Em’s slumber was deep.
In her sleep, she revisited a memory like a ghostly observer lurking in the periphery.
She watched, disembodied, as a bright, shimmering light made its way steadily through the night, down through a wood to the shore of a dark and rushing river. As it moved through the forest, trees interrupted its glow sporadically, casting eerie flickering shadows along its path.
The source of the light did not speak. It did not breathe. It just drifted, drawn to its destination by instinct.
Rustling leaves and the chirruping of night animals gave way to the crashing of flowing water and then, to the wracked sobs and hacking, gasping breaths of a figure standing waist-deep in frigid river. The figure came into focus as the light drew near; a woman whose face was obscured by curtains of wet silver hair. Her pale, icy skin reflected the beams that radiated from the light, making it look as if she were glowing too.
With mixed emotions, Em’s ghost watched this reflection of herself from – how many years ago would it be now? She wasn’t even sure anymore. What she did know was the woman standing in the water was still so new, so afraid.
The source of the light waited wordlessly from the damp grassy banks.
Em’s past self shuddered repeatedly, from the cold, or her crying, or both. She knew the light was there but didn’t turn to look.
A crystalline voice rang out, cutting through the darkness and the sounds of sadness.
“You need to stop this.” The voice was firm, resolute.
The Em in the water let out another heavy sob.
“Leave me alone!”
The light faded slightly and with its brilliance dimmed, the sharp angles of Welkin’s painfully elegant face became visible. Serious eyes stared out from beneath heavy lids. They watched the Em weep impassively.
“You have been given an incredible opportunity,” the beautiful and bright creature said. “An opportunity most people would kill for. Why can’t you see that? Why aren’t you happy?”
Past Em turned slowly with a vehement glare.
“Do you really think this is what anyone would want?” She hissed the words through clenched teeth. “Everything I knew is gone. Have you even looked at me? I don’t even look like myself anymore!”
“That’s because you’re not.”
The woman buried the heels of her palms into her eyes to ebb the flow of fresh tears. How could they be so cavalier – so stoic and matter-of-fact – when she stood there, devastated in the wake of an impossible new reality?
“My name doesn’t even feel like it’s mine anymore.”
“That’s because it’s not.”
A rolling boil of rage and woe bubbled to the surface. Em’s ghost shuddered as the version of herself in the memory screamed into the night, howling like a wild, wounded animal. The Star didn’t try to stop her.
“What am I supposed to do now?” She let out a hiccoughing sob. “Just start over? No friends, no family… No idea of who or even what I’m supposed to be now?”
“Would you really go back? Think about it.”
Welkin wasn’t trying to be cruel. They were simply being pragmatic, as always. And, as always, their attitude infuriated Em beyond reason. That much, at least, had not changed.
But she knew they were right; even in that moment she knew her feelings about the life she used to know had changed. She couldn’t bring herself to admit that the idea of going back didn’t bring her any peace.
That didn’t change the fact that she was completely alone. It didn’t change that whether or not she went back was a choice she didn’t get to make.
She let the sound of the river fill the silence between them. When Welkin spoke again, there was an unmistakeable sternness to their otherwise sparkling voice.
“A gift like this one doesn’t come without a price.”
“Yeah, well I didn’t exactly ask for this, did I?” Em spat in vicious reply.
A sad smile cut across the Star’s elegant, glowing face.
“That’s the thing about gifts, isn’t it?”
Welkin waited but Em said nothing.
“She wouldn’t want you to waste this,” they said, speaking softly this time.
A strangled laugh escaped from somewhere within Em. She glared into the dark water rushing around her numb and soaking body.
“That’s why you really did this, isn’t it?” She whispered, knowing they could still hear her just fine. “This isn’t about me. It’s always been her.”
For the first time, Welkin shifted, radiating both guilt and discomfort at the turn in conversation.
“She only ever wanted you to be happy.” There was a hint of sadness in their voice now. “She wanted you to live your life.”
“And what about me?”
“When do I get a say in what my life is or isn’t going to look like?” Em held the gaze of her ethereal companion with tear-soaked eyes.
“Right now.” They moved as close to the water’s edge as they could without stepping into the dark swirl rushing beneath them. “Don’t you see that? This is your chance. For the first time since we lost her, you’ll finally get to live your life the way you want. There will be nobody dictating what you can and can’t do because of what you are. No one gets to tell you how to live your life anymore.”
“Just you,” Em shot back, dropping her eyes once more.
“No, not even me.” At last, Welkin stepped down into the water and moved effortlessly toward the crumpled, shivering mess of a women before them. “All I ask of you is that you try to give this life a chance. Find people you can trust. Build new memories with them. Go see the world. Just, please, don’t waste this gift.”
For a moment, Em didn’t respond. She didn’t look up. Arms limp at her sides, she slumped with exhaustion. It was an effort just to steady her shaking breaths.
“When will I start to feel okay?” she asked quietly.
“Soon.” The reply was gentle. “You just need to push forward. Life, believe it or not, goes on.”
Em lifted her head. She didn’t want to give up this fight but she was so, so tired. Carefully, the being held out a glowing hand; a peace offering.
“Please stop haunting this river.” Firmness returned to Welkin’s voice. The time to coddle was over. “You can’t wash this away. Everything is going to be okay. I-”
“Wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true,” both Em and her ghost finished the sentence she’d heard them utter time and time again. “I know.”
Sighing in surrender, she took their hand.
“You’d better be right.”
Banner art by @blushmallet