This is the fifth installment in TMN staff writer Allison Maschhoff’s serialized fiction series, The Curse of Briar Michaels. You can read part four here.
When Aislinn left Chicago, she expected Briar to try to follow her. When he didn’t, she reminded herself that this is what she wanted. That she should be thankful he was making it easy for her. But in the depths of her heart the truth shouted: a person in love wasn’t supposed to just give up. They were supposed to fight to the end, tooth and nail.
Of course she didn’t want things to end. How could she? She had been in love with Briar Michaels. She had thought he was in love with her.
As she stared at Dushan’s letter, she wondered if she was still in love with Briar. His name created a jumbled mess of feelings inside her: longing, worry, loneliness, excitement, grief. It left her confused and shaken.
She hadn’t gone back to Chicago since she’d left and it was only because she didn’t want to see Briar. If she saw him, she wasn’t sure what would happen. And she didn’t have an overwhelming desire to find out.
Dushan said that Briar was in love with someone else and that the favor Briar wanted from her had something to do with helping this woman. Could Aislinn look Briar in the eyes as he stood next to someone else? Could she look into the eyes of her replacement?
She decided not to go. Dushan and Asuka thought it was a bad idea. It would probably only cause her heartache. Besides, what on earth could make Briar need her now, after all this time? He had moved on. He didn’t need her.
But a day passed and then another and she still couldn’t help wondering if he did need her. She couldn’t let go of the possibility that his life was actually worse without her, not better.
She packed her bags, wrote Dushan a letter saying she’d be there in two days and headed to the train station. After everything that had happened, she still couldn’t let Briar suffer if she could do something to stop it. She had never been able to stop herself from breaking her own heart to save his.
She supposed that was what love was.
It took more courage to knock on the door to her old apartment in Chicago than Aislinn had expected. She hadn’t seen her friends in three years. They wrote her sometimes, but not nearly as much as Aislinn wished they did. And even though Aislinn wanted to write them back more frequently, she was never sure what to say. They felt so distant. She wondered if they were angry with her.
She knew they had probably expected her to come back before this. Both Dushan and Asuka periodically mentioned that Briar didn’t come around anymore. They left the door wide open for her return. But she couldn’t explain how she feared his ghost. She worried that the memories would swallow her if she moved back to the place where they had been created. Unfortunately, keeping the memories at bay also meant pushing away her friends and family.
Dushan opened the door. Aislinn tried to swallow the surprise that rose up in her. He had grown out his dark stubble so that it covered his cheeks and looped around his mouth, hiding his olive skin and dimples. He looked so different. Aislinn was crushingly aware of how long it had been.
She was trying to think of a proper greeting when he stepped forward and hugged her. A knot loosened in her chest. She hugged him back.
“I’m sorry it’s been so long,” Aislinn whispered.
“You probably shouldn’t have come,” he replied, pulling away from her. Then he smiled and added, “But I’m glad you did.”
As they entered the apartment, Asuka came out of her room. “Dushan, what do we have for lunch? I’m starving. Also, who was at the — ” She stopped speaking when she saw Aislinn.
“Hi Su,” Aislinn said shyly.
Asuka, unsure how to react, said, “Your hair is longer.”
“Yours is shorter.”
Running a hand through her new pixie cut, Asuka asked, “What do you think?”
Aislinn smiled. “It looks good.”
Asuka returned the smile and the knot in Aislinn’s chest fully unraveled. She was finally home and she was welcome and she didn’t have to worry about anything for the time being. Not until Briar showed up.
Dushan went to the kitchen to make up a few sandwiches as Aislinn and Asuka continued to talk. For the first time in a long time he was very thankful for the existence of Briar Michaels.
After lunch, Aislinn called Briar. He answered the phone and she knew he was there, but she spoke as if she was speaking into an answering machine. As soon as she finished telling him that he could come see her tomorrow if he wanted to explain everything, she hung up. She wasn’t ready to hear his voice.
In all honesty, Aislinn wasn’t sure she should have come back. Those feelings only intensified when Briar walked into the apartment’s living room the following afternoon.
Aislinn took in every detail, every change: his hair was longer, messier, and his eyes were red with sleep deprivation. His clothes were ruffled. When he saw Aislinn, he did not smile. Instead he stared at her with solemn, hopeful eyes, his mouth slightly open as if he was seeing something worthy of awe. But this was not a look of love. This was relief. Aislinn was the answer to his prayers and she had not realized until that moment how desperate he was. She fidgeted as he sat down across from her. Three years ago he would have sat next to her.
“You came,” he said. His voice was quiet and trembling as it reached her ears. It seemed as afraid to approach her as he did.
Briar reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. “I suppose you’d like to know why you’re here.”
Aislinn swallowed, but she couldn’t get fear’s cold, metallic taste out of her mouth. “Yeah.”