Some would say that the more stories go around about you, the more immortal you are. People don’t remember facts, or truths. They aren’t interested in curtains being pulled or doors being opened. They want the keyholes, the picked locks, the shattered windows. They want the silhouettes on the front porch in the middle of the night, the hints of music that clash through silence as swollen as distance. They want haunted, abandoned. They want stories. Ugly ones, pretty ones, false ones, corrupted ones. They want to be compelled like a queen’s gambit can compel an entire game of chess.
They don’t even remember names. Only stories.
The house of whirlwinds and rainstorms offered stories galore. It had done so for centuries, for ages and decades and eras and eons. It had offered stories for countless of lightyears and legions of constellations. No one knew exactly what to believe, because no one knew exactly what was true – and there’s so much to believe about what we don’t know. A scorned socialite, a broken-hearted assassin, more war tragedies than even the history records could handle, love stories you could only dream up in that fascinating realm between sleep and dreams. No one knew, and the house would never tell.
But as much as people guessed they knew about the wealthy woman with a face like Marie Antoinette’s, or about the female killer that had once vowed to never break, not even for herself, or about the lovers that clashed in every galaxy… they never could fill the void of mystery surrounding the woman currently living in the house with answers.
Some said she didn’t exist, that she was but a shadow, a memory, a vinyl stuck on the same note, a creature of the universe of what-if and if-only built by her predecessors. Some said she was a whisper of what had been and what would never be. Others declared that she was some kind of firefly, determined not to get captured and burn in captivity. They only caught glimpses of her after the sun had set, when she sat on the porch studying the stars with what seemed like an either very old or very provisional telescope. Her face shadowed by the damp gleam of fairy lights and lanterns. Some said that made her a dream, a myth, something you could never prove but believed in with your entire being. No one knew her name – not that it mattered, anyway, just like it didn’t matter what color her hair was, or what shape her eyes, or what kind of drawing the freckles and birthmarks on her face and arms made out to be. People had their own version of her, and the truth wasn’t a part of that.
She kept her distance. They called her the girl that had built an entire universe out of distance, the girl that could disappear into the distance if she chose to – and she did, or at least it seemed like she did at every occasion. She didn’t live up to the reputation of legends and fairytales the house had created for itself. She wouldn’t go down in history books. They would never talk about her in hushed whispers during boring church lectures. There wouldn’t be any rumors flying around about her in school hallways and town squares. You see, people only want to indulge in what they know. And they knew nothing – just like she wanted it.
She knew all about the sagas of the house she lived in, but she wasn’t a story herself.
Until that one day in the year that was dominated by so many headlights that the puppet masters of fate didn’t have eye for heartstrings making headlines.
Until that one day when someone approached her front porch.
Until that one day when she told that someone her name.
Until that one day that made the stars blink in disbelief because they had been too busy plotting masterpieces and ceasefires with fate to see that something was about to change.
Until that one day.
He came to deliver a package on the first day of May, the first day she was sitting on the porch at noon. It was warm enough to think that it was perhaps the cosmos’ way to apologize just a slight bit for the misfortune of the past months, and there she was, on the swinging bench with a warm fruit salad and a cup of chai tea, a notebook on her knees and a red cardigan on her dark jeans, her auburn hair with purple strands in the kind of bun she could only do in five seconds.
He made his way across the driveway, a cardboard box in his arms. She had opened the gate when he told her through the intercom that there was a package, but now anyone could see he wasn’t from a delivery service. He wore a pair of black sneakers, a pair of light jeans ripped at the knees and a white shirt. His half long brown hair was half wet and constantly fell in his face.
The stars knew she saw all that. Very clearly.
He put the box down as soon as he reached the first step of the porch and put his hand over his eyes as he looked up to her. ‘Ivy Clark?’
She took her pen from between her teeth and raised an eyebrow. ‘You don’t look like a delivery guy.’
He laughed. ‘So, you’re Ivy, yeah?’
Maybe she nodded, maybe she just kept glaring at him, but he gestured over his shoulder. ‘I actually live next door – or, well, about three miles away, because you sure have a ‘’middle of nowhere’’ situation going on here. This was delivered to my door. Figure the post didn’t feel like crossing the road to Timbuktu.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Great. Well, thanks. I am Ivy, yeah. You can just put that down there.’ Her eyes went back to the notebook, but it didn’t take any stars to guess that she still felt him looking at her. She looked up when out of the corner of her eye she saw him set one foot on the porch.
‘Oh, no, don’t do that, please. Don’t come any closer. Social distancing.’
He frowned. ‘I’m still eight feet away.’
‘Yeah, well, let’s not make it seven.’
‘You scared of COVID, huh?’
She sighed. ‘What’s that to you? You delivered the package. Thank you, but I’m kind of in the middle of something.’
Another laugh. ‘I’ll be sure to tell the neighborhood that Ivy Clark isn’t the nicest person around. And that your name is Ivy Clark in the first place.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
He shrugged. ‘You’re kind of the local town mystery. No one has ever really seen you or talked to you. They don’t even know your name.’
‘I like being on my own.’
‘That the only reason?’
‘No, it’s also what happens when you move in during a pandemic.’
He smiled, with a little bit of teeth and a little bit of sound. ‘Touché.’ He placed his other foot on the first step now too.
She sat up straight. ‘I’m not kidding, though. Don’t come any closer. Seriously.’
He held still, his eyes flashing at her with something that some people would call curiosity while others would assume it was amusement. ‘What are you afraid of?’
‘If I tell you, will you leave me alone?’
‘What, you tested positive or something?’
‘I’m in a risk group. Pre-existing condition. Chronic illness. Know enough now?’
‘Ah.’ He fell back and the foot he last placed on the step went back to the ground. She flinched a little, but only a stargazer would have seen that. He didn’t.
A few heartbeats passed as he kept looking at her, then moved his other foot back as well. ‘Sorry. You’re right. Shouldn’t have crossed that line without asking.’
‘It’s cool. Now, if you don’t mind. Still in the middle of something.’
He grinned. ‘Sure, but I think I might be back tomorrow. There’ll probably be more mail for you delivered to my house.’ Turning around, he winked. ‘I’m Jace, by the way. Don’t contact the post just yet. You intrigue me, Ivy-girl.’
‘I’m not…’ she called after him, but he waved his hand.
‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell them your name! You can keep yourself a mystery!’
Later, as the story found its way down the driveway he had just walked, the townspeople would gossip behind their hands about how she in fact didn’t want to be a mystery at all, but she smiled, just a little – a smile only the universe could understand.
He was back. Of course he was back – it didn’t take a screenwriter or novelist to know that their paths were meant to cross again. This time, he was waving a small pile of envelopes at her, standing at least twelve feet away.
She took off her sunglasses. ‘You don’t need to be that far away, you know. This is a whole constellation. Also, how the heck did you get in?’
He took one step, then another as his gaze held hers. ‘The gate was open.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘No, it wasn’t.’
‘Okay, then maybe I’m an expert lockpicker. Does it matter?’
‘Never heard of personal boundaries?’
‘What was that package earlier?’
She gave him a sly smile. ‘Curious, much? Also, I was first.’
‘I don’t know. Like I said, you intrigue me.’
‘And when you’re intrigued by someone, that just means you can break and enter?’
Het took a third step forward, now at the exact same distance as the day before. ‘Call the police, then, if you want.’ He waved a pile of envelopes. ‘But then you won’t get your mail.’
‘I have a mailbox, you know. Right outside the gate giving access to Timbuktu. Or did you want to come check on the town witch again?’
He grinned. ‘Depends. Are you a witch?’
‘Maybe I am.’
‘Should I run then?’
‘Do you want to?’
‘Will you curse me if I don’t?’
She stayed silent for a few heartbeats, then leaned back. ‘I won’t. But maybe one of the spirits of this house would.’
He took another step, and her eyes went to his shoes. He was by the first porch step again, on which he now laid the pile of envelopes down. ‘So… what are you, then?’
She paused. ‘Why do you care?’
He scoffed. ‘Seriously? There’s a girl my age living in a house I could never afford. No one knows her, she never shows up anywhere and she’s so mysterious that there’s not even rumors to be spread.’
‘If you don’t give them anything to talk about, then they also don’t have anything to make up.’
‘Who said that?’
She smirked. ‘Another one of the spirits in this house.’
‘Oh come on’, he said with a growl. ‘You really not gonna tell me anything?’
‘I don’t see why I should. I don’t know the first thing about you, so why should you about me?’
‘Okay, fine.’ He set a foot on the first step, just like yesterday, and she raised her eyebrows, but he laughed. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t. I’m Jace, but you knew that already. I live next door, as I also told you before. I’m a guide dog trainer, so that guy over there,’ he pointed at the tabby cat sleeping on the bench next to her, ‘is probably not gonna be my best friend.’
‘She’s a girl, actually.’ Maybe she chuckled, or grinned, or giggled, or tried very hard to not do any of these things.
‘Oops. Sorry, miss.’ He winked. ‘Anyway, I’m a dog person. I can make a very decent pad thai and I read stuff like Tolstoy and James Joyce for fun. Also, big Virgina Woolf fan. I head-bang to The Weekend and Bruce Springstern, I’ve backpacked through Norway and I’m in law school. My nickname in high school was Race because I was the fastest runner until I broke my leg in three ways and had to kiss that goodbye. My mom recently gave birth to twin girls with my stepdad and they’re the absolute worst but also the absolute best.’ He took a breath. ‘Also, I’m a terrible sleeper, I take midnight walks and I sometimes see you sitting on the porch at, like, three a.m. That may have been the reason why I sort of thanked the stars for getting that package to me – which I’m still very curious about, by the way.’
She clasped her teeth and then sighed as she got up. ‘You want a drink?’
He studied her face for a bit. ‘Am I annoying the heck out of you? ‘Cause then I’ll leave, just tell me.’
‘Wow, look at that, it does have manners after all.’ She smirked. ‘No. I guess you intrigue me too.’ She walked over to the edge of the front porch steps and smiled. ‘Let me guess. Coffee with cream and a hint of cinnamon?’
‘Bullseye. How’d you know?’
‘Maybe I am a witch.’ She twitched her mouth. ‘How about you sit on the first step and I’ll sit here, and I’ll tell you. It’s time for my company fix anyway. Wouldn’t want to turn into one of those spirits.’
‘So, if not a witch, what are you, then?’
‘Never said I wasn’t.’ She took a sip of her steaming herbal tea. ‘A writer, though. For TV. That package was a box filled with scripts sent in by other people that I was asked to revise, rewrite, see if there’s something there that could work. If there is, then I’ll turn it into a pitch and work with the writer on more.’
‘So you don’t write yourself, then?’
‘Oh, I do. Just not all the time. I’m working on three new shows, but those things take time. Like law school.’
‘Another touché for the lady.’ He was sitting cross-legged on the below step, his back against the railing pillar, while she mirrored his position against the frame of the rocking chair, the cat now lying in her lap. ‘So, you work from home, then?’
‘Yeah. I mean, I already did because of my condition, so not much changed as far as that goes.’
His jaw clacked as he studied her.
She disconnected from his gaze. ‘Go ahead.’
‘And do what?’
‘Ask. I know you want to. Everyone does.’
‘Well, you’re not exactly telling me if you’re a witch, so –’
‘Not that. The thing you really want to know. And don’t pretend to be different.’
