Oh, Mike! That’s when I felt my heart—it was still beating, and it was strong. “Mike?”

“I’m here, Ara. I’m right here.” He appeared then, by my side. The warmth, the hand I felt in my darkness, it was Mike. I didn’t imagine it.

“I don’t understand. What am I doing in a hospital?” I asked, rubbing my face.

David looked at Mike, then they both looked at me. “You lost a lot of blood—they had to put you on a life support system.” Mike’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“Okay, but, what happened to me?” My memory hit the foggy wall of perplexity. I didn't even remember getting up this morning.

“Ara, you’ve been in a coma for three months.” Mike’s voice trembled; he turned away so I couldn’t see his face, but I only had to see his shoulders shaking to know he was crying.

I tried to look around the room to get my bearings.

I felt nothing then, except a throbbing in my head as I tried to piece together the last few months of my life. “Okay.” I took a few deep breaths, bringing myself to terms with this new information. “So, a coma—but why? How did I get in a coma?”

He just shook his head, refusing to look at me.

I looked down at my hands, felt my face, my throat, checking for something, anything that would give me a clue. Then, I felt the silky, lumpy rise of gathered skin on my neck, and as I looked down, to nothing in particular, saw the horrid parallel lines of raised pink skin down the length of my forearm. I drew a breath, tracing the scar with wide eyes, afraid to touch it—not sure if it was really there or if this was some nightmare. “Did I do this to myself?”

Mike released the sob he’d obviously been trying to restrain, and David held his breath, cradling me in his arms—pressing his cheek firmly to mine with the same intensity as his grip around my waist. Then, with a wash of cold trepidation, the memory hit me.

I rubbed my head, letting the tears spill out over my lashes. Jason. He—he hurt me. The cold. The dark. I remember.

“Shh, hush, my love, it’s…it’s going to be okay,” David said.

“What’s happening?” Mike leaned over me and, placing his hand on my forehead, studied my face as I fell apart inside. “Why is she breathing like that?”

David stood up and laid me flat on my back.

“Get the nurse,” Mike ordered, moving a pillow from under my head.

“No!” I held my hand out, taking deeper, more controlled breaths. “No, I’m okay. I’m okay.”

“Ara, you’re as white as a ghost.” Mike folded himself around me, and the warm smell of home reminded me that I was safe, that I was okay now and the darkness was gone—Jason was gone. I rested my chin in the curve of his neck.

He looked at me, his emerald-green eyes shining out under his low-pulled brow.

Did he find me, David? Did Mike find me? I clutched Mike’s shoulder tightly, studying David’s face for proof of a lie, trying to feel my heart beating—to steady it—but after months of sensory deprivation, everything was so loud and so bright. I couldn’t feel it beating anymore.

David closed his eyes, nodding, and looked away.

I knew what Mike would’ve seen. I knew what David would’ve seen in Mike’s head—even he couldn’t look at me. “I’m sorry, Mike,” I cried. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”

Mike let out a gust of air and his sad gaze drew me in as he pulled back. Tears streamed over his cheeks, his eyes falling stunned into the silence that stopped on his lips. “Ar, I…”

My cheeks flushed with heat; I turned my face away.

“No.” Mike took my chin in his fingers and made me look at him. “No, Ara, you have nothing to be sorry for. You did nothing wrong. This is something that was done to you.”

“Yes.” Mike’s eyes, with desperation hiding in the corners, met mine. “Do you remember anything else?”

I looked at David, who lifted his head when he read my thought; He bit me, does that mean I’m a…?

He closed his eyes and shook his head again.

My breathing slowed entirely. I lowered my head and rested my hand across my lips. Why? Why aren’t I dead then? He bit me. I should be dead, right?

Mike moistened his dry lips, then wiped a palm across his mouth. “I wish I’d never let you out of my sight. Just a split second was all it took. I just—I was watching you. I was right there and…” He bit his knuckle for a second. “I tried to get to you—but he was gone.”

“It’s not your fault, Mike,” I whispered; it was all I could do to console him. My throat hurt and the muscles under my jaw felt strained.

“I should’ve protected you. It was my job, Ara.” Mike looked at David for a second. “They…they say you have the same mark on your neck as that kid who died—Nathan?”

What? He died from a vampire bite?

A vampire? Not you, David? You didn’t do it, did you?

He closed his eyes. Mike studied the both of us, no clue we were exchanging our own private words. I looked away from Mike, and my wide eyes studied every inch of David’s face. There was no way David killed Nathan. I couldn’t believe that. I wouldn’t believe it.

David looked up, his warm eyes softening as he opened them and muttered, “Thank you,” under his breath.

“They just can’t understand why—if it was the same guy—why Nathan didn’t report an attack,” Mike said. “Ara, you shouldn’t be alive right now. Your attacker was carrying some rare tropical disease. You died!”

“Yes. They pronounced you brain-dead. You flat-lined, they took out the breathing tube and your heart stopped. But then, the monitor—” he looked at the small screen behind me, “—it started beeping again. You kept going. Somehow, you found a way.”

The memory of the darkness filled my mind; the air became thick and hard to inhale, closing me in, the dry smell of dirt choking me. I looked down at my hand. “My ring?”

“It’s here.” Mike pulled it from his pocket and held it up; it looked so small and fragile in his broad, strong fingers.

