hunter flooded back into his mind. He turned to Murphy with the invasion of his mind still raw.
“Did that… Did all of that really happen?”
Murphy nodded weakly.
“Is Hunter still here?”
Murphy looked over his shoulder as a feeble smile flickered across his face. “Yes. But… he has to leave soon.”
“Snuffles!” Dakota squealed as she tore away from her father’s embrace and ran toward one corner of the room, jumping up and down with glee.
Samantha stooped down and stroked Dakota’s hair. “What, Mr. Snuffles is here? He followed you all the way from home this time?”
Burrowing his hands into his pockets, Murphy ambled towards Dakota, who was prattling on about meeting new friends at daycare. “I’m not sure if I’ve told you this, but… some children are sensitive to spirits. So sometimes, their otherworldly “friends” may not just be a result of their creative imagination.” He patted Dakota’s head gently. “Dakota here, has that extrasensory gift.”
Samantha’s mouth hung slightly as she tried to process Murphy’s words. And then, when it finally dawned on her, she gasped, clasping both of her hands over her mouth. She looked over towards Blake, whose eyes also gleamed with shock and wonder.
Blake let out a sharp breath. He stared at Murphy, eyes growing slightly wider. “You mean to say Dakota’s friend is… Mr. Snuffles is…”
Murphy smiled and nodded, confirming the other’s uncertainty. “That’s right. It’s Hunter. He would visit your daughter from time to time.” He turned to Hunter, who dropped slowly to one knee, his tall form stooped over Dakota.
“She’s such a lovely little bundle of energy. She’s smart, just like her Mom and Dad. She’s such a wonderful child, really. If not for her, my last eight years would’ve been lonely and unbearable.” Hunter grinned at Dakota with such fondness that his face softened dramatically. “I will miss her once I’m gone.”
Dakota jumped up and down excitedly, her small arms reaching up as Hunter slowly stood to his feet. “Play time now, Snuffles?”
“I’m sorry, Little Ducky. No more play time,” Hunter said remorsefully, swallowing against his own pain. “Snuffles needs to go back home now.”
His heart melted when the look in Dakota’s eyes reflected disappointment. “Ducky’s home?”
A cry threatened to break from Hunter’s throat. “No. Snuffles needs to go back home. His own home.”
“Snuffles coming back?”
Hunter shook his head as his hands went up and covered his face. He let out a sigh that shook his shoulders. “This is so hard to do, after all…”
Dakota looked at him searchingly for a second, and then turned to her mother. “Crying… Snuffles crying.”
Murphy walked over and stood next to Hunter. “I’m sorry. I know this is hard for you, but it’s time. I have someone waiting for you to guide you. And you need to go to them now.”
“Are you talking to Hunter right now?” Blake asked, sounding a little panicked. “Is he going to leave now?”
“Mr. Odenkirk,” Hunter called as he leaned toward Murphy, whispering something in his ear.
Murphy smiled and nodded, then cleared his throat as he turned to Blake. “Before Hunter leaves, he wants you to make a promise.”
Blake bit his lips to stop the tears that were about to burst forth from his eyes.
“Hunter wants you to promise,” Murphy started, “that once you finish your journey, you’d come back a renewed person. For Sam and Dakota. Love them with all your heart.”
Hearing those words, Blake could no longer control his emotions, and he sobbed once more. “Yes,” he responded, nodding his head as he continued to cry. “Of course, I will. I promise.”
“That’s my Chen-hong…” Hunter gave him a smile, a smile full of despair and yearning, and he too began to cry.
Hunter gazed at Dakota who was trying so hard to communicate her feelings, her eyes also filling up with tears. He gave her a reassuring smile and said, “Little Ducky, can you promise Snuffles you’d be a good girl to Mom and Dad?”
Dakota sniffled. “Uh-huh…”
“Don’t forget to brush your teeth. Okay?”
“And be nicer to little Gracie. Nobody else is a better tea party buddy than she is.”
Dakota pouted. “Erm… Ducky will try!”
Hunter chortled. “And one more thing…” He lowered his voice to a whisper, and Dakota leaned closer.
After a while, Dakota suddenly ran up to Blake with arms wide open.
Blake was a little lost and confused. “Ducky?”
The little girl looked up into his face with bright eagerness. Arms still outstretched, she said, “Snuffles wants big bye-bye hug and a kiss!”
Blake’s lips trembled as he turned to look at his wife, who smiled gently at him and nodded. He then closed his eyes, gave his daughter a light peck on her cheek, and wrapped her in a tight embrace.
