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.
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.
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.
He couldn’t find him. He couldn’t sleep.
When Judah hit the ground, his mouth opened instinctually. Earth, dew, wet mud. He bit his lip as he rolled deeper into the trench. In the distance he’d heard screams, gunfire, the pulsing stomp of so many feet. He heard him.
“I’m coming with you,” Nathan had said. Judah’s jacket was too big on him, but he wore it like a second skin. The cuffs crawled down from where he’d rolled them up to his elbows, following his bad decision like baby ducklings.
“Maybe you shouldn’t—“ he’d tried to argue, tried to be the responsible older sibling he knew he should be, but he couldn’t hide his smile well enough. He was tired of being alone. “Oh, she’ll hate me for this,” he laughed as he pulled his brother under his arm, ruffling his already messy hair.
She’ll hate me for this. He couldn’t sleep.
His sister jumped into the dip in the path. A five foot drop, a somersault, two grass-stained knees. “Don’t leave me here alone!” She called from where nature reclaimed her. They weren’t supposed to go this far into the woods without an adult. “Jude!” she yelled.
“Gabby, I don’t know,” Judah hedged, but she turned away from him and began to climb over a tree root curved around the shape of a wheel.
“I’m not going to wait for you,” her voice carried her body into the dark, like every warning story he’d ever ignored. He climbed down slowly, carefully, and hoped their parents were too busy with the others to notice they were gone.
I’m not going to wait for you. He couldn’t sleep.
The Fever took the money first. The money. The food. The light in their eyes, in their voice, in their last breaths. “You stay in school,” Gabby said, a baby on her hip, a new husband in her hand. “I can keep it steady. I can do it.”
Nathan was eleven. He didn’t understand how bad things might get, but he could keep a secret. “Let me come with you!” he whispered in the night, but Judah made him promise to stay behind. He had an important duty. He’d tell her that Judah enlisted and show her the compensation figures.
She wouldn’t get mad at him. Not for long. He was still a kid. “I’m older,” Judah told him. “It’s my job to look out for you.”
It’s my job to look out for you. He couldn’t sleep.
“I can’t wait to go home,” Nathan said the night before. Judah’s jacket is torn on the left sleeve, but it finally fits him. Nathan folds it into a pillow and settles down while the wind whips their daydreaming memories into sharp focus.
Judah’s still there when it happens. In the woods, in the waiting room, in the window of the night he can’t take back. He’s at home and gone as the red seeps into the hand-me-down fabric, as it seeps out, as his brother—as Nathan bleeds out between his fingers. He urges him to say something.
Nothing happens. Judah can’t find his words. His voice fails him.
His voice fails him. He can’t sleep.
He’s given an out. He can go home with the body or sign on for another mission. He doesn’t think twice about doubling down on the distance, signing away a future destined to be buried with his old coat. All he can pass down now is a sense of accomplishment, a vindication, the relief of providing.
He won’t return without proving himself. Without honoring him, honoring her, honoring them. Something good, or at least worthwhile, will come from this. It has to. He’s sure of it.
He can’t sleep.
This piece was inspired by epiphany and a little bit of seven, both by Taylor Swift. It’s a character study of one of the main characters of my novel. I immediately thought of him the first time I heard this song and I can’t wait to listen to it on repeat as I return to revisions.
I am @LilyMeade on most social networks, but most active on Twitter.