Chapter 1: Captured
I'm very sorry for factual inaccuracies in this. I did some googling but most of it comes from my little fangirl heart.
“Are you ready for the opening tonight?” Will asks when Carmilla opens the door for him. She doesn't respond, just sits down, stretching her legs along the couch. “Carmilla.”
“Yeah,” she says, steepling her fingers, fingertip to fingertip.
Will steps inside and closes the door behind him. “You have to be ready.” Carmilla switches her fingers around, trying to touch every finger of one hand to every finger of the other. “Carmilla,” Will says again, louder this time.
She looks over her fingers at him. “What.” A challenge.
“You need to get out of this. It's been over a year, and this is the biggest exhibition yet.”
Will sighs, then sits down on the coffee table opposite her. She's returned her attention to her fingers, halfheartedly swapping them between the same four patterns over and over again. He watches her for a moment, then reaches out and touches her hand. She looks at him, fingers stilling. “Carmilla. This is a huge exhibition and a huge gallery. You need to get yourself together.”
“I've got it together,” she says, pulling her hands away and sitting up. The black couch is spattered with paint and she absentmindedly traces a green blotch.
Will looks at her suspiciously. “You sure?”
“Of course I'm sure!” Carmilla jumps to her feet and paces around the couch, looking at the paintings still dripping wet on the easels against the wall. She runs her finger along the side of one and pulls it away, smeared red. “Why wouldn't I be?”
“You can't go off on the reporters this time. Remember Amsterdam? That was such a fiasco. I've spent two months cleaning that up, and now you have another chance. I mean it, this is serious now. If that was a college team, this is the world series.”
“I don't like sports.”
“You know what I mean. You're well known, you have to present an image, and we need it to be a good one. Especially now.”
She looks over the canvas at him, wishing he would leave her alone. “I'm not a child. I know what I'm doing.”
Will raises his eyebrows skeptically. “You sure?” he asks again.
Carmilla just glares at him. He's a good manager, really. He keeps everything in order and does a good job making sure she gets publicity and her art gets shown, but he doesn't understand. She clenches her fist. All she wants is to be left alone.
“Fine,” he says after a moment of silence. “You say you're together, I'll leave that to you. But you'd better not be late, and you'd better have it together at the opening tonight. For real this time.” He stands up, checking his smartphone. “I've gotta go.” As he opens the door to leave, he looks back at Carmilla, still standing among her easels, running one paint-stained finger along the edge of the canvas. “Oh, and before I forget, your mother called. She wants you to call her back.” He closes the door without waiting for a response.
Carmilla is frozen, ice dripping down her insides and coating her stomach, rising to encase her heart. After a moment, she manages to thaw at least enough of her to move, and she unclenches her hand, picks up her paintbrush. Maybe if she paints enough, she'll cover everything up.
Laura hits send on her last email of the day and looks at the clock. Almost time to go. She's about to pack up her stuff when-
“What are you doing tonight?” Perry asks, appearing beside her as though by magic. Laura, already short, looks up at her editor.
“Nothing,” she says. In an effort to not feel so small, she stands up. “Why?”
“You know Carmilla Karnstein's in town, right? She's got that big exhibition opening tonight at the Silas Art Gallery?” Perry looks a little stressed, but Laura can't tell if it's normal stress or excess stress.
“Yes,” she says. “I know her art at least.”
“Good,” Perry says. “Do you want to go to the opening?”
Laura frowns at her. “Why?”
“Well, the foundation got us two tickets to the exhibition. Would you go, please? And try to interview her?” Perry says all of this very fast, and it takes Laura a moment to catch up.
“If you can get this, it'll be huge; we can feature her in our next issue. We never get opportunities like this, and an exclusive interview would be amazing.”
“Why won't you go? It seems like exactly the sort of thing you'd like.”
“Lafontaine and I have plans already, or I would,” she says with a smile. “Please? You're the only one in the office without plans tonight and we really need this.”
Laura thinks it over. It would be good to go out, and this is a one-time event. It would also be good for her career to write this article, and to have gotten this interview. She takes half a second more before saying, “Sure, I'll go.”
“Yes! Thank you,” Perry says. She presses two tickets into Laura's hands. “So it's at eight, at the SAG. Here are your tickets,” she says. “She'll be there, and please at least ask her a little bit about her art, even two questions."
Laura examines the tickets. They look legit, printed double sided and glossy. “Okay, cool,” she says.
“And, um,” Perry pauses, “it's a formal event so make sure that you dress appropriately.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, a dress, heels, maybe a nice necklace if you own one.”
“Do you think I don't know how to dress?” Laura asks, mock offended.
“No, I'm sure you can, I just wanted to make sure,” Perry says hastily.
“I got this, Perr,” Laura says with a smile. “Don't worry about it. I'll go with Danny. It'll be fun.”
“Great. Lafontaine's going to be here in a minute so I'm gonna get my stuff. Thank you again.” Perry hurries off, and Laura picks her own coat off the back of her chair, swinging it over her shoulders. The door of the office opens and she looks up to see Lafontaine.
“Hey,” she says, and they wave in return. “Perry's getting her stuff she'll be right out.”
“Thanks,” Lafontaine says, crossing the room to join her. “What're you up to tonight, Laura? Got any fun plans?” they ask, leaning on the edge of Laura's desk.
“Working,” she says, rifling through the pockets of her coat.
“Working? On a Friday night?” Lafontaine sounds incredulous, and Laura can picture the look on their face without even looking at them.
“Yeah,” she says, finally locating her keys and pulling them out triumphantly. “Perry asked me to go to a gallery opening. She really wants me to cover it, and hopefully get an interview with the artist. Figured I might as well say yes. I don't have anything else to do.”
Lafontaine smiles and nods, but before they can respond, Perry emerges from her office, jacket on and purse hanging from her shoulder.
“Hey,” she says, giving Lafontaine a quick kiss.
“You ready?” they ask.
Perry nods. “I think I've got everything. See you later, Laura?”
“Yeah,” Laura says. She follows them out, locking the front door behind her. In her car, she pulls out her phone, and presses number one on speed dial. It rings only once before Danny picks up.
“Hey, what's up?”
“Wanna go out tonight?” Laura asks, sliding her key into the slot without turning it.
“Sure. You thinking the Lustig?”
“Maybe something a little more formal,” Laura says. “I have tickets to this art exhibition opening at the SAG and I figured I'd ask you. I get if you don't want to go but I think it'll be fun.”
“I'm totally down,” Danny says from the other end of the line. Laura can hear the smile on her face. “What time and where?”
“It's at eight. I'll pick you up at seven-thirty?”
“And it's formal, so dress nicely.”
“Got it,” Danny says. “See you then.”
Laura smiles as she hangs up the phone and puts her car in gear.
The SAG entry hall is packed almost wall to wall with people. Or it seems that way to Laura as she hands the tickets to the guy at the entrance and steps into the building. Everyone and everything glitters around her, from the chandelier to the polished floor to the people's fancy clothes.
“Damn,” Danny says quietly, looking around. “These people really go all out. Remind me who this artist is again?”
“Carmilla Karnstein,” Laura says.
“Never heard of her.”
“She's gotten pretty famous in the past couple years,” Laura says, trying to remember the wikipedia page she'd speed read over a bowl of cereal two hours earlier. “She's a painter, does abstract art, and everybody loves her. I saw some pictures of her art online. It's not bad, actually.” She finally finds a place by the wall and stands with her back to it, Danny beside her.
“She was famous before, and then went off the map entirely for eight months or so. She didn't paint or go out or anything. Then when she finally did, she was really different.”
“I'm not entirely sure. Wikipedia didn't say.”
“Ah.” Danny looks at Laura. “You look really good, by the way.”
Laura blushes, running her fingers down her pale blue dress. “Thanks. And you look great too.” She'd never seen anyone who looked so good in a suit, and she's frankly a little glad that she's expected to look at art. Otherwise she might just watch Danny endlessly.
“Where is this famous art?” Danny asks, looking over the heads of the crowd. “And the famous artist.”
“I don't know about the artist,” Laura says, “but I think this is just the entrance hall, and the art is through there.” She points to a doorway, watching people file slowly through it. “I've never been here before so this is just a guess.” It takes them ten minutes to get into the gallery proper, and once they do, the people around her disperse and she takes her first deep breath in what feels like forever.
“Glad that's over,” Danny says. “Art time?”
“Yeah,” Laura says, looking around. This room is significantly darker than the entryway, with most lights dimmed save the ones illuminating the art. The paintings on the walls are dark, painted unevenly and in mismatched colors that don't always seem to fit together, crisscrossed with lines and jagged edges of broken shapes. They're lit from underneath, the edge of the canvas shadowing the lower part of the canvas, and shadows from the layers of thick paint echo the lines and corners. The effect is striking. Laura feels like she's looking into someone's mind, deep into the dark parts of a life she never expected to see.
As she and Danny make their way around the room, Laura feels rather than sees the emotions behind the paintings evolve. Sometimes she thinks she can see a flicker of an eye, or the suggestion of a mouth or nose in the lines, but it's gone the instant she tries to catch it. Some have paint running down them, thick and blotched, like they couldn't express themselves smoothly. Like they're a part of something that can't stay together.
“Isn't the artist supposed to be here?” Danny asks. “She's gotta be forty-five minutes late at this point.”
Right on cue, the sound of a microphone echoes through the room, and the lights come up. At one end is a man standing on a stage, dark hair, dark suit. Laura and Danny gravitate, with the rest of the guests, towards the him. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the opening of this exhibit,” and that's all Laura catches before she's distracted by the woman standing at the side of the stage, looking over the crowd. She wears a dress like midnight, seeming to glitter with stars, and long black gloves pulled up over her elbows. The edge of her dress barely brushes the floor, and she stands perfectly still, her dark hair falling in waves over her shoulders, perfectly matching her dress.
She's beautiful, Laura admits to herself, much prettier than she'd expected from cursory glances over grainy internet photographs. What captures Laura, though, is the look in her eyes. She looks sad, like she's been sad for a long time and she's used to it. Laura can feel that everything is inside of her, and her face is closed off, as though her eyes have been bricked up and only vague sadness seeps through the mortar. Even if Laura hadn't seen her picture, she would have recognized the woman immediately as the artist of the paintings surrounding them.
Even when she's introduced as Carmilla Karnstein, and takes her place at the mic to say a few words, her eyes don't change. Her face changes, almost-genuine smiles appearing and then fading, but she still is closed, still contained.
Laura doesn't move and doesn't take her eyes off Carmilla until the lights are dimmed again, though not as dim as before, and Danny taps on her shoulder.
“Earth to Laura,” she says, jokingly waving a hand in front of Laura's eyes. “You still here?”
“Yeah,” Laura says, shaking her head. “Sorry, I just got distracted.”
“You gonna go talk to her?” Danny asks, gesturing towards the end of the room, where Carmilla has descended from the stage onto the main floor of the gallery. Laura can't even see Carmilla, she's so surrounded by people.
“I think I'm gonna give it a little bit,” she says. “Let the crowd thin out.”
“Good call,” Danny says. “Oh look, food!”
They spend the next half hour getting acquainted with the various tables of food and drinks set out around the room, Laura keeping a constant eye on Carmilla as the painter drifts slowly along the wall, constantly talking to some person or another. They are taking sips of very expensive champagne when Danny says, “So what'd you think of the artist?”
Laura takes another sip and tries not to blush. She'd hoped that her distraction during the speech hadn't been noticeable but Danny's tone is oddly suspicious. “She seems.... interesting.”
“Interesting? You seemed pretty fixated on her.”
“Yeah, she seems interesting,” Laura says, turning around, trying to keep Carmilla in view. “And I really like her art.”
“I don't know,” Danny says, shrugging. “It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.”
“I feel like it gets at something deeper than other art does.”
Danny finishes the last of her champagne and puts the flute down on the table beside them. “I thought she seemed a little intense. Or not real. Like she was faking it.”
“Uh huh,” Laura says, only half listening. Carmilla breaks off from her admirers, moving alone across the room “I gotta go,” Laura says, handing her plate to Danny. “I'll find you after.” She doesn't hear Danny's protests as she slips away after Carmilla. Laura follows glimpses of Carmilla's dress and hair, trying to keep up. Finally, she emerges from the crowd, and sees Carmilla walking away, talking to the man who'd introduced her.
“Miss Karnstein,” Laura says, as loudly as she dares, and walking as quickly as acceptable towards them. “Miss Karnstein.”
Carmilla pauses, turning around to look for who's calling her. The man accompanying her, however, moves towards Laura and puts a hand out to stop her.
“Excuse me, who are you?” he asks sharply.
“My name is Laura Hollis, and I'm a reporter for a local arts magazine. I was wondering if I could ask Miss Karnstein a couple questions, just-”
“No,” the man interrupts her. “Miss Karnstein is not doing interviews tonight.”
“Just one or two,” Laura says. “It won't take long I promise.”
“I'm afraid I can't allow it,” the man is saying, when Carmilla puts a hand on his arm and he stops.
Laura's eyes meet Carmilla's, and for a moment Laura forgets who she is. The intensity in Carmilla's eyes takes everything else away, and it's just them.
“I'll give her an interview,” Carmilla says. The man begins to protest, and she cuts him off. “Will, I said I would do the interview.”
The man sighs overdramatically and motions for Laura to follow him. “Come with me then.”
The office is quiet, and Carmilla takes a deep breath, her first since she'd stepped onto that stage. She's gotten used to dealing with people, it's a job requirement, but that doesn't mean she enjoys it any more than she ever has. It's always the same people, wanting to shake her hand and ask about her art, sometimes they want to give her money, or want money from her, and she's learned how to politely decline or accept as the situation demands. Mostly it's the same compliments over and over again, from different people in different cities, who think that she'd never heard it before. Mooching is an acquired skill, Carmilla has learned, and she's had enough practice to make her into a master.
Carmilla settles down on the couch opposite the reporter, watching her. She hadn't caught her name when she had spoken earlier, and she kind of wants to keep it a mystery for now. The girl is hardly Carmilla's age, and seems more than a little nervous as she takes her seat, pulling a small recorder from the clutch under her arm.
“Thank you, Will,” Carmilla says. From where he stands in the doorway, Will glares at her. She knows he didn't want her to do any interviews tonight, and part of her thinks that might be half the reason she agreed to the interview in the first place. “That will be all,” she says, driving the point home.
He gives her one last glare before closing the door and leaving them in the office. Carmilla looks around. It's very nice – large with a big desk cluttered with papers, a couch, several chairs, and a wall of tall windows, curtained.
“Okay,” the reporter says, and Carmilla turns to look at her. “So are you ready?”
Carmilla nods wordlessly. At first the questions are normal, standard. She doesn't ask about Amsterdam, and she doesn't ask about Carmilla's disappearance. She seems to grow more comfortable as time passes, and Carmilla finds herself drawn in against her will, interested beyond reason in the reporter. She is so full of life, so energetic, it seems to shine from her even when she's listening instead of talking. It swirls around her, fills the room from corner to corner. Carmilla begins to feel at ease, for the first time in forever it seems, she's understanding and interacting with a person, and not wanting to run away.
“So can you tell me a little bit about this exhibition?” the reporter asks.
“In what way?”
The girl pauses, looks at her. “What do you want people to get out of it?” she asks, quickly, as though she's not sure she wants to say it at all.
Carmilla's taken aback. Nobody has ever asked her that question, and she's never really thought about it. She takes a moment. “I'm not sure,” she says. “Isn't art mostly in the eye of the beholder?” It's a cop-out answer, and she knows it, and she knows the girl knows it.
“Yes,” the reporter replies, “it is. But art is part of the artist whether it's in the eye of the beholder or not.”
Carmilla nods, impressed. “I guess so. I'm not sure really what I want people to get out of it. Maybe I want people to think about the mind.” She doesn't realize it's true until she says it.
“In what way?” The girl has leaned forward, engaged, interested. Her energy wraps around Carmilla, and she wants to lean forward as well, be closer to the girl. She resists the temptation, tries to bottle it up inside of her where it can't get out.
“It's such a mysterious place,” Carmilla says, searching for the right words. “Nobody knows what's going on, even in their own, and certainly not in anybody else's. But people's minds are different, and in putting them in a space from my own mind, I want them to think about their own, and the way they interact with it, and with the representation of somebody else's mind.”
“What got you interested in this?”
Carmilla feels like this has stopped being an interview and has become something else, a conversation between them. Parts of her are screaming to turn away, to escape, but she can't look away. She wants to talk to this girl, she wants to turn away, she wants to do both and she can only do one. The reporter watches her intensely, and finally Carmilla says, “I'm not sure. Maybe it's a desire to understand my mind.”
“Not somebody else's?” she asks. She doesn't look down, she keeps Carmilla in her gaze and Carmilla doesn't look away.
“Maybe if I understood my own, I would understand someone else's.”
Something fills the air between them, but before Carmilla can figure out what it is, can name it and bottle it and swear never to feel it again, a sharp ding echoes from the girl's clutch and the feeling is shattered. “I'm sorry,” she says, reaching for it. “I totally forgot to silence my phone.”
“It's okay,” Carmilla says, leaning back. She tries to let the intensity drop, but it clings to her like fog.
“Oh no,” the reporter says, the bright screen illuminating her face. “I've gotta go, it's so late.”
Carmilla looks at the clock on the wall above the door. It's almost eleven-thirty. The gallery will be shutting down soon, ushering everybody from the building.
“Thank you,” the reporter says, standing up. She holds out her hand, a little piece of paper offered to Carmilla. Carmilla stands to take it, then shakes the girl's hand without thinking. It feels like a moment of forever when their hands and eyes meet.
Then the girl jumps, moving towards the door. “I've gotta go, thank you,” she says. “Have a good night.”
Carmilla raises her hand, still feeling the girl's fingers in hers. The door shuts behind her, and Carmilla stares at it for a second, trying to process what it is that's happened. The room still feels full and bright, like the girl left some of her presence behind when she ran out the door. Carmilla sits back down on the couch and turns the card over between her fingers. Laura Hollis , reads the print on the front. The name seems to stare at her, and Carmilla stares back for another moment. Laura.
Chapter 2: Slipping
Her music is turned up so loud, Carmilla doesn't hear the knock on her door. She steps back to look at her painting and jumps a foot in the air as something taps her on the shoulder. Carmilla whirls around, raising her paintbrush like a sword and sending drops of paint in every direction.
“Woah!” Will jumps back, then looks down at his suit, splattered with pale blue dots. “Geez.”
Carmilla lowers the brush, reaching over to it the power button on her speakers. “You shouldn't sneak up on people like that.”
“I wasn't sneaking,” Will says, examining one of the dots and trying unsuccessfully to wipe it off. “I called your name three times at least.”
“I didn't hear you.”
She puts her paintbrush down and reaches for a rag. “How did you even get in?”
Will doesn't look up at her, still concerned with his suit. “You left the door unlocked.” He clicks his tongue in frustration. “This isn't going to come out without some serious cleaning.”
“Sorry.” Carmilla looks him critically up and down. “Looks better like that anyway.”
Will glares at her, then turns to pace around the room. Carmilla watches him.
“What do you want?” she asks instead, wishing he would leave her alone. She can't tell if it's for the usual I-don't-want-to-be-around-people reason or if there's something else. Over-analyzing her psychology is not on Carmilla's list of favorite things to do.
“I didn't hear from you all weekend and I wanted to check in.” He sits down in an armchair and looks over at her. “Everything okay?”
Carmilla nods. “Everything's fine.”
Will raises an eyebrow, but she refuses to elaborate, staying silent and looking straight back at him. “How did the opening go?”
Carmilla shrugs. “Nothing special.” This is only half true, and an image of Laura circles into the front of her mind. Meeting her had definitely broken the monotony of the evening, and that was pretty special.
“That's all? Fine?”
“Yeah.” She turns around to look at her painting, then picks up a different brush and adds a stroke of red. Carmilla can feel rather than hear Will approach her again and look over her shoulder.
“Nice,” he says. “Not like your normal stuff.” He walks away again, and Carmilla can tell he's agitated, wants her to pay attention to him.
She shrugs again. She doesn't want to talk about it, not with him. Carmilla doesn't even want to think about it too hard. Thinking about painting has never worked for her.
“What's this?” Will asks, turning his head to look at her upside-down sketchbook on the couch. He picks it up, rotating it so he can see it properly.
“That's private,” Carmilla says, crossing the room in three steps and taking it from him. She adds a smear of gray paint to the rainbow already fingerprinted across the cover as she closes it.
“Is that that girl?”
“What girl?” Carmilla asks, feigning ignorance. She doesn't want to share this, not with him, not with anyone.
“That girl from the opening. The reporter girl.”
“So what if it is?”
“Is that what's been eating you this whole weekend?” Will gestures around them, at the easels and still-wet paintings. “Is that what's up with all this?”
“It hasn't been eating me,” Carmilla says. She rounds the couch and sets the sketchbook down well out of Will's reach. “And what do you mean 'all this'?” She looks critically at one of the paintings, then reaches out and draws a line down the side with her finger. A copy of her fingerprint is left imprinted on the canvas.
“Don't play this game,” Will says. “I haven't seen you paint this much since-” he cuts himself off, looking apprehensively at Carmilla. “In a long time,” he finishes.
She doesn't look at him, just draws another line on the opposite side of the canvas. This line ends in a spiral. “I'm in the mood,” she says. “Don't make a big deal out of it.” She can picture Will's expression. She knows he's remembering the same thing she is, the high and then the low, the eight months of hiding from him and the news and the world, the blank canvases her paintless fingernails shredded into pieces and left curled up on the floor by her bed.
“Can you come talk to me?” he asks, giving up the line of conversation.
She knows he won't go away until she does, so she returns to the couch, flops down on it, affectedly disaffected. Will settles in the chair opposite her. “So the opening went well,” he begins. “Aside from the little glitch at the end with the interview. I told you I didn't want any interviews.”
“I wanted to give one.” Carmilla picks dried paint off her palm and flicks it to the floor.
Will sighs in exasperation. “Why do you even have a manager if you're just going to do whatever you want anyway?”
“You do the boring stuff,” Carmilla says. She looks over at him. “And you're very good at it.”
“Yeah yeah. But speaking of so-called 'boring stuff', I'm going to set up a meeting with the board at....” His voice trails out of Carmilla's consciousness. Her hand finds its way into her pocket, pulls out the card she's slipped in there.