He couldn’t believe how light he felt, as if the weight of the world has finally been lifted off his shoulders. Not only did he not feel lighter emotionally, but physically he also felt a sense of immense relief and release.
Finally, he felt happy and contented.
“Thank you for everything, Hunter. Goodbye…” Blake muttered as he buried his face in his daughter’s shoulder, felt the happy tears starting to puddle behind his eyes.
After a while, Blake pulled his wife to let her join him and Dakota in a tight group hug. Samantha came up to Blake’s left side, as he grasped her with his left arm, and the three of them hugged each other, smiling through their tears.
And for Blake, the closure he so desperately sought for has finally been granted. Although his journey towards acceptance was far from over, one thing’s for sure:
This is his place of joy now. This is where he belongs. And he couldn’t ask for anything more.
South Miami Hospital’s rooftop was mainly used by its hospital staff, whose primary activities are to talk with colleagues, eat, doze, and smoke during breaks. But the hospital recently added a cafeteria three floors down, so few ever come to the roof. And judging from its untidy and disorderly state, nobody had been there for quite some time.
Lucien pulled out a cigarette and lit it up as he glanced around to make sure they were alone. There was a wooden bench along the right wall of the entryway. He sat down and crossed his legs, silent for several seconds as he watched Hunter marvelling at the view laid out before him.
He pulled a heavy drag on his cigarette and puffed out a billow of smoke. “Care to explain why you dragged me out here?”
Hunter pulled himself up onto the ledge, where he sat with feet dangling. “Murphy wanted us to wait for him here. Said it’s the perfect place where he can do the send-off, undisturbed.”
“Where is he, anyway? We’ve been here ten minutes,” said Lucien, furrowing his eyebrows.
“He went to see Blake and his family off,” Hunter answered, “I saw their car leaving about five minutes ago. Murphy will be here soon.” He turned to Lucien and smiled teasingly. “Can’t wait to see me off too, Mr. Salverson?”
Lucien made a low scoffing sound and took another drag on his cigarette. “Heaven couldn’t wait for you any longer,” he declared as he pointed up to the sky with his cigarette. “See? The sky’s about to break open.”
Hunter looked up and sighed. “There’s a storm coming. Don’t you think it’s a bad time to leave?”
“Storm or no storm, Mr. Parslowe, your one-way ticket to paradise is due today.”
“It’s less frightening when you say it that way,” Hunter said playfully, eyes still fixed on the sky.
Lucien stared at the other for a moment and couldn’t help but feel anxious. “Hey… Do you have any idea what’ll happen next?”
“To me?” Hunter jumped down from the ledge and walked over to where Lucien was sitting. “A little bit. Murphy told me some stuff before. Bits and pieces that sort of gave me an idea how things would go.”
“Mind if you tell me?”
Hunter shrugged his shoulders as he sat down next to Lucien. “Murphy calls it ‘The Cleansing’.” He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to summon a memory. “He said something about human souls carrying all sorts of excess baggage with them. By that, he meant human emotions and other worldly possessions.” He stared blankly ahead of him, unblinking. “When you approach that final “gate”, you’ll find that it’ll be too narrow to pass through with all those bags. None of the negative emotions you’ve felt in your mortal life will be allowed to cross over. So you’ll have to drop all of them in return for eternal peace.”
“So… what does Murphy want you to do?”
Hunter tilted his head slightly to the side, appearing to be contemplating on something. “Well… that’s where The Cleansing comes in. My experiences, my personality, my memories of life on Earth… all those things that make the whole mortal “me”, has to be erased.”
His words drew an astonished look from Lucien. “What? So then, Blake…” He felt frustrated and struggled for the right words.
“Come on, Lucien, I’m gonna’ be an angel in training!” Hunter quipped, trying to lighten up the mood. “If I hold on to everything, it’ll be too heavy to lift.” He felt overwhelmed by his own words but in the end, he could only manage a sigh. “As much as I want to retain all my memories of Chen-hong, I… I just couldn’t carry them with me on my journey.” After a moment to gather himself, he continued. “It was the right love at the wrong time. That’s the unfortunate truth. Not everyone who falls in love is meant for forever, Mr. Salverson. This is just one of the many things that’s beyond our control.”
Lucien listened intently, not interrupting, just nodding. It’s the only way he could do to sympathize in the other’s morose musings.
With a smile, Hunter ended his monologue by saying, “I couldn’t ask for anything more than for the person I love to remember me from time to time. That should be more than enough for me.”