‘What if I am?’
Now he pulled her eyes to him again. ‘You’re not.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘Because I’ve never met anyone who was different.’
‘Doesn’t seem like you’ve met many people in the first place.’
She chuckled. ‘That one’s for you.’
‘What did you think I wanted to ask, though?’
‘About my condition. What it is.’
‘And what would your answer be?’
At that point, the galaxy was debating over whether she was disappointed that he said what she had thought he would all along or curious about where this would be headed next. ‘You want the diagnostic answer or the accessible answer?’
‘I want your answer. What it means for you. To you.’
She looked at him in surprise. He smirked. ‘What? No one asked you that before?’
‘You really wanna know?’
‘Wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.’
The silence between them lasted long enough for a peace treaty to be signed or torn apart, for a marriage to be officiated or disbanded. Eventually, she looked him in the eyes, hesitated and said: ‘Mostly fatigue, and pain. I pretty much always feel as if I’m the little mermaid in the fairytale version of the story, constantly being stabbed by an invisible force. I feel like I’m the sun being pushed and pulled by gravity, always setting instead of rising, and always fighting to rise instead of set. I feel like there’s champagne in my blood, except that it isn’t making me the good kind of dizzy. Instead it’s torturing my every nerve, my every bone. I don’t sparkle. I’m always fading out.’
He never looked away for even a second, nor did he ever blink once. ‘Is that why you sit on the porch at night? Because you feel better then?’
She licked her lips. ‘Most people would ask if I did that because I couldn’t sleep of the pain.’
‘I’m not most people.’
‘It would appear so.’ She smiled softly. ‘But you’re right, actually. For some reason, the daylight is often not on my side, but the darkness is. When the stars come out, I come out too. I don’t care how cold it is, but once my body feels even the slightest bit revived, I need to be outside. I sleep a lot during the day, and I meditate. I read, I play guitar, I listen to music. And when it’s gone dark, I step outside and write.’
‘But it’s not dark now.’
She hummed to hide a laugh. ‘I may be a witch, but I’m not a vampire. I do like the sun, even though it doesn’t seem to like me.’
‘I’m glad you do. We wouldn’t have met otherwise.’
She frowned. ‘And you just said you’re a terrible sleeper and have seen me on the porch at night. Your story doesn’t add up, mister.’
Now he gave a chuckle for the first time. ‘Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a complete psycho. I wouldn’t have crept into your front yard in the middle of the night.’
‘You wouldn’t? How unflattering to your character of lock-picking law student.’
‘What, you would have wanted me to?’
She shrugged. ‘It wouldn’t have mattered. I’m not afraid of the dark, or what it holds. If anything, you would have intrigued me more if you had done so. I love the night, not just because I feel alive then, but also because of how the world feels. Maybe it’s the biggest cliché there is, but at night, anything can happen. Everything can feel like it’s all yours, like some indescribable secret between you and the multiverse. A perfect mystery that disappears when the dawn breaks and doesn’t feel real until night falls again.’
‘Well, then, I’ll be sure to come by at night next time.’
‘Oh, so you’re gonna keep stalking me?’
He winked. ‘Just being a friendly neighbor and getting you your company fix.’
He kept his promise, though she hadn’t expected him to. Two nights later, she saw him come down the driveway again, at half past two in the morning. She was wrapped in a blanket, her hair down, her feet up, as she was working on a script on her laptop. He halted at the bottom of the stairs. ‘And so we meet again.’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘I still don’t get why you keep coming here. Don’t you have dogs to train or trials to study or something?’
‘The dogs are asleep. And you’re much more interesting than those cases. Which I’m all caught up on, by the way, since it worries you so much.’
‘So, you live alone?’
He put his hands in his pockets. ‘Is that a very non-subtle way to ask if I’m in a relationship?’
He didn’t see the blush that took over her cheeks like the flood would take over the beach, but the stars did. ‘It’s just a simple question.’
‘Sure is. Anyway, I do. Or, well, it’s kind of like a dorm building but with separate apartments. Guess we’re both loners.’
‘Yeah, the Virginia Woolf and terrible sleeper parts pretty much gave that away.’
‘Hey, you’re the mystery here, so don’t judge me.’ Before she realized it, he was standing on the first step of the porch. She looked at his feet, then his face. ‘Do you… quarantine?’
He laughed, a sound that immediately disappeared into the darkness. ‘Not what I thought you were gonna say, but okay. Yeah. My classes are online, the dog training stuff happens at my home and I’m not seeing any family or friends. You’re actually the first I’ve had full-length conversations with, not counting the people in the grocery store and the post office. And those aren’t the most talkative.’
She took a breath and then got up. ‘The second step is okay. For tonight.’
He opened his eyes wide. ‘What, I’m getting promoted to seven feet now? We’re making progress.’
‘Don’t get used to it. We’re still social distancing. Coffee?’
‘Don’t have anything stronger for this time of night?’
‘Sure do. How ‘bout a beer?’
‘Ah, look at that. She’s a beer girl. The plot thickens.’
‘Ha. Beer or not?’
When she came back with two bottles, he was indeed sitting on the second step, perfectly lit by the warming lantern. ‘So, after three days, I think it’s time for some serious talk.’
She pulled the rocking chair to the pool of light in the middle of the porch. ‘What? The meaning of life? Better not ask that question now.’
‘Sassy. No, I mean, what’s your story? Why this massive place when it’s just you? And why now?’
She took a gulp. ‘I was living with my sister, about two hundred miles east from here. That was fine, but… I’ve always wanted space. I like company, but it drains me too, and I want to be able to take care of myself in whatever way I need without having to take other people’s terms into account. My sister kind of really wanted her boyfriend of two years to move in with her and when all hell broke loose… I just wanted to get away and be on my own. In my own kind of world, where I could pretend this whole pre-apocalypse kind of thing didn’t exist. So I came here.’
‘But why here? Of all places? Why not just a cozy apartment or a cottage by the lake or something? Why a mini-sized castle that’s equal parts haunted house and equal parts abandoned asylum?’
She snorted. ‘Cute. I actually toured this about five years ago. There’s all these stories here, about female serial killers and war hospitals, about scorned socialites and gypsy families and star-crossed lovers. It’s been up on the market for years, probably about a decade. But it’s monumental, so they can’t demolish it.’ She winked. ‘Literally everyone thinks it’s haunted, or cursed. But I like haunted things. I make a living off of them.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘So did you inherit from a wealthy great-aunt or something? Must’ve cost a fortune if it’s monumental.’
Her face fell. ‘My parents, actually. Died in a car crash when I was seventeen, about nine years ago. They left me and my sister all their savings, which was quite a sum.’
He had lifted his bottle, but froze up and his eyes went glum. ‘Crap. Sorry ‘bout that.’
‘My sister’s seven years older, so we sold the house and I moved in with her while finishing high school. Won a prize for a screenplay in my senior year, and the prize money was a lot. Got a job with a production company in college. Was diagnosed in my junior year there. Took some stumbling, but I graduated and still work for that company. Bought this place with my share of the savings and the house and some salary, and now I’m here. Working on an anthology about this place’s stories, actually.’
‘Wow.’ He studied her, searching her eyes like a treasure hunter would, though it could have been either the map or the treasure itself he was admiring. ‘You’re quite the story yourself.’
‘Not really. Just… I just always think of it as some kind of star-crossed situation. The constellations dueled over my fate and it ended in a tie, so I got equal parts luck and equal parts misery.’
His gaze made her give up her attempt on hiding her smirk. ‘What’s that look for?’
‘Nothing. Just… what a writer you are.’
She pulled the blanket tighter around herself. ‘Yeah, well, only the writer type would sit on her front porch listening to night owls and watching fireflies and stars at three a.m., right?’
‘Hey, that’s discriminating. I’m not a writer and I do the same. Including the stargazing.’
‘You’re a reader. That’s saying enough.’
‘Can’t argue with that.’
A silence as poignant as the distance between them filled the steps between them. She confided in the stars about wanting nothing more than to ask him to enter the porch and come sit beside him, while he cursed those same stars for not having the guts to do so, despite everything. She cursed herself for not being bold enough to take those steps herself, while he confided in the stars about how he condemned himself for being so selfish as to potentially put her at risk just to be closer to her – while the distance was all they had and all he wanted to keep.
‘Tell me one of those stories’, he said. ‘About the house.’
She turned her face toward him and paused. ‘Which one do you want to hear?’
‘Your favorite one.’
She smiled a little, and the lantern swung toward her in the light breeze at that exact moment, causing him to smile. ‘What? Is that so funny?’
‘No, it’s just… no one ever lets me choose. They always want to hear a particular story. About the serial killer or the war hospital or the gypsies.’
She shrugged. ‘My sister, some friends from college, co-workers.’
‘Well, I’m not them.’ He grinned.
‘So I’ve figured.’ She stood up and pulled the rocking chair just a little bit closer to the top step of the porch. ‘Why exactly not?’
‘Because I’m much more interested in you than in the house. I want to get to know you better, and it seems that this house is one of the best ways to do just that.’
She hesitated. ‘I’m still clueless as to why you’re spending so much time here.’
‘I thought we were past that, Ivy. Is it so weird that I like being here? Isn’t that what neighbors are supposed to do, spend time together?’
‘Except that you live three miles away. All the way out of Timbuktu.’
‘Come on.’ Two little words, the way he was sitting there, everything he wasn’t saying, the way he had just said her name – it was buzzing and exhilarating and electrifying and it was sweeping her off her feet like she knew was a really bad idea.
‘Alright. My favorite one. It isn’t as juicy as the one about the female assassin or the scorned socialite, though.’
‘I don’t think I care. Bring it on.’
‘Well, there’s this story about a couple. They called themselves apocalyptionists. They met at a poetry society and they were as explosive as they were…’
‘Yeah. Delicate. Word is that she was a gypsy’s daughter turned circus artist turned a little bit of everything. He started out as an aviator, flying for fun and to transport medical goods. They travelled the world together, lived in London, Paris, New York, Berlin. They both wrote poetry, but she was also a model and a beloved painter, and he had a doctorate in history and would give readings. They bought this house and it was… like something out of the belle epoque. They were night owls, which is maybe why I love them so much. They would stay up all night to host masquerades and murder mystery parties with groups of close friends, and when they were alone they would spend all night dressing up in historic costumes and waltzing as if they were holding court. Some rumors say that when they fought, they fought with poetry, their every argument a poem. Others said they’d throw paint and words at each other and then make love while still waltzing. They wrote movie scripts about the greatest romances the world had ever seen, but they had the greatest one of all.’
‘Something tells me this story has a really tragic ending.’
‘Oh, you have no idea yet. The funny thing was, this house was their sanctuary. They mostly lived in large cities and large crowds, but once they got here, they kind of dropped off of the face of the earth. They sometimes had people over, but oftentimes they weren’t seen for ages. She would sometimes sit on this very porch, crying while reading… I believe she especially fancied Woolf, Joyce and Tolstoy.’ She winked and he let out a laugh. ‘And they were always watching the sunset, or the sunrise, or the stars. Rumor has it that their living room wall contained a huge painting of an aurora they made together and they would spend hours sitting under the wisteria trees in the backyard.’
‘Those still there?’