The corners are rounded and fuzzy, the sides have been worn down to softness and pliability, words faded, specks of paint coloring the entire thing. Laura Hollis, it still reads. Beneath it is her job title, an address, a phone number, a company name. Carmilla runs her thumb over the front of the card. She could recite the entire thing from memory. No matter how many times Carmilla had tried to capture Laura's face, she hadn't ever quite gotten it right.
“Carmilla,” Will says, loudly enough for her finally to notice him again. “Are you even paying attention to me?”
“Yeah of course,” she says. “I am, I promise.”
“You need to be. There's a lot we need to do now. This was your first big event since Amsterdam and....”
Carmilla's attention wanders back to Laura and the business card. Maybe if she saw Laura again, she'd be able to get the shine in her eyes and the light in her smile just right. She tries not to acknowledge alternate reasons.
“I'm going out,” she says, standing up and interrupting Will in the middle of a sentence.
“What?” he asks. “No you can't, you have things to do and there's more to talk about.”
Carmilla ignores him, sliding the card back into her pocket and lifting her jacket off the back of the couch as she walks towards the door.
Her keys jangle when she picks them off their hook by the front door, opening it and stepping out into the hallway.
“And your mother called again!” Will shouts after her as she shuts the door.
“So you got the interview?” Perry asks the instant Laura steps into the office on Monday morning.
“Yes, I did,” Laura says with a laugh. “I told you that when I called, didn't I?”
“I just wanted to make sure.” Perry says, following her to her desk. She pauses while Laura takes off her coat, drops her purse.
“Don't worry, I've got this,” Laura says.
Perry nods and hurries away, back to her office. Laura smiles after her as she boots up her computer and opens a blank document.
It's almost noon before she's pulled out of her haze of words by a grumbling in her stomach. She sighs, tries to remember how she was going to finish her sentence and taps unhappily at the keys.
“I'm here to see Laura,” says a voice from the front of the office, and she looks up at the mention of her name. Carmilla stands in front of the door as it swings shut, and has snagged one of Laura's passing coworkers. The coworker nods, then gestures in the vague direction of Laura's desk.
“She's over there. Laura!”
Laura waves her hand over her computer. “Thanks Betty!” she calls back, standing up. Carmilla crosses the room, weaving between desks and people. It's beginning to empty out as everyone leaves for lunch, and she reaches Laura's desk as Laura pulls on her coat. Carmilla looks so strange in the middle of an office. She stands a little awkwardly, hands in her pockets. Laura wonders if she's ever been in one before.
“Hey,” Carmilla says.
Before Laura has the chance to respond, Perry comes hurrying out of her office, looking at a piece of paper. “Laura, before you go, I wanted to make sure you knew...” she trails off as she notices Carmilla.
“Oh Perry, this is Carmilla. Carmilla, meet Perry, my editor.”
“It's so nice to meet you,” Perry says, holding out a hand. “It's so nice to meet you.”
“You too,” Carmilla says. When Perry releases her hand she tucks back it into her pocket.
“You were saying?” Laura says to Perry, picking up her purse.
“Oh, right.” Perry turns to her and holds out the paper. “Nothing important. It's all written down here. You can read it later.” She lays the paper on Laura's desk. “I won't keep you,” Perry says, turning back to her office. She only casts one look over her shoulder.
“Hey,” Laura says to Carmilla, a little belatedly.
“Let's get lunch.” Carmilla says, and Laura's so surprised she forgets how to move for a moment. Of all the reasons she'd thought Carmilla would show up at her work, lunch had been the last of them. She'd been convinced Carmilla was there to tell her not to run the article, or to retract every statement she'd made.
“You coming or what?” Carmilla asks, pausing in her return to the door.
“Oh yes!” Laura says, hurrying after her and trying to compose herself. “I wasn't expecting to see you,” she says as they start down the sidewalk.
“Sad I came?”
“Oh no no,” Laura says, before realizing that Carmilla's joking. Laura's surprised at how happy she is to see Carmilla. “I'm glad you came,” she says, a little quietly. Carmilla had been almost all Laura could think about over the weekend ever since she'd left the office at the gallery. Danny had commented on her preoccupation on the car ride home after the opening.
“How'd the interview go?” Danny had asked. “You seem kinda quiet.”
“Just.... thinking,” Laura'd said, flipping on her blinker and making a right turn from one empty street onto another. “The interview went fine. Really good, actually.”
“You were talking to her for a long time,” Danny said.
“She was interesting. I think there's a lot more underneath than she's showing.”
“Oh really?” Danny wiggled her eyebrows and Laura laughed, trying not to blush in the dark.
“Not like that,” she said. Laura had spent the rest of the weekend halfheartedly cleaning her apartment, replaying the interview in her mind. She couldn't deny that Carmilla had been fascinating, electrifying. She'd told herself that she would probably never see Carmilla again, she is a famous artist after all, and yet here she is. It feels surreal, at at the same time the only reality she's truly felt.
Laura glances sideways at Carmilla, finally taking in her outfit. She's wearing all black and combat boots, thick leather bracelets around her wrists. Dried paint spots her arms, like she'd tried to wash it off but hadn't quite gotten everywhere. She looks good. She looks really good. Carmilla grins at her, catlike, and Laura looks away, trying not to blush at being caught.
“Where're we off to?” Carmilla asks.
“You didn't have a place in mind?”
Carmilla raises her eyebrows. “I hadn't thought much further than showing up at your office.”
“Okay,” Laura says. She doesn't know quite what to make of Carmilla, so transformed from the upright, famous woman at the gallery, to the girl walking beside her, looking like any other young artist. “Well there's a restaurant I know that's not far from here. Want to go there?”
The restaurant isn't crowded, and they get a seat right away. Carmilla is totally silent as they read the menu and order, and it is only once their waiter has taken away the menus that she looks straight at Laura. Laura is again immediately captured by the intensity of her eyes, the way they seem to see everything, both outside and inside. She still feels like there are walls behind Carmilla's irises.
“So tell me about yourself,” Carmilla says.
Laura laughs a little nervously. “There's not much to tell.”
“I doubt that.”
“I was born and raised here, went to college here, and got a job as a journalist here,” Laura says. She manages to up her whole life into that one sentence. “But what about you?” she asks in return. “Surely your rise to artistic fame must have some backstory.”
Carmilla shrugs, leaning back. “I like to paint. The fame came from other people.”
“It's well deserved. Your art is amazing,” Laura says, remembering the pieces on the walls, the lights shadowing them from underneath.
Carmilla's lip pulls up in a half smile. “You don't need to compliment me now, cutie. I've given your interview.”
Laura protests, and they descend into conversation, moving from topic to topic. It begins to come naturally, and Laura senses Carmilla's guards coming down at least a little, watches Carmilla lean on the table, towards her, watches her move her hands when she talks a little at first, the gestures gradually getting larger. Carmilla manages to be open and contained, to hold worlds inside of her and manage to exist completely in this one. Laura feels like she's getting only snapshots, peeking through windows, like the totality of it all would overwhelm her, while simultaneously pulling her inexorably in. It's a fascination she can't shake. She's not sure she wants to.
The waiter brings the check, and before Laura can react, Carmilla's sliding a credit card into the slot and handing it back to him.
“I've got this,” she says.
“Oh I couldn't,” Laura says, reaching for her own purse.
“Try all you like, this is on me. I'm the one who showed up and dragged you to lunch.”
Not unwillingly. Laura's not brave enough to say it, and since she can't think of a different response, she just watches as Carmilla twists the bracelets around her wrists. They are the only part of Carmilla's outfit without a single drop of paint on them, the leather worn smooth and shiny with time, the clips a burnished silver.
“Like them?” Carmilla asks, and Laura looks up at her, realizes she's been staring at them for five seconds at least.
“Oh yeah they're nice,” Laura says hastily.
“Not really your style.” Carmilla raises her eyebrows.
“Not really,” Laura echoes.
“Where to next?” Carmilla asks.
“Hey I picked the restaurant. You pick what's next.”
“Let's at least leave.” Carmilla stands up, moves around the table. She moves like a cat, all lithe grace and rolling steps.
The sidewalk is more crowded than before, and there's a line for the restaurant, people standing against the walls outside, checking the watches and phones impatiently. “We beat the lunch rush, I guess,” Laura says. “Any idea where we're going?”
“Let's just walk,” Carmilla says. “See what comes our way.”
“Have you always liked to paint?” Laura asks, falling into step beside Carmilla.
“Yeah, I have. It's always been a part of me. Like most artists.”
“What got you started?”
Carmilla gives Laura a sideways glance. “Summer camp when I was five. We had a lot of activities, but it was the one I kept going back to.”
“And you just never stopped?”
“You're full of questions today,” Carmilla says. “Is this turning into another interview?”
“No, all of this is off the record,” Laura replies jokingly. “I'm just curious. I want to know you.” She doesn't know how that last sentence got past her brain-to-mouth filter, and she makes a mental note to check it later.
“Oh really?” Carmilla stops, turns to look at her. “And what do you think so far?” She steps back a pace, holds out her arms like she's being examined or photographed, so Laura can see all of her.
Amazing. Fascinating. You make me want to talk to you and do nothing else. “I like what I've seen,” Laura says instead. The words feel flimsy, but they're the best she can come up with. Or the best that don't go over the top. She doesn't know what it is, doesn't know why Carmilla seems so intense, draws her in the way she does.
“I'm glad,” Carmilla says.
There's silence for a moment, the only sound their resumed footsteps on the pavement. Carmilla still feels like an enigma to Laura. Laura still feels like there's so much to be discovered.
“Why do you paint?” she asks.
Carmilla look startled. “Nobody's ever asked me that. It was an outlet for me. Is an outlet,” she corrects herself. “I can express myself more easily through paint. And everything is so confusing and messed up, but when I'm painting I feel like the world finally makes sense.”
Laura pauses to collect her thoughts. “I never thought of art that way. When I write, or when I do research, it feels like I'm figuring the world out, but not like it makes sense.” Laura doesn't know it's true until she says it. Carmilla nods, but doesn't say anything. “What happened?” Laura asks without thinking.
“What happened when?”
“When you vanished. Gone for eight months, I think.” Laura waits for a response and when there's none, she looks over at Carmilla. Her lips have tightened, white and bloodless, her eyes have gone blank. She's lost her fluidity, each motion looks forced.
“I'm so sorry,” Laura says, backtracking and cursing her broken filter. “I didn't mean to upset you. I didn't think.”
Carmilla nods stiffly. “It's okay.” Her voice is flat, expressionless. Walls have come back up around her.
“Hey,” Laura says softly, reaching out to touch Carmilla's arm, bringing them both to a halt. “I'm really sorry.” Carmilla's eyes meet hers, and then lose a little of their hardness.
“It's okay,” Carmilla says. This time Laura thinks she means it. At least a little bit.
“I won't ask again.”
Carmilla gives Laura a small smile, and they stand there for a second. Something has changed, Laura can feel it, and she wishes she'd kept her mouth shut.
Carmilla's eyes shift away, over Laura's shoulder. “Cupcakes.”
“What?” Laura turns. Across the street is a bakery, the window filled with the largest display of cupcakes she's has ever seen.
“Cupcakes,” Carmilla repeats.
Carmilla hesitates, then says, “Sure.”
“C'mon,” Laura says, starting towards the crosswalk. “I'll buy you one. As an apology. And a thank you for lunch.” She resists the urge to reach for Carmilla's hand.
The bar is dim when Laura walks in, and she pauses, giving her eyes time to adjust. It's packed; it is Saturday night after all, and everyone is out. Danny, Lafontaine, and Perry are all sitting at their usual table, drinks already in front of them.
“Laura!” Danny waves at her, and Laura pushes her way through the people towards them.
“Hey guys,” she says when she emerges.
“You're late,” Lafontaine says over the noise of the crowd.
“I know, I'm sorry.” Laura slides into the booth beside Danny.
“You've missed out on all the fun,” Lafontaine says.
Laura grins. “How're you doing, Lafontaine?”
“Work as usual,” they say. “Drinking a lot of coffee. Doing a lot of experiments. And you?”
“I'm good. I've invited Carmilla,” Laura says. She'd never admit it to any of them, but she's nervous about Carmilla meeting her friends. “She'll be here soon, so you be nice.” The last bit is directed towards Danny, who puts her hand on her heart.
“I'm always nice.”
“Yeah, sure you are,” Laura says sarcastically.
“I am!” Danny protests.
Before Laura has a chance to respond, her phone vibrates against her leg and she pulls it out of her pocket, the screen glowing. Parking, the text reads.
“Is that her?” Lafontaine cranes their neck, trying to read the message.
“Yes,” Laura says, angling the phone away from Lafontaine. “She'll be here in a moment.”
“You have her phone number?” Danny asks.
“Yeah.” Laura slips the phone back into her pocket. “It made sense. We've gotten lunch almost every day this week – we needed a way to coordinate.” Danny's tone makes Laura feel a need to justify herself, to give a reason for having Carmilla's phone number. A reason beyond friendship.
“We?” Danny sounds incredulous.
“Every day?” Lafontaine says at the same time.
“Yep, Carmilla picks her up every day at lunch,” Perry says.
“Every day?” Danny's voice is slightly louder, but Lafontaine talks over her.
“Wow that's a lot. What's she like?”
“She's nice. You're going to meet her in a minute. You can make your own judgements.”
“Mmmhm.” Lafontaine sits back, looking thoughtful. They raise their eyebrows and incline their head slightly, gesturing surreptitiously over Laura's shoulder.
“Hey.” Carmilla's standing beside the booth, looking down at her.
“Oh hi!” Laura scoots closer to Danny, who grudgingly edges closer to the wall. “Sit down!” Carmilla takes the now vacated space beside Laura, looking around the table. “Everyone, this is Carmilla. Carmilla, this is everyone.”
“Hey,” Carmilla repeats.
“This is Danny,” Laura says, gesturing to her other side. “You already know Perry, and-”
“I'm Lafontaine,” Lafontaine cuts her off, watching Carmilla closely.
“They're Perry's partner,” Laura finishes.
Carmilla nods, but doesn't say anything. She's saved the necessity of speaking by Lafontaine, who says, “So you're an artist?”
“Guess so,” Carmilla says.
“And you paint?”
Lafontaine opens their mouth to say something else when Perry cuts them off. “Let her settle in,” Perry says with a laugh. “Don't grill her right away, give her some time.”
“I'm just trying to start conversation.” Lafontaine leans back, looks at Carmilla across the table.
“Do you want something to drink?” Laura asks, stepping in.
“Sure. I'll go with you,” Carmilla says. She follows Laura across the bar, stands quietly by the counter.
“They're a little....” Laura searches for the right word for Lafontaine.
“Enthusiastic?” Carmilla offers.
“Let's go with that,” Laura says, nodding.
“I'll be okay,” Carmilla says. “If I can handle a gallery opening, I can handle them.”
“These are two entirely different situations.”
“I can handle them,” Carmilla repeats.
The first part of the evening goes better than Laura expected. Danny seems to get more upset the longer Carmilla stays, but Laura tries not to notice. She doesn't want to let anything get her down, and Carmilla is finally relaxing at least a little. She avoids talking, instead directing the conversation away from her, deflecting questions and statements like she's been doing it forever. Laura notices, but the others don't, or if they do, they don't show it.
“What happened in Amsterdam?” Danny asks Carmilla, taking a sip of her beer. “I Googled you,” she says by way of explanation.
“They made a big deal out of nothing, really,” Carmilla says.
“Amsterdam?” Laura looks between the two of them, sitting on either side of her. Her skim of the Wikipedia article had been light on the details, and she hadn't worked to retain much of it.
“Yeah, Carmilla got pretty angry and... attacked a photographer?”
Laura looks from Danny to Carmilla. She's seen this look, seen this retreat before. When she asked about Carmilla's disappearance.
“Oh do tell,” Lafontaine says, leaning in eagerly. “Did you put him in the hospital?”
Perry puts a hand on their shoulder and when they look over at her says, “Maybe we shouldn't pry.”
“No I wanna know,” Danny says. “So what happened?”
Carmilla shrugs. “I didn't want him to take my picture. He took it. I took his camera.”
Tension is rising in the air, and Laura doesn't want to be caught in the middle. She doesn't want there to be tension at all.
“Oookay,” she says, trying to stop the conversation, steer it elsewhere. Danny ignores her, talks around her like she hadn't spoken at all.
“It sounded like more than that.” Danny raises her eyebrows, takes another sip of her beer.
“It wasn't.” Carmilla's voice is sharp, it has an edge it didn't have before.
Silence falls over the table, lukewarm and awkward. Laura squirms internally, frustrated with Danny, upset for Carmilla. She knew Danny already didn't like Carmilla, but Laura had hoped that hanging out would have changed that. Or at least that Danny would behave. She looks sideways at Carmilla, who's playing with her leather cuffs again, spinning them around and around her wrists.
“Does anyone want some water?” Perry asks, and Laura's grateful for her attempt to break through the shell. “I'm going to go get some water.” Lafontaine stands up to let her out, and Carmilla turns to Laura.
“I should go.”
“Oh, uh, okay,” Laura says. “I'll walk you out.”
“You don't have to,” Carmilla says as she stands up.
“I'll be back,” she says to Lafontaine and Danny, following Carmilla. Behind her, she hears Lafontaine say, “What was...” but the rest of their sentence is lost in the noise of the crowd.
Laura hadn't realized how hot the bar was until she steps outside. The clear air rushes over her and she shivers a little. “I'm sorry about Danny,” she says as she walks beside Carmilla down the street. “I don't know what's up with her tonight.”
“It's okay,” Carmilla says, taking a deep breath.
“It doesn't always have to be okay.”
Carmilla smiles at her but doesn't say anything, and they walk quietly until Carmilla stops beside a motorcycle, pulling a set of keys from her pocket. “Don't worry about it cupcake,” she says.
Carmilla had called her that ever since the first day, at the cupcake shop. They'd gone back every day since, and Carmilla teased her endlessly about sweets, cupcakes in particular after Laura had spent five minutes elaborating on why homemade frosting was so much better than store bought frosting, and how you had to know the right type of mix to match with what frosting to get the flavors to work together.
“Is this yours?” She gestures at the motorcycle, lean and black behind Carmilla.
“Yeah,” Carmilla says, grinning and putting a hand on the handlebar. “It's a lot easier to get around with than a car.”
“I just didn't expect it,” Laura says. It looks right though, Carmilla in her leather pants, leather cuffs, the keys dangling from her fingers.
“There's a lot to me you don't know,” Carmilla says. Her voice is lighter, more like she's joking than anything, but Laura can feel the truth behind her words.
“That's true. I haven't seen a lot of your art,” Laura says, equally playfully, directing the conversation somewhere less loaded. But she still hopes her words are weighted, hopes Carmilla understands that she cares about more than she says.
“You saw the exhibit. Isn't that enough?”
“That's not really the same. That was so public. There were so many people there.” Laura's trying to find the words to express exactly how she feels about this, but they're eluding her. “It felt less personal,” is what she finally comes up with.
“I can understand that,” Carmilla says. “Seeing art with other people changes how you feel about it.”
“Exactly.” Laura smiles, catches Carmilla's eyes. It happens every time, but somehow Laura is still shocked with their intensity and depth. She wishes she could see the walls coming down. Wishes she could figure Carmilla out. She doesn't even know if it's possible.
“Then here,” Carmilla says. She reaches into the saddlebag, pulls out a spiral bound notebook and flips through it. It takes Laura a second to realize that it's not printed, but covered in paint, the original cover almost completely invisible under shades of rainbow. Carmilla stops at a page, looks at Laura, then holds the book out for her to see. “What about this?”
It's a sketch of Laura, sitting at a table, a cupcake held up between her fingers like it's a work of art and she's displaying it. Behind her are the swooping lines of a curved building, one Laura isn't sure exists, or could possibly exist. Or maybe it's not a building, but an undefined space where she exists timelessly. “Carmilla, this....” she trails off, lost in the pencil lines, in the shadows and textures.
“It's not much, and I had to do it from memory,” Carmilla says quickly. “But you asked to see something.”
“This is amazing.” Laura wishes language could capture how she feels. The drawing feels like her, like Carmilla has found a piece of her and captured it, has expressed something Laura has felt but never understood. Carmilla does this to Laura, makes the words she has seem pale and flimsy. “I love it.”
Carmilla takes the book back, and Laura watches her gently tear the drawing out. She feels like she should say no, tell Carmilla to keep it, but she wants so badly to look at it again. When Carmilla holds the page out to her she takes it like it's ice and if she mishandles it, it will shatter and melt away into nothing.
“Keep it,” Carmilla says, sliding the key into her engine.
“Thank you,” she says, eyes jumping from Carmilla, to the page, then back to Carmilla.
“I'm glad you like it.” She picks up her helmet, takes her seat on the bike. She looks like a piece of art herself, an elegant darkness in the streetlamps. The engine revvs and Laura steps backwards reflexively. “See you later cupcake,” Carmilla says.
Carmilla grins, slides the helmet on, and in a roar is gone, down the street and away.
Laura stands there for a minute. The motorcycle, the drawing, then Carmilla on the motorcycle – it's a lot for her to process all at once. As she returns to the bar, to her friends, she resolves to ask Carmilla to take her out on the motorcycle. Maybe it has something to do with the excitement of a motorcycle. Maybe it has everything to do with being close to Carmilla.
“I haven't seen you paint like this in a long time,” Will says, standing in front of her easel, staring at her latest work-in-progress. “What is going on?” He turns his gaze on Carmilla and she refuses to look at him. Instead she rubs her forehead, leaving a streak of yellow paint across her skin.
“Nothing,” she says.
“No there's definitely something up,” he says, pacing away from the easel, around the couch. “You've been like this for over a week now.”
She shakes her head. “I just feel different.”
“Mmmmhm.” His voice tells her that Will is not convinced, and Carmilla hopes he'll just drop it, leave her alone to her feelings and her paintings. “You're going to have to tell me eventually,” he says.
“Maybe.” It has become automatic for her to give him non-answers, to evade his questions. Carmilla knows he's doing his job, knows he wants what he believes is best for her, but that doesn't make her less frustrated with him. It's irrational, she knows, but she can't help it.
“Whatever you say. But you need to come talk to me, for real this time.”