“I thought I’d lost it. All this time, in the darkness, I thought I’d lost it.” My voice quivered as the reality of being alive set in.

David closed his eyes and looked away when Mike slipped the ring back onto my finger. I had no time to stop him—it just happened, and the hurt on David’s face tore my heart as it dropped into my stomach.

“They wouldn’t let you keep it on,” Mike said softly. “But I kept it close to me every day.”

Like a habit that had been formed over years, I twisted the ring around on my finger and studied the shimmering red of the ruby, regretting having asked Mike about it. “Where’s Vicki? My Dad?”

“They went for coffee,” Mike said. “They stayed for a while, but your dad needed a break—he’s not doing so well.”

“Can you call them?” I asked Mike, but looked at David quickly. I need him to go, David—I need to talk to you.

David snapped out of his stiff-lipped stare. “Yeah.”

“Don’t let her go, okay?”

He nodded and took my hand, crushing the ring against my finger as he squeezed it. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her for you.”

Mike paused a second, ignoring the resentment we all heard in David’s tone, then, with his phone in hand, closed the door, and I turned to David, trying to stop my lip from quivering.

“I know,” he said. “I know where you’ve been. I tried to bring you back, but I just couldn’t reach you.”

“Why? Why did he do that to me?”

David’s face crumpled, but he stiffened immediately and held straight. “He wanted to hurt me.”

“Do you not remember what he showed you?”

He looked away. “He’s never forgiven me. I thought we’d moved past it. But he was just biding his time until I fell in love.”

David nodded, stroking my cheek with the back of his finger. “I’m sorry, Ara. There are no words…” He shook his head. “No words I can offer you to make this all right.”

I grabbed his hand and held it to my cheek. “It’s okay. You’re here. That’s all that matters.”

“No. What matters is that you’re alive, and that this will never, ever happen to you again.”

“So…he won't…I mean, he won’t come back for me?”

David shook his head, seeming to detain the words that might’ve accompanied the action.

“How can you be sure?”

“Because he left you alive, Ara. For what reason, I do not know, but the fact that you’re still here—that he gave you the chance to survive, and that he didn't kill Mike when he found you—”

“What? Jason was there when Mike found me?” I pushed myself up to sit.

David nodded, pressing my chest until I laid back down.

“I saw it all.” He rolled his chin toward his chest.

I looked away, going numb all over. “He told me he was going to make you watch.” I hoped he wouldn’t.

“It wasn’t like that, Ara. He wouldn’t show me.” His fists clenched. “I all but ripped it from his mind. When I saw you here, saw the tearing on your throat—I knew. There is only one person in this world who would do that to a girl everyone knew belonged to me.” He took off across the room, stopping by the window, with the daylight reminding us both that the real world still existed out there. “I went straight to him—forced him to show me. Only…I wish I hadn’t.”

“I’m sorry, David. I should never have went with—”

“No, Ara.” He appeared beside me, taking my hand. “None of this is your fault. None of it. I left you. I did this. Not you. You should hate me.”

That’s not possible, David. It’s not your fault—Jason did this, no one else.

He sniffed once, staying silent for a while, looking down at my ruby ring. “I will never understand why he didn’t finish what he started—but I am eternally grateful that he didn’t.”

“The darkness? He wanted me to be lost down there,” I concluded.

“No.” David shook his head. “No. He said something—as he left you. Something that just didn’t fit.”

“What did he say?” My brow creased; it felt so weird to use those muscles again.

“He kissed you on the cheek and touched your hair, but he did it so gently.” David absentmindedly copied the action of his brother. “He touched you the way I would. Then he said, You don’t know how special you are. I can break your body, but I’ll never break this.” David placed his hand over my heart. I looked up from my chest and into the confusion on his face. “It just doesn’t make any sense. I know him; I know what he’s capable of. Whatever changed his mind, you don’t know how lucky you are—how lucky Mike is. Ara, he was going to—” He closed his eyes.

An involuntary shudder edged up my spine. We both breathed heavily in the silence for a second.

“But he bit me. Why didn’t I change?”

David drew a long breath, masking the shaking in his chest. “I’m sorry, Ara. You—”

“I don’t have the gene?” Hot tears filled my eyes again. I felt myself being pulled backward—like I’d stayed put in the crowded lounge of an airport and watched myself leave. David looked away. “But, I…I changed my mind.”

“I know.” David nodded. “You just—it’s just not in your blood, Ara.”

My whole body stilled, my eyes closing tightly around hot liquid. “I don’t want to die anymore, David. I can’t be without you again.”

“I know. I know, my love.” He stroked my hair, holding my face to his chest, but there was nothing he could say. “You can never be a vampire, Ara. The promise of eternity was never mine to give.”

The emptiness of stolen dreams consumed me, and something died within my soul; all hope fell away to the darkness of my nightmares—like a rose, falling through eternity to a marbled ground of nowhere—laying lifeless and spoiled with a single drop of crimson on her pretty, white petal. The only colour she would ever see again.

David rested his forehead to mine and tucked a lock of hair behind my ear.

“How can that be?” My words touched his lips in a breath. “How can it be over now that I’ve made up my mind?”

“I can’t do this, David. I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself that I’ll never get back—this can’t be the end.”