‘Yeah. I love them too, actually. But anyway, this place was… special to them. And as the years went by, they became apocalyptionists. They were… fascinated with everything about doomsday. Their paintings, their poems, their film scripts, everything was about the end of the world and they firmly believed it would happen. And in that time, they didn’t leave this house anymore. They didn’t go back to any of the cities they had once loved so much, but they just… hid out here.’
She trailed off, her gaze disappearing into the distance.
‘Hey, Clark, don’t leave me hanging. The story isn’t over yet.’
She chuckled. ‘Sorry. The inevitable happened: they became convinced doomsday was near. But the thing is… they had been fighting. Massively fighting. Paint-and-words-flying kind-of fighting. There’s rumors about sword duels and stab wounds, but I choose to believe the rumors about one of them storming off every now and then. I don’t know. But according to the story, they had disappeared for a while, and then returned to this house at the same day, the day they believed the world would end. And they sat indoors, in the living room, holding each other, clasping each other.’
‘Oh boy. But the world didn’t end.’
‘Last time I checked, it didn’t. But the tragic part is… they had reunited to die together. In each other’s arms. Except…that didn’t happen. And here’s my favorite part of the story: once they realized the world was still turning and the sun hadn’t fallen down and the stars hadn’t died, they got into the hugest of fights. They both stormed out and stood on the lawn, both crying and begging and screaming over each other. As the story goes, she kept going on and on about how he missed her signs and he told her she never gave any warning signs. And at a certain point… they just went silent. Died down. They left, each in a different direction…’
‘And were never seen again?’
‘Never seen again.’
‘Wow. That’s tragic.’ He gulped the last bit out of his beer bottle and raised it to her. ‘Why is that last part your favorite, though?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe not my favorite part, but the part that always gets to me the most. Like… they seemed so meant to be, so bound to be together, and in the end there’s nothing left but missed calls and abandoned pleas. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have someone be your world, to think that your worlds will go down together like they once collided… and then to see that completely fall apart when the world doesn’t end, but yours does. And to stand there and realize that there’s really nothing left anymore. Can’t imagine how that would hurt.’
‘Never been through that?’
She scowled. ‘Is that a very non-subtle way to ask if I’m in a relationship?’
He laughed, a laugh that made her understand for the first time in her life what a belly laugh was. ‘She scores. But it’s just a simple question.’
‘I haven’t.’ She shivered.
‘Maybe a little.’
‘I’d give you my jacket, but… yeah.’
He held her gaze as she rocked in the chair a little. Maybe he wanted to ask her about her ‘’no’’, maybe she wanted to ask him a million questions herself. Why was he here? Why did he pay so much attention to her? Why did he make her feel like he wanted to know all about her? Was this really just a case of a chance meeting that stuck?
She tore her eyes away from him and let out a sigh as she looked to the stars. ‘Do you think the world will end with this? That this is like… the beginning of the end?’
He stared off into a galaxy of nothingness. Maybe he was trying to see stars she already thought had ceased to exist, or could never really find. Eventually, he shook his head. ‘No. I think… I don’t believe that something like a virus will make mankind go extinct. I think we’ll do that ourselves, sooner or later.’
‘Ha.’ He looked at her again. ‘I just don’t really believe in the Maya calendar or doomsday clocks or alien takeovers or meteorites. I think that when the world ends, it’ll be because of climate change and everything we’re not doing now to prevent it.’
‘What is this, then? This pandemic stuff? The world shutting down, people drifting away from the ones they love more than they love themselves, isolation, depression, death… what sense are we supposed to make of it?’
He shrugged. ‘Maybe some things just happen and aren’t meant to be made sense of. Or maybe it’s another pact between the constellations, like you said of yourself. Maybe this is a bad thing to avoid other bad things, or to create room for new good things.’
‘Or maybe it’s the universe’s way of offering us a way out of what wasn’t meant to be.’
He smirked. ‘Another quote by one of those story figures?’
She yawned and started braiding her hair. ‘No. That one’s all me.’
He watched her, his eyes on her fingers, her hands, her hair, her eyes. Her face. She blushed, but only the night could see – or at least, that’s what she told herself.
‘What is it? What’re you looking at?’
He stretched a little and sat up, looking away and then back at her. ‘Nothing. Just…’
And at that point, the moment burst like a supernova. She stared at him and then shook her head, trying to ignore her blood rushing and rustling, something the fireflies had already noticed and the stars had already marked as the point from where nothing would ever be the same again.
‘No’, she said. ‘We’re not doing that.’
‘Not doing… what?’ He got up and put one foot on the third step, but she immediately stood, pushed the rocking chair back and walked away from him, to the door.
‘We’re not… flirting.’
‘Never said I was.’ He winked.
‘I’m serious. I’m not doing this. We’re in the middle of a godforsaken pandemic, you’re not even supposed to be here and your foot should definitely not be on that third step. This is ridiculous.’
‘I meant it, though.’ He stood there, half lit by the porch lanterns while she looked like she was being lured in by the shadows. ‘You really are…’
‘I’m not. And now I’m going to bed. You probably should, too.’
He took one step, but she turned and opened the door. ‘Wait. Can I… come back tomorrow?’
She held still, her shoulders falling, her back arching a little. Never in a million lightyears could she explain how those words made her feel, how this entire evening, his whole presence made her feel.
‘I won’t stop you.’ She looked over her shoulder.
‘Or send you away.’
She was asleep when he arrived the next day. Or maybe she pretended to be, secretly hoping, wishing, praying maybe, that she would hear his footsteps on those forbidden steps as he came closer than they had ever been to wake her. Maybe she was hoping he would stand near the swinging bench she had fallen asleep on, that he would slowly squat, close enough for her to hear his breathing, that he would softly, carefully, lightly touch her cheek or brush her hair out of her face. She knew she wasn’t supposed to want all that so desperately, but she did – and no one, nothing, but the stars could ever know.
He didn’t, though. When he approached and saw her asleep, he just sat down on the second step, where they had left things off the night before, and stared at her. He had brought A Room With A View with him, but couldn’t have won a game of ‘’what’s the last word you read’’ if his life depended on it. All he had eyes for, was her. The way her breaths came slowly, subtly, and sometimes deep and long, as if she was meditating and floating further away from consciousness with every exhale. The freckles around her fluttering eyelids. Her hair, tied up in a messy braid but with loose strands over her shoulders. Her hands, barely visible because she wore the sleeves of her cardigan all over her fingers. Her nails, painted dark red, matching the color of her boots. Her head, sometimes drifting further down, which made his hands itch to gently push it up again as to prevent her neck from hurting – or better, even, his whole body ached to sit down next to her and gently pull her down onto his shoulder or into his lap.
The cat – whom he now knew was a girl, but remained unnamed for as far as he knew – was half-sitting, half laying down next to her and staring at him with her big green eyes. He smiled. ‘You protecting your mom, ,huh? That’s good. She needs that. I’m actually jealous of you, you know. You’re as close to her as I can only dream of being. You’re as close to her as she would probably never let me. Not as long as the world is still so…’ He scoffed. ‘Not while the world seems to be pushing us together without wanting us together. God, how I wish I was you.’
The cat meowed and sat up, yawning. He smiled. ‘You take good care of her, okay? She’s special. But you probably knew that already.’ His eyes drifted off to her again, to the light pink color on her cheeks. ‘I’d… I’d drop off of the face of the earth for her. If that’s what it would take, I would go into hiding, disappear, not see anyone. Become a recluse, a mystery. A story. Man, what a story she is, though I don’t even know if she wants to be. Chooses to be. But I’d… live a life with only the wisterias and the stars as my companions, only the moonrise and the sunset to witness my existence. If it would mean getting to share it with her. I don’t think it’d even be that hard. Never been much of a people’s person. And she’s… she’s so many people in one. She’s stellar.’
He ran his fingers through his hair and studied the cat as it turned towards her. It softly headbutted her wrist and he smiled. ‘Don’t wake her up, now. I’m just fine sitting here, studying her. If she awakens, it’ll be time to leave much too soon. And it’s torture leaving without getting to… I don’t know. There’s so much, so many things I’d want to do.’
The cat skewed her head and he chuckled. ‘Oh, you’re a curious little lady, huh? Oh well, I’ve heard that cats are pretty great secret keepers, so…’ He sighed, laid eyes on her again. Her mouth had opened a little and she let out just the slightest bit of a snore. ‘I’d want to go up there, sit next to her, not touching just yet. Just… at the very other end of the bench. And then just slide closer bit by bit, inch by inch. Close that distance. Let our feet touch, our shoes. Then our calves, our knees and thighs. And then I’d… reach out and bring my hand closer to hers, bit by bit. Slowly. As slow as the sun travels through the sky on the warmest day of summer, as slow as the stars seem to come out on the coldest of winter nights. I’d not grab her hand, but touch it, inch by inch, one fingertip at a time. One inch closer with every breath. Let our palms touch and then entwine her fingers with mine, tangle them through each other. I’d play with them, for hours if I could. And then, the gentlest, slowest of everything, I’d take her hand to my chest and press it against my heart. I’d have her feel how she has swept my heartbeat off its feet. And as her hand would lay there, I’d raise my other hand to her face and slowly, as if a million lightyears would go by in the meantime, touch her face. I’d stroke her chin, her dimples, her cheeks and cheekbones, her nose, her eyelids and forehead and hairline, so light that it could be a ghost doing it, like I was the spirit of one of the people of this house. I’d move to her hair then, burying my fingers in there, getting them lost in the knots and waves and curls, brush it back, push it behind her ears and pull it back, untangle her braid and then braid it again. And then, finally, with her hand still entwined with mine rested on my chest…’
The cat suddenly lifted her head and as he breathed the end of that sentence, she opened her eyes and looked at him.
He gave her the littlest of smiles, but she saw it. She saw its every move as he opened his mouth, then closed it again and then said: ‘And then I’d finally kiss her in a way the stars nor the spirits of the house could ever dream up.’
She stared at him, her body still in the exact same position, her heart pounding loud enough to fill the distance between them with a desperate orchestra of what-if and if-only.
Then, she finally spoke. ‘What way would that be?’
His eyes widened in surprise and he smirked. ‘I’ll leave that to one’s imagination.’
The silence returned, but neither one of them pulled their gaze apart –the electricity between them of what could never be, however, was poignant enough to tear at their heartstrings in the worst and best ways.
After what could have been five or fifty heartbeats, she stretched and sat up. Her hair fell over the right half of her face and she didn’t bother brushing it away as she looked at him. ‘I had this dream that… you were here and we pretended that it didn’t exist. Nothing existed. It was just you and me and this house filled with stories. Just us in a small fracture of the multiverse.’
He clenched his jaw. ‘Ever had a dream that turned out to be a prediction?’
She hummed. ‘No.’
He held her gaze. ‘Why didn’t you, by the way?’
‘Send me away. What you said last night… about not stopping me from coming or sending me away. Why didn’t you send me away when I showed up here that first time?’
‘You had a package. I needed that package.’
‘You’re impossible. The second time, then. Why did you let me keep coming, even when I implied I was breaking in over and over again?’
She leaned forward a little. ‘You weren’t.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because I have an app on my phone with a camera on the front gate. Each time you showed up, I opened it. So there goes your lock-picking law student story.’
His eyes were piercing. ‘You didn’t open it now.’
‘I did. Or, well, I left it open. I knew you’d come.’
‘But you didn’t know what time, if it would be today or tonight.’