The two stood by the ledge as Lucien smoked, making small talk until they heard the squeak of hinges on the door behind them.
Murphy was red in the face, slightly breathless. “I’m sorry. I got lost trying to find the stairway.”
“What?” Lucien chuckled. “But it’s just next to the elevator. How could you have gotten lost?”
“Yeah, well… I have a fairly bad sense of direction sometimes.” Murphy shrugged his shoulders, dismissing it as he joined the two, who had stepped away from the ledge and walked to the center of the wide, open space.
Lucien stubbed his cigarette with the toe of his shoe. “So… would you like me to stay around and watch, or is this something that should be done with a little less audience – “
Murphy shook his head. “No. Please stay. I’d like you to see this. And… I want you to meet someone.”
Lucien looked over at Hunter, and then back to Murphy. “Uhm… okay,” he replied, feeling a little nervous and excited.
Murphy himself looked a little shaken. “Are you ready, Hunter?”
“More than I’ll ever be,” Hunter replied.
“This one you’re about to meet will be your steward. She’s the only one who can perform The Cleansing, and the only one allowed to usher you into the Gate.”
Although perplexed, Hunter nodded without question as Murphy turned his back on them and lifted his hands up, palms out.
Somehow, Lucien felt as Murphy reached for some unknown power, his own strangely bubbling up in response. He took a step back.
The wind picked up as Murphy started an incantation, whipping around him like a small whirlwind, blowing dust and debris outwards. When his voice rose an octave higher, a blue sigil appeared on his forehead, along with a sequence of rune-like patterns that grew out of the ground from a pinpoint, slowly until it formed a chain between him and Hunter. Murphy’s chanting seemed to coax it into existence, as the chain of symbols formed into a summoning circle.
Just like what appeared on Murphy’s forehead, the summoning imprints began to glow an intense azure of mystic energy; the circle spinning slowly at first, then wildly as Murphy’s voice sped up.
And then, something different happened afterward. A flash of massive energy burst forth, and a screech tore through the air. In one moment, there was nothing in the circle. And then, the same bluish glow pulsated.
A low gasp came from Hunter and Lucien. From the summoning circle emerged a slender winged creature with alabaster skin and four, enormous, falcon-like wings spread out over its back. Human hands were underneath the wings, its arms riddled with symbols that looked a lot like Murphy’s tattoos.
The creature was about a foot taller than any of them. It moved about with prideful grace as it stepped out of the summoning circle and walked over to Murphy with a confident stride.
However, it seemed to be staring right at Lucien. He felt completely transfixed by this bizarre encounter.
Lucien now saw that the creature has four eyes: two large saucer-like eyes, and another pair of smaller eyes above the large ones. The large eyes blinked, but not in a way a normal human would. It seemed as though they have concealed eyelids that sweep horizontally across, much like a windscreen wiper. Meanwhile, the smaller eyes did not blink at all. Even more bizarre is that they don’t appear to have irises nor pupils. Instead, its eyes are like opaque mirrors, showing only Lucien’s reflection, as if it was looking right through his soul.
The creature has no discernible nose nor mouth. Lucien had to wonder how it communicates to Murphy and to others. Maybe through telepathy, just like what he does with Pyewacket sometimes? It has a thin, sinewy neck which, all of a sudden, reminded him of that popular urban legend, Slenderman. Although this one appeared less threatening.
“Can you talk? Can you hear me?” Lucien asked cautiously, speaking his thoughts in the creature’s mind.
Still looking at him, the winged creature blinked once, cocked its head to the side like a dog.
“Get out of my head!” He heard the ear-splitting, banshee-like screech of the creature, which made him hunch down and cover his ears.
Okay, it might not be as sociable as I thought it would be.
“Storm!” He heard Murphy behind him yelling.
In that instant, Lucien felt as if a cord had snapped in his head. The creature tore its gaze away from him and turned to Murphy, head bowed.
Murphy shot a glaring look at the creature before turning back to Lucien, who gave his head a quick shake. “Are you alright?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, I think I might’ve provoked it.”
Murphy clicked his tongue furiously before stepping in front of the winged creature, raised a hand, palm up. “Everyone, her name’s Stormwatcher. You can just call her Storm,” he said, frowning faintly as he introduced it to both Lucien and Hunter. “She’s Fae Folk. Humans know them better as fairies. Storm here, is my ward, and she belongs to the Light. She’s… been with me since I was a child.”
