[P] how many months of darkness I waited for a moment of light

She had left, after that, and Santiago had been left for a long while with his thoughts. By the time he’d managed to piece together his psyche, he started amending the glue, and robotically set to scrubbing the stains out of the floor until his hands felt raw, and his knees felt bruised, but he was no worse for wear than the rest of himself.

Cataclysmic – these little wounds had amounted to no shortage of events, all passing him by – and, left in the wake, he was a ghost in the walls of the Mill. There were a number of realizations he came to: he rarely left the house, he missed out on important family events, he hardly tracked the coming or going of his children, much less his wife.

He had sat at the table, and watched the fireplace until it puttered out into dull, flickering embers, and he waited.

For what, he wasn’t entirely certain.

The night was long, and restless. At what point had he fallen asleep? He was trying – truly trying – fingers reached through darkness to find one little flicker, a glimmer and glimpse of what he’d once had. Luciana, Rafaela, Remy and Calhoun, all small, yet mighty, teeth digging into his fingers and his cheek and his ears as they all squabbled, so hands on; from the moment they could speak, he would answer. What had happened?

Santiago had not needed to ask that. He knew fine and well. Like all things he touched, it turned to fetid rot, sick and mealy. He’d been born to Rattler’s Gulch, and he’d known that curse; everything would, eventually, turn to ruin.

Dreams were troubled as they danced, projected, across the backs of his eyelids until he woke with his face plastered to the dining room table, grunting softly as he lifted himself up. His head was pounding. Sobriety, some of these mornings, felt like a horrible mistake. Pushing himself out of the chair, he shuffled, slow and awkward whilst knuckling an eye, over towards Evelyn, looking ever so baleful to try and appease her, his tattered ears folded back and expression penitent and – perhaps daringly – even a little playful; anything to spark what they had, to play at her sentiments.

Just to escape another fight. Anything to avoid the hurt.

”Do you want breakfast?” he asked, softly, testing the waters, only to receive her frosty shoulder and a characteristic hum. She had not forgiven him. She had no reason to. A year, this had gone on; as far as he expected, years longer it would last – the lighthearted approach was dropped, and he sighed, rubbing his fingers against his nape.

”Whatever happened with us, Ev?”

Location: Old Charmingtown Mill || NPCs: — || Form: Optime

"Hn." The grunt, in its brevity, was sharp and harsh. Cold. Unfriendly.

She had her back to him, her eyes turned down to the parchment in front of her. She didn't even deign to swivel an ear his direction.

But, in spite of herself, Evelyn did hear him; she was listening.

When was the last time they had shared a meal? A year? Longer, surely. The anniversary of Luciana's death was approaching fast and, even in the weeks leading up to that terrible day, she could not recall the last time they had feasted together.

Before then, Evelyn had passed the days worrying after her daughter and, once she was returned to them, broken and crippled, her days had been spent caring for Luci.

Afterwards, the fire-kissed woman had thrown herself wholly into her duties and her work to keep herself — her mind, her hands, and her emotions — fully occupied.

Either way, food had been the last thing on her mind and alcohol had been the only thing on her husband's.

Her eyes moved with the direction of the notes written in neat letters upon the parchment, looking for all the world as though Santiago was invisible and muted to her. But she subtly stiffened when he dropped his attempt at jovial conversation and poked the hot embers at the center of their mutual disintegration.

Without making a sound, Evelyn looked up from the parchment and tipped her terrible face to her husband. Her expression as flat, but her eyes were flinty and indignant. Resentful. Dangerous. She watched him unblinkingly, the silence stretching uneasily between them.

And then she scoffed.

"That really any wonder to you?" she asked, her tone filled with venom and her yellowed teeth poking out from behind her lips. "How 'bout you go an' and try t' tell me, Mister Tejada."

Whether he wanted it any more or not, Santiago had her full attention now.

[WC -- 323]


He had grown accustomed to their brief interactions. They had not so much as uttered a word to one another in weeks, and his voice had felt raw, unused, and rougher than usual; perhaps because of this, he had expected Evelyn to answer him as she once had. He recklessly had risked his life to secure their future times immemorial. Perhaps he had thought she still remembered such deeds.

Santiago had become a victim, trapped to the cyclical spiral that was his glory days. It was paralyzing. This home was full of open wounds, and no one had the time, nor the energy, to fix them.