‘Maybe I was wishful thinking that it would be today. Guess company fix does weird things to you.’
‘Company fix, huh.’ He grinned. ‘But still… why? I could’ve been a serial killer. You didn’t know the first thing about me. Still don’t. Not really. I can still be God knows who or God knows what.’
‘God knows who or God knows what?’
‘You know who I am.’
‘But not really.’
‘I know enough.’
He shook his head. ‘Are you just that trusting or…’
He got up and set a foot on the third step, still not pealing his gaze away from her. She stayed silent, but opened her mouth as his other foot came up too. ‘Jace..’
‘That’s the first time you’re saying my name.’
She breathed out. ‘It… hurts to say it.’
He stood still on that third step. ‘It’s just a name. And this,’ he gestured down ‘is just a step. Just a stupid step.’
She closed her eyes for a second and then opened them again. ‘Okay. Just a stupid step.’
He sank down again and sat on the third step, the exact same spot, but one foot closer. ‘So what was it?’
‘What was what?’
‘Jesus, you’re really enjoying making me spell out everything for you, huh? What made you decide to let me in every time.’
‘You called me a witch.’
He laughed, for the first time today. ‘You serious? You called yourself a witch first, by the way. And that was the second day. What made you open the gate that second day, before I had even said that?’’
She clashed her teeth a few times. ‘I guess you could say that you intrigued me because I intrigued you. Everything I said, made me intrigue you more. Everything you said, felt like my heart suddenly caught the stars I could only ever see from afar before. You felt like poetry.’
He looked at her, his eyes a deep blue of things she desperately wanted to know and yet already knew. She continued: ‘And you weren’t scared of me.’
‘You’ve said it yourself. I’m the local town mystery. I moved into a haunted house in the middle of a pandemic. I never show my face anywhere outside this property. I sit on my front porch at three in the morning. I’m twenty-six years old and I live in a house so huge that it can only spark rumors, but there’s nothing to make up because no one knows anything. And I don’t know how, maybe because of the medical supplies being delivered here, but people do seem to know that I am sick and that… scares them. But not you.’
She smirked. ‘Only the second time you’ve said my name, too.’
A blush crept onto his cheeks. ‘It doesn’t suit you enough. You’re so much more than that name.’ He inhaled. ‘Anyway… yeah, you can be pretty scary. But that has absolutely nothing to do with your health.’
She smiled. ‘And that’s exactly why I wanted to keep seeing you. You’re only the third person who treats me like the weirdo I am instead of like some mental case living in a former mental institution.’
‘Who’s the others?’
‘My sister and my best friend.’
‘So you really needed that company fix.’
He looked away and she did too, petting the cat, that had now entered her lap. Then she turned back to him. ‘Did you… mean what you just said?’
He bit his lip. ‘I’m not sure which part you’re talking about, but I meant every word.’
‘The bit about becoming a recluse for me.’
‘If that would mean getting to be a recluse with you, then yes. In a heartbeat. In a fraction of a heartbeat, even.’
Her mouth quivered. ‘What on earth are we doing here?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It damn well feels like we’re falling for each other in the middle of a pandemic.’
She scowled. ‘That was so not the plan.’
‘Pandemics kind of have a tendency to not stick to plans.’
‘Who came up with this twisted thing?’
‘Is that a rhetorical question or a cosmic inquiry?’
She snorted. ‘I mean, I kind of wanna know. What kind of messed-up God or goddess of fate or tragically deceased romance author is up there floating on a cloud right now, chuckling and sneering with the stars over those wicked Cupid’s arrows they fired at us? Who’s behind that?’
He looked at her with his eyebrows raised and she chuckled. ‘I know. I’m a writer.’
He sighed. ‘You have a point, though. They could have at least brought us together earlier, because then we could have reclused here together. You know, ‘’thank goodness we didn’t meet during the pandemic.’’’
She nodded. ‘Yeah. I’m super disappointed in fate right now.’ She threw her head back and growled. ‘Fate, what in the name of a thousand light years were you thinking? If you did this, then you’re not very good at your job.’
‘I second that. Aren’t things supposed to be well that ends well? If you’re the one pulling the strings, shouldn’t everything be just fine?’
‘Worst movie script ever.’
He locked eyes with her again and exhaled. ‘You have no idea how badly I want to just screw this distance and come to you now.’
‘Not half as badly as I want you to.’
‘And yet you want me to stay away, don’t you?’
She pulled the hair tie out of her braid. ‘I don’t know what I want. Or what I should want.’
‘Well, I do. You know what I want? To keep doing this. I want to keep coming here, every day, or every night, whatever you want, for as long as you want me. I want to hear more of your favorite stories of this house. I want to watch your eyes sparkle and glimmer as you talk about them. I want to find out if you’re really a witch once and for all. I want you to ask me if I want a drink and then touch the cup you’ve just held to get even the littlest bit of your warmth. I want to study your face when you smile, or laugh, or chuckle, or grin, or scoff, or scowl. I want to turn your tears into a smile. I want to stargaze with you and not say anything. I want to tell you everything about my dogs and my courses and I want to show you that I actually can pick a lock. I want to tell you about Norway and Virginia Woolf and I want to read your scripts, because I bet they’re better than any garbage that’s on TV now. I want to read to you and I want to listen to you read to me. I want to watch you read. I want to know more about your cat. I want to sit here in the dark with you, to tell you things no one knows about me and to hear things no one knows about you. I want to be poetry together. I want this to be our hideout, like it was for the lovers in the story you love so much. I want to know your secrets, your regrets. I want to know what you’re afraid of and what you’re really afraid of. I want to tell you the things I haven’t even admitted to myself. I want to pretend I’m holding your hand or touching your face when we do all those things, because I feel like that’s gotta be the only damn way for me to not lose my mind and screw the distance and run to you. I want to sit here, every day and every night if I can, and I want to fall deeper and deeper into you and more and more in love with you until the day I can finally hold you and touch you and kiss you like I have dreamt of doing since that first night. I want this distance to be ours.’
She swallowed, sighed, then smiled. ‘Jace?’
‘Who’s the writer now?’
He breathed softly. ‘What’d you say? Let’s dance with it, with this distance. Let’s make it ours. I’ll go into hiding, I’ll recluse, I’ll drop off of the face of the earth, tell my people there’s this gorgeous girl that I’m taking social distancing to new heights for, or I’ll keep my mouth shut and say something about how I’m a good person, if you prefer. We’ll make this thing ours and take it one step at a time. One literal step. One front porch step at a time.’
She shivered, but not from the cold, as she breathed deep and nodded. ‘Okay. This distance is ours.’
The story doesn’t say what happens next. That’s the thing about stories: they don’t have a middle. They sometimes don’t even have a beginning, or an ending. They just consist of figments, fractions, bits and pieces. Steps, and stars. Fingers and feet.
Some people say it was the next day, or maybe the next week, or the next lightyear when she told him her cat’s name. Some people claim that every three days, he sat on the next step, and that each time she said ‘’don’t’’ while her eyes told him ‘’do.’’ There’s even someone who saw them enter the front yard together, lie down in the grass beside each other with the cat between them. He was petting its head and she was playing with its tail, and their hands crept around each other, every time just barely touching. When the cat walked away, they reached out, closed their eyes and pretended to touch. Pretended to embrace. Pretended to be closer than they were.
Some other people mentioned that one day, he showed up with two ice cream cones, one of which he strategically placed on the porch railing for her to grab. Another person saw them take turns looking through her telescope. And there’s of course also the story of how they danced to the music of their heartbeats and humming, without touching, but while wheezing through each other’s silhouettes.
No one knew exactly what did or didn’t happen there. Some heard whispers and hazes of the stories she told him, other pleaded that they confided in the stars each night. Some heard them screaming and fighting and crying as if they had turned into the star-crossed lovers. Some pledged that she sent him away a few times – but he always returned. Oftentimes in the middle of the night, but just as often in the lazy hours of the afternoon. He would bring his textbooks while she dozed off. He brought one of his dogs while she wrote.
There was supposedly this time when there had been a storm and the porch railing was covered in sand. They took turns drawing figures in it, just like they took turns throwing each other crumbled pieces of paper with notes on it.
And just like those paper crumbs, the rumors started flying. About how she was in fact a witch and had cursed him to keep coming back. About that one time when he entered the house when she wasn’t on the porch and found her in really bad shape, but was sent away. Others said that she let him sit five feet away as he distracted her with stories of Norway. All those stories.
Some nights, the front porch was empty. Maybe she gave him a tour of the house of whirlwinds and rainstorms, dressed in an outfit one of the star-crossed lovers had left behind, or maybe they had moved to the backyard, where she had a huge projector screen and showed him her favorite films. Or maybe they would lie there, their shoeless feet just barely touching, as she read her favorite poetry to him and he told her about the stargazing course he had taken. Or maybe they just lay in silence, complete and utter silence, both on their sides, studying their faces, or pretending to touch with their eyes closed. Maybe he told her to close her eyes and pretend his whispered words were right next to her ear. Maybe she told him the way she played with the grass was actually her playing with his hair and tickling his neck.
Maybe their eyes burned like the stars did right before they would explode into a million lightyears, but only the stars could tell you that.
She still didn’t give the townspeople anything to know and thus to make up, but together, they became the talk of the late night drink and the early morning run. The star-crossed lovers re-defining the long-distance relationship, so they were called. And whether or not she was a witch, whether or not she had enchanted or cursed him, he was now a mystery too. They fantasized about what was being said, had their own rumors about the people so desperate to know about them.
Isn’t that just the funniest thing? We don’t want to become stories, or rumors, and yet we long to know what stories are told about us, what rumors are sent flying about us.
Maybe she had never really wanted to be a mystery, or a story, but with him… it was different. He showed her all the stories she held, all the stories that were hers and all the stories that had captured her. He taught her that no one but them knew the first thing and that nothing they could dare to make up would ever be anywhere near their own figment of the multiverse. He taught her no one would ever know her story, because she alone had the power over the narrative – and that she herself was a story. Stories are just stories, except when you are one yourself… and then no one will ever know anything about your beginning, or your ending. They’ll only ever know figments and fractions. Bits and pieces. Steps and stars. Fingers and feet.
There were rumors aplenty about how their story ended, though. Or, at least, how they made it out to end – because an ending is rarely ever interesting unless it is made up. Word is that one day, there was only one feet left. Word is that it was the day the news reported that all COVID cases had officially been treated and that the virus had disappeared from the country. Or maybe they pretended that had happened. Maybe it wasn’t like that. Maybe it was like this.
Maybe he had kept his promise, like he had done countless of times now, and had gone into reclusion. Maybe he had indeed dropped off of the face of the earth to disappear into her little galaxy. Maybe they had tested and defied gravity for what felt like an age and had taken their vengeance on fate. Maybe it was one of them, or the both of them, or maybe it didn’t even need to be expressed. Maybe it was fate apologizing and pushing them together after having constantly pulled them apart.
In any case, word on the street is that one day, he stepped onto the porch. She didn’t say his name or told him not to. He didn’t say hers. She was sitting on the bench, as he took one step at a time. Maybe she stayed silent, unable to resist, or maybe she stayed silent because she knew, felt, it was over. Step by step he closed the distance they had made theirs. Step by step, he decreased the amount of feet they had been apart for so long – until finally, he squatted before her.