Carmilla turns away from her easel and sits in the chair opposite Will. All of this is important so she tries to focus, to grasp and retain what Will's telling her, but the words slip through her mind like water.
“We have a meeting with the director of the Styrian Museum,” Will says. “This is important. You need to be there.”
“You say everything's important.” Carmilla picks up her sketchbook from the coffee table and flips it open to her last drawing. Already he's losing her attention, and she stares down at the lines on the page. There's something not quite right about Laura's hands. She studies it, then pulls the pencil from the spiral binding.
“Everything is important,” he says. “You're going to be there, right?”
“Yeah, I'll be there,” she says distractedly, bent over the sketchbook.
Will sighs and leans back against the couch, running one hand through his hair. “You've missed every meeting this week. What is going on?” he asks again. She doesn't respond, hardly listening anymore. He gives her five seconds of silence, then stands up and walks around to look over her shoulder.
“It's that reporter.”
She snaps the book shut and glares at him. “It's not your business.”
He backs off, hands up. “It isn't, so long as you show up to the meetings. You can't lose focus now – everything's changing for you.”
“Yes, okay,” Carmilla says impatiently. “I heard you the first hundred times.”
“I'm just worried. Things are different now. You're different now.”
“I said I'd be there,” she snaps.
Will picks up his jacket off the back of the couch, and slides it on. “Okay then. Oh, and your mother's flying in tomorrow. She says her flight lands at about four.”
Carmilla freezes, eyes looking blankly at the front of her sketchbook, back hunched. Will doesn't wait for a response, shutting the door behind him as he leaves. Everything around her turns pale. She drops the book on the table so she can bury her face in her hands, run fingers through her hair. Try to control her breathing. Try not to shake. The air closes in around her, dense, still, too thick for her to breathe in.
She washes her face, tries to clear the air around her. In the mirror her face looks pale, pointed, ghostlike. Not real. She scrubs the paint off her skin, like she can wash something away, something off of her. Her face reddens, her wrists turn raw. It doesn't make her feel any different. She snatches her keys off their hook and slams the door behind her.
Chapter 3: Silent
(Disclaimer: I don't know anything about any of this except for what I've googled and I'm very sorry for inaccuracies)
TW: self harm mention
“I saw you with her last night,” Lafontaine says, poking Laura. “We all saw you.”
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Laura says, red-faced. She takes a sip of her drink, trying to stop her cheeks from getting any redder. The Lustig is emptier than Saturday night, but there are still enough people that Laura can pretend to be more interested in someone else than what's going on at her table.
“Yeah, you've got a crush.” Lafontaine raises their eyebrows.
“I do not,” Laura mumbles, steadfastly not looking at them.
“C'mon, leave her alone,” Danny says. “Laura says she doesn't like Carmilla, she doesn't like Carmilla. Besides, Carmilla seemed edgy to me. She didn't want to talk about herself, which makes me think she's got something to hide.”
“We all have things we don't want people to know about us,” Perry says. “We should give Carmilla her privacy; we only just met her.”
Danny looks unsatisfied, but doesn't respond.
“Admit it, Laura,” Lafontaine says. “She took you to lunch every day this week and then last night you walked her out to your car. I saw the way you were looking at her.”
“We're just friends, is all.” Laura has tried not to think about her feelings for Carmilla. It's too complicated. When they're at lunch and Carmilla's teasing her about something, it's difficult to remember that she's world famous, that she has art in galleries all over the world, that each painting can go for thousands of dollars when they're sold, but then Carmilla offhandedly mentions something that she saw in Europe or Japan, or a gallery opening where she met people with more money than Laura could ever dream of, and everything comes crashing down, the divide between them reappearing.
“Mmmmhm.” Lafontaine doesn't say anything, but they still have that smug look on their face.
“I'm getting some fries,” Danny announces, sliding out of the booth. “Anyone want anything?”
“Fries for me too,” Lafontaine says, while Perry and Laura shake their heads.
The instant Danny is out of earshot Lafontaine turns to Laura. Laura prays silently that another interrogation is not on its way.
“Have you heard from her?” Lafontaine asks.
“Carmilla. After what happened with Danny last night, she seemed pretty upset.”
“No,” Laura says. “But she said it was fine when she left.”
“And you believed her?”
Laura hesitates. Carmilla had seemed sincere at the time, but it's true that she hasn't talked to Carmilla all day. Which, now that she thinks about it, is a little strange. But Carmilla has other obligations, Laura reminds herself. “I guess. It didn't feel like she was lying.”
“If you're sure,” they say.
Laura hasn't told any of them about the drawing, or about how sure she felt when Carmilla gave it to her. She doesn't know how Danny would react, and Lafontaine doesn't need any more encouragement.
“I'm sure she's fine,” Perry says. “She just needs a little space is all. She did seem pretty upset.”
Laura drifts out of the conversation as they turn to other topics, worried now that Carmilla really is avoiding her. She checks her phone, but it's as silent as ever.
“Earth to Laura, come in.” Danny waves her hand in front of Laura's eyes, and she jumps.
“I'm here,” she says, pulling herself back.
“You are now. Want some fries?”
Laura takes a fry from the plate Danny pushes in front of her. “Thanks.”
“No problem. What were you guys talking about?”
“Substandard laboratory specimens,” Lafontaine says, and Laura's glad they're not talking about Carmilla anymore. The last thing she needs is to confront Danny about anything, not when her world is rearranging itself. She tries to interest herself in the conversation, but instead eats most of Danny's fries, only half listening and worrying about Carmilla.
“We've got to go,” Perry says, looking at her watch. “It's getting late and we have work tomorrow.”
“I should probably go too,” Danny says, gathering up her jacket and looking at Laura. “You coming?”
“Uh yeah,” Laura says, but completely forgets what she was going to say next as she glances across the room. Sitting in the corner of the Lustig is Carmilla. She's alone, a half-empty drink on the table in front of her, an empty glass beside it. “I gotta go to the bathroom. I'll see you guys later.”
“Have a nice rest of your night,” Lafontaine calls, as they take Perry's hand and head for the door.
“You sure you don't want me to walk you to your car or something?” Danny asks. “I don't mind waiting.”
“No, I'll be okay,” Laura says, trying not to look like she's hiding something. She's not sure how well she's doing, but Danny backs down.
“If you're sure.” Danny leaves slowly, like she's waiting for Laura to call her back, but Laura instead picks up her own purse and jacket and crosses the bar towards Carmilla.
“Hey,” Laura says, sliding into the seat across from Carmilla.
She looks up, seemingly unsurprised to see Laura there. “Hey,” she says, and goes back to staring at her glass. Now that Laura's closer, Carmilla looks sad, eyes vacant, staring at something that's not there. This is the first time Laura thinks she's ever seen Carmilla look defeated in any way.
“You okay?” Laura asks, concerned.
Laura pauses. After the events of the night before and the radio silence today, she's cautious of pushing Carmilla too hard. “What's up?”
Carmilla shakes her head, saying, “Nothing.”
It's not hard to see that something is wrong. Even when she's closed off Laura can feel so much inside of her, like there are whole oceans she hasn't seen yet. Now Carmilla looks like she's in lockdown, stamped so far down that nobody can see her anymore. Laura doesn't know how to ask further, how to make sure that Carmilla really is okay. She hangs her purse and coat over the back of the chair.
“Are you sure?”
Carmilla pulls her hands off the table, puts them in her lap, like she's folding herself up. Her eyes meet Laura's, and it's shocking how blank and flat they are. “I'll be okay, sweetheart,” Carmilla says. The words are rote, empty of their usual teasing. She drains her cup, then returns her hands to her lap.
“Do you want me to go?” Laura asks.
There's a moment where Laura is convinced Carmilla is going to say yes, but instead she says, so softly Laura has a hard time hearing her, “No.”
They sit in silence for another minute. Usually silences feel strange to her, but this silence feels like companionship. Like her being there is enough.
“My mom's coming to visit,” Carmilla says, slightly louder than before.
“That'll be nice,” Laura says encouragingly.
Carmilla puts both arms on the table and sits forward, her eyes slipping from Laura to a point on the table, expressionless. “Yeah.” Her fingers move to her wrist, and Laura sees that she's not wearing her cuffs. Carmilla's wrists are thin without them, almost as though a piece of her is missing. Laura hadn't realized how much they were a part of Carmilla's image. She gives herself a wry smile. You never notice until it's gone.
The tips of Carmilla's fingers trace thin white scars along the inside of her wrist, running over them again and again like it's soothing. Like it's a habit. Laura watches her hands move from one arm to the other, her eyes still expressionless, fixed on the table.
Laura reaches out and takes Carmilla's hand. It's startling, how cold she is, and Laura wants to squeeze Carmilla's hand between her own until it is warm again. Carmilla lifts her eyes to Laura's.
“You can tell me anything,” Laura says. The words come from somewhere she can't find inside of her, and she hopes they're the right thing to say. They feel right.
Carmilla gives Laura a small, sad smile. “Thank you.” Her fingers tighten around Laura's, then she pulls back, running her fingers through her hair. “I should probably get home. It's getting late.”
“Not that late,” Laura says, reaching for her phone. “Nevermind.” It's nearing midnight.
Carmilla stands up and Laura follows suit, grabbing her jacket off the back of her chair. They're silent as they leave the mostly empty bar.
“See you around,” Carmilla says, turning away from Laura, but Laura reaches out to stop her.
“Let me drive you home.”
“I can get myself there,” Carmilla says, turning back and grinning.
“You were drinking.”
“Not a lot.”
“You really wanna risk it?”
For a second Carmilla doesn't respond. “Alright then.”
“My car's this way,” Laura says, starting down the sidewalk. She knows that alcohol is only half the reason she's driving Carmilla home. The other half is less clear. Maybe it's the look on Carmilla's face, the weird flatness in her eyes. Maybe Laura's worried.
The drive is quiet, Carmilla only talking to give Laura directions, but it doesn't feel resentful or angry. The same companionable silence has accompanied them out of the bar, and Laura likes sitting in silence with her; there's no pressure to force conversation.
“Pull over here,” Carmilla says, pointing, to a tall building on their right, and Laura noses the car up against the curb and puts it in park. Carmilla doesn't get out right away, but turns to Laura and says, “Thanks. For the ride.”
“Of course,” Laura says. “Anytime.”
It looks as though Carmilla's going to say something, but instead nods and gets out. The car idles while she unlocks the door to the building, then gives the car a wave. Laura waves back as the door closes behind her, then pulls away.
“I'm sorry,” Carmilla says, picking paint out from under her fingernails. It's always there these days, and she uses it as an excuse not to look at people. Will. Her mother.
“Darling, it was just such a long flight and I'd hoped so much to see you when I landed. How long has it been?”
“I don't remember,” Carmilla says.
“Three months at least,” her mother says. “Oh this is nice. You didn't tell me you were painting again.”
Carmilla looks around at where her mother stands in front of her latest painting. She'd slept til noon and then gotten up and just worked, trying to lose herself in art again. Then her phone was ringing and her mom was asking where she was. Carmilla had apologized, told her mom to get a cab and that she'd pay.
“Yeah,” she says. “I've been in the mood.”
“Oh speaking of painting, how did the opening go?”
“It went well.” Carmilla's mom looks so out of place in Carmilla's paint-splattered loft. She's tall, upright, wearing a business suit that's more than a little formal for the occasion. Carmilla can't remember a time when her mother wasn't dressed nicely. “Just another opening.”
“But your first since Amsterdam.”
Carmilla buries her face in her hands. Everybody's talking about Amsterdam, comparing this to what had happened there. She feels cornered. Even people she doesn't know are expecting the same behavior from her.
“Oh sweetie, I didn't mean it like that,” her mother says, sitting down on the couch and putting a hand on Carmilla's shoulder. “I'm proud of you.”
“I wish I could have been there,” her mother says. “I was so sorry to miss it.”
“Yeah, I'm sorry,” Carmilla says. “I couldn't get a ticket for you, I tried.” She hadn't tried as hard as she'd could have. She keeps that part to herself.
“You didn't even tell me about it,” her mother says. “William did. Do you know what it's like to hear something like that from him and not from my own daughter?”
“I'm sorry,” Carmilla repeats. “I just forgot.” Her fingers itch for her brushes.
“I don't understand how you could forget me,” her mother says. “Do I really mean so little to you?”
“No, no,” Carmilla says. “I'm really sorry, I am.”
“And then you didn't pick me up at the airport,” her mother continues.
Guilt crushes Carmilla from the inside. She should have invited her mother. She should have picked her up at the airport, she should have been a better daughter. It's never enough. She's never enough.
“And now your art is changing, and after what happened,” her mother says, her voice fading back into Carmilla's consciousness, “I feel like I don't know you anymore.”
“I'm still the same,” Carmilla says quietly.
“I wish you talked to me more. I'm your mother, I care about you.”
“I know.” Carmilla's phone buzzes before she can say anything else, and she picks it up from the coffee table. Laura's name flashes across the front, but Carmilla turns the screen off before reading the message.
“Who was that?”
“Nobody,” Carmilla says, hoping her mother believes her. Or at least that her mother won't ask more questions. Laura is a piece of her life she doesn't want to share yet.
“If you're sure,” her mother says. “But this is what I mean. You don't tell me about your paintings or your friends or what's happening in your life.”
Carmilla pulls her knees up to her chest, and counts slowly to ten in her head.
Her phone is still silent. It has been, for the most part, silent for the last three days. Laura checks it for what must be the sixth time in half as many minutes, but there's no new message, text or voice, from Carmilla.
“Looking at your phone isn't going to make it ring.”
Laura jumps almost a foot in the air and spins her chair around. Perry's standing behind her, eyebrows raised. “Geez Perry, you scared me!”
“I can see,” Perry says. “How's the piece coming?”
“It's good. I'll be done by tomorrow, I think.”
Perry nods. “We still need photographs. Can you set something up with Carmilla?”
“Sure.” Laura looks distractedly at her phone again. She wishes she knew what was up. She wishes Carmilla would talk to her. The last time she saw her.... “Can I leave a little early?” she asks, in a sudden fit of decisiveness.
“Now.” Laura's not waiting for Perry's answer, but standing and gathering her things.
“Thank you,” Laura says, moving quickly towards the door before Perry realizes what's happening and says no. “See you tomorrow!”
She doesn't think, just gets behind the wheel and drives, trying to remember the directions Carmilla had given her on Sunday night. There's an empty spot directly in front of Carmilla's building – or what Laura thinks is Carmilla's building – and Laura slowly maneuvers her car into it, every second reminding her of how much she hates parallel parking.
The building is tall, taller than Laura had realized when she'd dropped Carmilla off. The list of names and apartment numbers down the wall beside the door is almost dizzying, and Laura scans it, hoping she's in the right place. She spots Carmilla's name, but her finger hesitates over the buzzer. Maybe Carmilla's fine and Laura's overreacting. Maybe Carmilla doesn't want to see her anymore and that's why she's not texting. Laura doesn't move, scenarios racing through her mind. She hears a click, and the door to the building swings open, a man pushing past her.
Before she knows what she's doing, Laura grabs the door handle and pulls it back open just enough for her to slip inside. She climbs the stairs to the third floor, telling herself that she should turn around, that if Carmilla wanted to see her, she would have called. The hallway on the third floor is empty, the lights bright. She counts the numbers on the doors as she passes. 305..... 306...... 307. It looks exactly like any other door. Maybe I have the wrong number, Laura tells herself, hands still by her sides. Maybe I'm misremembering. She raises her hand, steels her nerves, and knocks. There's no response, and it crosses her mind that Carmilla might not be at home. The thought hadn't occurred to her among all her other worries, and she stands there for another half-second before knocking again. There's still no reply, and Laura makes to leave.
She hears a sound behind her, and turns around to see Carmilla opening the door. Her face brightens when she sees Laura, then her eyes widen. “Laura.”
“Oh hey,” Laura says. “I haven't heard from you in a couple days and I wanted to check in. Is everything okay?” Now that she's talking, the words feel awkward, almost invasive, but Carmilla doesn't look like she feels the same.
“Yeah everything's fine,” Carmilla says. Laura expects Carmilla to invite her in, but instead she keeps the door mostly closed.
“Are you sure?”
Carmilla is about to answer when someone calls from inside the loft, “Carmilla darling, who is it?”
“It's just a friend,” Carmilla calls back. Laura's heart slows at the word, but she tells herself that she has no reason to expect more than that.
“Well, don't leave them standing out in the hallway,” the voice says.
It is like the life drains out of Carmilla's face. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, then steps back, opening the door wider. “Come in.”
Laura steps cautiously through the door and into Carmilla's loft. Everything is covered in paint. The walls, the floor, the furniture, even the windows are splattered with color. In the center of the room is a couch, a coffee table, and a set of chairs. To the left is a kitchen area – also paint-covered, and behind it is a curtain, pushed halfway open. Through it Laura can see the corner of a bed. Around every other wall are paintings and tables covered in brushes and open paints. A woman is sitting on the couch, looking at the door. Out of everything in the room, she alone is pristine and paint-free. It looks as though she was pasted in from a completely different world.
“Hello,” she says as Laura steps in. Carmilla shuts the door and her eyes shift over Laura's shoulder. “Are you going to introduce us?”
Carmilla steps around Laura, so she's standing between her and the woman. “Mom, this is Laura. Laura, this is my mother.”
“It's nice to meet you Mrs Karnstein,” Laura says, stepping forward and holding out her hand. Carmilla's mother takes it, her own hand icy cold, almost like Carmilla's. But Carmilla's hand held the promise of warmth, and this hand feels like it has never been warm.
“It's nice to meet you too,” Mrs Karnstein says, drawing back and taking her seat on the couch again. “I don't often get to meet Carmilla's friends.”
“Oh?” Laura looks at Carmilla for guidance, but she's still standing where she was, expressionless. Or rather, not expressionless. Underneath her enforced impassiveness is something else, and it takes Laura a moment to put a finger on it.
“Why don't you come sit down?” Mrs Karnstein says, gesturing to one of the chairs.
It's anxiety. It's fear. It's something in between the two and more than both. Carmilla's eyes snap up to meet Laura's and Laura changes the word on the tip of her tongue. “Actually I came by to get Carmilla.”
“Are you going out?” Mrs Karnstein asks, sitting up a little straighter.
“Yeah,” Laura says, her resolve strengthened by the look of surprised relief that Carmilla gives her. “Didn't we have plans?”
“We did, I totally forgot,” Carmilla says.
“What're you up to?” Mrs Karnstein looks curiously between Laura and Carmilla.
This question Carmilla leaves for Laura, who frantically wracks her brain for a believable answer. “We need to talk about.... photographs,” is what she finally comes up with.
“Laura works for a local arts magazine. It's not a big deal, Mom, but I do have to go.”
Mrs Karnstein stands up, a little confused, as Carmilla ushers her towards the door. “You didn't tell me your art was going to be featured in a magazine,” she says.
“Yeah, it's not a big deal,” Carmilla says, opening the door for Laura and her mother, then following them out, keys dangling from her fingers. “I'll see you later,” she says when they reach the sidewalk, climbing into the passenger seat of Laura's car.
“It was nice to meet you,” Laura calls, and Carmilla's mother waves back. The door slams shut behind her and she turns on the engine, pulling away from the curb without looking at Carmilla.
“Where are we going?”
“I don't care,” Carmilla says, and Laura doesn't push her for an answer. Carmilla stares out the windows at the passing cars, fingers tapping against the leather cuffs around her arms. Laura reaches over and turns the radio on, swapping the station through to the shittiest pop music she can find, then turns the volume up. Carmilla gives Laura a look, but doesn't turn the volume down and smiles when she thinks Laura isn't looking.
It takes them twenty minutes to get across town in the rush hour traffic, and finally Laura pulls into a parking spot and turns the car off.
“Where are we?” Carmilla asks.
“One of my favorite places,” Laura says. “Come on.”
The park is starting to empty out, as the kids who'd spent the afternoon there go home for dinner. Laura knows they'll be back, but it's quiet for now. Quieter than it would have been all afternoon at least. The bench she likes is set a little ways back from the path, under a tree so big that Laura and Carmilla holding hands would reach barely halfway around it.
Laura sits, pulling Carmilla down beside her.
“What is this place?”
“I like to come here after work sometimes,” Laura says. “It's nice. A break from everything else.”
“It's pretty,” Carmilla agrees, then falls silent. Silence has characterized their interaction since Sunday night.
“Are you okay?” Laura asks again.
A squirrel dashes in front of them, pauses, then runs around the bench and up the tree. Carmilla watches it disappear into the leaves before looking back at Laura. “Yeah, of course I am,” she says. Her hands twist around each other, fingers reaching under her cuffs. “I'm fine.” This is quieter, like she's trying to convince herself they're true.
Choosing words to respond is difficult. They all feel meaningless or cliché. Laura reaches out to take her hand, still her fingers. Carmilla lets Laura turn her hand over, trace the scars with her thumb. Finally, Laura says, again, “It doesn't always have to be okay.”
“You will never believe the call I just got,” Will says, opening the door to Carmilla's apartment and walking in.
“Doesn't anyone knock anymore?” she asks in frustration, putting her brush down and glowering at him over her easel.
He ignores her response. “Guess.”
“Okay fine then, I'll tell you. The Styrian National Gallery wants you to be their artist in residence,” Will says. “You, Carmilla, you.”
Carmilla's mind goes blank with shock. The Styrian National Gallery. “Wait,” she says, looking at him suspiciously. “I didn't apply.”
“They're offering it to you, no application required,” Will says. “This is huge, bigger than the Silas Gallery.”
“Wow.” Carmilla doesn't have anything else to say.
“I don't know how to express how big this is.”
“What about a sports reference?” she says sarcastically, but it goes over his head.
“This is like... winning the world series. This is big.”
“So you said.” She flops down on her couch and stares up at the ceiling. The Styrian National Gallery. “What would you do?” she asks. “As my manager, I mean.”
“Oh there's gonna be plenty,” Will says. He never was one for sitting still, and he walks around the room as he talks. “You have art showing other places, I'll handle all of that for you. This means you're the best of the best. You have to go.”
“I don't have to do anything,” Carmilla slings back, almost out of habit. “I'll think about it.” Except she's thinking about Laura instead, about how she'd have to move and leave Laura behind. It's not like she was going to be here much longer anyway, she tells herself. This was just to go to the gallery opening, just for meetings. She knows Will is itching to leave, to go back home.