Hunter smiled and waved modestly. “Hi, I’m Hunter Parslowe. Ghost. I’ll be in your care.”
Lucien whistled, shook his head incredulously. “Mr. Odenkirk, is there no end to your surprises?” he mused, skipping the introduction.
Murphy cocked his head to the side, dropping his gaze to the ground. “You can save the questions for later.”
“Which is why I need to go, like, right now.” Hunter cut in as he sidestepped between Murphy and Lucien. “You two have a lot to talk about, so don’t let me get in your way. It’s about time you guys get all those dirty little secrets out!”
Lucien and Murphy glanced at each other awkwardly, flailing for something to say.
“So…” Lucien put a hand up on the back of his neck and took a few steps back. “I guess this is it, huh?”
Hunter nodded faintly. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.” The gratitude in his voice made Lucien feel it meant a lot, yet there he was again, didn’t know what to say to make the other feel less sad.
“Everything will be fine.”
“Like I said before, I’ll put in a good word for you up in heaven.” Hunter winked and smiled teasingly at Lucien.
He replied with a small laugh. “Thanks, but no thanks. At least give me a few more decades to party down here,” he jested.
“Duly noted,” Hunter replied with a chuckle. He then reached his hand out as Stormwatcher made her way over, taking his hand firmly against hers. “Ready when you are, Ms. Storm.”
The Light Fae then raised her right hand, conjuring another, much bigger summoning circle out of thin air. The beating of her wings passed over Lucien and Murphy, creating a warm wind.
Lucien looked straight ahead to see an enormous apparition slowly emerging before them. Stormwatcher and Hunter stood right in front of a gigantic double door, big enough to fit a titan. It gleamed golden in the dull afternoon light. On its archway, inscribed in silver, appeared to be undecipherable scrawling, written in the hand of the Ancients – an incantation.
Standing from a distance, Lucien couldn’t help but stare in amazement.
“The Gate to the Land Within,” Murphy muttered, breaking Lucien’s daze.
Lucien sighed and stepped forward, clapping a hand to Murphy’s shoulder. “Do you always get to see something so marvelous?”
Murphy stepped sideways, letting Lucien stand beside him. “Rarely. But when I do, it never fails to amaze me,” he replied. “Feels a lot like you’re one step closer to heaven.”
“Isn’t that what this is, though?” Lucien asked keenly.
“Hunter will have to go through The Cleansing first, and then a couple more trials.”
For a moment, they watched as Stormwatcher led Hunter closer towards the Gate. And as they moved closer, the Gate slowly opened with a whine. Lucien and Murphy shielded their eyes as bright white light poured out from behind the golden doors.
The light seemed to be calling out to them. Hunter tentatively started to walk forward; Stormwatcher following closely behind him.
“Get going now, and don’t ever come back!” Murphy yelled out to Hunter, but in a light-hearted tone.
Hunter turned to glance once more over his shoulder. “Don’t miss me too much, Mr. Odenkirk!”
Murphy smiled as he bid him a final farewell. “Goodbye, friend.”
Hunter and Stormwatcher walked into the Gate slowly, the darkness of their backs enveloped by the brightness.
Hunter looked up at the Light Fae. “Ms. Stormwatcher, tell me, when is the best time to sleep in the clouds?”
The Light Fae gazed down at him. They seemed to be talking with their eyes; a smile appearing on Hunter’s face, which was now being enveloped by the blinding light.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Hunter stepped forward, now no longer out of fear, but simply in enjoying entering the Land Within.
Everything is perfect. Everything is alright.
The dazzling light began to coalesce and dim as the travelers passed through the Gate, the double doors slowly closing behind them. And then, the doors closed shut with a loud thundering sound that echoed in their ears.
Only then did Murphy let out his breath. He hadn’t even noticed he had been holding it. He turned to Lucien and said, “He’s safely crossed over.”
By now, Lucien’s head was swimming with questions. His eyes followed Murphy as he turned around and headed towards the bench near the door. “Wait,” he said, following the other, “that’s it? What’s going to happen to your ward?”
Murphy sat down on the bench, leaned back, and stretched out his legs. “Storm? She’ll be back in a few minutes. Would you like to wait for her to come back out?”
“Uh…” Lucien scratched his chin, contemplating after having experienced the Fae’s peculiar animosity towards him. “… Maybe not?”
They sat in silence for a moment, neither of them looked at the other. However, both were solely and intently focused on the other’s presence.
