After an hour’s drive east on the A5 Autostrada, Kaitlyn Kilcrest and Hanna Graham arrived in Tivoli, Italy. Win in Rome hadtaken place two nights earlier, and like so many times before Clara had disappeared in the time between. Rather than sightsee all of Italy and its multinational surroundings with familiar faces, she had returned to her diabolical ways. Mainly risking the life of her new best friend in order to get something none of us could possibly give her this time around. Or so it seemed.
Canopus at Hadrian’s Villa was a contemplative place to spend a starry night alone. The villa itself just so happened to be nearly as old as the bodily remains of the same one true god Kaitlyn had called on during her last trip to Italy. The same trip that had all her pagan friends hash-tagging “Committed Sinner In Siena” for some reason. Mainly because she had helped stick Clara in a rolling luggage bag four hours northwest of her current location then. Clare had ended up cutting out on the most notorious “Come to Jesus meeting” in Tuscany’s church-state history that night, but not without incident.
Of course Kaitlyn hadn’t forgotten, which was why she had received Clare’s first text. She just hadn’t been told that there would be this much nudity by a reflecting pool surrounded by more freestanding arches than headless male compartments.
“We’re here, Clara!”
The stone wall to their immediate right was well-lit. More so than the parking lot, not that Kaitlyn or Hanna had found anyone to share their apprehension with on their way in. The front gate had been left open, even though normal visiting hours were long over. After consulting a digital map on Hanna’s phone, they had found the right stone crocodile to throw existential shade on.
Actually, the difference between worn Crocs and open-mouth gators were lost on them, not because of their terrible choice in footwear since high school but because Hanna was an architect. She was also a quick study concerning classical Roman building design and statuary lust. At least whenever actual human beings between the ages of Lily and however old Clara looked when she appeared in the middle of the pool were involved.
Kaitlyn had been pregnant with her daughter, Lily, while she and Hanna played evangelical finders keepers with Clara in the capital of the Siena province four years earlier. They had done so inside a darkened bell tower at the time. They had probably also groped a disrobed facsimile of a full-sized male bottom a time or two in their lives. They just had no idea how to react, as Clare slowly rose to her full extents in the middle of the pool. Not only was she in her birthday suit, she appeared to be performing an exotic dance of some sort.
Before she turned around to greet her audience, Hanna asked dumbly, “What are you doing?”
Her teething voice wasn’t nearly as infectious as the way her long limbs glided through the wind in stark contrast to Kaitlyn’s smaller, athletic frame. An energetic body of more play than work whenever she was around anyone more agreeable than Clara on a night like this. The same newborn epistemological wretch in toilet bowl heaven urging them both to document the dripping ebb and flow of all slave-driven desire taking place before their very eyes.
Clara was a byproduct of a regenerating devil, a lethal objection to all Christian outcries for sure, which was why Kaitlyn and Hanna both watched their words as she began fondling the muscular thighs set before her at one end of the pool. This figure stood without clenched jaw or Godlike stature in a ceremonial hall of rapturous freaks like herself, so before long Clare went in search of a more lively late night companion.
As she ventured clear-cross the pool, Kaitlyn assured her, “You don’t have to do this, Clara.”
Clare paid very little attention to her pitiless observers, and yet she couldn’t be addressing anyone else while wading across the still waters of self-indulgence in a timeless place.
“Am I supposed to forgive and forget? Is that what The Bible teaches?”
Beyond the pool was yet another rectangular body of water. This one was smaller in size but played premier host to a giant rock that Clara was about to mount with noted difficulty. Right after she told her latest ideological followers on solid ground, “What you guys did—is inexcusable—and accomplished absolutely nothing. Except maybe now you realize how important my humanity truly is when I have every reason in the world to do something The Bible warns against.”
Four evenly spaced columns rose beyond the smaller pool up into the seamless night sky. Clare neared one of the inner two before forcing her glistening ribcage over a solid slab of fossilized rock. She may have been starving herself at least once a week since her freshman year of high school, or she could have just been blessed with something that made her next vertical climb as easy on the eyes as it was on her jiggle-free thighs.
Clare was obviously headed for the only rounded-off knob above her B+ breasts in sight, as she continued turning her own motor mouth into a boorish horse carriage made entirely of someone else’s exploited fears. Kaitlyn and Hanna’s to be more specific, as she continued, “Like confiding my mind, body, and soul in someone who’s hurting just as much as I am. Someone I can’t procreate with, but then again there’s a first time for everything.”