“You'll think about it?” Will asks, aghast. “Think about it? Why would you ever say no?”
“Give me some time,” she says.
“Only an idiot would say no.”
The doorknob turns and clicks open and Carmilla hears her mother's familiar footsteps. She doesn't move. The ceiling is much less stressful and confusing to look at.
“Hello darling,” her mother says, shutting the door. “William! It's so good to see you.”
“It's good to see you too,” he says, but he still sounds frustrated.
“Is something the matter?”
“No,” Carmilla says, at the same time that Will says, “Yes.”
“Carmilla has been offered a residency at the Styrian National Gallery.”
“Oh that's wonderful!” Her mother sounds genuinely excited, and Carmilla can picture the smile on her face.
“She hasn't said yes.”
“What?” Her mother crosses the room and looks down at Carmilla, who shifts her eyes from the ceiling to her mother's face. “What is this nonsense about you not taking it?”
“I haven't said no. I just said I'd think about it.”
“Why would you not? Isn't this everything you've ever wanted?”
Carmilla sits up and buries her face in her hands. Everything is getting so confusing. Laura, Will, her mother, her art, and now this offer. “I don't know,” she mumbles into her palms.
“Darling,” her mother says, tone slightly more gentle. Carmilla feels a hand on her shoulder, then her mother sits on the couch beside her. “This is such an amazing opportunity.”
“I know it is,” Carmilla sighs.
“Things like this happen once in a lifetime; they're offering you an incredibly prestigious position.”
“I was just telling her,” Will cuts in. “It's impossible to say no to something like this.”
“I'd have to move,” Carmilla says. She knows it's a lame excuse. She'd be leaving soon anyway, but she's not sure she has a home anymore. Her other apartment is stale and lifeless, her work is in her studio instead of her living room. Separate from the rest of her.
“You're not going to stay here forever,” her mother says. “I'm not even sure why you keep this place.”
“I just like it.” She can't express why she likes the apartment. She spent three months living here before her art became famous, and then just never stopped paying rent. It feels like a piece of her art now, and she can't bring herself to let go of it.
“It's a waste of money,” her mother says.
“I should probably go,” Will says. “But see if you can convince her.”
“I will,” her mother says.
Carmilla doesn't look up when he closes the door.
“They're going out of their way to offer you this,” her mother says. “They could have picked anyone. And they picked you. Do you understand what that means?”
“Yes!” Carmilla knows immediately that she's screwed up. She looks sideways at her mother, whose expression has gone from concerned to affronted.
“Don't use that tone with me.”
“I'm sorry,” Carmilla says, trying desperately to backtrack.
“You can't throw everything you've worked for away, everything I've worked for away. Do you know how hard I worked to support you in this?”
“Yes, I know, I'm sorry.” Every time, every time her mother visits, this happens. Carmilla wants to curl up, play loud music and forget she exists.
“Don't talk to me like I'm one of your friends. I'm your mother.”
“I'm sorry.” There's nothing else she can say that will make a difference.
“And remember what happened last time?” her mother says.
“I remember.” Carmilla tries to keep herself in the present, keep herself where she is and not fall back into her memories.
“I don't want it to be like that again. You ended up with nothing, and this time there's not even a girl involved.”
Carmilla nods, trying not to think about Laura. There is a girl. A girl who made Carmilla finally feel okay, like she could be real again. “There's not a girl.”
“See? You've worked your whole life for this. You can't give it up now.”
“Right.” Carmilla's hands are around her wrists, retracing her scars. Her mother watches, and Carmilla doesn't look at her. It would be worse even than remembering.
“I just want you to be okay,” her mother says. “I only want what's best for you, you know that.”
Carmilla nods. She doesn't trust herself to speak right now, can't think of anything she could possibly say.
Her mother leans in and presses a kiss to Carmilla's forehead. “You should be happy. Maybe this will make you happy.”
Her wrists remember how Laura's fingers felt. Like acceptance. Maybe like a home. “Yeah.”
Chapter 4: Admission
She should have seen this coming. She should have seen it coming from the moment she pushed open the door to the Lustig.
“So are you going to see her again?” Lafontaine asks, leaning over the table. Laura slides down her chair, trying to seem smaller. It's not working as well as she hoped.
“I don't know,” she says. “Probably.” Lafontaine has been interrogating her about Carmilla from the instant she sat down. Perry had told them about Laura's disappearance from work, and Lafontaine had immediately jumped to the conclusion that Laura had gone to see Carmilla. The fact that they were right did not help Laura's situation.
“Probably?” Danny asks.
“I think you mean, for sure,” Lafontaine says.
“I mean we don't have any definite plans,” Laura says. “But maybe. Her mom's in town so she's been busy lately.” Laura doesn't tell them the details about the last time she saw Carmilla, about how Carmilla's hand felt in hers.
“You're definitely gonna see her again,” Lafontaine says. Perry isn't here to restrain Lafontaine's questions, and Laura silently wishes that printing layouts weren't so finicky and frustrating. And that the magazine had a better layout designer.
“Don't you have better things to do than interrogate me?” Laura asks.
“I'm not interrogating you,” Lafontaine protests. “I'm just pointing out the truth.”
“She and Laura are friends, that's it,” Danny says, a shadow of hostility in her voice.
“A little more than friends,” Lafontaine says with a smirk. “You like her.”
“I do not,” Laura says halfheartedly. It's getting harder and harder to deny it, especially to herself.
“Mmmhm.” They sit back, looking skeptical.
“What are we, in high school?” Laura asks, trying to turn the conversation in at least a slightly different direction.
“Some things never change,” Lafontaine says. “This is one of them.”
“Can we please act like adults here?” Danny asks. “Laura's right.”
“It's hard to act like an adult when you're in love.”
“I'm not in love with her!” Laura says. “I don't know how I feel about her. Maybe I like her, but I haven't known her that long.”
“Sometimes it doesn't take that long to know about somebody.”
Laura stares at her drink, her eyes unfocussed. She wishes that saying she maybe likes Carmilla didn't give her that little nervous fluttery feeling in her stomach, didn't make her want to call Carmilla again, just to hear her voice. She pretends she can't feel it, because liking Carmilla is too complicated, too confusing. She's not even sure Carmilla likes her back, and thinking about that makes her more anxious than she's ready to accept. Deep down though, pieces of her admit that maybe she does like her, and no matter how hard she stamps down on them, they won't be silent.
Danny looks between the two of them, Laura lost in thought and Lafontaine smiling smugly across the table at her. “C'mon guys, really?” She turns to Laura, bumping her shoulder. “You've known her for two weeks. At most. How much do you really know about her? Do you even know who she is?”
“I don't know,” Laura says, pushing her glass away.
“Danny's just jealous,” Lafontaine says teasingly, but Danny flushes.
“I am not. I just think Laura should be careful.”
Laura looks curiously at her. She and Danny have always been close, and when they'd first met Laura had tested the waters, but Danny had never given her any reason to think.... Danny glances over.
“I just care about you. I just want you to be safe,” she says.
“I think I can decide that for myself.” Laura is suddenly and inexplicably angry, angry with Danny for something she can't even put into words. The tension between them could be cut with a knife.
Lafontaine leans forward. “I was joking. There's no need to get upset about it.”
“I think I'm gonna go,” Laura says, standing up. “I'll see you later.”
“No, Laura, come back,” Danny calls, but Laura's gone, leaving her unfinished drink abandoned on the table.
Laura pushes the door of the Lustig open and almost walks straight into Perry, who steps backwards out of her way.
“Sorry,” Laura says hastily.
“You should look where you're going,” Perry says, frowning at her. Her frown softens into worry at the look on Laura's face. “Are you okay?”
“I'm fine, I just need some air. Lafontaine and Danny are still here though.”
“If you're sure,” Perry says, looking doubtful.
“I'm fine.” Laura steps around her, leaving a path to the door clear. “See you.” She hurries away. Even Perry's well-intended concern feels smothering right now. Everything's so tangled, Carmilla wrapped up in art and work and Danny. It feels like the old and the new are colliding inside her and she can't figure out how to sort them into something that makes sense.
Laura gets into her car, locking the doors behind her, then just sits there. She hasn't turned the key. She's not even sure where she wants to go. With a groan, Laura buries her face in her hands. She does like Carmilla, she has to admit it. Maybe it's easier to do that alone, instead of surrounded by people. Lafontaine's voice echoes in her mind, sometimes it doesn't take that long to know. They could always see right through her.
Before she really knows what she's doing, her phone is in her hand. With each ring, she becomes progressively more convinced that Carmilla's not going to pick up the phone, and Laura can't tell if she even wants her to. It would be so much easier to go home and bury her nose in a book or a crappy sci-fi movie or -
“Hey.” Laura is thankful Carmilla can't see her face through the phone line.
“I was just wondering if you wanted to hang out,” Laura says, trying to steady her voice. She feels like a teenager again, all shaking hands and nervous confusion.
“What do you want to do?” Carmilla asks. Over the phone Laura can't gauge Carmilla's emotions – so much is in her body language.
“I don't know,” Laura says, then, seized again by impulse, “We could hang out at my place.”
“Sure. Text me the address and I'll be there.”
There's a click as Carmilla hangs up the phone, and Laura's left with the dialtone ringing in her ear. She texts Carmilla the address before shutting her phone and tossing it into the passenger seat. The car's engine turns, catches, and she tries not to think about the fact that she just invited Carmilla over as she drives back to her apartment. Instead she skirts around it, thinking only in the abstract so it's less overwhelming, so the fluttering in her stomach doesn't rise into her hands, her breath, her throat.
Her apartment is mostly clean, but she nervously organizes her living room, trying to make it look less like she'd spent a lot of time sitting around doing nothing and more like a shared social space. Laura stacks the dishes in the sink and runs a towel over the counter. It looks fine, she knows it does, but before she has time to get really worried about first impressions, the doorbell rings.
Carmilla smiles when Laura opens the door. “Hey.” She still looks worn out, tired, perhaps a little more than last time. Her smile seems real enough.
“Hey,” Laura says, stepping aside and holding the door open. “Come on in.”
Carmilla looks around with interest as she enters, and Laura's relieved she had a couple minutes to straighten up before Carmilla arrived.
“Do you want a drink?” she asks, shutting the door and hurrying around Carmilla to the kitchen. “I have...” she trails off. Her drink selection is mostly nonalcoholic. “Orange juice, grape soda, and some wine. It's not very good wine.” She looks up at Carmilla.
“Just grape soda is fine,” Carmilla says, amused, and Laura pulls two cans from the fridge, hip checking it closed, and hands one to Carmilla.
“Thanks,” Carmilla says.
They fall into silence, and Carmilla looks down at the papers spread across the coffee table. Laura pops open her soda and takes a sip, trying to calm her nerves. Now that Carmilla's here, she's not sure what to say, or what to do. Inviting her was a spur of the moment idea. She hadn't thought much beyond the actual invitation.
“How's your mother?” Laura asks, finally.
Carmilla doesn't look at her when she answers. “Fine.”
“When's she leaving?”
This time Carmilla does look at Laura, away from the open magazines and article drafts piled haphazardly in front of her. “I don't know. Soon, maybe.” She pops her own drink open.
Carmilla does seem sadder than the last time they'd seen each other. Laura thinks she can see it in the way Carmilla moves her shoulders, the way she holds the drink softly between her fingers. Like she can't figure out how to grip it properly.
“You have fish?” she says, bending over to peer into the fish tank sitting on Laura's bookshelf.
“Yeah,” Laura responds. “Why do you sound so surprised?”
“You just don't seem like the type of person to have fish.”
Laura laughs, moving to stand beside Carmilla in front of the tank. “I'm not always that great about pets, and fish are fairly low-maintenance. And less expensive.” She puts her finger against the glass. “That's Sarah Jane, and the one hiding behind the rock is Natalie. I have a snail in here somewhere too.”
“Does it have a name?” Carmilla asks, amused.
“I call him JP.”
“Those don't seem like very fish-y names,” Carmilla says, still looking at the fish, drifting around in the water.
“No, but they're easy to remember.” Laura looks over at Carmilla, absorbed in the little world on the shelf. “What about you? Do you have a pet?”
“No,” Carmilla says, standing up straight and looking instead at the books on the shelf above the fish. “I always wanted a cat though. A black one.”
“Why don't you?” Laura asks, and Carmilla trails her fingers along the spines of the books as she walks beside them.
“I travel too much.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Laura says.
Carmilla stops, staring out the glass door onto Laura's empty balcony. “May I?” she asks, one hand on the sliding door. Laura nods, and Carmilla slides the door open to step outside.
Laura follows the rush of cold air out the door and joins Carmilla by the railing. Together they look up at the stars, faded by the street lights, but still visible.
“They're beautiful,” Carmilla says. “We're so small in comparison. Everything we are, all the lives we've led.....” she takes a deep breath before finishing, “it's nothing to that light.”
“So you're a philosopher too,” Laura says, finishing her soda and setting it on the railing.
Carmilla doesn't respond, then after a moment says, “It's comforting sometimes.”
Laura pauses to gather her thoughts, watches Carmilla stare up into the sky, the stars reflected in her pupils, around the edges of her irises. A quiet, misty sadness surrounds her, settling on her cheeks and her eyelids, the crevices between her fingers. Carmilla's cuffs are wrapped around her wrists, the metal clips glittering.
“Are you okay?” she asks. She remembers the way Carmilla had looked in her apartment with her mother, the way Carmilla had sat in the car, had looked empty-eyed across the park.
“I'm fine,” Carmilla replies.
She's not fine, Laura feels it in the air, hears it in her voice, sees it on her face. She doesn't know how to broach the subject or what to say that will make anything better. Sometimes things can't be made better, but it is all Laura can do not to beg Carmilla to let her try.
Laura feels like she's in college all over again, like she's a teenager with a crush, instead of an adult. Danny was right, Laura doesn't know Carmilla. She doesn't know Carmilla's past, or her history with her mother, or what all of her life has been like. But Lafontaine was right too. Laura knows how to make Carmilla laugh and smile, she knows the way Carmilla sits when she's nervous, the way her hands move when she talks. Being around her makes Laura feel like herself, feel totally and completely at ease.
“Carmilla,” Laura says, reaching for Carmilla's hand where it lies on the railing. When they touch, Carmilla finally looks at her. Laura's heart flutters into her throat and she tries to keep her hands from shaking. It turns out that crushes are the same no matter her age, and Laura had never been great at handling them. She takes a deep breath, trying to rally her courage and fit her voice around the nervousness building up on her tongue. Just as she's about to open her mouth and speak, Carmilla pulls away.
“I've got to go,” she says quickly, like the words were trapped behind her lips and she's finally letting them out.
“Wait,” Laura says, following her into the apartment, but Carmilla doesn't respond, instead picking up her jacket from the back of the chair, and sliding her arms into it.
“Thanks,” Carmilla says, stepping towards the door.
“You just got here,” Laura protests, but Carmilla doesn't stop moving.
“I know, I'm sorry,” she says, and then Carmilla is gone. Laura hears her motorcycle start up and collapses onto the couch.
It takes Carmilla longer than expected to find the restaurant, and when she finally does, she has to park her motorcycle several blocks away. She was already late when she left her apartment, and she tries not to think about what time it is. The hostess nods when Carmilla mentions her mother's name, and points across the room.
Carmilla slides into the seat across from her mother, trying to control her breathing. Her mother frowns over the menu, lips pursed, though Carmilla can't tell if it's her lateness or her clothes of which her mother disapproves. She had made no effort to dress in clothing her mother might consider appropriate.
“I'm sorry,” Carmilla says, putting her bag on the floor under the table, out of sight. “I got distracted, I really didn't mean to be late.”
“And I see you didn't have time to change. Or maybe you didn't have the inclination,” her mother says.
Carmilla doesn't respond, but instead picks up the menu, looking around at the restaurant. She would never voluntarily come to a place like this, but her mother fits right into white tablecloth background and cool piano music. Every item on the menu is over twenty dollars.
“Are you ready to order?” a waiter asks. Carmilla picks something at random and asks for a water. Her mother orders something with an absurd name and an even more absurd price. The waiter floats away, and Carmilla feels her mother's attention return.
“Who did you go out with last night?”
Carmilla shrugs, tugging on her sleeves. Today she's traded out her plain leather cuffs for studded ones, her sleeves tucked beneath them. “Nobody in particular.”
Her mother's eyes narrows, and Carmilla hopes she doesn't look too guilty. She's not exactly sure why she feels guilty, but somehow she does.
“Was it that girl?”
“What girl?” Carmilla asks. She knows it will make her mother angry, that her mother will know Carmilla's playing with her, but Laura is a subject Carmilla doesn't want to address.
As expected, her mother's eyes narrow fractionally in anger. “The girl I met the other day. Laura, right?”
“Oh right. Yeah,” Carmilla says, shrugging. A waiter arrives, places their drinks on the table in front of them. Water beads on the outside of the glasses and runs down the sides, collecting on the pale tablecloth. Carmilla picks hers up just to have something to do with her hands.
“Are you....” her mother hesitates, like she's looking for the right phrasing. “Involved with her?”
“No, she's just a reporter.”
“You know you can tell me anything,” her mother says.
It's true that Carmilla isn't involved with Laura, but Laura is not just a reporter. She resists the urge to touch her wrists, instead running her thumb over the outside of the cup, collecting water against her skin.
“Darling,” her mother says, leaning forward and touching Carmilla's hand. Carmilla looks up at her and she smiles. It's so real. “I only want the best for you.”
Carmilla smiles back, a small one, but it too is real. Her mother loves her, she knows this, she can see it. So she shrugs and says, “Honestly, Mom, nothing's going on.”
“But you like her?”
Her mother can always tell, she can always sense when something is happening, when Carmilla isn't being quite truthful. Carmilla takes a deep breath, lets Laura run through her head like a river. Laura smiling, Laura laughing, the way Laura looked when she was being teased and the way she looked when she was serious. Carmilla isn't sure how Laura feels. She involuntarily runs along her thigh, the raised scars barely there through her jeans. Laura had touched her wrist, but it could have been from fascination or comfort or any number of things Carmilla doesn't want to think about. Laura is standing in the sun and Carmilla hides in the shadows. It's so much easier if nothing is happening, but she can't lie to her mother. All it takes is a look.
“You do like her.”
Carmilla shrugs again, an automatic response. “Maybe a little, but does it matter?” She hates admitting things to her mom. She hates admitting things at all.
“Sweetie, you remember what happened last time,” her mother says.
It's a statement, not a question. Her mother knows she could never forget. Carmilla doesn't look at her, but she nods, slightly. She knows her mother will see it.
Her mother says, “I don't think it's good for you to get into a relationship right now. You're traveling and going to openings again, you've gotten this offer for a residency, everything is going so well. Your career is on track, even after what happened in Amsterdam. You can't risk that.”
Carmilla looks at her, finally. She wishes the concern on her mother's face wasn't genuine. She wishes she could believe that her mother didn't care. “I know what happened, Mom. I don't want it to happen again either.”
Her mother nods, taking a sip of her drink. “I don't want you to get hurt.”
“Yeah.” Laura doesn't hurt though. Laura is the only painless thing in her life right now, the only painless thing she has found in longer than she cares to name. Carmilla can't remember the last time she was as happy, as calm, as fulfilled as she is when Laura is around.
“I have seen so much of this, darling. I just want to keep you safe. I'm worried that you're not in a place for a relationship.”
“She probably doesn't even like me,” Carmilla says. “You don't have to worry about it, I can handle myself.”
“Are you sure? After Elle, after everything, you were so bad, I was so worried for you.” Her mother's eyes track Carmilla's wrists, the cuffs there, and Carmilla is overcome by a pale, scar-red shame. It doesn't fade, but lingers like a fog.
“I'm okay now.” She is marked, she is damaged goods. Even Carmilla isn't sure she likes herself; how could Laura? And even if Laura did, how could Carmilla let her? There has not been a single person Carmilla loved who she didn't hurt.
“Maybe you should stop seeing her,” her mother says. “Have you told her about the residency yet?”
“No. And I'm not seeing her.” Carmilla's phone rings from under the table and her mother raises her eyebrows. “Sorry,” Carmilla says, fishing it out of her bag and looking at the screen.
“Is that her?” her mother asks. It's uncanny, how she knows these things, how she can guess from the expression on Carmilla's face.
“You should tell her,” her mother says.
Carmilla slides her thumb over the surface and puts it to her ear. “Hey,” she says, sharply conscious of her mother's presence.
“Hey!” Laura's voice is higher than usual, tinny through the phone line. “So I have a proof of the article if you want to go over it. Are you free?”
Carmilla looks at her mother before saying, “I'm actually busy right now. What about coffee tomorrow?”
“Sounds great,” Laura says. “I'll pick you up at eleven.”
“See you then.”
Her mother watches Carmilla lower the phone from her ear. “You can't put this off forever.”
Carmilla looks down as Laura's name blinks off the screen. “I know.”
The coffee shop is mostly empty when they walk in. Laura has grown used to Carmilla's silence, but this silence feels different, like a chasm instead of comfort. They take a table by the window and Laura pulls out the article, offering it to Carmilla.
“Here,” she says. “It's mostly finished – just minor brush up work left, but I wanted to know if you had any thoughts.”
Carmilla takes the pages, glances over the first one. “I'm not a writer. I don't know anything about this,” she says.
“I know. But the article is about you after all, so I just thought you might want to see it.”
Carmilla gives her a little grin, then peruses the article. Their coffees arrive, and Laura busies herself with it, trying not to watch Carmilla. It's unnerving to have someone read her work right in front of her.
“What do you think?” Laura asks as Carmilla looks up at her again, laying the pages on the table.
“I like it.”
“You've gotta give me more than that,” Laura says, almost plaintively, and Carmilla smiles, wider this time.
She does have more to say about it, and as she points out passages she likes she grows more animated. Laura's glad to finally see Carmilla looking anything but sad, or stressed, or empty.
“For all that you say you're not a writer, you certainly seem to know a lot about writing,” Laura says, and Carmilla raises her hands.
“I just like words,” she says. “Not a writer.”
“Sure you're not,” Laura says playfully, turning the papers back towards her.
“Was that the type of more you were looking for?” Carmilla asks, reaching for her coffee.
“Yes, exactly,” Laura says. “Thank you.”
Carmilla nods, but doesn't say anything else.