She was crying as she glared at him. Only the stars knew what they were saying, but the story goes that at that point, she said his name and that he shook his head. Maybe he said that it was okay, that it was over, that it was safe.
The story doesn’t tell.
But there’s a lot we want to believe about what the story does tell, right? In that case, the story tells that he then did just as she imagined and just as he told the cat. He looked up at her, reached out and gently, light like one of the spirits of the house, brushed her hair out of her face before ever so softly wiping away her tears. Then, he got up and sat next to her on the bench, sliding closer, inch by inch. Feet, calves, knees, thighs. And then, fingertips, knuckles.
He brought her hand to his heartbeat and swept her off her feet like she had done for him.
He touched her face, causing her eyes to flutter like the fireflies and butterflies that were the only witnesses.
And then, as the distance melted into their heartstrings and their multiverse exploded into a million supernovas while everything, all the figments and fragments, all the bits and pieces, dropped off the face of the earth, he leaned forward and kissed her in the way the story will leave to one’s imagination.
We’re no good at hiding secrets
This is one thing
I can say for sure
Is not worth keeping
My mom’s already calling my bluff
She can tell what’s up
That’s just how it goes
A mother always knows
My friends tried to tell me
That you would fail me
And that you most certainly did
But you also helped me
I needed to grow up
Because I never showed up
In the way I should have
In the ways I knew
That what we were up to
Was just no good
Now your wife’s calling me
I think she suspects everything
She knows I’m more than a peer
What we feared
It’s all finally here
I feel guilty
Your so-called love, our treachery
Wasn’t enough to fulfill me
I’ve got to let this go
Be on my own for a little while
It’s been so long since I’ve seen myself smile
He stood there on their front porch, noticing the weeds growing in their garden. They mingled with the violets and daffodils. They were tall – not so much as to ruin the entire garden but just enough to catch his attention.
“He really should do something about those weeds on his day off,” he thought.
The knob began to turn and the door pulled open.
“Hey there, come on in,” she said, greeting him with a smile.
“Thank you,” he said softly, trying to return a smile himself but not really succeeding.
He entered inside the modest but pretty house. It smelt like it always did – a woody smell mixed with something sweet always baking in the oven. It was familiar and comforting.
“He’s finishing up a phone call in his study. Can I get you something to drink while you’re waiting? Perhaps a glass of sweet tea?”
“No, thank you. I’m good.”
“Ok. Well, you can come wait in the den until he’s through with his phone call if you’d like.”
He followed her into the den. She continued onward into the kitchen, he assumed to check on whatever she was baking. And, perhaps to drink a glass of tea.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like her sweet tea. In fact, her sweet tea was the best on the block. He had always loved drinking it growing up. Just thinking about it reminded him of summertime. But, then, in that moment, he simply wasn’t in the mood to drink anything sweet. Whisky, perhaps, but nothing sweet.
He stood in the center of the den, surrounded on all sides by a blockade of two couches, a rocking chair, a coffee table, and a worn, wooden piano. He had memories of her playing it from when he was younger – hymns and such.
Looking down at the large, ornate coffee table – the centerpiece of the room – he saw a few old-looking books lying on it. He picked one up and thumbed through it. He read its title. “The Last Great American Dynasty.” He picked up another and flipped through it, too. It was a shorter one entitled “Exile of a Mad Woman.” He sat both down. There were a couple more lying there. He began to read the title of one of them. “Mirror-”
“Hi, sorry about that! I had a surprise phone call that I had to take. A bit of an emergency. But, everything’s going to be ok now. Why don’t you come back to the study and we can talk in there?”
He left the curious books behind and followed the man back into his study. It was a small room. Not many more than a few could sit in there comfortably. He used it for his personal study and to do one-on-one counseling sessions as well as couple’s counseling. The walls were lined with bookshelves filled with books of all sizes and colors. Most of them were religious in nature, naturally. Yet, there were a few with intriguing titles, not unlike the books on the coffee table. This was his first time to notice them.
“He reads more than just the Bible. That’s good, I guess,” he thought to himself.
He sunk down into a brown, leather chair across from the man who sat behind a stained, mahogany desk.
“How are you doing today?” the man behind the desk asked him.
He crossed his hands over his stomach and looked to his left. There was a painting of the empty grave on the wall. He smirked a little, pulling at the sleeve of his jacket. Without looking at the man behind the desk he simply remarked, “Jesus can’t fix this, Preach.”
“Can’t fix what, James?”
He turned his gaze and stared at the preacher.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.” His eyes were wide, almost crazed. “You know what happened.”
The preacher leaned an elbow on his desk and adjusted his glasses. He looked down at his desk, then he looked back up at James.
“I know. I know that nothing is going to bring Betty-”
“Don’t you dare say her name!” James spat. He was glaring at the preacher. The preacher shifted in his seat, placing both elbows on the desk now, supporting his chin with crisscrossed knuckles.
“Do I not have the right to say her name? Am I not allowed to remember her? Or be upset about this? You weren’t the only one who knew her, James. You weren’t the only one who was close to her.”
James looked away, shaking his head, trembling.
“Why don’t we start off by saying a prayer? May I do that, James?”
James didn’t reply. He just continued to stare at the painting of the tomb. The preacher took that as a green light.
“Our Father in Heaven, we ask for Your blessings today. We ask for Your grace. Please, remind us of Your love for us and give us the strength that we need to make it through this trying season. Be with James – as I ask that You would be with all of us right now – as we mourn the loss of someone so dear to us, so special.” The preacher began to choke up. “And, thank You for the salvation that we find in Your Son. It’s in His precious name that we pray, amen.”
Bringing his prayer to an almost abrupt close, the preacher wiped a tear from his eye and looked up at James.
“James, why are you here?”
“Why am I here? You know why I’m here, Preach. I’m here because my parents are making me. Sucks but apparently when you’re seventeen your parents get to force you into crap like this.”
“I think your parents are only trying to help you.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know what the preacher I had when I was a kid is going to say that’s going to fix anything.” He looked the preacher dead in the eyes. “I don’t even go to your church anymore. For all I’m concerned, you’re not even my preacher.”
James continued to glare at the preacher, eyes filled with enough anger to almost disguise the hurt. After all, he had never been that angry of a person until a few months before when it had all happened.
“James, your parents still go to my church. You’re still on the membership role. And,” he said with the edges of his lips curving up ever so slightly, “I hope that even if you don’t see me as your preacher, you’ll always see me as your friend. I’ve known you since you were, what? Seven? Eight?”
There was a moment or two of silence. James pulled at his jacket sleeve some more.
“Yeah,” he replied, beginning to disarm but only a bit. “Guess you moved down the street from us when I was in elementary.”
He looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath, and looked back at the preacher. He wanted to know something. He needed to.
“Preach, why do you still put up with me?”
The preacher tilted his head and squinted his eyes a bit.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, why do you still talk to me? Why are you taking the time to meet with me? I mean, I don’t go to your church anymore. And,” he laughed, “let’s be honest: I’m not exactly the ‘good church kid’ I used to be.” He looked at the preacher, who continued to stare at him blankly with a titled head. “Come on, Preach. I’m no secret. You know I like to drink. I like to party. I’m not a virgin – not even close. I’m not the kid that you used to know.”
“James, can I tell you something that I love about Jesus?”
Now James was the one with the inquisitive look on his face. He sat up a bit straighter in his chair, as if bracing for impact.
“What?” he asked dryly.
“What I love about Jesus is that He looks at sinners like you and at sinners like me and He chooses to love us anyways. He choosesto. He doesn’t have to. Don’t miss that little difference there because it’s a big one. And James,” he leaned forward a bit, “I’m no Jesus, but I still choose to love you. I choose to respect you. I choose to treat you like the child of God that you are. And nothing that you do is ever going to change that.”
James fidgeted around in his chair a bit. He looked uncomfortable, like he had just been told what he knew he needed to hear yet didn’t want to. He twiddled his thumbs for a moment, then he spoke.
“You know, the other day, I drove over to the lookout at the edge of town. You know, the one next to that old lighthouse that overlooks the Lake. And…” his voice trailed off. His words failed him. He began to tear up, visibly struggling. He looked the preacher in the eyes.
“I almost jumped, Preach. I almost jumped right off the freakin’ edge.” He leaned his head backwards, as if to let the tears flow back down into his head. He cleared his throat.
“I just want to know why – why’d God have to let her die? Why’d God have to let a beautiful, seventeen-year-old girl die of cancer? Can you tell me that, Preach? Can you tell me why God – if He’s so good and loving and all that – why He couldn’t just save her? Just her. It was Betty, Preach.” The tears were flowing down now, no sign of stopping in the near future. “It’s not like it was Hitler. It was Betty. My Betty. Why couldn’t God have just saved her?”
He was continuing to stare at the preacher, but this time he wasn’t looking at him with anger. He was looking at him with hurt. With pain. With an open wound that just wasn’t healing. Whisky wasn’t healing it. Screaming at the sky wasn’t healing it. Insomnia wasn’t healing it.
The preacher leaned forward again, this time taking off his glasses.
“James, we live in a broken world. It’s been ‘broken since the garden,’ so to speak. And sometimes bad things just-”
“No!” James yelled, standing up and walking the two steps it took to get to the desk. Slamming his fists down on it, he began his tirade.
“No! Don’t come at me with that ‘sometimes bad things happen to good people’ crap! Don’t try to tell me that God’s in control or that God works in mysterious ways! If God’s so ‘in control’ then why didn’t He stop the cancer? Why didn’t He heal her?” James was weeping now. “Why didn’t he stop me from having sex last August with that girl in my grandparent’s hometown? That hurt Betty more than the cancer ever did.” Now his hands were no longer in fists on the desk but were gripping its edge, as if holding on for dear life lest he slip over it and never return.
“I put that girl through Hell, Preach, but she still loved me. Isn’t that crazy?” It almost sounded as if he were on the verge of laughing now. “Betty…Betty thought that I was ‘the one.’ Isn’t that stupid? The one. As if that even exists.” He straightened himself up a bit, letting go of the desk and holding his hands together. His eyes weren’t just red from the tears. They were red from all of the sleepless nights he had been having lately. James was tired. He was tired from the conversation, and even more weary from the sleepless nights before.
“I don’t know, Preach. I want to believe that God has some grand plan in all of this, but…but it just feels like a big hoax. And, I know, I know. I shouldn’t say that. But, honestly, it just does.”
James looked back over at the painting that had captured his gaze from the moment he’d entered into the study. The issue wasn’t that he didn’t believe in God. No, it was quite the opposite, actually: James didbelieve in God, deep down in his bones. Even if it wasn’t something that he talked much about anymore. And, he couldn’t understand how this perfectly good and loving being could let someone as precious as Betty die of breast cancer at age seventeen.
He slumped back down into the leather seat. He was worn out. Nothing was working. He didn’t enjoy drinking anymore. He didn’t care about any of the girls that he slept with. His friends just annoyed him now and even his own parents – whom he had always been extremely close with – felt like strangers. Without Betty, everything had fallen apart. She had become his savior of sorts, his source of peace.
“You’re right, James.”
James looked up at the preacher. Was he agreeing with him? Was he admitting that all of this was just some made-up story to try to make people feel better – to give them something to believe in, even if it didn’t exist?