“You’re talking about Everie.”
She wanted to tell Clara to be careful. She wanted to assure her that she still looked great with her clothes off. She wanted to urge her future pallbearers not to worry; Clare’s casket would surely be able to fit in a garment bag if they were feeling like they couldn’t hang with her in any shape or form outside an imploding church of hot addiction. Not when Clara remained the alpha and omega of original sin by endangering more than one generation of other people’s kin.
Kaitlyn remained silent like Hanna, as Clara explained, “Yes, I’m talking about Everie. Someone the Christian church would have burned at the stake in this country after the ascension of your lord and savior.”
Clara invited both girls up to join her on her new primitive throne. A simple hand wave and smile still went a long way in every country she had traveled to throughout the latter part of her twenty-seven years. This included the weeks and months she had spent throughout Europe with Everie after being subjected to the criminal minds of the Christ spleen-coveters below her.
There was something still very wicked flowing through Clare’s blood. Something that predated all untolled cathedral bells during Clara Silver: Committed Sinner in Siena. Now came Tuscan Prime Evil, but like Rome Hadrian’s Villa was actually located in the Lazio region of the country. Somewhere Clare was about to single out a girl more naturally tan than her worst-dressed enemy from a past life. At least while she was working at a Chinese bar less dangerous than a deleted tweet from the Central People’s Government.
Clara declared in a matter-of-fact tone, “What I do isn’t heresy, Kaitlyn. Falling in love with impossible men who are fully capable of loving me back. But what she does—upsetting the balance—”
Clara hugged both her knees up to her chest. Her hair was a mess, but it remained in place as she rose up from a seated position. The incomplete portico at her back really provided a magnificent backdrop to what by all means could have been misinterpreted as her latest mental breakdown. Before another giant ball of limestone dropped from the missing half of the ancient dome above her flighty head, Clare lowered herself to the ground. She moved through two adjacent columns towards the base of the grotto, before Kaitlyn suggested, “I know this isn’t about Everie. It’s about that guy in Singapore.”
Clare sat down on an elevated stone lip. One the size of a generous travel cooler. Beyond her dusty bottom was an open passageway leading past what initially had been constructed as an ode to syncretism well beyond her legal drinking years. Like Clare, Serapis had been a traveling god of the underworld. The “Serapeum” here linked common devotees in Italy, Egypt, and some very Christian places in between. Not only was Pergamon constructed in Bergama, Turkey during Hadrian’s reign, the ancient Greek city had become forever known as one of the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation.
That was still a Christian text, and Clara was still missing her first official throne. One she’d make mention of after contesting, “This is about the hypocrisy of the Catholic church—to this day, which trickles down to the Presbyterians and the Pentecostals and whatever the fuck you profess yourself to be before dining on cheese and inedible crackers on First Sunday.”
Clara fidgeted in place before getting set in an imaginary high chair she practically demanded to be delivered to her new doorstep. Then Hanna asked her out of nowhere where the hell her clothes were. When she got no answer, Kaitlyn asked a more pressing question, given how sick everyone was of dealing with Clare when she least felt like dealing with reality like a responsible adult.
Kaitlyn had a kid now. Hanna was self-employed and stood to earn up to seventy-five grand annually before her thirty-fifth birthday. That was if Kaitlyn’s husband, Anderson, didn’t steal all of her commissions while working side-by-side with her in their small Landover office. What did Clara have but irrational problems she no longer bothered to solve on her own when there was an innocent life to neglect?
Kaitlyn asked her, “How could you do this to Alexis?”
Clara looked insulted by the question. She looked as if the very existence of personal relations of any kind could only infuriate a preeminent being such as herself, only this wasn’t the case at all.
Clare explained, “That girl doesn’t stand a fighting chance of overcoming true adversity in this world without help, a lot of help, and neither do you, which is why you continue to live with your head in the clouds.”
Clara stood up before wandering off to retrieve her clothes. She didn’t bother drying herself off before redressing. After meeting eyes with the former college lacrosse buddies before her again, she contested, “I’m trying to wake you up. Before you do something really stupid in the name of something more irrelevant than ever in this day and age.”
Hanna wanted Clare to level with them already, so she asked, “So what is this? Really, Clara. Does it have anything to do with love?”