“How've you been?” Laura asks. She wants to talk about the other night, on her balcony, the way Carmilla had run off. To tell the truth, she hadn't even been sure that Carmilla would agree to have coffee with her, and Laura doesn't know how to bring it up.
“I'm fine,” Carmilla says. By now Laura has identified this as a rote response, automatic, and inevitably untrue.
“Are you sure?” Laura takes a deep breath before continuing, “You left pretty quickly the other night. Is everything okay?”
Carmilla has lost her animation, returned to a still state, face falling into expressionlessness. “Yes,” she says. She lays her hands flat on the table, staring at the backs of them.
Laura gathers herself up, trying to figure out how to say what she wants to say. She reaches out to touch Carmilla's hand, try to get her attention. After a second, Carmilla withdraws it. She doesn't look at Laura.
Laura swallows the words she'd been preparing to say and slides the papers towards her, just for something to do.
“I got a residency,” Carmilla says. “With the Styrian National Gallery.”
“What?” The words filter through Laura's mind and she tries to connect them together. That means Carmilla's leaving. Laura doesn't even care to think about how far the Styrian National Gallery is from here, how far away Carmilla will be going.
Carmilla puts her hands on the table, fiddling with her fingers. “Yeah.”
“That's gotta be...” Laura trails off, looking for the words. The Styrian National Gallery is one of the top art galleries in the world. People work their whole lives for a chance to have even one piece shown, much less a residency.
“I believe 'prestigious' is the word people use,” Carmilla says.
Carmilla smiles at Laura. “Wow.” she echoes.
“I mean.... that's amazing,” Laura says. “That's an incredible opportunity.”
“So everybody keeps telling me.”
Laura shuffles the pages of the article between her thumbs. She'd imagined admitting her feelings, despite what had happened on the balcony, but now.... she couldn't possibly say anything like that, even if she could work up the courage.
“You don't seem happy about it,” Laura says.
“I wasn't expecting it.” Carmilla watches Laura's fingers play with the paper. “It's great, I know it is, but I'd have to change my whole life. I'm not really sure I'm ready for that.”
“When does it start?”
“I don't know exactly,” Carmilla says. “Sometime soon. They didn't give me a whole lot of warning. Probably two weeks. Maybe three.”
Laura wishes she could say something, but no matter how she feels, she can't stand in the way of Carmilla's life, even if Carmilla did like her. Laura wants to bury her face in her hands. Instead she tries to smile.
“You should say yes,” she says, trying to make her enthusiasm sound as real as possible. It's true that she's happy for Carmilla, that she's excited Carmilla got that kind of offer. Only the selfish part of her is upset.
Carmilla nods, picking up her mostly empty coffee cup and draining it. “Maybe I will. It's a once in a lifetime thing, Will keeps telling me.”
“He's right,” Laura says. She stamps down on the part of her that wants to go back to her balcony, to the words left unsaid there. Carmilla had left, had run away from her. The memory is gut wrenching, and Laura tries not to let it show.
“He usually is,” Carmilla says, her voice flattening.
“That's amazing,” Laura repeats. “I'm so excited for you.” The words feel thin, but Carmilla has become unreadable to her, and she can't tell if it's coming across as genuine.
They sit in silence for another moment. Carmilla turns her empty coffee cup between her fingers. Laura shuffles the edges of the paper again, straightening the already straight pile. She can't think of anything else to say that will sound even a little bit right. Her phone buzzes against the table and she picks it up, relieved to have something to do with her hands.
“It's Perry,” she says. “I've got to go, I'm sorry.”
“No problem,” Carmilla says, putting down the coffee cup with a clatter.
Laura picks up her bag and slides her phone into it. She wishes she could think of something to say, something meaningful, but her mind feels empty, still trying to process the fact that Carmilla is leaving.
Carmilla doesn't move except to watch Laura stand. Laura is so used to being at eye level with her that this feels unnatural. Distant.
“Maybe I'll see you around, cupcake,” Carmilla says. The nickname is halfhearted, but Laura smiles anyway.
“Sure,” she says. “Bye.”
Laura doesn't look back as she walks out the door of the coffee shop, the bell ringing in her ears as she steps into the sunlight.
Chapter 5: Confessional
Laura doesn't notice Lafontaine until they tap her on the shoulder. She looks up from where she'd been staring, blank-eyed, at her computer screen.
“Hey.” Lafontaine grins down at her.
“How're you?” Laura asks, trying to make herself think about what's going on.
“Pretty good,” Lafontaine begins. They pause, looking critically at Laura. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” It doesn't sound convincing even to Laura.
“No you're not. What's up?” Lafontaine asks. “You've been completely out of it for the past week.”
Laura shakes her head. “It's nothing, really.”
“How do you always know?”
“I just do,” Lafontaine says, and when Laura raises her eyebrows, continues, “You're not that hard of a person to read.”
Laura groans, laying her head on her desk. “This sucks.”
“You should just tell her how you feel,” Lafontaine says, but Laura shakes her head again, more emphatically this time.
“This is so incredible for her though, and I'm not anybody to get in the way of her life.”
“She got a residency with the Styrian National Gallery.”
“Damn.” Lafontaine seems not to know what to say for a moment, the corners of their mouth turning down as they consider this. “That's awesome.”
“Well, does she like you?” Lafontaine asks, looking back at Laura.
Laura hesitates, trying not to catch their eye. “I don't know,” she finally says. “I can never tell. You know I've never been good at these things.”
“I guess you've got to figure that out then,” Lafontaine says. “Because if she does like you, but she thinks that you don't like her, and you never tell her that you like her.....” they trail off, and Laura groans again.
“Why do I feel like a kid?”
“Love makes fools of us all,” Lafontaine says airily, and Laura glares at them.
“What makes fools of us all?” Perry slips her arm through Lafontaine's and looks curiously at Laura.
“Nothing,” Laura says hastily.
“Love,” Lafontaine says at the same time.
Perry chooses to ignore both of them. “Laura, I brought you these,” she says, holding out a couple of glossy magazines. “We just got them in.”
“Wow.” Laura takes them, looking down at the cover. The front is a photograph of one of Carmilla's paintings, like it had been at the gallery opening, lit from the bottom, shadows frozen on the canvas. It doesn't come close to capturing what the painting looks like in person, but even then, it is still strikingly dark and absorbing. “Has Carmilla seen this yet?”
Perry shakes her head, red curls bouncing. “No, I was going to send a copy to her manager tomorrow.”
“You should take one to her,” Lafontaine says, looking significantly at Laura.
“I don't think that's necessary.” Laura puts the magazine down on her desk and starts to gather her things.
“That would be sweet.” Perry looks between the two of them. “You two are such good friends anyway.”
“I'll think about it.”
Lafontaine glances at their watch. “We should probably go,” they say to Perry. “Or we're going to miss the movie.”
“Of course. Let me know if you decide to take one to Carmilla.” Perry directs the last part to Laura.
“Sure.” Laura watches them leave, Lafontaine holding the door for Perry before waving and Laura and stepping through it themself.
The magazine looks up at her from the desk, and Laura tries to ignore it as she picks up her purse and jacket. She pushes in her chair, then pauses.
“Fine!” she says, like it can hear her, then picks the magazine up and follows Lafontaine and Perry out of the office. For half of the drive to Carmilla's apartment, Laura tries to convince herself that this is a good idea, that she shouldn't be afraid to see Carmilla. After all, nothing is happening between them. It's stupid for her to avoid interacting. For the other half, she tells herself that this is a terrible idea, that Carmilla might not even be home, that it would look weird for Laura to show up there again. She can't seem to make herself turn around though, and it feels like she's on autopilot as she parks the car and gets out.
She rolls the magazine between her fingers as she makes her way up the stairs, trying all the time to get her body to turn around and go home. Instead, she knocks on Carmilla's door, then shifts her weight anxiously on her feet as she waits for a response.
“Hey,” she says when Carmilla opens the door. “Is this a bad time?”
Carmilla shakes her head, unsmiling. “No.”
“I just came to give you this,” Laura says, much faster than she intended to. She thrusts the magazine out at Carmilla, who takes it, looking startled.
She runs her thumb over the smooth cover, then glances up at Laura again. “Thank you. Would you like to come in?”
“Sure,” Laura says, before she can stop herself.
The apartment looks very similar to the last time Laura was here, except Carmilla's mother is not sitting on the couch. Or sitting anywhere at all. Carmilla flips through the magazine before putting it down on the coffee table beside her cuffs.
“Do you want something to drink?” she asks.
“Sure,” Laura says, taking a seat on the couch. “Have you heard about the residency?”
“Nothing really,” Carmilla says, filling a cup at the sink. “I should talk to them soon though.”
Carmilla hands Laura the glass before sitting in the chair opposite her, hands empty. Carmilla's covered with paint, from her fingertips all the way up to her shoulders.
“How've you been beside that?” Laura asks, just for something to say.
“Fine, I-” Carmilla's sentence is interrupted by a sound not dissimilar to a dying frog, and Laura jumps, looking around for the source.
“Sorry.” Carmilla picks up her phone from the coffee table. “Will hates this ringtone, so I made it his,” she says over the continued noise. She glances down at the screen. “I should probably take this though.”
“Go ahead,” Laura says, waving a hand, and Carmilla puts the phone to her ear, stands up and wanders towards the kitchen.
Laura tries not to listen to her conversation, instead standing up herself and crossing to the easels, on the opposite side of the room. The paintings still sitting on them are dark, like the paintings at the gallery opening, all harsh lines and abrupt endings. Sometimes the lines fold into an eye or a mouth, but never a whole face, always fragments. On one, a hand reaches towards the top left corner, every finger with three knuckles and a different tattoo. A paint-covered table sits in the center, spread with glasses of dirty water, paintbrushes, and paint. Several pieces of paper are held in place by cups, and when Laura looks at them, she sees they're sketches of the pieces on the easels.
Behind the easels, against the wall, are stacks of painted canvasses, piled in some places six deep on top of each other. She puts her glass down on the table and steps around it, to stand in front of the paintings. They're all dark, all in the same tone as those on the easels, but each capturing a different emotion, a different dark corner. Laura leans the first one forward to look at the painting underneath it. It's lighter than the top painting, the lines slightly softer. As she flips through, the canvasses get progressively lighter, more cohesive. Confusion and sharp edges give way to swathes of cool color and lines that work together rather than against one another. Faces get more coherent, appearing not as separated pieces, but more organized, like they're figuring out how they fit. A pair of brown eyes looks out at her from above a bat cradled in a golden hand. The look in those eyes is familiar, and it takes Laura a couple seconds to realize that they're her own.
“Laura?” Carmilla says from behind her, and Laura looks over her shoulder. Carmilla's sliding her phone into her pocket, watching Laura look at her paintings. “I'm really sorry, I have to go.”
“No problem,” Laura says, her voice miraculously steady. She has no idea how she's managing it when her heart is jumping around, trying to figure out what the paintings mean. She takes one final look at the painting before putting the canvasses back where she'd found them.
“Hello sweetie,” her mother says, opening the door to her apartment.
Carmilla looks around at her, still holding her paintbrush. “Shouldn't you knock or something?” she asks in frustration.
“I told you I was coming over,” her mother says. “I thought you knew.” She looks genuinely upset, paused halfway to putting her purse down.
“It's okay,” Carmilla says reflexively. She turns back to her painting. Just one more line, or maybe two.
Her mother crosses the room to stand behind her, looking over her shoulder. Carmilla tries to pretend she's not there, but she can still feel her eyes tracking every move she makes.
“I'm glad you're painting,” her mother says. Out of the corner of her eye, Carmilla sees her mother gesture to the paintings leaning on the wall, the same ones Laura had been looking through. Carmilla had watched her as she looked each one over, wondering if she knew how many of them were paintings of her. Or for her.
“May I?” her mother asks, and Carmilla nods. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches her mother flip through them. “These are wonderful.”
Carmilla smiles, turning away from her paintbrush to look over her mother's shoulder at her finished work. Each painting takes her to a different time, a different memory, and she watches her art go from dark to light. It is impossible to disconnect Laura from them, to think of her paintings as something separate from the light Laura had brought to her. The last painting is her favorite, brown eyes and a bat, held safely in a golden palm. She wishes she could pretend that Laura is not what caused the evolution in her work, but she can't.
Her mother looks at the last canvas, then at Carmilla. “This is different.”
“Yeah,” Carmilla says, turning away. “I was trying something new.”
“It's nice,” her mother says. “I like it. I like the way it contrasts with your other work.”
“Thanks,” Carmilla repeats. Even her mother can see the difference between Carmilla with and without Laura. Maybe, if Carmilla told her about Laura, if she-
“Have you started looking for apartments yet?” her mother asks, cutting off her train of thought. The painting of Laura vanishes behind darker pieces as her mother turns around.
“Oh, no,” Carmilla says. She feels herself deflating again, reminded of the residency, of how she has responsibility and obligation and a career.
“I figured,” her mother says, returning to the couch and pulling a folded packet of papers out of her purse. Carmilla follows more slowly, dropping her paintbrush on the table. Her fingers smear paint across the back of the couch when she puts her hands down.
“Here.” Her mother holds the papers out to her. “They're apartments in the area.”
Carmilla flips through the papers, staring down at the printed words and grayscale photographs of empty rooms. “They look nice.”
“Have you told the Styrian National Gallery that you're accepting the residency?” her mother asks, and Carmilla looks up from the paper long enough to shake her head.
“Sweetie,” her mother says disapprovingly. “You need to let them know soon.”
“I know, I know,” Carmilla says, folding up the papers again and dropping them on the couch. “I will.”
Her mother puts a hand gently on her shoulder. “This is going to be great. You're going to be in an art community, getting to do what you love with people who are just as passionate about it as you are.”
Carmilla pulls away, walks to the other side of the room, trying not to look at her mother. “I know,” she repeats. She doesn't know why she hasn't told them yet.
“Is this about the reporter?” her mother asks, and Carmilla glances over at her. She looks concerned, worried, caring. Carmilla wishes for the millionth time that it's an act. “You did tell her, right?”
“Yeah,” Carmilla says, trying not to sound petulant.
“She said it was a good idea. An amazing opportunity, just like you and Will said.”
Her mother smiles, picking up the packet of papers and straightening the corners. “See, she knows this is good for you. And now there's nothing holding you back, you can move on, you can get away from all of the stuff that's happened.” Her eyes flick to Carmilla's wrists and Carmilla tucks her hands away in her back pockets, where her mother can't see them.
“I know,” she says again. Everything her mother is saying makes sense, which almost makes it worse.
“I just want you to move forward.”
Carmilla turns away, to look back at her easel and the half-finished painting there. Maybe Laura would be moving forward.
“Did you take the magazine over?” is the first thing Lafontaine says when Laura takes her seat opposite them.
“Over to where?” Danny asks.
“To Carmilla's,” Laura says to her, before turning back to Lafontaine and saying, “Yes.” There's no point in trying to avoid the question.
“And?” Lafontaine raises their eyebrows.
“What happened?” Lafontaine asks in exasperation.
“Nothing,” Laura says, looking over the menu. She doesn't need to; they've been coming to the Lustig for so long that she could probably recite the whole thing off the top of her head, but it's something to look at that's not Lafontaine and their expectant expression.
“Yeah right,” they say sarcastically. “What happened?”
“Nothing!” Laura repeats, more emphatically this time. “We didn't even talk, hardly. I gave her the magazine, she invited me in, she got a phone call, I looked through some of her art, and then she had to leave. See? Nothing happened.”
“Good,” Danny says, quietly, but Lafontaine ignores her.
“What was her art like?”
“It was interesting,” Laura says, searching for the right words. “I always feel like her art means something more than it is.” She hopes she's making sense. Finding the right way to describe Carmilla's paintings is difficult.
“I didn't get her art at the opening,” Danny says, looking at Laura. “It didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.” When Laura doesn't respond she shrugs and takes a sip of her drink.
Perry slides a glass over to Lafontaine as she returns, taking the chair beside them. “Hello Laura,” she says. “What're you talking about?”
“Carmilla's art,” Lafontaine says, before Laura can stop them. “Laura went to see her.”
“Oh that's nice. Did you take the magazine?”
“Laura was just telling me about Carmilla's art,” Lafontaine says, cutting her off.
When Perry looks interestedly at Laura, and Laura sighs. “It was interesting. Very much like the paintings I saw at the gallery opening....” she trails off, thinking. “Her art changed,” she says slowly.
“Changed how?” Perry asks.
“I guess it went from dark to light. A lot of it was dark but then when I got further through them they started to get lighter, with brighter colors and fewer shadows.”
“There's something else,” Lafontaine says. “You aren't telling us everything.”
“I'll be the judge of that.” Lafontaine looks at Laura over the edge of their glass, waiting.
“Sometimes it looked like she was painting me. Not all of me, but pieces of me.” Laura says all of this very fast, without pausing for breath.
“I knew it!” Lafontaine says. “I knew she liked you.”
“It probably wasn't,” Laura says quickly. “It was mostly just brown eyes and lips.”
“Mmmhm. Not meaningful at all.”
“C'mon, it could have been anybody,” Danny says. She's spent the majority of the conversation staring into the bottom of her drink, looking more and more frustrated.
“It's totally you,” Lafontaine says to Laura.
“Why does it always have to be?” Danny says, a lot more loudly than before. “God, Laf, you're pushing this so hard, can't you just back off?”
There is stunned silence for a moment, then Danny stands up, her chair scraping against the floor. “I'm sorry,” she says, before turning around and walking towards the door.
“Wow.” Lafontaine's mouth has fallen open.
“Should someone go after her?” Perry asks, concerned.
“I'll go.” Laura follows Danny out of the bar, mind reeling. “Hey,” she calls after Danny's retreating figure.
Danny pauses, then turns around as Laura walks up to her. “Sorry,” she says again, but her jaw is still stiff and the look in her eyes is decidedly not apologetic.
“Is everything okay?” Laura asks.
“Yeah.” Danny shrugs, holding out her hands. “Everything's great.” The words are tinged with sarcasm.
“You've been so upset the past few weeks, Especially about Carmilla. What's your problem with her? Or with me knowing her?”
Danny laughs disbelievingly. “You can't possibly be that blind.” When Laura doesn't react, she sweeps a hand in front of her. “You've gotten so obsessed with this girl you've known for what? a month, tops? We've been friends for years and there's no way you don't know that I like you.”
For a moment Laura's not sure what to say. “Danny, you've never..... I never.....”
“God, Laura, how could you not? And then when we went to the opening.... I thought that it was finally going to turn around. You were finally asking me out, and something would finally happen but instead you totally bailed on me for hours and since then I've hardly seen you except at the Lustig, all because of some painter you barely even know.”
Laura remembers that night, at the gallery opening. Danny had been amazing – Laura had hardly been able to take her eyes off her. And yeah, maybe she'd thought that something might eventually happen between them, but she'd never felt like Danny was interested. And then, at the gallery, she met Carmilla, and Carmilla's a totally different world. She'd made an effort to get to know Laura, maybe even flirted, though Laura knew she was bad at picking it up. She'd given up hope on Danny and now....
“Danny, I had no idea,” she says, but Danny just rolls her eyes.
“Yeah, sure.” Danny steps away from her, looking up at the sky. “You know what, I think I'm just going to go.” Before Laura can come to her senses enough to respond, Danny's halfway down the street, car keys jangling between her fingers.
Lafontaine and Perry don't ask what happened when Laura returns to the bar to collect her jacket and purse.
“Are you okay?” Perry says as Laura slides her arms into her jacket. Laura nods, grateful when Perry doesn't press her.
“See you tomorrow,” she says. At home, Laura collapses onto her couch, staring up at the ceiling. Everything's confusing now, with Danny's confession. Everything was confusing before, but with everything that happened with Carmilla and the paintings and Lafontaine... Laura rubs her eyes, wishing she could just go to sleep and wake up when the world had sorted it all out.
She reaches for the coffee table, sorting through the papers with her fingers until she feels the edge of what she's looking for. The cupcake is still held between her fingers, she's still looking at it like it's the most amazing thing she's seen. Laura imagines she can see a bat wing in the lines of the background, or maybe a hand, curving around her like a wall. Protecting her.
Her phone buzzes in her purse and she sits up enough to pull it out and check the screen.
I don't know what Danny said, but if you like Carmilla, you should tell her.
Laura stares at Lafontaine's text, rereading it over and over. Her phone buzzes again and a second message appears.
Love makes fools of us all.
“I just got off the phone with the Styrian National Gallery,” Will says when Carmilla picks up her phone. “I told them that you're honored to accept their offer of a residency. They're going to email me the details later today, and then we can start on getting you moved.”
“Okay,” Carmilla says, trying to muster up enough energy to at least seem interested in what he's saying.
“This is going to be amazing.” Will sounds much more enthusiastic than Carmilla. For a second she thinks the Gallery should offer the residency to him instead. He'd probably appreciate it more than she will.
He doesn't appear to have noticed her flat affect, though she can't tell if that's because she's going a better job of hiding it than she'd originally thought, or if he's projecting his own excitement on to her. She hopes it's the former.
“I'll come by later and we can work out the details. Your mom was looking at apartments, right?”
“Right,” Carmilla says, glancing across the room to where her mom's sitting with her computer on her lap, still looking completely out of place in Carmilla's messy apartment. Sometimes it's worrying that Will seems closer to her mom than Carmilla is. It makes her feel like they're planning her life, and she's just jumping through whatever hoops they set up for her. Will says something she doesn't catch and then hangs up.
“Was that Will?” her mother asks, without looking up from her screen.
“Yeah.” She pauses, trying to decide if she wants to break her monosyllabic streak. “He told the Gallery that I'm accepting the residency.”
“That's great!” her mother says, finally looking at her. “I contacted a realtor and he can show us some apartments later this week if you want.”
“You talked to a realtor?”
“Yes, and he was very nice.”
Carmilla can't help herself. “Mom, I didn't ask you to do that.” It's another hoop – her mother will pick her realtor, pick her apartment, choose every specific of her life. Another brick in the road of her life that she didn't lay.
“I'm trying to help you,” her mother says, and Carmilla can hear the anger creeping into her voice.
“I know,” Carmilla says, trying to backtrack, trying to undo the damage, but it's harder to fix a glass than to break one.
“Should I not help you? Since you don't seem to appreciate me, I might as well not.”