“Sometimes this does all feel like a hoax – like some folktale that’s been passed down for years but isn’t anything more than that. But, I think we both know that’s not true. I don’t understand why Betty had to die. But, James, Betty dying doesn’t mean that God’s not real. And, just because you and I can’t understand something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Betty believed in God, didn’t she? And, she’s the one who had the cancer. Maybe – just maybe – God let her die because He’d accomplished what He needed to accomplish with her life on earth. Maybe He brought her home because her mission on this cruel planet was done. Maybe He was rescuing her. I don’t know, James. What I do know is this: you can look for peace in a bottle or in a woman or in a memory, but you and I both know that those things never last. There’s only one person who can bring you peace, but, I think you’ve already met Him a long time ago, haven’t you?”
James looked back over at the painting. It had always been his favorite thing in the study – the study that he had grown up playing in with Betty and the preacher’s daughter, Inez. There were pictures of the cross everywhere you looked in Pennsylvania – in churches, on bumper stickers, even in jewelry. But, the empty tomb, the symbol of true victory and hope – of salvation – that wasn’t something James had ever seen dangling from someone’s necklace. James smiled, if only briefly.
“You know, Preach, I haven’t prayed since the night that Betty died. Even before then I hadn’t prayed much, not in years. But, I prayed so hard that God would save Betty.” He looked down at his folded hands. They were folded as if to pray, but he wasn’t. He looked back up at the man behind the desk – the preacher and his friend. “I haven’t prayed since.”
The preacher stood up and walked around his desk. He placed a hand on James’ shoulder, and he knelt down next to him.
“James, will you do me a favor? A favor for an old friend. Pray. Before we meet next week, say a prayer. It doesn’t have to be long, and you don’t have to come back and tell me what you said. Just pray something – anything. Ok?”
James wiped any remaining tears from his cheeks with the palms of his hands and cleared his throat. He blinked his eyes a few times to clear those, too.
“Ok, Preach. I’ll pray.”
The preacher squeezed his shoulder ever so slightly and smiled at him.
“That’s all I’m asking.”
The preacher returned to his seat behind the desk and they spoke for a few more minutes. He quoted the Scripture a time or two, and when their meeting had come to a close, the preacher prayed for James once more. As he stood to leave the study and was nearing the door, James turned around and – with all of the strength he could muster – put on the semblance of a comforting smile and said, “I’m sorry for your loss, too.”
The edges of the preacher’s lips curled up ever so slightly as they had before. He nodded his head. “Thank you, James.”
James opened the door and left the room, not to be seen by the preacher for another seven days. The preacher stood and looked out the window, watching James ride away down the cobblestone driveway on his skateboard. He turned back towards his desk and sat down again, picking up a picture frame. It displayed a photo that had been taken the year before at Thanksgiving. In-between he and his brother stood his brother’s daughter, Betty.
There she was, smiling. His niece was beautiful even when she wasn’t trying. She simply stood there between the taller men, wearing a white cardigan and a pink and purple bandana to cover her bald head. Chemo was always tough on Betty, but she had faced it with a smile, he remembered.
The preacher sat the frame down and took off his glasses again. Bowing his head, he prayed. It was a prayer that was almost more for him than it was for James. It was a moment of vulnerability. Preachers have those too, of course.
“Dear God, please give James peace. And,” he looked up at the ceiling, tears streaming down his worn face, “give me some peace, too.”
When I got the call you were unresponsive, I dropped everything and fled to your house. I saw medics, police officers, and firefighters crowding the street. When I walked through the door, I could hear chaos coming from the hallway. I knew I needed to get to my sisters. As I moved through the house, time began to still and the air began to thin as every detail was branded in my memory. I was afraid to go down the hallway but I gathered the courage to keep moving. I noticed the bathroom door was broken from when Dad kicked it down. I only peeked inside for a second but what I saw still haunts me. You were laying there, lifeless, eyes closed, and surrounded my medics. You had an oxygen mask on and were hooked up to an IV. Dad was helping them carefully lift you onto the stretcher. I turned away and kept walking. I went to my sisters’ room and they looked relieved to see me. They asked me if Mommy was going to be okay and they wanted to know who all those men were. I told them Mommy was very sick but that those men were here to help her get better. Then I sat with them on the bed and held them for a while. It didn’t feel real. It was one of those things you can’t speak about.
I heard the ambulance sirens blaring as they left the driveway. I made sure the kids were taken care of then headed to the hospital. I raced down the road, screaming at the sky as I frantically raced to the hospital. I was begging God to save you and praying I wouldn’t be too late. When I finally got there I ran into the emergency room. I saw Dad sitting there quietly. I’ll never forget the look on his face. The doctors told him the medics got there just in time to give her a fighting chance. I put my head on his shoulder and we just sat there in silence for a while. I felt the walls beginning to close in around me so I stepped outside to get some air. But as soon as I stepped into the hall, the walls completely closed in. A nurse yelled out “Doc, I think she’s crashing out!”. There were a group of nurses quickly rolling a hospital bed with several attached monitors and IV drips across the hallway. All I could see was your hair but I knew it was you. I heard someone say “Mom” and then realized it was me. A nurse looked up at me and said “She’ll be okay”. I wondered if you had learned to do the same when you were in nursing school. Comforting the grieving daughter in the hallway while you rushed her mom into the ICU. And then you were gone. As I slid down the wall to the floor, I stared at the wall and started to cry. It was something I just couldn’t speak about.
I don’t remember how long we waited. It felt like a lifetime. They called us back and we tried to prepare for the worst. The doctor said they were able to stabilize you and let us in to see you. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. There was a giant tube shoved down your throat to help you breathe. You were unconscious but you were fighting the tube. I held your hand but I couldn’t look at you. They had you transferred to the ICU. None of the doctors knew if you were going to make it not. So for three days we just sat there and waited as we watched over you. I prayed God would give me some sort of epiphany to help me make sense of it all. Or even a sign that would give me some relief. On the second day we found all of the pill bottles and at least a hundred empty medicine capsules in the bathroom. It was everything you had taken that morning. I recalled from the day before when the doctor asked me why my name was on one of the bottles of medication you took. That was when the realization of what you did settled in. The next day, instead of feeling relieved from seeing your chest rise and fall, I just felt cold to the bone. It was something you just can’t speak about…..
And then you woke up.
You know my mother?
She would tell me this story
Of this woman in all of her glory
Going ‘round town
And wrecking havoc
In every naysayer’s path
She never cared
Didn’t matter when or where
She was gonna let you know
She was a ballerina
As a way of saying
She knew how to put on a show
They say extravagance
Is of the enemy
But that doesn’t matter, you see
Because the real villain here
Always was, always has been
And always will be
Those on the outside
Thinking they know what’s within
She’s standing on her tippy toes
And watching as the world goes
Because time stops for no one
Neither does she
She went by the rules of live and let die
But not before you send your neighbor the best goodbye
In the form of a cat dyed the color key lime
They say extravagance
Is of the enemy
But that doesn’t matter, you see
Because the real burden here
Were those who chose to pretend
They’ve never lived a day in sin
Thinking they know what’s within
I can feel you lying next to me. Your warmth is radiating through the blanket, but it can’t touch me. Not right now. Right now, there’s nothing to do but to wait, to hope, to dream. The hoping and the dreaming I can only do in moments like these.
I feel so selfish.
I lay here, a weight in my chest, in my stomach. It’s crushing me into myself and I know I should turn around and throw my arm over your stomach and pull you into me instead but I can’t bring myself to do it. I tell myself it’s because I don’t want to wake you or because I don’t want to use you so cheaply. Slap a bandage in the form of your warmth onto it and hope you make it better. An unknowing painkiller.
But neither of those are the real reason. Somewhere inside of me, I know it’s because I don’t want your warmth to encounter my pain. I don’t want you to be infected by it.
I don’t want you to be infected by me.
A part of me feels angry. Shouldn’t you just. Know? Shouldn’t you feel my profound badness from across the bed just as surely as I feel you lying there, just far enough away that we don’t touch? (I wish we were touching. Maybe if we were touching this would all go away and I’d never feel bad like this again.)
I make an attempt to volley this train of thought back across the net, that’s ridiculous, I tell my invisible tennis opponent. But it doesn’t work and this metaphor doesn’t work because my invisible tennis opponent is just me. The me who can’t be convinced, who wins every game. The me who meets every strand of logic with an impenetrable wall of fear and stands atop it with a navy-blue flag and not a shred of armor.
I wish you could be here with me, hammering against that wall together until we took it down. I wish you would be the one to roll over and gather me close and tear that flag from that other person’s hands.
I wish you knew.
So, I guess I’ll just have to wait, to hope, to dream.
For your epiphany.
He convinced me to go out with him one last time, after he told me that he would take me to my favorite restaurant. I was never taught to know when not to trust people; I was raised by a woman whose word was the law, if you questioned it then you were wrong. So I believed him when he said that he was sorry, that he would make it up to me. He always said words that fell to the ground and I was left to pick them up and put them in my pocket. I found a special place in my rib cage next to my heart where I tucked his words because I wanted to believe them so much that it crushed my lungs, leaving me breathless.
I met him at the most vulnerable part of my life and I truly believe that he knew that. He saw a lamb, and like the wolf he was, knew exactly what to do in order to betray me. The first time I saw him, my aunt told me that he looked like my next boyfriend. It felt like I was in a romantic comedy and this was our meet cute. But there was nothing cute about how he left my heart to die on the chopping board. He told me that he didn’t want anything serious, but he still pushed me against the wall and took the one thing that was supposed to be kept from people like him.
At first, I thought that this was what I wanted. I had an imagination that would kill to be in a world where someone cared about me, so I picked the wrong person to rescue me from my tower. I told him to stop as I bled out on his mattress; I gave my heart to a wolf and told him not to bite. Later he told me that his brother came over and helped him flip the mattress over, to hide the evidence. I slept there for two years because I thought what we had was love, even though I kept a sharp kitchen knife hidden under that same mattress just in case. But he never called me his girlfriend, or anything of the sort: he always said that we were just friends when people asked. I was just living in his house, sleeping in his bed, but it was nothing more to him until I grew sick of it all and left.
I was desperate to never return to my life before him, which was full of a controlling mother who didn’t want anything for her daughter. I wasn’t a living, breathing, person to her—I was just a doll, a plaything that she kept throwing away when she got bored. But now that I was disagreeing, having thoughts of my own, she decided to dig me out of the garbage just to torture me. Even though I was twenty-three, I ran away from home and into the arms of a man who didn’t want the burden of rescuing me. As soon as things got complicated, he sent me back into the arms of a monster. But I refused to stay captive in the tower, desperate to get out. It is impossible to escape the hands of evil when no one around you is willing to help you fight it off.
I found myself in the arms of another monster, who refused to say he cared about me at all, and used every part of me that he could. When he first showed me the house that his father bought for him, he told me about how he saw a hawk in his backyard that swept down to catch a mouse. I didn’t recognize the irony until after the fact. It was on his thirtieth birthday that everything changed for me. So many times he told me that he was going to do better, to stop disappearing for days on end without so much as a word. He was going to stop having parties at his house, stop going out to the bar, and the strip club, and god knows what else. Every lie he told me made me heart drop and it died, and it died, and it died a little more each time.