Clara had already turned her back to them. She was headed back under the half-dome in search of the subterranean level of her Uncle Hay’s favorite Mighty Max Nintendo game, as she replied, “Does your faith? Do you really love Jesus?”
She glanced over her damp shoulder a few times before doing the most evil thing she could and that was walk backwards without losing her footing once.
“Do you love him enough to accept the truth, which is that the Catholic church is and always has been one giant corporation? Just like the Roman Empire. The British Empire. Or better yet, the United States of America.”
Clara rescued her phone from her pocket before utilizing her backlight to guide her way. Even though she had probably meant what she said to be a rhetorical question, Kaitlyn answered her outright, “I love him with all my heart.”
Clara laughed without feeling. She laughed like she was about to absorb all the love in the world at last. Then she’d be reborn with a new name that could be easily pronounced in any language. Even so, combining the given affixes of preexisting deities would always prove to be less challenging than accepting her next heartfelt decree, as she began, “This—”
Clare came to a full stop, before turning towards Kaitlyn and Hanna. She pointed down towards the origin of her own chthonic mirth, before declaring, “This is divinity in motion. My free will—imposed on the lemmings of the Earth who have a better conception of the afterlife than what drives people like me—to do the work of the truly righteous.”
Clara started away again. As Kaitlyn and Hanna continued to trail behind her, Kaitlyn assured her, “One day you will choose to reject evil, Clara.”
“And one day you will die—a very uneventful death—after living a very uninspired life—because middle-aged innocence is nothing to be idolized, only openly mocked and willingly preyed upon by someone like me.”
Hanna asked Clara where she was going but received no response in return. Kaitlyn remained on a more ideological tract, as they began to move under direct moonlight as one.
“You condemn a peaceful heart.”
Maybe so, but Clara had gone silent. Perhaps she was worried about getting lost. Perhaps she was worried something had happened to Alexis. Something more unfortunate than Kaitlyn getting her feelings hurt or Hanna’s predisposition to letting a computer screen think for her even when someone’s life was at stake. Something irreplaceable unlike her day job in Redskins country.
She flat out asked Clara if she knew where she was going before adding a follow-up question. Did she have a map of her own? Too bad her own long legs were least suited for where they were headed, which was underground.
“Where are we?”
Kaitlyn probably wasn’t looking for the approved tour guide answer to her latest question. Clara definitely seemed unsure which way to head before probably telling herself to hell with it. She had lived most of her post-adolescent life with no conceivable way out of perpetual darkness; the last thing she should’ve been worried about was having too many options concerning her inevitable return to that same familiar Jehovah-loathing place.
Kaitlyn and Hanna both watched their step, although they encountered more dry grass and broken twigs than shattered rock and rattling bones inside the tunnel. Meanwhile, Clare contested at a pretty decent clip, “You know the hardest thing a confessed sinner could possibly ever do isn’t living with the truth. And I’m not talking about knowing something trite like you’re going to spend all of eternity burning in Hell.”
Clara sounded very dismissive, at least until she turned to Kaitlyn and continued again in a weak purr, “It’s knowing what’s probably true and turning to someone like you in confidence. To your god. To the unlikely.”
Even if Clare was able to evoke pity out of either one of them on a second century dime, Kaitlyn and Hanna would have still been no less frightened by what Clare said next. Simply because they no longer doubted she actually believed the things she said.
“Well, guess what? I know I can make all the difference in Wych’s life like he did mine. I have that power. Power someone like you can’t possibly understand.”
Kaitlyn. Clare didn’t shine her light in her face; she just glanced her way before beginning again more dismissively than ever, “The fittest girl on the company softball team no one can never slap on the ass without getting pulled into HR first thing Monday morning because you’re too proper. Too protected by something more illusive than God’s favor to exist in our world, mine and Wych’s. Something I like to call personal weakness, just like Jayne, but you know what? You still have a choice. The both of you.”
Clare had stopped in place. She turned from face to face, before urging Hanna to continue on without them. Kaitlyn was coming with her, alone. That was if she was willing.
“You guys decide.”
Hanna of course asked about Alexis again. Clare didn’t rule out the possibility that she had left her SoCal bestie tied and gagged a bit further up the tunnel, before Hanna scolded her by angrily restating her given name. She said nothing more, as Kaitlyn urged her on.
“I’ll be okay.”
Not likely, but what choice did she really have?