“No, Mom, that's not what I meant.” It's touch and go, it's sidestep or backstep and hope one of them is right. The littlest thing can set her off and even though Carmilla knows this, even though she's lived with this for her whole life, she still hasn't learned to keep her mouth shut. Hasn't learned that silence is usually best.
“Then what did you mean?” Her mother sounds defensive, angry. There's no way Carmilla can win.
“I just meant that I want to have a say,” Carmilla says, floundering.
“Am I not giving you one? I found nice apartments so you didn't have to. It's not like I'm signing a lease, I'm just helping you out.”
“I know, I'm sorry,” Carmilla says. Her fingers rub the scars on her wrists again, sliding beneath her cuffs. It's comforting, calming.
“Next time I'll stay out of it,” her mother says, shutting her computer and sliding it into her briefcase. “Let you do everything yourself, since you clearly don't need me.”
“No, Mom, that's not-” Carmilla cuts herself off. She knows there's no rescue, no saving this conversation. It's not worth the effort to try.
Her mother picks up her briefcase and looks angrily over at Carmilla. “I'm going to go. I have a conference call in an hour that I need to prepare for.”
“Okay,” Carmilla says. “I'll see you later.”
“If you need me,” her mother says, opening the door, “it should end before five. And if you can stand being around me, maybe we can go to dinner.”
“Yeah,” Carmilla says, and her mother closes the door with unnecessary force. She's frozen, her feet stuck, unmoving. Her body feels hollow, empty, her arms and hands cold. The only part of her that feels real are her wrists, are the memories that live there.
Her phone dings at her and Carmilla looks down. Laura' name flashes up, above a message reading Can you buzz me in?
Sure, Carmilla texts back, before she has time to overthink it.
Great, see you.
Carmilla spends the thirty seconds that she waits for Laura to knock pacing around her apartment, wishing she'd said she wasn't at home, or that she was busy. She doesn't know why she said yes. Maybe it's the self destructive part of her coming out again.
When Carmilla opens the door, she can tell that something is different. Laura carries herself differently, walks differently. She looks jittery, or anxious. Carmilla watches her sit down, then jump immediately to her feet and walk around again.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“I'm great,” Laura says, though her voice indicates the opposite. When she turns to look at Carmilla, something akin to ice shoots through her.
“Do you want something to-” she begins, but Laura, usually so polite, cuts her off.
“I want to talk to you about something, and I know you're leaving, and I know you have a life and a career and I feel so stupid-”
“Stop,” Carmilla says. This can't be happening, this isn't happening. Laura is not allowed to say this, not now, and even though Carmilla can see where it's going, can see what Laura's trying to say, but she can't let herself hear the words. It would be too real, and Carmilla doesn't think she could handle it.
“You wanna know what happened? All those months ago? Why I vanished and nobody heard from me? What happened in Amsterdam?” Laura looks too shocked to respond, so Carmilla continues. She doesn't know why she's choosing to do it this way, why she's choosing to say it at all, but she can't stop herself now that she's started. “I'd been dating this girl, Elle, for three years, and I got an offer to go to a museum, not as a residency, but they wanted to do a show of my work, and they wanted me to work with them on the exhibit. My art had just gotten big, I had started to build a career and a reputation. People were starting to know who I was, to see my art. It was everything I ever wanted.” Carmilla slows down as she talks, letting the memories come back, the good ones. She smiles a little, forgetting for a moment the part that comes next.
“But I was going to have to move, a whole continent away. For a while I thought I might say no, because Elle couldn't have moved with me. She was a resident in a hospital, the top hospital in the city. The doctors said she was promising, that she could do anything she wanted. All the same stuff people said about me.” Carmilla laughs bitterly at the irony, at the insensibility of it all.
Laura watches her talk, standing just as still as Carmilla. It's like they're trapped in a bubble of Carmilla's creation, the words tying them to the floor, anchoring them in place.
“My mom talked me into going. She said that I couldn't let an opportunity like this pass, that this would put me on the map. She'd watched me grow up, she knew that this was my dream, and she wanted me to have it. So I asked Elle to come with me. I knew she was going to say no, I knew she was going to argue, but I couldn't leave without trying. She said no. She said she couldn't give up her career just for the sake of mine. We got into a fight, a big one, and she said that if I was moving we couldn't stay together, not even long distance. I begged her to try, but she said it would never work, that she didn't want to be in a relationship with someone who was willing to give her up for a job.” Carmilla feels it all over again, the anger, the confusion. She remembers standing in that living room, words echoing off the walls as Elle shouts at her about love and loyalty and abandonment. She tries not to look at Laura. She knows that she'll cry if she does.
“We broke up, and she ran out. She wouldn't tell me where she was going, and I'm not sure I wanted to know other than just to have something of her. Even though I knew she was going to say no, part of me hoped she'd say yes. I didn't realize how much I'd believed she actually would say yes until I heard her say no.
“Later that night I got a phone call. As she left a bar on her way home, she'd been hit by a truck. Her friends had been with her, but they couldn't keep track of her. They said she drank a lot more than she usually did.” Carmilla smiles almost fondly as she says, “Elle never could hold her alcohol.”
Reality sets in again as she tries to get a grasp on what happened next, try to figure out how so many feelings could be crammed into a few words. “I ran down to the ER, but by the time I got there it was too late. Her friends told me that she'd been asking for me in the ambulance, before she'd passed out.” Carmilla takes a deep, shuddering breath.
“I didn't go to the museum. After Elle died, I got so depressed I couldn't get out of bed anymore. My mother showed up, she and my friends and Will took turns trying to take care of me. At first it was just getting me to eat, getting me to move, getting me to do anything that wasn't lying around, or self-destructive. They wanted to get me past it. And eventually they did. I started painting again, and there was another showing of my art, in Amsterdam. At the opening, a reporter asked me about Elle. He asked if I felt responsible for her death. So I decked him. But he was right.”
Carmilla looks up at Laura. Tears run silently down her cheeks, and when she sees Carmilla turn to her, Laura rubs them away with the back of her hand. Carmilla forces herself not to look away when she starts talking again.
“I hurt her. I hurt me. I hurt a lot of people- everyone Elle knew, her family, her friends. I got her killed.” Carmilla remembers the way her mother had looked at her, like she was a monster, while telling her that she wasn't to blame. She remembers the way everyone at Elle's funeral had refused to talk to her. She'd never visited the grave. Sometimes that makes her feel worse. Sometimes it makes her feel better.
“Carmilla, that's not your fault,” Laura says, finally moving. She takes a step towards Carmilla, reaching out a hand.
Carmilla jerks away. She can't let Laura touch her, she can't let Laura be polluted by her. She tucks her fingers beneath her cuffs again. The scars feel like fractures, like glue holding glass shards together. She's both damaged and the cause of her own damage. She can't let herself hurt Laura, who is so bright, so joyful. Carmilla cannot let herself destroy someone else.
She looks at Laura, wishing she couldn't see the pain in Laura's eyes as she stares straight into them.
“Please,” she says. “Let me leave.”
Chapter 6: Wait
Laura lays the newspaper open on her coffee table, flipping through it to the arts section. Across the top of the page, the headline reads Carmilla Karnstein Joins the Styrian National Gallery. Below it is a picture of Carmilla. There's a sadness around her, but it doesn't feel like the same sadness Laura is used to. This one feels less intense, like it is there but the walls don't have to be as strong to hold it inside. Maybe this was taken before Elle died. Laura throws the paper down. It's just a grainy newspaper photo, she tells herself. It doesn't mean anything.
Instead she picks up the remote and turns on the TV, flipping through channels until she lands on a sci-fi movie that looks sufficiently bad. She lies down and loses herself in the stupid story, trying to let her mind go blank. For a while, thoughts of Carmilla still drift into her head, but she pushes them away so insistently that eventually they give up and let her drown in bad dialogue and special effects.
The hero has just discovered her best friend's betrayal when Lafontaine knocks on her door.
“Come in,” Laura calls from the couch, her eyes still on the screen.
“You still alive in here?” Lafontaine asks, shutting the door behind them.
On the screen the spaceships collide, sparks and debris flying everywhere, flames licking out from the wreckage. Lafontaine crosses to stand by the couch.
“What are you watching?” they ask.
“Not sure,” she replies, ignoring the mild judgement in their tone. “It was on.”
Lafontaine turns their attention from the movie to Laura, frowning. “You need to get out. See the sun. eat something that grew in the ground.”
Laura turns her eyes away from the movie for long enough to glare at them. “I do eat things that grew in the ground.”
“Sure.” Laura can tell they don't believe her, but she doesn't have the energy to try to convince them otherwise.
“Look, you gotta either get over this girl, or do something about it,” Lafontaine says. When Laura doesn't respond, they move to stand in front of the TV, forcing Laura to look at them. “Laura, this is ridiculous.”
“I go to work,” Laura protests. “I eat and I sleep and I get stuff done. Why can't I be sad in front of my TV for a little bit?”
Lafontaine pauses, considering Laura for a moment. They turn around, turn off the TV, and turn back. Ignoring Laura's protestations, they say, “Do you want to talk about it?”
Laura pulls herself into a sitting position, tucking her knees against her chin. “I don't know.”
There's a weight on the couch as Lafontaine sits down beside her and puts their hand on her shoulder. “I'm here, you know I am.”
They sit there like that for a moment before Laura leans over and rests her head on their shoulder, taking a deep breath.
“I didn't tell her,” Laura says. “I couldn't. She basically told me not to.”
Lafontaine doesn't say anything, just rubs Laura's back and waits. Laura appreciates it, that Laf will just listen without judging or interrupting or trying to give her advice before she wants it or if she doesn't at all.
“She told me that she was dating this girl and then she was going to have to move away, and they got into a huge fight and broke up and then that night the girl, Elle, got hit by a car and died. Carmilla thinks it's her fault.” By the time she's finished, Laura's once again crying silently. Reiterating the story brings to her mind Carmilla, standing slump-shouldered in the center of her loft. Sadness had rolled off her in waves, and all Laura had wanted was to somehow make her not so sad, to convince her that Elle's death doesn't lie on her shoulders. She wishes she knew how.
“But it's not her fault,” Lafontaine says quietly.
Laura nods against their shoulder. “It's not, but she won't believe it. She doesn't believe it.”
“Did you tell her that?”
“I tried but.... she looked so hurt. She looked like even me being there hurt. And I didn't know what to say so I just... left. She asked me to leave, or rather to let her leave. She didn't want me.”
Lafontaine pulls back and looks at Laura, who raises her head to return the look.
“You are jumping to some pretty big conclusions,” they say. They notice the newspaper and tilt it up, so it's easier to see in the half-light of the room. “What's this?”
“Nothing,” Laura says, taking the paper and closing it so Carmilla's not looking up at her anymore. “Just an article about her going to the Styrian National Gallery.”
“Hmm.” Lafontaine falls silent for a moment, and Laura can tell from the expression on their face that they're trying to figure something out. “What do you know about Carmilla's art from before Elle?”
Laura frowns at them. “Why?”
They shrug with affected nonchalance. “No reason. I was just wondering if her paintings then was like her paintings from when you two were hanging out.”
“I don't know,” Laura says, adding silently to herself and I don't care. She's not sure if she actually doesn't care, but maybe if she says it enough, she will eventually stop caring.
“Hmmm. Have you talked to Danny at all?”
Laura blinks, startled at the sudden change in topic. “No,” she says. “She won't return my calls.”
The couch shifts again as Lafontaine leans against the other armrest, turning their head to see Laura. “That sucks.”
“That's the way Danny is, I guess,” Laura says. She still hasn't told Lafontaine exactly what happened, but they have probably figured it out.
“It still sucks.”
Laura gives Lafontaine a little smile. “Yeah.”
There's a buzzing, and the couch cushion vibrates. Lafontaine pulls out their phone, then looks apologetically at Laura. “It's Perry.”
“No, go ahead.” As Lafontaine puts the phone to their ear, Laura finishes folding the newspaper, then takes it and a couple dirty dishes to the kitchen.
“Hey Laura,” Lafontaine calls, standing up as they slide their phone into their pocket. “I'm really sorry, but I have to go. Something's come up with Perry, a dry cleaning emergency of some sort, and I should go help her out.”
“Of course,” Laura says.
As the door clicks shut, Laura sits back down on the couch, staring at the dark screen of her television. Lafontaine's words about Carmilla's art roll around in her head, and try as she might, she can't get rid of them. Seemingly beyond her control, her hands pick up her laptop and google Carmilla, looking for photographs of her paintings. She can guesstimate the time of Elle's death and sorts through the pictures chronologically. There's a gap, the time Laura thinks that immediately followed. Carmilla's paintings certainly became darker once she reappeared from her eight month depression, but even before that, her art was never very light.
She scrolls through the gallery on Carmilla's official website, guessing from the pastel color scheme that Carmilla has nothing to do with it. The more recent photographs, of the paintings on display at the Silas Gallery, are all dark, like Laura remembers, and certainly darker than her earlier work, but none of her art, not even her very first pieces come close to the way they looked when Laura saw hem leaning up against the wall of Carmilla's loft.
Laura shuts the computer in frustration. It's pointless to dwell, she tells herself. Carmilla's gone, to a residency most people only ever dream of getting. And art is just art. She wishes she could believe it.
Carmilla throws down her paintbrush in frustration. Nothing feels like it's working, like she can't figure out how to make the paint work together on the canvas. She turns around and paces across her studio. It's fair-sized, the floor concrete and stained, huge windows letting light in to illuminate the otherwise somewhat drab walls.
There's evidence of the artists who came before her – paint on the doors, mysterious marks on the floor from things Carmilla can't even imagine. In the corner is a pile of scrap metal, which the director told her had been left there by the previous artist in residence.
“We'll haul it out of here as soon as we can,” he'd said, when he'd shown her around.
“Leave it,” Carmilla replied, much to his surprise. She likes the way it sits in the corner, like a piece of the past. It makes her feel less alone.
The rest of the room is mostly tables, with more paints than she could ever imagine needing, and more canvas available than she thinks she could use in a lifetime.
“Whatever you need, just ask,” the director told her. “We're here to nurture your talent.”
Carmilla had bought a couch at a thrift store for fifteen dollars and hauled it in herself. It was lumpy and uncomfortable, and she doesn't care to think about where it had been and what it had seen. The couch looks out of place in her studio, but she likes it too. The metal, a piece of her predecessor, and the couch, a piece of the outside world.
She turns away from her easel, leaving the unfinished painting abandoned. Instead, Carmilla picks up her sketchbook and flops down on the couch. The book falls open, and Laura's face stares up at her, a smile playing on the edge of her lips, in the corners of her eyes. Carmilla tears the page out and crumples it up, throwing it as hard as possible in the opposite direction. It lands a couple feet away and rolls feebly for another inch before stopping.
For half a second she doesn't move, then gets up and reaches for the paper ball. She smooths it over her knee, Laura's face coming into view again. The graphite smudges under her fingers and without knowing why, she folds it into a little square and slides it into her pocket.
Carmilla resists the urge to slam the door as she leaves. She doesn't want to go back to her apartment. It's clean, unlived in, artless. Her mother had found it for her, dragged her in to sign the lease. She's barely been here for a week and she can't stand spending time there. None of the furniture feels like hers, and despite the pieces of her that insist she should paint everything over, rip up the scratchy plastic carpet and make the apartment feel like hers, she can't bring herself to. She tells herself it's the security deposit.
Her feet take her along the street, towards the gallery. She hasn't been there a lot in the week and a half since she arrived. They're giving her two weeks to settle in, they said. The schedule they'd handed to her sat untouched on her kitchen counter. She'd glanced over it once, and upon seeing that it looked like they wanted her to do a lot of different things, had not looked at it again.
Carmilla hasn't done a whole lot since she got here. Everything had happened very fast – it felt like she's blinked and suddenly she lives in a whole different city.
The woman at the desk nods to Carmilla as she enters, waving her through the doors into the entry hall. Everybody here knows who she is, and as artist in residence, she doesn't have to pay entrance fees.
The Gallery is huge, one of the largest Carmilla's ever been in. It's a museum in everything but name with exhibits of art from different periods. Most of their space is dedicated to modern art, and emerging artists. Carmilla makes her way across the entrance hall and into the garden, where huge welded sculptures arc into the sky. Normally sculpture's not Carmilla's thing, but these speak to her. Maybe because their castaway pieces live in the corner of her studio.
She sits on a bench in the shade, watching the three other visitors stroll along the paths, reading the signs in front of the art, and talking quietly. The piece of paper is thick and heavy in her pocket, and she pulls it out. She doesn't unfold it again, but Laura's face appears unbidden in front of her eyes anyway.
The way she'd looked at Carmilla, after she'd heard the story.... shocked. Appalled. Carmilla had seen disgust and disbelief in her eyes. Betrayal. Right now Laura's telling herself how lucky she is to have escaped Carmilla's life, to have gotten away from someone as dangerous and unstable as her, Carmilla tells herself. It hurts, but she's glad to have saved Laura from that. From her. The guilt of Elle's death rests against her shoulders. She's grown used to it, but retelling the story brought it all to the surface, and she can feel it again.
Her phone buzzes against her leg and she pulls it out, looks down at the screen. Grateful for even a little distraction. She lets it ring a couple times before finally answering. “Hello.”
“Darling,” her mother says, so loudly Carmilla has to hold the phone away from her ear for a moment. “How are you doing?”
“Fine,” Carmilla says tentatively, lowering the phone back to her ear.
“Tell me all about it. What've you been up to?”
“Painting, mostly. Walking around the city.” By that she means staring blankly at canvases and throwing things around her studio when she can't figure out why her painting isn't working anymore, then running away to walk mindlessly down sidewalks. She hasn't painted anything worth looking at since she arrived, and she hardly more familiar with the city than when she'd looked at it through the plane window.
“That's good!” her mother says, and Carmilla can hear the smile through her phone. “And what about the people?”
“The people at the Gallery are very nice.” Carmilla struggles for a moment to come up with the right word, then says, “They're very accommodating.” The director was certainly nice, if a little overhelpful. She hasn't met the woman who is going to be curating her exhibit yet. Mostly they'd been distant, eager to give her anything she needed but not personal.
“That's good!” her mother repeats. Carmilla realizes that this is her mother being encouraging, trying to get Carmilla to agree that everything is wonderful, that this was absolutely the right decision for her to make. “I've heard there's a wonderful community of artists there. Have you met any of them?”
Carmilla feels like she's being talked to like a child, but she doesn't particularly mind. If her mother wasn't asking her questions, she'd be sitting there silently, the phone like a brick against her ear. Heavy and useless. “They're interesting.” She hates them. She's been to a couple of their parties – the invitations started flooding in the instant she arrived – but the community at large is miserable. Pretentious is a good word to describe them. Arrogant is another.
Their parties had been in small rooms, hazy with smoke from cigarettes and joints, littered with empty alcohol bottles and unwashed dishes. And the artists themselves fostered a tortured artist mentality, distancing themselves from the world at large, as though they're enlightened and the rest of the world walks around with their eyes shut.
Despite her own past, it makes Carmilla uncomfortable. Her art has been a way of expressing herself, even when she's feeling tortured, but it has never stemmed from that. She's never needed drugs or alcohol to spur creativity, and these peoples' obsession with their lifestyle seems to overtake their art. Carmilla doesn't want to sit around and discuss the visions she has when she's high. And besides, Carmilla has't been good at dealing with people in a long time.
“I'm glad you're not lonely,” her mother says. Carmilla sighs, holding the phone away from her ear in the hopes that her mother won't hear it.
“Yeah,” she replies. She's very lonely. Loneliness never bothered her before, but since Laura.... everything has changed. Carmilla tries to push Laura out of her mind. Laura is left behind. Laura is safe.
“Are you looking forward to next week?”
“What's next week?”
“You have your presentation, right? And a workshop? Am I mistaken?”
Carmilla remembers the schedule on her counter. “No, you're probably right. I haven't looked at my schedule yet.”
She can almost hear her mother frowning at the other end of the line. “Darling, are you really okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Carmilla says, as convincingly as possible. “I'm totally fine. Just a little out of it, I've been painting so much. I'm looking forward to the talk.” That also is untrue. She's talked a lot in front of people, but she never likes it.
“I'm so proud of you,” her mother says. There's an indistinct sound behind her, then she says, “I've got to go darling, I'm sorry. We can talk later?”
“I love you,” is the last thing her mother says before hanging up. Carmilla lowers the phone, the words already feeling unreal.
She'd thought that maybe this would give her a chance to get away from the world for a while, again, but she should have read the terms of the contract more closely. Carmilla drops the phone in her lap and goes back to fiddling with the folded drawing. Her phone vibrates again and she looks down.
Do you have a title for your talk yet? They need to know by tomorrow.
This is the first she'd heard from Will in almost a week. Carmilla isn't sure what he's doing, but she can't bring herself really to care. She turns the phone over so she doesn't have to see the message.
“Laura?” Perry calls across the office. “Can you come here for a moment?”
Laura turns to see Perry beckoning at her from the other side of the room, and gets up a little nervously. When she sees Laura standing up, Perry vanishes again into her office, leaving the door ajar. Laura's nervousness only grows with every step she takes. She runs through the past few days in her head, but can't think of anything that would warrant being called into her boss's office.
“Have a seat,” Perry says, looking up from the paper on her desk.
Laura sits down in the chair across from Perry. “Am I in trouble?” she asks, trying, and failing, to contain her anxiety.
“No, no,” Perry says with a smile. “Nothing bad at all.”
“Oh okay good.” Laura heaves a sigh of relief. “You had me worried for a moment.”
“I want you to go to a couple talks,” Perry says.
“A.... talk?” For a moment, Laura is taken aback. Showings, yes. Openings, sometimes. Interviews, yes. But talks?
“Yes,” Perry says, seemingly ignoring Laura's surprise. “The first one's on Monday, and you will need to leave on Sunday.”
“Leave on Sunday?”
“Yes, assuming you agree to go.” Perry raises her eyebrows and Laura shakes herself into accepting this.
“Sure. Am I driving?”
In response, Perry holds out the papers she'd been looking at. “You'll be flying.”
“Flying?” This is getting more confusing with every word Perry says. “Wait hold up. You want me to fly somewhere to go to a talk?”
“Here's all of the information. There's a plane ticket, your rental car and hotel information, a schedule, and your press pass.”