He had not needed to ask himself whether she had heard him. Her words were flinty, frigid, and cold – but not uncaring; They had shared this agony, the emotions, and ran them ragged until all that was left was bitter contempt. Their hurt runneth over – their loss had torn a rift within their world, and it was then that he realized that Evelyn would not let up her own pain to make room for his grief and supplicate his mourning. Santiago was never good at asking for help when he had needed it most.

Evelyn had never been equipped to provide it to him.

The duty of protector had fallen on him, as a husband, as a father, and he shouldered it the best that he could, but even then, he had failed. And now, as he extended a feeble and faltering step -

His pride splintered. The pretense of civility bled from him, much like the color of his face. The abuses were worn plainly – the sinking of his eyes, the sallowness and puckering of his skin, his cheeks had become sharp hollows, and, he could not find the indignation within him to fight her; not now, not this time. They were each damaged goods.

So at her challenge, he summoned what words he could, and he told her:

”I don’t blame you, Miss Escuella. The fault,” he paused, his fingers moving to drape over the back of a chair at the dining room table, a facsimile of what families should have indulged in, and he couldn’t look up from the woodgrain. ”Is mine.”

Esperanza’s own words rang with him: What will you do that will be worth forgiving? As he glimpsed up, towards Evelyn’s blistering glower, he withered. She could sense his weakness, and he could feel his whiskers tremble, ruined lips parting once more.

”I wish you’d just fucking do it, Miss Escuella –“ he had started, his voice low and grievous with its ache, threatening to shatter with even the barest of contact. ”- Just end this. Put me out of my misery. It’s what you want, isn’t it? A God damned release from this hell we’ve put each other through?”

His knuckles were white, the skin stretched oh so thin as he gripped that chair like a lifeline. His face contorted into a grimace, eyes wild and wet as he bolstered himself – he had missed it. Missed it all. His children had all grown, and he did not know them any more than he knew his own wife, stony-faced and impassive across the table or elbows-deep scrubbing out her still. He could not ask for help – not now – and so he threw that foolish notion aside where it could not hurt him. Caustic, his words dropped through his teeth like stones, jagged and rough as his volume increased in volume alongside their weight.

”Tell me. Speak to me, Evelyn, dammit, tell me what it is you want!”

Location: Old Charmingtown Mill || NPCs: — || Form: Optime

Even before the Deadcreek Revivalists had ridden into town and burned their homes — and their legacies — to ash and bone, their lives had already been laced together in the way that only friendly neighbors sharing a mutual interest can be. But after they — these three lone survivors of devastation and destruction — had fallen in with the Drygrass Posse, burned and bleeding and broken, there was no returning from the way that she and Santiago's destinies had become so intricately and irreversibly intertwined.

They were fated to live, and to fall, together.

Except that Evelyn was a woman of fierce self-preservation, dedicated to her own survival and sometimes at the cost of others. Motherhood had replaced this compulsion toward self-interest with an intense obligation to ensure the safety and sustainability of her family; of her children.

And Santiago — her wily outlaw, her closest friend, her dear husband, her children's father — had become an ongoing threat to that safety and sustainability.

As he fingered the woodgrain of the chair and spoke his grave, gravely words, her eyes did not leave his face. Nor did her face or the glower that pinched at it soften when his eyes at last met hers. Even when she saw how he withered and heard the terrible ache in his voice, Evelyn remained resolute. She had understood his pain over Luciana's death for she shared in it. But they had other children to care for and to raise and to see succeed. And while she had not been a perfect mother, often leaving her eldest children to feed and guide and discipline the youngest of them, Evelyn had justified burying herself in her work because at least it provided for her family.

Questionable as her actions might have been, at least she had chosen family over self.

His final demand at last saw a change to her expression. Cracking into terrible wrinkles and sharp edges, Evelyn pulled back her lips and bared her teeth at her husband. She rose quickly to her full, unimposing height and the chair she had been seated in tipped over and hit the floor with a shattering clatter. Gripping the edge of the table, her fingers digging into its underside and the heels of her hands supporting her weight, she leaned in towards at her husband across wooden space between them.

"What do I want?" she roared, eyes blazing and teeth clicking. "I want for you to be a Goddamn man, Santiago, and start showin' respect for this family!"

This family; not your family.

That hadn't been intentional, but she knew that she believed it the moment the words passed through her lips. And she knew that she would not take it back. Not until her husband had earned it. Because as far as she was concerned, Santiago had forsaken them. He had missed important gatherings, missed important dates, missed important milestones. Not even the Bautizo of his own daughters had been reason enough for him to set aside his alcohol and show up for them.

"But I ain't even sure you can," she snarled through her teeth.

[WC -- 523]


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