“What exactly is a Fae, anyway? How come Stormwatcher can perform a divine ritual, and you can’t?” Lucien broke the silence.
Murphy stretched and reached his arms forward. “Light Faes are… how do I put it…” He looked up, trying to find the right words, and then said, “They’re a class of “demoted” angels, for the lack of a better word.”
For Lucien, this caused even more confusion.
“Storm barely remembers how she came to be. But according to a legend, a group of angels rebelled against the Supreme Being, who ordered the gates of heaven shut. The angels who revolted were cast down out of heaven for their sinful pride. Some fell deep down into hell and became demons, while those who were caught in-between were believed to have become Fae Folks. Most of them lost their memories as angels, but there are some who retained fragments of it and have a closer affinity to their previous life. They’re the Light Faes, the rarest of all Fae Folks.”
“Stormwatcher is one of them.”
Murphy nodded. “She can still open a Gate to guide lost souls and perform the cleansing ritual – exactly what she’s doing with Hunter right now. However… there are many paths back to the Land Within. Some say there are twelve Gates in total. Storm can only open one.”
“So then… she’s not allowed entry?”
“That’s right. Same goes for us mortals. Only divine beings and rightful souls can pass through towards the Land Within.”
Lucien nodded, finally feeling a little enlightened. “Well… consider me mind-fucked.”
Murphy laughed heartily. “If you hang out with me more, it’s going to get even wilder.”
“Is that an invitation, Mr. Odenkirk?” Lucien quipped, laughing to himself. And then, he looked up and breathed a deep sigh. “There are just so many things I don’t know about this world… About myself.”
Murphy looked at the other gently and almost compassionately for some moments. “If you hang out with me more, I’ll help you learn more about yourself, too.”
Lucien turned to look at Murphy. They gazed at each other for a moment, Murphy’s mahogany brown stare meeting unwavering green. Their eye contact held briefly until Lucien grinned and spoke.
“Tempting,” he said as he tore his eyes away from the other. He straightened up and fumbled in his pants pocket for his Zippo lighter. “Do you mind if I excuse myself for a bit? I need a smoke.”
He could have sworn he saw a flash of disappointment behind Murphy’s easy smile. He suddenly remembered Hunter mentioning something about Murphy hating smokers.
“Uhm… I’ll wait for you inside,” he said, pointing to the door.
But before he could leave, Murphy grabbed his wrist. “Lucien… Do you think this is the right time to have that talk?”
Instinctively, Lucien knew a second conversation could mean a whole lot more. They both needed answers and besides, this talk was long overdue. He found no compelling reason to delay it further.
“Sure,” he replied with a nod. “I’ll wait for you inside.”
Now couldn’t be a better time to grab a smoke.
Lucien heaved out a sigh as he sat at the top of the stairs and lit his second cigarette. He let the smoke curl away from his lips as he contemplated the day’s events and his own situation. Amid all the bizarre things he’d witnessed and experienced, he sat there thinking, lost in some sort of reverie, which never did him much good.
He wasn’t sure if everything he’d experienced had been real or if he’d just been dreaming all along. But as he sat there enjoying the bitter taste of his cigarette, he knew it must have been real. There had been too much going on in his life over the last couple of weeks. Too much, that he was on the brink of mental and physical exhaustion.
Despite the somewhat ‘demonic’ nature of his own existence, it never crossed Lucien’s mind to want to inflict harm on others. He strongly believed in helping other people and that’s really all he’s ever wanted to do.
But having decided to help Hunter, he would often ask himself how he could manage to help someone when he couldn’t even help himself, who’s almost in a similar predicament. And that’s just it. Because he truly and honestly has a problem helping anyone other than himself.
He was again being confronted with personal challenges he thought would be easily taken care of, but not really. They had been suppressed for quite a while but now they’re coming to the forefront. It’s become even more obvious now that he met someone like Murphy Odenkirk. As if his life hasn’t been crazy enough.
Yet this man made him realize that the greatest weight had never really been lifted off his shoulders.
That’s right. There could be no closure until the reason for his mother’s sudden death would come to light.
Seeing his mother lying in a coffin made him remember how life had changed dramatically for him, forever. The last time he and his mother spoke, he kissed her on the cheek and told her he loved her. At least that bit felt nice. Still, not knowing she was hours away from death, made him feel a lot of regrets about his life. And if he hadn’t had the chance to tell his mother how important she was to him, he would have had a lot more regret.
Which is precisely the reason he envied Hunter and Blake so much.