“I have a press pass?”
Perry nods. “Your article has been a big hit. You didn't know this?”
“No,” Laura says quietly. She's been so out of the world, so trapped on her couch and in her head that she's hardly payed attention to anything that's not absolutely necessary. The world seemed like too much for a little bit, like she'd been slapped very hard and needed to take some time to let the bruise fade. “Wait did you say something about that the other day?”
“That was almost a week ago,” Perry says, frowning. “More, actually.”
Perry looks at Laura worriedly, running her fingers over the edge of the papers. “Yes, several people loved it, and they want you to cover some of their events. They're having speakers and guest artists, and workshops. They liked your style.”
“Oh, okay.” Laura reaches for the papers Perry hands out to her. Her press pass, laminated and shiny, rests on the top. She turns it between her fingers, then pauses, eyes widening. It feels like her heart has dropped into her feet.
“Is everything okay?” Perry asks.
“This is the Styrian National Gallery,” Laura says slowly. She meets Perry's gaze, her stomach twisting itself up into her throat.
“Last issue, the piece on Carmilla, really caught their attention. Especially since she's their new artist in residence.”
Something about the way Perry says it feels like a front, like she's hiding something. Laura narrows her eyes. She could smell Lafontaine on this from a mile away, and is just surprised she didn't think of it sooner.
“Lafontaine put you up to this.”
“No, they certainly did not.” Perry's offense is overdramatic, overacted. She raises a hand to her heart and opens her mouth.
“I knew it,” Laura says. “You're a terrible liar.”
Perry deflates, leaning forward. “I know, I'm sorry. But this is real, the National Gallery does want someone to cover their events next week and since you know Carmilla, Lafontaine thought you might be the right person to send.”
Half of Laura wants to throw the papers in Lafontaine's face and tell them that they can't manipulate her into seeing Carmilla again. The other half wants to give them a big hug and thank them for going out of their way for her. Laura tries not to let her battle show on her face, instead sorting through to find the schedule. The half of her that had already resolved not to go began to waver. The talks look interesting, the workshops look interesting, and there's more than one artist on the list Laura would kill to meet. She momentarily hates her love of art, and she's convinced that it is that emotion which opens her mouth and says, “I'd love to go.”
“Great,” Perry says with a grin. “You should go home and get started packing then, I think. Your flight leaves pretty early on Sunday.”
Laura stands up and walks to the door, trancelike. “Thanks,” she remembers to say, before closing the door behind her.
Back at her desk, she sorts through the papers, then pulls out the schedule of events. A couple talks are highlighted, with a sticky note telling Laura that these are the ones she needs to attend, but the rest are optional. Laura reads through them, and despite her confusion over Carmilla, she feels her excitement rising. Her eyes stumble across Carmilla's name, a workshop of hers listed for Friday. It's titled The Planning Process. Many of the workshops and talks have subtitles, but Carmilla's doesn't. Laura scans back through, searching for her talk.
The Meaning of Light and Dark.
Laura remembers Carmilla standing defeated in her apartment, begging Laura just to let her leave. Her mind turns to the paintings she saw, the darkness evident even at the start of her rise. She doesn't know whether to thank Lafontaine, or curse them for getting her into this.
Chapter 7: Walls
Carmilla pushes past a group of people, trying not to step on anybody's well-polished toes. She squeezes around a woman talking very loudly to her companion about the Greek tradition in sculpture, and the food table finally comes into view. It's still mostly intact, though there are significantly fewer glasses of champagne than there had been before. She picks one up in her gloved hand and turns around to look across the room.
The patrons are as illuminated as the art on the walls, and Carmilla can only guess that it's intentional. The National Gallery never screws up, or so she's been told. It's not as fancy as the opening at the Silas Gallery, and she's grateful for it. This is only the first event, the sunday night event before the start of the week.
She jumps as Will appears beside her, almost spilling her champagne. “What the-”
“There are some people here you should meet,” he says hastily, cutting her off mid-exclamation. “They're prominent art collectors and curate several private galleries as well.” He gestures at an older man standing on the other side of the room.
“Will, do I really need to? I'm going to be here for another year.”
“Yes, this is a good time to make connections, and....”
Carmilla's attention trails off and she instead lets him tug her across the room.
She looks at the man standing in front of her, gray-haired, wrinkles clustered around the corners of his eyes. “I'm sorry, I got distracted,” she says, as politely as she can manage. In her periphery she can see Will glaring at her.
His face smooths over as he says, “Carmilla I'd like you to meet Mr Cochin.”
Carmilla smiles and tries to focus on him. “It's nice to meet you.” She takes his outstretched hand, glad that she's wearing gloves.
“Miss Karnstein, it's wonderful to meet you. I was just talking to Mr Eisen here about getting some of your art in my gallery.”
Try as she might, Carmilla's eyes wander over his shoulder. Her heart drops out of her chest as she catches sight of... something. The crowds of people cut off her view and she stands on her tiptoes, craning her neck around.
“Carmilla?” Will asks.
“Yes, sorry,” she says, once more roping her attention in. But she looks over his shoulder, eyes flickering between him and the space where she thought she saw-
A person moves aside and yes, there is Laura, washed in bright light. She's looking up at a painting on the wall, an empty plate held flat between her fingers. Carmilla doesn't know if she wants to vanish, run away, or tap on Laura's shoulder just to see her eyes again. Laura begins to turn towards her, and Carmilla looks back at the man, stepping sideways so she's effectively using his body as a wall. She thinks she can still feel Laura's presence, like she's radiating energy.
“Thank you,” she says, as the conversation lulls, hoping its the right thing to say. Apparently it is, because the man smiles.
“I'll be in touch, then,” he says, nodding to them. “It was wonderful to meet you, Miss Karnstein.”
“You too,” she calls after him as he walks away.
“What is wrong with you?” Will asks, the instant the man is out of earshot. The tension in his voice is like a knife, but Carmilla doesn't look at him. She can't figure out if she's feeling anxious or happy or terrified or any combination of the three.
“Sorry, I gotta go,” she says, ducking around him. Carmilla doesn't know if she wants to see Laura or not, but regardless of what she wants, she's trying her best to avoid dealing with the situation at all. In fact, she's so concentrated on looking around for Laura that she runs straight into her.
“I'm so sorry,” Laura begins, before looking around and realizing who it is that ran into her. “Oh. Hi.”
Carmilla's mouth goes so dry that she has no idea how she manages to answer. “Hi.”
“I um... wasn't expecting to see you here,” Laura says.
“I live here,” is Carmilla's totally unexpected reply. She doesn't know why she says it; it's far snarkier than the situation calls for.
“Yes, right, I just meant...” Laura doesn't finish her thought, just stands there awkwardly for a moment. “How're you?” she finally asks.
“I'm good. Really great,” Carmilla lies. “How're you?”
“Good. The magazine's good. They sent me here to cover the presentations and talks and stuff,” Laura says. “Apparently the Gallery asked them to send someone. They liked the piece I did on you, and wanted the magazine at least to do more, so Perry decided to send me. I'm sorry, I'm babbling, please stop me.”
Carmilla watches Laura talk, the way she talks so much faster than normal, the way her fingers tap against the edge of her plate. “It's good that they sent you,” says Carmilla.
“Yeah, it's great exposure for the magazine.”
They lapse into awkward silence again. Carmilla wants to turn around and leave, or melt into the floor, or evaporate, but the first is rude and the last two impossible, so instead she just stands there, looking anywhere but at Laura. Her gloves make small sounds as she rubs her hands together.
“You look very nice,” Laura says, gesturing at Carmilla's clothes.
“Oh, thanks.” Carmilla looks down at her dress, dark green and leaf-patterned. “Will insisted that I dress up. Apparently old jeans are not formal enough for an opening, even a small one.”
Laura opens her mouth like she's going to respond, but Will's voice cuts off whatever it is she was about to say.
“Carmilla! There you are. Stop running away from me, there's important people to meet.”
For once Carmilla is grateful to see him. Anything to get her away from this conversation is appreciated more than it probably deserves. “I'll see you,” she says to Laura, almost hoping exactly the opposite.
“Yeah, see you.”
Carmilla can feel Laura's eyes on her as she slips away into the crowd again. She doesn't see Laura again for the rest of the evening.
The hotel is a lot more fancy than Laura expected it to be. Her bed is so big it feels like an ocean when she jumps onto it. It might be nicer if she was smaller, but as it is it's almost overwhelming. She climbs out of the piles of pillows, the comforter fluffing up around her. The rest of the room is mostly the same – a couch so squishy she struggles to stand up from it, a TV larger than most of her windows, granite countertops and a shower with so many knobs Laura's not even sure how to turn it on.
After she's touched almost everything she can get her hands on, Laura settles back and pulls out the schedule. The opening on Sunday night is over, and her mind flashes back to Carmilla's dress and the walls reassembled behind her eyes. She pushes the thought away and tries not to blush at the memory of her incoherent babbling. That's one habit she really ought to figure out how to break.
Her eyes run down the list of talks, counting the highlighted ones. She's aiming for at least one talk a day, which leaves her with more than enough time to take notes for her article and see at least a small part of the Gallery. On most days though there are at least two if not three talks she wants to go to, most of them by painters Laura's admired since she first got into contemporary art.
It had been totally unexpected to run into Carmilla there. At least it's over, she tells herself. At least the first meeting has happened and we don't have to do that again. It's cold comfort, but she clings to it like a lifeboat.
It doesn't help to stem the tide of nervousness that rises every time she thinks about the possibility of seeing Carmilla again. Or talking to her.
She groans and flops backward onto the couch. Back home, it had seemed like an abstract concept, and she's finding that the abstract of anxiety is much easier to deal with than the reality. Her phone buzzes and she pulls it out.
Have you seen her?
Laura doesn't respond to Lafontaine. They got her into this mess, they don't get to know anything. Try as she might though, she knows that the blame lies on nobody but her. She should have said no. Laura groans again, then picks herself up, telling herself that she can handle this, that it'll be over soon.
The memory of the last time she saw Carmilla claws its way up her throat. The active, extreme sadness has been shoved away, back to wherever Carmilla keeps it inside of her, but Laura can't help but to see the way her eyes had begged Laura to leave her alone with her pain. The desire to convince her that she's not at fault hasn't faded, and for just a second Laura lets herself feel all of it. Then she picks herself up and taps out a text to Perry, telling her that she's arrived safely, before surrendering herself to sleep and the mercy of the California King.
Carmilla looks over the audience, peeking around the curtain. The room she's been put in is fairly large – even as the artist in residence, she's not the star of the entire show. Maybe they're trying to give her time to settle in. Whatever the reason, she's grateful.
She's never given a talk before. Well, she's talked in front of people at openings or dinners, but she's never been called upon to give a real actual talk. The program rustles between her fingers and she unfurls it to read the title. The Meaning of Light and Dark. Why she chose that, she has no idea. It was the first thing she thought of when they called her, demanding a final answer so they could print schedules, and she hadn't been able to stop herself.
The curtain drops back into place as she turns around, taking a deep breath. She knows how to talk in front of people. She knows what she's doing. The thought that Laura might be in the audience is nerve-wracking.
Here of all places, Carmilla had not expected to run into her. They hadn't met since the opening gallery, hardly surprising since Carmilla had spent the majority of her time hiding so as to avoid exactly that.
“Darling!” someone calls, and Carmilla's heart drops into her feet as she turns around. Her mother's hurrying towards her, followed by a desperate organizer who's trying, unsuccessfully, to herd her out of backstage.
“It's okay,” Carmilla says to the organizer. He frowns at her, but stops attempting to forcibly eject her mother. “Really, I've got this.” His frown deepens, but he leaves them, her mother glaring after him.
“So rude,” she says to Carmilla. “Hardly even listened to me when I told him I was the mother of the artist in residence and I had come to wish my daughter luck.” She says it like she's imitating the exact way she'd approached the organizer. Carmilla suspects that it's not as clean cut as her mother's portraying, but doesn't argue.
“It's good to see you,” Carmilla says. “Thank you for coming.” She realizes with no small amount of surprise that she's actually glad to see her mother.
“Of course!” her mother says with a smile. She reaches out, and Carmilla folds herself into the hug, feeling like she's twelve again and her mother is the fort that will protect her from the world. “I'm so proud of you, darling,” her mother says against her hair, and Carmilla nods into her shoulder.
“Are you ready?” her mother asks, withdrawing her arms so she can hold Carmilla at arm's length. “You sure you've got your talk ready?”
Carmilla reaches into her back pocket and pulls out a set of flimsy notecards. She's not even sure what's on them; they were written at three am by a bottle of whiskey, but they're better than nothing. “Got it.”
“Good,” her mother says. She looks Carmilla up and down, brow furrowing in concern. “Are you really wearing that?”
Carmilla's a little offended. “I think I look okay,” she says in defense of her outfit. She's wearing the cleanest pair of jeans she owns – there's barely any paint on them at all, and it's almost the same color as the denim anyway. Her shirt is totally paintless, which is a miracle in and of itself. Her cuffs still wrap around her wrists, and though usually that would be what's upsetting her mother, she doesn't seem to care this time.
“It just looks a little unprofessional.”
Something inside of Carmilla clicks into place. “I don't need to look professional, Mom. They didn't come here to see a professional, they came here to see me. And this is who I am.” She thinks about the dry-cleaning bill for her shirt. “It's approximately who I am, anyway.”
“If you're sure, though I talked to the program director and he told me that these are considered formal events.”
Carmilla represses the urge to glare at her mother. “I don't care.”
“Sweetie, this is your life for the next year, or more,” her mother says. “You should try to do what they recommend.”
“I saw your topic,” her mother says, trying to lighten the tone.
“Does this have anything to do with the paintings I saw at your old apartment?”
Carmilla knows her mother is trying to help, but bringing up her old apartment just makes everything worse. Her apartment here still feels cold and sterile, no matter how much of a mess she makes, or how few dishes she washes, and the studio is just a studio, it's not a place where her painting breathes from the walls and lives in the furniture. And the paintings.... she can't figure out how to put her thoughts on canvas anymore, how to create an image out of nothing. No matter what she tries, everything feels misaligned, the puzzle pieces won't fall into place and forcing them together never works. She reminds herself that her art reflects her, and she's not sure how to make anything whole again, not herself, not her art, not her life.
“No,” she says, more sharply than necessary. “It's just something to talk about, it doesn't mean anything.”
“There is no need to snap,” her mother says, pulling back. “I'm only trying to talk to you.”
“I'm sorry,” Carmilla backtracks. This happens every time. She says the wrong thing, she messes everything up. By now she should have learned, but it sneaks out of her like it has a mind of its own.
“Fine then,” her mother says. “I'll just go, because you clearly don't appreciate everything I'm doing for you. Or anything the Gallery is doing for you either, I'm sure. You don't care about your talk, and probably not about your painting. Carmilla, just because people know who you are doesn't mean you can slack off.”
“I'm not slacking off!”
“You're certainly not acting like it.”
The unfairness of the accusation is so extreme, Carmilla's move from shame from anger is faster than it normally would be. “You don't know my life,” she says.
“No, I guess I don't.” Her mother looks at her, face hard, eyes accusatory. Carmilla looks at the floor instead. It's easier.
Someone taps her on the shoulder and she turns to them. “You're on in five,” the organizer says before hurrying away, looking frightened. Apparently Carmilla's anger had not dissipated quickly enough off her face.
“I'll leave,” her mother says.
“Sure.” Carmilla doesn't look up as her mother paces away. Even after she's gone, Carmilla's anger and frustration still spin through her like a tornado. She's angry at her mother, and at herself, and at Will, and angry even at Laura, though she can't figure out why, and she's angry with the whole world for being the way that it is. At least the anger's chased away the anxiety, she tells herself, taking deep breaths, like that will help this time. It never has before.
Laura watches Carmilla take someone else's hand, nodding at whatever they're saying to her. She appears attentive, but Laura can tell that her mind is only half there. Slowly the line waiting to speak to her dwindles, and finally Carmilla's left mostly alone.
Laura gathers her courage before stepping forward. “Hey,” she says, tapping on Carmilla's shoulder.
“Hey,” Carmilla says, with affected indifference.
“I really liked your talk.”
“Thanks. It's just something I threw together.” Carmilla shrugs. “But I'm glad you liked it.”
They haven't talked since the opening event, but Laura has glimpsed Carmilla at a few of the other talks. She always looks like she's returned to her former self, the closed off, enigmatic, alluring self that Laura had met at the Silas Gallery. She's less of an enigma, but again closed off and still alluring.
Everything Laura wishes she could say dances across the tip of her tongue. She swallows it and says instead, “You chose a very interesting topic. Or I guess you approached an old topic in an interesting way.”
“Thanks,” Carmilla repeats.
Her talk had echoed the paintings Laura had seen in her apartment, from dark down to light and fading back into gray again. Laura wants to bring them up, but doesn't know how. Something deep inside of her is telling her not to, that Carmilla clearly didn't want to talk about it or she would have. Her earlier reservations have been shaken by the way Carmilla had moved, had spoken, had painted with her words a picture of understanding. She was just as captivating as she'd always been, just as charismatic, in her own secretive way.
“How long are you here?” Carmilla asks.
“Just until tomorrow,” Laura replies. The need to say something is pushing at her lips, waiting for a chance to slip out.
“Okay.” Carmilla glances over Laura's shoulder.
Laura's resolved to say something, to let herself go and trust herself, but before she can form words from her resolution, Carmilla says, “I've got to go. Have a nice rest of your visit,” and then she's gone.
The words settle back down into Laura. Every step feels slower under their restless weight.
“Hey, can you take this right?” Laura says to the cabbie, leaning forward to point, unnecessarily, at the upcoming street. She'd asked the program director for the address of the resident artist's studio, telling him that she wanted to photograph it for her magazine. Telling lies is not her forte, but he seemed to buy it and within a minute she had the address scribbled down on a piece of paper.
“Sure thing,” he says, and the car swings around the corner, faster than Laura would have preferred. She counts the numbers on the buildings, but the instant she sees her destination realizes she didn't have to.
“Stop here,” Laura says. “I'll be right back,” she calls into the car as she shuts the door and makes her way up the path. The yard around her is hardly a yard at all, instead filled with sculptures and painted cars on cinder blocks. Each one has a name and a date on a plaque in front of it. The front of the building is painted in blocks, every one a separate style, names scrawled across panels, claiming artists' work as their own. The door stands open, and through it Laura sees a wide room, concrete-floored and filled with color.
She pauses at the doorway, looking around. A battered couch sits to one side, opposite a set of easels. Each one looks as though it has been fingerpainted, handprints fading into swirls of color, lines of white and gray suggesting the edges of clouds.
It is only when Carmilla moves that Laura notices her. She's standing in front of a table spread with open paint cans, like someone's going to be painting a house. Her hair is clumped with paint, most of it still wet, and the skin of her arms all the way up to her shoulders is barely visible underneath all the color.
Carmilla turns around, pulling her arm out of a can, and catches sight of Laura. Her arm up to her elbow is coated in wet paint. The instant their eyes meet Carmilla stops moving, surprise crossing her face. “Laura?” She stands still in the center of the studio, black paint dripping from her fingertips onto the floor.
Laura steps inside, her shoes clicking on the concrete. “I'm sorry, I just....” She tries to find the right words. In the taxi she'd had them all planned, she'd known what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it. In her head she'd walked in, all confidence and fervor, proclaiming her emotions. All of that seems to have fled, and instead she stands, feeling deflated, looking at Carmilla's paint-streaked face.
“I wanted to tell you-”
“Stop,” Carmilla says, but this time, Laura talks through her. She has to say this, she won't be interrupted or prevented again. Especially not this time.
“I almost told you this at your apartment before you left but you stopped me and I won't let you stop me this time.” She says all of this very fast, before she even realizes it's happening.
Carmilla shuts her mouth and looks steadily at Laura, waiting.
Laura takes a deep breath. “I really like you. Even saying it like that makes me feel like a kid again, like I'm a teenager or starting college or something, but I do. There's something about you that makes me feel happy and lively, and interested in the world. You see things so differently and you make me see things so differently.” She pauses. “I know you have a career, and I know you have a life of your own, and god this makes me feel so stupid in so many ways but I couldn't not tell you. And maybe that's not fair to you, or to me, or to both of us, but that's how it is.”
This time Laura cuts her off. She can see the sadness and the disappointment, everything that she'd seen before Carmilla had left and this time she's going to say something about it. “I know that what happened with Elle was awful, and I can't imagine going through something like that, and I am so sorry that you did. But her death is not your fault. A driver wasn't looking where he was going and you had no control over any of that. I don't care what anyone tells you, or what you tell yourself, you're a good person.”
Carmilla's unpainted fingers move seemingly unconsciously to her wrist, then draw back as they feel the wet paint. Their tips are tinted black, dipped lightly in shadows. Laura's own fingers trace the scars there again, feel the weighted memories that hang from Carmilla's arms, glimpsed when she tries to hide them.
Laura's surprised her voice doesn't shake with emotion when she says, “You carry around the most sadness I have ever seen in a person. No matter what you think, or what your mom thinks, or what anyone thinks, you deserve better than alone and better than miserable. And even if that's not with me, I hope someday you realize it, and you believe it, and you're happy. You are worth it.” She pauses, raking through her thoughts, looking for missed ones.
“That's it,” Laura says after a moment. Tears burn against her eyelids but she forces them back. She will not break now, not at the end. “I have to go.”
Carmilla still stands frozen in the center of the studio, her skin painted over with every color, one arm covered in black, save the four spots cleaned by her thoughtless fingertips. She looks like a rainbow in the dark as Laura says, “Goodbye,” and walks back out the door.
She leaves it open behind her, the way she'd found it, and doesn't look back when the cabbie starts the engine and turns the corner, headed to the airport. Instead, she looks down at her own fingers, clean and paintless. The heavy words inside of her are gone, no longer dragging at her bones. She set them free.
Your fish are still alive, I think. Text me and let me know how it went! - Lafontaine
Laura grins at the note on her kitchen counter. Lafontaine has never yet killed one of her fish but no matter how many times she asks them to fish-sit while she's gone, they always disclaim any responsibility for the death of any of her pets. Laura flips on the light and peers into the tank. JP oozes his way across the side, and the two fish hide behind plant leaves.