He lied to himself and said that he could stop at any time, but every moment passed and he kept on going. He had an illicit affair with drugs, starting off small but it only got worse. I remember the time that he came home one night, to lay in the bed next to me and scream about how someone was after him. I could tell that there was something wrong but I didn’t know what to do. I was watching as someone slowly destroyed himself from the inside out. Any time I asked him about it, he would fill up his mouth with lies upon lies upon lies until he choked on his own words. He could never admit that he had a problem, even though I was the one person willing to help him. I knew what it was like to be surrounded by people who didn’t want anything to do with negativity in any form, because they were afraid of what would happen to them. They always thought of themselves first, you second. But I was willing to ruin myself for him, a million little times.
I begged him not to go out on his birthday, we could have a party, just him and me. He let his drug addiction speak for him and before I knew it, he was gone. Before he left, he promised that he would call me at midnight to wish me a happy birthday but midnight came and went without a sound. I called him frantically a million times, as I always did, to no response. Eventually I passed out on the same mattress he took my virginity on. I woke up to him pounding on the front door, drunk and high. I must not have gotten up in time because when I went to answer the door, he was gone. All I could see was the his shadow walking down the street, going who knows where. I have never felt such a fear in my life and I hope to never experience it again. I immediately got dressed, threw on my shoes, and went after him but by the time I got there, he was gone.
I found myself walking the streets listlessly, unsure of where he was going and immensely worried about what would happen to him. I have never felt such pain in my life, that stuck in-between my rib cage and pounded against my chest. I cursed the god-forsaken mess that he made me. I walked for miles in the dark, not entirely sure where I was going. I walked into a neighboring small town, where I stopped to stare at a window display that had jewelry. My heart ached for something that I would never get. In my mind, a relationship was supposed to be about showing how much you care about someone through small gestures, like buying them a piece of jewelry that you would think they would like. Looking back, I wish that I could say that there were good moments that made me question the bad ones. But I had never knew a life full of good moments. My life was full of hiding in my bedroom closet when my mother took my door off its hinges, trying to find a way to fight with me just because she could.
After I had walked the streets in the middle of the night for who knows how long, I made my way back home and eventually fell asleep out of pure exhaustion. I woke up to the sound of him coming home. I wanted to shake the very core of him, begging him to tell me why he had did what he did. But he shrugged it off, as he always did in his charismatic way, making me believe that we shared a secret language. I couldn’t talk to anyone else.
When the day broke, something inside of me changed. The thing he stuck in-between my rib cage was beginning to come loose and for the first time, I was tired of it all. He took a broken girl and shattered her more, daring her to pick up the pieces and make something of herself. I could no longer live with the fear that one day, he wouldn’t come home and I would learn about his overdose on the news. Our relationship started in beautiful rooms and ended in parking lots. There was nothing there anymore, it was empty.
But he asked for one more chance and I gave it to him with shaking hands and a bruised heart. He was going to take me to my favorite restaurant, something he had never done for me in the two years that we were together. He always filled up my hopes with a promise that he never meant. A wolf who sharpened his teeth and told me they were dull. As we drove in the busy five ‘o clock traffic, I turned to look out the window and close my eyes. I had never wished for anything, but I asked the universe—god, or whatever was looking after me, if there was anything—to show me a sign. It couldn’t be a sign that I could easily overlook or explain away. I asked for a clear, concise sign. Show me a sign that I’m going down the wrong path. That I shouldn’t give him any more chances. Then he slammed into the back of a car, and my whole world came crashing down.
He was trying to change lanes. He wasn’t looking. His eyes were wild like they were the night that he disappeared. I knew in my gut that there was something wrong. But this whole time, I didn’t listen to the voice inside of my head that was screaming out to be heard. I was in shock that this had happened. I asked the universe for a sign and it provided one for me. I had no choice but to listen.
I never saw him again. He tried to call me, email me, and even showed up at my mother’s house. Something deep inside of me wanted to give him a second, third, fourth, fifth chance but the way he acted made me stop myself. He spoke as if our love was a romance, all flowery looks and far off glances, when it was just a wolf convincing a sheep that he wouldn’t bite. But he tore me to pieces and it took a long time for me to put all the pieces back together again.
TW: includes mentions of war, death, and the pandemic
“How was your day, honey?”
She means well. She asks every day, to be kind, but I never know what to tell her. She washes her hands, leaves her car keys by the door along with her boots and coat. Her hair falls down as she takes out her hair tie, brown hair touched by the sun flowing over her shoulders.
She’s beautiful. She’s always been. So why is it so hard to be honest to her?
“It was fine. Not much to do.”
It’s true. I cleaned the kitchen, scrubbed the dishwasher door until I could see myself in the surface again. I took out the mail, then skipped to the back of the newspaper, to the crosswords. The letters left in the prize puzzle spelled out the word epiphany.
No appointment with my doctor today, so I had lots of time to myself. Spent some of it building a miniature of a 1927 La Licorne. Didn’t get very far, but at least it kept my hands busy.
“Hold on. I’ll take a shower and then I’ll be back in a minute, okay?” she says. She smiles at me, so I give her my love folded into the curve of my lips. As she disappears, she’s already unbuttoning her shirt.
The door closes with a bang. I left the windows open. That’s what happened. She isn’t angry, the wind just has more force today.
The bang echoes in my head, and with it come floods of images. A battlefield like a tainted beach without an ocean in sight. People clad in green and brown crawling the sand.
Sir, my own voice is more memory than sound, I think he’s bleeding out.
My hands are pressed to fabric and uniform, wetness seeping in between my fingers. The bullet went in, and there’s no exit wound. A good thing, maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. I can’t tell. All I know is that this is Ramon – my friend, the one who always slipped an extra omelet onto my plate when I was in line in the kitchens.
And now I’m standing over him, watching his eyes close and open, close and open, never quite focusing.
“Sir? Sir, please.”
“There’s no time.” A heavy hand on my shoulder – I swear I can feel it landing there, solid and real. “It’s too late.”
I look down at the body. Watch him breathe in, watch him breath out. My hands are still in place, still pressing down. I stay there for what feels like ages but can’t be more than a few minutes. A few minutes until the breaths even out and his eyes fall closed.
My training never prepared me for any of this.
“Soldier, get your helmet.” When my sergeant pulls me away and two others come to collect the body, my hands are stained red.
Five years later, they still are. In my living room, with the shower running upstairs, my hands are dripping in it, coated with a layer of loss and incompetence I haven’t been able to shake.
With you I serve. With you I fall down. Long ago, back in training, those words were meant to be about a country. They came to be about a friend instead.
I stare at the pictures on the mantelpiece. There she is, smiling familiarly, keeping me steady as always. She looked so gorgeous in her wedding dress. I thought that would be the start of something new, something better. It was, but I didn’t realise quite how much old baggage I’d have to carry with me on that new road.
I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to let it go.
“How was your day, honey?”
I ask him first, so he can’t ask me. This is how it goes every day, hoping to keep him engaged, but it never really seems to work. I unlace my boots, take off my coat and leave everything by the door, my keys on the hook besides the coatrack.
When I pull the hair tie from my ponytail, I see him staring at me. There are dark circles under his eyes – eyes I fell in love with years ago and still hold so dear.
He’s so handsome. He’s always been. So why is it so hard to talk to him?
“It was fine. Not much to do.”
I nod. If life were normal, I’d tell him about the countless steps I gathered on my Fitbit today. I’d tell him about the colleague who always complains about the coffee and about the way my car lock seems to be malfunctioning again. But life isn’t normal.
“Hold on,” I tell him. “I’ll take a shower and then I’ll be back in a minute, okay?” I hope my love shines through in the way I smile at him. I can’t be sure, but at least he gives me that familiar crooked smile in return. Quickly, I hurry up the stairs, eager to wash the day’s stress away.
I turn on the shower and put my clothes straight in the laundry machine. The many washings are starting to show. Just yesterday one of my favourite blouses ripped in two when I tried to put it on. Still, I don’t stop. This is the only way. Keep it clean. Keep everything clean.
The water runs over my bare back and down my legs. Every day, I think I might be able to really feel cleansed this time. It never quite works. I still see the hospital hallways covered in arrow signs whenever I close my eyes.
Doc, I said just hours ago, I think she’s crashing out.
We all wore masks constantly. This wasn’t exactly new for us, but when everything around us changed, wearing the masks became a strange and intrusive restriction. No more smiling at patients. Using Google’s speech recognition to talk to patients who’re hard of hearing. Holding out on lunch because taking off your outfit is just too much of a hassle and you might be called back to the IC at any moment.
It was an elderly woman this time. In her seventies, quarantined in a hospital bed. Her breathing sounds weak and uneven. The coughs have come and gone. Slowly, the virus is eating away at everything, until even the smallest inconvenience becomes a death threat.
“Doctor? Doctor, please.”
The doctor walks in, her clothes looking more like an astronaut’s suit than a medical uniform. “We need to call in her family. Does she have any family?”
I stared at the patient, the monitors connected to her acting up. She was more than a patient. She was someone’s daughter. A mother, perhaps. A wife, for sure. “Just her husband,” I said meekly.
The doctor took a syringe, injected it, but the beeping didn’t stop. “Call him in.”
My lips pressed together underneath my mask. These things get so hot so quickly. I’ve heard people complain. Online. In the streets. In the waiting room. They’re right. They’re all right, but that doesn’t mean we should take them off. “Because,” I told the doctor, “her husband is in room 119.”
“Oh.” Realisation downed on the doctor’s face. “Him, too?”
I nodded. The glance we exchanged said enough. Most care-workers know how to say the unthinkable without saying it. Some things you just can’t speak about.
“No other family?” the doctor asked.
I told her no. Then she had to leave, her expertise needed elsewhere.
I looked down at the hospital bed. Watched the woman breathe in, watched her breath out. I placed one hand by the bed and grabbed hers. Plastic over plastic. I stayed there for what felt like ages but can’t have been more than a few minutes. A few minutes until the breaths evened out and the body stilled.
This was something med school didn’t cover. I’m used to fighting for a patient’s life until the very end. Sitting around and doing nothing felt wrong in every way. Everything about this feels wrong.
“Time of death, 14:34,” a different doctor announced. When I let go of the woman’s hand and walked out of the room, I didn’t feel my feet landing on the white floors. For a moment, I wasn’t quite there.
The water’s still falling, beating against my skin. I’m staring at a fogged up mirror, the toilet seat down and my shampoo bottle empty on the bathroom floor. I wash out my hair, the white foam mixing with the water.
I think of that woman, dying all alone without her husband. Dying without having felt human skin in days.
The towel feels rough as I scrub myself dry. Then I put on a new set of clothes freshly taking from our wardrobe and prepare to go back downstairs. Put on a smile, I tell myself. This is your private time, your recharging time, the time you get to spend with the man you love more than anything in this world. Make the most out of it.
I take the steps one by one, a heavy weight settling in my chest.
The light in the bedroom is off, the window open at a smidge. A gentle wind moves the curtains, but the breeze isn’t strong enough to reach the bed.
They lie there together, but apart. Each has their own side. She on the left, he on the right. This is how it’s always been. Years before, they’d gather in the middle every night, always touching. Not anymore. Each has their own thoughts that work like bricks, building a wall between the two of them.
The quiet goes on for a long time – but then he speaks. “How was your day?” he asks. “I never asked.”
He fears she might have drifted off, but she hasn’t. She’s wide awake, staring up at the ceiling. “It was hectic.”