It must be nice to get proper closure for the sudden death of a loved one. If he could just talk to his mother again, then all this madness would soon end…
Perhaps all this time, the answer had been right in front of him. Murphy Odenkirk could be the person who may very well have brought his mother to her death. It could be his soul the Lord of Avarice may be seeking after. He might as well just serve up his soul on a silver platter and get all of this over and done with.
After all, isn’t this the reason he’s still being kept alive?
Murphy’s gentle, smiling face lingered in his mind for a long moment, and it made his blood run cold and his chest tighten. His hands were unsteady as he blew a ring of smoke in front of him. For a moment he just stared blankly into space.
He wanted to shake away thoughts of Murphy. And he damn well wished it would just be as easy to shake away growing feelings he had no idea he would have, until he met the man.
“Azrael Montgomery, what the fuck have you gotten yourself into?” he asked himself, quite dispassionately. He swallowed hard as he felt a lump forming in his throat. And then, he felt tears about to spill over the rims of his eyes.
This time, he’s clearly in serious trouble. He didn’t want to have to choose one over the other. Why did he have to end up in such a bad spot?
He heard the sound of the metal door opening behind him. He turned to see Murphy walk in.
“Oh. Hey.” Lucien quickly rubbed his nose and brushed his tears away at the same time.
When Murphy saw the tears in the other’s eyes, his face suddenly turned serious. “Are you alright?” he asked, voice laced with concern. He walked down the steps and sat next to Lucien. “What’s wrong? Did something happen while I was out?”
Lucien turned his head away, not wanting Murphy to see him cry. He could not believe he let his guard down and allowed anyone to see him at such a vulnerable state – and it’s Murphy Odenkirk, of all people. “I’m – I’m fine. ‘Just felt a little sad to see Hunter leaving.”
Murphy didn’t seem convinced. He gently turned Lucien’s head back to him. “Something’s bothering you. I wish I could figure it out so I could help you.” He offered Lucien comfort, if he was to accept it. “Will you let me know what’s troubling you?”
“Mr. Odenkirk, why would you care?” The question wasn’t sarcastic, and Lucien didn’t mean it to be.
“Does the ‘why’ matter? Shouldn’t the fact that I care enough to ask mean something?”
Lucien dipped his head apologetically.
It’s just that… you’re the last person I’d want to talk to about these things. And I’m sorry…
With one hand, Murphy tilted his chin and smoothly wiped away the tear on his cheek with the back of his hand.
Lucien sat frozen, unprepared for Murphy’s tenderness and the unmistakable affection he saw in his deep brown eyes.
“It’s alright,” Murphy said, “I’ll wait for as long as I could until you’re ready to open up to me.” He stood up and walked slowly down the stairs. “Let’s take the back staircase to the parking lot. Would that be fine with you?”
“Yes, please.” Lucien nodded almost immediately. He didn’t want anyone else to see him in his present state, anyway.
But before he could even take a step down the stairs, he felt his knees wobble. He lost his footing and would have fallen if Murphy hadn’t caught hold of him.
“I’m sorry,” Lucien stammered and immediately tried to pull himself up.
“No harm done,” said Murphy in a gentle tone, but didn’t let the other go. “Are you alright?”
“I’m okay,” Lucien answered. “You… You can let go now.”
“Lucien…” Murphy pressed his hands on Lucien’s upper arms, eyes firmly fixed on the other’s. “Can you… give me a lift to my house?”
Lucien snapped out of his daze when he finally regained his footing and Murphy loosened his hold on him. “Uhm… You don’t have a chauffeur who can come pick you up? What about Ms. Breslin?”
“No. I don’t have a private driver and I’m still not on speaking terms with Audra.”
“…And your car?”
“I had someone drop it off at home few days ago. Besides…” He slowly lifted his injured arm. “I’m in no condition to be driving.”
Lucien was reluctant at first, but nodded curtly. “Uh, sure. Where to?”
Murphy smiled pleasantly. “North Bay Road.”
Lucien prodded at his mind for a moment. If memory serves, the North Bay Road is somewhere along the west side of Miami Beach, and is honest-to-goodness one of the wealthiest gated communities in Florida.
Of course, he wouldn’t settle for less. As expected of a tech giant bigwig.
“It’s just a few miles away from here,” Murphy added as they finally reached the bottom of the stairs. “And I’d love you to come up to my house for dinner. We can talk there undisturbed.”
“Sure,” Lucien said politely, as he fumbled in his pocket for the car keys. “I’d love to.”