The second part of the note she's not so sure about. Texting Lafontaine about her trip doesn't seem like an appealing idea, especially given how she'd left Carmilla. Standing black-armed in the center of a studio, eyes wide and walled. She pushes the thought away and unpacks her bag, trying not to remember how the word sounded, or how it felt to let them go.
Lafontaine doesn't let the message go unanswered. They show up at the office the next day just before lunch, and take a seat on the edge of Laura's desk.
“How'd it go?” they ask. “Radio silence is both good and bad.”
Laura hits save and closes the document she'd been working on. After writing about Carmilla and the Gallery events all morning, the last thing she wants to do is talk about what happened. “It was fine. The talks were interesting.”
“That's not what I'm asking about.”
“Lafontaine, I'm not sure....” Laura trails off, then puts her head down on her desk.
“It'll be okay,” Lafontaine says, looking down at her.
“We talked a little, and then I left.” Laura sits up again. It's not entirely untrue. In fact it's entirely true, just without the details. “Nothing happened.” That part's less clear. She certainly did tell Carmilla how she felt, but Carmilla didn't say anything in response. She does feel better though. Less heavy, though no less sad.
Lafontaine raises their eyebrow, looking a little skeptical. “If you don't want to talk about it, it's okay,” they say. “I don't really mean to pressure you”
“Thanks.” Laura smiles at them. She doesn't feel like she needs to talk about Carmilla anymore. She said what she needed to say. She can let Carmilla go.
“Drinks tonight at the Lustig?” Lafontaine asks, waving to Perry as she emerges from her office.
“Yeah,” Laura says. The world settles quietly back into normalcy around her. She can't tell if this is what she wants, or everything she dreaded.
The door is open when Carmilla gets there. The director of the residency sits behind his desk, checking papers against something on the computer screen. She knocks on the doorframe and he looks up, smiling when he sees her.
“Hello, Carmilla,” he says, putting the papers down and gesturing to a chair in front of him.
“Hey,” she responds, taking the seat. She's been in the office a couple times, but most of what she does takes place outside. There are events at least every other weekend, and she's had to do several more talks since the opening week. She gets plenty of time to paint, but it hasn't gotten easier. Or she's gotten used to it not being easy.
“How've you been? Keeping busy?”
“What can I do for you?” He frowns, looking at Carmilla. “Is something wrong?”
“No, well, yes, well not really, I guess sort of.” By the time she's finished saying this, he looks very confused and she takes a deep breath. “I want to leave.”
“Leave?” He looks even more confused, then turns to his computer. “I can check the schedule to see what's happening and you can go on vacation if you-”
“No,” she says, cutting him off. “Not on vacation. I want to leave the residency.”
He gapes at her, cheeks flushing. “Leave the residency? Nobody leaves the residency.”
“I'm going to.”
For a couple seconds he looks at a total loss for words. He opens and closes his mouth a couple times before finally managing to say, “Why?”
Carmilla pauses, thinking about the best way to phrase this. “I'm not.... I just can't be here.”
“Miss Karnstein, the terms of your contract-”
“I've looked them up,” she says, cutting him off again. “I'm willing to take the penalties of leaving.”
The director seems to gather himself, then turns back to his computer. “Well I'll see about getting everything together then. We'll give you a week to change your mind, hm?”
Carmilla shrugs. “I'm not going to, but it will give me time to move.”
He looks like he's about to protest again, but she stands up, leaving a smudge of blue paint on his chair. “Thank you, and I guess I'll hear from you.”
With that, she flees the room. Her own isn't much more comforting, still sterile and blank, but it's a familiar kind of blankness. She can exist in it without feeling displaced. It's almost five when someone knocks on her door. She throws her book aside and stands up, stretching. Her phone has been conspicuously silent all day; she'd have expected at least someone from the Gallery to try to get in contact with her.
When she opens the door, Will is standing on her doorstep in the fading light.
“Will? I thought you were in-”
“I came back early,” he says, pushing past her and into the apartment.
“Did you really tell the director you're giving up the residency?”
She closes the door and turns to face him. He doesn't look angry, which is a pleasant surprise. “Yes, and I am. How did you know?”
“He called me.”
“He called you?” Carmilla asks in astonished disbelief. “Like you're my handler or something?”
“I'm sure he didn't mean it that way,” Will says, trying to calm her. Carmilla adds this to the pile of reasons she's leaving.
“You can't change my mind.”
Will looks at her critically, then sits down and motions for Carmilla to do the same. “I didn't want to believe him when he told me.”
“And I suppose he asked you to convince me to stay?”
“Something to that effect.”
Carmilla rolls her eyes and slumps onto one of the chairs. “You can't change my mind,” she repeats.
Will takes a deep breath, looks down at his manicured hands, then says, “I'm not going to try.”
Carmilla sits up, startled. She'd expected more a fight than this, more of an argument, more of Will furiously texting and making phone calls to deal with whatever mess Carmilla's created, and his cool exterior is off-putting. “What?”
“You know, Carmilla, despite what you think, I do care about you. I didn't realize how happy you were before you got here. Since then though, I've watched you get progressively more unhappy. Your art has changed, and if your art isn't a good demonstration of what you're feeling then I don't know what is.” He points to her sketchbook, open on the table.
Carmilla picks it up and squints at it. She half-remembers drawing it the night before, fueled by stress and exhaustion and a never empty glass of wine. Crumbling block buildings crowd together, windows and doors barred by slender lines, extending beyond the walls to criss-cross over gray pencil fogs. The fog gathers loosely around hidden letters, hinting at corners and curves. She flips the cover shut and tosses it back to the table.
“I want you to be successful and well known, that's my job. But it isn't the most important part of anyone's life, and I can respect that.”
Carmilla grins wryly. “Besides, if something happens to me you're out of a job.”
He smiles back and shrugs. “That too.” There's a pause, then he says, “Have you told your mother?”
Carmilla shakes her head and looks away.
“You're doing WHAT?!” her mother asks, so loudly it echoes off every window. Carmilla imagines they shiver with the force. She knows that she does.
“Yes,” she says, trying to regain herself.
“How could you possibly do this? You're ruining yourself, driving yourself into a ditch. Giving everything up for what? A girl?”
Carmilla's hands begin to shake and she compulsively tucks them behind her back, wishing she had her cuffs. They're piled on her bedside table; she hadn't expected to see anyone today, least of all her mother. She'd thought her mother would be upset, but it hadn't crossed her mind that she would get on a red-eye and fly halfway across the country to see her, not before there'd been the knock on her studio door. Her mother had thrown it open before she'd even had time to respond, hardly before she'd put her paintbrush down.
“It's not for a girl,” she protests. It sounds weak, pleading, even to her ears.
“Oh don't give me that,” her mother snaps. “Of course it's for a girl. You're throwing away your life, your career, everything, for a girl. You have to be your own person sometimes. What about your dreams? Are you just going to put them all on hold? Or even worse, abandon them?”
“No, Mom.” Something rises up inside of her, claws its way up her spine, takes over everything else inside of her. “I'm not throwing my dreams away.”
“Of course you are, even if you can't see-”
“I'm not!” This time Carmilla raises her voice. Her mother's mouth hangs open, the sentence unfinished. She looks genuinely shocked, but anger quickly gathers across her forehead. “I'm not,” Carmilla repeats. “Those aren't my dreams, they never have been. They're your dreams for me, they're how you envisioned my future.”
“They're what you wanted!”
“Mom, all I want is to paint and be happy. I never really cared about the fame or about the money or the name or anything. At first it wasn't bad but, but honestly I just love to paint and I love that people like my stuff enough to pay me to do it. But I don't need to be famous.”
“This is exactly like what happened with Elle. You were ready to give everything up just for a girl and look at what she did to you. Look at what happened to her.”
It's like all the air has been sucked out of the room. Carmilla's lungs feel like they've been collapsed, like her stomach is caving in, like her ribs are cracking. Elle. All the guilt rises up again, fills the gaps in her splintering ribs. It's not like before though, it's not like it kills her. Her death is not your fault. The text messages are still on her phone, desperately sent to Elle after the door had slammed shut behind her all those months ago. She couldn't bring herself to delete them, she still can't.
“I didn't- I don't-” She can't find the words to tell her mother that Elle's life does not lie on her shoulders. She's not sure she would believe it even if she said it, but she has to try, at least.
“And look at what she did to you, darling, all she did was hurt you. I want you to be safe, and staying is the best way to make sure that happens. Here you have a support network, people who are looking out for you. You need that right now.”
“But Mom I'm not happy here.” The something inside of her shakes itself out. “I just want to be happy.”
“You will be happy here. You're free to paint whenever and whatever you want, and they'll supply everything. It's everything you need to be happy.”
“Not everything.” Laura's words pull themselves out of the back of her mind. You deserve better than alone, and better than miserable. She winds her fingers together.
“What are you missing? You're a whole person without a girlfriend, Carmilla.”
“That's not it, I don't need a girlfriend. This isn't about a girl, this is about me. I'm unhappy here, the people aren't friendly, I don't fit in, nothing here feels like home. This isn't freedom, this is just another cage.”
“Then what is freedom?”
“I don't know, but it's not this.”
Carmilla's mother steps forward and reaches for her, laying a hand along her cheek. “Sweetheart, even if you don't like it here it's not for that much longer. Just another nine months and then you can do whatever you want. I'm sorry you're unhappy, I am. You just have to tough it out.”
Carmilla looks at her mother. There's truth in her eyes, there's love, caring. Somehow she manages to be comforting and wounding at the same time and it's the type of torture Carmilla never could turn away. Any comfort was worth having, no matter what accompanied it.
“I don't think that leaving this behind is the answer,” her mother continues. “You can't give up because it's hard. This is worth doing. Afterwards you can do what you want.”
It makes a cold empty sense, and Carmilla wishes it didn't. Her unhappiness knots itself tighter in her stomach. She can get used to it again, she can live with it for another year, for another two. Then she can be happy. You are worth it. Carmilla steps backwards, away from her mother.
“No. I don't want to be happy later, I want to be happy now. Or I want to give it a shot, and I can't do that here.”
“You're just not trying hard enough,” her mother begins, but stops when Carmilla shakes her head.
Her scars are thin lines of courage beneath her fingertips. They still remember Laura's hold, the way Laura had touched them, gently, not like they were evidence of weakness, of brokenness, but like they were a mark of valor, or a piece of memory, precious because they belonged to her. Carmilla closes her eyes, taking a deep breath. She looks for the words, the ones flattened underneath the shame her mother laid over her like a blanket.
“I shouldn't have to try to be happy. It should happen.” She pulls her arms out from behind her back, holds her hands palms up in front of her mother. “How long do I have to wait, until it's time for me to be happy?”
“It's always time,” her mother says, refusing to look at her wrists. “I want what's best for you, and I don't think that giving up is the right thing for you to do. It's not a good way to deal with what's upsetting you.”
Carmilla runs her fingers through her hair, leaving streaks of green paint wound through it. You deserve more. “I deserve more,” Carmilla says, an echo of Laura. “I shouldn't have to be miserable, I shouldn't have to pay dues to reach happiness.”
“It's that girl-”
“No!” Carmilla shouts the word. The something has taken over, has turned her shame to resolution, has turned her deference into rebellion. “Yes, Laura makes me happy, and I really like her, but this decision has nothing to do with her. I wouldn't like it here whether she was in the picture or not.” She's just given me the courage to say so, Carmilla says silently to herself.
She takes a deep breath before continuing, lowering her shaking hands and tucking them into her pockets. “I love you, I do. You're my mom and you care about me, and I know that you only want what you think is best for me. But I'm not happy here. You and Will pressured me into coming and I let you, because I believed that both of you knew better than me, and that I should listen to you without deciding for myself. But I have to make this choice.”
Her mother stands frozen, then her face morphs through shock and affront into anger, bordering on fury. Carmilla forces herself not to step backwards again, though every fiber of her survival instinct is begging her to apologize, to say anything that will quell the storm she sees brewing inside of her mother.
“Fine,” her mother spits, her face twisting. “If this is all my fault, I'll leave you alone. You can throw away your life and your gifts if that's what you want, but I won't help you do it. Don't come back telling me that you were wrong, or call me crying and regretful. Don't expect me to help you when you're bleeding out again.”
Carmilla's breath hitches and she looks down, pulling fingers from pockets to press reassurance onto the scars on her wrists. She imagines if she pushes hard enough they will sink back into her skin, hide against her intact bones.
Her mother's mouth curls in a satisfied smirk. She knows how to hit, what words are the sharpest knives. “Don't expect anything from me anymore. You don't want my help, and you won't get it.”
“Mom that wasn't what I-”
“Don't pretend like that's not what you meant to say.” Her mother turns around and snatches her purse off the couch, slinging it over her shoulder. “You're ungrateful, for everything that's been given to you. And until you can figure out how to be gracious, you're just going to keep ruining your life.”
Carmilla stands stone still as her mother stomps out, slamming the door behind her. An engine roars into life and she hears it skid around the corner, tires squealing against the asphalt road.
Laura's words force themselves forward again. I don't care what anyone tells you or what you tell yourself, you're a good person.
Carmilla buries her face in her hands, sinking to the floor. Tears squeeze between her fingers and drip silently onto dried black paint.
Laura's just settling down with the first Star Wars movie and a mug of tea when her phone when her phone rings from her pocket. She fishes it out, half determined just to let it ring itself into voicemail. The half that decides to answer wins and she puts the phone up to her ear.
“Have you seen the newspaper today?” they ask.
“Um, no.” Laura raises her eyebrows. “Why?”
“Do you have one?” Lafontaine asks.
“Go, look at it.”
Lafontaine sighs over the line so loudly Laura has to hold the phone away from her ear. “Just do it,” they say.
“Geez okay.” Laura gets up and makes her way into the kitchen, pulling the newspaper out from under a dirty plate. She looks at the front page. “What do you want me to see?” she asks. “There's nothing particularly remarkable, so far.”
“Look at page 16M.”
Laura tucks her phone against her shoulder and shuffles through the pages, getting tired of the game. It's Lafontaine, so she knows that even if she tried she couldn't get out of this, but that doesn't mean she has to enjoy it. “I don't understand why you feel the need to do this,” she says over the rustling of the paper. Finally locating the page, she lays the newspaper face upon the counter.
“Look at it!” Lafontaine says. “Just look, you'll see.”
Laura lowers her eyes to read the headline of the Arts section. Carmilla Karnstein Walks Away from Internationally Coveted Residency. She tries to keep her face still as the bottom drops out of her stomach. “So?”
“So?!” Lafontaine repeats in astonishment. “She gave up her residency. You've gotta understand what that means.”
“It doesn't mean anything, except that she gave up her residency.” Laura folds the paper so Carmilla's name doesn't blaze up at her and tosses it back onto the kitchen counter. It slides halfway underneath her microwave and she turns away, retracing her steps back to her living room.
“Fine, if you want to pretend like this isn't something worth paying attention to, you're deluding yourself.”
“There are a million reasons she could have given it up,” Laura says, bending over the look at her fish. Sarah Jane peers out at her with one big yellow eye, then drifts away behind a plant.
“Laura. Nobody's ever given up that residency. There's gotta be a reason.”
“It's been three months. If she was going to come back, she would have already.”
There's silence across the line, then a burst of static as they sigh. “I just thought you might be interested in knowing.”
“Thank you,” Laura says.
“Yeah, yeah,” Lafontaine says as they hang up.
Laura puts down her phone, then crosses to the kitchen and reaches gingerly for the paper, unfolding it so she can see Carmilla's name again. Try as she might, Laura can't silence the corner of her imagination that plays their next meeting. The months haven't broken Laura of her hard-built crush, and this just fuels the fire. She imagines going to Carmilla's apartment and knocking on the door, walking in to find a room filled with color like fire, and the glowing coal of a girl who started it all.
She carries the paper into her living room and flops down on the couch, gazing at it. With a sigh, she drops it to the floor and reaches for the remote, wishing she could just lose herself in one of her favorite stories. Scenarios play out insistently in her head – where Carmilla walks into her office like nothing has happened and they go to lunch, where Carmilla knocks on her apartment door and comes in dripping wet with imaginary rain, where she meets Carmilla at the cupcake shop on one afternoon, without even planning it.
She knows Lafontaine will be watching her, so Laura practices her cool exterior, squashes all of her never-gonna-happen imaginings deep down into her heart. They play like movies across her eyelids as she falls asleep and she dreams of dark-haired girls with paint for blood, who draw split fingers across canvasses and leave swirling rainbow promises in their wake.
The instant Carmilla sees the front door of her building, she feels a rush of relief wash over her. The familiar stains on the sidewalks and curtains in the windows welcome her as she steps out of the taxi and shuts the door with her hip. Her apartment feels like an old jacket as she steps inside – worn, but well loved and familiar. Everything's dusty with three months of disuse, but she hardly has the energy to shake the dust off her comforter before crawling into bed.
She curls up around her pillow then pulls out her phone. Her finger hesitates over Laura's name, then scrolls down to call her mother. The phone rings for what seems like an hour before finally going to voicemail. Carmilla hangs up and drops it into her sheets. She's been calling her mother ever since their fight, trying to find some way to apologize but nobody ever picks up. After the fifth time, she stopped leaving messages.
She closes her eyes, drifting in and out of sleep and consciousness. At some point she checks the date on her phone, then rolls over and buries her head in her mattress. She's been sleeping and lying around for more than twenty four hours, and it's noon on Saturday. Not that that means much of anything, now that she has nothing to do. No residency directors to report to, no talks to prepare for. At least her apartment feels comfortable, a place where she belongs, where she has a space to exist.
Carmilla hauls herself out of bed and crosses to her easels. Her paintings are still stacked up against the wall, her easels empty. The paint cans on her table have been covered, and when she peeks inside, the paints are still wet. Sketches are stuck to the table, dried paint gluing their edges down.
The tops of the easels are dusty when Carmilla runs her finger along them, and she looks down at the gray gathered on her skin. She wants to go see Laura. She wants to call Laura. She doesn't want to talk to Laura at all. Carmilla picks up her phone again. Her mother still hasn't called her back.
Her phone dings. Newspaper, Arts section, Will's text reads, and Carmilla flips through the newspaper. Her name is bold across the top again.
It was going to happen, she texts back. She slides her phone into her pocket, then makes a split-second decision. She will go see Laura. If this is out, then at least Laura had the chance to know. Maybe Laura will have seen what she's done. Carmilla doesn't dwell too much on why this is encouraging as she takes a quick shower and heads out the door.
What feels like three seconds later, her motorcycle is parked outside Laura's complex, and she's counting the lights in the windows just for something to do while she convinces herself that is was a good idea.. Now that she's here, she feels stupid. Why should Laura care – it's been three months. A lifetime, it seems. But Carmilla can't shake the need to see Laura, at least one last time.
In the five seconds it takes Laura to answer her knock, Carmilla almost runs away ten different times. But then the door is open and Laura is looking at her with those bright eyes. She looks surprised, and Carmilla sticks her hands in her pockets, shifting on her feet.
“Can I come in?” she asks, and Laura nods, stepping aside.
The apartment is just like she remembers it, though maybe a little messier. The fish still drift around their tank, bug eyed and complacent.
“I heard you gave up your residency.” Laura says, shutting the door.
“Yeah,” Carmilla says. It feels lame, and now that she's here she feels like she shouldn't have come. It was stupid to assume that Laura wanted anything to do with her at this point.
Light filters in through the glass doors to the balcony, turning Laura's hair to gold as she vanishes into the kitchen, then returns with two sodas. “It was in the newspaper yesterday,” she says as she holds one out to Carmilla.
Carmilla takes it gratefully and pops it open. Water beads along the sides and the top, collecting around the rim. Laura slides the balcony door open and gestures for Carmilla to follow her. They lean against the railing again, silent.
“I wanted to talk to you about what you said back at the Gallery,” Carmilla says, then takes a sip of her drink to buy herself time.
“And?” There's an undertone of hope in Laura's voice, or at least Carmilla tells herself so. When she looks over, Laura's eyes are fixed on her, unwavering.
Carmilla looks away, back down at her fingers around the soda can. “I thought a lot about it. And it took me a while to work up the courage to believe all the things you said. I'm still not sure I do. But they gave me the strength that I needed to stand up for myself. You were right, I wasn't happy. I'm not sure if this is going to make me more happy but at least it won't make me unhappy.”
Gentle fingers touch her shoulder, and she feels Laura step closer to her. “Your words helped me be strong, at least for a little bit, even though I'm not strong all the time.”
Laura leans in, her breath brushing Carmilla's skin. “You are so strong,” she says, her hand sliding down Carmilla's arm to rest at her wrist. Carmilla can feel her touch even through the thick leather cuffs. “Even if you don't always believe it.”
Carmilla doesn't want to look at her, can't bring herself to. “You said that maybe it wasn't fair for you to tell me how you felt. And maybe it's not fair for me to tell you either, after everything that's happened. But I'm working on taking care of myself and I feel like I need to.” She takes another deep, shuddering breath. “Saying this makes me feel like a kid too. You make me feel like a kid, like the world is full of possibilities and happiness, and you're there to light everything up. I really like you, and I don't want to lose you.”
Laura's hand cups Carmilla's cheek, turning her head so their eyes meet. “I don't want to lose you either.” And then they're kissing, slow and soft and it's everything Carmilla's wanted. The kiss breaks and Laura leans back, smiling.
“Was that so hard?”
Carmilla laughs and leans back herself. “Not as hard as I thought it would be.”
“Good.” There's a moment of quiet, then Laura says, “What're you doing for the rest of the day?”
Carmilla says the first thing that comes into her mind. “I'm thinking about getting a cat.”
“A black one?” Laura asks, raising her eyebrows.
“Yes.” Carmilla smiles.
“We can go to the shelter,” Laura says. “It doesn't close until four today.”
“Sounds good. You're going to have to name it though. I'm terrible at naming things.”
Laura throws her head back laughing. “You've met my fish – do you really think I'm the person to name a cat?”
Carmilla laughs along, glancing back at the fish tank. “Okay then, we'll name it together.”
Laura reaches for her hand and twists their fingers together, light and dark, flakes of paint spreading across her skin.
Thank all y'all for reading and commenting - I know I didn't respond, but I read all of them and I cannot express how much I appreciate your thoughts and your encouragement. This has been a really wonderful experience and journey and it was made so by all of you.
I hope to see y'all again soon. I know I'll be back. ;P