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Before her stretched a picturesque view of goldenrod flowers, their faces turned toward the sun as they swayed in the cool breeze, singing in celebration of their vitality. Tara knew the highway  was behind her, it had to be, but as she stood at the overlook, she knew the journey opened in the valley below. Then Tara was no longer looking below. She was there in the valley, a part of the meadow , amorphous and vibrant among the flowers. She swayed as they swayed, she turned as they turned. When each petal began to uncurl itself, revealing and exposing each carpel to bask more fully in the light and warmth, Tara smiled – she was growing too. Tara sighed. The golden flowers sighed.

A shadow swept across the landscape, drawing Tara’s eyes upward. Beneath her, around her stomata shuddered and choked. A feminine hand clawed around the dreamscape sun, splaying delicate fingers on either side then pushing into the star opening cuts and gashes from which anguished light poured, disappearing into the sudden night. The flowers stood open-faced, withering in fading sun, petals dropping away as they were robbed of the turning seasons; robbed of a slow, natural death and plunged into decay. Tara’s lungs seized as the flowers died; she choked and gasped as she was wrung out, her essence rapidly squeezed from her shell.

Twisted in bed sheets and drenched in sweat, Tara flew into an upright position. Fear flooded her vision in a terrifying white haze blinding her in the darkness. Panicked, Tara shifted violently to the left, attempting to free herself from the force that held her. She darted her head around frantically, eyes wide and unfocused, unable to make sense of what contained her. She kicked and swatted and pushed and finally with one final tug Tara broke free of the sheets’ confinement, using her feet to push the assailant to the foot of her bed and shoving herself in the corner where her bed lay. She felt aloft, ungrounded, unsure of where or when she was. Tucking legs and arms close to her chest, Tara tracked the room with wide unfocused eyes half expecting to find she was in her childhood bedroom. “Goddess, keep me safe,” she hissed as she rocked in a tight ball of limbs. “Goddess, keep me safe, keep me safe, keep me safe,” over again and again until her voice soothed into a whisper. Until her vision cleared and her breathing slowed. She was in the dorm and safe.

Standing on shaky legs, she pulled a sweatshirt from the back of her chair and over her head, then made her way into the hall and the shared bathrooms to splash her face with water.

As the cold water lifted the last of the fog, Tara turned her gaze upward to meet the mirror. Tired blue eyes, underlined with deep purplish crescents reflected back at her. The haunted stories in that stare made her turn away. Just a nightmare, Tara girl, she reassured herself, but knew that sleep was lost for the night.

Returning to her dorm, she stumbled through the semi-darkness, campus lighting casting a  bluish-gray hue into the night. She took her throw from the bed and sat on the floor, resting her back against the bedside. She missed her old tub chair. She missed her fairy lights and Willow’s scent in the room.  

Turning her gaze out the window, she hoped to find solace in the stars, blinking and alive in the night sky. Breathing rhythmically, Tara tried to still her thoughts, but insistent images of suffocating in a dark grip flooded her mind. Tara finally relented to dissecting the nightmare. There were things that puzzled her- it was a dream after all- like where she had been and why the highway was mentioned in her dream thoughts. And the hands- so familiar in beautiful and terrifying ways as they seemed to shift ownership, two sets of hands that had been inside her head- one taking and one giving- only to take again.

It had been fueled and shaped by other forces, but in the end it was Willow who darkened the world, starving Tara flowers that had basked in her light. Light that had, when they met, sprouted what had been a seed buried under the dirt and too afraid to face the wind on her own. Warmth that had comforted her until she wore her colors, her fragrance, her sexuality, with ease. Under Willow’s sun, she bloomed. And now Willow’s sun was gone. No, it was eclipsed. Tara knew Willow would emerge from her self-imposed darkness. She just didn’t know if she, Tara, would be able to sustain herself under those rays anymore.

On that perfect day in the park Tara had sung the truth to Willow. She had bathed in Willow’s light. She had let it open her petals. And once accepted, it reached into the deepest caverns of her psyche and chased the shadows away. It had been so welcome, so lovely and constant and right. Even in her most insecure moments when she wasn’t sure she deserved it, Tara felt the love in that light. She had never prepared herself for its loss.   

Picking at the stars on her throw, she took in the stars in the sky as if the tangible connection could anchor them together; keep her alive with their radiance. Radiant light that, in reality, had already been snuffed out. But they were here for her now, and Tara would honor them.