He chews his lip for a moment. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Okay.” It stings, but he won’t show her. Meanwhile, she’s close to crying but doesn’t dare to let the tears out. The wall between them is still there, but see-through, so thin that they could almost touch.
She decides to smash the last pieces.
“Hold me?” she asks.
“Always,” he says. Then he reaches for her, arms fitting around each other like puzzle pieces that were missing for too long. It’s a glimpse of relief for both of them.
“I know I can’t understand,” he says, “but I’m here if you ever want to talk about any of it.” He hopes he can learn to be a better listener.
She smiles, a hiccup escaping her as she wipes her eyes. “Thank you. I think I’d really appreciate that.”
“But not now?”
The silence returns, and it’s good. Neither of them can remember the last time they didn’t speak to each other like this, with understanding and love instead of fear and loneliness.
“Epiphany,” he tells her. When she looks up at him, he clarifies. “The word of the prize puzzle today. It was epiphany.”
She nods. “That’s a good word. We could use an epiphany.” She lets out a chuckle, even though nothing about this is funny.
“An epiphany for every war we fight,” he says. He’s shivering, she realises, and she pulls the blankets closer around them, rolls closer to him, her ear to his chest. She listens to his heartbeat. He feels her breathe in, breath out.
Twenty minutes. That’s the time it takes for them to fall asleep. It’ll take them much, much longer to make sense of what they’ve seen, but at least they might do so together.
The short story epiphany // some things you just can’t speak about was strongly inspired by and uses lyrics originally found in the song “epiphany” by Taylor Swift.
I watched him from my perch on the fountain, the splashing water behind me muffled the sounds of my pounding heart. It recognized him in an aching way. It seemed it had been too long since my soul had found his and yet it also felt like it had been no time at all. My soul always finds his.
In our last incarnation, it had taken us twenty-five years to find each other. Seeing him as a teenager this time felt like a great relief. I always wanted to steal as many years with him as I possibly could.
We were soul mates. Literally. Cursed soul mates. Our love was intense. A blazing forest fire, a swirling rip tide, a swirling hurricane. Nothing could stop us, but we also destroyed anyone who got in our way. It was all-consuming. We weren’t evil. But passion takes many forms, and not all of them are good.
So we were cursed. We would reincarnate life after life, always destined to find each other. But he never remembers who he was, he never remembers me. But I can never forget.
I remember every lifetime, every word, every whisper, every spine-tingling touch he’s ever shared with me. And every time I return, I have to start over again. I have to watch my lover date around, explore the world, and try to find his place in it. I watch him learn who he is.
But I have lifetimes of knowledge. I always know where I fit. And it is wrapped in his arms or curled up at his side.
This time my name was Betty. I’d never been a Betty. I’d been plenty of Elizabeths, Bethanys, Rebeccas. Never a Betty.
His eyes found mine. His eyes were a warm golden brown, but it lacked the spark of a lover’s gaze. That simply added insult to injury. He did look curious though, that initial attraction that was always there. It was the only amount of recognition his soul would give him to his past, to our never-ending destiny.
He moved gracefully among the crowd, navigating his way with ease until he made his way to my seat on the fountain edge. With the sun behind him, he had a golden halo around him. Brown hair that glowed, a crooked grin that sent a jolt straight to my heart.
“Is this seat taken?” He asked, pointing to the empty spot next to me.
I couldn’t help but grin in return. “Not at all,” I replied. “I’m Betty. And you are?” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“James.” He kept that crooked grin and offered his hand for me to shake. The second our hands touched I felt the excitement in my bones, the comfort unfurling in my heart being at his side. The string tied to our souls were no longer floating around the city, waiting to meet. Our string began to wind around itself, curling and looping in until we were knotted together again.
I spent all of spring discovering him all over again. I knew his soul, his heart, but his quirks changed every lifetime. His personality changing with the times.
We’d been kings and queens, servants, forbidden lovers, celebrities, secretaries, doctors, soldiers, artists, activists. He had so many versions of himself that he would never remember. I loved the quest of mapping out this new version, digging in and finding new pieces of him to add to my collection.
In this life, James loved nature. We would sneak away from class and spend our afternoons lazing on the sundeck on the High Line, dipping our toes in the water feature while he sketched the trees. We slipped out our windows and danced under streetlights, drunk on stolen whiskey and passionate kisses. He would stop at a red light and kiss me for no particular reason. Being alone with him was heady, my heart pounding so hard in his presence that when I was finally alone, I felt like I had run a marathon.
I saw him beginning to connect the dots as he drew lines between the scars on my arm, scattered like a constellation. The picture that was our past began to come into focus that summer. Memories of other laughs, older stolen moments, dreams from another lifetime. It all began flooding in. I saw it in his eyes when he studied me, saw it in his sketches. He drew the meadow from five lifetimes ago where we made love. A rough outline of the castle we’d once lived in. Versions of me from other lifetimes.
And then one achingly hot night, as we lay together on his bed, naked and glistening with sweat, he looked at me with the warmth that I always yearned for.
“Do you remember?” I whispered, scared for the answer but desperate to hear it anyway.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve loved you, is it?”
I chuckled. “Not even close.”
And I spent that night telling him about us. The real us. The first version of our story. One that began so long ago. Then I told him all the variations that followed it. He listened closely, trailing his fingers over the scars on my arm. I told him all of our love stories until he finally drifted off to sleep. His breathing evened, and with each breath I was lulled further into sleep, the burden of all those pasts lifting off me. And true rest finally found me for the first time in this life.
But I awoke to an empty bed in an empty room, save for the piece of paper on the nightstand.
Need some time to think —James
My heart sank as I let the paper flutter to the floor. Sometimes this would happen, especially as we moved further and further into the future, where magic was forgotten. It was hard to process. All I could do was give him the space to let this knowledge settle in, let him unpack what memories I had been able to stir in him. He would always come back to me — if not in this lifetime, then the next. Not every lifetime was a perfect fairy tale. Sometimes it was messy, painful, chaotic. Sometimes we tore ourselves apart, ripping the seam that binds us together. I could only hope this lifetime would not end up that way.
So I did. I went to the High Line by myself, sat at the fountain where we’d met, studied every sketch that connected to our pasts. But hours turned to days and days into weeks. Calls were missed, texts ignored. I knocked at his door. I cried on his fire escape, desperate to catch a glimpse of him.
And then I finally did. And the sight tore me open. He was kissing another girl, holding her close. I knew what he was doing. He was running, trying desperately to escape the weight of our situation. After all in his world, he’s only seventeen and I’m his first love.
I’ve been seventeen too many times to count, and he had been my only real love. Just because love is destined doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept. I’d learned that hundreds of times over. Soul mates are a deeper love, but that means the hurt cuts deeper, too.
The tear fell down as he looked up from the girl he was kissing. The regret registered instantly in his eyes. He pushed himself away from the stranger and tried to make his way over to me. The pain and longing in those eyes added to my own.
So I turned and disappeared into the crowd, losing myself in the city and the memories. Eventually my feet led me home, stumbled me into my bed. And I tried not to drown in my tears.
Hours later a knock at my window had me peeling my eyes open. I felt the stain of my tears on my face. I looked out of the window, bleary-eyed. But I knew who it was. James.
I took a deep breath and opened it, climbing out onto the fire escape with him. I simply looked at him. The pain had numbed my senses to the point where I could do little more than simply stare at him.
“I’m sorry,” he managed to fumble out. “I—“ He ran his hand through his hair, stopping to rub the back of his neck. “I’m a shitty person,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I couldn’t help but agree but didn’t say anything. So he talked. He talked like he could fill the void between us with his words as if his ramblings could build a bridge across the distance between us.
He was scared. It was a lot to adjust to. He asked how I dealt with all these memories in my head, how I could be so calm about this.
“It’s all I know, James. It’s all I’ve ever known. You get to forget. You start fresh every time. I carry around all these memories. Happy memories and sad ones and devastating ones.” I finally looked at him, eyes thick with tears I was trying desperately not to shed. How many times had he broken my heart? How many times had we argued? How much pain had we inflicted on each other across eons? I couldn’t even begin to count.
All those memories kept rushing back. Him as a king in a political marriage while I remained the mistress he truly loved. Me as an aristocrat’s daughter in love with the stable boy I could never marry. Him choosing to go to war instead of staying safe at my side. Flashes of jealous moments, heartbroken cries, and unimaginable grief.
I was drowning in them. I desperately searched for a happy memory to cling to, a life raft in the dark sea. But each time I had my hand on one, I saw him kissing that girl, and the memory would slide right out of my hands.
“Did you think that since we’re soul mates, you can do whatever you want, and I’ll take you back no matter what?” I managed to whisper. I didn’t trust my voice not to crack.
He stumbled over words, trying to apologize. Stammer after stammer until I couldn’t take it anymore. I simply crawled back through my window, back into my bed. Leaving him out in the dark.
I had fitful sleep, fragments of past lives invading my dreams. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. Not truly. Even if he ripped my heart out, no other sadness in the world would do.
Inez made me throw a party that weekend. I wasn’t really interested in doing much partying, but she was insistent, thinking it would make me feel better. I’d thrown plenty of parties through my lives — everything from lavish expensive parties and parties with just three people in attendance. But none of them felt as pathetic as this party. My beer had barely been touched. I kept it in hand simply so Inez wouldn’t keep trying to get me to drink.
I wasn’t listening to the music or anyone’s conversations. I wasn’t even really looking at anything. Not anything here in the present. I was lost in the past. Good memories were the only salve for my soul.
“Betty!” someone shouted over the din of the music. “Someone’s at the door for you!”
I rolled my eyes and dragged myself over to the door. Where James was standing on the front step, eyes locked onto mine with a fierceness I hadn’t seen in quite a few lifetimes. I could feel the party’s eyes on us, so I shut the door behind me. With the music muffled I was suddenly left with the sound of my pounding heart. I nervously pulled the sleeves of my cardigan down over my arms.
James opened his mouth to speak but glanced over my shoulder and stopped. I turned to look behind me to see Inez and a few others staring out the front window, watching us. I took his hand and led him around the side of the building where there was a small garden. The sounds of the party were even more dulled here, my heartbeat was even louder. I nervously glanced up at him.
He looked at me for a moment before pulling me into his arms and kissing the top of my head. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered against my hairline. “I hate myself more and more every day that passes without you. I love you. I don’t want anyone else but you. Do you think you could forgive me? Maybe not now, but one day?”
I gave him a dry chuckle. “I love you. I’ve loved you for so many lifetimes.” I gave him a slow, sweet kiss. “I will forgive you.” He kissed me again, this time deeper and more urgent, like he needed to make up for lost time.
Our many roads were bumpy and had forks in the road everywhere. We didn’t always take the right path, but the strings always brought us together, always tied us together. Despite the pain, I couldn’t imagine a lifetime without him.
It is my greatest curse and my greatest blessing. I couldn’t imagine only having him for one lifetime. I lose him each time in some way or another. But when I come back, I have another lifetime of memories with him. Our love is infinite, destined to happen over and over again no matter the outcome.
Even faithless love from him is better than any love I could find with anyone else.
As I approach the years
We tend to hide from
I commit to the honesty
Of my wild beauty
For how I am
And not how they made it out to be
For I degraded this temple
Ostracized on a strange planet
I forgot Her wealth of appreciation
Naturally that all things
As they are beautiful
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