It was her voice. I froze, petrified. It couldn't be.
No...it wasn't. Her voice wasn't so heavy, so scarred.
Heavy and scarred? What was I thinking? It was neither. It was light and happy and fresh, and Vere was in Heaven with the God who died for me on the hillside, so that revenge and hatred could be no more.
Ugh! What kind of drugs was I on? It wasn't Vere. It was Deanna Macpherson. Crying out. Calling my name. Why? Where was she?
I could stay silent no longer. "Deanna? Are you there?"
"Vere - ? Was that you? Were you calling me?"
I felt my heart sag inside my chest. Both had called to me. I had answered to both cries. Both had ignored my replies. Why? It occurred to me: maybe they couldn't answer back. But that was stupid. Deanna was in England a thousand miles away - Vere was dead and gone.
My heart leapt. Had they returned? Had the ghosts of my mind and the haunts of my life returned to me, to taunt my grief and mock my sorrow - but to keep my living and well?
These voices - they were so loud and confused. Why couldn't they just go away. They brought such conflicting feelings tangling themselves in my heartstrings. What heartstrings? Do I still have a heart? Has it not fallen apart by this time, ripped time and time again by pain. I am a self-harmer. It was clear. After the initial tear, I had shredded the soft membrane left, rather than cared for and nurtured it back to health. And this was how it had left me: lost and abandoned and broken.
A sunny voice, and innocent. Not Deanna, whose sister had died so young and so gentle. Not Vere, who had died herself, young, but a little older, and equally gentle.
No; it was Shani, calling my name, again and again.
"Shani? What do you want? What are you saying?"
"Den! You're okay! Mum! He responded to me!"
I felt my lungs deflate again, and willed them to go on deflating, again and again.
"Now, now, Den, dear," said the warm tones of Shani's mum. "Come on back. You're rather feverish, but it's passing. Nothing's wrong. Nobody's left you. We're right here beside you."
Someone squeezed my clammy fingers, and I realised how glad I was to be alive and valued. The relief washed over me like the fresh salt of a seawater tide, rising and butting gently against my chest. I had been to the seaside once - with Vere, along time ago. I didn't dare allow my mind to return to that time of bliss and peace and unity.
"Den, what was wrong?" Shani said, her voice cracked with tears. "You kept calling and calling, and looking round as if you heard things. What's wrong? What happened?"
"Nothing happened," I said, letting my eyelids flicker and the golden light of the lamp to filter through the black mesh of my lashes.
"Don't pester him," said Clara reproachfully. "Shani, you mustn't be so curious."
"But I am curious!" she protested. "And utterly concerned. I'm terrified for you, Den. You're so good to me, and I hate to see you thrashing and helpless like that."
"You haven't seen me at my worst," I responded wryly.
"Worst?" Shani's face drained a little, and I felt sorry for her. Why did I say that? Why should I infect her with my haunts? It wasn't right, and it wasn't just. How could I think of it?
"Yeah," I said.
She sat silently for a moment, her grip on my hand ever-increasing in its strength, but now she was clinging to me, rather than she lending me support in my anguish. Suddenly I felt the grip relax, and she shifted on the seat onto which we were both crowded.
"Den," she said softly, "did you have a brother or sister? Who you left behind? Who you loved very much?"
It was too much. I felt the tears spill. No, I thought, please no! But they came, and I couldn't stop them.
"Ssh," cooed Shani, and through the cascade of droplets a waterfall over my eyes I saw Clara exist the room. "Hey, it's okay. You can bring them here. Can't you tell me?"
Yeah, of course I could tell her. No; she should never know about Vere. Yes - no - yes - no. Deanna would never have pressed me to say anything. She would always tell me I didn't have to do anything if I didn't want to. Shani...she was more direct, less shy. She liked me.
"My elder sister," I said finally. "She's still in England. I love her like I love nobody else. And I will never see her ever again."
Half the truth...no, not a quarter. But it was enough.
"Oh, Den." Two slim arms slid around my shoulders, and I let myself cry into the small crook of Shani's shoulder. "You'll see her again," said Shani. "You'll see."
"I won't," I said, and I knew that I was completely sure, completely definite. I would never see Vere again. Ever. It was the simple truth. Simple in its pain, and painful in its simplicity.
A moment passed, a silver moment of mutual sympathy.
"Look at me, Den."
I obeyed. Her voice was a command.
Then she leaned in, and placed her lips gently over mine. I was too worn out to protest, or even to note in full consciousness that this was a very different kiss compared to the one I had shared with Deanna Macpherson, nearly a year ago.